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I did not sleep that night. I would not allow myself to.
I had underestimated the threats to Miss Mason’s life.
It was now more important than ever that I get her to Washington.
If a shadow maker was after her, it meant somebody knew about her ability. Somebody dangerous and well-connected.
By the morning, I had run through the possibilities in my mind, and I liked none of them.
I walked down the stairs to see Mister Bates speaking with the sheriff. Instantly I narrowed my eyes and quickened my step.
“Sheriff.” I dipped my head low in greeting.
The sheriff was a bustling man, with a thick mustache, red fat cheeks stained with too many years of alcohol, and beady brown eyes.
Though I was a captain of the White Cavalry, I still had to respect the authority of the various lawmen in the towns I passed through. They, however, had to respect me more.
“What are you fine gentlemen discussing?” I asked around stiff lips.
“The shadow maker in lock-up,” the sheriff cleared his throat.
I sliced my gaze towards Mister Bates. It was impossible to judge his expression. A fact that made my back shiver.
There was one fact I was certain of in regards to Mister Bates: he was definitely not trustworthy.
Given the chance, he would stab me in the back without hesitation.
“I was led to believe you would take every discretion with the... man currently in your lock-up.” I looked at the sheriff directly.
The man bristled, shifting back and shunting his large round shoulders out. “I have not been spreading this news, Captain. But Mister Bates here enquired, and as he is a member of your party, I thought there was no trouble in telling him.”
My smile stiffened. Then my gaze slid towards Mister Bates. He was looking at me with a particularly troubling stare.
“A matter such as this should have been brought to my attention immediately,” though his voice was not loud and did not carry, there was no doubting the anger that laced through it. “I am responsible for Miss Campbell’s safety. Once this shadow maker was done with your stray dog, it would have moved on to Miss Campbell.”
“Stray dog? And to whom are you referring?” I would not let this slide. Nor would I keep my voice quiet. It rang easily and loudly around the room until I had almost everybody’s attention.
“Who indeed,” Mister Bates said stiffly. “Bear in mind, captain, every mistake you make will be relayed to Washington. I should have been informed immediately following the incident last night.”
“Why? Have you confused yourself with a man capable of offering protection?” I said.
“I am Miss Campbell’s chaperone.” Bates clapped a stiff white hand on the breast of his suit jacket, that gold ring glinting on his thumb. It was of a peculiar design, with a certain strange symbols stamped onto a flat cylinder in the middle.
I had never bothered to ask him what it meant. Knowing the man, it meant nothing, and was for appearance only.
“Gentlemen,” the sheriff cleared his throat.
I ignored him and focused all my attention on Mister Bates.
“You can be replaced at any moment,” Mister Bates continued.
“By whom?” My lips curled into a snarl. “By you? Mister Bates, what do you think would happen to your party if I and my cavalrymen were to leave?”
It was not a question I should have asked. Granted, it was one I had thought – numerous times – but not one I should have shared out loud.
I had my duty, I knew it, and I was honor bound to execute it.
And yet the thought of leaving Mister Bates, Miss Campbell, and this ridiculous entourage behind kept filling my mind.
Though I’d hidden the majority of my fright from Isabel last night, the shadow maker’s attack had rattled me.
It reinforced how critical this situation was. Every act – no matter how small and seemingly insignificant – could be the difference between success and failure.
I woke to a knock on the door. Thinking it was Captain Carmichael, I walked over and opened it quickly.
It was not the Captain. Rather, it was one of the men traveling with Miss Campbell.
“… Has the captain sent you here to rouse me?” My voice was artificially high. Even as I asked my question, I knew what the answer would be.
“I have been sent here to send you away,” he spoke through stiff white lips.
My cheeks paled and I stared at him. “Sorry?”
“Do not act innocent – it does not befit you. I do not know what you have done to the Captain – what compromising situation you have lured him in to. But your treachery ends here. You will not be accompanying this party to Washington. You will either leave freely and go about your odious business, or you will be dragged away.”
I stood there and blinked in surprise.
Then I found my voice. “… Does the Captain know you’re here?”
“That man is not here for you to stand behind,” he said threateningly, taking a swift, forceful step towards me and grabbing a hand to my door.
I fought against his grip, trying to shove the door closed in his face, but it quickly became apparent I couldn’t.
So I took a shuddering step backwards, the fabric of my skirts shifting quickly around my ankles.
“Which will it be, woman? Go freely, or be dragged?”
“… Neither. If you take another step into this room, I will scream the town down.” It was my turn to speak around stiff white lips. Though my hands shook, I curled them into fists and held them stiffly at my sides. My fingernails pressed hard into my palms, and with just a little more effort, they would pierce the flesh. Once they did that, this man would be in trouble. If he so much as laid a hand on me, I would throw him out the window.
Maybe he realized I had no intention of going quietly, because he stopped his advance.
The threat, however, did not shift from his gaze – it only grew more menacing as his thick brow crumpled. “What makes you think anyone will come to your assistance? The Captain is currently indisposed, and his men don’t care for you. No one in this inn will mind, either.”
“Another step,” I warned.
He stopped, straightened, and held his stiff hands up, making me believe he was surrendering.
He wasn’t. He suddenly snapped towards me, his hand flying towards my face.
I couldn’t act quickly enough, and he slapped me with enough force to see my head jerk to the side.
Before he could come at me again, I threw myself against the wall, scrabbling a hand along the dressing table beside me until I plucked up a book.
He pivoted on his shiny black shoe and slammed towards me, hands outstretched towards my neck.
Without thought, I send magic leaping into the book. It wasn’t a sacred blade, but it would suffice.
With a crackle and a hiss, a jet of blue light sparked across the pages, causing them to flutter frantically.
Then I threw the book right at his head. It may have only been paper and leather on the face of it, but with magic crackling between every page, it now had more import.
As soon as it struck the man, there was a resounding clunk, and he staggered back. Where the book had hit him a few charges of magic transferred onto the fine wool of his jacket.
His eyes jerked wide and he tried to pat them off with frantic swipes of his hands. “What the hell is this?”
I didn’t deign to reply. He’d find out soon enough.
With my hands still clasped firmly together, I kept chanting. The magic crackling over the man’s chest suddenly doubled. Then, with a sizzle, sunk into his chest.
He let out a hoarse scream, then fell to one knee, eyes bulging wide with surprise.
Shaking, hands still clasped together,
I walked up to him. I kept chanting the spell.
It would incapacitate him, freezing his body and lulling his mind long enough for me to escape.
Sure enough, his wide open eyes started to close, the strained, crinkled skin at their sides relaxing as he tipped back.
Before he fell, he had enough breath for one word: “Witch.”
Yes, I was a witch.
And he had lost!
With a stagger to my step, I walked past him. Hand flat on my chest, breath quick and sharp, I grabbed my things.
Then I headed for the door.
That man had said Captain Carmichael was indisposed. What did that mean? Had he been called away?
If that were the case, who exactly was left down those stairs?
Backing away from the door, I pressed a sweaty pale hand into my lips, then turned to face the balcony.
As radical as it sounded, perhaps it was my safest option.
I could clamber down the side of the building, ensure I didn’t fall with a quick spell, then race to the horses.
Once there, I could... what? Ride out of town as fast as I could?
Though I’d tried to fight off Carmichael’s insistence, I now appreciated how serious the situation actually was. Though I certainly did not like the man, I did not distrust him either. If the magical blood running through my veins really could be that important to this country, I was honor bound to keep my promise to Carmichael and accompany him to Washington.
And yet if I didn’t make it out of this room I would never get to Washington. So as I stood there and stared at the door that led out to the balcony, I made a quick decision. With a shake to my step, I grabbed hold of the handle, and gritted my teeth. With a grunt, I forced my way through the residual effects of Carmichael’s lock spell and I made my way out onto the balcony.
For a few moments I paused, hands on the wooden posts as I stared down to the road far below. It was well over 10 meters to the dusty ground, and I couldn’t simply jump over the railing and hope not to break my neck.
To get down I would have to use magic.
Carmichael had counseled me on many occasions that I had to keep this ability secret, but now I had no choice. Curling a single finger into my palm and pressing hard enough that I punctured the flesh, I let a few droplets of blood spread out onto my skin. Then I half closed my eyes and said a short prayer.
Rather than produce a magical rope to help me climb down to the ground, it simply made my hands sticky.
With enough directed thought you could use ether or, in my case, my own blood, to produce any kind of spell you wanted. Some of the more powerful ones required certain incantations, but at the end of the day, it was the thoughts in your mind that counted.
So as I carefully threw my possessions down to the ground and listened to them thump into the dust, I drew a calming breath. Then I placed my hands onto the wooden rails, ignored the splinters scraping against my fingers, and clambered over it.
In my mind I cleared away all of my thoughts and worries, and instead focused on jam. A strange thing to think of at a time like this, maybe, but it wasn’t the jam itself that occupied my mind. Rather it was the quality of the sugary fruit I kept at the forefront of my thoughts.
I concentrated and concentrated on the sticky sensation until a funny thing happened – my hands began to stick to the wood. As I clambered over the edge of the railing, my fingers and palms adhered to every paling as if I were excluding great globs of glue.
My skirts billowed around my legs, crackles of magic dancing and racing down my arms and into my legs and sinking into the wood with quick hisses.
With my heart in my throat, I made it down to the ground. Fortunately there was nobody around, and I had picked a relatively shadowy side of the balcony and building to clamber down.
I stepped onto the dirt and my shaking heart stopped quivering like a leaf in a gale. I picked up my bags and with a last look over my shoulder, I considered the inn.
I walked away. Keeping to the shadows of the building, I made it around to the stalls at the back. I had to be careful not to arouse any attention. I had no idea where Captain Carmichael was.
My cheeks still smarted from where I’d been struck. Moving my bags into one hand, I brought up my fingers and tenderly touched my cheek. With a wince, I realized there had to be a bruise there.
I sunk my teeth deep into my bottom lip. Who would've thought two mornings ago when I had rolled out of bed that I would now be facing this. I lead an ordinary life, even for a practicing mage. Though I did cure the occasional curse, I could not be said to have had many adventures.
This – I realized as I pressed my hand tenderly into my cheek – was an adventure indeed. An unwanted one. One so filled with danger I had no idea what to do next.
But, as I lifted my head to the horizon and stared at it I realized my only option was to continue forward so I fastened my grip on my bags, hunched my shoulders in, my chin down and walked.
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