Sira left the inn once a half dozen tenants had preceded her. She rode out on her borrowed horse, a mare with a dirt crusted coat and wild mane, Sira’s beaten packs slung across her rear. All her things were in there, including the box from Fallow Reach. Despite her proximity to Lord Altan and whatever Rentel may, or may not, be telling him, Sira kept her horse at a brisk canter. Blending in, Zarto had always told her, was about more than looking like you belonged, you also had to act like it. When the theft was discovered and soldiers began combing the roads, they’d be looking for a shifty and nefarious character fleeing across the lands. A traveling worker–and a woman at that–would draw no attention.

Two hours into her journey, Sira turned into a small knot of wood that loomed on the edge of the main road. After a few dozen yards she came to a hut with a wizened old man out in front, the reins of another horse in his hand. Known to Sira only as the Hermit, he was one of the few contacts she had in this region. Sira dismounted and tossed the Hermit a pouch of coins. He snatched it out of the air and stuck it in his pocket. They exchanged horses without a word. Sira mounted the blue roan and took off.

She guided the creature around the Hermit’s hut and into the forest rather than the way she’d come. After an hour of ducking under branches and guiding her horse over root covered ground, she left the woods and found herself on a road. Sira turned right and within half a league found herself back on the road she’d been traveling. She slipped on a spare cloak to cover her peasant’s garb and took off.

It was late afternoon when the Pale City came into view. The capital of the Pale Kingdom, its walls were of whitewashed stone that reflected the colors of the setting sun. Surrounded by grassy fields the color of frost as well as dark blue streams, the city looked like a fanciful dream. That didn’t mean it was a pushover. Built into the side of a mountain, the city had withstood countless invasions, most notably by the Midnight Empire. It was almost ironic then that after centuries of assaults from without, the greatest threat now came from within.

Sira passed through the gates without incident and made her way deeper into the city. Crowds pressed upon her, bringing with them the smell of sweat and human filth. Hoarse shouts were everywhere. Stall owners hawked their wares to passerby’s while workers hauled carts or tired to move stubborn animals through the throngs. Beggars were everywhere, sticking out with boney frames draped in threadbare clothing. They held out their hands, beseeching alms from all, their faces the very definition of desperation. Sira spurred her horse forward, forcing people out of her path.

Eventually, she made her way to the Merchant Quarter, the area that she’d once told Rentel she was from. She brought the horse to a stop in front of a jeweler’s shop. Sira dismounted and retrieved her packs just as the owner’s wife came out. She took the horse–as well as the coin that Sira gave her–and pointed to the back.

Sira walked around the building and into a storage shed. A well made box sat atop a shelving unit. When Sira opened it she found a tunic and pants made of the finest silk as well as a pair of doe skinned boots, trimmed with wolf fur. The outfit was in shades of black and red, the colors of her house.

In less than five minus she had switched garments and disposed of the whig. When Sira stepped back out, the satchel slung over her shoulder, it was as Lady Ta’hareen, a young noblewoman. Sira glanced around to make sure no one was about before heading towards her family’s estate.

The Pale Kingdom was a place steeped in legend and mystery, more so that any other on the Antara Continent. Once enthralled by a great evil, the Pale Kingdom had been the first to rebel against their masters. Forging an alliance with the other kingdoms as well as the dwarves and elves, they’d vanquished their foes, driving them into the Void.

Not long after, the seven noble families rose to prominence, united under a single ruler chosen from their ranks. At the time, the choice was made by the Crown of Kings. Forged by the dwarves’ master smiths and enchanted by the elves greatest spell casters, the crown was said to be able to find the one person who’d serve the throne rather than rule it.

That was in the past. The Crown of Kings had vanished eight hundred years ago, as did the dwarves and elves. Some said that the crown had been stolen, others that it had been destroyed. Still, some claimed that the Pale Kingdom had grown unworthy of it, and thus the Crown had removed itself until the day when a worthy soul came forth.

Sira didn’t know what–or if any of it–was true. What she did know was that backstabbing and infighting had quickly set in, made worse by how the ruler was now chosen–the Selection. Each family would cast a vote on which noble house should claim the throne. A house couldn’t vote for itself which is why leverage and bargains were needed, and why so many resorted to the Master Thieves. When a family won they chose one member of their household to be placed upon the throne, acknowledging that they’d be excluded from the next Selection. They also had to entrust a family heirloom to another house’s safekeeping, to be returned only when the current holder of the throne died. Why that was done, Sira didn’t know, but it was the cause of her families current misfortunes.

Sixty years ago–before her father was even born–the throne was won by the House of Bertinor and only because the Ta’hareens supported them. As was the custom, they’d entrusted the Ta’hareens with a precious heirloom, a jewel that was said to date back to the elves arrival. For six decades it had remained safe within the vault of Sira’s house. Then, two weeks ago, King Hentai Bertinor fell ill and it was instantly apparent that he wouldn’t recover. Another Selection was upon the Pale Kingdom. Lord Luccer Ta’hareen–Sira’s father–had gone to the vault to retrieve the Bertinor’s heirloom only to make a shocking discovery.

It was gone.

Chaos had been unleashed. Fanned by the lies and insinuations of the Xaft, the other noble families had turned upon the Ta’hareens. Betrayals, back stabbings, outright battles……..Sira had difficulty keeping track of everything that had happened. When calls came to expel her family from the kingdom, Sira knew that she had to do something. Between her noble and underworld contacts she’d quickly discovered what had happened.

The Xaft family–who’d been the Ta’hareen’s allies for over a decade–had turned on them. Altan Xaft had bribed Gwevor–a family retainer–to steal the Start of Twilight and bring it to Fallow Reach. Despite being allies, the betrayal made sense. While it had been three Selections since the Ta’hareen’s had held the throne, the Xaft hadn’t grasped it in eight. Apparently, they’d decided to change that.

A pity that won’t happen, Sira thought as she approached her family’s estate.

At her approach the guards gripped their swords, but relaxed once they recognized Sira. She nodded to them and they hastened to open the gates. As soon as she stepped through, the guards closed it. The sound of the gates slamming shut behind her set Sira at ease. She raised her head and strode forward, the coy smile on her face taking little effort.

Sira crossed the courtyard and took the stairs two at a time. She opened the door and slipped inside. The main hall extended before her, lined with torches that highlighted the statues and works of art aligned along the walls. Everything was silent. Her bickering family, the servants, even her father’s hunting hounds–the house had gone still. The servants had undoubtedly fled and the various members of her family were probably bracing themselves for the storm they thought was coming. It didn’t explain where all the guards had gone. Perhaps her father had forestalled their expulsion? An efficient rumor could’ve bought them some more time.

Sira strode across the thick rugs lining the floor, taking a nearby stairwell to the second level. She turned right and walked as briskly as decorum would allow. She hadn’t gotten far when a voice shouted out behind her.

“Sira, Sira!”

Sira turned to see Lucco, her youngest brother, bounding towards her. At ten years of age, he’d come late in their parents lives. Their mother–the late Lady Devray–had been suffering from ill health when she became pregnant, a condition that had only worsened as the pregnancy continued. She’d barely survived giving birth to Lucco, and rather than improving, her health deteriorated until she’d passed into the Eternal Light. Sira’s other siblings–who ranged from nineteen to thirty–blamed Lucco. Sira didn’t. In fact, he was the only member of her family that she care for. He had a kind, innocent soul and was to young to be dragged into family politics.

Sira smiled and knelt as Lucco threw his arms around her. She hugged him tightly, keeping a firm hand on the satchel. After a moment she pulled back so that she could look at him.

“What are you doing out here,” Sira asked. “Shouldn’t you be having dinner?”

“Already did. Lilla said that I could eat in the solar if I promised to do a grown up job for her.”

Sira raised an eyebrow. “Oh? And what has our dear sister asked of you?”

“Lilla said that papa told her to tell me to tell you to meet him in his study when he returned.”

Lucco puffed up his chest, proud of himself for reciting the full chain of events. Sira thought it odd that her father would make such a request, especially since he knew she was coming. More than likely, Lilla had been ordered to do it herself and passed it on to Lucco–if the order had come at all.

Sira reached out and ruffled Lucco’s hair, causing him to giggle. “What a young man you are. You’ll be a true Ta’hareen one day.”

“Will you come to the solar after you see father,” Lucco asked.

Sira nodded. “Of course.”

“Will you bring cake?”

“Only if you hurry back there,” Sira replied. “And behave until I arrive.”

The words were barely out of her mouth before Lucco had turned and raced down the hall. In the blink of an eye he’d vanished. Sira shook her head and stood. She turned and hurried to her father’s study.

When she reached it the door was closed which wasn’t unusual. It was quiet within, the bustle that had emanated from her father’s impromptu war room having ceased. He’d probably sent everyone away to fortify the house in the event that she failed. Although, now that she thought about it, the guards at the gate and Lucco were the only peole she’d seen. Sira shook her head. She raped on the door before opening it.

“Father, I have-”

A blow to her head drove Sira to the ground. The satchel holding the Bertinor heirloom tumbled out of her hands. Sira reached for it only to have an armored foot stomp on her hand. Someone grabbed her other arm while another pressed down on her back and head. Sira struggled, but was pinned by to many people. A familiar pair of boots entered her field of vision and she froze. A leather gloved hand reached down and picked up the satchel. Sira strained her head, pushing against the weight boring down on it so that she could see the person.

It was her father.

“My lord-”

Her father held a finger to his lips. He opened the satchel and removed the box. Sira watched as he raised the lid, allowing the jewel’s silver light to cascade across his cold face. After a moment he shut the lid with a soft snap and tossed the satchel into the fireplace behind him. He stared into the flames, watching them consume the cloth. Only when the satchel had been obliterated did he turn back to Sira.

“Stand her up and bind her.”

The guards–for now Sira could see them–did so. Her arms were jerked behind her back and tightly bound. Sira grimaced as the ropes bit into her arms. Her head still throbbed from where she’d been struck, but she did her best to ignore it.

“Father, what is the meaning of this?”

“Silence!”

One of the guards struck her with his gauntlet, knocking Sira’s head back and sending her realing. A loud ringing sang through her ears and a sticky wetness trailed down her face. Sira would’ve fallen over if not for the guards holding her upright.

Her father held up a hand, forestalling further punishment. He walked up to Sira, regarding her with far more callousness than she’d ever seen before. She swallowed.

“You always were a clever girl,” he said quietly. “Just not clever enough.”

“My lord,” Sira said. “What’s the meaning of this? I found the Bertinor treasure. Our family is safe.”

“Indeed,” her father replied. “All that’s left is to tie up loose ends.”

“Loose ends?” Sira’ shock was quickly fading, replaced by anger. “You’d treat me like an inconvenience when I and not anyone else succeeded in recovering the jewel? I did what no one else could.”

“You did,” he agreed. “Only you–out of everyone in the family–could’ve done this. You, the Master Thief.”

Sira froze. Her father saw her expression and laughed.

“Did you truly think that I didn’t know,” he hissed. “Do you think any plot birthed in these halls, any schemes, or ulterior motives that lurk in our shadows are unknown to me?”

“I never intended to mislead you,” Sira reassured him. “I’ve only striven to do what was best for the family.”

“And you will do so again.” Her father gestured to the guards holding her. “Take her to the Isle. Make sure they welcome her in a way befitting her position.”

Sira’s blood froze. The Isle was the cities most notorious prison. Built on an artificial island and surrounded by a lake of toxic water, the fortress extended for many miles below the ground. Dark and terrible things went on in those halls. People went in and they never came out.

The guards started to drag Sira out of the room. She struggled violently, trying to free herself. Sira lunged forward, nearly escaping her captors grasp. They grabbed her, all but hauling her towards the door. Sira cursed.

“This isn’t over,” she shouted. “If you know anything about Master Thieves, then you know the Isle can’t hold me forever. I will walk out of there, and I will find you.”

Her father–who was heading back to his desk–paused. Sira’s pressed her lips together, her heart pounding in her throat. Lord Luceer placed the box on his desk and walked back over tell they were inches apart. They stared at each other for several minutes. Then, her father smiled.

“That is true. You’re undoubtably skilled.” He placed a gentle hand on her shoulder. “Which is why you won’t be walking out of there–ever.”

With a shove, he threw her to the ground. Sira slammed into the floor, unable to catch herself. Her father grabbed her right ankle, placing his foot just below her knee. He heaved. The limb snapped.

Sira screamed. The pain was agonizing, like a flaming hot iron had been jammed into her leg, pulsing with each beat of her heart. She thrashed, rolling back and forth on the floor as the pain burned through her leg. Sira collapsed and bit her lip, reducing her screams to muffled moans. A wave of dizziness washed over her and she pressed her forehead to the floor.Her father spoke.

“Don’t let your heart be filled with sorrow,” he said quietly. “Sometimes sacrifices must be made for the sake of the family. You will understand, once you’ve joined your mother in the Eternal Light.”

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