Court of Ash and Shadows

In a world where magic is brutally regulated, where neighbor would turn against neighbor and two kingdoms on the verge of war, a thief, crazed with the loss of her brother, strikes out, determined to destroy the very kingdom that claimed his life. Blood will be shed, hearts shattered and kingdoms burnt to ash. Pray for dreams, nightmares reign.

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2. Prologue:

                The crows were crying tonight.

                Her feet stalled, and Jackal's lips flattened into a thin line. She supposed to any other, their harsh cawing laments were a mere racket, but Jackal knew better. A cool finger of dread skittered its way down her spine and she tugged her wolf pelt cloak closer. Jackal slunk forward, sticking to the shadows, unable to evade the murmurs. The general's down, they whispered. Slaughtered by Rigoria. Jackal fisted her hands into her tunic and turned away from the murder, their sleek black bodies dotting the trees.

                It wasn't fair, but few things were fair this days. Justice never dwelled in the dark.

                Black clouds swelled in the horizon, an angry splatter of violets and greys. The world was filled with screaming and rivers of blood so high she almost welcomed the tide of shadows as they rushed toward her. Jackal could almost hear Archer's voice, the smoke grey of his eyes pleading her to save him, see his lifeblood draining to the ravaged battleground as the war raged around him. She will never feel his arms around her, his embrace as strong and unyielding as a boulder or hear his boisterous laugh, pestering her to laugh along.

                Never.

                She stumbled, tripping on a pebble half concealed by the snow. The rough cut of wet cobblestones scraped into her palm, drawing blood. She stared blankly at the beads of crimson, stark against the ivory snow. Late night revelers swerved around the too slight boy, cursing as they tripped over their feet. Swearing under her breath at her negligence, Jackal kneeled near an alley, her cloak pooled around her. Passing footsteps splashed cloudy slush into her white mourning attire.

                Months ago this never would have happened. She had always been light-footed, nimble. Jackal never floundered in her missions. Archer would have scoffed at her poor performance, grey eyes twinkling. Is that all you have, little jackal? And Jackal could almost picture Enzo with his rare, unguarded smiles. To show emotion is a weakness in this world, love. She closed her eyes and took a shuddering breath.

                Darkness crept up and cool calm spread across her body. She was a white wolf, tenacious and dignified; a jackal, cunning and swift. Her eyes fluttered open, mouth set in a bleak line.

                It was old news. The message had come this morning from a grim-mouthed soldier, one of the second legion. Jackal had begged news of Enzo, but no one had heard anything. Last she'd seen of the First Son was months ago when he had ridden out to battle on his warhorse, Koran, the rest of his company close at his heels.  

                "Be safe," she whispered, clutching a gold band to her chest. Be safe.

                Jackal stood, touching her satchel. She clung to the reassuring weight of it, the hope it brought to her people. Then, the thief continued on, impervious to the cold and the swirling eddies of snow.

                Ice stung her cheeks, and she bent her head against the wind. The gale nearly tore her hood back, but Jackal slammed a gloved hand to her head. If her hair, such a light blonde it resembled liquid moonlight, was not telltale enough, her eyes, a deep inky blue speckled with silver will guarantee her a trip back to her father. She could probably get away with the hair. Light hair was typical for an Akivan, even if the colour was never this luminous. But it was the eyes that always gave people pause. They were unnatural, such a dark indigo it might as well be pure obsidian. And that gleaming silver, ever shifting. It was freakish-- monstrous. As if she needed another indication of her eccentricity.

                Jackal made a sharp left turn and strode up to the Shrouded Maiden. Raucous laughter burst from the tavern and she almost cringed, but then Jackal straightened, steeling her frayed nerves and shoved the door open. Her arrival went unnoticed by the tavern's rowdy patrons, just as she wanted it. Attracting attention was never a favorable situation in her line of work. Jackal let the oaken door click shut behind her and strode up the barkeep. She squeezed past the scantily clad servers and stumbling drunks, her lips curling at the sour tang of sweat and unwashed bodies.

                She hoisted herself onto a rickety barstool, clients, even the heavily intoxicated ones knowing to give her a wide berth. Even if her clothes attracted attention, at least they knew to avoid her. At least, they couldn't see her murderous expression. Jackal didn't know if she would be able to control herself tonight if the tavern's patrons stepped out of line. Suns and moons, she was so tired. Even going through the motions were so tedious, drained her of energy better used elsewhere.

                The bartender gave her mourning attire a cursory look, and promptly touched his brow to ward off calamity. The patron beside her moved away, eyeing her white cloak. Jackal bit her lip and slumped onto the stool.  It's not as if death was contagious.

                Jackal fought down the pang of grief, clenching her jaw tight. Through the glass, the sky outside was darkening, clouds surging across the heavens. She watched with growing unease, as the blackness surged, reared up-

                "What will it be?" snapped the barkeep. "If you are not planning to do business, leave. You are displacing our customers." He nodded at the client whom had left the stool beside her own. If the bartender noticed the death grip she had on the counter, he didn't mention it.

                "I want to talk to Larissa," Jackal said forcing her voice to a growl. "Now." The shadows snaked along the walls behind him and Jackal shifted her focus to the counter.

                "Look here," the bartender began. Her nails dug onto the nicked wood, stained with unidentifiable substances. The lanterns flickered weakly, a stray cool gust sweeping in, dimming them to embers. The shadows slunk closer.

                "He's for me," a middle aged woman spoke from behind him. "Get to work, Cohen. I don't pay you for your good-for-nothing arse to be planted in a chair all day." Jackal released her grip on the bar and loosened a breath she hadn't realized she was holding. The lanterns brightened.

                Cohen scowled and turned away, scrubbing the counter with excessive force. The older woman waited until he refilled the mug of a rough-looking client before facing Jackal with an eager gleam in her blue eyes. Jackal swung the satchel onto the bar and pushed it toward the woman with a gloved hand. Larissa took the bag, the tremble in her hands betraying her nervousness.

                "You know the rules," the thief stated flatly, deepening her voice to a masculine rumble. "Do not open it until you stand before the Conclave." Larissa hefted the bag, weighing it in a hand. Jackal watched, indifferent, as the woman's eyes widened. She quickly schooled her features into neutrality. "It's thrice heavier than the normal fare," she said.

                Jackal nodded once, slightly. "Give the Conclave my most sincere apologies. I will be away for a while. This mayhap be the last shipment you will receive from me."

                 "You have done more than necessary. We have enough to survive till spring, if not longer than that. The people of Akiva give thanks."

                The thief nodded again. "It is my pleasure to aid this noble cause."

                The woman snorted and spat on the counter. She rubbed the moisture away with a ragged cloth, stained with things Jackal rather not know. "Nothin' noble about the Conclave. We do what we can to survive. It is the crown that doomed us commoners to this hellhole."

                Jackal slipped from the barstool gracefully. "Perhaps you are right."

                Larissa bent, tilting her head to peer beyond the hood. Jackal knew she would see nothing; didn't stop her from trying though. The woman pressed her lips together. "Who are you?" she whispered. "What are you to the Conclave?"

                "It matters not."

                The woman hesitated, her hand wavering in the air between them. After a moment , she let her hand fall and gave Jackal a decisive nod.

                "Nocte be with you," Larissa murmured finally, the parting words hanging like a weight between them.

                 Jackal's eyes closed from under the hood, bitterness coating her tongue like ashes. "She always is," she replied dully and stalked to the exit.

                 The thief could feel Larissa's eyes boring into her back, but she didn't turn. Moments later, the Jackal was nothing but a blurred shadow against the storm.

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