Vanth lay in her narrow bed, listening to the insistent gong of the morning bell reverberate up the stairs from the great hall. She should have been rising with the rest of the Salt Swords. Instead, she pulled her blanket up to her chin and stared at the ceiling. She had barely slept and still, her mind was whirring, poring over every detail of her meeting with Gwin. She frowned in the early morning gloom, gripping the edges of the blanket. She should have arrested that blue-haired witch. Her stomach turned with a sickening wrench as she imagined how her fellow Salt Swords would react if they ever found out she had let a high magick user go free. A high magick user who had turned her illegal powers on her, no less. She would be stripped of her position and cast out onto the streets of Armoria. That’s if she was lucky.
A loud thumping on her door made Vanth start. “Come on, lazy bones,” she recognised Albin’s voice calling from the other side. “You’re going to miss breakfast.”
“I’m coming,” Vanth lied.
The thought of breakfast made her queasy. She slipped further under the blanket and closed her eyes, trying to ignore the real reason she had been unable to sleep: Gwin had told her she had changeling blood, and Vanth had believed her.
Amongst her family, there had been rumours of a great aunt who could walk in peoples’ dreams and an ancient grandfather with a wild glint in his eyes, but Vanth had always believed these were merely tall tales. Now she was unsure. A sudden desire to see her mother bloomed without warning and she let out a long, shuddering breath. There was no one she could ask about those misty family stories. Vanth was the only one left.
She was a broken girl when the Salt Swords took her in. Her family’s farm had been floundering for years. An exceptionally harsh winter took her father and brother, breaking her mother’s spirit even as she struggled to continue. The summer passed and the harvest was poor. They had to kill the last of their pigs just so they could eat. Then winter came once more, bringing with it another cruel sweep of disease. If there was any mercy in the world it would have passed by their farm that year, but of course, it didn’t. Vanth was forced to watch her mother steadily wither until one particularly cold night, amid a violent hacking fit that sprayed the bed sheets with droplets of blood, she lifted her eyes to her daughter’s tear-streaked face one last time and wilted in her arms.
Vanth stayed long enough to bury her next to her father and brother, beneath their scant apple trees. Then, with no money for animals or seed, let alone farmhands, she locked the gates of her family’s farm and left for Armoria with barely a backwards glance. Many in Vanth’s position would have no choice but to make a life on the streets, eking out an existence by pickpocketing or whoring. This time though, Vanth’s luck finally turned. As she entered Artisan Square on that first frozen morning in the city, just seventeen-years-old and shivering beneath a threadbare shawl, she was drawn to a group of smartly dressed men standing together and talking to passers-by. When she approached them she learned they were Salt Swords, and they were recruiting.
The Salt Sword trials were rigorous and brutal. Vanth had to show them she could run faster, fight harder and survive longer than the other hopefuls. There were many times when she thought she would pass out on a particularly gruelling hike across the Snowberry Plains or go mad from the pain in her arms after wielding a broadsword for hours, sparring with opponent after opponent. She survived though. She passed the trials with a numb determination borne of grief and desperation. The Salt Swords had saved her from the streets. They had given her a new life and now they were her family. That is what made Gwin’s revelations so frightening. A changeling would never have been allowed to join Armoria’s revered city guard. Vanth would probably be thrown in the Pit if the truth was discovered.
“I’m not leaving until I hear you move,” Albin called again. “Get out of bed.”
“Sod off, Albin. I said I’m coming.”
Vanth waited until the man’s footsteps had receded back down the stairs before pulling the blanket down from her face. The morning bell had stopped. The great hall would be full of Salt Swords by now, busying themselves over bowls of porridge. Still, she did not move. Fears floated before her like leering ghouls. In her racing imagination, Dewer was at the head of a demon army, their grotesque bodies contorted, slathering mouths full of sharp teeth. Gwin marched towards them, surrounded by wild-eyed changelings armed with bows and long, sharp spears while Armoria burned, the air thick with smoke and screams.
With a deep sigh, Vanth shook the nightmares from her head and finally threw back the scratchy, grey wool blanket. She stood and reached for her clothes, draped over the back of a chair. The uniform of the Salt Swords was a source of pride for those who wore it and a bitter source of envy for the many who coveted it and the position it conveyed. The black trousers and shirt were made of softest calfskin, hardly impervious to the slash of a blade but easy to move in. Salt Swords were trained to be quicker than a blade. The accompanying lamellar vest was a thing of exquisite beauty, made from diamonds of tough, black leather woven together with silver thread and studded with minute stars cut from obsidian. The sudden flash of those stars was often the last thing an enemy of Amoria would ever see.
Pulling on her boots and tying her ebony hair back from her face, Vanth turned to survey the room. It was a mess. Her bed was unmade, the waxy puddles of spent candles filled the wall sconces, and books littered a small desk beneath the narrow window. Vanth knew Overseer Jewell would have her hide if he saw her living quarters in such a state, but one of the advantages of having a room to herself, hard-won in a duelling contest, was being able to lock the door.
Before leaving she took up her weapons, scattered amongst the papers and books on the desk. Holstering twin daggers at her belt and slipping her curved short sword into a plain sheath at her hip, Vanth descended the stone staircase that wound down into the bowels of the Obsidian Citadel. It was an honour for the Salt Swords to be housed in Lord Dewer’s great glass tower, but Vanth often thought it wasn’t very homely. Beyond the black glass of the sheer exterior, the inside of the tower was wrought from grey stone dredged up from the Thet that even the brightest lanterns couldn’t fully illuminate. Cold shadows gathered in the Citadel that seemed to linger unnaturally.
Pushing open the doors to the great hall, Vanth could see she was the last to make it down to breakfast. She scanned the long tables running down the centre of the room, looking for her arms-mates, Albin and Pictor. Albin caught her eye and waved her over to where they were sitting at the far end of the hall, near to the fire roaring in an over-sized fireplace. An enormous blackened pot hung over the flames, full of the Salt Swords’ rapidly congealing porridge.
“It lives, it breathes!” Albin declared as Vanth slid onto the bench next to him.
“Shut your mouth,” Vanth said.
“I have saved you a delicious bowl of gruel,” Albin said, ignoring her. “I cannot guess as to the temperature though, it’s been sitting there a while.”
Vanth grimaced as Albin placed the bowl in front of her.
“We’ve been assigned the Pinchpaw’s Quarter again,” Pictor informed her in his monotone drawl.
“I hate that place,” Albin said. “It plays havoc with my allergies.”
“Just don’t blow your nose all over me,” Vanth said. She lifted up a spoonful of porridge but when her stomach turned over again she let it slop back into the bowl with a wet splat.
After breakfast, Vanth and her arms-mates made their way into the city. They were an odd looking trio. Albin had thick, sandy hair and an easy smile. He seemed far too laid back to be a Salt Sword, although many a scoundrel had made that assumption to their peril. Pictor was a hulking giant of a man with a thickset face that looked as though it had taken one too many punches. Between them walked Vanth, her bright eyes darting from building to building, her footsteps quick and light even in her thick-soled boots.
They slowed their pace when they reached the Pinchpaw’s Quarter. This was the poorest area of the city, hemmed in on three sides by long streets of shops selling goods the people who lived mere steps away would never be able to afford. Low-slung cottages with sagging roofs and patched-up broken windows jostled against each other, squeezed onto every patch of dirt available along the narrow alleyways.
Many homeless gathered to beg on the corners, often so thin and tattered they appeared to be little more than piles of rags. As the arms-mates turned to walk up a particularly dark alley, the cobbles strewn with rotting waste and muck, Vanth noticed one such vagrant sitting hunched on the filthy ground, one shaking hand outstretched. The woman looked up at Vanth as she passed, eyes wide and beseeching in her skeletal face. For a moment, the woman reminded Vanth of her mother, the way she used to look at her in those last days when her cheeks became hollow and her eyes were dark and empty. Vanth’s heart dropped and she had to take a breath to steady herself, instantly regretting it when the thick stench of the nearby tanneries made her want to gag. Without thinking, she reached into her pocket and felt about for the few coins she knew lay at the bottom. She bent down to press them into the woman’s hand, giving her a small smile.
“Get yourself a hot meal,” she urged.
The woman nodded her thanks. She did not speak or return Vanth’s smile.
Albin and Pictor waited patiently for Vanth to fall back into step with them. “Don’t start,” Vanth hissed, feeling Albin’s eyes on her.
“I just don’t know why you bother with those people,” Albin said. “You know she’ll only spend it on drink.”
“I know no such thing,” Vanth replied tersely. “Besides, even if she did spend it in a tavern, who are we to blame her? If I had her life I’d want to be blind drunk, too.”
“Better to feed them now than have to deal with them later,” Pictor suddenly announced, “when they’re forced to steal what they need.”
“You speak rarely, Pictor,” Vanth said, clapping him on one of his meaty shoulders, “but when you do, it’s pure wisdom.”
“For Thet’s sake,” Albin said, shaking his head. “That wasn’t wisdom you were spouting last night, was it, mate? I had to kick your bunk to make you shut up about meat pies.”
“A skilled baker is an artist,” Pictor replied.
Vanth rolled her shoulders, ignoring them. They would have had more chance of catching a pickpocket or two in Artisan Square or the Silver Quarter. If they were patrolling the harbour and randomly checking the ships they could have found a stowaway or some illicit cargo. The Pinchpaw’s Quarter though was quiet, imbued with a damp chill beneath the dense press of slum buildings.
At the head of the alley was The Star of Armoria, a fancy name for a tavern that was little more than a dank hole-in-the-wall. As they passed it, the paint flaking from the shutters on the windows, a prostitute appeared from the shadows in the doorway. Her enormous bosom arrived before she did and she smiled broadly at the three arms-mates, displaying a prominent gap where her two front teeth should have been. Her face was thick with powder and rouge in what Vanth guessed was a vain attempt to hide her advancing age.
“Good morning, Salt Swords,” the woman cooed. Her thick, floral perfume enveloped them as she moved out of the doorway, stinging the back of Vanth’s eyes. “Anything I can do to make your stay in the Quarter more pleasurable?”
“I wouldn’t touch your stinking reek with ‘is,” said Alvin, looking to Pictor and laughing. “Thet knows what I’d catch.”
Vanth felt sorry for the woman as she watched her blink angrily. “Now look ‘ere,” she began. “I know you lot think you own this place, but I’ve been plying trade ‘ere for thirteen years and I ain’t never—”
They all stopped and looked up at the sky when a great bell began to toll in the distance. Vanth had never heard it ring before and it took her a moment to realise what it was. The sound seemed to pound right through her chest, shaking her from teeth to spine. The Salt Swords glanced at each other, their faces white and drawn as the dire magnitude of the situation dawned on each of them. Without a word, they turned in the direction of the bell and broke into a run.
“Oi!” they heard the prostitute screaming behind them. “I wasn’t finished with you! What’s that bloody great ringing?”
Vanth and her arms-mates ignored the woman and kept running until her shouts had long faded into the distance. The Salt Bell was ringing for the first time in a century, and they might already be too late.