Azarola hopped out of the wooden bed of the truck with a pack of Rijan’s men and strode toward a freight yard and warehouse. The last fading traces of horse odor hinted of the building’s previous use as an old livery stable. Gunmetal shone softly under the moonlight and the young men loped through the shadows. Inside the brick walls of the warehouse, an armed Aestan gang greeted them. Rijan’s Senvira burst in with suppressive fire from new submachine guns, scattering the resistance. They fanned out to hunt down their opponents and find their objective.
Azarola ducked through a doorway marked “Private” that led into a long narrow hall lined with dusty windows along one wall. Spotting the silhouette of a man taking aim at him, he pulled the trigger of his pistol. His jaw clenched with a wince at the loud crack of both guns firing and the oscillating whistle of a bullet passing by his ear. The other man jerked back and Azarola fired a second shot, dropping him.
“Good work, mutt!” one of Rijan’s men praised in the Senviran language as he ran by. “Make sure he’s dead!” The rest of the gang quickly followed him.
Heart pounding in his ears and breath coming fast, Azarola approached his fallen adversary. Blood leaked from gory holes in the young man’s shoulder and leg, but terrified eyes locked onto the victor and he raggedly gasped for air. Azarola murmured his advice in Inexan, “Play dead, stay quiet, and you might live through this.” He took the injured man’s gun, engaged the safety, and shoved it into his belt. Following Azarola’s instructions, the injured man closed his eyes. Satisfied, Azarola ran after the rest of the raiders.
Gunfire echoed ahead of him and he raced past fallen men not yet still. The excited yells of the others told him that they found what they were looking for. The moment he stepped into the room where the gang gathered, one of them barked at Azarola, “Stand guard at the door, mutt!”
Not wanting to argue, he obeyed. Azarola heard the creak of wood straining against the nails and crowbar behind him. With a sudden snap and the shouts of men, the contents of the broken crate spilled out onto the concrete floor. In the muffled din, he picked out a few keywords telling him that the goods were intact. None of them wanted to deliver the wrong or damaged goods to their boss.
A few minutes later, a robust man with many braids in his long black hair approached Azarola. Basara curled his lip in distaste as he spoke in Senviran, “We’re watching the goods while the others get a new box.”
The young man stepped away from his post and dutifully followed Basara. Standing guard at the broken crate, he couldn’t resist a peek at the fragile contents embedded in the swaddling of linen and straw. A silver mirror engraved with symbols that Azarola didn’t recognize gleamed from the little light that leaked in through a dirty window. Every time he looked away, he would catch the flitting of a moving shadow out of the corner of his eye. However, it would be gone when he tried to focus on it. Basara was also often turning his head to look at the crate.
“You too?” Azarola asked. Basara glared at him and turned away from both the young man and the mirror. Sighing, Azarola fidgeted on his feet and wondered how much longer he would have to wait.
After a while, he ignored the phantom movement at the edge of his vision. He took comfort in knowing that it was just his mind mistaking the pattern of dim and dark for something else. He wasn’t sure how long it was before he noticed that he could no longer hear the creaking of the warehouse doors or the persistent white noise of the city. Had he suddenly gone deaf? Or was it really that quiet? Glancing to Basara, he discovered that the man of many braids was just as alarmed as he was.
“Basara!” Azarola called out against the pervasive silence just to hear the sound of his own voice.
Just as if someone threw a switch, all of the background sound returned. Basara stared at Azarola in bewilderment and backed away from the crate. “It’s cursed,” Basara hissed while making a warding gesture, “I’m not staying near that thing.”
“Cursed?” Azarola wanted to scoff at the superstitious idea, but the lingering doubt gnawed at him. “There’s gotta be another explanation for what’s going on. Maybe it’s got nothing to do with the stuff we’re watching.”
Basara shook his head fervently. “No! It’s cursed and we’re fools to stay so close. If Rijan wants it to be protected, then he should find someone else!”
“Sure, and I’d love to see you tell him that,” the younger and smaller man remarked, “You’ll have a better chance of surviving it than I would.”
Basara bared his teeth with a snarled, “Shut up, mutt!”
Azarola shrugged and settled back into standing guard over the broken crate. “I’m just saying, between an antique mirror that may or may not be cursed and an angry Rijan thinking that you’re slacking off, I’d rather deal with the mirror.”
Sucking in a wheezing cringe, Basara jumped back from the crate and aimed his pistol at the mirror. Azarola held out his hand, “Stop! Basara! It’s just some shiny silver! It can’t do anything to you!”
Basara’s finger was on the trigger and ready to pull. “There’s something in it!”
“No, there isn’t! There’s nothing there but a reflection!” Azarola briefly entertained the thought of aiming his own gun at the panicking man, just to give Basara something else to think about. “If it’s bothering you, don’t look at it! Damn it, Basara! You’re how much older than me? I’m just some mutt kid and you’re the one losing your mind over an old mirror? If you damage it, Rijan’s gonna kill the both of us!” As Basara lowered his gun, Azarola quickly suggested, “One of us should keep an eye on the street, just in case we’ve attracted the attention of the police or some, um, friends.”
Basara strode past the younger gunman toward the street side door. Azarola turned his back to the mirror and waited for the others to return. The smothering silence and flittering shadows returned, demanding his attention. “It’s just a long day getting to me,” he said to no one in particular, “I’ve just spent my night getting shot at and I’m just in some desperate need of some sleep.” Desperate to banish the fear building in his chest and knees, he closed his eyes and hummed his favorite songs. Minutes felt like hours before the others returned with another crate to carry the mirror away in.
Once the mirror was safely stored away in Rijan’s nightclub, Azarola stepped out into the early dawn. The bracing chill in the winter air bit the edge off his fatigue, but he knew that he needed some rest if he was going to make it through his afternoon busking and his evening shift in the nightclub band.
His well-worn leather boots followed the path home. He passed the darkened windows of many businesses and the quiet entrances to the underground train stations. The vibrant colors and stylized florid ornamentations of the signs, doors, and walls still brightened the streetscape, despite the gray air and dark sky. A temple to Maedra, the sun goddess and paramount deity of Inexa, was also closed and quiet. Azarola did not look up at the statue of Maedra with her outstretched arms, draped with feathers like wings, summoning the coming dawn. Even during the day, the temple was a placid place. Only the priests and the fervently faithful now regularly visited and prayed. The route of his nightly commute clipped the edge of Senviran Street. The fragrance of the incenses used by the fortunetellers and self-proclaimed witches in their occult shops still lingered in the air. Most of them sold spells and charms for love, luck, and money. None of them had ever worked for him. Praying at the little street side altars never worked for him, either, no matter what deity it was to. The only meager source of good fortune he found was playing his guitar until his fingers ached every day.
A couple districts past Senviran Street, the roads narrowed bit by bit until he was on footpaths winding up the hillside. Flimsy dwellings were crammed together and stacked on top of each other like a grimy house of cards. He focused on every movement in the shadows and his ears searched beyond his eyesight. From one tiny residence, he could hear a loud argument erupt into a fight. Elsewhere, he heard a baby cry and dogs barking. He turned down one dark passageway and climbed a set of rickety stairs past a tiny shrine to an obscure deity once worshiped by those who immigrated generations prior. He continued through the narrow labyrinth, following his memory and remaining aware of his surroundings. It was a relief to unlock his door and enter the single rented room that he shared with three other young men for the season.
Thin mattresses lying on the bare floor, an upturned crate for a table, a chipped washbasin, and nearly empty shelves greeted him in the darkness. He didn’t bother lighting the lonely oil lamp. Instead, he took off his sturdy boots and jacket, trusting his memory of where things were supposed to be. All of his roommates worked the night shift at a factory, freeing him from the worry of waking anyone. Azarola rather liked that arrangement. He had the place all to himself at night and he didn’t have to try to fall asleep through anyone’s snoring. Burying himself under his pile of worn blankets, he waited for his body to heat up his cold bed and fell asleep to the steady ticking of the alarm clock.
Late in the morning, he awoke to the noise of three exhausted young men sleeping loudly. His fingertips made a small gap in his warm burrow and he verified that there was daylight falling through the grimy window. Bleary green eyes squinted to read the time on the alarm clock. He groaned and closed the small gap in his blankets to seal out the chill of the unheated room.
After summoning up enough will to brave the cold, he dressed in his busking costume while still under his blankets. He couldn’t stay in his cozy nest forever and ventured out to quickly run a comb through his nearly waist length mane of raven black hair. Once he tied it back at the nape and positioned the battered brown flat cap just right on his head, he grabbed his guitar case and left his tiny crash pad.
The small, elegant plaza outside the iron and glass train station bustled with people moving through the vast city of Ixpoli. A sculptured fountain bubbled with clear flowing water, hundreds of feet pounded the well-worn stones, and voices filled the cool air with a constant hum. Through all of this, the rapid dance of long fingers on guitar strings added a flamboyant melody into the cacophony.
Unlike most of the Inexan travelers, male and female alike, this young musician wore his hair long to advertise that he was authentic Senviran. The sleeves of his short blue jacket split open at the elbow, but buckled closed at the wrist. Bright saffron peeked through the gap between the two points. His otherwise unremarkable beige trousers split open from the knee down along the outer side and remained unbuckled at the ankle, which allowed them to flare open and display the splash of brilliant orange fabric beneath. About his waist, he wore a wide sash in a summer sky blue and the fringed ends bounced against the side of his right knee as he walked. Nothing he wore was common clothing, except for his hat, boots, and leather belt. This unconventional costume ensured that passersby at least looked in his direction while he played with an open guitar case at his feet.
Now and then, someone would drop a coin into the case and continue on their way. Azarola made a point to smile at them in thanks at the very least. He always gave pretty girls wearing short dresses with peeking knees an additional wink, even if they didn’t add a coin to his collection. Sometimes, he would receive a scowl instead of a coin for his efforts, often in part to his costume belonging to the popular and romanticized image of the Senvira underclass that wandered Inexa. Azarola brushed those glares aside, since his garb helped him glean money from those that were enchanted by the fiery music and the suggestion of the liberated lifestyle many Inexans attributed to the Senvira.
Azarola first arrived to the plaza in autumn, after the countryside harvest festivals ended. He had no other purpose than to make some money to get him through the renowned mild winter of Ixpoli. The great city-province was the beating heart of the nation of Inexa, promising wealth and excitement to the teeming throngs that flocked to it. At first, the musician thought that finding no competition in such a good busking location was simply a stroke of good luck. However, the plaza was under the protection of Rijan, who expected taxes from all those operating business there. A poor musician like Azarola had no hope of paying the demanded fees. With Basara about to break his fingers and destroy his livelihood, Azarola had begged to provide his services to Rijan instead. Another of Rijan’s lieutenants allowed the young man an audience with Rijan himself and they worked out a simple deal. Azarola would keep surveillance on the plaza during the day and report to Basara should any of the businesses talk to the police or Rijan’s rivals. From time to time, Rijan would ask Azarola to watch for a particular person and report when they passed through the plaza and where they went. Despite this, Azarola had to pay Basara a portion of his earnings as a tax, if he wanted to remain an associate of Rijan’s organization.
Despite the dark clouds hanging over his fortunes, he found a bright spot awaiting him. Every evening, he watched a pretty girl with bobbed red hair done in fashionable waves exit the station and walk across the plaza. Dressed in the daring flapper’s style, she always carried a suitcase with her and walked with confident, purposeful strides. Each time she passed by, she paused to watch and listen to him, but she never put a coin in the case. Azarola tried playing different songs each time to see what would get her approval. Fast riffs and slow ballads alike did not earn her favor.
Once she went along her way again, the station’s clock rung out the hour. It was Azarola’s signal that it was time to count his meager earnings and pack up for the evening. He still needed to buy his dinner and go to his next gig.
He paused at a row of street side food stalls and tried to strike a balance between his stomach and his wallet. He wanted a marinated lamb skewer with a creamy, spicy garlic sauce, but it cost just a little more than he was willing to part with. The last thing he wanted was to have another run of bad luck and not have enough money to keep himself fed. Even with that thought in mind, he wasn’t in the mood for more rice, beans, or chickpeas. He compromised with a couple skewers of assorted meat and organ bits marinated in the spicy sauce he was craving. He wasn’t sure what all of the pieces were, but they still tasted good, even if they were a little chewy. He washed it down with a steaming cup of coffee at a tiny cafe a few blocks down the street.
The stroll past block after block of colorful buildings ended at the Emerald Paradise. Outside the main doors, a placard on the sidewalk advertised “Senvira Music Every Night”. Ducking into the alley, he gained entry through the side door and joined the rest of the Senviran band. The modest dance hall wasn’t the peak of glamorous nightlife in Ixpoli, but it was clean and free of prostitution. Gambling, however, was another matter. At the bar, Azarola spotted the vibrant green suit and slick ponytail sported by Rijan. The hall’s owner gave the guitarist a serpent’s smile.
The previous guitarist for Rijan’s dance hall band was a drunk, in addition to being a compulsive gambler. Once Azarola proved he was just as skilled, Rijan slotted the young musician into a sudden opening in the band. The other musicians still looked down at the new member in disdain. They were swarthier in skin and sharper in features, their bodies advertising that they were pure Senviran. Azarola, on the other hand, was paler and finer in face, telling all who could discern the difference that he also bore Inexan blood in his veins.
He followed the direction of the bandleader through the late hours of the night, playing until his fingers were sore and his vision blurred. He long ago stopped noticing the dancers on the floor in their sharp suits and colorful dresses. His first priority was not to let the bandleader throw him off the song. Azarola knew that the bandleader was not friendly to him, but had to oblige Rijan. From time to time, the young guitarist had to improvise to stay with the band. He managed the task, but it took all of his focus to succeed. His reward was the irritation of the bandleader and knowledge that he would have gainful employment for another evening. When the hall emptied and the band dispersed, Azarola was grateful to step out into the cold midnight air.
With few options for food so late at night, he stopped at a little restaurant that was not much more than a glorified lunch counter. From his favorite seat at the counter, he ordered an egg salad sandwich and a glass of buttermilk, which were among the cheapest items on the menu. The old man that ran the counter grinned at him. “A step up from the fried egg sandwich. Must have done good business today.”
“Better than yesterday,” Azarola chirped. Working out the last of the clinging Senviran accent that threatened to mar his Inexan speech, he added, “And I almost asked her name this time.”
The old man chortled and shook his head as he fixed the sandwich. “What will you order when you finally do that?”
“Dinner for two?” Azarola raised his glass in a hopeful toast before taking a deep draft. “I can’t figure her, Barne. I mean, I can’t tell if she even likes my music at all, let alone what kind. She always stops, but she never puts in.”
With a barking laugh, the old man replied with a twinkle in his eye, “Ain’t that how it always goes?” Barne slid the full plate to the musician. “Well, maybe she’s like you, Az, and got no money.”
“Girl like her? You ain’t seen her. Nice hair, nice dress, nice shoes.” Azarola shook his head before biting into his sandwich. Around a mouthful, he added, “She got money.”
“And she spent it all on the looks, by the sound of it.” Barne wiped down the counter after serving Azarola’s order. “I hope you grow a pair and ask that girl’s name tomorrow.”
Azarola smirked around his sandwich. “Well, I already got ‘em, so the chances are good.”
“We’ll see about that.” Barne looked up when the bell over his door chimed and he waved to the next customer.
A brawny man who reeked of sweat and machine grease sat next to Azarola at the counter. “Good day?” he asked when he spotted the egg salad sandwich.
Azarola took another bite. “Yeah.”
“When are you gonna put the Senviran act away and get a real job?”
“This is my real job, Faerd.”
He heaved a growling sigh and put in his order, “Get me fried ham and eggs with coffee, Barne.” The money he put on the counter for that order was a little more than double the price of Azarola’s meal. “See, you go to the factories or the docks and you can eat like a real man, boy. Put some meat on your bones. You’ll have to cut your hair, though. Your head ain’t a horse’s ass.”
Azarola rolled his green eyes and continued eating his sandwich. He couldn’t be angry at Faerd; he meant well, despite his gruff approach. “How’s your back?”
“Sore,” Faerd answered, “I’m getting too old for this kind of work. I’m hoping I’ll get moved up to crew foreman soon. There should be an opening in a couple months. I’ve been at that factory working the machines for years and I still got all my fingers. That oughta say something.” As an afterthought, Faerd asked, “How old are you, anyways?”
“Seventeen, almost eighteen,” Azarola answered, “Why?”
“You’re more than old enough to work the shipyard. I know a guy down there who says that they could use more hands. If you want, I could ask him to try you out.”
“No need, Faerd. I still got my evening gig and I just grabbed an on-call night job. I can take care of myself just fine. Thanks for the offer, though.” After swallowing the last bite and draining his glass, Azarola picked up his guitar case. “Goodnight all,” he said with a wave before he slipped out the door.