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Wish-Upon-Stars leaned against the side of a tall brick building and looked up into the night sky. The stars were difficult to see in this part of Havenlost, the only part of the felenin’s island to own a collection of buildings large enough to have the word ‘city’ applied to them. And then only a person with a penchant for exaggeration would use it. Still, there was enough light streaming from the windows of buildings on both sides of the wide thoroughfare to make the stars disappear.
Her mother named her Wish-Upon-Stars because her aspirations had always been so much greater than those of her litter mates. Her brothers and sisters were content to remain in their villages on the far side of Havenlost doing nothing but raise litters of their own. Sure, felenin kittens were cute, but weren’t the newborn offspring of every race in the Islands of Shattered Glass? Wysh preferred her role as the aunt who swooped in from far flung places with treats and tall tales for her adoring nieces and nephews.
Her tales were taller than she’d like, Wysh admitted to herself. In truth she had never been to New Raine or Skypierce or Telecir, and she had certainly never performed in their cities. Those other islands seemed as far off as the stars. Her mate Seven-Songs – well, he wasn’t her mate yet, but he was hoping, and Wysh was, too – was convinced that a felenin double act would strike it rich in the nightclubs of the big islands. No other race possessed the acrobatic talent of the felenin, and Sev’n thought them the best pair of tumblers in Havenlost. Wysh wasn’t so sure, but she humored Sev’n, all the while working on both her singing voice and facility with sleight-of-hand tricks. Certainly one of her skills would bring them the kind of work they wished to do. Until then…
Wysh pulled her bright feline eyes off the night sky and surveyed the street. A human man was walking down the thoroughfare with purpose in his step. Humans were rare in Havenlost; indeed, any race besides the felenin stuck out like a sore paw. Wysh’s tail swished in anticipation, and her whiskers quivered.
She peeled herself from the side of the brick building and began walking ahead of the human, moving fast enough to stay in the lead, but slow enough for him to close the distance.
Just then she heard a disturbance coming from the side street behind her, sounds of shouting and the crashing of waste bins. Whirling about, Wysh made eye contact with the human, and they both rushed into the alley. Three felenin, knives in hand and fur standing on end, menaced a fourth, who lay curled in a ball on the ground. The victim’s face was hidden, but his flanks were exposed. His three assailants each kicked him hard once to dissuade him from rising and turned to meet the newcomers.
Knowing she couldn’t take all three, even with the aid of the human, Wysh sucked in a lungful of air and screamed. One of the assailants stared her down for a long moment, then looked at his companions and said, “Next time, boys. Next time.”
The trio vaulted over a wall and disappeared into the night, but not before calling out a threat. “You best be looking over your shoulder the next few days.”
Wysh rushed to the fallen felenin and stroked the dark fur between his wilted ears. “What’d they take?”
“Nothing thanks to you.” He uncurled his body revealing a slash of white fur running from one eye down his neck. He winced and gave Wysh a rueful smile. “I’ve been delivering money through this neighborhood for years and never had an issue.” He touched his flank and winced again. “Desperate times, I suppose.”
Wysh looked up at the human man, who had taken a step forward while the injured felenin spoke. She smiled and said, “Thank you for your help. I’m not sure my scream alone would have sent them off.”
“Glad to be of service, but your scream was earsplitting enough to rouse the whole neighborhood. I expect those thugs were right to retreat.”
The fallen felenin said, “But you heard them. They could be right around the corner waiting for me. I need to make this delivery tonight.”
Wysh looked from him to the human man and bit her lip with a sharp fang. She was about to speak when the human said, “I could make your drop. I’d be happy to. I don’t think the thugs would dare accost me.”
“Would you really?” The felenin heaved himself to a sitting position. “You’re a lifesaver. Two blocks down, take a right, and deliver my purse to the back room of the furniture store.”
He passed a heavy satchel to the man, who belted it to his waist.
“Hold on,” said Wysh. “You’re going to walk the streets with that big a purse hanging from you, while thugs are on the loose. Are you stupid or something?” She pulled out her own coin purse as if from nowhere.
The man gaped at her. “Where’d that come from?”
“A little trick to keep my money safe. Here, I’ll show you. I have a linen bag in my skirts where I keep my purse. The bag is tied to a string around my waist. Your trousers are loose enough for it to work. Here, give me his purse.”
The man handed it over.
“What about your own?” Wysh eyed a second satchel worn on the man’s other hip. “Better hide all of it to keep from being a target.”
The man handed it over, as well. Wysh dropped them in her linen pouch and tied it around the man’s waist. “Just drop that into your trousers like this. No one’s going to check there, believe me.”
“Thanks for the tip,” said the man, taking the linen bag. “I’d better be off.” He nodded to the fallen felenin and backed out of the alley.
Wysh waited for a full minute before exhaling. “I’ve got to get better at that handoff,” she said.
Seven-Songs stood up without wincing and said, “What did you fill the dummy with this time?”
“Metal buttons,” said Wysh as she tossed the man’s purse to her partner.
“Remember, no one carries a weapon in Irenikos, not even peacekeepers, so we train your bodies to be weapons.” The instructor clapped her hands together once. “Fifth form again, if you please.”
Hester Harrow hid a smirk. The instructor, a retired peacekeeper named Aletha Gray, was always polite when drilling the cadets. She coated her commands with “pleases” and “thank yous” to such a degree that way back in the first month of training one of Hester’s fellow cadets made the mistake of thinking Aletha Gray was simply making requests. When he decided to sit out one of the forms, she politely invited him to return to his station. When he refused, she politely escorted him off the premises and politely expelled him from the peacekeepers’ academy.
Hester wondered if the whole thing had not been staged to make sure the real cadets knew Instructor Gray meant business. Whatever the case, the expulsion worked: Hester and her fellow cadets had buckled down since. They had even moved on to fifth form ahead of schedule, much to Aletha Gray’s satisfaction.
The forms honed the muscles, trained the breath, improved balance, and brought intention to each movement. Hester danced in slow motion through the form, her long braid of chestnut hair the only part of her body moving of its own volition.
Until coming to the academy, Hester had never worn her hair in a braid, had never pulled it back nor worn it up. She wasn’t ashamed of her pointed elven ears – not exactly. But they did make her self-conscious. The first day at the academy, Aletha Gray had politely asked Hester to wear her hair in the regulation braid. When Hester prevaricated, Gray had taken her aside and explained that all people have pieces of themselves they want to hide and most of those pieces could use a little more exposure.
“You see any paint on this face, Cadet Harrow?” Aletha had asked before answering her own question. “No you don’t because my face is my face, scars and all. Does no good trying to hide it to suit the expectations of others.”
Indeed, Aletha Gray had a jagged scar running from her right eyebrow to the bottom of her ear. Hester could understand why one would want to cover it up, but she was glad Gray wore it with pride. After all, it gave her an air of danger and mystery.
That first day at the academy, Hester decided her ears were her ears, no matter how pointed, and had worn her hair in a tight braid ever since. Within the first month, a mean-spirited cadet named Warren Bosk chose Hester’s unique physical feature as his topic of ridicule. She ignored his taunts for a few weeks, but when the nickname “Pointy” threatened to stick, she knew she had to do something. Taking a page out of Aletha Gray’s book, she politely asked him to stop. When he refused, Hester politely cartwheeled her legs around his neck, spun him to the ground, pinned him, and punched him hard in the face.
In the two years since, no one had called her Pointy again.
“Harrow,” said Instructor Gray, looking up from a recently delivered note. “Cadet, if you please. You are to report to the commandant’s office, quick as you like.” A shadow passed over Gray’s scarred features. “I’ll be here afterwards if you need to talk.” And then more to herself than to Hester: “You were one of my star pupils.”
Hester mopped her sweating brow. What did that mean? I’ll be here afterwards. After what? She gathered her things and jogged from the sparring center, picking up speed as she crossed campus. The peacekeepers’ academy was built on a promontory overlooking the city of Irenikos, the capital of the island of Harmony. Unlike most people, who came to the sanctuary city seeking peace or protection, Hester had lived her entire life in Irenikos, though she knew her mother had resettled from Skypierce. Until Hester entered the academy it had just been the pair of them making their way together in the peaceful city. Only Hester’s ears pointed to the elven father she never knew.
Commandant Grell Longarm had never had much cause to speak to her, as his time was spent in disciplining troublemakers like Warren Bosk. In fact, the only other time she had been summoned to the dwarf’s office was after her takedown of the bully. And in that meeting, Grell had been commendatory of her behavior even as he admonished her.
“Cadet Harrow, reporting as ordered,” she said, back straight, hands clasped behind her.
“Enter,” said the dwarf, eyeing her from behind his desk. “You made good time.”
“I like jogging after forms, sir. Something fast to balance the slow movements.”
“And you have, what, three months until graduation?”
“Look, Cadet Harrow, I’m not one to beat around the bush.” Grell Longarm stood and splayed his thick fingers across the papers on his desk. “You are one of our best and brightest, to be sure.” He hesitated, cleared his throat. “And I will allow you to graduate. You’ve earned that right.”
Hester blinked. “What are you saying, sir?”
“I’m sorry, but you will not be commissioned as a peacekeeper of Irenikos.”
Hester’s body began to tremble, and she worked to keep the quiver from her voice. “Why ever not, sir? What have I done wrong?”
Grell sighed. “It’s nothing you’ve done. Your performance at the academy has been exemplary. I’m chagrined to ever think I was against it.”
“I don’t understand,” said Hester. “Is it because I’m half-elven? You know I have nothing to do with the elves’ war.”
“It’s the other side of your family that worries the new mayor, I’m afraid.” Grell dropped back into his chair. “I didn’t think I’d be the one to tell you this.”
Hester could no longer keep her voice from trembling. “Tell me what, sir?”
“Have you ever heard of the crime syndicate known as the Grasp?”
“The name came up in class a few times.”
Grell drummed his fingers on the desk. “It’s the most powerful criminal organization in the entire Islands of Shattered Glass, grown rich and untouchable through extortion and war profiteering. And the head of the Grasp is a man named Mercer Harrow.”
Hester sat down and looked the commandant in the eye. “Harrow, sir?”
“He’s your grandfather.”
Click here to purchase The Islands of Shattered Glass
on Amazon in paperback or kindle edition.