New Beginnings

Kalena Valade pursed her lips and let out a low command whistle, and in response, the beautiful bay stallion rose up on its hind legs with its forelegs lifted in perfect bent pose, standing erect like a dramatic bronze statue. Zatarese horses typically lived wild in the open desert and were quite spirited, difficult to train even for someone with her extensive experience, but all her persistence and care had been well rewarded. She gave him a little nudge with her heels, and the bay made a series of controlled jumps into the air, performing faultless courbettes, a move that could be put to advantageous use in various combat situations on a battlefield. The audience that gathered to watch the spectacle made appreciative sounds at her horsemanship and a self-satisfied smile stole on her face. Always one to revel in flattering attention, Kalena rode about the paddock and proudly put the horse through its paces, executing a number of other showy maneuvers to further impress them.

When she had finished, she saw the pleased and approving expression of her employer, András, who owned the huge stable complex. The middle-aged Sarnian grinned at her, displaying his brown teeth.

“Well done,” he commended. “I've never seen a desert horse of Zatar so superbly broken and obedient.”

Kalena gently tugged the reins and the bay trotted over to him. “I learned a long time ago it's not about breaking a horse, but building trust with them, and a sense of partnership. You need to make them want to obey and not because they're forced.”

“Whatever your methods, they were clearly efficacious,” András acknowledged, and rubbed his hands together greedily. “I can get two hundred gold pieces for a steed such as this. Mayhap even three hundred.”

“Well, before he can be sold there is still a bit more training to be done, of course.”

András pulled a face. “What? The beast looks fully trained to me.”

“No, not quite yet, I'm afraid.” Kalena reached down and ran an affectionate hand up and down the stallion's strong, velvet neck. “At the moment, he's suitable only for highly skilled riders. As you know, a proper mount must be able to be ridden by anyone, and have patience even for the worst amateurs.”

“That may be, but I plan to market it as a warrior's destrier; whoever buys it will be a skilled rider, or be purchasing it for one.” András gestured and a man stepped forward to take the reins from her.

“Yes, I... I see. I suppose you're right...”

Kalena smiled outwardly, but inwardly was saddened to part just yet with the exquisite and psychologically complex animal with whom she had spent the better part of three weeks bonding closely, though she was all too aware she had no say in the matter, for she was no longer her own woman. She worked for András and because she did, she had to be prepared to accede to his wishes when it came to how the man ran his horse trading business. She sweetly whispered in the stallion's ear and kissed its head, saying goodbye, and then, in a graceful, athletic motion, swung her long leg over the saddle pommel and dropped lithely to the ground.

Watching the horse being led away to a stall, she tried to swallow down her discontent. This was good work she had found to occupy her time. In large part, emotionally fulfilling work. But, oh, did she miss her old life when she had wealth and power and could do just about anything she damned well pleased. In Dalen she had never been happier. She had been one of Queen Thalia's favourites at court, owned her own stable full of magnificent prize horses, and had resided in a veritable palace.

In order to better her current prospects, Kalena sometimes contemplated once more taking up her former and far more lucrative profession, however, after witnessing whole cities laid to waste she had lost her taste for unnecessary bloodshed and could not imagine performing contract killings again for a living. She had seen so very much. Too much, in fact. The deaths of great kings and queens, extraordinarily strange worlds beyond this one, connections to things she never could have imagined, but, paradoxically, the greater her horizons broadened, the smaller she ended up feeling to the point she now felt so little really mattered that the fire in her soul had mostly gone out.

Kalena breathed deeply, nearly overwhelmed by a wave of desolation. She reached up and undid her long hair from its confining braid, letting her thick mass of brunette curls fall freely about her shoulders. With her responsibilities done for the day, she left András's stables and began to wend her way aimlessly through the city, trying to dispel her sombre mood. Her life might have become depressingly mediocre but at least she was still alive, and there was certainly a lot to be said for being a survivor.

But even more to be said for being rich, she thought, shallowly, upon entering the city's bustling Merchant's Quarter. Street vendors crowded every foot of the pavements selling porcelain vases and statuary, handcrafted, ornate furniture, intricate tapestries and wall hangings, plush rugs and carpets, fine garments from the top local tailors, and baubles and objet d'art of every possible description. She lingered at several booths, covetously examining the wide selection of goods, deciding what she would purchase if she had the coin. One vendor eyed her with open wariness as if suspecting her to be some petty thief or robber. Instead of being insulted, she was actually a bit amused, supposing she did look somewhat disreputable. She was dressed down in a mulberry-coloured blouse of cheap linen and snug, well-fitting black riding trews and boots, and a low-slung belt from which hung a small dagger she could use to do some rather impressive and lethal things.

The aroma of roasting meat filled Kalena's nose and her growling stomach reminded her she hadn't eaten since the early morning. Following the mouth-watering smell, she saw it was wafting from another vendor who tended a basin of burning coals. She dug out a few coppers from her purse and bought one of the skewers of shish kabob the man was selling. Crispy and marinated with delicious Zatarese spices, she found an empty place against a stone wall and ate it slowly, savoring every tender morsel.

As she washed her face and hands in the public fountain, her trained instincts alerted her she was being observed. Without being obvious about it, she looked around the square and discreetly took note of a figure in a hooded brown cloak moving among the crowds of customers. The cloak was similar in style to one she usually wore to conceal her identity when she had plied her trade as an assassin. Although she could not see the person's face, to her practiced eye the shape and movement suggested an elf. Now that was interesting. There didn't seem to be many elves around any more, at least in the human-dominated cities.

She brushed an errant strand of hair from her forehead and maintaining an unaware expression, casually left the bazaar to see if the elf followed her. When she was half way down the cobbled street she glanced out of the corner of her eye at a shop window and saw the hooded figure steadily keeping pace behind her. She wondered who it could be? She was someone who had made quite a lot of enemies, but she had not expected to meet any of them more than a century beyond her own time. Elves lived long lives, though, so perhaps it was one of those surviving Emerald Scarves, the drow street gang whose ranks she and Lafayette had decimated on that last dark day in Opra Dale.

Kalena felt the familiar anticipation of combat and the thrill of adrenaline beginning to course through her body. She hadn't had a good fight in months, and a drow would be a worthy opponent – if that was indeed who it was. Lengthening her stride, she rounded a corner on a street to her left, burst into a sprint, and then raced into a tenebrous alley between two buildings where they could have their duel in privacy.

She knew she was at some disadvantage without an actual sword. Her trusty Makhairan duelling sabre was rather distinctive with its silvery blue black mithril-edged blade and carved ebony hilt. She hadn't wanted anyone at András's stables taking particular notice of the weapon and had therefore got into the habit of leaving it at the house she shared with Lafayette — but she was far from helpless. In addition to the fighting dagger on her hip she carried finely crafted throwing knives in sheaths concealed in her boots. These small flying blades were razor sharp and laced with a deadly fast acting poison.

Kalena drew the dagger and slashed it through the air in fluid motions to loosen her muscles and then settled in a fighting stance as she heard the footfalls of the elf entering the alley.

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