The Dragon Prince: Reflections
Chapter 2: Hidden Daggers
Written by Devon Giehl
Illustrated by Caleb Thomas and Emily Marzonie
A fist flashed across the Sunfire elf’s face. Rayla heard his nose break and bit back a wince.
Pushed tight around the fighting pit’s edge, the crowd roared their throats raw. The domed ceiling of the Leviathan’s Bones, its beams like wooden ribs, caught the sound and cast it back down below. The noise was nearly unbearable. Rayla wanted to press her hands to her ears, but she knew she had to watch.
Soon, it would be her turn to fight.
Redfeather stood beside her in the crowd, smirking. “Who’s your bet?”
Rayla watched. The Sunfire elf’s broken nose bled freely down his chin, but it had been a lucky shot: his opponent, a burly Skywing elf, breathed too hard and swung too recklessly. The Sunfire elf dodged blow after blow, a long braid of fiery hair swinging like a whip behind him. A red-stained grin spread across his face.
Rayla had seen it before. “The Sunfire elf,” she said. “He’s waiting for a mistake.”
The Skywing elf’s foot slipped in the dirt. He toppled, and the Sunfire elf sprung on him, turning his stumble into a full-on slam into the ground. The Skywing elf spat a mouthful of dirt as his opponent pinned him down with a knee and slipped a knife from a leather binding at his wrist. He pressed the blade’s flat edge to the Skywing elf’s throat.
“Gotcha, Feathers,” he said.
The crowd erupted. “Darys! Darys! Darys!”
Darys stood up with a twirl, his gold-tipped braid whipping out behind him. Bags of coin and other goods changed hands all around Rayla as onlookers collected their winnings.
Rayla thought it was over—that it was her turn—but the victorious elf pointed a finger to the balconies high on the walls of the Leviathan’s Bones, where shadowed onlookers watched the fights from what Rayla could only guess were seats of honor.
What “honor” meant in Scumport, though, she could not say.
“Come on! Tonight’s the night,” Darys shouted, looking above to someone Rayla couldn’t see. “Get down here and fight the undefeated yerself!”
The crowd’s cheering fell to a murmur.
“Idiot,” Redfeather spat.
“Who’s he shouting at?” Rayla asked her.
Redfeather spoke through her teeth. “That’d be Finnegrin. You must’ve seen his tower from the docks. Keeps all of Scumport under his gracious, watchful eye.”
Someone stood at the balcony, tall and broad-shouldered, strong hands resting upon the railing.
In his silhouette Rayla could see a long heavy coat and the coral-like horns of a Tidebound elf, but little else. The elf—Finnegrin—raised a hand, and for a moment Rayla thought he’d accept the challenge. Instead, he flicked his fingers, beckoning someone below to step forward.
“Deadwood,” he said.
Just one word, but Rayla knew a command when she heard one. A hulking figure stepped into the pit. Finnegrin’s champion was not an elf: his body looked to be grown entirely of gnarled wood, its curves and patterns like rippling muscle. Rayla saw a flicker of doubt twitch in Darys’ features, but he took a deep breath and drew back his fists—
—and Deadwood threw a punch in a blur, sending him sprawling back to the pit’s rail.
“Idiot,” Redfeather hissed again.
It did not last long, the mess of it so quick and bloody Rayla could hardly call it a fight. Darys’ dagger flashed at Deadwood’s bark-flesh, but he did not bleed—he didn’t even seem to feel pain. Deadwood struck the elf again and again until he dropped the knife into the dirt.
“Alright,” Darys gasped, spitting blood. “Alright, enough. I get it, I get it, jus’ stop—”
Deadwood pulled back his red-spattered fist and looked to the balcony. Finnegrin leaned over the railing, still half-shadowed, but Rayla saw him give the slightest nod of his head. Deadwood lowered his fist.
Rayla prickled in anger. “Coward. Why won’t he fight his own battles?”
“Because he doesn’t have to,” Redfeather said. She kept a steely gaze on the balcony, watching as Finnegrin turned and vanished through a door in the shadows. “That’s the kind of power he has over nearly everyone in this place.”
“A hidden dagger,” Rayla understood. It was something Runaan had told her time and time again: “a defenseless enemy may keep their daggers hidden.”
Redfeather nodded. “Yes. He has more than one of those.”
A few onlookers helped clear the pit, hauling the wounded Sunfire elf to his feet and kicking dirt over the blood he’d left in the ring. The crowd grew restless again and soon turned to shouting as a conch-horn blared to signal the next fight.
“That’s you,” Redfeather chimed, a new and pleasant music in her voice. “You remember the favor: win three rounds. You’re my hidden dagger tonight. Win me a prize and I’ll give you yours, little assassin.”
“Make me proud, little blade.”
Rayla pulled her butterfly blades from her back and stepped into the pit.
In the Silvergrove, there were no crowds.
Rayla had sparred with the other assassins on countless nights with only the silent trees to watch them, only the wind to hear the clash of their blades. Beneath the moon’s many faces, there were no bets, no cheers, no cries for bloodshed. They fought with purpose; not for pleasure, not for glory.
Her first opponent towered over her, an Earthblood elf at least twice her size.
—and yet, Rayla had been trained to kill. Here, she only had to win.
It was easier that way.
Rayla lunged towards the Earthblood elf. He was as big as a banther, but clumsy and impetuous—her favorite kind of opponent, and the first she’d learned to effortlessly best. As the smallest of the Silvergrove assassins, she understood quickly that great size could be as much of a weakness as it was a strength. Once, she’d knocked Skor to the ground with a clever dodge past his ankles and a sweep of her hooks, and she’d delighted at his bewildered expression from the flat of his back.
Her opponent looked up at her from the dirt the same way: eyes wide, jaw hanging.
The roar of the crowd swept through the pit like a wave, catching Rayla by surprise. She spun, her nerves sparked. Through the mass of onlookers, she caught sight of Redfeather, her back against the wall and her arms folded. The other Moonshadow elf met her eyes and gave a single nod of approval.
Rayla’s heart leapt in her chest.
Her second opponent was a Tidebound elf, quick and sturdy. They fought in a careful dance across the Bone Pit, blades clashing and sparking, their footwork kicking up dust. When the elf’s dagger whipped so close to Rayla’s neck that she had to backflip away, she found herself in a blink beneath the trees of the Silvergrove, where she’d faced the assassin Andromeda’s merciless speed.
But Andromeda’s pride had always been her downfall.
Rayla let the tip of the Tidebound elf’s dagger catch her shoulder and she feigned into the wound, crying out and wincing hard. Her opponent took the bait, lunging in to win—and Rayla turned her feint into a low, quick dodge, spinning past and stepping into her shadow.
Rayla’s blade touched the back of her opponent’s neck. The Tidebound elf surrendered.
Another roar rose around her. They were cheering—they chanted for her, they wanted more.
“New Moon!” they shouted, an improvised moniker that felt strange in her ears. “New Moon!”
There were so many faces—too many—but among them, Rayla found Redfeather’s eyes again.
This time, Redfeather grinned. Rayla stared a moment. She’d seen Runaan grin, too, once or twice, when he thought she wasn’t looking.
One more, she thought. Just one more win.
A human stepped into the pit.
His armor, a weather-beaten but familiar silver-grey with a red collar, told a grim tale: an exile from Katolis. He’d likely fled deeper into Xadia after the battle at the Storm Spire. He was barely taller than Rayla herself, and couldn’t have been older than—
—what would he look like now, she wondered? Nearly two years older, a few inches taller—
The human’s sword flashed towards her. Rayla sprang away, and the crowd bellowed.
She lunged back at him. The human’s eyes flashed, and he dodged. She assumed he’d be all strength, like Soren—but he was much quicker in that soldier’s armor than she thought he’d be. As she swung, slished, and slashed, he parried and improvised. He feinted when she didn’t expect it. He took a blow to the chest specifically to seize an opportunity to strike back, landing a punch to her gut.
Her breath left her in a rush, ears ringing.
She backed away, close to the pit’s edge. The crowd shouted and screamed at her ears, their spittle landing on her neck. It rattled her. The human kicked dirt at her, and Rayla scraped at her eyes, angry—infuriated, even. Humans were frustrating. Humans were clever. Humans could do anything, they could be anything, they could take their own fates and change them—
When she blinked her eyes back open, Rayla saw several things at once.
In the pit, the human charged forward, sword aloft.
And in the crowd behind him, a flash of red.
For a moment Rayla was somewhere else, far away and safe and warm, following that red scarf instead of turning her back on it—
—and then the human’s fist struck her jaw.
She shouted in pain. One blade rose instinctively to block another blow, but the human grabbed her wrist and twisted so hard she dropped it. Then he swept a leg under her, catching her by the heels, and before she could breathe again Rayla was on her back in the dirt, staring up at the wooden bones of the ceiling.
“Rayla! Wake up, come on! We’re gonna be okay—!”
The human stood over her and tapped his blade to her chest.
Rayla craned her neck, looking around. The sound came back into the world, and the crowd’s cheering had turned from raucous support to mocking, shrieking laughter. Groaning, she let her head fall back to the dirt. “You win,” she said.
She’d lost sight of the scarf, but it didn’t matter.
It wasn’t him.
“What was that?! You beat yourself!”
Back in Redfeather’s little hovel, Rayla sat in the hammock, arms tight across her chest. Stella, who had been told to stay behind for her own safety, snuggled against her neck and cooed. Rayla fiddled with a little wooden token someone had shoved into her hands as a consolation prize for her victories in the pit. Her fingers traced a carving of a hermit crab on one side and the stark profile of a Tidebound elf on the other.
“What happened? Why didn’t you keep fighting?”
Rayla took a deep breath. Her ribs ached. “I got distracted.”
Redfeather gave a disbelieving laugh. “Don’t they teach you to avoid that kind of thing when you become an assassin?”
“That’s different,” she protested, even though her heart knew it wasn’t. It was the same problem every time. Hesitation, sympathy, distraction… all just weakness in a different mask. Rayla presented the wooden token to Redfeather on the flat of her palm. “I’m sorry. You can have this—whatever this is.”
Night had fallen. In the dim room, Redfeather’s features flickered in and out of half-shadow, indistinct and blurred. She could have been any Moonshadow elf, her face vanishing. “That’s Finnegrin’s Favor,” she said. “Marks you as friendly to Scumport. Not worth much, but you can trade it for passage in and out of port with the Ferryman on the western coast.”
“So you don’t want it?”
“Oh, I’ll take it.” She held out her hand.
Rayla nearly gave it to her—but she couldn’t give up.
She pulled the wooden coin back to her chest. “Then tell me what you know about the dark mage.”
Redfeather looked her up and down and Rayla could see the twitch of a smirk pull at the corner of her lips. “Listen—maybe I asked a bit much of you for your first night, but you’re scrappy.” She leaned forward. “How about another favor? Something more suited to your… particular skills, little assassin.”
Stella chittered in her ear, but Rayla gripped the token tight. “What do you want?”
Redfeather leaned her head to one shoulder. “I’ll tell you what I know,” she said, then shifted to lean towards the other. “But you’ve got to bring back whatever awful things that dark mage has picked up here in Scumport.”
“Dark magic ingredients?” Rayla couldn’t keep the disdain from her voice. “Why?”
“They’re valuable, of course. I don’t have to like them to sell them.”
Rayla grimaced, thinking of that chamber far below Katolis Castle, its little nest of horrors that made her stomach churn worse than the sea. If Viren had come to Scumport, he’d done so to hunt things like what she’d seen in those jars, on those walls, in those ashes.
She had to find him. She had to kill him—finally kill him.
Redfeather looked at her expectantly.
Rayla flipped her the wooden coin.
To be continued…
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