“Cloak Games: Thief Trap” excerpt

BNThiefTrap

CHAPTER 1: MASTER

One of the earliest things I remember is watching the entire United States Congress commit suicide on national television.

I don’t know how old I was. Five years old, probably. I do remember that it was my first day of preschool, so I was most likely five. The teacher started the day by leading us through the Pledge of Allegiance, so we put our right hands upon our hearts and pledged allegiance to the flag of the United States of America, and to the High Queen of the Elves that protected the Republic for which it stood, one nation under God, indivisible, with security, order, and duty for all.

Then the teacher – her name was Miss Culpepper, I remember – had us sit on the floor, powered up the projector, and showed us the video clip. Later I learned that it was one of the High Queen’s initial edicts after the Conquest three hundred years ago, that children on their first day of school should watch this video.

It was a clip from Year One of the Conquest, or 2013 AD according to the old calendar. It came from one of the old news networks, and showed the chambers of the United States Congress in Washington. Rows of desks and chairs faced the speaker’s podium, and American flags hung on the back wall.

Tarlia, the High Queen of the Elves, stood there, surrounded by her chief nobles and commanders. She had long red-gold hair and eyes like discs of blue fire, and her pale face was so beautiful that it frightened me. The High Queen wore silvery battle armor that could deflect bullets, yet somehow clung to the curves of her body. A silver diadem studded with glowing white gems rested upon her brow, and she held a sword in her right hand. Her left hand flickered with ghostly light as she called upon her magic.

Under the command of her magic, one by one the Congressmen marched to the center of the floor, looked into the camera, lifted a gun to their temples, and blew out their brains. Some of them sobbed and begged for mercy. Some of them fought, shouting threats at the High Queen and her nobles, who gazed back impassively. None of Congressmen could resist her magic, and one by one they killed themselves.

You can imagine the effect this had on a room full of preschoolers.

By the end of the video, most of the class was crying. One of the other girls – I think her name was Melinda or Melissa or Melanie, something with an M – threw up on herself. Miss Culpepper and her aide hastened forward to clean her up.

I didn’t cry. I just watched the video.

I suppose there might have been something wrong with me even then.

“I know that was very upsetting, children,” said Miss Culpepper once all three branches of the United States government had killed themselves and ended the video, “but you shouldn’t cry about it. Do you know why?”

We shook our heads. One of the boys, a fat child named Michael, raised a tentative hand.

“Because…the High Queen said so?” said Michael.

“Yes,” said Miss Culpepper, smiling with approval. “That’s right. Those were bad people, Michael. They were in charge of our country, but they were very wicked men and women. They stole from the people, lied and cheated and did many bad things. The High Queen brought justice to Earth. The President and Congress we have now are good men and women because they fear the High Queen, and know that she will punish anyone who mistreats her subjects.” She turned her sunny smile toward the class. “And we are all the High Queen’s subjects. Can anyone else tell me some of the good things the High Queen and her nobles have done for us?”

For a moment no one said anything, and then another boy raised his hand. “She…she stopped wars?”

“That’s correct,” said Miss Culpepper. “Before the Conquest, bad men could start wars with each other whenever they wanted. Our High Queen does not allow that now. Anyone else?”

A girl raised her hand. “She…brought us magic?”

“Correct,” said Miss Culpepper, her smile widening. “Before the Conquest, no one on Earth could use magic. Now many people can learn magic, and help the High Queen defend our world from our enemies.”

“My papa can use magic!” said another boy. “He’s in the Wizards’ Legion!”

His enthusiasm upset me. My father was in the Legion, too, and I wasn’t as happy about it. I hadn’t seen him in nearly a year. I had stopped crying myself to sleep, but my baby brother and mother hadn’t.

“If the High Queen’s magic is so strong,” I said, “why does she need the Legion to fight her enemies…”

I had a smart mouth back then, too.

Miss Culpepper thought so as well. Before the sentence got all the way out of my mouth, she crossed the classroom and slapped me hard, once on the right cheek and again on the left. It was the first time (though not the last), someone had ever hit me, and I gaped up at her in astonishment.

“Shame, Nadia Moran!” said Miss Culpepper. “Shame on you! That is elfophobic, and elfophobia is ignorant and shameful! The Elves have done so much for us, and to question the High Queen is wrong! You should be ashamed of yourself.”

Everyone was staring at me. I didn’t know what to do, so I burst into tears. After school, I had to write “I will not question the High Queen and insult Elves” fifty times on the whiteboard. I managed to get to the thirty-ninth repetition before the hand cramps made me stop, and Miss Culpepper had mercy on me and let my mother drive me home.

I didn’t like preschool very much.

Considering what happened later, I wish I had been able to stay longer.

###

That day is one of the first three things I can remember clearly. The other two are less pleasant.

My father was indeed in the Wizards’ Legion, trained as an elemental wizard and recruited to fight in the High Queen’s wars. The Elves might have forbidden human nations to war amongst themselves, but that did not stop the High Queen from fighting her enemies, for she had many enemies.

The Archons were chief among them.

As I later learned, the High Queen and her followers were exiles from the Elven homeworld. Tarlia had been overthrown by a group of rebels who called themselves the Archons, and the High Queen had fled with her loyalists and their armies into the Shadowlands, the paths between the worlds, and found themselves upon Earth. So the High Queen and her nobles raised armies from the conquered humans, and fought against the Archons in the paths of the Shadowlands between the worlds.

Except the laws of nature did not function in the Shadowlands as they did on Earth. Or at least the laws of physics, anyway. Magic worked in the Shadowlands, but electronics did not. Two minutes in the Shadowlands would destroy any electronic device. Gunpowder didn’t work either, and nor did most explosives or internal combustion engines. So the armies of Her Majesty the High Queen trained to fight the way the men of the Middle Ages would have fought, with sword and spear and arrow and horse.

My father was one of those men. The Elves kept the greatest secrets of their magic to themselves, but they taught human wizards the spells of lesser elemental magic, fire and water and wind and earth. That made the Wizards’ Legion of the High Queen valuable, but it also made the wizards into targets, and the Archons had allies from other worlds in the Shadowlands, allies with terrible weapons.

One of those weapons wounded my father, and it passed a disease called frostfever into his blood. Before he fell sick, he unknowingly passed it to my mother and my baby brother Russell, who would have been only a few months old at the time. I would have died with them. Maybe I should have died with them.

But some humans are naturally immune to frostfever, and I was one of them. Lucky me.

I remembered standing in the Seattle hospital, crying next to my parents’ beds as they died, crying because I didn’t know what to do. Crying because Russell was still alive, and I knew that he was going to die soon.

And I didn’t know what was going to happen to me next.

The High Queen had kept the Constitution of the United States in place, including the Thirteenth Amendment, which banned slavery. However, the laws of the United States only applied to humans, not to Elves. Orphan children, or unwanted children, were often sold to Elven nobles. Even as a child, I had heard the horror stories, half true, half urban legend, of what happened to the slaves of Elven nobles.

After the orderlies wheeled my parents’ bodies away, I stood over the little incubator holding Russell, watching him shiver as the frostfever burned through him, waiting for him to die.

A boot clicked against the polished floor of the hospital, and I looked up, expecting to see one of the nurses coming.

Instead an Elf walked towards me, and I went rigid with fear.

He was old. Elves can live a really long time, a thousand years or more, but this Elf looked older than that. He was tall and thin, his face gaunt and grim, his hair gray and close-cropped, his eyes like glittering chips of blue ice, his ears tall and pointed. His lips and fingernails had a peculiar blue tinge to them, the way you see in elderly people with heart trouble, and everything about him seemed cold. He wore the gold-trimmed black robe of an Elven archmage, and the ornamented red cloak favored by Elven nobles. At the age of five, I didn’t know any of that – but I realized that I stood before an Elf of great power.

And he looked right at me with those cold, dead eyes.

“Well,” said the Elf, his voice a deep rasp, “here you are.”

I stared at him, too frightened to know what to do.

The Elf reached down and cupped my chin, forcing me to at him. His hands felt cold, and his fingers seemed to dig into my face.

“Yes,” he murmured. “I see. Tell me. Where are your parents?”

I said nothing, and the fingers tightened, pain flashing through my jaw.

“Where are your parents?” said the Elf again, his calm never wavering.

“Dead,” I whispered. “The frostfever took them.”

“And the infant?” said the Elf. “Your brother?”

“He has the frostfever too,” I said. “He’s going to die next.”

The Elf smiled for the first time. It was a sardonic smile, as cold as the rest of him. “Is he, now? Are you so sure of that, little girl?”

Anger spiked within me. “He is going to die! My parents died! No one could save them!” I wrenched free of his cold grasp and glared up at him. “Maybe the stupid Elves with their stupid magic could have saved them, but they didn’t! I…”

The Elf simply stared at me, and I fell silent. Belatedly, my five-year-old brain realized that displaying elfophobia in front of an Elven noble was stupid. Miss Culpepper would have slapped me for elfophobia, but in hindsight she had a good reason for it. The Elves, especially Elven nobles, did not tolerate insults from their human subjects. The Elf lord could have killed me then and there, and the High Queen’s law would have been on his side.

“Go on,” I said. “Kill me. See if I care. My mom and dad are dead anyway. You can’t make me any deader than that.”

Yes, I did indeed have a smart mouth already.

The Elf kept staring at me, and I stared back, waiting for him to kill me. I didn’t want to show any fear, but I could not stop myself from crying. Too much had happened already.

Then, to my utter astonishment, he chuckled.

“Then you do have some spirit,” said the Elf. “Excellent. I would have preferred that the male carry the spark…but you may serve as well.”

I blinked. “Spark?”

“Ah,” said the Elf. “I forget how ignorant the young ones are. The spark. I shall show you.”

Again his cold fingers clamped around my jaw, and this time ghostly blue fire danced around his hand. Fresh terror surged through me, and I would have screamed for the nurses and the doctors, but they would have stood by and let the Elf do whatever he wanted. But the strange cold fire did not burn me, and suddenly I felt it inside of my mind. I also felt the Elf’s fingers reaching into my thoughts, sinking deeper and deeper.

It was a loathsome feeling, and the terror redoubled. Anger rose alongside the fear, and the scream burst from my lips. Without quite knowing how, I shoved against the intrusion inside my head, like pushing away a blanket.

The blue fire flickered and went out.

The Elf smiled his cold smile and withdrew his hand.

For a moment I could do nothing but gape in sheer astonishment. There had been a fire around his hand, and I had put it out with my mind. Nothing in my life had prepared me for something like this, and I struggled to understand it.

“The spark,” said the Elf. “The inborn magical ability. A talent, if you prefer. Once it was extremely rare among your race. Then the High Queen opened the gates to the Shadowlands and we came here, and piercing Earth’s umbra seemed to break some sort of protective shell around your world. Consequently, the spark has become much more common among humans. It would be a fascinating experiment to track the rate of the spark’s progression in your population, though I have no interest in the matter.” The cold smile turned a bit indulgent. “But you have no idea what I’m talking about, do you?”

“No,” I whispered, my eyes turning back to Russell in his incubator.

“Perhaps you soon will,” said the Elf.

“I don’t care,” I said. “Go away and leave me alone. I don’t care about your stupid magic. I don’t care about anything.”

“Lies,” said the Elf. “You care about the infant.”

“He’s going to die,” I said, staring at Russell’s small, limp form.

“My magic can save him,” said the Elf.

I looked up at the tall figure in black and gold.

“It can?” I said.

“The frostfever inflicted by the blades of the frost giants is a deadly ailment, beyond the powers of your physicians and their machines,” said the Elf. “Even for magic, it is a difficult cure, spread over many years, yet not beyond the skill of an archmage. It is in my power to cure your brother.”

I stared at him, caught somewhere between hope and disbelief. I had a smart mouth…but I also had a suspicious mind, too. “Why? Why would you do that? Why would an Elf care about my brother?”

“I care nothing for your brother,” said the Elf. “You, though…I have a great deal of work for you. I could simply buy you both as slaves. Yet given the nature of the work I require from you, that would be a foolish strategy. A slave is a tool that always betrays his master’s work. No, I require your willing cooperation.”

“To do what?” I said, baffled.

“In time,” said the Elf. “In time. Do you understand what I am proposing?”

“I…I think so,” I said.

“Then say it in your own words.”

“You’ll use your magic to heal Russell,” I said, “if I do what you tell me to do.”

“Precisely,” said the Elf archmage, leaning closer to me. “Do you know what I will do to you if you disobey me or betray me?”

“You’ll kill us both,” I said.

“Of course not,” said the Elf. “That would be inelegant. No, the spell necessary to cure frostfever shall require twenty different castings, one cast every year. Should you disobey me, should you betray me, I shall simply withhold my power, and your brother shall die.”

I looked at the Elf, and I was frightened. I saw the power there, the cruelty. Even at the age of five, I knew that this was not a good man. I wanted to cry. I wanted to run to my mom and dad. But they were dead, and I was all that Russell had left. If I did nothing, he would die.

I couldn’t let that happen.

“All right,” I whispered.

The Elf raised an eyebrow. “I’m sorry?”

I swallowed and squared my shoulders. “I…I will do what you say, if you make Russell better. Please, Lord Elf.” I remembered some of the manners Miss Culpepper had attempted to beat into my head. A human was always to address an Elf he did not know as Lord Elf, even if the Elf was not noble-born.

The Elf snorted. “You do have a modicum of manners, then. We shall have to work on that. What is your name, child?”

“Nadia,” I said. “Nadia Moran.”

“I am Morvilind,” said the Elf, “an archmage of the Elven nation and a Knight of House Tamirlas, vassal to Lord Tamirlas, the Duke of Milwaukee. You may address me as Lord Morvilind, or as ‘my lord’, as you prefer.” The cold blue eyes seemed to sink into me. “Now, Nadia Moran. Are you ready to follow my commands?”

I tried to work moisture into my mouth. I was only five years old, but I had the sense that I was about to make an irrevocable choice. Yet I was only five, and I could not articulate my fears.

Besides. Morvilind could help Russell. That was all that mattered. That was the only thing that could matter.

“Yes,” I said, “my lord Morvilind.”

“Good,” said Morvilind. “Let us begin at once. I shall speak with the doctors and secure your release, and I suppose one of my human men-at-arms can take care of the infant. One of the childless ones, I expect.”

“What?” I said. Morvilind gave me a look that was just short of a glare. “I mean…Lord Morvilind. Won’t Russell be with me?”

“Of course not,” said Morvilind. “Child, you and I have a great deal of work to do.”

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