The city was busier than she remembered – the cars flooding the streets, newsboys on bicycles navigating between them and moving faster. Still it felt like returning home after a long time, a breath of fresh air. Laundry lines strung between the tenements of the old city and midtown, the fish market on the corner bustling in the early morning flux. The sky was clear and bright, a pale blue washed out by the morning. Cars and street vendors honked and two blocks down the train trudged through the city, passersby eddying slowly in its wake like muddy water.
The smell was familiar too – the scent of car exhaust mingled with that of grease from the small, cramped restaurants that served foreign food, and they passed a stand selling fresh cut flowers – the sweet, sharp scent of roses, begonias and lavender. The cool spring air felt good on her face and there was a slight breeze, battered about between the tall, crowded buildings and tossed about by the laundry before it hit the street.
The damp cobbled streets were shadowed and crowded with small, dingy shops that were far too often more than they seemed. In a shop claiming to sell antiquities, one could often talk the shop keeper into relinquishing magical artifacts that were quite often black market. Mitch, almost unconsciously, walked quickly, though he slowed down when she asked him to, chafing at the slower pace. It seemed strange for him to be so uptight – he had always been a relaxing presence – had he changed that much since she had been gone? Two years was a long time, but she had known him so long that it seemed unlikely for his nature to change so suddenly.
Considering how well she had known him, it frightened her that his presence felt strange.
It felt strange being back, in a place she had known so well, where she had spent so many years of her life amongst the city and its people. She didn't have to worry about where she was going as the two of them walked – she knew where each turn would take them, although she had yet to figure out where he was taking her.
"Hungry?" she asked, trying to make a joke as he unconsciously picked up the pace again. He started at the sound of her voice and slowed once more.
"Sorry," he said distractedly. "Where do you want to eat?" It seemed like an afterthought as he said it, as though he had completely forgotten he had asked her to join him.
She hadn't had a chance to answer when he pulled her sharply to the left and into a small café they had almost passed. Grace moved towards a seat by the windows but Mitch shook his head.
"How about this table?" he said, heading towards the back for a booth in a dimly lit corner. Quite irritated by the way he was acting she sat reluctantly.
A waitress approached them.
"What can I get you to drink?" she asked. Grace looked to Mitch, waiting for him to order first.
"Coffee for me, please, cream and sugar, and tea with lemon."
"I'll be right back," the waitress said, flashing Mitch a smile and a wink. He appeared not to notice.
"What's got you so jumpy?" Grace asked the fifth time he peered around her at the door. It made her feel uneasy.
"Jumpy?" he asked in feigned surprise. "What makes you think I'm jumpy?" After that he quit behaving so strangely, but Grace could tell it was an effort.
The waitress returned with their drinks. Mitch thanked her in a distant way, once more not seeming to take notice of the flirtatious tone in her voice as she asked if there was anything else she could do for him. Grace sipped at her tea, watching him intently until he looked over to find her watching him. He looked taller and leaner than when she had last seen him, and there was something different about the way that he moved.
After a few minutes of him watching out the window with his hands clenched he settled back into his chair, relaxing visibly. He took a drink of his coffee, nearly spitting it out in surprise at how hot it was.
"I'm sorry," he said, sounding genuinely apologetic. "I didn't mean to be so, so…"
"It's all right," Grace said with a sigh.
"It's good to see you," he said as though trying to make up for his odd behavior. "It's been what, five months?"
"Since Midwinter, yes." That was the last time they had seen each other, although it had been a brief visit. Their two families lived next door to each other – it was how they had become such good friends when they were younger, since their talents lay in different areas. Grace had been born a warrior, but had chosen to train as a dancer since there were very few options for a warrior – most went on to serve in the army until they were killed on the front lines, and a select few, rumored to be chosen for their cruelty, were chosen to serve in the Governer's Guard, or the Greybacks, as most people called them.
Mitch however, was a watcher, and his gift came in the form of visions that he claimed were more of a curse than a blessing. Since it wasn't a talent that the government cultivated, except in a few exceptional students who might be manipulated to their purposes, he hadn't undertaken a secondary education, as most people did in some form or another.
"That was delicious," he said. "Don't you think? Let's go."
It was a fair walk home, where she lived. It was strange to spend time with him again, after two years of minimal contact. It was like putting on clothes that she hadn't worn in a long time so that they felt familiar, but didn't fit right.
She was glad that he had been the one to approach her, rather than the other way around.
They had just come to a small intersection between the road they had been following and a narrow, shop-lined alleyway when Mitch grabbed her elbow and steered her toward the shop on the corner. He opened the door and drew her inside. It was a bookstore, warmly lit, with polished wooden shelves packed into every available space and piled with books. Some of them would have gleamed with magic, she was sure of it, could she see it. The bent old man behind the counter spared a glance for them, and seeing nothing apparently interesting, resumed his work.
Grace turned to find Mitch standing behind one of the shelves and peering over the books out the window at the street. He looked tense, restless energy in every line of his body. She joined him, and leaned in close, placing her hand on his shoulder to peer out the window in the same direction. He seemed very intent on something, but what she couldn't discern.
"What are we doing? Are you looking for something?"
He didn't answer right away, but his shoulders tightened as two men walked past the window. They were both clad in grey uniforms with gleaming brass buttons and heavy black boots. Although she didn't see any, Grace was certain they carried weapons. They may have neatened up a considerable bit in the time she had been gone, but it was still clear they were part of the Governor's Guard. The Governor's Guard answered directly to the Speaker of the city and was separate from the general police force, and although both were to be avoided, it was much easier to bribe an officer from the city police than from the Governor's Guard, commonly referred to as Greybacks. She had often heard that the men in the guard were chosen for their particular brand of magic and their desire to inflict pain.
"How did you…?" she half whispered. Her first question was quickly followed with "Why? Are they following us?" It wasn't unusual for them to target people, but as far as she knew they hadn't done anything to merit it so far.
Mitch moved away from the window, and exchanged a few, hushed words with the shopkeeper, who raised his eyebrows as the only indication of surprise. Grace glanced back out the window, and saw the two men had stopped just a few yards down and had turned, facing back towards the bookstore.
"They've stopped," Grace said, and Mitch moved back to her side. Down the street, the two guards had started to move towards the shop.
"Time for us to go," Mitch muttered, and he took her hand and pulled her towards the back of the store. They slid between two shelves and a door seemed to appear, previously hidden from sight by the shelves blocking it. Mitch fumbled for a moment with a key – from the shopkeeper? – then unlocked it. It opened into an alleyway behind the building, and as Grace closed the door behind them, she heard the bell over the front door ring.
Mitch locked the door once more from the outside, and left the key beneath a worn doormat. They started away from the building, retreating further into the network of alleyways that made up this district. Grace lost her certainty of where they were going the further they went, although she recognized places they passed. The buildings in this part of town were older and still bore traces of grandeur from an age long past when Siede was the center of a prosperous country rather than one engaged in a war that stretched its forces too thin. Crumbling remnants of acroterians were scattered about the rooftops, other statuary eaten away at by pollution spouting from windowsills, arches once faced with granite chipped away at to reveal concrete underneath. The streets were closer together, made for foot traffic rather than busses and taxies; it was considered a fire hazard that no motorized fire truck could penetrate this deep into the district, but the city was short on funds to demolish several hundred years of architecture and build something new so there had been hydrants installed at every corner. Grace remembered when that had happened – it had been two summers before she had left, and for seven months of the year, workers could be found at some corner installing yet another.
"How did you know?" she asked Mitch, still unsure how he had known the guards were nearby. "Was it something you saw?"
Still pressing on, Mitch shook his head, his mouth a grim line. "They were following us for three blocks or so," he said.
How could she have been that unobservant? She really had been away from the city for too long if she was that oblivious – perhaps living in comfort had softened her senses as well. Something about ever present fear tended to put an edge to them that she hadn't needed in the north – with nothing to fear, with no Greybacks stationed on street corners, why should she jump at every shadow? For several blocks Mitch continued to look over his shoulder every few yards, an itch that he couldn't scratch.
Mitch stopped suddenly. Grace turned to look at him, wondering if he had heard something she hadn't – it wouldn't surprise her – but instead found that he had gone white.
He put out his arm to support himself against the side of a building her suitcase clattering to the ground. The latch hit the wall and the suitcase burst open, clothing and undergarments, her hairbrush, a bar of soap tumbling out. She managed to catch him, not stopping but slowing his fall. He gripped her with hands that shook, and his eyes stared blankly, not seeming to see anything – either her or the city surrounding them. It was as though he was looking beyond that, past all of the physical things.
It was something she recognized, something she had seen many times. His visions sometimes came on like this, with intense physical symptoms. The initial panic she had felt subsided and she let him go so he sat with his back against the wall. She turned to gather the things that had fallen from her suitcase and heard pounding footsteps. She straightened and found herself facing three men wearing the grey uniforms of the Governer's Guard. She turned over her shoulder and found there were two m re behind her; they had hemmed them in against the building. Now she could see the weapons she had known they carried – each one held a handgun casually at their side, and although none of them was aimed at her or Mitch she still felt a wave of panic rising up within her.
Grace looked down at her own hands, suddenly conscious of how empty they were.
"What is wrong with him?" one of the men asked. He appeared to be the one in charge from the way everyone else seemed to look to him for direction, and the blue stripes slashing diagonally across his chest confirmed what she suspected. Although she had decided at an early age to forgo her traditional military training, growing up with these men constantly watching for a mistake to be made had led her to cling to any scrap of information about them that came her way.
"Well? Speak up girl!"
She scrambled for a lie.
"He...he's ill." It sounded feeble to her, but as though on cue Mitch stirred and groaned, sounding as though he truly was. Grace glanced over at him, hoping he might be coming back to himself, but he didn't seem to be aware of anything that was going on.
The officer frowned and opened his mouth to speak, but before he could get anything out there was a crack like thunder that split the air and he stumbled backwards, a red stain spreading slowly over his chest from his heart. He collapsed moments later. The other four men paused only a moment before reacting: One of them went for their officer, one latched on to Grace and put his gun to her head and the other two took hold of Mitch and pulled him up between the two of them. All four of them put their eyes to the rooftops, where the shot appeared to have come from. A few tense minutes passed and the man tending to the dying officer went down as well, falling on his face with the shot that rang out.
A young man moved in the shadows at the base of the wall, emerging slowly into the sunlight. It only took her a few moments for her eyes to sweep over him, analyzing reflexively. That was one habit she hadn't managed to shake – the constant assessment of strangers. He was tall, with broad shoulders, maybe eighteen or nineteen years of age. He wore an old blue t-shirt beneath a green canvas jacket and a pair of blue jeans splattered with what she guessed to be grease.
Seeming to break free of whatever held them in place, one of the men holding Mitch upright – he still appeared unconscious – swung his gun around at the newcomer.
"One more step and I'll shoot!" he shouted, his voice somewhat hoarse.
The young man continued to walk forward.
The guard cocked his gun.
The young man stopped, just a few yards away, his own gun – a rifle of some sort – held loosely at his side, apparently unperturbed by the gun aimed at him.
The guard released, firing off six shots in rapid succession. The young man still stood, uninjured, as every shot had gone wildly off mark.
Grace watched, the gun pressed to the side of her head half forgotten, still uncertain of the new arrival. She didn't have a clue who he was or what his part in all of this was – she was still largely uncertain what her part was. He could be a threat to her as well as the guards, but it was possible he was there to help – she wished Mitch would come back from wherever it was that he had gone to help. His visions were rarely extreme enough that they sent him into a state of semi-consciousness as he was now, but she had no idea how long it would last. He had once told her they were as much a curse as they were a blessing – they were unpredictable in every way and he had no idea whether or not they would truly come to pass or if it was just a possibility of the future.
"What is it that you are looking for?" the newcomer asked. The guard with the gun leveled glanced at his comrades for support, seemingly uncertain whether or not the young man was speaking to him.
He gave no response.
The young man laughed, throwing his head back.
Behind her, the guard holding Mitch let out a strangled yelp and everyone turned to see that Mitch appeared to have come back to life; his arms flailed –
A gunshot split the air once more and the lone guard went down, the newcomer had drawn his weapon up and fired with incredible speed, taking advantage of the momentary distraction. Mitch had collapsed to the ground without the support of the guard, who also went down as he fumbled for his weapon.
The one holding Grace realized he was about to die and tightened his hold on her, his arm twisting hers further behind her. His breath was hot on her neck, his fingers digging into her skin.
"Don't move, or I swear I'll shoot her!" His words closely mimicked those of his fallen comrade, and there was a trace of fear in his voice now, his hands sweaty and clammy.
"Put the gun down." The newcomer's voice was steady and calm, but his eyes flickered anxiously between her and where Mitch lay, crumpled on the ground. He held out his hand and took another step towards the guard.
"I said don't move!" The newcomer stopped moving. "I said I'd shoot her and I meant it! One more move and I'll pull the trigger!"
"No you won't. You're bluffing. Put down the gun before someone else gets hurt, and I'll let you live."
The guard faltered, but he didn't stand down – his grip on her loosened and she felt the barrel of the gun move away from her skull.
Grace took advantage of that moment of weakness and slammed her heel into the man's knee. His arm dropped and she tore the gun from his hand as his grip slackened. The movement came naturally to her as she opened herself to it; she brought her leg up behind his knees and he tumbled backwards, but hand to hand combat had never been her strong suite and she faltered, uncertain where to go next. That pause gave the guard an advantage – that and the fact that he knew he was fighting for his life. He surged to his feet and would have – should have – overpowered her, except that the young man had come up behind him. The butt of his rifle was used as a club, and the man slumped, unconscious to the ground.
He reached out his hand to Grace, and helped her to her feet.
"You didn't kill him?" Grace said, half observation, half question. She wondered what kind of man would blatantly attack officers of the law, then wondered if she really wanted to know the answer.
The young man shrugged.
"I needed someone alive to carry a message, didn't I?" He knelt down, rummaging around beneath the collar of the man's uniform before emerging with a name card.
"Private Kevin Andrews," he read, looking up at her.
"What kind of message?"
Seeing the puzzled look on her face he sighed, running a hand through his hair.
"I'm sorry, I'm being terribly rude. I'm Evin. You must be Grace?"
Evin sat back on his heels, eyeing her with a new regard.
"Someone will have heard the gunshots. It's time we got going," he said, kneeling beside Mitch. Grace joined him.
"Are you okay?" she asked. Mitch scowled at both of them, looking tired and pale, but uninjured. "What the hell have you gotten yourself into?"
"I'm fine," he said, deliberately not answering her second question. "There's no need to fuss."
They helped him to his feet, and although he was unsteady for a moment, he seemed to regain color in his face every passing minute. Grace gathered the package, now with the brown paper torn and dirty, and turned to find that Evin had shoved her belongings back into her suitcase.
Evin looked at Mitch for direction, seeming to relinquish control of the situation to him, something that surprised Grace.
"'My apartment is just a block from here," Mitch said, his mouth set in a thin line.
It seemed strange that they should continue home, not with the afternoon interrupted so gracelessly and she wondered what there was that could come after this. She wanted to suggest they call for the authorities - but what authorities? The only authority she knew of lay scattered around her feet, their uniforms stained with blood. Grace wanted to ask Mitch what he had seen but she knew without speaking that she wouldn't get any answers now – he would tell them when he was ready.