Their arrogance still amazed her—past experiences notwithstanding. The man they sent was excellent at his craft, amazing even. But the emperor and his cronies were not ones to trust; they wanted assurances and guarantees. Left alone their man would have completed his mission easily, but by trying to make it easier they had been cursed him from the beginning—they had given him magic.
It was a short and simple silver chain necklace, worth nothing to anybody except its owner—who valued it very much indeed. She’d been forced to leave her belongings, knowing that a return to her quarters meant almost certain capture. The chain had meant more to her than she was ready to admit. It was the only thing she had that tied her to the life she’d long ago lost—twelve years ago her grandma had placed the chain around her neck, incanting it quietly.
“The assembly says I simply dote on you because you’re my granddaughter, but the honest truth is that you’re the best student I’ve ever had. Soon you’ll be my equal, sweetie, and someday you’ll be a much better enchantress than I.
“Custom says I should imbue your graduation necklace with the enchantment I think will be most useful to you but we both very well know you could do that yourself.”
She hugged me tightly—for the last time. I never saw her again after leaving the academy. Our paths had only grown farther apart as the years had gone by.
“Here is some magic only this old lady can give you.”
She touched the necklace and collapsed. She’d bound a part of her gift to me, the chain only the conduit.
No doubt they’d chosen the chain because it was so unassuming. They knew it meant something if it had been kept despite its company of gorgeous jeweled amulets. It had been taken to a dark tent, instructions whispered, and gold exchanged. The enchantment was treated as cursory and rightly so—a locating enchantment could be done masterfully by even the dimmest of enchanters. Maybe the enchanter had felt something slightly suspicious but wouldn’t risk their fee investigating it—it had been a grand mistake. The necklace had been delivered to the tracker with handwritten instructions and he had ventured out to find her.
She’d felt it the morning after leaving Turega, after waking with a start. An intense feeling of nostalgia came over her. She’d known immediately what it was—she’d slept near the necklace for years. The bond between her and it was weak but unbreakable. She’d felt its presence clearly that morning. It led her to the only conclusion it could—she was being followed.
She packed her things leisurely, knowing someone could be watching. When she was done packing, she kneeled and prayed. She felt for the necklace, trying to isolate it from all the other streams of magic she could feel out past the horizon. Ten minutes later she rose: it was to the south, back the way she came. So she picked up her bags and began walking back to Turega.
It was noon and the market was full. The throng of people and their varied and pungent smells made him dizzy. He had spied a café to the west earlier, near the plaza, and he made beeline towards it now.
He pushed the dilapidated wooden doors open and felt grateful for the cool breeze that washed over him. Picking a table near the window, away from the rest of the clientele, he stared at the market through the window, furrowing his brow.
He had been tracking for two weeks, having been given a general direction and, despite his rebuff, an enchanted necklace. It made him feel foolish to carry such an item. He had two decades of experience under him and much to be proud of. He was the best tracker for hire and his reputation preceded him wherever he went. He should have been insulted to be given such an instrument—but this was not just another client. The Emperor paid well and with good reason: failure resulted in death or worse, eternal servitude. His objections had been mild, intended only to satisfy his own ego.
Using the necklace reminded him of a game his sister and he would play when he was child. She would hide candy in somewhere in the house and guide him to it, yelling “hotter!” or “colder!” as they went along. The necklace grew warm when he approached his target. It was absurdly effortless.
But two days ago, sleeping among a small outcropping of rocks outside Turega, he had woken up to incredible pain. The necklace had grown hot enough to sear his flesh. He had bandaged his burns as quickly as he could and raced in the direction the necklace responded to, hoping to find his target that night. He had been left searching through the night, never managing to pinpoint a location. The necklace guided him down one direction for an hour only to completely change direction from one moment to next.
He would rest here for a bit, taking a meal, and maybe a drink or two before he began his search again.
“Your drink, sir,” said the petite waitress, smiling at him warmly, “may I take your plate?”
“Yes, thank you,” he said, “I’ll take the bill as well, please.”
He leaned back happily. The meal had been great—lamb tagine and goat cheese on fresh khubz—and the anise tea had settled his stomach. Now he sipped his drink slowly, enjoying the burning sensation as it crept down his throat. Soon he would have to abandon this temporary refuge.
She’d spent the past two days learning to pinpoint the necklace’s location and she’d gotten exceedingly good at it. The tracker was fast and efficient, never revealing himself—fast enough to keep her running but not to single himself out. She’d hoped to tire him, leading him from one edge of the city to another, and she’d succeeded, but only after she herself was past the point of exhaustion. She’d caught her fist glimpse of him when he entered the café at the edge of town. She watched, waiting for him to relax. Then she did something she’d been dreading since morning, something she suspected her grandma would condemn her for: she prayed urgently, but not to God. And she became someone else entirely.
“Is that the bill for that gentleman near the window?” she asked.
“Yes, m’am,” said the waitress.
“How much is it? I’ll take care of it. He’s a dear friend of mine; I’d like to surprise him.”
The waitress agreed, happily receiving the large gratuity she added.
“Have a good day, m’am,” the waitress said, curtsying.
She walked toward his table and sat down opposite him nonchalantly.
“You’re very good—the best I’d surmise. The Emperor’s money was well spent on you. I cannot say the same about the necklace.”
The tracker pretended to remain calm but she could his eyes widen in surprise. He unconsciously touched the necklace wrapped around his right arm.
“You’re wondering why the necklace isn’t responding? You’ll have to excuse me, I’m not quite myself at the moment—something has suddenly got into me.”
She smiled and looked at him kindly. He tensed in fear—she’d had the effect she intended.
“I wonder what silly magic they gave you,” she said. She concentrated on the necklace, plying its magic apart and learning it. “Oh my, they have you playing games.”
“Hot, cold, hot, cold, hot, cold, hot.”
She tore at the enchantments trigger, making the necklace hot enough to glow, just for a second.
She paused and leaned over, grabbed his tea, and took a drink.
“I’d like my necklace back. I’d rather not have it covered in melted flesh.”
The tracker cleared his throat.
“What do you want? I’ve no doubt reason to fear for my life, sorceress.”
“Josephine Margo. Priestess, not sorceress.”
His eyes widened once more.
“Shadow Priestess Josephine, the Emperor’s devastating weapon.” he said, “They send me after you with a trinket.”
“At the moment perhaps, I am she. The sooner I can leave the sooner that ends. I’d like some answers; give them to me and we both walk out of here alive and well.”
“Please,” he said.
“What were you to do after you found me?”
“Report you to the nearest garrison. They would send the message to the capital from there.”
“How were you to identify me?”
“They gave me a description—tall, but not abnormally so, neither plain nor beautiful but extremely attractive, raven hair and dark brown eyes, a handsome figure, and a mark on her left hand, a black ankh.
“Even if you were in disguise, I figured I’d single you out using the necklace—a mistake, to rely on such things.”
“True honesty is rare in the Emperor’s servants—you’ve earned your life. Now, I’d like my necklace.”
The tracker pulled up his sleeve and began unwrapping the necklace from his arm.
“Your name, tracker?”
“Those bandages around your neck, are they from the necklace?”
“I’m afraid you passed a bit too close to me in the dark.”
Josephine decided she no longer needed the darkness which made her the Emperor’s “devastating weapon”. She smiled, sincerely this time. The tracker handed her the necklace.
She grabbed his hand as she took it.
“May you always walk with God, Moses Portico”
“Thank you, priestess,” he said, feeling his charred skin heal.
She placed the necklace around her neck.
“I won’t lose this again.”
She stood and curtsied.
“Your bill has been taken care of, tracker”
“You’re very kind,” he said, nodding his head.
“I’ll take my leave. You may continue following me, Tracker Moses. I will not risk your life. Send your report to the Emperor—it will be of no use. And when we reach our destination, I will serve you a real drink,” she said.
The tracker laughed.