Home > The Jaguar Knight (Art Spirits # 6)

The Jaguar Knight (Art Spirits # 6)
Author: Ann Aguirre





Rowena returned to Golgerra in chains.

She’d tasted freedom, known what it was to soar in an open sky. It was too much of a juxtaposition, being dragged in manacles, her entire body bruised and aching, while the jeering crowd threw refuse at her. Even the back ways that allowed the guards to pass through Golgerra into the undercity held onlookers eager to judge her for fabricated crimes.

Just like the old days.

Memories carried her away from her present pain. The great tyrant Tycho Vega had enjoyed tormenting her, taking great delight in her shame and humiliation. It hadn’t been so bad when her mother was alive; she had done her best to shield Rowena, taking punishments in her stead until her frail body could tolerate the abuse no longer. It was natural that she’d seek others who were also angry over their circumstances, furious over brutal mistreatment and endless privation and devastating loss. The resistance had tried to overturn the system. They’d failed.

Soon after the rebellion was betrayed from within, Alastor came with Dedrick at his side, and he’d called upon the ancient tradition of the blood debt, whereupon he paid for the release of all prisoners who were about to die. Beneath the brutal heel of a long line of Vega despots, crime and punishment were laughable in Golgerra, and the sentence never fit the crime. That was how generations of citizens had become the foundation of society, toiling endlessly as prisoners for no pay and with no light at the end of the tunnel.

Until Alastor.

When he appeared just before Rowena’s execution—as she’d been sentenced during one of Tycho’s rages—she’d thought she was hallucinating—from bad food, overwork, and tainted water. No one so beautiful could be real yet there he was, like a figure that might’ve stepped out of a panel in a stained-glass window. Not that she’d known such things had existed back then. No, her reaction had been a visceral sort of wonder, not fully understanding what was happening, even as he bought her freedom with most of his personal assets. Tycho had been furious at being thwarted, so much that his rampage continued for days.

Rowena couldn’t find it in herself to pity his household staff. At least they were free to leave, if they dared. Once he’d completed the deal, Alastor had told the former prisoners, “You can leave Golgerra and choose never to see this place again. I didn’t do this to compel your service. But it’s become clear to me that I must step up, even if I don’t want to. Even if it’s difficult. And for that resistance, I’ll need loyal retainers. I have no army of my own. I have little support in the city above. So I come to you, asking, will you help me take back our home?”

Only a handful left that day. The rest? They dropped to one knee at once, some overwhelmed, in tears at the notion that their service could hold value. We called ourselves the Exiles. Rowena had numbered among them, so proud that she could scarcely contain the feeling. Even then, she’d known she was witnessing a historic moment, a meteoric rise to greatness. Together, they pledged to serve Prince Alastor until he took the throne from his brother.

She’d meant every word, and she didn’t regret that decision.

Not even now, with her heels dragging down the steep stone steps. Back in the bowels of Golgerra, where she would await Tycho Vega’s wrath. This time, he wouldn’t torment her for amusement. His ire was terrifying, equal measures controllable and childish. A tiny portion of her pitied him because he was so obviously incomplete, unable to process emotions as others did. No matter what stimulation he received, it would never be enough to make him a decent person.

Back in Hallowell, she’d lied when Sheyla Halek asked if Rowena had met the tyrant, for she didn’t wish to disclose her sordid history to someone she barely knew, a woman who was important to Prince Alastor and therefore to Rowena as well. She’d cared far too much about making a good impression.

The lie was safer. Simpler. So few of her choices were.

“Back again, darling?” The mocking words roused her from reverie, a sneer from the guard who had murdered Rowena’s mother, many years ago.

Timms was a thin, pallid creature with a graying beard, nearly the same shade as his milky skin. His eyes glittered with a febrile light and he licked his lips constantly, pink tongue flickering out like a snake tasting the air. Ignoring the taunt, Rowena lifted her chin, or she tried. Difficult when she was being pulled along like a toy on a rope. The noise and the smell, how could she have forgotten? She tried not to react, but the tyrant had the undercity brimming with those he’d deemed unworthy of life up above, as if petulantly determined to erase all signs of the good his brother had done.

The undercity was unrelentingly grim, all gray stone, impenetrable walls, and thin, hopeless people clad in rags. Rowena hit the ground hard as the guard shoved her through the heavy double doors. Down here they didn’t need cells; this was more of a warren or a dungeon complex, riddled with fungal outbreaks, rampant disease, bacterial infections, and endless labor. With hands worked to the bone, they sewed the fine clothes they wore above and made other luxury goods, like fancy soaps and unguents, that the favorites couldn’t live without, products so expensive that prisoners were routinely killed for botching a batch.

The guard spat at her—would’ve been on her if she hadn’t rolled in a tangled jangle of chains. Worth the kick in the side just to piss him off. She wasn’t the same captive who had never known anything but a life of servitude. Now, she remembered the feel of the sun on her face, of people who listened to her words with respect, and those who believed wholeheartedly that she had a great deal to contribute.

You will regret bringing me back here. You will. I’m the trap you’ve fallen into, and I’ll tear this place apart with my bare hands if I must.

They probably intended to use her as leverage against Prince Alastor, but she’d die before letting that happen. It would be the easiest decision in the world. In his service, she had learned higher math, how to read maps and books, and about the history that Golgerra preferred to keep secret. She’d traveled to other holds and learned that the Animari weren’t the vicious attackers that Tycho alleged. He used fear to rule the rest of his cohort, touting himself as the lesser of two evils. With vile rhetoric, he fanned the flames of hatred and xenophobia, ensuring that the sheep who followed him would never think for themselves.

“They will conquer us if we don’t have a strong king,” he had shouted, golden and glorious, pacing like a caged predator. “Do you want them to eradicate us? Utterly annihilate our way of life? I am your sword and shield. I have protected you. Guarded you! From an outside world that wishes to destroy you.”

Rowena had only heard the speech because she was bound in Tycho’s chambers, awaiting one of his dreadful games. Sometimes she didn’t understand why she’d survived when things were so terrible, and now she knew. Just before Rowena’s capture, she’d read a story in Hallowell during the siege about the Phoenix, a story of death and rebirth. Now she imagined the beautiful illustrations in her mind’s eye, such glorious colors, and she knew that she would never be broken, no matter what they did to her.

I will rise.

They might succeed in killing her, but break her? Never.

I will fight until my last breath.

The guard kicked her again, dragging her back to bleak reality. She kept her gaze flat, not revealing a hint of the rage and loathing that boiled in her veins.

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