What follows is the opening chapter of The Oconic Prison – a prison break/heist story that’s a companion to the novel Once Called Magic, Book 1 in the Oconic Gates sequence. That said, it’s a standalone tale. You don’t need to have read the novel to enjoy the novella…
1. PRISON BREAK
“WHAT I’M GOING to ask of you is illegal, dangerous and quite possibly treasonous.”
Caster-Sergeant Arron Vellar of the Old Hundredth sat at a rough-hewn table in the Yarborough Inn. An open fire crackled behind him, logs spitting and popping. He beckoned the two casters seated opposite him to lean in closer. “Should we fail,” he said in a low voice, looking each man square in the eyes, “we could be imprisoned, even executed.”
The Yarborough’s saloon was dim and hazy, wood panelled walls painted scarlet (‘so the blood don’t show’, its proprietor claimed), mosaic floor patterned with black and white diamonds, sticky with spilt beer. At this time of day, the inn stirred together tanned farm hands and sallow-faced bale-breakers, loudmouth cotton carders and boozy loom winders. A feisty stew of the city’s working classes.
That city was the Briar, capital of Mulai, the oldest and grandest city in the Empire.
The Empire Vellar was sworn to defend.
The Empire he now found himself plotting against.
The Caster-Sergeant reached for the jug of ale he’d ordered, a foamy black brew named after some one-legged dog. He topped up everyone’s glasses.
“If you need me, Sergeant, I am ready to serve.” Caster Gustus Bordo puffed out his chest, his expression stern. At least as stern as a legionnaire could look with a golden-coloured bandana tied about his head. Bordo insisted it was an ancient symbol of courage worn by the Knights of Dawn during the Oconic War. Vellar thought it looked more like a neck tie. A cheap one at that. But who was he to judge? What a man wore when he wasn’t on legion duty was his own business.
“Rakou’s Balls, Gustus!” Next to Bordo, Caster Varo Pinetta shook his head in disbelief, greased-back blond hair barely moving, like he’d set it overnight in a pudding tin. “You ain’t even heard what the sarge wants us to do yet.”
“Does it matter, Pinhead?” Bordo scowled at Pinetta, bushy eyebrows arching over black-rimmed eyes. “We’re casters.”
“Who are supposed to defend the laws of Empire, not bloody break ‘em!”
“We do as we’re ordered to. No more, no less. Or haven’t you grasped that simple fact yet?”
“I like to know what I’m getting into—”
“Hey!” Vellar kicked Bordo under the table and the caster shot him an angry stare. “Keep it down. I expect better from you, Gus. Leave the boy be.”
He wondered whether he’d made a mistake pairing the two casters together. Bordo was eager to please, a career caster who’d happily march to the edge of the world if Vellar ordered him to. Probably over it. Pinetta was younger and cockier, full of questions, still adjusting to the rigours of legion life. Vellar knew the other casters picked on the boy. Didn’t trust him. Called him ‘Pinhead’. He’d hoped to keep the boy’s past a secret. But somehow Bordo and the other men had found out where he’d come from and what he’d done.
Vellar glanced around to reassure himself that nobody was eavesdropping. Two men at the next table over seemed to be conducting a ‘who could cuss the loudest’ competition, tankards spilling the slops of some pale booze. The other side of him, a lusty couple smooched on a bench against the back wall, eyes closed, lips locked, oblivious to those around them.
Satisfied no-one could hear, Vellar reckoned it was time to reveal the truth of their meeting. “You’re probably wondering why you’re here,” he began. “The thing is, I need your help. We’re going to finish the mission that Colonel de Calvas set us before he left.”
Pinetta’s eyes widened at the news. He leaned in closer, almost whispering. “So you’ve found Merilla?”
Vellar nodded. “We have.”
“Where? Where did you find him?”
“Wait.” Bordo held his hand up, brow furrowed in confusion. “Who, or what is a Merilla?”
“Alhaz Merilla,” Vellar explained. “Civvie administrator to the Colonel. Nabbed by the Justices and unjustly imprisoned, not guilty of the murder they hold him for.” He noticed that Bordo was poised to say something, but he ploughed on before Gus could get a word in. “Look, the details aren’t important. What matters is the Colonel told us to rescue him, ‘whatever it takes’. Those were his words weren’t they, Pin?”
Pinetta nodded, seemingly lost in thought, both hands clasped around his glass.
“Which means,” Vellar continued, “that we, as sworn casters of the Old Hundredth, the Colonel’s own regiment, are duty-bound to carry that order out. In fact, preparations are already underway. But it’s a big undertaking. I can’t rescue him alone…”
The story continues in The Oconic Prison, out now.