Ice Cracker II
    Lindsay Buroker
    Smashwords Edition
    Copyright 2010 by Lindsay Buroker
    * * * * *
    Amaranthe ran alongside the frozen lake,
thighs weary, calves sore, ragged breaths steaming before her. The
short sword belted at her waist felt ten times heavier than it was.
An inch of fresh snow blanketed the trail, and thick flakes wafted
from the steely sky. They stuck in her lashes and melted down her
flushed cheeks.
    The marker came into view, and she dug a
pocket watch free as she passed it. She groaned at the time,
shoulders slumping.
    "Maybe I can blame the snow," she muttered.
"Or the cold. Or maybe I can blame—" She rounded a bend and almost
tripped over two bodies sprawled across the path, "—the dead
soldiers on the trail," she finished, voice cracking as the breeze
shifted and the butcher shop stench enveloped her.
    The soldiers, recognizable by their black
uniforms and military-issue pistols, had died recently: slit
throats poured steaming blood onto the white trail. A tangle of
scuffs and footprints trampled the snow around the bodies, but no
trails led away from the scene.
    Exercise forgotten, Amaranthe yanked her
sword free. She crouched and surveyed her surroundings, wondering
where the killer had hidden to launch the ambush—and wondering if
that killer might be there now, waiting to do it again.
    Without their foliage, the skeletal apple and
maple trees lining the lake offered little cover. A hundred meters
ahead, the industrial section of the city began. Deep, dark alleys
ran between warehouses and factories whose smokestacks belched
black ribbons into the low gray clouds. Anyone hiding in those
alleys would have had to race across a field of snow to reach the
soldiers though. Closer to her, a gas lamp sputtered at the head of
the first of hundreds of docks lining the waterfront. The dark
hollow beneath the boards held her gaze. Between the snow and the
coming dusk, the lighting was poor; someone might well have hidden
beneath the dock.
    Even as she watched, a crunch sounded.
Someone shifting weight on the snow? Her grip tightened on the
    The self-preservation part of her mind
suggested returning to her jog and leaving this mystery to another.
But thanks to a frame job by a late enemy, she was wanted for
conspiring to kidnap the emperor. She wanted exoneration, and for
that to happen she needed to seek out noble—and
notice-gaining—tasks. This might be the opportunity she needed.
    Amaranthe stepped off the trail. At first no
footprints marred the bank, but, six or eight feet off the
well-tamped path, fresh boot marks indented the snow. Quite a jump,
but not impossible.
    She followed the prints down to the dock.
Anticipation quickened her heart, and quick puffs of breath
appeared before her eyes. The snow muffled the city sounds; the
waterfront stood eerily silent.
    When she reached the dock, she crouched,
half-expecting someone behind the pilings. Nobody was there. A
couple of packs and bedrolls lay tucked in the shadows, however.
Had the soldiers chanced upon this campsite and been killed for
their discovery? She crept forward, intending to investigate.
    Snow crunched behind her.
    Instincts ruling, she lunged behind a thick
piling. The sound of a sword whistled through the air inches behind
her. But when she turned, using the piling for cover, she saw only
the emptiness of the bleak white shoreline.
    She kept her sword ready. Magic, it had to
be. It was almost unheard of here in the heart of the empire, where
imperial mandates hypocritically forbade its use and denied its
existence, but she had bumped against it a time or two.
    "What do you want?" Amaranthe did not know if
she addressed a person, or some wizard's minion, but it would
likely not hurt to ask.
    Clothing rustled behind her. She threw
herself to the side, rolled, and came up as a chunk of wood sheared
off the piling. Amaranthe swung at the spot the attacker should
have been,

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