The Shadow Weaver's Gambit: First Chapters


Chapter One: Alley Brawl

Mariela watched the fight from the shadows, not quite a part of the crowd. She could have pressed herself closer to the sparring men, but the humid air was too thick with the smell of ferment, sweet wine, and body odor. The day’s heat hadn’t broken despite the sun disappearing behind the mountains and the darkness that clogged the alley. She also knew that city guards occasionally joined the fights and the gambling, and she didn’t want to run into any she might know.

She wasn’t supposed to be here. She wasn’t supposed to be in town, and she definitely wasn’t supposed to be betting on illegal brawls in grimy alleyways. But after dinner, when her stepfather disappeared into his office with her brother, and her mother had retired to her rooms claiming a headache, Mariela hadn’t been in the mood to sit in her bedroom alone, feeling sorry for herself.

The fights were a great way to earn some extra coin behind her parents’ backs. They might have given her a “generous” allowance each month, but they didn’t know how much she spent wandering the city streets when she was bored and restless.

The two men fought brutally, neither relying on their magia alone. They were physical fighters, their muscles as well-honed as their powers. The storm brewer used his magia to throw the occasional blast of wind or call up a dark cloud to obscure his opponent’s eyes, but only long enough to send a surprise kick to his ribs or an uppercut to the jaw. The man he fought against was a water healer, a skill set that wouldn’t appear to be an advantage in a fight. However, for every punch or kick dealt to him, he bounced back easily, healing the worst of his wounds even as the storm brewer continued his assault.

Still, as she watched the contest, she knew the water healer didn’t stand a chance. His punches were weak and his dodges were slow. And sure enough, only a few minutes into the fight, the storm brewer landed a sharp kick to the other man’s head, and he stumbled, collapsing onto one knee. The crowd breathed in as one as they waited, and then the man pounded his chest, admitting defeat. More than half the crowd erupted in cheers, happy their bets had paid off.

Mariela herself smirked from her corner, mentally calculating her winnings as two new opponents took to the circle. The leaders announce the opponents’ fighting records and magia abilities, and a handful of women and men in the crowd recorded the bets. With narrowed eyes, she placed her money on the shadow weaver. He was shorter than his opponent, but his eyes burned with a passionate hatred that could only lead to victory.

As they settled the bets, the two bruyas began the traditional exchange of verbal punches that always made Mariela roll her eyes. The women who fought in these contests rarely bothered with this unofficial tradition, but the men always felt compelled to prove their prowess before they threw the first punch, as if it might distract from their weaknesses. Mariela was half paying attention to the words, impatient for the true fight to begin. But something shifted in the atmosphere as the two men spoke, their voices thick with vitriol.

“You sound like a mountain cochino, boy,” the shorter man spat at the sandy-haired man across from him. “I haven’t heard an accent like that since the last Anillan was executed here.”

“I’m from the farmlands, you racist pig,” he snapped back. “Perhaps you should pay more attention to who feeds you in this city.”

The next response came from somewhere in the crowd. “You’re just as likely feeding Anillans, traitor!”

A portion of the crowd appeared to agree as a sudden cheer rang out. The change in entertainment intrigued Mariela. It wasn’t often she got a first-person view of the political fights in her own city, her stepfather only too happy to hide her from these pieces, claiming to protect her.

“The Xacan crown is responsible for feeding its people, so maybe look to them if you’re starving,” the farmer sneered.

A few others in the crowd cheered at this, probably a scattering of other farmers or people with family in the lowlands. Mariela fidgeted uneasily, the tension in the crowd changing from verbal jabs to physical restlessness as the crowd shifted, rearranging itself into a new configuration of us versus them.

She stepped deeper into the shadows, her back hitting the rough wall of the building behind her, cold through her thin dress. The jeers rose. Some called for the overthrow of the Xaca family, and others yelled for the destruction of Anillo. And like a fire coming to life and spreading, the violence sprang from the crowd with a crackle.

Even pressed against the wall, Mariela was shoved and jostled as the two groups converged into flying fists. Magia sizzled through the air. The earth underneath them quaked as an earth shaker took out their anger, and a shadow weaver threw a small part of the alley into darkness, obscuring Mariela’s view of the brawl.

She moved sideways, shuffling against the wall and trying to keep her distance. The alley was open on either side and she needed to slip from the crowd and leave before…

Even as she moved past the brunt of the fray, she noticed a new commotion and watched as a set of city guards came running around the corner, drawn by the change in tone of the evening’s entertainment.

“Mierda,” she cursed under her breath, pivoting and pushing back through the press of people. While at times her smaller stature was an asset, allowing her to slip through crowds unseen, now she felt like a minnow fighting against the current. As she ran, a stranger’s fist grazed the side of her face, ringing against her ear. It was tempting to stop and turn, to kick whoever had dared hit her, but she knew it would do no good. The crowd had already shifted, and she couldn’t see who had attacked her.

After what felt like a century of wading through bodies, Mariela was spit out on the other side of the alley where onlookers were still running to join the fight. Above the cacophony of chants, jeers, cracking bones, and the quaking earth, the guards called for order. They were trying to shut down the alley and trap everyone where they were. Even if they didn’t make arrests, they would question everyone here and take down their names.

She needed to get out now.

Closing her eyes for a second, she tried to center herself, seeking the core of her magia from within her chest. It was a warm spark, barely there, but she pulled at it anyway, sending it out to meet with the shadows along the alley. The shadow weaver back in the crowd had been powerful, able to blanket the brawl in an inky darkness. She only managed to deepen the surrounding shadows.

Moving with care, she pressed herself against the wall, letting the natural darkness of evening do most of the work for her. She didn’t need to bother with quiet—the alley was too loud to hear much above the riot. But she moved slow enough to allow her magia to drag the shadows with her. It wouldn’t allow her to disappear, but it would take an extra careful eye to notice her slipping away from the fight.

And of course, because she had the luck of one cursed by the gods, as she reached the end of the alley, a guard came whirling around the corner, slamming into her. They both went sprawling to the ground.

She rose quickly, only a little shaky on her feet as she ran. The guard came up just after her, the sound of his feet pounding in her ears.


It was a useless yell, a waste of his breath. She was running for a reason, and she wouldn’t let him catch her because he asked.

She bolted right and then left, taking the turns easily in the dim evening light. She had lived in the shadows since she was a child and was familiar with their contours. The guard followed at a run, but as she took another turn, she pulled ahead little by little. He carried his club and daggers, weighed down by leathers and boots. She gripped her skirt tight in her hands and flew through the alleys with ease, her thin leather huarache sandals not making a sound.

When she knew she had lost the guard, she kept moving, but directed herself north, toward home. The night was darker here on the edge of town, as the main city lights faded in the distance and as the sun sunk deeper behind the mountains surrounding Xaca. She let herself slip into the shadows. No magia required. Her hair had come out of its braid, stray pieces sticking to the sweat on her forehead. She brushed it away, ignoring the mess it had likely become. Her dark hair sat somewhere between straight and curly, often settling on tangled bird’s nest if given its way.

She was proud of herself for making it out of the town brawl without being caught. Perhaps this was why she wasn’t paying attention and didn’t see the man until he shouted her name.

“Donita Xaca! Mariela!”

She tensed but let out a breath when she saw it was Josye running down the path toward her, eyes wide and frazzled.

“I’m fine,” she said, slowing her own jog as he did the same.

“There’s a riot,” he said. “I was afraid you might have gotten caught up in it.”

“Nothing to it,” she said, flippantly. “Shouldn’t you be at your post?”

“I also shouldn’t let the donita wander alone at night, yet here we are.” His voice was sharp, but his smile was soft and she returned it.

“But you are too kind to leave me rotting away in the hacienda alone.”

He only huffed at this, shaking his head.

“You’re going to get into trouble one of these days. And I won’t be there to save you.”

“I’ll wear the crown before that ever happens and you’ll be sitting pretty on a promotion,” she said, smiling.

“We’ll see about that. Just don’t get killed before you manage that.”

“I wouldn’t dream of it. I know you count on that promotion.”

“Believe it or not, donita,” he said. “I’d care either way.”

She hummed at this, unsure of how to reply—unsure if she believed him.

They walked in companionable silence the last quarter mile to the hacienda’s back gate, where Josye was supposed to be standing watch. It was locked. They couldn’t risk the riffraff getting onto the grounds to bother her family. As some in the crowd tonight had made it clear, there were plenty who wanted her and her family dead.

Josye gave her a hug as she passed through the gate, a move that no other guard would have dared, and she promised him an extra-large bottle of wine the next time she snuck out.

With that, she gave a small nod of thanks and disappeared into the thick of the family garden.

Within the thick stone walls of the hacienda grounds, the night was quiet, only broken by potoos, the chirp of crickets, and the rustle of among the garden plants. Even the wind couldn’t find its way inside, between the wall and the dense growth of plants.

She strolled through the garden and back to the tree that stood outside her second-floor bedroom. The garden was empty this late at night, the servants having retired to their rooms and the guards posted along the outer wall.

She climbed the tree back onto her balcony, having recovered from her run through the city. Yet, the moment her feet touched the stone tiles, her balcony doors flew open, and she was confronted by the red face of her mother.

“Where in Diablo’s name have you been?”

“I went for a walk,” Mariela said, pushing past her mother and into her room. She tried to keep her face neutral and her breathing calm.

“By way of your tree?”

“It’s a good shortcut into the garden,” she said, turning to smile at her mother.

“One of these days, I’m going to have them cut that tree down.”

The threat was an empty one. Her mother had made it before and she’d make it again. But Mariela thought that even her mother understood her restlessness. Ever since her father had died and her mother had remarried Valerio, the hacienda had felt more prison than home. They used to go into the city as a family, to visit the people, while her stepfather preferred to stay separate from the common folk, a reminder to them of their family’s power and position.

“There was a riot in the city,” her mother said, voice casual but eyes biting.

“I heard,” she said before adding, “from one of the guards.”

“I was worried about you.”

“And I was fine. Just enjoying the warm night.”

“You need to stop acting like a child.”

“I wouldn’t act like a child if you didn’t treat me like one,” Mariela said, throwing herself onto her sofa, sounding more like a petulant child than she had meant to. “Perhaps, if you or Valerio would train me.”

“Valerio has offered to train you with your mind-talking powers,” her mother said, eyebrow raised. “He says you’ve refused him every time.”

Like Diablo she’d ever let the beast into her mind to “help” her. It wasn’t as if she hadn’t trained her magia and tried her damnedest to strengthen it. Her father and she had spent hours in the gardens trying to grow her powers beyond what they were. She knew what her magia could do. She accepted it for what it was. Now, she wanted to learn what her body and mind could, as a leader.

“My powers don’t need training,” she said, biting back the shame. “They’re weak. They will always be weak. I need training in fighting and ruling.”

“How can you rule this city if you can’t take control over your own magia?”

“And tell me, mother,” she snapped, “are those your words or Valerio’s?” She refused to give in to this tired argument. She knew what all this talk about her weak magia was. It was an excuse to cut her off from her birthright as doña.

“If you want to lead, then you need to act like a leader,” her mother said, voice raising in ire. “Your father would be disappointed in you.”

Those words, more than anything her mother could say, seared through Mariela's chest, burning against her heart like a brand. For a second, she couldn’t speak, the words caught in her throat.

A soft knock on the door interrupted her next thoughts.

“Not now,” her mother said—as if it was her room. They glared at each other in silence. But her mother’s words didn’t matter because a moment later, the door swung open and Julian pattered in.

He threw his small body onto Mariela’s lap and wrapped his arms around her.

“There was a fight in town, and dad is yelling about it to the guards. I didn’t want to be alone.”

Mariela wanted to be annoyed at the intrusion and the sticky fingers that tangled in her hair, but she simply hugged her half-brother back, patting his head. He was almost ten years younger than her, and had always been difficult to hate with his golden curls and round cheeks pink from the exertion of running everywhere.

“I was just talking to mom about it,” she said. “It sounds like it was a small little thing. Nothing to worry about.”

Her mother nodded at this, the annoyance at Mariela wiped from her face. “Yes, nothing for either of you to worry about.” The side eye her mother gave her was sharp.

Standing, she made her way over to the sofa, scooping Julian up into her arms.

“But you should get to bed,” she said. “Both of you.”

Mariela bit her lip, swallowing her protests, and she saw her brother yawning into their mother’s shoulder.

“Buenas noches, Mama.”

“Buenas noches, miya. We’ll talk about this again. After your birthday.”

With that, the door closed and Mariela was left alone. 



Chapter Two: The Broken Branch

The next morning, her stepfather called a meeting of his council to discuss the events from the night before. After she had left, the brawl had turned into a full riot, resulting in two deaths and multiple arrests. Of course, her parents hadn’t bothered to tell her any of this, nor had they invited her to the meeting.

But she had learned at a young age that sometimes it wasn’t about what people would let you do—it was about what they couldn’t stop you from doing. Which was how she ended up balanced on a tree branch outside her stepfather’s council chamber, straining to hear the conversation through the open windows.

“I’m going to fall!” Julian clung to the tree trunk two branches below her.

“You didn’t need to come up here with me,” she said, hissing the words under her breath, afraid to be heard by the men sitting in the room. The leaves at this height were massive, allowing her to stay hidden. That is, if her brother’s voice didn’t draw attention.

Voices drifted through the open window, her stepfather’s bitter anger cutting through the rest. “This is the third time this month that Anillan loyalists have caused trouble inside Xacan borders. Last week it was the farmlands, now it’s within the city. The last time we waited on information, Don Anillo sent an assassin to kill me. Who will they go after next? The doña? Mariela?”

“I understand, don, but so far all we have are a few rumors. What we need to focus on is the low crop yield in the farmlands this past season. People are running low on food. The riot last night could be attributed more to ferment and hunger than treason.”

“We are low on food because the farmers are selling food to Anillo,” her stepfather said. “Don Anillo and that useless son of his, Alejandro, are getting into the heads of our citizens. They’re warping them with lies. We need to take back the narrative. Our people are hungry because of Anillo.”

“I want to get down,” her brother said, voice pitching high in his fear.

“Shh,” she said, moving forward on her branch to see between two large leaves into the room beyond. “I’m trying to listen.”

“I want to hear!” he pouted as he continued desperately clinging to the tree, unmoving.

“Then be quiet.”

She wasn’t surprised when she heard the tree creak and felt the branch under her rustling as Julian attempted to pull himself up to where she stood. He had just turned eight a few months before and wasn’t keen on following orders.

She turned, concentration broken once again to reprimand him, but the words didn’t make it to her lips. In his scramble, she saw his small foot reach out, catching on a too-thin branch. In that same moment, she let out a gasp and moved forward to grab him.

He shifted his weight onto the thin growth and it snapped. His scream shattered the air as he lost his grip and fell.

Mariela caught him, hands reaching out to grab his arms as her legs wrapped around the tree tightly. Tee­th gritted and jaw tight, she hauled him up onto her branch and wrapped him close to her chest. She was shaking, but tried to breathe deeply, calming the quivering boy in her arms.

“What in Diablo’s name are you two doing?”

Her stomach dropped as the surrounding branches shifted—her stepfather using his earth magia to lift them up. It dropped them both in a heap onto the balcony. The door swung wide, the table of men inside staring at them, agape. She bit the inside of her cheek as she turned to face her stepfather.

Valerio towered above her, face red and lips pulled back into a sneer.

“Get up,” he said, voice low and even. She knew he wouldn’t do anything in front of his council, but she still tasted the fear on her tongue as she stood. She pulled Julian up after her, hands on his shoulders.

He said nothing to them for a moment, eyes simply taking them in with their disheveled hair and scratched skin.

“Were there Anillans in the riot last night?” Mariela said, unable to hold back the words, even as the anger flashed in her stepfather’s eyes.

“All we have are a few suspicions—” one of the younger men at the table started, but his words were cut off by don Valerio’s expression.

“Excuse me, gentlemen, as I talk to my children in the hall.”

He turned on his heels and marched across the room with silent authority. Mariela followed him without question because she knew no alternative. Julian was shaking as she nudged him along in front of her.

“I don’t want to get in trouble! I didn’t even get to hear anything!” His voice was a whine once more, and Mariela ignored it, too focused on her own churning stomach.

Valerio left the door open into the hall and she followed, closing it behind her and Julian.

The moment the door was closed, her stepfather’s hand fixed around her jaw, pulling her forward.

“What game are you playing?”

“I should be in there,” she said through gritted teeth, trying to ignore the pain of his iron grip. “If Anillo is planning something—”

“Then I will take care of it, seeing as you have no authority yet.” He let go of her, sending her stumbling back a step. “Julian,” he said.

“Yes, pa—Senye,” he said, not hiding the quaver in his voice.

“Go back in there and sit down,” he said, eyes not leaving Mariela. “If you want to spy on meetings, then you’ll get exactly that. Don’t speak. Don’t make a sound. But I’ll know if you aren’t paying perfect attention.”

The boy looked wretched at the thought of sitting in on the hours long meeting, which only made Mariela’s chest tighten more. Her little brother would never be the don and he didn’t want to be, yet Valerio invited him to meetings.

“Someday, I’m going to be the doña and you will have to listen to me,” Mariela said through gritted teeth the moment Julian was gone.

Her stepfather sneered, his hand snatching out to wrap around her neck in a vice grip. Her own hands twitched at her side. She wanted to claw at his wrists and pull them away, but she forced herself rigid. He only reveled in her attempts to fight him. It made him angrier to see her indifferent to his tirades.

“If I have it my way, you will never see the crown,” he said, his voice low and seething.

She took pleasure in that tone.

“The gods cursed you with weak and useless magia. You are an embarrassment to the Xaca line.”

“And you aren’t even in line,” she said, always happy to rub it in.

Valerio moved faster than she expected, the back of his hand cracking against her cheek. The cut that was already there opened wider with a sharp sting, and she felt blood trickling down her face.

“Soon, your mother will come to understand that you don’t deserve the crown.”

“She won’t. She believes in the rightful line, and you hate me for it,” she said, refusing to concede.

He reached forward, almost gentle, as he rubbed his thumb through the blood on her cheek, smearing it and pulling at the cut. “Your mother believes what I want her to, just like the people of Xaca believe what I need them to. You’ve never understood that. It isn’t about the truth. It’s about what you can get others to believe.”

She glared back at him with all her strength, ignoring the burning behind her eyes as she held back the tears threatening to spill. He could hold her and beat her down now, but one day she’d hold the power, and he knew it. This wasn’t the first time he had threatened her crown, but her mother had made a promise to her father—and there were some things that her mother wouldn’t break, even for Valerio.

Mariela felt the door attempting to open against her back and her stepfather stepped away, finally allowing her to move.

Her mother swept out of the room, her eyes brushing over Mariela. She knew she must look a mess with her bloody cheek and the red ring around her neck from Valerio’s hand. But her mother only clicked her tongue once before turning back to him with a smile.

“My love, can we please continue this meeting now? I don’t want to be tired for tonight.”

“Tonight?” The word slipped unbidden from Mariela’s lips and she winced, not wanting to hear the response.

“You mother and I are traveling to the guard camp in the south to discuss recent difficulties.”


“Your birthday will have to wait. Now go find something useful to do.” Her stepfather pushed past Mariela, the same hand that had been wrapped around her neck a moment before placed gently on her mother’s back as he guided her into the room and shut the door.

Mariela was left standing outside, face stinging and throat burning with emotions that she didn’t want. But she kept her head high as she walked. The council chamber door opened up onto the second-floor balcony that circled the inner courtyard of the house. She passed by her stepfather’s rooms before ducking down the back stairway and out into the garden, finding her shoes tucked at the base of the tree outside the chamber. She grabbed them without looking up and moved through the tall shrubs of the side garden, finally finding a small alcove to collapse into.

Even hidden from view, she didn’t cry. She had learned years ago that her stepfather didn’t deserve her tears. The only thing he deserved was an axe to the chest, if Mariela had a choice.

A small part of her felt guilty for her daydreams. Daydreams of her taking over Xaca and having her stepfather and half his council locked up or killed immediately. It would break her mother’s heart, but it was what he deserved.

As she sulked and planned, the surrounding shadows stretched to envelop her, though just barely, as she used the magia her stepfather claimed was cursed for its weakness. Magia itself was common in both Xaca and Anillo, with the strength of one’s connection to their element randomly decided by fate and the gods. But the Xaca family had been known for its powerful magia for generations. That is, before she had been born. But she also knew that the strength of her magia wouldn’t determine her ability to rule, despite what her stepfather tried to convince her and their people. She took a deep breath, letting it out slowly as she let the burning behind her eyes fade.

Despite what her stepfather wanted, she would be the doña one day. That thought brought its own wave of anxiety as she remembered the requirement for said crown—a husband. It was a law she had spent the last five years trying to convince her mother to change, without success.

“Hmm, food?”

The words were a curious whisper in her mind and she startled, looking around for the source. A small kangaroo rat was sitting on the planter beside her, nose bouncing in the air as his small black eyes looked at her.

“Seeds? Food?”

His long tail twitched this time, and he leaned forward on his hind legs.

“And who says I have any food?” She sent the words into the small creature’s mind, her lips curving into a small smile. She was glad to be broken from her spiraling thoughts.

“Friend said you had seeds. For me?”

“Well, your friend is a snitch now, aren’t they?” she said. This was her other magia that her stepfather described as cursed. She was a mind-talker who only spoke to animals. He took her warped magia personally, his own abilities to mind-talk with other humans deemed as normal.

She debated a moment, the little rat looking up at her expectantly. She wasn’t quite ready to be around people again, but she was happy for the distraction.

“Well, come on then,” she said, holding out her hand for the small animal. It skittered into her palm and she tucked it in the pocket of her skirts.

It was a long walk to the kitchen, back through the gardens, the sitting rooms, and the inner courtyard, but she didn’t see anyone. The meeting was still going and most of the staff were tucked away in their respective corners of the house. The kitchen itself was bustling with activity when she arrived, the air thick with steam and smoke despite the open windows. It smelled of roasting chilis and tomatillos.

“Buenos dias, donita,” the wide-hipped woman said from over her boiling pot.

“Buenos dias, Pilar.”

“Move, move,” another woman said, hustling across the kitchen with a large bowl of roasted chilis.

Mariela moved to the side, smiling as the woman passed her. She was given only a tightlipped nod in return.

“Well, what are you looking for?” Pilar said, wiping her hands on her apron. “We’re busy preparing your birthday dinner in here.”

“It smells delicious.”

She hummed in response, but continued to look at Mariela. It was clear she just wanted her gone.

“Do we have pepitas?”

“In the pantry. Top shelf on the left, as always.”

The woman’s eyes darted down to the small bulge in Mariela’s pocket with a twitch of her lips.

Mariela nodded in thanks before weaving through the large kitchen and into the pantry tucked in the back. She grabbed a few handfuls of pepitas, stuffing them into her other pocket.

“Do you need any help?” she asked, coming out of the pantry to see Pilar balancing an assortment of spices in her arms as she stirred the pot. “I can stir—”

Her toe caught on a sack of corn flour sitting against the counter as she moved forward, and the kangaroo rat was thrown from her pocket and onto the floor. Pilar didn’t flinch and only raised an eyebrow at her, but one of the younger kitchen maids gave a high-pitched squeal as the rat ran back toward Mariela, looking a bit stunned.

“You should leave us to it,” Pilar said, voice strained. Mariela only nodded, used to being unwanted. She scooped up the shaking creature before ducking out the back doors. She could still hear the younger kitchen maid cursing as the door closed behind her.

Mariela neared the front of the house, looking out onto the rest of the city that spread out below. The hacienda sat on one of its highest hills, although the land continued to rise behind it, transitioning into one of the many mountains that surrounded Xaca. The vibrant colors of the city wavered in the mid-day heat, but the view was breathtaking, a painted canvas of bright jewel colored buildings tucked inside the verdant green forest.

Instead of returning to the back garden, she found a small bench near the outer walls, tucked away and out of view from the rest of the property.

Plucking at the warm thread of magia in her chest, she pulled it and let it connect with the nearby shadows. They wrapped around her, bringing coolness along with their shade. It wasn’t much—anyone looking would find her—but it at least hid her from the casual passerby.

She pulled the small kangaroo rat out of her pocket and sprinkled the seeds on the bench in front of him. He quickly went about plucking the seeds up, the pouches in his mouth bulging out as they disappeared.

“Thank you!” he said, hopping away when he had his fill. Mariela spread the rest of the pepitas on the ground in the shade, leaving them for his friends. A few other kangaroo rats came one after the other, until the last of the pepitas were gone, each giving her a thank you as they ducked back into the bushes.

The shadows lengthened deep into afternoon, leaving her alone once more, staring back at the hacienda with an ache in her heart that she refused to acknowledge. If the meeting had ended, she didn’t know. No one came to find her.