–New York Times bestselling author Maria V. Snyder
–Graeme’s Fantasy Book Review
A killer stalked in the shadows.
Hidden within the gloom shrouding the hall’s lofty ceiling, he crept across the rafters to the flicker of the torch fires below. As unseen as the wind, silent as Death itself.
Festive music rose from the chamber beneath him. The flower of northern Nimea, two hundred lords and ladies, filled the great hall of Ostergoth Keep. The sharp crack of a whip cut through the din. The centerpiece of the evening was an aged hillman, stripped to the waist and bound to a wooden frame. Livid welts oozing blood crisscrossed his shoulders and back. While Duke Reinard’s guests gorged on fine victuals, his torturer performed for their entertainment.
The bullwhip cracked again and the old man shuddered. The duke laughed so hard he spilled wine down his ermine-lined robes and spoiled the yellow dress of the pale, shuddering girl on his lap. She quivered as he blotted at her bodice with a stained napkin and then squeaked at an indiscretion committed under the table. She tried to squirm away, but the duke held her fast and laughed all the harder.
Caim’s gloved hands curled into fists. It was time to go to work.
He dropped down to an empty balcony outthrust from the stone wall. Crouched behind the railing, he unslung a satchel from his shoulder and took out its contents. With sure movements he assembled a powerful bow made from two curved shafts of laminated horn. He opened a lacquered case and took out three arrows. Each projectile ended in brilliant indigo fletching, the design favored by the hill tribes of eastern Ostergoth, as requested by the client.
Caim fit an arrow to the string and lifted the bow. He took a deep breath as he sighted along the shaft. An uneasy sensation rumbled in the pit of his stomach. Nerves.
He adjusted his aim to allow for distance and declination. The girl managed to escape the Duke’s lewd embrace, at least for the moment.
Don’t worry, honey. Caim pulled the bowstring to full tension. He won’t ever bother you again.
Just as he was about to shoot, his target leaned over to chortle into the ear of a lovely noblewoman beside him. The duke’s ringed fingers fondled the strands of pearls looped across the lady’s plunging décolletage. Caim held his breath and counted by the slow, measured rhythm of his pulse.
Three . . . four . . .
Any moment now, the Duke would sit up and present the perfect target.
Seven . . . eight . . .
His aim was dead-on, his hands were steady.
Eleven . . . twelve . . .
A feathery tickle caressed his shoulders. Not taking his eyes off the Duke, Caim caught a glimpse of silver.
“Hello, lover,” her voice whispered in his ear.
Ghostly fingers tickled Caim’s waist, but his gaze never left the target. “Hello, Kit.”
“Putting another notch in your belt, I see.”
He winced at the volume of her voice as it carried over the revel. It didn’t matter that no one else could hear her. She was throwing off his cadence.
“I’m busy. Go find a nest of bunnies to play with until I’m done here.”
Kit pressed her face against his cheek to peer down the arrow shaft. Although he couldn’t exactly feel her, tiny itches radiated everywhere she touched his skin. A strand of her silver hair fell across his left eye. Caim resisted the urge to blow it away, knowing it wouldn’t do any good if he tried, and strained the bowstring another inch.
“Bunnies live in holes, not nests,” she said. “And you’re aiming too low.”
“Leave me alone. I’ve got the shot.”
“You’re going to miss his neck by half a foot.”
Caim ground his teeth as the duke turned away from the noblewoman to slap the back of Liram Kornfelsh of the Kornfelsh merchant syndicate.
The syndicate was backing Duke Reinard to the hilt, hoping to ride his rise to power all the way to the inner sanctums of the capital.
“I’m aiming for his heart. Now leave me alone for a minute.”
Kit hopped up on the banister, as light as a butterfly in flight. Short for a human woman, she possessed a figure out of any man’s fantasies. Tiny-waisted yet buxom, she had creamy skin with a faint olive sheen. The dress she wore, tight-clinging with an absurdly short skirt, barely left anything to the imagination. Caim supposed it made no difference, since no one could see her but him.
Balancing on her bare toes, she clucked her tongue. “What if he’s wearing a coat of mail under that atrocious shirt?”
“The head is piled for penetration.” Caim thrust his chin at the arrow’s reinforced point. “Anyway, he doesn’t wear armor. Detests the weight of it. That’s why he surrounds himself with so many soldiers.”
He rechecked his aim anyway. The duke was still manhandling his guests. Caim wished he would sit up straight. His fingers were getting numb.
Kit spun around and sat on the narrow railing. “For all the good they’ll do him. Are you going to finish this anytime soon? It’s loud in here. I can hardly hear myself think.”
“Just a moment.”
The duke leaned back in his chair, his shoulders framed by the wide oaken back. Caim released the bowstring. In that moment, the target glanced upward. Wine ran down Reinard’s blubbery chins as their gazes met.
The arrow sped across the hall like a diving falcon. It was a perfect shot, a sure kill. But just before it struck, the torchlight flickered. Cups tipped over. Plates crashed to the floor. Caim’s neck hairs tingled at the sight of Liram Kornfelsh, sprawled in front of the Duke. The arrow’s blue feathers quivered above the emerald brooch nestled in the hollow of his throat.
Screams echoed off the hall’s high walls as guests bolted from their seats, all except for Kornfelsh, who they left lying across the high table like an overstuffed ham. The duke grasped his hands together as his soldiers rushed to surround him.
Caim grabbed the other arrows and fired in rapid succession. The first caught a bodyguard through the left eye. The second penetrated the boss of a soldier’s shield and through the forearm holding it, but the duke remained unscathed. Caim tossed the bow aside and raced down the balcony.
Kit skipped along the railing beside him. “I told you the shot was off. You have a contingency plan, right?”
He clenched his jaws tight together. The only thing worse than making a grand mess of a job was doing it in front of Kit. Now he had to get down and dirty. He reached behind his back and drew a pair of suete knives. Eighteen inches of singled-edged steel gleamed in the torchlight.
A sentry appeared at the end of the catwalk. Caim flowed past him, close enough to smell the wine on the man’s breath, and the sentry stumbled against the wall, his life spilling through his fingers from a bloody gash across his throat.
On the floor below, the duke was ushered by his bodyguards through a door at the back of the hall. Caim vaulted over the railing, jumping right through Kit. For a moment as their bodies merged, he was covered from head to foot by tingling goose bumps. A thrown spear flashed just inches in front of his face as he landed on the central trestle. Flagons and dinnerware went flying as he dashed down the polished length of the table.
“He’s getting away.” Kit floated above his head.
Caim bit back a rude response. “Then how about you go follow him?”
She sped off with a huff.
Caim kicked open the door. The duke would be heading to his quarters on the top floor of the donjon where he could hole up until reinforcements arrived. If that happened, Caim was well and truly fucked. But he had never failed to complete an assignment before; he didn’t plan to start now.
The corridor beyond was unlit. He started inside, but a nagging sense of caution made him pause. That hesitation saved his life as a sword blade swept through the empty space where his neck would have been. Caim ducked and jabbed with both knives. His left-hand suete cut through a colorful surcoat and got caught in links of mail underneath, but the righthand blade found a gap in the armor. A gurgle issued from the shadows as the hidden guardsman slumped forward. Caim jerked his knives free and swept down the hallway.
A single staircase led to the higher levels. The steps spiraled clockwise around a thick stone newel post. Caim sprang up the stairs two at a time. As he came around the first landing, the twang of a crossbow string reached his ear a split second before a quarrel zipped past. Caim threw himself against the wall. From somewhere above echoed the staccato clack of a hand crank.
Caim pushed off from the wall and darted up the steps as fast as his legs would propel him. If there was a second archer lying in wait for him, he would be dead before he knew it. He rounded another turn. A lone crossbowman stood on the landing above, furiously turning the iron crank to reload his weapon. The soldier dropped the crossbow and grabbed for his sword, but Caim cut him down before he freed the weapon.
Caim crept up the last flight of stairs to the keep’s highest level. The upper landing was empty. Candles dripping wax from brass sconces on the wall illuminated a juncture of two hallways. He put his back to the cool stone and peered around the corner into the corridor that led to the master suite. So far, the duke had shown an exceptional affinity for sacrificing his men to preserve his own hide. Two bodyguards were down. Two more to go. Decent odds. Caim sidled down the hallway. The door to Reinard’s suite was reinforced with thick iron bands. It would be barred from the inside. Nothing short of an axe would get through the door, but he had another idea.
Caim was moving toward a shuttered window on the side of the hallway when Kit’s head and one shapely shoulder poked through the door.
“You better hurry,” she said. “He’s packing up to run.”
A cool breeze ruffled Caim’s hood as he swung open the shutters. A sixty-foot drop yawned on the other side.
“He doesn’t have anywhere to go.”
“Not quite. There’s a hidden passage that leads outside the grounds.”
“Damn it! Why didn’t you mention that earlier?”
“How was I supposed to know it was there? It’s pretty well hidden, behind a wardrobe case.”
Caim swung a leg over the sill. Time was running out. If the duke got outside the compound, he would be near impossible to catch.
“Keep watch on that secret tunnel, Kit. Follow Reinard if he makes it outside. I’ll catch up.”
She vanished back inside the chamber. Caim leaned out the window. He still didn’t know what had gone wrong in the great hall. The shot had been set up perfectly. Nothing he could do about it now except to correct his mistake and get out fast.
As he climbed out onto the sill, he spotted the outline of another window on the same level thirty paces away. Pale light flickered from within. Exit scenarios played through Caim’s mind as he ran his fingers over the outer wall. Once the job was finished, he could drop down to the keep’s courtyard to make his escape, or he could use the duke’s secret tunnel. Either plan held its own set of risks. He’d hoped to be gone by now. Every passing minute reduced his chances for success.
The broad ashlar blocks of the keep’s outer shell provided strong protection against siege weapons, but their wide seams made good purchase for climbing. He found a crevice in the wall and grabbed hold without stopping to consider the prudence of his actions. He hated rushing a job, but he was running out of options at this point. He focused on his holds.
A prickling itched down his spine as he reached a point halfway between the windows. He froze, clinging to the sheer stone face. Something drew his gaze toward the heavens. A thick blanket of clouds veiled the night sky. The light of torches from the courtyard below flickered upon the keep’s crenellations. He saw nothing at first. Then, something moved among the battlements. Caim held his breath as a silhouette passed above him, a sinuous shape gliding through the dark. For one terrible moment he thought it had seen him, but then it was gone.
Caim waited several heartbeats before he dared to breathe again. What was going on? He didn’t have time to waste. Trying to put the specter out of his mind, he lunged for his next hold.
Seconds later, he was at the window. The clear glass casement opened with a slight rattle, but no one inside noticed. The window led into the master bedchamber. Beyond it Caim could see entrances to other rooms and the stout door leading to the hallway he had vacated minutes before. Both bodyguards stood at the barred door, swords out, watching the portal as if expecting Caim to burst through at any moment.
The duke hunched over a heavy trunk. “Ulfan, leave off that damned door and help me!”
One of the bodyguards turned around as Caim crawled through the window. He opened his mouth to shout a warning, but never got the chance. Caim hurled a knife with a whip of his hand. The bodyguard jerked back, a runnel of blood streaming down his collar as he fell to his knees with the suete’s smooth handle protruding from his throat.
Reinard dropped a heavy sack that clinked as it hit the floor. “What—?”
Caim drew his other knife and crossed the room just as the second bodyguard turned. As the man raised his sword arm to strike, Caim lunged in close and drove his weapon full length into the joint under the man’s armpit. The bodyguard gasped and slid off the knife.
“Caim!” Kit shouted from behind him.
He turned, knees bent with his knife at the ready. From this vantage he could see the wardrobe Kit had mentioned. It was pulled aside, and a black tunnel mouth yawned in the wall beyond. A young man in the duke’s livery with fair hair and a short goatee emerged with a bared arming sword in his hand. Caim pivoted out of the path of the falling sword and thrust his knife into his opponent’s side. The point struck a rib. Caim twisted the blade and punched it through the connective tissue between the bones.
The young man’s last breath wheezed from the wound as he crumpled to the floor.
The duke cringed beside a massive, four-post bed. “Please.” His jowls trembled as he held out his hands before him. An angry welt marred one of his palms. “I’ll give you anything you want.”
“Yes.” Caim crossed the floor. “You will.”
The duke died with considerably less effort than his bodyguards. Caim left the body stretched out on the bed with a bloody hole carved into the chest. He hadn’t been able to take out Reinard in front of his dinner guests. His clients would have to be satisfied with butchery. The message was sent.
Caim retrieved his other knife and scanned the chamber. If he hurried he could be over the walls and outside the keep before the duke’s men organized any meaningful pursuit. He didn’t expect them to trail him for long. With their liege dead, they would be more concerned with finding and protecting Reinard’s heir. By all accounts young Lord Robert was a decent boy, a far cry from his monstrous father. The duchy would be a better place.
Caim’s gaze fell on the young man sprawled at the tunnel entrance. He had never set eyes on Lord Robert, but he had a reliable description. Twenty-two years old, light brown hair with a wisp of a beard and blue eyes. The youth on the floor matched the description too closely to be a coincidence. Caim cursed under his breath. So much for leaving these lands in the care of a kinder, more tolerant liege.
Kit walked through the door to the hallway. “You’re going to get some company very soon.”
Caim considered the open window. “How many?”
“More than you can handle. Believe me.”
“I do. What about outside?”
“All those pretty ladies and gentlemen have stirred up quite a commotion in the yard. Every exit is sealed and extra men have been put on the walls. Search parties are scouring the grounds.”
“And the tunnel?”
Kit gave him a sassy grin. “Lots of stairs and the rest of the duke’s bodyguards wait at the other end. They might not be happy to see you come out before their boss.”
Caim wiped his knives clean on Lord Robert’s tabard. Nothing was going his way tonight. He was going to have to use his last option. By the amused expression on her face, Kit knew it, too. He hated admitting she was right, but he’d probably hate dying even more.
He went around the room snuffing candles and lamp wicks to plunge the chamber into darkness except for a single lantern resting beside the tunnel mouth. He passed the Duke’s traveling trunk and the sacks spilled on the floor without a glance. Just one of those purses would set him up for a year, but he was an assassin, not a thief.
Fists banged on the door.
“You’d better hurry,” Kit said.
Caim tried to ignore her as he pressed his back against a wall in the darkest part of the room. There amid the shadows, he closed his eyes and shut out the outside world. He focused on the sliver of fear quivering at the center of his core. Fear was the key. It was always there, hidden beneath layers of denial and repression. Caim hated this. He had to tap into that feeling, allow it to possess him. At first, he didn’t think he could. There were too many distractions. The pain was too far removed. But then a memory seized hold of him. It was an old memory, full of pain.
Raging flames painted the night sky in hues of orange and gold, and threw shadows across the yard of the villa where the tall bodies sprawled. There was blood everywhere, pooled in the gravel, splattered across the face of the man kneeling in the center of the yard, running down his chest in a great black river.
Father . . .
Caim opened his eyes as the dark came alive.
It gathered around him like a cloak. By the time the guards battered down the door, he was hidden within its inky folds. Just another shadow. The soldiers flitted about like bees from a jostled hive. Some dashed into the tunnel with lit firebrands. Others stood over the corpses of the duke and his son. None of them detected the shade that glided out the door and down the stairs.
Once outside, Caim scaled the keep’s curtain wall and disappeared into the countryside. Dappled moonlight splashed over him like a gossamer rainstorm. A quarter mile away from the stronghold, he released the cloying darkness. He grabbed the trunk of a sapling to hold himself upright as a wave of disorientation overloaded his senses. The darkness swam before his eyes in a thousand shades of gray and black. Something lurked in the distance, just beyond the limit of his vision. He didn’t know how he summoned the shadows. The power had resided within him for as long as he could remember, lurking within him, threatening to erupt whenever he was frightened or angry. He had learned to control those feelings over the years, but he never got used to it.
After a minute, the weakness passed and the normality of the night returned, and Caim resumed his trek through the fog-strewn moor. Kit danced ahead of him in the distance like a will-o’-the-wisp. The faint tune of a tavern song reached his ears. Same old Kit. Nothing fazed her. Yet he couldn’t share in her frivolity. Not even the prospect of the sizable bounty he would soon collect lifted his spirits. Apprehension welled up inside him, rising up like the deep arm of the sea, dragging him into unknown depths. His steps slowed in the fog.
Overhead, a lone star pierced the cloud cover. Like a man grasping a lifeline, he stumbled toward it, following its shimmer through the gloom.
Josephine rushed from the carriage and into the house faster than the footman burdened with her purchases could follow. Her cheeks stung from the brisk autumn chill.
As she brushed past Fenrik, their family steward, she shed her jacket and the new hat she’d bought. He collected her garments with his usual aplomb.
“Welcome home, mistress. I trust your excursion was pleasant.”
“Marvelous! Is Father upstairs? I must see him right away. I have amazing news! Anastasia is to be married this Yeartide Day and to such a dashing man. His name escapes me at the moment, but he’s very tall and handsome. Did I mention he was an officer in the Sacred Brotherhood?”
“No, mistress. But—”
She flew past him without waiting for another word. Father would be ensconced in his study with his books and papers. Retired from his government post for four years, he still maintained his connections in political circles, a thing for which she was especially grateful. Someday those connections would net her a smart match like Anastasia had just made.
Josey paused on her way to the stairs. An unfamiliar overcoat hung from the brass rack on the wall.
“Fenrik, who visits with my father?”
“A man from the palace, milady.”
“From the palace?” She raced up the wide marble steps.
“He does not wish to be disturbed.”
Of course Father would want to see her straightaway. A visitor from the palace could only mean one thing. Her father was finally making a match for her hand, and to a man from an outstanding family. Her heart was ready to burst from her chest. Just to think, she and Anastasia could both be married by this time next year.
A curtseying maid passed on her way to the study. Josey paused for a moment at the door. She couldn’t remember it ever being closed. She glanced down the hall. The chambermaid was gone. On an impulse, she pressed her ear against the wooden panels. The voices of two men murmured on the other side. A tendril of guilt knotted in her belly, but she didn’t pull away. If this visitor was here to discuss her matrimonial options, it concerned her more than anyone. But she couldn’t make out what was being said. She wished they would speak up.
The voices ceased and Josey jumped back as the door opened. She smoothed the front of her dress and did her best to look as if she had just arrived. The guest was a tall gentleman, younger than she imagined. A sigil of crossed keys was emblazoned on the breast of his gray mantle, which he wore over a suit of the same color. He had a sallow face with a nervous look about him, a look that amplified Josey’s anxiety. Had their discussion not gone well? Had Father not offered an adequate dowry? She was bursting with questions. The man bent in a stiff bow before striding past her to the stairs.
Josey peeked inside. Her father sat at his perennially cluttered desk with a hand pressed to his forehead. The light from an open window illuminated his pate, bald save for a halo of sparse white hair around the crown. He would be sixty-two this winter. She remembered how strong and tall he had looked when she was a child. Now, he spent most of his time in this study, surrounded by the trappings of his former power. The room was stuffy and warm, but he kept a blanket wrapped around his legs.
He straightened when he saw her. “Josey. I didn’t hear you return. How was your shopping? Did you find Anastasia well? I want to hear everything.”
“Father.” She entered and sat in the leather chair beside his desk. “Who was that man? Fenrik said he came from the palace.”
He reached out to take her hand. His fingers were thin and cold.
“His father was a friend of mine. In younger days, the two of us were powerful men. Members of the Court vied for our attention and would give much for our patronage, but now he’s dead and buried and I am an old man.”
“You are still a great man. I just had this notion your visitor was calling about something . . . more auspicious.”
“Ah.” He placed a finger alongside his nose. “You thought he came with a betrothal offer.”
She tried to blush, but it was a trick she’d never mastered. “It was silly of me. I’m only seventeen, I know.”
“Seventeen and as lovely as a rose in bloom. I wish I had such an offer, Josey. Sadly, the news is not so gay. There are rumors of strange troubles in the north. Banditry and worse. Envoys have gone missing and things are deteriorating here in Othir. How would a voyage suit you?”
His question caught her off guard. “Suit me? Father, I can’t leave Othir. Anastasia is to be married. That’s what I’ve come to tell you. She’s asked me to be her maiden of honor.”
“I’m quite serious, Josephine. The political tide is shifting faster than I anticipated. I had hoped we could weather the storm, but I fear it’s not safe anymore.”
“Not safe? Why not?”
He eased back in his chair, suddenly looking old and feeble. “Affairs on the Capitoline are in disarray.”
Father still used old-fashioned terms like the Capitoline, even though the Nimean Empire had died out ages ago and everyone else had taken to calling it Celestial Hill.
“There is unrest in the streets,” he continued. “And the prelate’s ability to contain it grows weaker. Just the other day, a man was killed not three blocks from our doorstep. Suffice it to say I wish you to adjourn to a safer location until these problems pass.”
“I was out the whole afternoon and I didn’t see anything amiss. The city is as calm as a summer day. Anyway, Anastasia is my best friend. I can’t miss her wedding, Father. Not for anything.”
“Josey, my dear. I promised your mother I would always see to your well-being. And I act from my own selfish desires. I couldn’t bear to see you come to harm. You possess the key to my heart.”
She placed a hand on her bosom. Under the lace fronting of her dress, the cool hardness of a pendant pressed against her skin. She knelt before him and folded her hands on his lap.
“Mother wasn’t afraid of anything. She wouldn’t want me to leave your side.”
He brushed a rogue curl from her face. The corners of his eyes drooped amid folds of wrinkles. “She would want you to trust my judgment and obey my wishes. Please, Josey, pack your things. I have arranged for a ship.”
“No, Josey. My mind is adamant on this. You will go to Navarre and remain there until I send for you. The new exarch is a good man and as trustworthy as we’ll find in times such as these. He will see you safe—”
Josey jumped to her feet, her entire body trembling. “I won’t go! You cannot make me.”
“It is settled. Chide me no more on this subject, Daughter.”
Cheeks wet with tears, she dashed from the study, brushing past Fenrik in the hallway loaded with wrapped bundles from the carriage. She slammed the door to her room and stood at the foot of the feather bed, hands clenched at her sides. How could he be so cruel? Why couldn’t he see that she couldn’t leave? They needed each other. She had no other family. Only him, and now he was sending her away. What would she tell Anastasia?
Josey took deep breaths and composed herself. Tears wouldn’t get her anywhere. She sat down at her dressing table and began to brush her hair with short, hard strokes. She needed to think, to devise some argument to sway her father. She had to convince him to let her stay. She had to.
Raging flames painted the night sky in hues of orange and gold, and threw shadows across the yard of the villa where the tall bodies sprawled. Caim peered through the wooden slats of the fence.
“We have to go,” a voice whispered behind him.
Caim wanted to turn away, but his limbs had turned to stone. The frigid wind flogged his small body. The cold slid through his veins like ice water. There was blood on his hands. He wiped them on his shirt, but they wouldn’t come clean.
The world shimmered and he was standing in the yard. A large man slumped at his feet. Strings of red-black blood ran from the wound in his chest. A tremor ran through Caim as the corpse opened its eyes, black spheres without irises or whites. A whisper issued from blue-tinged lips.
“Justice . . . , my son.”
Caim opened his eyes and was greeted by a razor-sharp moonbeam that pierced through the slats of the window shutters. A cool breeze flitted over his chest as the last vestiges of the dream—the images of fire and death—sifted through his mental grasp. He settled back into the fabric of the cot under him and stared at the ceiling, debating whether to get up or try to fall back asleep for another hour.
With a sigh he threw back the woolen blankets and dropped to his chest on the cold floorboards. His muscles stretched and contracted through a routine of exercises: push-ups, stomach tighteners, lunges, and handstands. Thirty minutes later he was sweating freely. After splashing his face with water from a chipped clay pitcher, he stood before his only extravagance, a full-length cheval glass in a bronze stand. Hard eyes stared back at him from the wavy depths of the mirror, chips of granite set in deep cavities beneath his thick, black brows. He ran his hands across his torso, examining the damage; a few scrapes and cuts, broken skin at his elbows and the backs of his hands, but all in all he was in better shape than he probably deserved. Fragments of the dream scudded through his mind. The words of his father’s ghost haunted him. Justice. Had it been served in Ostergoth?
He pulled a clean chiton and breeches from his footlocker and went out into the kitchen. The rest of his apartment lacked for furniture: a plain table stood with a single chair, a coldbox and small brick oven in the kitchen, and a pantry. The living area was bare except for a wide mat and assorted pieces of exercise equipment, sand-filled bags suspended from the ceiling. A charcoal etching of a lighthouse drawn by a street artist hung on the wall in a plain wooden frame. In the picture, black frothing waves battered at the rocky base of the lighthouse as its beacon shone bravely in the face of the storm. Tiny lights flickered in the distance. They made him think of Kit.
He put on a pair of scuffed leather boots and wondered where she was. Kit came and went as she pleased. Sometimes he wouldn’t see her for days, and other times he couldn’t get rid of her. He didn’t know what Kit was, not exactly. When he was a boy he had thought of her as an imaginary friend, but as he grew older and she did not leave, he began to suspect something else. No one else had invisible friends who tagged after them. But she was real. She knew things he didn’t, things he couldn’t know.
Countless times she’d warned him of danger before it materialized.
His ability to meld with the shadows was another mystery. He had always been good at going about unnoticed, even as a boy, but where did the power come from? Had he been born with it or was he cursed? More trouble than anything, it was another quirk of a past he remembered only in murky fragments. Maybe he didn’t want to.
Caim strapped on his knives and covered them with a fustian cloak as he went to the door, its olive green paint peeling away in strips to reveal the slab of old wormwood underneath. He peered down the hallway in both directions. As he secured the door’s rusty latch, a small, pale face stared up at him from across the hall. He had seen the girl a few times before, playing alone in the hallway at odd hours. Her wheat-colored hair hung down across her thin shoulders in tangled skeins. She couldn’t have been older than six, or maybe seven. Angry voices echoed from beyond the door beside her. Caim walked away.
He descended a flight of creaking stairs and passed through the dirty foyer. The tenement building might have been a stately manor house in its former days before the neighborhood took a turn for the worse. Still, he liked its location and found the current owner’s policy of studied indifference toward his tenants convenient. As long as the rent was paid on time, the old geezer never asked questions.
As Caim reached the street, a stench assaulted him like a wet sock full of rotten eggs, a combination of sea air and human refuse that clogged his head and clung to the back of his palate. It was worse in the summer.
The ancient stone buildings of Low Town, once the heart of the city according to the local salts, were stained with centuries of weather, soot, and foul air. Over the years, the inner city had grown upward as well as outward. Buildings four and five stories tall hung precariously over the narrow streets. With the defeat of the pirates of the Stormcatcher Islands fifty or so years back and the subsequent expansion of trade on the Midland Sea, those with the means to capitalize on the sudden influx of new
goods left the neighborhood to build bigger homes on the hills above the Processional. So High Town was born, eventually to become the glowing jewel of Othir. Things had only gotten worse for the Low Towners in recent years, such as increased taxes to pay for distant wars and expensive public works like the new cathedral under construction in the city center, and food shortages. The poorest families were put out on the street by landlords feeling the pinch. He saw them every day, begging on the main
thoroughfares, selling their children in back alleys.
As he hopped over a fetid puddle on Prior’s Cross, Caim caught a glimpse of the horned moon, perched over the roof of an abandoned dyer’s factory like a silver sickle. Its otherworldly beauty, forever out of reach, always made him uneasy in a way he couldn’t rightly describe. It was like being homesick, but for a home he had never known.
Othir had been his home for six years. He had originally begun plying his trade as a sellsword in the western territories. He’d done time in various mercenary crews during his teen years, earning his silver with one hand and spending it with the other. But after a bit of nasty business in Isenmere, his gang was run out by a posse bent on revenge. He drifted from town to town, always watching over his shoulder. When no lawmen showed up to arrest him, he passed into a new life.
A right turn onto Serpentine Way brought Caim to a tangle of back streets and alleyways known as the Gutters. Here the buildings were built of old, crumbling brick covered in dingy whitewash. Their sooty slate roofs tilted sharply, with tall steeples and shuttered gables. The Gutters were home to every sort of crook and deadbeat imaginable. It was a place to tread lightly, where anything could happen and often did.
Caim strode down the center of the street. Footpads slunk deeper into their hidey-holes as he passed by. Muggers found business elsewhere. He’d drenched these cobblestones in blood more than once. Still, he kept his cloak tight around his shoulders and one hand on a knife.
His first contract had been right here in Othir. Dalros was a luxuries trader whose business had suffered a turn of bad fortune. When he couldn’t cover his debts to the local usurers, they decided to make an example of him. Caim was tapped for the job. It was a simple break-andstab, nothing fancy, but Caim would never forget the shakes he’d suffered that spring night as he scaled the low wall surrounding Dalros’s home. He was in and out in less than fifteen minutes. With the merchant’s blood on his hands, he’d crept past a lounging sentry, slipped back over the wall, and gone on his way. He was paid twenty gold soldats for that job, a fortune to him in those days.
A shout from behind made Caim spin around. His knife slid out of its sheath as a squadron of soldiers on horseback rode down the street. On their bloodred breastplates gleamed a blazing sunburst in gold, the symbol of the Sacred Brotherhood, or the Knights of the Noose, as they were called behind their backs—a jest about the manner in which their patron saint had gone to meet his Maker. Some in Othir said they were the real power behind the prelacy, but Caim paid little heed to politics. It made no difference to him who ruled as long as he could count on them to sow discord and corruption; unrest made for good business in his line of work. And over the past few years, business had been extraordinarily good.
Caim slipped into the shadowed doorway of a cobbler’s shop and sheathed his blade as they rode past. The soldiers’ presence in the Gutters at this hour made the skin between his shoulder blades itch. The denizens of these squalid alleys were typically left to their own devices after sunset.
Once the soldiers passed from sight, he continued on his way. Another three blocks brought him to Chirron’s Square. A marketplace by day, it brokered a different type of commerce after sundown. Pimps and drug peddlers lounged amid the marble pedestals of broken statuary. Ladies of the night trolled for interested buyers. In the center of the plaza rose a scaffold. Its weathered timbers supported a massive crossbeam from which dangled five bodies, adult, probably male, but it was impossible to tell for sure. They had been burned before they were hanged, their hands and feet lopped off, their eyes gouged out. No one paid the bodies any mind. Who had they been? Robbers? Rapists? Or just some poor souls foolish enough to criticize the ruling powers in public? Caim continued on his way, but the spectacle lingered in his thoughts.
He turned onto Cutter Lane. Windows were thrown wide open down the length of the street despite the chill in the air, spilling the rosy light of a dozen taverns and festhouses onto the grimy cobblestones. Pipers and lutists competed with the din of hard drinkers.
He ducked into the third house on the left. The cracked placard over the door depicted three buxom ladies in short frocks. Bright light filled the Three Maids. Wooden tankards clanked on the tabletops, and rough hands clapped in time with a zithern while a scrawny girl clad in only her snow-pale skin and long red locks danced under the glassy stares of tradesmen and stevedores. A shore party of sailors—Arnossi by their accent and swarthy features—sang sea ballads in a corner.
Caim threaded his way to the bar. Big Olaf was tending tonight. He grinned through a row of uneven teeth as Caim approached.
“Hey, boyo. You should’ve been here last night. I had to toss out a pair of uptown rakes with a mean-on. Swear they flew a dozen paces before they hit pavement. Each.”
Caim slid a silver noble, double-penny weight, across the bar. “Is he in?”
The coin disappeared, and Olaf jerked a sausage-thick thumb at the back stairs. Caim headed around the bar. Mathias, the owner of the Three Maids, also handled several of the biggest fish in Othir’s murder-for-hire game. He was their broker, their middleman, the one who ferreted out the contracts and matched them with the right talent for the job. He lived above the tavern, he claimed, to be closer to the people, and always acted hurt when anyone insinuated he was a miser. Caim didn’t know why
Mathias continued to live amid the dregs of the city. With the commissions he’d made in the last year alone, he could afford a comfortable house in High Town. Some folks couldn’t bear to leave their roots, no matter how high they climbed. Caim had never had that problem.
The back stairs were unlit. As he started up, Caim heard the whisper of leather glide over wood a moment before a shape appeared above him. An image flashed through his mind: clinging to the walls of Duke Reinard’s keep, gazing up at a mysterious black figure crawling along the battlements. A twinge quivered in his chest. Both suete knives were out in an instant, held low and pressed against his thighs to hide their shine. His knees flexed, ready to leap back or lunge ahead.
Two white circles appeared in the gloom above him, a pair of hands held open. “Peace,” said a low voice. “Good evening, Caim.”
“Ral.” Caim slipped the knives back into their homes, but he left an inch of each blade free. “If you’ve got business with Mathias, I’ll wait below.”
Ral descended a step. The faint glow from the common room highlighted his features. Bright blue eyes peered from beneath coiffed spikes of stark blond hair. Dressed all in black leather, he melded with the shadows of the stairway. The intricate silver cross-guard of a cut-and-thrust sword jutted from his belt. Glints of steel at his wrists, waist, and boots hinted at other weapons; Ral was notorious for all the hardware he carried.
“No, we are concluded.” His lazy way of talking reminded Caim of a dozing cat, always a moment from showing his claws. “I heard you did quite well up north. Reinard and his bodyguards slain in front of a hundred witnesses, but not a single person could identify the killer afterward. Not bad.”
Caim chewed on his tongue. He didn’t like discussing his business, especially where idle ears could overhear. He leaned against the wall of the stairwell, trying to appear casual.
“It’s done. That’s all that matters.”
Ral came down another step. “Exactly, but you should be careful.
There’s been a citywide crackdown these past couple days.”
“I saw the display in the square.”
Ral chuckled. Despite his butter-smooth voice, it wasn’t a pleasant sound. “A gang of roof-crawlers got pinched robbing a vicar’s home. All involved were caught and hanged, but not before they tortured his entire family for the location of a cache of jewels. Word says they even cut off the youngest boy’s fingers and toes.”
A leader of the True Faith, supposedly sworn to vows of poverty and chastity, keeps a house in High Town with a wife and children, and no one cares to comment. But why should they? Large sins are easily forgotten. It’s the little ones that gnaw at your soul in the lonely hours of the night.
“Of course,” Ral said, “the fops up on Celestial Hill are terrified out of their wigs that it’s another movement toward rebellion.”
Caim nodded, uncomfortably reminded of young Lord Robert. “If you’ll excuse me, I have business of my own with Mathias.”
“I’ve no time for palaver myself. I’m heading out of town.”
They passed each other on the stairs and Ral turned. “You know, Caim. It’s not fair.”
Caim paused with a foot on the top step. “What isn’t?”
Ral opened his hand and a slender throwing blade appeared, too fast for the eye to follow. Caim tensed.
“Here we are,” Ral said. “Two of the deadliest men in the city. We should be running things, lording it up in the palace. It’s all wasted on those powdered fools whose only claim is their family name.” His eyes lit up as he spoke.
Caim looked down at the other man without a shred of empathy. According to the rumors, Ral was a son of privilege who had enjoyed many a night rutting in Low Town until his inheritance ran out. Then, broke and desperate, he had weaseled his way into the assassination trade. He must have found the taste to his liking, because he came back again and again between benders on Silk Street. Knifings in the merchant district in broad daylight, pregnant mistresses found floating in the harbor—those were Ral’s stock in trade.
What does that make you? A vigilante with bad dreams or a thug just smart enough to stay one step ahead of the law?
Searching for a way to end the conversation without giving insult, Caim decided on brevity. “It is what it is.”
“I suppose so. Farewell, Caim. I’m off to a warmer clime to take care of some business. We’ll talk another time.”
Not if he had any choice in the matter, Caim thought as he climbed the last step. He was tired. He just wanted to get his money and go home. Maybe he would take some time off. He approached the only door on the upper floor, knocked twice, waited a heartbeat, and gave two more knocks. He opened it without waiting for an invitation.
If Mathias acted the skinflint with his patrons below, he spared no expense to make his living space look and feel like a mansion. Overlapping hand-woven carpets covered the floors. Silken arrays embroidered with eastern-style hunting scenes decorated the walls, hiding the bare panels underneath. Heavy furniture in glossy hardwoods cluttered the room, along with marble tables and expensive bronze artwork.
Mathias came through the archway on the far side of the parlor, dressed in a gaudy teal robe splashed with tiny golden cranes. He was a heavyset man past his middling years. He still had most of his hair and employed dyes to keep it black and lustrous except for a pair of silver wings brushed back over
his ears. An admission of inevitability, he called them.
“Our good friend returns from the north!”
They shook hands, and Mathias offered him a choice of seats. Caim sat down on a high-backed chair with no armrests or cushion.
Mathias fetched a bottle and two glasses from a malachite sideboard. “By the gods above and below, I am glad to see you back.”
“Blasphemy, Mat? At your age?”
“Aye. I’m too old to care anymore what the Church thinks. What has that prattle ever done for anybody? Nothing. But forget about that. Everything went well, yes?”
Caim accepted a glass of amber brandy and settled back into the hard seat. “Well enough, although trying to get anywhere in this country is becoming a right pain in the ass. The roads are a mess and tollhouses have sprung up over every hill.”
Mathias flumped onto a banquette and sloshed liquor on his expensive robe. “The realm is coming apart like an overripe melon. Every warlord who can put together a dozen half-trained men-at-arms is trying to carve out a piece for himself. It’s almost enough to make one long for the good old days of imperial law and order. Almost.”
“Anyway, I stayed in Ostergoth long enough to hear the bells ring His Grace’s departure from the world of the living before I left.”
Mat lifted his glass. “To another job completed and another villain vanquished.”
Caim took a sip before setting the glass down. “I’ve gathered there was some trouble in town while I was away.”
“I had nothing to do with it.” The rubies encrusting Mat’s pinky ring gleamed as he placed a plump hand over his flabby breast. “You know I never touch that sort of smash-and-grab work. It’s an unsavory business and a trifle pathetic. Now we all have to suffer through a few weeks of heightened security, but things will settle down. They can’t stay on full alert forever, eh? More brandy?”
“I’ll just have my fee and leave you in peace.”
Mathias smiled. “That’s the man I know. All business—and business is good!” He reached under his seat and tossed a bulging leather sack to Caim. “Five hundred soldats, just as the contract stated.”
Caim caught the bag and slipped it into his shirt.
“Not going to count it?”
“No need to. I know where you live.”
“Right enough. You’re acquiring quite a reputation, Caim. That’s why I know you’re just the man for another job I’m sitting on.”
Caim rose to his feet. “No thank you, Mat. I don’t want to see anything you’re sitting on. That cushion looks like it’s had enough.”
“It’s not like you to pass up money, especially for a worthy cause.”
“I’m sure. Another priest with a fetish for children, or a landlord who squeezes every last crumb from his destitute peasants. No thanks. I’m going to take some time off. Like you said, the city’s heating up.”
“That’s why I’m turning to you, Caim. Believe me when I say this job is easy. So easy you could do it blind and one-handed.”
“Not an image I want to ponder.”
Mathias brushed the air with his pudgy fingers. “You know what I mean. But it has to be done fast.”
He headed for the door. “Sorry, Mat.”
“Caim, I’m desperate!”
Caim stopped with his hand on the knob. Mathias wasn’t a stranger to theatrics, but he sounded genuinely worried, and Mathias Finneus never worried. The look of relief on his face was almost comical as Caim came back and stood by the high-backed chair.
“What’s the job?”
“Please, sit, my friend,” Mathias urged. “More brandy?”
“No more drinks. Tell me about the job.”
“It’s very simple. One target, living in High Town.”
Caim’s hand hovered over his glass, resting still on the table. “Inside the city?”
“Yes, you’ve done local work before.”
“Who is he?”
“A retired general, a real hard case from what I’ve heard. He was responsible for some big massacre during the war. Up in Eregoth, I believe. You’re from those parts, aren’t you?”
Caim considered the carpet between his feet as a jumble of old feelings knocked around in his chest. “What makes you say that?”
“Nothing much. You just have a northernish look about you.”
Caim looked Mathias in the eye. “I told you before. I’m from the western territories.”
But he wasn’t. As far as he could piece together from his shambled memories, his family had hailed from Eregoth, one of several border states that had once been part of the Nimean Empire. But it was a past he didn’t want known, for no better reason than it was personal.
“Oh yes.” Mathias winked. “I forgot.”
“Well, what makes me nervous is the timing. This job has to be done in two days.”
“Impossible. You know I don’t do rush jobs. Go find some desperate sailor deep in his cups and slip him a few silvers.”
“Caim, this client isn’t someone to disappoint, if you get my meaning. It must be done quickly, and with no mistakes. That’s why I need you. You’re the only one I can trust with a job like this on such short notice.”
“I want to help you, Mathias, but there are too many things to consider. I spent weeks stalking Reinard before I took him down. I would need time to study the target, learn his habits and movements. After that I would have to do the same for his family and bodyguards.”
Mathias bounced off the chaise and waddled to a rolltop desk against the wall. He held up a bundle of papers bound together with a red cord.
“I have all the particulars here: daily itinerary, personal security details, interior layouts, everything you’ll need. He lives with a young daughter, but don’t worry about her. The mother’s dead. He doesn’t keep any guards, just a broken-down manservant who sleeps like a log. It will be the easiest money you ever made.”
Mathias held out the bundle, but Caim didn’t take it.
“Who gathered all this?”
“A mutual friend. I vouch for its authenticity.”
“It was Ral, wasn’t it?”
“Why does it matter? Just take it.”
“Damn it, Mat. He took the assignment and then dumped it back in your lap when a better job came up, didn’t he? No wonder he was so chummy. No thanks. I’m passing.”
Caim took two steps toward the door. Mathias reached out as if to grasp his sleeve, but drew his hand back before it made contact. Caim stopped as the bundle of papers was thrust in front of him.
“It’s his loss!” Mathias said. “In and out, and a thousand soldats in your pocket.”
“I don’t clean up other people’s messes.”
Mathias cocked his head to the right. “My friend, that’s precisely what you do. Please, don’t make me beg. I’ll throw in half of my end.
That’s another three hundred in gold. Then you can take a nice, long sabbatical.”
Caim sighed as Mathias shook the papers at him. He couldn’t do it, couldn’t let down the man who had given him a chance as a young man on the run, a vagabond with no contacts or vouchers.
Caim took the papers. “All right. I’ll do it. But hang on to your fee. You’re getting old, Mathias. You should think about retiring soon.”
Mathias gathered his robe around him as he returned to his chair. “I don’t know what I’d do with myself if I ever retired.”
“Buy a big villa somewhere nice. Live the life of a country gentleman.”
Mathias laughed so hard he almost choked on his wine. “Can you see me as a country squire? I wouldn’t last a month. Good fortune, my friend. I’ll see you when the job is done.”
Caim tucked the papers into his tunic. The bundle made a lump under his arm opposite the money pouch. He crossed to the door, but hesitated with his hand on the knob.
“By the way, what was the other job Ral took?”
“What?” Mathias twisted around to look at Caim over his shoulder. “Oh, something in Belastire. He’ll be bow-legged and as dusty as a beggar by the time he returns.”
“Belastire? It’ll be cold on the Midland coast this time of year.”
Mathias nodded. “Cold and bitter. The blackheart should feel right at home, eh?”
Caim thought back to the conversation on the stairs. Hadn’t Ral mentioned a warmer clime? What game was he playing?
Caim checked his knives out of habit as he departed the Three Maids. Revelers accompanied by torchbearers filled the benighted streets, pushed out the door by exhausted tavernkeeps. The sun would be rising in another couple hours. He would have liked to go back home and crawl into bed for a couple sennights, but he had work to do. Two days wasn’t enough time.
Tucking the pouch and the papers deeper into the confines of his shirt, Caim pulled his cloak tighter around his shoulders. The broadcloth wrapped around him in a warm cocoon as he delved back into the Gutters.
Josey had nearly worked herself into another bout of tears by the time her carriage stopped outside Anastasia’s house on Torvelli Square. She couldn’t get the conversation with Father out of her head. She’d never felt so helpless in her life. The only thing she could think of was to talk to her best friend about it. Between the two of them, she was certain they would find a solution.
An elderly footman ushered her inside. Handing her mink-lined cloak to one of the house girls, its silky hairs stiff from the chill, Josey filed away the changing seasons as another potential argument against her departure. Now was hardly the best time of year to undertake a sea journey. That wouldn’t be enough on its own to sway her father, but when she talked to him again, she intended to have an arsenal of reasons why it would be best for her to stay in Othir, at least until after Yeartide.
“Josey!” Anastasia’s cheery voice echoed through the atrium as she hurried down a winding staircase. They clasped hands and kissed each other’s cheeks.
Anastasia stepped back to arm’s length, concern written across her pretty features. With her honey gold hair, coiffed in wavy marcels, and her ocean blue eyes, Anastasia was a true beauty, doll-like in her perfection. Next to her, Josey had always felt homely, her complexion too pale, her hair too dark and stringy.
“What’s the matter, Josey? Come in here.”
Josey let herself be pulled into an adjourning parlor room and seated alone on a padded settee with tiny green leaves embroidered on the cushions.
Anastasia kissed her again. “Something’s wrong, Josey. Tell me.”
Josey told Anastasia about her father’s decision to make her leave. By the time she finished, she was sobbing openly.
Anastasia lent Josey a handkerchief to wipe her face. “That’s simply not fair. Othir is as safe as a nursery. Forgive me, Josey, but I fear your father may be feeling his dotage. You know how old men get. They see specters in every dark corner.”
“I know. But no matter what I said, he refused to budge on the matter. I don’t know what to do. That’s why I came to see you. You have to help me, ’Stasia. I cannot miss your wedding. It will be the happiest day of my life!”
“You have to be there!” Anastasia looked on the verge of tears herself.
Before her friend started to cry, Josey rushed on. “I will be. I promise. But I need a plan. Father won’t give in to emotional pleas.”
“You could stay here with me. With the armsmen we keep, this house is virtually a fortress at night.”
“I’m not sure Father would feel that’s adequate. My safety has always been his chief concern. There were bodyguards everywhere when we lived in Navarre. Sometimes I could hardly breathe.”
“But the westlands are abysmally lawless. This is Othir. It’s entirely different.”
“I know. I just don’t know how to convince Father of that.”
Anastasia squeezed her hand. “Don’t worry, darling. We’ll find a way.” She reached up and touched the pendant hanging from Josey’s neck. “I’ve always admired this piece, Josey. It’s beautiful. So simple, but elegant.”
Josey lifted the pendant, an antique-style key in gold. “Father gave it to me for my fourteenth birthday. It’s my favorite piece of jewelry.”
“It must be. You never wear anything else.”
“Father says it’s the key to his heart, that it would give me everything I ever wanted and more. Sometimes he’s the sweetest, kindest man in the world. I wish he would see reason and let me stay here until your wedding day.”
“It will work out, Josey. I know! We’ll go to the basilica and say a prayer for it.”
Josey dabbed her face with the silken cloth. “I don’t think praying is going to solve anything, ’Stasia. This is serious.” Then she saw the stricken look in her friend’s eyes. “Forgive me. I’m just overwrought. Yes, let’s go.”
As they made to leave, a servant appeared at the entrance of the room. “Pardon, milady. A visitor has arrived for you.”
“Let him in.” Anastasia turned to Josey. “That must be Markus. He’s been coming by every day since the engagement was announced. He’s such a romantic. Do you like him, Josey? Tell me true.”
Josey hugged her friend and laughed, glad to speak of something else. “He’s a dream come to life. You two will be as happy together as a pair of larks.”
Anastasia giggled. “Markus is nearly a knight, you know. Well, very nearly. Second prefect is a worthy rank, and soon he’ll be promoted. I’m sure of it.”
They turned to the clack of hard boot steps as a tall shape filled the doorway.
“Markus!” Anastasia ran to him and they embraced beside a bronze bust of one of her famous ancestors. Then, as if noticing Josey for the first time, the couple parted and came over to sit with her.
“I adore this uniform on you, Markus.” Anastasia brushed her fingers over the circle emblazoned on his jacket. “It makes you look so handsome.”
He smiled, revealing rows of large, white teeth. He was starting to grow a mustache and sideburns in the military style. Josey squinted, trying to imagine him with a full face of hair. Something in the way he looked at her made her uncomfortable.
“What do you think?” Markus asked. “Does it make me look dashing?”
Josey dropped her gaze to the floor. “Yes, quite dashing.”
Anastasia patted Josey’s knee. “Poor darling. Her father’s sending her away, and we’ve been trying to concoct a scheme to keep her here.”
“Sending you away?” The note of real concern in his voice touched Josey. Perhaps he was as genteel as a knight after all. “Whatever for?”
Josey folded the loaned handkerchief into a square on her lap. “He says it isn’t safe here in the city anymore. He says people have been assaulted, even killed.”
“How horrible!” Anastasia said. “Is it true, Markus?”
“Oh, it’s not for you to worry about. The Low Towners are forever at each other’s throats, like a pack of curs fighting over a bone. That’s where most of the attacks have taken place.”
“Most?” Josey asked. “But not all?”
He brushed at the breast of his uniform, dismissing the idea. “Some times a matter spills over across the Processional, but it’s nothing to trouble you ladies. You’re as safe as lambs in their pens.”
Josey wasn’t sure she liked his description, but she put on a smile for her friend. “I hope I can convince Father of that.”
“I have a wonderful idea,” Anastasia said. “Markus could escort you home and tell your father just what he said to us. I’m sure it will comfort him, coming from an officer of the Sacred Brotherhood.”
“Would you?” Josey asked. She didn’t like the idea of riding home with him, but she was willing to make sacrifices if it meant being allowed to stay in Othir.
Markus stood with a shake of his head. “I’m sorry, but I cannot. I have business to attend this afternoon. I just stopped by to remind Ana of our date for a late supper this evening.”
Anastasia rose to embrace her betrothed. “I didn’t forget. I’m having Maya make something special for us.”
“Excellent.” He bowed to Josey and gave Anastasia a peck on the cheek. “I shall see you later.”
Josey remained behind as Anastasia walked Markus out. They whispered their good-byes out of eyesight. Several minutes passed before Anastasia returned to the sitting room. Her eyes danced with joy as she plopped down beside Josey.
“Isn’t he magnificent? I’m so happy, Josey. I feel like a cloud floating high above the world.”
Josey hugged her friend and murmured the words Anastasia wanted to hear, but she couldn’t shake the suspicion that things might not remain so congenial between husband and wife after the wedding day. Markus was polite enough in mixed company, but his cavalier manner didn’t suit her friend, who was the picture of a perfect lady, refined and unassuming. Yet Josey kept those fears to herself. Anastasia was clearly smitten, and there was no use spoiling her good feelings. And some part of Josey wondered if she wasn’t just the tiniest bit jealous that her friend had found such love while she was still alone, chaste and waiting for the man of her dreams.
Josey listened with half an ear while Anastasia chattered about visits to the seamstress, finding the right orchestra, and all the other minutiae required to plan a wedding. She nodded at the appropriate places and made polite noises, but the greater part of her thoughts were on her own problems. Her ship departed in two days. The matter couldn’t wait until she devised an airtight argument. She had to speak with Father tonight.
Ral watched them from the shadow of the Emperor Tronieger monument in the center of Torvelli Square, the strapping officer of the Guard and the young daughter of a respected statesman, as they shared a deep kiss on the front steps of the manse. The prefect’s hands slid down to clutch his lady’s
slender bottom in broad daylight. Ral smiled to himself. The wagging tongues of High Town would wear themselves ragged.
Ral didn’t understand the fascination with romance. Oh, he enjoyed the company of women aplenty, the sorts who were attracted to a man of means, and the girl was a pretty slip of a thing, but he didn’t have time for anything that outlasted the night. Perhaps after his work was done he would take the time to find a companion, someone suitable for an upcoming man with a bright future.
Finally, Markus bid the girl farewell. Ral followed him, keeping his distance. The prefect, in his scarlet coat, was simplicity itself to shadow through the broad streets of Opuline Hill.
The sights and sounds of High Town did not distract Ral. Growing up, he had sampled every type of excess that wealth could buy. His life might have turned out differently if his father had lived to a ripe old age, but fate had intervened in the form of news off an Arnossi trader bound for Illmyn. Both of his father’s ships had disappeared in a storm off the Hvekish coast, lost with all hands. In an instant, he went from a boy to a man of means. He sold his interest in the shipping company and bought a big house. He found new friends in the sons and daughters of the city’s finest families, hosted lavish parties that went on for days, and lived the life he’d always wanted. Until the money ran out. Then the loan sharks started circling. He borrowed to keep up his sumptuous lifestyle, and then again when that ran out. By the time he realized the depths to which he had sunk, it was too late.
They found him dead drunk in the back room of a Low Town dive. Five big men with cold eyes propped him on a rickety chair and lashed his hands behind his back.
“Mr. Ayes isn’t happy with you,” the biggest of them rumbled. “You been spending his money like it’s piss, and he ain’t seen nothing back in more than a fortnight.”
Another thug flashed a long-bladed dirk, so big it was almost a sword. “Not a smart thing to do, making Mr. Ayes angry. Now we come to collect.”
They cut off his clothes and shook them out, but Ral laughed at them, too drunk to care whether or not they killed him.
The man with the big knife rested the point between Ral’s legs and whispered in his ear. “If you can’t pay, friend, then you have to make good some other way.”
They gave him a simple choice: lose his skin or do one small favor for his debtor in exchange for wiping the books clean.
All he had to do was kill a man.
That job changed him forever—the apprehension as he stole into another man’s home in the dead of night; the tingling of his skin as he found his quarry abed, oblivious to the doom looming over him; the euphoria that surged through his veins when he drove the knife into that soft belly. His victim’s death moan had been a paean of rebirth, setting him free from all the constraints that had been ingrained into him by a society blind to his needs, apathetic to his desires. That night he had stepped into a world where the power over life and death rested in his hands. He had never looked back.
Ral followed Markus through the old Forum with its afternoon strollers out for their constitutional amid the rows of vendor stalls. The shouts of hawkers punctuated the susurrus of the crowd. Markus strode straight ahead like a charging bull, never glancing to his left or right. Complete obliviousness to the city’s dangers, great or small—that was the prerogative of being an officer in the Sacred Brotherhood. Markus’s stride didn’t even slow to the sound of cracking whips.
Ral slipped behind a stack of cloth bundles as a band of men in bloodred robes burst from a merchant’s tent. Their scourges split the air as they flung the object of their ire onto the dirty pavestones. The man was dressed in the tattered remains of a fine suit. His round cap rolled in the dust. The Flagellants surrounded him—Ral could now see he was the owner of the stall—and proceeded to beat him without mercy while a scrawny woman, possibly his wife, wrung her hands and sobbed in the tent’s doorway. What had been the man’s crime? Ral couldn’t guess. It could be almost anything, from cheating his customers to failing to display a proper image of the prelate within his establishment. Like the Brotherhood, the Flagellants were a law unto themselves, answerable only
to the Church.
Ral skirted the scene. He found his quarry on the other side of the forum and followed him into the Temple District. A few streets farther, Markus entered the Pantheon, a converted pagan temple. While the prefect entered the stolid building through the front via a set of immense bronze doors, Ral went around to a side entrance located in a constricted alley. Avoiding piles of garbage, he wedged the tip of a dagger into the keyhole and snapped the simple lock. The door accessed a crowded storage room. The deep tones of choral singing filtered through another door on the other side of the room. Ral took a moment to rummage through a varnished wardrobe, selected a white cassock, and pulled the garment over his head. A red stole stitched with circles in gold thread went around his shoulders. Smiling, he slipped through another door.
The Pantheon’s circular walls bowed over the main worship chamber of the church. The building was an architectural masterpiece, dating back to imperial days when Nimea had enjoyed an era of magnificence unmatched by any nation in the world. The ceiling was open to the sky, another sign of its pagan origins. Prayer mats formed orderly rows on the floor’s red-and-white checkerboard flagstones where priests and trains of dutiful acolytes walked among the faithful, swinging pots of smoking incense and murmuring prayers.
Ral pulled up the robe’s hood and slipped behind a gaggle of old women in black shawls, their eyes downcast as they walked the stations around the perimeter of the great chamber. He slowed as they stopped before a hollow niche inhabited by the gray stone statue of some saint. So pious, they made him sick as they whispered fervent prayers over clenched fists. If any of them dared to raise their eyes high enough, they would see the marble base of the original statue that had adorned this shrine before
the advent of the True Faith. Perhaps it had been the likeness of Torim, the Storm Lord, or Hisu, the patron goddess of love and nauseating poetry. Whichever god it had been, the name had been chiseled out of the pedestal as if it never existed. Ral smirked under the hood. It was a shame people couldn’t be eliminated as easily as deities. His life would be a lot simpler.
As the old women shuffled off to the next station, Ral sank down beside Markus, who knelt in the last row, his large hands clasped together.
Markus barely looked over. “No, thank you, Father. I’m—” Then the prefect caught sight of his face. “Ral? God’s breath! Isn’t anything sacred to you?”
Ral glanced at the massive sculpture of the Prophet of the True Faith. Lord Phebus, the Light of the World, towered above the high fane at the end of the nave. The statue was clothed as a simple peasant, but glittering rays chased in real gold radiated from his bloodied brow.
“I’ll worry about God when he starts worrying about me.”
Markus looked around. “Someone could see you.”
Ral had already checked during his approach. No other worshippers were in earshot.
“Not likely. These bleaters are too busy worrying about saving their souls. With all this praying, you’d think there was an army of Shadowmen banging at the gates, eh? Or old King Mithrax riding from the grave with his Hellion Host.”
The scabbard of Markus’s sword scraped on the floor as he shifted position. He moved easily for a big man. “What are you doing here?”
“Just making a last-minute visit. I take it you haven’t heard the latest?”
“Your grand master has been arrested.”
“On what charges?”
Ral put his hands together as if to pray. “Treason. Sedition. It doesn’t matter. Our benefactor will make sure he never sees the light of day again.”
“I never thought—”
“That’s your problem, Markus. You never think. But now that the head of your order is out of the way, the way is clear for new blood to rise to the top. Especially for those with allies on the Elector Council.”
Markus sucked in a deep breath.
Ral let him ponder that idea for a moment. “Is everything in place?”
“Sure. The plan is simple. I’ll get there a candlemark after sundown. The signal is—”
“How many men are you bringing?”
Markus glanced over, a flicker of annoyance passing across his pale blue eyes. “I got a few boys on board, just like you told me. A couple of them owe me money, and another guy is bucking for a promotion so he can move out of his mother’s house. They’ll do what I say without question.”
“They’ll keep their mouths shut.”
“They’d better. Our patron doesn’t forgive mistakes. If one of these men talks—”
“I know what I’m doing.”
Ral leaned into Markus, hooking his right arm through the man’s elbow. His left hand pressed into the prefect’s side, the needle-sharp point of the stiletto held in his palm pricking through both surcoat and mail to touch the flesh beneath. Markus huffed and strained to remain still.
Ral pitched his voice to a low whisper. “Listen to me. You don’t have to worry about the boss. If you mess this up, I’ll peel your worthless hide from your back myself. Do you understand me?”
Markus nodded. With a hiss, Ral released him. The stiletto vanished into his sleeve. Markus clutched his side and stared at the floor with his lips compressed into a tight line. The prefect wasn’t used to being manhandled, but he had to understand and fast. Both their lives hung in the balance if he messed up.
“Get more men,” Ral said.
The prefect rolled his shoulders. “I’ll need more money for that. God’s soldiers don’t come cheap.”
Ral wanted to laugh, but he didn’t let it touch his features. He reached under his cassock. Markus stiffened, one hand dropping to the hilt of his sword, but he relaxed as Ral passed him a heavy pouch.
Ral stood up and rested his hand on the prefect’s beefy shoulder, the very picture of a pastor counseling one of his flock.
“Remember, Markus. No mistakes. No loose ends.”
“Don’t worry. We’ll arrive just a moment too late to save them.”
“And their killer?”
An evil grin dimmed the prefect’s chiseled features. “Sadly, he’ll be killed trying to elude capture.”
A moment later, Ral was out the side door and down the alley, heading toward home. He had his own preparations to finalize. A horse was waiting for him at the west gate, reserved by the offices of the Elector Council, with remounts at every roadhouse and garrison station between here and his target. Tomorrow night, the culmination of his dearest ambition would begin. He would rise higher than his departed father had ever dreamed. Soon people would call him the most feared man in the city, and
in the process he would eliminate his only true rival to that title.
Tomorrow night Caim, Low Town’s favorite son, would die.
Kit showed up while Caim stalked down a narrow lane between two dark rows of houses. One moment he was strolling by himself, eyes darting back and forth in search of hidden threats, and the next she was walking beside him. Or rather, she levitated beside him; her dainty feet never touched the cobbles.
“Welcome back, Kit. Off gallivanting again?”
“I don’t gallivant, darling. I might flit about sometimes, or stop to watch a caterpillar weave its cocoon. Did you know they could do that? It’s amazing! But I never, ever gallivant. As it happens, I was looking after your interests.”
Kit flipped over so she was hovering upside down in front of him. In defiance of gravity, her long silver hair stayed curled around her slim shoulders. Her violet eyes twinkled mischievously as she regarded him, and it was all he could do not to chuckle.
Those eyes were his first memory, peeking over the side of his cradle when he was a babe. She claimed to have been searching for a little brother and stopped when she found him, but with Kit the truth was often difficult to ascertain. Whether real or imaginary, she was without a doubt the most interesting person he’d ever met. She’d been everywhere, it seemed, and seen everything there was to see. She could fly so high into the sky he lost sight of her, or dive into the earth and return with tales of the secret lives of voles and worms. After he’d lost his parents, Kit had become his family. She was all he had left. If there were times, such as during his turbulent adolescence, when he tried to drive
everyone else away, Kit always did as she chose. No one could sway her once her mind was made up. In that they were much alike, to his constant chagrin.
“Forgive me.” He turned onto one of Low Town’s many crooked, unnamed streets. “What interests are those, dear lady?”
A pair of drunken merchant marines passed him in the gathering dusk. If they thought him odd for talking to himself, they said nothing, but murmured behind his back once they were past. Caim chewed on the inside of his cheek and ignored the itch in his palms.
“Hubert’s on his way to the Vine,” Kit announced.
He touched the heavy lump of the purse inside his shirt. “Good. That’s where I’m headed now.”
“And he’s not alone.”
“Is that right?”
“He’s got a whole gang of roughnecks with him. Most of them look like vagrants, but a couple might be able to handle themselves. One is the disinherited son of a former pimp.”
Caim smiled to himself. Ever since he had taken up his current lifestyle, Kit had endeavored to be useful to him. He had to admit she was an exemplary judge of people’s capabilities. She could look at someone and spy out what they hid from others. That ability had saved his ass too many times to count. The trouble was that Kit couldn’t be relied upon to always be where he needed her. She had a disturbing penchant for leaving him for days at a time and, even more unnerving, showing up with
knowledge of things she shouldn’t know, things no one could know.
“Should I be worried?”
Kit shrugged, turning around to stand right side up again. “He seems in a good mood. I’d say he was scheming something, but not against you.”
“Then I have nothing to worry about.”
The faded sign of the Blue Vine appeared around the next corner. One of the oldest wineshops in Othir, it had been owned by innumerable men and women over the centuries, passed down through families and sold off dozens of times. The current owner was Mistress Clarice Henninger, but everyone called her Mother.
She spotted Caim as soon as he pushed through the rickety door. “Caim!”
He held open his arms as she waddled across the common room to wrap him in a fierce embrace. A thick-waisted woman on the hoary side of fifty, she was every bit as saucy as a wench half her size and a third her age. The money purse tucked in his shirt ground against her massive breasts.
“Happy to see me, sweetling?”
Kit giggled while Caim disentangled himself as politely as he could manage. The Vine’s taproom was dim, its windows tightly shuttered. The only light came from small oil lamps suspended from the ceiling and two stone-lined hearths. Thick shadows clung to the brick-and-niter walls. It was crowded this night. Most of the Vine’s patrons were teamsters and porters, large men who made their living by the sweat of their brows and the strength of their backs. A few nodded his way. He returned the gestures with a slight dip of his chin.
“Want your usual table?” she asked.
Mother led him to a dim corner, swaying her wide hips with every step. Caim took off his cloak and slid around the table to sit with his back to the walls. From here he could see the front entrance as well as the door to the back room where the wine casks were stored.
“A cup of Golden Swan?”
Caim started to nod, but stopped himself. “No, I’ll have the Asper tonight. In a clean cup, please.”
She laughed, grasping her breasts with both hands. “Of course, sweetling. All Mother’s cups are clean!”
A pair of oldsters in shabby coats cackled over their stones game as she waddled back to the bar to fetch his order. Kit perched on the table and regarded Caim. Her large eyes glowed like purple jewels in the dim lighting.
“So you took another job?”
He flipped a penny to the wench who delivered his wine. She flashed him a welcoming smile, but he returned only a curt nod and leaned back into the shadows.
As the girl flounced off, he said, “You were eavesdropping?”
Kit twirled a wisp of silver hair in her fingers. “Mathias talks so loud I could hear him half the world away. I thought you were going to take a break.”
Caim took a sip and sighed as the cool wine trickled down his throat. “I was, but sometimes people need killing. That’s what I do.”
“It didn’t sound like you were too eager to take it.”
“Well, I couldn’t stand to see Mathias beg.”
“You never say no to him.”
“He’s a friend.”
Kit reclined on an elbow, staring up at him. “A friend wouldn’t put you in danger for a few pieces of gilt.”
Before he could think of an answer, the door opened and a young man entered. The newcomer’s colorless eyes swept around the room as the door closed behind him. He was alone.
“Hubert’s here,” Caim said. “Why don’t you go keep an eye on his roughnecks?”
Kit hopped off the table with a spin. “It doesn’t sound like you need my help. Maybe I’ll go watch fireflies instead.”
“As you like.”
As Kit vanished through a wall, Caim focused on the youth crossing the wineshop. Hubert Claudius Vassili looked every inch the foppish noble’s son he was, from the floppy, wide-brimmed hat cocked roguishly on his head, complete with a ridiculous sky blue feather, to his fine cavalry boots, polished to a high shine. A slender rapier hung on his left hip, more of a showpiece than a real weapon.
Hubert stopped in front of Caim’s table with a hand on his sharp, smooth-shaven chin as if considering where to sit, and said, “The blue falcon hunts at midnight.”
Caim kicked out a chair. “Sit down before you draw more attention to us than you already have.”
Hubert dropped his hat on the table and called for a cup of the house best before he settled into the seat. “Ah, Caim. It’s good to see you again, but you don’t have to worry. Every man in here is an ardent supporter of the Azure Hawks. They’ve pledged not to give up the fight until the theocrats are dragged down from their gilded thrones.”
Caim glanced around the taproom. “Gathering quite the little army, aren’t you? I thought I saw a few tinmen shaking in their armor tonight.”
Hubert spread his hands as if delivering a benediction. “The people clamor for freedom, Caim. I am but a humble servant of the public welfare.”
Caim tossed the purse onto the table. “And regular infusions of my money don’t hurt either, do they?”
Hubert covered the purse with his hat and pulled it into his lap. “Not at all. The Hawks are very grateful for your generosity. It’s donors such as yourself that fuel the engines of our progress.”
Caim couldn’t resist. “You’ve had progress?”
Hubert didn’t notice the jibe. “Naturally. Our forces are marshalling. Plans are being laid. One day we will free the people from the Council’s tyranny. One day very soon!”
He glanced around as if expecting a chorus to support his claim. A few tired drinkers nodded in his direction, but most simply stared into the depths of their cups.
“Well.” Hubert turned back to Caim. “It will happen. And we’ll have you to thank.”
“So why did you feel the need to bring a gang of strong-arms to our meeting?”
“How—?” Hubert gave him a weak smile. “I should have known. They are merely waiting outside for my protection. The streets are dangerous these days. I would never dream of insulting a man of your
“Good. I wouldn’t want any misunderstandings, Hubert. I respect what you do, misguided though it may be at times. However, this will be my last donation for a time.”
“But we need your support now more than ever. Things are heating up. We’re staging demonstrations nearly every day.”
“I understand, but I’ve got my own problems.”
“Look, Hubert. I’m taking some time away from the contract game.”
“I’m not sure. A couple months, maybe more.”
Hubert leaned across the table. “Then come join us. We could use a man like you.”
Caim pushed his empty cup away. “No offense, but I’m not interested. Your little enterprise has been interesting, and anything that keeps the bigwigs off balance is good for business, but you don’t need my help to burn down storefronts and break into warehouses. You’ve got plenty of supporters now, right?”
“Sure, I can assemble disgruntled clerks and teamsters by the hundredhead, but I need fighters, Caim. Sooner or later we’re going to have to face the Reds head-on. We’ll need you.”
Caim sat back deeper in the shadows. He knew what Hubert wanted: another pawn to push around in his game of politics. But Caim wasn’t interested. He had his own battles to fight. Giving to the Hawks had seemed like a good idea, a way of giving back some of the blood money he earned to help a worthy cause. Now he could see it had been a mistake.
“No, Hubert. I agree things in Othir are getting worse, but I’m not a revolutionary. I work alone.”
Hubert put his hat back on as he stood up. “The offer’s always open if you change your mind.”
Hubert started to say something when Kit phased through his body. He didn’t notice, of course, but the look on Caim’s face must have been unexpected, because he stopped talking in midsyllable.
“Caim!” Kit blurted. “You’ve got comp—”
The front door crashed open. Conversations stopped as a crowd of City Watchmen filed into the common room. Without preamble they pulled patrons out of their chairs and pushed them against the walls. A stout man with an oily beard made a break for it. He got to the threshold of the front door before a soldier cracked open the back of his head with a baton. Everyone jumped to their feet. Even the old codgers stood up and shook their bony fists, but by then the watchmen were circulating through the room, seizing anyone who made a commotion.
“Your men couldn’t bother to give us a warning?” Caim hissed.
“Some of them are new.” Hubert inched away from the table. “And others may have outstanding warrants on their heads.”
Caim surveyed the room, measuring distances in his head. “Go for the back room. There’s a delivery entrance that leads into the alley.”
Hubert headed in that direction, but not fast enough. Most of the soldiers were patting down patrons, but a pair and their commander moved to intercept Hubert. Their mail armor rattled as the tinmen ran to catch the young noble.
Caim rose from his seat and reached behind his back. If he drew his knives, men would die. That would draw unneeded attention to himself and the Vine, but he didn’t want to see Hubert apprehended either. True, he was a rabble-rouser and a hypocritical demagogue, but his heart was in the right place. Most of the time.
Caim let his hands fall to his sides and closed his eyes.
He only meant to release a tiny bit of his powers, just enough to conceal Hubert’s escape behind a curtain of darkness, but the taproom’s shadows swarmed around him like moths to a flame. The Vine was drenched in an impenetrable gloom so thick Caim couldn’t see more than a few feet in front of him, which was fine by him, but there was more. As he slid along the wall, a cool sensation prickled at the nape of his neck.
The hairs on his arms stood on end and his mouth went bone dry as something entered the taproom. He couldn’t see it. Whatever it was, it blended perfectly into the darkness. But he felt it moving through the room like a monstrous beast.
Shouts and curses filled the wineshop. Glassware shattered. Shutters banged open as someone scrambled out a window, or was tossed out. Throaty mews whimpered from the direction of the bar.
Caim sidled over to the back door and found it ajar. With one hand on the hilt of a knife, he ducked out, and left the taproom cloaked in darkness like a covered grave.
Caim leaned into the Vine’s dingy whitewashed siding as the sickness washed over him. Black lines wriggled before his vision. His stomach tried to squirm up into his throat, but he fought it back with firm determination.
Twilight’s veil was drawing over the city. Angry shouts resounded from inside the wineshop. What had happened inside? His talent had never reacted like that before. It usually took every ounce of concentration he could muster to conjure a few flimsy shadows, but this time they had flocked to him like flies to a corpse, and whatever else had emerged from the dark . . .
He took a deep breath.
Stars filled the darkening sky. No light shone from the new moon, hidden as it crossed the heavens. A Shadow’s moon, a night when the shades from the Other Side could cross over to walk in the mortal world. He shivered. The sweat under his shirt had turned cool. Gods-damned legends. Stories to spook little children. Then why are you shaking?
Caim pushed off from the wall and started walking. The alley was empty. Kit, as usual, was nowhere to be found. Neither was Hubert, which was a good thing. Maybe he’s learning.
Kit appeared over his head. Her violet eyes shone in the twilight gloom. “Fun night, huh?”
“Sure. A little more fun like that and I could be enjoying the comforts of a pinewood box.”
Caim glanced over his shoulder. An uneasy sensation had settled in the pit of his stomach, the feeling he was being watched. He tried to pass it off as his imagination, but it refused to leave. There was something in the air tonight. The city, never a safe haven for fools, seethed with barely restrained frustrations. Like a boiling kettle, the steam needed to vent before it exploded.
“Oh, Caim. I’d never let that happen to you.”
“I’m serious. Something happened in there.”
“Yeah. You finally let loose. Felt good, didn’t it?”
He shook his head. It had been terrifying to feel that much power flowing through him, out of his control. “That’s never happened before, Kit. Why this time?”
Her dainty shoulders lifted in a shrug. “How should I know?”
“You’re supposed to know about this kind of stuff, but you never tell me anything useful.”
“Well then, since I’m not useful . . .” With a mighty huff, she disappeared in a shower of silver and green sparkles.
Caim sighed and continued on his trek.
Three streets later, he turned a corner and stopped before a monolithic structure. The dark mass of the city workhouse eclipsed the skyline like a colossal black glacier. The building had been closed years ago, but the specter of its presence hung over Low Town like a bad dream. Among the Church’s first creations in the chaotic years following its rise to power, the workhouse had been heralded as an opportunity for the unlawful to repay their crimes against society. Thousands of convicts had entered its iron doors. Most of them died before their sentences were complete, killed by either sadistic guards or the miserable conditions. A mournful wail rose from behind the weather-stripped walls. It was the wind, no doubt, blowing through a broken window, but it was unnerving nonetheless.
Caim picked up his pace to put the unpleasant edifice behind him. He wished now he’d been smart enough to turn down Mathias’s offer. With the city in such a state of turmoil, the last thing he wanted was to risk his neck doing Ral’s secondhand work. This job had better be the easiest he’d ever done or someone was going to regret it. Hell, he regretted it already.
A pair of painted slatterns called out to Caim with promises of earthly delight from the mouth of a cramped alley and flicked their chins at him as he walked past. The street branched ahead of him, both lanes crowded with street-level shops and sprawling tenement houses above. Murmurs of life filtered through their faded, whitewashed walls, sounds of laughter and tears, talking voices and wordless moans. The city was a living creature, hungry and untamed beneath its thin veneer of civilization.
In the kaleidoscopic days and weeks after the attack on his family’s home, he and Kit had trekked across the countryside like hunted animals, moving at night, holing up during the daylight hours under whatever cover they could find. He ate whatever came his way—wild berries and nuts, the few animals he was able to catch or knock down with well-aimed stones, stolen goods from the occasional farmstead. Chicken coops were his favorite. He became adept at pilfering eggs without disturbing the
The towering gray walls of Liovard, the first real city they encountered on their flight south, amazed him. They stretched up to the sky several times the height of a grown man. Beyond those mighty stone ramparts protruded the peaks and turrets of more buildings than he had ever seen in one place. His father’s estate, including the fields and bordering woods, would have been lost inside the walls, and Liovard, as he would learn later, was petite compared to the great cities of the south: Mecantia, Navarre, and Othir were all larger and more diverse. Yet, walking through the iron-shod gates was like passing into another world, a realm of noise and commotion where everyone hustled on vital business. Business was a new word he’d learned in Liovard. Just the sound of it quickened his pulse. That’s what he wanted to be reckoned: a man of business.
It didn’t take him long to learn about the messy underside of city life. For a young boy with no family and no prospects, the city was a frightening place. He slept in alleyways and inside piles of garbage. A stack of discarded shipping crates provided shelter for almost a month until the street cleaners took them away. He moved from place to place, always hungry, always searching for his next meal. If he thought he was safe from harm amid the bustle of the city, he learned better the first time he encountered a street gang. He’d been rooting through a barrel of half-rotten apples when cutting laughter erupted behind him. A dozen older boys surrounded him. As a lesson for trespassing on their territory, they beat him bloody. After that, he learned to avoid them. He snuck like a rat through the slums with Kit, his only companion.
But if the street toughs were dangerous, the tinmen were worse. The bully boys only wanted your food and whatever you had hidden in your pocket, and maybe to rough you up a bit. Yet when he was dragged into a backstreet by two looming guardsmen after stealing a pomegranate from a vendor’s stall, he knew with sinking certainty they wanted more than to thrash him. While Kit swatted ineffectually at their heads, one held him fast while the other ripped open the laces of his breeches. He
struggled, but they cuffed him hard across the face, knocking him to the ground. A white-hot ember of rage burned in the pit of Caim’s chest as he remembered that day, but also a thread of euphoria, for no sooner had the guards begun pawing at him with their big, clumsy hands than something erupted inside him. At first, he thought he was going to be sick as the feeling bubbled in his belly. Then, the colors of the waning day faded before his eyes. As he was turned onto his stomach, a new spectrum of
shades emerged from the bleak drabness of the alley, blacks and grays of marvelous, vivid tones. While his tears mingled with the dust beneath his face, something extraordinary happened.
A shadow moved.
He had seen shadows move before, when a cloud passed in front of the sun or the object casting the shadow shifted, but this shadow stretched out from under a heap of broken boards like a black tentacle of tar. Strangely, he wasn’t afraid as it oozed toward him, and the guardsmen were too distracted to notice. One held him down by the shoulders while the other tugged down his pants. Caim didn’t recoil; he wanted to know what it was, this crawling, amorphous darkness. When it touched his hand, he yelped as a sensation of burning cold slid over his skin, like dipping his hand into a bucket of ice water. More shadows crawled into the light, swarming over the alleyway until Caim couldn’t see the ground under his nose. The guardsman holding him down shouted and let up enough for Caim to wriggle. He kicked and scratched. When a hand seized his face, he bit down hard until warm, salty blood filled his mouth. A strangled scream pierced the gloom, and then he was free.
He didn’t hesitate, but hitched his breeches around his waist and ran. Fear thundered in his ears with every stride.
Caim let the memory fade away as he turned his footsteps toward High Town. Two things were clear to him. First, he couldn’t risk using his powers until he figured out what had happened at the Vine. He
couldn’t risk losing control. And second, he would avoid contact with the Azure Hawks for the time being. Those decisions made him feel a little better. Then he remembered that he’d left his cloak back in the taproom.
Caim hunched his shoulders against the night’s chill and hurried through the umbrageous byways of the city. Yet the haunting images of his past followed him down every street.
Cover Illustration © Michael Komarck
Design by Nicole Sommer-Lecht
http://www.jonsprunk.com/, on Facebook (Jon Sprunk), or Twitter @jsprunk70.Jon Sprunk lives in central Pennsylvania with his wife and son. When not writing, he enjoys travel, collecting medieval and ancient weaponry, and pro football. Shadow's Son is his first novel. Visit him online at