Kingmaker

Vera is a spy for the Barstadt Empire, a powerful country with a rigid class structure and a seedy underbelly. Her mission is to weed out the corruption that holds this society together, but for Vera it’s not political, it’s personal. And her next mission is anything but routine, as long as she’s not blinded by revenge and can see that in the shadows of Barstadt City, things are seldom what they seem.

 

Vera was quickly learning the sounds different bones made when they shattered. The twinkling smash of finger bones as fist met face—the meaty bite of the jaw, with the added arpeggio of teeth knocking loose. Wet, sucking slaps as ribs popped and punctured the lungs they encased. Vera forced herself to lean forward for a better view of the brawling ring. There it was, the dry autumn-leaf crackle of a massive thighbone splitting in two.

And now for the reigning champion’s signature move: a slow, rolling crunch up his opponent’s spine. It reminded her far too much of the harp lessons in her parents’ parlor that she’d left behind for this life.

“And there you have it, folks! Another flawless victory from Jorn, fighting for the Stargazers tonight!” The announcer stepped into the ring, as far as possible from Jorn’s hulking, heaving, gasping mass. “Bad luck for the Bayside gang. But I’m sure they’ll cough up another challenger for next week!”

The roaring, teeming crowd, frothy as the storm-tossed Bay of Dreams, might as well have been whispering for all Vera heard them. Her gaze fixed on the blood-spattered behemoth that was Jornisander, bodyguard to the Stargazers gang boss. No, it couldn’t be mere coincidence that the Stargazers had insisted on this brawl as the venue for their meeting. The Stargazers wanted to make clear the cost of breaking an agreement with them; wanted to let Vera know that she wasn’t bargaining with timid hares.

But then, Vera wasn’t the timid hare she was portraying, either.

“Now there’s a smart fighter,” Vera’s companion, Tyrond, said, gesturing toward Jornisander in the ring. “He fights slow, almost lazy. Lets those muscles do the work for him while his opponent wears himself out.”

“Looks dumb as rocks to me,” Vera said. He’d have to be, to fling himself into death matches again and again. Not that she reckoned he had much choice in the matter.

Tyrond laughed to himself. “Yeah, probably. Makes for a better bodyguard that way. Stargazers don’t want some smarty learning all their secrets.”

Vera allowed herself a narrow smile. That was her true purpose here: not to broker some tedious deal, but to learn all of the Stargazer gang’s secrets for the Ministry of Affairs. Her gaze skimmed over the pulped corpse of the other fighter as the fight organizers struggled to pry it off the sawdust ring. He wasn’t the only one with a death wish here tonight.

“Let’s wait for the riffraff to clear out. The Stargazers should be sending out a lieutenant to meet with us soon,” Tyrond said.

“They’d better,” Vera huffed. “My client isn’t in the business of waiting.”

But inside, she was a roiling sea of nerves. The fresh tang of blood in the air mingled with the afterbirth of her dreams from last night. Violent dreams, blossoming with bruises, threats, a knife blade at her throat. Most Barstadters interpreted their dreams as a promise from the Dreamer, a gentle nudge toward wonderful things to come. But Vera’s always felt more like a warning.

Dreamer, I hope you know what you’re doing, she prayed, and waited.

 

“Please, please, come inside. Make yourselves at home.”

The cramped tunnel dead-end looked decidedly unlike any home Vera had ever known, but she followed the lieutenants inside without protest. If the stacks of busted wood pallets, rags, and burlap sacks and the sickly tang of Dreamless resin in the air seemed unusual to her guide, Tyrond, he didn’t show it. Vera sat on the painted crate the lieutenant offered her, gathering her skirts around her with just enough show of prissiness to suit the character she was playing.

“I’m Synarius. First lieutenant of the Stargazers.” The man drummed his fingers against his well-fed belly—one of the few she’d seen since they’d entered the tunnels this evening. “And this is my second—”

“I don’t give a damn who you are. Who you aren’t is the leader.” Vera slipped into a righteous rage like a tailored glove. “You don’t believe my client warrants meeting with the boss?”

Behind Synarius, his bodyguard—Jorn, the brawler from that night’s match, she realized—began to straighten, as if he’d just deemed her a potential threat. Nightmares, but he was a slow one. If she’d thought to smuggle a blade down here with her, she could probably slit Synarius’s throat before he had a chance to react. That would save the Ministry of Affairs—and the whole damned Empire—a lot of trouble. Skip over this whole tiresome masquerade.

That’s what bored Vera about spywork—the slow, agonizing crawl toward a far-flung goal. It was worse than when she’d had to attend finishing classes, back when the most that was expected of her was embroidery and harp-playing. Stitch forward and back, forward and back, and never make a lick of progress at all. Well, it was time to plunge ahead.

“The Stargazers boss is a very busy man, and you, my dear, have yet to prove your value to him. Not that you aren’t lovely to behold,” Synarius added, sharing a wry grin with his second lieutenant. “But I’m guessing your ‘client’ sent you here for a different purpose.”

Enough games. “Eighty crates of Dreamless resin,” Vera said. “Three tons of regulated stone from the northern colonies, complete with papers. Five artifacts smuggled out of the City of Secrets in the Land of the Iron Winds.”

“You smuggled something out of Birnau?” The second lieutenant’s eyebrows danced toward his hairline. “But how…?”

“And enough grain alcohol to scrub your brains right out of your skull. That’s what my client’s looking to move.” Vera sat back. “We could do it ourselves, it matters not to us, but as a courtesy to the Stargazers as the reigning gang of this tunnel branch…”

“Oh, please, don’t do us any favors.” Synarius’s lips snapped taut in a mirthless grin. “If your client tries to offload a single item in our territory, we will have your hides for breakfast. I’m sure you know what the Stargazer boss is capable of.”

Vera had heard plenty of tales of the Stargazers’ cruelty. The usual dreck, about making a stew of his tunneler subjects who displeased him, bodies strung up by their intestines over the tunnel entrances . . . the sort of limitless violence only a life in the tunnels could allow. No one in the daylight world of Barstadt City behaved this way. Not where polite society could see. But Vera feared only one criminal mastermind, and she was fresh out of fear to spare for the ruthless Stargazers.

“Oh, come off of it. We’d find some other tunnel branch where we can sell our wares. Even you must admit the Stargazers don’t own the whole city.”

“No,” Synarius said. “Not yet.”

Vera rolled her eyes. “In any case… The deal is yours to take, or not. Feel free to talk it over with the Stargazers boss, then send for us through Tyrond here. If we don’t hear from you before Tremmer’s Month is out, then we’ll find someone else more amenable to our terms.”

Synarius looked to his second lieutenant, some wordless exchange passing between them, then back at Vera with a nod. “Very well. You’ll have your word by the end of the month if we’re interested.”

“Dreamer bless,” Vera said, with a curtness both she and her persona felt. She started to stand, but then, with a show of reluctance, settled back onto her crate. “Oh. I’m afraid there’s one more thing my client asked me to investigate.”

Synarius grunted to himself. “Yes. Of course. By all means, make even more demands.” The tips of his teeth showed through his grin. Tyrond’s hand fell on Vera’s shoulder—a warning.

But this was the whole purpose of her mission here tonight—not to arrange some foolish trade deal with the Stargazers, and certainly not to watch tunnelers beat the pulp out of one another. Vera was here to find the chink in the armor of the entire underground criminal system, and pry at that chink until it was a gaping wound.

It was her business to do so. And given recent events, it would be her distinct pleasure to watch the whole corrupt system burn.

“My client has asked me.” She rolled her eyes again to indicate that this was wholly her foolish client’s idea and to please, Dreamer, don’t gut her on the spot; she added a sly grin to scaffold it. The knowing smile of a servant: Aren’t the people we serve such silly fools? Aren’t we fools ourselves to be subject to their whims? A smirk to build camaraderie. “My client has heard some upsetting rumors of late—that some group of vigilantes amongst the tunnelers have been threatening the order down here.”

Synarius heaved a sigh, but his second lieutenant, Vera noticed, stiffened and stood straighter. Interesting. What was his name again? That’s right, Synarius hadn’t introduced him. Even more interesting. “I assume you’re talking about the Destroyers,” Synarius said.

“The Destroyers. Yes, that was it,” Vera said. “The way I hear it, they’ve been targeting the gangleaders and the corrupt aristocrats who work with them. Trying to fight for justice for the lowest tunnelers, to protect them from exploitation.”

“Corrupt aristocrats. Like your client, you mean.” Synarius’s tone turned sharp.

Vera made herself swallow hard. “My client only wishes to know whether the Destroyers are really the threat we’ve heard they are. And if they are, we’d like your assurance that they won’t cause any… problems for this deal. In fact, my client is rather interested in meeting with one of their representatives.”

Vera took care not to look directly at the second lieutenant, but she watched him from the corner of her eye. Was that a bead of sweat trickling down his temple? A shifting tightness in his jaw? He knew more about the Destroyers than he wanted to admit, she was sure of it. But he wasn’t about to admit it in front of a Stargazers lieutenant.

Because the Destroyers wanted to take down the gangs that kept the tunnelers enslaved, or as good as. And the Stargazers were the cruelest gang of them all.

“The Destroyers never have been and never will be an issue for the Stargazers,” Synarius said thinly. “We do not allow dissent. Our tunnelers know their place. They know that were it not for us, their lives would be even more miserable, with no one to find them work and pay them and keep them from far greater predators within Barstadt’s underground.”

Vera had a hard time imagining any predator worse than the Stargazers, but knew better than to say so. “Then I take it you don’t know who’s in charge of the Destroyers.”

“We’re done here.” Synarius stood up abruptly. “You’ll hear from us, or not. Good evening.”

Vera didn’t even try to conceal her smile as Tyrond ushered her away from the nook.

 

“Reckless,” the Minister of Affairs, Petran Durst, boomed through his office. “Fantastically reckless, Miss Orban. I expected better from you.”

Vera regarded her boss with only slightly more respect than she’d regarded Synarius. She was a spy for the empire’s Ministry of Affairs, an intelligence service and secret police tasked by the Emperor to disrupt organized crime, corruption, and threats to the empire. But Vera was fairly certain the biggest threat to the empire was often the empire itself—a rigid caste that cleaved between the aristocracy and merchant classes, and the tunnelers who toiled away beneath them. Vera’s family, merchants themselves, had poured untold time and energy toward launching her into the aristocracy through a fortuitous marriage. She’d thanked them by running off to the Ministry, leaving the smoldering wreckage of a fantastic scandal in her wake.

“If you expected me not to be reckless,” Vera said, “then you don’t know me at all.” She flashed him a sour smile.

The Minister’s secretary, transcribing notes from behind them, smothered a laugh.

“You think this is humorous? Invoking the Stargazers’ wrath?” Durst asked. “We’re trying to save lives, here. The Destroyers’ methods may be—”

“Extreme?” Vera asked. Word was that they’d mailed the neatly diced remains of a corrupt aristocrat to each of his associates.

“Highly illegal. But they are certainly motivated to put an end to the gangs, and they clearly know a great deal about Barstadt City’s seedy underbelly. Enough to bring down the gangs for good. Enough to rid our fair empire of the scourge of criminality once and for all.”

Vera folded her arms. There was only one criminal Vera cared to see felled. But it was best not to dream of it. That dream was long dead, deader even than Nightmare’s bones in the eastern hills.

“Well, I’ve put the word out there now,” she said. “The Destroyers are bad for the gangs’ business, and it’s in the gangs’ best interests to find out who’s leading them. If the gangs turn up the heat on the Destroyers, they’ll be in need of someone to protect them, and who should come to their rescue? The Ministry. Their last refuge in the storm.” It was Vera’s favorite kind of plan—dangerous, reckless, and liable to attract all the wrong sorts of attention. Her skin tingled. “I can’t wait.”

“You have my support to proceed. Dreamer bless your hunt.” Minister Durst stood, and Vera followed suit. “Tell Edina to send in my next appointment.”

Vera froze: the ice started in her heart and spread outward. Four months and that name still held far more power than it deserved. What Vera wouldn’t give to bury it once and for all, to free herself of its taloned grip. But that would mean one of them had to leave the Ministry behind—they both were far too stubborn for that.

Vera stormed out into the Minister’s waiting room. “He’s ready for you,” she snapped to the room at large, then continued to the barracks without waiting for a reply. Better to forget Edina entirely.

 

The Dreamer, however, wasn’t ready to let Vera forget.

Dreams of Edina’s hand tucked in hers. Nerves crackling like lightning between the both of them as they waited for a door to swing open. No need to worry, Edina whispered to her, in that voice that could calm the stormy Itinerant Sea. Everything will work out fine.

Dreams, too, of tears pouring down Edina’s face as her father raged and raged. Barbed words that refused to dislodge themselves from Vera’s brain. He went to strike Edina, hand reared, before something dawned on him. Not empathy. Certainly not paternal instinct. No. It was the look of a man remembering the value of something that he owned.

And so he turned on Vera instead.

If you ever so much as think about my daughter again, he swore, you’ll find yourself in so much pain you’ll wish Nightmare himself would swallow you up.

Vera jolted from bed and scrubbed at her arms, clawing away cold sweat. Why did the Dreamer torment her like this? If he wouldn’t give her dreams of foretelling, dreams of potential, even nonsense dreams, well, that was his business. Sometimes the Dreamer worked like that. But to torment her with the most jagged fragments of her memories seemed unbearably cruel.

The worst, perhaps, was how clear Edina’s face was in the dreams. Her delicate chin and soft brown skin and smile that almost never faded. The smoothness in her voice that never wavered, not even when she swore to her father that yes, he was absolutely right, and no, she and Vera would never see each other again. (Outside of their work together in the Ministry of Affairs. But Lord Alizard didn’t know this fact, either, about his daughter.) Edina’s father was a shrewd bargainer, and he knew precisely what his daughter was worth. Someone from a merchant family—a girl, no less—could never, ever afford it.

Vera lit her bedside lamp and scavenged through her leftover parcel of pastries. Dreamer, please, spare me from my past. Ive learned all I can from it. She squeezed her eyes shut. Show me how to move forward. And if it’s not too much to ask…show me how to take down the worst criminal of all.

Lord Alizard.

 

The next evening, Vera headed to the dockside taverns to collect information, but instead netted three marriage proposals, the name of the suspicious Stargazer second lieutenant (Garrith), and no leads on the Destroyers. The second night, she opted for a slightly subtler disguise than the revealing clothing she’d worn the night before. Unwashed hair, wrangled back in the bucket-style hat many tunnelers preferred; trousers and a stack of tunics and sweaters from the Ministry’s costume storage; and, tucked beneath the layered tops and in her boots, a chef’s array of knives.

Vera inserted herself into a game of Stacks at the back corner of the tavern—no great feat, when she flashed enough coin and expensive-looking jewelry. (Only expensive-looking, the Ministry’s costumer was sure to stress.) She recognized at least one of the Stacks players as a Stargazers runner who shepherded the illegal Lullaby drug all over the empire, and the fellow he seemed chummiest with was probably Stargazers as well. Just the sort of fellow to possess the information on Garrith and the Destroyers she needed to learn.

First round: Vera swept the Stacks, not enough to wipe out the other players but certainly enough to get their attention. Second round: small talk about the recent constabulary raids near the docks. Third round: drinking tales, and another sweep (not that she’d planned it that way, but she took the opportunity when it arose). At this point, the other players were slamming their tokens on the table with far more force than necessary, thanks to the steady flow of ale. Vera hadn’t swallowed a drop of it but was sure to empty her mug all the same.

Fourth round: the dance on the knife’s edge. Minister Durst would argue for caution. Edina would insist on it. But Vera didn’t need alcohol to feel reckless. Edina’s father had as good as marked her for death if she didn’t do as he said. Why run from death? Vera preferred to snuggle it close.

“You ‘uns are Stargazers, aren’t ya?” Vera asked, gaze flicking toward the runner and his companion.

She stacked her second-highest token with the table stack, then made a show of looking disappointed with her own stack. “I saw yous at the brawl, other night. Your Jorn’s a beast.”

“Dumb as one, besides,” the runner said. He added to the table stack, then looked her over. “What’s it to you and yours?”

Vera shrugged. “Nothin’ to me. I only bet on brawls when I get paid. So, irregularly, and never as much as I’m owed.” She cackled, too loud, and earned a few raised mugs in toast.

“You a runner?” he asked, as the round progressed.

She shook her head. “Nah. Taskmaster. Used to oversee those tunneler kids what cleaned at the university, back when the Bootstraps gang ran that gig. Destroyers messed that up good for me, though. They didn’t like the dean diddlin’ with the kiddies. Left him a nasty present. Dean throws a fit, kicks us out, now I’m here.”

“We don’t talk about the Destroyers here,” one of the other women warned.

The runner’s companion nodded. “Bad for business.”

“Like callin’ on Nightmare,” the runner concurred.

Vera shrugged again. “Just tellin’ my sad tale.”

The Stacks Lord for the round did a quick tally and shoved that round’s pot toward the runner.

“Ever worked with the Stargazers before?” the runner asked Vera, after everyone had surveyed their tokens for round five.

“Sure. Just an overnight job, like—special work they had at the docks, nothin’ permanent.” Vera smiled with only one side of her mouth. “Why, they lookin’ for more?”

“Might be. If your stories check out. Y’know how it goes.” He made a double play—the table stack and his personal one. Vera tried her best to look impressed.

“Appreciate it.” Then she added to her personal stack—now a higher value than his, if she’d counted right. “Well, wait. Stargazers got that Garrith fellow, don’t they?” Finally, she could churn the waters of what she really wanted to discuss—whether or not Garrith was involved with the Destroyers—and hoped they’d take the bait. “That’s where he ended up?”

The runner’s smile wiped away in an instant. “He’s second lieutenant. Why you ask?”

Vera slid her jaw from side to side, then nestled back into her seat. “Enh, well, it’s only that—well, there was stories goin’ round. When I was Bootstraps, right? And he was, too.” A tidbit one of her other contacts had turned up, not that this crowd needed to know its origin.

The runner’s companion slammed his token onto the table stack. “Everyone knows he didn’t leave the Bootstraps in a pretty kind of way.” His expression went stony. “That’s how the Stargazers like ‘em.”

“Sure, sure, I hear that, boys. Only… the stories what were goin’ around. Well—” Vera gave him a grin full of teeth. “I s’pose they were only that.”

Everyone at the table was quiet for a moment, though the two Stargazers men were a particularly noisy sort of quiet, fidgeting and curling their lips. Vera took her time counting out her tokens before deciding which would go where.

“If y’know somethin’ about Garrith we don’t,” the runner finally said, “might be kind of you to share.”

For a fleeting moment, Vera imagined recounting this victory to Edina—the way Edina’s eyes would light up and she’d bounce like a spring as she threw her arms around Vera. Like they used to. Before her father threatened to have Vera killed.

The warmth from Vera’s victory in steering the conversation cooled, but she had to stay in her role. “All right, well. Word was, Garrith’s who tipped off the Destroyers to the crooked dealings in the university. Coz he’s one of’em himself.” That time, the silent over the table was absolute. The whole tavern went stuffy, smothering. So it felt to Vera.

“An interesting story,” the runner said at last.

The seed of doubt had been planted. Now Vera only had to hope her guess was right—that Garrith’s strange behavior really was because he was a Destroyer. That he’d just been put on notice.

“Well, anyway, s’pose it doesn’t matter none,” she said. “Destroyers aren’t gonna have anyone to turn to, before long. I suspect they’ll burn themselves out soon enough.”

“Vigilantes like that?” the runner said. “Lots of tunnelers look up to them, even if the rest of us want ‘em dead. Not that the tunnelers got much power to help ‘em.”

She shrugged. “Only the stuffy imperials would help folks like that. Ministry of Affairs, maybe. Constabulary’s too corrupt. Yeah, I reckon the Destroyers are good as dead.”

The runner smiled to himself. “If Garrith’s really runnin’ ‘em like you think, probably won’t be long.”

The conversation shifted. Vera stayed until she’d won double what she’d come with, then begged off for the night. Too much would’ve been rude; too little, a suspicious stopping point. Then she wandered toward the bar and clapped some fellows on the backs as if they were old friends she’d just seen come in. Spent some time chatting, calling for one last round. Waited until the Stacks players could forget her, if not her words. Then slipped out the tavern’s back door.

The streets of Barstadt City rang with her footsteps, bootheels clicking on cobblestones and bouncing across the narrow whitewash buildings. Only the sea mist rolling up from the bay offered any cover in the starry night. Vera pulled off her hat, setting her dark curls free, and peeled away the first few layers of her tunics until she reached one that was a different color from the one she’d worn in the tavern. Good enough.

A bootheel ricocheted on the alley walls behind her, and Vera turned, hand creeping toward the hilt of her knife, but no one approached. She waited a few moments for her rapid breathing to still and continued along her path.

At first, she didn’t know where she was headed, but when she passed the Ministry of Affairs barracks and found herself in the Cloister of Roses, she recognized her path all too well.

Alizard Manor, home to Lord Alizard and his cherished daughter Edina.

Candlelight danced in the rows and rows of windows that spanned each of the three floors, but the manor was otherwise dark. Lord Alizard was an early riser—he had to be, to assume his seat at the Imperial Council each morning. Some in Barstadt thought he was the most powerful man in the empire, after the Emperor himself. But Vera knew the truth. He was more powerful even than the Emperor, thanks to his shady deals with countless of Barstadt’s criminal gangs.

At least the Emperor had had the foresight to keep him and the other aristocrats in the dark when it came to the Ministry of Affairs. His own daughter worked against him there, trying to turn the tide against the gangs, while he thought she was tending to the poorhouses or sitting at lectures at the university. Oh, she did those things, too; enough to keep up the pretense, and enough to satisfy her altruistic heart. Edina was so pure and sweet and good sometimes Vera wanted to vomit.

But supporting the Ministry of Affairs—that was Edina’s act of rebellion against Lord Alizard. Vera supposed that had been worth it to Edina. Fighting to be with Vera—apparently was not.

Vera turned away. She no longer minded having a death threat hanging over her, but even she knew better than to overly tempt fate. Especially when the Dreamer only ever showed her what was behind, and not ahead.

Pebbles cascaded along the stone behind her.

Vera stopped and twisted to look back. As she slipped one hand into her waistband and closed it around a knife hilt, something in her unwound. This was what she’d been waiting for. A good, proper fight.

The crickets roared around her; the fog pulled tight as a blanket. Vera listened carefully for the sound of footsteps, but there were no other disturbances, no shadows cris-crossing the path ahead. With a slackening of her shoulders, Vera started back down the path toward the Ministry barracks and her nightly dreams of what once was.

 

Except this night, the Dreamer hid something new in all those rehashed memories. A whisper and a hand clamped hard around her wrist. There has to be a better way, it said. Too faint for her to know who said it.

A better way for what? For whom? That’s how the Dreamer’s hints always were, Vera thought. Useless right until the moment you needed them—and then they were too late.

Edina was waiting for her outside the Minister’s office the next morning.

“What on earth do you think you’re doing?” Edina whispered. A stack of papers were crushed in her fist; deep furrows cut through her brow. “Goading the Stargazers? Trying to find who’s in charge of those bloody vigilantes?”

“Of course. Find them, turn them to the Ministry’s side, take down the gangs. That’s always been the plan, even when we worked together. What, you can’t stand it that I’m running that mission without your help now?” Vera shoved past her. “You’d best get accustomed to it. I’m finding I work far better alone.”

“Vera.” Edina’s tone fell heavy as a stone. “You can’t toy with these people. They aren’t like the smalltime crooks you’re used to bringing in.” Her eyes shimmered; was she crying? “You’re going to get hurt.”

Vera stared at her for a few moments. “Good. Some things are worth it.”

She turned and headed for the Minister’s door, letting the righteous anger burn through her, stronger than any ale. But Edina called her back. “Wait.”

Vera jammed her hands into fists and pressed them against her thighs, fighting against the tears welling in her own eyes.

“The Stargazer you’re watching—Garrith? He sent a letter to the Ministry.” When she turned, Edina was holding a scrap out to her. “He knows the gangs are looking for the Destroyers’ leader. And he wants to meet.”

 

“Be careful,” Minister Durst said.

“This is the chance we need. It’s Garrith—it must be. He knows he’s been pegged as part of the Destroyers, and he’ll be looking for the sort of guarantees that only we can offer him.”

“Or it could be a trap,” the Minister said.

Vera rolled her eyes. “Or it could be genuine. Imagine. If you were a second lieutenant in the Stargazers, and feared you’d been outed as the sort of vigilante trying to bring the Stargazers down—wouldn’t you be desperate for help?”

“Or to silence the person who’d figured me out.”

“No one knows that was me,” Vera said. But she remembered the footsteps in the mist, off and on, following her from the Cloister of Roses to the Ministry barracks themselves. Had they followed her all the way from the tavern?

Well, Vera thought nonchalantly, either it was a trap, or it was an incredible catch. “He reached out to the Ministry. Not the role I’d been playing when we met. At least he’ll know my face, though—he’ll trust me. Please, Minister. Let me persuade him to work with us.”

Durst rubbed at his jaw, his gaze far away. “The second lieutenant to the Stargazers. Must be an awful lot of knowledge locked away in his head.”

Vera leaned forward. “Knowledge we can use to take down the Stargazers. To take down all of the gangs.”

And Lord Alizard, Vera added silently. Edina’s father. A threat no more.

Not that she believed it would change anything. Edina had already made her choice. But still…

“All right. Meet with him. Find out what he knows and what he wants from us. If he’s just looking for money, forget it. We need a long-term relationship with him if we’re going to make this work.”

Vera nodded. “Dreamer help us all.”

 

The five Ministry enforcers hidden around the meeting point—the tunnel entrance near Dreamer Square—did nothing to dampen Vera’s pounding pulse. Even the late winter chill couldn’t cool her down beneath the many layers she wore and the hood shrouding her face. No use revealing her identity to Garrith until she had to, after all. Assuming he showed. Assuming he really was with the Destroyers. Assuming he actually thought the Ministry could help.

All Vera could do was trust in the Dreamer, and in her own gut.

There has to be a better way, her dreams echoed in her mind.

A trio of figures emerged from the tunnel grates, and the foremost of them lifted a hand to beckon her. Vera gripped her layered cotton skirts tight and followed. How close did the Ministry’s men intend to follow? She didn’t want to spook Garrith, but neither did she want to be left alone with him.

The moment she squeezed through the bars of the tunnel, the harsh tang of metal and damp stone and unwashed flesh surrounded her. The darkness tucked in tight; only the stripes of luminescent paint on the tunnel’s ceiling cast any light. The world was reduced to shadows and even darker space.

“You are from the Ministry.” The man was beside her before she even saw or heard him. But she knew it was Garrith from his height, from his short wiry gray hair catching the faintest glimmer of the light.

“I am.” Vera lifted her chin. “We want to help you. We know you are under some…pressure.”

The man laughed. They continued down the tunnel in silence, then he steered them off the main branch. Vera tried to twist her head back, tried to make it look natural, to see if her guards were following, but Garrith’s focus stayed on her.

“Someone’s been telling stories on me. False stories. The kind that get a Stargazer killed.”

Vera pressed two fingers against the shape of the knife tucked into the waist of her tunic. “Sounds like you need our help now more than ever.”

“Ahhh, I remember you now.” He pressed into her, driving her side up against the curved stone wall. “That snotty little attitude. I should’ve known.”

They’d stopped moving. Footsteps splashed against the trickle of runoff that coursed down the side tunnel they now occupied. Both of Garrith’s guards tightened their circle around them. And her guards were nowhere to be found.

“It worked, didn’t it?” Vera managed to say, though her insides felt like they’d turned to water. Why was she so nervous? And then she remembered—Edina’s warning about just what sort of criminals these men were. Maybe she was in over her head after all. “The Ministry always gets its way. You’d like working with us. We’ll keep you safe from your gang, help you accomplish all your goals and more.”

Garrith pinned her torso in place with his own. “That’d be great,” he murmured. “If I really were a Destroyer.”

Vera tried to swallow, but his forearm was suddenly at her throat.

“Too bad for you. I’m not. And I’ve got to kill this foolish rumor of yours before it spreads too far.”

“They’re handled,” someone said from the tunnel mouth. Coarse, heavy. Jorn, the brawler—it had to be.

Garrith grinned, his teeth almost blue in the luminescent paint’s light. “What was it, five guards you brought?”

A bead of sweat ran down Vera’s back.

“Sorry, little girl, but even the whole Imperial army won’t keep you safe.”

Vera pulled the knife from her waistband, but Garrith was quicker. He bashed her hand back against the stone wall, knocking the knife out of her grip and pinning her to the wall. She brought her knee up to his groin, but he moved faster, angling his body away.

Vera slid down the wall, trying to drop out of Garrith’s grasp. Jorn was stalking toward them, his hulking form blocking out the weak light. At least he was a slow fighter. She could handle Garrith and the others, maybe, but she’d have to save Jorn for last.

Vera dived for her discarded knife, but Garrith caught her shoulder and wrenched her back. He was grinning again—a grin that made Vera’s blood run cold. Her throat constricted, waiting for the blow. Then, before Vera’s eyes, the sick smile turned to a frown. Something slid slowly down his face and dripped into her eye.

Vera blinked.

There was blood dripping onto her face—and it was not her own.

It was Garrith’s, pouring out of the gaping wound in his forehead.

Vera scrambled back and out of his loose grasp. She scanned the tunnel, found her knife winking in the stream of runoff, and rolled toward it. She snatched it up before whirling around to face the next guard. Wait. Where was the next guard?

She squinted into the darkness. All she saw were dark forms, dotting the tunnel floor like lumpy sacks of oat. And Jorn, standing over them all.

“Dreams of death.” Vera clapped her hand to her mouth. How had he moved so quickly? But no, she realized, it had been just another strategy of his. He brawled slow and steady, dimwitted and blundering—so none would know his speed, his cleverness.

She wondered what else he’d been concealing, too.

“You’ve got some kind of death wish, don’t you,” Jorn said.

“That’s my business.” Vera straightened up, forcing the tremor out of her arms. “What about my guards? You said you—”

“They’re fine. Well—I had to rough them up a bit.” Jorn grimaced. “They’re, uh, waiting for us the next tunnel over. Had to be convincing, you know.”

Convincing. A story to sell. Vera liked him already. Assuming he didn’t kill her.

“Garrith was getting too cocky,” Jorn said, narrating to himself as he surveyed the carnage before him. “Thought he could impress the Stargazers leader and take down the Destroyers on his own. Tried to set a trap for you but didn’t bring enough men. Was quickly overpowered. Got the Stargazers’ prize fighter wounded.”

Vera furrowed her brow. “But you’re not wounded—”

Jorn grit his teeth and tugged at his shoulder until Vera heard the sickening pop of dislocation. “That should do.”

Vera flinched. Well, that was one way for him to prove his dedication. “So you’re part of the Destroyers,” Vera said.

Jorn snorted, humorless. “Girlie, I run the Destroyers.”

“And you’re willing to work with us?” she asked. “The Ministry?”

Jorn slumped against the stone wall next to her, his dislocated arm dangling uselessly between them. “Do you understand why I created the Destroyers?”

Vera twisted her head to look at him—his stern, calculating gaze and solid jawline. How had she not seen it before? He was no dumb brute. She should have known. “You want to protect the tunnelers from the gangs. The gangs give them work, yes, but they also prey on them, just as much if not more so than the rest of Barstadt.”

“Than the rest of Barstadt,” Jorn echoed. “That includes the Ministry of Affairs.”

“But we have resources. We have people in places the Destroyers couldn’t dream of reaching.” Vera softened her tone. “We could help you. With your knowledge of the gangs and our place beside the Emperor, we could tear the gangs down, and everyone in the aristocracy who supports them. Change the system.”

“And how do I know the Ministry isn’t as corrupt as all the rest?” Jorn shook his head, then stared up at the ceiling. “Your Ministry’ll just find some new way to muck it up for the tunnelers. There has to be a better way.”

The Dreamer’s words, coming from his mouth. Vera stared. Finally, the Dreamer was showing her the way ahead. Not leaving her to flail in her past mistakes.

She just had to convince him.

“Then let’s make one. Not the same old Ministry way—your own way.”

Jorn turned to look at her—as if he were really seeing her, now.

“Tearing down the gangs is only the beginning. We can work with the Minister—you, me, anyone else who cares to help—to protect the tunnelers throughout it all. And then we can work with the Emperor to bring the tunnelers out of the dark. Integrate them into Barstadt society.”

“And why would the Emperor go for that?”

“The Emperor already wants to crack down on corruption—he’s sick of the gangs running rampant. Our primary goal in the Ministry, after protecting the empire from external threat, is to protect it from internal ones—and no one poses a greater threat than the gangs. So we convince him that freeing the tunnelers is the safest way.”

And we rid the aristocracy of men like Lord Alizard, Vera thought.

Jorn frowned. “Suppose I like it better where I am. Paid well by the Stargazers, helping tunnelers out on the side. Creating the Destroyers…it’s made a better man of me.”

“And you like tearing apart men like you in the brawling ring? Do you like tearing apart the aristocrats who’ve wronged the tunnelers you protected? Does that make you better, too?” Vera asked.

Jorn snarled at her. “The Stargazers made me a king. A king of death. It seemed fitting I should carry on the Destroyers’ work in much the same way.”

“With the Ministry’s help,” Vera said, “we can make you a king of life. A new chance. For the tunnelers, and for yourself.”

 

“And that convinced him?” Minister Durst asked.

Vera thrust her shoulders back and pointedly avoided Edina’s wide-eyed stare. “He handed over a list of Stargazers safehouses on the spot, with a promise of more to come.”

“I’ll run them by our scouts, make sure they check out.” Edina scribbled a note to herself.

Vera bit back a sharp comment and forced herself to smile. There has to be a better way. Dreamer, she was trying to find one. To take down Lord Alizard, even if it changed nothing between her and Edina. To find a new life instead of running laps around her past.

“We’ll meet with him regularly after the brawls—work through the bookie to pass information easily, make it look like bet payouts. I don’t mind overseeing that operation.”

“That’ll do for now,” Durst said. But his gaze was elsewhere again. “But I want to make this quick. Less chance of discovery.”

“How do you mean?” Vera and Edina asked at the same time, then Edina lowered her head, cheeks red, while Vera shot her a dirty look.

“The Dreamer has filled my head with ideas for this mission—ideas I think might actually bear out. I want to squeeze as much information from this Jorn fellow as we can, as quickly as we can, and then prepare for one quick purge to bring the gangleaders and aristocrats in before they have any chance to know something’s missing.”

“But even Jorn can only grab so much,” Edina pointed out. “He’s often with the Stargazers leader, it’s true, but he’s not trusted with all of his secrets. We’ll need those before we can truly act.”

“Yes.” Durst smiled. “We need someone who can walk right up to the gangleaders and convince them to give them everything. Someone they trust and know well. But someone working for us.”

“You’ll never convince them,” Vera said.

“I don’t need to convince them.” Durst smiled again. “Not when I have the Dreamstrider.”

 

“Kingmaker” copyright © 2015 by Lindsay Smith

Art copyright © 2015 by Goñi Montes

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