The Key to the Coward’s Spell

Nursing an injured arm while on the job searching for a missing kid is bad enough for sword jockey Eddie LaCrosse. But when he discovers a smuggling ring rumored to be protected by powerful magic, he seeks out old friends and new to lend a hand. A tale set in Alex Bledsoe’s popular medieval noir world.

Please be warned that this story deals with difficult content and themes involving children.

 

“That’s it,” Jane Argo insisted. As always, her girlish voice contrasted with her height, her broad shoulders, and her aggressively strong but no less feminine physique. She was a woman and a half, no matter how you sliced her. And if you tried to slice her, you better not miss, because she would most definitely slice you back. Which is exactly why I brought her with me.

The building she indicated was almost aggressively nondescript. In the darkness, squeezed between an inn and one of the hundreds of waterfront whorehouses, it could’ve been any tavern in any seaside town. We stood in the doorway of a closed blacksmith shop across the street and waited to get a look at the clientele. So far, there was none.

“No one’s gone in or out the whole time we’ve been here,” I said.

“But it’s open,” she pointed out. Lamp glow did shine from the windows, and a lantern beside the hanging sign made sure we could read the name: Mom’s.

“I guess I’ll go in, then,” she said.

“No, I will. You stay here and watch.”

She indicated my right arm in its sling. “And you’ll fight your way out how?”

“I’m just going to talk.”

“This guy has a serious reputation. Suppose he decides to chitchat with swords?”

“You forget how charming I am.”

“No, I know exactly how charming you are. That’s what worries me.”

I’d brought Jane along precisely because, with my arm out of commission, I couldn’t really put up much of a fight. But it was still my case, and I wasn’t getting crucial information secondhand, even from someone I trusted as much as I did her. “I promise I’ll scream if I need you.”

“By the time you scream, you may not need me anymore.”

“I’ll have to take that chance.”

I crossed the deserted street and Jane faded back into the shadows.

Cheban was a huge city-state located on a bay where two rivers met the ocean and thus was a vast commercial hub for all kinds of merchandise. Like any place where a lot of gold changed hands, the criminal element thrived here; even my old gangster friend Gordon Marantz had a few tentacles entwined around town. But the people I sought were worse than simple criminals. And the man who might help me find them, who supposedly hung out in this tavern, was no mere informant.

The painted image of a cheery, round woman offering a bowl of soup decorated the tavern door. Given what Jane told me about the place, I suspected that anyone who came in there looking for an actual meal would pay for it in the privy for the next few days. This was a tavern in the same way a dungeon was a walk-in closet.

A bell rang over the door as I entered. I tried to appear casual while thoroughly on my guard, nodding at the older woman behind the counter and looking around in what I hoped appeared to be mild curiosity. The place was empty save for one man seated alone at a table in a back corner. The carefully placed oil lamps kept him in a pool of darkness so you could neither see his face nor tell if he was watching you. But the precautions alone said he had to be the man I sought.

I sauntered over, hoping that the hairs on the back of my neck would do their usual job and warn me if I was about to be ambushed. I stopped a respectable distance away. I had a dagger in my sling and hoped I could wield it successfully with my left hand if the need arose. I said, “I’m looking for Moon.”

“Why are you looking here?” the man in the corner said. No emotion, just flat words that gave nothing away.

“Where else would I look?”

He did not reply for a long time. He did nothing for a long time. He’d mastered the art of waiting until the other person got too nervous or anxious to keep silent. The problem was, so had I. So, we looked at each other while the oil lamps sputtered and someone moved around in what I assumed was the kitchen.

At last, he pushed the chair opposite him with his foot so that it slid away from the table. I sat down. He said, “What do you think Moon can do for you?”

“I’m looking for a missing child. A seven-year-old boy.”

“So? Why should some rich guy’s son matter to Moon?”

“He’s not a rich guy’s son. He’s the son of a blacksmith.”

“Are you the blacksmith?”

“No.”

“Then why do you care?”

“Because it’s my job.”

“The blacksmith hired you?”

I nodded. Of course, by “hired,” I meant “offered to beg on his knees while my girlfriend comforted his sobbing wife,” but that wasn’t important right now.

He took a very deliberate drink from his tankard, a gesture I was certain was a signal. If possible, I became even more alert.

“Who are you?” he said.

“Eddie LaCrosse. I’m a private sword jockey from Neceda, and,” I repeated with just a hint of added emphasis, “I’m looking for Moon.”

“You still haven’t told me why Moon should care.”

“Two reasons. One, I can pay him for his talents.”

He snorted. “What ‘talents’ do you think he has?”

“He puts things together. I’ve got a few pieces but not enough to make the whole picture.”

“What’s the other reason?”

I leaned my good elbow on the table. He didn’t move away or react at all. “I know how Moon feels about people who hurt children.”

“Yeah? And who told you that?”

“More than one person. Umber Kale. Harry Lockett. Jane Argo.” I chuckled. “Even Gordon Marantz.”

He moved with smooth deliberation to light the lamp on his table. As my eyes followed his hands, as I’m sure he intended, I felt a presence behind me. I hadn’t heard it approach, but it was definitely there now, making the air between us heavier, close enough to kill me any number of ways.

The light finally showed me his face. It was lean and sharp, the face of someone who’d turned deprivation into a source of strength. His eyes never left me.

I said, “Who’s behind me?”

“My friend.”

I turned very slightly and said, “Nice to meet you.”

“He doesn’t speak,” Moon said.

“If he can move like that, he probably doesn’t need to. Does he have a name?”

“He’s known as Sham the Hushed.” He narrowed his eyes. “I’ve heard of you, LaCrosse. You returned the baby prince of Arentia to the king and queen. You found Black Edward Tew after twenty years. And you’ve been on the bad side of Gordon Marantz for longer than anyone should’ve been. You must be tough, even with a bad arm.”

“I’m not tough.”

“Neither am I.”

Another of those long silences passed. We weren’t trying to outwait each other now, just each deciding what our next move should be. Mine depended on his.

A woman appeared beside the table, bearing two tankards. She put one down in front of each of us. I looked up at her; it took a moment, but I saw that despite her entirely feminine way of moving, she was, under it all, really a man dressed as a woman. But even as I thought it, I knew that was wrong; in a world where a goddess could hide in plain sight as a mortal queen, who was I to say what was real? She was what she said she was, and so she was a woman, full stop.

“This is my sister, Camina,” the man across from me said. “If she brings the ale, it’s safe to drink.”

“Is it safe to look behind me?”

The man nodded.

I turned enough to see a giant of a man, his arms folded across his huge chest. He had dark skin and a shaved head. He met my gaze but did not change his placid, noncommittal expression. These were all pros and weren’t going to make any slipups.

“There’s a woman across the street,” Camina said to the man.

“She’s with me,” I said.

She looked at me skeptically. “She’s taller than you.”

“And she’s tougher than me, which is why I brought her along.”

“Is she a sword jockey too?” Moon asked.

“She is. She’s one of your references: Jane Argo. So, if anything happens to me, she’ll be along to balance the scales.”

“What’s going to happen to you?”

“At the moment, I’m waiting for you to tell me.”

“I’ll leave you gentlemen to your man talk,” Camina said, and winked at me as she left; I winked back, and she laughed.

“So,” the man said as he sipped his soup. “Let’s pretend that I’m Moon. You tell me about your problem, and I’ll pass it on to him. If he can help, and if he wants to help, he’ll be in touch.”

“The boy’s name is Auko Kiff. He was taken in the middle of the night. A convoy of traders from Cheban had just come through town, and Auko’s mother told me one of them, a white-haired woman, had taken a real interest in the boy, talking to him and giving him candy. I caught up with the convoy, but there was no sign of the woman or the boy. They did leave someone behind in case they were followed, and we had an altercation.” I indicated my injured arm.

“What happened?”

What had happened was that the guy was so vicious, and so strong, that I barely got away alive. As it was, he’d delivered a stinging slash to my arm that cut the muscle and required a row of stitches from the moon priestesses at their hospital outside Neceda. They recommended I take it easy for a month. “He made a few good points, but ultimately he lost the argument.”

“Too bad. He probably could have told you everything you want to know.”

“Yeah, too bad. But I did get this.”

Slowly, aware of the big man behind me and the seated one within striking distance in front of me, I brought out a small yellow jewel, about the size of my palm. It shone in the lamplight.

“Well, look at that,” the man said.

“You recognize it?”

“You don’t?”

I saw no reason to bluff. “No. It was the only thing on him that I couldn’t place.”

“Do you believe in spells, Mr. LaCrosse? Magic?”

I thought about all the things I’d seen—a dragon, a shapeshifting sorceress, a couple of ghosts, a monster desperate for friendship, even a stray goddess—and said, “I’m open to being persuaded.”

“You ever heard of the Coward’s Spell?”

I shook my head.

“It’s a spell that’s laid around a location, usually a building. Anyone trying to enter it is overwhelmed by fear. It’s said to be very, very powerful, so much so that it can defend against whole armies. Of course, to cast it is pretty complicated and requires a laundry list of things that aren’t easy to find.” He nodded at the jewel. “And that is a key. If you carry that, it can’t hurt you.”

“So, who would go to so much trouble, and what are they trying to protect?”

“Their business. Selling kids for sex.”

He stated it with such a casual tone that it took a beat for me to realize what he’d actually said. It had been one of my own working theories, of course, but there was also the possibility that the boy had been meant for slave labor, or even to fill the void of a childless couple with the money to arrange things like this. “You sound awfully certain.”

“Moon would be.”

“So, tell me about the white-haired woman.”

“She’s an entrepreneur. Her name is Elizabeth Gozel. She gets a request for a particular sort of child, then goes out and finds him or her, usually from out-of-the-way places.”

“Like Neceda.” The town I now called home.

“Is that in Muscodia?”

“It is. You’ve heard of it?”

Before answering, he took another drink. “Gozel gathers and maintains her inventory here, then, when she has an order, ships them out for distribution.”

“Inventory being children.”

“Occasionally adult women. But mostly kids.”

“And they’re kept behind a Coward’s Spell.”

“That’s what they say.”

Revulsion and anger almost choked my voice. “I’ve come to the right man, apparently.”

“Moon is the right man. I’m just the messenger.”

“So, where would Moon tell me to look?”

“What’s more important to you: finding the boy or stopping the trade?”

“I’m working for the boy’s parents, so their priority is mine. But I wouldn’t mind it if there’s a way to do both.”

“You take her down, someone else will come up in her place.”

“Still seems like a worthwhile thing to do.”

He drank some more ale, his expression never changing. I wondered what had brought him to this place; had his life been laced with tragedy, or had it been one defining moment of horror, like mine? He was smart, cautious, and absolutely unflappable; he’d also surrounded himself with people who shared those qualities. I’d walked into a well-oiled machine, one that knew how to take something, evaluate it, and then decide whether to work with it, spit it out, or grind it to pieces.

He put down the spoon, wiped his hands on his tunic, then said, “I’m Moon.”

“Yeah,” I said. “I sort of figured.”

 

The house wouldn’t attract anyone’s notice. It was one of dozens of similar dwellings, all packed together in the oldest part of Cheban. They leaned toward each other, arching over the narrow stone streets, many with boarded-up windows and missing doors. Only a few showed any light, and our target wasn’t one of them.

The only thing that gave it away, in fact, was the man standing in the doorway. He moved every so often but never stepped into the open. If you passed him, you’d think he was just an intoxicated bum looking for shelter. Only if you watched the house for hours, like we did, would you realize he was a guard.

“That place is locked up tighter than a new virgin in an old whorehouse,” Jane said. “Only one way in, and that way guarded. Look, all the windows are barred. And the roof’s got spikes.”

Earlier that evening, we’d scouted the alley behind it as well but found it blocked with the collapsed remnants of the much larger house that backed up to it. If there was a path through the rubble, we didn’t see it.

I hadn’t told Jane about the Coward’s Spell, so I asked, “Go see if you can spot any way in.”

She nodded, accepting that my bad arm would make it difficult for me. She climbed the collapsed stone nimbly and silently, her years at sea shimmying up ropes and sails making it second nature.

And then she stopped.

For a moment, I thought she’d been spotted by someone inside, but then she practically scurried back down. When she got back to me, she was pale and wide-eyed.

“What happened to you?” I asked.

“I saw a rat,” she said breathlessly.

“You’re afraid of rats?”

“You got a problem with that?”

“You lived on ships for years; rats should be—”

“Just shut up, will you?”

She pushed past me, and I winced as she deliberately rammed her elbow into my bad arm. Was this the Coward’s Spell at work? The best way to check was to give her the key and send her back, but for some reason, I decided not to. I’d tell her about it later—I didn’t want her thinking she’d freaked out on her own—but for now, I wanted my secret weapon to remain secret.

Now we sat in the attic of a boarding house across the street. The landlady clearly thought we were using it for a clandestine affair, but that was okay: both Jane’s husband and my girlfriend knew that our relationship was strictly platonic, and they were the only ones who counted.

“Do you really think that’s the right house?” Jane mused. “I mean, we only have Moon’s word for it. What if he’s setting us up?”

“We either trust him or we don’t,” I said.

We took turns watching out the window while the other slept for a couple of hours. It was my turn to nap when Jane shook me awake and said softly, “The show’s starting.”

I followed her to the window. A carriage was parked in the street, blocking our view of the door. It was elaborate and curtained, so we couldn’t see inside it. The driver wore a uniform with a high-plumed hat, and a guard stood on the running board. After something or someone came out of the house, they drove off at a leisurely, discreet pace.

“Think they’ve got cargo in there?” Jane whispered.

“They could. It would make sense to move them in the middle of the night.”

“One of us should follow them. And you can’t ride very well with that arm.”

“True.”

Her eyes narrowed. “Wait a minute, you agreed to that way too fast. You also can’t go breaking in there without me.”

“Who said anything about that?”

“No one has to tell a flying fish to jump, either. They just do it.”

“Look, it’s one guard, and I can take care of him.”

“One guard that we know of. As I recall, one guard made you show up at my office, going, ‘Pleeeeease, Jane, come with me and save my ass.’”

“You’re wasting time. You’ll lose them.”

“No, I won’t. I know exactly where they’re going.”

“Oh, yeah? Where?”

“It’s a goddamn port city, Eddie. They’re moving cargo, so they’re going to the docks.”

“You, being an ex-pirate, would know that area much better than me. Gosh, I’m glad you’re here.”

She glared. “Don’t think you outsmarted me, LaCrosse,” she grumbled, grabbing her sword and cloak. She swirled out of the room in a huff. I resumed watching the house across the street.

If Moon’s information was correct, the place was a chamber of genteel horrors, where orphans from the streets and children snatched from distant villages were used in ways I didn’t even want to think about, as training for their final destinations. He was unsure how many kids might be inside: anywhere from a couple to possibly a dozen or more. Their arrivals and departures were carefully ignored by paid-off constabulary. It was the kind of grubby open secret that all big cities nursed; only, this one was worse than mere gambling or adult prostitution. If he was right and I was right, somewhere in there was a wide-eyed little boy from Neceda who I’d known since he was a baby.

I couldn’t let myself get angry, though. Anger made you sloppy, and I had enough handicaps with my sword arm out of commission. Besides, these people weren’t angry: they operated a business, and if I wanted to take them down and get Auko back safely, I had to be as cool and methodical as they were.

In my wayward youth, I’d been a mercenary, and I still knew how to kill people quickly and efficiently. I tried not to; my conscience, numbed and atrophied for all those years, had regrown since I became a sword jockey. But sometimes, that skill set came in handy, as it did when I stood in the alley beside our boarding house and used a small collapsible crossbow to take out the guard with a bolt through the neck, effectively silencing any last cry of warning. Even left-handed, I was a pretty good shot.

He fell in the doorway and didn’t move, like a passed-out drunk. He might not have known the nature of the place he was guarding, but that chance was slim; likely he’d thought of it as just another job and could’ve cared less what went on inside, even if he did know about it. At least, that’s what I told myself to justify killing him.

I waited to see if other guards would appear. When they didn’t, I scurried across the street, stepped over the body, and hid in the same doorway. I certainly felt no frisson of crippling fear, but since I had the key in my pocket, perhaps that negated it. Or perhaps the spell itself was bullshit.

I listened at the door and heard nothing. Then I banged on it with my good hand and shouted, “Hey! Open up! Somebody just shot at me!”

I jumped when the lock on the door began to turn. I stepped to one side as it opened and a scar-faced man stepped out. I drove my dagger into his belly, tilting the thrust upward so that the point got under his ribs and found one of his lungs. He fell, unable to scream, atop the other man.

Well, that was two people dead in something under a quarter of an hour, with one arm symbolically, if not literally, tied behind my back. Jane would never believe it.

So, now the door was open, and the dark interior beckoned. But as I was about to enter, I felt that tickle on the back of my neck and turned. I don’t know what I expected, but the enormous, silent man from the meeting with Moon was not it. Once again he was right there, and even if I could’ve gotten a weapon into play, I doubted I could hit anything vital before he made his move.

Sham the Hushed held up one hand. In it was a stone key identical to mine. He winked at me and smiled, then nodded at the dead guard, whose pockets were expertly turned out. He gestured for me to precede him inside.

I entered the darkened foyer, cursing myself for trusting people so openly yet again, and swearing vengeance on Harry Lockett, Umber Kale, and especially Jane. Gordon Marantz was off the hook, since no one expects a gangster to be honest. Sham closed the door and stood looking down at me.

Emboldened by his stillness when he clearly had the drop on me, I said softly, “Are you a good guy or a bad guy?”

Sham touched his ear, then his mouth, and shook his head. That explained the moniker “The Hushed.”

I thought for a moment, then mimed shaking hands, followed by a stabbing motion, and ended by giving him a quizzical look. He smiled in understanding, then offered his hand. We shook, or rather, he shook mine and the rest of me with it. He touched a pair of dry fingertips to my mouth, then his eyes. He could read lips. That simplified things.

Again, he gestured that I should lead the way.

The foyer was lavish, with rugs and tapestries visible in the moonlight coming through the high, narrow windows above the door. We reached the first room, a parlor with couches, comfortable chairs, and piles of stuffed toys and dolls. Those brought me up short; the decor otherwise was exactly like you’d find in a high-class whorehouse. Fury, the cold kind I tried never to feel, began to uncoil deep inside me. What kind of monsters were these people?

Off the parlor was a short hallway that led to rooms with closed doors. I stood listening and caught the sound of a child whimpering behind one of them. I traced it to a particular door locked from the outside by a deadbolt. I turned it slowly until it clicked free.

The room beyond was dark. I heard the whimperer move on what sounded like a bed, no doubt thinking another of the establishment’s “guests” had arrived. I said softly, “We’re the good guys, kid. We’re here to get you out.”

There was another whimper. I couldn’t blame him, or her, for not believing me.

The moonlight shone in from another high window, and I spotted a lamp on a nearby table. With my left hand I clumsily used the pair of spark stones beside it to strike a flame, and got my first look at the room.

It was a twisted, overdone idea of a child’s room, with everything too fluffy, too pink, and way too lacy. The bed against the wall had a canopy with an image of a little girl playing with sheep stitched into it.

On the bed sat a real little girl. She had black hair curled into ringlets and wore a grown-up style sleeping shift. The worst part was that her face was covered with adult-style makeup that had been smeared by . . . well, I tried not to think about that. Fear and resignation filled her wide eyes. She was maybe seven years old, just like Auko.

Her left ankle was manacled to a bedpost. I said, “Don’t worry. We’re here to take you somewhere safe. This is my friend Sham. He’s not as scary as he looks.”

Picking the lock on the manacle was no problem, although I had to use my right hand and every movement sent lightning bolts of pain through my arm. As I worked, the little girl did nothing but stare at me. When she was free, I said, “I need to pick you up. We may have to move fast, and I’m not sure you can keep up. Do you understand?”

She nodded. I took her gently in my good arm and handed her to Sham. He held her as if he was used to it, and she snuggled against his big chest.

“Get her out of here,” I said silently but with clear enunciation. “Whatever else needs doing here, I’ll take care of it. I still have to find Auko.”

He cocked his head, puzzled by my decision.

“I can’t prioritize in this, Sham,” I said. “I can’t make her wait while I look for Auko. This is her chance. Get her out of here, get her somewhere safe, and if you want to come back, I’ll be grateful for your help.”

He nodded, turned, and vanished into the shadows. I never even heard a footstep.

It seemed inconceivable that there could be only the two men I’d killed left to watch over the place, so I assumed I’d already used up my quota of dumb luck for the night. The other rooms were thankfully empty, although all shared the same decor.

I stuck my dagger back in my belt, threw off my sling, and stretched my right arm despite the pain. I forced my heart to stop pounding so I could catch even the slightest sound. There it was: soft voices coming from somewhere ahead and below.

I found the door easily enough; it wasn’t locked. I slipped through and padded quietly down the stone stairs.

I was a little nauseous contemplating what I might find, but it really wasn’t that unusual. There were five cells in each wall, and in the middle of the room, three rough-looking men sat playing cards around a table.

I thought hard, trying to decide what to do. Another half-step and they couldn’t fail to notice me. The cells I could see were empty, but these guys had to be guarding something. Did I really want to double my kills for the night? Would I even be able to, injured as I was? These were pros, and while I might take out one of them with the crossbow, I’d never get three bolts in the air before one of them crossed the room and got me.

Then I decided the hell with it. I strode into the room, yawned, and said, “Hi.”

The three men turned and stared at me.

“Sorry,” I said, still yawning. “I normally work days. Who’s in charge?”

One of the men said, “I am.”

By then, I’d reached the table. “So, you got the notification about me, right?”

“No, I—”

I slammed the heads of the men on either side of me into each other, making a loud thonk. I used my knee to drive the edge of the tabletop back into the man in charge, and just in time, too: he’d almost gotten his own dagger clear of its sheath. I upended the table and slammed it down on top of him, then jumped on it. I heard bones, probably ribs, snap and he let out a sharp, hissing gasp.

I stepped off the table and peered into the other cells. Two of them held lone children, both boys, and one of them was Auko. He still wore the clothes his mother had described. “Auko?”

He stared. “Mr. LaCrosse?”

“Yeah. Are you all right?”

“I’m fine. But you’re hurt!”

I looked at my arm. Blood had soaked through my tunic and jacket sleeves. So much for the stitches. “Don’t worry about it. Want to get out of here?”

He got to his feet and pressed himself against the bars. “Yes, sir!”

I went back to the guards, tossed the table off the injured man, and took the keys from his belt. Blood seeped from the corners of his mouth as he choked. He tried to say something but only coughed and sputtered red.

I let Auko out of the cell, then turned to the other boy. He huddled in the corner and looked even younger than Auko.

“Don’t let Kifer out,” Auko said. “He’s the one who led me to them. I snuck out of the house to play with him, and that’s when his friends grabbed me.”

That explained that. I said, “They grabbed him, too. He’s locked up just like you are now.”

“I don’t care,” he said petulantly. “He can stay in there forever.”

“No, he can’t,” I said and opened the door. “Kifer, come on.”

The boy just shook his head.

“You like it here? You want to stay locked up?”

“They feed me,” he said, half-whine and half-whimper.

Auko took my hand and said, “Come on, let’s just leave him.”

I heard raised voices and footsteps from elsewhere in the house. Guess my run of good luck had ended. I used my battlefield command voice and said to Kifer, “Get out here, you little shit. Now!

That got him out, except he ran past me toward the stairs just as four people came down. In the lead was a beautiful white-haired woman, dressed formally but with the cold expression of someone who could kill much more easily than I could. When he saw her, Auko hid behind me without letting go of my hand.

Behind the woman were three more big, rough-looking men. Two of them carried children, their wrists and ankles bound. They hadn’t been making a delivery with that carriage; they’d been receiving one. My cold fury reasserted itself.

“Auko,” I said softly, “no matter what I say, do it. Do you understand me?” I felt him nod.

The woman smiled as Kifer desperately hugged her. “Shhh, it’s all right; the bad man won’t hurt you,” she said as she patted his back. Then to me she added, “I’m going to enjoy torturing the truth out of someone as resourceful as you seem to be.”

“A whole pile of your people have tried,” I said. “It hasn’t worked out too well. Now step aside and let us go, and we’ll call it even.”

She had the patrician air of wealth and privilege, secure in her certainty that she could do as she wished to most people. “No. A man like you, who comes in here to save little children, you’re not going to just walk out and leave these others.”

She gestured at the two bound children. One was a boy, one a girl. They looked like they might be related. Completely unbidden, I felt a pang of sympathy for what their parents must be feeling, to lose not just one but two, possibly all, of their children. She was right, but I didn’t have to let her know that. “I’m paid to find this one. That’s all.”

“So, you’re all about the money? How much?”

“Twenty-five gold pieces a day, plus expenses.”

“Do you know who I am? I pay more for a single gown than you’ll earn in your whole pathetic life. And can you even conceive of how much I’ll get for these children? Can you imagine how much the people whose tastes run to this sort of thing will pay? It would purchase your services for years.”

“No, it wouldn’t.” If I kept her talking, I might think of a way out of this, although so far, that plan hadn’t really worked out. Where the hell was Jane? If she’d followed them out, why hadn’t she followed them back? Or had the Coward’s Spell really worked on her? If it had . . . .

And then a section of wall swung open, and five more men came out behind me. Well, this was getting better and better. They kept their distance, and for a moment, that puzzled me, but then I realized it was because of Auko. He was valuable merchandise, and they didn’t want him damaged. At least not unless someone paid handsomely for it.

“It’s time to stop the games,” the woman said. “I know who you are, too. Eddie LaCrosse, from Neceda. Sword jockey, former mercenary, all around bad news, but with one fatal flaw: you won’t be bought off.”

Again, she was right, but it didn’t seem prudent to confirm that. “There’s bought, and there’s bought. You’ve been spouting rose petals. Make me a hard offer.”

She smiled. I’d seen wolves smile like that. “Stalling is pointless. Let go of the boy.”

At those words, Auko hugged me tighter. I kept hoping to see movement on the stairs behind them, indicating Jane had come to the rescue. But the shadows remained still and dark.

“If you’re expecting rescue from your friends, you’re wasting your time,” she said. “Moon?”

Moon slunk down the stairs, emerging from the shadows like some human rat. I hadn’t spotted him when he came in with them, which said a lot about his ability to hide in the shadows.

I glared at him. “I see my friends didn’t know you as well as they thought they did.”

He shrugged. “Like you said, there’s bought and there’s bought. I hate what these people do, but they pay mighty well to do it. They were very financially appreciative when I told them you were coming.”

“I bet they were.”

“They wanted to see what you’d do against the Coward’s Spell, so we just let you do your job. We knew there was no way you’d get out of here in one piece.”

Auko was now crying. I almost wanted to join him.

Then something fast and big appeared behind the white-haired woman. By “big” I mean bigger than me and bigger than Jane. I saw a blur of hands, and the men around Gozel fell like puppets with cut strings, the bound children landing atop their bodies. I pushed Auko to the ground, drew my dagger, and spun. I slashed three of the men behind me across their abdomens, deep enough to let their insides outside.

The other two panicked and tried to get out the secret passage, but Camina appeared in the door, a dagger in each hand, and stabbed them both in the neck before either could react.

I spun back to face the woman, who was now the only one standing. Well, except for Moon and Sham the Hushed, who towered over all of us like a thundercloud behind a horizon.

Moon remained implacable. “That went well.”

“So, you double-crossed me so you could triple-cross them?” I said as I pulled Auko to his feet.

He shrugged again.

“Would it be too much to ask why?”

“Oh, honey,” Camina said as she draped an arm over my shoulders. “We’ve been trying to get into this place for years, but that Coward’s Spell was just too strong. We get near it, and we get so scared, we pee our pants. You were exactly what we needed: a stranger who wouldn’t take no for an answer and who had a spell key. We tipped Miss Betty off so she’d trust us. Moon here even agreed to come with her as an act of good faith.”

I looked at Elizabeth Gozel, the architect of so much suffering. “What happens to her?”

Moon turned to Sham and nodded. The giant snapped her neck with one effortless twist. She joined the others in the pile of the dead. Kifer hunched down beside her body, trying to make himself small.

“She might’ve told you useful things,” I pointed out.

“She couldn’t tell me anything I don’t already know,” Moon said.

Camina stepped over the men she’d stabbed, knelt, and cut the bonds on the bound children and embraced them as they cried. She gave Kifer a pat on the head as well.

I looked up at Sham. “Thanks for helping me out earlier.”

Moon’s eyes widened slightly, and he turned to Sham. “You helped him out before we got here?”

Sham nodded, and there was a defiant look in his eye, as if daring Moon to question him.

“How did you get through the spell?”

Sham pointed between his legs, then spread his hands wide. Big balls, indeed.

“You could’ve blown this whole thing,” Moon said.

Sham did not change expression. Moon sighed and shook his head. To me he said, “You and your little friend better get going.”

I needed to know one more thing. I took out my keystone and carefully placed it on the stone floor. Then I crushed it beneath my heel.

Nothing changed. I glanced down at Gozel, whose open eyes were starting to turn milky. The spell died with her, it seemed. If it ever really existed.

I took Auko’s hand and led him around the fallen men. At the bottom of the stairs, I turned back and said, “You could’ve trusted me and let me in on the plan.”

“I don’t even know you,” Moon said.

“You knew the people who sent me to you.”

“Names. You could’ve gotten them anywhere.”

“He got one of them from me,” Jane Argo said as she came down the stairs, dagger at the ready. She stopped and looked around at the carnage like she saw this sort of thing every day. “What’d I miss?”

“Not much,” I said. “Where were you?”

“Making sure their ships wouldn’t be taking anyone anywhere. They’ll be at the bottom of the harbor by now.”

“And this place will be a pile of smoking rocks by sunrise,” Moon said.

“So, the good guys won, huh?” Jane grinned and put her dagger away. “You found the little nose-picker too.”

“We’ll take care of getting the others home,” Camina said.

Moon didn’t seem inclined to shake hands, so the three of us headed up the stairs. About halfway up, Auko asked, “Was that man one of the good guys?”

Jane laughed.

“Depends,” I said. Because with people like him, and me, it always did. “But tonight, yeah. He was.”

 

“The Key to the Coward’s Spell” copyright © 2016 by Alex Bledsoe

Art copyright © 2016 by Priscilla Kim

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