Jun 11 2014 4:00pm
A Plunder of Souls (Excerpt)
Check out A Plunder of Souls, the third stand-alone novel in D.B. Jackson’s acclaimed Thieftaker series, available July 8th from Tor Books!
Boston, 1769: Ethan Kaille, a Boston thieftaker who uses his conjuring to catch criminals, has snared villains and defeated magic that would have daunted a lesser man.
A ruthless, extremely powerful conjurer seeks to wake the souls of the dead to wreak a terrible revenge on all who oppose him, and Kaille’s minister friends have been helpless to stop crimes against their church. Graves have been desecrated in a bizarre, ritualistic way. Equally disturbing are reports of recently deceased citizens of Boston reappearing as grotesquely disfigured shades, seemingly having been disturbed from their eternal rest, and now frightening those who had been nearest to them in life. But most personally troubling to Kaille is a terrible waning of his ability to conjure. He knows all these are related... but how?
Boston, Province of Massachusetts Bay,
July 13, 1769
Ethan Kaille knew that he was followed. Like a fox running before hounds, he sensed Sephira Pryce’s toughs bearing down on him, snarling like curs, determined to rob him of spoils he had claimed as his own.
Even as the men closed on him, he himself pursued a thief who had stolen a pair of ivory-handled dueling pistols from a wealthy attorney in the South End. His quarry, Peter Salter, led him out along Boston’s Neck, the narrow strip of land that connected the city to the causeway across Roxbury Flats. British regulars had established a guard post at the town gate, and so before reaching the end of the Neck the young thief turned off of Orange Street to cut across the barren leas that fronted the flats. Ethan could see the pup ahead of him, wading through the grasses.
The western horizon still glowed with the dying light of another sweltering summer day, and a thin haze shrouded the quarter moon and obscured all but the brightest stars in a darkening sky. Not a breath of wind stirred the humid air, heavy with the sour stink of tidal mud; even with the sun down, the heat remained unabated. The city itself seemed to be in the throes of ague.
Ethan’s sweat-soaked linen shirt clung to his skin, and his waistcoat, also darkened with sweat, felt leaden. His usual limp grew more pronounced with each step he took, the pain radiating up his leg into his groin. He hoped that the sound of his uneven gait wouldn’t alert Salter to his pursuit, or allow Sephira’s men to locate him too soon.
If not for the concealment spell Ethan had cast, making himself invisible to all, Sephira’s toughs might have spotted him from a distance, and Salter would have needed only to glance back to see him. Still, Pryce’s men dogged him, whether directed by his tracks or by Sephira’s uncanny knowledge of all that he did, Ethan could not say.
Ahead, the young thief slowed, then halted. He surveyed the ground before him, turning a slow circle. After a few seconds of this he let out a soft cry and strode forward with greater certainty, taking three or four steps before stopping again and dropping to his knees.
Ethan crept after him, placing his feet with the care of a deer hunter, and drawing his blade with a whisper of steel against leather. He could barely see Salter, who was hunched over, no doubt digging up the goods he had stolen. The pup was of average height and build—much like Ethan—but he had a reputation as an accomplished street fighter. If Ethan could avoid a fight he would. He knew, though, that the chances of this were slim.
He continued to ease toward the man, but as he drew within a few yards, his bad foot caught on a clump of grass and he stumbled. He managed not to fall, but at the sound Salter leapt to his feet.
“Who’s there?” he called, brandishing a flintlock pistol.
Ethan cursed under his breath. Since the beginning of the city’s occupation by British troops the previous autumn, it seemed that every man in Boston had taken to carrying a firearm. Every man but him. He scanned the ground at his feet and thought he could see a rock or clump of dirt just in front of him. He squatted, wrapped his fist around what turned out to be a stone, and tossed it a few feet to his left.
It rustled the grass and landed with a low thump. Salter pivoted with lightning speed and fired off a blind shot. The report of the pistol echoed across the Neck.
Seeing no one there, the pup blinked once and let the hand holding his weapon drop to his side. Before the thief could do more, Ethan launched himself at him, covering the distance between them in three quick strides and driving his shoulder into Salter’s gut. As they toppled to the ground, the pup flailed at him, using the butt of his pistol as a cudgel against Ethan’s back. But Ethan had the advantage. With Salter pinned to the ground beneath him, he hammered his fist into the man’s jaw once, and a second time. A third blow left the pup addled and unable to fight back.
Ethan rolled off of him and flexed his right hand. His knuckles ached. He took Salter’s pistol, which lay on the ground beside them, and tossed it beyond the lad’s reach. The weapon would have to be reloaded before it could be fired a second time, but Ethan didn’t wish to be hit with it again. He picked up his tricorn hat, brushed a bit of dirt off of it, and set it back on his head. Seeing that a thin trickle of blood ran from Salter’s mouth over his chin, Ethan whispered a spell.
“Fini velamentum ex cruore evocatum.” End concealment, conjured from blood.
His spell thrummed in the ground beneath him, deep and resonant, and the air around them sang with power. A ghost appeared beside him, like a flame suddenly igniting atop a candle. The spirit, which glowed with the deep russet hue of a newly risen moon, was the shade of an old warrior. He was dressed in chain mail, his tabard emblazoned with the leopards of the ancient Plantagenet kings, his expression as hard and cold as a sword blade. Ethan called the ghost Uncle Reg, after his mother’s waspish brother, though he didn’t know for certain where in his family tree the man would have been located when he lived. So far as Ethan knew, his name wasn’t actually Reg, either.
The ghost was a guardian of the power-laden realm between the world of the living and the domain of the dead. Without him, Ethan could not conjure. Reg regarded Ethan with bright, gleaming eyes, appearing annoyed at having been disturbed from whatever it was he did when Ethan did not conjure. Seconds later, he faded from view.
As the concealment spell Ethan had cast wore off, Salter stirred. He squeezed his eyes shut, opened them again. After a few seconds he tried to push himself up, but Ethan laid the edge of his blade against the pup’s throat. Salter stiffened, his eyes going wide.
“Easy, lad. You wouldn’t want my hand to slip.”
“Who are you?” the pup asked, staring up at him.
“My name is Ethan Kaille. I was hired by Andrew Ellis to retrieve the dueling pistols you pinched from his home.”
Ethan pressed the knife against Salter’s neck and shook his head. “Don’t lie to me, lad. I haven’t much time, and I’ve even less patience.”
“You’ve buried the pistols here, isn’t that right?”
The pup hesitated before nodding.
“You intended to sell them tonight? At the Crow’s Nest, perhaps?”
“How did you—?”
“It’s not exactly a new approach to thieving.”
Salter scowled. “Well, it works for me.”
“You mean it has worked, up until now.”
The scowl remained on the pup’s face, but he said nothing.
“You’re in a bit of trouble, Peter.”
“From you?” Salter asked, sounding incredulous despite the knife at his throat.
“Aye, from me. And also from Sephira Pryce. She and her men are on their way here now.”
At that, the thief tried to sit up once more. Ethan pushed him back down and tapped the edge of his blade against Salter’s throat.
“For now at least,” he said, “you still have more to fear from me than from her.”
“But if she finds me, she’ll kill me.”
“She might. I can protect you, but I’ll need some help in return.”
Salter laughed, high and desperate. “How can you protect me from Pryce? I’ve yet to meet anyone who’s a match for her and her men.”
“You’d be surprised,” Ethan said. “I’ve dealt with Sephira for many years, and she hasn’t killed me yet.” He didn’t bother to mention that several years earlier she had killed one thief Ethan tried to protect, or that just the previous fall one of her men had slit the throat of another, though Ethan managed to save this second man’s life. “Now, listen to me. If we work together, you’ll survive the night, and I’ll be paid what I’m owed by Mister Ellis.”
“And what about the pistols I pinched?” Salter asked.
“Those have been forfeit from the moment I learned your name.”
The pup’s mouth twisted sourly. “So, you’re a thieftaker, too?”
Salter narrowed his eyes. “Where did you come from, Kaille? Tonight, I mean. I didn’t see you before; not until I came to.”
Ethan glanced toward the spot where Salter had been digging. “What are the pistols in?” he asked. “A box?”
Salter continued to stare at him. “I’ve heard of your kind,” he said, his voice hushed. “You’re a witch, aren’t you? That’s how you crept up on me, and how you managed to knock me down without getting yourself shot.”
Conjurers didn’t think of themselves as witches. Witchcraft was the stuff of myth and nightmare, a term used by those who possessed no spellmaking abilities to explain powers they didn’t understand. Conjuring, on the other hand, was real. Nevertheless, the better part of a century after the tragic executions of twenty men and women in nearby Salem, so-called witches were still put to death in the Province of Massachusetts Bay. Ethan had hoped to finish this encounter without having to admit to Salter that he was a conjurer—a speller, as his kind were known in the streets of Boston.
“What are the pistols in, Peter?” he asked, hoping to change the subject. He should have known that wouldn’t work.
“I’d wager Miss Pryce would be interested to know that about you. It might be worth some money…” He trailed off, his newfound confidence wilting at the sound of Ethan’s laughter.
“She knows, lad. How do you think I’ve survived as her rival all these years? How do you think you’re going to survive the night?” He paused, allowing the words to sink in. “Now, the pistols?”
Salter didn’t respond at first, and Ethan had to bite down on his tongue to keep from hurrying him. A year ago he wouldn’t have feared a confrontation with Sephira. Yes, she was deadly, not to mention brilliant and beautiful. But he was far from defenseless. He could cut his arm to draw blood for conjurings, or he could use the grass growing around them to fuel spell after spell. Sephira’s men were as dangerous with their fists as they were with blades and pistols, but Ethan’s spellmaking was more than a match for them.
In the past year, however, Sephira had added a conjurer to her retinue of toughs. The man, a Portuguese spellmaker named Gaspar Mariz, had claimed Ethan as a friend after Ethan saved his life. But he still worked for Sephira, and Ethan had no doubt that he would follow any orders she gave him. With a conjurer in Sephira’s employ, Ethan’s one advantage over the Empress of the South End was gone.
Ethan heard voices coming from the direction of Orange Street. He gazed into the darkness for a second before facing Salter again. “Now, Peter. The pistols.”
“They’re in a sack,” the thief finally said. “Burlap.”
Ethan nodded. “Good. Quickly then, here’s what we have to do.”
He explained his plan, making every effort to be succinct.
For several moments after he had finished, Salter gaped at him. “That might be the most idiotic thing I’ve ever heard,” the lad said.
“Aye, but it will work.”
“All right,” Salter said. “Let me up and I’ll retrieve the pistols.”
Ethan read a different intent in the pup’s eyes and tone of voice. “You do that, lad. And remember as you dig that with my… my witchery, I can turn you into a human torch with no more than a thought.”
Salter licked his lips and nodded, the defiance Ethan had seen in his eyes vanishing as quickly as it had come.
Ethan removed his knife from the lad’s throat and watched, wary and alert, as Salter resumed his digging and retrieved the burlap sack.
Sooner than Ethan would have thought possible, Sephira and her men emerged from the gloaming. She led them, and notwithstanding the dim light, Ethan could see that she looked as lovely as ever. Black curls cascaded down her back and framed a face that was as flawless as it was deceitful. She wore her usual attire: black breeches, a white silk shirt opened at the neck, and a waistcoat that hugged her curves like a zealous lover. Behind her strode Nigel, yellow-haired with a long, horselike face; Nap, dark-eyed, lithe, watchful; Gordon, hulking, ginger-haired, and homely; and Afton, as huge and ugly as Gordon. Mariz brought up the rear, appearing tiny beside the others, a knife poised over his bared forearm should he need to cut himself for a conjuring.
Nigel and Nap held pistols and kept them aimed at Ethan.
“Whatever you’re doing, stop it,” Sephira said, a note of command in her throaty voice.
Salter darted a nervous gaze Ethan’s way.
Sephira halted a few paces short of the hole Salter had managed to dig. “So good to see you again, Ethan.”
“I wish I could say the same.”
She pouted. “I would have thought you were expecting me. You know how I feel about you working for men as wealthy as Ellis.”
“Aye, and you know how little I care.”
Her expression hardened and she turned to Salter. “I take it this is our thief?”
The pup said nothing.
“Peter Salter,” Ethan said. “He was just digging up the pistols for me.”
Sephira’s smile was dazzling. “I think you mean to say he was digging them up for me.”
Ethan glared at her. “Ellis hired me, Sephira. That may nettle, but it’s the truth.”
“Yes, and you know as well as I how little that truth is worth. When I return the pistols to him, he won’t care who he hired. He’ll pay me the balance of your fee—no doubt less than my services would have commanded, but I’m sure a substantial amount nevertheless—and he won’t give you a second thought.” She reached out her hand toward Salter and nodded toward the mud-stained sack he held. “Give me that.”
Salter looked at Ethan again.
Ethan grabbed the sack from him. “These are mine to give to Ellis. And that payment will be mine as well.”
“I don’t think so,” Sephira said, her tone glacial. “Nigel.”
Nigel and Nap turned their weapons on Salter. The thief stumbled back a step.
“Give me the pistols, Ethan, or he dies.”
Ethan drew his knife once more. Mariz shook his head, his own blade still hovering over his arm.
“Do not try it, Kaille,” the conjurer said, the words thick with his accent.
Sephira smiled again. “You see, Ethan? Even your witchery isn’t enough to save you anymore.” Her expression turned stony. “My patience has limits. Give them to me.”
Reluctantly, Ethan stepped forward and handed her the sack, her cool hand brushing his.
“Very good,” she purred.
“There’s enough grass around us for me to kill every one of you, Sephira,” Ethan said, his voice tight. “You’ve got what you wanted. Now leave.”
Ethan shook his head. “You’re not to touch him.”
“Ellis won’t be happy.”
“I don’t give a damn.”
She smirked. “You’re too tenderhearted for your own good. You know that, don’t you?”
“Just go,” he said.
She continued to eye him, and Ethan wondered if she would make an attempt on the pup’s life, or on Ethan’s. But at last she nodded once to her men, and started to lead them away.
“My thanks, Ethan,” she said, holding up the burlap sack, but not bothering to look back at him. “It’s always a pleasure to do business with you.”
Ethan didn’t deign to answer. He and Salter watched as she and the toughs receded into the darkness. Only when they were beyond hearing did Ethan say, “That was well done, lad.”
“What do we do now?” Salter asked. “Before long, she’ll look in that sack and realize what you’ve done.”
Ethan retrieved Mr. Ellis’s dueling pistols from where they lay in the hole, brushing off the dirt and grass with which he and Salter had covered them in their haste. As an afterthought, he also retrieved Salter’s weapon.
“That’s mine,” the pup said.
“It was.” Ethan glanced back to make certain Sephira hadn’t decided to come back and kill them both after all. “Sephira is my problem, Peter. You’re to leave Boston, never to return.”
“But Boston is—”
“Your home,” Ethan finished for him. He had heard similar protests from thieves in the past. He preferred to let them go free when he could. He had spent too many years as a convict to take lightly the notion of sending a young man to prison over a few baubles. “Aye, I’m sure it is,” he said. “But you forfeited your right to remain here when you decided to do your thieving in the home of a wealthy man. Either you leave, or I’ll place you in the custody of Sheriff Greenleaf. He’s likely to be far less gentle with you than I’ve been. Or, if you like, I can leave you to Sephira and her men. As you say, it won’t be long before she realizes that she’s carrying your dirt-filled shoes instead of these ivory-handled pistols.”
“Can I go back to my room and gather my things?” the pup asked. “Can I try to find another pair of shoes?”
“You can. But I assure you, Sephira knows where you live.”
“How? Why? She doesn’t know anything about me, at least she didn’t before tonight.”
Ethan sympathized with the pup. How many times had Sephira bested him by somehow knowing his every movement, his constant whereabouts? “Believe me, I understand. But she knows now who you are, and your room will be the first place she looks for you.”
Salter’s expression curdled. “So, I’m supposed to walk out of the city and across the causeway wearing nothing on my feet?”
Ethan grinned. “Be glad I caught you in July rather than January.”
The pup didn’t appear to find much humor in this. He nodded toward the pistols. “How much is he paying you to retrieve those?”
“Three pounds,” Ethan said.
“I could have sold them for twice as much. Maybe more.”
“Aye,” Ethan said. “I’m sure you could have.” After a moment’s consideration, he tossed Salter’s pistol to the lad before turning away and starting the long walk back to the home of Andrew Ellis. “But,” he called over his shoulder, “they’re not yours to sell.”
Unfortunately for Ethan, Andrew Ellis’s estate on Winter Street stood almost within sight of Sephira’s mansion, which was located at the south end of Summer Street. Ethan had known since the day he took on this inquiry that it would be even harder than usual to keep Sephira from interfering with his search for the pistols, simply by dint of how close she lived to the client. But still—whether out of bravery or foolishness he couldn’t say for sure—he had accepted the job anyway.
He made his way from the Neck along the unpaved lane that fronted Boston’s Common, rather than following Orange Street back toward the South End. This allowed him to approach Ellis’s house from the west, rather than the east. If Sephira and her toughs were searching for him, he would see them coming.
As he walked he felt the power of a spell hum in the road. At first he wondered if it was Mariz, perhaps casting a finding spell in an attempt to locate him. But in the next instant he realized the spell had come from farther off. If he had to guess, he would have said it came from the South End waterfront. He wondered if old Gavin Black, a sea captain and conjurer who had lived in the city for years, was casting spells. Or if perhaps there was a new conjurer in Boston. His eyes trained eastward, he walked on.
The Ellis house, an imposing brick structure with a semicircular white portico in front, and a sloping lawn bounded by rich gardens, stood on the north side of Winter, halfway between the Common and Marlborough Street. Candlelight glowed in the windows; a warm breeze rustled the leaves of large elms growing in the yard, and whip-poorwills sang overhead. Ethan followed a flagstone path to the door, glancing toward the street, and listening for Sephira and her men. Upon reaching the door, he rapped once with the brass lion’s-head knocker. After a short wait, the door opened to reveal an African servant wearing a white silk shirt and cravat, pale blue breeches, and a matching waistcoat.
The man regarded him with an expression that bespoke, in equal parts, indifference and disapproval. It occurred to Ethan that his clothes must look rumpled and filthy from his struggle with Salter, although as usual, the thought came to him too late to rectify the matter.
“Ethan Kaille to see Mister Ellis,” he said, hoping he sounded more dignified than he appeared.
The servant looked him up and down once more. “A moment please.” He started to walk away, but stopped and glanced at Ethan again, seeming concerned that Ethan might enter the house. Or rob it. “Wait here,” he said, and shut the door.
Ethan did not have to wait long. The door opened a second time, revealing the bulky figure of Andrew Ellis. He was dressed in a green silk suit with matching coat, breeches, and waistcoat—a ditto suit, as such sets were known. A pair of spectacles sat perched on his crooked nose. His hair was powdered and pulled back in a plait, accentuating his steep forehead and dark, wide-set eyes.
“Mister Kaille,” he said, sounding surprised to see him. “To what do I—?”
Ethan held up the dueling pistols, one in each hand.
A smile split the attorney’s face. “You’ve found them!”
Ellis took the weapons from him and started to walk back into the house, examining the pistols as he did. “Come in, come in,” he said over his shoulder, almost as an afterthought.
Ethan removed his hat, closed the door, and followed his client through the foyer and a large sitting room into a smaller study, the walls of which were lined with bookshelves. The house smelled of bayberry—no spermaceti candles for a man of Ellis’s means—and some kind of savory stew. The aroma made Ethan’s stomach rumble.
Ellis stopped in front of a writing desk on which burned an oil lamp, and eyed his weapons more closely. He brushed a small clump of dirt from one of the barrels, but then straightened and nodded.
“Well, these seem to have come through their ordeal relatively well.” Facing Ethan once more, he asked, “What can you tell me about the thief?”
“His name is Peter Salter, sir.”
“Salter,” Ellis repeated. “I’ve never heard of him.”
“I would have been surprised if you had, sir. He’s a street tough, a pup with little sense and even less ambition. But he won’t trouble you again.”
He hoped this would satisfy Ellis. He assumed that, like most of the men who hired him, the attorney would want to see the thief dealt with harshly. Ethan felt certain that Salter would leave Boston rather than risk Sephira’s wrath or Sheriff Greenleaf’s hard justice. He was less sure that the pup would manage to stay out of trouble in whatever town he inhabited next, but that was not his concern. He had endured nearly fourteen years as a convict, and he had seen what Sephira did to the thieves who crossed her path. Salter was a fool and a ruffian; he was often in the streets on Pope’s Day, brawling with the North End gangs. But Ethan couldn’t bring himself to destroy the pup’s life over a pair of dueling pistols. He hoped Salter wouldn’t be so careless as to allow Sephira and her men to find him.
“Very well,” Ellis said. He pulled a small pouch from a drawer in his desk. “I paid you fifteen shillings when I hired you. I believe that leaves me owing you two pounds and five.”
Ethan nodded. “Aye, that’s my recollection as well.”
The attorney counted out the coins, piling them carefully on the desk. When he finished, rather than picking up the coins and handing them to Ethan, he backed away from the desk, said, “There you are, Mister Kaille,” and gestured for Ethan to take them himself.
Ethan thought this odd, to say the least. But after a moment’s hesitation, he crossed to the desk. “Thank you, sir,” he said, taking his payment and pocketing the money without bothering to count it.
“I hope that I will not require the services of a thieftaker in the future,” Ellis said, facing Ethan. “Once was quite enough.” A hint of amusement flickered in his features. “But if ever I should, I will not hesitate to engage you again.”
“I’m grateful to you, sir.”
Ellis led him from the study, back toward the front foyer. “Of course. If the opportunity arises, I’ll recommend you to my friends and colleagues as well.”
They reached the door, and Ellis pulled it open. Ethan proffered a hand, but the attorney looked down at it, wrinkling his nose. “I think not, Mister Kaille. Forgive me. But with the smallpox broken out in the city, I feel it best that we part with but a civil word.”
Ethan dropped his hand. “I understand, sir. In that case I’ll wish you a good evening and be on my way.”
He replaced his hat and started down the path back toward Winter Street.
“You think me overly cautious,” Ellis called to him.
Ethan stopped, turned. “No, sir. But I fear that even such precautions as these won’t save us from infection if this outbreak is anything like those of sixty-one or sixty-four.”
Ellis walked out onto the portico, eyes wide with alarm. “Do you think it will be as bad as that?”
“I don’t know,” Ethan said.
“I pray it won’t.”
“We all do, sir. Good night.” Ethan started away again.
“Good night, Mister Kaille.”
He walked some distance with his head down, his eyes fixed on the street. The only light came from the moon and stars overhead, and from candles burning inside the homes that lined the lane.
So, had it not been for the soft scrape of a boot on cobblestone, Ethan would have had no warning at all. As it was, he barely had time to grab for his blade and push up his sleeve before hearing several sets of footsteps converging on him. Sephira’s men, he had time to think. Mariz will be with them.
He had but an instant to decide whether he was in greater danger from the conjurer or from Nigel, Nap, and the other toughs. He slashed at his arm.
“Tegimen ex cruore evocatum,” he said under his breath. Warding, conjured from blood. The conjuring rumbled in the cobblestones; his feet tingled with it. Uncle Reg winked into view next to him, his bright eyes avid, his brow furrowed.
Rough, powerful hands took hold of him, pinning his arms to his sides. One of Sephira’s men tore his blade from his grasp. He struggled to break free and retrieve it, but to no avail. Nigel loomed before him, huge, teeth bared in a harsh grin. The tough hit him in the jaw, his fist as solid and heavy as a brick. Ethan tasted blood; his vision blurred.
Ignis ex cruore evocatus! Fire, conjured from blood! He recited the conjuring in his mind, using the blood in his mouth to fuel the spell. Power pulsed a second time.
Nigel staggered back, as did Gordon and Afton, who had been holding his arms and now lost their grip on him. But no flames appeared.
“They are warded, Kaille,” Mariz said from the darkness. “We all are.”
“What do you want, Sephira?” Ethan asked, ignoring the other conjurer.
“I want those pistols,” she said. “I wasn’t amused by your little deception.”
“Ellis has his pistols.”
“In which case, you have his money. I’ll take that, instead.”
Ethan shook his head. “I don’t think you will.”
In spite of himself, Ethan had always enjoyed the sound of Sephira’s laughter. It was throaty, like her voice, and unrestrained. Too often, though, it was directed at him. As it was now.
“How do you propose to stop us?” Sephira asked. “Mariz has rendered your magick harmless. Do you honestly believe you can fight off all of my men?”
She had a point.
“So much effort for two pounds,” Ethan said, stalling now, racking his brain for some way to escape with his nose unbroken and his hardearned coin still in his pocket. “One would think you have one foot in the Almshouse.”
“The money is of no concern. Surely you understand that, Ethan. But I don’t want you thinking that you can get away with such antics in the future. Shoes for pistols? You should know better.”
Ethan opened his mouth to respond, but as he did, he saw something flash in front of him and off a bit to the right. It took him a second to realize that it was one of the lenses of Mariz’s spectacles catching the candle glow from a nearby house.
An idea came to him.
“Are you listening to me?” Sephira asked, sounding angry.
“Of course I am. What was it you said?”
He bit down hard on his cheek, drawing blood again.
Velamentum ex cruore evocatum, he recited silently. Concealment, conjured from blood.
The spell thrummed, like the string of a harp. Reg grinned at Ethan.
“What did you do, Kaille?” asked Mariz, who, as the lone conjurer among Sephira’s men, was the one person other than Ethan who could have felt the spell.
But by the time the words crossed Mariz’s lips, Ethan was already moving. He stooped, grabbed his blade, and while still in a crouch, ran forward past Nigel and straight toward the other conjurer. He kept his shoulder lowered and barreled into the man, knocking him off his feet. Mariz grunted as he sprawled onto the street; his knife clattered across the cobblestones.
Ethan stumbled, but righted himself, a hand holding his hat in place, and ran on. He veered left and right, knowing that his spell would keep Sephira’s men from seeing him, but that his footsteps would give them some idea of where he was.
A shot rang out, echoing across the lane. A bullet whistled past, too close for comfort. Reaching Marlborough Street, Ethan turned left. He could hear Sephira’s men pursuing him, and already his limp was growing more pronounced, his bad leg screaming. Still he ran, turning off of Marlborough at the next narrow lane and cutting down across Bishop’s Alley and into d’Acosta’s Pasture, a broad expanse of grazing land. Cows eyed him as he passed, his footfalls now muffled by the grass.
He emerged from the lea onto Joliffe’s Lane, and from there followed back streets through the Cornhill section of the city. By the time he drew near to the Dowsing Rod, the tavern on Sudbury Street that he frequented, he felt reasonably sure Sephira and her toughs had broken off their pursuit. Even Sephira would think twice before stepping into a crowded tavern and hauling Ethan off for a beating. He wasn’t so foolish as to think that his escape would settle matters in any way; Sephira had a good memory and held tight to her grudges. But for tonight, at least, he was safe.
He grinned in the darkness. Victories over Sephira were about as rare as audiences with His Majesty the King; he wanted to savor this one. He had money in his pocket, and his spirits were so high that not even the sight of British regulars patrolling the streets of the city was enough to dampen them.
Nevertheless, as he passed the regulars, still concealed by his conjuring, he slowed, so as not to give himself away with a false step or the jangling of the coins in his pocket. He turned a corner and halted, the scene before him like cold water on his mood.
A torch burned in a sconce mounted on one of the houses near the intersection of Hanover and Treamount streets, next door to the Orange Tree tavern and just a stone’s throw from the Dowsing Rod. And beside the torch, a red flag rose and fell lazily in the soft breeze blowing in off Boston Harbor. A man stood outside the house, leaning against one of the iron posts that lined the street.
The red uniforms of the soldiers hadn’t darkened Ethan’s mood, but this red flag was a different matter. Smallpox. That was what it signified. The distemper had come to this residence, and those inside had chosen to remain in their home rather than be removed to the hospital in New Boston.
The flag was a warning, a symbol of infection, of quarantine. Within this house dwells pestilence, it said. Fever, scarring, perhaps even death. These reside here now. Enter at your own risk. And if the red cloth wasn’t warning enough, the guard out front was there to keep away the concerned and the curious. No one could enter or leave, save a physician.
The flag had been up for several days now, but it still made Ethan’s blood turn cold each time he saw it. He feared for Kannice Lester, who owned the Dowsing Rod, and who had been his lover for more than five years. He feared for those who frequented her tavern and who worked for her. And yes, he feared for himself. Smallpox was no trifle. The outbreak of 1764 had killed well over a hundred people, and those who were sickened but survived bore terrible scars on their faces and bodies. The practice of inoculating people against the distemper had proved somewhat effective, but it was an expensive process, one that few other than Boston’s wealthiest families could afford. And many remained leery of the science cited by physicians; using the disease to fight the disease seemed to make little sense. Despite advances in controlling the distemper, every person in the city lived in fear of another epidemic. Many fled to the countryside at the first report of an outbreak. He had known people to refuse newspapers, food, and other goods, out of fear that they carried infection. Andrew Ellis’s unwillingness to shake his hand, or even place coins in his palm, was more typical than he cared to admit. If more red flags appeared in the city, panic would set in.
Sobered, Ethan continued on to the tavern. Kannice, he knew, would be careful. But what if one or more of her patrons was less vigilant? If he had known a spell to ward Kannice and himself against the distemper, he would have cast it, but he wasn’t sure such conjurings even existed.
Reaching the Dowser, he slipped into a narrow alley between two buildings. There he cut himself again and removed the concealment spell. Once he could be seen, he returned to the main avenue and entered the tavern.
Upon stepping inside, he was greeted by the familiar din of laughter and conversations, and a melange of aromas: musty ale and savory stew, pipe smoke and freshly baked bread, and underlying it all, the faint, pungent smell of dozens of spermaceti candles. In spite of the apprehension that had gripped him upon seeing the red flag, he smiled, only to wince at the pain in his jaw from where Nigel had hit him. In his desperation to get away from Sephira, he had forgotten to heal himself. He considered retreating to the alley to cast another spell, but even as the thought came to him, the Dowsing Rod’s massive barkeep, Kelf Fingarin, caught his eye, grinned, and held up an empty tankard, a question in his eyes.
He would heal himself later. He nodded and crossed to the bar.
“Good evenin’, Ethan,” said Kelf, speaking so quickly that his words ran together into what would sound to most like an incomprehensible jumble.
“Well met, Kelf.” Ethan placed a half shilling on the bar as the barman set the tankard—now full—in front of him.
“That’s the Kent pale.”
“Diver’s in his usual spot,” Kelf said. He gestured toward the kitchen. “And Kannice is in back, workin’ on another batch of the chowder.”
Ethan sipped his ale. “I’ll be with Diver. She’ll find me eventually. She always does.”
Kelf winked, already grabbing a tankard for another patron.
Ethan wended his way to the back of the great room, slipping past knots of wharfmen and laborers, and tables crowded with men drinking Madeira wine and eating oysters. A few people looked up as he went by; fewer still met his glance or offered any sort of greeting.
More than twenty years ago, he had been convicted of taking part in the Ruby Blade mutiny and sent to the island of Barbados to toil on a sugar plantation. The conditions had been brutal: unbearable heat, food that was barely edible, sleeping quarters that were little more than jail cells crowded with vermin-infested pallets. A stray blow from another prisoner’s cane knife wounded his left foot; the resulting infection nearly killed him. The plantation surgeons removed three of his toes, and thus saved his life. But that was the least of what he lost during his fourteen years as a convict. His pride, his first and greatest love, the future he once had imagined for himself: all of this and more he left in the cane fields.
After enduring those conditions for fourteen years, he earned his freedom, returning to Boston in the spring of 1760. He soon established himself as a thieftaker of some minor renown here in the city. But those who remembered the Ruby Blade affair and Ethan’s role in it still regarded him with suspicion. Others who were too young to know anything of the Blade took their cues from those around them. And still others, who cared not a whit about Ethan’s past as a mutineer, might have heard rumors of his conjuring talents, and so shunned him because he was a “witch.”
Whatever the reason, Ethan had few friends here in the Dowser, and not many more beyond its walls. On the other hand, those he did consider his friends, he trusted with his life.
Among them, Diver—Devren Jervis—was the one who had known him longest. Diver was younger than Ethan by several years and though he was now in his early thirties, he still looked as youthful as he had nine years before, when Ethan returned to Boston from the Caribbean and almost immediately ran into Diver on Long Wharf.
At first, Ethan hadn’t recognized his young friend; Diver had been but a boy when Ethan was convicted. But Diver recognized him right off, and greeted him as he might a blood brother. For Ethan, it was one of the few bright moments in an otherwise difficult transition back to life as a free man.
With his unruly dark hair, his dark eyes, and a roguish smile, Diver was seldom without a girl on his arm. For years it had seemed to Ethan that it was a different girl every fortnight. But for many months now, since the previous autumn, Diver had been with the same woman: Deborah Crane, an attractive redhead who lived in Cornhill, near Diver’s room on Pudding Lane. The two of them sat together at a small table near the back wall of the Dowser. Seeing them engrossed in conversation, their eyes locked, their heads close together, her hand in his, Ethan faltered.
He found another empty table, also at the rear of the room, and sat with his back to the wall, looking out over the tavern and sipping his ale. A short while later, Kelf walked back into the kitchen and emerged again with Kannice, an enormous tureen of fish stew, or chowder, as Boston’s residents had taken to calling it, held between them. Ethan saw Kelf whisper something to Kannice. She looked up, searching the room. After a few seconds, she spotted him and they shared a smile. Just as quickly, her attention was back on her patrons and their empty bowls. She began to ladle out the chowder, saying something that made the men around her laugh.
Kannice was younger than Ethan by some ten years: a willowy beauty with auburn hair and periwinkle blue eyes. She once had been married, to a man who died of smallpox during the outbreak of 1761. She inherited the Dowsing Rod from him, and though barely more than a girl, managed to transform the tavern from a shabby, run-down haven for petty criminals and whores into a respectable publick house that turned a tidy profit. She had a simple set of rules: Anyone was welcome in the tavern, so long as they refrained from fighting, whoring, or discussing matters that were likely to lead to a brawl. With Kelf behind the bar, implacable, as immense as a mountain, she had little trouble enforcing her decrees, though in truth, Ethan had met few men who would dare defy her and thus earn one of her legendary tonguelashings. Kannice was as savvy as any merchant in the city, and as clever as Samuel Adams and his fellow Whigs. She also had a sharp wit and could tell stories that would make the most hardened sailor blush to the tips of his ears.
She loved Ethan, and had suggested with ever greater frequency that perhaps the time had come for him to join her in running the Dowser.
“You could live with me,” she had said, the last time they discussed the matter, a few nights before. “We would share in the work and the profits, and you wouldn’t have to worry anymore about Sephira Pryce and her ruffians.”
It was never easy to say no to Kannice, and it was particularly difficult when she was resting on top of him, her smooth skin against his, her silken hair shining with candlelight.
“That’s a generous offer,” Ethan had said, taking care with his choice of words.
She smiled down at him. “But you’re going to refuse it anyway.”
“I’m a thieftaker, Kannice. It’s what I do.”
“Maybe. But you can’t do it forever,” she said. “Sephira can hire new toughs when the ones she has now grow too old. You’re on your own.”
“You’re saying I’m old?”
She ran her fingers through the hair at his temples, which had long since turned gray. “You’re seasoned.”
Ethan laughed. “And you have a silver tongue.”
“Think about it?” she said, a plea in the words. “For me?”
He kissed her. “I will. For you.”
They both knew that he would have done just about anything for her, except he would not marry her—after losing his betrothed when he was imprisoned, he had vowed never to wed—and he could not yet bring himself to give up his work as a thieftaker. Of course he hated contending with Sephira at every turn, and looking over his shoulder for Nigel and her other toughs each time he ventured out into the streets. And it was true: He couldn’t do this forever. He would be fortythree in October, and there were mornings when he felt every year in his bones and aching muscles. Odd as it seemed, though, he enjoyed thieftaking. The challenge of each new inquiry, the pursuit of those who had done wrong, even the danger—he found all of it intoxicating. In his heart, he knew that any other profession would bore him.
Kannice glanced up from the bowl she was filling and saw that he still watched her. Her cheeks colored, even as her lips curved upward again. After a moment though, her brow creased and she reached a hand to her jaw. She had noticed the bruising on his face. Ethan mirrored the gesture and gave a small shrug. Kannice shook her head, though with a touch of humor in her eyes.
“Are you trying to avoid us?” Diver’s voice.
Ethan turned. Diver and Deborah had halted a pace or two shy of where he sat.
“Not at all,” Ethan said. He stood and indicated the empty chairs at his table with an open hand. “Sit. Please.”
Deborah took the chair to Ethan’s left. Once she was seated, Ethan and Diver sat across from each other.
“I didn’t wish to disturb you,” Ethan said. “You appeared to be deep in conversation.”
She cast a look Diver’s way. Diver’s face turned red.
“That was kind of you,” Deborah said.
And at the same time, Diver said, “We weren’t talking about anything important.”
They looked at each other. Diver smiled; Deborah didn’t.
“You didn’t think it was important?” she asked.
Diver’s face fell. “I meant it wasn’t so important that he couldn’t have joined us. Of course it was imp—”
“You tell me if you think this is important, Mister Kaille. Derrey is thinking of asking the selectmen to appoint him as watch on one of the infected houses.”
“Pat Daily is doing it,” Diver added quickly. “He’s working just down the street at the Tyler’s place. And Ed Baker is doing it, too. They’re making good money at it. Three shillings and four for each of them. That’s per day,” he said, glancing at Deborah. “I was making less than half that at the wharf. And with these nonimportation agreements in place, a cove can’t even make that much.”
“Maybe,” Deborah said. “But at the wharf you don’t run the risk of being infected with smallpox.” She faced Ethan, looking very young and very pretty. “Don’t you agree, Mister Kaille?”
“It’s Ethan,” he told her, as he had several times before. “And I’m afraid I can’t agree with you entirely. Diver risks infection each time he leaves his room. All of us do.”
“But surely he would be in far greater peril were he to stand watch outside a house that had been visited with the distemper. Won’t you even agree with that?”
Ethan chanced a brief look at his friend, who sat with his hands folded and resting on the table, his eyes downcast.
“I’m not sure I want to answer, Deborah,” he said, meeting her gaze once more. “This is a matter for you and Diver to decide. I’ve no part in it.”
Her expression turned cold. “I see.” She cast a glance Diver’s way, her lips pressed thin. “In that case, I don’t have more to say to either of you. You should do as you please, Derrey. I believe you intended to anyway.”
She pushed back from the table and stood. Ethan and Diver both jumped to their feet, but she didn’t appear to notice. She walked to the tavern door without a backward glance and strode out into the night.
Diver stared after her, his mouth open in a small o. Once the door had closed behind Deborah, he turned to Ethan. “What should I do?”
“You should probably go after her.”
“And should I tell her I won’t take the job?”
“That’s for you to decide. I can’t help you.”
“I need the money, Ethan. There’s little work to be had on the waterfront right now.”
Diver stared at the door, a pained expression on his face. “I’m not very good at this.”
Ethan schooled his features. A year ago, this would have been the moment when Diver threw up his hands in frustration and moved on to the next girl. Deborah had changed him, and Ethan was glad. It seemed his friend was finally becoming an adult.
“You’re better at it than you think,” Ethan said. “Go on. If you don’t catch up with her soon, she’ll really be angry.”
A weak smile flickered across the younger man’s face. “Right. Good night.”
Ethan sat again, caught Kelf’s eye, and held up a finger. The barman nodded and reached for another tankard.
Long after Kelf brought him the second ale, Ethan continued to sit and gaze out over the throng of customers. The Dowser was more crowded than usual this night, which was surprising with word of the distemper spreading through the city. But at last, as the hour grew late, the crowd began to thin.
Kannice made her way to Ethan’s table, her cheeks flushed, wisps of loose hair falling over her forehead. Reaching him, she stooped and kissed him lightly on the lips. Her breath smelled of Irish whiskey, as it often did after a long night in the tavern, and her hair smelled of lavender.
“I see you’ve managed again to hit someone’s fist with your jaw,” she said, taking Deborah’s seat. She grinned to soften the gibe.
“Aye,” Ethan said, smiling as well. “I gave his knuckles quite a beating.”
“And who was this unfortunate soul?” Before Ethan could reply, she held up a hand. “No, wait. Let me guess. The yellow-haired one.”
“Nigel. Very good.”
She scrutinized the bruise, grimacing as she did. “Can I do anything?”
“I’ll heal it later.”
Kannice took his hand in both of hers. “You know, I was here all night, working. So was Kelf. And neither of us was hit even once.”
“Well, obviously you weren’t doing it right.”
Kannice laughed, throwing her head back.
Ethan dug into his pocket, pulled out the coins Ellis had given him, and placed them on the table in front of her.
Her eyebrows went up.
“My jaw will be fine by morning,” Ethan said. “And meanwhile I have this to show for my labors. And my bruises.”
“It could have been worse.”
“I passed the Tyler house on the way here. The flag is still out, and a man is standing watch on the street—a friend of Diver’s, I think. I don’t need Sephira and her brutes to make things worse.”
“I know that but—”
“Let it be, Kannice.”
She nodded, her gaze fixed on their intertwined fingers. “Deborah looked unhappy when she left.”
“Aye. Diver wants to ask the selectmen to put him on the watch.”
“To guard a quarantined house?” Kannice asked.
“Aye. And she doesn’t like the idea.”
“I can’t say that I blame her.”
“It pays well,” Ethan said. “And every job carries some risk.” She started to object, but he raised a finger, stopping her. “Even running a tavern. There are fewer regulars in the city now, but remember how worried you were when the occupation began. If General Gage had chosen to billet his men in Boston’s publick houses, it might have put you out of business.”
He saw that she wanted to argue. They both knew, though, that he was right.
“It’s not quite the same,” she said after a brief silence.
“No, but a man has to make a living.”
“I know.” She pushed herself up out of her chair. “I’ve a bit more to do in the kitchen.” She canted her head to the side, candlelight in her eyes. “You’re staying the night?”
“You don’t mind sharing your bed with a bruised old man?”
“Not any more than I did last night.”
He grinned. “In that case, I’ll stay.”
“Good.” She started back toward the bar before facing him again. “If you find yourself without anything to do, you can join us in back. There are a few dozen bowls that need cleaning.”
He lifted his tankard. “I’ll be working on this, I think.”
“Aye, I’m sure you will.”
A Plunder of Souls © D.B. Jackson, 2014