Sworn in Steel (Excerpt)

Check out Sworn in Steel, the second book in Douglas Hulick’s Tale of the Kin series, available May 6th from Roc.

It’s been three months since Drothe killed a legend, burned down a portion of the imperial capital, and found himself unexpectedly elevated into the ranks of the criminal elite. As the newest Gray Prince in the underworld, he’s not only gained friends, but also rivals—and some of them aren’t bothered by his newfound title. A prince’s blood, as the saying goes, flows just as red as a beggar’s.

So when another Gray Prince is murdered and all signs point to Drothe as the hand behind the knife, he knows it’s his blood that’s in danger of being spilled. As former allies turn their backs and dark rumors begin to circulate, Drothe is approached by a man who says he can make everything right again. All he wants in exchange is a single favor.

Now Drothe finds himself traveling to the Despotate of Djan, the empire’s long-standing enemy, to search for the friend he betrayed—and the only person who can get him out of this mess. But the grains of sand are running out fast, and even if Drothe can find his friend, he may not be able to persuade him to help in time…

 

 

Chapter One

 

I sat in the darkness, listening to the slap of the waves against the side of the boat, and watched as the outline of Ildrecca loomed toward me.

Even with my night vision, the sea wall on this side of the Imperial capital was too vast to take in. It stretched off into the distance in either direction until my magically tinged sight gave way to the night. The city was a great, hulking mass: an irregular black line drawn against the star-speckled horizon. A city I was now having to creep back into.

My city.

I brought my eyes back down to the scale of man and the forest of narrow spires that seemed to grow from the waters of the Lower Harbor. Lights flickered among those masts, swaying and bobbing like nautical will-o’-the-wisps—ship’s running lights moving in the soft breeze off the sea.

“I still say you should have killed him,” said Fowler Jess.

I looked back over my shoulder. The Oak Mistress was crouched amidships, scowling like an unhappy cat at the water that surrounded the narrow caïque. She had both hands out, gripping the gunwales as if she might keep the craft from capsizing by force of will. Her green flat cap was jammed down on her head, but that hadn’t stopped the breeze from setting some stray wisps of blond drifting and dancing about her head, giving her an amber-gold halo in my night vision. With her fine features and normally bright eyes, it would have been an enchanting image, if not for the smudges of dust and mud and old blood on her face and collar. Well, that, and the dark circles under her eyes that had come from days of hard riding and little sleep.

Not that I was doing much better, mind. My thighs and ass had stopped being able to feel anything other than pain nearly three days back.

“We’ve already been over this,” I said, reaching down and running an absent hand over the long, canvas-wrapped bundle at my feet. Reassuring myself for the fifth time in as many minutes that it was still there.

“Yes, we have,” she answered. “And you’re still wrong.”

I glanced past her to the figure of the boatman standing in the stern, working his long oar with slow, easy strokes. He was chanting the Nine Prayers of Imperial Ascension to himself, partly to keep time for his work, and partly to assure us he wasn’t eavesdropping. Boatmen who hired out to run the Corsian Passage at night without bow or stern lights knew better than to risk overhearing things. “Fine,” I said, leaning forward and dropping my voice down to a proper whisper. “Let’s say I’d done what you wanted and dusted Wolf: what then? What happens when word gets out that I broke my deal with him? What happens when people learn he kept his part of the bargain and I broke mine?”

“There’s a hell of a lot of difference between keeping your promise to a bandit and honoring your word to another Gray Prince.”

“Is there?”

“You damn well know there is!”

“On a good day, maybe, but now?” I pointed south, across the Corsian Passage, past the lights of the tiny harbor at Kaidos and the dark smudge of the hills beyond, toward the disaster we’d fled in Barrab. “With a fellow Gray Prince lying dead three days behind us, my dagger in his eye? With me being the last person, the last Kin, to see him alive?” I shook my head and barely managed to keep the rest of me from shaking along with it. Even now, the thought of the news coming up the Imperial High Road from Barrab made my stomach queasy.

I ran my hand over the canvas-wrapped sword at my feet again. It had been worth it; it had to have been worth it.

“No one besides us has any reason to think Wolf was involved with Crook Eye’s murder,” I said. “All anyone on the street is going to know is that two Gray Princes met, and one walked away. Me. What kind of story does that tell?”

“But with Wolf you could’ve always—”

“No, I couldn’t,” I said. “Because if I kill him, it looks like I’m trying to cover my tracks. If the street hears I dusted the bandit who snuck me out of Barrab past Crook Eye’s people, it won’t matter what else I do or say, the story will be set: Drothe dusted Wolf because he knew too much. At that point, I might as well take credit for Crook Eye’s death and be done with it.” I settled back on my seat. “No, as much as I hate to say it, Wolf does me more good alive than dead right now.”

“So he just walks?”

“He just walks.”

Fowler spit her opinion of that over the side of the caïque.

I turned back around and watched as the base of Ildrecca’s city wall resolved itself into the dark jumble that made up the Lower Harbor. A couple of centuries ago, it would have been alight and busy even at this hour, with wine and spices and grain and exotics weighing down the docks until they groaned, the air rich with the shouts of men and the thump of tonnage and the smell of trade. But that had been before the empire decided to expand the landings on the north and east sides of the peninsula that held Ildrecca; now the richest vessels made their way around the city’s horn to Little Docks and the Pilings and the merchant pier that had been added to the Imperial naval docks, called the New Wharf. The Lower Harbor, once the hub of Ildrecca’s trade, had become the haunt of timber merchants and fishermen, salvage traders and night soil barges. And, of course, the Kin.

Barely two-thirds of the docks in Lower Harbor were in regular commercial use anymore, which left the rest for us. Smugglers, spies, and the occasional small-craft pirate—along with all the people and industries that catered to them—were the stock-in-trade of the cordon that had come to be known as Dirty Waters.

I hadn’t left by this route on my way to meet Crook Eye, and I certainly hadn’t planned on using it to sneak back into the city I called home. Then again, I hadn’t planned on being framed for his murder, either. Not after I’d sworn the Prince’s Peace, promising to keep my steel sheathed and my people at bay for the meet, just as he had. The criminals of the empire didn’t expect much when it came to Gray Princes and our promises, but honoring the Peace was one of them. Without it, there was no reason to expect truces to be made, territories respected, negotiations offered, or Kin wars prevented. The Prince’s Peace kept the legends of the Kin from slaughtering one another on the rare occasions they met, which in turn kept the blood and the chaos from trickling down to the streets. It kept us, if not civilized, then at least careful.

But more importantly, it kept things from getting out of hand. Because if things got out of hand among the Kin, that’s when the emperor took an interest in us. And no one wanted that.

Our boatman grew quiet as we approached a set of water stairs, their steps leading down into the harbor. I’d barely felt the scrape of the keel on stone before Fowler was clambering up and over me, making for the stairs even as she sent the caïque to rocking. The boatman cursed. Fowler cursed. I grabbed the bundle at my feet and made it unanimous.

A moment later, the Oak Mistress was on the steps, scrambling up toward the quay as the boat settled.

I reached into my purse and pulled out a pair of silver hawks, then thought better of it and added three more, making sure none of them were clipped. The boatman stepped forward, easy and sure in the craft, and I placed a week’s worth of work in his palm. To his credit, he nodded and pocketed the windfall without comment.

I turned and considered the slime-smeared steps, the rocking of the boat, and the canvas-wrapped bundle in my hands. I bent my knees, took a breath…

“You want I should throw that to you?”

I blinked and looked back over my shoulder. “What?”

“The package,” said the boatman. “Steps are tricky enough as it is; figure you don’t need the added trouble of your hands being full.”

“I’ve got it,” I said. I turned back to the quay. I just needed to get the timing right…

“Does it float?”

I jerked back. “What?”

“Wondered if it’d sink or swim if’n you dropped it. Wonder if you’ll do the same, for that matter.”

“Look—” I began.

“I don’t need your girl tracking me down and cutting me up ‘cause I let you drown,” he said. “And I don’t need you doing the same if you drop your cargo gettin’ off my boat. Figure it’s better for us both if I toss it to you once you’re ashore.”

I considered the steps, the boatman, the water all around us. Considered the canvas-wrapped sword in my hands.

“I ain’t stupid,” he said from behind me. “Last thing I want to do is cross the likes of you.”

“Last thing I want to do is be crossed,” I said softly. Mostly to myself.

“Drothe!” Fowler’s voice came hissing down from the quay. “What the hell. What’s taking so long?”

I hefted Degan’s sword, feeling more than just the weight of steel and leather and canvas in my hands. There was history here; obligation; blood. Not to mention broken promises and memories.

I’d already lost him: I couldn’t lose his sword. Not after having just found it in Crook Eye’s possession. Not after having almost killed for it.

I handed the wrapped blade back to the boatman. Even if he were to row off with it, I stood a better chance of finding him than I did retrieving the sword from the bottom of the harbor.

I adjusted my stance, the muscles of my back and legs protesting, and waited for the caïque to bump up against the stairs again. When it did, I half stepped, half leapt across. Only one foot ended up slipping back into the water.

When I turned, the boatman had moved his caïque up, bringing him even with me. He hesitated a moment, bending over the blade, and then tossed the long bundle in an easy arc over the water. The blade landed in my arms almost before I had a chance to be worried. I drew the sword in close, then looked out at the boatman. He was already beginning to move away.

“Hey!” I called after him.

He turned his head but didn’t stop working his oar.

“I forgot to ask,” I said. “Has any news worth noting come across tonight?” Such as, I thought, word of a Gray Prince’s death?

“This a test?”

“Straight.”

He seemed to consider for a moment. “Naught I heard.” A flash of teeth in the gloom. “But then, I don’t hear much, yeh?”

I smiled and began to turn away.

“Heya!” he called.

I looked back.

“Check the blade.” Slight pause. “Your Highness.”

His chuckle was still rippling across the water as I held up the sword, but any anxiety I felt vanished as soon as I saw what he’d done. A worn length of rope had been tied to Degan’s sword, running from the canvas-covered crosspiece down to a spot just above the point, forming an impromptu sling.

The boatman was on his way to becoming an amber-limned smudge on the water by now, but I raised my hand in thanks anyhow. I couldn’t be sure if the sound that came back was more laughter or just the water.

I passed my left arm through the rope, ducked my head under, and let the sword settle across my back. It felt strange, but it also felt good. I climbed the rest of the way up the water stairs, my left foot squelching every other step.

Fowler was waiting at the top, her travel coat thrown back to reveal the deep green doublet and split riding skirt beneath. Scratch was standing beside her, his heavy hands hanging loosely at his sides, his face as expressive as a poorly carved block of granite. He was sporting a bloody lip. Fowler had sent him ahead to scout out the docks and arrange for discreet passage into Ildrecca. I didn’t care for the results his face predicted.

“Problems?” I asked as I reached the top.

“Misunderstanding,” said Scratch.

“How big of one?”

Scratch shrugged, meaning it could be anything from broken ribs to a broken neck for the other cove.

“Is it going to get in the way of using the Gate?” I said.

“Wouldn’t recommend calling on Soggy Peytr.”

Fowler and I exchanged a look. Soggy Petyr was one of the local bosses down in Dirty Waters, specializing in for-hire press gangs, stolen goods, and shaking down small shipmasters. He also controlled access to the oldest and largest hidden entry point this side of Ildrecca: the Thieves’ Gate.

I pointed at Scratch’s lip. “Petyr’s boys?” I said, hoping for the best.

“Petyr.”

I pinched the bridge of my nose. “Scratch…”

“Called you a cut-rate cove. Called Fowler worse. Wanted to shake us down. Backhanded me when I told him where to go.”

I sighed. I should have expected this. Various bosses and Kin had been testing me ever since the street had proclaimed me a Gray Prince three months back. Turned out having the title and keeping it weren’t the same thing, especially when you made the jump from street operative to criminal royalty in less than a week. People wanted to make sure my rise hadn’t been a fluke, that it wasn’t dumb luck that had put me on top.

Never mind that it had been luck—the important thing was to rise above it. A handful of hard names from the likes of Petyr weren’t going to bring me down, especially if I sent some of my people to “talk” to him once I was back inside the city. But tonight, in his territory, with only two coves on my blinders, the city gates locked until dawn, and a dangerous rumor running up behind me? This wasn’t the time or place to have a thin skin.

Unfortunately, it was starting to look like Scratch hadn’t seen it that way.

“And you took it, right?” I said. “When Petyr showed you his hand, you stood there and you took it, right?”

Scratch rubbed thoughtfully at the knuckles of his left hand and didn’t answer.

“Right?”

“Man hits you, sometimes you don’t think. Sometimes you—”

“Oh, for the Angels’ sake!” I turned away, not trusting myself to keep from backhanding Scratch myself. I took two steps along the quay, paused for a breath, took two more.

I could feel the edges of the sword biting into my back through the canvas as I thought of the man who had used to own it. A bloody lip? Not fucking likely. Degan wouldn’t have let Petyr touch him—wouldn’t even have let him start the motion. The fight would have been over before it started. Hell, it wouldn’t have started in the first place. If Degan were here…

No. Stop. Wishes and fishes and all that crap. Besides, I’d already poisoned that pond well and good. There was no going back.

I turned around. Fowler gave me a warning look as I came back. I nodded in response. Scratch was her man, not mine: any consequences for this would be meted out by her. Raising my hand against him would only get me a face full of Oak Mistress, and not in any way I’d like. That pond had turned sour as well.

I glared up at Scratch. “How bad was it with Petyr?”

“Don’t think I broke his jaw, if that’s what you mean.”

“You don’t think you—?” I took a deep breath, tried again. “How’d you get out of there? By all accounts, Petyr doesn’t travel light.”

Scratch shrugged. “Threw a table and ran.”

I opened my mouth to say more, thought better of it, and turned to Fowler instead. “The Thieves’ Gate is out,” I said.

“You think?” She looked around the wharf. “We can’t stand around here for long. Broken jaw or not, Petyr’s going have his people all over the Waters looking for us.”

I nodded. Dirty Waters sat on a narrow strip of shore between Ildrecca’s city wall and the Corsian Passage. It had one main thoroughfare—called either Eel Way or the Slithers, depending on who you talked to—that paralleled the city wall. Down in the Lower Harbor, it was wide enough for three wagons; here in the Waters, it was a good day when two carts could pass each other and only rub wheel hubs. People, barrels, ramshackle huts, and garbage clogged most of the road, leaving a meandering path intersected by the occasional side street or alley. The side streets were even worse.

The entire place was a warren of hidey-holes and roosting kens, but it wasn’t a warren I knew well. Running would be better than hiding, if we could manage it.

“We’ll need to stick to the Slithers if we want to get out of here,” I said as I began to move away from the quay.

“I don’t suppose you have any friends around here, do you?” said Fowler as she fell in beside me.

“No,” I said, looking up the street. Had that shadow been in that doorway before? “But that’s not the important question.”

“It isn’t?” said Fowler.

“No.”

“Then what is?”

The shadow, I decided, was definitely new, as were the four that had just slipped around the corner on the opposite side of the street. All were coming our way. Fast.

“The important question,” I said, drawing my rapier and my fighting dagger, “is how far is it to the end of Soggy Peytr’s territory? Because unless the answer is ‘pretty damn close,’ we’re going to have a long, hard fight ahead of us.”

 

 

Chapter Two

 

I took the corner fast—so fast that I slipped in the small pile of fish entrails someone had dumped inside the entrance to the alley. I managed to catch myself against a crate in the process and keep running. The maneuver gained me a palmful of splinters, but it was a hell of a lot better than the alternative being offered by the pair of Petyr’s Cutters running a block behind me.

I dodged past barrels and around fallen timbers, unsure whether to be grateful for the detritus or not. It could hide me and foil my trail, but it was also slowing me down. If I lost much more ground to my pursuers, all the switchbacks and trash in the world wouldn’t keep them off my blinders.

I burst out of the alley and into what passed for a piazza in Dirty Waters—basically an irregular open space set off by a laundry on one side and a tavern on the other. Weak light spilled out of the tavern, illuminating a collection of ramshackle tables and benches, all set on an uneven patio made up of stray boards laid out on the ground. Men sat at the tables. Two of them looked up as I staggered past, my eyes already burning from the faint light. Neither man moved to interfere.

Small blessings.

I was most of the way across the piazza, heading for a gap in the buildings on the far side, when I heard a shout of triumph behind me.

Petyr’s boys. Had to be.

I redoubled my efforts, pushing tired limbs and battered muscles as best I could. Between the trip up from Barrab and the ambush on the quay, there wasn’t much left to draw on; but given the alternative was to turn and fight and—most likely—lose, I headed into the alley and prayed I wouldn’t stumble over some fresh hazard.

If I could only find a handy bolt-hole, or a Rabbit Run, or maybe a Thieves’ Ladder to…

There. I came around a turn to find a gift from the Angels themselves: a tall, sloping pile of garbage directly ahead of me. If I could get enough purchase to run up it and leap to the overhanging gutter beyond, I might be able to…

Pain flared along my back as I picked up my pace, reminding me I was doing good to be moving at all. I’d been striped across the back on the quay, just before we’d been forced to rabbit: now a line of fire extended from below my shoulder blade, down across my ribs, to my hip. While I still wasn’t sure if it was a cut or one hell of a bruise—my hand had come back red when I’d reached around to check the wound, but there’d been no way to tell whether the blood was mine or someone else’s—I did know I would have ened up in two pieces if it hadn’t been for Degan’s sword laying across my spine.

One piece or two, though, there was no way I was going to be making that leap.

I skirted the garbage pile, tripped over a decaying mound of fur that might have once been a dog or a cat, and fell. My knee landed on something hard and I let out gasp. Then I was up and running again, but not for long. Thirty paces on, the alley ended in the back of a building.

I looked around. Dawn, I expect, was pushing itself toward the horizon somewhere to the east, but here in the slums of Dirty Waters, deep under the shadow of the city walls, it was still dark enough for my night vision to function.

I studied the alley in the red and gold highlights of my sight and felt my heart sink. The wooden wall before me looked weathered and worn, but that didn’t mean it would give way easy. I could still be trying to kick a hole in it when my pursuers arrived. The buildings to either side were brick, tall and without doors. There was a single window high up to my right, but it was boarded over.

The sounds of voices and stumbling feet—and more ominously, of bared steel scraping up against stone—came to me from back along my path. They were getting closer.

I took a step toward the garbage. Maybe if I could bury myself in it quickly enough, I could…

No, wait. Even better.

To call the gap in the wall near the garbage pile an alcove would have been generous. At best, it was a space where two buildings failed to meet, just behind the stinking pile and well in the shadows of the buildings that formed it. That I had initially missed seeing the gap spoke well of its potential; that I had missed it with my night vision was even better. If I couldn’t see it, it would be nearly invisible to the normally sighted Cutters on my tail.

I hoped.

I stepped over to the alcove, drew the long knife from my boot, and slipped into the small space as best I could. It was a tight fit, especially with Degan’s sword strapped to my back, but I wasn’t in a position to complain.

I heard smaller things shifting and scuttling away as I invaded the gap. Something hard poked me in the side, while something soft ran up my shin before deciding to jump off at the knee. My right leg and part of my hip were left sticking out into the alley.

I settled in and listened and wondered how Fowler and Scratch were faring. Whether they were even alive.

It had been an ugly fight, even by Kin standards. Scratch had dropped two of Petyr’s men at the outset, and Fowler another, but the odds never shifted in our favor. By the time I’d driven one of the Cutters into the harbor, more of Petyr’s people had begun to arrive. Steel and strategy quickly gave way to fists and fury, with elbows and teeth and worse coming into play in a vicious blur. When I finally managed to look up from the man who’d tried to lay my back open—I ended up pushing his eye into his head, along with four inches of my rapier’s cross guard—it was to see Fowler riding the back of another Cutter, her legs wrapped around his waist as she plunged her dagger down and into his chest. Even as I watched, another woman began to move to flank her, while a dozen yards away Scratch, his left side a study in blood, swung his sword like a scythe as he tried to fend off the three coves who were driving him backward toward a stack of barrels.

There were too many Cutters: too may on the quay, and too many more on their way. Soggy Petyr owned this corner of Dirty Waters, and he was clearly willing to empty it out to take me down. If we wanted to survive, we needed to fade.

And since they’d been sent after me in the first place…

I’d made noise when I left—a lot of it. I shouted, stomped my foot, banged my rapier against my dagger and shouted for Fowler and Scratch to run. Then, pausing long enough to gather a dark glare from Fowler and a handful of not nearly so intimidating looks from the Cutters, I’d bolted.

Three of Petyr’s people had followed, three more had stayed behind. Not the numbers I’d been hoping for, but I wasn’t in a position to be picky. At least this way, Fowler and Scratch would stand a chance of breaking free and taking to the back ways or roof tops. I hoped.

As it was, I’d heard an ominous yell and a splash as I ran up the street and ducked down an alley. The voice had sounded like Fowler’s, but between the distance and the sound of my feet, it was hard to be certain. With luck, the sound had been her getting the better of her attacker and throwing them into the harbor, and not the other way around.

The crunch of brittle wood beneath shoe leather sounded nearby, and I drew farther back into my hiding spot. A moment later, I watched as a figure came into view on the far edge of the garbage pile. A second figure followed. The third man had stumbled over an inopportune stool I’d managed to tip into the road and hit his head on the corner of a horse trough. I knew this because he’d been close enough to splash me with water—and worse—when he’d gone down. Damn, but that bastard had been fast.

Both of the remaining Cutters were moving slower now, casting their gazes across the shadows and listening for vanished sounds of my flight. I let them pass. Darkness or no, they’d be able to make out the end of the alley in another dozen steps. Once they did, they’d come about and begin working their way back. And while my hiding spot was good, I didn’t doubt their chances of finding me once they stopped worrying about the chase and instead began to search.

Which meant I needed to deal with them before they turned around.

I crouched down in my little crevice and counted their steps.

One… three… five…

Far enough.

I crept forward, using my night vision to avoid any bits of garbage or debris that might give me away. In my right hand, I could feel my grip on my knife turning clammy with sweat, and was suddenly grateful for the wire wrapping on the handle. This was going to be hard enough without having to worry about the weapon slipping at the last moment.

In most instances, when you want to knife someone in an alley and aren’t worried about niceties, you simply step up behind him and do your best Hasty Tailor. But in this case, there were two very good reasons I couldn’t stitch the Cutter a dozen times in half as many seconds. First, because he was wearing a doublet—and not just any doublet, but one that looked to have originally been a nobleman’s formal piece. Oh, the fine trim and the buttons had all been pulled off and sold ages ago, but that wasn’t what I was worried about: no, even from here, I could see that his secondhand brocade was still holding its shape, which meant it was lined and stiffened with either horsehair or wool. Both of those could easily turn, if not stop, a dagger thrust. Not necessarily a problem if you had the right blade—say, a good stiletto, or even a finely tapered assassin’s spike—but I had neither. Instead, was holding a broad, leaf-shaped dagger better suited for street fights than delivering the steel cure.

Nor did it help that both men were Cutters. The name wasn’t an accident: they made their living swinging steel. If I took too long dusting one, the other would simply turn around and carve me up before I had a chance to close the distance.

No, I needed to do this quiet, and by quiet I meant quick. A fast, definitive thrust to a place I could reach, even when the target was a good two heads taller then me. Say, the soft spot just behind and below the right ear. Nice and quiet and clean. Which was exactly where I stabbed him.

Almost.

I don’t know if I made a noise or if he had a sudden premonition, but either way, he decided to turn around just as I was thrusting upward. It didn’t save him—it was too late for that—but it did make for a sloppy job.

Maybe a deep-file Blade could have done it: could have stabbed, caught and lowered the body, all while moving on to the next man. I’ve seen professional assassins do more with less. But I was no Blade, and in any case, I was in no shape to catch a falling cove taller than I was.

So I simply I let the bastard gasp and drop.

The other Cutter was already turning by the time I had my blade free of his friend. I didn’t hesitate: Screaming so as to not give myself time to think, I launched myself at him, hoping like hell that my body was faster than his sword.

We collided with a mutual grunt. I felt my dagger bite. I drew it out, brought it forward, then out, then forward. Repeat. Repeat again. And again. And again. Until I finally realized that the only thing holding him up was my arm, which I didn’t remember wrapping around his back.

I dropped my free arm and stepped away. The Cutter fell to the ground. This one, at least, hadn’t been wearing a doublet.

I bent over, put a bloody hand on my knee, and took a long, shaking breath. Everything hurt. Everything felt heavy.

Angels, but I was tired.

“Not bad,” said a voice from behind me.

I spun around, knife up, teeth bared.

Please, I thought, let there only be one of them. I can only handle one.

There were two.

The bigger—and by bigger, I mean vastly wider—of the two held up his hands. He had thick fingers and a curling black beard.

“Ho-ho. Easy, friend. We’re just here to watch.”

“And maybe applaud,” said the other. He was a taller, slimmer version of the first, with the same hooked nose and clipped accent. No beard.

Brothers?

I ran through all the local assassin teams I knew. The only pair of siblings who worked together regularly in Ildrecca were the Knuckle Brothers, and these weren’t them. Not that I’d ever met the Knuckles, but it was a well known on the street that Croy Knuckle preferred farthingales and wigs when he worked, and there wasn’t so much as a chemise between the two men before me.

So, not the Knuckle Brothers.

Then, who?

“A bit of applause never goes unwanted,” agreed the heavier man. He eyed me up and down, then clapped his hands together twice before rubbing them vigorously together. “Two less to worry about, eh, Ezak?”

“The balance grows in our favor,” said the tall one.

“Only marginally, dear coz. Only marginally.”

“Balance?” I said.

The first man’s smile widened even farther. “Of vengeance, of course.”

I stared at the two men. They were dressed well, if used—that is to say, what they wore was of good, secondhand quality. The few patches I could see were all done carefully, with fabric that had been selected to match the color or pattern of the original as closely as possible. There wasn’t a weapon visible between them, which disturbed me even more.

Not Cutters, then. Or at least, not Petyr’s, if the two lying on the ground were any indication.

I bent down slowly and wiped first my knife, and then my hand, on the shirt of the man at my feet. I didn’t take my eyes off the pair. Both men nodded approvingly.

“See, Ezak?” said the broader of the two. “Cocksure and wary at once. Oh, how I wish Ambrose were here to see this.”

“He could gain a fortnight’s worth of education in just a few minutes watching this,” agreed Ezek.

“And it’s not as if his Capitan doesn’t need the work.”

“‘Neath dame Moon’s steely light, I prowl the byways of the night,’” recited Ezek. “Aye.”

Oh. Actors.

I relaxed and stood up.

“Glad I could adjust the balance for you,” I said, not knowing or caring what they meant. I moved to push past them. The last thing I needed was to get distracted by a pair of boardsmen.

A thick hand settled down on my shoulder. “Hold, now, friend,” said the first man. “I think we might be able to do each other a favor here.”

I stopped and stared at his hand. After a moment, it crept back from my doublet and returned to his side.

“I don’t need any favors,” I said. “And I’m not inclined to do any, either.”

“Of course, of course. Nothing’s free, after all. But I was merely thinking—”

“Don’t think.”

The thicker man smiled. “Yes, of course. You’re a busy man. I can see that.”

I was four paces along when he spoke to Ezak, his voice pitched perfectly to reach me.

“Mind you, coz,” he said, “I’d give a night’s share of the box to see how he makes it through the city gates looking like a slaughter house.”

“Especially with Soggy Peytr’s men scouring the streets between here and Low Harbor,” returned Ezek, his voice finding me with equal ease. “Too bad we weren’t the only ones to see him run past the tavern. I fear some of the others back there might sell him out.”

“Aye, it’s a risk. But what am I saying? Any man who can handle two such desperate coves as these can find his way across the Waters and through the Gate.” He snapped his fingers. “Why, it’s a good thing I didn’t offer a change of drapes and a sly walk into the city: I’d like as not have insulted the fellow!”

“Never insult a Kindred cousin,” advised Ezak.

“From your mouth to the Angels’ ears, dear coz.” I could almost hear the theatrical nod of his head.

I took two more steps before I came to a stop. I flexed my hand and felt the fingers stick against the palm from the Cutters’ blood; felt the throb of the splinters in my other hand; felt my legs trembling beneath me whenever I stopped moving. I knew my pants were covered in a mixture of mud and blood, that my doublet and jerkin were stained with the same. I could strip to my shirt, but I expected there would be some of my own along the back even then.

With a cloak, at night, I might be able to make it past a patrol of Rags like this, but in broad daylight, at a port gate? Forged passport or no, my appearance would get me a seat in the rattle box—or worse. And I didn’t have time to wait for night again; not if I wanted to get ahead of the news, let alone start people looking for Fowler and Scratch.

As for Petyr’s men… that gauntlet didn’t exactly appeal.

I turned around. The broad man feigned surprise; Ezak smiled outright.

“Fine,” I said. “Get me clean drapes and a way into the city, and I’ll consider your proposal.”

“You’ll agree to the proposal, sir, or get nothing. No payment, no performance.”

I looked pointedly back the way I’d come. “If we stay here much longer, the only performance we’ll be doing is for more of Petyr’s people. Get me off the street and something in my belly, and we can talk.”

“Done!” His beard split with a wide grin. “‘And so away, ‘neath stars’ sparkling light, lest misfortune claim us in the night.’”

Actors. Angels help me.

 


Sworn in Steel © Douglas Hulick, 2014

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