Read The City of Ravens Online

Authors: Richard Baker

The City of Ravens (7 page)

“Please, my lady, the books!” the librarian cried.

“You must respect the sanctity of our fellowship!” Meritheus added. “Guild members do not engage in spell-slinging within these walls.”

“Bugger the Guild!” Zandria shrieked. “He’s been rooting through my books! If you don’t want me to incinerate him in your precious library, you’d better get him out of here this very minute!”

Meritheus looked at Jack. “Master Delgath, it is now well past noon. If you please, affiliate members must confine their visits to the library to the morning hours.”

“The Dread Delgath does not care for your petty rules and bylaws,” Jack replied, “but in the interests of fostering good relations with his lesser fellows, he shall now absent himself from the premises.” He paused and then added, “He also wishes for you to look into the rude behavior of one Zandria, who has offered the Dread Delgath nothing but contempt and suspicion despite his earnest efforts to assist her.”

“The Dread Delgath would be well advised not to press his luck,” Meritheus observed dryly.

He stepped aside and indicated the door with a jerk of his thumb. Jack gathered his robes about him with the greatest dignity he could muster, and then strode out of the room without even a glance at Zandria, who glared at him with undisguised loathing.

Jack tried not to notice how quickly the doorman hustled him out into the street, and he paid no attention to the rather authoritative boom! of the door slamming shut behind him. He patted his breast pocket and set off for home.

***

After a sparse lunch of black bread and sharp cheese at the Cracked Tankard, Jack headed back to his apartment to change his clothes. He threaded his way through the mid-afternoon hustle and bustle of the Anvil without even noticing, his mind working on the various riddles before him. Many of the streets were so choked with wagon traffic and long lines of porters carrying heavy burdens that other pedestrians were forced to detour blocks out of their way to get around the crowds.

While he walked, he considered his next step. Illyth Fleetwood expected his presence at the Game of Masks later in the evening, but he had most of the afternoon free. He could inquire after the belongings of the mage Durezil using some of the same sources he’d checked out when he was looking for Gerard, or he could buy a flagon of strong drink for Ontrodes and see if the old sage would let slip some information about what exactly Zandria was looking for and whether or not Jack might beat her to her prize. He grinned fiercely and leaped up on an empty hitching rail, then to the ramshackle overhang that ran from building to building along Morlgar Ride, balancing easily as he ran over the mud and the crowds of the

street. It didn’t matter, not a bit. The world was full of possibility, and any course he chose was guaranteed to produce extremely satisfactory results.

“I am amazing!” he cried aloud, and it didn’t trouble him at all that no one in the crowd seemed to agree with him.

He reached his apartments and changed his clothes, dressing in his customary attire of gray and black. The Dread Delgath was not needed again this day, and Lord Jaer Kell Wildhame didn’t have to come out for a few hours yet. In the meantime, Jack had business as Jack. He buckled his sword belt around his waist and hung his rapier and poignard at his side. Then he trotted down the stair and out into the street.

The fact that he was thinking about three or four different things probably contributed to his failure to note the cloaked figures watching his door. Without a word of warning, Jack was seized from behind and dragged off the street and into a nearby alley mouth. He was punched once in the stomach, hard; when he doubled over, somebody pulled his cape over his head and ran him into the nearest wall so hard that Jack saw nothing but stars for a good five or ten heartbeats.

One hand clamped across his middle and the other pressed to his skull, Jack looked up and got his first good look at his assailants. One was a big, brawny fellow, clean shaven and good looking, with black hair and clear gray eyes that showed not a hint of friendship. Despite the angry, purposeful look on his face, he seemed to exude authority. Jack had seen his type before—some kind of lawman or agent of the city’s lords, charged with a list of duties and responsibilities as long as his arm and deadly serious about discharging each and every one. He was evidently the one that had manhandled Jack.

The other assailant was a woman with pronounced elf features and a shoulder-length sea of brilliant copper hair. She might have been a half-elf—her height and build were too statuesque for a full-blooded elf. Her dark eyes were not any warmer than her companion’s.

“In a hurry, Jack?” she asked.

“Not at all,” Jack rasped, trying not to show how much his stomach hurt. “If you could perhaps persuade your companion to pummel some other passerby, I should be delighted to spend the rest of the day in your company. But I am afraid you have me at a disadvantage, my lady. To whom am I speaking?” He started to push himself up, but the big man stepped forward and kicked his arm out from under him; he sat down again hard.

The woman smiled coolly. “Well ask the questions,” the woman said. “So, where are you going, Jack?” She wore a jerkin of metal-studded leather over green wool breeches and a shirt of fine mail. A slender long sword was sheathed at her side. “Be honest now.”

“I thought I might take a stroll in the fish market. I miss the wonderful aroma when I’m away from the place for too long.”

The big man shook his head and reached down to grab a handful of Jack’s hair. He thumped Jack’s head against the wall once, hard enough to start the stars in Jack’s eyes again.

“Think of a better answer than that,” he growled, “and don’t waste our time.”

“You wouldn’t be on your way to meet Myrkyssa Jelan, would you?” the woman asked.

“Myrkyssa Jelan?” Jack blinked to clear his eyes and shook his head to make sure he was hearing correctly. “The warlord Myrkyssa Jelan? Enemy of the city, leader of Jelan’s horde, ten feet tall and magic-proof Myrkyssa Jelan?” He tried to keep his face straight, but despite

himself, a snicker crept into his voice, and then a snort, and finally a full gusty guffaw. “Myrkyssa Jelan! Oh, my lady, you are making a fool of me! Myrkyssa Jelan, indeed!”

Two years ago, the Warlord Jelan had ravaged all the Vast with a great horde of mercenaries, goblins, ogres, and giants, finally bringing all her forces to bear on Raven’s Bluff. The army, led by Lord Charles Blacktree, had sallied forth to meet her in the field. Skirmishing and forays had followed for months, culminating in a week-long battle in which Jelan’s onslaught finally failed on the sixth day of continuous fighting.

“No, I am afraid that I do not have the pleasure of Myrkyssa Jelan’s acquaintance,” Jack managed to gasp, “but I was hurrying to meet the sceptanar of Cimbar and the king of Cormyr, who even now plot a dastardly double-pronged attack on our fair city. Consider yourselves warned!” With that he lapsed into raucous laughter again.

Muttering under his breath, the big man stepped forward and seized Jack by the collar. “This is no joking matter. We have reason to believe that the Warlord’s agents are at large in the city. She means to lay the city to waste. I mean to stop her. Don’t laugh at me!”

“Honestly, I don’t know what you’re talking about,” Jack said.

The dark-haired man hauled Jack to his feet and drew back one hand to strike Jack across the face, but the rogue twisted out of the warrior’s grasp and backpedaled an arm’s length. He set his hand on the poignard’s hilt.

“Your attentions are unwelcome, sir,” he said with a light laugh. “I thank you for the jest, but I must excuse myself.” He paused and then added, “The Simbul expects me shortly, and I cannot keep such a lovely and important lady waiting, if you understand me.”

The man halted. He deliberately pushed his cloak clear of his right shoulder, revealing a longer and heavier shirt of mail than the woman and a heavy broadsword at his belt.

“I think the question is, do you understand me?” the man said. “Don’t trifle with us, street rat.”

“You say you don’t know anything about Myrkyssa Jelan. Interesting. I can produce a dozen witnesses who saw you meet with a woman named Elana at the Cracked Tankard a couple of nights ago,” the woman said. “What did you talk about?”

“Even if that is correct, which I don’t admit for a moment,” Jack said, “there is no law against sharing an ale with an acquaintance in a tavern.”

“Perhaps you should concern yourself with the question of who Elana is really working for, Jack Ravenwild. Spies need dupes, after all.”

“I am nobody’s dupe!”

“Don’t be so sure of that.” The man set his hand on his sword hilt. Jack followed the motion with his eyes, spotting a tattoo on the back of the fellow’s sword hand—a hawk in flight, stooping with its talons extended. “Now, answer my friend’s question.”

Knights of the Hawk. Jack shook his head, still trying to clear the cobwebs. He’d managed to attract some very prestigious attention indeed. “I might. But first, tell me why the Knights of the Hawk are interested in Elana. And who you are, for that matter.”

The man scowled. “You can call me Marcus. This is Ashwillow. Remember the names.”

“Have no fear on that account,” Jack said. He rubbed his head. “I won’t forget you.”

“We want to have some words with Elana,” Ashwillow said. “We have reason to believe that she’s involved in some undesirable activities, the kind of activities people

get imprisoned for. Or possibly hanged.” She stared hard at Jack by way of extending the threat.

“Have you seen her?” Marcus asked.

“Not since I spoke to her the other night,” Jack answered.

“What exactly did you talk about?” Ashwillow asked.

“She had lecherous designs upon my person, but I informed her that my personal standards of conduct could not possibly accommodate her lustful wishes,” Jack said. He dusted off his cape and rearranged his clothes. Then he deliberately pushed his way past the two city knights. “Our conversation included nothing that could possibly be of interest to two such brave and noble defenders of the city.”

“Well be keeping an eye on you,” Marcus called after him as Jack walked out of the alley. “If you’re withholding information, you’ll be called to account for it later.”

Jack bit down on his reply and left without another word. He’d be keeping an eye on them, too.

CHAPTER FOUR

The coach clattered to a halt on the wet cobblestones, rocking gently back and forth as its motion stopped. Liveried footmen hurried forward to open the door, dressed splendidly in white waistcoats and green caps. Jack ignored the offered hand and jumped down, thrusting his chin into the air and tugging at his finest coat to smooth the fit. He motioned the footman aside and turned to help Illyth descend. The noblewoman smiled and took his hand, climbing out of the coach with care.

“Oh, Jack,” she breathed. “Isn’t it wonderful?”

Jack glanced around. The coach stood in the driveway of a noble’s palace, one of a dozen or more coaches and carriages lined up along the way. Paper-covered lanterns glowed softly over the manor grounds, and bright light streamed from every window. Music played elegantly in the distance, the strains floating through the air like an imagined kiss. The laughter of lords and ladies rose from all sides, a pleasant buzz that was inviting and intriguing. The evening was cool and damp, the air heavy and still after the rains of the last few days, but the lawn was green and dark, and the house lights gleamed on the wet stone walkway.

“It is fortunate that we have arrived upon the scene,” Jack replied. “Your presence is the only delight this gathering lacks, my lady.”

Illyth laughed aloud and blushed. “Oh, Jack! Flattery will get you nowhere.” She pulled at his hand and tugged him forward. “Come on; let’s go inside! I can’t wait to get started.”

The rogue indulged her with a patient smile and followed. Behind him, the coachman cleared his throat, but Jack never turned around, and he was pretty sure that Illyth hadn’t noticed. He’d led the fellow to believe that a substantial gratuity might take the place of the coachman’s standard rates, and since Jack was nearly destitute, he wasn’t about to give away anything he didn’t have to. The coachman wouldn’t leave, but he might not be so quick to take Jack as his fare next time.

He trotted up the wide marble steps of the palace a step behind Illyth and swept into a grand foyer without deigning to notice the chamberlains who stood by the door. In the grand ballroom beyond, a hundred or more guests conversed and danced in a swirling mass of wealth and privilege, dressed in some of the most outrageous and exotic costumes Jack had ever seen. He studied the glittering assembly for a moment in wry amusement, feeling very much like a wolf among some very wealthy and carefree sheep. Then the crowd parted to permit the passage of a tight knot of unmasked lords and ladies, exiting even as Jack and Illyth stood in the doorway.

“It’s the Lady Mayor!” Illyth gasped, so awestruck that Jack almost laughed.

“So I see,” he replied, with a patronizing smile.

He quietly drew Illyth aside to make room for the lady’s party, and bowed graciously as she approached. Lady Mayor Amber Lynn Thoden was a strikingly handsome woman, he noticed, surprisingly young and feminine for

such a lofty position. She acknowledged the greetings of Game-players with a dazzling yet insincere smile and accepted their attention with unconscious confidence, a goddess receiving her just due. A burgundy gown showed her striking figure quite nicely while remaining in the bounds of good taste, and a silver circlet, the emblem of her office, encircled her dark tresses. Several high lords trailed in her wake, high city officials and dashing army commanders attending their lady.

“Lady Mayor,” Jack murmured. Tour loveliness defies comparison this evening.”

Lady Thoden raised an eyebrow and turned to study him more closely, her smile shining on Jack but somehow never reaching her eyes. A cool strength and confidence in her gaze struck Jack as disdainful, cold, almost calculating. At the same time she glowed like the sun among the crowd. She offered her hand, and Jack bowed low to kiss it with a sweeping gesture.

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