Authors: D.K. Holmberg
opyright © 2016 by D.K
Cover by Rebecca Frank
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me the reason that I shouldn’t have you killed.”
I sat across the table from Orly, the ales set in front of us untouched, rolling a dart between my fingers. I might manage to throw it if he had the two men standing behind me attack, but I didn’t like my chances afterward. The tavern was one of his, and everyone in the place would defend him.
The soft sounds of a single lute cut through the other voices in the Lonely Cross. The musician played near one end of the tavern, near the door leading up to the inn. I’d already learned the man playing the lute was one of Orly’s, and the lute somehow a weapon that he could use.
The door to the outside was to my left, but I would need to fight through a tableful of men dicing, each seemingly drunk. The stiff way that most of them sat told me that they were less intoxicated than they appeared.
Even the serving girl posed a risk. She carried a long, slender blade beneath her serving tray and made a point to come to the table often and check if we needed anything.
Orly had agreed to the meet, but wanted it in public. I knew coming in that what he considered public meant I would die if I made a wrong move.
“You need me,” I said. I wasn’t sure that it was true, not after what I’d done, but figured it was the safest answer.
Orly leaned back and his mouth cocked into a half-grin. He ran a hand across his short, gray hair and shook his head. “I need an assassin who won’t kill? Galen, I think that you overestimate your talents. There are dozens of assassins within the city who I could use. You were chosen for your reliability. Now that seems to no longer be the case.”
I cocked my wrist, prepared to fling the dart if something changed. Like most of my kind, I was taller than Orly, and with my reach, I could practically stretch across the table and pierce him with the dart. He knew that, which was his reason for all the protection around him.
I couldn’t see the two men behind me, but they loomed close enough that I could practically feel them. Orly counted on the threat they suggested, and on the fact that I would miss with my attack were they to close in. I wondered what he would do if he knew how much I was willing to sacrifice?
“You chose me because there isn’t another with my skill. If you push this, Orly, the other assassins will die. Every one of them.”
His eyes narrowed slightly and I caught the way his mouth twitched. There was a hint of uncertainty there. Enough that I could use it.
“Do you think that I care about the other assassins?” he asked.
I nodded toward the men behind me. “You can’t accomplish what you want in the city with men like this.” I made a purposeful motion, waving toward the lute player. “He is skilled, but there are only so many places where his skill is truly useful. And those men,” I nodded, motioning toward the table near the door, “are too brutish for what you would want.”
I forced a smile. Were I quick enough, I figured I could handle five or six of them if they attacked. It wasn’t the short supply of darts that put me in danger; it was the close quarters and the fact that the way out lay through all of them. I might be able to make it through a half dozen, but I still didn’t like my chances.
Orly made a subtle motion with his hands, telling the men standing behind me to split around us and come to stand next to him. They split around us and came to stand next to him. I’d seen one of the men before. He was burly and carried a thick club that I didn’t doubt would be brutally effective were he to strike me. The other worried me somewhat more. He was thin and short for someone of Eban, and had a narrow scar running along his chin. There seemed a simple grace in the way that he walked that suggested he would be deadly with the sword he carried. A Neelish sellsword. I wondered how much Orly had to pay to acquire one of the famed swordsmen. More money than I would ever see, likely.
But he saw the value in the man, I suspected. After the promise that I’d made on behalf of Carth, Orly had every reason to need someone like the sellsword. If it came down to blades, he alone might be able to prevent me from reaching Orly. With me, it never came down to blades alone.
“Tell me what it is that you think that I want?” Orly said.
This would be the tricky part. Carth had shown me what Orly intended, and convinced me that the way he had drawn her to Eban was part of some greater plan of his. With Orly, I never doubted that there was another plan beyond what he shared. I had been hired to capture Carth, a woman I learned was more skilled than I could ever imagine, a woman who had simply played me, guiding me through the streets of Eban as if I were some piece in a game. In many ways, that was exactly what I had been for her. But she had shown me compelling reasons to break the contract I’d taken with Orly, enough for me to risk exposing myself to the most dangerous man in Eban, and enough that it forced me to remain in Eban to ensure that Carth and her people remained safe. It was more than I had ever expected to do.
“I don’t know what you want to do,” I said. “I only know that Carth cannot be a part of it. And the women she controls will not be a part of it.”
The women were the part I least understood. I hadn’t known about a network of women spies throughout Eban until meeting Carth. It took my friend Talia to share her role in the network for me to really understand. Orly thought to control that network, to use it to gain power, but I’d seen what he’d been willing to do for that control, the way that he had placed a bounty on the prostitutes to draw Carth to Eban in the first place. I couldn’t let him harm another woman for his plans.
I leaned toward him, needing to make this point completely clear. “You will leave them alone.”
Orly smiled. “She got to you.” He laughed and slapped his hands on the table. “I would have expected it with another, but of Galen? I thought you more professional than that. I didn’t think you’d allow yourself to get caught up by a beautiful woman.”
Carth might be attractive enough in her exotic way, but for Orly to call her beautiful told me that he’d never seen her. “Perhaps that is all this is. Tell me, Orly, what do you know about Carth? Why was she the assignment?”
With my Sight, the gift given to me by the Great Watcher, I saw how the corners of his eyes narrowed slightly, and the soft way that his mouth made a slight frown, but it was the increased pulse tapping in his neck that told me what I asked of him made him uncomfortable.
In my line of work, people lied to me often. Most wanted nothing more than time. Most in my position would not offer that, or if they would, there would be a price. My price was nothing more than knowledge. I had little qualms about taking a life, but it had to be the right life, for the right reason. Good people died every day; I wouldn’t be the reason for more to die.
Usually with Orly, there was truth in the assignments he gave. He rarely deceived me so completely, though he often withheld information that he thought would get in the way of me taking the job. He knew the kind of assassin I was, and he knew the requirements I imposed. Most of the time, he made a point of hiding only what he thought might prevent me from completing the task he had at hand. Rarely was he right.
The last assignment had been no different. And entirely different. After meeting with Carth, after finding out what kind of woman she was, and losing to her more than once, I understood the threat she posed for Orly. The thief-master wanted to consolidate control. That was the reason that he’d hired me several times before, often manipulating me into completing the tasks. This time might have been the same, had not Carth found a way to manipulate me even better. She had called me a piece in a game of Tsatsun. It was a game I was woefully unprepared to play.
“It seems you know more of her than I do,” Orly said softly.
“I doubt that.”
He tipped his head, his eyes darting around the tavern. I still didn’t know if I was safe or if he would decide that I needed to be neutralized. I made certain to keep the dart gripped carefully, and my pouch with the others was open, ready for me to grab them. I might not be quick enough to take down the sellsword, but a terad-tipped dart might slow him enough to give me a chance.
“Perhaps you are right, Galen. Tell me, what did she say to convince you to help her?”
“It’s not what she said.”
“Ah. Say no more. She showed you her little hospital.”
I shouldn’t have been surprised that Orly knew about the injured women, and if I’d had any doubt about his involvement with what had happened to them, that was erased. That he knew about them and the healers tending to them made clear that he knew
they had come to that place.
Maybe Carth was right and that I would have to lean on Orly more than I expected. I wasn’t sure that it would work. In spite of what Carth claimed, I didn’t think that Orly feared me. From what I’d seen, Orly didn’t fear anything.
“She showed me what else you had done. That will stop.”
Orly leaned far forward, closing half the table’s distance between us. He made a point of meeting my eyes. “Will it? You think you understand the purpose behind everything that I do?”
The serving girl approached. The blade beneath her tray glimmered with reflected light from the lanterns hanging on posts throughout the tavern. I didn’t want to risk an errant poke, and I didn’t want to be forced to attack the woman. That would make me no better than Orly.
“I saw the way you had those women attacked.”
The serving girl paused. I had timed the comment intentionally. I may be a game piece, but it was a game I would need to learn how to play, especially if I was trapped between what Carth intended and what Orly did. If I wasn’t careful, I could be crushed between them.
Orly leaned back, and his smile returned. He waved away the waitress. She hesitated. It was subtle, but enough that I knew she’d heard me. It might not change anything for her today, but if she could somehow be used later, then maybe the comment had done what I needed.
“You saw what Carth wanted you to see. As she saw what I wanted her to see. You are a skilled assassin, Galen, but there are things you haven’t learned.”
In one motion, I pushed back my chair and gained my feet, the dart held between my fingers. Neither the sellsword nor the big man behind Orly would meet my eyes. “Perhaps,” I agreed. “But you will stop the attacks. The contract with Carth is cancelled and another will not accept it. If they do, they are mine. If another Binder is injured at your hand, I will return for you.” I used the term that Carth had used for the women, but didn’t know if Orly recognized it.
Orly spread his hands across the table. “Do you intend to remain in Eban?”
“I will remain.”
“How will you find work when there are none to hire you?”
I patted my pocket. More gold than I’d ever seen filled my pocket. I had Carth to thank for that. With it, I’d been able to replenish my stores and ensure that I had enough darts for nearly anything that might come.
“I’ll be fine.”
Orly smiled, then lifted his mug of ale and took a long draught. “It was good seeing you, Galen. Let’s talk again soon.”
I stared at him for another moment before making my way through the tavern, one hand rolling a dart, the other ready to grab others. No attack came, but that didn’t mean that I hadn’t been beaten. With Orly, I never really expected to win.
I expected inside the tavern came about two blocks away.
I recognized that I was being followed, but curiosity made me wait to learn who might be trailing me. They came upon me as soon as I left, and the stealthy way they shadowed me told me they had been expecting me. Once I left the tavern, I hadn’t really expected Orly to have me followed, so either I’d missed something or this wasn’t Orly’s doing.
Either way, I wanted to know who chased me.
My pursuers thought they were quieter than they were, and the way they made no attempt to disappear into the shadows told me that they thought they were sneakier than they were. I wondered if they knew about my Sight. The darkness didn’t bother me; I could see as well at night as I did in the daylight. Only fog—rare enough in Eban—presented much of a challenge, but even with that, there were ways around it.
I paused at the next street corner and started left before quickly veering to the right, ducking into the shadows along the street. As soon as the first shadow slipped around the edge of the street, I flicked a coxberry-tipped dart toward the man I suspected there. A sedative, it wouldn’t kill and gave me a chance to ask questions.
The dart hit home, and the man dropped to the stones without another sound.
There was still one more person chasing me. I swept my gaze around the street, trying to see where they might have disappeared. If they had seen the other fall, it was possible they had abandoned the attack, but I doubted it. In Eban, attackers like this persisted until they succeeded. That was the only way to get paid.
A soft scraping came from behind me. I spun and flung the dart at the same time. It struck the man in the shoulder as he swung his knife down in a violent arc, sweeping toward me. I managed to step to the side before it could hit and caught it, twisting it out of the man’s hand before it could clatter to the stones. I didn’t know if there was another with these two but didn’t want any sounds to alert another to my presence.
I glanced at the knife. It was finely made steel, with a smooth bone hilt. A knife like this would be valuable. If these men were any good, it would also likely be tipped in poison. Hating the need, I flipped the knife at the nearest wall, where it sunk into the wood all the way to the hilt. No use letting someone accidently get poisoned.
It only took few moments to grab the other man and drag him into the alley next to his friend. Using strips of cloth torn from their shirts, I bound their hands and legs so that neither could get free. Then I waited.
Coxberry worked quickly, and it worked out of the system fairly quickly as well. I considered dragging the men somewhere else to question them, but by the time I reached anyplace that would be safe, the toxin would wear off. Then I’d either have to dose them again or deal with the struggles. It was simpler to stay here and wait. Besides, I hadn’t decided whether they would live.
The man with the knife recovered first. With a toxin like coxberry, it was difficult to predict how it would affect people. Some recovered slower than others and body size or gender seemed to have little to do with it. In some ways, it was like drinking ale. I’d seen the largest men get out drank by tiny women.
He groaned and tried to roll over. My knee on his back kept him from rolling almost as much as the bindings around his wrists and ankles. He spat and then tried working his tongue around his lips. After coming around from coxberry, most had the same reaction.
I knew the dry mouth effect well. While learning of various toxins and their antidotes, my master, Isander, had made a point of having me experience each firsthand. Even those immediately fatal, I’d experienced. Isander figured it was the only way for me to learn who deserved to share in those experiences. Some, like coxberry and terad, were painless. Others, like the srirach in my pouch, were incredibly painful.
As I knelt atop the man, I dragged my knife across the stones, letting him see the sparks fly from the blade. “Tell me why you followed.”
The man shook, whether from fear or the thought he could toss me from him, it didn’t matter. I pressed harder down into his back.
“Your friend will come around next. I don’t need both of you.”
“You are Galen,” the man said in a grunt. His voice was thick and he spat again, turning his head so he could try to look up at me.
“You know I am. Now I would know why you followed. Who sent you?”
I didn’t think it was Orly. Had he wanted me dead, the attack would have happened in the Lonely Cross, but maybe not. There would have been more risk to him there. Had he attempted to take me in the tavern, he risked something happening to him as well. At least here in the streets, he could feign ignorance. If there was one thing Orly was not, it was ignorant.
“A… A job. Nothing more.”
The other man started to grunt. I placed my knife beneath this one’s chin, jabbing up. If he moved his head even slightly in the wrong way, it would pierce the skin and sever the artery in his neck. A quick death, though messy. I preferred other ways when killing was needed.
“Tell me, or you become expendable.”
“It was Natash,” he said, spitting the words out.
Natash. A swordsman, and one skilled enough to escape me at least once. I had hoped he’d forgotten about the grudge he held against me. The last time that I saw him, it had been in the streets after he’d tried taking one of Carth’s women from me, a woman I had hit with coxberry so that I could attempt to find answers. Then he’d made the mistake of coming at me in the Brite Pot, a place I had promised my friend Talia I would not conduct any business. I thought he’d worked for Orly, but maybe I had been wrong. For a man like Natash to hire men like this, that meant he had some access to coin.
If Natash decided that he wanted to make a play for me, then it was time to send him a message.
“Where is he?”
“Tell me or this knife will finish the job.”
The man tensed and then spat again. “If I tell you, I’m as good as dead. At least this way, my wife won’t die too.”
Damn. That was just the sort of thing I expected from someone like Natash, and another reason I couldn’t leave him alone anymore. Whatever else I might have going on with Orly, I needed to settle this business with Natash.
I jabbed another coxberry dart into the man’s neck. He coughed once and then stopped moving.
Moving to the next man, I knelt on him much like I had the other. When he roused enough to realize what had happened, he began thrashing. This one had more strength than his friend, but still not enough to throw me off his back. Few men were able to outmuscle someone from Elaeavn.
I leaned close enough to his face to note his foul breath, a mixture of thaboc smoke and ale. “Where is Natash?” I asked.
The man spat. Some of his spittle struck my face. I lifted his head and slammed it into the stones. He grunted.
“Where. Is. Natash.”
I punctuated each word with another slam of his head into the stones. If neither answered, then I had other ways I could get information, but that involved a certain amount of work, and I didn’t want to worry about who Natash might send next. He’d already attacked me in the Brite Pot, sending men with an intent to poison me, and now he’d decided that he could risk attacking me on the streets. What next? Would he think to follow me to my home? I’d gone to considerable lengths to keep that hidden, and if Natash attempted to chase me there, I would have no choice but to bring everything that I had against him.
“You can’t get to him.”
“I can get to anyone.”
“Not Natash. Not anymore. After what you did at that tavern, he got himself someplace safe. He’s got connections.”
“We all have connections,” I said. I didn’t need to remind him of Davin. When I’d killed the thief-master for what he did to his courtesans, word had spread about my ability as an assassin. That had been the best advertising for my services in a place like Eban.
“Not like this. No one has connections like Natash.”
I slammed the man’s head again. “What kind of connections? Where is he?”
Blood ran from the man’s mouth and dripped onto the stones. He spit, but this time, he made a point of not spitting at me, but toward the ground. “Ben. He’s with Ben.”
Benahg? Well, damn.
I hesitated, and the man began to thrash again. As he did, I jammed another dart into his neck, not bothering to check which one. He writhed a moment and then stopped moving altogether. Only then did I check to see which dart I had used on him. Terad.
I stood slowly, wiping my hands on my dark cloak and grabbing for another dart. If Natash had gone to Benahg for help, and had been granted it, then I needed to be more careful. Most within Eban I dealt with were like myself and Orly, living outside the law, making our way through the underbelly of the streets. I thought Natash like that as well, especially given the way that he’d sent men after me at the Brite Pot and now here. But if he’d involved Benahg, not only one of the city’s councilors, but one who led the council, then I risked not only the dark side of the city but the guard itself.
I didn’t know if that made Natash stupid or desperate. Probably both. Desperate men often were stupid. But it made what I now needed to do even more difficult. Reaching Natash would be nearly as hard as getting to Orly—only, if I made a mistake, I was bound to get all of Eban’s might coming for me.
As I stood on the street corner, still crouched in shadows, I stared out at the street. As far as I could tell, nothing moved, but that didn’t mean that no one was out there. I climbed to the nearest rooftop and crouched, surveying the darkened streets of Eban. From here, I could see farther than I could otherwise, and with my Sight, I could make out even the rats scavenging. At first, I thought there wasn’t anything else, but then I saw the glint of steel.
One of the city guard. There would be another. They always patrolled in pairs, but they should not be here, not in this section of Eban, and not with Orly’s control here.
I found him on the opposite side of the street, also tucked back away from easy view. Then I knew that Natash had already managed to bring the might of Eban after me.