Authors: D.K. Holmberg
I flexed my fingers. The feeling had mostly returned. Strength had returned to my legs, maybe enough to run if needed. I pressed my hand against the cool stone wall, knowing better than the thoughts running through my head. I
return to my rooms, recover as much as I could, and then make another attempt at Natash. Now that I knew the surroundings, I’d be better prepared. Then again, so would he.
With a sigh, I grabbed a pair of darts, checked the knife tucked into my waist, and staggered toward the house.
from the back of the garden told me the search had continued. From what I could tell, no one remained near the house. The sellsword had been left lying where he’d fallen, but the other man had been moved. A trail of blood led toward the house. Somehow, my trail toward the wall had been obscured. I’d have to understand that later.
I still chewed the narcass as I loped toward the front side of the house. With each bite, I felt a little bit of my strength coming back to me. Maybe by the time that I needed it, I would be back near full strength.
I rounded the corner and nearly collided with another man gripping a crossbow. I fell to the side and flipped a dart at him. The mistake I’d made earlier had been in my unwillingness to use terad. That was a mistake I didn’t repeat.
The man fell quickly.
Moving on, I reached the front door and pushed it open. Candles flickered within, giving light that I didn’t need. I paused, listening as much as looking around. A shadow slipped past the doorway in the distance. Moving as soundlessly as I could, I hurried to the doorframe and stood behind it. When the person on the other side neared, I stepped through.
Another man, this one with a pointed beard and a thick mustache. His mouth dropped open when he saw me. The dart caught him in the throat before he could speak.
I dragged him toward the door and continued into the house. Where had they taken the man with the crossbow injury? The trail of blood stopped inside the front hallway. I expected him on this level, but there was no sign of him.
This floor consisted of eight connected rooms. From what I could tell, each was empty. I made my way quickly through the rooms, searching for Natash, but saw no one. The kitchens were toward the back of the house, and I glanced inside, noting only a plump servant dressed in white. She raised her hands defensively and I shook my head.
“Where is he?” I hissed.
“D-don’t kill me!” she said too loudly.
Damn, but I didn’t want to harm the servant. She’d done nothing to deserve it.
I reached into my pouch and slipped out a coxberry-tipped dart and flipped it at the woman, catching her in the chest. Her eyes went wide as it sunk into her flesh, blood staining her shirt and spreading out around the dart.
Steps sounded off boards on an upper level at the same time I heard the voices searching outside making their way back toward the house. I wouldn’t have much more time.
I scanned the kitchen. I’d rarely been in homes this large, but if it were anything like other manor homes, there should be a servants’ stair near the back. It took a moment to find it, but it was there, against the far wall. A voice shouted toward the front of the house.
I sprinted up the stairs. They let out into an antechamber of sorts. Plates and towels were stacked on a lacquered table nearest me. A basin of water rested along the wall. Another two servants looked over at me as I emerged. One holding a plate dropped it, and it broke with a loud crash. The other stood stiffly, as if unable to speak.
I loosed two darts on them, catching them in the chest and arm. Both fell, thudding to the ground.
Footsteps echoed beneath me.
I ran to the door and pulled it open.
Natash stood on the other side. He was tall for someone of Eban and moved lithely, with a clear familiarity for the sword he carried. A dark smile twisted his mouth. “Didn’t think you’d be stupid enough to attempt to attack me here.”
In answer, I flipped a dart at him. He turned and swatted it with the flat of his sword. It seemed his reputation with the blade was well earned. Moving like that would be difficult, especially in the tight confines of the narrow hall.
He slashed to keep me back but didn’t attempt to attack. The sounds beneath me told me that he knew he didn’t need to. Whoever else would be coming would reach us soon.
I sent a pair of darts at him, and he managed to knock them both away. I didn’t have many remaining. I needed to end this quickly, or I would be facing a different challenge. With my back still burning from the knife wound and the residual effect of the Neelish poison, I wasn’t sure I’d be able to survive whatever full contingent of men Natash might throw at me. Even uninjured, I wasn’t sure that I’d be able to withstand that sort of attack.
Natash pointed the sword at me. I ignored it, reaching for my pouch. I counted only four darts remaining. That, and my knife.
I unsheathed the knife. It sent waves of pain shooting through my back. Natash saw the reaction and smiled.
“Could it be the famous Galen is injured?” He started at me, pushing me back into the servant room. “I thought sending men after you would draw you out, but I never expected you to come at me here. You know where you are, don’t you?”
“I know,” I said.
“Do you really think you can outrun the entire city guard? You might have Orly’s backing, but for how much longer?” He smiled. “He made a mistake sending you. Now the guard will have no choice but to root him out and then… well, then there will be a void in leadership of that part of the city.”
“Orly didn’t send me.”
He arched a brow. “No? Then why did you come?”
“You attacked a friend.”
“I didn’t attack anyone—”
I didn’t give him the chance to finish. I jumped at his sword.
The motion surprised him. I twisted as I jumped, rotating my side and throwing my hand forward. Natash couldn’t react quickly enough. I jammed a dart at him, slipping it into the soft skin of his cheek.
The dart was coated in srirach. It was a painful way to die, but considering what Natash had done to Talia, I chose pain for him.
Srirach was not an immediate paralytic, but the pain was so intense that Natash couldn’t do anything. He dropped his sword and I left it lying there as I knelt in front of him.
“This is for Talia. Now you can’t harm another woman, Natash,” I whispered.
Footsteps were coming up the stairs behind me. I stood and started away from Natash, not yet certain how I’d escape.
“I didn’t…” he managed to say as I backed away from him.
I grabbed the darts I had remaining and started out of the room, leaving Natash dying. At the end of the hall, a face emerged from the top of the stair. I sent one of my few remaining darts. It struck and the person fell, tumbling down the steps. I raced after him and caught up as he crashed into two more men coming up behind him. I flipped the last two darts at them as I jumped over them.
Another man waited for me at the bottom of the stairs. He had short, dark hair with silver temples and carried a sword longer than Natash’s. His face reminded me of the man from the garden. He stood in such a way that he blocked me from leaving.
I had no more darts remaining. I should have grabbed the darts out of the men as I’d gone, but I’d been in such a hurry that I didn’t think of it. Now all I had left was the knife. Against a sword, it wouldn’t be enough.
The man waited for me to make the first move. Whoever he was, he wasn’t afraid of suddenly coming face-to-face with an assassin from Elaeavn. Maybe with my wound, I didn’t look all that imposing. I imagined the blood dripping down my back and staining my cloak, or the unsteady and almost unnatural way that I managed to walk.
I lunged and pulled back as he swung his sword.
He moved quickly, but not quickly enough to block the knife I sent whistling through the air toward him. It struck him in his sword arm and he grunted. I expected him to drop the sword, but he simply switched it to his other hand.
I didn’t wait for him to reset his footing and jumped past him, pushing on the knife impaled in his arm as I ran toward the door.
The woman I’d seen in the yard stood in the doorway. She watched, making no effort to stop me. As I ran past her, she touched my arm lightly.
I jerked away and raced to the wall. Pain raced through my back as I pulled myself over the wall, and dropped to the other side. The crowd had thinned somewhat in the time that I’d been inside Natash’s compound. Not completely, but enough that I doubted that many saw me as I landed.
Making my way into the people along the street, I kept waiting for shouts or some other sound indicating a chase. In my condition, I doubted that I would do well were I chased.
Surprisingly, nothing came.
at the bedside in the Binder’s hospital, the hard stool keeping me awake as I held Talia’s hand. I’d allowed the healer to stitch my back, but nothing more than that. She’d wanted to apply a healing salve, but I’d refused.
Talia breathed slowly and had more color than the last time I’d seen her. As I considered leaving, she stirred and rolled toward me.
She barely opened her eyes and a soft smile parted her mouth. “Galen,” she breathed out. “How did you save me?”
“Doesn’t matter,” I said. My back throbbed where the knife had plunged into it. The healer had grunted when she saw it, a sound I recognized as surprise, regardless of how much she tried to hide it. I wondered how damaged the skin was. It would take a while for me to heal, long enough that I would be out of commission for a while. I wouldn’t be ineffective, only weakened.
“It matters,” she said. Her hand went to her neck, where the bandages still covered the long laceration. “This… this should have ended me.”
“I wasn’t going to have you killed because of something I did.”
She blinked and her eyes became clearer. “You? Oh, Galen, do you really think this was because of you?”
“Natash had tried to end me already. He knew that I’d been in the Brite Pot, and probably that you’d helped me.”
Talia rolled onto her back but kept her arm off the side of the cot so that I could hold her hand. Her breathing slowed and for a moment, I thought that she’d gone back to sleep.
“It wasn’t Natash,” she said softly.
I leaned forward, but the pain in my back made me pause. “If not him, then who?”
She started to shake her head, and then winced. “I don’t know. I don’t think it had anything to do with you at all.”
“Talia, I found the note your woman gave you.” I’d tell her how the evanshaff nearly poisoned me some other time. Right now, she still needed her rest.
Her eyes opened. “Do you think that’s the only thing I carried?”
I had. If it had been something more, wouldn’t Carth have said something?
Probably not, I realized.
I sat back. Could I still be a piece in whatever game she played with Orly? I thought she wanted to use me to keep him from attacking the women, to keep the Binders safe, but what if there had been something else going on?
I thought about what the healer had said to me when I’d brought Talia to her, and the way they had guided me to Natash. I tried to remember what Carth had said, but my memories of that were fuzzy. Hadn’t she told me that Natash had been the one to attack Talia?
There was the woman at Benahg’s house. She had looked at me with something like recognition. And she had allowed me to leave, without raising any sort of alarm.
“Who is she?” I asked.
Talia took a deep breath. “I don’t know who you mean, Galen.”
I let go of Talia’s hand and pushed back on the stool. “The girl at Benahg’s house. Who is she?”
Talia closed her eyes and let her breathing slow. I sat watching her for a few moments, uncertain whether she would say anything more, uncertain whether there was anything more for her to say.
I’d been used. Maybe not at first. I didn’t think that Talia’s attack had been intentional—at least I hoped it was not, or I would have a different issue—but following the attack, I’d been used in some way that I still didn’t understand.
When Talia still didn’t open her eyes, I stood. “Goodbye, Talia,” I said softly.
I turned and made my way out of the hospital. Part of me hoped that Talia would call after me, say something to stop me, but I knew that she wouldn’t. She was one of Carth’s women, a Binder, and too strong to need me to turn around.
When I reached the street, I paused and looked around. It was nearly morning and the faint lines of dawn began streaking across the distant horizon, leaving gray mixing with hints of orange from the coming sun. Already, the day was growing warmer. The street was slicked with dew, and the air had a sense of dampness to it that fit my mood.
I stood across from Carth’s building and waited, making no real effort to hide. From my experience with Carth, hiding would not really make much of a difference anyway. The exertion from the evening, and my injury, left me tired, and I struggled to stay awake as the morning came.
“You are persistent.”
Carth stood down the street from me. I wasn’t surprised that she’d managed to come upon me so stealthily. She was skilled in that way, and in others as well.
“You used me,” I said.
I stepped away from the wall. I had no darts, no knife, nothing to protect myself. Against Carth, it wouldn’t matter anyway. She had handled me easily before.
“You sent me after Natash.”
“I didn’t send you to him. That was all your doing.”
I frowned. I
wanted to reach him, but hadn’t she been the reason that I’d gone? “Who was the girl?”
Her mouth tightened into a thin smile. “An asset.”
I grunted, thinking of how I’d seen her curled up with the man in the garden. Then there had been her response after I’d shot him with the crossbow. She’d seemed cold and distant. Not the way a woman fearing for the safety of her man should react. I should have known something was off then.
“What did she want?” I asked. I’d spent my time waiting for Carth trying to figure out what the girl would have been doing in Benahg’s place. I’d managed to come up with a few reasons, but most were about information. But if it was information that she wanted, Carth wouldn’t have sent me. That meant there was something else she’d been after, maybe some item that she wanted out of Benahg’s home.
Carth stared at me, her face unreadable.
“I was a diversion?”
She sighed out a smile. “Galen of Elaeavn, you have been much more than a diversion.”
I shook my head. The motion sent pain lancing through my back. Carth’s eyes narrowed as I did. “What did she take?”
“Nothing that concerns you, Galen.”
“It concerns me that you used me to do it,” I said. “It concerns me that I nearly died doing it.”
“You would not have gone otherwise?”
I might not have. Knowing how well protected that Natash was, I might have left him, waited for another time, knowing that for someone like Natash, there would always be another time. He was too arrogant to remain hidden for long, arrogant enough that he would think that he could simply send two men after me, as if that would be enough to eliminate me as a threat.
“Who attacked Talia?” I asked softly.
“Does it matter?” Carth asked. “She lives. Because of you, she lives.”
“I killed for her, thinking that Natash attacked her. So it matters. Killing always matters,” I said.
Carth watched me for another moment and then she turned away and disappeared into the building. I didn’t have the energy to chase her.