Weapon of Vengeance: Free Chapters

Prelude

Hoseph waited in darkness, as patient as death itself. Death. Though most feared it, Hoseph did not. He knew death, and even embraced it as a tenet of his faith. Death was his constant companion.

The Right Hand of Death.

He smiled at his little conceit, but there was no denying its aptness in describing his dual roles. In his devotion to Demia, Keeper of the Slain, Hoseph ushered troubled souls from life to their duly earned hereafter. In return, Demia conferred upon him her divine gifts. She had given him much, and he reveled in her cold grace. His fingers caressed the smooth curves of the small silver skull—her talisman—hidden within the sleeve of his robe, and felt the cool energy awaiting his command.

Hoseph liked to think that his goddess was pleased with his second calling as well. As the right hand of the Grandmaster of the Assassins Guild, he ushered many souls into Demia’s keeping. Not personally, as a general rule, but in the performance of his duties: advising, strategizing, and passing on the Grandmaster’s orders. His role also maintained the guild’s most carefully coveted secret. Few knew that the Grandmaster of the Assassins Guild and Emperor Tynean Tsing II were the same man.

A latch clicked, and lamplight scythed through the room as the door swung open. An elegantly dressed man bearing a lamp entered and closed the door behind him.

Hoseph’s wait was over.

“Good evening Baron.”

Baron Eusteus Patino started only slightly, not because he didn’t fear death, but because he was ignorant that he stood in its presence. Patino knew nothing of the Assassins Guild. He thought his visitor merely the emperor’s messenger, and was used to Hoseph’s unannounced arrivals. The baron turned toward the shadowed corner where the priest sat, and inclined his head in greeting.

“Good evening, Hoseph.” Patino placed the lamp on the sideboard. The golden light gleamed off the highly polished wood and scattered though the crystal decanters. “I was about to pour myself a brandy. I’d offer you one, but I recall that you don’t partake.”

“Your memory is accurate, Baron.” Hoseph stood, the hem of his robes brushing the priceless silk rug beneath his feet. Baron Patino loved his luxuries and had the means to support his penchant. But what he loved more was prestige, the honor and esteem that came from a noble title. And though being a baron was good, being a count would be better. That yearning for advancement had made it simple for Hoseph to recruit him. That, and his misguided sense of intrigue. “I received your summons. Please tell me that the news is good.”

“The news is excellent.” The lip of the decanter struck a musical note on the edge of the snifter as the baron poured. He swirled the liquor in the glass, poised his nose above the rim, and inhaled deeply. Sighing with pleasure, he sipped before continuing. “I received an interim report from Master Hensen.” He withdrew a folded letter from the inside pocket of his smoking jacket and handed it over. “The two people he was contracted to protect are alive and well, and he believes that the most prominent threat to their lives is ended.”

“That is excellent news. The emperor will be pleased.” Hoseph scanned the letter.

Though relieved that Mya and her bodyguard were still alive—he had worried that the unanticipated contact meant bad news—he wondered what had precipitated the early report. Unfortunately, the letter did not elaborate. Hoseph longed for details. What had happened to end the threat? Patino knew nothing, of course. The baron was nothing but a go-between. Hoseph needed to go to the source.

He tucked the letter away and bowed to the baron. “You’ve performed admirably, Baron. Your service to the empire is noted.”

“Just doing my duty. Please give His Majesty my warmest regards.” Patino smiled and raised his glass in toast.

“Of course.” Hoseph nodded politely; he would certainly give the emperor Patino’s regards. The baron was a perfect operative: loyal, competent, ignorant, and easy to manipulate with a few words of gratitude from on high.

Retrieving the silver skull from his sleeve, he murmured the invocation that called on Demia’s power. Tendrils of her divine essence flowed from the talisman, as dark and cold as death itself, to embraced and consumed him. The baron, the study, the very world faded around him.

Hoseph blinked and opened his eyes onto an ethereal realm of lost souls, banished demons, and vanquished godlings. This was not a world, plane of existence, or even a place, really. Wizards, priests, and metaphysicists had hypothesized that it might be the fabric that bound the universe together, and had coined the name “sphere of shadows,” which Hoseph though a misnomer. There were no shadows, for there was no light. Hoseph perceived his immediate surroundings as veils of vaporous essence, black and gray wisps swirling as if blown by unfelt winds. There were no sounds, no odors, or even air to breathe. Only Demia’s grace allowed him to survive here, and to use the sphere as a conduit between points on his own world.

Picturing in his mind the destination he desired, the priest once again invoked his goddess’ power. The sphere of shadow faded, and Hoseph materialized in a bedroom. Small and stark, only a few signs of femininity indicated that it was a lady’s room, though nothing hinted at the owner’s true nature. He quirked a thin smile; this was exactly where he wished to be.

Unfortunately, Kiesha wasn’t there.

Patience

Hoseph moved the only available chair to the corner out of view of the door, sat, and let his mind sort through the details he needed from her.

In time he heard voices outside bidding one another good night. The door opened and Kiesha walked in with a rustle of silk brocade, lace, and ruffles. Unaware of him, she closed the door and leaned back against it, her knuckles white on the latch. With a quick, sharp breath and a shake of her head, she took three quick steps to the clothespress, wrenching at the laces of her dress.

“Before you disrobe, I would like to speak with you.”

Kiesha froze at the sound of his voice, but didn’t turn. Unlike the baron, she knew he was the emissary of the Grandmaster of Assassins. She had no idea that Hoseph’s master was also the Emperor of Tsing, of course, and never would.

After a brief hesitation, she resumed working on the laces, her tone impatient. “Speak quickly then. I’ve been in a corset for twelve hours, and I intend to remove it.”

Hoseph regarded Kiesha as she loosened the laces, shrugged the gown off her shoulders, and pushed the voluminous garment down over her hips. The dress landed in a frothy pile. She stepped out of it and started on the laces of her corset. Long ago, Hoseph might have been moved by such a brazen display, but years of devotion to Demia had stripped away such distracting desires.

“You can’t embarrass me, child. I came here for information on the report sent to Baron Patino, and I will have it.”

“The report?” She turned to face him, her eyes wide with surprise. “Hensen only sent it this morning.   Patino contacted you already?”

“Obviously. I know that Mya and her bodyguard are alive, but I need details. Exactly how was the threat to their lives ended?”

“You want details?” Kiesha squirmed out of her corset and heaved a breath as if it was the first she’d taken that day. A disdainful kick sent the garment skittering across the floor in the general direction of the dresser. Grabbing a robe from the clothespress, she pulled it on and turned toward him, her blue eyes blazing. “Fine. The four other masters are dead. How’s that for a detail?”

Hoseph frowned. Defiance? Kiesha’s reports were usually calm, succinct, and to the point, so her vitriolic response came as a shock. She was an invaluable operative, perfectly positioned to glean information from the Assassins Guild’s principal rivals. It would be a pity if she developed a dangerous attitude.

“Explain how that occurred, please,” he ordered. “From the beginning.”

She sighed and sat on the corner of the bed, undoing her coif as she spoke. “I convinced Hensen to assign me to watch over Mya and her bodyguard, as you suggested, and learned that the masters had banded together against her.”

“Did they discover that she was having a new guildmaster ring crafted?”

“No.” Kiesha looked annoyed at the interruption. “They discovered that she never destroyed the previous ring.”

“She what?”

“The masters thought she wore it. That it was protecting her against their assassination attempts. So they took another route and tried to kill her bodyguard. I thwarted that attempt.”

“How?”

“I killed the assassin they sent after him.” She said it matter-of-factly. “It was close, but he didn’t see me.”

“Good.”

She glared at him. “I thought so too, until the masters decided to turn him against Mya.”

“And how did they do that? He’s under her control.”

“If you let me explain…” Kiesha pursed her lips and tossed her hairpins onto her night table.

“Please do.” So acerbic. She was definitely in a mood. What had provoked her?

“The masters learned that he can disobey her. They wanted him to kill Mya, since he’s signed no blood contract and the ring wouldn’t stop him, but apparently his inherent magic prevented him from killing her outright.”

Hoseph huffed a wry laugh. “Yes, Saliez had a restraint worked into the weapon’s magic to prevent it from turning against its master.”

Kiesha’s eyes narrowed. “The weapon’s name is Lad. The masters kidnapped his daughter and offered to exchange her for Mya. Unfortunately for them, the plan blew up in their faces.”

Hoseph gaped at her. “His daughter? Saliez’s weapon has a daughter?”

“A family.” Her piercing blue eyes smoldered. “If I had a way to contact you, I’d have been able to tell you.”

Hoseph ignored her snide comment. He was having enough difficulty accepting the notion of a weapon of magic and flesh having a family. The animal instinct to procreate, perhaps?

“How can that be?”

“Lad’s apparently…more than we believed him to be.” She looked away, her voice faltering.

Ahhh, Kiesha, is that the crux of your anxiety? Have you developed empathy for this…Lad? “So, did he deliver Mya to them?”

“Yes.” Kiesha shrugged and met his eyes again. “But it was a ruse. Her bonds were false. When the masters tried to double cross him, Lad and Mya attacked. The fight was…” Kiesha swallowed. “I’ve never seen anyone move like that. I did what I could to protect them. When it was over, the four masters were dead and their surviving guards had fled.”

Hoseph considered the ramifications. Not entirely bad, actually. It meant that Mya could start with a clean slate, appointing her own faction masters, and not have to deal with hostile subordinates who would fight her every initiative.

Hoseph chuckled. “So, Mya wore the guildmaster’s ring and couldn’t be harmed.”

“She didn’t wear it.”

“What? How did she survive?”

“She survived because you told me to keep her alive.” Kiesha’s eyes blazed with indignation for a moment. “I killed anyone who got close to her. Lad’s wife wore the ring. She came to the exchange with Lad. It was part of the ruse. She used its protection to get their child away from the fighting.”

Hoseph frowned again. “So, the wife wears the guildmaster’s ring?”

“She wore it, I said.” Kiesha’s lips pressed into a line.   “You made it clear that the Grandmaster wanted Mya to be guildmaster, so I…killed Lad’s wife.”

“You…” Hoseph stared at Kiesha, and a slow smile spread across his face. “That was very quick thinking. So, with the ring freed—“

“I murdered Lad’s wife right in front of him!” Kiesha’s anguish spoke volumes.

Curiously, her pain eased Hoseph’s mind. She wasn’t rebelling, she was just suffering from guilt. The mystery of her foul mood was solved.

“He’s seeking her killer, set on vengeance.”

“Does he know that it was you?”

“No.” Kiesha shook her head. “I ran for my life afterward. He couldn’t know, but my contacts tell me that he’s determined to find out.”

“Relax, child. I’m sure Mya won’t let him go careening off on a hunt for his wife’s killer. Now that she’s guildmaster—”

“Why do you keep assuming that?” Kiesha’s question was half incredulous, half scornful. “Lad put on the guildmaster’s ring! He’s got the entire guild out searching for clues to his wife’s murder.”

Hoseph’s thoughts wavered. That could be a problem. “Did he see you?”

“He couldn’t have. I told you, I ran as soon as…” Kiesha took a shuddering breath and let it out slowly. “There are all sorts of rumors flying around, but they all have one thing in common—Lad is in charge, not Mya. He’s already appointed four new masters and made changes in the guild’s business practices.”

Hoseph listened to Kiesha’s summary of those changes with only half his mind. With the other half, he considered the situation. Mya was not guildmaster as he had planned, but still, the situation had promise. The weapon was under control. He had much to consider before reporting to the Grandmaster.

The first priority, however, was to allay Kiesha’s fears. “You’ve done well, Kiesha.” He pulled a small satin pouch from a pocket and offered it to her. With seeming reluctance, the thief reached out, grasped it, and tossed it onto the bed. The contents rattled like dice, though their facets were valued in carats, not numbers.

“I need protection,” Kiesha insisted. “If they get too close, I may need to disappear. If I had a way to contact you…”

Hoseph shook his head. “In due time, child. Don’t worry, and don’t do anything rash. The Grandmaster will deal with this. There’s still work to be done. First, find out where this new guildmaster lives. Any more information on changes he’s instituting would be helpful. I’ll check back with you in a few days. If you need to disappear, I’ll arrange a secure location.”

“All right.” She sounded calmer. Not happy, but resigned.

Hoseph flicked the silver skull into his hand and invoked the power of his beloved goddess. As Demia’s cold grace consumed him, he caught one last glimpse of Kiesha’s eyes, bright with the fear of death. That was enough, for now, to keep her under his control.

 

Chapter I

Lad slapped open the door to the butcher shop so hard that it cracked against the wall. He propelled his charge through the door, reigning in his boiling blood to keep from hurting the man. The fellow had been through enough already.

“Hey!” The proprietor looked up with a glare, then swallowed his reproof and lowered his gaze back to his work. He knew better than to interfere with people who came into his shop bearing the marks of recent violence.

Lad ignored the butcher’s mutters and propelled his battered charge around the long counter and down a hall. A man with a cleaver at his hip stood before the door at the hall’s end, huge arms crossed over a barrel chest, biceps straining the fabric of his shirt. A typical Enforcer. The thug grinned as they approached, eying Lad as if deciding how many pieces to tear him into.

The misconception was common. With a lithe, wiry build, nondescript clothing, and no weapons, Lad knew that many underestimated him. Generally he took pains to avoid conflict, but right now he wasn’t in the mood for explanations. He nodded toward the door. “Open it.”

“I don’t know who you are, bucko, but you don’t just come into this shop and—”

Lad thrust his fist out faster than the Enforcer could even reach for his cleaver. With exquisite precision, he stopped the blow an inch from the man’s nose. The ring on Lad’s finger—obsidian woven with gold—widened the thug’s eyes and closed his mouth. Lad bridled his urge for violence. The man was just doing his job. It wasn’t his fault that he didn’t yet recognize the new master of the Twailin Assassins Guild.

“Now you know who I am.” Lad lowered his hand and nodded again at the door. “Open it.”

“Yes, Master.” The thug opened the door and stepped aside.

The room wasn’t what one would expect in the back of a butcher shop. One side was furnished for pleasure, a well-appointed sitting area with a luxurious rug, a plush divan and low table adjacent to a mahogany bar crowded with decanters, bottles, and an array of cut-crystal glasses. The other side of the room was all business, with a broad desk of dark oak littered with papers faced by two leather-upholstered chairs.

Behind the desk sat a man who obviously believed in mixing business and pleasure. Dressed in a sharp, brushed-wool jacket and waistcoat with gold buttons, he appeared the epitome of a successful businessman. The provocatively dressed girl on his lap spoiled that image. The perturbation on his face at the unexpected visitors transformed to shock, and he surged to his feet, spilling the girl to the floor and her drink into his lap.

“Master!” Tiny silver rods chimed at his wrist as Jingles brushed the liquid from his trousers and hauled the girl to her feet. “Sorry about that. Just havin’ a little bit of fun, you know.” He patted the girl on the rump as he nudged her toward the room’s other door. “Off with you now, Celia. We’ll talk later. Ah…keep up the good work.”

Lad watched the girl go. She couldn’t have been more than sixteen years old, but the seductive smile she tossed his way suggested that she was already well-versed in her profession. Undoubtedly a portion of her earnings found their way into Assassin Guild coffers, though it looked as if Jingles might be taking his share in trade. What his Master Enforcer did for fun didn’t concern Lad. He had a more important matter on his mind.

“Do you know this man?” Lad released his charge’s collar. The man stumbled, looking as if he wished he were anywhere but here. He squinted out of his one good eye—the other was purple and swollen shut—and dabbed at his bloody split lip with a sodden handkerchief. One whole side of his face was a massive contusion.

“Can’t say as I do offhand, but…” Jingles rounded the desk, still brushing at his damp crotch as he examined the fellow’s face. “Look the other way so I can see you without that bruise.”

The man complied.

“Come to think of it, yes, I think I do know him. Runs a bookstore off Briar Rose Avenue.”

“A st-stationers,” the man corrected. “Th-the Binder’s Bin Stationers.”

“Right! Quebeck’s his name!” Jingles grinned as if he’d just solved a puzzle, but sobered when he saw Lad’s grim expression. “What happened to him?”

“He was beaten and threatened, and his shop was tossed.” Lad’s anger rose again. “I ordered an end to this violence! Tell me, Jingles, did you order this?”

“I did not, Master.” Jingles looked suddenly frightened. “I’ve followed your orders to the letter, I swear on my life!”

“An appropriate oath. Your life is exactly what it’ll cost you if I find out you’re lying.” Lad turned to the trembling shopkeeper. “Did you know the ones who beat you?”

“I n-never saw them before today, sir. They weren’t the ones who usually came by…before.” He swallowed and wrung the handkerchief in his hands. A drop of blood fell to the expensive rug. “Please, sirs, they told me to be quiet about it. I don’t want any trouble. They…they said they’d burn…”

“Nobody’s going to hurt you, Master Quebeck, but we need answers to make sure that whoever did this won’t come back.” Lad clenched his jaw. The poor man was terrified. Lad had come upon him sweeping up glass from the shop’s broken front window, in tears as he plucked pieces of fine parchment from the muddy gutter. He hadn’t wanted to accompany Lad, but the guildmaster had insisted. This was Jingles’ territory, so the Master Enforcer would have to answer for it. Lad hoped the violence was the Thieves Guild moving in on their territory, though he dreaded that it wasn’t. Jingles’ denial seemed sincere, but Lad was determined to get to the bottom of the matter. “This is Master Jarred. He’s going to ask you some questions.”

“I’ll answer as best I can, sir.” The shopkeeper’s voice still trembled, despite Lad’s assurances.

Jingles eyed Quebeck critically. “Can you describe who beat you? How many, what they wore. Did they use names?”

“No names, sir. “Th-there were two of them. A man and a woman, though she was as tall and big as he.” Quebeck glanced at Lad, then back to Jingles. “She had red hair tied back in a long braid, and a scar on the bridge of her nose. The man was a Morrgrey. Dark, of course, and wore a green felt hat with a cock’s feather.”

Lad saw the answer in Jingle’s face even before he asked, “Do you know these two?”

“I do, Master.” The Master Enforcer’s hand twitched and the silver bars jingled. “The man’s named Korlak, and the woman’s Gerti Yance. They’re ours.”

“Ours…” Lad’s knuckles popped as he clenched his fists. Forcing himself to take a deep, calming breath, he turned back to Quebeck. “How much damage was done to your shop?”

“Um, maybe twenty crowns worth, including lost inventory, and it’ll be a couple of days ’til I can open back up.”

“And how much cash did they take from you?”

“Just what was in the cash box. Maybe fifteen crowns.”

Lad told Jingles, “Give him fifty crowns.”

The Master Enforcer didn’t even quibble. He went right to his desk, opened a drawer, and counted out the sum. Dropping it into a leather pouch, he handed it over to the man with the assurance, “I’ll make sure this doesn’t happen again.”

Lad even believed him.

“You can go now, Master Quebeck.” Lad nudged him toward the door. “Thank you.” When the door had closed, he fixed Jingles with an even stare and said, “Who are Korlak and Yance?”

“Enforcers, sir, assigned to Molsen’s area, near Eastgate.”

“Take me to them.”

“Now, Master?”

“Now.”

“Yes, sir.” Jingles went to his desk, pulled two daggers from a drawer, and put them in boot sheaths. He snatched up a walking stick and drew forth the gleaming sword that was attached to the polished gold handle. Snapping it back into place, he turned to Lad and nodded. “Ready, Master.”

“Good.” Lad noted Jingles’ fine clothes, and considered his own simple shirt and pants. His shoes bore no shine, and he wore no weapons. Anyone looking at the two of them would think Jingles a moneyed gentleman and Lad his servant. That suited Lad just fine. “Where are we going?”

“Molsen’s got them watching over a gambling house called Lucky Bones.”

“I know it.” There weren’t many places in Twailin that Lad didn’t know.

“Business usually starts to pick up this time of day, so they should both be there.”

“Let’s go, then.”

Jingles seemed to consider his next words before speaking. “If you tell me what you want done, Master, I’ll see to it. There’s no reason you need to—”

“There is a reason I need to see to this, Jingles. I want to know why it happened, and make sure it doesn’t happen again!”

“As you say, Master. I’ll tan Molsen’s hide if I find out he knew anything about this, but these two might just be poachers, not acting on orders. It’s your call, of course.”

“Yes, it is my call.”

Lad followed Jingles out the back door and around to the street, stopping abruptly as the Master Enforcer hailed a passing hackney. He generally walked wherever he went, but one look at Jingles’ shiny, hard-soled boots told him that there was no way the man could walk to Eastgate. Lad didn’t like coaches, but after a week as guildmaster, he had discovered a lot of things he didn’t like that he was having to get used to. Going to bed every night without Wiggen at his side was the hardest.

As the coach pulled up, a woman in a simple dress hurried past and, for an instant, he saw Wiggen: her walk, her hair, her scent… He blinked, and the vision was gone.

Gone She’s gone… Lad followed Jingles into the coach and took a seat.

Clenching his hands at his sides, he forced down the urge to lash out, to vent the rage and frustration that continually threatened to overwhelm him. One by one, he flexed and relaxed each muscle in his body, an exercise he had been taught long ago to imbue calm. It didn’t work, just as his morning exercises and meditation no longer brought the peace of mind they once had. Nothing helped. Everywhere he looked he saw her. Every scent and sight reminded him of the life they’d shared at the Tap and Kettle. He looked out the window at the passing city, searching for something, anything to keep his mind active, busy, away from dwelling on his empty bed, the smell of Wiggen’s hair as he lay down beside her, one arm over her, the warmth of her body against him…

Wiggen

“Here we are!”

Jingles’ announcement snapped Lad from his reverie, and the guildmaster’s blood chilled. He recognized Eastgate Street outside, but remembered nothing of the trip. How long? He considered the distance; fifteen or twenty minutes, at least.

Not again! Lad kept his face composed despite his mounting apprehension. He’d been trained from birth to be attentive to his surroundings at every waking moment, and it had saved his life many times. Since Wiggen’s death, lapses like this, transient periods lost in thought, were becoming frequent.

Jingles opened the coach door and stepped out. Lad forced himself to focus on the here and now as he followed. They stood in front of the Lucky Bones public house. A broad sign—a pair of dice coming up double eights—pointed the way down the stairs to the drinking and gambling establishment tucked into the basement of a shoe factory.

“The manager’s name’s Lyghter. She’s a hard case, but runs a good business. She’s been one of our…clients for a long time now.” Jingles flipped a half-crown to the coachman, and turned to Lad, jingling his bracelet nervously. “Master, if Korlak and Yance are poachers, they might try to bolt. A visit from me wouldn’t startle them, but if I’m with someone, it might. Maybe I should go first?”

Lad nodded. “I don’t want to disrupt business. Go ahead.”

Jingles looked relieved. Descending the stairs, he pushed aside the heavy iron-bound door and entered. Smoke wafted out, along with the sound of clattering dice and amused chatter.

Lad looked up at the empty windows of the shoe factory. It was nearing the dinner hour, and work had ceased for the day. Foot traffic was brisk, and two others entered the pub. Lad followed them in. His eyes instantly pierced the dark, smoky atmosphere, and he scanned the room. It was still early, so the place wasn’t very busy yet. About a score of patrons played cards, threw dice, or drank at the bar. Lad drew no attention, looking more like a cobbler than a killer.

Jingles was sauntering toward the bar, jauntily swinging his walking stick. The two Enforcers, Korlak and Yance, were watching Jingles, but didn’t look upset. Lad moved to a table near the door where patrons were throwing dice, watching the pair as he listened to Jingles hail the one-eyed matron behind the bar. Lad focused, and had no trouble picking out their words over the noise.

“Evening, Lyghter!”

“Trouble, Jingles?”

“No, just need to speak to my people. Some privacy would be appreciated.”

“Fine.” She tossed him a key. “Last door down the hall.”

“Thank you. This won’t take long.” Jingles strolled over to his two Enforcers. “I’ve got a change in your work assignment. Come with me.”

Though Korlak and Yance exchanged wary glances, Jingles’ casual manner seemed to put them at ease, and they followed him down the hall to the last door. When the door closed behind them, Lad moved. He was down the hall and through the door in a moment. As the latch clicked behind him, the two Enforcers turned at the intrusion.

“What the hell?” Korlak’s hand dropped to the big knife at his belt.

“Shut your mouths and listen up!” Jingles snapped. The tip of his walking stick flicked out as quick as a striking snake, hovering an inch from the Morrgrey’s nose. “This is your new guildmaster. Show some respect!”

Lad saw fearful recognition in their eyes; they had obviously heard about him. They both took a step back, and Korlak’s hand moved away from his weapon. Not that it would have done him any good if he had tried use it. Their blood contracts prevented them from even attempting to harm either Lad or Jingles.

“What’s this about?” Yance’s wary expression suggested that she already had a good idea.

“This is about a broken window, a beaten shopkeeper, a threat of arson, treason, and fifteen gold crowns.” Lad stepped up and examined them carefully, though he had to crane his neck to look them in the eye. As Quebeck said, Yance stood as tall as Korlak, and the Morrgrey was not a small man.

Lad read their guilt in the pulses pounding at their throats and the sweat beading on their brows. He could smell the rank odors of rage and fear, see the desperation in their darting eyes as they searched for an escape.

“Did Molsen order you to toss that shop, threaten and beat Quebeck?”

“No,” Korlak said, and Yance shot him a glare.

“Good, the truth.” The next answer, Lad knew, would not come so easily. “I’m going to ask you some questions, and you’re going to keep telling me the truth.”

“Why?” The defiance in Yance’s voice surprised Lad as much as the puzzling question.

“Why am I going to ask you questions, or why are you going to tell me the truth?”

“Both!”

Lad fought to keep his instinctive reaction under control. The urge for violence, vengeance for their transgression, welled up in him, but five years as Mya’s shadow had taught him that punishment should not be administered without explanation. The Grandfather had killed on a whim, and Lad had vowed to never become like the monster he had destroyed. He took a breath and let it out slowly, fighting for calm.

“I’m going to ask questions about why this incident happened so I can prevent it from happening again. You’re going to tell me the truth because your lives are mine to spend. Whether or not I choose to spend your lives will depend on your answers. But if you don’t answer, I promise you that your lives will be spent right here and now. Do you understand?”

They just stared at him.

“Answer him!” Jingles’ command shook them out of their silence.

“I understand, Master,” Korlak said reluctantly. He dropped his gaze to the floor rather than meet Lad’s eyes, though the muscles bunching at his jaw revealed his frustration. He was a big man, strong and capable. He’d undoubtedly beaten and killed many people in his lifetime, probably even before he was in the guild. His attitude was that of a life-long bully, used to using force to get what he wanted. He wasn’t accustomed to being frightened of someone half his size.

“Well, I don’t!” Yance’s face flushed, her hands clenching in impotent rage. She looked to Jingles. “This upstart orders us to be all nice and friendly to a bunch of lack-wit shopkeepers! No more protection rackets, no more beatings, and we’re supposed to roll over like dogs? Just because he put that ring on, doesn’t make him an assassin!”

Jingles stepped forward, but Lad raised a forestalling hand, his left hand. Upon it glinted the lustrous guildmaster’s ring—the ring he had taken from Wiggen’s dead finger. Wiggen… “You’re right, Yance. Putting on this ring doesn’t make me an assassin. What does make me an assassin…you wouldn’t believe if I told you. What this ring does make me is your master. You’ll answer my questions!

“Fine. Ask.”

“Why did you extort Quebeck?”

The two Enforcers exchanged a look.

“We…didn’t like the changes,” Korlak answered. Yance just pressed her lips in a thin line. “They seem foolish. We’ve taken protection money as long as I’ve been with the guild.”

“So you broke your oath and went against my orders. Why? You’re being paid the exact same amount you were earning before the changes.”

“It’s not about the money, you little—”

Steel flashed to Yance’s throat, stopping just short of parting flesh. “One more word and it’ll be your last!” Jingles hissed. His wrist twitched, and the tip of the sword from his walking stick pricked her chin. “This is your guildmaster! Watch your tongue, or I’ll cut it out.”

Waving Jingles back, Lad cocked his head, curious. “If it’s not about the money, Yance, what is it about?”

“It’s about respect!” Her eyes spit knives at him as Jingles sheathed his blade. “If we don’t show these mealy-mouthed peasants who’s boss around here, they’ll think we’re weak!”

“Respect?” Lad was taken aback. “You think a shopkeeper will respect you if you beat him up?”

“He’ll bloody well respect my fist! And next time he’ll cough up the money without me havin’ to knock a lick of common sense into his thick skull!”

Lad stared at the Enforcer, utterly dumbfounded. “That’s not respect, Yance. That’s fear.”

“What’s the difference? Fear is respect!”

Suddenly Lad realized what her real reason was—she enjoyed meting out pain and fear. With that realization came the memory of the invasion of the Tap and Kettle by a team of Enforcers. They had taken pleasure in their work, far too much pleasure, delighting in the fear and anguish they evoked. Still blind to human emotion at that period of his life, Lad had not understood. Now he knew that there were people who enjoyed giving pain. Yance, apparently, was one of them.

Lad narrowed his eyes at her. “Did you ever meet the Grandfather, Yance, your previous guildmaster?”

Her throat flexed as she swallowed hard. “No. But I heard about him.”

“The Grandfather killed on a whim and tortured for recreation. Did you respect him?”

“I didn’t know him,” she admitted.

“But he was strong, fearsome, and pitiless. You would have feared him, and been right to do so. I imagine that means that you respected him.”

“I suppose…yes, then. I did respect him.”

“Do you fear me, knowing that I can kill you and you can’t do anything to stop me?”

She swallowed hard. “Yes.”

“So, you admit that you fear me, but your contempt for my rules, and for me personally, clearly show that you don’t respect me. You’ve made my point. Fear does not equal respect.”

“You’re wrong!” The muscles of her neck bunched and writhed with those two words. Lad recognized the tension in her body; it was exactly how he had felt when he wanted to kill the Grandfather…and couldn’t.

“Explain how I’m wrong.”

“I don’t respect you because you didn’t earn that ring!” Her face flushed scarlet. “You don’t understand the guild. You don’t understand what we are. People respect us because we’re strong. If they don’t respect us, we knock some sense into them!”

A murderous rage boiled the blood in Lad’s veins. His mind’s eye stared once more at Wiggen’s terrified expression as a knife pressed to her throat. People should not have to live in fear because they can’t fight back! That was the reason for his new rules, the truth he wanted to shout in Yance’s face, but she would never accept that. The guild would never accept that. He bit back his anger and focused on the one truth that the guild might accept.

“It’s you who doesn’t understand, Yance. Fear doesn’t earn respect, it earns hatred. The shopkeepers you beat into paying blood money don’t respect you, they hate you! They fear you, and hate you, and if ever an opportunity arises to harm you, they’ll take it! That is the position you’ve put the guild in with your actions. That, even more than your treason, is why I must now spend your life.”

Before Yance could even draw another breath, Lad struck.

His kick smashed her ribs with such force that her lungs ruptured and her heart was pulped against her spine. Blood jetted from her mouth as she slammed back against the wall, landing in a broken heap of twitching arms and legs.

Korlak’s boots scuffed the floor as he backed away. Even over the scent of blood, Lad could smell the man’s fear.

Welcome to the world of the average shopkeeper, Korlak, he thought sourly.

The blinding rage and urge to kill ebbed, replaced by a flood of self-disgust. What would Wiggen have said? Yance would never have changed her ways, and lenience would only have led to more disobedience. He knew he was right. He also knew he was a murderer. Self-loathing welled up in him, palpable and nauseating. He turned toward the door.

“The other one, Master?” Jingles asked.

Lad looked over his shoulder at Korlak. He had known the moment he entered the room which of the two had instigated the assault on Quebeck. Korlak would fall in line, and even more important, he would spread the word of what Lad had said and done. But that didn’t mean he didn’t deserve punishment for his treason.

“Beat him exactly as you saw Master Quebeck was beaten.” He turned to Jingles. “Do it yourself.”

“Yes, Master.”

Lad cast one more glance at Yance’s body. Her bulging eyes stared blankly back. She’d been helpless, and he killed her. She killed herself the moment she decided to betray the guild. Lad wondered if the Grandfather told himself the same thing the first time he murdered a helpless underling.

Lad looked back to Jingles, refusing to let his disgust show. “When you’re done, call in a crew to clean up the mess, pay Lyghter whatever you think is fair, and get back to work.”

“Yes, Master.”

Lad was out the door and halfway down the hall before he heard the first wet crunch of Jingles’ fist striking flesh.

 

Chapter II

Captain Norwood rubbed his burning eyes and resumed pacing in front of the large diagram tacked to his office wall. He’d been staring at the damned thing for three days now, and knew it line by line.

“Fat lot of good it’s done me.”

He stopped pacing and stared some more. The diagram depicted the battle site near Fiveway Fountain. Quite detailed, it showed every bush, tree, lamppost, and bench. Stick figures represented the corpses, twenty-eight in all. Fewer than a dozen were stuck with yellow pins bearing tiny cards printed with personal information: name, title or profession, and next of kin. But it was the five black pins that drew his attention, each representing a corpse killed by a poisoned black dart. The same type of dart and the same poison they’d found on a dead woman in an alley not two weeks ago. Like the first dart, all these had lodged in the victims’ throats at a steep angle, indicating that the killer had shot from a height.

The same assassin? If so, how are these two incidents related?

He glanced to the vial-encased darts on his desk. He still had no information on their origin. The duke had insisted that they first concentrate their investigation on identifying the victims, since at least three had been prominent citizens. Only in the last couple of days had Sergeant Tamir been investigating the darts. The poison, white scorpion venom, was common enough to be readily available, and therefore difficult to trace. The tiny spring-loaded missiles, however, seemed to have been custom-made. Finding the crafter of those darts had a high likelihood of leading them to the assassin, but so far they had nothing.

The knock on his door came as a welcome interruption.

“Come in!”

Tamir strode in, igniting a spark of hope in Norwood’s heart. “Did you get anything?”

“Oh, plenty!” Tamir’s smile oozed sarcasm. Reaching into his jacket pocket, he withdrew several items. “I got a solid gold pocket watch for only two crowns that stopped working fifteen minutes after I left the shop.” He dropped the watch onto Norwood’s desk. “I got a garlic peeler that’s guaranteed never to need cleaning, though I haven’t tried it out yet.” The reeking device thumped down beside the watch. “And I got this here pen knife that has a cork screw, a pair of scissors, a toothpick, a nail file, a fish scaler, and a little thingy that’ll trim your nose hairs!” He peered at the confusing contraption uncertainly. “No blade though, and I’m not quite sure which little thingy is which.”

Norwood looked at his sergeant with an utter lack of amusement. “So, nothing on the dart.”

“Not a thing.” Tamir retrieved a glass vial from another pocket and shook it, rattling the little black dart inside. “Nobody’s ever seen such a thing before, let alone made one. The closest thing to real information was a tidbit from that fellow who makes cuckoo clocks in a shop down on Mullet Avenue. He said he’d heard of something kinda similar, something that injected poison, I mean, from a man who used to hunt big game.”

“Someone hunted big game with poisoned darts?” Norwood looked dubious. “Sounds like a good way to poison whoever eats the meat.”

“No, no. He used poppy extract. Just put ’em to sleep. He’d hunt weird critters for the Imperial Zoo in Tsing. Used a crossbow, though; the bolts had a spring and plunger. Apparently the guy dropped a pachyderm with one shot, loaded it on a wagon, and brought it back for the crown prince’s tenth birthday celebration.”

Norwood sighed. “The crown prince is over forty now, so this hunter has got to be older than me. I can’t see him running across roofs to shoot darts down at people. The hunter’s name?”

Tamir consulted his notebook. “Wembly, but he moved to a village north of Tsing years ago. It’d take months to track him down to ask him questions.”

“The clockmaker didn’t know who made those bolts?”

“No.”

“Anyplace you haven’t looked yet?”

“I’ve not done much in The Sprawls yet.” Tamir rattled the dart vial again and put it back in his pocket. “Nothing much down there but tinkers and pot makers. I figure whoever makes these things probably charges a few crowns apiece, and can afford to have a nice place in a better part of town.”

“Well, we can’t take anything for granted, so you can start slumming this afternoon. On the way, stop at our temporary office down by the docks and pick up Sergeant Maekin’s report on the Bargeman’s Guild.” Norwood returned to his diagram and tapped one of the pins with a note attached. “Youtrin…a damned guildmaster. There’s got to be something deeper going on here. Smuggling, maybe. Who knows?”

Guild war… Was this the culmination of the Assassins Guild “squabbles” that his late night intruder had told him of? Norwood wondered if the man he’d spoken with had been reduced to a stick figure on the diagram. So far, they’d been unable to connect any of the known dead to organized crime. If these people were members of the Assassins Guild, they’d hidden their illicit activities well. Tamir’s voice intruded on his thoughts.

“We’ve been going through Youtrin’s warehouses for a week, sir. He might be involved in some tithe dodging, but we’ve found nothing more illegal than that.”

“So far, Maekin’s only looking into his Bargeman’s Guild connections. Tell him to cast a wider net. I want to know who owed Youtrin money, who he was sleeping with, who he paid rent to, and who paid rent to him. Everything.   Do the same with the fencing master and the madam, and we’ll see what connections we can make.”

“Yes, sir.” Tamir picked up the trinkets he’d bought. “You want the watch? It’s solid gold!” He grinned at his scowling commander and pocketed the worthless piece of junk. “I know, I know. Get to work.”

“You should open up a stall on Stargazer Street, Tam, because you just read my mind.”

Tamir snorted a laugh and left. Norwood turned back to his diagram.

The three prominent Twailin citizens they’d identified among the dead were the only leads they had in this case, besides the darts, and all were turning up blank. His mind automatically veered back to that now-familiar train of thought.

What in the Nine Hells would a guildmaster in the Bargeman’s Guild, a West Crescent madam, and a fencing master be doing with the Assassins Guild?

 

***

 

Gleaming steel flashed toward Sereth’s gut. The Master Blade parried the lunge easily. His riposte rang off the quillons of his opponent’s weapon, and he intercepted the counterthrust. Steel sang on steel, and the soles of his boots whisked softly as he danced away from his opponent.

By the gods, this is boring.

He stepped back to disengage and assess his student’s stance. Though barely fifteen years old, the boy was a fair fencer in a rote sort of way. He knew the basic forms, but performed them without imagination, no earnest threat, and entirely too much predictability.

In the neighborhood where Sereth grew up, this pretty boy wouldn’t have lasted five minutes. By his age, Sereth had already mastered the art of fighting with dagger and short sword, and signed his name in blood on a piece of rune-inscribed vellum, dedicating his life to the Assassins Guild.

Never thought it would lead to begging nobles to let me babysit their whelps, playing patty-cake with blunted blades.

Despite the irony, Sereth was secretly pleased that his fencing studio had finally attracted its first noble-born student, the young Lord Leonard Barrrington. The rent in Barleycorn Heights was outrageous, but he needed to project the right image to attract customers, and money wasn’t a problem. More students would follow, he knew, but he had to offer something that other instructors didn’t. He had to stand out, and as yet he didn’t know how to accomplish that. Unlike his former master, Horice, he couldn’t rely on witty banter and high-class connections to bring in eager young nobles wanting to learn how to duel. After only two lessons with the young Lord Barrington, however, Sereth was less than enchanted.

The boy stamped his foot in a poor feint and lunged.

Time for a real lesson, boy.

Sereth stepped into the lunge with a twisting parry that denied a stop-thrust, locked his quillons to his student’s, and pushed. Barrington strained to push him back, but Sereth’s rear foot was well planted, and he outweighed his student by at least two stone. For a moment they stood, neither with an advantage, both knowing the first to break the clinch would be at a disadvantage. Then Sereth drew a stiletto from the back of his sparring jacket and poked the tip carefully into his student’s belly, dimpling the boy’s padded plastron by two inches.

“You’re dead, young lord.”

“What?” The surprise in the boy’s voice was ridiculously satisfying. The strength left his stance and he stepped back, ripping off his protective wire mask to glare down at the blade in Sereth’s off hand. “That’s not fair!”

“No, it’s not.” Sereth removed his own mask and leveled a cold smile at his student. This is what he needs, Sereth realized. This is what will set me apart from the other dueling masters. “Life isn’t fair. Fights certainly aren’t fair. If you think otherwise, then your first real fight will be your last, young lord.” He raised the stiletto in a mocking left-handed salute and tucked it away. “This is not a game.”

“But, to strike with a hidden blade… It’s…”

“Dishonorable?”

“Meaning no disrespect, sir, but yes.”

“Your father’s not paying me to teach you honor. He’s paying me to teach you the art of dueling.” Sereth racked his practice sword and waved his apprentice over. “Not all lessons are learned with the sword. Enough sparring for today, Lord Barrington.”

Sereth’s assistant, an eager young apprentice named Lem, dutifully took his master’s mask, then assisted him in removing the padded plastron, leather gorget, sword-hand glove, and underlying jacket with its buckles in the back.

“But in a duel, you must fight according to rules,” argued Barrington as he racked his own sword.

“And an honorable man will follow those rules. But what happens when you’re challenged by a man who has no honor?” Sereth stripped off his sweat-sodden shirt and accepted a towel from Lem. “I’ve learned to expect less-than-honorable behavior when life and blood are on the line.”

The boy gazed wide-eyed at the scars that crisscrossed Sereth’s torso before continuing his argument. “But if an opponent resorted to a hidden weapon to win, my seconds would avenge me.”

“If you choose your seconds well, yes, but being avenged doesn’t make you any less dead, does it?” Sereth grinned, but there was no humor in it. Scrubbing himself dry with the towel, he caught the look of horror on the boy’s face and laughed. “Do you think every man who calls you out for kissing his sister will be honorable?”

“Well, no, but… I mean…”

“And what if you’re set upon by thugs? Do you think outlaws will fight honorably?”

“Well, I know Twailin isn’t exactly safe!” The boy waved the notion aside. “I mean, there was a horrible slaughter in West Crescent just last week, but nothing like that could ever happen to one of us!”

The reminder of that night drained all of Sereth’s mirth. In a flash of memory, he once again watched Lad slice Horice in two with the Master Blade’s own enchanted sword. Watched…and did nothing.

I couldn’t have prevented his death!

That truth comforted Sereth during sleepless nights. Though he had detested Horice, he would have fought to the death to protect him if there had been a chance. Against Lad, there was no chance. Sereth could never forget that if he wanted to survive the new guildmaster’s reign. Snapping back to the present, he noted a dangerous look in his student’s eyes; the notion that his noble birth kept him safe. In this city, that was a deadly assumption.

“I suggest you look back in history about five years, young Lord Barrington. Ask your father how many of his noble friends were slaughtered in their beds by dishonorable men.” Sereth shivered with the thought that the one who had committed those murders was now his master. He covered the involuntary reaction by slipping a clean shirt over his head. The smooth, rich fabric caressed his skin like his old clothing never had, a perquisite of his new position. “I’ll see you day after tomorrow.”

“Will you teach me how to fight with both a dagger and rapier?” The enthusiasm in the boy’s eyes was nauseating.

How eager they are to play at killing.

“Teach you how to fight dishonorably? I will not!” The affront on the boy’s face was laughable, but it gave Sereth the opportunity to make his pitch. By giving Barrington something to tell his friends, some secret others couldn’t offer, Sereth would gain students. And with a bevy of nobles sparring in his studio, who knew what gems of information might inadvertently drop. Raising an eyebrow in consideration, he eyed his student dubiously. “However, I will teach you to defend against it. Honorable men must, after all, be prepared to deal with scoundrels.”

“Yes, Master Sereth!” Leonard’s eyes lit with fervor. “Thank you!”

“Thank me by mixing up your attacks and remembering that a sword has only one purpose in this world, to end a life. Death is permanent, Lord Barrington, and not all those we fight will fight with honor.”

“Yes, sir!”

Sereth waited until the door closed behind his student before secreting his various blades in their covert sheaths. He preferred daggers and stealth to the rapier he was forced to wear. Noting the smile on his assistant’s face, he scowled. “And you, Lem, will not tell a soul what I’m teaching these young dandies. Is that clear?”

“Yes, Master.” The smile dropped. “Perfectly clear.”

“Good. Lock up before you leave.”

The young man nodded and got to work cleaning up the studio. Relatively new to the Assassins Guild, Lem showed promise. Already expert with a dagger, he was a quick learner, and Sereth was training him to fence.

As Horice trained me

Sereth let himself out into the twilight and headed down the street. Though his mind raced with the myriad details he had to attend to as Master Blade, he couldn’t help but compare the sweetly scented air of Barleycorn Heights to the musky atmosphere of his own neighborhood. He’d leased a house near his business to keep up appearances, but he still called his tiny flat in the Docks District home.

Home… For the past two years, his home had seemed empty without Jinny, but he couldn’t make himself leave the only place he’d ever been happy.

“Up for a little evening fun, milord?” A slim blonde woman sidled up to him and pinched his ass. “A knee trembler to whet your appetite for dinner, or perhaps for the missus?”

Sereth sighed at the reminder of his enforced celibacy. He had thought that streetwalkers would be discouraged in the city’s finer neighborhoods, but it seemed that even the proprieties of upper class couldn’t stem the laws of supply and demand. Each evening, young men and women plied their trade, seeking those with the desire for company and the means to pay. Sereth qualified on both counts, but he had no desire for the company of a prostitute.

“No, thank you.” He made to push her away, but she grasped his hand with surprising strength.

“Come on, love. I’ll give you a little discount.” She leaned in, her chin on his shoulder, her voice a sultry whisper. “We need to talk, Sereth.”

He glared at Kiesha in sudden recognition. That he hadn’t penetrated her disguise right off perturbed him; his mind had been elsewhere. Maybe I should take on one of my Blades as a bodyguard, he considered, but quickly quashed the idea. If someone discovered his covert meetings with a Thieves Guild operative, his life wouldn’t be worth spit, even if he was Master Blade.

Master Blade… Sereth’s mind spun with the possibilities his new position might provide. Narrowing his eyes, he nodded to the narrow gap between two tall brick buildings. “There, in the close.”

“Perfect!” Kiesha giggled girlishly and pulled him into the shadowed passage.

Though flames already flickered in the street lamps, their light didn’t penetrate this niche where even sunlight rarely ventured. The walls loomed so close that Sereth could reach out and touch them both without extending his arms fully. In fashionable Barleycorn Heights, respectable folks didn’t frequent such narrow alleys.

All the better. Neither of us is respectable.

Ten strides in, he wrenched Kiesha to a stop, grabbed her shoulders, and pinned her against the rough brick wall. “What do you want?” He hadn’t seen her in a week, and had been torn between relief at being left alone, and worry for Jinny.

“Careful there, milord.” The thief grasped his jacket and pulled him close. “Whispers only.” Then, in a normal tone, “What’ll it be, love? A little of this?” She groped his crotch, and he slapped her hand away.

“Stop it!” He wasn’t about to play her lurid games. Her previous failed attempt to seduce him should have told her that.

“Now, Sereth, is that any way to treat an old friend?” Kiesha arched her back until her breasts strained against the thin fabric of her bodice, and lifted one long leg, planting her foot against the opposite wall. With a smile, she rubbed her inner thigh against his hip. “I congratulate you on your promotion, Master Blade. I’m impressed.”

“How did you find out about that?”

“Aside from your new jewelry, you mean?” She laughed and writhed against him. “I have eyes everywhere, love.”

Sereth wasn’t sure what to make of that statement. Was she lying? Lots of people wore rings, and the master’s ring was nothing unusual, just a black band. It discomforted him to think she was spying on him that closely.

Kiesha wasn’t done. She hitched up her skirts and pulled him even closer. “You need to play the game, love, and I need to know what’s been happening inside your new circle of friends.” She pouted at his scowl, and ground herself against him. “You need to relax a little, Sereth. Why can’t we both get what we want?”

He pushed her away, at least far enough that he couldn’t feel her rubbing up against him. “What I want is my wife,” he said between clenched teeth.

“Oh, your dear wife is just fine, but you’ve got to play this game properly, or bad things might start to happen to her.” She fumbled with his belt buckle. “I know you know how to play. Your wife’s very lonely, you see, and we talk a lot about you.”

“Don’t lie to me. Stop that!” His hands closed on her wrists hard enough to bruise. “I’m not doing this anymore, Kiesha, and I want Jinny back.”

“Don’t be ridiculous.” All amusement vanished from Kiesha’s voice, but she still kept up her pretense, writhing against him in mock passion. “Your new jewelry doesn’t negate our arrangement. Now, tell me how things are progressing under your new guildmaster.”

Sereth thought he detected a hint of desperation in her voice, but it might just have been his own fury building. “No. I told you: I’m not doing this anymore, and I want my wife back!”

“Maybe when all Nine Hells get snow!” Kiesha laughed and thrust herself against him again. “Hensen’s not about to give up his best source of information, especially now that you’re climbing the ranks!”

Sereth’s vision blurred for a moment as his temper flared. Releasing her, he flicked his wrist and filled his hand with steel. The slim blade fairly glowed against her throat. “Let me ask you this, then: how would Hensen like it if I sent his pretty assistant back to him in pieces?”

“He wouldn’t.” Kiesha glanced down at the dagger and shrugged, apparently undaunted by his threat. “In fact, he’d probably return your dear Jinny to you in the same condition.”

Sereth longed to slit her throat, but he knew she was telling him the truth. Never could he risk harm to his precious Jinny. Neither, however, could he back down this time. “You tell Hensen I want her back. Now! I’m not playing this game anymore! I’m done!”

“And if he says no?” Her eyebrow arched and her lips pouted sardonically as she moved her hips against him. “What are you going to do? Stick me with your sword?”

“You just don’t get it, do you?” Sereth knocked her leg down with a backhanded slap and sheathed his dagger. “I don’t care anymore, Kiesha. I get my wife back immediately or I send my Blades for her, and everybody in that house dies!”

“And you think Lad won’t find out?”

“I said, I don’t care!”

“He’d kill you.” Uncertainty tinged Kiesha’s voice that Sereth had never heard before.

Good! He smiled grimly at her. “You’re right, Kiesha. Lad would kill me. But not before I tell him who kidnapped my wife to pressure me into spying. And trust me, even if you escape my Blades, you won’t escape Lad.”

Sereth turned and walked away, out of the alley and down the street. He half hoped Kiesha would come after him, but she didn’t. Night fell as he strode out of Barleycorn Heights toward the seedier parts of the city, all the while wondering if his threat had been idle.

No, he finally convinced himself, it wasn’t. He’d had enough of this game.