Book: Mountain of Daggers

Book main: Foreword
Next: The Porvov Switch


 

Nobles and merchants laughed and talked amongst the chorus of clinking glasses and music echoing from the ballroom below. Ahren kept his eyes to the marble floor or on the bright tapestries to avoid attention. Adjusting his doublet, he wove his way up the crowded staircase. The coarse cloth of the server’s uniform itched terribly. He wondered how anyone could ever get used to it. When the day came that he could have servants of his own, their uniforms would be more comfortable.

Earlier in the evening, he had thought the ruse over when an older gentleman had tried to speak with him. Presuming the man was ordering a drink or maybe food, Ahren had only nodded as a servant should, and melted into the crowd. It would only be a few minutes longer before he could spend the rest of the night in hiding; tomorrow he would be a rich man and on his way home, or at least to a coastal city where he spoke the language.

Leaving the party behind, he followed a long hallway. Stopping at the fourth door on the right, he looked around. No one was watching. Quickly, he opened it and stepped inside.

“Did you get it, thief?” the baron asked in Mordakish.

“Yeah. I got it.” Ahren strained to see in the darkened room. He could barely make out a hint of light from between the window shutters.

“Where is it?” He heard the baron step closer.

“Right here.” Ahren pulled the heavy brooch from under his doublet. He ran his thumb across the encrusted gold and the giant sapphire at its center.

“Give it here. Let me see it.”

Ahren’s eyes had adjusted enough to see the nobleman’s extended palm. He handed it over.

Baron Krevnyet peered closely at the prize. “Magnificent, don’t you think?”

“It is.” Ahren nervously fingered the medallion underneath his shirt as he looked around the room. He could make out silhouettes of chairs and a large bed.

A dagger rasped from its sheath.

Seeing the baron pry the gem with the blade, he sighed. The man chuckled to himself as he pulled the inch-wide sapphire free from the prongs.

“Your pay,” the baron said, handing back the brooch.

Even without the gem, the gold and diamonds were worth a small fortune. More than enough to pay for passage back to Mordakland. But why waste it? He could work a vessel, and when he made it home he could set himself up in style.

“Open the window a little,” the baron said, still examining the stone. “I want to see it in the light.”

Ahren cracked open the shutters slightly to avoid being noticed by any of the partygoers in the courtyard below. He turned to see the spacious bedroom. Several busts stared at him from atop short pedestals. A painting of the baron hung above the mantle beside a blue-canopied bed. Ahren’s eyes stopped in the corner of the room.

The body of a woman lay on the floor in a pool of blood.

His mouth opened in horror. Then he saw the baron charging, the dagger clutched in his hand.

Ahren jumped back. The swinging blade still caught him. He felt the sting as the dagger sliced through his doublet and across his stomach. The baron pressed forward in another attack. Ahren back-stepped and fell, crashing through the open shutters and out the window with a cry of surprise. Crying out, he landed in a hedge, his foot twisted beneath him. The golden brooch dropped from his hand and bounced at the feet of the surprised party guests.

The baron burst through the window above. “Ubiytsa! Ubiytsa!”

Ahren didn’t understand the words, but he understood the onlookers’ gasps and horror-struck faces. He rolled to the ground as a man reached for him. Ahren shoved a screaming woman out of the way and snatched up the fallen brooch.

Men yelled and drew their swords as he sprinted across the courtyard. Stabbing pain shot through his ankle. The tight, fancy shoes bit into his feet. He pushed the hurt from his mind as he crashed through tables and leapt over rosebushes.

The gate guard unsheathed his rapier and charged. Ahren grabbed a plate and hurled it at the man. The flying porcelain exploded against his forehead. The guard fell to the ground holding his face, blood pouring between his gloved hands. Leaping over him, Ahren raced into the city street. A cacophony of screams and cries followed him into the night.

The streets of Ralkosty were mostly clear. Many of the shops and vendors had already closed for the evening. Ahren ducked into an alley just as a pair of riders raced past him in pursuit. Church bells rang an alarm, and it would only be a matter of time before the soldiers found him. He hurried to escape the noble district, keeping to the small avenues and alleyways.

Ahren slowed once he reached what appeared to be a merchant district. Peasants wandered the narrow streets, perusing the late night stands as they moved between bars and brothels. Holding his arm over his stomach, he covered the dagger cut across his doublet. The red cloth easily masked the blood from his wound. It no longer bled, but he had yet to see its severity.

A trio of whores called to him from an open window. He knew his disheveled appearance and the torn, fancy clothes made him stand out. He thought about taking a room in a nearby inn. There might even be an innkeeper that spoke Mordakish. But this far inland in Rhomanny it wasn’t likely. It didn’t matter anyway; his only money was still wrapped inside his clothes at the baron’s house.

An oncoming patrol of soldiers forced Ahren to hide in an alley. Holding his breath, he listened until their boot clomps faded away. He let out a sigh, then limped further into the alley. With a groan, he sat down on an empty barrel.

He pulled off the awkward shoes, and rubbed his swollen ankle. Now that the initial chase was over, its silent pain throbbed stronger. He’d be lucky if he was able to walk tomorrow. Not that it mattered. By now the entire city was looking for him. The city gates would already be closed and his hunters would be on the prowl. He had nowhere to go. The only man he knew had just thrown him out a window. He had no money, no way to speak to the locals, nothing but a stolen brooch with no fence to buy it.

Ahren hissed in pain as he shed the doublet and dropped it in a barrel beside him. It was a server’s uniform and would only mark him. He ripped open the bloody tear across his shirt and examined his wound. Thick clumps of blood coated the hand-length gash. It wasn’t deep, but with no barber to stitch it, it was only time before pus and fever set in.

He leaned back against the wall, remembering the fateful conversation that had led to this predicament.

“So where are you headed?” the baron had asked. He ran his hand along the twenty boxes freshly stacked in his warehouse. “Back to Frobinsky?”

“Yeah, I suppose,” Ahren had said, wiping the sweat from his brow. “The Seefalk should be ready to sail by the time I return.”

The baron nodded. “Did you ever wonder why the captain sent you to guard the shipment? I’m sure many of the other crew speak Rhomanic.”

“I figured it was because he trusts me most.”

The baron dabbed a handkerchief across his face. “The answer is because I had sent for a thief. The best thief the captain could think of. So he sent me you.”

Ahren looked around. No one was in the warehouse with them. He studied the baron’s fine clothing and neatly trimmed moustache. He eyed the silver rapier hilt at the man’s waist.

“The Captain made a mistake,” Ahren said. “I am not a thief.”

The baron’s blue eyes sparkled. “Ah, I see. Then I suppose you wouldn’t be interested in a small proposition. Seems unfortunate. I liked doing business with your captain. But if he can’t tell a thief from an honest man, I have no use for him.”

Ahren sighed. He didn’t trust this baron. Something about him felt off. But Captain Hinstein had saved his life during a storm. He owed the man everything, and he couldn’t allow himself to lose one of the captain’s best clients.

“No one is entirely honest,” he said carefully.

The baron grinned. “That’s what I thought.”

The cold edge of a blade against his throat jolted Ahren to the present.

“Vashi den’gii ili vasha zhizn,” hissed a blonde man holding the knife. He gave a wicked smile of rotted teeth.

Ahren looked at him with a blank stare. He didn’t move. The words were lost on him, but the thief’s intent wasn’t. A second man with a scruffy black beard patted Ahren down. He easily found the bulge of the brooch hidden at Ahren’s waist.

The dark-haired thief's eyes lit up as he removed the treasure and showed it to his accomplice. He shoved it into a pouch and continued his search of Ahren’s body.

The blonde man chuckled, his breath reeking like rancid meat, and held the blade more firmly. Ahren pulled his head back harder against the wooden wall.

His searcher pulled the bronze medallion out from under Ahren’s shirt. With a hard jerk he broke the leather cord. Ahren braced himself. He had no more valuables. The two thieves would likely kill him now. The knife edge pressed against his throat, lightly breaking the skin. He felt the quiver in the blade as the man's arm tensed, readying to make the kill.

The bearded man slapped his companion in the shoulder and showed him the medallion. Relaxing the blade, the blonde man took the bauble. His eyes widened as he flipped it over and examined it. They conversed back and forth in Rhomanic, seeming to question the trinket.

The blonde thief returned the blade to Ahren’s neck. “Otkuda vy eto vzyali?”

Ahren shook his head.

“Otkuda vy eto vzyali?” came again in the vulgar tongue.

“I…I don’t speak Rhomanic,” Ahren stammered, hoping the cutthroats understood him.

The toothless brigand nodded. He chuckled something to his companion who also nodded in agreement. They exchanged a few words, determining Ahren’s fate.

Finally the knife withdrew from Ahren's neck, and he gave soft sigh of relief. The blonde man pulled Ahren to his feet and motioned to the shoes lying on the ground.

Ahren bent over and pulled the tight shoes onto his feet. He groaned in pain when he tried to pull one over his swollen ankle. It had almost doubled in size within the past few minutes.

“Sleduyte za name,” the man with the dagger said, motioning down the alley. Ahren nodded and hobbled in the direction he was pointed.

The two thieves led him through the dark back streets of the city, completely unsympathetic of Ahren’s painful limp. Normally he would have looked for an opening, a moment he could escape. Now his mind focused solely on the pain of each step. He gritted his teeth and held his sliced stomach, fresh blood oozing between his fingers.

They led him to the back of a two story building. The knife tip pressed firm into Ahren's back as the bearded man knocked on the door.

“Da?” came a voice from within.

The bearded man said something. The voice from inside replied.

The door opened and they led him into a small room. Dozens of shoes in every variety and state of wear lined shelves along the walls. An older man sat at a scarred table at the back of the room. He pushed aside a boot he appeared to have been sewing. His dress was simple, yet fancy enough to show he was not poor.

He spoke with the two men, his fatherly tone tinged with a sharp edge of impatience. The bearded man handed him the brooch and the medallion. Ignoring the gold, the old man grabbed the medallion. His eyes sparkled as he held it, and then returned to their previous composure. He gestured to the wooden chair across from him and the two brutes pushed Ahren into the hard seat.

The man ran his hand across his slender beard as he looked coldly at Ahren. “Ivan says you speak Mordakish.”

Ahren nodded. “Yes.”

He pursed his thin lips. “What is your name?”

“Ahren.”

“What brings you so far from home? Ralkosty is far from Mordakland.”

Ahren twisted in his seat. “I’m a sailor. My ship landed in Frobinsky three weeks ago. The captain sent me inland with the cargo to deliver it to the owner.”

“You’re a thief,” the old man said idly. “And a murderer.”

Ahren heart pounded. “No, I am a sailor. I don’t—”

“Don’t lie to me,” the old man spat. “Word has already spread through the streets. A thief slipped into the house of Baron Krevnyet during a party, dressed as a servant, and stole a sapphire brooch from Countess Nyschev. The baron’s young bride, Aglaya, found the thief hiding in a bedroom and he killed her. The baron caught the killer in the act, and tried to thwart him. In the scuffle, the rogue fell from a window, and fled into the night.”

Ahren found it hard to breathe as he heard the story.

“The killer spoke to the baron in Mordakish. You look to have been in a scuffle, and even injured as the story describes. And you wear the poorly made shoes of a house servant at a formal affair.” The old man leaned across the worktable. “There is a reward of a thousand gold bishkas for the killer; dead or alive. For such a fortune, any man would bring you in.”

Ahren didn’t speak. He knew his face showed his admission to guilt. There was no use lying. “I didn’t kill her,” he muttered finally.

The old man’s brow rose, but he said nothing.

“The baron paid me to steal the brooch. He gave me one of the servants’ uniforms and told me to meet him in an empty room once I had gotten it. He would keep the gem and the rest was mine. But when I showed up, she was already dead. He took the gem and tried to kill me. I barely survived, I swear it.”

The old man looked down at the gold brooch, missing its central stone. He leaned back in his chair. “Where did you get this?” he asked, holding up the medallion.

“In Lichthafen, when I was young. An old gypsy woman was selling trinkets and jewelry in the square.”

The old man’s eyes squinted with suspicion. “You bought it off a gypsy?”

Ahren swallowed. “She was blind in one eye, so I palmed the medallion from her blanket on her blind side. Somehow she saw me, and grabbed my hand before I could get away. She was fast, and her grip strong. I was terrified. But she didn’t call the guards. She turned, opened my hand and put hers inside it. Then she just let go and told me to keep it. She said the medallion would save my life next time I was caught. I’ve worn it ever since.”

The old man’s lips turned into a slight grin. “Have you been caught since, before tonight?”

“No.”

“Well, the witch was right. If it weren’t for this trinket, you’d be a dead man right now.” The old man smiled. “I am Kazimir. Tell me, Ahren, do you know what this medallion is?”

For years, Ahren had studied and run his fingers over the jagged image of a mountain made of upturned dagger blades stamped onto the bronze disk. It symbolized power, of that he was sure. But its exact meaning was lost to him.

He shook his head.

“This is the mark of the Tyenee. A secret cabal of thieves and smugglers. Unlike any guild or local gang, the Tyenee influence stretches across the nations. Their existence is almost unknown, but their power knows no limitation.” Kazimir looked back at the bronze medallion. “This was the badge of one of their leaders. A lieutenant wore this.” He flipped it over and pointed to a small glyph scratched on its back. “This was the badge of Grigori. He ran a district of docks and warehouses in Lichthafen. He disappeared almost fifteen years ago.”

Ahren leaned forward and looked at the medallion as if it were for the first time. “How do you know this?”

Kazimir pulled a gold chain from under his shirt, revealing a silver pendant. Ahren recognized the symbol instantly. It was almost identical to his own medallion; however, the delicate lines of Kazimir’s looked to have been cast rather than stamped.

“He was my cousin,” Kazimir said, returning the pendant beneath his silk shirt. “We joined the Tyenee when we were young men. We moved quickly through the ranks, and within a few years he was sent to Mordakland to maintain our interests. Five years later, he vanished.”

“And you were sent to Ralkosty?”

The old man nodded. “I have been in this city for twenty years. Nothing happens here without my knowledge or consent.”

Ahren couldn’t help but let his eyes wander. Scraps of boot leather and metal tools littered the table. Shoes of every size and style covered the unsanded shelves. The pungent smell of leather and stale dust permeated the small room.

“I am a cobbler,” Kazimir said calmly. “Every man, no matter how rich, needs shoes. And mine are some of the finest in Rhomanny. Would you prefer I sit in one of the giant houses like the baron; inside my city, yet high above it, away from the day to day life?” He shook his head. “Too visible. Too disassociated from my streets. Too much opportunity for some young upstart to try to take over. No, I rule the city the way I want it, and will live in it to keep it that way.”

“Why are you telling me all this?” Ahren asked. “You don’t even know me.”

Kazimir smiled. He poured two glasses of vodka from a bottle near the edge of the table. “Because you can’t tell anyone. Ivan and Motya cannot understand us. They only know the symbol is important. With no one to go to, and no ability to communicate, you will be killed on sight if you leave this house, and the only reason I do not have Ivan cut your throat right now is because I believe your story and I believe I may have use for you.” He set one of the glasses in front of Ahren, and then downed his own.

Tingles of fear danced up the back of Ahren’s neck. For a moment, he had forgotten how precarious his situation was. “I…I only want out of the city. Nothing more.”

“I understand that. But taking you outside the walls will require payment, and I think you have the skills to pay that debt. Besides, by the way you limped in here, I imagine it will be several days before you can walk. I will have someone come and look at your injuries. In the meantime, I will find a suitable job for you to repay your debt, and make you more appropriate shoes.” He motioned to the glass Ahren hadn’t even touched. “Now drink.”

#

The foul smells and dingy streets were a quenching relief to Ahren. The woos of prostitutes and wailing songs of drunks had never been so welcome. Not even the long journeys aboard ship had been confining like the past four weeks trapped in a small room above the shop.

He had spent his days listening to customers chattering away in their unknown language. Nights were most often the same. However, visitors instead came in through the back door to the workroom, their hushed voices sometimes escalating into arguments. By listening to their tone and applying his minimal vocabulary, he learned more Rhomanic over the first week than he had after years of sailing into foreign ports.

Impressed with the speed Ahren adapted, Kazimir cut a small hole in the floor for him to watch and study the customers’ mannerisms. After his ankle and cut healed enough for him to come downstairs, he spent a few quiet nights with his host. Often the conversations were short, interrupted by an errant visitor, forcing him back upstairs into hiding to watch through the tiny spy hole.

Ahren adjusted his wide-brimmed hat as he approached a pair of soldiers. They seemed more interested in beating a beggar child than they were in him. But there was no need for risk. His hair short and his newly-grown beard trimmed, Ahren doubted anyone but the baron would recognize him.

The cobblestone streets widened as Ahren entered the noble district. The painted homes and shops grew larger, and further apart. No loud taverns cluttered the lanes. No beggars lurked in the alleyways.

He stopped in an alley a block from the baron’s house. From there he surveyed the high stone wall surrounding the property, its only entrance being the black iron gate. He noted the thick vines intertwined over the rough stone as his mind wandered back to two nights before in the workroom.

“I have something for you,” Kazimir had said. The old man put down his thick needle and handed him a roll of paper. Ahren opened it to see a poster of a man, similar to himself. The words above and below the picture were unknown to him.

Kazimir poured some drinks. “They call you, Chernyy Voron. The Black Raven."

Ahren's brow rose.

The old man grinned. "A bit theatrical, I agree. It conveys the image of the dark thief flying from the window, escaping into the night. It's a good name. Trust me, there's much worse."

Ahren merely shrugged.

"That’s a small fortune on your head. The baron will spend almost as much as he made on that sapphire to have you killed.” He set a glass in front of Ahren and handed another to Ivan.

“Even more reason for me to leave the city as soon as possible,” Ahren said, setting aside the poster.

“Ah.” The old man smiled. “That is exactly what this meeting is about. Before you leave, I will require you to do a simple job. Something well suited for the Black Raven.”

Ahren scratched his scruffy beard. “What is it?”

Kazimir’s dark eyes twinkled. “I need you to break into Baron Krevnyet’s house.”

Ahren snorted. He couldn’t believe the perversity in making him return to the house of his enemy. The one place he would most likely be caught. “Why?”

“Don’t look so grim,” the old man chided. “Vengeance.”

#

The guard inside the gate was bored or distracted, not noticing Ahren study the front lawn through the thick bars as he passed slowly along the street. The windows of the house looked dark, except for the lower east side where the servants lived. The west side of the grounds appeared the least guarded.

Ahren circled the property, keeping to the shadows of the alleys, and made his way to the western side. Patiently, he waited for a group of loud, young noblemen to pass before he crept to the wall and quickly pulled himself up the latticework of vines and jutting rocks.

He took a brief moment to peer over its edge.

#

“Do you enjoy cards?” Kazimir asked.

Ahren nodded, finishing his drink. “Yeah, a little.”

The old man poured more of the clear liquor into Ahren’s glass. “Are you any good?”

“A little,” he replied, wondering where this was leading.

Kazimir chuckled. “Your friend the baron isn’t. In fact, he’s terrible at cards, but loves them nonetheless.”

Ahren studied the cobbler’s face. It told him nothing. “So?”

“A colleague of mine, a man by the name of Paook, owns a gambling house in Kossintry, many miles from here. The baron, it seems, has run up quite the debt. Over five thousand bishkas.”

Ahren momentarily lost his breath. He couldn’t imagine such a fortune. Losing it was beyond comprehension.

“Even a man such as the baron can’t pay that lightly. The law looks down on gambling halls, but detests debtors even more. So he came up with the best solution to solve his problem.”

“Theft?” Ahren asked, thinking of the sapphire he had stolen.

Kazimir shook his head. “Marriage.”

#

The grounds looked clear. With one fluid motion, Ahren swung himself over the wall and dropped onto a soft flowerbed.

Staying low, he kept to the rows of rosebushes, following them to the edge of the house. The muted gray of his cloak blended with the stone and he skirted the wall to the rear of the house. During his short stay as a guest, he had noticed the doors to the lounge were held only with a small latch and usually unlocked. Unless the baron’s paranoia of him returning was as great as he had made it appear, the rear doors would be Ahren’s best way inside.

Ducking behind a stone vase near the door, he surveyed the scene. No guards patrolled the rear property. No lights shone in the lounge. The glow of candlelight peeked through the shutters of the third window to the left, and in the room above him.

Ahren scooted up to the doors. The baron had not installed a new lock. With a grin, he removed a flat roll of leather from his pouch; another gift from Kazimir. Ahren lifted the soft doeskin flap of the roll to see his picks and tools. Selecting a parchment-thin blade, he inserted it between the doors. Careful, so as not to make any noise, he slipped it upward. He felt it catch the door latch and lifted it harmlessly away.

He returned the blade to the toolkit and softly cracked open the door. Its fine, oiled hinges didn’t betray his silent entrance. He slipped inside, closing the door behind him, and froze.

An older man, likely a servant, lay on a couch with a young maid, their half-naked bodies glistening with sweat. He snored softly beneath her as she snuggled against his bare chest.

Holding his breath, Ahren crept across the polished wood floors, swinging a wide circle around the lovers, to the door across the room.

The girl moaned.

Flinching, Ahren turned his head to see her brush a lock of blonde hair from her cheek and roll her head to face the other way. Ahren eased out a sigh and darted through the door before the couple could notice him.

Quickly, he made his way through the halls, his glove-leather shoes muffling every step. He dashed up the marble staircase to the second floor, stopping only to make sure the upstairs hall was empty. His palms began to sweat as he retraced his steps down the hall. Had he only known the baron’s intent, he could have left through the front door that night a free man, instead of walking into that dark room.

He hesitated as he came to the fourth door on his left: the baron’s room. He fought the yearning to sneak inside and kill the cad in his bed. Kazimir didn’t want that; what the cobbler had in mind was worse than anything Ahren could do.

He continued down the hall to the fifth and last door on the left. Gently, he twisted the handle. Locked. He mouthed a curse and removed the tools from his side. Under the dim moonlight cast through the hall’s window, Ahren chose his tools and slipped them into the keyhole. Chewing his lip, he blindly fumbled inside the lock. Each scrape and clink of the wire picks boomed in his ears. Even knowing only a mouse could hear him at work, the fear of the baron bursting through his door, sword in hand, danced in the back of his mind.

Ahren drew a sharp breath as felt the lock gave way. Carefully, he twisted the picks around and the click of the bolt thundered softly down the empty hall. He didn’t hesitate. He returned his tools to their pouch and slipped through the door.

A sliver of moonlight cut its way through a gap in the velvet curtains, giving only a hint to the dark room’s layout. He pulled them aside and opened the shutters, bathing the study in pale, blue luminescence.

Ahren opened the desk, sifting through piles of paper and empty ink bottles. He checked the drawers for false bottoms, and even felt along the underside and back of the desk. Nothing.

Opening a cabinet, he scoured through cups and trophies to no avail. He looked inside the ottoman, the drawers along a small table, and even behind the tapestries. Still nothing.

Undaunted, Ahren searched a bookshelf, opening, and looking behind every dusty tome. Finally, on the bottom shelf, he discovered the row of books was a façade. He pulled away the board covered in book spines, and found a heavy wooden box.

Nerves tingling, he placed the casket on the desk. A silver keyhole stared back at him. He removed his tools and picked the simple lock with ease. Ahren held his breath and opened the case.

He remembered Kazimir’s smile as he had poured Ahren another drink. “At Paook’s suggestion, Baron Krevnyet wed Aglaya Vischkol, and then used her very wealthy dowry to pay Paook’s debt. He actually had no interest in the girl aside from financial gain. In fact, he despised her. He maintained the image of a pair of newlyweds in love, while simultaneously plotting her murder. That’s where you fell in.”

Ahren had tongued his cheek, pondering Kazimir’s story. “How do you know this?” he finally asked.

The old man had chuckled. “By his own hand.” He pulled a folded letter out from under the table and dropped it before Ahren. The broken wax seal still held the mark of Baron Krevnyet.

Ahren glanced at the foreign words fluidly written across the page.

“That’s just one of over a half-dozen letters the baron wrote to Paook, detailing their plot.” He folded the letter and returned it to the drawer. “The Vischkol family has much influence here and in Kossintry. The news that their daughter’s murderer was the very man they paid to wed her would eliminate the baron, allowing me to acquire his warehouses. Also, if Paook were to be the one to bring forth the incriminating evidence, he would be guaranteed their noble favor.”

“Then why not bring the letters forward?” Ahren asked. “What do you need me for?”

“Paook has enough letters incriminating the baron, but not himself. However the baron was smart enough to know that. So to protect himself, he holds the letters Paook wrote to him, proposing the union and the plot. Therefore, they are both locked together in blackmail.”

Ahren shot the vodka back. “I believe I know what you want me to get.”

Ahren pulled the folded letters out from the case and opened them. The words were unintelligible, but he had been taught Paook’s signature. He thumbed through the papers. All four letters were there. He took them and dropped them inside his pouch.

A broad smile crept across his lips as he pulled out another piece of paper from the leather pouch; his reward poster. He dropped it inside the box and shut the lid. Carefully, he picked the lock closed, and returned the chest to its hidden shelf.

Ahren closed the window shutters and the curtains then quietly returned to the hall. He drew his tools to lock the door behind him, but voices from the stairway pulled his attention.

Light approached along the corridor. Ahren slipped behind a small table holding a vase just as a man and woman turned down the hall toward him. He pressed himself against the wall as tightly as he could, and pulled the excess fabric of his cloak from sight.

He held his breath. The couple drew closer. The man laughed something to his companion and instantly Ahren knew the voice. The baron.

Braving a peek, Ahren slowly lifted his head behind the vase. The smug baron staggered slightly, beneath the weight of a candelabrum in one hand and a woman on his other arm. Her rich red dress and powdered cheeks revealed her as a courtesan. The baron opened the door to his chamber and led her inside.

Ahren heard the door lock before he exhaled. He decided not to lock the office door, and quickly slipped down the hallway and down the stairs. Before heading back to the lounge, he detoured into the dining room.

Servants’ voices came from the neighboring kitchen. Ahren crept across the room alongside the ornate table. Against the far wall a gold and crystal statue rested on a pedestal beneath a leaded glass dome. The letters paid Kazimir for four weeks of protection, but this would pay his safe passage out of the city.

Ahren opened a nearby cabinet and removed a handful of yellow napkins, shoving them inside an empty cloth satchel he wore over his shoulder. He grabbed another handful and hurried across the room. He lifted the dome and set it carefully on the marble floor. He rubbed his sweaty fingers together and removed the statue from its pedestal. Wrapping it in the cloth napkins, he slipped it into the now cushioned satchel.

As he turned to leave, the kitchen door swung silently open, releasing a beam of orange firelight. An older housemaid stood silhouetted in the door frame, holding a tray of gilded glasses. She froze, seeing Ahren standing in the room, and with a gasp, the silver tray fell from her hands.

Heart pounding, Ahren bolted from the room and into the hall as the crash of metal and exploding porcelain erupted behind him. The servant’s screams filled the house before the shards finished tinkling across the stone.

Ahren slipped into the lounge and smiled in relief to find the room empty. He darted through the door, leaving it open behind him, and raced across the lawn. He glanced at the front gate to see the guard still standing oblivious to the commotion from inside.

With the grace of a frightened cat, Ahren clamored over the wall. He held the satchel close against his body and dropped to the alley on the other side. The shock of the hard ground stung his feet through the soft-soled shoes, but he didn’t fall. He pulled the cloak around him, hiding the bulging satchel, and hurried down the street.

#

“Very good,” Kazimir said, flipping through the letters. “They’re all here. Paook will be very pleased.” He looked at Ahren. “And your passage?”

Ahren removed the bundle of napkins from his satchel and unwrapped the crystal statue.

The old man smiled as he took the treasure. “Good. You have done well, Chernyy Voron.” He placed the statue in a velvet-lined box and shut the lid. “There is an ale wagon out front, waiting to take you from the city.” He nodded to an empty barrel in the corner. “There is your seat. Get in.”

Ahren stepped into the barrel and crammed himself inside.

“Motya will let you out once you are far from the city. There is a ship leaving for Mordakland in two weeks, bound for Lunnisburg. I have already booked you passage.”

“Thank you, Kazimir,” Ahren said. “I cannot thank you enough.”

Motya picked up the round lid, but Kazimir stopped him before he sealed the barrel.

“Here,” he said dropping a heavy wad of paper onto Ahren’s lap. “This is yours.”

Ahren unfolded the paper to see the gold brooch wrapped inside. He chuckled as he realized the wrapping was one of his reward posters.

The old man handed him a shiny copper medallion stamped with the glyph of the Tyenee. Ahren flipped it over to find the image of a raven crudely scratched on the back.

“Show that to a man in Lunnisburg named Fritz, he owns a tavern called The Mermaid’s Tail. He’ll find you work.”

Ahren looked back at the old man with a puzzled stare. Before he could speak, Motya placed the lid onto the barrel. As it closed, he heard Kazimir’s voice.

“Welcome to the Tyenee.”

Next: The Porvov Switch