A loud thunk startled Ahren from his sleep. The walls hummed with echoes of shouts and laughter from the three-story bar room below. Even up in his fourth floor refuge, they invaded his domicile with the incessant sounds of drunken shouts and music. He had grown accustomed to noise, almost never noticing it, but the sound that woke him came from inside his room.
Drawing a short dagger hidden between his bed and the wall, he scanned the room for an intruder, but found no one. The lamp on the bedside table filled the humble flat with dim yellow light. Barefoot, he crossed the cold wood floor and pressed his ear to the door.
“Who’s there?” he asked loudly.
He unlocked the door, slid the bar from across it, opened it cautiously, and peered down the hall. It was empty, except for a man and one of the resident whores kissing and fondling each other in the far corner, oblivious to him. Ahren shrugged. He closed the door and slid the bar back in place.
Rubbing gritty sleep from his eyes, he turned to go back to bed, and stopped. A metal spike tip protruded from the shutter of his window. Sharp splinters of wood peeled back from the point that had struck it from the outside. The dark shutter slats were too tightly fitted to let him peek through. He blew out the lamp, immersing the room in darkness, and blindly unfastened the shutter latch.
With his back to the wall to prevent any more archers a clear shot, he pushed open the right shutter. The red glow cast from the burning basins atop the thirty-seven graven towers in and around the city of Lunnisburg spilled through the window, illuminating the room. Ahren waited several seconds, then quickly peered outside. The adjacent rooftops and streets below were empty. He braved sticking his head out to see a thick metal crossbow bolt jutting from the closed left shutter. Its steep angle indicated the shooter had been street-level, and a small cork capped the back end. Puzzled, Ahren wrestled the bolt free, removed the cork, and shook a tightly rolled parchment from the tube. It unfurled to become a small note.
Ahren’s heart froze. Only a select few knew him by that name. His alias in the criminal world was his most guarded secret. He took a deep sigh to calm his trembling hands, then continued reading the letter.
Your reputation as a thief and an assassin are legendary. I have undertaken the difficulty to find you and have a job that requires your particular finesse and skill. In return you will be handsomely rewarded.
If you wish to accept, hang a red scarf outside your window tomorrow night. If not, hang a blue one, and I shall take my business elsewhere.
Ahren read the letter several times. The flattery left out one small detail. Aside from the mounting bounty he had earned in Lunnisburg, the Vischkol family in Rhomanny still offered one thousand gold pieces to avenge the murder of their daughter, even after it had been revealed that he had been framed and the real killer, her husband, was captured. Anyone who had gone through enough trouble to discover his name and track him down would also have learned of the bounty.
Until he learned his blackmailer’s identity, he had no choice but to play along.
Ahren’s filthy dun cloak stank of manure and the sour beer he had poured over himself. He huddled in an alleyway beside a chipped wooden bowl containing thee brass coins, dressed in dingy rags, and clutching a half empty bottle. A pair of men sneered at him as they sauntered past. Ahren gazed up with pleading eyes. “Spare a coin, brother?” he begged in a dry voice.
One of them cursed at him as they walked away.
Ahren watched their retreating backs for a second, then glanced up at the shuttered fourth story windows across the street. Even in the faint red light cast by the torches that the Old Kaisers held high above the city, he could clearly see the crimson sash dangling from his window, fluttering in the breeze.
Horse hooves clomped down the lane toward him. Moments later, a black carriage rolled into view. The driver pulled back on the reins, stopping a pair of brown horses just below the weathered sign of The Mermaid’s Tail.
Ahren tried to look disinterested as he studied the simple ebony coach accented with glinting silver. A thunk echoed from the shuttered window above, the driver popped the reins and the carriage hurried away. Ahren leapt to his feet, knocking the bowl and coins aside, and raced after it down the narrow street. He sprinted to keep up, but the horses were too fast. The coach turned onto an adjoining lane and vanished from sight. Gasping, Ahren reached the intersection and looked down the empty street, but the carriage was nowhere to be seen. “Damn it.”
The coins, as well as the bowl, were already gone by the time he returned. Frustrated, Ahren walked back inside the busy tavern, and ordered a drink before heading up to his room. As before, a sharp-pointed bolt jutted through the back of his shutter. He opened the window and ripped it free. Inside, he found another note.
There is a ship called The Pelikan docked in the harbor. The captain’s name is Odell Tabstein. He wears a gold ring set with an emerald. Kill him, and take the ring. In his cabin you will find a letter addressed to a Mister Gren Schmied in Lichthafen. Wrap the ring and the unopened letter in a yellow cloth and drop them in a white empty barrel in Saint Faiga’s Square at noon three days hence. Then leave.
You will be paid once I receive them. Don’t disappoint me.
A cool salt breeze glided over the docks, flapping Ahren’s muted gray cloak as he slipped in through the ship’s aft window from a narrow ledge outside. The ship creaked against the heavy pier ropes as if the vessel were trying to escape, desperate to return to sea.
The stout odor of mildew and dirty clothes dominated the small cabin. Rolls of parchment cluttered a pair of shelves above a narrow desk along the side wall. An open bottle rested on a small table in the middle of the room and beyond it, a dun-colored hammock hung above a brass-bound sea chest.
Leaving the curtains open for light, Ahren crossed the dim, red-lit cabin and searched the shelves among the worn maps and charts. Nothing. He picked the simple desk lock, and lifted the lid to discover a clutter of paper and poorly carved baubles. He sifted carefully between trinkets and empty inkwells until his fingers located a neatly folded square parchment. Holding it up to the light, he read Gren Schmied’s name in a smooth flowing script.
Hard boot steps approached from the deck outside. Quickly, Ahren closed the lid and crouched behind the door as it swung open.
A stocky man with thinning blond hair staggered inside, accompanied by a pungent waft of cheap wine. He paused to stare at the open window, shook his head, then peeled off his shirt and stumbled toward his hammock.
Wood grated as Ahren dropped the bar across the closed door.
“Who the—” The captain whirled around.
The rasp of Ahren’s drawn dagger cut him off. “My name is unimportant. But my business is.” He gestured to an empty stool. “Sit.”
The captain kept his eyes affixed on Ahren’s blade as he slid onto the hard wooden seat.
“Captain Odell Tabstein,” Ahren said, “someone has gone through a lot of effort to have you killed.”
“So you’re here to kill me?” the captain growled.
Ahren shook his head. “I’ve come for information.”
“Do you have any enemies, captain?”
Odell squinted at the blade in Ahren’s hand. “None that I know.”
Ahren held up the square of folded parchment. “Someone wants your ring and this letter. Who is Gren Schmied?”
“So that’s what this is about,” Odel bellowed, his lips curling in anger.
“Who is he?”
“It’s time for you to leave,” Odel yanked a knife from his boot and stood. “Get out!” He squeezed the bone handle so tightly his knuckles turned white.
“Whatever your business I don’t care, I just—”
Knocking the small table away, Odel lunged.
His blade sliced Ahren’s cloak as he sidestepped the attack. “Halt!”
The captain swiped the knife again, but Ahren ducked the swing and caught his arm. A huge fist smashed into Ahren’s face, knocking him back, and the combatants crashed to the floor. Wrestling over the captain’s blade, they rolled across the cabin, crashed into the wall, and Odel scrambled on top of Ahren. Odel lay across him and pushed his weight down onto the handle, inching it toward Ahren’s chest.
Ahren drove his knee hard into the man’s side. Odel gritted his teeth in pain but continued to press the blade closer. With another hard kick, Ahren knocked the captain off, sending him sprawling. Ahren got up and readied for another attack.
“Captain?” a voice shouted from outside.
“In here,” Odel called rolling to his feet. Clutching his knife, he rushed Ahren again.
Ahren grabbed the captain’s wrist and pushed the knife aside as their bodies collided, knocking them against the wall. A gasp squelched from the captain’s open mouth and he staggered back then stared down at Ahren’s dagger protruding from under his ribs.
Crimson blood burst from the wound and gushed down his body as he pulled the blade free.
With a crash, the door jolted against the locked bar.
“Captain!” someone shouted
The dagger fell from Odel’s limp fingers and he collapsed to the wooden floor, a trickle of blood dribbling from his lips.
“Idiot,” Ahren hissed, dropping to the man’s side.
Odel rolled his head and grinned as if seeing Ahren for the first time. Wood cracked as the door shook under its onslaught. Biting his lip in anger, Ahren pulled the golden ring from the captain’s bloody finger and crawled quickly out the open window. He grabbed the aft mooring line and pulled himself rapidly across the rope as the door inside burst open. Curses and furious echoed behind him as he reached the pier and fled.
Accordion and violin music filled Saint Faiga’s Square from a trio of street performers playing beside a stone well. Ahren studied the crowd hoping to see if anyone paid him any interest; maybe even his anonymous blackmailer. But he noticed nothing unusual. He wandered past a pack of urchins kicking a tired leather ball back and forth, and meandered through the square until he found a white barrel near the alley beside a butcher’s shop. He stopped at the barrel, gave a last furtive glance around, then dropped a yellow cloth inside as he bent over to adjust his boot.
The deed accomplished, Ahren straightened up and nonchalantly left the square. Killing Captain Tabstein had been an accident. But the man’s blood wasn’t on his hands; it was on the hands of whoever had sent him. The letter was sealed, and there was no way to open it without breaking the wax. Ahren had put it in the bundle with the ring, and a note telling his employer to keep his money and leave him alone.
Once he was no longer in sight of the barrel, Ahren circled back to an alley across the square, hid between a pair of crates, and watched.
One of the dirty boys left his game and ran over to the barrel. He leaned inside, pulled out the yellow bundle, then dashed off.
Leaping from the alley, Ahren raced across the square. The urchin darted down a side street. Squeezing past booths and carts Ahren hurried after him and turned onto a crowded street. Quickly, he scanned the area and spotted another young waif clutching the bundle running away. The boy turned down another street, and Ahren slipped through an alley to cut him off. He sprinted through the narrow passage, leaping over stacked baskets, and reached the street just ahead of the urchin.
The dirty child’s eyes widened as Ahren leapt in front of him. The waif stumbled back and hurled the yellow bundle into the street. An older boy ran out from the opposite side of the street, grabbed it, and dashed down the road. Ahren pushed his way through the crowd, trying to keep sight of the bright yellow. A lumbering wagon nearly ran Ahren down, momentarily blocking the lane, and forcing him to stop for it to pass. Once clear, he ran down the road to where he had last seen the boy. Cursing, he searched the streets. Nothing. The package was gone.
Two nights later, another hard thunk woke Ahren from an already restless sleep. An annoyingly familiar metal quarrel jutted through his shutter. He pulled it open just as the fading sound of horse hooves clomped away.
The bolt was heavier than the others. He opened it and poured five round sapphires into his hand. Shaking his head in frustration, he peered inside the tube, pulled out another bit of parchment, and unrolled it.
You have done well, Black Raven. There is another job I wish you to do for me. The Goldener Aal will make port in one week’s time. The captain carries a letter to a Miss Viveka Khamleir. Kill him, wrap the unopened letter in a yellow cloth as before, and put it in a white barrel beside the tower of Kaiser Imre III. Then leave.
You will be paid upon my receipt of the letter.
A cool smile crept along Ahren’s lips. His extortionist had made one deadly mistake: a name. The first letter was going to someone outside the city. But if the ship was arriving with the letter, the recipient could be a resident. He closed his window and returned to bed as a plan began to formulate.
A ship’s bell rang across the harbor district as a vessel readied for launch. Sailors and docksmen scuttled around. Clucking hens fluttered uncomfortably inside their small stacked cages, oblivious to their inevitable fate at sea.
Confidently, Ahren strolled down the street, his brass-tipped cane tapping against the cobbles with every stride. His face felt naked without his goatee and moustache, and the fine velvet doublet hugged him tighter than he was accustomed. He suppressed his amusement at how the crowd seemed to part before him at the sight of his rich clothes.
A two-story building came into view and Ahren headed for it, stopping at its entrance to gaze up at the wide sign stretching below the eaves. Khamleir’s it read in deep letters. He adjusted his collar and strode through the door.
A thin-faced clerk looked up from his desk. “May I help you?” The room smelled of cedar and old smoke.
“Yes,” Ahren said in a pretentious tone. “I wish to speak with Miss Khamleir.”
The clerk closed his ink pot. “Is she expecting you?”
Ahren shook his head. “Tell her the Count of Eichefurt is here to see her.”
“Wait here.” The clerk stood and headed through a door near the back of the room.
Ahren tapped his cane on the tile floor as his eyes surveyed the room. The quellen shopkeep Whazzik had told him that Khamleir’s had been operating in the city for over thirty years. The rich furniture and sturdy building only verified that business had been profitable.
The door opened and the clerk reentered, followed by a beautiful young woman. Golden ringlets of hair cascaded down her shoulders toward her ample breasts, held firmly behind an emerald bodice.
“I am Viveka. How may I help you, Count Eichefurt?” she asked in a delicate, yet strong voice.
Ahren blinked, momentarily taken aback by her youth. “Miss Khamleir? I have a matter of business I wish to discuss. A…friend recommended you, and I feel that we could come to a…mutually advantageous arrangement.”
She smiled. “I see. Are you looking to ship goods? Or produce?”
“It is a bit more complicated than that, and I would prefer to discuss such business in private, if you don’t mind.”
She nodded and motioned to the door behind her. “Then let us go up to my office, Count.”
Ahren followed her billowing silk skirt up the stairs to a richly decorated room. A thick burgundy and azure rug covered the oaken floor before a dark polished desk. Behind it, through an open window, the harbor glistened in the sunlight.
“Would you care for a drink?” She motioned a delicate hand toward a padded chair across from her desk.
“Most certainly.” Ahren sat and watched the young woman pour two goblets of wine from a gilded bottle.
She handed him his drink, then lowered herself onto the high-backed seat across from him. “So tell me, Count Eichefurt. What is the nature of your business?”
Ahren sipped the smooth wine. “Very good. I do admit, you are much younger than I would have thought. And far lovelier.”
“Thank you.” She smiled warmly, yet her blue eyes studied him. “This was my father’s business. I inherited it after his death two months ago.”
“My condolences. It must be hard to be a woman such as yourself and in charge of such a complex operation.”
“I grew up here.” She took a sip of wine, then regarded Ahren over the rim of her glass. “I took over when my father first became ill. My captains all know and trust me.” The tone of her voice took on a slight chill. “My only challenge is clients who deem me unfit to handle their interests. That, and potential suitors who only want my business.”
Ahren grinned. “Any man who only sees you for your money is a blind fool. Fortunately, I am neither.”
Her hard gaze softened momentarily. “I’m sure the count has not come all this way to flatter me.”
“True.” Ahren set the goblet on the desk and leaned back against the leather cushions. “It has come to my attention that you may have an enemy. Someone who could profit by eliminating the captains of your ships.”
Anger flashed across Viveka’s face. “What do you want?” she asked coldly, her eyes narrowing.
Ahren held his hand up to calm her. “To help you. Several nights ago, someone murdered the captain of one of your vessels in exchange for a small fortune. The killer stole the captain’s ring, as well as a letter sent to a Mister Gren Schmied.”
Viveka’s thin hands balled into tight fists and her penetrating glare could have stopped a charging horse.
“The same individual is also planning to murder the captain of the Goldener Aal when it makes berth tomorrow. I believe there is a second letter involved.”
“What are you after?” Viveka growled. Her flushing cheeks made her even more beautiful.
“To find out who wishes to do you harm. Tell me, who is Mister Schmied? A lover?”
“My uncle. I ask his advice on certain matters.”
“Ah. Is there anyone who would be willing to kill in order to keep you from receiving his advice?”
The young woman’s creamy breasts rose against her bodice as she drew a deep breath and sighed. “How do you know this? What’s in it for you?”
Ahren’s lips pulled into a half-smile. “Let’s just say that I have many connections with…less than reputable people. People who wish to know the identity of our…mutual enemy.”
She traced her finger along the goblet rim until it rang with a crystal tone. “And what will happen when you find this conspirator?” She gazed at him under a veil of thick lashes as she took another sip of her wine.
“Such a fate a young lady shouldn’t wish to know.” Ahren’s tone was flat, but his eyes glittered with anger.
Viveka’s eyes sparkled with the sinister mischief of a cat spying an unwary meal. “I’m no lady.” She set her glass down firmly on the table. “And you, whoever you are, are not a nobleman.” She ran a long finger over her chin, sizing him up in a way that made the hairs arch along the back of his neck. “I’ll pay your assassin’s fee if the problem is taken care of permanently.”
Aroused by the young woman's ruthlessness, Ahren adjusted his position in his seat to relieve his tightening pants. “You’re right, on both accounts. Keep your pay. Consider it an apology for the accidental death of one of your captains.”
A devious smile answered him.
“Now.” He slid his hand slowly up his cane. “Who would wish ill to a woman as beautiful as yourself?”
Konrad Amkire leaned over his desk, reading the manifest for the next shipment, when his office door cracked open. Bayard leaned his head inside. “There is someone here to see you, sir.”
“Who is it?” Konrad didn’t look up, busy as he was filling in the spaces for his latest customer’s inventory. A week ago the ship had been empty. Now, finding enough room for the cargo was the problem.
The old clerk shifted uneasily. “A Count Eichefurt, sir. He says he has important business to discuss.”
Konrad paused his scribbling and stared vacantly at the open book as he tried to recall the name Eichefurt. His business demanded he be aware of any potential clients, and an unknown name troubled him. He closed the manifest. “Send him in.”
Bayard gave a short nod and vanished behind the door. Konrad rose from his leather chair and approached the small table near the back wall. He brushed his fingers along the sparse hairs covering his head and buttoned his doublet. Footsteps echoed up the stairs and he hurried back to his seat just as the door opened.
“The Count of Eichefurt,” Bayard announced, stepping away from the door and revealing a young man dressed in rich velvet the color of parchment.
Konrad stood and extended his hand. “Welcome, Count. I am Konrad Amkire, owner of Sudwinde Shipping.”
“Good day.” The count grasped the offered hand and shook it firmly. “Your company comes highly recommended.”
“Please.” Konrad gestured toward a chair on the other side of his desk. “Have a seat.” He seated himself, propped his elbows on his desk, and laced his fingers into a single, loose fist. “How can I help you today?”
The count sat and fidgeted with his brass-knobbed cane. “I am in need of a vessel to carry a shipment of wool and other goods from here to Rhomanny. Frobinsky, in fact. Depending on how my business fares, I will be in need of more vessels and would want a long-term relationship with my shippers.”
“I understand. When would this cargo be ready?” Unable to hold back his excitement at a permanent client, Konrad stood. “Would you like a drink, Count?”
The count stiffened and a frown tugged at the corners of his mouth. “I need to ship as soon as possible. I was ready last week, but one of the captains of the shipping company was murdered aboard his ship. A second captain almost met the same fate, though I am informed that the killer was apprehended.” He dismissed the situation with an impatient wave of his hand. “Regardless, I can’t afford to do business with a company so prone to losing ship’s executive personnel and thus losing my shipment.” He grasped the cane firmly, walking his hand idly up it as he made a visible effort to calm down. “I apologize, I get carried away.” He inhaled deeply, released it and gave Konrad a thin smile. “I would love a drink.”
Konrad stared at the young noble in shock. “They caught…”
The count nodded with a half-shrug. “Late last night. Miss Khamleir assured me the threat was over, but I cannot afford to take any chances.”
Konrad dabbed his forehead with a small cloth and stood. “Let me fetch your drink.” He crossed the room to the small table. His hands shook slightly as he unstoppered the bottle and filled two glasses with amber rum. “I’m sure Miss Khamleir was devastated by the loss of one of her captains,” he said, watching the count’s reflection in the mirror. “Rumor is that many of his crew left after the murder. I’m afraid many more will leave now.”
“Perhaps.” The count’s hands twisted his cane knob. “But hopefully that will cease to be a problem once they’ve finished questioning the assassin.”
“He was captured alive?”
“He was. Or so I’m told.” The count turned a probing gaze on Konrad.
“Good.” Konrad set a glass down in front of the count. “Miss Khamleir and I may be competitors, but she is a good woman from a good family. And sailors gossip. If this continued, her men and mine may all decide to find a different line of work.” He settled back against his chair and placed his glass before him on the desk.
The count nodded, sipping his drink. “That makes sense. But back to my offer…”
Konrad chewed his lip. “I’m sure we can do business. However.” He knocked his drink back. “I need to see about fitting your cargo onto the next voyage. If you can give me size and number, I can have a date and price ready for you by the morning.”
The count finished his drink, his pale eyes sparkling. “I understand.” He flashed Konrad a smile as he removed a folded parchment from his doublet. “The warehouse cost in this city is damn near criminal. I need these shipped before I have to pay another week’s fee.”
Konrad glanced over the paper and scribbled down the information in his ledger. “I have several warehouses that you can use any time you need.” He handed the parchment back to the count.
“I would be very grateful for that.”
“I’ll have everything ready for you by tomorrow morning.” Konrad stood. “Let me escort you to the door.”
Konrad stood in the doorway until the nobleman was out of sight before sending Bayard home and locking the door. The shipper paused for a moment staring at the inside of the door, his heart thudding painfully, then set his jaw and left his office on an errand of utmost importance.
The evening breeze chilled as sunlight waned. By the Old Kaisers’ light, Konrad briskly walked down the Lunnisburg streets past vendors closing for the night. A creeping tingle slithered up the back of his neck. He looked sharply over his shoulder, scanning the streets behind him, but no one paid him any attention. A nervous chuckle escaped his lips and his pace quickened until he reached The Tiger’s Coat, one of the city’s finer inns.
The smell of warm food greeted him as he stepped inside, and the talk of men enjoying a drink after a hard day’s work filled the air, but Konrad barely noticed. He crossed the bar, dashed up to the third floor and hurried down a narrow hall to a white door. “Helmuth,” he called, pounding his fist into the door.
It creaked open and one of Helmuth’s green eyes peered out. “What are you doing here?” His sour breath reeked of wine.
“We need to talk.” Konrad glanced over his shoulder. “Let me in.”
The door squeaked open. Helmuth towered before him, his blonde hair tangled and silk clothes disheveled. He held a thin-bladed sword at his side. “Out,” he snapped at a young, red-haired wench clutching the bed sheets over her ample bosom.
The girl scrambled out of bed, snatched her garments from the floor and wriggled into a short chemise. Her eyes flashed angrily at Konrad as she scurried out into the hall, a crumpled bodice clenched tightly in one hand.
“What is it?” Helmuth growled. He waited until Konrad stepped inside then closed the door. “You ruin my sport.”
Konrad balled his hand into a fist but didn’t raise it. “Your assassin was caught! I paid you to kill the captains, not hire a killer.”
An amused grin grew across the bounty hunter’s face. “So? He doesn’t know who we are.” He tossed the silver-hilted sword onto the unmade bed and pulled his hair back. “I admit I’m disappointed.” He twisted the hair into a tangled ponytail. “I didn’t spend months tracking him all the way from Ralkosty just to lose out on the bounty. You’re fortunate you approached me right before I found him.”
“But he didn’t get the letter!” Konrad objected furiously. “Now she’s—”
“So we change plans,” Helmuth interrupted with a shrug. “A small setback, nothing more.” He removed a small crossbow from a table and set it on a brass-bound trunk beside the bed. “You look terrible. Go downstairs and get some food, bring back a bottle of wine, and we’ll decide our next move.”
Konrad took a deep breath and ran his hand over his face. He opened his mouth to speak, then shut it, turned and left the room.
Several minutes later, his hands full with a plate of food and two bottles of wine, he pushed the bedroom door open with his shoulder. “I was thinking,” he said, closing the door with his foot. “We could use some of the docksmen…”
Helmuth sat motionless in his chair, his mouth hung open in an expressionless stare.
“You all right?”
The bounty hunter made no reply.
Konrad set the plate down and touched the man on the shoulder. “Helmuth?”
The blonde man fell limply to the floor, a metal quarrel jutting from his back. Konrad dropped the bottles, sending a plume of wine and broken glass gushing across the polished wood. A black raven feather protruded from the hollow metal tube.
Terrified, Konrad looked around. The room was empty, and the shutters closed. Turning to run, he slipped on the blood and wine-soaked floor. He slid and nearly fell, but regained his footing, dashed across the room and burst into the hall, knocking over a patron, as he raced down the stairs. Shouted curses followed him as he shoved his way through the bar and fled out into the chilly night.
He bolted down the narrow streets, dodging traffic and ignoring the shouts of guards. His legs faltered. His breath came in raging gasps and a burning pain shot through his side. He stopped and slouched against a shop front and sucked air in heavy gulps. As the red haze faded from his vision, he forced himself to look around.
A wooden sign creaked in the wind on rusted rings. ‘Spielder’s Mercantile.’ Konrad smiled; he was almost home. He dabbed the sweat now coating his face and bald head and began walking toward his house.
He made it a block before a familiar tingle danced up his neck. He jerked his head around and glanced over his shoulder to see a lone cloaked figure walking down the street behind him. Red shadows hid the figure’s face, but the determination in his pace rejuvenated Konrad’s fear. He cut through an alley and hurried across a small square, then risked another glance behind. He was still being followed. Konrad’s heart pounded faster and he dodged into the maze work of alleyways.
After some minutes, Konrad skidded around a corner and came face-to-face with a dead end. He spun around to double back, but stopped. The steady sound of boot steps echoed from the alley walls.
He swallowed and looked frantically around, then ducked into a door niche. Pressing against the door, he struggled not to pound on it and draw his pursuer’s attention. He held his breath and prayed not to be seen, listening as the footsteps came closer. And closer. And closer. Then stopped. Konrad gulped, straining to hear anything in the sudden silence.
Konrad nearly screamed. He slowly turned his head and forced himself to look. A dark-haired gentleman stood in the alleyway, his rich parchment clothes now hidden under a dark cloak. “Count Eichefurt.” He forced a slight chuckle. “You surprised me.”
The count nodded, but said nothing.
“Count,” Konrad’s voice shook. “I think someone’s following me. A…a…cutpurse or some brigand. Can you look back to make sure no one’s there?”
The count didn’t move. “There’s no one back there. We’re alone.”
“But I heard him!”
The count nodded. “You did. The fact remains, we’re alone.” He let fall a long black feather. It drifted down and settled at Konrad’s feet.
Konrad’s gaze lifted from the feather to the count’s face. The count narrowed his eyes. Konrad bolted. The Black Raven’s cane cracked against Konrad’s knees as he fled past. He stumbled and fell, sprawling onto the filthy cobblestones. The cold brass tip of his attacker’s cane pressed into the side of his throat.
“Did you really think I wouldn’t find you?”
“It was Helmuth,” Konrad sputtered. “He tracked you down. It was his idea. I had nothing to do with it.” Tears streamed down his face. “Have mercy. Please.”
“You went along with it,” Ahren said, his voice cold.
“I’ll pay you,” Konrad blubbered. “Whatever you want! Please don’t kill me! I’ll do anything!”
Ahren shook his head. “Miss Khamleir and I have an arrangement, and I am a man of my word.”
The Black Raven twisted the round knob of his cane and a slender stiletto point sprang from the tip. The pick-like blade jabbed into Konrad’s neck.
Blood gurgled into his throat and out his mouth. He clutched the wound, trying to staunch the pulsing flow of silky blood pouring between his fingers. Gulping like a fish, he tried to scream, but only gurgled. His killer stood above him, watching with apathetic eyes. Coldness crept in, the world dimmed and faded to nothing.
Ahren let out a sigh as Konrad’s twitching body fell still. He pulled back on the knob, retracting the blade into the shaft, then locked the mechanism before pushing the handle back to its normal position.
Stepping around the pool of dark blood now filling the narrow lane, he picked up the black feather, and tucked it in the dead man’s doublet. A satisfied smile grew along his lips as he turned to leave the alley, slowly strolling like a gentleman should.
Tomorrow, he would tell Viveka that it was done. She had told him to report back immediately. And as much as he would love to pay a late night visit, he had more pressing business. Tonight, he would sleep well for the first time in days. Tomorrow, he would collect his reward.