“You have the hands of a sailor,” the whore whispered as Ahren took the glass from her. She ran her long fingers along his. “Yet delicate.” She released his hand and gazed up at him with vivid green eyes, the only part of her face not hidden by a red silk veil.
Ahren couldn’t help but smile at the whore’s advances. Fortunately, she couldn’t see her small victory through the gray veil concealing his nose and mouth. The Nadjancian fashion did more than just protect the wearer from the stench of the watery streets, it gave anonymity. Something a wanted man, like Ahren, could always use.
She dropped a nugget of incense into the brazier, adding to the thin sweet haze filling the room. “We could be good together.” She leaned closer with the catlike grace of a courtesan, pressing her bare breasts against him. “Magical.”
A short weasel of a man stepped through the curtains, followed by a pair of whores. The youth of their eyes, and small pomegranate breasts, suggested they were no more than fifteen. Tiny golden bells jingled from their thin veils.
“Ah, Black Raven,” Mashkov said, flopping onto a cushioned chair. “I am glad to meet you.”
“That name, as is our business, is private,” Ahren said.
Mashkov scanned the small chamber. “We are alone.”
Ahren nodded to the girls doting over their master.
“Ah.” His eyes gleamed with amused understanding. “Leave us!” Silently, the women stood and slipped through the heavy velvet drapes to the hall.
Ahren surveyed his surroundings. The carved walls, adorned in thick red curtains, left dozens of crevices for a spy hole. He didn’t like it.
Mashkov poured himself a glass of vodka. “I see you have met Karolina.” He motioned to the doorway. “You like her? You can have her every night during your stay.” He knocked back the glass and set it on the small table between them.
He was stalling. Ahren could smell it. In his two years since joining the Tyenee he had met many of its reputable members; killers, extortionists, smugglers. Yet Mashkov, the ruler of Nadjancia’s brothels, was one of the most famous. So far, Ahren had yet to be impressed.
“And how long is my stay?” he asked, removing his gray veil and sipping his drink.
“Straight to the point. They warned me about that,” Mashkov chuckled. “Not long. Have you ever heard of a dubrald?”
Ahren nodded. “A night ruby. A magic gem that makes the user invisible. The dream of every thief. I can’t think of anyone I’ve ever heard of actually possessing, or even seeing, one.”
“Baron Rusukny.” He refilled his and Ahren’s glasses. “Rumor has spread that the baron, through luck and fortune, has somehow acquired a night ruby.” He unrolled a map on the table between them. The artist’s crude drawings didn’t take away from the floor plan’s massive size. “He keeps it here, in his house.” Mashkov pointed a ringed finger to a small room on the fourth floor. “It’s well protected. The baron’s longtime feud with the Grevenik Family has made his home a veritable fortress, complete with armed guards.”
Ahren leaned closer, running his finger across the inked parchment hallways. A circled X marked where guards were often posted. The city’s canal streets bordered two sides of the house, meeting at the northwest corner. The same corner which held the room he needed to enter. “It’ll take me three weeks.”
“You have one week.”
Ahren’s brow rose.
“Word of an artifact such as this has drawn a lot of attention.” He leaned back in his chair stroking his thin moustache. “My sources say that a local group called The Children of the Rat has already begun plotting for it.”
“The Tyenee usually doesn’t concern itself with local gangs,” Ahren said, returning to the map.
“True.” Mashkov nodded. “But their leader, a man named Krisah, has aspirations higher than just a neighborhood, or even a city. He’s a growing irritation that will soon be dealt with.”
“Irritations like that are best handled before they become annoyances,” Ahren didn’t hide his contempt. A general of the Tyenee shouldn’t be so careless. His finger tapped an inked window on the fourth floor. “Who drew this map?”
“One of my agents.”
“I’d like to talk to this man.”
“I’m afraid that isn’t possible.”
“Because he was found in an alley with this in his back.” Mashkov held up a broken black and green glass knife. The swirled glass was beautifully crafted into an ideal grip. Its jagged, broken end showed to have once been a tri-bladed stiletto. “The blade shattered inside him.”
Ahren’s heart grew heavy as he eyed the handle. “Polnoch.”
“We've been trying to recruit the bastard for years, but all we've got from him are more of these,” Mashkov said handing it over.
Tingles of discomfort slithered up Ahren’s spine. Polnoch’s reputation as a thief and assassin was near mythical. In fact, aside from his signature weapon, nothing else was known about him. He set the handle on the table, happy to be rid of it. “Well, at least we can tell he’s human.”
“The handle is too long to be quellish.”
“Maybe he’s just a smart quellen trying to throw us off track,” Mashkov snorted. “Regardless, with Polnoch on the hunt, we can’t afford to wait.”
“How long can you give me?”
“The new moon is in nine days. On a dark night like that, you can be guaranteed one of our adversaries will try for it then. You have to get to it first.”
Ahren flexed his muscles as best he could, trying to combat their urge to cramp inside the small, uncomfortable box. Slowly, he rolled onto his left side to find a short moment of comfort before new joints and muscles joined the protest. With a deep sigh, he listened to the ferryman’s oar paddling through the city. He felt the boat slow.
“What do you want?” a man asked, his voice muffled by the wooden lid.
“Good evening,” the ferryman called. “I am here to fetch your master. He wishes to go gambling tonight.”
“He said to be here at nine. You’re half an hour early.”
“My apologies. I did not wish to be late. May I moor my boat and wait for him?”
Ahren held his breath. The guard’s reply could be the difference between failure and success. With only nine days to plan the heist, there had been no time for a contingency.
The guard finally broke the silence. “Fine. Pull inside and wait.”
Ahren let out a sigh as he heard the clanking chains and a soft cascade of water pouring from the moss-covered portcullis. The boat edged forward and turned before coming to a stop.
“Wait here,” said the guard. A heavy door slammed shut, quickly followed by the sound of a bar sliding into place.
“Okay, we’re alone,” the ferryman hissed. “Get out.”
Ahren crawled out from the hollow seat box and put the cushioned lid back in place. The lantern dangling from the narrow boat’s bow cast a flickering light across the stone room. Water still trickled from the raised iron portcullis behind them and a narrow stone dock ran along the walls over a foot above the watery floor. A single iron-bound door sat in the stone wall to his right. “Well done,” he said, handing the ferryman a bag of gold.
The ferryman slipped the purse under his vest. “Go now. If anyone catches you…”
“You don’t know me. I don’t know you.”
The veiled ferryman nodded.
Ahren stepped from the boat onto the low steps leading from the brackish water, careful not to slip on the thin skin of slime left from high tides. His soft leather shoes made no noise as he hurried past the door to the back of the chamber where a barrel of rubbish rested against the wall below a square hole no more than a foot and a half across. He pulled his veil tighter to block out the refuse’s stink, and stuck his head through the opening.
Bits of debris and mold clung to the chute’s rough stone walls. High above, Ahren could see evenly spaced slivers of light from the trash chute doors on each floor. The third and last one, fifty feet above, was his target: the fourth floor. Ahren slid on a pair of gloves, then pulled himself over the angled bottom and crawled inside the shaft.
The uneven stones gave Ahren’s fingers more than enough purchase to climb. However, the tiny ledges held their own surprises: splinters of broken glass, rusted shards, or slick bits of rotted food lay inside each of the narrow crevices. The soft rain of debris from his questing fingers forced him to keep his head low, preventing him from seeing where he put his hands. He pushed his toes into the crags as he climbed, driving his back against the jagged wall behind him.
The baron’s affinity for gambling was well known throughout the city. Arranging for Yevin, the owner of Nadjancia’s most notorious gambling halls, to send the baron a personal invitation to sit at his table this night had been a simple task for Mashkov. The brothel owner’s rise to power in the Tyenee was now apparent. It seemed everyone owed him a favor, or would do one for cheap. Ahren couldn’t help but be impressed. However, the diversion wasn’t without its drawbacks. With the baron gone on this moonless night, Ahren’s competitors would inevitably take advantage of it themselves. He just had to get to the night ruby first.
He had made it to the opening on the second floor when he heard the iron door in the dock room below grate open.
“Come Konstantin, we haven’t got all night.” Boot steps on stone echoed up the shaft.
Ahren braced himself against the wall and remained still.
“Take my hand, Baron,” the ferryman said.
“You’re early,” Baron Rusukny replied. “I wish more of your kind were as prompt.”
“It is my duty to serve you, my lord.” The ferryman’s overly sweet tone bordered on mockery.
A sharp stone digging in Ahren’s back forced him to shift his weight, knocking down a small shower of dust and filth. He clenched his teeth as the miniature avalanche poured down the shaft into the room below.
“Konstantin,” the Baron yelled. “I’m waiting.”
“I’m here father,” called another voice. Ahren had never met the Baron’s eldest son, but his reputation as a duelist was legendary throughout the city. Despite his foppish appearance, few men would dare cross swords with him. Water splashed as Ahren heard the second man step into the boat.
“To The Golden Wheel,” the Baron ordered. The paddle swished, taking them away. The heavy door boomed shut, and Ahren was once again alone. He let out a long breath, and continued his climb.
After several long and tiresome minutes, Ahren reached the fourth floor. He pressed his ear to the wooden door.
Carefully, he cracked it open and peered inside. The empty halls were a welcome sight. He pushed the door open, crawled through the small opening, and lowered himself to the floor. An uncurtained window at the end of the hall offered little light. Only the glow from lights across the canal illuminated the moonless scene outside. Ahren unclasped his filthy cloak, wiped the clinging refuse from his gloves and shoes, then wedged it back inside the chute. Its stink would only give him away.
He shut the small door and crept silently down the hallway. Dark silhouettes of statues and suits of armor, like silent sentries along the walls, added to his paranoia.
Light suddenly spilled into the hallway ahead as a door squeaked open. Ahren dove behind a copper statue as a man in green and gold stepped into the hall. His hand resting on his sheathed rapier hilt, the guard turned in Ahren’s direction. Pressing himself into the shadows, Ahren remained still as the sentry strolled past.
Ahren waited several seconds after the guard had left before releasing his breath. At no time during his surveillance had he spotted patrols on this floor. He scanned the hall again, before slipping from his hiding place.
He turned at the hall’s end and made his way down another long passage lined with paintings and unlit sconces. His eyes locked onto a heavy door at the end, the last obstacle before the prize.
A brass keyhole perched above the thick door handle stared back at him. Removing his gloves, Ahren knelt before it and drew a roll of doeskin from his pouch. He unrolled the soft leather, exposing a large collection of picks, shims, and various delicate tools. Gently, he slipped a pair of slender picks into the opening and stopped. Something wasn’t right.
Ahren withdrew the picks and examined the keyhole again. From the outside, the lock appeared simple, yet well made. The vertical slot, capped with a round hole, was perfectly cut into the decorative pattern swirling across the brass plate. He saw nothing unusual, but something made the small hairs along the back of his neck tingle.
He ran his finger along the hole and realized what troubled him. No one used it. The edges of the polished plate, where brass met wood, were dull, and the subtle tarnish where servants’ rags could not clean it suggested the lock had been there for a while. However, the keyhole’s edges were sharp and unblemished. No brass lock, no matter how well maintained, could escape the tiny scratches and dulled corners from a key sliding in and out. It was a trap.
Ahren conducted another search of the door for other keyholes, then ran his hands along the carved doorframe. Within one of the crags of the ornate wood he found a hidden hole nestled in the molding. He eased his picks into the new lock and worked the mechanism. The bolt’s hard click echoed down the hall. Ahren slid his tools back into his pouch and opened the door.
He slipped inside, quietly closing the door behind him, and looked around at the small room. Faint light from a barred window glinted off the wood-paneled walls adorned with paintings and rich drapes. Several small chests rested in a far corner, a pair of bronze statues stood on either side of a second door, and in the center of the chamber, a silver and bronze box rested atop a short, marble pedestal.
Silver dragon heads, their mouths open in fearsome growls, adorned each side of the metal chest. Ahren ran his fingers across their ruby eyes and sharp arrow-like tongues. The face looking upward from the top of the flat lid moved under his touch. He slid it aside on an unseen hinge to reveal a narrow keyhole lined with gold.
Ahren had just removed the tools from his pouch when he heard soft footsteps coming closer. The lock to the room’s second door rattled. He slid the dragonhead cover back and ducked into a dark corner behind a curtain as the door creaked open. He held his breath, pressing himself against the wall.
The door closed and someone crossed the room to the metal box. Ahren braved a peek from behind the heavy velvet folds to see a man dressed in simple clothes of brown and gray carrying a slender hooded lantern. Setting it on the box, the stranger raised the hood and candlelight filled the room. He examined the box, quickly discovering the concealed hole, and carefully worked a pair of picks into the lock.
Ahren slid his hand to his dagger, grasping the leather-wrapped handle.
The lock’s soft click filled the silent room. The thief put his tools away, placed his lantern on the floor, and slowly lifted the lid. Drawing his blade, Ahren slid out from behind the curtain.
A quick series of pops rang from the box, followed by thuds from the chamber walls. Ahren looked down to see a narrow dart imbedded in the dark panel beside him.
The thief staggered back and pulled a similar dart from his stomach. A tremor ran though his body and with a hollow gasp, he collapsed into a fit of jerky convulsions. Ahren froze. Looking back at the small arrow, he saw thick fluid spattered around where it had hit.
The thief rolled on the floor, his arms and legs lashing out as if he were a tangled marionette, unable to control his own body. Only a hissing groan escaped his lips as a bloodstain spread across his veil, wetly clinging over his mouth and nose.
Ahren crossed the room. The thief’s eyes, red with hemorrhaged veins, looked on him with fear and pain. Ahren knelt down and thrust his dagger between the man’s ribs into his heart. Fear faded from his eyes, and his body grew limp.
Ahren wiped the blade and returned it to its sheath. The ornate lid of the metal chest still sat open. Cautiously, he peered inside and saw four small crossbows aimed out of the mouths of the silver dragon heads. A bowl lined in black velvet sat nestled between the weapons and a dark gem lay inside. He removed the stone and examined it. The round ruby was no bigger than a man’s eye. A black cloud swirled inside the stone like smoke. Ahren had never even imagined seeing a dubrald. Now, as he held it between his fingers, he felt entranced by its dark beauty. The inky wisps danced seductively within their crimson walls.
Mashkov had been right in denying Ahren the knowledge to unlock the gem’s power. Had he known it, Ahren questioned if he would be able to give it to someone else. Begrudgingly, he pried his eyes from the stone and slipped it securely in his pouch. Before closing the deadly chest, he removed a long black feather and placed it in the velvet bowl.
He stepped back to the door he had entered and put his ear to the narrow gap between it and the doorframe. Nothing. Quickly, he slipped from the room and crept down the hall, past the busts and statues, and stopped beside a large window.
He peered through the wavy glass and thick iron bars and saw the top of the outer wall running thirty feet along the courtyard’s edge, ending just below the eaves of the neighboring roof. The house guards paid little attention to the yard, making the wall an almost perfect roadway into the house. However, once making it to the house the locked bars made it an impregnable entrance. Ahren clicked the inside latch, and swung the window open.
As he suspected, no guards patrolled the courtyard. With a fluid motion, Ahren hopped over the windowsill and lowered himself onto the flat-topped wall. He hurried down the thick stones toward the adjoining rooftop when a shadow ahead caught his eye. Ahren slowed, momentarily searching for what had moved. A soft clatter from another rooftop drew his attention. A figure, clad in gray and brown, crouched low against the roof, his dark clothing perfectly matching the tile and stone. The dead thief hadn’t come alone, and the Children of the Rat were now lying in ambush.
Ahren crouched, grabbed the outside edge of the wall, and jumped down. His fingers held his weight. The distance to the streets below now halved, he let go, dropped onto the hard cobblestone, and ran.
Most of Nadjancia’s twisted, narrow streets were no more than alleys. At many places, Ahren could simultaneously press the flats of his hands against shop fronts on opposite sides. The tall buildings leaned over the streets, blocking out almost all light from above. Only sparse lamps, along the black stone buildings, cast dim illumination within the labyrinth’s walls.
Soft clacks of someone tapping roof tiles echoed down from above. More tapping on clay and wood shingles replied from up ahead. His rooftop pursuers knew where he was. Shadows flew across the tops of the narrow streets as men leapt from roof to roof. Ahren turned abruptly down the streets, hoping to confuse and lose his hunters. The alley stopped at a canal and he raced along the street beside it, hoping to find a bridge. The canals were too wide for the thieves to jump. He just needed to get off this block.
A wall blocked the street ahead, forcing Ahren to abandon the canal, and plunge deeper into the dark winding streets. Tapping came from ahead and to the left. He turned right and ran until he heard it ahead of him again. They were trying to herd him. Ignoring their warnings, Ahren kept straight.
The narrow canyon opened up into a small square. An ornate, stone well rested in its center. A dingy canal bordered the far side. Relief swept though Ahren’s tired muscles upon spotting a narrow bridge arching over the canal. Feet on shingles clamored up behind him as he raced to the bridge.
A caped figure stepped onto the bridge, his rapier aimed at Ahren. Stabbing eyes peered from the shadows beneath a leather-brimmed hat. The light gray veil, pulled tautly across his face, had been painted, giving him the appearance of a skull. It was Krisah, the ambitious gang leader. He moved back and forth across the bridge as a serpent, seeming to pivot off the unmoving needle-tip of his sword.
Ahren felt his pursuers’ eyes along his back. His gaze darted away from the swordsman long enough to see a dozen figures crouched along the roofs overlooking the square.
Krisah advanced slowly, his steps delicate as if it were a dance. Ahren’s obvious lack of sword gleamed like a victory in the man’s dark eyes.
Ahren took a step back holding his left hand up between him and his adversary. As Krisah neared the bridge’s edge, Ahren swung his hand far to the left, drawing his opponent’s eyes, as his right hand drew and hurled his dagger. The blade whipped through the quiet air and sunk into the man’s stomach.
Krisah’s sword clattered to the ground. Staggering back, he fell into the dark canal. The audience of thieves pounded their fists in silent fury. Ripping up the flat, square roof-tiles, they hurled them down at Ahren. The clay shingles exploded on the stones around him as he raced across the bridge and vanished into the streets beyond.
The shadowy streets, encased with black, stone buildings, turned and wove into a maddening maze. Ahren struggled to keep his bearings, but the steep walls of building fronts blocked any view of the city’s taller landmarks, and fast moving clouds blew across the heavens, shielding the stars.
The distant thuds of many feet racing on cobblestone echoed from behind. Ahren hurried faster, but kept on his toes, hoping the softer steps would not betray his location.
Many small alleys joined, forming a wide lane feeding into another square. He saw the Central Canal ahead. Forty yards across the canal’s slow waters, sat the Pleasure District and the safety of Mashkov’s brothel.
A row of boats, tied for the night, bobbed against the canal’s banks. Ahren raced to the pier’s end and leapt into one of the slender ferries. He yanked and unhitched the mooring line, then pushed the vessel free of the dock. With a sigh of relief, he slipped the oars into their locks and began rowing to the other side.
His reprieve was short-lived. As he reached halfway across the canal, three men in gray and brown climbed into one of the boats and continued after him. He rowed faster, but with two men manning the oars, his pursuers quickly shortened the gap between them.
Reaching the other side, Ahren steered the boat down one of the smaller canal streets. The men behind him drew closer. One of them stood on the bow and hurled a lasso. The rope splashed in the water beside him. The man coiled the line, readying for another throw. If he caught the docking cleat or lantern hook, Ahren knew he’d have to escape into the water. He wouldn’t be able to cut free. His only blade had been lost in the belly of their leader. Frantically, his eyes searched for the best place to climb ashore if he had to swim. Sheer building walls lined the banks. The stone statues above watched with emotionless eyes.
The other boat was within fifteen feet when the man readied for another throw. Ahren unlocked the boat oar, ready to defend himself. Just as the man reared back to throw, a soft shower of dust fell from above. He looked up and cried out, as a falling statue smashed into the men’s boat, ripping it in half. Water exploded in a column of splintered wood and flailing arms. The thieves screamed and howled as waves from the statue’s wake pulled them under.
Ahren looked up to where the statue had come, but saw no one along the dark rooftops. He was close to the brothel and Mashkov must have had runners out looking for him. It was the only explanation.
He guided the boat to the brothel steps and leapt out. He hurried past the doorman and through the lounges of veiled whores and clouds of incense. His heart still pounded in his ears as he ascended the stairs and stepped through the curtain to Mashkov’s chamber.
“I got it,” he announced.
Mashkov sat, leaning back on one of the cushioned chairs.
“I couldn’t have done it if you hadn’t had someone up on the roof…” Ahren froze. The glass handle of a stiletto jutted from the thin man’s throat. Wet blood coated his red clothes and dripped into pools on the floor.
A sharp sting stabbed into Ahren’s side, and his hands grabbed at a slender dart imbedded above his hip. He spun to see a figure in a wide hat step out from behind one of the heavy drapes. Polnoch! His vision blurred and his body became heavy. He reached in vain for a nearby table but collapsed to the floor.
Footsteps came from behind him, and Ahren felt his attacker rifle though his pouches and remove the night ruby. Polnoch rolled him onto his back, and slipped one of the signature glass stilettos into Ahren’s limp hand.
“You have the hands of a sailor,” said a familiar voice.
Ahren’s heart lurched. He looked into the fierce green eyes peering from behind Polnoch’s veil.
“Something for you to remember me by, lover.” She pulled her veil away, unmasking the delicate face he had known over the past nine nights. Long curls of auburn hair spilled down her shoulders as she removed her hat and leaned closer; her soft lips trembling against his. “I let you live knowing my face, Black Raven, because you will be the last to ever see it.” Her bittersweet perfume flooded his mind with fond memories, soothing his pounding heart. She kissed him, softly tugging his lip as she sat up.
She smiled seductively. “You’re welcome for my help in the canal.” She slipped the smoky gem into her mouth and vanished.