Book: Mountain of Daggers

Previous: Race for the Night Ruby
Next: Lover’s Quarrel


 

Ahren stepped through the golden velvet curtain into a small room. He no longer noticed the heavy clouds of incense since taking the brothel over a month before. Anna, a bare-breasted whore in a green veil, filled a glass chalice with vodka and handed it to the man sitting in one of the large padded chairs. A black-hilted sword leaned an arm’s reach beside him and a poorly concealed dagger bulged beneath his loosened doublet. Ahren nodded and the pale-skinned girl bowed then left the two men alone.

“I was to meet with Mashkov,” the man said, removing his brown veil. Deep scars pitted his narrow face.

Ahren took the chair opposite him. A long wooden case rested on the low table between them. Ever since Mashkov’s assassination weeks before, Ahren had assumed responsibility until the Tyenee could send a suitable replacement. “You must be Kirril.” He unclasped the veil from over his nose and mouth. “My name is Ahren. Mashkov had urgent business outside the city, and left me in charge of his affairs until his return.”

Kirril’s eyes narrowed. His fingers inched toward the hidden weapon. “Mashkov never said anything about leaving. My business is with him alone.”

“I understand.” Ahren sipped his drink. “I can assure you, however, that I am quite capable of handling all of his business while he is away.”

Kirril said nothing.

“If you’d prefer to wait until Mashkov returns, I understand. However, I couldn’t even tell you how long that will be.”

The thin man chewed his lip for several long seconds before speaking. “I cannot wait. Tell me, Ahren, Mashkov promised me the Black Raven for the job that I have. Do you know him?”

Ahren winced at the name. Mashkov’s penchant for saying things he shouldn’t had been his downfall. “I know him.”

Kirril’s shifting seemed to ease. His hand relaxed and slid away from the concealed blade. “Wonderful. Is it true he stole a dubrald from Baron Rusukny’s home?”

Ahren smiled, but said nothing.

Kirril chuckled. “I thought so. If he was able to do that, then Mashkov was right in saying he would be perfect for this.”

“And what exactly is your job, Kirril?”

Kirril downed his chalice in one gulp. “What do you know about the ferrymen’s guild?”

Ahren shrugged. “It’s the only guild not controlled by one of the Nadjancian noble houses. Anyone who has tried to work outside the guild or to control it has met with disastrous results.”

“Very good.” He poured himself another drink. “But how? How does the most powerful guild survive its independence when the houses command every other major guild in the city?”

Since coming to the Veiled City, Ahren had seen many of its customs and myths. But in a place where mystery and decadence reigned as virtues, only one name symbolized its horrors. “The Ferrymaster.”

A faint smile twisted on Kirril’s thin lips. “That's right. Have you seen him?”

Ahren shook his head.

“Live here long enough, and you’ll see the King of the Canals,” Kirril said. “Upset his ferrymen, and you’ll meet the drowned.”

Ahren swirled the clear liquor in the bottom of his glass. He’d heard of the ghostly guild master his first day in the city. The ferrymen who navigated their slender boats up and down the watery streets all owed him their allegiance. Ten percent of all they made, they dropped into the canal as their tithe. Anyone crossing the ferrymen, or their master, wouldn’t be able to ride the canals again. Otherwise, the bloated corpses of all who had drowned in the canals would exact the Ferrymaster’s revenge. If a customer was upset at his ferryman, the custom was to toss his pay into the water, to pay the master but not the servant. “Who was he?” Ahren asked.

“His name was Vooshkae. When Nadjancia was young, and the ferrymen disjoined, it was known that whoever controlled the canals controlled the city. Before the Grevenik and Rusukny’s war ran blood into the canals, two other houses feuded for control. The Deshirit and Glothrev Families vied for domination. Docks were burned, brawls erupted across the canals, and the city suffered. Any ferryman not under the protection from one of the houses was often found floating down the street. Vooshkae was a young man then, and when a member of the Glothrev Family asked whom he paid tribute, Vooshkae beat him with his oar. The Deshirits assumed that meant he swore allegiance to them, and when they sent a man to collect their cut, Vooshkae sent him back with a knife in his neck.”

“That must have upset them,” Ahren said.

Kirril gave a nervous laugh. “Vooshkae rallied the ferrymen together, saying that the power of the waterways belonged to those who worked them. He set a standard of pay for the workers and anyone who refused to pay it, found that no one would give them a ride. Eventually, the Gothrev and Deshirit Families sent assassins in order to regain control. But they all went missing. After that, no ferryman would take anyone associated with either house onto the canals. When they tried again, Vooshkae’s fury was merciless; any member of either family who entered the canals was drowned by the ferrymen. Men, women, young and old, he killed them all.

“To appease the Ferrymaster, the Deshirits and Gothrevs united and presented him with a jeweled oar cap, declaring him ‘King of the Canals.’ With his guard down, they sent one last assassin." Kirril leaned forward, his voice low. "The story goes that when the would-be killer tried, the bodies of his drowned predecessors rose from the water and dragged him screaming under the surface. After that, no one threatened Vooshkae’s authority.”

“It’s an interesting story, Kirril,” Ahren said, trying to hide the chill creeping up his spine. “But what does the Ferrymaster’s tale have to do with the Black Raven?”

The scarred man straightened and sipped his drink. “It was said that the jeweled oar cap was what made him king over the canals, even those who died in them. When Vooshkae died, the new guild master erected a tower on the Isle of Muritzka for him. He was buried with the oar cap. And every guild master since is entombed there as well. Whoever owns that cap controls the canals and the city. But only the reigning guild master has the key to Vooshkae’s tower.”

“And the Black Raven is to steal this key?”

Kirril’s eyes sparkled. “No.” He patted the long box. “My job was to get the key. But the Ferrymaster’s tower is filled with deadly traps. Black Raven’s is to steal the oar cap.”

Ahren’s eyes narrowed. He opened the wooden box to find a golden rapier inside. His mouth opened, trying to form the question on his lips, but Kirril answered it first.

“The guild master’s sword is the key.”

“How did you get it?”

“The Ferrymaster knows all that happens on his canals, but his domain doesn’t reach onto the land.” He gave a killer’s smile. “It’ll be a few days before the ferrymen realize their master is missing, but waiting for Mashkov to return isn’t an option. I promised Mashkov the key. He promised me a cut of his fortune. Ten percent, of ten percent of what every ferryman is paid, is enough for me.” He sipped his drink. “But if you don’t wish to honor Mashkov’s deal, I’m sure I can find another buyer. However, time is short. If word of the guild master’s death—”

Ahren snapped the wooden lid shut. Whether he liked the idea or not, control over the canals was something the Tyenee would want, and there was no time to hesitate. Until an agent was sent to take permanent control of the brothels and the city, Ahren had to make the decisions. “No. I am willing to honor his agreement.”

“So the Black Raven will fetch the oar cap?”

Ahren nodded. “I will pass the key to him, and he will bring us the Ferrymaster’s oar cap.”

“Wonderful,” Kirril beamed. He raised his glass. “To the new Kings of the Canal,” he toasted. “May fortune smile on us both.”

Ahren knocked back his drink. “Return in one week.”

Kirril refastened the veil across his face and stood. “I will see you then, Ahren. I wish luck to the Black Raven.” He bowed his head, slid his sword into its sheath, and left.

Ahren sat quiet for several seconds before pouring another drink.

“I don’t trust him,” Klanya said, stepping out from the curtain behind Kirril’s empty chair. The brown-haired whore sheathed her curved dagger. “He means to kill you, Black Raven. I’m sure of it.”

Ahren handed her the glass. “Thank you, Kalnya. I’ll be careful.”

#

A cool breeze coursed narrow valleys between buildings, sweeping away the canals’ putrid stink. Ahren guided his craft down the dark watery streets. Narrow boats lined the canals, moored for the night. Their wooden hulls softly banged against the stone walls like floating wind chimes. The yellow lantern hanging from his prow cast long shadows across an empty market as he floated past. Gray rats scurried across the flagstones as they raided the lingering scraps from the butchers’ tables.

Crossing the Central Canal, Ahren passed fat nobles and jeweled courtesans in silken veils enjoying the private gambling house courtyards overlooking the water. He steered through the Warehouse District near the Grevenik Docks as drunken sailors brawled over dice and threw away their coin on soured drinks and weary whores.

He paddled his small boat out from the floating city and into the calm harbor water. Once there he lowered the metal hood over the lantern and guided himself by the pale light cast from the half-moon above. Ahead, Muritzka’s sheer walls loomed out over the water. Dark silhouettes of towers and steep tomb roofs rose behind the imposing parapets. A pair of iron torches burned on either side of the portcullised entrance. Beneath them, two guards in blackened chain and dark veils stood silently, watching Ahren approach.

Ahren slowed his craft to a stop before the iron gate. Reaching inside a velvet bag, he lifted out a fistful of golden coins. Letting them fall from his fingers they clinked back into the pouch with musical rhythm. “I’ve come to pay my respects,” he said, cinching the bag closed and tossing it to the sentry’s feet.

The guards said nothing. With both hands, one turned the winch wheel beside him. Chains rattled and grated and the rusty gate rose. Water cascaded from the dark moss wrapped around the portcullis bars.

With a nod, Ahren guided his boat under the dripping gate and into an ornately engraved canal. Statues and obelisks lined the sides like silent guardians. Behind them, thousands of lavish mausoleums spread out across the manicured island like a miniature city.

The wide canal led straight to the island’s center, where it opened into a rectangular lagoon hidden beneath a latticed canopy of leafy vines. Far to the side, near the twenty-foot wall surrounding the island, an onion-domed tower loomed over the necropolis. Ahren moored his boat beside an empty funeral barge, grabbed his lantern, and stepped out into Nadjancia's greatcemetery.

Dark tiles paved the pathways between the stone monuments. Graven saints and gargoyles stared down at him with lifeless eyes as he passed. Ahren couldn’t shake the discomforting feeling from the many lifelike marble and bronze figures standing above the graves. With his lantern high, he wove through the maze of tombs until finally reaching the Ferrymaster’s tower.

Blue veins coursed through the gray marble covering the building. An intricate relief of ferrymen navigating the city’s bustling canals encircled the tower’s wide lower portion. A pointed archway in the monument’s side broke the artistic scene. The shallow alcove, adorned with mermaids and gold leaf, went in only four feet and ended at a green copper wall.

Running his fingers across the cold metal, Ahren searched for an opening. Unsuccessful in finding a hinge or keyhole, his examination spread out onto the alcove walls. The elaborate carvings created a seemingly endless number of places to conceal the keyhole. Raising his lantern, Ahren scanned the graven facade.

A carving of a large fish caught his attention. Its scaly body waved back and forth, as if frozen in a moment of swimming, and its round face swept upward, into the alcove. Its thick lips formed a dark hole.

Kneeling, Ahern peered into the fish’s mouth. The smooth opening was wide enough to slide a finger into. Two slender grooves ran down the left side. Ahren set his lantern down and drew the gold-hilted sword from his waist. A swirling design interlaced with tiny gemstones ran up the middle of the blade. An open flower, with three pearls capped the pommel.

Ahren had spent hours studying the ornate weapon, trying to understand its secret. While the keen blade was well crafted, its adornments and misbalanced weight made it a poor weapon. Kirril had called it a key, but nothing about it appeared useful as one.

Holding the handle tight, Ahren unscrewed the pommel. He pulled out a slender tube running up the handle length. The brass cylinder ended in a jagged ring of squared teeth. Two flat-topped bumps rose from one side of the otherwise smooth tube.

Lining the notches with the grooves, Ahren carefully inserted the key into the fish’s mouth. It slid in perfectly. In his many years of burgling, he had never seen a key or lock as this. He leaned in closer, trying to study how it worked. It appeared ready, but something about it still made him feel uneasy. Remembering Kirril’s warning of traps, Ahren leaned away.

Holding it with only his thumb and forefinger, he twisted the key to the right. The lock clicked and a nine-inch spike shot from the hollow key in the fish’s mouth. Ahren froze, staring at the needle-like blade. Had he not moved, it would have stabbed him.

Pulling himself to his feet, he checked the copper door. It was unlocked.

Cautiously, he pushed it, but it didn’t move. He tried again, driving his weight into the door. Slowly, it swung open. The spike jutting from the fish’s mouth retracted as the opening widened. With a soft click, the trap re-armed.

A sigh of stale air wafted out the dark doorway. Pulling his veil tighter across his nose to block the foul odor, Ahren raised his lantern and peered inside. Bright mosaics sparkled in the dim light. Ragged tapestries of dusty cobwebs hung from the ceiling. A honeycomb of niches, each containing a moldy skeleton in a rotted shroud, covered the back wall. Marble busts, accented with gold and tarnished silver, lined the walkway past engraved vault doors covering the walls and floor.

Careful not to set off another trap, Ahren removed the cylindrical key from the wall and returned it to the sword handle. He glanced over his shoulder one last time and then stepped though the tower door.

Ahren followed the narrow path between the sculpted busts of the former guild masters. Jeweled masks, silver ferry figureheads and other bizarre treasures leaned in the corners and decorated the walls. To the left, between a pair of gold oars, an arched doorway led to a spiral staircase.

A faint breeze trickled down the stairway as Ahren followed the tight spirals upward. The passage opened up onto the second floor, to a vaulted chamber decorated in amber. A ring of stone sarcophagi encircled a white statue of a veiled woman playing a violin. Ahren only glanced inside before continuing up the steep stairs.

He passed two more floors before reaching the highest level in the tower. Pale moonlight shone through the narrow, barred windows lining the room. Blood-red tiles decorated the inlaid floor. A full-size stone statue of a canal ferry dominated the center of the chamber. Its veiled pilot stared out ahead, holding his bronze oar with both hands. An ivory coffin, decorated with black pearls, rested inside the narrow craft. Its lid was carved into the form of a man lying on a draped cloth.

Amazed by its haunting beauty, Ahren circled the dark statue before finally approaching. He ran his fingers across the smooth ivory, wiping away a thin layer of dust. Placing his hands firmly against the lid near the top, he pushed. The heavy stone didn’t budge.

Taking a deep breath, he braced his feet against the floor, and pressed against the sarcophagus cover with all his weight. Stone ground on stone as the thick lid inched aside. A sliver of blackness widened as the casket slid open. Suddenly, a small pop came from the lid, followed by a loud clank.

With a screech, the ferryman statue whirled around. Ahren ducked just as its bronze paddle whooshed past, knocking the hat from his head. Chains rattled as an iron portcullis slammed down over the stairwell entrance with a thunderous crash, sealing him in.

Catching his breath, Ahren slowly rose to his feet. A thumb-sized metal pin protruded up from the casket's inner walls where Ahren had slid away the lid. Hesitant to move the lid any further, he raised his lantern and peered through the narrow crevice into the sarcophagus.

A dried skeleton lay inside. It held a black, tarnished oar cap against its chest. Gold and jeweled rings covered white boney fingers. Carefully, Ahren slipped his hand through the narrow opening and removed the artifact from the corpse’s grasp.

Glistening square diamonds rimmed the oar cap’s hollow end. The round knob at the other end was formed like a ruby-eyed skull, accented with gold.

Removing a wide strip of cloth from his satchel, Ahren wrapped the cap tightly before tucking it into his bag. He drew a thick raven’s quill from his pouch and slipped it into the Ferrymaster’s dead hands with a smile.

Now that the prize was his, Ahren surveyed his situation. Rusted iron bars covered the windows. One by one, he pulled and pushed, hoping one might be loose, but the thick rivets holding them in place were too strong.

Outside, over the island walls, he could see the swinging lanterns aboard the boats and ferries in the harbor. Shouts and ship’s bells echoed across the nighttime water. Behind them, the quiet cityscape stood like a jagged silhouette, broken only by yellow-lit windows.

Sweat trickled down his face and into his eyes as he wrestled with the last set of bars before finally surrendering. It didn’t matter. Even if he managed to pry one free, the tower was sixty feet of smooth marble before the ground, and he didn’t have a rope.

Wiping his brow, he turned his attention to the wide portcullis blocking the stairs. Chips of stone tile lay scattered around where the gate’s spear-like points had shattered them when it dropped. He could tell by looking that it was too heavy to lift.

Creeping panic began to take hold. He was trapped.

Given enough time, Ahren could escape unscathed. But he didn’t have time. Someone outside must have heard the thunderous noise the falling portcullis had made. He had bribed the guards outside the cemetery, but the burglary of one of the city’s most prominent tombs wouldn’t be ignored. Even if no one had heard him, the guards would want him gone before their shift ended. His boat was still moored at the docks. The tower door was still open. Someone would notice.

He spied an alabaster figure of a mermaid in the corner near the door. The statue itself was useless, but its stout, waist-high pedestal was perfect. If he could lift the portcullis enough to lay the pedestal under it, he could squeeze out. He just needed a lever or something to pry up the gate.

Ahren’s eyes fell onto the bronze oar that had nearly taken his head off only a few minutes before. The nine-foot pole would be enough for him to lever the gate. If he couldn’t pull it out of ferryman’s stone hands, he’d break the statue at the wrists.

Grasping the oar at the paddle head, Ahren pulled with his entire body. It didn’t move. He pushed and jerked harder, trying to wiggle it in any way. The statue moved at the waist-seam which had spun before. Ahren heard chains rattle as he jostled the mechanical sculpture.

Pushing against the side of the oar, Ahren moved the statue again. The hollow rattle of chains echoed from somewhere in the walls. The same chains had rattled when the portcullis had dropped. Ahren pushed harder, straining against the metal oar. Across the room, the iron gate groaned and lifted less than an inch.

Excitement swept through Ahren’s veins, watching the portcullis lift. He relaxed his pressure on the oar, and the bronze pole nearly swung into him as the gate dropped back to the floor with a clang.

Lifting the gate was no longer a problem, but keeping it up long enough for him to get out was.

The portcullis was too far away to slip a brace under, so he’d have to keep the wench arm from spinning when he let go. He looked at the mermaid statue’s pedestal, but it was too short to block the bronze oar. Scanning the chamber again, he spied the sarcophagus lid still resting on the box. He could have used that, if he hadn’t been worried there might be more traps hidden beneath, but then he remembered the pin.

Returning to the ivory casket, Ahren depressed the small metal pin hidden along its inside wall. Holding it down with a dagger blade, he dug his fingers into a narrow crevice on the carved lid and pulled the heavy stone back. His fingers strained as he slid the stone lid back enough to cover the pin and keep it in place.

Shaking his hand to restore the feeling to his numb fingertips, he grabbed the bronze oar and pushed. Chains rattled and the iron gate inched higher. The portcullis had risen about a hand’s breadth above the floor when something inside the rotating statue clicked. And Ahren relaxed his hold long enough to see the door didn’t fall.

Ahren drove his weight against the oar again, lifting the door another few inches.

Click.

The gap was almost enough to squeeze though. He drove himself against the oar again and again, each time lifting the gate a little higher as clicks locked his progress in place. Sweat poured down his forehead and into his eyes as he propped himself against the lever one last time. The gate’s bent spear points hovered almost two feet above the floor; more than enough space to slide under.

Nodding his farewell to the Ferrymaster’s grave, Ahren slipped under the black portcullis and retreated down the tower stairs. He reached the bottom and crossed the tomb room without even a glance at the riches displayed along the walls. He had entertained the notion of keeping a few of the jeweled treasures buried in the tower, but after the commotion and near catastrophe of being trapped inside, it was better to leave with the Ferrymaster’s treasure than risk another mishap.

A fresh breeze blew from outside as Ahren reached the doorway. He was about to step through when a shadow moved in the cemetery ahead.

A figure stepped out from behind one of the mausoleums, a crossbow tucked against his shoulder. Ahren jumped behind the door just as the bolt whizzed past, sparking off the stone and skittering into the darkness.

“He’s here!” someone yelled.

Boot steps raced toward the tower.

Ahren drove his shoulder into the copper door and pushed it closed just as the pounding footsteps reached the alcove. The door lock snapped into place with a metallic thump.

“Damn it,” someone shouted, the voice muffled behind the door. Something slammed into the thick copper. “You missed him.”

Ahren backed away, nearly stumbling into one of the marble busts. His mind tumbled over possibilities, trying to figure out who the men were. They weren’t dressed in uniforms. They hadn’t tried to capture him. They had been waiting for him.

The door rang as someone pounded a fist against the other side. It would take hours before anyone could batter it down. Ahren had until then to figure a way out. There were no windows except for in the Ferrymaster’s room, and Ahren hurried back up the stairs to identify his assailants.

He slipped back under the gate, and peered down from the barred window onto the area in front of the tower’s door. Four plainly dressed men in veils stood outside talking amongst themselves. One carried a burning torch, while two others held stout crossbows. The fourth man clutched a rapier. He carried himself with authority, and the others appeared to look to him for instruction.

Ahren squinted to see if he could recognize the leader’s hidden face. The man looked up as if he’d felt Ahren’s eyes. He unclasped his brown veil and smiled.

“Ahren,” Kirril called. “I thought it was you.”

“I was about to say the same thing,” Ahren replied.

Kirril chuckled. “So you’re the Black Raven. I must congratulate you on your accomplishments. First you plunder Baron Rusukny’s house and now you survived the Ferrymaster’s tower.”

“So you meant to double-cross me?”

“Nothing personal, Black Raven. But I had an offer from another buyer who promised a larger cut than Mashkov.”

Ahren’s gaze ran across the cemetery to the open canal gate leading outside.

“Oh, don’t worry about the guards,” Kirril said casually. “We took care of them. We wouldn’t want anyone disturbing us.”

One of Kirril’s henchmen began lifting his crossbow while Kirril spoke.

Ahren backed away from the window.

“Put that away you idiot,” Kirril snapped. “The door’s locked. We can’t get inside.”

“That puts us in a delicate situation,” Ahren called.

“I wouldn’t say that.” Kirril smiled. “You’re in a cage, Black Raven. You might have the key, but you can’t get out. You have no food. No water. Nothing.”

“Someone’s going to notice the missing guards,” Ahren said. “I don’t think you’ll want to be here when they come looking.”

Kirril laughed. “Nice try. But I don’t see you calling down from that tower for them to rescue you. You’ve broken into the Ferrymaster’s tomb. It won’t be hard to believe you killed the guards.”

Ahren chewed his lip. His eyes returned to the bronze oar in the ferryman statue’s grip. “Then what do you propose, Kirril? If I die in here, you don’t get the oar cap and you’re buyer won’t be happy.”

“Easy. Just drop the cap out the window, and we’ll leave. I’m sure the Black Raven can figure a way out of there.”

“No deal,” Ahren called. “If you want the cap, you’ll have to come get it.”

Kirril’s blue eyes chilled. “I’d love to.”

Ahren smiled. He unscrewed the sword pommel at his waist and removed the cylindrical key from the handle. “Here,” he said, holding it out through the bars. “Here’s your key. It fits in the fish’s mouth. Come up here if you’re man enough.” He let it fall from his grasp.

Kirril snatched the key before it hit the ground. “You’re a fool, Black Raven.” Holding the key, he marched into the door alcove and out of sight.

Ahren didn’t have much time. He leapt toward the bronze oar and drove it back. It clicked as the gate crept higher. Grinding his teeth, Ahren pushed with all his strength. The ferryman statue twisted around.

Click. Click.

Outside, from below, someone screamed. A wide smile curled along Ahren’s strained face. Kirril had found the door trap. They’d be coming up the tower any second. Bracing his feet against the floor, Ahren pushed the winch harder.

Click. Click. Click.

The portcullis was high enough to walk under, but he needed it higher. Driving himself harder against the lever, he spun the winch a full revolution, hoisting the gate higher.

Click. Click. Click.

Torchlight grew in the stairwell as the men drew closer. Backing away from the statue, Ahren removed the jeweled cap from his satchel.

“There you are!” Kirril barked and he came up the steps. Blood dripped from the brown veil wound tightly around his hand.

Ahren just smiled.

A towering brute in a dark blue veil followed Kirril into the room. A sword-like knife gleamed from his clubbish hand. Two more henchmen, each armed with crossbows followed him up.

“Give me the cap.” Kirril growled, squeezing his rapier handle with his good hand. He circled around the room on Ahern’s right. The hulking thug moved to the left, blocking Ahren behind the sarcophagus. One of the crossbowmen stood in the doorway, aiming his weapon at Ahren’s chest.

“Right here.” Ahren held up the silver and jeweled cap.

The men moved closer.

They were almost on him when Ahren flicked the oar cap across the room. Its red gemstones sparkled as it flew in a high arc, end over end toward the doorway.

“Get it,” Kirril shouted, lunging his blade at Ahren.

The crossbowman in the doorway dropped his aim to catch the treasure flying toward him.

In one motion, Ahren brought up his foot, kicked the pearl-studded coffin lid and leapt over it. Screeching, the ferryman statue spun around. Its bronze oar whipped through the air. Ahren curled his legs, allowing the oar to fly beneath him and strike the massive brute in the mouth. With a hard crack, blood and broken teeth exploded from under his veil as the whirling oar knocked him back across the room.

With a shriek of grinding iron, the portcullis dropped from the ceiling, smashing into the crossbowman in the door, impaling him on its spikes. The oar cap hit the tiles with a ting and skittered down the stairs beyond

Tumbling to the ground, Ahren slid across the floor and under the falling portcullis briefly suspended by the henchman’s crumpling body. The gate slammed shut behind him with a meaty squish.

The other crossbowman stood dumfounded in the stairwell. Leaping to his feet, Ahren tackled the man against the wall. He smashed the man’s face with his elbow and knocked him to the floor.

Kirril screamed in fury.

Ahren snagged the oar cap off the floor and raced down the stairs. He flew blindly through the dark stairwell, leaping steps two to three at a time. After passing the other two floors, the stairwell opened up onto the ground floor.

A wedge of pale moonlight shined through the open copper door. Clutching the silver oar cap tighter, Ahren ran into the cemetery.

Cool air hit his face as he burst outside. For a short moment, Ahren felt the exhilarating rush of victory, moments before a blur flew out from the shadows.

Something hard slammed into Ahren’s stomach, knocking away his breath. He doubled over in pain as his attacker stepped into the alcove wielding a scarred and scratched belaying pin. Rearing it back, the man swung it like a club. Ahren tried dodging, but the cudgel cracked against his head and spots swam before his eyes. The silver cap fell from his grasp as he staggered back. His vision cleared long enough to see the club smash into his cheek.

Blood’s tang filled his mouth.

The man swung again, but Ahren ducked. The club smacked against the tower’s marble carvings, chipping off a siren’s nose. Ahren ripped the jeweled rapier from its sheath and brought it up just in time to block another swing. The cudgel’s blow knocked the poorly-weighted sword from Ahren’s grasp.

Jumping back to avoid another attack, Ahren tripped over an uneven flagstone. Ahren kicked his attacker in the knee and scrambled to get away.

“Get him, Yurlik,” Kirril shouted from a window above. “Kill him!”

Ahren stumbled to his feet, his vision still lurching in and out of focus. Yurlik charged again, raising the short club high. Ahren side-stepped the attack and punched him in the kidneys.

The man’s body went rigid and then he fell to his knees. Ahren raised his fist to finish him off when the crossbowman from within the tower burst through the door.

Ahren leapt to the side behind a tomb before the crossbowman could take aim. His weapon tucked into his shoulder, the man hurried to his fallen companion and helped him to his feet.

Kirril pointed out from the tower window. “He’s over there!”

Keeping low, Ahren hurried away. The two henchmen followed him through the narrow labyrinth of tombs and monuments. Ahren slipped into a dark niche behind a statue and hid.

“Right there,” Kirril shouted.

A bolt whizzed through the air, shattering the statue’s hand beside Ahren’s head. Ahren scrambled away before the man had time to reload. He wove his way quickly through the narrow streets, trying to keep out of Kirril’s searching sight. His pursuers circled like sharks, herding him deeper into the city of tombs.

He came to a small garden and ducked beside a hedge. The henchmen’s shadows moved between the buildings as they drew closer. Ahren picked up a fist-sized rock and hurled it far to the side. The stone clattered off roof tiles and the men hurried toward it.

As fast and quietly as he could, Ahren crept the other direction. Following a row of short, bushy trees, he came to the island’s vault-lined outer wall. He headed right, back toward the tower. He hadn’t seen the men pick up the oar cap after he dropped it. With luck, he could sneak in and steal it out from under Kirril’s nose.

The wall turned, and Ahren found himself boxed in a tight canyon of unmarked mausoleums. He doubled back but stopped. Yurlik turned down the narrow footpath coming toward him.

“Over here!” he shouted.

With nowhere to go, Ahren grabbed onto the vault doors beside him and clamored up the wall.

Yurlik charged, swinging his club, but Ahren climbed faster. “He’s getting away!”

Ahren pulled himself onto the top and ran down the wide wall. A crossbow twanged and a bolt flew past. Racing away, he left his pursuers in the necropolis maze, and followed the perimeter walls back to the unguarded tower.

He circled almost half the island before nearing the Ferrymaster’s tower. Ragged clouds swept across the sky, obscuring the moonlight. A soft breeze blew in from the sea, washing away the harbor’s stench. Ahren slowed to a jog, searching for a good place to drop off the wall.

The clouds opened up and pale moonlight bathed the cemetery grounds. Ahren froze.

Kirril stood in front of the tower door, aiming a crossbow. The iron trigger clicked and the bolt shot through the air.

Ahren sprung away but the bolt stabbed into his side. The sharp point bit into his hip, wheeling him around. He tumbled over the low parapet and fell. City lights and the crescent moon spun past in a blur before he slammed into the cold water and everything went black.

#

Ahren awoke with a gasp. Putrid water rushed over his head as his sudden movement shattered his body’s natural buoyancy. Stabbing pain shot through his body as Ahren kicked his legs. Reaching down, he felt the jagged tear the bolt had left in his side. The deep cut ran a fingers-width above the hip bone.

He pulled his way back to the surface and spat out the foul, salty water. Ahead, the yellow city lights shimmered off the calm harbor surface. He floated no more than fifteen feet from the wall he had fallen from. A dark shape bobbed aimlessly along the stone block walls. Squinting he could make out a piece of driftwood.

Clutching his hip with one hand, Ahren paddled over to the floating chunk of wood. A thin film of grime coated the stout timber. Barnacles encrusted one end. The faded paint spiraling up the broken pole indicated it had been a mooring post. Pulling it under his arms, the floating wood held his head above the water.

Ahren sighed, trying to plot his next move, when the echoing rattle of chains broke the silence. Rolling his head around, he saw the fore and aft lamps of Kirril’s boat as it glided out of the cemetery gate.

He was getting away.

Fury surged through Ahren’s veins, numbing the pain from his wounds. Kirril had betrayed him and left him for dead. He couldn’t let him escape.

Aiming himself and his broken post in the direction of Kirril’s boat, he kicked off the wall and began his pursuit.

He expected Kirril to head back into the city, but the small skiff followed the shoreline instead. Struggling to keep up, Ahren paddled harder. The small craft glided past the sailing vessels berthed at the Western Docks and then deeper out into the harbor.

A faint bell rang from a wide sailing barge floating ahead. Kirril’s boat steered toward the larger vessel and slowed.

Ahren watched as a veiled sailor aboard the barge tied a rope around the skiff’s prow. Kirril and his two remaining henchmen climbed up onto the low ship, and were escorted into the stern-side cabin, leaving two men alone on deck.

Glass lamps hung from the vessel’s masts, their flickering lights sparkling off the ship’s gilded woodwork and polished accents. As Ahren neared, he could make out the crewmen’s rich dress of green and gold. The signature colors only verified his suspicions as to who owned the luxurious vessel: the Rusukny Family.

Not only did Baron Rusukny have the gold to buy the oar cap, his bounty on the Black Raven was well known throughout the city. Now, Kirril would be collecting them both.

Injured, and outnumbered, surprise was Ahren’s greatest asset. His enemies thought he was dead and that they were alone. No matter what was going to happen, he swore Kirril would die before sunrise.

Ahren slid off the driftwood pole and lowered himself behind it. Quietly, he paddled closer, trying not to disturb the water’s surface any more than he had to.

One of the sailors on deck stood at the bow, staring out over the city, the other atop the rear cabin, holding the tiller. Neither seemed to notice as Ahren grabbed the lip of the low-lying hull.

He pulled himself along the side of the barge to where Kirril’s tied skiff banged rhythmically with the waves. Muted voices came from inside the cabin. Reaching down to his belt, he slid the dagger from its swollen leather sheath.

#

A light breeze from the rear-facing window circled the room, and fluttered the lamplight. Outside the soft sound of water sloshed against the rocking ship. Kirril sat silently, watching the young noble across from him inspect the jeweled oar cap.

“That’s a substantial price you’re asking,” Konstantin Rusukny said, setting it back onto the table between them. “How do I know you’re not trying to swindle my father?”

Kirril grinned. “Only a fool would try to swindle Nadjancia’s greatest swordsman. I assure you, this is Vooshkae’s oar cap, and the price is very reasonable.”

The young noble casually swished the clear vodka in the bottom of his glass. Javor, the bearded bodyguard beside him, sat with crossed arms, staring coldly at Kirril and his men. The ruffian of course was unnecessary. If there was any truth to the duelist’s near mythical reputation, Konstantin could kill all three of them before anyone could even draw. 

“Agreed,” Konstantin finally said. “The price you ask is acceptable.” He raised his bowl-shaped glass and knocked it back.

Kirril’s heart pounded. Fifty thousand gold bishkas was more than he’d ever seen. That, and fifteen percent of whatever profits the Rusuknys made from the ferrymen, would make him one of the most powerful men in the city. Hiding his excitement, he downed his drink as well, sealing the deal.

“Now.” Konstantin set the glass on the table and leaned forward. “Are you sure the Black Raven is dead?”

“I shot him myself,” Kirril said, his lips tightening into a wide smile. “Right now, he’s feeding the crabs.”

The duelist’s gray eyes narrowed. “How can I be sure he is dead?”

Kirril displayed the bloody veil wrapped tightly around his right hand. “Because there is no way I could allow the man responsible for this to survive.”

Konstantin refilled the glasses from a crystal decanter. “Then let us toast to the death of the Black Raven.”

A hard thump trembled the ceiling. Kirril gave it a momentary glance before raising his glass. A sailor above the cabin must have slipped.

“My father will of course wish to discuss the details of his death with you,” Konstantin said after the toast. “Once he is satisfied, the reward will be yours.”

A crash sounded from outside on the deck. Turning around, Kirril gasped. Flickering orange light flooded the triangular window inset in the door.

“Fire!” Javor yelled. Jumping from his chair, he crossed the cabin in two strides and wrenched the door open. Bright flames blanketed the raised fore-deck

“Quick,” Konstantin shouted. “Put it out.”

Kirril’s men rushed outside after the bodyguard. Konstantin stepped out onto the deck behind them, shouting orders. A crossbow twanged from atop the stern cabin. The green globe lantern suspended above the three men exploded, showering them in oil. An orange ball of fire erupted as the oil touched the blaze, engulfing the men in flame. Screaming, the burning men staggered back and tumbled off the deck into the water.

Shielding his face from the smoke and heat, Kirril turned away. His eyes widened in horror as a man swung down and through the rear cabin window. Blood stained his wet, grimy clothes. His fierce eyes stared out from behind tangles of dripping hair. A slender dagger gleamed in one hand as he snatched the oar cap off the table with the other.

“Help,” he screamed. “The Black Raven is here.”

#

Over Kirril's shoulder, Ahren saw Konstantin Rusukny wheel around, his gold-hilted rapier in his grasp. Ahren flipped over the oak table, knocking half-full glasses across the room. With a hard kick, he drove the table into the door, slamming it shut.

“This is between us,” he growled, tightening his grip on the horn-handled dagger.

Kirril clumsily drew his rapier with his wrapped, injured hand and thrust at Ahren’s chest. Ahren side-stepped the blade and slashed upward. With a wild swing, Kirril dodged it. His sword nicked the small candle chandelier hanging from the ceiling. Shadows danced and spun along the walls as the fixture swung back and forth.

Ahren feinted to the right, then circled the blade around, slicing Kirril across the wrist. Crimson blood burst from the gash and poured down the  man’s arm.

The door shuddered violently as it was struck again and again. The table shifted, allowing the opening gap to grow with each blow.

Kirril swung his sword, slinging blood across the room. Ahren ducked and stabbed at his enemy’s open belly. Kirril jumped back, but not before the dagger tip nicked his stomach.

Kirril’s face contorted with fury. Screaming, he brandished his sword high and charged.

Stepping into the attack, Ahren caught Kirril’s sword arm. He thrust his dagger, but Kirril managed to grab his wrist. Their arms locked. Straining, they wrestled over the sharp blade between them.

Kirril hissed through gritted teeth as he drove his weight through his arm, pressing the dagger tip against Ahren’s breast. Ahren’s tense muscles burned as he struggled to move the blade away. His wounded hip spasmed in pain, threatening to buckle under him. His slashed flesh tore wider and fresh blood spread across his already stained clothes.

With a crash of battered wood, the door flew open. Konstantin stood panting in the doorway, silhouetted against the raging fire engulfing the fore deck behind him. The shimmering light gleamed off the gold rapier in his hand.

Wrenching his body around, Ahren knocked Kirril off and kicked him hard in the stomach. Kirril flew back and screamed. A slender blade erupted from his chest as his body slammed into Konstantin, knocking him down and driving the duelist’s sword though his body.

Jerking his blade from the dead man’s corpse, Konstantin staggered to his feet. With nowhere else to go, Ahren sprung out the cabin window and grabbed the upper deck. Climbing to the top, he pulled his legs up just as the duelist’s blade swept past.

Quickly, he shoved the silver oar cap into his soaking satchel. He was about to jump the flaming barge when one of the yardarm ropes gave way. With a crash, the heavy pole slammed against the deck, knocking the ship askew.

Falling against the deck, Ahren slid along the smooth wood and into a post. The oar cap tumbled from his bag and skittered toward the edge. Lunging after it, Ahren managed to grab the treasure before it could fall into the black water.

A voice sneered from behind him. “There you are.”

Ahren rolled to the side to see Konstantin maneuver up the slanting steps to the upper deck. He held his rapier in front; its needle-like point transfixed Ahren.

“I’ve been wanting to meet you for some time, Black Raven.” He advanced down the sloping deck toward where Ahren lay. “I was disappointed when Kirril said he had killed you.”

“It is not as easy as it appears,” Ahren said, inching his fingers toward the dagger tucked into his belt.

“I doubt that. You seem to bleed like any other man.” The young man stepped past the dead helmsman’s body sliding toward the edge. The hull creaked and the ship leaned further to the side. Water crept up onto the lower deck, extinguishing flames with hissing plumes of steam.

Working the dagger out from under his belt, Ahren slid the handle up under his forearm and pinched the blade near the tip. “Then try it.”

Grinning, Konstantin closed the distance between them. He reared his arm, readying for the fatal thrust.

Ahren flung the dagger at the duelist’s face. It twirled toward its mark, but Konstantin deflected the blade with his sword. The dagger sailed out into the darkness and plunked into the harbor.

Before the swordsman could recover, Ahren scrambled away. He jumped down onto the lower deck where Kirril’s body lay in the doorway, staring up at him with dead eyes. He still held his rapier in his bandaged hand.

Running footsteps pounded from above as Konstantin charged. Ahren grabbed the sword from the dead man’s grasp and raised it, just in time to block the duelist’s blade. Metal rang and Konstantin attacked again with a series of quick blows, driving Ahren back.

The slender blades whipped back and forth with blurring speed. Backing away, Ahren moved along the raised port side of the listing ship. Furniture and cargo crashed from inside the hull and cabins, unbalancing the barge even more. Water surged in through the open doors and the ship rolled further

Parrying Konstantin’s sword, Ahren hopped over the deck rail and onto the ship’s side. As if immune to the rolling footing, the duelist stepped onto the narrow strip of hull still above water.

“Give it up,” Konstantin shouted, driving Ahren back with quick thrust.

Ahren swung his blade at his opponent’s open side, but the swordsman caught the blow with his rapier. He hooked one of his quillons though the open bars of Ahren’s hand guard and pulled. The sword flew from Ahren’s hand and into the water.

Konstantin brought his sword tip to Ahren’s throat. “Goodbye, Black Raven.”

Trying to back away from the sharp point, Ahren slipped and fell on the wet hull. The swordsman chuckled and moved in for the kill.

Ahren shoved his hand into the satchel and pulled out the Ferrymaster’s jeweled oar cap. “Back,” he shouted, holding it out over the water.

The young Rusukny relaxed the blade, but held his ground. “If you drop that—”

“You’ll have nothing,” Ahren spat. “Now back away!”

“You’re death will last six months if you drop it.” Konstantin reared the sword back for a thrust and extended his other hand. “Give it here, and you’ll die with honor.”

Ahren met the swordsman’s cold stare. “You’ll never be the Canal King.” He opened his hand and with a plunk, the oar cap was gone. “I pay the master, but not you.”

Konstantin’s eyes widened and his face twisted with rage. “You idiot,” he screamed.

Smiling, Ahren braced himself for the strike.

Konstantin’s muscles tensed. His eyes seethed with hatred. “Die!” He stepped into the lunge, but the ship jolted beneath his feet, knocking him off balance. The duelist staggered back but did not fall. He raised the sword again.

A spongy green hand exploded from the water and grabbed Konstantin’s leather boot. He shrieked as a bloated head rose to the surface and stared up with bulging white eyes. Yanking his leg free, Konstantin stumbled away from his gruesome attacker.

Water poured from its mouth and nose as the corpse pulled itself up onto the sinking barge. Dark sludge and slime coated its skin and patches of thin, tangled hair. Torn and filthy rags mixed with seaweed hung from its dripping body. The overpowering stench of rot filled the air.

Another arm thrust up from the water, as another corpse crawled onto the ship behind him.

Konstantin stabbed with his rapier. The blade passed through its soft body almost effortlessly. Dingy brown water poured from the open wound. Flesh fell in chunks from the creature’s boney fingers as it reached out.

Screaming, the swordsman slashed with his rapier, splitting a wide gash across the creature’s belly. Water and worm-ridden intestines gushed out onto the wooden planks. The corpse continued forward, stepping on its own entrails. It seized Konstantin by the doublet.

“Help,” the swordsman wailed, struggling to get away.

The putrid corpse grappled around Konstantin’s torso as the other seized him by the hair.

Terrified, Ahren scrambled away off the boat and into the water.

Behind him, Konstantin’s scream echoed across the harbor, followed by a violent splash. Wood creaked and groaned and the remains of the barge fell below the waves.

Swimming as fast as he could, Ahren struggled to get away. His muscles burned with exhaustion and his wounded hip stung with almost paralyzing pain. Fighting to keep his head above water, he gulped air in desperate breaths.

He felt himself sinking. His legs gave out and he slipped beneath the waves.

Hands grabbed him by the waist. Ahren screamed, releasing an eruption of bubbles.

More unseen hands seized his legs and shoulder. They lifted him to the surface. Disoriented and weak, Ahren gasped for air.

The city rushed toward him as the hands dragged him with incredible speed. He pulled against their grip, but they held fast. More hands slid under him, almost cradling his body still below the water.

They carried him to the stone edge of the city and released their grip. Ahren reached up for a mooring ring above his head, and he felt himself lifted up toward it. Grabbing the iron ring, he pulled himself out of the water and onto the land.

Shuddering, he felt up and down his legs, making sure nothing was still holding him. He rolled onto his side and looked out over the harbor. In the moonlight, a single black ferry drifted past. The smooth craft glided across the water without disturbing the surface.

A well-dressed ferryman in black and burgundy stood at the rear, his face hidden behind a long silken veil. With a sweep of his oar, the boat stopped. Glittering rubies sparkled off the silver knob capping his oar.

Frozen in terror, Ahren stared back at the Ferrymaster for several long seconds. The ferryman held up a long raven’s feather, then let if fall into the water between them. The black quill floated toward him, as if carried by an unseen current.

Ahren reached down and removed the feather from the water. He looked back up, but the Ferrymaster had vanished.

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