Book: Mountain of Daggers

Previous: Lover’s Quarrel
Next: The Seventh General


 

A warm salty breeze blew across the harbor, carrying the sounds of ship bells and squawking gulls. Thousands of seamen chatted and shouted curses along the dock in half a dozen languages. Docksmen hurried along the piers lugging barrels and crates to and from the ships and cargo wagons along the wharf.

Adjusting the leather straps digging into his shoulders, Ahren sauntered down the pier. The fifteen silver the captain had paid him was more than they’d originally agreed. But the bribe to keep him aboard as a member of the crew wouldn’t work. He slipped the jingling cloth bag into his vest and away from the greedy hands of beggars and thieves. The heavy chest on his back rattled as he followed the boardwalk to the cobblestone streets. His eyes wary, Ahren made his way to the nearest harbor gate. He melded into the bottle-necked crowd and passed under the high stone archway and into the busy city.

It had been a decade since Ahren had boarded his first vessel to escape Lichthafen. He’d sworn to never return. As Mordakland’s largest port, Lichthafen was difficult to avoid. But he had. Until now.

Blue paint still flaked from the tailor’s shop. Plump gray pigeons lined the shoulders and outstretched arms of the green copper statue in the square. Ahren wondered if anyone ever knew the monument’s true identity. An ugly boot-shaped sign still hung above Kamler the Cobbler’s. Nothing had changed.

Weaving through the winding, narrow streets, Ahren plunged deeper into the city. The tall buildings loomed high above, their peaked roofs leaning across toward one another. A pack of children played dice in the alley beside an unpainted tavern.  An older boy with a filthy blue cap carved his name into the wall with a short knife, not ten inches from where Ahren had put his at that age. A small bell jingled as Ahren opened the tavern door and stepped inside.

Fresh stew bubbled in a cauldron hanging inside the fireplace. A square-jawed man with gray temples peeled potatoes on the bar. Ahren crossed the narrow room and put his back to the counter. He lowered himself until the chest thunked onto the bar top and then he slipped off the shoulder straps.

“What can I get for you, sailor?” the man asked while wiping his hands on a dingy apron.

Ahren said nothing.

The barkeep glanced to the hinged box on the counter. “Are you selling something? ‘Cause unless you got a pair of goats in there, I ain't interested.”

Ahren grinned. “That’s a shame.”

“That it is. So now that we’ve cleared up that I ain’t interested in what you’ve got, why don’t you tell me what you…” The man’s eyes widened. “Saint Vishtin,” he gasped. “Ahren?”

“Hello Griggs.”

“I can’t believe it!” He slipped around the counter and gave Ahren a strong hug. “How long’s it been?”

Ahren smiled trying to hide his discomfort at speaking to the man he’d once considered a father. “Ten years.”

“Katze,” Griggs shouted. “Come down. Ahren’s home!” He clapped Ahren on the shoulder. “This calls for a drink. I can’t believe you’re here.”

A lean young woman with curly black hair glided down the barroom stairs. “What a surprise,” she said, her dark eyes narrowing. “Where have you been?”

Ahren swallowed. He remembered Griggs’ daughter as a scrawny little girl with frazzled hair who had always tried to tag along. Her annoying fascination with Ahren had been a source of constant ridicule from his peers. His eyes traced along her hips and firm breasts rising from her leather bodice. Things had changed. “Hello, Katze. I’ve been seeing the world.”

Smiling, Griggs set a stein on the bar. “So what brings you back, my boy?”

Ahren knocked back a long swig and unlatched the box on the counter. “I brought these in for you.” He unwrapped a thick clay tankard and set it on the bar. “Picked them up in Frobinsky.”

Chuckling, the barkeep wet his lips. “That’s very nice,” he said picking it up and examining the swirling pattern along the rim. “But I don’t really need them.”

Ahren shrugged. “My mistake. Viston said you’d like them.”

Griggs’ smile vanished. “Viston?”

Ahren sipped his drink. “The diamonds are baked inside to pass them through customs.”

“I see,” he said, forcing a laugh. “Very clever.” He reached into the box and removed two more tankards and a stack of thick plates. “So you work for Viston? I had thought someone else was bringing the shipment.”

“The Black Raven?” Ahren asked.

Griggs froze. “So you know him?”

Ahren leaned across the bar and removed the copper pendant from under his shirt. “I always knew you were up to more than just organizing gangs of children. But I’d have never thought you were involved in anything like the Tyenee.”

The man’s smile faltered as he stared at the Tyenee’s glyph stamped onto the medallion. He glanced at his daughter standing attentively beside him, and then back to Ahren. “You’re… him?”

“I am.” Ahren slipped the pendant back beneath his shirt. “However, my reputation demands that you not openly refer to me by that name.”

Griggs nodded. “I understand. Let me show you to your room.”

#

An eye-watering haze of candle and pipe smoke filled the tavern as patrons packed around the small tables, trading stories and playing games. Ahren sat in the back, watching from a small booth. He recognized only a handful of the men as boys he’d once ran with. Most of the others were now rotting in prisons or graves. He had chatted with Clauser, an old cohort he remembered as a wiry stutterer. A deep knife scar now marred his once boyish face. He worked for Griggs as a fence in the Market District. Marten worked as a hired thug, and Feschtek was a pimp. A new generation of Alley Cats now worked the streets, too young to remember their predecessors like he and Clauser. He wondered if Griggs even remembered all their names. Did he remember Tretan?

“So Ahren,” Katze said as she slid into the seat beside him, “It seems you’ve done well for yourself. Father was right about you. You’d never leave the life.”

“Seems so,” he replied.

“Are they true?” she asked. “The stories we’ve heard?”

“Thieves gossip like whores. You shouldn’t believe everything you’ve heard.”

“I see.” She took a swig from Ahren’s tankard on the table. “So if you didn’t quit the life, why did it take you so long to return?”

Ahren gnawed his lip. “I was busy.”

“You were afraid.” She leaned closer. Her skin smelled of rose oil and smoke. “Afraid we’d know what you’d become.”

He snorted.

“I cried for a month after you’d left. We never heard anything. I never knew if you drowned at sea or got killed by pirates. First Tretan, and then you. That wasn’t fair.”

“It wasn’t about you.”

She shook her head. “Of course not. I was young and in love. Fortunately,” she purred, “there were many others to teach me about love.”

Her words stabbed and gnawed his gut. “You seem to have done well, Katze.”

“And you as well.” She ran her fingers along his shoulder. “A bounty hunter came by last month on a tip you’d be in the city. Father took care of him without even knowing who you were. It must be nice to live by a legend you did nothing to earn. Are any of the stories about you true?”

“More than enough of them,” he said, pulling away.

Katze smirked. “Are they? There’s probably a dozen thieves in Lichthafen more skilled than you, even me. That’s why you stayed away. You didn’t want anyone to outshine the Black Raven’s legend.”

Ahren’s cheeks grew hot. “Not likely.”

“That’s just what I wanted to hear,” she said with a triumphant smile. Katze slammed her fist into the table and leapt up onto her seat. “Attention!”

The bar fell silent and all eyes turned to Katze.

“Ahren, our wayward brother, has challenged me.” Low chuckles echoed across the room. “As Master of Thieves, I am left with little choice but to accept.”

Master of Thieves? Ahren groaned, realizing what had happened. The setup was obvious, and he’d fallen right into her hands.

Griggs’ eyes narrowed from across the room at his flamboyant daughter. “Very well. If a challenge has been accepted then a Thieves Duel shall be set. Three nights from tonight. Wagers shall be settled here.”

Commotion erupted through the tavern as jokes were passed and bets placed.

Katze stepped down beside Ahren and grinned. “Now we’ll see how true the stories are.”

“I didn’t challenge you,” he growled.

“Yes, you did.” She leaned closer and whispered, “And if you try to back out, I’ll tell the world the Black Raven cowered from a duel.”

His eyes narrowed.

“You have three nights to re-learn the city. I suggest you get started.”

#

Ahren’s gray cloak fluttered in the nighttime breeze as he crossed Dishik Plaza past a stone statue to where two figures stood patiently at the mouth of an empty alley. Dark clouds sailed across the heavens partially blocking the half-moon above. He ran a final mental inventory of his gear: picks, two daggers, two shoulder satchels, one vial of lopiune, ten gold coins tightly packed to not jingle, dark green cloak packed into a satchel, raven feathers, and a short knife hidden in his boot. All more cumbersome than he would normally carry. But the night’s surprises might warrant each of them.

“Good evening,” Griggs said as Ahren approached.

He nodded to Griggs and Katze beside him. A tight braid of black hair looped out from her burgundy cloak.

Griggs held up two folded and sealed parchment squares. “The rules are simple. You will both be given identical lists of items around the city. Each are worth points based off how difficult they are. Whoever returns to the bar before dawn with the most point’s worth of items is the winner. Understand?”

Katze and Ahren both nodded.

“The only other rule is that neither of you can kill the other player.” He shot a cold glare at his daughter. “Anything else goes. In the event of a tie, the first one back wins. Got it?”

“Understood,” Ahren said. His skin began to tingle as he readied himself

“I’ll see you both by morning.” Griggs handed them each their list.

As Ahren took the letter, Katze’s boot smashed into his groin. Doubling over in pain, he fell to his knees.

“Good luck,” she said, and raced away.

Tears welled in Ahren’s eyes as he tried to shake the stabbing pang shooting through his body.

“I’ll second that,” Griggs said unsympathetically. “You’re going to need it.”

Leaning against a brick wall, Ahren pulled himself up and opened the list. His eyes scanned it over several times before locating his first mark. Catching his breath, he slipped the paper into his pouch and hobbled quickly from the plaza.

Nighttime dealers and merchants called out, hawking their goods as he passed their booths and carts. Whores and hustlers prowled the dark streets among the near endless supply of easy targets. Turning down a narrow lane, Ahren surveyed a wide indigo tavern dominating the corner intersection. Purple grapes spilled from an overflowing gold chalice on the hanging wooden sign. A burly man with a thick moustache stood at the door watching the passersby with contemptuous eyes.

He stepped before the doors as Ahren approached. “Where are you headed?"

“Inside."

Chuckling, the broad man shook his head. “The Golden Goblet is for gentlemen, not peasants.”

Ahren threw his shoulders back and curled his lip. “I have spent the past three weeks aboard a ship with ale-swooning scum. Before I can bathe and dress in something more human, I wish to wash the taste from my mouth.” He drew four gold dreins from his pouch and held them up. “A peasant wouldn’t carry my purse and unless you want your master to horse-whip you for rejecting my patronage, I suggest you let me pass.”

The man’s eyes widened as he stared at the coins in Ahren’s palm. “I…I…” he stammered.

Dropping the coins back in his purse, Ahren pushed the doorman aside and marched through the door without a word. Music from a minstrel trio filled the smoky air. Men in silk shirts and brocade doublets laughed and drank while richly-dressed courtesans in gold and perfume doted over them. Ahren strode to one of the blue-vested employees standing beside a massive wine rack along the sidewall behind a marble-topped counter. A black bottle rested on a wooden stand beside him.

“How may I help you, sir?” the waiter asked.

Keeping his pretentious manner, Ahren cleared his throat. “Your doorman’s incompetence is inexcusable.”

“My apologies, sir.”

“Are you the owner?”

The young waiter shook his head. “No, he is upstairs.”

“Then it is his apology I want.” Ahren glanced at the bottle displayed on the edge of the counter. The Golden Goblet’s crest stamped the purple wax seal atop the cork. Many of the other bottles on the rack bore the same insignia. “It has been a long while since I tasted Falkeblut.”

“We are the only hall that serves it, fine sir. May I pour you a glass?”

Ahren looked back at the open door behind him, and set a pair of gold dreins on the counter. “I would like a bottle,” he said, holding the coins under his finger. “I would also enjoy words with your owner. Fetch him for me.”

The waiter licked his lips nervously.

“Now,” Ahren growled.

With a nod, the waiter hurried from behind the counter to a doorway. The instant he vanished from sight, Ahren scooped the coins back into his purse and quickly removed the unopened bottle from its display. Holding it under his cloak, he dropped one of the raven’s quills onto the bar and then strode across the tavern and out through the door. He felt the doorman’s eyes on his back as he followed the road away until turning down a side street.

Opening his satchel, he nestled the bottle inside. Falkeblut was only three points, but it was a start. He unfolded the list and found the next closest target: Vathristern Cathedral.

Several blocks later, the streets opened up and the imposing walls of the great cathedral rose before him. White-cloaked church knights in polished breastplates stood watch beside the entrance. Slowing his jog to a casual walk, Ahren crossed the square, passed the grand pouring fountain, and ascended the steps to Vathristern’s great bronze doors.

A waft of incense smoke greeted him as he entered. Men and women knelt along the mostly empty pews, their muted whispered prayers softly echoing through the great chamber. Marble statues stared down from the walls above with pupiless eyes. Keeping his head low, Ahren entered a deep alcove to the right. Short, fat candles of every color flickered along a high tiered stand coated in hardened wax, forming an almost wall of flame. Across from them, a gold and jeweled urn rested inside a wrought iron cage between a pair of golden candlesticks.

Ahren knelt before the stand and lowered his eyes. A pair of young women prayed beside him, asking for their brother’s health to return. Ahren remained silent until they finally left. He glanced around making sure he was alone, then rose and faced the great urn behind him. Still feigning contemplation, he brought a hand to his lips while his other removed a black quill. He checked one more time to be certain no one was watching, then licked his fingertips and snuffed out the slender taper burning beside the metal cage. Pulling the candle free, he tucked the heavy gold candlestick under his cloak and dropped the raven feather in its place.

He turned and slowly walked from the alcove as a hooded figure stepped inside. As he neared the arched front doors, a woman’s voice pierced the cathedral’s silence.

“Thief!”

Ahren looked back to see Katze standing before the golden urn, her finger pointed at him. Both candlesticks were missing.

“Thief,” she shrieked. “I saw him.”

Two dozen eyes turned to Ahren still standing twenty feet from the door. A bearded priest nodded to one of the soldiers.

Whirling back around, Ahren bolted toward the door. A church knight’s gloved hand reached for him, but he ducked, and plowed straight into his hard breastplate. Screaming, the soldier fell back and tumbled down the wide steps to the street.

“Stop him!” someone shouted.

Hurtling down the steps, Ahren ran back across the square and down into a narrow alley. Shouts and bells sounded behind him. Unclasping his billowing gray cloak, he let it fall as he turned into another lane. He followed the tight alleyway to an intersection. Pulling the thin green cloak from his satchel, he threw it over his shoulders then casually stepped into the street.

The candlestick was five points, but if Katze had one as well, they were in vain. He sighed deeply, trying to quell his hot anger. Mutilation was the price for stealing from the Church. The golden sticks would have cost him his eyes; maybe his hands. She would have been happy to let them do it. This was more than a simple challenge now. It was personal.

Sticking to the narrow valleys of lanes, he briskly entered the Merchant District. Pale light spilled from only a handful of stores. Closed wooden shutters sealed off most of the shops’ windows. His eyes studied the painted signs, dimly lit by street lamps. As the street slightly curved, he spied a hanging sign cut into the shape of a key: Hetstier’s Locksmith. A large silver inlaid padlock dangled from the painted door.

Stopping before it, Ahren looked around. A group of teenage boys lounged on the steps two shops away. Beyond them, several pedestrians roamed the streets and a clump of people gathered at a still open boutique.

“Nice night,” Ahren said approaching the young men. “Any of you interested in making some easy coin?”

A pimple-faced boy with a faint moustache nodded. “Wherever we can.” The others chuckled in agreement.

Ahren held up two of the dreins from his purse. “How about these?”

The boys’ eyes widened as they eyed the gold.

“Who do you want dead?” one asked.

He shook his head. “Nothing so brutal.” Ahren gestured to the open shop. “Does that store sell rings?”

“Yeah.”

“I want you all to go in there, and grab everything you can.” He tossed one of the coins into the boy’s hand. “Meet me in Kammhar Park in twenty minutes and I’ll pay you the rest.”

The grubby teens nodded eagerly.

“Don’t get caught. Now go”

Laughing to themselves, the boys got up and hurried to the boutique. Ahren turned back to the locksmith’s. A slender keyhole adorned the padlock’s side face. He removed his leather roll of picks and selected a pair of slender wires when a commotion erupted from the store.

“Halt! Halt!” someone shouted. Glass broke followed by furious cries. The boys charged out into the street, their arms full. Knocking people aside, they raced the other direction toward the park.

“Stop them. Someone stop them!”

Quickly, Ahren slid the picks into the keyhole and worked them around. Picking a lock on the side of an open street was suicide. Hopefully the diversion would work.

“They’re getting away!”

“They went that way,” a woman cried.

Ahren stuck one of the picks between his lips and selected a different one. He worked it into the keyhole until he found the tumbler latch inside. With a twist of the wrist, he wound it around the central post until the lock’s curved iron shackle bar popped out. Removing the bar from the door, he dropped it and the lock body into his pouch. He slipped a black quill through the door latch and walked the other way down the street.

Hetstier’s unmarred lock would fetch him ten points. Better still, they were points Katze wouldn’t be able to duplicate. There was only one.

He checked the list again for his next job: the small azure vase from Widow Dinstet’s window. Her late husband had been a well-known captain when Ahren had lived in the city before. It was an easy five points. Holding the heavy satchels against him so they wouldn’t bounce, Ahren hurried across the city.

A pair of Church Knights in white tabards marched down the lane toward him. The bells of Vathristern Cathedral still tolled not six blocks away. Fighting the urge to run, he remained calm, and casually strolled past them. He let out a sigh as they continued on, not giving him a moment’s glance.

Shops and taverns gave way to packed narrow homes. Ahren followed for several blocks before stopping in front of a white and brown house. The simple dwelling was no more than fifteen feet wide, but rose four stories high. A tiny blue vase, holding a single tulip, rested in the top window above. Smoke trickled from the chimney, and lights on the first and third floors verified its occupancy. Getting in would be difficult. Scanning the sloped rooftop, only inches away from its neighbor, Ahren knew what he needed to do.

He circled the block trying to find a stairway or other means to reach the roofs but found none. Following the road, he came to an alley three streets further with an outside entrance to the top floor.

The worn steps creaked as he followed them to the top, then climbed up onto the landing rail. Stretching, he grabbed the overhanging eaves and pulled himself up.

Salt wind from the harbor greeted him as he crawled up onto the wood-shingled roof; a refreshing change from the city’s foul stagnant air. The tightly packed buildings were much closer at the top than on the streets. Their overhanging roofs hindered almost any air flow below. Rising to his feet, Ahren looked out across a wide sea of rooftops and smoking chimneys illuminated by the pale moonlight. Blocks away, he could see the towers along the city walls as silhouetted guards patrolled the parapets. Staying low so no one might see him, Ahren headed back toward Widow Dinstet’s home.

It was said a man could travel the length of the city without ever touching the ground. Ahren had never tried it, but had on several occasions traveled the shingle highway to enter upper windows or escape the city guards. Other thieves swore by the tunnel roads within Lichthafen’s vast sewers, but the dark and dangerous maze-work never appealed to him. Many of the daring souls who entered the tunnels never returned.

Following the easiest path between buildings, Ahren circled around the block before finally nearing the widow’s house. Careful not to slip on loose shingles, he hopped onto one of the adjoining rooftops then froze.

Katze stood on the roof before him, her dark cloak blowing in the breeze. Smiling, she held up the vase in her hand.

Bitterly, he nodded back.

A shadow moved on the rooftop beside her. Marten stepped out from behind a chimney clutching a thick-bladed knife. Another man rose from behind a peaked rooftop holding a cudgel. Katze whistled and the two men charged toward him.

Spinning around, Ahren retreated in the other direction. Katze might have agreed not to kill him, but her thugs had made no promise. He raced down a steep rooftop and leaped across to the neighboring building.

Footsteps pounded wooden shingles behind him, racing to catch up. The heavy satchels jostled into Ahren’s hips as he ran. He jumped down onto a lower roof and hurried along the slender peak stretching to the neighboring block. A wide canyon opened before him, dropping four stories to the street below. He glanced back, finding his two pursuers not fifty feet behind him. Ahren took a breath, and leaped across.

A loose shingle slipped under his foot, nearly toppling him over the side. Lunging forward, Ahren rolled onto the slanted roof and raced to the other side. Finding no windows or access to the street, he pulled himself up onto a decrepit apartment building. Scanning the roof’s edge, he spied a dilapidated balcony. He ran to it and dropped. Gray boards cracked loudly and sagged under his feet.

“What in Saint Vishtin’s name—” a wide-eyed man shouted, stumbling back against the railing.

Ahren shot down the steep stairs two at a time to an alley below. Looking back, he spied the men on the roof above. He turned and raced along the narrow lane.

A maze-work of cluttered and cramped alleyways opened before him. Taking one, he followed it around a corner until coming to a dead end. With nowhere to hide, he doubled back and followed another one. The men’s shouting echoed behind him.

“Where is he?”

“Check down there!”

Panting, Ahren turned a corner only to find an eight-foot wall blocking his way to the street beyond. He jumped as a gravelly voice rose from the shadows beside him.

“Spare a coin?” A white-haired beggar extended his hand, his mouth filled with blackened teeth. Two more sallow and ragged men huddled beside him next to a broken barrel.

“This way,” he heard Marten shout.

Ahren reached into his pouch and removed two gold dreins. The beggars all sat up, their eyes fixated on the coins.

“There are two men following me,” Ahren said. “Make sure they don’t leave this alley.”

The men fervently nodded and Ahren dropped a single gold into the beggar’s filthy hand. “You’ll get the other one once you’ve won it.” He turned and jogged to the brick wall blocking the passage.

“There you are, Ahren.” Marten stepped into the alleyway behind him; his face beaded with sweat. “I thought we might have lost you.” His accomplice moved up beside him, still clutching his wooden club.

“I don’t want to hurt you.” Marten drew his bone-handled knife. “So give me the bags and we’ll call it even, for an old friend’s sake.”

Ahren said nothing.

A half-smile curled on Marten’s weaselish face. “Very well.” Holding the blade out front, he and his thug stepped into the alley. “I didn’t want to hurt you. Not after what happened to Tretan. But business is—”

A broken brick smashed into Marten’s arm as the three beggars leaped like hungry wolves. One jumped onto the other man’s back, striking him again and again with boney fists. Screaming, the two men staggered back fighting off their sudden attackers. Turning, Ahren grabbed onto the rough-mortared wall and clambered up. Before dropping over the side, he tossed the second coin back into the alley.

Leaving the shouts and cries behind him, he trotted down the street and pulled the list from his pouch. He had eighteen points. Katze had at least ten that he knew of. She probably had twice that, if not more. He scanned the page, searching for the more valuable items, the most difficult. He bypassed the highest, wondering if it had graced every Thieves’ Duel list in the past decade, or if Griggs just put it there as a sick joke. He stopped just below it. Artisan’s Row lay only a few blocks away; a short jog for fifteen points. Returning the list to his satchel, he hurried toward Flagref’s Anvil.

The nighttime street grew busier as he neared the market area. Soldiers in chain shirts and private guards in hardened leather vests patrolled the rich shops lining the avenue. Gold and sparkling jewelry glistened from behind iron-barred windows. Turning down a wide lane Ahren passed white marble statues and the colorful pottery shops along Artisans’ Row. Ahead, a rhythmic ring echoed from a wide two-story shop. An armored guard dressed in a gleaming breastplate etched in spiraling designs stood beside the door. The hand at his belt rested beside a white inlaid sword grip accented with bronze.

He gave a stiff nod as Ahren entered. Waves of warmth flooded the stone building from the massive forge resting behind a half-wall in the back. A soot-faced man worked a huge suspended bellows beside the fire while another in a leather apron struck a glowing red wedge of iron on the anvil. Sparks rained to the floor with every pound from his hammer. Hanging lanterns filled the shop, casting everything in an orange light. Blades of every variety jutted lengthwise from the tiered rows of racks along the shop’s walls. Helms and breastplates dressed crude wooden dummies lined like a formation of soldiers behind the sweeping counter almost encircling the room. Decorative hinges, spurs, and other merchandise filled the cases and shelves displayed on the countertop.

“Welcome,” said a man behind the counter. “Can I help you?” His thick moustache traced down to his stubbled chin. A second employee worked with another customer looking at door knockers.

“Ah,” Ahren said, feigning interest in a pair of blackened gauntlets trimmed with brass. “I am looking for a good knife. Something small but functional with a keen edge.”

The man smiled, but not before his eyes scanned Ahren’s simple clothes and disheveled hair. He removed a short hooked blade from the rack. “This will cut ropes and whatever you need.”

Ahren took the simple blade and inspected it. The smooth wooden grip and black hand guard held no ornamentation but a small insignia of a star and anvil. “This is fine,” he said brushing his finger lightly across the sharp blade. “But I’m thinking of something a little larger. More impressive, if you get my mind.” He gestured to one of the ivory-handled daggers along the display. “Like that.”

The man returned the knife to the rack and fetched Ahren the thin-bladed dagger. “This is a fine piece. But a bit more costly.”

Ahren flipped the blade over in his hand. A graven whale decorated the white grip. “Very nice,” he said checking the balance. “I like the weight, but do you have any with a thicker handle?”

The man’s tongue ran along the back his teeth. “It depends,” he sighed, “on how much you’re willing to pay. Any smith will sell you a knife, but Flagref’s blades are the finest.”

Ahren shrugged and laid the dagger on the counter between them. “A captain in Lunnisburg showed me his once.” He set a gold coin on the counter. “He said they were all works of art.” Ahren stacked a second coin on top of it. “That was seven years ago.” He stacked a third coin. “When I received my commission four years later, I vowed I too would wear one of your blades. And I know what it’ll cost me.” He added four more coins.

Apprehension melted from the man’s face. “I see. My name is Ivo. Please, let me show you our other pieces.” He turned, leaving the knife on the table, and fetched two more blades.

Ahren slid the coins back into his purse.

“This is one of Flagref’s favorites.” Ivo offered an etched dagger with a bronze fox head pommel.

Ahren examined the well-balanced blade. “This is nice. Do you have any with a different design?” He laid it on the table beside the ivory dagger.

“Of course.” He handed a curved knife with silver accents and a ship’s image carved into the handle. “This is a design most sailors prefer.”

“Beautiful. How much is this one?”

“That blade is five dreins.”

Ahren nodded, clutching the knife in his hand while miming simple moves. “A good price. What else do you have?”

Ivo brought more blades for Ahren’s inspection. Many were returned to the racks once rejected, but several more lay across the table. Despite the constraints, Ahren took his time. He’d always coveted Flagref’s fine blades. It was said the bones of any trying to steal one burned in the blacksmiths great forge.

“This is the most magnificent I’ve ever held,” Ahren said, holding a gold and pearl encrusted dagger. “I fear to ask how much.”

Ivo smiled. “Fifty dreins.”

“And worth every bit. This is the blade of a Kaiser.” With a reverent gesture, he offered the dagger back. “Someday I hope to hold that again. Thank you for entertaining me with that.” He pointed to a bronze and leather-wrapped handle sticking up from one of the racks. “May I see that one?”

“Of course.” Returning the rich dagger to its prominent display, Ivo stretched to reach the blade Ahren had requested. After a casual glance to be sure no one was watching, Ahren slid the fox-headed dagger from the table and slipped it into his satchel.

“Here you are,” Ivo said, returning with the dagger. “Practical, yet demanding attention.”

“I will agree,” Ahren said, taking the blade. “A man wearing this says he knows how to use it.” He twirled it around in his fingers. “Excellent balance. I like it. How much?”

“Fifteen dreins.”

Ahren examined it closely. “Fifteen?” He licked his lips. “I have but twelve with me. Would you take that?”

“Master Flagref does not haggle his blades. Negotiation means they are not worth what he asks.”

Ahren sighed. “Then it is worth fifteen. Tomorrow I will receive payment for my goods. Can you hold it until then?”

Ivo nodded. “Of course, Captain…”

“Jreksteir,” he replied, offering his hand.

“Then I will see you tomorrow night, Captain.”

“I look forward to it. Thanks for your help.” He bowed then left the shop.

Slipping through the small crowd wandering the shops, Ahren secured the dagger in his pouch so the sharp blade wouldn’t puncture the side. He ducked down a dim alley and reached for the list in his satchel when a shadow moved behind him. Ahren wheeled around to dodge a blurring blade. Staggering back, a hard fist smashed into his mouth.

“Found you,” Marten growled. Smeared blood coated his cheek beneath a purple, swollen eye. Thrusting the knife, he lunged.

Ahren sidestepped and drew one of the daggers at his waist just in time to parry another attack. Marten circled to the right, pushing Ahren against the alley wall. He stabbed his dagger again, but Ahren spun out of the way and grabbed the man’s wrist. Marten’s elbow flew back and drove into Ahren’s stomach. Bringing his blade up, Ahren slashed the man’s forearm. Screaming in pain, Marten slammed his body back, knocking Ahren over a stack of empty chicken cages, and sending them both crashing to the ground.

Glass crunched inside Ahren’s satchel and cold wine spilled everywhere. Flipping around, Marten leaped to his feet. He kicked Ahren’s hand with a hard boot, sending the dagger skittering away.

“Give me the items,” Marten spat, pointing his blade at Ahren’s face.

With an angry sigh, Ahren reached for the soaking satchel. His fingers lingered near the sheathed dagger still at his waist.

“Don’t try it.”

Begrudgingly, Ahren removed the dripping bag and held it up.

Marten snatched it with his bloodied hand. “Now the other one.”

Ahren slid off his other satchel. As Marten reached for it, Ahren swept his leg, knocking the man to the ground. Drawing the knife hidden in his boot, Ahren scrambled to his feet.

“What’s going on?” a voice shouted. A city guard stood silhouetted in the alley entrance. Metal rasped as he drew his sword. “Stop where you are.” A second one stepped up behind him.

Ahren moved toward the wine-soaked satchel still in Marten’s hand, but the two guards charged into the alleyway.

“Halt!”

Turning, Ahren fled down the passage with Marten close behind. The guards’ chain shirts chinked as they gave chase. Marten darted down the first narrow alley and one of the guards followed him. Veering onto an empty side street, Ahren raced faster and slid behind a closed fruit stand before the pursuing guard reached the lane. Clomping bootsteps hurried past, and Ahren let out a deep breath.

Still crouched in his hiding place, he returned the boot knife to its sheath and opened the remaining satchel. The silver lock and Flagref’s dagger were still inside. His picks and small lopiune vial were all that remained of his gear. Marten had the candlestick, the broken wine bottle, seven remaining gold coins, and most importantly, the list.

His head slumped into the brick shop front behind him. Winning now was near impossible. The items he could still recall from the list wouldn’t even match what Katze already had. All but one. One hundred points would ensure her failure. He only wished there was another way. He sighed, then slid Flagref’s dagger into his empty belt sheath and hurried away.

Mritlek the Jeweler had been Lichthafen’s greatest. Lords, Kaisers, and even the Hierophant were among his clientele. Known for its unparalleled beauty and craftsmanship, his jewelry was the most coveted in all of Delakurn. The Grysiem Tigress was his final masterpiece. While the rest of his magnificent creations rested safely locked in treasure rooms, the Tigress resided in the house of Count Resuom; the man Ahren considered the evilest man in the world.

Stopping at a butcher’s shop before it closed, Ahren traded his boot knife for two pounds of fresh goat’s meat; an arrangement the tired butcher had been eager to accept. Ahren dropped the cloth-wrapped ball of meat in his satchel and headed toward the Nobles’ District.

The tightly packed buildings grew further apart, allowing soft wind and crisp moonlight to pour across the cobbled streets. A knot tightened in his gut as Ahren passed the large, rich homes, many of which hid behind smooth stone walls and arched gates. Soldiers in black and golden tabards patrolled the quiet streets.

Ahren stopped beneath a slender flowering tree and stared across the lane. A blockish house sat alone behind a five-foot wall capped with a spiked wrought iron fence. Light peeked from behind its barred windows and four-story tower rising slightly above the building’s flat roof. It appeared exactly as it had ten years ago; the night Tretan died.

Scarcely a day passed that Ahren had not thought of his old friend. Growing up in the foul city streets had made them closer than any real brothers could ever be. Tretan had the ability to make anyone like him. Between his smooth allure and Ahren’s nimble quickness, they were the best pickpockets Griggs had ever seen.

But Tretan wanted to be more than an Alley Cat. To gain respect, he challenged the then Master of Thieves to a duel. When Tretan saw the Grysiem Tigress on the list, he ignored everything else. They’d always heard the rumors and tales that the Count was a demon-worshiper and murderer of children, but Tretan wasn’t afraid. Ahren came along as a lookout while his friend broke into the house. From atop the wall, he’d watched Tretan sneak into the near-impregnable mansion. He remembered the shouts and commotion from inside. He remembered Tretan’s terrified face as he raced back across the yard, cradling a wooden box, and Count Resuom’s marsh tiger chasing him down. He could still hear the screams.

A dark coach rumbled up the street and stopped before the oaken gate. A cloaked figure in a wide hat stepped from the carriage and clacked a brass knocker on the door. It creaked open and the man slipped inside. Ahren spied a hooded man on the dark lawn before the gate door closed. The count was entertaining company. At least the tigers would be in their pen.

After the coach drove away, Ahren darted across the street and circled the wall into a shallow alley. Peeking over the stone top, the small grounds appeared empty. Short hedges lined the simple yard. Wide steps rose to the house’s main door. The sturdy bars across the windows left the rear servants’ door the only other entrance. An old twisted oak tree grew up beside the house, casting shade over half the property. Near the rear of the house, a pair of marsh tigers impatiently paced back and forth in an iron cage.

Removing the bloody bundle from his bag Ahren unstoppered the vial of lopiune and poured it into the meat. Still watching the grounds, he massaged the drug into the cold flesh through the cloth, careful not to let it touch his hands. A single draught of the potent philter could render a man unconscious for hours. Ahren hoped he had enough.

Once sure no one could see him, he climbed the wall and over the spiked fence. Keeping to the shadows, he crept closer to the tigers’ cage. A low growl resonated as the huge cats watched him with hungry green eyes. Ahren studied the cage door as he neared. A flat metal arm arched from the iron door to the house, allowing the Count to open it from inside. Crouching several feet outside the bars, Ahren tore the chunk of meat in two and tossed them into opposite ends of the cage. With quick snarls, the beasts gobbled them up.

Staying low, Ahren circled back to the lone tree and climbed the thick trunk. Pulling himself onto a sturdy branch, he crawled up and onto a second floor balcony. He knelt behind the stone railing and quickly picked the lock. Carefully, he creaked the double-door open and peeked inside. A massive stuffed bear stood in the corner, its mouth open in a fearsome growl. He slipped through and shut the door behind him.

Ahren crept across the thick rug to the door across the room and listened. Distant voices murmured on the other side. He peered through the keyhole to see an empty hallway. Holding his breath, he cracked open the door.

His chest tightened in panic to see a face staring back at him. A huge, ornately framed mirror hung along the back of the hall. Letting out a sigh, Ahren searched the reflection of the hall behind him. The passage continued another twenty feet before stopping at a carved door. A wooden railing ran the length of the right side, broken only by a stairway leading up and another down to a large open chamber. The soft chanting of multiple male voices rose from the room below as their upcast shadows danced upon the dark-paneled walls through a gray haze of incense.

Quietly, Ahren slithered out into the hall and toward the door, staying low so no one on the first floor might see him.

“I heard something,” said a voice from the room below.

Ahren froze. His fingers dug into the jade carpet.

“I heard it too,” another replied.

“Could it be Farehf and Ulka?”

“No. They’re in their cage. Go. See what it is.”

A cold layer of sweat formed along Ahren’s palms. He scurried across the hallway and slipped through the ornate door as he heard the men below spread out.

Shutting the door behind him, Ahren found himself in a small room. A lit candelabrum rested atop a massive table draped in rich velvet. A carved white skull rested on a shelf beneath a mounted tiger’s head. Across the room, a slender pair of double doors opened to a round balcony over the chamber below. Ahren’s eyes locked onto a small wooden box accented with gold inside a niche along the wall.

Rising to his feet, Ahren approached the familiar box when he heard footsteps at the door behind him. He dove and hid beneath the table just before the creaking door burst open. Peering through the gap beneath the tablecloth he could see a pair of brown shoes beneath gold and emerald robes. Ahren’s hand slid to his dagger as the feet approached, stopping inches from him.

Shouts and hoots erupted from downstairs.

“Halred,” someone yelled. “Get down here.”

The feet whirled around and ran out of the room. Ahren glimpsed a hooded man holding a pronged knife hurry down the stairs, leaving the door open behind him.

Something smashed downstairs, followed by more cries and cursing. Ahren reached for the box, but stopped. It was too easy.

Ignoring the growing commotion, he studied the small alcove containing the casket. He saw no trigger pin or wires, but as he ran his fingers along the wood, he felt a narrow slit across the top, running behind a small lip along the front. It was a trap.

Removing a thick leather-bound journal from a nearby shelf, Ahren jammed it upright in the alcove to catch any dropping blades. Blindly, he felt along the rear of the box and found a notched wooden peg jutting from the niche’s back wall. Hooking his thumbnail under the peg he carefully slid it back into the wall until it caught on the notch and stayed in place. He licked his lips, then gently removed the box and set it on the floor.

The racket downstairs grew louder as glass shattered somewhere in the house followed by hoots and running footsteps. Staying wary of the open doorway, Ahren removed his picks. Sweat beaded along his brow and ran into his eyes as he desperately tried to unlock the box.

“What have we here?” someone shouted with a laugh.

“Clear the table!”

The lock clicked and Ahren opened the lid with trembling hands. A gold and jeweled figure of a tiger-headed woman nestled inside a velvet cushion.

“Let me go!” a woman screamed.

Ahren’s head snapped up as he recognized Katze’s voice.

“Hold her still!”

The lock clicked shut as Ahren closed the casket, and left it on the floor. He crept to the balcony overlooking the room below. Five hooded figures in green robes wrestled Katze onto a wide marble table while two more tied her down. She thrashed and fought, driving her heel into an attacker’s chin before they managed to tighten her ropes.

“What has the Huntress brought us?” asked a hooded man in a tiger mask; the only figure in the room not restraining the woman. He pulled a golden candlestick from Katze’s bag. “A thief. A greedy rat in the house of cats.”

“Let me go, you bastard,” she spat through clenched teeth.

Ahren couldn’t help but feel a rise of satisfaction in seeing Katze caught and bound. His eyes widened in horror as the masked man unsheathed a leaf-bladed dagger.

“It has been a long time since our altar tasted blood. Truly the goddess has given us a gift.”

Katze froze staring at the polished blade, then erupted in a wave of fierce thrashing as the man raised his arms.

Ahren’s breathing quickened as the eight hooded men circled the altar table.

Their leader stood above her head and lowered his dagger straight in front of him. “I give you to Tsarasch, Maiden of the Hunt and Tiger Queen.” The other worshipers joined in a low drone that rose higher as their masked leader drew the blade toward her throat.

Ripping his dagger from its sheath, Ahren swung over the railing and leaped into the chamber. The man below him screamed, bones cracking as Ahren drove his feet into the devotee’s back. Landing atop the crumpled body, Ahren slashed his dagger, slicing the masked leader’s hand and knocking his blade across the room.

Stumbling back, the leader’s mask slipped, revealing Count Resuom’s withered face. “Stop him!”

The green-cloaked men on either side of Ahren ripped curved, double-bladed knives from their sheaths and lunged. Twisting his body back, Ahren grabbed the first man’s extended arm and jerked him across to the other side and into the other attacker’s claw-like blade. Ahren shoved the men away and leapt up onto the altar table astride Katze.

“Behind you!” she cried.

Ahren kicked the attacker behind him then slashed the ropes binding Katze’s wrists. “Get out of here!” He slipped his dagger into her freed hand and rolled off the marble table in time to punch one of the charging worshipers. Drawing Flagref’s dagger from his belt he parried the man’s next attack.

Katze cut her ankles free and jumped off the altar.

A ringed fist smashed into Ahren’s mouth. Stumbling back, he managed to dodge a blurring blade. Swinging his dagger upward, he drove it deep into the man’s gut. Hot blood burst over his hand.

Footsteps raced from behind him. Ahren turned to see a worshiper closing in with a raised scimitar. Ahren pressed against the table, unable to get away in time.

A slender leg swept the charging man’s feet, sending him to the floor. Katze sprang on top of him and sliced his throat.

Ripping a spear from the wall, another zealot charged screaming into the room. Ahren grabbed a lamp from a shelf beside him and hurled it at the attacker’s feet. Glass shattered and flaming oil exploded across the floor, setting the man’s clothes ablaze. Fire licked up a hanging tapestry and spread along the lushly rugged floor.

“Come on,” Ahren shouted to Katze, motioning to the stairs. “Let’s get out of here.”

Billowing black smoke filled the room as they raced to the second floor. Ahren turned left and hurried down the hallway to the room from which he’d entered. He threw open the balcony doors and turned, but Katze was gone.

He ran back to the hall to see Katze in the other room picking the ornate box up from the floor. “What are you doing?” he yelled. “Leave it!”

An amused grin spread across her lips. She cradled the box in her arms and ran toward him.

Count Resuom charged up the steps with a loaded crossbow in his bloodied hand. Lowering the weapon, he aimed as Katze raced past.

“Katze!” Ahren screamed. He hurled Flagref’s blade past Katze’s head and into the old man’s chest. Dropping the crossbow, the count staggered into the railing to catch himself. Wood creaked then broke under his sudden weight, sending the count over the side and into the flames below.

Together Ahren and Katze raced to the balcony. Two bloodied and hooded devotees rushed after them. Ahren slammed the balcony doors shut and pushed his weight against the men’s angry pounding.

“They’re getting away!” one of them screamed from the other side. “Release the tigers!”

“What do we do?” Katze hissed, bracing her shoulder against the violent door.

“Hold on.” Bracing his leg against the stone railing, Ahren pressed his back to the door and pulled the silver padlock from his bag. He hooked the shackle through the door’s handles and clicked the lock closed. “Now go!”

Still holding the awkward box under one arm, Katze lowered herself over the railing and dropped to the bushes below. The door behind him rattled and shook, but held fast. With a grin, Ahren swung over the rail and dropped to the hedge beside Katze.

The tigers’ cage door squeaked open. Ahren turned to see the two beasts lying on their sides watching him with careless eyes. Rolling to his feet, he pulled Katze from the thick bushes and they ran to the outer wall.

Shouts and cries echoed from inside the house. Smoke trickled from several windows as orange light flickered from behind the shutters. Panicked guards called “Fire!” from the streets outside as Ahren and Katze scaled the wrought iron fence and hurried away through the alleys. Alarm bells chased them from the Nobles’ District.

#

“Thank you for saving me,” Katze said as they neared Griggs’ tavern. She still held the heavy box under her cloaked arm opposite Ahren.

“I couldn’t let those bastards take you away like they did Tretan.”

She swallowed. “But you gave up the duel for it.”

He sighed but said nothing.

“I saw the dagger you used to kill the Count. I know what it was worth. You even used Hetstier’s lock so we could get away.”

Ahren grinned. “I was hoping to keep that dagger,” he chuckled.

They continued down the narrow streets in silence until reaching the tavern. A roar of cheers and applause erupted as they stepped into a small room through the back door.

Griggs set a handful of cards on a table, his eyes barely concealing his relief. "Welcome back.”

Katze held the gold-trimmed box above her head. “I have it!” she declared and plopped it hard onto the table.

Griggs nodded in approval. “Ahren, what have you brought?”

Ahren chewed his lip. “That’s it,” he said, holding out empty hands and motioning to Katze.

Boos and chuckles poured from the half-dozen thieves packed into the backroom.

Katze worked a pair of wire picks into the lock. “Ahren forfeited to save my life. I share this with him.” The lock clicked and she opened the box. “This is our victory.”

The cramped room went silent. A single black feather rested on the velvet cushion inside. Katze turned to Ahren, her mouth open in puzzled disbelief.

A wide smile stretched across Ahren’s lips. “I’m happy to hear that.” He removed the jeweled figure from his satchel and set it on the countertop. “And the new Master of Thieves doesn’t mind sharing.”

Shouts and laughs exploded as lost bets were reclaimed and coins changed hands. Raised mugs toasted the new Master of Thieves. Ahren slipped through a gauntlet of praise and jokes and entered the barroom where he took an empty booth in the back.

Katze slid in beside him, carrying a pair of drinks. “Very clever,” she said, offering him a stein.

He smiled and raised his tankard. “To the Mistress of Thieves, may she find it in her heart to forgive me.”

She squeezed his arm. “I never did welcome you home.”

Ahren met her soft black eyes. “I missed you too.”

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