Book: Mountain of Daggers

Previous: Thieves Duel
Next: Shadows beneath the City


 

Squawking gulls circled over the bustling Lichthafen harbor. As the fading sun retreated far to the west, stars twinkled on the horizon. Cool air wafted from the sea, carrying the stink of mildew and dead fish. Ahren peered through the chipped arrow slits of one of the towers along the harbor walls at a sleek, freshly docked ship. The tied, sky blue sails announced it had come from Porvov, the great city in distant Rhomanny, seat of the Holy Church of Arieth, Crown Jewel of Delakurn, and—to a known few—headquarters of the Tyenee.

Narrowing his eyes against the failing light, Ahren studied the passengers descending the gangplank; their dress, their age, and above all, their demeanor. Experience had taught him that generals of the Tyenee were as diverse as the cities they manipulated from the shadows. Yet even the friendliest of their faces held the same flicker of ruthlessness. So far, among the fops, skittish merchants, and noisy families, no one had met the qualifications.

A hefty-set man in dark green marched confidently from the ship. Copper buttons glinted from his heavy brocade doublet, and the twisted steel of his basket hilt rapier hinted that the ornate weapon was intended for more than just show. It had to be him.

“My shift’s almost done,” Josik whispered. “You’ll need to be out of here before my relief comes, or it’s both our heads.

Ahren turned to the gangly guard beside him. His short brown beard almost concealed the sunken cheek from which it grew. “Don’t worry.”

Josik snorted. “I’ve got three daughters and an expecting wife; don’t talk to me about worrying.”

“Fair.” Ahren shrugged, and handed the soldier five silver coins. “Maybe this will ease your heart. I’m done here anyway.”

“Thanks.” Josik dropped the coins into a rawhide pouch and gestured down the winding stairs. “Always a pleasure, my friend." They hurried down the tower steps to an iron-bound door. The guard peered outside, then motioned it was clear.

“When is number four due?” Ahren asked, stepping out into the dark city streets.

“Two months. The midwife predicts it’ll be a girl.”

“Four daughters,” Ahren laughed. “May Arieth have mercy on you.” He winked to the despondent guard and headed down the street.

"May you pass safely through the mist,” Josik called behind him.

“Did you see him?” Katze asked, stepping from an alleyway.

Ahren brushed the dark curls from Katze’s face and kissed her. “I think so. How’s your father?”

“Nervous. He finally finished cleaning the bar and then started all over again just before I left. This will be his seventh general to serve in twenty years. Nine of which were without a one at all. Hopefully this one will outlive the others.”

“Hopefully.” The apparent curse besetting any Tyenee generals assigned to Lichthafen for the past two centuries was well known among its members. The last one, sent three years ago, hadn’t even lasted an hour before shoddy scaffolding collapsed in the street, killing him and two others. Since then, no one was willing to try their luck, leaving Griggs, a mere lieutenant, master of the city’s underworld. Now, with a new boss looking over his shoulder, Griggs was terrified of what might happen. Even though he’d served his masters well, a new commander could find his established order and connections as a threat. Griggs was afraid, and Ahren afraid for him.

They followed the winding lanes lit beneath the dim glow of wrought iron lamps. Bearded beggars leered from the shadows as they passed and tight-bodiced whores stepped onto the cobbled streets to begin their night’s work. Bell-ringing hawkers called to them as Ahren and Katze turned down a dingy street and headed to Griggs’ Inn.

A tiny bell above the door rang as they stepped inside the narrow tavern. The familiar layer of dirt and scum accenting the floor and tables was gone. Fresh tapers burned from the holders mounted around the room, most of which Ahren had never seen used before. A few patrons talked and ate, yet the more unkempt and seedy regulars were noticeably absent.

“There you are,” Griggs said from behind the counter. “Sit. Let me get you something to eat.” The square-jawed man filled two bowls from a stew pot above the fire and set them down on the table. “So?” he whispered. “Recognize him?”

Ahren shrugged. “Don’t know.”

The thief master ran his fingers through his graying temples. “Guess it don’t matter. We’ll see him soon enough.” A table of customers rose to leave and he hurried off to fetch their dirty plates.

The bell tinkled again as a man with thinning gray hair walked inside. Ahren watched, wondering if this was the new boss. With a gruff order, the man ordered his drink and invited himself to a backgammon game at the far table. Ahren shrugged and returned to his meal. He finished just as a young gentleman with a polished rapier glinting at his waist strode inside. The newcomer scanned the tavern once, reminiscent of a captain surveying his ship after a storm.

“Greeting, sir,” Griggs said, stepping behind the bar. “What can I get you?”

“I’m looking for a man named Griggs,” the man replied, brushing back a lock of blonde hair with a gloved hand.

Ahren turned his head for a better look. Surely this dandy isn’t the general.

The barkeeper’s brow furrowed. “I am he.”

The man pulled his shirt open slightly and Griggs’ flush face paled. “Then let us retire somewhere quiet. There’s much to discuss.”

#

Ahren held his second beer since the two men had entered the back room before Griggs cracked the door open and motioned for he and Katze.  They stepped through the thick door into the large yet mostly empty storeroom.

“Master Skeroff, I want you to meet my daughter, Katze.”

The general rose from his chair at a pair of tables and took Katze’s hand. “It is a pleasure.” He gently kissed her long fingers. “I’ve heard of your exploits in your father’s reports. He failed to mention your beauty as well. An oversight, I’m sure.”

Ahren forced a smile, surprised by his threatened twinge at the attractive man.

“And this is Ahren,” Griggs continued, seeming to ignore the general’s advances. “The Black Raven. This is Skeroff, General of the Tyenee and the new Master of Lichthafen.”

“The Black Raven.” Skeroff smiled broadly. “I’ve been looking forward to meeting you for some time.” He shook Ahren’s hand and gestured to the table. “Sit down, both of you. Griggs, bring us some more wine.”

Ahren sat, casually examining the young general. He couldn’t be more than thirty, if even that. “So will you be staying here?”

“For now,” Skeroff replied. “Once my wares arrive in a month, I’ll move everything over to my tailor shop. This bar has served as the hub far too long. I’m certain it has already drawn too much unwanted attention. Moving the operation somewhere new only solidifies people’s understanding of a new regime.” He glanced up at Griggs, pouring cups of wine. “I’m sure you can find a suitable location. It needs to be central. In a location where both peasant and merchant might visit.”

He sipped the dark wine. “Until then, there’s much to do. Griggs has informed me that over twenty gangs operate in the city, and while he’s at least kept them from growing too powerful, the power between them is too much. In two weeks I want half of them gone.”

Katze’s face flashed with disbelief. She opened her mouth to speak, but Ahren cut her off.

“That’s no easy task. How do you wish us to do that?”

Skeroff smiled. “I’ll weigh their strengths. Those with the most useful and malleable talent will be melded into our ranks. Others will be pitted against each other one by one, until all are too weak to continue. A few Porvov Switches and assassinations will handle the rest. After that, the rest will fall into order. For that, I’ll need you.”

“Understood.” Ahren lifted the wine to his lips to conceal his growing dread. Gang wars were never easy, and he knew some of the people whom Skeroff would want eliminated.

“Then tomorrow we’ll start.” Griggs raised his clay goblet. “To Skeroff, the new Lord of Lichthafen.”

#

“Please, Ahren, you know I can’t.” The bearded man swept his arm across the furniture shop. “All my money is in this. I can’t pay that much.”

“You had enough to spend last week in Darian’s gambling hall,” Ahren replied coolly. “Now I need to collect what’s mine.”

Bernhard ran his hand over his mouth. “No one told me you were going to be doubling the price. I can pay what I have, and if you give me a couple weeks, I can pay the rest. Griggs would understand.”

Ahren drew a breath. Bernhard was right. “Griggs needs the money now. Not later.”

Bernhard gave a nervous laugh. “Please, Ahren. I’m begging you. I can’t pay that right now. Trust me, I would, but I can’t.”

“I’m not leaving until I have it.” He picked up a white and red vase painted with the image of a girl and a dog. “So give me the silver, and I’ll leave.”

“I told you—”

“I don’t care what you told me!” Ahren yelled. He poised the heavy vase, ready to smash it, but hesitated. His gaze flickered to his reflection in the mirror behind the shop owner. There the Black Raven stood. The extortionist. The bully. Everything Ahren had vowed never to be.

“It’s that new guy isn’t it?” Bernhard asked. “I’ve heard about him. People talk.”

Ahren didn’t answer.

He sighed. “I can pay the ten I owe you, plus six more. I’ll get you the rest as soon as I can, I swear.”

“Fine.” Ahren set the vase back onto the counter.

“Arieth bless you.” The shop owner opened a wooden box from behind the counter and poured out the additional coins.

“Don’t disappoint me.” Ahren scooped up the silver. “I’ll be back in a few days.” Glimpsing his shameful reflection again, Ahren turned and quickly retreated. He let out a long sigh as he stepped out onto the street and headed back to Griggs’ tavern.

How did this happen? The Black Raven, the greatest thief and burglar in the Tyenee, reduced to a thug.

Shop owners and peddlers called to him as he passed. Their new found enthusiasm wasn’t respect, but fear. Once he blended in. Known only to those who needed to. His anonymity was slipping.

He knocked once before stepping through the alleyway door into the tavern’s back room. Bolts of fabric and oaken chests lined the walls. The scent of wood and spices overshadowed the familiar smell of dust and ale.

“Ah, Black Raven,” Skeroff said, peering over a log book. “Good. We’ll need to evacuate this merchandise before it draws any more attention. Griggs’ inadequate storehouses are already full.”

“We can do it tonight.” Ahren tossed down the collected silver and gold, plus some of his own to conceal Bernhard’s shortage.

“Excellent.” The young thief master counted the coins and dropped them into a dingy leather bag. “Who didn’t pay?”

Ahren poured a tankard of water and sat. “The Blue Dogs didn’t have enough, but promise to bring it next week. Also, Flerin the butcher will bring his in two days.”

“Did you agree?”

“They’re good for it.”

“And if they don’t have it then?”

Ahren shrugged. “Depends on the reason.”

“Ahren, don’t be soft,” he chuckled. “Accepting excuses means they’ll only make more. Griggs allowed excuses. This city should be yielding twice what it has.” Skeroff chewed his lip. “I’m the youngest General in the history of our order. Do you know how I did that?”

Ahren shook his head.

Skeroff held up a finger. “Never compromising. That’s it. You’re the greatest talent in the Tyenee in generations. Just imagine what we could accomplish together. All you need do is take heed to my advice.”

“I will,” Ahren said. “Thanks.”

“Superb. This is the greatest city in Mordakland. With your help, we’ll make Lichthafen the most bountiful city the Tyenee has ever had.”

 

#

Yellow cascades of hardened wax hung from the burned out candle holders as Ahren stepped into the bar. A few patrons still lingered in the common area. He winked to Katze, cleaning up the already empty tables, then limped up the stairs to the second floor. A charging guard dog had forced him out a different window than he’d wanted, and the three story fall hadn’t been kind. Ahren only hoped it would be better by morning. At least he was back doing something active.

He composed himself and knocked on the door to one of Griggs’ nice rooms. Moments passed. Then Clauser, another former Alley Cat and now one of the city's more successful fences, marched into the hall, cursing under his breath. He ducked his head from Ahren’s questioning glance and quickly slunk down the stairs.

“Ah Ahren,” Skeroff said, pushing several rolled parchments aside. “Come in.” Trying to hide his injury, Ahren walked over and took the seat opposite the young general

“Are you hurt?” Griggs asked. He sat in the corner, his hand resting on the neighboring table, clutching a drink. The thief master’s ability to see every detail bordered on the magical.

“It's nothing.” Ahren removed a bundle from his satchel and unfolded it across the table, revealing an assortment of gem-encrusted treasures.

“Excellent.” Skeroff selected a gold comb and held it up. The small emeralds and diamonds along its side sparkled in the lamplight. He took a star-shaped broach and a pearl bracelet and set them aside.  “Hide these in Kherisdat Bakery. We’ll send word that Erik orchestrated the jeweler’s theft. Once the guards find these, he’ll be gone. His smuggling operation has lasted too long.”

Ahren nodded. “I’ll do it first thing tomorrow.”

“No. Katze can do it tonight. Tomorrow we’ll send the rest to Fritz in Lunnisburg. He should get a good price.” He folded the remaining jewelry back into the cloth and set it aside. “You did good, Black Raven.”

“Thank you.”

Skeroff opened a tiny box and removed a bronze medallion on a copper chain. “The Tyenee rewards those who serve us, and this is long overdue. Congratulations, Lieutenant.”

Stunned, Ahren took the round pendant. A mountain of upturned daggers, the glyph of the Tyenee, adorned the face. A shallow engraving of a raven marked the back. “I don’t know what to say.” He glanced nervously at Griggs, who gave an emotionless smile. Ahren was now the same rank as his former mentor and father of his love.

“There’s nothing to say,” Skeroff said, amused. He handed Ahren a filled goblet. “The days of the Black Raven breaking into every little house and shop are over. But don’t think the risks are done; only changed.”

Ahren’s heart pounded. He’d never heard of a lieutenant working jobs. They served as a general’s second, usually stationed in a city, orchestrating crimes they’d never perform. They grew fat. Bald. The joy faded from their eyes. Ahren looked down at the medallion growing heavy in his hand. They’d clipped his wings.

Skeroff raised his glass in salute and drank. “I’ll want you with me for the next couple days. There’s much to be done, and for you to learn.”

“I look forward to it,” he replied through a forced smile. He needed to talk to someone. Katze would understand. She could comfort him. He finished his wine and rose. “Now if you excuse me, I’ll be heading to bed.”

“Fine.” Skeroff gestured to the broach and necklace still on the table. “Take these to Katze and tell her what to do, Lieutenant.”

#

“F-f-fi-fifty?” Clauser stuttered. “I c-c-ca-can’t pay that much g-g-gold.”

Skeroff squeezed his gloved hands together. “You fenced over two hundred dreins worth of goods for Griggs last month. I know he hasn’t been your only client. Erik used you frequently, before the city guards caught him. All I’m asking is a fair share of what you’ve been skimming off the top.”

Ahren stood in the back of the storeroom, cleaning his fingernails with a wooden splinter as the two men talked. He rarely spoke during these meetings and had nothing to add when he did. His job was merely to observe, learn how it was done—and serve as intimidation for Skeroff’s guests.

“B-b-but I-I never made that much for m-my-self,” Clauser protested. He pulled at his aged and dingy suede doublet. “Would I d-dress like this if I d-d-did?”

“I said you were skimming. I never alluded you were stupid. Showing off profits would be too noticeable for any fence.” The thief master opened a stained logbook and flipped though pages of scrawled entries. “Griggs kept records of what business he gave you and what profit he made. You must think me as big a fool as him if you’re saying you only kept five percent.”

The fence turned to Ahren. “You-you know me Ahren. T-te-tell him. I’d never s-st-steal from Griggs.”

Ahren shrugged. They’d known each other since they were children, stealing and spying together for Griggs. He was like a father to them. Clauser might not be smart, but he was loyal.

“Yes, Ahren,” Skeroff said through a smile, “tell me.” It was a threat. Undermining the general’s argument would only make things worse. The point was to scare Clauser. Make him negotiate a lower amount or agree to some future favor and feel better for it in the end.

“Everyone knows you pocket more than you say.” Ahren flicked the splinter into the corner. “Griggs, Katze, me; we all know it. That’s just an unspoken fact. We also know you don’t keep as much from us as you do your other clients. Of which there are plenty. With us, you’ll still make more than you did before.”

“Ah-ah-Ahren, I swear I never s-st-stole from him!” Clauser blurted, his face paling except for the purple scar along his cheek.

“Enough.” Skeroff slammed his hand onto the table. “Your past with Griggs doesn’t interest me. What does is the fifty gold dreins I estimate you stole from your clients. Will you pay it or not?”

“I c-ca-can’t. I can p-p-pay f-five.”

Pursing his lips, Ahren cursed the stuttering fence for offering so low. He’d have been better to offer nothing.

“Five?” Skeroff balled his fist and pressed it to his mouth. “Five? What in Saint Vishtin’s name do you take me for?”

“F-five is still good money. M-more than y-y-you deserve.”

The crime boss’ eyes narrowed to dark slits. “What does that mean?”

“I know y-y-you s-se-setup Erik and had U-Ulrein killed. You can’t just sh-show up and ex-expect to force change on everyone. At this r-ra-rate you’ll be d-d-dead in a m-month.”

“Dead? Dead!” Skeroff jumped to his feet, knocking his chair back across the wooden floor. His hand clutched the sword at his side. “How dare you threaten me!”

Stunned, Ahren watched Clauser gulp and hold out his hands. How had this happened?

“P-p-please, I-I wa-wasn’t threatening you. I-I meant—”

“Enough!” Skeroff snapped. “Ahren. Kill this man.”

Terror seized Ahren’s gut. His mouth hung open in disbelief. “Master Skeroff…”

“P-please, I b-be-beg you!”

The general’s face warped with fury. He ripped his rapier from its sheath and plunged it into the seated man’s throat. Blood gurgled from Clauser’s mouth as his chair fell back, spilling him at Ahren’s feet.

“I gave you an order,” Skeroff growled, ignoring the dying man’s gasps.

“But he misspoke,” Ahren blurted. “Clauser does that.”

“That doesn’t matter.” Skeroff marched around the table and yanked the sword from the man’s neck. Blood belched across the storeroom floor. “I gave you an order. You hesitated.”

Eyeing the red-stained blade in the man’s hand, Ahren drew a breath. “I…apologize. I just thought—”

“No. You questioned me. What do you think would happen if by some miracle you had persuaded me to let him live? Everyone would hear. That would destroy us.” The rage calmed in the man’s pale eyes. Turning, he tossed the sword onto the table. “You’re weak. Maybe I misjudged you.”

Ahren glanced down at his childhood friend, still twitching in a crimson pool. “Forgive me.”

“Leave me.” Skeroff knocked back his cup of wine. “And send someone to clean this up.”

#

Oily smoke hung in the tavern air like mist, giving spectral halos to the candle-silhouetted patrons. Katze sat in a far booth near the stairs, absently watching a card game at a nearby table. All three players were cheating. Her gaze lifted as Ahren started down the steps from his room above. His empty canvas satchel bounced against his hip beneath the gray cloak.

“Are you ready?” she asked, standing to greet him.

His delicate blue eyes shimmered with excitement. She always loved his eyes right before a run. “Quite.” He kissed her, pulling her close against his chest. “I wish you were coming with me.”

“Marten will take care of you. You’re not still angry with him for our Thieves’ Duel, are you?”

“Not at all. I’d just prefer you.”

She kissed him again. “Father said I have to do something for him. Once I’m done, I’ll watch you from the rooftops.”

“Just be careful.”

“Me?” She slapped him playfully on the chest. “These are my streets more than yours. I’ll be fine.”

Marten stepped into the bar, rubbed his hand across his stubbled chin, then headed to where Ahren and Katze stood. “Are you ready?”

Ahren gently kissed Katze’s forehead before turning to the weasel-faced man. “Yeah.”

Marten adjusted a coiled rope hidden beneath his loose cloak. “Let’s go.”

Katze watched the two thieves head into the night streets. The bell tinkled as the door closed behind them, and she turned to where her father cleaned the bar. “You wanted to speak with me?”

Griggs didn’t look up as he scrubbed a stain caked onto the wooden counter. “Yeah. I’ll need to report that Ahren and Marten left, shortly.”

Her brow rose. “All right. But what did you need to talk to me about?”

“Tonight is important. But it’s nothing we can discuss right now.” Griggs finished his cleaning and tossed the frayed rag over his shoulder. “Have you ever paid attention to the view from the safe room?” Without waiting for a reply, he turned and walked around the counter to wait on a table of customers across the room.

Confused, Katze glanced over to the low hidden door behind the counter. The heavy cask normally blocking the entrance had been moved aside. The room was used for hiding merchandise or thieves trying to avoid chasing guards. The barrel was always left in front of the door unless someone was going in or out. She looked back to see her father leaning over the crowded table, his back toward her. Still puzzled, she followed his hint, weaving behind the tall counter and crouching at the gap between the barrels. She hooked her finger through a tight knothole, pulled the hidden door open, and crawled inside.

A hanging weight on a pulley closed the door behind her, plunging her into near darkness. The crevice was no more than two feet wide, but stretched the length of the building. Strips of thin light shone between the wall slats of the neighboring back room. The heavy stink of mildew and dust filled the uncomfortable crevice. Careful not to brush the walls, Katze rose to her feet and peered through one of the narrow cracks into the adjoining room.

Skeroff sat alone at his table, muttering silent words before scrawling his quill over a parchment. A knock rattled the door and Griggs stepped inside.

“Ah.” Skeroff stabbed his quill back into the inkpot. “I was just finishing your letter of recommendation. Once the Masters read my report, I’m sure they will follow my advice.”

“Thank you, Skeroff.” Griggs sat down and poured himself a healthy drink. “You’re too kind.”

“Rewarding those who prove themselves is essential. You’ve earned a generalship. I only hope whatever city you’re assigned will be useful for moving merchandise.” He handed the parchment to the barkeep.

Generalship? Father’s always said he would never leave Lichthafen. Does he really hate Skeroff that much? She shifted closer to hear them better.

Griggs scanned the letter before handing it back. “I came to tell you Marten and Ahren just left for the moneylender’s house.”

“Excellent. Once Marten has proved his loyalty, he will make a fine addition to the Tyenee. Your recommendation was critical in his choosing.”

The Tyenee already has enough members in this city. And Father’s never completely trusted him. Why not choose Jan or Adolph instead?

Griggs knocked back his cup. “He’s a good man.”

“And you’re sure he knows what to do?”

“I was very specific. I wish it didn’t have to come to this, though.” He glanced over to the exact spot Katze was hiding.

The handsome general brushed back his blonde hair and sipped his drink. “Neither do I. But defiance cannot be tolerated. Ahren has much respect and influence in more than just Lichthafen. If he questions his master, his peers will follow.”

“I understand. We agreed.” Griggs poured another drink. “Ahren must die.”

Katze’s chest tightened. How? She couldn’t breathe for fear of letting out a cry. How could Father say that?

Skeroff gave an approving smile. “Good. Once Marten returns with word that he’s dead, we will hold a wake in his honor and I will send word to Porvov of his fate. Then we will speak of it no more.”

“Some of the other generals won’t be happy to hear of his assassination.”

Skeroff nodded. “Sentimentality can outweigh judgment. I’ll say he died on the job. No one needs to know the truth and the Black Raven’s legend will be forever unmarred.”

Griggs took a long sigh. He turned his head toward the wall behind which Katze hid, looking straight into her eyes. “You know what is right.”

Katze felt his words. Ahren was in danger and she had to save him. Quietly, she crept back to the hidden door.

#

Loud snores resonated beyond the closed bedroom door as Ahren worked his picks on the iron strongbox. Clouds sailed briskly along the heavens outside, occasionally shielding the moonlight from the open window. The lock clicked and Ahren returned his tools to their soft leather pouch. Hinges squeaked as he lifted the lid, revealing three bulging sacks crammed inside.

Careful not to spill any of the coins, Ahren lifted the first heavy bag and peeked inside to find it filled with silver sasiks. The next bag held copper and the final one gold. A leather book rested at the chest’s bottom. A quick flip under the pale moonlight revealed the names and debts of Vizeil’s clients. The moneylender’s records could prove even more valuable than the healthy treasure. Ahren slipped the journal into his satchel then placed a single raven’s quill into the empty box. With a small smirk of satisfaction, he lifted the now lighter chest and returned it to a niche in the wall beside the fireplace. The hole only half concealed the strongbox. Ahren then carefully set a leather stool before the spot. While the box was still technically exposed, the stool’s placement gave a near perfect illusion of nothing but a solid wood wall behind it.

Ahren crept to the open window and peeked outside. The dark streets lay empty. He scanned the rooftops, hoping Katze might have come, but didn’t see her. Disappointed, he stuck his hand outside and fluttered his fingers. Marten slinked from the shadows and stopped just below the window.

Ahren heaved the first bag outside and lowered it as far as he could before letting it fall. The slender man caught it and set it on the ground beside him. Ahren dropped the other two sacks the same way before crawling out onto the sill and scaling the two floors to the street below.

Marten was already gone when he reached the bottom. Ahren quickly grabbed the remaining bag and hurried to the edge of the street where his partner was already loading their treasure into a barrel laying on a small cart.

“Everything go all right?” Marten glanced out over the streets behind them.

Ahren stooped to push his bag into the straw nest inside the barrel. “Flawless.” He set the lid over the top and began tying the barrel firmly down. “Let’s go.”

“There’s just one thing,” Marten said, stepping closer behind Ahren.

“What’s that?” Ahren asked, still cinching the knot.

A hard thwack came from behind him. He whirled around to find Marten standing just inches away, holding a long knife. Confusion glazed over the thief’s eyes.

“Marten, what are you doing?”

Another thwack sounded and the blade fell from the weaselish man’s hand and clattered on the cobblestones. He staggered and fell. Ahren caught him, then saw the two arrows jutting from Marten’s back.

Horrified, he looked up to see Katze crouched on a nearby rooftop, clutching her bow. Why? Marten’s knife lay at his feet. They’d ordered my execution.

Ahren looked back up to Katze watching him from the rooftop. A soft wind pulled at her black curls and billowed her cloak. The relief on her face washed away to rage. She spun around and ran across the rooftops toward Griggs’ tavern.

He let Marten’s body fall, grabbed the wagon cart handles and ran. Her eyes said it all. She wanted blood. The rooftops didn’t lead straight there. He could beat her.

The wooden wheels squeaked and rumbled across the uneven stones as he raced through the empty back streets. How could Skeroff do this? Did Griggs know? Could he have ordered it? Anger welled, driving him faster. The cumbersome cart only slowed him. He left it in a narrow alley. He’d come for it later. If the Tyenee were truly after him, he’d need every bit of the money to keep Katze and him safe.

Sweat ran down his face as he reached the bar. Several young men stood by the door, enamored in their own drunken chatter. Ahren darted through the neighboring alley and headed to the rear entrance. Panting, he drew his dagger and clutched the leather grip as he threw open the door to Skeroff’s meeting room.

The young general sat slumped in his chair, his blonde locks spilled over his face. Crimson blood spread across his open doublet and silk shirt. A single arrow protruded from his heart.

“He ordered your death,” Katze said from beside the open doorway. “I heard him.” She turned to Ahren, tears creeping into her eyes. “He sent Marten to kill you.”

Ahren pulled her to his chest and held her tight. “You saved me.”

“I love you, Ahren,” she sobbed. “I love you.”

“I love you too.” He hugged her and kissed her head. “Katze, did your father know about this?”

She didn’t answer.

“Katze, did Griggs know?”

The door to the barroom opened and Griggs walked in, holding a bottle and three tankards. “Saint Vishtin,” he breathed, staring at Skeroff’s body.

Ahren pulled Katze back, and squeezed the dagger still in his hand.

“Someone killed him?” Griggs said. “Thank Arieth you two are all right. Did you see who it was?”

“No,” Ahren cautiously replied.

Griggs sighed and set the cups down on the table. “It must have been Marten. I figured that bastard might try something after Clauser’s death. The Tyenee will expect vengeance, of course.”

Katze stepped around Ahren and closed the still open door. “Marten is dead, Father. I shot him as he tried to kill Ahren.”

“Oh my,” Griggs replied with mocking surprise. He uncorked the bottle and poured a heavy dose of Rhomanic vodka into the tankards. “Are you hurt, my boy?”

Ahren shook his head. “I’m fine.” He watched as Katze set her bow aside and took a cup from her father’s extended hand.

“It’s a pity.” Griggs plopped into one of the wooden chairs and eyed the corpse. “We got along so well. Skeroff’s final letter to Porvov was a request to give me my own city. Me, a general.” He raised his tankard in salute to the dead man slouched across from him. He took a long drink then stopped. “Ahren, did you get the money from Vizeil’s?”

“It’s a few blocks back. I left it…when I heard what happened.”

“Then bring it here. I’ll send part of it, along with Skeroff’s letter to Porvov on tomorrow’s ship. I suppose I’ll wait until the next one to tell them about his assassination. Might make the Lords of the Tyenee suspicious if they received such news on the same day.”

“What are you going to tell them?” Ahren asked.

“The truth of course.” Griggs chuckled. “The curse of Lichthafen has taken yet another general. Katze, my wonderful daughter, avenged Skeroff’s murder. What else is there?”

A cool smile crept along Ahren’s face. “Nothing. With luck, the Tyenee will assign you here. Since no one else seems to want the job.”

Griggs took another drink. “I’m counting on it.”

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