As I stand atop the temple roof and look out over the Beautiful district below, the scene that meets my eyes is one from a nightmare. The once-lovely gardens, the pride of the city, are now scorched by lightning strikes and torn by earth shakes. Blood stains the cobbled walks. Lifeless bodies, corpses of Fists, magickers, and Skeltai alike, are strewn like broken dandelions across the ground. Across the distance, the echoes of battle, the clash of steel, the screams of the wounded fill my ears.
Someday folk will call this the last fight. The decisive battle that ended the war. Those who survive to call it anything at all.
The young man in the fitted coat and lace cuffs was cheating. He had won the last two games, and judging by the hard looks of his opponents, his approaching victory in the third was not going to be well received.
From my place in a shadowy corner of the tavern, I watched the unfolding scene at the card table across the room, watched the dark-haired youth surreptitiously slip a card up his sleeve to be replaced with a more advantageous one from the same source. He’d been using the trick all evening, and I hoped his companions wouldn’t take notice and erupt into violence before I had the chance to accomplish my mission.
At the thought, my hand strayed toward an inner pocket of my cloak, where I carried the disturbing letter. At least, just now it seemed disturbing. One moment I was sure it was proof of treacherous intent, the next I convinced myself it was just a word of warning from a well-intentioned friend. A friend who used to be more but now was less. A friend who had lied to me so often when it suited his needs that it was growing difficult to tell the lies from truth.
“Stay away. Selbius is unsafe,” read the note I carried. But another note rode alongside it in my pocket. And this one came from a more trustworthy friend. “I have been able to obtain evidence of no threat against you and begin to question the reliability of your informant. It appears you may safely return at will.”
I couldn’t be sure which piece of advice to place my faith in. That was why I sat in this Selbius tavern, disguised as a stranger passing through the capital city. My usually silver hair was tinted black with winter-seed oil, and I wore a bearskin Kersian-style cap and fur-trimmed cloak, as if I had lately come from the mountain province. Anyone looking close enough might notice my unusually pale skin, my local accent, and the large, suspiciously shaped bundle across my back that was my bow wrapped in a bit of coarse sacking. But I kept my movements casual and tried to give the surrounding patrons no reason to take that closer look.
I signaled a boy who was delivering food and drinks to the tables and gave him a message. “Tell one of those cardplayers a concerned bystander offers a word of warning.”
The boy listened to my message, and then I watched as he threaded his way across the crowded room to whisper in the ear of a woman at the card table. She was a pink-faced woman of middling years with a hard expression and many visible weapons.
At the boy’s quiet message, she leapt to her feet and gave an angry shout, upending the table and sending cards and dice flying.
The well-dressed cheat at her side flinched, his hand freezing halfway through the motion of replacing another card. But he had no reason to fear, because the furious woman turned instead on the heavyset man at her other side.
Over the noise of the room, I couldn’t make out the heated accusations but could plainly see the woman and a couple of other angry players dragging the protesting innocent man out the back door.
The cheat, left alone, looked briefly confused at having escaped detection, then shrugged at his good luck, straightened his collar, and collected whatever loose coin the others had left behind. His winnings safely pocketed, he made his way unhurriedly out of the room.
I trailed after him into the chilly night air.
When he ducked down a side alley, I followed, not bothering to hide the sound of my pursuit. Possibly unnerved at the noise, he quickened his footsteps. I quickened mine in response. Passing under a glow-lamp, he glanced back. My indistinct hooded form approaching from the shadows must have been an alarming sight, because he sped up. I could never have beat him running. Few could, I knew, for he was as swift as his name and knew the streets of this city like no other.
So I called after him. “Fleet.”
He paused, confused, and I caught up to him. Seizing his narrow shoulders, I shoved him behind a looming wall where we would be unobserved. It was so dark here he probably couldn’t see who had ahold of him, but he didn’t put up any fight.
“Enough already,” he said, throwing up his hands in surrender. “If you’re here about the jewels, I don’t have them anymore. But I swear I’ll pay you what they’re worth. Just tell your master to let me keep my fingers. I need them for my work.”
I chuckled softly. “Relax, Fleet. No doubt your enemies will catch up to you eventually, but it won’t be tonight.”
Fleet went very still. “I know your voice. Ilan, is it you?”
He sounded so relieved I had to smile. “It certainly is. And you should be plenty glad to see me. The players you cheated in there were onto your tricks, and you would have been in real trouble if I hadn’t thrown them some other poor fool as a diversion.”
“They’ll break his thumbs.”
“He probably has it coming. He was as dishonest as you. Just unlucky in that, unlike you, I have no use for him.”
Now that my eyes were growing accustomed to the shadows, I could make out the lift of the dark slashes that were Fleet’s eyebrows. He said, “And here I thought you looked me up because you missed me.”
“There’s some of that too,” I admitted and meant it. After a year spent exploring the provinces and traveling to all sorts of foreign places, it was good to see a familiar face again. “Someday I’ll ask you how you’ve got on while I was away and other trivialities. But at the moment I need an urgent favor.”
He fussed with his fancy cuffs. “You usually do. Just don’t ask me to kill anyone. I have many talents, but that isn’t one of them.”
I said, “Ironically, assassination is on my mind, but it’s my own that’s worrying me. While I was off traveling the provinces with Terrac and Hadrian, someone tried to kill me.” I broke and thought a moment, before admitting, “Actually, many someones attempted to kill me, but the rest of them had good reasons. Only one particular enemy concerns me because he was a hired assassin sent from home. His attempt on my life was thwarted, and he did not survive long after.”
My mind flashed back to the scene of young Martyn’s body lying bloodied before me, pierced through the chest by a dragon’s bone-tipped wing. I jerked my thoughts back to the present.
“Before dying,” I continued, “he divulged to me that he was hired by a person close to the Praetor—one of his advisors. But I was unable to extract the name of this secret enemy. That’s why, as we prepared to return to Ellesus, Terrac and Hadrian both insisted on traveling ahead of me. Fearful of what might befall me if I walked back into the capital city under the broad light of day, they wanted to feel out the mood here first. To learn whether the Praetor himself has turned against me and means to have me destroyed on arrival. I agreed with their cautious plan only because I had other concerns to attend.”
I didn’t tell him I had passed the weeks after separating from Terrac and Hadrian by revisiting a certain magicker settlement in Cros. I had wanted to reassure myself the inhabitants there remained safe after some brief trouble they had encountered with a dragon. And it had given me the opportunity to revisit the burial place of my grandmother, Myria.
I went on, “When Terrac and Hadrian left me behind, we agreed they would send word on the situation here. But when I finally received their messages, Hadrian’s encouraged me to return, while Terrac’s, arriving on the same day, warned me away.”
“And yet here you are, having followed Hadrian’s summons over Terrac’s advice.” He didn’t ask why, but I could hear the question in his voice. It wasn’t unreasonable considering how close the relationship between Terrac and I had been the last time Fleet saw us.
“I don’t want to talk about that now,” I said quickly. “The point is, I need to know whether I’ll be signing my death warrant if I show my face in the Praetor’s court. I can’t remain a shadow forever, keeping to the hidden parts of the city.”
“You’ve been hiding in the under-levels?”
“Like a rat in its warren. I had thought Hadrian, with his contacts in the Temple of Light and in the river people community could discover the information I needed. Or that Terrac, as an Iron Fist under-lieutenant positioned close to the Praetor, would succeed where Hadrian failed. But neither has had results, so it looks like I have no choice but to fall back on you as my last resort.”
“How flattering for me.”
“You have friends at every level in this city,” I pointed out.
“No, I know people who have friends,” he corrected me. “It’s not the same.”
“But one way or another, you’ll get me what I need.”
Again, the dark eyebrows quirked upwards. “When you ask so nicely, how can I refuse?”
I sighed, impatient. “Please, Fleet. My life is at stake.”
He gave in. “All right. I’ll do this for you.”
“Never doubted you would,” I said, concealing my relief. I was finding it hard to count on people, even friends, these days. It was good to know there was still one I could rely on.
I said, “I’ve got to go. The city guard will be making their rounds soon, and I want to be outside Selbius’s walls before I’m caught breaking curfew.”
“Wait,” he called after me. “When I’ve got your answers, where will I find you?”
“I’ll find you,” I returned, not slowing. I had another task ahead, and felt a sudden eagerness to escape the confines of the city.