A Business of Ferrets (Bharaghlafi Book 1)

BOOK: A Business of Ferrets (Bharaghlafi Book 1)
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A Business of Ferrets


Copyright 2015 Beth Hilgartner

Published by Beth Hilgartner at Smashwords




Smashwords Edition License Notes

This e-book is licensed for your personal enjoyment only.  This e-book may not be re-sold or given away to other people.  If you would like to share this book with another person, please purchase an additional copy for each recipient.  If you’re reading this book and did not purchase it, or it was not purchased for your enjoyment only, then please return to Smashwords.com or your favorite retailer and purchase your own copy.  Thank you for respecting the hard work of this author.


Cover design by Caligraphics (

Cover photos from (c) Can Stock Photo  (


For my most adventurous friends:  Marjorie, Susan, Beth, and Neil

Table of Contents

Author's Note

Dramatis Personae

One—The Foreign Witch


Three—A Chip of Charcoal






Nine—The Lady's Puppy

Ten—Hunters and Prey

Eleven—First Blood






Seventeen—Guild War

Eighteen—Desperate Ventures



Twenty-one—Night Work







Twenty-eight—Raising the Stakes

Twenty-nine—Parry and Riposte




Thirty-three—Tidying Up

About the Author

Other Books by this Author

Connect with Beth Hilgartner

Author's Note

When the first two books of the Bharaghlafi series were published—in 2000 and 2002, respectively—with the third (unwritten) volume under contract, I thought I had finally found a permanent publishing home. Unfortunately, before the third volume of this series (which wasn't written)—or, for that matter, the sequel to
Cats in Cyberspace
(which was)—could be published, the publisher went out of business, casting me and my books adrift. My search for a traditional publishing house to pick up the Bharaghlafi series was unsuccessful, so I set the project aside until a later time. The publishing industry as a whole went through a period of turmoil, which corresponded with deep changes in my life situation—with the result that my time and creative energies were absorbed by things other than writing novels. While
A Pariliament of Owls
doesn't have a cliff-hanger of an ending, it's nonetheless clear there is more story left to tell. I have felt a certain amount of guilt for leaving readers hanging, and have had to respond to many, many queries from readers wanting to know whatever happened to Ferret, Owl, and their friends.

One of the reasons I am putting my "backlist" books into e-book format is because I hope that making these titles available will provide sufficient income to justify my spending a greater part of my time actually writing—and
An Ambush of Tigers
is a top priority for that writing time. That said, I'm not a particularly fast writer, and it is a complicated story, so it won't be out this year. But I am committed to getting it written, so, while you shouldn't hold your breath or go on a hunger strike, you also should not lose hope. I wouldn't make this effort to introduce a new generation of readers to the world of the Bharaghlafi Empire if I didn't intend to continue the story arc in subsequent volumes.

The two most common questions I receive from fans of the Bharaghlafi series are: 1. When is
An Ambush of Tigers
coming out? and 2. How do you pronounce the names? I'm fairly sure that the uncomplicated-but-true answers to these two questions (1. Well, sometime after I finish it; and 2. However you like.) are not satisfying; I trust that this author's note will provide a more nuanced response.

So: about the names... If you're not one of those people who needs to know how the author pronounces her characters' names, feel free to skip this part; but for the curious, here's my attempt at a pronounciation guide. The weird-looking consonant combinations (
, etc.) approximate sounds that don't exist or are uncommon in English.
is a back-of-the-throat gutteral, much like
in German (
is a voiced
-sound (as in
falls somewhere between (in English)
is pronounced as English
is a
sound (as in the phrase
slick chimp
as in the phrase
ad hoc
denotes a flipped
sound and
a rolled
. The vowel
is usually a short
sound (as in
), except as an initial letter, where it is closer to a long
), or after
, where it has a long
sound (
is either an
sound or short (as in
is usually
(as in
), and is pronounced (though never stressed) when it is the last letter in a word;
is pronounced
, and o as in
There is (alas) no consistent rule for which syllable is stressed, though in two syllable names, it's generally the first (
RHY-dev, CYF-fe
); in three syllable names, either the first syllable (KHE-thy-ran AN-zhi-bhar, VEN-y-khar) or the second (y-CE-vi ghyt-TE-ve, ci-THAN-ekh) is stressed.

Beth Hilgartner, July 2015

Dramatis Personae


In the Slums

Ferret – an apprentice thief

Owl – a beggar

Kitten – a beggar

Donkey – potboy at the Trollop’s Smile

Mouse – a flower seller’s daughter with a talent for drawing

Squirrel – an errand boy

Sharkbait – a troublemaker and longshoreman, currently trying to organize dockworkers into a guild

Arkhyd – Innkeeper at the Trollop’s Smile and Donkey’s uncle

Zhazher – Owl’s brother; an addict

Khyzhan (Master) – a Master in the Thieves’ Guild and Ferret’s mentor

Ybhanne (Master) – a rival Master in the Thieves’ Guild

Anthagh – a slaver


In the Temple District

Kerigden – High Priest of the Windbringer

Anakher (Bishop) – Bishop of the Horselord’s Temple

Dedemar – a foreign mercenary in the Temple Guard


At the Court

Arre – a Seer and bard from the Kellande School in Kalledann; the Emperor’s lover

Emperor Khethyran (the Scholar King) – Emperor of Bharaghlaf

Venykhar Ghobhezh-Ykhave – the Councilor for House Ykhave

Adheran Dhenykhare – the Councilor for House Dhenykhare

Bhenekh (Commander) – Commander in the Imperial Guard

Ycevi Ghytteve (Lady) – Councilor for House Ghytteve

Cithanekh Anzhibhar-Ghytteve – possible heir to the throne and Ycevi’s cousin

Myncerre Ghytteve – Steward for House Ghytteve

Elkhar Ghytteve – chief of Ycevi’s bodyguard

Cezhar Ghytteve – a Ghytteve bodyguard

Rhan Ghytteve – a Ghytteve bodyguard (Cezhar’s brother)

Cyffe Ghytteve – a Ghytteve bodyguard (Elkhar’s sister)

Zhotar Ghytteve – a Ghytteve bodyguard

Alghaffen Ghytteve (Duke) – Duke of House Ghytteve

Mylazhe Ambhere – Councilor for House Ambhere

Enghan Mebhare – Councilor for House Mebhare

Rhydev Azhere – Councilor for House Azhere

Zherekhaf Azhere – the Prime Minister and Rhydev’s uncle

Ymlakh Glakhyre – Councilor for House Glakhyre

Dharhyan (Master) – Master of the Caravan Guild

Falkhan – a Watchman who also works for Rhydev Azhere

Ghorran – an Azhere bodyguard


Council Houses:

Anzhibhar – the Royal House

Ambhere – Mining

Azhere – Silk

Dhenykhare – Shipbuilding

Ghytteve – Coffee (drugs)

Glakhyre – Wool

Mebhare – Farming

Ykhave – Artisans

Ythande –Woodsdwellers/timber

Khyghafe – Nomads/horses




Yrkhaffe – the capitol city of the Bharaghlafi empire

Amarta (the Federated States of) – kingdom North of Bharaghlaf

Kalledann – a distant island country; home of the Kellande School


Slum/waterfront taverns:

Trollop’s Smile

Beaten Cur

Ivory Comb (waterfront)

Replete Feline (waterfront)


Gods (those with temples in the Temple District)

The Windbringer

The Horselord

The Dark Lady

Chapter One—The Foreign Witch

The Yrkhaffe waterfront churned with activity. The
Metara Kentis
was in port. Even the stifling heat wasn't enough to still the grunts and curses of the longshoremen as they unloaded barrels and crates: the fabled wine of Kalledann; wheat from Mebharev; and liquor from the shipmaster's home port in Amarta.

Ferret watched the bustle with a shrewd and practiced eye. A plenitude of marks milled among the laborers, but members of the Watch were intermixed, like leaven in a loaf; and Ferret had no desire to lose a hand to one of them. She let her breath out in an almost soundless hiss. She didn't even want to think about facing Master Khyzhan empty-handed at day's end.

A ripple of disturbance drew her attention to the
Metara Kentis's
berth. Ferret frowned. It wasn't like Shipmaster Kentis to carry passengers—and a
! The woman coming down the gangplank was thin, taller than most, dressed in a man's tunic and breeches which suited her lean frame well. As Ferret watched, the stranger waved farewell to the shipmaster; then, with the confidence of a fool or a fighter, she joined the throng on the shore.

Ferret lost interest. From her nest of shadows between waterfront taverns, she scanned the crowd like a predator. Too many Watch; her quick eyes counted easily three
of them. If she were caught with her fingers in someone's pocket, they'd run her down for sure. It was one of Khyzhan's maxims that caution was the best defense; but that wouldn't make him any easier to appease if she spent another day fruitless.

Ferret's wandering attention snagged again on the woman from the ship. As she approached, her eyes moved with an alert restlessness familiar to Ferret. Then, the woman's gaze crossed Ferret's—and snapped back, widening in recognition. Her lips parted, as though she caught her breath. Ferret's heart tripped, then began to sprint.

"You. Lass. Come here!" the woman hailed her.

Ferret's instinctive fade into the shadows was halted by the appearance of a Watchman at the woman's shoulder. She took quick stock, decided on a role to fit the situation: youthful innocence. She was small for her age; it was usually easy to make people think her far younger than her sixteen years.

"Trouble, Lady?" he rumbled.

Ferret forced herself into the light, playing the injured innocent. "I've not done aught."

"No trouble, good sir," the woman assured the guard. "I thought I recognized a friend."

The guard moved on; as he passed Ferret, he growled, "Mind your step, Wharf-rat. I've an eye on you."

Despite her training, Ferret wet her lips nervously. "What game're you playing?" she warily asked the woman.

The woman smiled. "What's your name, lass?"

"Why do you care? I'm naught to you."

There was something compelling about the stranger. Her eyes—odd colored: one green and one blue—held Ferret as firmly as any Watchman's grip; and she seemed really to see her, to see
, not the child she acted. Her rich voice spoke the Bharaghlafi tongue with a lilting accent. "You're mistaken," she said quietly. "You
something to me, though I'm not quite sure what. My name is Arre; I am a Kellande Seer. I have dreamed of you." She smiled again, gently, seeing the naked fear her words produced. "It's nothing to fear. I'd never harm you."

Ferret managed a skeptical look. "Gods and fish," she swore. "You tell me I'm deep in your heathen witchcraft, and then say I've naught to fear."

The woman said an exasperated word in her own language. "What's your name? Where do you live?"

With a bravura Ferret didn't feel, she lifted her pointed chin and eyed the foreigner insolently. "I'm Ferret. I live in the Slums. I'm a thief."

The stranger's gaze grew distant; the shadow of concern touched her brow. "Don't steal today, Ferret," she said softly.

"Oh, aye," Ferret said sarcastically. "Heathen witchcraft makes you high-minded, but what am I to eat at day's end?"

The stranger opened her purse and poured a stream of coins into Ferret's palms. "Don't steal today, Ferret," she repeated.

She left Ferret staring at the coins in her cupped hands. When the pickpocket looked up, Arre was gone. "Praise to the Windbringer," Ferret whispered as she hid the coins. "Yon woman's clean daft." There had been more silver in the clutch of coins than copper—three Guilds would more than satisfy Khyzhan. As her mind spun plans, she eased through the wharf crowds, heading for her burrow in the Slums.

The Yrkhaffe Slums filled a wedge of territory between the waterfront and the forbidding walls of the Temple District: a warren of streets and alleys, rife with violence, filth and the stench of despair. Dilapidated tenements leaned over ramshackle huts and hovels; abandoned warehouses did duty as market, counting house, tavern or flophouse. Beggars thronged the waterfront border and the Temple Gate, but the poor were everywhere. The Masters of the Slum-Guilds ruled with iron fists, but the Watch kept their distance. As long as the contagion of poverty and crime was contained, as long as the streets of the "respectable" districts of Yrkhaffe were reasonably safe, as long as (it was said) the bribes were paid on time and in full, the Watch left the Slums' inhabitants to their own, brutal justice.

Ferret had never known any other home. The broader streets of the respectable districts, into which she occasionally ventured in pursuit of her living, left her feeling dangerously exposed. She made her way to the rooftop shelter where she currently slept; her ascent involved several questionable railings and a stretch of very treacherous tiles, but she was small, whippet thin and agile as her namesake. She had made a rough shelter of some rotted beams and a tattered piece of canvas, and had carefully fashioned a place to store things beneath a loose roof tile. Her worldly possessions consisted of two changes of clothing (neither in good shape), a ratty blanket, a small clay brazier, several scavenged jars which contained her meager stores, a battered pot, a large stoneware bowl, an assortment of mismatched, chipped crockery, four wooden spoons and a good, sharp knife. Now, as she swiftly sorted the coins, her eyes widened in renewed amazement: a Half-Noble; twenty silver Guilds; twelve copper Commons. She chewed the inside of her cheek; too much, and Khyzhan would be suspicious: too little, and he would be angry. In the end, she wrapped the Half-Noble, all but two of the Guilds, and eight Commons in a rag, and tucked the fortune into her hidey hole. Then, she eased her way to the street and made for the Temple Gate. She'd do as the foreign witch advised since the woman had paid her handsomely, and keep her hands in her own pockets; but to lie low the whole afternoon would be to invite suspicion. It was hard to mislead Khyzhan if he took it into his head to ask questions. With luck, Owl or Kitten would be begging at the Gate.


There were actually two gates at the Temple Gate. The first gave onto a huge open courtyard, paved with the ubiquitous silvery slate which was quarried from The Spine, a range of tired mountains at the city's back. The first gate was set in a chest-high stone wall, more a symbolic boundary than a real one, which kept the crowding Slum buildings at a distance. It was often

called the "Waiting Wall"—an allusion to its role as a central meeting place for all but the most elevated of Yrkhaffe's residents; and today, as most days, it was the haunt of beggars, gamblers throwing
bones, loiterers, small vendors, and the
players with their portable game tables. Across the square the second gate, through which one gained entrance to the wide boulevards and manicured lawns of the Temple District, was guarded by two
of Temple Watch in gray and scarlet tabards. Ferret gave the guarded gate wide berth as she searched the crowds for her friends.

There! Owl. He was attached to the sleeve of an avuncular merchant; Ferret knew better than to interrupt. Even from this distance, she could see how Owl's soulful eyes drew concern from his mark. She nodded to herself as the man dug into his pockets to find coins for the waif.

"Happen it's not fair to put the touch on him," remarked a voice which quivered with the edge of laughter.

"Ho, Kitten," Ferret greeted her friend.

"I got him on his way in," she went on, mischief glinting in her hazel eyes. "He gave me a whole Guild. And happen his Temple took him for something. If Owl doesn't pry a Half-Noble out of him, I'll be surprised. How's pickings, Ferret?"

"I've done for the day," she told the younger girl. "I'd a good haul, but there's naught of sense in straining luck."

"'Caution is the best defense,'" Kitten quoted.

Ferret looked at her sharply. "Dinna let yon kite Khyzhan get his talons into you."

!" Kitten protested, using her nickname for Ferret. "Happen I'd best learn a trade. I willn't be small and cute forever."

"Learn a trade—but not from Khyzhan. I'll teach you what I know, if learning's what you want, but he's a scavenger—and hard. Please, Kitten: wait on it."

As the spark of her rebellion dimmed, Kitten smiled wryly. "I'd the same lecture—nearly word for word—from Squirrel this morning. Happen you're both right."

Just then, Owl joined them. "Ho, Ferret; ho, Kitten."

"How'd you do?" Kitten asked eagerly.

He slapped his fist into his open palm in a gesture of enthusiasm. "Half-Noble, and two Guilds. If I'd caught him on his way in, happen I'd have gotten a whole Noble out of him."

"Listen, Owl," Ferret said. "You should hide that Half-Noble away. Give Zhazher the Guilds, and your other pickings, but save the bounty; he canna expect it—and he'll only buy Dream's Ease with it. You'd best have a thought for the future."

Owl's face clouded. "Happen you're right," he admitted. "But Zhazh always knows when I hold back. Lately, he's begun to say he thinks I'd be of more use crippled or blind."

Ferret shuddered, but Kitten's reply was matter of fact. "Not blind," she said firmly. "It's your eyes that make the difference between the Guild I got out of yon fat merchant, and the Noble you'd have gotten if you'd hit him when I did."

Owl actually laughed. "I'd best take you along to talk to Zhazh. Crippled I could probably face, but
... Lady of Sorrows, that scares me."

The warning clash of cymbals made the three friends run for the Waiting Wall and vault onto it. A cymbal-bearing herald and a
of Temple Watch cleared the way for a litter borne by four men. The crowd quieted as necks craned to catch a glimpse of the personage who caused the disruption. The litter's blue and white curtains were tied back revealing a man with flaming red hair, dressed in gray robes, a harp in his hands.

"Windbringer priest," Owl murmured. "I've seen this one before. He usually walks."

" The shout—a voice accustomed to making itself heard—cut over the desultory crowd noise. The priest's head turned. The children were close enough to see his expression change.

Praise to the Windbringer! What breeze brings you hither?" He held up one hand to stop the litter, but Ferret was no longer watching him. Her mysterious stranger strode confidently toward the priest.

The three friends—and most of the crowd—watched while the priest and the woman spoke quietly. Then, the woman bowed and the priest sketched a blessing before he waved his bearers on. As Arre turned away, her watchful eyes touched the trio on the wall. She froze for an instant, staring at them all in startlement. They stared back. Then, with an apologetic smile, she shrugged and went about her business.

Kitten looked from Ferret's stunned face to Owl's frightened one. Annoyance brushed her features. "What's the matter?" she demanded. "Fret, you look poleaxed, and Owl—" She broke off in alarm as Owl dropped his face into his hands. His shoulders began to shake, as though he were weeping.

," both girls exclaimed, "what is it?"

He raised tear-brimming eyes to theirs. "Sweet Lady of Sorrows," he whispered. "I must be going mad."

"What do you mean?" Ferret demanded.

He gestured vaguely in the direction Arre had gone. "Yon woman:
I dreamed of her
. She was on a ship, standing near the prow with the wind in her hair. It was..." His voice was oddly flat, his gaze unfocused. "It was the
Metara Kentis
." He shook his head roughly, as though to shake loose the things he had seen, and managed a weak smile. "I'm sorry. I dinna mean to alarm you."

," Kitten said, noting the expression on the older girl's face. "What's the matter with

"This is the oddest nest of coincidences," Ferret said. "But we'd best not talk here. I've a bit of coffee in my lair. I'll share it with you and tell you the whole tale. Happen the three of us can make sense of it."

BOOK: A Business of Ferrets (Bharaghlafi Book 1)
12.24Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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