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Authors: David Dalglish

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A Dance of Blades (3 page)

BOOK: A Dance of Blades
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The man slowly shook his head.“This is my time to speak,” he said. “Ask your questions when I am done, for I need your ears listening and your mind open. I do not know who prepared your betrayal, but I am sure they are one of the dead at my feet. They are ash now, a fitting end given the name of your guild. Think now on what you see. I handled what seven men of yours could not. Where they died, betrayed, I came and killed the betrayers. I am alone, woman. Now ask yourself, what use might I be to you? Surely I am worth the seven that died.”

“He’s lying,” said Pryor. “He killed them all! Greg, Brendan…he killed them!”

The man shook his head, and his shoulders sagged further.

“Don’t make a fool of yourself. Fools die around me, as is fitting.”

Veliana cried out for her Pryor to stop, but it was too late. He flung a dagger at the stranger, who avoided the hasty throw by a simple tilt of his head. His retaliation came swift, his dagger piercing a lung as it embedded into the thief’s chest. The rest of the Ash Guild prepared to attack, but Veliana snapped at them to remain back.

“Who are you?” she asked. “What is your name?”

For a moment his look shifted, and she saw an incredible sadness lurking behind those eyes. He lifted the gray cloth and let it unfurl from his hand, revealing the eyeholes.

“My real name is lost,” he said. “For it was banished from me by a power I cannot challenge. I have only the name they left me. I am Death, and this is my mask.”

And then he smiled, and she found that just maybe she could find him attractive.

“You’ll start as the lowest rank,” she told him. “You’ll receive no special treatment, no favors. That acceptable?”

He nodded. A quick word from her, and the Ash members hurried forward to grab the crate. ‘Death’ stepped aside, and he watched with disinterest. Veliana chewed her lip as she thought of what exactly she would tell Garrick Lowe, their new guildmaster. He wouldn’t be too thrilled with the loss of men, but at least they still had their merchandise. As for this Death and his mask…

She slipped closer. She wanted to understand him, his motives. He might be a trap, or a disaster she was blindly bringing in to their guild. The blame would all fall on her.

“Don’t betray me,” she whispered to him as the rest hauled off the crate. “I don’t care how strong you think you are, I’ve fought stronger, I’ve survived better. You walk into this willingly, but the only way you walk out is dead. Do you understand me?”

He tied the cloth over his face, and through the holes in the mask, winked at her.

“The only way I leave will be as your guildmaster,” he said.

Because of the mask, she could not see if he smiled, or search his features for tells. In the end, she decided it didn’t matter.

“Come with me,” she said. “You’re bound to make waves, so I think it best Garrick meet with you now…assuming he trusts you enough to be in the same room.”

He moved, faster than she thought possible. His left hand wrapped around her waist. His right grabbed her wrist, and he pulled her close. She tried to draw her dagger, but he held her tight. Their eyes locked on one another.

“You were brave enough to come this close,” he said, his voice nearly a whisper. “And even in my arms, you do not tremble. I will remember that. Tell me, woman, what is
your
name?”

“Veliana,” she said.

He let her go. She slapped him, and he straightened his mask.

“Deserved, and well worth it,” he said. “Lead on, Veliana. I wish to see your guildmaster.”

S
he waited until they’d secured the powder in a separate safe house before taking the strange man with her to meet Garrick. They’d moved around many times, a result of their weak status and constant war with the rest of the guilds. Only recently had they made peace with most, though the Hawk Guild still preyed heavily upon them. If not for this…Death…then Veliana knew there was a good chance she’d be a corpse.

Assuming he wasn’t part of the trap.

Their current base was in the confines of a small merchant guild, one desperate enough for coin that they’d accepted Garrick’s bribes. As lairs went, it wasn’t the most secretive, but at least it was warm in the winter months, and moderately well furnished. Veliana led them through a side door. Four steps down they stopped at a basement door, with small lamps burning for light at either side. She frowned at the lack of guards. No doubt they were on the inside. Garrick liked having his protectors there with him at all times, even if it wasn’t safer. They should have been out in the cold, keeping watch so they could lock and bar the door if something went awry.

But of course the door was locked and barred anyway when she tried to open it. Rolling her eyes, she knocked twice, then once. She heard the scraping of metal, and then a slit opened to reveal a bloodshot pair of eyes.

“Say the pass,” said the guard.

“Veliana. Now open the damn door.”

There was a password, of course. Three, even, in case she needed to alert them to a hidden threat. But she was in no mood, and she knew the guard on the other side was too spineless to refuse her entrance. The slit closed, and as they heard a loud thumping, Death chuckled behind her.

“Your professionalism is astounding,” he said. “I know I came with few expectations, but still, I feel them failing to be met.”

“Quiet,” she said. “And stay here. I’ll need to introduce you to Garrick first.”

She paused and gave him a glance. The mask hid his face, but she couldn’t fight off the feeling he was smirking at her.

“Just how should I introduce you, anyway?” she asked.

“I told you, I have no name.”

“That makes for a poor introduction. Should I call you Death? It’s a little over the top, but I’ve heard worse.”

“Death might be too great a mantle for me to wear,” said the man. “But I can bear no name for the curse given me. All I have is my mask. Perhaps you can call me that.”

The door opened, and she stepped inside. A guard stood at either side, their daggers drawn. The room was well lit with many lanterns. At one end were tables of maps, documents, and a locked chest for guild funds. At the other were blankets, pillows, and illegal measures of comfort. Amid the meager luxury sat Garrick, his eyes glazed from the substance he smoked through a short pipe. Several other men lay scattered about him, their senses just as dull from the smoke and liquor.

“Veliana!” Garrick said, standing. “Did the trade go through as…”

He stopped as Veliana’s guest shoved his way inside, so fast that he was beside her before the guards reacted. He made no threatening motion, only stayed at her side. With an elaborate bow, he greeted the guildmaster.

“Mighty Garrick, how the shadows tremble when I mention your name,” he said, and Veliana felt anger burn inside her at the obvious sarcasm. Garrick, however, seemed oblivious to it. Instead, he appeared worried by the newcomer’s strange attire and sudden entrance. He stepped back and ran a hand through his long brown hair, a sign Veliana knew meant he was nervous.

“And who are you?” he asked. “A friend of Veliana’s?”

“This is…Death’s Mask,” she said. “He helped us tonight, may have saved many lives. We’ve been betrayed, Garrick. When we…”

“Do you still have the powder?” Garrick interrupted.

“I…yes, we do.”

“Good, good,” said Garrick. He sat back down on the cushions, drew his dagger, and held it in hand while he listened. “Now what is this betrayal you speak of? And tell me again…” – he made a sound like a cross of a laugh and a cough – “who this Death…Deathmask is?”

“One of your men betrayed you, killed the rest, and hoped to have the Hawks destroy your guild as you came to make the trade,” said Deathmask, accepting the name without pause. “I killed them as a way of showing you my worth. I wished to join your Ash Guild, and Veliana has accepted me.”

Veliana opened her mouth to correct him, then shut it. It was pointless to argue now, and Garrick’s eyes flared at what he’d heard. He set his pipe aside and gently touched the tip of his dagger.

“And how did you know this ambush was to take place?” he asked.

Deathmask smiled but did not answer.

“No matter,” Garrick said. “I take it our betrayer was killed?”

“Painfully,” said Deathmask.

“Good. The more pressing question, then, is why the Hawks are so eager to come down on us. I must think about this.”

“Think?” asked Veliana. “We need to counter, and quickly, before they know their ambush failed. Surely there’s a few of theirs scouting our streets. If we can mark our borders with their blood, we can send a message.”

“We will do no such thing,” Garrick said. He winced as he pierced his skin with the dagger’s tip, but instead of cleaning it, he watched the blood trickle down the blade. “I will handle this in my own manner. Kadish Vel is no real threat to us.”

“With all due respect,” said Deathmask, “he’d have killed either of you today if it weren’t for me.”

The room turned silent, and the rest of the thieves lounging about watched as if awaiting an execution.

“Is that so?” asked Garrick. Veliana tensed, wondering what he would do. “Then it is a good thing we have you now, isn’t it? Patrick, take him upstairs and get him fitted for a cloak. Wouldn’t want him showing the wrong colors, would we?”

Deathmask bowed, shot Veliana a wink, and then followed his escort out of the basement. Garrick stood and looked to the others.

“Out,” he told them. “You’ve smoked enough of my wealth. Get out!”

They all jumped to leave, all but Veliana. She could see the way he stared at her and knew herself exempt from the command. As the last shut the door, Garrick strode over and grabbed her by the throat.

“Have you lost your damn mind?” he asked.

She kept her breathing calm as his fingers tightened. He wouldn’t leave a bruise, not yet, but if he did…

“And have you lost yours?” she asked. He raised an eyebrow. The veins in his eyes pulsed, their edges yellow. In answer to his question, she drew one of her daggers and pressed its edge against his wrists.

“Tighter,” she said. “I dare you.”

He let her go and stepped back. Blood dripped from his finger, and he glared at the stains on the floor.

“I am your guildmaster,” he said, as if that should have meant everything.

“I could replace you in a heartbeat.”

“But they’ll never follow you,” Garrick said, gesturing toward the door. “Them out there…they’re savages. They’re pigs. If they thought the only thing standing between them and ruling this guild was…was a
woman
, they’d strip you naked and take turns owning you.”

“They’d die if they tried,” Veliana said. She knew Garrick thought himself worth far more than he really was, but this was the most brazen he’d ever been. Something had changed, given him confidence…but what?

“Some, yes,” said Garrick, and a gleam shone in his drug-maddened eyes. “But not all. You need me, Vel. They listen to me. They trust me. I kept this guild together after James’s death. I kept our dealings going. I kept our coffers from emptying and our territory from becoming nothing more than a single penniless street.”

“That was
me
,” Veliana shouted, not caring if others might hear from behind the door. “I’m the one who bloodied her hands. I’m the one who gave them stability.”

“But do they know that?” he asked. He stepped closer to her, a smile growing on his face. It was the drugs, she thought. It had to be the drugs. Ignoring the daggers, he gently ran a hand along the wicked scar across her beautiful face, cutting from forehead to chin, discoloring her right eye from a dazzling violet to a red orb of blood.

“They won’t follow you,” he said again. “You’re damaged beauty. You’re dangerous, and they respect that, but they won’t submit to it. They listen now only because the specter of my authority hangs over you. Just like it did with James. You need me, just as I need you. More, even. Never forget that.”

She bit her tongue and fought down a thousand fantasies of plunging her daggers deep into his throat. Garrick walked back to his cushion, retrieved his pipe, and began the laborious process of filling it anew.

“I don’t care how powerful that freak is,” he said, meaning Deathmask. “I want him killed by tomorrow night, no matter how you do it. He’s clearly trouble, and in someone’s pocket. Cut his throat before he can accomplish whatever task he was sent here for. Deathmask? What a stupid name.”

“If you say so,” she said, nodding her head. “I’ll be in my quarters. I trust you’ll handle the matter of the Hawk Guild in an appropriate manner?”

Garrick smiled as she headed for the door.

“Dear Veliana, there are a thousand promises and lies between us all. You aren’t aware of half of them. Trust me. We’ll be fine.”

She left without giving him the dignity of a response.

1

H
aern slept beside the shop of a baker he’d befriended. Besides gaining an occasional scrap of bread, it let him take in the warm smells while he slept. He kept himself wrapped in blankets, never bothering to hide his face. His blond hair was matted to the sides of his head, much of his skin covered with dirt. He’d always been a clean, meticulous child. More than anything since his self-imposed exile from the Spider Guild, that bothered him the most. He knew there were ways he could wash up, obtain cleaner clothes, but it’d never work. What homeless, coinless man lived on the side of the street, yet kept a clean face and hands?

He had a small bowl before him, not expecting any alms but feeling his heart warm when he received them. It was mainly there for looks. Every guild in the city of Veldaren wanted him dead, and he wouldn’t draw needless attention to himself by neglecting the minor details.

Just before nightfall, he stirred. The baker had gone home for the day, so he picked the familiar lock and slipped inside. He stole two slices of bread, dumped his bowl’s coins across the counter to pay for the meal, and then left. He ate as he walked south along the main road, turning off after half a mile and heading directly into the territory of the Serpent Guild. He added a limp and ran through his persona for dealing with the Serpents. He let his lower jaw hang a little, and muttered a few random words, practicing his lisp. His name was Berg. He was often drunk. Like all his personae, he worked odd jobs, whatever paid him coin, and that gave him excuse to know things he shouldn’t know.

Like how the Watcher had intercepted a shipment of gold from the Serpent Guild bearing the Gemcroft sigil.

His contact was a one-eyed ruffian originally from the far west nation of Mordan. He leaned beside the entrance of an inn, smoking a long pipe. His name was Mensk.

“What you want, Berg?” Mensk asked. He looked him over with his one eye, and he didn’t hide his shudder at Haern’s stink.

“I overheard something,” Haern said with a lisp. “Something worth at least a silver.”

Mensk’s eyes narrowed.

“Nothing you could have heard is worth that much. Five coppers if I decide it’s useful, one otherwise, and none if I’ve heard it already.”

“Six coppers,” Haern said, knowing he wouldn’t get it but also knowing that his persona would at least make the attempt.

“Five,” Mensk said, frowning. “Now spit it out before I lower it.”

“I was drinking by the east wall last night, and I saw something, something strange. There were some of your guild, you Serpents, by the wall. They were lifting something over…a crate, valuable, yes?”

By now he had Mensk’s attention. The thief had drawn his dagger and held it behind his back. So on edge…clearly the shipment’s secrecy was beyond important.

“It might be,” Mensk said. “That all you saw?”

Haern shook his head.

“No, oh no. I wouldn’t have come here for just that. Why tell you your own business? No, what I saw was the Watcher. He killed them, all but a few!”

“We know who killed them,” Mensk said. He shifted a little, placing his right foot a few inches back. He was preparing for a stab. Haern kept his breathing steady, not letting a shred of fear show in his eyes. Oblivious…he had to act oblivious…

“But did you know the one who killed them was a Hawk?” he asked.

There. He saw the momentary pause in Mensk’s eyes and knew he had him.

“What?” he asked.

“Oh no,” Haern said, stepping out of stabbing range. He exaggerated his lisp further to pretend excitement. “This gets me seven coppers, or I go to someone else who’ll pay.”

“Here’s six,” Mensk said, tossing them to the dirt. “Now tell me what you know!”

Haern flung himself to the ground and began scooping up the coins, all the while rambling.

“I saw him skulking along the rooftop. I wanted to shout warning, I did, but it was too fast, you know? One moment I see him, and I’m wondering what some damn fool is doing on the roof, and then he’s whirling and cutting. Gods, never seen so much blood.”

“The Hawks?” Mensk asked, prodding him along.

“Oh, well, I saw him pull out a pendant just before he attacked. Now it was dark and far away, but I swear the moon was bright enough. It had a feather on it, just one feather, plus I think an eye. That’s their new symbol, right, symbol for the Hawks? Thanks for the coppers, Mensk!”

He stood and stepped back. With the added distance, he knew Mensk wouldn’t come after him, not when he could just turn and run. A bit of disappointment came over the thief’s face, which pleased him immensely. He’d told such lies before, always to various guilds. With the distance and the dark, his proof was meager, but that was the point. A thousand tiny lies and misdirections would add up to a far greater proof than a single disprovable accusation. He wanted the guilds at each other’s throats, always convinced the Watcher was one of their own. Mensk would pass along what he’d heard, storing it away with all the other tales he’d whispered over the years.

“Get out of here,” Mensk said. “And I should only pay you three for something that worthless.”

“If I’m right, you know I should get a hundred silver,” Haern said as he limped along. “But I like you Serpents. Always treated me fair, helped find me roofs to put over my head. I sure hope that Watcher didn’t disrupt anything important. Would hate for him to put you in a bad bind…”

“I said get out,” Mensk said, revealing his dagger. “Those shipments’ll continue no matter what that bastard does. Now get your ass out of my sight before I decide to take back my coin.”

Haern fled, and once he reached the main merchant road, he abandoned the limp and started trudging north. In the light of the stars, he pondered over what he’d learned. Every time he sold information, he always managed to sneak out with a little bit more. That shipment of gold hadn’t been a one-time deal. Obviously they were important, and the Serpent Guild wanted them to continue. Originally he’d thought them just lucky robbers of the Gemcroft mines, but now…

Now he was intrigued.

But of course he still had plenty of misinformation to spread. This time he wound his way to the territory of the Hawks, putting a scowl over his face and adopting a new persona, just another hardworking peasant hoping to eke out enough copper for a few extra drinks. He went to their headquarters, a tavern where their leader, Kadish Vel, no doubt played cards in a private room in the back. Again his contact waited by the door, a big man whose name he didn’t know, only his nickname: ‘Fists.’ In working his way into the man’s trust, Haern had had to endure a few beatings that showed where that nickname came from.

“It’s late for someone weak as you,” said Fists as Haern approached.

“Never too late for a good drink,” he said.

Fists smirked at that. “Good drink? You won’t find that here. What you have to tell me?”

“I saw a shipment coming in over the wall, and I think the Serpents were…”

He saw the attack coming long before Fists did. Haern dove to the side as arrows thudded into the tavern. He heard Fists groan, and a glance back showed two arrows in his belly. Haern raced around the building, out of reach of the tavern’s torchlight. As he turned the corner he slammed into a cloaked man with daggers at ready. Haern rolled along, separating their bodies. He leapt to his feet, his swords in hand. With the greater reach, he had the advantage, and his opponent knew it. The thief lunged in, hoping for a strike before Haern could prepare.

But the lunge was too slow. Haern twisted so the dagger brushed his side without drawing blood, then slashed around with his swords. One cut deep into his opponent’s extended arm, the other kept the other dagger out of position. As the thief cried out in pain, Haern pulled his swords back and then stabbed. The man tried to block, but he was unbalanced, his arms poorly placed. Haern yanked out his blades and kicked the body. He frowned at the color of the cloak. He’d first thought the Serpents had followed him for knowing about the gold, but instead this man wore the gray of the Spider Guild.

He heard the sound of a bowstring drawing tight, and he dove on instinct. The arrow plinked the stone beside him, poking a hole in his cloak but doing no damage. His attacker was on the roof, readying another arrow. Haern spun, flinging his cloaks into a confusing display, and then leaping the opposite direction. Again the arrow missed. By now he’d raced around the corner, cursing his bad luck. Why had the Spider Guild come now? What reason did they have to war with the Hawks?

His flight took him back to front of the tavern. Several Serpents had come out to fight, but nearly all bore crimson stains on their green cloaks. The Spiders moved in, outnumbering them two to one. Haern took in the combat as quick as he could, searching for a safe route. Underneath the awning over the tavern entrance he was safe from the archer, but in plain view of the rest of the thieves. They’d set up a perimeter, but he trusted himself to break through. He was the Spider Guild’s champion, after all, their greatest creation and most disappointing failure. That, and they all thought he was dead, a belief he didn’t want to change. He’d grown much over the past five years, but still, someone might recognize him underneath the dirt…

One of the Spiders saw him there, saw the blood on his swords. When he started to attack, Haern met his charge with a vicious assault of his own, surprising his opponent with sudden, overwhelming fury. He batted away a pair of daggers, cut open his throat, and then bolted to the street. Two more moved to stop him but Haern slide-kicked between them, scraping his leg along the hard ground. He cut the thigh of one and curled his sword around to hamstring the other. As they fell screaming, he ran, hoping they would not chase. None did, but he didn’t go far.

Knowing he was being stupid didn’t stop Haern from doing it. He hurried back to the Hawk headquarters. The perimeter had closed in, and it seemed most of the fighting had stopped. Various members of the Spider Guild stood near the entrance, most keeping watch while a few rifled through the bodies.

And then he saw him: Thren Felhorn, leader of the Spider Guild. His father.

“Why?” Haern asked as he watched the man walk into the tavern as if it were his own, accompanied by four of his men. “What did they do to you?”

He resolved to find out, but not now. He turned and headed back toward the city’s center, realizing for the first time he was limping. After stealing a bottle from a man laying face down in the ditch (whether dead or unconscious, he didn’t know), he took a momentary reprieve to clean his scraped leg and splash some alcohol across it. After the pain subsided, he continued on.

He had two possible avenues to pursue. He could discover the reason for the Hawks’ and Spiders’ squabble, or he could look into the mystery of the Serpents’ gold. Doing his best to convince himself it had nothing to do with any fear of his father, he resolved to look into the gold. Guilds fought all the time; he had no proof this was any different. Shipments from the Gemcroft mines, however…

After breaking into another shop and stealing a few supplies, he found one of the quieter stretches along the great wall surrounding the city of Veldaren, climbed the steps, and then scaled down the wall with a rope he tied at the top. Once out, he trekked northeast, following the main path around the King’s Forest toward Felwood Castle. Beyond that were the Crestwall Mountains and the many villages around the Gemcroft mines. Out there he might find some information. If he could hurt one of the guilds, really hurt their wealth, perhaps he could end their war with the Trifect.

He laughed as he walked. End the war. It seemed nothing would. It had continued for ten years and seemed ready for another ten. But at least he might make things uncomfortable for a while. He’d done his part to weaken and bleed the guilds, to punish them for the bloodshed he’d witnessed firsthand. Senke, his friend, Robert Haern, his mentor, Kayla, his first crush, and Delysia…

His father had shot her with an arrow for daring to love him. He still relived that moment in his nightmares, sitting on a rooftop with her bleeding over his hands. He’d thought her dead, but Kayla had later told him she lived with the priests of Ashhur. And then Thren had killed Kayla. As for Senke, he’d heard he died in the fire at Connington’s estate during the Bloody Kensgold.

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