Dead Stars - Part One (The Emaneska Series) (12 page)

BOOK: Dead Stars - Part One (The Emaneska Series)
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Proposition
, Osha.’

‘That’s it.’

‘Ugh. Hold on.’

Jeasin grabbed the coin purses sitting on the side table and tucked them under the straw mattress of her bed. She stood up and wrapped the blanket tightly around her, feeling her way to the window and a little wooden box on the window-ledge. She lifted its carved lid and reached inside, feeling the cold kiss and scrape of a little blade. She tucked it under the fold of her blanket and shut the box.

‘Show ‘im in then.’

Osha pushed the door wider and gestured to the man. Had Jeasin been able to see him, she would have seen a tall, thin gentleman, almost treelike with his spindly arms and skinny legs, like a winter-bitten willow escaped from a riverbank. His face was gaunt, his eyes a dark shade of brown, and his nose wide and crooked, a sign it had been broken some time in the past. It hadn’t been set well. His hair was shaved within a fraction of its life, so that the landscape of his skull could be seen, and already the years were beginning to pull its borders back. He wore a tight-fitting tunic and a long, heavy-looking jacket made of bear-leather.

As Osha opened the door, he took three long strides into the room and stood patiently at the corner of her bed, a round cap clutched in his hands. He stared at the woman by the window, and waited for Osha to shut the door behind him. Osha waited for Jeasin’s word.

‘It’s alright, Osha. You can go now,’ she said, trying to sense the manner of man standing in her room. The door shut and Jeasin smiled a tight, impatient smile. ‘What can I do for you then?’

‘Straight to the point then, miss. Right you are,’ replied the man, in a clipped and formal tone. His accent was from the Leath, maybe Clannor, duchy. ‘I have a proposal for you, from the Duke himself.’

At this, her ears pricked. ‘Which one?’

‘Why, Kiltyrin, of course. Your very duke. Kiltyrin himself.’

She wanted to ask why Farden couldn’t have delivered it, but decided that was a dangerous question. The mage was right about keeping her mouth shut. Farden was supposed to be a shadow, the smoke to Kiltyrin’s fire; faceless, deadly, and impossible to grasp. The Duke might get nervous should he learn that his favourite killer, and his employment, was known in a city cathouse. She had worked miracles to keep it quiet the last few years. Nobody gossiped like the girls of her house. Jeasin had often cursed the mage for telling her who and what he was; no doubt he did the same. ‘And what is it?’ she asked.

The man looked around at the little room, at its peeling wallpaper and well-trodden floor boards. Its rickety bed. ‘A man just left this room, a man in a hood and cloak.’

Jeasin shrugged, trying not to show that her nerves had just been plucked. This line of questioning had a sharp, sour edge to it. Was this man even from the Duke? ‘If you ‘adn’t noticed,’ she pointed to her eyes. ‘I don’t see what people are wearin’.’

The man smiled. ‘My apologies, miss. But do you know the man to which I refer?’

‘I know
a
man. Don’t know ‘is name. Never had ‘im before, sorry.’

‘I already know his name. That’s not what I’m after.’

‘Then what d’you want from me?’

There were two thuds as the man took a step forward. Under the blanket, Jeasin throttled the handle of her little dagger. ‘I noticed that you’ve got a lot of girls here, and not a lot of men to protect them.’

Jeasin could tell the blood was draining from her face, betraying her. Her confidence was cracking. ‘It’s somethin’ we’ve been meanin’ to fix,’ she said.

‘Guards cost a lot of coin, especially in this part of Tayn. The Duke could help you. Keep your girls safe here. Remove the competition, so to speak. Give you his seal of approval.’

‘And why would ‘is lordship do such a thing for me?’ asked Jeasin, suspicious. Nothing like this ever came for free. Not to a woman like her.

The man spread his hands wide. ‘Because you’re going to do something for him.’

‘Am I now?’

‘When that man returns tonight, which we both know he will, I want to be in the next room, watching.’

Jeasin pulled an acidic face. ‘I’m sure the Duke’s business ain’t whatever strange fantasies happen to light your candle, sir.’

The man laughed then, a loud braying laugh that made Jeasin jump. ‘That’s where you’re wrong, miss, on both accounts. I just want to make sure of something, that’s all. Check we’ve got the right man, understand? We wouldn’t want our lordship making any uninformed decisions, now would we?’

Jeasin shook her head. Was this a trick? Was Farden in trouble?

‘Of course not. So then, miss, will you do something for your Duke?’

‘An’ who’s to say this man’ll come back?’

The man smiled. ‘I think we both know he will.’

Jeasin was torn. Torn, confused, and filled with the dull burn of unease. There was something decidedly suspicious about all of this. Why would the Duke send a man to check up on Farden? Was this man even from the Duke? In the silence after his question, she heard a bang and a crash downstairs, the man shouting something incoherent, and the unmistakable yells of women. She winced. ‘I need somethin’,’ she blurted. ‘Up front. Token o’ good will.’

The man chuckled. ‘The Duke and I guessed as much.’ The man reached inside his coat and withdrew an envelope made of yellow parchment. He tapped the front of it, where a circular design was stamped in blood-red wax. ‘Consider this a fraction of what’s to come, should you play your cards right, miss. And if you have any doubt, there is a seal on the front of this envelope, made by the Duke’s own ring. Have your girls take a look at it,’ the man instructed. He tossed the envelope on the rumpled bed, placed his flat cap on his balding brow, and turned to leave. ‘I will return in a few hours.’

Jeasin found herself asking a question. A sly hope maybe. ‘An’ what if he don’t come back?’

The door creaked as the man opened it. There was a scuffle as Osha leapt away from the door, innocently scratching her ear. The man gave the little girl a dark look and she scuttled off down the hallway. ‘He will,’ he replied, and with that he shut the door, and left.

Jeasin took a big breath. Her thoughts all spoke at once, each demanding an audience. She laid her dagger on the windowsill and felt her way to the bed. She patted the sheets until she found the rough parchment envelope, ran her finger over the rubbery seal, and quickly delved inside. She froze. Very rarely did she curse her blindness and long to witness certain things, but in that moment, she did.

It wasn’t every day that one gets to see their hands full to the brim with tiny, cold gemstones.

Chapter 5

“If a man is defined by his actions, then call a man who quaffs ale a drinker, call a man who plies the waves a sailor, and call a murderer a murderer.”

Old Arka proverb

I
f there was one aspect of Tayn that annoyed Farden the most, besides the lingering odour of the canals, the infuriating and constant use of gravel as a road surface, and the dullards that inhabited its walls, it was the insects that ruled the hours of twilight.

Not content with the usual sort of flying pests, like mosquitos, gnats, moths, and the other routine offenders, Tayn’s dirty canals had bred a few of its very own species in the last few years, as the winter had weakened. One of these pests in particular was something the citizens of the city had fondly dubbed “firefangs”.

Farden slapped his chest for the tenth time, wondering how the creatures kept infiltrating his clothes. He winced as he felt the sting of the insect’s teeth spreading across his skin. Firefangs had earned their name from the size of their vicious jaws, their burning venom, and the way they intermittently flashed with a sickly, green-yellow glow. They were like fireflies, crossed with a sabre-cat. Vicious little buggers. Nature wasn’t completely merciless, however. The firefangs of Tayn came with a little advance warning. A man could see them coming for him, at least.

Farden pulled his cloak tight around his chest and folded his arms as he strode up the gentle hill towards the Duke’s castle. Night had begun its descent upon Albion. The shadows had grown long and enveloped the narrower streets. Around him people were hurrying home, shops were shutting, and lamps were being lit. Farden kept his head down and kept walking, ignoring all. The air around him hummed with the wings of countless hungry insects. He could feel them on his ears. He ducked every time he saw a bright flash of sickly glow. The slight breeze did nothing to deter the bastards; the sunny afternoon had made them thirsty and bold, and now they were out in force. Farden hurried on, watching the growing darkness pulsate and flash. A cluster of them pulsated in the mouth of a nearby alleyway, circling around a mottled wolfhound sleeping in a shop doorway. Farden gave them a wide berth, breaking into a stiff jog. A pained yelping chased him.

Farden looked up at the hulking blotch of rock that leant against the darkening sky, Castle Tayn itself. From high above, he imagined that Tayn looked a little like a pointy hat, half-drowned by a brown ribbon of river. Tayn was a relatively new city compared to the others of the duchy, barely a hundred years old. During its construction, the builders of the city had used the rocks and mud from the nearby hills to ford the river it sat on, and they had centred their efforts around a natural spike of limestone that rose vertically out of the water like a spear out of a corpse. It was on that spike of rock that Kiltyrin had built Tayn’s castle. Why the builders hadn’t been content with building the city
next
to the river, Farden would never know. He doubted even the Duke knew, and if he did, he probably didn’t care. Besides, intentional or not, what better display of resources and power was there than successfully building a city in the middle of a river?

Like the jumbled buildings that surrounded it, Castle Tayn was a mound of grey parapets, walkways, angles, towers, and walls, all of which clung onto the huge limestone shard for dear life. It was actually quite an impressive structure, considering its foundations. During the long ascent to its gates, to numb the dull boredom of the climb, Farden always found himself counting the castle’s myriad windows. He had never finished.

The gravel road curved gently to the right and took a steep turn as it reached up to meet the castle’s gates. Farden strode up the hill, breathing heavily. He was tired. He had already walked several hundred miles; his legs didn’t need the extra exercise. With a grimace, the mage ignored them and kept walking.

As he reached the gates, he wasn’t surprised to find them wide open, and himself thoroughly ignored. As always, the guards, standing like bored statues, tried their best not to look at him. They had seen him coming. They had their orders. Unchallenged, Farden sauntered through the gates and into the narrow corridor betwixt the first set of walls. The same thing happened at the second gate, and at the third, until he was walking through the bowels of the castle, padding softly across the limestone and granite floors, followed by glances and hushed whispers. Everybody, save a privileged few, knew better than to speak to him. Such things were forbidden in Castle Tayn.

Farden found a flight of stairs and barged past a group of women. One tutted loudly, and was about to add some venomous words when one of her friends, nervously eyeing the brown stained sack hanging from Farden’s shoulder, grabbed her wrist and shook her head. The mage walked on. His head was pounding now. He tried his best to ignore it.

At the top of the stairs was a man with a halberd, clad in an ill-fitting suit of mail. He stepped into Farden’s path and lowered his weapon. Farden halted several steps down, crossed his arms, and stared at the sharp steel point hovering in his face. His eyes wandered up the weapon to its owner. The man was bald, with a scar across his forehead. The rest of his face was like an avalanche. He had quite obviously suffered some sort of awful injury in the past. His nose and cheekbones were squashed and broken inwards, his top row of teeth seemed to be missing, and one eye was now considerably lower than the other. It was quite a dreadful sight. Farden took a good hard look at him. There was something about him that the mage couldn’t quite put his finger on. Something he recognised. ‘Do I know you?’ he asked, squinting.

The man waved his halberd. ‘No, an’ I don’t know yer. So turn around,’ he said, whistling oddly through the gaps in his teeth.

Farden shook his head. ‘Let me guess. You’re new here, aren’t you?’

The man nodded.

Farden pushed the point of the halberd out of his face. It quickly returned. ‘The Duke wants to see me. So either you move out of my way, or you can be thrown out of it.’ The man opened his mouth to speak, but nothing came out. A strange look came over his landslide face then, and he slowly but surely stepped aside. ‘Good man,’ muttered the mage, as he passed him. It was then that a voice echoed around through the hallways, a voice with a shrill edge to it, like a dagger scraping across glass. It stopped Farden in his tracks. It made his insides groan.

‘Better remember that face, Wartan. He ain’t one for patience!’ it hollered.

It was quickly joined by another, a deeper, booming voice, equally as exasperating.

‘Especially when he’s late!’

Farden closed his eyes and begged for patience. Before he could escape down the corridor, two sets of hands clapped him heavily on his back. Farden reluctantly turned around to face their aggravating owners.

To say the thought of drowning these two men in a shallow puddle had occasionally crossed Farden’s mind would have been a severe understatement. He longed for the day the Duke ordered their quiet removal. Longed for it, dreamt about it. For the last ten years they had made it their mission to irritate the mage to the point of violence. That was their goal of course; they wanted to see what the mage was made of, mainly so they could try to fight whatever it was. So far, Farden had not given them the satisfaction.

Farden raised his eyes to look at their grinning, oafish faces. If ever two men were to be chosen to be the definition of thug, these were the two for the job.

BOOK: Dead Stars - Part One (The Emaneska Series)
10.74Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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