Grace of the Goddess (The Death Dealer Book 3)

 

 

Grace of the Goddess

The Death Dealer Book 3

by Katie Roman

Copyright 2016 by Katie Roman

Warning: The unauthorized reproduction or distribution of this copyrighted work is illegal. Criminal copyright infringement, including infringement without monetary gain, is investigated by the FBI and is punishable by up to 5 (five) years in federal prison and a fine of $250,000.

Names, characters and incidents depicted in this book are products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events, locales, organizations, or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental and beyond the intent of the author or the publisher.

No part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording, or by any information storage and retrieval system, without permission in writing from the publisher.

 

Cover Artist: Skylar Faith

Editor: Stacy Sanford

Printed in the United States of America

To Amy, for all the adventures ahead of us

One

 

              It had been over a year since the Death Dealer's last sighting in the port city of Glenbard. Fifteen months, in fact, although stories filtered in from across Cesernan of the figure in the executioner's hood. The Dealer captured bandits in Escion, rode down thieves in Egona, and even tracked a kidnapper through Actis. Good deeds were done across the land, but none within the city of Glenbard.

              Ridley Hunewn, Princess of the Thieves' Guild, knew why no sightings occurred in Glenbard. The city guards burned the Death Dealer in effigy, and the Guild put a bounty on the vigilante's head. Even those pretending to be the Dealer weren’t foolish enough to try their hand at playing hero in Glenbard, and it was all because one fool killed a guard. The Guard and Guild both wanted the murderer brought to their own brand of justice, but the Death Dealer caught him first. Caught him, and then quietly ended the fool’s life without starting a war in the city.

              The self-proclaimed princess owed a debt to the Dealer and had aided in her escape from Glenbard. She burned the Dealer’s executioner's hood and kept the whereabouts of her friend a secret. As the months passed, flared tempers soothed, but tension still remained. Guild and Guard circled each other like wild dogs, each one testing the other's power. A return of the Death Dealer would be a torch lighting a powder keg. It would be last summer all over again.

              So it was surprising when Ridley spied a hooded figure roaming around during the late watches. Ridley went to investigate.
Certainly she hasn't returned
, Ridley thought, trailing her quarry.
She'd never risk it. Her role as the silent watcher of Glenbard is over.

              The streets were mostly deserted this time of night. Even the lamps were extinguished; these were the hours to be asleep. It was a cool night, where breaths hung in the air like little white clouds and any sane person was in bed and wrapped in blankets. Clouds moved slowly over the moon and stars, allowing only brief beams of light to touch the ground.

Ridley slipped from her hiding place when the Death Dealer crossed into the Golden Road district. The area was in the heart of the city, primarily housing the city's temples, but the city magistrates and members of nobility kept houses there as well. 

              The supposed Dealer bypassed the temples and made a path for the noble homes, which were located some blocks away. The area was once the castle grounds for the king, before the formal palace was moved further inland to Ursana. The grounds were surrounded by a tall stone wall with several towers that provided housing for visiting nobility. The lands were owned by the crown, but his court was allotted personal rooms. The city magistrates also took up residency within the grounds, with their wings acting as ugly additions. The additions were not the handcrafted stone from the quarries in the south, with their marbled columns and stained glass picture windows. They were stone houses; cool in the summer, warm in the winter, but they lacked the beautiful craftsmanship and refinement the castle once had. The magistrates' homes were built for functionality alone: stone, two stories tall, with bedrooms enough for a family and their servants. They had large dining rooms, offices, and sewing rooms, though they were not as nice as the rooms in the old castle reserved for nobles looking for a reprieve from court. One of these functional homes belonged to Duke Brayden, the queen's brother and the chief magistrate. It served as the seat of power in Glenbard.

              Ridley watched from the shadows just beyond the enclosure. She had never seen anyone scale the wall before. The Guild harried the merchants, but never the nobles. It was too risky. The magistrates had their own guards directly from the king, not the rabble that signed up for the city watch. To enter the old castle grounds uninvited was to court a traitor’s death. However, the black clad figure hurried over the wall.

              Ridley checked for any followers of her own. She ran from her hiding place and scurried forward, keeping low to the ground. At the wall she ran her hand over the stone. Under her fingers the hard surface was smooth and cool, but here and there grooves were chiseled in. Not the chips of time, but well-spaced holds. Someone had put them there.

              Overhead the moon made an appearance from behind the clouds. Ridley pressed her body against the wall. For a moment the ground and wall were illuminated by the soft white light, but the moon's glow was fleeting. The clouds rolled back into position, blocking the light once more. Putting her hands on the stone holds, Ridley climbed up.

              Once she reached the top she let herself drop to the ground, and pain snaked up her body from the impact. She cursed under her breath, rubbing her legs. The drop didn’t look so far a moment ago.

              Ridley crouched low to survey the area. The courtyard to the old castle was lined with beech trees. The first king of Cesernan loved trees, which was why the city was surrounded by forest. The king originally had it planted to use as a private hunting ground. When the king’s official castle moved inland the forest remained, as did the trees in the courtyard. Ridley wasn’t in the habit of thanking dead men, but she thanked the first king now. The foliage provided cover as she moved from trunk to trunk following her quarry.

              She hugged a trunk, catching sight of the Dealer farther up the path. She balled her hands into fists. There the Dealer stood, bold as could be, despite the sizable bounty upon that hooded head. A second figure came up the path, careful not to make too much noise. His long dressing robes skimmed across the ground as he walked. The two exchanged hushed words.

              Ridley became frustrated that she wasn’t able to hear their conversation. She scanned the area for a better vantage point, one that would allow her to hear them, but without giving herself away. It did not appear such a spot existed. She stayed flattened against the trunk, hoping they would talk louder for her benefit.

              The two spoke in hurried and hushed tones. She noticed this Death Dealer stood level with the robed man. The real Dealer, the one Ridley counted among her friends, was short; much shorter than the man in the robes. Any doubts Ridley had about her friend were erased. This Dealer was an imposter.

              Above them the moon reappeared, and Ridley sidled around the tree trunk to better conceal herself in shadow. It was a futile act, however, as neither figure noticed their surroundings; they stood still enthralled in their conversation. With the moon out, Ridley was awarded a glimpse of the second figure. His white hair fell to his shoulders and there was a hideous scar over his left eye socket. This robed figure was none other than Duke Brayden. Ridley would know that ugly, empty eye anywhere. But what business did he have with the imposter?

              By the waving of the duke’s hands, Ridley guessed he was extremely angry with the nature of this meeting. He flapped about like a great bird trying to take flight. Humorous though it was, it was unbecoming for a man of his station. She stifled a laugh at the duke’s movements. The man pointed an angry finger in the Dealer’s face, yet the hooded figure remained impassive to the display.

              A glint of steel in the moonlight brought Ridley’s attention completely to the Dealer. A dagger appeared between the men.

              “So this is how I am repaid?” The duke’s arms dropped to his side. His voice carried, growing louder with his anger. “It is illegal to bribe a magistrate, and that law extends to
everyone
.” In the guardhouse down the path, near the courtyard’s front gate, candles flared to life. The duke’s voice had attracted attention.

              “No one is above the law, Death Dealer,” he growled. “Not you and not your kennel master. I have erred and am duly punished. May Ciro and Kamaria show mercy, and may Diggery show me the path to light.”

              Behind him, armed guards emerged from the gatehouse. The Death Dealer said nothing as he drove the dagger to the hilt into the duke’s chest. Ridley gasped, but her voice was lost in the screams of the guards who ran up the path. The duke grabbed his wound and slumped down to his knees, teetering for a few moments before falling onto his back. The Dealer ran for the wall.

              “Stop him!” a burly guard screamed. Three men gave chase to the wall as the burly man knelt next to the duke.

              The dagger remained lodged in Duke Brayden’s chest, standing like a pole without a banner. The burly man touched his face, probably closing his eyes. The duke’s body remained inert.

              Ridley knew she needed to run, get out before they swept the grounds, but her feet were rooted to their spot under the shadows of the tree. Her mind raced, but her body didn’t respond to the commands. Her eyes remained fixed on the bleeding corpse of the duke.

              She had never liked him. He’d given more power to the Guard in an attempt to eradicate the Thieves’ Guild. He’d seen to the arrests of innocent shopkeepers because they served the Guild and didn’t act as “honest” citizens by informing on thieves, but that was his job. That it was at odds with Ridley’s didn’t mean she wanted him dead, and especially not murdered on his own grounds.

              “He went over the wall, Captain,” one of the three pursuers panted as he returned.

              “Search everywhere! Search the courtyard! Search the stables! Find anyone else out where they shouldn’t be!” the burly man bellowed.

              Ridley’s feet finally obeyed her mind. She ran for all she was worth to the wall, climbing over and back into the city to the shouts of the guards.

~*~*~

              Ridley pounded on the door to Master George’s Lodgings in Serenity Place. It was one of the finer boarding houses in the district, with fresh paint every summer, a tiled roof instead of thatched, and stone work on the front. A nice place for nice people to live. It was also a place that wouldn’t open its doors until sunrise, but Ridley couldn’t wait. In the east, the sky was only beginning to show the sleepy pink of dawn. But every second counted. She’d already wasted enough time.

              After escaping the compound, Ridley crawled into the sewer systems to hide her tracks. Only the wealthy districts connected to the sewers that ran out to the sea. Merchants and nobles couldn’t be bothered to step in filth like the common folk of Glenbard. Yet a lifetime of living in that very filth did not prepare Ridley for the smells and muck of the sewers. Her clothes were ruined while she was in hiding, and even though she ran home to change, the smell lingered. She would bathe properly later though. She banged on the door again.

              From inside she heard mutterings and the knocking of a cane against the floorboards. A bent old man answered the door with his eyes half closed with sleep, just as she prepared to knock again. His knobby knees showed from under his nightshirt and bushy gray eyebrows were knitted together in confusion. His already creased forehead wrinkled more and he quickly put a hand to his nose.

              “Kamaria bless you, girl! You bathe in a tub, not a chamber pot!”

              Ridley ran a hand through her blonde hair, embarrassed that she had to appear in such a state. This first, then she could rinse the muck off properly. “I need to speak to Jack Anders. It’s urgent!”

              The old man chewed his lower lip and scowled. “You wait here. I won’t have you stinkin’ up my lodgings.” The old man staggered off on shaky legs, mumbling something about “loose women” as the door closed in Ridley’s face.

              Ridley rubbed some warmth back into her arms. Fall was only just beginning and already the air carried a frosty chill. Last winter was wet and cold, ruining most of the crops. Spring and summer followed cold and miserable, culminating in a bad harvest. Now an early frost descended on them and if another wet winter followed, there was no telling what next year’s harvest would bring. It terrified her. Hunger and discontent already moved through the city. Now with the duke’s murder, panic and rioting were sure to follow.

              Duke Brayden wasn’t loved, but if the people in his city went hungry, so did his household. He watched the city’s grain stores vigilantly, which was often to the annoyance of the other magistrates. As heads of the city, they thought they deserved more. Duke Brayden disagreed and held all key to the stores so he could monitor it like a hawk. No one, no matter who they were, took more than their fair share. The next chief magistrate may not be so tireless in his efforts to feed Glenbard.

              The large bells in the temple of Kamaria tolled and the sound brought Ridley back to attention. The bells only rang when someone important died, an heir to the throne was born, high holy days, or something terrible happened, like a riot or massacre. Today she knew they rang for Duke Brayden, and Ridley felt cold to her core. The knells heralded doom.

              “To what do I owe this unexpected pleasure?” Ridley nearly jumped out of her skin. Jack Anders had managed to creep up on her, probably coming around from the back entrance. His voice held all the tenderness of a thorn bush.

              The man was already dressed for his day. His dark brown hair had been trimmed and cut close to his head. His beard was trimmed as well, not the mangled mess he sometimes favored. His hazel eyes shone brightly even in the dim morning light. He was handsome in his own gruff way, but he still looked wrong to Ridley in his guard uniform. His black pants were tucked into well-worn riding boots. He wore a black, long sleeved tunic over a red shirt. The red was just visible under the tunic, like a bleeding heart. Someone had stitched a hare over his right breast; the symbol of the Serenity Place guards.

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