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Authors: Angela Highland

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BOOK: Vengeance of the Hunter
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“I’m quite willing to wait.”

For a time, he had to. The young man called Nine-fingered Rab began to play to his audience, juggling his daggers in increasingly complex patterns before hurling them once more into the wall. Soon he began to toss them over his shoulder, to the delight of the crowd, and Semai grudgingly admitted to himself that the boy had grace. Even if it was a grace blurred by prodigious drink.

Semai nursed the one drink he allowed himself, slowly by necessity, for he was willing to pull down his
korfi
only when certain that the eyes of everyone around him gazed elsewhere. By the time he was halfway through the ale, Nine-fingered Rab had begun to throw his daggers at the ceiling—and the serving girl Semai had sent to get the young man’s attention accomplished that objective at last.

What she said to draw him off the table, Semai couldn’t tell. Too many voices cried out in objection to the ending of their entertainment, and several promptly offered lewd alternatives for how the fair-haired knife-man might spend the rest of his night. Rab called back equally lewd replies, provoking howls of laughter, and only then did he make his exit from the center of the room and approach Semai. He bore a now-empty tankard like a goblet of the finest crystal, and walked with the odd precision of one deep in his cups, yet not so deep that his control was gone. Up close he looked every inch the disheveled, disreputable fop, with bitterness scarcely blunted by his prior antics burning behind his eyes.

“You.” He gestured toward Semai with his tankard. “Tantiu. Katrin tells me you want to see me. If you’re coming to me with a contract, don’t bother. My partner’s buggered off and I’m on holiday.”

Semai had had time to set his drink aside; his
korfi
was back in place, and he was grateful all over again for its concealment of his features, for his interest quickened at the younger man’s words. Lady of Time, this
was
the one he sought. “I’m prepared to pay you for your time. But I seek information,
akreshi
, not the talents your reputation gives you.”

A calculated risk, guessing at what this thrower of knives did for his living, but Semai was willing to make the wager. Ulima’s insights had come from Djashtet Herself, and were therefore sacrosanct. Yet wisdom was one of Djashtet’s
ridahs.
And wisdom had dictated that he listen to the whispers in the Shalridan streets, the ones that identified Nine-fingered Rab as the partner of the one called the Rook.

“Do tell.” Rab drew out the words in a languid drawl, sidling nearer and making no secret of looking Semai up and down. “What information would that be?”

“I search for a young woman of my Clan, and I have reason to believe you might know where I can find her.”

“Have you tried the nearest brothels? The city does have several. Some of them even have girls from your lot’s homeland.” The younger man flashed him a mirthless smile. “Or so I’ve heard.”

Had Semai been younger himself, he might have bothered to take offense at the insolent tone. As it was, he kept a steady gaze on the knife-hurler. “If what I’ve been told is true and you can in fact guide me to the girl I seek, I’ll check such places. If it’s warranted.”

“And what makes you think I know where your girl is?”

Wariness even keener than the serving girl’s sparked in Nine-fingered Rab’s eyes, though his casual stance didn’t otherwise alter. Semai noted it with rising interest, and took greater care now to keep any sign of it out of his voice. “It’s said you’re the comrade of a man with one eye and one hand. Men answering his description—and yours—are known to have taken this girl. I seek her now in the name of she who was her kinswoman, and in the name of Almighty Djashtet.”

He kept his words pitched low against the tavern’s din, no louder than they needed to be for the other man to hear him. But he might well have shouted the deadliest of insults, for rage swept over Rab’s face. Without warning he lunged at Semai. Only the warrior’s honed reflexes let him intercept the boy, locking on to the punch aimed for his face, and grabbing and gripping the balled fist within his two larger hands. And even then, Rab hissed words at him, as sharp as any of the blades he’d been flinging into the walls.

“Gods damn her and you along with her! I washed my hands of her days ago.”

“Then you do indeed know of whom I speak.”

Rab tried to break free of his grasp, but now Semai had his measure—and he wasn’t ready to let him go. He watched cognizance flash across the bitter blue eyes, and he sensed the younger man’s stance shifting. At any moment now, Semai thought, he’d try to break free again. Probably when he thought it was least expected. “For all the good it’ll do you. I left her and my so-called partner with the elves.”

The Hidden Ones
. Semai hadn’t seen many of them since he’d come to Adalonia, but he remembered the ones who’d been forced to fight against his Clan during the war. He remembered, too, the thief the
akreshi
duke had killed. Faanshi’s father.

For that alone he abruptly released Rab’s hand, and an instant later, flashed a silver coin into his palm. “This for what you’ve just told me. More if you tell me how I can find the elves of which you speak.”

“Sod off, scarfer,” Rab growled, springing back from him. “I don’t want or need your money.”

The young man’s agility had been only slightly blurred by the ale he’d imbibed through the course of the night. Something else, though, had fallen to the alcohol. A glint of hurt cracked through the shell of Nine-fingered Rab’s anger, just enough to warn Semai of what had driven him to assault the walls and ceilings of this place with his weapons.

He chose his next words with utmost care. “What if I were to tell you that if I don’t find the girl, the life of the man you call partner will be in jeopardy?”

At that, Rab froze. With an oath, he spun on his heel and beckoned irritably for Semai to rise and follow him. “Come on then. Let’s get somewhere quieter so we can talk. Don’t make me regret this.”

Semai willingly stood and followed in his wake, and pointedly ignored what the young man whispered next, in anguish he was sure hadn’t been meant for his ears.

“Mother’s Mercy, Julian, don’t make me regret this!”

* * *

In a city the size of Shalridan, rumor was never scarce. With no more effort than it took to listen, one could hear the whispers of riches and famine, of the voyages of the ships out into the western ocean, and of the movements of the Church and of the Bhandreid across the realm. With closer care and the proper coin, one could hear the whispers never meant to flow along the streets. Yet in the past seven days every last tidbit of gossip, true or faked, illicit or innocent, had washed away in the news that spread across the city on printed broadsheets, borne by the fleet-footed youths to every corner.

The Duke of Shalridan was dead. A riding accident, or so the broadsheets proclaimed, yet rumor murmured otherwise. There’d been a runaway slave, and he’d sought her, and come back to his Hall an altered man. Some said he’d spilled other blood beneath his roof before he died. In hushed and troubled tones, others said that the Anreulag Herself had struck him down.

All the whispers, in one form or another, reached the ears of Nine-fingered Rab. This vexed him, for his only goal was to drown himself in wine and in the attentions of whatever willing partners he could find. Neither distraction worked, for the whispers followed him through all the seediest corners of the city, reminding him over and over that he wasn’t where he was meant to be: at the Rook’s side.
The bastard should’ve been our kill
was the loudest whisper of all, from within himself.

Yet not one whisper had warned him of the Tantiu stranger who’d found him tonight.

He’d lost track of how many taverns he’d visited, how many gambling holes had filled his pockets for him only to empty them out again, how many streets he’d skulked along in search of purses to cut and claim. Stepping out into the Jomhas night almost blinded Rab after the gaudy brightness of the tavern he’d just been in, and he wasn’t entirely certain even now of what street he was on. They’d begun to look the same to him, with too many black ribbons adorning lampposts and doorways and the arms of the populace, turning the city into a maze of incomprehensibly lamenting shadows. Or perhaps he himself was the shadow, slipped sideways out of the world where he belonged, bereft of the light that had anchored his existence.

You’re getting maudlin
, he chided himself, yet he almost didn’t care. The shadow-fancy was tempting, but it was distracting him from the matter at hand: finding out what his new, unwanted companion knew about Julian. Then there’d be more wine and gambling, however much it took to banish every last one of the accursed whispers in his thoughts.

Till then, he’d work on banishing the Tantiu man from his company. The fellow reminded him far too much of
her
, though he was the furthest thing possible from a timid maiden. This man was both taller and stronger than Rab, if the height and bulk of him could be trusted. Whoever he was, he moved like a guardsman or a soldier, which made him an asset to have available on the streets at this hour—unless he was setting Rab up for a trap.

Keeping the Tantiu in sight at all times, the young assassin led him into a warren of alleyways, where the cobblestones were slick with mud and moss. There they came to a door so weathered that the original hue of its cracked and peeling paint was long faded into an ashy gray. The sign above the door retained more of its color, for the skirt that adorned the buxom maiden painted there was still a vivid green. Less distinct were the letters in Nirrivan script beneath her. Someone had tried, and failed, to sand the letters completely away; enough of a trace of them remained that an attentive eye could sketch out the shapes of them along the aged wood. Rab almost sympathized. Like him, the Green Kirtle was keeping a lower profile than it might have liked.

For now, though, it’d serve the purpose at hand.

He pushed the door open and stepped across the threshold. The crowd here was smaller than in the place they’d left, but with night full-on, the place was far from empty. Here, though, the smells of baking bread and roasting meat were stronger than hops or beer or ale. For an instant Rab stood frozen, shocked by a sudden inner snarl of hunger. When had he eaten last? He couldn’t recall, and the knowledge nearly dismayed him. But he could not,
would
not show any weakness before this stranger. Any such lapse, for one of his trade, was as lethal as baring his throat to the nearest knife.

Yet his legs subtly trembled, and he fought to keep them steady as he led his companion into the tavern. “Coffee,” he shouted to the proprietor, with a dogged kind of pride that no trace of his scattered state showed in his voice. “Hot and black as pitch.”

There were still a few empty tables in sight. Habit drove Rab to the one against the farthest wall, where he could claim a chair with a clear view of the door. He slid into a seat casually enough that it bolstered his tattered pride, and he mustered an air of bland disinterest as his companion joined him. So too was he able to take his first real measure of the man: taller than he indeed, and broader, with a frame as sturdy as an oak tree. The slate-blue
korfi
scarf that Tantiu men wore, like the veils of their women, hid most of his face. Even with that cloth in the way, Rab noted the wrinkles at the corners of the dark eyes, the hints of iron-gray hair beneath where the scarf wound upward around his head.

This stranger wasn’t a young man. Nor was he a foolish one. As the proprietor shot him an inquiring look, the Tantiu merely shook his head and waved him away while he claimed the other seat at their table. “Serve the young
akreshi
whatever he wishes. I’ll pay you when I leave.”

“You don’t plan on showing me your face, then?” Rab asked, as the proprietor set a steaming mug of coffee on the table. He lifted the mug and sipped from it as nonchalantly as he could. But not until the drink had braced his system and not until they were alone again did he add, “Here I’d thought we were getting on so famously too.”

“My face will serve you no purpose.”

“True enough. I don’t care what you look like, what your name is or what gods you serve.”

The gaze above the
korfi
didn’t waver. “But you care about the man you’ve called your partner.”

Julian
. A surge of reaction he couldn’t hide flushed Rab’s cheeks, and he fought to keep his hands steady on the mug, his tone indifferent and cool. “You claimed he’d be in danger if the girl you seek isn’t found, which is enough to get my attention. Explain yourself.”

His companion paused—and despite the man’s hidden features, Rab thought he saw reluctance in his eyes. “Almighty Djashtet blessed Faanshi with great healing power,” he said, more softly now. “So, too, did She bless the
akresha
Ulima, her kinswoman, with the gift of seeing that which is to come. You’ve heard the news of the death of the duke?”

“Enough to make my ears bleed. Proceed to the part where I care.”

“The duke is dead at the
akresha
Ulima’s hand, and she at his,” said the Tantiu, with a solemn gravity that seized Rab’s interest despite himself. “Before the
akresha
died, however, she spoke to me of her last vision. She charged me to find the girl. And she warned that the man who’d taken her would himself be at risk of losing his life.”

Rab snorted. “Every time the Rook shows his face in the streets, he’s at risk of losing his life. Did your
akresha
get more specific?”

“No. But I fear that what she foresaw may have already come to pass. The men who returned to Lomhannor Hall with the duke before he died reported that they saw the one you call Rook—and that the Anreulag Herself struck him down.”

This time Rab couldn’t hold back the reaction, and it took everything he had to keep from hurling the mug of coffee into the nearest wall. A haze of red rolled across his vision; his blood, seemingly urged on by the bracing virtue of the drink, pounded in his ears. “You’re lying,” he growled, abruptly incensed beyond words. Beneath that, he was cold with fear. “The Rook can’t be dead.”

BOOK: Vengeance of the Hunter
12.59Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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