Chapter 3: Cloaks & Hunters

Give me a choice between a war of the blade and a war of the tongue; I would choose the blade without a moment’s hesitation. 

Origin unknown. Written in wild scrawls at the base of the bridge over Sachani River.

***

Karpaven – The Main Plaza

If the Waterfront District seemed designed to nest every single immoral rat the city breeds, Karpaven’s main Plaza was no different. Beneath the facade of honest merchant shops and lavish white brick houses lies a collection of buildings built for more illegal practices. Two gambler’s dens, a boudoir, and a fencer’s post have taken root here – each establishment easy for Davek to spot because they looked far too innocent to have been anything but.

The buildings were the personification of decency and wealth, houses with the delicate crenellations and great columns favored by Karpaven’s aristocracy. By design, the street lamps shone straight onto the colorful glass windows embedded on each building; turned them into a shimmering artwork of old romances and even older legends. All of them noble, all of them righteous – all of them nothing but a bloody farce to fool the rich and feeble minded.

Nor were the crooks who run this place shy about working out in the open. A respectable-looking old man with a well-tailored cape slung over one shoulder waited at the side of the street. He waved when the thief rode by and raised a small packet for Davek to see.

“Reverie leaves for you, sir?” His voice was a harsh croak, damaged by the abrasive nature of the narcotic herbs he offered that very moment. He wobbled after Davek when the younger man ignored him. “They’ll make you dream of wondrous castles in the air, unravel the secrets of the universe, and bring you women as beautiful as the maidens of the Guardian’s Blessed Hall. Surely you must require some reverie leaves, kind sir?”

“Business must be a little slow tonight, old friend.” Davek said, slowed his horse to a walk to let the old peddler catch up. “You’re too fat and lazy to be chasing customers on horseback.”

By the sudden silence which hung between them, Davek guessed the old man had stopped dead in his tracks.

“By the Hound’s rotten teeth! Davek? Davek, is that you?”

Davek did not bother to stop, but turned around in his saddle. Startled, the old man touched his eyes, his throat, his heart, an ancient gesture to ward off evil spirits. Davek stared at him in that grim manner he used to intimidate his foes, just for the pleasure of watching the old man squirm in his shoes. “Has the price on my head been raised since I last set foot in Karpaven?”

Mouth agape, the peddler frowned at Davek like a lackwit for a few seconds, unable to conjure the right words. “To a…a tenfold, last I heard,” he blurted out just as Davek swiveled forward again. “You’ve pissed Diam bad. Real bad, my friend.”

“Good!” Davek bared his teeth, a gesture a wolf might make when threatened, or so the thief would like to think. “I was beginning to wonder if he was too stupid to notice how much I’ve ruined him.”

“You’ve gone too far this time, lad.” The old man had to strain his voice to be heard. “He’ll come after you. He’ll rip you apart with his own two hands. You know it!”

“I know. Isn’t that exciting?” Davek nudged his horse to a trot, turned the corner into the next street.

Another gentleman astride a well-groomed stallion moved across the street with a casual air. On occasion he adjusted his sleeves, or his hat – covert messages to an unseen observer, his partner hidden in a place where he could watch the streets for rival gangs or guards. There could be dozens of these patrollers out in Karpaven, assassins and murderers who would cut their own throats to defend Guild territories.

Davek drew in a lungful of jasmine-scented air, grinned mirthlessly to the rider when they passed each other. Cold, suspicious eyes stared back at him, until recognition struck and turned that suspicion to downright surprise.

“I’ll be damned. Davek!” The rider squinted at him. “Is that you?”

Davek kicked his horse’s flanks again to urge it to run. He hated this place even more than he hated the Waterfront.

Three more careful turns on the network of well-paved lanes brought him to a bridge, a thin stretch of wooden planks leading to someone’s private garden. By this time the night was well on its way towards morning. The summer heat stayed relentless; refused to let up as Davek led his horse across the bridge. The clop of the horse’s hooves sent deep echoes throughout the dark, unlit garden, accompanied by the trickle of the man-made stream beneath him.

Davek had a feeling he was being watched as soon as he reined his horse to a stop. His boots had barely touched the ground when the smell of unwashed human odor barraged his senses for the third time that night. Davek had to resist the impulse to gag. Soft footsteps crunched the grass, followed by the gentle rustle of leaves in the near distance.

He stroked three fingers along the left side of his head, waited a few seconds with his index finger and thumb behind his ear. The prowler approached anyway. Davek rolled his eyes.

“Salutations, gentlemen!” he said. He did not raise his head or turn around, but let his voice carry the same sharp edge as his blade. Using the shadows to mask his movements, he moved his hand towards his rapier. “To what do I owe the pleasure of your company?”

This time the inbound prowler paused mid-stride. Someone hissed a curse. “How could he have heard us?” came a soft whisper from the shadows. How indeed, Davek’s thoughts echoed. He had never been able to figure out why he possessed those secret talents either.

Another phantom stared at him from underneath the statue of a marble griffin several yards away, this one twice as dangerous for the reek of gunpowder on him. Davek turned to lean his back against his horse; let the full force of his irritation show on his face. These were the Lady’s sentries. Men who were so insignificant, so low in the Guild’s hierarchy, their names weren’t worth remembering.

“Always speakin’ all fancy like, you Huntsmen,” said the first prowler who arrived to greet him, a smelly young fellow who reminded him so much of that vermin in the Waterfront. They must be related somehow. “We heard you’d be back tonight, Davey,” the young man added.

Davek could not suppress the ripple of contempt that curled his lips. The moment the young man came close enough, Davek seized the boy by the throat, hooked his right leg from underneath him and knocked the stunned fool down to the hard ground. A flurry of movements came from the shadows; shouts erupted. Two of the hidden phantoms rushed out of their hiding to confront him, their crooked daggers flashing in the night.

Davek’s attention strayed to the one man who did not move, the one who stayed underneath the griffin statue to watch. This man had a crooked nose, one that looked like someone had broken it several times in an attempt to fit it to his face.

“You’re not here to interrupt my lessons, are you, friend?” Davek rested the tip of his rapier against the idiot’s throat. “I do believe this one overstepped his boundaries.”

The man’s breath burst out in a hearty laughter. “Oh no, by all means. Do what ya want, Huntsman. Just don’t kill the bastard. You two, step back. Let Master Averneus do his work,” he said to his two confused underlings. He had a thick accent, one Davek had never been able to recognize in all his years of Guild service. Some backwater fishing village, perhaps.

“You hear that?” Davek glanced down at his victim. “The next time we meet, you will address me appropriately, Cloak!” He placed the slightest of pressures on his rapier, which caused the boy’s eyes to bulge with utter fear. “The last time an insignificant speck of dirt called me by that name, I gave him a swimming lesson. One he didn’t quite learn. You savvy?”

“Get that sword away from me!” The young man squealed like a piglet. “I didn’t do nothin’ wrong!”

Davek dragged his blade against the boy’s throat. Blood welled out of the shallow cut. “What did you say?”

“Help!” he wheezed.

Davek clucked his tongue in disapproval. “You did everything wrong. The first mistake was being stupid enough to approach me when I have clearly provided my intention.”

The boy’s face was a mask of confusion and terror. “What?”

“It’s rudimentary, dear boy!” Davek slapped his victim’s cheek with the flat of the blade. “You’ve clearly forgotten your lessons.” Davek raised one eyebrow at their leader.

“Yep, forgot his lessons, I reckon.”

Davek raised three fingers and combed the left side of his head to mimic the gesture he did earlier. “This, idiot, is a sign for ally. Three fingers behind my left ear means that I have come here to conduct the third order of Guild business, which is?”

“Answering the Lady’s summons!” the young man blurted out.

“Answering the Lady’s summons, that’s right!” Davek said. “You’re not that stupid after all! Your second and gravest mistake is not to realize who I am.”

Beads of sweat trailed a path down the young man’s red face, while he struggled to lock gazes with Davek. “Boss…the boss says that you’re… Davek Averneus!”

“That’s right. Davek Averneus. Primary Adjunct to the Lady of the Guild, and First Huntsman to the Guild of Hunters, otherwise known as Head Assassin, second in command, and all the other fancy etcetera, etceteras that come with the title.”

Trembling, the Cloak tried vainly to sound unafraid. “That don’t mean –”

Davek placed pressure on the blade once more and the boy gurgled a blasphemy. “It means you merry band of fuckers will address me with nothing short of respect,” he said. “The only ones who called me Davey were my parents and brothers. Since my parents are sleeping nice and cosy in the ground and my brothers did poorly in their swimming lessons while we were out at sea, I would suggest you mind your tongue in the presence of your superiors.”

“You… ca..can’t…do this!” The Cloak stammered.

“I do anything I damn well please, and no one, not even your boss there…” Davek nodded to the gunman. “Will raise a finger to stop me while I cut your throat out. You savvy, mate?”

Understanding must have finally dawned in the young man’s thick skull, for he swallowed and nodded vigorously. “S..Sorry, Sir.”

I would have paid for that arrogance with my death when I was a Cloak, stripling,” he said, and it was sheer truth. The Lady of the Guild did not tolerate his defiance kindly, not until he had earned his way up to become the Guild’s Primary Adjunct. He let a cruel sneer cross his face. “Maybe I should kill you now and teach your fellow saps a lesson.”

“Master Averneus?” said the gunman. No laughter this time. He stepped forward to let Davek see him, an unnecessary move given the fact that Davek could see the man in pitch blackness anyway. “I believe the sop’s learned his lesson, he did. No need to kill ‘im now. I’m runnin’ fresh out of Cloaks to push around.”

“You sure?” Davek said, genuinely disappointed. “There are dozens of idiots out there with better manners than this one. Here, let me cut him up for you. Bite-sized pieces small enough?”

“I’m sorry, Master Davek!” the young man screamed.

“That’s better.” Davek grinned and returned his rapier to its sheath.

“Come, you know the way.” The gunman gestured towards the garden’s shadowy interior. “The Lady wants to see you right now.”

“Of course she does.” Davek tossed his rapier towards one of the flabbergasted cronies, did not wait to see if he caught it.

The gunman reached out his hand when Davek walked past him, palm facing upward. “Your other weapons, Primary Adjunct, if you please. The Lady’s orders.”

“See what a little civility will do for you?” Davek swung his hard gaze towards the young Cloaks to make them flinch. The one still sprawled in the dirt clasped his bloodied neck out of reflex.

“Lead the way, friend.” Davek freed the straps that bound his daggers to his torso. Despite the sly grin on his face, despite the mask of sheer bravado, he handed his blades and flintlock to the gunman with much reluctance. Because the last time an unarmed man walked into the Lady’s presence, they found his body floating in the murky waters of the Waterfront District.

*    *    *

The complex mechanisms, gears and bolts that locked the audience chamber’s double doors were designed to slide open for the bearer of the Guild’s stylized claw. To make the chamber even more difficult to enter, dozens of identical slots for the claw have been carved onto the door’s woodland scenery. Only one slot admitted the claw, of course. The others would spring sets of traps that would either scald, bludgeon or kill, depending on one’s luck.

It was a complete waste of time, Davek thought. No outsider would be mad enough to seek an audience with the most dangerous woman in the whole of Khathmir, far less risk their lives with a giant wooden deathtrap. He jammed the claw into the designated slot, crossed his arms as he waited.

The sudden whiff of well-oiled steel and the sound of fast movement behind him did not catch him off guard. The hand that darted over his head to snatch the claw did. He spun around with a curse, then made a grab for the wrist before the offender could flee. His grip failed to hold. The hand twisted free, and Davek found himself staring up at a tall, silver-haired assassin in a slashed, silver and gold doublet.

“Aren’t we a little too old to be playing games, Cornelius?” Davek said.

The man gave a coarse, reedy laugh.  “It keeps an old man young, whelp. You’ll understand when you’ve lived as long as I have.”

Davek scoffed. “You mean if I live that long?”

Cornelius gestured his white head back towards the dimly lit hallway. They did not speak until they reached the furthest end of the hall, where a sure companion to the darkness would be the prying ears of the Lady’s dedicated Guild Hounds. The old man leaned his back against the warm, paneled wall and turned to regard Davek with an expression that bordered between annoyance and sheer bewilderment.

“How is the prey this season?” Davek nodded towards the door, his deliberate posture, and subtle head and finger movements framing the words, What’s amiss? Is a knife waiting for me in there?

Cornelius’s jaws set. In his younger days, those cruel eyes must have inspired nightmares. “What I say to you will be quite known already, so there is no need for secrecies.”

Davek arched his eyebrows. “Ahh…Interesting.”

“Interesting?” The old man seethed, or at least gave the impression of being furious. “You stupid, reckless, son of a bitch. You’ve gone too far this time. Arranging the theft of several crates of pirate bounty is one thing. Assassinating a pirate lord whom you felt would interrupt Guild business is tolerable. But fucking Parvus over and stealing his ship? Do you have any idea who he is?” You could have killed yourself you idiot! Cornelius added through nigh invisible gestures.

“But he had such a big, fancy boat! With so many pretty, shiny trinkets in its cargo hold. My poor, greedy heart was simply too weak to resist the temptation.”

“Be careful where you tread, whelp!” Cornelius raised his eyes towards the door. “You’re fortunate the Hats haven’t killed any of the Adjuncts, or it’ll be your head mounted outside that door.” He spoke the rest under his breath, though Davek doubted it was necessary. The Lady’s Hounds would have heard every word anyway. “I’ve saved your hide twice before, but I cannot protect you if your exploits go out of hand.”

Cornelius returned the stylized claw to him, point first, so that the sharp end pricked his palm. That irritable gesture almost masked the former First Huntsman’s quick grin, and the set of minuscule flicks of his fingers, which framed the very words Davek expected to hear: Persevere, brother. Your hour is nigh.

*    *    *

The gears turned, the bolts slid back, the doors clicked, then boomed open. Warm, yellow light spilled out onto the hallway. The smell of freshly baked bread and warm, roasted poultry wafted out of the room. But Davek was far more interested in the smell of well-nurtured malice that brewed within. It ruined the room’s atmosphere like the stench of burning carcass.

He entered a well-lit room surrounded by stone slabs with strange symbols carved upon them, words Davek could not understand yet have always been intrigued by. Up above the roof was a massive dome made of huge glass panels, boasting a magnificent view of the dark summer sky. He might have been awed by the hundreds of precious stones that decorated the rims of the dome when he was younger. Now nothing could pry his gaze from the figure who sat behind the large black table at the center of the chamber. A woman dressed in a blood-red hunting frock that no doubt concealed at least a dozen weapons.

She raised her head from a stack of papers at Davek’s arrival. Her silver hair, braided in the same manner as Davek’s, framed the austere, regal features of what might have once been a beautiful woman.

“Something monumental must be afoot, for you to go through all this trouble finding me.” Davek made no attempt to hide his dislike for her. Years of service under her taught him that a man would be safer to trust a shark. At least you could count on the fish to try and eat you.

The Lady gave a wry smile, gestured for him to sit on the cushioned chair right across from her. Hazel eyes as deep and profound as an autumn forest tracked Davek’s every move with deceptive casualness. The very thought of her regard on him made his skin crawl. Malice suited her perfectly.

“You’re always under the delusion that you are difficult to find,” she replied, her voice clear, unsullied by age. “I knew you would seek Gapho’s help when you arrived in Karpaven.”

“What is it this time?” Davek swung his mud-caked boot onto the tidy desk, next to a bowl of fruits and a platter of that steaming poultry and bread.

“Patience, boy.” She shuffled the papers, but did not put them aside. “You’ve been away for months now. We have time for pleasantries, don’t we?”

“I prefer my time to be used for fruitful pursuits, Lady.” He gazed at the papers from beneath half-closed lids. The top of that stack read First Huntsman Davek Averneus in bold, red ink. How predictable.

“I’ve earned my right to be a jackass in your presence.” He waved his hand impatiently. “So I’ll thank you to speak plainly.”

She laughed at that, an eerie sound that raised the hairs on his nape, for there wasn’t a shred of mirth in her.

“You’re quite the character, Davek. Other members of this esteemed Guild would have been…discreet when they go out hunting. But you….” The older woman tapped her ringed, immaculately trimmed fingernails on the polished tabletop. “You continuously flaunt your exploits like one of the High Lord’s spoiled brats when he brings home the boar.”

“It makes the hunt more challenging, when your prey knows what they’re up against.” He snatched a peach from the fruit bowl, polished it using his vest. “I’ve lived a discreet life for years. Desires change. Tactics change. Discretion…. bores me.”

She clicked her tongue, as though her disapproval mattered to him. “We thrive on discretion, Davek.”

Davek took a bite out of the peach. “Key word here being you and your Guild, Lady, not I.”

She pursed her lips, then perused the report with exaggerated patience. “You recently stole a ship from one Captain Parvus Diam, the cargo laden with stolen goods from the southern merchant trade route.” She sighed, forced the papers down onto her desk. “I cannot even begin to imagine how furious you have made this man.”

“I have yet to see the fruits of his anger, Lady.”

“The men who followed you at the Waterfront seem to think differently.”

Davek snorted. “So you have set spies on me. You’re becoming too predictable, Lady. I’m just a tad disappointed none of them tried to kill me yet.”

“Kill you? My men?” She chuckled. “Please, Davek. Don’t be daft. Now who were those men who followed you?”

The conman shrugged. “They could have belonged to the dozens of dupes who has had the misfortune to learn my name. But I doubt they were Diam’s. It’s too soon for any retaliation on his part, in any case.”

She leaned back in her seat and tapped her index finger on her chin. “You’re awfully smug for someone with a hefty price on his head.”

This is getting nowhere. What could she possibly want? Davek wondered.

“Give me a challenge that satiates my thirst, then!” Davek snapped. “I’m not like the other thieves on the streets, pillaging on the trash that the soft, mollycoddled aristocracy flaunts to their circle. I robbed the infamous Parvus Diam blind, Lady, with nothing more than a few sparks of fireworks and a fake beard.”

“That’s not what I heard. But to spend all that time buying your way onto his ship? I never would’ve guessed that one of your talents would resort to such elaborate theatrics. Why not kill him when you first started spying on him and be done with it?”

“Assassination is such an old, boring game,” Davek sighed and slumped deep into his chair. “Too easy.”

A flicker of her malice burned his skin. “Arrogance will be your undoing, Davek.”

“I’m certain it will.” He tossed his half-eaten fruit onto the platter. “Until that day comes, I shall speak freely. Now what is it do you wish of me, or do you have that much time to waste?”

“You cannot keep doing this, Davek,” she said. There was the faintest of tensions in her voice this time – anger, desperation. “Diam was not the first to be so artfully deceived by you. The Black Hats are getting restless. They’ve already sent their inquisitors to our doorstep!”

They should have slit your throat, as I intended, he thought. “They’re pirates, Lady. They understand the nature of all this thieving business. One crook’s fortune is always open for another thief’s taking. That sort of thing.”

“Do you know have any idea how much gold I’ve paid the inquisitors to make them look elsewhere? What in the name of everything sacred are you trying to do? Spark a war between the Black Hats and the Guild?”

Davek answered that question by baring his teeth in a wide grin. “There’s some grim satisfaction in seeing you riled up like this.”

Again, she laughed. Those hazel eyes took on a darker, more sinister shade – sure sign that she was being pushed towards her snapping point. “Ahh, so you think that by doing all this others will vouch for you? Let them see their great Lady fret and sink under the weight of all this turmoil? See you as the bold, heroic leader daring enough to rile our seafaring rivals? What if I choose to revoke your title as my Primary Adjunct instead? Get rid of you?”

Davek matched her laugh with his own version of a grim chuckle. Every inch of his fingers itched for his weapons. “You can’t get rid of me. I’ve brought you more fortune and deaths in the last five years than any of the two hundred saps you’ve got here in this Guild. I’m the best Huntsman you’ve got, and you know this. Otherwise you would’ve hauled my carcass off to the Black Hats already.” I brought you to leadership, you slinking bitch! Hung at the tip of Davek’s tongue, so much so that he had to bite it down before the insult flew.

“You arrogant little prick! That doesn’t grant you the right to do as you damn well please!” She hissed and slammed the tabletop. The fruit bowl and platter clattered. Davek removed his feet from the table, silent, while the Lady glared at him, her thin brows furrowed so closely together they might melt into each other.

This could go on forever. Davek sighed and rolled his eyes. “Lady, you have my word that I will leave the pirates alone, until a better mark comes along that is worthy of my time.” He said. “Is that all?”

She drew a long, deep breath. Her tense shoulders relaxed; about as calm as cobra could be when it deflated its hood. “No, there is something else, of greater importance. A mark you will be very interested in.”

Davek scowled at her. “Better than Diam and the pirates?”

“Far better.” The Lady said. “You desire a mark worthy of your talents?” She pulled a piece of paper from her stack and slid it towards him. “Then this will fulfill your wish.”

Suspicion sent a sharp jolt through his guts. Davek clenched his fists for a few seconds, then snatched the parchment from the table. Its contents were similar to the hundreds of other written orders he had read throughout his years as a Huntsman. Nothing strange there except…

His mark’s name. Davek snorted, lips peeled back in a grin. Then he laughed. A soft chuckle that expanded to a full-throated bellow. “Oh well done, Lady! I didn’t know you had any humour in you.”

“He arrived in Karpaven last night for a state visit, without pomp of course.” The woman licked her lips. “But he brought with him an item of unspeakable value.” Her hard eyes swivelled back to the paper. “An item that will change everything we believe about science and the great and much disputed Khathmirian legends. I’m not jesting, Davek. I wish to have it.”

Davek’s laughter vanished in an instant. “If this is an attempt to deter my meddling with the pirates -”

“By god, this isn’t a jest!” she snapped. “You think I would conjure a scheme like this and waste my precious time just to toy with you?”

He stared at her for a few seconds, uncertain. “You’ve done it before.”

“Not this time, Davek,” she said. “I want this mark robbed, at any cost, before he leaves the realm. My intelligence tells me that he will keep it in his vault within Fulkarin’s Shield.”

Shit. That caught him off guard. Davek cursed aloud and tossed the paper on the floor next to her feet, as though it had bitten his hand. “You want me to steal from him? Have you lost your mind?”

“I am completely sane, Master Averneus. It is your misfortune that you are the only one among all your brothers and sisters here who have the skills to perform such a challenging task.”

“Seems a little strange that he would carry this precious item of his all the way from Erith’Rim, don’t you think?”

Her countenance darkened at his questioning. “Of course not. It never leaves him. He stores it in the vaults of wherever he chooses to reside. You are missing the point, First Huntsman. He is here now, within our grasp. And I want that treasure.”

He didn’t like the way this was going, not one bit. “Do you have any idea who Kharvath D’Arvian is? Who protects him?”

Now it was her turn to look smug, the sly bitch. She offered no answer.

“The last man who tried to fuck the D’Arvian family walked willingly to his own execution and laid his head on the chopper’s block!” Davek said, a little too loudly than he intended.

“An old tale, fraught with more rumors than truths,” she replied. “Surely you don’t believe it.”

“It happened barely fifty years ago! I’ve read the records, Lady, and records written by members of this faction rarely stray far from the truth! And did you forget the Guild’s history? How this entire faction was nearly wiped out of existence by the very same fiends who protect the D’Arvian family now?”

“My dear Davek! You wanted a challenge, did you not?” She bent down to retrieve the paper he had so carelessly tossed, placed it on the tabletop. “But, you can always walk away, I suppose. You’ve always had a knack for disappearing and eluding the other Huntsmen. Shame, though.” She sighed. “Think of what you will gain if you succeed. Davek Averneus, First Huntsman of the Guild of Hunters, thief of Kings, King of thieves. The money will disappear in time, but the name you will have forged for yourself will last an eternity. Make you one of the most powerful and popular Huntsman in Khathmir.” She paused to search his face, to gauge his reaction. “And perhaps be the one deed that will convince the other Adjuncts to let you replace me.”

Right. Like that would ever happen. She would sooner cut her own throat than allow his succession in the Guild. And yet, roiled as he was by the notion of risking his life for this woman, it was….tempting.

“Now why would you want to do that?” Other than to set me up and kill me?  

“I’m getting old, Davek. You know that. Every one of the arse-kissing curs who’ve made me rich here knows that. The Guild of Hunters needs a successor, but it needs someone worthy for the rank. You would have been the rightful candidate in any case…”

“But?”

She rolled her eyes and let out an exasperated groan. “Plagues and fire! Must I spell everything out for you?”

“Humor me,” he said quietly. She was lying through her teeth, a stymied predator who could not kill her quarry outright for fear of retaliation from those who knew of Davek’s potential. But the words held a shred of truth for their logic. If I succeed…

“Your little game with the Hats has stirred…doubts. I cannot relinquish my throne to you until you redeem yourself, and stealing Kharvath’s treasure is the perfect tool for redemption.”

When he gave her no answer, she leaned forward. “Will you do it?” An air of desperation, it seemed, hovered over her, accentuated by the subtlest of tensions on her upper lip. The Lady was notorious for her cold-hearted, impassive nature, but the rarity of this strange, fixated look on her severe features slathered even more blood on the bait she was handing out to him.

“You ask me as if I have a fucking choice!” Davek snatched the paper from her. “You want the impossible, Lady! This isn’t a simple fetching errand.”

Was that a flash of relief, or spite in her eyes? She had thought of this game for a time now, letting it brew and twist in that morbid mind of hers – he knew it. More likely there will be a trap waiting for him in Fulkarin’s Shield, where not even Cornelius could reach him. “Impossible for most men, Davek. But all my unfortunate, hard years tolerating your charming presence has taught me that you are not most men. Complete that mission before dawn, three days hence, and I will personally deal with all the bravos your enemies have sent after you in the Waterfront. I’ll make certain the compensation will be worth your while. Put in a good word for you and take all the necessary actions to elevate your position.”

A rush of anger flooded through him, made him jump to his feet. “I need more than three days! It takes one day just for me to get there! I’ll need time to establish intelligence…study the hunting ground, talk to the locals –”

“Then you best get moving. Come to Wayside Inn, by the public garden with the loot when you are done. And I shall speak of your ascension.”

Davek drew breath to speak, shook his head, then regrouped his thoughts. “Where is the surety of my ascension, except in your words, which you could deny upon my return?”

“Davek, you know that the choosing of the next Lord lies not in my hands, but in the Adjuncts’. It is they you have to convince.”

“There is a possibility,” he said, his mind whirling. “That they may refuse my ascension even after my return. And even if they do acknowledge me, a Guild Lord spends weeks to obtain the…backing one such as yourself already has.”

The Lady shrugged. “There’s that, I suppose.”

“I want something else. You have your bravos. Dozens of them, and Khaaran knows, there may be more than dozens hiding out there.” More than any of the old decrepit Adjuncts have figured out. “Loyalists who would gouge their own eyes out if you wish it so…”

“They can’t kill you without the Adjuncts’ sanction, if that’s what you’re thinking. The Guild has rules, in case you’ve forgotten.”

“Oh I am well aware of that,” he said. “That’s not what I was getting at.”

Now her brows furrowed, and the look of mild curiosity turned to frigid anger as she guessed where he was going.

“Now from what you have told me, your bribery notwithstanding, I may have an angry horde of pirates pounding my door, at any given time. If I were to undertake this task-”

“If?” she snapped. “Say no, and you’ll wish that you had never even conceived the idea to rob Parvus. I hear he loves to skin his enemies alive while they hang by their thumbs.”

He barely suppressed the urge to hurl his fist at her face. “Now let’s be fair! You’re forcing this task upon me, and I can’t worm my way out of it. So while I’m off risking my neck trying to pocket yon treasure, I humbly ask you…” he bowed for theatrical effect, if a little stiffly. “…to make certain all of my enemies are gone, Lady. Not just those bastards in the Waterfront. The inquisitors, the pirates, anyone who wishes to cut my throat. You have the manpower to do that swiftly. I don’t.”

Tension, fused with her fermented hate for him, stewed behind her deceptively expressionless face. “Is that all, Master Averneus?”

“No. I want a fair cut in the value of this…” He paused to study the sketch drawn on the paper, could not make any sense of it. “…whatever this is you wish me to steal.”

“You insolent son of a bitch!” she exploded this time. “You dare to presume I would give you more than what you deserve? The item stays with me. I will consider what you ask of your enemies, but bring that item here first.”

Of course. Why not play her game then? “I may not be able to refuse you, but a high-ranking member of this guild may request for time to ponder his strategies for the hunt to come.” Davek folded the paper neatly and kept it in his vest. “Allow me to once again play the difficult lover and refuse my Lady an answer tonight.”

The Lady allowed a stiff smile to cross her features. “A line from the ballad of the Rogue’s Charm. How droll.” She folded her hands before her. “Did you know that the rogue in that very ballad was, in the end, murdered by his fellow rogues?”

“It’s a bloody romance, written by someone who clearly knew nothing about thievery and assassinations. I won’t be that stupid. Now.” He placed his hands on his hips. “I’ll need more than three days.”

“Out of the question! An item of such priceless nature must not be allowed to linger in the vault for too long. Kharvath’s stay in Karpaven is too fleeting to risk an elaborate game. Your request to ponder is denied. I’ve given you every information you need in that parchment. The vault’s location, a map of the Imperial Quarters. All you have to do is find a way in.”

“How in hell –” Davek began.

“You’re a man of many talents, boy.” The Lady cut him short and waved her hand to dismiss him. “Too bad common sense eludes you and avarice fuels your blood. Now choose to honor your purpose, Huntsman, and rob Kharvath blind, as you had robbed Parvus.”

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