At first my fair lady’s heart was all that I wished to conquer,
But the sight of all her jewels grand turns my heart to that of murder.
– Lines from the Rogue’s Charm
Mainland, Karpaven – The Main Plaza and the Endless Lane
The name flashed in Davek’s mind for the hundredth time that morning as he stepped off the bridge. Had the Lady lost her mind, to even think of such a caper was possible in three days?
No, wait. Davek shook his head. Not just Kharvath. Supreme Overlord Kharvath. Protector – head chief among that pack of pompous, gilded apes who preside over Khathmir’s twelve provinces. A man more guarded than the most desired virgin in the plains of Tarfuin.
Davek slid his hand towards the parchment tucked inside his vest. The Lady was a cunning bitch, to throw him off his course and draw his attention away from riling the pirates, he’ll give her that.
A whiff of gunpowder in the hot, humid breeze disturbed his thoughts. Davek curled his upper lip, resisted the urge to stop in his tracks. Somewhere in the shadows, someone…a few someones were watching. He took another sniff, caught the rancid stench of sweat-crusted skin, and the unmistakable tang of a well-oiled knife. Subtler still was the thin scent of blinding powder and poisonous herbs, exotic armaments none but those of the Guild could possess. He slid his eyes sideways, caught the outline of a hooded figure, swathed in the featureless garment unmistakably tailored for the Guild.
It was the gunman he met earlier in the garden. The one he handed his weapons to. Davek’s eyes were far too sharp to have missed the crooked outline of the man’s misshapen nose. Another one of the Lady’s many hawks, perhaps? She sent quite a number of them this time.
Regardless, the man chose not to follow even as Davek moved away from the garden and approached the corner, although the Huntsman could feel his stare, pinned to the back of his neck.
Just as that thought crossed his mind, a shadow moved at the opposite end of the road. Davek made a show to saunter calmly to the side of the street where the lurker hid. Once he spotted his prey, his astute senses became aflame with the person’s stench, the drum of his heart, the entire bulk of the lurker’s body, stamped against the brick walls. The moment he reached throwing range, Davek drew his blade and hurled it with practiced speed into the depth of those shadows. The man yelped, turned tail and ran as fast as he could down the other direction.
“The next Guild dog who dares to follow me will find the blade between his eyes,” Davek said aloud. It sent some of the others scurrying away in the dark, but several of the more curious, bold, or stupid, stayed to watch. Davek could read their dark, putrid presence as well as he could read the telltale signs of rain in the air. The First Huntsman trailed his thumb over the thin, flexible blade wrapped between his belt. Ready for the kill, if it boiled down to that. Always ready, and they knew it.
“Never a dull moment,” he muttered to himself, tossed his head back, and hummed a ballad from the Rogue’s Charm as though no secretive watchers waited for him to let his guard down, and no enemies within and beyond the shores of Karpaven hungered for his blood.
* * *
By the time the clock bell tolled the first hour after daybreak, Davek grew certain that no one had followed him. He arrived at Endless Lane through a network of hidden alleyways and rooftop paths, where no one could follow.
The laughter and voices of the men and women gathered at the Lane drew his musings to a temporary halt. Dozens of Karpavians clustered in what appeared to be a warren of eateries and alfresco restaurants built to face the glittering ocean. Night owls staggered to the Lane after an entire night of debauchery (courtesy of the illicit dens in the Main Plaza, of course). Early-risers who were too lazy to cook themselves flocked here to have their breakfast and bask in the coolness of the early morning sea breeze, until their errands compel them to leave.
The patrons’ characters, fashion sense and dialect were as diverse as the food spread out on the tables. It was the only place in the city where privilege and birthright were cast aside, diminished by the simple luxury of hot, delicious food and the company of friends from a multitude of races and breeding. Any idiot who had the audacity to flash his or her arrogance will be dumped unceremoniously into the ocean.
Shoving his bloodstained fingers in his vest pockets, Davek drew in a lungful of coffee-scented air and could not help but feel a stir of warmth in the pit of his cold stomach. There’s no place like home.
True to its name, the food service here was endless. The Huntsman had to pick his way through a forest of tables that spilled out onto the Lane, which made the bloody path even more tiresome to navigate. But no one was alert or sober enough this early in the morning to pay any attention to him despite the muck on his vest and his mismatched appearance. A steady stream of rumors accompanied him while he moved past the tables, just as he preferred it.
Here, from a group of mercenaries and off-duty watchmen came stories of a civil war stirring in the distant mountains of Tarfuin. Too far away from Karpaven to have been significant. Davek shrugged it off as quickly as he slipped a piece of spiced chicken off an inattentive diner’s plate and into his mouth.
There, a table of women dressed in flowing, sleeveless gowns exchanged tales of their families’ latest conquests in the trading business. Too easy for his taste. He had not preyed on merchants (and their daughters) for nearly three full years now.
Another table of chaps grew lively with arguments over which actress had the breasts to play the best lover in Romalik’s Seven Brides. Davek made a mental note to catch the play and judge the buxom beauties for himself, if he returned from Kharvath’s stronghold in one piece.
And just next to the boisterous pack, a group of sun-burned sailors spoke uneasily about how strange the weather had become. Days are getting colder as the weeks pass by, the nights unnaturally hot and humid. “No signs of it gettin’ right again either,” one of the old salts said between mouthfuls of stew. “Sea’s more alive than she should be, like there’s some angry beast thrashin’ in her belly. Makin’ ev’ry one o’ the cats on board yowl like hell was comin’.”
Davek rolled his eyes and moved on. Several more steps down the rows of tables and the stories became more and more insignificant. Plenty of political opinions were discussed in public, but precious little that was said about Supreme Overlord Kharvath was confirmed as truth. The Huntsman doubted that fear of the man had anything to do with it.
Truth was, everyone knew little to begin with. The rich lords who rule the House of Merchants do not speak of him save to praise or curse his name for the wealth he had given and taken from them. The loyal guardsmen who wield the Supreme Overlord’s justice in Karpaven do not mix with the secretive sentinels who were Kharvath’s personal guards, ergo their ignorance. The High Lords that rule the rest of the land under his supreme eye hated him, which was no surprise. It was always the natural order of things to despise the man who sits at the top.
The Guild had steered clear of the D’Arvians ever since one particularly bloodthirsty member of the royal household decided to hunt the assassins down to the ground. And even after the fear subsided, they did not find Kharvath dangerous or useful enough to document his profile – an unsettling thought given the fact that the Guild of Hunters held much pride in knowing everything about everyone. Either this entire affair was indeed just a grand trap, or the Lady was truly beginning to act her age.
He left the final row of tables and proceeded further down the lane, where the path tapered between two rows of quiet houses. Buildings rose haphazardly from the ground to mirror the impulsive nature of their architects. Many of the establishments stood piled up on top of one another; jumbled together in design and quality, a vista of organised chaos. Walls varied from plastered mud to timber to expensive white marble imported from the mountains of Cendaria.
Rooftops ranged from stately arches to plain thatch, patched together in great haste. Badly constructed outer staircases leaned precariously towards the houses opposite, while sturdy ones listed under the weight of vines and overgrown houseplants. It was in front of one of these vine-riddled staircases that he stopped. One glance over his shoulder and a quick whiff in the air assured him that no one had decided to follow him. For now, he was alone.
Davek could hear her laughter then, just as he was about to set foot on the staircase. Muffled voices drifted down to the street, threaded with the faintest chink of glasses and the telltale aroma of Valirian wine.
He scowled. Too early in the morning for formal company. The silhouette of what was clearly a woman passed the window above his head, followed by the unmistakable form of a man. He cleared his throat, squared his shoulders and stomped up the stairs two at a time, knowing she would hear him.
“Vanora!” he shouted, and upon reaching the landing kicked the door down. At least that was what he tried to do. Brute strength was not one of his finer attributes, but past encounters with doors told him that when one applies one’s booted foot upon such wooden panels in full force, it would break open.
Except, the door held firm. The full force of his kick backfired and shot up Davek’s foot and spine with a vengeance. The full-throated bellow he intended for the house’s occupants died in a high-pitched, undignified yelp.
He hopped on the stairway, cursing in a language that would have made a pirate blush, clutching his foot like an idiot. When the door remained shut, he growled and banged his fist on the panel.
“Let me in, woman! Or I swear by the Great Hound, I’ll –”
The door swung open. Morning light fell upon a cascade of neatly combed auburn hair and bronze skin. A pair of sharp, violet eyes stared back at him, the mischief in them intensified by the smirk now carved on her full lips.
“It’s called a doorknob,” she said. “You turn it around, and the door opens!”
Teeth clenched, Davek looked past her bare shoulder to the middle-aged, paunchy dandy who stood in the middle of the living room. Wide, startled eyes stared back at him from behind the rim of a full wine glass.
Davek puffed out his chest, and like a jealous husband wrung his clenched fist at his dumbstruck rival. “How dare you, consorting with my wife while I am away?” He let out an exasperated cry of fury. “Are you drinking my wine?”
The woman who stood in his way sighed. “Oh it’s wife this time, is it?”
“I…I…” His rival cleared his throat and put the glass on a side table. “Now hold on, Sir. I came here strictly to conduct business with Lady Vanora.”
“Get your arse out of my house!” Davek clasped her shoulder and moved her aside, not un-gently. The other hand now held the blade he had hidden between his belt, his threat magnified by the dried blood that crusted his fingers.
The visitor lumbered past them and nearly slipped down the stairs in his haste to flee. Vanora sighed again and shook her head.
“Save your pity, woman! The run will be good for all that fat he’s lugging around,” Davek said between gritted teeth. He grimaced to see the uncorked Valirian White on his table. “How much of my wine have you poured down that bastard’s throat?”
“Are you done?” she asked him.
“Not quite yet!” he hissed, took off his boots and limped inside. “You ungrateful…scheming witch! I leave you for a few weeks and you…you destroy my sacred sanctum with your nightly courtiers!” He flailed his hands around his furnished living room, stabbing invisible foes with his blade. “Befouling my clean home with your sordid little trysts. Lying about your stature as a Lady?”
“That will cost you, you know.” Vanora ignored his outburst, unfazed by his exaggerated, theatrical displays. There was a hint of gladness in her eyes that betrayed her, however. Davek witnessed that same flash of emotion each time he returned after one of his long hunts. “That man you just bullied out into the street was prepared to pay two thousand sovereigns for a book I have in my collection.”
Fighting to keep his temper ablaze, he reached inside his vest for the pouch Gapho had given him earlier, then tossed it to her. She fielded the catch without so much as a flinch, the smile gone from her lips but not her eyes.
He let the blade drop into a hidden slot right by the door. “What did you do to my fucking door?” he asked. A cursory sweep of the room revealed the paraphernalia and junk he owned still in their respective places. At least she had the entire place dusted and polished.
“Reinforced it.” She jingled the pouch by her ear. The smile that first won him over a decade ago in the slums flashed in the candle-lit room. “Wait til you see the locking mechanism and poisoned darts that come with it.”
He squared his jaws, to fight a smile more than anything. “I don’t remember telling you to do that.”
“Leave your home for a few weeks, my dear Van,” she deepened her nightingale voice to mock his tone. “I insist! Bask in the warmth and comfort of my humble abode and make yourself at home. All I ask is that you guard my house against those horrid beasts who wish me sabotaged.” She snorted. “The door will buy us some time to flee when those beasts come to sabotage you. You never know when you’ll need a few extra seconds to think of your options.”
“I doubt I’ll ever need that.” This was but one of his many hideouts anyway.
“You don’t, but I might!” she said, and he read genuine worry this time. “Every time you go out there you draw a pack of grudge-plagued bandits hounding after you. Discretion is one of my most admirable of virtues, Davek. I’ve minded my step in Karpaven for as long as I have known you. No one would ever think Vanora the Collector is, in truth, Davek Averneus’ prime informant, or Van of the streets! But who knows when those foes you prick will get lucky and find this place.” And find me in it hung unspoken between them.
He paused for a bit to stare at her. For the briefest of moments his heart, if you could call it that, thumped faster. His insides clenched at the thought of fierce, merciless men coming after her, leering, blades flashing. “Has anyone been following you here?” Do they know who you are to me?
She waved her hand to dismiss the matter. “No, of course not. Didn’t you hear what I just said about my discretion? But by the Hound, beloved, of all the blaggards who sail the Black Ocean, why did you choose Parvus to fuck with?”
“You’ve heard already?” He burst into sudden laughter. “Why? Because I can. And because I take great pride and joy in bringing the most ill-tempered pirate down to his knees.”
She shook her head, pursed her lovely lips tightly in disapproval. “Parvus will have your head for this, Davek.”
“Right. I’ve heard that at least thrice tonight.” He scratched the stubble on his face. “Van, I’m in dire need of your intelligence –”
“I gathered as much.” She closed the door. “Sit down.”
“I can’t. The Lady has me too riled up.” He leaned against the back of his favourite armchair, watched her as she approached him. The long, coloured garment wrapped around her accentuated the curves of her body. Her affection, well hidden from her face, welled out of her like the heat from a torch. He could not help but be drawn to her, like a moth to a flame.
Davek cleared his throat. “I have to leave again, tonight, if I want to catch the barge to Newhaven.”
“The barge? Upriver? What kind of messy scrape does she insist upon you this time?”
“An impossible one, but it’s a game worth playing.” His eyes trailed over her neck, then down to the shapely curve of her breasts. “You’re not going to believe me.”
Her brows came together in a frown, though even that gesture did not compromise her features. Davek swallowed, in spite of himself.
“Try me.” She stopped just beyond his reach, damn her.
Davek stepped forward, reached out to touch her face. “How do I say this without sounding insane?”
“By telling me what she asked you to do.” She slapped his hand away. “You’re pressed for time.”
“More than you realize, but lady, I’m shocked!” He placed one hand over his heart, matched her step, move by move while she deflected his advances. “Are you refusing your man a kiss? We’ve been apart for weeks! Surely you miss me?”
“You do not own me, Davek!” She wrinkled her nose in disgust as they circled one another. The living room’s small space limited her movements. She was too wise in this game to turn her back to him. “Besides, you reek of the Waterfront and you’re covered in filth. A rat would be a far more desirable company.”
“Then you probably don’t want to see this.” He fished out the parchment the Lady had given him and tapped it against his cheek. “I can assure you that if I succeed, my name will go down in Guild history. The Guild might finally be mine.”
That was a surefire way to pique her interest. She cocked her head sideways, taking a tentative step forward. “Davek, how am I supposed to help you if –”
“How about by kissing me? That would most definitely help.” He lunged for her with the same efficiency and speed of a fencer wielding a rapier.
She sidestepped, graceful as a dancer. The brush of her hair against his face released a fragrance of wildflowers, which left him giddy like an inexperienced schoolboy. “Let me see the parchment.”
Laughing, he spun on his heels to face her, tapped his cheek again. “Bestow me a kiss, fair maid, and you shall have the parchment.”
“We don’t have time for this! What did the Lady ask of you?” When he came close enough she darted her hand out to grab the parchment, a move he matched by grabbing her delicate wrist. He pulled her against him, her stiffness a stark contrast to the smile in her eyes and the slight, almost indiscernible curve of her lips.
“Are you quite done?” she asked, her fast breathing matching his own, their lips inches apart.
He stared into her eyes for a while, then as the rules of the game entailed (because they made it up when they were mere children), he let her go and gave Van her prize. “Yes. The parchment’s all yours.”
He headed back to the armchair while she read the parchment. When he sank himself into the seat and lifted his head to look at her, an expression of stark surprise and utter amazement met his expectant gaze. Mouth slightly agape, she sank into the chair opposite his.
“So.” He grinned. “Now that we’re on the same page. What do you know about Kharvath D’Arvian?”