Outskirts, Karpaven – River Rohn
The clop of the horse’s shod hooves and the rattle of their cart’s wheels on the flagstone road in the quiet night should have drowned Vanora’s whispered words from hearing. But Davek looked up from the papers in his hand and blinked nonetheless, noting the tension that knotted her shoulders.
He folded the papers back into his jacket and moved from the back of the cart to sit next to her, lantern in tow. Habit for prudence led the both of them to speak in the thick and brutish Erith’Rim tongue, a language they had picked up when they were children from the blind tavern master down in the Tinkermen’s district. “Mad, or malicious? I’ve had a mind to think she’s doing this to end my career in the Guild.”
“Well obviously.” Vanora clucked at the horse as they entered one of only two abandoned and covert tunnels that led to the riverbank. “But why? For humiliating one of the Guild’s greatest rivals? And why in this manner? There are easier ways to kill you.”
“I suspect Parvus was the tipping point, Van. My final act of defiance to seal her decision to remove me.” He ran his left toe over his right ankle to make certain the poison-tipped blade was still strapped to his leg. “And you know how much she loves these games. Think of the impasse this shit with Kharvath will grant me, dearest. She expects me to fail, or get killed somewhere between this place and yon Supreme Overlord’s lair. If I return empty-handed she will revoke her stay of protection over me and let Parvus himself haul me to hell. It’s a valid enough reason to get rid of me without all the tedious hassle of justifying my death to the other Guild Adjuncts.”
“But if you succeed,” she began.
He bared his teeth. “She did mention that it could be the one deed that will convince the other Guild Adjuncts to vote in my favor.”
She shook her head in disapproval. “And you believe her?”
“Of course not. But she’s right. This is the one deed that will convince the Guild Adjuncts that I am worthy. Ambitious as I am, my escapade with Parvus may have galled the nerves of the more cowardly thieves I have the misfortune of calling my fellow Huntsmen.”
She sighed. “So you’re hoping to redeem yourself by robbing Khathmir’s Supreme Overlord?”
He gave a laugh of pure glee. “Yes, you could call it that. Wouldn’t you find such an impossible feat impressive?”
“It’s far too difficult and dangerous, Davek,” she spoke in a tone best suited for children. “Perhaps this is a good time to call in all those favors that are owed to you.”
Davek gasped, gave her a horrified look. “And lose the most important leverages I have in my life?”
“Use them! Break your ties with the Guild. Cornelius can make that happen. You don’t need to be a Huntsman anymore, not with all the sovereigns you and I have saved.” She lowered her voice to a level only he could hear. “Not with the magic you have. We can disappear. Move out of Guild territory. Start over thousands of miles from here.”
He considered the thought for a moment. “A tempting notion, but no. Not yet. I can’t let the Lady win, Van. She’ll hunt me down.”
“For God’s sake, Davek. Why play her game and fall into her trap when it would be far easier to flee?”
Why? For those terrible weeks of incarceration he spent in the Guild prison after he mistakenly picked a rising Primary Adjunct’s pocket. For all those months he spent begging for forgiveness as a hungry, frail waif, hoping that the Adjunct he had crossed would show him mercy. And when she did finally decide to grant him that mercy, he was forced to tolerate her abuse, her outlandish demands, to use every single recourse and wit he had every single, damned day just to help her rise into her position as the Lady of the Guild. Every drop of blood, sweat and tears, shed for her cause, to what end? To have her despise him. To have him leashed to her cause until she deemed him a threat and wished to remove him! Oh, the list was a long one indeed.
Davek decided that the entire sum of his reasons could only surmount to one thing alone. “Because I hate to lose to that bitch.” He said. “And after all she’s done I desire nothing than to strip the one dear thing she possesses – her power and position in the Guild.”
“You have yet to convince me, beloved.”
“There is another reason,” he admitted, and that twinge of curiosity gnawed at the core of his soul. “She wants this treasure so badly. I can read it in her eyes. I have to see what it is.”
Davek’s ear twitched to the sound of footfalls in the tunnel, far behind them. One of the Guild watchers again, to judge by the distinctive scent of his steel and chemical powders. Persistent little bastards.
“We’re being followed.” Davek jerked his thumb over his shoulder. “One of the Cloaks. He just entered the mouth of the tunnel, on foot, mind you, so don’t rush. Let him catch up. He’s been trying to find me for hours.”
“What?” Van spun in her seat to see through the poor light and instinctively pulled her hood down to hide her face. Reins jerked back, the horse snorted and tossed its head in protest. “You promised me we won’t be seen!”
“It’s just a Guild Cloak, Vanora.” He raised his finger to forestall her furious outburst, then patted her wrist so that she eased her relentless tension on the reins.
She swore a phrase in another dialect, then switched back to Erith’Rim. For the horse, she gave another slap of the reins, and it jolted forward to a run, distressed to be in such dismal, dark conditions.
I say, Van. Slow down!”
“Slow down?” she hissed. “By the Hound’s teeth! I can’t be seen with you. I’ll be killed!”
“We’ll be killed if you don’t slow down. He can’t see you. His eyes are sharp, but no match for mine for accuracy.” Davek thrust the lantern on her lap, then snatched the reins from her hands, and in spite of her growling disapproval he slowed the cart to a comfortable pace.
They both ducked when the cart tumbled under what used to be finely crafted wooden-beam, once festooned with delicate glass globes to light the way, now decked by equally intricate spider webs. Vanora cast him a sideway glance, her smile wry. “I can’t help but think you’re in way over your head with this one, Davek.”
“Ah but the game was going precisely the way I want it to! I’ve managed to lure the inquisitors here, haven’t I? They are very, very prepared to hold the Lady accountable for her wayward assassins.” He puffed out his chest like a rooster. “Namely, me.”
She raised the lantern high above her head. “Your assumptions will get you killed one day you arrogant arse.”
He shrugged. “The Lady’s cracking under the pressure of my exploits and my impressive achievements have not escaped the attention of the other Huntsmen. It’s only a matter of time before she slips, and the others decide it is time a younger, more fitting candidate lead them. My victory with Kharvath’s treasure is the perfect tool for that.”
They passed beneath a giant hole, caught a glimpse of the black sky and its council of summer stars. Pressed as he was, it was still the deepest part of the night, with at least another hour before the next river barge arrived. Davek slowed the horse down to a walk.
“As impressive as all of this sound, there are lots of ifs and maybes in your words.” She said, the acid in her voice matched with an equally sharp glare, obvious signs that her worry grew the nearer they were to the end of the tunnel. “Alright, I’ll humor you. If you succeed in this task –”
“Granted she will redouble her efforts to kill me, but the victory will also draw the attention of my supporters. Cornelius will finally have the validation he needs to elevate my stature to Guild Lord. Any attempts at murdering me, openly or discreetly then will be…stymied, I reckon. Cornelius will make certain of that.” Or at least, that was their arrangement.
“I don’t like any of this, Davek.” She said. “There are too many loopholes. What is to stop her from slitting your throat if you return triumphant? She could kill you before the others know of your success.”
“The flaw of a genius mind is that sometimes one fails to be thorough.” He waved his hand to dismiss the matter. The footsteps far behind them had doubled in speed now.
“There will be a time and place to think about all the details. For now, I want Kharvath’s treasure, and time away from the Lady’s presence is time I could use to think of my options when I return to the guild.”
She began to tap her foot. It would not be long before she started spelling out her curses. “Khaaran! You should’ve killed her when you had the chance.”
“Not my style, to kill an old woman in cold-blood. Slow, deliberate vengeance, my love, like I told you.”
She huffed. “Fine, it’s your hide you’re risking. We’ve sidetracked. What else should you be wary of when you’re in Newhaven?”
“If I get caught by Kharvath’s guards, well.” He shrugged. “From the sad collection of reports you have in your possession, we know that the D’Arvians have never been gracious with thieves and traitors.” He mimed chopping his neck with his hand and stuck his tongue out. “You remember that poor sap who laid his head willingly on the chopper’s block on his execution day?”
She tore her attention from the tunnel’s many hidden crevices to look at him, brows furrowed. “Commander Leopold’s suicidal march to his death wasn’t just a tall tale told to put off pigheaded thieves like you.”
“Oh, I’m certain it wasn’t, my dear.”
“Some of the more controversial texts claim it was…magic.”
Reports of magic have disappeared for decades. Sorcery was little more than a myth now, told by mothers to frighten errant children or by the elders when they needed the supernatural touch to embellish their stories. He did not know how much truth there was in those texts anymore than she did. All these years, all those countries he hunted in, all those foes he fought and robbed, and no one had displayed even the slightest flare of the talent embedded inside him. Then again, no one in the Guild had ever dared to stir the D’Arvian’s nest before, so who was he to assume?
“Magic or no, I have this horrible, sinking feeling that I, the Huntsman, am about to enter the dragon’s lair blindfolded.” He grinned at her when she chuckled. “Pray that I will emerge unscathed, sane, and not inclined to marching to my own death. Even if I did, well, perhaps we’ll find out what the D’Arvians did to convince a steadfast rebel like Leopold to let them cut his head off.”
She raised the lantern above her head as they approached a fork in the tunnel, pointed for him to turn left. “There’s more. For generations the D’Arvian family thrived under the protection of a covert brotherhood. The Helsarians, he calls them. The Supreme Overlord’s secret sentinels.”
Immediately after the cart made the turn, the rich smell of the riverbank and the unmistakably horrid odor of human industry slapped their faces. While Vanora simply flipped her hair over her shoulder and presumed to point towards the wooden platforms at the far end of the tunnel, Davek snorted and rubbed his nose vigorously at the lingering smell left by the wind’s wake.
“Helsarians,” He coughed. “…Are killers of a different sort. If the allegations of these sentinels and what they are capable of are true, I’d have fairer chances of keeping my head with the Lady and her delightful, merry crew. Warmongering bastards, the whole lot of them.”
“Yes, and they are the ones worrying me.” Vanora chewed her bottom lip, sure sign she did not like this predicament any more than he did. “Maybe it was they who drove Leopold to suicide. They, who wield the dark magic,” she said to him, her voice taut.
Silence hung between them. He had no words to reassure her.
The horse emerged from the mouth of the long tunnel and pulled the cart to the muddy riverbank with renewed enthusiasm, relieved to be free from the oppressive tunnel. A joy not shared by both charlatans, whose lives have been spared countless times by the presence of hidden tunnels. Out here, they could easily see the ghastly shapes of factories. Thick, foul smoke curled out of foundries built alongside the river. Polluted water dumped from the tannery tainted the riverbank with foam.
The silhouettes of several barges dotted the distant river. The ripple of the black water reflected an assembly of stars, their sparkle sadly diminished by the smoke.
The silence had stretched too long. Davek drew a deep breath. “So what else do we know about Kharvath that’s useful to me?”
“Not much. Historical texts wrote that the Dárvian bloodline has bred every manner of Supreme Overlords you can possibly imagine – The Brutish, the Compassionate, the Intellectual, the Foolish, the Charming, the Repugnant.”
“What horrid trait did Kharvath earn for himself?”
Her lips curved in that wry manner that never fails to light her face. “From what I am able to gather, and there isn’t much about him, as I have told you, Insignificant Kharvath the Marked.”
Davek laughed at that. Insignificant for his refusal to dabble in court politics and Marked by the scar that runs down his left eye. “It suits him.”
“Unlike his predecessors, Kharvath prefers his solitude,” she went on. “Ruling the continent through his High Lords, letting them do all the dirty work, speak on his behalf, take the blame when things go sour with the people, so on and so forth. He eschews formal public appearances but relishes social affairs. First man at every feast and dance, last at any of the Lord’s Gathering. The one furthest away from the battlefield, nearest to the virgins and ladies who are brought to his court.”
“Ah, a man after my own heart.” Davek smirked. “Am I correct to presume that he has precious few friends in the higher circles?”
“Of course. Forcing others to clean your ordure for you is hardly the popular way of making friends. The Helsarians are about the only creatures loyal to him.”
The sudden taste of malice and anger stirred the humid air. Davek jerked the reins to stop the horse dead in its tracks.
Vanora stiffened. “Davek, what is it?”
It was an impossible feeling to ignore, like the tension that hangs before an ugly storm or the great surge of unease that grows in the pit of his stomach when danger lurks nearby. Brows furrowed, he showed his teeth. The quay had always attracted all sorts of scum, but few who exuded this much anger or weapons. Gunpowder, rum, oiled steel, and the tang of the salty sea – a pirate’s signature brew.
The Black Hats, right on schedule. They waited at the quay where the barge stood, bobbing in the river’s gentle current, and by the sudden shift of their movements, Davek was certain the cart had been spotted. Too late to turn back.
“Change of plans, beloved.” Davek unfastened his cloak. They have to work fast while the cover of darkness and distance was still theirs. “The play will begin earlier than we anticipated. It is time to assume our appointed roles.”
“The Waterfront thugs?”
“No, it’s the Hats.” He whispered.
Her eyes grew wide. “How did they know you’re here? The Lady?”
“We’ll worry about that later. Hurry.”
Realization, to his dismay, chose that very moment to dawn in her. “You knew you would be cornered here. You knew I would have no choice but to go with you!”
“Vanora, we’ll discuss this later,” he said between gritted teeth.
“You said we were safe when we left the house! That no one would see me,” she hissed at him. “You set me up!”
“I want you to come with me!” he said as loudly as he dared. “Now please, for your life, woman. Do as we planned!”
She drew her hood back, took a small vial from one of the folds in her cloak, and poured the vial’s contents down one side of her face in one smooth motion. An acrid smell invaded the air as the potion worked its illusion. When she tipped her face back to him, a burn scar marred one side of her beautiful face – fake, yet believable enough to fool those who did not know the trade. She scooped her fingers into the pouch strapped to her belt and smeared the other half of her face with dirt.
Davek kept his eyes on the pirates while they watched the cart. Four of them, this time. None of them moved, yet their fingers curled around their flintlocks, ready to shoot should Davek decide to turn the cart around.
She tousled her hair, and relaxed her shoulders – actions that did everything but mask her nervousness. She was an old hand at this game, but he knew the Black Hats frightened her, probably as much as dark magic did.
“Nothing will happen to you, I promise.” He touched her hand lightly. “Just play along, like you always do.”
He could barely recognize her now with the scar and dirt on her face. The brilliant violet eyes, the only features that remained unchanged, searched his for reassurance. “If we get caught…”
Davek placed his hand on the steel hidden at the small of her back. “We shed blood.”
She nodded and drew a deep breath, but continued to glare at him. “I’ll be sure to drive my knife down your back if I fall.”
He squeezed her fingers. “My lady, your courage could shame the bravest man sworn to the Supreme Overlord’s Justice.”
“Right. It’s a pity you’re such a terrible liar.”
Fire coursed through his veins, a flood of dangerous, unpredictable power that threatened to break free of his control and raze his flesh. Years of practice, of trial and error, allowed him to temper that magic, just as he did in the waterfront. Once again, he called to the shadows, and the master thief wrought an illusion to shape his features like an artist’s clay. When he next turned to face her, he was no longer the strapping young man who rode with her in the tunnel.
He hunched until his shoulders touched his ears, cleared his throat, tested his voice several times until he achieved the precise timber he had aimed for. “How do I look?”
“Like the biggest charlatan in Karpaven.” Vanora said, and with the game fast approaching, that flow of fear in her receded behind a mask of courage. They melted into their roles with a confidence gained through years of swindling the Karpavians out of their money and fooling foes no less dangerous than the ones they were about to face…
* * *
“Oy, hold up there!” The leader of the small band of bravos raised his hand to stop the cart, the third one they have hailed that night. Damn the sea spirits, but this was a bloody chore! His lackey brought a torch forward so they could have a better look, and the others readied their pistols without their leader tellin’ them so.
“Is there a problem, sirs?” asked the one who steered the cart, a young woman. The torchlight licked her face, and the Leader flinched at what he saw. She was not shy to parade her wounded face to others, nor was she afraid to look them in the eyes. His men made unpleasant sounds. One of them chuckled, without much mirth, by the sound of it.
“Ugly bitch, ain’t she?” the one who laughed muttered.
“We’re lookin’ fer a certain troublemaker in these here parts,” the Leader said, his nose wrinkled in disgust. “Been searchin all night we ‘ave. Davek Averneus be his name. Mayhap ye’ve heard of ‘im?”
“Khaaran bless you, but as you can see, sir, I have no business with troublemakers.” She smiled, or tried to, with that ugly wound of hers. His stomach turned. “I am just sending my grandfather to the barge over there.”
“Eh? What did you say, girl?” The shrunken old bugger who sat next to her pressed his hand to his ear, squinting. When they did not move aside, he swung his reproachful gaze to them, one crooked finger raised in flimsy threat. “Who are ye? Bunch of damn blaggards! What’re ye doin’ out here in this ungodly hour, botherin’ us good honest folk?”
The woman leaned forward, exposed her face even more. One of the pirates took a step back and muttered a curse. “He’s a little senile,” she said. “But you can’t expect much from a man who has lived nearly a century.”
“That old?” the leader scratched his head. “Where ye sendin’ ‘im?”
“Back to the river to die, I reckon,” one of his men said. The rest laughed, while the old coot continued to stare at them and mash his toothless gums together.
“Boss, that ain’t Davek,” one of his men said. “We’re wastin moonlight.”
“It’s my grandfather’s tradition!” The woman protested, though none of the Hats bothered to listen. “He believes that the moon’s rays and the river’s winds will help him live forever. He rides the barge upstream and comes back the very next day.” She sighed. “Every week I have to –”
“Alright, alright. Off with ye!” The pirate motioned for his men to step aside, then turned his back to the unsightly pair on the cart. Mayhap the Lady of the Guild was wrong…Mayhap he would take the land road to Newhaven instead.