River of Thieves Preview

As corpses go, Cord proved a constant thorn in my side. Don’t get me wrong. I liked the old thief, but dying merely inconvenienced him. Dealing with the mess after, however, dug into my ass like a persistent nettle. Given the choice of a nettle in your ass for years, or a small beetle that bores into your guts and then chews its way up your torso like a man slathered in horse shit runs to a bath, most people are going to choose the quicker, less annoying option. Fortunately, I am not most people. I might even be a saint. Or an idiot. I guess I’ll find out when the gods hand out prizes at the end.

I sank down against the wall, avoiding the still-glistening blood. I lit a cigar and watched curls of blue-white smoke drift off into the summer night. My brain drifted with them, wondering what a normal life might look like. House, field, two kids, husband. Dog? Probably a dog. I snorted. None of that fit me. Even if my family made the choice to keep me, the path of life veered like a bird caught in a high wind.

I shook myself and looked down at Cord. After a minute, I poked a finger into his empty eye socket. It came away with a wet squelch and I wiped it on my trousers. Gross, sure. But caring about gross passed me by roughly eighteen months ago, and little in the way of squeamishness remained. I still don’t know how he talked me into it the first time. I thought back to that first conversation.

“Look, it’s easy, one quick jab in the eye, and we’re in the money,” he said.

“Why not the lung? Or the heart?”

“Because it hurts.” He rubbed his chest. “It really hurts,” he muttered.

“A knife in the eye doesn’t?”

He shrugged. “I mean, only for a minute, then it’s into the brain, and plop, splat, I’m dead.”

“What if I only jiggle up your noodle?”

“Then you’ll be changing my trousers for a month.”

“Right, so the long knife.”

He raised an eyebrow, and I mimed jabbing a blade into his face.

“So it goes deeper. Might need to scrape the back of the skull to be sure,” I said.

“That’s the spirit. The disturbing, way too eager spirit,” he said, and went about packing our gear.

Wind rustling paper under the bridge snapped my attention back to the present. I looked up at the poster of King Mane plastered to the brick and shot it a sneer. The royal propagandist’s work impressed me as an example of sweetening horseshit to make fudge. The royal twit appeared on the poster sporting a bulging chest and suspiciously well-endowed codpiece. The art depicted the king handing out gold coins to waifs in rags. They held shining faces uplifted and beaming in thankfulness.

I suspected the reason Cord chose this spot to die sprouted from a tree of simple spite. He hated Mane with a passion that bordered on obsession. His favorite epithet for the king remained The Royal Shit, despite his ever-rotating vocabulary of disdain. I didn’t blame him. Even a short tour of the kingdom gave you an idea of just how much bullshit those posters peddled. Still, some of the king’s policies proved useful. Opposite the lie of his largesse stood the truth of his paranoia. As a result, Mane employed a great many mercenaries to patrol even small cities and roads. Rumors abounded that he saw enemies around every corner.

Which brought me to my next task – calling the guards. Our take sat on a boat about 300 yards away, along with my bloody clothes. I didn’t have a scratch on me. Cord did the dirty work – well, maybe the painful work. If you think stabbing a guy in the eye doesn’t make for some interesting dreams, I’d like to speak to you about the definition of disturbing. But I didn’t envy Cord’s part–committing the robbery and ensuring someone spotted him so I could point out his corpse. After, constables being what they are in the backwaters of the Veldt, they’d mark it as a bad deal and close the case. We’d even leave a bit of gold around Cord’s body to let them think he’d been the victim of a double-cross in the end.  Lay low for a bit and repeat every couple hundred miles.

I tossed the cigar into the canal. I mussed my hair, then knuckled my fingers into my eyes until the whites went red. I ran for the local guard shack just up the road, sniffling. Once I let them calm me down―weeping women make even big guys with pointy swords uncomfortable―they followed me to the body. Over time, I’ve perfected my role as distraught citizen to the point I expected them to melt down Gunter Horvath’s awards and recast the shiny gold in honor of my performance.

Once they left the guard station, I slipped away and hid in the shadows until they passed from sight, carting Cord’s body off like flotsam washed up in their clean little hamlet. No littering. Mind the dung. Thanks for visiting. I hopped in the boat and rowed out of the berth, the water sending a chill froth over the bow in the night air.  A clear dark night with a bright moon hung before me, lighting the river.

*

The mortuary stood at the edge of town. I beached the boat just up the river, and crept out, tugging it into the reeds. They’d eventually find it, but by then, then we’d be long gone. Once done, I straightened, wiped my face clean, and checked my clothing. Rough, but passable. I strode into the building. A teen sat behind the counter, idly twirling a pencil. I gave him a bright smile, and he glowered back and rolled his eyes.

“What?” he asked.

He clearly possessed dickish tendencies. Not the most charming trait. Or maybe just stupidity. In which case, I pitied him a little. We’d all been there. I thought of Cord’s advice: never attribute evil to dumb. So I smiled through teeth I wanted to use to bite him in the face.

“I’m here to pick up a body.”

“Look, I can’t do anything without my boss’s say-so,” the kid said.

“Sure, sure.”

“I’m not even supposed to be here today. You think I want to spend the night with a dead guy?”

I shook my head and let the smile drop. “Look at it this way – I sign the paperwork, take the dead guy off your hands, and we’re both on our merry way. Your boss can’t bitch about that, right? I mean, he’ll have my signature, and you’ll be short one corpse.”

The kid’s eyes shifted to the steel door behind him, uncertainty twisting his lips. He shuffled his feet and let out a huff of air.

“Fine. Your signature and a fiver.”

The smile slid back to my face. “Sure, sure.”

I signed his parchment with a name that meant something like Bearded Taint in Gentian and plopped a crown worth at least five lesser gold on the table. The privilege of screwing with people in charge paid for itself. When you’re handling dead guys and dealing with bureaucracy, you have fun when you can. He pulled the sheet back without looking at it. I felt a pang of disappointment at his inattention as he turned and unlocked the door, but squashed it. Some battles you won after you left the battlefield. One of Cord’s sayings. Like most of his little nuggets of wisdom, it carried the double edge of horseshit and truth.

A chill rippled across the room. Low mist clung to the floor, carrying the mingled scents of dried blood and slow rot. We toted Cord’s body out of the building and onto a small cart waiting in the yard. We dropped the dead man with a shared grunt. He probably wouldn’t wake up with a headache. When we finished, the kid leaned against the wall and reached into a pocket, pulling out a tobacco twist and setting light to it with a small striker.

“Your guy’s all fucked up. Chiurgeon said it looked like someone was playing with his eye after they stabbed him.”

“Gross.”

“Yeah. Sick. What’s wrong with people?”

I shrugged. “Lotta weirdos out there.”

“Yeah.”

I wheeled Cord around the building, and chucked the bag of gold down beside him. Then I headed down the street, keeping to the shadows, the soft squeak of the cart’s wheels keeping me company.

*

The first time you cart a body down the road in the middle of the night, and the dead guy farts, you scream a little. And pee. About the eighteenth time, you sigh and keep downwind. The walk back to the rented cottage wound through town, and I spent a lot of it humming under my breath. Something nonsensical–Dead Hon and the Elephant Boys, or Sketchy Gan.

I crested the slope of a hill, the roof of the rented cottage showing. I managed to drag Cord’s body through the front door, and after a bit of flopping about and grunting, propped him up on the divan, then sat down to wait. He used to come back quick. After this many deaths in a row though, his resurrections crept forward in increasing increments.

The first time Cord woke up in a mortuary, the damn chiurgeon tried to drive a stake through his heart. Nothing like rearranging a guy’s organs a second time to delay his flight back to the real world. On the upside, it allowed me time to retrieve the body and avoid nastiness like that. On the down, I wondered if the slow return marked a decline in his overall health.

I’d made it halfway through an article in the local one-sheet about the proliferation of morons in government. (Granted, the editor probably wouldn’t have let them print those exact words, mostly because they would have ended their career at the end of a rope.) They’d somehow managed to transfer the monthly farm subsidies to a fund meant for young debutantes. Now the crop yield flagged, but the would-be princesses wore diamonds the size of their skulls. Leave it to the rich to fuck the country over with an impressive tidal wave of shit and still come out smelling like roses.

Cord sat bolt upright, screamed once, and vomited up a lump of purple flesh, interrupting my train of thought. The thing squirmed against the rug, smearing crimson on the cream-colored wool, and stubby limbs sprouted from its sides. I smashed it with the hammer beside me. Cord coughed, blood spattering the floor, and vomited again. This time only vomit, no creepy living organ.

His chest heaved, and he made a sound like a sick dog. I waited for a minute. This passed for normalcy these days – the resurrections grew worse, each one taking something out of him. The first death I’d witnessed had only been his third death. He’d come back so easily then. Now we’d reached fifteen or so. A life of running and robbing sucked the sense out of the days. Nailing the exact number down felt like more than I wanted to trouble myself with. Especially when what I really wanted was a warm bed and a night of sleep. Cord sucked in one more breath and sat back, his face pale. He reached shaking fingers for the mug of water on the table beside him and took a long swallow, then finished with a small cough and a wan smile.

“How long?”

“Three days.”

“Gods.”

“Yeah.” I set the paper down. “Look, we gotta take a break. If you die for real, the gravy train’s over.”

He nodded and waved a hand, tipping the mug up again, draining the dregs. He set it down and leaned forward.

“I’ve got a plan.”

“I hope so. That looks like your spleen on the carpet. But your spleen had legs. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a spleen with legs.”

He looked down and grimaced, then back at me. “One more job. Then we can break.”

I nodded. My gut knew better. One more job is never just one more job for people like Cord. Or worse, it really is the last job, ever. Retirement looked like death or prison. I didn’t know which held the greater likelihood. If death continued to avoid Cord, he’d find himself vying with stone walls in a contest to see which rotted first. On the other hand, if the slowing rate of his resurrection indicated anything, true death loomed nearer than either of us expected. Neither of those things mattered much. The question that hung over both of us, like a sword suspended by a hair, was how many more deaths did he have left?

*

“The Gentleman Bastards,” Cord said.

“What?” We’d been quietly preparing for the next job, and Cord’s statement took me by surprise.

“Our name,” he said.

“I’m a woman. Also, I think that’s taken.”

Cord looked up from lacing his boot. “Oh.”

“What’s the plan here?”

“I go in, take the gold from the safe, and we live out the next few months someplace sunny. You know, nice beaches, pretty women.”

I shook my head. “Not what I meant.”

The question reared its head before, but Cord dodged it the way you dodge a bit of snot someone’s spat on the walk.

“Why do we need all this gold?” I asked. 100 pieces provided a modest, but comfortable retirement. 1000 might buy a small castle and servants. 10,000, a duchy. We probably had enough for a few duchies by now.

He frowned and straightened, boots laced tight to his ankles. “I don’t understand.”

“This is more money than you can spend in one lifetime.”

He cocked his head to the side. “Ah.”

“Ah, what?”

“Well, who here has a bit more than one lifetime?”

“That it? Planning well into your low thousands?”

“Well…”

“What?”

“Rich people piss me off.”

“Why?”

“All that money. What do they do with it?”

I thought about. “Well, there’s upkeep for their properties, pay for the staff, food, ponies, weapons, armor, maybe a wizard―“

“Think about that. They have a wizard on retainer. How many of the guys in the Dripping Bucket could say that?”

“To be fair, if those guys had a wizard, they’d just use it to make an endless beer fountain.”

“Would they? Fet would have paid the guy to keep his crops growing. Al, his children healthy. Yellyn – she would have made sure everyone in her parish had books. But these guys – ‘ooh, my sword’s on fire’ – does that sound all that bloody useful?”

“What about the staff? They’ve got to have jobs.”

“Jobs they wouldn’t need if their high and mighty lord of the taint hadn’t annexed their land and used it for his personal sewer.”

“Are you proposing a redistribution of wealth?”

“In a way,” he hedged.

“There really should be a word for that.”

“There is. It’s called justice.”

“No… look – what do you get out of this?” He’d led the conversation in a circle, and I didn’t like it. I didn’t like that this felt urgent, though I didn’t know why.

He looked up at me, then at the moon, hanging in the sky like a weight, and promptly changed the subject.

“Time to go.”

*

The robbery went the way they always do. That is to say, a combination of chaos and blood and short moments of terror. Cord grabbed the money, let them see his face, let them give chase, and slipped his pursuers before the second turn. We left behind an obvious trail. We happened upon one of the rare hamlets without a constable station, and needed to make our path clear enough to follow. Without Cord’s body and evidence of a robbery, the possibility of endless pursuit became more likely.

We stepped into a glade not far from the main track, sweat dripping from the strain of carrying the gold. We broke branches and stomped prints into the dirt as we went, leaving a path easy enough for a blind bear to track. Cord set the bag down and leaned against a tree, wiping a palm across his forehead.

“Okay, that shoul-”

An arrow sprouted from his eye mid-sentence and he collapsed. Men in dark leather appeared as if from nowhere and filled the clearing. They bristled with weapons, potential violence, and some sort of perfume. A man with a pinched face and a hungry look in his eye stepped toward me. He held a naked blade in his hand, the heavy edge glinting in the moonlight. His eyes gleamed with menace. His codpiece hung limp.

“We are the Knights of Axe!” he proclaimed.

I waved a hand, trying to dispel the stink.

“That is a powerful scent, sir knight,” I said.

“Yea, the alchemist what sold me it assured me it would attract only the finest of maidens.”

I coughed. “It’s certainly attracting something.”

A fly landed on his trousers and buzzed frantically before falling to the ground. We watched as it spun a circle on its back, wings fluttering like an erratic heartbeat. Finally, it died. He looked up, eyes meeting mine.

“Tell no one of this,” he said.

“I wouldn’t know where to start,” I replied.

I heard the clank of coins and saw the bag disappear into the trees, one of his men toting it. I looked from it to him, and he narrowed his eyes.

“Not a word,” he said.

“My lips are sealed,” I replied.

He looked me over once, then turned and disappeared into the woods, leaving me alone with Cord and the sound of running feet. I put on my best crying face and sobbed as the constable burst into the clearing.

“Ma’am. Ma’am!”

I looked up. “Yes?”

“What happened here?”

I widened my eyes and tried to look shocked. “Thieves!”

“Where?”

“There!” I pointed to the tree line.

He glanced around, noting Cord’s body, the fletching of the arrow still pointing to the sky. He looked back to me and narrowed his eyes.

“And how did you survive?”

I batted my eyelashes and gave him a smile. “They thought me too fine to despoil, sire. But they have my broach. If only someone could retrieve it. It belonged to my gran, and I’d be sore glad to have it back.”

He looked from my chest to my eyes and back again. I coughed, and he lifted his eyes once more, face bright red. He cleared his throat.

“Ah, yes,” he raised his voice, “Men, search the trees! We must have these scoundrels! Not to worry, ma’am. We’ll have your jewels back to your bosom in no time.”

My eyes strained to not roll into the back of my head and cause permanent blindness. “My hero.”

He grinned and left to supervise the search, shouting orders as he went, chest puffed like a rooster. They quickly forgot me in the bustle. I slunk away.

*

While the guards were busy beating the bush, I circled back. I’d stolen the uniform of a worker of Gren. Thick overalls, black mask, and heavy boots and gloves. I hauled Cord’s body into the cart and wheeled him out, nodding to the same captain who’d stopped me earlier. He averted his gaze. Workers of Gren were considered bad luck in the smaller backwaters–stupid country superstition. It was like being afraid of the trash men. No one wanted a flood of maggots in the streets. These guys should be getting parades. The guard turned back to his business, and I hauled my partner’s dead ass back to the cottage.

Cord woke sans one arrow in his skull, as is the preferred way to wake for most of the known world. He coughed, choked, and spat up another little critter, this one near in size to the last. Again, I hammered it with a mallet, and let Cord recover. He sipped his water and looked out the window over the long field of summer wheat and wildflowers.

“Penny for your thoughts,” I said.

“That’s a weird saying. Are you implying my thoughts are worth only a single cent?”

“Just an expression.”

“Yeah, well, next time offer a crown,” he grumbled.

“What were you thinking?” I asked, trying to keep the exasperation from my voice.

“I was thinking it’s time we go for bigger fish. This last job—well, I’ve had more successful shits. Fuck those guys.”

“Sadly, I don’t think anyone ever will,” I replied.

“What?”

“Nothing. You were saying?”

He gave me a look with one eye squinted, then shook his head and went on. “I think it’s time for a change of pace, maybe time to set us up for retirement.”

“And?”

He fell quiet for a moment, gray eyes searching for something out beyond the flowers. I followed his line of sight, to the ribbon of the river cutting across the Veldt and beyond, to Midian, the capitol.

“Okay,” I sighed, “crown for your thoughts.”

“Better,” he muttered.

“Well?”

“You ever wonder if there’s more?”

“Like less horseshit and blood? A little less of the flux and a little more flesh?”

“Yeah, something like that. I just… look, there’s no reason for this to go on as long as it has. I’m getting older, and these deaths, they’re taking something out of me. And you. You’ve got a long life ahead, if we pull this off, you can live it in a place that isn’t covered in shit.”

“Like a king?”

Cord grimaced for a split second. “Yeah, something like that.”

“Okay, so what’s the plan?”

“First, we’re gonna need a crew.”

Inwardly, I groaned. He gave me one of his lunatic grins, and my stomach dropped. I knew that look. Outwardly, I groaned.

 

 

Chapter 2

We’d moved up the river again to a hamlet called Cait Ap Sith. The locals referred to it by a more colorful name, Cat Shite City. Mostly because of all the cats. They swarmed the local fishery, lounged in alleys, and occasionally pounced from eaves and trees like tiny stupid panthers. I watched a fat tabby chase a small mouse across an alley, giving up halfway through and sitting on its haunches like a winded mule. Further into town, the growls and painful cries of cats in heat echoed through the small alleys. I turned to Cord.

“We’re not robbing this place, are we? I’m already going to be picking cat hair out of my food for weeks.”

Cord shook his head. “No one here to rob. No, we’re here for a friend.”

“Friend? You?”

Cord shrugged. “We had mutual interests once upon a time.”

“What’s their name?”

“Rek.”

“Uh huh. And what happened?”

“We had a falling out. I thought we should rob a Harrower, he didn’t.”

“So what makes you think he’s going to want to see you now?”

“We’re going to blackmail him.”

You’re going to blackmail him, you mean.”

“Yes. We.”

I gave up. “And he’ll be so grateful he’ll follow us like a puppy?”

“Hopefully. If not, I’ll tell him we paid a Harrower to curse him.”

“You think he’d fall for that?”

Cord shrugged and led us down a path into the greater part of town, a dirt rut that wound its way between fields of nodding sunflowers. Green clumps of catnip sprouted between the stalks, and the flowers swayed with the passage of perpetually stoned cats. To our left, the river ran south and east. Through the drowsy midlands, it pushed its way toward the sea and Midian, the city. Here, most everyone bore pale or slightly tan skin tones, some taking on the blue and green hue of the great algae farms to the north. There, between the tall mountains and the wide snowfields, they grew the snotty stuff in glacial lakebeds. They fed it to their cattle, their children, and themselves. I’d tasted it once, leaving me wishing I’d just licked a snot toad.

The fields gave way to more muddy ruts and ramshackle homes pressed tight like syphilitic lovers, leaning on one another for support. Farther in, the roads made a circle. Rough stalls served as Cait’s market. Fishmongers and farmers hawked their wares, stalls of fresh and dried fish, roasted sunflower seeds, and thick clumps of algae sending up a peculiar stink. We took a quick left, back toward the water, and entered a long series of alleys marked by small homes with tin roofs.

“Tell me about this guy,” I said.

Cord shrugged. “Rek? Whaddya wanna know?”

“What’s he like?”

“Mostly big.”

“Big?”

Cord held his hands apart, and then adjusted so he took in the width of one of the houses.

“You pissed him off? And you’re going to blackmail him? I thought you were supposed to be some sort of criminal genius.”

He shrugged again. “Harrower contract law is interesting. You’ll see. Besides, he’s a softy.”

He led us to a house only marginally larger than the others, which in Cait is like saying four sardines fit in this can rather than three. Cats infested the small garden out front, lazed on the steps, and peered from a rough window. They looked like a furry tribunal, and I ducked my head, tried to look innocent. Cord snorted, then raised his hand and knocked, sending a few scattering and at least one hissing. I tried not to think about tiny claws ripping me a new sphincter.

No answer came, and he knocked again.

“Go away.” The voice inside sounded like someone taught a boulder speech.

“Rek,” Cord said.

“Nuh-uh.”

“Rek, open the door.”

“No Rek here. Just cats.” A pause. And then, “Meow.”

Cord shifted as silence from the other side of the door met us. “Quick Rek! Mr. Meowington’s in danger!”

“MR. MEOWINGTON?!”

The shout made my ears ache. I stepped off the stoop in time to see a fleshy mountain the color of sandstone nearly tear the door off its hinges. He bounded into the yard, peering into every crevasse and corner, shouting the cat’s name. I fell back further while Cord stifled a laugh. Rek turned to him, brow beetling, and the smile died on Cord’s lips.

“Where is the kitty, Cord?”

Cord raised his hands. “Look, I had to get you out of the house, Mr. Meowington is fi-”

One of Rek’s turkey-sized hands grabbed Cord by the throat and squeezed. Cord’s eyes bulged and a croak escaped his throat. His neck gave a thick snap and he went limp, limbs flopping to his side. Rek dropped the body into the mud, Cord hitting the ground with an unceremonious thump. The big man turned to me.

“You like tea?” he asked.

I eyed Cord’s body. “Yeah. What about him?”

Rek waved a hand. “Leave him. The cats give him new cologne, he learns a lesson. When he gets up, he can have tea, too,” he shook a finger at the body. “If he behaves.”

I followed Rek into the house. It teemed with cats and overstuffed floral print furniture. Small wood tables dotted the place, heaped with boxes of tea and cookies and cat treats. He wedged himself into a chair and gestured for me to sit. He loomed over the room from his chair, bent slightly so to reach the tray on the table beside him.

“Tea?” he asked.

“Yes, please.”

He fiddled with a small pot, filling first one delicate cup, then the other. He handed me one. “Sugar?”

“Yes, please.”

“FUCK,” Cord interrupted as he stomped through the door.

An angry purple bruise still lingered on his throat, and the sclera of one eye nearly glowed bright red with burst blood vessels. I looked up from my tea. Rek dropped two lumps of sugar in and gave a grunt. He didn’t glance over. Cord’s recovery time surprised me.

“I thought you were dead,” I said.

Cord shook his head, winced, and rubbed his neck. “Bastard just paralyzed me.”

“Take off your boots,” Rek said.

Cord sputtered. “The whole place is covered in cat hair. A little mud isn’t going to-”

“Take. Off. Your. Boots.” Rek glared at Cord and dropped the last bit of sugar into the tea.

I stirred my drink as quietly as possible while Cord tugged his boots off, tossing them by the door. He muttered under his breath.

“Why are you here?” Rek asked him.

I took a sip of tea.

“I need your help, Rek,” Cord said and sank heavily into an overstuffed chair decorated with bright pink floral print and cat hair.

“Why should I care what you need?” Rek asked. He turned to me with an apologetic smile and patted my hand. “No offense, dear.”

“None taken. He’s a bit of a shit.”

Cord shot me a withering glare. I returned a smile.

“Because I’m gonna make us rich.”

“Nuh-uh. Last time you told me that, you ended up cursed. The time before that, I ended up in debt.”

“I bought your debt.”

A frown creased Rek’s forehead. “Bought my debt?”

Cord nodded. “You owe me now.”

Rek grumbled low in his chest, the sound like a bass drum. “What if I just take it out of your hide?”

Cord spread his hands. “The debt defaults back to the man you owed before. Remember the Harrower? Who would you rather owe, Rek?”

Rek cursed and tossed his teacup at the wall. It shattered, peppering the room with tea and ceramic. Cats scattered at the explosion, scurrying under chairs and into the kitchen. Cord smirked, and I raised an eyebrow at him. He ignored me.

“Is that a yes?” he asked.

Rek heaved a sigh. “Yes. But when the debt is paid, I’ll kill you for real.”

Cord looked a little queasy for a moment, and then cleared his throat. “Deal.”

We filed out of the house, leaving the big man behind to gather his belongings. He’d meet us at the boat after. On the way there, I stopped Cord.

“You going to blackmail everyone we recruit?”

He shook his head. “Rek just needs motivation. He’s really a decent guy.”

“Aside from the murdering you in the street thing.”

Cord shrugged and continued down the path. “Technically, he didn’t kill me. And I deserved it. Probably more. I really screwed him with that Harrower job.”

“Yeah? Did you really buy his debt?”

“I did.”

“From the same man who cursed you?”

“Yeah.”

“That can’t have been comfortable.”

“He’s really proud of that curse.”

“I would be, too.” I considered. “It can’t be good being in debt to one of those things.”

“Nope.”

“So really, you did him a favor.”

“That’s how I see it.”

“Will Rek?”

“The world is full of unknowable questions, Nenn.”

“So?”

He shrugged. “Probably not.”

*

We made it quayside, finding Rek in the bow of the boat, the back poking out of the water. He wore a scowl and held an oar. We waded over and climbed in, settling the craft, and Rek pushed us off, moving the boat forward with powerful strokes. We rode in silence as Cait dwindled, and then disappeared past the first bend.

“Kitties better be okay,” Rek said.

Cord just swallowed and watched the trees pass.

Chapter 3

“The Outsiders,” Cord said, apropos of nothing.

I shook my head, watching the riverbank roll by. We’d made good time with Rek pushing the oars, and Cait was already far behind.

“Why not?”

“Sounds like we should be wearing leather, struggling with our identities,” I said.

“Fine.”

“Where we going, anyway?”

“To see Lux.”

Rek groaned from the front of the boat. “Not Lux.”

“What’s wrong with Lux?” I asked.

“Nothing,” Cord said.

“Creepy,” Rek said.

“Okay, yeah, she’s a little creepy,” Cord acknowledged. “We still need her.”

I looked around the small craft. “We’re also going to need a bigger boat.”

Cord smiled. “Trust me. I have a plan.”

Rek groaned again, and I joined him.

*

Looking back, Rek was the easiest of all the things we’d set to ourselves.

I asked myself then what Rek really wanted. He seemed content with his cats, with his tiny cottage. I wondered if any choice other than blackmail existed, and realized that even in his cozy home, a dual feeling of restlessness and inertia hung about the man. It clung to him like cheap perfume, and watching him in that cottage, among his knickknacks and doilies, he paced like a caged cat. Sitting in that boat, watching the man work the paddle as the riverbank flew by, the set of his shoulders spoke of a joy he hadn’t experienced in years.

“How’d you two meet?” I asked as Rek pushed the boat along, powerful arms moving like clockwork.

Cord groaned.

Rek rumbled a laugh. “The idiot tried to rob me. I was working this club in Midian, one of those places that pop up overnight and is gone the next day.”

“That’s a thing?” I asked.

“For a while. It’s a cheap way to make a killing. Buy cheap booze, hire some musicians, charge an arm and a leg for exclusive access–”

“Some people have more money than brains,” Cord muttered.

Rek continued. “Which leads to the next bit. Here comes Cord, walking in like he owns the place, ordering bottles of Gentian wine and a girl on each arm.”

“How did you know he didn’t?”

“The owner was the one who hired me. So, I pick this short little shit up, carry him out like luggage, and toss him on the street. Three hours later, while I’m chaining the doors, he comes back with four guys.”

“Oh no.”

Rek nodded. “Cord’s the only one who got back up. When he did, took him a minute to talk, but he offered me a job.”

“And you took it?”

Rek shrugged, the motion rocking the boat.

“The club was closing down at the end of the week, and I’ve always been good at making people not be people anymore. Besides, he might be an idiot—”

“Hey,” Cord protested.

“—but it paid the bills.”

“And we’ve been friends ever since,” Cord said.

“And we’ve been acquaintances ever since,” Rek corrected.

The conversation got me thinking about my own reasons for following Cord on this errand, and I slipped into memory during a lull in the conversation.

*

They’d named the bar The Dripping Bucket. It smelled of cheap cigars, cheaper whiskey, and boiled feet. On the upside, drinks stronger than an ettin knocked the more offensive of those scents right out of your head. Halfway through my second glass of a whiskey the color of bloody piss, a stranger sat down and bumped my neighbor’s elbow. My neighbor, on drink four and looking like the breeding result of a particularly stupid bulldog and a snake, stabbed him in the throat.

Hed, the bartender, glared at the stabber, then at the stabbee. The latter slipped to the floor, arterial spray making a mess of the woodwork. I stood and took my drink three stools down to keep my drink untainted.

“What the fuck, Zef?” Hed asked, eyes flicking back to the killer.

Zef shrugged. “He touched my purse.”

Hed grunted, and the rest of the bar managed to make a six-foot hole to give the new guy room to bleed out. Call it country hospitality.

Hed spoke up, addressing me. “Nenn, you gotta get this guy out of here.”

It took a minute for the statement to sink past the booze-soaked layer of my brain. Despite the whiskey already in my guts, I realized I remained the most sober. Empty glasses stood on the bar like husks of soldiers drained by a wight.  I hated touching corpses. I’d done it for a summer, picking up unfortunates for the morgue. The forgotten and the destitute left there by drug and blade. They squelched and jiggled, and sometimes, if they’d been in the sun long enough, bloated and stank. The especially dead ones liked to slip their skin when you tried to pick them up. I enjoyed touching dead guys like most people enjoy eating scabs. I made a face I hoped telegraphed my distaste.

“I’ll pay your tab.”

Some arguments however, are airtight.

“Okay, then,” I replied, and grabbed the dead guy by the ankles.

He left a red smear behind as I toted him out the rear exit. A few of the city’s scavengers–those worse off than even the patrons of the Dripping Bucket–scattered from the alley. They left behind a smell like burning cow shit. Not their fault. Clean water didn’t come cheap and thanks to Mane’s policies, even use of a well carried a tax. I waited for them to scurry away and dropped the corpse on the cobblestones. I lit a cigar while I tried to decide if this constituted the lowest point of my life, or just a bump on the way down.

Sitting in an alley with a dead guy while you smoke your last cigar of the night, and his blood slowly seeps into the soles of your boots, makes you think. Not that I’m a big thinker on a normal day–I mean, I’m not stupid. I just tend to take things as they come. But if anything, that sort of situation makes you re-evaluate some life choices. When the dead guy sits up and takes a big fat breath, right after you’ve finished screaming, you make big decisions.

He coughed once, and something small and pink spattered from his lips against the cobbles. He smashed it with his heel, and then took a second, deeper breath.

“Got another one of those?” he asked, gesturing at my cigar.

I shrugged and handed him mine. He took a deep drag, then coughed, smoke puffing out of him like a blacksmith’s forge at the bellows. He rubbed his throat, as if trying to massage away the soreness from the passage of the creature. He offered the cigar back, but I shook my head.  The distinct taste of regret already lingered on my tongue.

“You okay?” he asked.

I nodded and swallowed, waiting for my heart to stop hammering.

“This happen a lot?” I asked.

“Not a lot, no. Enough. But not a lot.” he eyed me up and down, and shrugged, as if coming to a decision. He offered me his hand. “I’m Cord.”

I took it and gave it a little shake. “Nenn.”

“You free this weekend?” he asked.

“That’s a weird question.”

“Why?”

“Well, you were just dead.”

“I’m not now.”

“I’m not really into necrophilia.”

“Still not dead.”

“Anymore. How do I know you won’t die again?”

“You don’t. So?”

“So what?”

“Are you free?”

I frowned at him. “I’m washing my hair.”

“This isn’t that kind of question. I had something better in mind.”

“Mummer show? I’ll be your beautiful assistant?”

He snorted. “How do you feel about a partnership?”

“Doing what?”

“Making money.”

“Doing what?”

He explained, and I started to come around despite my misgivings. It already sounded better than another fourteen hours in the mill. Call me overcautious. I needed more before he convinced me this wasn’t just another con. Granted, with the dying trick, an exceptional con, but at their core all cons reach for the same goal. You have something they want, they try to take it.

“That is really godsdamn specific. Also, why me?”

He gestured at the trail of blood. “Your first instinct was to hide the body, not call the guards.”

“That was for free whiskey.”

He shrugged. “Buy all the whiskey you want with our earnings.”

“Nah.”

“Nah?”

“Drinking got me into pulling a dead guy into an alley.”

“But I was only temporarily dead.”

“That’s an incredibly weird technicality,” I pointed out.

Silence fell between us.

“How’d you do that, anyway?” The question floated at the top of my mind like the vomit I barely kept down a few minutes ago.

He waved a hand. “Pissed off a Harrower.”

I whistled low. “You poor bastard.”

He nodded, and I felt bad for him despite myself. The word Harrower brought with it a nightmare wind that did its best to creep into your head. Wizards that powered their magic with the worst humanity is able to imagine, they worked for the highest bidder and flaunted their cruelty. You can imagine the unpleasantness.

“I thought you were gonna say it was a birth defect,” I said.

“Pfft. Where’s the mystery in that? The romance? The esoteric? Everyone’s so rational. It’s goddamn boring.”

I rolled my eyes. “Fine.”

“Okay.”

A beat passed between us again.

“So?” Persistent, this one.

“So what?”

“The offer?”

“Oh, that.” I thought about my decisions so far. A hard life and a short temper landed me on the nearest bar stool more often than not. I’d drug a dead guy into an alley. Working at the mill pissed me off more nights than not. I nodded.

“Sure.”

“Great!” He stuck out one bloody hand. “Now, what do we call ourselves?”

“I’m Nenn.”

“I know that. We need a name. Like the Dastardly Duo or the Bloody Two.”

“How about no.”

*

Sometimes I still asked myself why I’d agreed to this new idea. I could have demanded my cut, walked away rich enough to afford a small home in a small village and shack up with a nice someone. Preferably someone who didn’t fetishize knives and money. Opposites attract, after all. Maybe I’d woo a grandmother.

If I had to guess, I liked the company. I’d spent a good portion of my youth in an orphanage, and even then, I’d only had acquaintances, people I was familiar, but never friendly with. After, when they threw me out on the street, I floated. I found work as a gopher, running and fetching, and later, as a fixer of sorts. I’d become handy with a blade in the intervening years, thanks to a life in the alleys and low streets of the towns I drifted between.

That was the way of it though, wasn’t it? Most men didn’t need blades, even if they carried them. Their only real threat was other men. But women—you had to watch yourself. Men, boys, teens—they all wanted what you had, whether you willing to part with it or not, and that made for a dangerous world. So I picked up a knife, then another. And another. I practiced until my blisters became calluses and even those gave way to tough skin and scar tissue.

I’d never had formal training, but it doesn’t take much to kill. And in the alleys and backstreets, you want a knife. You can swing a knife, or thrust with it, or any number of other wicked things you couldn’t do with a sword or a pike, or even a mace. Knives will bleed a man out fast, and the right type of knife will punch through chain, find places not covered with armor.

Eventually, I landed at the mill. Cutting is lucrative, but the career outlook dimmer than most. Still, I’d missed my blades. They’re quick and they’re wicked, and they’ve saved my life—-and Cord’s more than I could count. I couldn’t account for his refusal to carry a weapon. Maybe it was because he had me. Maybe it was his past as a soldier—of which he never spoke, or his past as a prisoner, but it seemed directly killing was beyond his comfort zone.

Unfortunately, for the people he’d marked as enemies, he was already deft at engineering circumstances that meant he never had to lift a blade. That would scare some people. For me, it was part of why I liked him. He had principals. No matter what scam we pulled—he stuck to his ideals.

That’s why our friendship worked. We played off one another’s strengths, no matter what anyone else might have thought of them. When I was younger, I thought friends were just those people who you trusted to not stick a knife in your back, and now I knew better. Friends—true friends—were family, and they’d stab you right to your face.

Memory drifted away in tatters as Cord announced a detour in the usual way. By not telling anyone until we arrived at one of the early delta forks in the Lethe. Rek back-paddled so hard he nearly tipped the boat, flipping everyone’s stomach as effectively as if someone showed us a pile of severed limbs. For a moment, we hung precariously on the edge of a cresting wave, Cord swearing, Rek wearing a grimace not out of place on a golem, and me hanging onto the gunwales. I tried not think about how quickly I’d drown between the weight of several crowns tucked in various places about my person and the knives. I thought briefly of stripping down, getting light so the water couldn’t claim me. But that would have required letting go of the boat, and I couldn’t convince my hands to obey me.

Finally, the boat righted, swinging about and barely missing a sharp outcrop of rock. We drifted peacefully up the northern tributary of the Lethe, frayed nerves settling in fits and twitches. Once a little way past the swirling current of the fork, we let the boat float a bit further before beaching it on a sandy shore, crawling out and stretching sore muscle and bone. Rek and Cord wandered off in one direction, I in another, to piss in the woods.

Cord speared a bass and fried it with soft potatoes and scallions. We watched the river roll by, unassuming in the mid-day sun, light fracturing and spraying across the tree line behind us. When we finished lunch, I leaned against a rock and lit a cigar—one of my last until we reached Tremaire—and watched fish jump and snatch at bugs skimming the surface of the water.

“What’s the deal with Lux?” I asked.

“Not right,” Rek said.

Cord grimaced. “Last we knew, she’d traveled back to Tremaire to take the exams at the Arcanum. Figured she’d learned enough in the world.”

“Did she pass?”

“No idea.”

“You can be sure she weirded out her professors. She’s likely to be even weirder now. Messing with that kind of power, it changes people. And the tests don’t help. No one really knows what goes on, but it tends to leave a mark,” Rek said.

“She’s not a Harrower, is she?” I asked, a knot of unease in my gut.

“Gods, no,” Cord replied. “Just regular weird. Not freaky death cult nightmare weird.”

“At least they’ve got the Leashmen,” Rek said.

He made a good point. Nobody really liked the soldiers that hunted rogue wizards, but it kept the number of villages turned into pudding to a minimum.

We sat for a little longer, and then I stood, looking around. Cord nudged me as he passed, heading for the boat. When we’d landed, Rek still scowled to rival the black clouds of a plains storm. While I woolgathered, he and Rek talked for a good while. Now, the big man looked relaxed, almost happy. He climbed into the boat, and I pulled Cord to the side.

“What did you say to him?”

“Didn’t say nothin’,” Cord said.

He opened his jacket and pulled a small brown package from an inside pocket. I raised an eyebrow.

“Slipweed?” I asked.

“Put a little in with his fish.”

“Why?”

“He’s wound tighter than a leper’s dick bandage.”

I hissed a breath from between clenched teeth and looked over at Rek. He sat in the front of the boat, twirling the oar and making whooshing sounds.

“Have you considered the problem of drugging the person rowing the boat? Have you considered how we might end up crushed on the rocks, or maybe impaled on a stray log?”

Rek laughed, high and fast, and I glared at Cord. He shrugged and raised his hands in a gesture of innocence. I punched him in the chest.

“Unf,” Cord said.

“Articulate as always,” I snapped and made my way to the boat. “Just remember, if we die, it’s for good, you dolt.”

Cord sputtered out an apology and spent the next five minutes trying to wrestle the oar from Rek’s over-muscled hands. When he finally grabbed it, he sighed in relief and pushed us off the bank, dipping the oar into the water. Rek flapped his hands in the air before him like birds. Cord started rowing, grumbling in complaint at the effort. I reached out, pushing him in the back with my boot. He rocked forward a little.

“Row, serf,” I said.

He glared back, but did as asked, muttering darkly under his breath. I chuckled and watched the riverbank slip past.

*

As we moved north, the landscape changed, long grasses and gentle hills giving way to rocky soil quickly replaced by muddy fens and marshy landscape, cattails and reeds standing tall in brackish water. Moss clung to the riverbank, climbing up the black bark of pine and cypress, vying for space on their boles with insidious green vines that drooped and trailed in the water. The trees thickened, throwing our boat into the shadows of the setting sun.

Rek’s euphoria lasted for a good portion of the trip, but as the sun slipped behind the trees and we hung a lantern from the bow, he grew quiet, head in his hands. He stared down at the bowsprit, watching his reflection just past. in the water.

“How’s it going up there, buddy?” Cord asked.

I lifted a leg to tap him in the kidneys and instead let out a low groan as pain throbbed in my guts. Cord craned his neck at me.

“You okay?”

I grimaced and wrapped my arms around my stomach. It wasn’t bad yet, but it promised to be. I dug a sliver of slipweed from my own private stash, and chewed furiously. Cord’s face fell.

“Oh. Oh no.”

“‘Fraid so,” I said through gritted teeth.

“If you could just not be a woman for a few more miles…?” Cord prompted.

I laid back on the boards of the boat and stared up at the stars. “Or you could go fuck yourself in the neck.”

“I’m wounded,” Cord said.

“You will be. Row faster, fathead.”

Cord muttered to himself and the stars slipped by with renewed speed. Eventually, they blurred, and I found my eyelids heavier than forge hammers. I closed them and drifted with the night sky.

*

I woke some time later to a small package by my head. I felt the flow starting. Maybe it already had. Slipweed tended to unravel time for its users, hours, minutes, sometimes days passing by in a blink. I unwrapped the package and found a few kama—small absorbent bundles—and an envelope of slipweed. I eased my trousers down and slipped the kama in, then took another sliver of the slipweed. It took a few moments, but the cramps faded to a dull background ache, and my headache eased. Cord kept his back turned the entire time.

Now that I felt a little better, I looked around. The trees thinned as we approached Murkwater, the small lake that Tremaire and the Arcanum stood on. Rek resumed rowing duties, though silently, and the reason for Cord’s quiet became apparent as he snored gently. A gentle mist sprung up in the forest, winding between trunk and undergrowth. Things moved in the fog, black and glistening, red and yellow eyes gleaming in the moonlight. I’d heard stories of failed experiments, summonings gone wrong, attempts at creating new life, released from the Arcanum. I hoped we needn’t discover the truth.

Rek picked up the pace and I thanked small gods for the thin layer of protection the hull provided from the water. Any number of beasts likely lived there. Like most hungry creatures however, they needed to smell flesh or taste blood to want you. We considered that motivation enough to avoid stopping to sleep, or taking an overland route via horse.

As we rowed deeper into the forest, the mist pressed in from all sides. The atmosphere cloyed, and I felt the need to break it up. I remembered a story Cord mentioned once in passing about Rek and a horse.

“What’s the deal with you and horses?” I asked Rek.

He shuddered, and Cord snorted awake.

“Horses?” Cord asked. “Oooh.”

A sly grin crossed his face.

“Yeah, that’s a great story.”

“Please don’t,” Rek pleaded.

Cord waved it away. “Your dignity’s fine. The horse isn’t here.”

“The story?” I prompted.

“Right. So, a few years back, this high muckity muck hires us for an expedition to the Hollow Hills. Some sort of artifact in the ruins down there. So, we gear up, and it’s a bit of a trek down to there from the river, so we figure we’ll do it proper. Besides, if we find a lot of loot, we’ll need something to haul it all back with.

“We find a horse trader in this little town—Agresta? Anyway, he’s got just what we need, nice mares for Lux and me. Beautiful horses, friendly, eat an apple right out of your hand. Rek however, needs a bigger horse.”

“I can’t help my size,” Rek said.

“We know, buddy,” Cord said, and patted him on the shoulder.

“Anyway, Rek isn’t totally comfortable with things bigger than him, and this one was a great beast of a stallion. Hooves the size of dinner plates. So Rek’s twice as nervous already.”

“That thing was a monster.”

“His name was Eugeen. He was as frightening as a cat.”

“No cat could fit my entire arm in its mouth.”

“So, Rek gets an idea. He disappears for a few hours, and when he comes back, he’s smelly as shit, but confident. He grabs the saddle, puts a foot in a stirrup, and the wind shifts. This horse gets a whiff of him and rears. So here’s Rek, suddenly dangling by a stirrup, tangled in the reins, and the horse is trying to bite him. Not little nips, either, but great big chomping bites.

“He starts screaming, the horse is kicking and biting, and finally Lux gets it to sleep with a little magic. We get Rek free, and when he’s finally calmed down, ask him what happened. Turns out he’d doused himself in horse piss.”

“For the love of fuck, why?” I asked.

“Thought he’d like me more if I smelled like a horse,” Rek said.

“Yeah, but what kind of horse piss was it, Rek?” Cord asked.

“Stallion.”

“And what kind of piss did you mean to use?”

He hung his head. “Mare.”

“But that means…” I said.

Cord nodded. “Horse would’ve fucked him to death.”

“Never again,” Rek said.

“Just remember, coulda been worse,” Cord said.

“How?”

“You could be pregnant with horse babies.”

“I don’t think that’s how it works,” I said.

Cord shrugged. “I’m not a chiurgeon.”

Apparently, they considered Lux some sort of predator, bolting when she drew near. It’s the animal kingdom’s way of saying fuck this, fuck that, and fuck you. More importantly, even on the Veldt, horseflesh came at a premium. If you saw someone not in silk or velvet riding one, either they served as cavalry, or the horse belonged to someone else.

The trees thinned further, wide spaces cleared by brave workers, allowing the Arcanum’s tower to view the landscape with some safety. The river widened out, and the tower came into view, a thick spire of brick thrusting toward the sky like a fat man’s cock. I thought it perfectly indicative of the Arcanum’s attitude. I don’t know why anyone expected people capable of wielding godlike power to possess a shred of humility. They certainly didn’t hold themselves to that standard.

We drifted into the Murkwater, and I shook Cord awake. He snorted and rubbed a hand over his face. The surface of the lake clouded over, like a storm roiling under the surface, and as we passed, lightning played in the depths. A small town surrounded the base of the tower ahead. Craftsmen, laborers, support staff, and magi who’d made the decision not to serve elsewhere made their homes there. Nearer the tower stood a hospital for those desperate for cures the chiurgeons, herbalists, and mundane alchemists couldn’t provide.

A low wall surrounded it all, providing protection from the forest beasts with a combination of simple brick and sophisticated wards. Docks extended from the town into the water, footings plunging into the murky depths. Lights from Tremiare reflected in the lake, and as we approached, something black and huge roiled beneath the surface and swam deeper.

Rek pulled us up to a slip among several boats of varying size, tossing a dockhand a rope. We clambered out, stretching our legs, thankful to be on solid ground again. Cord placed his hands in the small of his back and bent, groaning, while I chewed another sliver of slipweed. At least on land and moving around, I’d have some relief from the cramps. When we’d recovered, Cord led us toward the dock gate, a swagger in his step. Damn him. How did he have a swagger after being still and uncomfortable for so long?

A bored-looking youth stood guard at the gate. He wore no armor aside from a steel ring on a leather cord and a spear. He glanced blearily at us.

“Welcome to Tremaire. Mind yourself and we won’t have to mind you,” he intoned.

“Hex,” Cord said.

The youth blinked.

“Hex, it’s me.”

“Cord?” Hex said.

“The one and only.”

Hex smiled, and my stomach twisted in warning. His spear snapped out, impaling Cord’s arm. He pulled it out with a grunt and tapped the end onto the flagstones, ignorant of the blood spilling down the tip. Cord shrieked, and then clapped a hand over the bleeding hole.

“Please proceed,” Hex said, all business again.

Cord shot him a wounded look and walked through the gate, leaving a trail of red droplets. I caught up to him. He flexed a shoulder, trying to work the soreness out, and I saw the wound already bore a scab.

“You’re the best at making friends,” I said.

“He’s just sore I didn’t cut him in for more last time I was here.”

“Uh huh. The best. Are there more friends of yours here? Because I feel like we should buy you some chainmail.”

“He must be a friend. Cord’s still alive,” Rek said.

Cord muttered something under his breath and changed the subject. “If I remember right, Lux used to hang out at this little pub by the tower. Cosca’s. You two up for a drink?”

I’d needed a drink since the start of my cycle. Since I’d just spent twelve hours sitting in a boat. Besides, I needed a privy so I could change my kama. I looked over at Rek to check his response, and noted his pale color. A drink might benefit him as well. He spent a good portion of our stroll among close buildings and lit alleys by shying away from the light. I suspected the slipweed hangover of kicking in some time ago, his skull playing host to a variety of brain goblins. Amazing stuff, but the comedown could cripple a small bull, depending on how much you’d taken. From the size of him, I guessed Cord’s dose close to enough to drop a battalion.

We fell into an easy pace, passing shops closed for the night, every manner of trinket and weapon in their windows. Somewhere on the other side of the merchant district, a forge rang out. Deeper in, throaty laughter from a gathering. Cord chattered happily, and from the look on Rek’s face, it seemed he might break that promise to wait to kill him again.

“Have you ever had the beer here? Oh, it’s amazing, just the best. I think the wizards do something to it, but damn if it’s ever had an ill side effect. And the potatoes! Just you wait—butter and onion and sausage and a touch of goat’s cheese…”

Music and conversation overtopped him as Cosca’s came into view. A large building and long, it took up one end of the street. Simple painted wood facade and a high thatched roof set it apart from the stone and glass buildings on the street. We stepped inside and the sensations nearly overwhelmed me. The smells of food, spiced and roasted, smelled amazing. All the bodies crammed into the small room did not. Other sensations crowded in alongside, fighting for attention. Music, conversation, and bright bunting in the rafters. My mouth watered and I cursed Cord as he took his time finding us a table. When we finally sat, I snarled my order at the barmaid, and then made my way to the privy.

When I returned, a slight blonde with pale skin and cloudy eyes occupied a stage at one end of the room. I sat and watched while she put on a show, first pulling a bird from thin air, then transforming it into a lizard. She lifted the lizard from the stage, and with a sudden flourish, jammed it into her mouth, chewing furiously. The crowd let out cries of disgust. Someone retched when the woman swallowed. Silence filled the room, and she produced a dagger, holding it out for the crowd to see.

She plunged it into her stomach, opening her guts. Blood sprayed the front row of patrons, causing them to flinch in fear. One man scrambled to his feet from the front row, staggering away with his hands over his mouth. He couldn’t seem to run fast enough and he vomited across the floorboards in a fat fan of lamb chunks and potato. She rummaged around in her insides with one hand, then, with a triumphant smile on her lips withdrew the bird, whole and undamaged. The crowd erupted into cheers, and she took a bow. When she straightened, her stomach was clean and unblemished, and she stepped from the stage. She headed our way and sat beside Cord.

“Nenn, meet Lux.”

I nodded at her.

“I don’t think I’m hungry anymore,” Rek mumbled.

The waitress arrived, placing platters of meat and potato and tumblers of beer in front of us.

Rek took a deep breath, inhaling the scents. “Never mind, I’m still hungry,” he corrected.

I agreed and reached over him, loading my plate. Cord hadn’t exaggerated the quality of food at Cosca’s. Amazing beer and potatoes made the world disappear while I tucked in. Lux’s performance did nothing to put me off my appetite. For several minutes, I was unaware of anything else as I shoveled food into my mouth. When I finished, I pushed my chair back, and looked closer at Cord’s guest.

Lux stared off into the distance, a slight glaze over her eyes. She turned her head my way, skin nearly parchment-thin, blue veins tracing their way across her cheeks and brow. She gave no indication she saw me or anything else in the room.

Cord looked up, noticed my empty plate. He gestured in my direction.

“Lux, meet Nenn. Nenn, meet Lux.”

I nodded, and she favored me with a smile.

“Pleased to meet you. Where did you get that wonderful glow about your flesh? Your hair is wonderful. How do you keep the lice from it?” she asked.

I looked to Cord. He gave a slight shake of his head. It wasn’t the weirdest introduction I’d experienced, but it counted among them. Cord changed the subject.

“So… Lux here was just telling me that she would love to join us—”

“Yes,” Lux interrupted. “Yes, I would love to join your little ad-ven-ture, but you see, I have a condition, and I’m afraid the Arcanum won’t let me go without a bit of a fight, or some extreme convincing.”

“Condition?” I asked.

Cord groaned and banged his head into the table. I leaned in.

“What?” I asked.

“You can’t just ask people why they’re undead, Nenn.”

Lux opened her mouth and sucked in a breath. I sat up and turned my attention back to her.

“I’m dead. Well, I mean I was, but now I’m not. It’s more like a bad cold at this point, but no one’s sure it’s not catching, and they’re worried if I bite someone they might accidentally die—oh, speaking of die, have you seen the Archmagus’ robes? Heavenly. What was I saying? Oh yeah, I’m sorta dead, and we might need to kill some people to make them forget that.”

“Whoa,” Rek pushed his plate away and raised his hands, palms out. “I dunno about killing. Maybe we just rough them up?”

“See, the problem with that, is that wizards have long memories and bad tempers, and if you don’t kill them and hide the bodies, they tend to hold a grudge,” Cord said.

Lux nodded. The table fell silent, and I looked at Cord. He winked at me, so I looked at Lux. She shot me a smile, and I turned to Rek. He’d found something in his nails of great interest. I let out a long, drawn-out sigh. A grin spread across Cord’s face.

“Relax, you’ll love this plan,” he said.

“Fuck. Who we gotta kill?” I said.

 

 

Chapter 4

I did not love this plan. Turned out the harbormaster needed killing. Because we also needed to steal a boat. Not a boat like we’d rowed in on, but a proper boat, with sails and a rudder and cabins. It also turned out that in addition to being a ranking member of the Council, the harbormaster moved about with two guards at all times. Leashmen who wouldn’t hesitate to put a blade through any random neck they found themselves pointed at.

I excused myself to the privy to change my kama and seethe. I didn’t know what Cord was dragging us into, but I felt the level of danger approaching lethal for everyone not named Cord. And maybe Lux. I didn’t know if the undead could re-die, to be honest.

When I came out, he pulled me into a corner, a solemn look on his face.

“Wha-?” I said.

“We need to talk,” he said.

“You couldn’t wait until I came back to the table?”

He shook his head. “Not for this.”

“So, you just ambush a person outside the privy? You are lucky I didn’t have a knife. Or a full bladder.”

“Isn’t that why you went in there?”

“Yeah, but–I think we’re getting sidetracked. What do you want?”

He nodded and took a deep breath through his nose. “Look, this could go bad for everyone. If we don’t all make it out, I want you to run. Get as far away as you can.”

“Shouldn’t you be telling everyone this?”

He shook his head. “I need you to keep everyone together. Tell them I told you the whole plan, that you can pull it off without me, but you have to make a stop. Ditch them at the first dirtwater you come across and keep going.”

“That seems… shitty.”

He shook his head. “They can take care of themselves. Besides, splitting up will keep people off your back.”

“Then what?”

“Find a man in Orlecht, name of Clane. He’ll make sure you get your cut, no matter what.”

I raised an eyebrow. “You have friends? In Orlecht?”

He shrugged. “You don’t think I share everything with you, do you?”

I thought about it, shook my head. “No, you’re not as dumb as you act.”

“Good, Nenn. Good. Also, fuck you.”

“Fuck you,” I said, and he chucked me on the shoulder.

“Let’s get back, shall we? Larceny and murder wait for no one.”

I chuckled and followed him back to the table.

*

“Fuck fuck fuckity fuck,” Cord said.

We sat in the second story of a netmaker’s shop, looking out over the docks. It was little effort to convince the owner to let us rent the space. While nets are useful on a lake, they had to be made of special stuff in Tremaire, and it was expensive work. A little gold can grease a lot of palms, they say.

Boats bobbed in their berths, masts waving gently as they tossed a bit with the tide. Ours was a shallow draft tall ship just under forty feet named the Bough Mount, though none of us knew what that actually meant. Paint peeled from the hull, and the masts looked like they’d give you a splinter if you looked at them wrong. Still, it sat high in the water, and the sails looked to be in good condition.

Cord’s string of profanity was due to a squat figure in robes surrounded by several men—far more than three—currently searching our boat. We watched them mill and huddle, some of the Leashmen taking up posts that effectively blocked off the dock and the berth, others poking around amidships. The harbormaster called something down into the cabin of the boat. Another figure in black robes with a flesh-enrobed skull tucked under his arm came up the stairs. Scarified skin in thick ridges of raised flesh marked out pale tracks on bare arms.

“Harrower,” Cord said, voice low.

“How in the snowy hells did you manage to pick the one boat to steal that happens to be currently undergoing a rectal inspection?” I asked.

Rek leaned forward in his chair. “Cord could fuck up an erection if he was getting it stroked, that’s how.”

Lux giggled and Cord flipped them both the bird.

“Aw, Cordy, you know it’s true. You remember that Ithian? What was his name? Yan? Had his hand in your trousers and you’d had too many? Dipped down to finish the job and you just puked right on his beautiful bald head. Never seen a man with skin that dark turn that red,” Lux said.

Cord muttered something and turned to the window, watching the party on the dock. He fell quiet for several minutes, a stark counterpoint to Rek and Lux chatting behind us. Finally, he turned back, a slow grin spreading across his face.

“I have a plan,” he said.

*

The thing you have to understand about Cord’s plans is this: they were usually very good. That was the upside. The downside meant that someone usually found themselves in mortal danger. There were better than even odds that thanks to the encounter with Hex, everyone already knew Cord had arrived. It flattened Cord’s chances of strolling around without at least one Leashman trailing his shadow. We weren’t usually so lucky though. There were probably three. A side effect of burning people on your deals meant they were inclined to no longer trust you, and ensure that no one else trusted you.

We suspected that was the reason for the boat search, though it wasn’t a certainty. For one, we had no idea how they sussed out which boat Cord targeted. Wizards are wily, and sneaky, and generally not to be trusted. They might have pulled that information from the aether. They might have used a crystal ball. Maybe they threw a dart at a peasant until he squealed and pointed at the nearest thing that meant no one would throw darts at him. Between that and the disgruntled guard, it meant our plan to jump the harbormaster and steal the boat, or any boat at this point, was out of the question. In truth, I was a little relieved. I’d secretly agreed with Rek, but they’d forced me into a decision. Offing the Harbormaster seemed like a good way of sending up a ‘please kill us’ flare. I’d hoped they’d realize the insanity of it. I’d apparently hoped wrong.

Cord stared at the docks. “Can’t you do your woman thing, Nenn?”

“What the hell is the woman thing?”

“You know, boobs, butt, smile.”

“That is really insulting.”

“But it works, right?”

“Well, yeah. Men are stupid. But it’s probably a bad idea in this case. Those men have swords, and in my experience, men who don’t get what they want tend to try to take it.”

“Yeah, they’re shits like that,” Rek agreed. “Think harder,” he told Cord.

So, here we were. Ten Leashmen. One wizard. One Harrower. Even the wizard—a smile, an interest in his power and station—done. But the Harrower, that was a problem. They didn’t think like men or women, didn’t think of anything other than the dark and the things that lived there, and they could unleash it on you at any time. They were smart, and mean, and I suspected took joy in the combination. Gods forbid they ever gained significant power, and if it looked close that they might, gods willing, someone put them down.

*

Cord and Lux took a trip into the shopping district as soon as the sun lightened the horizon, leaving Rek and I to watch the dock. The coterie hadn’t moved from their positions.

“They’ve been standing there for hours,” Rek said. “We should probably come up with a new plan.”

I was inclined to agree with him. I opened my mouth to say so when a new group of Leashmen arrived and relieved the others of duty. The Harbormaster left with them, though I noticed the Harrower still sat on crates nearby. Now and then, he raised the severed head he carried and spoke softly to it. I shuddered.

“Well, that’s one down,” I said, referring to the leaving wizard.

Rek nodded and crossed his arms over his chest, leaning back in his chair. “Whaddya think of Lux?”

“Creepy, but she’s got a certain charm,” I said.

Rek nodded. “She went through the trials here about three years back. It cracked her. She died and somehow came back. I don’t know why they let her walk out of there. The Leashmen are paranoid about magic they don’t understand.”

“They don’t understand necromancy?”

Rek shook his head. “From what they say, it wasn’t necro. Whoever–or whatever–brought her back wasn’t anywhere near.”

“So why did they? Let her go, that is.”

Rek shrugged. “Maybe she knew someone in the Circle. Maybe they took pity on her. Got to be hard, passing though the deadlands to the other side and then getting yanked back. Either way, she got real lucky.”

“That’s surprising, considering the Harrowers.”

Rek shook his head. “Harrowers are scary, but they don’t fuck with the Veil.”

“Why is that?”

“Not sure. There’s a rumor though that even touching the other side, just for a moment, can let all kinds of things into your head, let alone the world. Scares the hell out of the whitebeards, though.”

“You think she brought something back?”

Rek waved a hand. “Could’ve. Might not have. Maybe she just woke something up.”

“Like?”

“They say there are things sleeping beyond the Veil.”

“What kind of things?”

“Dunno. Things. I’m just an interested observer, not a scholar.”

“You’re just full of interesting information.”

Rek shrugged again. “I’m a freakin’ font.”

The door burst open and Cord and Lux swept in, bags in their hands.

“Darling!” Cord exclaimed. “You are going to love your new look!”

“Shit,” I breathed.

They proceeded to pull robes, tunics, trousers, and all manner of accessories from the bags, tossing them into a pile on the floor. I spotted a number of earrings and chains, a femur; a gnarled stick carved with small faces I assumed was supposed to be a wand, and a stuffed squirrel. I picked it up out of morbid curiosity. The taxidermist had posed it with both paws raised, claws outspread, teeth bared. Buttons stood from its skull in place of eyes, and its tail was a dagger blade. I dropped it and wiped my hands on my trousers.

“What the fuck?” I asked.

Cord turned to me while emptying bags, a grin on his face. A shit-eating grin, in retrospect.

“You remember that idea I had?”

“Yeah?” I drew the word out, not liking where this was going.

“Well… you need a disguise.”

My stomach sank. I looked at the accumulated accouterments. Wands, robes, miscellaneous items for piercings… the squirrel. I looked at Cord in horror.

“You want me to pretend to be a Harrower!”

“Well, yeah.”

“Why me?”

He sighed, as if long-suffering and I suppressed the urge to punch his nose into his sinus cavity.

“Lux is a student here. Rek looks like someone dug up a boulder and taught it to talk, and I am well-known. Too much so. And that leaves you, my dear.”

“Fuck,” I muttered, and started to dig through the piles. I held up a hoop twisted to look like a barbed wire. “You know I don’t have any piercings, right?”

Cord shrugged. “We’ll improvise.”

I sincerely hoped that didn’t mean he’d find a way to pierce me. I sorted through the piles, trying to discern what a Harrower might wear. I needed to get in the right mindset. I took a deep breath, and tried to think scary thoughts. Spiders. Spiders made of dicks. Cord’s dick. Yeah, that did it. I shuddered and picked out a sleeveless robe covered with scrawled writing, a necklace of teeth, and the squirrel. I slipped to the privy, changed my kama and my clothes, and chewed another sliver of slipweed. I’d been lucky, as it kept the worst of the cramps at bay so far.

I exited the privy to moderate applause, and grimaced.

“I feel like a troubled teen.”

Cord laughed, then gestured that we should gather round.

*

The simplicity of the plan both impressed and disappointed me. I love the beauty of a complex web of deception, but when it comes down to execution, simple is always better for the players. Unfortunately, it required two of us to put ourselves in the shit. Lux had the job of luring the Leashmen away. I needed to convince the Harrower to leave. If I couldn’t talk him into it, I’d resort to plan B: stabbing him in the neck ’til he didn’t live no more. I squirmed in the heavy robes while I waited for Lux to get into position. The wool scratched my skin into itchy redness, and I fought the urge to rip it off and throw it out the window, followed by a plunge directly into the lake.

The others waited closer to the boat. While Lux and I occupied the guards, they’d sneak aboard as soon as the coast was clear. I shifted again and blew an irritated breath. I didn’t know how wizards did it. Cord claimed they were all naked underneath, but considering the small amount of now-inflamed skin mine touched, I sincerely fucking doubted it. Then again, maybe that explained all the latent evil.

Finally, a screech echoed down the street, breaking the waiting tension. A workman sprinted by, stopping only long enough to look behind him. Moments later, several more followed. Lux appeared soon after, running pell-mell at them, howling and growling the entire way. A siren sounded somewhere deeper in town, and an air of panic filled Tremaire like a haze as other groups popped into view and charged about in chaotic herds.

“Help! It’s escaped! It’s escaped!” A man in an apron yelled as he rounded a corner.

He carried a basket of baked goods, pelting Lux as she drew near. A pastry filled with custard exploded against her. She paused in her pursuit long enough to dip a finger in the dessert and bring it to her lips. She licked her lips and winked at the baker, sending him screaming as she loosed another roar.

He sprinted away in a panic, disappearing down a side street. I watched while the Leashmen’s mild interest became alarm. The captain turned and said something to the Harrower, then readied squad arms and set off in a quick march down the street, filing away from the dock. I waited until the last disappeared around the corner, then straightened and sauntered onto the dock.

The harrower looked up as I approached. A pinched face held milky eyes, fat lips, and a shocking lack of eyebrows. It was a face built for cruelty. I halted a few feet from him. He spoke in a high, thin voice that set my teeth on edge.

“And what do you need? I supposed all our brothers and sisters were in the Hive.”

Oh good. They called it the Hive. That wasn’t creepy at all. “The Harbormaster—”

“That fat shit? He couldn’t find his cock in the dark with both hands and a glowlight.”

“That’s the one. He asked me to relieve you.”

The Harrower frowned and turned his head to one side. “That seems unlikely. He knows what I’ve seen here. Death lurks,” he lifted the severed skull and kissed its lips. “Yes, Raze knows it lurks. He has told me with his own dry lips.”

I cleared my throat and gripped the squirrel dagger tighter. “Well, Biffy here says you’re to leave.”

“Really.” The Harrower’s not-eyebrows came together. “Interesting.”  He paused. “You know what I think? I think you’re not a Harrower at all.”

“I am too. I even have Biffy here.” I waved the squirrel at him.

“Oh yeah? Then Harrow something.”

“What?”

“You heard me. Bring forth a nightmare.”

“You first.”

He sighed, and stood. He was easily a foot taller than me; making me aware I stood alone on a dock with a half-mad wizard. He lifted the skull, and emitted a high-pitched squeal. I winced as it reached a peak, and the skull’s eyes took on an unnatural glow. The air before him rippled and distorted, and I knew two things were about to happen. One, something very unpleasant was going to come out of that space, and two, he’d know I couldn’t Harrow. I panicked.

I rushed him while he still held his eyes shut. I raised the squirrel, wicked tail blade glinting in the weird light from the skull’s sockets. Just as the humming stopped in an abrupt squeal, I jammed the dagger end of the dead rodent into his throat and sawed sideways, spraying myself with blood. I left it as he toppled, all sound cutting off aside from a wet gurgle. I moved to push the body into the water, and a sound behind me made me spin.

Something fleshy came scuttling toward me, plump and pink.

“Oh gods.” The words escaped me involuntarily.

It was a fucking dick spider. I cursed myself for imagining such a thing before facing a Harrower. It was worse than I’d pictured. My heart hammered in panic. I bravely screamed a battle cry that definitely wasn’t a cry of disgust and stomped it to death with one steel-shod boot. The heel made the fleshy tubes burst and squish, spraying black ichor over the boards of the dock. As it died, it shuddered and chirped frantically. It stopped moving with one last horrifying squeal.

Heaving for breath, I pushed first it, and then the Harrower’s body–still sporting a taxidermied squirrel protruding from the neck–into the lake. I imagined the wizard still squirming as he fell, and choked back a retch. He sank with a splash into the murky water, and even as his robes billowed under the surface, Cord and the rest came sprinting from their hiding places. Lux stopped long enough to give me a sideways look. They leaped over the side of the boat, and cast the ropes off.

“Fer fuck’s sake, Nenn!” Cord hissed. “You gonna stand there in the fuckin’ slop you made, or get on the godsdamned boat?”

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