Haern watched the ropes fly over the wall, heavy weights on their ends. They clacked against the stone, then settled on the street. The ropes looked like snakes in the pale moonlight, appropriate enough given how the Serpent Guild controlled them.
For several minutes, nothing. Haern shifted under his worn cloak, his exposed hand shivering in the cold while holding an empty bottle. He kept his hood low, and he bobbed his head as if sleeping. When the first of the Serpents entered the alley, Haern spotted him with ease. The Serpent looked young for such a task, but then two older men arrived, their hands and faces scarred from the brutal life they led. Green cloaks fluttered behind them as they rushed past the houses and to the wall where the ropes hung like vines. They tugged each rope twice, giving their signal. Then the older ones grabbed a rope while the younger tied the two weighted ends together and looped them about a carved inset in the wall.
“Quick and quiet,” he heard one of them whisper to the younger. “Don’t let the crate make a sound when it lands, and the gods help you if you drop it.”
Haern let his head bob lower. The three were to his right, little more than twenty feet away. Already he knew their skill was laughable if they had not yet noticed his presence. His right eye peeked from under his hood, his neck twisting slightly to give him a better view. Another Serpent appeared from outside the city, climbing atop the wall and motioning down to the others. Their arm muscles bulging, the older two began pulling on the ropes. Meanwhile the younger steadily took in the slack so it wouldn’t get in their way.
Haern coughed as the crate reached the top of the wall. This time the younger heard, and he tensed as if expecting to be shot with an arrow.
“Someone’s watching,” he whispered to the others.
Haern leaned back, the cloak hiding his grin. About damn time. He let the bottle roll limp from his hand, the sound of glass on stone grating in the silence.
“Just a drunk,” said one of them. “Go chase him off.”
Haern heard the soft sound of a blade scraping against leather, most likely the young one’s belt.
“Get out of here,” said the Serpent.
Haern let out a loud, obnoxious snore. A boot kicked his side, but it was weak, hesitant. He shuddered as if waking from a dream.
“Why…why you kick me?” he asked, his hood still low. He had to time it just right, at the exact moment the crate touched ground.
“Beat it!” hissed the young thief. “Now, or I’ll gut you!”
Haern looked up and stared into his eyes. His lips curled into a smirk. He knew shadows danced across his face, but his eyes…the man clearly saw his eyes. His dagger dipped in his hand, and he took a step back. Death was in Haern’s smirk, and steel in his gaze. As he heard the sound of the crate softly thumping to the ground, he stood, his ratty gray cloak falling aside to reveal the two swords sheathed at his hips.
“Shit, it’s him!” the thief screamed, turning to run.
Haern felt contempt ripple through him. Such poor training…did the guilds let anyone in now? He took the young man down, making sure no hit was lethal. He needed a message delivered.
“Who?” asked one, turning at the cry.
Haern cut his throat before he could draw his blade. The other yelped and stepped back. His dagger parried the first of Haern’s stabs, but he had no concept of positioning. Haern smacked the dagger twice to the right, then slipped his left sword into his belly and twisted. As the thief bled out, Haern looked to the Serpent atop the wall.
“Care to join the fun?” he asked, yanking out his blade and letting the blood drip to the street. “I’m out of players.”
Two daggers whirled down at him. He side-stepped one and smacked away the other. Hoping to provoke him further, Haern kicked the crate. With no other option, the thief turned and fled back down the wall. Disappointed, Haern sheathed a sword and used the other to pry open the crate. With a loud creak the top came off, revealing three burlap sacks within. He dipped a hand in one, and it came out dripping with gold coins, each one clearly marked by the sigil of the Gemcroft family.
“Please,” he heard the young thief beg. He bled from cuts on his arms and legs, most certainly painful, but nothing life-threatening. The worst he’d done was hamstring him to prevent him from fleeing. “Please, don’t kill me. I can’t, I can’t…”
Haern slung all three bags over his shoulder. With his free hand he pressed the tip of his sword against the young man’s throat.
“They’ll want to know why you lived,” he said.
The man had no response to that, only a pathetic sniffle. Haern shook his head. How far the Serpent Guild had fallen…but all the guilds had fallen since that bloody night five years ago. Thren Felhorn, the legend, had failed in his coup, bringing doom upon the underworld. Thren…his father…
“Tell them you have a message,” Haern said. “Tell them I’m watching.”
In response, Haern took his sword and dipped it in the man’s blood.
“They’ll know who,” he said before vanishing, leaving only a single eye drawn in the dirt as his message, blood for its ink, a sword its quill.
He didn’t go far. He had to lug the bags to the rooftops one at a time, but once up high, he slowed. The rooftops were his home, had been for years. Following the main road west, he reached the inner markets, still silent and empty. Plunking down the bags, he laid with his eyes closed and waited.
He woke to the sounds of trade. Hunger stirred in his belly, but he ignored it. Hunger, like loneliness and pain, had become a constant companion. He wouldn’t call it friend, though.
“May you go to better hands,” Haern said to the first sack of gold before stabbing its side. Coins spilled, and he hurled them like rain to the packed streets. Without pause he cut the second and third, flinging them to the suddenly ravenous crowd. They dove and fought as the gold rolled along, bouncing off bodies and plinking into various wooden stalls. Only a few bothered to look up, those who were lame or old and dared not fight the crowd.
“The Watcher!” someone cried. “The Watcher is here!”
The cry put a smile to his lips as Haern fled south, having not kept a single coin.
It had taken five years, but at last Alyssa Gemcroft understood her late father’s paranoia. The meal prepared before her, spiced pork intermixed with baked apples, smelled delicious, but her appetite remained dormant.
“I can have one of the servants taste it, if you’d like,” said her closest family advisor, a man named Bertram who had loyally served her father. “I’ll even do so myself.”
“No,” she said, brushing her red bangs back and tucking them behind her left ear. “That’s not necessary. I can afford to skip a meal.”
Bertram frowned, and she hated the way he looked at her-like a doting grandfather, or a worried teacher. Just the night before, two servants had died eating their daily rations. Though they’d replaced much of the mansion’s food, as well as executed those they thought responsible, the memory lingered in Alyssa’s mind. The way the two had retched, their faces turning a horrific shade of purple…
She snapped her fingers, and the many waiting servants rushed to clear the trays away. Despite the rumble in her belly, she felt better with the food gone. At least now she could think without fear of choking, or convulsing to death on some strange toxin. Bertram motioned to a chair beside her, and she gave him permission to sit.
“I know these are not peaceful times,” he said, “but we cannot allow fear to control our lives. That is a victory you know the thief guilds have longed for.”
“We’re approaching the fifth anniversary of the Bloody Kensgold,” Alyssa said, referring to a gathering of the Trifect, the three wealthiest families of merchants, nobles, and power brokers in all of Dezrel. On that night, Thren Felhorn had led an uprising of thief guilds against the Trifect, burning down one of their mansions and attempting to annihilate every last one of their leaders. He’d failed, and his guild had broken to a fraction of its former size. On that night, Alyssa had assumed control after the death of her father, victim to an arrow as they’d fought to protect their home.
“I know,” Bertram said. “Is that what distracts you so? Leon and James have both agreed to delay another Kensgold until this dangerous business is over with.”
“And when will that be?” she asked as another servant arrived with a silver cup of wine. “I hide here in my mansion, fearful of my food and scared of every shadow in my bedroom. We cannot defeat the guilds, Bertram. We’ve broken them, fractured many to pieces, but it’s like smashing a puddle with a club. They all come back together, under new names, new leaders.”
“The end is approaching,” Bertram said. “This is Thren’s war, and he champions it with every bit of his strength. But he is not so strong, not so young. His Spider Guild is far from the force it used to be. In time, the other guilds will see reason and turn against him. Until then, we have only one choice left before us, and that is to endure.”
Alyssa closed her eyes and inhaled the scent of the wine. For a moment she wondered if it was poisoned, but she fought the paranoia down. She would not sacrifice such a simple pleasure. She couldn’t give the rogues that much of a victory.
Still, when she drank, it was a small sip.
“You told me much the same after the Kensgold,” she said, setting down the cup. “As you have every year for the past five. The mercenaries have bled us dry. Our mines to the north no longer produce the yields they were renowned for. The king is too frightened to help us. How long until we eat in rags, without coin for servants and wood for fires?”
“We are on the defensive,” Bertram said, accepting his own cup of wine. “Such is our fate for being a large target. But the bloodshed has slowed, you know that as well as I. Be patient. Let us bleed them as they bleed us. The last thing we want is to inflame their passions while we still appear weak and leaderless.”
Alyssa felt anger flare in her chest, not only at the insult, but also its damning familiarity.
“Leaderless?” she asked. “I have protected the Gemcroft name for five years of shadow war, brokered trade agreements, organized mercenaries, bribed nobles, and done everything as well as my father ever did, yet we are leaderless? Why is that, Bertram?”
Bertram endured the rant without a shred of emotion on his face, and that only infuriated Alyssa further. Again she felt like a schoolchild before her teacher, and part of her wondered if that was exactly how her advisor thought of her.
“I say this only because the rest of Dezrel believes it,” he said when she was finished. “You have no husband, and the only heir to the Gemcroft name is a bastard of unknown heritage.”
“Don’t talk about Nathaniel that way,” she said, her voice turning cold. “Don’t you dare speak ill against my son.”
Bertram raised his hands and spread his palms.
“I meant no offense, milady. Nathaniel is a good child, smart, too. But a lady of your station should be partnered with someone equally influential. You’ve had many suitors; surely you’ve taken a liking to one of them?”
Alyssa took another sip of wine, her eyes glancing up at the shadowy corners of the dining hall.
“Leave me,” she said. “All of you. We’ll speak of this another time.”
Bertram stood, bowed, and followed the servants out.
“Come down, Zusa,” she told the ceiling. “You know you’re always welcome at my table. There is no need for you to skulk and hide.”
Clinging like a spider to the wall, Zusa smiled down at her. With deceptive ease, she let go, falling headfirst toward the carpet. A deft twist of her arms, a tuck of her knees, and she landed gracefully on her feet, her long cloak billowing behind her. Instead of any normal outfit, she wore long strips of cloth wrapped around her body, hiding every inch of skin. Except for above her neck, Alyssa was still pleased to see. Zusa had once belonged to a strict order of Karak, the dark god. Upon her willful exile, Zusa had cast aside the cloth from her face, revealing her stunning looks and her beautiful black hair, which she kept cropped short around her neck. Two daggers hung from her belt, wickedly sharp.
“Let me be the one in the shadows,” Zusa said, smiling. “That way you are safe, for no assassin can hide there beside me.”
Alyssa gestured for her friend to sit. Zusa refused, but Alyssa took no offense. It was just one of the skilled lady’s many quirks. The woman had rescued her from rape and torture years before, and then helped protect her estate from Thren’s plans. She owed her life to Zusa, so if she wanted to stand instead of sit, she was more than welcome.
“Did you hear everything?” Alyssa asked.
“Everything of worth. The old man is scared. He tries to be the rock in a storm, to survive by doing nothing until it passes.”
“Sometimes a sound strategy.”
Zusa smirked. “This storm will not pass, not without action. Not with his cowardly action. You know what Bertram wants. He wants you bedded and yoked to another man. Then your womanly passions may be safely ignored, and he can rule through your husband.”
“Bertram has no desire for power.”
Zusa lifted an eyebrow. “Can you know for sure? He is old, but not dead.”
Alyssa sighed and drained the rest of her glass.
“What should I do?” she asked. She felt tired, lost. She badly missed her son. She’d sent Nathaniel north to Felwood Castle, to foster with Lord Gandrem. At least there he was safe from the thief guilds, and the training he received would help him later in life.
“Bertram’s question…are there any you have taken a fancy to?” Zusa asked.
“Mark Tullen was attractive, though his station is probably lower than Bertram would prefer. At least he was willing to talk to me instead of staring down my blouse. Also, that noble who runs our mines, Arthur something…”
“Hadfield,” Zusa said.
“That’s right. He’s pleasant enough, and not ugly…little distant, though. Guess that’s just a product of being older.”
“The older, the less likely to cavort with other women.”
“He’s more than welcome to,” Alyssa said. She stood and turned away, trying to voice a silent fear she’d held onto for years, a fear that had strangled her relationships and kept her unmarried. “But any child we have…that will become the Gemcroft heir. Too many will shove Nathaniel aside, deem him unfit, unworthy. I can’t do that to him, Zusa. I can’t deny him his right. He’s my firstborn.”
She felt Zusa’s arms slip around her. Startled by the uncommon display of emotion, she accepted the hug.