The word rang in Padron’s ears. A plague! Ol’s balls, another plague! He had to run, he –
A hand grasped his shoulder, hard. “Look out, you! Do you want to get run down?” A heavyset guard in an ill-fitting uniform jerked Padron out of the way of a horse. Padron did not know the man’s name.
The rider stopped his horse right in the middle of the group of guards. Padron looked up to see the uniform of a Town Guard officer. It was Lieutenant Azin, his own lieutenant, astride the horse. Padron had only been in the Town Guard a little over a month, but had managed to get on Azin’s bad side a dozen times since then. His urge to flee fought a losing battle with his urge to avoid Azin’s wrath. When the lieutenant spoke, he seemed to be looking straight at Padron, as if this mob of guards were somehow his fault.
”What is this? Why are you chasing street rats when there’s a plague ship in the harbor?”
Azin’s next words were lost to Padron in a renewed rush of panic. A ship? Hadn’t he heard someone else just saying they had seen a man with blackspot in the bar? A few menes ago, Padron had been on the heels of a group of guards chasing a boy into that bar. He did not even know why they had been chasing the boy, and then suddenly everyone had rushed back out yelling “Blackspot!”
Another guard voiced the question in Padron’s mind. ”Plague ship, Lieutenant?”
”Yes, plague ship! One of the traders hoisted the flag a bell ago, just after Titus went screaming to Doctor Savitt’s house demanding a cure for blackspot. Right, everyone, I want this street quarantined. No one leaves.”
”Lieutenant? There’s a man in there with blackspot,” another guard said.
Azin’s shoulders slumped for a moment, then his jaw tightened. He sat erect in the saddle as his gaze swept over the assembled guards. ”Plague has already taken hold of Dargon. We must do what we can to protect the rest of the city. To your duty men.” He began directing pairs to cordon off Commercial Street.
The heavyset man still held Padron’s shoulder. With thoughts of plague running through his mind, Padron eyed the man’s fingers; he was wondering how to pry them loose when the man spoke. “A ship, a bar, and the guard house, can you imagine?”
“The Old Guard House?” Padron exclaimed. It was all over the city then.
“Nah, just the small one here on Commercial Street. Didn’t you hear the lieutenant? It’s just Commercial Street.”
How could the man could be so calm? Just Commercial Street? They were *on* Commercial Street!
His thoughts were interrupted as Azin’s gaze fell on him. “You two! Close off Traders Avenue. Go!”
The heavyset fellow finally released Padron’s shoulder, giving him a shove in the right direction. “Let’s go, Padron! Hey, wait!”
Finally, a break! Padron was younger and in far better shape than his new partner. He took off running in the direction of Traders Avenue, but he never intended to arrive there. The fat man would have to block it off on his own. Padron needed a place to hide.
Plague! Again! It seemed to Padron that plague had shaped his life. It had been the cause of his arrival in Dargon; when his parents had fallen to the Red Plague in 1007, his fifth summer, he’d been sent to live with his uncle. It was the largest city — really the only city — Padron had ever seen. But where others marveled at the bustling docks and markets and the massive buildings, Padron saw only crowds, foreign ships, and rat-filled sewers — each one infested with disease. Worse, there had been outbreaks of disease and rumors of actual plague during the Beinison siege while he was trapped inside the city.
When he was old enough, Padron joined the Town Guard in the hopes of escaping this deathtrap of a city. He had considered the life of a sailor, briefly, until he learned about all of the diseases sailors caught at sea, and even worse in port. Apart from the diseases, there was the risk of drowning, pirate attack, and even foundering during a storm. His best hope would be assignment to one of the far patrols that ranged the forest throughout the duchy. Most guards thought of the far patrols as drudgework, but Padron felt it was his best option to be safe. No one ever drowned while walking in the woods. Once assigned there, he would then volunteer to stay. He had signed up as soon as he could, and his rotation was only a few sennights away. Now he was on the wrong side of the barriers in yet another outbreak. Worse, he was going to have to keep the quarantined people in! How long until he’d be exposed? He had to escape!
Commercial Street was in chaos. Some of Dargon’s citizens ran about, often passing each other in opposite directions, others stood and gaped or clustered in small groups muttering terrified and angry words, or gesturing at uniformed guards who were making a vain effort to restore order. One particularly stern looking man broke from a group and attempted to block Padron’s path. Padron sidestepped and kept running, avoiding eye contact with the man.
He looked toward the docks, but all of the ships had already pulled up their gangplanks. From the way the sailors at the rails were eying the people on the piers, Padron knew they wouldn’t be allowing anyone on board. He could just keep going and run onto Traders Avenue, but there was no way to know if other guards were already there. If someone spotted him, there would be no getting away. His only hope was to duck into a building and try to find a place to hide, away from people, away from the plague, away from everything, until he could find a way to leave Dargon. There would be no going back; if they caught him he’d go to gaol for desertion. He shivered despite his exertion. Gaol fever was only the beginning of diseases he imagined he would face if he were imprisoned.
Padron scanned the buildings to his right. There were bars, shops, trading offices, and warehouses. There were a few, he knew, that were idle thanks to the departure of their owner, Tyrus Vage. His creditors were fighting for possession of the goods inside. Padron slowed as he came to one. He glanced quickly over his shoulder; there was no sign of his fat friend. Good. Padron had checked the main warehouse doors to make sure they were secure when he had made rounds earlier, but there were other ways in. He ducked into a dead-end alley and spied an open second story window that did not have a shutter. Beneath the window was a large wooden crate. After stacking a few barrels on the crate, he climbed on top of the barrels and with one jump was able to reach the windowsill. Good thing, since the stack of barrels fell over underneath him. With strength borne of plague fear, Padron pulled himself up and over the sill, landing with a soft thud on a wooden floor inside, just below the window.
Padron looked around, and quickly realized he was on a narrow catwalk that went around the inside perimeter of the building, with branches that crisscrossed the overhead. He realized he was lucky there had been a floor there at all, and not a two-story drop, but compared to his bad luck to be stuck in a plague zone that was nothing. Padron got up and dusted himself off. He decided he might as well try to find a place to hide, maybe one where he could observe the street until he found an opportunity to leave town, maybe jump on a boat, or just swim for it.
After catching his breath, Padron looked at the windowsill and the area just inside. He noticed signs of others having used this window for egress to the warehouse. Scuffmarks and scars covered the windowsill from many feet scraping around it, the edge of the sill was smooth where many hands had held on and there were even ropes marks where ropes had been used to either lower people or things from the warehouse.
Padron crept around the catwalk looking for a way down farther into the warehouse. He stopped once, holding his breath, when he thought he heard voices. He decided they must be from outside and continued, then stopped again. No, there they were again, definitely inside. Should he return to the window and just wait there? No, he had to see who was in here in the warehouse with him; they could be criminals, or sick with plague. Even armed warehouse guards could be dangerous if Padron didn’t announce himself as a Town Guard.
He crept along more slowly and after a moment, he saw the light of a lantern shining between some crates. He drew closer, until he could see straight through the gap. There was a small table set up with the lantern on it, and at least three men. Only one was sitting. Another had the look of a typical street bravo: hand on the hilt of his sword and a cocky smile on his face. They both regarded the third man. This one was red-faced with anger and finely dressed — maybe a rich merchant or minor noble. At least one other man stood in the shadows.
“That’s the way of it. Things have changed,” said the seated man. He held out his hands as if to say there was nothing he could do.
“That’s it?” demanded the well-dressed man. “‘Things have changed’? You brought me here with the promise –”
“Let’s be clear about one thing, Derion. *I* didn’t bring you here. Jack sent for you. Jack’s dead. Garrity took over for Jack, and now he’s dead. Same guy did for both of them. Same guy, in fact, that Jack sent for you about. Now I’m in charge.”
“And?” asked Derion. “That ain’t my problem. It’s yours. The way I see it, I kill this guy, you pay me, and I’m on my way.”
Padron felt his breath catch in his throat. This was not a merchant or a nobleman, then. This man was a paid killer, one who could afford fancy clothes. That meant he was good at it.
“That’s not so easy,” the seated man said. “Even if I could afford you, I don’t want that job done anymore. See, I think Jack and Garrity made some bad business decisions. I mean, what kind of idiots try to extort money from a guy that makes his living by training other people to kill? Am I right?”
The bravo laughed. Derion stayed silent. Were there others laughing from the darkness behind the crates? Padron thought so. What had he gotten himself into?
“I’m in a new business now, with the few guys Garrity had left. We’d always have a spot for someone like you –”
Derion snorted and spat onto the table. “Hired muscle, for a guy like you? You couldn’t afford me. Now, the way I see it, you owe me at least the expenses for my trip here and back. Plus, I got robbed when I got here, so you’ll owe me what was in my purse.”
“How do you figure that?” the man sitting at the table asked.
“You invite a man to your city, you make sure the locals know to keep their hands off, especially the little street brats.”
“The big tough guy got robbed by a shadow boy?” This was a new voice, definitely someone out of sight. The voice continued chuckling.
Derion moved, almost too fast to see and the chucking stopped abruptly, replaced by strangled coughing. “Anyone else think that’s funny?” He glared around at the seated man, the bravo, and whoever had laughed from the shadows.
Padron had seen enough. If these men caught a lone guard spying on them, it would be worse than the plague. He had to find another way out, or a place to hide.
The man at the table spoke. “Now, let’s take it easy. We don’t want any bloodshed over this. Why don’t we — what was that?!”
“That” was a loud creak. Padron had knelt on the wrong board. It sagged underneath his weight. He knew if he moved it would creak again, but if he didn’t move it might give way under his weight.
“Find out what that was,” the man at the table said.
“Probably just some stray dog, Merev,” said the man who was out of sight.
“Did I say, ‘Give me your best guess about what made that noise’?” Merev asked, an angry edge creeping into his voice. “Move. Now.”
“Right, boss,” came the reply.
Padron had to move. He shifted his weight and stood. Just as expected, the board creaked. Giving up all efforts to remain quiet, he began to run along the catwalk back toward the window. The catwalk shifted wildly and he was forced to slow his pace
“There’s someone up there!” Someone was running along beneath Padron. Without a precarious catwalk to slow his pace, the man moved ahead of Padron, toward the wall with the open window.
“Don’t let him get away!” Merev shouted.
Padron’s heart pounded in his chest as he neared the window. Outside, plague ran rampant through the city, but inside the warehouse he was sure he would face death if they caught him. To his left, he heard feet pounding up a ladder. Padron looked the window, preparing to climb down, when he remembered the pile of crates he had used to climb in had fallen over. He prepared to jump. The height terrified him, but he knew he had no choice. He spared a glance to his left, and saw a figure approaching him with a drawn blade. He put his hands on the sill and prepared to jump. He didn’t see the man on his right until a hand grasped the back of his collar and pulled. The man planted his palm on Padron’s chest and shoved. Padron stumbled back away from the window. His hips struck the catwalk railing, and then he was falling.
His wind was taken from him as he crashed into a pile of boxes. He tumbled down, hands flailing wildly, and landed, somehow feet first, atop a large wooden crate. His right foot smashed through the slats on top. Pain shot thought his ankle as splinters of wood scraped and cut at it. He foot was wedged, trapped by the broken slats.
Padron heard movement above him. He tried to pull his foot free, but pain from his ankle made that almost impossible. Using the hilt of his sword, Padron was able to pry the slats apart and free his foot, but agony lanced up his leg when he put weight on it. Grimacing with every step, he began to hobble away, supporting himself on the nearest crate or shelf every time he stepped with his right foot.
Desperate, he cast about for a hiding place. The sound of someone clearing his throat to the left made Padron’s head whip around.
A man stood there, casually leaning against a support, toying with a long stiletto. He had a dark goatee and a nasty smile. “Hello, stray dog,” he said. It was the same voice that had spoken from the shadows earlier.
Padron gasped and scrambled backwards, the agony in his leg momentarily forgotten. When the man with the stiletto took a step toward him, Padron bolted. He ran back between the crates at a stumbling run. He turned past a pile of crates and spared a backward glance. The man was following, but at an almost casual pace. Padron ran down the next alley of shelves, until he found a space between two crates large enough to fit into. He backed in, trying to slow his ragged breathing and looking for his pursuer to walk by.
He felt the tip of a sharp blade pressing into his back, just as a voice whispered in his ear. “Woof.” It was the same voice.
Padron gasped and pushed his way back out from between the crates and ran. He came to a T and turned right.
Before he reached the next intersection, the man with the stiletto stepped in his way. “Here, doggy,” he said in a voice that was flat and cold.
Padron stopped short, bringing his full weight down on his right foot. He cried out in agony and dropped to one knee clutching at his ankle. When he looked up, the man was advancing on him slowly, holding the stiletto with casual menace. Padron scrambled back, landing on his backside, then rolled and began running back the way he had come. When the man with the stiletto stepped out in front of him, he almost shrieked.
“Lookee, Vishay, it’s a guard,” said a voice from behind. It was the same voice as the man in front of him. Padron whirled, and then turned back again, staring. The same man stood at either end of the narrow alley between the shelves. He looked back and forth between them as they slowly approached. With nowhere to run, Padron drew his sword. The hilt felt slippery in his sweat-slick hand.
“And he’s got a pointy, Vene,” the other one said.
“Ah look, Vishay, it’s wounded. It hurt its leg.”
“Poor thing. Vene, maybe we should put it out of its misery.”
At this, Padron panicked and moved to dash past Vishay, who deftly interposed himself.
“Where you going? We’ve got you surrounded.” Vishay stepped forward and slashed at Padron with his dagger. He jumped back as Padron slashed wildly with his sword.
“Nowhere to run.” Vene said from behind. “Why don’t you drop your sword and make this easy for yourself?”
Padron whirled and slashed at Vene, who skipped back out of the way. Then Vishay closed from behind and Padron barely turned in time to drive him back. A stabbing pain in the back of his arm caused Padron to whirl again, only to see Vene dancing back with blood dripping from his stiletto. Frantic, he tried to turn back and fend off Vishay, but a fresh burst of agony from his ankle caused him to drop to one knee. He slashed weakly, but Vishay caught his wrist and turned it. Then Vene’s voice was in his ear and steel was tickling his throat. “Now, guardsman, why don’t you just drop that thing before you hurt someone.”
Padron’s sword fell from his hand to clatter against the stone floor.
He was shoved back toward the waiting men, one arm twisted behind his back. The twins had no concern for his injured ankle. Once he reached the table, one of them kicked his legs from behind and he dropped to his knees. His head was swimming and he felt disconnected from everything happening around him.
“Well?” asked Derion. “Who is he?”
“He’s a member of Dargon’s inestimable Town Guard,” said one of the twins.
“Though not a very good one,” said the other. “I’d say this one’s very estimable.”
“Hm,” said the first. “Good point.”
“Enough,” said Merev. “We need to find out what he knows.”
“What does it matter what he knows?” Derion asked. “He’s seen my face; he has to die. I’ll make it quick.”
“No!” Merev shouted. “We can’t kill a Town Guard.”
“Why not?” Derion asked. “This won’t be my first, and it sure won’t be my last.”
“With enough gold, the guards may look the other way while we do our business,” the seated man said, “but if we go killing them off, they will come down hard on everyone.”
“What’s that to me?” Derion asked. “I’m here in Dargon to do one job and leave, and now you’re saying even that job’s off. So what say I kill this guard instead of Aerimon, you pay me half of what Garrity promised and we call it even?”
“No,” Merev said. “We can kill our own, or even a few shadow boys or other gutter trash and they don’t care. But if we start killing the guards they’re gonna bring in those gods-cursed Esoterics and track us all down. You can just get out of town, but not us.”
“That’s your problem,” Derion said. He took a few steps toward Padron as he drew a dagger from a sheath on his belt.
Vene released Padron’s arm and he moved to put himself in front of Derion to block his way. “Hey look, I’m protecting a Town Guard. What’s the world coming to?”
Vishay, still holding Padron’s other wrist, chuckled at this, but the laughter was silenced as Derion kept coming and thrust at Vene, parried the counter-thrust, and drove his elbow hard into Vene’s midsection. The twin went down, coughing. Vishay shoved Padron to the ground and whispered, “Stay!” Then he moved forward with his own blade drawn.
“Hold on, Vishay,” said Merev. “Derion, be reasonable. We’re men of business. Surely we can come to some arrangement.”
“Why’s the guard so Shuul-damned important to you, anyway?” Derion asked. “Maybe you don’t want him dead because he’s part of some deal.”
Vishay snorted. “Then why’d we go get him and drag him in front of you?”
“Why indeed? Maybe so he could get a better look at my face. Are you planning to turn me in for the reward, Merev? Better men than you have tried and died.”
“Is there a reward for you, Derion?” Vishay purred. “How much?”
“Take him!” yelled Merev.
There was a shuffle of feet, followed by a grunt and a cry of pain. Padron hoped they had struck Derion down but the struggle continued. He lay face down listening to the sound of fighting, too terrified to move. It was only when someone tripped and fell over him that he came to his senses enough to realize he needed to crawl to safety. After whoever had fallen on him got up and rejoined the fight, Padron crawled behind a stack of wooden crates to hide. He looked around the warehouse trying to find the exit and saw Vene, Vishay and a third man surrounding Derion, who was holding a blade to Merev’s throat. All three thugs bled from a number of wounds, but Derion was bleeding too.
Padron spotted the door leading to the street on the far wall of the warehouse. While the men continued shouting at each other to drop their weapons, Padron used the crates as cover to sneak closer to the door. When he got close enough, Padron tried to bolt for the door. He only made it a few feet before the pain in his ankle caused him to fall.
“He’s getting away!” Derion cried. Padron looked back and saw Derion thrust Merev into the arms of his men and come running toward the warehouse door.
Padron crawled the remaining distance to the door, forced himself up on one leg, and shoved. The door moved, letting in a blessed shaft of sunlight, but then stopped with a clatter. It was chained from the outside. He peered through the opening at his last glimpse of the sky and prepared to die. Then the light was blocked and he was staring straight into another eye.
“Padron?” a half-familiar voice rumbled.
Heavy footfalls alerted Padron and he turned in time to duck a slash from Derion’s blade, but the movement cost him and he fell to the floor again, clutching his ankle in agony, then Derion was literally on top of him, knife in hand.
There was the sound of splintering wood, and the warehouse door was flung wide. Light flooded through the doorway. Padron’s erstwhile partner in crowd control, the heavyset Town Guard, stood framed in the doorway, holding a sword and a pry bar.
Derion rose from his crouch over Padron and assessed the new threat. “Huh. Another Town Guard to kill. And a slow moving one at that.” He turned back to Padron. “You first.”
Free from Derion’s weight, Padron tried to scramble backwards. Before he could get clear, his right ankle gave way and he lost his purchase with his other foot. His left leg flailed out and the heel of his boot caught Derion square in the crotch. The killer doubled over and the air whooshed out of his lungs.
The other guard moved up next to him. “You’re not moving too quickly yourself, are you?” Then he brought the pry bar down on Derion’s head. The man fell on top of Padron, face to face. Padron tried to turn away, but he was trapped. He could feel Derion’s warm breath on his lips, and a trickle of the other man’s spittle actual ran into Padron’s mouth. At the thought of the diseases Derion might be carrying, Padron fainted.
Padron woke to find himself propping up against the wall of the warehouse. His ankle was heavily wrapped and there was a bandage on his arm where he’d been cut by a stiletto. Town Guards filled the area; even Lieutenant Azin was there.
“Awake, are you, Padron?” the heavyset guard with the ill-fitting clothing asked.
“Straight, uh …”
“My name is Sarmena,” the man rumbled. “Boy, the gods must have been with you. I’ve been looking for you since you ran off ahead of me. When I heard the ruckus going on inside the warehouse I decided to take a look, see if someone was robbing the place. How did you end up in here? Mighty brave of you to be taking on so many men. Not bright, but brave.”
Padron ignored the question. “What about the others? The local thugs, Vene, Vishay.”
“I guess they managed to escape out the back,” Sarmena said. “But we caught this one, yes sir we did.”
“And the plague?” Padron asked.
“Hah,” Sarmena laughed. “It was all a hoax. There weren’t no plague.”
A cold chill ran through Padron. He had deserted his assignment and almost gone to gaol for no reason.
Two days later, the two men stood before Lieutenant Azin’s desk in the Old Guard House, each in a close approximation of attention. Sarmena was hampered by his heavy frame and looked slightly ridiculous trying to keep his arms at his sides. Padron was lopsided because he was keeping his weight on his left foot. His right ankle was still bandaged and difficult to walk on.
“Padron, Sarmena, do you know who you have captured?” Lieutenant Azin asked.
“No, sir,” said Sarmena.
“I think his name is Derion,” Padron added.
“That’s right, his name is Derion,” Lieutenant Azin said. “He is a hired killer, and from what I have heard he is very good at it. It’s a wonder neither of you were killed. Good work, both of you.”
“Thank you, sir.” Padron said. Cold sweat formed on his back at the thought of how close he had come to death at the end of Derion’s knife.
“I guess you will need to split the reward,” Lieutenant Azin said.
“Reward?” Sarmena asked.
“Yes, there is a twenty Sovereign reward for his capture if he is alive,” Lieutenant Azin said. “If we can keep him. He has escaped from captivity before. We’ll need to hold him long enough to get a message to Magnus and have someone come here to identify him.”
Padron’s head whirled. Twenty Sovereigns? His half would be ten, more than he would earn in several months as a guard.
“Follow me,” Lieutenant Azin said. He rose from his desk and walked through the guardhouse. Padron and Sarmena followed the lieutenant through the main entryway and out onto the street where a heavy carriage stood waiting. “Derion is considered valuable to some dangerous people. For your immediate safety, you’re both being transferred. Get your gear together and take this carriage to Shireton where you will meet up with Jenna and the rest of the forest patrol. Padron, your ankle should have time enough to recover at the inn there before the forest patrol arrives. If Derion’s identified, your reward will be waiting when you return. Until then, here is some money for the inn.”
“But lieutenant …” Sarmena seemed unhappy about the transfer, but Padron just smiled. He was safe from the plague and on his way to the safety of the forest. Before he joined the far patrol, he’d have a comfortable carriage ride and a sennight or two at a cozy inn, and there was a small fortune waiting for him when he returned. Things seemed to be going his way after all.
“But, what, Sarmena?” Azin asked. “We’ve all done our time with the forest patrol.”
“That’s just it, sir. I did my time, straight? Those woods aren’t safe. There’s bears and shivarees and whatnot, not to mention bandits. And the last time I was out there I got the worst case of foot rot!”