Taneris stood once again on the doorstep of Kazakian’s shop. A trickle of sweat ran down his back, as much from fear as from the heat of the sun as it approached midday. He took a deep breath and tried to compose himself. It was difficult with the images of blood and murder so fresh in his mind. He had been the only one of his family to escape the trap set by their enemies.
Five days previously, he had arrived in Dargon with his family. They had come on a mission to save their people from an attack planned against them by the Bloody Hand of Sageeza. Sageeza’s worshippers hated and sought to harm people of different cultures, such as Taneris’ people, the gypsy folk known as the Rhydd Pobl. Taneris’ foster-brother Gwill had brought word of the impending attack and of a secret that could help defeat the Bloody Hand. Hadrach, Gwill’s father, had decided to search for that secret in Dargon.
Now Hadrach and Gwill were dead and his chwrd, or foster-sister, Rhadia had been taken prisoner. She was to be sold as a slave: a vile fate for a gypsy but more so for one such as her. Taneris could not bear to think of her free spirit being crushed by enslavement, or her laughter silenced by some cruel master’s whip. He had to free her.
He had come to the only place he could think of for help. Before entering he slipped his hand into the pocket of his tunic. The dry roughness of parchment against his fingertips reassured him. Taking another deep breath, he knocked on the door and stepped inside.
The shop, which doubled as the owner’s home, was much as he remembered it from the previous day: the floors piled thick with carpets, a huge tapestry on the left wall, a hearth on the right. In the middle of the room stood a carved wooden desk covered with parchment and pots of ink. Behind the desk sat Genarvus Kazakian, his head bent over his work.
Kazakian looked up as Taneris entered; the scribe’s dark eyebrows drew together as he scowled. “I have no errands for you to run, boy, and no food to hand out.” His voice was thick with the accent that Taneris recalled from the previous day.
Taneris, already unsure how to begin, was taken aback by the scribe’s abrupt dismissal as the old man bent his head and resumed writing. Kazakian had failed to recognize him from the previous day and had taken him for a child of the streets of Dargon: one of the shadow boys. The strange affliction that had plagued Taneris for the past seven years — he had stopped growing in his twelfth year — had caused him to be overlooked once again. Everything he had planned to say was swept from his mind. He stood in the doorway and stammered. “I … I need …”
The scribe looked up again. “Such effrontery you boys have. Begone!” he thundered as he rose from his desk and stalked toward Taneris. “It is enough that you beg and steal on the streets, but to –” Kazakian stopped. His eyes narrowed, making the crow’s feet in his weathered skin more pronounced. “Vosh,” the scribe said, shaking his head in denial. “You are no shadow boy. You’re something worse. Young master Balish, I told your father yesterday that I wanted no dealings with him. Tell him to seek his dark gods elsewhere.”
Taneris finally found his tongue. “My father is dead, sir.”
Kazakian’s expression softened, if only a little. “I am sorry, boy. I warned your father that he trod a dangerous path.” He shook his head and sighed. Then his eyes narrowed. “Why have you come to me with this news?”
Now that he had started speaking, Taneris’ words poured forth in a torrent. “I took a great risk coming here, master scribe. I don’t think you are involved with the people who attacked us. If you are, I’ve delivered myself to our enemy and sacrificed my chwrd’s last chance for freedom. From your words to my father, I judge you to be a good man, and one who would not see his name used for evil.”
Kazakian nodded, although his expression was dark. “We should not be discussing this in an open doorway. Come, boy, and sit down.” He indicated a chair, the same one that Hadrach had occupied the day before. Reluctantly, Taneris sat. He shuddered as the fear he had been suppressing filled him. Kazakian closed the door and joined him, sitting in the chair opposite. He held Taneris’ gaze, waiting for him to continue.
“My father’s name was not Evrin Balish; it was Hadrach. He lied to you to hide our identity from our enemies. We –”
“And what are the Free People seeking in Dargon that they must be disguised?” interrupted Kazakian.
Taneris felt a moment of terror. Kazakian knew he was Rhydd Pobl! Was he an agent of their enemy? Were members of the Bloody Hand of Sageeza lurking in the shop, waiting to finish him?
Kazakian, perhaps sensing Taneris’ fear, waved a hand dismissively and shook his head. “Vosh, boy. I am not your enemy. You used ‘chwrd’ instead of ‘sister’ a moment ago, and Hadrach is hardly a Baranurian name.”
Taneris sighed, relaxing slightly into his chair. “We were seeking a book, as Hadrach told you. Only you never let him tell you which book. That’s how I knew that it was safe to come to you.” Ignoring Kazakian’s puzzled look, he continued, “We have been in Dargon for five days, looking for the Crimson Book of Sageeza.”
Kazakian’s reaction was not what Taneris had expected. The scribe’s puzzled expression only deepened, dark eyebrows drawing together, creating a maze of wrinkles on his forehead. He waved for Taneris to continue.
“My step-brother, Gwill, came to us a month ago. He warned us that the Bloody Hand was planning to attack us at our annual gathering. Gwill is — was a hunter. He was part of a band that ambushed a group of the Bloody Hand. One of them revealed a secret before he died: the Crimson Book contains the Hand’s secret ways of communicating. Hadrach brought us to Dargon seeking a copy of it. Now Hadrach and Gwill are dead, and Rhadia has been taken.”
“That does not explain why you have come to me. Why did you not go to the guard?”
“I don’t know who else in the city to trust.” Taneris swallowed and blinked back tears, painfully aware that crying would make him appear even more like a child. He took a deep breath and continued. “I know I can trust you, because I know you didn’t write this, even though your name is signed to it.” He reached into his pocket and handed the piece of parchment across to Kazakian.
“‘Master Balish’,” the scribe read, “‘I have located a copy of the tome you are seeking. Please enquire with Tyrus Vage, at his shop on Murson Street.’” He put the note down on the table. “You are correct, boy. I did not write this. The note makes no sense to me. Tyrus Vage is not a shopkeeper. He is a wealthy merchant and, to my knowledge, has no scholarly interests.”
Taneris nodded. “The shop was a trap. The only customers inside were actually members of the Bloody Hand. They attacked us and took Rhadia. I managed to escape because … because they thought I was dead.” Taneris failed to mention that the misconception was due to his being frozen with terror. “They are going to sell Rhadia to slavers. My people would rather die than be enslaved. You have to help me.”
Kazakian held his hand up in a warding gesture. “I am a foreigner in this city myself. I cannot make accusations against citizens of Dargon with nothing more than a scrap of paper and the word of a gypsy boy. There is nothing I can do for you.” He stood, as if to escort Taneris to the door, but his posture seemed to melt under Taneris’ pleading gaze. “Perhaps there is someone who can help you.” He pursed his lips as he looked Taneris over. “Wait here.”
The scribe stepped into the next room, and Taneris heard the staccato rhythm of his feet upon a flight of steps. Taneris looked at the tapestry while he waited for Kazakian to return. It showed a battle between an enormous serpent and armies of mounted men. One of the creature’s coils was wrapped around a castle, while others crushed and scattered its opponents. The gypsy’s eyes were drawn to a tiny figure in the bottom corner of the tapestry. A small child was attacking the tip of the creature’s tail with a stick, or perhaps a knife. Taneris thought the boy looked ridiculous. So absorbed was he by the tapestry that he did not hear Kazakian until the scribe spoke up behind him.
“One of my favorites,” he chuckled.
“Who wins the battle?”
“The beast is slain in the end, of course. It is based on a legend: Little Yorgai and the Beast of Leagues.” Kazakian tapped the ridiculous boy with his finger. “Most children in my country grew up wanting to be like little Yorgai.”
Taneris glanced once again at the child in the tapestry, wondering how someone so small and insignificant could defeat a creature that enormous.
“There is blood on your sleeve.” Kazakian handed him a tunic. “This belonged to a boy who used to work for me.” Taneris accepted it gratefully. He stripped off his old tunic, which Kazakian disposed of in the next room. The new garment fit him as well as the old, and itched less.
Kazakian picked up a walking stick and pulled open the door. Taneris felt a moment of trepidation at accompanying this man.
“Where are we going?”
“To the home of a friend. He is a fellow scholar and much better known to those in power I am. He will be able to tell you where you can look for aid, if aid is to be had.”
They walked through the streets of Dargon in silence. Taneris found his mind drifting to thoughts of his foster-brother and childhood companion Gwill. They were the same age, although that had not been apparent for years. Together they had shared the dream of becoming hunters. They had played at hunting for as long as Taneris could remember, stalking all manner of prey through the forests of Baranur. Being apprenticed to a hunter was all they could talk about. They had nearly driven poor Hadrach mad with it. The old man had been elated to take Rhadia as an apprentice. He had finally found someone to listen to him ramble about “the art of the trade”.
Rhadia had been immediately taken with Taneris. Although he was two years older than her, he had yet to appreciate the differences between boys and girls, preferring tree climbing to hand holding. It had been with a mixture of delight and relief that he, along with Gwill, had accepted an apprenticeship with a hunter named Senlin from another bantor, or wagon group.
Gwill had grown tall and strong under Senlin’s care. He had grown quiet and introspective as well: stern and serious as befit a hunter. Taneris had simply stopped growing. Senlin had tried to overlook it and had focused on Taneris’ strengths — woodcraft and stealth — but when Taneris had not been able to fully draw the man-sized bows that the other hunters used, Senlin had no choice but to dismiss him.
Taneris had been apprenticed to several crafts in the years that followed. He had taken to each initially, but his thoughts had continually wandered to the woods of Baranur. He had been dismissed from each in turn. He had eventually returned to Hadrach’s bantor to discover that Rhadia had grown into a beautiful young woman in the years he had been gone. Her romantic interest in him had waned, though, when she had discovered that he still looked like a boy of twelve.
Kazakian stopped before a door and Taneris brought his mind back to the present. He had more pressing concerns than his own shortcomings. The old scribe rapped sharply with a heavy knocker. When there was no reply, he rapped louder.
“Go away,” a voice called from some distance inside. “No castings today.”
“Dyann! It is I.”
“Genarvus! Come in then. But no castings!”
Taneris thought he heard the sound of the door being unlatched, but when Kazakian pushed it open, there was no one in the room behind it. As they stepped into a room well lit by the afternoon sun, an old man stepped through an archway at the opposite end of the room. He and Kazakian embraced as old friends, then the scribe turned to speak to Taneris.
“This is Dyann Taishent, a friend and colleague. Dyann, this is …” he paused. “You never did give me your name, boy.”
“My name is Taneris. Most people call me Tanner.”
Taishent eyed Taneris sharply. “And what prompted you to bring me a nameless gypsy boy, Genarvus?” Taneris wondered what he had done to reveal his origin to this man.
Kazakian shook his head. “It is a sad problem, Dyann, one that I hope you can assist with.”
They sat in straight-backed chairs around a carved wooden table as Taneris related his tale to Taishent, much as he had to Kazakian. The old man sat silently until Taneris finished before asking his questions. “How did the author of this note know that you had visited Genarvus?”
“We were followed that day by shadow boys. I saw them outside of his shop, but didn’t know who they were until after — until later.”
“Until after what?” prompted Kazakian. His crow’s feet became more pronounced again.
Taneris hung his head. “I had hoped not to tell you this, but Hadrach sent Gwill back to your shop yesterday evening. Rhadia and I followed him. Gwill was attacked by two men: the same two men were part of the group that ambushed us today.”
“I see.” Kazakian nodded. “I had wondered if the noise behind my shop last night had something to do with this.”
“What did you hope to achieve by bringing young Tanner to me, Genarvus?” asked Taishent.
The scribe gave a small shrug. “He fears going to the guard, and I know you have the ear of the duke …”
“And I’d like to keep his ear, if you don’t mind. Tyrus Vage is wealthy and powerful. If I go to Clifton Dargon with accusations based on the word of a stray gypsy and a scrap of parchment, I will be made to look a fool and earn a powerful enemy. If it was, in fact, Tyrus Vage. I’m not entirely convinced of this. Do you remember what he looked like, lad?”
Taneris would not soon forget the face of his family’s killer. “He was tall, and dark-haired, with a moustache and beard. His face was weathered like a man who has seen the face of the sun often in his youth.”
“That describes him. Tyrus Vage was a sailor before he made his fortune. But it also describes many men in Dargon. Do you remember anything else about him?”
“I do remember one other thing. We were in a tiny cluttered shop but he spoke like a lord. I thought it very odd.”
Taishent nodded. “It was Vage, then. The man acts like he owns half of Dargon. My advice to you, boy, is to flee the city and return to your people. There is naught else you can do here.”
A part of Taneris wanted nothing more than to take Taishent’s advice, but instead he returned the old man’s gaze. “I can’t do that. I have to free Rhadia. She was Hadrach’s foster-daughter. I’m responsible for her now, and I –” Grief-stricken, Taneris found himself unable to continue.
“And you love her,” Taishent said, finishing Taneris’ thought. When he had returned to Hadrach’s ban, or wagon, after his last failed apprenticeship, he had discovered that Rhadia had blossomed, as had his own interest. Unfortunately, her eyes were still on older boys and Taneris, two years her senior, had looked three years younger than her.
“I fear she is beyond your reach, young Tanner.” Taishent shook his head. “Worshippers of the Bloody Hand are few, and their ways are very secret. If your tale is true and Tyrus Vage is one of them, they are more powerful in Dargon than I would have thought. Now you have drawn Genarvus into your conflict and placed him in danger. The hatred of Sageeza’s followers extends beyond gypsies.”
“I had not thought of that,” mused Kazakian. “Still, my name was used to commit this crime. I would help the boy if I can.”
“The only way we can help the boy is to convince him to leave. There is one piece of information we can send with him to help his people. I am surprised you didn’t realize this yourself, Genarvus. There is no Crimson Book of Sageeza. The cult of Sageeza, like most religions that prey on fear and ignorance, is spread by word of mouth: whispered of in dark alleys and back rooms. The book must have been a ruse; captured members of the cult trade this ‘secret’ for their lives. Anyone who comes looking for it reveals himself as an enemy.” Taishent grasped Taneris’ shoulder and held his gaze. “You must believe me, young Tanner. There is nothing you can do in Dargon except die. You have to leave the city.”
Taneris nodded and Taishent released his grip. “Very well, I shall leave Dargon.” The young gypsy rose from his seat. “My thanks to you both.”
Taneris had no intention of leaving Dargon. As he walked away from Taishent’s home he thought about how the two men had treated him. It was the same way he had been treated his entire life: like a child. The strange affliction that made him look twelve years old despite his age of nineteen had once again caused him to be underestimated.
The young gypsy halted with a sudden realization. Since he had stopped growing, he had done nothing to convince people that he was more than a child. Given the choice between boy and man, he had always chosen the simpler path. He had blamed his situation on his elders for years but it was his own actions that had excluded him from the adult world. He knew that he could have completed the trial of passage for any craft, except the one nearest to his heart. It had just been easier to remain a child than to admit to himself that he would never become a hunter.
Taneris thrust these thoughts aside; he needed to focus on freeing Rhadia. To do that he would have to find the people who took her. He did not know where they were, but he could find someone who had worked for them. From the information Hadrach had given him the previous day, Taneris knew where to look.
He arrived at the marketplace shortly after the sixth bell. The sun, now past its zenith, had begun to cast shadows beside the buildings. Taneris, glad to be free of the heat, chose a shady place to wait. It did not take long for him to find his quarry. He watched a stocky blond boy sidle up to a vendor’s stall and palm a bright yellow fruit and drop it in his pocket. Taneris waited for a glimpse of the boy’s face before stepping up behind him and laying a hand on his shoulder.
“You,” he said, “shadow boy.”
The blond boy didn’t even turn. He jerked his shoulder out of Taneris’ grip and dashed away, slipping through the crowd with ease. Taneris followed, trying to avoid being stepped on and elbowed. He spun away from a near collision with a package-laden man and scanned the crowd frantically. Taneris almost missed the shadow boy dart into an alley. He followed.
With no crowd to dodge through, Taneris quickly gained on the blond boy and gave him a shove that sent him sprawling. The shadow boy landed on his back with the gypsy on top of him.
Grabbing a double-handful of tunic, Taneris demanded, “Where are they?”
“Where are who?” the shadow boy replied between gasps.
“The Bloody Hand.”
“What bloody hand? What are you talking about?”
“I know you work for them. They paid you to follow us yesterday.”
The blond boy’s eyes narrowed, then widened in recognition. “Ol’s piss! It’s just you. I thought you were a guard when you grabbed me. Now, get off me before I –”
A cuff from Taneris silenced him. “Not until you tell me where to find them.”
Before the shadow boy could reply, Taneris heard something whir by his ear. Then he felt a sharp pain in his shoulder. “Let him up,” a voice said. He looked up to see several boys standing by an open doorway a short distance away. Each held a rock in his hand. Seeing that he was outnumbered, Taneris stood.
“Darrow, you okay?” asked the tallest of the boys, a dark-haired youth sporting the beginnings of a moustache.
“I’m fine, Min,” said the blond boy as he stood and dusted himself off. “He caught me by surprise, is all.”
“Straight,” said the dark-haired boy, who then turned to Taneris. “And what’s your tale?”
“He helped the Bloody Hand kill my family –” Taneris began.
“Here he goes with the ‘bloody hand’ again,” interrupted Darrow.
Min held up his hands. “You can tell it to the king, if you like.” Taneris wondered if “tell it to the king” was an expression in Dargon, and if it meant that Min didn’t want to hear his troubles.
When Taneris didn’t reply, Min jerked a thumb toward the open door. “He’s holding court in here.” The king was a person, then. But a duke ruled Dargon, and what king would be holding court in a run-down building? “Or,” Min added with a lopsided grin, “we can see how many rocks we can bounce off your head.”
Taneris thought he could escape back to the marketplace with only a few bumps from the shadow boys’ rocks, but he was through running. These boys were his only link to the Bloody Hand. If he couldn’t learn their location from the shadow boys, Rhadia was doomed to a life of slavery. Taneris met the tall boy’s eyes. “Lead the way.”
They entered a small building that had obviously long been abandoned by its owner. The remains of a stairway stood in one corner and a hearth was collapsed on the opposite wall. Bits of debris lay everywhere. Crates and broken furniture made a rough circle around a black patch on the floor in the center of the room. A dozen shadow boys sat around the circle. They ranged from small children to boys about Min’s size. Taneris quickly realized that Darrow had not chosen this alley at random. He had run for the shadow boys’ hiding place.
One of the taller boys stood as they entered. “What was it, Min?” he asked.
“Darrow got into a bit of trouble.” Min pointed at Taneris. “This one here has a tale to tell you, sire.”
Although Min had pronounced the last word with sarcasm, his earlier comments about the king became clear to Taneris. These shadow boys had a ruler, and this was he.
The king of the shadow boys put his hands on his hips and faced Taneris. “I’m Niko. All of these boys answer to me. Who are you, and what do you have to say?”
Feeling his palms begin to sweat, Taneris spoke. “I’m called Tanner and I’m one of the Rhydd Pobl. My family and I were in Dargon on business. This boy and another spied on us for the Bloody Hand of Sageeza. Because of them, my father and brother were killed and Rhadia — the other member of our group — was taken. I’m here to get her back.”
Niko turned to the blond boy. “Darrow, is this true?”
Darrow rubbed his chin as he spoke. A bruise was forming there where Taneris had struck him. “We got two Bits each from Erich to watch him and his da, is all. I don’t know about no killings, and I never heard of no Bloody Hand.”
The shadow boys’ leader nodded. “The Bloody Hand is real enough, though I didn’t think Erich was one of them. Tanner, you’ve come to the wrong people. We’re not in this for hate; we’re in it for money. We’d just as soon help you gypsies against the Bloody Hand if the price were right. It was business, nothing more. You can go.”
Taneris felt his blood burn at once again being dismissed. Before he could speak, Min asked, “But, Highness, he put his hands on Darrow. Shouldn’t he at least get a beating?”
Niko bridled at Min’s comment. Taneris could sense the tension as the two boys stared at each other. He forgot his own rage for a moment as his mind raced to find a way to use this power struggle to his advantage. He lost his opportunity when Darrow spoke.
“It was me he struck. It’s my right to give him his beating.”
“Let ‘em fight,” said Min, all trace of even mock respect gone from his voice. All of the other children’s eyes were on the dark-haired boy. Taneris could almost feel the power shift.
Darrow raised his fists and stuck out his chin as Taneris turned to face him. The blond boy was two fingers taller than the gypsy, and heavier. Taneris was faster but in the circle of crates and chairs it would do him little good.
“Hold a moment,” interrupted the king. Hope that he might avoid this fight flared in Taneris. “Do you have any skill with that?” The king pointed toward Taneris’ leg. The gypsy’s breeches had pulled up to reveal his knife. His hope extinguished, Taneris nodded.
Niko produced a knife from his belt and tossed it to Darrow, who caught it deftly. “Let it be knives, then,” he said, flashing Min a small smile. All eyes moved to the king as he spoke. He had won his power struggle, likely at the cost of Taneris’ life.
“Sorry, gypsy,” muttered Min. “Darrow’s one of our best.”
Taneris felt fear like a lump of cold lead in his belly. He drew his knife, and dropped into the fighting crouch he had practiced so many times in a camp game Rhydd Pobl childen played called cylel chware, or knife dancing. He held his knife in his right hand, close to his body. His left hand came up automatically to guard the movements of his knife from his opponent. He was acutely aware that this fight was not a game.
Darrow displayed his disdain by not even protecting his weapon. He advanced on Taneris waving his knife, as if daring the gypsy to take it. Taneris’ eyes were drawn to the flashing blade; his feet were frozen to the floor. As the shadow boy made a cut for his face, Taneris managed a graceless jump backwards. His scramble to the opposite side of the circle elicited laughter from the watching children.
He turned to face Darrow, who was advancing on him again, knife out and blade flashing. The blond boy smiled with contempt. Taneris forced his eyes away from the knife this time. Not focusing on the opponent’s weapon was one of the first things he had learned about fighting. Instead he watched the movement of Darrow’s body. The shadow boy’s knife carved a double loop in the air as he slashed at the gypsy’s face. Taneris stepped away from each cut. He noticed that Darrow’s right side was exposed for a moment each time he slashed to the left. This had to be another dare, like the unguarded knife. What trap did Darrow have planned if Taneris went for the right side?
He decided to find out. When Darrow slashed to the left again, Taneris feinted a cut toward the blond boy’s ribs. He danced out of the way at the last moment, watching for Darrow’s counterstroke. There was none! Darrow had not even turned to follow his motion. The shadow boy’s head swiveled wildly until he saw Taneris, then he turned and charged. Taneris brushed the blond boy’s thrust aside with his left hand and skipped to the side, finally allowing his feet to thaw into the flow of the fight.
The shadow boy followed, slashing. Taneris danced back, sometimes avoiding Darrow’s cuts with only a flick of his head. He was amazed. Min had called Darrow their best, but the shadow boy would last less than a mene in the game of cylel chware. The unguarded knife and open side were not dares: they were mistakes! Taneris knew that he could take this boy’s weapon or cut him at any time. If he took the knife he ran the risk of the larger boy grappling with him. To cut him risked killing him. The other children might not like one of their own slain and Taneris needed information from him. Also, despite his complicity, Darrow did not actually help kill Taneris’ family or even know that the attack was planned. By the Rhydd Pobl creed, this boy did not deserve to die.
The other children were beginning to jeer at Taneris, not realizing who held the upper hand in the fight. However, Darrow was apparently beginning to grasp the situation. Frustration showed on his face as his attacks became more desperate. Taneris knew this needed to end quickly.
He waited for Darrow to slash to the left again. Instead of sidestepping, Taneris closed, trapping his opponent’s arm with his left hand as his right hand shot up toward the shadow boy’s face. As it did, he reversed his grip on the knife. The butt of the weapon struck Darrow between nose and upper lip. The blond boy cried out and fell to the floor, holding his hands to his face. Taneris had felt the same blow many times in practice. It hurt and made the eyes run with tears but caused no permanent injury. He stepped on Darrow’s fallen knife. The fight was over.
“Impressive,” said the shadow boy king, “or maybe just lucky. Either way, Tanner, you are free to go. I warn you, though, do not cross us again.” He glanced at Min, who chose to look at his own feet. The power struggle was over.
“Go?” Taneris was astonished. “But I need your help! I at least need to know where to find the people who took Rhadia.”
The king smiled. “We can find them,” he said “for a price. Have you any coin, gypsy?”
Taneris shook his head. “No,” he replied, “all of my father’s money was taken after the attack.”
The ruler of the shadow boys spread his hands. “Then there is naught that we can do for you,” he said. “Sorry, but business is business.”
Taneris felt a wave of bitterness rise in him. “It may be business to you, but it cost my father and brother their lives, and Rhadia her freedom.”
The king’s eyes narrowed. “Be thankful we let you live, gypsy, now go before –”
“I’ll help him,” said a muffled voice behind Taneris. He turned to see Darrow standing, still rubbing beneath his nose. It was he who had spoken.
Niko turned to the blond boy. “Your choice, Darrow. Though I doubt anyone here will throw in for you if you’re light this sennight. If Liriss decides to have you whipped, I think we’ll all stand around and watch the foolish boy who decided to help this gypsy rat instead of being out on the streets, earning like he should.”
“Like you said, Niko, my choice,” replied Darrow. “Come with me, gypsy. Let’s see if we can find Erich.” Taneris followed the shadow boy out the door, feeling as if he had missed something.
Once outside, he fell into step beside Darrow and said, “Wait. You were ready to kill me in there. Why are you helping me now?”
Darrow stopped and faced Taneris. “The killing was Niko’s idea, gypsy. All I wanted to do was give you the beating I thought you deserved. I’m helping you for two reasons. This,” he tapped his upper lip, “could just as easily have been a slit throat, couldn’t it? Now, if it had been, my brothers in there would have torn you to bits, but I’d have been just as dead. So I owe you for not killing me.”
“What’s the other reason?”
Darrow looked away. “Why do you think I live like this? All of us are living on the streets because we have no other family. I wouldn’t wish this life on anyone. I didn’t think when I took Erich’s Bits for following you that I would be helping to take away your family, gypsy.”
“Fair enough,” replied Taneris, after a moment’s consideration. Darrow seemed sincere, and he was likely the only help available in Dargon. “Look, call me Tanner, straight?”
“Straight, Tanner. Now, let’s see if we can’t find Erich. It’s early, but we might find him at the Shattered Spear.”
Taneris followed Darrow back into the busy marketplace. Now that he was no longer chasing the blond boy, he had time to marvel at the practiced way that Darrow slipped through the crowd. He seemed to know just where to step to avoid being elbowed or trod upon. He even slipped up next to another fruit peddler’s cart and lifted two pieces of fruit while the vendor finished a transaction with another man. As they left the market and turned onto the Street of Travellers, Darrow tossed one, a green sphere tinged with pink and gold, to the gypsy.
Taneris caught the fruit and was about to object until he realized that he had not eaten since breakfast several bells earlier. He bit into the fruit. Its flesh was juicy and sweet. As they walked he devoured it until nothing but a hard round pit remained. Darrow motioned for Taneris to follow him into an alley, where they washed the stickiness from their hands and faces in a rain barrel.
Much to the gypsy’s surprise, the blond boy continued down the alley rather than returning to the street. Taneris followed as his guide slipped between the corners of two buildings into another alley. Here he stepped through a doorway into a vacant building. Darrow led him through the opposite doorway and onto another street: this one less crowded than the Street of Travellers. It was not long before Darrow quit this street for yet another alley.
The gypsy followed the shadow boy through more alleys, between fences, and once even onto a rooftop. Taneris soon realized that, although the way seemed twisted, they were moving through the city faster than if they had kept to the streets. He recognized that Hadrach had been wrong when he had likened the members of the Bloody Hand to gypsies for being able to move unnoticed in the city. The shadow boys were the true gypsies of Dargon. They knew all of the secret ways of the city. They even knew where to forage for food and water.
They stopped outside the back door of the Shattered Spear. Darrow entered, motioning for Taneris to wait outside. He returned shortly wearing a disappointed look and carrying a small loaf of bread. He tore the loaf of bread in two and handed half to Taneris.
“No luck,” he said. “Jamis hasn’t seen Erich since yesterday. We could wait for him, though. He’s here two nights out of three.”
Taneris shook his head. “Is there nothing else we can do than wait? I’m not sure how much time Rhadia has.”
“What do you mean, ‘time’?” asked Darrow around a mouthful of bread.
“They said they were going to sell her. Please understand, Darrow, as bad as you think your life is here, it is nothing compared to a life of slavery for one of my people.”
The shadow boy almost dropped his bread. “Slavery? Why didn’t you mention that before, Tanner? Did they say anything else?”
Taneris creased his brow, trying to remember exactly what Vage had said. “He mentioned ‘foreign gentlemen’. Does that help?”
“Ol’s balls, yes! There’s not much slave trade here to begin with. Too much risk involved. Now, it has to take days by land to get to another kingdom, straight?”
“Months,” Taneris replied with a nod.
“No one is going to risk a trip like that, are they? The safest way to get her out of Baranur is by ship. Load her on right before the boat gets underway after the cargo’s been inspected. Slip the agent a few coins to look the other way. They’d need to be holding her close by, somewhere near the docks.”
They arrived at the docks shortly after the ninth bell. The sun, poised above the western horizon, cast long shadows on Commercial Street. Darrow, apparently ever-hungry, tried to coax a bowl of fish stew from a man named Simon Salamagundi but failed. Taneris was glad of it. The stolen bread had filled him, and he had grown tired of the myriad ways the people of Dargon prepared fish. He also didn’t particularly like the curious glance that Simon cast at him.
They waited in the shade of a quay wall, watching the traffic on Commercial Street for Erich or any of the Bloody Hand that Taneris might recognize. Shortly before the sun set over the Valenfaer Ocean, Darrow grabbed the gypsy’s arm.
“I think that’s Erich, Tanner,” he hissed, pointing at a large broad-shouldered man.
In the fading daylight neither could be sure if the man was their quarry. They followed, hoping to get a better glimpse of the man’s face. Before they could, he left the street and entered a warehouse through a small door that stood beside two larger doors that could be used to move goods in and out of the building.
Darrow motioned to a place behind some barrels where they could crouch down and watch the door. “I wish I could be sure that was Erich. We can’t just go wandering into the warehouse. Whoever is in there would take us for thieves and either kill us or turn us over to the guards.”
Taneris stood. “I’m willing to take that risk. You’ve done enough, Darrow. I have to get in there and see if Rhadia is alright.”
Before Darrow could object, the door opened. He pulled Taneris back down. They both watched as a different man exited and joined the thinning crowd on Commercial Street. Taneris smiled as he noticed the man’s limping gait.
He turned to Darrow. “I know that man. Rhadia gave him that limp last night when he and Erich attacked Gwill. That must be Erich inside. I’m going.”
Darrow put his hand on Taneris’ arm. “Don’t be a fool. We can watch, wait for an opportunity to –”
“I don’t have time to wait!” He shrugged off Darrow’s hand. “They’re going to sell her, maybe tonight. If we wait too long, she’ll be gone.”
“Hold a mene, Tanner. What will you do once you are in there? You’re good with that knife, I admit, but Erich will kill you if he sees you. He knows me. I can tell him I have some more information to sell.”
“I can’t ask you to take that risk, Darrow.”
“What risk? Erich knows me, knows I’m always looking for a bit of coin or some food. He won’t be that surprised to see me, and he’ll take you for another shadow boy. You can look around, see if your friend is even in there, and decide what to do. I can’t walk away just as it’s getting interesting. Like Niko said, it’s my choice.”
Taneris nodded. “Straight.” They left their hiding place and crossed to the door. Taneris realized that he was entering the den of his enemy. He felt like little Yorgai about to attack the Beast of Leagues, but was painfully aware that he was not in a fable.
Taneris had hoped to separate from Darrow and scout the warehouse as soon as they entered, but Erich sat in plain view of the door, bathed in the soft golden glow of a lantern that stood on a table beside a half-empty bottle. Rows of crates and barrels smelling of sea-salt lined the shadowy interior of the building.
“Who’s there?” demanded Erich as he rose and reached for a sword that leaned unsheathed against a table leg.
“It’s me, Erich. Darrow.”
Erich sat, leaving the weapon untouched. “Oh, it’s just my little shadow and one of his shadowy friends. What do you want, boy?”
“What I always want, Erich, something to jingle in my pockets, of course.” Darrow walked as he spoke, approaching Erich. Taneris followed behind, scanning for signs of Rhadia. “You paid us well to follow those gypsies. I thought you might want to buy some more information about them.”
Erich’s eyes darted to one side before he replied. “No, I don’t think we need to know anything else about the gypsies. I might be able to spare you a few Bits if you can come up with another bottle of wine. I’m getting low, and it’s looking to be a long night.”
Taneris followed Erich’s glance to a large crate. Unlike most of the crates in the warehouse, it was loosely built with gaps between the slats that made up the sides. He thought he saw motion inside but could not be sure that it was not just the play of the lantern light.
“Straight,” replied Darrow, “but I’ll be needing some coin in advance or I won’t be able to pay for it.”
“Pay for what?” asked a familiar voice from behind them. Taneris felt his heart sink; he turned to see a tall form in the doorway, framed by the failing sunlight. He did not need to see the man’s face to recognize Tyrus Vage. “I hope you aren’t sending these beggar children for more wine, Erich.” He looked at Darrow and Taneris. “Out, children. Erich needs to be awake and alert this night.”
“Of course, sir,” said Darrow with eyes downcast. Taneris glared hatred at the man responsible for the deaths of his family. He forced his gaze away, but not before locking eyes with Vage.
“On second thought, boys, wait a moment.” The tall man closed the door and barred it. “Erich, why are these children here?”
“Not to buy me drink, Tyrus, I swear it.” Erich’s voice trembled. “They wanted to sell me information about the gypsies. Darrow there is one of the shadow boys who followed them for us.”
“I see,” replied the tall man, tapping a finger to his pursed lips. “And what do you know about gypsies, hmm, Darrow?”
“N-nothing, sir,” stammered Darrow, his eyes still downcast. Taneris felt his fury at the man building inside him. When Vage turned to him, their eyes locked again. This time, Taneris did not look away.
“You are no shadow boy,” Vage pronounced. “I think we’ve found our missing bit of gypsy filth, Erich.”
“Run!” shouted Taneris, shoving Darrow. The shadow boy rushed off, darting toward a narrow opening between two crates.
“Get that one, Erich,” said Vage as he advanced on Taneris. “I’ll see to the little gypsy.”
Taneris dropped into a crouch, drawing his knife and stepping between his opponent and the lantern. Vage halted a moment, eyes narrowing. He drew a long blade from his belt and continued his advance. Taneris’ thoughts raced. He had beaten Darrow, but Darrow was only a boy. Vage was a man, taller even than Gwill. To Vage, though, Taneris was just a boy: no threat at all. Taneris hoped this wasn’t true. Vage wouldn’t know that he had still beaten Gwill at cylel chware upon occasion even after Gwill had begun to tower over him. Taneris widened his eyes with more fear than he felt as he allowed Vage to approach.
Vage’s first strike was toward his face. He skipped back out of the way once, and again as the tall man continued his attack. Taneris reversed his grip and waited. On the third slash, he stepped in, crouching down beneath the sweep of his enemy’s blade. His own knife described an arc above his head, slashing Vage’s forearm open with the force of his own swing. As the man cried out in pain, Taneris completed his arc, burying his weapon behind Vage’s knee. He pulled the blade free and Vage dropped to the floor, his injured leg no longer able to support his weight. Crying out in fury, he grabbed for Taneris, who slashed at his face, laying open his left cheek. The bearded man collapsed in agony.
“Tanner! Behind you!” cried a female voice. Rhadia!
Taneris turned to see Erich picking up the sword that had stood by the table. Darrow lay in a heap beside one of the crates. Taneris hoped that the shadow boy was not injured, or dead.
“Quiet, gypsy witch!” Erich shouted at the crate he had glanced toward earlier. Taneris could see Rhadia’s fingertips protruding through the slats. “You’re not bad with that blade, gypsy, but you’ll not get close enough to use it.”
Taneris glared at Erich, Gwill’s murderer. His knife was no match for this man’s sword. “True,” he said, “but we Rhydd Pobl play other games than cylel chware.”
“What?” demanded Erich. It was his last word. Taneris’ body snapped like a whip as he released his knife. It buried itself to the hilt beneath the man’s chin. Erich’s sword dropped from numb fingers as he toppled.
With a backward glance at Vage, who lay moaning, Taneris stepped past Erich’s still form to check on Darrow. Seeing that the shadow boy was merely stunned, he snatched up Erich’s fallen blade. “Step back, Rhadia.” He went to work on the crate. Soon he had enough boards pried loose that she could climb free.
She stared at him in wonder before embracing him. He buried his face in her long hair, enjoying the moment and the smell of her. He wished that he could hold her forever, but he knew that she could never love him the way he loved her, not while he looked like a boy. Events were now in motion that went beyond his feelings for her. Reluctantly, he let her go.
“You’ve ruined that sword,” she chided.
“Just as well.” He shrugged and cast the weapon aside. “How far is someone who looks like me going to get in the streets of Dargon holding a weapon like that?” He turned from her and retrieved his knife from the fallen Erich. He strode to Vage. The man had fainted, and blood still oozed from the ugly wound in his cheek. Taneris bent and cut Vage’s coin purse from his belt. He returned to the table and spilled out the contents of the small leather pouch. Darrow groaned at the sound and rose, rubbing his head.
“Not quite what he stole from Hadrach,” said Taneris, “but enough, I think.” He slipped a few coins into his pocket. He swept all but two silver Rounds back into the purse and handed it to Rhadia. “This is yours, along with Hadrach’s ban. Return to our people and spread the word that the Crimson Book doesn’t exist. It’s a trap. I wish there was more to tell. We’ve still learned nothing that can prevent the Bloody Hand’s attack at Eariaddas Hwl.”
“No,” said Rhadia, “there is more. The one whose leg I hurt cursed me because he wouldn’t be able to make the journey to Tench. I think they are gathering there before the attack.”
Taneris’ heart filled with hope. Hadrach’s and Gwill’s deaths had not been for nothing. With that information, the Rhydd Pobl would be able to surprise the Bloody Hand’s forces. “All the more reason for you to go, and quickly.”
“You keep saying that I need to go. What about you?”
“I’ll be staying.”
“You’d best slit his throat, then.” Darrow jerked a thumb at Vage. “He’ll be out for your blood, and he knows your face.”
Taneris shook his head. “He knows the face of an insolent gypsy boy that he glimpsed for but a moment. The rest of the time my face was hidden by the shadows and by his contempt. I doubt he’d recognize me if he passed me on the street, as long as I didn’t look him in the eye. He won’t be looking for me here. He’ll be expecting me to flee the city and return to our people. Besides, he is the reason I’m staying. We need to learn more about our enemy so we can roam Baranur in safety again.”
Rhadia glared hatred at Vage. “He was going to make me a slave. That puts him beyond our mercy. We can wrest the answers from him.”
Taneris laid his hand gently on Rhadia’s arm, calming her. “Where will we do that, chwrd? We can’t carry a wealthy merchant through the city without being seen by the guard, and if we question him here, his cries will bring the guard to us.” Rhadia stared at him silently, perhaps surprised to hear such wisdom coming from someone who looked, and until recently had acted, like a child.
Taneris turned to the shadow boy. “Darrow, wait here for half a bell and then run and fetch the guard. Tell them I forced you to help me find Vage. You can say that you were knocked out in the fighting and that I was gone when you awoke. The bruise Erich gave you should convince them you’re telling the truth.”
Darrow nodded. “Straight.”
“When you’re done, come meet me in the marketplace. There may not be a book that contains the secrets of the Bloody Hand, but they can still be learned if one watches closely enough. To do that, I’ll need to learn the hidden ways of Dargon.”
He slid the two silver Rounds across the table. “That’s why I need to hire a guide.”
Darrow scooped the coins off the table, grinning as he slipped them into his pocket.