DargonZine 13, Issue 7

Talisman Five Part 2

Sy 18, 1010 - Sy 23, 1010


This entry is part 20 of 38 in the series Talisman

Roharvardenul watched the man walk through the doors into the taproom of the Fighting Unicorns, a tavern on the edges of the unsavory Fifth Quarter of Magnus. The tall, thin, dark-haired man walked purposefully through the sparsely-tabled room directly toward Vard’s seat. There were only two other occupied tables in the room, but Vard wasn’t surprised that the man had detected him so quickly; they had arranged to meet in one of the privacy booths that lined the back wall of the taproom, and the only one of those occupied was the one he was in.

 

Vard paid close attention to the way Kana, the man he intended to hire, walked. He noted the sureness of the man’s steps, the way his body was balanced. Vard also noticed the very small things, like the way Kana’s attention included the other two tables, the natural way the man managed to keep his face in as much shadow as possible despite the two large chandeliers that kept the windowless room quite bright. Vard nodded briefly to himself. He had picked a promising prospect.

 

Competent and nondescript had been the only recommendations available for Kana, and Vard had been as thorough as possible. As frustrating as it was not to be able to learn more, Vard knew that if he had been able to uncover more detailed information about the thief he wouldn’t have been able to hire him; he would have been in gaol.

 

As Kana sat down across from Vard, the mage noted the fine cut of the man’s tunic and cloak, and the quality of the jewelry he wore. He wouldn’t have taken the man for a thief upon seeing him in the street, but Vard was certainly aware of the benefits of wearing disguises. At present, he was displaying the illusion of a thin blond man with long hair and a full yellow beard. He seemed to be wearing brown robes and closed-toe sandals. Under the brown-robed illusion were three other illusory people; this kind of public meeting made him even more cautious about his anonymity.

 

“I understand you are looking for a pack horse,” said Kana, with a business-like air.

 

Vard replied to the agreed-upon phrase with, “That I am, for a journey to Beinison. You must be Kana, the horse trader I have heard about.”

 

As Kana nodded, a server appeared at their table. Vard asked for an ale, while Kana ordered a bottle of the inn’s best wine. Vard, knowing he would be paying the bill, lifted an eyebrow at the cheekiness of the thief but decided to allow the impertinence. The man’s confidence was another good indication that he had chosen the right person for his task.

 

It had been six months since Vard had found the diary of Tarhela, skaldric of the Fretheod Empire. The diary had revealed the existence of a book called the Tome of the Yrmenweald. That tome chronicled the history of the magical staves which had been the secret of that ancient empire’s phenomenal success. It detailed the powers the staves granted to those who had wielded them — scrying vast distances and predicting the weather, among others — but it also explained the steps that had been required to create them. The latter information was why Vard had immediately decided to find that tome.

 

It had taken him two months to determine that the tome still existed. Three more months had passed before he had succeeded in tracing it to the College of Bards. The final month had been occupied with locating exactly where within the college it resided and procuring the keys that would be required to enter that specific vault.

 

It galled Vard to have to rely on someone else to carry out the final steps of the acquisition of the tome. He knew that he could have accomplished the theft himself if only the Bardic College was not so well protected both inside and out from magic. Some of the best mages in the kingdom had spent a great deal of effort and energy to ensure that the knowledge and other treasures within the college were protected from others of their kind. The fruit of some of these efforts, Vard knew, was the college’s Crystal of Oathes. One of the crystal’s many functions was to negate any magic within the college created by anyone not recognized by it, which rendered all of Vard’s abilities useless. Fortunately, it was far more difficult to protect against a non-magical thief, especially one with the talents that Kana claimed to have.

 

The drinks arrived, and after an appreciative sip, Kana said, “About this pack horse?”

 

Vard smiled blandly and reached up to draw the privacy curtain across the mouth of their booth. As he did so, he silently and swiftly cast a minor spell to deaden sound, so that they would not be overheard. Then, slipping along the bench seat to the back of the booth, and motioning Kana to follow, he produced a small satchel and set it on the table.

 

Keeping his voice low, he said, “I would like to hire you to steal a book from the vaults of the College of Bards here in Magnus.”

 

Kana’s eyes widened, and he asked, “Why? What kind of book?”

 

“Would the contents of the book affect your performance of the theft? Then you do not need to know.” Vard lifted two items from the satchel: a small bag that clinked dully when he set it down, and a tightly rolled scroll. “In this bag are the keys you will need to open the vault and the trunk that the book rests in. This scroll provides all of the details you will need: where the vault is, how to use the keys, which chest the book is in, and how to find the book within that chest.” Vard knew that Kana could read, since some of their communication had been written. The instructions he needed to convey were very complex, and he had decided to write everything down rather than dictate them to the thief and count on Kana’s memory. Nevertheless, the move made him nervous.

 

Kana opened the scroll and glanced over the instructions. Reaching the end of the document, he grinned and said, “This is what will be on the cover of the book? It looks like two rats … ah …” He looked up at Vard, suddenly embarrassed, and continued, “Well, copulating. Almost. Is that what the book is about?” He seemed to have recovered from his embarrassment, and leered suggestively at his prospective employer.

 

Vard wondered whether Kana was trying to provoke him, or making an overture of friendship. He chose to ignore the thief’s tone and instead replied, “No that’s not what it is about. Those are the formal runes of an ancient civilization, and they translate to ‘The Tome of the Yrmenweald’.”

 

Kana was silent as he looked at the image Vard had provided of the writing on the cover of the book, tracing the flowing lines with a finger, mouthing the syllables of the title and trying to fit them to the runes. He gave a shrug, started rolling the scroll up, and said, “Pardon my asking, but if you know so much about where this book is, and even have the keys to get it, why don’t you retrieve it yourself?”

 

Vard had anticipated the question, and had an answer ready. “That’s simple, my boy. Would you ask a mason to build you a wooden table? Would you ask a blacksmith to sew you a new set of clothes? I am not a thief. I am simply engaging the services of the correct tradesman for the job.”

 

Kana’s eyes narrowed when Vard mentioned “thief” but he didn’t object to the use of the word. He was silent again, seemingly thinking, and finally said, “This will not be a simple undertaking. You may think that the difficult part has already been accomplished, with your details and your keys. But I will still need to enter the college unnoticed, and then get away again. How much do you offer for my services?”

 

Vard pulled out a third item from the satchel, and it clinked much more brightly than the key-bag had when he set it down. “This in advance, and another just like it when I have the correct book in my hands. Agreed?”

 

Kana boldly dragged the new bag towards himself, opened it, and looked inside. Vard noticed the widening of Kana’s eyes, even though the thief tried to hide his surprise. Kana reached into the bag and, after a glance at the closed privacy curtains, drew out one of the gold Crowns that filled the bag. He hefted it in his palm, then tried to bend it, unsuccessfully. After scratching at the surface briefly, Kana looked up and said, “I accept. Is there anything more that I need to know? How soon do you expect this to be done?”

 

Vard, amused by the thief’s attempts to verify that the coin was real, said, “The scroll is thorough and complete, but only temporary. It will burn up in approximately three bells, so you shall need to recopy, or perhaps memorize, its contents.” The scroll represented the biggest risk Vard was taking. Money was money, with many, many owners, and the keys had also passed through enough hands to muddle any possible trace to him. The scroll, however, could be traced, given a powerful enough magician with the right knowledge. Vard wasn’t sure that he could have tracked the faint traces that his servant, Qrun, would have left in the ink and on the scroll as he penned it from Vard’s words, but he wanted to leave nothing to chance. The document was spelled to destroy itself, leaving no traces.

 

Vard continued answering the thief’s questions. “The college has no plans to move the book. I do understand that your task will be difficult, so I am allowing you to set your own pace. Do not delay overlong, however; I intend to receive a service for the money you have so far been paid.”

 

Kana still seemed somewhat stunned by the amount of Crowns in the bag. He finally said, “Ah, how will I get in touch with you again, when I have the book? I don’t even know your name.”

 

“And you do not need to know it. Use the means by which we initially contacted each other; they will suffice.

 

“If you have no further questions, then I suggest you get busy. And you can take the wine; I won’t even deduct its price from your fee.”

 

Vard pushed the satchel toward Kana, and the thief placed his things into it, including the wine bottle. He watched Kana slide to the other end of the booth and open the privacy curtain. The thief walked out of the taproom alertly, his composure having returned. Vard knew that he had hired the right thief for the job. Soon enough, he would have the “Tome of the Yrmenweald” in his hands.

 

***

 

Four days later, Ka’lochra’en was wandering through the Syloris Market, mulling over his tentative plan for infiltrating the College of Bards. He walked slowly, at a pace befitting the role he usually played as he walked the streets of Magnus: Baron Kanning, one of the apartment-barons that populated the royal court, owed fealty by none, owing fealty directly to the king, living on a royal stipend and any other business ventures he cared to undertake. Ka’en, who was known by many other names, one among them being Kana, posed as Kanning very well. The cut of his clothes, the jewelry, his bearing, his cultured accent: everything about him spoke of high nobility, which only demonstrated his accomplished acting.

 

Ka’lochra’en was no more a noble of the Baranurian court than he was a master magician. As a young man, he had ventured from his native Kimmeron looking for the adventure that his land-owning family couldn’t provide. He had found adventure in Baranur once his money had run out; turning to thievery to survive, he had discovered an aptitude within himself for the occupation. He had used his new skills to propel himself out of the ranks of the trail-side bandit and alleyway cutthroat, becoming something of a specialist in his field. After fifteen years of very hard, very delicate work, he had achieved just the right amount of fame: enough to enable him to get assignments like the one he had received from the man in brown robes, yet not enough to be subject to the constant scrutiny of the law. He liked to think that the complex set of identities he maintained helped in that regard.

 

Ka’en had studied the scroll his employer had given him and copied over the relevant parts before the parchment had destroyed itself, first smoking, then crawling with little snakes of glowing red fire that left only ash in their wake. The information had been thorough and detailed, but had only concerned breaching the particular vault and chest wherein the book lay. It was important information — information without which he could not have even begun his assignment — but there were still a great many particulars that would have to be covered before he could put his employer’s information to use, such as the fundamental item of gaining entry to the Bardic College in the first place.

 

As Ka’en wandered through the Syloris, pretending to survey the merchandise for sale, his mind was more profitably occupied with fleshing out his only viable idea so far for accomplishing that. He had decided to become one of the servants, either getting himself hired or substituting himself for one of the staff. He knew that servants were usually unnoticed by those who employed them, and a new face would be of no consequence if even remarked. Then, once the inhabitants of the college were asleep, he would slip into the cellars and accomplish his mission.

 

His trip to the Syloris had a purpose other than being seen as Baron Kanning. In one corner of the market, against the walls of the old plaza, was a wooden stall occupied by an old man who seemed to sell rocks. Most who saw the stall with its shelves of oddly-shaped stones simply thought the old man was losing his wits, and humored him. The rest understood that the old man and his nephew were not dealing in rocks. Information was the merchandise being vended there. Ka’en’s actual destination was that stall. He needed information on the serving staff of the Bardic College, and Deemis was the one to get it for him.

 

Ka’en had no real interest in anything in the market but his destination, but as intent as he was on his plans he was still aware of his surroundings. There were all sorts of dangers in the crowds of the market, and he had no intention of falling prey to an amateur pick-pocket or worse.

 

As he scanned the crowds, he noticed an object on one of the tables of merchandise. His attention was riveted by the strange sculpture: a half-circle of stone with a jagged edge, as if it was only part of a larger whole, the flat top covered with interlaced lines of gold, silver and glass, and three stylized creatures — two birds and a cat — around the edge. He approached the table that the stone fragment rested on and absently noted that there was a gypsy standing behind it. But his focus was on the stone. There was something about it: something compelling, something important …

 

He reached out and touched the stone, running a finger across the interlaced bands, tracing the outlines of the creatures. There was a humming in his mind that lasted only a moment or so. When it was gone, so was his interest in the stone fragment. He looked up at the gypsy, somewhat bemused at finding himself standing here and not at the information stall. With a curt nod to the proprietor, Ka’en turned and resumed his previous journey.

 

He reached the old man’s stall, and picked up one of the more interesting-looking stones. He ran his fingers across one of the rock’s flat surfaces, tracing out the shape of a stylized falcon without realizing it. He acknowledged the nods of greeting by Deemis and his nephew; both men knew who he pretended to be and both knew who he really was.

 

He said softly, “I need a rank pendant for a bard. Do you know of one to be had?”

 

Deemis replied, equally softly, “No, but I’ll put the word around. What would one be worth, should one be found?”

 

“Five Cues,” replied Ka’en, using the slang for Crowns. Five Crowns was a great deal of money, but a bardic rank pendant was a valuable property, and the man in brown had given him a great many Crowns.

 

“Straight,” said Deemis. “Check back in, say, three days.”

 

“Thank you,” Ka’en said. He set down the rock, turned and walked away through the Syloris, mulling over his plan to impersonate a bard as a way to infiltrate the College of Bards.

 

***

 

Je’lanthra’en passed through the Syloris Market on her way to an inn on the south side of the city. The tall, fair-haired bard strode like nobility through the noise and bustle of the market, leading her horse. In most cases the crowds made way for her as if she actually was noble, or perhaps even royal; such was the respect normally accorded a bard. Je’en had grown used to that kind of treatment, and took it as a matter of course. She had spent more than fifteen years working herself up to the rank of Eighth-Stave Bard, and she enjoyed the perquisites that came with her position and rank.

 

Je’en was from a small country to the south called Kimmeron, which few people in Baranur had ever heard of and fewer had ever traveled to. She had left at a young age to seek her fortunes as a bard, with a dream of actually studying at the great College of Bards in the far off, fabled city of Magnus. She had reached Magnus, had been accepted into the college due to her musical talent, and had done well for herself ever since.

 

She didn’t usually reside in Magnus, preferring to travel throughout Baranur and even into the surrounding countries, though she was seldom able to journey as far as Kimmeron. She had timed her travels to bring her back to Magnus for a meeting of her stave-circle. It was a chance to participate in the workings of the college directly, in that the meeting usually included trials for stave advancement both into the eighth, and out of it. She tried to miss as few as possible.

 

The actual meeting would begin in a few days, and Je’en was looking forward to it. Until then she was keeping herself busy by visiting some of the many inns in the city. In fact she had spent the last six nights in a row out touring the inns, and had intended to stay in this night. But two of her fellow-stavers had only just arrived and had insisted on taking her out. The recommended rendezvous, the Braying Ass, was a gathering place for musicians of all calibers. She was looking forward to spending some time with her friends, but she was also looking forward to the evening’s entertainment, of which she intended to be a part.

 

As she passed the selling table of a gypsy, a curiously-carved stone caught her eye. She paused to look at the half-circle of stone that looked as if it was broken off from its other half. She reached out and traced her finger along the gold band as it interlaced with two other bands across the surface of the carving, over and under the silver and glass strands. She noted that the two different animals — two identically-shaped birds facing each other, and one cat — on the surface each had one kind of band issuing from its center. The birds seemed to host the glass bands, and the cat the silver band. She wondered what kind of animal the gold bands issued from on the lost portion of the carving.

 

A song drew her attention away from the carving as a troupe of traveling entertainers began their act at the junction of several paths close by the gypsy’s table. Je’en listened briefly to the crowd-catching ditty, smiling to herself as she recognized the intent of the bright cadences of the music and the broad rhyme-scheme. When the players had drawn the attention of enough of the passers-by in the market, they began their play. Je’en nodded to them, and continued on her own way to the Braying Ass. The gypsy and his carved stone drifted slowly from her memory, until all she remembered of her passage through the Syloris was the amusing ditty.

 

***

 

The applause was nearly deafening, filling the tavern room of the Braying Ass with noise. Je’en joined in, cheering loudly and pounding her fist on the table as her friend Ginlo briefly acknowledged the accolades before walking off of the stage. Ginlo was grinning from ear to ear as she strode calmly to her chair next to Je’en and sat down gracefully. The applause continued even as the next performer took the stage. Je’en leaned over and gave Ginlo a brief hug, congratulating her as best as she could over the noise. Hansek, the other of Je’en’s two friends who had invited her out, then did the same, giving his lover Ginlo a hearty hug and a deep kiss.

 

Je’en watched her friends Ginlo and Hansek indulgently; she had introduced them to each other. Both were middle-aged, at least ten years older than she was. Ginlo was dark haired, with brown eyes and a thin face, while Hansek was blond, blue-eyed, and rounder in the face than his lover. Ginlo played a set of minor-pipes, Hansek played a harp, and when they sang together, their harmonies were perfect.

 

Hansek had been an eighth-stave journeyman bard for more than five years, and showed no signs of wanting to move on. Ginlo had just achieved her eighth-stave pendant within the past year, and everyone knew from the struggle she had had that she wasn’t going any higher either. Je’en, on the other hand, had plans to be a Master Bard someday. She knew she wasn’t ready to take the ninth-stave tests just yet, but she had set her sights on being ready for next year’s stave-circle meeting.

 

The lovers separated, smiling satisfied, happy smiles at each other. The audience quieted down finally, and the next performer began. He introduced himself as Bernil, and began strumming the strings of his large-bodied lute. He started singing a familiar, favorite song, and Je’en noticed immediately that his voice was fine enough and steady. As he continued though, she began to notice a few other things: his playing was proficient but not inspired, and there wasn’t much heart behind the words he sang. Despite those flaws, Je’en thought that Bernil might have the makings of a bard and she wondered what had kept him out of the college.

 

Bernil’s song ended, and the audience again filled the room with the sounds of their approval. Bernil basked in the approbation, bowing again and again. The applause was beginning to sound forced when the lutanist finally exited the stage.

 

No one was waiting to take his place, since the entertainment steward had scheduled a brief rest. Conversations started up as the Braying Ass’ waiters began circulating among the tables. The pause had been scheduled at a natural breaking point in the evening: it was approximately the fourth bell of the evening, when the casual revelers picked up and returned home, leaving the dedicated partiers to carry on late into the night. All over the tavern room, patrons were standing, saying their farewells, and heading out the door.

 

Ginlo leaned over to Je’en and said, “Hans and me need to be going, Je’en. We were on the road early; we need our rest. You coming too?”

 

It was the perfect time to leave, and Je’en hadn’t even intended to go out that evening in the first place. She was about to say “Yes,” but as she blinked, there was a glimmer of gold interlacing with silver and glass behind her eyelids. She paused for a moment like that, eyes closed, trying to remember why that glimmer seemed familiar. When she opened her eyes, Ginlo was saying, “Well, if you’re sure. Great evening, straight? Thanks for coming out with us. See you tomorrow!” Ginlo hugged her, and then Hansek dragged her to her feet and hugged her, supplying his own thanks and good wishes, and they were gone.

 

Je’en sat back down, slightly bemused. When had she decided to stay? A waiter came by, and Je’en ordered another ale. The entertainment steward came by, and Je’en put her name down for another set. She decided she’d leave at the next rest break. That would be soon enough.

 

***

 

That rest break came and went, and Je’en still sat in the tavern room of the Braying Ass enjoying the entertainment. Another rest break passed, and another and another, but she still didn’t leave. Each time she promised herself to take to her saddle and head to her bed that interlacing glimmer appeared behind her eyes, and the moment passed her by.

 

She participated as well. She sang, she played her harp Soft Winds, she joined in with several other musicians a few times during the evening to improvise on favorite melodies and extemporize on famous songs. She acknowledged, but didn’t accept, many offers of ale, and she politely rebuffed many offers of company. She was having more than enough fun on her own.

 

Finally, the innkeep cheerfully drove everyone out of his tavern room, either to the rooms upstairs or to their own homes. Je’en found herself upon her horse, contemplating the long path ahead of her. She faced crossing half the city to reach her lodgings in the college before she could slip into her bed. She was exhausted by the excitement of the evening, and was not looking forward to her long, lonely journey.

 

As she rode through the nearly deserted streets of Magnus, she found herself contemplating a change of direction that would substantially shorten her journey. The safest route she could possibly take back to the college would force her to circle around the Fifth Quarter, the slums of the city. Dangerous even in daylight, they were deadly at night. There were, however, three “tunnels” through that quarter where three of the city’s major circular avenues lay across its territory. These particular streets — wide, well-maintained, well-lit, and irregularly patrolled — were paths of relative safety through the quarter during the day and, perhaps, early evening. Midway between the dark of the night and the first daylight bell, however, there was no safety at all anywhere within the Fifth Quarter.

 

Je’en’s first thought upon recalling these “tunnels” was that she would take one and shorten her journey, and caution be hanged. She was a bard, after all; who would attack her? Her green cloak, the silver-embossed harp case on her back, the harp on yellow on green of her horse’s trappings, were all the armor she needed.

 

Then good sense tried to change her mind. Alone in the middle of the Fifth Quarter, even one of the legendary heroes of the Shadow Wars would have been at peril of their life. King Haralan himself wouldn’t dare venture along Principine Avenue in the utter depths of blackest night. Why should she feel herself exempt from the dangers of everyday life in the city of Magnus?

 

With another flash of interwoven gold, silver, and glass, her bardic fearlessness reasserted itself. She was a bard, and a bard went where she needed, when she needed. Her rank and status would protect her from random violence. What else did she need to fear?

 

Decided, she turned her horse’s head toward Principine Avenue and the shortest way home.

 

***

 

Bellen was a rogue, and had no need to be anything else. He didn’t play dress up and pretend to be nobility. He didn’t dream of owning merchant fleets, or rental properties, or even of leading others like himself. He picked pockets. He broke into shops. He snatched-and-ran. He attacked unwise travelers for both profit and fun.

 

Bellen was the first to hear of the offer of five Crowns for a bardic rank pendant because he was just around the corner when the offer was made. Bellen knew that Kane — the name he knew Ka’en by — was a thief, but a different kind of thief than he was. There was only one reason Kane would want a rank pendant: he wanted to pretend to be a singer, a bard. That was what Kane did, pretend. Bellen wondered what Kane needed to be a singer for, but he was more interested in the five Cues.

 

As he walked away from Deemis’ information-stall, Bellen came across a gypsy selling some things. He noticed a strange sculpture on the table briefly: it looked like a half-circle of stone with interwoven metal and some animals on top. And then he noticed a little girl, almost a toddler, about to cut the purse-strings of the wrong noble. She held a huge knife with some skill, but what she had in dexterity she lacked in common sense. Bellen was a bad man, but he didn’t like to see such a promising life of crime cut short so swiftly.

 

As he raced over to save her from her own folly, he was also thinking that it had been some time since he and his friends had set upon an unwary traveler. Perhaps they would find one that night.

 

***

 

Bells didn’t ring to count time in the Fifth Quarter, but Bellen still knew it was very late. He was tired to his bones, and it was so late that even the chance of mayhem could hardly keep him awake.

 

Skar sat across from him in the alley on the edge of Principine Avenue, well within the Fifth Quarter. Skar was their leader. The rest of Skar’s boys were deeper in the alley: Deggr, Han, Morl and Charet, all tough men of the street who’d never done a day’s honest work.

 

Bellen was nervous. He’d given Skar the idea to ambush a traveler and somehow convinced him to do it right away, but it looked like they weren’t going to get to put Skar’s plan into action. They had been waiting so long that none of them were being quiet any more. They all sat ass-flat on the ground, fidgeting, looking bored and mean. Han and Morl were whispering to each other, and Skar hadn’t shushed them in a while. Bellen knew he’d catch it from them all for steering them into spending such a dull night unless something happened, and soon. Skar kept looking at Bellen, and every time Bellen just kept reassuring his leader that they should wait just a little longer.

 

Skar was rising, ignoring Bellen’s hissed “Wait!”, when the sound of hoofbeats echoed by. Skar’s quick sideways glance, full of questions, made a shiver run down Bellen’s back. Had he known? If so, how?

 

All six men rose to their feet, then crouched in readiness. Deggr, the quickest of them all, took a position in front of Skar and Bellen, ready to do his part.

 

When the rider came into view, however, everyone sighed in disappointment. It was clear that the horseman was a bard. Every piece of tack on the horse had the distinctive yellow-haloed harp on green mark. No one but a singer would wear a cloak of that style and shade of green. Even his utter confidence as he rode slowly down the street pointed up the obvious.

 

Bellen saw, and somehow wasn’t surprised. Skar saw, and began to signal Deggr that the ambush was canceled. Bellen hurriedly whispered, “No, wait! ‘S just one guy, singer or no. We c’n take ‘im! Six ta one, and he don’t even got a weapon out. Let’s do it, Skar. Think about the braggin’ we could do!”

 

Skar looked that look at him again, and Bellen knew there’d be questions later. But the singer was moving, and the decision had to be made. Skar made it. “We go,” he said.

 

The horse and rider reached the alley and Deggr leapt, knocking the rider clean off his horse. Morl grabbed the reins of the horse fast and secured it as the rest rushed from the alley, swords out and ready. Bellen saw the rider somehow land on Deggr, then recover very quickly. In the same way he had somehow known that there would be someone coming eventually, Bellen was not shocked when the rider threw back his cloak to draw his sword and revealed that he was actually a woman.

 

They closed around the singer, and the melee began. Soon, Deggr regained his feet and joined in. The fight was fast, but not as one-sided as Bellen expected. Blades flashed and rang together, and first Han fell bloody to the ground, and then Charet joined him. The singer got her share: a bloody scratch to her face, a deep stab to her thigh and finally, Bellen’s own blade found its way under her right bracer, cutting deep into her wrist. She dropped her blade and sank to the ground, weak from blood loss and pain.

 

Skar’s boys looted the horse, but found almost nothing in the saddlebags. They naturally turned to their victim, and took her cloak and her harp. Deggr picked up her sword, and Bellen removed her jewelry: one ring, an ear dangle, and the rank pendant.

 

Skar was still unhappy; the frown on his face was clear. Bellen caught the gleam in his leader’s eye when he stood over their victim and said, “Pretty. A little more money from the slavers, to make up for the trouble we’ve had wit’ you.”

 

Bellen shook his head. That wasn’t right somehow, not slavers. Then his own eyes gleamed with an idea. He said, “She’ll take too much time, be too much trouble, Skar! I know someone’ll give us five Cues for this ‘ere neck-chain — ‘e needs it for a job ‘e’s got: ‘personatin’ a singer, it is. Five Crowns’ more’n we’d get fer her and all the rest o’ her stuff, plus she killed Han, and probably Charet, too. Let’s kill ‘er, Skar! Real slow like, too.”

 

Bellen watched eagerly as, after a moment to think on it, Skar drew his knife and knelt down beside the woman. He watched red chase silver as his leader slid the blade casually across her neck. The blood spilled down her throat and onto her tunic, and the singer’s eyes, blinking open and shut ’til now, closed for good.

 

Morl and Deggr dragged the body partway into one of the alleys on the other side of the avenue, laughing at their victory and making crude comments about what they were going to do to her before she got too cool. Suddenly, the night was filled with the low honking sound of a specific kind of horn. Someone in the Fifth Quarter was warning that one of the rare city patrols was on its way.

 

The rogues scattered, taking their loot with them. As Bellen ran his separate way into the quarter, he thought about how he was going to dispose of the pendant. He thought about taking it right to Kane in the morning, so he wouldn’t have to pay Deemis’ finder’s fee. He also wondered whether Kane might give him six or seven Cues for the pendant; Skar only knew about five, so couldn’t ask for a split of more than that, now could he?

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