A great deal of attention had been paid to the fashioning of the entrance hall of the College of Bards in Magnus. The outer doors were massive: tall, wide and thick. Their inner faces were intricately carved with figures of dancing musical instruments interspersed with fruits and vines. The space they opened onto was in scale with those doors; the expansive floor was patterned with the star-and-harp symbol of the college surrounded by the twelve symbols of rank, from apprentice to master bard, and all ten journeyman ranks in between. Overhead hung a large chandelier consisting of a metal wheel which supported translucent globes of glass in various sizes and colors, all glowing brightly.
The walls of the vestibule bore pillared arches that almost reached the ceiling. Within each arch was an intricate mosaic of rolling countryside, forever locked in springtime, with flowering orchards, blooming gardens and country estates in the distance. The effect was that the room was actually a porch in some bucolic location which, by inference, transported the entire college there as well.
The single door that allowed access to the college itself was much smaller than the exterior doors it stood opposite, much more human-sized and less ornate, bearing only the star-and-harp symbol carved into its surface.
When the outer doors swung open, SongWarder Jepar didn’t have far to go to come to attention. Jepar took his reception duties seriously, especially when stationed in the Bardic College’s vestibule. He always made sure that his blue tunic was draped perfectly over his large frame and that his white hose were never wrinkled. His red sash of office was always smooth, cutting a straight line from his right shoulder to his left hip. He was the first person someone entering the college would see, and he was determined to be worthy of the setting.
The man walking through the massive outer doors was tall, with sandy-brown hair swept back from his heart-shaped face. His eyes were wide and brown, his cheek bones were high, and his mouth and chin were both narrow. He wore the green cloak of a bard, and Jepar could see the strap of what was probably an instrument case across his chest. As the man strode confidently toward him, the cloak opened and Jepar saw the rank pendant hanging from his neck.
Satisfied that the man was allowed to enter by that single credential, Jepar bowed and said, “Welcome to the College in Magnus, my lord.” He shifted his weight onto the pressure plate in the floor that caused the inner door to open, and continued with the ritual phrase, “Enter, and may all your needs be fulfilled within.”
The bard began to walk through the inner doors, but paused and turned to Jepar. “Perhaps you can assist me, brother,” he said. “A friend of mine, a traveling companion for a time, said she might be here this month. I was wondering if you knew whether Je’lanthra’en was, indeed, here?”
Jepar’s properly formal expression wilted into one of sorrow. Another one who hadn’t heard, and a fellow eighth-staver too, by his rank pendant.
He said, “I am sorry, my lord, to be the one to tell you this. Lady Je’en is in the city, but she has suffered an accident. Not quite a sennight ago, in the Fifth Quarter. Her injuries were severe, and she is being tended by Master Enowan at Crown Castle. Did you know her well?”
Jepar watched the bard’s face display sorrow as well. The man said, “Yes, brother, I knew her well. I am sorrowed to hear of this. I leave again on the morrow, but perhaps I will delay long enough to pay her a visit. Thank you for the news, brother.”
The bard walked into the college, shaking his head in sorrow. Jepar let the inner doors close behind him, shaking his own head at the astonishing attack. How could the streets of the Crown City of Baranur not be safe for a bard to ride? Jepar unconsciously smoothed his tunic and sash, and resumed his ready stance, waiting for the next visitor to the College of Bards.
The seneschal of the College of Bards was in charge of the mundane, day-to-day details of keeping the college working. These included overseeing the staff, keeping track of the stores, and assigning rooms to scheduled classes and sudden guests. A thousand and one routine details a day, and at times two thousand and two unexpected details as well.
Seneschal Efezha thrived on the challenge. She was methodical, organized, confident, and had been seneschal for twenty-five years. Her office was small and surprisingly uncluttered, containing only a desk and two chairs. On the wall hung a small plaque, presented to her by the head of the college upon her twentieth year of service. It was the only personal possession in the office.
When the bard entered her office, Seneschal Efezha looked up to see a tall young man with high cheekbones and wide brown eyes. His hair was light brown, almost blond, and pulled back from his forehead. Efezha’s eyes automatically went to the rank pendant hanging from his neck, since she didn’t recognize him as a resident. Assured of the propriety of his presence, she efficiently waited for him to make his request rather than trying to guess.
“Greetings, madame seneschal,” he began in a smooth, cultured voice. “My name is Kethseir. I have just arrived, and would like a room for the night. My duties will take me away again tomorrow, so no long term arrangements are necessary.”
Efezha opened the single book that rested on the desk. She flipped through the pages until she found the right section. She said, “A room will be no trouble; such a request seldom is. Still, had you arrived in time for your meeting, there would have been less of a choice. Delayed on the road, eh Kethseir?”
She glanced up, puzzled by the bard’s silence in response to her idle question. Kethseir looked puzzled, as if groping for an answer to a question he didn’t understand. “Perhaps the word never reached you then. The annual meeting of eighth-stavers was three days ago. Little business transpired, and the gathered bards began departing yesterday. I hope you had no business to transact.”
Understanding flowed onto Kethseir’s face. “Oh, yes. That was this month? I thought it was in Seber! And yes, I was delayed, else I would have arrived in time to be surprised by my own lack of memory.” He chuckled, and Efezha went back to checking for rooms.
“Room 214, in the guest wing,” she said finally. “No one else is on the second floor, so you have the bathing room to yourself. Dinner is at ninth bell, so you have time to refresh yourself beforehand. As always, if you need anything, just ring the bell. Do you require anything else?”
Kethseir shook his head. “No, madame seneschal. All I need is a bed for the night, though a meal would be welcome too. Thank you.”
As Kethseir left, Efezha took a charcoal stick from the drawer of the desk and made the notation that room 214 was occupied. Organization was the key to keeping things running smoothly, organization and attention to details. She shook her head briefly at the idea that a bard would forget the month of his rank meeting like that. She had a suspicion that Kethseir hadn’t misremembered the date of his meeting. Perhaps he had not wanted to attend for some reason. Still, that was none of her concern. If Kethseir was in trouble with his rank, it was for someone else to deal with.
The dining hall of the College of Bards was vast, and largely undecorated. This allowed it to be dressed according to any special occasion that warranted it. No such occasion loomed, so the room’s bare wooden walls and stone pillars were visible.
The quarter of the room closest to the kitchens was divided from the rest by curtains. Only in that quarter of the room were the lamps and chandeliers lit. Tables were arranged in the room to form two rough horseshoe-shapes set perpendicular to each other, open mouth toward open mouth, leaving a large space empty for performing in. Tables also lined one wall, upon which the kitchen staff placed the food and wine. The diners then served themselves on informal occasions such as this one.
Seated at one outer corner of the right-hand horseshoe was a young man with short, ash-blond hair, pale skin, grass-green eyes and a large nose. Despite the nose, he was very handsome, and despite his youth, he had become very used to being very handsome.
He was dressed to show himself off. His tunic was well cut, with embroidery at the collar and elaborately faced dagging at the sleeves. The tunic was short, ending just barely below his waist in more, if shorter, dags, revealing his long legs clad in elegant hose, with a codpiece that was only slightly stuffed.
He had more to be proud of than his looks and his semi-stuffed codpiece. He was only twenty-one summers old, and already he wore the rank pendant of a sixth stave journeyman bard, more than halfway to the tenth and highest rank before mastery was granted. His talent seemed, even to him, almost supernatural. He could play any instrument within a bell of picking it up for the first time, and his voice had made master bards take notice. No one doubted that one day Nakaz would be numbered among the ranks of those master bards.
Sitting next to Nakaz, and just as often in his lap, was Shorel, a fellow bard. She was ten years older than Nakaz and one rank higher than him. But she cheerfully admitted that she was not more talented than him. Shorel was half a foot shorter than Nakaz’s six-foot, half-a-hand height, with long, lustrously brown hair that hung down her back. The eyes in her narrow face were brown and her nose was small, but her lips were very full and red. Her body was fit and lushly curved, as her own tunic and hose revealed. She had never been as pretty, even ten years ago, as Nakaz was now, but her self-confidence made her equally attractive.
The first serving trays of dinner had been set out not long before, and Nakaz and Shorel were busy switching between kisses and bites of the appetizers. They talked as well, to each other and to their neighbors at table, with the easy camaraderie of life-long friends, though Nakaz had not known most of those he conversed with for more than three days. Shorel was the exception; he had known her for two years, and relished the times their paths crossed long enough for them to be together.
Nakaz loved Shorel in his own way, but he certainly wasn’t in love with her. He couldn’t imagine committing to a family with her, for example. There was something missing in their relationship: nothing he could put into words, but definitely something missing. She was fun to be with, good in bed, a talented bard … but not someone he could spend the rest of his life with.
He’d had other lovers; quite a few, despite his meager years. None had ever been more than temporary pleasure, no matter how long the relationship had lasted. None had ever satisfied that certain longing inside of him, that something that would take him beyond momentary pleasure into life-long satisfaction.
Nakaz sighed momentarily, wondering what it was he was searching for. Then he put it out of his mind to concentrate on the moment. He leaned over against Shorel, who was talking to her neighbor about an instrument maker she knew of. She leaned back without a pause in her conversation, and Nakaz smiled. He put his hand on her thigh and started sliding it slowly, teasingly, up and up and up. Which was when the man walked into the room.
That man was tall, thin, and good looking. He had light brown hair, wide brown eyes, and a narrow chin that set off his high cheekbones. He wore a white linen shirt under a tightly-laced leather jerkin that showed off the development of his chest and waist admirably. He wore tight riding trousers, with leather from waist to crotch, and then only on the inside of the legs down to the high boots he had on. The lower body that those trousers displayed was as impressive as his chest and abdomen. The only jewelry he wore was a pendant of rank, but he was too far away for Nakaz to tell what stave it represented.
Nakaz’s hand ceased to move on Shorel’s thigh. His eyes tracked the towheaded bard as he walked over to an empty chair at the end of the same horseshoe Nakaz sat at. The newcomer just sat there for a moment, as if resting, before rising again and moving toward the trays of food on the sideboard.
As Nakaz watched the confident stride of the newcomer, he faintly heard a “Hey!” from next to him. Then, the word was repeated, accompanied by someone taking hold of his chin and turning his gaze away from the man. He refocused on Shorel, who was chuckling ruefully.
“Hey, boyo, you’re with me tonight, straight? Stop that drooling!” She glanced over toward the object of Nakaz’s sudden interest and said, “Yes, he’s cute, and if you weren’t going to be spending the night in my room I’d go after him too. But you promised me one night, and I leave tomorrow. So you’ll just have to do without him for now.”
Nakaz kissed Shorel, closing his eyes to prevent them from ogling the man as he walked back toward his seat. Leaning forward almost out of his chair, nose to nose with her, staring her earnestly in the eyes, he said, “Yes, I promised, and yes I will be in your bed tonight. I wouldn’t miss it for an early mastery-test!” He kissed her again, and then, with a twinkle of mischief in his eye, said, “I don’t suppose you might consider a threesome?”
She growled at him, and swatted him back into his chair. She grabbed for her cup and tipped it threateningly over his head. “Maybe this will cool you down enough to be satisfied with only me tonight!” she said with a laugh in her voice and in her eyes.
“No, no! This is my best tunic!” he said in mock-horror, just as much laughter in his own eyes. Even as young as he was, he knew better than to offend someone as dear to him as Shorel over someone he knew nothing about. He guided her cup back to the table, and kissed her once again, murmuring racy promises in her ear. As the kitchen staff brought out the next course amid a swell of noise and clattering serving trays, he and Shorel settled back down to dinner.
Despite his promises, which were heartfelt, he couldn’t bring himself to totally ignore the man who had so captured his attention. He learned that the man was named Kethseir, and was an eighth-stave bard. He was too far away to overhear any of the conversation the man made, but later in the evening when it was Kethseir’s turn to perform, Nakaz found himself disappointed by the level of vocal talent he displayed. His first thought was that this man was no eighth-stave bard! His second thought, swift on the heels of the first, was that perhaps his talent was in other areas. Nakaz had also learned early on not to try to measure someone’s abilities against his own. Nearly every performance Nakaz had ever heard had contained some flaw or other that he had felt no one could possibly miss, only to find that no one else noticed. Perhaps this was another such case.
The residents and guests at dinner seemed to appreciate Kethseir’s voice more than Nakaz could, and he was given much applause and cheering when his song was finished. Nakaz continued to woo Shorel, and to intermittently stare at Kethseir hungrily. It was a hunger he had felt before, and he knew it was nothing more than idle lust. He knew he could put that aside easily enough, and had done so before when circumstances didn’t allow him to pursue the objects of his fancy the way his promise to Shorel bound him now.
Nakaz was disappointed when, shortly after the fourth and penultimate course was served, Kethseir rose somewhat unsteadily from his chair and left the dining room. He learned that the man had been a little drunk and tired from his journey, which would resume the next day. Nakaz made himself a promise to rise early and contrive to meet Kethseir as he was leaving, to try and make an impression on him if he could. Then, he returned his attention fully to his partner for the night, lavishing on her all of the passion she deserved, and much that Kethseir had aroused in him as well.
Much later that night, Nakaz followed Shorel into room 332 of the guest wing. His arms were around her waist and he was kissing her neck, to much giggling and sighing. Once they were inside, she slipped out of his arms, shut the door, and flung her arms wide, saying, “Welcome to my domain!”
The rooms in the guest wing were all almost alike. They were large enough for the bed, flanked by two armoires, and a sitting area by the fireplace that consisted of two chairs and a small table between them. One of the armoires was meant for clothes, the other for instruments. A washstand was situated between the two small windows opposite the door, even though there was a bathing room at the end of every hall.
Shorel had taken the time to personalize the room, even though she had only spent a sennight in it. Two small figurines of birds sat on the mantelpiece between a matched set of candlesticks made from antlers. There was an intricately embroidered and quilted blanket thrown over the back of one of the chairs. A portrait of a handsome man and a dog, made out of shaped wood, hung on the door of one of the armoires.
Nakaz knew which decorations belonged in the room because his own room at the other end of the hall had them too: the lit lantern on the mantelpiece, the bowl of fruit on the table, the vase on the washstand. There were no personalizing touches in Nakaz’s room. He preferred to remember that this wasn’t home, no matter how many years he had spent here long ago as student, apprentice, and journeyman bard. It made it easier for him to leave.
He looked around the room, taking inventory of the items he remembered, and noticing the new ones. He had just noticed a large, wedge-shaped, oddly-carved stone on the table by the bowl of grapes when he was grabbed and hugged from behind. He squirmed and wriggled his way around and grabbed back, to find his arms around a completely naked Shorel.
He squeezed, hugging her tight. She returned the hug, and giggled in his ear, then danced backward until they were a double-arm-length apart, just holding hands. Nakaz ran his eyes over her revealed charms, tracing the hills and valleys made more mysterious by the shadows cast by the lantern. Her teeth glinted in her smile as she stepped back two more paces, dropping his hands and striking a pose. She ran her own eyes appraisingly across his still-clothed form, then asked, “Do you like? Ah, I see you have either stuffed another stocking into your cod-piece, or you *do* like! What are you waiting for, boyo? Get those rags off! You’re wasting time!”
Nakaz laughed, charmed as usual by her casual attitude. He undid the buckle of his leather belt and tossed it aside. But as his hands went back for the cloth belt that held up his hose, he found himself increasingly distracted. For while the utterly displayed, undeniably lush charms of Shorel were in front of him, there was something behind him that was calling to him even louder.
Unable to resist the strange urge, he turned around and took a closer look at the stone on the table. He first noticed that it wasn’t just a carving, it was some kind of amalgamated sculpture; it also seemed to be broken. It looked like the original had been circular, and this was a wedge-shaped third of it as indicated by the two straight sides angled from each other, and the curve of the single rounded side.
On the flat upper face of the object were interlaced bands of silver and gold metal, and one band of glass. The interwoven bands seemed to take up what had been the center of the original whole, while along the curved edge were carved two animals, a cat and a fox. Two of the types of bands seemed to originate from the center of these animals, the silver and the gold respectively.
Nakaz felt Shorel snuggle up against him again, as he gazed at the stone. She said, “Do you like it? I just received it recently. It has been in my mother’s family for some time. When I went home for her funeral two months ago, I found that she had left it for me. It must have been important to her, but I’d never seen it before. I wonder what it used to be?”
Nakaz had slipped his arm around Shorel’s naked waist. When she mentioned her mother’s funeral, he had given her a supportive squeeze, and made appropriate mutterings. They had caught each other up on their time apart days ago, and he had learned then of her mother’s death. He had made all of the appropriate, and heart-felt, responses of affection and support at that time, which was just as well as his response now was automatic and he didn’t even realize he had made it.
Nakaz reached out to touch the carved cat, and then trace several of the silver bands as they looped over and under the gold and glass bands, and then up to the broken edges of the fragment. He wondered what it had been, too, and he wondered why it seemed so important to him. There was something about the fragment, like he had seen it before, like it was part of him somehow. It pulled at him, insisting that he pick it up and take it away with him. As much as he wanted to do that, he knew he couldn’t. It was Shorel’s, something of her recently departed mother. It wasn’t his, and he could neither take it nor ask for it. But, as used as he was to resisting temptations, this time it was much, much harder.
Suddenly, Shorel was between him and the stone, staring into his face with an expression of mixed hurt and puzzlement. Nakaz realized that he had been completely ignoring her for far too long, especially since she was naked. He leaned forward and kissed her, pulling her toward him and running his hands down her back to her taut behind, which he gave a playful squeeze, making her squeal, then laugh. He whispered in her ear, “I’m sorry, dear, I’ve been … distracted.”
She pulled away and said, “I should say so, boyo. At least I could understand when it was that pretty Kethseir dragging your awareness from me, but distracted by a stone? That’s a little insulting, don’t you think?”
Nakaz realized that she was right, and there was no way he could explain the strange attraction he felt toward that stone. He sputtered, trying to come up with some placating words, but was rescued by Shorel.
“So,” she said in a tone that told him to forget everything but this moment. She continued, “Are you going to strip, or should I just unfasten your codpiece and you can do me up against the wall like some Melrin festival assignation?”
Nakaz laughed loudly, relieved that his inattention had been forgiven. He shrugged himself out of his tunic, and found his hands joined by Shorel’s at his waist, fumbling at the hose’s cloth belt. Soon the hose lay with the tunic and leather belt in a corner of the room, along side only a small codpiece-stuffing stocking. Shorel exclaimed, as she usually did, about the purely natural codpiece stuffing now revealed, and Nakaz laughed again. Then he picked her up, carried her over to her bed, and threw her into it. He paused, looking at her fetching disarray. He almost glanced back at the table before joining her, but he resisted the urge, not wanting to hurt her again.
Fortunately for both of them, the demands of their coupling were enough to keep Nakaz’s mind focused on the activity at hand. It couldn’t stop, however, the image of a carved cat and silver bands eclipsing the sight of her beneath him from time to time.
In the darkest part of the night, a man dressed from mask to boot in black slipped out of room 214 in the guest wing. Silent as a ghost, he made his way to the cellars of the College of Bards. Using information supplied by his employer, he located one specific vault. Using the keys also supplied, he worked the complicated mechanical ritual that found him the correct keyhole, and he opened the door and entered the vault that had not been entered in decades.
The room was filled with chests, but he only had keys for one. He found that chest, and, using the secret keyhole, opened it as well. He removed tray after tray of books until the chest seemed empty. Knowing better, he revealed the hidden compartment and used the last key to set free the books secured there.
He needed only one of the books he had revealed. He picked up the one bound in light-colored leather. Comparing the flowing drawings with the image that his employer had supplied him with, he made sure they were the same. He had been informed that the drawings, vaguely sticklike, were some kind of ancient language, and that they spelled out “The Tome of the Yrmenweald”. He had the right book, but the name meant no more to him than the copulating-rat drawings had.
The thief, who had masqueraded as the bard Kethseir, placed the trays of books back in the chest and closed it. He left the vault, closing it behind him, and ghosted back to his room. He dressed again in his leather riding clothes, placing the black clothing and the book in his empty harp case. Then he waited.
Half a bell before dawn, bard Kethseir left his room and then the college. Only a couple of servants noted his passage, but did not remark upon it, as it was common for bards to travel at need or whim, at any bell, day or night.
Nakaz was sorry to have missed his hoped-for rendezvous with the handsome bard, but decided that the meeting was fated not to be.
The theft went completely unnoticed.
Skar didn’t often spend time in the Fighting Unicorns. Not because he couldn’t afford it — Sir Hawk’s “philanthropy”, as many called it, meant that almost anyone could afford a decent meal there — but because it wasn’t his kind of place. It had too clean of a reputation, despite the kinds of transactions that went on there. Skar didn’t really feel comfortable in a bar unless there were wood splinters of broken chairs and tables on the floor, and at least one bloodstain on the wall.
He was there now because a friend had told him that Baron Kanning had returned and was staying there. Baron Kanning had been away for a few days, and Skar thought he knew why and, what’s more, why he had returned.
Five days past, Bellen, one of Skar’s little band of cutthroats and thieves, had come up with the idea to waylay a traveler in the Fifth Quarter. By happenstance or ill-luck, Principine Avenue had been singularly deserted that night until the singer had happened along.
It wasn’t until they had ambushed and disabled her that Skar learned why Bellen had urged them to continue with the attack. It had all been for the rank pendant she wore.
Skar had had no trouble slitting the girl’s throat. He had never liked singers, who seemed to have privilege denied honest working folk like him just because they could manage a tune, or pluck the strings of an instrument. But he had never really thought to attack one as they also enjoyed noble protection, another perquisite they got that he didn’t. But as much pleasure as killing her had been, the five Cues that Bellen said he could get for the rank pendant was worth even more.
Bellen had told him that it was Kane wanted the pendant. Kane, who sometimes pretended to be Baron Kanning. Kane, who played roles, and put on airs, who thought himself better than the likes of Skar. Kane, who had been away for some few days, likely planning whatever escapade he needed the pendant for. If Kane had been willing to pay five whole Crowns for the pendant, then he had to be getting much, much more for whatever he had been hired to steal. Skar was as sure of all of that supposition as he was that Kane was here now to deliver the goods and receive his payment. Which explained Skar’s presence.
Kane, in the role of Baron Kanning, had descended the stairs from the inn’s upstairs rooms some time ago, carrying a satchel. He had taken one of the privacy booths at the back of the taproom, and had been there since. Skar sat, sipping his ale slowly, and waited for the inevitable to happen.
Everyone noticed when the prostitute walked in. Male eyes followed her as she walked across the room, Skar’s included. A few appreciative whistles sounded from the corners, but no one accosted her as they would have in one of Skar’s preferred haunts. She slipped into Kane’s booth, and closed the curtain across its front.
As the normal chatter of the room started up again, Skar’s first thought was, “Lucky cur!” And then he reconsidered. Maybe Kane wasn’t the only one playing dress-up, eh? He decided to keep his eyes on that booth.
After a short while, the curtain slid open again, and the woman slid gracefully out, stood, and then leaned back in to give Kane a little kiss. As she walked to the door, throwing a “See you later,” back over her shoulder, many eyes followed her swaying hips out the door. Skar was tempted, but he kept his eyes fastened like the proprietor’s namesake on Kane’s booth.
Skar’s perseverance was rewarded. As Kane stared in a daze, Skar saw an open bag of gold coins sitting on the table in front of him. Skar smiled a mean little smile as Kane recovered himself and quickly snatched the bag off of the table. Skar slowly drank the rest of his ale, and then rose from his table. He strolled across the taproom and slid into Kane’s booth just as the prostitute had.
“Greetings, Kane,” he said. “Any good business come your way lately?” Smugness seemed to drip from his every word.
Kane maintained his put-on noble air as he replied, “What business might it be of yours, Skar?”
“Well, friend Kane, perhaps we could share a little of that gold you just got from that fancy whoor as just left. You know, share the wealth, yes?”
Skar watched Kane’s pose slip a little as he realized he had been foolish. It was only a matter of time now, but Kane would probably put up a little more fight.
“What makes you think that she brought me that gold, and why should I share it in any case?”
Just as predicted, thought Skar. He had been rehearsing this part of the encounter all night. “I know she brought it because you didn’t have it when you came down them stairs earlier. And, ’cause if you had that much money, you wouldn’t be staying here, now would you?
“And, we should share, ’cause I know something that the town guard just might like to hear. I don’t know just what that tart wanted you to do in the singers’ school, but I know that you bought a singer’s pendant from Bellen. And if they check real careful, I bet they find something missing, eh?
“‘Course, my yearning to do my civic duty just might be subverted with enough gold …”
Kane seemed to realize that Skar had the upper hand. There was only one sane thing for the caught thief to do. Skar gave his ultimatum. “I think about half of what’s in that black bag there should keep my mouth shut — for a while at least, eh?”
Resignation filled Kane’s voice as he capitulated. “I guess I have no choice, friend Skar. How about a little privacy though, so no one else decides that they need a little of my hard-won gold?” Kane reached over and pulled the privacy curtain closed again, shutting them in together. That suited Skar; he didn’t want to share with any more people than he had to either.
Kane lifted the bag of coins back onto the table and began to count them out slowly. Skar just had to touch those Cues, and he reached over to grab some to keep himself occupied while the royal sum was divided. As he grabbed a few of the gold coins, Kane’s hands passed over his hands and he felt something brush across the back of his fingers. It was such a slight sensation and the Cues glittered so enticingly that he forgot about it immediately.
As Kane continued to count, Skar watched the pile that was his grow larger and larger. He tried to imagine what he could do with that many Cues — maybe buy a castle for himself, and become a bandit-baron or something. As he fondled the few Crowns he had grabbed early, he realized that whatever grand dreams he might be able to realize with half of those Cues, he could do twice as good with all of them. He then began to work out just how he was going to extort the rest of Kane’s bounty from him.
Then something strange began to happen. Kane’s words seemed to slur and be drawn out. He was counting slower and slower. Skar then felt a tingling all over, and he found that he couldn’t move his feet at all, nor his hands.
Sudden realization dawned — Kane had surprised him. Kane, the proper gentleman thief, the player of genteel roles — Kane had poisoned him! His head jerked up and he tried to force out a sentence through already stiffening jaws, but all the farther he got was “What did y …” before his muscles wouldn’t obey him any more.
Skar knew this poison. He knew he was in for a lingering death. His eyes, frozen open and beginning to burn, watched as Kane retrieved his coins and stashed them back in his bag. Then, Kane took his own tankard and put it between Skar’s hands, placing his hands around it, settling his fingers properly as if he was actually gripping the vessel. As Kane bent Skar’s neck so that his eyes now only looked into the tankard, the gutter-thief was surprised to note the look of disappointment on his killer’s face, and he realized that Kane was sorry he had been forced to this extreme.
Somehow, the thought didn’t comfort Skar as he died.
Ka’lochra’en, however, might have been comforted if he had known that the man his hidden, poisoned dagger had killed had been the man who had slit his cousin Je’en’s windpipe, ending her bardic career and forcing her into a new life.