DargonZine 26, Issue 2

The Killing Time

Ober 7, 1018 - Ober 8, 1018


Kryna woke to sunlight streaming through the open slats of a shuttered window. Where was she? She tried to remember the night before, but her mind was still foggy with sleep. She closed her eyes against the glare of the sun and tried to clear her head. Had there been a man last night? She thought so. She remembered a man coming into Maxim’s, tall, broad, and dark just like she liked them. Had she gone home with him? She was lying naked beneath some very rumpled bedding; she’d gone home with someone. She reached her hand across to the other side of the bed. There was a depression there, but it was cold. Her bedmate of the night before was up, and not just to use the chamber pot. Ah, well. If she didn’t want to wake up alone, she should pick her men when she had less ale in her.

She rolled over and closed her eyes tighter. If she couldn’t enjoy the bed one way this morning, she would enjoy it another. It was warm and soft, and she had no place to be today. Another bell or so of sleep would do her good. She hoped the room was paid for, if this was an inn. She’d find out soon enough if someone came to roust her. She wondered if her clothes were nearby. It would be embarrassing to walk home in a sheet. What if the innkeeper wouldn’t let her use the sheet?

Kryna sighed and flopped on her back, exasperated. She would never get to sleep with her mind wandering from one worry to the next. Straight. A bell or two of sleep, then worry about her clothes. She draped an arm across her eyes and settled in. Then a sound began to penetrate her brain. What was that? She could hear surf pounding against rocks, the cries of hungry screegulls, and another sound she didn’t recognize. Scraping? It was faint, rhythmic, and … close. Definitely close.

Heedless of the brightening sun, Kryna’s eyes snapped open and she sat up. She gasped softly at the sight of a man’s back; he was seated at the foot of the bed, his skin glistening with a light sheen of sweat, the top of his bare buttocks just visible above the bedclothes. He seemed to be the source of the strange noise. He hadn’t noticed her, apparently, so she took a moment to study him silently. This was definitely not the tall, broad, and dark man from Maxim’s. His hair was a golden blond, and curly, and he had a narrow frame. He seemed short, but it was hard to tell from this position. Still, he wasn’t scrawny; wiry muscles jumped beneath the skin of his arms and back as he worked at whatever was making that noise.

It came back to her then. The tall dark man had come in with a small blond friend. She’d managed to “accidentally” bump into the friend at the bar, and let him buy her a drink, hoping for an introduction. It was too late, though. By the time she caught sight of the big fellow again he had Merrilee in his lap. So, one drink with the blond man had turned into three, or maybe four, and she’d wound up in his bed. She remembered how attentive he’d been, how caring. And his beautiful green eyes.

She hoped she wouldn’t startle him, but she had to say something. “What are you doing?”

He barely twitched. “Oh, good, you’re awake. I was just sharpening my knife.”

“Sharpening your … oh.” She suppressed a giggle. “Well, I’ve never heard it called *that* before, but there’s no need to ‘sharpen your knife’ alone. Come back to bed and let me help you with it.”

The noise stopped, and so did his arm. He looked at her over his shoulder. There were those green eyes again. Her breath caught in her throat.

“Never heard what called that before?” Now it was his turn to say, “Oh” and he actually blushed. “No, I wasn’t … it’s not … I– I really was sharpening my knife. See?”

Now her breath really caught in her throat, staring at eight inches of steel glinting in the sunlight. “W–what are you planning to do with that?” She clutched the blanket to her, knowing it would be no protection. Her gaze left the blade for a moment to flick between door and window. No use. He was closer to both, and his legs weren’t tangled up in a sheet and blanket like hers.

“Kryna, no! Don’t be scared. Look.” He got up, set the knife on the windowsill, and then backed away from it. “I wouldn’t hurt you with it.”

She felt relief flood through her; it gave way quickly to anger. “What were you thinking? Do you always sharpen your knife next to a sleeping woman? What *were* you planning to do with it? And– what’s your name, anyway?”

“It’s just a habit. I sharpen my knife every morning. And my name’s Davris. My friends call me Dav. I told you that last night.”

“I was pretty drunk last night, Davris.”

“So was I, I guess.” He looked down, as if suddenly remembering his nakedness. Her gaze followed his and then they both looked up. He grinned and she couldn’t suppress a laugh. “Look, can I get under the covers again? It’s chilly.” He held up his arms. “Look, no weapons.”

“Well, I wouldn’t say that.”

He laughed. “Alright, but nothing dangerous. Please, it’s cold out here.”

She threw back the bedclothes. “Come on, then.”

He climbed in next to her and wrapped himself up, then put his hand on her shoulder. “You’re trembling. I really scared you, didn’t I?”

“Straight–” Before she could get out another word, Kryna’s throat tightened with a sob and she was shaking; he put his arms around her and held her, just held her. They stayed there like that for a while, with him whispering apologies and stroking her hair, until her heart slowed again, and the shudders subsided. She lay back on the bed.

“Thanks, Davris. Or can I call you Dav?”

“Please.”

“Then thank you, Dav.” She looked into his eyes. They really were a very lovely green. “This wasn’t how I was expecting to wake up this morning.”

He grinned. The dimple in his left cheek was pretty nice, too. “Nor I. Barin — the big fellow I came in with, did you see him? — always ends up with the prettiest girl in the bar.”

Kryna felt her cheeks flush, embarrassed at both the complement and her own intentions of the previous night toward tall, rugged Barin. Her gaze fell to Davris’ chest where she noticed for the first time that he was wearing a necklace. A silver oval nestled in the golden curls of his chest hair. The chain was silver, too, with fine links. Maybe it wasn’t the first time she noticed it. She remembered something tickling her breasts the night before.

Hoping to change the subject, she reached out and took the silver shape in her hand. “This is beautiful. Can I –”

Her hand stung as he slapped it away, but then he was blushing and apologizing again before she could react. “I’m sorry. It’s a family heirloom and the chain is very delicate. Is your hand okay?”

It hurt a little, but not much. It was a small price to steer the topic of conversation away from Barin and his broad shoulders. The chain was very delicate, too. Maybe it was best that he’d slapped her hand away. She was sure it would take at least a sennight’s wages to fix if she had broken it. He was still looking at her hand with obvious concern.

“Dav, it’s okay, really. And I would have felt terrible if I had broken it.”

“Here, take a look.” He held up the pendant. It looked like pure silver, or how she imagined pure silver would look, with intricate markings on one side. It was a lopsided sphere, weighted to hang so that a side of the sphere was missing.

“It really is beautiful.” She looked up into those green eyes again. And her stomach picked that moment to release a loud gurgle.

He grinned a lopsided grin, showing that dimple again. “Hungry?”

“Now that you mention it, yes. By the way, where are we?”

“Still in the inn where we met. Not sure what it’s called.”

“It’s not really called anything. Well, everyone here calls it Maxim’s place, but that’s only because Maxim owns it. I guess that means you’re not from this part of town, huh?”

“You could say that. Barin and I are from Arvalia.”

“Arvalia? That’s on the other side of Baranur!”

“Not quite that far.” There was that grin again, with dimple. “But it still took us a while to get here.”

“And why are you here?”

“Business. We have some goods to sell. Hoping to make enough to last us a while.”

“When are you conducting this business? Do you have time to see the city today?”

“I do. I have to meet Barin tonight, back here at the bar. He’s going to ask around today, find us the right people.”

“Well, I’m glad to hear you’re a wealthy merchant. You’re buying breakfast.”

They dressed and went down to the common room, where Maxim’s wife Floralee cooked them a hearty breakfast, all the while complaining about the drunken slobs her husband had allowed into her home. Kryna dug in with relish; the activities of the previous night had left her famished. As the food settled in her stomach, the last traces of her hangover faded, leaving her ready to enjoy her day off with this strange new man in her life. Davris matched her forkful for forkful, and soon the large breakfast was gone. Dav paid with a Bit from his coin pouch as Kryna thanked Floralee, and they walked out hand in hand.

 

They walked along the rocky shore of the Coldwell and past Mermaid’s Lair, the beach vacant that chilly Ober morning. Kryna pressed close to Dav as they walked, enjoying the warmth of his body. She took him through the Old City to the Court of Trees. They sat on a stone bench there, watching the bustle of the busy marketplace, and traded stories of their childhood, his in a small village in Arvalia, and hers as an apprentice seamstress in Dargon. When Dav agreed to pay for a ferry ride, she took him across the river. Kryna had missed visiting the New City since the Causeway disaster. She rarely could justify the cost of a ferry. They enjoyed hot leftwiches for lunch in the Venilek Market, and then sat watching shadow boys run errands and occasionally pilfer something from an unwary vendor.

Dav seemed almost as eager to learn about the city as about her. At one point, he stopped to admire some Corathin pottery and she had to slap his hand away before he picked one up. She was sure there wasn’t enough in his pouch to pay for even one broken vase from the Corathin Pottery. He just laughed and said they were even on the hand-slapping.

She even took him on a walk through Foxmarten Square and up Ebbit’s Road to see the Stone Man, the subject of one of her favorite childhood legends. By the time they made it back to the ferry docks it was dark, and the fog was getting thick. Kryna would have been content to find an inn room and catch a morning ferry to get to work on time, but Dav was eager to meet Barin at Maxim’s, so they took one of the last ferries across, along with three sailors who convinced the ferryman it was safe. Kryna tried to hide her disappointment with the weather. Nochturon was past half full and a moonrise over the river would have been pretty, and romantic. The fog had come in good and thick by the time they reached the far side, and the ferryman was cursing the sailors to Rise’er’s Feast. Kryna had to bury her face in Dav’s shoulder to keep from laughing.

They walked back along the shore to Maxim’s. It must have been the distraction of Dav’s arm around her, or maybe the sound of the crashing surf, but she didn’t hear the sound of the man running until he crashed into Dav, knocking him away from her, stumbling. The other man, one of the sailors, didn’t stagger. He drew a wicked looking blade from his belt. Kryna sucked in breath to cry out, but then her arms were grabbed from behind and she felt cold steel against her throat.

“Hush, pretty,” one of the sailors whispered in her ear. His breath was hot and foul.

Dav regained his balance, and stood looking at the man facing him, and then at Kryna. “Look, don’t hurt her. I can pay you.”

“He has a knife, too, Garn,” said the third sailor, the one holding her arms. “I saw it on the ferry.”

Garn took a step closer to Dav, brandishing his own blade. “If he was going to draw it, he would have already. No stones, this one. He’s not going to do anything, are you, boy?”

Dav made no move for his weapon. “I have money.”

Garn grabbed Dav’s pouch and cut it from his belt. “You had money. You also had a girl. She as pretty as she looked on the ferry?”

“Too dark to see,” said the foul-breathed man. “She *feels* pretty.”

Kryna fought the urge to cry out as the man groped her with his free hand.

The fog picked that moment to part, letting Nochturon peek through. A glimmer of moonlight fell on Dav and Garn, catching a glimmer of Dav’s necklace.

“What’s this? We missed another pretty thing. Holding out on us, boy? I bet this is worth more than what’s in your pouch, and the girl, to boot.” Garn reached for the necklace.

“Don’t –” said Dav, but Garn’s hand had closed over the silver pendant.

“Don’t? What are you — gaak!” Garn staggered back, a hand to his neck, blood welling between his fingers. He dropped to his knees and toppled to one side.

Dav, his knife now in his hand and dripping blood, stepped forward and dropped to one knee before the lifeless man. He cleaned the blade thoroughly on the man’s clothes. The two men holding her seemed as stunned as Kryna herself. They all watched dumbly as Dav finished cleaning his knife and sheathed it. He rose then and turned toward them as if just noticing them. That was enough for the other two; they let her go and ran, their footsteps making loud crunching noises on the rocky sand.

Shivering from her second bad fright of the day, Kryna stomped up to Dav. “Not one move to save me, but they go after your precious necklace and suddenly you are a crazed killer?” That wasn’t right, though. He’d been so calm.

Dav glanced at Garn. “I tried to warn him.” His voice was flat, distant.

“And where was that warning when they were going to drag me off?”

“You don’t understand. I’m no warrior.” Some emotion was finally creeping back into his voice. He reached out a hand toward her shoulder, but she swatted it away.

“Oh? You could have fooled me.” She glanced at Garn’s corpse and shuddered again. “And you stopped to *clean your knife* before giving me a second thought! Even that’s more important to you than I am!”

“No, that’s not it at all. Look, I can explain.” He clasped his hands, pleading with her.

“I’m listening.”

He opened his mouth to speak, and then closed it again. He looked at his hands and back up to her. “You’d never believe me. Barin can explain. Please, Kryna, come with me to Maxim’s and listen to what he has to say. If you’re still mad by the end of it, you can leave and I won’t trouble you again. Please, Kryna. I– I think you’re pretty special. I’d like a chance to make you understand.”

She glared at him, torn about what to do. The presence of the other two sailors somewhere in the fog weighed heavily in her decision. “Straight. I’ll listen. I won’t promise anything else.”

“Thank you.” He held out a hand to her, but she snorted in disgust. His shoulders fell, and he turned and began walking to Maxim’s.

Kryna bent over Garn for a moment. “You forgot your pouch.” She thrust it at him as she stormed past, leading the way to the bar. He fell in step a few strides behind her; not a word was spoken between them.

Maxim’s was bustling when they arrived. Every table was occupied, and there was a crowd gathered near the bar. Another large group was gathered in one corner listening to someone spin a tale. The group erupted in raucous laughter.

Dav stepped up next to Kryna and scanned the room. “There!” he yelled over the noise of the bar, and pointed. Barin was seated at a table with a mug in one hand and another toppled on the table. As Dav and Kryna approached, the big man glared at a drunk who tried to take one of his chairs; the man wisely moved on.

“Finally! I thought maybe you got lost.” He looked at Kryna. “Maybe you did. Hello! I saw you in here last night, didn’t I? Name’s Barin.” He smiled; it only made him more handsome.

If she hadn’t been so angry, her heart might have skipped a beat. “I’m surprised you noticed anything with Merrilee in your lap.”

Barin shrugged and winked at her, then turned to Dav. “I guess I don’t need to ask where — there’s blood on your sleeve, Dav.” His manner changed immediately from jovial to concerned.

Dav nodded. “Three men tried to rob us. I had to kill one of them.”

“You *had* to?”

Dav nodded. Something secret had passed between the two men.

Kryna’d had enough of secrets. “They did more than try to rob us. They were going to drag me off somewhere — one of them had a knife to my throat — and your friend didn’t lift a finger to stop them until they tried to steal his precious necklace. He said you could tell me why.”

Barin, whose eyes had gone wide at the word “necklace” turned from her to Dav without a word.

“She needs to know, Barin. Please.” Dav looked at the crowded bar. “I’ll try to fight my way through to get us some ale while you talk.”

Kryna caught sight of a familiar face through the crowd. “Ol’s balls! Why is he here now?” She grabbed Dav’s sleeve, loathing the touch of him.

“What is it?” asked Barin.

“Captain Koren.”

She was met with only blank looks from the two men.

“As in, ‘Captain Koren of the Town Guard’. You don’t want him remembering seeing you with blood on your sleeve once they find that body on the beach. Roll your sleeves up and tuck the bloody part inside.” When Dav didn’t move fast enough, she rolled it up for him.

She watched him depart for the bar rolling up his other sleeve before turning her angry glare back to Barin. “Well?”

“You left the body on the beach?”

“Your friend was in no state to do anything, and he was too big for me to move. Besides, he had two friends out there in the fog. Don’t change the subject. What’s this explanation Dav promised?”

He shoved a chair away from the table with his foot. “You should be sitting for this.” He waited until she took the proffered seat before continuing. “So they tried to steal his necklace. I’m surprised only one ended up dead.”

“The other two were nowhere near him. One held my arms and the other had a knife to my throat.”

He nodded. “That makes sense.”

“‘Sense?’ You must be as crazy as he is!” She planted her palms on the table. “I’d better start hearing a good explanation, or I’m gone.”

He remained silent for a moment, looking at her. “I hate to ask this, but you spent the night with him last night, didn’t you?”

She felt her cheeks reddening, but didn’t drop her gaze. “Straight. What of it?”

“The whole night?”

“Yes. Is there a point to this?”

“Did he do anything … ah … strange in the morning?”

“That’s none of your — oh. Yeah, when I woke up he was sharpening his knife.”

“Hm. Too bad you didn’t wake up earlier; this would be a lot easier. Though if you had woken up earlier we might not be having this discussion.”

“Why’s that?” Her voice had an impatient edge.

“Because you might have run from the room screaming. He practices with that knife, every morning, for almost a bell.”

“Really? For all that practice, he didn’t seem too prepared to use it.” That is, until Garn touched his necklace, she failed to add. “Why does he do it?”

“No choice. He’s not even awake when he does it, or at least he’s not all there.”

She recalled Dav’s blank expression after he killed Garn, the way he seemed to come back to himself slowly. “And that’s what happens when someone tries to take the necklace? He goes into a trance and kills them?”

“Yes, but not only then.” He absently patted the pocket of his vest. “And I don’t know if it’s a trance, but I’ve seen him do things with that knife when he practices, and when he kills … I wouldn’t want to face anyone like that. He’s so precise and calm. Focused on the killing, with no distractions. And yet I’ve sparred with him any number of times. I can beat him nine times in ten, or better. But I know if I tried to take that thing from around his neck, I’d be dead in three heartbeats.”

“Why is that damned thing so important to him?”

“It’s not. Well, it is, in a way, but he hates it. I know he does.”

“Why doesn’t he get rid of it, then?”

“It’s — here’s the part where you laugh in my face — it’s cursed.” He waited for her to react.

“I just watched a man die less than a bell ago. I’m not in a laughing mood.”

He blew out the breath he’d been holding. “If you can accept that, the rest is easy. The necklace is at the heart of it. It makes him practice, and keep the blade sharp. And kill.”

“And he kills for other reasons? Is he safe to be around people? I just spent the day with him, Barin.” And the night.

“Completely. I’ve been with him for years. There’s only one other reason, and it’s very specific. Keep away from that necklace and you’re safe.”

She rubbed the back of her hand, remembering Dav slapping it away that morning. It seemed like sennights ago. She was pretty sure that “other reason” was in Barin’s pocket. “Why doesn’t he just get rid of it?”

“Can’t. That’s part of the curse.”

“Why not seek help from a mage, then? You’re obviously not short on coin.”

Dav set three mugs on the table, surprising her. “I don’t trust them. There was a mage involved at the start of it. I see you’re still here.” He was trying to be calm, but his hand betrayed him, trembling as he reached for his mug.

She stared at him for a moment, drawing out his discomfort. “I’m still here because I have a question for you.”

“Ask.”

“When Garn reached for your necklace, you said ‘don’t’. Didn’t you want to kill those men to save me?”

It was Barin who answered. “Didn’t you say one of them had a knife to your neck?”

“Of course I did, he — oh.” She closed her mouth as a lump formed in her throat. She looked down for a moment, fighting back tears. She composed herself and put a hand on Dav’s arm. “Oh, Dav, I’m so sorry. You were trying to protect me, weren’t you?”

He put his hand over hers. “Don’t be sorry. You had no way of knowing. I should have told you earlier. I should have been a better man and protected you. We were just lucky they ran instead of killing you.”

She rose and put her arms around him. “You’re a fine man, Davris of Arvalia. And I wouldn’t have believed in your curse until now.” She held him close for a moment before sitting down again.

Barin sighed, “Well, I’m glad that’s –”

“Not so fast, big man. I still have some questions. I don’t know why you think a mage can’t help, even if one did place the curse. Mages are always removing curses in stories.”

Dav shook his head. “Not this curse. A mage did try to lift the curse from one, once. It was the same as trying to remove the necklace itself.”

“One? There are others?”

He nodded.

“What exactly is that thing, anyway?”

“It’s Nochturon.”

“That’s not what I meant. It’s a little lopsided for Nochturon, isn’t it?”

“It’s gibbous, waxing.”

“Gibbous?”

“Three quarters full.”

“No, I know that. I love looking at the moon. I’d love to go south one day so I can see Selene. What I meant was, who ever heard of a necklace of a gibbous moon?”

Barin slapped the table. “That’s what I said!”

“There’s one for each phase,” Dav said.

“There are eight of these things?!”

“Seven. The new moon would be an empty chain.” He grinned a little as he said this. “Or at least there were seven. Some of their owners are dead, the necklaces lost or destroyed.”

“Straight, seven. Barin said there’s some other way it makes you kill. Does it have something to do with what he has in his pocket?”

Dav glanced at his friend, who shrugged. “Show her.” He turned his back.

Barin reached into his pocket, fished out a box, and placed it on the table. It was very dark wood, intricately carved.

“Is everything associated with this horrible thing so beautiful?”

“Wait ’til you see what’s inside.” He opened the box to display a set of cards. A picture of Nochturon was painted on the back of each; it was mostly full. Gibbous, she supposed. Waxing. He turned them over to display the faces. The first few were images of people.

“Fate cards?”

“Not like any Fate deck you’ve ever seen, I’ll wager. Dav thinks today’s Fate cards might come from them, but these are different.” He fanned them for her. She saw a man and a woman on thrones, a woman with a lute and a green cloak, a sailor on the deck of a ship, and a man with a sword at a crossroads.

“The pictures are lovely,” she said.

“And deadly. If I show Dav a card from this deck, he’ll find that person and kill them the next time Nochturon reaches his phase.”

“But that’s tonight! It’s past half!”

“Tomorrow,” said Dav. “Trust me, I know. Can I turn around yet?”

Barin replaced the deck in the box and closed it. “It’s safe.”

Dav turned to face her again.

“How would you even know where to find the person on the card?”

“It’s not like that. I hunt down whomever that card represents to me. In fact, I’m tempted to have Barin give me a peek at the sailor, but I just might go after the barge captain instead. I never actually saw those guys sail anything.”

“This seems like a really complicated curse!”

Barin snorted in amusement.

Dav ignored him. “The mage who made them was an artist. He worked most of his magic through his art. Like with any art, sometimes you don’t quite get what you plan.”

“So, what was the plan? Why were they made?”

“Have you heard of King Darian?”

“From the Shadow Wars, straight.”

“Well, Darian had many enemies, and he wanted assassins to send against them. He wanted killers that he could control absolutely. Instead he got …” Dav gestured toward the necklace and the box.

Barin grinned. “That’s not the best part, though.”

“Oh?” Kryna raised an eyebrow and looked at the big man expectantly.

It was Dav who answered. “He was never able to use one. The necklaces could only be given to infants, born in the phase of Nochturon after the moons were forged.”

“He was killed in the war before any of his fearsome assassins learned to use the privy!”

Dav scowled at Barin. “Aye, and the children grew up as prisoners, allowed to kill condemned criminals to keep from going mad or wasting away.”

“Oh,” said Kryna, putting her hand on Dav’s arm. “I’m sorry. But how did you …?”

“I think that’s a story for another time.”

“Could you at least tell me how you learned all of this?”

“From my father, who wore the necklace before me.”

“Your father gave you a cursed necklace?”

“He had no choice, being dead at the time. And I had no choice but to take it. It was one of what he called the ‘compulsions’. Fighting his compulsions is what killed him. I also took his deck from my mother and gave it to Barin. You have to give it to someone you trust. You can’t keep your own deck or you’ll be compelled to deal yourself a card every month.”

“Gods.” She shuddered. “So Barin keeps you from killing?”

“No. He picks out the cards I see.”

“He *what*?”

“Not so loud. Not killing is what killed my father. It took many years, but he wasted away to nothing by the end.”

“It was my idea,” said Barin, “to find people that needed killing anyway. You saw the card with the man at the crossroads. That’s the Highwayman. It’s amazing how many small communities will pay to get rid of their local problems. Only they don’t pay very much.”

“True,” said Dav, “but they don’t have very much.”

Kryna hugged her arms to her chest. “That sounds dangerous.”

Barin swigged his ale. “Not as dangerous as you might think. Not as profitable, either. The bandits usually don’t have much, either, or they wouldn’t still be out there robbing. We’ve been getting enough to live on.”

“You’re living pretty well, from the looks of it.”

The big man grinned. “That changed about a month ago. We heard about some men robbing travelers near Kenna. We couldn’t get any bites on a bounty, but that turned out not to matter. Dav made short work of them –”

“With some help from you.”

“With some help from me, and an arrow to the leg for my troubles. Anyway, they had a fair amount of coin, hence our full purses, but that was the least of it. Turned out they’d robbed some merchant and had a wagon full of very nice pottery and no idea what to do with it.”

Dav cleared his throat. “Turns out it’s not just very nice pottery. I’m pretty sure it’s Corathin pottery.”

Kryna whistled softly. A wagonful of Corathin pottery? They could live likes kings if they could sell that. Or at least barons.

“What’s Corathin pottery?” Barin asked.

Kryna shook her head, grinning. “Only the most famous pottery in the whole duchy. In the whole country for all I know. How on ‘diar are you going to sell it?”

Barin barked a short laugh. “That’s just what we were pondering while my leg healed, and we didn’t even know the pottery was famous, then. Dav, it looks like our opportunity just got a lot bigger.”

“And our risk.”

“How do they say around here? Straight?” He laughed again. “I’ve been busy while you two were sightseeing. We have a meeting tomorrow night with a man named Gilliam Hytheworde.”

Kryna almost sprayed ale over both men. “Hytheworde?! Are you crazy? There’s no way you’ll get a fair price from a man like that.”

“We’re not looking for a fair price,” said Barin. “That pottery is stolen, even if we’re not the ones who stole it. We can’t just try to sell it in the marketplace, but a man like Hytheworde can find a buyer who doesn’t care where it came from. We’ll still be rich even if he takes a big cut. Of course, he’ll think we don’t know it’s this Corathin pottery — when I gave his man the sample I honestly didn’t — which makes it even more likely he’ll try to cheat us.”

Kryna looked at Dav, who was quietly sipping his ale. “You two are hoping he’ll try to cheat you, aren’t you?”

Dav stared straight ahead and shrugged. “We’ll likely get some coin out of it either way, and still have pottery to sell if he does. And a man like that, who would miss him? We make enough coin and I can stop killing, at least until I get the itch again, and that could take years.”

Kryna’s heart was racing; she wasn’t sure if it was fear or excitement. “Hytheworde’s not some brigand from the countryside, though.”

Barin shook his head. “No, we’re pretty sure he’ll try something a little more sophisticated. I have a meeting set up with him tomorrow night at fifth bell in an alley near the Court of Trees. We’re need to send him a message shortly before that saying that we’ve changed the meeting location to somewhere we can set up and see who’s coming. That’s where we need your help. Do you know–?”

“Shadow boys,” said Dav.

“What’s a Shadow boy?”

“Ask her.”

“Orphans,” said Kryna. “They’re organized. They do run messages. I could get one for you, for a cut of the profits.” Had she really just said that? Her head was swimming, and not from the ale. This was much more exciting than sewing dresses.

Barin smiled. “Perfect. You’ll get your cut. Now all we need –”

“The Mermaid’s Lair. It’s a beach north of the Old City.”

Kryna stared at Dav. “Was our whole day together just a scouting expedition for you?”

His mouth fell open. He looked genuinely hurt, the sweet boy. “N– no. I enjoyed every moment. Well, not every moment. There was that bit with the sailors. But I was keeping my eyes open for some things. I just couldn’t tell you then, because …”

She patted his hand. “It’s okay, Dav. I was teasing.” She left her hand resting on his.

“If you two are done, I think it’s settled. We’ll meet at this Mermaid’s Lair tomorrow night at fifth bell. At the same time, Kryna will send one of these shadow boys with a message that there were too many guards around, and we decided to move the location and meet at sixth bell. When Hytheworde shows up, we’ll see how things go.”

Kryna held up her free hand. “Not so fast. When I said ‘Hytheworde’s not some brigand from the country’, what I meant was he might not try to rob you at swordpoint. How do you know the Highwayman will work?”

Barin pulled out the box again and flipped it open, riffling through the cards. “We’re not going to use the Highwayman. We’ll be using … ah, here it is.” He passed a card to her, being careful to keep it facing away from Davris.

She took it and studied it by candlelight. It showed a smiling man, in profile. His right hand was held out in a gesture of friendly greeting. The left was behind his back, holding a wickedly curved dagger. She squeezed Dav’s hand and turned the card to him. “So when he shows you this –”

“Ah!” Dav jerked his hand away and put both palms in front of his eyes.

“Why did you do that?” demanded Barin.

“I thought you had to show it to him. ‘Give the deck to someone you trust’ and all that.”

“No.” Dav’s voice was strained. “You give the deck to someone you trust so you know they won’t use you. Anyone can show the card.”

“I’m sorry, Dav. I thought …”

“It’s my fault,” said Barin. “I shouldn’t have pulled it out to begin with. You saw it, didn’t you, Dav?”

“You know I did.”

“And did anyone, um, come to mind?”

“You know that, too. I’d be calmly thinking about ways to kill them tomorrow, wouldn’t I?”

“Yeah, you would. Kryna, I’m sorry. I guess I was trying to impress you. That card is called the Betrayer. It’s a dangerous one. If the barkeep cheats Dav on the change for his drink, things could get ugly fast. Dav, maybe you’d better go upstairs. I’ll pay the owner to leave some food outside the door and leave you alone until fourth bell tomorrow night. Will you be okay getting up there?”

“I think so.” Dav stood and swayed a little, steadying himself on a chair. When Kryna got up to put a hand on his shoulder, he pushed it gently away. “I can do this. I wish you could join me up there, but I wouldn’t be any good. I’m always a little … lost before I have a … person in mind.” He kissed her on the lips. “I’ll promise you a sennight together in bed after this is over.”

As he turned toward the stairs, Kryna sat back down with Barin.

 

***

 

Davris’ mind was reeling. Maybe “minds” would be better. He felt like two people: one cataloging everyone he knew and trying to recall a betrayal, and the other focused on getting to his room. He heard Barin and Kryna talking behind him.

“So, how did you end up with him last night?”

“Funny story …”

He didn’t hear the rest of it. It didn’t matter. The crowd parted enough to give him a path to the stairs. He took it, staggering through the press of bodies. Halfway through, he collided with a man.

“Little too much to drink, friend?” A hand went to his shoulder, steadying him.

“Something like that,” said Dav, thinking, “don’t reach for my purse, don’t reach for my purse, don’t reach for my purse …”

Fortunately for both of them, the man just righted him before returning to his friends, no doubt to joke about the little blond guy who can’t hold his ale. Dav, or the part of him that was still Dav, put him out of mind before he imagined some slight from the encounter. He achieved the staircase and stumbled up, fishing his room key from his pocket while he staggered down the narrow hallway. He fumbled with the lock but managed to open the door, and then shut and locked it behind him. He stripped off most of his clothes and collapsed on the bed hoping for sleep.

Sleep didn’t come easily. He tossed and turned with every bell. In his small village in Arvalia, bells were just a measure of how many hands the sun or certain stars were above the horizon. He had no idea how these people slept with actual bells ringing all night. When this was over, he was going to buy a small house far away from any bell tower, maybe with Kryna if she would have him. At the seventh bell of night he woke to someone standing in the room.

He was half out of bed and tangled in sweat-soaked covers, reaching for his knife, before he realized that it was just his father. The old man stood over Davris, his drawn face clearer than it should have been by shuttered moonlight. His clothes hung from his withered frame just as it had in the days before his death.

“Repeat your lessons.”

“Not now …”

“Repeat your lessons!”

“I know my lessons, Father!” Dav clapped his hand over his mouth. No one would hear the old man barking at him, but someone could hear him. There was too much at stake to be caught yelling at a ghost.

“Repeat your lessons. Who are you?”

“I am the gibbous moon.”

“Waxing.”

“I am the gibbous moon, waxing.” He’d had that last part beaten into him even before he knew what any of this meant.

“What makes you kill?”

“The moon, threatened. The card, drawn.”

“Must the card be drawn?”

This had been his father’s addition to the lesson. Davris stared at the withered old man. “Apparently, so.”

He flinched as his father raised a hand to strike him, even though he knew this specter could do him no harm.

“Must the card be drawn?”

“No, the killing is mine. I don’t belong to it.”

“Can the killing be stopped once the card is drawn?”

“Then it is too late to beg or bargain. It is the killing time.”

“What is the lesson of the King?”

“King Adrian sought to name the victim when he drew the card. He did not heed the teachings of Darian, his grandfather, for whom the moons and cards were made. He drew the King and named his rival, but Adrian was the only king the killers knew. He died beneath the blade of the full moon, who died beneath the blades of Adrian’s guards. One was lost and six escaped with their decks.”

“What is the lesson of the Noose?”

“The crescent moon, waning, sought to remove her necklace, and died upon her own blade.”

“What is the lesson of the Flame?”

“The half moon, waxing, burned his deck and was struck mad. He died under a rain of arrows after killing dozens.”

“What is the lesson of the Puppet?”

“The gibbous moon, waning, gave his deck to an unscrupulous man, who used him for personal gain, heedless of danger. He died against great odds.”

“What is the lesson of the Duelist?”

“The crescent moon, waxing, sought fame as a warrior. She took one challenge each month, before a crowd, and easily slew all who dared to face her. She died beneath the new moon, to a challenger who wouldn’t wait.”

“What is the lesson of the Two?”

“To learn the lessons of the others. To go separately into the world, and live quiet lives until death.”

“What is the lesson of the Son?”

Davris stared in silence, bitterness welling up within him.

“What is the lesson of the Son?”

There was no escaping this one; at least it was the final lesson. “The killer dies but the moon continues. There will always be a child, always born in phase, and always bound to wear the Noose.” Davris fingered his own necklace, worn since his father had wasted away. It had been so for generations: parent to child.

Satisfied, his father faded to memory.

Davris collapsed back on the bed. “What is the lesson of the Withered Fool?” he asked no one.

Sleep came at last, but not for long. He woke, drenched in sweat, just as he was finishing the final stroke of blade on whetstone. His muscles ached from the practice he knew he had endured. Still the back of his mind whirled, searching for a betrayer.

None came, but there was a knock at the door and a call of “Breakfast!” Davris waited for the footsteps to retreat and then opened the door and brought the tray in. He was certain that the breakfast was as good as the previous day, but to him it tasted of sand and blood.

He paced the small room that day, counting the bells until nightfall. He ate each meal as it was brought to him, savoring none of it. At the third bell of night, he could stand it no longer. He left his room and descended the stairs. It was earlier than he and Kryna had arrived the previous night, so the common room was not quite as crowded. Still, he had to dodge his way past several groups, avoiding eye contact, before he reached the door of Maxim’s and slipped out into the night.

The fog of the previous night was gone. The wind was cold beneath a cloudless sky. He turned and made his way along the river toward the Mermaid’s Lair, watching the moon — his moon — rise above the horizon in silent majesty. Around it the stars hung like jewels against the tapestry of night.

He had decided to scout the beach, to see how it looked at night. It would be safe there. He could wait in peace, alone, until Barin came, and then they could be about their business.

Only he wasn’t alone when he arrived. He heard the voices before he saw them. A man and a woman were walking along the beach. He could see them framed against the gibbous moon, his arm around her, but their voices were drowned by the crashing of the waves. Davris crouched behind a rock and waited for them to pass.

As they drew close, he heard a woman’s laugh. Kryna’s laugh. Why was she here? And was the man–? Yes, that was Barin’s voice. He moved closer, until he could hear some of their words above the sound of the waves.

“… a mistake?” Kryna was asking.

Barin laughed. “… dangerous, sure, but life’s … have to take what you want …”

“Won’t he …”

“… not due for another bell …”

Who wasn’t due? Hytheworde! It must be. Barin had decided to scout the beach, just as Davris himself had done. Kryna had come simply to show him the way, before she left to find a shadow boy. But if they hadn’t sent the messenger yet, why would they be worried about Hytheworde?

Davris felt himself rise and surge forward, crouched low, feet almost silent on the sand. Their backs were to him, so they would never see him coming, never hear him over the crash of the surf. With a great effort, he stopped himself, falling to his knees. His knife was in his hand. How had it gotten there?

“No,” he whispered. That was his closest friend, and the woman he — Did he love her? That quickly? He decided the answer was yes. So, she had laughed. What of it? Barin made him laugh all the time. Why was Barin’s arm around her? It was cold, nothing more.

The couple — no, just two people — stopped, silhouetted in the moonlight. He lifted her to sit upon a rock, so that their heads were almost level.

Davris felt his hand tighten upon the knife’s handle. He watched as Barin and Kryna, his friend and his love, drew together. She pulled Barin’s trousers down below his waist; a moment later his hips began to move in an unmistakable rhythm. Davris’ mind raced, part of it trying to find a way for this to be something other than what it clearly was; another part, deep and secret, coldly weighed the actions he was witnessing. Who was the greatest betrayer? Who would die this night?

Davris gazed up at the gibbous moon as his hand closed over the lopsided disc hung around his neck. He felt the links against his skin as the silver chain tightened. Who indeed?

 

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