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Klathport, former capital of Ithian, 1023
Malachy slipped into the shadows, merging with them like a creature formed of shades and moonlight. His breath misted before him, the rhythm smooth and calm, carefully measured as he listened to the city at night. Down the road, a fight had broken out in the public rooms of Jennsen's inn. Somewhere to his left a horse snorted. Its hooves beat out a hollow refrain on the cobbles.
And in front of him the High Enforcer's house stooped over the street, the windows shuttered and blind.
The house surprised him. He'd expected a grand mansion in the Marian district, but Trask lived close to his own Cheapside. The northern immigrants had settled there, calling it Little Holt. Peaceful, though by no means crime-free, it remained a ghetto in all but name.
So why would one of Klathport's High Enforcers live here in a modest house? All knew Trask to be just, but not kind; respected, but not particularly liked. Though better than most, his justice was swift and brutal and he could be intransigent if he caught you. So Malachy's brethren said.
But first, Malachy thought recklessly, he has to catch you.
Another hour passed before he moved, slipping down the alley at the side of the house, his feet silent. Bars covered the ground-floor windows. Though the lock on the kitchen door would have taken only moments to pick, he could see the glow of a fire through the gap in the curtains. At this hour it would be attended. He found a secure drainpipe and shimmied noiselessly up to the roof.
Old slates skittered beneath his feet but none fell. Malachy adjusted his balance, steadying himself. Sliding to his stomach, he hung downto the upper floor, his lithe body no more than a shadow on the roof. He tested the windows until one of them shifted beneath a little force. Leaning in closer, he squinted, trying to see inside. Given his precarious position, haste would gain him nothing. Inside, the darkness neared totality, but he could discern no movement. His decision made, he forced the window open and slipped inside. He crouched low on the ground, waiting for his eyesight to adjust.
What he saw surprised him more than he would have liked to admit.
Someone kept the spacious room meticulously neat and clean, though without the adornments one would expect in a bedroom. Completely functional, everything placed with military precision from the three books piled on the shelf to the uniform jacket draped across the back of a chair. A pair of man's boots poked out from under the four-poster bed. Curtains would have afforded some privacy to the skeletally thin girl who lay there, but no such luxury belonged here.
The girl breathed fitfully. The air hung thick with the smoke of the Melidan herb, a medicinal drug strong enough to give her pleasant dreams for another few hours. Malachy knew the distinctive smell. Many of his neighbours in Cheapside used Melidan as a crutch to help wean them off Dew, one upon which they could soon become just as reliant. It helped the body to heal, but the relaxation it induced also proved addictive. He wondered which category the girl fell into, patient or addict? She looked ill, but the bruises purpling the length of her arms indicated abuse.
He drew closer, aware that he stood in Trask's room, looking at, presumably, Trask's woman. But beyond the stringy yellow hair and her pinched, pale face, she couldn't be much older than thirteen. Bruises ringed her arms, centred on her wrists, and ranged up and down her legs. The tangled sheet covered only her torso. She probably couldn't feel the cold, or much of anything else with that amount of Melidan in the air. He started to feel the need for fresh air to clear his head.
It was common knowledge that girls were taken off the street night and day. The authorities blamed the desert tribes, vagrants, or the underclass. But in Cheapside everyone knew that the men to be most wary of kept fine carriages, wore silk and hand-embroidered tunics, and always had a heavy purse.
Malachy scowled. Drugged and used and left here to await the next time the urge took Trask--if she stayed, it would be the end of her. They said a killer named His Lordship ran loose in the city, a man who preyed on the girls from the brothels.
Perhaps, Malachy thought warily, I've just found His Lordship's lair.
He blocked open the window and the cold, fresh air flooded the room. At least it would leave his escape route clear. The door wasn't locked, for she wouldn't stir from the bed, and he made his cautious way towards the stairs. Cream and blue carpets covered the hall floor, silencing his footsteps. They couldn't silence his pounding heart.
The staircase, sweeping in a complete circle, took him down to the ground floor. Another time he might have explored the house a little more, but this was meant to be a quick in-and-out job.
The quicker the better. He shook his head. His nerves were rattled. He couldn't let it get to him. He'd stolen from worse men than Trask. At least Trask kept the girl confined in the bedroom and not chained up in some filthy cellar.
And speaking of cellars...
Malachy located the second staircase near the kitchen. Dust and darkness closed around him as he descended. He braced himself for more of Trask's leavings but found nothing down there other than a number of crates, some rather fine bottles of wine and a collection of strong spirits. He selected a large bottle of tiltoth. Only the desert could brew up a liquor like this, though you could find it in the city if you knew where to look. Klathport stock tended to be watered down--or contaminated with stuff that could make you blind--but this had the look of the genuine article, an almost pure brew. Well, he'd have to be a fool to leave that untouched. He smiled to himself as he tucked it into his pouch.
Waste not, want not...
A simple lock secured the strongroom, nothing extravagant, and that in itself gave the thief pause. No one in Klathport remained content with so rudimentary a protection on their valuables for long. Not even an "upright citizen" like Trask. He couldn't be so naive as to imagine that his position protected him. The hair on the back of Malachy's neck rose in alarm, like a dog's hackles, as the familiar sensation of warning swept over him.
Whatever lies behind that door, I want nothing to do with it.
And yet, the buyer had offered a small fortune for the papers he sought. And Halia would freak if he failed. Nothing for it. He stilled his breath, gritted his teeth and tripped the lock.
A howl like the end of the world erupted all around him. Malachy threw himself flat on the floor, his hands over his head, waiting for teeth and claws, or cold steel, to sink into his flesh.
Nothing happened. He scrambled to his feet as realisation swept over him. A healthy dose of embarrassment followed with the next breath. He'd heard about the new enchantments some of the sorcerers were touting--put a curse of paralysing fear around the door and a disembodied voice screeching out if the room was compromised. Laughably simple if you knew how, apparently. He couldn't believe he'd fallen for it. With the alarm blaring and precious seconds drifting by, he knew he had no time to lose.
Muttering curses drowned out by the continuing howl, he stepped inside and rifled through the contents until he found the papers. He thrust them into his pouch, pressing them well to the bottom as he started back up the steps.
Malachy had only just reached the ground floor when once more his instincts warned him of danger. This time they did not lie. He threw himself aside, rolling to avoid the flash of steel that arched towards him from the kitchen doorway. Scrabbling backwards, he struggled to get his balance, but his assailant advanced on him again. Malachy rolled to the right and came up onto his feet.
Trask--it had to be Trask--stood between him and the stairs. His shirt hung loosely open and his feet were bare. His soot-black hair hung dishevelled, as if he had only just woken. If so, his dress and hair were the only evidence. His ice green eyes met Malachy's gaze, hard and angry. And all too alert.
"You picked the wrong house, thief," he said.
Faced with a man in his early thirties and the peak of fitness, Malachy didn't doubt the danger. High Enforcer Trask had started out as a common guard, but his twelve-year rise through the ranks had been meteoric. Though he didn't adhere to the strict duelling codes, he remained an expert swordsman. He'd spent his early career breaking up tavern brawls and riots. You learned to sidestep the rules doing that.
Malachy relaxed his stance slightly, ready to flee. Trask's street-fighting days were long gone. If the High Enforcer had lived up to his reputation, Malachy should have been dead by now.
"Did I disturb you from your slumber, High Enforcer?" he asked with just the right amount of jeer in his voice to anger a proud man. An angry man made mistakes and Malachy intended to jump on any mistake he could. "I wouldn't want to detain you. Kindly step aside and I'll be on my way."
Trask's face darkened and Malachy reached surreptitiously into the pouch again, feeling for the small package wrapped in coarse paper.
"Raise your hands. My guards will be here in minutes."
"You know, you should never rely on people who aren't in sight. And you should only half-trust those who are."
Malachy twisted aside, his cloak swirling around him to give the distraction he needed, and in that instant, he hurled powdered herbs and chalk into Trask's face. The High Enforcer jerked back, blinded, and Malachy bounded past him, up the stairs to his escape route and freedom.
Trask staggered in pursuit, coughing violently. He would have to feel his way and from the thumping and crashing he wasn't too good at that when enraged. He couldn't even shout for his guards because of the cloying powder.
The hallway ahead seemed impossibly long, but Malachy sprinted down its length without a backwards glance. He reached the bedroom, aware that Trask had already picked up his pace, a man far stronger than he had anticipated. He'd have to get something more powerful next time.
Next time? As if I'm tangling with him again!
Malachy tore into the room. The girl jolted awake and screamed, her voice almost as deafening as the alarm spell in the cellar. She scrambled backwards on the bed. He slid to a halt, torn between helping her and getting away.
But if he left her here alone...
"Elly!" Trask yelled, a touch of panic in his voice now. "Just don't get in his way! I'm coming!"
Malachy grabbed her arm and pulled her with him. "If you ever want to get out of here, you stupid girl..."
She swung an elbow hard into his stomach, her frail body hiding a strength born of pure terror. Taken completely unaware, Malachy folded over, but Elly didn't make Trask's mistake. Like most girls Malachy knew, she'd survived long enough on the street to know more than one move. And she made the oldest defensive choice of all. Her knee connected with his groin and he dropped as if all strength had been snatched from him.
Elly ripped herself free while he gasped for air like a newly landed fish.
"Trask!" The girl threw herself into the High Enforcer's arms.
He blocked the doorway, holding her close. "Did he hurt you?"
"He wants to take me back!" she sobbed. "They sent him for me."
"They can't reach you here. I promise."
Malachy struggled to his feet, fighting the urge to throw up. So Trask's her saviour rather than her captor. Figures. Who'd peg him as a child molester? Seems I'm always prepared to think the worst of people. Never had reason to consider that a flaw before.
"Maybe I had you wrong after all," Malachy said bitterly.
Trask pushed the girl behind him. Her thin arms clung to his waist, inadvertently hampering him, but he didn't shake her off.
"Who in the Lady's name are you?" the High Enforcer snarled.
"Just your average scum of the city." Malachy bowed as gracefully as he could and threw himself back through the open window.
He landed heavily, his ankle twisting beneath him. Pain stabbed up his leg, but it didn't break. He gave a rapid prayer of thanks to the Goddess Incarnate, Mahailia, for that small mercy. Later, he promised Her, he would go to one of the local shrines and sing Her a psalm of praise until they made him shut up.
Stealing back into the shadows, Malachy steadied his breath against the jagged pain and waited beneath the bushes in silence.
While the guards stumbled through the night, organising search parties to scour the streets for him, while Trask brooded and paced the upper floors with the girl his constant shadow, Malachy hid in the High Enforcer's own garden and waited. And when the guards dispersed and the lights guttered in the house, still he waited. He didn't move until he heard the bells chiming to herald the dawn.
Malachy limped through the streets of Klathport, unhurried despite his injury. As far as the world knew he was just another late-night reveller on his way home to a torrent of abuse from his mother or a neglected wife. The grubby light of the city's sunrise stained the sky by the time he reached the house.
His fist on the door didn't bring an answer for some time. His face fixed in a permanent scowl and his hand ached almost as much as his ankle by the time the door opened. Halia looked as if she had just woken from sleep, her long raven hair tousled and a blanket wrapped around her naked body.
Was everyone in this city asleep tonight but him?
"You're late," she told him, her voice husky.
"I got delayed."
She stepped aside to allow him enter. As she moved, the bells on her ankle chain jingled merrily. The very sound irritated him, always had.
"Why don't you take them off?" he asked.
His sister lifted her foot, shaking it in a circle to make them chime again. "They keep me humble. Or don't you like being reminded of my former calling? I trained as a courtesan, not a street whore. At least that had legality to speak for it, not like managing your work. It's a slippery slope, Malachy. Whatever will become of me?" she asked in mock despair.
She laughed, though Malachy found the joke as strained as ever. He settled himself into a parlour chair by the fireplace, wincing as he stretched out his legs. She caught the flash of pain and sobered immediately. "You're hurt? What happened?"
He raised his eyebrows. "Concern from you? I thought you'd just find someone else to manage."
Halia glared at him and poured a glass of Carmondy red wine. She handed it to him and ruffled his hair affectionately. "You're the best thief in Klathport, Malachy, and you know it. Besides, I'm not likely to find another little brother lying around the city, am I?"
"Depends on your opinion of our mother."
She cuffed the top of his head lightly. "Did you get them?"
He pulled the crumpled papers out and handed them to her. Unrolling them, she studied the delicate script.
"Your information was off," he said. "He'd made the ground floor secure and put wards on the strongroom. He took a lot of precautions for some papers."
"Guards tend to take precautions, Malachy. It goes with the job." She rolled the scrolls up again and slid them onto the mantelpiece.
Malachy closed his eyes, allowing himself to relax at last.
She poured herself a glass of wine and settled on the ground at his feet. "Did you read them?"
"The fewer people who know, the better when it comes to blackmail material, isn't that what you always say? When are you expecting the councillor to come?"