The Underworld rules the city of Veldaren. Thieves, smugglers, assassins... they fear only one man.
In book #1 of the Shadowdance series, Thren Felhorn is the greatest assassin of his time. All the thieves' guilds of the city are under his unflinching control. If he has his way, death will soon spill out from the shadows and into the streets.
Aaron is Thren's son, trained to be heir to his father's criminal empire. He's cold, ruthless - everything an assassin should be. But when Aaron risks his life to protect a priest's daughter from his own guild, he glimpses a world beyond piston, daggers, and the iron rule of his father.
Assassin or protector; every choice has its consequences.
Fantasy author David Dalglish spins a tale of retribution and darkness, and an underworld reaching for ultimate power.
- A Dance of Cloaks
- A Dance of Blades
- A Dance of Mirrors
- A Dance of Shadows
- A Dance of Ghosts
- A Dance of Chaos
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A Dance of Cloaks
By David Dalglish
OrbitCopyright © 2013 David Dalglish
All rights reserved.
Aaron sat alone. The walls were bare wood. The floor had no carpet. There were no windows and only a single door, locked and barred from the outside. The silence was heavy, broken only by his occasional cough. In the far corner was a pail full of his waste. Thankfully, he had gotten used to the smell after the first day.
His new teacher had given him only one instruction: wait. He had been given a waterskin, but no food, no timetable, and worst of all, nothing to read. The boredom was far worse than his previous instructor's constant beatings and shouts. Gus the Gruff he had called himself. The other members of the guild whispered that Thren had lashed Gus thirty times after his son's training was finished. Aaron hoped his new teacher would be outright killed. Of all his teachers over the past five years, he was starting to think Robert Haern was the cruelest.
That was all he knew, the man's name. He was a wiry old man with a gray beard curled around his neck and tied behind his head. When he'd led Aaron to the room, he had walked with a cane. Aaron had never minded isolation, so at first the idea of a few hours in the dark sounded rather enjoyable. He had always stayed in corners and shadows, greatly preferring to watch people talk than take part in their conversation.
But now? After spending untold hours, perhaps even days, locked in darkness? Even with his love of isolation and quiet, this was ...
And then Aaron felt certain of what was going on. Walking over to the door, he knelt before it and pushed his fingers into the crack beneath. For a little while light had crept in underneath the frame, but then someone had stuffed a rag across it, completing the darkness. Using his slender fingers he pushed the rag back, letting in a bit of light. He had not done so earlier for fear of angering his new master. Now he couldn't care less. They wanted him to speak. They wanted him to crave conversation with others. Whoever this Robert Haern was, his father had surely hired him for that purpose.
"Let me out."
The words came out as a raspy whisper, yet the volume startled him. He had meant to boom the command at the top of his lungs. Was he really so timid?
"I said let me out," he shouted, raising the volume tremendously.
The door opened. The light hurt his eyes, and during the brief blindness, his teacher slipped inside and shut the door. He held a torch in one hand and a book in the other. His smile was partially hidden behind his beard.
"Excellent," Robert said. "I've only had two students last longer, both with more muscle than sense." His voice was firm but grainy, and it seemed to thunder in the small dark room.
"I know what you're doing," Aaron said.
"Come now, what's that?" the old man asked. "My ears haven't been youthful for thirty years. Speak up, lad!"
"I said I know what you're doing."
"Is that so? Well, knowing and preventing are two different things. You may know a punch is coming, but does that mean you can stop it? Well, your father has told me of your training, so perhaps you could, yes, perhaps."
As his eyes adjusted to the torchlight, Aaron slowly backed into a corner. With the darkness gone he felt naked. His eyes flicked to the pail in the corner, and he suddenly felt embarrassed. If the old man was bothered by the smell, he didn't seem to show it.
"Who are you?" Aaron asked after the silence had stretched longer than a minute.
"My name is Robert Haern. I told you that when I first brought you in here."
"That tells me nothing," Aaron said. "Who are you?"
Robert smiled, just a flash of amusement on his wrinkled face, but Aaron caught it and wondered what it meant.
"Very well, Aaron. At one point I was the tutor of King Edwin Vaelor, but he has since gotten older and tired of my ... corrections."
"Corrections," Aaron said, and it all confirmed what he'd guessed. "Was this my correction for not talking enough?"
To Aaron's own surprise, Robert looked shocked.
"Correction? Dear lord, boy, no, no. I was told of your quiet nature, but that is not what your father has paid me for. This dark room is a lesson that I hope you will soon understand. You have learned how to wield a sword and sneak through shadows. I, however, walk with a cane and make loud popping noises. So tell me, what purpose might I have with you?"
Aaron shifted his arms tighter about himself. He had no idea whether it was day or night, but the room felt cold and he had nothing but his thin clothing for warmth.
"You're to teach me," Aaron said.
"That's stating the bloody obvious. What is it I will teach you?"
He sat down in the middle of the room while still holding the torch aloft. He grunted, and true to his word his back popped when he stretched.
"I don't know," the boy said.
"A good start," Robert said. "If you don't know an answer, just say so and save everyone the embarrassment. Uninformed guesses only stall the conversation. However, you should have known the answer. I tutored a king, remember? Mind my words. You will always know the answer to every question I ask you."
"A tutor," said Aaron. "I can already read and write. What else can an old man teach me?"
Robert smiled in the flickering torchlight.
"There are men trying to kill you, Aaron. Did you know that?"
At first Aaron opened his mouth to deny it, then stopped. The look in his teacher's eye suggested Aaron think carefully before answering.
"Yes," he finally said. "Though I convinced myself otherwise. The Trifect want all the thief guilds destroyed, their members dead. I am no different."
"Oh, but you are different," Robert said as he put his book down and shifted the torch to his other hand. "You're the heir to Thren Felhorn, one of the most feared men in all of Veldaren. Some say you'll find no finer a thief even if you searched every corner of Dezrel."
Such worship of his father was hardly foreign to Aaron, and something he always took for granted. For once, he dared ask something he'd never had the courage to ask.
"Is he the finest?" Aaron asked.
"I don't know enough of such matters to have a worthwhile opinion," Robert said. "Though I know he has lived a long time, and the wealth he amassed in his younger years is legendary."
Silence came over them. Aaron looked about the room, but it was bare and covered with shadows. He sensed his teacher waiting for him to speak, but he knew not what to say. His gaze lingered on the torchlight as Robert spat to the side.
"There are many questions you should ask, though one is the most obvious and most important. Think, boy."
Aaron's eyes flitted from the torchlight to the old man.
"Who are the Trifect?" he asked.
"Who is what? Speak up, I'm a flea's jump away from deaf."
"The Trifect," Aaron nearly shouted. "Who are they?"
"That is an excellent question," Robert said. "The lords of the Trifect have a saying: 'After the gods, us.' When the Gods' War ended, and Karak and Ashhur were banished by the goddess, the land was a devastated mess. Countries fractured, people rebelled, and pillagers marched up and down the coasts. Three wealthy men formed an alliance to protect their assets. Five hundred years ago they adopted their sigil, that of an eagle perched on a golden branch. They've been loyal to it ever since."
He paused and rubbed his beard. The torch switched hands.
"A question for you, boy: why do they want the thief guilds dead?"
The question was not difficult. The sigil was the answer.
"They never let go of their gold," Aaron said. "Yet we take it from them."
"Precisely," Robert said. "To be sure, they'll spend their gold, sometimes frivolously and without good reason. But even in giving away their coin, they are still master of it. But to have it taken? That is unacceptable to them. The Trifect tolerated the various thief guilds for many centuries while focusing on growing their power. And grow it did. Nearly the entire nation of Neldar is under their control in some way. For the longest of times they viewed the guilds as a nuisance, nothing more. That changed. Tell me why, boy; that is your next question."
This one was tougher. Aaron went over the words of his master. His memory was sharp, and at last he remembered a comment that seemed appropriate.
"My father amassed a legendary amount of wealth," he said. He smiled, proud of deducing the answer. "He must have taken too much from the Trifect, and they no longer considered him a nuisance."
"He was now a threat," Robert agreed. "And he was wealthy. Worse, though, was that his prestige was uniting the other guilds. Mostly your father tempted the stronger members and brought them into his fold, but about eight years ago he started making promises, threats, bribes, and even assassinations to bring about the leaders he needed. As a united presence, he thought even the Trifect would be reluctant to challenge their strength."
The old man opened his book, which turned out to not be a book at all. The inside was hollow, containing some hard cheese and dried meat. It took all of Aaron's willpower to keep from lunging for the food. From his short time with his teacher, he knew such a rash, discourteous action would be rebuked.
"Take it," Robert said. "You have honored me well with your attention."
Aaron didn't need to be told twice. The old man rose to his feet and walked to the door.
"I will return," he said. His fingers brushed over a slot in the wall, too fast for Aaron to see. He heard a soft pop, and then a tiny jut of metal sprung outward. Robert slid the torch through the metal, fastening it to the wall.
"Thank you," Aaron said, thrilled to know the torchlight would remain.
"Think on this," Robert said. "Eight years ago, your father united the guilds. Five years ago, war broke out between them and the Trifect. What caused your father's failure?"
The door opened, bright light flooded in, and then the old man was gone.
Thren was waiting for Robert not far from the door. They were inside a large and tastefully decorated home. Thren leaned against the wall, positioned so he could see both entrances to the living room.
"You told me the first session was the most important," Thren said, his arms crossed over his chest. "How did my son perform?"
"Admirably," Robert said. "And I do not say so out of fear. I've told kings their princes were brats with more snot than brains."
"I can hurt you worse than any king," Thren said, but his comment lacked teeth.
"You should see Vaelor's dungeon sometime," Robert said. "But yes, your son was intelligent and receptive, and most importantly, he let go of his anger for being subjected to the room's darkness once I told him it wasn't a punishment. A few more torches and I'll give him some books to read."
"The smoke won't kill him, will it?" Thren asked as he glanced at the door.
"There are tiny vents in the ceiling," Robert said as he hobbled toward a chair. "I have done this a hundred times, guildmaster, so do not worry. Due to the isolation, his mind will be craving knowledge. He'll learn to master his mind, which I'll hone sharper than any dagger of yours. Hopefully when his time with me is done, he will remember this level of focus and mimic it in more chaotic environments."
Thren pulled his hood over his face and bowed.
"You were expensive," he said. "As the Trifect grows poorer, so do we."
"Whether coin, gem, or food, a thief will always have something to steal."
Thren's eyes seemed to twinkle at that.
"Well worth the coin," he said.
The guildmaster bowed, turned, and then vanished into the dark streets of Veldaren. Robert tossed his cane aside and walked without a limp to the far side of the room. After pouring himself a drink, he sat down in his chair with a grunt of pleasure.
He expected more time to pass, but it seemed people had gotten more impatient as Robert grew older. Barely halfway into his glass, he heard two thumps against the outside of his door. They were his only warning before the plainly dressed man with only the barest hints of gray in his hair entered the living room. His simple face was marred by a scar curling from his left eye to his ear. He did his best to hide it with the hood of his cloak, but Robert had seen it many times before. The man was Gerand Crold, who had replaced Robert as the king's most trusted teacher and advisor.
"Did Thren leave pleased?" Gerand asked as he sat down opposite Robert.
"Indeed," Robert said, letting a bit of his irritation bleed into his voice. "Though I think that pleasure would have faded had he seen the king's advisor sneaking into my home."
"I was not spotted," the man said with an indignant sniff. "Of that, I am certain."
"With Thren Felhorn you can never be certain," Robert said with a dismissive wave of his hand. "Now what brings you here?"
The advisor nodded toward a door. Beyond it was the room Aaron remained within.
"He can't hear us, can he?" Gerand asked.
"Of course not. Now answer my question."
Gerand wiped a hand over his clean-shaven face and let his tone harden.
"For a man living by the king's grace alone, you seem rather rude to his servants. Should I whisper in his ear how uncooperative you're being in this endeavor?"
"Whisper all you want," Robert said. "I am not afraid of that little whelp. He sees spooks in the shadows and jumps with every clap of thunder."
Gerand's eyes narrowed.
"Dangerous words, old man. Your life won't last much longer carrying on with such recklessness."
"My life is nearing its end whether I am reckless or not," Robert said before finishing his drink. "I whisper and plot behind Thren Felhorn's back. I may as well act like the dead man I am."
Gerand let out a laugh.
"You put too much stock in that man's abilities. He's getting older, and he is far from the demigod the laymen whisper about when drunk. But if my presence here scares you so, then I will hurry along. Besides, my wife is waiting for me, and she promised a young redhead for us to play with to celebrate my thirtieth birthday."
Robert rolled his eyes. The boorish advisor was always bragging about his exploits, a third of which were probably true. They were Gerand's favorite stalling tactic when he wanted to linger, observe, and distract his companions. What he was stalling for, Robert didn't have a clue.
"We Haerns have no carnal interests," Robert said, rising from his chair with an exaggerated wince of pain. Gerand saw this and immediately took the cup, offering to fill it for him.
"We just pop right out of our mud fields," Robert continued. "Ever hear that slurp when your boot gets stuck and you have to force it out? That's us, making another Haern."
"Amusing," Gerand said as he handed Robert the glass. "So did you come from a nobleman's cloak, or perhaps a wise man's discarded sock?"
"Neither," Robert said. "Someone pissed in a gopher hole, and out I came, wet and angry. Now tell me why you're here, or I'll go to King Vaelor myself and let him know how displeased I am with your cooperation in this endeavor."
If Gerand was upset by the threat, he didn't show it.
"Love redheads," he said. "You know what they say about them? Oh, of course you don't, mud-birth and all. So feisty. But you want me to hurry, so hurry I shall. I've come for the boy."
Gerand poured himself a glass of liquor and toasted the old man from the other side of the room.
"The king has decided so, and I agree with his brilliant wisdom. With the boy in hand, we can force Thren to end this annoying little war of his."
"Have you lost your senses?" asked Robert. "You want to take Aaron hostage? Thren is trying to end this war, not prolong it."
He thought of Gerand's stalling, of the way his eyes had swept every corner of the room and peered through all the doorways. A stone dropped into his gut.
"You have troops surrounding my home," Robert said.
"We watched Thren leave," Gerand said. He downed his drink and licked his lips. "Trust me when I say you're alone. You can play your little game all you want, Robert, but you're still a Haern, and lack any true understanding of these matters. You say Thren wants this war of his to end? You're wrong. He doesn't want to lose, and therefore he won't let it end. But the Trifect won't bow to him, not now, not ever. This will only end when one side is dead. Veldaren can live without the thief guilds. Can we live without the food, wealth, and pleasures of the Trifect?"
"I live off mud," Robert said. "Can you?"
He flung his cane. The flat bottom smacked through the glass and struck Gerand's forehead. The man slumped to the floor, blood dripping from his hand. The old man rushed through the doorway as shouts came from the entrance to his home, followed by a loud crack as the door smashed open.
Robert burst into Aaron's training room. The boy winced at the sudden invasion of light. He jumped to his feet, immediately quiet and attentive. The old man felt a bit of sadness, realizing he would never have a chance to continue training such a gifted student.
Excerpted from A Dance of Cloaks by David Dalglish. Copyright © 2013 David Dalglish. Excerpted by permission of Orbit.
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