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Tigueron, the leader of Orsis Guild and one of the most feared assassins in all Varfleet, sat alone at a table in the back of the Bullfinch tavern, waiting. Smoke from pipes clamped between teeth and oil lamps set upon tables clouded the air with a pungent haze, wafting to the rafters and along the walls. Smokeless lamps were discouraged in places like this where so many of the customers preferred anonymity. It was crowded enough that such anonymity would have been impossible otherwise, and Tigueron did not necessarily disagree with the reasoning of his fellow patrons. The noise was ferocious—shouts and laughter and conversations fighting to reach the ears of those seated just across the table from each other. Pitchers filled glasses, which rose to meet eager mouths, which gulped and swallowed until the ale was gone and the glasses refilled to begin the process anew. Much of the amber liquid was spilled on the wooden boards of the worn tavern floor, and more than a little stained the clothes of the customers. Manners were not anywhere near as popular as raucous behavior.
Tigueron hunched over his glass, watching everything around him without seeming to do so. Watching, but mostly waiting.
He was a big man, burly and muscular, his head heavy on his shoulders, his face rough-featured and scarred, his hair cut short and close to his scalp, his broken nose prominent, and his eyes hard and empty. He wore a heavy cloak with the hood pulled back and the drawstrings unfastened. It was warm in the cavernous drinking room, but he ignored it. The cloak served a more useful purpose than providing warmth. Beneath it were seven blades, all hidden in various sheaths within his clothing, all readily within reach—any one of them so sharp it could cut through bone. He never went anywhere without them.
His eyes shifted to the tavern’s front doors. A client was coming but had not yet arrived. It was unusual for Tigueron to meet with a client under such circumstances. Normally, such meetings took place in the cellars of his fortress lair, Revelations, where he was surrounded by protections and protectors and in complete control of any situation. But this client had been insistent. The meeting was to take place in a public house—a demand Tigueron would have ordinarily dismissed out of hand. But a rather large number of credits placed in the hands of those who vetted such requests—some of which were passed on to him—persuaded him of the other’s seriousness and proved an inducement too persuasive to ignore. No advantage to either party, the client had insisted. No danger that one or the other might act inappropriately.
Which clearly meant Tigueron, since the client would have had no advantage at all available in Revelations.
Yet the promise of further credits in such large amounts was intriguing. What harm could it do to hear the client out? His enemies would never invite Tigueron to a tavern to do him in. They would be subtler in their efforts. Besides, he was too cautious not to guard against such attempts. After all, he was in the business of bringing harm to others rather than to himself.
He glanced over to the men sitting at a table nearby. Three hardened, experienced killers who worked for him and would come to his aid in an instant if he was threatened. Not to mention that he was his own best weapon. Others had tried to kill him in the past. He had buried them all.
Outside, the wind was howling. The shutters, closed and latched, rattled against their casings with its force. Tigueron had seen the storm approaching on his way to this meeting, huge black clouds rolling in from the west filled with lightning and thunder, a dark promise of the deluge yet to come. But he made no move to leave, even though the client was late. He simply waited. He was good at waiting. It was very much a requirement of his work. Still, he could see that his associates were growing restless, their bodies shifting in their chairs, their gazes turned away from one another, their conversation exhausted.
It was not his problem. They would wait as they had been instructed to wait.
A black-cloaked figure appeared through the doors, pausing at the entrance and looking around the room. Droplets of rain dotted his cloak, and his head and face were hidden in the deep shadows of a hood. This had to be the client. Tigueron stood to signal and waited as the stranger crossed to his table.
“Tigueron?” the stranger asked.
A man, from his voice and now his face, as well, his features coming into the light as the gleam of the oil lamp burning on the table etched them out of the hood’s blackness. He was smooth-faced, with a serene look on his countenance. His skin was unusually pale, and his hair quite blond. His features were calm and expressionless, as if carved from stone.
Tigueron nodded and gestured to the seat across from him, then sat himself. The stranger slid into place smoothly and silently, his eyes on Tigueron all the while. “Nasty weather coming,” he said, his voice soft.
Tigueron nodded again. “What services do you require of Orsis?” he growled, eager to get down to business.
“You perform assassinations, do you not?”
Tigueron leaned forward. “Keep your voice down. The walls have ears in places like this.” He leaned back again. In point of fact, the din of the tavern room was sufficient concealment, but he wanted to intimidate this confident stranger just a bit. “Do you wish to purchase my services?”
“What are the terms?”
“Depending on whom you wish killed, we set a price. The harder the job, the higher the price. I will require the name and payment in full. If we succeed on our first try, fine. If we do not, we will continue until we succeed. You are guaranteed to receive what you pay for. That is our pledge when you enter into the agreement.”
“This one may be more difficult than others.”
Tigueron shrugged. “Nothing is impossible.”
He signaled the serving girl who had been attending to him since his arrival and placed an order for two tankards of ale. The girl nodded and left at once to fetch the ale. He took note of the fear in her eyes. She knew who he was, but he was paying her well for good service. Credits always trumped fear.
The stranger seemed not to notice any of it. He sat back, glancing toward the rattling windows, hearing a fresh change in the wind. A new sound reached their ears. Rain was falling heavily. The storm had arrived. The last of the mooring lines for the airships docked on the quay would have been lashed in place. The light sheaths would have been brought down and gathered in and the radian draws pulled in close. Windows and doors of homes and businesses would have been secured. The storm was expected to continue through the night. Rain would be heavy, and there would be some flooding.
A few of the tavern patrons had risen and were heading for the doors, wrapped in their cloaks and hooded against the downpour. But most stayed put. The storm was an excuse for adding a little more enjoyment to the evening—another tankard or two, another hour or so. Voices shouted and laughed and chased back the sounds of the storm, brave and alive with confidence.
“The man you are looking for should be in a village called Emberen,” the stranger said. “He was at Paranor before, but he has been gone for a while. In any case, I don’t want you to act against him right away. Not until after a date I will set before I leave. Can you wait?”
“As long as you like. But why wait?” Paranor? Tigueron was suddenly wary. There were only Druids at Paranor.
“That would be my business.” A pause to be sure the point was made. “So, then, how quickly can we bring the matter to a close?”
Tigueron leaned forward. “I don’t know. It would depend on the client and circumstances. You mentioned Paranor. If he is there, it would be much more difficult. Elsewhere, not so much. Usually, we settle matters in no more than one day.”
“You can do it so quickly?”
“Orsis Guild is unique. We have special skills. Special tools to call upon.”
A pause. “Do you have the use of magic?”
“Magic?” Tigueron gave him a look bordering on disgust. “Magic is for weaklings and charlatans. Besides, it is outlawed in the territories of the Federation. It is outlawed virtually everywhere but in Elven country and one or two other enclaves still wedded to its uses.”
“Just because it is outlawed doesn’t mean it isn’t employed. The Druids use it as they see fit. And who is going to stop them? Even the Federation seeks to avoid that sort of confrontation. It would take a bold effort indeed to challenge those who inhabit Paranor. You let some sleeping dogs lie.”
The stranger paused. “Besides, aren’t assassinations outlawed, as well? And are they not employed on a regular basis, too?”
The tankards of ale arrived, and the serving girl carefully placed one before each man, accepting the coin the stranger offered as payment before departing. The stranger picked up his drink and took a long pull, swallowing with relish.
“Wonderful,” he pronounced. “A fine batch they brew here. Now, I want this done at month’s end and not before.”
“As you wish.” Tigueron was growing irritated with this whole business. Irritated, as well, with this unflappable stranger he now regretted agreeing to meet. “Tell me, who is it we are to remove from your life?”
“Not yet. I want to hear the price first. Let me say that you will know the victim, and he will not be easily killed. In fact, it will be hard even to get close enough to carry out my wishes. He is trained to protect himself against men like you and yours.”
“I will have the name before you have the price,” Tigueron replied, his face dark. “Do you take me for a fool?”
“You should know he has magic at his disposal.”
Tigueron nodded slowly. “That means a higher price, then. Such men can prove troublesome.”
“Cost does not matter. Only success. Once you take this job, you must complete it. You cannot change your mind later.”
Tigueron stared at him. This client was being inordinately demanding. Most men who wanted another killed didn’t spend time worrying about what it might take to accomplish the job. They only cared about the cost. This stranger had the exact opposite concerns. And Tigueron was suddenly troubled in a way that he had not been earlier.
“What are you not telling me?” he asked pointedly, glancing at the men sitting at the other table.
“Do not even think about calling those men to your defense, Tigueron. You would be dead before they got out of their seats if I wished it. Let us try to stay on point. I desire your services and nothing more. You do not get to ask my name or the details of why I am doing this. You either accept the job or you don’t. The choice is yours.”
Tigueron glowered at him. “The name, first.”
Being stubborn, digging in. If word got around that he was letting his clients dictate the terms, he would be out of business in a flash. He held the stranger’s gaze, unmovable.
The stranger nodded. “Very well. His name is Drisker Arc.”
Now Tigueron understood the other’s concern. A Druid of Drisker Arc’s skill and reputation would not be easily dispatched. But the amount of money he could demand for such an endeavor would be enormous.
He named a ridiculously high figure—so high that, if he were the client, he would have walked away.
But the stranger just nodded his agreement with a shrug. “Done.”
Tigueron was suddenly unsettled. He felt oddly trapped, as if the bargain were a snare into which he had stepped. But he was not afraid of risk, so he nodded in turn. “You must pay me now.”
The stranger passed a slip of paper across the table. “Take it to any Bluestone Credit Agency outlet in Varfleet by tomorrow morning and it will be honored. The credits will be waiting.”
Tigueron read the amount written on the paper greedily. “If the agency fails to honor it,” the stranger continued in his soft, calm voice, “you have no obligation to me and you may keep what I have already given you to meet with me tonight. But the credits will be there.”
Tigueron sneered. “They had better be.”
The stranger’s face showed nothing. “Send word to Paranor when the matter is concluded. I will be there. Make sure your message reveals nothing about yourself. Make it a general announcement intended for all.”
He rose from the table, tightened his cloak about his shoulders, and pulled its hood forward over his head so his face was hidden once more.
“Do not fail me,” he whispered.
Then he walked to the doors of the tavern and went out into the stormy night.
Tavo Kaynin remembered enough of his early boyhood to know that he hadn’t always been like he was now.
When he was very little, the magic wasn’t yet a part of his life. He was a normal boy in most ways; he fit in with his family and he loved them. His sister was his closest friend, and they played together every day. She was younger by five years, and although now and then she told him there were things about him she didn’t understand, he never had reason to think much about it.
Still, he would catch her looking at him strangely sometimes. She would study him, as if trying to see something that was hidden. He would ask her what she was doing, and she would always say the same thing: Nothing. Even though he was the older sibling and he could intimidate her easily enough, he always let the matter drop.
After all, she was his little sister and he loved her.
But then, once she turned ten, she started to go off by herself, telling him he could not go with her, saying she wanted to go alone. Even though he did as she asked, he was hurt and angered by her secretiveness, and he told her so. But even knowing this, she refused to confide in him.
At first, he asked his mother.
“Oh, that’s just Tarsha,” his mother told him. “Girls are like that sometimes. Just give her some space. It won’t last.”
He had no idea what she was talking about, so he let the matter drop.
But soon, some of those secrets began to reveal themselves. He had just turned fifteen and was already beginning to test the boundaries of his parents’ control. He was beginning to disobey directives—sometimes because he felt it was necessary and other times because he simply felt like it. Disobedience was a part of growing up, although he didn’t understand this at the time. But he was noticing something else troubling about himself, too. His temper was getting the best of him with increasing frequency. Sudden rages, quick bursts of anger, and feelings of hostility toward almost everyone, including his sister and his parents, were becoming the norm. Most of the time there wasn’t even a reason for it.