This story takes place roughly twenty years before the events of Heir of the Hunted.
The sun was a ball of red fire as it sunk beneath the waves. Catalin watched the day vanish with haunted eyes. She knew the chances were slim that she would live to see another. Indeed, if she went through with what she was intending, a dagger in the belly was a distinctly higher possibility. Her plan went beyond bravery; it was practically suicide. But the stakes were too high for half measures.
Catalin leaned out over the balustrade. She was standing on a small servants’ balcony of the Floating Anchor, the rowdiest tavern in all the docklands. Behind her, the buzz of the tavern was growing louder, washing out through the glazed doors that led onto the balcony.
Soon the appointed time would be upon her.
Shadows were gathering in the streets below the balcony. In the distance, the lamplights of the city harbour were flickering to life, muted by the fog that rolled off the White Sea. The pale blue moon had begun its trek across the heavens. For a moment, the vision seemed almost tranquil.
Then the night was shattered by the crash of breaking glass. Catalin squinted, scanning the maze of winding lanes and slanted rooftops of the docklands, but she couldn’t locate the disturbance. Only the main road from the harbour was lined with lamplights. The rest of the docklands remained in darkness, except for the candlelight that spilled from windows, and the moonlight that danced along the roofs.
Men’s laughter echoed from a nearby alley. It was a harsh and mocking sound that harboured only ill. Out on the street, a well-dressed man quickened his steps in response, scurrying back to his home in a better part of the city. Catalin shook her head. Yet another absentminded harbour clerk who’d neglected to notice the setting sun. A little way down the street, another man was leaning against a wall, casually tossing a coin. As the well-dressed man scurried past, the coin-flipping man peeled off from the wall and followed.
Catalin watched it all from of the anonymity of the balcony, making sure to stay within the shadows. Somewhere near the harbour, the roof of a small home was aglow with flames. Catalin sighed. Come morning, another family would find themselves poorer.
This was Syrentium, crown city of the Circle of Kingdoms. And these were the docklands, a warren of winding, purse-snatching avenues and dark, throat-cutting alleys. Every other building was a tavern or a brothel. This was the area that the Lord Regent never visited. This was the area the guards didn’t patrol. It was known by most as the Slums of Syrentium. But for Catalin Ruic, it had a different name: Home.
The sounds of the Floating Anchor were growing louder behind her. Catalin pried her sweaty fingers from the balustrade and began to pace, her eyes flashing constantly to the tavern’s glazed doors. Inside, she saw the servants had lit the lanterns. Her escort would be arriving at any moment. Catalin shoved her hands into her pockets to keep them from shaking.
She almost screamed when the shadow fell over her.
Whoever the intruder was, they had climbed up from the street and landed on the balcony with a thud. Catalin slid her dagger from her sleeve and spun to face the intruder. And froze.
She found herself looking into the eyes of a grubby-faced boy. Catalin didn’t know which one of them was more frightened. Her dagger was quivering in her hand. The boy was a skinny little thing. He was clutching an enormous boifish to his naked chest. Catalin knew from the tag on the fish’s tail that the boy hadn’t caught it himself. His eyes were wide, darting back and forth between Catalin and the balustrade.
A moment later, a shout came from the street, and any thoughts the boy might have had about fleeing back over the balustrade were swiftly forgotten.
“Hey! Any of you seen a thief with a fish?”
The question was met by a splatter of drunken curses and insults, probably from the men in the alley.
The boy’s eyes flashed back to Catalin. His arms were shaking as they hugged the fish tightly. So were his knees. Catalin tried to conjure a reassuring smile. She couldn’t blame the boy for being frightened. The outfit she was wearing had been deliberately chosen to intimidate.
She had dyed her hair black and slicked it back from her forehead. She had acquired a new longcoat and dyed that black too. The highlight of her outfit was her new hat, once more in black. Sharp and wide of brim, it dipped at the front to shadow her face. Her friend Eni said it made Catalin look like a widow.
“It’s okay,” Catalin said to the boy. “I’m not going to hurt you.” Belatedly, she remembered to put away her dagger. She held open one of the glass doors, releasing a wave of sounds from the tavern.
Catalin nodded toward the open door. “Go on. If you follow the stairs at the end of the landing they will take you to the kitchen. Ask for Eni; tell her Catalin sent you. She will cook that fish for you. She might even give you a loaf with butter.”
The boy blinked at Catalin as if he couldn’t believe her words. Then he made a sudden dash past her and through the open door. Catalin smiled as she watched the boy scurry over to the landing and down the stairs, the fish clutched to his chest.
“Hey, you! Girl with the hat!”
Catalin started. The man on the street was shouting at her. The rush of sound when the door had opened probably caught his attention. Catalin turned and peered over the balustrade.
“You seen a little runt with a stolen fish?” the man shouted.
Catalin pointed back down the street toward the harbour. The man cursed loudly and stalked away. Catalin’s smile returned. Eni would make sure the boy was well fed and got away safely. Knowing Eni, he’d probably receive a bath as well.
Catalin turned back to the tavern to check that the boy had found his way. Instead she found another giant figure filling the doorway. Catalin’s stomach lurched; her escort had arrived. The time was upon her.
“Hello, Grudg,” she said as her escort stomped onto the balcony.
Grudg grunted and scowled. His single eyebrow was thick enough to make a rug. It was a good scowl, fierce and uncompromising. The dark stubble that covered his jaw made him look older than his years, something for which Catalin was thankful.
Grudg’s vocabulary consisted of exactly three types of grunts and one growl. The perfect bodyguard for the coming encounter. At six and a half feet tall and half as wide, rumour had it that there was more than one bacyan lurking in Grudg’s family tree.
“Our guest will be here soon,” Catalin said, gazing out over the docklands. “According to my sources, Korven arrives precisely twenty minutes early for every meeting.” It was a fact that Catalin was banking on.
Grudg pursed his lips and tilted his head.
“No Grudg, I’m not sure I want to do this,” Catalin said, adding a sigh. “Eni thinks my plan is suicide.” Eni had been crying when Catalin left her, which wasn’t surprising. Catalin was about to confront a man who some called the most dangerous in the Circle of Kingdoms.
Grudg frowned and nodded, showing his support for Eni’s appraisal. Then he uttered another grunt and made stabbing motions, his tongue lolling from the side of his mouth.
“Yes, I’ve heard the tales too,” Catalin said, her eyes returning to the docklands. “But what choice do I have? I am the only thing standing between Korven and our people.” She drew herself tall and turned back to Grudg. “I am the Overseer, remember? This is my duty.”
The Overseer… the name still sounded strange on her lips. Catalin didn’t think it suited her at all. She much preferred Lady of the People. Later, when the time was right, she had vowed to change that title. But tonight, it was important that she wield the tradition and power that the title provided.
Grudg was staring at her, his thick eyebrow creased with concern.
“Don’t worry Grudg,” Catalin said. She added a smile but knew it didn’t touch her eyes. “You’ll be there to protect me.”
Grudg frowned earnestly and nodded.
“Shall we see if our guest has arrived?” Catalin asked.
Grudg uttered his “yes” grunt. Then he turned and walked through the doors into the tavern. Catalin tugged her collar close to her neck, dipped her hat, and followed.
A cushion of warm air and sound greeted her as she stepped through the doors: an agitated hum of voices; Six-Fingered Jig’s piano thumping a choppy melody; the coarse laughter of sailors, thugs and thieves. The interior of the tavern was brightly lit, courtesy of amber lanterns that hung from whatever purchase could be found. Given the treacherous types the Floating Anchor attracted, it was wise to banish as many of the shadows as possible.
The tavern’s upper level was open in the centre, creating a gallery that ran around the perimeter, overlooking the main floor below. Catalin waved Grudg on toward the balustrade. She arrived beside the big man and casually leaned upon the railing. Her eyes narrowed as she looked out over the crowd. The Floating Anchor was already full. Soon it would be bursting. Even up on the gallery, the air was thick with smoke that drifted toward the oaken rafters.
Catalin’s gaze roamed the tavern below. Her opponent’s agents were still in the same positions: the tall, sickly gentleman perched on a stool at the horseshoe bar; the grodgolyte with the bow who stood beside the piano; the two whores in garish dresses who were watching the card game – one of which Catalin was fairly certain wasn’t even a woman – and the man in the low hood who sat in the corner booth.
Catalin cursed. Five agents strategically placed around the tavern, each with a good vantage of the spot where she intended to engage her opponent. A detail she had only revealed to Eni and Grudg.
Catalin drew in a breath that shuddered in her lungs. Her heart was pounding. The anxiety she had felt out on the balcony was blossoming into something more akin to panic. She couldn’t help but feel that her opponent was two steps ahead of her. Catalin didn’t have the luxury of having her own men placed like Korven. Grudg was strong but he wasn’t fast, and his mind moved even slower.
Perhaps she should have sought Bolrig’s advice after all. Catalin had considered confiding in her mentor, but he didn’t have the stomach to challenge a man like Korven.
Catalin straightened and slid her hands into her pockets. Two steps ahead or not, Korven was about to discover that Catalin Ruic had a couple of tricks of her own. She turned her eyes to the tavern entrance and kept them there.
Fewer than three minutes passed before her opponent arrived.
Alladar Korven. There could be no mistaking him. The archmaster made no attempt to mask his identity. Indeed, it was as if he was flaunting his presence to the entire tavern.
Every step he took he placed deliberately. His pointy boots were white and thick of heel. He wore a sharp purple suit with a flamboyantly tall collar and a tail so long it swept his ankles. His hair was styled in a high wave and coloured deep crimson. An oily lick of fringe curled down over his brow.
Korven was younger than Catalin expected; she smiled at that irony. He was almost handsome, in a delicate sort of way. His dark-ringed eyes sparkled as they appraised the room, a slight smile playing on his pale lips, as if every person in the tavern had been placed there for his private amusement. His eyes skipped over Catalin with only the most cursory of pauses.
Catalin frowned as she noticed Korven’s bodyguard. It was an astonishing selection – not a yamian or a bacyan, or even a human, all of which were common choices in the Circle of Kingdoms for paid protection. Korven’s bodyguard was a tun.
Of all the races of Oberyon, few were as cheerful and docile as the tun. Most stood just over two feet tall, their red skin hanging in thick, rippling folds around their stout and hairless bodies. Their large eyes were outsized only by their overly wide mouths and large ears, which sprouted like wings from the sides of their skulls.
Korven’s tun was garbed in what appeared to be a child’s pirate costume. He was adorned with a ridiculous assortment of weapons – all of which he ignored completely. And, if Catalin wasn’t mistaken, he was also wearing makeup. The tun’s grin could not have gotten any wider as he gazed around the tavern, his head swivelling from side to side.
Catalin’s frown grew deeper. This was no bodyguard. She recognized the happy little creature for what it was: Korven’s private joke, a statement to his opponents that he needed no protection.
Korven slipped through the crowd like a shadow, his little tun trotting along behind. Catalin saw the archmaster offer an almost imperceptible wink to one of his placed men. At that point Korven’s tiny bodyguard noticed Six-Fingered Jig. The tun stopped beside the piano and began jumping up and down, clapping enthusiastically. Korven was a few steps ahead before he noticed.
The look of fury on the archmaster’s face was almost enough to make Catalin step backward. Korven grasped the tun by one large ear, and twisted, yanking him along. The tun’s face contorted with pain, his little red feet scrambling to catch up with his master.
Korven released the tun with a sneer and continued his path through the tavern. The tun followed at the archmaster’s heels, every now and then turning and gazing back at the piano, his hands slowly clapping.
Catalin’s heart went out to the little creature. Grudg looked from Korven to Catalin, his thick brow crumpling.
“I told you not to worry, Grudg,” Catalin said. “You’ll be at my side the whole time. He won’t be able to hurt me.”
Catalin nodded to Grudg and started across the landing, letting the big man walk in front of her. She slowed her steps as they descended the stairway to the main floor. Besides her and Grudg, the stairs were empty; her opponent’s gaze would surely be drawn to her again. From this point on, the image Catalin projected needed to be flawless. As she reached the final stair, she dipped her hat and kept her chin low – it would not do to have any of the regular patrons recognize her.
Grudg started out through the sea of tavern folk, steering a path toward Korven just as they had practiced. Catalin walked in the big man’s wake. Around her, the Floating Anchor suddenly seemed louder. The piano was thumping. A disjointed chorus of voices scratched and cackled in her ears. The damp heat of a hundred bodies and the bitter tang of cuff weed conspired to thicken the air.
Catalin could see Korven’s tall red hair through the crowd, only a few steps away from her. A bead of sweat ran down her neck and slithered between her breasts, but whether from the heat or panic she did not know. Grudg played his part perfectly. At the last moment he stepped aside, and Catalin was face to face with the man who would probably kill her.
“This way, Archmaster,” she said, keeping her chin dipped and her face hidden in shadow. Without waiting for a response, she turned and cut a path through the crowd in a new direction.
Catalin’s heart was pounding. There was no turning back now. One way or the other, she was in this to the end. A subtle glance at the floor and Korven’s shadow told her that he was following. She could only hope that Grudg had fallen in behind the archmaster as practiced.
Catalin led Korven around the corner of the main bar and into a quieter section of the tavern that contained several curtained booths. A carefully selected location: Korven’s men might have a good vantage but, if things turned nasty, they would need to fight through the crowd to reach her. It would only offer her a few precious moments, but that should be enough, as long as Grudg didn’t hesitate.
Reaching the last booth in the line, Catalin came to a halt and drew back the thick velvet curtain. Inside was a panelled booth which housed a round table. She had removed all of the chairs but two, one at either end. A dull amber lantern hung from the ceiling, splashing the booth with murky light and shadows.
Catalin lifted her chin and regarded her opponent. Korven was watching her carefully, a hint of laughter playing in his eyes.
“Our bodyguards will need to wait outside,” the archmaster said. His voice was quiet and silken.
“I would hardly call your companion a bodyguard,” Catalin said, her eyes moving to the tun, who was grinning up at her and clapping.
“The giant stays outside,” Korven said. “Or this meeting is over.”
Catalin looked from Korven to Grudg. “It’s okay,” she told her companion. “Wait outside with this little fellow.” She did her best to keep the quiver from her voice. Grudg was frowning at Catalin and shaking his head. Catalin held his gaze until he became still again.
Korven didn’t notice the exchange; he was too busy scowling at his tun. “Take one step from this spot, you foul little beast, and I’ll do to you what I did to your sister.”
The grin instantly dropped from the tun’s face. He nodded solemnly. Apparently satisfied the tun had understood the instruction, Korven stepped into the booth, holding Catalin’s gaze as he moved past her. Catalin followed and pulled the curtain closed. Her last vision was of Grudg’s face, lined with worry.
With the curtain drawn, the sounds of the tavern faded to a muffled buzz. Korven seated himself in the chair furthest from the curtain. The murky lantern dangled above the table. With two of them in the booth, the shadows seemed to have thickened. Catalin eyed the table as she pulled back her chair. Both the sack and the paper box were in position in the table’s centre. She just hoped Eni had possessed the stomach to go through with adding their contents.
Catalin curled into the seat across from her opponent and held his gaze. Korven eased back into his chair and crossed his legs, entwining his fingers on top of his knee. Such soft hands. His nails were more carefully manicured than her own.
Then Korven smiled.
Catalin was so surprised that she almost smiled back. Korven’s smile was joyful and disarming. His eyes sparkled as if merely looking upon Catalin brought him great joy.
Catalin reminded herself to keep her thoughts sharp. She would not let her enemy charm his way past her wits. This was the lord of smugglers and slave-traders, the boss of thugs, thieves and murderers. And if the rumours were true, he was an ice-hearted killer who had cut the throat of his own mother.
Korven arched a perfectly manicured eyebrow. “Tell me, my delightful young lady, just how long does your Overseer intend to keep me waiting?”
This time it was Catalin’s turn to smile, though hers barely touched the corners of her mouth. “And what exactly would I be keeping you waiting for?”
To Korven’s credit, he almost managed to hide his surprise. Almost. His arched eyebrow dropped only slightly. Then he threw back his head and laughed.
“How wonderful,” he said, adding a single clap. “I do love a good surprise. Although, I must admit, I was not expecting someone quite so–”
“Female?” Catalin suggested.
“Young,” Korven said. “You barely look old enough to have flowered.”
Catalin’s eyes danced playfully across her opponent. “One year on Syrentium’s streets is worth ten in some pampered noble’s house. And I can assure you, my ability to flower will have no bearing on what we are about to discuss.”
“Well, that remains to be seen, doesn’t it?” Korven said, shooting her a wink.
And suddenly Catalin understood the archmaster’s smile. He’s mocking me, she realized. I am just a plaything. She was aware of how she would appear to her opponent: young, perhaps even delicate. Growing up on Syrentium’s streets, her looks had invited more trouble than fortune. Catalin had never really understood the attention. She always thought her face was kind of plain and pointy, but then she supposed men were more generous critics than women.
“So,” Korven said, his smile melting into something more akin to boredom. “As you do not seem to be offering tea, I suppose I should ask if you have considered my offer.”
“No?” Korven frowned. “No, you haven’t considered it, or no is your answer?”
“No to both. I will not consider a proposal that costs the lives of my people.”
“Your people?” Korven’s mocking smile returned. “So now you consider yourself Lord Regent as well as Overseer? How swiftly the youth are seduced by arrogance. Years have a way of tempering one’s vanity.”
“I do not consider myself my people’s ruler. I am merely their protector. And, in that role, I will not compromise. Nor will I compromise in this negotiation.”
Korven clicked his tongue reproachfully. “And here I was, hoping you were going to play nicely. I was enjoying our banter, and good banter is so important in any business relationship. At least the interesting ones. But I am afraid I cannot allow your erroneous appraisal of your position to continue.”
Korven’s smile vanished. He leaned forward and planted his elbows on the table. “Let me speak plainly. I will be bringing my product into Syrentium, with or without your permission. Indeed, I have done so already. My use of the word “offer” was merely a courtesy. The only real decision you have to make is whether your part in this relationship will be pleasurable… or otherwise.”
Catalin’s hands clenched beneath the table. She eased out a breath and reminded herself to stay calm. Korven was only trying to intimidate her, something she had been anticipating.
“Brave words for someone in the heart of their enemy’s stronghold,” she said, doing her best to sound like someone who was in control. “I have identified your men, counted them, and have them surrounded with men of my own.”
Korven leaned back in his chair and chuckled. “Let me guess, you counted five. The man at the bar, the whore, the other whore,” he ticked them off on his fingers as he went, “the grodgolyte, and the man in the hood. Diversions. Actors, all of them. Do you really think I would hire protection from a man in a dress?” Korven’s brow lowered. “My real guards number closer to a dozen. One of which was standing right next to you on the landing. Now…” The archmaster cupped a hand to his ear. “…listen. Does that music sound different, perhaps louder?”
Catalin tilted her head and listened, a chill running up her spine. That was not Six-Fingered Jig playing. This pianist was less skilled, almost clumsy. Even muffled by the booth’s thick curtain, the notes were too loud. Out in the tavern it would be louder still, forcing the patrons to raise their voices. The din would drown out everything. Catalin’s booth might as well have been on another world.
She turned back to the table to find the archmaster watching her. The glint in his eye sent another chill through her.
“Yes, I can see it on your face,” Korven said. “You are beginning to understand your situation. You are utterly alone.” He pushed back from the table and stood slowly. “I know you don’t have any of your own guards planted. I saw how you hid your pretty face under that ridiculous hat as you walked through the crowd. No one even knows you’re in here.”
Korven sauntered around the table as he spoke, every word that slid from his lips bringing him closer to Catalin.
Beneath the table, Catalin slipped her hand into her sleeve, reaching for her dagger. She just hoped that Grudg would hear if she shouted… and that he’d be quick enough.
“Indeed, the whole way through the tavern, you took great efforts to conceal your identity,” Korven continued. “Your half-witted giant is the only one who is even aware this meeting is taking place. And as we speak, he is being poisoned, dragged outside, and dumped in the gutter.”
Catalin froze as Korven slid behind her, stopping between her chair and the curtain. She could feel his eyes crawling over her. His shadow loomed across the table. Every part of her wanted to leap from her chair and flee, but she forced herself to remain still. She would not let her opponent see her fear.
A finger ran up her neck, moving lightly, like the touch of a spider. Catalin flinched in spite of herself.
“I could take you now, here, on this table,” the archmaster whispered, “and no one would answer your screams. You and the city of Syrentium belong to me now, and there is naught you can do to alter the situation.”
Catalin clutched her dagger tighter. For a long moment the booth was utterly silent. She was aware of nothing but Korven’s lecherous presence and her own pounding heart. Then Korven’s shadow was moving again, sliding past her. He walked slowly back around to his side of the table.
Catalin eased out a breath as Korven sank back into his seat. Her fingers loosened from around her dagger. She could feel a bead of sweat running down her temple, but she would not give Korven the satisfaction of seeing her wipe it away.
“You see, I did not come here to negotiate,” the archmaster said, his smile returning. “I came here to establish a chain of command. I could kill you, but I don’t really want to. In my experience, taking over an operation is less problematic when you retain the existing management.” He fluttered a hand. “It makes things easier for the little people. No one really cares who’s at the top – except, of course, those who used to be there.”
Korven laced his fingers and perched his chin upon them. “So, I will try to be fair. I will allow you to retain your control of Syrentium, under my direction, of course. You will even receive a portion of the profits. I can be a generous master if I am so disposed. Who knows, you might even find my visits… pleasurable. I know I will.”
Catalin’s hands balled into fists beneath the table. The panic she had felt when Korven stood behind her had begun to ebb. Her heart was beating a little slower, and with it, her wits were returning. She reminded herself to look at things logically.
Korven’s boasts, his threats about Grudg, the way he had touched her, they were all a ploy to intimidate. The fact that he was talking at all meant they were still negotiating. At least, that was what Catalin hoped, for Grudg’s sake. Either way, her only option was to push forward with her plan.
Her chin lifted. “You may keep your pleasures, Archmaster. My answer is still no. I am aware of what your wizard’s dust does to those who use it. I have seen their bloated purple corpses with their yellow-rimmed eyes. I have gathered their bodies from the streets. My people have enough vices without adding one created from dark sorcery.”
“It is alchemy, my child, not sorcery,” Korven said, wiping his crimson fringe away with his little finger. “I would have hoped that someone in your position would not be inclined to such superstition. For those who cannot control themselves, there are always vices: ale, gambling–” he shot her a wink, “–arse. But for those who are more discerning, dream sugar can provide a sublime experience.” He tilted his head playfully. “Perhaps after you try some, you will feel differently. After all, you may as well join the party – you have neither the resolve nor the resources to oppose me.”
Catalin’s eyes narrowed. It almost sounded like Korven was trying to convince her.
“It’s true, I lack the resources to oppose you,” she said. “I may not be able to stop you from bringing dream sugar into my city, but I can stop you from being successful.” She reached over and lifted the sack in the table’s centre, letting its gruesome contents tumble free. “This, Archmaster, is what my resolve looks like.”
The head rolled a couple of times before coming to rest on Korven’s side of the table, its yellow-ringed eyes staring at the wooden ceiling. The raw gash where the neck had been severed was clearly visible. In the booth’s murky light, the sight was even more ghastly.
Catalin forced her eyes to meet Korven’s, tearing her gaze from the head on the table. Cheeky Mae had been like a mother to her. To see Cheeky like this, dead and lifeless, a grotesque mockery of the person she had been, was almost too much to bear. Catalin clenched her jaw, swallowing the sob that tried to escape her, and held herself still.
“And here I was, thinking you wouldn’t offer me a gift,” Korven said.
“Joke as you will, but it does not change the result.” Catalin removed her hat and placed it on the table. She wanted her opponent to see her face for what she was about to tell him. It disgusted her to use Cheeky’s death in this way, but she would not let that sacrifice be for nothing.
“This is me beating you,” Catalin said. “This is me depriving you of a customer. I have spread the word across Syrentium. The same fate will meet any who use your product.”
“So you would kill your own people for the sake of victory?”
“If that’s what it takes to save others. Better their killer be me than your alchemist.”
Catalin watched her opponent carefully and leaned back in her chair. Korven’s gaze slid between Catalin and Cheeky Mae’s severed head. The sparkle in his eyes had returned with new vigour.
Then he began to laugh. “My dear, you are delightfully entertaining, and so very imaginative. Yet so naïve. Do you really expect me to believe that you had this whore killed, while you sit there, now, crying at the sight of her severed head?”
Catalin touched a hand to her cheek and felt the tear running along it. She hadn’t even been aware… Her gambit had failed. Korven hadn’t fallen for it.
“No, no,” Korven said. “I find it more likely that this whore was killed by one of her own customers. Yet it is unfair to place the blame on my product. It might have been dream sugar that removed this whore’s wits enough for her to fall prey to her murderer, but if not dream sugar, she would have found another way. In my experience, dulling one’s senses is the poor’s favourite pass time.”
Catalin searched for a retort, but her mind wouldn’t seem to cooperate. Her hope had collapsed under a wave of despair. All she could see was Cheeky, lying in the alley where they had found her, Grudg placing her head in that bag. They had dishonoured Cheeky’s corpse for nothing; Korven had seen straight through it.
The archmaster was studying Catalin with new curiosity. “Still… I think I will keep you. These little games are far too much fun to abandon. Breaking you will be even more enjoyable. Perhaps I will even allow you to become my protégé.”
He leaned forward and blew his long crimson fringe out of his eyes. “Your lie was creative, but it was doomed to fail. It lacks logic. Even if you did have the stomach to go around murdering whores, you could never live up to your threat and kill them all. Have you not seen how the demand for dream sugar grows? I could release one shipment and you would find yourself facing an army before the next arrives. Let this be your first lesson. Never overestimate your talents. You are merely a child, attempting to play a man’s game.”
Catalin’s eyes moved to the paper box on the table. She knew that hopelessness was etched on every line of her face, but she had to keep fighting. That box was the only strategy she had left, a move so bold that even Korven would surely take pause. This was her last chance to save the people of Syrentium. This was her final card, and there was nothing left for her to do but play it.
“Thank you for the lesson, Archmaster,” Catalin said, “but it is you who have overestimated their talents. Or perhaps you have simply underestimated mine. You know nothing of my ability. Indeed, until this meeting you didn’t even know that I was a girl.”
She leaned forward and held her opponent’s gaze. “I, on the other hand, know a great deal about Alladar Korven. I know how you like to bathe in a stream on your estate. I know how you enjoy warm bloodberry pies. I know how you eat those pies from the same unadorned plate you have used since childhood.
“And there is something else I know,” Catalin said evenly. “Your next shipment will never arrive. Not in Syrentium. Not after you have seen my offer.”
She leaned across the table and lifted the paper box, revealing nine stacks of gold coins that glittered in the lantern light.
Korven slumped back in his chair and folded his arms. “What is this? A bribe?” He snorted. “I had hoped you were proving a more interesting opponent. I can earn this amount a hundredfold in a week.”
“Obviously you have not counted the coins,” Catalin said. “These stacks total nine-hundred and nineteen marks, exactly.”
Korven drew himself taller. His eyes narrowed and, in an instant, any curiosity or amusement was gone, replaced by the cruel eyes of Korven the killer.
“Nine-hundred and nineteen marks?” he echoed. “You foolish child. You dare threaten me? Do you actually imagine the Red Shadow would accept a contract from you to assassinate me? I am the archmaster of twenty-seven guilds! I own the Red Shadow. They would strike you dead as you made the offer, and take your coins for your audacity. I should slice your throat where you sit.”
Korven continued to bore into Catalin with his ice-cold eyes. Every part of her wanted to push back her chair and flee that evil gaze. But she could not back down. This was her last chance. Too many lives were at stake for Catalin to fail.
She leaned slowly back into her chair, making a conscious effort to slow her breathing.
“So, Archmaster, what do you say to my offer?”
“This is what I think of your offer!” Korven hissed. He backhanded the stacks of coins, sending them flying. They scattered across the table, clattering against the panelled walls, clinking when they hit the floor. One coin was left spinning in the table’s centre, glittering in the lantern light. Then at last it wobbled, toppled, and lay still.
Korven and Catalin both froze. For a moment the only sound was the clattering and clinking of coins.
Catalin’s stomach dropped. Korven had toppled the outer stacks of coins, revealing the wooden gambling chips arranged carefully underneath. Korven’s eyes narrowed at the newly exposed gambling chips that constituted the bulk of the coins. Then he threw his head back and laughed. He began clapping, slowly, the way one might applaud a particularly stirring speech.
Catalin bit down on her lip. She had failed. There were no cards left to play. She had been crazy to believe such a bold stunt could succeed. How would she ever explain this to Bolrig? Catalin should have left the meeting to her mentor.
At last Korven’s laughter subsided. “Really, you are too much,” he said, wiping a tear from his eye with his little finger. “You threaten me with the Red Shadow when all you have to pay them with are gambling chips? Your real coins are lucky to number thirty marks.”
As his gaze settled on Catalin, the last of Korven’s mirth faded. “But now, I’m afraid I will have to kill you. I was prepared to welcome you into my organization, but I cannot allow such an insult to go unanswered.”
The archmaster reached into his coat pocket and produced a long knife. Catalin had never seen a more vicious looking weapon. The blade was thick, and wickedly curved. Korven twirled the point of the blade on his finger, drawing a prick of blood.
“It will be a shame to kill you,” he said. “You have spirit, I’ll grant you that. Street spirit. The same ineffectual rage that has caused many a slave to rise against their master, only to be struck down for their insolence.” Upon the last word Korven stabbed his dagger into the table with such force that the lantern swayed on its rafter. Its murky light splashed shadows around the booth.
“The highborn will always rule over those in the gutter,” the archmaster spat, planting his fists on the table. “There is a reason your people are peasants – the same reason they have always been. They have not the wit nor talent to be otherwise. Every now and then, a peasant like you comes along, with a smattering of intelligence and the flame of defiance. But they are always beaten. Beaten by their superiors. This, my dear Overseer, is simply the way of the world.”
Korven snatched his knife from the table. “And this shall be my final lesson. Unfortunately, it will cost you your life. But take comfort that your sacrifice might spare the lives of others. Your punishment will serve as a warning to all those who presume to challenge their masters.”
As he finished, the archmaster’s lips curled into a smile. The look in his eye was not a usual man’s desire. Catalin had no doubt that he was imagining the things he would do to her.
Catalin slid her hand into her sleeve and gripped her dagger, her knuckles whitening around the hilt. She would never serve a man like Korven. His kind would never make her call them master. If Catalin was going to die, she would meet that fate head on.
There was no way to know if Grudg was still behind the curtain, but she would not call out to him. This was Catalin’s fight, a result of her failure. And she would fight with everything she had. Everything…
Catalin’s mouth fell open. It struck her so suddenly that she almost laughed aloud. Her eyes dropped to the coins scattered across the table. She didn’t need the Red Shadow to defeat Korven. She didn’t need to match Korven’s guards and mercenaries. She didn’t even need nine-hundred and nineteen marks. Catalin already had everything she needed.
She had her people.
They were the one thing she could bet on. And they were betting on her also. Catalin was their champion. She would not let their lives be destroyed.
Korven was watching her, his head tilted to one side. A touch of confusion swam in his gaze. Catalin realized she had allowed a smile to creep onto her lips.
She reached across the table and picked up her hat. Then she placed it back on her head, and adjusted the brim deliberately.
“Tell me, Archmaster, what do you really know about poor people?” She nodded back towards the tavern. “The drunkards, the homeless, the whores. The orphans and servants – those in the gutter. Every city has them. I would wager that you are served by these people every day.”
Korven’s eyelids lowered. “I know very little, and I care even less.”
“The thing about poor people,” Catalin said, “is that they hate the over-privileged. Fiercely. Those men in power who have trodden on their families, their ancestors, keeping them in their place. Those men who have never hungered or suffered.”
Catalin found herself leaning forward. Her confidence was growing with every word, every syllable igniting her passion.
“What most people don’t know about the poor is that they look after each other. There is a bond, a kindred spirit of suffering, even between those who have never met.” Catalin arched an eyebrow. “And what do you suppose they think of someone like me? One of their own who has risen to become Overseer, someone who stands against the established powers. Someone who, how did you put it? ‘Challenges their masters.’ These people rally to my cause, even those I have never met. Because, to them, I am a beacon of hope. I am the promise of how the world could be better.”
Korven was watching her intently. For the first time in their meeting, he seemed uncertain.
“You see, Archmaster,” Catalin continued, “these people would join my fight, for my enemy is their enemy also. They would share with me details I would like to know.” She plucked a coin off the table and twirled it across her knuckles, a trick her mentor Bolrig had taught her.
“For instance, they might tell me that the stream in which a certain archmaster likes to bathe lies on the eastern edge of his estate. They might tell me how he bathes at the same time, every day, at one hour past dawn. They might tell me about the towel with which this archmaster dries himself, a towel that is red with gold trimming.
“They might tell me about a certain bakery in Balladen from which this archmaster orders his bloodberry pies. They might even share details that the archmaster does not know himself, like from which farm this bakery buys its grain. They could tell me these things because they know, because they are close to the archmaster, every day.”
She sat back, placed the coin she had been twirling on the table, and smiled. “And all I would need to do is ask.”
Korven’s expression was frozen in a very good imitation of calm, but the veins in his neck betrayed his clenched jaw. If he’d had a retort he would have spoken it by now. Catalin had bested enough opponents to recognize that look; she was winning, although Korven was not the type to take defeat graciously.
Above, the lantern flame flickered, rippling shadows across the timber panelling. Catalin pushed ahead before Korven had the chance to recover.
“It’s true, I cannot afford the Red Shadow. But do you know what this is?” She slid the coin she had been twirling across the table. “This one coin is everything to a person who has nothing – enough to change the life of any of the thousands of people that I have access to. This is all it would cost to add a little poison to the flour that came from that farm. This is all it would cost to kidnap the child of one of your guards, convincing them to hide a knife in that pretty red towel while you bathe in your stream. So, go ahead, kill me … If you dare.”
Korven slid his knife back into his coat pocket. “Do you think your words scare me, little girl?”
“They should, if you are as clever as you claim. The poor already look at me as a saviour. Your knife will only make me a martyr. How many will hunger for the chance to strike back, to kill the man who murdered their saviour? And if one fails, we will send another, and another, and another. Surely one of all these coins would be successful. That’s not even counting those who would strike at you for free, out of loyalty or a thirst for justice.
“But if you were to strike at us, where would you start? You know nothing about our network. You don’t even know my name. Perhaps one of your customers would betray us? But we will be watching for that, and dream sugar addicts do not move quickly.”
“You are playing a dangerous game,” Korven warned.
“Yes, a man’s game, I think you called it. And here I am, only a child.” Catalin gave him a wink. “But let us play. I like my chances. After all, I have played well already, have I not? This position I have acquired at such a young age, when I started with nothing? I guess I must be lucky. I am willing to see how long my luck will last.”
Korven picked the coin off the table and considered it for a long moment, turning it between his forefinger and thumb. When his eyes found Catalin’s again, some of the anger had left them, but she could see the gears of his mind whirring, appraising her anew.
“You win for the moment you pointy-nosed little whore.” Korven spat each word as if it were an arrow aimed at Catalin’s heart. “My hand is stayed, but my fingers are merely hovering above the piece while I consider my next move. Make no mistake, this is a game which you will lose. And when you do, I shall find a thousand new ways to open you.”
He stood so suddenly his chair toppled over. Then he smiled, bowed, strode past the table, brushed aside the curtain, and swept from the booth.
Catalin sat for a long moment without moving. The clatter of the toppling chair, the hiss of Korven’s final words, the rush of noise from the tavern as the curtain was thrust aside, all echoed in her mind, throbbing in time with her pounding heart. She had just stared down the most dangerous man in the Circle of Kingdoms and survived. No, more; she had won.
Catalin broke into a grin that grew and grew. She had to fight back the sudden urge to laugh. It took her a moment to realize she was no longer alone in the booth. A shadow was looming over her.
She turned to find Grudg beaming down at her. “Grudg!”
The giant’s half-toothed grin was even bigger than Catalin’s. He uttered what she had always thought of as his happy grunt. Catalin leapt from her chair and wrapped her arms around her friend. “Korven told me he had poisoned you.”
Grudg frowned confusedly with his single brow. Catalin realized he must have been standing behind the curtain the whole time; Korven had been bluffing after all. She looked down and saw a little red face grinning up at her. It seemed that, in his hurry to leave, Korven had abandoned his tun.
“You guys should come in and close the curtain,” Catalin said, swallowing her smile. Her expression sobered as she glanced at the table and its gruesome contents. “Please Grudg, take that away.”
Grudg tugged the curtain closed and turned back to the table. He lifted Cheeky Mae’s head with surprising gentleness, lowering it carefully into the sack.
“And these too,” Catalin said, scooping up the coins and chips from the table and sweeping them into the box. The tun was on his hands and knees beneath the table, eagerly collecting all the coins he could find. He handed every one up to Catalin.
While Grudg saw to the chips, Catalin peeled back a sliver of curtain. Korven and his men had already left the tavern. She had no way of knowing if he had taken her threat seriously. He might return any minute with a gang of thugs to slice off her head. But something told Catalin she was safe, at least for the moment. Still, it was a good idea to fade away quickly. She didn’t need Bolrig showing up and asking awkward questions.
“Leave through the door in the basement,” she said to Grudg. “Take the tunnels to Eni’s house and wait until she gets home. Give her the coins and…” Catalin’s eyes moved to the sack containing Cheeky Mae’s head “…that. She’ll know what to do with them. And if she asks how everything went, grunt twice.”
Grudg grunted twice to show that he understood. Then he grinned and nodded enthusiastically. He pushed past the curtain and ambled out of the booth, the little tun scampering along behind. Catalin stepped out of the booth after them.
She almost walked straight into Bolrig.
“Catalin Ruic,” the inn-keep said, peering into the booth suspiciously. He was wearing his finest black doublet, which made him seem even plumper than usual. His bald skull shone in the lantern light as if he had polished it. Knowing Bolrig, he probably had.
“What are you doing skulking back here?” he asked. “And what in the name of Zodian are you wearing?”
Catalin swept off her hat and offered a mischievous smile. “Can’t a lady dress up once in a while?”
“A lady, perhaps. Or something else. Either of which you are not. Now, don’t you have somewhere you should be? Something you are late for?”
Catalin offered a mock frown. “Yes, Overseer Bolrig.”
“Not in public!” the old man said, glancing around nervously. “Remember, an enemy who knows your name is an enemy who knows where to find you.”
“Yes, Bolrig,” Catalin amended. Bolrig was a cowardly man, but a good one. He too cared for his people. He just didn’t have the strength to be the champion they needed.
“Catalin, wait,” Bolrig said as she turned to leave. The old man let out a sigh. He looked even more burdened than usual. “I have a meeting soon and, well… Sometimes things aren’t cut-and-dried. Sometimes one needs to make concessions to hold on to power.”
Catalin gave the old man a smile and walked away.
“And change into your uniform!” he called after her.
Catalin broke into another grin. This one, she couldn’t seem to make leave her face. The image of Korven’s stunned expression shone brightly in her mind: her moment of victory. As crazy as the events of this evening had been, there was one thing she was certain of: she had done everything in her power to save her people.
Her grin widened, even with the thought of the long shift ahead of her. Catalin had been a scullery maid for seven years, but something told her she’d find tonight’s duties more boring than ever.