26 Feyvenz, 561 YA, Blackwater

Grimes was the best runner in the Downpark Johnnies, so he was afforded more respect than almost any other thirteen-year-old in the part of Blackwater, and respect was the currency of these streets. Grimes was staring at the three women who had just walked into the Johnnies’ dockside hangout this rainy dusk. Strangers got little respect in the Blackwater, and women got no respect from the all-male Johnnies.

The first intruder through the door wore a heavy poncho, but no one really noticed her until she pulled back the hood. She was the most beautiful woman Grimes had ever seen: golden-haired, worldly, elegant, like a companion for a lordling at a Gold Quarter gambling house. She was too pretty for this place; she made it look even worse than the dilapidated warehouse that it was.

Yet something made her look almost predatory; she took care of the lookout, Greenboy, before any of the Johnnies knew there was a problem. She just locked him around the throat with her forearm from behind and eased him onto the floor as he stopped struggling and passed out. Grimes swallowed hard and rubbed his throat subconsciously as he edged around the room away from the woman and the door. Almost all of the other Johnnies were on their feet, some moving to meet the threat, others just wanting a better look.

The second woman wore drenched arcanist’s robes, raven-haired, noticeably smaller, and of mixed blood, her head swiveling around like an owl while casting some sort of spell, covering the floor in a slick, greasy ooze, sending every one of the Johnnies sprawling, except sure-footed Grimes in the far corner and their seated leader, Three Cut.

The third woman was quite tall and dressed for trouble; tight hardened leather and several blades. Her hair transitioned from beet to magenta to pink to white down her braided ponytail. Een Grimes knew that marked her as an Azkaderra that grew up in the Vale, not any city. She hit the ooze in stride and planted her feet, gliding right up to Three Cut’s “throne”, slapping away his dirk like it was a child’s toy.

Grimes had heard the word “apoplectic” before, but was always unsure exactly what it meant; Three Cut cleared up that confusion right then. “Ka’lor’s Treachery! I don’t know who you finches think you are, but…!”

Grimes flinched hard at the slap from the tall woman, even though it was Three Cut’s cheek throbbing and his eyes tearing up. Grimes could read his leader’s face, and knew Three Cut was about to snap. Three Cut wanted to erupt, but he scanned his assailant’s face and the unusual, menacing earring dangling from her right ear, and and a look of fearful recognition replaced the anger. He went slack in whimpering surrender, sitting back down, defeated without blood. She leaned in close to whisper in the boy leader’s ear. After a moment, he reluctantly nodded ascent as he rubbed his red cheek.

The Steel Retort was packed to the brim with the rough-and-tumble populace of the Blackwater underworld. The Retort was the largest inn in the seediest part of the sprawling port city, and on this wretchedly stormy night, the driest place for the city’s criminals to drink the night away.

Krank, the muscleman at the door, didn’t look twice at the familiar urchin, Grimes, that burst through the front door at a dead run, dodging between some stumbling patrons and heading straight through to the rear of the building and out of sight. He did notice the unfamiliar figure underneath the heavily-oiled poncho that stalked in the urchin’s footsteps through the front door. He put out a meaty arm across the stranger’s path.

From under the hood, bright emerald, feminine eyes met the doorman’s, and he had to resist the urge to bow. A soft, lilting Tumkayal accent and a sly smile melted the last of his resolve, “I’m just here for a drink, Handsome.” The elf woman pulled back her hood, revealing her exquisite clothes and jewelry and preternaturally comely features, edged Krank’s hand out of her way, and walked straight toward the packed bar under the eyes of half of the place, which had grown noticeably quieter.

Shiara-by-Half was the best blade in Blackwater, but she never got her proper due among the dueling aficionados in the Gold Quarter and the Heights, because she never fought in the open. She instead was the second to Capo Jacobi, the head of the port’s criminal underworld. There were others elsewhere in the city, but they all paid Capo. She looked up from her ledger work and saw a drowned rat of a boy called Grimes trying not to fall down the wrought iron spiral stairs from the pantry above.

“There’s…” the boy was gasping for breath, “a…”

He was cut off by Shiara’s upraised hand for silence. The constant din from upstairs had lessened significantly, which to Shiara meant that there was likely to be trouble. Shiara snapped her fingers, which got the attention of the three massive Chiaggi brothers playing cards in an alcove. “Watch the boy, Carlo. You two, follow me upstairs.”

Grimes’s mouth fell open when the door-that-never-opened suddenly was, and Capo Jacobi, a distinguished middle-aged man of mixed blood in a most fashionable suit, was standing in the doorway talking to his guardian.

“Carlo, what is going on?” He had the voice of a singer, with a slight hint of a foreign accent unknown to young Grimes.

“The boy here came to warn Shiara about something, then things got quiet.” The never-subtle Carlo pointed to the tavern above them. “She took Marko and Gio and then went upstairs and left me watching the boy.”

“I’ll look after the boy, Carlo,” Capo Jacobi waved away the youngest, biggest, and deadliest of the Chiaggi brothers, “Go see if Shiara needs help.” He motioned the boy to his side, which Grimes did unthinking. The Capo put a fatherly hand on the back of the boy’s neck.

“Needs help?” Carlo was incredulous that such a thing was possible, and his face said he wasn’t sure he wanted to be anywhere that might be. He grudgingly looked about for his alley bow, hefted it and loaded it while negotiating the groaning, narrow stairs up.

“Little Grimes, thank you for trying to warn us, but you better slip out the back and get back to your gang,” the Capo was trying to shoo the underling away.

“But that’s what I’s was trying to tell Shiara,” The boy blurted, “I ain’t got a gang left.”

“She… that lady… and her friends… she got rid of them all, and told me to ‘run to safety.’ You’re the best safety I know.” Grimes was suddenly sheepish, sensing that he had done something wrong.

The color in the Capo’s face was rising at this new development, but the tension was splintered as a bell rang upstairs and the boy was suddenly sure that’s exactly what happened.

Shiara slipped behind the bar and up next to the bartender, Tark. Marko and Gio blocked up the end of the bar by the kitchen door. The elf woman was almost unseen amidst the mass of men trying to buy her a drink, lift her coin purse or jewelry, or inspect her womanly assets.

“Who is she?” Shiara had to lean in close to Tark to be heard over the growing din. The more drunk and violent contingent were nearing the point that blood had to be spilled.

Tark never minded when his comelyboss leaned in close, so he always spoke softly to her. “Don’t know.”

“What does she want?”

“She said, ‘a drink’ and then all hell broke loose as the lads were tripping over their tongues getting coins out.”

Shiara reached for the fire-bell up on the wall and rang it until the commotion died down. The clientele saw who was ringing it, knew that their fun was over, and began to move back to their seats.

The elf woman looked around bemusedly at the chaos she had caused. “I think I should probably just leave,” she said quickly before a giggle escaped her throat.

“NO!” barked Shiara, surprising even herself at its force. “Marko and Gio can show you to a private table. Miss…?”

“I am known as ‘Sianis’,” She said the word drawn out, like a magical word of power. “I thank you for your offer, but I do not to wish to be a bother.”

The radiant Azkaderra woman tried to back away from the two Chiaggi brothers, but too many bodies were in her path, and each brother grabbed an elbow and began leading her away through the kitchen door past the newly arrived Carlo and his over-sized crossbow.

“Oh, no trouble at all,” Shiara said to no one in particular.

The tall Azkaderra woman with brilliant, violet eyes, the braided hair that marked her “from the Vale,” and enough blades for two hardened soldiers glided down the tight spiral of the stairs almost without sound. She noticed the Capo immediately and smiled wanly, as if remembering an old friend forgotten.

The Capo looked up at the slight creak of the metal stairs and forced himself to have a warm smile on his face for his new guest despite the never-quite-forgotten terror of his days in the Expeditionary Forces. He spotted the earring-as-warning, confirming the prickling hairs on the back of his neck. “Welcome, Erkennon.”

The Capo then considered his options before turning to the boy, “Time for you to leave. Be sure to get your money from Shiara.”

Grimes picked up on the hidden message from his patron, and immediately moved to leave. “Yes, Capo. At once.”

Once they were alone, the Tumkayal woman finally spoke. “Please, ‘Capo’,” the amusement clear in her voice, “let’s not be so formal. We are old cohorts and you too have the Mark of the Erkennon. We have both been disavowed by the Alliance, but I do not have price on my head anymore.” She then casually walked closer.

It has been a very along time since Jacobi had seen this woman, and she looked even younger, if possible, than when they last were face-to-face, more than three decades ago. He summoned forth all of the power his voice still held, “I think you are confused, Soldier.”

The woman’s left hand shot out around the Capo’s right wrist painfully and brought it up in front of his face as she stepped in uncomfortably close. Jacobi tensed as the woman smiled wickedly at him, but there was no weapon in her other hand. Breaking the tension, she cocked her head and took a long lick along the back of Jacobi’s hand. “You taste the same.” Jacobi could feel his heart begin to stop. “Did that tickle, Marat Naimarii?”

The Capo’s heart began again. “You never cease to confound me, Lissehteleindil Wenyamrunmion.”

At the top of the stairs was the boy Grimes near tears. Shiara had an idea what that meant. The fact that he wasn’t crying yet, or dead, was good news for her, and hopefully for her boss, the Capo.

Shiara swallowed hard. “Carlo, follow me close. Marko and Gio, keep her quiet and wait here until I call you down.”

Shiara stalked down as quietly as the stairs would allow. There was a tall, Tumkayal woman armed like only a mercenary would be, who had a hold on the Capo’s wrist and was softly giggling. There was no indication that she had been heard, but Carlo’s bulk caused the stairs to complain like a pensioner. The woman leaned closer to the Capo and Shiara tensed.

Using the whispering way, while moving one hand to the hilt of her family blade, Lissehteleindil aimed a question at the ear of Capo/Marat, “How do you want this to happen?”

Capo/Marat gently pulled his arm from Lisseh’s grip, and stepped aside, hands out in a placating gesture. “Shiara, that is not necessary,” Marat/Jacobi the Capo announced as he moved away from both women and the line of potential blood splatter.

“Has this intruder surrendered, Capo?” the unwavering lieutenant asked, still without taking her eyes from the back of this Tumkayal woman who still faced away from the stairs. There was a tempest of emotion inside Shiara as she tried to figure out how someone slipped past her. Anger, fear, and something else unidentified.

“No, she is a…” the Capo paused to consider his next words carefully, “‘unexpected guest’.” Marat/Jacobi was rapidly calculating of ways to soothe the situation and keep his new imported rug clean. Lisseh gave the slightest of bows at this description.

“Is the other intruder a ‘guest’?” Shiara asked pointedly. Capo cocked an eyebrow. “MARKO!” Shiara got a smug look on her face as Marko led a breathtaking, elegant Azkaderra woman down the stairs holding a dagger at her throat and Gio happily carried her down the stairs with one arm and covered her mouth with the other.

“Jacobi, how much do you like this exquisite Letheri rug?” Lisseh the Guest asked with an unconcerned calm as she ever-so-slowly half turned to square herself with Jacobi, now near the door he had entered from, but minimizing her exposure to the menace of Shiara and the Chiaggi brothers clustered at the bottom of the stairs. Marat’s blood froze at the tone that sometimes haunted his nightmares of that life long past. Shiara and the Chiaggis tensed at the threat.

“Boys, let the lovely woman go. NOW. Please.” The brothers were used to being commanded, and were used to the Capo’s genteel manners, but he rarely mixed the two, and the deliberate care with which he spoke, like someone trying not to awaken a ferocious beast nearby, convinced them that they must take care also. The brothers all eased as Sianis-the-former-prisoner straightened herself with great aplomb.

Shiara’s mouth fell open at her boss giving away their one advantage over these intruders. Jacobi had never questioned her handling of security issues before; something had to be amiss. Behind her back she drew her secreted poisoned blade and made ready to act on this new inner tumult.

The Capo could see the intent in his lieutenant’s eyes and thought of one last tactic to save his underlings and his rug, and possibly his life, and his reputation, and his plans here in the city. Oh, and this new guest whose beauty and manner made his old heart leap. “Shiara Bella Torriento, I must apologize for my lack of manners,” Jacobi used her full name rarely, only when he needed her undivided attention, “you have not been introduced to my old friend, Lissehteleindil Wenyamrunmion sy Wyndierion, Savior of the Alliance, Scourge of Aral Gamelon, and, of course, the Blood Knife.”

Lisseh was amused and embarrassed by the formal introduction, but not as much as Shiara was by the sound of her fumbling her secret, poisoned blade onto the floor behind her. At least it did not fall on the rug.

Sianis edged around the room toward Lisseh, wary of her former captors. Jacobi waved away the Chiaggi’s back to their card game as he walked over to Shiara, bent around her, and picked up the dagger carefully from the floor. He raised himself up to his full height uncomfortably close to Shiara, his face turned away from the guests. Shiara found herself still holding her breath. “Shi, please be more judicious with this in the future.” Shiara let out her breath in a long release as she sheepishly took the instantly deadly blade from the Capo and returned it safely to its scabbard.

Jacobi spun on his heel and motioned his guests through the door to his inner office. “Please, ladies, let us talk in my study. Shiara, please check on that shipment of fruit personally.” Shiara nodded, and politely waited until the Capo’s door was closed before she smiled like the cat that ate a canary.

Down a long, narrow hallway, the Capo trailed the two women. He took the few seconds to regain his composure and take in the stunning woman who strode in the wake of his old charge. At the end was a single ajar door leading into an opulent den of illicit trade.

Sianis strolled around the room, appraising the surroundings, Lisseh stood silent, weighing her words carefully as she watched their host pouring drinks. He could not keep his eyes from the stunning stranger, so he had a few more seconds without thinking about the menacing “old friend”.

Once the liquor had been poured and given, Lisseh drank without hesitation. The she began the formal introductions, “Marat, this is Sianis Lymilvar, one of my oldest friends.” Sianis made a subtle noise. Lisseh quickly corrected herself, “My closest friend. Not so old… at all.”

“Sianis, this is my first commander in the Erkennon.” Marat raised himself to his full height before his formal bow. “You can call him…”

“‘Jacobi’, please,” Marat/Jacobi interrupted, “both of you,” he added pointedly. Lisseh never kept up the subterfuges of others very well.

“I am pleased to welcome someone precious to my… compatriot.” the immaculate Capo spoke through his most charming smile, which was returned five-fold by the incandescent glow from Sianis.

Gidbish lecta fo ni dogru,” responded Sianis in perfect lingua erdogimen. Marat cocked an eyebrow in appreciative surprise. “Lisseh has told me many stories of your service together. May I begin by thanking you for keeping my companion safe during her most trying.” Her little half-smile-and-cock-of-the-head signaled a conspiratorial sharing of a private joke. It made the Capo’s heart race and head lighten. He was intoxicated by the charms of this woman. He hurried to busy his mind and hands before he was lost.

After he poured another round for Lisseh, he motioned to the chairs in front of the desk and took his seat behind it. “So, to what do I owe this unexpected pleasure, Lissehteleindil?” He brought his drink up to hide his face while he took in the intent on his guests’ faces.

Lisseh couldn’t make eye contact, a sign that she was up to no good, “We are here to keep you alive a little while longer. I think the world is more interesting with you in it.”

Marat was dubious, “There has been a price on my head for more than a decade, same as you. In fact, I recall five different rewards for your whereabouts. What is different now?”

“First, your bounty was placed there by a Commander General of the Alliance, and it is three times enough to bring every bounty hunter and sell-sword right down on top of you… if they knew where you are.”

“Second, Sianis has collected on every reward for my whereabouts, or had them revoked.” That got Capo/Marat’s attention, “There are no more prices on my head.”

NEXT: 4 Unitas, 561 YA, Damnation Flats, Lanterion

26 Feyvenz, 561 YA, Blackwater

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