Con & Conjure
Raine Benares is a seeker who finds lost things and people. Ever since the Saghred, a soul-stealing stone that's given her unlimited power, has bonded to her, the goblin king and the elves have wanted to possess its magic themselves. Which means a goblin thief and her ex-fiancÚ-an elven assassin-are after her. To survive, she'll need the help of her notorious criminal family.
There's no sick like seasick.
I knew this from personal experience; but fortunately, I wasn't the one staggering down the gangplank looking like death warmed over and served up.
Mago Benares was a banker, not a sailor. Or as his employees at the First Bank of D'Mai knew him, Mago Peronne. The name Benares wasn't exactly welcome in banking circles, since most people wouldn't want to trust their investments to a member of the most notorious criminal family in the seven kingdoms. Mago had changed his name, but nothing could alter his instincts.
The Benares family didn't get all of their money at the business end of a cannon. To Mago, embezzlement was an art, and he considered himself to be a master. This was one time when I had to agree with Mago and his ego. My cousin was at his con artist best when diverting funds, usually into offshore accounts for his own use and enjoyment.
But this morning, the master was as green as the money he stole. Seasick wasn't a good look for Mago. Or since he was now standing on a dock rather than a deck, I guess that made him just plain sick. I smiled. I couldn't help it. Don't get me wrong, I liked Mago; I liked him a lot. But when my normally impeccably dressed and groomed cousin was leaning over a dockside railing, disheveled, disreputable looking, and about to toss what was left of the last food he'd managed to keep down… well, call me twisted, but that was funny.
Mago tossed and Phaelan chuckled from where he was standing next to me. Phaelan's sense of humor was even more sick and twisted than mine. And yes, it's possible.
Though as Mago's little brother, it was Phaelan's job to not only embarrass him, but to make him miserable. I'd never seen Mago looking more miserable than he did right now, and Phaelan didn't have a thing to do with it. My cousins' dad was Commodore Ryn Benares, the most feared pirate in any body of water larger than a bathtub. Phaelan was a chip off the old mainmast. Mago was quite possibly the craftiest weasel I'd ever met—a weasel who couldn't set foot on a ship without feeding the fishes.
I'm a member of the family while not being in the family business. Yeah, I know what you're thinking. No one else believes me, either.
I'm Raine Benares. Like the rest of my family, I'm an elf. Unlike the rest of my family, I have a legal and moral job. As a result, every other Benares makes more money than I do. Hand-over-fist more. Believe me, crime most definitely pays.
I'm a seeker. I find lost people and missing things. Though the only things I've found lately are more ways to get into trouble and almost get myself killed.
And a rock the size of a man's fist is to blame for every last bit of it.
Ever since the Saghred latched on to me like a leech fresh off a hunger strike, I've been attracting the attention of the kind of people I've never wanted to have notice me. And to turn my predicament from bad to as bad as it can get, the Saghred has taken my magical talents from mediocre to monstrous. I have more power than any living creature has a right to have or need to possess.
And therein lies my biggest problem. Other people want to possess that power for themselves—and to get the power, they have to get me.
That's why I asked Mago to come to the Isle of Mid. Mid was home to the top college of sorcery and the Conclave of Sorcerers, the ruling body for all magic users. I came here thinking that they could help me. It never occurred to me that they would be the ones who I would need protection from.
Conclave sorcerers, elven intelligence, and the goblin king. All wanted me and mine. And since they were funded by wealthy and powerful allies, their pockets were deep enough to make it happen.
Mago was here to help me cut holes in those pockets.
I knew that what could be paid could be diverted. And what could be schemed could be scammed.
My family had been behind some elaborate scams before, but none had involved this much money, government officials this highly ranked—and none had my life and the lives of people I loved on the line.
This time we were playing for keeps.
I was counting on our scam buying me enough time to get rid of the Saghred. Permanently.
Phaelan and I were in the office of a dockside warehouse, looking out of the dirty windows facing the harbor. The windows were a special kind of dirty—no one could see in, but we could see out.
Neither one of us particularly wanted to be seen right now.
In my opinion, Phaelan had made a monumental effort to blend in. My cousin was normally a vision in a scarlet leather doublet and matching trousers. Today his leathers were dark, his boots scuffed, his tanned face unshaven. His hat had enough brim to conceal his face, not attract attention.
Phaelan took off the hat and ran one hand impatiently through his shoulder-length black hair. "Mago's certainly taking his time."
"He has to see to his luggage," I reminded him. "The man travels with even more clothes than you do."
"I have a reputation to maintain."
"Someone has to maintain the standard." He took in what I was wearing, sighed, and shook his head.
I didn't need to look down at myself to see where Phaelan was going with this. "I happen to like brown and black," I said. "They're great colors for redheads."
"So are others that you've never tried."
"I've never tried painting a target on myself, either."
I'd adopted the mantra of blend and survive. Thanks to the Saghred, people could feel my magic coming a mile away; I was determined the same wasn't going to be true for seeing me. If wearing brown or black or both helped me blend in with the background and kept me from being a target at least some of the time, then they were officially my favorite colors. Red hair and pale skin made me stand out enough; I was going to camouflage as much of it as I could as well as I could.
Mago would be joining us here shortly. As a vice president at the First Bank of D'Mai, he couldn't be seen associating with criminals, either known or supposed. Mago knew the drill. He'd arrange to get his luggage sent ahead to the Greyhound Hotel, the finest accommodations Mid had to offer, and then we'd have a little private meeting. The warehouse's owner was a friend of the family, meaning he was paid to store stolen goods until they'd cooled enough to be put on the market. That pay also bought us certain benefits like a meeting place that could be counted on to be completely private. These walls only had ears if Phaelan wanted them to.
While we waited, Phaelan used the toe of his boot to push a bucket next to one of the office's chairs. I just looked at him.
"What?" Phaelan asked. "You want Mago throwing up on your boots?"
Minutes later, a miserable groan came from the open doorway.
Mago was your basic tall, dark, and handsome elf. Phaelan shared the dark and handsome moniker with his older brother, but Mago had "tall" all to himself. Phaelan had always claimed that Mago stole all of the height so there'd be none left for him. Probably not possible, but if it were, Mago would have been the one who could have stolen it. Mago Benares was the master. He could rob a man blind and have that same man thank him for his diligent work.
Though right now, the master was miserable. His dark eyes were bloodshot from what I imagine was lack of sleep, he was pale from lack of what he'd last eaten, and most of his black hair had escaped the silk ribbon that always tied it back.
Phaelan looked past him. "Damn, brother. Did you even close the door?"
Mago looked at Phaelan like he'd punch him if he could just convince his hand to make a fist.
I pushed the chair closer to where Mago was leaning shakily against the door frame. After a moment's thought, I pushed the bucket over to the chair. Mago looked at me and nodded gratefully at both.
Phaelan offered him his flask. "Here, this'll help."
Mago glanced distastefully from the proffered flask, to his little brother, and back again. "If that's the vile liquid that you consider to be whisky, I'll pass."
Phaelan shrugged. "Suit yourself. Never let it be said that I didn't try to help."
"By poisoning me."
Phaelan popped open the flask and raised it in salute. "Mother's milk."
"I'm certain that Mother would disagree," Mago said dryly. He gingerly settled himself in the chair, and I passed him my own flask.
"Caesolian brandy," I assured him. "And yes, it's a good year and vintage," I added before he could ask.
Mago took a tentative sip. Apparently he was satisfied, because his second sip was more like a gulp. Mago closed his eyes, and with a weary sigh, leaned his head against the back of the chair. "I may live. My thanks, Raine."
"Hey, you're here to help me stay alive, returning the favor is the least I can do." I pulled up a chair and sat down. "Was it hard to wrangle the time off?"
Mago opened his eyes and managed a crooked grin. "Actually, I'm here on official bank business. One of my more affluent and private clients has need of some discreet financial services. He normally conducts business through an intermediary, but insisted on an in-person meeting this time. Considering the destination, I agreed to come only after negotiating a raise and a sizable bonus from the bank."
Phaelan laughed, a short bark. "That's my brother." He paused. "Why wouldn't anyone want to come here?"
Mago looked at Phaelan like he was a couple of coins short of a full purse. I think I was wearing a similar expression.
Mago wasn't going to dignify that question with an answer, so it was up to me to remind Phaelan why Mid was presently the next best thing to a hellhole. "Uh, Hellgate opened, demon infestation. Saghred opened, ancient evil mage infestation. Then Sarad Nukpana sucked out people's life forces and turned them into beef jerky."
"The Isle of Mid in its present state is hardly a vacation destination," Mago said. "I wasn't going to set foot on this cursed rock without hazard pay." He looked at me. "Speaking of a cursed rock, how are you doing?"
"Working day and night to find a way to get rid of the damned thing. I'm close. Really close."
I didn't say what I meant by "close." The only way I'd found to destroy the Saghred and break its hold on me was to empty the rock of the thousands of souls it held captive inside. The only creatures who could accomplish this monumental feat were Reapers—Death's minions, gatherers of the dead and dying. I wasn't dead or dying, at least not until they got hold of me. In their soul-sucking frenzy, they'd probably take my soul, too. "Probably" was too close to "definitely" for my taste. Needless to say, I was looking hard for other options.
"Pity the Saghred would eventually drive you insane," Mago was saying. "Do you have any idea of how much money you could make with that much power?"
"Unless it'd be enough to buy back my sanity and life, everyone can keep their money."
A sparkle of life—and avarice—lit Mago's dark eyes. "Until we relieve them of it."
That moment of bringing financial ruin to those threatening me and mine couldn't come soon enough.
"When do we start?" I asked him.
"As soon as I get my land legs under me." Mago paused and grimaced as if his stomach was considering doing something unpleasant. "And once I can keep a decent meal in me."
We all wanted that. Phaelan nudged the bucket closer.
"I'm hopeful that I can attain both states of equilibrium by tonight," Mago muttered. "I'm scheduled to dine with my affluent client this evening."
I frowned. "He's here already?" Call me paranoid, but most of the affluent people on Mid right now had a finger in the let's-get-Raine-Benares pie.
"My client has some financial transactions he wants to conduct, and he will only do so in person. So your request to come to Mid couldn't have come at a more convenient time."
"Well, we wouldn't want you to be inconvenienced on our account," I told him.
Mago glanced toward the office's windows. "His ship was not far behind mine."
Phaelan was already looking out over the harbor. "Would that client be a crazy goblin bastard looking to get himself shot full of holes?"
I quickly joined him. "What crazy bas—" I didn't finish the question; I couldn't. And people said I was nuts.
Prince Chigaru Mal'Salin, exiled younger brother of the goblin king, with a price on his head and every other body part, was brazenly standing in clear view near the bow of a luxury yacht sailing into the harbor. His personal standard was flying at the top of the ship's tallest mast, telling even the most clueless exactly who and what he was.
Phaelan was absolutely right. He was a crazy goblin bastard. Though his last name was Mal'Salin, crazy was in their blood.
Mago looked over both of our shoulders and saw what we saw. "Oh, bloody hell."
Phaelan clapped him on the shoulder. "Think about it this way, brother. If someone puts a bolt in him, you won't have to worry about keeping dinner down."
I didn't like Chigaru Mal'Salin, and unless his feelings had changed, the prince didn't like me, either.
It wasn't easy to forgive someone who had used a friend of mine as bait to kidnap me, and then threaten that friend with torture to get me to find and use the Saghred for him. I couldn't believe that his manners had improved any since then. The prince was cunning, manipulative, ruthless, and conspiracies and plots were recreational activities. In other words, a Mal'Salin. But unlike his brother, Chigaru could be reasoned with and he wasn't nuts.
Well, at least not as nuts as his brother.
I knew Prince Chigaru was coming to Mid; he just wasn't supposed to be here this soon. The prince had made the trip from wherever his last hiding place was for two reasons, and both of those reasons were because of his brother. One was in response to his brother's invitation to bury the hatchet and sign a peace agreement. The second reason was to overthrow his brother's government then bury that hatchet in one of his vital parts. Not directly, mind you. Direct confrontation wasn't the goblin way. Intrigue and subterfuge were the favored methods for two powerful goblins to settle things once they'd reached an impasse.
Sathrik wanted his little brother dead. Chigaru had refused to stand still for any of Sathrik's assassins.
In goblin diplomatic parlance, this was called an impasse.
In the face of such an impasse, Prince Chigaru's behavior was brazen at best, wantonly suicidal at worst.
Phaelan nudged Mago in the ribs. "Shouldn't you go out and greet your 'affluent' client?"
"I would prefer a bath and a change of clothes first."
"And see if he makes it to shore in one piece," I muttered.
Like elves, goblins were generally tall, sleekly muscled, and lithe with elegantly pointed ears. There, pretty much all resemblance between the two races ended. Sure, some elves had large black eyes, though none had a goblin's pale gray skin and sharp white fangs, but those weren't our biggest differences.
I enjoyed intrigue as much as most of my family. But goblins took it to an entirely different level. For goblins, intrigue was a full-time, full-contact sport, played to the death—or to the win—whichever came first. And that fun-loving nature was multiplied to an absurd degree when goblins got anywhere near the Mal'Salin royal court.
And if a goblin's last name actually was Mal'Salin… well, you get the picture.
Then I noticed something odd, even odder than a goblin prince making himself into a two-legged target.
Chigaru Mal'Salin was standing alone.
There should have been crew swarming all over the ship, preparing it to dock. There were crew working, but they were all careful not to cross in front of the prince.
I drew in a touch of power and focused it on Chigaru, to see him through the eyes of a seeker. The prince was shielded against magic and weapons. The spell protecting him was light and subtle, and completely invisible. I only knew it was there thanks to my Saghred-heightened senses. It was incredibly sophisticated work, like a tightly woven steel web that curved out in front of him like a protective shield.
The goblin prince was using himself as bait.
I looked over the crowds beginning to gather in curiosity at his arrival, and the dock workers going about their business. There were a few people—goblins, humans, and elves—whose eyes weren't on the prince and his yacht, but were intently watching others, scanning the crowd.
Just like I was.
Agents of the prince, ready to take down any hopeful assassins.
Agents of the prince's opposition, ready to take out the prince.
Chigaru was still a crazy bastard, but he was also crazy like a fox. Get someone to take a shot at him before he even set foot on dry land, his people pounce on them, interrogate them into revealing any accomplices, and he saves himself the trouble of spending every waking moment of his visit jumping at his own shadow.
Brilliant. In an insane kind of way.
I opened the door from the office and stepped outside onto the dock built adjacent to the warehouse. Phaelan came out with me. Mago stayed inside and out of sight.
"He's trying to get someone to take a shot at him," I said.
Phaelan heard me, but he wasn't scanning the crowd, or even looking at the prince. My cousin's dark eyes were intent on the busy harbor. It was the morning high tide and fishing boats of all sizes were coming in with the night's catch, and merchant and passenger ships were either setting sail or arriving.
I looked where Phaelan was looking. It was a pair of small ships, not much more than boats really, running protectively near the prince's yacht, guiding it in. I recognized them. Mid's harbormaster used dozens of them for patrolling the harbor and escorting larger ships. The pilot boats' sails were full, the canvas straining.
I didn't see anything wrong, but Phaelan obviously did.
"What is it?"
"There's only one man on each boat. The pilots. Harbor regulations in every major port stipulate a pilot and two crew. And do you notice anything wrong with the wind out there?"
One boat was running slightly behind the other—intentionally hanging back. No mean feat with all that wind.
I froze. "Wait a minute." My eyes flicked to the goblin yacht's rigging. The crew had pulled the sails in, and what canvas was still up was far from full. The only air moving in the center of the harbor was a light breeze.
There was plenty of wind behind those two pilot boats, but it sure as hell wasn't natural.
A weather wizard. He or she was good, and probably about to split a gut moving enough air to fill those sails.
"And pilot boats keep themselves light, easier to maneuver," Phaelan was saying. "The one out front is riding lower in the water than it should." He scowled. "Way lower."
One man, one laden boat. Another behind, no extra weight. Oh crap.
I reached over and yanked Phaelan's spyglass out of his belt to take a look.
Elves. The pilots were both elves, in boats running alongside a yacht carrying a goblin prince—and the best hope for peace, a peace a lot of powerful elves and goblins didn't want. The extra weight on one boat didn't mean it was a suicide run with a hold full of explosives, but it didn't mean it wasn't.
I handed the spyglass to Phaelan. "I'm going out to take a look."
I couldn't walk on water out to those boats, but as a seeker, I didn't need to.
I'd only done a Sending a few times before. The last time I'd been trying to locate a kidnapped spellsinger. Someone with mage-level talent had blocked me then. Now, the only thing between me and my destination was half a harbor full of water. Water and I had an agreement. I stayed away from it and it wouldn't drown me. I came from a family of pirates and I couldn't swim for shit. Yeah, it was pathetic.
I steadied my breathing and tried to ignore the fact that one of those two boats could go boom within the next minute when it caught up to the prince's yacht, and I could be out there when it did. A Sending involved my essence leaving my body to do something it'd be impossible or ill-advised for my body to do—like hover over a boat possibly packed with explosives. I didn't know whether my essence could be blown up, but I didn't want to find out.
I focused my will on my destination, trying to convince my stomach and nerves that I wouldn't physically be going out over the water. Within moments, I felt myself rise out of my body and flow out over the harbor. As I crossed the hundred yards or so separating me from those boats, I clearly saw the pilot in the first one. Light brown hair, short military cut, chiseled features—everything perfectly clear, almost as if it were outlined.
Too clear to be real. Like a mask. Except it wasn't a mask, at least not one you could buy. It was magic, a glamour. That pilot wanted people to think that he was an elf. I looked closer. He wasn't shielded. The weather wizard would need to be within sight of the pilot boats, and there couldn't be any shield or wards between him and the boats he was moving.
And if your goal was to ram the lead boat into a yacht and blow it up, there couldn't be shields of any kind between you and your target.
The wind in the pilot boat's sails faltered and so did its forward momentum. For only an instant, I got a look at who and what he really was.
A goblin. A goblin with a blood-red serpent tattoo on his cheek. That meant he was a Khrynsani assassin. The Khrynsani were an ancient goblin secret society and military order, and their assassins were even more fanatical than their merely homicidal brothers. I didn't need to look in that boat's hold; I could smell it, even over the stinking harbor water, I could smell it.
Nebian black powder. Regular black powder didn't have anywhere near the punch that the Nebian variety did. It was literally powder fine, highly unstable, and obscenely expensive. The impact of the boat against the yacht's hull would do the trick. Either the Khrynsani pilot was planning to blow himself up along with the prince, or jump out once he'd steered his boat close enough for impact, then swim like hell for the second boat.
Khrynsani were essentially the goblin king's enforcers. It looked like Sathrik wasn't even going to let his little brother set foot on dry land—unless one of his feet happened to fall there when he got blown to bits.
And the elves would be blamed.
The prince would be one of the first to die, but he wouldn't be the last. I didn't know how much Nebian black powder was actually in that boat's hold, but when the prince's yacht exploded, the flying debris could kill who knew how many. It was morning and the harbor was busy. And on shore, a crowd was gathering to watch Prince Chigaru's high-profile arrival, like sheep for the slaughter.
Countering the weather wizard's spell would take too long. Those boats weren't the only thing that couldn't be shielded while the wizard did his thing. He couldn't have magical obstructions or interruptions of any kind in his way.
That included personal protective shields.
His magical and metaphorical britches would be down around his ankles.
And when you were that focused on maintaining a spell as complex as calling enough wind to fill two sets of sails, broken concentration meant a broken spell. And if I wanted to get really vicious with my interruption, that spell could snap back on its caster. I was feeling particularly vicious right now. But to do it right, I needed to be back in my body.
Speeding across the harbor made me dizzy; coming back to my standing-still body made me sick. Suddenly seeing things through my body's eyes again was one of my least favorite parts of being a seeker. Disorienting at best, nausea inducing at worst. I took shallow breaths and blew them out in short puffs, willing the contents of my stomach to stay where they were. I didn't want to share Mago's bucket.
"Well," Phaelan said, "what'd you see?"
I told him who I saw, what they were disguised as, and what that lead boat was carrying. While I was telling, I was looking for the weather wizard behind all of the above. He didn't have to be behind the ships to push air into their sails, but it'd make his work a lot easier. I was hoping he went for easy.
I helped myself to Phaelan's spyglass again and looked in a direct line in the direction the boats were coming from.
There on a pier jutting out into the harbor was a figure in a black cloak with the hood pulled up. If two Khrynsani assassins weren't about to blow a hole in the water where the prince's yacht was, he'd be laughable. Bad guys could get away with a lot more if they'd stop dressing like they plotted world domination for fun. He appeared to be short. I guess he needed all the evil accessory help he could get.
He wasn't shielded or warded. He might as well have been standing there buck naked. There was nothing between him and me but about half a harbor. I could probably use my magic to kick him off the pier from where I was standing, but adding momentum to an already moving object would work even better.
Two dock workers were rolling a barrel down the pier. My best estimate put that barrel about twenty yards from the wizard. An instant later—after a little nudge from me—that barrel mysteriously escaped. The dock workers yelled, people ran, and the wizard stayed right where he was, oblivious, intent on maintaining his spell.
The barrel hit the wizard, the wizard lost his hold on the spell, and his feet lost their hold on the pier. Wizard and barrel hit the water together with a gratifying splash.
The spell stopped, but a sudden gust of real wind kicked in where he left off. The pilot boats actually picked up speed.
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