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Bared Blade

Kelly McCullough - Author

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ISBN 9781101580981 | 320 pages | 26 Jun 2012 | Ace | 18 - AND UP
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From the "inventive, irreverent" (Green Man Review) author of Broken Blade comes a new Fallen Blade novel featuring Aral Kingslayer. Former temple assassin Aral Kingslayer has a price on his head and a mark on his soul. After his goddess was murdered, Aral found refuge in the shadow jack business, fixing problems for those on the fringes of Tien’s underworld. It’s a long step down from working for the Goddess of Justice, but it gives Aral and Triss—the living shadow who is his secret partner—a reason to get up in the morning.

When two women hit a rough spot in the tavern Aral uses for an office, he and Triss decide to lend a helping hand--only to find themselves in the middle of a three-way battle to find an artifact that just might be the key to preventing a war. And with so many factions on their trail, Aral and Triss are attracting a lot more attention than anyone featured on ten thousand wanted posters can afford…


1

Every story has to start someplace, though it’s rarely at the beginning. I came into this one when it came into my office. I had two sips of good Aveni whiskey left in my glass when the woman walked into the taproom at the Gryphon’s Head. Women, really . . . or, well, it’s complicated. I believed there were two of them at the time, so we’ll go with that for now—two women walk into a tavern. My tavern.

The place I work out of is named after the skull the owner nailed up behind the bar. Jerik used to hunt monsters for a living. Poach monsters, really, but it’s not the kind of poaching that gets you arrested, because the royal game wardens don’t want the damned things around either. He retired when the one behind the bar nearly bit off his head. What the Gryphon lacks in elegance it more than makes up in character, every one of them dangerous and most of them wanted by the crown. My silent partner and I fit right in, though no one ever sees him.

They call me Aral these days, or shadow jack. The one is my name, though not quite as it appears on all the warrants and wanted posters. The other is my new job. I’ve become a jack of the shadow trades, a fixer of problems that you’d rather not bring to the attention of the law.

Anyone who knew me in the old days would call it a huge step down. But only if they missed the place in the middle where my world shattered. I may be nowhere near the man I used to be, but I’m infinitely more than the wreck I was a year ago. Someday I might even figure out how to bridge that gulf and get back in touch with the old me. There are some pieces that I’d like to collect for future use.

In the meantime, I work out of the Gryphon because it’s the kind of tavern that attracts people with shadowside problems. Well, that, and because my partner, Triss, likes the ambiance—it’s always dark in the Gryphon and he lives in the shadows. Quite literally.

He’s a Shade, a creature of living darkness and a legacy of the days before my fall. Triss is my partner, my friend, my familiar. Yeah, I was a sorcerer once upon a time. A sorcerer and what some would call an assassin, though I don’t much like that word. I never killed anyone for money.

But back to the women. I was trying hard to make sure my second drink didn’t turn into a third—I’d followed that road all the way to the bottom. The eighth hour bells had just rung when the first of the pair stepped into the Gryphon, briefly occluding the red gold light of the westering sun. The doors and windows were all open to help with the heat of high summer, which put me in a chair next to the empty hearth. It was the only windowless wall and it offered me a perch where I could keep an eye on front and back doors while staying as much in shadow as possible.

The first one came in fast and immediately stepped to one side, getting out of the light and putting her back to the wall while she waited for her eyes to adjust to the tavern’s gloom. Add in the way the woman moved—smooth and quiet, balanced on the balls of her feet amidst the dirty straw on the floor—and I marked her down as some sort of trained killer. Though whether that meant hunter, mercenary, black jack, or something more exotic, I couldn’t say without the closer study I proceeded to give her.

She was tall and broad shouldered, built like a farm girl or a soldier. Wide hipped and busty, she had thick muscle showing on her bare arms along with a number of interesting, if minor, scars. She had black hair and dark eyes, which was common enough in Tien, and golden brown skin almost as pale as mine, which wasn’t.

Her clothes were foreign, too, tight green breeches and knee–high brown walking boots below, with a short sleeveless cotton tunic the color of rust above. Over that she wore a heavy leather vest that hung to midthigh—too warm for this weather and closer to armor than clothing, though not as close to armor as she would have liked, if I was any judge. Her stance wanted chain mail or possibly plate. She had a pair of short iron–tipped rods hanging where another might have carried daggers, an interesting choice.

The woman who followed her in a few moments later was short and lean with almost no breasts or hips to speak of and the whipcord muscles of a dancer or acrobat. Her outfit matched the larger woman’s in style, though she wore blues and grays instead of greens and browns. She headed straight across the bar to a little table right in the center of the room, moving fast and without any of the hesitancy you’d expect of someone suddenly crossing from light into darkness. She even managed to avoid stumbling over a stray chair that had been left between tables, deftly stepping around it without actually appearing to see it.

When she got to the table, she took a seat facing back toward the front door and started idly tapping her foot. Between the dancer’s build and the nervous energy she reminded me of my fellow assassin and onetime fiancée, Jax. A lot. That would have been enough to focus my attention even without the sudden pressure Triss exerted on my back as he slid up to peer at the two of them over my right shoulder. A surprise, since he’s normally not that interested in strangers. Once she was in her chair, the larger woman headed across the bar to join her.

Like her companion, the little dancer type wore her black hair short—cut just above the collar on the sides and back with bangs in front. Her skin was darker than the taller woman’s, though still light for Tien, and her eyes were a shockingly pale blue. Really, she looked nothing like Jax, and yet there was something about her bearing that made me think back to soft lips and whispered words of . . . I shook my head. Those days were gone. Focus on the now and the woman in front of me. From the way she kept rolling her shoulders and neck I didn’t think she liked the heavy leather vest any more than the bigger woman did, though for reasons I guessed to be pretty much the opposite of her friend.

Or, should I say bodyguard? Because that’s what I made them initially—some foreign noble and her minder. Which meant I could safely ignore them. And I tried, really I did. But Triss kept peering over my shoulder, and somehow I found I couldn’t take my eyes off them either. Oh, I didn’t make it obvious—the priests who raised me had taught me better than that. But I did watch them as close as I’d have watched one of my goddess–assigned targets back in the old days.

A lot of that was Triss, of course. What he cares about, I care about. He’s all I’ve got left of the old me and these days he has to spend the vast majority of his time hiding in my shadow and pretending he doesn’t exist. When the Emperor of Heaven murders your goddess, orders his head priest to burn your temple to the ground, and then declares your entire order anathema, it kind of puts a cramp in your social life.

It didn’t help that the goddess Namara had made herself and her followers deeply unpopular with the world’s secular authorities. Seeing to it that justice applies to kings as well as to commoners is not a recipe for making those kings love you. Quite the contrary. But that was my life once upon a time: a Blade of Namara, bringing the Unblinking Eye of Justice to those too powerful to find it in the courts.

Torture the innocent? Foment wars of aggression? Murder your way to the throne? Namara would send me or one of my fellows to have a few words with you. Usually “rest in peace.” Occasionally “burn in hell.” In either case, we arranged an immediate interview with the lords of judgment and a chance to ride the wheel of rebirth. For that, some lumped us in with paid assassins, mostly the sort of people with guilty consciences and high titles attached to their names—king, general, Son of Heaven. . . .

But those days were gone, destroyed with the temple, or buried with the goddess, or simply hiding in the shadows like me and Triss. Hiding or lost. It’s hard for me to tell the difference between those two things these days. Once I was a Blade of Namara and I knew my purpose, believed in it absolutely.

Now? I’m not sure. I think I can be more than just a jack, or I hope so at least. But is it even possible to be a Blade without the goddess? To serve Justice when its avatar has left the scene? Those were the questions I’d been asking of late. But with Namara gone there was no one to answer me but me. And who could trust the word of a shadow jack? I sighed and once again tried to focus on the moment.

The Gryphon is full of dim corners and mysterious smells and even on summer days when the sunlight spilled in at doors and windows, it seemed to hold onto more of the night. That affinity for shadow allowed Triss considerable extra freedom of movement. He used it now as he studied the two women from his resting place on the wall behind me.

After the big woman stopped at the bar to place their orders, she’d taken a seat at a right angle to her fidgety companion, which meant that neither of them could see both doors. Overconfident or foolish—it was hard to tell the difference. They split a bottle of wine, with the taller one doing the opening and pouring while they waited for our host Jerik to send someone over with the specialty of the house—fried bits of anonymous meat and lightly bruised vegetables served on a bed of brown rice.

They weren’t doing anything but eating and drinking in the most casual fashion but there was something about them that kept drawing my eye, and it wasn’t just the way that the smaller one reminded me of Jax. There was something off about their body language and I couldn’t figure out what. That was irritating enough, but I might have been able to drop it if Triss hadn’t been equally fascinated.

The only obviously strange thing about them was how quiet they were. They spoke only rarely and then barely moved their lips, speaking so softly I hadn’t been able to hear a word from where I sat despite the relative emptiness of the tavern when they arrived. They also moved with a sort of intermittent dance–like grace, though I hadn’t yet figured out the pattern. For while I’d thought they might be a couple, but they didn’t have the right sort of interactions, so I went back to my original guess.

By the time they’d finished eating, the sun had well and truly gone to bed, which meant the Gryphon started to wake up as the night crowd rolled in. I ordered another Kyle’s somewhere in there, just to give me a reason to stay in the bar and keep an eye on the women. I could feel Triss’s disapproval, but I watered the whiskey heavily, so it hardly should have counted.

It wasn’t long after sunset that the trouble started. Boquin, a young shadow lieutenant—about third in the hierarchy of the gang that claimed the Gryphon as part of its turf—swaggered in the door and almost immediately headed for the table with the two women.

“How much?” he demanded.

“For what?” replied the taller of the pair, speaking loudly enough for me to hear her for the first time.

Her voice was low and sweet, gentler than I’d have expected from her appearance, and carrying only the faintest trace of some foreign accent—Kvanas maybe, though I couldn’t place it firmly. Her companion froze. It was the first time I’d seen the smaller woman hold still all evening.

“The two of you together in one of the rooms upstairs,” replied Boquin. “I like the look of you. How much?”

I don’t know whether he was serious or just messing with them, but it didn’t really matter. Either way, things looked like escalating. The tall one dropped her hands down to rest on her fighting rods, while the short one slipped a hand inside her vest then went still again. Perilously so. That air of precisely focused danger really reminded me of Jax. What was going on with these women.

“Why don’t you go away before you get hurt,” said the tall one.

It was a challenge, and Boquin took it as such, flipping back his light jacket to expose the hilt of a short heavy sword. He didn’t yet put his hand on the blade, but the implication was there.

Normally at that point, my impulse would have been to slip back even deeper into the shadows while I waited to see what happened next. I didn’t have a stake here. Somebody else’s problem, and all that. Not to mention that the action to come might well serve to reveal whatever it was about the women that kept hitting my sense of something off.

But I still hadn’t so much as moved my chair back when Triss’s voice whispered in my ear, “Help them.”

Since he was incredibly careful about not breaking cover under anything but emergency circumstances, I’d already popped to my feet and crossed half the distance to the women’s table before I had time for second thoughts or even first ones. By then, of course, it was too late. Boquin had spotted my move–in—his eye likely attracted by the suddenness of my actions.

He turned and gave me an appraising look. “These two with you, Jack?”

I nodded, but made no other move, and it hung there for a moment. I could almost hear Boquin weighing up my reputation against the possible loss of face from backing down. I didn’t have a hard name, not as Aral the jack anyway—no major notches on my sword hilts, no history of playing the enforcer, but not a single lost fight or turn–tail moment either. My reputation was all about getting things done on the quiet and without costing large. It was close, I could see that from his eyes, but in the end he made the right choice.

He shrugged and let the jacket cover his sword. “Well, keep ’em on a shorter leash in the future.”

I nodded again and snagged a nearby chair, sliding it over to the women’s table. It put my back to the bar and to the door into the kitchens, which made my bones itch, but I didn’t have a lot of choice.

“I don’t recall inviting you to sit down,” said the tall one, and again I wondered about her accent.

Her companion remained still and quiet, though she had removed her hand from her vest. The change in the character of her actions didn’t fit with my original assessment of noble and bodyguard, but so far I hadn’t come up with anything I liked better, and she wasn’t giving me any more clues.

“I’m only planning on staying long enough to convince Boquin I wasn’t just twisting his dick for the fun of it.” I spoke as quietly as they had earlier because I didn’t want Boquin or any of his friends to overhear me. “Name’s Aral.”

“Stel,” the tall one said grudgingly after a long thoughtful pause, though she too spoke quietly. “And we didn’t need your help with this little problem.” Her companion ignored me, or pretended to.

“Actually, you did.” There was something about the way she said that they didn’t need help with this problem that made my business ears prick up, but I decided to come back to it in a bit. “Boquin’s a lieutenant in the Cobble–Runners, and several kinds of bad news.”

“What’s that, some Tienese gutter gang?” She shook her head. “We could have handled him.”

“Physically, probably—you look like someone who knows how to use those Kanjurese fighting rods you’re carrying. But you wouldn’t have been able to do it without seriously injuring or killing him. That would have bought you a world of hurt when you tried to get out of the Gryphon. His Cobble–runner buddies would have been all over you before you got fifty feet.”

“We can deal with gutter slime easily enough.” There was a sneer in her voice now, like she’d taken my measure and found it wanting. “Even in numbers.”

“Can you deal with a crossbow quarrel in the back of the neck? Because that’s how they’d do it if they saw you take down Boquin too easily. They’re mean bastards, not stupid. You wouldn’t do your boss much good then.”

“My boss?” She looked puzzled.

I glanced at the shorter woman for emphasis, wondering why she hadn’t added anything to the conversation, but she continued to look past me as if barely aware of my presence.

“You think I’m working for Vala—” But whatever she was about to say, she never finished the sentence.

Instead she leaped to her feet, drawing the rods from her belt and spinning toward the door. In almost the same instant a big man in the uniform of a lieutenant of the Elite came striding in with his huge stone dog behind him. Preset spells wrapped them round in a network of multicolored light like dew–hung spider webs catching the reflections of a shattered rainbow—beautiful and deadly for those with the eyes to see it. Mage’s eyes.

The shorter woman, Vala, kicked her chair over backward and somehow turned the motion into a back handspring. I twisted up and out of my chair with vague intentions of heading out through the kitchen, but even as I turned that way, a Crown Guardsman came in—one of perhaps a dozen entering through various doors and windows.

I had one of those brief moments of clarity then, the kind you sometimes get in the midst of incipient chaos. I realized that I could turn my lunge out of the chair into a drunken–seeming fall and hope that the Guard was there for someone else—Stel and Vala most likely, though Boquin or a score of other possible offenders of one degree or another offered other options. That seemed likely enough given the numbers, only a dozen guards and one Elite. If they’d come for me they’d have come much better armed.

If I played the drunk and they were here for someone else, there was an excellent chance I’d get lightly roughed up and then thrown back as a small fish. After all, the wanted posters with my name on them didn’t yet come with a picture—a leftover gift from the goddess, if you will. Of course, if I was wrong, and they were here for me, they’d have my head nailed up over the traitor’s gate by this time next week.

Though I have to admit Vala’s resemblance to Jax weighed on my decision, it was Triss’s “help them” that made the difference. I still didn’t know why my best friend had taken such an interest in the women, but it was enough for me that he had. I reversed course then, moving away from the bar and back toward the lieutenant and his stone dog. I was lightly armed, daggers only, but there was no other possible choice. The Elite mage–officer, with his stone dog familiar and his network of powerful spells, was a greater threat than the rest of the soldiers combined.

He shrugged his right arm now, sending a golden loop of spell stuff sliding down off his shoulder into his hand—some sort of entrapment magic by the look of it and one of his presets. With a snap of his wrist he lashed the golden line at Stel. Good. Tying her up might keep him distracted long enough for me to get in close and—blood of the goddess!

Instead of being caught by the line, Stel dropped under the ensnaring spell while simultaneously lunging toward the Elite lieutenant in a fencer’s extension with her right–hand rod. Far more startling was the way she brought her left–hand rod up and back, using it to snag the spell–line. Looping it quickly around the tip a half dozen times, she brought it down and around behind her back, jerking the lieutenant off balance and into her other rod. The iron tip caught him in the floating ribs with an audible crack of breaking bone.

His stone dog lunged forward then, and would probably have bitten her arm in half if a blast of raw magical force hadn’t caught him square in the chest, spinning him half around. A second blast hit him in the shoulder and threw his thousand–plus–pound bulk into the wall just to the left of the door frame, scattering stone chips in his wake. The wall came apart in a cloud of shattered boards and plaster and I turned a quick eye toward the source of the blast. Vala.

She held a pair of short wooden wands, hilted like fighting daggers and likewise positioned. Both glowed with an intense green light in my magesight and I wondered what had gone into their making. But I didn’t let that distract me from my main goal—the lieutenant was still alive and that meant he was still a threat.

For about two more seconds. Stel let the spell–line she’d caught fall across her shoulders. Then she pivoted, using her own body as a sort of spool to take up the line and pull the lieutenant in closer before she crushed his throat with her right–hand rod. She was terrifyingly fast, completing the whole maneuver before the Elite had time to even begin the process of unweaving his spell. Somewhere outside the stone dog thrashed and gurgled as its own life boiled away in sympathy with its dying master’s.

Suddenly, Stel dropped to the floor. I had an instant to wonder why before a beam of bright blue light passed through the space she’d just been occupying. About as thick around as my thigh, it came from the door behind her and punched a hole through the dust and debris from the broken wall. It likewise punched a hole through Boquin, the post he was leaning against, the guy across the table from him, an unknown drinker near the fireplace, and the fireplace itself.

A moment later, a second stone dog charged into the room through the wreckage left by the first, and a third came in through the front door. Panic ensued as everyone, including several of the Crown Guards tried to find someplace else to be. One particularly clever shadowsider took a moment to throw his shirt over the mage–light chandelier, plunging the already dimly lit room into near blackness. I left the second Elite by the back door to Vala and her friend and headed toward the one coming in through the front.

I went by way of rolling under the nearest empty table, picking up the gods–alone–know what kind of vermin from the filthy straw in the process. An odd choice perhaps, but one that came out of a lifetime of hiding what I am. In the dark and the chaos, the table provided plenty of cover as I called on Triss to cover me with his darkness. In a world where spells shine bright in magesight, there’s no such thing as true invisibility, at least not from your fellow mages. Triss and his Shade cousins can, however, provide a very effective substitute.

Triss is both a part of my personal shadow and apart from it, a creature of elemental darkness. With the table and the madness around it hiding us from most eyes, he flowed up from the floor to encase me in a thin layer of condensed darkness like a second skin made of icy silk. But the sensation only lasted for a moment before he expanded outward into a cloud of enshrouding night.

It was a bit like being wreathed in thick smoke. No one could see me and I couldn’t see anyone else. But that’s less of a handicap than it might seem. The priests that raised me as a weapon for the hand of a goddess now dead, had trained me from earliest childhood to operate comfortably in complete darkness. Moreover, while I can’t see in the conventional manner when I’m shrouded, I can borrow the senses of my familiar.

Triss possesses a sort of 360–degree unsight, focused much more on texture and differences in light and dark than on the shapes and colors that dominate human vision. It’s a very different way of seeing, and it took me years of practice to be able to make sense of it at all, much less use it effectively.

As I slipped out from under the table, the unsight provided a sort of confused view of turbulent motion as Crown Guards tried to hold the exits against the mass outpouring of panicked shadowsiders. I narrowed my attention to the slice of the taproom near the front door, where I’d last seen the third stone dog. It wasn’t hard to spot, not with the giant circle of completely empty space around it. People stayed away from it even in the dark and half mad with fear. Who could blame them?

Stone dogs are flat terrifying. Imagine one of those guardian statues that sits out in front of the bigger temples. You know the ones; size of a small horse, deep chest, broad shoulders, a head more like a lion than a dog. Now imagine that one of them’s come to life and is sizing you up as its next meal. Figure in that it can swim through earth and stone like a fish through water, and then add in whatever protective magic its sorcerer–companion has wrapped around it, and . . . brrr. Just brrr.

This one was moving fast, charging toward Vala and Stel. I let it go past and headed back the way it had come, looking for its master. I didn’t have a lot of choice. None of the weapons I had on me would do much more than irritate the stone dog, and I’m only a middling good spell caster at my best. If I revealed myself, it’d tear me to pieces before I cracked its protections. No, the only chance I had of removing the dog from the equation was to take down its master.

A captain of the Elite, he was just coming through the front door then. Drawing a long knife from the sheath at my belt, I moved toward him as quickly as I could manage without making any significant noise. In the dark tavern, I was effectively invisible, and he didn’t know to watch out for me or my kind, not if they were there for Stel and Vala at any rate. But the Elite were very, very good and I would only get one free shot. I had to make it count. I was coming in from the front, because that was faster, and just about on top of him when the captain raised his right hand and pointed at the darkened chandelier, calling out a spell of illumination.

The room practically exploded with light as the old and faded magelights Jerik had bought secondhand suddenly kindled into eye–tearing brightness. The captain’s gaze flicked across the darkness surrounding me, flicked back, froze. He knew I was there.

Somewhere behind me, Stel screamed.


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