The Traitor Queen Excerpt
CHAPTER 1: ASSASSINS AND ALLIES
There is a mistaken belief, in Imardin, that printing presses had been invented by magicians. Anyone unaware of the workings of presses and magic could easily gain the impression, from the spectacular noise and the convulsing actions of the machine, that some sort of Alchemy was taking place, but no magic was required so long as someone was willing to turn the wheels and operate the levers.
Cery had learned the truth of the matter from Sonea years ago. Prototypes of the machine had been presented to the Guild by the inventor and the Guild had embraced it as a fast and cheap way of making duplicates of books. A printing service was then offered to the Houses for free, and to anyone from other classes for a charge. The impression that printing was magical was encouraged to deter others from starting their own trade. It was not until people of lower-class origins entered the Guild that the myth was dispelled and printing presses began to appear in the city in significant numbers.
The downside to this, Cery reflected, was the boom in popularity of the romantic adventure novel. A recently published one featured a rich heiress rescued from her luxurious but boring life by a young, handsome Thief. The fights were laughably implausible, nearly always involved swords rather than knives, and the underworld was populated by far too many good-looking men with impractical ideas about honour and loyalty. The novel had given a portion of the female population of Imardin an impression of the underworld that was a long way from the truth.
Of course, he had said none of this to the woman lying in bed beside him, who had been reading to him her favourite parts of these books every night since she had agreed to let him stay in her cellar. Cadia was no rich heiress. And I am no dashingly handsome Thief. She had been lonely and sad since her husband’s death, and the idea of hiding a Thief in her basement was a pleasant distraction.
And he . . . he had all but run out of places to hide.
He turned to look at her. She was asleep, breathing softly. He wondered if she really believed he was a Thief, or if he simply fitted well enough into her fantasy that she didn’t care if it was true or not. He was not the dashing young Thief of the novel – he certainly didn’t have the stamina for the adventures described, either in bed or out of it.
I’m getting soft. I can’t even walk up stairs without my heart thumping, and getting out of breath. We’ve spent too much time locked away in cramped hiding places and not enough time in fighting practice.
A muffled thump came from the next room. Cery lifted his head to regard the door. Were Anyi and Gol awake? Now that he was, he doubted he’d sleep again for some time. Being cooped up always led to him sleeping badly.
He slipped off the bed, automatically pulling on his trousers and reaching for his coat. Slipping one arm into a sleeve, he reached for the door handle and turned it quietly. As he pushed it open Anyi came into view. She was leaning over Gol, a blade catching the light of the night lamps, poised ready to strike. He felt his heart lurch in alarm and disbelief.
“What . . . ?” he began. At the sound, Anyi turned to look at him with the enviable speed of youth.
It was not Anyi.
Just as quickly, not-Anyi’s attention moved back to Gol and the knife stabbed downwards, but hands rose to grab the assassin’s wrist and stop it. Gol surged up off the bed. Cery was through the door by then, but checked his stride as a new thought overrode his intention to stop the woman.
He turned to see that another struggle was underway over at the second makeshift bed, only this time it was the intruder who was pressed to the mattress, holding back the hands that held a knife hovering just above his chest. Cery felt a surge of pride for his daughter. She must have woken in time to catch the assassin, and turned his attack against him.
But her face was stretched in a grimace of effort as she tried to force the knife down. Despite the assassin’s small size, the muscles of his wrists and neck were well developed. Anyi would not win this trial of brute force. Her advantage was her speed. He took a step toward her.
“Get out of here, Cery,” Gol barked.
Anyi’s arms were forced back as her concentration was broken. She sprang out of reach of the assassin. He leapt off the bed and dropped into a fighting stance, whipping out a long, thin knife from within a sleeve. But he did not advance on her. His gaze moved to Cery.
Cery had no intention of leaving the fight to Anyi and Gol. He might one day have to abandon Gol, but this was not that day. He would never abandon his daughter.
He had slipped his other arm into the coat sleeve automatically. Now he stepped backwards and feigned fear, while reaching into the pockets, and wriggled his hands into the wrist straps of his favourite weapons: two knives, the sheaths fastened inside the pockets so that the blades would be bare and ready when Cery drew them out.
The assassin leapt toward Cery. Anyi sprang at him. Cery did too. It was not what the man expected. Nor did he expect the twin knives that trapped his own. Or the blade that, well aimed, slid through the soft flesh of his neck. He froze in surprise and horror.
Cery ducked away from the spray of blood as Anyi withdrew her knife, knocked the assassin’s knife from his hand, then finished him with a stab to the heart.
Very efficient. I’ve trained her well.
With Gol’s help, of course. Cery turned to see how his friend was faring and was relieved to see the female assassin lying in a growing pool of blood on the floor.
Gol looked at Cery and grinned. He was breathing hard. So am I, Cery realised. Anyi bent and ran her hands over the male attacker’s clothing and hair, then rubbed her fingers together.
“Soot. He came down the chimney into the house above.” She looked at the old stone stairs leading up to the basement door speculatively.
Cery’s mood soured. However the pair had got in, or found them in the first place, this was no longer a safe hiding place. He scowled down at the dead assassins, considering the last few people he might call on for help, and how they might reach them.
A small gasp came from the doorway. He turned to see Cadia, wrapped only in a sheet, staring wide-eyed at the dead assassins. She shuddered, but as she looked at him her dismay turned to disappointment.
“I guess you won’t be staying another night, then?”
Cery shook his head. “Sorry about the mess.”
She regarded the blood and bodies with a grimace, then frowned and peered up at the ceiling. Cery hadn’t heard anything, but Anyi had lifted her head at the same time. They all exchanged worried looks, not wanting to speak unless their suspicions were true.
He heard a faint creak, muffled by the floorboards above them.
As soundlessly as possible, Anyi and Gol grabbed their shoes, packs and the lamps and followed Cery into the other room, shutting the door behind them and lifting an old chest into place before it. Cadia stopped in the middle of the room, sighed and dropped the sheet so that she could get dressed. Both Anyi and Gol turned their backs quickly.
“What should I do?” Cadia whispered to Cery.
He picked up the rest of his clothes and Cadia’s bedroom lamp, and considered. “Follow us.”
She looked more ill than excited as they slipped through the trapdoor that led to the old Thieves’ Road. The passages here were filled with rubble and not entirely safe. This section of the underground network had been cut off from the rest when the king had rebuilt a nearby road and put new houses where the old slum homes had been. Though it was not quite within the borders of his territory, Cery had paid an old tunneller to dig a new access passage, but had left the old ways looking abandoned so that nobody would be tempted to use them if they did find them. It had been a handy place to hide things, like stolen goods and the occasional corpse.
He’d never planned to hide himself here, however. Cadia regarded the rubble-strewn passage with a mix of dismay and curiosity. Cery handed her the lamp and pointed in one direction.
“In a hundred paces or so you’ll see a grate high on the left wall. Beyond it is an alley between two houses. There’ll be grooves in the wall to help you climb up, and the grate should hinge inward. Go to one of your neighbours and tell them there are robbers in your house. If they find the bodies, say they’re the robbers and suggest one turned on the other.”
“What if they don’t find them?”
“Drag them into the passages and don’t let anyone into the cellar until the smell goes away.”
She looked even more ill, but nodded and straightened her back. He felt a pang of affection at her bravery, and hoped she wouldn’t run into more assassins, or be punished some other way for helping him. He stepped close and kissed her firmly.
“Thank you,” he said quietly. “It’s been a pleasure.”
She smiled, her eyes sparkling for a moment.
“You be careful,” she told him.
“Always am. Now go.”
She hurried away. He couldn’t risk staying to watch her leave. Gol moved forward to lead the way and Anyi remained at the rear as they made their way through the crumbling passages. After several steps something slammed behind them. Cery stopped and looked back.
“Cadia?” Gol muttered. “The grille closing as she climbed up to the street?”
“It’s a long way for the sound to travel,” Cery said.
“That wasn’t the sound of a grate on bricks or stone,” Anyi whispered. “It was . . . something wooden.”
A rattle followed. The sound of disturbed bricks and stones. Cery felt a chill run down his back. “Go. Hurry. But quietly.”
Gol held his lamp high, but they could only manage breaking into a jog now and then with so much rubble on the passage floor. Cery bit back a curse more than once, regretting not tidying things up a little bit more. Then, after they’d continued along a straight section of tunnel, Gol cursed and skidded to a halt. Looking over the big man’s shoulder, Cery saw that the roof ahead had collapsed recently, leaving them in a dead end. He spun about and they hurried back toward the last junction they had passed.
Anyi sighed as they reached the turn. “We’re making tracks.”
Looking down, Cery saw footprints in the dust. The hope that the pursuit might follow the tracks down to the dead end was dashed as he realised that Gol’s now led down the side passage, leaving plenty of evidence they’d backtracked.
But if there’s another opportunity to set down false tracks . . .
None came, however. Relief surged through him as they finally reached the connecting passage to the main part of the Thieves’ Road. Once again he regretted not anticipating the situation he was in: while he’d disguised the entry to the isolated tunnels, he’d made no effort to conceal the exit from anyone exploring within.
Once the door was closed behind them, they looked around at the cleaner, better-maintained passage they were standing in. There was nothing they could use to block the door and prevent their pursuers from leaving the old passages.
“Where to?” Gol asked.
They moved faster now, shuttering the lamps so that only the thinnest beam of light illuminated the way. Once Cery would have travelled in the dark, but he’d heard stories of traps being set up to defend other Thieves’ territories, by enterprising robbers or by the mysterious Sligs. Even so, the pace Gol set was precariously fast and Cery worried that his friend would not be able to dodge any dangers he hurried into.
Soon Cery was breathing hard, his chest aching and his legs growing unsteady. Gol drew ahead a little, but slowed after a while and looked back. He paused and waited for Cery, but his frown didn’t fade and he didn’t move on as Cery caught up.
The lurch Cery’s heart made was like a stab of pain. He whirled around to see only darkness behind them.
“I’m here,” a voice said quietly, then soft footsteps preceded her out of the gloom. “I stopped to see if I could hear them following.” Her expression was grim. “They are. There’s more than one.” She waved a hand as she hurried closer. “Get going. They’re not far behind us.”
Cery followed as Gol raced onward. The big man set an even faster pace. He chose a twisting route, but they did not lose their pursuers – which suggested they knew the passages as well as he and Cery. Gol drew closer to the Guild passages, but whoever followed was clearly not sufficiently intimidated by magicians to let their prey go.
They were nearing Cery’s secret entrance into the tunnels under the Guild. They won’t dare follow me there. Unless they didn’t know where the passages led. If they follow, they’ll discover that the Guild leave their underground ways unguarded. Which meant that Skellin would find out as well. Not only will I never be able to escape that way again, but I will have to warn the Guild. They will fill the passages in and then our safest way to Sonea and Lilia will be gone.
He regarded the Guild passages as an escape route of last resort. If there was any alternative . . .
Twenty strides or so from the entrance to the Guild passages a sound came from behind, confirming that the assassins were close. Too close – there would not be time to open the secret door before they caught up. When Gol slowed to look back at Cery – his eyebrows raised in a silent question – Cery slipped past him and headed in a new direction.
He had one other alternative. It was a riskier one. It might even lead them into greater danger than that which they fled. But at least their pursuers would be in as much danger, if they dared to follow.
Gol, realising what Cery intended, cursed under his breath. But he didn’t argue. He grabbed Cery’s arm to slow him, and took the lead again.
“Madness,” he muttered, then raced toward Slig City. It had been over a decade – nearly two – since dozens of street urchins had made a new home in the tunnels after the destruction of their neighbourhood. They soon became the subject of scary stories told in bolhouses and to terrify children into obedience. It was said that the Sligs never ventured into the sunlight and only emerged at night via sewers and cellars to steal food and play tricks on people. Some believed that they had bred into spindly, pale things with huge eyes that allowed them to see in the dark. Others said they looked like any other street urchin, until they opened their mouths to reveal long fangs. What all agreed on was that to venture into Slig territory was to invite death. From time to time someone would test that belief. Most never returned, but a few had crawled out again, bleeding from stab wounds delivered by silent, unseen attackers in the dark.
Locals left out offerings, hoping to avoid subterranean invasions of their homes. Cery, whose territory overlapped the Sligs’ in one corner, had arranged for someone to put food in one of the tunnels every few days, the sack marked with a picture of his namesake, the little rodent ceryni.
It had been a while since he’d checked to make sure they were still doing so. If they haven’t, then I’m probably not going to get a chance to punish them for it.
Soon he spotted the markers that warned they were crossing into Slig territory. Then he stopped seeing them. He could hear Anyi’s quick breathing behind him. Had the assassins dared to follow?
“Don’t,” Anyi gasped as he slowed to look over his shoulder. “They’re . . . right . . . behind . . . us.”
He had no breath to utter a curse. Air rasped in and out of his lungs. His whole body ached, and his legs wobbled as he forced them to keep jogging onward. He made himself think of the danger Anyi was in. She would be the first one the assassins killed if they caught up. He couldn’t let that happen.
Something grabbed at his ankles and he toppled forward.
The ground wasn’t as flat or hard as he expected, but heaved and rolled, and muffled curses were coming from it. Gol – now invisible in utter darkness. The lamps had gone out. Cery rolled aside.
“Shut up,” a voice whispered.
“Do it, Gol,” Cery ordered. Gol fell silent.
Back down the passage, footsteps grew louder. Moving lights appeared, filtering through a curtain of roughly woven fabric that Cery did not recall encountering. It must have been dropped down after we passed it. The footsteps slowed and stopped. A sound came from another direction – more hurried footsteps. The lights moved away as their bearers continued in pursuit.
After a long pause, several sighs broke the silence. A shiver ran down Cery’s spine as he realised he was surrounded by several people. A thin beam of light appeared. One of the lamps. It was being held by a stranger.
Cery looked up at a young man, who was staring back at him.
“Who?” the man asked.
“Ceryni of Northside.”
The man’s eyebrows rose, then he nodded. He turned to the others. Cery looked around to see six other young men, two sitting on top of Gol. Anyi was in a fighting crouch, a knife in both hands. The two young men standing on either side of her were keeping a safe distance, though they looked willing to risk a cut if their leader ordered them to take her down.
“Put them away, Anyi,” Cery said.
Without taking her eyes from them, she obeyed. At a nod from the leader, the two men climbed off Gol, who groaned with relief. Cery rose to his feet, turned back to the leader and straightened his shoulders.
“We seek safe passage.”
The young man’s mouth quirked into a half-smile. “No such thing nowaday.” He jabbed a thumb toward his chest. “Wen.” He turned to speak to the others. “This name I know. One who leaves food. What we do?”
They exchanged glances, then muttered words to which he shook his head: “Kill?” “Free?” “Worm?” one said, and Wen looked thoughtful. He nodded. “Worm,” he said decisively. Somehow this resulted in nods, though whether of acceptance or agreement Cery couldn’t tell.
Wen turned to Cery. “You all come with us. We take you to Worm.” He gave Gol back his lamp, then looked at one of those who had been sitting on the big man. “Go tell Worm.”
The young man scampered off into the darkness behind Wen. As Wen turned to follow, Anyi reached out and took her lamp back from the youth holding it. Two of the youngsters hurried forward to join their leader Wen and the rest took positions at the rear.
No one spoke as they walked. At first Cery only felt an overwhelming relief at simply not running any more, though his legs were still shaky and his heart was beating too fast. Gol looked as winded as he did, he noted. As he recovered he began to worry again. He’d never heard of anyone meeting with a Slig called Worm. Unless . . . unless Worm isn’t really a man, but something they feed trespassers to.
Stop it, he told himself. If they wanted us dead, they wouldn’t have hidden us from our pursuers. They’d have stabbed us in the dark or led us into a dead end.
After walking for some time, a voice spoke in the darkness ahead, and Wen grunted a reply. Soon a man stepped into the light and the group stopped. He stared at Cery intently, then nodded.
“You are Ceryni,” he said. He extended a hand. “I am Worm.”
Cery held out his hand, unsure what the gesture meant. Worm grasped it for a moment, then let it go and beckoned. “Come with me.”
Another journey followed. Cery noticed that the air was growing humid, and from time to time the sound of running water came from a side passage or behind the walls. Then they stepped out into a cavernous room filled with the rush of water, and it all made sense.
A forest of columns surrounded them, each splaying out to form a brick archway that joined with its neighbour. The whole network formed a low ceiling that suggested draped fabric or a faren’s web. Below this was no floor, but the reflective surface of water. Their guide was now walking along what appeared to be the top of a thick wall. The water flowed past on either side. It was too dark to tell how deep it was.
Fortunately the path was dry and not at all slippery. Glancing back, Cery saw that the water flowed into tunnels which, by the slant of their roof, descended even further under the city. On either side he saw other wall tops, too far away to reach by leaping. The only illumination came from the lamps they carried.
The water itself was surprisingly free of floating matter. Only the occasional oily slick passed them, mostly smelling of soap and fragrance. The walls bore patches of mould, however, and there was an unhealthy dampness to the air.
A cluster of lights appeared ahead and Cery soon began to make out some sort of large platform bridging two of the walls. Several people were sitting on it, and a low murmur of voices echoed in the vast room. Beyond the platform Cery made out dark circles within a lighter area, and eventually picked out enough detail to see that they were more tunnels, this time set higher up and with water spilling out into the vast underground pool.
Their footsteps set the platform creaking as they followed Worm onto it. Looking at the people, Cery saw that none were older than their mid-twenties. Two of the young women nursed babies, and a toddler was tethered by a rope to the closest column, probably so that he did not scamper off the platform into the water. All stared at Cery, Gol and Anyi with wide, curious eyes, but none spoke.
Worm glanced at Cery, then gestured at the water outlets.
“This lot come from the Guild Baths,” he said. “Further south there are sewer pipes and those up north are both sewers and drains from the kitchens. But here the water is cleaner.”
Cery nodded. It wasn’t a bad place to settle, if you didn’t mind being underground and constantly surrounded by dampness. Looking to either side he made out other platforms, populated by more Sligs, and narrow bridges linking them.
“I never knew this was here,” he admitted.
“Right under your nose.” Worm smiled, and Cery realised how right the man was. This part of Slig territory ran under Cery’s own area. Cery turned to face him.
“Your people hid us from people who wanted to kill us,” he said. “Thanks. I would never have trespassed if I’d had another choice.”
Worm tilted his head to one side. “Not the Guild tunnels?”
So he knows I have access to them. Cery shook his head. “It would have shown them to my enemy. I’d have had to warn the Guild about that, and I don’t expect to like what they’d do about it. I’m guessing you would not like them snooping around down here either.”
The man’s eyebrows rose. “No.” He shrugged, then sighed. “If we’d let the one who sent the hunters after you find you, he would find us too. Once he takes your things there is nothing stopping him from taking ours.”
Cery regarded Worm thoughtfully. The Sligs were far more aware of the goings-on in the world above than he’d have expected. They were right about Skellin. Once he held Cery’s territory he’d want control of the Sligs too.
“Skellin or me. Not much of a choice,” Cery said.
Worm shook his head and scowled. “He won’t let us ’lone, like you do.” He nodded toward the tunnels. “He will want those because he wants what they lead to.”
The Guild. Cery shivered. Was this a smart guess by the Slig leader, or did he know of Skellin’s specific plans? He opened his mouth to ask, but Worm turned to stare at Cery.
“I show you this so you know. But you can’t stay,” he said. “We will take you out in a safe place, but that is all.”
Cery nodded. “It’s more than I’d hoped for,” he replied, putting all his gratitude into his tone.
“If you must come back, speak my name and you will live, but we will take you out again.”
Worm held Cery’s gaze for a little longer, then nodded. “Where do you want to go?”
Cery looked at Anyi and Gol. His daughter looked anxious, and Gol looked pale and exhausted. Where could they go? They had few favours left to them, and no safe place within easy reach. No allies they could trust or risk endangering. Except one. Cery turned back to Worm.
“Take us back the way we came.”
The man spoke a word to the youths who had rescued Cery and his companions. Worm gestured to indicate Cery should follow them; then, without voicing a farewell, he walked away. Taking that as a Slig custom, Cery turned also.
The journey out of Slig territory was slower, which Cery was grateful for. Now that fear and relief had both passed, he was tired. A gloom settled over him. Gol was dragging his feet, too. At least Anyi had youthful stamina on her side. Cery began to recognise the walls around them, then the Slig guides melted away into the darkness. The lamp Cery was carrying spluttered and died as it ran out of oil. Gol did not protest as Cery took his lamp and led them to the entrance to the Guild passages.
When they had slipped through and the door was closed again, Cery felt much of the tension and fear leave him. They were safe at last. He turned to Anyi.
“So where is this room you and Lilia meet in?”
She took the lamp, leading him and Gol down the long, straight passage. After a side turn, they reached a complex of rooms connected by twisting corridors. An unwelcome memory rose of being locked in the dark, imprisoned by Lord Fergun, and Cery shivered. But these rooms were different: older and with a feel of deliberate confusion to the arrangement. Anyi took them into a room cleaned of dust, with a few small wooden boxes for furniture and a pile of worn pillows for seating. At one end was a bricked-up chimney. She set the lamp down, then lit a few candles in alcoves carved into the walls.
“This is it,” she said. “I’d have brought in more furniture but I couldn’t carry anything big and I didn’t want to draw attention.”
“No beds.” Gol settled down onto one of the boxes with a groan. Cery smiled at his old friend.
“Don’t worry. We’ll sort something out.”
But Gol’s grimace didn’t soften. Cery frowned as he noticed that Gol’s hands were pressed to his side under his shirt. Then he saw the dark stain, glistening in the candle light.
“Gol . . . ?”
The big man closed his eyes and swayed.
“Gol!” Anyi exclaimed, reaching his side at the same time as Cery. They caught Gol before he could fall off the box. Anyi dragged pillows over.
“Lie down,” she ordered. “Let me look at that.”
Cery could not speak. Fear had frozen his mind and throat. The assassin must have stabbed Gol during the fight. Or perhaps before he woke up, and Cery had only seen Gol stop the second stab.
Anyi bullied Gol off the box and onto the pillows, pulling his hand away and peeling back the shirt to reveal a small wound in his belly, slowly seeping blood.
“All this time.” Cery shook his head. “Why didn’t you say anything?”
“It wasn’t that bad.” Gol shrugged, then winced. “Didn’t start hurting until we were talking to Worm.”
“I bet it does now,” Anyi said. “How deep do you think it went?”
“Not far. I don’t know.” Gol coughed in pain.
“This could be worse than it looks.” Anyi sat back on her heels and looked up at Cery. “I’ll get Lilia.”
“No . . .” Gol protested.
“It was only a few hours until dawn when we left Cadia’s house,” Cery told her. “Lilia might be at the University already.”
Anyi nodded. “She might. Only one way to find out.” She raised an eyebrow at him questioningly.
“Go,” he told her.
She took his hand and pressed it over the wound. Gol groaned.
“Keep pressure on it and—”
“I know what to do,” Cery told her. “If she’s not there at least get something clean to use as a dressing.”
“I will,” she said, picking up the lamp.
Then she was gone, her footsteps fading as she hurried into the darkness.