The Ambassador’s Mission Excerpt
THE OLD AND THE NEW
The most successful and quoted piece by the poet Rewin, greatest of the rabble to come out of the New City, was called Citysong. It captured what was heard at night in Imardin, if you took the time to stop and listen: an unending muffled and distant combination of sounds. Voices. Singing. A laugh. A groan. A gasp. A scream.
In the darkness of Imardin’s new Quarter a man remembered the poem. He stopped to listen, but instead of absorbing the city’s song he concentrated on one discordant echo. A sound that didn’t belong. A sound that didn’t repeat. He snorted quietly and continued on.
A few steps later a figure emerged from the shadows before him. The figure was male and loomed over him menacingly. Light caught the edge of a blade.
“Yer money,” a rough voice said, hard with determination.
The man said nothing and remained still. He might have appeared frozen in terror. He might have appeared deep in thought.
When he did move, it was with uncanny speed. A click, a snap of sleeve, and the robber gasped and sank to his knees. A knife clattered on the ground. The man patted him on the shoulder.
“Sorry. Wrong night, wrong target, and I don’t have time to explain why.”
As the robber fell, face-down, on the pavement, the man stepped over him and walked on. Then he paused and looked over his shoulder, to the other side of the street.
“Hai! Gol. You’re supposed to be my bodyguard.”
From the shadows another large figure emerged and hurried to the man’s side.
“Reckon you don’t have much need for one, Cery. I’m getting slow in my old age. I should be payin’ you to protect me.”
Cery scowled. “Your eyes and ears are still sharp, aren’t they?”
Gol winced. “As sharp as yours,” he retorted sullenly.
“Too true.” Cery sighed. “I should retire. But Thieves don’t get to retire.”
“Except by not being Thieves any more.”
“Except by becoming corpses,” Cery corrected.
“But you’re no ordinary Thief. I reckon there’s different rules for you. You didn’t start the usual way, so why would you finish the usual way?”
“Wish everyone else agreed with you.”
“So do I. City’d be a better place.”
“With everyone agreeing with you? Ha!”
“Better for me, anyway.”
Cery chuckled and resumed the journey. Gol followed a short distance behind. He hides his fear well, Cery thought. Always has. But he must be thinking that we both might not make it through this night. Too many of the others have died.
Over half the Thieves – the leaders of underworld criminal groups in Imardin – had perished these last few years. Each in different ways and most from unnatural causes. Stabbed, poisoned, pushed from a tall building, burned in a fire, drowned or crushed in a collapsed tunnel. Some said a single person was responsible, a vigilante they called the Thief Hunter. Others believed it was the Thieves themselves, settling old disputes.
Gol said it wasn’t who would go next that punters were betting on, but how.
Of course, younger Thieves had taken the place of the old, sometimes peacefully, sometimes after a quick, bloody struggle. That was to be expected. But even these bold newcomers weren’t immune to murder. They were as likely to become the next victim as an older Thief.
There were no obvious connections between the killings. While there were plenty of grudges between Thieves, none
provided a reason for so many murders. And while attempts on Thieves’ lives weren’t that unusual, that they were successful was. That, and the fact that the killer or killers had neither bragged about it, nor been seen in the act.
In the past we would have held a meeting. Discussed strategies. Worked together. But it’s been such a long time since the Thieves cooperated with each other I don’t think we’d know how to, now.
He’d seen the change coming in the days after the Ichani invaders were defeated, but hadn’t guessed how quickly it would happen. Once the Purge – the yearly forced exodus of the homeless from the city into the slums – ended, the slums were declared part of the city, rendering old boundaries obsolete. Alliances between Thieves faltered and new rivalries began. Thieves who had worked together to save the city during the invasion turned on each other in order to hold onto their territory, make up for what they’d lost to others and take advantage of new opportunities.
Cery passed four young men lounging against a wall where the alley met a wider street. They eyed him and their gaze fell to the small medallion pinned to Cery’s coat that marked him as a Thief’s man. As one they nodded respectfully.
Cery nodded back once, then paused at the alley entrance, waiting for Gol to pass the men and join him. The bodyguard had decided years ago that he was better able to spot potential threats if he wasn’t walking right beside Cery – and Cery could handle most close encounters himself.
As Cery waited, he looked down at a red line painted across the alley entrance, and smiled with amusement. Having declared the slums a part of the city, the king had tried to take control of it with varying success. Improvements to some areas led to raised rents which, along with the demolition of unsafe houses, forced the poor into smaller and smaller areas of the city. They dug in and made these places their own and, like cornered animals, defended them with savage determination, giving their neighbourhoods names like Blackstreets and Dwellfort. There were now boundary lines, some painted, some known only by reputation, over which no city guard dared step unless he was in the company of several colleagues – and even then they must expect a fight. Only the presence of a magician ensured their safety.
As his bodyguard joined him, Cery turned away and they started to cross the wider street together. A carriage passed, lit by two swinging lanterns. The ever-present guards strolled in groups of two – never out of sight of the next or last group – carrying lanterns.
This was a new thoroughfare, cutting through the bad part of the city known as Wildways. Cery had wondered, at first, why the king had bothered. Anyone travelling along it was at risk of being robbed by the denizens on either side, and probably stuck with a knife in the process. But the road was wide, giving little cover for muggers, and the tunnels beneath, once part of the underground network known as the Thieves’ Road, had been filled in during its construction. Many of the old, overcrowded buildings on either side had been demolished and replaced by large, secure ones owned by merchants.
Split in two, vital connections within Wildways had been broken. Though Cery was sure efforts were underway to dig
new tunnels, half the local population had been forced into other bad neighbourhoods, while the rest were split by the main road. Wildways, where visitors had once come seeking a gambling house or cheap whore, undeterred by the risk of robbery and murder, was doomed.
Cery, as always, felt uncomfortable in the open. The encounter with the mugger had left him uneasy.
“Do you think he was sent to test me?” he asked Gol.
Gol did not answer straightaway, his long silence telling Cery he was considering the question carefully.
“Doubt it. More likely he had a fatal bout of bad luck.”
Cery nodded. I agree. But times have changed. The city has changed. It’s like living in a foreign country, sometimes. Or what I’d imagine living in some other city would be like, since I’ve never left Imardin. Unfamiliar. Different rules.
Dangers where you don’t expect them. Can’t be too paranoid. And I am, after all, about to meet the
most feared Thief in Imardin.
“You there!” a voice called. Two guards strode toward them, one holding up his lantern. Cery considered the distance to the other side of the road, then sighed and stopped.
“Me?” he asked, turning to face the guards. Gol said nothing.
The taller of the guards stopped a step closer than his stocky companion. He did not answer, but after looking from Gol to Cery and back again a few times he settled on staring at Cery.
“State your address and name,” he ordered.
“Cery of River Road, Northside,” Cery replied.
“Both of you?”
“Yes. Gol is my servant. And bodyguard.”
The guard nodded, barely glancing at Gol. “Your destin – ation?”
“A meeting with the king.”
The quieter guard’s indrawn breath earned a glance from his superior. Cery watched the men, amused to find them both trying – and failing – to hide their dismay and fear. He’d been told to give them this information, and though it was a ridiculous claim the guard appeared to believe him. Or, more likely, understood that it was a coded message.
The taller guard straightened. “On your way then. And . . . safe journey.”
Cery turned away and, with Gol following a step behind, continued across the street. He wondered if the message had
told them exactly who Cery was meeting, or if it only told the guard that whoever spoke the phrase wasn’t to be detained or delayed.
Either way, he doubted he and Gol had chanced upon the only corrupted guard on the street. There had always been
guards willing to work with the Thieves, but now the layers of corruption were stronger and more pervasive than ever.
There were honest, ethical men in the Guard who strove to expose and punish offenders in their ranks, but it was a battle they had been losing for some time now.
Everyone is caught up in infighting of one form or another. The Guard is fighting corruption, the Houses are feuding, the rich and poor novices and magicians in the Guild bicker constantly, the Allied Lands can’t agree on what to do about Sachaka, and the Thieves are at war with each other. Faren would have found it all very entertaining.
But Faren was dead. Unlike the rest of the Thieves, he had died of a perfectly normal lung infection during winter five years ago. Cery hadn’t spoken to him for years before that. The man Faren had been grooming to replace him had taken the reins of his criminal empire with no contest or bloodshed. The man known as Skellin.
The man Cery was meeting tonight.
As Cery made his way through the smaller, lingering portion of the split Wildways neighbourhood, ignoring the calls of whores and betting boys, he considered what he knew of Skellin. Faren had taken in his successor’s mother whenSkellin was only a child, but whether the woman had been Faren’s lover or wife, or had worked for him, was unknown. The old Thief had kept them close and secret, as most Thieves had to do with loved ones. Skellin had proven himself a talented man. He had taken over many underworld enterprises, and started more than a few of his own, with few failures. He had a reputation for being clever and uncompromising. Cery did not think Faren would have approved of Skellin’s utter ruthlessness. Yet the stories most likely had been embellished during retellings, so there was no guessing how deserving the man’s reputation was.
There was no animal Cery knew of called a “Skellin”. Faren’s successor had been the first new Thief to break with the tradition of using animal names. It didn’t necessarily mean “Skellin” was his real name, of course. Those who believed it was thought him brave for revealing it. Those who didn’t, didn’t care.
A turn into another street brought them out into a cleaner part of the area. Cleaner only in appearance, however. Behind the doors of these solid, well-maintained houses lived more affluent whores, fences, smugglers and assassins.
The Thieves had learned that the Guard – stretched too thin – didn’t look much deeper if outward appearances were respectable. And the Guard, like certain wealthy men and women from the Houses with dubious business connections, had also learned to distract the city’s do-gooders from their failure to deal with the problem with donations to their pet charity projects.
Which included the hospices run by Sonea, still a hero to the poor even if the rich only spoke of Akkarin’s efforts and sacrifices in the Ichani Invasion. Cery often wondered if she guessed how much of the money donated to her cause came from corrupt sources. And if she did, did she care?
He and Gol slowed as they reached the intersection of streets named in the directions Cery had been sent. At the corner was a strange sight.
A patch of green sprinkled with bright colour filled the space where a house had once been. Plants of all sizes grew among the old foundations and broken walls. All were illuminated by hundreds of hanging lamps. Cery chuckled quietly as he finally remembered where he’d heard the name “Sunny House” before. The house had been destroyed during the Ichani Invasion, and the owner could not afford to rebuild it. He’d bunkered down in the basement of the ruin, and spent his days encouraging his beloved garden to take over – and the local people to enter and enjoy it.
It was a strange place for Thieves to be meeting, but Cery could see advantages. It was relatively open – nobody could approach or listen in without being noticed – and yet public enough that any fight or attack would be witnessed, which would hopefully discourage treachery and violence.
The instructions had said to wait beside the statue. As Cery and Gol entered the garden, they saw a stone figure on a plinth in the middle of the ruins. The statue was carved of black stone veined with grey and white. It was of a cloaked man, facing east but looking north. Drawing near, Cery realised there was something familiar about it.
It’s supposed to be Akkarin, he recognised with a shock. Facing the Guild but looking toward Sachaka. Moving closer he examined the face. Not a good likeness, though.
Gol made a low noise of warning and Cery’s attention immediately snapped back to his surroundings. A man was walking toward them, and another was trailing behind.
Is this Skellin? He is definitely foreign. But this man was not from any race that Cery had encountered. The stranger’s face was long and slim, his cheek bones and chin narrowing to a point. This made his surprisingly curvaceous mouth appear to be too large for his face. But his eyes and angular brows were in proportion – almost beautiful. His skin was darker than the typical Elyne or Sachakan colouring, but rather than the blue-black of a typical Lonmar it had a reddish tinge. His hair was a far darker shade of red than the vibrant tones common among the Elynes.
He looks like he’s fallen into a pot of dye, and it hasn’t quite washed out yet, Cery mused. I’d say he is about twenty-five.
“Welcome to my home, Cery of Northside,” the man said, with no trace of a foreign accent. “I am Skellin. Skellin the
Thief or Skellin the Dirty Foreigner depending on who you talk to and how intoxicated they are.”
Cery wasn’t sure how to respond to that. “Which would you rather I call you?”
Skellin’s smile broadened. “Skellin will do. I am not fond of fancy titles.” His gaze shifted to Gol.
“My bodyguard,” Cery explained.
Skellin nodded once at Gol in acknowledgement, then turned back to Cery. “May we talk privately?”
“Of course,” Cery replied. He nodded at Gol, who retreated out of earshot. Skellin’s companion also retreated.
The other Thief moved to one of the low walls of the ruin and sat down. “It is a shame the Thieves of this city don’t meet and work together any more,” he said. “Like in the old days.” He looked at Cery. “You knew the old traditions and followed the old rules once. Do you miss them?”
Cery shrugged. “Change goes on all the time. You lose something and you gain something else.”
One of Skellin’s elegant eyebrows rose. “Do the gains outweigh the losses?”
“More for some than others. I’ve not had much profit from the split, but I still have a few understandings with other Thieves.”
“That is good to hear. Do you think there is a chance we might come to an understanding?”
“There’s always a chance.” Cery smiled. “It depends on what you’re suggesting we understand.”
Skellin nodded. “Of course.” He paused and his expression grew serious. “There are two offers I’d like to make to you.
The first is one I’ve made to several other Thieves, and they have all agreed to it.”
Cery felt a thrill of interest. All of them? But then, he doesn’t say how many “several” is.
“You have heard of the Thief Hunter?” Skellin asked.
“I believe he is real.”
“One person killed all those Thieves?” Cery raised his eyebrows, not bothering to conceal his disbelief.
“Yes,” Skellin said firmly, holding Cery’s gaze. “If you ask around – ask the people who saw something – there are similarities in the murders.”
I’ll have to have Gol look into it again, Cery mused. Then a possibility occurred to him. I hope Skellin doesn’t think thatmy helping High Lord Akkarin to find the Sachakan spies back before the Ichani Invasion means I can find this Thief Hunter for him. They were easy to spot, once you knew what to look for. The Thief Hunter is something else.
“So . . . what you want to do about him?”
“I’d like your agreement that if you hear anything about the Thief Hunter you will tell me. I understand that many Thieves aren’t talking to each other, so I offer myself as a recipient of information about the Thief Hunter instead. Perhaps, with everyone’s cooperation, I’ll get rid of him for you all. Or, at the least, be able to warn anyone if they are going to be attacked.”
Cery smiled. “That last bit is a touch optimistic.”
Skellin shrugged. “Yes, there is always the chance a Thief won’t pass on a warning if he knows the Thief Hunter is going to kill a rival. But remember that every Thief removed is one less source of information that could lead to us getting rid of the Hunter and ensuring our own safety.”
“They’d be replaced quick enough.”
Skellin frowned. “By someone who might not know as much as their predecessor.”
“Don’t worry.” Cery shook his head. “There’s nobody I hate enough to do that to, right now.”
The other man smiled. “So are we in agreement?”
Cery considered. Though he did not like the sort of trade Skellin was in, it would be silly to turn down this offer. The only information the man wanted related to the Thief Hunter, nothing more. And he was not asking for a pact or promise – if Cery was unable to pass on information because it would compromise his safety or business, nobody could say he’d broken his word.
“Yes,” he replied. “I can do that.”
“We have an understanding,” Skellin said, his smile broadening. “Now let me see if I can make that two.” He rubbed
his hands together. “I’m sure you know the main product that I import and sell.”
Not bothering to hide his distaste, Cery nodded. “Roet. Or ‘rot’, as some call it. Not something I’m interested in. And I
hear you have it well in hand.”
Skellin nodded. “I do. When Faren died he left me a shrinking territory. I needed a way to establish myself and strengthen my control. I tried different trades. Roet supply was new and untested. I was amazed at how quickly Kyralians took to it. It has proven to be very profitable, and not just for me. The Houses are making a nice little income from the rent on the brazier houses.” Skellin paused. “You could be gaining from this little industry, too, Cery of Northside.”
“Just call me Cery.” Cery let his expression grow serious. “I am flattered, but Northside is home to people mostly toopoor to pay for roet. It’s a habit for the rich.”
“But Northside is growing more prosperous, thanks to your efforts, and roet is getting cheaper as more becomes available.”
Cery resisted a cynical smile at the flattery.
“Not quite enough yet. It would stop growing if roet was brought in too soon and too fast.” And if I could manage it,
we’d have no rot at all. He’d seen what it did to men and women caught up in the pleasure of it – forgetting to eat or drink, or to feed their children except to dose them with the drug to stop their complaints of hunger. But I’m not foolish enough to think I can keep it away forever. If I don’t provide it, someone else will. I will have to find a way to do so without causing too much damage. “There will be a right time to bring roet to Northside,” Cery said. “And when that time comes I’ll know who to come to.”
“Don’t leave it too long, Cery,” Skellin warned. “Roet is popular because it is new and fashionable, but eventually it
will be like bol – just another vice of the city, grown and prepared by anybody. I’m hoping that by then I’ll have established new trades to support myself with.” He paused and looked away. “One of the old, honourable Thief trades. Or perhaps even something legitimate.”
He turned back and smiled, but there was a hint of sadness and dissatisfaction in his expression. Perhaps there’s an honest man in there, Cery thought. If he didn’t expect roet to spread so fast, maybe he didn’t expect it to cause so much damage . . . but that isn’t going to convince me to get into the trade myself.
Skellin’s smile faded and was replaced by an earnest frown. “There are people out there who would like to take your place, Cery. Roet may be your best defence against them, as it was for me.”
“There are always people out there who want me gone,” Cery said. “I’ll go when I’m ready.”
The other Thief looked amused. “You truly believe you’ll get to choose the time and place?”
“And your successor?”
Skellin chuckled. “I like your confidence. Faren was as sure of himself, too. He was half right: he got to choose his successor.”
“He was a clever man.”
“He told me much about you.” Skellin’s gaze became curious. “How you didn’t become a Thief by the usual ways. That the infamous High Lord Akkarin arranged it.”
Cery resisted the urge to look at the statue. “All Thieves gain power through favours with powerful people. I happened to exchange favours with a very powerful one.”
Skellin’s eyebrows rose. “Did he ever teach you magic?”
A laugh escaped Cery. “If only!”
“But you grew up with Black Magician Sonea and gained your position with help from the former High Lord. Surely you would have picked up something.”
“Magic isn’t like that,” Cery explained. But surely he knows that. “You have to have the talent, and be taught to control and use it. You can’t pick it up by watching someone.”
Skellin put a finger to his chin and regarded Cery thoughtfully.
“You do still have connections in the Guild, though, don’t you?”
Cery shook his head. “I haven’t seen Sonea in years.”
“How disappointing, after all you did – all the Thieves did – to help them.” Skellin smiled crookedly. “I’m afraid your
reputation as a friend of magicians is nowhere near as exciting as the reality, Cery.”
“That’s the way with reputations. Usually.”
Skellin nodded. “So it is. Well, I have enjoyed our chat and made my offers. We have come to one understanding, at least. I hope we will come to another in time.” He stood up. “Thank you for meeting with me, Cery of Northside.”
“Thank you for the invitation. Good luck in catching the Thief Hunter.”
Skellin smiled, nodded politely, then turned and strolled back the way he had come. Cery watched him for a moment,
then gave the statue another quick glance. It really wasn’t a good likeness.
“How did it go?” Gol murmured as Cery joined him.
“As I expected,” Cery replied. “Except . . .”
“Except?” Gol repeated when Cery didn’t finish.
“We agreed to share information on the Thief Hunter.”
“He’s real then?”
“So Skellin believes.” Cery shrugged. They crossed the road and began striding back toward Wildways. “That wasn’t the oddest thing, though.”
“He asked if Akkarin taught me magic.”
Gol paused. “That isn’t that odd, though. Faren did hide Sonea before he handed her over to the Guild, in the hopes
she would do magic for him. Skellin must have heard all about it.”
“Do you think he’d like to have his own pet magician?”
“Sure. Though he obviously wouldn’t want to hire you, seeing as you’re a Thief. Perhaps he thinks he can ask favours
of the Guild through you.”
“I told him I hadn’t seen Sonea in years.” Cery chuckled.
“Next time I see her, I might ask if she’ll help out one of my Thief friends, just to see the look on her face.”
A figure appeared in the alley ahead, hurrying toward them. Cery noted the possible exits and hiding places around them.
“You should tell her Skellin was making enquiries,” Gol advised. “He might try to recruit someone else. And it might
work. Not all magicians are as incorruptible as Sonea.” Gol slowed. “That’s . . . That’s Neg.”
Relief that it wasn’t another attacker was followed by concern. Neg had been guarding Cery’s main hideout. He preferred it to roaming the streets, as open spaces made him jittery.
The guard had seen them. Neg was panting as he reached them. Something on his face caught the light, and Cery felt his heart drop somewhere far below the level of the street. A bandage.
“What is it?” Cery asked, in a voice he barely recognised as his.
“S . . . sorry,” Neg panted. “Bad news.” He drew in a deep breath, then let it out explosively and shook his head. “Don’t
know how to tell you.”
“Say it,” Cery ordered.
“They’re dead. All of them. Selia. The boys. Never saw who. Got past everything. Don’t know how. No lock broken. When I came to . . .” As Neg babbled on, apologising and explaining, words running over themselves, a rushing sound filled Cery’s ears. His mind tried to find some other explanation for a moment. He must be mistaken. He’s hit his head and is delusional. He dreamed it.
But he made himself face the likely truth. What he had dreaded – had nightmares over – for years had happened.
Someone had made it past all the locks and guards and protections, and murdered his family.