Here, for your examination and enjoyment, is the beginning of Chapter One of Among Thieves.
Athel the Grinner wasn’t grinning. In fact, he didn’t look that good at all. A long night of torture will do that to a person.
I knelt beside him. He was naked, his arms lashed across the top of a barrel, the rest of him collapsed behind. I avoided looking at the bloody mess that had once been his hands and feet.
“Athel,” I said. Nothing. I slapped the smuggler lightly on his sweaty cheek. “Hey, Athel.” His eyelids fluttered once. I wove my fingers into his hair, took hold, and raised his head so he could see me. If any of the sympathy or pity I felt showed on my face, so be it. I don’t have to like what I do sometimes. I said his name again.
Athel’s eyes opened and began wandering around the shadowed room. I waited for him to notice me in the candlelight. He did.
“Drothe?” he said. His voice was slow and rusty as he spoke my name. I could tell he was having trouble focusing on me in the flickering light.
“Grinner,” I replied, “want to tell me something?”
“Wha . . . ?” His eyes began to close.
I gave his head a shake. “Athel!” His dark eyes snapped open, feverish in their intensity. I leaned forward and locked my gaze with his, trying to hold his attention by force of will.
“Where’s the reliquary?” I said.
Athel tried to swallow, but coughed instead. “Already told you it’s coming. I just . . .”
“If it’s coming,” I said, “why did I have to chase you halfway across the city? Why did I have to drag you off that skiff as it was launching into the bay? Doesn’t seem like you’ve been playing straight with me, Grinner.”
Athel shook his head, his hair tugging gently in my hand, and grinned weakly. “Wouldn’t cross you, Drothe—you know that.”
“But you did,” I said. I tapped one of his ruined fingers, making him gasp. “You told me earlier, remember?” I let him think back on the pain and remember why he had decided to talk the first time. “You’ve put me in an awkward position, Athel. I have a buyer and no reliquary for him. That undercuts my reputation. That makes me unhappy. So, either you tell me where to find that reliquary, or I come back after my people have done some more persuading.”
I could tell he was thinking about it. His eyes glassed over, and his jaw wobbled softly as he argued it over inside. If the Angels had any mercy, they would let him crack the rest of the way right now. I knelt next to what was left of him and waited, hoping it would end here.
When Athel finally came back up from wherever he had been, I could see the Angels weren’t on my side tonight. Despite all he had gone through, he was still able to summon up a piercing look and give me the weakest shake of his head.
I placed his head gently back on top of the barrel and stood.
“I need to know who he sold it to,” I said. “I need a name.”
“I’ll get you one. Don’t worry,” said a voice from the darkened warehouse around us.
Shatters came walking into the candle’s circle of light, his two assistants behind him. One was carrying a bucket of seawater.
The Agonyman was small, even shorter than I, with broad shoulders and no neck to speak of. His hands were long and expressive, like an artist’s, and he was constantly cracking his knuckles as he walked. Shatters stopped beside me and smiled cruel, hungry smile. “He’s close to the edge now. Won’t take much more to get him babbling like a drunken whore.” He popped a thumb joint for emphasis.
The assistant with the bucket stepped forward and emptied it over Athel. The smuggler sputtered, then howled as the salt water reached his ravaged hands. I turned away as the other assistant began sorting through the torturer’s tools that had been set aside during my interview.
“Let me know when he’s ready.” My voice came out thick. “I’ll be outside.” Shatters’s laughter followed me through the shuttered warehouse until I opened the door and stepped outside.
I blinked in surprise at the sunlight that struck me in the face. Dawn already? I squinted at the soft glow that seemed to suffuse every tower and building of the Imperial capital. Ildrecca tried its hardest to look peaceful and serene in that light, but I’ve known the city too long to be fooled so easily. Nice try, old friend.
Bronze Degan was across the street, leaning in a doorway. I went over.
“Anything?” he asked.
“Not since the last time I went in.” I gestured to the sun in the east. “When did that happen?”
“Not too long ago.” He yawned. “How much longer?”
I felt myself yawn in return. I hated that. “Hell if I know,” I said.
Degan grunted and rearranged himself in the doorway. Half again as tall as me, with fair hair and skin, broad shoulders, and a lean build, he seemed to fill the entire space on his own. Some of that came from the cut of his clothes—the flowing, long green linen coat, left open to show off the copper-colored doublet beneath, the matching full-cut breeches, the wide-brimmed hat—but just as much came from the man himself. He had an air of easy, capable confidence about him that caused people to give him a healthy berth even in the most crowded city streets. Of course, it didn’t hurt that a bronze-chased sword hung at his side, either—a sword that marked him as a member of the Order of the Degans, an old mercenary order in an even older city. No one entered into that select brotherhood of sell-swords without plenty of personal cachet to begin with.
I slid into the doorway beside Degan, sat down on the stoop, and dug out two ahrami seeds from the pouch around my neck. They were small and oval, the size of my largest knuckle, and darkly roasted. I rubbed them between my palms to let them absorb some sweat. A sharp, acrid smell, with subtle hints of cinnamon, earth, and smoke, rose up from my hands. I felt my pulse quicken at the aroma.
“Breakfast,” announced Degan.
I looked up. “What?”
“I’ve decided you owe me breakfast.”
Degan gave me a wry look as he silently counted off three fingers.
“Ah,” I said. “Well, I suppose you earned it.”
Degan snorted. There had been three men with Athel the Grinner when I’d finally tracked him down—three very large men. For me, they would have been an impossible barrier; for Degan, they were little more than an inconvenience. If not for him, I’d never have made it out of that plaza, and Athel would still be grinning.
“Thanks,” I added. It was something I didn’t say to my friend nearly enough, and something he didn’t worry about hearing. We’d been running the streets together long enough to have moved past words and gestures like that.
Degan shrugged. “Slow night. I needed something to do.”
I smiled and was just slipping the ahrami seeds into my mouth when a muffled scream came out of the warehouse. Degan and I looked up and down the street, but there was no one to hear Athel’s cries—or, at least, no one who felt inclined to investigate. I shuddered in the silence that followed.
I had been planning on letting the seeds sit in my mouth for a while, to savor the quickening of my pulse in anticipation. Now, I simply bit down. The ahrami filled my mouth with smoky, bittersweet flavor. I chewed quickly, swallowed, and waited for them to hit.
They came on fast, as the straight seeds always do. One moment I was tired and half asleep; the next, I felt revitalized. The cobwebs that had been draping themselves across my mind for the last several hours receded, replaced with a sense of alertness. I could feel the worst of the tension drain out of me. My back loosened, and the pressure that had been building behind my eyes faded away. The fatigue was still there—I wasn’t going to be running across the city again any time soon—but I didn’t feel as raw as I had a few moments ago.
I sat up a little straighter and worked the kinks from my shoulders. My mind was settled, my pulse was steady, and my eyes were sharp once more.
I shook the bag around my neck before slipping it back under my shirt. Only a few seeds left. I’d have to restock soon.
We settled back and waited. I thought I heard a few more screams, but the city was coming alive by then and the yells seemed softer than before, so it was hard to tell.
One of Shatters’s men came out to get me just as the ahrami was starting to wear off. By the time I made it back into the warehouse and stood at the Agonyman’s side, the rush had faded completely, leaving me in a less than charitable mood.
“Well?” I said.
Shatters was rinsing his hands and forearms in a large bucket of water that had been set atop a crate. “Gotcher name.”
“And?” I said.
“Amazing how good this feels after a long night,” he said, nodding toward the water. “Ya get warm, working on a man that long.” Shatters glanced at me sideways. “Makes you appreciate the simple things, you know?”
I stayed silent. I suspected I knew where this was going, but I wanted to let him get there on his own.
“Like hawks,” said Shatters. “Hawks are simple things.”
He nodded. “You want something, you give a person hawks and he gives it to ya. The more you want it, the more money you give him.”
I nodded. This was going where I had thought it would: Shatters was trying to shake me down.
“Pretty simple,” I said. “Except we already agreed on a price.”
Shatters paused as he leaned over the bucket. I noticed that the water had taken on a reddish tint. “This took longer than I expected,” he said flatly. “I figure if something takes that long to get, it’s worth a higher price. A man don’t hold out like Athel did for sheer stubbornness.” He ran a finger through the water. “You want to hear what he had to say, you’ll hatch some more hawks.”
“Or he won’t be telling no one nothing ever again, and the name walks with me.”
Shatters grinned. “Smart lad.” He bent down to rinse his face.
“Smart,” I agreed as I grabbed the back of his neck and shoved his head down into the water. I shifted my weight to keep him there, steadying the bucket with my other hand as he struggled.
As a rule, I don’t mind renegotiating—hell, it’s part of doing business with people like Shatters. Kin are always trying to line their pockets with a few extra hawks. But there’s a right way and a wrong way to do it. The right way involves respect and a little give and take from both sides; the wrong way usually involves demanding more money “or else.” Unless I’m the one offering it, I hate “or else.”
Even under water, Shatters was loud. His assistants came running. I barely glanced up as they came into sight.
“First one of you raises a hand goes dustmans,” I said. They both skidded to a stop, torn between my threat to kill them and their duty to their master. They eyed me, Shatters, and each other in turn.
I knew I had them the moment they hesitated. “Fade,” I said. Still, they stood there. I looked up from Shatters’s flailing and met the larger man’s eyes. “What are you, a couple of Eriffs? Don’t you know who I am? I said, fade!”
The larger man ducked his head and turned away. The smaller one paused and eyed the distance between us, considering. I showed my teeth.
“Come on, pup. Try me.”
Shatters’s struggles had begun to weaken by then. I raised his head out of the water long enough for him to get half a breath, then shoved it back under. Pause, repeat, and again. Near the end of the fourth dunking, I let go and stepped away.
Shatters fell sideways with his head still in the bucket, spilling water over himself and the floor. He lay there, coughing violently, his body convulsing with the effort. I knelt down and relieved him of his dagger as he vomited up water and bile.
“The name,” I said when he was done.
Shatters spit. “Screw,” he said.
“That’s not a name,” I said. I stood and pushed his face into his own vomit with my foot, crushing his nose against the floor in the process. “Try again.”
Shatters gagged and tried to wrench his head up. I let him after a moment.
“Ioclaudia,” he gasped. “The name’s Ioclaudia.”
I arched an eyebrow. It was an old-fashioned name; certainly one I wasn’t familiar with on the street. “Who is . . . ?” I asked.
Shatters started on another coughing fit. I nudged him with the toe of my boot.
“Don’t know. Athel wouldn’t say.”
“What’s her connection with Athel? Was she his buyer?”
“I don’t know. Maybe.”
“Where is she?”
Shatters shook his head.
“What about the reliquary?” I said. “Did you find out where it is?”
Shatters was rising to his hands and knees now, arms trembling but getting stronger every moment. “All he said was he needed to make some kind of swap. It sounded as if it came up suddenlike.”
“And he used my reliquary?”
Bastard. “What did he swap it for?”
“How the hell should I know?” Anger had found its way back into his voice. “Shit,” he said, looking up at me. “You little shit. Do you know what my brothers will do to you for this?”
I reached out and put his own dagger against his cheek. Shatters froze, staring at the steel. It was sharp; a rivulet of blood appeared without any effort on my part.
“Don’t even think about making this personal,” I said. “You tried to shake me down, and I called you on it. It’s business. It’s over.” I moved the blade down, letting it linger beside his neck. “But if you insist on bringing in your fellow Agonymen, not only will I take it poorly, but Nicco probably won’t be too pleased, either. And I know you don’t want him mad at you.”
Shatters paled at the mention of Nicco’s name. Niccodemus Alludrus was well-known for his temper, especially when he thought he was being crossed. Trying to cheat me was not automatically the same as trying to cross Nicco, but there were times when the lines between his and my interests blurred. This wasn’t one of them, but I wasn’t about to let Shatters know that.
“Do we have an understanding?” I said. Shatters nodded his head as gently as he could, given the dagger at his throat.
“Good.” I withdrew the blade and turned away, leaving Shatters to gather himself while I went to see Athel the Grinner.
If I had had any second thoughts about treating Shatters roughly, they vanished as soon as I saw what was left of the Grinner. The Agonyman and his boys had moved on from Athel’s hands and feet after I’d left; now, there was precious little left on the smuggler that was not torn, cut, or mutilated in some way. Just seeing him hurt. Worst of all, he was still conscious . . . and looking at me.
I kept my bile down, not for Athel’s sake, but because I wasn’t about to give Shatters the satisfaction. I took a deep breath, ran a hand down my mustache and goatee, and stepped over to the barrel.
Athel’s breathing was ragged and wet sounding. One eye was swollen shut, but the other managed to keep me in sight as I came up beside him. I expected hatred there, or anger, or madness—anything but what I seemed to see: calm. Not the false serenity brought on by shock, or the stillness of exhaustion, but a quiet, almost-composed ease. I felt myself shudder beneath that placid gaze.
Athel the Grinner, I realized as I met his eye, was done. There was nothing more we could do to make him talk; nothing left he was willing to tell us before he died. Letting Ioclaudia’s name out had probably been an accident, or a gift, and he wasn’t about to let that happen again—his gaze told me as much.
I crouched down beside him, keeping my knees out of the blood that covered the floor. He blinked his good eye slowly, briefly. After a moment, I realized he was winking.
I reached for my own blade and found I still had Shatters’s knife in my hand. Athel followed my look, then turned his lone eye back to me. He grinned as I cut his throat.