Narova the Skagit: Chapter Three
Black Hand Ledger Entry— March 8 of the 11th Year After Old Empire
Successfully completed a Lullaby on the butcher Liam and his wife Mira in Hardencourt. Two-hundred and fifty gold pieces added to the treasury. Liam and Mira died at Lizard’s hand. Spear through the heart.
Successfully completed a Lullaby on the landed knight Korm Wallace in Nara. Six-hundred gold pieces added to the treasury. He died at Puck’s hand. Incinerated with a Wrath spell. Rynoa provided support.
We are low on venison. Will send Ulnar and Mortimer out hunting tomorrow morning.
Narova’s training has moved to blades. She excels with daggers, throwing knives, and short-swords, but struggles with anything larger. Her axe form is atrocious and she remains clumsy with a spear, despite months of practice. I do not abide partially trained Sleepers in the Black Hand. We’ll keep working.
Chapter Three: Debts
“Last we heard, the man you’re after is in Avarum,” said Falen. He was updating the grain stores in a ledger—his goose quill writhed across the yellowed pages of the massive book. Offering up instructions for dispatching a debtor did not stop him from watching after our food.
Backwater peasants and morons thought Falen was an elf, but he was actually just from Ogramarsh—the forest continent across the great ocean. He had olive skin and large, round eyes. The tips of his ears curved up into points, like all Ogramarshi. But Falen’s blood didn’t do him any favors in terms of magic. He was actually an Untouched like me, although you’d never believe it from the respect the Black Hand’s all gave him. He carried more weight than everyone in the Holdfast except for Vexen Green—apparently he’d made a name for himself murdering people with throwing axes as a younger man, so Vexen recruited him to help build his Sleeper’s guild from the ashes the Old Empire left on Terranum.
Falen was the closest thing we had to a father figure. He made sure we had enough food in our larders, enough brandy in our bellies, and enough Lullabies to keep the gold coming in hand over fist. He didn’t go out on jobs himself anymore on account of old knees, but he had two throwing axes within arm’s reach at all time and I made damn-sure I never pissed him off.
Falen was also the one who brought me to the Black Hand, rescued me from that nightmare Sujava had trapped me inside. Trained me up to become a different sort of nightmare myself.
Magic makes for lazy killers, he repeated over and over while I was being trained. Gods, I hated him during those months and years, even though he’d saved my life and brought me to the Holdfast. He’d wake me up before dawn with a kick in the cunt and we’d spend the next ten hours sparring with blunt knives and swords and spears and staffs. We’d stalk each other in the woods, and if he spotted me, he’d shoot me with a dulled arrowhead. Fucker broke my ribs twice. In the evenings he’d give me brandy and teach me how to brew basic poisons. How to carve my own darts and explain how to stalk a man through an alley instead of a forest. He taught me accents and disguises, climbing knots and mind games, ways to cheat at dice and cards without getting caught. He taught me all the veins you can open to kill a man.
“Avarum,” I repeated, taking a seat across from Falen in the storeroom. I hadn’t seen him in almost two months. “Does this gambler have a name?”
Falen kept writing. I poured myself a drink from a half-empty bottle of wine and took a sip. Falen glanced at the bottle but didn’t say anything. “Give me details, my dear Falen. You know I love the details.”
Falen looked up at me saw that I was smiling. He smiled back. The old Sleeper was the closest thing I had to a friend in this place, now that Ulnar was dead.
“It is a highly unique situation,” he said. “Davad Thorn swindled a baron from the south in a high stakes game of Baccarat. Apparently, the baron had to part with a string of pearls he’d just recently promised to his mistress in order to settle the debt. Davad lit out the next day, and has since passed beyond the baron’s relatively modest sphere of influence. And so, he has hired us to murder Davad.”
“Unique,” I repeated.
This kind of job was the bread and butter of the Black Hand’s work. Running around in the shadows of princes bedchambers and firing poisoned arrows across city rooftops sounds very sexy, but the truth is most people we killed had simply traveled far enough away to become an inconvenience to the man who wanted them dead. In Terranum, the value of a Sleeper and the value of a courier are not that different from each other.
“There’s a bonus involved if you torture him first,” Falen added as an afterthought.
My personal experience with torture has been on the receiving end. The mad merchant’s beatings had been wicked and crude, he would spit curses while he scourged me and stop every few hours to jerk himself off in the corner. I still remember the way his hunched shadow looked in the firelight of that basement. A thing like that gives some people a taste for it themselves. Not me. Pain isn’t what I’m after. It is a wonder that I’ve remained the balanced and calm citizen that I am.
I figure the only thing that’s more fun when it’s drawn out and complicated is sex.
“What kind of a bonus?” I asked all the same. I liked money more than I disliked torture.
“A spell, apparently.” Falen made a skeptical gesture. “The baron allegedly has a very old book with a very dark bit of magic scrawled in it. If you return to him with Davad’s eyes, ears, and fingers—removed before you remove his life—then the book is yours.”
“How will he know when I’ve removed them?”
“Apparently he has his ways.”
“A spell book,” I muttered, taking a sip of wine.
Spell books were tricky, uncertain bastards. Every two-bit trader in Terranum had a satchel full of them, but most were nothing more than gibberish. Pawners and caravaners loved nothing more than to charge you a fistful of gold coins for a spurious incantation they wrote themselves while brandy-drunk in the back of their wagons.
“Unread?” I asked. “Unclaimed? That is a rather steep reward for some wayward debtor.”
Even if you were lucky to find an authentic piece of magic, ninety-nine times out of a hundred, the spell had already been claimed. One of the reasons magic was so rare in Terranum was because no two people could cast the same spell. Boris Blithe was the only man in the world who could have blasted out that tavern wall in exactly that way, and the magic died when I rammed a length of steel through his brain. Another wizard could cause equal—or far, far greater—destruction, but he would not have done it with the same spell.
In the same way, nobody else in the world can paralyze a man with a touch like Vexen Green, or turn themselves invisible under the light of a full moon like Mordred the Unseen—the most famous Sleeper in Terranum. Asshole works twelve nights a year and even Ogramarshi pirates know his name.
“So the baron claims,” Falen said absently, working on a sum buried amidst the ledger lines. “The southern nobles have a long history of mistrusting magic. When you don’t trust a thing, sometimes you give it away at a bargain, I guess.”
I smiled. Maybe Vexen Green hadn’t give me this job as a punishment after all. At least, not entirely. The other Untouched Black Hands would have gladly fought each other to the death for a chance at an unclaimed spell, even if they didn’t know what the spell was.
“Ok, I guess I’m for Avarum, then.”
“Good,” Falen said.
“You forgetting something, dear Falen?” I raised an eyebrow at him and killed the rest of the wine I’d poured with a satisfied swig.
Falen looked up at me, grunted. He turned to his ledger, found a specific line item, and crossed it out with a strong slash. Then he dug around in the drawer of his desk and dropped a leather sack in front of me with a thud and a jingle.
“Fifty yellows. Don’t even think about haggling. You know the rules.”
It’d have been a hundred gold coins each if Ulnar had survived. But Vexen was very clear about the penalty for a dead partner: half pay, and the dead man’s share goes into the guild treasury for our armor and our food. We had enough incentive to betray and murder each other as it was. You can’t grow loyalty between Sleepers, but you can keep them tugged together by their purse strings.
“Wouldn’t dream of it, Falen.”
“Be more careful this time,” Falen said, turning back to his ledger. “I don’t want to cross your name out of this book too.”