Narova the Skagit: Chapter Six
Black Hand Ledger Entry — December 23 of the 12th Year After Old Empire
Successfully completed a Lullaby on the landed knight Gregor Wallace in Le Mune. Five-hundred gold pieces added to the treasury. Gregor died at the hand of Narova. Short sword to the liver.
Failed to complete Lullaby on the Morganthi Wizard Ulfrund. The Touched Black Hand Sleeper Ortega is dead. Forced to tear her own eyes and tongue out by a Deceit spell.
Ortega’s death leaves our ranks considerably weakened. Her Wrath and Rejuvenation spells were indispensable. Must explore more jobs that could lead to the discovery of Gonarvien spell books. Narova and Izzy would both make formidable Touched Sleepers, if we were able to find one with which one of them could bind.
Chapter Six: Avarum
I passed one sleepless night in the swamp with a piece of cheesecloth pressed over my face, huddled around a blazing fire in a lame attempt to ward off the insects with the smoke. It didn’t really work. I rode into Avarum a few hours after dawn with a swollen face pocked with bites and the start of a very nasty rash along my neckline.
If I wanted to seduce Davad Thorn, I’d need a lot of makeup. I looked like a leper.
I put up my two horses in the stable, paid the boy a little extra to store my gear in a big trunk, and then I headed to the market. Finding Davad would be easy—I just needed to find the best place in town to gamble. But heading straight into a tavern and asking where I could play dice wasn’t particularly subtle. Better to keep a low profile for a few hours, at least.
The market turned out to be nothing more than a muddy circle of stalls in the center of the city, but at least merchants weren’t hawking their goods from that back of their wagons. That is how you know you are in a real shithole. There was a separate warehouse nearby for the merchants to store their goods and fill orders.
I mingled around in the market for an hour or so—bought a skewered stick of peppered venison. Then I stopped by the apothecary stall, which was being run by a twelve-year-old girl with flaxen hair.
“Potions, tinctures, salves, and ointments!” she called loudly as I approached.
I glanced around the jars and vials. Checked a few potions for coloring—they were decently made, but I could do better.
“You sell raw ingredients?” I asked.
“We have ’em,” she admitted. “Don’t sell ’em usually.”
“I need a bee-hive husk, orange orchid petals, some pig fat, and as much aloe as you have,” I said.
The girl stuck her tongue against the inside her cheek, working out what I planned on making. Although I thought it was pretty obvious given the status of my face.
“We have ointments that’ll cure an itch right here,” she gestured to a set of green vials in a cheap wooden case.
“I’m not paying for something I can make myself,” I said quickly. “Where do you keep the ingredients?”
The girl hesitated. “Back in the warehouse with me mum. I’ll go and get them—”
“I’ll go with you,” I said, already moving around the stall towards a little muddy pathway leading to an alley, which I figured led to the warehouse. “I like to pick my own orchid petals.”
The girl tried to say something else, but I was already halfway down the path. She rushed to follow.
The warehouse was a two-story building made from perfectly cut bricks. There was a red-shingled roof and inside, the support beams were made from imported oak. It was by far the most well-made building in Avarum—all the other shacks and shanties and buildings were made from warped swamp wood—and that is how I knew it was Empire-built. In the old days, this building would have been filled with tax agents making sure they got a taste of every sale.
The apothecary girl pushed in front of me as we entered the warehouse and led me through the rented cubes in a quick, weaving pattern. Mostly we passed food merchants, with sacks full of dried goods and hearty vegetables. A couple blacksmiths and one woodworker, whose stall smelled of fresh sawdust.
The girl stopped in front of a flaxen-haired woman who was obviously her mother. She was sitting cross-legged on a woven mat, working some juniper and lavender into a mortar and pestle. The woman looked up and glanced between me and her daughter. She had soft lines around her eyes, and the look of a woman who had been tired for the last ten years. She didn’t say anything.
“The girl said you’d sell me raw ingredients,” I explained.
“The girl,” said the mother, “needs to grow a backbone if she wants to work the stall on her own.” Then she put the mortar and pestle down with a sigh, wiped her forehead with her forearm and stood up.
“What do you need?”
I told her. The woman squinted at my swollen face a little.
“I can sell you a salve.”
“Already tried, mum,” the girl sighed from behind me.
“Suit yourself,” said the woman. She gathered the ingredients and put them all in a monkey’s stomach—not so different from the one I carried on my hip to ward off Blithe’s hex, whenever it decided to show up and fuck with my existence.
“Five coppers,” she said, keeping both hands on the monkey’s stomach.
“Three,” I said. “The orchid salve sells for five and you know it.”
She hesitated, and then nodded. I paid her and, without waiting around for the girl to try and lead me out, walked the opposite direction from the way we’d come.
It was just about midday. I figured the merchants would be closing for an hour or so to eat food, get a little drunk, and resupply their stalls for the afternoon crowd. The merchants with large stores carried a few bodyguards with them—they eyed me carefully as I passed. Most of them were tall and thick, wearing chainmail jackets and keeping their hands on sturdy, simple swords or spears or hatchets. You could make a good living protecting merchants if you knew what you were doing. And you would get killed if you didn’t.
I twisted around a few more stalls and, when I was momentarily out of sight, latched on to one of the cedar pillars with both hands and shimmied up to the second floor, which was mostly just a series of beams and platforms. It looked like they stored hay up there.
I found a good spot in the middle of the warehouse and then I waited. It was a good place to eavesdrop, and overheard information is twice as valuable as the coerced variety.
Thirty minutes later, there were six merchants having lunch below me. I couldn’t see them from where I was squatting, but I could smell expensive wine and a good brie cheese, and I could hear them perfectly. They spent a few minutes bragging about the morning’s sales then settled into friendly gossip.
“You heard what Mordred did?” a man with a nasally voice asked the group.
“He was working the moon?”
“These days, Mordred the Unseen is always working the moon. Times being what they are.” The nasally man sounded like one of those amateur philosopher types.
“So who’d he get this time?”
“You really haven’t heard yet?”
“Just fucking tell us, Quiltus,” a man huffed.
There was a pause where I imagined Quiltus making a dramatic face.
“Lord Oesterle and all of his heirs. Mordred snuffed out an entire bloodline in one night.”
“Piss and wind. Take your rumors and your lies to the tavern.”
“I heard it straight from an courier I bribe to keep me informed. This is the truth—it’ll be all over the city in a day or two. Apparently, the entire Oesterle line was spending a fortnight in Le Mune, justice calls and hunting trips and some wedding, but they were spread all over the city and they were all being guarded by Oesterle knights. But morning after the full moon, the maids came in to Lord Oesterle’s chambers and found seventeen heads stacked in a pile on the carpet. Every heir got the chop—even the five year-old nephew.”
“So it’s true what they say? He can really turn invisible by the light of the full moon?”
“Can’t imagine someone getting a job like that done otherwise,” Quiltus said.
I leaned back on the pillar. Felt goose bumps roll along my forearms. Le Mune was only a three or four day ride from Avarum. That explained how Quiltus had heard about it so fast. But more importantly, it meant that Mordred the Unseen was working in our little broken corner of the world again. Nobody knew what Mordred looked like, or how old he was. Nobody knew his real name. The man was a ghost in every sense of the word. A story that cruel mothers told their children when they misbehaved. And just when the world figured he’d passed into legend—or never existed in the first place—he does something like decapitate an entire family of Terranum nobles.
Fucking beautiful. Whoever hired him to wipe out the Oesterles probably paid him more coin than the Black Hands will earn in an entire year. You can charge a lot to wipe out an entire dynasty in a single night.
“Anyway, it’s got Le Mune in an uproar,” Quiltus continued. The more he talked in that nasally rat voice the more I wanted to kill him. “City gates have been closed since yesterday, who knows when they’ll open again. If you were planning to head that way next, I’d skip it this time around.”
There were some grunts. Sounds of chewing and drinking.
“Well that is a boil on my cock.” Someone said. “If Le Mune is closed, I might as well just stay here another night.”
“Ha, might as well, you say. You just want to dice away a day’s earnings at the Screaming Hen again, eh Plim? And try to fuck that painted tavern wench with the huge tits one more time. What’s her name?”
“Right. Ema with the huge tits.”
I love merchants. They never shut the fuck up.
I found a boarding house near the market and rented out an attic room for three nights. Then I returned to the stable and got my gear. I spent the afternoon mixing out the salve for my bug bites. I played around with a few creative extractions and reductions of the bug goo I’d collected in the vials, thinking there might be a serum for the itch and the swelling deep down below the poison. It took a few hours crouched over my little alembic burner, but I figured it out. Then I added a sticky thimble’s worth of opium for a little extra kick.
The salve came out looking like honey. I dabbed it over all the places on my face and fingers and neck that had taken a bite. The itching dissipated almost immediately, and I felt the swelling start to go down within a few minutes. I smiled at the relief. No way that flaxen-haired apothecary could have managed that.
It was almost nightfall. I was comfortable for the first time in five days and all that I really wanted to do was curl up on the cheap bed and sleep for twelve hours. Instead, I pulled a small red vial out of my bag that was primarily made from the shredded medulla gland of a manticor. Pure adrenaline, basically.
Before I even swallowed the entire vial, I felt the energy flowing through my body. It was like releasing a bunch of wild hounds in my bloodstream.
Time to find Davad Thorn.
Falen was a big proponent of scouting out jobs before completing them. He always spied on his target for a week or two before ending their lives. Watching their habits. Learning their routine. Finding the safest time to sing his Lullaby. I wondered sometimes how long he watched Sujava before killing him.
His patience was either a legendary virtue or a huge fucking waste of time, depending on how you looked at it.
I will say this: there was very little caution involved in the dozen men I’d killed at that point. But the memory of Ulnar shitting himself in that tavern with crossbow bolt in his face was enough to make me switch things up. So I made no immediate plans to kill Davad that night. Just find him and watch him.
I walked down the wooden, slanted streets of Avarum in a black lace gown with a huge dip in the front so the entire world got a glimpse of my tits. On the right side of the gown, there was a long slit that reached almost to my hip bone, which made me look like a whore but it also meant I could run at almost a full clip if I really needed to and I could reach any of the five bamboo darts strapped to my garter without a problem.
The Barbaroy poison had worked well last time, so I’d decided to stick with it. I’d injected the hollow center of each dart with the black poison before leaving the boarding house.
The streets of Avarum were half-filled with greasy men, ugly whores trying to hide their faces behind bright paint, and night traders hawking crappy goods—dried-out chickens and watered down ale, like that. Every hundred strides or so there was a sentry in cheap and poorly polished iron armor, holding a torch and watching the meager crowds with an inattentive eye. They were sworn to whatever failure of a baron claimed this town as his own.
A few of the greasy men—most of whom I figured for swamp huntsman or simple laborers—called out to me as I passed. Asking how much. Ignore. Ignore. Ignore
The Screaming Hen was not difficult to find. There were half a dozen sconces burning along the facade and an enormous hen sculpture made from metal strips. The red door glowed like an ember. The Hen was a three story building and there were more sconces burning on the upper levels. The shadows of patrons flitted around just out of sight behind windows made from rice paper.
Two sentries stood on either side of the main entrance. They were drenched in the look of hired blades—expensive black armor and matching red, silk sashes wrapped around their sword belts. Definitely not cut from the same ilk as the idiots wasting time in the streets. Both of them focused on my tits as I walked up to the door, but neither of them bothered to search me. Just gave me a droopy I’d-fuck-that-Skagit-till-she-was-limp look and let me walk into the Screaming Hen with so much poison wrapped around my thigh I could lace the water supply and kill every thirsty soul come morning.
That is one of the wonderful things about being a female Sleeper: I can throw on a low-cut dress and whore-walk my way into places that a man couldn’t come close without a full set of infiltration equipment. Turns out the grappling hooks and lockpicks can all be avoided if the guards want to put their dick in you.
Inside, there was an alarming amount of chicken imagery. I counted five iron statues of hens, although these were smaller than the massive one outside. The walls were all covered by enormous but poorly made tapestries. All of them depicted some massive hen-war—an entire army of chickens wearing little iron helmets, charging towards a bunch of wolves or dogs or something. You got the distinct feeling the owner of this establishment had put a chicken head up his ass at one point in his life.
There were a couple card tables, three big dicing pits, and about twenty men in the main gambling room. Aside from a bar-wench with huge tits, I was the only woman in the Screaming Hen. Other people seemed to notice this, too.
“C’mere you little black beauty.”
“Roll for me, lass. I love it when pretty girls roll for me.”
“Spot over here for cards, next to me.”
I had no idea what Davad Thorn looked like—he could have been one of the horny assholes pawing at my ass—but I knew this: most men don’t keep secrets very well after their fifth or sixth drink. There was an empty sofa near one of the dicing pits. It was expensive but old—there was a patch that looked like it had been sewn by a toddler. I sat down on the sofa and signaled the bar wench with a raised eyebrow.
“Get me the biggest jug of wine you have and two glasses,” I said.
The wench shrugged, big tits bouncing a little, and came back with the wine a few minutes later. I pushed some coin into her palm and then poured two glasses. It took about thirty seconds for one of the men to scoop up his money from the dicing pit and come sit down next to me.
“Waiting on someone?” he asked. The man had silver streaks in his beard and small, calculating eyes. He was well-dressed, but he had the air of a man whose life had fallen apart on him more than once, and he was used to stitching it back together with cards and dice.
“Waiting on you, killer,” I said.
He sat and we bullshitted for a little while. Drank wine. I made up a story about having followed a man here only to find he’d disappeared on me. Run off with some other woman. Lying like that was always something I enjoyed. It was exhilarating to start a story without any idea where it would end.
“Terrible,” the man said when I’d finished my tragic, spurious tale. “Just terrible.”
“What’s your name?” I asked him, pouring more wine.
“Gregor,” he said, squinting a little as the word came out of his mouth. It could have been a lie, but I didn’t think this man was Davad Thorn. Nobody gets that lucky without casting a spell.
“You going to introduce me to your friends, Gregor?” I motioned over to the dice pit he’d come from.
Gregor hesitated, obviously more interested in keeping me to himself. “I wouldn’t call them friends,” he said.
“I’d still like to meet them. Don’t worry, I’m very good with dice.”
He killed his wine, sighed, and stood up. I followed him over.
“Who’s this, then, Gregor?” asked a short man with a rat face.
I smiled. “Tell me yours, and I’ll tell you mine.”
Every man around that table practically vomited his name at me. I like men, but there are times when I can’t help but pity them.
“Call me Trey.”
I tried not to let my eyes linger on the man I needed to kill, but I couldn’t help myself. Davad Thorn was about thirty years old. He had a round belly, thick fingers, and the majority of the money from the dice pit. His eyes were cold and dead. Eel’s eyes.
“I’m Ashlyn. And I want to play some games.”
Gregor hovered over me like an insect while I began beating the men at dice. Everyone except Davad, anyway. And it wasn’t because I was letting him win, it was because he was cheating. Cheating very well, but cheating all the same. I thought about outing him—maybe I’d get lucky and the two sentries would haul him out into the alley and beat him to death. Do my job for me. That’s what Falen would have done, probably.
Instead, I tossed about half my money away on dice throws and then feigned a yawn.
“Well, kind sirs, this has been amusing, but it’s unladylike to lose all your money in one night.”
“Perhaps we could…” Gregor started to say.
“Another night,” I said quickly. “Tomorrow? Same game? Will you all be here?”
“We are always here,” said one of the men. “Can’t beat the Hen’s feather beds on the third floor.”
“Or the whores.”
Davad Thorn just gave a single nod—his eel eyes were unreadable.
“Tomorrow, then,” I said.
I left before Gregor had a chance to paw at me again.
It was getting late, but I had work to do. I returned to rooming house, locked my door, and undressed. Stood naked over my chest of alchemy vials and powders and poisons.
It would have been an extremely simple Lullaby if it wasn’t for the torture. I could poison Davad’s drink tomorrow night. I could wait for him to go piss in an alley and slit his throat. Gods, I could just squat in a shadow across from the Screaming Hen’s door and fire a crossbow into his face. The street was not very wide.
But torture was loud and time consuming. If I was going to follow the Baron’s orders, I needed to torment Davad in a quiet, private place. Like his bedroom.
A big part of me wanted to kill Davad and cut the pieces of his body off his corpse. What kind of man can tell the circumstances of a person’s dismemberment? He would need magic, obviously, but that would be a strange sort of Vision spell. And if the Baron had something like that, it didn’t make sense that he’d give away another one of unknown value, even if he couldn’t use it himself.
But I wanted a spell. I needed a fucking spell. There are clever Sleepers and there are rich Sleepers that have no magic, but there aren’t any famous ones. I wanted Terranum to tremble at the whisper of my name right alongside Vexen Green and Mordred the Unseen. Narova the Skagit. The black-haired harbinger of destruction. The calamity from the hinterlands. Yes. It was worth doing this right. It would take the entire night to brew the poison I needed.