Narova the Skagit: Chapter Seven
Black Hand Ledger Entry — August 11 of the 13th Year After Old Empire
Failed to complete a Lullaby on the Ogramarshi pirate Venus in the harbor of Kagoshima. The Touched Sleeper Bastion and the Untouched Sleeper Gerold were both killed. Method unknown.
Successfully completed a Lullaby on the Berserker Rota-Gun-Mo in the northern hinterlands. Five-hundred gold pieces added to the treasury. Rota-Gun-Mo died at the hand of Narova. Hanged from a tree.
We have been contracted to kill another Morganthi Wizard, but all Touched Sleepers are away on Lullabies. The job pays well, and our stores run low. We will not be comfortable this winter without the coin from this job. The amount of money we spend on opium and Koka fish is an expensive necessity.
Will suggest to Vexen we send Narova and Ulnar together. They are the two best Untouched Sleepers we have.
Chapter Seven: Mistakes and Misjudgments
I finished twenty minutes before dawn. My little green concoction all thick and gloppy in a cloudy glass vial. I set it on the small dresser in my room and then slept deep through the entire morning and afternoon. It was dark when I woke up. Instead of dressing like a whore, I dressed like an adolescent boy. Brown roughspun pants and a raggedy jacket. Hair tucked up inside a straw hat. Nobody tried to fuck me on my walk over to the Screaming Hen this time. I have one of those lucky bodies that lets me flow between slutty wench and tired, skinny man with a simple change to my outfit, my walk, and my mood. I love it. Turning into a man for a night feels like pulling an impenetrable snakeskin over myself. Pulling it off again is like being reborn.
Plus, you can’t kind leather armor and steel-shanked pants beneath a corsets.
I kept my eyes on the cobblestone street as I walked past the door, and the two sentries—same men from the night before—kept their eyes on people who seemed like they actually mattered. I moped my way along, then ducked into a narrow alley that smelled like rotting vegetables. The building next to the Screaming Hen appeared to have been built by a drunken person—the second and third stories tapered inwards so that the alley was far narrower forty strides above the street than where I was standing. Even down here, it was narrower than my leg span, which was all that I needed.
Quick look over my shoulder, and then I hopped up in the air—splayed both legs out so I caught myself a stride or two off the street—and then I started shimmying upwards. It only took a minute or two for me to reach a wooden ledge that led to the third floor of the Screaming Hen. A few rotten slices of wood fell away as I gripped the ledge with one hand and pulled myself up onto the third floor. The ledge wasn’t much wider than my torso, but it was plenty of room to catch my breath and get my bearings.
There was a shallow rain gutter running a perimeter around the third floor. And there were three windows made from rice-paper behind the gutter. Two of the windows were illuminated from the inside by lanterns, the third was dark. I stood up and did a quick loop around the ledge—each side was the same, three rice-paper windows. That made eight rooms total, since the corner rooms each had two windows. I wondered briefly how much more the corner rooms cost.
This was a problem. There was no way for me to know which room Davad had rented, assuming he had rented one, and no reliable way to know if he was in there or not. Falen would have probably climbed back down the way he’d come and spent the rest of the night figuring out a better, cleaner way to get the thing done.
But I was not Falen.
I crawled down into the rain gutter on my belly, so slowly even the Gods couldn’t hear me, until I was wormed up to the first illuminated window. I removed a bamboo dart from its holster at the small of my back and poked a small hole. There was a faint whisper of tearing paper, then a narrow spear of light streaming out into the night. I took a look inside.
Gregor was getting his cock sucked by some red-headed whore. His eyes were closed and he was pulling very hard on her hair.
One room down. Seven more to go.
I licked my thumb and forefinger with a glob of phlegm and then carefully massaged the hole I’d created in the paper until the spear of light disappeared. It wasn’t perfect, but it was better than nothing.
It took an hour to figure out who was in the rest of the rooms. The gutter was filled with leaves and sticks and a few cat-sized rats, all of which made sneaking around a pain. And two of the rooms were clearly filled with more than one person talking and drinking, so I was afraid to poke a hole in the window. Just had to sit outside listening with my eyes closed, trying to picture Davad Thorn’s lips moving.
I didn’t think he was one of the chatting men so I moved on. In the other rooms, I found an old man smoking opium, a young man working on card tricks, and a woman wearing a corset. She had leathery skin and she was brushing her hair. One of the rooms was empty. The bed hastily made and a medium-sized saddlebag resting behind the door. I didn’t know who was renting the room, but I was pretty sure Davad wasn’t in any of the other ones, so I waited.
The room stayed empty for two more hours. My legs cramped up and sweat pooled down into every crevice of my armor. There is a special kind of discomfort reserved for sweating in armor. Just one of the ten thousand irritations Sleeper’s don’t tell stories about. It’s always killing strokes to the jugular and bow shots from across avenues and graceful garrotes from behind curtains. Nobody mentions their sweaty asses.
Just as my patience was wearing down to a little nub, the door to the room slid open. A man walked in, stumbling a little on the raised platform. He closed the door behind him and then lit the lantern with the careful focus of a drunk person. Light filled the room. Slowly, I moved my eye across the hole, just for a moment.
Davad Thorn. No doubt about it.
I slinked back into the shadows and checked my weapons. I took out two bamboo darts from the holster on my back and dipped them in the poison I’d made the night before. It would lose potency quickly when exposed to air, but for the next five or ten minutes, those darts held one of the most powerful paralysis poisons in Terranum. I held the two darts in my right hand and gripped the shortsword in my left. This had to be fast and it had to be quiet.
I worked myself into a squat and then sprang forward, slicing through the paper window with the shortsword and jumping inside—fighting with light-adjusting eyes to find Davad Thorn in that room.
He was sitting in a chair holding a crossbow. Pointing it at me.
I threw the darts and he fired the bow. I felt a massive thud against my chest and then I was staring at the ceiling, moaning a little. I tried to get up but nothing worked. My legs thrashed and curled like a dying spider’s would. My fingers couldn’t get purchase on the wooden floor of the room. But I could hear Davad moving around. That meant I’d missed with the darts.
“You’re a real idiot, you know that?” he said, keeping his voice low. That seemed strange. Figured he’d want some of those red-sash guards about now.
He walked over to me, grabbed me by the throat. His hands were soft and clammy. Then threw me onto his bed where I landed with a weird thump. The mattress was packed with sawdust.
Think think think. I wasn’t dead yet but I would be if I didn’t figure something out. Davad was digging around in his saddlebag for something. I had one more poisoned dart in the holster at the small of my back, and I had knives in both of my boots. But my chest felt caved in so there was no way I’d get to the boot-knives. I couldn’t tell if the bolt was wedged in my armor or in my lung. Either way, Davad had done a fucking number on me.
“Thing about Sleepers is that you all figure yourselves for a smarter breed of scum than the rest of us,” Davad said, continuing to search the saddlebag. “Think you can just strut into a place dressed like a whore and the simpleton gambler who can’t tell his dice from his dick won’t get suspicious.”
Davad came away from the saddlebag with a long, curved knife in his hand. It was silver and it was sharp.
“You’d have gone hard on me, I can tell,” he said in that soft voice. “The Baron probably paid you extra for that, eh? Man has a strong lust for other people’s pain.”
I didn’t answer. But I did work my last dart out of the back holster, hoping it looked like I was just writhing on the bed in an unbelievable amount of pain. Not a hard part to play.
“Well, I’ll make it quick because I’m not an evil bitch like you, girl. But I’ll leave you with the passing thought that any friends you have’ll need to sow your head back on if they want to bury a whole corpse.” He raised the knife and tensed his doughy body up. Davad might have been smarter than I figured, but clearly nobody had taught him how to cut someone’s head off and keep your guard at the same time. He left himself wide open.
I kicked him as hard as I could in the right knee. I was wearing steel-toed boots, so it blasted his knee-cap clean off the leg.
Now Davad Thorn was finally ready to make some noise. He howled and hit the ground in front of the bed. I tried to cram the bamboo dart through his eye but he thrashed away at the last second and I wound up shoving it into his right cheek. The dart hit teeth below the skin and splintered off, taking a hunk of flesh with it. Part of his face froze, but the poison didn’t reach his bloodstream. Davad punched me in the chest—coming within inches of pushing the bolt through my armor and killing me. Instead I got a burning kind of pressure all over my chest and the wind went out of me.
Then he was on top of me, still yelling, tightening those soft hands around my throat.
I felt the bloodlust rise. Falen always said the best killers are the ones who stay calm in a fight. Never lose their cool. Vexen Green says the same thing now, in his opium haze, but the things he did when he was younger tell a different story. There are legends of him going feral and tearing the scalps off people who got in his way. Eating people’s eyes for no reason. Crazy shit like that.
Falen trained me, but I take after the younger version of Vexen Green when it comes to being cornered.
I snapped my hand around Davad’s windpipe, squeezed down on his throat, and tore it out. Hot blood sprayed all over my face, and Davad let go of me. I kicked him onto the ground, howling something terrible back at the doughy bastard. I jumped on top of him and snatched one of his eyes out.
“Does this count as making it hard?” I screamed. I’d lost my composure. In the distance I could hear the clatter of boots running up stairs.
I popped his other eye out. More yelling from Davad. The plan had gotten entirely fucked up. I picked up the knife he was going to decapitate me with and sawed away both of his ears. Then I splayed out his hands and chopped off all his fingers. He squirmed around and he made terrible noises. Blood pumped from the ruined throat he was trying to scream from. The footsteps were getting very close.
“What’s happening? We’re coming!” Men’s voices. Three or four sets of feet, at least.
I took Davad’s body parts and wrapped them in a linen cloth, careful to make sure I didn’t squish his eyes. Blood seeped through the linen almost immediately. Then I looked back at his ruined face.
“This is the passing thought I’ll leave you with, Davad Thorn,” I said, wincing at the pain of reaching behind my breastplate and removing a palm-sized ceramic brick. There was a small black fuse that I bit in half and then lit with the lantern, which had fallen on its side. “Nobody will have to see what I did to you, because your body is about to explode.”
He moaned something pitiful. I dropped the ceramic bomb and jumped out the window, landing on the ledge and jumping to the building across the street.
“Out the window!” came the men’s voices. “She jumped out the—”
The explosion sounded like a bolt of lighting had struck the inside of my skull. My teeth rattled and the bolt in my chest burned. When I turned around, the third floor of the Screaming Hen was gone, replaced by smoke and fire.
Wizards aren’t the only ones who can ruin buildings.
Davad had done some damage to me.
The crossbow bolt had smashed its way through my armor, my skin, and finally been stopped by my breastbone. I’m pretty sure the bone had cracked, each morning on my ride south to the Baron’s lands the pain got worse, instead of better. That usually meant there was a little seam being worked over. I should have rested, broken bones do not heal atop a horse, but I didn’t. I had Davad’s eyes and ears and fingers in a sack, and I had done terrible things to get them. I wanted my reward. If you’re cruel for no reason, you are just a monster.
Other parts of my body were hurt, but not as bad. My throat and neck felt were bruised and sore. The back of my head had a deep cut I didn’t remember actually getting. I could not hear anything out of my left ear, which had been facing the Screaming Hen when it exploded.
Times like this, it is easy to see why Falen takes several minutes to raise himself from a chair. Most members of the Black Hands are either on their way to an early grave or a similar, battered version of old age.
It took me almost a month to reach the Baron’s lands. His full name was Glowery Reddington the Fifth, Baron of Olagathi. Before I’d left the Holdfast, Falen had shown me his barony on a map and given me a sealed letter explaining who I was and what I would be bringing to him. He’d given me a pin shaped like a black hand to prove my identity. “He’ll be expecting you,” Falen had said. “I’ve hired a courier to send word you are in pursuit of Davad Thorn.”
Olagathi was mostly rolling hills pocked with terraced rice fields. Farmer’s huts made from stone and thatch. It seemed like a peaceful and profitable place. You would never have guessed the lord of these people had hired me to retrieve a man’s fingers and eyes and ears in exchange for money and magic.
I arrived at the Baron’s villa in the early afternoon, sweating and uncomfortable. I buried a wince as I dismounted in the small courtyard, which was all white-washed stone and gravel. The weeks of riding had not improved the feeling in my chest. I counted seventeen household knights on my way into the property. There were eight of them spread out in the courtyard now, glaring at me and keeping their hands on their weapons. All of them seemed like capable men—the sort of knights who were used to guarding noblemen on quiet days, but felt just as comfortable bashing in men’s skulls and raping villagers.
“State your business,” a man said from the main doorway. His face was in the shadows and I hadn’t seen him until he spoke. His voice was rather high-pitched. He didn’t look like a knight. Too skinny. And he wasn’t wearing any armor, just a crimson shirt and matching pants that looked like they were made from something silkier than silk.
“I’m Narova, the Black Hand Sleeper,” I said. “Baron Glowery is expecting me.”
The man didn’t say anything. Just stepped forward out of the shadows and squinted at me. He had blond hair that stretched past his shoulders and four scars down his right cheek that had clearly been produced by a human set of fingernails.
“Can I see him?” I pressed.
“He’s expecting Narova the Skagit,” the man admitted. “But how do I know that’s you? Names are easy to come by these days.”
I removed the letter Falen had given me. Waved it around playfully. The man nodded his head had at one of the knights, who stalked over with a clink of chainmail and metal buckles, took the letter from me, and transported it to the man. He read it quickly, the frown never leaving his face, and then tucked it into a breast pocket.
“I got this pin, too,” I said, showing it to him. He squinted at it a moment and seemed satisfied.
“My name is Tarus,” he said. “Leave your weapons with Gunther, and then follow me.”
I disarmed. Tarus eyed the bloodstained sack of Davad’s organs when I kept it tied to my belt, but said nothing. Then he led me through a series of hallways that were all tile floors and plush carpets, gold-painted walls with floor-to-ceiling tapestries hung everywhere. I never understood the nobility’s obsession with such elaborate wall hangings. Walking past them, I pictured a small army of women working their looms by candlelight just so I could glance at some woven, woodland battle scene and be vaguely impressed. If I ever wind up with a villa or a holdfast of my own to decorate, I can guarantee there will be no fucking tapestries on the walls.
The place was massive. My boots echoed off the tiles and skipped down the hallways. Tarus wore cloth slippers or something—they didn’t make any noise.
We stopped at a pair of double doors and Tarus motioned for me to stay where I was. He slipped inside and I could hear two voices murmuring to each other. Then Tarus’ head appeared and he beckoned me inside with a flick of his head. I was getting the sense that Tarus managed to do a lot of business each day with small, jerky movements. Inside, Baron Glowery sat in a massive chair that was about as close as you can come to a throne without pissing off a real king. Although in Terranum, I guess there is no king to actually piss off. Glowery wore a clean white shirt and black pants, which where hiked up to his knees. He was barefoot below that, and an uncommonly beautiful woman with red hair was massaging his feet. I wondered if she was the one who was down a pearl necklace. I stepped into the room and Tarus slipped behind me, which I didn’t like but couldn’t change.
“So this is what Baron’s do with their afternoons,” I said. “Seems nice.”
Glowery looked at me. He had a long, pointed nose and very dark hair. One of those intense faces that tended to intrigue simpleminded people who couldn’t tell the difference between bone structure and personality.
“Where are you from, girl?”
“My mother’s cunt,” I said. I didn’t like this tone.
He snorted with some mixture of surprise and distaste. “You’re Skagit, aren’t you?”
“I can smell the road on you from here,” Glowery said. “Sweat and horse shit and cheap leather.”
“Apologies. If you know a road that smells like roses and lavender, I’d be eager to travel it.”
Glowery stared at me. I did not get the feeling I was building a great reputation for myself, but I didn’t much care. I do not like the nobility.
“How did Davad Thorn’s life end?” Glowery asked. The redhead stopped rubbing his feet for a moment, but only a moment. I wondered momentarily if Davad had gotten those pearls with his dice or with his dick.
“Screams silenced by lungs of fire.” I shrugged. “He departed the world in considerable pain.”
“How poetic. Do you have the pieces of him that I asked for?”
I untied the sack of meat from my hip and moved to cross the room. Tarus cleared his throat behind me.
“It’s all right, Tarus,” Glowery said, waving me closer to him. It wasn’t that he trusted me not to misbehave, he just trusted Tarus to be able to kill me from across the room.
“Of course, my lord.”
I was a little curious about Tarus’ capabilities, given the confidence Glowery put in him. But I was more curious about the spell I’d been promised.
“Open the sack on that table, there.” Glowery pointed to an oak trestle table by the window. “Shiliah, you may go.” Glowery removed his feet from the washbasin, and then the redhead removed the washbasin and herself from the room. I laid out the sack on the table and untied the cord. I was about to start removing ears and eyes when Glowery stopped me.
“That’ll do nicely,” he said, almost pushing me out of the way. Glowery pried the bag open a bit and then hovered his right hand over the top, fingers bent into a maniacal-type claw. I thought he was faking it—imitating a hand motion he’d read about in a book—but you can’t fake the faint smell of ocean spray that accompanies almost every spell of Vision.
Baron Glowery wasn’t that mistrusting of magic after all, it seemed.
“Yesssss,” he murmured. “Considerable pain, indeed. You have a viciousness hidden inside that pretty little body of yours, Narova. I can tell you enjoyed the things that you did.”
Glowery wasn’t wrong, which was probably why I’d been in such a shitty mood for the last month, besides the cracked chest. I like hunting men down and I like killing them. But I do not like the fact that I liked going feral and tearing Davad’s eyes out like a crazed wolf the most.
“These will work,” Glowery said, relaxing his hand and retying the sack. “Which means I owe you a bonus.”
Glowery moved to a floor-to-ceiling bookshelf on the far wall, made a show of rummaging around—as if he did not remember where he’d left a fucking piece of magic—and finally removed a folio made from scarred black leather. The right edge was singed and there were half a dozen dead, dried out barnacles the size of my fingernail growing along the bottom. It looked exactly like you’d expect some ancient bit of power to look, and that made me nervous. Reality has a funny way of never quite living up to the expectations created by legends and rumors.
Glowery dropped the folio on the same table I’d dropped Davad’s organs. Then looked up at me expectedly.
“Would you like to try binding it now?” he asked. “I’m interested to see if it sticks.”
“It’s mine either way,” I said, faking a smile and trying to seem relaxed. “Maybe I’m shy.”
“Come now, Narova the Skagit,” Glowery said, faking a smile of his own. “Indulge me.”
“Do you know what it does?” I asked.
Glowery shrugged. “Always difficult to tell with these things. The words are in a particularly ancient form of Gonarvian—a dialect that works in riddles and obfuscations. But it has something to do with the eyes, I believe.”
“Why do you believe that?”
He moved a hand up to the side of his face. “Lots of references to blinking.”
I swallowed. Looked at Glowery and then at Tarus, who’s scarred face was unreadable.
I opened the book and looked at the scrawled words. Big circular letters made from old ink that had turned a rusty color over the long years. It’s possible to pick up a spell without being able to read Gonarvian, so long as you have a very generous friend who doesn’t match with the spell and is willing to supply you with the words. Nobody in the Black Hand was stupid enough to rely on a situation like that, so all of us learned to read Gonarvian phonetically, even if we didn’t know the actual language. Except for Rog. That man had the wits of a broom handle.
There were seventeen letters on the first page. That was the name of the spell, and it was the only part I needed to read in order to bind with it. The pages after that were an explanation of sorts. I’d have to get Rynoa or Falen to read that part to me. They were the only two Black Hand members that actually understood Gonarvian.
“If you require assistance…” Glowery began.
“No,” I said quickly, still trying to sound casual. I thought it was a little strange that I was more nervous standing in this plush room looking at a book than I had been with a crossbow bolt in my chest and a knife at my throat. You can’t choose the things that scare you in this life, but I always thought it was our fears that make us who we are. I am the sort of person who is more afraid of magical books than sharpened knives.
I cleared my throat and looked at the words. “Go-nun-ralio-ka. So-ren-kai. So-ren-kai. Ulum-kai-ro-nash. Ha-va-dat.”
Immediately after the last syllable was done, a warmth wrapped around my bones, as if my insides were being swathed in hot silk. It filled my heart, moved across my chest, down my arms, and then around each of my fingers. The spell was bound to me. Me alone. I was Touched.
I smiled. “Thank you, Baron Glowery.”