The Steel Crown - excerpt
I wake to the cold of the ground against my cheek. My head swims, and I sit up. Slowly, I remember: the sounds of gunshots ringing off stone. The tang of powder. Blood, and Ricci slumped on the docks, staring at nothing.
I stare at my hands. Regret will come later. For now, the ink and dirt and - yes, dried blood - soaked into my palms holds me. I blink and focus on them until the world stops spinning. Then I lift my head - standing will come later, too - and look to the ceiling, where light spills in through the bars of my prison.
I remember now. Ricci and me were doing a job down in the harbor. We got caught. Now I’m here. And Ricci’s dead. It’s his blood on my hands.
Anger wells up slowly, replacing the chill in my cheeks with a hot blush. It never happens this way. It isn’t supposed to be this way. Ricci was one of our best smokes. If he died - if I am here, in chains - it means someone tipped us off to the guard. Someone in the guild.
You see, Ricci and I are part of the Raven Guild. As the greatest assassins this city knows, we are feared. Hated. And as the greatest assassins this city knows, we are also the hardest to kill. Only someone of an assassin’s nature would know how to murder an assassin.
The job last night, moreover, was an important one. Father Gidalfa sent us out to set a ship on fire - a ship filled with explosives. All it would’ve taken was a single match in the hold to set the whole rig alight, but the trouble is, this ship belonged to Arcanzo Malfiere. Arcanzo is the patriarch of the Malfiere family, and the Malfieres are one of the richest - and most powerful - families in Sante Pieta, perhaps in the entire country. They have men, their own and the Guard’s, posted around every last thing they own - which, given their wealth, is half of Sante Pieta. This ship was no exception.
Nevertheless, it was important to destroy that ship and risk angering the Malfieres, because tomorrow it sails on the Perfidas, their rivals, and our patrons, who have paid us most well, if not most loyally.
So - given how important last night’s job was, how well it would pay - we kept it most secret. No one outside our guild could have known.
No one outside our guild knew. Everyone in our guild swears an oath by Sante Pieta herself to keep secret what is secret, or they themselves may die. Yet last night, someone broke that oath.
What is worse than that - worse than the guilt of knowing Ricci is dead, that I will soon be dead - worse even than knowing that our pay on behalf of the Perfidas will not come now - is that Father Gidalfa trusted us with that job. He thought we could do it. He expected us to do it. If he knows Ricci is dead and I am here, in a cell, likely to be hanged in the morning - if I do not exact revenge for this, not only will the Father be disappointed in me, I will never run another job again. Even if I escape here, alive.
I shut my eyes and try to think of who might have snitched on us.
We, the Raven Guild, have no blood with the other gangs and criminals in this place. That is not because we have no enemies, but because no enemy would dare be fool enough to try and take us down. We know every gang in this town, and every gang’s member; we know where every one of them lives. A smoke like Ricci could be in and out of a gang’s place before morning light and bomb the whole place out, and no one would ever know who did it. Only that the smoke belonged to us.
So nobody from another gang would be fool enough to provoke us, which is all that foisting our job yesterday - killing Ricci, and leaving me in chains - would do. Only someone who wants to make allies by killing for an outside power - like one of the wealthy holders who live in town, like the man our job was meant to hurt - would have done this. Only someone who is not in a guild at all, or someone from our own guild, someone we would never suspect, looking to kill our business from within.
This makes sense with what I had thought earlier. Either a man of our own guild tipped the Guard off to last night’s job, and fought us too, or he had help from someone very skilled, but unguilded - even with the Guard having surprised us at the ship we were meant to husk last night, we would have gotten away, if not for that.
Because last night, despite the fog of Ricci’s bombs and the flash and bang of the Guardsmen’s rifles, I am sure I saw something else for an instant, a shadow in the smoke and flame. I am sure that for the barest instant, between one shot and the next, a silhouette appeared at the end of the dock, hand glowing, and reached out and touched poor Ricci, and he took a step back from the bomb he’d been setting and slumped right down, and a trickle of blood ran from the edge of his mouth, and before I had time to get to him, he was gone, the shape of a deadly hand branded bright, a living tattoo of his murderer, on the still-smoking cloth over his chest.
I didn’t stop for him; of course I didn’t. But before the guards caught me I managed to swipe some of that blood off his chin. Blood is important. If someone with magic has harmed you, they must give their blood in their attack. If they touch you, their blood becomes part of yours. So it is my hope that the blood Ricci drooled when he died, the blood I have on my hands, has some of the taint of the blood of his killer’s, too.
It may not be much, and any bloodmage I bring this to will not be happy, but I was not given much to work with. Backstabbing always leaves you half-blind and groping for purchase, literally and figuratively. Personally I am quite proud that I've got this much.
My head has stopped ringing now; I am always more clearheaded when I’ve spent a little time thinking. I am less angry, too, and the sickness in my stomach has gotten better. I stand up carefully and brace myself against the cold stone wall, and at last I see clearly the door before me, etched with a brand in the form of a lion strangling an eagle, surrounded by thorny vines. The crest of the Guard. Yes, the anger that swirled in my stomach has disappeared now; now all I feel is a cold, murderous resolve to hunt down whoever did this to me - and to exact vengeance on Arcanzo Malfiere, and on the Guardsmen who surely were bribed to protect his holdings against the likes of my guild last night.
But before I can move, the door before me shivers with the distant echo of a shout.
I step away from the wall instantly. My instincts kick in and I settle into a crouch, my right hand flashing to my side, my left held in a fist before me.
But my blade is not at my hip.
The feeling of knowing I am unarmed hits me like a blow to the gut. Suddenly I am disoriented. I feel naked without my blades, and, for the first time, weak. Where did they take my knives? What will they do with them? What have those dogs done?
Think, Pelha, I tell myself, and relax, but my head spins now, worse than before. If Father Gidalfa were here he would reach out and give my shoulders a shake, he’d tell me to stop this and think, but Father Gidalfa is not here now. I am alone and Ricci is dead, and soon I will die too. And my knives, my precious knives, will be gone. Crow and Raven and Jackdaw.
And when my blades are gone, melted down or, worse, in the hands of the King’s despicable dogs, then I’ll truly be gone -
The shout comes closer now. Think, Pelha. I take a step back again and I breathe, in and out, in and out, just as Father Gidalfa taught me to. I order myself to listen. And I do.
The shout is loud and heavy, unafraid, and I know at once the guards are coming. I tense and hear their footsteps now, running lightly along the stone at my feet. I shut my eyes and hear the thunk of their spears on the floor and the shout of the commander’s voice. And I know they are coming for me.
I open my eyes and suck in a breath, and I am staring at the lion and the eagle on the door, their all-knowing gazes burning into mine.
Then the door shivers again. Outside, I hear the guards. They are opening the door now. They are going to bring me out.
But when they put me here, they did not shackle me - perhaps they thought they did not need to, since I’m just a girl, short and slight with unremarkable features - and perhaps they have forgotten that I am, after all, someone who has killed before, and who will kill again.
There is another shiver at the door. I hear the men talking to each other. And, deep down, even though I know it is no use to fight, something animal awakens in me.
Father Gidalfa has taught me, over and over again, to work with what I am given. I am trapped in this cell, with no way out, the only door filled to the brim with guards on the other side. I have no blades. Only the shirt on my back - well, my trousers too.
I look wildly around and see only the bare walls of the cell. And then I remember the bars above me.
And I know what to do.
You see, when the guards did not shackle me, they made a mistake. I may be only one girl, but I am a girl who has something the King’s dogs do not: wits.
The door shivers, one last time. Outside, the guard shouts, “Stand back, in the name of the King!” And then the lion and the eagle are swinging out toward me.
As the door opens, I run against it, bracing my bare feet on the crest, leaping lightly and fluidly back, and I twist and flail for a moment until my hands reach the bars above me. I cling to the cool metal. I took off my tunic before I moved, and now I clench it between my teeth. The chill of the bars pulses in my hands with every beat of my heart.
The door is nearly open now. I have time to see a startled glimpse of the guards, who stare stupidly into the chamber, before I swing out with both legs. My feet connect with the face of the guard nearest me and he has barely time to cry out before I break his nose. As he crumples, I drop to the floor and roll forward, shoving my head into the guard in front of me and my elbows into the guards at my sides. I hear their breath leave their stomachs, and my heart roars. Now is the time for blood.
Someone grabs my arms from behind. I kick back and am rewarded with a yell of pain. My captor’s grip softens just enough to let me slip one arm out, but the other is held tight. I allow myself to be dragged back, then throw myself backwards so I land on top of whoever is holding me. We go down and I hear his head hit the stone with a crack, and then I twist back so I am bent over him, my legs pressing on either side of his face, crushing the breath from his throat. His grip is like a vise and I cannot get my other hand free, to use my tunic to throttle the next man, who is coming at me, reaching with his hands, a snarl on his face. He grabs my collar and pulls me roughly off the other man, and then I am dangling, my arms pinned back by this new man’s grasp.
“What a nasty little girl,” he says coldly, looking me in the eye as I struggle and kick. “The report didn’t say you’d be such a bother.”
I lean forward and spit out the tunic to sink my teeth into the man’s arm.
He yells and drops me. Then something hard and loud connects with the side of my face, and the next thing I know, I am on the floor, both my wrists held, now, and the bars above me float in and out of my vision, and I am spinning, the floor feels like water, and then very quickly everything becomes dim and quiet, and then there is nothing at all.