A Dance of Cloaks

David Dalglish

Prologue

For the past two weeks the simple building had been his safehouse, but now Thren Felhorn doubted its safety as he limped through the door. He clutched his right arm to his muscular body and fought to halt its trembling. Blood ran from his shoulder to his arm, cut by a poisoned blade.

“Damn you, Leon,” he said as he staggered across the wood floor, through a sparsely decorated room, and up to a wall made of plaster and oak. Even with his blurred vision he located the slight groove with his fingers. He pressed inward, detaching an iron lock on the other side of the wall. A small door swung inward.

The master of the Spider Guild collapsed in a chair and removed his gray hood and cloak. He sat in a much larger room painted silver and decorated with pictures of mountains and fields. He removed his shirt, carefully pulling it over his wounded arm. He felt lucky the toxin was meant only to paralyze him. Most likely Leon Connington had wanted him alive so he could sit in his padded chair and watch while his ‘gentle touchers’ bled him drop by bloody drop. The fat man’s treacherous words from their meeting ignited a fire in his gut that refused to fade.

“We will not cower to rats that live off our shit,” Leon had said while brushing his thin mustache. “Do you really think you stand a chance against the wealth of the Trifect? We could buy your soul from the gods.”

Thren had fought down his initial impulse to bury a shortsword in the fat man’s throat. A terrible mistake in hindsight. They had met inside his extravagant mansion, another mistake. Thren vowed to correct his carelessness in the coming months. He had tried to stop the war from erupting, but it appeared everyone in Veldaren desired chaos.

If the city wants blood, it can have it, Thren thought. But it won’t be mine.

“Are you in here, father?” he heard his elder son ask from an adjacent room. Thren held his anger in check.

“And if I was not?” he asked.

His son Randith entered from the other room. He looked much like his father, having the same sharp features, thin nose, and grim smile. His hair was brown like his mother’s, and that alone endeared him to Thren. They both wore the gray trousers and cloaks of their guild. A long rapier hung from one side of his belt, a dagger from the other. Randith’s blue eyes met his father’s.

“Then I’d kill you,” Randith said, a cocky grin pulling up the left side of his face.

“Where is the mage?” the guildmaster asked. “Connington’s men cut me with a toxin, and its effect is troublesome.”

Troublesome hardly described it, but Thren wouldn’t let his son know that. His flight from the mansion was a blur in his memory. The toxin had numbed his arm and made his entire side sting with pain. His neck muscles had fired off at random, and one of his knees kept locking up during his run. He had felt like a cripple as he fled through the alleyways of Veldaren, but the moon was waning and the streets empty, so none had seen his pathetic stumbling.

“Cregon isn’t here,” Randith said as he leaned toward his father’s exposed shoulder and examined the cut.

“Then go find him,” Thren said. “And where is Senke? He was supposed to bring me word from Gemcroft.”

“Maynard Gemcroft’s men fired arrows from their windows as we approached,” Randith said. He turned his back to his father and opened a few cupboards until he found a small black bottle. He popped the cork, but when he moved to pour it on his father’s cut, Thren yanked the bottle out of his hand.

“Why isn’t Senke here now?” Thren asked.

“I sent him away,” Randith said. “With war brewing, I figured it best he help protect our warehouses.”

Thren grunted as he dripped the brown liquid across the cut. When finished, he accepted some strips of cloth from his son and then tied them tight around the wound.

“You should have kept him here,” Thren said when the pain subsided. “Where is Aaron? If you won’t fetch the priest, at least he will.”

“Lurking as always,” Randith said, contempt in his voice. “Reading, too. I tell him mercenaries may soon storm in with orders to eradicate all thief guilds, and he looks at me like I’m a lowly fishmonger mumbling about the weather.”

Thren held in a grimace. “There is a reason I am letting the priests have him. We will need their good graces whispering in the ears of the king. He must be nine, for whatever superstitious reason of theirs. It won’t be long now.”

He turned his head and raised his voice.

“Aaron! Your family needs you, now come in here.”

A short child of eight stepped into the room, clutching a worn book to his chest.

A shame Marion never saw him grown, Thren thought. He is her son, not mine.

Aaron’s features were soft and curved, and he would no doubt grow up to be a comely man. He had his father’s hair, though, a reddish blond that curled around his ears and hung low to his deep blue eyes. He fell to one knee and bowed his head without saying a word, all while holding the book.

“Do you know where Cregon is?” Thren asked. Aaron nodded.

“Where?”

Aaron said nothing. Thren, tired and wounded, had no time for his younger son’s nonsense. While other children grew up babbling nonstop, a good day for Aaron involved nine words, and rarely would they be used in one sentence.

“Tell me where he is, or you’ll taste blood on your tongue,” Randith said, sensing his father’s exasperation.

“He went away,” Aaron said, his voice barely above a whisper. “He’s a fool.”

“A fool or not, he’s my fool, and damn good at keeping us alive,” Thren said. “Go bring him here. If he argues, slash your finger across your neck. He’ll understand.”

Aaron bowed and did as he was told.

“I wonder if he is practicing for a vow of silence,” Randith said as he watched his brother leave without any sense of hurry.

“Was he smart enough to shut the hidden door?” Thren asked. Randith checked.

“Shut and latched,” he said. “At least he can do that much.”

“We have bigger concerns,” Thren said. “If Gemcroft is firing at our men, that means he knew what would happen tonight at Connington’s. The Trifect have turned their backs on peace. They want blood, our blood, and unless we act fast they are going to get it.”

“Perhaps if we up our offer?” Randith suggested.

Thren shook his head.

“They’ve tired of the game. We rob them until they are red with rage, then pay bribes with their own wealth. You’ve seen how much they’ve invested in mercenaries. They want us exterminated. No bribe, no offer, and no threat will change that. Their minds are set.”

“Give me a few of your best men,” Randith said as his fingers touched the hilt of his rapier. “When Leon Connington bleeds out in his giant bed, the rest will learn that accepting our bribes is far better than accepting our mercy.”

“You are still a young man,” Thren said. “You are not ready for what Connington has prepared.”

“I am seventeen,” Randith said. “A man grown, and I have more kills to my name than years.”

“And I’ve more than you’ve drawn breaths,” Thren said, a hard edge entering his voice. “But even I will not return to that mansion. They are eager for this. Entire guilds will be wiped out in days. Those who survive will inherit this city, and I will not have my heir run off and die in the opening hours.”

Thren placed one of his shortswords on the table with his uninjured hand. Although old for a guildmaster, he was still full of strength and vitality, a fact proven by Aaron’s birth so late in his marriage to Marion. He dared his son to meet his eyes and challenge him. For once, he was wrong about his elder son.

“I may leave the mansion be,” Randith said. “But I will not cower and hide. You are right, father. These are the opening hours. Our actions here will decide the course of months of fighting. Let the merchants and nobles hide. We rule the night.”

He pulled his gray cloak over his head and turned to the hidden door. Thren watched him go, his hands shaking, but not from the toxin.

“Be careful,” Thren said.

“I’ll get Senke,” said Randith. “He’ll watch over you until Aaron returns with the mage.”

Then he was gone. Thren struck the table and swore. He thought of all the hours invested in Randith, all the training, teaching, and lecturing in an attempt to cultivate a worthy heir. Wasted, he thought. Wasted.

He heard the click of the latch, and then the door creaked open. Thren expected the mage, or perhaps his son returning to smooth over his abrupt exit, but instead a short man with a black cloth wrapped around his face stepped inside.

“Don’t run,” the intruder said. Thren snapped up his shortsword and blocked the first two blows from the man’s dagger. He tried to counter, but his vision was blurred and his speed a pathetic remnant of his finely honed reflexes. A savage chop knocked the sword from his hand. Thren fell back, using his chair to force a stumble out of his pursuer. The best he could do was limp, however, and when a heel kicked his knee, he fell. He spun, refusing to die with a dagger in his back.

“Connington sends his greetings,” the man said, his dagger aimed for a final, lethal blow.

He suddenly jerked forward. His eyes widened. The dagger fell from his limp hand as the would-be assassin collapsed. Behind him stood Aaron, holding a bloody shortsword. Thren’s eyes widened as his younger son knelt, presenting the sword. The flat edge rested on his palms, blood running down his wrists.

“Your sword,” Aaron said.

“How…why did you return?” he asked.

“The man was hiding,” the boy said, his voice still quiet. He didn’t sound the least bit upset. “Waiting for us to go. So I waited for him.”

Thren felt the corner’s of his mouth twitch. He took the sword from a boy who spent his days reading underneath his bed and skulking within closets. A boy who never threw a punch when forced into a fight. A boy who had killed a man at the age of eight.

“I know you’re bright,” Thren said. “But can you read a man’s meaning from his words? Not from what he says, but what he doesn’t say. Can you, my son?”

“I can,” Aaron said.

“Good,” said Thren. “Wait with me. Randith will return soon.”

Ten minutes later the door crept open.

“Father?” Randith asked as he stepped inside. Senke was with him. He looked slightly older than Randith, with a trimmed blonde beard and a thick mace held in hand. They both startled at the bloody body lying on the floor, a gaping wound in its back.

“He waited until you left,” Thren said from his chair facing the entrance.

“Where?” his son asked. He pointed to Aaron. “And why is he here?”

Thren shook his head. “You don’t understand. One too many, Randith. One fatal mistake too many.”

Then he waited. And hoped.

Aaron stepped toward his older brother. His blue eyes were calm, unworried. In a single smooth motion, he yanked Randith’s dagger from his belt, flipped it around, and thrust it to the hilt in his brother’s chest. Senke stepped back but wisely held his tongue. Aaron withdrew the dagger, spun around, and presented it as a gift to his father.

Thren’s eyes twinkled as he rose from his seat and placed a hand on Aaron’s shoulder.

“You did well, my son,” he said. “My heir.”

Aaron only smiled and bowed as the body of his brother bled out on the floor.

1

Maynard Gemcroft paced the halls, his bare feet cushioned by the thick carpet. He paced far from the windows. Even though he had paid handsomely for thick glass, he did not trust it. A thick stone followed by a single arrow was all it’d take to lay him out on the carpet, bleeding red on the blue weave. A thin, wiry man, he lived within his castle-mansion protected by over a hundred guards. Only the king was as well protected.

Yet two days prior, he had nearly died.

A guard opened a door and stepped inside. He wore chain armor with a dark sash wrapped around his waist signifying his allegiance to the Gemcroft family line. His teeth were crooked, and when he talked the sight of them disgusted Maynard.

“Your daughter is here to see you.”

“Send her in,” Maynard said as he checked his robes and smoothed his hair. He always prided himself on his appearance, but lately he found less and less time to primp and preen. It seemed like every other night he’d awake to alarms and cries of trespassers. Come the morning, yet another guard would lie dead somewhere on the grounds.

The guard stepped out, and then in came his daughter.

“Alyssa,” said Maynard as he approached with open arms. “You’ve returned early. Were the men in Kinamn too boring for you?”

She was short for a lady, but her slender body was supple and strong. Maynard had never seen a man best his Alyssa in any feats of dexterity, and he knew many she could out-drink as well. Her mother had been a wild one, he remembered. A shame she had slept with another man. Connington’s gentle touchers had never been given a woman so fine.

Alyssa brushed a hand over her red hair cropped around her neck and interwoven with tight braids. Her fingers pulled aside her bangs and tucked them behind an ear. Her green eyes twinkled with mild amusement.

“Very much so,” she said in a husky voice. “Their women preen and prattle like they’ve never heard of a cock, and so the men oblige by never pulling it out to teach them otherwise.”

She snickered at her father’s blush. In truth, she had found many men eager for her bed, but he didn’t need to know that. She wanted him feeling awkward, not mortified.

“Must you use such…such… common language?” Maynard asked.

“You sent me to live with common women. Fosters and sitters whose entire wealth couldn’t buy the privilege to clean the…filth from my bottom.”

She winked at her father.

“I did so for your own safety,” Maynard said. He caught her nearing the windows and put himself in the way. When he opened his mouth to explain she pressed a finger against his lips and kissed his forehead.

Servants arrived informing them that the evening meal was ready. Maynard took his daughter’s hand and led her through the mansion to the extravagant dining room. Suits of armor lined the walls, holding erect lances decorated with silken flags of kings, nobles, and ancient members of the family. Over a hundred chairs waited at the giant table, their dark wood upholstered in purple. Decorating the top were twelve roses in ruby-encrusted vases.

Twenty servants stood ready although only the two Gemcrofts would eat first. Maynard took a seat at the head of the table as Alyssa sat to his left.

“Don’t worry about the food,” the older man said. “I have everything tasted.”

“You’re the worrier, not me,” Alyssa said.

Maynard thought she might have held her tongue if she had known four tasters had died over the past three years, including one only two days ago.