The following is a free chapter from the first book in my LadyStar™ fantasy adventure series Dawnsong: The Last Skyblade
“There’s no such thing as ghosts.”
– Talitha Casey
Village of Escator
Thirty-One miles northeast of Phileo’s Fortune
The hollow sound of a fist against rotted wood caused a small flight of sickly birds to scatter from the dead branches of a nearby tree. Unlike many of the others who hurried through the darker sections of Escator, the unarmed man wore no cloak and no cowl. The right half of his face was covered with a thick dark gray cloth wrapped much like a bandage.
The houses in the Escator Manorial District were dark, uninviting structures. What lights were visible were pale and cold, and often only shone through upper windows. The walkways were gated and the remains of ivy plants and creepers hung on the iron bars of the fences. There was no foot traffic in the muddy street. The smell of an overfed wood fire clawed its way through the heaviness in the evening air. A single street lamp flickered on the opposite side of the street.
A small portal in the pitted door opened, revealing an unpleasant expression. A tin plaque next to the door listed the address.
EIGHT RATHSHIRE PLACE
“I have an appointment,” the man said.
“This is not a hospital,” the gaunt-faced doorman replied. He got no reply. The portal snapped shut and the door opened. Far in the distance, the sound of a carriage rushing past the gate separating the Manorial District from the rest of the village faded back into the dusk.
“Who are you here to see?”
The bandaged man walked inside, causing the doorman’s candle to flicker as he strode past.
Even in the candlelight, the doorman could see the grotesque texture of the man’s face only partially concealed by the gray cloth. He had obviously been horribly burned, and seemed to be completely unable to focus his remaining eye.
“We have no medicine for your affliction, sir.”
“And I have asked for none,” the man replied sharply. “Please inform the doctor of my arrival.”
The doorman turned his head to one side with an expression of distrust, then reluctantly walked past the row of sculpted empty frames hanging on the entry wall towards the parlor. He noticed the hilt of an expensive looking dagger sheathed along the man’s boot. Generally, visitors to a Gentry House were not permitted to carry weapons. But he decided to favor self-preservation over heroics.
The foyer of the dignified mansion was warm to the point of stuffiness. Crabby flames covered a damp pile of rotted firewood in the recessed fireplace. Pieces of mismatched furniture complemented a mantled mirror anchored to the top edge of the wall, forming a nice centerpiece for evenly spaced paintings. The threadbare rug was a non-threatening color. It was all very proper. Nothing in this house was meant to draw attention.
The bandaged man stood with his back turned, appearing to be examining an obviously forged painting and contemplating the concept of too proper. He carefully watched the parlor entry in the nearby mirror. His hands were clasped behind his waist. Either could easily reach the knife under his tunic. Or the scalpel inside his left sleeve. The reflection of a matronly woman emerging from the darkened hallway appeared in the mirror.
“Kenesh Drun.” The woman’s voice was rough, but clear and with just the slightest edge, as if she were someone accustomed to being not just heard, but listened to by others. “Welcome to Gacenar.”
Kenesh carefully examined the woman’s reflection. She wore a simple black gown decorated with an enormous toka-pearl brooch encrusted with opulent Rotenshan jewel work. He recognized the work. He knew the owner. And the former owner.
“Thea, it is agreeable to see you once again.”
Thea squinted, then a rueful grin crossed her taut face. “Won’t you join us?”
Kenesh cautiously obliged, but instinctively kept a distance and followed one step behind Thea’s pace. The distinguished-looking woman walked through the equally-proper parlor with a steady purpose. The room was unfurnished but for an out-of-place rug under a dingy chandelier so plain that could have easily been used to plow a dry field.
Thea’s gray and white hair was pulled up by a circlet of jasper stones around a sharp coil at the top. In her hands she carried a pair of spectacles.
Kenesh took immediate account of the dining room as they entered. Three exits. Curtained window. Four people. One at the entry. He concluded those at the table were the most obvious non-threat.
There were no visible weapons, but some things were to be expected. To most people the woman at the entry would have appeared to be nothing more than an overdressed merchant from a Rathshire Guild. She faked a sip of her drink as Kenesh passed. He noticed her posture shift subtly to favor her right side.
Kenesh exhaled without making it obvious the woman’s purpose had been discovered. She was concealing a weapon of some kind, but inexplicably guarding the exit nobody in the room would use. Kenesh expended considerable effort to keep his breathing controlled. Getting out of this room alive was going to be enough of a toss-up. Losing his cool would just make it harder.
“May I present Kenesh Drun,” Thea said with a formal air of announcing a visitor to court. She took her seat at the head of the table opposite the entry. A shadowy staircase was visible through the open door behind her chair. Once situated, she placed her spectacles on the table next to her place setting.
“Please,” Thea nodded, indicating an open place at the table for Kenesh.
“I’ll stand,” Kenesh replied, after quickly appraising the cutlery and the alley value of the plate.
“Please take a seat,” Thea said, her expression hardening.
Kenesh hesitated, then pulled the heavy cushioned chair from one side of the table and sat down, every muscle in his body tense enough to split firewood. He exhaled again, so slowly he could taste the cool edge in his breath.
Thea noticed he had chosen a vantage point near two exits from which he could observe all four other people in the room. Nothing in her expression betrayed how impressed she already was with his progress. Even in her own dining room, she had no obvious advantages.
“You are known as the Scaled One,” one of the men at the table offered after a few moments of silence. Kenesh did not reply.
“An appropriate nomenclature,” Thea replied, unfolding her napkin. “Our problem is formidable.”
“What is your knowledge of healing magic?” the nondescript man persisted. The other drained a fine cup of its contents.
“Look at me,” Kenesh replied.
The merchant’s face fell. He swallowed uncomfortably, realizing the absurdity of the question as he looked at the glassy, off-center gaze. He nervously took a sip from his cup, managing to get it all the way back into the saucer before it rattled too much.
Kenesh glanced at the merchant then back at Thea. “Are you sure you wouldn’t rather have hired a Sparrowman?”
“We have made inquiries,” Thea replied with a tone of contempt. “There are few with knowledge of what takes place north of the Forge. Those who didn’t excuse themselves at the very mention of Kulnas claimed prior engagements. It seems that region inspires more than its fair share of dread, even among the jackals.”
The table settings themselves seemed hesitant. Sweat glistened on the forehead of one of the merchants.
Kenesh tightened one fist. He tried to control his expression while making certain he actually took the time to breathe. He closed his eyes, then opened them.
The woman at the door straightened, as if insulted. Thea smiled with some apparent effort. Then she took a sip of wine from a crystal goblet and set it back on the gray tablecloth.
One step closer, Kenesh thought.
“One hundred monarchs of pure gold for whatever drew the shadows south,” Thea said.
“I avoid Witchkin and Arcanists, Thea. Especially when they are the same person. I live longer that way,” Kenesh said, gesturing politely as if explaining the obvious. He had already very nearly insulted the deadliest woman in Gacenar. Why not pressure the bet?
“Two hundred,” Thea said, her smile widening.
Kenesh looked at the nearest of the two impostors. It was obvious at this point the matron had filled the room with concealed weapons to avoid any “misunderstandings.” Nevertheless, discussions of such large amounts of gold seemed to be quite uncomfortable for them, at least gold paid to someone else. Kenesh guessed Thea was playing with the “merchants’” chips. West of Chaer, the gold monarch was the exclusive coin of the Branven guilds and those who cut their purses.
And now it was the coin of an aspiring assassin.
“Five thousand,” Kenesh said coolly as he nonchalantly examined a piece of fruit taken from the table’s centerpiece.
One of the bladesmen sputtered while attempting to sip his tea and the cup slipped. A moment later the china shattered against the wooden floor.
A glint of reflected light caught Kenesh’s eye from the narrow staircase opposite the dining room entrance. Fortunately for him, under the table a balanced blade already rested in his skilled fingers.
The guard’s hand froze against the wall with a sickly wet thud and his weapon clattered down the last few wooden steps. He shrieked as the sharpness of the dagger blade impaling his hand registered. He was immobilized.
One of the bladesmen lunged, but Kenesh caught his wrist an instant before his weapon made contact with his own neck. Drun held a bronzed hornwing claw under the man’s chin. None could say where it came from. Both men were frozen in mid-attack, gazes locked. The bladesman trembled, trying to hold Kenesh at bay. The guard again tried to dislodge the dagger from the wall, and he howled as his failure was rewarded with a barrage of roaring pain.
“Silence,” Thea said. She appeared unaffected by the simultaneous start of two knife fights mere steps from her chair.
The guard’s voice quieted. The sound was replaced by grunts and hisses as the guard tried to mask his reflexive reactions to the double-edged knife embedded between his knuckle bones.
Kenesh pushed the bladesman’s weapon back. He carefully observed the staircase doorway for any other movement. Then he took his seat again.
The woman at the entrance had used the distraction to move a step closer to him. Time was growing short. The guard finally managed to work the dagger free of the door jamb and he scuttled away back up the narrow staircase, his hand dripping on the steps.
“Plus the cost of the dagger,” Kenesh added as he adjusted his chair to sit squarely.
For the first time in the negotiations, Thea glanced away from Kenesh at the others.
“Done,” she said.
The face of the sputtering bladesman drained of its color and he gave up on his attempts to clean the tea from his shirt. The defeated stares were gratifying for Kenesh, at least momentarily.
“Shadows have been seen as far south as Isia. None can say why they are on the move. The First House has informants everywhere, and the Vicereine spends her days haggling with the guilds and spreading filth,” one of the nondescript men said.
Kenesh did not acknowledge the statement.
The woman crept closer.
“The gold,” Kenesh said, watching Thea’s face carefully. She gestured with her chin and Kenesh looked down. A golden monarch coin weighing at least four ounces rested in the cup at his place setting. Kenesh retrieved it quickly and took a moment to examine it.
“How will we know you have succeeded?” one of the impostor merchants asked.
A serrated knife slid from under the woman’s sleeve and dropped into her right palm, and she twisted her fingers to grip its hilt. One more step was all she needed.
“You’ll still be alive,” Kenesh replied, tossing the coin across the table. Everyone watched it tumble through the air. One of the bladesmen caught it clumsily against his chest with both hands. The woman slashed with her knife–
–and punctured the back of Kenesh’s empty chair. Splinters scattered across the fine rug.
Thea closed her eyes and exhaled, then took a sip of her wine. A breeze caused the curtains to flutter.
“Close the window please,” she said.