Irritation bubbled within Fes, and he crept forward through the alley carefully, trying to make as little sound as possible. In all the time that hed been living in the slums, he had grown especiallyskilled atmoving quietly.
The alleyway was narrow, and the smooth walls of the neighboring buildings rose up on either side of him. They were damp, unpleasantly so, especially considering the last rain had been over a week ago. An awful stench filled the air, that of rot or something worse, and he fought the urge to look down and make sure he wasnt stepping into something nasty.
He glanced back to see Alison trailing him. He wished that she wouldnt have come after him, especially as she knew that he preferred to work alone, and sheknew that hedidnt like having her follow him, but even if heobjected to her presence, he doubted shed listen to his arguments.
He spun, pushing his back up against the neighboring building, and made a motion toward Alison. He was far enough into the depths of the shadows that it was unlikely she could even see him, but he was determined to try to get her attention.
Skies of Fire, but she needed to leave him to this assignment. If he failed, Horus would be angry, and Fes couldnt risk angering the man again. Another mistake and Horus would likely send Fes away, and it was hard enough finding jobs in the slums as it was. Most of them were run by men like Horus, men who coordinated all the activity within the area they controlled.
When he reached the end of the alley, he glanced back to see if Alison still followed him. It was difficult to tell if she did as her dark hair and her black cloak seemed to blend into the shadows, making her practically invisible. Fes didnt have the same dark hair. His brown hair was dark enough, and no one could see his blue eyes glimmering in the darkness. And he wasnt foolish enough to wear brightly colored clothing. He kept the deep brown cloak covering his face, trying to conceal himself in the shadows.
There was a door here, and Fes unsheathed one of his daggers, slipping the tip into the lock. He wasnt nearly as skilled as Alison at picking locks, but then again, he didnt need to be. With these daggers, dragonglassthat was nearlyindestructible, he was able to get past almostany lock. There probably wasnt a single one within the city he couldnt get past by jamming his dagger into it.
The lock snapped with a loud crack.
That was the only downside to the way that he forced his way into doors. Others could make it much more quietly, but quiet had never really been Fess strong suit. He did his best, and he tried to remain as silent as possible, but there were too many times when he didnt manage to do so as effectively as he thought he should.
The other side of the room was dimly lit. There was a lantern somewhere that cast enough light for himto see a hazy outline of everything in front of him, but not much more than that. Fes had good eyesight, but even the best eyesightcouldnt pierce through this darkness. The air was warm enough that a fire had to be burning nearby, drying out the air.
He crept forward, moving slowly through the hallway. His footsteps were the only sound here, a soft thudding along the wooden floor. Fes tried to keep his breathing silent, but it still sounded loud in his ears.
If Horus was right, then the item he was afterhis prizewould be in here, at the end of a hallway and inside a large room behind a cabinet. A jewel of value. And all Fes had to do was grab it. It should be easy, especially now that he was inside, and it would give him a chance to prove himself to Horus.
There was sound at the door hed come through, and Fes glanced back to see the door swinging open. He jumped back against the edge of the wall, holding onto his dagger, prepared for the possibility that he might need to use it. If he did, he needed to maintain control of himself. It was too easy for him to lose control, and when he lost control well, things started to go badly. He couldnt afford to have things go that way, not in a place like this, and not on the job for Horus.
Alison stepped forward, separating from the shadows.
What are you doing? he hissed.
What do you think Im doing? Im helping you with this job.
I dont need help.
Someone seems to think you do.
Had Horus sent her after him? He wouldnt put it past the man. Horus had a soft spot for Alison, though it was more of a fatherlything than anything more. And since the two of them had gotten close, Horus had tolerated Fes a whole lot more than he ever had before. Then again, he preferred to use Fes for the violent side Fes tried to keep hidden.
Could that have been why Horus sent him on this job?
He shook that thought away. Horus knew that Fes had a temper, but it was only a temper that he had when someone tried to hurt those he cared about. Fes made a point of trying not to care for anyone, especially after what had happened with his brother. It was bad enough that hed gotten close to Alison. Other than her, the only other person he cared about had managed to get out of the slums and was no longer in danger.
You have to let me do this job. Heneeds to know I can do this.
I think he knows, she said.
If he knows, then why did he send you?
Alison shook her head, stepping toward him. She smelled nice, clean, and with a hint of lilac. How did she ever manage to find such fragrances in the slums?
Fes raised his hand, quieting her. Dont use that name.
I dont know why you dont like it. I think its nice.
Fes squeezed his eyes closed. You know why I dont like it.
I know that your parents choose to use it. That should be reason enough for you to want others to.
Hearing it only makes me think of them. And its still hard.
She took his hand and squeezed. He smiled over at her, wishing that things in Anuhr were easierthan they were, but they were in the slums, a part of the capital of the ArashnEmpire that made the emperor prefer to look the other way, a place where even his fire mages rarely came. It was left to men like Horus to keep the slums running smoothly. If not for Horus, Fes wouldve starved to death long ago.
Im sorry. I wont use it again. I still think its nice.
It reminds me of my mother.
Her gaze flicked down to his dagger before looking up athis face. She was the only person who knew that his daggerswere the last memory he had of his parents. They had belonged to both his mother and fatherand when they had diedbeen killed, reallyFes had recovered them. They were precious to him.
Go and finish this job. Return the prize to Horus and get the credit.
Just like that?
I dont need the credit. Horus She shook her head, looking up at Fes. It doesnt matter. Just go and do what you need to in order tokeep him happy. But make sure you get the right thing.
Fes nodded. Did he give you any idea how? If what hed heard about this place was right, there would be several items of value, but he was only supposed to grab one. He stared at the door at the end of the hallway. It was hard to completelymake out, but that had to be where he was supposed to go.
She planted one hand on her hip and stared at him. Now you want my help?
I dont want your help, I just Fine. I want your help.
Herfaceclouded. I was only supposed to keep track of you, and if you got in trouble, I was to
Supposed to what?
To make sure the prize got back to him.
Just the prize? Not me?
I dont think Horus worries so much about you. Youve proven that theres no reason to do so.
That was true, and Fes hated that it was true. He had proven himself, thanks to that part of himself that he wished hedidnt depend on, but when it came to fighting, it wasnt so much that he was good at it, it was more thatit seemed to come naturally.
We shouldnt spend any more time in here, Fes said, looking around the hall. He could see barely nothing, just the hazy outline, but with the faint lantern light in the distance, he had to believe he was heading in the right direction. What else would be down there?
They crept along the hallway, and Fes moved slowly but not nearly as silently as Alison. In that way, she was a much more skilled thief than him. It was why Horus usually preferred her. It made Alison safe in a way that Fes was not. Few people could ever really claim safety, at least not in the slums. And he felt particularly unsettled. Horus favored him now, but that was because he was tied to Alison. What happened if their relationship failed?
Alison looked over at him, almost as if knowing his thoughts. Fes forced a smile, hating that those thoughts rolled through him but unable to get rid of them entirely. He was no different than anyone else in the slum and wanted out, a way to a better life. For most, that meant working for one of the crime lords, using that as a way to leverage themselves to safety. Considering Fess reputation, he wasnt sure that he would always be able to find safety.
As he made his way along the hallway, something pulled on him, drawing him toward one of the doorways. He paused in front of it, running his hands along the surface.
Why should he be drawn here? It was ahead of him that mattered, not behind the door. But there was no questioning that he felt something here.
As he stood there, his hand just above the surface of the door, he traced the heat on the other side. It was faint, but definitely there.
Fes? What are you doing?
Fes nodded at the door. I dont know. Its just How could he explain it to Alison? It was almost as if he were meant to open the store, and that whatever he wanted to find would be behind here, but that wasnt what Horus had sent him after. Horus had sent them after a prize, and it would be worth nearly two coppers. That was enough money to feed Fes for a week, especially if he stretched it.
Its down at the end of the hall.
Are you sure?
Fes, I know what were after.
I know what were after too, but if its so valuable, why do we bring it to Horus?
Because if we dont, were dead. Besides, anything of value needs to be sold, and neither of us knowshow to do that.
Fes rested his hand on the door handle. It was locked. Im just going see whats behind here.
Alison glared at him. Dont be stupid. Weve already been here too long.
Why dont you go down the hall and Ill meet you.
If I take care of this job and Horus learns of it
How will Horus learn of it unless you tell him?
Alison stared at him.
Youd tell him?
Why wouldnt I? He needs to know that I can take care of my assignments, too.
Even if that means that I fail?
Then dont fail, she said. Dont get distracted, Fes.
He stared at the door. He couldnt shake the sense that there was something behind there that he needed to know and he unsheathed his dagger, shoving it into the lock. With a sharp twist, the locksnapped, andhe shovedthe door open.
Alison stared at him a moment before hurrying down the hallway.
What was he thinking? This was the reason that people like Horus didnt trust him with jobs. He failed to follow instructions, and when he got into buildings like this, merchant buildings outside the edge of the slums Horus controlled, buildings that he should know better than to enter, hewent off on his own even when heknew that he shouldnt.
He was in a strange storage room. There was a table at the center of the room, and shelves lined the walls. On the shelves were various oddsculptures. Fes approached the nearest shelf, andhis jaw dropped open.
Not sculptures. Bones.
He could think of only one reason that there would be a place full of bones like this.
They were dragon bones.
Bones like this were valuable to the fire mages.
Could this be a fire mages warehouse?
That wasnt where he was supposed to go. It was a merchant home, nothing more than that, and it wasnt supposed to be guarded.
Horus wouldnt have sent them into a place where theyd risk the fire mages. Not with Alison after him.
No. Something like that would be foolishand would be bound to draw attention to them, the kind of attention that even Horus was loath to attract.
Fes picked up one of the bones. It was long and slender and had a strange weight to it. The entire thing was cold, and the surface of it was smooth. Everything hed heard about dragon bones said they were supposed to be warmunless one of the fire mages had already used them. There was power stored withinthe bones, and the fire mages used that power to perform their spells, magic that rivaled that of even the dragons they came from.
Fes set down the bone he was holding and replaced it on the shelf. If it was a real dragon boneand forgeries were far too commonit had already been used. The used dragon bone might have some value, but not enough to risk angering a fire mage if thats what this place was.
Fes continued to make his way around the room, staring at the shelves. Alison was right: He was taking far too much time here. He knew better than to linger. If he were caught here, the punishment would be severe. He would be outside of the slums, and because of that, Horuss reach would be limited, if he even cared enough to try to help Fes.
Fes would be subject to the whims of the Dragon Guard. They were dangerous, soldiers who trained from a young age to become frighteningly skilled, the defenders of the empire. They were different than the commissioned army, though Fes would never serve in the armyto know. At sixteen, he was of the right age, but he refused to submit himself to the empire. If they couldnt take care of orphans like him, why should he bother fighting on behalf of them?
On the far side of the room, something seemed to shimmer.
Fes frowned as he approached it. Like the other items in this room, it was a bone, but it looked different than the others. There were striations of color to it, and when he lifted it, he found it warm.
Could this be an actual dragon bone? Could it still be active?
If he brought this to Horus, he would be rewarded. He would have to be.
Fes stuffed the bone into his pocket.
He hurried back out of the room and found Alison waiting for him in the hallway. He pulled the door closed.
I dont understand what you were doing.
You wouldnt guess what I saw in there.
Alison pulled a necklace from her pocket, holding it up. A blue jewel at the center reflected the light. The rest of the necklacewas cast in gold, and it seemed to glow. This is the prize. This is what Horus wanted us to come for.
Fes patted his pocket, feeling the warmth fromthe bone. We should
Footsteps thudded from the far end of the hallway, and Fes glanced over at Alison. She shook her head and swore under her breath, grabbing his arm and dragging him behind her. See? Weve taken too long. If we get caught, we have to worry about more than the Dragon Guard.
They reached the door leading to the alley, and as they pushed it open, Fes thought he felt a strange stirring of warmth, andhe glanced over his shoulder. He caught sight of a flash of crimson, followed by a blast of heat that dried his mouth. Before he had a chance to think about it, Alison shoved him forward into the alley. They raced ahead, reaching the street, where she dragged him all the way back through the slums and to Horuss home.
I cant believe you, Fes, Alison said as they went.
Why cant you believe me?
After everything that youve gone through, you let me get this first?
Maybe I wanted you to be rewarded. Maybe I didnt want to be the one to claim the prize.
Dont be stupid, she said.
Why is that stupid? How long have we known each other?
Its been a year, Fes, but you cant keep doing this. She glanced over at him before entering Horuss home. It was much nicerthan others within the slums. He had a thick carpet across the floor, something that Fes had never seen anywhere else. The table and chairs resting near the hearth both matched, and from somewhere in the back came the smell of baking bread, a savoryscent that made Fess mouth water. He doubted Horus would allow him to have any, especially now that he wasnt the one to have completed the job.
Horus emerged from a back room, dressed almost regally in a chocolate-colored jacket and pants, smiling warmly at Alison before turning to Fes. Did you get it? he asked. He had a deep voice and flat gray eyes. He had to be in his fifties, but he was still fit, and he was stillintimidating.
We got it, Alison said.
The two of you? Horus asked.
Alison pulled the necklace from her pocket and handed it over to Horus. We got it.
Fes glanced over at her guiltily. She was giving him too much credit. Seeing the way that Horuss eyes lit up when he saw the necklace, Fes didnt know if it was because of the gold or whether it was the jewel at the center. Either way, the necklacewas far more valuable than the few coppers that Horus had offered for it.
Reaching into his pocket, he felt for the bone. It was warm, and it pressed against his thigh. How much would Horus offer for something like this?
Probably not nearly what it was worth.
Ill be honest. I didnt think Fezarn was going to be successful, Horus said.
Well, we were, Alison said.
She was far better than him. Would he have included her if the situation was reversed? He knew that he would. Alison might be the only person he protected.
Horus reached into his pocket and handed Fes a pair of copper coins. He squeezed them tightly. They would feed him for the week, and in that time, he had to hope that Horus would come up with another job. And then another. As long as the jobskept coming, and as long as Fes managed to succeed with them, he would be able to keep eating.
The coins he handed Alison seemed shinier than the ones Fes held.
He glanced over at Alison. Fes had taken the job for a few coppers, but how much did Alison get paid? They didnt talk about it, but he wouldnt put it past her to be paid twice as much as him.
Go, Horus said.
Fes looked around the room a moment before getting dragged away by Alison. There was wealth here, the kind of wealth that Fes would never know. He would never reach the luxury that Horus knew, and if his jobs failed to deliver, there might come a time when he starved.
When they reached the street, he looked over at Alison. How much did he pay you?
Fes shook his head. How much were you paid? We were offered the same job, more or less.
You were offered a job, and mine was to ensure it succeeded.
Then I should have been paid more.
Except I was the one who completed the job. Were it not for me, you would have wandered off like you did and we never would have managed to get the prize.
It doesnt matter.
Then tell me. You know how much I got paid.
She stared at him for a moment. Two silvers, okay?
Fes blinked. Silvers? He couldnt imagine being offered two silvers. Even a single silver would be enough for him to eat for more than a month. Two would let him sleep in his own room, albeit not all that nice of a room.
Why are you getting paid so much?
Keep working for him, and you will get rewarded. Maybe find a prize that you dont need someones help for.
Fes thought of the dragon bone, andhe glanced toward the door, wondering if maybe he shouldnt go and tell Horus about it, before deciding not to. If he did, there would be no point. What would Horus even do if he brought him a dragon bone? Maybe hed offer him two coppers, but maybe he wouldoffer less. And if it was less, what was the point of it?
Where are you going? Alison asked as he turned away.
Fes looked over ather, shaking his head. Im just going away for a little bit. I might go visit Tracen. At least if he visited his friend, he would be out of the slums, if only for a little while. Tracen was one of the few people he knew who had managed to escape, finding an apprenticeship that offered him a life beyond this part of the city. While Fes missed him, he didnt begrudge Tracen the opportunity to live a life where he wouldnt be forced into stealing. Tracen was better than that. He deserved better than that.
Come on, Fes. You know that we need to take what we can, especially here.
He nodded. The message was clear. Life wasnt fair in the slums, and he knew that, but that didnt change the fact that he wished that things were different. Had his parents not been lostor his brothermaybe things wouldve been different for him.
As he made his way down the street, he stayed in the shadows, keeping off to the side so that others didnt bump into him. He rounded a corner, barely paying attention, and came face-to-face with a tall man dressed in a crimson-colored robe.
Im sorry, he said, turning off to the side.
Sorry. Yes. Perhaps you aresorry. He leaned toward Fes, and he ran his hand along Fess jacket until it was just outside of the pocket containing the dragon bone. A smile drifted across the mans face. Warmth radiated from him, reminding Fes of the sensation hed had before leaving with the necklace. He jumped back, trying to get away, but the man smiled at him. Interesting.
Somehow, he had known that Fes had the dragon bone.
This couldnt be the same person hed caught a glimpse of during the job, could it? How would he have followed?
Listen, Im just going to be
The man started to laugh, cutting Fes off. Youre just going to be what?
Im just going to be going, Fes said.
Oh no. Not quite yet.
He started to turn, butthe man grabbed his sleeve, keeping him from turning. You can have it. I Fes started.
The man jerked him around, andFes came face-to-face with him again. How did you find it?
It was in a room.
Yes. I know that it was in a room. How did you find this one?
Fes shook his head. I dont know.
The man cocked his head to the side, seeming to study Fes. The crimson cloak was the color of the empire, and there was something about this man that made Fes nervous in a way that even the Dragon Guard might not.
Whats your name?
The man took another step forward. Whats your name?
There was a command within it, andhe felt almost as if he were compelled to answer. Fes.
The man smiled slightly. Fes? Thats quite the unusual name.
Fes only shrugged. What do you want with me?
Its not so much what I want with you, its what I can offer you.
And what can you offer me?
The man smiled widely, but it never seemed to reach his hazel-colored eyes. A job.
Fes knew better than to take so long completing the most recent job to acquire a dragon bone. In the year since accepting Azithans offer, hed learned the fire mage was patient, but there were limits to that patience. He needed to acquire the bone, and when he did, he would get paid. Three gold coins, enough to keep him fed for the next month given the lifestyle he now kept. It was much more than hed once been paid for similar jobs, but then again, Azithan appreciated Fes and his work.
There was movement along the street and a flash of red hair. Fes swore under his breath.
If she managed to get to this before him, hed miss out on his payment. Fes prided himself on completing Azithans jobs, ensuring that he did everything that he asked, not wanting to fail him. He rarely failed Azithan, something that made both of them happy. It certainlyallowed Fes to remain out of the slums and stay in nicerparts of the city. The jobs Azithan asked of him required him to sneak around, but for the most part, Azithan wanted him for his ability to find Dragon relics, something Fes seemed particularly skilled at. For some reason, he was drawn to them.
Fes raced forward, chasing after Carter. The street was busy, but not so busy that he couldnt navigate through it, and he bumped past a few people as he made his way through. Storefronts lined the street on either side, buthe didnt pause to look at any of them, not wanting the distraction. He hadnt been through this section in the city for a while, and even if he had, he wasnt sure that he would recognize any of the stores. This was a bettersection, a place where merchants sold their wares and would expect to be paid what they were worth, nothing like the slums Fes had come from.
Carter turned a corner, and he chased after her. She was a thief, but she was more than that. She was violent in a way that Fes never wasat least not anymoreand when she got involved, people ended up hurt. It wasnt that Fes minded violence, certainly not if he was the one inflicting it, but he didnt like the idea of Carter getting involved in a job he was after.
There had been enough interaction between the two of them over the years, going back to when he had worked for Horus, hat he knew better than to take her lightly. She often chased the same dragon relics as Fes, and she had an ability tosniff them out that rivaled his, something that he suspected annoyed Azithan.
Fes turned a corner, and there she was. She stalked toward a child standing near the merchant hed been following, a knife in hand.
His mind flashed back to what had happened to his brother. Hed been lost in the city, killed by someone too much like Carter.
Fes lunged, grabbing her and pulling her focus away from the boy.
Carter spun around with a growl that faded to a smile when she saw him. And what are you after today, Fes? she asked, leaning toward him. Sheshifted her hips, swaying them as she took a step toward him, almost as if trying to seduce him. She was an attractive woman, but far too deadly to be of any interest to him.
Stay back, Carter. This is my job.
And what does your master have you doing today?
The same thing that your master has you doing.
She grinned. Oh, that.
And who is your master?
Carter stepped up to him, leaning toward him. She was about a head shorter, but incredibly strong. Hed seen her fight with the two swords she had buckled at her waist and knew better than to tangle with her. All Fes carried were his daggers, and he hesitated to use them in any way that would draw attention. All it took was one wrong move, an attack on someone who mattered within the city, and he would attractthe attention of the Dragon Guard, something Azithan warned him against. Azithan protected him, but there were limits to his protection, and Fes had no interest in testing them, not wanting to jeopardize his position with the fire mage.
Im sure you would like to know, she said.
Hewouldlike to know, and that was entirely the point. As far as he knew, sheserved someone much like he served Azithan, but he still had not been able to figure out who that was. Carter took higher-end jobs, and as far as he could tell, she was even better off than him, and Azithan paid well.
So, its like that?
Carter smiled, leaning toward him with a slight shake of her hips.
Fes danced back, grabbing forhis dagger almost too late. She grinned as her sword slipped free from her sheath.
So jumpy, she said.
Stay back from me, he said.
Are you worried I might hurt you?
Fes stared at her. I know well enough to be concerned.
Are you sure that you really want to get involved with what Im after? If you know anything about me, you know that the person I work for has no tolerance for those who get in his way. Since Azithan served the emperor, it gave Fes a little more cache, but with Carter, it was hard to know if that mattered.
She took a step back and slipped her sword back into her sheath.
At least she still gave him the treatment that he thought that he deserved, a certain level of respect that should exist between them. They were competitors,buttheywerent all that different, other than the fact that she was willing to maim and kill to accomplish her goals, and Fes was the more cautious of the two. It was different than what he had experienced when he still had worked in the slums. When he was there, there had been no honor between thieves. It had been everyone for themselves, which was part of the reason that he had struggled as much as he had.
Yes, about that. I am certain your master has no tolerance for such things, but at the same time, neither does my employer.
There was a flicker of movement behind her. Fes glanced past and saw the merchant he had been trailing. He needed to get past Carter, orit was entirely possible that he would miss out on this job.
Carter, Im sorry that I dont have any more time to chat with you, but I really do need to be going.
Carter glared at him. What are you after?
She didnt know. And if she didnt know, then maybe hecould mislead her.
There was something taken from the palace, and I was asked to retrieve it. She already knew that he worked for Azithan, so he wasnt revealing anything too far from the truth. What did it matter that it was a dragon relic rather than some jewel?
Something was stolen from the palace, andyou were the one sent? Not the Dragon Guard?
There are certain things that they dont necessarily want revealed. This happens to be one of them, Fes said with a shrug.
She eyed him for a long moment. By telling her that he was after something taken from the palace, it hopefully would delay her, if not prevent her outright from trying to go after it herself. More than that, he wanted her to believe that it was something other than a dragon relic. There was a market for many things within the palace, but the dragon relics were valuable enough that Azithan paid well for them.
Ill be watching you, she said.
Im not interested, Fes said.
She stepped off to the side, pressing her back up against the wall as she watched him. We both know thats not true.
Im not interested.
You know, Im sure I could find a role for you within my organization, she said.
Is that right?
Im sure that she would pay more than your current compensation.
I already have an employer.
For how long? She smiled at him, and there was a hint of menace within it. Eventually, hell grow tired of you. Thats the story with him, or havent you heard?
If he does, hell have paid me well in the meantime.
Perhaps, but I wonder if its quite as well as you could be paid? Do you not realize what youre worth?
Fes snorted. Now youre resorting to compliments. Interesting.
Its better than the alternative.
And whats the alternative?
You know what the alternative is, Fes. Dont cross me. Im not the kind of person you want as an enemy.
Is that what weve become?
She flashed a smile, and there was something both beautiful and dangerous about it. This? No. Were competitors, nothing more. For now. Im happy to chase items throughout the city and beat you to them.
You havent beat me to all that many, Fes said.
Enough that its valuable to me, she said. But even I have limits. There are certain things that I wont tolerate you challenging me on.
And those are?
Youll know them when you see it, she said.
Fes slipped past her, not wanting to stay too close. She unsettled him, and he wasnt afraid to admit that. He would have to let Azithan know about this, especially as he knew that Carter went around collecting items throughout the city that he was interested in. Neither of them knew quite who she worked for, but Fes had a sense that Azithan was a little more aware of what it might be thanhe let on. That was fine with him. He didnt necessarily care to know; all that mattered was that he was paid for his jobs, and Azithanhad never failed to pay.
As he disappeared along the street, blending into the crowd, he caught sight of the merchant once again. He hazarded a glance over his shoulder but didnt see any sign of Carter. She was easy to make out in a crowd with her red hair, but somehow, she did manage to sneak up on him far too often.
Fes crept behind the merchant, watching as he meandered through the crowded market. He really shouldnt be dressed in such bright clothing. The stripes of red and gold made it easy for Fes to find himand to follow. Hopefully,Azithan was right with what he knew and that this man and had what Azithan sought. Fes couldnt detect anything, but his knack for finding real relics wasnt what Azithan wanted from him right now.
A cart nearly crashed into him, and Fes barely managed to duck out of the way. What was that doing here anyway? With the market crowd as thick as it was, there shouldnt be any carts moving through here. It was set at the edge of the city, in an open field designed for the migratory tents from merchants who would come to the cityto trade. Wagons were hidden from view, most of them parked on the other side of the market, tied off so that the animals didnt get in the way. Why was this idiot driving through here?
The man ducked into a tent, and Fes swore under his breath. The tentswould be much harder to follow him into, and much harder to separate the man from the dragon bone.
Fes reached the tent door and parted the fabrics, glancing inside. Most of the tents were colorful, and this was no exception. Striped canvas in nearly a dozen different colors assaulted his eyes. The smell on the inside was pungent, the food eaten by the people from the plains permeating everything. Fes nearly jerked his head back, wanting nothing more than to get away, but the merchant was inside.
So were a dozen other people, who wandered the tables inside. They were shopping, picking up items off the tablesthat created rows upon rows within the tent, though most were intending to purchase, not trade, not the same way as the priest likely intended. Each tent catered to a different market, and this one seemed to sell dragon relicsor replicas of them.
Fes lowered the hood of his cloak. It would do no goodcoming in here looking like a thief. He was careful with his dress not to draw attention, and in a place like this, he would have to be especially cautious.
Where was the dragon blasted man?
There wasnt any other way out of the tent other than the way they had come in, and Fes made certainto keep his eyes on the entrance. If nothing else, he wasnt about to have the man slip away, not now that he finally had him cornered. Azithan wanted the dragon bone this man supposedly had, and Fes had been sent to acquire it. That was his assignment.
He moved behind a pair of people murmuring excitedly about a hunk of stone, still keeping an eye on the entrance. He overheard the merchant they were speaking to telling them how it had been burned by dragon flame, which gave it a particular shape. Fes glanced over their shoulders and saw nothing other than rock. There wasnt anything particularly impressive about the shapethat would make it likely that it was genuinelydragon-shaped. Fes had heard stories of places where the earth had been scorched by dragon flame. Stone had melted, leaving it dripping in sheets. All of that stone had been harvested, brought to places like the emperors palace, and saved. A single fistful of truedragon-burned stonewould actually be worth twenty gold. It was why he prized his daggers.
Fes moved on to another table. This one featured carvings of stone, and many of them bore scratches, with a placard in front proclaiming them to be dragon etched. Fes shook his head. The people of the plains were far too gullible. They believed everything was dragon touched. Considering the creatures were exterminated almost a thousand years ago, anything that really was dragon touched had long ago been scavenged by the dragonwalkersfor the empire or destroyed.
Are you interested in something dragon blessed?
Fes considered the merchant who was speaking to him. He had a deeply tanned face and eyes that were so brown as to be nearly black. Much like the tent, his clothing was stripedin multiple colors. How could he stand wearing something like that?
Now that Fes thought about it, the man hed followed had been similarly dressed.
Could he be a merchant in this tent?
His gaze darted around, looking for the man but seeing nothing. I dont know. Do you have anything worth looking at? Where had the man gone? He couldnt have disappeared, and there was nothing on the other side of this tent.
Maybe there was another way out. He didnt like the idea of disappointing Azithan. The fire mage had been kindto him, but there was no reason he needed Fes. All it would take for him to move on was a failure.
We have many items that are dragon blessed. Look at this stone. You can see these markings. These were made by talons from the great creature as it pierced the stone.
How do I know its not a fake? Fes didnt want to get into a conversation with this man, but if he didnt, there would be no reason for him to stay within the tent. He had to look as if he intendedto purchase. He shifted his cloak, pulling it around to conceal the long daggers he had sheathed on either hip.
A fake? The Bayarsdo not carry fakes. All of these items are dragon blessed.
Fes blinked. Hed heard that name before. The Bayarswere one of the oldest families from the plains. They lived in the far north, practically at the base of the SapiarMountains before the start of the dragon fields. Maybe there was something more to these items. What else do you have?
What he really needed was that bone. Get that, return it to Azithan, and collect the bounty. That was all Fes cared about.
The merchant swept his hands wide, motioning toward the table. What else do we have? You have come to the Bayars tent at the Great Market! Everything we have is incredibly rare.
Fes looked along the table. He doubted that. More likely, everything here was incredibly forged. Fakes were valuable to those gullible enough to believe anyone other than the fire mages would be able to acquire true dragon relics.
What about that one, he said motioning toward what appeared to be a necklace.
It was at the far end of the table, and he was surprised to see a jewel mixed in with all of the other stonework. Most fools who promised dragon blessed goods brought out stone, thinking to pass off nothing more than rock as something trulytouched by the ancient dragons. Given how long it had been since the dragons roamed, it was an easyclaim to make, and it was incredibly difficult to disprove. His own daggers were supposedly made from dragonglass, and considering how hard the blades were, he believed it.
That? Ah, you have quite the eye, sir.
The merchant tottered down to the end of the table. He had a slight limp that gave him a bit of a wobble, and when he returned, he held the necklace in the palm of his hand. Fes thought that it had been stone work, but seeing it up close, it was nothing more than a smooth black sphere.
As the merchant twisted his hands, streaks of blue rolled across the surface. Do you see how the light catches it? A dragon pearl this is. Incredibly rare, and possibly the most valuable item we have.
I thought dragon pearls were larger, Fes said.
Anything larger would be held by the fire mages. What we have is inert, but still quite lovely.
And youre willing to sell it, knowing what it is? Fes asked.
Ah, it is but a small pearl, and as it is inert, no power remains in it. Unfortunately, that makes it not quite as valuable as it once would have been.
Fes squeezed his hand around the pearl. How much?
The merchant beamed at him. You like it?
Fes shrugged. If he failed to recover the bone, at least he could bring Azithan something. He wanted all the dragon relics Fes could find. I can see the appeal.
I would part with it for twenty gold shil.
Fes blinked. Twenty? He handed the necklace back. There was no way that it was worth twenty gold, even were it a dragon pearl. It could be resold for maybe half that if he were lucky, and he doubted that Azithan cared enough about an inert pearl to spend even a quarter of that.
As I said, these are incredibly rare, and the opportunity to acquire them does not come along that often. If you would only
Fes shook his head. I dont have twenty gold.
How much do you have?
Not twenty gold, Fes said, smiling.
Out of the corner of his eye, he saw movement near the back of the tent.
Glancing back and seeing stripes of red on the hat, he concluded it had to be the man hed followed here. Fes tipped his head, nodding to the merchant. I think Im going to have to pass.
If this does not interest you, Im sure I could come up with something that would. I have many items, as I have said. And all of them are dragon blessed. If you would tell me what you would be willing to spend, I think I could find you something that would fit your needs.
Fes shook his head. Only fire mages need something dragon blessed. For the rest of us, its nothing more than decoration.
The merchant took a step back, suddenly eyeing Fes warily. He had made a mistake. He shouldnt have dismissed the merchant so quickly. He knew better than to reveal his feelings, especially in a place like this, with the fools so tied to believing in the dragon artifacts.
Fes nodded, trying to be polite, and slipped around the table, catching a glimpse of the man hed followed. With his thick beard and balding head, he was distinctive enough.
Maybe he could wait, and the man would sell the bone. If he did, then Fes could buy it backfrom the merchantsor steal it, if it were necessary. He wasnt above stealing, especially for an assignment like this, with the payout being what it was.
As he continued to make his way around the outside edge of the tent, he realized that the merchant that hed been talking to trailed him. Did he know what Fes intended? He wasnt necessarily a thief, but he wouldnt knowthat Fes served the emperor, if indirectly.
He continued to let his gaze drift down to the table, making it seem as if he were interested in the items there. If he lingered too long in one spot, he ran the risk of another merchant approaching, or even the first re-engaging him. After the conversation they had, he didnt think the first merchant would be too kind.
It had been a mistake to even bother pausing and looking at the items on the table. Hisfocus was on acquiring that bone.
The man stood near the back of the tent, wearing the brightly colored clothing that had marked him as Fess target. He was locked in conversation with another man. Fes studied the man hed followed, realizing that he wore a necklace with what appeared to be another dragon pearl, this one larger than what he had seen on the table. Fes suspected it was inert, even if it were real. Should he grab that along with the bone?
The other man was dressed more simply. Red embroidered along the sleeves of his gray cloak marked him as a priest. They were found throughout the Arashn Empire, though rarely spent much time in the city. Priests were tolerated in Anuhr, but not as respected as they were in places outside the city, placesthat still believed the empire was wrong for destroying the dragons.
Fes edged closer. He would get that bone.
You understand what this means, the priest was saying.
Fes looked down at the table, shifting his feet. He needed to be able to listen, yet at the same time,he didnt want to draw the attention of one of the merchants. He moved back, positioning himself so that he could listen. Standing behind an older couple who were murmuringas they handled different pieces made for excellent cover.
We need to confirm that it is real, the man was saying.
Which is why you came to me?
If anyone would be able to determine its authenticity, it would be a Priest of the Flame.
The priest bowed his head a moment before looking around. Your faith is appreciated. His gaze drifted toward Fes.
Did he know that Fes had followed the other to the tent? It had been difficult to find the man in the first place, especially when the only thing Azithan had given him had been wordthat hed been in the market.
Fes shifted, wrapping his cloak around himself again, twisting so that he stayed out of view. He was of half a mind to pull up the hood of his cloak, but doing that would only draw more attention, not less.
How long before you would be able to make the journey? the merchant asked.
I will need time to prepare. What you ask will take time and might require alliances that arent fully formed.
Im not certain how much time we have, the other man said, his voice a tight whisper. Had this all been a setuptoa meeting? We already fear that others will learn of this. We have been doing what we can to protect it, but if those with the right kind of power come after us
I will do what I can, the priest said.
If its what we think, then we are one step closer to returning them.
Fes stiffened. Was that what this was about? The priests often preached that the dragons would return and that by bringing the bones together, they could resurrect them, though they never shared how that might be possible.
If that was what they believed, then they really were simple.
Fes sidled a step closer to them.
I will need something to convince the others, the priest said.
I understand. Take this as a demonstration of what weve discovered. The man pulled a longlength of bone out of his pocket, surprising Fes.
Now was his chance. If he didnt act now, the priest would get it, and it would be harder taking the bone from a priest.
Fes darted forward and grabbed it before the priest could. When he turned, the way was blocked. Two merchants watched him. One was the same man who had given him the eye after he had made the mistake of revealing his feelings about the dragon artifacts. Turning the other way put him in the path of the priest and the merchant.
That left through the tent.
Fes slipped the length of bone into the pouch hidden beneath his cloak. He grabbed his daggers and reached the tent wall. He stabbed through it, cutting the fabric. One benefit of dragonglass was that it could cut through nearly anything.
Out on the street, crowds pushed around him. Fes slipped into the crowds, needing to disappear as quickly as possible. He pulled the hood of his cloak up over his head and ducked down, better to disguise his height. He kept one of his daggers unsheathed but slipped the other back into the sheath, not needing to accidentally stab someone as he made his way through the streets. He rubbed his finger along the hilt as he often did, feeling a soothing relief from it. There was something to the comfort of having these daggers, the only thing that he still had from his father.
He needed to get out of the market.
There was too much of a crowd here, and it made it difficult to move quickly.
He glanced over his shoulder. Three merchants raced toward him, shouldering people out of the way and approaching more quickly than he could escape.
Fes ducked between a pair of tents. He was still in the middle of the market, the place far too enormous to easily escape. And now hed stolen an item from one of the merchants.
Hewasnt a thief, not that he hadnt stolen on behalf of Azithan before. A better term would be a tracker, a collector of items of value for Azithan. And now hedrevealed himself. Maybe that was a mistake, especially with how many people jammed in around him, and even for what Azithan would pay.
Someone grabbed his sleeve, andFes spun, jerking his arm free.
Carter smiled at him. What do you have, Fes?
How had she kept pace with him? Its nothing. Now get out of the way.
Fes danced around, spinning out of the way, and crashed back into the crowd in the street. It was better to push people out of the way than to run the risk of one of the merchants reaching him.
Someone shoved him, andFes went stumbling, staggering forward until he managed to catch himself. Someone kicked him, andhe grunted, rolling out of the way, and slashed with the dagger.
As he got to his feet expecting Carter to continue her attack, he faced an average-sized man. Could he be with Carteror the priest? Hedidnt really want to cut down anyone in the market. It wasnt that he couldnt use the daggersafter an upbringing like his, he was more than competent with thembut he had no interest in hurting someone unnecessarily. Azithan offered a certainsort of protection in the city, but there were limits.
The man grabbed his arm and Fes tried to jerk free, but the man had a firmgrip. One of Carters men, probably. The priest wouldnt have employed anyone to attack.
Not a good idea, he said. He stabbed with the dagger, just deep enough into the flesh of the mans arm that he would let go.
The man cried out, andFes darted off, slipping back into the crowd.
Fes wiped the dagger on his pants before sheathing it. Blood didnt go well with blades, and he didnt like contaminating his sheath with it. It was easier to clean his pants than to clean out the sheath.
Azithan owed him for this one.
He pressed forward into the crowd. Those nearest him glanced over, glaring at him.
This wasnt the way the job was supposed to go. Then again, none of the jobsever went quite the way they were supposed to go. Most of the time, Fes ended up in some sort of trouble. Azithan sent him after difficultto acquire items, and given Fess reputation, that made sense, but there were times when he wished that he didnt have that reputationand that he wasnt so successful. Of course, if he werent so successful, he wouldnt be as useful to Azithan.
The edge of the market was just up ahead. All hehad to do was get a little farther, away from Carter, and he could make a run for the palace.
A shout caused him to turn.
That was a mistake.
When he turned around, the priest from the tent was looking at him. How had he reached him so quickly?
There had to be a more accessibleand less crowdedway through the city.
Fes withdrew the dagger from his sheath, holding it out. Im sorry, but I have a job.
The priest glanced from Fes to the dagger. The artifacts belong to the dragons.
Im pretty sure the fire mages would disagree.
Almost too late, Fes realized someone barreled toward him. The size of the man and his clothing suggested he was hired by Carter. He spun, sending a kick that sent the attacker flying backward, but the dagger went flying from his hand landing directly in front of the priest.
Thats mine, Fes said.
The priest held it out in front of him. Fes was tempted to reach for his other daggerbut decided against it. He lunged for the priest, but the man backed away. Where did you acquire such an artifact?
Its mine, he said again.
And what you carry in your pouch is mine. A trade?
A debate warred within him. He wanted the fee that Azithan promised, but he also didnt want to lose his dagger. He prized it, but mostly because it was the only thing he had of his family.
Still, the moneyand the risk of disappointing Azithan.
Two men approached, nearingthe priest. Carter trailed behind them.
It didnt leave him with any choice.
Fes spun, racing off toward the edge of the market.
When he reached it, he glanced back and saw the priest with several others around him, simplywatching him. Carter and her men had disappeared. He would need to move quickly to stay ahead of her as he raced toward the palace.
Fes fixed the priest in his mind. He would find him again, and he would reacquire his dagger. That was worth much to him. Finding a priest in Anuhr couldnt be that hard, could it?
The priest watched him, holding on to the dagger. With the sunlight reflecting off the blackened blade, it seemed to glow somewhat. Fes rubbed the hilt of his other daggerand spun away.
Outside the market, he turned away, racing along the street until any thought of pursuit died off. From here, he could make out the palace in the distance, though he was still far from it. He ran through the narrow streets lined with two-story homes all crammed together, weaving around people walking through the side streets Fes preferred so as toavoid the chaos of the widerstreets. As he ran, he reached into the pack and pulled the bone out. It was warm, which made him think it was a real dragon bone. And it had been offered in exchange for something else.
Did Azithan know what the merchants wanted from the priest? Most likely he did. If he didnt, that knowledge might be valuable to him, and more reason to keep Fes around.
He would be paid for this job. And he would see that Azithan paid even more than what he had agreed. Losing his dagger was worth an extra gold or two.
Fes was holding onto the bone, rolling it in his hands, running it along the surface when the door to the room opened. The bone was mostly smooth, but there were strange striations in it that he could feel though he couldnt see them. It seemed as if the warmth he felt seeped from those striations. Hed held replica bones often enough, but this didnt seem to be a copy. The real thing, then.
No. Dont get up on my behalf, Azithan said as he entered.
Fes looked over. He didnt bother to move his leg, which was draped over the arm of the chair. Like everything in the room, it was ornate, decorated with silver gilding worked into the arms. In Azithans rooms, everything had a certaingilding to it.
Why should I get up? Your chairs are much more comfortable than any that I have.
I should think so. Considering what you have come from, thats not all too surprising.
Azithan stopped in front of him. He was draped in a thick maroon robe, and he wore a gold collar marked with symbols of the empire, including the dragon, the symbol for the emperor. Azithan reached for the bone, but Fes pulled it back, twisting in his seat.
Not before you pay me.
Azithan looked hurt. Have I ever failed to pay you?
Its not a failure to pay so much as it is the terms of our arrangement.
Azithan regarded him for a moment with a dangerous gleam in his eye. Have you decided to change those terms?
I lost a dagger.
Azithan turned away, leaving Fes sitting with the bone on his lap, and made his way to the massive tile-framed hearth. A warm fire crackled within, andthere came the scent of cinnamon on the air. That fit Azithan far too well.
A dagger? Thats what your change of focus is about? Why should I care about a dagger?
Because I care about a dagger, Fes said, peeling his leg off the chair and twisting so that he could see Azithan better. The man had his back to him, and he did something near the hearth that created a strange mix of smells. Not only was there the cinnamon, but now there was something else, almost a hint of mint or perhaps pine.
How much was the dagger worth to you?
Fes debated what number to throw out. If he went too high, he ran the risk of offending Azithan. The only reason he cared whether or not he did that was because Azithancontinued to send jobs his way. He needed those jobs. They paid well, and the alternative was much worse. Besides, Azithan had been kindto him.
Probably three gold shils.
Azithan glanced over, a trace of a smile curving his mouth. Three gold? I have a hard time believing that you would carry anything quite so valuable onyou, Fezarn.
Fes tensed. He hated it when anyone used his full name, but there was something almost possessive about the way that Azithan said it. Thats what its worth. And I lost it. I could have traded the bone for the daggerthe priest was willing to do thatbut
You wouldnt have traded the bone for the dagger, Azithan said, turning back to the fire. There came a flash of light that faded. A trail of orange smoke drifted into the room. Had Azithan added something to the fire, or was this a demonstration of his fire magic? The man wasa fire mage, though Fes never saw him use that kind of magic. You wouldnt want to have failed in a task. I know you well enough to know that you would hate that, Fezarn.
Fes looked down at the bone. He ran his hand along the surface, feeling the strange grooves. Azithan was right. He always completed his tasks and had so far never failed. That was another reason that Azithan continued to hire him. Did you know Id find this?
Was it with the priest?
Fes hesitated. The bone wasnt withthe priest. It was his payment.
I dont know. Azithan waited, but Fes didnt have anything more to say. He hadnt learned of the task the merchant wanted of the priest and had thought the bone all he cared about. Is it authentic?
Azithans face tightened a moment as he did something. Fes could feel it as tensioninthe air. It appears to be.
Five gold shilsof value? Fes asked.
Azithan chuckled. Is it five now? I thought the agreement was for me to pay four. Between the increase in price along with what you are quoting me for your lostdagger, Im beginning to question whether you are to be trusted, Fezarn. Azithan turned to him, clasping his hands before him. You are a collector for the empire. Is that not worth something to you?
Is that what I am now? He had been Azithans collector. Was he getting promoted? It wasnt that Fes would argue with such a promotion. There was value in serving the empire, even if he didnt feel any particular allegiance to it.
Azithan studied him. Youve served me long enough to know your worth.
It had been nearly a year since Fes had stopped needing to take other jobs. A year spent working with Azithan, assigned to track down items of various value, though none of them of value to Fes. A year where he hadnt needed to fear where moneywould come from or whether he would have anything to eat. A year since he had neededto serve Horus.
I dont really know what Im worth to you.
You work for the empire, which gives you a certain level of credibility that you wouldnt otherwise have. I think that matters more than you give it credit for. Azithan watched him for a moment before turning away and heading toward the back of the room. When he returned, he tossed a sack onto Fess lap. That should more than cover for your missing dagger. There are plenty of places that you can go to purchase a replacement. Now, if you dont mind? He reached out for the bone, andFes handed it over to him.
I might be able to buy another dagger, but it wont be the same. Fes glanced at the coin purse in his lap. He untied the strings and flipped it open and began sorting through the coins that Azithan had offered. He reached ten, andthere were still a few coins remaining. More than hed agreed. Then again, Azithan had always been fair with him.
Azithan brought the bone close to his face, studying it. A strange tingling irritated Fess arms for a moment before fading. Azithan smiled to himself as he brought the bone to the back of the room and set it down.
Is it what you were hoping it would be?
A dragon bone is valuable.
To a fire mage, Fes said, watching Azithan.
You dont think others would find it valuable?
I dont know. Valuable enough the merchant thought the priest would accept a job for him.
Azithan straightened. Do you have any idea what job that might be?
Not particularly. When I saw the bone, I thought thats what you were after.
The fire mage watched Fes for a long moment. The bone has value. Thats why you were paid, Fezarn.
You wanted to know why the priest came to the city. Azithan had not only known about the bone, but he must have known about the meeting with the priest.
Azithan smiled tightly. Now you begin to think. Yes. That would have been more valuable to me.
Fes glanced down at the bag of coins. How much more valuable would it have been? Azithan had paid a ransom for just the bonewould he have paideven more?
I could go back to the merchant
It will likely be too late. Now that they know you were there, they will have connected you to me.
I could try.
Azithan frowned at him before returning to stand in front of the fire. Tell me, Fezarn, what is it that you saw when you were there?
I told you what I saw.
And you gave no thought to why a merchant would pay a priest with a priceless dragon relic?
He should have. How would the merchants have acquired an actual bone? I thought most of these were lost, scavenged long ago.
Not scavenged, Azithan said, derision in the way he used the term. Most of the fragments of bone were harvested by the dragonwalkers for the empire centuries ago, but there are those who still know how to find them. They belong to the empire to ensure its protection.
Dragonwalkers. If the stories were real, they had a place of esteem when they existed, prized for their ability to crawl through the Dragon Plains and claim the bones for the empire during the Great War a thousand years ago. Those bones had been the key to defeating the dragons and bringing peace. In the time since the last of the dragons, the entire empire had known peace. Though rumors regularlyspoke of the threat of attacks, the mere presence of the fire mages held them at bay.
The dragonwalkers were gone, and those who still searched for relics were considered scavengers, not sharing the same esteem as the ancientdragonwalkers. How could they, when most scavengerssold replica dragon bones to the gullible?
When was the empire really threatened?
More often than you know, Azithan said softly. The threat of power maintains peace. We must always beprepared.
For what? Toulenborders us to the west, and they want nothing but peace. We dont know whats beyond the northern mountains, and the sea borders us on the east and south. The empire is safe, Azithan. The small nations that had once existed had long ago been swallowed by the empire so that none really knew what they once had been.
Some believe that the dragons will one day return, Azithan said.
Youre starting to sound like the priest.
There are far too many stories that suggest the possibility. That is why the empire remains prepared.
And the priests will return them? They might have some magic, but from what Ive seen, I doubt its enough for that.
I suppose that would be true. The Priests of the Flame believe the dragons never were completely exterminated, and that they simply have chosen to mask themselves. No one disputes that the dragons had power, though if creatures of such strength were to be able to conceal their presence, its unlikely they would have managed to do so for the last thousand years.
Theyre gone, and the priests think that bringing their bones back together will cause the dragons to rise once more.
Ill admit it is unlikely. Azithan watched him for a moment, and then he flashed a smile. You did well, Fezarn. Perhaps you even earned the gold that I paid you this time. Next time, wait to grab the bone until you have learned what they are really after.
I lost my dagger toget that for you.
Azithan nodded toward the door. Go find yourself another dagger. You should have enough money to buy whatever quality of blade you want.
The fire mage turned back to the fire and Fes glared at his back. The money might be able to buy a quality blade, but it wouldnt replace the daggerhisdagger.
Maybe he should have traded the bone for the dagger. Azithan wouldnt have known. Fes glanced at the bone, sighing briefly, and then made his way out of Azithans room. He headed out of the palace and back out onto the streets.
In this part of the city, there was a chaotic sort of activity. Shops had sprung up, one after another, each vying for the money that spilled out of the palace. Plenty of people served the palace, and plenty of wealth poured into the city. It wasnt quite as chaotic as it was in the Great Market, but there still was a certain sense of excitement. Most of the buildings were decorated with dragons, marking their allegiance to the emperor and trying to curry his favor. Those decorations became less frequent the farther he went from the palace.
Fes started toward his home. He didnt have much, little more than a room, but it was his. Were he not so dependent on Azithan and the jobs that he took, he might not have bothered to pay for even that, but for now, with Azithan hiring him as often as he did, Fes didnt want to be too far from the center of the city and didnt want to be too far from the offers of employment.
Azithan was right. He didneed to replace his dagger. It wouldnt do for him to have only one, mainlyas there were times when he had needed both. He knew just such a place that he could go but doubted that Tracen would have anything for him. He was a skilled metalsmith, and in highenough demand that it would be luck were he to have a dagger. At least he could put in an order. It might take a long time, but Fes didnt know when his next job would come.
As he meandered through the city, he passed through a busy section. There were carts out on the street, with people selling food or other items. It was an outdoor market, one that attempted to rival the Great Market, but there wasnt the same vibrancy within the city as there was at the edge of the city. From here, he could continue onward, reach the slums where hed spent so much of his youth, but hedavoided returning over the last year, wanting to stay as far from the slums as he could.
When he reached Tracens shop, he stepped inside, getting away from the din of the street. He heard a hammering in the back of the shop, and Fes made his way toward his friend. They had known each other for years, back when Tracen had still been in the slums and before hed managed to find an apprenticeship and get out. He was the only one Fes remained in touch with from those days.
Tracen looked up, his hammer paused before striking the metal. Fes. No assignment today?
There was. I finished.
Oh yeah? And what bizarreitem did he have you tracking this time?
I thought it was a bone, but I think there was more to it. Azithan had been after whatever the merchants knew about, the reason they wanted the priest to do something for them. He might have to pay another visit to the market before the Bayars disappeared.
Tracen said his hammer down and looked over at Fes as he wiped a bead of sweat off his forehead. As in a dragon bone? Tracen whistled softly. Thats got to be worth I dont even know what it would be worth.
Well, I did steal it from a priest.
Tracen came around the forge and leaned on one of the tables that displayed the knives hed made. All of them were of high-qualitysteel, though many were simple. A basket near the far corner contained swords that he had made. Neither wasquite the right weapon for Fes. He preferred something of a little longer blade, but not so long that he had to worry about cutting himself with it, not the way that he would if he carried a sword.
What are you doing stealing from priests? Do you really need that kind of luck?
Fes chuckled. What kind of luck is that?
It cant be good, not if youre stealing from a priest.
I think Ive already had enough bad luck.
You cant keep using what happened to your parents as an excuse.
No? I thought that I could use that as often as I wanted.
Tracen snorted. It is tragic, but I think you need to move on.
I have moved on. Thats what brought me here. Not that he had anyplace else he could have gone. Had he not come to Anuhr, Fes suspected he would have died.
No, youve thrown in with the emperor.
Not the emperor. Azithan.
Tracen arched a brow. Theyre pretty much the same, arent they?
Fine, but Id rather have the stability of a job and the safety of knowing that were anything to happen, I have a connection inthe palace.
A connection that may not care about you if things turn sour. Will Azithan watch out for you? The emperor? You need someone who cares about you and honest work.
Fes smiled at Tracen. Thats sweet of you, but I dont think that youre my type.
Tracen shot him an annoyed look and return to the forge and picked up his hammer. He began beating on the metal, striking it with a steady rhythmic below. Something was soothingabout listening to him as he worked, He could never know the sort of comfort that Tracen had while hammering metal, shaping it into knives or swords or any of the dozen other things that he had made. Then again, Tracen led something of a boring life, and it was one that Fes wasnt sure that he could ever stomach.
You know what I mean, he said while hammering. You didnt want to stay with her
It would never have worked, and we both knew it. Besides, this is a steady job.
Steady doesnt mean that its a good job. Think of all the things hesasked you to track for him.
Fes pulled out the coin purse and shook it. But he pays.
Tracen glanced over. There is that.
Which is why I came.
You didnt come to visit with me?
Fes shrugged. You know how much I enjoy chatting with you.
You only come when you need something.
Thats not true, and you know it. Besides, you say that as if its a bad thing.
Its not a bad thing, but Tracen shook his head. What do you need?
A dagger? I could make you a sword. Thats infinitely more valuable than a dagger. I wouldnt even charge you that much for it.
Because you already have dozens of swords.
I have plenty, but that doesnt mean that they werent time-consuming to make. Everything that I create takes time. I put everything that I can into it, so it doesnt matter how long it takes to create.
I wasnt criticizing.
You werent, but too many have and complain about the pace with which I make the swords. What can I say? I know how to work efficiently.
Which is why Im asking you for a dagger. I need something that will fit my sheath, he said, pulling the sheath off his belt, and I need something with a sturdy blade. It doesnt have to be ornate or even all that fancy.
I lost one.
One of your daggers?
Fes nodded. When I was chasing the bone for Azithan. I lost one.
And since youre coming here, it seems as if he paid for what youve lost.
Fes flashed a smile. You are the best.
I am. And it would be helpful if you would spread that rumor a little more to get me more business.
I dont think youre hurting for business.
Tracen looked around the shop. With all of the items that he had stacked up, Fes could tell that Tracen remained busy. Maybe toobusy. Would he have time to make the dagger?
Im getting to the point where I need to bring on someone else.
There it was. The comment hedmade about honest work finally made sense. Im not looking for work, Fes said.
The offer is there.
I like what I do. Im good at it.
You like what you do because you get to be by yourself. You dont have to be. Its okay for you to care about someone other than
Fes raised his hand, cutting off Tracen. Can you make me a dagger or not?
Ill make you a dagger. It will be the nicest damned dagger that youd ever imagine.
Thats what Im hoping for.
When do you need it by?
Fes shrugged. I havent got another job, not yet. How long do you need?
Considering the quality that youd be looking for, probably a couple days? I guess that means you need to avoid getting into a fight.
Fes slipped the other dagger out of his sheath and flipped it forward before sliding it back into the sheath. I think Im okay.
Okay. With just that one? If I didnt know better, I would think that you were practically naked.
Sometimes it feels like that.
You plan to pay?
How much do you need for the dagger?
Normally I charge two silver rasnfor something like that, but I could get by with charging you just one.
Fes flipped a gold coin to Tracen. He caught it before it came crashing down into one of the flames. Keep the rest. Im sure Ill have something else Ill need from you.
He really does have you well paid, doesnt he?
What does that mean?
You dont even care how much youre spending on daggers. I could make you three for that price.
Then make me three.
Tracen grinned and stuffed the gold coin into his pocket. No. I think Ill stick with just the one. Besides, would you do with three daggers?
Be three times as safe.
Its not you that I worry about. Its everyone else.
No one else has any reason to worry about me.
They do if you run around with three daggers. As Fes started to leave, Tracen called out to him. Dont forget the offer.
How can I forget it?
Tracen grinned, andFes left the shop, heading back into the chaos of the city to see if he could chase down his dagger.
The entrance to the market was less busy at this time of night. Fes watched, debating whether to reenter, but decided to justsit outside and watch for signs of the priest. Hed feared that finding him would be difficult in a city the size of Anuhr, but a priest didstand out. Thankfully Azithan had paid him well enough to buy information.
He shouldnt have come after the priest, but regardless of what Azithan said, the dagger mattered to him. Losing it would be like losing his parents all over again.
It was lateand other than the moon, there was very little light. A faint wind blew through, swirling around his hair and his jacket, casting a coolerair to the night and carrying the markets exotic smells of spices and treats and dozens of other things that were not typicallyfound in Anuhr.
Searching the market for the priest wouldnt be easy, but what did he have other than time, especially now that he had to wait on Tracen to make him a dagger? Besides, it wasnt that he had a job waiting for him, and if he discovered what the priest was after, he didnt doubt that Azithan would pay.
A group of men headed toward the market. Fes caught up to them, staying barely a pace or two behind them, but close enough that it would appear to an outsider that he belonged with that group. They were chatting about activity in the palace, and about women that they knew, but there was a comment that caught him.
Theyre moving troops north, I hear.
Thats nothing but a rumor, one of the men said.
Theres a rebellion.
Theres always a rebellion. The emperor has ruled long enough that there is always someone who thinks to remove him from power.
One of the other menhushed him, but the speaker looked over. Its not like Im saying that I want to overthrow the emperor. Skies of Fire! Why would I want something like that?
You need to be careful with those sorts of comments. Its bound to get you into The man turned and seemed to notice Fes. His eyes widened slightly, and Fes flashed a smile. He doubted that it made him look any less threatening. He was talltaller than many, though there were plenty of people in the city who were taller than him. Time spent running around had made him fit and muscular, which the cloak he wore obscured.
He didnt want to have these men questioning his presence, so he turned away and headed toward the nearest tent. Lights glowed from each of the tentsalong the street. Trading would go on all night, maximizing each traders time in the city. Eventually, they would go and would be replaced by another. It had been that way for centuries. The Great Market constantlychanging, constantlychurning, and the merchants within it always changing over.
He found a tent that had more activity than most, and he stepped inside. Rows of tables were set up, and jewelry and linens and pottery were on the table. Why would this tent be so appealing to so many people?
When he saw the merchant, he thought that he understood. The man had dark skin and tight curly black hair, and the colorful jacket he wore practically shouted that he came from Toulen. It was the nation to their western border, and goods that came from there were often prized.
Fes scanned the table, looking at the various artifacts. The jewelry was interesting. Most of it was beaded and painted with bright colors, much like the Bayars tent. Some appeared to be carved out of bone, and one necklace had a large horn hanging from it, likely the tusk of some strange animal found only in Toulen. The stone carvings were incredibly intricate and made in strangeposes with people set as if they were praying or with arms out as if trying to balance. Fes was drawn to one such sculpture and lifted it, finding the stone incredibly slick and smooth.
What do you think of the totem?
He looked up to see the merchant watching him. The man had dark brown eyes that were surprisingly warm. His voice carried the rhythmic accent of his people. Fes had interacted with the people of Toulen several times before and had always been treated fairly. Even in Anuhr, that was unusual.
Its incredible craftsmanship.
You made this?
The merchant spread his hands out, motioning to the table. I made all of this.
That surprised him. Oftentimes, merchants would band together, consolidating so that they could bring an entire tent worth of items to the Great Market. Very rarely was a single merchant responsible for everything inside it. Then again, given the distance from Toulen, it was possible that he had taken the entire journey to make most of these items. And it would likely be worth it. A man like this, with itemssuch as what Fes saw here, would be able to sell out of his supplies quickly, likely earning enough money to more than makeit worth it to have ventured this far.
Whats the significance of the pose?
The man smiled as he stepped closer to the table. He paused and looked around the tent, but others seemed content with merely wandering around the tables, browsing as they scanned the items. There is much significance to each totem. Some are designed for luck. He plucked one of the sculptures, this out of a brown stonewith the figurine appearing to kneel. Others are designed for goodwill. This one was a figurine with the hands clasped together, bowing. And still others are designed for strength. He pointed to the one Fes held.
This one had the arms outstretched, and Fes wondered why it would be symbolic of strength. There was nothing about it that screamed strength, but perhaps it meant something to the people of Toulen.
You strike me as a man who doesnt need strength.
Fes replaced the totem back on the table, chuckling. Who doesnt need strength?
Most men would benefit from wisdom.
Im not most men.
Are you saying you have enough wisdom?
Fes looked up and met the mans eyes. The man smiled at him, and Fes couldnt help but smile back. I dont know that many would accuse me of wisdom.
Then why do you have no need?
Its not that I dont have the need, its just that Im not sure Im a fit for wisdom.
Ah, well that is entirely different. Perhaps with your understanding of that, you have shown more wisdom than most.
Fes motioned to one of the totems. It seemed the figurine was twisted, as if ready to spin. What of this one?
That is one that calls for blessing with fighting.
Fes smiled to himself. Thats the kind of thing I could use.
You find yourself fighting?
More often than I want.
You dont have to embrace a life of violence. The Great Ones know that each of us can choose our own path.
Its a little late for me to be choosing my path.
So you allow another to choose it for you?
Not that, either. Im just saying
The man smiled again. I dont mean to challenge you. Its just that these totems are meant to help with reflection. And if you find that you need strength with fighting, then perhaps you do, but perhaps if you feel that you dont need wisdom, its possible that might be a better fit for you.
Fes looked along the table, and as he did, he saw a man grabbing one of the items, and slipping it into his pocket.
Excuse me for a moment, he said. He stepped away from the merchant and headed toward the younger man. I saw that, he said behind him. Most of the time, I probably wouldnt care, but He liked the Toulen merchant. Not that it mattered to the man, but it mattered to Fes.
The man turned, and he glowered at Fes. Move.
Is it worth your hand?
The man continued to glare at Fes and tried to push past him.
Is it worth your hand? Fes asked again.
You dont look like you serve the Dragon Emperor, so you would have no authority.
Fes smiled atthe man. If only he knew. No, but the people of Toulen have harsh rules for thieves. And in the Great Market, thieving is left to the individual merchant to determine how to deal, depending on culture and custom. I will ask you again: Do you value your hand?
The man tried to push past him again, and this time Fes grabbed him by the wrist, spinning him around, and dipped his hand into his pocket, pulling the carving out and setting it back on the table. He checked his other pockets but didnt find anything else. When he was done, he pushed the man away from him, sending him staggering from the tent.
The merchant watched the entire thing with only a hint of amusement on his face.
I havent taken a hand in many years, he said. Perhaps I should take yours for stealing my prize.
I figured you wouldnt want the hassle of reporting it to the emperor, Fes said. That was the only requirement, though few enough bothered to report it. For that matter, few enough bothered to report thieving at all. It likely happened frequently in the Great Market, but there wasnt a whole lot that could be done to prevent it.
Then I should thank you. Perhaps you have shown more wisdom than you believe ofyourself.
Fes snorted. Thats unlikely. He looked down at the carving, wondering what the man might have grabbed that would have been so interesting. It was a sculpture of a dragon, and incredibly detailed. It was carved out of a reddish stone or possibly an incredibly dense wood. Either way, the carving was smooth, sanded or stropped so that it was silky to the touch. The dragon had its wings parted, spread out, and the four legs were arched, almost as if preparing to pounce.
Did you make this as well?
Not that. That didnt come from here.
Fes squeezed his eyes shut. Im sorry. I grabbed the wrong item. Where had the man hidden the totem?
Its likely that was stolen as well. I can speak to the guards and send word to the Dragon Emperor.
Fes shook his head. Its not necessary. I know someone who can see that the merchant is compensated. He suspected that for a sculpture like this, Azithan would be happy to pay, and likely more than the sculpturewas worth. If nothing else, Azithan was more than happy to spend the emperors money.
How much for the sculpture for wisdom? he asked.
The Toulen man studied him for a moment. I think that perhaps you would be better served by something like this, he said pulling a different totem from the table. It was one where the pose indicated movement, though as Fes stared at it, he wasnt entirelysurewhy he felt that way. Something about the totem tugged on him, almost as if he was meant to have it.
What is this one for?
There are many possible benefits for this totem, but in your case, I think that it is perhaps for insight.
He arched a brow at the man. Are you saying I lack insight?
Many of us lack insight, but what I suggest is that you would benefit from looking inward. We can all use a certain measure of self-discovery.
And how much?
Consider it my gift.
But I didnt stop the thief.
You didnt, but you tried. To the people of Toulen, that is often just as valuable.
Fes took the sculpture and twisted it in his hand. He didnt have many belongings, and certainly nothing quite like this. Thank you.
The sound of chanting came from outside the tent, andFes turned, frowning.
They often come through here after dusk, the merchant said.
Often? Fes asked, turning to him. It was surprising that the merchant from Toulen would know what happened in the market often. How long have you been here?
Two weeks. Long enough to have recognized a pattern. The priests lead people through here.
That might be why the priest had returned to the market. They wouldnt be quite a tolerated in the rest of the city, but in the Great Market, few would object to the presence of priests. Im surprised that you would have been here quite so long.
Items sell quickly, but they are replaceable, and I have plenty of product, the merchant said with a smile. Besides, I have to be prepared for when thieves decide to dip into my supplies. The merchant chuckled. Thank you.
Thanks to you, as well.
Fes reached the entrance to the tent, peeking his head outside. A priest led a line of people through the market, but not the one he looked for. Several of the people walking with the priest carried lanterns while others carried torches, and they all held them up, letting the fire and the flame glow in the night. It pushed back the darkness, the same way they believed the dragons once pushed back the darkness.
Fools, all of them. When the dragons had lived, they would have been terrible creatures, and there were plenty of stories of the dragons hunting and destroying cities, not pushing back the darkness or helping those less fortunate, not the way the priests seemed to believe. It was better the fire mages now used their magic for defenseof the ArashnEmpire.
The entire line moved past, and Fes stayed off to the side of the road, not wanting to get into the middle of the procession. He had never seen anything quite like it, but there was an element of ceremonyto it. Others joined as the procession moved through, trailing after them, and their chanting added to that of the others.
It wasnt led by the priest he looked for, but maybe he could lead him to the other.
Fes weaved around a series of tents, coming between them as he tried to get ahead of the procession, wanting to watch. If he could see them, see where they were going, he thought that he could perhaps discover where the priest had gone.
They made their way to the edge of the market, and from there they stepped out into the empty plains. At night, there was something eerie about the darkness and the emptiness of the plain. Shadows swirled around the gathered wagons, and the horses that were corralled stomped and occasionally made snorting sounds that disrupted the quiet.
The priest led the procession beyond the wagons and out into the darkness. They formed a circle when they stopped, joining others who came out from a different place between the tents. Fes didnt see any sign of the priest who had taken his dagger.
The chanting continued, though it was in a languagehe didnt recognize. Every so often, they would punctuate the chanting, raising the fire into the night, and their voices would soar, rising higher and higher. Fes listened, annoyed more than anything. It was a waste. How much time and energy was spent on such things?
Too much. That was the easy answer.
The dragons were gone. As far as Fes was concerned, it should stay that way, with the fire mages providing the empire with their protection.
If only they had been around to protect his parents, but theyd been lost making what should have been a safe crossing through the empire, leaving him and his brother Benjanorphaned and forcing Fes into the streets of Anuhr to survive. This city had become his home, but it wasnt supposed to be his home. And after losing Benjan
He forced those thoughts away. It was only times like this when he didnt have a task that he thought about what hed lost. He needed to find the priest, reclaim his dagger, and wait for Azithans next assignment. Sitting here wouldnt help him with either.
The chanting continued, the voices splitting the night, and Fes turned away.
Fes wasnt typically the person to track people through the citymost of his jobs involved things rather than peoplebut Azithan had claimed it would be worth his time, and the jobsthe fire mage hired him for were always worth his money. If nothing else, it distracted Fes from his failed search for the priest.
It had been nearly two days since hed seen him, long enough that he could have disappeared from the city. Taking another job might distract him, but his heart really wasnt in it. The longer he went without finding his dagger, the more irritated he became.
The job was simple. Follow the woman through the city.
Follow her only, Azithan had said.
Just follow her? That had been an odd assignment. Nothing else.
If all goes well, that will be all you will need to do.
And if all doesnt go well?
Then you may intervene.
You want her to travel safely.
Azithan had nodded.
Then why not hire someone else? Im not an enforcer.
No, but you have other skills. Besides, I think you are more than adequate for this assignment.
Fes hadnt argued. Not with the price offered, but as he sat here, he had to wonder what about the woman was worth Azithans protection.
What does she mean to you? hed asked.
Azithan had frowned. She has something to do with your last assignment. As you were mostlysuccessful there, I thought you would prefer a chance to prove yourself again.
The priest? hed asked, hopeful.
I dont think shes with him, but its possible they are connected.
Now that he saw her, he decided that she didnt look like the merchants. They had a particularly colorful style of dress and hers didnt seem any different than others in the city, mostly unremarkable.
Other than her dark ravencolored hair and her incredible beauty. She was incredibly striking. Fes had never seen anyone quite like her but didnt think that it was her attractiveness that had appealed to Azithan. The fire mage didnt strike him as someone who was all that concerned about external beauty. Azithan cared more about items of power. With those, he could probably buy or coerce his way to acquiring beauty like this.
Fes had to go about it the old-fashioned way, which meant that he rarely had a chance with someone like this. The last beauty hed been with had left him. Or hed left her. Either way, he hadnt seen Alison in the better part of a year. It was best that way for both of them. He took jobs that actually paid, and he didnt get in the wayof her progressing with Horus.
As he tracked Azithans woman, Fes decided that it was possible she was someone Azithan had hired. Fes didnt harbor any misbeliefs that he was the only person who was hiredfor jobs, especiallywhen there was value in the end result. No, Azithan had a stable of people who hehired, and while Fes liked to think that he was the most skilled of them, that didnt mean that there werent others who had a similar level of skill. Not all would be trackers. Some would be informants, and some would be enforcers.
She turned down a side street, disappearing into an alleyway. From here, there werent many other places that she could go. There were shops, and there were other homes, but there would be limitations to how easilyshe could escape.
When she disappeared into one of the buildings, Fes waited, lingering on the street. She was gone for an hour, maybe more, before she reappeared. This time, she was carrying something in a small pack that she hadnt been carryingbefore.
If that was what Azithan had been after, he could have said so. Instead, hed instructed Fes to follow. Nothing more.
Could that be what Azithan wanted? Was she a courier?
Fes trailed after her. When she turned a corner, there was a flicker of movement out of the corner of his eye that caught his attention.
Two men approached, and one of them had a sword unsheathed. They were street thieves; at least, he thought so at first. The way they headed straight toward the woman made him wonder if they might be something else.
Could Carter be after the same things as Azithanagain?
Fes swore under his breath. And here he had begun to hope the job would be easy.
He positioned himself so that they would have to come through him toreach her. He continued to trail after her, not wanting to lose sight of her as she headed through the city, and when she turned a corner, moving out onto a busier street, the men tried to lunge around him, but Fes stuck out his foot, knocking one over. The other spun, swinging his sword around.
Fes jumped out of the way, reaching for his dagger.
The other man had righted himself and unsheathed his sword, whipping it around toward Fes. Definitely not simple thieves. These were the kind of men Carter employed.
He slipped off to the side, getting out of the way of one of the attackers, before slicing forward, sliding the dagger along the flesh of the mans arm. The man dropped his sword, andFes kicked it out of the way.
There was more movement, andFes rolled, knocking down the first attacker. He went flying out into the street, andthe crowd had to part around him, moving out of the way. If they took too long, not only would Fes lose sight of the woman, hed draw the attention of a patrol.
The other man stood in a ready posture, the kind that told Fes that he had experience with the sword. This wasnt a man to spend much time trifling with.
With his dagger, he doubted that he would be able to combat him very easily.
So he threw it at him.
It flipped end over end and caught him in the stomach.
The man dropped to the ground, reaching for the dagger, but Fes got there first and pulled it free, giving it a twist as he removed it. He kicked the sword out of the way, keeping him from attacking again, and quickly wiped his dagger on the mans shirt.
The fight had lasted a moment, andhe still feared that hed lost track of the woman, but he found her heading into a busier section of the city. It made it even harder to follow her. Maybe that was the reason Azithan had wanted him to followher. Had he known that she would disappear into the city? If this wereonly about keeping an eye on her, it would be challenging.
Fes squeezed through the crowd, shoving his way forward. Every so often, hed pause and make certainhe could still see her, but she hadnt gotten away.
When the crowd finally thinned enough for him to catch up to her, he noted three men trailing after her.
He wasnt a fighter and hadnt been since leaving the slums. Horus might have used him in that way, but that wasnt the reason Azithan hired him.
One of the men moved forward the woman and grabbed the pack.
Fes kept his dagger sheathed and stumbled forward, pretending to be intoxicated. Im sorry, he said, knocking the man over before he could grab the pack. Hed used that trick before in the slums.
The man shoved him, andFes managed to twist, falling forward into the man and pushing him back. The other two with him helped restrain Fes, trying to grab him, but he threw his arms up as if he were falling, and they werent able to hold him.
One of the men tried to kick Fes, but he grabbed the mans leg and twisted, shoving him away.
The woman glanced back, and her eyes went wide.
She started off, racing forward through the street.
He couldnt let her get too far ahead. Jumping toward the next attacker, he drove his fist into the mans nose, crushing it. As he spun around, his elbow caught the next man, dropping him.
Where had she gone?
So far, there had been five people after her, and if that was the way this was going, he needed to catch up to her before any others thought to attack.
He hurried along the street, trying to catch up, and found her lying on the ground, motionless. Blood poured from the side of her head where it had struck the stones, and she moaned, apparentlyin pain. The pack was missing.
Fes searched around the street but saw no evidence of where it had gone.
He returned to the woman and crouched down next to her. Where did they go?
She blinked, trying to look over at him but didnt seem as if she could focus. Who are you? You cant have it.
What was it? Where did they go?
No, she said, trying to scramble away from him.
It drew the attention of others in the street and Fes looked around, realizing that he had better do something or people would begin to approach. Plenty of people in the city were unwilling to keep street thugs from attacking, and the way he was crouching next to her, with her head bleeding as profusely as it was, it likely appeared as if he had been the one to assault her.
Let me help you, he said. He tried to pitch his words loudly enough that anyone else who might be thinking that he was trying something with herwould realize that he was only offering his aid. He wasnt sure that he was successful.
Please, dont hurt me again.
The crowd behind him was beginning to murmur, and regardless of the job, he would need to take off and get away from her before they became unruly. It was hard enough for him to handle facing off against two or three men individually, but trying the same against an entire crowd?
He stood and started backing away.
Fes slipped into an alley and watched her get up, her hand pressed against her head, and turn back the way she came. He followed her until she reached the building where hed first found her, keeping a safe distance. There were no other attacks.
Theyd been after the pack.
Which meant Azithan had been after the pack.
Why not simplytell him?
Azithan had some explaining to do.
Fes made his way to the palace. When he reached Azithans rooms, he took a seat in his usual chair, waiting for the man to appear. He looked around but didnt see the bone that he had brought him earlier.
Even the fire was cold. How long had it been since Azithan had been here? A stack of books on the table looked as if he had been here and researching recently, but there was no other sign of the man.
When the door opened, Fes was near the back of the room, his gaze drifting along the surface of the desk where Azithan kept the stack of books, making every effort notto snoop.
Fezarn. I was not expecting to see you quite so soon, Azithan said. As he made his way into the room, his hands slipped into the sleeves of his maroon robes, andhe fixed Fes with a strange expression. Did you finish the job?
Fes shook his head. I followed her. The woman was attacked
Attacked? Your job was to follow her.
And I did. I prevented two attacks, but the third got in front of me.
Azithan frowned. He took a step toward Fes and heat began to radiate from him. Fire mage magic. That was what he had to be, but Fes had never been quite so close to it.
Who attacked her?
I dont know. Theywere more than simple street thieves. He hesitated before deciding to tell him about Carter. Carter followed me when you sent me after the bone. And since this job was related
He frowned, turning his back to Fes and looking at the hearth. She remains far more involved than she should.
She does. I dont know who she works for.
No. Neither do I, which troubles me. He turned back to Fes. The woman you were asked to follow would have had an item on her. Did you see this?
She was carrying some sort of package, but I didnt see what happened to it. She was bleeding on the street when I found her.
She was alive? Azithan asked.
I followed her back to her home. Shes alive. As Azithan stayed near the fire, flames sprang from the coals. Fes couldnt help but be impressed. He didnt get to see fire mages working their magic that often. Few outsideof the fire mage temple ever really got to see it anymore, not like they once had. With the empire safe and secured, there was no reason to flaunt that magic. Who is she to you?
Its not who she is to me, but what she was carrying.
Fes didnt know that he believed Azithan. If you would have sent more than me
More than you would have drawn even more attention.
Why? What did she have?
Azithan sighed and turned back to face him. There was a sense of power from him, andFes wondered why he should feel it so clearly. I dont know. She follows the Path of the Flame.
Again, I dont know.
Is she connected to the priest?
You mean the one who has your dagger?
Fes glared at him. Azithan didnt care about his dagger, but Fes wanted that blade back. He needed it. Is she?
Then I need to find her again.
I know where she lives.
Thats not where she lives. Its where shes staying. The priests dont like to linger in Anuhr for too long. They fear the fire mages.
Fear or dislike?
Azithan shrugged and turned back to the fire. Does it matter?
Or so much as it impacts the jobs you offer me.
There might be a way for you to find him again, but you wont like it.
Because theres no money in it?
Theres always money, but in this,I think I can offer you something more than what youre looking for.
More than the dagger?
Azithan turned to him. Power swirled, making Fes take a step back. Why should he detect that power? I can help you find the reason you value the dagger.
He tensed. That had been one thing hed been careful about with Azithan. He didnt need the fire mage knowing about his past, nothing more than what he had already discovered when he had plucked Fes from the slums for his ability to sniff out dragon relics.
But the way he said it suggested he knew something more.
What did Azithan know about his parents?
Its a family heirloom. Nothing more.
Nothing? He arched a brow and Fes understood that Azithan knew.
What do you know, Azithan?
Only that there are answers to questions you havent asked yet.
What kind of answers?
Azithan crossed over to him and jerked back his jacket, revealing the remaining dagger. He lifted it by the hilt and twisted it in his hands for a moment before slipping it back into Fess sheath. The kind that would tell you why youre in possession of a priceless dagger.
Hed known they were valuable but had never contemplated finding out how valuable. There had been no reason. The priest knows?
Azithan shook his head. Doubtful, but there are things Ican tell you. First,you need to learn what hes after. Then Ill provide you with answers.
Thats not how our arrangement works.
No? You would prefer I pay rather than answer your questions?
Azithan chuckled, turning his attention back to the fire. I suspect this will be well worth your time. But you must see it for yourself.
You suspect? You dont know?
As I said, you will have to see for yourself.
Whatever the priest is after.
You dont know?
Not this time, Fezarn. There are reasons that its difficult for me to learn.
Fes debated what to do. Azithan offered to pay, but only if he completed a job that might not have an easyendpoint. If he did it, he might get more than a payday. He might get answers.
As long as hed been in the slums, hed wanted answers. Not only about what had happened to his parents, but about why they had traveled where they had in the first place. Anuhr had been the closest city for Fes to reach, but that wasnt where his parents had intended to end up.
And the daggers were priceless, for more reasons than Azithan knew.
How can I find him?
I believe the answers will be with someone you know well.
He tensed, not liking the sound of that. Who?
Azithan tipped his head. I know you dont want to see him again
Fes squeezed his eyes shut. You dont understand.
You told me that he used you.
He sighed. He used me. And worse. And Azithan had saved him from it. Now hed need to go back to him?
If you dont want to do thisor cantI understand.
There was something more within what Azithan said. Fes might not need to take the assignment, but he would miss out on something more if he didnt, something Azithan knew.
You promise to tell me what you know?
Azithan nodded. I do. When you find him, just dont tell him I sent you.
This part of the city was dark and more than a little dirty. After spending as much time as he had lately near the palace, working with Azithan, coming back to the slums and being exposed to the filth in the southwestern part of the city was somewhat jarring. It was home to thieves and worse, but there had been a time when Fes had called it home.
When his parents had died, leaving him and his brother as orphans, this had been the only place he hadnt been exiled from. The patrols pushed the strays out of the center of the city, sweeping them to the outskirts of Anuhr as if that solved the problem.
And it was because of this part of the city that hed lost his brother.
Even after losing Benjan, he hadnt been able to leave. Where would he have gone?
Fes had vowed not to succumb to the darkness within the empire the same way his brother had, even if it meant working with the very thing that had killed Benjan. Surviving had turned him into something his parents would not have wanted, but at least he had the opportunity to use the rage that always seemed to boil beneath the surface.
Fes paused while making his way along a darkened street and spun. Are you going to keep following me, or are you going to show yourself? A cloaked figure appeared out of the darkness, and Fes forced himself to smile. Alison. Its been a while.
She stalked around him, dressed all in black. It matched her straight hair, which was longer than when hed seen her last. Had she lost weight? Maybe it was only that she had become leaner, more muscular over the previousyear.
She was smaller than himand quite compact, but there was a feisty strength to her that had appealed to him from the moment hed met her when they were both kids prowling the streets. It still did. Only because of you.
You know why I left.
You want to start this now, or should we wait?
He grunted. Wait, preferably. And never, if he had his way.
She leaned toward him, inhaling deeply. You smell like him.
Im not sure what that means, Fes said.
A mixture of cinnamon. You smell like the palace.
I cant help that.
Sure you can, she said. You dont have to take those jobs.
It brought me away from here. And it brought him away from the man he was about to go see. Didnt she understand that?
She glared at him. For how long? Theyll use you like they use everyone else. And then where will you be?
I would have been worse off had I stayed. She didnt want to admit it, but it had been the truth. They both knew it, which was why Fes had taken the job Azithan offered. How could he not?
Fes turned away from her, looking along the street. It was late enough that it was mostly empty, but if Alison was here, it was unlikely that she would be alone. It wasnt that she was afraid to come here aloneshe was far too capable with the sword she had buckled to her waistbut it was safer to comewith others.
You dont have to worry. No one followed me here.
I doubt that, he said.
You can doubt all you want. Im not letting anyone follow me.
Even if you werent aware that they were following you?
She jabbed him with her finger. Do you think that I wouldnt be so aware of people following me?
Ive snuck up on you more than once.
Its been a long time, Fezarn. Or do you go by something else now?
That doesnt change what youve done.
It didnt, but Azithan hadnt cared about any of Fess past transgressions, even if he knew about them. He had wanted Fess skill, and the time spent on the streets had made him skilled. Useful. If Fes had anything to do with it, those skills would make him wealthy, too.
Does he know?
Fes glared at her for a moment. Does he know what?
Does he know who you are? Does he know whatyou are?
Im not sure that it matters.
It matters. Dont try to convince yourself that it doesnt.
I havent convinced myself of anything. And its because of Horus that I became what I did.
She jabbed him in the chest again and circled around him. Fes should have expected to come across her when Azithan had him come for Horus, but he hadnt thought to see her quite so soon.
Youve convinced yourself that youre better than the rest of us.
Fes shook his head. Again. I havent convinced myself of anything.
She only glared at him. You keep telling yourself that. Why have you come here today?
Do I have to have a reason?
She shrugged. It would help.
I came for a job.
He doesnt have any opportunities for you.
Thats not what I heard.
You stink of the palace and think you can just return?
Fes stared at her a moment. It was good to see you again, Alison. He started off down the street, planning to move past her, but she butted up in front of him, blocking his way.
Thats it? Thats all you have to say to me?
What else is there to say?
You just left us here.
I was offered an opportunity. Freedom.
There is no freedom. Not within the empire.
There is for me, he said softly.
She glared at him. You left me here.
Fes met the anger in her eyes. It had been a year, andthat anger still hadnt faded. The way she looked at him made him wonder if it ever would fade. I took an opportunity.
Alison looked as if she wanted to say something, but she bit it back. Just go back to the palace and serve the empire like a good little dog. She stepped off to the side and let him move past.
He continued through the streets until he reached Horuss building. Most buildings here were run down and dilapidated, but Horus managed to take pride in his holdings, making it almost appear stately. There was nothing conspicuous about his home, but then, Horus controlled enough power that he didnt have to be conspicuous.
When Fes knocked, a grizzled man with a peppered beard greeted him. He didnt look any different than when Fes had seen him last. Maybe a little older. Harder, if that were possible. Fes. Im glad to see you here, Horus said.
There wasnt any surprise on Horuss face. The man was well connected, but how had he known Fes was coming?
When the answer came to him, he almost laughed. Alison hadnt been there to confront him. She had delayed him.
Rumor in my part of the city is that you might know how to find someone Im looking for. Let him have a reminder that Fes didnt belong in the slums, not anymore.
And who might that be?
How direct should he be? A priest.
Horus arched a brow at him, his gaze focused solely on Fes. Probably a half dozen others were standingbehind him, watching as well. There are many priests in the city.
Many? Thats not likely.
No? Do you believe the empire can control access to Anuhr so tightly?
I think the priests would be careful about their presence. They favor the dragons much more than the empire.
You say that as if its a bad thing, Fezarn.
Fes liked it even less when Horus said his name than he did when Alison did. At least with Alison, there was an existing relationship between them, evenif it had soured long ago. With Horus, Fes felt much the same as he did about the way that Azithan said his name. Both men had a similar wayabout them, a similar wayof making him feel as if they thought they owned him. At least with Horus, he had managed to get away. Well, mostly away. With Azithan, Fes wasnt sure that he would.
Why are you really here? I heard you had better employment opportunities, Horus said.
What can I say? It pays well. Let him think that the only reason, not that Fes had grown tired of the violence.
For how long? When will you be out of favor?
Fes didnt know, but that was always the risk. Eventually,Azithan might grow tired of him. And then what would he do? Return here and take jobs that paid a fraction of what Azithan offered? It was why he saved everything he could. Eventually,those jobs would end, and he wanted to be free of both the empire and men like Horus. Hed already savedquite a bit and, in time, he thought he could be completely freeregardless of what happened with Azithan.
Do you know anything or not?
Horus studied hima long moment. Why do you think I might? You have different connections now. Some would say better connections.
Azithan had warned him not to reveal that hed sent him, but it wasnt necessary to name him to find out what Horus might know. They arent better. Different. And they arent helpful when it comes to what Im looking for.
Why do you want to find this priest?
Because he has something of mine.
Intriguing. Horus paused before motioning for Fes to join him. He followed into a wide entry room. Wooden benches ran along each wall. A lantern glowed with a soft light. The thick carpet rolled across the floor was worth as much as two Azithan-paid jobs. I would like to tell you that you would be out of luck, especially since you abandoned us here.
Fes glared at him for a moment. You would like to tell me that, but it sounds as if you wont.
No. But before I help you, theres something I will need from you.
Im not available for any jobs. Not again.
Then Im not available for information.
What would one job matter?
A lot. Especially if they were the kind of jobs Horus had offered in the past. The kind that wanted to use Fes, to change him and turn him into something he wanted to avoid. Whats the job?
I have a contact who hired me to reclaim an item of value. Given your recent connections, its possible that you are the exact right person to take on this job.
And why is that? Why cant you go?
My place is in the city, and there are certain items that I cant get close to.
Fes didnt like the sound of where this was going. What sort of items are you looking for? he asked carefully.
The kind of items that I can sell, of course.
And what kind of items are those? Fes looked at him for a moment, feeling a sinking sensation in the pit of his stomach. Im not going to break into the palace for you.
Horus waved his hand. The palace? Why would I ever think to ask you to break into the palace?
I have no idea what you might think to ask me, he said. But youve mentioned my recent connections, so it seems to me you think to use that.
Youd be wrong, Horus said, leaning toward him. His breath stunk of the bitter coffee that was preferred in this part of the city. What my client is looking for is not in the city.
Fes looked around Horuss room. It was decorated with items that Fes suspected were all forgeries; none of them could be true dragon relics, but they would be excellentreplicas. If its not in the city, then where is it?
As I said, the job will take you out of the city with my client. There is a certain item that must be acquired.
The connection between Horus offering to help him find the priest and the need to leave the city couldnt be a coincidence.
Had Azithan known?
Knowing what he did of the fire mage, Fes thought he had. The coincidence was too much to be otherwise.
Whats the item?
Horus shrugged. Probably nothing, but my client thinks it could be valuable. Hes paying quite well, which means I will pay well.
Youve never paid well. Not me, at least.
Im hurt, Fezarn. Truly I am.
You could offer Alison. You always favored her anyway.
I think you might be better for what I need.
Fes stared at him, debating what he would say to Horus. He wanted to refuse, but there was the promise of what Azithan had said, and he did want to find his dagger. Why wouldnt I just go directly to the client?
Horus smiled widely. Thats not how these things work, Fezarn. I arrange the deals. You take them. Or not. He shrugged. You could simply return to the palace and your new employer, but I suspect hed be disappointed if you didnt try to learn the details of the job.
Horus knew Azithan sent him. This had been arranged. Allof it. It had to be.
Why, though? What kind of game had he fallen into?
Whats the payment?
I can offer thirty gold shils.
Fess breath caught. Thirty? Now I know youre not serious.
This time, I am.
How long had he lived in the slums, hoping for a score like that? Most of the time it had been coppers, nothing more, just enough to keep him strung along, forced to take another job, and then another.
Why would it change?
The answer was obviouswhen it came to him. Because Horus knew he had another option. Which meant whatever he wanted Fes for was valuable.
Youve never paid anything close that before, so what would make you inclined to pay it now? It would take a half dozen jobs working for Azithan to come close to that amount, and who knew when the next jobmight come?
The client is quite eager to have this job done right. Its fortuitous you showed up here tonight, he said with a wide smile. Without you, I would have had to hire two to three times as many people.
Fes thought fortuitous didnt quite fit. Planned, more likely.
But by who?
Whos the client?
Does that mean youll take the job?
For thirty gold? Horus nodded. Then Ill take it. Thirty plus whatever Azithan paid when this was all played out. That was almost enough to excuse whatever else he might be asked to do.
Horus departed. When he returned a few moments later, Fes wasnt surprised that he brought the priest Fes had stolen the bone from. He had the same striped hat and the same wrinkled eyes. Which meant that he had Fess dagger. And it meant Azithan knew.
Why go through all of this?
The priest looked at Fes as if he didnt recognize him, but that had to be an act, didnt it? The priest had to recognizehim, the same way that Fes recognized the priest.
Whats the job? He asked it carefully, trying to feign ignorance when it came to the priest, not confidentwhether he had succeeded. The priest watched him, a serene expression on his face.
Talmundhas requested an escort acquiring an item.
Just an escort? Horus nodded. Whats the item? Fes asked the priest.
We can discuss the particulars on the road, Talmundsaid.
Fes turned to Horus, hating that he had to ask the next question, but now that he had the priest in front of him, it probably didnt matter. He could wait for him to leave Horuss home and grab the dagger. Only the gold gave him reason to pause.
If all you needed was an escort, you have better people for the job.
Perhaps, but you were requested.
Requested? He shifted his focus to the priest. Talmundwatched him now, no longer hiding the look of recognition.
Do the job, andyou may have your weapon back, the priest said.
Fes snorted. Hed had it wrong. This hadnt been all Azithans doing at all. The priest had wanted him to know where to find him. Quite the setup to get me here. Why me?
Lets say that I admired your particular skill.
That skill isnt available for hire, he said, looking at Horus.
The priest glanced from Horus to Fes. Perhaps you misunderstand. I need the skill I encountered in the market.
Fes frowned. Did he know how Fes had a way with the discovery of dragon relics? That it was the reason Azithanhad hired him in the first place? The way he looked at Fes suggested that he might.
And youll hold your end of the bargain? he asked Horus.
Ill pay twenty percent upfront. The rest will be paid when you return.
The priest watched him, and for a moment, there was a flicker of more than simple recognition, but then it was gone.
It had to do with whatever the merchant had wanted the priest to do, but what was it? And how much would Azithan pay when he was done?
If I take this job, how long do you expect it to take?
A month, maybe two.
A month? For thirty gold? Youre not paying enough.
Horus watched him, and the irritated smile that hed been wearing spread wider. Fine. Forty gold. I cant pay any more than that.
Fes glanced at the priest. Was he goodfor that much gold?
Even if he werent, Azithan would pay for whatever he was after. Maybe not forty gold, but enough to make it worth his time. And with that kind of money, he could avoid taking another job for a while. A long while.
Was it worth it to work for Horus again?
It wouldnt be working for Horus, though. It would be working for the priest.
After pausing a moment, Fes nodded. Ill do it.
Good, Horus said, almost as if he had expected nothing else. You will meet us in the morning.
Near the market. There is another party that will be accompanying you.
Fes gritted his teeth. He could easily imagine what the other party would be, and if he was right, it meant that he would be traveling with the same family hed stolen the bone from. How long would it be before that became awkward?
But then, the priest had hired him.
Ill meet you in the morning.
He headed outside and found Alison waiting in the shadows. She looked over when he appeared outside of Horuss door, rising from her crouch. Are you doing it?
He frowned at her. She knew of the job, which meant she was involved. It seems youll find out soon enough.
If you attempt to steal this and run off
Why would I attempt to do that? Horus has made it quite clear what this job is and what it will pay.
Yeah? How much did he offer you?
Fes frowned. Could she have been offered more than him again? Horus had a soft spot for Alison, but doing so meant the priest was paying significantly more than what Horus would pay Fes. He had a hard time believing the priest had access to that kind of money.
What exactly were they going after? What do you know about the job?
She glared at him. It seems youll find out soon enough.
Read the rest: Dragon Bones
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