The Whitefire Crossing - Excerpt
I knew right from the moment I opened Bren's back room door this job was going to be trouble. See, here's how it should go: Bren, waiting, alone, with a package on the table and my advance payment in his hand. Simple and no surprises. So when I saw Bren, waiting, not alone, and no package on the table, I got a little twitchy. My first thought was that Bren had crossed someone he shouldn't, and sold me out as well. But the stranger in the room didn't look like a guardsman, or even someone's freelance enforcer. He was young, well-dressed, and nervous, which settled me somewhat as other possibilities became more likely. Maybe a younger son of a wealthy family, hock deep in gambling debts? Bren sometimes worked as a collector. Didn't matter, though. Whatever the stranger was here for, I wanted no part of it.
"I'll come back later." I started to shut the door. Bren caught my eye and motioned me in.
"Dev! Just the young man I was looking for!" His deep voice had the annoyingly cheerful tone he used on highsider customers. He'd even dug out a magelight in place of the battered oil lamp that usually perched in the corner. The brighter, harsher light from the faceted crystal sphere only highlighted the cracks in the adobe walls and the wax stains on the table.
I took a few steps into the room but left the door open at my back. "Who's he, then?" I jerked my head at the stranger, glaring at Bren. I don't like surprises when I'm in the city. They never turn out well.
"Shut the door, and I'll fill you in." Bren ignored my obvious displeasure and waited patiently. The stranger shifted on his feet but didn't say anything. Eventually, as Bren had known it would, my curiosity got the better of me. I shut the door, but didn't come any farther into the room. I still wanted to be near an exit.
Bren's lined brown face creased in a satisfied smile. "Dev, this is Kiran. He's looking for passage over the Whitefire Mountains to Kost. I told him you were the best, most discreet guide I know, and you know the mountains like nobody else. You can take him along on the usual run."
I choked back the first thing that came to mind, which was along the lines of "You've got to be fucking kidding me," but didn't bother to keep my feelings off my face. I hadn't missed his emphasis on the word "discreet."
For several years now, I'd run packages across the mountains and over the Alathian border to the city of Kost for him. The Alathians were strict as hell on magic, piling on all kinds of laws and regulations to try and stop people from using it except in the tame little ways approved by their Council. Human nature being what it is, that makes for a thriving trade in certain specialty items. And since they'd outlawed all the darker, more powerful kinds of magic, it wasn't too hard to get around the poor bastard of an Alathian mage stuck with border inspection duty. Easy money as far as I was concerned, but smuggling a few illegal charms and wards was one thing. Smuggling a person was a whole different story.
One corner of Bren's wide mouth quirked. Yeah, he'd seen what I was thinking.
"I know you're a busy man, Dev, but I promise this will be worth your while. The pay is very generous. Very. And what man couldn't use an extra windfall?"
This time I kept my face blank, although inside I was furious. He knew, then. Gods all damn this city. Nothing stays secret here for long, but I'd hoped for a few days' grace before word spread of the disastrous end to my partnership with Jylla. We'd only split yesterday. That meant Bren must have asked after me special, and he must have known he'd need extra leverage to get someone to take this job. Worse, he had it on a platter, damn his eyes. I needed money, and badly.
"Good point," I said. Bren looked like a kitfox with a mouthful of plump sage hen. To take my mind off my anger, I eyed the human package, Kiran, or whatever his name was. Why in Khalmet's name would some highsider kid want to go to Kost, especially this way? He looked a little old to be running away from his family in some kind of teenage snit. Highsiders played power games with each other same as streetsiders, but I'd never heard of anything like this.
He'd listened to my exchange with Bren in solemn silence. His black hair was long enough in front that it fell forward over his face and shadowed his eyes, making them hard to read. I could tell they were light-colored, probably blue, and that was about it. I'd seen men from the far north with skin pale as his, though never with hair so dark. That might not mean much, since we were all children of immigrants here in Ninavel, highside and streetside alike. No sign of a family or merchant house crest on his clothing, but that only meant he wasn't a complete idiot, assuming he didn't want anyone to know about this meeting.
"What are the specifics?" I asked Bren.
"Same as always. Make sure there are no questions, no records, and get him across the border into Kost, along with my usual package. Ten percent in advance plus expenses, the rest upon return with proof of delivery."
Bren made it sound so easy. It usually was, with a package and enough money for what Bren called "expenses." But I had serious doubts a person would be so easy to hide, no matter how idiotic the Alathian mages were.
"And payment?" Bren had better make this good.
"Triple the usual, plus expenses."
I made a disgusted noise. Bren had me over a barrel, but I had leverage of my own. There probably wasn't anyone else desperate enough to take this job, and he had to know it. "Triple, expenses, and I want ten charm-grade gemstones from Gerran for each item I deliver." Gerran was Bren's partner in Kost, who handled the distribution of the smuggled goods to their buyers. His legal business was the import of gemstones, metals, and mineral ores.
It was Bren's turn to snort. "Gerran would never go for that, and you know it." He studied me, one finger tapping on the table. I kept silent. Eventually he said, "I think I can talk him into five charm-grade stones per item, but only for this run, you understand?"
I was careful to keep my surprise from showing. I'd never thought Bren would actually go for such a wealth of high quality gemstones. I'd figured he'd offer me two or three stones total and nudge my flat fee higher. Huh. This Kiran must be paying him an absolute fortune. Either that, or I was missing something about this job.
"Anything else I should know?"
Bren didn't blink, despite my pointed tone. "It's a simple enough job." The flat finality in his eyes told me I'd get nothing more out of him. I hesitated, weighing the pay against my niggling sense of unease.
"Done," I said at last. Bren's smile widened until it nearly reached his ears.
Kiran had been watching us with a small frown line between his dark brows. "It is arranged, then? When do we leave?" His voice was soft but clear, with the faintest hint of an accent I couldn't place. The accent made me even more curious about him. We get all sorts here in Ninavel, and I'd thought I'd heard just about every possible accent by now.
Bren turned that broad smile on him. "That's right, everything's set. You'll be in good hands with Dev here, I promise. You'll leave when the first trade group of the year to Kost does." He tilted his head toward me.
"Day after tomorrow," I said. "Meet me at the Aran Fountain, near the Whitefire gate, two hours before dawn. You know where that is?" Kiran nodded. "Don't bother bringing anything with you, I'll provide what you need for the trip." I'd bet a thousand kenets he didn't have any clothing capable of standing up to a trip over the mountains. I eyed the smooth, delicate skin of his hands, and sighed. I'd have to make sure and bring gloves. And salve. An awful thought struck me. "You can ride, right?"
"Yes." Some of the nervousness I'd seen in his stance showed itself on his face. "That is - not well, I don't do it often - but I do know how."
"That's fine," I said, relieved. Some highsiders didn't bother riding, thought it was something only servants and streetsiders did, who couldn't afford carriages. Others were horse-mad. You never knew.
Bren made a few more pointlessly glowing comments about me as he ushered Kiran out the door. With a supreme effort, I managed not to roll my eyes. Thankfully, the instant Bren shut the door he lost all the fake cheerfulness.
"Damn, Bren, laying it on like a Sulanian charm dealer, weren't you?"
Bren shrugged. "Fucking rich brats, they all expect it." He splayed his hand on an engraved copper panel set into the smooth adobe of the back wall. The ward tracings flared silver as they recognized him and revealed his strongbox.
"What the hell is this all about, anyway?"
Bren smiled, a much smaller, tighter smile than he'd displayed in front of Kiran. "Want me to make up a nice lie for you?"
I made a face but didn't reply, figuring I'd deserved that. He'd made it clear enough back when I started working for him that he expected a courier to keep his mouth shut and ask no questions.
Bren removed a bundle of tightly wrapped items from the strongbox, laid a banking draft on top, and slid the lot across the table to me. "Once you get him across the border, no matter what he says, take him straight to Gerran's. No delays, and don't let him out of your sight." He leaned forward and held my gaze. "The job's not done until then. And Gerran and I expect discretion on this. Full discretion. Understand?"
Yeah, I understood, all right. Either Kiran was an errand boy for someone who didn't trust him, or Gerran intended to turn an additional profit on Kiran's little trip and didn't want him to know about it. Shit. This job got crazier by the minute. I scowled at Bren.
"A little tricky for such a simple job, don't you think?"
"You agreed to the terms," he said, his tone a warning.
This was my last chance to back out. I eyed Bren's banking draft. Damn Jylla to Shaikar's darkest hell for making this job a necessity.
"Fine." I slipped the draft into a pocket. "This had better be worth it, Bren."
Only the highest towers of the city still showed a faint gleam of sunlight warming their pale stone as I hurried away from Bren's place. The high walls and buildings surrounding me blocked my view of the mountains to the west, but I could imagine their snowy serrated ridges deepening toward the blue of twilight and their vast shadows spreading out over the desert valley. Damn, but I couldn't wait to get up there again. I always got a little edgy after a long winter in the city, but this time I had other reasons for wanting out of Ninavel.
My pace slowed as the evening crowds gathered. Ninavel is always liveliest after sunset, when cool night breezes relieve the searing daytime heat. People filled the streets, shopping, drinking, standing around in loose groups laughing and watching street performers. Out of the corner of my eye I caught sight of a kid darting through the crowd, chased by another, both giggling and shrieking. The adults around them didn't look twice, but I noticed the careful pattern of their ducking and dodging, and smiled to myself. Taint thieves, both of them. Not that powerful, or they'd be doing something tougher than crowd work. I tried to spot their minder, but he or she blended with the crowd well enough that it wasn't an easy mark. I checked the protective amulets I wore on both wrists. Their silver shone untarnished, and the stones remained clear. My money and Bren's goods would remain safe, at least from lesser Tainters like those kids.
The crowd noise abruptly hushed. People melted away from the middle of the street like rime ice in noonday sun, clearing a path for a lone, distant figure.
I'm told in other cities, it's kings and lords who cause that kind of upset. Not in Ninavel, so far out in the western territory of Arkennland that it takes a year's journey to reach the king's city. No, Ninavel is the haunt of mages, of all kinds, and ordinary men learn fast to stay out of their way.
When Lord Sechaveh first came to the Painted Valley and started building Ninavel, people thought he was crazy. Only a moonbrained old fool would try to found a city in a waterless desert, they sneered. But sly Sechaveh sent word to all the mages he could find, saying if they came to his city and helped conjure water, he'd let them do whatever they wanted. No rules, no laws, no taxes - spend time on water duty, and any other magic is fair game, no matter how dark. That promise drew mages like fire ants to peachflower honey, especially the ones who practice magic in ways forbidden elsewhere. Of course, mage talent is rare, strong mage talent more so, and even here in Ninavel you mostly see middling types who can't do much more than make a decent charm. Yet a charm can boil a man's blood, or leave him a mindburned ruin; even a middling mage makes for a terrible enemy when crossed.
From the fearful silence of the crowd, the approaching mage was a lot stronger than middling. I craned my neck around a group of tradesmen in hopes of spying the sigils on the mage's clothing. On occasion I'd seen men whose silken shirts bore the looping golden scrawls signifying sand mages, and once - from a distance - a woman with the eerie, pale spirals of a bone mage patterning her dress, but none more powerful than that.
The tradesmen gasped and shrank back. I sucked in my own breath with a startled hiss, as I glimpsed jagged red and black sigils.
A blood mage! Gods, I'd never thought to see one in the flesh, though I'd heard plenty of spine-freezing stories. Everyone knows mages have to raise power for their spells somehow, but most of them find ways that don't turn grown men pale. Blood mages, on the other hand...they're rare as mist in the desert, but the word is their magic's as powerful as it comes, fueled with pain and death. And the bloodier, nastier, and more lingering the death, the better.
I plastered myself against the wall right alongside the cringing tradesmen, but I couldn't resist sneaking another look. From the stories, you'd think a blood mage should look deformed and evil, but he just looked like a man. A tall man, broad shouldered, with thick wavy chestnut hair coiling past his shoulders, highsider-style. Arrogant as all get out, in that way ordinary highsider men tried so hard to imitate. What would it be like, to know you could do anything you wanted? Anything at all?
I darted a glance at his face, then nearly shit myself when his eyes locked with mine. For a long, frozen interval his cold hazel gaze pinned me in place, like a mudworm pierced by a dagger. At last he smiled - a smile whose predatory, amused malice turned my gut hollow - and strode on.
I slumped against the wall, my heart hammering. Next temple of Khalmet I passed, I'd make an offering. A big offering, because clearly I owed the god of luck for saving me from my own stupidity in attracting a blood mage's attention. He'd probably come streetside to claim fresh victims for his spellwork - a fate I shuddered to imagine.
I pulled myself together. I still had a visit to make before preparing for the trip to Kost. I ducked down the next alley and made for the far corner, where the mortar between the great stone blocks had crumbled away. It was all too easy to scramble up the hundred feet to the building roof, using my fingers and the edges of my shoes in the cracks. City climbing's never as fun as climbing in the mountains.
City views aren't bad, though. Colorful magelights gleamed and sparkled in the highside towers like Suliyya's thousand jewels of legend, outshining the stars in the darkening sky and contrasting with the warmer glow of lanternlight radiating up from the streets. Above the soaring outlines of the western city towers, the dark bulk of the Whitefires rose like a great saw-toothed wall, the snow on their peaks pale in the twilight.
My mood eased by the sight, I headed across the roof to a small cupola and a window glowing with warm light through a gauzy curtain. I made quick work of the window lock and pushed my way through the curtain, dropping into the brightly painted room beyond.
"Dev!" Liana beamed a welcome from the long table where she was clearing away the remains of a meal. Toys lay scattered over the floor, and she had to raise her voice over the excited shrieks of the kids playing on the far side of the wide room. "You could use the door, you know. I promise we'd let you in."
"Nah, it's more fun this way," I said. "Besides, I remember how you always liked surprises." The kids tumbled across the room and threw themselves at my legs, giggling and shouting my name.
"Dev, what'd you bring, what'd you bring?" the littlest one yelled. I picked him up, tickling him gently, and tossed him into the air. Where he stayed, floating. I did an exaggerated double take.
"No! This can't be Tamin. Tamin can only lift himself a body length!" I said loudly, and reached for him, ready to tickle. He darted backward in the air, out of my grasp.
"I am so Tamin! Look what I can do, Dev! Liana says next month I'm old enough to go out on jobs with everyone else!"
The other kids clamored for attention. I handed out the candies I'd been saving for the occasion and made sure to marvel as they showed me their prowess, making the candies float and dance and have mock battles in the air. My eyes roved over the group. Jek, Porry, Alsa, Kuril, Ness, Jeran, Melly...I frowned. "Where's Tobet?"
I'd asked Liana, but it was eleven year old Melly who answered me. "He Changed and couldn't lift no more, so Red Dal sent him to his new family." She raised her chin, her amber eyes sparkling. "Red Dal says I'm boss Tainter now, Dev. I call the ward tricks tonight and the littlies have to do what I say."
Only long practice kept my voice light. "'Bout time, huh, kid? Taint like yours, you'll make a fine boss."
My eyes met Liana's as I spoke, and we shared a moment of bitter memory. The Change is a terrible thing, for a Taint thief. One day you're happy, and cared for, and can fly and lift and kip and do all kinds of fun tricks. Then puberty hits and the power dwindles away, never to return. You're useless to your handler then, so he sells you off to whoever will take you. New family for Tobet, yeah, right. Just another pretty lie from Red Dal to make sure his Tainters stayed complacent, backed up by his follow-me charms. And if I tried to say different, I'd be dead before dawn, and the kids with me. The city ganglords won't risk Tainted kids turning on them.
The kids were still chattering with excitement, the younger ones darting through the air like whiskflies. Liana caught Tamin's ankle as he zipped past.
"Kids, calm down, all right? You've a busy night ahead and I don't want anyone getting too tired." They grumbled, but obeyed when Liana shooed them back over to their play area.
"Job tonight, huh?" I dropped into a chair next to Liana.
"Yeah. First in a couple days, so they're a little over-excited."
I knew better than to ask what the job was. Liana let me come around for old times' sake, but I didn't work for Red Dal anymore. He wouldn't take it well if I got nosy. My gaze lingered on Melly's dark red hair, bent over an intricate pattern of string as she chanted a rhyme along with Ness and Jeran. No telling how long she had left. I thought of the blood mage's smile, and suppressed a shudder. As an adult, I'd heard too many stories about Changed kids sold off to anonymous buyers, never to be seen again.
Liana followed my gaze. "Dev, about Melly..." She trailed off. My stomach knotted up at the unhappiness on her face.
"What's wrong?" Melly's Taint couldn't be failing already. Gods all damn it, not yet. Not when I had no chance of keeping my promise to her father.
Liana read my face. "Don't worry, her Taint's still strong. But..." She leaned in close, and whispered, "Morra said she saw Red Dal talking to a man wearing the badge of Karonys House."
Under the table, my hands clenched into fists. No surprise that Red Dal was already shopping Melly around to the top pleasure houses. Sethan had been handsome enough, but his daughter looked to surpass him by far. More, she'd inherited that crazy hair of his, the deep crimson of magefire flame - a shade rarely seen in Ninavel. Red Dal would make a mint, that was sure. But Karonys House...shit. They catered to highsiders with nasty kinks, and used taphtha juice to keep their jennies compliant. Melly'd be a vacant-eyed doll within days of entering Karonys, her mind burned away forever by the taphtha. I fought down nausea.
"Nothing's certain yet, Dev. Another house could outbid Karonys, easy." Liana sounded like she was trying to convince herself.
"Yeah." I didn't trust myself to say anything more. Hell if I'd let any pleasure house get their hands on Melly, after everything Sethan had done for me after my Change. I vowed silently I'd do whatever it took to complete Bren's gods-damned job. I'd never outbid Karonys, but my promised pay would be enough for other, riskier options. Red Dal or Karonys, neither would take well to theft of costly property, but with enough coin to cover our tracks, I could spirit Melly away and set her up proper in a new life far from Ninavel.
"I'm sorry, Dev." Liana put a gentle hand on my arm. "You all right? I heard about you and Jylla..."
I gritted my teeth. "Oh, for Khalmet's sake. You'd think someone had stood on top of the Alton Tower and announced it."
"But you two've been together since your Change! I don't understand. Just because she found a highside mark to squeeze dry...that kind of game never bothered you before." Concern was all over Liana's wide brown eyes and round face. I bit back a sour smile. Thank Khalmet, Liana didn't know the half of it. I shrugged and made an effort to sound cheerful.
"I'll be fine. I've got a job going, I'm heading out to Kost. That's why I came, wanted to say goodbye before I left."
"Oh good, I know how you love the mountains. But we'll miss you, me and the kids both." She gave me a little, wistful smile. "Take care of yourself out there, huh? Don't get eaten by wolves."
It always amused me what city people like Liana thought about the mountains. Wolves. Ha. More like avalanches and falling rocks and late-season storms. "Right. I'll make sure to fend off the wolves, and I'll bring you and the kids something from Kost."
Her eyes lit up, and for a moment I could see the skinny, shy little girl she'd once been. She always did love presents. I slipped a few coins into her hand. "Thanks for the news. Keep an eye out for Melly, huh?"
"You know I'll try," Liana said softly. I got up from the table, after another glance at Melly's fiery hair. Grow slow, kid, I urged her silently. I just need a few more weeks.