When he was ten years old Thaylan had killed his first man. His name hadn’t been Thaylan then, it had been Lerce, and his older brother was Ruch. He’d stabbed him in the neck with a rusted spike he’d been sharpening for days, trapped in a tiny, dank, foul-smelling room beneath some soupden. When Ruch came for him he’d known it was over, their life on the streets and in the alleys, scrambling for survival amidst the filth that permeated every fibre the city had. Their parents were long dead, their siblings too: some of them went peacefully, most didn’t. Of late, Ruch had been talking of selling him away to finance his own, continued wretched existence. The streets were lean that year, and they were both hungry, starving. He spoke openly of it, as if Lerce wouldn’t understand. But Thaylan, not Lerce, he did understand: he understood that for a handful of coin his own brother would make him a catamite, and that betrayal was the last boundary of human frailty – when Ruch lent down reeking of the cheapest wine and the spike went in, he knew that it wouldn’t be a problem anymore. Survival, murder, betrayal – they meant nothing to him. It was just a game.
The last bare thread of his humanity died with his brother, and he was glad to be rid of it. It had been a burden too long. Now he was free.
A calm greyness had settled on him then in the dark with Ruch flailing and twitching, choking on his own blood. He watched him struggle until it was done, and then, tired and nauseous from hunger and thirst, he’d pulled the spike free and cupped his hands beneath the wound.
That was also the day he’d discovered blood was poor sustenance. He’d never lost the taste for it though.
Looking across the table at Dogheart he found himself wondering what the flavour of the other man’s blood might be. He wondered if he might get the opportunity to find out – their alliance was secure for now, but who knew what the future might bring? Power was mercurial in Seagrave, and the players were always changing. He was one of the oldest; and Dogheart, Reid, the Deadeater – they were the old guard. There were a hundred more though, gang-leaders, smugglers, pirates, murderers, thieves, brigands; all of ambition, all able to call on sufficient arms to enforce their claim to a share. And then there were men like Eamon Rath…
“He’s done it again,” said Dogheart, his voice thick with loathing and contempt. “He’s swayed the last of Malach’s men this time, won their favour somehow – might have something to do with that Vaosian trader that disappeared off Cartyr a few weeks ago. Bound for Kagonvar they say, laden with gold.”
Thaylan swirled the wine in his goblet; downstairs, he knew the festivities would just be starting to get interesting. Storms had a way of making people crazy, fearful.
He liked that.
“What else do they say?”
Dogheart sneered, revealing teeth filed to sharp points. “They say he has over four-hundred sworn men now, and more flocking to him every day. Fenwick is scared of him, the Deadeater too.”
“She’ll try to bed him if she can, kill him once she’s done. But she won’t get the chance, he’s too cautious.”
“Having your arm cut off will do that to a man, I hear.”
Dogheart chortled. So did one of his bodyguards, a hulking Valkarian with a thick black beard and one dead eye.
“Thought that fix in the fighting pit would finish him – Malach was sure of it.”
“So was I.”
Dogheart looked confused –Thaylan imagined his head hurt, and allowed himself a thin smile. “Don’t trouble yourself,” he said, “it’s not what you’re here for.”
“You dare mock me?”
“I dare nothing, I merely wish to conclude our transaction before night’s end.”
“Don’t like my company, flesh-dealer?”
He had to be careful now: Dogheart might be a fool, but he was also vicious beyond all reckoning. “Well enough. But it’s not your company that concerns me, it’s the colour of your coin.”
The other man showed his teeth again in what might have been a smile. “You want to sell, I want to buy…but your price is too high.”
Now it was Thaylan’s turn to be offended, or pretend to be. “The price is fair. It’s more than fair, considering what I’m offering is priceless. And especially to you…” He knew Dogheart’s obsession, his quest for power: he wanted to be a Wielder, and despite every contrary piece of evidence he believed he could make himself so. He’d already spent a sizeable fortune acquiring bits and pieces, relics and weapons; but what Thaylan was offering now was so much more. It didn’t bother him the extremes that he would go to, that it was said that Dogheart had even captured, tortured, dissected and consumed Wielders themselves. “You’ve seen it,” he continued, “you know it’s real, and you know it’s one of a kind, so don’t plead poverty with me.”
“It’s dangerous,” he protested, brooding.
“Have you forgotten? This is Seagrave: drawing breath is dangerous.”
Grumbling, Dogheart made to protest some more: he wouldn’t part with so much wealth and territory without a fight. But then a sound came to cut the air and silence the revelry; it was a sound they both knew well.
It was the sound of someone screaming.
There were suddenly a lot of drawn swords in the room. All but Azzar, one of his Chosen, a Helisian – he wielded an animus-weapon, a vicious-looking chain-whip that he let uncurl to the floor, the bladed links rattling as they moved.
Dogheart had jumped to his feet opposite Thaylan. “A trick,” he spat, his eyes venomous in their accusation.
“No trick,” said Thaylan watching Dogheart, his guards, the door. The scream had been cut off, the music abruptly stopped; the murmur of voices rose, confusion and fear.
“Something…unexpected.” It could be anything: one of the customers might have collapsed, a worker might have tripped and fallen, one of the guards might have walked in on a girl… But it wasn’t, it couldn’t be, and he knew it.
He made a move towards the door. Sword points followed him. “Enough,” he said, “We’re under attack.” The others looked on uncomprehending, but Azzar came to stand beside him. Then Dogheart.
“If this is a trick…” he growled.
“It isn’t.” And he threw open the door.
As soon as he saw Haron he knew what was happening, knew who it was, knew he should have killed him when he had the chance. He cursed softly under his breath, taking in the dead guard, the pool of blood, the whores and servants and now a few curious customers gathered on the stairs to look. One of the girls – the one who had screamed, he was sure – was being held up by the others. He could see she’d wet herself.
“Get them out of here,” he said to one of his Chosen, waving a dismissive hand at the crowd. Then he stalked away. He cared not an iota for Haron or the traumatised girl – she could die just as easily. No, the only thing he cared about now was…
He held out a hand. Someone put a sword in it.
“It’s Merrick,” he said. “Kill him.”
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