We slipped through the dark, silent streets. Three shadows, soon joined by another, Trinh’s Hand, a quiet hulk of a man named Baldric. Our goal was in the food district, which was several long blocks away—longer because of the checkpoints we had to skirt around. Once or twice I looked up at the roofs and wondered if we might just be better off climbing up a building and jumping from one roof to the next. Most of the buildings were close enough to one another. Though, I supposed, such a path would carry us further out of our way. And…Baldric’s close-trimmed beard was gray. He might not be in favor of such endeavors.
The night air was crisp, and flurries of snow began to spiral down from the heavens; Catching light from mysterious places and passing it from one glittering flake to another.
Warehouses turned to row houses, then to buildings with awnings, some with large glass windows. In an alley that reeked so much I tried to hold my breath, Namal knocked on a narrow door. A pair of eyes appeared in the peephole, then disappeared. For a long moment, we waited in silence, listening to the snow. Then, there was a scrape, and a clink, and the door opened. A narrow man stepped back for us to enter. I recognized Shayn, the murderer, and nodded in greeting before following Namal.
Namal led the way down a cramped hall to an even more cramped stair. The smell of pipe smoke, sweat and alcohol reached us only a step before the lilt of a fiddle and the sound of voices. I struggled not to cough as smoke tickled my nose and filled my lungs. The next moment we reached the cellar, which had been converted into a proper tavern. Tables and chairs filled most of the room, and people filled most of the chairs. A tall counter shielded the room from the kitchen which had been set up around the iron stove which normally heated the building above. Between the stove and the number of people, the room was unbearably hot—especially bundled as we were. Most of the people were half undressed, like field hands on an unexpectedly brutal summer day. Namal had already shucked his cloak and unbuttoned his collar. I scrambled to follow suite before I suffocated. This was why we had forgone armor tonight.
A few men and women were dancing in a corner as far from the heat of kitchen as they could get. The fiddler played a jaunty tune—but quietly. Indeed, the whole scene should have been louder—a room full of people drinking, eating, and dancing…but everything was hushed. People talked and laughed in the hushed tones of a library. The cloaks of the revelers lined the room and soaked up the low sounds before they could get far. No patrols would stumble on this place because they heard noise, for sure.
Domjoa, the master thief, swaggered out of the crowd to meet us. “My lords, milday,” he bowed, that smooth, rakish smile on his lips as he kissed my hand. Even sweaty, with his sleeves rolled up and his hair ruffled as if he’d been dancing, Domjoa was handsome. “This way, I’ve got a table for us.”
Trinh and Baldric had also shed their winter cloaks and we all followed Domjoa to the table furthest from the kitchen, positioned against the wall. We were scarcely seated before a young woman delivered two fistfuls of tankards to the table, smiling at Domjoa, who winked at her when he thanked her. Domjoa passed the tankards around. Ale wasn’t my favorite, but it was a cold drink in a hot room. I sat back from the table, sinking into the shadows with my tankard to watch and listen. I was between Namal and Baldric and would be easily overlooked in the shadowy corner.
The lamps lining the room and hanging from a handful of simple chandeliers were hardly enough to pierce the smoke hazed room. It was too hot for hoods, but the underground tavern wasn’t interested in us. Even so, we had each shifted our chairs slightly to angle our backs to wall. Trinh sprawled comfortably, one hand fingering the tankard on the table while the other elbow hooked over the back of the chair. His manner so similar to Tarr’s. Baldric, the gray bearded hulk, hunkered down over his tankard as if it could provide relief from the heat. I thought it disguised his size a little, too. Namal and Domjoa sat nearest the door, both relaxed and angled to watch the room with amused disinterest. I wondered when Namal had mastered this character who oozed lazy charm.
Trinh looked to Namal. “Is she coming?”
My brother nodded, “She said she would.”
“She’s coming,” said Domjoa.
As if in response, a thickset woman entered the dim, hazy room. She already had her cloak over her arm, and she waved the smoke out of her face with a frown.
“Here she is!” Domjoa was already on his feet weaving through the crowd to meet the woman. I watched her approach with interest. She wore plain clothes, dark, but faded, and the cloak over her arm was lined with fur. She was plump, gray haired, and already sweating—and I felt she ought to be a kind cook, beloved of children, instead of the owner of one of the finest theaters in Dalyn with a face lined by heartache.
Domjoa greeted her respectfully, not even gaining a smile in response before leading her to the table. A hard woman indeed, to be unwarmed by Domjoa’s greeting. The woman sat down without waiting for introduction, and immediately claimed one of the tankards. She swept critical eyes over Trinh, Baldric, Namal, and then me in the shadows.
“So, you’re them?” she asked, taking a swallow from the tankard. Sweat beading on her brow.
Namal recovered first, “Mistress Cadenera?”
“I think I expected someone older,” she replied. “Though, I’m not sure why. It’s not as if your ambitions are especially wise. Stories favor the young and reckless.”
My brother chose to ignore the comment, “Mistress Cadenera, you run the theater which is providing entertainment for the King’s ball, is that correct?”
Mistress Cadenera lifted her chin, “One of them.”
“My associates and I need to get into the ballroom on that day,” Trinh’s blue eyes caught the lamplight, his expression measured and sure, “Perhaps you could help us?”
The Mistress decided to drink half her ale in one swallow before answering. “What are you going to do there?”