1-Dark Business

It had been so long since I’d worn rags they felt like a costume. Never mind that the dress, leached of color and shape, threadbare, and sporting two enormous tears, was a costume. I hunched against the wall of the bridge and pressed my hands against the stone, trying to inhabit the character of a poor harlot. My dress was arranged so one leg was bare to the night—clearly advertising my pretend profession. I’d been out here every night for almost a week, which was plenty of time to reflect on the irony of setting myself out as bait again so soon after the last job when I’d generally been opposed to anything resembling bodyguard work for most of my career.

This time, however, I wasn’t dressed as a countess and fishing for a high price assassin. This time, my prey was a murderous madman—which probably shouldn’t feel as unintimidating as it did. I kept my wry smile inside and sagged harder against the stones. Villaba didn’t get as cold as Angareth, but the wind was chill with the approaching winter. I was grateful for my nymph blood which meant the occasional shiver that wracked my body was entirely dramatics.

The city Falletta was about halfway between the border Villaba shared with Angareth and Cartahayna, the capital of Villaba. We’d stopped here on our way to Cartahayna. There was a shop in Falletta my family did business with, and my brother and I had stopped by as a matter of manners. Talk in the shop and all the taverns on that side of town was of women being murdered in the streets. No one was going to pay me ten thousand gold to swap places with a prostitute, but I wasn’t about to let this continue. There had been one murder every fourth week for the past three months. And once marked on a map, it was pretty clear where the next murder would be. Which was frankly concerning for other reasons. Having spent the last four months pouring over any books we could find on the ethereal plan, demons, and the old wars, it looked an awful lot like the kind of thing that might summon a demon. Especially given the stories we’d been told about the treatment of the bodies.

It hadn’t taken much to persuade my companions to stop and deal with this. It had taken much more to persuade the local duke to pay us for our trouble. He was definitely not paying us enough: I had drugged at least nine would-be customers over the past week, and knew Eliah, who was on the other side of the bridge, had done the same. Perhaps we should’ve tried using my name; see if he paid more for the infamous Princess Zare Ayglara Caspian of Galhara to clean up his city. I had half a mind to stake the duke out here tomorrow, see how he liked it.

A man was walking down the alley toward me, shoulders hunched against the cold. I straightened and put my hand on my hip. He moved like a slightly drunk cowhand, the strength in his build undercut by the shuffle of his feet and the way he held his limbs close. He stopped and made a big show of looking me over in the sad flicker of lamplight. Shaggy hair shadowed his face, and he was dressed in ill-fitting clothes that stank of sweat and cattle. He held out a coin, and I leaned forward for a better look at it, then snatched it out of his hand, tasted it, and tucked it into the sad little pocket at my belt. Thus invited, he stepped close, setting his hips against mine and pressing a kiss to my neck. I let my body melt against him, finding his scent beneath the clothes that weren’t his. Quilleran Rhydderick was always a welcome bulwark against the night.

“Only a few more hours before dawn, I shouldn’t stay long, but I wanted to check in. How are you?” Quill’s voice was a puff of warmth against my skin.

“Bored and even more ready to kill whoever this monster is.”

I felt his smile. “Fair enough.”

“Where did you find hair like this?” I touched the mop on his head, afraid I’d knock the wig off if I tried to run my fingers through the mess. Longer hair for men was common in Villaba, though it was typically restrained in a braid or tail. This catastrophe communicated much drinking.

“I told you, Valeria has been very helpful,” replied Quill.

Valeria was the proprietress of the shop for which my family smuggled—and for some unknown reason she had the keys to the theater. Being a woman living the Stone Quarter, Valeria had plenty of motivation to help as much as possible, so she’d been outfitting Ayglos and Quill with disguises to regularly check on Eliah and me without arousing suspicion. A couple hours ago he’d been dressed like a clerk and had managed to take up so much less space in the world I almost hadn’t recognized him. I pulled Quill back into a recess under the bridge. We’d picked this dank little bridge over a stinking little rivulet because it was close to where we expected the next body, and it had nice dark corners in which Eliah and I could drug unwanted customers without completely blowing our cover. It was also a hidden place for Quill to press me against the stone and kiss me until I forgot everything else. The only highlight of this week, truly. I would never get tired of being able to kiss Quill.

After a few moments he shifted us so his back was against the cold bridge and he could fold me into his arms, sharing his warmth. “Do you think we’ve scared them off?” My voice was muffled by his shoulder, but I wasn’t inclined to move. “Having two women so close? The chance of a witness being too great?”

“Doubtful,” replied Quill. “If it isa ritual, they will find a way.”

The words were barely out of his mouth when a strangled sound bounced across the water and stones. We both stiffened, listening. There were muffled voices coming from the street—the one where we expected a corpse.

I stepped back from Quill and reached for my knives; Shiharr and Azzad felt incredible in my hands after so many days waiting. Quill stepped out of the nook, stumbling like a drunk and starting toward the sound to investigate—but subtly—just in case it was nothing. I moved behind him, lightly and quietly. We made it all of five steps before Quill picked up a run. Then I saw what he saw: We weren’t dealing with one murderer; we were dealing with a mob.

*

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