“Aral the Jack, formerly the noble Aral Kingslayer, is the best kind of hero: damaged, cynical and despondent, yet needing only the right cause to rise from his own ashes.”—Alex Bledsoe
Once a fabled Blade of Namara, Aral Kingslayer fought for justice and his goddess alongside his familiar, a living shadow called Triss. Now with their goddess murdered and her temple destroyed, they are among the last of their kind. Surviving on the fringes of society, Aral becomes a drunken, broken, and wanted man, working whatever shadowy deal comes his way. Until a mysterious woman hires him to deliver a secret message-one that can either redeem him or doom him.
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Kelly McCullough is the author of the WebMage series and the Fallen Blade series.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
Trouble wore a red dress. That was my first thought when the girl walked into the Gryphon’s Head. My second was that the dress didn’t fit as well as it should for a lady’s maid. It was cut for someone both bustier and broader across the hip than the current occupant. Not that she looked bad. The wrapping didn’t fit right, but the contents of the package more than made up for any lack in presentation.
The poor fit of the dress was a definite puzzler. Red was the coming fashion for servants in the great houses of Tien, and while your average duchess might not give a cracked cup whether her servants’ clothes fit comfortably, she cared enormously whether their looks reflected poorly on her. The fashion was too new for hand–me–downs, which meant the dress had to belong to someone other than the girl wearing it.
She turned my way and marched across the room without so much as a glance at the filthy straw covering the floor of the Gryphon’s common room. Jerik, the tavern’s owner, changed it out once a year whether it needed it or not, much to the annoyance of the rats and their more exotic magical playmates, the slinks and nipperkins. When I added her indifference to the awful things in the straw to the length of her stride and the set of her features, I had to revise that “girl” to woman though she was quite young.
“Are you the jack?” she asked when she reached my table. She leaned down toward me as she spoke, silhouetting herself against the only light in the room—a dim and badly scarred magelight chandelier.
“I’m a jack, and open to hire if you’re looking for one.” A jack of shadows, the underworld’s all–purpose freelancer—how very far I’d fallen from the old days.
“I was told to look for Aral . . .”
She drew the word out almost into a question, as if hoping I might supply something more than my first name. It was a tactic I recognized from long, personal use and one I didn’t much like having turned back on me. But if I wanted to keep paying my bar tab, I needed to work, so I nodded.
“Aral’s a name I’ll answer to, among others. Why do you need a jack?”
“First, let’s find out whether you’re the right sort for the job I have in mind.”
Out of the corner of my eye I saw my shadow shifting slowly leftward as if seeking a better view of the young woman. I leaned that way as well, to cover the shadow’s movements, and accidentally elbowed my whiskey bottle off the table. It thudded into the straw but didn’t break. Not that it mattered. I’d finished the last of the contents twenty minutes ago. Which, in all honesty, might have had something to do with my knocking it over.
“Hang on a tick,” I said, and bent to pick the bottle out the moldering straw.
I took the opportunity offered by the cover of the table to make a sharp “no” signal to Triss with my left hand. I couldn’t afford to let anyone notice my shadow moving of its own accord, not with the price on our heads—prices, really, as there was more than one interested party. And even this darkest corner of a seedy tavern had light enough for a trained eye to make a potentially fatal connection.
I swore silently at my shadow familiar while I returned the bottle to the table. Cut it the hell out, Triss! That was just frustration. If I didn’t say it out loud, Triss couldn’t hear me, and if I did, I might as well just cut my own throat and get it over with. The Shade did stop moving, but whether that was because of my hand signal or simply because he’d gotten an adequate eyeful, I didn’t know.
I did give the woman a more thorough looking over myself at that point. Triss never pulled anything that obvious without a damned good reason. He owned the cautious half of our partnership. Besides, as noted earlier, the lady merited plenty of eye time on her own account.
Tall for a woman, perhaps matching my own five feet and eleven, and built and muscled more like a Zhani warrior–noble than the lady’s maid her dress proclaimed as her station. Hair a few shades darker than my own middling brown and nearly twice as long, with a luxurious braid that reached just shy of her waist. Her eyes were dark though I couldn’t tell the exact shade in the dimness that had originally drawn me to the Gryphon. More telling still, she had sword calluses on the inside of her left thumb.
That made the dress a lie for sure. It more likely belonged to her girl than to her. Which left me with an interesting question: Why, if she really was a minor noble of some sort herself, hadn’t she simply had her seamstress do her up one that fit properly? But that was more a matter for idle curiosity than any real concern. I didn’t much care where my jobs came from. Not anymore. Not if they paid enough to cover my bills. Besides, in the jack business, the client always lies.
The whole point of coming to a jack is that we don’t belong to anyone and so don’t answer to anyone. A sunside jack might find your stolen necklace for you without asking any of the inconvenient questions that the watch would be obliged to because of their allegiance to the law and the Duke of Tien. Questions like: Where did you get the necklace in the first place? Or why does it look so much like a necklace that was reported stolen by someone else last year?
On the shadowside, the questions we don’t ask have even sketchier answers. Why do you want me to steal that? What’s in this box that needs to be delivered to a dockside location at four in the morning? How come Taurik Longknife isn’t getting his cut of this little deal of yours? What did they do that you need them roughed up? Or, for a black jack, why do you want him dead? Sometimes the client supplied an answer anyway, but it was rarely an honest one. Not that it mattered. Mostly, I just don’t want to know. That’s part of why I became a jack in the first place. A jack doesn’t have to care.
I did wonder about a couple of interesting little scars showing where my potential new client’s neck met her right shoulder—but it was an idle sort of wondering. While I was studying her, she was doing the same with me. Judging by the slight crease between her eyebrows, she didn’t think much of what she saw. She wasn’t the first to make that judgment. She wouldn’t be the last.
“Well,” she said, after a moment, “what sort of jack are you?”
“Me? I’m a shadow jack, of course, but never a black one. I’ll take risks if the money looks right and I’m not fussed about the law, but I won’t ghost anyone for you. Not for anyone else either, for that matter.”
I was done with the blood trade. Triss and I had long since sent our share of souls to the lords of judgment and their great wheel of rebirth. More than our share.
It was her turn to nod though the frown stayed. “I’m not looking for contract murder, just a bit of sensitive delivery service.”
That was good and, if true, probably why she’d chosen me from among Tien’s many shadow jacks. Courier work and its close cousin, smuggling, provided the bulk of my income these days. Shadowside, but not the deep dark. Few jacks anywhere could boast a better reputation for quiet deliveries, but then, I had Triss. And that was the sort of advantage that not more than a score of people in the whole wide world could boast.
“How much are you offering?” I asked.
“Don’t you want to know the where and the what?” For the first time since she’d come through the door, my lady of the red dress looked knocked off her stride.
“Not really, or at least not until I find out whether it’s worth hearing any secrets. Those always come with their own risks.”
She pulled a small but full silk pouch from the depths of her bodice and dropped it on the table with a clank, tipping its mouth toward me. I picked it up and flicked it open. It was full of silver Zhani riels still warm from her skin and smelling faintly of lavender perfume. A thefty bit of cash, but not ridiculously so for the right job.
I set the bag back on the table. “Is this the whole payoff in advance, or the first bit of a half–now, half–later sort of arrangement? Or is it simply by way of showing me what’s to be paid on proof of delivery?”
“This is a third down, with the rest on proof of delivery.”
“It’s dangerous, then?” I asked.
It had to be if she was willing to go so high before the haggling had even opened. Danger worked just fine for me. The longer the odds, the better you got paid and the less you had to work. And if someone ghosted you along the way, well, then you got out of working entirely. Nobody expects anything of the dead.
She shrugged at my question, then flipped her braid back over her shoulder when it fell forward. “It’s only dangerous if things go wrong.” Her eyes narrowed. “Do you object to all killing or just when it’s the point of a job?”
“I try to avoid ghosting anyone when I can avoid it, but I’m no renunciate.” My shadow moved again, and so, perforce, did I, leaning back this time, though mercifully without knocking anything over.
Dammit Triss, stop dancing around! It wasn’t a big move, but even half an inch was half an inch too much. Too many people wanted to see my head nailed up over the traitor’s gate or sent off to the Son of Heaven in a jar of rice wine. To distract from my little shadow two–step, I gestured for the woman to take the other seat.
“I’d offer you a drink, but . . .” I sadly flicked the empty bottle—Kyle’s fifteen–year, the rather expensive Aveni whiskey I favored when I could afford it. It rang emptily and rocked, giving off a tantalizing little whiff of peat and honey. “So unless you’re buying the round you’ll just have to settle for going dry while you tell me what you want done, Lady . . . ?”
I gave her the courtesy title that might belong to a duchess’s first maid in hopes of getting her to give up more information. She ignored the bait and shook her head impatiently.
“Call me Maylien.” But she did not yet sit. “You will take my commission then?” She smiled a smug little smile.
That made me want to turn her down flat. Unfortunately, sending her away would leave my purse even flatter. If I wanted to keep drinking the good stuff, I had to work. And I wanted to keep drinking the good stuff. It was one of the few things left in my life that gave me any pleasure.
“Let’s just say that I’m open to the idea,” I said. “The fee looks adequate for some things, less so for others.”
“I can’t tell you more without some surety . . . of silence at the very least.”
I raised an eyebrow at her. “If you’ve learned enough of my reputation to find me here, you’ve learned enough to know I don’t discuss my clients. Not even my offers.”
“May I presume that constitutes your word?”
“If you want to; though why you’d accept the oath of a jack of the shadow trades, I don’t know.”
She smiled like a woman holding a secret. “Most jacks I would not, but I’ve reason to believe I can trust yours. Have you ever heard of the Baroness Marchon?”
It took an effort not to start at that name, though perhaps a wasted one, since my shadow jerked a good inch on his own. I had, of course, heard of the Marchon, but I rather doubted that the person I’d chosen to become would have. Thinking daggers at Triss and his sudden tendency to jerk and start, I pasted a confused look on my face and shook my head. The gesture made the world bob and twist—a not wholly unpleasant side effect of the empty bottle.
“Is this Marchon a city noble? Or country?” I asked.
“More the latter than the former, but she does maintain a city house—a big estate right on the north edge of town, just off the royal preserve. That’s where I need the delivery made.”
I knew it well. The Marchon place had once housed the old king’s last mistress, the younger sister of the then Baron Marchon. I had slipped into the house on no less than three occasions while trying to catch a quiet moment alone with the king.
“That’s a neighborhood with an ugly reputation for the shadow trades, heavy security on all the estates plus the occasional royal patrol in the streets,” I said.
Not to mention the fact that the Elite had a clandestine chapter house near there and watchers in the park most nights, but I certainly wasn’t supposed to know that, nor how to slip past them.
I pushed the purse back toward her. “I think you’ll have to find another jack.”
She bit her lip in a quite convincing and quite fetching imitation of worry. I wondered how often she practiced.
“How about a bigger fee?” she asked. “I think I could come up with half again more if I had to.”
I had just opened my mouth to tell her no, when I felt a tugging all along my back, sort of like peeling away a sweat–soaked shirt. Triss again, letting me know he wanted me to take the job for some reason. I didn’t like the smell of the thing, or Triss’s pressuring me on it, but I really did need money. I decided to push Maylien a bit and see how she responded.
“Half again might do,” I told her. “But indulge me for a moment by biding here, won’t you? I have an urgent matter that I need to attend to.” I flicked my eyes in the direction of the back door and the sign marking the privies beyond and gave her a what–can–you–do sort of look.
It was a rude request under the circumstance, and she had every right to take offense, but I actually did have something that needed my private attention. Also, if she chose to see it as an insult and walk away, I would have solved my dilemma over whether to take the job.
Before she could answer, or do much more than blush angrily, I pulled myself to my feet and tipped her a ragged tradesman’s bow—it wouldn’t do at all to deliver the proper Zhani high–court version. Besides, I’d put enough whiskey away over the past two or three hours that I might not have been able to manage the more formal one if I’d tried.
“Back as soon as ever I am able, my lady.”
A couple of lanterns filled with the cheapest oil money could buy guttered and sputtered in the yard. There was no risk of fire out on the cobbles, so no need for a magelight, which meant it was as dark out there as old King Ashvik’s heart had been. Some of the noble neighborhoods could afford to use magelight to illuminate the main streets, but the Stumbles was about as far away from being a noble neighborhood as it got. On nights like this, with the moon near her nadir, even night–trained eyes like mine had trouble, and Jerik’s lamps provided just enough illumination to find the privies.
I slipped inside, trading the stink of one sort of shit for the stink of another. Given a choice, I preferred the yard and the horse; but I needed the privacy. I closed the door behind me and wedged it shut with a thin knife pulled from the sheath on my left wrist. The light inside was better than the yard’s, provided by a fading magelight nailed firmly to the ceiling—night–market certainly, but still costly. I presume the more expensive choice had been made because Jerik didn’t like what happened when the drunks couldn’t find the holes, and so, wanted to give them as much help as possible.
I turned a stern eye on my now much–clearer shadow, and demanded, “What are you trying to pull?”
Though my arms remained tight to my sides, the shadow’s arms lifted and broadened into wings at the same time its legs fuse...
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