An anthology of stories Martin H Greenberg and Brittany A Koren
Assassins-are they born or made? Do they choose this role out of necessity, because they are forced to, or because they enjoy killling? And what do they do in their spare time?
These are just a few of the questions answered in this all-original collection of twelve tales by fantasy's finest-focusing on killers of all kinds. From Vree, Tanya Huff's well-known assassin from her Quarters novels, to a woman whose father's vengeful spirit forced her down dark magic's bloody path, to an assassin seeking to escape his Master's death spell, here are spellbinding stories of murder and mayhem, and the shadowy figures who sell death for a living.
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Brittiany A. Koren, Martin H. Greenberg, Tanya Huff, Jim C. Hines, Jean Rabe, S. Andrew Swann, Cat Collins, Sarah A. Hoyt, John Helfers, Tim Waggoner, Bradley H. Sinor, Kristine Kathryn Rusch, Ed Gorman, John Marco
ASSASSINS: AN INTRODUCTION by Brittiany A. Koren
EXACTLY by Tanya Huff
BLOODLINES by Jim C. Hines
HANG TEN by Jean Rabe
FEALTY by S. Andrew Swann
BREIA'S DIAMOND by Cat Collins
WHILE HORSE AND HERO FELL by Sarah A. Hoyt
DEADHAND by John Helfers
ALL IN THE EXECUTION by Tim Waggoner
MONEY'S WORTH by Bradley H. Sinor
SUBSTITUTIONS by Kristine Kathryn Rusch
DRUSILLA by Ed Gorman
THE HUNDREDTH KILL by John Marco
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Благодарим Вас за использование нашей библиотеки Librs.net.
Brittiany A. Koren, Martin H. Greenberg, Tanya Huff, Jim C. Hines, Jean Rabe, S. Andrew Swann, Cat Collins, Sarah A. Hoyt, John Helfers, Tim Waggoner, Bradley H. Sinor, Kristine Kathryn Rusch, Ed Gorman, John Marco
Places To Be, People To Kill
Copyright © 2007
Assassins: An Introduction copyright © 2007 by Brittiany A. Koren
Exactly by Tanya Huff, copyright © 2007 by Tanya Huff.
Bloodlines by Jim C. Hines, copyright © 2007 by Jim C. Hines.
Hang Ten by Jean Rabe, copyright © 2007 by Jean Rabe.
Fealty by S. Andrew; Swann, copyright © 2007 by Steven Swiniarski.
Breia’s Diamond by Cat Collins, copyright © 2007 by Cat Collins.
While Horse and Hero Fell by Sarah A. Hoyt, copyright © 2007 by Sarah A. Hoyt.
Deadhand by John Helfers, copyright © 2007 by John Helfers.
All in the Execution by Tim Waggoner, copyright © 2007 by Tim Waggoner.
Money’s Worth by Bradley H. Sinor, copyright © 2007 by Bradley H. Sinor.
Substitutions by Kristine Kathryn Rusch, copyright © 2007 by Kristine Kathryn Rusch.
Drusilla by Ed Gorman, copyright © 2007 by Ed Gorman.
The Hundredth Kill by John Marco, copyright © 2007 by John Marco.
For Jim and Ed:
With sincere thanks,
ASSASSINS: AN INTRODUCTION by Brittiany A. Koren
AH, THE ASSASSINS! Characters so well loved for their deviousness and slyness. So what do assassins do when they finally get that well-deserved vacation? In this anthology we will explore the places they visit, and go deep into the depths of their minds. What makes them the elite killers that they are? Are they misguided? Is it fear for their own or someone else’s life-kill or be killed? Or is it an occupation passed down from one generation to the next?
We’ll show you the events that lead assassins to be who they are: being in the wrong place at the wrong time; greed; love; or the chosen path of the honored sentinel or spy. We’ll show you that assassins are human just like you and me. They walk among us, never knowing, but always suspecting, that someone might turn on them.
Assassins come in all shapes and sizes, and one never can tell who the next great assassin might be. Some are witty and coy like Tanya Huff’s Vree, the sister in the Vree and Bannon team. And some are surprising, like the character in “The Hundredth Kill” by John Marco. We are fascinated by these people who live on the edge and in the dark. Life is too precious to be trifled with, and the assassin takes life very seriously-as in Jean Rabe’s “Hang Ten.” It is a duty in some cases, as in Tim Waggoner’s “All in the Execution,” and we also see it with Ed Gorman’s Aarak in “Drusilla.” Some assassins kill for acceptance-“Breia’s Diamond” by Cat Collins-or for love-Bradley Sinor’s “Money’s Worth.”
Others, however, try to start over, to leave that dark life behind as Jim C. Hines shows us in “Bloodlines,” but can they ever get away? Does their past life ever stop haunting them? Even in the afterlife, their services may be requested, as is the case in S. Andrew Swann’s “Fealty” or in a somewhat different fashion in John Helfers’ “Deadhand.”
And yet some not quite in the typical assassin mode, taking lives for reasons not their own, as in “Substitutions” by Kristine Kathryn Rusch, are unlikely candidates for the role, doing what they must. Some may not even realize they could be a killer, as in Sarah A. Hoyt’s “While Horse and Hero Fell.”
Whatever their reasons, we continue to be entertained by their stealth abilities and put on the edge of our seat with the suspense of each new adventure. We hope you enjoy reading the tales from these authors about the cursed, the not so lucky, the hopeful, and the bred assassin. They’ve made me laugh, cry, and kept me up at night, afraid that I might be the next victim. But most of all, these authors have given life to incredible assassins and taken them to far away places where you’ll want to be-and to people to kill.
EXACTLY by Tanya Huff
Tanya Huff lives and writes in rural Ontario with her partner, Fiona Patton, an unintentional Chihuahua, and six and a half cats. Her latest book from DAW is Smoke and Ashes, the third and last Tony Foster novel, and her next book will be a new installment in the Valorseries. When she isn’t writing, she’s weighing the pros and cons of raising trout in her flooded crawlspace.
“ASSASSINS,” COMMANDER NEEGAN declared in the rough whisper that was all an enemy arrow had left of his voice, “do not take leave.”
“But it won’t exactly be leave,” Marshal Chela reminded him.
“They will be away from the army but not on target.” A dark brow rose. “I fail to see the difference, Marshal.”
“They won’t exactly be on target. There’s the difference, Commander. Governor Delat is convinced she’s got an Ilagian sorcerer pretending to be a carpet seller. She thinks he’s the vanguard of an Astoblite invasion since Prince Aveon welcomes both Ilagians and sorcerors to his court.”
“Why would Prince Aveon invade the South Reaches?”
“I don’t know. Maybe he’s looking for vacation property. The point is, Governor Delat has demanded we do something about her problem-which may or may not be the result of an overactive imagination. Vree and Bannon will go to the South Reaches as if they were common soldiers on leave, and they’ll use their unique skills to determine whether or not this Ilagian carpet seller is a sorcerer working for Prince Aveon. If he turns out to be what Delat fears,” the marshal continued, “they’ll send a message back with one of her couriers, and I’ll send them new orders. If not, they can come back to barracks having spent a pleasant few days in a nice little resort town on the emperor’s coin. You have to admit, they deserve a bit of a break.”
Neegan’s expression suggested he had to admit nothing of the sort.
“You know Shonna took leave in the South Reaches when she won all that money betting on that fight Oneball had with Keenin last year.”
“I know, Bannon.”
“She said it was the best five days of her life. Full body rubs with scent oils. All the food she could eat. All the wine she could drink. And the sex! She said South Reaches whores were more flexible than even you, sister-mine.”
Vree rolled her eyes and shot her younger brother a look it was just as well he didn’t see. “We’re on target.”
“Not exactly.” He threw an arm across her shoulders. “And that means there’s no reason we can’t enjoy ourselves while we’re finding out. Look at it, Vree.” His voice brought her to the halt his arm hadn’t-she’d walked right out of his careless embrace when he’d stopped. “The South Reaches. Isn’t it pretty?”
They were standing on the Shore Road, on top of a hill looking down at the town.
“Pretty?” Vree repeated wondering if Bannon had gotten a little too much sun.
He grinned. “In a ‘hey, look at all the colors’ sort of way.”
All the colors was no exaggeration. Even the expensive packed earth houses of the wealthy that fronted the white sand beaches stretching out on both sides of the small harbor were an astounding variety of pastel shades. The town itself had moved past astounding to unbelievable. Red, blue, yellow, orange, turquoise, and every shade of pink imaginable covered the wooden walls, the colors crammed close together and jostling for attention.
“There’s a pair of Astoblite ships in the harbor. Maybe they’ve already invaded.”
Vree frowned at the two vessels tied side by side at the north pier. “In those? They’re probably small traders delivering exotic wines and…” Her frown deepened. Born in barracks and having spent her entire twenty years in the army, she was ill equipped to come up with another exotic example.
“Perfumed oils,” Bannon offered when it became obvious she wasn’t going to fill in the blank.
“You’re fixating on those full body rubs, aren’t you?”
“I hear they’re very good for working knots out of stiff muscles,” he said cheerfully as they started walking again. “We can’t do our job if we’re all knotted up.”
“You can’t do your job if you’re lying naked on a slab.”
“You’d be amazed at what I can do lying naked on a slab.”
“I’m not that easily amazed,” she snorted, hip checked him, and snickered when he had to dance to miss a pile of horse shit on the road.
The South Reaches had no walls and no gates, but at the edge of town the Shore Road passed between two pairs of heavily muscled young men in black uniform kilts and tunics. “The governor’s guard,” Vree murmured as they approached.
“Think they can use any of that hardware?” Bannon asked at the same volume.
All four carried short swords in black-and-silver sheaths and two daggers, one on their belts and one sheathed at the edge of their black greaves. Their collective size was impressive and drew many admiring glances from other, less discerning, travelers. They made Bannon, who was taller than Vree by almost a head, look scrawny.
Everyone else on the road had passed unchallenged, but a massive hand beckoned the siblings over to the east-side guard post. Since there was no easy way to tell what they were, Vree wondered if the guards were more perceptive than seemed possible and had realized they were a threat or if they were about to indulge in a little soldier baiting. She was betting on the latter and figured it was pretty much a sucker bet.
“So, what have we here?” The guard who spoke had the smug, self-satisfied air of a bully who’d aged easily into a brute. He waited until the other two guards crossed the road to join the huddle before continuing. “It seems we’ve stopped a couple of the Empire’s brave soldiers. Looks like they’re scraping the bottom of the barrel, don’t it?”
His crew laughed.
“You two do a little looting and then decide to grace the South Reaches with your ill-gotten gold?”
“Actually, we spent all our ill-gotten gold on a couple of magic beans that turned out to be total crap.” Bannon grinned at the glowering faces. “We’re just here on leave.”
“This is an expensive place. Let’s see your coin.” The leader poked a sausage-sized finger at Bannon’s shoulder and missed by a hair’s breadth. Which was exactly how far Bannon had moved.
“No coin,” he said, still grinning. “Just a letter of credit from our marshal.”
At Bannon’s gesture, Vree pulled the letter from her belt pouch and handed it over. She wasn’t worried about it being destroyed, since she had every confidence in being able to take it from the big man’s hand if he made the attempt. Of course, he wouldn’t survive the attempt, so she hoped he was smarter than he looked.
He scowled at the piece of vellum, lips moving as he puzzled out the larger words. “Why would you two skinny grunts rate a letter of credit?” he demanded when he finished.
“Services rendered. At the battle of Bonkeep the two of us were personally responsible for the deaths of the enemy commander and his entire staff.”
“Yeah. Right.” But his gaze kept dropping to the letter. “Reeno, search their bags.”
They were carrying the bare essentials, the sorts of things any soldier on leave would carry. When Reeno got a little rough with her kit, Vree murmured, “Gently,” at him and, when he looked up, she smiled.
She caught her bag before it hit the road and didn’t bother correcting him when he pretended he’d thrown it there on purpose. After all, from a distance “thrown there on purpose” looked very much like “dropped from nerveless fingers.”
“There’s nothing, Orin.” Reeno barely looked in Bannon’s bag before giving it back. “Just, you know, clothes and stuff.”
“I can see that!” Orin glared at Reeno and then at them. “Letter of credit, eh? Maybe someone who deserves this ought to use it.”
“You’ll have to kill us to keep it,” Bannon pointed out.
“Orin!” Reeno nodded toward the traffic still passing by on the road. Toward witnesses.
Orin pretended to crumple the letter up, but when neither Vree nor Bannon reacted, he thrust it back at Bannon. Vree hid a grin at his expression when he crushed air instead of Bannon’s hand. “I’ll be watching you.”
“Not a problem.”
“Not a problem?” Vree repeated as they moved out of eavesdropping range.
“Hey, at least I didn’t threaten young Reeno’s manhood.”
“All I did was smile at him.”
“Yeah, that’s what I said.”
“You told them that we were here as a reward for taking out an entire command staff.”
“But that’s not why we’re here.”
He patted her fondly on the arm. “You really suck at this lying thing, don’t you?”
“Forget it, Bannon.” Vree wrapped her hand around her brother’s arm and dragged him to a stop as he started up the broad front steps of the Cyprus Garden Inn. “We are not staying here.”
“Too small?” He frowned up at the pale pink walls and wide louvered windows thrown open to catch the late afternoon breeze. “I was hoping for cozy, but-hey-elegant’s fine if that’s what you want.”
“Don’t be such a slaughtering smart-ass. This…” She jerked her head toward the two story building, conscious that they were under scrutiny from the inn’s atrium. “…is too expensive.”
Bannon touched his belt pouch where the letter of credit had ended up. “We’re on the emperor’s coin, sister-mine. And besides,” he added before she could respond, “this place is used to soldiers who’ve had a run of luck. It’s where Shonna stayed.”
“You asked her?”
“I did. Now if you really want to stay in some bug-infested dive with sweet piss all in the way of…”
“Here’s fine.” Releasing his arm, she started up the steps. If it was good enough for Shonna, it was nothing more than they deserved.
“Still angry about her trying to gamble away your coin?” Bannon asked as he caught up.
“Sod off.” Of course she was. And he knew it. And that was why he’d brought them to this inn. She’d be upset about how easily he could read her except there wasn’t much point; a lifetime of training had all but taught them to think with one mind.
They had a pair of adjoining rooms at the back of the building, small but clean. Included was unlimited access to the hotel’s bathhouse and one meal each day of their stay.
“I like the sound of the bathhouse,” Vree admitted, going into her brother’s room. She’d already tested the strength of the balcony railing and noted all lines of sight to her window. “It’s hard to stay unnoticed when you stink of the road.”
Stripped down to his sling, Bannon stared up at her from his sprawl on the bed. “I stink of the road?”
“We stink of the road.”
“I just got comfortable.”
“There’ll be bath attendants.”
“Easy enough to get comfortable again.” He grinned as he stood and scooped up his kilt. “Lead the way, sister-mine. A bath, a meal, and visit to a carpet shop,” he continued as she led the way down the backstairs. “What more could a man want-except maybe a full body massage with scented oils.”
“Not exactly. Not yet.”
Her bath attendant was as taken with Bannon as his was.
“Your man is quite the flirt,” she sighed, absently passing Vree a soapy sponge.
“He’s not my man; he’s my brother and be my guest.”
She preferred to wash herself anyway. The possibility of being temporarily blinded by accidental soap in the eye by a distracted attendant was too dangerous to risk in her line of work. Their line of work. Not that Bannon seemed to be worried. But then again why should he when she was?
Well, slaughter that. This was not-exactly her leave, too.
She had the kid for supper and roasted peppers and a sherbet made with ice brought down from the mountains at-if the price was any indication-great expense. Bannon grinned and saluted her with a raw oyster.
According to Governor Delat, the Ilagian had opened his carpet shop in the jumble of tiny streets close to the harbor. Painted a pale green, it was fifth in from the corner Fat Alley shared with the Street of Knives. Washed and fed, Vree and Bannon wandered toward it past market stalls and shops crammed full of items designed to separate tourists from their money. Everything that could have some variation of “I bought this in the South Reaches” stamped on it, did.
“Bannon, look at this.”
This was a knife-seller’s stall. This specifically was a dagger with a broad curved brass blade etched with a rough map of the South Reaches and the legend Don’t cut me out of your life.
“What’s that mean?” Bannon muttered as they stared at the blade.
Vree shrugged. “No idea.”
The tang and the pommel were also brass, suggesting that the dagger had been made from one piece of metal while the weight suggested otherwise. The grip had been wrapped in leather strips died a virulent orange-red, small shells danging from the half dozen tassels. The sheath was a slightly darker shade and a double row of the same shells had been glued along its length.
“Ah, yes, there is nothing like a beautiful woman who appreciates a good blade.” The stall’s owner bustled around and laid a pudgy arm around Vree’s shoulders. “That dagger is…” He paused. Swallowed. And started to sweat. “For a small woman, you have quite the grip.”
“I don’t like to be touched.”
His smile wobbled and he snatched his arm back. “I’ll remember that.”
Bannon shook his head as they walked away, leaving the stall owner clutching his genitals and gasping like a landed fish. “I think you hurt his feelings.”
“At least I left them attached.”
Torches had been lit by the time they reached the carpet shop, but the narrow streets were still busy-probably because every second shop sold alcohol of some kind. Beer, wine, and the apparently popular something pink with a tiny spear stuck through a pineapple chunk. Although clothing ranged from kilts to sarongs to breeches, they were the only people in army blue.
“We may need to buy a change of clothes,” Bannon noted.
“Something in black wouldn’t hurt if we’re going to be climbing around at night,” Vree acknowledged.
“Do you see anyone in black?”
Bannon leaned out and peered at the guard who was suddenly not looking their way. “Besides him?”
Up and down the street, the clothing was as bright as the buildings, many of the tunics printed with birds or flowers or cats. “There is no slaughtering way…”
“We could probably get something in silk.”
Silk. “Silk’s a good strong fabric,” Vree said slowly. “You can bend iron with it when it’s wet. Useful.”
Bannon grinned. “Very.”
“I’m sorry, I couldn’t help but overhear. You’re looking for a silk carpet?”
They turned together to face the middle-aged woman standing on the other side of the pile of rugs that nearly filled the front of the shop. She was pleasantly plump with dark hair and pale brown eyes and skin a little lighter than theirs.
“We’re looking for Ilagian carpets,” Vree told her.
She smiled broadly and spread her hands. “Excellent. We specialize in Ilagian carpets.” Hands still spread, she beckoned them into the shop. “In fact, my employer, Hy Sa’lacvi, is Ilagian himself and imports only the most beautiful carpets from his homeland. Although he isn’t here tonight, he has taught me everything he knows. Now, this beauty…”
At first, Vree was impressed by the woman’s knowledge. As time passed and every attempt they made to leave was somehow twisted into another examination of another stack of carpet, she began to grow annoyed. Although a variety of merchants intent on separating soldiers from their money surrounded the barracks and most camps, assassins were usually left to choose as they pleased. This woman almost had them convinced they needed a carpet. Bannon had gone so far as to give her the measurements of the area beside his bunk. Vree had her hand on her dagger hilt and had planned her strike-up under the ribs, slice through the heart, wrap the body in a red wool rug-when customers obviously carrying more coin entered the shop and saved them.
“At least we found out Hy Sa’lacvi has the rooms upstairs.” Bannon picked up the pace as they reached the street.
“And that he isn’t in them right now.” Vree effortlessly slipped through a group of laughing matrons all dressed in shades of purple and fell into step with her brother. “Safer to search them when he’s home, though. A sorcerer would set up spells to protect his rooms when he’s not in them.” A man, sorcerer or not, could be avoided. Spells were a different matter.
He was thinking about full body massages, she could tell. “Tonight.”
“We should wait until we’re a little less obvious.”
“Until we’re less obvious?” Vree snorted as a pair of heavyset men in very short kilts, sleeveless tunics, and shell necklaces sauntered past. Fortunately, it was now full dark and the torchlight hid as much as it revealed. “Or were you referring to the guard watching us from over by the wineskin seller?” she sighed, trying not to listen to the fading sound of bare thighs slapping.
“Think he’s going to follow us all night?”
“People seem to be avoiding him,” she noted as they changed direction slightly. The pattern of the street eddied around the guard, even the very drunk maintaining a careful distance of more than an arm’s length.
“Almost looks like they’re scared of him,” Bannon agreed.
“Well, who isn’t afraid of a great big guy dressed all in black and carrying a sword? Even if he’s not likely to use it very well.”
A moment later they moved into the guard’s personal space, the pattern of the street now ebbing around them as well.
“You were on the gate when we arrived,” Ban-non said after sweeping a slow gaze up the guard’s body from sandals to helm. “Didn’t catch your name.”
“Keln.” He looked confused; prompted to answer by fear, unsure of what he should be afraid of.
“You were watching us, Keln,” Vree purred by his ear. By the time he turned to face her, she’d moved to the other ear and was asking, “Why?” He whirled around, but she was back beside Bannon when he stopped. “Why, Keln?” she repeated.
Keln jerked forward, then stopped when he realized they were suddenly flanking him. “Orin thinks you’re troublemakers,” he snarled.
“Us?” Bannon grinned. “We’re not troublemakers, Keln; we deal with troublemakers.”
“Not in this town.”
“Wherever we’re sent, Keln.”
“Stop saying my name!” The big man pushed past them, shoving the rack of wineskins out of the way as he plunged into the crowd. Someone cried out in pain, someone else swore, and Vree caught the rack before it fell.
“Can’t say we didn’t warn him,” Bannon sighed.
“It’s easier when they know we’re assassins.”
“People avoid us when they know we’re assassins.”
“And that’s easier.” She frowned at a wineskin. “There’s an image of a parrot burned onto this. Why would someone burn the image of a parrot into a wineskin?”
Bannon peered at the leather and shrugged. “I have no idea.”
Shops and stalls that didn’t sell alcohol closed up just before midnight. Hy Sa’lacvi returned just after. He was short, round, and wearing a long, bright orange sarong patterned with palm leaves. Half a dozen shell bracelets gleamed against one dark wrist. As a sorcerer, he made a believable carpet seller.
Staggering a little, like everyone else on the streets, Vree and Bannon started back toward their inn, lost the pair of guards watching them-Keln and the remaining unnamed of the four-and ended up a few moments later at the top of the stairs that led to Hy Sa’lacvi’s second-floor rooms.
Moving silently to the open window, Vree tossed the Nighthawk moth she’d snagged by one of the sputtering torches in over the sill. No lights. No whistles. No moth suddenly aflame. It seemed this access, at least, had not been protected by sorcery.
As they crouched inside the room, waiting for their eyes to adjust, the moth fluttered toward them. It was almost back to the window when an enormous pair of white paws came out of the darkness and brought it to the floor. The paws were more impressive than the cat they were attached to as the long-haired calico whacking the struggling insect across the painted wood was distinctly short in the leg.
Vree caught Bannon’s eye and made a face. No one had mentioned Hy Sa’lacvi had a pet. In their business, pets were more trouble than guards and servants combined.
As the moth managed to get into the air and out of range, the cat bounded up onto the narrow table that ran down the center of the room. Vree heard glass containers chime. The cat whirled, leaped a stack of brass weights, raced past a row of bottles, and charged through a cluster of squat clay jugs.
Vree caught the weights.
Bannon caught the bottles.
Neither of them could get to the jugs in time.
The first one to topple hit the floor with a crack, spilling out a pile of yellow granules. The second hit the floor with more of a thud, the viscous fluid in it adding a soft splat. When the fluid hit the granules, there was a high-pitched whine, a loud bang, and a cloud of purple smoke.
As the two assassins slipped back out the window, they heard the cat sneeze and Hy Sa’lacvi yelling in his own language. From the roof across the courtyard, they watched the smoke billowing up into the sky.
“That’s a lot of smoke without fire,” Bannon murmured.
Vree nodded. “We can assume the sorcerer part is correct anyway.” She grinned as the cat raced down the stairs to the courtyard and disappeared in the shadows. Glittering with purple highlights, Hy Sa’lacvi stumbled out onto the landing.
“Mirrin!” He had a thin blanket wrapped around his waist. “Mirrin! Get here! I not angry, I just need see if you all right!”
Below, in the darkness, the cat sneezed.
“Fine! You be hurt, cat, I no care. I sleep now!” Pivoting on one bare heel, he stomped back into his rooms.
“Definitely a sorcerer,” Bannon snickered. “Any one else would’ve been told to shut his slaughtering hole.” Pale faces had shown in a few of the other windows overlooking the courtyard, but no one had protested being so rudely awakened. “I wonder why he called for Mirrin in Imperial?”
“He probably got her here and figures that’s what she understands. We’re not going to find out anything else tonight,” she added, leading the way down to the alley. “We might as well go back to the inn and get some sleep.”
“You can go back to the inn, sister-mine. I’ve got other things to check out.”
“You smell like…” Vree leaned closer and lifted her brother’s arm to her nose. “Limes. And you’re greasy.”
“Oily.” He pushed his wrist through her grip and back again, the motion blatantly suggestive. “Harder for an enemy to get a grip.”
“I doubt it was enemies gripping you,” she snorted, releasing him and stepping away from the bed. “I’ve done a bit of recon. Orin and his friends are lurking in front of the inn.”
“So? If they do anything more than lurk, we’ll take them out.”
“Just like that?”
“We’re on target and they got in the way.”
“So now we’re on target?”
Bannon grinned, rolled out of bed, and reached for his kilt. “Now, it’s convenient. I’m starved, let’s go eat.”
“It’s almost noon.”
“Which is when things start happening in this town.”
“You think they’re going to arrest us?” Bannon wondered, as he worked his way along the inn’s buffet table, piling food on his plate.
Vree glanced out at the four guards in time to see Orin throwing a cup of liquid back in the face of a water seller. “No. I think they want that letter of credit.”
“You think they’ll take the first chance they get to jump us?”
“Do they think we haven’t noticed them?” Vree wondered as Orin and crew nearly knocked over a sausage cart trying to keep them in sight.
“I don’t think they think.” Bannon gestured at the nearest alley. “You want to lure them to their doom?”
“No, let’s see how long their attention span is.”
They lost the guards in a crowded ale house, slipping unseen out the back and up onto the roof. It was a simple matter to make their way to Hy Sa’lacvi’s carpet shop without ever returning to the ground.
“I can’t believe how close together everything is.” Bannon stepped from roof to roof past a line of disinterested pigeons dozing in the sun.
“And how much of it seems to be held together by paint,” Vree added, adjusting her stride as a board began to give underfoot. They had no fear of being heard, for those who slept on the upper floors were out serving or servicing the visitors to the South Reaches, and anyone still asleep wouldn’t be staying so close to the harbor.
Hy Sa’lacvi was sitting in the courtyard behind his shop; an abacus, stick of charcoal, and a pile of parchment seemed to indicate he was doing accounts. While they watched, Mirrin leaped up onto his lap desk and knocked a mug of steaming liquid over the pile.
“I wish I understood Ilagian,” Bannon murmured as the sorcerer screamed at the departing cat. “That sounds like some impressive swearing.”
As soon as it became obvious he was going to start again with dry parchment, they dropped silently off the roof onto the landing and slipped into his rooms.
“A considerate person would have a note or something lying around,” Bannon grunted a short time later. “Yes, I am the vanguard of an Astoblite invasion. Kill me.” He stared at the purple stain on the floor. “And it’s no slaughtering fun going through a sorcerer’s things; you never know when something might bite you on the ass.”
“I didn’t find anything either,” Vree sighed. “We’re going to have to do this the hard way.”
“You mean the boring way,” Bannon protested as they climbed back onto the roof. The soft click, click of the abacus drew his gaze down to the courtyard. “He’s not going anywhere for a while. Do we both have to stay?”
“For the love of Jiir, Bannon, you’re still greasy from your last body rub!”
“Oily. And I was just thinking that now would be the perfect time for me to pick us out some clothing that would help us blend in a little better. It’s what soldiers on leave do.”
Vree glanced down at the pile of blank parchment and compared it to the pile Hy Sa’lacvi had already covered with neat lines of tiny numbers. He was clearly going to be a while. “Fine.” She couldn’t understand why being on vacation suddenly made people wear clothing they wouldn’t be caught dead in otherwise, but it was what soldiers on leave did and that was what they were supposed to be. Shonna had returned to barracks wearing a bright yellow tunic printed with purple flowers. “Do not,” she warned her brother as he turned to leave, “bring me back anything printed with parrots, kittens, or palm trees. And don’t take on Orin and his crew without me.”
Moving into the only available bit of shade, she sat and watched their target do his accounting. Except he wasn’t exactly their target. Pity, she thought, fingers curled around the pommel of her dagger. We could have killed him last night and been on our way home by now.
Maybe he’s working out the numbers of Astoblite soldiers he needs for the invasion. If he is, I can kill him now.
Before she could move, the woman who’d tried so hard to sell them a carpet the night before emerged from the back of the shop and told him she’d sold the small red-and-gold rug. “Good. Good!” Hy Sa’lacvi added a note to one of the finished sheets and flashed a brilliant smile up at the woman. “Maybe this month we make enough to import more, yes?”
Maybe import more was a euphemism for more soldiers.
“Maybe you should import something that doesn’t unravel when you move it,” the woman snorted.
Or not, Vree sighed. She’d never spent this much time on a target she could have taken out within moments of first marking him. Boring, boring, bor…
Mirrin clambered into her lap and shoved her head under Vree’s hand.
Over the years, she’d had every type of insect imaginable climb over her while waiting to take out a target. There’d been half a dozen snakes, a few lizards, and on one memorable occasion a rat that’d had to be fatally discouraged from snacking on Bannon’s foot. Dogs were avoided and, as a rule, cats avoided them.
Mirrin demanded attention more insistently.
When Bannon returned, Mirrin was napping with her head on Vree’s dagger, and Hy Sa’lacvi was just filling his last piece of parchment. The breeches he brought her were dark green silk that hung low on her hips and flowed over her legs like water. The sleeveless tunic had been block printed with large pale green fish.
“You never said no fish,” he protested, blocking her blow.
He wore a similar style in dark red and gold-the vest lightly laced across his chest with gold cord, the whole thing fish free.
They ate in the ale house across the road from the carpet shop, Bannon having taking their letter of credit to a moneylender for some coin. As they ate, they watched Hy Sa’lacvi try to sell a carpet to a middle-aged couple dressed in matching sleeveless tunics and short breeches.
“Do they know how ridiculous they look?” Bannon wondered, eating a small onion off the point of his knife.
Vree shrugged and peeled another shrimp.
By the time they finished their meal-having switched their full tankards for the convenient empties of their neighbors, Hy Sa’lacvi had turned the shop over to his employee, pushed his way out into the milling crowds, and began walking toward the harbor.
Vree and Bannon followed, careful not to be seen by either their quarry or Orin’s people. Given both crowds and darkness, it wasn’t hard. Eventually, after a short stop at a bakery and a slightly longer one at a wine merchant’s, they found themselves at the harbor watching Hy Sa’lacvi go into a warehouse near the North Pier.
“That’s it. The Astoblite ships are tied up at the North Pier. We can kill him.”
Vree stopped her brother’s forward movement with a well placed elbow. “He could be seeing another trader about a carpet. We need to be sure.”
“Fine.” He rolled his eyes. “We’ll sneak into the warehouse, get close enough to find out exactly what Hy Sa’lacvi is up to, and when we find out he’s helping the Astoblites invade, then we kill him.”
There were four men and two women sprawled on cushions around a low table in an empty corner of the warehouse. One of the men and one of the women were definitely Astoblites. Three of the other four were South Reaches locals, and the last was wearing the distinctive orange-on-blue parrot tunic of a visitor. When Hy Sa’lacvi joined them, money changed hands and tiles were slapped down on the table.
Catching Bannon’s eye, Vree signed, No kill.
He nodded and signed, Stay?
She signed back, Maybe kill later, mostly just to cheer him up, and they settled in to watch and wait for the tile game to become strategy and tactics. It never did.
“So tomorrow we tell the governor she was imagining things and head home,” Bannon sighed as they headed back toward their inn. “Hy Sa’lacvi is no more planning a slaughtering invasion than I am. And he sucks at tiles.”
Impossible to argue the latter point as the Ilagian had, indeed, lost steadily all night. They’d followed him home, watched him climb into bed, discouraged Mirrin from following them, in turn, away across the roof, and were now calling it a night.
“I suspect the governor will want us to observe him for a little longer,” Vree pointed out. “He can’t spend all his time planning an invasion. Maybe this was his night off.”
“So we’re staying?”
“For a while.” She grabbed his arm as he started to turn away. “Where are you going?”
“Big Eylla’s place is still open. I can see the torches from here.”
Since she couldn’t think of a good reason to hang on to him, she let him go.
“You should come with me.”
“No, thank you.”
“Your loss.” Walking backward, gracefully avoiding the other people still wandering the streets looking for entertainment, he winked. “You need to get laid more, sister-mine.”
“Sod off. You, too,” she added before the elderly man leering cheerfully at her could make the obvious suggestion.
Just before dawn, someone heavy heaved himself up onto her balcony. It sounded very much like he took out two or three other people on the way down.
Their second day in the South Reaches was very much like their first-except Bannon smelled faintly of cinnamon instead of limes. That night Hy Sa’lacvi had dinner with friends, ate sixteen crabs, drank half a barrel of pale beer, and threw up three times on the way home.
On day three, Orin attempted to shove Bannon into a cup-seller’s cart, inexplicably missed, and somehow ended up crashing through it himself. The resulting shouting match was made funnier by the minor wounds Orin had taken. That night, they watched from the roof as Hy Sa’lacvi mixed powders and potions in his back room. After the first small explosion, Mirrin joined them.
When Vree returned alone to the Cyprus Gardens, heavy breathing and the creak of leather told her she had company in her room. She thought about taking care of it herself but figured Bannon would never forgive her for blowing their cover without him. Noting where each man stood, she backed away from the door, returned to the atrium, gave the information to the large young woman on duty, and let the inn’s security handle it.
The intruders had swords out, but they weren’t expecting crossbows.
“Who says assassins have no sense of humor,” she murmured to herself as Orin and his crew were tossed down the front stairs loudly protesting that they were the governor’s guard. Orin seemed to be bleeding slightly again.
“We need to deal with them,” Vree muttered the next morning as she watched Orin shove that same poor water seller out of his way with a bandaged arm. Keln and the still nameless fourth kicked the man on the way by. “They’re starting to annoy me.”
Bannon glanced behind him. The four guards were barely three or four body lengths behind, shadowing them obviously, scowling, hands on their weapons, the noon crowds scrambling clear. “They look a little bruised.”
“They’ve had a rough couple of nights. Come on.” She led the way into a narrow alley between a candler’s and yet another ale house.
Rubbing at a bit of sandalwood-scented oil in the crease of his elbow, Bannon shrugged and followed.
From the look on his face when he joined them, Orin had not been expecting an ultimatum.
“Sod off, and we won’t kill you.”
His mouth opened and closed. Two of his men laughed. Reeno didn’t.
Vree reached into her belt pouch and pulled out a square of leather stamped with a black sunburst. “This is your last warning,” she sighed and tossed it onto the packed dirt between them.
“I’m guessing he served,” Bannon noted from where he was leaning against the candler’s wall. “And these three got deferments for being in the governor’s guard.”
“Orin!” Reeno grabbed the big man’s arm. “They’re…”
“…not armed with nothing but knives, and they’re runty,” Orin grunted. “Soldiers die on leave all the time, accidental like.”
Vree smiled at Reeno who whimpered again and ran.
That night, Hy Sa’lacvi went to another tile game, and Bannon came back to the room smelling faintly of cloves.
“We can’t keep this up indefinitely,” Vree sighed as they followed Hy Sa’lacvi while he shopped.
“We could kill him.”
“No,” she flicked an apricot pit at a street performer. He shrieked and grabbed his crotch. The crowd applauded. “Our orders say we have to be sure.”
“So we force his hand.”
They laid a black sunburst on the sarong he wore out in the evening. Mirrin looked up at them, yawned, and went back to sleep.
“He probably doesn’t know what it is,” Bannon reminded Vree when Hy Sa’lacvi returned to the shop in his sarong, apparently unaffected by the square of leather he carried in one hand. “He’s a foreigner, remember? Don’t worry,” he added as the square was passed to the woman in his shop. “She’ll…”
Her shriek could be heard clearly across the street in the ale house.
They got to their regular place on the roof in time to see Hy Sa’lacvi carefully stack the contents of his worktable into one covered basket and frantically shove a fistful of clothes and Mirrin into another. The calico kept up a steady protest as he pounded back down the stairs, through the shop, and into the street.
“Sounds like he’s got a demon in there,” Bannon snickered as they followed.
“Looks like he’s heading straight for the docks,” Vree pointed out.
“The Astoblite ships.”
“He ran right to his co-conspirators.”
“So we can kill him now?”
“Works for me.”
Hy Sa’lacvi was in the cabin of the farther ship with the Astbolite woman he played tiles with. His baskets on the floor at his feet, he was clutching her arm and speaking so quickly in Astbolite it sounded like one long, hysterical word.
“Speak Imperial!” she snapped at last. “Your accent is terrible at the best of times!”
Tucked in the shadows outside the louvered window, Vree doubted his Imperial was any better. Although she could hear separate words, hysteria gave them unintelligible inflections.
“Why are assassins trying to kill you?” the woman demanded at last.
“What about them?”
“I sell cheap because pay no duty!”
“You’re smuggling carpets into the South Reaches?” she asked as Bannon mouthed, He’s smuggling carpets? at Vree.
“Hide them with sorcery!”
“Oh, give it a rest, you’re no more a sorcerer than I am.”
Which was when Mirrin finally got the lid of the basket open. Yowling indignantly, she leaped up onto the table, scrambled through the piles of paper, knocked over the lantern, and threw herself out the window.
The lantern landed on the second basket.
Clutching the furious cat who’d landed in her arms, Vree danced along the railings, leaped to the other ship, skipped past an astounded group of sailors, and was on the dock before the purple flames had reached the top of the first mast.
Bannon was a heartbeat behind her.
“At least there’s no invasion,” he said as they slid into an alley while bells tolled and people yelled and Hy Sa’lacvi and the Astbolite captain’s voice could be heard screaming contradictory orders as the purple fire spread. “I think it’s time we left.”
“Past time,” Vree agreed, wiping her bleeding cheek on her shoulder as Mirrin settled in her arms and began to purr.
“You going to take her back to the shop?”
She glanced at the burning ships. The purple fire had chased both crews onto the docks and seemed to be following them. “No, I think I’d better take her with us.”
“What are we going to do with a cat?”
“Give it to Marshal Chela.”
“Well, if we’re bringing her something, we’d better get something for Commander Neegan, too.”
“So the Ilagian sorcerer was not the vanguard of an Astoblite invasion although he might have precipitated one since Prince Aveon is likely to be more than a little annoyed about losing those two ships. Half of the South Reaches has been reduced to purple ash and rubble, three of the governor’s personal security force are dead, someone named Big Eylla has sent me a bill for half a dozen full-body rubs…” Marshal Chela grabbed Mirrin just in time to keep the inkwell from going off the edge of her desk. “…and I seem to have acquired a cat. Did you have anything to add, Commander Neegan?”
“Just that this,” he told her, holding the souvenir dagger between thumb and forefinger, and staring down at the dangling shells in disbelief, “is exactly why assassins do not take leave.”
BLOODLINES by Jim C. Hines
Jim C. Hines has been writing for over a decade now, though he tries not to think about that. His humorous fantasy novels Goblin Quest and Goblin Hero are both available from DAW. His short fiction has appeared in over thirty magazines and anthologies, including Realms of Fantasy, Turn the Other Chick, and Sword & Sorceress. Jim lives with his beautiful wife and two wonderful children in Michigan, where he is patiently waiting for fame and fortune to arrive. They haven’t shown up yet, but Jim remains hopeful. He suspects they took a wrong turn in Albuquerque. If you see them, please direct them to www.jimchines.com so they can get in touch.
TO ONE ATTUNED, the scent of dark magic was unmistakable, even through the sweat and dust permeating the stamp mill. Valerica Eminescu rested her sledgehammer on the floor and wiped dust from her eyes, wondering if she had imagined it. Already the tang of burning blood, sharp and coppery and hot as the devil’s forge, had begun to fade. Her hand tightened around the handle of her hammer as she searched the crowded mill for anything unusual.
“You all right, Val?” asked Jim Daley, as he dumped another shovelful of crushed ore into the pans.
Before Valerica could answer, Jim’s shovel clattered from his hands, and he lurched forward.
Valerica tried to catch him. Her fingers brushed his coverall, and then he twisted sideways, staggering like a man too drunk to walk. Another miner shouted, but it was too late. Jim fell against the machinery and didn’t move.
There was no way for her to stop the riverwheel from rotating, lifting, and releasing the heavy weights of the mill. Designed to pulverize crushed ore, the stamps smashed down before Valerica had taken two steps.
She grabbed Jim’s arm and dragged him back. Blood spurted from his ruined right hand, spraying Valerica and darkening the dusty floor. Jim stared dumbly at his hands. Splintered bone protruded from the broken fingers of his right. His left hand hung limp. The stamps had torn skin and muscle near the wrist, and already his entire sleeve was dark with blood.
Someone shoved her aside, wrapping a belt around Jim’s left arm, then twisting a sheathed knife through the belt to tighten the tourniquet. Another miner handed him a steel flask and forced him to drink.
Nobody noticed as Valerica slipped out of the mill, hurrying around back to plunge her bloody hands into the stream. It wasn’t enough. She waded into the water, fighting the urge to strip off her bloody clothes and fling them away. Blood trailed downstream like smoke in the water.
“Control,” she said through clenched teeth. Her hands twisted the denim of her overalls. The yearning hadn’t been this strong since she left Romania, nearly ten years before.
She could almost hear her father’s voice whispering, “The blood burns with power, ready to be claimed.”
Valerica dropped to her knees and plunged her face into the water. The shock of cold finally purged the scent of magic from her nostrils. She remained there until her lungs threatened to burst, then sat back, gasping for air.
This was an accident, nothing more. The Red Eagle Silver Mine was a dangerous place. A sinkhole had claimed three men earlier this year. A cave-in had buried another group only last week.
Heavy footsteps crunched the rocks behind her. “What the hell is wrong with you?”
Henry Cooper had worked this mine since eighteen fifty-four, taking over as foreman a few years later. He was a God-fearing man with a temper hot as a smelting fire. A black bush of a mustache covered his mouth, and his bald head was damp with sweat.
“Cussed fool will probably be dead by dinner.” Henry crossed himself, then said, “I let you work this mine because you’re strong enough to swing a hammer, and you don’t complain. But this is dangerous work. Man’s work. If you’re going to run off and swoon every time-”
“I’m the one who pulled him away from the stamps,” Valerica said.
“That so?” Henry folded his arms. “Old Clyde says it looked like you were the one who pushed him in the first place.”
Valerica didn’t answer. Against the word of a man, hers was worthless as pyrite.
Eventually, Henry shrugged. “ ’Course, Clyde ’s half-blind, too.” He turned and spat. “So if you’re through with this little display, why don’t you get back in there and start cleaning the pans.”
As she returned to the mill, Valerica saw the other workers carrying Jim Daley downhill, toward the makeshift city of tents and cabins that surrounded the mine. Others ran out to help, and to learn who had been hurt.
Valerica ducked into the mill and did her best to lose herself in the work. She yanked the pans from beneath the stamps, then began to rinse away the pulp and mud. It was a mindless task, one that slowly allowed her to regain her control.
By the time she began to draw the quicksilver from the bottom of the pan, shaping it into crude, fist-sized balls, she felt human again. The splotches of blood no longer called to her, or if they did, she refused to listen.
Valerica’s cabin was a quarter mile south of the main camp, away from the others. She reached for the heavy canvas that served as a door, then yanked her fingers back. She might have imagined the smell this morning, but here the scent of fire and blood made her eyes water.
“Bill,” she whispered. “Alina!” Valerica ripped the door aside. Stepping into her cabin was like walking through cobwebs. Foulness permeated her home, a shadow that clung to her skin and seeped into her lungs. “Where are you?”
She found her adopted nephew in the corner. Bill was half-naked and trembling, his eleven-year-old body curled into a ball. Thin lines of blood crusted his forehead, the Cyrillic characters barely legible. Others marked his chest, over the heart.
Valerica grabbed him by the arms. Without thinking, she smeared her fingers through the blood on his chest, severing the enchantment.
“Aunt V?” Bill coughed and looked around. “What are you doing here?”
“Where is Alina?” She held him still as she checked his body for injuries. The cuts were shallow, and should heal quickly. She licked her thumb and scrubbed his forehead.
Bill looked down at himself, and his face went white. “How…who did this to me?” He tried to squirm away, but Valerica held him fast.
“Let me go.”
“Where is Alina?” Valerica shouted.
“In her crib!”
Valerica released him.
Bill’s shirt was balled up in the corner. He slipped it on and began doing up the buttons. “She’s been bawling all morning. I thought about mixing a bit of whiskey into the goat’s milk, but she finally settled down.” He pulled his suspenders up over his arms, then stopped, staring through the open door at the sunset. “Aunt V, what the hell is going on?”
Valerica was already moving into the other room. A set of bunkbeds stood against the wall beside the small crib Valerica had built almost a year ago. She knew it was empty the second she stepped into the room, but she tore through the blankets anyway. She ripped apart the lower bunk, then dropped to the dirt floor to check beneath the bed. There was no sign of her daughter.
Bill stared at the empty crib. “I didn’t doze off. My word on it. I tucked her in, safe as-”
His eyes shone, but he blinked back the tears. “Don’t be like that, Aunt V. I can help you search. Little Alina can’t have gone far. The pup can barely crawl.”
Valerica grabbed him. One hand twisted his collar, the other seized the seat of his pants. She dragged him from the cabin and set him down hard, facing the town below.
“You can help by going to church and praying for Alina.”
Bill scowled, his face red. “You don’t have to-”
“Now.” Perhaps a bit of power slipped into her words. Or maybe fear alone compelled him. Bill fled without another word.
“Forgive me,” she whispered. Slowly, her anger turned inward, where it belonged.
Father Fanshaw had refused to allow Valerica into his church, ever since he learned of her relationship with Elizabeth. But he wouldn’t refuse a frightened boy, and the church was the one place Bill should be safe.
Valerica closed her eyes. She should have known. With all of the commotion after Jim’s accident, who would have noticed a lone figure making his way through the camp?
She had known. She had simply refused to see.
“Watch over her, Elizabeth,” she whispered. “I swear to you I’ll save her. Keep our daughter safe until I can find her.”
It was a year and a half since Valerica had taken Bill’s mother into the desert. Elizabeth hadn’t understand at first, thinking it nothing more than a fancy picnic. There were so few chances to be alone, away from the gossip. But this morning Bill was in church, and the mine was shut down for Sunday worship.
The two women were a sight. Valerica was still caked with dust and sweat from yesterday’s work. Her loose miner’s overalls hid a muscular body, and her black hair was tucked into a blue cap. By contrast, Elizabeth Bemis was a proper lady. She wore a black silk hairnet with beads and blue ribbons dangling down her neck. Despite the heat, she refused to remove her bonnet, nor would she soak it down with water from the canteen, as Valerica had done with her cap.
“Where are we going?” Elizabeth asked, taking Valerica’s hand in hers and swinging them like a child.
“There.” Valerica pointed. The blood spell she had traced on the cracked boulder was gone, washed away by the elements, but the power remained. Trapped by the magic, a coyote whimpered at the base of the boulder. The animal favored her back left paw as she paced, and her ribs were clearly visible against the dirty gray fur. Even without Valerica’s spell, she would have died within a few days.
Valerica pulled out a razor she had borrowed from Elizabeth ’s cabin. She opened the blade and nicked her palm, then extended her hand so the blood dripped onto the coyote.
The coyote’s legs collapsed. Her tongue lolled from the side of her mouth as she struggled to raise her head.
“What are you doing?” Elizabeth asked.
“Did you mean it?” Valerica tightened her fist, squeezing more blood into the dirt. “What we talked about last week, after Bill’s birthday?”
Elizabeth stared. “That’s impossible. You can’t-”
“We can,” Valerica said. “If it’s what you want. There will be questions and rumors. Ugly rumors. Are you sure-”
“Yes,” Elizabeth said firmly. She bit her lip as Valerica moved toward the coyote. “Are you going to kill it?”
“She’s paralyzed. She won’t feel anything.” Valerica hesitated. “The spell will work better if we both…”
Elizabeth ’s hand closed over her own. They slit the coyote’s throat together, making the death as swift as possible.
“How?” Elizabeth asked.
“The coyote lived a long life, and carried many litters.” She wiped most of the blood from the razor. Blood sank into the engraving on the ivory handle, highlighting the initials G. L. B. Gary L. Bemis, Elizabeth ’s husband, who had died of influenza several years earlier.
Elizabeth pulled out a lace-trimmed handkerchief and began wiping the blood from her hand. “Is all magic so bloody for a strigoi viu?”
Valerica dropped the razor. “Where did you hear that term?”
“You whisper in your sleep sometimes,” Elizabeth said. She put her clean hand on Valerica’s shoulder. “When the nightmares take you. What does it mean?”
She stooped to retrieve the razor, never meeting Elizabeth ’s gaze. “The words are Romanian, the title for a child of power.” Not a lie, but far from the truth. “You may wish to turn away.”
Without waiting for a response, Valerica knelt and sliced open the coyote’s stomach and chest. She peeled back the skin and cracked the ribs, shoving organs aside until she exposed the pink of the uterus.
To Elizabeth ’s credit, she never averted her eyes. She was pale and sweating as Valerica used the razor to reopen the nick on her palm, but when it was Elizabeth ’s turn, she held her hand steady for the cut.
They clasped hands, pressing together until their palms and fingers grew slick, and blood dripped onto the coyote.
Blood burns with power. Jaw tight, she ignored the words, repeated so often by her father in another land, another life.
“How does it work?” Elizabeth whispered. “Which one of us will-” Her eyes widened, and her free hand went to her stomach.
Valerica grinned and put her own hand over Elizabeth ’s. “You will.”
Elizabeth ’s face was like the morning sun, burning away Valerica’s fears. “I can feel her,” she whispered, her voice soft with awe. “Valerica, it’s a her. Bill’s going to have a sister.”
For nine months, Valerica had known joy. She deluded herself into believing she could violate the laws of God and never suffer. She and Elizabeth had created life. They had done no harm. Surely God would bless a child born in such love.
Alina was born in winter. Elizabeth lost consciousness shortly after the contractions began. She never woke up.
The quarter moon provided enough light for Valerica to make her way back to the stamp mill. After checking to be sure it was abandoned, she crept inside.
Even in the darkness, she had no trouble finding Jim Daley’s blood. It called to her, stirring memories of that day with Elizabeth, the way the blood had coated her arms like a second skin.
Someone had washed away the worst of the blood, but enough remained, clotted in the cracks between the planks. Valerica opened her penny knife and used the blade to dig up clumps of bloody dirt, which she sprinkled in a small circle.
When she had enough, she pulled out a dented silver rattle, tarnished where Alina had gnawed on it. Giving the rattle a quick kiss, she placed it in the center of the circle.
An observer would have seen nothing. At most, one would hear a faint ringing as the rattle rolled to one side. Valerica picked it up, feeling a soft tug at her hand. She stood, wincing at the cramps in her legs. Outside, a glance at the moon told her only an hour had passed, but her muscles were tight and knotted.
She ignored the pain as the rattle led her uphill, past the miners’ main camp. She stopped behind the cooking tent when she realized where Alina must be.
A place of darkness, where screams would go unheard. A place where one could work magic, unseen by the eyes of God and men.
Up ahead, the entrance to the Red Eagle Silver Mine was an open mouth, laughing as it waited to swallow her in darkness.
The cabin door was still ripped asunder when Valerica returned for supplies. Candlelight flickered inside. Valerica hesitated, but there was no trace of new magic. “Who’s there?” she called.
Bill stepped into the doorway. “Now don’t get all sore, Aunt V. I know you said to stay away, but-”
“No.” Valerica stepped past him. She opened her trunk and grabbed a dark jacket, a handful of candles, and some matches. “Go back to the church.”
“Jim Daley’s body is down there, along with some whore who got herself stabbed.” He tried to act nonchalant, but Valerica saw him shiver. “They say she’s the third one this month.”
She nodded, unsurprised. “You can’t stay here. Return to town, and-”
“No.” He folded his arms, and Valerica had to fight back tears. Standing like that, jaw clamped with determination, Bill was the shadow of his mother. “I want to help you find my sister. She’s in the mine, isn’t she?”
“How did you-?” Valerica swore. Alina’s rattle had come from Elizabeth. No doubt it was the same one Bill had used as a baby. Valerica’s spell must have called to him, too. “You’re not coming.”
“It’s my fault she’s gone,” Bill insisted. “Let me help!”
“Bill, please.” She forced the coldness from her voice. “The man who took Alina is worse than a murderer. He’s probably the one who killed those prostitutes.” The more blood he harvested, the greater his power.
“What does he want with Alina?”
Valerica closed her eyes. He would take Alina to live among the dead. He would teach her power others never imagined. He would give her the strength to defeat death, and he would damn her forever. He would make her strigoi viu, as he had done to Valerica. And he would use her to control Valerica, to punish her for her disobedience. “Let me worry about Alina. If you interfere, you will join Jim Daley.”
“He didn’t kill me before,” Bill said.
Only because I would have sensed your death and come running. “You should thank God for your good fortune. If you return willingly to his grasp, he will make you beg for death.”
Bill reached behind his back and drew a Bowie knife. The blade was twice the length of his hand. “I’d like to see him try.”
“Where did you get that?”
“Don’t matter. You didn’t expect it, and neither will the bastard who took my sis.”
Valerica grabbed his arms and shoved him against the wall. Years of working in the mill had strengthened her muscles, so she barely noticed Bill’s weight. His dangling feet kicked her shins, and the knife point pricked her side, but she ignored it. Her right hand held him pinned. Her left twisted the knife from his hand and stabbed it into the wall beside his ear.
Bill’s face was white. He was breathing so quick he couldn’t talk. His panicked gasps reminded her of the coyote, right before she and Elizabeth had killed it.
“I know you love Alina,” she said. “But this man will eat your heart while your blood is still hot. The only way I can save Alina is by destroying him. Alone.”
“Who-” Bill swallowed and tried again, but the words didn’t come.
“My father,” Valerica said. As a child, she had been too weak and afraid to fight back, choosing instead to flee. Had she fought, he would have killed her…and Elizabeth would still be alive.
“What kind of man-”
“He is strigoi mort,” Valerica said. “Living dead.”
What she would become after her own passing.
Valerica had never won an argument with Elizabeth when she set her mind to something, and Bill was his mother’s son.
“You need me,” Bill said as he followed her toward the mine. “I’ve been running ice in those tunnels for a year. You ain’t never gone farther than the ore dump. Without me, you’ll get yourself turned about or trapped in a sinkhole.”
“If I need guidance, I’ll ask one of the men.”
“Those same men who say ladies oughtn’t be in the mine at all?” Bill shot back. “What are you gonna tell them, that your dead pa ran off with Alina?”
“When has anyone in this camp ever thought of me as a lady?” Still, he had a point. Her spell drew her toward Alina, but it couldn’t guide her through the labyrinthine twists of the tunnels.
“You’re scared for me, I know,” said Bill. “You worry like my own ma. But that’s my sister down there, and no walking corpse is going to stop me from getting her out.”
“You don’t know what he is.” Valerica’s father had been buried facedown, with sharpened stakes planted in the earth to impale his body should he try to return. It hadn’t been enough. Others had tried to warn them, urging her grandfather to burn the body, but he had refused. He hadn’t believed, and it had killed him.
Valerica had thought she would be safe in America, with an ocean between her and her father. The purity of water was one of the few things his kind feared. Had the ship gone down, or had he fallen overboard, it would have destroyed him. His body would have sunk quickly, drawn toward hell. She had seen it once as a child. Her father and his fellows had flung one of their number into a pond as punishment for some transgression. Like a twisted baptism, the immersion purified him, burning the very flesh from his bone.
She had underestimated her father’s determination. You are mine, little Valerica, to the last drop of blood in your veins.
“Please, Aunt V.”
Valerica bit her lip. If anything happened to Bill, Elizabeth ’s spirit would never forgive her. But without him, her slim chance to save Alina dwindled to nothing. “I’m sorry, love,” she whispered. To Bill, she said, “You may guide me through the mine. When we are close, you will stay hidden.” She raised a hand, chopping off his half-formed protest. “Promise me.”
Bill scowled, but nodded.
They walked in silence toward the square hole in the earth. To either side, iron pumps rested over narrow air shafts. With the pumps shut down for the night, the air inside would be hot, bitter, and stale.
The rattle in Valerica’s hand drew them down the ramp, into darkness.
Candlelight sent shadows flickering over the planks and timbers of the tunnel. The huge support beams locked together in an unending series of squares and triangles. Valerica’s hand was sweaty on the rattle.
“You still haven’t told me what your pa wants with my sister,” Bill said.
“He wants me.” Alina was born of dark magic, the strongest she had ever cast. That had to be what had drawn him from Romania. She had led him here. “He and his fellows taught me the black arts.”
She glanced at Bill. His face was pale, but he didn’t react. “So you’re some kind of witch?”
“The name is strigoi viu, those who are cursed from birth.” Her own evil paled beside the sins of those who returned, the ones who defeated death through blood and blackness. The ones like her father. “They teach their children the magic to escape damnation. To endure death and rise as strigoi mort.”
She wiped her face. “He would have burned me on the pyre to stop me from leaving.”
“Is that why he’s here? To kill you?”
“To reclaim me.” No doubt Alina as well. Her father’s blood pumped through Alina’s heart, too. She raised the candle. The tunnel leveled off here, opening into a loading platform. “We need to go deeper.”
“To the right,” Bill said. “The ladder’ll take us down.”
Bill had been right. Without his guidance, she would have been lost.
At the bottom of the ladder, she stopped to put a fresh candle into the holder. Wax dripped along the iron spike of the handle, singeing her callused fingers.
Bill pointed to a sign nailed to an overhead beam. “We’re at fifteen hundred feet. They closed this part down a week or so back, after the tunnel flooded.”
Valerica nodded, remembering the men who had barely escaped. Many had burns on their hands and faces from the steam.
“When they finally got it pumped dry, they lost a blasting team in a cave-in. Foreman wants to tunnel around, go after a more stable part of the vein. Don’t know why he didn’t-”
Valerica grabbed his arm. “He is there. In those tunnels.”
“No matter what you hear, no matter how fear compels you, do not follow. If I do not return, run to the surface.” She handed him the extra candles and several matches, as well as Alina’s rattle. “Flee as if your soul depends on it.”
She expected an argument, but he only nodded. Perhaps he could sense it too, the smell of decay and the heaviness of the shadows. The walls were hot and damp, as though Valerica moved through the bowels of an enormous serpent.
Valerica drew her penny knife and jabbed the tip into her forearm. A thin line of blood tickled her skin.
A small spell, undetectable against the stench of magic that filled this place. She used it to draw the shadows close, wrapping herself in darkness. Her candleflame took on a blue hue, invisible to any but herself. She saw Bill searching, proof her spell had worked.
Her father had the blood of his victims to fuel his power. Valerica had only herself. But she had slipped past him once before, in Romania.
These deeper tunnels were rough and unfinished. Loose rock and dirt made her footing treacherous. She moved cautiously, testing the ground before each step.
She smelled the fire before she saw it, an oily smoke that dried her eyes and filled her nose with the scent of burned meat. She glanced behind to be certain Bill hadn’t followed, then moved closer. The tunnel split, veering off at right angles. Her father was to the right.
Knife raised, she moved closer. A knife blow wouldn’t kill him, but her blood gave the blade power. So long as she struck quickly, before he could defend himself, she had a chance.
“Hello, Valerica.” The dry voice plunged her into despair. “Come, let me look upon my only daughter.”
Running would only anger him. Praying Bill would have the sense to flee, she stepped around the corner. Her father was unchanged. He wore loose trousers and an embroidered, off-white shirt. His face was the color of old linen. Even his lips were bloodless. Dirty tangles of black hair hung past his shoulders. He reached for her, and his yellow nails were like claws.
Valerica raised her knife. “Where is Alina?”
He nodded to a broken rail car leaning against the wall, up the tunnel. Valerica could feel his power reaching for her, like insects burrowing through her skin. She ignored it, hurrying past the small fire to peer into the car. She jammed the pointed handle of the candle holder into the wall between the planks and reached for her daughter.
Alina lay naked, sprawled in a bed of dirt and straw. Blood crusted her round cheeks and pale chest. Valerica lifted her. Alina didn’t respond, and Valerica felt like her own heart had stopped beating. She forgot about her father, about Bill, about everything but the tiny, bloody body in her arms.
“Open your eyes, child.” She scrubbed desperately at the blood. The cuts were too shallow to have killed her. She fought to keep from shaking Alina. “Please.” She smeared her own blood over the cuts, using all of her strength to try to break her father’s spell.
Alina whimpered softly, and tears blurred Valerica’s vision. “You’re safe now,” she said, slipping into Romanian. “Tu eşti în siguranţă.”
“You thought I would harm her?” asked her father. “Why would I hurt one with such potential?”
Valerica ignored him, rocking her daughter against her chest. For the first time, she saw the shadows farther down, partly concealed by a bend in the tunnel. Shadows resolved into bodies as she walked closer. Bill’s lost blasting team, no doubt. Lost, but not to a cave-in. Still holding Alina, she approached until she was certain they were dead. The chests were torn open and the limbs broken. She turned away.
“What potential?” she asked.
He smiled. Decay had taken most of his teeth, and the ones that remained were brown, whether from rot or blood, she couldn’t say.
“You’ve done well, Valerica,” he said. “Can’t you taste the power in her blood?”
She backed away. He had swallowed the blood of her baby. That was how he had pierced Valerica’s illusion. She wanted to vomit.
“But you’ve done nothing to prepare her for the darkness,” he went on.
“Alina is innocent.” Unlike her father, whose birth caul had covered his face like a mask. Even as a babe, he had hidden his face from God.
He laughed, a sound of genuine amusement that pierced her with memories from her childhood. “The girl is damned, Valerica. I can smell the darkness enveloping her. Your darkness. You damned her, from the very moment you created her.”
“No.” It was Valerica who had cast the spell. The mark was on her soul, not Alina’s. “She was baptized the week after her birth.” Father Fanshaw had insisted. Elizabeth had borne a bastard child, and he wished to cleanse Alina of that sin. Valerica had been all too willing to comply, even if she wasn’t permitted to attend the ceremony. “She is pure.”
“I can save her from the hellfire of damnation. We can save her. Would you deny her that protection?” Her father scoffed. “You know nothing, Valerica. I have faced death. I know the fate you would lay upon her.”
She shifted Alina to her left arm and pointed her knife at his throat. Before she could take a step, the wooden handle twisted. Splinters drove into her palm, and the knife dropped to the ground, warped by his magic.
“You should have fled,” he said. “But I understand. It is difficult to abandon one’s child, yes?” He clapped his hands. At his feet, the small fire flashed, and suddenly Valerica felt Alina sliding from her grasp.
Valerica tried to catch her, but blood had turned Alina’s skin slick. Valerica’s fingers clamped around Alina’s leg, slipped. Alina wailed as she fell headfirst to the-
The fire faded. Valerica staggered back, nearly dropping Alina for real. She clutched Alina as tightly as she could without hurting her. The strigoi mort were adept at drawing nightmares from the mind. After so many years, Valerica was unprepared for such an assault.
Another flare, and Valerica stood in the desert again, holding the bloody razor. But where the coyote had been, now Bill lay butchered on the rocky earth. She tried to look away, but the vision followed.
“Ah, yes, I almost forgot.” Her father smiled as this second illusion faded. He licked his lips. “The valiant brother. Your baby’s blood calls to him as well. Shall I show him the fate which awaits him?”
Before Valerica could move, the fire brightened again. This time Valerica was unaffected, but Bill’s terrified screams echoed through the tunnel.
“You could fight me.” He pointed a bony finger at Alina. “Her blood is quite potent, Valerica. Your broken knife should be more than adequate to slit her throat.”
Valerica shuddered. She returned Alina to the rail car just as another nightmare took her. She pressed her forehead to the wall, eyes squeezed tight as she watched Elizabeth burn.
He knew she wouldn’t hurt Alina, but he wanted her to fight. He had the strength of the dead miners, as well as his victims on the surface. Nothing Valerica did could overpower him. He would wear her down until she had no strength left. Then he would take her. Her and Alina both. Bill, he would simply kill. Or more likely, he would taunt Bill’s mind until he took his own life.
Valerica grabbed her candle from the wall. Too shaken to stand, she bent down to kiss Alina’s forehead.
“Let them go,” she said. She rested her arms on the broken car. Alina reached up to tug a lock of Valerica’s hair. Valerica smiled and squeezed Alina’s hand, then brought her own fingers to the base of the candleflame, where the fire was hottest. “I’ll come back to Romania with you. I’ll do whatever you ask.”
The calluses dulled the pain for a moment, but soon the fire burned deeper, searing the nerves. Her arm shook as the skin of her fingers turned red, then black. Blood began to drip from cracked skin.
“Valerica, you are already mine, as is your daughter. Do you truly think I would accept such a bargain?”
Valerica looked up. “No.” She pinched her fingers together, screaming as the pressure sent new pain through her hand and up her arm. Collapsing against the cart, Valerica drew the fire into her own blood, then flung it away, down the tunnel, toward the broken bodies of the blasting team.
“Bun rămas, father.” Farewell. Perhaps this time he would stay buried.
He stepped toward her, and then thunder and light filled the tunnel. Her tiny flame had been enough to light only a single stick of the dynamite carried by those poor miners, but when it exploded, it triggered the rest. A wall of wind toppled the rail car. Valerica caught Alina with her good hand and rolled, covering her with her body. A futile gesture that would do nothing against the collapse of the tunnel, but she couldn’t help herself.
Stone and dirt rained down, but the tunnel held. Alina burrowed her head into Valerica’s chest.
Her ears rang, and she could see her father striding toward her, but she was too battered to flee. Blood welled from his chapped lips. His whispers charged the air with magic far more powerful than Valerica could fight. Then he stopped. In a single heartbeat, rage transformed to fear.
“Valerica!” he shouted, his bloodshot eyes wide. He backed away.
Water had begun to rise. The explosion hadn’t brought down the tunnel; it had cracked the floor, breaking through to the water below. The fire disappeared in a hiss of steam and smoke, and the tunnel went black. By the time Valerica pulled herself upright, the water was already to her waist.
“Where is the ladder?” Panic gave her father’s voice an edge she had never heard before.
The sharp scent of magic overpowered the salty, muddy smell of the water. The planks along the wall began to burn. Her father held one hand in the fire, maintaining the spell as he frantically searched for the way out. Spotting the ladder, he waded away from the wall.
He had only taken a single step when a surge of water knocked his legs from beneath him. He lurched back, grabbing the wall with his fingers and straining to keep his head above the surface. Valerica could see terror on his face. For so many years he had evaded death, mocking the laws of God.
He reached for her, and his arm was little more than bone. “Daughter!”
“Bun rămas,” she whispered.
A moment later, he was gone.
Any satisfaction she might have taken from his destruction was lost in her fear for Alina.
Valerica raised her daughter over her head, trying to get to the ladder, but the water was rising too quickly. Alina squirmed and batted Valerica’s hands. Over the pounding in her ears, Valerica could make out the sound of crying.
“I’m sorry,” Valerica said. Her father’s fire died, and Alina began to scream. She wanted to hold Alina close, but the water was already to her neck. “You’ll be with Elizabeth soon. You’ll be safe.”
She lost her balance. Salty water scalded her throat and face. She kicked as hard as she could, desperately trying to keep Alina above the surface. Her stomach convulsed, and her body tried to gasp and vomit at the same time.
Alina kicked and twisted. She started to slip away.
“Please, God!” Valerica tightened her grip as she floated through the darkness. “ Elizabeth, help me.”
She knew Alina would die. She had known it from the moment she touched the flame. But not alone. She would die with Valerica, safe from the darkness of strigoi magic. And she would go to be with Elizabeth. But still Valerica fought, desperate to give Alina every last second of life.
A hand grabbed her wrist. She tried to twist away. How could her father still survive? The water should have destroyed him. She pulled harder.
And then a quiet, frightened voice said, “I’ve got you, Aunt V.”
Valerica stood with Bill and Alina behind the church, near the back of the cemetery. It was the first time Valerica had visited since Elizabeth ’s funeral.
She coughed, then flinched, but Alina continued to sleep. Her cuts had begun to heal, and she seemed unharmed, aside from a powerful fear of being alone in the dark. Valerica prayed that would fade with time. Until then, she and Bill were scrounging every extra candle they could get their hands on.
“I want it to be here,” Valerica said. She reached out with her bandaged hand to touch the small gravestone. “With her.”
Bill nodded. “Shouldn’t you tell Father Fanshaw?”
“He wouldn’t understand. He thinks I’m damned.” She chuckled. If Father Fanshaw had known the truth, he would have burned her alive.
“You’ve got my word,” said Bill. “I’ll cremate you myself if I have to. God willing, that won’t be for a good long time, though.” He stared at the grave. “Are you really cursed? I mean, would you really come back like him?”
“I don’t know.”
“What about Alina?”
Valerica shook her head. “Alina is innocent. The potential may be in her blood. But the power must be taught, passed down from parent to child. No one will teach Alina while I draw breath.”
“Parent to child,” Bill repeated. “He called Alina your daughter.”
Valerica took a deep breath. Bill must have heard the rumors, but he had never once asked about her relationship with Elizabeth. “Yes,” she said. “Elizabeth’s and mine.”
“Oh.” He pursed his lips. “That’s mighty strange.” Clearly he didn’t understand. Just as clearly, it didn’t matter one whit.
She laughed, tried to smother it so she wouldn’t disturb Alina, and ended up coughing again instead. Alina’s eyes blinked open. Valerica hummed an old folk song, bouncing Alina until her eyes eased shut once more. “Yes, it is,” she whispered.
“She’s got my mama’s face, but your eyes,” Bill said.
Valerica grabbed him and planted a quick kiss on the top of his head. “Thank you.” Gingerly, she lifted Alina and passed her into Bill’s arms. “She needs to be changed. I’ll be back shortly.”
Bill made a face, but didn’t argue. As he took Alina back to their cabin, Valerica knelt and pressed her hand to the headstone of her lover. “Thank you.”
She leaned forward to kiss the dusty stone. For the first time in years, she felt free.
She felt alive.
HANG TEN by Jean Rabe
Jean Rabe is the author of eighteen fantasy novels and more than three dozen short stories. An avid, but truly lousy gardener, she tends lots of tomato plants so her dogs can graze in the late summer months. In her spare time (which she seems to have less of each week), she enjoys role-playing, board, and war games; visiting museums; and riding in the convertible with the top down and the stereo cranked up. Visit her web site at www.jeanrabe.com.
“I DIDN’T CARE much for Tobago Cays.” Jillian rested her knitting in her lap and turned her head so she could better see her companion.
He was stretched out on a lounge chair mere inches away, muscles gleaming from a mix of sweat and suntan oil. She licked her lower lip when she stared at his abs. Not the proverbial ounce of fat on him, she decided, pronouncing him at a little more than eleven stone.
“In the Caribbean, right, Tobago Cays?” His voice was rich and melodic.
She nodded. “The Cays are beautiful, certainly, but they are basically deserted. No one lives there. Just a stop for tourists, snorkeling and drinking and…”
He raised a blond eyebrow and smiled, the sun glinting off his polished teeth. “I would love to be on a deserted island with you, Jillian.”
“We just met.” She blushed and picked up her yarn. Today she knitted with a worsted weight spun from an Angora goat, mohair the label read. A natural fiber, the yarn was “breathable” and slightly elastic, yet warm. She slipped the stitch from the left needle to the right, passing the previously slipped stitch. “I prefer working with cashmere,” she said to change the subject. “Expensive, especially if blended with the hair of baby alpacas and some merino wool. But it is soft to the touch. Or silk. I like the feel of that. I’ve worked with silk yarns a few times, blended with mercerized cotton to make it stronger. But this mohair, it was the only black skein in the ship’s stores. I forgot to pack yarn.”
“When you left for your cruise to Tobago Cays?”
“No, I had a cashmere skein with me then. Black, of course. But I worked all the way through that. I was in such a hurry to make this cruise on time that I didn’t pack one…”
“Andrew. Just call me Drew.”
“Drew.” She smiled sweetly.
“So you cruise often?”
“So you just came from the Caribbean, Jillian? From Tobago Cays?”
She let out a sigh, apparently unable to get away from the subject of traveling. She considered leaving to escape it, just getting up and going to another deck. But he was too easy on her eyes. “A few weeks ago, as part of a cruise I’d booked with a group-a knitting circle from Honesdale. We were in Barbados or Martinique first. No, Union Island, I think. Those Caribbean spots are all a blur. Took a charter catamaran from Union Island as part of the package to get to Tobago Cays.” She used her forearm to brush a strand of hair out of her eyes. “Oh, the colors were lovely, a veritable kaleidoscope of turquoise, green, and gold reefs, the sky and water so clear. Colors I’d knit a sweater with some day. But…there was not a single village to be seen on the Cays…”
“Drew. St. Vincent and the Grenadines appealed to me more. I think my favorite stop on that particular cruise was the little islands south of Guadeloupe. Terre-de-Haut is only three miles long, but it’s an especially romantic spot, with a long lane shaded by bougainvillea. Unfortunately, I was there with knitters, all women, and there wasn’t a single man under retirement age on that cruise.”
“Good thing I bumped into you on this cruise. I’ll save you from boredom and bald guys.”
She patted his arm, finding it firm and muscular. “I did have a good time, Drew, in Terre-de-Haut. The highlight? An old cemetery with tombstones dating back centuries. The names you could read-barely-showed the island’s Norman history. Conch shells, they decorated the cemetery and were meant to honor the island’s sailors who were lost at sea.”
“Surely there were better things to occupy you than graveyards.”
“Death…the method of death…interests me,” she said almost too softly for him to hear. Louder: “I remember a charming little village with an art gallery and a superb restaurant in Terre-de-Bas. Illes des Saintes…” She said this with an appealing, but failed, attempt at a French lilt. “…was lovely. Eight islands. Volcanic dots, the guide called them. Pointe-à-Pitre had some excellent shops. The best fishermen in all of the West Indies are said to come from Illes des Saintes. I spent one morning just watching them haul in their blue nets-filets bleus. One late cloudless night I lay on the sand and looked up at the stars. There must have been a million, all sparkling like diamonds on a black velvet dress.”
“Have you packed such a dress on this cruise? You could wear it to dinner this evening with me.” Drew swung his legs around so he was sitting and looking directly at her. His gaze inched from the tips of her manicured toenails, up her shapely brown legs and lingered on her flat stomach. Her string bikini left little to his imagination. His eyes traveled up farther, resting again, then finally locked onto her unblemished face. “You will join me for dinner, won’t you, Jillian? I’d hate to dine alone on my vacation-the first real holiday I’ve taken in three years.”
She didn’t answer him right away, knitting several more stitches so she could get to the end of a row. She favored a mix of plain stitches in the Continental style, using circular needles.
“What are you making? A ski mask? It looks like a ski mask, but you’ve left no holes for the eyes or the mouth.”
“It’s something like a ski mask.” She finished another row then put the piece, yarn, and needles in her beach bag. She rose from the lawn chair and rolled her shoulders, working a kink out of her neck. Then she stepped to the railing and let the water spray her. “Drew, what time is dinner tonight?”
His smile reached his eyes, and he quickly joined her at the railing. Drew was tanned, even all over from hours surfing in the sun. He’d explained that as a professional surfer he regularly “hung ten” up and down the coast of California, but also worked Hawaii once in a while. He wasn’t sure she was paying attention, and he intended to mention it all again at dinner and afterward, impress her by telling her about the size and ferocity of the waves he’d ridden. Maybe he’d show her one of the pictures he brought, tucked in his duffel for the wow factor.
“The first dinner service is at eighteen hundred, Jillian. So…you are joining me?”
“I’d be delighted.”
She wore a black satin dress with spaghetti straps. The material clung to her, stopping midway down her thighs. The black leather shoes she wore were toeless.
They had a table by a window, and though it was set for four, they were alone for the early meal.
“She wouldn’t go eight stone.” Jillian looked at a reed-thin waitress threading her way between tables. “Nine stone, at least,” she said of a waitress who was considerably more voluptuous.
“So you travel a lot, Jillian?” Drew poured her a glass of wine, a Merlot from a Sydney winery.
“In the past few years, sure. I’ve had to-for work.” The surfer was so easy to talk to. Too busy with work, she hadn’t enjoyed a man’s company in so many months.
“I travel for work, too, catching the best waves. California. Hawaii. You?”
“ England, Australia, South Africa.” She rattled the countries off like items on a grocery list. “ Japan, South Korea, India, Pakistan, Iran, Egypt, Syria, Jordan, Lebanon, Kuwait, and Bangladesh.”
“I’m impressed. And now with this cruise, Singapore and Malaysia. We dock in Penang tomorrow.” He waited until she nodded that the wine was suitable, and he poured more. “So what sort of work takes you around the world?”
Her shoulders sagged for just an instant, accompanied by a sigh. She usually didn’t discuss what she did for a living, but he was so very easy to talk to. Besides, if she told him the truth, he’d either be repulsed and leave her alone or accept her profession and win a second date. Either would be acceptable.
“I hang people.”
Drew had been sipping the wine, but now sputtered it up. “S-s-sorry. Did you say that you hang people?”
She ran her thumb around the lip of the wine glass. It hummed, showing that it was made of crystal. “Yes, I hang people.” Jillian took a swallow of the wine and held it in her mouth. The taste filled her senses. She studied him over the rim of the glass. He seemed honestly curious, though perhaps morbidly so. Earlier she’d put him at a little more than eleven stones. But he had broad shoulders and probably went an even dozen. All of it muscle. “Look, Drew, mine is a very old profession. The Persians invented it more than twenty-five hundred years ago-for men convicts. Women were strangled at the stake, for decorum I suppose. And the English embellished it, starting way back with the Saxons.”
He cocked his head.
“The English, for especially heinous crimes, sentenced a person to be hanged, drawn, and quartered. They were careful with the knot and length of rope so the criminal wasn’t completely asphyxiated. They needed to spare him for the worse ordeals. Barbaric. A simple hanging is the only way to go. You see, hanging is spectacular, visual, and should serve as a deterrent. It has none of the blood a beheading or firing squad would bring, and it is inexpensive and relatively painless…if done properly.”
Drew shuddered, but gestured for her to go on.
“I first practiced my craft in the States, learning it from my father, he from his father. My dad taught me the history of it, too. In Britain, more than fifty-five hundred were hanged between 1800 and the mid 1960s. In the United States, about thirteen thousand men and five hundred women were hanged from the early 1600s to the mid 1990s. The first man ordered hanged by a proper court of law in the States was Jose Forrni on December tenth in 1852. The second was William Shippard, hanged on July twenty-eighth at the Presido two years later. They said ten thousand came to watch that one. In 1859, Tipperary Bill-William Morris-was hanged. A little more than a year after that, James Whitford. John Devine, called The Chicken, killed James Crotty and was hanged in May 1878 for it. And…”
“You’ve quite the mind for details, Jillian.” His hand shaking slightly, Drew refilled her wine glass.
“But there isn’t enough work in the States anymore. Through the years fewer and fewer states allowed hanging. Delaware stopped the practice a few years back. New Hampshire permits it now only if a lethal injection can’t be administered. And Washington state…an inmate has to ask to be hanged, otherwise he gets the needle.”
“So it’s like being laid off, huh? Can’t hang folks in America.”
She giggled at that notion, and at the wine which was going to her head. Yes, Drew was definitely a dozen delicious stone. “Hanging is still the most prevalent form of execution in all the world. More than a hundred people were hanged in about a dozen countries in 2002. A year later only a few less. In 2004…”
“So you’ve been traveling the world just for work?”
She drained the glass and let him pour more. “For the past year I’ve been cruising to countries where they still hang people. Well, I had to fly into Botswana and Zimbabwe. And I passed on Iraq. Saddam ordered a lot of hangings, but I wanted no part of that. Some other Middle Eastern countries, I flew into them, too. Hard to cruise into a desert. Ah, all the places to go and people to kill.” She leaned back in the chair as the waitress-nine and a half stones-delivered their lobster tails. “It’s a respectable profession, Drew, hanging.”
He took a piece of lobster and dipped it in butter. “Probably more respectable than mine. People think surfers are bums.”
“Hang ten?” She giggled. “I’ve hanged a lot more than ten. I think I hanged eleven just last year alone.”
Drew nearly choked on the lobster. He washed it down with a big swallow of wine and waved a hand. “Would you bring another bottle?”
A passing waiter, hefty for his short frame at fourteen stones, nodded.
“This bothers you, doesn’t it, Drew?” No second date, she sweetly pouted.
“N-n-no. I find it fascinating, Jillian. Truly.” He was quick to take another bite of lobster and finish the last of the wine. He kept his gaze on the table setting. A moment later, the waiter returned with a new bottle. Drew didn’t bother to sniff the cork. “Terribly fascinating, dear Jillian. D-d-do you throw the lever that sends them dropping through the gallows floor?”
She forked a small piece of the lobster and took a delicate bite. She closed her eyes and savored it, then took a second, this time dipping it in butter. How many people ordered lobster for a last meal, she wondered. “No, not at all, Drew. I couldn’t stomach that, actually flipping the switch so to speak.”
“But you said you hang people.” The wine had helped Drew, his hand wasn’t shaking any longer when he refilled both their glasses.
“I tie the knots and judge the length of rope. The rope is very important, whether you’re working with a short or a long drop.”
“Long drop?” He stuffed a large chunk of lobster in his mouth, followed by a forkful of baked potato dripping sour cream. He chewed quickly. “What’s a long drop?”
Jillian ate thoughtfully before answering. “In Britain, 1872, William Marwood introduced what is called the long drop when Frederick Horry was hanged at Lincoln Prison. He maintained it was a more humane way to kill someone. See, the short drop had been used almost exclusively prior to that year.” She took a few more nibbles, watching Drew, who seemed to be studying the pattern along the rim of his dish. “In a long drop, a convict’s neck is broken because he falls a certain distance and then is stopped suddenly with a sharp jerk. The scientific principal behind it is that the falling body accelerates with a force of gravity. However, the noose is restricting the head. So when the rope plays out and the body stops, the noose-the knot at the side of the neck-delivers a blow. That blow, in conjunction with the downward momentum, ruptures the spinal cord. Instant unconsciousness results, followed by rapid death because the neck breaks. There’s a certain amount of physics involved.”
Drew had stopped eating.
“In later years, and I use this method now, a metal eyelet is slipped into the noose knot. It breaks the neck more assuredly. The knot is crucial, you know. Most are simple slip knots. But the traditional noose, which is the one my father favored, has five to thirteen coils, and these slide down the rope. He told me he always tried for a dozen because thirteen was just unlucky for him. But that many coils…you tended to strangle the convict, instead of simply break his neck.” She pointed to her own neck, under her left jaw. “I favor the coiled noose detailed in an old US Army manual. The head snaps back so quickly and with so much power that the spinal cord is severed between the superior and the top vertebra, basically slicing the connector to the brain stem.”
Jillian finished her lobster tail, then the glass of wine. She felt warm and tingly and happy to have a dinner companion who seemed interested in her work. “In May 2005-oddly on a Friday the thirteenth-Shanmugam Murugesu was hanged by the long drop in Changi Prison in Singapore.” She had trouble with the name, the wine making her tongue unwieldy. “I hope to participate in a hanging or two in Singapore while we’re in port. But…you asked about the long drop and my work.”
“Yes.” Drew’s word sounded more like a croak. Another mouthful of wine helped. “I did ask you about this drop thing.”
She beamed. At the far end of the dining room a five-piece ensemble started playing a slow bluesy number. She swayed to the beat. “The long drop, It’s the method I prefer, but I yield to whatever is practiced in the country I’m working for. It’s all based on a person’s weight. Remember that man who brought this bottle? The short one with the love handles? I figure he’s two hundred pounds, or fourteen stone. I’d use an eight-foot length for a drop. On the other hand, the little waitress over there? The one that looks like she might have an eating disorder? I’d put her at a hundred pounds, tops, that’s a little less than eight stone. She’d need a longer rope, say…ten feet. The smaller the person, the longer the rope. You’d need a rope about nine and half feet long for me, one about eight feet, four inches for you. It’s all physics. If the rope’s too long, you risk decapitating the convict.”
“Physics.” Drew refilled their glasses and declined selecting something from the desert tray.
“The rope itself makes a lot of difference. I always have a nylon cord with me, just in case. But I like to use a nice manila hemp about an inch in diameter. I ask for it to be boiled, because that takes the elasticity out of it. I try to make sure it’s waxed or greased, coated with soap if that’s all that’s available. Makes the knot slide real easy.”
“Easy.” Drew gave Jillian the last of the wine. “Soap makes it easy.” He swallowed hard and cupped his hands around his goblet. “Physics.”
Jillian drank the wine a little too quickly, as she realized she’d revealed a little too much about her profession and feared Drew’s lobster was going to make another appearance on his plate. Time to leave.
“I’m sorry, Drew.”
“For what?” He carefully sat the glass on the table and fussed with his napkin. “You shouldn’t be sorry. I asked.”
“And I told you I had places to go and people to kill. Not the best dinner conversation.” She pushed away from the table and shakily stood. “I think I’ll get a cup of coffee and head back to my cabin, work on my knitting.”
He stood too, a little more sturdy on his feet than Jillian. “That ski mask you’re making…it really isn’t a ski mask, is it?”
She shook her head and studied the tips of her leather shoes.
“It’s a hood, isn’t it? For whoever you’re going to hang next.”
“Perceptive, Drew the surfer.”
“I might be a bum, but I’m not a stupid one.”
She took a few steps and wobbled, and he came up to her side. “I’ll get you back to your cabin, so you can get that coffee and finish your project. We make port tomorrow and…”
“And, yes, I’ve someone to hang there. I’d like to give him that hood.”
The ensemble started an up-tempo jazzy piece as Drew and Jillian wended their way through the dining room, swaying from the wine and the gentle pitch of the deck, and a little bit from the music.
“Maybe I’ll see you in port tomorrow,” Jillian said.
Drew pulled his lips into a thin line. “Well…I…Jillian…I don’t think so.”
“I’ve turned off Mr. Twelve Stone.” She let out a great sigh. “Not the first time.”
They didn’t speak again until she pointed to her cabin door and fumbled for the key. Her fingers awkward, he opened the door for her.
“I’d ask you in for a drink,” she said. “But…”
“I think I’ve had too much already.” He looked past her and saw the almost-finished hood laid flat on her bed, the coil of nylon cord on top of her nightstand. “A lovely lady you are.”
She didn’t detect the sarcasm in his voice.
Jillian tipped her face up and he gave her a polite kiss on the cheek. She tottered inside, surprised and pleased that he followed her after a moment and closed the door. “You’re interested in that drink after all, Drew?”
He shook his head and pulled her close for another kiss, his hands inching up her arms then circling her neck and squeezing until she fell unconscious. Then Drew slipped on a pair of gloves he’d kept in his pocket and put the partially finished hood over her head. He slid the cord around her neck and coiled it twelve times before tying a slip knot. She was slight enough that he could force her body out the window. And he was strong enough that he could absorb her weight when she dropped nine and a half feet. He thought he would hear her neck pop, but the wind and the water was too loud, and the couple arguing in the next cabin was noisy.
He tied the end of the rope to the window latch, satisfied that it would hold. If he hadn’t snapped her neck from the drop, she’d die within minutes of asphyxiation.
He knew a lot about hanging, too.
For the next several minutes he busied himself with wiping away all trace of his fingerprints. No one had seen him in the hall, so he’d get away with this one, too. A serial killer on vacation, Drew hadn’t intended to strike at anyone during the trip. Jillian proved too tempting, though.
“I must go on more cruises,” he said, as he glided out the door and down the empty corridor toward his own room. “This has been my best vacation ever.”
Drew felt a rush of excitement and accomplishment.
He’d just hanged his tenth.
FEALTY by S. Andrew Swann
S. Andrew Swann in a long-time resident of Cleveland, Ohio, who has been writing professionally for the past fourteen years. He has published over sixteen novels under various pseudonyms, and this is his fourth short story publication.
THE HALL WAS long, dark, and cold. Stone vaults arched overhead, and windows high on the walls let in no light. A circle of black candles cast an unsteady light around the armored figure of Rossal de Molay. He knelt inside the circle, head down before the pomm