Authors: Barbara Kloss
The boy was…
. Just like that. And I suddenly found myself face to face with an enraged and very ugly giant.
he giant's huge fist flew straight at my head. Apparently, he'd unpinned himself.
Thankfully, his size made him slow and I managed to duck just in time. Instead of landing in my face, his fist hit the huge pile of crates behind me. The crate that had taken the brunt of the force exploded and little pieces of wood scattered everywhere. I found my dagger on the ground and snatched it up, right as he punched again. I dodged at the last second, noticing the small crowd gathering in my periphery.
So much for going unnoticed.
You're the one who picked a fight with a giant. You just
to interfere, per usual.
—not now, please.
Alex and Vera rushed forward, trying to distract the giant away from me. I thought it might work, too, until the giant swung both arms, easily throwing Alex and Vera back into the crowd.
I fleetingly wondered why Alex or Vera didn't just use magic, but then I realized the use of such power would immediately expose us for what we were.
The giant pummeled through the wooden support beam I'd been standing behind, and the balcony of a second story collapsed. I rolled just in time to avoid being buried beneath the rubble. Luckily, the collapse put a few stone-and-mortar obstacles between my giant and me. I scrambled to Vera and Alex, who yanked me to my feet, and the three of us pushed and shoved our way through a now very large crowd. Once we emerged, we ran—right into a small band of armed men who all looked as if they'd just stepped out of a gladiator ring.
"Not so fast," barked the one in front, sword raised.
I sighed inwardly. Couldn't we catch a break? I was beyond exhaustion, my left arm felt like a lead brick, and my legs were starting to feel tingly.
"You three come with us," continued the man who had spoken, and the guard beside him withdrew a set of handcuffs.
Vera unsheathed both of her swords, and Alex released me so that he could draw his. I drew my dagger, though considering how it trembled in my hand, I didn't think I'd be much help in this fight. The giant bellowed behind us, a barbaric, angry sort of sound, while the guards in front held swords raised and an eager crowd of spectators huddled all around us. Alex, Vera, and I each exchanged a glance, and then Vera charged with a yell.
Mere seconds before we collided with the guards, a voice rang through the streets, "
Everyone and everything stilled at the sound—even the giant. There was a thickness to the air, some kind of invisible power that held everything tightly in its grip. It was suffocating and heavy, as if the air had suddenly turned to sludge, and then as fast as it had come, it was gone.
The voice had belonged to a man standing in the doorway of a nearby building. He stepped out of the shadows, and the crowd parted for him. He looked so out of place here in all this filth. He stood out like a priest in a brothel. His red robes were clean and trimmed in gold, his dark hair neatly cropped, and he wore a gold hoop in one ear like a pirate. Each finger was decorated with a jeweled ring, and when he closed those fingers into a fist, the air shuddered with power.
Out of the corner of my eye, I saw the giant flee behind one of the buildings, and some of the onlookers had already slipped away.
"I fear you are abusing my guests." The man's voice was smooth and controlled as his intelligent dark eyes leveled a threat on the armed men.
The rest of the crowd scattered, but the guards remained, and they looked a little frightened. The one in front—the one who had spoken earlier—dropped to his knee. "I didn't know, my liege. I never would have issued the command."
"Perhaps you should usher yourself and your men away before I decide to find guards who
"Of course, my liege," the man replied, and he and his men took the opportunity to retreat—quickly.
looked back at the three of us. No doubt he had been very handsome when he was younger—he remained so even in middle age—and yet there was something about him. Something unnerving and unnaturally incisive. And I sensed pain, there, too. A deep and agonizing pain that originated from unspeakable horrors in his past, no doubt, which shadowed the edges of his strong veneer of perfect control and poise. And he was watching me, keen eyes boring into mine with an intensity that made me want to shrink back and hide. I knew in that moment that he knew who I was. I could almost see his thoughts spinning in his head like well-oiled gears and cranks.
You never should've come down here.
A little too late for that, don't you think?
His lips curled in a smile that I trusted even less. "I am Myez Rader." He bowed his head slightly, placing a jeweled hand over his breast. "Welcome to Thieves, my lady. I would be most honored if you would join me inside where we can talk more freely. Of course, you may bring your companions." This was the first time he'd made a point of acknowledging Alex and Vera.
There was a certain lethality to Alex's stillness, and Vera looked affronted that Myez Rader had waited so long to acknowledge her. She tilted her head slightly, piqued. "My liege."
Myez's gaze lingered on her a moment, then with a snap of his fingers, a handful of armed guards arrived at his side. "Fi, Calvagh—clean up the rubble." Myez held up a finger in thought. "Mannix—you, too." A third guard went to aid the first two.
Two guards remained flanking him like pillars, easily seven feet tall and built like boulders.
"Shall we?" Myez extended a hand to me.
Despite my misgivings, I took his hand. Alex and Vera followed closely behind, flanked by the two half-giants as Myez led us back to the doorway I'd seen him lingering near earlier. The sign overhead read, "Lemniscate," but the "s" was written in such a way that it looked like a tilted infinity symbol. But from its title, I couldn't deduce what type of business he owned. No, that question was answered the moment we stepped inside.
There'd been very few times in my life where I could recall feeling so uncomfortable, and this was easily one of the worst. At first I thought we'd stepped into an exotic fabric store…right until I saw the girls.
Gossamers in reds and oranges and pinks festooned from the ceiling and walls in a labyrinth of beautiful translucent fabric. The thick smells of incense made the air heavy, and the floors were covered in cushions so large a person could easily sleep on them. And right on top of one of those cushions sat a young woman, not much older than me.
Her dark hair was pulled to the side so that it draped over her bare shoulder in a smooth and elegant curl, and her slender body had been wrapped in a piece of gossamer so seamless I thought that if I were to pull one end, the whole thing might unravel, leaving her naked. There was an unmistakable glint in her eyes that suggested she wanted just that. But she wasn't looking at me; she was looking at Alex.
Another girl appeared beside the first, this one blonde and wrapped in red and gold, looking very much like a Christmas present. Both girls approached us, swaying their hips as they walked. Alex hadn't noticed them yet; he stood right behind Myez Rader and his guards, listening intently to the discussion Myez was having with his porter.
Vera noticed, however, and took a step forward. It was a slight movement, but it was filled with all kinds of silent threats. If the girls had missed the gesture, the storm in Vera's gaze acted as collateral.
"We'll take excellent care of
," said the dark-haired girl in a sultry voice, and the blonde beside her bit her bottom lip like she was in some sort of pain. "Hand him over. We want him." The dark-haired one played with the curl of her hair, while the blonde made a sound that made me think she really was in pain.
"Welcome to the club," Vera said. "I'm afraid he's unavailable."
"They all are," the dark-haired girl said with a wry smile.
I wanted to rip that smile off her face.
Vera glared at the girls. "Back off, charmer."
The dark-haired girl licked her large and pouty lips. "Oh, but they do not come any more delicious than that, do they, Cerse?" She said this last bit to the blonde, the words caressing her lips as she took another step forward. Vera had the point of her dagger at the woman's cheek before she could blink. This time when the woman licked her lips, I noticed her tongue was slightly forked.
"One more move, snake, and it's your tongue," Vera growled.
appreciate it if you didn't harm my most lucrative possessions," Myez condescended. His eyes flickered irritably between Vera and me. "This way." Myez ducked behind a particularly large panel of diaphanous blue. Vera reluctantly removed her dagger, and this time Alex noticed the girls. The dark-haired woman's sensuous gaze took its time devouring Alex from head to toe. At first, Alex seemed confused, but then his gaze softened upon the dark-haired girl, and I felt his desire surge as he stepped toward her.
I tugged at his arm, trying to get his attention, but he didn't notice me. His eyes were fastened only on the dark-haired charmer. "Alex." I tugged his arm harder, but he didn't budge.
"Move it." Vera shoved Alex hard toward the blue panel.
His eyes broke contact with the gossamer girl, and a slight tremor shivered through his body. Thankfully, his desire disappeared. I glared back at the charmers, wishing that Vera hadn't restrained herself.
"And here I thought
was your only weakness." Vera nodded sharply at me with a smirk on her face.
Alex, however, didn't find any humor in the comment. In fact, his cheeks flared red and he clenched his jaw. He grabbed my hand and squeezed it in a reassuring gesture, but if he was trying to reassure himself or me, I didn't know.
So, Myez ran
kind of business.
The three of us followed Myez down a narrow corridor with the two half-giants close behind. A few wall sconces burned, their flames flickering in our drafts. On occasion, I noticed a few girls in the shadows, whispering to each other as we passed. They were all very curious about Myez's newest guests, and they all seemed particularly fascinated with Alex. Though fascinated was probably the wrong word. You didn't say, "
" and lick your lips when you were simply fascinated.
I leaned toward Vera and grumbled, "Nice
"He's not my friend," she whispered back.
Myez reached a wooden door near the end of the hall. He shooed a few more gossamer girls away and opened it with a creak, motioning for us to step inside. He told the half-giant guards to wait outside and guard the door.
Inside was an office. A large fire blazed in a hearth and a desk sat a little in front of it, facing the doorway, and I realized at once that this man was a hoarder. There were books and papers and scrolls and trinkets
, like a storm had ripped through the room and thrown everything about and he'd never bothered picking it up. There were bookshelves all along one wall, but only a few of the books were actually standing. Most had been stacked erratically, poking out beneath piles of scrolls or used as a platform for a collection of glass vials. A pyramid of large, wooden barrels had claimed the corner beside the shelves, and on the opposite side of the room was a plush sofa and a low table that was barely visible beneath piles of opened scrolls.
"This isn't the shortcut." Vera scowled.
"I know," Myez said, "but please allow me the honor of serving you a meal first. It is the least I can do after the misunderstanding outside."
"That's very kind of you," Vera replied in a voice that held no appreciation whatsoever, "but we're in a hurry, so if you don't mind…?"
"Oh, I don't mind at all," Myez said. "But I believe your friend might." His eyes shifted to me. "She looks rather pale, and I'm not sure her body will survive the travel if she doesn't eat something first."
I wanted to say that I was fine, but truth be told, I wasn't. I was exhausted. I needed more than a meal; I needed to sleep for about a year. And I still had to use my good arm to hold up my bad one.
Vera noticed. "Fine," she said through tight lips.
Myez's smile was slight. "Please, have a seat. I do apologize for the mess, though you must understand: It isn't every day I receive members of the regency."
At this, Alex drew his hilt just enough from its sheath that an inch of blade gleamed in the light from the fire. He was like a string pulled taut, waiting for that extra bit of tension to snap and lash out.
Myez held out a hand in a placating gesture. "You've nothing to fear from me, Aegis Alexander Del Conte. I mean you no harm." Myez noticed Alex's surprise. "It would be foolish of me to deny your identity; your fame precedes you. And for you
Aegis Veranna Neci to be so far from the castle, I can only deduce who your third companion is." He smiled at me. "Please, make yourself comfortable."
Alex's eyes flickered over my face and then he sighed, relaxing his grip on the hilt of his sword. It was my wound that had decided him.
"Thank you," I said, taking a seat on Myez's couch. Alex followed.
Myez looked pleased, then said, "Let me fetch one of the girls." He tugged a long black ribbon that hung from a bell on the wall near his desk. It chimed—a clear and full-bodied note—and even before the chime finished reverberating, there was a light rapping on the door. Myez opened it; a woman stood on the other side, wrapped in golden gossamer and crowned with bright red hair, like a flaming candlestick. Even while Myez addressed her, her dark, painted eyes slid past him and settled on Alex. Those weren't just "bedroom eyes"; they were more like "on the bed and between the sheets for hours" eyes.