The Talent Sinistral

438 pages
ISBN: 978-0966870145

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The Talent Sinistral

Part I: The Brassy and the Jackal


     "You shall encounter, this night, one who will forever change the course of your life."

     Master Gwythion's words. Their unsettling message continued to gnaw at Kier. He dared not doubt the truth of the old monk's prophecy, for the Fithlon Brotherhood probed the mysteries of Infinite Mind, and Gwythion wore the sash of the Twelfth and highest Tier. His seeings were always dependable. Apprehension pricked Kier's belly like an irksome saddle burr, refusing to be dislodged. He'd labored years to create this life for himself, melding and shaping it to fit his own particular needs. He did not want it changed.

     High above, a midnight wind rattled the treetops, driving sooty cloud rags across the Ladymoon's alabaster face. The pitted copper crescent of her consort perched atop the western hills, looking for all the world like a half-round of ripe, Llynshire cheese— or so Kier's empty belly told him. Maybe it was hunger and not just foreboding that bedeviled his gut. He'd eaten nothing since dawn, while still on shipboard, and Gwythion had offered naught but talk, which was all the sustenance the aging monk seemed to require.

     "...forever change the course of your life." Kier gave his head an impatient shake to drive out the nagging presage. Two hours of plodding this rutted cart track back to the city had left him testy and bone weary— in no mood for puzzles. It was hardly how he'd imagined his first night back in Castémaron. If not for Gwythion's urgent mind-summons, that found him before he'd even disembarked, he'd have spent a peaceful evening, tankard in hand, recuperating from a exhausting three-month mission and an especially rough crossing of the Inner Sea— always chancy during storm season. Instead, he'd had to sit for hours, struggling to remain awake, while the Fithlon Master intoned passages from one ancient text after another— moldy histories of fallen kingdoms and dire foretellings— as if their relevance should be self-evident. It wasn't. Yet try as he might, Kier could coax no explanation for the urgency that had compelled him to the Fithlon's musty cloister, leagues beyond the city walls, with scarcely time for a wash and a change of clothes. But being cryptic was the Fithlon way. Kier still felt a certain loyalty to his former mentor and was willing to humor the old monk at need. But he sorely hated feeling manipulated.

     Off east, above the harbor, a horde of roiling black storm clouds devoured the stars. Kier chided himself. None but a fool, or a madman, would be abroad on Castémaron's unpatrolled approaches at this ungodly hour. Right now, he accounted himself both. When he'd first set out for Fithlon monastery, the weather had been balmy, and stretching his legs after days at sea had seemed a welcome respite. Had he realized his mentor would keep him so long past nightfall, he'd have rented a mount from the inn's stable.

     "...encounter, this night, one who will forever change..." The dread portent refused to be dislodged. Kier tossed back a corner of his cloak to leave his sword arm unencumbered; his weapon visible. No sense tempting trouble; it seemed to find him readily enough without invitation. Yet, like enough, Gwythion's presaged life-changer awaited him, not on the midnight roads, but back at the inn— some envoy from Alcor, bearing his new orders. That could certainly alter his life. Kier considered quickening his pace, just to get the dreaded encounter over with, but chose otherwise. The inn was yet a half-league off, nestled against the harbor wall on the city's far side. The mysterious messenger would just have to wait.

     Another gust ruffled Kier's hair and flapped his cloak behind him like demon wings. The dank air felt clammy against his face, laden with the threat of rain— and worse: the noisome pall of refuse and decay so common to Castémaron. The city infested the marshy plain like a fungus blight, its building stones infused with crystalline magien sands, causing the ancient walls to glow faint amber in the clouded moonlight. He'd come to hate this foreign port, however eloquently bards might praise Vilsolia's luminous capital as Empress of the Civilized World. She was far too crowded for his taste; too decrepit; too blasted big.

     A yawning sentry at the West Gate waved him into the city with barely a glance at the brass medallion that identified Kier as an imperial ally. Kier touched two fingers to his brow in cursory salute. These past five years, his duties as Alcor's military liaison had taken him the length and breadth of the Deg Tirith— the Ten Kingdoms of the known world—to exotic realms most only dreamt of. Kier savored the independence his constant travel afforded. Now, at last, he was master of his fate—an impossible prospect back in hate-ravaged Alcor, where his very looks proclaimed him traitor to both of his homeland's warring races. There was no disguising it: the thick, black hair and sharp features of the conquering Tiernai, set against a rock-solid build and a complexion that was Dynian fair. And most damning of all, his eyes: neither Dynian blue nor Tiernai umber, but dark amethyst flecked with gray— the eyes of a despised half-blood. Here in the outer kingdoms, his mixed race bore no stigma. Kier curled the fingers of his left hand into a fist. Would that the same could be said of...

     An icy prickle at his lower spine wrenched Kier's attention back to the city's midnight streets. He slowed; cocked his head. The rising wind swirled dust and dead leaves among the sagging stalls of the deserted market square. It carried on its wings the echo of music and laughter from a nearby tavern and, in the distance, the measured clang of a harbor buoy. Nothing obviously amiss. Yet his Fithlon-trained senses tingled. Someone lurked nearby. Hostile? Uncertain. With a last, swift glance around the moonlit square, Kier turned and quickened his pace toward the inn.

     The feeling of threat intensified as he wended his way through the tangle of feculent streets and alleys of the city's harbor district. Above the plaintive cries of seabirds, Kier could now make out the faint rhythm of footfalls behind him, slowing and quickening in response to his own. His mind raced. Who might be stalking him here? He'd made no enemies in Castémaron― at least, so far as he knew. Kier's baser instincts exhorted him to run. Yet years of Legion discipline won out: Keep your head. Never be made a victim. Engage the enemy on your own terms. Not far ahead, he recalled a small plaza where several narrow byways intersected at an ancient shrine. Room to maneuver, and multiple paths of escape. As strategic a site as he was likely to find in this urban cess pit.

     A tremulous flash gilded the harbor clouds, followed by a low, predatory rumble. Kier reached the plaza and ducked into the first alcove he found— the mouth of a refuse-choked alley. Here, he could wait out his pursuer; get a look at him as he passed and, if need be, subdue him from behind. There was light enough, barely. The pearly sheen of Denia's moon, diffused by low clouds, lent the cobbles a faint luminescence. But that wouldn't last with a storm moving in.

     Tiny hairs prickled Kier's neck. He doffed his cloak and silently drew his sword, then felt for the reassuring firmness of the small dagger strapped inside his left sleeve. The certainty of danger pulsed like venom in his veins, steadily closing in on him from behind...

     No. That was wrong. This sensation came from within the alley!

     Kier wheeled an about-face, recognizing the trap— too late. Something hurtled toward him through the darkness. Kier jerked aside, barely in time. The missile glanced off his brow and shattered on the slimy cobbles.

     Kier's skull erupted in pain. Swinging blindly at his attacker, he staggered back into the plaza.

     Footsteps scrambled up behind him. The pursuer! Before Kier could spin to confront him, a solid weight smashed down between his shoulderblades.

     Stunned, Kier fought to maintain his stance. A swirl of colors did a mocking pirouette before his eyes. In helpless horror, he felt his legs begin to buckle beneath him. The sword slipped from his nerveless fingers as, with a groan, he crumpled to his knees.

     The surrounding tenements swam in a crimson blur. Kier struggled to regain his feet, but someone pounced on him from behind, holding him down. A gravelly whine bored through his throbbing consciousness like the bray of an ill-played sack-pipe.

     "Are ye sure 'e's the one ol' scarface at the tav'rn were talkin' of?"

     A blot of shadow bobbed before Kier's eyes. "Aye, he's a cap'ain awright. See 'is brass? Here, grab 'is arms." Kier felt his elbows yanked behind him and pinned. The thief in front slashed Kier's jerkin and shirt, and began to paw through them. His breath stank of rotted teeth. Practiced fingers found Kier's leather purse. "P'taw," he spat, rattling its contents. "Not much 'ere, e'en fer a brassy." He tucked the pouch into his belt.

     "But does 'e 'ave that am'let, like the man said?" came the other's grating voice.

     His partner snapped a chain from Kier's throat and squinted hard at the charms on it, then deftly stashed that away as well. Kier felt the cold pressure of a knife blade against his naked ribs. "Where d'ye hide the amulet, cap'ain?"

     He could make no sense of the query. Yet, deep down, Kier knew his attackers would not wait long for an answer. Far easier to despoil the dead. He had but seconds.

     Willing down panic, Kier directed his taut muscles to relax. As he'd hoped, the thief behind let the grip on his arms slacken. A subtle wrist flick and Kier felt the hidden dagger drop dependably into his palm. Its solidness gave him confidence. Mustering strength, he stabbed the small weapon into his captor's thigh.

     The man yowled and jolted backward. The abrupt motion wrenched the precious dagger from Kier's fist. It clattered to the cobbles as he threw himself clear and staggered to his feet.

     The thief in front scrabbled after him. Kier felt a seam of fire where the man's blade had skittered across his ribs. He barely managed to grab up his fallen sword before his attacker caught up, long knife glinting in the lightning flash. Kier backed toward the nearest wall, shaking his head to clear it. Blood from his forehead blurred his left eye and his responses felt sluggish. Breathless, he fought the torpor in his limbs.

     The wiry thief watched with the glowing eyes of a predator. Where his left hand should be, Kier made out only a tarred stump, but the disability did not seem to hamper him. His shabby knife darted for Kier's thigh. Kier caught the flash of steel and instinctively parried. There was a grating clash as his blade slid his attacker's weapon aside.

     Where had the man's accomplice gotten to? If he should creep up from behind... Kier groped back for the protection of the wall, but felt only emptiness. The alley mouth?

     The thief's blade streaked in from Kier's blinded left. Kier parried across his body, but the motion taxed his balance and he stumbled. His boot lit on something that crushed beneath his weight. The stench of rotting flesh assailed his nostrils— human flesh. Bile seared Kier's throat. With fevered desperation, he battled to free himself.

     The sword hilt slimed in his sweaty palm as he slashed at his enemy's darting shadow. Left, right, his longer blade drove the man back into the plaza.

     The sky overhead crackled white, revealing his attacker about to strike. Kier seized the opportunity and drove in hard— a killing stroke.

     It whistled through empty air. A swift kick, and the thief's ragged boot sent Kier's sword clanging to the cobblestones.

     Kier sought about him for some last defense. He spied movement beside the plaza's central font. The accomplice? His hopes sank. He was weaponless; outnumbered.

     Grinning wolfishly, his captor leveled his blade at Kier's heart, herding him back toward the gruesome alley. Kier raged at himself as cold reality set in. Death in battle he could face, but this? To die a victim, like a beggar in a gutter, because he'd failed to win a simple street fight?

     Failure. The word recalled blistering taunts from his boyhood. How long before he was even missed? Days? Weeks? Stripped clean by roving scavengers, his body could lie ignored and unidentified till it rotted to carrion, like the luckless creature he'd trodden upon. Resolve girded Kier's belly. He'd not give in to that. Better to die fighting. One well-timed lunge and he might seize his captor's knife. It was the slimmest of chances, but...

     Rain began to pelt the cobbles. Thunder rumbled. As Kier steadied himself for a last, desperate leap, a dark form slipped up behind his attacker. There was a sudden jerk; a strangled scream of anger— or astonishment— and the thief sagged, dead, at Kier's feet.

     Kier stared, baffled, as a tall shadow-figure ambled to where his sword had fallen, picked it up, and formally presented it back to him, hilt first. Then, as the stranger stood illuminated by the heaven's-rent, he halted Kier's questions with an impudent chuckle.

     "Well met, brassy," the lanky fellow drawled, touching his brow in mock deference. "And now, as you owe me your life, perhaps you'd care to buy me a drink?"

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