Emperor’s Edge Book II — Dark Currents
You can read the first chapter right here:
The clanging of the alarm bell reverberated through the aqueduct tunnels. Marl “Books” Mugdildor squished along the slippery ledge as quickly as the footing allowed. It was a long, twisty walk to Pumping Station Five’s Intake Duct Number Nine.
“How about you speed it up, Booksie?” his comrade asked. “It’d be nice to figure out what’s blocking up the tunnel before piles of city workers come down to check on the alarm and realize wanted men are hiding out in their pumping house.”
Books glared over his shoulder. Of course Maldynado had no trouble with the treacherous footing. He was younger, stronger, more agile, and—according to the women—the most gorgeous human being in the city. Not that the latter offered an advantage in navigating aqueducts, but it added to Books’s overall annoyance with the man.
“Do you want to go ahead?” Books asked.
“Gladly.” Maldynado planted a hand on Books’s shoulder and mashed him against the wall to pass.
Books dropped his kerosene lantern and nearly lost an important appendage when Maldynado’s sword hilt grazed him. “Blundering troglodyte,” he muttered.
“Save your endearments for later. There’s work to do.”
Books rolled his eyes toward the arched ceiling but picked up his lantern and followed. He increased his pace to keep up. More than once his foot slipped off the ledge and splashed into the water flowing through the channel. It could be worse: they could be hiding out in a sewage pumping station.
Maldynado slowed down when the water rose over the ledge and lapped at their boots. “I didn’t know this would involve getting wet.”
“When the waterway is blocked, the water rises. Surely even warrior caste louts such as yourself have heard of dams.”
Maldynado lifted a soggy leather boot and grimaced as droplets dribbled from the tassels. “Yes, but these were made by Svunn and Hilderk. They cost a fortune, and we’re making…rather less than a fortune.”
Books rolled his eyes. “Just keep moving.”
They slogged through ever deepening water, and Books shivered as icy currents tugged at his calves. Somewhere nearby, machinery clanked and ground. They had worked their way through the maze of tunnels and now walked close to the pumping station’s exterior wall. Books hefted his lantern, figuring they should be able to see the blockage soon.
Steel glinted, reflecting the lantern flame. A grate across the channel marked an entrance to the pumping house. Something dark and shadowy pressed against the rusty bars, partially blocking the water flow.
Books leaned out for a better look. His heel slipped off the ledge, his butt slammed into the slick brick, and he bounced into the channel with a startled squawk. His lantern flew free. Cold water engulfed him, flooding his mouth and nostrils. He flailed for the surface.
Despite the blockage ahead, a strong current tugged him down the tunnel. Books maneuvered his head above water, but the only light was behind him. Maldynado, still standing on the walkway, soon faded from view, and darkness smothered Books.
He groped with his feet, trying to find the bottom. The water was too deep. He reached for the ledge, but the slick surface evaded his scrabbling fingers.
He bumped against something. Not the grate, but… cloth? A rigid protrusion jabbed into his ribs. He tried to swim away, but it tangled in his clothing.
Or something was deliberately grabbing him.
Heart thundering, he kicked, desperate to break the hold. His foot caught in something else. He flailed uselessly until his knuckles rapped against metal. The grate. If he could grab it, he could use it to pull his way to the side of the tunnel. But when he reached for it, his hand brushed against seaweed. No, not seaweed. Hair. He gripped something smooth. A forehead and a nose and…
“Gah!” Books shrieked. He was tangled up with human bodies. “Get them off, get them off!”
He tried again to push away, but he grew more entwined in the mess. There were bodies underwater too.
Finally, a hand grabbed him by the collar and dragged him free. Maldynado. Books latched onto his arm like a starving tick clinging to a dog’s tail.
With Maldynado’s help, Books found the ledge with his feet and braced himself against the brick wall. More than five feet of water covered the walkway, and it offered little respite. Water streamed past his chest, still tugging at him.
Panting, Books maneuvered behind Maldynado before turning to look at what their one remaining lantern revealed.
At least three bloated bodies were caught in the grate. With a shaking hand, Books rubbed water off his face. It took him a moment to realize a new sound had joined the clanging alarm bell. Maldynado’s deep laughs echoed off the walls with riotous enthusiasm.
“Oh, be quiet,” Books muttered.
“That was priceless.” Maldynado wiped tears from his eyes. He imitated Books’s screams and burst out laughing all over again.
Though cold water surrounded Books, the heat flushing his cheeks kept him warm. “Are you done yet? We need to move these bodies so that ancestors-cursed bell will stop.”
Maldynado wiped his eyes again. “Oh, my. Even if the pay is lacking, I must say I love my job.”
They dragged the corpses back to a dry alcove. With the obstruction clear, the alarm cut off, and Books allowed himself to relax an iota. He removed his shirt to wring it dry. Rivulets of cold water dripped from his shoulder-length hair and ran down his back.
“Did you know,” Maldynado said, “you are possibly the hairiest Turgonian man I’ve ever seen?”
Books sighed, wondering how much torment he would have to endure before the day ended. “Let’s examine the bodies, see what they’re doing down here.”
“I’m not even sure why you wear a shirt. I’ve seen sweaters with less fuzz.”
“Why are you looking anyway?” Books wrestled the sodden shirt back on and pushed past him. “I thought you preferred ladies.”
“Oh, I do. And you’ve thoughtfully reminded me why.”
Books made a point of turning his back to Maldynado as he studied the corpses. They had recovered three men and one woman. All the bodies had the bronze skin and dark hair of Turgonian citizens. Fortunately, the icy water had preserved them somewhat, and they did not stink yet. The men wore shredded gray utility uniforms, torn open where deep, garish wounds scored their chests and limbs. Someone had slashed the lady’s throat. She wore a businesswoman’s long black skirt and jacket, both torn and stained from the trip through the channels. All appeared to have been killed before they hit the water. Unless there was something clawed and inhuman lurking in the capital city’s aqueducts. Books grimaced at that thought.
“Where do you figure they came from?” Maldynado picked a clump of something green off his shirt.
Books paced around the corpses, in part to think, in part to generate warmth. His sodden clothing clung to him, damp and cold. “The aqueduct access points are locked, and only city workers have keys,” he said. “Either someone got a hold of one of those keys and dumped the bodies, or they’ve been in here since the source.”
“The source? The lake?”
“Municipal water doesn’t come from the lake,” Books said. “Dolt.”
“How would I know?”
“We’ve been living in, and stoking the fires for, a pumping house for a month and you never looked at any of the diagrams on the wall?”
“Unlike you, I don’t intentionally bore myself with tedious information,” Maldynado said. “I prefer action—a fencing match or wrestling bout, for instance.”
“You may get both if whatever mauled these men is roaming—or swimming—around these tunnels.”
That dimmed Maldynado’s ever present smile.
“Our sewer waste goes into the lake,” Books said. “The drinking water comes from Lake Karmast Dam in the mountains and is carried to municipal pumping stations and reservoirs via underground aqueducts. That protects it from outsiders thinking of poisoning it or otherwise interfering. The empire has made a lot of enemies during its centuries of conquering and plundering.”
“Thanks for the history lesson, professor. What’re we going to do with the bodies?”
“Why don’t you search them for clues?”
“Me?” Maldynado asked. “You’ve already been close and intimate with them.”
Books wiped his hands on his trousers, wincing at the memory. “I assumed a scion of the warrior caste would not be squeamish.”
“Warriors stick swords in people’s bodies; they don’t grope them after the fact.”
“Let’s just search the pockets.”
A few minutes later, Maldynado and Books pooled their findings. A few coins, a metal ring with a fob and two keys, and a waterlogged envelope from the woman’s buttoned jacket pocket that snared Books’s curiosity.
He managed to open it and retrieve the paper inside without tearing it. The writing was in pencil and still legible. Legible but unhelpful. Two strings of numbers, one sprinkled with letters. The other had a decimal and might represent a monetary amount. A large amount, if so.
“Huh,” came a surprised grunt from Maldynado. He rubbed the flat circular fob on the key ring, and an oval in the middle glowed red. Even after he released it, the soft light continued. He touched it, then withdrew his finger quickly, as if he had brushed against something hot. “Magic? That’s not something you expect to see in the empire. Especially not in this subterranean portion of it.” He lifted his gaze toward the variegated mold decorating the ceiling.
“That came out of one of the men’s pockets, didn’t it?”
“Bald and Stubby, yeah.”
“Nice of you to create such respectful names for the corpses,” Books murmured, returning his attention to the paper.
“This thing looks handy.” Maldynado prodded the fob, causing it to glow red again. “You could see the keyhole to your flat late at night. I bet this is hot enough to light a candle wick too.” He squinted. “There’s writing on the back side. Ergot’s Chance. There’s an address.”
Books glanced up. “That could be useful. Keep that.”
“Oh, I am. This is a good find. Sorry yours isn’t as fun.”
“Different people, different definitions of fun.” Books tapped the numbers. “I wonder if this is some kind of secret message. Some cipher created by a cryptographer?”
“Or the work of a three year old using Father’s pencil. What’re we going to do about all this?”
“Consider ourselves fortunate.”
Maldynado’s jaw slackened. “How so?”
“Amaranthe’s birthday is next week and, with our limited funds, I didn’t think I’d be able to find her a gift.”
“So, you’re getting her… dead bodies?”
“Perfect, don’t you think?” Books smiled.
“Most women like jewelry and flowers.”
“Do you honestly believe she would prefer jewelry over a mystery to solve?”
Maldynado jiggled the key fob thoughtfully, then nodded toward the bodies. “Can we say one is from me?”
* * * * *
Amaranthe Lokdon sharpened the last pencil. She placed it in a holder on the desk and knelt to compare its height with the seven others in the cup. A hair too high still. She removed it, twisted it through the sharpener a couple more times, and checked the height again.
“Better,” she murmured.
A steam whistle pierced the air. In the factory outside the office, the fleet of sewing machines stopped. A hundred women and children grabbed brooms and dustpans, hastily cleaning their areas so they could go home.
“Finally,” Amaranthe said. “Maybe Ms. Klume will deign to meet with us now.”
“Likely,” Sicarius said, laconic as usual.
Clad in fitted black clothing that bristling daggers and throwing knives, he stood in the shadows against the wall, his gaze covering the door and the window. Neither his angular face nor his dark eyes gave any hint of impatience, but then they rarely hinted of anything.
“Good.” Amaranthe stood. Her thighs, still rubbery after the morning’s training session, twanged in protest. “There’s nothing left to tidy.” Thanks to her restless fingers, the trash bin now housed scraps of material, windowsill dust, and pencil shavings, all of which had plagued the office when she entered. The papers and files that had scattered the desk were stacked in a tidy pile, edges aligned with the corner.
“There’s an alphabetical misfile on the bookshelf,” Sicarius said.
Amaranthe gave him a startled look, more surprised he had said something than that he had noticed. His expression never changed, but she thought she spotted a faint glimmer of humor in his eyes. She crossed the office, short sword swaying on her hip, and moved Marketing to the Imperial Mind to its proper place.
A shadow fell across the threshold, and Ms. Klume walked in. She wore a cream blouse, the top buttons unfastened, and a short plaid skirt that did not seem practical given the early spring weather. Vivid ruby paint adorned her lips, and clashing rings gleamed on every finger. The woman’s gaze slid past Amaranthe, as if she were a particularly bland piece of furniture, and landed on Sicarius.
“Ms. Klume. I’m Amaranthe and this is—”
“Sicarius.” Klume’s gaze roved from his black boots to his short blond hair, taking in everything in between. “You’re just what I expected.”
“We’re here because you have work to propose,” Amaranthe said, not sure whether she was more annoyed because the woman was ignoring her or because she appeared to be three seconds away from inviting Sicarius back to her flat. Maybe less.
“Is it true you single-handedly killed a platoon of soldiers?” Klume asked him. “And walked past Lord Satrap Dargon’s fleet of household security to assassinate him? And killed the empire’s most notorious bounty hunter with the throw of a knife?”
Sicarius stared at her in stony silence. If the woman’s interest affected him in any way, he kept it hidden behind an unreadable mask. For once, Amaranthe appreciated his standoffishness. She took a deep breath, telling herself it did not matter whether Klume spoke with her or Sicarius, and gave him a single nod.
“Your offer,” Sicarius told Klume.
The woman blinked, smiled, and glided to her workspace. “Business first, yes, of course.” Confusion flashed across her face as she noticed the tidy desk, but she recovered and located a fat file. “This is all the information I have on a Kendorian woman named Telnola. She’s the new owner of Farth Textiles. She’s an old wart who strode in the day Emperor Sespian enacted those tax incentives for foreign businesses and investors.” She mimicked spitting in the waste bin. Not a fan of the policy, apparently. “She bought out Farth, promptly tripled profits, and cut my business—the business of a loyal Turgonian citizen—in half. She hasn’t been to a proper school, and I’m certain this unprecedented success has to do with some magical aid. If she is using magic, it’s completely illegal here, and the punishment is death. If she isn’t…” Klume shrugged. “Either way, her success displeases me. I want her dead. I’m paying five thousand ranmyas for the job. An extremely fair price for a night’s work.”
Amaranthe sighed. She had feared the offer might be something like this.
Sicarius met Amaranthe’s eyes, and she sensed the question there, even if his expression did not change. Yes, he would have no problem taking the job, but that was not the image she wanted to establish for her team.
“I’m sorry you lost time contacting us,” Amaranthe said, “but we don’t do assassinations, Ms. Klume.”
The woman considered Amaranthe for the first time, though she pointed at Sicarius. “That’s not what his reputation says.”
“He’s changed.” Sort of. “He’s working for me now.” Amaranthe checked Sicarius for a response; though he had said as much, she still felt presumptuous and uncertain making such claims.
He merely stood, arms folded across his chest and back to the wall.
“I see.” Klume’s eyes narrowed as she glanced back and forth between them. She settled on Amaranthe. “You’re the agent and must see to your cut. Six thousand then.”
“You misunderstand me, ma’am,” Amaranthe said. “We’re not assassins or simple mercenaries. We only take on work that helps the city or the Turgonian people. We call ourselves The Emperor’s Edge because we aim to win Emperor Sespian’s approval.” And pardon. And a place in the history books.
“Your negotiation tactics are shrewd, but I don’t believe you. You’re fugitives with bounties on your heads. His bounty—” Klume pointed at Sicarius, “—is signed by the emperor himself.” She lifted her chin. “Seven thousand.”
“What you say is true, but my bounty is a misunderstanding, and Sicarius has… uhm… decided to work toward exoneration.”
Amaranthe closed her eyes. Trying to explain was a waste of time. “I think we’re done here.” She headed for the door.
“Wait,” Sicarius said. “Leave us,” he told Klume.
Though no warmth softened his words, Klume smiled triumphantly and gave Amaranthe a we’ll-see-who’s-in-charge look as she strode out.
Amaranthe pushed the door shut and faced Sicarius. “No.”
“We need the money,” he said. “Books’s job in the pumping house isn’t enough to outfit six. To create the force you wish, we need better gear, practice swords, armor, firearms, and a steam carriage so we don’t have to use the trolleys and risk running into bounty hunters and enforcers.”
“I’m aware of that, but we aren’t assassinating people, especially not for the crime of being good at business.”
“If she’s using the Science, she’s violating imperial law.”
“What Kendorian would be dumb enough to use magic in a city where it’s not only forbidden, but where people are so superstitious they’ll turn you over to the enforcers just for talking about it?” Amaranthe shook her head. “No assassinations.”
“You don’t need to come,” Sicarius said.
“We’ll get money another way.”
“Sespian need never know.”
“No.” Amaranthe slashed her hand through the air. “You can’t work to earn the emperor’s favor in the open while sneaking about in the dark, committing vile crimes. Why do you think he hates you?”
It was the wrong thing to say, and she regretted the last sentence as soon as it came out. Sicarius’s expression never changed, but those dark eyes grew flinty. He stalked past her and opened the door.
“I’m sorry,” Amaranthe said. “I didn’t mean to—”
Ms. Klume, who stood outside the door, raised her eyebrows as Sicarius strode by. Amusement curved her ruby lips when Amaranthe burst out, hand stretched after him.
She lowered her arm and stopped. If she wanted outsiders to believe she led the group, chasing after Sicarius like a spurned lover would not help. Coolly and calmly, she faced Ms. Klume.
“Thank you, but we won’t be accepting your offer.”
Though she doubted she fooled anyone, Amaranthe clasped her hands behind her back and strolled through the factory, chin lifted. Since the number of workers had dwindled, she wondered if anyone would stop her if she chucked a wrench into one of the steam looms. Alas, that would probably not create the image she wanted for her team either. Disgruntled by the whole encounter, she yanked her parka off the hook by the door and strode outside.
Rain pelted the sidewalk. Streams ran down the concrete street toward storm drains. Gray clouds promised an early dusk, and gas lamps already burned at intervals. She did not see Sicarius, only workers with their collars turned up. They hustled toward trolley stops or peddled bicycles vigorously to reach dry destinations.
She tugged her parka on and pulled the hood over her head, trying not to see the dismal weather as a portent for the future. She had only been the leader of her group of outlaws for a couple of months, so she supposed it was natural for everyone to assume Sicarius, with his years as an assassin, was in charge of their outfit. He had agreed to work for her because she had proven she was a creative—technically, crazy was the word the men used—schemer who could surprise victory even from powerful opponents. And the team had worked well together in the past weeks, doing more than a few good deeds. The problem was nobody important knew about them. It was time to change that. It was time to find high profile work that would attract attention. Maybe the woman Klume hated was worth investigation, if not assassination. Maybe there was something suspicious about such rapid success.
A sharp report sounded behind her.
Something whizzed past her ear. Stone cracked and sheered off the corner of the building beside her. Amaranthe darted toward a nearby alley, glancing down the street as she ran.
Not ten paces back, a figure pointed a smoking pistol her direction. Though a cowl obscured the owner’s face, she glimpsed a brand on the hand gripping the weapon. In the fading light, she might not have recognized the symbol, but she had seen it often as an enforcer: a skull and an X. The Buccaneers gang.
“Idiot!” Amaranthe shouted at the man. “The mark is up ahead. Didn’t you listen to anything Coxen said?”
She sprinted into the alley, hoping her invocation of the Buccaneers’ leader would befuddle the man momentarily. She pounded up narrow stairs between two towering factories. A question floated back, too muffled to hear clearly. Amaranthe turned into another alley paralleling the main street. The last corner fell behind her, and she raced down a cobblestone slope slick from the rain. Only when she neared the main thoroughfare again did she slow, softening her footfalls.
She peeked around the corner. The pistol shot had cleared the streets of everyone except the cloaked man. His back was to her. He finished reloading the pistol, drew a short sword, and crept toward the first alley she had turned up.
He called out, but the rain drowned his words.
Silently, Amaranthe slid a dagger and her own sword out. She slipped after him. The man reached the alley and stuck his head around the corner. He drew back and peered about. Knowing a single glance back would reveal her approach, Amaranthe turned her stealthy advance into a run.
The man must have sensed it. He turned, cowl spilling around his shoulders. Amaranthe sprinted the last few yards.
He raised his pistol. Without slowing, she hurled the knife.
Though it was not balanced for throwing, the hilt clipped his hand, knocking the pistol from his grip. It clattered to the sidewalk, firing when the hammer struck. The man cursed and jumped, probably afraid the wayward ball would hit him. It gave Amaranthe time to close the remaining distance.
Rushed, he threw a wild first strike. She parried and startled him by darting past him instead of launching a jab of her own. A kick to the back of his knee stole his balance. She grabbed his flailing arm, wrenched it behind him, and twisted his hand against the wrist. His sword clattered to the sidewalk beside the pistol. She pressed the point of her blade against his kidney.
She said, “Tell Coxen—”
A throwing knife spun out of nowhere and lodged in the man’s neck. Startled, Amaranthe jerked back, releasing him. The thug died before his body crumpled to the ground.
Sicarius glided out of the shadows across the street.
“Why did you…” she started, but he pumped his arm and threw a second knife.
In the dim light, Amaranthe could not follow its path. A pained grunt came from the roof above her. A heartbeat later, a man smashed onto the sidewalk, the throwing knife lodged in his eye. A repeating crossbow flew into the street, and the impact sent a bolt flying. It skidded into a curb beneath a gas lamp, revealing a green smudge of poison on the tip.
Amaranthe rested her hand on the damp stone of the building for support. Maybe it was time to get more serious about looking for a disguise to wear in public. The fact that she had the most common eye, skin, and hair color in the empire had served her well so far, but apparently no more.
“Mercy has no place out here.” Sicarius retrieved his knives. “If you’re lenient with bounty hunters, they’ll try again, and they’ll speak to others of your leniency, which will encourage every pauper to take a chance.”
“I can’t argue with your logic, but it’s not in my nature to stick knives in people’s backs.” Amaranthe grimaced at the broken body of the man from the roof. “Or eyes.”
“Adapt.” After cleaning and sheathing his knives, Sicarius searched the bodies of the dead men, removing their valuables, before coming to stand beside her. “Are you injured?”
She straightened. “No. Of course not. That was all part of my plan. I was acting as bait to lure bounty hunters to attack, so you could sneak over and kill them and take their ill-gotten thug earnings, thus—” she lifted a finger, “—alleviating our money problems.” That sounded plausible, didn’t it? He might even believe it. If he had the intelligence of a sloth.
The flat look Sicarius gave her suggested that sloth would have to be drunk to be fooled by her extemporizing. He handed her a few crumpled bills, not enough money to buy a meal much less gear. “Bait doesn’t survive long.”
“Well, if you hadn’t left in a huff, I wouldn’t have been bait. You know I need a keeper to watch over me while I’m dreaming up fanciful schemes.” She smiled to let him know she was not truly accusing him of anything; she had been the idiot, and she knew it.
“I don’t huff,” Sicarius said, though his tone softened.
“Ever?” She nodded toward the street, and they strode away from the dead men. In the city, only soldiers were permitted by law to carry firearms, so enforcers would doubtlessly show up to investigate the shots soon. “Must be disappointing for the ladies.”
Apparently the comment did not deserve a response, for he only said, “What’s the new scheme?”
Business first with him. Always.
“I want to investigate Ms. Klume’s adversary before returning to the pumping house,” Amaranthe said. “Just in case something interesting is going on there. Waiting for the right people to hire us isn’t going to get us where we want; we need to go out and find…” She groped for the right word. A mission? A project? A job?
“Trouble?” Sicarius suggested.
“An endeavor that will help the city and prove to the emperor that we’re undeserving of the bounties on our heads and we’re invaluable resources to his regime.”
“Trouble,” Sicarius said.
She grinned sheepishly. “Well, probably. Yes.”
Thanks for reading!