A fast-paced tale of treachery and adventure, sword fighting and magic, myth and legend . . .
Some people are skilled, and some are lucky, but at that moment Mince realized he was neither. Failing to cut the merchant’s purse strings, he froze with one hand still cupping the bag. He knew the pickpocket’s creed allowed for only a single touch, and he had dutifully slipped into the crowd after two earlier attempts. A third failure meant they would bar him from another meal. Mince was too hungry to let go.
With his hands still under the merchant’s cloak, he waited. The man remained oblivious.
Should I try again?
The thought was insane, but his empty stomach won the battle over reason. In a moment of desperation, Mince pushed caution aside. The leather seemed oddly thick. Sawing back and forth, he felt the purse come loose, but something was not right. It took only an instant for Mince to realize his mistake. Instead of purse strings, he had sliced through the merchant’s belt. Like a hissing snake, the leather strap slithered off the fat man’s belly, dragged to the cobblestones by the weight of his weapons.
Mince did not breathe or move as the entire span of his ten disappointing years flashed by.
Run! the voice inside his head screamed as he realized there was a heartbeat, perhaps two, before his victim—
The merchant turned.
He was a large, soft man with saddlebag cheeks reddened by the cold. His eyes widened when he noticed the purse in Mince’s hand. “Hey, you!” The man reached for his dagger, and surprise filled his face when he found it missing. Groping for his other weapon, he spotted them both lying in the street.
Mince heeded the voice of his smarter self and bolted. Common sense told him the best way to escape a rampaging giant was to head for the smallest crack. He plunged beneath an ale cart outside The Blue Swan Inn and slid to the far side. Scrambling to his feet, he raced for the alley, clutching the knife and purse to his chest. The recent snow hampered his flight, and his small feet lost traction rounding a corner.
“Thief! Stop!” The shouts were not nearly as close as he had expected.
Mince continued to run. Finally reaching the stable, he ducked between the rails of the fence framing the manure pile. Exhausted, he crouched with his back against the far wall. The boy shoved the knife into his belt and stuffed the purse down his shirt, leaving a noticeable bulge. Panting amidst the steaming piles, he struggled to hear anything over the pounding in his ears.
“There you are!” Elbright shouted, skidding in the snow and catching himself on the fence. “What an idiot. You just stood there—waiting for the fat oaf to turn around. You’re a moron, Mince. That’s it—that’s all there is to it. I honestly don’t know why I bother trying to teach you.”
Mince and the other boys referred to thirteen-year-old Elbright as the Old Man. In their small band only he wore an actual cloak, which was dingy gray and secured with a tarnished metal broach. Elbright was the smartest and most accomplished of their crew, and Mince hated to disappoint him.
Laughing, Brand arrived only moments later and joined Elbright at the fence.
“It’s not funny,” Elbright said.
“But—he—” Brand could not finish as laughter consumed him.
Like the other two, Brand was dirty, thin, and dressed in mismatched clothing of varying sizes. His pants were too long and snow gathered in the folds of the rolled‑up bottoms. Only his tunic fit properly. Made from green brocade and trimmed with fine supple leather, it fastened down the front with intricately carved wooden toggles. A year younger than the Old Man, he was a tad taller and a bit broader. In the unspoken hierarchy of their gang, Brand came second—the muscle to Elbright’s brains. Kine, the remaining member of their group, ranked third, because he was the best pickpocket. This left Mince unquestionably at the bottom. His size matched his position, as he stood barely four feet tall and weighed little more than a wet cat.
“Stop it, will ya?” the Old Man snapped. “I’m trying to teach the kid a thing or two. He could have gotten himself killed. It was stupid—plain and simple.”
“I thought it was brilliant.” Brand paused to wipe his eyes. “I mean, sure it was dumb, but spectacular just the same. The way Mince just stood there blinking as the guy goes for his blades. But they ain’t there ’cuz the little imbecile done cut the git’s whole bloody belt off! Then . . .” Brand struggled against another bout of laughter. “The best part is that just after Mince runs, the fat bastard goes to chase him, and his breeches fall down. The guy toppled like a ruddy tree. Wham. Right into the gutter. By Mar, that was hilarious.”
Elbright tried to remain stern, but Brand’s recounting soon had them all laughing.
“Okay, okay, quit it.” Elbright regained control and went straight to business. “Let’s see the take.”
Mince fished out the purse and handed it over with a wide grin. “Feels heavy,” he proudly stated.
Elbright drew open the top and scowled after examining the contents. “Just coppers.”
Brand and Elbright exchanged disappointed frowns and Mince’s momentary elation melted. “It felt heavy,” he repeated, mainly to himself.
“What now?” Brand asked. “Do we give him another go?”
Elbright shook his head. “No, and all of us will have to avoid Church Square for a while. Too many people saw Mince. We’ll move closer to the gates. We can watch for new arrivals and hope to get lucky.”
“Do ya want—” Mince started.
“No. Give me back my knife. Brand is up next.”
The boys jogged toward the palace walls, following the trail that morning patrols had made in the fresh snow. They circled east and entered Imperial Square. People from all over Avryn were arriving for Wintertide, and the central plaza bustled with likely prospects.
“There,” Elbright said, pointing toward the city gate. “Those two. See ’em? One tall, the other shorter.”
“They’re a sorry-looking pair,” Mince said.
“Exhausted,” Brand agreed.
“Probably been riding all night in the storm,” Elbright said with a hungry smile. “Go on, Brand, do the old helpful stableboy routine. Now, Mince, watch how this is done. It might be your only hope, as you’ve got no talent for purse cutting.”
Royce and Hadrian entered Imperial Square on ice-laden horses. Defending against the cold, the two appeared as ghosts shrouded in snowy blankets. Despite wearing all they had, they were ill-equipped for the winter roads, much less the mountain passes that lay between Ratibor and Aquesta. The all-night snowstorm had only added to their hardship. As the two drew their horses to a stop, Royce noticed Hadrian breathing into his cupped hands. Neither of them had winter gloves. Hadrian had wrapped his fingers in torn strips from his blanket, while Royce opted for pulling his hands into the shelter of his sleeves. The sight of his own handless arms disturbed Royce as they reminded him of the old wizard. The two had learned the details of his murder while passing through Ratibor. Assassinated late one night, Esrahaddon had been silenced forever.
They had meant to get gloves, but as soon as they had arrived in Ratibor, they saw announcements proclaiming the Nationalist leader’s upcoming execution. The empire planned to publicly burn Degan Gaunt in the imperial capital of Aquesta as part of the Wintertide celebrations. After Hadrian and Royce had spent months traversing high seas and dark jungles seeking Gaunt, to have found his whereabouts tacked up to every tavern door in the city was as much a blow as a blessing. Fearing some new calamity might arise to stop them from finally reaching him, they left early the next morning, long before the trade shops opened.
Unwrapping his scarf, Royce drew back his hood and looked around. The snow-covered palace took up the entire southern side of the square, while shops and vendors dominated the rest. Furriers displayed trimmed capes and hats. Shoemakers cajoled passers‑by, offering to oil their boots. Bakers tempted travelers with snowflake-shaped cookies and white-powdered pastries. And colorful banners were everywhere announcing the upcoming festival.
Royce had just dismounted when a boy ran up. “Take your horses, sirs? One night in a stable for just a silver each. I’ll brush them down myself and see they get good oats too.”
Dismounting and pulling back his own hood, Hadrian smiled at the boy. “Will you sing them a lullaby at night?”
“Certainly, sir,” the boy replied without losing a beat. “It will cost you two coppers more, but I do have a very fine voice, I does.”
“Any stable in the city will quarter a horse for five coppers,” Royce challenged.
“Not this month, sir. Wintertide pricing started three days back. Stables and rooms fill up fast. Especially this year. You’re lucky you got here early. In another two weeks, they’ll be stocking horses in the fields behind hunters’ blinds. The only lodgings will be on dirt floors, where people will be stacked like cordwood for five silvers each. I know the best places and the lowest costs in the city. A silver is a good price right now. In a few days it’ll cost you twice that.”
Royce eyed him closely. “What’s your name?”
“Brand the Bold they call me.” He straightened up, adjusting the collar of his tunic.
Hadrian chuckled and asked, “Why is that?”
“ ’Cuz I don’t never back down from a fight, sir.”
“Is that where you got your tunic?” Royce asked.
The boy looked down as if noticing the garment for the first time. “This old thing? I got five better ones at home. I’m just wearing this rag so I don’t get the good ones wet in the snow.”
“Well, Brand, do you think you can take these horses to The Bailey Inn at Hall and Coswall and stable them there?”
“I could indeed, sir. And a fine choice, I might add. It’s run by a reputable owner charging fair prices. I was just going to suggest that very place.”
Royce gave him a smirk. He turned his attention to two boys who stood at a distance, pretending not to know Brand. Royce waved for them to come over. The boys appeared hesitant, but when he repeated the gesture, they reluctantly obliged.
“What are your names?” he asked.
“Elbright, sir,” the taller of the two replied. This boy was older than Brand and had a knife concealed beneath his cloak. Royce guessed he was the real leader of their group and had sent Brand over to make the play.
“Mince, sir,” said the other, who looked to be the youngest and whose hair showed evidence of having recently been cut with a dull knife. The boy wore little more than rags of stained, worn wool. His shirt and pants exposed the bright pink skin of his wrists and shins. Of all his clothing, the item that fit best was a torn woven bag draped over his shoulders. The same material wrapped his feet, secured around his ankles by twine.
Hadrian checked through the gear on his horse, removed his spadone blade, and slid it into the sheath, which he wore on his back beneath his cloak.
Royce handed two silver tenents to the first boy, then, addressing all three, said, “Brand here is going to have our horses stabled at the Bailey and reserve us a room. While he’s gone, you two will stay here and answer some questions.”
“But, ah, sir, we can’t—” Elbright started, but Royce ignored him.
“When Brand returns with a receipt from the Bailey, I will pay each of you a silver. If he doesn’t return, if instead he runs off and sells the horses, I shall slit both of your throats and hang you on the palace gate by your feet. I’ll let your blood drip into a pail, then paint a sign with it to notify the city that Brand the Bold is a horse thief. Then I’ll track him down, with the help of the imperial guard and other connections I have in this city, and see he gets the same treatment.” Royce glared at the boy. “Do we understand each other, Brand?”
The three boys stared at him with mouths agape.
“By Mar! Not a very trusting fellow, are ya, sir?” Mince said.
Royce grinned ominously. “Make the reservation under the names of Grim and Baldwin. Run along now, Brand, but do hurry back. You don’t want your friends to worry.”
Brand led the horses away while the other two boys watched him go. Elbright gave a little shake of his head when Brand looked back.
“Now, boys, why don’t you tell us what is planned for this year’s festivities?”
“Well . . .” Elbright started, “I suspect this will be the most memorable Wintertide in a hundred years on account of the empress’s marriage and all.”
“Marriage?” Hadrian asked.
“Yes, sir. I thought everyone knew about that. Invitations went out months ago, and all the rich folk, even kings and queens, have been coming from all over.”
“Who’s she marrying?” Royce asked.
“Lard Ethelred,” Mince said.
Elbright lowered his voice. “Shut it, Mince.”
“He’s a snake.”
Elbright growled and cuffed him on the ear. “Talk like that will get you dead.” Turning back to Royce and Hadrian, he said, “Mince has a bit of a crush on the empress. He’s not too pleased with the old king, on account of him marrying her and all.”
“She’s like a goddess, she is,” Mince declared, misty-eyed. “I seen her once. I climbed to that roof for a better view when she gave a speech last summer. She shimmered like a star, she did. By Mar, she’s beautiful. Ya can tell she’s the daughter of Novron. I’ve never seen anyone so pretty.”
“See what I mean? Mince is a bit crazy when it comes to the empress,” Elbright apologized. “He’s got to get used to Regent Ethelred running things again. Not that he ever really stopped, on account of the empress being sick and all.”
“She was hurt by the beast she killed up north,” Mince explained. “Empress Modina was dying from the poison, and healers came from all over, but no one could help. Then Regent Saldur prayed for seven days and nights without food or water. Maribor showed him that the pure heart of a servant girl named Amilia from Tarin Vale had the power to heal the empress. And she did. Lady Amilia has been nursing the empress back to health and doing a fine job.” He took a breath, his eyes brightened, and a smile grew across his face.
“Mince, enough,” Elbright said.
“What’s all this about?” Royce asked, pointing at bleachers that were being built in the center of the square. “They aren’t holding the wedding out here, are they?”
“No, the wedding will be at the cathedral. Those are for folks to watch the execution. They’re gonna kill the rebel leader.”
“Yeah, that piece of news we heard about,” Hadrian said softly.
“Oh, so you came for the execution?”
“More or less.”
“I’ve got our spots all picked out,” Elbright said. “I’m gonna have Mince go up the night before and save us a good seat.”
“Hey, why do I have to go?” Mince asked.
“Brand and I have to carry all the stuff. You’re too small to help and Kine’s still sick, so you need to—”
“But you have the cloak and it’s gonna be cold just sitting up there.”
The two boys went on arguing, but Royce could tell Hadrian was no longer listening. His friend’s eyes scanned the palace gates, walls, and front entrance. Hadrian was counting guards.
Rooms at the Bailey were the same as at every inn—small and drab, with worn wooden floors and musty odors. A small pile of firewood was stacked next to the hearth in each room but never enough for the whole night. Patrons were forced to buy more at exorbitant prices if they wanted to stay warm. Royce made his usual rounds, circling the block, watching for faces that appeared too many times. He returned to their room confident that no one had noticed their arrival—at least, no one who mattered.
“Room eight. Been here almost a week,” Royce said.
“A week? Why so early?” Hadrian asked.
“If you were living in a monastery for ten months a year, wouldn’t you show up early for Wintertide?”
Hadrian grabbed his swords and the two moved down the hall. Royce picked the lock of a weathered door and slid it open. On the far side of the room, two candles burned on a small table set with plates, glasses, and a bottle of wine. A man, dressed in velvet and silk, stood before a wall mirror, checking the tie that held back his blond hair and adjusting the high collar of his coat.
“Looks like he was expecting us,” Hadrian said.
“Looks like he was expecting someone,” Royce clarified.
“What the—” Startled, Albert Winslow spun around. “Would it hurt to knock?”
“What can I say?” Royce flopped on the bed. “We’re scoundrels and thieves.”
“Scoundrels certainly,” Albert said, “but thieves? When was the last time you two stole anything?”
“Do I detect dissatisfaction?”
“I’m a viscount. I have a reputation to uphold, which takes a certain amount of income—money that I don’t receive when you two are idle.”
Hadrian took a seat at the table. “He’s not dissatisfied. He’s outright scolding us.”
“Is that why you’re here so early?” Royce asked. “Scouting for work?”
“Partially. I also needed to get away from the Winds Abbey. I’m becoming a laughing stock. When I contacted Lord Daref, he couldn’t lay off the Viscount Monk jokes. On the other hand, Lady Mae does find my pious reclusion appealing.”
“And is she the one who . . .” Hadrian swirled a finger at the neatly arranged table.
“Yes. I was about to fetch her. I’m going to have to cancel, aren’t I?” He looked from one to the other and sighed.
“I hope this job pays well. This is a new doublet and I still owe the tailor.” Blowing out the candles, he took a seat across from Hadrian.
“How are things up north?” Royce asked.
Albert pursed his lips, thinking. “I’m guessing you know about Medford being taken? Imperial troops hold it and most of the provincial castles except for Drondil Fields.”
Royce sat up. “No, we didn’t know. How’s Gwen?”
“I have no idea. I was here when I heard.”
“So Alric and Arista are at Drondil Fields?” Hadrian asked.
“King Alric is but I don’t think the princess was in Medford. I believe she’s running Ratibor. They appointed her mayor, or so I’ve heard.”
“No,” Hadrian said. “We just came through there. She was governing after the battle but left months ago in the middle of the night. No one knows why. I just assumed she went home.”
Albert shrugged. “Maybe, but I never heard anything about her going back. Probably better for her if she didn’t. The Imps have Drondil Fields surrounded. Nothing is going in or out. It’s only a matter of time before Alric will have to surrender.”
“What about the abbey? Has the empire come knocking?” Royce asked.
Albert shook his head. “Not that I know of. But like I said, I was already here when the Imperialists crossed the Galewyr.”
Royce got up and began to pace.
“Anything else?” Hadrian asked.
“Rumor has it that Tur Del Fur was invaded by goblins. But that’s only a rumor, as far as I can tell.”
“Not a rumor,” Hadrian said.
“We were there. Actually, we were responsible.”
“Sounds . . . interesting,” Albert said.
Royce stopped his pacing. “Don’t get him started.”
“Okay, so what brings you to Aquesta?” Albert asked. “I’m guessing it’s not to celebrate Wintertide.”
“We’re going to break Degan Gaunt out of the palace dungeon, and we’ll need you for the usual inside work,” Royce said.
“Really? You do know he’s going to be executed on Wintertide, don’t you?”
“Yeah, that’s why we need to get moving. It would be bad if we were late,” Hadrian added.
“Are you crazy? The palace? At Wintertide? You’ve heard about this little wedding that’s going on? Security might be a tad tighter than usual. Every day I see a line of men in the courtyard, signing up to join the guard.”
“Your point?” Hadrian asked.
“We should be able to use the wedding to our advantage,” Royce said. “Anyone we know in town yet?”
“Genny and Leo arrived recently, I think.”
“Really? That’s perfect. Get in touch. They’ll have rooms in the palace for sure. See if they can get you in. Then find out all you can, especially about where they’re keeping Gaunt.”
“I’m going to need money. I was only planning to attend a few local balls and maybe one of the feasts. If you want me inside the palace, I’ll have to get better clothes. By Mar, look at my shoes. Just look at them! I can’t meet the empress in these.”
“Borrow from Genny and Leo for now,” Royce said. “I’m going to leave for Medford tonight and return with funds to cover our expenses.”
“You’re going back? Tonight?” Albert asked. “You just got here, didn’t you?”
The thief nodded.
“She’s okay,” Hadrian assured Royce. “I’m sure she got out.”
“We’ve got nearly a month to Wintertide,” Royce said. “I should be back in a week or so. In the meantime, learn what you can, and we’ll formulate a plan when I return.”
“Well,” Albert grumbled, “at least Wintertide won’t be boring.”