Read a sample from MARKED by Benedict Jacka

The ninth novel in the urban fantasy series which began with Fated – the Alex Verus novels are magic-filled fan favourites, perfect for readers of Jim Butcher and Ben Aaronovitch.

1

The factory hadn’t changed much in five years. The building was the same shade of brownish grey, grime on brick, and the rusted coils of razor wire still gaped atop the walls. From my position on the rooftop I could look down into what had been the car park, and into the windows of the factory itself. There were no signs of movement, but that didn’t matter: I knew what was inside. Off to the right, the skyscrapers of Canary Wharf rose into the night, yellow-white pinpoints glittering off the dark waters of the Thames, topped by the double strobe of the pyramid-shaped tower. The hum of a boat’s engine blended with the deeper rustle of the waves, all of it merging into the sounds of London.

It was June, but the night wasn’t a warm one. The breeze off the water was keeping the air cool, enough so that my armour was comfortable to wear. My armour is plate-and-mesh, an imbued item, alive in its own way, and if I focused on it I could feel its presence, guarded and watchful. There was a second imbued item tucked into my pocket – a dreamstone – and a third hidden in that factory. Of the three, my armour was the only one I was glad for. It might not be the strongest of items, but it was one I’d come to trust, and its reactive mesh had saved my life more than once. It could deflect a knife or bullet, maybe even a spell from a battle mage.

Assuming the battle mage didn’t have time to study the armour beforehand and figure out exactly how much power he’d need to pierce it.

A voice spoke from behind. ‘Hey.’

‘Correct term of address, please,’ I said absently. Normally I go by Verus to colleagues and Alex to friends. As of eight months ago, I’d picked up a new title.

The man behind me grimaced, thinking I couldn’t see him. He was young, with close-cut hair and a narrow face, and he’d been staring at my back for the past few minutes. His name was Chimaera, and he was the newest and youngest of the three Keepers assigned with me to this job.

‘Councillor,’ Chimaera said grudgingly. ‘We going?’

‘Patience,’ I said. Sergeant Little was due to call, but it wouldn’t be for another two to five minutes. So I’d gone up here to admire the view, and to see if Chimaera would make a move. So far he hadn’t, but I’d seen flickers of possibilities where he did, enough that I was continuing to stand with my back to him, waiting to see if he’d give in to temptation. I wondered whether Chimaera had volunteered, or whether someone had put him here. I could look into it, if I had the time.

Standing here made me think of the first time I’d come to this factory. I’d been hunting a barghest, and once it was over I’d met Luna up on this rooftop and warned her that the Keepers who’d been working with us today might be our enemies tomorrow. I’d thought I was experienced; with hindsight, in my own way, I’d been as naïve as her. Back then I’d thought of the Council as a single block, something to work with or distrust. But it wasn’t a single block: it was a thousand individuals, each one with their own motivations and agenda. Trust didn’t come into it; you work with the tools you’re given.

My communicator was about to ping, and the short-term futures were quiet. Chimaera wasn’t going to try it. Pity. I waited for the voice in my ear to say my name before answering. ‘Verus.’

‘We’re ready,’ Sergeant Little’s voice said.

‘On my way,’ I replied, and turned. ‘Time to go.’

Chimaera nodded. I could feel his eyes on my back all the way down.

* * *

The men were already assembled when we arrived. There were twenty Council security, armed and armoured, led by a compact, tough-looking man with sharp blue eyes called Sergeant Little. Of the two Keepers, I only knew one, a tall veteran with a long face who went by the name of Ilmarin. The other, Saffron, was a heavily built woman whose communication consisted mostly of grunts.

‘Our target’s in the factory,’ I said. ‘Both him, and the people he’s suborned. Sergeant, pick out enough men to cover the exits. The rest of us will go in through the front door.’

‘ROE?’ Sergeant Little asked.

He meant the rules of engagement. It was a good question, and one with no good answer. ‘Non-lethal where possible. Remember, these are civilians.’

The sergeant nodded slowly, though I could tell he was doubtful. One of the other men wasn’t so reticent. ‘All due respect, sir, but that’s going to be a bit hard if they’re shooting at us.’

‘I’ll be on point,’ I said. ‘Keepers Saffron and Ilmarin will assist. We’ll disarm as many as we can.’

‘What about me?’ Chimaera said.

‘You’re rearguard.’

‘Why should I—?’

Because Ilmarin and Saffron can subdue non-lethally,’ I said. Ilmarin was an air mage, and Saffron a mind mage. ‘You can’t. Unless you were planning to burn them half to death.’

Chimaera scowled. Fire mages are notoriously bad at using less than lethal force, and they don’t respond well to criticism, either. ‘You’re going to prove something by going first?’

I saw the faces of the security men shift, and several looked at Chimaera with expressions that were a little too neutral. The Council has a habit of using its security forces as screening units, and if someone needs to be first through a door, then it’s usually a Council security man who gets the job, in much the same way that one might poke a suspicious object with a long stick. Sometimes the object turns out to be a bomb, which is hard on the stick. The men (and it’s almost entirely men) on the Council security forces know the risks of the job, and they’re paid well, but no one likes to be reminded that they’re expendable. Ilmarin shot Chimaera a sharp glance, which the younger mage didn’t notice.

‘Is this the kind of discipline Keepers are taught nowadays?’ I didn’t raise my voice, but I didn’t take my eyes off Chimaera either. ‘You were assigned to my command. If you have a problem with that, get lost.’

Chimaera glowered but didn’t answer. I waited a second, then turned back to the others. ‘Primary objective hasn’t changed. Remember, there isn’t any limit on the number of thralls this thing can maintain. It takes it a certain amount of time to bring someone under its control, but once it’s got them, it keeps them. That means the longer we leave this problem, the worse it’s going to get.’

‘What about the bearer?’ Sergeant Little asked.

‘No restrictions,’ I said. ‘Take him down any way you can.’ I would have liked to take the guy alive, but I was asking enough from the men as it was. I looked around. ‘Any questions?’

The group looked at me. No one spoke. ‘Okay,’ I said. ‘Move out.’

* * *

Up close, the factory loomed like a monstrous shadow. Orange radiance from the street lights lit up the upper walls, while the ground floor was shrouded in gloom. ‘One on the gate,’ Ilmarin said quietly into my ear.

I nodded. I could have crept up and taken him down, but we could afford to take things slowly. ‘Saffron?’

Saffron leaned around the railings, staring into the shadows surrounding the front door. I could feel the spell working, a kind of rhythmic pull. Mind magic is hard to detect; it’s not easy to make out the details of a spell even when you know what to look for. Thirty seconds passed, a minute, then I saw a dark shape slump to the ground. The futures in which the alarm was raised vanished.
We moved up, the security men trailing us. Once we reached the door I clicked on my light, shining it down. The beam revealed a kid of maybe seventeen or eighteen, dressed in dirty clothes. He was fast asleep, breathing slowly and steadily, and on his head was a silver mesh cap.

‘That’s how it controls them?’ Sergeant Little asked quietly.

I nodded. The Council records on this thing had been thorough, and they’d contained drawings of similar devices. The cap was made of metal, crudely soldered, and it was clamped around the boy’s skull. ‘How long would it take you to get it off?’ I asked Saffron.

Saffron shrugged.

Which meant I couldn’t count on her to do it fast enough.

‘Cuff him and move him back to the perimeter,’ I said. This one hadn’t been carrying a gun; that would change once we got inside.

Little’s men removed the sleeping boy while Ilmarin worked on the door. It opened quickly and we moved in.

* * *

We picked our way through dark corridors. Junk and rubbish littered the floor, making it hard to find a path, and every now and then there’d be the crunch of something being crushed under an unwary boot. Each time it happened, Little would shoot a glare at the offending person, but I didn’t turn to look; all my attention was focused on the futures ahead.

There were signs that the factory was in use – footprints in the grime, splinters of wood and brick that had been kicked out of the way – but there had been no attempt to make the place more hospitable. There was no power, and judging by the smell, no plumbing either. Even if there had been, I didn’t think anyone would want to live here. The factory had an unwholesome feel to it, malignant and cold.

There was a metallic skittering, something small bouncing away down the corridor. ‘Hold up,’ Ilmarin said quietly. He put a hand to the wall. ‘Sergeant?’

‘I see it,’ Sergeant Little said, frowning at the scratches and pockmarks in the concrete. ‘Looks like an AP mine.’

‘They’ve got the place trapped?’

‘No,’ I said absently.

Behind me, I felt Ilmarin and Little exchange glances. Little bent down, picked up a ball bearing, sniffed at it. ‘It’s not new.’

‘You sure?’ Ilmarin said. ‘If there are mines here . . .’

‘This is years old,’ I said.

Ilmarin gave me a thoughtful look. He’d been with me the last time we’d come here, and there hadn’t been any mines. ‘He’s right,’ Little said. ‘Too much dust in the scorings.’

‘You hear that?’ one of the other men said.

We stood still, listening. After a moment I could pick it out: a steady throbbing sound. ‘Generator?’ Little asked.

‘I think so,’ Ilmarin said.

‘All right,’ I said. ‘Little, have the men do their final checks.’

‘You’re still planning to be the first one in?’ Ilmarin asked me.

‘You don’t approve?’

‘I don’t mind backing you up, if that’s what you’re asking,’ Ilmarin said dryly. ‘But I have a shield.’

‘Well, I don’t,’ Saffron announced, ‘and I’m not going in first.’

‘Stay and cover the door,’ I told her. ‘You can pick them off from there.’

‘And Chimaera?’ Ilmarin asked.

The young Keeper was at the back of our procession, far enough away to be out of hearing for the conversation. ‘I meant what I said,’ I told Ilmarin. ‘I want these people alive.’

‘You do make life difficult for yourself,’ Ilmarin murmured, but his lips quirked in a smile. ‘Well, then. Shall we?’

I looked at Little and got his nod. ‘Let’s go kick the hornet’s nest.’

* * *

The main factory floor had been mostly cleared. The old machines, too heavy to be moved, still squatted like rusting statues, but the concrete around them had been swept clean, the rubbish piled untidily in the corners. In the centre of the floor were a pair of splintered wooden tables, and a  dozen people were clustered around each, sitting on broken chairs and old packing crates. They were young and old, male and female, and they were all hunched over, working with feverish intensity. All wore the mesh headpieces that we’d seen on the boy outside. Above, catwalks ran from wall to wall. Yellow lights around the room threw off a dull glow, and in one corner a petrol generator was rumbling away with a steady chug-chug-chug.

Ilmarin and I walked out onto the factory floor. With the sound of the generator drowning out our footsteps, no one noticed us at first. Then a woman at the end of the table saw us out of the corner of her eye and looked up.

There was a moment’s pause, then every other person in the room looked up in eerie synchronisation. Twenty-four pairs of eyes stared blankly at us, then as one, they rose to their feet and began moving forward.

‘Well, we have their attention,’ Ilmarin said. ‘What’s step two?’

‘Step two is to take out the ones with guns,’ I said. I’d been hoping that their reaction to two apparently unarmed men would be to capture, rather than shoot. It seemed to be working, at least so far, but three at the back had pulled out pistols. If I wanted to avoid any dead bodies, I needed them disarmed.

The thralls had closed to within a few feet. Their arms came up, reaching to grapple. ‘Go,’ I said, and darted forward.

For an instant they hesitated, but an instant was all I needed. I slipped the attack of the first, knocked the breath out of the second, tripped him and threw him under the feet of the third. They tried to press around me and grapple, acting in unison. Against most people it would have been effective, but here it was the reverse. Normally it’s uncertainty that’s my biggest enemy in combat, the chaos and confusion cutting the range of my divination to a bare few seconds. But here I wasn’t really fighting a crowd, I was fighting a single entity that was using the thralls like fingers and toes, and I slid away from their attacks, using their numbers against them.

There’s a rhythm to battle, a cadence, almost like a dance. Every move has its counter, every strike its timing. Once you understand it, it doesn’t feel as though you’re attacking at all: you just do what’s natural. Dimly, through the press, I was aware of Ilmarin hammering thralls with fists of air while they beat uselessly at his shield. A man swung at me with a broom handle. I like sticks, especially long sticks. The staff came out of his fingers as I twisted it, and a blow to his head put him on the ground.

Felling him opened a gap in the crowd, and I sprang onto a packing crate and up onto the table. Grasping hands reached for me but I ran down the table, kicking aside bits of metal and unfinished headpieces, then jumped down in front of the trio with guns. They had their pistols levelled but I could see in the futures that they weren’t going to fire, at least not yet. My stick cracked the wrist of one of them, sending the pistol skittering off across the concrete, and I kicked the second hard enough to make him fold over. The third backed up, still aiming the gun, and I closed, spun, took his ankle out from underneath him, then stunned him with a blow to the head.

The futures changed. There was gunfire, now. Time for step three. ‘Little,’ I said out loud, hearing the communicator in my ear chime. ‘Go.’

There was a rush of footsteps and the Council security came charging in. Caught between us and the reinforcements, the thralls hesitated before turning on the security men, but the Council security waded in with batons and tasers, focusing the thralls down one at a time.

The thralls on my side of the room ran for the fallen guns. I caught one before he could reach it, tripping him then cracking him over the skull as he tried to rise. ‘Ilmarin!’ I shouted, and the air mage threw out a hand; the other two pistols went flying up and over the mêlée, falling behind the Council security.

One more man tried to grab me from behind; I threw him over my shoulder and drove the stick into his stomach, and all of a sudden the fight was over. The last of the thralls were being wrestled to the ground and handcuffed by the security men. Not a shot had been fired. I strode across the room, heading for a small metal door on the north wall, dropping the stick and pulling out my stun focus. Chimaera appeared through the crowd, looking belligerent. ‘You need—’ he began.

‘Get out of the way,’ I snapped. I pointed to two men in line with the door. ‘You and you. Back off.’

The two security men obeyed. Chimaera didn’t. ‘You’re supposed to—’

The door was yanked open. On the other side was a woman with fat cheeks, dirty blonde hair and a gun held in both hands. ‘Get out!’ she screeched. ‘Get out or I’ll kill you all!’ She started firing without waiting for an answer.

Twelve bullets in the gun; ten steps to the woman. The first two shots went wild, then her eyes focused on me and she aimed for my chest. I sidestepped to make the next two miss, then reversed direction, letting the next three go past on the other side. Only five steps left, but the closer I came, the harder it was to dodge. The eighth shot breezed by my head, but the ninth would have taken me in the stomach and I had to spin; that threw my balance off and I had to halt my advance and dodge the other way to avoid the next two. I twisted sideways, jerked my head out of the way as another bullet barely missed my neck, then I was square on and the pistol was pointing right at my chest. The woman’s eyes never changed as she pulled the trigger.

The gun clicked as the hammer fell on an empty chamber. If the woman had been directing her own actions, she probably would have looked surprised. Instead she pulled the trigger again, and again: click click click went the gun and then my stun focus took her in the stomach and her eyes rolled up and she slumped to the floor.

I turned around to see Chimaera and at least half the security men staring at me. Some of the thralls were still struggling, but every member of the detachment not occupied with them seemed to be looking in my direction. Chimaera’s mouth was slightly open. ‘What are you all staring at?’ I said, picking up the empty gun.

Little rounded on the men. ‘All right, enough rubbernecking! Get them secured!’

‘Something’s coming,’ Saffron said. She’d taken so little part in the fight that at some point she’d actually found the time to get a stick of gum and start chewing.

‘I saw,’ I said. The futures were converging to a single track. ‘Little! We’ve got sixty seconds. Get as many of these people out as you can, then have your men fall back. Nothing more you can do here.’

Little nodded. Some of the younger men in his profession, the ones who have something to prove, will ignore warnings like that. The ones that survive to Little’s age don’t. ‘You heard the man. Move out!’

The security men fell back in good order, dragging thralls off the factory floor as I assembled in the centre of the floor with the other mages. ‘I assume that lethal force is back on the table,’ Ilmarin said.

‘Yeah, I think we’ve reached the gloves-off stage,’ I said. Now that I got a better look, I could see that the thralls had been running a mass-production operation with those headpieces. One person had been filing rods, another wiring caps together, another treating them with some sort of liquid and so on. A dozen completed models were piled in a cardboard box, though I couldn’t sense any magic. Probably they needed to be infused. I pointed up to the catwalks. ‘He’ll be coming from there.’

‘Finally,’ Chimaera muttered.

‘Saffron, focus on shielding,’ I said. ‘Ilmarin and Chimaera will handle offence.’ Saffron gave a nod, still chewing.

Footsteps sounded from above and a figure appeared on one of the catwalks, his shoes ringing on the rusted metal. He was no more than a boy really, twenty or twenty-one years old. His clothes looked to have been good quality once, but now they were dirtied and rumpled as though they’d been slept in. Resting around his brow was a thin silver crown set with black stones. ‘So,’ he announced from above us. ‘At last you’ve come to face me.’

‘Sorry about the wait,’ I said. ‘It’s been a busy month.’

‘You take me for a fool?’ the boy said. ‘You think I didn’t know about your spies? I bent them to my will and now they serve me!’

I sighed. ‘We didn’t send any spies, David.’

‘Don’t call me that!’ David snapped. ‘That person is gone. Now I am—’

‘Your name’s David Winslow, from Hackney,’ I said, interrupting him. ‘You developed adept abilities in secondary school, and while you were at the London Met you fell in with a couple of adept groups. Somehow or other, you got in touch with Morden’s people, and you were able to get your hands on that crown you’re wearing now. At which point you stopped being David Winslow, and became its latest thrall.’

‘I’m no thrall. But you’re about to be.’ David swept his arm across, gesturing to the room. ‘I’ll have you rebuild everything you’ve destroyed. Then you’ll become the first of my new servants.’

‘Do you ever wonder why you’re doing that?’ I said. ‘Why your entire life suddenly revolves around acquiring “servants”?’ I pointed to the crown on David’s head. ‘That thing is called the Splinter Crown and the Council have records on it going back hundreds of years. Every single time it’s allowed to possess a new bearer, the first thing it does is make him find a base of operations, then it starts capturing thralls. The thralls are used as slave labour to capture more thralls. Sometimes it takes a few weeks, sometimes a few months, but sooner or later the bearer ends up holed up in some fortress, trying to raise an army.’ I glanced from left to right. ‘Well, maybe not a fortress, but I guess this was the best you could find. Seriously, stop and think for a second. Before all this, you were a third-year studying English literature. You were living in a shared house and you had a girlfriend. Now you’re a slavemaster living in an ugly, decaying factory. Did you ever think about how that happened?’

I saw doubt flicker in David’s eyes for a moment, then his expression firmed. ‘You Council mages just want to control us. You can’t stand the thought of anyone else with power.’

‘How long are you going to keep wasting time with this guy?’ Saffron said.

‘I’m afraid I have to agree,’ Ilmarin said. ‘The item’s bonded at this point.’

‘Don’t ignore me!’ David shouted, and lifted a hand.

I felt a surge of power, something rolling down towards us, trying to crush and squeeze . . . and failing. Saffron stared up at the catwalk, chewing away on her gum. I could vaguely sense the domination effect, but it wasn’t reaching us.

‘Like I said,’ I told David. ‘We have records.’

David concentrated, and I saw sweat beading on his forehead. I felt the spell brush against my mind, and shrugged it off. The Splinter Crown was powerful, but I’ve had a good deal of practice at resisting mental attacks, and I was pretty sure I could handle this thing even if it were free to attack me at full strength. With Saffron shielding us, it had no chance at all.

‘Can we just kill him?’ Chimaera demanded.

‘Kill me?’ David shouted. ‘You think you can kill me?’

From all around us, objects rose into the air. Sticks, knives and pieces of jagged metal floated up from where they’d been lying scattered on the floor, then darted towards us.

A bubble-shaped shield of air came up. The pieces of debris slammed into it and bounced away. ‘Okay,’ I said. ‘That wasn’t in the records.’

‘David Winslow was originally an air adept, if you recall,’ Ilmarin said.

‘Oh right,’ I said. ‘This thing has some amplification abilities too, doesn’t it?’ The projectiles picked themselves up off the floor and hurled themselves at us again, with a similar effect. ‘Nice shield, by the way.’

‘Yes, although as I understand it, that may simply be an alternate use of mind magic. There’s always been a theory that proper use of mental spells can take an existing talent and—’

‘Screw this,’ Chimaera announced, and lifted a hand. Flame roared upwards.

David disappeared in fire, but as the spell ended, he reappeared, unharmed. With my magesight I could see a tightly woven shield of air around him; it wasn’t as strong as Ilmarin’s, but it had been enough. ‘I won’t be defeated!’ David shouted. ‘Not again!’

‘Can we hurry this up?’ Saffron asked.

Chimaera sent another blast of fire up at David with the same result as the first. Another volley of projectiles bounced off our shield in turn. Air magic tends to be a lot better at defending and evading than it is at attacking; fights between air mages can take a long time. ‘That shield looks like it’d soak up kinetic strikes as well,’ I noted to Ilmarin.

‘It does, doesn’t it?’ Ilmarin agreed.

‘You’ve crossed my path for the last time!’ David shouted. ‘I’ll take all of you! You hear me? I’ll—’

Ilmarin wove a spell, sending a hammer blow of hardened air curving around David to strike his shield from behind. David flew forward off the catwalk, slammed into one of the jagged pieces of machinery, and hit the concrete floor with a thud. The crown bounced free, rolling across the floor to spin and rattle to a stop. All of a sudden, everything was quiet.

‘You couldn’t have done that earlier?’ Saffron asked.

I walked forward and bent down next to David. His eyes were open and staring, and he wasn’t breathing. I didn’t think he’d hit hard enough to break his neck; more likely it had been the shock of the crown’s connection being severed. I felt a little regret, but not much. Maybe David hadn’t had much choice about his actions by the end, but those thralls he’d been commanding had had no choice at all. ‘Little,’ I said into my communicator. ‘Civilians giving you any trouble?’

‘Not since thirty seconds ago,’ Little’s voice said into my ear. ‘The conscious ones were fighting like crazy, then all of a sudden they all spaced out. Now they’re just staring.’

‘Get them into the van,’ I said. ‘Then call the healer corps and tell them they’ve got some patients incoming.’

‘Roger that.’

I broke the connection and looked at Saffron. ‘Thralls have stopped fighting. Are they going to recover?’

‘Probably,’ Saffron said. She nudged the crown with her foot. ‘We taking this?’

Ilmarin stepped up next to her, taking out and opening a small metal box that radiated time magic. A flow of air lifted the crown up off the floor to float down into the box, where it fitted snugly. Ilmarin closed the lid, I felt the spell around the box change, and all of a sudden the atmosphere in the room seemed to lighten somehow, as if something oppressive had been lifted. ‘And that’s that,’ Ilmarin said.

I nodded. ‘Search the place, then we’re going home.’

* * *

With the crown and its bearer gone, the factory felt empty, a fortress without an owner. We found crude sleeping quarters, as well as a room that had presumably been David’s. Unlike the dormitory for the thralls, it had an actual bed, but it still wasn’t the kind of place any normal person would live in by choice. Apparently by the time he moved here, David had been sufficiently under the crown’s control that it had no longer felt the need to waste time providing him with creature comforts.

‘What are we looking for?’ Chimaera said from behind me.

‘Any other items he might have collected, and any other thralls who weren’t caught up in the fighting,’ I said without turning around. And to give me a few minutes alone with you. I didn’t think Chimaera had noticed that I’d arranged things so that the two of us would be up here, out of earshot of Saffron and Ilmarin. He really was young.

‘There’s nothing here,’ Chimaera muttered. He looked around at the rotten desk, the dirty bedsheets. ‘Who’d live in a place like this?’

‘Barrayar should have covered that at the briefing.’

I felt Chimaera shoot a glance at me, suddenly wary. ‘What?’

‘The crown’s goals are to accumulate power and thralls. Comfort of its bearer is not a priority. Like I said, this was in the briefing materials.’

‘Captain Rain gave us the briefing.’

‘Oh?’ I said inquiringly. ‘I thought Mage Barrayar had been the one to recommend you for this assignment.’

I felt rather than saw Chimaera hesitate for an instant, the futures shifting as he decided what to say. ‘No.’

‘My mistake.’ I nodded at the desk. ‘You see the map there?’

‘What map?’

I pointed. On the wall above the desk, several pieces of paper had been tacked to the plaster. ‘The street map.’

‘So?’

‘You’re not even looking at it.’

‘Okay, I see it. So what?’

‘You see the black circle marking the factory?’

Chimaera turned his head to look at the map, obviously annoyed. ‘Yeah, I—’

The knife flashed past Chimaera’s face to stick into the wall with a tchunk. Chimaera jumped back with a yell, tripping and sprawling.

I lowered my hand, looking down at Chimaera. ‘Exactly how stupid do you think I am?’

Chimaera scrambled to his feet, a shield of flame flashing up around him. ‘Now you bring up a shield?’ I asked him dryly. ‘You’re not very good at this. And don’t bother with the fire bolt.’

‘Yeah?’ Chimaera asked. He was in a combat stance, eyes narrowed and set. ‘Let’s see how good that armour is against a real spell.’

‘Ilmarin is listening to this entire conversation right now,’ I told Chimaera calmly. ‘If you want to be sentenced to death, then go right ahead and take your shot.’

Chimaera hesitated, and the futures of violence splintered. Direct threats wouldn’t have deterred him, but the prospect of being caught attacking a Council member did. ‘That was just to get your attention,’ I told him. ‘If I’d wanted you dead, I would have put it through your eye.’ Actually, I would have just shot him – knife-throwing’s a terribly inefficient way to kill someone – but I didn’t see any need to get hung up on details. ‘Now let’s talk about what really went on between you and Barrayar.’

‘What do you mean?’

‘You think I don’t know about the bounty?’ I said. ‘Whoever gets rid of me can go to Levistus and name his reward. I suppose Barrayar dangled a few.’ I studied Chimaera, tilting my head. ‘He could have offered something political, a junior aide position, but that wouldn’t really have been appropriate for someone so young. He probably talked about promotion, didn’t he? Making sure
you only spent a year or two as a journeyman Keeper, instead of five to ten.’

I saw Chimaera’s eyes flicker. He really wasn’t good at this, but then that’s what you get when you send kids to do this kind of work. ‘You wouldn’t have got it, by the way,’ I added. ‘A discreet assassination is one thing, but getting caught red-handed? Levistus isn’t going to associate himself with something as clumsy as that. Of course, they wouldn’t have let you be sentenced to death either – too much chance you’d turn on them. Some sort of suspended sentence or probation, I think. Enough to make sure that the next time they came asking for a favour, you didn’t have a choice.’

Chimaera hesitated, but there was no violence in the futures now. Still, it was worth making sure that the lesson had sunk in. ‘Ever heard of an adept called Talis?’ I asked him.

Chimaera frowned.

I nodded. ‘No reason you should have. Death magic adept, a life-drinker. Illegal under the Concord, of course, but he and certain Council members had an understanding, you might say. They’d turn a blind eye to his activities, and in return, every now and again, someone inconvenient to the Council would be removed. A few months ago, he had a conversation with Barrayar too. I suspect it went much the way yours did.’

‘What’s that got to do with me?’

‘With you? Nothing at all.’ I paused. ‘Talis showed up at that party of Levistus’s two months ago. Or at least part of him did.’

Chimaera didn’t understand, at least not at first. It took a few seconds for him to get it, then his eyes widened and he went stiff. ‘Wait, that was—?’

‘Talis was quite experienced in his line of work,’ I said. I didn’t take my eyes off Chimaera. ‘So the next time you’re thinking about shooting me in the back, like you were on that rooftop, just remember what happened to the last person who tried.’

‘I didn’t do anything.’

I leaned in slightly and saw Chimaera flinch back. ‘That,’ I said softly and clearly, ‘is why you’re still alive.’

* * *

‘Did the conversation go well?’ Ilmarin asked.

I gave Ilmarin a glance. We were out in the street in front of the factory, with the security men loading up the thralls into the vans. Most of them looked dazed; a couple were crying. They hadn’t removed the headpieces yet – that would be done under controlled conditions. ‘Which one?’

Ilmarin nodded towards Chimaera. The younger Keeper wasn’t looking at us. Actually, he’d been careful not to look anywhere in my direction since we’d met up with the others. ‘With your young friend.’

‘So you were listening.’

‘It seemed prudent,’ Ilmarin said. ‘I hope you weren’t actually intending to kill him.’

‘No, but it won’t do him any harm to believe otherwise.’ I gave Ilmarin a sidelong look. ‘What about you?’

‘What about me?’

‘Levistus’s offer is an open one, as far as I’m aware,’ I said. ‘You haven’t been tempted?’

‘To commit murder in exchange for the favours of our esteemed Councilman?’ Ilmarin said dryly. ‘No, I have not been tempted. Somehow I doubt the reward would be worth the price. Besides, not all of us look favourably on the Council’s attempts to use the Keepers as a way to remove  their political opponents.’ Ilmarin looked at me, tilting his head. ‘Since we seem to be sharing confidences, were you telling the truth about that adept?’

‘You mean Talis?’

‘I was thinking more of what happened afterwards.’ Ilmarin leaned against the van, eyes resting on me. ‘Specifically, the incident at Levistus’s party.’

‘Oh, that party.’

‘Levistus had invited over some visitors over from Washington. I understand he’d been hoping to make a good impression. I still don’t know how that package came to be delivered to him right in the middle of appetisers. You’d have thought he’d know better than to open it, but I suppose they’d only scanned it for weapons, instead of for . . . other things.’

‘I do remember hearing something, now that you mention it,’ I said. ‘Hope it didn’t spoil their appetites.’

‘I rather suspect that it did.’ Ilmarin paused. ‘So?’

‘So?’ I asked. ‘Oh yes, Talis. Well, I didn’t kill him, if that’s what you’re asking. And if I did, I certainly wouldn’t have his severed head delivered to Levistus in the middle of their drinks and canapés. That would be wrong. Not to mention quite time-consuming to arrange.’

‘I see,’ Ilmarin said. He stood looking at me for a second. ‘You know, you’ve changed somewhat from when we first met.’

‘I suppose I have,’ I said. From one of the other vans I saw Little signalling me. ‘Excuse me a moment.’

‘Trouble,’ Little said quietly as I approached.

‘The thralls?’ I asked. The last of them were being loaded into the vans. ‘Did we miss some?’

Little shook his head. ‘Nothing to do with that. I just got a call from the dispatcher. He had a call from head office. Was supposed to be a routine check-up, but the guy seemed really interested in whether you’d gone out. When he found you had, he hung up.’

I frowned. It’s never a good sign when people take a sudden interest in your movements. It might be to check up on Chimaera, but I couldn’t see how that made sense. As far as Barrayar was concerned, Chimaera would either kill me or he wouldn’t. No reason to care about where I was.

But what if that had been the backup plan? If the goal had just been to keep me busy, then it didn’t matter whether Chimaera succeeded or failed . . .

A nasty suspicion jumped fully formed into my mind. ‘I have to go,’ I told Little. ‘Can you wrap this up?’

Little nodded. ‘We’ll handle it from here.’