An action-packed fantasy debut in which two misfit partners team up to solve a murder in a crime-ridden city filled with orcs, humans, elves, dwarves and mages
Rem awoke in a dungeon with a thunderous headache. He knew it was a dungeon because he lay on a thin bed of straw, and because there were iron bars between where he lay and a larger chamber outside. The light was spotty, some of it from torches in sconces outside his cell, some from a few tiny windows high on the stone walls admitting small streams of wan sunlight. Moving nearer the bars, he noted that his cell was one of several, each roomy enough to hold multiple prisoners.
A large pile of straw on the far side of his cell coughed, shifted, then started to snore. Clearly, Rem was not alone.
And just how did I end up here? he wondered. I seem to recall a winning streak at Roll-the-Bones.
He could not remember clearly. But if the lumpy soreness of his face and body were any indication, his dice game had gone awry. If only he could clear his pounding head, or slake his thirst. His tongue and throat felt like sharkskin.
Desperate for a drink, Rem crawled to a nearby bucket, hoping for a little brackish water. To his dismay, he found that it was the piss jar, not a water bucket, and not well rinsed at that. The sight and smell made Rem recoil with a gag. He went sprawling back onto the hay. A few feet away, his cellmate muttered something in the tongue of the Kosterfolk, then resumed snoring.
Somewhere across the chamber, a multitumbler lock clanked and clacked. Rusty hinges squealed as a great door lumbered open. From the other cells Rem heard prisoners roused from their sleep, shuffling forward hurriedly to thrust their arms out through the cage bars. If Rem didn’t misjudge, there were only about four or five other prisoners in all the dungeon cells. A select company, to be sure. Perhaps it was a slow day for the Yenaran city watch?
Four men marched into the dungeon. Well, three marched; the fourth seemed a little more reticent, being dragged by two others behind their leader, a thickset man with black hair, sullen eyes, and a drooping mustache.
“Prefect, sir,” Rem heard from an adjacent cell, “there’s been a terrible mistake . . .”
From across the chamber: “Prefect, sir, someone must have spiked my ale, because the last thing I remember, I was enjoying an evening out with some mates . . .”
From off to his left: “Prefect, sir, I’ve a chest of treasure waiting back at my rooms at the Sauntering Mink. A golden cup full of rubies and emeralds is yours, if you’ll just let me out of here . . .”
Prefect, sir . . . Prefect, sir . . . over and over again.
Rem decided that thrusting his own arms out and begging for the prefect’s attention was useless. What would he do? Claim his innocence? Promise riches if they’d let him out? That was quite a tall order when Rem himself couldn’t remember what he’d done to get in here. If he could just clear his thunder-addled, achingly thirsty brain . . .
The sullen-eyed prefect led the two who dragged the prisoner down a short flight of steps into a shallow sort of operating theater in the center of the dungeon: the interrogation pit, like some shallow bath that someone had let all the water out of. On one side of the pit was a brick oven in which fire and coals glowed. Opposite the oven was a burbling fountain. Rem thought these additions rather ingenious. Whatever elemental need one had—fire to burn with, water to drown with—both were readily provided. The floor of the pit, Rem guessed, probably sported a couple of grates that led right down into the sewers, as well as the tools of the trade: a table full of torturer’s implements, a couple of hot braziers, some chairs and manacles. Rem hadn’t seen the inside of any city dungeons, but he’d seen their private equivalents. Had it been the dungeon of some march lord up north—from his own country—that’s what would have been waiting in the little amphitheater.
“Come on, Ondego, you know me,” the prisoner pleaded. “This isn’t necessary.”
“’Fraid so,” sullen-eyed Ondego said, his low voice easy and without malice. “The chair, lads.”
The two guardsmen flanking the prisoner were a study in contrasts—one a tall, rugged sort, face stony and flecked with stubble, shoulders broad, while the other was lithe and graceful, sporting braided black locks, skin the color of dark-stained wood, and a telltale pair of tapered, pointing ears. Staring, Rem realized that second guardsman was no man at all, but an elf, and female, at that. Here was a puzzle, indeed. Rem had seen elves at a distance before, usually in or around frontier settlements farther north, or simply haunting the bleak crossroads of a woodland highway like pikers who never demanded a toll. But he had never seen one of them up close like this—and certainly not in the middle of one of the largest cities in the Western world, deep underground, in a dingy, shit- and blood-stained dungeon. Nonetheless, the dark-skinned elfmaid seemed quite at home in her surroundings, and perfectly comfortable beside the bigger man on the other side of the prisoner.
Together, those two guards thrust the third man’s squirming, wobbly body down into a chair. Heavy manacles were produced and the protester was chained to his seat. He struggled a little, to test his bonds, but seemed to know instinctively that it was no use. Ondego stood at a brazier nearby, stoking its coals, the pile of dark cinders glowing ominously in the oily darkness.
“Oi, that’s right!” one of the other prisoners shouted. “Give that bastard what for, Prefect!”
“You shut your filthy mouth, Foss!” the chained man spat back.
“Eat me, Kevel!” the prisoner countered. “How do you like the chair, eh?”
Huh. Rem moved closer to his cell bars, trying to get a better look. So, this prisoner, Kevel, knew that fellow in the cell, Foss, and vice versa. Part of a conspiracy? Brother marauders, questioned one by one—and in sight of one another—for some vital information?
Then Rem saw it: Kevel, the prisoner in the hot seat, wore a signet pendant around his throat identical to those worn by the prefect and the two guards. It was unmistakable, even in the shoddy light.
“Well, I’ll be,” Rem muttered aloud.
The prisoner was one of the prefect’s own watchmen.
Ex‑watchman now, he supposed.
All of a sudden, Rem felt a little sorry for him . . . but not much. No doubt, Kevel himself had performed the prefect’s present actions a number of times: chaining some poor sap into the hot seat, stoking the brazier, using fire and water and physical distress to intimidate the prisoner into revealing vital information.
The prefect, Ondego, stepped away from the brazier and moved to a table nearby. He studied a number of implements—it was too dark and the angle too awkward for Rem to tell what, exactly—then picked something up. He hefted the object in his hands, testing its weight.
It looked like a book—thick, with a hundred leaves or more bound between soft leather covers.
“Do you know what this is?” Ondego asked Kevel.
“Haven’t the foggiest,” Kevel said. Rem could tell that he was bracing himself, mentally and physically.
“It’s a genealogy of Yenara’s richest families. Out-of-date, though. At least a generation old.”
“Do tell,” Kevel said, his throat sounding like it had contracted to the size of a reed.
“Look at this,” Ondego said, hefting the book in his hands, studying it. “That is one enormous pile of useless information. Thick as a bloody brick—”
And that’s when Ondego drew back the book and brought it smashing into Kevel’s face in a broad, flat arc. The sound of the strike—leather and parchment pages connecting at high speed with Kevel’s jawbone—echoed in the dungeon like the crack of a calving iceberg. A few of the other prisoners even wailed as though they were the ones struck.
Rem’s cellmate stirred beneath his pile of straw, but did not rise.
Kevel almost fell with the force of the blow. The big guard caught him and set him upright again. The lithe elf backed off, staring intently at the prisoner, as though searching his face and his manner for a sign of something. Without warning, Ondego hit Kevel again, this time on the other side of his face. Once more Kevel toppled. Once more the guard in his path caught him and set him upright.
Kevel spat out blood. Ondego tossed the book back onto the table behind him and went looking for another implement.
“That all you got, old man?” Kevel asked.
“Bravado doesn’t suit you,” Ondego said, still studying his options from the torture table. He threw a glance at the elf on the far side of the torture pit. Rem watched intently, realizing that some strange ritual was under way: Kevel, blinking sweat from his eyes, studied Ondego; the lady elf, silent and implacable, studied Kevel; and Ondego idly studied the elf, the prefect’s thick, workman’s hand hovering slowly over the gathered implements of torture on the table.
Then, Kevel blinked. That small, unconscious movement seemed to signal something to the elf, who then spoke to the prefect. Her voice was soft, deep, melodious.
“The amputation knife,” she said, her large, unnerving, honey-colored eyes never leaving the prisoner.
Ondego took up the instrument that his hand hovered above—a long, curving blade like a field-hand’s billhook, the honed edge being on the inside, rather than the outside, of the curve. Ondego brandished the knife and looked to Kevel. The prisoner’s eyes were as wide as empty goblets.
Ingenious! The elf had apparently used her latent mind- reading abilities to determine which of the implements on the table Kevel most feared being used on him. Not precisely the paragon of sylvan harmony and ancient grace that Rem would have imagined such a creature to be, but impressive nonetheless.
As Ondego spoke, he continued to brandish the knife, casually, as if it were an extension of his own arm. “Honestly, Kev,” he said, “haven’t I seen you feign bravery a hundred times? I know you’re shitting your kecks about now.”
“So you’d like to think,” Kevel answered, eyes still on the knife. “You’re just bitter because you didn’t do it. Rich men don’t get rich keeping to a set percentage, Ondego. They get rich by redrawing the percentages.”
Ondego shook his head. Rem could be mistaken, but he thought he saw real regret there.
“Rule number one,” Ondego said, as though reciting holy writ. “Keep the peace.”
“Suck it,” Kevel said bitterly.
“Rule number two,” Ondego said, slowly turning to face Kevel, “Keep your partner safe, and he’ll do the same for you.”
“He was going to squeal,” Kevel said, now looking a little more repentant. “I couldn’t have that. You said yourself, Ondego—he wasn’t cut out for it. Never was. Never would be.”
“So that bought him a midnight swim in the bay?” Ondego asked. “Rule number three: let the punishment fit the crime, Kevel. Throttling that poor lad and throwing him in the drink . . . that’s what the judges call cruel and unusual. We don’t do cruel and unusual in my ward.”
“Go spit,” Kevel said.
“Rule number four,” Ondego quickly countered. “And this is important, Kevel, so listen good: never take more than your share. There’s enough for everyone, so long as no one’s greedy. So long as no one’s hoarding or getting fat. I knew you were taking a bigger cut when your jerkin started straining. There’s only one way a watchman that didn’t start out fat gets that way, and that’s by hoarding and taking more than his fair share.”
“So what’s it gonna be?” Kevel asked. “The knife? The razor? The book again? The hammer and the nail-tongs?”
“Nah,” Ondego said, seemingly bored by their exchange, as though he were disciplining a child that he’d spanked a hundred times before. He tossed the amputation knife back on the table. “Bare fists.”
And then, as Rem and the other prisoners watched, Ondego, prefect of the watch, proceeded to beat the living shit out of Kevel, a onetime member of his own watch company. Despite the fact that Ondego said not another word while the beating commenced, Rem thought he sensed some grim and unhappy purpose in Ondego’s corporal punishment. He never once smiled, nor even gritted his teeth in anger. The intensity of the beating never flared nor ebbed. He simply kept his mouth set, his eyes open, and slowly, methodically, laid fists to flesh. He made Kevel whimper and bleed. From time to time he would stop and look to the elf. The elf would study Kevel, clearly not simply looking at him but into him, perhaps reading just how close he was to losing consciousness, or whether he was feigning senselessness to gain some brief reprieve. The elf would then offer a cursory, “More.” Ondego, on the elfmaid’s advice, would continue.
Rem admired that: Ondego’s businesslike approach, the fact that he could mete out punishment without enjoying it. In some ways, Ondego reminded Rem of his own father.
Before Ondego was done, a few of the other prisoners were crying out. Some begged mercy on Kevel’s behalf. Ondego wasn’t having it. He didn’t acknowledge them. His fists carried on their bloody work. To Kevel’s credit he never begged mercy. Granted, that might have been hard after the first quarter hour or so, when most of his teeth were on the floor.
Ondego only relented when the elf finally offered a single word. “Out.” At that, Ondego stepped back, like a pugilist retreating to his corner between melee rounds. He shook his hands, no doubt feeling a great deal of pain in them. Beating a man like that tested the limits of one’s own pain threshold as well as the victim’s.
“Still breathing?” Ondego asked, all business.
The human guard bent. Listened. Felt for a pulse. “Still with us. Out cold.”
“Put him in the stocks,” Ondego said. “If he survives five days on Zabayus’s Square, he can walk out of the city so long as he never comes back. Post his crimes, so everyone sees.”
The guards nodded and set to unchaining Kevel. Ondego swept past them and mounted the stairs up to the main cell level again, heading toward the door. That’s when Rem suddenly noticed an enormous presence beside him. He had not heard the brute’s approach, but he could only be the sleeping form beneath the hay. For one, he was covered in the stuff. For another, his long braided hair, thick beard, and rough-sewn, stinking leathers marked him as a Kosterman. And hadn’t Rem heard Koster words muttered by the sleeper in the hay?
“Prefect!” the Kosterman called, his speech sharply accented.
Ondego turned, as if this was the first time he’d heard a single word spoken from the cells and the prisoners in them.
Rem’s cellmate rattled the bars. “Let me out of here, little man,” he said.
Kosterman all right. The long, yawning vowels and glass-sharp consonants were a dead giveaway. For emphasis, the Kosterman even snarled, as though the prefect were the lowest of house servants.
Ondego looked puzzled for a moment. Could it be that no one had ever spoken to him that way? Then the prefect stepped forward, snarling, looking like a maddened hound. His fist shot out in front of him and shook as he approached.
“Get back in your hay and keep your gods-damned head down, con! I’ll have none of your nonsense after such a bevy of bitter business—”
Rem realized what was about to happen a moment before it did. He opened his mouth to warn the prefect off—surely the man wasn’t so gullible? Maybe it was just his weariness in the wake of the beating he’d given Kevel? His regret at having to so savagely punish one of his own men?
Whatever the reason, Ondego clearly wasn’t thinking straight. The moment his shaking fist was within arm’s reach of the Kosterman in the cell, the barbarian reached out, snagged that fist, and yanked Ondego close. The prefect’s face and torso hit the bars of the cell with a heavy clang.
Rem scurried aside as the Kosterman stretched both arms out through the bars, wrapped them around Ondego, then tossed all of his weight backward. He had the prefect in a deadly bear hug and was using his body’s considerable weight to crush the man against the bars of the cell. Rem heard the other two watchmen rushing near, a flurry of curses and stomping boots. Around the dungeon, the men in the cells began to curse and cheer. Some even laughed.
“Let me out of here, now!” the Kosterman roared. “Let me out or I’ll crush him, I swear!”
Rem’s instincts were frustrated by his headache, his thirst, his confusion. But despite all that, he knew, deep in his gut, that he had to do something. He couldn’t just let the hay-covered Kosterman in the smelly leathers crush the prefect to death against the bars of the cell.
But that Kosterman was enormous— at least a head and a half taller than Rem.
The other watchmen had reached the bars now. The stubble-faced one was trying to break the Kosterman’s grip while the elfmaid snatched for the rattling keys to the cells on the human guard’s belt.
Without thinking, Rem rushed up behind the angry Kosterman, drew back one boot, and kicked. The kick landed square in the Kosterman’s fur-clad testicles.
The barbarian roared—an angry bear, indeed—and Rem’s gambit worked. For just a moment, the Kosterman released his hold on the prefect. On the far side of the bars, the stubble-faced watchman managed to get the prefect in his grip and yank him backward, away from the cell. When Rem saw that, he made his next move.
He leapt onto the Kosterman’s broad shoulders. Instead of wrapping his arms around the Kosterman’s throat, he grabbed the bars of the cell. Then, locking his legs around the Kosterman’s torso from behind, he yanked hard. The Kosterman was driven forward hard, his skull slamming with a resonant clang into the cell bars. Rem heard nose cartilage crunch. The Kosterman sputtered a little and tried to reach for whoever was on his back. Rem drew back and yanked again, driving the Kosterman forward into the bars once more.
Another clang. The Kosterman’s body seemed to sag beneath Rem.
Then the sagging body began to topple backward.
Clinging high on the great, muscular frame, Rem realized that he was overbalanced. He lost his grip on the cell bars, and the towering Kosterman beneath him fell.
Rem tried to leap free, but he was too entangled with the barbarian to make it clear. Instead, he simply disengaged and went falling with him.
Both of them—Rem and the barbarian—hit the floor. The Kosterman was out cold. Rem had the wind knocked out of him and his vision came alight with whirling stars and dancing fireflies.
Blinking, trying to get his sight and his breath back, he heard the whine of rusty hinges, then footsteps. Strong hands seized him and dragged him out of the cell. By the time his vision had returned, he found himself on the stone pathway outside the cell that he had shared with the smelly, unconscious Kosterman. The prefect and his two watchmen stood over him.
Explain yourself,” Ondego said. He was a little disheveled, but otherwise, the Kosterman’s attack seemed to have left not a mark on him, nor shaken him.
Rem coughed. Drew breath. Sighed. “Just trying to help,” he said.
“I’ll bet you want out now, don’t you?” Ondego asked. “One good turn deserves another and all that.”
Rem shrugged. “It hadn’t really crossed my mind.”
Ondego frowned, as though Rem were the most puzzling prisoner he had ever encountered. “Well, what do you want, then? I can be a hard bastard when I choose, but I know how to return a favor.”
Rem had a thought. “I’m looking for work,” he said.
Ondego raised one eyebrow.
“Seeing as you have space on your watch rosters”— Rem gestured to the spot where they had been beating Kevel in the torture pit—“perhaps I could impress upon you—”
Ondego seemed to appraise Rem honestly for a moment. For confirmation of his instincts, he looked to the elf.
Rem suddenly knew the strange sensation of another living being poking around in his mind. It was momentary and fleeting and entirely painless, but eminently strange and unnerving, like having one’s privates appraised by the other patrons in a bathhouse. Then the elf’s probing intellect withdrew, and Rem no longer felt naked. The elfmaid seemed to wear a small, knowing half smile. Her dark and ancient eyes settled on Rem and chilled him.
She knows everything, Rem thought. A moment in my mind, two, and she knows everything. Everything worth knowing, anyway.
“Harmless,” the elfmaid said.
“Weak,” the stubble-faced guardsmen added.
The elf ’s gaze never wavered. “No.”
“You don’t impress me,” Ondego said, despite the elf ’s appraisal. “Not one bit.”
“No doubt I don’t,” Rem said. “But, by Aemon, sir, I’d like to.”
The watchman beside Ondego leaned close. Rem heard the words he whispered to the prefect.
“He did get that brute off you, sir.”
Ondego and the big watchman continued to study him. The elf now turned her gaze on the boisterous prisoners in the other cells. A moment’s eye contact was all it took. As the elfmaid turned her stone idol’s glare on each of them, they fell silent and withdrew from the bars. Bearing witness to the effect the elf ’s silent, threatening stare had on those hard, desperate men made Rem’s skin crawl.
But, to his own predicament: Rem decided to mount a better argument—he certainly couldn’t end up in any more trouble, could he?
“You’re down two men,” Rem said, trying to look and sound as reasonable as possible. “That man you were beating and the partner he murdered. Surely you can give me the opportunity?”
“What’s he in here for?” Ondego asked the watchman.
Rem prepared himself to listen. He was still trying to reason that part out himself.
“Bar brawl,” the stubble-faced watchman said. “The Bonny Prince here was casting dice with some Koster longshoremen. Rolled straight nines, nine times in a row. They called him a cheat and he lit into them.”
It was coming back now. Rem remembered the tavern. He’d been waiting for someone. A girl. She hadn’t shown. He’d had a little too much to drink while waiting. He vaguely remembered the dice and the longshoremen—two tall fellows, not unlike the barbarian he’d just tussled with in the cell.
He couldn’t recall their faces, or even starting a fight with them . . . but he did remember being called a cheat, and taking umbrage.
“I wasn’t cheating,” Rem said emphatically. “It was just a run of good luck.”
“Not so good,” Ondego said, “seeing as you’re here in my dungeon.” To the guardsmen beside him: “Where are the other two?”
“Taken to the hospital, sir,” the big man said. “Beaten senseless by the Bonny Prince here.”
“And a third Kosterman, out like a light on my dungeon floor. What is it with you and these northerners, boy?”
Rem shrugged. “Ill-starred, I guess.”
Ondego seemed to appraise Rem anew. Three Kostermen on their backs was bold, and he couldn’t deny it. “Doesn’t look like much,” the prefect said, as if to himself, “but he can hold his own in a fight.”
Ondego was impressed with Rem—no thanks to the stone-faced watchman laying that damned “Bonny Prince” label on him. Rem guessed that Ondego’s grudging respect might work in his favor.
“I don’t like being called a cheat,” Rem said, “first and foremost because I don’t cheat. Ever.”
Ondego nodded toward Kevel, limp in his chair. “Neither do we,” he said.
“So I see,” Rem answered.
A long silence fell between them.
“Get him on his feet,” Ondego said. “We’ll try him out.”
Without another word, the prefect left.
Rem looked to the tall man. He felt a smile blooming on his face, then suddenly felt the pain of his brawl the night before. A swollen, split lip; a bruised nose; at least one missing tooth, far back in his mouth; the taste of old blood.
The big man offered a hand and yanked Rem to his feet. Upright, Rem swooned for a moment, his vision briefly going black again before finally clearing.
“Don’t look so pleased with yourself, my bonny boy,” the stubble-faced watchman said. “You’ve no idea what you’re in for walking the ward.”