Boston, Province of Massachusetts Bay,
September 28, 1768
He heard the man’s footsteps first, boot heels clicking on the cobblestone street leading toward Clarke’s Shipyard. A moment later, Tanner came into view, a bulky shadow against the faint, distant glow of the comfortable homes of Boston’s North End. He walked with purpose, his hands buried in his pockets. Every few strides, he glanced back over his shoulder.
Tanner passed Ethan Kaille without noticing him, though Ethan stood just off the lane, so close that he could have grabbed the man’s arm as he hurried past. With the concealment spell Ethan had placed on himself a few minutes earlier he could have planted himself in the middle of the street and Tanner would have collided with him before realizing he was there. Still, Ethan breathed into the crook of his arm, so as not to give himself away with a puff of vapor in the cool autumn air.
He watched as the man walked onto the wharf and crept past the first of the shipyard warehouses. Tanner moved with more caution now, his steps on the gravel and dirt fill of the wharf nearly lost amid the sound of small waves as they slapped against ships’ hulls and lapped at the timbers of the pier.
The moon, a night or two past full, hung low in the east, like some great, lidded red eye. Its reflection wavered on the smooth waters of Boston Harbor, casting just enough light for Ethan to mark Tanner’s progress as the thief slipped from shadow to shadow.
Somewhere out on the wharf, amid the warehouses, Tanner had hidden a small package containing several gold watches that he had pinched from a watchmaker named Charles Short. All told, they probably were worth five times the ten pounds Short was paying Ethan to recover them. But Ethan tried not to think about that. A thieftaker’s reputation depended not only on his cunning, not only on his prowess with a blade or his brawn, or, in Ethan’s case, his skill as a conjurer, but also on his honesty.
Unless that thieftaker happened to be Sephira Pryce. But he tried not to think about her, either.
Ethan had been working this job for the better part of a month, watching the wharves, learning what he could of the men and women who unloaded trading ships when they arrived in Boston, even making inquiries with merchants and wharfmen about the captains of the various vessels. He had gone so far as to enlist the help of his old friend Diver—Devren Jervis—who worked the wharves when he wasn’t involving himself in more questionable business opportunities in the city streets. Diver had been watching his fellow wharfmen on Ethan’s behalf, looking for odd behavior or signs that one or more of them had come into some coin in recent days. It hadn’t taken Diver long to settle on Tanner.
“He’s not wearing jewels on his fingers, or anything like that,” Diver had told Ethan two nights before as they sat in the Dowsing Rod, the tavern they frequented, which was located on Sudbury Street on the edge of New Boston, as the west end of the city was known. “But he’s acting strangely just the same. Like he’s hiding something. I think he’s got those watches hidden away somewhere out there on one of the wharves. Or Clarke’s Shipyard. That’s where he works, you know.” He had paused then, sipping his ale and eyeing Ethan slyly over the rim of his cup. “So how much is Short paying you?”
Ethan had laughed. “Ten pounds. And if you’re right about Tanner, four of them are yours.”
It was more than he usually would have paid for such information, but he and Diver had known each other for a good many years, almost since the day, more than two decades before, when Ethan first arrived in Boston. Diver had only been a boy, but he had become Ethan’s first friend in the city. He had known that Ethan was a conjurer—a speller, as his kind were called in the streets—for longer than anyone alive other than Ethan’s sisters. And Ethan’s work had gone well in recent months. He could afford to be generous.
After speaking with Diver, Ethan too had begun to watch Tanner, observing him from a distance as the man worked the shipyard, and following him through the narrow alleys of the South End to a small, run-down tavern where he spent most of his evenings. The thief was easy to spot: brawny and tall, mustached and fair-haired. He spoke with a faint Cornish accent, and he had a raucous laugh that frequently punctuated his own jokes.
It had taken Ethan only a couple of days to decide that Diver had to be right. Tanner was their man. The Cornishman had returned to the shipyard warehouses several nights running, each time arriving after midnight, skulking through shadows, and crawling on his hands and knees out near the end of the pier. He had also met with a number of men whom Ethan knew to be fences. But thus far, Ethan had yet to see Tanner exchange money or goods with any of them. And, on the one occasion when Ethan managed to get onto the wharf unseen and search for the watches himself, he found nothing.
That was why he had come tonight. He had guessed that Tanner would return to the shipyard yet again, and this time he intended to confront the thief while he had the watches on his person. As Tanner continued along the side of the warehouses, Ethan eased onto Ship Street and began to make his way toward the wharf, still concealed by the spell.
Out on Boston Harbor, in the distance and to the south of where Ethan walked, lights bobbed on the gentle swells: lanterns burning on a dozen or more British naval ships. Several of the vessels had been anchored within sight of the city for a week or more; eight others had sailed into view earlier this day. They were arrayed in a loose, broad arc, their reflections dancing and swirling like fireflies. They might have been beautiful had it not been for what they signified: more strife and fear for a city already beleaguered by its conflicts with the Crown.
But these were worries for another time. Tonight, Ethan had business with Christian Tanner.
He stole toward the wharf, placing his feet with the stealth of a housebreaker, peering into the shadows, trying to keep track of the thief. Before he had gotten far, however, he heard raised voices. A man cried out and was abruptly silenced. An instant later something—or someone—fell to the ground with a heavy thud. A torch was lit on the merchant ship nearest the end of the wharf, and then another.
Ethan started running toward the commotion, but halted at the sound of an all-too-familiar voice. It was that of a woman, low and gravelly, so she sounded as though she was purring as she spoke. Except that her words didn’t match her alluring tone.
“… Not very clever, Tanner,” Sephira Pryce said. “Mister Short isn’t pleased, and that means that I’m not pleased either. You’re new here in Boston, but that doesn’t excuse what you’ve done.” She stood over the man, and even from a distance, even in the flickering light of the torches held by her toughs, Ethan could see that she looked lovely. Black curls cascaded down her back, shining with torchfire, and her breeches and the tight-fitting indigo waistcoat she wore accentuated the generous, perfect curves of her body. “When you come to a new city you should inquire of those who are familiar with its customs and its habits. You should find out who to avoid angering, and who to avoid altogether. Wouldn’t you agree, Ethan?”
This last she pitched to carry.
Tanner, who was on his knees at her feet, bleeding from his mouth and nose and from a dark gash on his temple, looked around and licked his bloodied lips.
“Come now, Ethan,” Sephira called, a smug smile on her perfect face. “Don’t be shy.”
Ethan rubbed a hand over his face and cursed under his breath. She had done this to him before, swooped in on one of his jobs at the last moment to rob him of the goods he hoped to recover, and thus of his payment. She knew the streets of Boston the way a merchant captain knew the Atlantic coastline. She had cultivated friendships with nearly every useful person in the province, from the king’s commissioners on the Customs Board to Boston’s most successful merchants, from the city’s barkeeps and street peddlers to its most violent criminals. Most often, Ethan’s jobs were too small to draw her notice. But on occasion, one of Boston’s wealthier citizens hired him to recover something of value, arousing Sephira’s interest in his work. It had happened three years before, when Ethan was hired to find the killer of Jennifer Berson, the daughter of Abner Berson, one of the city’s most prosperous merchants, and again sixteen months ago, when Ethan was asked to recover goods stolen from one of the city’s wealthier shopkeepers. And it seemed it had happened once more with this job.
Charles Short’s wares might not have been the best in the city, but gold watches were enough to entice Sephira no matter who made them. Ethan had known this from the start; from the day Short hired him, he had expected her to be watching his every move, looking for some way to find the watches first. But he had been so careful; he had been sure that this time, at least, he had bested her.
“Show yourself, Kaille,” she said, her voice hardening. “I want to see the look on your face.”
On more than one occasion, Sephira and her men had come close to killing him. She was brilliant and deadly and her toughs were skilled street fighters, as good with blades as with pistols, and skilled with their fists as well. But as long as Ethan could conjure he could protect himself. He hesitated to answer her, but not out of fear: rather because he didn’t care to be mocked.
“There’s no sense in sulking. I’ve beaten you. Again. I would have thought you’d be used to it by now.”
Cursing a second time, Ethan pulled his knife from its sheath on his belt, cut his forearm and whispered in Latin, “Fini velamentum ex cruore evocatum.” End concealment, conjured from blood.
Power coursed through his body and hummed in the ground beneath his feet, deep and resonant, like the tone of a pealing church bell. At the same time, a radiant figure appeared beside him: an old man, tall and lean, with a trim beard and the dark expression of a warrior. He wore ancient battle armor and the tabard of a medieval British soldier. He even carried a sword in a scabbard on his belt. He glowed with a deep russet hue, nearly a match for the color of the moon, except for his eyes, which burned bright like brands. This was Ethan’s spectral guide, who allowed him to access the conjuring power that dwelt in the realm between the living world and the domain of the dead. Ethan had long suspected that his guide was also the wraith of one of his ancient ancestors, a link to his family’s conjuring past. He called the ghost Uncle Reg, after his mother’s oldest brother, a waspish, difficult man of whom the shade often reminded him.
The blood that had been flowing from the fresh wound on Ethan’s arm vanished, and he felt the concealment spell begin to fade. Because Sephira wasn’t a conjurer she wouldn’t have felt the spell as Ethan did. But as soon as Ethan took another step on the wharf, she saw him. Her gaze settled on his face, and a broad predatory smile lit her features.
“There you are,” she purred.
Her men, including a hulking, yellow-haired ruffian named Nigel, turned as one and started toward him. Nigel pulled a pistol from his coat pocket.
Ethan raised his knife to his forearm again. The toughs halted.
Ethan wasn’t tall like Yellow-hair or broad in the shoulders and chest like Tanner. Those who had fought him in the past, as Sephira’s men had, knew that he could handle a blade, either short or long, and that he could fight with his fists if he had to. But no one would have been afraid of him because of how he looked. His face bore a few scars, and his long hair had begun to gray at the temples. While serving time as a prisoner on a plantation in Barbados, he had lost three toes on his left foot to gangrene, and ever since, he had walked with a pronounced limp.
It was the threat of his spellmaking that made Yellow-hair and the others falter. They stared at his knife the way a child might gape at a rabid cur on an otherwise deserted lane. Even Tanner regarded him with alarm. Only Sephira appeared unconcerned. Actually, she looked bored.
“Leave him,” she said in a low voice.
Nigel and his friends glanced back at her, all wearing frowns.
“We’re not going to touch him,” she said. “And he’s not going to do anything to us. Isn’t that right, Ethan?”
God knew he wanted to. He could cast a hundred spells, from simple illusions that would scare Yellow-hair into diving off the pier, to complicated, violent conjurings that would kill all of them. With a bit of blood and a few well-chosen words he could have snapped Sephira’s neck or set her men on fire. But Sephira had powerful friends, and as much as he hated her, he wasn’t willing to hang for her murder or return to the horrors of prison.
“I don’t want to hurt anyone,” Ethan said at last, forcing a grin onto his lips. “Just give me what’s mine and I’ll be on my way.”
She laughed. He had to admit that it was a good laugh: throaty, unrestrained. Had it not been directed at him, he might have liked the sound of it.
“Nothing here is yours,” she told him.
He pointed at the sack she held in her hand. “Those watches—”
“Are mine.” She handed the watches to Nigel. “You can try to take them, but I think we both know how that will turn out.”
Ethan’s eyes flicked toward Yellow-hair, who smirked back at him. If he could have taken the watches from her with a conjuring he would have done so, but the power he wielded didn’t work that way. He could hurt her, make her drop the package. He could make the wharf collapse beneath her. He could even grind the watches to dust, rendering them worthless—this last was quite tempting. But he couldn’t make them leave her hand and appear in his own. If he wanted them, he would have to try to take them from her, and she was right: That might not work out well for him.
Ten pounds wasn’t enough to justify risking his life or his freedom. Diver might have disagreed, but Diver was young, reckless. Ethan lowered his blade.
“Good boy,” Sephira said, sounding like she was speaking to a wayward puppy.
“How did you know?” Ethan asked, his voice thick.
Her smile was luminous. “You know better than to ask me that.”
She motioned for Nigel, and the big man returned to her side, as obedient as a hunting dog. Ethan raised his blade again, making sure both Sephira and Nigel understood that he was ready to conjure at the first sign of a threat.
Sephira handed her man the watches and whispered something that Ethan couldn’t hear.
“How did you know, Sephira?” Ethan asked again.
“Ask your friend,” she said, sparing him a quick glance. “Derrey is it?”
Derrey. Diver. He was known in the streets by both names. Ethan muttered a curse under his breath.
“We’re leaving now, Ethan,” Sephira said, turning away from Nigel to face him once more. “Good work on this one. You made it very easy for us.”
She sauntered his way and then past him, hips swaying. Most of her men followed, including Gordon, a brute of a man, even brawnier than Nigel, and Nap, who was smaller than the others, though no less dangerous with a blade or gun. Ethan still held his knife over his arm, and he racked his brain for some spell that would stop her, allow him to reclaim the watches, and also enable him to make his escape.
But as Sephira walked away, Yellow-hair bent low over Tanner and in one quick motion slashed at the man’s throat with a blade Ethan hadn’t noticed before. Blood gushed from the wound. Tanner’s eyes rolled back into his head and he toppled onto his side. Blood stained the wharf crimson and began to pool at its edge, seeping over the wooden boards to drip into the water below.
Ethan rushed forward, all thoughts of stopping Sephira fleeing his mind. He pushed past Yellow-hair, who merely chuckled. Reaching Tanner, he dropped to his knees.
“Remedium!” Ethan said, practically shouting the word. “Ex cruore evocatum!” Healing, conjured from blood! Usually a healing spell required that he mark the injured body part with blood. But in this case, blood was everywhere; the air reeked of it.
The wharf beneath him pulsed with power. Uncle Reg appeared again, though he hardly even glanced at Ethan or Tanner. Instead, the wraith stood with his back to them, staring after Sephira. And as the blood disappeared from the wood and dirt, and from Tanner’s neck and shirt, the gaping wound began to close. Ethan couldn’t tell if he had acted soon enough. Tanner had lost a great deal of blood in just those few seconds.
A part of him wasn’t certain why he cared. Tanner meant nothing to him. But if Sephira wanted him dead, Ethan would do all he could to keep him alive.
At first, even after the gash had healed itself, Tanner didn’t move. But leaning close to the man’s face, Ethan felt a slight stirring of breath. He grabbed Tanner’s wrist and felt for a pulse. Also faint, but unmistakable. Ethan sat back on his heels, and took a long breath. After what seemed like years, Tanner’s eyes fluttered open.
Ethan cut himself once more and drew forth a bright light that hovered over them like a tiny sun.
“You’re a … a conjurer!” Tanner said, trying to scramble away from him, although he was too weak to go far.
“Aye, I’m a conjurer. I just saved your life with a spell.”
The man’s hand strayed to his throat, his fingers probing the raw scar left by Nigel’s blade. “Why?” he asked.
Ethan shrugged. “I don’t know. Don’t make me regret it.”
With some effort, Tanner sat up. His arms trembled and his skin looked pasty. “Is she gone?”
“Aye,” Ethan said. “But you need to leave Boston. If she sees you, she’ll try to kill you again, and I might not be around to heal you.”
“Short—that’s the man who owned those watches you stole—he wants you transported as far from these shores as possible. Failing that, he wants you dead. He made that clear when he hired me, and I’d wager every shilling I have that he told Sephira the same thing.”
“So … so you were goin’ to turn me over to the sheriff?”
Ethan made no answer. He didn’t always turn in those he was hired to pursue, and he never killed any man unless left with no choice. He had lost too many years of his life to prison and forced labor to send men away for commission of petty crimes. And he had seen too many lives wasted in battles and in the harsh conditions he had endured in his plantation prison to kill for little cause. But he always insisted, under the threat of a painful spell-induced death, that those he captured leave Boston, never to return. The last thing he needed was for word to get around the city that he didn’t punish the men he was hired to pursue. He would never be hired as a thieftaker again. He saw no reason to trust Tanner with this information.
“Aye, probably,” he finally said. “And Sheriff Greenleaf would have dealt with you harshly. But Sephira took the watches and left me to heal you, so I suppose this is your lucky day.”
Tanner’s dark eyes narrowed. “Well, then—”
“Don’t even think it,” Ethan said. “Just leave Boston on the next ship that sails. If you don’t, she’ll kill you. And if she doesn’t, I will.”
Ethan climbed to his feet, let the light fade out, and started to limp back along the wharf to the city street. He needed an ale, and it seemed he also needed to have a conversation with Diver.
“I suppose I ought to thank you for savin’ me,” Tanner called after him.
“Don’t bother,” Ethan said over his shoulder. “I didn’t do it for you.”
Copyright © 2013 by D. B. Jackson