Book excerpt

A Plunder of Souls

The Thieftaker Chronicles

D. B. Jackson

Tor/Forge

Chapter

ONE

 

Boston, Province of Massachusetts Bay,
July 13, 1769

Ethan Kaille knew that he was followed. Like a fox running before hounds, he sensed Sephira Pryce’s toughs bearing down on him, snarling like curs, determined to rob him of spoils he had claimed as his own.

Even as the men closed on him, he himself pursued a thief who had stolen a pair of ivory-handled dueling pistols from a wealthy attorney in the South End. His quarry, Peter Salter, led him out along Boston’s Neck, the narrow strip of land that connected the city to the causeway across Roxbury Flats. British regulars had established a guard post at the town gate, and so before reaching the end of the Neck the young thief turned off of Orange Street to cut across the barren leas that fronted the flats. Ethan could see the pup ahead of him, wading through the grasses.

The western horizon still glowed with the dying light of another sweltering summer day, and a thin haze shrouded the quarter moon and obscured all but the brightest stars in a darkening sky. Not a breath of wind stirred the humid air, heavy with the sour stink of tidal mud; even with the sun down, the heat remained unabated. The city itself seemed to be in the throes of ague.

Ethan’s sweat-soaked linen shirt clung to his skin, and his waistcoat, also darkened with sweat, felt leaden. His usual limp grew more pronounced with each step he took, the pain radiating up his leg into his groin. He hoped that the sound of his uneven gait wouldn’t alert Salter to his pursuit, or allow Sephira’s men to locate him too soon.

If not for the concealment spell Ethan had cast, making himself invisible to all, Sephira’s toughs might have spotted him from a distance, and Salter would have needed only to glance back to see him. Still, Pryce’s men dogged him, whether directed by his tracks or by Sephira’s uncanny knowledge of all that he did, Ethan could not say.

Ahead, the young thief slowed, then halted. He surveyed the ground before him, turning a slow circle. After a few seconds of this he let out a soft cry and strode forward with greater certainty, taking three or four steps before stopping again and dropping to his knees.

Ethan crept after him, placing his feet with the care of a deer hunter, and drawing his blade with a whisper of steel against leather. He could barely see Salter, who was hunched over, no doubt digging up the goods he had stolen. The pup was of average height and build—much like Ethan—but he had a reputation as an accomplished street fighter. If Ethan could avoid a fight he would. He knew, though, that the chances of this were slim.

He continued to ease toward the man, but as he drew within a few yards, his bad foot caught on a clump of grass and he stumbled. He managed not to fall, but at the sound Salter leapt to his feet.

“Who’s there?” he called, brandishing a flintlock pistol.

Ethan cursed under his breath. Since the beginning of the city’s occupation by British troops the previous autumn, it seemed that every man in Boston had taken to carrying a firearm. Every man but him. He scanned the ground at his feet and thought he could see a rock or clump of dirt just in front of him. He squatted, wrapped his fist around what turned out to be a stone, and tossed it a few feet to his left.

It rustled the grass and landed with a low thump. Salter pivoted with lightning speed and fired off a blind shot. The report of the pistol echoed across the Neck.

Seeing no one there, the pup blinked once and let the hand holding his weapon drop to his side. Before the thief could do more, Ethan launched himself at him, covering the distance between them in three quick strides and driving his shoulder into Salter’s gut. As they toppled to the ground, the pup flailed at him, using the butt of his pistol as a cudgel against Ethan’s back. But Ethan had the advantage. With Salter pinned to the ground beneath him, he hammered his fist into the man’s jaw once, and a second time. A third blow left the pup addled and unable to fight back.

Ethan rolled off of him and flexed his right hand. His knuckles ached. He took Salter’s pistol, which lay on the ground beside them, and tossed it beyond the lad’s reach. The weapon would have to be reloaded before it could be fired a second time, but Ethan didn’t wish to be hit with it again. He picked up his tricorn hat, brushed a bit of dirt off of it, and set it back on his head. Seeing that a thin trickle of blood ran from Salter’s mouth over his chin, Ethan whispered a spell.

Fini velamentum ex cruore evocatum.” End concealment, conjured from blood.

His spell thrummed in the ground beneath him, deep and resonant, and the air around them sang with power. A ghost appeared beside him, like a flame suddenly igniting atop a candle. The spirit, which glowed with the deep russet hue of a newly risen moon, was the shade of an old warrior. He was dressed in chain mail, his tabard emblazoned with the leopards of the ancient Plantagenet kings, his expression as hard and cold as a sword blade. Ethan called the ghost Uncle Reg, after his mother’s waspish brother, though he didn’t know for certain where in his family tree the man would have been located when he lived. So far as Ethan knew, his name wasn’t actually Reg, either.

The ghost was a guardian of the power-laden realm between the world of the living and the domain of the dead. Without him, Ethan could not conjure. Reg regarded Ethan with bright, gleaming eyes, appearing annoyed at having been disturbed from whatever it was he did when Ethan did not conjure. Seconds later, he faded from view.

As the concealment spell Ethan had cast wore off, Salter stirred. He squeezed his eyes shut, opened them again. After a few seconds he tried to push himself up, but Ethan laid the edge of his blade against the pup’s throat. Salter stiffened, his eyes going wide.

“Easy, lad. You wouldn’t want my hand to slip.”

“Who are you?” the pup asked, staring up at him.

“My name is Ethan Kaille. I was hired by Andrew Ellis to retrieve the dueling pistols you pinched from his home.”

“I didn’t—”

Ethan pressed the knife against Salter’s neck and shook his head. “Don’t lie to me, lad. I haven’t much time, and I’ve even less patience.”

Salter swallowed.

“You’ve buried the pistols here, isn’t that right?”

The pup hesitated before nodding.

“You intended to sell them tonight? At the Crow’s Nest, perhaps?”

“How did you—?”

“It’s not exactly a new approach to thieving.”

Salter scowled. “Well, it works for me.”

“You mean it has worked, up until now.”

The scowl remained on the pup’s face, but he said nothing.

“You’re in a bit of trouble, Peter.”

“From you?” Salter asked, sounding incredulous despite the knife at his throat.

“Aye, from me. And also from Sephira Pryce. She and her men are on their way here now.”

At that, the thief tried to sit up once more. Ethan pushed him back down and tapped the edge of his blade against Salter’s throat.

“For now at least,” he said, “you still have more to fear from me than from her.”

“But if she finds me, she’ll kill me.”

“She might. I can protect you, but I’ll need some help in return.”

Salter laughed, high and desperate. “How can you protect me from Pryce? I’ve yet to meet anyone who’s a match for her and her men.”

“You’d be surprised,” Ethan said. “I’ve dealt with Sephira for many years, and she hasn’t killed me yet.” He didn’t bother to mention that several years earlier she had killed one thief Ethan tried to protect, or that just the previous fall one of her men had slit the throat of another, though Ethan managed to save this second man’s life. “Now, listen to me. If we work together, you’ll survive the night, and I’ll be paid what I’m owed by Mister Ellis.”

“And what about the pistols I pinched?” Salter asked.

“Those have been forfeit from the moment I learned your name.”

The pup’s mouth twisted sourly. “So, you’re a thieftaker, too?”

“Aye.”

Salter narrowed his eyes. “Where did you come from, Kaille? Tonight, I mean. I didn’t see you before; not until I came to.”

Ethan glanced toward the spot where Salter had been digging. “What are the pistols in?” he asked. “A box?”

Salter continued to stare at him. “I’ve heard of your kind,” he said, his voice hushed. “You’re a witch, aren’t you? That’s how you crept up on me, and how you managed to knock me down without getting yourself shot.”

Conjurers didn’t think of themselves as witches. Witchcraft was the stuff of myth and nightmare, a term used by those who possessed no spellmaking abilities to explain powers they didn’t understand. Conjuring, on the other hand, was real. Nevertheless, the better part of a century after the tragic executions of twenty men and women in nearby Salem, so-called witches were still put to death in the Province of Massachusetts Bay. Ethan had hoped to finish this encounter without having to admit to Salter that he was a conjurer—a speller, as his kind were known in the streets of Boston.

“What are the pistols in, Peter?” he asked, hoping to change the subject. He should have known that wouldn’t work.

“I’d wager Miss Pryce would be interested to know that about you. It might be worth some money…” He trailed off, his newfound confidence wilting at the sound of Ethan’s laughter.

“She knows, lad. How do you think I’ve survived as her rival all these years? How do you think you’re going to survive the night?” He paused, allowing the words to sink in. “Now, the pistols?”

Salter didn’t respond at first, and Ethan had to bite down on his tongue to keep from hurrying him. A year ago he wouldn’t have feared a confrontation with Sephira. Yes, she was deadly, not to mention brilliant and beautiful. But he was far from defenseless. He could cut his arm to draw blood for conjurings, or he could use the grass growing around them to fuel spell after spell. Sephira’s men were as dangerous with their fists as they were with blades and pistols, but Ethan’s spellmaking was more than a match for them.

In the past year, however, Sephira had added a conjurer to her retinue of toughs. The man, a Portuguese spellmaker named Gaspar Mariz, had claimed Ethan as a friend after Ethan saved his life. But he still worked for Sephira, and Ethan had no doubt that he would follow any orders she gave him. With a conjurer in Sephira’s employ, Ethan’s one advantage over the Empress of the South End was gone.

Ethan heard voices coming from the direction of Orange Street. He gazed into the darkness for a second before facing Salter again. “Now, Peter. The pistols.”

“They’re in a sack,” the thief finally said. “Burlap.”

Ethan nodded. “Good. Quickly then, here’s what we have to do.”

He explained his plan, making every effort to be succinct.

For several moments after he had finished, Salter gaped at him. “That might be the most idiotic thing I’ve ever heard,” the lad said.

“Aye, but it will work.”

“All right,” Salter said. “Let me up and I’ll retrieve the pistols.”

Ethan read a different intent in the pup’s eyes and tone of voice.

“You do that, lad. And remember as you dig that with my … my witchery, I can turn you into a human torch with no more than a thought.”

Salter licked his lips and nodded, the defiance Ethan had seen in his eyes vanishing as quickly as it had come.

Ethan removed his knife from the lad’s throat and watched, wary and alert, as Salter resumed his digging and retrieved the burlap sack.

Sooner than Ethan would have thought possible, Sephira and her men emerged from the gloaming. She led them, and notwithstanding the dim light, Ethan could see that she looked as lovely as ever. Black curls cascaded down her back and framed a face that was as flawless as it was deceitful. She wore her usual attire: black breeches, a white silk shirt opened at the neck, and a waistcoat that hugged her curves like a zealous lover. Behind her strode Nigel, yellow-haired with a long, horselike face; Nap, dark-eyed, lithe, watchful; Gordon, hulking, ginger-haired, and homely; and Afton, as huge and ugly as Gordon. Mariz brought up the rear, appearing tiny beside the others, a knife poised over his bared forearm should he need to cut himself for a conjuring.

Nigel and Nap held pistols and kept them aimed at Ethan.

“Whatever you’re doing, stop it,” Sephira said, a note of command in her throaty voice.

Salter darted a nervous gaze Ethan’s way.

Sephira halted a few paces short of the hole Salter had managed to dig. “So good to see you again, Ethan.”

“I wish I could say the same.”

She pouted. “I would have thought you were expecting me. You know how I feel about you working for men as wealthy as Ellis.”

“Aye, and you know how little I care.”

Her expression hardened and she turned to Salter. “I take it this is our thief?”

The pup said nothing.

“Peter Salter,” Ethan said. “He was just digging up the pistols for me.”

Sephira’s smile was dazzling. “I think you mean to say he was digging them up for me.”

Ethan glared at her. “Ellis hired me, Sephira. That may nettle, but it’s the truth.”

“Yes, and you know as well as I how little that truth is worth. When I return the pistols to him, he won’t care who he hired. He’ll pay me the balance of your fee—no doubt less than my services would have commanded, but I’m sure a substantial amount nevertheless—and he won’t give you a second thought.” She reached out her hand toward Salter and nodded toward the mud-stained sack he held. “Give me that.”

Salter looked at Ethan again.

Ethan grabbed the sack from him. “These are mine to give to Ellis. And that payment will be mine as well.”

“I don’t think so,” Sephira said, her tone glacial. “Nigel.”

Nigel and Nap turned their weapons on Salter. The thief stumbled back a step.

“Give me the pistols, Ethan, or he dies.”

Ethan drew his knife once more. Mariz shook his head, his own blade still hovering over his arm.

“Do not try it, Kaille,” the conjurer said, the words thick with his accent.

Sephira smiled again. “You see, Ethan? Even your witchery isn’t enough to save you anymore.” Her expression turned stony. “My patience has limits. Give them to me.”

Reluctantly, Ethan stepped forward and handed her the sack, her cool hand brushing his.

“Very good,” she purred.

“There’s enough grass around us for me to kill every one of you, Sephira,” Ethan said, his voice tight. “You’ve got what you wanted. Now leave.”

“Salter—”

Ethan shook his head. “You’re not to touch him.”

“Ellis won’t be happy.”

“I don’t give a damn.”

She smirked. “You’re too tenderhearted for your own good. You know that, don’t you?”

“Just go,” he said.

She continued to eye him, and Ethan wondered if she would make an attempt on the pup’s life, or on Ethan’s. But at last she nodded once to her men, and started to lead them away.

“My thanks, Ethan,” she said, holding up the burlap sack, but not bothering to look back at him. “It’s always a pleasure to do business with you.”

Ethan didn’t deign to answer. He and Salter watched as she and the toughs receded into the darkness. Only when they were beyond hearing did Ethan say, “That was well done, lad.”

“What do we do now?” Salter asked. “Before long, she’ll look in that sack and realize what you’ve done.”

Ethan retrieved Mr. Ellis’s dueling pistols from where they lay in the hole, brushing off the dirt and grass with which he and Salter had covered them in their haste. As an afterthought, he also retrieved Salter’s weapon.

“That’s mine,” the pup said.

“It was.” Ethan glanced back to make certain Sephira hadn’t decided to come back and kill them both after all. “Sephira is my problem, Peter. You’re to leave Boston, never to return.”

“But Boston is—”

“Your home,” Ethan finished for him. He had heard similar protests from thieves in the past. He preferred to let them go free when he could. He had spent too many years as a convict to take lightly the notion of sending a young man to prison over a few baubles. “Aye, I’m sure it is,” he said. “But you forfeited your right to remain here when you decided to do your thieving in the home of a wealthy man. Either you leave, or I’ll place you in the custody of Sheriff Greenleaf. He’s likely to be far less gentle with you than I’ve been. Or, if you like, I can leave you to Sephira and her men. As you say, it won’t be long before she realizes that she’s carrying your dirt-filled shoes instead of these ivory-handled pistols.”

“Can I go back to my room and gather my things?” the pup asked. “Can I try to find another pair of shoes?”

“You can. But I assure you, Sephira knows where you live.”

“How? Why? She doesn’t know anything about me, at least she didn’t before tonight.”

Ethan sympathized with the pup. How many times had Sephira bested him by somehow knowing his every movement, his constant whereabouts? “Believe me, I understand. But she knows now who you are, and your room will be the first place she looks for you.”

Salter’s expression curdled. “So, I’m supposed to walk out of the city and across the causeway wearing nothing on my feet?”

Ethan grinned. “Be glad I caught you in July rather than January.”

The pup didn’t appear to find much humor in this. He nodded toward the pistols. “How much is he paying you to retrieve those?”

“Three pounds,” Ethan said.

“I could have sold them for twice as much. Maybe more.”

“Aye,” Ethan said. “I’m sure you could have.” After a moment’s consideration, he tossed Salter’s pistol to the lad before turning away and starting the long walk back to the home of Andrew Ellis. “But,” he called over his shoulder, “they’re not yours to sell.”

 

Copyright © 2014 by D. B. Jackson

D. B. JACKSON was born in one of the thirteen colonies and now lives in Tennessee. A Plunder of Souls is his third novel in the Thieftaker series.