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Macmillan Childrens Publishing Group

The Empire's Ghost

A Novel

Paths of Lantistyne (Volume 1)

Isabelle Steiger

Thomas Dunne Books

MORE ABOUT THIS BOOK

CHAPTER ONE


“You’re not feeding those birds again, are you?” Morgan called, and Seth started. He hadn’t realized she was awake. He tried to kick the crusts out of sight, but Morgan was already opening the door, squinting into the sun.

Valyanrend’s districts tended to be jumbled and haphazard more often than not, but the streets of Sheath seemed especially capricious, as if they’d been designed to make no sense. The slender lane that ran along the left side of the Dragon’s Head abruptly bent to cross in front of it, widening out as it continued east; on the tavern’s other side was what looked like a perfectly respectable cross street, but was in fact a blind alley culminating in an unforgiving brick wall nearly ten feet high. It was too narrow to admit much sun, but the birds seemed to like it anyway, and Seth could sweep the crusts that way to keep them out of the street. Morgan kept saying she’d find a use for the alley one day, but so far none of her plans had come to fruition.

She sighed. “Seth, you’re just teaching them to hang about. Let them fend for themselves, like everyone else.”

He turned to her. “Don’t you wish they could talk? The things they must have seen…”

Morgan laughed. “Well, they must not have been too impressed—wouldn’t have come back here if they had, would they? Of course, that’s presuming pigeons have any sense.” She reached out slowly, resting a hand on his shoulder. “Don’t feed them, all right? Gods know you need all the food you can spare for yourself.”

“All right,” Seth agreed. He leaned on his broom. “I’ll just let them have this one last meal.”

“Fair enough,” Morgan said. “Remind me to give you some money when you come inside; I’ll be wanting you to run down to Halvard’s later on.”

“I won’t forget,” Seth assured her as she disappeared through the doorway. Once she was gone, he turned to the birds. “Sorry, fellows,” he told them, “but rules are rules. You’ll have to find your bread somewhere else from now on.” In truth, the birds reminded him of himself—he’d been hardly better than a beggar when Deinol found him.

He went back inside, giving the room a cursory glance as he headed for the stairs. Roger was here this morning, putting in a drink and a chat before he started his day, as he often did. He was just the same as always: bright red hair, scrupulously clean-shaven face, and an endless appetite for talk. He might have no skills with a blade to speak of (Seth barely did, either, and Roger was always kind to him on that account), but he could talk his way out of just about anything. He smiled at Seth as he passed by, gave a customary wink. “Not too sleepy, I hope?” he asked.

“Not hardly, thanks,” Seth said, and couldn’t help smiling; Roger knew how many times Morgan’d had to yank him from his bed. “Early morning’s the ripest time for work, don’t you always say that?”

“And it’s a fact,” Roger said, nodding. “If a man’s trying to get anything of import done in the dark of night, you can be sure he doesn’t half know what he’s about. What’ll he do if his neighbor can’t sleep? But even murderers retire when the sun starts to rise.” He turned back to the bar. “Speaking of sleep, Morgan, you ought to try it sometime.”

“How funny you are, Roger,” she replied, barely looking up from polishing the bar.

“Funny? What’s funny about it? Sleep does wonders for the temperament—just ask your boy here.”

“Hey,” Seth said, “leave me out of it.”

Roger laughed. “Clever lad.”

“You swept the cellar, didn’t you?” Morgan asked, picking at an imaginary splinter in the wood.

“Aye,” Seth said. “Yesterday, like you asked.”

“But you’ll need to do the upstairs,” she said.

He nodded. “I’m on my way. You can give me whatever I’ll need for Halvard’s when I come back down.”

Morgan was still young, though Roger often said she acted like an old lady. She was lean and tough, but soft in certain places, if you knew how to look. And Seth had always thought she was pretty, with long dark hair and dark eyes to match. Roger said it was because he was fond of her, and Deinol said it was because he had more sweetness than sense, but Seth didn’t have to force it—it was just there, whenever he looked at her.

He had the day half planned out already: if he got the upstairs swept quick enough, Morgan wouldn’t mind if he dawdled a bit on the way back from the shop. Deinol would be up by then for sure, and he was never a hard man to find—not if you weren’t a guardsman. Maybe Lucius would be with him, and he could watch them spar, but Seth also liked it when it was just the two of them.

It was Deinol he loved best. Deinol had convinced Morgan to take him in in the first place. He never had a harsh word for him, and Seth could always come find him and talk to him, no matter when or where, and know that Deinol would be happy to see him. He never felt in the way, as he did so often otherwise.

But he’d hardly reached the landing when he heard Morgan calling for him again. “Seth, get back down here, would you? I’ve changed my mind.”

It wasn’t like Morgan to change her mind, so Seth ran back down quickly, settling the broom over one shoulder. He found her peering into a pot, wrinkling her nose contemplatively.

“The stew’s almost out, but it seems a shame to get rid of this last bit,” Morgan said. “It’s not enough to make much of a profit, but perhaps Braddock and those bandits would be interested.” She smiled at him. “More for us if not, eh?”

Seth smiled back. “I can go get them if you’d like.”

“Would you? Braddock never strays far, and the others are probably just loafing about somewhere, as usual.” She shook her head. “Ill at the thought of honest work, yet they can rob a caravan like professionals. Sometimes I’d swear mine’s the only honest business in all of Sheath.”

“I’d back you on that wager, Morgan,” Roger called, holding his tankard high.

* * *

Seth darted through the alleyways, his feet finding the way almost by reflex. When he first came to Sheath, he’d gotten lost at least a dozen times in succession; he’d thought he’d never learn his way around. And now here he was, traversing with ease what a stranger would call a maze. The thought made him smile.

It hadn’t taken but three people asked to hear the story: Lucius and Deinol had gone to practice as usual, but this time Braddock was with them. Seth knew where they’d be: there was a nice wide alley that hit a dead end behind the ruins of a Ninist vestry. He arrived just in time to see Lucius strike Braddock so hard with the flat of his blade that Braddock lost his footing, falling forward onto the cobbles as Lucius stepped back.

Deinol watched with evident amusement from where he leaned against the wall, well out of the fray. But then he saw Seth, and his eyes brightened. “Got away from Morgan, have you? Come and watch. Lucius is having the best of it.”

“So far,” Lucius said, but Seth could tell he was pleased.

Braddock spat the dust from his mouth, bracing his weight against his weapon as he struggled to his feet. He was fighting with a sword today, and no doubt that didn’t help him: Braddock preferred axes, but even though the three of them had always practiced with live steel, his favorite ax was still far too dangerous to spar with. “You damned cocky bastard,” he hissed, his teeth gritted.

Deinol laughed. “I’m a damned cocky bastard, Braddock. Lucius is just good.”

The man in question loosed an easy smile, lowering his blade. “You’ll go again, then, Braddock? You don’t look licked just yet.”

“And it’s a look you’ll never see on me; bet your throat on that,” Braddock replied, rolling his shoulders to work the kinks out. “Try me.”

“With pleasure.” Seth was always struck by just how fast Lucius was; he darted forward on the balls of his feet, seeming scarcely to touch the ground, or to flash from point to point as if by magic. Combining that speed with the surprising reach of that slender Aurnian blade he always favored, Lucius could bring a fight to you before you so much as had time to set your stance.

Braddock scowled, met the blow hard, but he was a born brawler, and strong enough to absorb the impact without breaking his block. He turned at the point of disengagement, flinging Lucius back with what seemed a mere flick of his wrist. But Lucius had reflexes such as Seth had never seen, and he refused to lose his balance, skidding only slightly.

“Not bad,” Deinol offered.

“Wasn’t asking you,” Braddock grunted, hefting his sword aloft for a mighty swing.

Lucius knew better than to take that head on, and the opposing blade hissed by his left shoulder. Braddock turned gamely at the end of the stroke, trying not to overreach, but Lucius swept his blade under and up, aiming right for Braddock’s chin. Braddock pushed back off his heels, then doubled back for a charge after the sword point passed him by. Lucius ducked as quickly as he could, just tearing the cloth at his elbow. They all paused a moment, squinted, but there was no blood.

“I daresay you’re getting angry with me, Braddock,” Lucius said with a slow grin.

Braddock shook his head. “Don’t like to lose, that’s all. Especially not to you.”

“And if I say you shall?”

Braddock didn’t bother answering in words, just brought his sword over and down with such force that Seth was tempted to close his eyes. But Lucius dodged easily, sending his sword’s edge skidding across the alley wall before clipping Braddock’s wrist almost gently.

With a muttered curse, Braddock wheeled after him to strike again, but then Seth, with a sudden start, remembered why he was there. “Er,” he mumbled, “you see, Morgan says … Morgan says you’re to come right away if you hope to get what’s left of the stew—”

“Not now, boy,” Braddock snapped, and Seth’s voice died in his throat.

But Deinol came to his rescue, as always. “Now, fellows,” he said, “this fighting’s been getting a little too heated anyw—” But at that instant, Braddock caught Lucius square in the stomach with his flat, and Lucius, swept back with the force of it, nearly rammed right into Deinol. He caught himself before he could fall, though he swayed dangerously on his feet.

“Get you—for that,” he panted, with a determined smirk. Then he leaped into the air.

Braddock managed to get his sword up just in time to block, but Lucius wouldn’t be deterred, snapping one foot under their blades as he landed and catching Braddock in the ribs. When Braddock shifted to favor his wounded side, Lucius turned his sword sharply, connecting with Braddock’s cheek. The skin turned instantly red from the sting of the impact, but thankfully Lucius had struck with the flat, and there was no cut.

“Bastard—” But as Braddock tried to bring his weapon around and down, and Lucius set his stance in preparation, Deinol stepped between them, his own sword drawn, blocking Braddock’s blow. “That’s enough,” he said, trying to see behind him. “Lucius—”

“Don’t you interfere,” Braddock spat, shoving Deinol sprawling to the ground.

“Ow!” Deinol clutched at his sword. “You damn idiot—”

“—not your fight—”

“—just making him madder, Deinol—”

“I’m not finished with him—”

“You think I’m finished with you? Just trying to get you to calm—”

“—out of my blasted way—”

“If that’s how you want to play, you oaf, allow me to—”

“Er,” Seth tried, “you really shouldn’t—not all at once like—oh dear.”

Somewhere along the way the duel had turned into a brawl, and now all three of them were giving as good as they got. But just as Seth was turning to go fetch help, he was brought up short, hiccupping his heart out of his throat. Morgan was standing at the mouth of the alley, and she did not look pleased.

He ducked his head. “Morgan, I told them, but—”

“Never mind, Seth,” Morgan said quietly. “I’ll handle this.” She finished tugging on her gloves—thick leather, only slightly worn despite all the use they’d seen—curled her fingers once to check the joints, and strode nonchalantly into the fray.

They were so focused on one another that they didn’t even see her until it was too late. Her first blow caught Deinol right below the eye, and he recoiled, staggering back with an oath. Lucius, the most even-tempered of them all even on his worst day, retreated immediately, dropping his sword in favor of holding both hands before him in a gesture of surrender. But Braddock was still plunging after him, oblivious to all else, and Morgan half turned, giving him what could most properly be called a box on the ear. His head whipped around, just in time for her free fist to connect with his jaw. It took him more than a few moments to recover himself after that.

Morgan stood in their midst, nodding slightly in grim satisfaction. “Now then,” she said. “I suppose what stew we have left will be reserved for Seth and me. There may, however, be some bowls of soup available, provided there’ll be no more fighting today.”

They said nothing. It was probably wise, Seth thought.

* * *

When the lot of them trooped into the Dragon’s Head, Roger couldn’t help but burst out laughing.

Morgan was at their head, looking a little more miffed than usual, but also, to Roger’s trained eye, slightly remorseful. It was easy to see why: Deinol was massaging his cheek with the back of his hand, and while Braddock was too proud to show his hurts, the streak of red along his jaw was evidence enough. Seth trailed after them, and Lucius brought up the rear, trying his best to assume a sufficiently grave expression—he’d gotten off without a scratch, no doubt, but Roger wouldn’t have expected any less from him.

“Well, now,” he drawled. “Been brawling again, have we?”

“Go to hell,” Braddock said succinctly, heading toward his usual corner.

Roger beamed at the rest of them, but even Deinol seemed subdued. “It’s not a good day for jests, Roger,” he moaned, collapsing onto a barstool. “Gods, Morgan, you don’t play around, do you?”

Roger sighed. “No sense of humor—none at all. Is it any wonder her life’s so devoid of romance?”

“Will someone plug up that monkey,” Braddock growled, “or I’ll have to break my word and have just one more fight today.”

“Best to keep quiet, I think,” Lucius said, clapping him on the shoulder. “Plenty of time for ragging when your life’s not in danger.”

This was very true.

“Ah, well,” Roger said, “I suppose I prize my own skin as highly as the next man. Speaking of, Morgan, did I hear something about stew?”

The looks he got could have pierced steel.

* * *

Morgan closed the Dragon’s Head at midday—so she could take a quick rest before nightfall, she said, though Seth wondered if she’d actually be able to sleep. She left him to himself until sunset—even going to Halvard’s shop could wait until the morrow, she’d decided—but before he could even begin to think of what he wanted to do, Roger caught him by the sleeve as he headed out the door. “Say there, boy,” he said softly, with another of his winks, “how’d you like to feast your eyes on a secret?”

Seth hesitated, looking up at him. “If it’s such a secret, why would you show me?”

Roger grinned. “Because it’s too delicious a find to keep to myself, and telling someone now makes it less likely I’ll blurt it out when I’m in my cups. Besides, you’re a discreet lad, and we share an appreciation for forgotten things, don’t we?”

He was right about that—Roger knew Seth had a weakness for his stories. He rocked back on his heels, considering it. “It’s not … unlawful, is it? Because Morgan will—”

Roger waved a hand at him. “Gods, boy, no. I’ll dream up plenty of unlawful ways to make use of it, I’m sure, but I’ll not make an accomplice of you. I can respect honesty in a man—not enough to want any of it for myself, but there you have it.” He cocked his head. “So? Will you be seeing it, or won’t you?”

Seth finally smiled. “I’ll come,” he said.

He thought he knew the streets, but he’d no doubt Roger could walk them backward with his eyes closed. He never once looked about him to check the way, just strode forward confidently on his longer legs and left it to Seth to scramble after him. Seth counted every turn they made, checking each intersection to make sure he still knew where he was, and to his surprise found they were soon leaving Sheath entirely. The narrow jumble of streets straightened, but didn’t widen, into the long lanes of the Wilting Roses, the largest cluster of cheap brothels in the city. The air was awash with conflicting perfumes and experimental oils, sold as often as applied, and washing lines crisscrossed overhead like flags at a festival. Seth was mildly terrified they might be mistaken for customers, but Roger moved through the chaos with singular purpose, and it seemed that Seth could remain unnoticed in his wake. But as the streets sloped upward and finally widened out, the buildings got shorter, grayer, and older, and the strong scent of perfume gave way to the faint whiff of soot. There could be no doubt about it: they were passing into Wallward Heights.

“Roger,” he finally whispered, “are you sure this is a good idea?”

Roger looked back at him, surprised. “What’s the matter? Haven’t been any patrols based in Wallward since Elgar built them that new garrison in Edgewise. Moved them right out of the place I want to show you, in fact.”

“Aye,” Seth said, even though he hadn’t known that, “but you’re … not exactly popular in Wallward, are you?”

Roger scratched his head a moment, then burst out laughing. “Oh, that? That bit about the southern plague? That was more than a year ago; nobody remembers that. Besides, even if they did, it’s not like they could prove anything. They want to forget it ever happened—trust me.”

Since it was agreed upon (though not always followed) that thieves didn’t cheat thieves, Roger kept his swindling schemes out of Sheath, foisting them instead on unsuspecting residential neighborhoods. Wallward Heights had been privy to a particularly lucrative one concerning the southern plague, and a cure that, Roger had assured him, really did work, for all he knew. The trouble was that no one had actually come down with the southern plague for the better part of a hundred years.

“You see, lad,” Roger continued, “while cheating a man by selling him something that doesn’t work is all well and fine, you’ll do your best when you sell him something that does work, but that he doesn’t need. The world is crammed to bursting with things that people don’t need, and you can get most of them for practically nothing until you decide to set the price. That cure, for instance. Now, remedies are good business to start with, because all you have to do is describe an ailment in enough detail and you’ll convince someone in your audience that he has it. And that’s all anyone can prove I did. So they couldn’t come charging up to me, demanding I return their coin just because I sold them something they only thought they needed—it was their mistake, not mine. But between you and me…” He hesitated, then lowered his voice. “Just between you and me, it was the symptoms of the southern plague that gave me the idea. It starts with a tingling in the hands, right? And then the fingers or feet go numb? Well, hypothetically speaking, apply a bit of snow’s down and you can get much the same result, can’t you? So I go around the neighborhood, explaining about the plague, detailing the very official nature of my cure, shaking a few hands—just a few, mind; don’t want to overdo it—and … well. Between my natural charm, a few cold fingers, and mankind’s tendency toward overactive imagination, they didn’t stand a chance.”

Seth shook his head. “Morgan knew you’d done something. She always said so.”

“Aye, but she never figured out what, did she? And you’re not going to tell her. It’s between us, I said.” He grinned suddenly. “Ah, here we are.”

They’d stepped out into a close, dilapidated circle, ringed all about with sagging dwellings, that had probably once been open and airy. Seth stared at the building in the center—made entirely of stone, it was narrow and angular in front, wide and curved in back, with the sharp pointed spire he had seen in so many other places. He slumped a little. “Another Ninist vestry? But they’re all over the city.”

Roger wagged a finger at him. “Wait before you judge. The best discoveries are those that look simple, eh? Or I’m no true Halfen. Now come on.”

The door was heavy wood, but it was half rotted; Roger could probably just have kicked it in, but instead he opened it slowly and carefully, easing around the edge and inside before he’d even gotten it halfway. Seth slipped in after him, and Roger closed the door behind them, then folded his arms behind his head, craning his neck to take a look at the room. Seth looked too, with more curiosity than he wanted to admit; as many Ninist vestries as he’d seen, he’d never actually been inside one.

If there had been tapestries or other decorations in the vestry, they’d long since been stripped or stolen; only the wooden rows of seats remained, here and there slightly crooked. The back of the vestry was more stone, curved into the shape of a semicircle, but the statues set into the circle were made of marble. Their size was more or less true to life, but they stood on great pedestals, so they would tower over any man who stood near them. Seth looked at the first one on his left, a boy about his age, dressed in fancy robes a bit too big for him, with a stack of books under one arm and several scrolls in the crook of the other. His hair was long and loose, as if he hadn’t time to tend to it, and his eyes tilted slightly off to the side, as if something over Seth’s shoulder had caught his interest. The sculptor had been no amateur; the details stood out even after so much time, down to the keen look in the boy’s eyes, the lock of hair that had fallen down into his face. But then Seth darted a glance around the rest of the circle, and frowned. “This was supposed to be a Ninist vestry, wasn’t it?”

“And so it is,” Roger said, looking over at him. “Why wouldn’t it be?”

Seth waved a hand at the statues. “It’s called Ninism because they have nine gods, right? But there’re only seven statues.”

Roger laughed, scratching the back of his neck. “Not to worry; that’s as it should be. I forget only swindlers and thieves have cause to know about Ninist traditions nowadays.” He thumbed at his chin. “They’re not strictly gods, but there are nine—nine of them, and nine statues.” He gestured to a low doorway at the center of the circle, with steps leading down. “The other two are down here. Come on—I’ll show you.”

But Seth lingered, looking up at the marble faces. After the boy came a man and woman in fine robes, with crowns upon their heads, and then a tall, imposing man hefting his unsheathed greatsword high. On his other side was a mild, retreating woman in plain dress, and then a man in full armor, his head bared to show an earnest, youthful face. On the far right was what looked to be a holy man, garbed in flowing, ornate robes, his long hair pulled back and tied at the base of his neck. But Seth still liked the boy best, with his clever face and abstracted air. “Who are they, then?” he asked Roger. “Who are they supposed to be?”

Roger screwed up his face. “Hmm, let me see … That one you’re eyeing there’s the Magician—I remember that—and then the King and the Queen are easy, and then—the Knight? No, that’s wrong, the Knight comes later.…” He frowned and then suddenly snapped his fingers. “The Warrior! That’s it. Don’t know why you need a Knight and a Warrior, but nobody asked me. So that would make this young lady the … Maiden, I believe.” He smirked at Seth. “Or so they say, at least.”

Seth tried to ignore that as implacably as Morgan would have. “All right. Then … maybe this is the Knight?”

Roger followed his gaze. “Aye, that’s right, and then the fellow at the other end’s the Apostle. Which leaves two to go, as I was saying.”

Seth still couldn’t stop looking at the statues. “So they … they founded Elesthene?”

“That’s the story.” Roger paced around the circle. “The greatest earthly kingdom that ever was, with this very city as its beating heart. But they all went on to win a much better one—the kingdom of eternity. And after that, they never died—or so they say.”

“So what happened to them, if they never died?”

“Well, they just … stayed on, didn’t they? You couldn’t pray to the Ninists’ god—he was far too important to care about you—but his favorite servants were always about, in one sense or another. If you followed one of them faithfully, perhaps he or she’d intercede for you.”

“What if they didn’t?”

Roger shrugged. “Then it was hellfire for you—until the day the Ninists’ god raised up the penitent and cast down the soulless forever, at least. Don’t ask me when that was supposed to be—always one day, one day.”

Seth frowned. “That’s all they were for? You spent all your time praying to them, and maybe they’d say something nice about you to their god?”

Roger laughed. “Well, they might’ve been immortal, but they weren’t all-powerful—they had their own problems, some more than others. The Niniad tells all about their lives when they were human, and you’d almost feel sorry for some of them, if you didn’t know they found eternity in the end.”

“Eternity,” Seth repeated, staring into the Magician’s face.

“Hmm.” Roger twitched his nose. “Well, not for your boy there. Not quite, anyway. You’ll understand in a moment, if you’ll just follow along.” He pointed to the doorway again. “Come on, this way.”

They descended the steps at last, single file, Seth close behind Roger. They came out into a small circular chamber, like a miniature of the one upstairs, with a low, stifling ceiling. They were belowground, but light filtered in through holes in the ceiling—which was funny, because Seth hadn’t noticed any holes in the floor above. Perhaps they were set behind the statues.

Roger had spoken true: the last two statues were here. It seemed a crime to hide them underground—these were the most beautiful of the lot, a woman so fair it made your heart hurt and a man nearly as handsome, both endowed with a dignity of bearing and expression that couldn’t help but command respect. Seth took a step forward almost without realizing it, then turned to Roger in bewilderment. “Why do they pick these to hide?”

“Because nobody calls on these two,” Roger said. “Not now, and not then, not even at Ninism’s height. These were always to be feared, and warded away. But they had to be recognized all the same, so they were always given their place down below.”

“But why did nobody pray to them?” Seth asked.

Roger was clearly enjoying this. “Because nobody would ever want to pray to two such bad ones as these, my boy.”

Seth started back. “They’re … bad?”

Roger faced the statues, grinning his slender grin. “The Traitor,” he said, jerking his chin at the man, “and the Whore. Enemies to the seven, and to all of us, besides.”

Seth looked at them again, but he couldn’t see anything about them that was so bad as Roger said. The man held his chin a little too high, perhaps, and an imperious frown sat on his lips, but his eyes, marble though they were, were not haughty or cold, and they looked you right in the face. And the woman … Seth had seen whores enough, though few were either shrewd or simple enough to try to do business in Sheath. Some looked … properly lascivious, as Roger might say, but most just looked tired, and more anxious than Morgan. But this woman was entirely different. She didn’t beckon—didn’t even seem to know she was being looked at, and though she looked up, her gaze seemed turned somehow inward. Her clothes were simple enough, and her finest ornament was her long loose hair. She had a sweet face, gentle eyes, and a beautiful, beautiful smile.

“I don’t understand,” Seth said. “If we’re supposed to think these are the bad ones, why make them so beautiful?”

Roger shrugged. “They’re lust and ambition, my boy, and you’d be hard-pressed to find two things that call more strongly to most men. Easy to resist something that turns your stomach, but when a thing is beautiful, who’s going to stop to ask whether it’s good or bad? You clutch at it either way, don’t you? Just as your boy up there did.”

“He did?” Seth asked.

Roger knelt, poking at the stone between the Traitor’s feet. “Oh, he did. He might have been a prodigy, but he was also a boy, just as you are.” He flicked his gaze to the woman. “All his magic couldn’t save him from one of her smiles, and soon he cast his spells only on her word, neglecting even the king who had been his friend. That’s the story, anyway.” He finished whatever he was doing, and smiled. “Course, lust and ambition have been friends to my kind for as long as men have breathed, so we like to leave messages for one another in places like this. If there’s a Ninist vestry still standing, it’s more than likely there’s a smuggler or thief knows it better than its faithful ever did. Have a look.” He stepped back and let Seth see what he had done.

There had been a thin layer of dust on the stone, but Roger had smoothed it away, revealing a set of shallow, etched markings. Seth knelt to make them out: there was a circle, and within it, five lines, one that ran diagonally from the left edge of the circle to the bottom, and four longer ones that extended from the top down.

“It’s a hand,” Roger said, laying his thumb along the diagonal line and his fingers atop the others. “See?”

“I see,” Seth said, cocking his head. “What’s it mean?”

Roger patted the mark affectionately, then took Seth’s hand, placing his fingers against the raised front of the pedestal the statue perched on. “Just apply a bit of pressure there, and maybe you’ll find out.”

Seth pushed, and realized something was moving: the part of the pedestal between the statue’s feet could slide away, revealing a hollow cavity underneath. There was a box inside, a plain rectangle of unvarnished wood.

Seth reached out, pulling the box free. It wasn’t locked, only held closed with a simple latch. And when he opened the lid, he found … nothing. It was empty.

He let the box fall from his hands, listening to the soft clatter as it hit the floor, inches away. “That’s it? An empty box?”

Roger grinned. “It’s only been empty for the past day and a half or so,” he said. “Before that, it held this.”

He reached into his pocket and pulled out a cut ruby bigger than a man’s eye. It sparkled in the low light, richer than blood.

Seth lurched back on the heels of his hands. “Gods,” he said breathlessly. “Sweet gods, Roger, why didn’t you just show that to start with?”

“And tell the tale out of order? Come on, boy; that wouldn’t have done at all.” He tossed the gem aloft, then caught it out of the air with an easy flick of his wrist. “Besides, what’s the point if you don’t understand where it came from?”

“But I don’t, really,” Seth pointed out. “I thought you were going to tell me what that symbol meant?”

Roger pocketed the ruby again, then tapped his chin. “Eh, was I?”

“Isn’t that why you brought me here?”

“I brought you here so you’d make that face when I pulled out the stone. And you didn’t disappoint me, that’s for sure.”

Seth groaned. “Come on. You told the story this far, now finish it. Or I won’t follow you around again, or listen to your stories.”

Roger held up his hands. “All right, all right, this once … Don’t tell anyone, though, you hear? I’m only supposed to tell my apprentice.”

“But you’re always saying how you don’t want an apprentice and you’ll never have one.”

“Aye, I know that. Why do you think I settle for showing off to you instead?” He sighed. “That’s a finger-sign—one of our ways of leaving messages for one another. I suppose that one best means take what you will.”

Seth raised an eyebrow. “Some thief gets away with a gem like that and just leaves it for anyone to take?”

“Did I say it was that simple?” Roger laughed. “We thieves are notorious for … forgetting to mention things, after all. When a fellow leaves a mark like this, it means he’s pulled something off, but it’s too hot for him to fence—he’s being watched, perhaps, or else there isn’t a half-wit in the sewers who wouldn’t recognize it if he tried to sell it, or the hunt to reclaim it is so fierce, he daren’t pull it out of his pocket even in his own chambers. So he stashes it instead. The mark is to say he’s decided the damned thing is more trouble than it’s worth, and he hereby washes his hands of it, and invites you to have better luck, if you can.” He tapped his fingertips together, staring at the mark. “Perhaps it’s better to say it means, Take what you will, and don’t say you weren’t forewarned.”

Seth picked up the box again, turning it over in his hands. “If it were me, I’d just hide it without making any marks on it at all. Then I could just come back for it.”

Roger winked at him. “That proves you’re no true thief, my boy—it proves you’re not thinking to the future. There was so much dust on that thing when I found it, I reckon it’s decades old—whoever stole it in the first place is probably dead. But even so, it’s like he’s speaking to me, saying, Well, my man, here’s a story for you: once there was a fellow so clever, he got his hands on a treasure like this and never got caught, and that fellow was I myself. See if you’re ever so lucky. And here I am in awe of this mysterious fellow, who might’ve died before I was ever born. But if he’d just hidden it away like you wanted … Well, it was still here, so we know he wasn’t able to come back for it. And then his legacy would’ve died with him. What’s the fun if nobody knows how clever you are?”

“I’d rather be clever enough to sell it,” Seth said, wrinkling his nose. “How are you going to?”

“If it’s as old as it looks, it should be safe enough—no doubt everyone’s forgotten about it by now.” He grinned. “And don’t forget I’m a swindler, not a burglar. We could sell a man’s own piss back to him without him so much as smelling anything funny.” He took the jewel out again, turning it over in his hand. “First step, though, I want to figure out what it is—where it came from, if I can. That means I’d best head to Kratchet’s, ask him if he knows of any fine gems that went missing ten or twenty years ago. Gods know he’s a dodgy little rat, but if anyone can tell me, it’ll be him.” He cocked his head at Seth. “Want to come?”

Seth shook his head. “Kratchet’ll be even less inclined to talk to you if I’m around—as far as he’s concerned, saying anything to me’s as bad as saying it to Morgan.” And the man made him nervous, but he didn’t need to tell Roger that. “Besides, Marceline hates me.”

Roger laughed. “What, the monkey? Don’t tell me you’re afraid of her.”

“I’m not afraid,” Seth said. “I just … should probably get back to Morgan, that’s all.”

“As you like.” Roger shrugged, putting the ruby back into his pocket. “Doubt she’ll have any secrets to share with you, though.”


Copyright © 2017 by Isabelle Steiger