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Sworn in Steel
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Sworn in Steel

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Author: Douglas Hulick
Publisher: Tor UK, 2014
Roc, 2012
Series: The Kin: Book 2

1. Among Thieves
2. Sworn in Steel

Book Type: Novel
Genre: Fantasy
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Synopsis

Drothe has killed a legend, burned down part of the imperial capital, and unexpectedly elevated himself into the underworld's elite. And as the city's newest 'Gray Prince', Drothe's learning just how good he used to have it.

With no time to build support, Drothe is already being called out by other Gray Princes. And when one dies, all signs point to Drothe. Members of the thieves' guilds begin choosing sides, mostly against him, for what promises to be another gang war. Then Drothe is approached by someone who can solve all his problems and also offer him redemption. But the cost may be just too high. Out of options, Drothe's finds himself travelling to the empire's bitterest enemy. He has a price on his head, but one last plan in mind.


Excerpt

Chapter One

I sat in the darkness, listening to the slap of the waves against the side of the boat, and watched as the outline of Ildrecca loomed toward me.

Even with my night vision, the sea wall on this side of the Imperial capital was too vast to take in. It stretched off into the distance in either direction until my magically tinged sight gave way to the night. The city was a great, hulking mass: an irregular black line drawn against the star-speckled horizon. A city I was now having to creep back into.

My city.

I brought my eyes back down to the scale of man and the forest of narrow spires that seemed to grow from the waters of the Lower Harbor. Lights flickered among those masts, swaying and bobbing like nautical will-o'-the-wisps--ship's running lights moving in the soft breeze off the sea.

"I still say you should have killed him," said Fowler Jess.

I looked back over my shoulder. The Oak Mistress was crouched amidships, scowling like an unhappy cat at the water that surrounded the narrow caïque. She had both hands out, gripping the gunwales as if she might keep the craft from capsizing by force of will. Her green flat cap was jammed down on her head, but that hadn't stopped the breeze from setting some stray wisps of blond drifting and dancing about her head, giving her an amber-gold halo in my night vision. With her fine features and normally bright eyes, it would have been an enchanting image, if not for the smudges of dust and mud and old blood on her face and collar. Well, that, and the dark circles under her eyes that had come from days of hard riding and little sleep.

Not that I was doing much better, mind. My thighs and ass had stopped being able to feel anything other than pain nearly three days back.

"We've already been over this," I said, reaching down and running an absent hand over the long, canvas-wrapped bundle at my feet. Reassuring myself for the fifth time in as many minutes that it was still there.

"Yes, we have," she answered. "And you're still wrong."

I glanced past her to the figure of the boatman standing in the stern, working his long oar with slow, easy strokes. He was chanting the Nine Prayers of Imperial Ascension to himself, partly to keep time for his work, and partly to assure us he wasn't eavesdropping. Boatmen who hired out to run the Corsian Passage at night without bow or stern lights knew better than to risk overhearing things. "Fine," I said, leaning forward and dropping my voice down to a proper whisper. "Let's say I'd done what you wanted and dusted Wolf: what then? What happens when word gets out that I broke my deal with him? What happens when people learn he kept his part of the bargain and I broke mine?"

"There's a hell of a lot of difference between keeping your promise to a bandit and honoring your word to another Gray Prince."

"Is there?"

"You damn well know there is!"

"On a good day, maybe, but now?" I pointed south, across the Corsian Passage, past the lights of the tiny harbor at Kaidos and the dark smudge of the hills beyond, toward the disaster we'd fled in Barrab. "With a fellow Gray Prince lying dead three days behind us, my dagger in his eye? With me being the last person, the last Kin, to see him alive?" I shook my head and barely managed to keep the rest of me from shaking along with it. Even now, the thought of the news coming up the Imperial High Road from Barrab made my stomach queasy.

I ran my hand over the canvas-wrapped sword at my feet again. It had been worth it; it had to have been worth it.

"No one besides us has any reason to think Wolf was involved with Crook Eye's murder," I said. "All anyone on the street is going to know is that two Gray Princes met, and one walked away. Me. What kind of story does that tell?"

"But with Wolf you could've always--"

"No, I couldn't," I said. "Because if I kill him, it looks like I'm trying to cover my tracks. If the street hears I dusted the bandit who snuck me out of Barrab past Crook Eye's people, it won't matter what else I do or say, the story will be set: Drothe dusted Wolf because he knew too much. At that point, I might as well take credit for Crook Eye's death and be done with it." I settled back on my seat. "No, as much as I hate to say it, Wolf does me more good alive than dead right now."

"So he just walks?"

"He just walks."

Fowler spit her opinion of that over the side of the caïque.

I turned back around and watched as the base of Ildrecca's city wall resolved itself into the dark jumble that made up the Lower Harbor. A couple of centuries ago, it would have been alight and busy even at this hour, with wine and spices and grain and exotics weighing down the docks until they groaned, the air rich with the shouts of men and the thump of tonnage and the smell of trade. But that had been before the empire decided to expand the landings on the north and east sides of the peninsula that held Ildrecca; now the richest vessels made their way around the city's horn to Little Docks and the Pilings and the merchant pier that had been added to the Imperial naval docks, called the New Wharf. The Lower Harbor, once the hub of Ildrecca's trade, had become the haunt of timber merchants and fishermen, salvage traders and night soil barges. And, of course, the Kin.

Barely two-thirds of the docks in Lower Harbor were in regular commercial use anymore, which left the rest for us. Smugglers, spies, and the occasional small-craft pirate--along with all the people and industries that catered to them--were the stock-in-trade of the cordon that had come to be known as Dirty Waters.

I hadn't left by this route on my way to meet Crook Eye, and I certainly hadn't planned on using it to sneak back into the city I called home. Then again, I hadn't planned on being framed for his murder, either. Not after I'd sworn the Prince's Peace, promising to keep my steel sheathed and my people at bay for the meet, just as he had. The criminals of the empire didn't expect much when it came to Gray Princes and our promises, but honoring the Peace was one of them. Without it, there was no reason to expect truces to be made, territories respected, negotiations offered, or Kin wars prevented. The Prince's Peace kept the legends of the Kin from slaughtering one another on the rare occasions they met, which in turn kept the blood and the chaos from trickling down to the streets. It kept us, if not civilized, then at least careful.

But more importantly, it kept things from getting out of hand. Because if things got out of hand among the Kin, that's when the emperor took an interest in us. And no one wanted that.

Our boatman grew quiet as we approached a set of water stairs, their steps leading down into the harbor. I'd barely felt the scrape of the keel on stone before Fowler was clambering up and over me, making for the stairs even as she sent the caïque to rocking. The boatman cursed. Fowler cursed. I grabbed the bundle at my feet and made it unanimous.

A moment later, the Oak Mistress was on the steps, scrambling up toward the quay as the boat settled.

I reached into my purse and pulled out a pair of silver hawks, then thought better of it and added three more, making sure none of them were clipped. The boatman stepped forward, easy and sure in the craft, and I placed a week's worth of work in his palm. To his credit, he nodded and pocketed the windfall without comment.

I turned and considered the slime-smeared steps, the rocking of the boat, and the canvas-wrapped bundle in my hands. I bent my knees, took a breath...

"You want I should throw that to you?"

I blinked and looked back over my shoulder. "What?"

"The package," said the boatman. "Steps are tricky enough as it is; figure you don't need the added trouble of your hands being full."

"I've got it," I said. I turned back to the quay. I just needed to get the timing right...

"Does it float?"

I jerked back. "What?"

"Wondered if it'd sink or swim if'n you dropped it. Wonder if you'll do the same, for that matter."

"Look--" I began.

"I don't need your girl tracking me down and cutting me up 'cause I let you drown," he said. "And I don't need you doing the same if you drop your cargo gettin' off my boat. Figure it's better for us both if I toss it to you once you're ashore."

I considered the steps, the boatman, the water all around us. Considered the canvas-wrapped sword in my hands.

"I ain't stupid," he said from behind me. "Last thing I want to do is cross the likes of you."

"Last thing I want to do is be crossed," I said softly. Mostly to myself.

"Drothe!" Fowler's voice came hissing down from the quay. "What the hell. What's taking so long?"

I hefted Degan's sword, feeling more than just the weight of steel and leather and canvas in my hands. There was history here; obligation; blood. Not to mention broken promises and memories.

I'd already lost him: I couldn't lose his sword. Not after having just found it in Crook Eye's possession. Not after having almost killed for it.

I handed the wrapped blade back to the boatman. Even if he were to row off with it, I stood a better chance of finding him than I did retrieving the sword from the bottom of the harbor.

I adjusted my stance, the muscles of my back and legs protesting, and waited for the caïque to bump up against the stairs again. When it did, I half stepped, half leapt across. Only one foot ended up slipping back into the water.

When I turned, the boatman had moved his caïque up, bringing him even with me. He hesitated a moment, bending over the blade, and then tossed the long bundle in an easy arc over the water. The blade landed in my arms almost before I had a chance to be worried. I drew the sword in close, then looked out at the boatman. He was already beginning to move away.

"Hey!" I called after him.

He turned his head but didn't stop working his oar.

"I forgot to ask," I said. "Has any news worth noting come across tonight?" Such as, I thought, word of a Gray Prince's death?

"This a test?"

"Straight."

He seemed to consider for a moment. "Naught I heard." A flash of teeth in the gloom. "But then, I don't hear much, yeh?"

I smiled and began to turn away.

"Heya!" he called.

I looked back.

"Check the blade." Slight pause. "Your Highness."

His chuckle was still rippling across the water as I held up the sword, but any anxiety I felt vanished as soon as I saw what he'd done. A worn length of rope had been tied to Degan's sword, running from the canvas-covered crosspiece down to a spot just above the point, forming an impromptu sling.

The boatman was on his way to becoming an amber-limned smudge on the water by now, but I raised my hand in thanks anyhow. I couldn't be sure if the sound that came back was more laughter or just the water.

I passed my left arm through the rope, ducked my head under, and let the sword settle across my back. It felt strange, but it also felt good. I climbed the rest of the way up the water stairs, my left foot squelching every other step.

Fowler was waiting at the top, her travel coat thrown back to reveal the deep green doublet and split riding skirt beneath. Scratch was standing beside her, his heavy hands hanging loosely at his sides, his face as expressive as a poorly carved block of granite. He was sporting a bloody lip. Fowler had sent him ahead to scout out the docks and arrange for discreet passage into Ildrecca. I didn't care for the results his face predicted.

"Problems?" I asked as I reached the top.

"Misunderstanding," said Scratch.

"How big of one?"

Scratch shrugged, meaning it could be anything from broken ribs to a broken neck for the other cove.

"Is it going to get in the way of using the Gate?" I said.

"Wouldn't recommend calling on Soggy Peytr."

Fowler and I exchanged a look. Soggy Petyr was one of the local bosses down in Dirty Waters, specializing in for-hire press gangs, stolen goods, and shaking down small shipmasters. He also controlled access to the oldest and largest hidden entry point this side of Ildrecca: the Thieves' Gate.

I pointed at Scratch's lip. "Petyr's boys?" I said, hoping for the best.

"Petyr."

I pinched the bridge of my nose. "Scratch..."

"Called you a cut-rate cove. Called Fowler worse. Wanted to shake us down. Backhanded me when I told him where to go."

I sighed. I should have expected this. Various bosses and Kin had been testing me ever since the street had proclaimed me a Gray Prince three months back. Turned out having the title and keeping it weren't the same thing, especially when you made the jump from street operative to criminal royalty in less than a week. People wanted to make sure my rise hadn't been a fluke, that it wasn't dumb luck that had put me on top.

Never mind that it had been luck--the important thing was to rise above it. A handful of hard names from the likes of Petyr weren't going to bring me down, especially if I sent some of my people to "talk" to him once I was back inside the city. But tonight, in his territory, with only two coves on my blinders, the city gates locked until dawn, and a dangerous rumor running up behind me? This wasn't the time or place to have a thin skin.

Unfortunately, it was starting to look like Scratch hadn't seen it that way.

"And you took it, right?" I said. "When Petyr showed you his hand, you stood there and you took it, right?"

Scratch rubbed thoughtfully at the knuckles of his left hand and didn't answer.

"Right?"

"Man hits you, sometimes you don't think. Sometimes you--"

"Oh, for the Angels' sake!" I turned away, not trusting myself to keep from backhanding Scratch myself. I took two steps along the quay, paused for a breath, took two more.

I could feel the edges of the sword biting into my back through the canvas as I thought of the man who had used to own it. A bloody lip? Not fucking likely. Degan wouldn't have let Petyr touch him--wouldn't even have let him start the motion. The fight would have been over before it started. Hell, it wouldn't have started in the first place. If Degan were here...

No. Stop. Wishes and fishes and all that crap. Besides, I'd already poisoned that pond well and good. There was no going back.

I turned around. Fowler gave me a warning look as I came back. I nodded in response. Scratch was her man, not mine: any consequences for this would be meted out by her. Raising my hand against him would only get me a face full of Oak Mistress, and not in any way I'd like. That pond had turned sour as well.

I glared up at Scratch. "How bad was it with Petyr?"

"Don't think I broke his jaw, if that's what you mean."

"You don't think you--?" I took a deep breath, tried again. "How'd you get out of there? By all accounts, Petyr doesn't travel light."

Scratch shrugged. "Threw a table and ran."

I opened my mouth to say more, thought better of it, and turned to Fowler instead. "The Thieves' Gate is out," I said.

"You think?" She looked around the wharf. "We can't stand around here for long. Broken jaw or not, Petyr's going have his people all over the Waters looking for us."

I nodded. Dirty Waters sat on a narrow strip of shore between Ildrecca's city wall and the Corsian Passage. It had one main thoroughfare--called either Eel Way or the Slithers, depending on who you talked to--that paralleled the city wall. Down in the Lower Harbor, it was wide enough for three wagons; here in the Waters, it was a good day when two carts could pass each other and only rub wheel hubs. People, barrels, ramshackle huts, and garbage clogged most of the road, leaving a meandering path intersected by the occasional side street or alley. The side streets were even worse.

The entire place was a warren of hidey-holes and roosting kens, but it wasn't a warren I knew well. Running would be better than hiding, if we could manage it.

"We'll need to stick to the Slithers if we want to get out of here," I said as I began to move away from the quay.

"I don't suppose you have any friends around here, do you?" said Fowler as she fell in beside me.

"No," I said, looking up the street. Had that shadow been in that doorway before? "But that's not the important question."

"It isn't?" said Fowler.

"No."

"Then what is?"

The shadow, I decided, was definitely new, as were the four that had just slipped around the corner on the opposite side of the street. All were coming our way. Fast.

"The important question," I said, drawing my rapier and my fighting dagger, "is how far is it to the end of Soggy Peytr's territory? Because unless the answer is 'pretty damn close,' we're going to have a long, hard fight ahead of us."

Copyright © 2012 by Douglas Hulick


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