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A Dance of Cloaks

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A Dance of Cloaks

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Author: David Dalglish
Publisher: Orbit, 2013
Series: Shadowdance: Book 1
Book Type: Novel
Genre: Fantasy
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The Underworld rules the city of Veldaren. Thieves, smugglers, assassins...they fear only one man.

In book #1 of the Shadowdance series, Thren Felhorn is the greatest assassin of his time. All the thieves' guilds of the city are under his unflinching control. If he has his way, death will soon spill out from the shadows and into the streets.

Aaron is Thren's son, trained to be heir to his father's criminal empire. He's cold, ruthless -- everything an assassin should be. But when Aaron risks his life to protect a priest's daughter from his own guild, he glimpses a world beyond piston, daggers, and the iron rule of his father.

Assassin or protector; every choice has its consequences.

Fantasy author David Dalglish spins a tale of retribution and darkness, and an underworld reaching for ultimate power.



For the past two weeks the simple building had been his safe house, but now Thren Felhorn distrusted its protection as he limped through the door. He clutched his right arm to his body, fighting to halt its trembling. Blood ran from his shoulder to his elbow, the arm cut by a poisoned blade.

"Damn you, Leon," he said as he staggered across the wood floor, through a sparsely decorated room, and up to a wall made of plaster and oak. Even with his blurred vision he located the slight groove with his fingers. He pressed down, detaching an iron lock on the other side of the wall. A small door swung inward.

The master of the Spider Guild collapsed in a chair and removed his gray hood and cloak. He sat in a much larger room painted silver and decorated with pictures of mountains and fields. Removing his shirt, he gritted his teeth while pulling it over his wounded arm. The toxin had been meant to paralyze him, not kill him, but the fact was little comfort. Most likely Leon Connington had wanted him alive so he could sit in his padded chair and watch his "gentle touchers" bleed Thren drop by drop. The fat man's treacherous words from their meeting ignited a fire in his gut that refused to die.

"We will not cower to rats that live off our shit," Leon had said while brushing his thin mustache. "Do you really think you stand a chance against the wealth of the Trifect? We could buy your soul from the gods."

Such arrogance. Such pride. Thren had fought down his initial impulse to bury a short sword in the fat man's throat upon hearing such mockery. For centuries the three families of the Trifect, the Conningtons, the Keenans, and the Gemcrofts, had ruled in the shadows. Over that time they'd certainly bought enough priests and kings to believe that the gods wouldn't be beyond the reach of their gilded fingers either.

It had been a mistake to deny his original impulse, Thren knew. Leon should have bled out then and there, his guards be damned. They'd met inside Leon's extravagant mansion, another mistake. Thren vowed to correct his carelessness in the coming months. For three years he'd done his best to stop the war from erupting, but it appeared everyone in the city of Veldaren desired chaos

If the city wants blood, it can have it, Thren thought. But it won't be mine.

"Is that you, Father?" he heard his elder son ask from an adjacent room.

"It is," Thren said, holding his anger in check. "But if it were not, what would you do, having given away your presence?"

His son Randith entered from the other room. He looked much like his father, having the same sharp features, thin nose, and grim smile. His hair was brown like his mother's, and that alone endeared him to Thren. They both wore the gray trousers of their guild, and from Randith's shoulders hung a gray cloak similar to Thren's. A long rapier hung from one side of Randith's belt, a dagger from the other. His blue eyes met his father's.

"I'd kill you," Randith said, a cocky grin pulling up the left side of his face. "As if I need surprise to do it."

"Shut the damn door," Thren said, ignoring the bravado. "Where's our mage? Connington's men cut me with a toxin, and its effect is... troublesome."

Troublesome hardly described it, but Thren wouldn't let his son know that. His flight from the mansion was a blur in his memory. The toxin had numbed his arm and made his entire side sting with pain. His neck muscles had fired off at random, and one of his knees kept locking up during his run. Like a cripple he'd fled through the alleyways of Veldaren, but the moon was waning and the streets empty, so none had seen his pathetic stumbling.

"Not here," Randith said as he leaned toward his father's exposed shoulder and examined the cut.

"Then go find him," Thren said. "How did events go at the Gemcroft mansion?"

"Maynard Gemcroft's men fired arrows from their windows as we approached," Randith said. He turned his back to his father and opened a few cupboards until he found a small black bottle. He popped the cork, but when he moved to pour the liquid on his father's cut, Thren yanked the bottle out of his hand. Dripping the brown liquid across the cut, he let out a hiss through clenched teeth. It burned like fire, but already he felt the tingle of the toxin beginning to fade. When finished, he accepted some strips of cloth from his son and tied them tight around the wound.

"Where is Aaron?" Thren asked when the pain subsided. "If you won't fetch the mage, at least he will."

"Lurking as always," Randith said. "Reading too. I tell him guilds, and he looks at me like I'm a lowly fishmonger mumbling about the weather."

Thren held in a grimace.

"You're too impatient with him," he said. "Aaron understands more than you think."

"He's soft, and a coward. This life will never suit him."

Thren reached out with his good hand, grabbed Randith by the front of his shirt, and yanked him close so they might stare face-to-face.

"Listen well," he said. "Aaron is my son, as are you. Whatever contempt you have, you swallow it down. Even the wealthiest king is still dirt in my eyes compared to my own flesh and blood, and I expect the same respect from you."

He shoved Randith away, then called out farther into the hideout.

"Aaron! Your family needs you, now come in here."

A short child of eight stepped into the room, clutching a worn book to his chest. His features were soft and curved, and he would no doubt grow up to be a comely man. He had his father's hair, though, a soft blond that curled around his ears and hung low to his deep blue eyes. He fell to one knee and bowed his head without saying a word, all while still holding the book.

"Do you know where Cregon is?" Thren asked, referring to the mage in their employ. Aaron nodded. "Good. Where?"

Aaron said nothing. Thren, tired and wounded, had no time for his younger son's nonsense. While other children grew up babbling nonstop, a good day for Aaron involved nine words, and rarely would they be used in one sentence.

"Tell me where he is, or you'll taste blood on your tongue," Randith said, sensing his father's exasperation.

"He went away," Aaron said, his voice barely above a whisper. "He's a fool."

"A fool or not, he's my fool, and damn good at keeping us alive," Thren said. "Go bring him here. If he argues, slash your finger across your neck. He'll understand."

Aaron bowed and did as he was told.

"I wonder if he's practicing for a vow of silence," Randith said as he watched his brother leave without any hurry.

"Did he lock the outer door?" Thren asked.

"Shut and latched," Randith said after checking.

"Then he's smarter than you."

Randith smirked.

"If you say so. But right now, I think we have bigger concerns. The Gemcrofts firing at my men, Leon setting up a trap... this means war, doesn't it?"

Thren swallowed hard, then nodded.

"The Trifect have turned their backs on peace. They want blood, our blood, and unless we act fast they are going to get it."

"Perhaps if we offer even more in bribes?" Randith suggested.

Thren shook his head.

"They've tired of the game. We rob them until they are red with rage, then pay bribes with their own wealth. You've seen how much they've invested in mercenaries over the past few months. Their minds are set. They want us exterminated."

"That's ludicrous," Randith insisted. "You've united nearly every guild in the city. Between our assassins, our spies, our thugs... what makes them think they can withstand all-out war?"

Thren frowned as Randith's fingers drummed the hilt of his rapier.

"Give me a few of our best men," his son said. "When Leon Connington bleeds out in his giant bed, the rest will learn that accepting our bribes is far better than accepting our mercy."

"You are still a young man," Thren said. "You are not ready for what Leon has prepared."

"I am seventeen," Randith said. "A man grown, and I have more kills to my name than years."

"And I've more than you've drawn breaths," Thren said, a hard edge entering his voice. "But even I will not return to that mansion. They are eager for this, can't you see that? Entire guilds will be wiped out in days. Those who survive will inherit this city, and I will not have my heir run off and die in the opening hours."

Thren placed one of his short swords on the table with his uninjured hand. Holding it there, he met Randith's gaze, challenging him, looking to see just what sort of man his son truly was.

"I'll leave the mansion be, as you suggest," Randith said. "But I will not cower and hide. You are right, Father. These are the opening hours. Our actions here will decide the course of months of fighting. Let the merchants and nobles hide. We rule the night."

He pulled his gray cloak over his head and turned to the hidden door. Thren watched him go, his hands shaking, but not from the toxin.

"Be wary," Thren said, careful to keep his face a mask. "Everything you do has consequences."

If Randith sensed the threat, he didn't let it show.

"I'll go get Senke," said Randith. "He'll watch over you until Aaron returns with the mage."

Then he was gone. Thren struck the table with his palm and swore. He thought of the countless hours he'd invested in Randith, the training, the sparring, and the many lectures, all in an attempt to cultivate a worthy heir for the Spider Guild.

Wasted, Thren thought. Wasted.

He heard the click of the latch, and then the door creaked open. Thren expected the mage, or perhaps his son returning to smooth over his abrupt exit, but instead a short man with a black cloth wrapped around his face stepped inside.

"Don't run," the intruder said. Thren snapped up his short sword and blocked the first two blows from the man's dagger. He tried to counter, but his vision was still blurred and his speed a pathetic remnant of his finely honed reflexes. A savage chop knocked the sword from his hand. Thren fell back, using his chair to force a stumble out of his pursuer. The best he could do was limp, though, and when a heel kicked his knee, he fell. He spun, refusing to die with a dagger in his back.

"Leon sends his greetings," the man said, his dagger pulled back for a final, lethal blow.

He suddenly jerked forward, his eyes widening. The dagger fell from his limp hand as the would-be assassin collapsed. Behind him stood Aaron, holding a bloody short sword. Thren's eyes widened as his younger son knelt. The flat edge rested on his palms, blood running down his wrists.

"Your sword," Aaron said, presenting the blade.

"How... why did you return?" Thren asked.

"The man was hiding," the boy said, his voice still quiet. He didn't sound the least bit upset. "Waiting for us to go. So I waited for him."

Thren felt the corners of his mouth twitch. He took the sword from a boy who spent his days reading underneath his bed and skulking within closets, often mocked by his older brother for being too soft. A boy who never threw a punch when forced into a fight, never dared raise his voice in anger.

A boy who had killed a man at the age of eight.

"I know you're bright," Thren said. "But the life we live is twisted, and we are forever surrounded by liars and betrayers. You must trust your instincts, and learn to listen to not just what is said, but what is not. Can you do this? Can you view men and women as if they are pieces to a game, and understand what must be done, my son?"

Aaron looked up at him. If he was bothered by the blood on him, it didn't show.

"I can," Aaron said.

"Good," said Thren. "Wait with me. Randith will return soon."

Ten minutes later the door crept open.

"Father?" Randith asked as he stepped inside. Senke, Thren's right-?hand man, was with him. He looked slightly older than Randith, with a trimmed blond beard and a thick mace held in hand. They both startled at the dead body lying on the floor, a gaping wound in its back.

"He waited until you left," Thren said from his chair, which he'd positioned to face the entrance.

"Where?" Randith asked. He pointed to Aaron. "And why is he here?"

Thren shook his head.

"You don't understand, Randith. You disobey me, not out of wisdom, but out of arrogance and pride. You treat our enemies with contempt instead of respect worthy of their danger. Worst of all, you put my life at risk."

He looked to Aaron, back to Randith.

"Too many mistakes," he said. "Far too many."

Then he waited. And hoped.

Aaron stepped toward his older brother. His blue eyes were calm, unworried. In a single smooth motion, he yanked Randith's dagger from his belt, flipped it around, and thrust it to the hilt in his brother's chest. Senke stepped back, jaw hanging open, but he wisely held his tongue. Aaron withdrew the dagger, spun around, and presented it as a gift to his father.

Thren rose from his seat and placed a hand on Aaron's shoulder.

"You did well, my son," he said. "My heir."

"Thank you," Aaron whispered, tears in his eyes. He bowed low as behind him the body of his brother bled out on the floor.

Copyright © 2013 by David Dalglish


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