Chapter One

29 Barebush, 95th Year of Kings

Port towns were always busy, crowded places, but this one took the cake. Calilan grimaced in distaste as she slipped between two massive fishermen. And the landfolk smelled. Calilan hated coming ashore, but there were some things one could not get from the sea. Sweetwater, for instance. And grain. And hemp. And canvas. And wood. And weapons.

This last was the one thing that had brought Calilan off her ship. Heru and Mickey could handle everything else, but Cal had lost her saber in that last scuffle with the remnants of the convoy they had discovered immediately following a storm two weeks ago. She trusted no one, not even Heru, when it came to her swords. And so Calilan, much as she would rather not, had come ashore while Mickey handled the tricky business of loading the ship.

She was only a block away from the smith the dockmaster had recommended when trouble broke out.

The man was of average build, average height, with an average complexion, an average beard, and short, close-cropped black hair that stood on end as though it always did. There was nothing remarkable about him—except that he nearly ran Calilan over and got away with it. Damn, but she needed a new sword! The woman fell hard as people scrambled out of the way, but she managed to grab hold of her assailant and pull him down with her.

"Watch where you're going, you great oaf!" Cal snapped, lurching to her feet.

The stranger rolled into a wary crouch, resembling nothing so much as a skittish animal. His glittering black gaze focused intently, but not on Calilan. He was staring at something just behind her. The woman started to turn and find out what he was looking at, but then a powerful arm swept her aside and she landed rear-first on the rough cobbles of the street. Damn, but she hated coming ashore!

A group of people nearby began to scream as Cal struggled to regain her wits. The woman staggered to her feet and looked around, somewhat alarmed to find herself right smack in the middle of what must have been a heated battle. The dark-haired man squared off against three armed guards in Crestil's green and gray. The first guard launched himself at the man, passing mere inches away from Calilan's face. The man skittered clear, his movements sharp and jerky, like a startled foal, and circled around behind Cal, who jumped back just in time to avoid being impaled on the sword of the second guard.

The strange man, who had maintained his low crouch with his hands braced on the ground, leapt like a toad, throwing up an arm to ward of the blow the guard redirected just in time. For an instant, it seemed ridiculous—who would use an arm to stop a sword?!—but then the sword clattered to the ground, and Cal did a quick double-take.

A series of long, slender spikes had risen up from the flesh all along the man's forearm, and a deep gash ran the length of the guard's palm. The guard—wisely—withdrew, nursing his wound and leaving his companion to wrestle with the stranger, who clenched his other fist. Even more razor-sharp spikes sliced through the skin, and he whirled on the first, unharmed guard while Cal looked on with a sort of horrified fascination.

The first guard, to his credit, did not back down. He did, however, hesitate, and that was all the stranger needed. He pounced like a mountain cat, batted aside the guard's sword, and bore the poor man to ground, stabbing forward with his free hand.

The guard whimpered in fear and, perhaps, relief. The stranger had withdrawn the long spikes just enough to keep it from piercing the skin of the guard's throat, but the outer ones had stuck in the cobbles to either side. The man positioned his face very close to that of the guard and muttered something no one else heard. Whatever it was, it must not have been pleasant, for the guard began to tremble and nodded slightly, sheer terror written all over his face. The stranger retracted his claws and pushed himself to his feet. He turned away, but then…

"Watch out!"

Cal was moving even before she fully understood what was going on. She crossed the distance between herself and the stranger in three swift strides. stooping to snatch the second guard's fallen sword, which she thrust out before her, and not a moment too soon. The third guard, who had slipped away out of sight at some point, staggered back, struggling to recover from the unexpected parry. The stranger did not give him the chance, for he whirled about, claws at the ready, and slashed the guard's cheek, catching his sword blade in the other hand and twisting. The weapon spun through the air and hit the ground, making an awful ruckus in the suddenly deserted street. Calilian never stopped moving. She grabbed the stranger's upper arm, mercifully free of the pointy spikes, and hauled him along down the road, turning off onto the nearest alley.

They ran for some time, picking their way through the dim alleys and side streets where people rarely ventured. Cal directed them, as subtly as possible, toward the docks. Finally, the stranger dug in his heels and refused to continue on. When Cal tried to tug him along, he twisted the wrist she held so that he had her, and not her him.

"Why'd you do that?" he snarled.

"A polite 'thanks for saving my life' would be nice," Calilan shot back. The man just stared, his hard eyes trained on her face. Cal sighed. "Let's just say we're on the same side."

"I'm on no one's side," the man growled.

Cal shrugged. "You were running from the guards. Anyone who gives them as much trouble as you did is my best friend."

The man held Cal for a moment longer, then released her and looked away. He began to rub the knuckles of one hand slowly, absently.

Cal licked her suddenly dry lips. "What…What are…?"

"These?" The man held up the hand, then closed it into a fist. The claws snapped out in an instant. "What do they look like?"

"Like claws."

"And they are."


"Look, lady, I don't have time for this." He made a sharp, negative gesture, and the spikes slipped back into his hand, leaving three seeping wounds in their wake. The sores pulsed, then closed over even as Cal watched. Creepy. The man turned to leave.

"Wait! At least—give me a name!"


"I want to know who to look up when I need this lifedebt repaid," Cal sneered. Damn, be he was an irritating man!

Something in her tone must have amused him, for the man glanced back over his shoulder and smiled tightly. "Ace."

"Ace? What kind of name is that?"

"It's the only one I have!" he barked.

"Whatever. I'm Calilan Carillo. You can call me Cal."

"Thanks, but I don't think I will. Good luck ever finding me again."

He was halfway down the alley when Cal finally recovered from his abrupt farewell. "What are you running from?" she hollered.

"More than you could ever know," he muttered, almost too softly to hear at this distance.