PART I

And now his limbs were lean; his scattered hair,
Sered by the autumn of strange suffering,
Sung dirges in the wind; his listless hand
Hung like dead bone within its withered skin;
Life, and the lustre that consumed it, shone,
As in a furnace burning secretly,
From his dark eyes alone.

- Percy Bysshe Shelley, Alastor


CHAPTER ONE

The Second-Story Man

I

His shoulder throbbed, but he seethed and stayed silent. He only had to wait a few more minutes. The Contessa would be here soon. He was certain about that. There was something she had to do, she had said, but she would be back after that, and then they would talk business. It would be tough business to be sure, but he could stomach it. It involved no murder and little violence, so it was not so off-putting that his stomach turned at the notion.

He leaned against the wall of the small, perfumed room, waiting for her, wondering what she was doing at the birthday party for the Contessa-Infanta. He did not envy her the visit.

Duce Pavenic had many fine attributes, but managing to keep a gaggle of bored nobles entertained with the usual rounds of fine dining and trilling music was not one of his strengths. It was a rushed affair, since the Contessa-Infanta Luzia had only been home from university for a few months.

He had seen her once since then, at the theater, watching a dull revenge tragedy. They were fashionable nowadays, but they always had the same plot and same choice of endings: Bloodshed if the audience was lucky, tears and boring speeches and endless suicides if they weren't. She hadn't liked the play, either. She had called it stupid, and as much as that had raised the eyebrows of the primped and overstarched matron to whom she was talking, it had made him grin and had almost made him spill his wine, like some country bumpkin from the mountains.

One of the ushers had tapped him on the elbow, once he had recovered his bearings. "Might we see your ticket?"

The conversation had been brief. His admiration of Contessa-Infanta Luzia Pavenic had ended quite suddenly, and he'd wound up ushered from the gilt-edged playhouse by two half-drunk fops, planted facedown in mud. Still, at least they had taken him out the back entrance, and Luzia had not seen him covered in grime. Even now, he was grateful for that.

It was a few months later, and now the job for the Contessa would finally let him talk to her. He only wished that he could meet her in better circumstances than stealing the silver from her hands and the jewelry from her bureau.

He had just shut his eyes, thinking dozing might help the pain in his shoulder, when the noise on the floors below him told him that the Contessa had arrived. He moved quickly and purposefully for the servants' stairs, saying a brief incantation that nobody would run into him on his way downstairs.

He did not believe in magic, but he did believe in his own luck, and he figured even superstition had to help a little. And it did.

II

A few moments after the Contessa Mariorel Profis returned from the party for the Duce's brat of a daughter, the hired thief was waiting for her in the glass-walled retreat of the summer parlor.

It unnerved her a little that he had let himself in to her apartments – and without a scratch on him from what must have been a long climb up to whichever one of her windows he had used to enter. Still, she reminded herself that she had befriended him for precisely that reason, and offered him a polite smile, motioning him to a seat.

He took it, sprawling out in it, arms and legs akimbo. Even the way that this Dav Saray sat infuriated her. Her uncle had paid good money for those antique armchairs, and now he would have to pay even better money having the antiques reupholstered. She glared at him, and he grinned up at her with a humor she couldn't quite share.

"Fancy meeting you here." He broke the tense silence, a finger fiddling with one of his glittery rings. They looked ridiculous on him. She had told him that when he had only had four or five of them. Now, he was up to at least six or seven, scattered indiscriminately on his fingers, and she wondered if that was solely to make her even more angry. She wouldn't have put it past the man to enrage her. He had told her once that he was no respecter of person or title, and at the time, she had figured it for mere bragging. Now, she realized that every move he made seemed to be calculated to prove that point.

"Do you want some tea?" She thought about the advantages of pouring it on his head. There were no disadvantages that she could see. It wasn't like second-story men were hard to find.

Dav's grin faded. "I'd love some, but I believe you'd called me here for business, Contessa."

She thought, Of course, he does his best to make me look like a fool. Given their past meetings, she had expected that, but the blatant way that he advanced his aims surprised her. She had figured him for a more subtle sort.

"I did," Mariorel said, forgetting about the tea, waving off the butler as he approached with a silver pot, filigreed with her family crest. She waited to speak until the large servant had stepped back into the pantry, able to see but not hear the pair. "I want you to break into the household of the Duce, as we've discussed."

"Their girl – do you still want her taken?"

There was a brittleness in the man's voice that the Contessa did not like. He had not been easy to convince of the necessity of such a task. "Why bother all but destroying them," he had said, "when you've already asked me to steal half of the Duce's net worth?" She thought she had convinced him, but something about what he sounded like made her unsure of success.

"Of course I still want her taken," she said, not liking how waspish her voice sounded. "I want them to suffer. You told me when we last met that you felt the same way."

Dav shook his head, contradicting her. She stared, stunned, until he added, "About nobility as a whole. I've got nothing against the Duce in particular."

She stared at him. Why was she getting such effrontery now? The way that he was treating her was unconscionable. She knew had no recourse. He needed to just call down the guard and bear tales on her, and not even her dear departed Jorgu's money could save her from his accusations. He had more than the power of rumors; he had her signed letter of marque that he had demanded upon their first meeting. "For insurance," he had said with a lazy smile, and as much as that had confused her, she could see now why he had asked for it. He was smarter than she gave his type credit for being, and it was more intelligent than just the occasional flash of native cunning from the rabble.

The Contessa took a deep breath, willing herself to keep still and composed. She would not allow this bandit to make a fool of her so easily. He might be nimbler and smarter than she had anticipated, but he was still only a criminal, and there were dozens more in the alleyways beyond her apartment that might be as quick or as shifty as he was.

She gazed beyond him at the painting that hung above the pair of armchairs and the modern gas lamp. Jorgu had picked it out from a charity auction, and she had always hated it. It was a hunting scene, with well-dressed noblemen and dogs that seemed nearly rabid, their jaws and bodies full of tension and ravenous, killing energy. It didn't frighten her like Jorgu had always suggested it did, but she disliked it anyway. The only amusement it had brought to her had happened lately, since Jorgu's accident going after the foxes. To her, it seemed like everything that had been wrong with her ex-husband, and a fitting epitaph.

Even when she inherited the Duce's position and moved from her cramped apartments into a more spacious household on the north bank of the Atacenu, she would keep the painting with her, no matter her distaste for it.

Mariorel was equally stuck with the Saray man, she suspected, and already her mind whirled through ways to get rid of him in this job for which she had hired him. An accident would be easy enough to arrange. He was not a large man, and she needed only to find someone bigger than he willing to break an arm or a leg and leave him behind to suffer the Duce's wrath for the disappeared young woman.

If she could find no one else in the next few days, her butler could do it, but that would lead back to her. There were enough anonymous faces and grasping hands in the alleyway that she did not need to worry about what he could do to her. She could always do worse to him. That was the privilege of nobility.

"I am paying you enough money to bear a particular grudge against the Duce," she said, and she saw him smile a little. Good. She had found an angle which she could play. He liked money – but, after all, they all did, nobles and lessers alike. She continued: "Even if it is my grudge that you will bear, I will reward you handsomely for it."

Or I'll leave you to be found out and thrown in the Grand Omission, she thought idly, but she saw no reason to share that with her hired man.

"You'll get your money's worth," Dav replied breezily. "I promise you that."

She suspected that was all the confirmation that she would receive from the fellow, and she nodded pleasantly. "Shall I get you your tea now?" At his nod, she signaled to the butler, and he moved forward again with the teapot. "This is newly brought in from the south, from the plantations in West Miaza. They've employed Arcanos chemicalists to imbue it with certain properties." She watched as the reddish liquid streamed into the tiny cup, falling silent, expecting he would ask her what sort of properties the magicians had put into the drink.

However, when Mariorel looked up at Saray, he was watching her, not the tea. He didn't look the least bit interested in the tea. He did look entertained by her words, though, and she wondered about that. Not only was he more intelligent than she had expected, and every bit as sly as she had figured, but he knew enough about the Arcanoi to not be surprised by chemicalist drinks.

"What are you protecting me against?" he wondered as he drank.

"Poison."

His laughter mocked her altruism. "Poison! Light-and-Lady, Contessa, I don't need to be protected from poison. I'm going to rob the Duce, not dine with him."

"Hear me out," she replied, hating the very sound of his words, despising the smooth and confident tone of his voice. "You haven't heard my entire plan."

Dav Saray leaned forward, his hands folded neatly between his knees, his brows raised lightly, every muscle on his face conveying a keen interest, but the Contessa could not shake the idea that, somehow, he was humoring her, and that somewhere in that tolerance was a certain sharp derision. He had not been lying when he said he disliked the peerage as a whole.

After he takes the Duce's young daughter, how much time will it take until he comes for me? The thought bolted through her brain, and Mariorel stared anew at the viper before her, plastering on a smile that she knew he would never believe, and leaning in to conspire. "Here is what I want you to do for me."

III

Dav had agreed. There was no reason not to. If he disagreed, he risked the Contessa being angry at him, and he could not risk that yet. Her plan had been designed for a man she thought to be both cunning and deft with a weapon, and as much as he had appreciated the compliment, it worried him too. She had not made the mistake of underestimating him, as so many had. She would be a harder sort to trick than many he had previously scammed, and he could not afford mistakes. She would not allow it.

Already, thoughts of the Grand Omission consumed his thoughts. The prison would be a horrible place. Few people survived it, and those that did were bound for execution anyway.

As much as he prided himself on his ability to escape tight spots, he had no illusions about that one in particular. If she distrusted him for even a moment, he would be bound for the jail, should he give the Contessa Profis enough opportunity to send him there. He had trussed her up nicely with the letter of marque, which currently was stitched in the inner lining of his waistcoat, and a copy in his pocket – but even that might not get him out of whatever trick she might use.

As he walked down the street, he wondered about the Contessa. She had been eager to employ him. He knew that much, and he had relied upon it, asking her questions about her plan, showing an interest that was not entirely feigned. She respected his ability, and as a man of the shadows and alleys he appreciated that, because it was not often that nobility had respect for the people they spent most of their lives trampling into the dirt. He might go so far as to say she liked him, had he even the slightest bit of proof for it; she had been affable, and she had warmed to him once she realized exactly how good he was at his trade.

It had been a hell of a climb up the side of the Contessa's building. Stone was easy to scale, and bricks were even more so, but clay-sided houses were all but sheer drops to the pavement below. Of course the Contessa had not been thoughtful enough to leave a vine-covered trellis out for intruders.

He hadn't come anywhere close to falling. He was too good for that. But his shoulder ached where he had wrenched it using one hand to wrest up the window of the Contessa's dressing-room window, and he suspected he had pulled it a little out of place.

He wondered if the chemicalists that brewed the Contessa's faddish tea had another potion, one to get rid of pain in an instant, something stronger and more reliable than a salve or a poultice. They might sell such stuff to thieves, especially if Dav promised to get them some ingredient or other they needed for their pseudoscientific recipes.

Perhaps the Contessa can tell me where I might buy such a thing, he thought with a sudden, crazy burst of exultation. He was good enough to be employed by nobles now, and that sort of employment could be relied upon for steady work and even steadier pay. Already, even though he hadn't done a thing for the Contessa but show her just how good he was, she had given him more lucrets than he had seen in the total take of at least a few months.

He could not wait to tell the others. They had all been wary of his chances, and now he would have better news than they ever could have expected. He especially wanted to tell Teodor. His old friend had been the most doubtful.

"You won't get her to where you want her," the haberdasher had said, in between blocking a particularly ugly hat meant for some spice merchant. "She'll take you down a road you don't want to go down. It won't just be housebreaking anymore. Before you know it, it'll be murder."

"I'm no killer," Dav had rejoined to his friend, coughing at the vapors from the hat. He hadn't been lying, but he knew that he had looked suspicious in Teodor's shop, with eyes watering from the mercury and an alert stance meant to get him out of the shop as soon as possible. He hated the place, but Teodor refused to leave work to talk to him, and Dav was not about to stand at the doorway and shout about what thieving jobs he had picked up while Teodor had been gainfully employed.

As he crossed the bridge to East Bank, he remembered the look that Teodor had given him: Suspicious, cautious, and sad all rolled up into one. Teodor knew that he had never killed anyone before, had never even needed to come close, but the look that Dav remembered was one of intense suspicion and sorrow.

"You're no killer," Teodor had agreed, pressing a metal iron down on the brim he was about to affix to the hat. "That's why you don't belong in that sort of business, Davros. That's why you'll be the one that winds up in a ditch."

He hadn't had a good response, and had mumbled some sort of noncommittal excuse, fleeing the shop for cleaner air and brighter surroundings, but now, in the darkness, alone, without his friend there to hear, Dav muttered a, "Be fucked, Teo," and set foot onto the East Bank, drawing his waistcoat and the letter of marque a little more closely as he entered the rabbit-warren of the Strada Mahala: the slum quarter.

IV

He has agreed. Mariorel dismissed the butler briskly with the thought ringing through her head. She had outlined her plan, and Saray had agreed to it with remarkable ease. She had readied herself for a battle of wits and wills, but she had not needed either weapon, and that startled her. Disliking how easily he had agreed was easy enough. Knowing why he had given her such an easy yes was more difficult, however.

If he had agreed so easily, there was really only one explanation for it: He had a reason of his own to want to rob the Duce's household. Her mind whirled. Had the Duce done something to him that he had not mentioned? He had said that he had no hatred for the man in particular, but perhaps he had been hiding something. It was not at all beyond the realm of possibility that a sneak-thief should be hiding some motive from his employer, especially not one as sharp as she had figured the Saray fellow to be.

If he was indeed hiding something, she would find out what it was. Her curiosity and her anger at possibly being tricked warred within her, making her clench her hands. Whatever he was up to, she would know, and once she had it out of him, she would have him cast away, forgotten about, or killed. She hadn't had much experience with those things, but what she did know about the Scales of Balance was that they were a close-mouthed bunch, if paid well enough, and did not spread rumors outside their own community.

It would be small work for her to see herself rid of him.

"My lady." Her butler had shown up, much like the proverbial bad casting.

She sighed and turned to face the man. She'd never much liked the pockmarked ape, and had to restrain a sigh upon the sight of him. He could depress anyone, and that was before he had barely started talking. "What do you want?"

"I merely wanted to report that I've done as you asked me." His monotone betrayed no emotion, and for a moment she wished Saray were back here talking to her. She had not liked the man, but at least he had driven her to some sort of emotion. Eugen inspired only a mild disgust, one more suitable for animals than people.

"Have you?" she murmured, feeling like perhaps she was missing the point, unsure for a moment of what he was talking about. He always did as she asked. Most people did. Saray would, too. She had seen to that, because Eugen had –

"Yes, Doamna." Eugen was being surprisingly formal. She looked up at him, and was surprised to see the hint of a smile forming upon his face. Light, you're an ugly brute, she thought to herself as she reached out for her tea. She knew the reason for the scars, and she knew her money had brought them about. She had paid him double for the risk he had taken, and she wondered if he even cared anymore about the events of a few years ago. He had remembered her name, and had agreed to work with her when she had asked for his specific expertise in chemicalist potions.

Eugen paused a moment. Mariorel wondered if he was being melodramatic, or if he was hesitating, or if the slight delay actually meant something important. After a moment of the theatrics – or whatever it was – he bowed a little at the waist, signaling his obedience to her.

"Out with it," she replied, too curious to stand on propriety for once. She heard the same snappishness with which she had first spoken to Saray, and marveled for a moment at it.

"We've slipped a leash on Saray, like you asked us. Anywhere he goes in the next thirty or forty hours, any move he makes, we can find him, provided he doesn't drink enough liquor to piss away all of that tea. The Arcanoi will expect payment in six days."

And Saray will have destroyed the Pavenic estate in no more than two days. The Contessa was unable to resist a smile at the idea. She had hated them for many years now. If she had only anticipated that it would be so easily accomplished, she would have set this plan in motion years ago. She set down her teacup, looking up at the sorcerer. "You'll have your money, Eugen." Her fingertips pressed against one another. Her voice was idle. She had expected him to doubt her, and had a reply prepared to ease his concerns. "I am a woman of my word."

Then Eugen did something very strange. Rather than just nod and smile, whether he meant it or not, he acted with a sudden, intense force, as if he had been storing up purposefulness for the last few minutes, saving it for this very moment. With inescapable, direct force, his hand shot out for her throat, and Mariorel could only issue a scrabbling sound of surprise. I'm clucking like a chicken, she thought wildly, as Eugen squeezed hard enough on her throat that she grew very silent, very fast.

"You will keep your promise to pay me, Contessa." She nodded quickly and sharply enough that, much to her relief, the matter was settled with those nine words alone.


Any critique is welcomed. This is not in the same setting as A Thousand Bayonets, although it is a roughly similar time period, slightly later in terms of technology. I return reviews (and your stuff doesn't need to be this long or detailed for me to review it.) I try to fix typoes or other small stuff ASAP.

There is one thing I am specifically curious about: Dav should come off as reasonably sympathetic, though much of the chapter is Contessa Profis' thoughts, and she's definitely not a fan of his. I hope he does.

More generally: Where do you think the plot is going? Do you like it so far, think it needs changing? Thanks for any critique!