Chapter 1 Boots on the Ground

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-Ticca-

Ticca moved cautiously over the roof, making sure she stayed in the chimney’s long shadow as she inched towards it. A spring squall moved in dropping the temperature from sweaty warm to steamy. The hot roof tiles steamed until water ran over them fully washing away the earlier heat. The smells of warm rain, tar, and hot wet brick filled her nose. She ignored the weather keeping a watchful eye on the traffic in the street below. Her cloak had a little magic that helped her blend into the shadows, but it didn’t make her invisible and she appreciated the dimmer daylight under the darkening rain clouds.

Stay focused; someone will try to kill me if they see me; and worse, I’ll miss Sula’s target.

It was a dangerous task to spy on those powerful people, but she wanted to garner respect as a Dagger, and Sula was her first significant client. Being only 18 years old with soft curly brown hair and only a 5’8” athletically slim build most people assumed she was younger. Between her looks, age, and lack of a solid name it had been a hard 6 cycles earning jobs in such a major port city as Llino. Ticca managed to earn a small reputation as a hunter Dagger in minor jobs before Sula, who could easily hire senior warriors, unexpectedly sat at her table. Ticca earned plenty of respect and coin from her successes in the last five jobs for Sula. Each success brought her closer to becoming a respected Dagger who could choose from the best assignments.

She arrived at her position in the darkest crook of the chimney exactly as the hazy sun touched the western horizon. The rain was steady but not thick enough to reduce visibility. Moving into her vantage point, she scanned for any signs that she’d been spotted. Everything continued normally; it was business as usual for the merchants down in the Day Market. From underneath her cloak, she pulled the solid cylinder out and held it in her left hand.

Hopefully, that courier will be back.

As the darkness deepened, the ocean breeze began dropping the temperature. Ticca’s concentration narrowed, as she became the hunter, waiting, watching the traffic moving through the only known entrance to the market square. The bulk of the more upstanding merchants had already locked up their wooden stalls and carted off as much as they could past the beautiful entry statue. Fingers on their sword hilts, in their banded leather armor, the last three city guards left for more respectable parts of the city. A few late shoppers moved about the remaining merchants, who were trying to evacuate the square before the sun finished setting. The Day Market was closed; it was about to become the Night Market.

A stout, confident man walked into the market wearing a dark, charcoal gray cloak. Ticca’s heart rate picked up with excitement as she recognized him as the hired assassin — or Knife, as they were called — that Sula had her identify a few days earlier.

What are you doing here personally? What have you been up to the last few days?

As the Knife scanned the market, he then looked up at the roofs. She held her breath as his gaze passed over her. Not finding who he was looking for, he pulled his hood up over his head and moved, blending into a dark shadow by the wall.

Ticca stared intently, trying to find his outline.

Urdu, she silently cursed shaking her fist under the cloak, don’t lose him now. If he is here, then the courier isn’t coming.

She considered leaving, but her instincts were telling her to stay. She steeled herself to hold still as he would likely spot any movement she made.

If I learn what he is up to it might be worth a bonus from Sula.

She couldn’t make out if he was still where she last saw him. She considered moving to a new position to locate him. But quickly dismissed the idea in favor of holding very still.

She tallied the square’s occupants in her mind keeping her attention focused on watching for the Knife to move. In her peripheral vision, the statue shifted signaling that the Night Market was in business.

When Sula’s first mission brought her to the Night Market, she was surprised to see it. The greedy nobles in Llino did not leave anything of value alone for long. This statue was a treasure, during the day, it was a perfect portrayal of a young elven maiden, shopping basket hung loosely on her left arm, her right arm lifting ever-so-slightly in friendly greeting, with a warm, expressive smile, welcoming market visitors. At the end of each sunset, it subtly changed and the maiden grasped her basket tight, eyes wide with a look of terror her right hand held out to warn visitors away from the dangers within.

It was a statue only the wealthiest could dream of commissioning for their estates. Yet there, it sat in the middle of the only entrance to a medium-sized, dead-end square, just inside the lower area of town, which had been a market for as long as anyone could remember.

The night patrons began to arrive, and the evening’s dealers materialized from the darkened alleys, moving past the statue to enter the square. People in long, expensive rain capes mixed with dock workers in their dingy clothes and thick coats. In the night market cloaks, coats, and collars were worn tight concealing identities. With the added light spring rain heavier garments were even more popular making her job of keeping track of individuals harder.

Watching the deals on these missions had given Ticca a good idea of the basic rules of engagement there. At sunset, the market became too dangerous for honest city guards. She’d heard tales of the legendary Night Market long before she came to the city. She’d thought its reputation for having drug dealers, pawn brokers, and facilitators of any act was exaggerated. But the merchants, or ‘Hands,’ as they like to be called, lived up to that reputation. She shuddered as she remembered some of the breathtaking and brutal things she had witnessed passing through there, the worst of which was a bag of what she was sure were fresh body parts.

I’m sure many would like it if this place was shut down, but as my uncle says, ‘People will always be capable of evil, and some will always choose to be evil.’ All this activity would just shift somewhere else, keeping it here might even keep it in check.

A dignified Hand who dealt in secrets, and a regular visitor to the Night Market, strolled past the statue ignoring the stone figure’s warning. She still didn’t understand why they bothered to put that statue there, but it did make a good signal for whether or not it was safe to enter.

The shadow she had been watching split in two, with the real shadow reluctantly releasing its twin.

That’s a neat trick you didn’t have last time.

The Knife kept the hood up and drifted to intercept the newest arrival. They met, like all the others, a safe distance from everyone else and started negotiating. It did not take long before the Knife passed a small package to the Hand, who put it in his coat.

Even in the rain-cloaked night, she could see the small package was tied with a glinting golden thread. Her heart skipped a beat as she realized the implications. Sula had specifically told her to be on the lookout for anything tied with gold threads. She felt the justifiable wide smile, knowing she had succeeded again. My instincts are dead on again. One week, and I have found the Hand.

When the Hand’s fingers came out of the coat, they passed over the Knife’s palm, dropping a small bag that vanished instantly.

Probably going to waste that coin on something stronger than hyly at a Red-Door. No matter, I have my quarry.

With the deal done, the Knife drifted off to the left. She didn’t bother to watch; her attention was fixed on her new target, the Hand. It was time for the part of the job she didn’t like.

Under her cloak, her left hand squeezed the small, solid metal tube she’d been holding ready since getting into position. Although physically impossible, the solid tube shrank slightly, activating the spell. She felt the tingle of released magic flow up her arm. It wasn’t unpleasant, but she was glad she had been warned the first time; otherwise, she might have looked down at her hands, which would have been disastrous. Now she was used to it and tried to ignore the sensations, she kept her eyes locked on the Hand, as if her life depended on it, which it likely did. The spell moved through her veins and up through her neck, to her head, and she felt it rush from her eyes.

I wonder what this does. Sula has made me do it on every job since the first.

After the spell was released, Ticca didn’t wait to see the result. She reached back, grabbed the top of the roofline, and levered herself over the top, staying low and not allowing her own cloaks to flutter. Once over and out of sight from the market, she hurried until she was a few streets away. Checking that she had not been spotted or followed, she lowered herself, unseen, into another small alley. She stripped off her thin, outer cloak and folded it into a tight bundle. The evening chill began to bite through her normal cape, which had been hidden underneath. She placed the folded cloak into her secure satchel, in the chain-lined pocket. Again, she marveled that a full cloak could become such a small package of cloth that it easily fit inside one of her hands.

Now all I need to do is report to Sula, as instructed, that I can identify the Hand. Maybe tomorrow, I can start tracking him. Flipping her cape collar into a more respectable position, she pulled the hood out over her head, to keep off some of the rain, and stepped boldly out into the lamp-lit road. Turning east, she started walking towards the docks. Her destination was a block from the city’s expansive docks. It was only a thirty-minute walk past the huge walled off wizards’ campus they called a Guildhouse.

As she passed the white arches of the wizards’ Guildhouse, she unconsciously shied to the far side of the street, as nearly everyone did. It never paid to be too close to a wizard. Ticca had never met a wizard she would call ‘nice,’ and stories of sudden executions by offended wizards made the unspoken rule of the common folk to give all wizards a comfortable space just sound thinking. Still, the building was beautiful to look at. Somehow, it was always visible, no matter the weather or light. Yet, it didn’t actually glow. If it had, she would have spotted the motion from the alley’s shadow a moment sooner.

A strong hand closed hard on her throat, choking off any chance of calling for help. The attacker’s other hand didn’t waste time either; it grabbed her arm through the cloak and threw her deep into the alley. Ticca landed face first on the dirty, uneven cobblestones. A pain shot through her left side as the air and rational thought were momentarily knocked from her. Gasping for breath, she tried to move. Her right arm was being held twisted behind her and so far upwards, she felt like her shoulder was about to be dislocated from the strain.

Her attacker reversed his stance, never letting go of her right arm, as he jammed it higher. He dropped one knee into the center of her back, putting his full weight down and preventing her from being able to take in a much-needed breath.

“Who are you working for, missy?”

Ticca marveled at the oddly beautiful sound of that soft whisper.

“You tossed a spell from your perch. What was it?”

She heard the sound of glass tinkling. Adrenaline and years of training finally took over. Somehow, Ticca knew the elixir being pulled was deadly. With fear-fueled strength, she braced her right foot for leverage and kicked her left foot up towards the back of her head. A crunching sound ripped the air as her foot hit something that gave in before she made full contact with her attacker’s body. He fell forward, letting go of her arm, as a small glass vial bounced away on the cobblestones.

I might as well make this look good.

Swinging her right foot up to join the left over her head, she moved her freed arm to the ground and completed the reverse roll by pushing with her arms and rolling to her feet in a maneuver that would have made her trainer smile.

The attacker rolled away and started to stand. His cloak tented out as he started pulling a weapon.

Ticca’s hands were already on her knives but the motion sent stabbing pain up her arm and shoulder. I won’t beat him in a knife fight with this arm. ‘Action is better than reaction,’ her trainer’s voice said in her memory.

Grimacing against the coming pain, she jumped over her attacker, kicking off to spin as she launched. Her body automatically followed through with a twist in the air, to land with her right arm looped around the man’s neck. She slid down his back, locking her right arm with her left. Just as she felt the pull on her arm, she twisted hard in the opposite direction with her weight leveraging against his body. As she tightened her arm, ripples of agony shot through her back and neck from the shoulder. Ticca clamped her mouth shut to keep from screaming. Her momentum was arrested with a loud crack from the man’s neck.

His body jerked, and she thought she heard a hiss of surprise as they fell in a pile. The strong smell of dung and piss filled her nose confirming he was dead. Her right arm and shoulder throbbing, her back hurt, and she was sure she was bruised over most of her body. But he was dead, and she wasn’t. In short, the best outcome possible.

Lords and Ladies, how did he spot me?

She swallowed hard a few times to get control of her emotions and thoughts.

Lady, he was going to kill me, wasn’t he?

Looking over the first person she had ever killed, her heart raced and her hands shook uncontrollably. She wiped her hands on her leggings as she breathed deeply, trying to find some balance. She looked at his tanned, rough-shaven face. Except for the angle of his neck, he looked like he was sleeping. It was definitely the Knife she had just spied on.

I should get away from here fast. But first, I might need some clues as to who exactly he was, and he surely won’t need his gear anymore. He was a Knife. I doubt anyone would lay claim his valuables.

Making sure that no one was watching, she grabbed his boots. Her fur trapper trained hands immediately registered the unusual quality of the soft leather of the boots. Suppressing the urge to look closer at the boots, she dragged him deeper into the alley. Once a reasonable distance from the street, she pulled the boots off and tucked them under her cloak. Next she examined him for clues. She noticed that one of the two pouches smelled awful and was soaked in something that fumed, with wispy smoke tails curling to the sky.

That was the crunching sound when I kicked him. I hit that pouch of elixirs. Deciding any elixirs a Knife would carry should be avoided she went for the other pouch. It was a simple leather belt pouch so she took it and the belt it was on. The belt came with some knives and his short sword. There was nothing else on him.

Ticca inched towards the alley entrance.

It has only been a few minutes since he grabbed me, but it feels like it has been a whole mark, and his neck breaking was pretty loud. Why is the guard never there to help, but always to arrest?

Her thoughts raced over the events as she passed the point where they had fought. On the ground, was a small glass vial. She picked it up and turned it over, inspecting the seal. It was tight, and there was a semi-clear, brownish liquid inside.

This might be something interesting for later. She slipped it into her own belt pouch.

The shiny wet street was still not busy; no one was close by. No longer feeling the cold, and with a quick glance to insure no one was looking her way, she stepped out and continued on her original path in a confident walk.

With the attack replaying in her head, she was surprised to find herself standing in front of her destination, the Blue Dolphin Inn. Collecting her thoughts, she stepped up to the door of the massive three-story, two-block-wide tavern. Her eyes took in the large platform jutting out of — and towering four stories over — the tavern, with its massive gleaming, six-foot-wide metal hoop set into the stone. Legend, and the tavern owner, claimed that it was a favorite moorage port for the Emerald Heart, Damega’s flying ship. The only thing that made her accept the story was that absolutely no one she knew questioned it, and many more had relatives or friends who claimed to have some connection to the Emerald Heart. But Damega and his famous flying ship hadn’t been seen in many generations.

The Blue Dolphin’s large double doors were both closed against the evening’s cold. She easily pushed the left one open and stepped into the din. The scents and sounds of the room threatened to knock her back out into the street. The smoke was filled with many odors, including a hint of some less than legal substances. The room’s main smell was the sweet scent of copious amounts of hyly, being served from the large kegs behind the bars. Her nose adjusted, although she still occasionally rubbed it as the smoke tickled it. The three large fires were well stoked, keeping the room warm. Two bards had taken up places at opposite ends of the large room and were still in no danger of interfering with each other over the loud conversations.

Ticca scanned the tables, hoping to find an open one, which of course, there wasn’t. A handful of the tables had rather nice-looking daggers stuck into them, standing straight up. She noted all the Daggers sitting at those tables. Not recognizing any of them as friends, she moved stiffly towards the left-hand side of the room. Finding a place at a communal table, she sat down. Within a few minutes, one of the serving girls came by with a tray of hyly mugs. Ticca helped herself to one and ordered some of the evening’s meal. The girl nodded and moved off.

Sighing, Ticca took a mouthful of the sweet liquid. As she swallowed, she enjoyed the warm, burning feeling that spread through her body. Without looking around, she took a couple more deep draughts, leaving the mug almost empty. As the warmth of the room, the melodic lute music, and warm hyly seeped into her bones, the aches of the attack and the numbing cold of the night abated, while the fight continued to replay in her mind. It took a while to relax. Shoving the feeling that everyone was watching her aside, she let the music and mood of the room soothe her.

Smiling, she straightened her back and began identifying the room’s occupants. A traveling merchant or six were always there, and that night was no exception. The local merchants were feeding them and plying them with hyly, looking for the best deal on whatever stock they’d brought in. There were the dozen or so Daggers, all trying to upstage each other with drinking, wrestling, and knives. The card players’ tables were all over full tonight, with dozens of spectators, signaling that some big game was playing out.

Just as she was feeling a little relaxed, a loud thunk announced her food had arrived and made her nearly jump out of her seat. Under the table, her hands had already drawn her dagger and knife. Looking up, her heart racing, she saw it had been Ellar, one of the many servers, who’d brought her meal.

Relax, Ticca, relax. The dead stay dead, and it’s safe here.

Ellar was young, maybe twelve years of age, and had been acting increasingly shyer around her for the last few weeks. She looked into his eyes and smiled in thanks as she slipped her weapons back into their sheaths. He turned a bright red, gave a nod, and dashed behind another table with his large tray of plates. His reaction made her feel almost human again. Her mood lifted as she watched Ellar retreat. She started giggling.

Yep, he has definitely taken to me.

Looking at the food, she was surprised to see it consisted of some good cuts of meat and two small loaves, instead of one.

I guess there are benefits to giving him a little smile.

She grabbed her knife and started eating the good food which the evening’s work was sure to cover.

It was no surprise that as she was finishing the meal and a second mug, Sula appeared and sat across from her.

How does she do that? I would have sworn she wasn’t even in the room a minute ago.

“You’re eating well tonight.”

“With the bits you pay, I can finally afford to not starve.” Looking into Sula’s dark eyes, she smirked. “I’m doing a lot better than your previous thugs.”

Sula looked at her and tossed the same insult she had been using since Ticca’s first rapid success. “Yes, using an inconsequential thug has worked out.” A hint of humor tinged the emerald pools of Sula’s eyes. “You can track the next link.”

That was not a question.

She obviously can detect that bit of magic she insists I use, Ticca thought, not for the first time. I know she doesn’t follow me. But her information is sometimes too good, especially about what to expect or look for.

Again, Ticca worried about exactly what was playing out. Sula had a lot of coin, and the senior Daggers acknowledged her as a serious client.

I hope I am working for the right side. My gut says I can trust Sula, but there is something unique about her.

“When you’re done, meet me in your room.” Sula stood. Her clothes were nondescript, neither rich, nor poor. Her cream-colored blouse was loose cut, but not so loose as to hide her obviously large, well-proportioned breasts, as she leaned in closer to say softly, “You might consider a bath and change of clothes first.” Her green skirt matched her eyes and swept all the way to the floor. It showed off both her fine female figure, as well as her graceful moves, as she glided away into the crowd around the bard.

Stunned, Ticca looked down at herself. The whole front of her shirt and pants were caked in drying scum. Her cloak’s edges showed that it, too, was in need of a cleaning.

Oh, my. I didn’t even notice the alley sludge. I must have it all over my face and neck, too. No wonder, I haven’t had to fend off any drunks yet.

A quick check of the room showed nobody cared. Dirt was part of life there. Still, it was a little embarrassing, especially after working for cycles to establish herself as a real Dagger.

Shrugging, she decided it was too late to do anything about it.

No rush tonight, and I earned this.

She leaned against the wooden back of the bench, which was smoothed and rounded from years of customers doing just that. Ticca finished the rest of her meal and savored the last half of her mug of hyly.

Standing, she maneuvered over to the bar. After a minute, Genne, the owner, came over. He looked her over slowly from head to foot.

Any other man, and I’d be pulling my dagger for taking that long a look. But from Genne, I know it’s an assessment of performance.

“Trust d’work was good tonight. D’ya wanna bath or jus’ t’bed?”

She felt taller at his tone.

 “Is the water hot?” She pulled a pence from her purse and held it where he could see it.

“Ah, d’boy c’n add more coal if’n ya want.”

She handed over the coin with a smile. “I want. Let Ellar know I’ll be there shortly.” Genne closed and opened his hand, and the coin was gone, replaced by a silver key stamped with a pattern. Where the coin had vanished to, she wasn’t sure.

I know Genne was raised in this inn. His family has owned the Blue Dolphin for generations, and he is an important part of Dagger actions here. Still, he must have had an interesting past, to be able to pull little tricks like that.

Ticca took the key from Genne’s palm and then turned and started climbing the six-foot-wide stone steps, which started next to the bar and circled all the way up to the platform, four stories overhead.

She climbed three stories to the pair of large warehouse-style, sliding doors at the top, which had an aging sign warning people to clear the platform as fast as possible, should the Emerald Heart pull into port.

She smirked at the sign. As if that would ever happen again.

Down the hall was her room, but she stopped to inspect the door first. Seeing her hair check still in place in the upper corner, she unlocked the door. As she opened it, her left hand gripped her knife hilt, and she cautiously checked for intruders before stepping in.

A little paranoid tonight.

She lit the small oil lamp that served as the only light source in the room. She pulled out some cleaner clothes from her pack on the floor. Laying the newly acquired boots, belt, and pouches on her bed, she exited again, putting the hair check in a different spot as she closed the door. Ignoring other patrons on the stairs she went down to the baths.

She found the door with a matching symbol to the key Genne had given her. She unlocked the door and stepped in quickly so as to not let too much steam out. Ellar was there, pouring some steaming water into the tub. Finishing, he turned to go down the back stairs to the kitchens. He let out a small squeak of surprise at seeing her in the room, which made her giggle.

“I...I...I...um, I’m sorry m’lady. I...I didn’t hear you come in.” He wanted to move, but his body was frozen in fear.

“Ellar, relax.” She sighed and stepped towards him. That unfroze his body, and he jumped through the back door.

“I...the...I mean, the bath is full an’ hot, lady. Jus’ put your clothes through the panel, and I’ll have them clean for you by morning.” At the mention of clothes, he went an amazing shade of pink. He closed the door so quickly, it caught his foot.

Smiling, she stripped and put her clothes through the panel, into the waiting basket on the back wall. Then she stepped into the hot water. After a good cleaning, she examined herself. She had a huge bruise that went all the way around her arm, where her attacker had grabbed her. Her right shoulder was swollen, with a number of broken blood vessels, causing more areas of darkened flesh. Most of her front was a patchwork of discoloration. She was sure her neck was just as ugly, and the constant ache in her back told her there was a large purple area where he had planted his knee.

She massaged her shoulder and back in the hot water, then relaxed and soaked in the warmth. When the water became cool, she stepped out and rubbed herself down with the coarse towel. Feeling much better, she dressed and went back up to her room.

The hair check was right where she left it. Unlocking the door, she checked the room again, and her eyes fell on the small pile of stuff she had left.

Sula should be coming up soon. Now is as good a time as any other. Besides, if I don’t keep busy, I’ll fall asleep.

Since she had light and time, she could see right away that the equipment she had taken from her attacker was not simple fare. The belt was a fine grade leather, expertly stitched. The inside of the belt was a soft cloth, in which were various evenly spaced pockets and bulges. Removing the knife sheaths and pouch from the belt, she knelt on the floor and laid the belt out the length of her bed, with the cloth side up. Feeling along the stitching, she located each item and removed it, placing it on the bed above the pocket it had come out of. Once done, she looked over the assortment of tools. They were all metal with a dull black patina. She tested each one. Some were flexible and smooth edged, others had teeth, some were sharply pointed, and others had stiff, but thin, points or teeth of various sizes.

I’ve heard of thieves’ picks, but these are amazing. I doubt this is a beginner set, or even a common set.

She went back down the row of tools, picking each up and examining it again before putting it back in its assigned pocket.

Not sure what I should do with these. I am pretty sure that getting caught with them would be a criminal offense. She rolled the belt up and put it on the bottom of her pack. I am not even sure if I can sell them for anything, or even where it would be safe to try to sell them, except at the Night Market.

Next were the knives. There were five total: four small, identical-looking ones and one that might be considered a sword, as it was too long to be a dagger. It was made of an unusual metal with dark, wavy lines running irregularly down the length of the blade. It had the same black patina as the thieves’ tools.

It is very light. Adjusting for the length, I could use this in a fight as easily as a fighting dagger.

The knives were typical small ones that could be used as hand tools or thrown. Those, she knew how to use. She checked the balance and edge of each one, smiling the whole time.

Very fine. I can use these for sure.

She spent a little time figuring out how to best arrange them on her belt.

This might work, or I could get one of those cross-chest belts with some hold points for them. Her tiredness ebbed as she got a rush of adrenaline imagining how she’d look with four fine throwing blades on a cross belt. I’ll definitely look more experienced, or at least, more impressive that way.

She pulled his pouch over. It, too, was fine quality. She admired the clasp, which was silver with a geometric pattern. It was slightly distressed with age and use, giving it an antiqued look.

This is nice; I like the pattern and the look.

Opening it, she sat and stared in disbelief.

It’s empty! Where did the things I felt in it go?

Looking around her room, she couldn’t help feeling worried.

If someone got in here and stole this, why not take everything else? Why leave the pouch?

Her mind buzzed with a rush of even more adrenaline when a knock on the door made her jump. As she went to the door, the real worry dawned on her.

Whoever did this was able to put my hair check precisely where it should be and at exactly the right length!

The next knock was louder and broke her out of the stupor she was in, staring at the closed door. Shaking her head, she put her key in the door. “Yes?”

Sula’s voice came through the door. “Was the bath hot?”

She opened the door, and Sula stepped inside. Closing the door again, she tried to regain her composure. “Yes, it was extremely hot, and I really needed it.” She locked the door, leaving the key in the lock.

Sniffing the air, Sula nodded. “Yes, you did. What happened to get you so filthy and not even notice it?”

Shrugging, she stepped back to the bed and plopped down on it. “I was mugged on the way back by the Knife from three days ago.” Sula’s eyes brightened. Is she curious or mad?

“You were tagged. Are you sure it was the Knife?” Her voice was as steady and calm as ever, but her eyes narrowed.

“Absolutely positive; he asked who I was working for and what the spell I tossed was.”

“What happened? Would you please tell me every detail?” It sounded like a question, but it was an order, like many things Sula said. She always sounded so polite and never demanding, but there was never any doubt, one should do as she asked. Sula sat down in the room’s only chair, by the small table. Her back was as straight as a sword, feet tucked just so, and her hands were folded perfectly in her lap.

She has to be from a high family. That kind of relaxed perfection is trained over a lifetime. Shrugging, Ticca explained, starting at the market. She had been expecting it and had put together the narrative while bathing. Sula listened, only interrupting to ask for more details or to double-check a fact. When she was finished, Ticca reclined on the bed, and Sula sat, thinking quietly for several minutes.

“This might not be a total disaster.”

Ticca said, “Look, there was no way anyone could have been more careful…”

“No, no. That isn’t what I mean. He must have been better than we estimated. He probably only picked you up because of the spell. That he sensed it is a real surprise.” She held her hand up to prevent Ticca from interrupting again. “If the Knife sensed the spell, then the Hand might have sensed it, too.” She shook her head. “I doubt he had time to tell anyone, which is the one really good luck point here.” Looking at Ticca, her eyes softened for the first time in the cycles Ticca had known her. “You’ve never killed anyone before.”

Again, it was a statement, not a question. Ticca couldn’t help it. She looked down as her throat closed up, and her eyes watered at the thought. She tried hard not to let Sula see the slight tremor that occurred in her hands, as she first looked at them as the hands of a killer.

Reaching over, Sula put a hand on her knee. “I am truly sorry. But you should know you did the right thing. I am sure he would have killed you without any remorse.”

Sula withdrew her hand and pretended to think for a few minutes, giving Ticca time to regain control.

Ticca straightened up. “It was bound to happen sometime.” Instead of the never-you-mind tone she was aiming for, it sounded more like a squeak.

Smiling, Sula pretended it had come out as Ticca had intended. “May I please have the spell vessel back?”

Ticca pulled the small bronze-colored cylinder from her pouch by the bed. In the light, it looked like an ordinary metal tube, but when holding it, Ticca could feel where her fingers should go, and it was sized perfectly for her hand. Ticca knew that was no accident, as Sula had measured her hand the day she hired her. She held it out, and Sula accepted it without touching it with her hands. Instead, she took it using a shiny white cloth, which she then wrapped around it before putting the package in her belt pouch.

“May I please see this elixir the assassin was going to use on you?”

Ticca produced the glass vial and handed it to her.

Sula examined it and sniffed at the seals. After holding the vial upright and tapping it, she pulled the stopper off. Ticca jumped up in surprise and moved away. Sula looked at her with amusement. “If I was going to kill you, I’d do it someplace less obvious and in a way that would give you no chance to react.”

“Yes, well, that stuff is likely dangerous, and you just broke the seal.”

“True, but this particular vial is designed to be opened and resealed many times.” She continued to examine the liquid, cautiously smelling it from a distance before putting the seal back into place. “Vanedicha.”

“Huh?” Ticca looked at the resealed vial and sat back down.

Tonight has had way too many surprises.

“Vanedicha is a poison that induces a kind of trance if a small amount is inhaled. It kills if you get a large dose.” Sula handed the vial back. “A couple of drops on the upper lip, under the nose, are enough to cause one to become like an empty shell for about three marks. When you start to wake up, you are amazingly cooperative, forthcoming, and honest for about a mark. Three or four doses within a week will cause death. It is sweet and will mix with hyly or a sweet wine almost imperceptibly and cause a painless, sleeping death in about three minutes.”

Ticca sat there, holding the vial, staring at Sula. “How...? Why would you...? Am I to use…?” was all she could manage to say.

A charming, musical laugh filled the room. “Oh, my dear, no. I just don’t want you misusing it or experimenting with it.”

Shaking her head to clear it, she stared at the lady. “Why not take it?”

“Well, that would be impractical. It does answer some questions, though.”

“What questions?”

“For one, if he had told anyone of you yet, and the answer is no. Otherwise, he wouldn’t be trying to capture you.” Sula’s smile turned a little knowing. “If he had, they would have told him to kill you outright.” Sula stood up. “I have to report in myself, and there are a number of things to be done.”

Ticca stood, as well. “I’ll pick up the Hand tomorrow and start tracking him.”

Sula walked to the door and held up a hand. “No, I think it best if you find something else to do for a while. We have to determine if the Hand sensed the spell. It will take up to a week, possibly a cycle, to determine if anything has changed. In the meantime, it would be best if you went about your business as usual, so as to not attract undue attention. In fact, it might be good for you to take on small tasks while we check on the results of this evening’s turn of events.”

Ticca felt a sharp pain of concern. “You mean I should put up my dagger?”

Sula reached into her purse and produced a fistful of something, holding it out. “Yes. However, I am in no way finished with your services. I promise I’ll be a repeat client.”

Ticca held out her hand. Sula dropped four small gold coins into it. Ticca’s skin tingled and she felt slightly dizzy at the flash of gold. “Four crowns! Are you serious? I was only expecting a cross.”

Sula smiled. “Of course, I am serious. I want you to keep a room here at the Blue Dolphin, where I can find you when I need you. Only the really talented Daggers can afford to rent a permanent room at the Dolphin.” Sula turned and unlocked the door. “Doing so will let me find you and will get you some nice local jobs with silly nobles, both of which will help when I come looking for you again.”

Sula slipped out of the room, closing the door behind her.

Ticca locked the door. She laid out the coins on the table. Touching them in order, she counted again.

Four crowns so she can find me again! If I get a small room here, this will last almost six cycles. If I start Daggering, I can probably earn enough to stay here as long as I stay alive.

Touching the coins, she thought, Gold crowns. Now I know she is nobility. Even high-earning merchants don’t carry gold.

Ticca took the coins, put them in the new pouch, and set it aside. The glass vial sat on her bed.

How did Sula know all that about the poison? Where could someone with such an obviously good upbringing go to learn such things?

She examined the stopper again. I can safely open and close this many times. With an average dose being only a couple of drops, there is enough here to last almost forever.

She put the glass vial on the table and picked up the new boots. She loved boots, and those were unbelievable. The leather felt soft and warm. She ran her hands over every inch, examining all the beautiful handiwork. The stitching was fine and even, running together in an endless string. The interior was lined with an unusual kind of fur. She wasn’t sure what it was. Being raised as a trapper and skinner made her wonder how far the boots had come.

A real shame, they were made for a man’s foot. I bet they’d be comfortable and warm year-round.

Looking at the boots more closely, she noted that they really weren’t much bigger than her own.

Slipping her foot into one was like putting on a well-worn and loved the shoe. It fit perfectly. She slipped on the second. They fit like they had been made for her alone.

How can this be? It was dark, but what are the odds, a random Knife bent on capturing and killing me would have feet exactly the same size as mine?

She moved around the room. They really did fit, and they felt amazing. The unique fur lining made them comfortable. It was on the interior bottom too, which she thought was odd, as it would wear quickly. But it didn’t compress as much as she thought it would, and it felt almost like walking on soft, grassy ground.

I am too tired to reason this through. Feeling warm, clean, well-fed, and comfortable, she lay down on the bed and fell asleep, still wearing her new boots.


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