One has conquered a city. The other covets an entire nation.
In book #3 of the Shadowdance series, Haern is the King's Watcher, protector against thieves and nobles who would fill the night with blood. Yet hundreds of miles away, an assassin known as the Wraith has begun slaughtering those in power, leaving the symbol of the Watcher in mockery. When Haern travels south to confront this copycat, he finds a city ruled by the corrupt, the greedy and the dangerous. Rioters fill the streets, and the threat of war hangs over everything. To forge peace, Haern must confront the deadly Wraith, a killer who would shape the kingdom's future with the blade of his sword.
Man or God; what happens when the lines are blurred?
Fantasy author David Dalglish spins a tale of retribution and darkness, and an underworld reaching for ultimate power in the third novel of the Shadowdance series, previously released as A Dance of Death.
- A Dance of Cloaks
- A Dance of Blades
- A Dance of Mirrors
- A Dance of Shadows
- A Dance of Ghosts
- A Dance of Chaos
About the Author
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A Dance of Mirrors
By David Dalglish
OrbitCopyright © 2013 David Dalglish
All rights reserved.
Haern pulled his hood low over his head and tied his sabers to his belt as the leader of the Eschaton mercenaries, the wizard Tarlak, sat at his desk and watched.
"Do you want our help?" Tarlak asked, picking a bit of dirt off his yellow robe.
"No," Haern said, shaking his head. "This one needs to be a message for the underworld of the city. Brann crossed a line that I need to make sure no one else ever crosses. I'll do this on my own."
Tarlak nodded, as if not surprised.
"What about Alyssa?"
Haern tightened the clasp of his cloak. They'd heard word that Alyssa planned some sort of retaliation against the thief guilds, though the reason was unclear. Their source was fairly respected in the Gemcroft household, so much so they had no choice but to take it seriously. At some unknown point in the night, there was to be a meeting at her mansion to discuss the circumstances.
"After," Haern said. "I'm sure you understand."
"I do," said Tarlak. "Good luck. And remember, I can't pay you if you die on me."
"I won't be the one dying tonight," Haern said, feeling the cold persona of the King's Watcher coming over him.
He left the room, descended the staircase to the tower's exit, and then ran the short distance toward the city. A dozen secret passageways, ropes, and handholds were available to him as a way to cross the wall, and he drifted to the southern end before climbing over. Alyssa's potential conflict with the thief guilds was a greater threat in the long run, but Haern could not bring himself to focus on it just yet. His target was a piece of scum named Brann Goodfinger. He operated in the far south of the city, and it was there Haern went.
Normally he felt pride as he traversed the rooftops, carefully observing the doings of the various guilds. Ever since the thief war ended two years ago, the factions had settled into an uncomfortable truce. The first few months had been the worst, but Haern's sabers had spilled torrents of blood. Through sheer brutality, he had brought both sides to their knees. He was the silent threat watching all, and tolerating nothing. But tonight his accomplishment felt bitter. For the first time, his plan had been turned against him in a most cruel, personal way.
Thieves who stole from the Trifect died. They all knew this, knew that every night Haern patrolled the city as the King's Watcher to ensure the agreed-upon peace. And so Brann had recruited children, a bold dare against the Watcher's threat.
"Where is it you hide?" Haern whispered as he lay flat atop a roof. For two days Brann had eluded him, and his children had gone unchecked. No longer. He spotted one of their youngest, a boy surely no older than seven. He was exiting the broken window of a shop, a handful of copper coins clutched to his chest. He ran, and Haern followed.
The boy tried to vary his pattern, as he'd no doubt been trained to do, but against someone like Haern the tactic was a minor inconvenience, nothing more. Haern kept far out of sight, not wanting to alert him to his presence. Twice he'd tracked Brann's child-thieves, but one had spotted him, abandoned his ill-gotten coin, and fled. The other had been killed by a different thief guild before he could question him. Children bled out on the streets of Veldaren. The Watcher's wrath would be terrible.
Haern turned a corner and watched the child hurry inside a warehouse. Approaching the door, Haern slipped into the shadows and looked through the crack near the hinges. A faint lantern burned inside, and from what he could make out, two other children were within. Hoping it was Brann's hideout, and not a simple gang of orphans, he drew his sabers. There would be no stealthy entrance. This wasn't a time for quiet deaths in the night.
He slammed the door open with his shoulder at full charge. Without slowing, he took in the surroundings, his finely honed instincts guiding him. The storehouse was full of crates and bags of grains, limiting his maneuverability. At least twenty children were gathered in a circle, and before them, his dirty face covered with a beard, was Brann. The man looked up. His jaw dropped, and then he turned to run.
"Stop him!" Brann shouted to the children.
Haern swore as they drew small knives and daggers. He leaped between them, twirling his cloak as a distraction. A sweeping kick took out three, and then he pushed through the opening. The storehouse was divided in two by a high wall, and Brann vanished through the doorway in the center. Haern raced after him, again slamming aside the door with his shoulder. To his surprise, Brann was not the coward he'd believed. His sword lashed out from behind the door. Haern's speed was too great, though, and he fled beyond Brann's reach, pivoted on his heels, and jumped again.
Brann was only a gutter snake, a clever bully who relied on size or surprise to defeat a foe. Haern had fought his kind, knew their tactics. With three strikes, Brann's sword fell from a bleeding wrist. Two kicks shattered a kneecap, and then he fell. Haern clutched his hair and yanked his head back, his saber pressing against Brann's throat.
"How dare you," Haern whispered. His hood hung low over his face, and he shook his head to knock it back. He wanted Brann to see the fury in his eyes.
"You hold this city prisoner yet ask me that?" said Brann.
Haern struck him in the mouth with the hilt of a saber. As Brann spat out a tooth, the children rushed through the door, surrounding them both.
"Stay back," Brann said to them, and he grinned at Haern, his yellow teeth stained red with blood. There was a wild look in his eyes that made Haern uncomfortable. This wasn't a man who cared about life—not his own, nor that of others.
"What game is this?" Haern asked, his voice a cold whisper. "Did you think I wouldn't find out? Using children, here, in my city?"
"Your city?" Brann said, laughing. "Damn fool. All the rest are scared, but I know what you are. They think you're as bad as us, but you're not ... not yet. Once the thief guilds find out, they'll have your head on a spike."
He gestured to the children, all prepared to attack. Haern didn't want to imagine what Brann had put them through to achieve such a level of control.
"Kill me," Brann said. "Do it, and they'll swarm you. You won't die—you're too good for them—but you won't escape without killing at least one. So what'll it be, Watcher? Can you take my life if it means taking the life of a child?"
Haern looked at the twenty children. Some were as young as seven, but others were maybe eleven or twelve. All it'd take was one lucky stab by any of them and he might go down.
His saber pressed harder against Brann's skin. He leaned closer to whisper into his ear.
"Nothing, Brann. You know nothing about me. You die, they go free."
"I die, then innocents will as well. You don't have the stomach for it. You aren't the beast the others think you are. Now let me go!"
Haern glanced at the children, all poised to act. He tried to decide what to do, but he knew what life someone like Brann would lead them to. No matter what, no matter the risk, he couldn't allow it.
"This was never a choice," Haern whispered.
He slashed, spilling blood across his clothes. Hoping to move before the children reacted, he turned and leaped, vaulting over their circle. They gave chase, not at all bothered by the death of their master. Haern rolled to his feet, his sabers crossed to block their weak stabs. A quick glance showed no exits except the door he'd come through. Doing everything he could to fight down his combat instincts, he shoved through the group's center. His cloak whirled and twisted, pushing aside feeble attacks.
Pulling out of the spin, he lunged for the door. One of the older boys was there, and Haern felt panic rise in his chest as he saw the deadly angle of the boy's thrust. He reacted on instinct, blocking hard enough to knock the dagger free, then following it up with a kick to send the boy flying. Breaking back into a run, he kicked off a pile of crates to vault into the air, catching a rafter with one hand. Swinging himself up onto a perch, he stared down at the children, several of whom gathered around the body of the one he'd kicked.
"Listen to me," Haern said to them, trying to forgive the children's attack. They didn't know any better. The rage he felt was misguided, born of frustration. "Your master is dead. You have no hope of winning this fight."
"Fuck you," said one of the kids.
Haern swallowed down his anger at such disrespect. They were frightened and living in a world Haern knew all too well. If reason would not work, he knew what would.
"Say that again, and I'll cut out your tongue."
The boy stepped back, as if stunned by the coldness in his voice. The rest looked up at him, some ready to cry, some angry, but most were heartbreakingly indifferent. Haern pointed to Brann Goodfinger's corpse.
"Take his coin," he said. "Go, and make better lives than this. Remain thieves, and you'll fall to the guilds, or to me. I don't want to kill you, but I will. There is no future for you, not in this."
"None for you, either," said another, but Haern could not tell who. With practiced efficiency the children took everything of value from Brann's corpse and vanished into the streets. Haern didn't know where they went, nor did he care. He only felt fury. Brann had died quickly, hardly the example Haern desired to set. As for the boy he'd kicked ...
He dropped from the rafter, landing lightly on his feet. Gently he rolled him over, put a hand on his neck. No pulse.
"Damn you, Brann," Haern whispered. "I hope you burn forever."
Leaving the body there was not an option. Haern considered himself better than that. Lifting him onto his shoulder, he rushed out to the streets, praying no gutsy member of a thief guild spotted him and tried something incredibly heroic and stupid. There were several gravekeepers in Veldaren, plus another who burned bodies instead of burying them. Haern went to the burner, picked the lock of his door, and went inside. The owner was asleep on a cot in a small room, and Haern woke him with a firm prod of his saber.
"What? Who are ... Oh, you."
The elderly man, Willard, rubbed his eyes, then opened them when Haern dropped a handful of coins onto his lap.
"Spare no expense, and bury his ashes."
"Who was he?" asked Willard, looking over the boy's body as Haern set him down on the floor.
"Then what shall I engrave on his urn?"
"Pick something," Haern said as he left.
In a foul mood, he raced off for the Gemcroft estate, wishing he could put the prior events out of his mind and knowing there'd be no such luck. Brann's death would still be a warning to the others against using children to break the arrangement between the guilds and the Trifect. He'd accomplished that, though not how he'd hoped. But it was that nameless boy who haunted him, made his insides sick. Brann had been convinced Haern would not have the stomach for what might happen. Turned out he might have been right.
Scaling the fence around the Gemcroft estate was easy enough, though avoiding the guards was another matter. There was a secondary building in the back, where he'd been told the meeting would take place. Most of the patrols kept close to the mansion, which helped tremendously. Haern lurked beside the gate, running along it when outside the patrols' vision and lying flat amid the shadows when they passed. At last he reached the small building. Timing the patrols, he knew he had about thirty seconds to slip in and out without being seen. Faint light burned within. He pressed his ear against the door and heard no discussion.
Too late, or too early? The door was unlocked, so he opened it and slipped inside. The room was surprisingly bare, containing only a single bed atop a padded floor. Hardly the servants' quarters he'd expected. The lone lantern kept the place dimly lit, with plenty of shadows in the far corners. So far, it appeared empty.
"Damn," he whispered.
He headed for the far corner, figuring to wait a few hours just in case the meeting was yet to transpire. In the center of the room, though, he stopped. Something in the corner wasn't right, the shadows not smooth ...
Haern lunged for the door, his instincts screaming trap. Before he could get there, something latched on to his cloak and tugged, hard. He spun to the ground, torn between attacking and tearing his cloak free to flee. Already furious because of Brann, he kicked to his feet and attacked. To his surprise, his sabers clashed against long blades, his thrusts perfectly blocked. He was already preparing a second strike when he saw his opponent's outfit. Long dark wrappings covering her body—all but her shadowed face.
"Enough, Watcher," said Zusa, her slender body contorted into a bizarre defensive formation. "I am not here to kill you."
Haern pulled away, and he put his back to a wall, the door at his side.
"Then why are you here?" he asked.
"Because I desired it," said a voice at the door.
Haern turned, then dipped his head in a mock bow. "Lady Gemcroft," he said. "It is good to see you, Alyssa."
The ruler of the Gemcroft fortune smiled at him, not at all bothered by his tone. Zusa sheathed her daggers, though her hands remained on their hilts. She joined Alyssa's side, her dark eyes never leaving him. Alyssa seemed relaxed, far more so than when Haern had last seen her. Of course, he'd been trying to kill her at the time, back when Alyssa was flooding the streets with mercenaries. She wore a slender dress underneath her robe, her red hair let down loose about her shoulders. Haern almost felt flattered she'd dressed up for him, as if he were some noble or diplomat.
"I was told of a meeting concerning the thieves," Haern said. "Was there any truth to this?"
"I assure you, Terrance is loyal to me, and me alone," she said.
The side of Haern's face twitched. Terrance had been his informant, of course. He felt at a disadvantage, with no clue as to the reason for their meeting. He didn't like that. The two also blocked the only exit. He really didn't like that.
"Then I was told a lie, just to bring me here," he said. "Why is that, Alyssa?"
"Because I want to hire you."
Haern paused, then laughed at the absurd notion. "I am no pawn for you to force your will upon. And if what you say is true, why this secrecy and deception?"
"Because I don't want anyone—not the guilds nor the Trifect—to know. I leave for Angelport, and I wish for you to accompany me and Zusa."
Haern's hands fidgeted as they held his sabers. Answering such a request with someone as dangerous as Zusa blocking his way out was not his idea of a fair bargaining position.
"What reason could you possibly have?" he asked. "I assure you, Zusa is quite capable of keeping you alive."
A bit of impatience finally pierced Alyssa's calm demeanor.
"Someone broke into Laurie Keenan's home, slaughtered his son and daughter-in- law, along with a dozen guards. I'm going for their funeral services, as is appropriate. I want you and Zusa to hunt down this killer and bring him to justice while I'm there."
Haern shook his head. "I can't leave Veldaren," he said. "The peace I've managed to create—"
"Is no peace at all," Alyssa said. "The thief guilds prey on each other, killing themselves in an endless squabble over the gold we pay them. The few that steal are more often caught by their own kind, not you. No one will know you've left, not for weeks. It's been two years, and you've spilled enough blood to wash the city red. Those who remain have settled into their comfortable lives of bribes and easy money, and you know it. You've become a figurehead, a watcher against only the most reckless of the underworld. The city's changed. It won't miss you while you're gone."
Haern did know that, but that didn't mean he liked it.
"This is your problem," he said. "I've had enough dealings with the Trifect to last a lifetime. Find your killer on your own. Now let me through."
Excerpted from A Dance of Mirrors by David Dalglish. Copyright © 2013 David Dalglish. Excerpted by permission of Orbit.
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