Mikal quickly left the street behind, descending into the tangled mess of alleyways that lived behind even the most well-lit streets. No hand had ever mapped those twisting, claustrophobic passages of stone, and none but the few who knew them- and those dead souls who made their home within- would dare step into their enfolding shadows after nightfall. They existed behind the city, pulsing like a dark, diseased heart. Merrick could have told him: Strange things happen in the corners of the world. Mikal did not need to be told.
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He pulled the hood of his cloak down low over his eyes. With a shrug of his shoulders, the garment slid to one side, exposing his tunic. Beneath the folds of black fabric, his fingers touched short daggers, sheathed and strapped in a webwork across his body. He had been attacked before.
This time he saw nobody, and paid no mind to the pale old men who lolled like puppets with their strings cut along Crouch Street. He pushed open the rusty gate at Nichol Pass, and climbed over the piles of refuse with a care that was almost priggish. He passed by the kiosk in Woede Street Alley, but the kiosk gnome was gone, his shop of dubious wares closed up for the day. At last, he climbed a fence- this one wooden- and stood before a stout oaken door set into the wall. Mikal reached into a pocket and produced an iron key. He fit the key into the lock, turned it, opened the heavy door, and slipped inside.
Mikal knew of three entrances to the Thieves' Guild, and suspected there were more. The other two were easier to reach, but their doors were guarded, and while he wore the tattoo and knew the proper words of entry, he avoided them whenever possible. Mikal didn't like people.
He walked down low-roofed halls lit by dim yellow globes, and wondered- not for the first time- whether he was making a mistake. The Thieves' Guild dealt in almost everything illegal, short of murder, and made a tidy profit bribing officials and watchmen into silence. It did not pull in the piles of gold a senior member of the Guild of Merchants might expect to see, nor did it have more than a few limited tendrils in place across the Upper City, where things of real value were bought, sold, and traded. For the most part, they had their fingers in small pies, but there were a lot of pies in the sleeping city, and the guild seemed to have no shortage of dirty little appendages. A Thief who was both wise and careful could come away wealthy.
Mikal didn't want to be wealthy. He wanted to kill. He wanted to become famous for his killing, wanted to have people bow and scrape and call him Lord. Wanted to be feared. Then, maybe, he would be rich. Not wealthy, but filthy, stinking, blood-money rich. He wasn't sure what he would do then. Live forever, maybe.
But when he came into manhood, he had not been ready to face the trials of the Assassins.
Now, as he stepped into the dim, windowless common room, and looked about for a game of Royalty- and maybe a job worth doing- the feeling came back. One did not simply leave the Guild of Thieves, but he needed something, some way out of pickpocket jobs and into the secret places where the real work was done.
He sat down at the table and threw in a silver piece.
"Count me in, next hand."
"Caller at the Entrance Hall to see you, sir."
Coraleus looked up from his book. "Hmm?"
The student looked apprehensive. "A, er, gentleman in the Entrance Hall requesting to see you, sir. Are you busy? Should I send him away?"
"Didn't get his name?"
"No, sir. Sorry, sir. Should I go back and ask?"
"What did he look like?"
"Er. About as tall as myself, sir. Dressed like a rogue. He said you would know him."
"Hair like-" Coraleus held one long-fingered hand up to his head, palm out, fingers splayed. "That?"
"Just like that, sir."
"I know him. Let him in, please."
"Yes, sir." The student hurried away.
Coraleus closed his book and stood up. He was taller than most humans, and lean. His body seemed to make a straight line from his shoulders down to his feet. He wore a midnight blue cloak, and a circlet of silver was about his head. A silver broach brearing the seven-pointed star of the Wizards gleamed at his collar. He left the table and walked over to the balcony overlooking the Garden of Carnivorous Plants. He watched them struggle for dominance over the tiny globe of sunlight that hovered in the center of the garden. He took in the musky scent of venomous saps and strange, hallucinogenic pollen. He stood completely still- something many of his contemporaries had remarked upon- and relaxed.
"My offer still stands."
He opened his eyes. Zero was standing next to him, looking out over the railing.
"Which offer?" he said.
"A thousand crowns for the ivy in the corner."
"It's a fair price. The guild could use a guardbush."
"The ivy doesn't care if you're a Rogue or not. If you're made of meat, you're fair game."
"Exactly. Keep us on our toes."
"Ask me again next time."
"You keep saying that..."
"Care for a drink?"
"I would love a drink."
Coraleus led the way through double doors into a long gallery of grandfather clocks, and through an open archway into a circular intersection of halls and passages. Light fell through a stained-glass dome three stories above, and fell on a marble floor decorated with the same seven-pointed star. Letters of the Old Tongue encircled it. Zero could read them: "Knowledge, Wisdom, and Silence."
Coraleus spoke a few words of a language that Zero did not know, and he felt a touch of vertigo when the star beneath his feet began to turn. Coraleus looked left, walked up to the door, and turned the brass handle. He and Zero stepped into a room that seemed caught between a teahouse, a school, and an art gallery.
A young woman in waiter's livery hurried forward and bowed. The guild required first and second year students to serve in some position within the guild, supposedly to help the sons and daughters of noblemen and merchants learn respect for the working classes. Zero thought it was a phenomenal way to save on labor.
"What would you care for, Zero? Wine? Sack? Glogg?"
"It's early for wine. Coffee, if you have any."
Coraleus sent the student away. "Would you like to sit?" The far side of the room was scattered with chairs and couches. A group of students sat in a small group nearby, talking and laughing.
"I'd like to walk and talk, if it's all the same to you."
"And your coffee?"
"Will be here before we reach the far side of the room. This place is monstrous huge. Makes me feel exposed."
"You've spent too many years running and hiding in alleyways."
The rogue sighed. "Could be true."
The student returned holding a tray with a small cup on it. He hurried to catch up with them and offered it out. Zero took the cup and waved away the saucer beneath it. He took a sip.
"Good enough to warrant fancy cups," Zero said.
They stepped out onto a long walkway that looked down over Main Street. The guild took up the better half of a city block, and afforded an amazing view of the only straight street in the city as it ran east on an incline toward the Upper City. The small trees planted on this stretch were nowhere near the majesty of the Moore Park walkway, but they gave what was essentially a tangled and incomprehensible mess of a city a certain beauty and symmetry.
"How are affairs in the guild?"
"Going well. How are things in the Council."
"A bloody shambles, as always. Most of them could care less about anything not directly affecting their constituents, and Danster-" Coraleus shook his head. "If it can't be bought or sold, it doesn't exist. He thinks magic is something found in old dusty books."
"Same as usual, then?"
"Aye. None of them understand anything about magic."
Coraleus sighed. "Except Silverscale. And I wish he didn't."
"You and me both."
"The day he abandons this mortal coil will be the day I get a good night's sleep again. Mark my words."
"They be marked."
They walked in silence for a while. They came to a corner in the building. Main Street fell back, and they found themselves looking at the second-story buildings and rooftops of Severn Way.
"So," Zero said. "Any luck?"
"None." Coraleus scowled. "It's being hidden from us. Whoever has it, they know enough about our ways to keep it away from our eyes."
"Dangerous thing for someone to have."
"I know, I know..."
There was an unspoken assumption between them that Zero was somewhat disappointed in the mage. He had given the dagger into Coraleus' keeping, and it had been stolen. Zero had never said anything of the kind, and never would, but he could see in his friend's dark eyes that he knew, all the same. It didn't matter. Done could not be undone.
There were a number of enchanted weapons in the world, and some of the most dangerous were kept by the Guild of Mages. When Merrick returned from abroad with the long black dagger, Zero had thought of the guild first. The blade was charmed to slay the living, and that was nothing he wanted in anybody's hands. In his eyes, it would have been safer to destroy the weapon, but charmed weapons are not easily unmade, and he knew he did not have the skill.
"That blade is going to come back to haunt us."
"You may be right."
A heavier silence this time.
"So Merrick is serious about this business with the Watch, I hear," Coraleus said.
"I think so."
"Any idea what he wants with it?"
Zero shook his head. "No."
"You don't know his mind?"
"No. Nobody does."
"No one is an island, Zero."
The rogue made a noncommittal sound.
"Are you certain you don't want something stronger?"
Zero sighed. "I guess might do."
"Quit this world, quit the next world, quit quitting!" -Sufi proverb.