Trust No One...
Book Preview: Among Thieves by M. J. Kuhn
Among Thieves is a fantasy heist story where six thieves team up to steal from the most powerful magician in the world… while each thief secretly plans their own betrayal.
May the best thief win.
There were guards nearby. Ryia could smell them—and not just because they stank of wine. She ducked into an archway, pressing her back against the stone and holding her breath. They clanked past in neat rows, long, thin swords dangling from their belts, purple tunics swaying in the foul summer breeze. Members of the Needle Guard, the king’s private army. They turned south, no doubt heading toward the slums where the Festival of Felice raged on.
North of the trade docks, the city was quiet. The nobles of Carrowwick didn’t worship the goddess of luck. For them, the festival was more of an inconvenience than a celebration. A nuisance—a distraction. In other words, it was exactly what Ryia had been waiting for. After all, it wasn’t as though she could just stroll in through the Bobbin Fort’s front gate.
The southern wall of the fortress was less than a stone’s throw away. A thirty-foot vertical with only the tiniest of handholds. She looked sternly at her fingers, dark eyes flashing.
“You lot up for this today?”
Her fingers didn’t answer, but she didn’t need them to. This wasn’t the first time she’d made this climb. If Callum Clem had his way, she doubted it would be the last time either, and if there was one thing she had learned in the past year, it was that Callum Clem always had his way.
Black fabric billowed out behind her like a silken shadow as she pulled herself up stone by stone with unnatural speed. The muted strains of off-key fiddle music from the celebrations to the south were punctuated by the slight scraping of sharpened steel knocking against the wall.
“Patience, loves,” she murmured to the half dozen axes lining her belt. “You’ll get your chance, don’t you worry.”
Guards fidgeted on the top of the wall, some six inches above her. She paused, lightly sniffing the air. Two of them. Sniffed again. One five paces to her left, the other twenty or more to her right, if she wasn’t mistaken. She chuckled silently to herself. Ryia was never mistaken. If she was, she would be rotting in one of the Guildmaster’s cells by now.
A colorful burst of light illuminated the sky, and Ryia was on the move again. The firework faded to ashes. In the seconds before the next burst of color, she vaulted over the wall, sprinted across the ramparts, and dropped over the opposite side, scurrying like a spider down into the courtyard below. The guards fidgeted with their armor, hiding their yawns behind gauntleted hands as the light show went on. Blind as desert moles.
Though that might be an insult to the moles.
Ryia pulled a bundle of leaves from the pocket of her cloak. They looked dull in the silvery light of the moon, but she knew in daylight they were vivid green. Outside the Bobbin Fort, there was only the Needle Guard to contend with. Inside, things got a little more complicated. The cloying taste of lemon burst on her tongue as she popped the leaves into her mouth. She wrinkled her nose. Disgusting, yes, but if it were any weaker, it would be more useless than a long sword in a tavern brawl. Anything less overpowering than lemon balm would be hard-pressed to throw off the nose of a lapdog, let alone a proper Adept Senser.
Hopefully she wouldn’t run into either.
She slunk forward a few steps, pausing behind a statue of Declan Day. Her fingers danced over her throwing axes as she studied the castle, bathed in the light of the fireworks. One… two… three windows over… one floor up. She gave a feral smile. The southern-facing window swung open, no doubt flooding the room inside with the scents of piss and fish. Carrowwick perfume, as the foreign sailors liked to call it.
This was going to be even easier than she’d hoped.
But just then the scent of stale urine vanished, replaced by a violently different odor. Mulched earth. Decay. A horribly familiar, creeping rot that sent her nostrils itching and tingling. Ryia froze and sank into a crouch, her right hand drifting up to grasp one of the long-handled hatchets strapped across her back. It was coming from the east.
She dropped her hand, melting back into the shadow of the statue. Not two seconds later came the sound of hushed voices, echoing from the east end of the courtyard.
“… sending me along with the party going to the auction. You know what that means…,” one voice was saying. Male. He sounded like a weasel… or maybe a snake? Either way, the fact that he sounded like anything at all meant that the people entering the courtyard were not Adept servants. A good sign.
She could see them now: one tall and thick, one short and slight. The short one whipped around to face the other. Female. A shock of braided red hair caught the moonlight. “I know drinking wine before your shift is against protocol,” the woman answered coolly.
“Oh come on, Evelyn, I’ve heard the stories. All bets are off, Garol said…,” Weasel-mouth continued. He sidled closer to Red, reaching for her waist.
Ryia slid around the statue. Just a few steps to the castle wall. Then she’d be out of sight for good and those idiot guards would never even be aware of her existence.
The distinctive ping of metal on metal rang out as Red poked a needle-thin blade into the man’s left shoulder plate.
“Have you forgotten who you’re talking to, Maxwell?” she asked. “You could always check with my old bunkmates from the South Barracks if you need a bloody refresher.”
Ryia stifled a laugh as Red rammed her elbow into Maxwell the Weasel-mouth’s gut. She reluctantly turned away from the show. Twice the entertainment factor of those half-assed productions the Harpies put on in the Carrowwick Fair. Maybe these nobles and their hired swords were good for something after all.
She latched on to the stone wall, skittering up the side of the castle. She paused just beneath the open second-story window, listening. Nothing but deep, even breathing punctuated by snores so loud she was surprised she hadn’t been able to hear them outside the fort wall.
Another burst of color and light lit up the sky as she slipped into the room, casting her shadow over carpeting that probably cost more than half the slats in the Lottery. A few sputtering candles burned in their spun-glass wall sconces, dimly lighting the massive, four-poster bed along the back wall. On top of the bed lay what looked like a lumpy net full of dead fish. The lumpy net, of course, was Efrain Althea. Son of the queen of Dresdell’s sister, and a lesser prince of the far southern kingdom of Briel.
Ryia didn’t really give two shits who he was. Clem’s orders were always stunningly clear, and they didn’t tend to include titles and honors.
She stalked across the room, sliding one of the hatchets from her back and twirling it expertly between her fingers. Thin, leather-wrapped handle. Slender, razor-sharp bit. Was it normal to be attracted to a weapon? She was only kidding, of course…
Faster than Efrain could blink his wine-bleary eyes, Ryia was upon him. The bit of her hatchet tickled the rolls beneath his cleft chin.
“You’d have to be even dumber than you look to scream,” she said. “You see, you might startle me. And when I’m startled…” She dragged the sharp edge lightly across his throat. Not enough to draw blood. Just possibly enough to draw urine.
Efrain nodded hurriedly, and Ryia pulled back with a smile. She strode calmly toward the spindly table on the far side of the room, then sniffed a flagon of blood-red wine. Undoubtedly Brillish—didn’t smell rank enough to be Gildesh. She wrinkled her nose and reached for a chunk of bread instead, tearing into it as she turned back to Efrain.
“You’ve been in this city a few weeks now. I take it you know who I am?” She gave another lupine smile, flashing her hatchet toward his watery eyes.
Her face was completely hidden by the shadows of her hood, but her weapons had a reputation of their own. After all, the Butcher of Carrowwick hadn’t earned her title by handing out bundles of daisies and kisses on the cheek. He sputtered as he caught sight of the markings on the blade in the low light. Ryia tutted softly, pacing back toward him.
“Looks like Felice’s luck is not smiling down on your pampered ass tonight, eh?”
She tucked her hatchet away, then leaned against the bedpost, ripping back into the bread.
“I—I don’t know what I’m supposed to have done,” Efrain finally stammered, pulling himself to his feet. His voice was just as obnoxious as she remembered it. Nasally. Whiny. A thick Brillish accent pulling at his vowels.
“My dear prince. Lying isn’t going to make this go any easier for you.” Ryia’s eyes grew hard, obsidian chips glinting deep in her skull. “You took something from Callum Clem. I think even you’re smart enough to know that was a bad move.”
Ryia watched, amused, as his jowls started to tremble. Prince or no, anyone who set foot inside the city walls of Carrowwick had heard stories about Callum Clem. Heard how he had joined his first syndicate at the age of seven, killed his first man before the age of ten. How over the past three decades he had duped and double-crossed almost every son of a bitch in the Lottery while still managing to keep his head. He was as cold as he was calculating. As slippery as he was ruthless. Just looking at Callum Clem the wrong way could earn you a beating. Stealing from the man? Well, that was as good as a death sentence.
Efrain reached for the bedside table with wine-swollen fingers, throwing shaky shadows on the walls.
“I have money. I have it right here.” He pulled a bag of coins toward him, counted out ten silver halves and five golden crescents, and held them toward Ryia. She scooped up the coins, pocketing them as Efrain looked on, hopeful.
“I’ll consider that a gift,” she said. “Because we both know that’s nowhere near enough to cover your entire debt.”
“M-my entire debt?”
Ryia took another bite of bread, speaking around it as she chewed. “Thousan’ crescents, by Clem’s coun’.”
His face reddened in outrage. Or maybe that was panic. “A thousand gold crescents? How in Adalina’s deepest hell do you figure that?”
Adalina. Ryia had always found it ironic that the do-nothing nobles worshipped the goddess of toil.
“Cost of the Foxhole. I think he’s being generous, personally, but then I’ve always thought Clem was a bit of a softheart.” Her grin widened as Efrain’s dark cheeks paled three shades in the muted candlelight. She wasn’t sure if anyone had called Clem that before. Or if anyone had ever suggested the Snake of the Southern Dock had a heart at all.
It had been one of the most popular gambling houses in the Lottery. One of the best scams Clem had ever run… until the raid. The Needle Guard had torn the place to pieces—and the Saints with it. The gang had been the most powerful force in the Lottery for years, and now they were the laughingstock of everyone south of the trade docks. Clem had never been a laughingstock before, and, unsurprisingly, he was not taking it well. His rage made him even more dangerous than usual: a king cobra where he had once been only a viper.
“I hope for your sake this stupidity is just an act, because if not, I’m not sure how you manage to wipe your own ass.”
She dusted the bread crumbs from her hands. Then she pulled the hatchet from her back again and dived across the room, pinning Efrain to the wall, one hand at his throat.
His whole body bobbed as he sucked in a shocked breath. Ryia leaned toward him, hissing in his ear. “A whole company of Needle Guard suddenly growing the stones to take on the Saints? Now where in the hells would they get the motivation to do something like that?” Efrain swallowed. Ryia went on: “Did you really think you were still one step ahead of us?”
Efrain sank to his knees as she released her grip. There on the floor, he drew one trembling breath after another. Ryia paced beside him, watching, head cocked like some lethal bird of prey.
“Please. I have more coin. You can take it. Take it and you will never see my face in the Lottery again, I swear it… I swear it by the goddesses Adalina and Felice—by the spirits of my ancestors.”
His eyes were wet as he peered up at her from the floor, pulling his Brillish namestone from the neck of his nightshirt. Pathetic. “You’re looking for mercy? From me?” She shook her head. “Efrain, you half-wit. I thought you said you knew who I was.” She watched his eyes grow wide as she spun her hatchet playfully around her nimble fingers.
“What are you going to do?”
“I would think someone whose lips are wrapped so tightly around the Needle Guard’s teat would know the Dresdellan punishment for theft.” She leaned over, separating out the index finger of his right hand.
“Yes, Efrain, theft,” she said in the mock-patient tone of a frustrated schoolteacher. “We’ve been through this. You stole from the Saints of the Wharf. And don’t misunderstand me—we will have our repayment.” Her lip curled as she looked at the finery in the room. “Goddesses know you should be good for it. I’m just here to deliver a message. A reminder of what happens when you think you’re smarter than Callum-fucking-Clem.”
She slammed her weapon down, slicing through his finger at the second knuckle. She pulled her other hatchet free of its sheath, clocking him in the back of the head with its butt before his scream had a chance to leave his lips.
Ryia pocketed the finger with one hand, letting Efrain’s unconscious body flop to the floor. She turned to leave, then paused as a roughly hammered iron coin fell from his breast pocket. It rolled a few unsteady inches before Ryia stopped it with her boot and picked it up, examining it in the light of the fireworks still bursting in the sky outside. She rubbed a thoughtful thumb over the blank front side, turning it over and examining the back. There, stamped into the shoddily wrought coin, was the faint imprint of a kestrel skull.
Ryia looked back down at Efrain, nudging his senseless form with a toe. “Well, that explains it.” She shook her head. “What in the hells have you gotten yourself into?”
Her question hung unanswered in the night air when she caught another whiff of it. That grisly smell of blood, old cellars, mildew, and decay. That terrible weight in her nostrils. Danger. And not just any danger. Her nose tingled painfully. This was the particular aura of danger that accompanied only the most deadly fighters in Thamorr—a scent she was horribly familiar with.
An Adept was nearby.
She froze, ears pricked as the door beside the bed creaked open. A tall shadow drifted into the room on silent feet. Like every Adept raised on the Guildmaster’s island, he was completely bald, clad in a long black robe trimmed in the brightest blue. His right cheek was marred by a brand of the Brillish royal seal. This was Efrain’s personal servant, then. The Adept’s nostrils flared as he turned his head slightly. There, inked on the side of his hairless skull, was a swirling letter S. A Senser—a watchdog used by the merchants and nobles of Thamorr to sniff out threats of violence.
Thanks to her speed and her use of lemon balm, this one was a little late to the party.
Ryia eyed the hatchets still clutched in her hands. Of the two types of Adept magic-wielders, Sensers were the weaker fighters by a long shot. Kinetics were the tricky, speedy bastards. Sensers were usually good at sounding the alarm and not much else. If she moved quickly, she could kill this one before he got the chance.…
The Senser turned his head again, his eyes resting on her at last. They were as blank and lifeless as every other branded Adept servant Ryia had ever encountered, so unlike the cruel and cunning eyes of the Guildmaster and his own personal army, called the Disciples. If she slit this slack-faced Senser’s throat, the Brillish crown would see it as a loss of gold and nothing more. After all, they had paid the Guildmaster good money for a mindless servant… not for a human being. But Ryia knew better than anyone just how human the Adept truly were.
Still, he had seen her. If she didn’t kill him, he would trot off and sound the alarm. She flexed her fingers, tightening her grip on her hatchets. The Butcher of Carrowwick didn’t show mercy, right? She had killed dozens of people in this city: guards and mercenaries and freebooters. But this Senser was none of those things. He was a slave, trapped in a life he might never have chosen, if he had been given the chance to choose at all. It was a fate Ryia could relate to.
In her moment’s hesitation, the Senser turned from the room in a whirl of his cloak, off to fetch someone who would ruin her fucking night, no doubt.
“Shit,” she said under her breath. She then patted the still-senseless Efrain on the shoulder. “It’s been fun, Efrain. Let’s do this again sometime, shall we?” She hurriedly tucked the coin into her pocket. Then she slipped out the window and into the night.
Less than a minute passed before Ryia was on the far side of the fort’s high walls again. The alarms chased her down the alleys, but she was already gone, nothing more than a shadow on the wind. The guards would know who had come to visit Efrain Althea tonight. But she had faced worse than the Needle Guard before. Much worse.
The salt breeze tugged at her hood as she wound her way back toward the dying party on the southern docks. She tossed Efrain Althea’s severed finger up and down, whistling an old Gildesh sea shanty as she went.
About the Author
M.J. Kuhn is a fantasy writer by night and a mild-mannered marketing employee by day. She lives in the metro Detroit area with a very spoiled cat named Thorin Oakenshield. You can find more information about M.J. online at MJKuhn.com.
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