Chapter 15: The Muckraker
Updated: Jun 5
Cora’s eyes followed Elric’s hand to a well-dressed man, smiling broadly and marching through the crowded streets straight for them. As he approached, the tails of his coat fluttered behind him, and a glossy domed hat covered his dark, slicked-back hair.
“This way!” he called out, beckoning with an energetic hand.
Cora gave him an inquisitive look and pointed to herself.
“Yes, you,” the man replied. “I am a man who knows things, and right now it is obvious you need what I know. Come, travelers! Over here, away from the crowds where we can talk.”
“Don’t go over there,” Cora said, grabbing Elric’s arm. “He’s got nothing we need.”
Cuauhtérroc crossed the street. “He know dees theengs we need.”
“It ain’t gonna hurt nuttin’ to talk to ‘im,” Elric said.
“I concur,” Selorian added. “It won’t hurt nothing.”
“It’s a huge waste of time,” Cora muttered. “Probably a scam.”
Despite her objections and much to her chagrin, they met the elegant dandy near the edge of the street.
“Well met, well met,” the man prattled with enthusiastic speed and lively arms. “Name’s Youngblood. Josen Youngblood, and I promise you after we part, you’ll never view this fair city the same way again.”
He extended his hand, which Elric took in a firm handshake. “Nice grip, young man. Nice grip. You can tell a lot about a man from his grip. Never do business with a limp wrist, I always say. So, are you here for the wedding? Thousands are, and for most folks, it’s their first trip to the lovely city of Cer Cannaid. But don’t you worry about a thing. I can spot a newcomer a mile away, and when I seen you, I said to myself, ‘There’s some fine folk lost as a ship at the bottom of The Deepening.’ But that’s no good; that is no good at all. I can’t have you experience this great city in a fog of confusion. So, what can I do for you? Let’s make you…un-lost.”
Cora frowned, not trusting the man for a second. “We’re not lost. Come on, guys…let’s go.”
Youngblood grinned and held out his hands. “Well, maybe you’re not. But I do know you ain’t from around here.”
“How’d ya know that?” Elric asked.
“Red hair like hers don’t grow anywhere around The Deepening. Dark skin like his don’t grow anywhere in Arelatha. A mustache like yours don’t grow anywhere in the world. And I ain’t sure the entire universe ever spit out a man like him.”
Selorian glared as lavender roiled in his palm. “You don’t know the half.”
Cora shook her head at the stranger. “We’re leaving. Good day.”
“We look for dees old man,” Cuauhtérroc offered.
Youngblood quickly scanned them, his eyes darting from one to the next. He pursed his lips and scratched his chin. “I know some people. I mean, what good would I be if I entertained strangers to Cer Cannaid under false pretenses, right? It might be a bit difficult to spot a single old man, but I guarantee my network of contacts could track him down for you. There’s only four of you, but let’s multiply your efforts by a hundred and see what sort of magic happens, shall we?”
Elric shrugged. “His name is—”
Cora stomped his foot and cut him a fierce glare. “We’re not interested.”
Youngblood grinned. “Perhaps names aren’t all that important. A description works, too. Tell you what, miss. I’ll just stand over here and let you think about it. No pressures; no fuss.”
Cora held out her arms, bewildered. “I said we’re not interested.”
He took a couple of steps back. “While she’s thinking, can I ask you three gents a question? Nothing personal; I’m not that sort of guy, you see. But…man to man…I really do need to ask. It’ll take only a second.” He slid back another step.
“What the cripe!” Cora growled.
Elric joined him first, then Cuauhtérroc and Selorian. Youngblood held up a finger to Cora and nodded. “It’ll only take a minute, milady. I just need a man’s opinion on something. Take your time there to decide; I’m in no hurry.” He ducked his head and motioned the guys in closer.
Cora smoldered. Am I the leader or not? Why won’t they listen to me? Lost was exactly what they were, and directionless—a ship without a rudder. But the last thing she needed was a dandy trying to hawk fake information upon them. For all his blathering, he had yet to produce any credible evidence that he wasn’t a complete swin—
A gentle tug on her back interrupted her grumbling, then her lute strap dangled and fell from her shoulder. Cora spun around to see a figure running down a grimy alley with her lute. She screamed.
Her allies wheeled, and Cora spun back to face them, her arms flailing. “Nine Hells! I knew it was a con! Don’t just stand there, get him!”
Elric and Cuauhtérroc twisted back to Youngblood, but he was gone, absorbed into the passing throng like a cup of water tossed into the sea. Selorian launched a globe of eldritch energy into the crowd, toppling several bodies in a quiver of muscle spasms. But the shyster was gone.
“Not him!” Cora shouted. “Get my rinkin lute!”
Down the dark alley they gave chase through narrow corridors twisting between converging buildings. Mangey cats scampered behind garbage cans and old crates, and homeless beggars regarded them with bloodshot eyes. They dodged puddles slick with dingey mixtures of putrescence, ducked beneath wires bearing the day’s laundry, and leaped piles of refuse.
While Cuauhtérroc blazed a trail, Selorian’s purple fire blasted away the smaller obstacles whether they needed blasting or not. Cora despaired of ever seeing her instrument again. But just as she was about to call off the chase, they spotted the thief jumping a low wall, her lute in hand as he disappeared onto the other side.
They clambered over the partition and entered the shipyards, but it was more of the same. Every couple of blocks, the thief disappeared behind some obscuring object—a merchant’s wagon, a water barrel, or a group of people—foiling their pursuit. With erratic and stealthy movements, he reemerged some distance away, erasing all their gains.
“How is he doing this?” Cora asked with labored breath. “He’s toying with us.”
Elric’s heavy boots clomped beside her, and he huffed with exertion. “It’s like…he knows…we’re followin’ him.”
Selorian blasted a small piece of trash floating in a gutter sluicing a putrid runoff. Sprays of the foul liquid sent passers-by scattering in all directions. “There is a higher likelihood he is leading us to our deaths. Well, yours.”
“No,” Cuauhtérroc said, “we do not die today.”
Cora cursed as they stopped in the middle of the street to catch their breath. “We lost him. Again.”
Crowds passed them by in both directions, streaming around them like they were boulders in a riverbed.
A stocky sailor bumped into Cuauhtérroc, then stepped aside with a scowl. “Watch it.”
“Lead, follow, or get out of the way,” said another man forced to alter his path around them.
“Hey,” barked a burly Ogrian with a knapsack slung over his shoulder, “pickin’ be for the movin’. Get!”
“Do not test me,” Selorian replied with a sneer. “I could extract your soul from your body.” The Ogrian spun and delivered a crude gesture.
Cora yelled Selorian’s name. The second time got his attention.
She gave him the fiercest frown she could muster. “We are not here to extract souls from bodies.”
The savant cocked his head sideways. “Did I say that?” He cradled his chin in a hand and raised a multi-pierced eyebrow. “Can I do that?”
“Where do y’all reckon he’s gonna pop up next?” Elric shrugged as he turned in place. “My bet’s on that brothel.”
“He will reemerge adjacent to the butchery,” Selorian replied as a dark nimbus settled over him. “And then he will enter the Muckraker, a tavern with a deliciously appropriate name. I’ve seen that name before…”
Cora scanned the nearby shops. They were all warehouse fronts. “What tavern?”
“The distant one filled with and surrounded by villainous miscreants of every sordid stripe.”
“Quit rinkin with the ambient light. Wait…you can see that?”
Selorian sniffed. “It might surprise you what is seen in the darkness.” He flung a ball of lavender energy into the street, eliciting a squeal from a startled woman.
“Stop it.” Cora glared at the savant. He’s a walking nightmare.
“Naw,” Elric said, “he’ll be in ‘at brothel. That’s what I’d do. I mean, if I’s him. Not me! I wouldn’t go to no brothel. They’re skanky. Not that I know what they look like…” His eyes darted back and forth beneath a sheepish wince.
Cora bit the inside of her lip. It’s like trying to herd a trio of cats. “Let’s keep moving. Maybe he’ll show up again.”
As they wandered down the street, they scanned alleys that branched left and right and second-story balconies of ramshackle buildings flanking the street. Structures on their right were cut into the steep terrain sloping down to the shipyards at the lake; those on the left were built on stilts to the street level. Neither side was in good condition.
The street curved and angled with the sloping land, descending ever closer to the heart of the shipyards. A boisterous throng of shanties rang out from a choir of drunken sailors. Vulgarities, fisticuffs, and revelries grew in richness and intensity. Overly made-up strumpets sashayed about in wild colors, whistling, raising their petticoats and jiggling their jiggly parts. The street reeked of stale alcohol, sweat, grime, and vomit.
Ahead was the Muckraker, and as they scanned the swarming crowds, Elric shielded his eyes from the indecent women on the corners.
Cora felt an increasing desire to slap the nearest tootsie full across the face, but women of such ill-repute were treasure troves of information. These ignoble women might fill in some crucial details. She gritted her teeth and approached one of them. “Excuse me,” she said, biting off everything else she wanted to say, tirades her mother certainly would have spewed.
Without warning, Selorian bolted away, a shadow of eldritch portent cascading about him. Elric and Cuauhtérroc ran after him, leaving Cora standing with the half-clothed woman. Why the rink does everyone keep dashing off like a dog after a squirrel?
“Hey cutie,” the strumpet cooed. “Need a place for the night?”
“Stuff it,” Cora snapped, then she ran after the others.
Selorian yanked his sword from its sheath, yelling “kill him” with a voice that resounded simultaneously in bass and tenor tones, as if one pitch layered the other. The blade glowed with the same amethyst hue that was almost certainly gleaming from his eyes. He dashed through the teeming masses to the downhill side of the street and onto the portico of the Muckraker.
Cuauhtérroc charged through the crowd and caught up with the savant—knocking over several people along the way—as Selorian stepped beneath the balcony above the front doors of the tavern. He grasped the savant’s arm and held fast, preventing his entrance to the tavern. “Do not keel dees man. We find heem and we get dees lute, but we do not keel heem. Do you understand dees?”
The savant uttered a pair of foul words, syllables normally reserved for dark creatures, and Cuauhtérroc released his grip with a shudder. Selorian shook his arm as if casting off the last vestiges of the savage’s touch, but he replaced the sword in its scabbard. His voice rumbled. “I have dispensed with patience. Now is the time for blood.” With a glance over his scrawny, pale shoulder, he pushed the door open and stepped inside.
Cora held her breath and nodded to Cuauhtérroc, and they ducked in after him.
The Muckraker might have been a normal tavern once, many decades ago when it was first built, but it was now a product of the muck it had raked in. Over a dozen round tables dotted the tavern floor, all worn, grimy and in various states of disrepair. Mismatched chairs scattered around the tables possessed few of their original parts and showed signs of being poorly mended. Filth blanketed the floor beneath a detritus layer of food scraps and bent cutlery. An assortment of grimy patrons filled the room, gorging on meats, chugging drinks, and smoking various pungent weeds. Above it all, a haze of smoke clung to the ceiling and invaded the breathing space of anyone over four feet tall. A solemn quietude reigned over this crude environment, as if an unvoiced command forbade anyone to speak. It took Cora a moment to realize what was missing from the scene—music. What tavern lacked a good minstrel, especially at this hour of the evening?
Flanking the front doors was a pair of tall, thickly muscled men in worn clothing. Their wiry facial hair, slitted yellow eyes, scaly arms folded across impossibly thick chests, and slightly protruding lower canine teeth betrayed their racial background. Cora’s breath caught. Dragon-bloods! As the doors behind them closed, one of the guards warned them in a voice that sounded as harsh as it smelled. “Don’ try nuttin…” He patted the pommel of a longsword at his side that, coupled with his obvious strength, would cleave a man in two.
“Keep your eyes open for my lute,” Cora whispered. “And no glowing eyes, Selorian.”
The savant glowered. “Fool. My eldritch vision pierces into darkness.”
“He could be anywhere,” Elric said. “Mebbe he went upstairs.”
“Kill him,” Selorian muttered, then he frowned and pretended to cough.
“No!” Cora hissed. “What is wrong with you?”
The savant scanned their eyes. “I don’t…I don’t really know. Perhaps something wonderful?”
Cuauhtérroc wrapped a strong grip around the savant’s pasty arm. “Cora O’Banion say do not keel dees man. You say now is time for dees blood. So I say if you keel dees man, dees blood weel come out of you.”
Selorian sniffed. “That’s fair.”
They fanned out and scurried about the tavern floor, wending between the tables and chairs as they worked their way toward the bar along the back wall. Several grunts of disapproval belched from patrons hunched over their grub, large and crabby sailors short on manners and tolerance.
There were more dragon-touched people in here than Cora wanted to think about. As she meandered through the crowded floor, a portly man with heavily tattooed arms scooted back and stood, blocking her path and line of sight. His silent stare required her to find a different route, and she cursed under her breath.
At the bar, they reconvened, empty-handed. Cora dry-washed her face with an aggravated hand. She stood on the rung of a barstool and scanned the brutish patrons crowding the tavern floor. This place really needs some music. She turned to Elric. “Did you see where he went?”
“Nope. He ducked outta sight. But we been through this whole place. He musta went in the kitchen.” Elric hitched a thumb at the base of a darkly-stained staircase. “Or upstairs.”
Cora regarded the steps. The bedrooms… They would be filled with disgraced women doing disgraceful things. “We’re not going upstairs. Not unless that’s the last place we have to look.” She pointed into a darkened corner. “There are also a couple of doors over there he might have slipped through.”
A large, muscled man stepped through the kitchen door and approached them from behind the bar. He was larger than Cuauhtérroc and built like an oak. A plume of coarse black hair spilled from the front of his sweat-soaked shirt. A blood-stained apron reeked of stale meat. “Do y’all…need somethin’?” He glanced at the four with deep-set, dark eyes beneath a single bushy eyebrow. He held only a pewter mug, but Cora had no doubts that was as good a weapon in his large hands as anything they had.
She drummed up mock cheerfulness. “We were just trying to decide what to eat in celebration of the wedding. Are you going to the Lady Karlina’s wedding?”
The bartender scoffed.
“Well, give us a minute, please.”
With an apathetic shrug, the bartender wiped the mug on his bloody apron and placed it on a shelf.
Cora leaned in. “I doubt he went in the kitchen.”
“Why not?” Elric asked.
“I don’t think he’d come in here simply to escape us. He’s making the delivery, maybe, or he’s leading us into a trap. My uncle Lars owns a tavern in Morlake, so I’d say those doors probably lead to an office and…maybe a private room. So, he’s probably in there seeing someone.”
Elric’s eyes bugged. “Ya mean, a floozy?”
“No!” Cora hissed. “Elric, really? A meeting room where illicit deals are brokered. But that bartender is not going to let us just barge through either of them.”
Selorian sprouted a miniscule tendril of eldritch energy on his fingertip. “You appear to have forgotten that I possess the capacity to render inert everyone in this room. A nice touch that would be.”
Cora frowned. “And you seem to forget almost continually that I don’t want you killing people. We’re here to stop an assassination, not to conduct one.”
“You have an overly extensive definition of people,” Selorian said derisively, sweeping a hand in gesture to the Muckraker’s patrons. “And the last time I checked, ‘inert’ and ‘dead’ were not synonymous.”
Cora ignored him. “The problem is, if I’m right, he’s probably delivering my lute to his handler right now. You need to create a diversion while I get us into the back.”
Elric crossed his arms and shook his head. “Ain’t no way yer goin’ back there by yerself. We’re all goin’ or ain’t nobody goin’.”
Cuauhtérroc nodded in agreement.
Cora held firm. “No, of course not…I would never dream of chasing down the thief on my own. I guarantee you those two doors are locked, so all I need is some time to pick it. Can you whip up a distraction for a couple of minutes?”
Selorian grabbed his head and staggered. He grasped the bar and fell onto a stool. “This is wasting time.” His voice dropped an octave and layered, as if two voices were speaking at once.
Cuauhtérroc laid a hand to his macana, his dark eyes wary. “You have dees two voices. Dees is bad ju-ju.”
Cora froze with nervous concern. “I agree. What’s going on with you, Selorian? What just came out of your mouth is unnatural.”
The savant shook his head, not in negation but as someone trying to fling off an angry ferret. He scratched and clawed, pulling at his hair and wincing with intense pain. Then, it was suddenly done. He stood upright and dusted his hands. “All is well. You were saying?”
“I was saying you need to create a diversion so I can pick this lock.” All is most definitely not well with him.
“When’d ya learn to do that?” Elric asked.
Cora refocused. “Lock picks are an essential freeblade tool. Now, can you buy me some time or not?”
Elric nodded. “I got me an idea. It worked at Crowder’s Bar when me an’ Rutland wanted to sneak in where the dancers was chang…well, never mind that. Jis so ya know it worked. So, you mosey on over there an’ me an’ Cuauhtie an’ Selorian’ll keep ‘im busy.”
Cora shook her head at him. “Don’t do anything stupid.”
The trio of men slid down to the far end of the bar, and Cora slipped against the wall near the corner doors, retrieved her lock picks, and waited for the distraction. Ironic that we would employ a distraction con to avenge one.
A buxom barwench passed by with a quartet of ale flagons, eyeing Cora with suspicion. Cora smiled at her and faked a desperate need to relieve herself.
The barwench pointed with a tip of her head. “Other side o’ the room, honey.”
The men appeared to be ordering a meal. Cora sank against the wall in disappointment. That’s not a diversion, you lunk. Do something!
Elric stood up suddenly and started yelling, then he shoved Cuauhtérroc in the chest. Selorian responded with a glowing finger to Elric’s chest, and Elric swung a balled fist at him.
Cora pinched the bridge of her nose. For the love of Beauty…a bar fight? That’s your idea?
The bartender withdrew the menus and backed away, and a handful of patrons rose from their tables to make room. The bouncers’ attention focused on the fight, grins spreading across their grimy mouths.
Cora blew her bangs. Well, if you don’t wind up in jail, it just might work. She ducked into the darkened corner and knelt by the doors. Speed was paramount, but neither door indicated what lay beyond it. Recalling a child’s rhyme, she pointed alternately at each door as she chanted: “Ickle ockle whiskey bottle, ickle ockle out.”
On the word “out” her finger pointed to the door on her right. “That’s out.” With a quick breath, she inserted an angled pick into the door lock on the left.
The ruckus grew, with voices shouting, chairs tumbling, plates crashing. Elric yelled in pain, and Selorian’s laughter rang hollow. At any moment, Cora expected to hear the bellow of an Audric war cry. I said don’t do anything stupid… She pressed an ear to the door, twisting her picks until each of four pins was in place. Her shadow blinked against the wood as lavender brilliance flashed across the tavern behind her. We’re all going to die…
The final pin clicked into place, and a grin crept across Cora’s lips. She pulled the picks out of the keyhole and twisted the knob.
It was locked.
Cora blanched as a litany of epithets flooded her mind. How could I be so stupid? I just locked an open door. She wanted to scream and throw her picks across the room, but she could do neither. Stealing a glance over her shoulder, the fight had escalated into an all-out brawl. But it would soon end, and with it her distraction.
With a disgusted sigh, Cora pressed her ear to the lock and re-inserted an angled pick. She had wasted time locking the door, but knowledge gained now served her well. In a fraction of the time, even with dishes, food, and unconscious bodies landing nearby, she dislodged the last pin, and the lock clicked open. She stood, and with a victorious flourish, turned the knob and bowed low as she pulled the door open.
A broom handle that had been propped against the inside of the door toppled out and cracked her on the shoulder. She jumped upright and stared slack-jawed into the space beyond. “What in the—”
Her blood boiled.
A rusty bucket and a rotten mop occupied a corner opposite a jumble of worn-out brooms and battered boxes of long-forgotten cleaning supplies. A bin overflowing with dirty brushes sat near the open threshold. Cora finished her curse and kicked the broom handle.
She spun in anger and embarrassment to face the jumble of bodies, overturned furniture, and debris flying through the air. “It’s a bloody broom closet!” Somewhere in the confusion, amidst the grunts, shouts, and splattered plate dinners, were her freeblades. Somewhere far ahead of her was her lute. She grabbed the knob on the other door; to her relief, it turned and opened, revealing stairs to the basement. Would that I had picked this one first.
She righted a barstool and clambered atop the bar. A quick melody flowed from her lips, enhancing her volume. “We’ve got to go!” she shouted with enough volume to rattle the windows. The floor fell silent beneath her resonant voice.
Elric jumped up from a pile of tangled bodies. His left eye was swollen, his bottom lip split, blood trickled from his nose, and he grinned like it was the best day of his life.
“Now!” Cora said, jumping off the bar. “It’s now or never.” She returned to the corner. “Let’s go!”
Elric wiped his nose with the back of his arm, snorted loudly, and hocked a slurry of blood and phlegm onto the floor. “Whaddya find?”
The bartender swung his mug to fend off an angry dragon-blooded man. “What are y’all tryin’ to pull?” He whistled shrilly. “Guards!”
Purple flames swirled around Selorian’s hands, and he spoke a hideous, unnatural syllable. Candles snuffed in the candelabra, torches flickered and died. The haze of smoke fell to the floor as darkness coalesced at the ceiling and enveloped the tavern, spreading out from the savant to a radius from wall to wall. Voices, overcome by dread, quieted into fear-filled whispers.
The impenetrable darkness eased across the floor as it spread, engulfing people and silencing their wails. Cora’s knees knocked as the black edge approached, creeping like an umbral ooze across the room, but it stopped short of her corner.
Selorian stepped through the side of the gloom, his eyes glowing with violet energy. In one hand he held Cuauhtérroc’s arm, and in the other he held Elric’s. Both men’s faces bore the expression of one who had seen a ghost, and their panicked breath expelled in visible vapor.
“Time to go,” the savant said, eyeing Cora with an air of impatience.
“What have you done?” Cora said.
“I merely rendered inert everyone present, which you may recall I suggested some time ago was the most appropriate solution to this dilemma.” Selorian studied the assortment of janitorial supplies. “In the meantime, you seem to have unlocked a broom closet.”
Elric began to laugh, and the effect was like one snapping out of a lucid dream. At one moment he stared vacantly into the middle distance, and the next moment he delivered a great belly laugh. “Ya unlocked a broom closet? That’s the dumbest thang I seen in a long time.”
Cuauhtérroc blinked hard, as if his mind suddenly aligned with its surroundings. “What happened?”
“I don’t know, Cuauht,” Cora answered. She turned to the savant with wary uncertainty. “What did happen? What’s going on with you?”
Selorian raised a pierced eyebrow. “It is ambiguous—perhaps even unclear. I am decidedly undecided whether I am of one or two minds on the matter. It could be mind over matter. Perhaps if you don’t mind, then it doesn’t matter. Why? What’s the matter?”
Cora studied him with growing suspicion. “You worry me.”
“I have the distinct impression this has been true from the beginning.”
“You scare me.”
The savant shrugged and started down the steps. “I scare myself.”
A chorus of excited voices wafted up the narrow wooden staircase. Cora caught Cuauhtérroc’s arm. His muscles were taut, and his gaze penetrated the back of Selorian’s head. “You feel it, too?” she asked.
Cuauhtérroc nodded. “He weel do something bad today.”
“Remind me why I keep him around.” Cora released pent up breath. With Schumann at large, her lute stolen, and them crawling through the underbelly of the city, the last thing she needed was a savant on the verge of enacting real horror. Why not release him? Precisely because he would kill Schumann and untold others. Responsibility weighed heavily on her shoulders, and only by keeping him close could she retain the chance, however small, to prevent his nefarious. She would hand him over to the city authorities, but there was no time for another trial. Lady Karlina’s life was at stake.
The savage shifted his glare from Selorian to her. The intensity of his dark eyes was both comforting and alarming. “If he does anything horrible, I won’t stop you from doing something about it.”
“You want me to keel heem?”
“If you have to, to prevent him from killing Schumann or anyone else.”
Cuauhtérroc nodded and they descended the steps together.
Loud chanting reverberated throughout the basement, filling the air as much as the haze of smoke and odor of sweat and blood. Several dozen people formed a loose ring around a shallow dugout area in the dirt floor.
“Kiyla, Kiyla, Kiyla!” rang the chorus, punctuated with loud cheers and the crash of bodies on the ground. In the central pit, a bald, shirtless man circled a broad-shouldered woman with ash blonde hair pulled back in a long braid. Neither held weapons of any kind, and they squared off like prowling lions, crouched low and ready to pounce.
Cora recoiled in disgust and scanned the area for the cutpurse. Cuauhtérroc crept along the perimeter of the chanting crowd, and Elric wedged straight into their midst. Of the filcher, she found nothing. More unsettling, Selorian’s tall, lanky form was nowhere to be seen.
“What the rink is this?” cried a man’s voice in a timbre Cora recognized. Not far from her, a lute sailed through an open door, tumbling, splintering, and skidding to a stop in pieces against the heels of the pressing crowd, where feet unknowing and uncaring kicked and tread upon it. Cora’s breath caught in offended horror, and she rushed in to rescue it from further damage.
From within a side room, a younger voice protested. “But you told me to get the lute.”
“I said get the loot—,” the first voice yelled, “the stash, the purse, the coinage—not some rinkin stringed instrument, ya daft buggard. What kind of moron are y—”
Cora knew the voice that lashed out, and her blood boiled. Tossing the wrecked instrument aside, she rushed into the anteroom, cutting off his tirade. “You!”
Josen Youngblood held a dagger to a slender lad’s neck, his verbal animosity reenforced by physical threats. His eyes widened as Cora charged into the room. “Gig’s up,” he said, lowering the blade. “Cheese it.”
The lad scampered past Cora and into the pit fighting area, leaving her alone with his handler.
Cora closed the door, and her eyes narrowed in a piercing scowl. “Josen Rinkin Youngblood,” she said in a tone dripping with venom. “If that’s even your real name.”
A smirk played at Youngblood’s mouth as he twirled the dagger in his hand. “You might want to think very carefully about your next move, lass.”
Cora’s focus narrowed even further. “I’ve been thinking about this for several city blocks now.”
“You do realize I’m already armed.” Youngblood flashed the dagger. “If you so much as flinch for your rapier, I’ll pin your neck to the door.”
“Really?” Cora tapped the fresh scar below her right ear. “I’ve already been stabbed in the neck. It didn’t take.”
Youngblood leaned against his desk and raised an eyebrow. “Well, I confess you’ve got me curious. What danger does a minstrel pose? I presume even miniature lap dogs find their annoying yip some sort of a threat.”
Cora folded her arms, a defiant stance she had seen Ordin use a hundred times. “That’s a mistake many people make.” She opened her mouth to fill the room with a rising tone.
Youngblood’s smirk vanished. “What the rink are you doing?”
The tone continued to escalate in volume and pitch, and Youngblood winced from the aural pain. In desperation, he threw the dagger at her, but it sailed errantly and lodged in the wall. Cringing, he muffled his ears with the heels of his hands. “Stop it!”
Cora thrust her arms down and shouted, coalescing all the volume into a concussive blast that flipped Youngblood over the desk and onto the floor. Cora scurried around the desk with rapier drawn and pressed the tip against the thief’s neck. “I’m not a minstrel, you piece of garbage; I’m a songsage. And now, if you so much as flinch, I’ll pin your neck to the floor.”
Youngblood stared up the thin blade, past Cora’s arm, and into her fierce green eyes. “What do you want? I know it’ll sound foolish at this point—terribly foolish—to ask you not to kill me, but…please don’t.”
Cora hesitated, fighting the urge to exact payment for her lute in blood. Not his life, but a lasting reminder not to rink with her. But echoing in the back of her mind were voices from her past—her mother’s and the rector’s at the Arthouse—voices of wisdom, congeniality, and forbearance. “Beauty is Truth,” went the mantra, “and Truth is Beautiful.” Revenge was ugly.
She glowered at the man trapped beneath her sword point. “I want my lute, you filthy buggard.” Threats, on the other hand…pointed threats were useful.
The door burst open behind Cora, startling her. Youngblood winced as a spot of crimson formed on his neck, but he seized the opportunity to scramble to his feet against the far wall.
Cuauhtérroc and Elric rushed into the room, weapons drawn and bringing the sounds of a frenzied fight through the door with them. Elric breathed a heavy sigh of relief.
“Ya cain’t be runnin’ off like ‘at,” he said. “I done promised to keep watch on ya, but I cain’t do it if I cain’t see ya.”
Cora frowned at him. Says the one who keeps chasing squirrels.
Cuauhtérroc stood beside her and glowered at Youngblood. “Are you okay, Cora O’Banion? Do dees man hurt you?”
“I’m okay…I was just about to get another lute out of him.”
“Fresh out of lutes,” Youngblood muttered. “Sorry about that.”
“No, you’re not,” Cora retorted. “You’re sorry you got caught, you miserable wretch. You’re sorry my freeblades chased your bungling lackey here, and that we’ve got you cornered. But you’re not sorry my lute was smashed and trampled underfoot by the unwashed masses hovering around—” She paused and cocked her head. “You do know pit fighting is illegal.”
Youngblood chuckled. “Only when the city watch stops betting on them.”
Elric hitched a thumb toward the door. “Ya gotta see this gal fightin’ out there. She’s rinkin amazin’. So, everwhen you and Cuauhtie get done beatin’ the snot outta him or stabbin’ him or everwhat it is y’all are gonna do, come on out an’ see her.” He dashed out, slamming the door and taking the sound of ruckus with him.
“Now,” Cora said, “where were we?”
Youngblood shrugged and held out his hands. “I think we’re at the spot where I give you something you need, and you don’t kill me.”
“Well?” She performed a modest thrust and poked the rapier against his sternum. “You’re fresh out of lutes, so do I stab you or does my savage pound you into the floor?”
“Whoa! How about—work with me here—how about I give you…Miss Kiyla Muroe.”
Cora frowned. “Who’s that, why would I want her, and how can you just give her to me?”
Beneath the slender blade, Youngblood counted on his fingers. “She’s the girl fightin’ out there that your friend has taken a likin’ to. You want her because she can help you do whatever it is you freeblades are doing. And I can give her to you because I own her.”
Behind her, Cuauhtérroc growled. Cora pressed the tip harder, and again blood spotted Youngblood’s shirt. “I should skewer you where you stand. Owning someone is detestable.”
“Maybe,” Youngblood said through a painful grunt, “but it’s still legal. She was a street urchin and got caught stealin’ bread. I bought her from the courts to pay her debt. Scrappy girl, fearless, and built like a boulder. She’s worth a lot of money now.”
“That makes me dislike you even more.”
“Why? I saved her from a dank, horrifying dungeon. I probably saved her life. You should be thanking me instead of stabbing my chest—you know, that really hurts. Would you mind?”
Cora retracted the rapier and pointed to a chair. “Sit down.”
* * * * * * * * * *
Elric wormed his way back into the thronging, cheering crowd. Though the odds were small, the slip in his hand predicted Kiyla Muroe would win her third bout in a row. If she did, he stood to make a small percentage on his bet.
“Kiyla, Kiyla, Kiyla!” shouted the electrified crowd. Clearly, she was a local favorite. But her opponent stood head-and-shoulders taller than her, even hunched over as he was. His long arms hung to his knees, ending in gnarled hands with bony protrusions on his knuckles. He was dragon-touched, but Kiyla circled the pit with him, a half-grin playing at the corner of her mouth. She bounced lightly on her feet and shook her hands at her side. A trickle of blood ran from a cut on her forehead, tracing a jagged path through several old scars on her face.
The man lashed out with a closed fist. Kiyla arched her back, then sprang forward to retaliate with a fist of her own. He caught her fist in a scaly hand, twisting her arm behind her. She winced but stomped his foot with her heel. Though the man growled in pain, he wrenched her arm harder and pulled her back. Kiyla’s shout indicated it just might have. But she jumped up and wrapped her free arm around the man’s neck. Instinctively, he released her twisted arm to avoid the choke. Kiyla entwined her legs with his and buckled his knees. Before he could react, she pulled him onto his back with a look of death in her brown eyes.
Fists rained down like hail from The Deepening’s tempests. Blow after blow, cracking nose, dislodging teeth, Kiyla bloodied the man’s face until he fell limp. With her victory complete, she stood up and placed a booted foot on his stomach. She swung her ash blond braid around and shot a triumphant fist into the air, and the crowd cheered.
As the crowds thinned to collect their winnings at a small window, Elric remained transfixed by the brawler. He reflected on Kiyla’s poise under stress and her ability to throw the man’s weight. She sat quietly on a small wooden stool, wiping her hands on a rag while men dragged her broken and unconscious opponent from the fighting pit. It was the smile that got him, a crooked grin that said she truly enjoyed busting a nose. Elric was drawn to her, and he argued with himself that his interest was purely in her usefulness.
Men carrying the losing combatant passed by on their way to the rear door, through which they dumped the limp man’s body. Darkness had descended fully upon the streets of Cer Cannaid, but Elric could just see the man’s body tumbling down a short flight of outdoor steps. He’s gonna hate his life when he wakes up.
* * * * * * * * * *
Cora paced before the desk, her rapier tapping the desktop as a constant reminder of her deadly seriousness. “Your offer is abhorrent.”
Youngblood responded with a half-smile. “And yet, you’re considering it, as any sensible person would do.”
The rapier slapped the desk, and Youngblood jumped in his chair. “You should pay me for my lute,” Cora said through clenched teeth. “Tenfold.”
“Surely,” the shyster said with a broadening grin, “Kiyla is worth more than a gut fiddle.”
“I don’t need another person tagging along.”
“So, set her free. Do the right thing. You look like a person who would do the right thing. I’m giving you an opportunity to release someone from indentured servitude. Are you telling me you’d rather have a bag of coins?”
Cora stamped her foot. “No, I’m telling you to release them all.”
Cuauhtérroc folded his thick arms and nodded.
Youngblood’s eyes widened. “Look, Miss Hoity-Toity, I am trying to be reasonable with you. You beat me fair and square; I acknowledge that. I also know the rules of the game: the winner takes the spoils. But here’s the thing. You lost a musical instrument—a rather ordinary one at that—that I could have sold for four or five gold stallions.”
“It’s worth at least ten,” Cora blurted.
“Fine. Ten stallions. You asked for a tenfold payment; that’s a hundred. I could give you that, and you’d walk out of here knowing that you had the chance to free someone from a life of meaningless fighting, but effectively you sold her back into slavery for a hundred gold coins.”
Cora smoldered, and Cuauhtérroc loomed larger at her side.
Youngblood leaned back in his chair, exuding confidence despite their indignant stances. “Now, I don’t have a problem living with that, but you do, and so you’ve demanded that I release everyone. Kiyla alone is worth—I really shouldn’t be telling you this—she’s worth at least a thousand stallions. And there’s seven others besides her: The Revenant, One-eyed Lurg, Evil Lord Matdor—”
“I get it,” Cora interrupted with a huff. “You’d lose everything and I’d put you out of business. That sounds exactly like the right thing to do.”
“No, I don’t think you get it at all.” Youngblood rose from his chair and slowly walked around the desk, his smile glistening with imperious derision. With a shift of eye and brow, he dismissed the savage’s threatening posture. “You’re still wet behind the ears, so let me explain. The Alliance in Cer Cannaid is extensive. If you cleaned out the Muckraker’s pits, you’d be dead within the hour. And every one of the people you freed would be back in chains within a day, Kiyla Muroe included. I’d get a slap on the wrist for the trouble, but the Muckraker would hardly feel a thing. But you can save her, and I can promise that no one will lay a hand on you.”
Cora’s breath escaped in short bursts as she contemplated his offer. “I’d be a fool to believe a thing you say.”
“You’d be a fool not to. Or…” Youngblood produced a leather pouch that rang of coins when he tossed it on the desk. “…you take the hundred stallions.”
Cora regarded the bag of coins with a sneer. She shifted her gaze to Josen Youngblood, contemplating the morality of compelling him by force to shutter his business. It was the spellsong Devin Rhynn had used on her when they first met, the one she had longed to know. Forcing thought and action was a feared power of songsages. But she couldn’t do it. She could not in good conscience control someone’s mind, and that left her with but one choice.
“I’ll take Kiyla.”
* * * * * * * * * *
Selorian stood in the alley behind the Muckraker. The night air chilled, but the air around him approached freezing. His breath coalesced as visible vapor beneath glowing lavender eyes. Blood trickled down his cheeks as he slowly turned, his penetrating scan returning nothing. The Slayer pushed him to his very limits. “Enough!” Selorian growled as he knees wobbled.
It is enough when you have found him.
The savant collapsed to his knees, clutching his pulsing head, as a scream of unmitigated pain rose up in his breast. Only then did the Slayer release him.
“Why?” he begged. “Why the unyielding oppression?”
It is my purpose to kill him. You will do it or I will kill you and find another.
“I comprehend my options, and I chose to be your arm. But I cannot be enslaved, my sagacious intellect overridden by your singular purpose. There must be balance for our endeavors to succeed.”
There is only my purpose. Kill him.
Selorian sighed as he staggered to his feet. “Your infatuation with Schumann will incite my murder.” A shockwave of adrenalin raced through his body at the mention of the alderman’s name. Selorian groaned as he suppressed the urge to lash out. “That…stop that. The man’s name should not illicit such orgiastic reciprocity. Patience, Slayer. And sobriety. Cora will take us to him, and then I will wield you.”
Leave her. Go now. Kill him!
“No. If I go alone, I die. You will be captured and destroyed. They know. Powerful men search for you. Indeed, I suspect Cora knows. The Audric certainly does. If you cannot quell your impulses, you will ruin everything.”
The sword fell silent. Selorian dissipated the aura of utter darkness and turned back to the Muckraker. At the base of the outdoor steps lay a man’s body, bloodied and still. Selorian shrugged and stepped over him, then he stopped and cocked his head at the door.
The back door of the Muckraker opened to the alley, but only from the inside. The savant’s eyes glowed and he thrust a pair of eldritch globes into the door, blasting it free of its hinges and into a heap beside the bloodied body.
Selorian sniffed as he entered. “Architectural prudence would have included an exterior knob.”
* * * * * * * * * *
“Kiyla Muroe!” Cora called across the fighting pit.
An arm raised, and a few others pointed at a thick, muscled woman. Her long, ash blonde braid hung around the front of her shoulder, gathering from her skin a grungy mixture of blood, sweat, and grime. A sparkle of silver glinted from the outside of her left nostril, and multiple piercings lined each ear. She might have been pretty had she not been covered in muck and scars. Her nose had been broken at least once, and her left ear looked like a sprig of cauliflower. There were moments of femininity in the brawler, but only a few.
As Kiyla approached, Cora closed her eyes in forbearance. What am I supposed to do with her? “You’re free,” she said, hoping it was enough.
“I know,” Kiyla said with folded arms, a posture doubtless intended to amplify her sizeable biceps.
Kiyla dipped a quick nod. “Yeah. One more fight and I’m free.”
“No, I mean free. Permanently.”
“Yep. I’m paid up. One more fight and Bloodie can kiss my arse.”
Cora’s stomach twisted into knots. She slowly turned back to the office door, then stormed through it. Youngblood—“Bloodie”—was gone. For a long moment, Cora stared through vacant eyes at the empty room. He made me free a girl who was already free. He conned me again!
When she returned to the pits, Kiyla sat with the freeblades, listening to Elric’s animated storytelling.
Cuauhtérroc looked up as Cora approached them. “Dees female say she know dees man we need.”
Cora squinted with confusion. “Who, Schumann?”
Kiyla found a piece of hay caught in her braid, plucked it out, and stuck it between her teeth. “Don’t know that one. You’re after Quinn. He’s a runner.”
“Member of the thieves’ guild. Took your fiddle and ran.”
“It was a lute.” Glimmers of hope flashed through Cora’s mind. Could Kiyla actually be useful to us?
Voices from the pit fighting area called for Kiyla’s return. “Look,” Kiyla said, hitching a thumb over her shoulder, “I gotta finish my last fight.”
“No, you don’t,” Cora said. “You have to fight for the castle, for Cer Cannaid, and for Alikon. We’re the Dragonslayers, and we’re on a mission to save the duke’s daughter from assassination. We need in, and we need your help.”
Kiyla shrugged and turned aside. “Don’t know how I can help you.”
“You know this Quinn guy. Can you arrange a meeting with him?”
The brawler raised an eyebrow. “You need a pickpocket?”
Cora shook her head. “We need someone to get us into the castle.”
“That ain’t Quinn,” Kiyla said with a chuckle. “But I know a guy who can get you in. Genuine card-carrying runner, too.”
Cora’s eyes lit up. Kiyla Muroe had handed them the solution they had been seeking all day—a connection to the thieves’ guild. “That’s exactly what we need. Come with us and introduce us to this guy.”
The brawler looked over her shoulder and acknowledge those calling for her. “I dunno,” she said, turning back to Cora. “I gotta do one more fight, and then I’m free for the rest of my life.”
Cuauhtérroc nodded toward the pit. “Why do you fight?”
Kiyla gazed into the bloody hay-filled hole. “I have to. Three years of fightin’ to earn my freedom.”
“But Cora O’Banion make you free now. You do not have to fight one more time.”
Kiyla glanced at Cora, her brown eyes somber and studying the songsage. “You were serious? You freed me?”
Cora nodded. “Yes. And now you are free to do what you want, but I’m asking you to connect us to this ‘runner’ you know so we can get into the castle and stop an assassination.”
“My ma’s in the castle,” Kiyla said, her eyes drifting to focus on nothing in particular as an aura of reminiscing washed over her.
Cora hesitated, caught off guard by her sudden retrospection. “Your mother?”
“Yeah. She’s a kitchen maid.” Her head lifted with excited hope. “If I get you this runner, can I come with you? It’s been years since I seen her.”
There was brief silence as Cora pondered this information. Multiple connections had formed with surprising speed. She breathed a silent prayer of thanks to the Maker for weaving Beauty out of such an ugly place filled with wretched people. Kiyla was the gold thread woven into a drab tapestry, the rough gem buried beneath endless layers of worthless rock.
Behind her, echoes of Kiyla’s name rang out, shouts of praise escalating in volume as bettors beckoned her to return. The brawler hesitated, regarding the foursome of freeblades. “Well?”
“We came here chasing a thief,” Cora said, “and I lost my instrument. But we gained a connection, and you found your freedom.”
“Well,” Elric interjected, “she was fixin’ to be free anyhow.”
Cora wanted to kick him in the shin, but she forced the thought aside. “What I mean is I don’t want to drag you through the danger and uncertainty of our mission. We could fail in a number of ways, including serious injury or death. We could be caught and jailed for life. This is not how you want to use your freedom. All we need is a contact.”
Kiyla did not hesitate. “I want in the castle. I’ll get you your man. You get me in to see my ma.”
It was not how Cora had planned it, but she had grown accustomed to having her plans altered, overridden, or disregarded entirely. What would it hurt to add one more impetuous person, a pugilist no less? In the corner of her eye, Elric was as excited as a puppy about to receive a greasy hambone. Cuauhtérroc waited for her response, and Selorian was no less disinterested than ever. Cora held out her hand to the brawler. “It’s a deal. Welcome to the Dragonslayers.”