From the shadows of a doorway I watched as Vivienne of House Adair – a middling House of waning influence – exited the rear of the building after a midnight tryst with her lover, a married warden captain. The hood of her cloak was up and her cheeks still flushed as she made her way down the back streets of the Crescent, intent on returning to the Old Town before her own husband became aware she was otherwise engaged. To my magically Gifted senses her unguarded mind radiated the fuzzy warmth of a lust well-satisfied.
If she was still fully human then she could spread her legs for whomever she liked; it was none of my business. But if she was infested with the same parasitic creatures that had dominated the traitor Harailt and almost succeeded in destroying the city, then that unwitting warden was a source of information to use against us, and that was most certainly my business.
She was the least dangerous of the three magi I had marked as likely threats, an artificer more at home with her arcane apparatus of cogs and crystals than with battle. As a young and indifferent pyromancer blessed only with a truly extraordinary memory, her Gift would be weaker than mine by normal standards, but since I’d bathed in the blood of gods some of their potency had seeped into me and it would prove no contest unless I was foolish. Always a risk of that of course. Vivienne’s knowledge of architecture and alchemy was what made her dangerous – and a likely partner in bringing down the Templarum Magestus. The Arcanum’s seers had divined a number of unknown magi had collaborated in that betrayal and if you needed a magus to circumvent protective wardings and magic-strengthened stone then an artificer would be the obvious choice.
Those soaring spires at the heart of Setharis had fallen – and I was here to ensure that all involved paid a terrible price for their treachery.
I stepped out of the shadows to block her path, “Hello, Vivienne.”
She started and loosed a little yelp. “Who–” The blood drained from her face as she realised who stood before her. Her Gift flew open and drew in magic, ready to fight even as her mental defences slammed shut. She straightened her back and stared me in the eye. “Edrin Walker. What are you doing lurking in the shadows? Up to no good I warrant.”
Ah, it never got old hearing my name said like a curse. The stories told about what I’d done a few months ago had bubbled up like a blocked sewer, and every bit as foul. None of them came close to the truth. I fumbled a bent roll-up from my pouch to my lips, the last tabac to be found anywhere in the city. “Couldn’t trouble you for a light could I?”
Her lips thinned and the end of my roll-up flared bright for a second, hotter than was necessary – a clear warning. I took a long drag and blew out acrid smoke. “What do I want?” I probed her defences, searching for any hint of wrongness, of anything other. “Tell me, Vivienne, are you still loyal to Setharis?”
She swallowed. Her hands trembling as her façade of strength cracked. She had probably leapt to the conclusion that I meant to blackmail her about her dalliances with men other than her husband. That was the last thing I cared about.
The cracks in her confidence let my Gift slip in. If I’d wanted to I could have torn her mind open and taken what I wanted. With Councillor Cillian’s sealed writ giving me leave to do as I wished it wouldn’t even get me killed once people found out. Tempting. So very tempting.
“What do you want?” she spat. “Gold?”
“Hardly,” I replied. “I want to know about Harailt. Tell me what you built for that traitorous cur.”
She lurched back, forced to lean a hand on a wall to steady herself, doubled over, throat spasming and threatening to vomit. Her mind crumpled in on itself, oozing guilt.
“Did you think nobody would ever find out? Somebody always talks, even if you pay them off.” Her workshop apprentices had suddenly become flush with coin and hadn’t been shy in spending it. They hadn’t spilled their guts willingly but I can be ever so persuasive.
She choked back a retch. “I…I had no idea. Harailt was so nice, so…charming. How could I ever suspect what he… It was not my fault.”
I stabbed into her mind, making her gasp with shock, and waited for a response to what I was about to say.
Nothing. The name evoked no sudden firing of thought and fear. She had never heard the name before. Her mind ran clear of those creatures’ parasitic taint. She was no traitor, just another dupe.
She mustered enough bravery to look me in the eye again. “Are you here to kill me? If so, just get on with it.”
Oh, I wanted to. Hundreds died when the Templarum Magestus was brought down, and it couldn’t have been done without the help of her and others like her. My right hand clenched, itching to dig into her throat and rip it out. Instead I sighed and let my anger drain away. She was hardly the first or finest he had fooled. My mind’s eye flicked back to Eva, her face frozen in shock as somebody she had once considered a friend turned his flames on her. Yes, that twisted wretch had fooled the best of us.
I grimaced as I forced my stiff hand to open. “Not today.” I raked fingers through my mop of hair. “You will drag your sorry arse over to Councillor Cillian in the morning and detail exactly what you built for that bastard. Don’t dare try to leave the city.” My lips twisted into a vicious grin that suggested I really hoped she’d try. “I’ve been given a writ that says I can do whatever I sodding want with you.” People were always more than willing to think the worst of me and her own imagination would supply horrific images of the very worst tortures, personalised just for her. Cillian would roast me over hot coals if I stepped too far over the line however, and others would also likely be far from happy with me, the kind of displeasure that kept assassins in ale money.
Vivienne shuddered, then took several deep breaths and calmed as her training slid a measure of control back in place. She nodded, and if anything looked relieved that her dark secret had finally been exposed.
I didn’t have time to interrogate her further, not tonight. “Go home to your family. You may yet escape this mess with your hide intact.” I turned to leave.
“I’m so sorry,” she said in a small, tortured voice. “It’s been eating me alive…I just, I needed to forget. Just for a while. I was such a fool to resurrect that madman Tannar’s designs. Those alchemic bombs should never have been built.”
The last smoke in this whole sodding city almost fell from my lips. “Bombs? Plural? You built more than one?” I spun back. “What do you–”
A flare of killing intent sent me diving and rolling. The cobbles where I had stood erupted into jagged spears of stone that punched Vivienne from her feet and turned her into a human pincushion. Spikes through her heart and skull gave her a mercifully quick death. She hung suspended in the air, hot blood steaming down the winter-cold stone that had killed her.
Shite. Tonight was not going to go my way…