This is a first draft, and the title likely to change too.
Two hours to sunrise and I was already running for my life. Not the best start to the morning, I had to admit, even for me. The sound of dogs – large, angry dogs – was horribly close as I pounded down the muddy streets. Jake the Lock was going to be in trouble when I caught up with him. Selling shoddy lock-picks was fine as far as I was concerned – less competition in the thieving business that way – but selling them to me? There were going to be words about this.
This was the nicer part of the city, which sadly meant it was comprised of wide open streets and houses full of people who noticed things like strange men running through the night. Even the mud was higher quality. I had one chance of survival and I didn’t like it much.
I could practically smell the dogs’ breath now. My destination was in sight, but I wasn’t as confident as I liked to be. I don’t like uncertainty. I don’t get out of bed for less than pretty damn sure. Unless I’m really hungry.
Something snapped at my ankle. I didn’t look round, because only people who want to end up dead look round, but I knew I was in trouble. Story of my life. I blamed my mother.
The creature snapped again, catching fabric this time. I winced as I felt damp teeth slide over my skin. The dog pulled and my foot slipped. I twisted with the practiced reflexes of one who has been in this situation far too often. I wasn’t going to become a mud-covered dog-toy for anyone.
Weight now firmly on my back foot, I pulled the knife out of my right sleeve and threw it. I always kept my least favourite blade there because it was the one I went for first and thus was most likely to lose. I was rewarded with a squeal and the dog let go, pawing at its face. If I’d been an animal person, I’d have felt bad. I’m more of a me person, though.
There were two more dogs barrelling up the street towards me and I resigned myself to losing more than one knife. I’d take the money out of Jake the Lock. As the second dog hit the ground with a whine, I heard a cry of dismay. Great. The masters had caught up with their pets. I spun, slipped a couple of steps and regained my balance.
Yes, there were definitely going to be words.
The bridge loomed up ahead, glowing in the light of the torches. It was a beautiful bridge: statues at each end, smooth, white stone body. I had no time for beautiful things. Ugly things had more honesty in my books. And more value.
Two guards were walking across it, away from me, but they stopped and turned at the sound of shouting. That’s why guards have such a low life expectancy in this city. Always doing silly things like turning round and investigating crimes. These two were lucky. I didn’t have the time, effort or inclination for a fight.
I put on a burst of speed, using the last of my energy, and reached the parapet before they did. Two hands on the cold stone, I swung myself over and then I was falling towards the river, praying I was correct about the depth here. The last thing I needed right now was a broken leg.
The river was freezing and it knocked all the breath out of me as I sank under the surface. Looked like it wasn’t broken bones that were my biggest worry. The current was strong, pulling me towards the ocean like a prized possession. My lungs burned and I had to fight the primal urge to take a breath with all my might.
It was dark too. I couldn’t see the surface. Which way was survival and which way was murky, bottom-feeding death? I kicked, not having any other option, and hoped I was going the right way. I don’t like praying. It can attract attention.
My head broke the surface and I gasped, drawing in a breath of air sweeter than honey. I looked back towards the bridge. The guards and my pursuers were still standing looking for me, but they were a good way away now, thanks to the current. As if to make the point, an arrow hit the water more than ten feet from my little toe. I ducked my head back under the water, leaving my middle finger above the surface for a moment longer, and then swam on.
The river is the blood supply of the city. It passed though the whole length, which meant it was able to drop me off close to home. Pulling myself out, I shook off, making a largely futile attempt to at least prevent myself from dripping. I was cold, tired, and I stank, but damn if the city didn’t stink more.
I think that’s why I loved the city of Neros so much. It reminded me I wasn’t the most unfortunate thing out there.
“Hello, Trouble,” a voice purred in my ear.
I jumped, tripped over my ankle, and ended up on my butt. No, this really wasn’t my day.
“Dammit, Belle, I told you not to do that.”
“Do what?” she asked innocently, twisting a lock of white-gold hair around her finger. Belle was very good at playing the innocent, but it was a bad idea to fall for it. Give her an inch, and she’d break your arm and take your purse before you could say kitty-cat. “Scare you or call you Trouble?”
“Both,” I muttered as I allowed her to help me up.
“It is your name.”
“It’s my middle name.” Seriously. What parent would saddle their kid with that kind of baggage? My mother claimed she could smell trouble on me from the start. If that were true, you’d think she’d keep a better eye on her valuables around me. My “leaving-home fund” had set me up nicely.
Belle looked at me with those golden eyes – the only part of her condition visible – and then said the magic word: “Breakfast?”
“Only if you’re paying,” I said, because she’d expect it. Truth was, I’d give my right arm for some dry clothes and a hot meal right now.
“It’s fine. I’ve got this.” She put her hand on my shoulder and then took it off again with a grimace. “Ugh, you’re cold.”
“Happens when you go swimming before dawn. I’ll meet you at Dales?”
“Sure.” She turned away, heading back up the street at an easy saunter. Men got out of her way. In her human form, Lylabelle was a big woman with the grace and temperament of a bear fresh out of hibernation. She was the ideal partner in crime for a number of reasons, not least being her ability to roll people up into little balls of broken limbs.
My home was a single room over a fishmonger’s shop. It didn’t smell great, but it was better than a tanner’s yard. Moll was setting up as I arrived.
“Got a message for you, Byran,” she called. That’s why I liked Moll. Not What time is this to be rolling home? or Why do you look like a drowned rat?
“Thanks. Anything I need to actually listen to?” Lots of people left me messages, but most of them weren’t worth my time.
“Something about a job. Be at the Jugged Hare tonight if you’re interested.”
“That’s it? Just ‘a job’?”
“That’s all he said, and I wasn’t going to press him for details. You’ve got your work, By, and I’ve got mine. And never the twain shall meet, you hear?”
I gave her a grin. “Fair, fair. Guess I’ll have to wait and see.”
“Go on, get on with you before I mistake you for a fish and put you out on display.”
I sometimes wondered how I would have turned out if I’d been raised by a woman like Moll. She’d never call a child Trouble.
Dry and changed, I made my way to Dales, an eating establishment of cheap but dubious nature. I found Belle sitting at a table in the corner of the room. The woman knew me well.
“Breakfast is on its way,” she said as I sat down opposite her. “Do you fancy telling me what you were doing in the river?”
“Practicing my technique?” I suggested and she gave me a very dirty look. “Fine. I was escaping. A job went bad. Which reminds me. I need to drop in on Jake later.”
“Can I watch?”
A couple of bowls were set in front of us, hot and greasy. Belle slipped the man some coins. She, at least, had a productive evening.
“If you like. Might have something else lined up if you’re looking for work?”
She slurped down a mouthful and wiped her hand over her lips. “My day job pays fine. Look at this.” She set a leather collar decorated with rose quartz on the table.
“Cute. You could wear it as a bracelet.”
“People pay good money for cute, By. Probably why you’ll never amount to anything. Oh, don’t pout. Tell me about your job. I could use some more excitement in my life and you’re good for that, at least.”
“Well.” I cleared my throat. “I don’t really know much about it. Someone left a message saying be at the Jugged Hare tonight if I wanted to know more.”
Belle laughed, and flicked a lump of congealed fat from her bowl at me. “The Hare isn’t excitement, Byran. It’s a death-wish. You been pissing people off again?”
If I didn’t know better, I’d say she was concerned. “Not deliberately. Not interested then?”
“Are you?” she asked, one eyebrow raised. “Seriously, you can’t be considering going to a dangerous place on the word of a complete stranger because there might be a job in it for you? Are things really that tight at the moment?”
Now she did sound concerned and it made me bristle. I didn’t want her sympathy. But… “Things have been lean for a while. I could use a well paying job.”
“Fine. We’ll check it out. Can’t have you depending on me for breakfast every day.”
It wasn’t the breakfast that bothered me. But I was getting to the point where making rent was going to be tough and I didn’t want to let Moll down.
“Whatever it is, I want a good cut.”
“I haven’t agreed to anything yet!” I finished the last greasy mouthfuls and set the bowl down. “Meet you at dusk?”
She picked up my bowl to lick it clean and gave me a dismissive wave.
I only meant to go home for a couple of hours of sleep, but I woke to something soft butting my head in a darkened room. Great. I rolled over to find myself staring into a pair of amber eyes. On a small, buttermilk-coloured kitten.
“That’s how you’re going, Belle?”
The kitten made a soft chirruping sound.
“Fat lot of good you’re going to be if a fight breaks out.”
Somehow her expression managed to convey the fact that she had chosen that shape for exactly that reason. She had a point, I supposed. It was easier to slip out of a bad situation as a kitten than a woman.
“Whatever. Come on, let’s go.” I held out my arm and she scrambled up to my shoulder, where she gave my cheek a friendly rub. She was always better natured and more affectionate as a kitten.
The streets were still busy an hour after dusk. People making their way home, or going out in search of beer and good company. Lovers on their way to trysts. There were fewer on the approach to the Jugged Hare, a dank establishment that backed onto the river. I wasn’t sure whether that was for the smuggling connections or simply because it made it easier to dump the bodies after the inevitable knife fights.
The place attracted a very particular clientele. Mostly men who all believed they were the toughest thing in the room. As long as no one made the claim out loud, there was relative peace. Of course, someone always did.
I pushed open the door, and tried to ignore the quiet as everyone present took in a stranger entering. Every eye would be on me, and if I made contact with any of them, and they saw weakness, I’d be looking for my kidney on the floor.
There was a table in the back corner that looked dark and empty enough for me. Belle dropped down and made herself comfortable on my lap. I paid a passing barmaid one of my few precious coins in return for a pint of what appeared to be horse-piss.
And then I waited.
That’s how these things work. You sit there, trying to work out who is watching you. And they try to work out if you’re genuine or if you’ve got the city guards or a rival gang waiting outside the door. Either of us moves too soon and the whole thing will fall apart.
About an hour and another begrudging beer later, someone approached my table. He was wearing a hood, his face invisible in the murky inn. I wasn’t surprised. Keeping an advantage like that is common. So I was a little surprised when he lowered it.
“Are you Byran Tarn?”
“Who wants to know?” I took a drink, trying to be nonchalant. It was a mistake. It’s hard to be casual when you’re trying to suppress your gag reflex.
I tried to size him up slyly, then decided there was little point in being subtle. This man wasn’t a threat. He was tall and thin, with floppy brown hair and a good crop of pimples. He looked like what would happen if you put a twelve-year-old on a rack and stretched him up to adult size.
“My name’s Darius Small. I was told to meet you here.”
“Really. And who told you that?”
Darius scratched at his ear. “I don’t know his name. He said come here and find you and I’d find out more. I’m guessing you don’t know anything then?”
“Didn’t say that.” I didn’t, of course, but I wasn’t going to admit it. “Sit down. You’re making people nervous and that’s not something you want to do around here.”
He swallowed, looking around him, while I tried to calculate my odds of getting out of here with both kidneys. They were dropping fast. As soon as he was sitting, the barmaid set a flagon down in front of him. I held my breath until he paid for it.
“So, Darius. What exactly is it that you do?”
“I’m…” He lowered his voice to a timid whisper. “I’m a wizard.”
That wasn’t good. I didn’t have much time for those who thought poking the fabric of reality with a sharp stick was a good idea. And those who did it without a licence terrified me, frankly. There are few things more likely to cause disaster than a man who proclaims “I don’t know what I am doing, but I’m going to do it anyway!” I felt Belle shift on my lap. She didn’t have much fondness for magic, either.
“Why do you have a cat?” Darius asked as she poked her head over the table.
“In case I get hungry.” Darius went a dangerous shade of green, but I was more concerned about the way Belle was digging her claws into my leg. I flicked the back of her soft head. “Don’t have a sense of humour failure. This is Lylabelle, my associate,” I added, looking up at Darius.
“But she’s a cat,” he said.
“The wizards are really missing out, not having you in their ranks,” I muttered. “She’s a cat currently. Sometimes she’s not. She’s a were-kitten.”
“Then…she’s very young?”
“Only in this form. Look, it’s a long story and she gets grumpy when I tell it, but the short version is be very careful what you wish for.”
I was grateful when he didn’t press the matter. Belle was more comfortable with her situation these days, especially now she had learned to make money from it. People didn’t much like cats, outside of the necessary mousing business. But a cute kitten that would come to your house, be attentive to you for a few hours, and then leave without demanding anything thing more than a few coins? Belle had found being a sentient kitten was surprisingly well received in city full of busy, anxious, and lonely people.
Not pressing the matter meant we sat in silence, which was unfortunate. I decided to give it another ten minutes and then risk leaving. I wanted to at least hear the proposal, but I wasn’t particularly interested in being forced to buy another drink, or spending more time with the wizard. He made me nervous in more ways than I had fingers to count.
“Well, looks like we’re all here.”
I jumped for the second time that day, almost spilling my drink. Belle dug her claws in, arching her back. Darius, to my chagrin, seemed the least fazed of the three of us.
“Are you going to tell us what’s going on?” he said to man who had appeared, ghost-like, at our table. There was a nervous tremor to the wizard’s voice that made it sound as if his voice was breaking again.
The stranger slipped into a chair and looked around at us with a predatory grin. He was a weasel-like man, slender, but with the air of one who’d rip your throat out if you looked at him wrong.
“I hope, gentlemen, that I’m going make you very rich.”
I very nearly got up there and then. A good rule in this city is that if something sounds too good to be true, it probably is. A lesson I learned from Belle.
“Most people don’t have a problem with rich,” he said, catching my eye. I pushed myself back down in the seat.
“Most people have less brains than fleas,” I replied, running my hand down Belle’s back. It was relaxing, I had to admit, and I needed to keep my calm. “When a man says he’s going to make you rich, he usually means he’s going to rob you blind. Begging your pardon, of course.”
I watched him, waiting for the reaction that would show I was right. But either I was mistaken, or he was a very good actor. I decided to hope for the former but assume the latter.
“The only robbing is going to be done by your good selves,” he said, resting his elbows firmly on the table. “My boss needs something stolen. Get it for him, and you can take anything you like from the property. Rich pickings, I promise.”
“And if I choose to walk away?” I didn’t like the way the man was smiling. Never trust a man who smiles but isn’t happy.
“Of course you are completely free to do that. But I would like to let you in on a little secret. We picked you two carefully, which meant we watched you closely. And that means we know everything there is to know about you. Where you live, where you sleep. Who your friends are. What you care about. So, walk away if you like, my friend. But I promise you it won’t be the last you hear from us.”
I knew he was going to say something like that.