The gate guards at the Margravine’s manse let them through without a word.  One of them took a lantern and led Thijis and the doktor around the front of the house to a side door, an arched oaken thing studded with iron that looked like the entrance to some ancient keep.  It opened as they approached, and Jantis emerged, silent and serious.  His dark eyes took them in quickly and thoroughly, and he moved aside to let them in.

The butler led them into a sparsely furnished room just down a narrow hallway and shut the door.  A plain but well made table filled most of the room, surrounded by matching wooden chairs.  There were no cushions, and the walls were stone—finished, but unpaneled.  The rest of the mansion was adorned with polished exotic woods and hand-painted wallpaper and a variety of impressive textured fabrics that oozed old wealth, but not this room.  This room was a place for business.  A place where the walls and furniture were simple and hard and easily washed.

Jantis seated himself in the chair nearest the door and gestured.  Thijis pushed Helg into a chair, not gently, and then sat down beside him.

“You might have sent word,” Jantis said.  “We have more…politic ways of handling these matters.  The Margravine is not accustomed to harboring known fugitives at her personal residence.  Especially those who stink of the sewer.”

Thijis grinned.  “My apologies, Jantis.  I’m afraid I was forced to improvise a bit.”

“I’d say so.”

“I assume you have someplace you can hold him,” Thijis said, lighting his last cigarette.  He’d been saving it for just this moment.

“Not here,” said Jantis.  “The Warrens.  We have safehouses, above and belowground.  Having him here is…dangerous.”

Thijis raised an eyebrow and glanced at Helg, who sat still and dumb, uninterested; he’d gone away again, retreating into the tenebrous reaches of his mind.

“I’ll need to talk to Mother, and I’ll need access to the doktor at all times.”  Thijis doffed his hat, slicking back his hair.  It was in need of a trim.  “I haven’t had the chance to question him properly,” he lied.

“The Margravine is not at home.  Nor do we use that name here.  And under the circumstances, I think it would be best if you accompanied Doktor Helg.”

Thijis shook his head.  “I’ve got to be able to move freely.  I can’t help my client from hiding.”

“You can’t help your client by dying, either,” said Jantis.  “Were the Margravine here—”

“Where is she?” Thijis interjected.  “It’s important.  Matters have…evolved, as you can see.”

“Word of your arrival has already been sent.  I am not privy to Lady Hevrany’s every movement, nor would I be free to share them with you if I were.”

“Or inclined to, I gather,” said Thijis.

Jantis nodded.  “Precisely.”

“Look, Jantis, I’d be lying if I said I completely understood why Mother hired me, but if she took me for some patsy, then I’ll have to politely decline.  I’m going to do the job she’s paying me for, until she tells me otherwise.  But I won’t do it fumbling about in the dark.”

Jantis looked at him closely.  “Tell me what it is you need, and I can put a variety of resources at your disposal.  But I’m afraid that letting you leave here would be reckless.”

Letting me leave?”

“I’m afraid you may have misjudged the seriousness of this situation, Mr. Thijis.”  The butler’s tone was as civil as always, but a slight tightening around his eyes betrayed a change of tenor in the conversation.  Thijis felt his heart beat a little faster.

“Tell me,” he said.

“The Margravine’s colleagues are well aware of your exploits.  They’re hardly a secret: the sheriff’s office has not been idle while you and your new charge have been in the underground.  You’re a wanted man.  You endanger the Margravine merely by your presence here.”

Thijis scoffed loudly, and Jantis raised an eyebrow.  “She does have a legitimate reputation to uphold, you know.”

“The Margravine’s game is a delicate balance, and all that?  She doesn’t want to rock the boat, spoil the image?”

“We were hopeful that you would be far more…discreet.”

“Well fuck you very much.”  The man merely pursed his lips in polite disapproval and cocked his head to the side.

“It’s about more than balance, Mr. Thijis.  The Margravine has obligations.  To her partners.  There is far more at stake here than you may realize.”

“Which is precisely why I need to have a conversation with her.”

“Which I will be happy to arrange at her earliest opportunity.  But until then, I must insist that you do as I say.  For the doktor’s safety, and your own.”

“I can take care of myself.”

“No,” Jantis said, folding his hands and leaning back slightly.  “You cannot.  You’re out of your depth, Mr. Thijis.”

Thijis took a final drag on his cigarette and then stubbed it out on the table top.  “If that’s true, then you and your mistress were fools to hire me.”  Jantis didn’t respond.  Thijis looked him in the eye.

“I’m leaving now.  Are you going to stop me?”  The butler narrowed his eyes but didn’t respond.

“Fine then,” said Thijis.  He glanced at Helg, who was rocking gently in his seat, his legs drawn up to his chest.  A casual onlooker would have been forgiven for confusing the ruins of his trousers with a prodigious layer of grime.  “Get him cleaned up and someplace safe.  I’ll check in at the Tribe when I’m ready to talk to him.”  Arven could and did pass messages for Mother.  The Fourth Tribe was her place in all but name—and who knew how many of its owners were real, and not shadow puppets strung up to fool the curious?  Whether the bartender had any idea about Mother’s true identity was another matter.   But he was connected.

“May I ask where you’re going?”

“Right now?  Home.  I need a bath, as you so delicately pointed out.”

“Surely you can’t be that stupid,” said the butler, a hint of what seemed like actual surprise showing in his refined face.

“The stupid and intelligent alike must bathe, butler.  If I draw a crowd, at least I’ll know who wants me the worst by who shows up first.  And if things are as bad as you’re hinting, then I have preparations to make.”

He stood, the motion pushing his chair back.  “See you soon,” he said, and walked out the door.  He was less than surprised to find that he shared the narrow hallway with two burly gentlemen in tailored waistcoats.  They were washed and well put together, but Warrens muscle will out.  One of them, the blond one on the left, bore a nasty looking scar down the right side of his face.  He would have been pretty if he hadn’t looked like he ate murder for breakfast.  His darker companion was plainer, but no less threatening for it.

“You two the entertainment?”  He stilled the hand that wanted to reach for the special in his shoulder holster.

The dark one’s mouth curled a bit at the corners, but Blondie didn’t so much as blink.  For a long moment Thijis was still, facing off with them in the middle of the hallway.  They looked at him cold and hard, their hands folded professionally at their waists.  None wore any obvious weapon, but that didn’t mean anything.

The soft scrape of a fine shoe announced Jantis joining them.  A moment later the two thugs stepped aside, motioning Thijis through.  He walked by as casually as he could manage.  The dark one opened the door for him, and he stepped outside into the night.  A light rain misted over the door lanterns.  Thijis put his hat on, arranged its brim, and walked up the gravel path toward the front gate.

He looked back once just before the gatemen let him out, to see Jantis standing in the doorway, watching him, silhouetted in amber light.

When he was well into the park, beneath the dripping bloodgood trees, he allowed himself a small smile.

* * *

            His smile faded as he walked out of Kammerend toward Ebsea.  Jantis was right about one thing: he was about to do something incredibly stupid.  But sometimes what was stupid was also what was necessary.  Fingering Helg’s key with one hand, which he’d moved to his waistcoat pocket, Thijis knuckled his chest with the other, trying to ignore the roiling burn building in his throat.  He only hoped he hadn’t crossed the line from stupid to suicidal.

He hadn’t lied to Jantis about having preparations to make, both for himself and others.  What he planned on doing with Helg’s key was right on that line, and while calculated risks were part of the job, he liked to put a thumb on the scales of risk by being well prepared.  Which meant weapons, and gear, and, most importantly, information.  Which meant money.  He also had no intention of seeing friends and family punished for choices he’d made, which meant Dalia was leaving town, whether she liked it or not.  Whether she likes it or not, he thought, presuming you can get her to agree.

Once he was off the hill and nearing downtown, Thijis veered to the right and headed into Ebsea proper, the grand Kammerend streets and boulevards narrowing to more modest lanes and byways lined with tailors and milliners and respectable taverns, with apartments above.  Kammerenders had to get their suits made somewhere, after all, and tailors and milliners didn’t live or work in Kammerend.  Down Eb Way, Thijis was pleased to find that the night was quiet.

Few people were out in the rain, and most of those in carriages or on horseback, bouncing and clopping down the cobblestones.  He saw a druggist closing up shop, and an elderly woman dressed in a servant’s livery huddled against the wet.  Otherwise he was alone on the street.  He presumed everyone else was doing something rational, like eating dinner.  The pubs he passed were full, their warm yellow glow inviting.

The easy thing to do would be to show the Margravine’s letter of credit at the nearest banking house and draw some funds, use them to purchase whatever he needed.  Easy, and perhaps the most stupid thing of all.  The flow of money Mother had given him was immense, and who knew who kept track of such things?  She, or one of her cohorts, or someone else might be informed the very moment he withdrew the first crown, which would be as good as giving himself up to anyone who wanted to find him.  At best, no clerk would forget disbursing cash from a note that large, especially not one drawn on any account that might be connected to either the Margravine or her alias.

No, as good as the money was, it wasn’t much good.  Not at the moment, anyway.  Not until the particular players in this part of the game were identified, their respective positions located and marked.  He had yet to do that.  He was steps behind in a fast-moving game.  If his suspicions about the Margravine’s situation were correct, than he would be a fool to rely so completely on her wealth or influence to see him clear of any of this.

Flipping up the collar of his dinner jacket, he drew it close against the increasing chill of the night.  Autumn was finally on its way at last, after months of oppressive heat.  And with the fall came the storms, driven by the violent mixture of currents in the Outer Sea, flowing down the continent of Westalen.  Thijis envisioned rogue waves smashing the great, ancient seawalls on the horizon and shivered.  Oridos was always but a mile or a month away from a storm of some kind.

The tightly settled mercantile section of Ebsea began to taper off, the spaces between buildings widening from alleys to yards to parks, and soon he was back in his own neighborhood, the familiar height of his apartment building rising above a copse of maples down Wall Road from where he stood.  Dim in the medium distance he saw the city walls, and in between the rolling neighborhood of down at the heels merchant’s homes that formed the buffer between Ebsea proper and the eastern end of the Warrens.

Thijis took to the trees, then, hurrying from one dark spot to another, his feet not touching cobblestone again until he was within a stones throw from his own place.  The parkland to the right of the building was overgrown and rather dismal, the bold copse of maples surrounded by dead or dying grass, scraggly pines, and a variety of parasitic underbrush that concealed all manner of rocks, holes, and divots to break an ankle on.  The ruin of an ancient granary formed the centerpiece, like a broken granite eggshell filled with sour-smelling weeds.  He slipped inside it, hoping he hadn’t disturbed any half-dead sauma fiends, and climbed onto a crumbling stage near the back.

From there it was an easy climb out a crack in the curving granary wall and onto the limb of the closest maple.

The windows of his own top-floor flat were dark: he was out too long every day to leave a lamp burning and he kept no maid.  The uninhabited middle floors were the same, but the corner apartment on the ground floor, where the midwife and her daughter lived, was softly lit.  He could see no queue outside the side door they used for clients.  The evening was a popular time for appointments, some of the services they offered being less than strictly legal.  It was rare indeed not to see at least one woman waiting to be seen, just after the dinner hour.

This wasn’t terribly surprising, but it was confirmation of what he’d already presumed.  There were sheriffs here, somewhere, expecting him, and they were doing a reasonable job of being discreet.  Thijis had no intention of disappointing them.

Climbing down from his perch, he squeezed back through the crumbling granary walls and onto the stone shelf, then let himself back down onto the weedy floor of the dome.  Stepping carefully, he scanned the ground at his feet, wishing he could risk a light of any kind.

It took five long minutes and several unfortunate encounters with unidentified sticky substances, likely the leavings of the homeless and drug-addicted that often haunted this place, before he found it.  Swearing under his breath, he wedged filth-encrusted fingers under the rusted rim of the manhole cover and lifted, straining his back before he managed to get the iron disk flipped over.

The sewer line he crawled through was just large enough to admit him, an emergency escape route he’d made note of years before when he first found the place.  Always have an escape route, he reminded himself.  Not that he ever thought he’d be using it to get back in to his own home.

It was an old line, not in use, a dusty journey rather than a stinking one, his companions shards of brick and stone and the occasional spider.  He was sad to say that he’d been in worse sewers.  The line let out into the cellar of his building, a stronghold of granite block.  Given that the door leading into said stronghold was made of solid iron, and he was the only with a key, he felt reasonably certain that whichever of Tolvaj’s errand boys had been left to watch the place hadn’t gotten inside.  Assuming they were even thorough enough to try.

It was the cellar that had sold him on the place, and the major reason he thought it had been a chapter house of some kind in centuries past.  A wonderful place to keep a small armory, or a mountain of gold, or a gaggle of unwilling virgins.  If only he’d gotten around to using it as such.

He didn’t have the key on him, of course, not having expecting to have to let himself out of his own basement when he left for dinner the night before, but Thijis hadn’t planned on going that route anyhow.  They’d certainly have men in the halls and on the staircase.

No, the only way was straight up, a direction the house’s mysterious builders apparently thought quite important: in the middle of the cellar stood a massive rectangular pylon built of brick and stone, which ran straight up through the center of the house.  At a glance, it appeared to be a great chimney, the kind that might serve many hearths throughout a big old home.  If one circumnavigated it, however, and looked closely in the darkness beneath a stone arch leading to another, similar pylon, one would find a door of iron.

The other stone structure was the true chimney.  This was a bolt hole with secret access to every floor in the building, including the roof.  Thijis worked the mechanism that opened the door, a small iron stud concealed as a bolt, and peered inside, wishing he had a lantern.

Heavy iron rungs climbed two sides of the shaft.  Thijis chose a side and started to climb.  The shaft—obviously designed to assist the building’s occupants in fighting off or escaping an incursion—was the last and most important reason he’d chosen this building as a home.  You can’t be too careful in this business, he’d told Dalia at the time, pleased with himself.  If your business calls for an escape route from your own house, she’d said, maybe you’re in the wrong business.

“Coming in handy now, though.  Keep me out of my own house, will you?” he whispered to the darkness.  “Fucking gobbers.”

Perhaps Dalia had a point.

Unfortunately, the opening to the shaft on the top floor let out into the hallway outside his apartment, an open space far too likely to contain a constable for his liking.  No, the roof was the thing, and from there…from there he’d just see.

The shaft ended in the middle of the flat roof, again disguised at the mouth of a chimney.  Thijis eased the metal door open, wincing in fear that it would squeak.  It didn’t.

Poking his head briefly above the lip of the wide chimney, he scanned the roof to find it empty.  Releasing a nervous breath, he climbed onto the flagstone patio and hurried to his thrown-together seating area, which was much as he’d left it two nights before.  The sound recorder sat untouched, enclosed in its waxed wood case under the rain awning at the edge of the roof.  A good sign no one had been up here; the thing was worth a month’s pay, and sheriff’s men were not always particular about obeying the laws they enforced.

He stopped by the old couch he kept there long enough to inspect the wine bottles strewn around it.  Empty.  He frowned, and turned to the parapet running behind the awning.

He was just above his flat now, over the east-facing window looking into his work area.  He leaned over the edge of the wall and regretted it, the five stories to the ground seeming higher than he remembered.  But then, he’d never considered climbing down it before.

This was the part he had to see about.  Specifically, he had to see about a way to get from this roof through that window, mostly alive.  The window ledge was a good twelve feet down from his position, with nothing between but smooth stone wall and thick old glass.  Thijis scratched his head and strongly considered giving up.  The problem with thinking three steps ahead of everyone, even when you could manage it, was that you had to keep thinking that far ahead or things caught up.  And you filled in this blank with some vague notion of leaping over the parapet and swinging through the window on the end of a drapery, announcing your presence to anyone nearby with a magnificent shattering of glass.

Well, it was what Black Hunter would have done.  Too bad Black Hunter wasn’t here.  Too bad he’s a fucking kids’ tale.

His normal route to and from flat to roof patio was no use to him, beginning as it did in the same outer hallway he was trying to avoid.

Thijis considered the awning keeping the mist off his patio set and sighed.  A few moments later he had the sheet of canvas off its rickety frame and spread over the flagstones of the roof.  A quick comparison revealed that it wasn’t long enough to help him.

As luck would have it, he found a gummy old knife on the small side table, dull but better than nothing, and with it was able to cut the tarp into strips the width of his upper arm.  Any thicker and he wouldn’t be able to tie them together, any thinner and they’d snap as soon as he put weight on them.

By twisting five of these strips and tying them end to end, he fashioned a makeshift rope, which he tied around the blunt remains of an iron finial at the corner of the fake chimney, tugging on it to test its weight before draping it across the roof and over the edge.

Seeing no point in delaying, he climbed atop the parapet directly above his office window, took hold of his rope, and began lowering himself carefully over the edge.

The canvas creaked alarmingly, twisting in his hands, but held.  He could feel the knots connecting the canvas sections tightening under his weight and swallowed.  Now came the real trick.

Thijis rappelled down the upper part of the wall with slow steps, pushing out against the building, then spread his legs wide to straddle the top of the arched window and began to descend past the glazing itself.  Anyone inside would have a magnificent view of his crotch, but he would have to deal with any unwelcome guests one way or another.  This whole operation was based on the hope that they’d be covering the entrances, not occupying the apartment itself.  They would have already rousted it and found nothing interesting.  He’d been hoping that meant they wouldn’t be inside at all.

His shoes scraped the edge of the window sill after several long minutes of ache-inducing dangling, and Thijis stood on the granite ledge with a sigh of relief.

Through the diamond window panes, the flat did indeed look empty, though he couldn’t make out much beyond vague, familiar shapes in the shadows.  The bottom half of the window opened out on hinges, to let the air in of a cool summer night.  He pried at the glass panels for a moment with his fingernails, but gave up the fight when the canvas creaked again.  Making a fist, he pounded on the place where the catch would be inside, snapping the little piece of bronze and managing to crack the glass in the process.  He paused for a moment, holding his breath, to make certain nothing moved within at the noise.

Then he was inside, having swooped in through the open window with a stumbling grace not entirely unworthy of the Black Hunter pulps—or so he told himself.  He paused again, crouching, and listened.  Nothing.  Thijis rose, dusted himself off, and closed the window, trying not to think of how difficult hauling himself back up the canvas strap would be.

Enough moonlight made its way through the windows to make out the state of place.  They’d been through, all right: a chair was overturned in the kitchen, all of his cabinets had been left open, and a veritable drift of papers covered the floor near his desk.

Removing his shoes, he crept in stocking feet to the door of the flat, listening intently at the thick wood, then got down on hands and knees and peered through the tiny crack between door and threshold.  A flicker of light: there.  He waited, trying to breathe silently.  Finally he heard the scrape of a boot on stone, and quiet footsteps approaching.  He froze, but they only got louder.  Just as he was preparing to dash beneath his bed the footsteps began heading away again.  A guard patrolling the stairwell, then.  The fact that he’d passed by the door to Irik’s flat reassured him that he might have a few minutes undisturbed.

He wasted no more time.  Tearing off the ruins of his dinner dress, he struggled into a fresh shirt and some real clothing, one of his better work suits in light grey wool.  Leaving the matching waistcoat, he switched it out for a rugged leather one with a moiety of pockets, each filled with a variety of odds and ends he’d found useful to the trade over the years.  He pulled on his boots with relish, having spent more than enough time scrambling through the damp, grimy underbelly of Oridos in a pair of shiny dinner shoes.

So kitted, he put his hat back on, the same shapeless, wide-brimmed thing he wore in ditches and at dinner, and approached his bed.  The desire to climb into it and sleep forever was strong enough that he forced himself to walk around it rather than climb over it to get to the sea chest he kept in the corner.

Tolvaj’s men had broken into it, of course—Thijis grimaced at the mess they’d made of the antique hardware—but, looking inside, he saw that they’d given up after rummaging through his winter wardrobe.

He kept a couple of smaller pistols in his largest desk drawer, along with enough cartridges to in the correct caliber to hopefully put off further investigation.  All of it had been taken, as he suspected.  He’d been counting on them missing this.

Pulling out the heavy suits and sweaters, he pressed down at one corner of the chest’s false bottom until it popped out, rising up on an ingenious little spring-loaded mechanism that had been payment in trade by a craftsman client some years back.  Removing the panel, he looked down at the contents of the secret compartment and exhaled.

His gun belt was still there, nestled in felt, the hand cannon in its holster.  Several boxes of cartridges were stacked in a corner of the chest, and a long-bladed knife lay sheathed beneath the belt.

He belted it on, the well oiled leather supple yet durable, and immediately felt better as the weight of the gun drooped beneath his right hip.  Buckling the tie-down around his thigh, he unholstered the gun and checked it: blue-black, heavy as a cobblestone, its six cylinders fully loaded with cartridges the width of his middle finger.  The gunsmith in the Warrens who made them for him called them breather rounds, because when you shot someone with one it gave him a new mouth to breathe out of.  The grips were polished bloodgood, a deep maroon shot through with bright streaks of crimson.

He also took out his field kit, which contained his lockpicks and a variety of small forensic tools, and clipped it on his belt.  The larger field case he’d have to leave behind.  It would only slow him down.

Thijis looked down at the last remaining item in the emptied chest, and hesitated.  A small leather wallet, oval in shape.  He picked it up and bounced it on his palm, considering.  It couldn’t hurt, he supposed, though it galled him that he might need the extra help.  Flipping back the leather cover, he rubbed the worn silver of the badge, fingering the raised lettering beneath the seal.

Kanehtos prosequi.  The Knights Prosecutor.  The selfsame Prosecutors which Krizner had spoken of only two days earlier, the long-corrupt society of prosecuting attorneys which dated its founding to the early days of the ancient Elimannen Empire and before.  Thijis shook his head and pocketed it.  He’d started his career in the modest offices of the Prosecutors, seated amidst the ruins of the ancient Prosekhal, eager to be a part of the machinery of justice.  Only to discover the machine was rusted and broken, and justice only another word for ambition and greed.

            What once had been an elite police force, a sworn brotherhood serving the people of Oridos had become a reclusive group of legal scholars with discretionary authority more interested in perquisites than ideals.  And yet the star of office still carried weight in the right circles, its ten points sharp enough to cut if you knew where to stab.

It was odd, really, that only Tolvaj and his Specials had shown up on the scene.  Krizner had expected Prosecutors to join him.  What did that mean?  Not that it would take much to discourage their department to take no notice—just a few bags of crowns in the right pockets.  Fat for later chewing, Irik.  Time to go.

Thijis had replaced the clothes in the chest and was putting on his storm coat—a frock coat in waxed cotton, with a high collar that buckled against a gale—when he heard the front door open.

His bed was in the back corner of the flat on the same side as the door, but set in a recessed area past a jog in the wall.  In blink he was flat against the short stretching of wall facing the foot of his bed, gun out, his head as close as he dared to the corner that stood between him and whoever had just entered.  Idiot, he thought.  This whole thing was damned stupid.  But then, he’d known that going in.

The door squealed quietly as it was shut, and several calm footsteps echoed in the front of the apartment, in the open space between door and kitchen.  Hoping it was dark enough to hide him, he risked a glance around the corner and made out a tall shadow, its head turning as if surveying the room.  The intruder walked into the bar of moonlight coming through the nearest window, and suddenly he could see his face.

Thijis waited until he’d turned, then flipped the cannon around in his hand.  He snuck up behind the man, keeping to the throw rug beneath his table to avoid being heard, and brought the butt of his gun down on the fellow’s head right where it met his neck.

He caught him as he fell, easing him to the floor without a sound.

Abney’s face stared up at him, eyes rolled back in his head, mouth slack.  Unconscious.  In other words, not too much different than when he was awake.  Thijis holstered the gun and hoped he hadn’t killed the stupid bastard.

“Well, old boy,” he said quietly, “I expect I’ll get over it even if I have.”  He gave the constable a pat on one pale cheek.

And then he was gone, out the front door and into the now abandoned hallway, sighing with relief as he found and opened the secret door to the central shaft, pulling it to behind him.  The choice between knocking Abney cold and climbing back up that questionable canvas strap was no choice at all.

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