Seven Knots, Lower Bank: Fellun 36

This fucking day, Vargo thought sourly as he waited with Varuni and Nikory in an alley behind the Seven Knots labyrinth.

It hadn’t taken long for him to get out of the Aerie. That tightassed Captain Serrado must have known the arrest wouldn’t stick; he’d just leapt at the chance to inflict a bell’s worth of embarrassment on Vargo before his inevitable release. But on the heels of that farce of a duel with Gaetaro Essunta, and that coming on the heels of the crane sabotage . . .

He was almost glad his business tonight was dealing with Premyk. Vargo was in a mood to make people bleed.

Even at this hour, Seven Knots was never really quiet. There were always babes yowling the tenements awake, dogs snuffling in the street for scraps, laborers and skiffers and laundresses making their way between work and home. When a plaza went silent, it was a sure bet that something unpleasant was about to happen—and people around here knew better than to be present when it did.

Premyk waited alone in the plaza. Vargo had sent Nikory and a few others to round him up well in advance of this meeting, giving him plenty of time to stew. The greedy ass had decided to throw his lot and two months of aža profits in with the Stretsko knots. By the time Vargo arrived, Premyk had convinced himself he was doomed to die on the spot . . . which just showed again that he didn’t understand his boss.

Retribution would come later.

For now, Premyk was staked out in the plaza as bait, flanked by two of Vargo’s people. Tserdev would come to take the traitor’s oath and payment, and Vargo would be waiting to take her.

He couldn’t leave this sort of maneuver to his people, no matter how much Vargo would have preferred to spend the sweltering summer night at home under the cooling effects of a numinat and a slab of cold meat for the lump throbbing on his forehead. The scars on his back were beginning to itch under the layers of sweaty brocade. He was losing the fight against the urge to scratch himself bloody in search of relief when Varuni stiffened beside him.

On the far side of the plaza, an older man with iron- grey braids, one ratted into the long tail of the Stretsko, emerged from the shadows.

“Foolish to be out this late, when even Ažerais lies dreaming,” he said in Vraszenian.

After a moment of silence and a surreptitious prod from one of his guards, Premyk blurted, “But Ažerais looks out for fools and children. And w-we are her children.”

The Stretsko man gave a low, two-toned whistle that sounded like the call of a dreamweaver bird. After several tense moments, two others entered the plaza, boots clomping and shoulders hunched
under the weight of a covered sedan chair.

“Wh-what’s this?” Premyk’s voice wavered as the bearers set it down. “Tserdev was supposed to take my knot oath herself. That was the arrangement.”

“The boss isn’t stupid, to walk out in the open,” the Stretsko man said. “Half this district wants her netted. Hawks leave the chairs alone.” He approached Premyk, pulling out a braided cord knobbed on two ends with small beads. At this distance and in the dark, Vargo couldn’t tell the colors, but he’d wager they were crimson. He knew a knot bracelet when he saw one.

“Go on,” said the man, holding out the cord for Premyk to take. “Say your words, show your loyalty, and then Tserdev will respond in kind.”

Premyk edged back like the man was holding out a snake. Only the presence of the guards at his back kept him in place. “I . . .”

“Is there a problem?” The Stretsko’s voice was silk-soft and sure, like he already knew the answer.

Enough of this theatre. Vargo stepped out of the shadowed alleyway. “It seems there is,” he said, approaching the sedan chair. The bearers only managed half a shout each before they slumped into choke holds from Varuni and Nikory. “Premyk’s proven he has all the loyalty of a cat in heat. I thought I might save your boss the trouble of being betrayed the same way he’s betrayed me.”

“En’t no loyalty to be had with cuffs. Not to them, not from them,” the Stretsko man said, shifting into Liganti. He turned to Premyk, as though he had no concern for Vargo’s approach or the fact that he was outnumbered at least five to one. “You should have kept that in mind before betraying the Crimson Eyes, slip-knot.”

“I didn’t have a choice!” Premyk wailed. “He didn’t give me a choice!”

“There’s always a choice,” the man said, drawing a knife. Vargo tensed—but instead of turning the blade on any of them, the Stretsko sliced the cord he was holding in half before casting it into Premyk’s face, followed by a glob of spit.

He was disarmed and on the ground a moment later, held kneeling by Premyk’s guards. Vargo pressed the tip of his cane to the man’s sternum. “That was both dramatic and unnecessary.” Then he raised his voice to address the sedan chair and its occupant. “Tserdev, why don’t you come out of there before I have my people drag you out.”

The chuckle that answered him was too low to be Tserdev’s. Vargo had the sinking realization that the Masks were laughing at him, a moment before the chair door opened . . . and, like a black
bird spreading its wings, the Rook stepped out.

Vargo choked twice on his incredulous laugh at the sight of the famous vigilante ducking under the chair’s lintel: first because he thought it was some trick of Tserdev’s, then because he knew it wasn’t. No ordinary hood cast such impenetrable shadows.

“This fucking day,” he muttered, lifting his cane from the Stretsko’s chest, though he wasn’t stupid enough to draw the sword hidden inside. Vargo was no duelist; he had proof enough of that this morning. He couldn’t slap down a delta pup with his blade, much less a master like the Rook.

But maybe it didn’t need to come to swords. He dredged up a careless smile. “This is a surprise and an honor. To what do I owe the pleasure? The Rook doesn’t usually trouble himself with knot business.” A few twitches of his fingers silently ordered Varuni and the others to be ready in case his bullshitting failed.

“Knots tangling are usually no business of mine, no,” the Rook said. His voice was resonant and unplaceable. Vargo kept his gaze on the shadow where a face should be, but there were no clues to be had. I hate not knowing who I’m dealing with.

Except he knew enough. Nadežra’s legendary outlaw, who usually only troubled himself with—

“Nobles,” the Rook said, “are a different matter.”

Fuck. All the time Vargo had spent calculating the costs and benefits of gaining a title, and he’d never considered this.

We have a small problem, old man, he thought to the spider he’d sent out to play backup sentry.

::More than one, I fear, and rather large. The Stretsko brought more than just the Rook. They’ve got our people surrounded.::

Double fuck. That left Vargo with Varuni, Nikory, and the two fists set to keep Premyk in line . . . against the Rook.

Vargo stalled for time. “If I’d known you were so keen to meet, I’d have thrown a ball in your honor and spared you having to deal with Tserdev.” He took a slow step back, two, and the Rook followed.

“Making me compete with all the others who want a piece of you?” The Rook’s blade whispered free of its sheath. “I preferred a more intimate setting for our first dance.”

“Lucky me,” Vargo said, keeping his voice falsely light. “But as flattered as I am by the attention, my dance card is full.”

At his signal, Varuni’s hidden chain whip coiled around the Rook’s ankle and yanked him off balance.
And Vargo fled.

Orostin had bribed the caretaker to leave the back door to the labyrinth unbolted. At least that part of the operation hadn’t gone cocked; it swung open easily, and Vargo bolted it behind him. The Rook would have to scale the wall to come after him—after fighting through the mess outside.

But that was the only thing to go right. Not a moment later, three Stretsko appeared by the gate at the front of the labyrinth.

Vargo crouched, choking up on his cane. Unlike born nobles and their duelists, he didn’t have to follow any rules besides the main one: survive.

The Stretsko eyed the cane warily as they crossed the looping path of the labyrinth toward him. That gave Vargo the distraction he needed to palm a knife with his other hand and flick it into the leftmost rat. He aimed for the gut and got the arm instead, but it was enough to slow the man down as the other two charged.

He wielded his cane like a stick at first, trying to bull his way through. When one of the Stretsko was stupid enough to make a grab for it, Vargo twisted the sword free and cut a deep gash along her forearm. But with three on one, he didn’t have enough room to make good use of the long blade, and then one of the rats locked his arm behind him and—

::Vargo, watch out! There’s someone else here!::

A black shadow leapt from the roof, hooking a Stretsko rat and dragging him to the ground. The muck-fucking Rook, Vargo thought furiously—but it wasn’t.

The newcomer was too slender, her form obviously feminine where the Rook’s was swathed into ambiguity by coat and hood. Overlapping leather plates layered like black petals down her chest and arms. Her dark hair was pinned to her head in a swirl of Vraszenian braids, and a mask of rose- tatted black lace broke the upper part of her face into an obfuscating pattern.

“I know you,” he said, frozen by the realization. “You were at the amphitheatre.”

She’d been one of the people fighting the zlyzen across the lines of the great numinat melting the line between waking and dream. He’d set people to find out more about her, and got only children’s tales and wild gossip in return. “You’re—”

A Stretsko arm tightened around his throat before he could say the Black Rose. “Fuck off,” a rough voice snarled in Vargo’s ear, while the man’s other hand hovered ready with a knife.

“What disrespect, using such language in Ažerais’s sanctuary.” Her voice didn’t have the unplaceable quality of the Rook’s. It was melodiously Nadežran, with a thin veil of amusement over cold disapproval. “Wasn’t Indestor’s desecration enough? Or will you commit murder right here on the sacred path?”

She has a point, Vargo wanted to say, but he hadn’t survived this long by turning smartass when a man had a knife at his throat.

::Maybe he’s afraid of spiders—::

Maybe let’s not test that theory? Vargo thought back before Alsius decided to play hero.

“Ažerais don’t give three blinks for the likes of this one. Kinless, gutless, and a cuff. That’s three times worthless,” the Stretsko holding Vargo snarled. But his voice and knife wavered as though the Black Rose’s words had struck home.

“Shed blood here, and it is you who becomes worthless. If he is meant to pay, pattern will bring him to you again.”

The brawl outside couldn’t be over, but inside the labyrinth, everything was quiet. The Stretsko at the Rose’s feet crawled to her friend with the knife in his arm. Helping him stand, she muttered to the one holding Vargo, “Kill him and you bring all his knots down on us. Tserdev has no wish for open war, not yet. Let’s go.”

“Him first,” the Black Rose said, nodding at Vargo. “Then you.”

Vargo had a thousand questions— but he also had a self-preservation streak as wide and deep as the Dežera. And questions could be answered by other means, once he was out of this rats’ nest. He slipped away when his captor’s arm loosened, only pausing when he was at the entrance to the temple. “You have my thanks, Lady Rose.”

Come on, Alsius. Time to go. Plunking a forro into the stone offering box, Vargo saluted them all with his cane.

Then he got the fuck out of Seven Knots.