Previously on Seven Stones: With the town of Sallis ill-prepared to resist an army of Skithai, and little chance of finding help in time, the three decide to sneak in rather than announce their quest. To avoid attracting attention, Kobb hides his Courser in his saddlebags. Duke Torvan of Sallis has declared a week-long hunt to celebrate his forthcoming wedding. Suspecting that the Tan-Sorda is the pinnacle of the event, Kobb and the others withdraw to a hostelry to plan. However, hooded warriors interrupt their planning.
Kobb cursed silently. If he had his Courser, the two crossbowmen would pose little threat. Without it, his only option—other than surrender—was to dive back into his room, which from this distance would leave him flat on the floor; almost certainly both preventing Haelen and Anessa closing the door and re-opening his wound. Assuming his companions managed to hold the others off while he made it to his saddlebag, the noise would alert those downstairs. That wouldn’t stop Kobb fighting free, but all it took was one attacker escaping for half the town to know someone had used a Courser. “I’ll need to talk to my companions.”
The bulky man waved one hand at the doorway.
Kobb sheathed his rapier. As he stepped back into the room, Anessa twitched her crossbow to the left and raised an eyebrow. Kobb shook his head and pushed the weapon down before slinging his saddlebag over his shoulder. “No cause to start a fight until we know which side we’re on.”
“Kobb’s right.” Haelen grabbed his pack. “Building’s surrounded. If they’d wanted us dead, they’d have just waited till we stepped out the door.”
“Our employer only wants to talk.” The hooded leader appeared in the doorway. “They’ve even done you the courtesy of coming here, so you’ll not need bags.”
“We’d prefer not to leave them unattended.” Kobb inclined his head. “Backstreet tavern like this? You never know whose going to wander in while you’re away.”
A snort came from beneath the hood. “Point. You’ll hand the weapons over though, until the meetings finished.”
Kobb unbuckled his baldric and held it out. After a moment, Anessa unloaded her crossbow and yanked her belt off. After piling the proffered weapons across the arms of one of his companions, the bulky man waved an arm toward the stairs.
Glad they’d made the assumption nothing truly dangerous would fit in a saddlebag, Kobb led the way to the taproom. The absence of most patrons had done nothing to improve the smell. More hooded figures were dotted around the otherwise empty space: four stood around the edges with crossbows readied; while a fifth, smaller figure, cloak of velvet rather than wool, perched on the edge of a chair toward the centre.
“Which of you speaks for the others?” The woman’s voice confirmed what her size and the style of her cloak suggested.
Without knowing what the woman wanted, it was hard to predict whether truth or artifice served better. Kobb strolled a few paces closer. “We prefer to discuss things.”
“Very well. I understand you’re seeking employment. I have a use for discreet people.”
“I thought the Duke’d stopped jobbing until after the wedding?” said Haelen.
The woman chuckled. “The Duke makes whatever rules he wishes. Whether I choose to follow them…”
Anessa stiffened. “Ain’t doing nothing for criminals.”
The shing of drawn steel came from behind them.
Kobb let his saddlebag slip forward. Before he could reach for his Courser, the woman raised a gloved hand. “Stay, Borig.”
“They should show respect.” The leader lowered his sword, but didn’t sheathe it.
“You did agree that no one would be hurt.” Kobb resettled his bags. “Perhaps we’d best move on to the job.”
“Duke Torvan’s hunters captured a rare beast. I want it released back into the wild.”
Perhaps it would’ve been better to dive backwards after all. That wasn’t the sort of request you let someone turn down.
Haelen exhaled. “That’s not criminal; that’s madness. The Duke and his betrothed’ll both’ve filled the place with guards to make sure nothing goes wrong.”
“And if I could give you the patrol routes?”
Kobb shook his head. “That’d work for getting in. But this creature’s huge. No way to get it out without at least one of the guards noticing something and telling a superior.”
“Guards seeing it is only a problem if they give chase.”
“You’ve already got fighters, so you wouldn’t need us if you wanted the guards dead.” An unnerving thought slid into Kobb’s mind. “Getting the routes could be done with a little cunning. But having people ignore intruders? You’d need to control which guards were where. But then, Borig does, doesn’t he—at least for your half?”
The woman swept back her hood, revealing porcelain skin and long chestnut hair held within a golden net. “I believe Borig expects you to call me Your Ladyship. Might I enquire what gave me away?”
Honestly? No criminal who’d survived more than a few weeks would share so much before making the deal. Or be so obvious as to clear the entire taproom. However, telling her that might sour the conversation. “Most criminals use what they can, rather than commission in bulk; so six identical crossbows, six identical cloaks… That made me wonder. Then the way Borig reacted when we called you a criminal…”
“See, Borig. I told you my clothes wouldn’t give the game away.”
Borig dropped his hood. “Indeed, Your Ladyship.”
Anessa looked back and forth. “So, you’re getting married to the Duke?”
“Do you not recognise me? I am Lady Indee Calltrasta Semithros.”
Haelen gave a half-bow. “Our apologies. We haven’t spent much time in the capital.”
Lady Semithros tilted her head and smiled.
Reminding himself to thank Haelen later for his skill at blatant flattery, Kobb bowed. “These are not fitting surroundings for one of your character, and we would not use more of your time. Perhaps you might tell us your offer, and how we might contact you after we have discussed the offer?”
Borig snorted. “I grow to like you, sell-blade; but that sense of humour’ll get a person in trouble. Ten weights if you sneak the beast out. Another twenty if you manage it without anyone seeing you.”
“Fifteen to get it out. Half up front,” said Kobb. “And another thirty if no one notices until we’re gone.”
Borig sheathed his sword. “Nothing till it’s done.”
For half a breath, Kobb considered spitting on his palm to see how far he could push it. However, the situation was clear enough to not need the risk. He held out his hand. “Done.”
“Why don’t you ask the Duke to release it,” said Anessa. “Surely, he’s not going to kill it if you want it alive.”
“Not want it killed? Don’t be ridiculous, child. I want that fat idiot to work for it.” Lady Semithros rose and resettled her hood, before swishing for the door. The four crossbowmen formed up around her.
Left eyebrow twitching once, Borig clasped Kobb’s hand. “I’ll send a man with the schedules.” Releasing his grip, he marched out behind his mistress, followed by the remaining guards.
As soon as the door closed, Anessa grinned. “Never understand nobles. But getting money to do what we wanted anyway…”
“We won’t be paid. Semithros wants to make the Torvan look incompetent. He’ll know she was responsible, but can’t say anything without proof. If we’re lucky, they’ll let us run rather than killing us.”