Previously on Seven Stones: Kobb and the others are approached by Lady Semithros, the Duke’s betrothed, to release the Tan-Sorda back into the wild. Anessa is amused to be paid to do something they’d do anyway—until Haelen reveals Semithros is unlikely to let them live to collect.
“She definitely won’t if we don’t do what she wants.” Kobb strolled to the bottom of the stairs. “Let’s get our weapons and take a closer look at the hunting enclosure.”
“What about the guard schedules?” said Anessa. “Shouldn’t we wait for the messenger?”
“They’ll find us.” Kobb glanced between the matted straw and the food-stained tables. “Unless you want to remain here?”
Anessa’s nose wrinkled. “No, but— How’d they find us so fast?”
“The Reverend told the guards at the gate we sought work. Semithros wouldn’t do this on a whim; her retinue’d be keeping an eye out for suitable people. Likely her guard paid someone to follow us while he sent a message to her.”
Anessa nodded slowly, then her eyes widened. “If the ones in blue are hers, that means the patrols’ll be mixed. The Duke’s guards’ll see us, too.”
“Semithros isn’t telling us everything” Although, she had shared more than she needed to. “She’ll have some hold over at least a few of the Duke’s people.”
Haelen chuckled mirthlessly. “Or we’re a distraction, and we’re supposed to be seen. Either way, our chances don’t get better standing here—apart from the chance of catching something.”
Their weapons lay in a neat row on their blankets. After checking for adulteration, they strapped them on and headed out. A few people moved along the street outside the hostelry, each avoiding eye contact and keeping well apart from the others.
A crowd formed as soon as they turned the corner, growing to a shuffling roiling mass as they pressed forward. Hands near, but not resting on, his pouches, Kobb surveyed the area. Tight-packed crowds. Narrow streets edged by a myriad hawkers, improvised stalls, and other obstacles. And it got no better closer to the Duke’s palace. Even if Lady Semithros had a way to strike all the guards blind, they wouldn’t have room to lead the Tan-Sorda out for witnesses, let alone escape notice. And, if his experience of previous festivals were any guide, the streets would be filled with clumps of revellers well into the night.
Ahead, a boy, maybe six-years-old but stunted by hunger, cut a purse from a man’s belt, then strolled toward an alley. Only to stumble to a halt as Anessa grabbed a handful of greasy hair. Despite the press, the crowd moved away, leaving a narrow clear space around the struggle.
“Best let go, outer.” The cutpurse spat on Anessa’s boot. “Less you like being dead.”
Anessa yanked hard, dragging the boy further from the alley. “You’ll give that back. Or I’ll wallop you and take it anyway.”
Kobb ran his gaze across the crowd, as Haelen did the same. The thief wasn’t a threat; the rest of his crew might be, though. His head snapped round when the cutpurse gasped.
Staring hard at Anessa’s waist, the boy threw his prize up in the air. “Have it then.”
Anessa only glanced it for a moment, but that was enough for him to twist free and slip into the crowd, leaving a few greasy hairs behind. Forehead creased, Anessa scooped up the purse. “Didn’t think a whalloping’d be that scary.”
“Don’t believe it was you.” Haelen tapped the hilt of her sword. “The Duke’s hunt means they’ll have been hunters of all sorts coming through for months. I reckon he saw this and mistook you for someone who’d abandoned the comforts of home and family to protect humans from the monsters lurking in the wilds.” He quirked an eyebrow.
“So that’s how we get in,” said Anessa. “Pretend we work for the hunt.”
“Even if they are still looking, it’s unlikely they’d let us near the Tan-Sorda.” Haelen turned back. “Does give me an idea though.”
“What about…?” Anessa waved the purse in the direction its owner had been.
“A Blessing to fund our efforts.” Haelen shrugged in response to Kobb’s glare. “Best get somewhere more private.”
After looking around the crowd, Anessa slumped. “Don’t seem right. But don’t see a way to give it back.”
Kobb rested a hand on her shoulder. “Nothing is beyond the Maker. We might turn a corner and be Blessed to find the owner coming the other way.”
Shoving through the mass of competing smells and shouted deals in reverse, they headed for their room. As he rounded the corner, Kobb noticed several heavily muscled people in nondescript clothes taking a strong interest in cobblestones, doors, and other things that weren’t the front of the hostelry. Not the owner of the purse; and, from the lack of squared shoulders and suspiciously clean areas, not Lady Semithros keeping an eye on them; but someone with an interest.
“Reckon they’re here for us,” muttered Haelen.
Kobb slowed his pace slightly to gain time. “Other room was empty when we left. Seems likely.”
“Want to make sure everyone knows you don’t mess with their gang.”
“You mean… the purse?” Anessa frowned. “They rushed here for that?”
“That would be a rush,” said Haelen. “They’re here because we made a deal on their territory. Although, they’d have been better waiting until we’d been paid.”
Kobb snorted. “If they knew that much about us, they’d have ambushed us inside the hostelry.”
The sounds of commerce and revelry faded slightly behind them. Kobb rolled his shoulders. “Seems they’ve decided to do it this moment.