Chapter 1

 

THE MAN who had taken the chair across from Mouse stared back with skepticism and no small measure of wide-eyed surprise. “So, you’re him, then?”

Mouse allowed the corner of his mouth to lift a fraction. He was accustomed to such reactions, of course. Not that it didn’t needle him still, but he had learned to accept it. They all came around eventually. Once they saw what he was capable of, they always came around.

He encircled his fingers around the hard leather mug in front of him, considered the contents a moment, then brought it to his lips. He allowed a swig of ale to enter his mouth, but left the mug tilted against his face longer to give the impression that he was taking a much bigger swallow than he had. A stalling tactic. Plus, it sometimes helped to let a client think he was drinking more than he actually was. If it came to negotiating a price, it was best to let the client think he had the upper hand.

He set the mug down again, exhaled, and wiped his chin with his sleeve. “And the nature of this job?” he asked.

The client leaned back and considered him a moment with narrow eyes. The expression revealed everything—Mouse could read the man’s thoughts as if they were his own. He was trying to decide if this was a prank of some kind and if he should proceed or just push up from the table and leave the tavern. The man had assumed, as many had before him, that Mouse was merely an intermediary, someone to pass on the message. Not the one he would actually be hiring.

But in all such cases, time was an issue, and it had taken plenty of it to hunt down someone for the job in question. Desperation and hope would keep the man rooted to his seat.

While the client deliberated, chewing the inside of his cheek as he weighed his options, it gave Mouse the opportunity to study him in return. He was a wealthy sot, certainly—though he tried to disguise it with a ratty cloak. But the shiny buttons on his jerkin beneath it didn’t come cheap. He had all his teeth and didn’t reek like the rest of the lot in this shabby little hole. And his inflection virtually sang of nobility and privilege. No one outside of the aristocracy had that kind of diction.

At least he had the good sense not to have any recognizable livery showing.

The noble dandy’s lips tightened. “Perhaps I was misinformed, Master…?” The man lifted a single brow, waiting for Mouse to provide a name.

Mouse didn’t fill in the blank for him.

When the silence between them grew unbearable, the dandy pressed on. “I am sorry to have wasted your time. Seems you are not what I require after all. My informant assured me—”

“Not what you expected, eh?” Mouse interjected. He raked back his dark hair with his fingers and leaned in closer. “Not the hulking bruiser you thought you were hiring?”

“I don’t—”

“No shiny armor or a conspicuous sword at my belt.”

The dandy was showing signs of true unease now. His superior breeding had provided him none of the qualities necessary for this sort of dark business. The slightest challenge had unraveled his resolve. Good.

“I mean no disrespect, good sir,” he stammered. “I only meant—”

Good sir? Mouse almost laughed. “Do not let appearances fool you. Whoever sent you to me knows my skills.” He paused and leaned in with a wider sly smile. “And knows what I can accomplish if amply motivated. If I was brought up in conversation, it was for good reason, I assure you.” This dithering was tediously predictable. Mouse knew he didn’t fit the conventional adventuring figure. His size alone was often enough to give potential clients pause. In dim lighting, he could easily be mistaken for a youth. But Mouse wished just once a client would let reputation govern over appearance.

The dandy in the shabby cloak was losing his nerve. He put his hands on the arms of the chair and prepared to push back from the small table. A tiny bead of sweat appeared at his hairline, and his flawless skin—the color of blond wood—grew ruby blotches around his neck.

Timing was everything. Mouse knew when to spring the trap. This scared little rabbit wasn’t going anywhere.

“Must be an important job,” he said. He pulled a small leather drawstring sack from its hiding place between his legs and let it drop onto the table with a substantial jingle. “Quite the amount of coin here. How much of this were you authorized to spend on hiring me?”

“How—?”

The dandy reached for the purse, but Mouse had his hand over it before the man could reclaim it.

“I give you credit, coming here.” Mouse spoke softly but clearly. “Alone. Not your usual quality of establishment, I’d imagine. This place can be dangerous, so in the future I recommend you come armed with more than just this….”

With one hand still on the coin purse, Mouse brought his other hand up and set a dagger in the middle of the table.

The dandy sprang to his feet in surprise, nearly knocking his chair off its legs behind him. Others at nearby tables looked over with raised eyebrows, probably thinking a brawl was about to break out. The bar wench Serafina froze and watched what happened next carefully.

Mouse rolled his eyes. “Sit down!” he hissed.

The man obeyed. With no ensuing action, the other patrons lost interest quickly and went back to their conversations and mugs of ale.

“There are certain tasks,” Mouse told him, “that require a more adept hand. Ones that require subtlety and finesse over the clumsy sword swinging of a barbarian. That is presumably why you were sent to me. So, I’ll ask again. What’s the job?”

The man still seemed uncertain, but Mouse’s instinct and experience told him to wait it out. For a moment, the dandy seemed to retreat into himself. He lowered his chin, closed his eyes, and took in a breath. Mouse took the opportunity to let his eyes wander and appreciate the man’s form. He was well proportioned. Healthy. Toned. From tennis more likely than swordplay, but muscle was muscle. Mouse didn’t typically care how one came about acquiring it. He tried to imagine him without the garments.

The man eventually nodded. “You did come highly recommended.” He seemed to be speaking more to himself than to Mouse. “But you’ll forgive me, I am finding it difficult to swallow that you—alone—can accomplish the task that I require.”

“I work best alone.” Mouse leaned back again. “But… if it will put you at ease, I will tell you honestly if it is a task beyond my ability.”

Mouse kept his face expressionless. The job was already his if he wanted it, even if the dandy didn’t yet know it himself. Now, it was just teasing out the important details and deciding if the task was worth taking on. From the man’s demeanor, the job was likely an onerous one, but there was a lot of coin in that purse that could end up in his own.

He waited for the man to begin his yarn.

“I come from Har Dionante. I am a representative of Duke Braddock the Mighty.”

Mouse gave a slow nod. He knew of Har Dionante but had never had cause to venture there. It was a heavily fortified city to the south, positioned high on a bluff. The city housed a number of valuable artisans, mainly those working with alabaster. The town was known for it. Its strategic position and surrounding resources made it a historically tempting target for other ambitious lords. But he’d heard nothing of this Braddock, and he almost groaned at his title. Sounded a bit self-aggrandizing. How mighty could he be if Mouse had never heard of him?

“The duke’s son, Lord Garron,” the man continued, “was sent as an emissary to Har Orentega for some delicate negotiations.”

Ah. That was a city Mouse had had the pleasure of visiting once or twice. A story was starting to come together. Har Orentega was also south, even farther south than Har Dionante, and it too was a fortified city. The two cities were notorious rivals, both financially and militarily. Over the centuries there had been numerous scrapes between their two armies. Nothing too serious—just tit-for-tat scrimmages that gave neither any advantage or sway over the other. Lately, though, under the rule of King Harus V, the region seemed to have settled into a sort of delicate armistice. Harus was less tolerant of these regional disputes than his predecessors. The boys were being forced to play nice.

“Lord Garron was to meet with Duke Delgan’s court regarding a certain trade dispute.” He waved his hand to dismiss it as trivial. “The details of that are not relevant in this, so I’ll not waste your time. Garron left for Har Orentega with a small entourage and was expected to be gone no more than ten days. His father had given him clear guidelines of any concessions he could give, but beyond that he was to return if no agreement was made. A messenger was dispatched that Garron had arrived safely and negotiations had begun.”

The man took in a long breath.

“But Garron did not return when he was scheduled to. A messenger was sent to Lord Delgan’s palace to inquire and was given this.” The man reached inside his jerkin over his left breast to retrieve something. His eyes widened in sudden panic as his hand found nothing. He dug around, reaching deeper, unable to find what he was searching for.

Mouse pulled a small parchment scroll from his own jerkin. It was tightly rolled and tied with red ribbon. Fragments of a broken wax seal remained clinging to the paper. “I assume you are looking for this.” He held it out for the man to see.

The dandy man’s lips tightened. He snatched the scroll from Mouse’s hand. “Stop doing that!”

“Force of habit,” Mouse said with a shrug. “You might as well hand it back so I can read it. That was the intention, yes?”

The man huffed and tossed it onto the table.

Mouse slid off the ribbon and unfurled the paper.

“Let me know if you need help with any of the words,” the man gibed.

Mouse repressed a smile and lifted his eyes. “I’ll manage, thank you.” The man had some cheek after all. He liked that.

The note was curt, to the point of almost being dismissive and rude considering whom it was sent to. It was a legal document announcing that Lord Garron, the son of Duke Braddock, had been detained for breaking Orentegan law and awaited trial. But the vagueness of the missive was in and of itself noteworthy.

“What crime has he been accused of?” Mouse asked, handing back the parchment.

“We know not. Duke Delgan refuses to respond to our communications or provide audience to the delegates that we have sent. We’ve appealed to the king… but he seems disinclined to get involved in any legal matters of one of his provinces. Some of our own people inside the city—”

“Spies.”

The man shrugged. “If you will. They have learned nothing and cannot get close to him. They don’t even know where he is kept. We feel the charges are trumped up to somehow leverage something from Duke Braddock. But we cannot see to what end.”

Mouse leaned back in his chair and scratched the stubble on his chin. He was already questioning if he wanted to get involved in this. Political fights could get messy, and the wiser course was sometimes to keep out of them entirely. But that purse sure was heavy….

“So how do I square into this?” He suspected he already knew. But he wanted the man to say it.

“We fear for him, sirrah. We need someone who can get in there, rescue him from whatever dungeon they have him in, and get him out of Har Orentega. Alive and unharmed.”

Mouse nodded in thought a moment with pressed lips. A rescue mission, then. He wondered who sent this man to him. Most would know it was a waste of time. With a chuckle, he picked up the leather purse and tossed it back. The man caught it awkwardly over his sternum. “You’re going to need a bigger purse, my friend. That, I’m afraid, is not big enough for the job you describe.”

Smuggling was one of his specialties, of course. But standard contraband was his forte. Not people. Liberating someone from some unknown internment and then smuggling him out of a walled city was something he had yet to attempt. For good reason. This imprisoned noble from a rival city would be well protected, and should his escape be discovered too soon, the entire city’s guard would be assigned to his recapture. This job had the makings of a disaster—especially if the young lord was an entitled fop who wet himself at the first sign of danger. There were too many variables at play in this. Too many unknowns. And Har Orentega courts were notoriously severe with the enforcement of its laws. If he were caught….

The client set the purse back gently in the middle of the table. “This,” he said, “is only the first installment. A sign-on bonus, if you will. Agree to take on the job, and you walk out with the entire purse. I am authorized to award you considerably more if the task is completed with the Lord Garron safely within the walls of Har Dionante.”

“How much more?”

The man reached down into his boot and pulled out another slip of paper. Damn, thought Mouse, he’d missed one. The paper was handed over.

Mouse tried to maintain a neutral expression when he looked at the amount written there but feared he wasn’t entirely successful. His jaw most certainly slackened. “Is this man the heir?” he asked.

“No. He is the second son of three.”

Duke Papa must care very deeply for his son indeed. Mouse put the paper facedown on the table and slid it back across without a word.

The dandy picked it up and returned it to his boot. “Should you fail to rescue him,” he continued, “you will be allowed to keep the entire contents you have before you but will be awarded nothing further. But we were assured—by people we have great confidence in for such matters—that if anyone can see this done, and done quickly, it is you. I hope their faith in you is not misguided.”

Mouse smiled. “It’s not.” He took a gulp from his mug, a real one this time. Then he lifted the purse and stored it safely away out of sight. “Tell me everything you know.”

 

 

HE WAITED until the new client was out the door before he rose from his small table and approached the bar counter. Serafina leaned one elbow on the counter, inspecting a coin pinched between her thumb and forefinger. Her face was scrunched as if she smelled something foul. She polished it on her shift, then eyed it again.

Mouse leaned in next to her, his forearms overlapped on the wooden surface, which was polished smooth by generations of patrons with their belly to the bar. At the far end, Ludro was draining a keg into three mugs. Mouse caught his eye and lifted his chin. Ludro returned a quick nod.

“What d’ya make of this, Mouse?” Serafina handed the coin over to him. Mouse took it and turned it around in his fingers.

“Old,” he said. “Poorly minted but legitimate. If it is a forgery, it’s good enough to pass.” He handed it back.

With a shrug, she slipped it into a little cloth purse and tucked it into her bodice. “Quite the handsome dandy you were chatting with tonight. Friend of yours?”

“Client.”

She made a noise that said she was either disappointed or didn’t really believe him. “Should have given him more attention.” She tugged on the sides of her bodice and wiggled her torso to fluff up her tits. “He had coin, that one. A girl can tell such things, you know.” Mouse was tempted to comment that the man’s disguise as a commoner was about as good as her perfume, but he held his tongue. She straightened as if a thought suddenly occurred to her. “Oh, unless, of course, he swings his sword for your army and not mine.” Her eyes narrowed, and the corner of her mouth lifted in a sinister smile.

Mouse’s jaw tightened. “Not now, Sera,” he replied. Normally he would play along, but tonight he wasn’t in the mood. The new client had given him a lot to think about. This changed everything.

Serafina pushed away from the counter with dramatic indignation. “Well, excuse me, m’lord.” She made a clumsy attempt at a curtsy. Gods help her if she encountered an actual noble. She’d be beheaded on the spot.

Ludro worked his way down the bar counter to join them, thankfully interrupting Mouse’s response. Serafina gave the barkeep a warning glare. “Careful, Lu. Someone’s ill-tempered tonight.”

“Go earn your wage, wench,” Lu growled back. “Off with ya.”

Serafina laughed and swished back into the crowd, her hips grazing against the shoulders of every seated patron she sauntered past. “I’d be surprised if that toff you were friendly with makes it to his carriage with his purse,” Lu said once she was out of earshot.

“Not to worry. He left most of it with me.” And Mouse was well aware of the bodyguards lingering outside the tavern. The man had plenty of protection with him.

“Job?”

Mouse nodded. “Going to keep me busy awhile. Get the box for me, would ya?”

“What? Already?”

“Just get it.”

Lu bent under the counter, fumbled around a bit, then pulled up a small leather box covered in iron rivets and bound with a buckled strap. He set it down in front of Mouse with a frown. Mouse undid the buckle and lifted the top off the box. Inside was a scrap of parchment—just as there always was.

“How much is it now?”

“Doesn’t matter,” Mouse answered dourly. He dug out the bag of coin he just received from the new client. He counted out coins from the sack into his palm, then tilted his hand and let them spill into the box. The familiar ring made nearby patrons look up in interest. Mouse returned the lid to the top and secured the buckle. When he looked up again, Lu was staring at him with a dark expression.

“Mouse, you can’t keep doing this forever.”

“I’ll do it as long as I have to.”

“As long as you can afford their demands, you mean.”

“Drop it, Lu.” But Mouse knew he wouldn’t. He knew the man well enough to know he was going to hear plenty more.

“Mouse.” Ludro reached across the bar and put a callused hand on Mouse’s forearm. “Like it or not, I’m the closest thing to a friend you have in this town. So listen to me when I tell you, I know how these things end. These men are going to bleed you dry. The day will come when you don’t have the coin to pay them.”

Mouse lifted the purse the client had left him. “But today is not that day.”

Ludro pulled his hand away and shook his head in frustration. “You’re too good to be mugged like this. There’s another way….”

Mouse grabbed him by the sleeve before his arm left the bar. “And what would you have me do? You know the law. I will not have him hanged, Lu. Not for my crime.”

“Your father is a resourceful man. If you just get word to him, he can—”

Mouse shook his head. “No. He can know nothing of this. I will not bring more ruin upon his life by forcing him into hiding.” The man had endured enough shame already. Mouse wasn’t about to compound his grief by turning him into a fugitive as well. He released his grip on Lu’s sleeve and pushed the box closer to him. “He enjoys a happy, quiet life. I will not destroy that. This is the only way, Lu. Just send the message.”

Ludro took the box and held it a moment against his chest but didn’t put it away again. “I don’t like these people. I don’t trust them.”

Mouse chuckled in spite of himself. “They’re the king’s guard. Why would you trust them?”

Lu’s head swung about in sudden panic. “Keep your voice down, idiot! You want to get me closed down?”

Mouse held up his palms as an apology. “They’ve kept their word so far, Lu.”

“As far as you know! Your father could be in irons now as we speak, and you’d have no way of knowing.”

Mouse’s lips tightened. That was true enough. There was no way to ensure his bribe money would continue to keep his father safe, but he wasn’t about to admit that. Lu was also right that he couldn’t keep paying the amounts they were demanding. The cost of keeping his father from arrest had quadrupled just over the last year. “Look, Lu. Just one more. I need just one more moon. This new job… well, if all goes as planned, I could make enough to buy a king’s pardon.”

Lu’s eyes widened with skepticism. “You’re going to bring in a thousand crowns?”

“With enough coin left over to buy you a mead.”

Ludro’s expression shifted from disbelief to overt concern. He leaned in. “What in the name of the gods does he want you to do for that kind of coin?” His voice had dropped to a whisper. “You have any idea what you’re getting yourself into, Mouse?”

Mouse dropped one more coin on the counter and slid it across the bar toward Ludro before tucking the bag away again. Fifty royals. “For your trouble, Lu.”

Ludro reluctantly took the coin and slipped it into his belt. “I sure hope you know what you’re doing,”

Mouse nodded and pushed himself from the bar. So did he.