Sorcerers weren't normal, sorcery wasn't natural, and Quentin Rand didn't like either one.
Quentin had always made an exception for me, but just because you tolerated what a friend was, didn't mean you understood what they did. Nothing explained to me what Quentin was doing breaking into the townhouse of one of Mermeia's most infamous necromancers. Quentin was a thief—at least he used to be. And to the best of my knowledge, he wasn't a suicidal ex-thief. Yet there he was crouched in the shadows of Nachtmagus Nigelius Nicabar's back door, picklocks at the ready. While not the most efficient way to ask for death, it was one of the more certain.
I knew all about Nigel's house wards. The human necromancer did everything he could to inflate his reputation, but he didn't depend on it to protect his valuables. Magical wards were home security at its most basic, and Nigel had some good ones. But although they were nasty, they wouldn't kill—rumor had it Nigel liked to save that pleasure for himself. I guess when you worked with the dead for a living, your idea of fun was a little different from everyone else's. The city watch frowned on citizens taking the law into their own hands like that, but the watch was notoriously short-handed in the Districts. They couldn't prosecute what they didn't know about, and I'd rather they didn't know Quentin was here tonight.
Quentin occasionally works for me. My name is Raine Benares. I'm a seeker. I find things. Most times the people who hire me are glad when I do, but sometimes they're sorry they asked. Personally, I think people should be more careful what they ask for. Some things are better left unfound.
Seeking isn't the flashiest occupation a sorceress can put out her shingle for, or the most highly regarded, but it pays the rent on time. I've found the formerly unfindable for the Mermeia city watch, and since I'm an elf, elven intelligence has sought my help on more than one occasion. Most of what I'm hired to find didn't get lost by itself. It had help. Help you could depend on to use blades or bolts or nastier magical means to keep what they went to all the trouble to get. When that's the case, I go by the rule of me or them.
I also apply that rule to my friends. That's why I was cooling my heels in one of Mermeia's more aromatic alleys—to keep Quentin's moonlighting from earning him a one-way trip to the city morgue.
As a former career thief, Quentin knew the underside of Mermeia better than just about anyone. That's why I hired him. Well, it was one of the reasons. Our professional paths had crossed from time to time over the years. What I had been hired to find was often something Quentin had been hired to steal. It got to the point that I just started my search with Quentin to save myself a lot of unnecessary footwork. He didn't take it personally, and neither did I. However, I always extended to Quentin the professional courtesy of waiting until the object in question had left his hands before recovering it. That way he got paid while maintaining his reputation. But when the risks started to outweigh the rewards, Quentin thought that an early end to his career might keep the same fate from befalling his life. I helped him bridge the gap between thief and quasi-law-abiding citizen.
No fact, tidbit or rumor was too small or too hidden for Quentin to ferret out—given the proper monetary motivation. Greed still occasionally whispered sweet nothings in his ear, enticing my sometime employee to seek out additional means of income. Most times he didn't tell me the details. Most times I didn't want to know. Considering where he was right now, tonight wasn't one of those times.
The city of Mermeia in the kingdom of Brenir consisted of five islands that had been forced into existence by the determination of its founders, and kept from sinking by the greed of its merchants. A powerful force, greed. It made solid ground where there had once been marsh; built palaces and trading houses where there were reeds; and inspired humans, elves, goblins, and magic users of all races to live together in a city separated only by the canals that marked their respective Districts. Sometimes we even got along.
I cupped my hands to my mouth, blowing on cold-numbed fingers. I was trying to breathe through my mouth to keep my nose from becoming any more traumatized than it already was. The cozy little alley I'd found across Pasquine Street from Nigel's townhouse held a charm all its own. I'd put a shielding spell across the entrance, so unless Quentin walked over and looked in, he couldn't see or hear me. The alley walls were slick with something dark and damp and best left unidentified. The air was chilly but still warm enough to enhance the aroma of the garbage sharing the alley with me. And the stench of the canal a block away at low tide only further enhanced my sensory experience. I rubbed my hands together, then gave up and reached for the gloves at my belt. Not that I wanted anything to happen to Quentin, but it would be nice if all this turned out to be worth my while.
"You stood me up."
I yelped. I recognized the voice, which was the only reason my throwing knife remained in my hand, instead of being lodged in the voice's owner.
I blew out my breath. "Don't do that!" I sheathed my knife, though I was still tempted to use it, more from acute embarrassment than anything else.
Phaelan chuckled and stepped out of the shadows hiding the alley entrance from the street. My cousin looked like the rest of my family—dark hair, dark eyes, dark good looks, equally dark disposition. Next to them, I stood out like a flaming match at night with my long red gold hair, gray eyes, and pale skin. The hair and skin tone were from my mother. I assumed my eyes were from my father. Neither parent was around for me to ask.
Phaelan was the main reason having the name Benares was an asset in the seeking business. When looking for pilfered goods, it helped to be related to experts—professional pilferers all.
You could say our family was well known in the import and export business. The goods my cousin's side of the family imported never saw the light of day in a harbormaster's ledger, and the exports consisted of vast profits sent to secret family accounts in various banks in numerous kingdoms. Phaelan's natural talent was in acquisitions. Many times he neglected to get permission from the owners whose goods he intended to acquire; or when he did ask, his request often came from the business end of a cannon.
"Since when does spending the night in an alley rate above dinner with me at the Crown and Anchor?" he asked.
"Since Quentin's moonlighting again."
"Varek said you were staking out Nigel Nicabar's. He didn't say anything about Quentin."
When in Mermeia, Phaelan did business out of the Spyglass, and Varek Akar, the proprietor, served the dual purpose of business manager and social secretary for my cousin when he was in town. I didn't normally make my stakeouts public knowledge, but since Nigel was involved, I thought it'd be a good idea to let my next of kin know where to find me.
"That's because I didn't mention Quentin," I told him. "I'd rather the watch not get wind that he's working again."
"Varek knows how to keep his mouth shut."
"I trust Varek, but I don't feel the same way about his new barkeep. Quentin hasn't done anything illegal tonight."
Phaelan laughed, his voice low. "Night ain't over yet."
He was right, but I didn't have to admit it. If certain members of the watch knew where he was, they'd jump to conclusions, and then they'd jump Quentin.
Phaelan's ship had arrived in port late that afternoon, and the plan had been to meet for an early dinner. Early, because I knew he had plans later—plans that had everything to do with a woman, but nothing to do with a lady. My cousin had a strict threefold agenda on his first night in any port—get fed, get laid, and get drunk, in that order. Occasionally he would skip the food, but never the other two. When in Mermeia, my cousin could either be found in one of the city's less reputable gambling parlors, or enjoying the comforts offered at Madame Natasha's Joy Garden, and probably the attentions of Madame Natasha herself. This evening, Phaelan was positively resplendent in a doublet of scarlet buckskin, with matching breeches topped with high, black leather boots. At his side was the swept-hilt rapier he favored when out on the town. And unless my nose deceived me, his white linen shirt was as well scrubbed as Phaelan himself. An earring set with a single ruby gleamed in the lobe of one elegantly pointed ear. I knew all the fuss wasn't on account of me.
"You took a bath," I said. "And shaved. I'm impressed."
"Just fancying myself up for you, darlin'."
"I'm sure Madame Natasha and her girls will also appreciate your consideration."
He grinned in a flash of white teeth. It was the kind of grin that could get him anything he wanted at Madame Natasha's—or anywhere else in Mermeia—for free. He nodded toward where Quentin still waited by Nigel's side door. "So what's he doing here?"
"Asking for more trouble than he can handle."
The grin broadened. "From Nigel or you?"
"Then walk across the street and stop him. The Crown's still holding a table for us."
"It's not that easy."
"Being here wasn't his idea."
"So someone paid him well. Wouldn't be the first time. Let's go and let the man earn his money."
I didn't budge. "How much would it take for you to break into Nigel's at night?"
To his credit, Phaelan didn't have to think long. "More money than most in this city can lay hands to."
"Exactly. And Quentin's terrified of necromancers. There's more involved here th...