“THIEF!” a heavy voice shouted from the door.
That’s rich, one of them calling me thief, Veranix Calbert thought. He had arrived only seconds before. He hadn’t had the chance to steal anything yet.
The man at the door was large, a good foot taller than Veranix, all muscle and bone. Gray wool vest, white shirtsleeves, thin rapier at his belt. Pretenses of a man of substance.
Veranix flashed a grin at the man. “If you think there’s a thief, you should call the constables.”
“Oh, no, whelp. We won’t be needing them.” The man drew the sword and edged closer.
There wasn’t supposed to be anyone here. Veranix had scouted the place for the past three days. This office above the fish cannery was used only as a drop spot. No one stayed here, no one kept watch. The point of it was to avoid notice.
“Are you sure?” Veranix asked, tensing his legs. “I hear they are awfully friendly.”
The man charged in, blade swinging. “I’ll show you friendly!”
Veranix jumped out of the way and rolled to the side, landing back on his feet by the desk in the corner. He was grateful that, while the man had a sword, he didn’t know how to use it: all muscle, no finesse. Whoever this guy was, he wasn’t a guard. Veranix could handle him. Veranix wished he hadn’t left his weapons behind, but he had another advantage over the guy.
“Really, chap, that’s not friendly at all,” he said. His gaze flashed over the desk, taking in the scraps of paper and parchment covering it. The room was too dark to know if the information he wanted was there.
“Not to you,” the man said as he turned back around to face Veranix. “But I’ve got friends. Oy!” Three more men, dressed and armed the same as their friend, appeared at the door.
“That’s really not fair,” Veranix said. He grabbed a handful of papers blindly and shoved them into the pocket of his cloak.
“You think you’re going to take those?” the first man said. They all stood there, looking quite pleased with themselves.
Veranix conceded they had good reason. They blocked the door and the window, and they were four muscular men with swords. From what they saw, he was an unarmed, scrawny-looking young man, barely fully grown. They certainly thought they had him trapped.
“If you don’t mind terribly,” Veranix said.
“ ’Fraid we do, mate. Either put them back, or we make you.”
“Tempting offer,” Veranix said. As unthreatening as he must have appeared to them, they held back, hands resting on their sheathed swords. They clearly wanted to avoid a fight. That gave him a chance. Even so, without weapons, he knew he wasn’t strong enough to last in a fair brawl with one of these guys, let alone four.
Good thing he wasn’t interested in a fair brawl.
With the few seconds he had, Veranix drew as much numina as he could. He didn’t shape it much. He didn’t have time, and he didn’t want them to realize what he was doing. He channeled the magic energy out in a quick, hard blast in front of him. He didn’t give it enough raw force to hurt any of them, that wasn’t the point. The papers on the desk scattered, filling the air. All the men jumped back in surprise, and Veranix darted for the door.
Quick and dirty, he drew in more numina and released it out again. In a flash, the floor under the men was covered in a thin sheen of grease. Veranix braced himself and knocked headfirst into the man in the middle. The man lost his footing and fell over. Veranix slid out into the hallway, overlooking the cannery floor. Not slowing down, he launched himself over the railing.
Right below the railing was a bin filled with dead fish and half-melted ice, too big to avoid. Veranix crashed into it, the cold more jarring than the impact. It wasn’t an ideal landing, but it was good enough to escape.
“Get him!” a voice called from above. Doing two bits of fast magic had left Veranix winded and woozy, but he didn’t have time to catch his breath. He rolled forward, tossing himself onto the floor of the shop. The men were getting to the top of the stairs, still stumbling and slipping from his grease trick. He tried to push over the bin of ice to block their path, but it was too heavy for him. With a shrug and a grin, he bounded over the cleaning tables toward the door.
“Never leave your gear behind, no matter how small the window,” he muttered to himself as he ran out into the street. If he hadn’t left his weapons on the opposite roof, he could have escaped without resorting to magic.
He didn’t have time to be subtle. With wild desperation, he pulled in all the numina he could and channeled it to his legs.
He jumped up, leaping high from the dusty cobblestone road to the top of the roof across the street. He almost fell short, landing chest-first on the eaves. He scrambled over and fell flat onto the rooftop. His whole body screamed with exhaustion, barely able to move.
He cursed himself for being careless, doing magic badly. The jump was messy, all the magic he just did was messy, using more numina than he needed. That much, all at once, was more than his body could handle. Sloppy work. Magic like that made big ripples of numina that other mages would notice, could trace. Someone might start poking his nose around. If that led back to him, still Uncircled, still at school … he’d almost rather take his chances fighting Fenmere’s goons.
“The blazes is he?” he heard a voice in the street below.
“Couldn’t have gone far,” another said.
“Anyone get a good look at him?”
“Skinny kid, maroon cloak. That’s about it.”
“What did he take?”
“Don’t know, but Fenmere will hide us if we don’t find him.”
Rapid footsteps went off in different directions. He didn’t hear any of the men go into the building. They probably wouldn’t come up and find him. They’d have no reason to look up, no reason to think he could make it to the roof as fast as he did. Head still spinning from the magic burn, he grabbed his bow, arrows, staff, and pack, right where he had left them. He glanced across the street, back at the office window. From up here, it did look too small to squeeze through with his equipment. In retrospect, he could have done it. He shook his head, deciding not to leave anything behind again unless it was necessary.
If nothing else, with the white moon nearly full and hanging low on the horizon, the view of the city up on the roof was spectacular. The wide sprawl of Maradaine spread out before him. The thick clusters of gray brick of Dentonhill; past that, the densely packed streets and old white stone of Inemar, the true central neighborhood of the city. Beyond that, the wide stretch of dark water that was the Maradaine River. Lamps from sailed ships dotted the river, as well as lighting up the bridges to the north side of the city. Far across the river, the marble towers of the North Maradaine neighborhoods and the gleaming dome of the Parliament shone in the moonlight.
He glanced around the roof. There was a drying line with clothes hung on it, a few chairs and a table, a door giving entry into the building. He tried the door, finding it unlocked, and a dark staircase leading down. It looked like a hallway, not direct access to an apartment. Sighing, he slunk inside. Normally he would have magicked his way down to the ground, or from roof to roof, to get back home. Right now, he couldn’t muster enough magic to lift a bug.
He wrapped the bow in his cloak, and hid it in his pack with his arrows and the papers he had stolen. He didn’t want to risk the undue attention he would get walking through the streets armed. The staff he’d have to chance, as there was no way of hiding it. Given how his body ached, he might have to actually use it to walk. Luckily, the thugs hadn’t seen him with it before.
He went down one flight of stairs, leading to a dank, moldy landing with doors for four apartments. He had only taken one step down the next flight when one of the doors opened.
A young man, shabby hair and dull eyes, poked his head out the door. It took a moment before his eyes focused on Veranix, but then he smiled and nodded.
“Hey,” he said, calm and friendly.
“Hey,” Veranix returned.
“Who is it?” another man’s voiced hissed from inside the apartment.
“Just some guy,” the man at the door said.
“Is he buying?”
The man at the door turned back to Veranix. “You here to buy a ‘vi’?”
The words were asked casually, but they hit Veranix hard. They were selling effitte. He knew he should say no. He was spent, head spinning, he needed to get back home. He should just walk away.
“Tell him to roll his own hand if he’s not buying!”
Veranix took a step off the stairs back onto the landing. “You’re selling?”
“If you’ve got coin,” the man inside called back. Veranix took a tick out of his pocket, and showed it to the doorman.
“You’re not a stick, are you?”
“Do I look like a stick?”
The skinny guy at the door chuckled. “Nah. Like they come up here anyway, except to buy.”
He let Veranix step into the flop. It was exactly what he expected from an effitte den. A few low-burning lamps sat on cracked wooden tables. A floor riddled with clothes, dirt, and other filth. An iron stove sat in the middle of the room, and a few bedrolls huddled around it. The fishy reek of the cannery filled the air, though Veranix realized that was probably his own scent after falling in the ice bin.
One older man, wearing just a stained vest and ripped pants, crouched by the stove, rubbing blackened hands together in front of the open grate. “You buying, kid?” He was obviously the boss in here. One other person, a young girl wrapped in a blanket, maybe fourteen or fifteen, sat against the far wall, staring blankly into empty space.
Veranix held up the coin. “If you’ve got it to sell.”
“Half-crown for a vial.”
Veranix nodded. He reached into his pocket, and pushing a small amount of magic through his fingers, made the sound of several coins jingling. “How much for the whole stash?”
“Whole stash?” The man laughed, dry and mirthless. “Funny guy you are.”
“I’ll pay you fair.”
The man squinted at Veranix. “Why don’t you buy one, and come back in the morning for more?”
“Sure,” Veranix said. He took some coins out of his pocket, slapped them all on one of the tables. The girl startled at the sound, but then went back to her blank stare.
The older man opened up his vest and took a thin vial out of a small pocket. Veranix spotted at least ten more inside the vest. The man handed the vial over and bent to pick up the coins.
Veranix only let it stay in his hand for a second. That was all he could stand. Rage fueling every muscle, pushing thorough the swirling fatigue, he hurled the vial of effitte into the stove.
“What?” The seller turned around, still crouched over the table. Veranix swung his staff around hard, cracking the man across the skull. The man fell forward, catching his hands on the hot stove. He screamed.
The other two stared at Veranix in confusion.
“Hey, what are you—” the other man said, reaching out to Veranix. Veranix spun around and knocked him with the staff, once, twice, three times, until he dropped. The man was already effitte-dosed; he didn’t put up a fight.
Veranix turned to the girl. She did nothing but trace her fingers in the empty air.
Veranix gave his attention to the seller. He pulled the man back up, so he was standing, and tore the vest off his body.
“Is this all?” he snarled.
“All what?” The man was dazed and weeping, looking around the room as if there were something he could see that would make everything that just happened make sense.
“All the effitte?”
Veranix threw the vest into the fire.
“No more anywhere? Lockbox of cash?”
“Cash is in the bedroll.” Tears were streaming down the man’s face. Veranix wanted to laugh; this guy had given such tough talk before. Then he thought of all the effitte the guy had peddled. He grabbed the guy by the hair and slammed his head against the stove, and dropped him to the ground. The guy didn’t get up.
“Are you the boss?” the girl slurred.
“You should get out of here,” Veranix said. He knocked over the bedroll and found a sack of coins. He grabbed it and stormed out of the apartment.
He got down two more flights of stairs before the rush of anger faded, and his head started spinning. Even only using a little magic back there, he was still weak.
He slumped down onto the stairs. With a chuckle to himself, he considered that the night wasn’t a total waste. He had destroyed some effitte, taken care of a few sellers. That was something.
He took out the stolen papers. As spent as he was, he had to know if he had gotten the information he needed, anything on Fenmere’s effitte delivery schedules. With that, he could start cutting off the drug at the source, no longer just hitting street dealers. Then he could really make a difference.
It was too dark to read in the stairwell. Annoyed, he shoved the papers back in his pocket.
He let his eyes close, just for a moment.
Church bells rang in the distance. Was it seven bells? How long had he been sitting in the stairwell? Slivers of sunlight came under the door. Had he fallen asleep and not realized it? Panic fueled his body, and he forced himself to move. He couldn’t waste any more time.
He left the building and headed west on Necker. It was a major road, with tightly packed dirty gray stone buildings, looming six or seven stories high. Windows were covered with black iron grates. The street bustled with early morning activity. Shopkeepers opened up their iron-grated doors. Horsecarts slowly rolled along. Snuffers put out the streetlamps that hadn’t burned out during the night.
Veranix slipped in with a group dressed for work in heavy, brown smocks, headed toward the Dentonhill Slaughterhouse. The scent of blood and the squawking of hundreds of doomed birds filled the air. Veranix was pleased to have a small crowd to blend into. Even if Fenmere’s thugs spotted him and recognized him, they probably wouldn’t try to grab him where there would be witnesses.
This was Dentonhill, after all. Fenmere’s neighborhood. Any possible witnesses would be people Fenmere could buy or intimidate to keep quiet. Any constables in the neighborhood were likely to be deep in his pocket.
Veranix just had to make it three blocks to Waterpath, and he’d be out of Dentonhill and somewhat safer. At least he’d be out of Fenmere’s direct influence.