Hours later, we arrived in Gulltown.
Few people wandered the streets. Out here, protected by the Iron Wall and yet so close to the Woods, no alchemycal marvels could light the way. A few oil lamps hung from the eaves of the larger houses, carving the streets into shadows of black and grey.
Gulltown had grown from a tiny village into Caerlyons’ chief link to the mainland, expanded by those unlucky few barred from the city. Stuck here, they built houses of what stone they could find and tried to recapture some semblance of normality.
Magic pulsed through the soil. Breathed in the stone. I passed a house, skeletal towers beseeching the heavens like the arms of the damned. They were all alike – alive. Twisted and alive. Twisting those that lived in them as well.
I turned left, off the street, and headed towards the harbour. The presence of water kept the magic at bay. The houses here seemed almost normal.
I guided Ancel out into the thoroughfare, forcing a way through the crowds. Players rubbed shoulders with farmers. Sailors vied with the local merchants for custom. Hands reached out to grab at me; I slapped them away, trying to keep a tight hold on my money bag. I felt as if I rode through a crowd of pigeons, cooing for bread.
I headed for the first barge I saw, only to be told that a storm was coming in and they weren’t heading out to Caerlyons until morning. Three more told me the same thing. By the tenth, I was beginning to get the message. I wasn’t going to be able to answer the summons tonight. I could feel it eating away at me now, like an itch I couldn’t reach. Sighing, I headed for an inn I knew.
The painted image of a prancing goat, green hair and three eyes not-withstanding, swung above the door. The Three-Eyed Goat. Gulltown humour. I didn’t get the joke myself.
I dismounted, handing Ancel over to a stable boy. I patted him on the side and pushed through into the inn.
Pausing, I blinked as my eyes accustomed to the dim lighting. Tables and chairs peppered the common room floor. The smell of sawdust, burning logs and spent ale clung to the dry walls. A roaring fire spat sparks from the hearth, around which a group of men had gathered, talking and laughing loudly.
The innkeeper – Langwin – bustled up, wiping his hands on a dusty cloth he had used to clean the shelves. A scarf tied around his forehead hid the third eye he had developed as a child.
“Daniel! Welcome back.”
He sensed the tone and frowned. “Trouble?”
“No more than usual. I’m back from Wanechester.”
“What were you doing in that flea pit?”
“A job. I was hoping to reach Caerlyons tonight, but no one is going out. I thought you might have a room.”
He opened his mouth to answer when a rolling wave of laughter drew my attention to the crowd of men over by the fire. I picked out the elaborate jackets, long moustaches and swords. Players.
“Whose Men?” I asked.
“The Earl of Pemberley’s. Or was.”
“He’s dead. The plague.”
That sparked my interest. The Earl was a renowned Panthionist, a key member of the Loyalty faction. He had spoken out numerous times about the need for the Isles to return to the worship of the Many-Gods. A fool and a zealot.
“Returned from a tour of the north, from what they’ve been saying,” Langwin offered.
I began to turn back when I noticed two men, sitting just outside the circle of the group. One of them wore a grey cloak that obscured his face, but the other, long steely hair tumbling down his back, was very familiar. I smiled
“You know them?”
I nodded. “Not them. The older one. An old friend.”
I asked Langwin for a mug of ale, then wandered over. The older man looked up as I approached, his angry expression fading to a look of shock when he recognised me.
“Daniel? Daniel, is that you?”
Christopher “Kit” Luclowe stood up and grabbed me in a bear hug. “Goddess, it’s good to see you. How long has it been?”
I stepped out of his embrace, keeping my hands on his shoulders. “Five years? Six? Ever since you left the Guild.”
“Has it been that long? Goddess. You look well.”
“Liar. I look like shit. And I feel worse.”
He laughed. “It is good to see you. Here, come on have a seat.”
The other Men had turned to watch, but now they turned back to their drinks. As Kit and I sat down, the other man stood. I put out a hand to shake his, but he didn’t reciprocate, turning away from me. I caught a glimpse of blue eyes reflecting the firelight, then the cloak’s hood fell back.
“I’ll be upstairs,” he said to Kit, his voice a ragged growl.
Kit opened his mouth as if to protest, then thought better of it. Wincing, he nodded. “Alright.”
The man hurried away. I watched him go, then turned to Kit, raising an eyebrow.
“Another acquaintance. Hoping I could give him a job.”
“Unfortunately, I don’t have an opening.”
I sat down and turned to catch Langwin’s eye. He nodded to me, then handed a glass of ale to one of his maids, a buxom young thing with hair as red as a dying sun. She hurried over and I ordered another for Kit. The alcohol might just help fend off the summoning fever for a time.
“So, what brings you to Gullstown?”
“On my way home. I just finished a job in Wanechester.”
“No choice. Need the money to renew my licence.” I took a swig of the ale, enjoying the thick, burned taste as it rolled down my throat.
“They’re still running the licence system?”
“Gielding loves it.”
Kit snorted. “And how is the Lord Justice?”
“I wouldn’t know, he keeps away from me as much as possible. Doesn’t trust my connections to Tess.”
“He can’t enjoy having a man on his books who consorts with a known criminal.”
“Especially one that he put in the Tower.”
We sat in silence for a moment, both thinking of Gielding and the Guild. Kit Luclowe had been one of the greatest thieftakers of his generation, a man with a keen sense of the criminal mind, willing to cross the line between the two when he needed to. He had taken me under his wing when I first joined the Guild, then walked away when Gielding had taken over. I had stayed behind. No choice. It had been thieftaker or prison.
“So what are you doing here?” I didn’t add with them.
“I’ve been working as their fixer for the past two years.”
“Fixer?” I had heard the term, hired men responsible for anything from booking berths in inns and theatres to getting rid of bodies and evidence when a duel got out of hand.
“Care for them better than their own mothers. It’s a far cry from hunting murderers in the Dregs, but it’s work. Good work. Safe. And it pays bloody well. You should try it.”
“I could certainly use the money.”
He looked at me with a frown. I sighed and told him about the seizure in the forest and my hurried departure from Wanechester, glossing over my little adventure in the Woods. He listened, then went quiet for a few moments, his eyes staring off into the distance.
“I may be able to help you.”
“Well, more like we could help one another.”
“We’ve been having some trouble in the past few weeks. Accidents during rehearsals, clothes, props and scripts going missing, a higher number of injuries than usual. We’ve even had one of our journeymen vanish. I would brush it off as the risks of business except…”
He bent down, rummaging around in the sack at his side. He pulled out a sheaf of papers and pushed them over to me.
I unfolded them, peering at the first one. Written in a shaky hand, in blood red ink, were the words:
Do not investigate the girl’s disappearance. The Ghost is watching.
“They’re all like that,” Kit said as I began to leaf through the papers. “Cryptic warnings, all involving this Ghost. I think someone has it in for us.”
Kit shrugged. “A rival troop? A jealous lover? Someone who has it in for the Earl?”
“You think his death is linked in some way?”
“Who knows? I just… I’ve tried to look into it all, quietly, but I’m too well known. Too closely connected. I know I’m not going to get anywhere.”
“So you want me to do some quiet digging?”
Kit nodded. “I’ll pay you of course. Maybe not the whole amount you need for your licence, but at least it will set you on the way.”
I pretended to think about it, but I had no choice. If I didn’t get my licence renewed before the end of the year, they would revoke my passe-porte. The idea of spending even a single night out in the Dregs, away from the protective magic of the Seawall… I shuddered.
“Looks like you’ve got yourself a deal,” I said, forcing a smile and reaching out a hand.
“Excellent. Come on, let’s drink on it.”
As he called Langwin over, I decided that I was going to get stonking drunk.
I woke up in darkness.
My head pounded. How much had we had to drink? Goddess, we must have drunk the tap room dry! I could barely remember stumbling up the stairs. Had Kit got me into bed?
Groaning, I rolled over onto my back, stretching my arms out to either side. My left hand fell on a wet patch.
I pulled my hand away, cursing. Had I been sick in bed again? It wouldn’t be the first time. As I moved, though, my fingers brushed against something cold, wet and clammy.
My heart skipped a beat. Scrambling away, I reached out with my other hand for the matches Langwin always left on the table. Striking one, I lifted my hand, casting flickering shadows on the bed.
My line of work had brought me to a hundred such scenes. In the midst of the tangled sheets, stained crimson red by all the blood, lay an old man. His eyes gazed at me, still full of terror. His body had been hacked and lacerated – he looked as if he had been drained of blood. His skin was white, so white…
His skin. His cooling skin against my bare hand. I looked down. The blood barely showed up against the angry red of my fae hand. I must have taken my gloves off before I got into bed. I had touched him.
I looked back up, terrified of what I would see. As I feared, his jaw fell open and a soft yellow light pearled on his lips. I scrambled away, but I knew it was too late. The magic had begun.
Whether I wanted to or not, I was going to steal this man’s soul.