The ring of eman vath, p.12
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       The Ring of Eman Vath, p.12

           Hal Emerson

  Chapter Ten: Flight

  Wren grabbed the lute with sweaty palms and tried to stay composed. The plan had been doomed from the start, and he’d known it. A feeling of dread had settled over him as the long day had whittled down to its end and now that the time was here, he knew for certain what he had suspected all along:

  The plan wouldn’t work, and they were going to try it anyway.

  He swallowed to try and calm the seething nerves that had nested in the pit of his stomach like a mass of snakes. There’s a chance it could work, he tried to tell himself. Just because Bruth came up with it doesn’t mean it’s doomed.

  He grimaced and looked back. The others were gone – they’d begun to circle around East Square to the other main streets that spilled out onto the long boulevard that bordered the city of Caelron. The plan was in motion and there was no way to stop it now.

  He turned back and combed the crowd with his eyes. His gaze landed on Pip, the burly strongarm who’d once been the leader of the Rat Gang and who’d never forgiven Wren for succeeding where he’d failed. As if drawn by the younger boy’s gaze, Pip shifted his black glare to him in return and flashed a sneer.

  It was the first time either of them had worked together since that night eight years ago. Pip had refused to have anything to do with Wren, and Wren hadn’t pushed the issue. Pip was one of the Guild, through and through, and morals were a foreign concept to him.

  But there was no one else to work with now.

  Wren tried to quell the shiver that raced down his spine at the thought, but he couldn’t quite do it. Not with the dozens of guards in the official red and green of Caelron swarming through the square before him.

  If this doesn’t work, the Guild is done. If any of us get taken, we’re done.

  He gritted his teeth and forced the thought away as best he could. Ever since the death of Hulin and the ascension of Malineri, the city had turned perilous for the Thirteenth Guild. The new king had reversed his father’s decrees, reopened the Courts of Justice, and recodified the laws, striking down the most barbaric and banishing them back to the history books. The town criers stood on the central blocks of the city’s four great Squares and proclaimed such every day – the whole city knew of it.

  The king had also increased the salary of the guards so that even Fat Joty couldn’t be encouraged to look the other way during a criminal endeavor. All told, the Thieves were being picked off one by one. Some of the most notorious guild members had been executed outright for their crimes – Bloody Cherl, the Riverman, Garrotter Bil – and countless others had been thrown in the deepest cells of the castle prison, awaiting trial by a handful of landowners elected to represent the people. Still more, those of less grievous faults, had been commanded to join a legitimate Guild on pain of death and had done so. Others had been shipped to Var Athel, where they were to be distributed across Aginor, Londor, and even to the farther provinces all the way to the Forts where they could be kept under watchful eye.

  The Guild was a hair’s breadth away from dying out completely, and all those that remained were in East Square that day. Wren was the only straightman left – the others were mostly strongarms, with only a handful of outright thieves. Eight of the nine Guild Masters had been apprehended, leaving only Bruth, the head of the murderous strongarms, to lead them. This had drastically changed the direction and intent of the Guild.

  You could have run like the others did. You didn’t have to stay.

  But where would he go? What other life did he have?

  You have the lute, said that traitorous voice. You could sing and play.

  He tried to ignore that thought. It was too big and too nebulous. Play where? Play how? No – he’d been with the Guild his entire life. They were his family. They’d accepted him, and even if they hadn’t ever really cared for him, they certainly hadn’t shunned him. He belonged with them, and if he left now, he would leave them all.

  You don’t owe them anything. By the old gods, it’s Pip! And Bruth!

  But that stubborn sense of loyalty kept him rooted to the spot, watching the swelling tide of people rushing home at the end of the day, flowing from shops through East Square.

  This is the last chance anyway. If it doesn’t work…

  A sharp light caught Wren’s eye and drew him from his reverie. On the lowest roof, visible from where he stood and nowhere else, was the tiny form of Sullimen, and in his hand flashed the signal mirror.

  A jolt raced through his body, and his whole being screamed out one last time for him to run. Instead, he walked calmly forward into East Square.

  Caelron was built on a grid of four major city streets that connected the four corners of the city proper. Inside the boulevards was a huge maze of smaller streets, roads, and walkways that confused even those who’d lived there for years. At each of the intersections between the four major boulevards there was a square. Masses of people came through those squares every day, as they were the easiest way to and from the various corners of the city, and tonight was no exception: hundreds of people were filling East Square as Wren watched. The sun had begun to set, and lantern men were lighting their associated lanterns atop the tall, mirrored poles that ringed the square in order to push back the encroaching darkness of night.

  He made his way forward easily. There was a flow to the city, a flow he’d learned the way a child might pick up a language. He didn’t even need to think about it now – step, wait, sidestep, wait, step step step, wait, step back, step, wait, step step. It was ever-changing and yet eternal. The energy of the massive city fed the intricate dance and fed the people too who moved in time to the insistent beat. It calmed Wren’s hammering heart to feel it, and he managed to paste a genuine-looking smile across his face.

  People began to make way for him when they saw the lute. He was not the only musician to play for coins or food, and the non-associated kindred of his minstrel art had already taken up their places on the platform toward which he was heading.

  Each of the four Squares contained in their center a wide, raised platform. The massive shelf of stone was a good four feet off the ground, giving anyone who stood there decent height and visibility. It was used for official proclamations, amateur performances, and a dozen other activities of city life. From the center of the platform rose a stone obelisk, which ended in a long, straight metal pole, atop which rested a huge lantern with mirrored sides that illuminated the square long into the night. Various scraps of parchment had been affixed to the small tower – everything from merchant advertising to official proclamations – and it was around this obelisk that Wren and the other performers gathered.

  The others were not like him. They were not part of a guild – the Artist Guild would never send their people out to work on street corners, and real bards performed at court or for private parties – but they also weren’t Thieves. There had been a handful of others like Wren in the Guild, but all of them were gone now, and none of the current crop were good enough to be worth the time and effort of training.

  Maybe that will change, Wren thought as he pushed his way closer to the platform, a large smile on his face and an easy swagger in his walk though he was a bundle of nerves inside. Maybe it will work. There has to be a chance.

  He reached the platform and ascended the short set of steps carved into the side. He turned and looked out over the people passing by below him – though he was short enough that he wasn’t that much farther above some of their heads – and immediately noted with the keen eye of a thief that there were guards already congregating at each major entrance to the square where the boulevards vomited out their masses.

  He forced himself to keep smiling.

  They know.

  It wasn’t possible, but somehow he was convinced of it. He tried to tell himself it was only jitters. The remaining Thieves had only just come up with the plan – Bruth had set it in motion himself, so it had to be authentic.

  He hefted the lute in his arms, strummed a quick chord, and la
unched into his first song, “Lazy-Eyed Mary.”

  It was a crowd favorite, and he knew it. The strumming pattern was upbeat and the words were quick and high, able to carry over the deafening noise of East Square and even compete with the carts and wagons that went rolling by down the center of the boulevards, clattering over the paving stones with enough sound to wake the dead.

  People turned to watch him as they went by, and some of them laughed. With a grin, he nodded to them and kept going, playing and singing through each of the popular verses and then launching into one of his own:

  Lazy-Eyed Mary came to me,

  That day so long ago,

  “Not me!” I cried, “Not me, I pray!”

  As she eyed me down below

  But she did not heed my plea, no sir!

  Not for a second did she pause

  For she was ready for a stir

  And both eyes were set on me!

  A dozen men nearby guffawed as Wren launched back into the chorus, and they stopped to join in. The crowd was swelling, and with it swelled Wren’s anxiety. He sang the song again, noting as he did the wallets held by strings at various waists and wiling the crowd to keep their attention on him.

  Pip appeared from nowhere and cut the first purse.

  Wren launched into a particularly loud and carrying version of the chorus, and the men cheered him on and noticed nothing. Two other thieves appeared on either side – Sullimen, descended from his perch, and Yuli, Pip’s right hand man – and both relieved two more men of their money.

  Wren felt a sudden lurch of excitement in his stomach as he finished the song to applause and the men continued on their way. Not a one of the pickpocketed victims noticed their missing coins.

  The smile on his face became genuine.

  He kept playing, working through “The Tavern Wench” and “The Ailing ‘Ailor” before coming back to “Crazy-Eyed Mary” once more for the newcomers.

  The others performed their jobs perfectly. It was almost too good to be true. In the bustle of the heavy traffic, even the most heavy-handed, all-thumbs thief had a shot at stealing a purse, and though none of the remaining thieves were by any means the best pickpockets, they certainly weren’t unskilled.

  Why hadn’t they done this before? Why’d the other masters always been so dead set against working a Square?

  As if in answer to the questions, his eyes fell on Pip.

  The former Rat Gang leader was a man now, with a man’s height and weight. Heavy muscles lined his body, and Wren could only guess at the number of unsuspecting citizens that had met their end beneath that pitiless stare. But those strong hands were not made for the art of a pickpocket; those bulging arms and that solid chest could not slip easily back into a crowd. So when the merchant Pip was robbing reached for his purse at the same time Pip cut the strings, Wren knew there was no going back.

  The merchant in question – an aging, bearded man who was watching Wren with a strange fascination – turned with a look of surprise, and Pip’s face went blank. He tried to fade away, as he’d been trained to do as a boy, but it was no use. The crowd was so tightly packed that there was no escape. The merchant shouted something indignant and turned fully to confront the strongarm. All Wren could see as he continued madly strumming was the merchant’s white shirt and black hat, and Pip’s face blank as a stone over the man’s shoulder.

  Pip drew a thin, stiletto dagger from his thick belt and stepped forward to embrace the merchant.

  The broad back in its creamy white shirt twitched and then seized up. Pip’s face was visible over the man’s shoulder, and his eyes were locked on Wren, who felt as though he’d suddenly been gripped by a fever. Chills wracked his body, even as his pores opened and sweat beaded on his skin.

  He missed a beat, and in that blank space between words, in that time when there was no music in his head to distract him, no clever line of verse to make the crowd laugh, he knew with utter certainty that if he did not keep playing, if he did anything in any way to alert the guards, Pip would kill him too.

  The decision was easy enough, then: he struck another chord and launched into yet another song, playing desperately. More of the crowd was watching him now, and the other performers were shooting him dirty looks as he purposely outdid them, but he didn’t care. His heart was pounding in his chest and his lungs were on fire from the panic slowly filling him up. No one else had noticed Pip; all eyes were on Wren.

  He sang more and more heartily, investing energy and purpose in the words, pulling as much attention as he could. The song began to change, and the sheen of sweat already beading on his skin redoubled. Chills ran through him again, and the words of the song, the soaring melodies, flowed from his tongue as if drawn out by an alien power. It had never been like this before. He felt powerful, like a conduit for something greater than he was, something that flowed through him independent of his will. But even as he had the thought, the feeling ebbed, and those listening to him seemed to shake themselves out of the strange trance he’d put them in.

  Desperate, he grabbed at the dissipating sense of power and tried to pull them in again. Somehow it worked: they started watching him again and ignored the slumping merchant in Pip’s arms. He sang and laughed and joked, and the crowd laughed with him, cheering their approval. He saw from the corner of his eye Pip slowly lower the merchant to the ground, turning him so that the fatal chest wound was against the paving stones. Pip began to fade back into the crowd, forcing his way now, but going slowly enough so as not to alert anyone to his passage. They were going to make it after all.

  And then came the screams.

  An aging woman appeared from nowhere, pushing her way through the mass of listeners toward the man on the ground, and her screams shattered Wren’s concentration, leaving both him and the crowd stunned and reeling. She dove for the fallen merchant, her simple brown homespun dress snagging beneath her knees as she knelt, straining against her bulging belly –

  She was pregnant.

  It was impossible, and almost comic. The woman had to be on the other side of forty, maybe even reaching fifty, and here she was heavy with child. Her lined face was screwed up in sorrow, and her graying hair had begun to escape from the tight bun atop her head. She let out a wail for the dying man, and there were gasps as people all around them turned to see what had happened.

  Through the haze of shock that covered Wren and the strange dazed feeling that had swept over him when the song had broken, his eyes shifted through the crowd and he realized that Pip was trapped.

  The strongarm was being forced forward again by the crowd that had begun to contract in around the sobbing woman. She succeeded finally in turning over the merchant – her husband, Wren thought hollowly, it’s her husband – and for the first time he got a good look at the man’s face, and his heart stopped dead in his chest.

  It was the man who’d given him the lute.

  Shock consumed him so entirely that he almost fainted. His vision narrowed in and seemed to retreat away from him in a rush so that the world went out of focus around him. At the center of it all was the merchant: the worn face, the bearded chin, the chestnut hair now thickly graying, the frown lines…

  No – no – you’re wrong, it’s not him.

  Memories of that night rushed through him, memories that Wren had not examined in years. He thought of what he’d said that night, of how foolish he’d been not to just rob the man blind like the others would have –

  It wasn’t right, said a voice in the back of his head, the traitorous voice that always spoke when the world was quiet, the voice of his conscience, that defect that none of the other Thieves seemed to have. It wasn’t right to steal from him. He was a good man, he saved your life.

  And here he was: a good man, dead in the streets.

  It was as if his world, his life, had been folded back in on itself. He had made this choice once before at the age of six; now he was faced with it again when the stakes were higher. Now he was faced by Pi
p, with his stiletto dagger, and by Bruth if he somehow managed to escape and leave Pip behind.

  Pip killed him. Pip killed a good man.

  Wren took a step back.

  Turn Pip in. Let them get him. Look who he’s killed! Look what he’s done!

  As if summoned by the thought, Pip’s blank face suddenly blazed to life, and he rushed for Wren. Before the boy could move, the strongarm was on him, holding him where he was even though he was on the street and Wren high on the performance platform.

  “Play!” he whispered harshly, pulling Wren down so that he could speak into his ear. “Play! If you try to run, I swear by all the gods, old and new, that I will gut you like a pig before anyone comes near enough to stop me.”

  The heavy hand released him, and Wren staggered back.

  The milling crowd began to part like waves before the prow of a ship as guards rushed into the square. And then, in a bright moment of clarity, Wren knew why the other Guild leaders had never wanted to rob a Square: there was no way out. The crowd was so thick it was like a solid wall, and guards were filling every gap that appeared as they made their way in from every direction at once.

  The blood from the dead shopkeeper was spreading slowly on the ground as the widow sobbed over his body and tore at her hair. The blood had stained the white shirt a horrible red, and it was on her face and hands. Revulsion rose up inside him, but Pip’s threat kept him where he was and outweighed the need to be sick.

  You can’t let this happen, you can’t! He was a good man – Pip killed a good man – the man who gave you… he didn’t deserve to die. Pip deserves to be taken!

  But if he didn’t play, if he didn’t provide a distraction for Pip so that he could slip back into the crowd, then he was dead too.

  “Play, boy,” Pip mouthed at him. The bloody stiletto dagger glistened in his hand, hidden by his body but perfectly visible to Wren. There was panic in Pip’s eyes. The guards were nearly on them, and if the Thieves didn’t do something fast, there would be no escape.

  Wren searched the crowd frantically for the faces of the others, but when he found them he realized they were too far away to help. The scarred face of Sullimen was watching them, horrified, from the edge of East Square behind a row of guardsmen, and Yuli was fighting madly to get close enough to help, but he would never make it in time. Bruth himself was nowhere to be seen, nor were his strongarms; they were just outside the square, securing the route for the escape that would never happen.

  Pip spun away from the platform just as the attention of the crowd began to turn away from the scene of the murder and to the guards and each other. The sudden inward surge of people that had come to see the body and the widow suddenly reversed and pulled out, like the sea at low tide. The guards pushed their way forward, and Pip tried to ease his way back into the crowd with the other retreating members.

  He’s getting away. If he escapes, they’ll never get him.

  Either way, the Thieves were finished. This had been their last chance, and they’d botched it. They’d stolen a handful of purses, but that was but a drop in the bucket. They’d planned to be here all night, until the crowds thinned enough that there was no longer sufficient cover. They needed coin for bribes, coin for food, coin to re-outfit themselves and replace what they’d lost in the last disastrous raid, coin to buy information, coin for a hundred different things.

  His gaze fell again on the body, on the eyes that were staring senselessly up into the night sky. The bearded face had turned ashen, and the raving widow was being pulled from the corpse by the first of the guards to arrive.

  Mechanically, doing as he’d been told, he strummed a chord.

  Immediately, all eyes were drawn to him. He opened his mouth to sing with no idea of what would come out, and just as he did a guard rushed past him from the other side of the platform, clipping his shoulder.

  The angle was just right so that it threw him completely off balance. He went sprawling straight for the obelisk pillar, feet madly trying to find purchase, hands torn between holding the lute and reaching out to stop his fall.

  He crashed into the pillar, and with a crunching snap like broken bones, the lute broke in half as he fell to the platform floor.

  He lay there for a long moment, staring down at the broken pieces as if someone had pulled out his heart and handed it to him. His whole body was numb, and the sounds of the startled crowd and the shouting guards faded out.

  He was there just slightly too long. A rough hand grabbed him by the elbow and tried to pull him up, but he broke away with a cry like a wounded animal. There was the sound of a sword being drawn from a sheath, and then the unmistakable roar of Pip’s voice as he bull-rushed the crowd, but Wren never saw what happened next.

  He ran, leaving the broken pieces of the lute behind, and as he did a single thought managed to filter through the haze clouding his mind:

  Good men die.

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