Death of a king, p.6
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       Death of a King, p.6
 

          
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  That was the issue. He needed money, especially in the long run. He still had enough tucked away to last him awhile. But he’d need to think about getting a job that could pay the rent and allow him to save for when he got old and decrepit. He needed some sort of trade, and trades required money. There were the guild dues and paying off the hiring bosses. Merely getting into a guild would cost him an arm and a leg, and he wouldn’t borrow. Borrowing was a sure way to end up indebted to somebody for the rest of his life. And if he missed a payment—

  Magnus shuddered. He didn’t want to think about that.

  The fact was, the more money he could save, the better his new life would be.

  Attempting to get comfortable, Magnus flopped onto his side. He wondered whether he should give up trying to fall asleep. Morning was three or four hours away anyhow.

  And then what? Sit in the park? Maybe see about getting a cheap fishing line or net or something that would help him catch his own food. That’s what he’d do. He’d ask Syntharin if he knew anything about fishing. He was an outdoorsy type. Not like Allyn—the snob. He never had a dirty fingernail in his life.

  Moonlight streamed across a book lying on the floor. At first Magnus wondered how it got there, then he recalled his latest mission for the crazy shop lady.

  He stared at the book.

  He did promise to return it that night.

  Do it an hour after midnight, she had told him. She had been rather specific about that.

  He was already two hours late. He might as well wait until tomorrow.

  Then again, three silver was nothing to piss away. Plus, maybe if he did a good job, the crazy shop lady would have something else for him to do. Or maybe she knew people in Dardenello or Green Hill. Maybe she could write one of those—what were they called? Letters of introduction? Yeah. She could write a letter saying that he was a hard worker. That’d help him find a job wherever he ended up.

  A new place to live. A new job. And a few extra coins in his pocket. Screw his father. This time he was going to do it. He was going to leave and start a new life.

  Feeling all weariness leave him, Magnus climbed off his cot and pulled on his clothes. Slipping the book in his pack, he stepped out of the room and locked the door. He double checked to make sure the bolt caught. The last thing he needed was some thief breaking in and stealing what little money he had.

  The irony didn’t escape him. How many people had he stolen from?

  Well, no more! Not unless he absolutely had to. He’d save as much as he could, and, in the spring, he’d set out on an adventure. A real adventure into the unknown! But first…

  Magnus ran out of the boarding house. He didn’t have much time. Scribes showed up at the library at the crack of dawn. He had to hurry.

  • • •

  Leaning against the outer wall of a candle shop, Magnus stood in the darkness of a muddy alley that reeked of horse manure, stale beer, and vomit. A block away, the Lower Library loomed in the moonlight. It was an imposing three-story stone building with a large green sign hanging over double doors reinforced with iron. It resembled a small fortress. He’d never broken into any place so formidable. Could he do it?

  Thoughts of three silver pieces stiffened his resolve.

  With his crippled hand, he unfolded one of the maps the crazy shop lady had given him. He squinted in the dim light. According to what she drew, there should be a window on the east side that would be easy to jimmy open, though how she knew that, she refused to say.

  Carefully, he peered out of the alley. The guard who had passed by a few moments before was out of sight, as was the drunk who had urinated on a lamppost illuminating the corner. The lamp spit and sputtered, making Magnus twitch. He headed to the library.

  In the shadows of a doorway, something moved. Magnus pivoted on his heels, ready to flee. Then a scrawny, tiger-striped cat sauntered out of the blackness. It narrowed its yellow eyes at him. Magnus laughed, his heart pounding.

  “Hey kitty, kitty.” He knelt to pet it. “What are you doing out this time of—?”

  The cat reared, hissing violently, and slashed its claws at Magnus’s outstretched hand. “Geez!”

  It hissed again, filthy fur on end.

  “Fine! If that’s the way you feel about it!” He brought his foot back but couldn’t bring himself to kick the half-starved thing. “Go!” He waved his arms.

  The cat snarled at him.

  “Go!” He stomped, and the cat shot off into the alley.

  Idiot cat.

  Magnus consulted his map again. His hands were shaking. Damn, it was getting cold. A few days sleeping indoors and he was already getting soft.

  Making sure nobody followed him, he circled the library in the direction he hoped was east. He counted the long, narrow windows recessed into the stone walls, attempting to find the one the crazy shop lady said would be easy to jimmy.

  How could she know that? Girls didn’t know anything about jimmying windows.

  Magnus came to the window indicated on the map. It was out of view in a rarely used side street—perfect for what he needed to do. He slid his knife between the windowpanes.

  The lady was right. The lock gave without so much as a squeak, almost as though it had been oiled.

  Magnus slid the window open and pulled himself inside.

  Soundlessly closing the window behind him, he found he was in a dark, cavernous room with row upon row of gigantic bookcases all crammed with tomes and scrolls and boxes and the gods only knew what else. Flecks of dust floated in the moonlight, trickling in through the windows lining the near wall. Magnus tried to wave them away, but that only made matters worse. They swirled about him. He coughed. The place reeked of old, dry junk.

  Magnus consulted another of his maps and counted the rows of bookcases it depicted—twenty-two.

  The crazy shop lady had seemed pleased he could count.

  He walked through the aisles, tapping each of the endless rows as he passed.

  Then again, she seemed more pleased he couldn’t read. She wasn’t being smug or anything—not like Allyn, who claimed he could read three languages, though what they were, he never said. She seemed relieved.

  He stopped.

  Why would she be relieved he couldn’t read? He examined the book in his hands.

  She wanted to make sure he didn’t know what he was carrying.

  Why?

  He studied the faded gold lettering spanning the book’s cracked leather binding. What could it mean?

  He flipped through the book and found that the first word of each chapter was decorated with a little picture. The pictures were exquisitely done, painted with bright golds and reds and silvers.

  Why would the first word of each chapter be decorated like that? Whatever the reason, it must mean the book was important. Nobody would put that much time into painting those tiny pictures if the book wasn’t special.

  He examined some of the illustrations. One was of a green dragon wrapped around what he believed was the letter M. Another was of a yellow fish leaping over a Y.

  How’d the artists paint such fine details? They must’ve had teeny brushes.

  Magnus examined the rest of the book. It was old. And old things were usually worth a lot of money, especially if they were one of a kind.

  How many books could there be like this?

  He glanced at the rows of shelves, all crammed with hundreds of tomes of various sizes.

  Thousands upon thousands of books, all different…

  He considered the book in his hand again, flipping through more pages.

  Should he sell it? He could tell the crazy shop lady he’d returned it. She’d never know. Maybe he could get—what—two silver for it? That’d be five silver instead of only three.

  No. Don’t be greedy. She may have more jobs to do, and two extra silver wouldn’t buy much for long.

  He closed the book. Suddenly, he felt extremely uncomfortable having it.

  He consulted his map agai
n and glanced at the bookshelves.

  Damn it! He’d lost count. Was he at eighteen or nineteen?

  A sinister tingling crept up his spine. He never realized libraries could be so spooky in the dark. Even graveyards weren’t this quiet.

  Should he recount?

  The tingling grew worse. Cold sweat prickled under his armpits.

  Shit no! What did it matter? It was a stupid book. He could put it anywhere. If the crazy shop lady found out it wasn’t where it should be, how could she prove it was him? Anybody could’ve moved it after he left.

  His heart pounded.

  Enough of this.

  He dashed along the rows of bookshelves and came to what might have been the twenty-first or twenty-second. He was supposed to put the book on the top shelf and hide it behind a pile of scrolls, but he’d be damned if he was going to climb all the way up there. He’d pull the entire bookshelf on top of himself. No, sir! He wasn’t about to let that happen. Besides, the eerie shadows and dry stillness were starting to unnerve him.

  He slid the book into a gap on the third shelf.

  Time to get the hell out of—

  He heard a distant footstep.

  Somebody was coming!

  Magnus ducked into an aisle and flattened himself against the wall of books.

  Damn it! He was going to get caught.

  Caught doing what? He was returning a book!

  Like the constables would believe that. No, they’d think he was there stealing, and stealing from the library was like stealing from the king.

  Oh, shit. This wasn’t good at all!

  A dark shape came into view. It must have been a man, given his substantial size and broad shoulders. He stopped directly in front of the aisle in which Magnus was hiding.

  Oh gods!

  The figure extracted a piece of paper from a pocket, read it, and then examined the shelves where Magnus had hidden the book. He climbed the bookcase and searched the top shelf, pushing away crates and scrolls.

  After several sweeps of his arm, the figure leapt to the ground, sneezing on the cloud of dust he’d kicked up. The figure said something in a language Magnus had never heard before. It must have been a curse, because the man clearly wasn’t happy. Pointing a gloved hand the way he came, he counted the rows of bookcases, ending at the one in front of which he was standing.

  Another obscenity ruffled the silence as the figure scrutinized the shelves. His hand slapped the hilt of his longsword in irritation.

  Hiding in the darkness, Magnus felt dust tickling his dry throat. He fought the growing urge to cough.

  Then, with a cry of relief, the figure snatched a book from the third shelf. Magnus couldn’t tell for sure, but he’d bet his life he knew what book the man had selected.

  The figure leafed through several pages and laughed aloud.

  There was a soft pppth, followed almost immediately by the puncture of a breastplate. The figure fell to the floor, a crossbow bolt sticking between his shoulder blades.

  From the darkness to Magnus’s left, another figure approached the corpse, picked up the book, and walked away—whistling.

  • • •

  “And then he whistled!” Magnus said again, pacing about Allyn’s obsessively clean room. It was an hour past dawn, and he had barged in without so much as saying hello.

  Allyn sat by the open window overlooking one of Eryn Mas’s public greens. He fingered his lute’s worn frets.

  “Whistling?” Allyn tightened a lute string. He plucked at it. It sounded flat. He tightened it some more.

  “Yeah, exactly! He—he walked over, took the book, and walked away!”

  Allyn plucked another string. “Whistling.”

  “Right! Like this!” Magnus imitated a man stooping over, grabbing something, and then walking calmly away while he whistled. “And he—he left! With the dead guy lying there, blood all over the floor!”

  “Blood?” Allyn strummed a chord.

  “Exactly! And do you know what?”

  Allyn glanced up, surprised to see Magnus waiting. “What?”

  Magnus leaned closer. “His breastplate had the emblem of Havendor!” He nodded and fell triumphantly on Allyn’s bed, as though his argument had been well made.

  “Hey. Don’t mess that up.”

  Magnus got to his feet. “You’re not listening!”

  Allyn smoothed out the wrinkles Magnus had made on his crisp, white sheets. “I am too! You said breastplate.”

  “Right!” Magnus resumed pacing. “And he had a longsword with sapphires and emeralds and everything! Man, we’d be rich if I’d had the nerve to pinch it.”

  Allyn returned to the window and strummed his lute again.

  “Allyn!” Magnus said.

  “What? I’m listening. Go on.”

  Magnus humphed. “And then the albino monk started singing.”

  “He did, did he?”

  Magnus smacked Allyn across the top of the head.

  “Ow!” cried Allyn. “Why did you do that?”

  “You’re not listening to me!”

  Allyn rubbed his head. “I was too, you miserable clod! The albino monk sang something.”

  “There wasn’t an albino monk!” Magnus said. “There was never an albino monk!”

  “What are you prattling about? Hurry up! I need to practice. I’m trying to write a new song for the Yuletide Festival. I’m going to win the bards’ competition this year. I can feel it!”

  “Allyn! This is serious. I think I’m in danger.” He lowered his voice and slid a glance toward the locked door to the hallway. “I think she really is plotting something?”

  Allyn stopped strumming his lute. “Who?”

  “The lady!” Magnus cried.

  “The one who asked you to return the book to the library?”

  “Right! But it wasn’t an ordinary book!”

  “Of course not. It was magical.” Allyn cowered as Magnus cocked his hand. “So help me, Mag, if you slap me again, I’ll toss you out. I mean it!”

  “So do I! But you aren’t listening to anything I’m saying!”

  “That’s because nothing you’re saying is making any sense!”

  Magnus trembled, tears welling in his eyes.

  Allyn sighed and put his lute in its case. “Okay. Start from the beginning, but don’t give me any details that aren’t important.”

  Magnus sat on the edge of the bed, trying not to mess it up. He took a deep breath. “Okay. So, this…this lady, the one I’ve been working for. She wanted me to put a book in the library. It was an old book, you know? The kind with thick brown pages that smell like dead people?”

  Allyn waved him to go faster.

  “So I broke into the library…”

  “Why in the world did you break in? Why not walk up to the librarian and hand it to him?”

  “Because that’s what she told me to do! She wanted me to put the book on the top shelf. But it was too high. So I didn’t. I could’ve broken my neck. Then this guy came and got the book.”

  “Guy? What guy? Wasn’t this in the middle of the night?”

  “It was!”

  “Then why was a guy there? Was he a guard?”

  “No.”

  “Then who was he?”

  “I don’t know!” Magnus resumed pacing, his good hand rubbing his disfigured one. “I’m in trouble. I know it. Deep, deep trouble.”

  “All right. All right. Don’t get carried away. I’m sure you’re fine. Finish your story. So this stranger comes in after you returned the book. What were you doing?”

  “I was hiding.”

  “Why?”

  “It’s—it’s…” Magnus spluttered. “It’s what you do when you break in someplace and somebody comes along! Trust me.”

  “Okay. Calm down. So this guy gets the book. Then what?”

  “Then somebody shot him!”

  Allyn straightened. “What?”

  “Shot him! Shot him right in the back! Right between the shou
lder blades. Don’t look at me like that, Allyn. I’m not lying. I’m not exaggerating. I swear to you and the gods and anybody you like. I was hiding in the shadows about thirty feet away, watching this guy look at the book. He was about to leave when somebody shot him!”

  Allyn leaned forward. “You’re serious. This isn’t one of your delusions?”

  “Yes! I mean, no. I mean, yes, I’m serious. No, I’m not making it up.” Magnus wiped his sweaty hands on his pant legs. He turned wide-eyed to Allyn. “They’re going to kill me.”

  “I’m not sure I understand. Who shot him?”

  “This other guy! I don’t know. He—he was smaller. And he whistled.” He clutched Allyn’s arm. “He shot him in the back! In cold blood and everything.”

  Allyn glanced outside. The cheerful early-morning sun brightened the sky. Below him, several lesser nobles were discussing the fine autumn weather. “So help me, Mag—”

  “I’m not lying!” Magnus cried.

  Allyn hushed him. “Keep it down. I can’t afford to get kicked out of here.”

  Magnus lowered his tone. “I’m not lying, Allyn. Honest! What should I do?”

  “Well, for starters, you better stop working for this lady.”

  “Right! I won’t go there again. Not if my life depended upon it! I won’t even collect the three silver she was going to pay me.”

  “Three silver?” Allyn asked, astonished. “Why’d she pay you three silver to return a book she could’ve returned herself?”

  “I don’t know!” In the hallway, somebody opened and closed a door. Magnus went rigid, then whispered, “Do you think somebody is going to kill me?”

  “What? No. Of course not.” Allyn reconsidered. “Not over a book. The other stuff you do, maybe.”

  “This isn’t funny, Allyn.”

  Allyn stared into space. “None of this makes any sense. What was this book about?”

  “Oh! I was going to ask you.” Magnus grabbed one of the pieces of paper from the wastebasket.

  “Don’t! I might need those.”

  Ignoring him, Magnus took one of Allyn’s quills and began writing. “I memorized the words on the cover. They looked like this!” He showed Allyn the paper.

 
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