The musty smell of leather bindings and written pages met Cinis’ nose as he followed Libus. Behind him, heavy curtains were pulled across the windows and rows of bookshelves passed by on his right and left. The floorboards creaked as they bent under their weight, their sound the only noise in the shop.
In the center of the shop, there was a cart piled high with volumes more tattered than the others, with rips and tears marring their covers. Swaying from the ceiling was a bright red sign with white paint marking the word “Clearance.” Libus approached the cart and reached along the side of it, his fingers feeling for a switch made invisible by the dark. With a click he found it, and the top of the table creaked upward like a door. The books fell open, but the glue on the back covers kept them solidly in place.
Candlelight flickered from within the hole, and Cinis could just make out the shape of a ladder as Libus stepped over the table rim and descended. After a few seconds, Cinis followed. The tabletop shut automatically above him, sealing off the bookstore.
The walls around Cinis were stone, the ladder in his hands hard wood, worn smooth by years of use. After twenty feet of rungs, the walls fell away, and he entered a room lit by candles. Its walls and ceiling were also made of stone—neat arrays of stone blocks that formed the underground pocket. At the center of the room was a table, so large that the backs of the chairs grated against stone.
Four heads nodded as Cinis entered, and Libus ushered him into one of the two open chairs before taking the last seat, directly under the ladder, such that anyone trying to leave would have to clamber past him. Libus solemnly placed both his hands on the table.
“Tonight,” began Libus, his voice somber, “tonight we lost a great man. A man who sheltered the weak, who helped us in our darkest times, and who fought not with his fists, but with his heart.”
“A toast,” said the bearded man next to Cinis, procuring a bottle of whiskey from underneath the table, “to a man who will not be forgotten.”
Then he passed the bottle left, and each of the others took a draft. When it came before Cinis, he took took a sip, perhaps larger than was strictly necessary, before handing the bottle back to the bearded man. The liquid burned his throat and stung his eyes, threatening to bring tears back where they had been hours before. But he blinked them away and stared at the table as Libus began to speak again.
“Clarence, if you please.”
There was a rustling as a man across from Cinis reached behind him, removing two objects from a shelf above him. One was a long, feathered quill, the end sharpened and the feather bright white. The other was a small book, the leather tattered and several pages ripped out. Stains blotched the sides of the binding, and as Libus opened the book on the table, Cinis saw that each page held a single name, written in red.
“Each of these names represents a single innocent person killed. And each of these names we have sworn to avenge. Tonight we add another name to the list—a name that only makes our circumstances more dire. This name I will personally avenge.”
Then Libus pushed the tip of the quill into his palm until it broke the skin, and blood welled around the tip. In deep strokes, he wrote a name upon the page that bled permanently into the parchment.
“Cinis,” Libus began, “though you may not have been aware of it, Rearden’s tavern served as an information hub for us. He offered his protection, but more importantly, he offered information. For Rearden knew what we knew all too well—that the time of Querkus being a free city has nearly ended. That shadows have begun to step out from the dark. Seated at this table are those that offer resistance. Those that know the danger but are willing to brave it. Those who have been touched by loss similar to your own. Introductions, please.”
“Clarence of the blacksmiths, rememberer of my old master, Leon, who died by the guards’ hands.”
“Amelia of the seamstresses, rememberer of my sister, Francine, who died by the guards’ hands.”
“Donald of the merchants, rememberer of my son, Louie, who died by the guards’ hands.”
“Samson of the fishermen, rememberer of my friend, Jared, who died by the guards’ hands.”
They looked toward Cinis expectantly, and he realized who had last been in this seat. He spoke his tribute to that name.
“Cinis of Horsekick’s Tavern, rememberer of my uncle, Rearden, who died by the guards’ hands.”
Libus nodded, then he too spoke, his voice hard, and eyes cold.
“Libus of the Outside, rememberer of Angeline, who died by the guards’ hands.” After a moment of silence, he continued, “Cinis, would you begin by describing exactly what occurred at the tavern?”
“We were attacked,” Cinis said. “An old friend had come to visit Rearden and myself, someone who called himself a seer. But he was followed—he was injured, so he must have quarrelled with the guards prior. They came without warning, and we barely escaped. But Rearden, Rearden—”
“Relax, boy, there’s nothing you could have done for him.”
“Rearden didn’t,” Cinis whispered. “We couldn’t take him with us, and it wouldn’t have mattered if we could.”
“And it was the guards who attacked you?”
“Yes and no. They weren’t human. Dyrius, Rearden’s friend, called them demons.”
“Which could mean a host of things,” said Samson, the bearded man, striking his fist against the table. “Without seeing them, there’s no way to know what order they are. We could be dealing with pups or something far nastier, a much bigger fish than we could catch.”
“Exactly the problem,” said Clarence. “Without that information, it would be foolish to fight head on. No matter how many men we have.”
“And where,” asked Libus, interrupting, “did the fire come from, Cinis? From the demons?”
“No,” Cinis answered. “It came from Dyrius, and it consumed him. I’ve never seen anything like it, but I think he did it on purpose. Not that I’d believe in that, of course.”
“Oh, boy, you’d better believe it. A seer’s Deathwish,” breathed Libus. “We are in dark times indeed.”
The table was quiet then, until Amelia the seamstress broke the silence.
“So if we cannot attack them head on, are we to cower beneath them? Libus, you wrote the names in the book. You promised to avenge them. But so far we have done little but meet in the night.”
“True,” said Libus, “but you are correct that an outright attack is out of the question. Instead we could perform a raid. We could steal their uniforms and walk among them. Destroy them from the inside out.”
“Ridiculous,” said Clarence. “If we could access their store rooms, we would have done it months ago. It’s no trivial matter—we’d have to pass through the palace gate, which grows more heavily guarded each day. Nothing has changed those facts.”
“Oh, but something has,” said Libus, and looked at Cinis. And Cinis realized his plan.
“I can find a way.”
“I need a moment,” Cinis said as Libus waited for him to depart. After completing their plans, the rest of the company had. It had taken two hours to come to an agreement—a plan that Clarence guardedly accepted.
“As you wish, boy,” Libus replied.
After Libus’ form disappeared above him, Cinis took the quill from the table. He pressed the tip into his palm until it drew blood and traced Rearden’s name in the book, before climbing back up to the drafty bookstore. Libus led him into the attic, where he would get what rest he could before dawn arrived.
Cinis rolled in the bed, the soft straw mattress conforming to the curves of his body, and felt a sharp object in his pocket press against his leg. He fished out the ring Dyrius had given him and examined the gem that had been jabbing his thigh. Even in the total darkness of the dusty attic, it sparkled as if it were bathed in sunlight. He turned it over in his hands, examining the patterns grooved into its surface with the touch of his fingertips. He ran his finger over the cold, smooth band. And for the first time, he slipped it onto his finger.
So imperceivable that he might have imagined it, a flash of light emanated from the ring as it came to rest above his knuckle. A shiver ran up his spine as he flexed his fingers, waiting for another response from the stone, but any additional shimmers might as well have been tricks of the night.
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