Reinforcements started running from the wall, but what concerned Jessica most were the sound of screeching metal as the door of the carriage was flung open and the distant clinking of Alretta’s ring as she rifled through keys.
The water demon in the center of the mob screeched, blood pouring from its gills, and struck out with a tail that whipped from underneath the tattered remains of its clothes. The razor sharp edge caught a man in his midsection, and he screamed as his legs collapsed to the ground and his torso was launched backward into the rest of the crowd. There was a surprised shout, and a bottle flew through the air, smashing against the side of the now-empty shack and causing an eruption of flames that consumed the dry wood with hunger.
“Run!” shouted Gorrun from the back, waving a second green bottle over his head as blood poured out of a wound in his left shoulder. The short man started hobbling away, now another tooth short after the encounter, his knuckles white around the other bottle. With a roar the fire reached the remains of the broken green bottle, illuminating the scene of the scattering crowd.
Then there was a howling from the carriage. Jessica turned to see three massive, black dogs bounding toward them, their fangs gleaming white, in stark contrast to the night around them. The light from the fire failed to illuminate their features—instead it only darkened their fur.
“Stop or you will all die!” Rorcul’s icy voice cut through the pandemonium. The two remaining demons at the edge of the crowd hissed, and the men cringed, but Jessica crept away with Cinis, holding him tight by the elbow.
“Come with me,” she whispered, “or you will die as he says.” He looked down at her, knives still in hand, and hesitated. She looked familiar, and he recognized her as the first girl from the tunnels, the one who had disappeared after the collision.
“I need to stay and fight,” he answered. “We’re at the advantage, with only a few of them left. I can’t let the tide turn, or the men will lose heart.”
“Then you’ll be cut down like a twig under an ax,” she said. “Don’t be foolish—you’re not winning this battle. Those demons you killed were only a fraction of them. Right now I can see a score more approaching.” She looked over to the carriage in the distance, where Alretta walked toward Rorcul, the freed hounds circling her in widening loops. “And other beasts, worse than demons. Besides, he’s not after your men. He’s after something else. And if you stay here and try to fight, I promise that you and all your men will die. Slowly.”
Cinis studied her face. “So why should I leave?”
Jessica took a chance then, based upon the reports and gossip she had heard of the burning tavern. “Because Rearden would have wanted it.”
He stiffened, his face froze, and he held his breath. And Dyrius’ voice echoed in his head, along with Rearden’s command to follow his orders. Run to Cardinia.
“To Cardinia? But I don’t want to run,” he whispered as he gripped his knives tighter. “I want to avenge him.”
“To Cardinia. And I know how you can,” she replied, “but now is not the time.”
Then his feet were moving, following Jessica. Spurred by the guilt of disregarding his uncle’s last wish. Spurred by the prospect of finding his murderer.
Then Rorcul’s voice rang out again over the crowd.
“Today all of you have the opportunity to leave with your lives. You’ll be free to go home to your families, and we’ll forget this event ever occurred. All I ask is one small favor in return.
“I came to Querkus to find a man who poses a threat to the peace of Corpia itself. This man is a traitor to the crown, and by turning him over to me, you will walk free. If my suspicions are correct, he may even be the leader of this escapade. You’ll have noticed he’s different than you; he may be strange.”
Jessica’s pace quickened, and she tugged at Cinis’s arm, pulling him behind the burning shack. Together they slinked away, the flames obscuring them from Rorcul’s view.
“The man who gives him to me will receive ten years’ wages for his compliance. Come, let us spill no more blood. Let us walk free of this encounter, knowing that a criminal has been detained. Let us leave with a clear conscience. I have no quarrel with you, nor you with me, and we shall both turn a blind eye to the remainder of the events tonight should you hand him over. Should you hand over Cinis, of Horsekick’s Tavern.”
“Me?” choked Cinis from behind Jessica. “I’m what he wants?”
“As I said, stay here and die,” she answered. “Now hurry. I’ll explain once we’re out of here.”
“Shadowseeker,” murmured a voice from the front of the crowd. Cinis recognized the man, a large brute with beady eyes and a slow, deep voice. He had been particularly difficult to lead through the tunnels and had balked at each turn, often questioning Cinis’ decisions at forks.
“What’s that?” asked Rorcul, turning to the man, “Come, who is this Shadowseeker? Bring him forward now and collect your reward.”
The giant searched through the crowd. “He’s not here,” he replied. “He’s gone. He came with us, though.”
The voice barely reached Cinis’ ears, as they were almost out of earshot. He hesitated again, speaking to Jessica.
“He’ll kill them if they don’t hand me over.”
“They’ll be fine. He doesn’t want them, only you. He’ll keep them alive so he can question them. Going back now is suicide. Careful, and keep your voice down—we need to stay hidden.”
The words had barely escaped her mouth before a dark object collided with Cinis, a short mass hidden by the night.
Hortia screamed with surprise from where she had been gaping at the fire, her mouth already open from watching the scene. She shrieked again as Jessica clapped a hand over her mouth to silence her, the sound cut off midway through its vocalization.
For an instant, everything was still.
Then, from far across the lawns, Rorcul’s cold gaze met Cinis’, his cold, gray eyes calculating, and his features accented by the red blaze. And he knew that despite the darkness, Rorcul could see him.
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