Opening Chapter of Curse of the Black Swan
We lay entwined, naked in the candlelight of her apartment. Rain thrummed on the baked-clay roof, muting the sounds of Havencastle at night. Amber ran her finger along the straight pink-and-white scar under my left nipple. “How’d you get this one?” she asked.
“Hugo the Hellion stuck his knife in me.”
“I heard Hugo was dead.”
“Guess he shouldn’t have stuck his knife in me.”
She looked at me with a tightened expression. “I was there when Hugo and his attack dogs plundered the Fjords near Oldbank. His sword was so great it took two slaves to carry. You’re telling me that you brought down the Scourge of the Succession?”
“A man has to defend his honour.”
She giggled but must’ve seen my disdainful look and she cut it short. “It’s just…I didn’t know you had honour.”
“It wasn’t my honour. He caught me cheating at dice and stabbed me.”
When I didn’t offer additional information, she asked, “So what happened?”
“Well, I didn’t die.”
“Truly? I think I can figure that out.”
“You remember O’Meara? With me bleeding on the floor, he went into a rage and brutally beat Hugo. The sawbones sewed me up but there wasn’t much they could do for Hugo.”
“Guess you owe him one.”
“O’Meara? He didn’t do it out of friendship. He did it because I owed him three drake. He owes me. Instead of being jailed for murder, the Bronze appointed him as the Sherriff of Havencastle.”
“Did O’Meara get his three drake?”
“He’s Sherriff now,” I mumbled. Everyone always seemed to lose sight of the important fact—if it weren’t for me, he never would’ve brought down Hugo the Hellion.
She tucked a loose strand of auburn hair behind her ears. She was attractive, her skin soft, her earlobes delicate and flowing into a perfect line of her pronounced neck. She regarded me thoughtfully, her grey eyes dark in the meagre candlelight.
“And this one?” Her fingers played at the edges of a messy puckering of tissue along my side.
She slapped my stomach, a little too hard. “Now you’re mocking me.”
“I’m not,” I protested. “You’ve heard of the Grand Violence?”
“The Grand Violence?”
They were the most famous, and most dangerous, performance troupe in the Succession. “I joined them in DunGhūl. They were the perfect cover when I needed to blackmail the Merchant of Maul. I was part of the Trapeze of Destiny routine.”
“You’re an acrobat?”
“No, and that was the problem. The whole debacle ended with a rhino loose during the performance. The rhino gored me and trampled the Merchant.” I smiled at the memory. “The rhino rampaged across DunGhūl for three days before the City Watch were finally able to chase it from a cliff to its death. My career as an acrobat ended before it really began but the troupe expressed their never-ending gratitude—they were able to double their price of admission.”
She asked about my scars and I explained each of them: shark, molten gold, cedar tree, razor-tipped sawfish. Finally, exhausted of stories, we fell into a relaxed silence. As I was drifting to sleep she asked, “Who were you running from tonight?” When I didn’t answer, she added, “They would’ve done far more than give you scars if I hadn’t hidden you, I suspect.”
It was her way of saying that I owed her. I guess I did.
“The Crucifers. They want me for questioning.” Being questioned by the Crucifiers involved being strapped to one of their stone tables and dissected slowly. From what I’d heard, sometimes they didn’t ask questions at all.
“There must be a sizable bounty to bring you in.” Her voice had taken on a darker and more ominous tone. Dammit. No longer were we talking about past adventures—this sounded more like business. I was a wanted man in nearly every city in the Succession. You don’t get an inventory of scars from molten gold, rhinos, and razor-tipped sawfish from living a quiet life.
“Perils of the trade,” I replied. I had tucked my hand crossbow safely under my pillow and I estimated the time to throw her from the bed, grab my weapon, and shoot, though realistically I doubted it would do any good at this point. Whatever Amber had planned was already in motion. Maybe she intended to drug or poison me. She could’ve slipped something into my drink earlier, or loaded her lips with a two-part poison. Or maybe it was even a contact venom smeared on her breasts.
Amber and I went way back. Maybe that was what worried me so much. I didn’t have friends—life was less complicated that way. I just had people like Amber who I could count on occasionally to not screw me over. I wasn’t sure this was one of those times. And yet, I was here cuddled with her naked in the dark because she was hiding me from my pursuers.
“I heard about the DragonRoot job.” She gazed up at me, resting her head on her hands.
The DragonRoot job had been my most recent heist, though that made it sound like I had succeeded. The job had been a resounding failure, complete with shattered wagons and burning buildings.
“Next time don’t drug your camels,” she said.
My gaze flickered to the exit points of her darkened apartment. There was the wooden door fastened with four sets of locks, and a shuttered window. I had come in through the door but I suspected I’d be leaving through the window.
She must’ve noticed me stiffening because she slapped me playfully. “Relax, we go back too far for me to screw you over for a few brine.”
I was worth a whole lot more than a few brine. I knew how much I was worth in every city in the Succession. Such knowledge kept me alive because once I knew my worth, it was a simple mathematical equation to determine how desperate people would get to capture me. Would they risk their lives? Would they risk the lives of others?
I came here to this hellhole of a city thinking I was staying ahead of the bounties on my head. Then, a day ago, I spotted the Crucifiers. They weren’t hard to spot with all their armor and shields and squires. Regardless, they almost got the drop on me at the Dog and Mustard Pot. I hadn’t expected them to make a move this far from home and that carelessness was how a man could find himself strapped to one of their interrogation tables.
Once outside the Mustard Pot, they pursued me in numbers. They had hunting dogs too—big slavering beasts with muscles like heavy ropes and jaws that could crush a man’s skull. I was forced to the rooftops so they’d lose my scent. Regardless, the net was tightening.
That was when I remembered Amber. I had gotten her out of a jam a year earlier. She had been on a pleasure barge on the White Gravel River attempting to swindle Lord Hayminch out of a small portion of his fortune when her cover was blown. If it hadn’t been for me, Hayminch would’ve cut out her tongue. She had a talented tongue, both in spinning lies and in the bedroom. I wasn’t sure which skill he was trying to punish—maybe both.
She owed me.
“What happened to the five crates of DragonRoot?” Her hand wandered down my chest, my stomach, and to between my legs. Despite myself, I stiffened with her touch. I resisted giving in fully as I had to be careful lest she trap me in one of her games.
“I attempted to steal five crates of DragonRoot. Like you heard—it went bad.”
“I thought you weren’t a thief,” she said, stroking me softly.
“If I were a thief, I would’ve stolen five crates of DragonRoot. I’m a fixer. Big difference.” I tried to stay focused but she was manipulating me with a professional touch.
“So they’re not stashed somewhere?”
“Is that your angle? You want some of the action?” I moved her hand off me. She made a soft mew of protest.
“I’m just curious,” she pouted. “I just don’t know how you ended up in bed…with the Crucifiers.”
“I didn’t end up in bed with them,” I replied tersely. “It was a job.”
She moved from the bed gracefully, her body curving in all the right ways. Despite my arousal, I reached under my pillow to retrieve my hand crossbow. Except it wasn’t there. Had I forgotten to put it under the pillow in our rush to strip ourselves of clothing last night,? Never. I’d never forget to put it in its proper place. Carelessness like that could get a man killed. Of course, falling into bed with a woman selling you out could also get you killed.
She opened the shutters. It was still dark outside, a heavy rain falling. Before I protested and told her to shut them, a man plunged through the opening. He landed gracefully, rolled, and was on his feet. I should’ve been doing something: lunging from bed, trying to get dressed, running for my life. Something. His face was hidden behind a great tuft of hair that I took to be a mask. I didn’t react, however, because I was still trying to figure out why someone had just tumbled into the room. We were on the top floor of the inn, thirty feet above the street, high enough that people don’t jump through your window. I hated to admit it but he caught me, literally, with my pants down.
For a brief, irrational second, I thought that maybe she was reuniting me with the Grand Violence troupe. That ridiculous idea was dispelled when someone pounded on our door followed by muffled yelling. A man wearing a white mask tumbled through the window. Amber was backed up against the wall watching the scene unfold. When I caught her gaze she shrugged guiltily.
I jumped from bed naked, not really sure how the hell I was going to get out of this mess. Two were already in the room and another plunged through the window. Odds were getting worse, and the longer I stuck around, the worse it was getting.
“You owed me!” I yelled at Amber, though it didn’t matter now. The situation was out of her control once she’d opened the shutters. “I saved you from Lord Hayminch cutting out your tongue!”
“You’re the one who blew my cover,” she snapped.
Something big and heavy hammered on the other side of the door. Once, twice, and the third time the wood gave way and splinters flew. I turned to Amber to implore her to give me something to defend myself. The first man’s fist cracked across my jaw, turning my world grey before reality snapped back. At least he hadn’t shot me—which meant they were planning on taking me alive.
The door failed, a ruin of splinters and snapped wood. The killers flooded the room. Too many. They swarmed me. A bad scene. Someone kicked me in the gut. Of all the places to die, I hadn’t wanted it to be in this craphole called Havencastle.
“You shouldn’t have crossed us, Nathaniel.”
He punched me in the gut and I couldn’t breathe.
“You think it’s funny now?”
“You know those five crates of DragonRoot you stole are worth more than you’ll see in a lifetime?” a jester bellowed. Another punch, this one aimed at my lower back, and my legs went numb and I collapsed.
“Bring him,” a calm, soft voice said. They hefted me by my armpits, my head lolling.
They carried me through the broken door, down the stairs, and into the tavern. These weren’t the Crucifiers. They wouldn’t have bothered coming in through the window. I realized that they weren’t wearing masks at all—those were their real faces. Which made these the Pariahs—the guild I tried to steal the DragonRoot from.
Amber had hidden me from the Crucifiers because she was selling me to the Pariahs. Better than the other way around. The Pariahs used crude interrogation methods like whips and chains, but they wouldn’t get too barbaric. The Crucifiers, now they would’ve cut me up right good.
I smiled, my lips dripping blood. I could get out of this. The odds would be high, but the challenge didn’t scare me. Then the bag went over my head. Not good. My vision exploded in bursts of white followed by nothing.
The Dark scratched at the worn, dusty boards with long, chipped nails. It wanted out from the recesses of my soul where it lie trapped. I tried keeping it shackles with chains and locks inside of me but sometimes I worried it would break free. Like now. The Dark navigated every labyrinth I threw at it, every obstacle that I could to keep it away. No matter how far I ran, it was always there. I had finally come to accept that the only thing stopping it were those meager locks and that old warped door.
Now, with my head lolling on my shoulders, I smelled its foul breath. I could say that it smelled like death, but death had so many smells. There was the smell when a body swelled in the sun like an oversized sausage, waiting to split along a seam, entrails bursting in a cascade of offal. Or the death crap, when at expiration, the bowels released a spew of brown slop.
The Dark smelled more like the shed. When I was four, just around the time when memories ripened and became permanent, the scholars locked me in the shed with the corpses. A lesson, they had told me. Some lesson. That smell—it soaked into my pores and my memories. Took weeks to scrub it out of my skin. I could never remove it from my memories. Kind of like the Dark. I actually wondered if maybe the Dark took that smell because of the power it had over me. The wash of emotions, the reoccurring images of the slaughter.
The twisted nails clicked at the locks. On bad days, I sometimes forgot to fasten all of them. The Dark liked those times, playing around the edges, touching, caressing, teasing. Today, despite my beating, the locks were fastened. I knew all I had to do was unlock the door. Let the Dark roam free. Let it into the world and the Pariahs would be gone. Wiped away. The problem was that one of these days, I knew the Dark would control me completely and I wouldn’t be able to throw it back into my internal prison.
“Open the door,” it said. The Dark didn’t have a mouth. Didn’t have eyes either, but that didn’t prevent it from staring directly through me. It was just there, pulsing with its malevolence like a spider’s egg sac ready to burst.
The Pariahs didn’t understand. How could they? All they knew was that someone had tried to steal five crates of DragonRoot from them.
“Get away,” I slurred. There’s a bag over my head. I saw silhouettes floating around me and I worried that they might crack me across the back of the head again. Then the Dark would come. The last time that had happened—well, I didn’t want to dwell on that.
“Open the door,” it said again.
“Leave me alone.” I wasn’t sure if I spoke aloud.
“He’s coming to.” A real voice.
Scratch, scratch, scratch.
I focused on the physical sensations like my legs that I couldn’t seem to control, my feet dragging behind me. I tried pulling them under me but they slid away as if I were a newborn calf. Hands under my arm pits. The clack of footfalls on stone.
Scratch, scratch, scratch.
I pulled against my captors but their grip was too strong. My weakness, however, must’ve been brought on by more than just a sap to the back of the head. Drugged.
“Let me out!” the Dark yelled.
“Hit him again,” the voice said. Calm. Efficient. No emotion. Had to be wary of that one.
A crunch. I realized it was the back of my skull that made that terrible sound. They’ve crushed it. Broken my head. Worse, it was the sound of the door breaking. The Dark was there. Slathering. Roaring at me.
No! A silent scream. I met the Dark in the recesses of my mind. Couldn’t let it out. This wasn’t Cresek-Tawn and I wasn’t about to let that happen again. But the Pariahs were weakening me. If the Dark did escape, terrible things would happen.
“He’s still awake,” one of the Pariah’s said.
“Of course he is. You hit him too high. Down here. Lower.”
I felt my brains leak along my shoulders.
The second time, my assailant got it right, hitting me along the base of the neck. There was no crunch or explosion of lights. Only black.