Chapter One: Arcana Unleashed
Every hot breath that left her lips felt as if it could be her last. She limped on, rounding a corner in the dark of night, only the meager flames in those streetlamps offering her any sanctuary. And they were far and few between.
She heard her pursuers behind her… How many were there? It mattered not. In her current condition, if any of them found her, all was lost. She cursed herself, knowing better than to rush headlong into a trap like that. The Brotherhood had practically announced every move, and still, she strode into it as though she were unbreakable. Her ankle spoke to the truth of that matter.
No, it was her hubris that hobbled her that night. She had seen it all before and swore she would not walk down that same path. A helpless chuckle left her lungs then; she wasn’t exactly walking.
A shadow stretched down the alley, cast by a distant streetlamp. She couldn’t see its owner but knew they were up to no good. Blowing out a deep breath, she leaned against the nearest stone wall and tugged the rapier from the sheath on her hip.
The Silver Serpent would not go down without a fight.
As the fellow drew farther from the light, he came into view in a way that made his shadow look like the real threat. Small and unimposing, he held his short sword out to the side like someone who had never been trained in its proper use. Still, she knew better than to make any more assumptions. She wouldn’t make that mistake again.
He sauntered up to her with a grin on his face. Though night had come to Argos and they lingered far from the streetlamps, his eyes were sharp enough to confirm he had found his mark. There could be no mistaking it—she was the Silver Serpent. Auburn hair fell beneath that black tricorne hat and would have shielded her face well enough that she didn’t need the domino mask that covered her eyes. The rest of her ensemble was a combination of form and fashion: a choker with a red gem in it caught the reflection of those distant flames; leather gloves and boots were fitted to her form perfectly; a black jacket was unopened beneath an exquisite leather belt; and her shirt was low enough to highlight a gorgeous shape.
The thug lingered on that part the longest. He licked his lips at the thought of his helpless prey before him, all alone on that cold night.
She waited there, steadying her breaths until little wisps of steam ceased to leave her lips. Standing as straight as she could, the dare was made to her foe to cross the distance and see just how helpless she was.
He didn’t keep her waiting long. As he drew close, he leapt out at her like an eager housecat. She was no mouse, though. She leaned on her uninjured leg, spinning a pirouette around his awkward lunge. Her rapier smacked against his rump, nudging him against the wall she had been using for support. The Silver Serpent hunched low as she backed away, favoring that wounded ankle. From her vantage, she saw the shade of red on the man’s cheeks, and a click of her tongue pushed him farther.
That sole member of the Brotherhood charged forth, swinging his sword with reckless abandon. She scoffed as she took the time to dodge those pitiful attacks, and as he grew winded, she lifted her sword, catching the weakest of his blows with ease. With his weapon halted overhead, she balled her fingers into a fist and struck his chest.
All the air was expelled from his lungs, and he bent over as if he could find his discarded breath on the stone below him. The Serpent stepped forward to deliver another dizzying attack, but her ankle wobbled beneath her. A kick like that would have to wait for her to recover.
That was only if she recovered, she reminded herself. Though that man produced awkward sounds while trying to catch his breath, she heard other rapid footsteps in the distance. That leg would only heal if she found better sanctuary than the light beneath those lamps.
Bracing against the wall like she had done, the thug didn’t notice her approach. He turned his head just in time to see her lunge forward with the basket of her rapier. That was all he would remember from that night, for it struck him in the temple, spilling him to the ground in a heap. As he ceased his struggle, breath finally entered his lungs again.
She turned about and allowed herself another moment of weakness, laying the tips of her gloved fingers against the wall. With adrenaline fading fast, she was reminded of the pain in her leg and was left to wonder if it grew worse since that encounter.
The vigilante let a quiet growl shake her chest. If she hadn’t been delayed by the pointless endeavor, she would be halfway home by then. The thought of it had her shambling forward quicker, but every step on that battered ankle forced her to wince and a fretful breath through gnashed teeth. She drew from the alley into a wider area of the streets. The homes and shops were strewn about farther from each other, but the darkness seemed more prevalent, as those lights from the hanging lanterns were farther around corners. One of those bends would be just dark enough, she thought. It would hide her well enough while her foes from the Brotherhood tried to track her down. In time, they would move on, and she could find a more permanent sanctuary far from where they had triggered their trap.
The Serpent was already shaking her head. It could take longer for her pursuers to move on than she wanted. By the time she could aim for home again, the sun might creep into the sky. At that point, everyone in Argos—criminal and layman alike—would be trouble for her.
No, she reasoned, she had to move along—though she soon realized the way was filled with more obstacles than she anticipated.
“This is as far as you go,” she heard. When she whipped about, she saw him there: a ruffian she’d thwarted on more than one occasion. It was only his silhouette she spotted, but she was sure it was him. “You’ve overestimated your odds this time, Serpent,” he said. “You’re outnumbered, and you’ll not be getting away from us.”
“When will you ever learn, Thoro?” she asked. Her voice was deep and sultry, more powerful than the women the Brotherhood associated with. Just hearing her own voice was enough to prop her up, and she brought her rapier to bear once more. “I am not the prey. You are.”
“Sometimes the prey overwhelms the predator,” the man countered.
At once, the Silver Serpent understood it was no longer the two of them in that quiet part of the city. Another pair of thugs from the Brotherhood was there, surrounding her on either side of the street.
Thoro came closer, his fierce gaze locking onto the wounded vigilante. The man was young, but his eyes were filled with experience. Pain, regret, guilt, and fear were a part of his life far too often, but that wicked smile he wore was the most terrifying thing the woman had seen in some time. “This is where your story ends,” he promised.
At once, his companions moved in, brandishing their own weapons. The Serpent alternated glances at those brigands circling like vultures. She might have been able to fend them off, but those other rapid footsteps, those hoots and hollers, made it clear even a victory against those two would be hollow.
“Bring her to me alive,” Thoro ordered. “And leave her pretty. I’ve always wanted to see what was beneath the mask.”
As she gripped the sword in her hand, she waited for the men to fall in on her. That adrenaline would flow through her again, and she would use as much as she could to last through the attack, but she knew her odds were dire.
Another noise resounded above, and she cursed her luck. Thoro had no shortage of allies, it seemed.
“Don’t you know it isn’t safe for a woman to be out here alone at night?”
She arched her eyebrow, for that voice was familiar enough to resonate with her. She let it repeat in her mind, and once it registered again, she blew out a weary sigh. That voice was familiar, though it had been forced deeper to disguise its owner. Still, she recognized it well enough.
“There are all kinds of unsavory folk about this late,” he went on.
The Silver Serpent looked to Thoro, and his gaze confirmed it. The latest arrival wasn’t one of his. She slipped out farther into the open, closer to her criminal adversary, and glanced up to the roof of that building to see her rescuer above.
Clad in green and brown, his dirty blond hair was caught in the night breeze. Her keen eyes caught sight of the feathered arrow nocked to his bow, though the rest of his audience could barely make sense of him.
“Now who’s this,” Thoro demanded, “a devoted fan?”
The fellow on the roof stood straighter upon hearing that query, squared his shoulders, and looked upon the men below with a wry grin. “I am the Emerald Adder,” he declared.
The masked heroine did everything in her power to stifle the groan trying to force its way from her lips. While the thugs below muttered about the strange name, the fellow above deflated.
“Kill the moron, and bring me the woman,” Thoro bade.
At once, the man above made his foes certain he was not a mere imitator. He brought his bow to bear and took aim. As he peered through one narrowed eye, the Serpent glimpsed behind the green domino mask, so much like hers. In the darkness, the slim ring of gold around his pupil was apparent. With a subtle thrum, he loosed his missile, and it screeched forth, striking the brigand closest to the woman. The thug tumbled to the ground and cried out, cradling his bloody thigh.
The Silver Serpent made good use of her gift, turning about and lunging at her next nearest opponent while he was distracted by his companion’s screams. She grimaced as she bore the weight on her damaged leg but remained standing regardless. With a graceful spin of her blade, she knocked the crude sword out of that thug’s hand and followed with a sideways slice up his hand. He yowled and grasped his palm, hopping back just far enough away to avoid another deadly bite of that rapier.
Thoro had seen enough. He strode forward, pulling his own sword from its sheath, a scraping sound reporting its presence.
The Serpent set her eyes on that weapon, noting how similar it was to her own. “You’ve changed your weapon, Thoro.”
“I’ve merely added one to my repertoire.”
“You’ll never best me at the rapier,” she assured.
“We’ll see about that.”
The resonant thrum of the bowstring could be heard again, and Thoro dipped out of the way, avoiding the projectile shot forth from the archer above. The bandit looked up at him with a furrowed brow and shook his head as he turned his attention back to the masked woman before him.
His prey limped forward, willing to meet him and his deadly attack head on. At once, their rapiers clashed, sending a metallic note far into the distance. The Serpent heard those other members of the Brotherhood closing in but knew her focus had to be on the lone man before her.
As Thoro took the lead in the fight, he demonstrated some skills and maneuvers that shook his foe off balance. She flashed her eyebrows, oddly proud of the man who had been naught but a pain in her backside before. In that darkness, with a wounded leg and a burning in her lungs, she realized he had become a rival of growing talent.
When the Emerald Adder struck out with his bow, the member of the Brotherhood dodged again. That arrow snapped when it reached the stone street, Thoro well out of reach. The fellow in green above growled as he drew another arrow from his quiver.
A chorus of steel on steel rang as the duel grew more intense. Thoro set the pace and the momentum, and the costumed heroine favored her leg as much as possible. He pushed forward, but the woman refused to give any ground, forcing him to dance around her instead. She placed her weight upon that sturdier leg, meeting his attacks with an impenetrable defense.
Thoro may have grown in skill, but he was no match for the Silver Serpent.
And she had at least one more trick up her sleeve.
Knowing that her enemies—Thoro’s allies—were closing in on their position, she feigned several parries, enticing the man closer and closer. A glance to the rooftop let her see her would-be savior was looking over his shoulder to fetch another arrow.
It was time, and she knew it.
As Thoro drew close enough for her to smell his powerful musk, she let him know even a cornered serpent still had fangs. Her free hand slid to her hip, and she tugged a leather pouch from her belt. In a continuous motion, she rotated that arm in a circle and slammed the container to the ground.
A loud pop resounded, and it was the only warning the member of the Brotherhood would receive as a bright light flashed. Thoro cried out as the flash powder stole away his vision.
The man above knew not to waste the gifted opportunity. He aimed with his bow one last time and took a moment to breathe. Once more, a golden circle highlighted his eye as he caught Thoro in his sight.
In all that commotion, the man from the Brotherhood couldn’t focus on the thrum of the bowstring. The arrow screeched forth from above and thumped into the muscle of his shoulder, and he fell to his knees when his legs shuddered. A scream rang into the air as he contended with his pain and discomfort.
The Silver Serpent watched as her ally dropped from the roof of that building, landing in the street upon bent legs. He ran to her side and propped her up, bearing some weight to allow her injured ankle some relief. They hastened away from those injured fellows, farther into the darkness.
“You’re a fool,” the woman chastised. “You’re not ready for something like this.”
He bore a smile as he ushered her along. “Neither were you, it seems. If I wasn’t here, things could have gone much differently this night.”
With a sigh pressing past her lips, the Silver Serpent offered him a nod. “You’re right. Now you have another task, though. Get me home…and without anyone seeing me.”
“I really don’t think you’re the one who has to worry about being seen,” he teased. He did as instructed, though, leading her down the adjacent alley, away from those injured members of the Brotherhood.
As the effects of the flash powder wore off, Thoro gnashed his teeth together, watching the man in green and brown assist the Silver Serpent to safety.
* * * * *
He kept pushing her forward, and every time she tried to stop to catch her breath, he moved again. With Thoro’s allies still pursuing, the man in green knew any respite, even a brief one, could end in calamity. Her home was nearby, but as morning crept ever closer, folks were bound to be leaving homes of their own. It didn’t matter if the person who spotted them was a friend of Thoro’s or not. If someone saw the masked woman entering her house, all thoughts of leading a clandestine life would be left in tatters.
They zigzagged down quieter streets, spinning about when they heard the voice of a laborer or a panting dog led by a city guard.
“We could just blind them all,” the Emerald Adder said. “Do you have any more of that flash powder?”
She shook her head. “That stuff is volatile. Too much and you could be in real danger.”
“We’re in real danger right now,” he challenged. “If those men find us and there’s more than last time, I don’t know if I’ll have enough arrows to fend them off.”
“We shouldn’t be fending anyone off,” she chided. “Our job is to stay in the shadows. Let’s make a right here.”
He did as instructed, leading her down a corridor between two shops that hadn’t opened yet. A dead end loomed before them, and the man grumbled.
“What was the point of this? There’s nowhere to go.”
“This shop is built against the hill. They covered the side with stone but left enough room to sidle along. We can cut past the more popular part of this district.”
Sure enough, there was a gap just wide enough to slip through, though not without some manner of discomfort. He led on but could no longer serve as a crutch to her. Time had not eased the pain in that injured leg, and the Silver Serpent labored at passing through that narrow back alley.
A guard wielding a halberd walked by, unaware two costumed vigilantes were beside the road, hidden in that narrow space behind the building. As he drew away, closer to the nearest streetlamp, the two ascended the road up the hill.
No one else stood between them and the cottage the Silver Serpent called home, and with one final burst of energy, the pair made it through the front door unseen.
The woman collapsed against the wall, pulling the tricorne hat from her head and throwing it through the empty house. A weary sigh shook her body, and she swept her hand through that dark auburn hair. As she regained her composure, she looked at her companion and shook her head. “Take off that ridiculous costume.”
He grinned but obliged, pulling the green domino mask from his face. Though it was a meager disguise, it did hide some of his features. Without it there, his youth was apparent. Not quite a man yet, he was still impressive and in decent shape, thanks in part to his pedigree, but also through no small part due to her interest in him. She guided him in the right direction, and he had become as worthy an ally as a student—though he still had much more to learn on both accounts.
“I’ll have you know this is based on the Silver Serpent costume. Of course, things are a little different—I don’t have breasts. But the only real change is the color.”
“That’s another thing,” she said. “The Emerald Adder? Really?”
“You mean you don’t like it?” he asked with genuine surprise. He shook his head and unlaced his vest. “I thought it had a great ring to it.”
“I thought you and I would talk about what we’d call you, if we called you anything at all. The plan was for you to be covert. I don’t want the Brotherhood to know I have an ally. It’s just one more thing they can use against me.”
He shrugged as he pulled the vest over his head. “They wouldn’t have been able to use anything against you if I wasn’t there tonight, Marin.”
The Silver Serpent furrowed her brow and glowered at her companion. “Are we that familiar now, Kelvin?”
Her tone had him standing upright, and he swallowed away his embarrassment. “I’m sorry, Mistress Cortes. I didn’t mean…”
Marin leaned back, resting her head against the wall. A slight breeze passed by outside, and she felt the draft beneath the door by her side. With her adrenaline fading again, she noticed how cool it was in her home. Still, her skin felt as if it was on fire. She reached up and lifted the black, etched domino mask off her face.
The woman was many years older than her protégé—that much was clear. While he was still struggling to grow facial hair, she had a look of wisdom and experience about her. She was still young enough to challenge his energy, but it had all faded that night as she sat on the floor of her cottage.
Her pupil moved into the adjacent room, and when he returned, he was in more refined clothes. He traded his brown trousers for black ones, his boots were more ornate than functional, and his tunic was etched with professional embroidery.
Marin, meanwhile, was struggling with her belt. The lad rushed to her side and helped her stand, and she was too weary to fend him off. She leaned on him, tugging the accessory free of her outfit. The jacket was the next to come off, leaving only the flowing white shirt.
Kelvin couldn’t help but look over his mentor. She had gorgeous caramel-colored skin and curves in all the right places, and though she was twenty years his senior, he would have never guessed it. That wasn’t why he scrutinized her so, however. Bruises were apparent everywhere the shirt did not cover. As he considered them, he also realized he had never seen Marin in such little clothing before and averted his gaze at once.
She snickered, but he kept his vision drawn to the opposite side of the room. Through the window on the eastern side of the house, he noticed the sun was coming over the far side of the city, the sky just touched by flares of indigo.
“It’s getting late. Early depending on how you look at it,” she said. “You shouldn’t be gone from your home before the rest of your family wakes. I can only imagine the chaos that would ensue if they thought you were missing.”
He nodded. “Soon. I’m not leaving until I know you’re all right.”
“Let’s not forget who cares for who.”
“Whom,” he corrected, a wide grin splayed across his face.
Marin narrowed her eyes, but even she could not keep a smile from forming, despite her weariness and her battered body. “I’ll be fine,” she insisted. “Once I get some steam from a nice bath, everything will be just as I want it.”
The lad was already in motion, heading to a back room of the house. When he emerged once more, he had a bucket full of coals and wore an eager grin as he set to work. In time, they were set beneath the basin, and he took care to heat the water she would use for her bath.
There was nothing she could say to deter him, Marin was sure. She watched helplessly as he set to work, and she leaned against the wall of the room, breathing in the steam. She still favored that injured leg, though she made no mention of involving a healer or even gathering a brace.
She was too proud to admit to any pain, Kelvin knew.
“Thank you,” the Silver Serpent said.
“This?” he asked. “It’s nothing.”
The woman was already shaking her head. “No, not this,” she said, “although this is worthy of praise as well. No, I meant thank you for not taking my advice and being out there tonight. If you hadn’t been there, I don’t know what would have happened.”
“I’ve never seen you overwhelmed like that,” he admitted. “I didn’t come out there to save you. I wanted to watch you work. It was my intention to be your shadow, but I saw a need.”
“It doesn’t make any sense,” she muttered. “There were far too many members of the Brotherhood there. And for what? To rob a trading caravan?”
“From what I saw, those wagons were running low on goods,” Kelvin added. “And I don’t think it was because the stuff had been pilfered. I don’t think they had it to begin with.”
Marin arched an eyebrow. “You think it was all part of the plan? You think I was the real target?”
He shrugged. “A thief is one of the oldest professions I know of, but business hasn’t exactly been good while the Silver Serpent has been a part of this city. Maybe they thought if they could take care of you, there wouldn’t be anyone left to stop them. The guards of this city would be overwhelmed.”
“Those that aren’t in the Brotherhood’s pockets already,” she surmised.
“I wouldn’t be surprised if there was a hefty bounty on your head,” Kelvin said. “Capturing the vigilante of Argos would be a bragging point the likes of which nobody can claim. I’m just happy your identity remains safe.”
“Shrouded in darkness as always,” Marin said. “Perhaps I should lean back on the unassuming woman I am, instead of my dangerous alter ego.”
“Somehow I don’t see that lasting long,” he chortled.
She shrugged and smiled. “That will be fine, Kelvin. Any more than that and I’ll drown when I pass out in there. You’ve got to get back to the castle before anyone sees you’re gone. If they go looking for you, they’ll go to the people who you know. I don’t want them seeing me like this.”
He swept the basin and the bucket off to the side. Steam rose from the water in the tub in the center of the room, and he breathed it in. As he passed by, Marin squeezed his shoulder and pushed him out toward the front of her home.
“Make sure you pull that door shut,” she bade.
As he made his way to the exit, he peered over his shoulder. His mentor slipped the shirt off her shoulders, and that was all he needed to see to look away in embarrassment. With his face growing warm and red, he quickened his step and snuck out of the house, creeping into the dim light of morning.
* * * * *
His teeth were gnashed together, and his hand was squeezed around the remnants of the shaft in his shoulder. As he reached for the door, the arrow wobbled, and a flash of light accompanied the sting of the steel, chewing through his muscle. He took a steadying breath and tried the door again, taking his time so as not to jostle that wounded arm.
“Thoro!” he heard. That voice was as warm as it was hearty, and he knew who greeted him before he understood who was in the tavern that late.
The Queen’s Dare was as seedy an establishment as one could stumble upon in Argos. Only those who didn’t value their life or didn’t know any better happened to the place, unless they were friends of the owner.
Thoro was happy to have friends in low places. There were only a few people in the tavern, and all were known to him. He knew it was Heggins who called out to him from behind the bar. The man was like family in some respects.
And when he saw the arrow jutting out from the younger fellow’s shoulder, that jovial tone shifted in an instant. “Thoro!”
Heggins started for the counter that swung up, but the lad raised his hand. “I’ll be fine,” he said.
“What happened to you?” the bartender asked.
Thoro narrowed his eyes, recalling the events that led him down that path. “The Silver Serpent happened.” He braced himself against the nearest table and took time to look at that quavering shaft embedded in his shoulder. “She’s got a new friend who is competent enough with a bow. They got Dazon and Fred, too.”
“She killed ‘em?” Heggins asked.
The injured brigand shook his head. “No, but I’ll bet they think it’s all the same. We were meant to bring her in, and we failed. The leaders don’t take kindly to failure. Even if I didn’t know any better, I’d think we’ll be seeing less of those two for a while.”
“Then why are you here, son?”
“I’m not the one the Brotherhood should be disappointed with,” Thoro growled. “We expected more of our brothers out there, and lo and behold, none were present. I have half a mind about who is involved, and I’ll let my voice be heard.”
“Just…be careful is all, all right?” Heggins bade. The bartender sent a nod to a patron near the back of the tavern, who rose from his seat and pushed a hefty cabinet out of the way, revealing a secret doorway to a darkened staircase. “If Brielle is down there, I’d see if she could look at that arrow for you. If you need any alcohol, it’s on the house tonight, no matter if it’s for drinking or for that wound.”
Thoro passed along a thankful nod and proceeded down those stairs. The cabinet screeched back into place, and he was left in darkness, except for a sliver of light that came from a door down below. Before he had descended the steps, he heard the raucous laughter in the adjacent room.
Suddenly, all the pain seemed so distant. Thoro pushed forward and slammed open the door, hard enough that the torches in nearby sconces fought not to be extinguished. Silence came to the room, a close facsimile of the one above. Several men jumped from their seats, small crossbows at the ready.
“Glad to see everyone here is so overjoyed,” the recently arrived brigand spat. “As I understand it, Gaul,” he said, pointing to a random fellow who stood, “you were supposed to be out there with us tonight. And you as well, Saren.” The arrow shook in his arm, and he reached up and snapped it in half, that adrenaline helping him forego the pain. “In fact, just about everyone in this room was supposed to be there tonight, bringing down the Silver Serpent. That was what we agreed on, wasn’t it? Wasn’t it!” he exclaimed.
A few of those women who sidled up next to or sat atop the scoundrels trembled at the young fellow’s tone. His words made them question their allegiances to the men for only a moment, though. Those men had found success in whatever they did that night—whatever caused them to ignore their plan to capture the Silver Serpent.
Thoro sighed and looked past those fools, seeing the establishment’s second bartender. The woman, a few years older than him, shook her head. He had seen that look before. He was passionate about a great many things, but that passion often led him into trouble. Stifling a growl, he pushed past the other members of the Brotherhood and took a place at that bar.
“Remember who you’re among,” the barkeep whispered. “These men respect you enough now, but you know how fickle they can be. If a pretty girl is sitting on their lap and you make them feel inadequate, they won’t hesitate a moment to lay you out on the floor to get their ego back in check.”
“Subtlety has never been my strong suit, Brielle,” he said. “I can’t keep quiet on a night like tonight.”
“And what a night it’s been. Now I’m not saying my night’s been anywhere near as bad as yours,” she said, pointing at the remnants of the arrow, “but I should have been out of here four hours ago.”
“Then why is everyone still here?”
“Supposedly, they’re waiting for just one more person.”
“Well, it wasn’t any of the people I was with tonight. The Serpent and her new companion did a number on the lot of us. I don’t think Fred’ll ever use his hand again, and Dazon will likely be able to tell us when it’s going to rain days ahead of time now. This woman is making us older than our years.”
“Maybe it’s time to find a more respectable line of work.”
“Says the lass pouring drinks to every scoundrel in Argos.”
Brielle rolled her eyes. “You know, you think you’re paying me a compliment calling me that, but I’m as bad as any of the lot in this place.”
“I’ll remember that next time I face down the Serpent and her sidekick. Maybe I’ve just been going about this whole thing wrong.” He growled a little as he considered all the events that transpired that night. “I was this close, Brielle. We had her. If it wasn’t for that man in green, we would have been rid of all her problems forever.”
“You know, it’s one thing to be a thief and another to be a murderer,” she said. “Just because you wouldn’t be the one drawing the knife across her throat, that doesn’t mean you wouldn’t be complicit in her death.”
“Careful what you’re saying,” he warned. “I can forgive such warm thoughts, but the rest of this lot would laugh at you at best. You’ve got your head in the clouds.”
“Maybe I do. I’d like to think there’s a better life out there. Neither of us has found it yet, but I know we will—maybe even together.”
Almost as soon as she finished speaking, they heard the squeal of the cabinet again. Unlike when Thoro made his way down the steps, a light was apparent. When the newest arrival passed through the doorway below, Thoro’s nose wrinkled at the sight of the man who had a meager flame hovering above his hand. He was more than familiar with that fellow.
When everyone else understood who had arrived, they burst into cheer. That member of the Brotherhood bowed and swept out his arm, taking the congratulations in stride. Even Brielle, farthest from him, saw the burlap sack he held and arched an eyebrow at it from across the room.
“Three cheers for Jerrod!” one of those other bandits cried.
The rest of the tavern burst into cheers and applause again, until that latest arrival raised his free hand to placate the crowd. “You did well, lads, and we were victorious. Things couldn’t have gone better tonight.”
Thoro slammed his glass on the bar—an odd gesture, since Brielle had yet to pour anything into it—and rose from his seat. “Not everyone could say the same, Bodan.”
Jerrod narrowed his eyes, and that meager flame in his hand extinguished. He pointed his finger at the other brigand and let a smile form on his face. “It was a necessity,” he said. “We needed the distraction to allow us to get into one of the most secure places in Argos. Don’t be angry with me; it was the leaders who made the call. I was just happy to carry out their orders.”
“And what was so important that you were content with sending our companions to what could have been their deaths? Don’t you think they should have known what they would be doing? Some of them won’t ever be able to wield a sword again. What was worth ruining their way of life?”
Jerrod lifted that burlap sack, and everyone in attendance saw the item inside glow.
That vague response wasn’t enough to placate Thoro. Rather, it incited him, and he let his healthy arm slide down toward the rapier on his hip.
Brielle leaned over the bar and grasped him by his shoulder. When he turned, she flashed a sympathetic gaze. “We should probably get the rest of that arrow out of you. We wouldn’t want it to stay in there and fester. I heard wood left inside the body rots, and it could end up spreading poison through you.”
He knew what she was doing. A deep sigh pushed through his lungs, and he offered up a nod as she drew past the bar, hopping up over the one corner. She led him toward one of those adjacent rooms—the one she called her own, he knew. That one on the opposite side of the main sitting area belonged to the Brotherhood’s leaders. Those long-serving members of the guild of scoundrels rarely left the room while others were present, and that was true more than ever in recent times, Thoro recalled.
That reflection was cut short as Brielle opened the door to her room and pulled him inside.
“You need to control your anger,” she said. “Don’t let it control you.”
“I’ve done nothing,” he challenged.
“You’ve toed the line several times already tonight. Don’t give anyone a reason to come down upon you. In your condition, it probably wouldn’t go well.” She led him to the lone bed in the room and sat him upon it.
Thoro knew better than to think there was anything romantic about his presence there. Without pause, she looked at his wounded shoulder and tugged a small dagger free from her belt. The brigand wondered if she planned on using it against him for all the trouble he’d caused her since he walked down those secluded steps.
“I don’t have anything to worry about,” he muttered. “It’s not me endangering the Brotherhood. The real problem is people out there like Jerrod Bodan—the so-called Magician. He would gladly throw the rest of us to the wolves, just to find a small victory in his own life.”
The cool steel of that blade jabbed into his shoulder, but before he could pull away, Brielle tore it through his shirt. With a better look at the wound, she clicked her tongue. “That’s a lot worse than it looks,” she said. “I’m surprised you’re not foaming at the mouth from pain.”
“The longer pain lingers, the more used to it you become,” Thoro assured. “It was a long walk back here.”
“Well, as used to it as you are, you won’t be happy when I’m pouring whisky on it.”
“That sounds like a fine waste of spirits.”
“Better than losing your arm,” she challenged.
“Then let’s get on with it.”
She rose from beside him and walked over to a curio she kept in the corner of her room. A few ornate bottles were closer to the front, but she reached past them, grabbing an old, weathered container hidden from view in the back.
“Jerrod will run the Brotherhood into the ground,” Thoro reiterated. “We had everything going our way tonight. The Serpent was in our grasp, and if the people we call brothers had been true to their word, we wouldn’t have had anyone left to challenge us in this city.”
“Keep talking,” Brielle ordered. “Do whatever you need to do to distract yourself.”
“Without the Silver Serpent, who would dare oppose us? It isn’t like there’s a competent officer anywhere in Argos.”
The woman waited no longer, popping the lid off that whisky and pouring it on her friend’s wound.
Thoro screamed loud enough that everyone in the next room heard him, and Brielle wasn’t sure the sound of that agony hadn’t escaped into the rest of the city as well.
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