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Richard Baker

The City of Ravens

CHAPTER ONE

Jack Ravenwild scrambled over the parapeted roof of House Kuldath and grinned in delight. The night air was heavy and wet with the first storm of spring. Water ran from his face over his stubbled skull, shaved just over the ears and closely cropped in a distinct widow's peak.

Jack was a small man, with a wiry build and a round, friendly face that was perpetually split by a jester's mocking smile. Dark eyes glittered gleefully over an impish nose, a wide mouth, and a thin trace of beard along his jawline.

'Hurry, hurry!'' he called softly over his shoulder. 'The rain stands to ruin my best suit.'

All around him, the moss-grown shingles and leaning spires of the city's rooftops stretched out into darkness. Jack studied them with deliberate disinterest. Behind him, a single hairy arm groped for a handhold on the rain-slick rooftop. A moment later, Anders Aricssen hauled his head and shoulders to the parapet, grunting with effort.

'If you find yourself concerned about the condition of your clothes,' he gasped, 'you might consider helping me up, instead of capering up there like some kind of rubbish-heap weather vane.'

'Rubbish-heap weather vane, indeed,' Jack said sniffing. He considered himself dashingly dressed for the moment. The night's work demanded clothes that fit like a shadow over a grave, so the small man wore snug leather breeches, a loose shirt of dark gray cotton, and a leather doublet stiffened and padded, all in black. A rapier was slung high on his left hip in a thin wooden scabbard wrapped in black velvet, and a matching poignard rode on his right hip. Pausing a moment to brush the water from his dark cloak, he stepped over to the edge of the roof and offered his hand to Anders. 'Come on, then.'

Anders clasped his arm and dragged himself onto the flat roof, slipping and scrambling awkwardly. He straightened slowly, unfolding a frame more than a foot taller than his companion's. While Jack was dressed in dark leather and a voluminous cloak that billowed in the wind, Anders simply wore weathered buckskins that left his golden-haired chest bare to the elements.

'Are you certain you didn't use sorcery to magic yourself up that wall? That was not as easy a climb as you'd led me to believe, friend Jack.'

'Why resort to magic when natural aptitude suffices?' Jack replied. He took two light bounds across the slick shingles and balanced a moment with his feet athwart a brick chimney, watching streamers of smoke wind about his legs. 'Black as old pitch tonight, friend Anders,' he laughed. 'Why, I couldn't have picked a better evening for my enterprise!'

'Our enterprise,' grunted Anders by way of correction. 'That would be our enterprise, Jack. It concerns me when you make mistakes like that.' While Jack occupied himself by hopping casually from one parapet to the other, ignoring the forty-foot fall below, the tall Northman unwrapped a heavy broadsword not too much shorter than Jack himself and slung the blade over his shoulder. He stood eye-to-eye with Jack, despite the fact that the Ravenaar man now balanced on a crenellation a good cubit higher than the rooftop upon which Anders stood. 'Speaking of which, you still have not told me what prize we seek tonight.'

Jack led Anders across the rooftop to a small stone slab in one corner. 'Below us, as you well know, is the warehouse of House Kuldath. The five brothers Kuldath hail from some distant land far to the east. Their principal trade lies in carpets of exquisite workmanship, rumored to be hand-woven by sixteen enslaved princesses forced to labor at the brothers' command in order to prevent House Kuldath from collecting on a debt owed by their destitute father.'

Anders frowned. 'Carpets. That's bad. They're quite heavy, and in this rain, they'll get heavier still. That will be a lot of work.'

'No, no, forget the carpets. We're here-'

'Ah, so it's the princesses, then. They're even heavier than carpets, but unlikely to become heavier with a soaking. Manageable, I suppose.'

Jack sighed. 'Forget the whole carpet story. The important thing is, the five brothers Kuldath are quite wealthy, and in celebration of an extremely successful season, they recently purchased a set of five perfect rubies from the jeweler Shorlock Revahl, each one to give to his wife. We shall relieve them of the responsibility of caring for these small baubles.'

'Rubies,' Anders said, nodding. 'That's much better. So how do we do this?'

'Below there,' Jack said, pointing to the stone slab, 'lies the hitherto inviolate inner sanctum of the brothers Kuldath. With some careful scrying, I have determined that the first floor of this building is the Kuldath Emporium; the second, their main warehouse; the third, their living quarters; and the fourth, the private offices and secret vaults of the house.' Jack donned a pair of soft leather gloves and pulled his hood over his face. 'The room below is reserved for the storage of their very finest carpets. Two rooms away is a locked strongbox wherein the rubies lie. You shall remain in the carpet room and stand guard, while I steal the strongbox.'

'I don't see why you need me along, if that's the case,' Anders replied. 'One of your ability should be able to handle that quite easily.'

'There may be a complication,' Jack admitted, 'involving a guardian demon who watches over the wealth of the house.'

Anders turned to stare down at him. 'Am I going to have to fight this demon?'

'It's extremely unlikely. I anticipate that we will reach our goal and retreat before any encounter with the guardian becomes remotely possible. I merely asked you to come along to handle that one chance in a hundred-nay, a thousand-whereby the demon may become aware of our presence.' Jack knelt by the trapdoor and spoke the words of an opening spell, gently passing his hand over the latch. With a small rasping sound, a bolt on the other side slid out of the way. Before the blond-bearded Northman could reconsider, Jack opened the door and dropped inside.

He landed on a soft stack of carpets, surrounded by deep gloom. He'd always had a knack for feeling his way around in the dark. Without stumbling, he glided forward to the storeroom's door and cracked it, peeking out into the hallway. A checkered wooden floor and ornate chestnut paneling gleamed in lamplight outside the storeroom. Watching for any sign of movement, he heard Anders drop into the room somewhat more awkwardly than he had.

'Stay here, good Anders,' he said quietly, 'and be ready to come swiftly to my aid if I call for you.'

'May I ask a simple question first?'

'Of course.'

'How do you intend to divide five gems, Jack? Four or six present no problem, of course, but five are difficult to split between two partners.'

Jack closed the door to the narrowest of cracks and turned back to Anders. 'Well, each of us shall have two rubies to start. That is only fair.'

'That makes four,' Anders observed. 'Do you mean to tell me that you will leave the brothers Kuldath the fifth gem, in order to ensure a fair and even-handed split of the taker?'

'Of course not. I shall have it,' Jack replied.

Anders scowled. 'Your certainty unsettles me, friend Jack. How did you arrive at this decision?'

'It is a simple matter. I conceived tonight's adventure, and I reconnoitered our means of ingress. Therefore, I shall take the greater part of the treasure.' Jack set his hands on his hips, putting on an expression of lordly indulgence. 'Your assistance is important, of course, so I cheerfully assign to you two-fifths of tonight's take. You will note that I deal with you honestly and without deceit before the work commences. Others in our profession might conveniently allow the question of the fifth gem to go unanswered until the prize was in hand. That, in my experience, leads to rash actions and hurtful words.'

'I am not reassured,' the Northman replied.

'Why, you should be, friend Anders. I am in all things and in all ways the very soul of honesty. Not only do I

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