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Ari Marmell

Thief's Covenant

PROLOGUE

Two years ago:

The girl watched, helpless, as the world turned red beneath her.

She clung-first to the walls above, where few could even have attempted to climb, and then to the rafters-terrified to move, to breathe, to think, lest she accidentally attract a murderous eye. No matter how she tried, no matter how hard she bit her own hand in a desperate attempt at silence, she couldn't entirely suppress her sobs. Her body shook with them; her face glistened. But any sounds she made were lost in the carnage below; any tears that fell vanished in the sheen of blood that covered the floor.

Blood that, minutes before, had pumped from the hearts of men and women she knew. Men and women she loved.

Long after the slaughter had ended, long after silence had fallen, Adrienne Satti could only clutch the rafters with both arms and legs, her eyes squeezed tight, and pray.

Thin strands of mold clung to broken mortar along a wall of bricks. The watery tendrils of twisting underground estuaries and manmade sewers flowed beyond those walls, sweeping away the city's filth, twisting and wearing away at the brickwork, keeping it consistently damp. As easily find a museum without dust, or a tax collector without scars, as a cellar beneath the city of Davillon without mold.

Yet it was neither mold nor condensation weighing down the chamber's stagnant air, obscuring the abstract designs on the burnished flagstones. Rather, it was blood-almost inconceivable quantities of it, mixing with the mold into a foul sludge, seeping through cracks in the floor, seeking a return to the primal earth. Scattered across those ornate tiles lay an obscene carpet of limbs and other, less recognizable bits that had so recently stood upright, talked and laughed and borne names.

With a gut-churning squelch, a booted foot stepped into the chamber of horrors. And there it remained, in mid-stride, until its wearer cautiously examined the floor to ensure he was not about to set foot on a corpse, or part of one.

A second glance followed, to ensure that his gauntlet had not picked up any of the stray filth that caked the walls. Only then did Sergeant Cristophe Chapelle of the Davillon City Guard carefully smooth his salt-and-pepper mustache (poking, in the process, at the camphor extract that he and the others had applied to their nostrils). A brief prayer to Demas moving silently across his lips, he grimly shook his head.

“This is a mess,” he muttered irritably. “We're going to have to count heads.”

“Sir? Sir, I-that is, I think…” The voice petered out as the younger Guardsman gagged, forcing something back down where it belonged.

Chapelle turned toward the speaker, a young recruit named Julien Bouniard. Soft, unassuming features and slightly drooping eyelids belied both wit and reflexes at least as keen as the service rapier that hung loosely at his hip. Like the sergeant, he wore the black tabard of the Guard, emblazoned with the silver fleur-de-lis, and a medallion of Demas, patron deity of the Guard, around his neck-a medallion he rubbed gingerly between thumb and finger, seeking comfort and strength. Only his ribbons of rank differentiated his uniform from that of his sergeant.

Well, those and the abstract patterns of blood on his boots.

“What is it, Constable?” Chapelle demanded, his face a gruff mask behind which his own revulsion cowered.

“I've identified one of the dead, sir.”

Not a good sign. “And who might that be?”

“Sir, I believe…I really think you'd better see this for yourself. If I'm wrong…”

“Understood, Constable. Show me.”

Accompanied by a chorus of nauseating sounds, they crossed the chamber, stopping beside one particularly hideous corpse. The other Guardsmen, scattered throughout the room, paused in their own investigations to see what their sergeant was about.

Chapelle crouched perfunctorily beside the body Julien indicated-no. No, this wasn't even a proper body. It was a shell, a suit of meat. Everything that gave life, everything that was supposed to be found within, was scattered around instead, ripped out through a gaping chasm in the abdomen.

It was the work of no weapon with which the sergeant was familiar. A bear, maybe, or a panther, if such a beast had somehow developed a sadistic taste for suffering.

Unable to put it off any longer, Chapelle turned his attention to the victim's face, blinked back a surge of pity at the horrified expression forever etched into the man's features. Clearly, the fellow saw exactly what was coming, and couldn't do a damn thing about-

“Demas!” he cursed as recognition finally set in. “It's Robert Vereaux!”

He lacked the wherewithal, as he rose to his feet, to reprimand his men for the shocked murmurs that swirled about the chamber.

And then, because things clearly weren't bad enough, one of the other Guardsmen shot to his feet. “I've another one, sir!” the Guardsman stammered. “I think it's Marie Richelieu!”

Chapelle cursed vilely, something he never did in front of the men. The Lady Richelieu was the young matriarch of a household that was, if anything, wealthier even than House Vereaux. Unmindful now of what he stepped on, the sergeant darted over. Sure enough, he recognized the pert features and ravishing blonde curls of Marie Richelieu, though a sizable portion of her left cheek was absent.

The old Guardsman, growing visibly older by the instant, could only shake his head, mumbling prayers beneath his breath. The House Richelieu was quite accustomed to scandal and slander, but this was not the sort of public affair with which the House was equipped to deal.

And if there were two, how many more? Sergeant Chapelle set his men to examining every face, and with each positive identification, his world tilted farther off its axis. Pierre Montrand. Josephine Poumer. Darien Lemarche. Gaston Carnot, the Marquis de Brielles. No, they couldn't put a name to every face, nor even a face to every victim. But every last soul they could identify hailed from the ranks of Davillon's rich and powerful; each name they recorded was another House about to become the stuff of rumor, another god bereft of a most eminent follower.

Swallowing his distaste, Sergeant Chapelle ordered a more thorough search of the room. If there were clues to be found, they could well be hidden beneath a carpeting of blood, and they weren't about to leap out and reveal themselves.

The Guardsmen applied an extra dose of the disease-shielding camphor to their noses, swallowed their rising gorges, and began to sift.

A pair of fearful eyes in an oceanic shade, hovering indecisively on the cusp between blue and green, blinked open to watch the Guardsmen anxiously from above. The rafters atop which the blood-smeared figure had scurried-which were utterly unnecessary in the arched stone chamber, possibly left over from the days of construction-were thin, dusty, precarious. Yet she crouched among them carelessly, a human spider clinging to her perch, breathing through her mouth in a futile attempt to avoid the grisly fetor.

Her whole body trembled as a thrill of panic danced spastically up her spine, sending a trickle of dust raining from the rafters. Her own fear momentarily overwhelmed by this external, alien emotion, she twisted her head to glance over her shoulder, though she knew no one was present.

Not physically, at least.

“Stop that!” she hissed in a raw whisper. “This is hard enough without you distracting me!”

Through the fear, she sensed a faint but unmistakable tingle of sheepishness.

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