Two more cracks of pistol fire echoed from the alley adjacent to mine as I hurried down the steep Old District hill. Both my blades were out to intimidate would-be attackers, but there was no telling when a desperate shooter might spot me and pull the trigger. Those that lurked in the shadows were always hungry for the treasures on a corpse. In this narrow street, chances were good the gunner would be in range of my sword before they saw me, but that wasn’t a wager I would place.

Not tonight. Not when I was this close to fulfilling Inac’s contract.

But killers and thieves weren’t the only things to beware in the Blight. Speeding wayward down the treacherous hill, there was a danger of nicking myself on a sharp-edged roof sticking out at neck height or flattening myself against the side of a rushing-up shack. Only because I knew these streets so well could I keep control during such a rapid descent. No one survived long in my profession without learning the city inside and out.

When my old orphanage sent me out on the streets to beg for the first time, I was a scared, stick-thin boy with a dirty tangle of black hair that had never been cut and not a single possession I could call my own. Liwokin felt like the entire world, vast and impossible to map. It only took twenty-odd years, but now the city didn’t seem so big. Now, it felt like home, from the mud-slick alleys of the Blight to the paved paths of the Burg that lead beyond the Gild’s guarded gates. As for belongings, I owned a knife, a sword, a crossbow, and a purse full of gold I guarded with all three. I had friends in every district, other hunters I could rely on, bounties enough to fund an extended stay in a fine inn. I had everything I needed.

Until the Riot and the Agency.

Life always changed unpredictably, in ways hard to explain, let alone reverse. Usually it was for the worse, and even if it was for the better, it could be hard to tell. The fact that something like the Great Riot could occur was undoubtedly a change for the worse; nothing that killed so many could ever be considered good. But the Riot led directly to the Agency’s founding, which I would begrudgingly admit had been good for Liwokin—if not for my own well-being. Ulken’s organization had swiftly calmed fears over a recurrence of the event, and the city had been able to gain its footing once more. When it seemed that the city would fall to chaos, the Agency’s work made a real difference.

So why did my stomach turn at the thought of joining?

When the new enforcers of the law appropriated my contracts, the City Council clerk told me taverns would always offer independent work for bounty hunters. I was a fool to believe him. New laws required all but the pettiest of crimes to be reported to the Agency. How could I have foreseen that? Common rabble had no insight into the passage of laws. But I vowed to adapt. It was the only way to survive.

Briefly, I sought an apprenticeship in the Market, and quickly learned I had only a mind for hunting. I tried saving my coin, but they slipped through my fingers faster than I could earn them. I collected friends to help me survive, but who wants a friend who can offer nothing in return? Inac, my client, might have been my closest remaining companion, though he didn’t know it. At least he was gracious enough to believe me when I kept insisting his pendant would turn up soon. Each time I visited him, my pockets had grown lighter, and my desperation had grown heavier. This was my last job; I had no other lined up. Tonight, I would finally deliver on my promise to Inac. After that, I had no choice.

I would have to join the Agency. Only they had the kind of work at which I could succeed.

Because they stole it all from me. A red heat rose behind my eyelids and nearly wrung out tears. Liwokin couldn’t just go back to normal, could it?

After escaping the Blight intact and leaving the wreckage of the ramshackle homes behind, I slowed to a more sustainable pace. The rest of this night’s journey would be on level ground, traveling through safer districts as the city gently curved around Brightcalm Bay.

First, I came to the Artisans District, which bordered the Old District. Its denizens’ minds were equally disordered as the Blightdwellers, but they put them to better use here. Painted statues lined the streets outside the vibrantly colored shops of each artisan vying for business and attention. Some depicted mundane creatures. A huge, spindly crustacean lurched out to reach for passersby. A hard-edged form in the shape of a wolf howled at the empty night sky. Others were carved to portray scenes of Liwo legend. Ahead of me in an open square, an enormous sculpture of marble and Archemetal showed our forebearers’ last stand against the invading armies of Paceeq, when the country expanded to conquer the northern hemisphere and unite it under the rule of the Bright Empress. I stopped to admire this masterpiece, not for the first time. Reflections of starlight shimmered in a golden Archemetal plaque that designated the artisan as anonymous.

Our ancestors fought when the world they knew was being torn away. Now no one even knew their names.

A gentle hand caressed my shoulder. “Need a break from your troubles—”

I whirled with my knife out and gave the poor courtesan a shock to equal my own. She backed up a step until I sheathed my blades. “Sorry, dear. Another time.”

A friend is waiting for me, though he doesn’t know it.

As I made for the next district, several other women of the night approached, making sweet-sounding offers. So too did several scammers, whose offers weren’t half as sweet. I refused all requests—some more unkindly than others—and reached the Market. The central streets of the Trade District were brightly lit, torchlight flickering on the worn-smooth stone with which they had been paved. Few traversed the canopied trade rows now save for hired guards, their torches warding off darkness, their swords warding off thieves. Despite the presence of peacekeepers, I kept a grip on the hilt of my blade. This wasn’t the Blight, but some of the hooded figures I passed were sure to be pickpockets who valued my coin enough to chance the guards. Not that they would protect anything but the shops that hired them. Nor was the city’s old militia around to deter any cutpurse, not since Ulken convinced the City Council to cut their budget.

Just one more thing taken by the Agency.

I turned the corner onto a wide street leading toward Liwokin’s Residential District, the Burg. The Agency’s tower loomed in the distance, peeking over the buildings to my right, fires in the tall tower glittering like a constellation of nearby stars. But that wasn’t my destination tonight. I would find my friend in another new establishment, even newer than the Agency.

Another change I’m not certain is for the better.

Though the City Council only agreed to sanction the Wistwicker for operation in the Trade District, the border between the Market and the Burg was more a suggestion than a demarcation. The poor inhabitants of the homes flanking this raucous inn surely had a few suggestions of their own. The noise of never-ending bar fights swelled as disorderly patrons stumbled out through the front door. Few topics were as divisive as the question of what to do with the inn, but, as it abided by all legal restrictions, there was little its naysayers could do. For good or for ill, the Wistwicker was part of the city now.

The front door crashed open just before I pushed my way in. I stepped aside to let two inebriated men pass, each holding onto the tunic of his foe and shouting in his face. A dozen cheering watchers streamed after them and formed a circle around the men as they brawled in the street, while the guard posted nearby pretended nothing was happening.

I shook my head and entered. The overwhelming, ever-present aroma of ale welcomed me to an establishment housing activities that made the commotion outside seem neighborly and serene. Jugs and tankards sloshed as rowdy patrons bumped the servers weaving their way through the throng. There were three different group songs happening at once, though I hadn’t the slightest idea how anyone kept in time with one another over the cacophony. I scanned the room for my friend, though I guessed he wouldn’t be up here. He’d be hiding in the basement, just like last time.

A long stairway led down into a wholly different environment. Darker, more restrained, and with fewer people. Some seedy individuals conversed in quiet tones, inaudible over the sound from upstairs that masked their plans for misdeed. Inac sat alone at the same table as always. He was easy enough to spot. He wore the same tattered cloak, a deep ocean-blue trimmed with silver fringes, with the hood pushed back. He wore the same hair, sandy brown and curly atop his head, trimmed short at the sides. And he wore the same posture, slouched down and head hanging, sighing into his cups. If I had to guess, I would have said he was younger than me, but while the years had been hard on me, something told me they had been even harder on him. When I sat down across from Inac, he looked up at me with dark green eyes, tired and bloodshot.

Poor guy looks worse every time I see him. Good thing I’m here to make his day.

“Hope you’ve haven’t spent everything on drink,” I said, and flashed him a grin.

“Ah, Grim,” he said, not smiling back. “It has for us been some time.” I always met Inac in a tavern, and his manner of speaking once made me think the ale had addled his mind. But although his voice was accented and quick, he never slurred his words, despite the many empty tankards nearby. “For what have you come to me tonight?”

“Would you believe I just came to visit a good friend?”

Inac rolled his eyes.

I chuckled. “The prospect of coin of course, Inac. You know me.”

“Always you say to me this.” He took a long drink and swallowed it loudly before pushing aside another empty tankard. “Always you are hopeful, but with never a reason.”

“I have to assure you I’ll finish the job. The Agency certainly wouldn’t do you the courtesy. And I don’t want you reconsidering, thinking I’ve forgotten you. Have to maintain relationships, you know? Only way to survive as an independent hunter these days.” I winked at Inac and took a swig from his newly delivered tankard. He frowned. “Besides, I’ve plenty of reason for hope tonight.” I reached into my coat and held up the contract, then spread it flat on the table. “I believe the reward was specified here. ‘Forty golden coins bearing the starburst sigil of the Empress,’ it says.”

Inac’s eyebrows raised. “You brought to me…”

I reached into my pocket again, held the broken pendant and hesitated. “First, let me just say—”

“Please, Grim! Let me see it.” His eyes were eager, all tiredness washed away.

I sighed and revealed the pendant’s damage. “I’m sorry. The thief was an—”
He snatched it from my hand with surprising agility and examined it closely. I studied his expression as it transitioned from relief to pain, and something like…shame?

“Archemage,” I finished. “He’s dead now. Burned up, but not before doing some damage.”

Inac wiped the start of tears from his eyes and sighed. “How long has it been…three measures? I thought to myself forever it was lost.” He looked up, half grinning, then tossed a small pouch across the table. It landed in front of me with a clink. “Your stars. It seems to me I owe to you a real drink.” He summoned the lone server and ordered two shots of Stinbine rum.

“Some bread to chase it for me,” I said, stomach rumbling. “And crab legs, buttered. Anything for you, Inac?”

“Not for me,” my friend said. “I am good.”

I handed the server eight stars for the meal, a fifth of my reward already gone. For the rum, Inac handed over two more coins to the man. The server bowed deeply, then turned and darted up the steps.

“You know, not that I’m complaining,” I said, “but most people wouldn’t post such a bounty for a lost pendant.”

Inac nodded. “Yes. I first tried the Agency, but they said to me it would be many measures before they could give to me their help. I could not wait for them. I had to have it back. It is to me…very important.”

“I had a good look at it. Finely crafted,” I said, then scratched the back of my head. “Sorry I couldn’t return it in one piece.”

Inac shook his head. “It only was this I worried about.” He remained silent for a moment, rubbing his thumb over the pendant’s iridescent black stone. “It reminds to me of my brother.”

The way he hesitated made my chest tighten. I never had a family, but I knew loss well enough. “Your brother…how long has it been?”

His brows furrowed. “I cannot remember. Ever since I—” He flinched at his own words, then took a long breath. “I only know it was long before the Riot.”

“You were here for it, then. I don’t suppose you have any insight into how it started?”

Inac shrugged. “Some things are for us not meant to be known.”

“You believe that? If we don’t see it coming, how can we prepare? We were lucky to survive the first, but the way Liwokin’s gone since then…the city can’t take another.”

“The years before the Riot…they only are for me a haze,” Inac said. “Thinking of them only reminds to me of grief. And drink.” His voice cracked, and he lifted his tankard to his lips. “Then there was the Riot. I afterward realized I did not want for myself to die. If there is another, I at least will be awake.”

A lull fell on the conversation as I stared down at the table. Hard to believe the Riot could have been good for anybody. Had the disaster truly pulled Inac back from the brink of despair? Despite meeting with him a dozen times, Inac had never been particularly talkative until this night. An air of sadness always surrounded him, but I hadn’t known how heavy it hung. A server interrupted our silence to deliver two small glasses of Stinbine rum.

Not wanting to probe my friend’s wounds too deeply, I changed the subject. “Tell me about the Stinbine Isles. What were they like before you left?”

Inac pulled his gaze away from his pendant. “A small isle called Sea Pot Lake was for me home. It did not back then seem to me so small.” Inac picked up his shot glass and half-submerged it in a tankard. The rum sat lower than the ale, but the glass kept the two liquids from mixing. “Huge walls keep out the sea, but they also keep out most visitors. I did not know there was beyond them a whole world.” He tipped the shot glass on its side and let a trickle of ale enter, then set it back on the table in a golden-brown puddle. “The great forests in Eko are like those in the Sea Pot, but I could not live with them in the treetops. So I came here. I like it here. The bay reminds to me of the lake.”

“I like it here too,” I said, smiling. “Liwokin’s always been my home. Can’t help but feel a sort of kinship with my fellow Liwo. Whether they’re Blightdwellers or Gildmembers, I don’t have to like them, but they’re family. For good or for ill.” I lifted my shot glass to my nose, wrinkling at the sharp smell of the foreign liquor.

Inac snorted. “I see you never have had Stinbine rum. I am surprised you have left any sense of smell. Have I never told to you how bad this city stinks?”

I laughed. “Makes the good smells that much sweeter.”

“In Liwokin? I am not sure there are any good smells. The Market smells to me like rotting whale carcass.”

Probably worse.

Warmth spread through my chest. Our earlier meetings had consisted of me making empty promises and an intoxicated Inac humoring me because he had no other options. After so many days searching fruitlessly for his pendant, it was good to see it had so greatly lifted his spirits.

“The Market. That’s where you earn your coin then?” I asked.

“Many days I do,” Inac said. “I some days work for crafters in the Artisans District. Meaningless work. Imbuing for smiths their nails. Tempering into Archemetal raw iron.”

My eyes widened. “Archemetal? How’ve I known you this long without knowing you’re a mage?”

He shrugged. “Did my robe not give to you a clue?”

I chuckled. “Thought that was a Stinbine Isle thing. Don’t know much about Archemages. One tried to kill me earlier tonight, though.”

“I am sure in your line of work many more than that have tried to kill you, my friend. There are many of us. You yourself could become one. The Empire teaches to all the world Archemagic, or so they believe.” Inac sighed and muttered. “They do not know of Archemagic its true nature. They upset the balance, use like a crude tool the Fire.”

“Its true nature?” I asked. Was he implying there was something other than Archefire?

Inac waved the question away as a server delivered my plate, overflowing with the legs of a massive, steaming crab. He set down a bowl of melted butter and a heel of fresh bread. My mouth watered—this was the first time in two measures eating anything other than dried meat and old stew.

I bet Ulken’s Fingers eat this well every night.

Then I remembered something. I dug into my coat pocket and found the blank note dropped by Inac’s pendant thief. The Archemage had made it glow somehow.

“Can you use your magic to light this up?” I asked, holding up the paper.

The mage snapped the fingers of his right hand and a mote of flame appeared in midair. “Easily,” he said. “Why?”

I yanked the paper back. “Not like that,” I said. “The mage who stole your pendant had this. It gave off a blue glow in his hand before he dropped it to the ground.”

Inac cocked his head, extinguished the Fire, and took the note. “A blue glow? That does not sound to me like the Fire.” Yet, as Inac held the note close to his chest, the paper began emitting the same inky blue glow I saw earlier in the Blight.

“How are you doing that?” I asked in wonder.

“This is not my doing,” he said, searching the table for the culprit. He let out a curious hum when he found it. “It is the pendant.” He held the pendant closer to the paper and the glow focused into letters, revealing hidden writing.

My old friend has caught wind of more monsters abroad. No word yet whether he will make a move. Ulken thinks they remain under control, but events have outpaced him. Keep your eyes on the advisor and report back to me.

An elaborate signature followed the cryptic message, perhaps to prove its validity to the recipient, whoever they were.

“Reed,” I said. “That name mean anything to you?”

“It means to me nothing,” Inac said, “but it is to me clear that this message was not meant for our eyes.”

I snorted. “What gave it away, the invisible ink?”

Inac grinned wide, the gap showing between his two front teeth. “The Agency helped recover from the Riot, no? And Ulken, he created the Agency. Why would someone conspire against him, the most powerful man in the city?”

“Who else would people conspire against but the most powerful?” I broke off a chunk of bread and shoved it in my mouth. The flavor was so rich I nearly teared up. Flakes of crust spread across the table as I tore off another mouthful with my teeth. Still chewing, I said, “Maybe this Reed wants the position for himself. But what’s he talking about? Monsters abroad? Only thing that comes to mind are the Skardwarves, but they’re stuck in the south.”

“Old tales tell to us that these were once their lands,” Inac said, “before we drove them across the sea. Maybe they want to reclaim it.”

I paused mid-bite and licked my lips. The Empire wouldn’t allow it.

“Those are just stories,” I said. “Ulken doesn’t need to keep them under control. It doesn’t fit. Peekers, perhaps? There’s enough of them to take over the world.”

Inac shook his head. “I have never met a Peeker Pair I did not like. There is one here now.” He pointed. Two Peekers—wearing no clothes, but covered head to toe in fuzzy brown hair and chitinous shells—sat at a table and conversed in their buzzing manner, sloshing their drinks and clicking with laughter. “No, I do not think these are the monsters of which this Reed writes.”

My mind raced, but it was like trying to pick out a bounty from crowd while only knowing his hair color. Without some way to narrow the possibilities, the target could simply blend in. A familiar feeling came over me, the one I felt when taking on a new bounty. My skin tingled with excitement; I couldn’t help but get lost in the mystery, consumed by the hunt. The way Inac’s eyes darted around as he tapped his chin, I knew he felt the same. But with only this fragment, we’d get nowhere.

I caught myself. The answer was right under my nose, but I was asking the wrong questions. “We won’t figure this out here,” I said, “and we don’t have to.”

Inac narrowed his eyes. “What are you thinking, my friend?”

My pulse raced. I looked around to be sure no one paid us any attention. “I’m thinking we use this information to squeeze some reward from the most powerful man in the city.”

Inac sat back in his chair and crossed his arms. “Why?”

“Because ever since Ulken created the Agency,” I said with more fire than I expected, “nothing has gone my way. He’s taken all my contracts and practically outlawed bounty hunting. His Finger nearly took your pendant earlier tonight. I’m sick of it. He owes me something in return.”

“And me?” Inac asked. “Ulken owes to me nothing.”

“No,” I said. “But I do. How long did you wait for me to fulfill that contract? Whatever I get from Ulken, I want you to share in it.” I tore off a leg from the crab and pointed the orange limb at Inac. “Plus, I need your help. Without your pendant, he’d never believe me.”

Inac smiled. “Ah. So that is it.” He swirled the remaining ale in his cup. “And how do you think it will go? We walk right up to the boss, tell to him someone is plotting against him, and he will hand to us a big bag of gold?”

I shook my head. “They don’t let anyone into the Agency. We’d have to join.”

Inac’s hand stopped. He leveled a stare at me. “Join the Agency. Us?”

I shrugged. “It’s the only way we can get to Ulken.”

Inac narrowed his eyes. “And they let to join anybody who wants?”

“Don’t think so. But I’ve got a friend on the inside. A Finger, Bengard—I saved his life. He told me they could use a fighter. And a mage. It’ll be easy. He’ll vouch for us.”

“Then why do you not just tell to him about the note?”

“And risk losing the reward?” I chuckled. “I said I saved his life, not that I would trust him with mine. No, the information’s got to come from us directly.”

Inac pursed his lips and looked down. I waited for him to call the idea as crazy as it truly was. What business did I have asking him to help me extort someone as lauded as Ulken? Instead, he drank down the rest of his ale and leaned forward on his elbows. “What do you think this reward will be?” he asked.

But what he really meant was, “Why does this mean so much to you?

I stared at the blank note on the table, as if my will alone would summon the secretive words. What could we get from Ulken for this? I broke open a crab leg, dipped it in the butter, and savored the delectable meat. What did I want from him?

To not worry about starving to death. To not only survive, but to thrive in this city… For things to return to how they used to be.

But some things were beyond the control of even the most powerful.

I ran a hand across my scalp. “I don’t know. Maybe the best we can hope for is a good position in the Agency.” I tossed the empty crab shell away. “Or we could burn this note in Archefire right now and go back to our lives of luxury, chasing thieves and imbuing magic nails.”

Inac burst out laughing, loud enough to turn all the heads in the room. “Our lives of luxury! To that, I will drink,” he said, lifting his shot glass.

“To thieves and magic nails,” I said, raising my own. My voice and hand shook from the flush of adrenaline coursing through me. Were we really doing this? I was glad Inac agreed. Pulling off this plan would be much easier with a friend.

Our glasses clinked and we threw back the rum. Fire bloomed, first in my chest as I swallowed down the liquor, then in my mouth from the spices that lingered. Sweat beaded on my forehead as I panted, tongue stuck out.

Inac laughed again. “Now you see, Stinbine rum burns hotter than Archefire!”

Despite myself, I laughed as well. That, too, was always easier with friends.