Authors: Raymond E. Feist
To the gamers who bought
Betrayal at Krondor
Return to Krondor
and gave me an opportunity
to work with some of my favourite
Table of Contents
AMES CRIED OUT IN PAIN
He barely managed to pull to the right as the assassin’s blade sliced his left side. Any man a scant instant slower in recognizing the danger would now be lying dead on the floor; but James stepped past the out-thrust arm of the killer, wrapping his own arm around the man’s neck and drawing his dagger.
Squire James of Krondor, once known as Jimmy the Hand, boy-thief extraordinary, and now personal assistant to Prince Arutha of Krondor, had lived among murderers, thugs and bullies his entire life, and he had faced skilled assassins more times than he cared to recount. The man who had tried to take him down was not as gifted as the members of the deadly Guild of Assassins, the Nighthawks, but he was no common street thug, either. James knew this struggle would be over in moments, and he was determined not to be the one who ended up lying face down on the cobbles in a sea of his own blood.
The assassin did as James expected, reversing his dagger and slashing backwards into the space James was at that very instant vacating. His left side was hot and sticky, and hurt as badly as any injury he chose to remember, but he knew the wound wasn’t life threatening, being no more than a slice across his ribs. It would require plenty of stitches, but it wouldn’t kill him. Unless he allowed it to distract him and slow him down.
Ignoring the pain, James let himself fall to the cobbles, then twisted as the assassin lost his balance. He was not willing to let this become a grappling match, as blood loss would quickly give the other man the advantage. Instead he allowed the fellow to fall on top of him. His right elbow struck the stone and pain shot up to his shoulder. Only the frenzy of the fight kept him from losing consciousness. But he held tight to his blade as the assassin attempted to turn and strike.
At the moment when fate decides who lives and who does not, James’s blade met the entire weight of the man while the assassin’s blade sliced through air.
James felt the man stiffen for a moment, then go limp. He lay motionless for a long, painful minute, refusing to give in to the darkness that was threatening to overwhelm him. He had been injured enough times in his young life to understand that he was experiencing shock, and that that in itself could kill him. Losing consciousness for any length of time in this particular part of the city was a ticket to certain death. If blood loss didn’t do for him, the city watch would find him floating in the bay with empty pockets.
Too many people in this part of Krondor wished to see Squire James dead. Some of their ire was well earned, but some of it was simply a matter of circumstance. The Mockers no longer officially wanted him dead for betraying them, or at least that was how it was told to the rank and file, though in fact his life had been bartered for by the Prince of Krondor in return for saving Arutha’s life. Years later, he was still considered to be no longer protected by the Guild of Thieves, but the reality was that he had begun to build a network of agents in the principality.
After a bloody encounter with the Guild of Assassins, and having discovered that the Kingdom’s spy network was non-existent, Prince Arutha had charged James with the task of creating an effective intelligence service, so he had started recruiting. Among his first recruits were a number of young Mockers who still regarded him as a friend. But there were still more who would count it a lucky break to be able to brag that they had ended the days of Jimmy the Hand.
Either way, staying in this part of the city for too long was likely to bring an unwelcome end to the night.
James sat up and took a long, deep breath. His side was on fire and his head swam from the pain. He was far enough from the palace that there was a real danger he might not get there before passing out.
He got to his feet slowly, only to have the ground conspire to move beneath them. Making a quick inventory of the people nearby who might do him a good turn, he discovered the list was short. Staggering along, he kept himself upright with a hand on the wall.
Krondor’s habitual night fog was thickening, and predators were likely to be shrouded in it, so returning to the palace became doubly problematic.
As a port, the city was oddly situated. There was a growing trade port less than five days’ ride south by wagon which would have been an ideal harbour, being south-facing in a wide bay. Even the town of Sarth to the north would have been a better port with some dredging and a man-made breakwater. But the original Prince of Krondor, upon reaching the shore of the Bitter Sea, had declared the promontory upon which the castle was built to be where he’d raise the Kingdom’s flag. The standing joke among the palace staff was that Krondor was where it was because the original prince loved the view of the sunsets from that hall.
James had to admit, they were often lovely sunsets.
He realized he was getting giddy and forced his mind to clarity as he stumbled towards his destination. As he moved slowly along, he reviewed how he had managed to find himself in this predicament. Since returning from the north and his very odd adventures involving the mad pirate named Bear, he had been investigating the presence of a rival gang in Krondor, headed by a mysterious figure known only as the Crawler.
In the last four months life in Krondor had returned as much to normal as it ever did. The prince was busy overseeing the welfare of half a nation, including being the primary spokesman for his brother the king to both the Island Kingdom of Queg and the Free Cities of Natal – the Kingdom’s chief trading partners in the west, as well as its chief military threat. Bulk goods from the northern province of Yabon came down the coast to be brokered and sent eastward, while luxury goods from the east and down in the Empire came through on their way to Yabon, the Free Cities, and the Far Coast.
But one thing hadn’t returned to normal, and that was criminal activity.
Which was why the Prince of Krondor’s personal squire found himself bleeding more than he’d prefer in a side street near the boundary between the Merchants’ Quarter and the Poor Quarter of the city. For weeks he had paid every rumour-monger and informant he could trust to provide half-way decent intelligence and had bullied, threatened and bribed any Mocker he could find, in order to try to piece together a picture of what was going on here.
When the Crawler had first appeared on the scene he had been viewed as merely one more interloper, an ambitious upstart who would be quickly destroyed or absorbed by the Upright
Man’s Mockers. By the time James had left the city to deal with
the problem surrounding the theft of the Tear of the Gods – the Ishapian Temple’s most revered artefact – he had sensed that something was already different about this gang. There was a relationship between the Crawler and some very evil and bloody magic that was plaguing the principality. He couldn’t connect the events of the last few years since uncovering the demon cult in the Jal-Pur desert, the loss of the Tear of the Gods, and other odd occurrences directly to the Crawler and his men, but what James called his ‘bump of trouble’ told him there was, somehow, a connection, and he intended to discover what it was.
James had undertaken that mission for the prince and the Ishapians a few months previously, and since returning to Krondor he and Jazhara, the prince’s advisor on magic, had been poring over reports, searching for those that directly or indirectly referenced the sort of events that might point back to the Crawler and his allies.
A pattern had emerged. Although it centred on Krondor, it extended from Durbin in the west on the coast of Kesh, all the way north to Ylith, southernmost city in Yabon Province. It had taken a lot of work, but the prince had set it as a high priority: the attempted theft of the Tear of the Gods had troubled him deeply. There were few truly sacred things in life, but the Tear was one of them: without it, all the temples in the world would be cut off from the gods for ten years until a new Tear was formed in the mountains to the west. James was one of the few outside the Ishapian Temple even to know that the Tear existed. That knowledge illustrated the level of threat: someone else knew what it was and had tried to seize it for their own use, or to deny it to the Ishapians.
Whether he was architect or agent, James did not know; but that the Crawler played a part in this he did not doubt at all.
He willed himself to take one painful step after another, holding his left arm tightly against his side, using his soaked tunic to staunch the blood flow as much as he could. His mind kept trying to wander, but he forced himself to focus on what he knew so far.
Weeks of enquiry had brought James to a meeting that had a high probability of being between independent smugglers who were avoiding both the Crown’s scrutiny and the Mockers’ oversight, and an important agent of the Crawler. He had conferred with three of his informants, and then personally ventured out to observe this meeting.
He leaned against the wall and blinked hard, shaking his head, both to clear it and in self-recrimination at his own arrogance.
It had been a trap.
James pushed himself away from the wall and managed to get as far as the corner. He judged the time to be some three hours before dawn: the palace chirurgeon would be less than pleased to be woken in the dead of night to sew up the prince’s squire yet again.
Still, thought James as he half-walked, half-staggered through the empty Merchants’ Quarter, it wasn’t as if the man hadn’t done it many times before.
What had struck James about talking with his informants in the basement room of the inn owned by one of the Mockers he trusted most, was that they were truly frightened. A few confrontations between the Upright Man’s bashers and agents of the Crawler had produced more dead bashers than expected; moreover, the Crawler had made his intentions clear enough by looting a very special shed near the Royal Customs where items of high value were secreted away until cooperative customs agents came on duty. The contents of that shed were worth a half-year’s theft, extortion and robbery to the Mockers, and the Upright Man had put out the word that any man who brought him the identity of the Crawler would be given a lifetime’s riches.