Read The Ritual Online

Authors: Erica Dakin,H Anthe Davis

Tags: #Romance, #Romantic Suspense, #Science Fiction & Fantasy, #Fantasy, #Epic, #Sword & Sorcery, #Mystery & Suspense, #Suspense

The Ritual

BOOK: The Ritual
6.53Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub







Book 1 of the Theft and Sorcery Trilogy





Copyright © 2013 Erica Dakin






To Hillary

Because without you

this book would not have been what it is now.




Concentrate, steady, stay relaxed.
My mantra ran through my head in a constant litany, more out of habit than out of a real need to focus on the words. It was an old trick, one I’d developed from the very first lesson with my master Naerev, back when I had just started learning my ‘trade’, and it had stuck.

I felt a bead of sweat trickle down between my breasts, but ign
ored it as I ran my fingers across the lockpicks in their velvet roll, finally settling on the one I thought might open the lock on the jewellery coffer in front of me.

I slipped it into the tiny lock and closed my eyes, allowing my fingers to feel the delicate movement of the intricate mechanism as I tried to prise it open. It took a few heartbeats, b
ut then I heard a muted click and grinned, satisfied.

Another bead of sw
eat formed, trickling down my temple, and I allowed myself a moment to wipe it away before I carefully lifted the lid to examine the contents. I recognised the pieces I’d seen earlier and my grin widened when I saw several more of even higher value. Foolish elf, to display his wealth so ostentatiously, yet neglect to implement sufficient measures to keep rogues like me out. No dogs in the house or on the property, locks on the windows and doors that were barely a challenge to me, and finally this jewellery coffer, also with a cheap lock and in a dressing chamber off the main bedroom rather than in a room where people slept.

A loud snore emanated from that same bedroom, and my elation dropped a notch when I remembered how that elven lord, so peacefully asleep next door, had swanned around with his human whore on his arm
earlier in the day. Few elvish men were as open about their obsession with humans as this one, but it was common enough that there was an entire industry catering for it. And unfortunately, such couplings were sufficiently fertile to often result in children, half elvish and half human, like my sister and I. Cross-breeds who could never have their own children, for all half-elves were invariably barren.

I quickly started transferring the jewellery into my velvet loot bag, suddenly wanting to be out of there, away from the repulsive thought that his whore might still be there,
and that they had fucked each other to exhaustion.

Then the door creaked and I froze, cold sweat sending a shiver down my back. The snoring had stopped –
had I been discovered? I remained poised like that for several moments before something brushed against my shin and I almost yelped with surprise. Cold, stark terror gripped me for an instant before my brain worked it out: a cat.

I carefully let my breath escape and reached down to scratch the animal’s silky ear before pushing it away. It started purring, loud enough to wake the dead, and I
realised that I had outstayed my welcome. Both Shani and I needed to eat, so my first priority was to get out of here undetected and with enough loot to give us some good, hard coin. Opportunities like this particular house did not come along often enough that I could afford to waste it by getting caught.

It was a matter of moments to climb out the window and shimmy down the ivy growing against the house, and from there I skulked to the spot where I had hid
den my cloak and a rag to scrub my face. The boot grease wouldn’t come off altogether like that, but even at this time of the night, in this part of the city, the streets were busy enough that I didn’t want to stand out as much as I did with a black face and in skin-tight black velvet.

Luck really was with me tonight, it seemed. I reached my bundle just as a beggar was about to make off with it, and he nearly jumped out of his skin when I grabbed him by the arm.

“Drop it, that’s mine,” I said, keeping my voice low.

His eyes gleamed at me from a handsome face nearly as black as mine, except with dirt rather than grease.
, it flashed through my mind, but although he was grimy and smelled, and although he hunched over in something akin to deference, he replied, “Mine now, found it fair and square.”

I produced a
dagger from my sleeve and pressed it against his cheek. “I said, drop it, it’s mine.”

I saw
him swallow, then he did just that, taking a step back and spreading his empty hands for me to see. “Fine, it’s yours.” I continued to glare at him until he took another two steps back, then he turned away. “It looked warm, is all,” he muttered, and I felt a small stab of remorse. Ridiculous, since it wasn’t my fault that he was a beggar, nor could I afford to lose my cloak, but before I could stop myself I had dug a silver from the pocket in my sleeve and tossed it at him, cursing myself for my silly sentimentalism. One of these days it’d get me killed.

I didn’t wait for his response;
instead I strode away, pulling the cloak around me. I fetched the rag from the pocket and pulled up the hood, and brushed at my face as I moved from shadow to shadow through the streets of Mazar. The lamp lighters had done their job in this affluent district, but before long I reached the seedier part of town and the lights became sparser. I didn’t mind - it made it easier to avoid the guards, though most of them were inattentive anyway, dozing away in sheltered corners or leaning on their pikes.

When the scent of horse manure and mud became stronger I knew I was nearly back at the inn, and I idly skirted around another beggar, this one asleep – or passed out drunk – in the gutter. We had picked our lodgings more
for its rough, easy to climb walls than its other virtues, though luck would have it that the rooms were mostly vermin-free and the food was better than average. Apart from that they also didn’t ban half-elves from staying, as many of them did, which meant a rare occasion for us to feel like more than second-rate citizens and social outcasts. I quickly ascended the wall and slipped through the window, and heard my sister stir when I landed lightly on the floor.

“Rin?” she asked sleepily, before rubbing her eyes
and clambering out of bed. “I didn’t expect you back so quickly, so I went to sleep.”

he moved to the table, and as she took up a cloth and wetted it in a bowl of soapy water left there for that purpose I sat down facing her, giving a half-hearted shrug. “Job was easier than I thought it would be, plus I wanted to get out of there before I threw up.”

raised her eyebrows. “Oh?”

I grimaced and sighed. “I heard him snore. Couldn’t help but wonder if he still had his whore with him.”

Her expression went flat, and she started scouring my face a little more viciously. “I still don’t understand why the king allows it,” she muttered.

“Because he can’t enforce it without help of the local elven lords, and they’re not likely to get rid of their favourite pastime,” I said patiently. “Ow, Shani, that hurts!”

She eased off. “Sorry, but I just don’t get it. He hates our kind, and they’re perpetuating our existence.”

I sighed and took her wrist. “Why do we always end up having this conversation? You know how it works. Elves call the shots, and if they want to fuck humans they’ll do as they please. Humans keep everything going in the meantime, keen to keep their cushy jobs, so they’re not likely to protest. And we…”

“We get by as best we can, I know,” she said. “But for a king who professes to loathe us as much as he does, he’s doing surprisingly little about it.”

I shrugged. “I suppose per
secuting us is more fun than preventing our existence. He’s been king for what, fifteen decades? Life must get boring after such a long time.”

“Well, excuse me if I can’t feel much sympathy,” she said, dropping the cloth on the table. “There, you’re clean.”

“Thanks.” I smiled at her and studied her face in the light of the single candle, noting with relief that she had already put the issue behind her again. My sister was a dreamer and an inveterate optimist, always hopeful that life would somehow get better, that things would change, and although she refused to ever believe otherwise, she never dwelt on it for too long and was quick to move on and let go. I, on the other hand, was the cautious one, the pessimist, the one who always expected the worst. I suppose we balanced each other out.

For all our differences, I had never needed a mirror – I onl
y ever needed to look at Shani. I knew her dark brown eyes were also mine, that her fiery red hair echoed my own colouring and that my skin glowed with the exact same muted tan. My face ended in the same pointed chin, showed the same high cheekbones, featured the same straight, almost aristocratic nose. People had called us beautiful, and eerily alike, and eventually I had lopped off my hair just below the chin, both out of frustration of always being mistaken for my twin sister and out of practicality. It wasn’t easy – or smart, for that matter – to be a thief with hair reaching down to your waist, and a night in a prison cell after a pursuing victim had snatched me by the braid had been the final thing to convince me of it.

I had owed my life to Naerev after that, escaping the gallows when he fetched me out in the middle of the night, and two weeks after that I had left him. I would rather continue to learn my trade on my own than give him the kind of gratitude he seemed to expe
ct of me after that.

followed me, of course. Different though our vocations may have been, neither of us would ever desert the other, for all we had was each other, ever since our escape from the half-elf orphanage at thirteen. Had we stayed, we might have been picked up as slaves like so many of our kind, or else kicked out at seventeen to fend for ourselves – except that Shani had started to show signs of being a sorceress, which meant she would have been enslaved by some elven lord within days. The talent was rare and extremely valuable, and since I had no magic we would have been split up – a thought neither of us could bear.

the last traces of illegal activity had been wiped from my face I rested my forehead against my sister’s, and set my hand on her shoulder in silent camaraderie. We were as alike as two stars in the sky, and as different as the sun and the moon. Neither of us knew what we wanted from life, so we took it as it came, following our whims and letting fate drive us or guide us, never certain which of the two it was.

Society restricted us; Shani
was right about King Sovander hating half-elves. To him we were abominations, worse than vermin. If he could have eradicated us he would have, but half-elves were too numerous, and the rest of the elvish nobility were too used to having us as their slaves.

Those of us who weren’t slaves lived like we did: on the edge. Some were thieves, like me, but most half-elves scrounged at
odd jobs, hiding away as labourers for tolerant human artisans and disappearing whenever the royal guards came by to check for illegal half-elf workers, since it was forbidden for us to carry out any skilled labour, on penalty of death.

Naerev had taught me to pickpocket, to steal small items unnoticed from shops and market stalls, a
nd how to carry out the basics of burglary. It had been hard to continue it after leaving him, but in the year since then Shani and I had developed other – though equally illegal – ways of obtaining money, and we got by.

It wasn’t much of a life, I reflected as I rolled into bed, but at least we were free. It was more than man
y of our kind could say.


*   *   *   *   *


Yet life always seemed to rub our fate in our face, sometimes casually and sometimes with vigour, as I discovered the next day. We were at the market – not the posh one in the elvish district, but the mid-town one, where you could get anything from cattle through poultry to fabrics and weapons – idly scoping out further targets and eyeing the wares. I picked a few pockets while I was at it, but I had fenced my nightly haul that morning and my purse was heavy with solid, untraceable coin, so I did it more out of habit than for any other reason.

My gaze wandered past a wicker cage full of nervously clucking chickens, then rested for a few moments with vague amusement on two carters up ahead, who were bickering loudly over whose ox-cart had the right of way. By now it was neither, since one ox had entangled itself in the harness of the other and it was lowing mournfully, but the carters paid it no heed and continued their argument.

For a heartbeat I thought it was them who were the cause of the small congregation next to them, but then I realised that the people in it were all facing towards the proclamation board at the side of the square, and were studying one particular notice on it. We struggled our way through the crowd to see, and the reason for the interest became abundantly clear when I read the notice:


Citizens of Arlennis,


Due to the theft of the King’s most prized possession, an act intolerable and inexcusable to the Gods as well as His Majesty, it has been decreed that in each town and city of Arlennis twenty half-elves shall be arrested and executed to atone for this crime and to appease the Gods.


Any who resist, obstruct or oppose this decree shall be treated in the same way.


By order of Sovander Mo’hanna, by the Grace of the Gods King of Arlennis.


“Most prized possession, eh?” someone commented. “What was that then?”

BOOK: The Ritual
6.53Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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