Readers decide: Episode 1, Part 4

Heya! This is part 4 in an ongoing, collaborative story I’m writing with my readers and fans. This episode, an introduction to the thief, Lin, is almost finished! The votes are in on part 4. Next up, I’ll be writing the conclusion, smoothing things and providing the whole thing as a free ebook to my reader group. (Of course, the content will remain on the website as well.) After that, we’ll launch into a new episode.

To catch you up, here are the previous installments.

Part 1

Part 2

Part 3

And now for the continuation!

Lin sucks her teeth and stares hard at the wagon’s driver. Behind her, Owell holds his breath. No question what the kid wants to do—dragging a corpse through the streets would probably be the most exciting thing that’s ever happened to him.

“Fine,” she says. Without her, these people are probably chewed and swallowed anyway. And they are on the same side as her. Kinda. If “not a slave of the evil Empire” can be described as a side.

Five men and a woman with hooded eyes squat to search the protector’s corpse. Grunting, the woman rolls the body up onto a hip and pulls a short sword from the sheath on the soldier’s belt. She tests the edge and nods before laying the weapon in the wagon bed.

“We’ll dump him out back of an Atal spicehouse,” the driver says.

Lin cringes. No way. She won’t get anywhere near those rotted places. Good way to wind up dead. Or worse… As much as she yearns to forget, she can’t wipe away memories of the vacant look in Mar’s eyes. The hungry leer of the Atal lord who plied her with the smoke. Spicers… just the thought of them makes her shudder.

The driver’s plan is sound, of course–spice users are among the few Atal citizens the protectors will consider faulting for a crime. But even if Lin could stomach being near the spicers, she has other reasons to refuse.

“Sorry. Can’t draw attention to anything involving the Jalakyrisi tonight,” she says.

The driver’s eyes narrow. “Didn’t figure you for a trafficker. Perhaps we should reconsider letting you walk free after this.”

Lin sneers. “As if you could stop me. Anyway, I’m not a spice runner. Let’s just say I have a particular job to finish tonight. And it may involve a Jalakyrisi warehouse.”

“Sabotage, then?” The driver shakes his head. “Not my place to warn you about Jalakyrisi vengeance.”

“No, it’s not.” Lin shifts her weight to her other hip, hand on her sheathed dagger. She’s not particularly worried about the merchants from Jalakyris. They’re foreign, and foreigners are plain stupid when it comes to security.

Anyway, she doesn’t think she’s underestimated tonight’s task.

“Like I said, no spicehouse for me,” she continues. “I’ll scout you a route to a back-alley brothel.”

The man sighs and turns to his friends. “Agreed on the brothel? Patrons aren’t likely to report the body until daylight.”

The woman snorts. “Because none want to admit they visited the whores. Seems safe enough.”

The rogues surround the body and lift it from the cobblestones. The protector’s head lolls, the wound in his neck gaping. Lin swallows as her stomach heaves. If these people figure out she’s never actually dealt with a body before—unless you count poor Dob who got himself knifed and dumped in the harbor for stealing from an Atal clerk—they’ll probably start lecturing her on street life. She does not need their input. Gritting her teeth, she looks away.

Right into Owell’s eyes.

“What do you need me to do?” he asks, voice edged with excitement. “Keep watch behind?”

The corpse lands in the back of the wagon with a heavy thud. A horse snorts and stamps a hoof. Lin inhales to keep calm. If the kid hadn’t followed her, none of this would be happening.

“You’ll stay with the wagon,” she says. “The minute we drop off this carcass, I’m escorting you straight back to Lovely’s safehouse.”

The boy’s jaw hardens. “No.”

“No?” she asks, incredulous. “Listen, kid. I’m just trying to help you. Go back to your parents before we run into real trouble.”

Owell presses his lips together like he just threw up a handful of marbles and doesn’t know where to spit them. He crosses his arms over his chest and makes no move to head back to Lovely’s.

The wagon driver raises an eyebrow at the exchange but says nothing. Good. None of his business anyway.

Lin rolls her eyes. “Fine. Do what you like.” She’s finished trying to shove some sense into the kid’s maggoty skull.

“We set then?” the driver asks.

She nods. “We’ll take this one block at a time. Wait for me to wave you forward.”

The driver casts a glance at Owell as if wondering whether she’s really going to give over the responsibility for his safety.

Yes, indeed she is. She’s not cut out for parenting. With a curt nod, she pinches the gold cuff clamped onto her ear and steps toward the edge of the street.

Senses sharpened by her Edge, creeping heel to toe over the cobblestones, she slips along the edge of a warehouse. As she nears the first cross street, Owell’s voice drifts through the fog.

“So, are you guys Stormshard, or what?”

Lin winces at the noise. Yeah, her Edge lets her hear things that others can’t, but clearly the corpse-eating kid doesn’t understand implications of the situation. If they’re caught rolling a dead soldier through the streets, they won’t live long enough to see the gallows.

One of the others hisses for Owell to be quiet. Lin huffs in amusement. This detour will cost her precious time, but at least she’s free of the boy. If these people are Stormshard, they’re far more suited to taking care of him anyway. They probably even want to deal with runaways. Or at least she hopes they’ll take him in hand. She really isn’t qualified.

Block by block, she slips through the warehouse district, inspecting each intersection before gesturing for the others. The wagon creaks as it rolls forward, and the driver speaks in low tones to reassure the horses. Out in the harbor, a ship’s bell clangs in the fog. She feels the damp on her neck and remembers to pull her cloak back over her hair. The district is deserted–she’s not sure what happened to the lantern bearer. Ran home most likely. As for soldiers, there’s a guard tromping along the waterfront—in that stupid armor, she doesn’t even need her Edge to hear him. Not a threat, but the real danger will come once they leave the relative safety of the warehouses.

At the edge of the district, a brightly-lit street cuts through the city, descending to the docks from a low rise scabbed by Atal mansions. This time of night, the avenue is deserted. A cat slinks along the far edge, pawing at rubbish. Lin peers both ways and retreats into the shadows outside the spill of light. She motions her allies forward. Slowly, the wagon lumbers into action.

Lin’s spine goes rigid when hinges creak somewhere along the street. Frantic, she waves the wagon to a halt.

A waft of air curls into the alley while she waits and listens. Lin recoils at the scent. At once, she sees Mar lying in the dirt outside her home, face blank, hands like claws pulled to her chest. Lin swallows. Hard. The smell is a little different than the spices that ruined her friend. A different strain, perhaps. Different effects. But there’s no doubt there are spices nearby.

Lin takes a deep breath and scrubs a hand down her face. If a hint of spice scent can unsettle her, how does she expect to leave the package on the clerk’s desk in a rotting warehouse full of raw product?

She shrinks deeper into the shadows as voices drift down the street. Her eyes dart to the wagon, its angular bulk filling the street. In front, the horses flick their ears, eyes glinting. Her heart starts to thud. The rotting thing can’t back up, and the alley’s too narrow to turn around.

The voices get closer. Rotting corpses. The only people who dare move in the open after dark are Atal—the curfew doesn’t apply to the Empire’s upper class. And if they spot a group of Provs driving a wagon through the alley, the only hope for Lin and her new friends will be to run or shut the newcomers up. Fast.

Clenching her fists, Lin mutters a series of curses. She has to do something.

With a last glance back toward the wagon, Lin draws herself up and strides for the street. As she steps from the alley, she slaps on a confused look. Her plan’s a little vague, so that part’s not too hard to fake.

“Oh, thank the clear skies! I heard you and—”

Lin stops short. Two people are walking down the street toward her. She doesn’t recognize the woman, though the strange fluttery clothes she wears remind Lin of a half-drowned peacock. The other, though. Unfortunately, Lin knows him.

Her new acquaintance, the weasely man who claimed to represent the Veil in giving her tonight’s job, stares at her with murderous eyes. His gaze snaps to her satchel, and Lin resists the urge to lay a hand over it. It’s closed, hiding the package. At least, she hopes it’s closed.

All of a sudden, the woman’s dark-tinted lips and plucked eyebrows join the spice-scent that surrounds her to drag forth a realization. This woman is from Jalakyris. As far as Lin knows, there’s only one merchant group from the spicelands working in Hajinal Port. Ergo, this woman is part owner in the enterprise she’s supposed to be targeting tonight.

Up until now, Lin has assumed the package was meant to be left as a threat—she figured there was something unpleasant inside. But given the affable tones the pair was using… now she hasn’t a maggot-eaten clue what’s going on.

This was Lin’s first big job for one of the city’s black-market organizations. She was so intent on proving her worth that she didn’t question his demand that the package should remain unopened.

You half-decayed, dead-and-buried fool, Lin.

The man’s jaw works and his lower eyelid twitches. Lin’s pulse pounds in her ears. Seems she’s got to make a choice.

Readers had a choice. Should Lin:

  • Ask for directions to… somewhere. Pretend to be lost and see if her Veil contact goes along with it. She’s still got the satchel. No reason to think she can’t just continue the job like nothing happened. If she can play dumb long enough, her friends in the alley might have time to get away.


  • Something’s not right here, but her contact was adamant. This work must be done quietly. If she messes up a Veil job, best case she’ll be exiled from Hajinal. But she already regrets not checking the package contents. She just can’t carry on without getting more information—even if it means asking some clever questions.

Drumroll please! With around 58% percent of the vote, readers chose Option 2. We’ll see whether Lin has the silver tongue she might imagine for herself.

Stay tuned for the next installment!

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