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The Fate of the Tearling (The Queen of the Tearling #3)
Author:Erika Johansen

“These things are beneath you, not what you signed up for. They damage your guild’s prestige. I have a better job. Difficult and dangerous work. Some finesse required, as well. Even if I still commanded an intact army, I would not trust soldiers with such work.”

The third Caden, Daniel, spoke up for the first time. “What job is this?”

“Cleaning out the Creche.”

James chuckled. “That’s easy. All you need is a cistern.”

“Not easy at all,” the Mace replied, unsmiling. “Close quarters down there, women and children in conditions of considerable danger. Men, too, the Queen would want me to note. I want the innocent out safely, the pimps and promoters alive and in custody.”

“What’s the price for this job?”

“Flat fee. Ten thousand pounds per month for three months full. If your guild can’t do it by then, I doubt it can be done.”

“Bonus for early completion?”

The Mace looked to Arliss, who nodded grudgingly and said, “Get it done—and mind you, I mean done—in two months, and we’ll pay you for three.”

The Millers turned inward, muttering to each other while the room waited. Merritt did not join the huddle, merely stood by, impassive. He had already agreed to help them for free; Mace said the man owed the Queen a debt. But Aisa had her doubts. What sort of debt would make a Caden work for nothing?

Above her, the Mace watched the three brothers with an indifferent expression, but this no longer fooled Aisa. Something was driving him. She had never heard of the Creche before the bridge, and no one would tell her of it directly, but by now she had overheard enough to have the measure of the place: a warren beneath the city where the worst vices were tolerated, where children younger than Aisa were sold for profit and entertainment. The idea of the place haunted her. Da had been bad, but he was only one man. The thought that there were many such people, all of them doing terrible things, that there was an entire underground world of children going through the same nightmare . . . it ate at Aisa, kept her awake at night. It seemed to eat at the Mace, too, for he and Arliss were focusing much of their energy on the Creche, though Arliss grudged the money. No one argued with the Mace on this matter, but nothing could move quickly enough for him, and now Aisa was almost certain that she saw the Queen’s shadow over his shoulder, goading him. Driving him.

The Caden came to some sort of agreement and turned back to the Mace. Christopher spoke for them.

“We will present your proposal at the next full meeting of the guild. In the meantime, the three of us will look into the job, without price or commitment.”

“Fair,” the Mace replied. “Since you’re working without price, I will not give you deadlines. But time is of the essence. I wish to have this business sewn up before the Queen comes home.”

The three Caden looked up sharply.

“What makes you think she’s coming home?” James asked.

“She is,” the Mace replied, in a tone that closed all discussion.

“If you accept the job, you will deal with me for payment,” Arliss told them. “There will be no advances or other rubbish of that kind, so don’t even try.”

“But I will ask for a small advance, all the same,” Daniel replied. “The girl, there.”

He pointed at Aisa.

“We’ve heard about this one,” Daniel continued. “They say she has a knife hand, but we’ve never seen such a thing. Before we go, may I beg a demonstration?”

The Mace frowned. “You wish to fight a child?”

Aisa scowled. She hated it when they remembered her age.

“Not a real fight, Lord Regent,” Daniel replied. “Only a demonstration.”

The Mace tipped a questioning look toward Aisa, and she nodded eagerly. To spar with one of the Caden! Even a draw would be an extraordinary thing.

“If you take a wound, hellcat,” the Mace murmured, leaning closer, “you will be the one to explain it to your mother.”

Aisa was already tugging at the straps on her armor, shedding it and pulling her knife from its sheath. Fell had commissioned this knife especially for Aisa, of the same shape and make as the knives carried by the rest of the Guard: fashioned on the old Belland model, both a flat and a curved cutting edge. But Aisa’s hands were small, and Venner thought she needed less circumference in the hilt, as well as a thinner blade. Fell had given the job to a weapons forger he favored, and the result was a solid knife that was a joy for Aisa to wield. Venner always said that a good knifeman made the weapon part of his hand, but Aisa sometimes felt that she had gone beyond even that, the knife not only part of her hand but part of herself, keeping her demons at bay. Even Da would fade into the distance when she was armed.

The Caden, Daniel, had dropped the rest of his weapons, but his knife glimmered, half hidden, in his hand, a longer blade than her own. Venner had seen it too, for he pointed at Daniel’s weapon and called out, “Not a fair fight!”