What Cannot Be Seen
The two boys didn’t belong to the Smear. As Keedar watched them from his favorite spot on the rooftop, that much was clear. They stuck out like a pair of unwashed urchins among royalty at a ball. To an untrained eye, their simple shirt and trousers matched most commoners, not unlike his own garb, but he knew what to look for. Their attire’s elbows and knees lacked the correct amount of wear; their shoes had a little too much shine; they walked with their backs a bit too straight. Only guild members or nobles would carry themselves with any hint of pride or swagger near the Smear’s streets. These two were definitely not the former. Not with the way they cast an occasional furtive glance around them. Also, the grime on their faces was not natural. What gave them away more than anything else was their hair: well-oiled, combed, too clean.
With a groan, Keedar washed his gloved hand through his tangled, sandy locks. Damn you nobles and your silly challenges. Why does this have to happen on my watch?
He found it hard to comprehend why anyone of stature wanted to venture near the Smear. If he had a choice, he would wade in piss before he set foot within a mile of its streets. All the district had to offer was dilapidated buildings, sewage, dirty streets, and a reek that made shit smell like perfume. Still the young nobles came. It was either an act of bravery or stupidity. Such folly reminded him of a dog chasing its tail. The mutt could never catch the thing but it ran in circles after it anyway.
Perhaps their insistence was a case of peer pressure. Not that Keedar could relate. He had no close friends. Long ago, the Smear had taught him the harsh lesson of attachment. It left him betrayed and bloody, and his best friend, Raishaar, dead. He blamed himself for being too trusting, for believing that guild life could not change people the way it did. No longer did he suffer from such misconceptions.
Sometimes, the guilt of his own escape wormed its way into his belly. He had done the one thing he was good at: he hid. Whenever he looked back on that night, he knew if he hadn’t he would have been fodder for the maggots. Since then, he’d learned quite a few tricks. Those and his present existence gave him a small measure of solace.
He continued to study the two boys, wondering if someone among the crowded streets would eventually direct them away from the Smear. No one did. For the most part, the Smear’s residents steered clear of the inquisitive nobility unless they crossed Deadman’s Gap, which marked the Smear’s northern border.
Sixteen years ago, when a robbery led to a noblewoman’s death, the King’s Blades had left a sea of blood and bodies as retribution. The Night of Blades. It was the last night he recalled Mother’s face … her anguish, her mad cackles … he shut the memories away.
Yet, with such a past and the risk of a thrashing or worse, every so often, usually at summer’s end, these well-to-do children played this game where they snuck close to the Smear. In his short lifetime, Keedar hadn’t seen any brave the maze of lanes and alleys mired in perpetual shadows.
Except these two young noblemen did just that.
My luck be damned. If he believed in the Gods, he might have sworn they conspired against him.
Mortified by the boys’ stupidity, the potential danger they placed themselves in, and the repercussions, Keedar shook his head in disbelief. It wasn’t as if the nobility didn’t know the risks. Anyone who lived more than a few weeks in Kasandar did. The Smear’s denizens were as likely to kiss you as they were to kill you. They would brandish a dagger and fight to death for something as simple as a sidelong glance. If you ventured into the Smear unprepared and unwelcome, chances were you ended up with empty pockets and a stomach full of steel for your trouble. Hell, a man might slide his blade into you while giving you a friendly embrace. Keedar touched the patch in his old shirt that hid his scars.
Father’s deep voice startled him. Cursing silently, Keedar attempted to act as if he knew Delisar had been there all along. A faint chuckle left Keedar painfully aware of his father’s impression concerning his efforts. Punishment for the slip would come later.
“Allow no harm to come to them,” Delisar said.
Half a foot taller than Keedar and wider in the chest, Delisar cast a shadow when he finally moved to the roof’s edge where Keedar could get a glimpse of him without turning his head. Eyes weary and tight, honey-colored prickles of a goatee shading his chin, Delisar appeared as if he hadn’t slept in days. Except for the two thin braids falling behind his ears, his hair supported the notion. Today, Father wore his guild’s customary deep blue, a finger-length insignia of a ship wrought in gold pinned to his lapel.
“If you need to get their attention, use their names: Gaston and Winslow. Tell them the counts won’t be pleased if they knew what they were up to.” Father paused. Brows so thick they touched, Delisar peered down among the crowds, one corner of his thin lips curling in distaste. “The last thing we need is another Night of Blades because of some hardheaded noble children and overzealous Consortium members.” Father nodded toward the plaza. “I’m too close to my goal for that.”
Keedar followed his father’s gaze, picking out the three young men who must have drawn Delisar’s attention. Focused on the nobles, they slipped among the common folk who were setting up stalls or browsing wares in the square below where criers announced their goods. The boys wore the black and grey rags that marked them as the Shaded Snakes guild. Their namesake would be tattooed on their right cheeks.
The Snakes were the worst of the four main guilds that made up the Consortium. Keedar despised them like he did no other. If a murder happened, chances were the Snakes committed the crime. They trained to kill while most others advocated learning how to survive. Whether their acts and skill brought in extra coin didn’t matter to him. Those same contracts were as likely to garner unwanted attention from the nightwatch or the Blades.
The thought soured his stomach as the Snakes maneuvered through the throngs below. As usual, Rockbottom Plaza was alive with color and activity. People haggled with storekeepers. Runners carried word from one shop to the next or among various merchants. Coinmen, cudgels in hand, ears and noses pierced with golden hoops, kept a wary eye on all the proceedings, sparing little more than a disgusted glance at the Snakes.
The three Snakes, all of an age comparable to his nineteen years, stopped for a moment at a fruit vendor, their gazes flitting to the nobles who turned off onto Carlson Lane.
“Go,” Father ordered.
Without hesitation, Keedar did as told. He hopped onto the parapet, sprinted along its length, and leaped over the street below onto the adjacent structure. Using the momentum gained, he took three lengthy strides to scale up the wood-tile roof’s slope to its apex, and jumped down onto the wall that separated each building. Then he was running again, repeating the process, up one side of the peaked roofs, down the other, until he reached Carlson.
Running this way was almost as exhilarating as when he dashed through the Parmien Forest in his weekly training sessions, or hunted with his father, stalking and then chasing down some wild animal, leaping effortlessly from branch to branch. He relished being able to traverse the Smear in this fashion. In a few months, when ice encrusted the citadel and gale force winds spiraled down from the north, this would no longer be possible. He remembered a time when he would trip or stumble on a pursuit like this, needing to rely on the leather greaves he wore to save his shins and knees from abrasions. That was then. He leaped now without looking, the cracks and tiles of the rooftop as familiar to him as the amber of his eyes, as much a part of him as his skin.
Midway down the lane, he paused to listen. Cocking his head, he picked out the tell-tale sound from the noble’s boots. Not the scuff of worn leather or slap of bare feet on cobbles, but the clip and tap from harder heels and soles, from shoes of a richer cut. The footfalls drew closer and so did their whispers. Keedar peered over the roof.
The nobles passed by, stepping gingerly around garbage, its reek wafting up to him. Not far away, on opposite sides of the lane, the Snakes followed. Keedar frowned. One of them was missing.
Still as the spears of shadow below, Keedar scanned the street. Ahead of Gaston and Winslow was a big curve that ended where it connected with a narrow path that led to several basements. Along the buildings’ walls were a collection of discarded boxes and piled garbage, but there was no sign of the missing Snake. Keedar gauged the distance from the nobles to their stalkers. At the same time, the boys finally looked behind them. Their steps sped up a moment later as they thrust their hands into their cloaks.
Urgency pressed on Keedar. He had to act before either the nobles or the Snakes did something to condemn the district to several months’ suffering through raids. The likelihood of riots wasn’t far-fetched either. Although a part of Kasandar, the Smear clung to a certain independence that went undisturbed as long as the Consortium provided the king’s coffers and the prominent houses with their tribute. Assaulting nobility broke any such protection. In the king’s eyes, an example would need to be set again. The brunt of any violence was destined to fall on the Smear’s normal residents who struggled to survive on a daily basis. Worse yet might be the effect on Father’s plans. Keedar wasn’t privy to all the Consortium’s inner workings, but Father had been on the verge of some big deal.
The sudden fear of failure a bitter taste in his mouth, he sped along the rooftop. His emotions settled over him like a blanket, but not once did he try to suppress them. Instead, he embraced his feelings, drawing their covering closer. It gave him a sense of confidence, of strength.
When he gained the section where the parapet curved, he leaped off, knowing that he was in the blind spot between the incoming group and wherever their guildmate hid. His body hurtled across the street toward the adjacent building’s wall. As soon as his foot touched the bricks, he pushed to the opposite side. When he met that structure, he repeated the process, hopping from side to side at an angle, almost as if he leaped down stairs. He landed softly, darted toward garbage piled against an open doorway, sidled into the shadows, and waited.
The clip and tap of footsteps drew closer.
They will not see you. They. Will. Not. See. You.
The young noblemen rounded the upper part of the corner, glanced back once, and then hurried on. Metal glinted from their hands.
“The counts will not like that you’re here, Winslow and Gaston,” Keedar said.
The boys started before baring their short swords. They peered in his vicinity, brows drawn together, eyes searching, gazes passing over him several times.
“The worst aren’t the ones following but those hidden farther along the alley, around this corner. Come to this doorway. I can keep you safe. The last thing we need is for you to get hurt and for riots to break out again.”
As he expected, they were more than a little hesitant.
“Look, there’s no time to waste. If I wanted you two dead or to rob you, I could have done so already. You have but a few seconds before either party knows something is wrong. Come to me now.” Keedar said the last bit forcefully but without shouting, putting every ounce of his will into the words.
Squinting in the direction where he hid, and fidgeting with their weapons, the young men took a few tentative steps and then broke into a run, heading farther down the lane.
Soon after they disappeared from view, their footsteps came to an abrupt halt.
Keedar hoped he’d calculated correctly. Keeping time in his head, he counted how long he had before the trailing Snakes gained the corner. Within moments, the nobles reappeared. They sprinted toward him. Keedar let out a relieved whoosh.
When they entered the immediate area around the door, the two boys gasped, eyes finally able to pinpoint him. Keedar suppressed a smile. From a distance, nobility always seemed so grand to him. Up close, these two left him thoroughly unimpressed.
The one with a square jaw and a goatee under his covering of grime opened his mouth to speak. Keedar raised a finger to his lips. The boy’s green eyes flashed angrily. His friend, body appearing as if a slight wind would blow him away, rested a hand on his arm. The one with the goatee shook the hand off, still annoyed, but his face calmed somewhat. Despite the dirt, Keedar made out their light pinewood pallor, synonymous to most nobles but not all. Keedar carried a hint of it himself. For him, the color meant something other than prestige. It represented the bane of his existence, the reason many in the Smear shunned him.
With a nod, Keedar indicated the doorway’s other side. The doubt in their expressions was obvious, but they complied nonetheless, copying the way he hunched his back against the dark wood.
The Snakes appeared from both directions. Four of them in total. Keedar recognized them. Troublemakers who considered anyone to be fair game. Icy prickles needled at him for a moment before he suppressed the feeling and the memory of Raishaar.
You will not see us. We’re invisible to you. There’s nothing here but garbage and an old door.
He repeated the words several times, each one more desperate than the last, each sentence carrying his will. As the Snakes took in their surroundings, befuddled, Keedar’s heart thumped as if it wanted to burst from his chest. Their gazes swept by the hiding place.
“Monroe, Handal, how in all the hells did they get by you?” Killian asked, wrinkling his nose. Face marred by burn tissue, he was the taller of the Snakes. And the most vicious.
Instinctively, Keedar almost touched the area of his shirt that hid his knife scars.
“They didn’t pass us,” Handal protested, voice rising a notch. He had some of the sharpest eyes Keedar encountered, but was as dumb as a brick.
“You sure they didn’t go back your way?” This from Monroe, whose skin was darker than most other Thelusians in Kasandar. He was so black, his skin practically shone, making his eyes milky orbs and his mouth a yellow maw.
Killian’s response was a mere head tilt.
“S-sorry.” Monroe averted his eyes.
The last one of the young Snakes was Mileen. She hardly ever spoke, neither did she miss much. Of them all, she worried Keedar the most. Her green-eyed gaze returned to his hiding spot several times. Frowning, she began walking toward him.
Keedar’s heart skipped a beat.
Something clattered in the narrow path Handal and Monroe had used to get ahead of the nobles.
“Shit,” Killian exclaimed. “Idiots. I told you they got by you.” He ran down the street.
The others followed, except for Mileen. Frowning, she still stared at where he hid. Keedar held his breath, imploring her not to see him. He swore she could hear the way his heart drummed. Seconds stretched for an eternity before she shook her head, and trotted after her fellow guildmates.
As Keedar let out a relieved sigh, the door behind him opened.