You should defend your father’s name. Disposing of the old man is a good idea. But I am feeling generous. Take him out into the countryside and let him live the last days of his life in freedom. He has a right to it after being locked away so long. Even an old Shessian warrior deserves some respect in his last days.’ Fist withdrew from the king’s chamber and walked briskly along the palace corridors. Outside, heacknowledged the saluting soldiers as he collected his bodyguard entourage and headed for the gates. The king had charged him with a very difficult assignment and his life depended on its success. This was not quite how he had envisaged his status in the new kingdom. He needed to find experts who could carry out the task with silent and ruthless efficiency, and they had to be expendable. When the deed was done, no one must know the source. No one. First, however, he had to organise the fates of the prisoners.
C HAPTER T EN R unner watched the soldiers from the shadows. The City Watch in the old docks meant trouble. The area was the last refuge for the city’s down-and-outs—the dying drug addicts, the homeless old folk, the terminally sick, the refuge of the poor and those who didn’t want anyone to know they were alive. Before the fanatical cleansing under the new king, the old docks had been the habitat of the cruellest cut-throats and the assassins that operated as lone dingoes outside of the outlawed Guild. These were men with no compassion for any aspect of human life, men whose greatest pleasure was to look into the eyes of the person whose throat they’d cut to watch them die. The new laws had brought soldiers into the district to eradicate the human sewer rats, and for several days the old docks had been ablaze as the City Watch systematically flushed out and killed or arrested as many of the denizens as they could find. The cunning veterans, however, men who thrived on a hard, brutal existence while cheating death, had hiding places that even razed buildings failed to reveal. When the waves of soldiers had come and gone, they emerged from their holes and tunnels and went back to the ways they understood, a little more wary of the newking’s laws. Soldiers back in the district meant a new wave of cleansing was underway. Runner’s commonsense warned him to leave. His curiosity dared him to stay. He listened to the curiosity. Keeping a careful eye on the soldiers, counting them to make certain he did not blunder into a trap, checking that the squad was a single unit without reinforcements, he artfully tracked them along the narrow lanes and twisting alleys. What became obvious was that they were purposeful, deliberately heading into the area where the hardest criminals went to ground. They passed derelicts high on euphoria and ignored taunts from surly voices hidden in dark windows and doorways. At one intersection a gang of youths appeared, hurled stones at the soldiers and ran, but the soldiers did not give chase as they normally would. They simply kept on their pathway. Runner was bewildered. The soldiers halted at the entrance to a ruined warehouse, its stone facade scarred by fire, its roof long collapsed, rubble shoring the walls. Runner knew the building, though he had never ventured within. According to rumour, under the cobbled floor, buried beneath the rubble, was a massive cellar—actually a maze of cellars known to the locals as the Warren—which was the stronghold of several legendary street figures renowned for their cold-blooded and brutal methods. The soldiers had tried to clean the place out before—unsuccessfully, because the hideout was fed by a maze of tunnels that snaked under the entire district, through which the hunted had escaped. The fifteen soldiers there now would hardly be a threat to the inhabitants. So why are they here? Runner wondered. He slid between two walls, ignoring the cobwebs that caked his arms and shoulders, and crouched behind a pile of rubble to