Leora Dimici was ready to slit the throat of every one of these stupid flaths. “I’m telling you,” she snarled, gesturing with her unlight blade directly in the face of a fellow writ-hunter, a grizzled man with a scar that ran from chin to forehead, crossing directly through the ruined remains of his nose, “we don’t know what we’re dealing with. We get the kill. We each get a piece. First one back to the Alohym gets to claim the prize.”
“There hasn’t been a Writ issued in nearly a decade,” the man responded in a low growl. “I’d rather not risk you hopping in some pretty little Skitter you have stashed somewhere and get the Writ back before us.”
Leora pinched the bridge of her nose to contain the frustration. She had been a professional Writ Hunter for five years before the Alohym arrived. While she’d never scored a Kings Writ – no one scored a Kings Writ and kept Hunting – she’d managed several Baron’s Writs and one Ducal Writ. She’d lived comfortably enough. Ten years without Writs had left her with little to do and rapidly dwindling money. She’d been offered a job with the Alohym Guard. She’d turned that down as politely as she could.
The Alohym would at least employ mercenaries now and then if they wanted something, they didn’t want their Guard attached to. But a Writ, a proper Writ, had been impossible for her to resist. Her, and every other flathing Writ Hunter on the continent. “There hasn’t been a Writ issued in nearly a decade,” she explained as slowly as she could manage without being as condescending as she desperately wanted to be. “Where do you think I have the money for a flathing Skitter?”
The large man shrugged. “Dunno. Don’t care. You’re pushing for this option because it favors you, and you flathing know it.”
Of course, he was right. Not about the Skitter – she didn’t own one and didn’t have one stashed anywhere. None of the people in this room could afford one. What she could, and had barely managed to afford, was one of those new mounts the Alohym’s magi were breeding. A fulocae. It was a combination of a horse and some slender creature from the Southern continent. They looked like hornless gazelles that had done twenty years of intense strength training. They couldn’t outrun a Skitter, but they could outrun any shadow-damned horse that had ever lived. “I don’t have a Skitter,” Leora repeated, “and may the Shadow swallow me if I lie.”
A hush fell over the room. Such oaths were not made lightly, even in this age of Alohym dominance. After the shadows did not lengthen, the general murmur resumed.
“Fine,” the man said. “But you have some trick up your sleeve.”
“I just don’t want to-”
Leora cut herself off at the sound of footsteps coming from the upstairs. Big, heavy footsteps. Immediately, the tension between the Writ Hunters vanished, and they turned to face the source of those footsteps. It sounded like an Alohym Guard in Imperiplate, only larger. Clunkier.
A man stepped into view, wearing plate that was Imperiplate, but larger and clunkier. The lines of the armor glowed with red and orange instead of the usual unlight. Leora gaped at him with an open mouth.
Over his shoulder was the target. She wasn’t breathing. Blood caked her face, clothes, and hair. Leora’s best guess was she’d been stabbed through the chest, based on the concentration of blood there, but she couldn’t see a tear in that fine silk. Must have stabbed her in the face.
“Damnit!” Leora swore. “You moved without us?”
“I didn’t know there was a plan.” The man’s armor made his voice deeper and resonant, like how imperiplate soldiers sounded. “Is there a problem with that?”
The Writ Hunters bristled but didn’t move. The target was dead. This man had proof of death. They could try to fight him for it, but…but that’s not how we do things, Leora thought bitterly. There was a reason the Hunters had been sitting down here, arguing, before approaching the target. “You’re young,” she guessed.
The man in the armor nodded.
“Then you should know that there’s rules. There’s a way we do things. You don’t move on the mark when other Hunters are in place.”
“I’ve been hiding in the room next to hers all flathing day,” the man in the armor objected. “How long have you been here?”
Immediately, the tension began to seep out of the Writ Hunters, Leora included. If he’d been here first… “We only got word she was here today,” Leora said. “Care to share your source?”
“That would be me,” said a voice, stepping out from behind the armor. A young woman with an eyepatch. “As soon as I heard I…” her single eyed gaze crossed over to Leora.
At the same moment it widened in surprise, Leora recognized the girl. No. That’s impossible. But it wasn’t. Here she was, standing directly in front of her.
Last time Leora had seen her, Eupheme had been full of ideals and running off to fight the Alohym, spouting nonsense about honor and nobility. Now here she was, standing in front of her, having helped kill the princess of the resistance.
And if anyone who knew Eupheme believed that, Leora had a Lumwell to sell them.
“…I contacted my partner,” Eupheme finished, not taking her eye of Leora. “Sorry for not spreading the word, but I don’t know any of you.”
Leora heard the slightly pleading note on that ‘any.’ She gave Eupheme the faintest of nods, and Eupheme started to relax.
“Let them go, boys,” Leora said with a sigh. “They beat us, fair and square.”
There were grumbles around the room, but no one really objected. Most Writ Hunters lived and died by the codes. The few that were going to break them would tail the successful ones and strike when they thought they were distracted.
Leora walked out with the rest of them but didn’t go far. Instead, as soon as she could, she stepped into an alley.
Normally, Leora would never break the codes. Normally. This was anything but normal, however. Eupheme was still here. Eupheme was alive. And that meant the target was alive. That meant Leora still had a chance to claim the Writ.
Grinning to herself, Leora stepped into the shadows – and vanished in an instant.