Ship of Smoke and Steel (The Wells of Sorcery #1)(2)

You’d be wrong. There are people who will get very upset with you. Not because you’re taking money out of the pockets of the poor—since that’s their business, too—but because you aren’t paying the proper tithe. They’ll start by sending you a message, nice and polite. If you’re stupid enough to ignore that, then someone like me will kick down your door.

That’s the other reason I like the boots. They’re good for kicking down doors.

The broken-down countinghouse is two stories, made of crumbling red brick, but the roof and much of the second floor are gone. The largest surviving section is the old strongroom, a windowless block at the back of the building. Someone has added a new door, an ill-fitting thing nailed together from scavenged planks, with a slot to let someone look out.

I hope, as I pivot on one foot, that someone’s at the slot and that they’re not quick. My boot connects with a splintering crunch and there’s a grunt that tells me my wish has been granted. The door opens a couple of inches, a broken bar visible in the gap. A second kick sends it slamming all the way ajar, catching a large man standing behind it in the shins. Already clutching a bloodied nose, he goes down in a heap, swearing.

There’s not much to the place. A few tables, benches and chairs, big jugs of rice wine and small colored bottles of liquor stacked against one wall. It’s too early for them to be open, so I assume the six people inside—seven, if you count the door guard with the broken nose—are employees. I size them up automatically. Two men are obvious toughs, broad-shouldered bruisers with short swords in their belts and scarred knuckles. One woman with a hook nose and a crossbow against the rear wall. Another woman in the corner also looks like muscle, dressed in battered leather, maybe a knife fighter or a grappler.

The last two, a man and a woman, are sitting. The woman’s in a kizen, not a real silk one but a cheap linen imitation, bright with gaudy dye, her face heavily painted. The man beside her has a silk shirt and a fur-lined collar. He wears a sword but doesn’t look like he knows how to use it. I read the pair as the brains of the outfit and his girl, probably not a threat. So figure four against three. Five if Broken-Nose stops blubbering.

“Watch the one behind us,” I tell Shiro, under my breath. He still needs minding. Hagan, a veteran, has already done the same fast analysis of the room and catches my eye. I nod, minutely, to the woman with the crossbow, and he nods back.

“One of you,” I say to the room at large, “is Ohgatani Firello.” I fix the fur-collar man with my gaze. “I’m guessing it’s you, but I’ve been wrong before. Anyone else volunteering?”

The woman in the kizen looks ready to dive underneath the table. Fur-Collar pushes her aside, angrily, and stands up.

“I’m Firello,” he says. “Who in the Rot are you?”

“I think you can probably guess,” I say. “But in case you’re forgetful, there’s money owing. You got a note saying there would be consequences if you didn’t pay. I suppose you can call me consequences.”

“Charming.” He eyes the broken door. “And this is your idea of a polite visit?”

“Yup.” I give him my best smile. I’ve been told it’s unsettling.

“Who exactly are you claiming to represent?”

His eyes dart around the room, taking the temper of his guards. After the initial surprise, they’ve relaxed slightly, confident in their numbers. I can tell at that moment, from the set of their shoulders and the smiles on their faces, that I’m going to have to kill them all. But we’ll play it out, for form’s sake.

“Does it matter?” I tell Firello. “What’s important is that I hold this turf in trust, which makes it my responsibility when someone moves in on it. If I let people get away with that, I might as well slit my own throat.”

“Really.” Firello’s eyes narrow. “Rotscum. I think you’ve got no backer but the pair of limp-dicks behind you and you’ve been getting away with talking tough for years.”

“From your point of view, does it make a difference?”

Firello smiles. “It means that if we slit your throats, nobody’s going to care about three rotting kids going missing in the slums.” One corner of his mouth rises. “Though I might save you to sell on to the brothels.”

I’m trying to decide if it’s worth wasting any more breath on this exchange when Shiro steps forward. His face has gone white with rage. I suppose he’s not as used to the posturing and dick measuring that seem to be required on these occasions. His hand is on his knife.

“You have no idea who you’re talking to,” he says. “We—”

I’m already turning, because I know what happens next. Six people in front of us, one behind us. Shiro was supposed to be keeping his eyes on the one, and he’s not. I don’t need to see Broken-Nose start moving, because I can read it in the eyes of the other thugs. But I’m not that fast, not quite, and Shiro has stepped too far away from me. He cuts off in mid-sentence as Broken-Nose’s knife slides into his kidney, point slicing clean through his leather vest. His eyes go wide, that moment of surprise before the pain hits.

Broken-Nose yanks his knife back, turning to face me. I can see he’s surprised to find me already moving toward him, and he begins to backpedal. He’s even more surprised when a blade of crackling, spitting green energy, emerging from my wrist, goes in through his eye and out the back of his head, his skull offering no more resistance than a rotten melon.

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