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A Dance of Mirrors
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One has conquered a city. The other covets an entire nation.
In book #3 of the Shadowdance series, Haern is the King’s Watcher, protector against thieves and nobles who would fill the night with blood. Yet hundreds of miles away, an assassin known as the Wraith has begun slaughtering those in power, leaving the symbol of the Watcher in mockery. When Haern travels south to confront this copycat, he finds a city ruled by the corrupt, the greedy and the dangerous. Rioters fill the streets, and the threat of war hangs over everything. To forge peace, Haern must confront the deadly Wraith, a killer who would shape the kingdom’s future with the blade of his sword.
Man or God; what happens when the lines are blurred?
Fantasy author David Dalglish spins a tale of retribution and darkness, and an underworld reaching for ultimate power in the third novel of the Shadowdance series, previously released as A Dance of Death.
Table of Contents
A Preview of A Dance of Shadows
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Haern pulled his hood low over his head and tied his sabers to his belt as the leader of the Eschaton mercenaries, the wizard Tarlak, sat at his desk and watched.
"Do you want our help?" Tarlak asked, picking a bit of dirt off his yellow robe.
"No," Haern said, shaking his head. "This one needs to be a message for the underworld of the city. Brann crossed a line that I need to make sure no one else ever crosses. I'll do this on my own."
Tarlak nodded, as if not surprised.
"What about Alyssa?"
Haern tightened the clasp of his cloak. They'd heard word that Alyssa planned some sort of retaliation against the thief guilds, though the reason was unclear. Their source was fairly respected in the Gemcroft household, so much so they had no choice but to take it seriously. At some unknown point in the night, there was to be a meeting at her mansion to discuss the circumstances.
"After," Haern said. "I'm sure you understand."
"I do," said Tarlak. "Good luck. And remember, I can't pay you if you die on me."
"I won't be the one dying tonight," Haern said, feeling the cold persona of the King's Watcher coming over him.
He left the room, descended the staircase to the tower's exit, and then ran the short distance toward the city. A dozen secret passageways, ropes, and handholds were available to him as a way to cross the wall, and he drifted to the southern end before climbing over. Alyssa's potential conflict with the thief guilds was a greater threat in the long run, but Haern could not bring himself to focus on it just yet. His target was a piece of scum named Brann Goodfinger. He operated in the far south of the city, and it was there Haern went.
Normally he felt pride as he traversed the rooftops, carefully observing the doings of the various guilds. Ever since the thief war ended two years ago, the factions had settled into an uncomfortable truce. The first few months had been the worst, but Haern's sabers had spilled torrents of blood. Through sheer brutality, he had brought both sides to their knees. He was the silent threat watching all, and tolerating nothing. But tonight his accomplishment felt bitter. For the first time, his plan had been turned against him in a most cruel, personal way.
Thieves who stole from the Trifect died. They all knew this, knew that every night Haern patrolled the city as the King's Watcher to ensure the agreed-upon peace. And so Brann had recruited children, a bold dare against the Watcher's threat.
"Where is it you hide?" Haern whispered as he lay flat atop a roof. For two days Brann had eluded him, and his children had gone unchecked. No longer. He spotted one of their youngest, a boy surely no older than seven. He was exiting the broken window of a shop, a handful of copper coins clutched to his chest. He ran, and Haern followed.
The boy tried to vary his pattern, as he'd no doubt been trained to do, but against someone like Haern the tactic was a minor inconvenience, nothing more. Haern kept far out of sight, not wanting to alert him to his presence. Twice he'd tracked Brann's child-thieves, but one had spotted him, abandoned his ill-gotten coin, and fled. The other had been killed by a different thief guild before he could question him. Children bled out on the streets of Veldaren. The Watcher's wrath would be terrible.
Haern turned a corner and watched the child hurry inside a warehouse. Approaching the door, Haern slipped into the shadows and looked through the crack near the hinges. A faint lantern burned inside, and from what he could make out, two other children were within. Hoping it was Brann's hideout, and not a simple gang of orphans, he drew his sabers. There would be no stealthy entrance. This wasn't a time for quiet deaths in the night.
He slammed the door open with his shoulder at full charge. Without slowing, he took in the surroundings, his finely honed instincts guiding him. The storehouse was full of crates and bags of grains, limiting his maneuverability. At least twenty children were gathered in a circle, and before them, his dirty face covered with a beard, was Brann. The man looked up. His jaw dropped, and then he turned to run.
"Stop him!" Brann shouted to the children.
Haern swore as they drew small knives and daggers. He leaped between them, twirling his cloak as a distraction. A sweeping kick took out three, and then he pushed through the opening. The storehouse was divided in two by a high wall, and Brann vanished through the doorway in the center. Haern raced after him, again slamming aside the door with his shoulder. To his surprise, Brann was not the coward he'd believed. His sword lashed out from behind the door. Haern's speed was too great, though, and he fled beyond Brann's reach, pivoted on his heels, and jumped again.
Brann was only a gutter snake, a clever bully who relied on size or surprise to defeat a foe. Haern had fought his kind, knew their tactics. With three strikes, Brann's sword fell from a bleeding wrist. Two kicks shattered a kneecap, and then he fell. Haern clutched his hair and yanked his head back, his saber pressing against Brann's throat.
"How dare you," Haern whispered. His hood hung low over his face, and he shook his head to knock it back. He wanted Brann to see the fury in his eyes.
"You hold this city prisoner yet ask me that?" said Brann.
Haern struck him in the mouth with the hilt of a saber. As Brann spat out a tooth, the children rushed through the door, surrounding them both.
"Stay back," Brann said to them, and he grinned at Haern, his yellow teeth stained red with blood. There was a wild look in his eyes that made Haern uncomfortable. This wasn't a man who cared about life—not his own, nor that of others.
"What game is this?" Haern asked, his voice a cold whisper. "Did you think I wouldn't find out? Using children, here, in my city?"
"Your city?" Brann said, laughing. "Damn fool. All the rest are scared, but I know what you are. They think you're as bad as us, but you're not… not yet. Once the thief guilds find out, they'll have your head on a spike."
He gestured to the children, all prepared to attack. Haern didn't want to imagine what Brann had put them through to achieve such a level of control.
"Kill me," Brann said. "Do it, and they'll swarm you. You won't die—you're too good for them—but you won't escape without killing at least one. So what'll it be, Watcher? Can you take my life if it means taking the life of a child?"
Haern looked at the twenty children. Some were as young as seven, but others were maybe eleven or twelve. All it'd take was one lucky stab by any of them and he might go down.
His saber pressed harder against Brann's skin. He leaned closer to whisper into his ear.
"Nothing, Brann. You know nothing about me. You die, they go free."
"I die, then innocents will as well. You don't have the stomach for it. You aren't the beast the others think you are. Now let me go!"
Haern glanced at the children, all poised to act. He tried to decide what to do, but he knew what life someone like Brann would lead them to. No matter what, no matter the risk, he couldn't allow it.
"This was never a choice," Haern whispered.
He slashed, spilling blood across his clothes. Hoping to move before the children reacted, he turned and leaped, vaulting over their circle. They gave chase, not at all bothered by the death of their master. Haern rolled to his feet, his sabers crossed to block their weak stabs. A quick glance showed no exits except the door he'd come through. Doing everything he could to fight down his combat instincts, he shoved through the group's center. His cloak whirled and twisted, pushing aside feeble attacks.
Pulling out of the spin, he lunged for the door. One of the older boys was there, and Haern felt panic rise in his chest as he saw the deadly angle of the boy's thrust. He reacted on instinct, blocking hard enough to knock the dagger free, then following it up with a kick to send the boy flying. Breaking back into a run, he kicked off a pile of crates to vault into the air, catching a rafter with one hand. Swinging himself up onto a perch, he stared down at the children, several of whom gathered around the body of the one he'd kicked.
"Listen to me," Haern said to them, trying to forgive the children's attack. They didn't know any better. The rage he felt was misguided, born of frustration. "Your master is dead. You have no hope of winning this fight."
"Fuck you," said one of the kids.
Haern swallowed down his anger at such disrespect. They were frightened and living in a world Haern knew all too well. If reason would not work, he knew what would.
"Say that again, and I'll cut out your tongue."
The boy stepped back, as if stunned by the coldness in his voice. The rest looked up at him, some ready to cry, some angry, but most were heartbreakingly indifferent. Haern pointed to Brann Goodfinger's corpse.
"Take his coin," he said. "Go, and make better lives than this. Remain thieves, and you'll fall to the guilds, or to me. I don't want to kill you, but I will. There is no future for you, not in this."
"None for you, either," said another, but Haern could not tell who. With practiced efficiency the children took everything of value from Brann's corpse and vanished into the streets. Haern didn't know where they went, nor did he care. He only felt fury. Brann had died quickly, hardly the example Haern desired to set. As for the boy he'd kicked…
He dropped from the rafter, landing lightly on his feet. Gently he rolled him over, put a hand on his neck. No pulse.
"Damn you, Brann," Haern whispered. "I hope you burn forever."
Leaving the body there was not an option. Haern considered himself better than that. Lifting him onto his shoulder, he rushed out to the streets, praying no gutsy member of a thief guild spotted him and tried something incredibly heroic and stupid. There were several gravekeepers in Veldaren, plus another who burned bodies instead of burying them. Haern went to the burner, picked the lock of his door, and went inside. The owner was asleep on a cot in a small room, and Haern woke him with a firm prod of his saber.
"What? Who are… Oh, you."
The elderly man, Willard, rubbed his eyes, then opened them when Haern dropped a handful of coins onto his lap.
"Spare no expense, and bury his ashes."
"Who was he?" asked Willard, looking over the boy's body as Haern set him down on the floor.
"Then what shall I engrave on his urn?"
"Pick something," Haern said as he left.
In a foul mood, he raced off for the Gemcroft estate, wishing he could put the prior events out of his mind and knowing there'd be no such luck. Brann's death would still be a warning to the others against using children to break the arrangement between the guilds and the Trifect. He'd accomplished that, though not how he'd hoped. But it was that nameless boy who haunted him, made his insides sick. Brann had been convinced Haern would not have the stomach for what might happen. Turned out he might have been right.
Scaling the fence around the Gemcroft estate was easy enough, though avoiding the guards was another matter. There was a secondary building in the back, where he'd been told the meeting would take place. Most of the patrols kept close to the mansion, which helped tremendously. Haern lurked beside the gate, running along it when outside the patrols' vision and lying flat amid the shadows when they passed. At last he reached the small building. Timing the patrols, he knew he had about thirty seconds to slip in and out without being seen. Faint light burned within. He pressed his ear against the door and heard no discussion.
Too late, or too early? The door was unlocked, so he opened it and slipped inside. The room was surprisingly bare, containing only a single bed atop a padded floor. Hardly the servants' quarters he'd expected. The lone lantern kept the place dimly lit, with plenty of shadows in the far corners. So far, it appeared empty.
"Damn," he whispered.
He headed for the far corner, figuring to wait a few hours just in case the meeting was yet to transpire. In the center of the room, though, he stopped. Something in the corner wasn't right, the shadows not smooth…
Haern lunged for the door, his instincts screaming trap. Before he could get there, something latched on to his cloak and tugged, hard. He spun to the ground, torn between attacking and tearing his cloak free to flee. Already furious because of Brann, he kicked to his feet and attacked. To his surprise, his sabers clashed against long blades, his thrusts perfectly blocked. He was already preparing a second strike when he saw his opponent's outfit. Long dark wrappings covering her body—all but her shadowed face.
"Enough, Watcher," said Zusa, her slender body contorted into a bizarre defensive formation. "I am not here to kill you."
Haern pulled away, and he put his back to a wall, the door at his side.
"Then why are you here?" he asked.
"Because I desired it," said a voice at the door.
Haern turned, then dipped his head in a mock bow. "Lady Gemcroft," he said. "It is good to see you, Alyssa."
The ruler of the Gemcroft fortune smiled at him, not at all bothered by his tone. Zusa sheathed her daggers, though her hands remained on their hilts. She joined Alyssa's side, her dark eyes never leaving him. Alyssa seemed relaxed, far more so than when Haern had last seen her. Of course, he'd been trying to kill her at the time, back when Alyssa was flooding the streets with mercenaries. She wore a slender dress underneath her robe, her red hair let down loose about her shoulders. Haern almost felt flattered she'd dressed up for him, as if he were some noble or diplomat.
"I was told of a meeting concerning the thieves," Haern said. "Was there any truth to this?"
"I assure you, Terrance is loyal to me, and me alone," she said.
The side of Haern's face twitched. Terrance had been his informant, of course. He felt at a disadvantage, with no clue as to the reason for their meeting. He didn't like that. The two also blocked the only exit. He really didn't like that.
"Then I was told a lie, just to bring me here," he said. "Why is that, Alyssa?"
"Because I want to hire you."
Haern paused, then laughed at the absurd notion. "I am no pawn for you to force your will upon. And if what you say is true, why this secrecy and deception?"
"Because I don't want anyone—not the guilds nor the Trifect—to know. I leave for Angelport, and I wish for you to accompany me and Zusa."
Haern's hands fidgeted as they held his sabers. Answering such a request with someone as dangerous as Zusa blocking his way out was not his idea of a fair bargaining position.
"What reason could you possibly have?" he asked. "I assure you, Zusa is quite capable of keeping you alive."
A bit of impatience finally pierced Alyssa's calm demeanor.
"Someone broke into Laurie Keenan's home, slaughtered his son and daughter-in-law, along with a dozen guards. I'm going for their funeral services, as is appropriate. I want you and Zusa to hunt down this killer and bring him to justice while I'm there."
Haern shook his head. "I can't leave Veldaren," he said. "The peace I've managed to create—"
"Is no peace at all," Alyssa said. "The thief guilds prey on each other, killing themselves in an endless squabble over the gold we pay them. The few that steal are more often caught by their own kind, not you. No one will know you've left, not for weeks. It's been two years, and you've spilled enough blood to wash the city red. Those who remain have settled into their comfortable lives of bribes and easy money, and you know it. You've become a figurehead, a watcher against only the most reckless of the underworld. The city's changed. It won't miss you while you're gone."
Haern did know that, but that didn't mean he liked it.
"This is your problem," he said. "I've had enough dealings with the Trifect to last a lifetime. Find your killer on your own. Now let me through."
Alyssa glanced at Zusa, then nodded. They stepped aside. As Haern walked out into the night, Alyssa called after him.
"They found a marking," she said. "Drawn in their blood."
Haern stopped. "What of?" he asked.
"A single eye."
Haern turned, and he felt his anger rise. "You would accuse me of this crime?"
"No accusation," Alyssa said, stepping out. "I have already looked into the matter and know you were in Veldaren both the night it happened, plus the nights before and after. Laurie's kept word of it a secret and told only those closest to him of its presence at the murder. He knows you didn't perform the deed, though he still fears your involvement somehow…"
Grinding his teeth, Haern tried to think through what any of it meant, but it left him baffled.
"This makes no sense, Alyssa," he said. "Why would someone frame me so far away? I've never been to Angelport, nor used that symbol for years. Not since the war between the Trifect and the thief guilds ended."
"It's not a frame," Zusa said, as if it were so simple. "It is a calling. You're being summoned, Watcher."
Haern tried to think it over, but he felt so tired, so unprepared. The dead boy's face kept flashing before his eyes.
"How do I know this isn't a trap?" he finally asked.
Alyssa looked away, as if embarrassed by what she had to say. "Because of you, my son lives," she said. "And because of you, I was able to bring vengeance to the one who tried to kill him. I will never betray you. Someone murdered powerful citizens of Angelport, my friends and colleagues, and is using their blood to send you a message. Help me find him. Help me stop him."
Haern sighed. "So be it," he said. "When do we leave?"
"Today?" Tarlak said, leaning back in his chair with a bewildered look on his face. "You're leaving today? But we still have that contract with the Heshans, and I haven't tracked down that damn prostitute killer Antonil paid us to find. How am I supposed to find the bastard without your help?"
"Start spending time with prostitutes. Well, more time."
Tarlak raised an eyebrow, then laughed. Still in his bed robes, he stood and gestured about his office, which was a haphazard mess. "Clearly this place will fall apart without you," he said. "But go and do what you must. Can't have someone giving you a bad name, after all."
They embraced, Tarlak smacking him on the shoulder.
"Don't get killed on me," he said.
"I'll try not to."
Haern exited the room onto the circular staircase of the tower. Heading up a floor, he entered his barren room. After stripping down to his underclothes, he slipped into bed and slept. When he awoke, it was to something poking him in the shoulder. He looked, then groaned and rolled over.
"You're risking death, Brug," he muttered.
"You're the one heading off after someone brave enough, or dumb enough, to taunt you," said the short, burly smith. "Besides, the day's almost over. Get your ass up. Oh, and I have something for ya."
Haern rubbed his eyes, then looked again. Brug stood beside his bed, a pair of shoes in hand.
"Shoes?" he asked.
"Not just shoes!" Brug said, flinging them at Haern. They smacked against his chest. "I've spent two months making them things for you, so you can show some damn appreciation."
Haern sat up and examined them. They were gray, made of soft cloth thickened on the bottom. They would muffle any footsteps, though he wondered how long they'd endure his chaotic sprints across rooftops.
"You made these?" he asked. "I didn't know you could sew."
Brug blustered, and his neck went red. "That's not the point," he said. "With Tarlak's help, there's a bit of magic in them. They won't wear out, but the real fancy part is they'll make your footsteps quieter than a mouse's… Forget it, no reason I should tell you. Find out on your own."
He stormed for the door, stopping only when Haern called out for him.
"Miss you, too, Brug."
"Whatever," Brug grumbled, but he hesitated before leaving.
Once he was gone, Haern dressed, put on his soft leather armor, and prepared to leave. Down the stairs of the tower he went, into the warmly lit and furnished bottom floor. It was empty, the fire in the fireplace burning low, the padded couch bare. Frowning, Haern swallowed his disappointment and exited the door.
Delysia was waiting for him outside, leaning against the tower with a smile on her face. Her soft white robes were immaculate, her red hair pulled back into a ponytail.
"Planning to leave without saying good-bye?" she asked him.
He shrugged. "Thought you'd be waiting for me inside."
"You still left when I wasn't."
He had no answer to that, so he smiled at her and stepped close so she might embrace him. When he tried to pull back, she held him tighter still, and he was surprised by her sudden boldness.
"You be careful," she told him. "Tarlak told me everything. Anyone who can do what that… Wraith person did, and then taunt you for it, is someone to worry about."
"Fearing for my safety, are we?" Haern asked, trying to make light of her worry—and trying to ignore how much having her hands wrapped around his neck made his heart jump.
"I fear every night you go out on watch. But this time I won't be waiting for you should you get yourself hurt. Please, be careful."
No making light this time. He put his arms around her waist and pressed his forehead to hers, the tips of their noses touching.
"I promise," he said, smiling. "It's going to take more than some cowardly pretender to take me down."
She pressed her lips to his, and after a stunned moment, he kissed her back. When it ended, she stepped away, dipping her head so her hair fell forward to hide her blush. When she spoke next, it was as if everything were fine and normal.
"Is that all you're bringing?" she asked, gesturing to his single outfit, his sabers, and the cloaks he carried in his hands.
"Yes," he said. "Why, something wrong with this?"
"Ever the poor boy," she said, laughing. "Good luck, and make sure you come back."
He bowed low. "I wouldn't dream of doing otherwise," he said. "Keep Tarlak in line for me while I'm gone."
"I'll do my best."
He headed down the pathway toward the main road south, a bounce to his step. The daylight made him feel uncomfortably exposed, but he did his best to quell the feeling. Once he reached the main road, he found Alyssa's caravan waiting. It was only three wagons, far smaller than he expected. Alyssa had told him she wished to leave with little fanfare in hopes the thief guilds would not find out. Turned out she wasn't kidding. He found her sitting in the first wagon, with Zusa beside her. They both tilted their heads as he approached, and he realized without his hood, and under the bright sun, they could clearly see his face.
"Watcher?" Alyssa asked, as if to confirm just in case.
"Haern," he said, standing before them. "That'll do for now."
Zusa offered her hand, and he took it.
"To Angelport?" he asked as he sat across from them.
"Indeed," Alyssa said before calling out the order for their driver to begin.
Eravon used the cover of night to hide his exit as he put the walls of Angelport far behind him. Spring had officially come, but the air still had a bite to it, and he kept a thin cloak wrapped tightly about him as he followed the path north. Though he'd lived for centuries, for the first time he experienced the sensation humans called "feeling old." His joints throbbed in the cold, and the days seemed to pass ever faster. Though his elven skin was smooth, he knew that in another hundred years or so he'd start to get a few wrinkles on his face, and his time among the humans would be at an end.
Not that he'd miss them.
The signal was subtle, just a few leaves placed in a specific way, with pebbles atop them to ensure they did not scatter in the wind. Eravon left the path, climbing up a nearby hill. On the other side was a tent, without a single torch or fire to give away its location. He tightened his cloak, then approached. The tent was large, the front flap open. When he stepped inside, he bowed to the two elves waiting for him.
"It is good to see you again," said the first, a young elf barely a hundred years old. His hair was short and golden, his eyes a vibrant green. Eravon accepted his embrace.
"You as well, Maradun," he said before turning to the other, who remained seated. "Does your leg trouble you so much that you cannot stand, Sildur?"
The silver-haired elf waved a cane, the only sign that he walked with a limp and that he was even older than Eravon.
"We have much to discuss, and little time to do it," Sildur said, motioning to an empty seat before them. "Sit, and tell us what the spoiled children of the brother gods have to say."
Eravon sat, and he accepted the cup and pitcher Maradun offered. He drank, purposefully delaying his report. Sildur might have outranked him back in Quellassar, but they were in human lands now, and Eravon was their ambassador. His importance could not be denied. That, and Sildur was always a dour one, as if Celestia had made him with mud in his veins instead of blood.
"Talks are yet to officially begin," Eravon said, setting down his cup. "What I know is only bluster and promises, which humans possess an infinite capacity for. But in this, I do not feel they will back down. Either we grant several of the human lords access to our forests for hunting and chopping, or prepare for bloodshed."
"Blood has already been shed," said Sildur.
"More blood, then."
"Can we not come to some sort of compromise?" asked Maradun. He glanced at the two of them. "Surely they do not desire war."
"Humans always desire war," Sildur said, fire in his voice. "You know what they did to our Dezren brothers. Chased them halfway across the continent and burned Dezerea to ash. Their desire for war runs deep in their veins. All our talks are nothing but a waste of time."
Eravon sighed. Sildur spoke the truth, no matter how harshly. He only echoed what they all knew.
- "[A] winning combination of A Game of Thrones. sword-and-sorcery RPGs, and vivid description...Dalglish puts familiar pieces together with a freshness and pleasure that are contagious."—Publishers Weekly on A Dance of Cloaks
- "Fast, furious. and fabulous."—Michael Sullivan, author of Theft of Swords on A Dance of Cloaks
- "Strong characterization as well as detailed action...a believable tale of a young man's coming-of-age and the difficult decisions he must make. His saga should appeal to fans of R.A. Salvatore and Richard Lee Byers."—Library Journal on A Dance of Cloaks
- On Sale
- Dec 3, 2013
- Page Count
- 400 pages