Azoth squatted in the alley, cold mud squishing through his bare toes. He stared at the narrow space beneath the wall, trying to get his nerve up. The sun wouldn’t come up for hours, and the tavern was empty. Most taverns in the city had dirt floors, but this part of the Warrens had been built over marshland, and not even drunks wanted to drink standing ankle-deep in mud, so the tavern had been raised a few inches on stilts and floored with stout bamboo poles.
Coins sometimes dropped through the gaps in the bamboo, and the crawlspace was too small for most people to go after them. The guild’s bigs were too big and the littles were too scared to squeeze into the suffocating darkness shared with spiders and cockroaches and rats and the wicked half-wild tomcat the owner kept. Worst was the pressure of the bamboo against your back, flattening you every time a patron walked overhead. It had been Azoth’s favorite spot for a year, but he wasn’t as small as he used to be. Last time, he got stuck and spent hours panicking until it rained and the ground softened beneath him enough that he could dig himself out.
It was muddy now, and there would be no patrons, and Azoth had seen the tomcat leave. It should be fine. Besides, Rat was collecting guild dues tomorrow, and Azoth didn’t have four coppers. He didn’t even have one, so there wasn’t much choice. Rat wasn’t understanding, and he didn’t know his own strength. Littles had died from his beatings.
Pushing aside mounds of mud, Azoth lay on his stomach. The dank earth soaked his thin, filthy tunic instantly. He’d have to work fast. He was skinny, and if he caught a chill, the odds of getting better weren’t good.
Scooting through the darkness, he began searching for the telltale metallic gleam. A couple of lamps were still burning in the tavern, so light filtered through the gaps, illuminating the mud and standing water in strange rectangles. Heavy marsh mist climbed the shafts of light only to fall over and over again. Spider webs draped across Azoth’s face and broke, and he felt a tingle on the back of his neck.
He froze. No, it was his imagination. He exhaled slowly. Something glimmered and he grabbed his first copper. He slithered to the unfinished pine beam he had gotten stuck under last time and shoveled mud away until water filled the depression. The gap was still so narrow that he had to turn his head sideways to squeeze underneath it. Holding his breath and pushing his face into the slimy water, he began the slow crawl.
His head and shoulders made it through, but then a stub of a branch caught the back of his tunic, tearing the cloth and jabbing his back. He almost cried out and was instantly glad he hadn’t. Through a wide space between bamboo poles, Azoth saw a man seated at the bar, still drinking. In the Warrens, you had to judge people quickly. Even if you had quick hands like Azoth did, when you stole every day, you were bound to get caught eventually. All merchants hit the guild rats who stole from them. If they wanted to have any goods left to sell, they had to. The trick was picking the ones who’d smack you so you didn’t try their booth next time; there were others who’d beat you so badly you never had a next time. Azoth thought he saw something kind and sad and lonely in this lanky figure. He was perhaps thirty, with a scraggly blond beard and a huge sword on his hip.
“How could you abandon me?” the man whispered so quietly Azoth could barely distinguish the words. He held a flagon in his left hand and cradled something Azoth couldn’t see in his right. “After all the years I’ve served you, how could you abandon me now? Is it because of Vonda?”
There was an itch on Azoth’s calf. He ignored it. It was just his imagination again. He reached behind his back to free his tunic. He needed to find his coins and get out of here.
Something heavy dropped onto the floor above Azoth and slammed his face into the water, driving the breath from his lungs. He gasped and nearly inhaled water.
“Why Durzo Blint, you never fail to surprise,” the weight above Azoth said. Nothing was visible of the man through the gaps except a drawn dagger. He must have dropped from the rafters. “Hey, I’m all for calling a bluff, but you should have seen Vonda when she figured out you weren’t going to save her. Made me damn near bawl my eyes out.”
The lanky man turned. His voice was slow, broken. “I killed six men tonight. Are you sure you want to make it seven?”
Azoth slowly caught up with what they’d been saying. The lanky man was the wetboy Durzo Blint. A wetboy was like an assassin—in the way a tiger is like a kitten. Among wetboys, Durzo Blint was indisputably the best. Or, as the head of Azoth’s guild said, at least the disputes didn’t last long. And I thought Durzo Blint looked kind?
The itch on Azoth’s calf itched again. It wasn’t his imagination. There was something crawling up the inside of his trousers. It felt big, but not as big as a cockroach. Azoth’s fear identified the weight: a white wolf spider. Its poison liquefied flesh in a slowly spreading circle. If it bit, even with a healer the best an adult could hope for was to lose a limb. A guild rat wouldn’t be so lucky.
“Blint, you’ll be lucky if you don’t cut your head off after all you’ve been drinking. Just in the time I’ve been watching, you’ve had—”
“Eight flagons. And I had four before that.”
Azoth didn’t move. If he jerked his legs together to kill the spider, the water would splash and the men would know he was there. Even if Durzo Blint had looked kind, that was an awful big sword, and Azoth knew better than to trust grown-ups.
“You’re bluffing,” the man said, but there was fear in his voice.
“I don’t bluff,” Durzo Blint said. “Why don’t you invite your friends in?”
The spider crawled up to Azoth’s inner thigh. Trembling, he pulled his tunic up in back and stretched the waist of his trousers, making a gap and praying the spider would crawl for it.
Above him, the assassin reached two fingers up to his lips and whistled. Azoth didn’t see Durzo move, but the whistle ended in a gurgle and a moment later, the assassin’s body tumbled to the floor. There were yells as the front and back doors burst open. The boards flexed and jumped. Concentrating on not jostling the spider, Azoth didn’t move, even when another dropping body pushed his face briefly under water.
The spider crawled across Azoth’s butt and then onto his thumb. Slowly, Azoth drew his hand around so he could see it. His fears were right. It was a white wolf spider, its legs as long as Azoth’s thumb. He flung it away convulsively and rubbed his fingers, making sure he hadn’t been bitten.
He reached for the splintered branch holding his tunic and broke it off. The sound was magnified in the sudden silence above. Azoth couldn’t see anyone through the gaps. A few feet away, something was dripping from the boards into a puddle. It was too dark to see what it was, but it didn’t take much imagination to guess.
The silence was eerie. If any of the men walked across the floor, groaning boards and flexing bamboo would have announced it. The entire fight had lasted maybe twenty seconds, and Azoth was sure no one had left the tavern. Had they all killed each other?
He was chilled, and not just from the water. Death was no stranger in the Warrens, but Azoth had never seen so many people die so fast and so easily.
Even taking extra care to look out for the spider, in a few minutes, Azoth had gathered six coppers. If he were braver, he would have looted the bodies in the tavern, but Azoth couldn’t believe Durzo Blint was dead. Maybe he was a demon, like the other guild rats said. Maybe he was standing outside, waiting to kill Azoth for spying on him.
Chest tight with fear, Azoth turned and scooted toward his hole. Six coppers was good. Dues were only four, so he could buy bread tomorrow to share with Jarl and Doll Girl.
He was a foot from the opening when something bright flashed in front of his nose. It was so close, it took a moment to come into focus. It was Durzo Blint’s huge sword, and it was stuck through the floor all the way into the mud, barring Azoth’s escape.
Just above Azoth on the other side of the floor, Durzo Blint whispered, “Never speak of this. Understand? I’ve done worse than kill children.”
The sword disappeared, and Azoth scrambled out into the night. He didn’t stop running for miles.