Rosemary Jones: Cold Steel and Secrets Part 1

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Rosemary Jones Cold Steel and Secrets Part 1
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    Cold Steel and Secrets Part 1
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Rosemary Jones

Cold Steel and Secrets Part 1

There is nothing more necessary than good spies to frustrate a designing enemy, and nothing more difficult to obtain and to control as you wish.

— Dhafiyand of Neverwinter

1478 DR

The open grave gaped at the side of the road. Rucas Sarfael drew rein and dismounted. The dirt looked recently disturbed.

His gelding shivered and stamped, but its war training held and the bay stood steady as he cast along the road for signs of the undead.

In the pale pre-dawn light, Sarfael saw fresh tracks leading off the road and down toward the river. He remounted. Drawing Mavreen’s sword, he set his horse to follow, all the urgency of Dhafiyand’s recent summons forgotten as he hunted along the trail.

By the second night of his three days of hard riding from Waterdeep, he had started hearing tales about the newly awakened dead. All the stories and the storytellers came from Neverwinter. And the storytellers drank their ale quickly, bolted their food faster, and then counseled him not to make the journey to that cursed city. The advice he ignored, having business there, but he listened closely to their mutterings about the ambulatory dead and questioned them as much as he dared about what they’d seen and where.

Sarfael found the fledgling revenant shambling along the weed-choked bank. Like all wise animals, his horse shied nervously away from the undead creature, the smell alone driving it back. But Sarfael forced it forward.

The revenant turned and clawed at the horse and rider, a howl rising from its rotting mouth. The stench of the grave rolled off it in nauseating waves. The bay sidestepped with precision, commanded by its rider’s steady hands on the reins. Screaming undead needed to attack in packs of twenty or more to make Sarfael sweat. Even then, he only looked for a way to escape and come back another day to burn them out of their nest.

One lone corpse did not frighten him. When he looked into its face, he saw only the face of a stranger. He had never known the man raised untimely from his grave.

“Good night, stranger,” Sarfael said. He leaned forward in his saddle. With one slashing downward stroke of Mavreen’s sharp blade, he sent its head tumbling into the river. The body collapsed.

Morning birds burst into song before Sarfael finished reburying the headless body in its grave. He thought briefly about abandoning it there by the side of the road. With the head well on its way to the sea, it probably would not rise again. But somebody had cared enough to level the ground over the dead man the first time, and he would not like for them to find a father, a brother, or a lover missing from his grave. He knew too well the pain that such a sight could bring, having tracked her corpse from the grave to their final confrontation in that crumbling little temple.

So he sweated in the chill dawn air, using his bare hands to shovel piles of dirt over a stinking corpse. Finally, he pulled himself onto the gelding, which pawed and bucked at his stench.

With a sigh, Sarfael surveyed the damage to his best cloak and boots. His grave grubbing left him muddy to the knees and probably in no fit condition for an audience with Neverwinter’s great spymaster. Still he couldn’t have left the corpse to rot in the open air.

“Because you’re a fool,” Mavreen whispered in his head.

Sarfael grinned at the memory of her scolding voice, just as he had once grinned and winked at her when she rode at his side, pointing out the flaws in his madcap plans. “Ah, no, my darling,” he said. “A sentimental man, that’s me.”

Then he clapped his heels to the gelding’s sides. Dhafiyand wanted him in Neverwinter and he had tarried long enough upon the road.

The horse cantered out of the marshy little valley. Sarfael rode with Mavreen’s sword still out, an altogether precarious position, as she would have delighted in telling him. But he would not sheathe the blade before he cleaned it. Until then, he rode with the naked sword gripped in his hand, his face set toward Neverwinter, and his thoughts, as always, entangled in the past.

Rucas Sarfael waited patiently in the antechamber for Dhafiyand’s summons. After the long ride from Waterdeep, he welcomed a moment to stand before the fire burning in the grate and let his boots steam dry. Little clots of grave dirt dropped from his cloak onto Dhafiyand’s finely woven carpet.

While he waited, Sarfael slid Mavreen’s sword out of his scabbard and sighted down the blade. It shone brightly in the firelight. Satisfied that the blade was immaculate after his hasty cleaning in Dhafiyand’s stables, he sheathed it again.

One of the spymaster’s black-clad servants slithered into the room. “He will see you now.”

Sarfael followed the man to the chamber where Dhafiyand carried out the business of secrets for Lord Neverember.

The spymaster sat at the long wooden table littered with reports, accounts, charts, maps, and piles of books. When Sarfael entered, Dhafiyand shot one quick look at him and nodded to the servant to leave the room.

“You’re late,” complained the old man as he shuffled through his papers. “I expected you days ago.”

“I came by horse, not by sea,” answered Sarfael, shifting the sword on his hip so he could settle into the deep wooden chair facing Dhafiyand. “And I came as quickly as I could without killing my nag.”

Dhafiyand looked up from his reports at that. “Why not take a ship?”

“The ports are watched, in Waterdeep and here, by too many eyes. I thought you would want my comings and goings unremarked.”

“Most of those eyes owe loyalty to me,” Dhafiyand replied, “and I needed you here most urgently.”

“Forty days ago, you needed me most urgently in Waterdeep. You are lucky the business there took so little time and I did not have to leave it undone.”

“So there is no more gold for the Sons of Alagondar?”

“Not from that merchant. No matter his birth in Neverwinter, he values his business in Waterdeep too much these days. And some cur, or so he called me when last we met, let too many of his trade secrets slip to his rivals. It will take him a long time to recover his wealth. What he has left, he needs at home, not funding rebellions abroad.”

“Satisfactory,” murmured Dhafiyand. “And you think he will indeed stop his meddling in others’ plans?”

“I left a fair amount of your coin scattered around. A maid with a keen eye and good penmanship will send copies of his correspondence every tenday. For a rich man, he pays his staff poorly and they know it.”

The faintest hint of a smile crossed the old man’s face. He loved information-the world’s gossip, as he called it. No doubt the merchant’s letters would join a hundred such in some neatly labeled box. They might never be read or they might be used to trip up another schemer or capture another pretender to Neverwinter’s throne. It mattered very little to Sarfael. He’d done the task requested. “Do you have more interesting work, such as tracking those rumors of Thayan interests in the city?” Sarfael asked. “I found more than one grave open on the ride here.”

“Wild animals, perhaps,” Dhafiyand shrugged. “Ghost stories, to frighten children.”

“Neither ghost stories nor wild animals cause the dead to walk. I dispatched one corpse into the river this morning,” Sarfael told him.

The spymaster frowned. “A leftover from the unpleasantness of the past.”

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