Michael Sullivan: The emerald storm

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Michael Sullivan The emerald storm
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    The emerald storm
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    Английский
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The emerald storm: краткое содержание, описание и аннотация

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Michael J. Sullivan


The emerald storm

Chapter 1

Assassin Merrick Marius fitted a bolt into the small crossbow before slipping the weapon beneath the folds of his cloak. Smoke-thin clouds drifted across the sliver of moon leaving him and Central Square, shrouded in darkness. He searched the filthy streets lined with ramshackle buildings looking for movement but found none. At this hour, the city was deserted.

Ratibor may be a pit, he thought, but at least it is easy to work in.

Conditions had improved with the recent Nationalists' victory. The imperial guards were gone, and with them went the regular patrols. The town lacked even an experienced sheriff as the new mayor refused to hire seasoned men or members of the military to administer so-called "law and order." She opted instead to make do with grocery clerks, shoemakers, and dairy farmers. Merrick found her actions ill-advised but expected such mistakes from an inexperienced noble. Not that he was complaining-he appreciated the help.

Despite this shortcoming, he admired Arista Essendon's accomplishments. In Melengar, her brother, King Alric, reigned and as an unwed princess she possessed no real power. Then she came here, masterminded a revolt, and the surviving peasants rewarded her with the keys to the city. She was a foreigner and a royal, yet they thanked her for taking rule over them. Brilliant. He could not have done better himself.

A slight smile formed at the edge of Merrick's lips as he watched her from the street below her window. A candle still burned on the second floor of City Hall, even at this late hour. Her figure moved hazily behind the heavy curtains as she left her desk.

It will not be long now, he thought.

Merrick shifted his grip on the weapon. Only a foot-and-a-half long, with a bow span even shorter, it delivered none of the stopping power of a traditional crossbow. Still, it would be enough. His target wore no armor, and he was not relying on the force of the bolt. Venden pox coated the serrated metal tip. A deplorable poison for assassination; it neither killed quickly nor paralyzed the victim. The concoction would certainly kill, but only after what he considered an unprofessional span of time. He had never used it before and only recently learned of its most important trait-venden pox was invulnerable to magic. Merrick had it on good authority that the most powerful spells and incantations were useless against its venom. Given his target, this would prove essential.

Another figure entered Arista's room, and she sat abruptly. Merrick imagined she had just received some interesting news, and he was about to cross the street to listen at the window when the tavern door opened behind him. A pair of patrons exited, and by the sway of their steps and the volume of their voices they had obviously drained more than one mug that night.

"Nestor, who's that leaning against the post?" one said, pointing in Merrick's direction. A plump man with a strawberry nose whose shape matched its color squinted in the dim light and staggered forward.

"How should I know?" said the other. The thin man's mustache still glistened with beer foam.

"What's he doing here at this time 'a night?"

"Again, how should I know, you wanker?"

"Well, ask him."

The tall man stepped forward. "Whatcha doin', mister? Holding up the post so the porch doesn't fall down?" Nestor snorted a laugh and doubled over with his hands on his knees.

"Actually," Merrick told them, his tone so serious it was almost grave, "I'm waiting to appoint the position of Town Fool to the person who asks me the stupidest question. Congratulations. You win."

The thin man slapped his friend on the shoulder. "See, I've been telling you all night how funny I am, and you haven't laughed once. Now I'm getting a new job…probably pays better than yours."

"Oh, yeah, you're quite the entertainer," his friend assured him as they staggered off into the night. "You should audition at the theater. They're gonna be doing The Crown Conspiracy for the mayor. The day I see you on a stage, now that will be funny."

Merrick's mood turned sour. He had seen that play several years ago, and while the two thieves depicted in it used different names he knew they portrayed the exploits of Royce Melborn and Hadrian Blackwater. Duster, as Royce was known when Merrick and him were assassins for the Diamond, used to be best friends.

Their friendship ended seventeen years ago, that warm summer night when Duster murdered Jade. Although he was not present, Merrick had imagined the scene countless times. That was before Duster had his white dagger, back when he used a pair of curved black-handled kharolls. Merrick knew Duster's technique well enough to picture him silently slicing through Jade with both blades at once. The blood would have run down her body, slicking her dark night-work tunic and pooling at her feet as she slowly crumpled. Merrick did not care that someone else set up Duster or that he did not know his victim's identity when it happened. All Merrick knew was that the woman he loved was dead and his best friend had killed her.

Decades had passed, and still Jade and Duster haunted him. He could not think of one without the other and he could not bear to forget. Love and hate welded together forever, intertwined in a knot too tight to untie.

Loud noises and shouts from Arista's room brought Merrick back to the present. He checked his weapon then crossed the street.


***

"Your Highness?" the soldier asked, entering the mayoral office. Princess Arista looked up from her cluttered desk, her hair a tangled mess and her eyes wreathed in shadow. She took a moment to assess her visitor. The man in mismatched armor displayed an expression of unabated annoyance.

This is not going to go well, she thought.

"You sent for me?" he asked with only partially restrained irritation.

"Yes, Renquist," she said, her mind catching up with his face. She had hardly slept in two days and had difficulty concentrating. "I asked you here to-"

"Princess, you can't be summoning me like this. I have an army to run and a war to win. I don't have time to chat."

"Chat? I wouldn't call you here if it wasn't important."

Renquist rolled his eyes.

"I need you to remove rmy from the city."

"What?"

"It can't be helped. Your men are causing trouble. I'm getting daily reports of soldiers bullying merchants and destroying property. There has even been an accusation of rape. You must take your men and bivouac them outside the city, where they can be controlled."

"The men only want what is rightfully theirs. They risked their lives against the Imperialists; the least this lousy city can do is feed them. Now you want me to take away their beds and the roof over their heads as well?"

"The merchants and farmers refuse to feed them because they can't," Arista explained. "The empire confiscated the city's reserves when the Imperialists took control. The rains and the war destroyed most of this year's crops. The city doesn't have enough to feed its citizens, much less an army. Fall is here, and cold weather is on its way. These people don't know how they will survive the winter. They can't take care of themselves with a thousand soldiers raiding their shops and farms. We're thankful for your contribution in taking the city, but your continued presence threatens to destroy what you risked your lives to liberate. You must leave."

"If I force them back into camps with inadequate food and leaky canvas shelters, half will desert. As it is, many are talking of going home for the harvest season. I shouldn't have to tell you that if this army disappears, the empire will take this city back."

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