Chapter One

The tavern was awash with blood. Cidra Rainforest saw splashes of crimson everywhere seeping from a gash in a man’s forehead, staining the front of another’s shirt, trickling from still another’s mouth. Glancing down, she saw that there was even a spatter of blood on the hem of her early-evening surplice robes. To Cidra the delicate yellow-gold fabric spun of the finest crystal moss was not just soiled but frighteningly scarred.

She was surrounded by a scene she had never before experienced, never even been able to imagine, and she found herself incapable of coping with it. It wasn’t just the sight of so much blood that held Cidra immobilized with shock. All around her the vicious fighting continued unabated, even though Cidra knew that by now the combatants must be experiencing unutterable pain. Yet they raged on. The violence of it horrified her.

Grunts, obscene oaths, and desperate shouts filled the long, low tavern hall. One man had been knocked unconscious by a deftly swung tankard of Renaissance Ross ale, but no one paused to help him. Rather, everyone was participating in the free-for-all with an air of what Cidra could only describe as lusty enthusiasm. No one was lying in a fetal huddle, whimpering on the edge of insanity, as Cidra would have expected, as indeed she herself would be doing had she not been using every ounce of her disciplined training to control herself. The scene around her was incredible. It was, she thought, just as the novels had described it.

A large, scarred, brutally strong hand clamped around Cidra’s arm, shocking her out of her stupor.

“Come on, lady, unless you want to explain your presence to the guards. Let’s get out of here.”

In a daze Cidra turned to the hard face of the man she had met only moments earlier, the man she had come to this rough tavern to find. Teague Severance hadn’t been quite what she had expected, and Cidra had been trying to adjust to that fact.

“The guards?” she asked, clinging to the look of strength she saw in the man’s gray eyes,

“Port Valentine’s safeguards enjoy breaking up this kind of thing. Thrive on it, in fact. And they’ll be here any minute. Let’s get going. I think we can make it out through the back.”

Cidra didn’t argue. The stunning violence going on around her had not only disrupted her ability to think coherently but also seemed to be playing havoc with her normally excellent sense of balance. When her escort yanked Cidra toward the door and out of the way of a falling mountain dressed in a miner’s kirtle, she stumbled and fell to her knees. Teague Severance’s hold on her arm was broken, and he was whisked away by two men in a fist fight who suddenly saw him as a preferable target.

But Cidra barely noticed. The huge man who had just fallen lay beside her feet, blinking groggily as he rubbed a bleeding jaw. Instinctively Cidra turned to comfort him, murmuring words of hypnotic comfort.

“Focus, my friend. Focus, focus. The pain is receding. See how it fades. Focus on it. The oblivo is being brought to you. Soon all will be serene. All will fade. All will fade. You must relax and let it flow away from you, let it flow—” Her soothing words ended abruptly as Cidra was hauled to her feet. Severance’s scarred hand was once again clamped tightly around her arm; part of her had a moment to wonder how he had come by the odd lacing of scars.

“What in a renegade’s hell do you think you’re doing? Get up off the floor, woman. We’ve got to get out of here. The Wolves are howling tonight, in case you hadn’t noticed.”

Cidra’s escort pulled her unceremoniously around a writhing mass of human beings and continued to forge a path toward the tavern’s kitchen.

“But that man was in such pain…” she murmured, feeling more lost than ever.

“Don’t worry, he won’t feel a thing until morning.”

A hulking figure rose in front of Cidra, all bloody grin and glazed eyes. It wore a ship suit not unlike Severance’s, but the diagonally slung utility loop was of a cheap, functional synthetic, not fine rantgan leather. Cidra noticed long before two hands that, to her startled gaze, resembled grappling hooks reached for her.

“Don’t run off, little lady. You and I can go somewhere peaceful for some special handling. How does that sound?”

Before Cidra could sort through her list of appropriate responses to a question she had never before encountered, her impatient escort dealt with the grisly man before her.

“Don’t touch her, you renegade idiot. Are you so drunk that you can’t tell she’s from Clementia? What’s more, she’s a patron. My patron.”

The glassy-eyed man blinked, frantically trying to focus his eyes. “I’m sorry, lady—I mean, Otanna. Didn’t mean nothin’, uh, rude. Had no idea what I was doing. No offense intended, I swear to Saints.”

Cidra hurried to respond to the man’s apology. She realized that he was under a misapprehension, thanks to her escort’s comments. “Do not concern yourself. All is serene. And you have inflicted no real pain. I am—” But again she was not allowed to finish her sentence. With a dazed sense of surprise she realized that the hulk with the grappling-hook hands wasn’t listening to her at all. He had turned to Teague Severance and was apologizing to him.

“Sorry about that, Severance. Never meant to interfere between you and a patron. Just a little misunderstanding. Better get her outa here, though. She’ll probably go crazy any second.”

“I’m working the problem. Unfortunately she’s not exactly cooperating.”

Cidra felt a rush of emotion that was decidedly akin to annoyance. She responded to the accusation in a tone of voice that was neither properly modulated nor serene. “I am trying to cooperate, Otan Severance. But circumstances are making it difficult.”

“Just close your eyes and stop digging in your heels every time one of these Wolves gets in your way.” And with that, the man called Severance once again hauled Cidra toward the tavern’s back door.

Once inside the relative safety of the small kitchen, which was protected by a makeshift barricade of hastily arranged food heaters and ale dispensers, Cidra and her escort found the tavern’s owner and his employees sitting around a table, playing a game of Free Market. The stacks of gleaming sardite chips in the center of the table indicated the seriousness of the stakes involved. Several bottles of ale resided at the players’ elbows. The balding proprietor glanced up with a frown as Cidra and her companion burst into the room.

“Now, look here, kitchen’s off-limits. You know that,” the owner growled.