Toro could feel the pressure of the two halberds’ tips between his shoulder blades, not hard but insistent. Instinct encouraged him to edge forward, but there was nowhere to edge to. Before him was only the pit.
The pit was as yawningly wide as one of the many small quarries on the verge of the city. Its slope was walled—or should that be floored?—with black tiles resembling glass, fitted so tightly that the seams were almost invisible. Those tiles descended continuously to the center, their angle steepest at the top and growing shallower, though never sufficiently that a man could hope to keep his balance. The sole exceptions were the few places where ledges protruded, of a mottled stone that perhaps was granite. Most were narrow as an outstretched palm, the widest broad as Toro’s thigh.
At the center was a hole. The hole was larger than a well, so that two people could fall through together and barely touch. There was no judging its depth, but logic, and knowledge of the Judicaar’s methods, dictated it would be deep.
Including Toro, thirteen men stood at intervals around the edge of the pit, each guarded by two officials. Indeed, there were exclusively men in both the pit and the surrounding hall, since unnecessary mingling of the sexes was among the countless ‘moral corruptions’ the Judicaar sought to stamp out. Of the prisoners perched as he was, Toro recognized several, though they’d never spoken. They were simply the sorts who wound up in situations such as this—which was to say, those likely to fall foul of the Judicaar’s ill-temper.
Here and now, the Judicaar meant one man: Elder Commissar Balkas Vyke, seated in his wooden chair on its elevated plinth at the end of the hall, dressed in his robes of anonymous grey, lean as a beggar and gaunt as a snake. Commissar Vyke was the very model of Judicaar self-denial. They claimed he consumed no meats, no fruits, no spices, and no alcohol, and of course he was celibate. How many people went hungry, thought Toro, so creatures like Vyke could starve themselves?
Farther back in the huge room, pillars supported a higher tier, upon which row after row of seats ascended steeply toward the domed ceiling. Toro saw no gaps anywhere, and the spectators’ expectant faces were a blur of old and young, rich and poor, representing every niche of city life. Once, Toro had felt they came to watch from up there because they were glad not to be down where he was. Then he’d considered that maybe theirs was a different fear: they came to be seen, so as to be clear in their loyalties. These days, Toro had less faith. Probably most of them were here to watch men not themselves struggle and die.
“All of you know your crimes,” Vyke said. His voice was thin and nasal. “There’s no use in repeating them. All of you know in your hearts that your actions are irredeemable. Yet the Judicaar is not merciless. He who survives last, survives. He who survives will be redeemed. So fight well.”
He raised a frail and blue-veined hand. He let the hand drop.
The points of the two halberds at Toro’s back thrust forward in unison. His choices were to be impaled or to fall. Obligingly, Toro fell.
The sides of the funnel were as smooth as he’d imagined. The slant, however, was shallower than it had appeared. If he were to tense his muscles just so, he might be able to slow his progress and stop before the bottom. But Toro didn’t try. He’d singled out the ledge he was aiming for, and he focused on directing his slide.
He wasn’t alone in his selection. Another man was approaching from above. He was sinewy and scarred; a fighter, if perhaps not a particularly good one. Regardless, there wasn’t room for both of them. Having spied Toro, he was fumbling at the long knife in his belt.
Toro was slowing, but fractionally. The tiled surface was shockingly frictionless. He adjusted his angle with the jab of an elbow. The fighter was almost at the ledge and torn between freeing his knife and making the corrections necessary to stop him missing his objective altogether. A great deal of his attention was on Toro and on bracing for the inevitable moment when he’d have to contest this slender chance.
So it was that, when Toro’s descent carried him past the jut of granite, the fighter’s expression showed unveiled astonishment. An instant later, Toro had one hand on the lip of the ledge, the second clasping the fighter’s ankle. The fighter lost his balance immediately, and only the fact that Toro had already let go and was swaying aside spared him from being dragged along. As he flung up that hand and clung, he heard a scream from below, then another, which might or might not have belonged to the same man.
Hauling himself onto the ledge, which was one of the narrowest, was harder than securing it had been. He could gain no purchase with his feet, so he was reliant on the muscles of his upper body. Fortunate that climbing was such an integral part of his trade and that clambering about the rooftops of the city wasn’t much easier than this. Finally, he got a foot up, and from there, the going was practically straightforward. In seconds he had level ground beneath him.
With inordinate care, Toro pivoted on his toes, so as to face away from the wall. He took a deep breath, summoning calm, and looked around.
Of the original thirteen, the hole had claimed two victims. Nine, including Toro, had gained ledges, while the other two had successfully brought themselves to a halt on the slope of the funnel. Both were near the bottom, one virtually at the lip of the central well; he’d flipped onto his belly and was crawling upward by painful increments. His companion in misfortune was on his back: he couldn’t climb without turning over, and he’d couldn’t turn over without losing traction. Toro watched him slip... by barely a finger’s breadth, but those tiny losses would add up. He, Toro thought, would be first to go. And eventually the other man would abandon his crawling, as he accepted he’d never reach the closest ledge.
Say, then, that there were nine of them. That meant eight men would have to die.
Theoretically, there was no need for them to fight. Though the Judicaar wouldn’t tolerate a lack of conflict indefinitely—and indeed had allowed their prisoners to keep whatever weapons they had with them when they were arrested, for precisely that reason—nor would Vyke hurry to order the use of, for example, the pots of oil kept ready for such occasions. The Judicaar had done this often enough to know that there wasn’t likely to be any intervention required. Violence would come, and not because there could be just one winner. In Toro’s experience, people didn’t think that far ahead. No, their motivation would be merely comfort and its lack. No one could stand straight forever, and the funnel was worse for how awkward it was to lean against the slanting wall.
Toro considered the eight whose lives must end if his was to continue. They weren’t, on the whole, an impressive bunch. Their types filled the nooks and crannies of Reik and every city the world over: thieves and killers, the lost and the discarded. Only a couple stood out, a big Eikerlander and a tanned, black-haired man in jacket and trousers of deep red who looked wholly misplaced and whose apparent calm made him more incongruous.
But the Eikerlander was a different proposition: a solid block of muscle, and most of it on display, for all he wore was a short kilt around his waist. There were those who called the nomads of the Ekeirland plains barbarians, but the truth was that they possessed no lack of culture; it was solely that much of that culture was preoccupied with questions of violence.
Toro wasn’t the only one evaluating the competition. They were all at it, with varying degrees of subtlety, except the Eikerlander, who was busily picking his teeth with a splinter of wood he’d produced from somewhere. Sooner or later, but surely sooner, they’d begin to fight over the two widest ledges. One was halfway down the funnel and currently unoccupied, though the two nearest men could both reach it if they were agile enough. The other was higher and a third of the way round from Toro. Its occupier wore a black cloak and somehow, despite his descent, had kept the hood pulled up. By that and his relaxed posture, Toro reckoned he’d underestimated the man in his first assessment. On reflection, he thought the two of them might have a trade in common.
It didn’t take long for him to be proved right. Black Cloak’s hands had been working inside his garment, and now he drew forth a small triangular device. Toro identified the toy for what it was, a miniature mechanical crossbow, when Black Cloak aimed and shot at the man adjacent to him, a skinny fellow clothed in rags who doubled over and stumbled, clutching his stomach. He was probably dead before he struck the wall; he made no sound as he tumbled limply into the hole.
The crowd gave a muted rumble of approval. They’d arrived at the conclusion Toro had: assuming Black Cloak had ample ammunition, he could pick them off one by one. However, what the solution possessed in ease it lacked in entertainment.
Toro, of course, had his own reasons for not wanting Black Cloak to succeed. The question was when to act. There was much to be said for allowing that little crossbow to thin the opposition. By the same measure, Toro preferred not to reveal his own capabilities until left with no alternative. Then again, Black Cloak needn’t choose his targets predictably; with the nearest threat removed, he could be more selective. If he was a good judge, perhaps Toro would be next.
Watching Black Cloak reload, the gestures steady and meticulous, Toro decided he wasn’t willing to take the risk. But as he delved within his cloak for one of the razor-sharp and parchment-thin blades concealed there, movement caught his eye. Looking up and to the right, he saw that the gigantic Eikerlander’s every muscle was tensed, like a big cat’s as it readied to spring.
The giant took two steps, perfectly balanced as a sailor walking a rope, and launched himself. On the slope, he didn’t stop running, even as he began to slide. He was at an impossible angle, and only momentum kept him moving. Toro was certain his strength was bound to fail, but on he went, skating the severe curve of the wall.
Then the crossbow bolt hit him, square in the shoulder.
That should have been the end. Yet the Eikerlander didn’t flinch, his pace didn’t slow, and his face showed no recognition, let alone pain. He came down fist first, and that fist fell like a hammer. No one could have resisted the impact, and Black Cloak didn’t come close. Knocked clean off the ledge, he tumbled and slithered the remaining distance to the hole. By the time he reached it, he’d recovered enough to scrabble for an instant, a look of perplexed anguish on his face, before the darkness swallowed him.
The Eikerlander, meanwhile, had come to land on the ledge. He plucked the bolt out of his shoulder, snapped it in two, and tossed the pieces after their previous owner. That brought a wave of good cheer from the higher tiers. The Eikerlander’s response was to remove the skin bag he wore at his waist and take a great swig. That done, he held the skin up to the crowd in salute, eliciting a louder cheer that died when the Judicaar guardsmen stamped their halberds on the cobbles. Whatever that skin contained, it wasn’t water, and Vyke’s ebon eyes burned with disapproval.
After that, there was relative peace for a spell. The man who’d failed to attain a ledge and had come to rest on his back didn’t last long; abruptly, the vigor went out of him. His pleading was dreadful, because nobody could have helped and none of them would have if they could. His neighbor, who’d been crawling ever so slowly, fared better, but not by much. He had the decency to let go with just a muttered curse. Neither received more than halfhearted laughter from the audience and the trace of a sneer from Vyke. In the pit, only the Eikerlander reacted, and only to the second man’s death. His weary headshake said, What can you do, eh? Then he went back to picking his teeth.
Toro used the brief truce to catalogue his resources. He wore a short sword, with which he was moderately capable, but his real weaponry was all concealed. While the knives were his tool of preference, he had others, including a couple of rare items he’d been saving for a suitable eventuality.
He’d have traded them for a flask of water. The room was hot and airless, his throat was bone dry, and these trials had been known to drag on for hours. He was prepared for a fight, but he hadn’t been prepared to be caught, so he had no choice except to go thirsty and to make sure this was resolved quickly, if he was able.
A man to Toro’s left was first to move. He was the oldest of those remaining, and his scars and permanent sneer suggested an enforcer for one of the gangs that battled continuously over the slum district. Toro had noted that he seemed fidgety, or else was starting to suffer with cramp. Whatever the case, apparently he’d had enough.
As the enforcer scampered lithely up the slope at a slight diagonal, the crowd booed. Maybe they thought he was trying to climb out, not knowing that, even if by some miracle he should make it, he’d be driven back by the guards and their halberds. Toro discerned his real objective and was impressed by his audacity, if not his judgment. He was attempting to reach the second of the broad ledges, but to do so, he needed to gain height. He’d set out three quarters of the way from the bottom; therefore, his route required a sequence of three narrower ledges, all empty.
He made the first with surprising ease. There he rested, but not for long; a minute later, he was off. He must have realized that the ascent would become progressively more difficult as the funnel’s wall steepened. Nevertheless, his approach was the same, a dash and a leap—and again he was successful. He hoisted himself up, panting.
By now, all eyes were on him. And it was that, rather than incuriosity over whether he would triumph or fail, which drew Toro’s own gaze away. Here was an opportunity, if anyone was willing to take it.
Someone was. He was small, young, inconspicuous; a street urchin, scarcely out of boyhood. But there was a knife at his belt and the scabbard looked freshly bought, so perhaps he’d recently found himself a trade. At any rate, he too had decided to switch ledges. He moved rapidly and quietly, and though some of the crowd saw, Toro guessed the others in the pit hadn’t—certainly not the one man who should have. For the urchin’s new position placed him above and not far from the Eikerlander.
However, now that he was there, he appeared content to wait. His attention was on the old enforcer, who was in motion again. The third ledge was the remotest of the three, and the incline was steepest. About two thirds of the way there, his pace flagged, and yet somehow he kept going, scrabbling at the nearly sheer surface, kicking with his toes and clawing with his fingertips. And even as he seemed guaranteed to lose his purchase, he caught the ledge’s edge. There he hung for so long that Toro all but gave up on him, then hauled himself up in a rush of effort.
Toro glanced across the others. The urchin still hadn’t made his move. The Eikerlander still hadn’t notice the urchin’s proximity. Everyone else was watching the enforcer, rapt.
This time, he didn’t delay. He gave himself barely as long as he’d spent hanging by his fingertips, presumably reasoning that this last stretch should be the easiest and he must seize his chance while he could.
He missed the broad ledge by a full pace. He wasn’t even sufficiently close to lunge out a hand. Cruel laughter rolled from the upper tiers as the hole consumed him.
Toro’s focus was back on the urchin. Sure enough, he had his knife drawn. The blade was curved, and a design had been burned, tattoo-like, upon the metal. Toro suspected it represented a fanged eel and that this youth had been picked up by the Drowning Lads. That was a dark path, and the boy had no right to be surprised he’d ended up here.
But he was undeniably light-footed. He danced across the tiles, an eager grin twisting his mouth and not quite erasing the terror from his eyes. He knew the Eikerlander was big, but he was going for the throat, because no man was so big that they could withstand a severed windpipe.
The Eikerlander didn’t have to. At the last moment, he reached out with one branch-thick arm, caught the urchin’s foot, and plucked him from the wall as though he were a berry on a bush. The urchin didn’t have time to retaliate; swung and released, he bounced once, a little way shy of the bottom, and hurtled into the hole.
The cheer from above was the loudest yet. The Eikerlander had just made himself a clear favorite to win. However, he could hardly have seemed less interested. He was energetically stretching and cricking his neck, but Toro suspected he’d be back to picking his teeth before long.
Now they were five. Already their number was more than halved. And once again there came a lull, as the remaining few contemplated the mistakes of those who’d passed and how not to make similar mistakes of their own.
Toro waited patiently. The ability to endure was one of his principal virtues, and many a night he’d spent perched on a chimneypot or crammed in a gap between walls. Perhaps he couldn’t outlast the Eikerlander, but the others he felt confident of. He forgot his thirst and the ache in his calves and thighs, shifting his thoughts elsewhere. He surrendered to his senses, assured that any small movement would suffice to alert him.
But on this occasion, his concentration forsook him. Toro found his mind drifting. Images bobbed wilfully to the surface: buildings, a tree-lined square, the play of moonlight on water. He was recalling Cold Harbour, he realized. Despite his best intentions, he was thinking of the city of his birth.
In Toro’s view, the past was a corpse, fit only for birds to pick over. And the story of his exile from Cold Harbour and the guild of assassins known as the Black Anemone was one he chose not to repeat, even to himself. Yet this place was not his home and never would be, the Judicaar saw to that. To live in Reik was to live with a hand always at your throat, ready to grip and choke you. He was a good killer, quick and quiet and skilful, but he’d never been great, and so arguably this fate had been inevitable. He couldn’t begrudge it, but that wouldn’t keep him from striving to change it.
To his right, a man fell. He simply toppled forward. Toro’s initial thought was that one of the others had killed him, but none of their faces admitted culpability. The man slid into the hole, lifeless as a doll, and was gone. The response from the crowd was negligible and spoke primarily of irritation. Passing out, in their eyes, was a form of cheating.
Toro knew what would happen now. This was the final stage, when men grew desperate and began to think not only of surviving but of winning. Yet Toro did mean to survive, and he understood that was something altogether else. It couldn’t be accomplished solely by being the last alive, the one who didn’t fall when others did.
This was what Toro knew that most didn’t: the Judicaar was true to its word, but in the narrowest of senses. Winning equated not to freedom but to the cells beneath this fortress, and that was its own death sentence. The pit was an ugly end, but better than wilt-lung or bluespot or slow starvation. There’d be no victor today.
Nonetheless, there might be a way out.
The tiles had been his first clue. They reminded him of those that paved the interiors of the elaborate fountains so popular in Cold Harbour. But there was actual evidence to be deduced. He’d heard the bodies of those who’d fallen hit bottom, meaning there was a bottom to be hit. Further, twelve people died here every week, five weeks a month, fourteen months a year, excepting the Week of Shriving. They’d been dying at such a rate for more than twenty years, which added up to at least sixteen thousand cadavers. However deep the hole was, it wasn’t that deep.
Therefore, there was a means of removing them.
Toro had no way of proving his theory, and he’d be trusting his life to it. But then, death was the likeliest outcome regardless of what he did, and while he might have been expelled from the Black Anemone, he’d never abandoned their creed. With his course set, he would pursue it without doubts and no matter the cost. But he’d also continue to wait, because only through waiting could his plan succeed.
The others would be different. Toro scrutinized them afresh: the Eikerlander, the man in red, and the third, who, now that Toro really considered, had the air of the Judicaar about him, an impression of stubborn authority that remained even when any actual authority had been stripped away. Probably he was a former warden or temple guard; corruption was rife, and the Judicaar were especially merciless to their own. On the other hand, insider knowledge might be a small advantage in his favor.
As for the man in red, Toro was uncertain what to make of him. For all that he gave no indication of being able to handle himself in a fight, he was remarkably nonchalant. And his stamina was impressive: he looked as comfortable as though he were standing on the balcony of the Gilded Heron, sipping sloe wine and watching the riverboats go by.
Toro had determined that the Judicaar man would be next to make a move and that Red Jacket would be his target. If the Judicaar man was prepared to risk descending, the distance between them wasn’t insurmountable. Thus, Toro was as startled as anyone when Red Jacket spoke.
“It seems we’re at an impasse,” he said, in a voice that was resonant and appealing. “None of us would choose to die, and I’m unashamed to admit that I want very badly to live. My name is Lazlo Flaxdunziel, of the Arborense Flaxdunziels; if you haven’t heard of me, you’ve heard of my family. So you’ll know I’m capable of honoring the offer I now make you: if any of you will willingly cast themselves into the hole, I’ll arrange for payment to your kin of one hundred bronze elks.”
Flaxdunziel had barely finished speaking before the Eikerlander was laughing, a joyful roar that rebounded back and forth across the pit.
The Judicaar man, by contrast, was grave. “What guarantee would I have?” he said.
Flaxdunziel smiled, and the smile was genuine and warm. “Why, we’d sign the documentation right here. As I understand the law, a condemned man may dispose of whatever assets remain to him after confiscation in any fashion he deems appropriate. Commissar Vyke, am I correct?”
Toro could just see Vyke above the pit’s edge, as Flaxdunziel could not. Toro reckoned Flaxdunziel would have enjoyed the commissar’s obvious irritation. “You’re correct,” Vyke intoned, each syllable heavy with disgust.
“Then I’ll tailor a contract and we both shall sign,” Flaxdunziel said. “Once that’s done, my people in the audience will ensure the money is delivered—assuming, of course, you’ve upheld your end of the bargain.”
The Judicaar man cleared his throat. “I—have a daughter.”
“To lose a parent is a terrible thing. With one hundred elks, at least she’ll never know poverty.”
“So you’ll sign?”
“I’ll sign. Prepare your contract.”
Toro had almost been inclined to dismiss the entire business as a cruel joke, but Flaxdunziel drew from his jacket a leather pouch that, when he opened it, contained parchment, quill, and ink pot. The process of filling out the contract was more of a challenge: he managed by resting the page against the sloping wall and balancing the ink upon the hand that held the parchment in place. The process took so long that the crowd began to grow restless and to jeer “Coward” at the Judicaar man. But he waited stoically, observing Flaxdunziel’s preparations as if hypnotized.
Finally, Flaxdunziel was done. He waved the parchment dry, rolled it, and replaced the items in the pouch. “Ready?” he asked.
The Judicaar man nodded hesitantly.
Flaxdunziel took careful aim and threw the pouch. His aim was solid. The pouch landed well above the Judicaar man, rolled downward, and was snatched up. Then the Judicaar man opened the pouch and signed a clumsy signature. He returned the completed contract in the same manner.
“A pleasure doing business with you,” Flaxdunziel said. Shouting to the stands, he added, “Have you witnessed this, Fursel?” He read out a name and address. “Do you confirm you’ll deliver a hundred elks from my accounts once the requisite criterion is met?”
“I do,” called back a voice.
“In that case,” Flaxdunziel continued, “only one thing remains.”
The Judicaar man appeared not to comprehend at first, as though he’d forgotten the terms of their agreement. When realization dawned, his face contorted. He glanced at Flaxdunziel, perhaps hoping for pity. If so, he found none. He bowed his head and mumbled what might be some prayer. He slid one foot from the ledge, then changed his mind and twitched backward. Taking a shuddering breath, he tried again. That second attempt was more successful.
The crowd was hushed. Maybe they were disappointed, or maybe they’d been unready for the sight of a man taking his own life. Flaxdunziel, for his part, was unmoved. Having hailed his employee to confirm the promised payment, he turned his attention to the Eikerlander and Toro.
“You see that my word is sound. The payment I offer is now two hundred bronze elks, to either of you. Two hundred elks will make your families comfortable indeed. What do you say? Your lives are forfeit. Why not take this opportunity to leave some good in the world?”
The Eikerlander only grinned. Toro averted his eyes and said nothing.
“You won’t reconsider?”
Flaxdunziel’s tone betrayed that he’d expected no reply. Once more, he reached inside his blood-red jacket. This time, what he withdrew was a delicate contraption of wood and polished metal fronted by a stubby tube. The device was a flintlock; Toro had heard of them but never encountered one. They were an experiment born of new technologies from across the ocean and rare as crow’s teeth. Flaxdunziel, however, wielded this one deftly. He pointed the weapon at the Eikerlander, who merely stood watching, either not understanding what he was looking at or having decided that, with nowhere to dodge to, he’d rather die with dignity.
“I offer you a final chance,” Flaxdunziel said.
The Eikerlander’s retort was a snort of derision that reverberated about the pit. Flaxdunziel didn’t waste more words. He clenched his finger on the flintlock’s trigger. There was a flash of fire.
Flaxdunziel screamed. Now he was holding a charred stump of jagged scrap. There was blood coursing down his wrist, and Toro could see that three fingers were shredded to the bone.
So much for new technologies, he thought. So much for rich men’s toys.
After that, Flaxdunziel’s fate was surely sealed. He was trying to bandage his ravaged hand with a strip cut from his undershirt when he lost his footing. He teetered, and for a moment it seemed he might save himself, but he didn’t. His last cry sounded more confused than afraid, that of a man who couldn’t altogether fathom what had brought him to this instant.
Then there was just Toro and the Eikerlander.
Toro made a show of considering his options, though he had no need to. He doubted he could beat the Eikerlander in a contest of endurance, especially when the giant had his waterskin to sip from. In any case, such a victory wouldn’t achieve the goal he sought. And he doubted the Eikerlander would come for him. The wider ledge was an enormous advantage, one the Eikerlander would be well aware of.
Toro had already planned his route. The mistake the enforcer had made was to head upward. Toro sympathized with the impulse: every instinct said to avoid the center. Regardless, there lay the best means of navigating the pit.
He wasted no time; wait and his strength would begin to ebb. He set out at a run, gaining one ledge and another, rested briefly, and continued to a third and a fourth. By that point, he’d lost half his original height and was both much nearer the Eikerlander and below him. However, Toro had reached his next objective. Here, a series of ledges aligned into a sort of ladder.
His ascent was slower and substantially riskier. But by the end, though bruised and breathless, he’d regained the height he’d sacrificed in his run and was again above the Eikerlander. The other man was watching him with interest but no visible concern.
And ought he to be concerned? Toro could have thrown a knife at such a range; but, remembering how the Eikerlander had shrugged off a crossbow bolt, he wasn’t certain his short blades would be effective. Conversely, there were obvious hazards to a more intimate tussle. The tiniest mistake and he wouldn’t live to enjoy his victory. A number of these trials had concluded as draws, an irony that would have appealed to the Judicaar.
If he couldn’t kill at range and stood no chance in close, a degree of imagination was required. The fingers of Toro’s left hand probed the pouches that lined his waist. The fingers of his right freed one of the weapons hanging from his belt. Both hands he kept hidden within his cloak until the moment he slid free of the ledge and began his descent.
The Eikerlander was a good distance beneath him and to his left. Toro flung the contents of the appropriate hand that way, and black smoke billowed about the man’s feet. The last Toro saw of his expression spoke of disgruntlement but still no hint of alarm. Sucking down a deep breath, Toro disregarded him to concentrate on his own footing and on working the weapon he held, which whirred as it sliced the air. His aim would have to be perfect, and he’d robbed himself of the benefit of a visible target. Nevertheless, he threw.
With that done, Toro splayed his arms and angled his heels against the ice-smooth tiles. He was surrounded by smoke, but from his left, he heard the Eikerlander grunt. He could see nothing in that direction and little ahead, though the thinning edge of the smoke cloud was visible. He could only hope he’d calculated correctly.
He had. But the ledge he’d picked came upon him quickly and was narrower than it had appeared. For an instant, he teetered forward, and dashing his entire weight backward was all that saved him. Doing so knocked the air from his lungs, and Toro experienced fleeting dread before he realized he was free of the cloud, which was already dissipating.
Through the remaining haze, the Eikerlander was staring down at him. He had clearly tensed for a fight and was taken aback not to have received one. His frown was quizzical, his pose stiff as a statue’s—that latter due also, no doubt, to the bolas Toro had thrown around his ankles.
Accepting that Toro posed no imminent threat, the Eikerlander knelt and flipped his sword to slice between his legs. But Toro could see he was wobbling. The Eikerlander gasped for air and shook his head; he was looking distinctly queasy. He tried again with the sword but so clumsily that he nicked himself. The blade slipped from his grasp and rattled away.
The Eikerlander must have perceived the truth by then. In small doses, the sickle-spider venom the smoke had been laced with would numb and paralyze; in a large enough amount, it could be fatal. Toro didn’t expect that outcome. The Eikerlander would have the constitution of an ox. But a dash of paralysis would be ample, especially if it began in his legs, as the symptoms of sickle-spider venom were wont to.
The Eikerlander abided for a full minute more, considerably longer than Toro had been anticipating. When he fell, it was with a snarl of frustration. The crowd bellowed their disgust, having waited hours to be cheated out of the climax of their amusement. Well, Toro thought, perhaps the next moments would provide the satisfaction they’d feared missing. Granted, his actions would make no sense to anyone except himself, and maybe they’d think he’d gone mad with bloodlust, that the thrill of a final kill was more to him than his life. Let them wonder; no one would guess his true motive, not even Vyke.
Toro leaped at the plummeting Eikerlander. For show, he made a clumsy effort at stabbing with the knife he’d drawn before they struck the wall together and the blade was torn from his hand. The impact was softened by the Eikerlander’s body beneath his own, but not by much. All the same, Toro refused to let go of him.
His plan meant falling and surviving. But there’d be no surviving without something to cushion his landing. His cushion would be the Eikerlander’s huge bulk and the eleven other bodies below it.
The fall couldn’t possibly have lasted as long as it seemed to. And when, ultimately, they landed, Toro believed with utter faith that his every bone had shattered, that his lungs had exploded in his chest. But seconds passed and he was still breathing.
When he felt he could move, he considered the scene about him. The sheer walls rose dauntingly and the opening was a tiny circle of light high above, like a single glaring eye. Beneath him, the Eikerlander was slick with gore, and the corpses below were in a worse state.
The hole stank foully, not merely from the bodies but like an open sewer: evidence, at least, for Toro’s theory. He removed the water skin from the Eikerlander’s belt. As he’d suspected, it contained not water but wine, which he poured out regretfully. He slipped the skin inside his shirt and got as comfortable as a man perched on a pile of corpses could be.
He had a lengthy wait. He heard the upper tiers emptying, the crowd laughing and arguing. But even after the last voices faded, nothing happened. Toro began to doubt himself. If he’d been wrong, the price of failure would be a slow, agonizing death.
He hadn’t been wrong. He almost wished he had. The water came like a fist, a fist that opened to bounce him against the walls, trying to rip the waterskin from his grasp. He’d barely got it to his mouth in time, and the air caught within was his lone hope. Water was gushing in torrents from below, and he’d been immediately submerged, the other bodies buoyed up around him as if reanimated by the flood. How long would it take to fill both this shaft and the pit above? The force of the flow was enormous, but so were those cavities. He could endure for, what, five minutes? Ten? And then he would drown.
However, that notion imbued him not with terror but with calm. His breathing grew steadier. All his concentration went into preserving the air in his lungs as the currents tossed him back and forth and bodies collided with him, borne on the revolting tide. Once, he found himself staring at the Eikerlander’s carven features; once, he glimpsed what he took for the red of Flaxdunziel’s jacket, billowing hideously.
Finally, he passed through the opening where hole met pit and knew he was approaching the surface. The flow had lost much of its energy and light slanted from all sides. Fortunately, he was rising face downward, so that the waterskin would be invisible, but just in case, he released his grip and held onto the neck with his teeth. A moment later, he felt the shock of air on his back as he breeched the water.
A hook snared his cloak, and he was dragged through the repulsive pool. Rough hands clutched his ankles and yanked him free of the pit, at which a second set closed around his wrists; he was carried, and dropped, and only then did he dare take one slight breath from between clenched lips. He’d had cause to feign death before now, and he was confident he could fool a casual observer if anyone should check him.
They didn’t. What the two workers assigned to dispose of the pit’s casualties did instead was rummage through his pouches and take his weapons. Toro went limp and stilled his breathing, and they suspected nothing; he was gratified that they’d missed a concealed knife and various other implements. Sometime after, they lugged him into what must be a handcart, conveyed him along a corridor, and laid him in what he discovered, when their footsteps and the rumbling of wheels had faded, to be a courtyard, the walls drab and the sky a remote square of white.
When the pair returned, now pulling the enforcer’s thin body, Toro was surprised to see that they were both female. Apparently, there were exceptions to the Judicaar’s rules against the mingling of the sexes, and women were allowed within these hallowed grounds so long as it was only to perform the most unsavory and menial of tasks. Toro slipped from the shadows and felled them from behind, with sharp, precise blows from the pommel of his remaining blade; they’d wake with the nastiest of headaches, but that was better than the alternative. In the cart, beside the enforcer’s corpse, was a sack that contained everything they’d stripped from him and the others. Toro took solely what was his.
He felt he should be plotting his next step toward liberty, and recognized that he’d made his decision; that it had been made in the instant he resolved to survive the pit.
He had always disliked the Judicaar, but he’d found ways to tolerate them, had turned a blind eye to their zealous excesses. His last job had changed all that. The man, a mid-level Judicaar official, had been expecting someone like Toro to come for him. He had been determined to confess, and once he’d begun, Toro had been unable to stop listening. What that man spoke of, the profound hypocrisies and exorbitant cruelties, was more abhorrent than Toro had imagined. The worst of what that official had seen had made him wish for an escape, and the worst of what he’d done had made him crave punishment, and after hearing his tale, Toro had willingly obliged him on both counts.
Even then, he might have tried to forget; might have turned his back on the city of Reik once and for all. He ought to have guessed who’d secretly hired him, and how convenient a part of their schemes it was to transform a potential apostate into a martyr murdered by a hired killer. The pit was a torment reserved by the Judicaar for special cases, and a career assassin who’d taken the life of one of their valued officials certainly fit into that category. In time, he’d have put the pieces together, but scarcely had he entered his sparsely furnished garret home before the place was flooded by elite guardsmen. Toro, overwhelmed by sheer weight of numbers, had served his purpose for the Judicaar and would do so again in their pit, but mostly he was no more to them than a loose end, of the sort they were so exceedingly efficient at tying off.
He studied the walls of the courtyard. The stones were rough, the mortar old and flaking; he reckoned he could climb here. And how well were the rooftops defended? On the outside, very well indeed, but on the inside, not so much.
He had viewed the Judicaar as unbeatable and unassailable, as everyone did. But today, as far as his own fate and their schemes regarding it, he’d beaten them. And while he couldn’t end the Judicaar alone, while to try was a fool’s errand, it was equally true that Balkas Vyke was here in this building somewhere, and his death would make for a fine start.