Amra Thetys is a thief with morals: she won't steal from anybody poorer than she is; of course, anybody that poor generally doesn't have much worth stealing.
When a fellow thief and good friend is killed in a deal gone wrong, Amra turns her back on burglary and goes after something far more precious: revenge. Revenge, however, might be hard to come by. A nightmare assortment of enemies, including an immortal assassin and a mad sorcerer, believe Amra is in possession of The Blade That Whispers Hate—the legendary, powerful artifact her friend was murdered for—and they'll do anything to take it from her.
Trouble is, Amra hasn't got the least clue where the Blade might be. She needs to find the Blade, and soon, or she'll be joining her unfortunate friend in a cold grave rather than avenging his death, and time is running short for the small, scarred thief.
"Mixing sword and sorcery with streamlined paces, Michael McClung's debut is a terrific story that is very much in the vein of works by Scott Lynch, David Dalglish & Douglas Hulick."– Mihir Wanchoo, Fantasy Book Critic
"I freakin' loved this book. Amra is one not-to-be-messed-with kick-ass woman. She has a gritty, realistic, outlook on life, as you'd expect from a thief who's friend has been brutally butchered in the street. Told in first person POV gives us an up-close and personal aspect, which makes for a nail-biting read. And the writing is fantastic. Some of the best I've read this year. This is going on my favourites shelf."– I Heart Books, Amazon.co.uk
"McClung has an impressive ability to write compelling characters [with a] fast-paced, action-packed plot that never seems to let up."– Speculative Book Review
When Corbin showed up banging on my door at noon one sweltering summer day, I can't say I was particularly happy to see him. It should come as no surprise that one in my profession tends to sleep during daylight hours. And since I tell no one where I live, I was more than a little annoyed to see him.
"Hello, Amra," he said with that boyish smile that tended to get him past doors he wasn't supposed to get past. He stood nonchalantly at the top of the stairs, one hand on the splintered wooden railing. Well, what was left of the railing; most of it had disintegrated before I moved in. He was looking ragged. Dark bags under his eyes, stubble that had gone beyond enticingly rough to slovenly. The yellow-green shadow of an old, ugly bruise peeked above his sweat-stained linen collar. His honey-colored locks were greasy and limp.
"Corbin. What the hells do you want?"
"To come in?" He kept smiling, but glanced over his shoulder.
"If you bring me trouble, I'll have your balls." But I cracked the door a bit wider, and he slipped past me into the entry hall.
"Take you boots off if you're going to stay, barbarian. You know how much that rug is worth?"
"Depends on who's buying, doesn't it?" He sat down on the bench in my tiny foyer and worked his laces loose. "Nice robe," he said with that silky voice of his, but I could tell his heart wasn't in it. I pulled my wrap tighter, and he chuckled.
"Don't worry, Amra. The knife sort of spoils the effect anyway."
I'd forgotten I was still holding a blade. I don't answer my door without one. Come to think of it, I don't do much of anything without one. I made it disappear and frowned at him.
"You can't stay here, and I'm not lending you any money."
He stretched, wiggled the toes of his stockinged feet. "Money I don't need. A place to stay, maybe, but your garret isn't what I had in mind." He looked at me, and I could tell he had something gnawing at him. This was no social call. "You have anything to drink? I'm parched."
"Yeah. Come into the parlor."
I'm not terribly feminine. I've a scarred face, a figure like a boy, and a mouth like a twenty-year sailor. In the circles that count, I'm recognized as good at what I do, and what I do is not traditionally a woman's profession. I was a few rungs up from pickpocket. Still, in the privacy of my own hovel I enjoy a few of the finer, more delicate things. Silks and velvets. Pastels. Glasswork. When Corbin walked into the parlor he gave a low whistle.
"Amra, this is positively decadent. I expected bare walls and second-hand furniture." He wandered around, peering at paintings, books, the tiny glass figurines I kept in a case.
"Shut up and sit down. You want wine?"
"Have anything else?"
"Then I'd die for some wine." He sprawled out on the huge Elamner cushion I used for seating. He stretched his legs and smiled. I shook my head, and went to dig around in my sorry excuse for a pantry. I came up with a couple of relatively clean glasses. When you live alone and don't entertain at all, washing dishes is a relatively low priority. I uncorked a palatable Fel-Radoth that was better than he deserved. But it was too early to punish myself with swill.
I poured a couple, handed him one and leaned against the wall. He took his and put it back in one gulp. I shuddered, snatched up the Fel-Radoth and corked it.
"What?" he said.
I put the bottle back in the pantry and came back out with a jug of Tambor's vile vintage. It was barely fit for cooking with. I dropped it in his lap. "Remind me never to give you anything worth drinking again."
He shrugged and began sipping straight from the jug.
"You don't want to borrow money. You don't want a place to stay. What do you want, Corbin?"
He sighed, reached into his voluminous shirt—I'd thought he'd looked a little lumpy—and brought out something smallish, wrapped in raw silk. About the size of my two fists put together. He held it out to me. "I need you to hold this for a while."
I didn't take it. "What is it?"
"Ill-gotten gains, what else? But I earned it, Amra, and a lot more besides. This is all I managed to come away with, though. For now."
I took it from his hands. Reluctantly. I was surprised at the weight. I knew without looking that it was gold. I unwrapped it, discovered I was right. It was a small statuette, one of the ugliest things I'd ever seen.
I held a bloated toad, two legs in the front and a tail in place of hoppers in the back. Pebbly skin. Two evil little emerald eyes, badly cut. It was devouring a tiny gold woman. She wasn't enjoying it. The artist must have been familiar with torment, though, because her small face was the very picture of it despite the crude overall rendering. All but her head and one arm were already in the belly of the beast. Her hand reached out in a disturbing parody of a wave. I don't think that was the effect the artist intended.
"Where did you get this ugly bastard?" I asked him.
"Doesn't matter. The place collapsed around my ears as I was leaving anyway." He leaned forward. "It was part of a commission, Amra. There were a dozen other pieces. I got them all, and it wasn't easy."
"Where are all the rest?"
He scowled. "The client double-crossed me. He's got the others, but he wants this one bad. Bad enough that I've got him by the balls." His face brightened and he chuckled. "I'm getting my original commission, plus a bad faith penalty. All told, it's three thousand gold marks, and I'll give you a hundred just to look after this thing for a few hours."
I frowned. I'd known Corbin for three years; he was a good thief and a good man. Thin as a blade, with one of those faces that sets girls blushing and whispering to each other behind cupped hands, and prompts women to cast long, speculative glances. He had the longest lashes I've ever seen on a man or a woman. He was an easy drunk, and so drank little, though he was free with rounds. He had fine-boned hands and honey-blond, wavy hair, and when I told him 'no' one night when his hands got too free, I didn't have to back it with a blade, and I never had to tell him again. Maybe once or twice I wished I hadn't been so firm, but as regrets go, it was a mild, melancholy one. The 'what if' game isn't much fun to play.
That said, Corbin was not the smartest man I'd ever met. Not stupid; stupid thieves don't live long. But his cunning was situational. When it came to people, he never seemed to understand what they were capable of. Or perhaps he just didn't want to believe what people were capable of was the rule rather than the exception.
"Amra? It's easy money."
"Too easy," I replied, taking a sip of wine.
"Gods above, woman! I thought you might want a little extra moil, and I need somebody I can trust. But if it's no—" He reached for the statuette, and I slapped his hand away.
"I didn't say no."
Corbin smiled, showing his remarkably straight, remarkably white teeth. It made me want to throw the ugly thing back in his face. But a hundred marks wasn't something I could walk away from. I should have, of course. Just as he should have cut his losses.
"One condition," I said. "Tell me who you're squeezing."
He didn't like that. The customer was supposed to remain anonymous. It's the closest thing to a rule there is in the business. He frowned.
"Oh, come on, Corbin. You said yourself they tried to screw you out of your fee."
"True. Why would you want to know, though?"
"Because if I'm going to stick my toe in the water, I want to know what's swimming around in it."
"And whether it has teeth. All right, fair enough. It's some Elamner by the name of Heirus. All I know is he's rich as sin. He's rented a villa down on the Jacos Road. It backs onto the cliffs. He's got hired blades all around him, and a hunchbacked little flunky named Bosch that does all the dirty work. Bosch is who I dealt with. I never met the Elamner himself."
I'd never heard either name. "Is this Bosch a local?"
"He's Lucernan, but not from the city I don't think. A Southerner by his accent."
"One more thing. Where did the statues come from?"
"I took them from an old, old temple in the Gol-Shen swamps. Like I said, the place doesn't exist anymore. I barely got out with all my limbs and digits. It wasn't the best time I've had." He took another swallow of Tambor's Best and corked the bottle.
"Any other questions?"
"For a hundred marks, I'll watch your back if you want. They tried to stiff you once; why wouldn't they try again?"
"The first time I got sloppy. I still can't figure out how they knew where I stashed the other pieces. I'd swear I wasn't tailed. I brought that one along to the meet, to show the goods. They were supposed to pay out then and I'd tell them where the statues were. When I got there nobody showed up and, when I went back, the rest of it was gone." He grinned that easy grin of his. "I guess I fouled up their plans a bit by bringing that one along instead of leaving it with the rest. It was just an impulse. A virtuous impulse that paid off. Like I said, I've got them by the balls this time."
I wasn't so sure of that.
"So now you're supposed to bring it and you won't. What's to stop them from trying to beat it out of you?"
"Don't worry about it. I've arranged a nice safe place to conduct business, and a long tour abroad after. For my health."
I grunted. I've been called a pessimist. And a suspicious bitch. And then there were those who weren't interested in compliments. But this wasn't my play, it was Corbin's. I'd back him to whatever extent he wanted me to. A hundred marks and friendship had earned that.
"Whatever you say, Corbin." I hefted the idol in my hand. "When will you come get this?"
He stood and stretched. "Midnight, or a little later."
"And if you don't show up?"
"If I'm not here by dawn, the statue's yours. Melt it down, though. Make sure there's no chance they get it on the open market." He went back to the hall and started lacing his boots.
"What about you?" I asked.
"What about me?"
"If you don't show up."
He shrugged. "Take care of Bone for me. You know where I live."
"I don't like dogs."
"No, you don't like being responsible for anyone but yourself. For the meltdown value of that thing, though, you can put up with Bone. Besides," he said, "he likes you. Oh, and Amra? This one is lovely." He held up a tiny blown-glass hummingbird he'd filched from my cabinet, stuck it in his pocket with an incorrigible smile. And with that he was out the door and clumping down the rickety steps.
I locked the door behind him. Nothing had better go wrong. Bone was a massive brute of a mongrel. Who slobbered. Copiously. I wasn't having that all over my house.
I took another look at the statuette. It was just as ghastly. The gold wasn't particularly pure, and the carving was crude. Ancient grime darkened the creases. There wasn't much polish to it, so I assumed it hadn't been handled very much or very often.
A half-dozen frog-aspected gods, godlings and demons came to mind, but none of them were less than four-legged, and only two were man eaters. I shrugged. It either belonged to some backwater cult nobody'd ever heard of, or it was something from before the Diaspora. If it was the first, it was worth nothing more than the meltdown value. If it was the latter, it could be worth much, much more. To the right person. Given Corbin's experience, I thought the latter was more likely, but I'd melt it down just the same if it came to that.
I put the ugly little statue in my hidey-hole and went back to sleep. I dreamed that I could hear its labored breathing there in the wall, punctuated by the shrieks of its meal. And when I woke just after sunset, it was with a miserable headache and a mouth that tasted like I'd been on a three-day drunk. What, you've never been on a three-day drunk? Take a big bite out of the next dead cat you see lying in the gutter; you'll get the idea.