Celeres trundled back along the street, returning from feeding the gate guards. The streets of the city were empty save for the beggars taking what shelter they could in the narrow shadows from the eaves of the buildings. Celeres ignored them, knowing the heat pushed most of them into slumber. Even the few alert to his passing would not spare the energy to futilely proposition him for a bit from his cashbox. It was the same every day, so Celeres, wrapped up in his thoughts of Sanura, failed to notice the shape dropping down from the roofs before it knocked him over.

            Fierce hands shoved him down and pinned him to the ground. Celeres struggled against the weight, trying to find the leverage to push his assailant off. The mass above him fought back and sunk its fangs into his neck. The young man squirmed for a few moments more before a warm wave of weakness from the bite leeched the strength from his limbs. Feebly, he grabbed his attacker’s head and tried to push it away. The effort exhausted him. Groaning, he collapsed back to the stones of the street.

            With a jolt, something grabbed the back of the aggressor and lifted it up. Still clenched by the fangs in his neck, Celeres rose with them until his weight overcame their grip and he fell back to the ground. His head swam for a moment before it settled enough for him to make out the combatants. Standing over him was a small woman in a ragged robe, her blue skin deeply etched by the passage of time. Above her, she held a sleek young man with yellow skin, blood staining his lips. With a grunt, the woman threw the man into the wall of a storefront. He slammed against it with a thud before twisting to land awkwardly on his feet. Celeres pushed himself up slowly while the two exchanged glares.

            The yellow man relaxed his stance and wiped the blood from his face. “That’s a mighty grip you have there, ma’am.”

            “Enough to kill the likes of you,” she said.

            He smiled condescendingly. “Well, I wouldn’t say that.”

            “The secrets of the hirudin are well known to me.”

            “A hirudin?” Celeres gasped.

            The smile promptly fell from the man’s face. Warily, he studied the old woman. Finally, he spoke, his voice tight. “Your kind is banned from the cities, coyote woman. You signed a treaty.”

            “There were provisions to that treaty,” she said, casting a meaningful glance at Celeres. “I doubt if your elders will look upon you favorably in this instance.”

            Snarling, the hirudin leapt at her. In a calm, deliberate motion, the old woman stepped forward and thrust her arms through his chest. Blood splattered the wall and road, while squishy bits of the yellow man’s torso flopped down behind him. He collapsed awkwardly, propped up by the woman’s arms.

            Horrified, Celeres spewed the contents of his stomach onto the street.

            Ignoring him, the woman scanned the rooftops and road for witnesses. The few beggars that had been nearby scattered at the start of the fight. If anyone else had watched from the balconies or windows of the buildings, they had prudently stepped back after its gruesome conclusion.

            She turned back and considered her handiwork for a moment, then took out a long knife and hacked at the corpse’s neck. She kicked the severed head off to one side and pulled the body into an alley. The flies, drawn by the scent of the blood, were already beginning to gather. Muttering under her breath and twitching her fingers, she traced her way back along the trail of blood. Where she gestured, the liquid lifted up into the air and floated away. A wave of her hands washed the stains from the wall, and a final brush along her arms finished the removal of the hirudin’s blood from the scene. Its decapitated head disappeared into the folds of her robe.

            Celeres backed away as she approached him.

            “He marked you,” she said.

            She reached for him, and he flinched back.

            “Stop that,” she said irritably. Her withered hand grabbed his shoulder and pulled him down to examine his neck. “Two marks, already closed.

            “The Hirudin don’t allow their prey to live.” She watched his eyes until the consequences of that statement lit in them.

            “His pack will come after me,” Celeres whispered.

            “Yes. I’m sorry. You should be safe enough for a little while. I didn’t see any besides this one, and I can spend a little while protecting you. It’s not why I came to town, but I’m not inclined to allow a hirudin to make lunch out of a human if I can help it. We’ll see if we can draw them out.”

            Celeres looked at her, wide-eyed with apprehension. “I don’t even know your name, and you’re going to protect me?”

            The old woman considered that for a moment, then smiled. “Call me Khenet.

            “Now,” she said, guiding him to his cart, “you should go about your day. Don’t you worry, I’ll be nearby. You just do what you have to do and leave the hirudin to me.”

            Dazed, Celeres pushed the cart down the street, trying to get a grip on what had just happened to him. A brief glance back revealed nothing of the struggle. The blood and body were gone, scrubbed clean by Khenet’s proxy. Even Khenet was gone, disappearing while his back was turned. Only the warm ache on his neck reaffirmed the reality of the events.

            He was on edge for the rest of the day. He kept mostly to the kitchen, slicing buns and folding azuki leaves. His father stood at the table, grinding meat and making patties. His mother tended the counter and the stove, mixing pots of corn, milk, and spices. Every time he covered for his mother was a trial. Would the pack come up to him while he waited on customers? Were they prowling the street, spying on him right now? Was the old man with the moon melon one, or the finely dressed woman searching through a merchant’s wares for some odd trinket?

            Late in the afternoon, Celeres finally noticed Khenet across the road. She looked thin and drawn, sitting with a bowl in front of her, inviting those passing by to help feed an old lady in the last days of her life. Most passed without even seeing her, although the rare coin would find itself from their purses into her bowl. Sometimes she would acknowledge these gifts, but most of the time she seemed too involved in her own odd world to notice the generosity of strangers.

            Anticipating the evening crowds, Celeres’ father began grilling the patties. Celeres took the first two he finished, ladled some grain into the azuki leaves, and took them up to have dinner with his sister. Celeres was surprised to find Khenet standing on the first landing.

            “I found out a bit about your attacker,” she said.

            “What is it?” he said, coming up to stand next to her.

            “His name was Braen,” she said, taking one of the azuki leaves from him. She stuck her finger in the grain and licked it clean. “He’s a noble of some sort. No political ambition; just another leech. He’s a friend of Prince Emhyr, apparently.”

            “That’s not good.”

            “No, I would say not. I’m afraid that was all I was able to gather in the time I had. There are only so many places one can display a decapitated head in this town without raising some awkward questions.”

            “So, what do we do now?”

            Khenet frowned. “You may have to run. If they connect you to his death, I wouldn’t give you much of a chance to survive an imperial trial.” Khenet scooped up more of the grain and shoveled it into her mouth.

            “Me? But you’re the one that killed him!”

            “Sure, but I’m not the one he marked. Nor do I intend to stay in Tagerden for much longer. I’ve finished what I came to do.”

            “I can’t leave. Mom and Dad need my help with the stand. I’m getting married in three months!” Celeres yelled.

            A scream from above interrupted his rant. He turned and bolted up the stairs with Khenet close behind. They burst through the door into the flat on the second floor. In the middle of the main room, a finely dressed man held Celeres’ sister from behind, his fingers digging into her throat. In his outstretched right hand, an egg worthy of an ostrich balanced precariously.

            “Celeres!” the woman called out.

            “Didrika-” Celeres started and froze, not wanting to trigger a tragedy. The egg contained his unhatched niece or nephew.

            The man’s silver eyes flicked away from his captives to examine the intruders. The orbs gleamed with satisfaction. “There you are, lunch. I thought maybe you got lost, or even slipped away.” His eyes slid past Celeres to glare at Khenet. “And you even brought your friend.”

            Khenet shrugged. “I wondered if I had caught the scent of a second hirudin.”

            “Hirudin?” Didrika gasped.

            The man tightened his grip on her throat. “Careful, girl, or the little one might have an accident,” he said, bouncing the egg in his palm.

            “So, what’s your name?” Khenet asked, taking Celeres’ arm and leading him into the room, away from the door and balcony.

            “You really think I’d tell you that,” the stranger sneered.

            “No, not really,” Khenet sighed. “Although, it’s not like I asked your true name. I merely wanted something to address you by while we discuss this situation.”

            “There’s nothing to discuss,” he said.

            Celeres noticed a movement on the balcony. His nerves danced as he tried to restrain his reaction. Distracted by Khenet, the stranger failed to notice.

            “Of course there is,” Khenet said. “The only satisfactory result for you here is for you to kill everyone in this room. If you harm the girl or the egg, I, of course, will kill you. Their lives are the only thing holding me back now. So, there really is not a way for this to end well for you.”

            His response was interrupted by the whistle of a blade, his only warning as Sanura stepped out from the balcony and decapitated him. The blood splashed Didrika, while his head bounced off the wall before settling on Celeres’ mattress. Khenet leapt forward and caught the egg as it tumbled, wrapping her body around it to protect it from harm.

            Didrika cried out, reaching for her egg. Khenet untangled herself and handed it to the desperate mother, who ran her fingers over it, searching for cracks.

            “Nicely played, girlie,” Khenet smiled at the warrior. “Who are you?”

            “Sanura, my fiancée,” Celeres said. “How did you know?” he asked the young soldier.

            Sanura said, “I saw him climbing down the balconies, then go in yours. I didn’t recognize him, so I figured he was an exceptionally stupid thief breaking in during the day.”

            Celeres crossed to his sister, looking at the egg with concern. “Is Mogen okay?”

            Didrika looked up at him. “Yes,” she said, relieved. “Celeres, what was this all about?”

            Quickly, he told her about the attack in the street and Khenet’s assistance.

            “That’s not good,” Sanura said, examining the stranger’s head where it lay staining Celeres’ bed. “Do you know who this is?”


            “Lord Saith. He, Prince Emhyr, and Baronet Braen are really tight.”

            Wordlessly, Khenet pulled the first head from the folds of her robe and held it out.

            “That’s Braen,” Sanura said.

            “So, what are the odds that the prince isn’t one of them?” Khenet asked.

            “Imperial attention is bad, Celeres. Mom and Dad do not need gold masks coming through and blacklisting the stand,” Didrika said.

            “Maybe Saith didn’t get a chance to tell Prince Emhyr,” Sanura suggested.

            “Wouldn’t matter,” Khenet said. “If he is hirudin, then he would know that someone has been marked. It’s against their code to let one of their victims live.”

            Sanura placed her hand on Celeres’ cheek. “Is there any way to remove the mark?”

            Khenet shook her head. “None that I know.”

            “What about the Cheldeans?” Didrika asked, settling Mogen back in its nest.

            “The ones in Tagerden are under imperial control. They wouldn’t be much help with this,” Celeres said.

            “The ones on Mt. Clero to the west don’t answer to the throne. They might be able to help,” Sanura suggested.

            They all looked at Khenet.

            She shrugged. “They might. At the very least, it will get you out of town. That should delay things for a while.”

            “So, what do I say to Mom and Dad?” Didrika asked while moving to the washstand to clean off Saith’s blood.

            Celeres held out a hand to stop her. “Um, Khenet, could you. . .” he trailed off, making vague gestures with his fingers.

            Solemnly, Khenet approached Didrika. Chanting quietly, she pulled the splattered blood from the young mother’s hair and clothes, dissolving it into the air. The rest of the blood spilled from Saith quickly followed, leaving only his head and corpse. Sanura and Didrika gaped at her.

            “What are you?” Sanura asked.

            Khenet winked at her and changed the subject. “Now, here is what we’ll do. Didrika, when your parents come looking for him, you will tell them the truth. None of us can go down right now to tell them. Our dead friend may have set others to watch the area, so we have to minimize the chance that they’ll go after your parents to find out where Celeres went. Celeres and I will leave boldly to draw any watchers away. That should discourage them from trying to keep track of Sanura, whom they would have seen climbing up the balcony. Once we’re out of town, the hirudin will know and should just follow him rather than try to guess his destination.”

            “What if they come after Didrika right after we leave? If he knew where I lived, so would his friends,” Celeres protested.

            “He didn’t,” Didrika said. “He saw you enter the building but wasn’t sure where you would go. He was asking which floor you lived on before you burst in.”

            “Then why didn’t he enter through the top balcony?” Celeres argued.

            Khenet said, “We can leave Sanura here to guard Didrika for a while, if that will make you feel better, boy.”

            “I’m going with you,” Sanura said flatly. “We’re supposed to marry in three months, and I’ll be damned if I’m going to let him run this risk on his own.”

            “Fine. Three won’t be that much more conspicuous than two,” Khenet said blandly.

            “You’ll need food. We don’t have much up here, so you’ll have to make do,” Didrika said, moving to collect a few things for them. In a couple of minutes, she has a large sack partially filled with fruit and day old bread.

            “What are we doing with the corpse?” Sanura asked.

            Khenet pulled the blanket from Celeres’ bed and wrapped Saith’s body in it. She lifted it with deceptive ease and handed it to him. She said, “That’s simple, my dear. We’re going to give it to the shit-eaters.”