Free Read

Free Read Fox. Hunting: A Story of Synn

This is a fantasy short story that I wrote last month. I’m posting it to go along with some upcoming writing tips. The story is set in a world I created for a fantasy novel, but Diana doesn’t appear in that.

Diana Malimore just wants to find a present for her father. The Thieves Guild has other ideas.

RBF_Fox_Hunting Title 1

Fox.  Hunting.

by Rose B. Fischer

©2013, All rights reserved.  No part of this material may be reprinted or shared without the written consent of the author and clear direction to the original content.


“Hey, you kids, those scarves aren’t pennants for you to play with!” a woman’s voice sliced through the rhythmic hum that filled the crowded street market.  Two booths down, Diana Malimore winced at the shrill tone.  The voice had an odd, gutteral accent that Diana couldn’t place.  She slid her gaze to the side to get a better look.

The woman was dressed in a rich silver three-piece ensemble: sleeveless blouse that showed just a snatch of pale skin at her midriff, long, conical skirt, and a jeweled headress that Diana might have worn herself if she had been going to a party.  Certainly not to the marketplace.

Imani, the scarf-maker, tried to placate the stranger, but she seemed determined to be nasty.   She snatched up the two scarves and didn’t try to barter.  She paid the first price Imani offered , stuffed them in with the bundle she was already carrying, and walked off before she had even secured her money pouch.

Diana set down the painted wooden puppet she’d been holding.  It wasn’t anything special.  Her father probably could’ve made one better than that by himself.

She stepped back from the puppet maker’s booth and let the crowd carry her for a little while.  It was like swimming.  The whole market was one big spiral with some curls and twisty concentric paths that branched off of the main streets.  Eventually, the crowd would circle around to wherever she wanted to be, and she could…

Step out, just in time to collide with her victim.


“Oh!  I beg your pardon!  Here, let me help with those.  I’m so sorry, madam!”

“Nevermind!  Just leave it!  Watch where you’re going, girl!”

“Yes, madam, I’m sorry.  I just get so lost in these crowds…”

Dianna stepped back and let the crowd take her, but she could hear the woman sniping after her, “You should stay at home where you belong, then.”

She giggled.

Imani was already handing the children different scarves when Diana resurfaced.  Diana smiled, opened the rich woman’s purse, and flipped Imani another silver coin.  Imani’s mouth popped open, then quickly closed, and she shook her head.

“Diana, what am I going to do with you?”

“Well, I wouldn’t mind if you helped me find a better present for Micah,” Diana said with a little shrug.

“Did you ask him what he wanted?”

“He always says he doesn’t know or he doesn’t need anything.  I love shopping, but he is so hard!  He always finds the new sheet music or the new play or whatever else is about to be popular and makes sure Thad and Reynard have it first.  He’s got EVERYTHING.”

Imani patted Diana’s arm and pressed her lips together.  She glanced around at the booths on her intersection.  Diana had already browsed, but she looked again.   There were expensive fabrics, delicate glassware, a couple of competing smiths selling cast off weapons that the nobles and upperclassmen had rejected.  None of it was anything Micah would enjoy.  She knew there were magic merchants elsewhere in the market, but Micah was vehemently against commercial magic.  Even if he had supported it, the kind of trinkets and potions one could find in a public market would have made him laugh, cringe or both.  The two young women looked at one another and sighed.

“Maybe there’s something further toward the middle,” Diana said, turning to go.

“I’ll see you later,” Imani said.

Diana waved and was about to walk back into the street when another woman stepped in front of her and smirked.  She was about half an inch shorter than Diana, slimmer, with curly blonde hair and a slight frame.  Her eyes were a very pretty green, but her nose had been broken more than once, and her lips were slightly too thin.  Thieves Guild tattoos encircled her right eye and left forearm.

“Diana Fox.  I just keep running into you.  Why would that be?”

“Hello, Sorrell,” Diana smiled.  “It’s a public marketplace.  I’m shopping for my father’s nameday gift.”

“Mm-hm,” Sorrell said.  “Like you were shopping for your sister’s nameday the last time I saw you, and…what was it the time before that?  Your brother needed a new necklace?  Didn’t your father already have a nameday about four moon cycles ago?”

“That was my other father.”

“Your other father.”


“Yes.  I have a lot of relatives.  Foxes are like that.  And my poor brother feels naked without his necklaces,” Diana said, tilting her head a little.

“Of course he does.  And right after I saw you on each of those occasions, several rich merchants with booths in the center arch reported robberies.  No one ever paid tithe to the Guild on those thefts, and I still don’t see Guild markings on you,” Sorrell made a show of peering at Diana’s neck and examining her wrist.

Diana slipped her hand away and brushed her fingers into Sorrell’s hair.  She swayed closer, not quite letting their bodies touch, and held the Guild enforcer’s gaze.  One corner of Sorrell’s mouth twitched upward, but she gave no other reactions.

“Come on.  You know I don’t like to share.  And those tattoos are so unsightly.  Can’t you convince Drake to come up with some prettier designs?”

“Beat it, Diana.  And if I hear about any untithed thefts today, I’m coming after you.”

“You’ll have to catch me,” Diana winked.

She slipped around Sorrell and stepped into the cobbled street.  She crossed, wound her way through a couple of side streets, and then let the crowd carry her back inward toward the center of the market where all the most exotic and expensive goods were.


“You!” A now-familiar shrill voice assaulted Diana’s ears.

She froze, scanned the crowd, and found the rich woman pointing a finger at her from the guard station a few feet away.


“Oh, Holies!” Diana muttered as she darted back into the crowd.

It scattered as the guardsmen mustered and charged after her.  Heart pumping, she dashed toward the nearest booth, leapt over the counter, and slid out the back.  The guards were still clanking and clumping behind her, but their armor slowed them down.  She jumped a few more booths to put some distance between them, swung around a corner and doubled back, then raced along the edge of the market spiral until she came to a twisting side road that took her past the market’s boundaries.

The guards were still following.  They were not supposed to leave the market like that.  There were several new guards on market duty, fresh from the Queen’s Academy.  The overzealous idiots were going to get themselves reprimanded, and they didn’t even know it.

Damn!  I should’ve realized they might follow.  Sorrell is going to have a field day looting without me now that all the guards are gone.


She ran into the city proper and skidded behind a row of houses.  There was a narrow alley with a horse and carriage beside it, and she dove into the alley’s cover, pressing her back against the wall.  She sucked in a few deep breaths and took her bearings.  She knew this alley.  There was supposed to be a rope ladder in here, but it was gone.  No awning.  Probably not enough time to try a portal…

A soft jingle and the clomp of hooves drew her attention.  The horse, a dandy fellow decked out in a fine harness and feathers, was pulling his carriage in front of the alley to block the view.  Diana grinned.

“Thank you, sir!”

The horse gave a soft wicker of acknowledgment and told her to give its regards to Reynard.  Diana nodded that she would.  She took a Drawing Stone out of her vest pocket and etched a portal design on the wall.   The center flared to life: green, red, then flickers of blue that charred themselves black around the edges as the light began to burn its way over the geometric patterns that she had drawn.  Once it was stable, she stepped through and came out shivering in the highest tower of her parents’ castle.

The portal room was usually empty, because stray magic might interrupt or damage the energies that made it work.  When Diana stepped through, she found another young woman who looked exactly like her, except this one had her hair pulled back and she was wearing a red and black wizard’s overrobe and billowy pants.  She strode closer.

“Diana!  Are you all right?” she frowned.

“Yes.  I ran into a little problem at the marketplace,” Diana nodded.  “What are you doing up here?”

“I was just looking out,” her sister said.  “I was reading in one of Thad’s books how they used to use this room as a lookout point and you can see all the way to the Duke’s.”

“Ooh!  Let me see!” Diana exclaimed, running toward the window.

Aldra grabbed her arm and pulled her back.  “Nevermind that.  What kind of little problem?”

“Well, there was this lady with a loud mouth and a loose purse, and then I ran into Sorrell deGray…”

Aldra’s frown deepened.  “But you’re all right?” she asked again.

“I’m fine, I promise.  I just…  kind of…”

“You didn’t get Micah’s present again, did youDi-ANA!”

“I tried!  I really, really tried!  I just can’t find anything he’ll like.  Can you help me?”

“Well… um… have you tried going down to the docks?”

“No, I hate the docks.  They smell.  Why?”

“My friend Marek says that when the riverboats dock, they unload a lot of good stuff there,” Aldra explained.

“You really need to stop hanging around with river pirates, Aldra.  Most of that stuff is probably stolen and that’s why they unload it on the docks instead of bringing it up through the caravans for the marketplace.”

“I didn’t say I went down there to steal, Diana.  He’s a good source of information and he’s been places that we haven’t.  Thad might need him someday.  Besides, look who’s talking.”

Diana chuckled and patted her sister’s cheek.  “Relax.  I was just teasing you.  Will you come to the docks with me tomorrow?  I don’t want to go down there alone.”

“Of course I will.”


The docks still smelled.  The air around them was like a living wall of fish, dirty bodies, excrement and that particular odor which Diana could only describe in circular terms as “dock-stink.” It was late fall, and the wind coming in off the water was raw and damp, which made the stink even more unpleasant.  Diana and Aldra walked side-by-side, both relaxed but alert and conscious of each sailor and dockworker as they bustled to and fro over the planks.

Diana was aware of Drake Ahearn before she saw him.  At first, he was just something out of place, something that niggled at the edges of her consciousness.  Then his scent invaded her nose and drowned out even the stench of the docks.

“What is it?” Aldra asked.

“Company,” Diana said.

Beside them, their adopted brother, Bandit, a black and tan hunting dog who stood taller than Diana’s waist, growled menacingly.  Diana smoothed his fur and silently told him that there wouldn’t be any trouble.  Bandit gave a soft, knowing sigh and subsided for the time being.

The King of the Thieves Guild strolled out from behind a storefront, tossing and catching a loaded coin purse in his right hand.  He would’ve been a handsome man.  Long dark hair, bright blue eyes, full lips and high cheekbones.  What made him ugly was the arrogant way he sauntered up to them and smirked.  There was no humor in him the way there was in Sorrell, no respectful rivalry.

Aldra puffed out a sigh of her own.  “How subtle.”

Diana smiled broadly, elbowed Aldra in the ribs, then tilted her head at Drake and held out her hand.

“Oh!  A present for me?  Drake, you shouldn’t have.”

“What, this?” The thief glanced down at the purse in his hand.  “These are the dues I’ve collected for this moon cycle.  Yours are still missing, Ms.  Fox.”

“Really?  Must have slipped my mind.  Maybe I would remember more if you ever used your dues to take care of your Guild members.” Diana said.

“Until you start paying dues, that isn’t your concern, now is it?”

“Hmm.  I suppose it isn’t,” Diana admitted.  She placed her hand on Drake’s bicep and smoothed downwards to rest her fingers on top of his with her palm over the money pouch.  Watching his eyes, she smiled and said, “and unless I start paying dues, I’m none of your concern.  If you don’t mind, I need to find a present for my father.”

“I’ll just bet you do.  I’m going to warn you once, Ms.  Fox.  Stay away from my heists.  If I see you anywhere near this dock again, it won’t be dues you’re paying.”

“Oh…” Diana let her voice drop an octave and leaned in close to him, letting him feel her breath against his lips.  “I do love a challenge.”

Then she stepped back, turned and walked off the docks.  Bandit followed.  Aldra ran after them and waited until Drake was out of earshot.  Then she grabbed Diana by the elbow and glared.

“Diana!  What the hell was that about?”

“I have no idea,” Diana grinned.  “They think I’m up to something.  They won’t believe me when I tell them that I’m only here to shop for Micah’s present.”

“I can see that.  What is it that Drake is warning you to stay away from?” Aldra asked.

“I don’t know, but whatever it is, it must sure as hell be worth a lot of money.”

“Diana, you don’t need the money.  Neither do I.”

“I never need the money.  I don’t — well, okay I do keep some of it.”


“Are you going to help me or not?”

“Help you what?”

“Help me figure out what it is.”

“I’m here to help you find a present.  Remember?  For Daddy’s nameday?”


“I know, I know, but we can do both can’t we?”


“Why not?”

“Because, Diana —Oh, look!  Over here, you see this little store with the funny hinges on the door?  It’s an apothecary.  I’ve been here before.  Sometimes they have baby trees and plants from far-off,” Aldra said.  She tugged Diana’s elbow and started walking in that direction.  “Micah would love those.”

“Oooh!  That’s a good idea — wait, what about — ”

“Never.  Mind.  Drake.  We have to find a present for Micah.”

“I will find a present!”

“Good,” Aldra said as she used her hip to push open the wooden door and hauled Diana in after her.

Bandit nosed his way in behind them and settled by the door.

Diana peered behind the counter and saw several rows of glass jars and an array of herbs hanging in fancy bundles or drying on racks.  As she moved around the store, she also spotted healer’s belts, incense, a display with rows of tiny cubbyholes each with a small scroll inside.  The labels were written in three languages that Diana could read and another one that she had seen Thad and Micah use for sorcery but hadn’t a clue how to read it herself.

The place smelled wonderful.  After the stench outside, walking into this store was like walking into a shrine or even the great tabernacle in the heart of Arcanion.  Diana inhaled deeply, spread her arms, and spun in a circle, overjoyed to find such a place in the middle of the docks.

As she finished her turn, she noticed a window on the west wall where three small, potted fir trees were soaking up the afternoon sun.  Each pot had a bright red ribbon tied around it, and there were clusters of blue and gold berries on the branches.

Diana froze.

“Look!  Look, look, look!” she whispered, pointing her finger to punctuate each word.

“Oh my…” Aldra breathed.

A young girl with short brown hair stepped out of the back room and bent to pat Bandit on the head.  The girl was wearing a work smock with pockets all over it, and Diana noticed a slight limp on her right leg as she moved behind the counter.  She looked to be about 12 or 13 years old.

“Hello, Lady Aldra” she said.  “Hello, Bandit.”

“Hello, Hyacinth, how are you?” Aldra smiled, turning away from the trees to look at her.

“I’m quite well, thank you, m’lady.”

“I’m very pleased to hear it,” said Aldra.

The girl smiled with a touch of shyness and looked at Diana asking, “Are you Lady Diana?  You must be.  You look just like Lady Aldra.”

“Well, right now I’m just Ms.  Fox, but sometimes I’m Lady Diana,” Diana said with a wink.  “Hyacinth, I’m looking for a nameday gift.  Would those trees on the windowsill be for sale?”

“No, m’lady, I’m sorry.  A gentleman bought them last week.  We were holding them for him.”

“I’ll give you twice what he paid you.”

“Oh, I couldn’t, m’lady.  He was a very nice man, and he’s come here before.  My mother says we have to take care of our customers.”

Feeling a little desperate now, Diana let a small heart-shaped silver pendant drop down out of her sleeve.   “How about this?  Twice what the man paid and this, just for you.”

Hyacinth stared at the trinket with wide, suddenly greedy eyes.  Diana imagined that she had never owned any jewelry of her own, and she could almost see the girl’s mind working.  Would she be able to get away with it?

“I’m so sorry, Lady Diana, but my mother would tan my hide.”

Diana sighed heavily.  “All right.  Have you at least got a Drawing Stone?  I’ve almost used mine up, and I need a new one.”

Hyacinth frowned and her lower lip jutted out in thought.  “We have some Spell Stones but I don’t know the difference between them.  They are on that shelf over there,” she said, pointing to indicate a high shelf across the room.

Diana went over and found a carved wooden box which looked very appropriate for a magical treasure box.  Once she opened it, she was annoyed to find a jumble of odd size chunks of mineral, a few of which tingled a little when she touched them.  She recognized Fire Stones, one Tap Stone that might have been usable, but no Drawing Stones at all.  She was about to put the box back when her finger brushed up against something that sizzled when she touched it.



It couldn’t be.  Mirelikite was the strongest Channel Stone in the known world.  There were only three active sources, and just one on the continent.  The Kheldor mountains, where Diana and Aldra’s parents lived and kept the stone out of untrained or un-wary hands.

“Allie, is this what I think it is?” She asked, beckoning her sister over.

Aldra peered over her shoulder at the stone, then leaned closer and frowned.  She reached for it and wiggled her fingers.  Diana gave it to her, and the stone issued allowed, auditory pop when both of their fingers were touching it.  Diana yanked her hand away, and Aldra dropped the stone back into the box.

Both of them shook their hands and blew on them to cool a sudden burning.  Diana set the box down, pulled her sleeve around her fingers, and picked up the stone again.  She held it out to Hyacinth and asked, “Do you have any more of this?”

“No, m’lady, that’s the only one.”

“Do you know where it came from?” Diana asked.

“There was a woman who had some samples.  We bought them, but we’ve sold all of the others.  I think we may be able to get you more if you want them.”

“Do you know where the woman is then?” asked Diana.

“No, but I heard her telling the guardsmen that she was bringing a big shipment through and she needed extra security.  She wanted to give the guards more money.”

“Did you hear when the shipment was supposed to be coming through?” Diana asked, pulse suddenly pounding.

This must be what Drake is after!  But these stones aren’t stable.


It’s supposed to come in this evening, m’lady, but the stones probably won’t be on sale for another few days.”

“All right, thank you.  We’ll take this one, and if you buy any more, Lord Malimore will pay triple whatever your given.  I want you to hold them for us.”

“Yes, Lady Diana.”

“Do you remember anything about this lady?  Do you remember what she looks like?  How she spoke?” Aldra asked.

“Yes, Lady Aldra.  You don’t forget a headdress like that or a tongue so sharp.  She had a silver dress with no sleeves and all flowing on the bottom, you know?  The headdress was fancy like for a Ladies’ party.”

“…I don’t believe it.” Diana said.

“What?” asked Aldra.

“That lady bought some scarves from Imani’s booth yesterday.”

“What currency was she using?” Aldra asked.

“I… didn’t look.  But I can check.”

Aldra opened her mouth, paused as she processed what Diana wasn’t saying, and then closed it again.

Bandit raised his head and chuffled lightly, the canine version of a wry laugh.

“All right.” Aldra said finally.


When they got out of the store, the two sisters raced around the corner, and Diana dug into Aldra’s pockets for the stub of a Drawing Stone.

“What do you want to do?” Aldra asked.

“You’ll have to take the stone to Thad.  I portaled twice yesterday.  If I do it now and then portal back again tonight, I’ll be so brain-burned that I’ll be useless.”

“We should get Reynard.  Maybe some of the others.  Thad can open a portal back that won’t burn me”

Diana nodded in agreement.  “Can you find Reynard when you go home?  Tell him to have everyone meet on the docks but not until well after sunset.  Drake won’t try to board the ship while there’s still light.”

“All right, but I’m coming right back.  I’m not going to leave you alone until dark.”

“I’ll be all right.”

“I don’t care.  I don’t want you to go back onto the docks alone.  Wait for Reynard and me.”

“All right, all right.  I will.”


“I promise, Aldra.”

“Don’t forget.”

“I won’t!” Diana shook her head.  She etched the portal design, but when the center should have flared, her hand began to burn again.  Aldra cried out as well, and Diana backed away from the wall.  Bandit let out an alarmed yelp.

“What the hell…?” Aldra muttered.

“You’re the sorceress.  If you don’t know, I don’t know,” Diana said.

“I’m not a sorceress yet.”

“You’re a lot closer than I’ll ever be.  You think it’s that stone?”

“It has to be.  I — I’m not sure what it’s done to us, but if you can’t Channel enough magic to make a simple portal, I don’t dare try.  I’m stronger than you.  I could burn the both of us out for good.  I need Thad!”

Bandit grumpily volunteered to run back to the castle.  He didn’t want to leave the girls alone, but if he ran very fast, he knew he could make it before sunset.  Then Thad and Reynard could come by portal, but he insisted that the girls promise not to get into any trouble without him.

Diana sighed fondly, rubbed his shoulders, and bent down to give his head a kiss.  “We promise.  You be careful too.”

Bandit rubbed his head on Diana’s hand, gave both girls along, meaningful look, and then raced off.

After Bandit left, the girls emptied what was left of the stranger’s coin purse onto the ground and squatted to sort through the coins.  All they found was local currency and the wooden dock marker that indicated which slip her freight ship was docking at.

“Maybe we should go back to the marketplace.  The woman might have changed her coins there and that might give us a clue,” Diana suggested.

“Do you think you could track her by scent?” Aldra asked.

“Maybe, if I knew where to start looking.  She might’ve left her name with the guards.”

“Would she have left her real name?”

“Maybe not.  But it might give us something to start with,” Diana said.

“How do we get the guards to give us anything?  They won’t trust us.  I look like you.  Without magic, we can’t prevent people from noticing that, and they just chased you out yesterday.”

“They only do that to Diana Fox.  They’ve never done it to Lady Diana Malimore.”

“I’m not wearing the right clothes for that, and neither are you,” Aldra said.

“We could get some.”

“It’s too risky.  What if someone sees us at the wrong moment?  There’s too much at stake here.”

“What about Imani?” Diana suggested.  “What if Imani went to the guards and just told them that she had something for the woman.  Maybe she dropped the dock marker and Imani wants to give it back.  She’ll needed if she expects to get on to her ship.  Once we have a name from Imani, we can track the woman down, find out where the shipment is coming from and if there is any more.”

“We’ll have to give back the dock marker,” said Aldra.  “If we still had it, we could use it to board the ship and take the stones.”

“Who says we have to give her the real dock marker?” Diana grinned.

“It’s worth a shot if Imani agrees to it,” Aldra nodded.

“She was so careless, leaving her purse open and flashing money around, I’m surprised she didn’t drop the marker in the first place,” Diana said.

“That must be why she sent the guards after you.  She needed to get that marker back, she was short on time, and the guards were the quickest way to find you.”

“I cannot believe I stumbled into something like this!  I won’t even be able to say I planned it!”

Aldra pinched the bridge of her nose and shook her head.


With Imani’s help, they found the stranger and tailed her out of the marketplace.  Diana didn’t want to risk being seen again, so she took her fox form and prowled in the shadows close to the woman while Aldra, who couldn’t shift, stayed a few yards back, hidden in the crowds.

Diana detected no odor of magic around the woman, though there was a strange, sweet scent mingled with the sweaty, anxious human smells coming out of her pores.  That was odd.  Diana had never heard of anyone except witches and sorcerers handling Channel Stones, and she didn’t know of any potion or topical cream that would help someone do that.  What could that strange smell be?  Maybe it was just some bad perfume she’d picked up in the market.

They tailed the stranger through the city streets and along the river toward the docks.  The woman looked over her shoulder every few seconds, furtive and tense, but she never spotted them.  She started walking faster, dodging around people and ducking between buildings.  Diana picked up her pace and lost sight of Aldra.  She could still feel her sister somewhere nearby, but her awareness of Aldra buzzed and faded in and out.  She was going to have to make a move.

She waited until the woman was out of sight behind a bakery that had closed for the day, then sprung out of the shadows.  The woman spun and threw up her hands, then screamed and staggered backwards while Diana’s teeth and claws ripped into the fabric of her dress and pierced her flesh, drawing blood.  They fell to the ground, Diana struggling to subdue the woman without seriously injuring her, while the woman thrashed and fought for the life she assumed was in danger.  Finally, she threw Diana off, rolled to one side and yanked a knife from a sheath that had been strapped to her thigh.

Diana’s nostrils twitched and flared as she realized that the odd sweet scent was stronger now.  It was coming from the knife.  The tip of the blade was poisoned.


Aldra barreled into the alley with a fist already drawn.  Their prey spun around again, and Aldra smashed her squarely in the nose.  There was a sickening crunch, and the woman staggered back.  She dropped the knife as she raised her hands to protect her face.  Blood gushed from both nostrils.  Aldra kicked the knife away, but the woman tried to get up again.  Aldra grabbed her by the hair, hauled her up before she could gain footing and banged her head against the nearest wall.

The woman slumped down again, and Diana leaned in to sniff at her.  Alive.  Definitely alive.  Diana used her head and paws to roll the woman onto her side so that she wouldn’t choke to death on her own blood.  Aldra rooted around on her magicians belt and took out a coagulant powder that had no real magical properties.  She grumbled to herself, dropped to her knees, and attended the bloody nose as well as she could.

Diana gave her a quizzical look.


How are we going to interrogate her now?

“I couldn’t help it.  She pulled a knife on you.  I guess we’ll have to find somewhere to tie her up and keep her until she wakes up.  We can come back and interrogate her when we’ve gotten the stones.”

Great.  Let’s just hope she doesn’t have a passcode or anything.




The guardsmen checked the marker, checked again, and then asked her to wait while he conferred with the lieutenant on duty.  Diana gave him an imperious glare, stared down at him and folded her arms across her chest.

“I have a scheduled to keep.  My cargo needs to be delivered tonight, and my associate has had more than enough trouble with this city and you poor excuses for guardsmen.  If you don’t let me on board that ship right this instant, I’ll have you up on charges.”

The guard looked back stoically.  “It will just be one moment, madam.  I’m required to follow procedure.”

Diana sighed but said nothing.  The guard walked off, and she thought with a wry grin how easy it would normally have been to simply board one of the ships and take whatever she wanted.  Most nights, there was only one guard on duty here and a lieutenant who mostly sat in the relative comfort of the guard box at the other end of the pier.  Tonight there were five, and all of them, including the lieutenant were patrolling.  She’d have to come back sometime, just to teach these good-for-nothings a lesson.

When he didn’t come back in five minutes, she let out a breath and glanced to either side, marking possible escape routes.  Someone started her way, and she recognized the lieutenant’s helm.  The man made a beckoning gesture and the rest of the guards began to move her way too.

“Did you really expect it to be that easy, Ms.  Fox?” Drake’s voice came from behind her.

Diana let the poisoned knife drop into her hand and turned around slowly, grinning.  “No, Drake, dear.  Not at all.  I just expected to win.”

“Hey!  Look what I found over here!  Looks like Diana’s backup, ” called Sorrel.  She came closer, pushing Aldra ahead of her.  Aldra’s hands were bound behind her back, her lip was bleeding, and her left eye was swollen almost shut.

Diana’s mouth dropped open.  She clenched her free hand into a fist but didn’t say anything.  Drake laughed.

“Expected to win did you?” He mocked.  “It looks like your expectations were a little high this time.”

“We’ll see,” Diana said, raising the knife.  “Do you fellows smell that?  It’s weeping tansy.  Is the gold you’re getting for this worth taking that risk?  You guards.  Your faces aren’t covered.  You want to take a chance?  How many of you have been in a real fight before, because I have.  One scratch is all it will take, and I have no doubt I’ll take more than one of you before I go down.”

The men behind Drake started to shuffle backwards.  Even the armored guards shifted a little, and Diana could hear a few of them sheathing their weapons.  Drake shook his head in disgust.

“I don’t think so.  Put the knife down or Sorrel is going to break your sister’s neck.”

Diana shook her head.  “Sorrel.  Let my sister go or your guild master here is going to get a knife between his eyes.”

“All the better for me, Diana.” Sorrel laughed.  “If he goes, I’m next in line.  Throw it and you lose your only leverage.”

Diana shrugged.  “Fair trade than?  I take Drake, you let my sister go.”

“You’d better hope her aim is true, Sorrel,” Drake hissed.  “Because you’re finished otherwise.”

“Relax, Drake, it’s a bad bet.  We’ve already won this.  Diana, no dice.  Throw down the knife.  Your cavalry isn’t coming either.  I already met your little dog on the road home.”

Aldra let out a shriek of inarticulate rage and hurled Sorrel over her shoulder.  Then she rushed the woman and started kicking.  The guards ran to help Sorrel, and Drake lunged at Diana.  She sidestepped and slashed with her knife hand, hoping that fear of the poison would drive him back, but he only pulled back a little and two knives of his own dropped down from hidden sheaths on his arms.

He came in again quick, slashing with his left hand and defending against Diana’s blade with his right.  She half-turned to avoid his attack and brought her knife arm down in an arch toward his midriff.  Her heart was thudding wildly in her chest and she fought off her own desire to turn the blade aside.

How many times had Thad and Reynard told her never to pick up a weapon if she wasn’t prepared to kill with it?  Drake was certainly ready to kill her.  The knife in his right hand came down to meet hers again, pushing it aside, and she let him too easily.

“You haven’t got it in you.  You’re all talk,” he sneered.

In answer, Diana rammed the heel of her hand into his jaw.  His head snapped to one side.  She spun and executed a swift kick to drive him backward.  He fell back, and she closed the distance again, intending to make a grab for one of his weapons.  At least then, he would have a chance of survival.  Drake came up fast, grabbed her knife arm and twisted until the tendons in her forearm began to pop.  Her fingers opened, the knife clattered to the ground, and Diana stomped on his foot, grinding her heel into it.

“Bitch!” Drake screamed.

Diana broke free, yelled for Aldra to follow, and ran.  Drake’s footsteps pounded after her, down the dock, into the streets, around corners, in and out between buildings and winding alleys.  The foot injury helped.  She was fasterand lighter, but he had a longer stride and the bad foot kept them even.

She tried not to think about Aldra, not to wonder where she was, if she was following.  She hated not being able to feel her sister, but she had to focus on Drake.  Her breath was coming in shallow, hot gasps.  She wasn’t going to be able to run like this for very much longer.

She reached the warehouse district with him still right behind her and closing fast.  She turned the corner, raced down another street, sought the open window and bolted for it.  Her arm screamed as she pulled herself in, but she knew that if Drake caught her first, one of them was going to die tonight.

She hit the ground hard, rolled to one side, and heard him drop down into the darkness with her before she had even regained her footing.  Diana drew in a deep breath, and the window behind them slammed closed.

A low growl sounded somewhere deeper in the warehouse. Then another, and another.  Yellow eyes appeared, forming a circle around them, and the growling became more menacing.

Now Drake was the one panting.

“Get away from my daughter.”

A green light flared, igniting the warehouse and revealing a circle three layers deep of foxes, dogs, and armed warriors.  Thad and Micah Malimore stood in the center with Reynard the Fox between them.  The light emanated from a trio of gems in the center of Micah’s staff, and Diana’s mouth formed a small “o” of appreciation.

“Lord…Malimore…?” Drake was gaping, trying to find somewhere to back away.

Bandit nipped at him and Drake jerked himself closer to Thad.

“That’s right,” he said, neatly shifting to avoid contact.  “And you’re under arrest.”

“I don’t think so,” Drake shook his head.

He pulled a smoke bomb from his belt, dropped it, and then screamed at the top of his lungs as the smoke that erupted around him turned green, swirled into a whirlwind, and then disappeared with him in it right into Micah’s staff.

Thad raised an eyebrow.  “You’ve always got to be so dramatic.”

Micah shrugged one shoulder, grinned, and reached out to touch Diana’s shoulder.  A wash of healing energy flowed down, warming the arm and fading the pain away.

“Are you all right, Diana?” Thad asked.

“Yes, Sir.”

“What about Aldra?” Micah asked.

“I’m fine, Dad,” said Aldra as the warehouse door opened to admit her and Sorrel deGray.

Micah swept over to touch her face, and Diana let out a relieved breath as the bruising faded.

Thad smiled faintly, and then nodded to Sorrel.

“Thank you, Ms.  deGray.  I’ll remember this.”

“So will I, Lord Malimore.  As we agreed, the stones will be delivered to Castle Malimore in the morning.”

“Yes.  Diana will have your gold for you then.”

Sorrel inclined her head to Thad, offered Diana a faint smile, turned on her heel and left again.  When the warehouse store closed behind her, Thad looked at Diana for a long moment.  She waited.

“Have you got Micah’s present yet?”

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