It was about a mile from our barracks down in Copper Cross to the importers' district, where Rabbit said he'd spotted the rival outfit. Between the steel hauberks and the burkhas covering us from head to toe, it was a hellish slog. Our only saving grace was the cool night air.

In the inferno of the day, we'd never have made it.

Once we were in sight of Mahmoud's Rare Antiquities and Acquisitions, I called a discrete halt.

Rumor was, Mahmoud used to be one of the largest silk merchants in the Soha Desert. Half the old warehouses on this end of Kairo were either owned, built, or leased by him. But his interests had shifted in recent years. Nowadays, he dealt exclusively in rare artifacts, his former business empire collapsing and getting cannibalized by smaller, hungrier rivals.

I guess being fantastically wealthy must have lost its novelty for the old man.

Mahmoud's Antiquities was the only holding he had left. It was one of the district's "face" buildings, the row of popular import/export shops that fronted the cluster of old warehouses.

The street was packed, which wasn't unusual. The only nights they weren't crowded were dedicated holy days.

I asked Rabbit where we were headed.

"Two rows down. Second warehouse from the front. They got sentries, Xev."

"You got their movements timed?"

He shrugged, his bulky, head-to-toe burkha making and almost imperceptible movement. "As of a couple hours ago, yeah. But they might have changed up since then."

It was likely. If nothing else, it's what we'd do.

We needed eyes on. "Any good overwatch positions?"

"Earlier, I got up on top of the spice guy's place. Gave me a dead-on view of the northeast corner."

Dead-on corner meant he'd been able to see down two sides of the building. That was good. Real good.

"Think you can do it again?"

"Just as long as no one sees me."

I nodded. "We'll cover you. When we get close to the alley, you peel off and slip down. We'll make a big show of examining the spice guy's merchandise, and hold position until you get back."

That part went off without a hitch. We spent almost twenty minutes at the spice merchant's shop, Runt dutifully redirecting every question to himself so nobody would hear a bunch of gruff, gravelly voices coming out our little face windows.

Not until Willow spoke up, anyway.

"Lieutenant Xeverin, sir. The corporal needs you. We've got a problem."

He took my place at the spice stall, pickily going over the merchant's wares while the exasperated man tried to make pleasant conversation with Runt. I went to the back of our little gaggle to find Half-high.

I damn near had a heart attack when I got there. Rabbit had returned. He was still wearing his burkha. Only now the entire thing was covered in blood stains.

"What the hell happened?"

"Our new friends realized what a good overwatch position that was, Xev. They had their own guy up there."

Knowing Rabbit, he'd done it silently. The man could be a ghost when he wanted to. That said, a severed artery was going to gush no matter how quietly you sliced it.

"How much time do you figure we have?"

"Not much," Rabbit said. "Maybe five minutes."

I swore. This was going tits up.

"How many on watch?"

"They got three guys down there. Two roving and one at the front door. Rover that comes closest to that roof top position gives a bird call. I took a chance and answered him, and that turned out to be right. But he's gonna get real curious if I don't get back up there in time to give it to him again."

"Any chance of us sneaking on him?"

"Yeah. He gives that whistle just as he's approaching a blind corner. I can see the other side of it, and he only moves after I answer. I figure that's the reason rooftop guy was there."

Good instinct. Probably right. There's a good reason Rabbit gets so much leeway around here, despite being a ranker.

Still, I had a split second to decide. I decided.

"Get back up there, give him that whistle. We're going to get in position to take him as soon as you do."

Rabbit was gone without another word. Say this for the man. He might have been short on military discipline, if not downright antagonistic. But when it was time to work, he moved without a moment's hesitation.

I passed a quick word to Runt and Willow, to let them know what we were doing. Then I took Half-high and Pock with me, and faded into the alley.

We found the blind corner about thirty feet in. Half-High took point. I considered having us all drop our burkhas, but I figured the added surprise of seeing a woman back here—an Al'leh worshipper, to boot—might buy us an extra second.

That could be the line between life and death.

We stood stock-still, listening. What felt like an age later, there was a faint whistle in the air, a poor mimic for a dove's call. A moment later, Rabbit answered.

The sentry came around the corner, drawing up short when he saw us.

"What in the—?"

Before he could finish, Half-high rammed his knife into the man's gut. I followed a split second later, driving mine into his neck and ripping sideways. Pock caught the man's body as he fell, easing him quietly to the cobbled ground, where he continued to twitch and bleed out.

That took care of one. We'd need a little more luck with the second.

"Shit," Pock said.

Guard number two had picked that same instant to round the corner down the long side of the warehouse. He caught sight of Pock, who was currently wearing about a quart of his partner's blood.

Pock thought fast, immediately spreading his hands in a pleading gesture. He raised his voice an octave, and started mumbling the only phrase he knew in the Al'leh worshippers' language, over and over again. The whole time, he kept moving closer to the guy.

"Get on him, Half-high."

One advantage to corporal Half-high being so short is that he's able to fall in behind a column of troops and remain perfectly hidden. In this case, with Pock wearing the burkha, spreading his arms, and gesturing wildly, it was as good as giving him an entire phalanx.

The guard half-drew his sword. He held up a warning hand. "Stop right there! Don't move!"

Pock kept moving, just dumbly repeating that same phrase over and over again.

Later, I asked him what it meant. It was apparently something he picked up from one of madam Dalah's girls. I won't write it here. Even by the standards of their profession, it was filthy.

By the time the guard was close enough to see the blood on Pock's burkha, it was all over. Both Pock and Half-high fell on him like a pair of desert jackals. He didn't even have time to scream.

I whistled up to the rooftop, hoping Rabbit would get my meaning. He did. A moment later, Rabbit, Runt, and Willow had joined us.

"Shed these," I said, tugging off my burkha. "They're useless now." The men gratefully followed suit.

In addition to our armor, everyone had a shemagh, the traditional desert head cloth worn by the locals. Runt had been wearing his openly. The rest of us had them around our necks, under our disguises. I ordered everyone to soak theirs in water and wrap them around their noses and mouths.

While they did, I opened the wicker basket. Inside were a half dozen clay eggs, each about the size of my doubled fist. Each egg had a hole on one end, which was stopped by a hollowed-out wax plug.

These were the new items I was inventorying earlier. A custom order I'd placed with the local apothecary.

You couldn't see it without opening that wax stopper, but the eggs were filled with a fine white powder. It was a special concoction the apothecary had sold for years, a simple choking dust.

I'm not sure what the actual mixture was. The apothecary had his trade secrets, same as us. All I knew was that breathing it caused a burning sensation in the eyes, nose, and throat. No matter how hard you tried to inhale, you couldn't, and all you wanted to do was find some water and wash it off.

Traditionally, assassins and sneak-thieves carried it in a hollowed out tube, which they used to blow it in the face of an unsuspecting target.

I know, because that was exactly what happened to me down in the bazaar a few months back. A pretty young thing flashed a smile, batted her eyes at me to get my attention, and a moment later I was blind and struggling for air. While I struggled, she made a leisurely exit with my wallet.

A little experimenting and a little engineering, however, and I had come up with a better use for it.

I fished around in the basket for another small package, an oiled parchment wrap I'd picked up from one of the other vendors in town. One of the ones here in the import district, ironically enough.

The package contained a handful of Zhangyi fireworks, small red tubes about the size of my thumb.

These weren't the sputtering little poppers they gave to children on their holidays. These were the noisemakers, the ones that exploded with a loud "bang" that echoed down the streets.

I worked one into each hollowed-out wax plug, pushing it in so that nothing but the fuse stuck out.

Once done, I passed them out. I had Runt hand out extra candles, and light them off his candle lamp.

The plan was to split into teams of two, each team taking a different window on the rear and sides of the building. We'd work the shutters open, light the eggs, and throw them in all at the same time. Once they exploded and had the entire room coated in a cloud of choking dust, the guard at the front door would likely run inside to see what was happening.

Even if he didn't, the next part of the plan involved all of us rushing the entrance at once. He wouldn't fare any better than his friends did.

From there, it would be a simple matter of wading in and mopping up, all while protected from the choking dust by our water-soaked shemaghs.

Brutal? Yes.

Nasty? Undoubtedly so.

But a turf war was still a war. And Rickard's Raiders were in the business of winning.

We were just getting ready to pair off and get to it when we ran into our second problem of the evening.

Rabbit had taken up a position by the rear window. He'd already worked the shutter open, and was doing a little early recon. I heard him swear to himself. He called over to me, quietly.

"You need to see this, Xev."

I climbed up next to him and peered in. At first, I didn't see anything we weren't expecting. It was like Rabbit said, around twenty guys.

"You see him?" Rabbit whispered. "Over to the left. Where they set up those archery targets."

I did now.

He was standing with his arms crossed, supervising a bunch of rankers plunking away at painted shipping crates. Even from here, he was imposing to look at.

He carried a longsword, northern in make, and wore a shining breastplate over immaculately tailored mail. His shield was slung over his back. Emblazoned on the front was a gold lion emblem. Even in all that armor, the man stalked around like a panther, moving with an uncanny, fluid grace.

"Shit," I said.

There was no question. I wasn't just looking at another merc with big dreams and no respect for our reputation.

This was no simple hit-and-run op. Not anymore.

The enemy leader was one of the Reborn.


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