Predators

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At night the theatre district lights up like a thousand stars, lanterns and sourcelit streetlights and rooftop braziers providing artificial assistance to the moon's glow, refusing to accept the night's dark smothering. The district sparkles against the lakefront, a fractured jewel against the city's skyline, its beauty belying its nature.

There may have been a time when the theatre district was host to real theatres; there were those still alive who remembered it being a more welcoming and less dangerous maze. Despite its descent into anarchic debauchery, every evening boats would still take to the water from around the circumference of the lake, as those from all echelons began the nightly pilgrimage, lowering themselves into the district's spoiled embrace.

"This place is worse than I remember," Roldan Stryke growled under his breath as he trudged down the muddy street, which remained persistently wet despite the warm weather. He kept his hood up, a cloak covering the armour on his back and shoulders.

"You've been spending too much time away on your tours," Pienya said, dressed in a similarly nondescript manner.

"They're not tours," Roldan retorted. "And I'd assumed you and Fenris were keeping an eye on things."

"We have been," Pienya said, "but there are a lot of things, and not enough of us. The king has many eyes, but no hands."

"Which is why you asked for me."

They turned a corner into a street lined with brothels and inns - it was mostly difficult to distinguish the two - and filled with a roaming, staggering crowd of drunkards. They milled and wheeled about, dimly lit in the middle of the street and slipping in and out of the pools of warm light spilling from windows and open doorways, occasionally colliding with each other and bouncing away on a new, raggedy path.

"Much as I enjoy your company," Pienya said, "this is about finding the prisoner as quickly and cleanly as possible."

Roldan shifted the cloak about on his shoulders. "Quick is good," he said, "I'm looking forward to getting back to my tours." He'd never noticed Pienya Martoc enjoy anybody's company, much less his.

At that same moment, three streets away, close to the water's edge, a ritual was unfolding, one which the district had witnessed many times and would undoubtedly see again. Five dead men walked their final steps, pushed forwards by the hands of their executioners, gagged, silent. The bearded giant who called himself Stamper led the troupe, holding a flaming torch aloft against the darkness. No street lights penetrated here; no frivolity coursed about these alleyways.

"When the town wakes up tomorrow," Wide Riley whispered into Tarn's ear, "they'll know the score. The way Stamper's done it is a mark of genius, I tell you. Once this lot are gone, the poor district is ours."

Tarn followed along dutifully, wondering at the terrible crimes these men must have committed to be so harshly treated. His first night in a warm, comfortable, furnished room had been a disorienting and confusing one, as he'd struggled to comprehend his new surroundings and friends. It was the first time anybody had shown him kindness; to accept it felt like a terrible risk, opening himself up to disappointment and betrayal.

The girl in the tavern - she'd said her name was Amber - had been patient and gentle, allowing him his confusion. Wide Riley had been nothing but excited since the moment they'd met on the street. Even Stamper, the bearded leader of the Stagehands, had made him feel part of the crew. It had created an immediate and intoxicating sense of place and of belonging.

At last, he had a family. The notion had never occurred to him until Wide Riley had told him, and barely a day later it remained the most precious thing imaginable. Perhaps family is what he'd felt was missing, all those years in the machine rooms.

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