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Because their city sprawled out along a desert coastline, Manaheimians always seemed surprised and unprepared when water fell from the sky. They rarely cobbled their side streets and seemed not to know how to control their carts and horses in muddy thoroughfares.
Aros’s men grumbled in low voices as they struggled through the muck. Near the Happy Mermaid they gathered in little clumps, then one big clump. Each carried a bulging sack on his back or shoulders, each leaving a weapon hand free. They moved inside, found an empty table in the kitchen, and began dumping what they had. Fat Mal had a goat. Tor One-Eye had three kinds of potatoes. Aros the Aztec had brought finger-sized bananas, two great bunches.
Carpotet, the inn’s owner, came down the stairs grinning. “Aros! More free fare for my folk?”
“Free if you’ll serve us drink.”
“Your first round is free, taxman, and of course my clients will know who to thank.”
Aros nodded more or less happily. He’d get no better. It was a good exchange: taxmen needed friends.
Tor had picked them a table, a big one. Aros’s dozen men took benches and proceedings, for the accounting and dispersal of tax money.
Aros, once a thief, had become one of the five major tax collectors in the kingdom of Quillia. He was Azteca by birth. His bloodline had gifted him with swarthy skin, straight black hair, and piercingly direct black eyes. He was a tall, broad man, whose size and strength were often underestimated until it was too late to retreat. He was too obtrusive to pick a pocket, but when he scowled, more than one citizen had simply handed him their purse from an instinctive wish to avoid trouble. It was helpful in his new role.
He looked around once, as men left off drinking to raid Aros’s bananas. They’d know where those came from, and when Carpotet baked the potatoes and bell peppers and the goat, they’d know to thank the taxmen. A good bargain. You couldn’t always collect coins; some families had to pay in kind, and Aros’s men let them get away with that. He’d seen to it.
Aros crouched on one of the Happy Mermaid’s rough-hewn benches, rubbing his muddied boots against a table leg. Damn boots were only a week old, and already filthy. As he drank, wondering which of several boot makers might clean his footwear without scalping him, he considered the bawdy conversation between the three rascals sharing his table and strove to conceal his annoyance.
In Aros’s educated opinion, the role of tax collector was more profitable than outright brigandry had ever been. So long as he and his men turned in the expected minima from each district, they were left pretty much to their own devices, and their devices were endless.
But while it would be dishonest to plead total virtue on his own part, his personal code prescribed limits his men often ignored. As a result he sometimes felt more lion tamer than leader of the pride.
“Pretty widows need comfortin’,” Tor One-Eye said in his weasel’s voice, continuing his discourse on a woman in the capital’s outskirts. He pounded his knife into the table and dragged the point an inch or two, raising a curl of wood. “I say I’m doing a public duty. A kindness, if you please. In exchange for … company, I ease her tax burden a coin or two.”
The others hooted agreement and seemed ready to begin their own tales of fiscally enabled debauchery. But they kept an eye on Aros, knowing the barbarian disapproved of such things, for reasons they did not entirely understand.
“No widows, even if they look like pigs,” he said, voice low and hard. “What you do with others is your business. But virgins and righteous widows are out of bounds, damn you.”
Tor glared at him from his one useful orb. “The dice are downright unfriendly these days. I got debts,” he said. “Some of us can’t afford to be so pure and pristine-like.” The others agreed, muttering. They were afraid of Aros, just enough to accept his odd rules. But sufficient greed would overcome caution one day—he knew it. And on that day, they would try him. While his back was turned of course.
Safely tucked into his leather tax purse was slightly more than the fifty gold pieces his employers demanded of him. When he combined that with the funds harvested by his associates, that would bring the total to just over a hundred. He’d had his heart set on a new suit of armor. But it could wait.
“Here,” he said, and threw a gold coin to each of them. “Just a little inducement to remember your jobs, not your diversions.”
They snatched the coins either from the air or as they rolled along the tabletop. Tor One-Eye bit his, as if uncertain it was genuine, then nodded. “Sure, Captain. We’ll be good boys.” And they laughed, as much at the barbarian’s odd ways as anything else.
No love was lost here: they’d cosh him, rob him, and frame him for the theft the first chance they got, and everyone knew it. It was up to him not to give them a chance.
Then it was down to business, dividing up the portion of the loot that might reasonably be considered “discretionary.” Five coins to Fat Mal the hairy one, five to Sailor Cree, the tall and skinny one. And five to Tor One-Eye, the small one who dressed in leather and spun his knife point-first on the table like a child’s toy.
They drank, jeering at a woman singing about the days when Merfolk swam off Quillian shores. Back when there was magic in the world.
Aros snorted to himself. These inbred city folk thought they were so much more sophisticated than Outlanders like him. They told themselves that there were no gods to judge them and that the magic was gone. They wouldn’t, if they’d seen what he’d seen.
Arto finished his drink just as five soldiers crowded through the swinging doors. A flying squad, sent to collect the taxes. The sergeant was a sloppy man with a quick blade, Arturo C’Vall, who sneered behind his smile and fancied that Aros wouldn’t notice. He noticed it, and also the fact that C’Vall’s loathsome appetites and habits made Tor One-Eye seem like a celibate monk.
C’Vall plopped into the chair heavily. “Damned rain,” he said. C’Vall always seemed to choose weather as his opening conversational gambit.
“Court’s in an uproar,” he said. “Big doings in the castle. Big doings.” He reached into the tray at the center of the table, popping a greasy bacon confection into his mouth. “The princess is traveling far, far away,” he whispered, as if he had been personally entrusted with her safety.
Aros swallowed a mouthful of grog. “What’s that to me?”
“Not a thing, not a thing. The only way you’re goin’ to the palace is gettin’ thrown in the dungeon! Har har!” The soldiers behind him chuckled to themselves, perhaps hoping that if they did, he might buy them drinks.
Aros’s men, even Tor One-Eye, cracked no smiles. Aros slid his bag across the table. “Count it.”
C’Vall nodded and opened the bag, pouring a flood of gold, silver, and copper coins out into a tidy pile. At nearby tables, patrons tried to avoid being caught gawking. As Aros and his men watched, C’Vall counted the gold twice and the silver once. “I’ll trust you with the copper,” he said.
He scrawled matching notes on two scraps of parchment and signed them both. Aros signed them both with a symbol like a split heart. Then each man took one. Taxes were taken very seriously. “I’ll see you next month,” C’Vall said.
Aros nodded. The entire pub seemed to exhale as C’Vall and his men left the room, degrading the atmosphere no small degree.
“Well,” Tor One-Eye said. “Amusin’ as always.” They chuckled and commenced dividing up the copper coins, as well as the small sack of silver.
“Let’s have the rest,” Aros said. Accompanied by grumbles, a few more silver and gold coins hit the table. They divided those as well, Aros sweeping the last into his pouch with the side of his hand. He knew damned well that they’d held back a few jingles for themselves, but so had he—probably more than any of them.
“Well, then,” he said. “Stay, get drunk and laid, or take it back to your luckless wives and get drunk and laid there. Mal and Sailor Cree—I’ll see you again in two days. We’re off for Isney province.”
They hoisted their drinks to him, Tor One-Eye made an obscene toast, and they parted ways. As the others left the table, Aros felt a wind behind him, as if the door had opened and closed. He turned and scanned the room. No new faces had entered; someone must have left.
There had been twelve … fourteen people in the tavern, not counting his own crew. A clutch of sailors and their two girlfriends, all groping and whispering as if they were going to have an octopus evening. An old man in his cups. A pair of young lovers who looked as if they might be planning a getaway. A …
The corner table, where the oldster had been seated, was empty now. Old man, in a hood, face shadowed. But Aros had had the clear impression of age. The ancient one hadn’t glanced up at the clink of gold. Aros hadn’t thought a thing about him before, but his instinct warned him that he had missed something.
Aros swept his coins into his bag and stood, the wisps of mead fog dissipated. Whence had come his sense of alarm? And why? Because an old man had vanished? Because C’Vall had irritated him, or Tor One-Eye? Because he had an intuition?
Irritated with himself, and more irritated that he couldn’t nail down the source of his irritation, Aros ordered another mead and smashed it down without lifting the flagon from his lips.
Then, cursing fluidly, he departed.
* * *
The old man, having spent the last hour nursing a drink and watching the barbarian in the clouded mirror behind the bar, had indeed just scuttled from the Happy Mermaid so that Aros would not pass him on the way out. And his old adversary’s damnably keen senses might have upset the game.
He hurried down the street, careful not to slip in the muck, to the alleyway where three hired brigands crouched waiting in the shadows.
“Well?” the largest of them breathed. He was the size of a redwood, with a rubbery, ruddy face, as if he was frostbit or sunburned.
“It was him,” the old man said. “He’ll be leaving soon, I think.”
The smallest of them was so broad as to be almost round. “Payment,” he said, extending his hand.
The old man emptied a small purse into the waiting paw and waited as they counted the pile of gold and silver coins. Not one had even pretended to trust. What was the world coming to?
The skinniest of the three looked like a skeleton wrapped in patchy, hairy skin. “It’s good. His skull’s as good as cracked, C’Vall.” And the three oddly matched rogues set off down the street.
Neoloth-Pteor leaned back against the wall, shedding his cloak, then peeling away the false beard. Just a little gum, some llama hair, and a cloak … and his identity was safe. Not that any of the thugs he had just hired were likely to survive the evening, but if they did, they still couldn’t describe him properly.
But if one lived long enough to pass on a name, that would be even better.
It had been a long game, with several distinct phases over the years. In the most recent, he was certain that Aros had thought him dead, entombed with a colony of giant spiders on an island on the far side of the world. “What is it?” he whispered. Neoloth closed his eyes and leaned back against the wall. “What is it that draws us together, my old enemy?”
For a decade, he and the appalling Aros had crossed paths and often attempted to cause each other’s destruction. He had been shocked when here, in Quillia, the name had arisen on the foul breath of C’Vall, tax collector and blackmailer. C’Vall knew certain of Neoloth’s secrets and had incriminating documents, even though Neoloth’s sins had been committed far afield. He also knew where witnesses could be recruited. It would be inconvenient for them to come to light just now, when everything was going so well.
He had tried paying the man off, but the blackmail had grown onerous, and when Neoloth attempted to employ an agent of his own to acquire the documents, the nimble-fingered little elf had ended up floating in the river, his rear end pointing true north, as elf bottoms tended to do.
Well … C’Vall had named the stakes. Far be it from Neoloth-Pteor to deny him. C’Vall would expect a magical attack, of course, and there was no way to kill C’Vall with magic without leaving clues that another magician might use to impeach and supplant him at court.
He would try something so mundane that it would catch C’Vall by surprise. The fact that his old enemy Aros would be the instrument of his deliverance was a happy accident.
A carriage arrived, its wheels throwing off specks of mud from the recent rains. Neoloth flinched: in days not too long past, mud flecks used to veer past him. The cadaverous coachman stopped the vehicle, and Neoloth mounted the steps and swung in.
A belt-high, rounded elf crouched on the seat opposite. Fandy was a loyal follower, and, more important, he and the deceased elf had been more than friends.
“Was he there?” Fandy squeaked.
“He was,” Neoloth said. “He conducted his business and then left.”
They jounced down the streets a bit, wheels thumping in muddy potholes. From time to time, through gaps between houses, shops, and taverns, they could glimpse the castle, perched high on a hill. Symbol of power … and, in an unexpected and unaccustomed fashion, hope.
“And you did what you had to do?”
“Yes,” Neoloth said. “And my hired swords will do what they have to do. And Aros will do what he has to do. And, one way or the other, at least one old problem will be gone by morning.”
And if all went well, both might be gone. But all things going well was rare in this world, or any world he knew.
* * *
Aros knew he was being followed. The back of his neck had itched since shortly after he left the tavern. Had known something was wrong, something was … off. He had drained that last flagon of mead largely to make himself a more tempting target. If someone was going to try to kill or rob him, Aros would prefer to meet him while he had sense enough to act clearly, rather than in his sleep or encumbered by a frisky companion.
The streets were narrow here, and dark, but the ground was sturdier underfoot. Drier. And that would work very well for a man with confidence in his footwork.
Who had that old man in the tavern been? The Aztec still couldn’t place him, and in fact the struggle to place the man might well get him killed. Your mind couldn’t be in the past and the future at the same time.
The sword that kills you isn’t yesterday’s, or tomorrow’s. It is the weapon at your throat right now. Now. Now was all that mattered, and his mind, while not as foggy as his lurching gait implied, was not focused on Now. He was starting to think of bed, and that could get him killed.
Well, one principle he’d learned long ago: when you are less than your best, it is even more critical that your opponents underestimate you. Blurry vision? Trick your opponents into thinking you are blind. Weakened? Make them think you are unconscious, or already dead.
What did they want? The tax money? He had to admit that there was a part of him that gave not a damn. He tried to be civilized, to constrain his savage heart. But even before Flaygod, his trusty Macuahuitl, left its sheath, he felt the battle madness stir within him. The Macuahuitl balanced in his hand sweetly, a hybrid based on his people’s ancient bat-shaped, glass-toothed battle-ax, rendered not in hardwood but in lethal, razor-edged steel.
As he wound through the streets, the way narrowed, and that was for the good. While it was annoying to lose side-to-side motion, he moved backward better than most and attacked on a straight line before him with devastating speed and power.
Someone emptied the fetid contents of a chamber pot out of a window overhead, almost hitting him. He cursed up at the window, receiving a similar obscenity in reply. Then perhaps seeing the size of the man who was walking beneath his window, or the flat, ugly demi-sword in his hand, the thrower mumbled what might have been a half-hearted apology and retreated.
There. The full moon above them shone its light into an alley just to his right, but the back of the alley was still deep shadow. He liked that.
Glancing back over his shoulder to be certain that his stalkers were still close enough to see him slip into the side street, Aros slid into the shadows and waited, Flaygod hungry in his hand.
He waited. For a time he began to wonder if he was wrong, if the men behind him had merely been out for a stroll. Along dark streets. With drawn swords.
Lovely evening for a stroll, he thought.
And then they were in the alleyway. Three of them, bulky but not clumsy, each with a fistful of sharp steel. One was cloaked, one wore partial armor of some kind, and one was one-handed, with a cleaver-like blade welded to the stump.
For a time they just looked at him, their outlines reduced to darkness, eyes burning in their faces. No one spoke.
“How did you lose your hand?” Aros asked. He was genuinely interested in such things, and, after all, in a few seconds either he’d be unable to ask the question, or Stumpy would be incapable of answering.
But that really didn’t matter, because Stumpy didn’t answer. Instead, two of the three split off, walking down the alley side by side. The one with the armor cocked his head a little to the side, as if trying to determine where Aros was.
The shadows were doing their job. Which was nice, because his enemies also didn’t notice when his left hand slipped the throwing knife from his belt, and the shadows were apparently too dark to see him hurl it underhand, such that none of the three had any idea what was happening until the knife sprouted from the armored man’s throat like a rose crafted entirely of thorns. Armored Man gave a wet groan and collapsed onto his side.
Stumpy turned to look at his friend and turned back just in time to avoid being beheaded by a lightning-fast swing, catching it on the cleaver welded to the stump of his left hand.
That was fine, because Aros was taking a step, setting his weight. He swung his left foot up in a short arc, planting it directly in Stumpy’s groin.
To his credit, the brigand made hardly any sound as he slid against the wall. Aros would have loved to gut him, but the third man was moving in, and this one was no slouch.
He was slightly shorter than Aros, but stocky, one of those rare, dangerous men who seemed constructed of bouncy muscle and lightning nerves. Fast! If they hadn’t stepped into the light, the blade would have disappeared entirely. As it was, dim moonlight still required careful attention to the swordsman’s shoulders and instinctive reaction to the sound of his footwork, music on the slimy tiles.
Fierce, rat-like eyes locked with his, and he knew his opponent had survived a dozen back-alley skirmishes. Dangerous.
But that was all right. Aros had survived a hundred. He backed up until even with Stumpy, and took a moment for Flaygod to hack down into the man’s right leg. Stumpy groaned and crumbled to the ground.
The tallest swordsman was, predictably, leaping forward. Aros slid back, found what he was looking for and then retreated again.
The swordsman came forward, into shadow …
And tripped over the armored guy, lying there in the shadows bleeding. To his credit, the swordsman recovered quickly, or would have, if Aros had not struck hard in his moment of unbalance.
The head tumbled one way, the body another.
Stumpy had lost his sword, but the cleaver on his left was still a threat. Aros looked into the man’s small, pig-like eyes. “I can cut off your right hand, and then see how your pet blacksmith will correct it. Would you like to see how that goes?”
Stumpy shook his head.
“Who hired you?” he asked.
To his credit, the man seemed to possess a smidgeon of loyalty. Aros swept his leg out from under him and planted his own foot on the cleaver. For some reason he didn’t want to kill the man. Perhaps he admired Stumpy’s fortitude in continuing to work after a debilitating injury, not resorting to begging or simple theft. Certainly there was something admirable to be found in that.
Stumpy tried to move, but when he did Aros did a little hop and planted his left foot on the wounded leg. Stumpy squealed, which was no surprise. That had to hurt.
“Tell me who hired you,” Aros said.
“C’Vall!” Stumpy hissed.
He should have known. “All right,” he said. “Don’t ever let me see you again.” Stumpy nodded emphatically, and Aros turned and walked away.
He heard the slither of steel against cobblestone, and turned just in time to deflect Stumpy’s blade and riposte, his sawtooth Macuahuitl cleaving Stumpy to the spine. The workman-like part of his mind appreciated the precision and economy of the motion. The animal part, the part he ordinarily sheathed when among city dwellers, bared its teeth. Blood had been spilled, awakening the barbarian’s ancient and feral hunger. There would be more.
Copyright © 2016 by Larry Niven and Steven Barnes