Samhain Publishing, Ltd.
Copyright © 2007 by Lilith Saintcrow
First electronic publication: March 2007
Cover by Anne Cain
About the Author
To Teri Smith
Go, blithe spirit. You were a joy to know. And I look forward to seeing your smile again.
Try To Look Innocent
I woke from a fuzzy trance with my mead-filled head ringing and four Hain Guards seeking to separate said head from my shoulders.
In strictest point of fact, they did not seek to kill me. They sought to kill the barbarian whose pocket I had picked last night, and I dove into the fray without realizing it, still half-asleep. The case could further be made that things were a general mess because of one small reflexive action.
I am not my usual charming self with my head pounding like Baiiar drums and my mouth full of foul Kshanti camel-piss, and I was a bit more enthusiastic than twas necessary. As I wiped my dotanii, after the last Hain lay flopping and gasping on the floor, I finally had a chance to look about me.
I had killed three of them, two with short thrusts and one with the piri-splitter cut, carving half his face off. He drowned in his own blood.
The tavern’s commonroom was full of patrons who had either slept through the fray or pretended to. Nevertheless, there was a wide space around the table I had used—leaping atop it to get some altitude, while smashing a Hain on the head with a crockery tankard—and I remembered a general scurry from the vicinity as soon as my eyes opened and my sword cleared its sheath. It says something for my reputation that I am allowed to sleep in a tavern commonroom unmolested—and without my pocket being picked.
I dropped down to the rough, splintered floor of the commonroom, my dotanii sliding back into its sheath. I considered spitting as I strode for the door, decided against it. My mouth tasted foul, but spitting here might start another fight.
“Off so soon?” A low male voice with a strange guttural accent, behind me. My mind automatically catalogued it—barbarian.
Which only meant the speaker was not of any race or language I knew offhand. There are many in the wide, wide world.
“Go and bugger yourself,” I tossed back over my shoulder, “unless you want the same done to you as those poor bastards.”
“Ye saved me life, wench, after ye picked me pocket last night. Even enough. So where are ye off to?”
I turned on my heel, and my reply died in my throat. That barbarian. The huge one.
He bore a startling resemblance to the puppets of giants traveling Tsaoganhi use in their shows. Frizzy ginger eyebrows and a huge bushy beard, blunt fingers wrapped around an axe haft, and a bloody bandage around his even-bushier ginger head completed the picture. He had been left unmolested with his tankerd last night, except for my quick fingers as he brushed past my table. The small blade fitted over my finger had cut into his trousers, and I had nimbly picked his pocket clean, without even knowing quite why I bothered.
I drew in a deep breath. “I desire a bath, and I need some kafi, and I wish for peace and quiet. So go bugger yourself.”
With that, I turned and stamped out the door, doing my level best not to flinch when the early-morning sunlight speared my skull. It reminded me of S’tai, and fighting with the Sun in my eyes, the screams of the wounded…
I shook the memory away, stepped over the threshold and out onto the street—
—right into the path of a full cadre of Hain Guards.
We stared at each other, one tired, hung-over sellsword thief and fifteen Hain Guards in full leather armor, with pikes, crossbows, and swords, not to mention daggers.
“Oh, Mother’s tits.” I put my palms together and gave a correct little bow. “A good dawning to you, Dogs of the Most Beneficent Sunlord.”
I received no answer but the sound of blades ringing free of their sheaths. There was a roar from behind me and the ginger-haired barbarian charged the Hain Guards. He had the grace not to knock me over as he passed me.
I was about to turn and walk away.
No, really, I was.
Then I drew two knives, and flung them both. The two crossbowmen fell. Waste of good metal now if I did not finish the fight.
I picked my moment and dove in. I received one nasty bruise on the right thigh from a stray kick, but the ginger-haired mountain bellowed like an ox and smacked that luckless Guard on his helmet with the butt-end of his axe. The Guard dropped like a stalled calf, blood dripping from his nose and mouth. I took two with quick fencing strokes, one with another short thrust to his lungs, the third was a good fighter and it took two passes before I could carve open his sword-arm, laying him open for the killing blow.
I punched another Hain in the face, a short sharp strike finishing upward and driving his broken nasal bone into his brain. He dropped like a stunned ox.
When it was done, I worked the second thrown knife back and forth against the suction of muscle in the crossbowman’s throat. I hate leaving knives behind, especially ones filed down to achieve the proper balance on. Good metal that does not need filing is a rarity.
I faced the barbarian, breathing deeply, my ribs flaring. My sword was at waist-level, the blade slanting up, a guard position taught to me on a drillground in the dim dark ages of my childhood. In that long-ago time I held a wooden blade far too big for my hands, and my head ached far worse than now. The sharp thrill of combat had washed some of the pain from my hungover body.
He stood with his axe hefted easily, and belched—a long resounding sound; I could almost taste his last night's dinner. “Guards.” He peeled the bloody bandage off his head. There was a nasty scrape along his right temple. It looked half-healed, but painful. “Want t’bet another cadre’s not on its way, lassie?”
I would not lay odds on that, barbarian. “What do you want?”
“T’get off this street and somewhere quiet, and get to know ye.” His eyes glittered under the bandage and the gingery hair. “Rainak Redfist, Clan Connaiot. And ye?”
Did I not tell you to go bugger yourself? Still, I had drawn blood on his behalf, and he looked spectacularly unfit for passing unnoticed here in Hain. “Kaia,” I said. “Come this way. And try to look innocent.”
A Flawed Crystal
I lay on my stomach, eyes closed, while Ch’li’s iron fingers worked down my back
, easing out tension and knots. The massage oil was fragrant with linwood and citron, and I heaved a sigh. After a pot of kafi and a light breakfast, a bath and a massage was the perfect start to an otherwise unsatisfactory day.
“I dinnae see how ye can stand that.” Redfist’s voice boomed across the tiled room. Water splashed from the fountain in the corner.
“Barbarian,” Ch’li said, in singsong Kshanti. “Big red pig barbarian.” She sniffed, a sound of quiet disdain.
“Quiet,” I said in Kshanti, repeated it in commontongue. “He cannot help it, Ch’li. I paid extra. Now cease your chattering, both of you.”
A good massage, ruined. But when I finally rose from the table, the barbarian was asleep, slumped against the wall. I thought I would leave him there, decided not to, and prodded him with a foot after I dressed. Ch’li had disappeared. I would have to pay her double next time, to make up for having a smelly pig in the room.
Kshanti are fastidious about everything but their liquor.
“Come, Redfist.” I prodded him again. “Get up. Tis time to leave.”
He groaned, and I kicked him for the third and last time. “I can very easily leave you here. Now come.” I heard thinly veiled impatience in my own voice, bit it back with an effort.
He hauled himself to his feet, the wooden bench groaning as his weight left it. He almost knocked his head on the pretty porcelain lamp hanging from the roof. I snorted, and led him out through the bathhouse. The staff here knew my preferences, and did not cavil when I took the back way out—into an alley smelling of refuse. I set off at a brisk pace down the alley toward the Street of Delights. “I know a place we can rest you for a day or so. Then we shall take you from the city. Is it a bargain?”
He made a short belching noise that might have been an affirmative.
“I shall even refund you the contents of your pockets,” I added, charitably. The bath and massage had left me in an excellent mood, not to mention the light breakfast served at Ch’li’s bathhouse. And a pot of kafi. Fine stuff, even if it does smell of old socks.
“Noble of ye, lass. Do not you e’en want t’ know what it is?” He sounded surprised.
The contents of your pocket? Nothing of import, my fine red one. I reached the end of the alley and peered out onto the Street. “A lightmetal chain with a flawed crystal. Some streetseller’s gaud, no doubt. And a stunning array of ten copper sundogs, plus three silver kiyan. A key made of iron. Tis all you had in your pocket.”
He laughed. “Aye, to those dinnae know how t’look. Ye can keep it, I mun well glad to be rid of it.”
“Rid of what?” I pushed him back into the alley. A cadre was clattering in our direction, Sun gleaming off their high-peaked helms. “More Guards. Good gods, what did you do? Try to look inconspicuous.”
He rolled his green eyes. His skin was like uncooked dough under the hair, and I wondered what it was like to see that paleness in a mirror. Or to have little Hain children point at you and giggle behind their hands. My own skin is an even caramel, closer to the Hain than his, and I still received my fair share of giggles. Mostly when I opened my mouth to speak, for my Hain was accented with the liquid vowels and sharp consonants of my homeland. I do not have the mouth-of-mush the Hain seem to prize.
“Ye doan pass any more than I do, lassie,” he growled. The guard clicked by, marching in formation, their red-tasseled pikes raised. “Where d’ye hail from? I’m Skaialan born an’ raised.”
“I can see that.” I peered after the Guards as they vanished around a corner. Now that he had told me, I could see the ruddiness and the clumsiness. I had never seen a Skaialan before, but everyone has seen streetplays with puppets of the giants. “Come, tis safe now.” I led him out onto the street. “And I repeat, rid of what?” I felt the hilt of a dagger with my left hand—something I only do when nervous. The smooth hilt is comforting under the fingers, and I have lived long by being close to steel when needed.
“Rid of the cursed thing. That’s twice ye’ve fought at me side, lassie. Makes us shieldbrethren.”
“None of your barbarian customs for me, thank you.” The street was crowded, but the Hain knew better than to point here on the Street. Too many barbarians with quick swords and hot tempers. The Guard would find out we had been here anyway, tales carried on air. Better to concentrate their attention on the Street than where I was truly bound.
I took him to the very end of the Street and through a metalworker’s shop, ignoring the protest of the thin, scar-seamed Hain man—protests that stopped as soon as I tossed him a square Hain coin and a straight level stare. The man blanched. I did not look away, he finally dropped his eyes.
My gaze has that effect on some people, especially here on the Lan’ai Shairukh coast. They consider strangecolor eyes unlucky, and hence dangerous.
The barbarian was stumbling by the time we reached the docks. I eased the door open and led him into the small room, then closed and bolted it safely. I pushed aside a cunningly made table masquerading as a pile of wooden splinters. Twas actually held together by glue and varnish, and rolled away from the trapdoor with a protesting groan. When pushed to the side, it half-hid the trapdoor and gave me enough room to escape if anyone discovered any of the other exits. “Do you have the darksickness?” I asked in commontongue. “The fear-of-close-spaces?”
“Lass, every space is small here.” He wiggled his busy eyebrows. He had taken advantage of a sponge bath at Ch’li’s, but he was still ripe. The Hain smell of garlic and hot peanut oil; this man smelled of leather and a reek too foul to be horse. Old sweat and meat, perhaps.
I nodded and motioned him closer, to the back of the tiny shack set between mounds of decaying rubble, far out in the ruin of the docks after the last great fire. The trapdoor opened smoothly, and I dropped down. He landed heavily after me.
“Good.” I examined the room. Everything as it should be. “You may sleep here. I shall bring food. I suppose you eat like a horse, eh?”
“Like a bull calf, lassie,” he replied, already yawning. “Ye’ve done me a fair turn, ye have. I’ll not forget it.”
I shrugged. As if I should have left you to die in the street. It seems the least I can do after picking your pocket, to offer you a safe berthing. “Tis a mystery to me why I am taking this much trouble. Try not to snore. I shall bring some food.”
By the time I shimmied up through the trapdoor he was breathing deep, sprawled upon the sleeping-pad I had carried down here a moonturn ago and scattered pungent fislaine around to keep the rats away.
Crouched in the tiny shack above the hidey-hole, I dug in my purse. Drew out the sundogs and the kiyan, and the key. The kiyan were stamped with a crude figure of a wolf-headed goddess. The sundogs were etched with something chariot-shaped. They felt like good metal to my experienced fingers. In this part of the world, foreign metal is easy to exchange.
I bundled them and the key neatly in a square piece of cotton from my clothpurse. The only item remaining was the necklace.
I thought I had stolen from him because he was big and blundering. It had been an absent-minded training exercise, almost; but the truth was I had picked his pocket without knowing why.
As if I had been compelled. My fingers had shot out, divested him of his valuables, and flicked back almost against my will. And I had compounded my error by fighting on his behalf, as well as bringing him here, to the safest bolthole I had in Hain.
Kaia, you are a fool.
I held up the cheap lightmetal chain. The thumb-sized crystal had a zigzag flaw, darkness cracking in its heart. It glinted, coolly, as I swung it back and forth.
I slipped the chain over my head and nestled the crystal between my breasts. It was set in cool cheap alloy, too light to be real metal. It was chilly before it warmed to my flesh.
You are a fool. You do not know who this man is, or why he is so far from home.
I had to pay extra for my bath and had killed a good nine people today without being paid for it. He owed me.
And if he became a problem, well, I had killed more dangerous prey. One stupid barbarian would surely not be so much trouble.
Food and Shelter
I returned with enough food for three barbarians, by circuitous routes to make certain I was not followed.
Hain seethed under the late summer heat, a glass bowl over the city. The Guard was everywhere, poking into every corner, and I contemplated leaving the city as soon as possible. I could leap ship for the Clau Islands, perhaps, except there was no business out there. I would do better up the coast, near Shaituh. I could make enough to take me through the winter with a few assassinations, and the Thieves Guild operated there. No shortage of work with the influx of trade taking advantage of the recent lowering of tariffs by the Shaikuhn and the God-Emperor. Here in Hain, there was no thieving to be done worth my while, and assassination was beginning to look a little more complex with the Guard after the barbarian, who was now connected to me.
What had he done?
What have you done, Kaia? He is a stranger. And a barbarian.
He was also far from home, like me. He was alone.
I dropped down into the hole and was met with the sight of Redfist sprawled on his back, breathing softly through his nose.
“I brought food.” That piece of news managed to wake him. “I could only carry one wineflask. The entire city is roiling like a poked anthill. What exactly did you do?”
“And a good dawnin’ to ye, lassie Kai.” He sat up and yawned so widely I was amazed the walls did not cave in.
I tossed him the hank of cotton holding his coin and his key. “I shall be keeping your cheap gaud. Unless it has some sentimental value.”
“Nay, damn thing’s bad luck,” he grunted. “Won it at dice a full Moon ago and been sour ever since. Did I hear food?”
I squatted down next to the bedroll and undid the parcel. “Some Skaialan sausage and hard Ch’li cheese. I thought you might like a taste of home. There is flatbread too, and you may have one of the cirfruit.”
He had the two arm-length sausages before I could blink, and tore into the first with vigor. “Fine of ye, lassie,” he said through a mouthful, and I handed him a whole piece of flatbread. For myself there was more flatbread, rice balls, and pickled fish I rolled with the rice in the flatbread. It was good, even without piri sauce. I finished by eating the other cirfruit and took a few swallows of wine, handed him the flask. He drank in noisy gulps, then wiped at his cheeks with his blunt fingers. “Fine of ye,” he repeated, his green eyes dropped to the floor, and it struck me that he sought to offer thanks.