A God Among Thieves
Even from several yards away they could see the dead man’s lips had turned burgundy, punctured by his own teeth. His bloodshot eyes bulged into the dry night air, staring with enraged betrayal at the moonlit sky. A black tattoo crept out from the edge of his collar. More covered his hands and fingers. A snake dominated the crude designs, wrapping around his fingers, curving upwards and wrapping itself around the wrist. The dead man’s clothes were cheap enough to be cast aside by monks and pulped into paper. His breath reeked, a noxious mix of vinegared wine, bile, and …
The crunch of pebbles against rock from under Lazden’s tan boots stopped as he dropped one knee to get a closer smell. He brushed away the night-blue scarf protecting his face against the grit and sand and leaned in closer to the corpse. Something beyond the dead man’s body odor called out to him.
It was subtle but definitely there, buried in the gut of the dead man who had surely been alive the moment the sun kissed the horizon. His skin was warm to the touch, blemished by the desert life but otherwise healthy enough. Lazden padded the body down, rummaged through the man’s purse and pockets until he found the sheath to a dagger but no blade. His purse held a total of eight dockets and four crowns. The crowns were certainly from an imperial traveler, rare in these parts but gaining in frequency with every passing month. The dockets belonged to Eresdel, the city twenty miles east of here.
Jadiro held the reins of his and Lazden’s horses in one hand as he moved westwards to survey the fifty yards around them. The scuffed tracks of the dead man were easy enough to find. Ten yards from the body were clear imprints of his knees and hands in the desert ground, complete with one hand raking the sand and bunching it together in a clawed grip. Twenty yards from that was a side-stagger and a lengthy course correction. At the fifty yard mark lay his dagger, the white scarf protecting his face from the heat, and a pool of bloodied vomit. Jadiro dismounted, scooped up the dagger and scarf, dusted them off, and returned to his horse.
Lazden, sporting a shaved head and two-day stubble beard, approached his protégé with his gloved hand resting on the pommel of his now-sheathed saber. “Have you ever reported in a dead body before?”
“No,” said Jadiro, accompanied by a controlled, though nervous, shake of his head.
“Then we better alert the others as fast as possible before the rest of Turstahl’s men can attack the city.” Lazden reached across his saddle, kicked a foot into his stirrup, and lifted himself back into command.
“It’s not an attack,” said Jadiro.
“A raid, then.”
“It’s not that either.” The young initiate made the unfortunate mistake of locking eyes with Lazden. The scorch of the desert sun was nothing compared to disagreeing with his lieutenant twice in as many seconds.
“You don’t find a brigand this close to Moqara unless they mean to strike at us. Call for the captain and let’s get the hell out of here.”
“Wait, wait.” Jadiro pointed to where he found the dead man’s dagger. His heart all but exploded in his chest as he racked up a third moment of contradicting his superior. “The tracks. He was chasing someone before he died. This isn’t a raid.”
The lieutenant lazily looked away from the scuffs along the ground. “The rest of them will strike in misguided revenge when they realize one of their own is dead this close to our home and they’ll think we did it. Only they won’t target someone who can fight back. It’ll be one of our blacksmiths, camel herders, or hell, probably a young girl coming back from the oasis with jugs of water for her family who will never see her again because of the delays you are causing right now.”
From the wide-eyed panic that stretched across his clean-shaven features, Jadiro had no answer to that.
Lazden held a moonlit stare at the young man in front of him, baiting him to buckle under the ferocity of rank and experience. “They will do to us exactly what they think we’ve done to them.”
Jadiro drew in a deep breath, steadied his nerves, and went for it. “The dead man was chasing someone who joined their group in the north. As soon as he died whoever he was chasing ran back in that direction. Why? Why go back? We are close enough to see Moqara on the horizon. Why not come to us for help?”
Lazden readied his retort.
“It’s because the brigands still had something valuable of theirs, be it priceless goods or someone they were with. Moqara is not under threat but whoever is in the north is. There might be a dozen people up there being beaten senseless or facing execution because this one never came back alive and the person he chased did.” Jadiro nodded quickly, though he couldn’t help but look away as his entire career flashed before his eyes. There would be latrines. Endless latrines. And when he wasn’t digging those he would be posted by their doors so he could listen to them being used.
Then, much to his surprise, the corners of Lazden’s mouth formed into something of a smile.
It so startled Jadiro that he glanced back to the body lying a short walk away to ensure that this wasn’t part of an elaborate prank masked as a training exercise.
“Most people would have missed those tracks,” said Lazden. “Well done. Any idea who died?”
It took a moment for the tension to ease. “This isn’t a test?”
“Oh, he’s definitely dead and I have no idea who killed him, so we’re going to find out. First things first: who’s body is that?”
“… One of Turstahl’s men?”
“Are you saying that because I already told you or because you know?”
“His dagger is from Pragis and his boots have the same kind of buckles as a military man.”
“They certainly do,” said Lazden. “And a few years ago this lot killed one of the merchants traveling with them. Among his cargo were several tan robes, white scarves and the like, which is exactly what he’s wearing right now. Going beyond a simple, ‘he’s one of Turstahl’s men’, he’s covered in distinctive tattoos. So, when you speak with Reina tonight, who are you going to tell her died?”
Jadiro’s eyes widened as another burst of panic settled in. “I …”
“Come on, one of us knows, but you’re the one delivering the report.”
Jadiro blinked quickly as he tried to settle himself. “Who is he?”
“The Snake.” Lazden pushed his cuffs up towards his elbow and tapped his forearm. He turned his attention to where the brigand in question clawed at the ground. Heading northwards were the faint tracks of a child, a teen perhaps, running on nothing but the balls of their feet. The moon overhead guided the child’s way as they ran, though why they were returning to the brigand’s mountain trail instead of retreating south to Moqara was curious indeed.
“The Snake has been dead for no more than three hours,” said Lazden. “Given the almost-full moon he and Turstahl’s men are no doubt escorting merchants and travelers along the northern pass when something went wrong. If we ride quickly we might be able to cut them off and keep a few merchants from losing their lives. But where did they start from, the east coast or the west? And where can we catch them?”
Jadiro glanced in both directions. Behind him, the lantern lights of Moqara glimmered in just a pin-prick along the horizon. He dropped his eyes to his musket, drew in a resigned breath, and re-focused himself on the mountain range to the north. His ears prickled against the silence. Worse still was the total lack of movement from Lazden, reminding him that he had to make the decision while on his first night of command. On any given evening the brigands would be halfway across the desert by now and the illegal travelers with them would be struggling to keep up with the pace, but if one of the mercenaries - especially one with such a reputation as the Snake - lay dead this close to Moqara then tonight went beyond the usual shaking down of terrified travelers.
Lazden’s horse huffed, breaking the silence that gnawed at Jadiro. “The longer this takes, the more merchants will die. Any decision is better than none. Make it.”
Jadiro’s first moment of authority landed and flew away before he could even register its arrival. He backtracked over Lazden’s final words to make sure that he hadn’t misheard him and that he was actually about to change the evening’s plan, one that would expose everyone in the north to a hail of lead and bloodshed.
The only thing keeping his hands steady was knowing that he could be easily overruled. Then again, the only thing keeping him from getting a full chest of air was that he would soon have to justify himself to those who controlled the rest of his career.
Jadiro raised one hand to his mouth and whistled to the east a long blast, followed by two quick bursts, calling to the other guardsmen on patrol that evening. In return came three short whistles. Jadiro looked back to Lazden, hoping to find some kind of approval.
“You’re sure?” asked Lazden, as he eyed the young guardsman carefully.
Jadiro offered a quick nod, followed by an even quicker, “Yes.”
Lazden took note of the boyish nerves of a young man trying to convince himself that he had made the best decision from a sea of poor options. Lazden drove his horse northwards, towards the Desera Mountains and away from home.
Jadiro rode beside him. “Was it really the Snake?”
“The tattoos match his description, so that’s a win for us. Not so much a win for whoever sold him the wine, though. I imagine his friends will have a grievance or two to work through.” Lazden kept his attention locked forward, baiting Jadiro into a response.
“It was poison that killed him, not wine.”
“Oh? Did you have your nose an inch away from the Snake’s mouth?”
“If it was wine he wouldn’t have run off through the desert. He would have died next to a camp fire, on his side, probably with one of his friends throwing up next to him.”
“We catch thousands of people running through the desert every year,” said Lazden.
“We catch five, running through Moqara, and only during the Feast of the Bard. Considering the Snake was still fully dressed and is rumored to be covered in Hunter tattoos, it was poison that did this to him, not wine.”
Lazden turned to study Jadiro, burning him with a glare that no initiate of the Prince’s Guard survived without begging to be trained by someone else. The kid was holding his breath.
“Good,” said Lazden, as he relaxed into his saddle. “What else?”
Jadiro allowed himself a moment of relief from the scant praise by Lazden. “His pistol is gone but they left behind his dagger. It looks like he dropped it when he threw up and was too delirious to pick it up again.”
“So someone chased him with his own pistol?”
“No. If they had they would have taken his purse.”
“Perhaps the escapee saw us on the horizon and ran off.”
“No? They aren’t watching us right now? Waiting for us to leave so they can return to his corpse and loot him?”
“I’ve already taken his dagger and you’ve taken his purse so there isn’t anything to loot.” Something from his days in training called back to him. “What coins did you find?”
Lazden allowed himself another smile as he watched the young man by his side grow with confidence. “Four crowns and eight dockets.”
“Were any of them fake?”
“Two of the dockets are certainly trimmed a little, but they all look genuine. What could you ascertain from them if they were counterfeit?”
Jadiro forced inwards a nervous breath.
“Keep your eyes up.”
Jadiro didn’t even realize he had let his attention slip. “I, uh, ascertain …” He cursed himself for looking down again and doubly so for when Lazden turned his attention away, as though Jadiro was the least of his concerns right now. The soft clop clop of horseshoes against the desert ground seemed to hound him the longer he remained silent. The slimy sweat from under his arms returned. Behind him, the faint glimmer of Moqara faded and dropped out of sight. “I ascertain that if they were counterfeit coins then they were to be used to dupe the rich.”
Lazden did what he could to help Jadiro along. “Since there was a smell of poison from the Snake’s gut and not just from his lips, and given the position of his body lying face up in the desert with no obvious signs of injury, it is reasonable that he died from poison, and since he did not die in the safety of his own camp or home then I can ascertain that he … was …?”
Jadiro quickly nodded. “Poisoned by one of the travelers, not by one of his friends.”
“It’s not easy, though. Dropping poison into a stranger’s cup while they’re traveling.”
Jadiro agonized over that one as well. “I guess it’s easier to poison your own drink and let someone take it from you.”
“Yep. Curious that someone’s gone to all this trouble, isn’t it? Someone who knew the kind of people they were dealing with. Someone who had something of such value that they would rather kill a mercenary than risk losing it. And someone who was probably outnumbered twenty to one.”
Jadiro offered a weak, though genuine, smile in return.
“What if we had found counterfeit coins? What then?”
“Criminals recognize them, the border guards of Lysbor and Eresdel will chop off their hands if they’re caught trying to use them, most merchants will see them for what they are, brothels will throw them out immediately, but anyone who pays in large quantities could have them slipped in unnoticed. Add a couple of fakes into a bag of real coins and they might go unnoticed. That, or the idiot who doesn’t recognize a fake coin in his hand is a lord.”
A tightness formed around Lazden’s mouth, forcing him to jut and retract his jaw to loosen it back to normal. “You grew up with maids and the like, didn’t you?”
“I am no lord and neither is my father.”
“Believe me, I’ve never taken your father for an idiot.”
The shift in tone unnerved Jadiro yet again. His lieutenant no longer sounded like a commander or playing devil’s advocate. Instead, his voice bordered on genuine concern. Jadiro saw it, became quickly flustered, and did his best to pass it off as a slight exaggeration gone awry. “I mean, the lords and ladies don’t really see much money, do they? Wealth yes, but not actual money. They’ll have a servant who goes to the bank on their behalf, another who buys all the food and someone else who settles the bills for the family without the nobles having to even touch a penny. There are probably entire generations of lords who have seen less coins than a beggar. Fewer coins, I mean.”
“Huh.” Lazden ran through Jadiro’s reasoning. An unfortunate point but not one without logic. Then again, perhaps Jadiro simply spouted off criticisms used by those he knew in a bid to sound more worldly. That would be easier to accept were it not for an increase of slander against the nobles in Moqara, something that had become all the rage thanks to the empire building in the north.
Lazden glanced back at the moon and grimaced at her face. In three days she would reach her fullest and the brigands in the north would be at their most lucrative, able to escort travelers and merchants across the narrow land passage that linked the three city-states of Lysbor, Moqara, and Eresdel. Lysbor and Eresdel had the only ports for a hundred miles north and south. On any map the land looked like an hourglass with the three states at the narrowest point. To the north of Moqara was an uninhabitable wasteland of sheer mountains, canyons that at times were no wider than a child’s shoulders, and a forest of trees and pinnacles that had turned to stone in an age long past. The south was as endless as the afterlife, devoid of even the most daring of Bedouins.
Moqara, the oasis city in the middle of the desert, was the only means of escaping the long journey around the continents to the north and south, a journey that would take months for ships to endure, through some of the worst winds and seas to the south, past the privateers and pirates in the north, and hundreds of states along the coast, all wanting taxes and tributes from whoever passed them by.
Turstahl and his brigands were a necessary evil that benefited Moqara. As long as they were a menace, the more timid of merchants would be forced through Moqara, instead of sneaking along the northern ridge and bypassing three cities’ worth of tolls. Sometimes the brigands respected their role in Moqara’s economy, sometimes they didn’t. Every so often they pushed a little too hard and Prince Andraz’s reputation would be hit for failing to control the rebels who lived to the north of his land. But if there weren’t enough ruffians in the north then the penny-pinching merchants would have no qualms about landing long before they reached Lysbor or Eresdel and bypass all fares completely.
Lazden grimaced again at the moon and shied away from her. Someone had killed the Snake, a man with a five hundred deshell reward for his head. His friends would have stabbed him and cashed in. The guardsmen would have shot him and split the cash amongst themselves. Whoever poisoned him had left his body to rot and returned to cause more mayhem. More bloodshed would be spilled while the moon lit up the night, that much was certain.
Something pulled Lazden’s attention eastwards. Two riders were converging on the same spot a hundred yards north. The iron horseshoes rang identical to Lazden’s and Jadiro’s. He glanced back and caught Jadiro practicing his report while he still had the confidence to do so. The two riders waved a quick salute to Lazden, he did the same, Jadiro missed it completely, and they all pulled their horses inwards until the foursome were in speaking distance.
While Lazden had the strength to bludgeon his foes with a great sword and Jadiro was at home behind a musket instead of a bow, Reina had the mind and body of a fencer. Fast, lean, agile, and instinctive. She had come from a large family of lawyers and story tellers, accountants and poets, architects and lovers. There was always too much of one and never enough of the other. At least in theory as a protector of the people, she had a chance of balancing both souls of life. She sat astride a mare, a saber by her side and a musket strapped to the other. She glanced over Lazden and gave Jadiro a neutral smile, while the gangly Izad held himself at such an upright angle that he risked losing all air to his lungs.
“Report,” said Reina, with her attention on Jadiro.
The young man gave her a quick nod before the words tumbled out of his mouth. “Captain, Lieutenant Lazden and I found the body of the man believed to be the Snake, who died this evening at around dusk. It looked as though he had been poisoned but not robbed. As one of Turstahl’s men I believe the rest of them are still close by, in the central area of northern Moqara, as the Snake was found with a number of coins commonly used by illegal travelers. If true then these travelers are now in grave danger from the gang who are likely to care more about retribution for their murdered friend than of ensuring the wellbeing of strangers they met only today. We are a two hour ride from town. By the time we have called for reinforcements the travelers will certainly be dead.” Jadiro gave Reina a quick nod to show that he was done.
Lazden couldn’t help but smile at how easily she allowed her subordinates to fight for her approval. Jadiro and Izad were barely old enough to know how to talk women their own age, let alone someone who knew more about them and their classmates than they would ever know of her.
She rolled her eyes to her husband. Lazden gave her the slightest of nods to show that he agreed with Jadiro’s report. She looked back to the young lad and continued. “How many travelers are we talking about?”
“He started with ten,” said Jadiro. “Assuming that each traveler paid one docket to each brigand when they set off then there are eight frequent travelers either to or from Eresdel. And at the going rate there are at least two people from the empire. Maybe one if they’re in a hurry and carrying a lot of items.”
Reina slumped back in her saddle as all pretense of rank escaped her. “Shit, someone from the empire is in the middle of this?”
“Yeah,” said Lazden. “I imagine there’ll be a letter for the Prince in a day or two depending on how well we do tonight.”
Reina turned her attention northwards. “Fucking hell. Alright. Jadiro? What’s your plan?”
All of his well practiced arguments escaped him in an instant. “We ride north and save the merchants from Turstahl’s revenge.”
“The four of us?”
“Against the dozen or so remaining mercenaries who know the north better than we do?”
“Yes … Captain.”
“… To help the merchants?”
“The merchants traveling illegally through our lands are funding these thieves and murderers every time they do, supplying them with weapons used on your brothers and sisters of the guard, knowing that if any of them - merchants or mercenaries alike - are caught then they face an execution by our firing squad within a day of their capture?”
“… Yes … Captain?”
She clasped her hands over the pommel on her saddle and leaned in to close the gap. “Why do you want to help them?”
Gone was the safety of hoping that this was an elaborate training exercise. Gone was the chance of ever serving under Lazden or Reina again. All his future held now was the endless row of latrines, coupled with everyone he worked with holding a full conversation as they deposited that morning’s breakfast.
“There’s a kid among them,” said Jadiro.
Reina leaned back in surprise.
“We found tracks leading away from the Snake’s body. Tracks so small that they must belong to a teen. They were running as fast as they could to get back to whatever they were chased away from.”
Reina’s eyes darted back to Lazden’s.
“If he didn’t push for it, I would have,” said Lazden. “The boot prints belong to a girl, maybe older than a child but not by much. She outran the Snake, she’s out run us, and there’s a chance that right now she’s getting the better of twenty people at least twice her age and experience.”
Reina groaned and shook her head. “What the hell kind of evening have you two had?”
Lazden nodded towards Jadiro. “Trial by fire.”
“In the morning a lot of the people we’re about to rescue will face a trial by firing squad, you know that?”
“Then for their sakes they better be really endearing when we capture them,” said Lazden.
Reina turned to the corporal by her side. “Izad?”
“When you’re done, ride quickly. Get Losten, Jorn, Darred, and Kennun kitted up, get them here before midnight.”
Izad opened his eyes as a pleading look took him over completely. “Before midnight?”
Jadiro raised a cautious hand. “Captain … it’s Kennun’s birthday today.”
Reina slumped in her saddle again. “So it is.” She brought a hand up quickly to massage her eyelids before relaxing it back to her side. “I don’t suppose Wrenell has had a miraculous improvement in her aim?”
Even Lazden swayed at the sound of that. “Bloody hell woman, even the horses avoid going near her when she has a musket in her hand.”
“Well, it’s either that or we have four inebriated marksmen shooting at shadows in the dark.”
“We already have four marksmen. Us,” said Lazden. He turned to Jadiro. “Hand on your heart, can you recognize a brigand in imperial clothing from a merchant forced to wear a brigand’s cloak?”
“One will be in charge of the others,” said Jadiro. He turned back to Reina. “I got an eighty six under a half moon from fifty yards. Ninety in daylight.”
“Those were targets standing still,” said Reina. “They weren’t firing back, they weren’t in a position to hold another target prisoner.”
Jadiro bit down on his molars, straining his jaw until it pained him. Just as Reina turned her attention to Lazden, Jadiro fought for it. “They have an imperial traveler with them.” All eyes flashed his way, squinting at the least experienced man in the group until: “An imperial traveler this far south is bad news. One caught in a gang of brigands is even worse. Carcosa could use it as an excuse to send an inquisitor our way or he could blockade Lysbor and Eresdel until we can assure him that all the brigands in these parts have been executed. The empire already has allies in Moqara. They will find out what happened to one of their travelers.”
Lazden offered his wife a reluctant nod. “It may even be a test of our border security. They’ll know we don’t have four hundred thieves operating in the north or a hundred marksmen on patrol at all times.”
“And all we have to do is scare them,” said Jadiro. “Fire off all our guns and watch the gang run away. I can get six shots off in a minute. With all of us, pistols as well, we can ride in like Herith taking the Citadel of Askara and force them to run.” He nodded to Lazden, Reina, and Izad, trying to convince them all that his instincts over the brigands was more reliable than their first-hand experience with them.
“And who knows, maybe there’s a few more of them dead from poison already,” added Lazden.
Reina shot out a breath of air as she focused on Lazden. “It’s your call, soldier.”
Lazden glanced over to the foot of the Desera mountain range just a few miles away. On any given night the brigands simply needed to see a patrol on the horizon to convince them to scatter. On the rarest of occasions they might even fire off a musket or two to keep the patrol at bay while they fled into the canyons. But Turstahl’s gang was made up of former mercenaries and privateers. The Snake himself was rumored to have served among the Great War and had a tattooed emblem across his chest to show off the number of Dyugaa he killed himself. This group wasn’t as susceptible to running away as most.
Lazden locked his concentration onto the horizon. “If Turstahl is still alive in the morning he’ll send a raid down our way in revenge of losing the Snake. So when we go in it’s not to scare them, it’s to kill them. Him in particular, if he’s there.” The lieutenant rolled his shoulders back. All around him the desert lay silent, at rest under the watchful eye of the goddess moon. “Jadiro and I will ride north east towards the Wolf’s Mouth. You two head north to Erend’s Rock. We’ll meet in the middle.”
Reina gave them all a quick nod of approval. “Okay. Good luck. And for the love of the gods, don’t shoot someone from the empire.”