Because I want to show someone something, and you few are my only audience:
Qezzon went still as stone, barely daring to breathe. On clear, cold nights like this one, even the fog of a single breath could cast shadows in the light of all Three Sisters.
If ever I needed proof there’s a difference between what I do and a common street-robber, that’s it! Qezzon thought, watching a White Sash stalk a merchant who’d taken a wrong turn wearing too much of his wealth in plain sight.
Here in Dockside, the business affairs of the various merchants and merchant-captains conducting trade on the River Ragoìn were sometimes on the streets a bit late for perfect safety. The smarter ones hired bodyguards. Smarter still were those that bought the protection of the White Sashes. The smartest were never out after dark in the first place.
Regardless of whether the Three Sisters were showing their faces or not, it was still dark in the alley. This particular idiot hadn’t even had a servant with him, instead hiring a lamp-bearer off the street.
Said lamp-bearer was currently legging it for the far end of the alley, arms pumping. The merchant picked up the lantern-pole the boy had left behind in his haste. “Where are you going, you shit!?” he shouted, unaware of the White Sash sneaking up behind him.
The heavy thud of weighted leather striking bone under thin flesh reached Qezzon even on the roof.
The merchant tumbled, senseless, sprawling like a string-cut puppet.
One handed, the robber caught the lamp-pole as it fell from nerveless fingers. A powerful jab drove the hardened metal spike at its base into the muck. The lamp swung from its chain, casting odd shadows as the robber waved back the way he’d come.
Turning to the body with the contented sigh of a workman having done a job right, the robber tucked his sap into the front of his sash. Unhurried, he knelt and lifted the merchant’s purse, then stripped rings from hands, ears and nose.
A second White Sash arrived, keeping watch while the first continued a careful search of the unconscious man’s clothing.
“Foller was right again,” the first Sash said.
“So far! I’ll believe him when I see every coin the man said he’d have, not before,” the second man grumbled.
The searcher grunted as his hands found something. Qezzon heard fabric tearing as the Sash pulled the inner lining of his victim’s cloak free of the outer layers.
Coin glinted in the lamp-light as it fell from its cloth prison.
“Guess you’ll believe me next time, eh?” the first man said. Both Sashes laughed, squatting to pick their coin from the alley muck.
Waiting for them to leave, Qezzon filed the name away for future reference. He wouldn’t even have stopped if the robbery hadn’t happened right outside the back door to Annon’s place.
If the lamp-lighter had called the pumpkins he should hear a few whistles soon. Doubtless thinking the same thing, the robbers took their time, leaving only after they’d checked the body to their satisfaction. They took the lamp with them, the red glow allowing Qezzon to track their progress until even it was lost in the darkness.
Already late, Qezzon slowly and silently counted to one hundred, straining to hear whistles. Wouldn’t it just set Istar to laughing if the lamp-bearer returned with a bunch of pumpkins just as I’m standing over a dead man. Grinning behind his muffler at the idea, he looked around, assessing the risks.
I’d go back the way I came, but the spot near the River Rose is too exposed, right across from Vallof’s brothel. Everything else is too far to walk without being seen by someone who might remark on it or choose to do to me what I just saw done to that poor fool.
Hearing no whistles through the entire count, Qezzon made up his mind. Best do as I planned in the first place.
Reasonably sure the pumpkins weren’t going to descend on the alley any time soon, Qezzon mouthed a brief prayer and slipped from his perch. Changing directions and killing his momentum with each touch on his way down, Qezzon’s feet and hands slapped from roof to gable to wall to shed roof to wall to rain barrel, the weight of which he used to kill the last of his momentum by striking it at an angle. The heavy vessel tipped but didn’t go over under his weight, absorbing the last of his speed. He let the energy of its desire to stand upright push him erect against the wall, using his thighs to ease it back into position at the same time. Coming to rest, Qezzon looked along the alley for anything he might have missed from the rooftops.
Nothing having changed, the young thief shifted his weight forward and squatted on the rim of the barrel. He stuck out a foot to step down and stopped. The muck is a problem. Not enough traffic in the places I need it. Guess I’ll have to go around front instead of using the back. Defeats the purpose of using the High Way…Damn.
He leapt from the rain barrel to the middle of the alley where the muck was already well-disturbed. He slipped on landing, managed to catch himself by throwing his hands out and crouching low.
He was just standing up when the body groaned.
Qezzon nearly soiled himself, leaping straight up and spinning in midair. The flight, much like a fall, wasn’t the problem; it was the coming to earth again that began another battle for balance he won only by dropping a knee into the cold, wet muck.
Heart galloping hard as horses’ hooves, Qezzon barely restrained the urge to kick the unconscious man for scaring him. Getting control of himself with effort, and frankly too fascinated not to, Qezzon leaned over for a closer look.
The merchant, struck so hard a swollen knot the size of a baby’s fist was rising behind his ear, was still breathing.
And they call me hard-headed! was his first thought. Closely followed by: Still alive! and, That’s right, he’s not some Pathless creature back from the dead, eager to tear your soul from your body for your sins!
Don’t recognize him, thank Istar… There was nothing to be done for the man that wouldn’t bring attention he neither needed nor wanted. Maybe Annon will have some idea what we can do that won’t give us both up.
Enough! Get a move on before someone sees you here.
He stood and left. Keeping to the deeper shadows, Qezzon paused at the mouth of the alley. The street beyond was empty. He stepped out, making for the wagon ruts carved by centuries of iron-rimmed wheels bouncing along the ancient stone pavers. In all but the driest weather the ruts filled with the filth of the streets, becoming shallow gullies of sewage rushing toward the river every spring. Sticking to the wagon ruts was the surest way to both cover his tracks and ruin his boots.
As he’d more money than time to spare, it was an easy decision. Which is not to say he didn’t regret it. Despite the short distance he had to cover, the soft boots he used for walking the High Way were already beginning to soak through and numb his feet.
Burning down every few span of years, the wooden expanse of nets, rope, and other myriad tools of sailing that squatted by the river rarely stood long enough for wagons to wear ruts in its surface.
Everything had its trade-offs though: something about the docks made the ice harden faster here, so there was little chance of leaving tracks.
Aware he was still dripping dirty slush, Qezzon walked a bit further than he had to, trying to make it seem he’d come from further down the docks before turning and hurrying to Annon’s door. Head down in the light of Three Sisters, he knocked once, paused, then six more times in a pattern known to all who walked the Crooked Path. He stood waiting, nervously glancing up and down the docks.
A ten count of breaths passed before the door yawned open. “You’re late,” a voice said out of the darkness beyond the doorway.
“I know, something happened out back,” he explained.
“Come back some other time,” the voice didn’t sound much like Annon.
“No heat on me.”
The door opened wider, “Well then, be welcome.”
He stepped forward, stopped in the doorway. “My boots are foul.”
A pause, then: “I’ve a pair of sandals somewhere.”
There was something in that pause that made every hair on Qezzon’s body stand up and begin to dance.
Thinking fast, he remained where he was. “How are your daughters?”
“They’re fine, come in.”
“On second thought, someone might have seen me. I’ll come bac-“
“Fuck this!” a new voice muttered. Something clicked, immediately followed by a TUNG sound he could not place.
Something ripped his hood off, spun him sideways and yanked the muffler tight around his throat.
The bolt, barely slowed by the cloth wound around his throat and the leather hood, struck the wood upright of the crane across the dock with an evil sound he would never forget.
Crossbow! He realized too late, reeling from the doorway. He tried to turn the reel into a run but slipped and fell. Another bolt whistled past into darkness.
Istar’sfuckingsmokingballs! Shooting to his feet, Qezzon slipped and slid his way into a panicked run. Has to be more than one man, no one could load and fire that quick.
Back muscles tensing in full expectation of a bolt bearing his death, Qezzon offered a silent, fervent prayer: Please don’t let it be more than two, Istar, and I’ll honor you with a great offering, I will.
“He must have it! Get him, fools!” Qezzon heard the first voice say.
At least three, then. A part of him realized as he caught his stride, each step pushing him faster. Finding breath hard come by, Qezzon reached up and pulled at thick wool of his muffler, trying to loosen it as he ran.
He heard someone pounding along in his wake. Rather than drive Qezzon to further panic, the sound brought hope: the one giving chase would surely block anyone else’s attempt to feather him. It wasn’t much to hang his hopes on, but it he didn’t require much.
Trying to keep their man between himself and another bolt for as long as possible, Qezzon angled his run toward the water’s edge instead of heading into the first alley he came across.
From the sound of his breathing and footsteps, the pursuer was gaining. Qezzon drifted closer to the water’s edge, picked his moment, and jumped sideways. Grabbing the upright of one of the wooden structures net-makers used to frame out their work, Qezzon spun around the timber.
His pursuer managed the turn, no mean feat on the ice, but slid into the bottom rail of the frame, tripping him to cartwheel into the icy dock with a heavy crunch that spoke of breaking things.
Approaching a right angle to his original direction of travel, the young thief released his grip on the frame. While his landing was less than graceful, cold feet barely able to compensate for the demands made of them, it served.
Legs burning, he put on more speed.
Ten paces to the alley.
A toe caught, tripping him. Arms windmilling, he bounced off the corner of the building jutting out from the alley. Spinning, sobbing for breath, he staggered forward. Safety lay just a few steps ahead.
Just as he made the mouth of the alley, a bolt sprouted from the wooden wall of the building on his right, quivering at waist height. Unable to avoid it, Qezzon’s hip slapped into the thick hardwood shaft, shearing the bolt where it met the wall. Sharp pain followed.
Limping on, he refused to be stopped. The alley made a turn ahead, but there seemed a lot of ground between him and it. No alley had ever seemed so straight for so long a distance. Them that reach the alley while I’m in here will have a fine shot up my ass.
It was a thing of breaths, and paces, and Istar’s blessing, that he was staggering gracelessly around the corner when he heard the crossbowman loose again.
The bolt sparked as it glanced off the opposite side of the alley and disappeared into darkness.
Qezzon kept moving, looking for an easy climb to the High Way. Nothing presented itself by the next intersection. He paused there, searching the moonlit skyline. His position relative to the familiar spire of Lunara’s Tower proved a useful landmark. There’s a climb I can manage about four streets over.
He heard running footsteps.
Limping as fast as he could, Qezzon found himself doing something he’d never thought to do: hope he’d run across a pumpkin.
As ever, none were in sight when needed.
Several tortured breaths later he entered another intersection. Torchlight danced from around a corner about thirty paces down the left-hand street. No one but a complete idiot left an open flame unattended, so it had to be a carter or merchant with cargo.
He turned, saw shadows moving back the way he’d come, and put everything he had left into a dash toward the light.
He was still a good twenty paces from the corner when, over his gasping breaths and pounding heart, Qezzon distinctly heard the ominous creak of tension being put into a crossbow.
Not going to make it.
Eyes lighting on a covered stair that climbed the side of a tenement just shy of the intersection, he altered course. Putting his head down, he took the stairs three and four at a time.
He didn’t see the landing until he was soaring over it. Qezzon’s thighs struck the far hand rail, the rotted timber shattering and sending him head over heels into the air. Firelight alternated with darkness, did it again.
Tempted to curse Istar, he drew breath for it but couldn’t didn’t have time. Knowing the fall would end his days or cripple him for life, Qezzon closed his eyes and tried to meet his fate like a man.
He was immediately rewarded for failing to blaspheme; landing in something far softer than cobblestones. Still the impact pounded the air from him. For a moment it felt as if he were floating, then everything stopped with a squeal of wood on iron; someone setting a handbrake.
His eyes snapped open, only to be blinded by reddish torchlight.
An excited voice shouted, “What the Dark-Damned? Waller, what the hell is this shit? A body ain’t s’posed to fall outta the sky like that!?”
“That’s fer sure not right,” another man’s voice, presumably Waller, answered, “people fallin’ outta the sky inter our wares. Not right at all.”
Eyes adjusting to the torch light, Qezzon discovered the reason for his soft landing: shit. Lots of shit: a thick slurry of horse, oxen, and smaller pellets that might be pig shit filled the cart to nearly the top of the sidewalls. Qezzon wheezed, shit-laden air the sweetest thing his starved lungs had ever known.
Fuck! he thought, sitting bolt upright before it occurred that peeking might be safer. Qezzon twisted and turned, trying to see everywhere at once, each movement casting dung from his clothes and hair. Much as he tried, he couldn’t see beyond the torchlight.
“What do you think you’re doing, boy?” the first asked from the driver’s bench.
“I-“ Qezzon panted, sagging back into the shit to look up at the pale faces of his questioners.
“No excuse, falling out of the sky and interruptin’ our work,” the one called Waller said.
Qezzon swallowed. Above and beyond the faces of Waller and the man he shared the bench with, a shadow appeared at the broken railing, steel tip of a quarrel glinting in the torchlight. Realizing the crossbowman was hesitant to loose another bolt when so many might raise the alarm, Qezzon thought quickly.
Pretending not to notice that death was but a trigger’s pull away, Qezzon mustered his courage and took a deep breath.
He drew another and charged his voice with as much sincerity as he could muster, “I know, masters muckraker, that I shouldn’t interrupt your work, and I do apologize for doing so.” He drew another breath, “I ask if you’ll let me lie here a bit and catch my breath while you drive on to your next spot. I’ll even pay-”
It was the mention of coin that decided the muckrakers.
“Prolly just doesn’t want to pay the landlord fer the damage he done,” Waller said, hiking a thumb up at the landing while looking at his partner.
The other man nodded slowly. “Could be.”
Qezzon glanced up again. No glint. No shadow. Good enough… Might still follow though, and with my muffler down, he’s had a good, long look at my face.
The tenement-dwellers were just getting a candle or lantern lit in response to all the ruckus, because light bloomed between the shutters.
“A half-mark to split between you two fine tradesmen,” he said softly.
Waller flicked the reins. The cart began to roll.
It was nearly dawn by the time he saw what he’d been waiting for. A patrol of pumpkins was making their way back to the Hole from Sluicegate. Knowing any pursuer discouraged by witnesses would think again before doing anything that might bring them to the attention of the watch, Qezzon settled up with the muckrakers and climbed out of the shit right as the watchmen drew abreast of them.
The line of watchmen bowed out and away to avoid the filth and stench of him as they walked past. The man bringing up the rear looked straight at him, blue eyes flashing even as Qezzon recognized Sergeant of Watchmen Yarvis Kolp.