It was a typical Iridine evening. The sun was shining brightly, though at this point it was hanging just above the horizon. I had just woken up, having fought thugs long into the previous night. Fully refreshed, I leisurely made my way to the back alleys of Iridine, excited about the coming fights.
I went through the guard room slowly, waving and nodding back to the men stationed there. Over the past few months I had been living in the Stone Toga Inn, and had gained quite a few friends who hung around there. After stopping to chat about a certain bar with one on my comrades, I left the tower.
I paused to marvel at the sight before me. The harbor stretched out, the late sun glinting merrily off its rippling surface. I could see the majestic hills off to my right, rising from the cityscape like wild things, trying to escape order. The fresh sea breeze floated in, and I inhaled deeply, marveling in its scent. Reluctantly, I moved on. I knew that I had to arrive in the alleys soon if I wanted to get a good place to hunt. Hustling a bit, I opened the door of Septima's.
The room, not so large to begin with, seemed as though it had shrunk down to half its size. There were people everywhere. Rowdy young men were dancing about to the beat of a young, pretty lass hitting a drum. There were some older ladies enjoying a drink at the bar, deeply engrossed in a conversation about which of the carousers had a nicer body. I had just opened the small trap door that lead to the alleys when I heard a whistle behind me.
Turning, I caught sight of Septima, the owner. She was looking at me critically, like she was judging me in a contest. When she noticed she had my attention, she beckoned me over to the bar with a slight nod of her head.
'Hello, Madame,' I began. 'I was just making my way to the alleys...'
'Hunter, huh?' she interrupted. 'I've seen you passing through here quite a bit. Most of the time with a big haul. You a good hunter? Or are you one of those Chukra,' she spit the word out, but I had no idea what it meant, 'who just steal other's kills?'
Drawing myself up slightly, I responded. 'I am an expert fighter, my dear women. I have never, and never will, take what is not rightfully mine.'
Septima nodded her approval. 'Well, my young hunter, how would you like to make a bit of extra money?'
Always wary of anything that seemed too good, I replied slowly, 'Yeah I'm interested! Sign me up!'
She smiled slightly at my enthusiasm. 'Let's step into my office.' She then turned and motioned for one of the serving wenches. After leaning down and whispering a few words into the girls ear, she straightened and beckoned for me to follow her. I was lead up a trap door set in the middle of the ceiling. I had never been to that part before, but I was very impressed.
Unlike the bar downstairs, which had the appearance of a place that had seen happier times, this room was very nice. It had heavy silk curtains on a window that looked out to the sea, a large oak table with padded chairs set around it, and nice rosewood desk.
'Please, sit,' my hostess said to me as she pulled out a chair.
'Thank you, Ms. . . . uh...'
'Please,' she said with a quiet laugh as she sat down herself, 'just call me Septima.'
'All right, Septima. What is it that you'd like me to do?'
'Well, it's really quite simple,' she began. From my experience, anything that's 'quite simple' is usually ëquite impossible'. 'My niece has, well, gone missing.'
'If she was kidnapped, you should make an official report to the Constables,' I said. 'I happen to be a recruit...'
'No, it's not that. She, well, she ran away.' She waited for a reaction from me. Not knowing what to do, I just nodded like I understood. 'Her parents had sent her in from their farm, to get some knowledge of the big city. They thought that maybe I could give her a job, get her started on the right foot.'
'Sounds reasonable to me,' I said.
'Huh, me too. But, apparently, not to her. She ran away when I tried to set her up as a barmaid. And now, I think she may be in danger.'
A bit more intrigued now, I sat up in my chair. 'Why would you think that, Septima?'
'Well,' she said, 'the morning she disappeared, two days ago, I found this note.' Septima reached into her desk and retrieved a crummy looking piece of vellum. She handed it to me, and I scanned it briefly.
'This just says that she's gone off with friends,' I said, perplexed. I handed her the note back, and watched as she folded it carefully.
'That's the problem. Lately, she's been hanging out with some... questionable people.'
'What type?' I inquired.
'Well, bluntly put, the type that donít like their identities known. Theyíre always wearing hoods or masks when I see them.' Septima said with a sigh.
'Why havenít you reported these people to the Constabulary?' I asked.
'Thatís the thing. Iím afraid if I report them, theyíll hurt Silvia. Sheís young, doesnít know what sheís doing. Sheís impressed by these people with their expensive clothing, but what she doesnít realize is what type of things you have to do to get hooded cloaks.' Septima sighed deeply, and rested her elbows on the rosy desk.
'I can see your dilemma here, but why tell me of it?'
'I need your help. You seem to know Iridine, and as I said, Iíve seen you with your loot, meaning youíre a good hunter. Iíd like you to find my niece, Silvia. Youíll be paid very well, of course. All expenses, and say, two talents?'
'Two talents? Make it six, and Iíll see what I can do.' I said. At times, I can be quite a good negotiator.
'Two and a half, and I donít tell my bouncer to rough you up.'
The rest of the night went by fairly quickly. I only had time to hunt a bit, and meet with some friends, having decided to get an early start on Septimaís niece. Julian woke my up at the regular time, bringing me some oatmeal and juice, which I hurriedly downed. After donning my armor, I started out, waving to a bleary-eyed Constantine as I passed him.
I paused in front of the Toga, adjusting my lorica. The sun was just rising, and very few people were on the streets. I decided to start my search by paying a visit to The Short Oar, a place with cheap information and cheaper beer. Still being morning, I only had a few drinks before I started talking to A______.
'Hey, have you ever been to The Gilded Cage, north of here?' I asked jovially.
'Yah, once er twice, maybe,' he said, his eyes watching me closely.
'Donít suppose you might have seen any seedy looking characters hanging about there with a young girl? Sheís about sixteen, and this woulda been two days ago, I think.'
'Maybe I did, but maybe I didnít.' I could see him looking pointedly at my small tin pouch. 'Depends on how much yer willing to pay.'
'Tell ya what. Iíll give you two cents, and Iíll forget to tell everyone about the fact that you had a dead mouse in your ale bucket this morning.' I took the money and placed on the bar.
Letting his angry gaze fall onto a young boy standing guiltily by the bar he said 'Itís a deal.' He quickly scooped up the gold cents. 'I seen three young guys hanging around Olí Septimaís. Couldnít tell who they were, but they were dressed well. All oí them had these hooded cloaks, soís I couldnít be seeing their faces. Green, yellow, and blue, I think. Anyway, they were talking to this girl, had blonde hair. She worked there, carrying some drinks. You could tell they got on well together. Septima wasnít there, I think she was in the back room. As soon as Septima came back, those three ran outta there. I oíer heard some of what they was saying.'
'AndÖ?' I prompted.
'And, thatíll cost you another two cents.'
Reluctantly I reached into my pouch and put another two gold coins on the counter.
A_____ picked them up and stowed them away somewhere. 'The guys in the hoods, they were asking the young gal to come away with them. Told her they could show her a good time.'
'Did they happen to mention where the good time could be found?'
A____ tapped the bar, saying 'Two more.'
Grumbling, I gave him the money.
'They said ta meet them out back oí the tavern, in the alleys. Said they were gonna go down to wharves, meet some friends. Thatís all I heard.'
I nodded and left, my purse considerably lighter. I had learned a bit, but not enough. I decided to head on down to the wharves and docks, see if anyone had seen these kids about.
The streets were getting crowded by then. I bumped into a couple servants who gave me dirty looks, and eventually made my way to the seaside.
I wandered the docks for a bit, watching laborers and sailors working on their ships. Everything was moving so quickly, I had didnít get a chance to ask anyone about the hoods.
As I was nearing The Masterís Choice, I saw a flicker of movement to the corner of my vision. I paused, and looked into one of the polished marble columns that was by there. Sure enough, I had a tail. I slowly turned northwards, not wanting to lose him, and walked up to a disused loading port.
I quickly hid myself behind a large wheelbarrow full of long, gray fish. It only took a few minutes before I saw the guy who was following me. He was coming down the dock, looking everywhere for his lost quarry.
As soon as he had passed me, I jumped up and grabbed him, wrapping a hand around his mouth. I pulled him onto a platform floating just beneath the dock, and released him with a rough shove.
'Thyris, what are you doing following me, you stinking puukar?'
The subject of my ire rose a bit, as if to stand, but saw my eyes and thought better of it.
'Please, venerable one, do not hurt such as I! It is not I who is taking this young girl! It is not I who is being bad!'
Frowning, I approached him and grabbed his hair, forcing him to look at me. 'What,' I spat out, 'do you know about that?'
Stammering, he tried to explain himself. 'Only that I is hearing what you is saying to A______. I seeing you giving money to him. I is thinking that I be help here, no? I is knowing this part of the city. I is living here. I is able to help.'
'I know you live here, you pathetic fool. Iíve had your drunk carcass dragged from the bars enough times. But why did you follow me like that? Why not just come to me and tell me what you know?'
'I is hearing you, o wise one. I is hearing about the bad, bad men in the hoods. I is thinking it is not a good think to be seen with you in public, in case you is getting caught. I is wanting to live, yes?'
I released his greasy hair and stepped back a bit, careful not to go over the edge. 'So, what help can you be? What do you know?'
'I is not being born yesterday, o great one. I is wanting payment now, I think, yes?'
Grabbing his hair again, I forced him onto his stomach, his head hanging over the edge of the small floating platform. 'Deep waters here, Thyris. Very deep. So deep that you could toss something in, and no one would ever see it again.' I pushed his face closer to the waterís surface. 'If I were you, Iíd be spitting out what you know right now, and hope that I find it useful enough to not throw you in, yes?'
Thyris, shaking know, began to talk. 'I is seeing men in hoods, three men. They is coming down here for weeks, sometimes with a girl, sometimes no. They is going into warehouse, south of the glittery anchor. They is coming out much later, dirty and smelling. I is not going in the warehouse, no no! I is being good, doing nothing wrong!'
I allowed him to crawl back into the middle of the pier. 'So, they go into a warehouse south of the Golden Anchor? You will be showing me the way, yes?'
Groveling a bit too much even for my taste, he hatefully agreed. I climbed back onto the main dock, and pulled his small form behind me. I couldnít help notice the unpleasant smell wafting from his grimy body. Disgusting.
Keeping him in front of me, close enough to reach should he try to dash away, we meandered our way down to the Golden Anchor. The sun was still rising in the sky when we arrived, so I went in and ordered both of us drink. Thyris greedily drank his down, trying to thank me through the potent ale. Brushing him off, we went back outside.
'Now, Thyris, where is this warehouse?' He pointed to the southeast.
'Big door, sliding back and forth. Very quiet. They is going quietly.'
'Right then,' I said to him. 'You have been helpful. Here, take this and go.' I reached into my pouch and pulled out a handful of coins, not even bothering to count. Hell, it was Septimaís money.
Thyris grabbed the money as soon as it was out, and after telling me I was most revered, and highest on earth, he turned around and ran away.
I slowly walked southeast, glancing about me. There werenít as many people on these streets. The oneís that I did see were destitute. Beggars were all over, all reaching theyíre hands to those who passed. When I came to a large warehouse door, I inspected in carefully. I spied a small boy watching me, his mother busy haggling for a worn tunic.
Walking up, I started talking. 'Hey there, little guy. You live around here?'
He nodded his head, his brown eyes wide and solemn.
'Do you know anything about that place over there?' I asked, point to the warehouse. He nodded again. 'Really? Like what?'
The boy glanced over at his mother, still arguing over clothing. He leaned in close to me, and said something so quietly I couldnít hear it. 'What was that?' I asked bending down.
'I said that that building is a bad man house. Bad men live in it. At night, bad sounds come from it. Sometimes, it scares me. But sometimes, Iím brave, and they donít scare me.'
'Bad sounds? Like what?'
'Like yelling,' he whispered. 'And like banging. Lots of bad sounds.'
His mother, clutching her newly bought garment, came hurrying to her son. She grabbed his hand and led him away, throwing a distrustful glance to me. The boy just said 'Bad sounds,' again, and they both disappeared into the crowd.
Sighing inwardly, I decided to tackle this problem there and then, while it was still light. I walked up to the large door and boldly knocked on it.
There was no answer, but I could hear rustling about inside. I took a torch out of my backpack, and lighting it, moved to open to door.
Thyris was right; it was quiet. The door had been oiled well, so as to not attract attention. I stared into the dusky interior. I couldnít see much, so I went on in.
The scene that greeted my eyes shocked me beyond words. There, tied to a pole stuck in the ground, was a young girl with long blonde hair. I instantly took her to be Septimaís niece, and started towards her. When I got next to her, I lifted her head from her chest and looked into her eyes, but they were rolled back in her head. Her shirt was wetted by drool. I had seen this before, on some bandits that Cinerans had drugged. I quickly started to untie her when I heard a ringing laugh behind me. Twirling, I stood, dropped my glowing torch and pulled out my quarterstave, ready for anything. And it was a good thing I was.
Standing in front of me were three men, all in hooded cloaks, blue, green and yellow. I couldnít see their faces, but they were all fairly large. Each of them was holding a Cineran dirk in front of them, as if to attack me.
The man in the yellow hood stepped forward. 'So, youíve found our hideout. Very clever. I didnít think anyone would be able to find it.'
'What have you done to this poor girl?' I demanded, my grip tightening on my stave.
'Oh, you mean poor Silvia here? We havenít done much. She is a naÔve child.' the yellow hood said. 'We had chosen her to be a hostage, and began laying plans to kidnap her. Her aunt, as you surely know, is quite rich. We planned to hold her for twenty talents, then kill her. She has seen our true faces, you see. But no, we didnít have to abduct her. The fool came with us willingly.' He gave a sharp laugh. 'With the money from her, we shall be able to finance our . . . activities, shall I say.'
I frowned at him. 'Activities?'
'Surely you recognize that drug?' the yellow hood jeered. 'It is Cineran. As are we. We shall rise up from within this pitiful city, as our armies march from without. We will utterly destroy Iridine.' His voice took on a nastier note. 'But first, we shall destroy you.'
With that, the three hoods rushed me. Scared out of my wits, I hastily retreated, and tried to run for the door, only to find that it was guarded. Resigning myself to my fate, I turned and prepared to die.
Fortunately, no such preparations were necessary. As the men attacked, I was able to easily turn aside their blades. These were not the highly trained Cineran soldiers that I had imagined, but instead inept novices.
I quickly swept all three of them, and began raining blows on their heads. Quicker than I would have thought, they were all unconscious, and I proceeded to gather rope and tie them up.
I rushed over to Silvia and quickly untied her. She was still in a drugged stupor, so I left her laying on the ground.
When I turned to address my captives, I found an unpleasant surprise. On the ground lay not men in hoods, but empty ropes. I turned again just in time to see a foot disappear from the warehouse door. Grumbling darkly, I returned to Silvia, gathered her up into my arms, and began a long trek to Septimaís.
I was sitting in Septimaís again, this time with a cup of warm tea.
'I canít thank you enough,' Septima gushed for the third time. 'Iím just so glad sheís safe.'
'So am I,' I said. I had been able to get Silvia to Septimaís, and luckily there was a skilled healer who was able to tend to her.
'I just wish I knew who did this to her,' muttered Septima, her green eyes glowing. 'Theyíd pay. Are you sure you didnít get any clues as to their identities?'
I shook my head. 'None. They claimed to be Cinerans, but their fighting was the sloppiest Iíve ever seen. I always thought that people with hoods were excellent fighters. These people couldnít have even beaten an osecar.'
Septima reached into her desk and pulled out a small sack. I could hear the pleasant jingle of money from within it. 'Here you go,' she said. 'I put in a bit extra, you did such a good job.'
Thanking her profusely, I took the sack and my leave at the same time. 'Iíll be seeing you around, Septima,' I smiled.
'I hope so,' she replied.
As I walked back to my room, several talents richer, I contemplated what had happened. I had of course reported the hoods for treason, but the likelihood that weíd ever find them was very low. They had gotten away, but then, once again, against all odds, so had I.