“I still can’t believe Smidgin had a wife,” Gafgarn exclaimed once more from the top of the rolling carriage. Though the copse dwindled on the horizon behind him, the last words of the now very-dead bandit stuck to Gafgarn like the stench of bear dung.
“Apparently so,” Illaeda added.
“And you’re sure neither of you knew?” Gafgarn asked, gesturing at his two underlings.
Dorin raised his hands in innocence, “Nae, ‘ee never spoke a word about it Gaf. ‘ee wasn’t one tae talk about ‘is personals anyway.”
“We weren’t with his outfit long enough to know much about him, sir,” Sully added. “Dorin’s right, he wasn’t exactly open about his past. We took his orders and guarded the camp, that’s just about it.”
“How long were you with him?” Gafgarn asked.
“Myself...a little over a year, I think. Dorin was there before me.”
“Aye, a few years in tha gang. But I was hardly his go-to, I just took care of chores and guarded the wall. Some heists, but always just another pair of eyes.”
“For a couple of lookouts, you two didn’t do so badly back there,” Gafgarn said. Then he pointed a meaty finger at Dorin, “Except you need to work on your lead feet. Mine are stuck in metal, and you’re the one that almost gets us killed dragging yours like a couple of anvils.”
“Oi, the rock was covered with dirt and leaves, ‘ow was I supposed tah know…”
“No excuses. You’re not just a lookout anymore. Read the land, learn to be more careful and precise. It’s not just your life on the line, remember that.” Then the giant sighed, “If I were with my people, we would’ve cleared the wood without any of them noticing. It wouldn’t have even broke a sweat.”
“Sorry, boss,” Sully said, “But...it didn’t look like you minded too much at the time.”
Gafgarn allowed a tiny smirk to grace his stony visage, “It was a fun little row. It was nice to let loose a little.”
Illaeda nodded at Imadi, riding her horse next to her on the trail, “Our new friend here was...impressive.” All turned to Illaeda in response to her unfamiliar tone of reserved esteem, like the light of a rising sun peeking out beyond a dark horizon.
Imadi nodded her head, nestled in the shadow of her wide hat, and said, “Thank you. I’ve killed many criminals with this blade since I was young. Looks as if you’ve been doing the same.” Gafgarn found the warmth of the moment between the two women startling, like the rare red wolves of his country. Suddenly he wished he could have seen Illaeda in action himself.
The group travelled through countryside filled with farmland. Simple cottages and barns of wood and thatch stood lonely and serene amid expansive fields of grain, potatoes, and lettuce. The day was pleasantly clear, with the sound of birdsong and farmers’ tools accompanying party’s trek. They saw no one other than straw-hatted farmers until they neared the dense city that loomed at the end of the road.
A great wooden palisade circled a gently rolling acropolis built atop three large hills. A stone keep crowned each hill with crenellated walls surrounding them. The largest hill lay furthest into the city, the largest keep atop it overlooking the city like a monolithic sentinel. Unlike Hausto, the construction here was more predictable, with notably less wobbly or leaning architecture. Outside of the walled keeps, the acropolis was a mix of wooden and stone buildings, with tapered or flat thatched and tiled roofing. Cobblestone boulevards lined with ostentatious gated estates wound about the hills, shining in the daylight like glistening serpents.
The group approached the palisade, entering the city through a wooden gatehouse flanked by towers populated with archers. Smells of food, human waste, and livestock overpowered the senses immediately, and the sounds of musical taverns, aggressive merchants, bedraggled beggars, and scintillating brothels created a discordant symphony of human activity. Here, below the splendor on the hills, muddy streets teemed with common folk who lazily made way for Gafgarn’s gang. Many gave sidelong glances at Imadi and Gafgarn with mild curiosity. The main streets were wide enough that the carriage and two horses could have rode in side-by-side, if not for the throng of people around them.
Wither led them down a main boulevard flanked by shops and various inns. Other streets met the main thoroughfare at odd angles, and shadowy alleyways threaded between buildings, graffiti and posters decorating their walls. A recurring picture was a fox ready to pounce with a spear in its jaws. Out of these alleys scurried children, many in little more than rags. Some sat by the road’s edge with mournful eyes gazing at passersby or, just as intensely, into nothing. Others ran with upraised palms to strangers, clamoring with their tiny, strained voices for any crumb or coin they might earn through pity.
Imadi responded to the display with a look that somehow expressed both resentment and empathy. Gafgarn thought he understood. His people raised their children to earn their keep; it was important to learn that overcoming struggle was a part of life, but the sad weakness before him was worse than a dusty, empty mead barrel.
“What kind of people allow such squalor to befall their young?” Imadi asked no one in particular.
“Well, dear, the great people of the Kingdoms, of course!” Wither exclaimed playfully.
“Must be an orphanage nearby,” Sully said.
“What?” Imadi spat.
“An orphanage. Many of the larger cities have ‘em. The different kingdoms war all the time. Wars take parents from children, and so does the crime at home. A lot of kids are left in orphanages.”
Imadi watched as a group of raggedy urchins approached another passerby and begged profusely. She noticed a smaller child sneak behind the would-be benefactor to pilfer a small pouch on his belt. “And these orphanages let these children starve and steal?” Imadi asked.
“Not always,” Sully explained, “There are punishments waiting for these ones. But many don’t want the lives the Church of the Void builds for them in the orphanages. They’re given only enough to keep living, taught only the Cosmonomicon, and are rarely shown anything other than cold discipline. In a world that’s forgotten them, why wouldn’t they take what they’ll never be given?” Sully watched the children intently, a faraway look on her face.
Imadi brought her horse closer to Sully, who sat on the carriage, and leaned in as she spoke to her, “Because it’s thievery. The crime against these children does not beget more crime from them. There’s still a choice.”
Sully’s face twisted into a sneer, “If there’s another way, I don’t see it. All I see is survival.”
“What survives? Filth? I can’t believe this is allowed.”
“Believe it,” Sully snapped. Imadi moved her shaggy mare away from the carriage with a huff. Sully sat rocking on the bench next to Wither wearing a loathsome frown. She could have mentioned she was raised in one of those orphanages, she could have argued that she was more than just filth, but something stopped her. She wasn’t sure if it was anger or shame.
Gafgarn’s grumble interrupted her thoughts as he asked, “Cosmonomicon?”
Dorin responded from the opposite edge of the carriage rooftop, “It’s a book, Gaf. From the Church of the Void. Book of beasties and critters and scary whatsis and whosis out in the great Void ‘round the earth. Theys living out on other planes n’ such, waiting tah eat us, or love us, or judge us or what ‘ave you. Gods ‘n the godlike, supposedly.”
Gafgarn remembered the statue in Hausto’s church, a great mass of tentacles with eyeballs instead of suckers. He wondered momentarily what kind of creature it was supposed to be, but quickly dismissed it as absurd. Gods existed in the earth itself, in its plants, soil, sky, and seas, not out in the shapeless, sparkling darkness seen at night. “Begging children and monsters. The Kingdoms are a strange place.”
Beyond a bend in the main road, Illaeda pointed Wither towards a large building, and they made their way to it, parking the coach in its stable. Wither paid the stablemaster for everyone’s bill, then they left their horses for the inn. Above its entrance was a hanging sign painted with a skeleton pouring a liquid from a flagon into its mouth, the contents spilling through its bones to puddle beneath its skeletal feet. Below the illustration was the title “The Wasted Cadaver.” Each entered, Gafgarn regarding the sign with amusement. Imadi led the rear, taking a moment to scan the street before entering.
Illaeda made her way directly for the bar, winding her way through a large room full of thick round tables. It being midday, only a few were occupied with lunchtime diners. Several strong-looking men and women stood cross-armed at the entrance and around the inn, their eyes scanning the group with the careful boredom of hired muscle. They paid special attention to Gafgarn and Imadi, their clothing, Gafgarn’s size, and Imadi’s serene but guarded demeanor; all details indicating them as curious, if not dangerous, outsiders.
As they neared the bar, Gafgarn could make out a balding head behind the counter. It only just rose above the bar, a porcelain mound with thinning red hair. The head turned to the approaching Illaeda, bushy eyebrows rising and a smile emerging within a bushy, lengthy beard. Two muscular arms raised in welcome when Illaeda leaned on the counter bearing a grin of her own.
The spoke with a luscious, gracious voice, “Illaeda! My favorite one-eyed demoness of the hunt, to what do I owe the pleasure?”
“Artag,” she said, “good to see you. The place is still standing, so things must be going well.”
“Aye, as good as can be in a city like Esthelring. Things as they’ve been, lass, The Wasted Cadaver might find itself situated firmly in the chaotic midst of mayhem. But that’s the way it always is, eh? You be needing a room then?”
“Several. First, do you have a moment?”
“For the Guild, always. Let’s have a chat in my office.” He made to move then stopped when he noticed Wither. Artag graced the group with another pearly grin. “What a lovely day it is when the Cadaver welcomes Professor Gollsteen. And welcome you are, my mustachioed master. It’s been years, I think,” Artag bowed lightly.
“Yes, old boy, so it has! I do recall the leisure and levity to be found at your respectable, if grimly christened, establishment. And low to those that fail to recognize the greatness of your character disguised by your diminutive stature.”
Artag bellowed happily, “Haha, oh did I miss the overwhelming effluence of language that spouts from that mustache of yours. I do hope you’ve brought that overloaded coach of yours?”
“Always, old boy.”
Artag happily clapped, and said, “Then we’ll have business later. Come, bring the whole crew with ya.”
Artag made his way from behind the bar, careful to make eye contact with his guards around the room. Gafgarn noted Artag’s build; though small in stature, he was built like a bull. He led the group through a doorway between the bar and a staircase leading up to the second floor. Inside was a long hallway filled with the aroma of cooking. As they walked down it, they passed the kitchen, a busy affair with multiple stoves and several hands about. “Pallard!” Artag yelled, “I’ll be in my office.” A young man in an apron jogged from the kitchen back down the hallway, presumably to man the bar. Artag continued pass several doors before he reached the last, a simple aperture with a shiny, bronze handle placed low so that he needn’t stretch to reach it. He lead the entourage in.
Inside was a monument to luxury, an abode of tasteful opulence. His furniture was all of a dark mahogany, consisting of several bookcases, a large desk, several chairs, a couch, a round table, and shelves. One corner of the room was partitioned by a wall, presumably for a bedroom. A deep red carpet covered most of the floor under the chairs and table. Matching pillows with copper-colored tassels adorned the seating. Behind the desk cluttered with papers was a large upended barrel on a stand bearing the elegantly carved legs of a lion. Gafgarn liked the spigot extended from the barrel and the ornate flagons shaped like upward-facing lion-heads. He’d never seen a lion in real life, but they looked like formidable creatures akin to the great bears and wolves of his realm.
“You like lions?” Gafgarn asked, pointing.
“Well, I sure hope so. My pa and I were awarded that set and that keg stand for thirty years of innkeeping and brewing. The lion’s the symbol of Esthelring Kingdom. At least, the royal family Esthel, we’re two generations into that one now. We’ll see how long that lasts.”
Gafgarn approached the keg, admiring it. “Maybe you’d like a drink?” Artag asked, grabbing a tankard and hoisting it Gafgarn’s way.
“Mead. My family’s brew. The inn doubles as a distillery in an extension out back.”
Gafgarn twisted the tab on the spigot, letting the thick, golden-brown fluid fill the lion’s mouth. “Hm, mead. Before I united the clans, they met in peace once a year for a mead brewing competition. I don’t know if we’re more proud of our mead or our fighting. One often leads to another, and not always in the same order.”
“Figured you for an outlander, what with the wolf on your head,” Artag said, “It’s rumored the mead from the Wilds is unmatched. I wouldn’t mind testing that rumor.”
Gafgarn savored the aroma before taking a large pull. It was a full-bodied affair, with touches of honey and spices that left a tingle in the back of the throat. He wiped a dribble on his chin with a sleeve, and commented, “Not bad. Best I’ve had in your Kingdoms so far.”
“We haven’t been in business this long because of our impressive height,” Artag joked. “Come, have a seat.”
“Suit yourself, but none of the furniture bites.”
“You don’t know furniture like I do.”
Artag sat in the fancy lounger with the group huddled about, and began, “Odd group you have here Illaeda. Two outlanders, it seems, and with the Professor no less. What brings you into The Wasted Cadaver?”
“We’re looking for someone,” Illaeda answered.
“Well, of course ya are! What kind of Hunter isn’t at any time? But with a crew like this, must be special, am I right?”
Illaeda nodded her head, “This mark would stand out. Albino skin, jester hat, might have a young woman with him.”
Wither interjected, “Yes, old boy, barely a woman, with golden hair. Most likely looks distressed.”
Illaeda paused, then smiled at Artag, “He’s medium height, so he might look pretty tall to you.”
Artag returned the smile, “Oh, ha-ha, right, a height joke. Very original, lass. If you were listening, I already beat you to it. When would this fella have come into town?”
“No more than a day ago. Not long before we came into the city just now.”
Artag scratched his beard in thought, then responded, “Mmmm, no, can’t say I’ve seen or heard of him. You sure he’s here?”
Imadi interjected, “I may have seen him coming this way from Hausto.”
“Well, I’ve been in the inn most of the last few days. I can’t say I see much of the city anymore. It’s not safe if you want to stay neutral.”
“Neutral?” Gafgarn said.
“Aye, everyone is on a side these days. The two Ducal houses and the King. It looks all fine n’ dandy on the surface, but as per usual in the Kingdoms, there’s warfare beneath the pomp and politics.”
“Warfare? It’s a city, not a warzone.”
“Nothing in the Kingdoms is as it seems, outlander. The Ducal houses’ve been jockying for power for decades now, and the city’s underbelly is where all that tasty jockying happens. The guard and knights are the king’s, but his eyes are on expansion as always. His main army is away even now, fighting over a blasted hill. He underestimates the city’s criminal element. And the regular folks here pay the price--protection taxes, grifting, extortion, and worse. Play by their rules, pay their protection taxes, or they take you out of the game.”
“Your leaders just let this happen?” Imadi interjected, her voice bearing teeth.
Sully responded, “For centuries, everywhere in the kingdoms. So we’re left in the middle, to be part of it, or a victim of it.”
Imadi gave her a vicious look, “No, there’s another choice. A people can keep their leaders responsible for their own actions.”
“I agree,” Gafgarn said, “
Artag continued, “Aye, we’ve had our fair share of revolutions too. Sometimes it comes from the gangs themselves, just a replacement of one crown for another, but this time we have a full-fledged citizen uprising on our hands. They’re collectively called the Fox, named after their leader supposedly. I’m sure you saw the signs coming in. Between the king, the ducal houses and their gangs, and the Fox, the city’s a bubbling cauldron ready to spill over. The gangs leave The Wasted Cadaver be because we work with the Guild, and like everyone else they’re afraid of crossing that line. But it’s only a matter of time before even that won’t matter.”
“Things looked fine out there,” Sully remarked.
“Look closely, stay in the city for more than a few nights, you’ll see the signs I’m sure. Just be careful after dark.”
Illaeda stood and said, “Thanks Artag. If you hear anything about AJ, let us know okay?”
“Hold there, lass. I like you, and I’m happy I’ve got the Guild’s protection, but a stay at the Cadaver isn’t as cheap as it once was...particularly because you and your friends are going to attract a lot of attention.”
“Oi, sounds like we’re being gouged,” Dorin announced.
“The Guild pays for the muscle you saw guarding the place, but that’s it. Keeping you and your charges safe has become harder than ever. This is the safest place in the city by reputation alone, but when that cauldron spills over...no one’s going to avoid the flood. Higher prices mean insurance, I could hire more guards on my own, and worse comes to worse, our ticket out of the city.”
“Don’t worry old boy, between myself and the Hunter here, we can pay any price,” Wither said. He reached into his jacket and took out a piece of iron similar to a coin. He flipped it casually to Illaeda, who caught it. Upon inspection, she saw it bore a smudge of blood and the characters “10 S” and “Smidgin.” The last she saw of this, she had tossed it at Smidgin’s ruined corpse.
Wither continued, “You dropped that. Take Gafgarn with you to collect; don’t argue, take credit for the kill. While you’re doing that, Artag and I have other business to discuss, don’t we old boy?”
“Ah, I better pour myself a flagon for that bit. Illaeda, our business is sound, there’re plenty rooms available when you’re ready to claim them.”
“Thanks,” Illaeda said, pocketing the piece of metal. “We’ll see you later.”
As Illaeda rose to leave, the others followed suit. Gafgarn drained what was left in his tankard and nodded to Artag, who responded with a hefty grin. Then the group left to brave the city of Esthelring.
Illaeda lead the group with an eager pace. After some time navigating the winding streets and narrow alleys, the troup came to a building of brick and mortar. A great bronze medallion emblazoned with the arrowhead symbol of the Guild hung by chains above the entryway between two wood columns carved with spirals. Bold red tile decorated the angular, swooping roof, which stretched out beyond the building’s walls creating broad eaves. A wooden fence extended to the left of the building, hiding a small courtyard housing a stables and a blacksmith. Illaeda entered through the building’s arched doorway, the group trailing behind her.
The interior of the building was spacious. A lounge stretched invitingly beyond an ascending stairway. Luxurious, stout armchairs were surrounded by walls populated with paintings of natural scenery like snowy mountains and seasonal forests. Several polished weapons, blades still keen, sat on wooden placards and beautifully carved racks. Crystal decanters, their liquids of gold and brown sparkling from sunlight from high, narrow windows, rested on stout shelves. A counter ran along the entire back wall. In that wall were two doorways, one of which was a heavy, metal affair. Illaeda made her way in that direction, and the group followed.
Gafgarn found himself mesmerized by the room. He was disappointed to find there was no hammer present, but each piece of weaponry was exquisite. Though hardly an artist, he found the paintings equally entrancing, their depictions of natural vistas, particularly mountains, making him think of home. A grin graced his beleaguered features. He wandered in that space, appreciating its decor and its notable lack of dust, until he found a recliner lined with fur. So lost in his reverie was he that he forgot himself and quickly eased into the chair, which promptly shot out from beneath him. Gafgarn hit the floor hard, then launched himself back onto his feet. He looked back at the chair with a grimace, then at his comrades now waiting at the counter. Beyond it was a new body, a man in a leather vest and long-sleeved, ruffled shirt, with a hand on the pommel of his blade and a very surprised look on his face. Gafgarn gave him a sneer as he rejoined the group, and the man relaxed with a shrug.
“Right,” he said, “Not too sure what that was about. Anyway, Illaeda, yes, good to see you again so soon. It’s only been a few days, you got the scoundrel already?”
“Yes, Baert,” she said, slapping the blood-stained coin with Smidgin’s name on the counter.
“Really?” Baert replied, a playful eyebrow raised, “Well, story is, some giant from the east with a wolf-cloak took the self-proclaimed Bandit King out. Someone like, say, this big fella with sitting issues.” The man regarded Gafgarn with a grin. Gafgarn made to lean on the counter threateningly, but then thought better of it and simply scowled.
Ilaeda sighed, “Word travels, doesn’t it?”
Baert laughed, “Don’t fret, lass, story is you was there too. Looks to me you’ve been working together. Well, a kill in cooperation with others is still a kill for a Hunter. Have ye any proof? Head? Ear? Toe? Maybe skinned one of those monstrous tattoos off him?”
“Just these witnesses,” she waved at the group, “all present during the act, except the lady in the robe.” Imadi nodded her head at Baert.
“Fine,” the man sighed, then rapped off a statement as if memorized by rote, “Do all of ye swear under oath that Illaeda the Hawk have rights to claim this kill, and pledge that yer lives be forfeit to the Guild’s mercy should this vow be found untruthful?”
Gafgarn shared quizzical looks with Sully and Dorin. Illaeda motioned for them to respond.
“Aye!” said Dorin.
“Yes!” Sully agreed.
“Yeah,” Gafgarn grumbled.
“Good. Let me grab your reward,” Baert snatched up the coin, unperturbed by the crusted blood on it, and moved to the heavy metal door. He jingled a ring of keys as he unlocked the door, a heavy thunk reverberating from within. He entered beyond it into a small room and closed and locked the door behind him.
A man with short-cropped blonde hair and a tailored beard approached the counter next to Illaeda, nodding to her as he did. He wore a peculiar red outfit similar to Illaeda’s, with chain mail and plate pauldrons sewn into the fabric of his coat. “Long time. Sounds like you bagged the Bandit King?”
“Harden,” she greeted him, “yes, we did.”
“Oh, with help? That’s not surprising, you never were one to work alone.” Illaeda’s body tensed briefly at this. “I guess it’s good someone finally took him out of the game. It’s a shame that he’ll probably be replaced by some other egomaniac soon enough. But that’s how we get paid, right?” Illaeda responded with a level stare. “You always go big, don’t you? Never the small marks. Heading out soon for the next big score?”
“We’ll be in town for a while now, actually. Leads on my next one says he’s here.”
“Oh? And who’s that? You aren’t going after one of the underbosses are you? We all know what’s going on in Esthelring, but that could be suicide. And if you’re successful, you might bring the wrong type of notoriety to the Guild.”
“No, I’m not interested in the politics here.”
“You’re...not still after the jester, are you?”
“I might be.”
Harden put on a look of concern, “You’re gonna have to let that one go, Illaeda.”
“So you can net the huge bounty on his head?”
“You know why. It’s been proven time and time again that we should never make a hunt personal. People slip up, make mistakes, take things too far. We all know what happened, everyone wants a piece of him, but for you this is too deep, the wound too fresh.”
Illeada grimaced at him.
“Sorry,” he said, regarding her eyepatch, “I didn’t mean that literally. Seriously, Illaeda…”
“Enough. Yes, I’m still looking for him, and evidence thus far suggests he’s in the city.”
“Here?” he said, surprised.
“Yes, here. I’m going to find him, and kill him.”
“Because of what he did, he deserves it, but…”
“Because he’s an animal that needs to be put down.”
“We both know why you’re after him. Revenge is just going to get you killed.”
Illaeda responded flatly, “Let me know if you hear anything, will you?”
Harden gave a look of resignation and nodded. Baert returned to the counter with a sack of coins, which Illaeda snatched up quickly. “Thanks,” she said to Baert, then turned to Harden and said, “See you later.”
The group left the building, and in the street outside Gafgarn placed a humungous hand on Illaeda’s shoulder to stop her walking. “Revenge?” He asked.
“It’s none of your business. Just let me do my job.”
“My people are relying on me to fix my problem. They need me, before they’re at each other’s throats again. And peace or not, without my leadership it’s only a matter of time before my people or the Kingdoms start another war. If this thing with AJ is personal, I don’t have a problem with that, I just need to know you won’t screw this up.”
“It’s personal to you too.”
“Not like you. On that bridge in Hausto, he got the better of you with a piece of wood. You let your guard down. On the road, you didn’t seem to have any problems taking out a whole crew of bandits. Your friend back there might have a point.”
“I’m fine,” Illaeda growled.
“AJ...he took your eye, didn’t he?”
Illaeda raised up on her toes and poked a solid finger into Gafgarn’s chest as she spoke, “Ask me again, and I’ll smack that cloak right off your head, I don’t care how big and tough you think you are. I’m going to find some leads, we should split up and canvas the city. Don’t follow me. I’ll see you tonight at the Cadaver.” With that, Illaeda turned into the crowd of cityfolk and stormed off.
“So, what do we do now?” Sully asked.
Dorin yawned loudly, “Aye, ‘ave we done enough talkin’ and traipsin’ yet?”
Gafgarn looked at Imadi, who seemed unconcerned, and remarked, “You’ve been pretty quiet.”
She smiled, “I’m new to these lands, to you. I preferred to observe and listen. You’re a curious group.”
“Right. So, what’re you going to do?”
Imadi chuckled, “I haven’t really thought about that yet. This has been all so...intriguing. I know next to nothing about the Kingdoms.”
“Well, I think I’d like to get familiar with the area. If we’re going to find AJ, that’ll help.”
“That might benefit me as well, though I can’t stay in the city for long.”
“We might be here a while. Maybe you should move on,” Sully said with a hint of scorn in her voice. Gafgarn’s eyebrows danced in surprise like tumbling acrobats.
“I’m curious about this AJ and the taken girl. I’d like to help, and seeing as a free room waits for me if I do, I’ll work with you for the time being. But I’ll explore the city on my own for now.”
“Going to wander some more?” Sully asked.
“That reminds me,” Gafgarn said, “before you said you’re just a wanderer. Wither said you’ve come a long way, and I’ve never heard of Yodoru. Why are you in the Kingdoms?”
Imadi smiled, “A...pilgrimage, you could say. To learn. To exact justice when I can.”
“You jus’ walkin’ ‘round, takin’ notes and woopin’ arse? Jus’ for funnies?” Dorin exclaimed.
“Something like that. The...wooping arse...is my duty. Evil, in all its forms, is the prey of the Binai-Fandwa.”
“Big-Eye Fartwad?” Dorin chuckled.
Imadi stifled his amusement with a stony look, “Binai-Fandwa. My order. We ensure the injustices I’ve seen today never happen in Yodoru. And they don’t.”
“So you’re like the city guard of your people?” Gafgarn said.
“Much more. But enough. We waste daylight. I’ll keep my eyes open for this pale joker.” Imadi adjusted her had slightly and nodded to her three comrades before joining the stream of bodies flowing through the street.
Gafgarn watched her hat bounce in the crowd before turning to Sully, growling, “What’s your problem, Sully?”
She crossed her arms and met his fierce gaze, “You really believe that load?”
“Aye Gaf,” Dorin agreed, “‘er story’s as clean as a latrine. I wouldn’t buy that tripe if it was free.”
“I know she’s hiding something. What I meant was your attitude.”
Sully looked at the ground, sullen, “She thinks everything’s so simple. Not everyone gets to choose their life.”
“You mean what she said about the orphans?”
“They didn’t get a chance to choose. It’s not their fault if they turn to crime if that’s all they have. Imadi thinks she’s so much better than everyone else, like life’s so simple. She’d sooner kill Dorin and me if she knew we were bandits only days ago.”
“You’re right, she would. She would try. I’m your boss, remember?”
Sully looked up at him, and responded, “Thanks boss. She just...really got to me. No one’s going to look out for those kids, not in the way they should anyway. They stay in the church, brainwashed and afraid, or they leave and fend for themselves. She talks like she doesn’t even care what that’s like.”
“Sounds like you do.” Sully kicked lightly at loose rock and nodded her head. He placed a hefty paw on her shoulder and continued, “Don’t worry about her...though, she is right about one thing. We don’t have time for excuses. Your past is yours, but I need you, now, to do your job and do it well. So let’s get moving and find this bastard with my gauntlets.” Sully nodded and the three moved into the crowd.
No one noticed the two figures huddled in the shadows of a nearby alley. They watched Gafgarn, Dorin, and Sully with eager eyes.
“You follow them,” one told the other. “I’ll tell the Madam they’re here. That’s the one she wants right?”
“Yup,” the other said, “Big, wolf cloak, that ‘not-from-around-here’ look. Couldn’t be anyone else. I’ll tail ‘em.”
“That crazy comedian’ll be interested too. Looks like we’ll all be having some fun tonight. Catch up with you later.” The speaker trotted down the alley, while the other moved into the crowd in Gafgarn’s direction.
No one noticed another body move from a different alley into the crowd on that same street, either. In the street, passing townsfolk gave curious glances at his white clothes with asymmetrical, intricate, colorful designs, his wooden, stilt-like flat shoes, and his wide-brimmed, woven, flat hat. Many of those townsfolk swore they had just seen a woman dressed just like him pass only moments ago.