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Fireblade: Chapter 2

I FOLLOW IN THE MERCHANT’S dust for a while, feeling the need to remain inconspicuous while I get a sense of this baked-dry foreign city. Noise, dirt, street traders, and a variety of entertainments from cock-fighting to dice and gambling produce a cacophony of noise and smell but tell me little about where I might find Shan’domir.

The merchant is probably heading off to meet whoever holds the contract to buy his goods, so I take the next turning into a narrow side street occupied by street vendors, hoping to find someone who can direct me to the Hawk and Scorpion.

Turns out to be a big mistake. The vendors are besieged by demanding customers and either don’t understand my awkward Annubian or else are filtering out any communication that fails to include a purchase request. Unfortunately they are selling heavy firkins of what smells like strong alcohol and this is not the sort of product I want to be lugging through the streets right now. I move on and take the first turning that offers itself.

Another big mistake. This filthy alleyway is deserted. My best hope is that it will prove to be a shortcut to a part of the city where I can get the directions I need.

It might have worked if I hadn’t assumed that covering up my weapons would be enough to keep me inconspicuous. A bulky shadow emerges from a dark doorway and clumps one heavy hand on my shoulder while the other grabs a handful of my hair. I can understand enough Annubian to translate his comment as words to the effect of, “Very pretty. Fetch a good price in the Rapathian slave-market.”


This really is bad luck because now there are three more of them emerging from the doorway, all holding heavy clubs and eyeing me up and down with greedy looks. Logic says they won’t want to kill the merchandise but I suspect that what they have planned for me is infinitely worse.

The only weapon I can easily get my hand on inside this bundled-up cloak is the small throwing knife on my wrist bracer. Even using that is going to make my presence a deal more conspicuous than I was planning for this journey through town. The last thing I need is the city guard on my tail looking for a murderer loose on their streets.

Not that these thugs would be much of a loss, assuming the Khalim maintains some respect for law and order in his country. I scan the alley for anything that might give me an advantage. Nothing much, except an abandoned liquor firkin a few feet behind the only woman in this gang. And of course, the fact that they assume I am just a terrified peasant girl with unusual chestnut hair for this part of the world.

I inch my hand closer to the knife, slowly enough not to arouse suspicion, while trying to look appropriately terrified. My fingers close around it.

Then I move.

I twist round, lightning-fast to ensure the stab in the eye is deadly accurate on the grunt holding my hair. He screams and lets go as his hand flies to his damaged eye and he drops to his knees, suggesting that I probably damaged some brain as well. This is my chance to dance out of range before the other three gather their wits enough to make a counter-attack.

I turn to face them, trying to weigh the relative merits of removing witnesses to my first kill and saving future peasant girls from a life of miserable slavery, versus trying to simply run away before I trigger a murder hunt.

That decision is taken out of my hands as the woman recovers from the shock faster than the other two, produces a savage-looking blade from behind her back, and attacks. She has speed but little skill and goes down with my knife across her throat. I turn to face the nearest slaver and feel a rush of elation as he takes a wary step back. Maybe they will just run for their lives and leave me alone.

Still no luck. I catch the word for ‘fighting-pits’ passed between the two survivors. I have heard a few details about them, enough to know that they are a popular form of entertainment in Rapathia, where huge fortunes are made and lost with wagers on which fighter will survive.

Seems my value has just increased tenfold.

That moment of distraction is all it takes. I hadn’t noticed the other slaver moving in behind me until a heavy blow across my back sends me sprawling in the dirt. A savage stab of pain shoots through my head as it hits the abandoned earthenware firkin.

I roll over and look up as the two of them move in on me, those evil-looking clubs raised menacingly above their heads instead of guarding their faces. At last they have made a useful mistake. I grab the firkin and throw it, landing an accurate blow to the nose of one attacker. A fraction later I hit the other one in the throat with a thrown knife. They crumple in a heap on top of each other.

I glance around. No-one. I may be able to cover my tracks here if I hurry. I retrieve my knife, push the firkin handle into my victim’s fist, and break the neck of the thug with the broken nose. Then it’s just a case of dragging the woman’s body over here and bloodying the filthy blade in her hand. Now the scene looks more like the aftermath of a drunken fight than an attack by an outsider. I go over to the first slaver I knifed, only to discover that he has already bled out, lying on his face in the dirt.

Another shred of luck if you can call it that. His cloak is mostly free of blood, unlike my own. I switch, only to discover that the stink of slavers’ clothes is far worse than those of peasants. This time I pull the hood over my conspicuous hair before retracing my steps, hoping to make a more successful attempt at locating Shan’domir.

I discover that the merchant’s wagon has not progressed very far, having become blocked by a band of street performers. If the shouts and swearing from up ahead are anything to go by, their entertainments are not appreciated by the merchant and his two servants. Relieved, I scuttle back into the tail-dust of the wagon as it slowly moves off again. Maybe I should wait until the merchant stops and ask him for directions before the unfamiliar streets of Khotann throw any more surprises at me. For the next few blocks I’m glad of the slow pace of the wagon and the anonymity of being a lowly wagon-servant, now that the vicious blow across my back is making its presence felt.

The large painted sign hanging from the façade of the next building depicts a hawk swooping down on a scorpion and informs me to my surprise that my luck has finally changed and the merchant has brought me directly to the right place. Then the logic behind this is revealed when the wagon turns off the street and trundles underneath a tall arch at the side of the building.

A passageway leads to a wide courtyard at the rear, packed with wagons and carts of all sizes and with water troughs for the mules and camels. Hostlers are scurrying back and forth with bundles of hay and bags of grain.

Of course. If this is the main establishment that caters for the needs of passing merchants, it is the obvious place for a spy like Shan’domir to frequent in his quest to pick up useful news and gossip.

I hurry through the back door of the inn before the merchant notices someone in a smelly, scruffy cloak tailing him for no good reason.


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