by Rob Steiner
Karak stood in the shadows of a doorway across the street from the Breakers Inn and Tavern, watching people pass in and out of the swinging doors. Raucous laughter and singing floated from the bright interior, and Karak saw through the main window many bodies moving back and forth in the lamp-lit common room.
The Breakers was one of the busier taverns in the Low City, attracting mostly Low City residents or sailors from the merchant ships docked in Calaman for the night. Business was brisk despite the late hour and the continuing drizzle. Karak was not surprised. It was one of his inns, and he had made sure they all had the stoutest ale and plumpest whores in all of Calaman, maybe even Gahall.
Or at least the inn had been his.
Karak pulled his long, loose hair over his face as more people passed by. His normally blond hair was more brown and greasy now. He looked and smelled like one of the usual vagrants that haunted the Low City’s corners and crevices searching for shelter. He had rolled in piles of horse dung throughout the day to keep people from looking too closely at him. Ironic that the worse he smelled, the more people tried to ignore him. And the farther away people stayed from him, the better chance he had of evading Klahdera assassins. At first he had to keep from gagging, but he was finally getting used to the smell after two days of wanting to retch.
At least the smoke from the Orlenian quarter helped with the dung stench. Karak glanced at the glowing orange sky less than twenty blocks from the Low City. The Orlenians had been rioting ever since their favorite son, Dylan Edoss, had been kicked out of the Speaker’s office. Not even their Parliamentary leaders could calm their anger. Karak normally hated riots—it was bad for business. People wanted a relatively safe place to indulge their vices. But at least this riot kept most Klahdera Swornmen on Antahl Street to ensure the violence did not spill over into their Low City territories, which meant fewer Klahdera looking for him.
Every time Karak thought about what got him into this situation, he felt sicker than when he first rolled in dung. He had left his men to die with those…things. He had lost loyal friends in that silo. And Crane. Karak had shot the man in the forehead, yet he got up as if the bullet hole were a bug bite. Though Karak came from the Wild Kingdoms in the south, where supernaturalist beliefs still existed, he had spent most of his life in the Pathist Compact. It was hard for him to accept what he saw, but he was a man who trusted his senses. It was even harder for him to accept that he had run from a fight like a craven dandy. Never mind that his cowardice had earned him a death sentence from the Klahdera Overlords.
The swinging doors of the tavern fell open and the man he was waiting for strode out, accompanied by three men as large as Castle, their hands resting on the butts of their revolvers and their eyes searching the dark streets. The Klahdera Overlord wore a black tri-corner hat, with a pony-tail of steel-gray hair hanging at the nape of his neck. He was well dressed in a crisply pressed black suit. He still retained the large build that helped him survive the harsh climb up the steps to Klahdera Overlord. He nonchalantly smoked a cigar, content after a couple of hours with Karak’s whores—Sammilia was his favorite, Karak remembered. The Overlord strode down the street as if he were the king of Low City. In a sense, he was.
Karak affected the stagger of a drunk, stumbled forward, and crossed the street toward the Overlord. He dodged a carriage, prompting curses from the driver, and stepped onto the sidewalk in front of the Overlord.
“Spare a penny, my lord?” Karak said, holding a grimy hand out and keeping his head low so that his hair fell over his face.
One of the Overlord’s men, a Kingdomer by the looks of his long blond hair tied back in a single tail, shoved him out of the way without a word. A second one used his forearm to push Karak onto the street. The Overlord did not even look his way.
“I reckon the weather is finer in the Kingdoms this time of year, my lord,” Karak said.
The Overlord stopped, then turned slowly to stare at Karak. The Overlord’s men followed, but the Overlord said, “It’s all right, Marwa’jin.”
The blond-haired Marwa’jin reluctantly motioned the other two men to stay back, but he and they kept their hands securely fastened on their revolvers.
Overlord Silek approached Karak, squinting at his face, trying to peer beyond Karak’s hair. Then he laughed, shaking his head. “Mercy, Karak,” he said. “You smell like a stable.”
Karak grinned. “Keeps away the curious.”
Silek’s laugh faded. “You lost your entire crew, and that’s one thing the Overlords won’t forgive. They’re going to kill you, boy. And there’s nothing I can do about it this time.”
“I know,” Karak said. “You’ve done more for me than you should have done.”
Silek shrugged. “Kingdomers need all the help they can get in this country. Someone did the same for me once, now I do the same for you. Or did…”
Silek scanned the street with his sharp gray eyes. “You shouldn’t be here. You need to get out of Calaman, get out of the Compact. Go back to the Kingdoms.”
“That is my plan, old friend,” Karak said, then hesitated, embarrassed at what he was about to ask. “It’s just that…I don’t have any money. I cannot get back to my inns, they’re being watched. And Klahdera owns all the banks where I keep the rest of my money.”
Silek chuckled. “My boy, you never did plan ahead, did you? I have secret stores of han all over the city just in case I…well, just in case.”
Silek sighed, then said, “All right, I’ll tell you where to find one of them.”
He gave Karak directions to the Hallowed Bridge, which crossed the Veda River on the north side of Calaman, just outside the walls of the Old City. It was a place Karak knew well, for he had taken possession of many a smuggled shipment there. It was quiet, virtually abandoned, and he would not attract attention. Ironic to think he had probably stood next to a large store of Silek’s gold on several occasions.
“Thank you, my friend,” Karak said. “I will not forget this.”
“You had better not,” Silek said with his usual wry grin. “I expect repayment with interest.”
Karak smiled back, and was about to turn away when he looked back at Silek. “That business back in the silo was bad. Really bad. Did anyone go there after…after I was there?”
Silek glanced back at his men, then said in a low voice, “All they found where the bodies of your men. Or what was left of them. Now I know you would never intentionally allow such a thing to happen to your men, but intentions are irrelevant with the Klahdera. You know that. Results are what count, and you failed spectacularly. Ten Swornmen were killed that night. Ten of your Swornmen.”
“You don’t have to remind me,” Karak growled. “I was there. I saw it all.”
Karak then calmed himself, and shook his head. “Something bad is going to happen in this city, I can feel it. My advice probably doesn’t mean much these days, but you should leave the city for a while, too. At least a few weeks.”
Silek laughed. “You’re not going supernaturalist on me, are you Karak?”
“Yes,” Karak said, with as deadly serious of a voice as he could manage. “After what I saw two nights ago, yes I am.”
Silek’s smile melted. “I don’t care what you saw, boy. What I care about is that the longer you stay in this city, the more likely you’ll get a bullet in the back of your head.” Glancing around at the people on the street, Silek said, “I think we’ve talked long enough. You’d better go.”
Silek turned without another word, and was immediately surrounded by his Swornmen. Karak stood on the sidewalk watching his patron until he rounded a corner. He glanced about the street, saw nothing but vagrants, drunks, and those looking for a place to get drunk, then wrapped his raggedy cloaks around him and set off toward the Hallowed Bridge.