Chapter 4

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Amates 15, 1277. Salty Nightingale. Underside District on the marsh-side. Where the trouble really began…

     It didn’t take long to weave through the afternoon crowd of the Silk Square to reach the dark stained oak door of the Salty Nightingale. The pub was set back from the Silk Square down a short close, or alley, from the main market walkways.
     Being set back a short distance helped keep the noise from the market down. It also cut down on any snooping eyes and ears. The ‘Gale had a very particular clientele who didn’t enjoy eavesdroppers.
     I opened the oak door and stepped inside. The lighting was dim, as usual.
     Most of the light in the Nightingale came from olive oil hurricane lamps hung on the wooden walls at regular intervals. This made it bright enough to see comfortably, but not glaringly bright. Sometimes the main fireplace was lit, like today, giving the whole place a cozy, welcoming feel.
     Inside the doorway, I stopped and just inhaled. The smell of fresh baked cinnamon date bread and slow roasting marsh chicken was like a warm hug. I really loved that bread. Sounds and other sensations caught up to me next, from the mumble of conversations to laughter and the thump of drinking mugs on a tabletop.
     By kind tides, there were just so many wonderful memories here for me.
     All of that vanished the instant I saw the tree trunk stout figure of Tyre Paleros quietly arguing on the far side of the common room. He was being forced out the back door of the Nightingale by two broad-shouldered men. Naturally, the rest of the patrons kept to themselves, as was the custom.
     The smuggler looked more irritated than frightened, but that didn’t mean he was in any less danger. Especially since his new ‘friends’ wore the red trim leather jackets of the Crimson Company. I caught the glint of metal where one of the Crimson Company enforcers kept a dagger-point pressed against Tyre’s shirt at his rib cage for motivation.
     Fighting wasn’t tolerated in the Nightingale. But kidnapping? That was debatable. It also depended if you could keep quiet about the attempt.
     “Ki! Trouble! Out the back!”
     I pointed to Tyre and the two walls of muscle with him. Then I was off like a shot arrow across the room.
     Ki said something irate and grumpy in reply, but I missed it. I was sure he’d repeat it later. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw him dart out the front door when I started my run.
     This wasn’t our first merhorse race. If I was running right at the problem, which I often did, I trusted Ki to come at it from the back or side. It was a tried-and-true method to catch a target by surprise. Usually, it worked.
     Shouts of surprise, even some cheers, filled the air now that the ‘Gale’s patrons couldn’t politely ignore what was happening. The two Crimson Company enforcers shot me a look of hot, melted death. This gave Tyre the opportunity to slam a porcelain beer stein against the head of one of his captors. It was a nice try, but it only earned him a swift punch in the mouth that left him dazed.
     On my way across the room, I got a better look at Tyre’s new ‘friends’. They were big. It was as if someone shaved two bugbears clean of their fur, then stuffed their pale naked selves into clothes. But my wiry self is a half a head shorter than the average anybody so ‘big’ is relative. Still, these two had the look of being a real problem.
     All I had on me were two daggers and a whip. Those enforcers were anything but a ‘two daggers and a whip’ sort of problem. A little extra help was going to be necessary.
     I darted around tables and ran past patrons, heading for Tyre and his kidnappers before they could get too far ahead. Along the way, I kept an eye out for anything useful. Anything would do that could give me an edge against those two Crimson Company mercenaries. But this was a pub, not a blacksmith’s shop, so I’d have to improvise.
     The best I found was a stray wooden plate from a table near the back door and the iron spade from beside the fireplace. It was the best of a poor selection, but it would have to do.
     Tyre had already been dragged out into the damp alley behind the pub by the time I had crossed the room. I yanked open the back door and rushed outside.
     “Hand over the map, old man!”
     Map? That stopped me in my tracks. It was a stupid question. Tyre was the captain of a windwagon. He had dozens of maps.
     Tyre was, even for an Ishnanori human, a tall man. He was a good head or taller than me, with broad shoulders from years of hard work. Neither was he out of shape, even if there was plenty of salt to that dark curly hair of his.
     But the Crimson Company enforcers were bigger, and there were two of them. One with red hair had Tyre pinned against the far wall of the alley and lifted off the ground enough that Tyre was almost standing on his toes.
     “Cough it up or we’ll beat it out of you!” Red Hair snapped, spitting in Tyre’s face.
     A dark grin split Tyre’s salt and pepper beard.
     “Kiss hell, Chowder-head. My maps are mine and not for the likes of you!”
     The enforcer slammed an uppercut into Tyre’s stomach, then slammed him back against the wall. It was the best opening I would get in a bad situation, so I dove in.
     A fireplace spade isn’t the most elegant weapon. It’s basically a square, small shovel on a short handle made entirely of iron. But in a back-alley fight, no one cared about elegant.
     I aimed low, slapping the flat of the spade against Red Hair’s knee. He yowled like a siren, then stumbled back. I kept after him and brought the spade down again. This time, the flat of the iron shovel slapped the knuckles on Red Hair’s hand when he grabbed for his knee. That earned me another yowl of pain, and more distance between the enforcer and Tyre.
     “Tyre, you all right?”
     Tyre coughed and nodded before he forced himself to stand up straight.
     “Fine enough. Been hit harder.” He suddenly pointed to my left. “Tela!
     It was the second enforcer. I hadn’t forgotten about him, but he moved a lot faster than I expected. The broad, blond-haired man swung a meaty fist. I tried to block or even duck but missed. The world exploded in stars as I retreated a step and blinked at the sharp pain that flashed from my left eye.
     “Should’a stayed inside, little lady. Stick to serving tables.”
     That comment mixed with Blondy’s smug posture made me see red. He swung again, but I was already moving. Sometimes all you need is the right motivation for the job at hand.
     I rammed the iron pole of the spade against his forearm while his fist descended. He grunted before I quickly backhanded him across the mouth with the flat of the shovel. A dull metal echo rang in the alley. Blondy stumbled away in a daze, holding his jaw. I glanced over to see if Tyre was holding his own or if Ki had arrived yet.
     There wasn’t any reason to worry. Tyre had produced a leather blackjack from inside his blue canvas vest and given Red Hair two fresh welts on both cheekbones. It hadn’t subdued Red Hair but made him keep his distance. This worked out well since it put the big man in reach of Ki.
     Ki had raced into the alley from the far end on light feet. Somehow, from somewhere, Ki had found a short, stout, polished stick. It was probably a walking stick from one of the nearby booths in the Silk Square.
     Either way, I wasn’t surprised. Ki favored what he called ‘natural weapons’, like a tiefling tail swipe to just an ordinary thick stick he would pick up from anywhere. Here, he put both to use.
     A hard slap with the walking stick to Red Hair’s left arm made the man growl in pain. Red Hair sound more surprised than hurt, but the effect was the same. He grabbed the spot where Ki hit him, then tried to step away. But we were in an alley and there weren’t many places to go. All that stumbling around must have aggravated the bruise I put on Red Hair’s knee because at that moment, the man tumbled to the ground.
     Ki didn’t hesitate. The physician whipped his tiefling tail across the side of Red Hair’s head. The big mad grabbed his face and tried to roll to safety. At least to wherever he thought ‘safe’ was right then.
     Suddenly, I lost my breath when I found myself slammed against the far alley wall. It was Blondy. I was so busy watching Ki and Tyre work that I lost track of my own ugly problem.
     I would’ve cursed, but I didn’t have enough air for that. Instead, I gasped and stepped away from the wall, looking for Blondy. He wasn’t hard to find since he running right at me.
     Blondy lunged with both hands, reaching for my collar or throat. It didn’t matter which, since I wasn’t there when he tried to lay his hands on me. The moment the man moved toward me, I ran at him, only I ducked under Blondy’s arms and stepped to my left. A quick spin, then I slammed the iron shovel against Blondy’s right thigh with a hard slap.
     My opponent yowled, winced, then stumbled sideways. I backed off to keep some distance between us. Darting around like that took a lot of air and I hadn’t quite gotten all of mine back yet. This fight needed to stop soon so I could get my breath back. Unfortunately, that’s when Blondy charged again.
     He ran at me from an angle this time, coming at me from my side, which spoiled the aim with my shovel. Then I remembered the wooden plate in my other hand. Quickly, I hurled the plate like a discus.
     My aim was true. The edge of the wooden plate smacked Blondy right between those bugbear-beady eyes then careened off down the alley. Blondy sputtered more than yelped this time, then backed away until he could lean against the stone wall farthest away from me.
     No one spoke for the next few seconds. Instead, we all communicated with ugly glares. It spoke hot volumes. I also took the opportunity to gulp down some sweet, sweet air and clear my head. Blondy was the first to break the mood.
     He limped carefully over to Red Hair and hauled his partner off the ground. Red Hair still had plenty of fight left in him and so tried to lunge for Ki. Blondy kept a tight hold of his partner’s collar.
     “Leave it. Not worth it. We’ll get the map later.”
     “The bastard hit me with his tail!” Red Hair sputtered.
     “Shut it! Not now!”
     With that, the fight was over.
     The pair of Crimson Company enforcers half-ran, half-limped down the alley toward the safety of the late afternoon crowds of the Silk Square. I planted my feet, flexed my grip on the iron shovel, and watched them leave. My left eye throbbed in time with my anger. I knew I’ll be feeling that in the morning.
     Behind me, I heard Ki being his usual physician self, asking Tyre where he was hurt and so on. Tyre replied, but grumbled the entire time about it. The man was forever a bad patient.
     My focus, though, remained on the two Crimson Company enforcers until they were out of sight. Once they were truly gone, I turned my attention to Ki and Tyre. Mostly, I was focused on Tyre.
     “Tyre. What in the name of the Devlfish’s Daughter was that about?”
     “They wanted a map,” he drawled.
     “So I heard,” I replied dryly.
     “What map?” Ki asked.
     Tyre stood up straight and took a couple of deep breaths to get his wind back.
     “No idea. They started off asking about my recent trips, trade runs, and the like. Those two never mentioned ‘which map’.” He tugged and smoothed out the old thick blue-black fearnought coat he always wore. “Really, I’m just disappointed. I remember the day when thugs were properly educated. There was a process to these things. This?” he shook his head. “Just a damn right shame of affairs.”
     “Oh, the horror,” Ki said with a sarcastic tone.
     Tyre ignored the comment since he was as used to Ki as I was. Ki was simply expressing his usual ‘cranky country physician’. Tyre cleared his throat and continued.
     “So, I figured they wanted my trade route maps. I get that from time to time.” He shook his head. “But those? I won’t hand those over to just anyone. Those routes are money for me.”
     Then the old smuggler grinned.
     “But those two are gone for now and my favorite Windtracers are here!”
     He clapped his hands together once, then placed his right hand over his heart. After that, he let out a belly laugh that brightened the air.
     “What can I do for you two?”
     I replied to the Ishnanori greeting in kind with a double clap then a hand over my own heart, and finished with a grin.
     “Yoi T’kalo.”
     Tyre had an infectious laugh. Even Ki had started to smile. Unfortunately, my smile was short-lived.
     “We’re needing something from you, too.” I pursed my lips. “Not just your maps though, we need you.”
     The old smuggler’s smile widened, colored by humor. He spread his arms wide.
     “Well, now it’s always nice to be wanted.” He waggled a calloused finger at me. “But I’m old enough to know better. So what is it? You two avoiding something? Need passage somewhere?” Tyre wiggled his eyebrows. “I know where we can dump a body or two.”
     I swapped a look with Ki, who said nothing. Sometimes he was not helpful at all. I sighed at Tyre.
     “Passage. We need to get out to the Great Chasm. As close to Long Deep as the Chasm allows.”
     Tyre’s humor melted out and was replaced with a stern, stony look. After a few seconds of staring at me, then Ki, he rubbed the bridge of his nose.
     “For someplace like that, you two had best start at the beginning. I’m taking you nowhere until I know exactly what’s going on.”

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