Chapter 5

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“Here’s your share, Rell. Three crowns, not a bad haul,” Tanis said dropping the coins into his friend's hands. “We got eleven and five in total, but I had to pay the old bastard. He even had the gall to charge me for use of the horse and cart.”

Smoke from lamps and fire pits curled up to the cavern ceiling painting the heavens black. It suited the ambience of the pits, a dark place beneath the city where people came to forget their troubles and find new ones.

“No need to know the details. I trust you not to rip me off.” Rell was too focused on the mix of coins that fell into his open palm, all shillings. His eyes drifted towards the gambling tables as he imagined all he could do with it.

“What's this, you all been up to no good?” Ariella asked. She managed to pluck a coin before her brother snatched his hand away.

“All above board. We just bought a few things before they reached the books,” Tanis said but when he saw Ariella's look of mock horror he scrambled to explain. “It’s a tradition. We don't get paid to process the tithe, so we’re allowed to take a pick of some of it. The master knows about it.”

“Does he now? Not sure I believe you but buy me a drink and I might be persuaded to look the other way.” Ariella put an arm around Tanis's shoulders and steered him towards the bar.

“You sure you don't want me to hold on to some of it?” Barris said following his friend’s gaze. A cheer went up from one of the dice tables and Rell’s face lit up with excitement. “You’ll end the night with nothing if you don't put some away. Give some to me and I’ll keep it safe.”

“Are you my father, Barris? Money is meant to be spent, that's why it’s called money and not sheep, or rocks. I earned it just so that I could spend it.”

“There’s a difference between spending and losing,” Barris called out but his words were wasted as Rell stalked off to join the other gamblers. He was about to follow but Tanis waved to him from the bar and held up an overflowing mug of ale. "He'll never learn when to fold."

“Stuck up bastards. Look at how they sneer at anyone that gets close,” Ariella said gesturing across the fighting pit to a group of men and women dressed in clothes finer than anyone in the bar had ever worn in their lives. "They even brought their own goblets."

“The lordlings? Ignore them, they’ll get a bit of blood splattered on their boots and then they’ll leave.” Rell managed to tear his gaze from the fighting pit long enough to give the newcomers the once over. “First time here by the looks of them, even brought a bodyguard.”

At the rear of the group stood a stout man clad in black padded leathers with a slender sword at his waist. He kept his arms crossed and glared at anyone that dared approach his rich wards.

“Bit theatrical, isn't he?” Rell said. “All he’s missing is a mask.”

“That's Kreen. A dragon rider of great renown. I've watched him fly.”

“How closely?” Rell cocked an eyebrow at his sister.

A bare-chested man with a dragon's head tattooed on his back entered the ring and sprinkled sawdust from a bucket onto the floor. The dainty way he spread it around with the tip of his boot making sure to cover every patch of blood, struck Rell as comical but he knew enough of the fighter's reputation to keep his opinion to himself.

“You never got the dragon-riding thing, did you?” Ariella said. She'd only worn the leathers for a few months but she felt naked without them.

“I know how much it meant to you, but it never appealed to me. It’s the heights, looking down and seeing the ground that far away. Turns my stomach just thinking about it.” Rell gave a mock shiver and Ariella nudged him with her elbow.

“It's exhilarating, I can't think of anything else that has the same pull, that stirs something so deep.”

“How about winning five shillings on a boxing match?” Rell said before cheering as the two men came forward to start the fight. The dragon head fighter had left his bucket behind and now raised his fists in salute to the crowd. The challenger eyed him warily and stuck to the edge of the circle.

“Oh, Rell, you haven't wasted your money again, have you?”

“It's not a waste if I enjoy spending it or if I win. I can always make more. One day I will be a pauper with only the skin on my back and that will be the saddest day of my life, but not today. Hit him!” Rell jabbed his fists as if he could increase the chances of his fighter winning, a feat that looked less likely with each passing blow. Rell cringed as 'dragon head' launched a flawless attack on the challenger almost knocking him out in the first few seconds. "Get up!"

“How are you such a bad gambler? I’ve never seen you win.” Ariella laughed as she watched her brother wince every time his champion took a hit.

“That's not true. I bet you that I could get Barris to steal that basket of pastries.”

“You were ten! And I told you it was a stupid idea.”

“They were tasty though.”

“Not worth the beating that we got for it.”

“I got the beating, remember?” The air was smoky and the lighting outside the ring poor, but Rell could see the troubled look come over her face.

“I was in charge of you. When you got punished so did I.”

“I was always in trouble,” Rell said, and Ariella gave him a wry smile. His face dropped as he caught her meaning. “I’m so sorry, why didn't you tell me?”

“I wanted you to be you. Growing up without mum was hard work, it was only me and you and…” Ariella trailed off. She eyed the bottle sticking out of Rell's coat pocket and fished it out.

“What, Ari?” Rell couldn't hear the fight. A part of him was back in the house shivering in the corner of his room, his back hurting from the whipping.

“I was damned if I was going to let the bastard break you. You've got a wild beast in you, Rell, your own dragon and don't let anyone break it.” Ariella pulled the cork and took a long swig, the clear liquid sloshed around inside the brown bottle.

“Ari?” Rell said in a small voice.

“Don't you dare apologise.” Ariella wiped her mouth with the back of her hand. She breathed deeply and her cheeks turned a rosy red.

“Can I borrow a shilling? I think I lost.” Rell pointed to the boxer prone upon the sawdust floor, blood trickling from the beaten man's mouth. The winner slapped the dragon head tattoo on his chest and held a bloody fist up for the crowd to see but the response was muted.

“Do you actually look at what you’re betting on, or do you just choose blindly?” Ariella handed the bottle back and Rell made a show of wiping the neck before taking a sip.

“Blindly every time. I'm cultivating my inner voice, my third eye.” Rell screwed his up as the unconscious fighter was dragged from the ring.

“Your third? Oh, I don't want to know.” Ariella turned away from Rell slightly, her attention back on the dragon rider on the other side of the ring. The lords were gesturing rudely to the ringmaster and demanding fresh entertainment.

“All of this is practice see.” Rell waved at the ring. “You sit on a dragon, and I bet blindly. Only while you get better I get worse.”

“You're supposed to get better with practice,” Ariella said absentmindedly. She was watching a drunk attempt to pick a fight with the lordlings. He shrugged off a friend and took a few steps toward them shaking a fist. "Don't do it, you fool," Ariella muttered as the drunk made as if to throw his drink at one of the women.

"That's not how you train your third eye. At some point, I'll become so bad at choosing the correct path that all I'll have to do is do the opposite. My third eye is upside down you see.” Rell took another sip from the bottle and tapped Ariella on the arm with it, she took it without looking. “It was quite the revelation I assure you. I thought I was on the wrong path but then I fell down some stairs, I forget which ones, I think I’ve fallen down every staircase in this city, but the important thing is how I landed. Are you listening to me?”

Ariella handed the bottle back without drinking, she pointed across the ring at the brewing argument between the drunk and the lordlings.

“Watch this,” Ariella said. Rell pushed his head forward as he tried to focus that far, he could make out the dragon rider although being dressed all in black against a black background made him hard to follow. He saw the drunk man as he entered the picture jabbing a finger at the dragon rider.

“Oh, I hate that guy, he picks a fight with everyone when he loses. Blames everyone else for his bad luck. I hate poor losers.”

“Rell, do you not see the irony in that?”

“I am not a poor loser; I lose well and as I said it's practice. No one has lost as badly as I have, and no one is as ready to lose again.”

“Here he goes.” Ariella gripped Rell's arm as the drunk raised his fists. One of the lords gave a subtle nod and the dragon rider snapped forward with lightning speed. Most only saw the drunk flying through the air but Ariella caught the movement, she could even name the motion. The crowd hushed and backed away from the nobles.

“Gorphin but that was fast,” Rell said in a hushed voice.

“That’s nothing compared to what he can really do. I could have learned how to do it if only I hadn’t wasted my chance on saving that fool.”

“You wouldn’t have let him die. It’s not who you are, Ari.”

“What am I now? I was almost part of something. I could have been a dragon rider, Rell. Do you know how rare dragons are in Nostvary? The empire killed them all off except for our valley. We have the only dragons left in the entire world. That’s power.”

“The Jurati have dragons.”

“Water dragons are pets,” Ariella snapped. Another pair of combatants were stepping forward, but the two siblings were locked in their own world and let the audience move forward to take their place. Rell felt the pull of the bar, but Ariella held him back. “The Jurati are so weak that they’re begging the empire to let them in. But the Black Mesa is crumbling and Nesher is just a den of villains and feeble-minded nobles. Do you know what this means?”

“That I should go to Nesher? I don’t know. Let’s just get a drink and find Tan and Barris.” Rell started searching the crowd but Ariella dug her fingers into his shoulder. "I'm listening."

“It means we can finally realise our destiny. It’s time for the dragon empire to rise again.”

Rell was about to scoff but his sister’s eyes were filled with a fervour he’d never seen before.

“You’re serious? God’s, Ari. The council exiled the imperialists. Our valley barely survived the last war with the empire. I’ve read about the battles, how the legions brought down our invincible dragons. Their bones litter the desert.”

“But it won’t be like that this time. The emperor’s a child, a puppet for the elves. If we push them, they’ll run.”

“Forget about it and have a drink.” Rell spotted Tanis holding court before a laughing table, Barris at the centre with a beauty on his lap. “You need a laugh.”

“Why should I forget about it? Do I tell you to stop dreaming about visiting the stupid elves?”

“You’re not going to be a dragon rider. You failed the test.”

Ariella glared at him before shoving a bystander out of her way and storming off.

“Ari!” Rell tried to follow her, but an angry man got in his face and shoved him hard in the chest.

“Your friend spilt my drink.”

“I don’t care, just get out of my way.”

Rell made to follow but a hairy arm slid around his shoulder, locking his neck in the elbow.

“Rell,” the owner of the arm said tightening the grip. Rell winced as he turned to find Vern, a local heavy, giving him a predatory smile. The man’s face was a strange mixture of features, eyes that didn't seem to line up and a nose trying to retreat towards his left ear.

“Vern, what a delightful surprise.” Rell slapped the money lender on the arm. An action that brought a grunt of disapproval from a boulder-shaped man standing to the side. “Durnt, isn’t it? Another delightful surprise, this really is an evening of, well, delightful surprises.” Rell belched in Vern’s face and muttered an apology. “What brings you here, to the pits? Gambling perhaps?”

“I don't gamble, Rell, you should know that about me,” Vern said in a nasal voice. “I came here to see if I couldn’t settle a few debts. I find it best to catch the winner before he loses it all once more.”

“And catch the loser before he comes to his senses and leaves.” Rell winked. “Because then you couldn’t take advantage of his perilous state and loan him money at ridiculous rates.”

“Careful,” another man warned from Rell’s right side. This man was the spitting image of the one on the left and Rell did a double-take, not convinced he wasn’t seeing double. He focused on the hair, one had none while the other seemed to be made from the stuff.

“I thought you were Durnt?” Rell said to the man on his left but he shook his head.

“I’m Durnt, that’s Ruediger,” Durnt said from somewhere behind the mop of brown hair and ferocious beard.

“It so confusing what with you two being twins and all. Beg my pardon,” Rell said and hiccoughed.

“They’re not brothers, Rell,” Vern said.

Rell gave them another look and then smiled at Vern.

“Have you any money on you, Rell?” Vern studied Rell’s shabby appearance and quickly came to his own conclusion.

“I’m afraid not, lost the lot, I’m without a pot,” Rell twisted his mouth in concentration, “money I haven’t got. Not even enough for a nightcap.” Rell shrugged in apology.

“For someone so bad at gambling, you do seem to do a lot of it. I can only imagine that a man as smart as you has an ulterior motive. Do you, Rell? Is there some long con going on here?”

“It’s a secret.” Rell attempted to tap the side of his nose but kept missing. He gave up and grinned instead.

“He looks like someone’s already had a go at him tonight,” Durant said to Vern. “You want us to even him out?”

“This is just how I look,” Rell said smoothing his coat out. He found the bottle in a pocket and tried to pull it out, but Ruediger pulled his hand away and shook his head.

Vern gave Rell a thought look. “What do you think, Rell? You owe me a lot of money and you're late paying.” Vern’s tone shifted to business-like so sharply that it caught Rell off guard and he blinked as he tried to pay attention. “Can you pay now, or should I have your sister’s legs broken?”

Rell tensed and the two men on either side took a step closer.

“Now, Vern, there’s no need for that. This is my business and nothing to do with her.”

“You say that but you're not taking care of your business. I’ve come looking for you on many occasions only to find you left just before I arrived. Rell, you owe me well over a hundred marks. That's not a small sum.” Rell made as if to interrupt but Vern held a finger up. “Just listen, Rell. I’m a busy man and as much as I enjoy the banter, I do find it time-consuming. I have surmised that you have no intention of paying me what you owe. An hour ago, I decided that we should move to other means, but Durnt convinced me to give you another chance. He said that if you had any way of paying back then you should be given that opportunity. Now, you say you have nothing on you?”

Rell nodded his thanks to one of Vern’s bodyguards and then to be sure, the other one. He started to speak but Vern raised a finger.

“I have one last offer to make you, Rell. I have a debt that needs collecting but the man has proved elusive. I want you to collect and I’m willing to repay your service by taking half the money collected and putting it towards your own debt. That is what is called an offer you can't refuse.”

“Refuse it,” the hair mountain growled.

“I’m not your lackey, Vern. Get one of them to do it. No offence to either of you.”

The bald man snapped his fist into Rell’s stomach doubling him up in pain but strong hands gripped his shoulders and straightened him back up.

“I said no offence,” Rell gasped.

“It was an offer you couldn’t refuse.” Vern continued. “If you try to then this is what will happen. I’ll have people visit your friends and break their bones, then they’ll find your sister and do the same to her. All while you’re rotting in the basement of one of my tenements being eaten by rats. What do you think of my offer now?”

Rell grimaced at the pain but managed a thin smile.

“I think it sounds wonderful. What's the address?” Rell clutched his hands to his stomach and fought the urge to throw up. It would be satisfying to vomit on Vern’s shoes, but it might not go so well for him.

“Can you read?” Vern asked as he held a square of parchment out.

“I can read better...” Rell stopped talking and held a hand up to ward off the hairy one. “I’m sorry. Yes, yes I can read.”

Vern looked Rell over as if rethinking his decision, but he sighed and handed Rell the address. “Don’t fail me, Rell. I don't like being disappointed.”

Vern turned and left, his two bodyguards trailing behind him.

Rell unfolded the parchment to find the word ‘the baker’ scribbled along with an address in a part of the city he was unfamiliar with. He tried to imagine himself roughing a baker up and taking his money, but Rell could only see himself sneezing and walking away with a burnt loaf of bread. He crumpled the note up intending to drop it on the floor but slipped it in his pocket. It wouldn’t hurt to keep hold of it, at least until he’d sobered up.


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