How had it all gone so wrong?
Jumping through the—thankfully open—window of the pub and away from the cursing, stinking, ale-drenched guards within, Niko scoured his memories of the past hours, seeking any clue as to how a day begun so propitiously had so quickly turned to—
Shattered pottery, a right stack of it, cut into his thoughts as well as his shoulder, adding the sharp tang of blood to the hoppy ale and sweat stink from within.
Still and all, he’d seen far worse in battle so he shook his head, rolled to his feet and noted, with some self-recrimination, the rug merchant’s stall he’d expected to land in was set up the next window over.
Another tick on the day’s ‘gone horribly wrong’ ledger.
“You!” the potter stared at the ruins, then at Niko, “You—”
“Apologies.” Niko replied with a quick smile and a half bow, shedding shards of crockery from a frame both tall and lean.
Since the merchant was both female and inclined to men and Niko—dark of hair and eye with olive skin and an intriguing scar on his chin—was something of a gift to such women, her angry cry died mid-breath and became instead a sigh. “No trouble,” she began but alas, found herself speaking to the charming interloper’s back, as he was already threading his way through the crowded market, reminding himself to have some coins delivered to the merchant as soon as he received his share of the day’s take.
Assuming he was free—and alive—to receive a share of the day’s take. The scent of midarif, mingled with cezaran, caught an updraft from among the spice merchants setting up tents along the midway. Niko inhaled deeply, wondering if it would soon be his last breath of freedom.
The potter was still gazing longingly after Niko when a half-dozen Crescent Guards of the Royal Constabulary came piling out the pub’s door with a woman, as comely as the man who’d fled, held between two of that unfortunate number.
The first who’d strode out, a burly fellow dripping head to toe with ale, glared over the frenetic movement that was the market. “Which way did he go?”
“Follow the stricken gazes.” Captain Idrissa Rynin stepped around the hoppy guard and her dark eyes fell upon the potter who was still looking, yes, quite dazed. She then glanced at the blonde being held by two other guards, both sporting several contusions, courtesy of the missing Niko. “How does he do it?”
“It’s called charm,” the blonde said dryly. She gave the captain’s company a scathing once over. “I’m not surprised you don’t recognize it.”
Idrissa managed a small smile as her men glowered. “Take her to the market square.”
“You think to find him there?” the sergeant, he of the dripping beard, asked.
Idrissa’s smile became something much less friendly. “I think to get his attention there.”
Niko, for his part, had taken shelter atop the traveling players’ caravan (Kah bless market days) and, hunkered amidst the props and crates of costumes, he listened for any progress of the Guards’ search. Not an easy task, as the players’ stage was not only close to the busy hub of the market place, it was set before the blacksmith and the horse auction, forcing everyone in the vicinity to compete with the rhythmic clang of the blacksmith’s hammer, the whinnying of horses up for auction, and a pitchy rendition of Jora’s Lament, currently being performed on the stage below him.
Far from the perfect hideaway, but at least it allowed him to take stock of the situation without accidentally leaping into a firecat cage or tripping over a spice merchant’s porash bin, both unfortunate experiences already having been added to the ledger of horribly wrong since his earlier defenestration.
So while he continued to bleed from the pottery and firecat incidents, respectively, and his nose itched to sneeze away the lingering spice and his ears rebelled against the notes the soprano on stage was discovering, he ran through the events leading up to his current situation.
He and his partner, Daria, had arrived separately in the coastal city of Samarind. As agreed, they met in the market pub which was, predictably, crammed full of visiting merchants, soldiers from the nearby fort, and locals seeking a respite from the tumult outside.
For a time, all had gone as planned. Niko had begun with the Drunken Trip, followed up with the Tipsy Threat, which would lead to the Overconfident Challenge which, most days, incited the First Punch. From there it was simply a matter of guiding the domino effect of fists into the full-scale brawl, which would keep everyone in the pub distracted from Daria as she removed the purses from a selection of previously identified (which was to say, loaded) marks.
It was a simple scam, made simpler by the crowds of market days, and had worked well for them in Kisk, Trelus, and Oster-by-the-Sea.
But not today. Not in Samarind.
Because today, in Samarind, just as he’d reached the Overconfident Challenge, a good third of the pub’s customers threw off their assorted robes and cloaks to reveal the distinctive leather-embossed armor of the Emperor’s Crescent Guard.
Niko still wasn’t certain the crossbow bolt that had thunked into the pillar at his side had been a warning, an accident, or a near-miss, nor had he been inclined to stick around and find out.
Now here he was, hidden between a trunk of moldering canvas palm trees and a barrel of juggling clubs, wondering how Daria fared, where the guards were, and most of all, how they’d managed to track him to Samarind in the first place.
Then he wondered something else.
He wondered why the pitchy soprano was no longer butchering Jora’s Lament. Nor, now he was noticing, was the auctioneer pressing for a higher bid on the latest nag, and he could no longer hear the repetitive clang, clang of the blacksmith’s hammer.
Which, he supposed, meant—
— they’d found him.
He closed his eyes, weighing the options. He truly did not want any blood to be shed (especially not his own), but he also had no intention of allowing himself to be taken. Reluctantly, he reached for his sword.
“Ingarrion! We have your partner!”
His hand froze on the hilt. Daria? Had they harmed her?
“Niko!” he heard her call. “Don’t listen to them—”
Even at a distance, he knew the sound of a fist striking flesh. By the time her short cry followed, Niko was on his feet. From his position atop the caravan, he could see the square, emptied but for three people.
There was Daria, her head bowed, golden hair covering her face, in the hands of the bearded brute who’d taken the first ale-bomb back in the pub. Next to them was a slim, terracotta-skinned woman he took to be their captain. She wore shoulder-length black hair without adornment or head gear. Odd for a captain of the Guard, he thought, then he also noted not a one of the three were looking up.
Did that mean they hadn’t seen him? And if they hadn’t seen him, could he make it out of this?
Possibly, but only if he were willing to leave Daria…
“You’ll let her go,” he said aloud and, even as the trio turned his way, he could see no less than four Guardsmen rising from the rooftops surrounding the square, their crossbows aimed his way.
Niko didn’t know if he felt better or worse, knowing there really hadn’t been a way out.
“I won’t fight,” he said, holding his hands out to his sides, “but you must release her.”
“Come down and we’ll talk about that,” the captain said.
The bearded brute twisted Daria’s arm and she let out a cry of distress.
“I’m coming,” Niko said quickly. He looked at the nearest bowman. “I’d be obliged if no one shot me.”
The captain gave a slight gesture and the guards removed fingers from triggers.
Not quite the Concordia Delian, but he’d have to take it.
With both hands held carefully to his side, he leapt down to the stage, taking the shock of the landing with the ease of long habit. He kept his arms carefully open as he strode down to the dusty pavement of the square and until he was facing the captain who, for her part, simply looked expectant.
Niko swore softly and drew his sword, reversed it and handed it, hilt first, to the waiting officer, who took it with a cordial half-bow, though she never took her eyes off of him. Not even when another guard appeared to place Niko in irons.
“Let her go,” he said. He didn’t resist when the shackles were clamped around his wrists. He was focused on Daria, whose head was still bowed. Knowing his fellow thief as he did, he could only imagine what sort of damage she must have suffered before these armored bastards captured her.
The captain gestured a third time and the brute released Niko’s partner in crime — and handed her a purse.
What? “Daria, what is this?”
“Oh, Niko.” She raised her head to show not a trace of abuse. “Do I really have to explain?”
“Yes,” he said, holding up wrists sporting the latest in metal-wear, “I rather think you do.”
“We made your friend an offer,” the captain told him. She stepped in to face him as a second guard joined the first to flank Niko. “One she found difficult to refuse.”
Niko looked at Daria, who shrugged.
“But,” he shook his head, still somehow in denial, “we’re partners!”
“Temporary collaborators, at best,” Daria said. She tucked the purse, which Niko had to confess was quite sizable, into her cloak.
Still… “What about honor among thieves?”
“Niko, Niko, Niko.” She shook her head sadly. “This is honor among thieves. Something you’d understand if you truly were a thief.”
And here he winced, but none of the Guard seemed to take note of the comment.
“If it helps,” Daria said, “I kept you much longer than most of my part—collaborators,” she corrected herself.
“Oddly, no, that doesn’t help.”
At that, she laughed. “Oh, but I will miss you, handsome Niko with the dark, dark eyes.”
She started toward him, but the captain cleared her throat in clear warning, so the thief shrugged again and settled for blowing him a kiss. “When you curse me, and you will,” Daria said with a knowing smile, “be creative.”
Then she turned and walked away.
At which point, he did indeed begin to curse her. But because she’d asked, and he a gentleman, he did so with profound and multilingual creativity.