Chapter 04 – Change of Course, Part 01

Pile rushed Boruin almost before he made it through the front door of Simonez’s shop of Dry Goods and Assortments. “We got trouble, boss.”

“Where’s Simonez?” asked Boruin.

“Taking the boy upstairs. Haven’t seen Toaaho. I think he’s in trouble,” said Pile. He paced down the aisles as he talked, his hands unconsciously touching the wares: bits of nails, screws, bundles of thread, rolls of wire, leather string, iron pots, barrels of sweet syrup. His thieving fingers seemed to run on habit as his mind ran in circles. Boruin ignored him and climbed over the old man’s counter.

“No, really. Big trouble–and I mean big!” Pile added. Boruin sorted carefully through the merchandise stacked on the rear shelves. There were small bags of powders for a woman’s makeup, bottles of pills and alchemist’s mixtures. He found the switch he was looking for under a velvet box of Mana’Olai healing stones. The bottom panel of the counter unlocked with a snap, and Boruin pulled it open with the edge of his knife. It was unwise to carry all your valuables out into the wild, and Simonez had long been trusted with his Terre Haute stash.

“I’m talking huge! This guy was a giant, or at least a half-breed. Anyway, he got the drop on me at first,” Pile continued as Boruin fished around under the counter. There was only one thing he really needed. When his hands closed on the rolled document, a mean smile, much like Wraethe’s, formed on his lips.

“So he goes for me while I’m down-”

Boruin speared out a finger, pointing angrily at his partner. “Can you shut your mouth, Pile?” Boruin asked, his ability to ignore such annoyances now fully spent.

Pile could not. His eyes widened in exasperation. “But boss, I’m trying to tell you we got huge guys out for us!”

“Huge guys, as in more than one?”

“This guy alone was twice–if not three times–my size.”

“I seriously doubt there is a band of abnormally huge guys after us. Besides, everyone is twice your size,” Boruin added. He looked up as the jibe somehow shut the short man’s mouth. Instead it was Wraethe. She stood in the middle of the room, and she did not look well.

Exhausted, Wraethe rocked unsteadily on her feet. Blood dripped from her pale hands, creating petal-like stains on her dust-covered clothes. “People after us, Pile?” she asked with tired sarcasm.

For a moment he stood amazed at the gore covering her exposed skin. “Were they huge?” he finally whispered.

She leaned heavily against the counter. “No Pile, they weren’t huge. Just men. Simple men.” Wraethe’s energy was almost gone, even with Diun shining above. Had she rushed to Belok’s, she would have fainted at his door. Boruin knew when the attack began outside Simonez’s that she would be useless after. It took too much for her to wake in the daytime. The energy she spent there would leave her weak for the rest of the night.

“Pile, take her to the apartment,” Boruin ordered.

Wraethe moved toward the back of the shop, her steps slow as she carefully placed one foot in front of the other. “I can make it. You should take Pile with you,” Wraethe countered, her voice softening with each word.

“What for?” asked Boruin.

She leaned hard against an open barrel of dried bean. “You’ll need help–and he knows Belok.”

“If he can keep his mouth shut.” Boruin had no doubt that Pile had taken his attacker. The kid was fierce like a whirlwind when the odds were against him, but pride drove his tongue like a flag in the same gale.

“Wraethe is next, Sim,” said Boruin as the merchant appeared from the back of the shop.

The elderly merchant clutched at his fading hairline as he rushed to her. “Oh, my lady, what have they done to you?”

“Not me, Sim. Not mine,” she whispered. Though the man was thin and his muscles slight, Simonez easily lifted the taller woman and laid her gently across two bundles of soft cotton. Years of rolling barrels of iron nails and tossing sacks of flour about the shop had kept him strong, even in his declining years. He busied himself by wiping the blood from her arms. His white apron was soon a mess of red.

“We’ll get you all cleaned up and in some new clothes. Don’t you worry.”

“It’s you that needs the worrying,” said Boruin. “When they come, tell them we went in the front and out the back.”

Simonez tossed the ruined apron to Boruin. “Spread that around the courtyard. They’ll see the blood and know you’ve fled. And don’t you worry,” he added as Boruin pulled Pile toward the door, “this won’t be the first time I’ve forgotten knowing you.”

*****

As they walked uphill toward the North Quarter, the cool night air came down from the mountaintops and pushed the city’s heat into the swamps. It did nothing for Boruin’s anger, though. The thought of Belok’s betrayal and Pile’s inexhaustible moment-by-moment tale of the bar fight kept him livid.

Belok’s shop was dark, but the oil lamps still burned in the upstairs office. Pile picked the lock, and Boruin chose their steps, his long familiarity with Belok’s ways giving him a leg up on the tricks and traps inside. They arrived upstairs without alarm and hit the door with both their shoulders.

“BELOK YOU Son of a…” started Boruin, but the office was destroyed. Belok’s large print of the beggar Apros L’eure had been pulled from the wall. The scene of L’eure’s famous trade that had turned him from beggar to merchant king and crowned him the patron saint of all aspiring merchants was scattered in fragments across the room. Bits of crockery from the jungle ruins were smashed against precious carvings from the tribal Dalam. Leather bindings were torn from old books and their pages scattered across the furniture like fallen leaves. Vials of costly perfume and bottles marked “Oil of Dridge Lily” had been upended and now mingled in the delicate Mana’Olai rugs that covered the floors. The combined vapors stung their eyes and almost drove them back out of the room.

“Watch out for that razor fern,” Boruin said. The sharp-leafed plant had been tipped off its stand. No longer bound by its shattered pot, the fern had stretched its roots across the floor. It slowly inched out of the corner in search of dinner.

Pile leaned in close and whispered to Boruin, “The roots are reaching for that desk. There’s something warm-blooded back there.”

Boruin nodded his agreement. “Go take a—” His words were cut short as he slung himself to the side, dodging a thick copper basin pitched from behind the overturned
desk. Pile only spun around, and the heavy pot caught him in the shoulders, knocking him back down the first few stairs.

Boruin returned fire, throwing a crystal vase crashing against the ceiling above their attacker. The shards rained down and prompted a fierce return of a golden scale and its bronze set of weights. Boruin avoided all but an ornate two pound weight shaped in the lewd fashion of Belok’s favorite possession. The bronze penis caught him in the head and turned him around on his feet. He shook his eyes straight in time to see the attacker shoving open a window. The orange light from the oil lamps sparkled off his ornate earrings and caught the strands of precious metal woven into his robe. The rich merchant who fetches his own drinks, Boruin thought, recognizing him from their first step into Terre Haute.

He vaulted the razor fern and lunged around the desk, but tripped on the form of Belok, tied and crumpled in his overturned chair. The attacker landed hard on the street, but he was off and running before Boruin could lay his hands on anything to throw.

“Your mother was a Fae whore!” he yelled out of frustration as the man disappeared around the next corner.

“Thanks for the help there, Bucko,” Boruin said, turning to find Pile back on his feet.

Pile’s face grew red. “That pot really hurt! That metal is thick. It could have killed me!”

“Fast as lightning. Like the northern wind blasting down from the tyrant king’s own throne, isn’t that how you described yourself not two minutes ago?” Boruin yelled back.

“Yeah, but—”

“Shut the brat up, will you Boruin?” Belok muttered from his chair.

Boruin kicked the merchant square in the gut. “Tell me you had nothing to do with today.”

“Right, I confess. While strapped to my chair, in between punches I orchestrated whatever shit you’re talking about,” Belok replied. Pile and Boruin righted the chair. The merchant was bleeding from the mouth, and his always-immaculate hair bristled up like a turkey with its tail spread. Boruin stared at the man for a moment, considering whether one more kick would do him any real good or just be pleasurable. Instead he cut him free and helped him to his feet. Belok looked around and cursed slowly with as much vulgarity as Boruin had ever been privy to. He pulled the lines of his robe straight, a nervous habit of tucking each bloodied and wrinkled piece of fabric and sash back into its place.

“Just ‘cause it’s broken doesn’t mean you can have it,” said Belok, pointing at Pile so there would be no confusion. He turned to Boruin. “Keep his hands off my stuff. I told you never to bring him here!”

Pile’s eyebrow cocked up in disbelief, and his lips pressed tight. “I can’t believe I’m hearing this. I’ve brought you a lot of gear out of those jungles—”

“Whoresons, the both of you,” Boruin yelled. “Pile, keep your hands in your pockets. Belok, who’d you tell about our contract?” Belok just stared until Boruin began to think he’d have to put the merchant back in his chair and resume the intruder’s interrogation session.

“If I knew your mother’s name, I’d curse it in ways more foul than you can imagine and less foul than she deserves. I am the most honorable trader between Terre Haute and the blessed Ouilainne. For you to have the gall to accuse me of Breach of Contract… I’ve…you’d…If you think…” Belok stuttered in his rage before settling on something simple. “Screw you, Boruin!” Belok finished, sitting with a cold stare on the drawers of his overturned desk. Boruin leaned into the hard eyes and turned them back.

Boruin kept his voice cool and his tongue slow so Belok could not mistake the measure of his words. “Don’t give me your bull about Breach of Contract. That charge might be the vilest for Nefazo’s petty merchant kings. To me it’s back stabbing and ankle cuts. Anyone tries to bring me down like that, bring down my crew, and there will be no punishment worse than my wrath. Is that understood?”

“Screw you, Boruin,” Belok said again, but he dropped his eyes and breathed out deeply and in defeat. “I don’t know who attacked you. I don’t know who attacked me. But they must have some contact here if they caught you as you came into town. You trust your people?” he asked with a glance toward Pile.

“Yes,” Boruin said without hesitation.

“You didn’t take the main roads in, did you?” Boruin just stared until he continued. “No, of course not. I’ll talk to some people tonight, but I’m not staying long. I don’t intend to get attacked again. I’ll leave as soon as I have your answers and you bring your delivery. I assume you didn’t bring it out tonight.”

Pile huffed at the absurdity. Boruin silenced him with a look. “No,” he replied.

“Well, we’ll meet in the morning for your payment. After I’m gone you can burn this city down to find your attackers. It means little to me; all I have here is destroyed now, anyway.”

Boruin looked out the window, wishing to see that damn merchant peeking back around the street corner. “And you’ll go where with them chasing after? They’re after the boy, Belok, not me.” Boruin said.

“To Ouilainne.”

Boruin smiled at Pile and turned to give Belok his casual grin. “Our next job is in the capitol. With things as dangerous as they are, it might be best we ride along,” said Boruin.

“I’ve already hired an escort. Just give me what you brought out of that Fae-ridden jungle and you’ll get your money. Complete your side of the contract, and with any luck that’ll be the last time I’ll have to deal with you.”

“I think I’d rather wait.”

Belok rose from the desk. His fists pumped as if trying to squeeze some sort of help out of the perfumed air. “As much as you may think you’re above them, you know the rules of violating the contract. You would not leave the city alive.”

“I’m not in breach. Read it for yourself,” Boruin said. He handed over the rolled parchment he’d taken from the chest under Simonez’s floor. “No place specified for delivery, Belok. No time of delivery either. If I want to complete the bargain in Ouilainne, it’s within my right. Hell, I’ll finish my end north on the Pilean Emperor’s palace steps if I choose to.”

Belok smacked the parchment against the desk in frustration. “This was a contract written between friends. If I had known you would take liberties, I would have been more precise,” Belok said.

Boruin’s smile widened. “I know. Don’t feel betrayed, Belok. I couldn’t take the thought of it. Make your inquires and find out what we have before us. I’ll take your package south of the city. Be on the swamp road to Ouilainne by daybreak. Either meet us there or catch us further down the road,” Boruin said as he snatched the contract back out of the merchant’s tight fingers. He pushed Pile out the door and left Belok staring about the broken room.

End chapter 04 part 01.

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