Pile was first to see Belok’s huge guard standing on Undurlund’s doorstep.
“I told you, Boruin! I told you he was a big rutter! He thought he got an ass-kicking last-” Pile was cut short by the pale woman sliding out of the shadows. Wraethe slipped behind the man and swung her arm around his shoulder to slit his throat. The man fell gurgling, and Wraethe kicked him off the step.
“You at least could have challenged him!” Pile said. “I mean, he was a mean bastard, but a good fighter. He deserved better than that!”
Wraethe’s eyes seemed to glow red like a stoked ember. “When I need your advice on how to kill a man, I’ll pick it out of your head with my knife,” she spat. Pile held his tongue.
As Wraethe rolled the enormous body behind the barrels of a merchant’s shop, Boruin took Toaaho aside. They watched her give her rites to the dead man. She knelt, still shaking with the kill. Boruin watched for the calm after the rite, but it was slight.
“I can’t take her in there, not like this. Can you hold her? Keep her from killing any innocents?”
He looked as if he’d been asked to swallow the sea or wring wine from stone, but he said the only thing he could. “I’ll do what I can.”
“This will be quick or it will be over,” Boruin added as he headed for the door.
Pile grabbed his arm. “What’s the plan?” he asked.
Boruin shrugged. “We turn this over on Belok, or we take the boy and run.”
“And the money?”
“Let’s see what happens.”
Pile groaned. “Don’t tell me we might not get paid after six months of work. Don’t tell me this might be for nothing, Boruin.”
“Maybe you can take down Wraethe. There’s bound to be a bounty on her if we don’t leave soon,” Boruin answered, joking but feeling more truth there than he liked.
Belok’s man turned as the front door opened into the small reception hall. His eyes widened from curiosity to surprise as he recognized the old man striding across the floor. Boruin snatched out, grabbing an ornate earring with one hand and shoving him in the chest with the other. The man bounced off the wall. Pile caught him and slapped a palm over his open mouth. The Nefazo merchant held his scream as Pile fondled the other string of gems dangling from his last earlobe.
“Now that you are properly focused on this situation,” Boruin said, “I want to ask you something. I want you to take it seriously. Where is Belok?” The merchant nodded over his shoulder. Pile turned him with the earring and headed for a curtained doorway.
“We’re wasting time here, Toaaho. The Makua’Moi are getting ready and we’re sitting still,” Wraethe growled as she paced back and forth in front of the doorstep. “Look at all the people staring. They want to see if you Köpeka are as fierce as legend says.” Blood oozed from her palms, her nails biting deep into her skin.
“You just killed a man. They’re scared.”
“They’re not watching me,” she said, standing on the step below and leaning into his ear. “Can you see the ones in the shadows? I can see their eyes, Toaaho. They’re watching you,” she whispered. Toaaho kept his mouth shut, but Wraethe knew she had a crack started, and she kept chipping.
“Evening,” Boruin said as they walked quickly through the greeting room and past a stunned clerk. The man jumped up to follow, halted as he saw the blood dripping across the shoulder of Pile’s hostage, then began to stutter.
“St-st-stop. An appointment is necessary-”
Pile shoved the bleeding man on, and they moved deeper into the building. Clerks and contract officers leaned out of their doors as Pile pushed the merchant quickly past. The small secretary chased after in silence, having given up his request for them to stop. Boruin watched for any brave enough to step out of their offices; none did. Their job was contracts.
When the weeping Nefazo pointed to the next doorway, Boruin took the lead. The greeter made one more plea for their attention as Boruin kicked their hostage through the entrance. The curtain tore from above as the man fell yelling onto a gravel floor. Boruin stepped into a large garden, ornate boulders set evenly across the open yard. Small trees rose from the edges to spread across the Diuntyne sky. Belok and another man sat at a long table. Ten men stood with weapons drawn, guarding them. Their job was not contracts.
“You must be Belok, the gentleman Merchant Boruin claims stole the boy,” said the man seated opposite the Nefazo merchant. He, like the constable, was of Mana’Olai blood. The gray etching its way across his dark hair and the old wrinkles on his serious face betrayed him less as being Undurlund’s chief than the hands remaining folded and the calm face showing no opinion of the violent entrance.
“I am Boruin. He’s Belok.” Boruin replied.
“Well, whoever you are, you owe me a new curtain.”
“I don’t think this is going to be quick,” Pile whispered.
“Where’s the boy?” Boruin asked. The boy jumped from behind a large boulder on Belok’s side of the table. He waved and climbed up the knotted rock to sit and watch.
“I’m Merchant Oni,” said the chief. “I assume you and this gentleman are familiar with each other. If you will have a seat, perhaps we can solve this dilemma.”
“As I said before,” Belok began, “Constable Eloni validated my identity,–though I imagine him dead if these two are free. There is a woman and a Mana’Olai somewhere about, Merchant Oni, and I can not advise strongly enough that they are dangerous.”
“And yet it is you that I’m most worried about,” Oni said.
Belok sat back in his chair, his face a controlled look of pleasant innocence, but Boruin could sense the man’s unease. The guards watched the Nefazo almost as if he would spring over the table and slaughter the Undurlund chief. Boruin had opened his mouth to refute Belok’s claim, but now he shut it and sat down at the table.
Oni stared into the garden, watching the boy climb about on the large boulder. “Do you, sir, have any identification that can support your claim?” he asked.
“No, sir, I haven’t,” Boruin replied.
“Merchant Boruin’s papers seem to be in fair order. We hired Merchant Laques,” Oni gestured to the man on the floor, “to deliver the contract to Nefazo. He has assured us that Merchant Boruin is our man.”
“And one Nefazo merchant vouching for another carries a lot of weight in Easlinder?” Boruin asked. Oni gave a slight smile.
Belok jumped at the opening. “As a slave owner, you are hardly one to judge moral bias. Especially when you own one of the famed Köpeka!” said Belok, his smile was snake-like- wide and tight. Oni continued on as if the Nefazo hadn’t spoken.
“The boy seems equally friendly to you both, so how will you convince me that you are Boruin?” Oni asked.
“I have no real proof, but I don’t think I need it,” Boruin said.
Belok laughed. “Perhaps you could explain that to all of us.” Orin raised his eyebrows in agreement and waited with his hands folded.
“You paid a great deal to have the boy brought here,” Boruin answered, “paid a lot to have my people do it. You wouldn’t have sent Merchant Laques, a Nefazo courier, if you couldn’t mark me when I arrived.” He hadn’t considered that until he saw Belok looking so worried. He bet it hadn’t occurred to him, either, until Oni had called his guards.
Oni leaned forward. “So then you can guess my true worry: is this Belok just a swindle or something much more dangerous?”
“I can assure you that he is a dangerous swindle,” Boruin answered with a smile at Belok. The merchant was fuming.
“If you think you can slight me, you are wrong,” Belok snarled, showering the table with spittle as his mouth continued flying. “This man has no proof of his claim! It is a violation of every trade negotiation, every contract law. I have proven my personage to the Easlinder customs house, received my visa. How can you claim that he, unproved and untrustworthy, is me?”
“There are signs to be read, Merchant,” Oni said, wiping his hands dry. “You do not possess them.”
“Treason! This is a breach of the highest order, and I demand a hearing before the trade courts! The merchant’s jury will never allow such a malfeasance!” Belok roared, rising in his seat though the guards began to surround him.
Oni turned toward Boruin. “I think now that what you said to the constable can be had as truth, Merchant Boruin.”
“You heard that?”
“Of course,” Oni replied, “but we could not make judgment at that time. I am afraid our unpreparedness caused you some difficulty. For that, I apologize.” He bowed his head until it almost touched the stone table.
“It is unnecessary, but I thank you.”
“I demand your proof!” Belok shouted. His face was now red, a vein rising from his neck like a whale about to breach the surface.
“Will you oblige him?” Oni asked. “I’ll admit, we are most curious to see your markings as well.” Boruin’s smile faded with a look of confusion and then dropped altogether as he understood. They sat waiting for his reply as his mind began to run like it was falling downhill.
Who knew of his runes? Few had seen them, and for most it was fleeting glimpse, as if their eyes had decided against it at the last moment. Those usually shook their heads and forgot.
In Ouilainne, a beggar had once followed him through the entire Cabere district, chased him from the docks to the leathers market. The man had actually risen from his whore and followed, proclaiming his devotion and faith. For three days Boruin had quite a little church, until Wraethe returned from a moon rage in the swamps and put an end to it. No one but the beggar had really been able to see anything; the other devotees he gathered were addle-brained and half-wits, but Boruin almost had to break the beggar’s fingers to keep him from tracing the runes into the dirt. No other had seen his secret so clearly–not until the boy. Someone from before. That was the answer; there could be no other.
“All right,” Boruin said, holding out his arm. The boy was hanging off the boulder, grinning at him, but that didn’t mean he had made the right choice.
End chapter 09 part 01.