DargonZine 20, Issue 1

Taking Root

Sy 22, 1017


“How much longer until he discovers you?” Darrow feinted, and then slashed. Sweat from the mid-afternoon sun dripped into his eyes, and the scent of hay and horse manure from the nearby stable filled his nostrils as his chest heaved. He slashed again and his opponent ducked beneath Darrow’s wooden knife and skipped back out of range, but not before tapping the inside of Darrow’s forearm with his own weapon.

“Fight, don’t talk,” the other said, and began circling, his wooden knife held close to his body, the other hand drawn up to protect it and hide its movements. “That hand should be going numb after the cut I just gave you.”

Dutifully, Darrow switched his weapon to the other hand, taking the reverse grip that he usually favored when fighting with his left. His opponent moved in then, slashing. Darrow turned sideways and stepped back to avoid the first two strokes, and parried the third. It would have been forearm-to-forearm, but his reversed grip caught his opponent across the wrist.

“Tanner, I’m serious. And you gave me that.” Darrow nodded toward his opponent’s wrist.

“Straight, I did. You got sloppy and let me take your knife hand. I thought I’d use my off-hand, too. Make it even.”

“‘Even’. Straight. As if you couldn’t take me six in ten with your bad hand to my good.”

Tanner just laughed, and continued to prod Darrow’s defenses. Darrow was amazed that even after growing another four years, he was still no match for Tanner with a blade, despite the other’s small stature. Outwardly, Tanner looked about twelve, four years Darrow’s junior, but Darrow knew that his friend had actually seen twenty three summers. Whatever illness or curse had halted Tanner’s aging, it hadn’t stopped him from developing an adult’s abilities. Further, he was one of the Rhydd Pobl, a gypsy group whose members were notoriously skilled with knives.

From a very young age, the Rhydd Pobl played a game called cylel chware, or knife dancing. That was the game the two friends were playing. Tanner had begun teaching Darrow how to fight shortly after the two had met.

Darrow saw an opening. Tanner was putting his weight down heavily on his left foot each time he came in: “rooting himself”, the gypsies would call it. If a fighter was rooted, it was difficult for him to shift his weight, making it harder to dodge or counter. Darrow seized his chance and thrust for Tanner’s exposed shoulder. In a blur, the gypsy shifted his weight to the right, outside of Darrow’s knife arm. Darrow turned instinctively to follow Tanner’s motion, realizing a half heartbeat too late what was about to happen.

Tanner had laid the edge of his wooden knife against Darrow’s back, below the ribs. As Darrow turned, his own motion brought the blade around to just under his breastbone. Had the weapon been real, his entire side would have been opened up.

The gypsy grinned at Darrow’s dismay. “Not bad, for a shadow boy.”

“Former shadow boy.”

“Oh, is that what it is, today?” Tanner’s grin widened, and he pretended to clean his knife on Darrow’s shirt.

Darrow knew that it was time for him to leave the shadow boys, but he had been delaying the decision. The shadow boys were Dargon’s loosely organized orphans, sleeping in vacant buildings and surviving through theft and odd jobs. Darrow had been on such a task when the two had met. They had been enemies at first, but Darrow had agreed to help Tanner save his companion, Rhadia, from a group called the Bloody Hand of Sageeza. She had been captured, and Tanner’s adoptive father and step-brother had been slain, in part because Darrow and another shadow boy had been spying on them for a man who had turned out to be a member of the Bloody Hand.

After her rescue, Rhadia had been able to carry information to the Rhydd Pobl about the plans of the Bloody Hand. According to Tanner, the gypsies had dealt their enemies a major defeat near someplace called Tench. Darrow was sometimes jealous of how Tanner so casually talked about faraway places. Darrow had spent his entire life in the city and seaport of Dargon, in an out-of-the-way corner of Baranur. It was interesting enough, but sometimes he longed to see places like distant Tench.

To Darrow’s surprise, Tanner had elected to stay in Dargon, in order to spy on a merchant named Tyrus Vage, a local leader of the Bloody Hand. Darrow had been surprised because Vage had actually seen, and been seriously wounded by, Tanner during the rescue. Tanner had said that Vage would expect him to flee, and so the safest place to hide had been under the man’s nose. He had been right, too. Vage had never given Tanner a second glance, even though Tanner had occasionally carried messages and done small tasks for the man. Every day the gypsy’s disguise got better, because Tanner no longer aged. If Vage was looking for his assailant, he’d be seeking a youth of sixteen, not someone who looked like he was twelve.

Tanner had never joined the shadow boys, though, despite several invitations by Darrow. He had said that he wasn’t really a boy anymore, and that he didn’t want the other shadow boys to notice that he wasn’t growing any older. He could pass among adults with ease, being just another child underfoot, but to boys age was important to the pecking order. A boy who didn’t get older would be the subject of discussion. Tanner had also said that some might talk about him being a gypsy, and he didn’t want word of that getting back to Vage.

So Tanner had stayed on the fringes, sometimes sleeping on the streets with Darrow, and other times staying in the homes of various people he did jobs for, such as Genarvus Kazakian, the scribe. He never stole, though. Darrow remembered Tanner explaining the Rhydd Pobl credo: do no harm unless harm be done first. Darrow had laughed at that, but he hadn’t stolen as much since meeting the gypsy. Tanner also never worked for anyone that employed shadow boys, to avoid unnecessary exposure to and potential conflict with them.

Darrow sat down heavily, sides still heaving from their mock fight, and looked up at Tanner. “I think this time I’m really going to do it. It’s not as much fun as it once was running with the shadow boys. In part it’s because I’m one of the oldest in the group now, but I think it’s mostly your fault.”

Tanner grinned. “Currooptin’ the childrun is wha’ we dew best,” he replied in an exaggerated Rhydd Pobl accent.

Darrow laughed. He had heard the people of Dargon say such things, but he had found Tanner to be the most ethical person he’d ever known. “I’m serious, Tanner. I used to steal as a matter of course before I met you. Now every time I filch something, I have to think about the hard work of the street vendor who was selling it, and the empty bellies of his children. I don’t steal half as much as I used to. I think I should try to find an apprenticeship, or at least some people to work for, like you have. You’ve learned some important things, like how to read and write, and how to mend sails.”

Now Tanner laughed. “All of which will serve me about as well as the great talent I’ve developed for mopping floors will, once I return to my people. There’s not much use for any of that on the road.”

“And when will that be, exactly, Tanner? Not that I want to run you off. You’re a good friend. In fact, you and Murlak are probably the only two true friends I have right now. But you get bolder with Vage every day. Even if he doesn’t figure out that you’re the gypsy boy that injured him, he may realize that you’re a gypsy boy, and that would be almost as bad.”

Tanner’s expression turned serious. “Vage is still a good source of information. There are fewer and fewer members of the Bloody Hand of Sageeza each year, thanks in part to the things I’ve learned from Vage, but even a handful of them pose a danger to my people.” The grin crept back on his face. “Besides, with enough dirt on my face I look just like a local. I think I’d have to seduce someone’s wife, and maybe wear my colors before he’d recognize me as ‘gypsy scum’.”

“Straight. And what do you call that?” Darrow pointed a finger at Tanner’s belt, which the gypsy had recently dyed red, blue, and green.

“What, this? Enough to remind me that I’m not one of you Rooted Folk.” ‘Rooted Folk’ was what the Rhydd Pobl called city dwellers. “I’ve been wearing these drab clothes so long that I feel like I’m going to take root myself and never see the rest of the world again. But it’s not enough for Vage to notice. In fact he looked right at me, or rather through me, just yesterday and didn’t even blink.”

Having recovered from their sparring match, Darrow stood up. “Don’t underestimate him, Tanner. He’s no fool. He was clever enough to take you in once, wasn’t he?” As soon as the words were spoken, Darrow regretted them. Tyrus Vage had killed Tanner’s father and brother with that deception.

Darrow was spared further discomfort by the arrival of Murlak, who came sprinting into the alley calling Darrow’s name. Murlak was a fellow shadow boy, one of the few who were as old as Darrow. He was waving frantically, but the goofy grin on the red-haired boy’s face showed that there was no danger. Murlak was panting too heavily to make much sense for almost a mene.

Finally he managed to get out the words “Dessin” and “challenged” between gasps.

“I can see why you ran yourself out of breath finding me. This is big news!” Darrow said. Dessin was the current shadow boy king: the acknowledged leader of the street children. At any time, though, another shadow boy could call a challenge. The Shadow King would then have to decide on a contest for leadership. Other members of the shadow boys could join the contest as well.

“Straight, it is,” said Murlak as he regained his breath. “Tumas, Ella, and Crey all challenged. Dessin declared a race. You should have been there, Darrow. You’d have won the race easy!”

“Why didn’t you challenge, then, Murlak?” asked Tanner. “You’re always talking about how fast you can run.”

Murlak looked down at Tanner as if noticing him for the first time. “None of your concern, boy. This is shadow boy business.”

Tanner glared at Murlak and was about to reply when Darrow interrupted. “It’s too late to worry about that now, anyway. Where’s the race?”

“To the corner of Thockmarr and Red, and then back. Whoever brings the flag back to Dessin is the new king.”

“Back to Dessin?” asked Darrow. “But how –?”

“Dessin’s not running. Said something about how being king isn’t what it used to be.”

Darrow nodded, understanding what Dessin had meant. “Well, that does make it interesting. I figured Dessin could have handled any of those three.”

Murlak shook his head. “Don’t know, Darrow. Ella’s pretty fast.”

“It’s not just about being fast, and you know it. It’s about being ruthless and clever, too.” Darrow knew that was why Murlak hadn’t challenged. He could certainly be mean, but only in a careless way, and no one would ever accuse the red-haired boy of being clever. “This could be worth watching. Where does the race end?”

Murlak scowled. “I forget how little you’ve been around lately. We’re staying at the burned warehouse these days.”

Darrow bit back a retort. Murlak was right. He hadn’t been spending much time with the other shadow boys lately. He wasn’t doing it intentionally. There were just always more interesting things to do and better places to stay. Still, Murlak had known which alley to find him in, so it wasn’t as if Darrow were pushing his friend away, as well.

Murlak looked slyly at Tanner and said, “Let’s race there!” The rangy, red-haired boy then took off down the alley, back the way he had come.

Darrow watched Murlak start running, and then looked to Tanner, feeling torn between the two friendships.

Tanner shrugged. “Go. I’ll catch up.”

Grateful, Darrow smiled and sprinted after Murlak.

***

Tanner watched the blond boy run down the alley. He shook his head, smiling. It was one thing for Murlak to treat him like a child, even though the red-haired shadow boy was one of the few beside Darrow who knew that Tanner was older than he looked. Darrow’s concern surprised him, though. They had been close friends for four years. If anyone in Dargon would know that such things didn’t bother Tanner, it would be Darrow.

Tanner bent down and picked up the wooden knives they had been sparring with. He had hoped to explain the movement he had used to win the game to his blond friend. It was called a gaugweid, or “false root”, and involved making your opponent think that you had dropped your weight into your heel, while still remaining on your toes and ready to shift. It was a subtle movement, and only really worked if your opponent had enough skill to notice where your weight was.

Instead, Darrow had pressed him about the risks he was talking with Vage. Tanner wondered if his friend was right, but then remembered that Vage had actually spoken to him and not known him for a gypsy, much less the gypsy that had left him with a scar and a limp. Tyrus Vage was not an immediate danger to him, he decided.

Tanner started to run after the two shadow boys, but at a much gentler pace. He knew he had no chance of catching them. As nimble as he was, his legs were too short for him to win a foot race through the streets and alleys of Dargon.

As he ran, Tanner thought about the other reason that he had not left Dargon, which he had not shared with Darrow. He was concerned about his place with his own people. A year earlier, Rhadia had come to visit. In their youth, Rhadia had loved Tanner, but when Tanner had finally returned that love, Rhadia had moved on. She had still seen him as a boy, not as a man that she could love.

Tanner knew that his strange affliction would have the same effect on the Rhydd Pobl. He was old enough to own a ban, or wagon, but he knew that none of his people would take him seriously on his own. Boys who were the age that he looked were supposed to be apprentices. If he returned to his people, he would have to choose between taking the role of apprentice forever, or constantly explaining his condition and enduring the sideways glances and muttered comments.

In Dargon, his situation was easier to manage. Many thought that he was a shadow boy, and expected nothing of him. He earned his way working for various shopkeepers, always moving on before they noticed that he did not age. The one exception to that was the scribe, Genarvus Kazakian, who knew of Tanner’s plight, and had even tried to help find a cure. Genarvus had also tried to get Tanner to become his apprentice, but that had presented Tanner with the same set of problems as returning to the Rhydd Pobl.

Tanner was so deep in thought that he did not hear the footfalls behind him until the person making them was almost on top of him. He was shoved to one side, landing hard against the wall of the alley he had been running through. Before Tanner could turn and defend himself, his assailant was gone, dashing down the alley in the same direction Tanner had been running. He was a boy dressed in shabby clothes, a few years older than Tanner’s apparent age, but younger than Darrow. In his fist he clutched a tattered flag.

Rubbing his shoulder where it had struck against the brick wall, Tanner realized that he had just been run down by one of the challengers in the race to be the next Shadow King. Not wanting to miss the end of the race, Tanner dashed after the boy, following him the rest of the way down the alley and onto Commercial Street.

Commercial Street was really just the broad expanse between the piers and the massive warehouses that held goods bound for distant ports or imported for trade in Dargon. Between the warehouses squatted smaller buildings: sailmakers and provisioners that served the ships alongside bars and brothels that served the sailors and longshoremen. The latter two types of establishments also attracted many of Dargon’s citizens. The combined crowd in turn brought out a variety of street traders. As a result, Commercial Street was a wild bustle of laden wagons, vendors’ carts, and throngs of people.

The shadow boy dodged through this busy crowd. Tanner managed to keep up, avoiding elbows and knees, and once ducking under a rolling wagon. Once his quarry cleared the crowd, though, Tanner began to fall behind. As he approached the burned warehouse, he could see a small crowd of shadow boys cheering the runner on.

Tanner was certain that this boy would win, but someone, a fully grown man, stepped out of the shadows and tripped him. The runner landed hard, and the man fell on him and drove a knife into his back. This brought Tanner up short and elicited gasps from the shadow boys.

Another boy stepped out of the shadows, dark-haired and smirking. Tanner recognized him, but could not remember his name. Tanner knew that he was the type that had kept him away from the shadow boys: someone who would use his age to order younger children about. And to this boy’s eyes, Tanner would have been younger, even though the other was only slightly taller.

The dark-haired boy showed no fear of the adult as he stepped around the man and picked the flag up from the fallen runner’s fingers. “Well done, John,” he said, and then ran toward the warehouse, calling for the man to come with him. The killer retrieved his weapon, cleaned it quickly on the fallen one’s clothes, and followed.

Tanner dashed forward to the boy lying in the street. A quick glance at the growing pool of blood told him that the boy was dead. Tanner slipped his own knife from its sheath on his calf and palmed it before joining the crowd of children that were going into the warehouse. He wasn’t quite sure what was happening, but he wanted to be ready if there was going to be fighting.

“I am king!” the boy with the flag was calling as Tanner entered.

“He cheated and used a man,” said a girl near Tanner.

The Shadow King, Dessin, stood and raised his hands. “It is done! Tumas is Shadow King!”

The shadow boys around Tanner echoed the cry, but without much enthusiasm. Many of them were looking back at the dead boy in the street, or at the man who had killed him.

“There is one thing to take care of before we let Tumas rule,” said Dessin, his gaze firmly resting on the man named John. Tanner knew what was coming, even if John did not, and began to move toward the edge of the crowd. “A man has killed one of us. That will not go unpunished. He does not leave alive!”

“What?” John cried. “That wasn’t the bargain.” Over the crowd of boys and girls descending on him, his eyes went to Tumas, who was smirking once more. Whatever else the man had to say was lost as the children swarmed him, holding knives, bricks, and sharpened sticks.

Tanner moved further away from the slaughter, looking for Darrow. He saw his friend, restraining Murlak from joining the fight. The two argued for a moment as Tanner approached.

Murlak jerked his arm out of Darrow’s grip just as John’s death cry sounded. “Don’t matter now, anyway.” He glared at the blond boy.

Darrow looked away from Murlak and met Tanner’s eyes. His mouth opened as if to speak, and then his shoulders slumped. He shook his head.

Tanner stepped forward and put his hand on his friend’s arm. “You didn’t do this.”

Before Darrow could reply, Tumas approached.

“Darrow! Murlak! You don’t follow the orders of your king?”

Murlak looked away red faced, but Darrow locked eyes with Tumas. “Not when it involves murder, no.”

“But that man killed Crey,” said Tumas, his smirk returning.

“At whose behest, Tumas?”

Tumas pointed a finger. “Take care, Darrow. I’m your king now. If you are still a shadow boy, you need to obey me.”

“And if not? Do I get to share his fate?” Darrow pointed to the corpse of John, as some of the shadow boys carried it to the edge of the dock.

Tumas seemed to consider this. Tanner eased into a crouch, ready to jump forward and kill the new Shadow King quickly if violence erupted. Much to his relief, Tumas shook his head.

“No, Darrow, we don’t kill our own, even when they leave. But you need to decide where your loyalties lie.” Tumas paused and thrust his finger at Murlak. “You, too.” He then glanced at Tanner and walked away.

Tanner and Darrow exchanged a look. Was the new Shadow King sincere, or would he strike at Darrow and Murlak later with more hired thugs like John?

Murlak finally found his tongue. “That little –”

Darrow interrupted him with a glare. “Let’s not discuss it here. I need time to think. And if you have anything bad to say about Tumas, it’s best that it not be heard by the others unless you are ready to act on it.”

Murlak shoved past Tanner and walked out of the warehouse. Darrow followed, and Tanner hurried to keep up.

Murlak’s face was still red when the two drew up beside him. “Little turd,” he muttered as he walked toward Commercial Street. He glanced down at Tanner. “I don’t mean you, gypsy. I don’t like you much either, but at least you aren’t bossing people around like you’re in charge.”

Tanner was surprised that Murlak wasn’t confronting Darrow for keeping him out of the attack on John. Then he remembered that Murlak usually focused on only one thing at a time, at least until the next distraction came along. He wanted to simply let Murlak vent his anger at Tumas, but couldn’t resist a response to the shadow boy’s last statement.

“He is in charge, though, isn’t he?” he asked. “The Rhydd Pobl don’t have a king, but we follow the orders of whoever’s ban we’re riding on, even if we don’t like them. At least until we can find another to take us in, or get our own ban.”

“You shouldn’t be so quick to defend him, gypsy,” Murlak shot back. “I remember when you first came to us and had to fight Darrow. Tumas was there, and calling for your blood.”

Tanner wished that he had trusted his first instinct, but it was too late. “I’m not defending him, Murlak, but if he’s your king –”

“I liked it better when Dessin was king. He didn’t give a lot of orders, and he never made me feel like …” Murlak threw his hands up in frustration.

“He never had anyone killed, either,” Darrow said.

Murlak whirled on him. “What’s that supposed to mean?”

Darrow shook his head. “Just that things have changed. With Tumas as the new king, we have to decide if we even want to be part of the shadow boys any more.”

Murlak looked from Darrow to Tanner and back. “Oh, I see. You’ve been talking to your little friend here about how good life outside the shadow boys can be. Well, they’re the only family I’ve ever had, and I’m not about to turn my back on them, like some.” He turned away and continued walking.

Tanner winced. Murlak was one of the few reasons that Darrow stayed with the shadow boys, even on the periphery. If Murlak had been allowed to reach his own conclusion about leaving, things would have been easier. Now, though, Darrow was going to have a hard time convincing Murlak to leave. Tanner knew his presence wasn’t helping.

“Listen,” he said to Darrow, “I’ve some things that need doing. Why don’t I catch up with you later. Say, behind the Serpent, sometime after third bell?”

“Straight,” Darrow said, and walked off after Murlak.

***

Shortly after the second bell of night, Tanner lurked on the balcony outside Tyrus Vage’s office. It was something that he did once or twice every sennight, especially in the warmer months when Vage was wont to keep the balcony door open. The merchant often took evening appointments until the third bell, and always insisted that the members of the Bloody Hand who visited come after nightfall. Tanner had identified several of the group in that manner.

Tanner sometimes slipped into the room and read unfinished letters on the merchant’s desk when Vage left the room. It was the only way Tanner had been able to read Vage’s documents. The merchant always finished and sealed his letters before retiring for the night, and always took his seal with him. Tanner imagined that Vage kept it under his pillow.

The documents Tanner was able to glimpse were almost always about Vage’s business and not the activities of the Bloody Hand. Tanner had uncovered a few of the group’s secrets in Vage’s letters, though, and he had even gained some benefit from the other documents. Thanks to some anonymous notes left for Vage’s competitors, the merchant’s fortune had dwindled considerably in the previous four years.

This evening, Vage appeared to be working straight through. Tanner had heard Vage’s secretary, Edril, tell him that he had no appointments for the evening. The merchant had been working for over a bell without leaving the room, or rising from his desk even once. Tanner considered leaving, but he wanted to give Darrow more time with Murlak.

The menes dragged by, and Tanner wondered if this was the night that he would kill Vage. He had let the man live four years earlier only because Vage was such a good source of information about the Bloody Hand. Vage’s injuries and even the financial damage were not enough, though. Vage had taken the life of Tanner’s adoptive father, Hadrach, and for that the man would die by Tanner’s knife.

Tanner was so lost in thought that he did not realize that Edril had entered the office. He missed what the secretary had to say, but he heard Vage’s reply.

“I thought you said that I didn’t have any appointments.”

“That’s correct, sir. I think you will want to meet with this one, though. He’s royalty, of a sort.”

“I’ve no interest in games tonight, Edril. Explain yourself.”

“Of course, sir. My apologies.” The words were polite, but was there a trace of contempt in Edril’s voice? Vage didn’t seem to notice it. “It seems the shadow boys have a new king. The young man claims to have some important information for you.”

Tanner almost gasped aloud. Tumas, here? What business did the new Shadow King have with Tyrus Vage? Did it involve Darrow and Murlak? He fought the temptation to move to where he could see Vage and Edril.

“Very well,” said Vage. “Send ‘his majesty’ in. If what he has to say is valuable, I might spare him a few coins. Otherwise, you can beat him for my amusement.”

“Certainly, sir.” Edril left the room, and returned in a few moments. “Milord, this is Tumas, the Shadow King.”

“That will be all, Edril,” said Vage. His tone became stern as he addressed Tumas. “You are very audacious, young man. I suppose that you expect this to impress me, but it does not. I find it tiresome. I am sure that you think yourself clever, and you doubtless are when compared to the other street rats, but this is not the street, and I am not some fatherless boy. I am a man with important business to attend to, and you are wasting my time.

“So, say what you have come to say. If I deem it valuable, I will pay you what I think it is worth, but no more than a few Bits. If not, I will have that man outside whip you and send you on your way. Do you still have something that you want to tell me?”

“Yes, sir.” Tumas’ voice was barely trembling. Tanner was impressed. “I ask no payment, though, other than to be in your good graces. I have more vision than the king before me. I want the shadow boys to be feared and respected in Dargon, and I want those who are most powerful and ruthless to know that we are available should they have a need.”

“Go on, boy.”

“I can tell you how to find the gypsy who gave you that scar and that limp.”

Tanner jumped at the sound of a crash that could only be Vage’s chair falling to the floor as the man stood too quickly. “Edril, get in here!”

The secretary was in the room in a few heartbeats. “Yes, milord?”

“Listen to what this boy has to say. He claims that he knows how to find the gypsy assassin who attacked me. If what he says is credible, I will need you to act on it immediately. If not, I will need you to slit young Tumas’ throat.

“Pray, continue, your highness.”

Tumas’ voice was definitely beginning to tremble. “His n-name’s Tanner. He came to us one day four years ago. Claimed that you had killed some of his family and taken another one. He said that some of us were to blame.”

“Lies, of course,” Vage said. “But that does not mean that you are lying. Only that the gypsy scum lied to you. Continue. What does the filth look like now?” All of the hostility had left Vage’s voice. Tanner knew that the merchant believed the Shadow King. Despite what Murlak had told him, he didn’t remember Tumas being there the day that he had gone to the shadow boys seeking help. Obviously, he had been there and had been paying careful attention.

“That’s just it, sir. He looks the same as the day he attacked you. There’s something not right about him. He doesn’t age. He still looks like he’s twelve.”

Tanner listened as Tumas described him to Vage and Edril. He knew that his time in Dargon was at an end. He couldn’t charge in and kill all three of them. He could take Vage or Tumas in a fight, perhaps both of them if he moved quickly. He had seen Edril up close a few times, though, and the man looked dangerous. Besides, although some of Vage’s people were in the Bloody Hand, Tanner didn’t think that Edril was. That meant that by Rhydd Pobl custom, Edril’s life was not his to take. Once Edril left the room, though, Tanner’s description would be known to Vage’s staff. At least some of them were with the Bloody Hand, so Dargon would no longer be safe.

“You have done well, young Tumas, and earned my gratitude. If you or any of your subjects can lay hands on this gypsy trash, bring him to my men and you will be rewarded. You may go now.”

After Tumas shut the door, Vage spoke to Edril. “Tanner. Why does that name sound so familiar?”

“It should, sir. He’s worked for you on occasion. Errands and such.”

“What? You let that gypsy filth carry my messages?”

“Milord, Tanner worked for my predecessor. He said the boy was one of his best runners, only that he wished Tanner were around more.”

“But you’ve been with me over two years. That vermin has been poking around here that long? I was going to be content to kill him, but I think I will have to question him first. Find out what he knows about my business. Find everyone you can, Edril: regulars, part timers, even any street thugs you come across. Two silver Rounds to the man who brings me Tanner. Tell them to hamstring him, too. No sense in allowing any possibility for him to run.”

“Of course, milord.” Edril opened the office door, and Tanner tensed. His knife was already in his hand. He had drawn it while Vage gave Edril instructions. He was ready to slip up behind Vage and slit the man’s throat once he was alone.

Vage didn’t return to his desk, though. He followed Edril out the door. Tanner waited on the balcony for the merchant to return. He would kill Vage and then flee Dargon. His few belongings, including some coins, were at the home of Genarvus Kazakian. He wanted to say farewell to the scribe before he left the city. Kazakian was one of his few friends in Dargon, along with Darrow. At the thought of his blond friend, Tanner felt a cold knot of fear begin to form in his stomach. Was Darrow in danger because of this? Had Tumas told Tanner’s secret just to get in Vage’s good graces, or was he taking away Darrow’s allies? If the new Shadow King remembered his arrival, he knew that Tanner was good with a knife. Or would Tumas let Vage know about Darrow’s involvement in Rhadia’s rescue? Tanner felt his only chance to kill Vage slip away. Darrow, Murlak, and even Kazakian were in danger because of him. They needed to be warned. He couldn’t wait on the balcony any longer. With regret, he sheathed his knife and slipped over the side and away.

***

Murlak walked down Commercial Street in the dark, whistling. In contrast to the daily chaos, the broad expanse of Commercial Street was quiet at night. The occasional singing or roar of laughter drifted out of the taverns, and a few people moved about quietly, eyes downcast, intent on their own business. Despite the heavy burden slung over his shoulder, there was a bounce in Murlak’s step. For the first time in a while, things were finally about to go right. He didn’t even mind that his burden was squirming a bit.

Darrow hadn’t been behind the Inn of the Serpent when Tanner had arrived. Only Murlak had been there. He had listened to Tanner’s story carefully, and had then come up with an idea. Murlak wasn’t used to getting ideas, and the few that he did get weren’t very good. This idea, though, he was very proud of. With Tanner gone, his good times with Darrow wouldn’t be ruined by the little gypsy whispering in his best friend’s ear, telling him that it was wrong to steal, or that if they slept in a stable, they should do some work to pay for it. He and Darrow could stay with the shadow boys if they liked. Murlak thought he wanted to, even though he was one of the oldest in the group. Either way, though, Darrow would be free from the gypsy’s influence.

Murlak’s bundle squirmed a little too much, threatening to slip off his shoulder. He stopped and gave his prisoner a poke. “Be still, you, or I’ll thump your skull again.”

That only increased the struggling, though, so Murlak leaned back and then whipped his body forward, slinging his captive down hard onto the cobblestones. A loud grunt and some coughing emerged from the sack Murlak had put over his captive’s head and arms.

“See what happens when you don’t listen? How long did you expect to last, anyway? There’s not many that like you much, you know.” Murlak kicked his prisoner somewhere near the head and then picked him up by his brightly colored belt and slung the boy back over his shoulder. He resumed his trek down Commercial Street, walking near a railing that stretched between two piers.

Shortly, he came within sight of two men, roughly dressed and holding cudgels, standing at the head of a pier. Unlike the others that Murlak had seen, these men were watching every movement on the street, and had no qualms about making eye contact with the few passersby. Murlak stopped within shouting distance, and waited until the closest of those passersby was out of earshot.

“Hey! You fellows wouldn’t happen to be looking for a gypsy boy named Tanner, would you?”

“Straight!” replied one of the men. “You wouldn’t happen to have him there, would you?”

“I surely do.” Murlak grinned. “What’s he worth to you?”

“Two Bits, lad.”

“Two Bits? I heard somewhere the going price was two Rounds.”

“Maybe for me, boy, but not for you. You’d better take the two Bits before I decide to just come over there and take him from you.”

Murlak shook his head. “I think I’m a lot closer to this here railing than you are to me, and I bet I can dump this little gypsy over the side before you reach me, and good luck fishing him out before he drowns. We’ll split it: one Round.”

The two men whispered to each other a moment. “Straight. You can have your Round, but you have to come with us to deliver him. We don’t have that much with us.”

“If I thought I could just go straight to –” Murlak bit his tongue and fought the urge to run. He had almost mentioned Tyrus Vage’s name. “– to your boss –”

“Ha! You don’t know where to take him, do you?”

Murlak sighed in relief. The thug had mistaken his hesitation. “You’re right. And I …” What was the right thing to say? This was making his head hurt. He was no good at it. Darrow was always the negotiator. “I don’t know if I’d be safe.”

The man who had been speaking nodded. “Smart lad. Well, we don’t fancy a dip in the ocean, and you don’t want a knife in the back. How about we meet in the middle? Say four Bits?”

Murlak scowled. Was four Bits the middle? It seemed low. Should he argue some more? A low groan from the sack made his decision. “Straight. Four Bits it is, then. Count it out onto the ground there and move across the street. I’ll drop my little friend here, and then we can all be on our way.”

Murlak watched as the men counted out four coins and dropped them onto the street and then moved away. He dropped his burden, avoiding the temptation to give it another kick, and then ran over to the money. He scooped the coins up quickly and dashed away up the street, not daring to look back until he was two piers away. He finally glanced over his shoulder to see the two men standing over the prone prisoner.

“Roll him over,” said one. “Then hold him down so I can cut him.”

Murlak turned away, not wanting to watch, but he couldn’t escape the muffled screams as the boy was hamstrung. He felt a moment of doubt, wondering if he had made a mistake. Then he squeezed the hard metal coins in his fist and remembered his reason for doing this. “Little turd,” he muttered. “Even if you do live through this, I don’t think you’ll be much of a runner.”

As Murlak continued down Commercial Street, he heard someone fall into step behind him. He turned, ready to fight or flee, and then breathed a sigh of relief. “It’s just you. I thought …”

Darrow grinned. “What? That it was someone you owed money to? It is. Or have you forgotten that I won our race today?”

Murlak shrugged. “Don’t remember betting on it. Is he gone?”

Darrow nodded to a nearby ship. “Safely on board, thanks to you. With those two distracted, no one saw him. It’s a risk that the crew will kill him for a stowaway, but he had enough coin stashed at Kazakian’s that he should be able to pay his way somewhere. It’s a lot safer for Tanner than leaving by the road. There’s no telling how far away Vage will send people looking. And who would expect a gypsy to go to sea?”

Murlak shrugged. “Who would expect a gypsy to stay in Dargon for four years? He’s a strange one. How long, do you figure, until they realize they have the wrong boy?”

“No telling. I bet those two never figure it out, until they don’t get paid, or someone comes after them to collect the two Rounds. Short, dark-haired boy, grubby clothes, colored belt.” Darrow shrugged. “Vage will know, though. Even if he doesn’t remember what Tanner looks like, he’s going to recognize Tumas. Think Vage will kill him, or let him go?”

“Don’t know, and don’t care. Either way, he won’t be running any races. Someone’s bound to challenge him even if he does make it back.” Murlak smiled. “Remember the look on his face when we popped the sack over his head?”

Darrow chuckled. “Straight. And how he called for his guards? Who ever heard of a Shadow King having guards?! You’d have thought he was the duke, the way he was ordering people about. Hey, how much did you get for him?”

Murlak reached into his pocket and produced the coins. “Four Bits!” Then he took a closer look at them and noted that one of the coins was made of darker metal. “Ol’s balls! One of these is a Floren. He tricked me!”

Darrow clapped Murlak on the shoulder. “Relax. They’re worth about the same, if you go to the right place. Besides, I only had to bribe his former majesty’s ‘guards’ for five Pennies each. As it turned out, the king wasn’t all that expensive. We have enough for a hot meal, a beer, and a bed apiece at the Hungry Shark. Let’s go!”

“Race you!” Murlak called as he took off running.

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