The moon hung low over Shazhada, bathing the city in soft white light, throwing all the buildings into sharp relief while casting long, deep shadows everywhere. Not the best night for a break-in, but we were pressed for time. The gambling debts my brother and I had racked up were steep and we had already drunk and whored away the small fortune we had earned from our last job.
In Shazhada outstanding debts could result in you being sold on the slave block. My brother and I would fetch a high price since we were young, strong, and skilled in a variety of areas that would make us extremely valuable to the sort of people who need something stolen or someone killed. Not that we engaged in hired murder often, mind you, but there are those times . Unfortunately, once you are sold on the block, you lose your ability to say “no” to such assignments. Well, you can still say “no” if you don’t mind that being the last word you ever say.
Independence was very important to us, hence tonight’s outing
We slipped silently down a side street then turned a corner into a narrow alley stopping in the shadows at the other end. Opposite us, a large manor house rose up, two stories of sun-baked brick painted a lustrous, verdant green. The upper floor held two wide windows, deep and dark, while the ground floor was bare except for a single recessed doorway in the center. Two large men stood guard, flanking the door, moonlight glinting off their spears. The house was bordered on all sides by a tall, thick hedge with a wide gap in the front where a brick path led from the street to the steps. Those bricks, however, were painted a bright, glossy red that glimmered in the soft glow of the moon.
To my eye, the house was a great serpent or reptile waiting with its tongue out. I had a sudden feeling of unease, but before I could mention this to my brother, he tapped my shoulder and jerked his head to one side.
“Let’s move.” He said, slipping out of the alley and to the right. Wordlessly I followed him, the pair of us moving with the calm assurance of men who had every right to be out wandering the streets in the middle of the night. We had long ago learned that skulking draws attention whereas a deliberate stride is usually ignored. We made our way down the street, paralleling the hedges across the road. Once we reached their end, we casually crossed over and continued down that street, the night quiet.
Halfway along in the gloom of the hedgerow my brother raised his arm to bar my path. Zendak motioned to the shrubs, and then stepped back, wedging himself into the foliage. I did the same after taking a quick look around to ensure there was no one coming. The leaves were cool and slightly dewy, but that didn’t bother me. After a few minutes the bells in the Temple of the 5 Graces rang out the Hour of the Stormcrow.
With the last bell sounding we heard voices and the slap of leather sandals on brick. As the sounds drew closer I could make out their conversation; one was bitching about being assigned to work the back door of the manor in the middle of the night, an apparent punishment for some transgression or other, and he felt wronged.
There was a soft rustling from the hedge where Zendak hid. These were the men we were expecting.
We waited ‘til they had drawn abreast of us, then we melted out of the hedges behind them. I quietly slipped my arms around the whiner’s neck, seizing him in a chokehold.
Zendak did the same with his victim, and we quickly dragged both into the dark shadows at the base of the hedgerow. Once they were unconscious we stripped them of their tunics and hogtied them. The tunics were a dark green color slashed with two stripes of red and gold. I wondered if I should recognize the livery, then decided it didn’t really matter. Thieves caught in Shazhada could expect to be hung since cutting a hand off just made them unable to work, thus adding to the number of beggars. It didn’t cut down on crime in any noticeable way, but it certainly did breed a superior class of thief.
We nodded to each other, and then, with one last glance around us, hurried to the break in the hedge that led to the back door of the manse, where kitchen deliveries would be made. Just like the front of the house there was only one door on the ground level, but there were no windows at all on the second floor.
As we drew closer we saw two darker shadows by the door, a pair of spearmen like the ones around front. They shifted their weapons slightly as we drew closer and one softly called out “Leopards have spots.”
“And they never change.” Zendak responded immediately in a low growl.
“Bout fucking time you cunts showed up,” one of the spearmen muttered as he relaxed again.
“Better have a good fucking reason for being late, too.” The other chimed in. “You lot are going to be midnight watchers for the next-“
He cut off abruptly as Zendak slammed a ham-sized fist into the man’s chin. The guard went down like a dead horse, Zendak catching his spear before it hit the ground. His partner had just enough time to register this before I grabbed his tunic and jerked him forward, throwing him over my hip to the ground, his spear dropping to the bricks with a dull clatter. His breath whooshed out of him as he landed and I straddled him quickly, gripping his collar while squeezing his carotid arteries with my forearms. He was unconscious in seconds, leaving us crouched in the shadowed doorway listening intently.
Nothing. This was going very well indeed.
We slipped past the door and into the deserted kitchen beyond. It was a large room with three doors: one immediately opposite the door we had entered, one in the left corner, the third in the right corner. A single, massive butcher block dominated the room while the walls were covered with pots, pans, knives, and other accoutrements of a noble’s kitchen.
Zendak motioned to the door on the left and ghosted that way. He opened the door to reveal a darkened flight of stairs leading up. Soundlessly we crept up the servants stairs at the back of the manor, Zendak leading the way as if he had grown up in this house. I wondered about his familiarity with the floorplan. He had gotten us this commission and had gathered all of the information needed to do the job properly. All I really knew was that we were doing some breaking and entering, and that we would have to deal with some light, if proficient, security.
The stairs opened onto a wide hallway, a light flickering under one door at the end of the hall. That, I knew without asking, would be our destination. Zendak opened the door and we stepped in quickly, closing it behind us. The latch clicked with a cold finality. This chamber looked to be a combination office and bedroom to judge by the four poster bed on one side, and a massive desk on the other.
A blonde woman in her middle years, garbed in green silk slashed with red and gold, sat at the desk. She was still beautiful, age just beginning to line her face. A heavy gold torc, inscribed with curious symbols hung around her slender neck.
“You don’t belong here.” She said simply in a throaty contralto. “What do you think you are doing?”
“Robbing you.” Zendak replied mildly as he looked around the room. Behind the woman the windows were covered with heavy black drapes, obscuring us from casual view.
“Do you have any idea who I am?” She asked with a bemused expression.
“No.” I said at the same moment that my brother replied “Yes.” We glanced at one another, each raising an eyebrow. “Really?”
“Volara, the Viper of Shazhada, the Mother of Sorrow.” Zendak nodded at the woman.
“The Queen of Murder?” I frowned and suddenly realized why everything had seemed so off, it was my instinct for self-preservation trying to get my attention. Volara Arakir was the single most ruthless human being currently living in a city renowned for it’s population of merciless killers.
“That would be me.” She smiled thinly.
“Good, I feared we might have got the wrong house.” Zendak said grimly. There was a meaty thunking sound and Volara blinked and looked down to see a throwing knife had sprouted from between her breasts. She gasped in pained confusion and slumped into a large chair behind her. “Patos Mohir said to tell you all debts are settled, and he looks forward to seeing you in Hell.”
Zendak snatched the heavy gold band from the dead woman’s neck then yanked the dagger free, expressionlessly wiping the blood off on her luxurious silk robe.
We quickly searched the room for the smallest, most valuable things we could take before slipping silently back out into the night, shedding the tunics as we exited the hedges, not speaking for several blocks
Eventually I said “You thought robbing and murdering Volara Arakir was a good idea, did you?”
He grunted. “No, I thought it was dangerous and insane, actually.”
“Then why did we do it? And why was it so easy to get to her?”
“Once Patos Mohir receives proof of the Viper’s death,” he hefted the torc. “he will settle all of our gambling debts.”
“Wow,” I snorted, “he is rich. And the rest?”
“A failed attempt on the Mother of Sorrow would mean a fate far worse than death. Only the bravest or stupidest men in Shazhada would dare invade the Viper’s den.”
“Well,” I said after considering Zendak’s words carefully. “that certainly explains why Patos sent us. Still, you have to admit, we had phenomenal good fortune tonight.”
“I never told you, little brother?” he chuckled, “Fortune favors the brave.”
As we walked, the bells began to toll the Hour of the Gambler.