The Hidden City


Page 31


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'What we really need is a new line of work.' Caalador gestured at Kalten and Bevier, disguised with new faces and rough, mismatched clothing. 'A fairly high personage in the Ministry of the Interior was in charge of the group of policemen who stopped by to ask us some embarrassing questions.' He grinned at Bevier, who wore the face of one of his brother Cyrinics, an evil-looking knight who had lost an eye in a skirmish in Rendor and covered the empty socket with a black patch. 'My one-eyed friend there didn't care for the fellow's attitude, so he lopped his head off with that funny-looking hatchet of his.'

Orden looked at the weapon Bevier had laid on the table beside his ale-tankard. That's a lochaber axe, isn't it?' he asked.

Bevier grunted. Kalten felt that Bevier's flair for dramatics was pushing him a little far. The black eye-patch was probably enough, but Bevier's participation in amateur theatricals as a student made him seem to want to go to extremes. His intent was obviously to appear dangerously competent. What he was achieving, however, was the appearance of a homicidal maniac.

'Doesn't a lochaber usually have a longer handle?' Orden asked.

'It wouldn't fit under my tunic,' Bevier growled, 'so I sawed a couple of feet off the handle. It works well enough – if you keep chopping with it. The screaming and the blood don't bother me all that much, so it suits me just fine.'

Orden shuddered and looked slightly sick. 'That's the meanest-looking weapon I've ever seen,' he confessed.

'Maybe that's why I like it so much,' Bevier told him.

Orden looked at Caalador. 'What line were you and your friends thinking of taking up, Ezek?' he asked.

'We thought we might try our hand at highway robbery or something along those lines,' Caalador said. 'You know, fresh air, exercise, wholesome food, no policemen in the neighborhood – that sort of thing. We've got some fairly substantial prices on our heads, and now that the Emperor's disbanded Interior, all the policing is being done by the Atans. Did you know that you can't bribe an Aran?'

Orden nodded glumly. 'Oh, yes,' he said. 'It's shocking.' He squinted speculatively at 'Ezek', who appeared to be a middle-aged Deiran. 'Why don't you describe Caalador to me, Ezek? I'm not doubting your word, mind. It's just that things are a little topsy-turvy right now, what with all the policemen we used to bribe either in jail or dead, so we all have to be careful.'

'No offense taken at all, Orden,' Caalador assured him. 'I wouldn't trust a man who wasn't careful these days. Caalador's a Cammorian, and he's got curly hair and a red face. He's sort of blocky – you know, big shoulders, thick neck, and a little stout around the middle.'

Orden's eyes narrowed shrewdly. 'What did he tell you? Repeat his exact words.'

'Wal, sir,' Caalador replied, exaggerating the dialect just a bit, 'Ol' Caalador, he tole us t' come down yere t' Delo an' look up a feller name o' Orden – on accounta this yere Orden, he's th' one ez knows whut's whut in the shadowy world o' crime herebouts .'

Orden relaxed and laughed. 'That's Caalador, all right,' he said. 'I knew you were telling me the truth before you'd said three words.'

'He certainly mangles the language,' Caalador agreed. 'He's not as stupid as he sounds, though.'

Kalten covered a smile with his hand.

'Not by a dang sight, he ain't,' Orden agreed, imitating the dialect. 'I think you'll find that highway robbery isn't very profitable around here, Ezek, mainly because there aren't that many highways. It's safe enough out in the jungle – not even the Atans can find anybody in all that underbrush – but pickings are slim. Three men alone in the bush won't be able to make ends meet. I think you'll have to join one of the bands out there. They make a fair living robbing isolated estates and raiding various towns and villages. That takes quite a number of men, so there are always job openings.' He sat back and tapped one finger thoughtfully against his chin. 'Do you want to go a long way from town?' he asked.

'The further out the better,' Caalador replied.

'Narstil's operating down by the ruins of Natayos. I can guarantee that the police won't bother you there. A fellow named Scarpa's got an army stationed in the ruins. He's a crazy revolutionary who wants to overthrow the Tamul government. Narstil has quite a few dealings with him. There's some risk involved, but there's a lot of profit to be made in that neighborhood.'

'I think you've found just what we're looking for, Orden,' Caalador said eagerly.

Kalten carefully let out a long sigh of relief. Orden had come up with the exact answer they'd been looking for without even being prompted. If they joined this particular band of robbers, they'd be close enough to Natayos to smell the smoke from the chimneys, and that was a better stroke of luck than they'd even dared to hope for.

'I'll tell you what, Ezek,' Orden said, 'why don't I write a letter to Narstil introducing you and your friends?'

'We'd definitely appreciate it, Orden.'

'But before I waste all that ink and paper, why don't we have a talk about how much you're going to pay me to write that letter?'

The Styric was wet and muddy and very nearly blue with the cold. He was shivering so violently that his voice quavered as he hailed their camp. 'I have a message for you,' he called. 'Don't get excited and do something foolish.' He spoke in Elenic, and that made Berit quite thankful, since his own Styric was not all that good. It was the one major flaw in his disguise.

'Come on in, neighbor,' he called out to the miserable-looking fellow at the upper end of the beach. 'Just keep your hands out in plain sight.'

'Don't order me around, Elene,' the Styric snapped. 'I'm the one who's giving the orders here.'

'Deliver your message from right there then, neighbor,' Berit said coldly. 'Take your time, if you want. I'm warm and dry in here, so waiting while you make up your mind won't be all that unpleasant for me.'

'It's a written message,' the man said in Styric. At least Berit thought that was what he said.



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