Half the grain and livestock produced in Kanchaka valley moves through the markets in Lechmore, and by livestock I mean human and elven slaves; that's what the market is for. You'd think there'd be a lot of money coming the other way, but you'd be wrong; the markets just exist to make it easier for the Haskalads to collect and distribute their feudal levies. Of course, drovers and bargemen and guards need to be paid, and nobles need to be entertained, and there is plenty of loose cash around for someone who knows how to look for it.
--Leod, the Storyteller of Freepost
Perrin went back to filling his pipe. "You know, I think this calls for a pub crawl," he said, once the pipe was drawing properly.
"Pub crawl?" I asked.
"It's time I introduced you to the only worthwhile thing about that rockpile across the river, boy," Perrin answered.
"And that would be?"
"The variety of tolerable beers. Also intolerable beers, but we try to avoid those..."
By the time full dark had arrived, Perrin and I were watching 'Bacco push the ferry out into the river; the windlass was locked, and 'Bacco assumed that it would be too much work for a vandal to haul the ferry in by chain. I watched the heavy links disappear into the river and agreed with him.
I wasn't ready for the nightlife in Lechmoor; every petty necromancer in the area (and there were many) seemed to be out showing off his most peculiar madspawn. And there were MANY very peculiar madspawn, only some of them fully controlled; I was very glad that Perrin had chosen to bring 'Bacco along.
Perrin started the tour at a place near the river that featured a fighting pit; a human who was built like 'Bacco and half again as tall was standing against all comers, ten Imps to try against 100 if you won. Perrin insisted that I pay close attention while three opponents were pummeled into unconsciousness, then led us away in search of better beer.
We were entering our fifth pub of the evening, a place called "The Severed Hand", which Perrin promised was going to be our last stop, when we were accosted by the warp elf I had dueled several days earlier. I had a quick thought about swimming home, but he was very polite and told us that his father wanted to meet me.
Father was easy to spot; like his son, he had batwings and ram's horns, but his clothes were much nicer, and his company was much more attractive: a winged female wakana and a winged female elf who had fine scales and an impressive spiked tail. The wakana was amazingly clean and well behaved (for a wakana), and the lizard girl was positively beautiful. Or rather she was beautiful until you looked into her eyes and saw the madness and bloodlust that comprised her entire personality.
The necromancer looked me over. "Do you like her? I am SO proud of her. She started as a beautiful Farillan girl, and each change has just made her more beautiful. I am Sojourner Braghia, by the way. I understand you have met my son Stragus."
"I am Quill," I answered, without extending my hand. "She is beautiful; it's a shame about her mind."
Sojourner shrugged; he seemed oblivious to my disapproval. "Not really. I don't keep her for conversation, after all." He laughed at that, as if it were terribly funny. Stragus and the wakana girl laughed; the lizard girl just looked around as if wondering whom she would be allowed to eat. "Well. You seem to have beaten some respect into my son's head. Are your services available?"
Perrin cut in. "He's my apprentice."
"Ah. Well. Perhaps you would be willing to loan him to me, for a time? It is not urgent; you may think about it. And you would be well paid." Perrin started to say something, but was stopped. "Away now," Sojourner flicked his hand at us, "The horse is on."
I looked at Perrin, who shrugged; we had been dismissed. We found a table as an ebony elf took the stage and checked the tuning on his harp; we managed to order our beer before the elf started to sing and silenced the room completely.
He was very, very good, both on the harp and as a singer. He was also physically striking, with the blue-black skin and silver-white hair of the Ebonese aristocracy. Perrin stared at the elf, muttered something under his breath, and shook his head. "Idiot," he said quietly; 'Bacco and I stared at him. "The fool's a shifter. And he has no defenses to speak of. He'll be lucky to live through the night."
The elf finished his song and nodded to the applause. The applause continued, and he stood and took a full bow; as he did so, a huge pair of feathered wings formed on his back; the crowd roared. "Yes, my friends," the elf said with a large smile, "I am Philo Majestic, the Pegasus Bard. And those of you in the audience who think that you could find better uses for my talents, please take the matter up with my master the Duke." There was a short silence as the significance of this sank in. "Unless you happen to be female, and promise that whatever you have in mind won't interfere with tomorrow's performance, in which case you can see me personally." There was general laughter, and then Philo seated himself and began another number.
Perrin continued to stare and mutter, "Idiot," occasionally; 'Bacco stared at Philo for a long time, then said, "He's lying. Bane doesn't know anything about him." Perrin looked at 'Bacco crossly; 'Bacco realized his mistake and cringed a bit, if you can imagine a boulder cringing.
I got up and did a slow drift toward the stage; I bought a drink for Philo and waited until he was between songs. I handed him the drink, and he looked at me quizzically. "When you need to run," I said, "and you will, cross the river and head for the forge. Try not to bring every necro in Lechmoor with you."
Philo's calm slipped for a split second. "Well," he said brightly, "that really isn't my style, but I'll keep it in mind." Then he scratched his nose and mouthed, "Thanks," from behind his hand.
After that we finally headed for home. Perrin's good mood had been ruined by Philo's stupidity, and once we were safely on the ferry and out of earshot of the shore he made no secret of it. "He'll end up on someone's warp altar, that's certain. I just hope he doesn't drag Bane up here in the process. We don't need him anywhere near this place."
"Maybe we can talk him into going underground, " I said.
Perrin scowled at me. "He's a peacock. He won't go underground, and it will kill him if he tries." He shrugged. "If he asks for help, we'll try. But I'm not hopeful."
"How did you know he was a shifter, before he announced it?" I asked.
"Valarian spell," 'Bacco offered; and Perrin scowled at him.
"Necros have a similar spell, and there's always someone in the crowd that is hoping to get lucky. I can dodge them, " Perrin explained. "'Bacco can't shift, and you're invisible for some reason. Philo stands out like a beacon, though." He shook his head sadly. "In the meantime... What did you think of Bosco?"
"The boxer? I think he'd make a great plow horse. Why?"
"Because I want you to take him on next week." My jaw dropped, and I saw
'Bacco's toothy grin out of the corner of my eye. "Don't say no just yet. Bosco won't be back on until the next big market day, so you'll have time to get ready."
I shook my head and said, "I'm beginning to think Philo may have the right idea," and 'Bacco giggled; I decided to leave Perrin's admission that he was himself a shape-shifter for another time.
Several days later Perrin arrived at the forge wearing a smile that made me very nervous; it didn't help when he asked for the dagger on my belt. I wondered what new deviltry he had planned, but gave it to him; he gave me another dagger in return.
"This one is better steel, anyway," he said. "The claws are from that gilga you killed; one of the vermites back-tracked to it, and brought in the teeth and claws. Thought you should have a souvenir. Or at least one you can see with your shirt on."
I examined the dagger carefully; it was a beautiful piece of work, obviously worth much more than the dagger I had given Perrin in exchange. The quillons were a pair of solidly set gilga claws, and there was a pair of gilga teeth set into the pommel. I looked up gratefully, and knew that I had been suckered, somehow.
"Now, about Bosco..." Perrin said, and I grimaced. "You can have the rest of the day to do whatever you want to get ready, but I want you back here and ready to cross the river at least an hour before sundown. You need to get over there, sign up, and get your bet down as early as you can, so that when I come hunting for you it will be believable."
I stared at him blankly. "My BET?"
Perrin shrugged. "MY bet then. I'm going to give you 350 to bet on yourself, and then as soon as the sun sets I am going to come over there screaming that you stole it and try to bully the tavern into giving the money back. They won't of course..."
I continued to stare blankly. "And the purpose of this is..."
"So that everyone knows that there is a lot of money on you, and that I think you're going to lose, soon enough that they can put bets down on Bosco."
I smiled and shook my head. "And where does this fit into being a Valarian Champion?"
It was Perrin's turn to stare blankly. "I'm a zealot, not a saint. There's a difference." Then he smiled. "Zealots have a lot more fun." I just shook my head and laughed.
Everything went according to plan; I crossed the river, signed up for my beating, and placed the bet. And then Perrin showed up and made a great deal of noise, which got him barred from the tavern until the fight started. And then he chased me up and down the waterfront and threatened to beat me to death with his cane, while I cringed and tried to apologize and 'Bacco held him back. I enjoyed it.
By the time I jumped into the pit with Bosco (licking the last of a packet of chocolate Perrin had slipped to me off of my fingers as I jumped), the tavern was packed so tightly it was hard breathe. And then I got a fighter's eye view of Bosco, and began to dream of tying Perrin to the bottom of the ferry.
They called the start of the fight, and I hit Bosco so hard my hand hurt. He didn't seem to care. I ducked a punch that would have gone through a paneled wall, and hit him again. And again. And again. My fists were in agony, but Bosco was beginning to bleed, and he still hadn't managed to connect.
Seven punches. Eight. Bosco's face was a mess, but he didn't seem to mind, and I was getting tired; the crowd was beginning to complain that Bosco was throwing the fight. I wished them a great deal of ill.
Ten punches. Eleven. Twelve, and I was out of tricks; the hammer of the gods hit me squarely in the face, and I carommed off of the wall of the pit. I stumbled, and it saved me; Bosco was looking for me to still be at punching level, and seemed to be confused when I went down. I took a deep breath, got up as quickly as I could, and managed to land two more punches before the hammer fell again, this time on my right shoulder.
I spun around, my balance mostly lost, and managed to transfer my momentum into a side-of-the-left-hand backhand that caught Bosco in the corner of the jaw. He half turned with it, then turned back and looked me in the face as his knees gave out and he settled into the bottom of the pit.
I staggered back into a corner and leaned against the walls; several hands reached down to pull me up, but I didn't seem to be able to raise my arms. The crowd seemed to be happy, anyway. Someone jumped into the pit, and I recognized 'Bacco; he threw me over his shoulder, climbed out of the pit, and carried me out to the street.
Somehow we ended up at The Severed Hand. Perrin soon escorted his winnings home, and 'Bacco went with him; I found myself the recipient of a steady stream of congratulatory drinks, most of which I passed to Philo. Philo had commandeered the seat next to me as soon as he heard the news; he claimed to be writing a song about the fight, but spent most of the time between his performances absorbing large quantities of free alcohol.
Sojourner and his menagerie visited briefly; he had apparently made a fair bit of money on my fight, and expressed his gratitude. Stragus stayed with us, and managed to parlay a certain amount of reflected glory out of being my previous victim.
I took the liberty of asking Stragus why he was Warrior caste when his father was a Blazeblood noble; he just glared at me, but Philo answered. "His mother was a Farrilan slave; it limits his social possibilities."
Stragus glared at Philo. "At least my mother wasn't a damned horse."
Philo started to take offense at that, and then sighed. "No, she wasn't. And neither was my father; they were both perfectly normal, aside from being stupid enough to be taken as slaves." He looked at me hopelessly. "And I couldn't have been a dragon, or a unicorn, or even a werewolf. No, I get all of the disadvantages of being a shapeshifter in the most inoffensive package possible; I have to be a thrice damned birdy-horse." Stragus and I both pushed drinks in Philo's direction, and he downed them both in succession.
"There are plenty of stories of pegasus heroes," I ventured.
Philo snorted. "Messengers? Oh, and there was what's-his-name, who became famous by being the faithful steed and companion of a werewolf? No thank you." He found a glass that wasn't empty and drained it.
"The one I had in mind was the master swordsman of his era, but I don't suppose you would care about that," I answered.
Philo glared at me. "You're an orc. What do you know?"
"He can read," Stragus offered.
Philo looked from Stragus to me in confusion. "But... he's an ORC..." and something in his very soggy brain decided that that was enough for one night; his eyes glazed over and his face settled into the table.
I looked at Stragus, who owned the only face I recognized. "I think that marks the end of the party," I said. "Does anyone know where our friend here lives?"
"I'll take care of him," Stragus volunteered; I hesitated. The thought of turning a shapeshifter over to a warpspawn did not sit well with me. "My father is his real owner," Stragus whispered in my ear, "But Bane's name has more power. And the Duke hasn't been to Lechmoor in years."
I think I kept the surprise off of my face. "Have you seen 'Bacco?" I asked, "He was supposed to come back for me."
Stragus shook his head. "I sent him home. Come with me; my father has a special thank-you waiting for you."
I clenched my teeth and looked around the room. I didn't like the sound of that at all, but I was alone in a city of necromancers and warpspawn. "Really?" I answered. "How very nice of him."