In Plain Sight

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Humor  |  House: Booksie Classic


This story first appeared in the Hall of Heroes Anthology. It's a collection of stories by indie authors and also a clean read (no gore, sex or swearing). If you haven't read Hall of Heroes yet,
you can download a free ebook copy at Amazon.com

Submitted: October 23, 2017

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Submitted: October 23, 2017

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The Great Zamphini, master entertainer, friend to all children and beloved citizen of Lambsport was trying very hard not to be noticed.  This was an unreasonable expectation given that he weighed three hundred pounds, dressed in bright red robes, carried a walking stick six feet long and was standing on a street corner in broad daylight.  Nevertheless he was making a good effort by being very quiet and staying off the main roads with their bustling markets.

Zamphini stroked his bushy black beard as he waited, hoping no one would see him.  He glanced down at the cobblestone street and the sewer grate he’d pried open an hour earlier.  A slender rope ran from a lamppost down to the sewers below, and he had a bucket of soapy water for the trusted agent he’d sent into that mess.

“Zamphini?”  Zamphini winced when he heard his name called.  Putting on his best showman’s smile, he turned and saw Watch Officer Wasler marching toward him.  Wasler’s tan uniform looked a bit worse for wear, as did the man himself, but he was still younger, stronger and handsomer than the famed entertainer.  “What are you doing?”

“Ah, Officer Wasler, a pleasure to see you as always!  You look well.  And how is your darling wife?”

“She’s fine.”  The officer walked up and rested his hand on his sheathed sword.  “Why are you so far from home?  There are no parties here, and no one here could afford you if there were.”

“Scandalous, isn’t it?  I’ve lowered my rates twice and still get only half the business of last year.  I blame the war with Duke Thornwood, and the criminally high taxes that came with it.  Since when is laughter a luxury?”

Wasler frowned and rubbed his eyes.  “Look, it’s been a horrible week with three men beaten to within an inch of their lives in my district.  I don’t have the time or patience to play ‘what’s Zamphini doing?’ today, so spit it out.”

“Three?  I’d only heard of two.”

“The baker’s son was attacked on his way home last night.  Four men came at him in the dark and broke both his arms, so you’ll forgive me if I have better things to do than—”  Wasler’s voice trailed off when he saw the rope going into the sewers.  “What’s that?”

Zamphini stepped between Wasler and the open sewer.  “This?  Oh, a minor problem.  I was taking Sassy for a walk when she fell down there.  I can’t fit, and I wouldn’t dream of asking someone to go down for me, so I lowered a rope for her to climb up.”

“A rope you just happened to be carrying with you, and a bucket of water?  And since when do you take your dolls for walks?”

The rope went taut as Sassy climbed out of the sewers.  Zamphini snatched up the doll and dunked her in the bucket of water.  He cleaned off the filth smeared on the doll until she looked presentable.  “I got the bucket and rope after she fell in.  There we go, Sassy, good as new.”

Sassy got out of the bucket and curtsied to Wasler.  The doll looked like a toddler girl two feet tall with white porcelain skin and black hair, wearing black shoes and a blue dress.  Wasler frowned at the doll, then noticed a new addition to Sassy’s outfit, a small backpack bulging with coins.  He glared at Zamphini, who looked down ashamed.

“It’s the war.  So few people have parties, so many hold funerals.  I’m hired once a month if I’m lucky.  This month, nothing.  I haven’t been invited to a single banquet this year!”  Zamphini patted his amble belly.  “I’m wasting away!”

Wasler chuckled, but there was truth to what Zamphini said.  He’d lost forty pounds this year, and not an ounce of it willingly.  His red clothes were in good condition but hung loosely on him.

Zamphini picked up Sassy and the coins.  “It costs money to keep Sassy and her sisters and brothers going.  I looked down the sewer grate and saw coins lost in the sewers, so I lowered Sassy down to get them.  It’s no crime, and I’m sure if you look deep into your heart, you won’t want people to know The Great Zamphini has come to this.”

“You found that much in a sewer?”

“Fallen coins get flushed into the sewers when it rains hard,” Zamphini said.  “No one goes after them, and it adds up as the years go by.”

Wasler said nothing.  It took Zamphini a moment to notice that Wasler’s attention was focused on the money Sassy had brought up.  There was perhaps thirty copper coins and two silver ones, an impressive sum in such hard times.  With so much money going for the war there was precious little for even essentials, like the salaries of the city watch.

“You, ah, haven’t been paid in a while, have you?” Zamphini asked.  When Wasler didn’t answer, Zamphini took a silver coin and passed it to him.  “Your wife’s expecting again, isn’t she?  I’m sure she’d love it if you bought her a nice dress.”

“I’ve been two months with no pay, only promises.”  Wasler’s face showed how much he hated himself for taking the money.  “I’m going to spend it on food and you know it.  Go home, Zamphini.  You’re a good man, and I’ve seen too many good men hurt.”

Wasler turned to leave when he heard a scratching noise from the roofs above.  The brick buildings were two stories tall, and the glare of the setting sun made it impossible to see what was making the sound.  “What was that?”

“Cats,” Zamphini told him.  “They have to be careful these days.  Some people are so poor they don’t care where their meat comes from.”

Once the officer had left, Zamphini held Sassy up to his face.  “You did good.  Tell me, did you see any ghoul tracks?”  Sassy shook her head, and Zamphini smiled.  “That’s three months and no sign of them.  I think we got them all.  Before we go, I need to make sure water didn’t get inside you.”

Sassy tipped her head as Zamphini took a brass key from one of his deep pockets.  He inserted it into the doll’s neck and turned it, opening a panel on her back.  Sassy’s body contained spinning brass gears, thin brass cables and etched obsidian spheres.  Glass tubes carrying bright green liquid ran through the doll.  Zamphini peered into Sassy and smiled when he found nothing had seeped in.  Satisfied that his star performer was in good condition, he closed the panel and locked it shut.

With that done, Zamphini set Sassy on his shoulder and headed out.  He had a few more places to visit before nightfall.  He went onto the main roads and their stalls selling, well, not much of anything.  The war cost Lambsport a fortune in gold each month, and feeding the army in the field sucked up all but the most basic foods.  Hawkers shouted out what they were selling and for how much.

“Firewood, one copper piece a cord!”

“Chickens!  Live chickens!  Five copper pieces for a live chicken!”

“Fresh fish, caught today!  You can probably afford it!”

“Shameful what they’re asking,” Zamphini told Sassy.  She shrugged in reply.  “You’re lucky I brew up your fuel myself, or you’d be as hungry as I am.”

The overpriced goods still drew a crowd.  Most were humans, but a handful of broad shouldered dwarfs sold knives.  Five elves representing the Yelinid Banking Cartel had set up a stall and were offering loans.  Goblins stayed in the alleys and street edges, careful not to get stepped on by the bigger races as they snatched up garbage.  A single ogre wearing a kilt stood under an arch.  The hairy brute gripped an ax and looked intimidating as he waited for clients.  In the past Zamphini had seen men desperate enough to hire the ogre as a bodyguard or troubleshooter, yet another sign of Lambsport’s hard times.

Lambsport was a city of contrasts.  Every home and shop of the seaside city was made of brick, an expensive move for such poor people, but an unavoidable one.  The city had burned down so many times over the centuries that the residents had finally accepted the cost and difficulty of building with stone.  Lambsport had fifty thousand residents and half as many visitors, yet drew little attention from their ruler Duke Edgely.  Edgely was more interested in fighting rival dukes than sniggling, insignificant things like trade, fishing, manufacturing or learning.  The port city and its inhabitants were left alone as long as they paid taxes and lots of them.  This gave the people of Lampsport a degree of freedom and was the reason The Great Zamphini called it home.

Zamphini was a minor celebrity in Lambsport, and his arrival in the market drew friendly greetings.  An older man said, “Hey, Zamphini, I’m practicing to be a fortune teller.  I can tell you which block the city watch will stake out to catch those hooligans.”

“Really?  Which one?”

“The wrong one, same as every night.”  The old man laughed at his own wit, not noticing he was the only one to do so.

“Be nice,” Zamphini said.  “They’re good men, and they’d get those villains if Duke Edgely hadn’t conscripted half the watchmen.”

“Ha!”  The old man spat on the ground, then pointed at Sassy.  “You be careful, friend.  The way things are going they’ll put a uniform on your doll and send her to war.  She’d be better than most.  Hey, Sassy, I bet they’ll promote you to officer!”

Sassy stood up straight on Zamphini’s shoulders and saluted.  People laughed as she marched in place.  Zamphini laughed too, but it wasn’t so funny.  He’d received discreet inquiries from Duke Edgely’s officials wondering if his dolls could fight.  He’d explained they were too small for battle, but new requests came monthly.

A young man watched Zamphini walk by and followed him.  The youth was trying to look casual and failing miserably.  Zamphini stopped to inspect a stall offering pastries.  The youth came closer, careful to stay behind his intended victim.  He took his hands out of his pockets and raised them.

“Sassy bites,” Zamphini said without turning around.  The youth hesitated and lowered his hands.  “You have ten fingers, a fact that will change if you act foolishly.”

Sassy turned around and smiled at the young man, a twinkle in her eye as she snapped her mouth closed.  Happily, the youth put his hands back in his pockets and left.  Zamphini chuckled and left for another stall, his walking stick making a steady tap as he walked.  There was also a scratching noise on the rooftops, but that was lost in the tumult of the market.

“As I live and breathe, The Great Zamphini!” a shrill voice called out.  It took a lot of effort for Zamphini to force a smile as he turned around.  The thin, immaculately dressed woman took his hands in hers and smiled.

“Aliana Treter!” Zamphini said with a laugh.  “It’s been too long.”

“Years, I know, but my son still talks about the show you put on for his birthday, and that was ages ago!  All the best women wanted to hire you after that.”

“At massive discounts,” Zamphini added.  What was it about the rich that you had to claw the money out of their hands?  It had taken five months to get this crone to pay him, and her friends were just as bad.

Ignoring what he’d said, Aliana’s face lit up when she saw Sassy.  “Well hello, Molly!”

“Ah, no, this is Sassy.  Molly and the other dolls are at home with my wife.”

“Oh yes, I’d heard about her.  Poor girl came down with red eyes plague.  I had that myself when I was younger.  Took me a month to get over it.  Most people need five months, but I’ve always had a strong constitution.How are your children?”

Zamphini rolled his eyes.  “They don’t visit, they don’t write, they don’t send money.  They could send money!”

Aliana laughed.  “I know, I know!  It’s the curse of parents everywhere that children don’t care or listen.  My oldest, the one whose party you did, he went and joined the army.”

“Really?”  Zamphini didn’t try to disguise his shock.  The war between Duke Edgely and Duke Thornwood was as brutal as it was long.  Few men became soldiers if they could help it.

“I told him I had more than enough money to pay off Duke Edgely’s men if they showed up at the door, but he was sold on glory in battle and becoming a great man.  I told him you don’t have to be a hero to be important in Lambsport.  Take you for instance.  Everyone knows you here, and all you do is entertain at parties.”

In an epic act of cluelessness, Aliana totally ignored the disbelieving look on Zamphini’s face.  Instead she went on prattling.  “I mean, your little toys are treated like they’re something special.  Why just last month a fool man went and claimed you were a mad scientist, and Molly here was something called a clockwork.”

Sassy scowled and folded her arms across her chest.  Feeling a tad worried, Zamphini asked, “And what became of this man?”

Sounding annoyed that she’d been interrupted, Aliana said, “The fool went to Duke Edgely and tried to make an issue of it.  He expected a reward for informing on you, the cad.  Our duke wouldn’t hear of it.  He had the man flogged and gave him three months’ hard labor.”

“I’m glad our duke is so understanding,” Zamphini said.  “Accusations like that can ruin a man’s reputation.”

Aliana waved her hand like she was shooing away a fly.  “The man’s an idiot, and there’s no shortage of those.  Can you believe he’d say such a thing about a harmless old man like you?  Scandalous, absolutely scandalous.”

Zamphini took a step back and tried to come up with an excuse to leave (he had several, but none were polite), when Aliana took his hands again.  “You’ve heard about those poor men being attacked?  Of course you have.  There have been eighteen since the start of the year.  The odd thing is they weren’t robbed.  Beaten bloody, but not a coin taken.  You be careful.  If these mongrels would attack fit young men, why, they’d go after an old man like you in a heartbeat.  Watch yourself, darling!”

With that Aliana disappeared into the crowd to dispense her unique brand of ‘help’ to some other unfortunate soul.  Zamphini breathed a sigh of relief and was about to leave when he saw movement to his right.

There was a pile of dead rats in the mouth of an alley.  It was hard to tell how many there were, but Zamphini estimated they numbered thirty or more.  The rats had died not long ago, likely when he was talking with Aliana.

Zamphini looked around and stepped into the alley once he was sure no one was watching.  Something crouched in the shadows and tossed another dead rat onto the pile.

“I know this must be boring for you, but I believe my instructions were fairly clear,” Zamphini told it.  The thing whimpered and jumped to the rooftops.  “That’s better.”

With that cleared up, Zamphini left the alley and continued on his way.  Near the edge of the market was a small store selling fruit.  Zamphini smiled and rubbed his hands together when he reached it.  “Peaches!  Ah, it’s been so long since I had any.  Dried peaches, they’re good if you can’t find better, but nothing matches fruit fresh off the tree.”

A middle aged woman manning the store smiled when she saw him.  “I was hoping I’d see you today.  How are you?”

“Crystal, you devilish beauty, you don’t look a day over twenty.”  Zamphini stepped into the store and kissed her hand.  “You look well.  Is business good?  Are your children well?”

“I am, it’s not and they are.”  Crystal looked a good deal younger than she was.  Her clothes were simple but well tailored by her able hands, and a warm smile was rarely absent from her face.  “How are you, flatterer?”

“Seeing you smile again takes a weight off my heart.”  He saw Crystal’s oldest daughter Gwen sweeping the back of the store.  Like most girls, Gwen had matured earlier than boys her age, but much faster than normal.  The girl was fourteen going on twenty, a beauty as great as her mother.  Baggy clothes hid her curves so few men noticed her.  “Gwen, you look radiant.”

“Mister Zamphini!”  Gwen’s face lit up and she ran over.  “Sassy!”

Sassy jumped off Zamphini’s shoulder and landed in Gwen’s arms.  The girl shrieked with laughter and spun around in a full circle with the doll.  Zamphini laughed and patted her on the back.

“You two play and I’ll fill my belly,” he said.  Still smiling, he went back to admiring the fresh peaches.  He took a straw bag from his deep pockets and loaded it with fruit.  “She seems happy.”

Crystal followed him, her voice soft as she spoke.  “That drunken lout Yal Bridger hasn’t bothered us all week.  Zamphini, please tell me you didn’t hurt him.”

“No, and that was a hard promise to keep after I’d met him.”  Zamphini finished filling the bag and brought out another.  “Your description of his character left out a laundry list of flaws besides bothering a girl half his age.  We spoke and I explained that his behavior was unacceptable.  He’s left Lambsport, headed where I can’t say.”

Crystal raised her eyebrows.  “He left the city?  Good God, what did you say to him?”

“My words were few but well chosen.  Ooh, plums!”

Crystal’s earlier joy was replaced with sadness.  “I’m sorry I had to ask for help.  I should have handled this, but with my husband conscripted I wasn’t sure what to do.  The city watch wouldn’t help, and I’m shocked to say my relatives said Gwen is old enough to marry.”

“Say no more to me of the hardships of families.  It’s a problem I know too well.  My father could have helped me a thousand times, yet he never raised a hand in my defense.  He’s the most greedy, suspicious, ungrateful, black-hearted man you’ll ever meet!”

“How is he?” Crystal asked.

“Still mayor.”

Their conversation was interrupted when the ogre walked by them in the company of a farmer.  Lambsport had a strong odor from so many people living together, but the ogre’s musky scent was noticeable from ten feet away.  Zamphini saw scars crisscrossing the ogre’s chest and arms, the healed wounds as thick as lines on a street map.  The farmer looked nervous as he passed a pouch of coins to the burly ogre.  “The beast’s come up from the sea twice this week, and last time it tried to force its way into my barn.  Please, I just want this to stop.”

The ogre’s deep, rumbling reply was hard to understand.  “I’ll make it go away for good.  Meet me at the city gate in an hour.”

“There was a time the army or city watch would have handled such problems,” Zamphini said once the ogre and farmer had left.  “These days, they’re too busy with the war to save their own people.  If the fighting ends tomorrow it still wouldn’t be soon enough.”

Crystal frowned and pointed at the ogre.  “There’s been something on my mind.  No one would be foolish enough to try and conscript someone that dangerous, but why hasn’t Duke Edgely hired him for the war?”

“Ogres don’t obey anyone blindly.  They follow those they respect, and it’s a rare man who can earn that.  He’s more valuable to them here handling problems they can’t be bothered with than ignoring their orders on the battlefield.”

More softly, she asked, “Those men who were attacked at night, do you think he’s responsible?”

Zamphini shook his head and turned his attention back to the fruit.  “No, and for two reasons.  The men who were beaten all said they couldn’t identify their attackers in the dark.  If the ogre did it, who could mistake him for another when he’s that big, and with that smell?”

She smiled at him.  “I suppose not.  What’s the other reason?”

“With muscles like that, if he hit those men they’d be dead.”  Zamphini finished his selection and tried to hand a copper coin to Crystal.  She made no move to take it.

“You earned that a thousand times over.”

Zamphini opened her hand and pressed the coin into her palm.  “Dealing with Bridger was a public service.  This is for the fruit.”

Crystal looked likely to argue, but the sound of running feet and wicker baskets falling to the ground caught their attention.  It was the youth who’d followed Zamphini not half an hour ago, this time with a package clenched to his chest.  Two watchmen chased him down the street toward Zamphini and Crystal.  The youth shoved a woman out of his way as a watchman shouted, “Halt, thief!”

“Sassy, would you mind?” Zamphini asked.  Sassy jumped out of Gwen’s arms and ran into the street.  The youth ran in front of the fruit store, not noticing the doll until she grabbed him by the ankle and pulled hard to the left.  He cried out as he fell and dropped the package.  The watchmen grabbed him and pulled him up before they forced him up against a brick wall.

“That was stupid,” a watchman said as he bound the youth’s hands.  “You’re looking at three months’ hard labor unless you can pay off Magistrate Heckler.  I’m betting you can’t.”

The youth’s face twisted in rage as he glared at Zamphini and Sassy.  “I’ll get even with you!”

Confused people looked at Zamphini, who shrugged in reply.  “I didn’t touch the man.”

“Your stupid puppet tripped me!”

Sassy scooted behind Zamphini and held onto his legs.  Zamphini smiled and asked, “Forgive me, but are you saying you were beaten up by a doll?”

The street erupted into laughter.  Men and elves pointed at the youth and jeered.  Dwarfs shook their heads, and the lone ogre laughed so hard he had to sit down.  Goblins came out of the shadows to pelt the youth with horse dung, and Zamphini had to admit they had impressive aim.  The youth’s face turned red, and he looked down in shame as the watchmen dragged him away.

Zamphini turned away from the spectacle and back to Crystal.  “Good woman, as much as it pains me to say this, the hour grows late and our meeting must end.”  He kissed her hand again and smiled.  “Don’t hesitate to call upon me if you should be in trouble.”

“You’re a good man,” she told him.

“I am a great man!  It says so in my name.”

Gwen stepped out of the store long enough to hug him.  “Mister Zamphini, I know I’m asking a lot, but my little brother’s birthday is coming up.  Could you come to his party?  I saved up some money to pay you.”

“Gwen,” Crystal began, her tone a warning.

“I’d be delighted!” Zamphini interrupted her.  “I need to stay in practice, and this is the perfect opportunity.  I’ll bring all dozen of my dolls, and they will dance and juggle and tumble for you.  You thought there were only eleven of them?  I just finished building a brother for Sassy, who wanted another sister, but she’s coming around.”

Sassy stuck out her tongue at her maker, and Gwen laughed.  Zamphini clapped a hand over his heart in mock shame.  “Sassy, how could you, and in front of friends?  But, Gwen, and this is important, you must invite the neighbor children as well.  If The Great Zamphini is to work, he must have a proper audience.”

“Thank you, thank you, thank you!”  Gwen hugged Zamphini so hard the older man gasped as she squeezed the air out of him.  It took some effort to disentangle himself and leave.

The sun was setting as Zamphini left Crystal and her daughter.  He didn’t go home, instead searching among the stalls.  The marketplace emptied quickly as sellers closed their stores and customers hurried home.  A few boys ran through the streets and set tallow candles into the lamps hanging from lampposts.  Goblins fled to hidden places, a rare move since they were comfortable in the dark.  It was a sorry state of affairs that they feared the night as much as men did.

One woman saw Zamphini and hesitated before sealing her home for the night.  “I’ve a spare bed you can stay in until dawn.”

“Good woman, there’s no need for such a generous offer.”

“There is!  It will be dark soon.  Two men on this block suffered savage beatings after nightfall, and three more say they escaped the same fate by the skin of their teeth.”

Zamphini smiled, his expression unforced.  “It warms my heart to meet someone so kind in these troubled days.  Fear not, for The Great Zamphini is not far from home, and he never travels alone.”

“You’re sure?” the woman asked.

He bowed to her.  “Have no fear for my safety.”

The woman looked doubtful, but she closed her door, and there was a thud as she barred it.  Zamphini walked down the street and watched it empty.  Soon only he and the ogre were left.  The ogre showed no fear and walked up to Zamphini.

“Can I help you?” Zamphini asked.

“I heard you went to the village of Rotwood last month.”

“Yes, I did a performance for the mayor.  His daughter turned thirteen and he wanted to make it an occasion for the entire village.”

“Rotwood had a problem with devil rats attacking their livestock before your performance.  They didn’t after you left.”  When Zamphini didn’t respond, the ogre added, “There was supposed to be a whole swarm of them, each one forty pounds of muscle, bone and hate.  No one’s seen them for weeks or found a single body.  Very tidy of you.”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

The ogre smirked.  “You’ve been here far too long for a man shopping or visiting friends.  I need the money, but it’s a pity I was hired and have to leave before your next performance.  I was looking forward to watching you in action.”

“I’m very sure I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

The ogre laughed and gave Zamphini a pat on the back as he left.  With the ogre gone Zamphini was alone on the street.  He retreated to the mouth of an alley and sat down, resting his staff across his legs and setting his purchases on the ground.  Sassy sat across from him and stared at her creator.

Zamphini dug through his pockets until he turned up a glass sphere three inches across and rimmed with brass.  He put it back and took out a brass flask.  Uncorking it, he beckoned for Sassy to come closer.

“You know, this isn’t such a bad place,” he told her.  Sassy took the flask and drank bright green fluid from it.  “It could be better.  I was thinking that flowerpots are just what Lambsport needs, big ones two feet across and two feet deep.  Put them on the second floor of the houses and plant trailing vines in them like nymph tears or dragon blood.  They’d be perfect since they’re ever blooming, just pinch off fading flowers and more grow in.  Imagine, living displays of color draped over the city.”

Sassy handed back the flask and Zamphini placed it in the alley.  “Statues would work, too.  Last year I met a family of gnomes who carved stone so beautifully that you’d think the animals and people they made were alive.  And they worked cheap!  Well, reasonably cheap.  The duke could buy a few dozen of those and place them where everyone could see.  It would cheer the whole city.”

There was a gulping, sloshing noise in the dark alley.  Zamphini reached back and took the now empty flask.  He slipped it into one of his pockets and shook his head.

“It would be so easy to make things beautiful.  So many people waste their time and money on things that bring others down.  Hurtful words, cruel deeds, it doesn’t have to be that way.  It shouldn’t be that way.  Beauty, laughter, joy, these are what men should bring to the world.  You and I do, Sassy.  You, me, your brothers and sisters, we make things better.  I believe that.  I hope you do.”

Sassy walked over and stroked her creator’s arm.  He smiled and picked her up.  Before he placed her on his shoulder, he said, “You have fuel enough to see you through the night.  Come on, Sassy, let’s go.”

Zamphini took up his staff and purchases and walked down the rapidly darkening streets.  There were shortcuts, but he picked a leisurely route home that went through some of the worst hit neighborhoods.  The half moon provided enough light for him to see where he was going but not enough to notice fine details.  He’d gone only half a mile when he heard giggling to his left.  It wasn’t far away.  There was a tapping sound of steel on stone to his right.

More giggling came from behind him.  The tapping came closer.  He heard a bang in front of him that sounded like someone dropped a brick off a house.  Zamphini continued his slow walk as if he didn’t notice the offending sounds.  Darkness grew and shadows spread across the street.  At first Zamphini thought the sun had fully set, but he saw a lamp go out, then a second.  Whoever was making those noises was snuffing out every source of light.

Zamphini kneeled and set down his purchases, and heard the whoosh of a club as it went over his head.  He backed up and dodged another swing, this time from his left.  He counted one, two, three, yes, all four of them were here.  The gang laughed and screamed obscenities at him.  Two swung clubs while the other two tried to grab him.  Zamphini ducked and dodged until his back was against a wall.  One of his attackers grabbed him, but Zamphini slapped aside his enemy’s hands with a blow from his walking stick.

Zamphini took the glass sphere from his pocket and held it up before pressing a button.  Flash!  The street lit up bright as day, and the four men fell back covering their eyes.  Zamphini had closed his eyes before pressing the button, and wasn’t blinded by the sudden light.  When his eyes adjusted to the light, he saw who he was facing.

“Ah, Jonas Heckler, eldest son of our honorable magistrate, how good to see you again.  My how you’re grown.  You were but a boy when I performed at your birthday.”

The young men staggered back as if they’d been struck.  They tried to cover their faces, but it was too late.  Their clothes were expertly tailored cotton and linen, expensive garments indeed, and they wore gold rings.  “That must be Elant and Ulum Firefrost with you.  This is an odd time for sons of a rich merchant to be out.  I must confess I don’t recognize your last friend, but judging by his appearance he’s as wealthy as you are.

“Sloppy,” he scoffed.  “I’ve met men and monsters who were feared by kings and commoners both.  Terror came off them in waves.  This is amateur work, poorly done from the beginning.  You sought to herd me away from escape routes and the nearest watch station with silly noises.”  Zamphini rolled his eyes.  “No style, no respect for the audience, it’s shameful.”

“I told you we’d get caught!” the fourth one shouted.

“Shut up!” Heckler bellowed.  His eyes were adjusting to the light, and he dropped his hands from his face.

“It’s a pity you outgrew my dolls,” Zamphini said.  “I see your taste in entertainment has grown dark.  This is how you amuse yourself these days, attacking strangers on the street at night?  Does it make you feel powerful to have a helpless person at your mercy?”

Heckler fully recovered and grinned like a maniac.  “Think I’m going to feel bad, old man?”

“One can but hope.”

The fourth member grabbed Heckler by the arm.  “My dad will kill me when he finds out.”

Heckler didn’t look bothered.  “He’s not going to find out.  You’re right, old man, it’s been a blast.  We’ve been wolves among sheep, showing them who’s boss, watching them terrified even when it’s daytime.  You’ll never know what it’s like to hear grown men beg and cry.  We haven’t caught any women yet.  It’ll be fun when we do.”

“Idiocy,” Zamphini said.  “I wondered why attack a man if not to kill him or rob him of what little he had?  But men, or should I say boys, of your position have no need of money.  A few copper coins are beneath your notice as are the people living here.  And as son of the city’s magistrate you’d know where the city watch would be stationed and could avoid them easily.  You shirk real fights and attack the helpless.  Does that make you feel strong?”

“We are strong,” Heckler growled.  His smile returned, and he looked to his three friends.  “The old man plays with dolls, and he thinks he’s better than us.  You think we’re scared of being found out?  Old man, I’ve been waiting for this.”

“What?” one of his friends shouted.

“Come on, lads, this time we don’t hold back,” Heckler told them.  “Kill him and he won’t tell anyone.”

The other three hesitated.  Heckler screamed, “You want to get caught?  You want your fathers to learn what we’ve done?  Forget your fathers, what do you think Duke Edgely will do to us?  When has he forgiven anyone?  We’ll be conscripted and sent to the front lines!  Now man up and put him down like the worm he is!”

That did it.  Whatever thin connection they still had to morality melted away.  The four had death in their eyes as they closed in on Zamphini.

“Four against one,” Zamphini said.  “Not very fair.”

Heckler sneered.  “Life’s not fair, fat man.  I’m going to smash open your stupid doll and then your head.”

One of the men asked, “What doll?  He hasn’t got it with him.”

Another spun around, his eyes darting around the street.  “It was here a second ago.”

The light coming off Zamphini’s sphere caught a creature leaping off a shop on the other side of the street.  Heckler and his friends screamed as it skidded across the cobblestones, coming to a halt only when its claws caught onto a lamppost.  Once it stopped moving they could see it was an enormous cat, but one that had been built rather than born.  The monstrosity was six feet long and made of brass, with strangely etched obsidian plates jutting from its armored body.  Bright green light poured from its joints and its open jaws, with their terrifying sharp teeth.  The creature growled and crouched to jump again.

Bizarre as this was, terrifying as it was, their mouths dropped when they saw Sassy walk out of the shadows and pat the monstrous cat.  It purred and rubbed its head against her, proving whose side it was on.

Heckler scrambled back.  “What is that?”

“Come now, why so surprised?” Zamphini demanded.  “I make dolls that dance and juggle and tumble.  Did you think I couldn’t make something bigger, something stronger, something for dealing with monsters?”

“Oh God,” one of them whimpered.

“You parted company with Him long ago,” Zamphini said.  He turned off the glowing sphere before putting it away, then pressed a hidden button on his walking stick.  There was a hiss as a blade ten inches long slid out of the top, transforming the simple tool into a spear.  Lightning crackled over the blade and threw flickering shadows across the street.  He spun the weapon over his head and pointed it at Heckler.  “Now you deal with me.”

The huge cat growled and raced down the street after its prey.  Its claws drew sparks off the cobblestones as it closed the distance.  One of the men tried to run while the other three faced Zamphini, now drastically better armed than they were and not looking merciful.

“Wait, we’ve got money!” Heckler shouted.  “We can pay you!  We can—”

* * * * *

The ogre returned to Lambsport late the following morning, tired but satisfied.  He’d finished last night’s job to his client’s satisfaction.  That earned enough money to keep him fed for only two weeks, for food prices were high and ogres were famous for their appetites.  More importantly he’d proven his strength and courage in battle.  Such victories would bring more clients.

He found the market much as he’d left it.  Humans shopped and gossiped.  Elves tried to tempt men into mortgaging their farms.  Dwarfs did brisk business selling steel goods.  Goblins made an endless nuisance of themselves yet always managed to escape punishment.  Small and weak as they were, the ogre admired their ability to survive.

As always the humans talked constantly, an annoying trait, but one the ogre could endure.  It seemed there had been shouting the night before.  That generally meant a farmer or storekeeper had suffered a savage beating, but the morning brought no one in need of a healer’s aid, nor a lucky soul who’d escaped his foes unharmed.

The ogre had long ago staked a claim to his spot under an arch where he was out of the sun for most of the day.  Before he took his place and waited for clients to bring him their problems, he studied the market and surrounding streets in great detail.  There was no damage to houses or stores.  He found no suspicious debris such as bits of clothing or drops of dried blood.  In fact, the only sign anything had happened last night were scratches on some cobblestones and a lamppost.

The ogre smiled, showing off his thick, yellow teeth.  “Tidy as always, Zamphini


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