A Fair Deal

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Fantasy  |  House: Booksie Classic
This is the fourth story in the Dana Illwind and Sorcerer Lord Jayden series that I started with the story Not Quite a Hero. I hadn't intended to write so much about them, but the ideas kept flowing so I kept writing. Enjoy.

Submitted: October 15, 2018

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Submitted: October 15, 2018

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“Why do the ports we visit smell like something died?” Dana asked as she got off the boat.She’d been cooped up on the ramshackle fishing boat for five days, an experience made worse by the overpowering stench of dead fish permeating the wood vessel. Dana had assumed getting on land would relieve the problem, but the city of Pearl Bay smelled like a horrible mix of spoiled meat, rotting produce, manure and unwashed bodies.

“It’s a common feature of large cities,” Jayden replied.“Too many people, poor sanitation, add summer’s heat, and you have a recipe for olfactory offense.”

The captain sailed his miserable boat up to the long docks stretching out over the water and moored them to the nearest open berth.He and his three-man crew got out of the way as Jayden and Dana left their boat.The captain, a grubby man who’d seen better days, held an open out hand to Jayden.

“Deal was one gold coin going, one more on shore and no questions,” the man said.

Jayden went through the bags he’d brought along for the trip and paid the captain.“My word was given, and is kept.Good day to you, sir, and for both our sakes I suggest you forget meeting us.”

The captain grinned, showing off the few teeth he still had.“Smart men keep their mouths shut these days.They live longer that way.”

Jayden nodded to the captain and left with Dana.They headed down the dock to the stinking metropolis of Pearl Bay. Jayden swept his hands over the revolting city like he was presenting a rare prize.

“Behold, Pearl Bay, once known for rich pearl beds, excellent fishing and access to the spice trade.The pearl beds were plundered to exhaustion and poisoned by human waste, the spice trade was strangled by excessive taxes, and I’m told fishing is fair to middling. I’ve been here before and have friends we can call upon.”

Dana and Jayden left the docks and headed to the busy streets of Pearl Bay. Now that they were off the boat and away from its crew, Dana felt safe to speak.“Do you think the captain believed your story?”

“I think so,” Jayden said.The sorcerer lord was a tall man, handsome to behold.His yellow hair was perpetually messy and wore black and silver clothes that had suffered some damage in a fight with an elven wizard.He carried no weapons, but had a heavy load of baggage containing gold and minor riches.Jayden had a smirking, superior expression most of the time.Dana was actually glad to see that smug look on his face, because he was a terrifying force when he gave in to his rage.“Our trip should provoke little comment when I have a reputation for strange deeds.”

“Like trying to overthrow the king and queen,” Dana commented.

“Most men want to do that,” Jayden said.He smiled at a gnome leaning against a barrel, and resumed talking once they were far from him.“The difference is I carry out my plans.But I digress.The dear captain believes we were going to meet someone out at sea, and I hope you’ll agree I looked annoyed when no one appeared.”

“I think you scared those men,” Dana replied.Dana was a girl of fifteen with brown hair and simple clothes.She’d followed Jayden since spring when he’d saved her village from a monster.Joining him was risky, but she’d seen the good he was capable of as well as the danger he posed.Jayden needed someone to help steer him away from trouble and toward doing good.So far they’d defeated monsters and an elf wizard, and survived meeting the Shrouded One, a fairytale in Fish Bait City that was actually a mob of goblins.

Dana had a knife in her belt and carried nearly as much baggage as Jayden after their successful missions together.There was one item missing from their belongings, though, and God willing it would never be seen again.

“That might keep them quiet,” Jayden told her.“I dislike frightening people, but the fewer men who know we dumped the Valivaxis overboard during that trip the better.You did an excellent job distracting them while I got rid of it.Those men think we went for a meeting that didn’t happen when the other side didn’t arrive, a story that shouldn’t inform enemies of our real objective.”

“Is it safe, now?” Dana asked as they left the dock and went onto street crowded with men and a few dwarfs.The Valivaxis was a gateway to another world where the elves of old placed their dead emperors.They’d placed guards in the tomb, terrible monsters who’d survived the passing of centuries and could come out if the Valivaxis was opened.

Jayden smiled.“I selected that location to place the Valivaxis because there is a deep trench in that part of the ocean.The pressure of the water above it will create enough force to make it impossible for anyone to reach the Valivaxis, and that same force will help keep it closed.Our unwelcome guest is gone for good, and we may turn our attention to other goals.”

Dreading the answer, she asked, “Such as?”

“We’ve been busy for weeks dealing with the Valivaxis.I need to learn what events have occurred before making plan.”

Dana and Jayden slipped through the crowd as best they could.Their passing drew little attention, for the crowd included some men in very elaborate outfits.These included merchants hawking their goods, mercenaries from distant lands and entertainers playing music or juggling to earn coins.Dana stopped for a moment to watch an acrobat, but she hurried along when she saw a suspicious person.

“We’re being followed,” she told Jayden.

Jayden kept walking.“Describe him.”

“It’s a gnome with black hair, dressed in leather clothes.He was at the docks, and now he’s here.”

Jayden shrugged.“He could be a thief or an information broker.”

“A what?”

“Someone who learns important information and sells it.I once bought secrets from such a person, only for him to sell my location to agents of the crown.He and I had a discussion afterwards, which he eventually recovered from.If our new friend is wise he won’t make the same mistake.Ah, here we are.Welcome to The Hole in the Wall, a disreputable tavern with surprisingly good cuisine.”

The Hole in the Wall lived up to its obnoxious name.The building was dingy, dark, crowded and smelly.The tavern’s patrons were mostly human, but Dana saw two dwarfs at the bar and an eight-foot tall hairy brute of an ogre seated in a corner.Most of the rough looking men sat at small tables, drinking grog and eating unwholesome looking dishes.When Dana backed away from a man gorging what looked like skinned snakes in red sauce, he demanded, “What’s the matter?You never saw a man eat eels?”

Dana had been born and raised on a farm far from sea, and honestly replied, “I’ve never seen eels before.”

That earned her braying laughter from the man.Jayden ignored him and led Dana to a table near the back.He gestured for a waiter to come and ordered food for them.“Tell Charles I said hello.”

“He knows you’re here and wishes you weren’t,” the waiter replied tartly. “Try not to make so much of a mess this time.”

“Yep, you’ve been here before,” Dana said.

The waiter had barely left their table before a clearly drunken man stagger up to their table and asked, “Girl, what do you charge?”

Dana didn’t understand the question and was about to ask when Jayden shot to his feet and cast a spell.Shadows across the tavern stretched out to form a massive, clawed fist.Huge fingers wrapped around the man’s chest and threw him out of the tavern.Patrons across the tavern cried out in surprise and ducked under their tables.Jayden let the spell fade and addressed the crowd.

“The next man to insult the lady’s honor can expect far worse.”Jayden sat down as if the matter was settled.To Dana’s surprise, the tavern’s patrons calmed down and returned to their drinks.No one went to help the man Jayden had ejected from the building. The dwarfs even raised a toast to Jayden, and the ogre chuckled.

Confused, Dana said, “What was that about?”

“Don’t ask.”

Their food came quickly, a filling meal of grilled fish on roasted vegetables and bread.Their host came nearly as fast, a large and irate looking man with blond hair and worn sailor’s clothes.

“Ah, Charles, how good to see you,” Jayden said.

“You idiot, what were you thinking coming here again?” Charles replied through gritted teeth.“I have delicate business matters in this city, and I don’t need you drawing attention to me.”

“You run a tavern with good food and better gossip,” Jayden replied.“I’ve been gone a year and need to know what’s changed in the city.Who better to go to than you?”

“Anyone!” Charles roared.That drew attention from the patrons.Charles glowered at them until they went back to their drinks.He sat in a chair across from Jayden.“You want to know what’s changed?I changed.I have a side business that makes good profit.These men won’t inform on you, even the one you threw out.The crown doesn’t pay for information, and men who want their business kept secret deal harshly with informants.But if you make a disastrous mess like you always do, knights will search the city and might learn my secrets by accident.”

“You’re worried about your grain smuggling?” Jayden asked.Charles gasped.“I heard about that months ago.Farmers sell you their wheat rather than have it confiscated, and you sell it to smugglers who sell it in Nolod’s grain markets.That wheat would have gone to feed the king and queen’s army. I’m rather proud of you, Charles.”

Charles recovered quickly.“Then you know why I don’t want royal attention.”

“I’ll happily leave your delightful corner of the underworld alone.All I need is you to provide me current information on the king and queen’s doings.I’ll pick a target far from here, giving the loving royal couple somewhere else to send their knights.”

Charles grumbled and said, “It’s worth it to get you out of Pearl Bay. The city barely recovered from your last visit and doesn’t need your return.Who’s the girl?”

“Dana Illwind,” Dana said.“I’m his friend.”

Charles glanced between them.“I’ve never heard of you having friends, Jayden, only temporary help.”

“Dana is an exceptional woman.”

“She’d have to be to keep you in line.All right, I’ve help, for a price.”

Jayden and Charles began haggling over how much Charles’ help would cost, and Dana’s attention drifted off.The tavern was dark and dirty, so she looked out the windows where men struggled to get through crowded streets.To her surprise she saw a woman navigate the packed thoroughfare with ease.People made way for the simply dressed woman, greeting her warmly as if she was a blood relative to everyone on the road.

“Who’s she?” Dana asked.

Charles’ hard expression softened at the sight of the woman.“That’s Sarah Gress, wife of our old sheriff.The poor woman’s been on hard times since she lost her husband.”

“What happened to him?”

The question earned Dana surprised looks from nearby tables.Some men were outraged, but Charles waved them off. “She’s new in town, boys.”

The men calmed down, and one said, “Do yourself a favor and go back wherever you came from.It can’t be worse than here.”

Charles shrugged.“I’ve been in worse, just not often.Hural Gress used to be sheriff in Pearl Bay.Big man, strong like an ox and good with a sword.He upheld the law the same for rich and poor, and he was the first man to ask judges for mercy.He knew when to turn a blind eye when no harm was meant, and he could get most folks to talk over their problems rather than fight it out or go to court.He convinced men to do the right thing, or beat them down with his fists if he had to.In ten years he only drew his sword eight times.Those eight times, well, those men needed killing.”

Puzzled, Dana said, “You respected him.”

“I didn’t used to be a smuggler,” Charles replied.He sounded resigned to his situation.“Sheriff Gress was respected by all men and a fair number of dwarfs and elves.Too bad he wasn’t respected by the throne.”

Jayden scowled.“What did they do to him?”

Charles finished his drink with one swallow.“Five months ago the king and queen wrote new laws and sent copies to all the sheriffs on how to carry out their duties.Criminals were sentenced to forced labor no matter how petty the crime. No pleas accepted, no deals, no mercy. The more criminals sentenced, the more pay a sheriff gets.Sheriffs could cut men down at the slightest offense.It used to be they had to explain it to a judge when they took a life.Nowadays nobody questions when a man is killed.

“Sheriff Gress wrote a letter to the king listing why he couldn’t obey these rules, how they ignored laws hundreds of years old and the rights of men established by the founder of the dynasty.He said this would make more trouble than it would solve.He asked to be relieved of his duties on account of no man could act like that and still be called a man.”

The tavern fell quiet as customers listened to the grim tale.Charles stared down at the floor as he finished.

“Sheriff Gress got summoned to the capital.Good men told him to run, offered to help get him out of the kingdom, but the sheriff did his duty.Two months later his wife got a letter saying he’d died along the way from bone break plague.”

Dana’s jaw dropped.“There’s plague here?”

Charles held up his cup for another round, and the waiter filled it.“There hasn’t been plague in these parts for twenty years.Wouldn’t matter if there was, since Sheriff Gress had bone break as a boy and survived it. A man gets a sickness like bone break or red eyes, he never gets it again.We started hearing from other cities how men ‘died from plague’, plagues real specific about who they kill.You work for the crown and complain, appeal a ruling, question an order, and you get called to the capital to answer for it.You never seem to make it there.”

“How many times has this happened?” Jayden demanded.

“Dozens of times I can prove, hundreds more I’ve heard of.”

Shocked, Dana asked, “What did your mayor do when this happened?”

Charles scowled.“He didn’t want to end up the same way, so he kept quiet.Most folks do.Worse thing is those good men get replaced with bad ones.We got a new sheriff named Hemmelfarb a month later, and he’s got no problem with the new laws.He confiscates goods for the crown or for his own pocket, and God help anyone who protests. Sheriff Gress used to live in a house provided by the crown.That house went to Hemmelfarb, and Sarah Gress and her kids got put out on the street. We help her when we can.”

“Are you sure he’s dead?” Dana asked.“Maybe he was exiled or imprisoned.”

Charles watched Sarah Gress select fruit from a vendor.“Sheriff Gress loved that woman more than life itself. If he were alive, he’d fight through armies to reach her.

“It was a lesson to us all,” he continued.“Life was never easy here, but we got by.After what the king and queen did to Sheriff Gress, we don’t try to be honest anymore.There’s no reward for hard work when the throne can take everything you make whenever they please.As bad as the new punishments are, starving is worse.”

Jayden got up from his chair and marched out of the tavern to Sarah Gress. She glanced up from the fruit cart as he stopped in front of her.“Madam, I’m told you have suffered greatly.I would like to help.”

Most people were awed or fearful when they saw Jayden.Sarah Gress looked him in the eye.“Sir, it may surprise you to know that I have heard of you. You do not disappoint in your appearance.I hope you will forgive me, but while I am sure your offer is genuine, I have not yet fallen so far that I must accept aid from criminals.”

“You’re certain there’s nothing I can do?”

“I have lost much, sir.Leave me at least my dignity and good name.”

“As you wish.”Jayden bowed and returned to the tavern.He went to his table and looked at Dana.“I should have asked you to do that.She would have been more receptive.”

“I can try if you want,” Dana offered.

Jayden shook his head and turned to Charles.“I need a list of men she does business with, honest men I can give coins to discretely pay for her needs.”

“I know two men who can help,” he replied.He got up to leave, saying, “It’s best if we meet them quietly so your reputation doesn’t damage them.The first is Samuel Sti—oh no, not now, you fool.”

The street outside the tavern cleared as men ran to avoid a swaggering swordsman in a blue and gray uniform.He was tall and strong, healthy and young, handsome to look at, but his cruel expression showed how little he thought of the people around him.

“So, I heard a ship dropped off passengers,” the man sneered.

Jayden scowled.“Dare I ask, or is the answer too obvious?”

“That’s Sheriff Hemmelfarb,” Charles answered.“He’s as bad as he sounds.Ships he inspects lose a lot of cargo, and arrested men find their wallets a good deal lighter.”

Hemmelfarb pushed past a few men near the tavern’s door.He glanced briefly at Sarah Gress.Gress met his gaze the same way she had Jayden’s.Hemmelfarb went by her without a word as he put a hand on his sword hilt.

“We’ve been having too much of that,” Hemmelfarb said, his tone belittling. “Men seem to think they can come and go as they please without paying proper respect.That’s what this is about, respect.I’ve been here long enough I should be getting some instead of every yokel going on about a dead man who used to have the job.”

The waiter quickly poured a drink and set it on the bar.“No need for trouble, sheriff.”

Hemmelfarb made no move to accept the drink and instead drew his sword.“I think there is.Men I trust in this city said strangers came here with full bags. I’m wondering what’s in those bags. I’m wondering why they came here. I’m wondering why I have to keep making the same points to you halfwits about the law.”

Dana slid down lower in her chair, trying hard not to be noticed.When she saw the look on Jayden’s face, she reached out and took his arm to stop him.It didn’t work.

“Give me room,” Jayden said.Nearby men backed away until there was a clear space around him.Jayden cast a spell and formed an ebony sword rimmed with light.He stepped forward so the sheriff had no trouble seeing him before he raised his magic sword. Speaking loud enough to be heard outside the tavern, Jayden answered the sheriff’s challenge.“I am the man you seek.You have my undivided attention.Allow me to demonstrate why that’s a bad thing.”

 “You…” Sheriff Hemmelfarb froze.His sneer disappeared and lips quivered as he took a step back.His face turned pale.Then he ran.

“What are you doing?” Sarah Gress shouted as Hemmelfarb raced by her.The sheriff tripped, dropping his sword when he landed.He left it there as he scrambled to his feet and kept running.Sarah ran after him a few steps, shouting, “Get back here!”

A few men in the tavern smirked while the dwarfs shook their heads in shame. The ogre burst out laughing.The waiter handed Jayden the drink he’d poured for the sheriff, saying, “That’s worth a round on the house.”

Sarah Gress marched over to where Hemmelfarb had fallen and picked up his sword. Her expression was so fierce that men got out of her way when she marched up to Jayden.

“You offered aid, sir, and you provided more than I could have asked for.” She held up the sword and called out, “Sheriff Hemmelfarb is supposed to uphold the law, to protect us from criminals. A wanted man with a price on his head stands before us now, and our sheriff ran!This is the measure of the man our king and queen sent to guide us, defend us, to rally us when the city is in danger!This is the man our king and queen favor after they took my husband!Tell your family, your neighbors, your friends and strangers you meet on the street!Tell them our sheriff is a coward!”

With that said, Sarah Gress stormed off with the sword.Jayden let his magic sword dissipate as he watched her leave, saying, “That is quite a woman.”

Charles slapped a hand over his face.“Of all the ways you could have ended that…go out of the back.I’ll meet you at the Kraken Hotel.God willing I’ll still have a business left in the morning.”

Dana and Jayden left, stopped only briefly when the ogre insisted on patting Jayden on the shoulder.They found the streets buzzing with gossip as men and women spread word of his showdown with the sheriff.A few men recognized Jayden and got out of his way, but otherwise their reactions were minimal.

Not sure how to begin the conversation, Dana said, “I’d never seen you cast that spell.”

“I found a spell tablet from the old sorcerer lords when I saved your town months ago,” he replied.“It took me longer than I’d like to translate and master the spell, but you saw its effectiveness.”

Hesitantly, she said, “And you thought a crowded city was a good place to use it?”

Jayden led her down a side street away from the docks.“The man at the tavern was a drunken idiot who needed a lesson, and the other patrons needed to see my abilities to prevent further insults. Throwing the lout out did both without killing him.”

“I wasn’t angry with the man, and you can do more good easily and quietly if people don’t know who you are,” she pressed.“Picking fights like that makes enemies and lets your enemies know exactly where you are.”

“I was angry with him, and I plan on being long gone before the king and queen learn of our visit.”Jayden pointed to a large hotel surrounded by rich shops.“Here we are, the Kraken Hotel.You’ll find the accommodations unusual, the prices high and the proprietor open to bribes.”

“How is any of that a good thing?”

Jayden opened the door for her, and she entered a place of dreams.Weird dreams, but dreams nonetheless.The entrance hall was bigger than her home and included a large bar, gaming tables, carpeted floors and gorgeous paintings. There was a huge beak three feet across mounted on the wall along with dozens of sharp spikes three inches long. The room’s décor was an underwater theme with shark skeletons prominently displayed above doorways.

An elf behind the bar smiled when they entered.“Ah, Sorcerer Lord Jayden.I’d heard you were in town and hoped you would grace us with your presence again.”

“Charmed to meet you again, Elegant Crane,” Jayden replied as he walked up to the elf.Jayden flipped two gold coins to the elf and added, “I’ll need a room for myself and another for the lady.The king and queen recently demanded inns and hotels report who stays with them.” Jayden tossed another gold coin.“I trust you can overlook our visit.”

“You needn’t worry about that,” the elf replied as he pocketed the coins. “Reports we send to the capital about our guests have no basis in reality.Dinner is at eight and the evening’s poker game starts at ten.Here are your keys.”

“What’s poker?” Dana asked as she followed Jayden out of the hotel’s main room.

“You must have games of chance in your hometown.”

“Sure.Pins and swings, clam toss, apples and angels.Poker is new to me.”Jayden opened a door for her and waited for her to go in.“We need to talk.”

“I see.”Jayden went in ahead of her and sat down on a large soft bed in the center of the room. Dana followed him and closed the door behind her.

Feeling nervous, she asked, “Charles wasn’t happy to see you.What did you do the last time you were here?”

“So that’s what’s got you worried.Last year I learned the king and queen were importing weapons.Namely a ship came to Pearl Bay loaded with a hundred thousand arrows.I found the ship before it was unloaded and encouraged the crew to leave.”

Dana rolled her eyes.“And by encouraged, does that mean you threatened their lives?”

“No, but your idea has merit.I offered them a bribe roughly three times their yearly salary.I’d take credit for being so generous, but I’d stolen the money from the mayor’s personal vault.Once the men were gone I burned the ship down to the waterline.I escaped without any great difficulty, largely because the late and much lamented Sheriff Gress was hunting bandits in the countryside.”

“Burning a ship is a hanging offense.”

Jayden smiled.“I commit hanging offenses every month, more often during summer.”

“It sounds like you made life harder for the people here when you burned that ship.”

Jayden looked more thoughtful as he answered.“I knew that could happen before I acted.It was a choice of which was the greater wrong.Charles and others here no doubt had their lives turned upside down when the king and queen learned what I did.At the very least security in Pearl Bay must have been tightened and citizens harassed by soldiers and mercenaries.

“But a hundred thousand arrows can kill a great many men, foreigners I’d never met and owed no debts to, but that doesn’t make their lives less important. I could greatly inconvenience many men or allow thousands or tens of thousands to die.I didn’t make the choice lightly, but given the opportunity I would do it again.”

Dana hesitated before she spoke.“There are ways to help these people and the kingdom without getting a bigger bounty on your head.They won’t be as satisfying, but you can save lives like when you closed the Valivaxis and dumped it in the ocean.”

We sealed the Valivaxis,” he corrected her.

“There are threats out there just as big.I’ve heard of monsters, bandits, ancient curses, threats that make big parts of the kingdom off limits to everyone.If you fixed those problems you’d make the kingdom a better place. It might satisfy the king and queen since they’d have so much more land open for farmers, loggers and miners. They’d have enough land without going to war.”

“An idea I’m sure the dearly departed Sheriff Gress would agree with,” Jayden replied.

Dana’s heart sank at the mention of the old sheriff.She’d never met him, but he sounded like the kind of man she would have liked.

Jayden went on, his voice calm but his words relentless.“Dana, your idea is valid, but you used one word that ensures it won’t work.Enough. That word doesn’t exist in our enemies’ vocabulary.The king and queen control an entire kingdom.Taxes generated from these lands, if they were managed properly, should be enormous. For you and I that would be enough, more than we could possibly spend, but the king and queen want to conquer a neighboring kingdom.They seek land equal to the massive quantity they already possess.Giving them a few dozen square miles can’t compare to such a bounty.”

Softly, she asked, “Did you ever wonder if what the king and queen have done is a response to what you’re doing to them?You scare people, and scared people make bad choices.”

“I wonder a great many things, Dana.The king and queen may indeed be panicked by my actions.I hope so, although evidence to support the idea is sparse.But I have lived longer than you, traveled farther and seen more of our kingdom, and I have learned the offenses inflicted on this kingdom go back years before I began my crusade against the throne.Their misdeeds grow in number and cruelty, but they aren’t new events.”

“It’s just, this is the second city I’ve been two, both dumps, and I don’t see how what we’re doing can change that.”Dana pointed at the window and said, “Pearl Bay stinks and the people are miserable.”

Jayden kissed her on the forehead, making her blush.“Your concern does you credit.I admit nothing I do is going to help these people in the short term.Men in neighboring kingdoms deserve better lives, too, and I want the same for our people.For that to happen there must be no war.I’ve made hard choices to make that a reality.Not all those choices were correct, but they’re better than a hundred thousand arrows being fired.”

Their conversation ended when someone banged on the door.Dana opened it to let a very angry Charles into the room. He shut the door behind him before turning his fierce gaze on Jayden.“Sheriff Hemmelfarb came back with thirty mercenaries.It took some fast talking and a substantial bribe to convince him I don’t know you, so I still have a tavern.”

“I’ll toast to that,” Jayden replied.“I’ll have a bottle of wine sent to the room.”

“I’m going to need more than that.”Charles took papers from inside his shirt and laid them on the bed.He unfolded them and said, “My smuggling contacts are in port and eager for more business, but nearby farmers either had their crops confiscated or sold them to me long ago.I need product to move, the sooner the better.You want to hurt the king and queen?I need money to cover what I just lost.We can do both at once.”

Jayden rubbed his hands together.“Charles, you don’t disappoint.”

Charles showed Dana and Jayden a rough map of the docks and nearby streets. He pointed at an isolated dock and said, “A ship is scheduled to come to this dock tonight.New security rules demand ships send a cargo manifest before arriving at harbor, and this cargo is worth having.Get it for me and I’ll give you enough information to make you rich and the king and queen furious.”

Jayden shook Charles’ hand.“It’s a fair deal.”

“What’s in there?” Dana asked.

“One of my associates snuck the cargo manifest out of the harbormaster’s office.”Charles handed it to her and pointed at the middle.“The ship carries goats, sheep and one steed, all property of our new sheriff.There’s a high demand for livestock, so I can move those quickly, and I know men who will buy a horse no questions asked.But there are guards at the dock we need to deal with.”

Jayden looked at the map and asked, “Militiamen won’t be a threat.How many mercenaries are in Pearl Bay?”

“Normally none, but it’s gone up to sixty mercenaries, fierce, well trained and loyal if they’re paid on time.They obey Sheriff Hemmelfarb and no one else, and they patrol the docks at all times.”

Dana frowned as she read the cargo manifest: 34 sheep, 25 goats, 1 steed. “Why does a sheriff need sheep?”

“Livestock in the region have been commandeered to feed the army,” Charles explained.“No sheep, no wool.No wool, no clothes.No clothes, no money.Those sheep are worth gold.”

“Who else can you count on for this job?” Jayden asked.

“You, me, your girl, my smuggler friends on their ship and a dozen local boys.” Charles frowned and added, “I was going to write this off as too dangerous, but then you showed up.”

Dana held up the paper and said, “This doesn’t make sense.”

“What part?” Jayden asked.

She pointed at the manifest.“They list the animals but have one only as steed.Why not call it a horse?”

Charles looked annoyed.“The harbormaster is a barely literate drunk.Doesn’t surprise me he’d be sloppy.As for the horse, these are people with money.They can’t use simple words when they have fancy ones like steed.”

“What else is there?” Jayden pressed.

Charles pointed at other buildings on the map.“There are four warehouses nearby.Three are filled with trade goods, low value, high bulk, but still worth money.”

Jayden smiled at the news.“A distraction at one of those warehouses could draw the mercenaries away long enough to get the animals.How close are your smugglers?”

Charles pointed to a ship on a neighboring dock.“Here.We take off the animals, herd them onto our ship and send them off.Shouldn’t take more than a few minutes if we do it right.”

“And what will the sheriff do when his animals get stolen?” Dana asked.

“Don’t know,” Charles said as he rolled up his papers.“Don’t care, either.It’s getting impossible to earn a living in Pearl Bay, and when the smugglers leave I’m going with them for friendlier lands.You can have your one-man campaign against the throne all for yourself, Jayden.I’m through.”

Shocked, Dana asked, “You’d abandon your homeland?”

The look Charles gave her made Jayden step between them.Charles regained his temper and said, “My homeland killed the one person I respected. Everything good here has been squeezed out.I didn’t used to be a criminal, girl.I don’t like being a criminal.And if there’s somewhere out there beyond the waves where I can go back to being a tavern keeper, where kings don’t make good men disappear, I want to live there.Think of me what you will.”

Charles headed for the door.“I’ll send for you when the ship comes.”

Once he was gone, Dana said, “I’m sorry if I made that worse.”

“Don’t apologize,” Jayden told her.“I’ve found most men can only be called upon for help a limited number of times. Ask too much and they grow weary or break under the strain.Charles has suffered much and needs time to heal.”

* * * * *

It was late at night and Dana was fast asleep when there was a knock at the door. She woke to find Jayden still up waiting patiently.He opened the door to reveal the same gnome they’d seen earlier that day.The gnome tipped his cap and said, “Your assistance is needed.”

“Wait, you were at the dock when we came here, and you followed us,” she said.

The gnome smiled and took off his cap when he saw her.“Mr. Charles hired me to watch the docks and tell him when interesting ships and people come.”

Jayden left his baggage behind and told the gnome, “Lead the way, good sir.”

Dana and Jayden followed the gnome out of the hotel.They found the inn’s common room packed with men, elves and dwarfs playing poker.A lone troll was beating all comers at cards, and he beckoned them with a scaly hand to sit at his table.“You in, wizard?”

“Another time,” Jayden replied.

Dana, Jayden and the gnome went out into the cool night air.Pearl Bay’s streets were nearly deserted with the coming of darkness.The few people on the streets traveled quickly and in groups to lessen the risk of mugging.Goblins scurried between buildings to snatch up garbage and items dropped during the day. Overall it was a time and place Dana would rather be in bed with a locked door.

The gnome led them through the streets.Shapes moved in the darkness, but none tried to bar their path.It took nearly an hour to reach an empty shed lit by a single candle where Charles waited with a mob of scruffy looking men.

“Saints and angels, Charles, I thought you were bluffing when you said he was coming,” an armed man said.

“I wouldn’t have gotten you out of bed without good cause,” Charles said. His men looked nervous, so Charles walked up and put an arm around Jayden’s shoulders.“Me and the sorcerer lord have worked together before.”

Another man pointed a dagger at Dana.“Who’s this one?”

Charles hurried over and put a hand on the man’s arm, pushing it and the dagger down.“Someone he’s protective of, so let’s not annoy either of them.”

Jayden smiled.“Gentlemen, tonight I’m at your service.I can handle the heavy lifting for this endeavor, and Heaven help those who face us in battle, because nothing else can save them.”

“How much is he charging?” the man with the dagger asked.

“I’m covering his fee,” Charles said.“Now if you’re done gawking, we have a job to do.The ship we’re after arrived on time, no small accomplishment, and most of the crew disembarked to get drunk.We need to deal with only a few men onboard and distract nearby mercenaries.Jayden, can you handle the hired swords?”

Jayden studied his fingernails under the dim light. “That shouldn’t be an issue.”

“Then no more delays,” Charles said, and he blew out the candle.

Charles led the motley band out of the shed and onto the docks.They found the docks well lit by lanterns and patrolled by mercenaries wearing chain armor and armed with spears.Charles directed his men into the shadows and pointed at a distant warehouse before telling Jayden, “That’s the only empty building near the docks, and far enough away for our needs.”

Jayden nodded before he took Dana aside.“Stay here.I’ll come back soon.”

With that Jayden ran off into the dark streets.Dana pressed her back into the nearest corner and waited.She wasn’t certain of the loyalty or friendliness of the men around her, and her heart raced.Minutes went by without incident, making her wonder what Jayden was planning.

“Hey there,” a squeaky voice said.Dana nearly shrieked before she saw it was just a goblin.The filthy little creature stood only three feet tall and was dressed in rags as dirty as the bulging bag over his shoulder.

“Hi.”

The goblin set his bag on the street.“Kinda late for a little girl to be out.”

“Don’t start,” she warned him.She hesitated before saying, “I…I may be in a bit of trouble.”

The goblin’s face twisted into an insane grin at the news.“Do tell.”

“My friend has gotten himself into the kind of trouble that gets you executed, and by being around him I think I’m in just as deep.”

“That’s how you know it’s going to be fun.”

Dana frowned.She shouldn’t be saying anything to the goblin, but she was scared and needed someone to talk to, even a stranger.“He’s fighting for a good cause, but he’s going to get killed and maybe get other people killed.We’re stealing stuff owned by your sheriff.I know the sheriff is a jerk, but is that enough reason to rob someone?It seems like we’re on a slippery slope, where just working for the throne is justification to attack someone.”

She looked at the ship they were about to rob.It was ordinary enough, lit with lanterns and watched over by a few men.She frowned again and looked at the goblin.“What kind of ship is scheduled to come to port at night?That’s more dangerous than docking during the day, right?”

“Oh yeah,” the goblin replied.

Charles heard the conversation and came over.“What the, a goblin?You’d better not screw this up for us.”

The goblin laughed.“Oh please, like I owe the sheriff any favors.Speaking of favors, hold off starting the fun for a few minutes.I know some guys who’d like to watch.”

One of Charles’ followers waved for them to come.“Your friend did it.”

“Did what?” Dana asked.She came closer and saw mercenaries running toward the distant warehouse Charles had pointed out to Jayden.The building was burning brightly and sending smoke billowing into the air. Mercenaries ran over, shouting for help as they got buckets and tried to put out the flames.

Jayden soon joined them.“Setting fire to rotting wood isn’t easy.”

“That was why the warehouse was empty,” Charles told him.“A good third of the buildings in Pearl Bay are just as bad. But now that the mercenaries are busy we’ve got a ship to board.Jayden, can you clear the way?”

Jayden smiled.“Gladly.Dana had an excellent idea earlier today on how to do it.”

“I did?” Dana asked as Jayden marched up to the docked ship.She suddenly realized what he meant and ran after him.“Jayden, no!”

Too late.Jayden walked up the gangplank onto the ship.Only three crewmen remained, and they looked bored and sleepy.One man squinted as Jayden stepped in front of him.

“Who are you?” the man asked.

Jayden cast a spell and formed a black whip he swung across the ship’s deck, burning a jagged cut through the wood planks.Men cried out and backed away as Jayden pulled back his arm for another swing.

“Leave, and live long enough to grow old,” he told them.Two men ran off the ship and one jumped into the water. Jayden looked at Dana and told her, “That worked better than I’d thought, and was much cheaper than the last time I emptied a ship.”

“Tactful as a dragon,” Dana scolded him.

Charles led his ragged mob onto the ship.“Good work.Let’s clean this ship out before those men bring help.You four men keep watch.The rest of you follow me and Jayden below deck.”

Jayden opened a heavy wood door in the deck and led them into the dark, stinking bowels of the ship.Dana had grown up on a farm, so the smell of livestock and dung didn’t bother her, but there were other odors here, brine, sweat, and something sour and acidic. Rooms were lit with candles dripping wax on the floor.They found a bunkroom with seven hammocks for the crew and a small storeroom, but no animals.

Jayden came across a locked door at the front of the ship and hacked off the lock with one of his black magic swords.He looked inside before telling Dana, “This looks like the captains quarters. Search it for valuables while we check the lower deck.”

“This is definitely stealing,” she told him as Jayden led the men away. Dana frowned and looked through the room.It was a simple affair, with a hammock, wood chest filled with clothes and a smaller chest filled with papers.She couldn’t find coins, jewelry or anything else of value.With nothing else to do, she went through the papers.

“Tax payments, IOUs, registration form for a pet wombat,” she said as she flipped through the papers.“Bill of sale.This one looks new.One steed, combat class, one thousand guilders!What horse is worth that?”

The paper also listed the 34 sheep and 24 goats, and dates for the last two months, with the number of animals going down by one each day.

“Oh no.”Dana ran out of the room with the papers clutched to her chest.She ran through the ship until she found two men standing next to a wide staircase leading down.One man opened his mouth, but she pushed past him, yelling, “No time! Jayden!”

Dana raced onto the ship’s poorly lit lowest deck to find Jayden, Charles and a few men standing by a nearly empty room.There were tufts of wool in the corners and smears of dung on the floor, and one wall ended in a locked door that Jayden was preparing to hack open with his magic sword.She grabbed Jayden’s arm before he could swing.“Everyone, off the ship, now.”

“What the devil?” Charles snarled.

Dana held out the paperwork for the others to see.“The sheep and goats are gone, all of them, one a day.The only animal left onboard is the steed.Seven crewmen and a captain couldn’t eat an entire animal a day even if they wanted to.”

Jayden took the paper from her and read it.“Let’s take a few steps back, soft, quiet steps.”

Charles snatched the paper from him.“What’s going on?”

Dana backed up as she spoke.“We’re used to the word steed meaning horse, but it could be any animal a person could ride on.What sort of animal eats a sheep or goat a day and is hungry the next morning, but a man can ride it?”

Jayden replied.“Manticore, chimera, wyvern, possibly griffin, any of those are large, trainable and ravenous predators.Charles, you said Sheriff Hemmelfarb owns the contents of this ship?”

“He does,” Charles said.“Oh. Jayden, I’ve been a touch angry with you for burning a ship the last time you were in Pearl Bay, so I hope you won’t think me a hypocrite for asking you to do it again.”

“Not at all.”

Dana gulped as she tried to slip away.Docking the ship in at night made sense now.The new sheriff was bringing a very dangerous animal into a large, crowded city.People would panic if they saw it, and it might attack anyone it saw for food. Bringing the monster in at night meant the roads would be clear and the monster might be too sleepy to cause trouble.

Something on the other side of the locked door growled.There was a hiss, and what sounded like bleating.

“Chimera,” Jayden whispered.“We woke it up.Keep moving, nice and slow.”

Charles looked at the paper again.“It says here they ran out of animals to feed it days ago.The captain drugged its last meal to keep it quiet.”

There was a loud sniff before something bumped into the door.

“It smells us,” Jayden said.“Out, now!”

Jayden took up the rear as they ran out of the ship.They heard loud bangs behind them, followed by the sound of splintering wood.They reached the next floor and heard roars below as the monster followed them.Dana ran onto the fresh air of the deck just as the monster got to the ship’s second floor.

A man Charles had left on guard duty saw her and asked, “What’s go—”

“Run!”The men scattered at Dana’s command just as Charles and Jayden led the remaining men out of the ship.Dana heard a large animal bounding through the interior of the ship toward the door. Jayden slammed the door shut and found a nearby bar to seal it.He did it just in time, for the chimera slammed into the door and made stout timbers creak.

“Get off the ship so Jayden can burn it,” Charles ordered.They fled down the gangplank with Jayden acting as rearguard.There was a bang from the ship, then a louder one.“Jayden, do it!”

“That spell takes time,” Jayden said.He began chanting, and a tiny spark formed in front of him.He kept chanting as the chimera roared and rammed into the door holding it in.He was halfway through the spell when the chimera broke free and took to the sky.

The chimera was a hideous mismatched collection of animals fused together.The core of it was a lion, larger than is should have been by about two hundred pounds, but otherwise like pictures Dana had seen in books.Any comparison to normal ended there.Huge bat wings sprouted from its back and beat furiously to keep it in the air.It had two more heads, a goat head to the lion’s right and a snake head to the left. The goat head was twice the size it should have been and had sharp iron horns as long as swords.The serpent head was equally big, and a hood opened on its neck when it hissed.

Jayden finished his spell and send the tiny spark high into the sky.Dana had seen this spell kill monsters as terrible as this one, but the spark flew slower than the chimera, and it detonated into a terrible fireball too far back to do more than light up the night sky. Jayden’s spell did have one effect, though, for the monster looked down and saw him.Instantly it changed course and swooped down on him.

Jayden saw it coming and dove into the bay.The chimera showed no interest in following him and slowed down before landing on the dock.It surveyed the port with six eyes, growled and hissed, then spotted Charles and Dana. The lion head roared, and it took two steps forward before a black sword drove up through the dock and cut into one of its paws.The monster howled and took to the air again.

Dana and Charles ran to the end of the dock and helped Jayden back onto land. Charles pointed at the monster overhead and asked, “Can you kill it?”

“I’ll have you know I’m quite good at killing monsters,” He said as he squeezed water out of his hair.“I’ve brought down a manitore, estate guards, two monsters I’d rather not discuss and the Walking Graveyard.”

“We killed that one twice,” Dana corrected him.“I hope it stays dead this time.Jayden, I know you can kill it, but what do we do if it flies off and attacks people in Pearl Bay?”

Jayden stepped away from them and watched the chimera turn in flight to come back at them.“Your confidence is appreciated.Don’t worry about it killing random strangers.Chimeras are known for being fierce, strong, trainable and incredibly vain.”

“Meaning what?” she asked.

“Meaning I hurt it, and it won’t let the wound go unavenged.Charles, get your men out of here and come back with help.”

Charles ran as instructed while the chimera swooped down for another attack. It stayed too high for Jayden to strike it, and instead the snake head opened its jaws impossibly wide before spraying a stream of green droplets.Jayden and Dana dodged the attack as the chimera flew over them. The droplets splattered across the dock and stuck on fast.It bubbled and smelled foul, a harsh, acidic stench like she’d smelled on the ship.

“It’s spitting acid at us!” she yelled.

“Technically it’s acid and poison,” Jayden told her.“This would be a good time for you to run.I’ll keep our new friend occupied until help arrives.”

If help arrives.Charles was using you to steal animals that were eaten days ago.He hasn’t got a reason to help now that the reward is gone.”

Jayden put and hand on her shoulder.“All the more reason for you to leave.This fight is about to become incredibly violent, and I don’t want you to get caught in the crossfire.”

The chimera returned, this time flying lower.Jayden pushed Dana away as the lion and snake heads tried to bite them and the goat tried to impale them on its long horns.It missed by the barest of margins and tried to fly away again.

Jayden cast a spell to form his black whip and swung it.The whip stretched ridiculously long, but again the monster flew so fast he barely grazed its flank.Minor though the wound was, the chimera howled in pain.

“Run!” Jayden ordered.

Dana fled only a short distance while Jayden scanned the dark sky for the chimera.Dana worried that running in the dark might accidentally bring her closer to the monster, not farther.She knew cats could see well at night, so chances were good the chimera could see her and Jayden with the eyes of its lion head.

She spotted the chimera flying low between warehouses to give it cover from Jayden’s spells.It came for another pass and again sprayed venomous acid across the dock.Jayden dove out of the way and lashed out with his whip. This time the monster got away clean and flew into the night.

“Look at that!”

Dana spun around to see people gathering around the edge of the docks. Most wore the simple clothes of commoners, but she saw some wealthier men join them.A few men were armed with daggers and clubs.

The goblin Dana had met earlier waddled over and said, “I asked you to wait.”

“Things kind of got out of hand,” she said.“This is as dangerous as it looks.You need to get out of here before the chimera comes back.”

“That’s why I should stick around,” the goblin told her.More people came, including three elves and a troll who’d been gambling at the Kraken Hotel.A few women showed up, too, until the crowd numbered over a hundred.“A fight like this needs witnesses.”

“I’m putting everything I’ve got on the wizard,” the troll said.

“You’re on,” an elf told him.

The discussion ended when the chimera came diving out of the sky. Jayden had to run to prevent the monster from landing on him with all four clawed feet.It missed by inches, a move that cost it dearly when the dock gave way under the force of the blow.Wood boards snapped in half as the chimera’s front paws broke through.It pulled itself free easily enough, but for a few seconds it couldn’t move.Jayden swung his whip and struck the monster’s right wing.This time it was no glancing blow, but a hit that burned deeply. The chimera tried to fly off and howled in pain from the effort.

More people joined the growing crowd of spectators.They made no move to help Jayden, but that was no surprise when so few of them were armed.Instead they shouted out warnings, crying out, “Monster!Monster!Call the guard!”

Grounded, the chimera folded up its wings and faced Jayden.It was still a formidable opponent on the ground and could kill him.Instead of attacking, the monster studied him with all six eyes, one terrifying predator sizing up another.It walked to the left, closer to the ship that had brought it.Jayden followed it and casually swung his black whip from left to right.

“Someone call Sheriff Gress!” a woman screamed.Then she gasped and put a hand to her mouth.“Oh.Oh no.”

More people came, swelling the crowd past two hundred.Dana recognized some of them from The Hole in the Wall tavern. This included the ogre, the furry beast now looking silly in a nightcap and pajamas.Still more came, and new arrivals brought weapons.

The chimera charged Jayden, eating up the distance between them in seconds. He swung his whip at the monster, only for it to leap over the attack.It came down short of Jayden by a few feet and spit poison at him, missing as Jayden ducked.The chimera lunged forward just as Jayden cast a quick spell that made a globe of light. The light flashed in the monster’s many eyes, and it turned away at the last second.Jayden swung his whip again and hacked off one of the goat head’s horns. The chimera bounded off, blinking and shaking its heads until it recovered from the flash.

“Make way for the sheriff!”The crowd separated as Sheriff Hemmelfarb led sixty heavily armed mercenaries onto the docks and shoved aside anyone too slow to move.Twenty mercenaries lowered their spears for a charge.It took Dana a second to realize they weren’t pointing them at the chimera.

Sheriff Hemmelfarb stayed behind the spear wall.He’d gotten a new sword and pointed it at the chimera.“I’ll deal with this.”

If anyone thought Hemmelfarb had changed his ways, they were disappointed as he put a whistle to his lips and blew.The chimera’s goat head glanced at him while the lion and snake watched Jayden.

“Heel!” Hemmelfarb ordered.“Heel! You must obey!”

The goat head refocused its attention on Jayden.Hemmelfarb blew the whistle again to no effect.He held up an amulet and shouted, “Look!I own you!The beast trainers taught you to obey anyone holding this symbol.Heel and obey!”

Dana didn’t know much about monsters, but she knew a fair bit about trained animals.Hungry animals were less likely to obey commands, and injured ones even less so. The chimera had gone days without food and suffered serious wounds at Jayden’s hands.It wasn’t listening to anyone.

But the people of Pearl Bay were listening to Hemmelfarb.They watched him try and fail to control the monster. Many of them had seen him run away earlier that day, eroding what little faith they had in him.The crowd kept growing and its temper became increasingly foul.

Dana got behind a few men and egged on the crowd.“This is your monster?You brought a man-eating beats into our city!”

“Shut up!” Hemmelfarb yelled back.He waved the amulet in the air.“Heel!Heel! Obey!”

“You put your own people in danger!” Dana yelled.Nearby people looked at her, but in the poor light they assumed she was a fellow citizen.

Hemmelfarb lost his patience.“You’re not my people!You’re mud grubbing peasants!This is my chance at greatness, to ride a chimera at the head of the army in the coming war!I won’t lose this chance!I won’t let you vermin pull me down until I’m as low as you are!”

“That’s what we are to you?”The voice was soft and deadly.Men got out of the way as a woman wearing a nightgown approached.It was Sarah Gress, holding the sword Hemmelfarb had dropped earlier, and looking more terrifying than the chimera.“We’re not brothers and sisters to you, not even people.”

Hemmelfarm ignored her and ordered, “Kill the wizard!Feed his body to the chimera!”

“He’s on the monster’s side!” Dana yelled.The crowd looked angry to the point of going berserk, but the mercenaries’ spear wall kept them back.They edged away and shouted abuse at the sheriff.

Mercenaries advanced on Jayden at a steady march, their spears pointed at his chest.He saw them coming and backed away while the chimera watched.The mercenaries were only four yards away when Jayden swung his whip, not at the chimera but at their spears.The black whip twisted around the spears, hissings as it burned through them.Mercenaries tried to pull away, but their spears burned in half, disarming twenty of Sheriff Hemmelfarb’s men at a stroke.

There was a moment of quiet as the broken spears fell clattering to the dock. For a second no one moved, a brief lull that ended when the chimera roared and charged Jayden.The crowd of enraged men, women, dwarfs, elves, even the troll and ogre yelled war cries as they charged the mercenaries, turning the dock into a battle fiercer than anything Dana had ever seen.Even goblins swarmed from the alleys to join the townspeople.

Dana ran to help Jayden.She dodged mercenaries grappling with furious men and women.The outnumbered mercenaries were better armed and armored, but they were set upon from all sides, and not all their enemies were farmers and fishermen.The ogre bellowed as he slapped mercenaries to the ground, then grabbed one and hurled him at the others.The troll tackled another mercenary.Goblins tripped a mercenary and stole his wallet.Hemmelfarb shouted orders no one heard and insults no one listened to, impotent to stop the battle around him.

Dana struggled to get around the battle when she ran into a disarmed mercenary. The man tossed away his broken spear and drew a knife.Dana snatched the broken chimera horn off the ground and blocked his swing, then smacked him over the head with the horn.His helmet saved him from being killed, but the blow stunned him for a moment. Dana tried to run, but the mercenary grabbed her by the arm.She blocked another knife attack with the horn.

The ogre grabbed the mercenary by the arm and squeezed until the man screamed and let her go.Outraged, the ogre bellowed, “You attacked a child?”

Dana slipped away as the ogre knocked the mercenary to the ground and stomped on him.She worked her way through the fight to find Jayden still battling the chimera.The crowded battlefield kept both wizard and monster from fighting at their best.Jayden couldn’t use his whip without hitting bystanders and replaced it with his magic sword.The chimera knocked people aside, striking civilians and mercenaries alike to get at Jayden.The two met again and Jayden swung his sword at the monster’s goat head.It blocked the swing with its remaining horn, then clawed his shoulder hard enough to force him back.

Dana looked around for something, anything she could use as a weapon.She had the severed horn, plus a knife in her belt, but those couldn’t do enough damage to seriously hurt the chimera.She needed an edge.

A mercenary staggered by her before the troll knocked him over.Startled, she looked at the two and saw the ship behind them that had brought the chimera.It was still empty, and she saw tarred ropes tied to the sails.That might be enough.

Dana ran onto the ship and grabbed the nearest rope.It was tied tight to the ship, but she cut it loose with her knife and tied one end into a lasso and left the other end attached to the ship. Dana ran down the gangplank into the battle to find Jayden running from the monster.It followed him out of the confusing melee, only realizing too late that Jayden had only fled far enough to get room to fight.He lashed at it and scored a minor hit on the snake head, then another on its paw.The chimera spat poison at him once more.Jayden dodged the stream of acidic poison, but two mercenaries weren’t so lucky and cried out in pain.


Dana ran up behind the chimera and swung the lasso over the lion head. The monster didn’t realize what had happened and tried to maul Jayden.He fell back, and the chimera’s triumphant charge ended in a strangled cry as the lasso tightened around its neck.That held it in place long enough for Jayden to drive his black sword up to the hilt into the chimera’s body between the lion and goat head.The monster’s three heads cried out one last time before the beast fell limp at his feet.

Exhausted, sweaty and bleeding from the shoulder wound, Jayden staggered back and smiled at Dana.“Dear girl, you’re worth your weight in diamonds.”

Hemmelfarb saw his monster fall and screamed in outraged.“You fool!That animal was worth a fortune!I’ll make you suffer like no man in history!”

The sheriff raised his sword and managed three steps toward Jayden when he found his path blocked by Sarah Gress.There was a befuddled look on his face when she raised the very sword he had abandoned, and it changed to a look of terror as she swung it at his head. Hemmelfarb fell back to his men and found them overwhelmed by the enraged crowd.Sarah Gress kept after him, not giving up for a second.

“Oh my,” Jayden said.He was too exhausted from fighting the chimera to join her, but his eyes never left the widow. He staggered a few feet forward until Dana sat him down and bandaged his wound.“She is without a doubt the second finest woman I’ve had the privilege to meet.”

“Only the second?” she teased.

“You have to ask why she’s not first after what you did?”

Dana blushed.She’d nearly finished covering his wound when the battle flowed over them.It would have terrified her, except the mercenaries were fleeing for their lives.The armor that made it so hard to hurt them also slowed them down, and enraged citizens piled on them.The mercenaries fought their way to the ship that had brought the chimera, boarded it and went out to sea with the ship’s crew still on land shouting for them to come back.

With the fight nearly over, the troll turned his gaze on the battle between Sheriff Hemmelfarb and Sarah Gress.The troll nudged the elf he’d been gambling with and said, “I’ll give you two to one odds on the widow.”

“I lost enough money to you tonight,” the elf said, “and there’s only one way that fight is going to end.”

Dana watched Sarah slash at the sheriff and drive him back.A lone mercenary tried to intervene, only for a giant hand made of shadows to scoop him up and hurl him at the fleeing ship.Sarah glanced at Jayden and nodded before turning her fury against the sheriff once more.Their duel lasted only seconds longer.

Jayden managed to stand and staggered off with Dana.They hadn’t gone far before he said, “Look who finally came back.Hello, Charles.Did you enjoy the show?”

“Nothing goes to plan when you’re around,” Charles said.He’d returned with his men, now armed with swords and shields.Charles pointed at the docks and said, “We got no livestock from this job, no horse, and a riot broke out.I was supposed to get enough money to quit this city forever!”

“I see no reason why that should change,” Jayden said.“You told me Sheriff Hemmelfarb had the bad habit of robbing suspects and ships he inspected.”

“What do you mean had?” Charles asked suspiciously.

“Let’s just say the sheriff’s office and house are going to be unguarded for the foreseeable future.Aren’t you curious what he might have there?I know I am.”

* * * * *

Dana woke the next morning in the Kraken Hotel.She looked out a window to find Pearl Bay oddly calm.People of all races walked the street as if nothing had happened.The only sign that anything was amiss was a street vendor selling chimera kabobs.

The same goblin from the night before waddled out of an alley and smiled at her.“Hiya.”

“Hi.”Dana smiled back.“Thank you for bringing those people last night.They helped a lot.”

“I told them what they wanted to hear,” the goblin replied.“The gamblers wanted a fight to bet on, fishermen needed to know their ships might be damaged, and a lot of guys wanted to see the sheriff get what he deserved.”

The goblin’s cheerful demeanor disappeared as he gazed at her.“Goblins talk to goblins, and word travels fast when the news is important.You kept the Shrouded One’s secret in Fish Bait City.We owe you for that.Goblins might be small and weak, but we do right by our friends.”

“Thank you.Is there anything I can do in return?”

“If a plate of cheese ended up in an alleyway, that wouldn’t hurt none.”

“I’ll see what I can do.”

Their conversation was interrupted by a town crier who called out, “Hear ye, hear ye, citizens of Pearl Bay.Last night foreigners of unknown nationality and race caused a disturbance on the docks. Any citizen with information on these criminals should contact the mayor’s office.Furthermore, any citizen who knows the location of Sheriff Hemmelfarb, or an identifiable portion of the sheriff’s anatomy, is encouraged to report this information to the mayor’s office.”

“You can’t believe that,” a passing elf said scornfully.

The town crier frowned.“Look, I don’t write this stuff, so lay off.”

Dana gathered up her belongings and left her room to look in on Jayden.His room was empty and she eventually found him in the hotel’s common room.He was sitting at a gaming table studying a stack of papers.

“How’s the shoulder?” she asked.

“It will heal in time, as have all my other wounds.You’d be happy to know Charles was here and left, this time for good. As promised he provided a list of potential targets in the area that will keep us busy for weeks.”

“And you gave him a whopping pile of loot from Sheriff Hemmelfarb’s house.”

Jayden shrugged.“I have enough money and he deserved compensation for his help and for the trouble I caused him.I hope he finds the peace he craves.”

“About that,” she began.“The mercenaries guarding Pearl Bay ran off and Sarah Gress took out Sheriff Hemmelfarb. There’s going to be massive repercussions for these people, and we’re responsible.”

“I doubt there will be trouble.The mayor of Pearl Bay knows what happens to people who disappoint the king and queen. He has no desire to ‘die of plague’ and every reason to tell a believable lie.I sent him a letter listing a few good lies.My favorite is blaming the whole thing on pirates and smugglers, close enough to the truth that it won’t raise questions.”

“Won’t other people tell the truth?”

“Witnesses to the event are on our side.Even if the king and queen wanted to investigate, they can’t afford to send soldiers or mercenaries with the war so close at hand.Those men are needed for the invasion.Pearl Bay is safe for now, and if their mayor wants to live he’ll lie like never before to keep the city safe.”

“How soon do we leave?” she asked.

Jayden hesitated.“There’s someone I want to speak with first.I received word that she’s on her way.”

“She?”Dana’s brow furrowed, then she smiled.“The old sheriff’s widow wants to talk with you?”

“Yes, and be polite.That’s her coming now.”

Sarah Gress entered the hotel and spotted Jayden.The elf proprietor poured her a drink as she sat across from Jayden.

“I see you are well despite the injury you suffered last night,” she said formally.“That pleases me.Sir, I have come to apologize.”

“You don’t have to,” he assured her.

“I do.I spoke cruelly to you when we first met.I judged you by your reputation without considering that those who spoke ill of you are the same ones who took my husband from me.You are a man of questionable means, but you proved your good intent when you killed Sheriff Hemmelfarb’s monster.In doing so you further proved to these people what a wretched man he was.”

“I doubt your neighbors needed more evidence of that,” Jayden said.“While your apology is unnecessary, there is something I’d like to ask you.”

Sarah Gress took a sip of her drink.“What might that be?”

“Join me,” he offered.Sarah Gress looked shocked, but Jayden persisted.“Many in our kingdom suffer as you have.Many more will suffer unless they receive help.I saw a woman of unquestionable bravery last night, and shockingly good with a sword.You saved the lives of innocent men and prevented further injustices.I can do so much more with help.You could be the difference between good men living and dying.”

Sarah blushed and looked down.“I can’t.”

“I know I ask much, but I can help you do it.”

“Your offer,” she began, and hesitated before she continued.“I am tempted more than words can say to accept, but I have responsibilities.My husband and I had two sons, the younger only now starting to walk.Last night I gave in to my anger.My sons have already lost their father, and if the battle had gone differently they could have been left orphaned.It was a mistake I can’t afford to repeat.I can’t risk my life when they depend on me.”

“I see,” Jayden replied softly.

Sarah reached over and took his hand.“I am in your debt, as is every soul in Pearl Bay.Were life fair we could repay you as you deserve.The day may come when we can offer more, but for now we can only thank you, and speak well of you to any who will listen. Forgive me for such a paltry reward.”

Sarah Gress bowed to Jayden and left the hotel.He was silent until Dana said, “You were so flirting with her.”

“Yes I was.”He frowned and got up.“There’s nothing more for us here and work to do elsewhere.Come, let’s leave before we have to pay for another night’s stay.”

When Dana got up to join him, Jayden pointed at something sticking out of one of her bags and asked, “And why are you holding on to a chimera horn?”

“I used it last night.It’s got good balance, about the right length, and it has a sharp edge.I know it’s not perfect, but do you think you can craft it into a weapon?”

Jayden smiled and rubbed his hands together.“Now that is an interesting question.”


© Copyright 2018 ArthurD7000. All rights reserved.

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