Krunzle the Quick
by Hugh Matthews
Chapter Two: Axe? Noose? Garrote?
Turn and run they did, the leader of the three knife men just missing having his collar caught by the guard captain. With admirable agility, they sped toward the caravanserai gate, dodging around—or under—mules and camels, leaping over bales and chests, weaving between startled drivers and merchants.
"Stop them!" Idrix bellowed, and his guards leaped to obey. But horse-archers were at their best in the saddle and with their weapons strung. On foot, their recurved bows still in their cases, they were no more agile than anybody else in the crowded compound, and certainly less direly motivated than the three now become fugitives.
Still, the guards at the gate were quick enough to swing the portals closed. Their quarry immediately veered toward the nearest wall, which had an elevated walkway behind its crenellations, reached by sets of wooden steps. Two of them chose separate stairs, took them three at a time and vaulted over the top, without pausing to ascertain what they might land on.
The third, he of the low brow and unsettled gaze, had found no steps within easy reach and had instead opted for several heaped bales of velvet, from which he hoped to spring across a narrow distance to the walkway. But the bales were too loosely stacked to offer firm footing, and he missed his leap, tumbling back to the hard-packed earth at the feet of a hurrying archer. The guard used one of those feet to kick the smaller man sprawling, then used it again to hold him fast to the ground until one of his fellows, with practiced skill, arrived to truss the captive's wrists and ankles securely with bowstrings.
They hauled the prisoner before Idrix and the caravan's headmen, who ordered him taken to where the three dysenteric guards lay in the hospice. Fingers were angrily pointed and curses bitterly flung, then the captive was taken to the city gate and handed over to the provost, whose bailiffs hauled him off to the Gyve.
In a dank, foul-smelling chamber deep below ground, the prisoner declared himself an innocent pearlmonger from Merab, a victim of conspirators and mistaken identity. But the steward's torturers knew their craft well, and soon it was established that the man's true name was Krunzle, sometimes known as Krunzle the Quick, a self-proclaimed master thief. He named his confederates, a pair of locals he had hired on in Elidir.
The plan had been to join the caravan as replacements for the guards they had dosed with loose-leaf, a powerful diarrhetic. Then, while ostensibly standing night guard, they would appropriate as much as they could carry in the way of light but valuable goods, and disappear into the landscape until the caravan had moved on.
"Have you anything more to add?" the interrogator said.
Krunzle could think of several things he wanted to say to the hulking, wart-nosed torturer, but none of them would have served him well. He shook his bruised head, spraying a few last drops of blood.
They manacled and fettered him, then took him to a lightless cell and left him there, groaning on damp straw that stank of black mold and worse. The night passed, and then the morning, though the semi-conscious prisoner had lost his inner sense of time's passage, and neither breakfast nor lunch arrived to mark the hinges of the day.
At some point, a bailiff came and collected him. As Krunzle limped, clanking, up the stone stairs, he said, "Am I being taken before the magistrates?"
His escort laughed gently. "We are an impoverished land, grimly overtaxed by our Chelish overlords. We cannot afford to waste the court's time."
"But I wish to plead my case!"
The bailiff spoke as if to a not-very-bright child. "Your 'case' evaporated when you confessed."
"But the confession was extracted by torture!"
"Most are. We are, as I say, efficient."
They had arrived at the top of the stairs. The bailiff unlocked a sturdy door and led the shackled thief, blinking in the noonday glare, out into a courtyard. At one side was a wooden hustings, with a set of stairs leading up. At the top of the steps were gathered some bored, official-looking personages, while at the bottom stood a line of about a dozen wan-faced men and women who all wore the same heavy wrist-and-ankle jewelry as Krunzle's.
"What is it to be?" the thief said. "Axe? Noose? Garrote?" He shuddered. "Not the half-strangle followed by disemboweling?"
The escort chuckled indulgently. "I have said, we are a poor country. We don't waste good flesh and sinew." He delivered Krunzle to the rear of the line. "Now stand there until it's your turn to go up."
A horn blew and the courtyard's outer gate opened. In came a motley crowd of Elidiran citizens who bustled over to the line of prisoners and began to poke and prod their persons. Krunzle noted that great attention was being paid to the thickness of arm and leg muscles, and struggled to recall if cannibalism featured in the city's reputation.
Few of the newcomers gave the thief more than a passing glance. A plump Elidiran in a merchant's robe and a floppy hat squeezed his lean bicep. The man's mouth twisted in a disparaging moue, and he made a backhanded gesture as if Krunzle was a fly to be shooed away.
"Baalariot gets straight to the point."
The inspection of the goods completed, the first prisoner in line was called up and bidding began. Krunzle was no expert in slave-market economics, but it seemed to him that the bidding was neither enthusiastic nor competitive: most of the items went for a few pieces of silver.
Then it was his turn. He laboriously mounted the hustings and looked out over the diminishing throng. Purchasers were leading their new acquisitions away, and only two faces looked up at him. One, the merchant who had prodded him, gave his head a shake, turned and walked off. The other was the gaunt, blade-nosed man from the tavern and the caravanserai. He regarded Krunzle with a dispassionate aspect and said, "One copper."
There being no other bidders, the official in charge of the auction banged the butt of his staff of authority on the boards and said, "Sold."
Krunzle was hustled down the steps and into the care of the man in the figured robe, who scarcely cast a glance in his direction as he paid over the single coin and signed a document held out to him on a scribe's copy board. Then he signaled to the bailiff that the manacles and fetters should be struck off.
A few moments later, lighter by several pounds of iron, Krunzle regarded his purchaser from the corner of his eye as he assessed his own condition. Being unfed for a whole day had sapped some of his vigor, and the torture had taken even more out of him, but once out the gate and into the warren of streets and alleys around the Gyve, he thought, there might come an opportunity or two...
His thoughts were interrupted by the tall man's action. He placed a round metal object against Krunzle's forehead and voiced an obscure word. The thief felt a coldness that penetrated through to the inner reaches of his skull, and for a moment his eyes bulged of their own accord. Then the medallion was withdrawn and the sensations ebbed.
"Strike yourself smartly," said the man who had bought him, "in the groin."
Krunzle was framing a derisory reply when a bolt of agony shot from his crotch to every other part of his torso, and the breath left his body. He found himself in an involuntary, knock-kneed crouch, a posture which gave him a good view of his own fist still wedged into the softness at the apex of his legs. The strangled sound he made was as much from surprise as pain.
"Good," said the man who had bought him. "Now come with me."
"You have inadvertently done me a service," said Krunzle's purchaser when they were settled in the sumptuous room to which the thief had been led. They had reached it by traversing half the city, climbing to the elevated district where large public buildings and major temples predominated. Then they had ducked down an alley—by then Krunzle was walking almost normally—and through an unobtrusive gate in a blank wall, across a small courtyard and through a heavy ironbound door that opened when the robed man said a quiet word.
"I am Baalariot," he said, seating himself on a backless chair made of polished wood and curved aurochs horns. "My profession should be obvious to a discerning thief. You are now in my service."
From the man's portentous tone, Krunzle deduced that he was expected to express a respectful gratitude. Somehow the sentiment eluded him, but he judged that the circumstances—especially the residual ache between his legs—called for a measure of dissembling. "I look forward to—" he began, and was interrupted.
"Spare me the soft-soaping," Baalariot said. "I would rather trust to my skills than to your feigned goodwill."
Krunzle was not pleased at having been bought for small change and introduced to a novel form of self-abuse, but he smiled and agreed that his owner was a gentleman of rare insight.
Baalariot raised an eyebrow. "You are a canny one," he said. "I believe you will not only succeed in your mission, you may even survive."
The implied possibility that he might not survive whatever the wizard contemplated immediately focused the thief's attention. "What mission?" he said.
The other man preened the lay of his robe and said, off-handedly, "One that requires an able member of the thieving profession."
"Ah," said Krunzle, "I see where the error lies. I am but a traveling pearlmonger from—"
"Shh," said Baalariot, and Krunzle found that his lips and tongue would no longer obey his brain. "I've seen your transcript from the Gyve," he said. "More to the point, I know how you inveigled your way into the caravan's guards troop. You even fixed it so poor Idrix had to talk you into taking the job."
Speechless, Krunzle replied with a confessional lift and settle of eyebrows and shoulders.
"You showed intelligence and resource," said the man in the chair, "and, as I say, you've done me a service. I was on my way to Kerse to purchase someone like you from the Kalistocracy's prisons—they catch some of the cunningest specimens there, you know—but now you've saved me many days travel, there and back. Plus, you were a bargain."
Krunzle's face and hands now expressed a desire to communicate. "You may speak," said his owner, "so long as you do not waste my time. And,"—he glanced around at the walls of the chamber—"so long as you do not use... blunt language."
The slave found that his vocal apparatus was his own again. He thought he understood the admonition against blunt speech, and said, "You have bought me to 'acquire' something for you?"
"Technically, to 'acquire' something back from the one who 'acquired' it from me."
"And my reward?"
Baalariot moved a finger in a circular gesture. Krunzle felt a sudden intrusion, like a whirlwind of red-hot sand, in an intimate orifice. After a moment, it ceased, and so did his hopping about. "I see," he said.
"Good," said the wizard. "Best not to labor under any misapprehensions."
Krunzle gave over fanning the seat of his breeches. "So what is this object?"
"I cannot say."
"You don't know?"
"I know," said the wizard. "But I cannot say." He gestured toward the walls of the chamber. "Some of the spiders and cockroaches are in thrall to the... opposition. If I speak the name of the... object, it will be reported."
Krunzle wrinkled his brow. "And I'll wager you can't tell me who the opposition is, either."
"I said you were canny. The small eavesdroppers do not understand much," he tilted his head toward one wall, "but they are empowered to notice certain key words and report their utterance to the one who commands them. Then that person listens in. Sometimes, also, the listener tunes in at random intervals."
"Why don't you just kill the vermin?"
"Because they would be replaced by something else, and that something might be more difficult to circumvent."
"So how do I–"
"I will instruct you in your duties," Baalariot said, loudly, with a meaningful flick of his eyes toward the walls. "The floors must be swept morning and evening, the censers and braziers continually refilled..." He went on listing domestic requirements, but meanwhile, his hand slipped inside his robe and emerged with a small scroll, tightly rolled and tied with a horsehair. This he proffered to Krunzle, who took it and secreted it within his own upper garment.
"Your quarters are in the lower basement," the spellcaster finished. "You will remain there when not on duty. You will take your meals—two a day—in the servants' refectory, and—"
The wizard broke off, and Krunzle presumed that whatever force informed him of the surveillance had also signaled its end. He pointed at Krunzle and made a few incomprehensible sounds, then said, "There. I have placed you under the influence of Cardimion's Discriminating Geas. You will go to your quarters and study the scroll. When a chime sounds, you will set off on the mission detailed there."
"But," said the thief, "I don't know what I'm—" There was no point finishing the complaint because he found that he was suddenly possessed by an overwhelming desire to find the lower basement and read the scroll. He exited the room and found a corridor. For a moment he did not know which way to go, but then a small globe of light appeared in the air some distance away. When he turned toward it, it moved off at a walking pace. He followed it.
Coming Next Week: The perils of secret missions in Chapter Three of Hugh Matthews's "Krunzle the Quick."
Hugh Matthews is a pseudonym of critically acclaimed science-fantasy author Matthew Hughes, who is responsible for more than a dozen novels and is often called the "heir apparent" to the legacy of Jack Vance, particularly for his Archonate series. His novel Template was republished by Planet Stories, and his first Pathfinder Tales novel, Song of the Serpent, also features intrepid thief and confidence man Krunzle the Quick.
Illustration by Kate Maximovich