Krunzle the Quick
by Hugh Matthews
Chapter Five: A Diversion
"Hurt a little?" Krunzle began. "Then perhaps we could—" He was unable to continue because his senses were now reporting that his insides and outsides had apparently changed places, and that his entire carcass had subsequently been consumed by a raging firestorm wrapped in a freezing blizzard, then crushed to the size of an ant—and not a very big ant, at that.
He was next conscious of screaming hoarsely, and then vision returned, along with the rest of his sensorium, which advised him that all his systems were now running normally—except for his fear-measuring capacity, which was strained to its limit. He closed his mouth and took in a long, shaky breath through his nostrils. "Please," he said, "don't do that again."
"Typical," said the woman. "I free you from a serious enchantment—a service, I want to point out, that I perform at no charge. And do I see gratitude? Do I hear so much as a murmur of thanks?"
"Thank you," Krunzle murmured.
"Too late now," she said, picking up the knucklebones and rolling them expertly between her palms. "Now let's see what you can do for me in return."
"I thought you said there was no charge."
"Typical," she said again, shaking her blonde locks. She threw the bones onto the tabletop, regarded them for a long moment, then said, "Apparently, the answer is: nothing. You're not part of my future at all."
Krunzle heaved a sigh of relief, until the thought occurred that the bones might be saying he was not part of anybody's future. The demon worshipers next door could likely use a spare body. And he knew that some of the uses to which the bodies were put rendered them useless for any future employment.
She had picked up the amulet again. "So he sends in a thief to steal this piece of gimcrack, which the idiot Didmus gave to the equal idiotic Galathea as some sort of mawkish love-token."
Krunzle dared to interrupt. "Who," he said, "are Didmus and Galathea?"
Again, that look that his teachers used to give him, then she shook her head as one does who accepts that some shortcomings must be borne with. She said, "Galathea is the girl from whom you took the apprentice's eye. She is my daughter. And Baalariot's, for that matter. Didmus is a half-grown half-wit of a sorcerer's apprentice. They think they are in love."
"You and Baalariot are married?" he said.
Again, the look of disbelief. "Men and women do not have to be married to produce children," she said. "Baalariot wants to wed her to one of Hedvand's courtiers. I have a better plan: she will train to become a priestess of Nocticula, cementing my relationship with the cult."
"And Didmus," the thief said, his mind beginning to form the picture into whose frame he had been pressed, "what does he want?"
She assumed an exasperated look. "What does any young man want?"
"He doesn't happen," Krunzle said, "to play the zither?"
"I wouldn't put it past him."
For all its academic shortfalls, Krunzle's intellect was adept at plans and schemes, his own and others'. The pieces now fell into place. He debated for a moment as to whether he should voice his conclusions—but only for a moment. If he was right, events would shortly reveal the facts for themselves, and he would gain nothing by too late a revelation.
"I believe," he said, "that I am here as a diversion."
Hortenza's brows consulted each other, then her eyes widened. She opened her mouth to speak, but at that moment a heavy concussion sounded from downstairs. The building shook, and shards of plaster sifted down from the hole in the corner of the ceiling.
The priestess recovered quickly. "The bastard!" she said, reaching for the ebony rod and striding to the door. She slammed it behind her and he heard the click of the lock. He gave her a moment to clear the corridor outside then went to kneel at the keyhole, reaching for his picks.
But, even in her hurry, Hortenza had been thinking a step ahead of him. The pick would not engage the tumblers. He went to the table, where she had left the apprentice's eye, and brought it to bear on the door. The lock made the stone glow bright red.
Krunzle said a short and pungent word, then turned to the hole in the ceiling. He pushed a small table underneath, then leapt atop it. When he stood upright, his head and shoulder poked through the opening, so that his eyes rose just above the level of the packed-earth roof.
The open space was in darkness and silence, except for the sound of a zither being inexpertly tuned. Then the thief heard a noise like sand rushing through a giant hourglass, as the great blind snake slithered across the roof toward him. He ducked down and, after a moment, the sound ceased.
The lock clicked. The door opened. In the moment between the two events, Krunzle put the table back where he had found it and himself where Hortenza had left him. The witch stepped through the doorway, panting from the stairs and presumably from the effort of dragging an unwilling young woman all the way up from the sub-basement.
"A good thief knows when to make himself scarce, and Krunzle is better than most."
She flung Galathea into the room. "You stay here, or so help me..." She left the threat implied as she turned to the thief and said, with a meaningful glance at the hole in the ceiling, "Keep her here, and I will make it worth your while. Let her go, and...” She pointed a tapered fingernail at him and left the rest to Krunzle's imagination.
Then she was gone, the door slammed. The girl tried the opener, found it locked, and stamped her foot, saying under her breath a word that was not supposed to be available to gently reared maidens. She looked at Krunzle, and the thief recognized the parents in the child.
"You're thinking," he told her, just to get the process rolling, "what it will cost you to secure my assistance."
She folded her arms. "Well?"
"What have you got?"
She showed her fingers, unringed, her wrists unbraceleted, her neck unlaced. "I had only one thing, an amulet with a green stone."
He patted a bulge in his upper garment. "I already have that."
She stared at him for a moment, then sighed and slipped one arm out of her shift, followed by the other. A loud detonation from outside in the street caused her to pause, then she continued, slipping the garment down to her waist.
"This is scarcely the time," Krunzle said.
She had been about to wriggle the shift down over her hips. "Then what?"
"How well do you know the snake?"
"Hothet? He used to guard me in the cradle."
"Will he obey you?"
She casually signaled an affirmative, as if serpent-commanding was a universal skill.
"Then get dressed and get up on the table."
She looked up at the hole. "The roof is too low, the walls to either side sheer."
"Leave that," he said, "to me."
He boosted her through the gap, then fluidly followed. He crouched next to the hole, ready to duck back down, but then he saw the great reptile coiled at her feet, its spade-sized head rubbing against one thigh.
From the side of building that faced the street came another crump! accompanied by a brief yellow glare. Almost immediately, there followed a metallic rattling sound, like iron hail striking cobblestones. The thief crept to the parapet and looked over. Below in the street, Baalariot stood, legs spread, a nimbus of red light about his head like a halo, one hand holding a carved staff whose upper tip ended in an amorphous cloud of stygian darkness which kept spitting out little zig-zags of white lightning. He raised the implement and pointed it at where the front door would be—with Hortenza presumably in it.
From the blackness at the end of the staff rushed a torrent of colorless force, flecked with sparks of gold and black. The angle of his view prevented Krunzle from seeing where it struck, but he knew the effect must be less than overwhelming when he heard a hiss of rage from directly below him, followed by a rumbling, trundling sound, as of iron-shod wheels on stone. Now a shimmering wall, blue and almost transparent, moved outward from the shrine toward the wizard, rolling back his rush of energy until Baalariot gestured with his staff and the outflow ceased.
The wall moved on, however, even picking up speed, and its outer edges began to curve inward so that soon it would form a tube around the wizard. He made a downward chopping gesture with one hand, while speaking a stream of syllables, and the center of the approaching barrier began to melt and dissolve. A moment later it winked out of existence.
Krunzle heard another hissed curse from below him, and a snarling sound from her opponent. He thought it best to withdraw before either parent became aware of him. Something was now snarling and bellowing in the street below, accompanied by the stamp of heavy, hoofed feet on the cobbles. The animal roars were soon met by a chittering sound, as if ten thousand maddened insects were clashing their mandibles. The tramp of iron-shod hooves was overlaid by a skittering, whispering noise. Krunzle imagined a horde of chitinous scorpions, their pincers clicking, flooding across the street to swarm up some rough beast.
Then he decided there was no profit in imagining such unpleasantness. He crept back across the roof to Galathea, finding the snake asleep in a coil and the girl indulging in some impatient toe-tapping. He felt a brief twinge of compassion for poor, love-sick Didmus, who must eventually learn that the girl's parent's temperaments had bred true in their offspring.
But that was not his concern. "This way," he said, and led her to where his grapnel and knotted rope still hung from the neighboring roof. As she took hold of the cord, the love song from above began again. She went up quickly, and the thief after her. They followed their ears to a corner of the tenement roof sheltered by movable walls of plaited bamboo.
A tender moment ensued, then Krunzle intervened to say, "It would be wise to leave here before the battle below ends and the winner—assuming there is one—comes looking for the prize."
Didmus, a gawky youth with ears almost large enough to serve as wings, said, "I have a carriage. We'll go to my uncle's manse. A priest of Erastil lives next door. We'll be married before midnight."
Galathea looked down at her shift, its hem soiled from the unswept roof. "Married?" she said. "In this?"
Krunzle felt another brief spasm of sympathy for the apprentice wizard, but said, "In what quarter of the city is your uncle's manse?"
The youth's cracked voice said, "By the night market, near the Druma Road Gate."
"Then let us go."
And so, with eldritch lights and harsh sounds fading behind them, they fled the lower city. Didmus, a generous sort for a budding wizard, pressed into Krunzle's hand a small purse of gratitude when they dropped him off at the market. The thief used the funds to buy a change of clothing and a broad-brimmed hat that would obscure and shadow his face.
He pinned the apprentice's eye to his new headgear, then settled himself beside an untenanted booth at the edge of the market. When the gate opened in the morning, he would be first out of it and on the road to Druma and its capital, Kerse, where the streets were literally paved with gold and the walls of the houses inset with gems.
Krunzle had long had a hankering to see Druma. He sat with arms resting on his knees, and head resting on arms, and dreamed of easy locks and unlatched windows.
Follow the rest of Krunzle's adventures in the new Pathfinder Tales novel Song of the Serpent!
Coming Next Week: Piracy and parenthood in the Ironbound Archipelago in Chapter One of Wendy Wagner's "Mother Bears."
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