Kostin, sucking on split knuckles, tried to look nonchalant as he waited near the entrance to the courtyard. "Looks like rain again," he said to the hatchet-faced Sczarni blade that eyed him like a bird of prey studying a mouse. The guard did not reply.
Kostin nodded good-naturedly, as if they were two old friends completely comfortable sharing each other's silence. He casually let his gaze wander over the peeling plaster of the courtyard arch, studying the thug out of the corner of his eye as he did so. The man's clothing was a loose-fitting bloused shirt, brocaded at the sides in red and yellow, spilling out from a tight woven vest in crazy-quilt style. His trousers were a faded crimson stuffed into sailor's boots. He wore more jewelry than a dockyard trollop, and his hair hung in heavy black curls to the center of his chest.
Noticing the scrutiny, the guard shifted, hooking his thumb into his broad sash, resting his hand close to the curved knife he wore naked and gleaming at his side like the chip-edged cutlass of some Shackles pirate.
You had to admire the Sczarni, Kostin thought; they really played the whole Varisian thug act to the hilt.
Granted, Kostin himself had been playing at the same game scant hours ago—but at least he didn’t look like he’d just stepped down from a covered wagon.
"Come," said another Sczarni stalking up out of the courtyard proper. "The kapteo will see you."
"Nice talking to you," Kostin said with a smirk to his minder, before pivoting on his heels to leave.
"Muschi-uepoi," the guard spat at his back. Kostin's stride wavered for the blink of an eye, then he kept moving.
It was the old, familiar insult: muschi-uepoi, or “mossback.” One of the highest forms of contempt in the Varisian lexicon. A verbal dart most appropriate for cowards and nestlings who had never gone out to travel the world, citified dandies who had fallen from the true ways of the People and turned away from their heritage. As far back as Kostin could remember, he had been told this—told that he was not a real Varisian.
Rather amusing, then, to think that poor Donal Carent, Kostin's informer at Dockway’s south impound lot, had utterly no notion of this. No, for Donal, Kostin was the sum total image of the Varisian criminal underworld—a veritable Sczarni bandit chief. That was probably why, when Kostin had paid him a surprise visit this morning fresh from sifting through the ashes of what had once been his home, Donal only needed minor persuading to spill everything he knew.
Kostin sucked again at the cut on his knuckle, and thought of the damned box as he followed the Sczarni thug to the kapteo's tent.
Among the Sczarni, a shoemaker is never just a shoemaker.
Tent. Here they were in Magnimar, a city that boasted more buildings than it did people to live in them for much of the year, and the chief of the Wreckwash Blades lived in a damned tent. The courtyard was central to an entire block of tenements, all bursting with the Blades' families, but the kapteo himself maintained the central position in what resembled a typical Varisian traveling camp. Tents and wagons littered the area, as did the slow cookfires of a dozen potato-faced matrons, busy monitoring their spicy chap'vwlash trail stews with one eye while keeping the other fixed on the chaos of their barefoot grandchildren. An ironsmith pounded out nails at an open-air anvil, a turner hunched over a foot-pumped lathe, and a gaggle of women took turns milling at a portable grindstone. If it were not for the clotheslines stretching overhead from window to window, Kostin would have forgotten he was in the city at all.
They came up short of the kapteo's tent, a green silk dome that was as humble in size as it was rich in material. Kostin's escort snapped his fingers for attention and performed a curious gesture, a raising and parting of the hands before the face. "Do this when you enter. Let me see you try."
Kostin obeyed, imitating the gesture perfectly and adding a few flourishes of his own.
"Good enough," the guard grunted. Kostin thanked him.
The man spat on the ground. "I do not show you for your thanks, muschi-uepoi, but only so that you do no dishonor to the kapteo."
"Well, thanks anyway," Kostin muttered as he stepped inside the tent.
In the smoky light of a single, sputtering lantern, the kapteo of the Wreckwash Blades was hard at work mending shoes.
"Ah… Kapteo Giuleppeschi…?" Kostin asked, confused. Could this really be the captain of a criminal clan?
"Sit," said the old man, not bothering to look up from the floor and the simple leather shoe he was hunched over. Arrayed about him were well-worn tools of the shoemaker's trade.
Kostin performed the gesture of obeisance he had been shown, uncertain if the man had even seen it, and sat down cross-legged on a brocaded pillow.
Waiting in silence, Kostin watched the kapteo's strong hands draw sinew thread through the tough old leather of the shoe. After a space of time that Kostin could not measure, the kapteo spoke.
"In life," he said, putting down the shoe and raising his washed-out blue eyes to look directly at Kostin for the first time, "we do what we must. My father made shoes, and so I have the skill. Your father was a good man, Kostinnavolus, and so I wonder why you are perhaps a bad one?"
Startled to hear his full name from the mouth of a stranger, Kostin blurted, "You didn’t know my father."
The kapteo nodded. "True. I only knew of him. There was a time when I knew all the comings and goings of the People from Rag's End to the Underbridge. He was a good man, as you know. He would not cross silver with us, with any clan. And for that we loved him in our way—he was as the stone that does not feel the storm. A strong man is like that, yes? Do you follow?"
"I…" Kostin was at a loss for words. He glanced down at his dirty breeches, ash-smeared from the scorched remains of his father's home. He was conscious for the first time of smelling like smoke.
"But you are here, now." The kapteo grinned, leaning back in evident satisfaction. "And that can only mean you have failed him, yes? You are a boy in trouble, a boy in a man's body, just as any nestling who has hid like a child from the world." It was said mildly, matter-of-factly, but the venom of the old man's words was palpable.
Kostin, anger kindled, locked eyes with the kapteo and bared his teeth.
"A friend is an enemy's enemy," Kostin quoted the old Varisian saying. "It's the same in every language, kapteo. I'm not here for a handout, and Desna take your insults. I'm here to make a deal about the Shoanti."
The kapteo raised one bushy white eyebrow and gestured for Kostin to continue.
"The worst scum in Beacon Point—what do they call themselves? The Iron Eaters? Something ridiculous. We both want them out of the picture—only you have an agreement with the Night Scales not to touch them. They're the Scales' blunt instruments in this part of town, and they push and push at you and all you can do is complain to navedo bosses that life isn't fair." Kostin stopped, took a breath, and noticed his hands were knotted into fists. "I can get rid of them."
A calculating look crept into the old man's eyes. "If one pretends the Scales will ignore what they can surely find out about such a deal, what do you want from us?"
Kostin named his figure.
The kapteo licked his lips before speaking. "A lot of coin. It will take time to raise such a loan."
Kostin hissed a choice Varisian oath and slammed his hand into the ground between them, sending a leather-punch skittering across the carpets. The old man's eyes flashed fire, and his hand slipped to the hilt of his blade.
"It isn't a loan, you old cheat. Either I get it done, in which case it's payment. Or I don't—in which case I'm dead, either at their hands or yours. And I don't need coin. Hacksilver, trade bits, ingots—hell, dinnerware is fine, just have it for me by this time tomorrow. I have people that need to get paid."
The kapteo shook his head, his anger giving way to amusement. "Too much risk. I cannot say yes to this. But it is good to see the spirit of the People is still in you, mossback."
Kostin leaned back and smiled. "You don't know the best part yet, kapteo. I admit that I'm an unknown quantity to you—my abilities in this area cannot be seen as a guarantee. But the real risk you’re talking about is retaliation from the Scales." Kostin scrutinized the old man, noting his interest. "But the Scales grow tired of their alley dogs, and they've already tried to arrange the killing of the Shoanti Azahg, the mad shaman that holds their leash."
"And I am to take your word at this? You would say anything; I see revenge in your eyes."
Kostin stood. Reaching into his pocket, he pulled forth a wad of fire-blackened cloth, its former intricate and multi-hued pattern barely discernable. It was his kapenia, his family scarf. The story of his parents and his parents' parents, the story of his life before it had been given him. He dropped the ruined thing before the old man.
The kapteo smoothed the garment with bent fingers, and said nothing.
"This time, tomorrow. It's enough time to check my story. One of Symirkova's brats down at the Bazaar can tell you all about the Kellid freelancer who took a shot at Azahg, and how the deal was brokered by a couple of town guards called Marster and Dennebris. Maybe you've already heard of that pair—they certainly run their mouths enough. The girls of half-a-dozen Lowcleft dance halls had plenty to repeat about those two, about how they like to go around spending Night Scales silver and playing the big men."
Kostin declined to mention the remaining link in the chain of information he had uncovered this morning—that it was Donal Carent that had sent him sniffing after Marster and Dennebris, the two men that had rolled into Dockyard impound one day with a cartful of supposedly confiscated sundries and a false bill of lading. Their cargo had disappeared by the end of the day, gone home in the pockets and pouches of a score of guards and officials. All their cargo, that is, except for a black, wizard-locked box.
The kapteo spoke after a moment's consideration, "If this is true, then the Scales will take care of our problem for us."
Kostin shook his head. "The Scales want to cut off the head of the beast, to better control it. If they do that, your problem doesn't go away. If you back me on this, what's left of the Shoanti will turn tail and scatter and the Scales won't press the issue. It's the navedo way—they won't blood feud over a pack of foreign gutter grubbers that they have already grown tired of."
Kostin paused, studying the kapteo as he sat motionless in the dim interior, the old man's hands moving delicately over the ruined fabric of the Dalakcz kapenia.
"Let it be Sczarni silver," Kostin interjected into the silence that had fallen between them, "and a Varisian hand that accomplishes this task. That is our way."
The kapteo nodded, once, decision made. "Tomorrow you will have your silver, if what you say is true. Desna walk with you, Kostinnavolus, and may she light your path."
"And yours, kapteo. My thanks." Kostin bowed and slipped from the tent, fighting to keep a grin off of his face.
Outside the sky had cleared, and the first stars of early evening stood out like hard diamonds in the fading blue. A day ago he had brought the box into his home, the home he had watched burn from the fifth floor of the Rope Works building while bucket teams scrambled to douse it. A day ago his life had changed forever.
It was time to hit back. Time to cash in some favors, make some promises, and build his team.
Coming Next Week: Careful scheming and creative recruiting in Chapter Three of Bill Ward's "The Box."
Bill Ward is the author of more than 40 short stories for venues like Heroic Fantasy Quarterly, Every Day Fiction, Morpheus Tales, Rogue Blades Entertainment, and more, as well as game work for companies such as i-Kore and Urban Mammoth. A diehard fan of pulp adventure, he’s also an editor at the flagship sword and sorcery magazine Black Gate. For more information, visit his website at billwardwriter.com.