Monthly Archives: March 2013

By the Unblinking Eye, Pt. 5

I don’t trust him,” Maman said in a strange accent I’d never heard before. There were traces of it in Mar’s speech, but it was much stronger in the older woman. Her eyes were locked on mine, and though she was speaking to Mar and Silas, it was clear that her words were really meant for me and me alone. “I don’t trust anyone that says they don’t care for money or for the finer things in life, that says those things don’t motivate them. They are a liar and a hypocrite, or worse, an idealist. Or else they are lacking that certain something that makes us all human. There is something wrong with their brain.” She sniffed and turned to Silas. “Is there something wrong with his brain?”

Silas shuffled nervously and looked down at his feet. If this was part of an act, the same act he’d used to placate Sutro back at the inn, or if he was genuinely uncomfortable under Maman’s gaze, I couldn’t say. “I don’t think so,” the boy said.

Who was this woman to speak to someone she didn’t even know in such a way? Her face was made up the same way that Mar’s was, and she was wearing a similar outfit, a brightly colored dress with satin and lace accents. It was a uniform of sorts, I realized. Was this Maman what passed for the general, then? Were Mar and the others her soldiers?

Maman turned her attention back to me and sighed. “I suppose that in times such as this we must take whatever help we can get, broken brains and all.”

“My brains aren’t broken,” I growled.

The older woman arched an eyebrow. “No? Then tell me, what is the name of the king’s newest advisor? What general leads the king’s armies in this region?”

“I don’t know any of that,” I said with a snort.

“What master taught you how to fight? What city did you grow up where you were forced to scrape and to struggle to survive?”

“Nobody taught me nothing. Fighting’s in my blood.”

“Of course it is, Mister Coalheart. Tell me, look at the sign behind me. What does it say?”

“I don’t know how to read.”

“Ah. Of course not. Great Mahndu save me, Silas, you have brought me an imbecile!”

“Lots of folks don’t know how to read, Maman,” Silas said, his voice barely more than a whisper. “Most all the girls didn’t know how to read before they got here, they didn’t.”

“At least they could name the king!”

“And does knowing who the king is save you?” I roared. Silas and Mar jumped, but to her credit, Maman barely flinched. “Does reading books and naming names make it so that you don’t have to turn to a wanderer in rags when troubles beset you? By whatever god you worship, woman, tell me what it is that you need and I’ll tell you if I can help you or not!”

Maman folded her hands atop the desk, a half-smile creeping across her face. She took a deep breath and began, her words slow and deliberate, like honey dripping off a spoon. “Silas tells me that you have head the pleasure of meeting Mister Osman, no? But do you know who he is or who he works for?”

“I know that he’s got at least one of the gangs in this town under his thumb.”

“More than just one. He is an agent of the Unblinking Eye, sent to Greystone to bring the city under the control of his masters.”

I blinked. “His masters? Is he some kind of cultist? The servant of some rogue lord?”

“He’s a criminal. Or rather, he is an enforcer for one of the most dangerous gangs in the region. They call themselves the Unblinking Eye.”

“They’re lead by a lady who calls herself the Seer,” Silas said. “They say that she’s blind, but her other senses are so sharp that she’s still the greatest thief in all the land. And a deadly warrior, too!” Maman shot Silas a look that seemed to say, “Hush, child,” and the boy went quiet.

“I’ve never heard of them,” I said. I half-expected Maman to chastize me for being ignorant, but she simply shook her head.

“They are very quiet in far off cities. Their agents are not so open, so brazen about their affiliations. It’s likely you’ve encountered them without even realizing it.”

I crossed my arms and took a deep breath. “So what do you want me to do about him?”

Maman smiled. “I would think that would be obvious, no? Kill him. Or at least convince him to leave our fair city.”

I studied the older woman’s face carefully. She was smiling, but there was no humor in her eyes. However she felt about this Osman, the thought of his death didn’t bring her any joy. She wasn’t a sadist, it seemed. This was just business.

“And why do you care? Why take it upon yourself to see this man removed from Greystone?”

“Do you know anything about the history of Greystone, Mister Coalheart?”

“No. I’ve only been in the city a week.”

Maman turned to Mar and smiled. “What do I always say is the heart and soul of our city, my sweet?”

Mar stood up a bit straighter, holding her hands before her and looking me in the eyes as if reciting some important lesson from memory. “Greystone is free. So far from the king, so close to nothing. The lords and ladies of the realm have ignored Greystone for generations, and so the city has been allowed to grow at its own pace and in the name of its own interests.” Mar smiled, her recitation complete, and despite myself, I smiled too. There was earnestness in the girl.

“The aurum has been both a blessing and a curse, you see,” Maman said. “It made our people wealthy and it drew new blood into the city. Those who were already here, like myself and my girls, found themselves living better lives for all the new wealth. But the aurum also drew parasites. People who only want to suck the blood of Greystone, grow fat, and leave. And it has drawn the attention of the Unblinking Eye. They would see themselves made the rulers of Greystone, and everything that was here before them subjugated in their name.” The older woman took a deep breath and sat up straight in her chair. “There are plenty of us who don’t want to see that happen, obviously, but we aren’t warriors, no? We cannot stand up to the thieves and thugs and murderers that have come here. Not yet. That’s why we need you.”

I leaned back in my chair and scratched at my chin. They wanted me to kill the most dangerous man in Greystone, a man that for all I knew had a small army at his command. They were afraid to face him themselves, and they couldn’t offer me a damn thing I wanted in exchange because they had nothing I wanted. So all the only reason for me to say yes was for the challenge, for the thrill of the fight. Me versus an army. Me versus a trained killer. Me not tied down, not blindsided, not weak from being tortured. Just me with a chip on my shoulder versus a real warrior and his lackeys.

It’d be a hell of a fight.

Behind my linen mask, I smiled. “I’ll think about it.”

I left the Maison Lupa a little bit after that. I did convince Maman to give me a few sovereigns so I could find a room somewhere, and I went to a nearby inn. It was getting dark at that point, and I all I wanted to do was get food in my belly and a pillow under my head.

The next morning, I rolled over in bed and woke up to cold steel pressed against my nose. My eyes snapped open, and I saw the sharp, unyielding outline of a dagger stabbed into my pillow. I leapt out of bed, my eyes scanning the room for a lurking attacker, for a broken window or a busted lock or any sign of how my would-be assassin had gotten into my room, but there was nothing.

I slowly walked over to my bed. The dagger was of the same quality and style as the throwing knife Gog had used on me was. It pierced a sheet of paper, pinning it against the pillow. I tore it free and examined it.

A simply drawn eye stared back up at me.


By the Unblinking Eye, Pt. 4

Yikes.  My apologies for the late post.

I drew back as if I’d been slapped across my face. “What’s that smell?”The inside of the Maison Lupa was dark, but I could hear voices talking and see shapes moving in the dim candlelight that illuminated things. The sunlight that came through the front door narrowed from a wide beam that almost revealed the secrets of this strange new place to nothing more than a thin sliver. And then it was gone completely as the door shut, and I was locked inside a building I’d never been in before, one where the shadows crawled and voices whispered in darkness.

Silas looked at me as if I were half-mad. “That’s perfume. Haven’t you ever smelled perfume before?”

“Silas, is that you?” A woman stepped out of the shadows, young and pretty. Her lips were bright red, her cheeks a soft pink. Her skin was fair, even by the standards of most humans, and as my eyes adjusted to the darkness of the room, I realized that she was wearing some kind of powder on her face to make her seem even paler. I couldn’t quite guess at her age. She was older than teen, I thought, but not by much.

When she saw Silas, she rushed over and hugged him in her arms. She wasn’t much bigger than he was, but she was still strong enough to pick him up off the ground some and give him a little shake. Silas laughed even as he struggled to get free. “Put me down, Mar! Put me down!”

“Never! I’m going to carry you around with me everywhere I go, like a pup!”

I watched this all unfold in silence and confusion. I’d never seen humans interact like this before. She didn’t seem old enough to be his mother. Were they lovers? How old did humans have to be before they took lovers? After a few moments, the woman, Mag, finally seemed to notice me. She set Silas back onto his feet, adjusted her dress, and smiled up at me even as her eyes seemed to size me up for a threat. Smart girl, I thought.

“Silas, who’s this?”

The boy opened his mouth to speak and stopped just as suddenly. A look of panic flashed across his face, and I chuckled softly when I realized that the boy had never even bothered to ask me my name. He stepped over beside me and nudged me in the ribs with an elbow. “Well, go on, Mister. Introduce yourself.”

I glared down at the boy and snorted. Mar giggled. I turned to her and hesitated, uncertain how to introduce myself. How was it the humans had done it? I bowed my head a little and held out my hand for her to take it. “My name is Tusk. Tusk Coalheart. In other times, I went by Tusk Willvic. I was also called the Mad Monk, but that name was the invention of troupe of wandering entertainers.”

Mar stared at my hand and laughed softly. “You’re not from around here, are you Mr. Coalheart?”

I thought about it. Where had the wizard’s tower been? I could scarcely remember anymore. “I suppose not, no.”

She took my hand and shook it. “I can tell. I’ve never heard of anyone with a name like that.” Mar smiled. “Also, it’s customary for a man to take a lady’s hand and kiss it when they’re being introduced.”

Silas laughed, his voice sharp, like a hound’s bark. “You’re not a lady.”

Mar frowned and kicked at Silas.“Hush, brat.” Silas laughed again and rushed around to hide behind me. Despite myself, I smiled at their antics. Mar took a deep breath and cleared her throat. “It’s a pleasure to meet you, Mr. Coalheart. Margeruite Duchamp, at your service.”

She held her hand out, palm down and higher than I had held my own. I stared at it for a moment before realizing that she was presenting it for me to kiss. I studied her for a moment, but her face didn’t change. With nothing else to do, I brought her hand to my lips and kissed it through the linen wrap around my mouth.

“Very good, Mr. Coalheart! We’ll make a gentleman out of you yet. But next time, you should remove your scarf.”

I pointed at my face. “You mean this? This doesn’t come off.”

“Oh. Ever?”

“Only when I’m alone.”

Marguerite frowned. She glanced at Silas, but the boy just shruged. “Very well, then. So, where would you like to begin, Mr. Coalheart? Shall I get the girls?”

I stood there in silence, genuinely confused. “What?”

“Mar, no,” Silas said. “Or, well, maybe later. That’s not why I brought him.”

Marguerite’s eyes narrowed. She glanced at me for only a moment before letting her gaze settle on Silas again. “Then why is he here?”

“He’s going to help us with the Unblinking Eye.”

Marguerite’s eyes went wide. I snorted. “I am, am I?”

Silas wheeled around and faced me, his boyish face as hard as stone. I wasn’t intimidated, of course, but the seriousness that I saw there was impressive anyway. I’d seen men twice the boy’s age and three times his size try to look that determined and fail miserably. “I told you, if you don’t let me help you, Osman will kill you. It just so happens that me helping you helps us, too.”

I stared at the boy for a moment before turning and walking back towards the door. “Wait, stop!” he called out after me. “You can’t keep doing that!”

“And yet, I am,” I called out without bothering to look at him.

The boy rushed around in front of me and put his hands up. I stopped and watched him, waiting to see what he would do and trying to decide if it would be best to simply walk through him. “Hear them out, okay? Just listen to what they have to say. I know you’re a fighter, not a miner, and these people need someone to fight for them. They’ll pay you.”

“I already told you I’m not interested in aurum, boy.”

“Look around you. They can pay you other ways, too.”

By that point, my eyes had adjusted to the darkness, and I took my first real look at the Maison Lupa. The inside looked nothing like an inn or a tavern so much as a bedroom. There were men and women lounging on long cushioned chairs, whispering and laughing. Some of them kissed. I watched one couple as they stood up and went up the stairs to the second floor of Maison Lupa.

“Whatever their other form of payment is, I don’t think I’m interested in that, either.”

Silas frowned. “I saw you fight with Gog and all of his boys in the streets. You’ve got to be the strongest guy I’ve ever seen in Greystone. The only other person I’ve ever seen stand up to Gog was Osman, and Osman was just strong enough and mean enough to force Gog to work for him.”

I considered this carefully. Osman didn’t seem strong enough to face someone like Gog one on one. Maybe he was a soldier with military experience.

Or maybe he was a warrior trained like Sir Perceval had been.

“That Osman guy beat up Gog?” I asked?

Silas shook his head. “He didn’t have to.”

I considered this carefully. I was curious, now. What was there to know about Osman? What was the Unblinking Eye? Why were the people of the Maison Lupa so desperate for help?

The boy thought I was the strongest in all of Greystone. But he was downright afraid of Osman. What did that mean?

“Alright, boy. I’ll hear them out, at least.”

Silas smiled. “Really? Wonderful! Alright, then. Let’s introduce you to Maman.”


By the Unblinking Eye, Pt. 3

It wasn’t difficult to push my way out of the bar. I kept my head down and bashed aside anyone in my way. Normally I would have stayed, would have laughed and shouted and been eager to throw myself into it with anybody fool enough to get too close to me, but something about Osman set off a warning in my head. Where most of the thugs I’d encountered were arrogant, he had an air of confidence. He didn’t seem like a brute, like the kind of man who would stalk the streets of a town like a wolf amongst sheep. No, he seemed trained. He seemed to carry himself as if he knew that there were many men he’d never be able to beat in straight fistfight, but he never got into straight fistfights.

I could respect a man like that, a man who knows his limits and finds ways around them, but I’d never trust one. That’s the kind of man who will slip a dagger between your ribs in an alleyway rather than face you in the street. And after I’d turned the whole inn into a madhouse determined to kill him, that’s exactly what I expected. I may be the strongest feller around, but you don’t stay that way if you’re too dumb to recognize that linen robes aren’t going to do a damn thing to stop a dagger you don’t see coming.

I only got a few buildings away from the inn when I realized I’d left all of my belongings in my room. My winter clothes, my bow, my arrows, my rations were all in my room. My money. Not that I cared about the money itself, but without it, I couldn’t hope to replace the rest of my gear.

I cursed and looked back at the building. If the fight were still going, there’d be no avoiding getting caught up in it. And if it were winding down, the winners would be searching for me no matter what, either looking for their payment or looking for blood. I cursed again and turned away. Nothing to do about it now. Perhaps I could sneak in at night.

A voice distracted me from thoughts, high and mocking. “Well done, friend. Well done.”

I wheeled around, my muscles tensing, my fists clenching and rising to shield my face. The voice laughed. I tried to lock in on its direction, its source, but the streets around me were empty. I growled, my frustration rising as if it were threatening to break out of my body.

“Up here, mister! Up here!”

I looked up at stack of crates piled atop one another against the wall of a nearby hovel. The boy Silas sat atop it, his arm in its sling, his eyes focused on me like a bird of prey, his teeth gleaming behind the dust that caked his features. “I’ve got to say,” he began, “you did real good in there. Real good. I wasn’t expecting to see the inn go crazy like that. No, Sir, I wasn’t.”

I just stared at him, my face as cold and as hard as stone. “I didn’t hit you,” I said. “I didn’t break your arm. Your da did that to you.”

The boy laughed, pulled his arm out of the sling and waved it around. “No one broke my arm. But old Sutro would have caned me if I showed up late without a good excuse, so I had to make something up. I didn’t think you’d be staying in his inn. There’s lots of inns in this city, there is. What are the odds?” The boy chuckled. “Like striking aurum, I bet.” He paused, tilted his head to the side, regarding me like a curious dog. “Is that what you’re here for, mister? The aurum, same as everybody else?”

I shook my head. “I have no use for aurum. I simply go where my feet take me.”

Silas shook his head, clucking his tongue like I had seen women do their young. “Everyone’s got a use for aurum, mister, even if they’re not the type to want to put it in a big pile and just sit and watch it sparkle. I bet you like to eat, don’t you? You like to sleep in a nice soft bed at night, maybe with a whore or two to keep you company?”

I snorted. “If I get hungry, the woods are full of food just waiting to be caught. If I want to sleep, I find a quiet spot under a tree. And I’ve got no use for whores.”

The boy frowned. He was silent for a moment, but his eyebrows went up and his lips curled up in a smile. “Now, that can’t really be true, can it? I mean, you were inside Sutro’s when I got there. You were eating mutton and drinking ale. I’m just a kid, mister, but I don’t think ale’s the kind of thing you can find out in the woods, not even if you’re hunting for it.”

I had no response to that. The boy saw my silence and grinned all the wider. I grunted and turned away. Why was I wasting my time with this child anyway?

“Whoa, hey! Mister! Where do you think you’re going?”

“Away from you, boy. You try my patience.”

I walked towards Greystone’s main road, my mind already busy wondering where I would find the supplies to get me out of the city, someplace with fewer humans and meals that didn’t cost more aurum than most farmers would see in a year, when Silas called out one of the only things that could have made me stop in my tracks.

“Mister, if you don’t let me help you, Osman’s going to kill you before the week is out!”

* * *

The boy refused to speak any further in the street, insisting that the fight would be over soon and the men inside the inn would spill out into the street. “They’re going to be looking for you, they are. Osman and the Unblinking Eye. All those men that think you owe them aurum. You’re going to want to stay away from that part of town, mister. You want to follow me. I know a place that’s safe, no fighting allowed. Sanctuary, as it were. And you’re going to want to lose the robes. Too noticeable. Everyone will know to look for the tall man in robes..”

“I can’t,” I muttered. “If I take them off, I’ll still stand out.”

“How?”

I looked down at the boy. He was in his early teens, perhaps, but there was a sort of animal cunning in his eyes that I’d only ever seen in my like Enrici. Silas’s face was starting to lose its soft roundness and harden into the sharp lines of a man, but his body was still gangly and unpredictable, like a foal getting used to its legs. But a foal can walk and run within hours of being born. Humans takes fifteen years to get comfortable in their own bodies, and even then some of them never manage it.

I sniffed and turned my eyes back to the road. “Because under the robes, I have green skin and fangs and sharp claws.”

The boy was silent for a moment, his eyes looking me up and down. “You don’t have to lie like that if you don’t want to tell me, Mister.” There was a whining note in his voice, although if I’d truly hurt his feelings or if it were an act he was putting up like his “broken arm” had been, I couldn’t say.

“Where are we going?”

“The Maison Lupa. It opened up a few months ago. You’ll like it. Most every guy who ever goes inside likes it.”

I grunted. At that moment, if they had decent food at a reasonable price, it would be my favorite place in all the land.

We stopped in front of a two-story building that sat alone at the end of a dirt road. It certainly looked new, and the designs carved into the wood of its front were intricate and playful. Forest spirits laughing and dancing and the like. Strangely enough, it didn’t have any windows on the first story. Most inns had windows. That way light got in during the day, and at night people who happened to be passing by could look inside and be tempted by all the good food and drink within.

The sign that marked the building didn’t have any words on it. Very few did. Most folks can’t read. Instead, the wooden sign had a dog howling at the moon carved into it. “This is it,” Silas said. “Come on, let’s go.”

“What’s ‘Maison Lupa’ mean?”

“It’s foreign, it is. ‘The Wolf House.’”

I was silent. The name meant nothing to me.

Silas opened the door and waved me in, and a terrible stink assaulted my nose as soon as I stepped through the threshold.


Random Writing Prompt 8: Done

I’ve been swamped at work and unable to find the time to advance Tusk’s story (hence the late update.) That means it’s time for the first Random Writing Prompt of the year! Tusk will be back on Saturday. In the meantime, let’s have some boilerplate.

The website io9.com posts a piece of concept art every Saturday challenging its viewers to write a piece of flash fiction based on that art. Stories must be less than eight hundred words. As of the time of this blog posting, there are sixty-one images online. There may be more and I failed to uncover them by searching for the wrong terms, but eh. I think sixty-one’s a plenty big pool to draw from. I’ve assigned each a number, with the newest being 61 and the oldest being 1. I then generated a random number within that range and written a piece of flash fiction inspired by that piece of art. Exciting, no?

This piece is entitled “Ennui,” inspired by an untitled illustration by Pixiv user bsanshuiji. I don’t own this image, I claim no rights to this image, and should bsanshuiji stumble across this post and demand that the image be removed, I will gladly do so. Also, you should go check out their work at The Art of Animation at: http://theartofanimation.tumblr.com/post/42759473229/bsanshuiji.

Anyway, let’s begin! Continue reading


By the Unblinking Eye, Pt. 2

I’d traveled west far along the King’s Road, no real destination in my mind except for “as far away from Glimmerton and the High Prelate as possible.” I didn’t even know anything about Greystone when I decided to go there. I figured it would be a big city like Glimmerton had been, given that it was important enough to be listed on the roadsigns along the Queen’s Road even though it was hundreds of miles from Glimmerton. What I found instead was a city where every neighborhood was different from the next. The oldest parts of town seemed to be the simple homes I’d found everywhere in my travels, wood and thatch. But there were some taller brick buildings mixed in with them all. Some of them seemed to be laid out as if one of the older homes had been torn down and the brick one put up in its place, but some of them were squeezed in amongst the others, as if they’d been built without any thought given over to how it would look or how practical be.

But that was just the oldest district. Greystone had no shape to its borders and no real consistency. There were tents. There were squat, box-like buildings in a style I’d never seen before. There were peaked roofs and cobblestone roads and muddy paths you could barely hope to walk across, and the whole city seemed to be like a living thing that was fighting itself as it grew. Even the humans were all different from each other, with different skin colors and different shapes to their faces. If Glimmerton was a city of stone, a city built to endure, then Greystone was a city of change.

I tested my arm. It hurt a bit, but not bad. I picked up the club I’d kept from my earlier fight with the street thugs, and swung it around some. Good enough. I put my robes back on, covered my face, and left my room in search of food.

The main hall of the inn was packed with humans, drinking and laughing and shouting. I muscled my way to the counter and sat down, waving over the innkeeper. “Pint of ale and roast mutton.”

“Five sovereigns,” the man said. I stared at him in shock, thankful that wrappings around my face kept him from seeing my expression. He was a squat fellow, built much like a keg of ale with legs and arms. For a moment, I saw him as just another bandit on the side of the road, weapon drawn, hands shaking, unwittingly demanding the money of someone who could pick him up and snap his spine over their knee.

“You’re mad! My breakfast was but a single silver this morning, and even that was too much!”

The portly man shrugged. “That was this morning. Didn’t you hear? Some lucky bastards found another aurum vein in the foothills last night. They got back to town a few hours ago, hired some guards to watch their claim, and then they went crazy. Went to the taverns, the whorehouses, all of it. Just throwing around their money like it was candy. They threw around so much money, in fact, prices all over town shot up. You want a pint of ale and some roast mutton, it’s going to cost you five sovereigns, and if you don’t like it, then you can just go to hell.”

I glared at the man from behind my mask, from underneath my hood. I expected him to waver, but he didn’t. He just stood there with his arms crossed, his face as unyielding as stone. “Why should I pay five sovereigns for a meal worth three silver,” I growled, “when I can just break your head and take the damn food from you?”

The man’s eyes went wide for a moment, but only a moment. They narrowed into slits, his lips pulling back into a sneer. “Because if you make a move that isn’t you going for your coin purse, I’m going to shout out, ‘Twenty sovereigns to whoever kills the villain in front of me.’”

I stared at him for a moment as his words sunk in. The bar was crowded with people, more than I could hope to fight. Already, those nearest to us were whispering amongst themselves, glancing my way, sizing me up. I snorted. The air in this place stank of men, men with too much money, with too little money, with nothing to do but drink and talk. There may have been enough aurum in the hills to draw them from all over the land, but I doubted there was enough to make them all as wealthy as they dreamed of being. Those who found themselves richer than they’d ever dreamed would be riding a high, feeling unstoppable. Those who found themselves growing poorer with every passing day would be more bitter, more desperate, more angry. It was dangerous, a pen full of caged animals ready to tear each other to pieces over a scrap of meat.

I reached into the pockets of my robes grumbling and pulled out five sovereigns. Thank the gods for the greedy bandits that plagued King’s road.

I sat there eating my meal quietly, my mind wandering between thinking about the men who’d attacked me and listening to the conversations the people around me were having. They spoke of food and drink and whores and aurum, all of them carrying on as if they were noble lords used to only the finest things in life. It was easy to understand why there were thugs prowling the streets. Why bother digging in the dirt and sorting through rock under the hot sun when you could just let someone else dig up the aurum, club them in the head, and take theirs? I thought about doing that myself, but decided against it. There was no sport in it. It’d be like hunting a blind and deaf doe. Besides, aurum held no power over me the way it did the humans. In my mind, all the shiny yellow metal was good for was buying a meal and a bed, and I’d sooner sleep under the stars and live off the land than toil in the dirt.

I’d finished my meal and I was just about to return to my room when I heard the innkeeper fighting with a customer. “Where’s my food, Sutro? I paid five sovereigns for a pittance of beef, and if I don’t get it soon, I’m going to carve five sovereigns worth of meat out of your hide!” I turned to look. The customer arguing with the innkeeper seemed to be every bit his opposite. Where Sutro was short and round and fair, the customer was tall and lean, his head deliberately shaved bald, his skin tanned from time spent in the sun. He looked just the same as every other human there who fancied himself a prospector, save for one thing: in the center of his forehead was a tattoo of an eyeball. Simple, like a child might draw. An almond shape with a circle and a dot in the center.

“Please, Master Osman! Patience, I beg you, patience! My serving boy hasn’t come in today, and there are too many customers for me to handle myself.”

Osman snorted. “It is a fool businessman who complains of too many customers, Sutro.”

Sutro held his hands folded in front of him, as if he were praying to an angry god. “It is the boy’s fault, Master Osman. He’s always been unreliable. He’s always…”

Sutro stopped mid-sentence, his pathetic mewling ceasing in an instant. Instead of the beaten and ashamed look he wore, his face turned into a mask of anger. “Damnation, Silas, where have you been?” he shouted. I turned to follow his gaze and saw a slight and dirty looking child. His clothes were little more than rags, his face caked with dirt, his left arm in a crude and simple sling. At the sound of Sutro’s voice, he flinched as if he’d been slapped.

“I’m sorry, Sir! I’m sorry! It weren’t my fault! There was a scuffle in the streets, there was, and–”

“Damnation, boy, what happened to your arm? How are you supposed to serve my customers with a broken arm?” Sutro’s eyes narrowed, and he reached across the counter to grab at the boy. “Is this another scheme of yours? Are you trying to get out of your work? Are you hoping my customers will take pity on you and tip you extra?” He finally got a hold of the boys’ arm, and it seemed to me from the way the child screamed that this was no scheme. Sutro must have thought so too, for he immediately let go. Osman watched the whole scene with no more expression on his face than an annoyed frown. For my part, I was ready to throttle Sutro for how he was treating the child. Most of the decent humans I’d ever met had been about the age this Silas seemed to be, and I was beginning to think that a life lived at the hands of a brute like Sutro would slowly strangle that decency out of them.

Sutro took a deep breath and composed himself. “Now, tell me. Why were you late? What happened to your arm?”

“There was fighting in the streets, there was!”

“There’s always fighting in the streets, boy.”

“But my da was the one fighting this time! He was talking to a man, and the man just attacked him, and then my da tried to fight back, but the man was stronger, and then my da’s friends helped, but the man was stronger than them, too, and I jumped on his back to stop him, but he hit me and he broke my arm!”

My pulse quickened at Silas’s story. Was he the one who had jumped on my back? I didn’t actually look at the person. They’d gotten away too quickly. But they seemed to have been small. It could have been a child, I supposed. I looked away. I needed to get away quietly, unnoticed. If the boy pointed me out, it would surely start a brawl. Part of me ached for the fight. Surely I could beat any man in the hall one on one. But another part of me said, It won’t be one on one. It’s going to be everybody against the outsider who broke a child’s arm.

I frowned. I didn’t break the child’s arm. His father’s friend had when he’d smashed him with that club. And I hadn’t attacked his father. Even if all we were doing was “talking,” his father still took the first swing. The boy was lying.

Sutro crossed his arms. “Calm down, boy. You’re telling me that some stranger attacked your father for no good reason, and you got your arm busted trying to stop the fight?”

“Yes, Sir! Yes!”

“What’d he look like?” Osman asked.

“He was tall, and he was wearing robes with the hood up, so I couldn’t see his face, but he was thick! Like one of them carnival strongmen, he was!” I swore under my breath. A few eyes started to turn my way. It was too late to leave now. There would be no quietly slipping away. “And he had a deep voice, like a dog growling, and… and… and… That’s him! That’s the man!”

Damnation.

I felt a hand on my shoulder, a tight grip. Osman spun me around on my bar stool to face him, his brow furrowed with hatred. “What kind of monster breaks the arm of a child?” Murmurs worked their way through the crowd. I was cornered. Stick him with the dagger, I thought, but I knew that would do no good. That would eliminate one foe, but the room was full of them, and I couldn’t hope to fight them all. No, there was only one thing I could do. There was only one escape that I saw. I took a deep breath and shouted at the top of my lungs.

“Twenty sovereigns to the man who teaches this bastard to keep his filthy hands off my robe!”

The entire hall went silent. All eyes seemed to be on us. Osman’s face was expressionless, but his eyes darted around, looking to see where an attack would come from.

Someone behind Osman hit him in the back of the head with a mug of ale. A roar went through the men in the hall, and the sounds of plates and mugs breaking, tables being smashed, men shouting in pain and anger. Osman wheeled around and hit a man in the side of the head, but not the man who had hit him. I backed away, content to let the crowd tear itself apart.

Osman fought the men who were rushing him, doing a good job of keeping them off him. Sutro shouted, trying helplessly to get things under control Meanwhile, the boy, Silas, just laughed and laughed.


By the Unblinking Eye, Pt. 1

This story marks the return of Tusk! For those who need a refresher, this story takes places after “The Strongest Feller Around.” As a result of the events of that story, he’s using a different name. Enjoy!

You ain’t paid your protection money, freak,” the human said. He was bigger than the others who had come with him, men armed gnarled wooden clubs. He wasn’t the biggest human I’d ever seen, but still a good size. His face was ugly, covered in old scars and new scars, his nose bent at an unnatural angle, teeth missing from his smug predator’s grin. This was a man who knew what it was to fight. This was a man who’d come by his life’s experiences honestly, had them carved into his body like some kind of design carved into a piece of wood. I could respect that. Really, I could.

It was a damn shame I was going to have to beat him until he wept like a little girl in front of his men.

“I told you earlier this week,” I said, the wrappings over my face doing nothing to muffle my voice. “My name’s not freak. It’s Coalheart, and if you’re going to threaten me, I’m going to rearrange your face for you.” I snorted. I wanted them to hear the distaste in my voice. I wanted them to know I didn’t take them any more serious than a bunch of kids pretending at being soldiers. That’s the only way to deal with humans like that. You’ve got to rile them up, beat them good, and send them bruised and broken back to wherever they came from. You see a human threatening you, telling you he’s going to take what’s yours, you’ve got to show him that you’re too strong for him.

And even outnumbered five-to-one, I was too strong for these guys. I laughed, the noise like a growl stuck in my throat. “Maybe your gods will take pity on you and you’ll wind up prettier than you are now.”

The human’s face went red with anger. His eyes went wide, his nostril’s flared, making him look like some kind of big, pink pig. His men snickered at my taunt. One of them said, “You going to take that from this filthy leper, boss?”

“No. No, I ain’t.” He raised his cudgel high and charged at me with a roar. Behind my linen mask, I grinned. And here I thought this town was going to be boring.

He swung straight down, but I caught his club in my hands. It hurt, but there was something familiar about it. It had been months since I’d left Glimmerton, and in the time it took me to get to Greystone, I hadn’t gotten into a single good scrap. There’d been some would-be bandits on the road, some angry drunks at inns, but nothing like the fights I’d gotten into with Sir Perceval in Quail’s Leap or Brother Zechariah in Glimmerton. Now those were good fun.

Of course, I could easily have been killed in those fights. But then, what’s the fun in a fight if there’s no challenge? If I wanted that, I’d just beat up farmers.

The ugly brute looked confused for a moment, like his brain couldn’t understand why he hadn’t been able to smash my face in. Then his eyes went wide. I pulled down and away from myself and spun, tearing the club from his hands and wheeling around to strike him across his back. Not hard, but he was off balance, and the blow sent him tumbling to the ground and sliding across the dirt road on his face.

He groaned, tried to push himself up. I snorted, disgusted with the human’s weakness and with myself for being wrong about him. I hadn’t even broken any of his ribs. A real warrior would have known to roll so as better dodge a follow-up attack. But this man was no warrior. Just a simple thug unused to his prey fighting back. Maybe this wouldn’t be a worthy fight after all, but at least this city would have one less pack of vermin wandering its streets.

I walked over to the man and planted my foot on his back, forcing his face into the dirt and pinning him. I raised the club, ready to smash his brains in, when someone tackled me from behind. I was knocked off balance and dropped my weapon, fighting to steady myself as my attacker’s fists beat weakly against my back and shoulders, all the while someone screaming into my ear, “Get away from him! Get away from him!” I roared and struggled, a wild bull trying to buck its rider, when another human struck me across my ribs with his own club. Pain flared across my chest and I gasped for breath.

I looked at my attacker, hate and anger focusing my vision. He was a young man with dark hair and dirt-caked skin dressed in the plain and unremarkable clothing of the poor. He looked underfed and he carried his weapon in two hands as if it were an axe and I were a tree to be cut down. This too was no warrior.

His arms went back. Such an obvious tell. I turned, and the blow smashed into the human on my back. They let out a sharp, high-pitched scream and crumbled to the ground. If the human attacking me noticed or cared about his comrade’s pain, he didn’t show it. Instead, he wound up to swing again. I punched him in the face, and he stumbled backward and landed on his ass in the dirt.

I raised my fists to protect my head and quickly scanned the area. The human I’d just punched was down on the ground cradling a broken nose. Two humans stood back uncertain, their clubs limp in their hands. A third was pulling their leader to his feet, his weapon lying discarded on the ground and marking him as a fool. As for the leader, he still seemed to be out of it from the blow I’d given him across the back. I didn’t know what had become of the human who had leapt onto me, but it didn’t matter. I didn’t see them in any position to menace me, so I figured they’d just run off.

Farther away, other humans watched the fight, some of them frightened, some of them barely interested, and some of them just curious. So this is the kind of city Greystone is, I thought to myself. A group of men will just attack a stranger in the streets and no guards rush to break it up. No one gives a damn. It’s all just part of the background noise of these humans’ lives.

“So give them a show,” I could hear Enrico saying in my head. “Their lives are so dull, so terrible, give them something new! Make them remember you!”

I smiled to myself as I imagined what my old friend would have said, and I stepped forward as I picked up the club I had dropped earlier. Men like this thug and his cronies probably menaced the humans on these streets every day of their lives. It’d do them some good to see someone standing up to their enemies. I kept the club low and ready as I stalked forward like a wolf, my eyes darting around. No one was going to stop me. Even the human who was helping up his leader looked ready to turn and run. This would be simple. I wouldn’t kill them.

I’d just humiliate them.

I broke into a run, and as I did so, the others fled. The leader’s eyes went wide, but his hand dropped to his belt, and he pulled forth a dagger and in a single swift movement threw it at me. It caught me by surprise, embedding itself in my shoulder, and I snarled. The thug stood up a bit straighter at that, his pride bolstering him for a moment, and he sneered. “A present! Welcome to Greystone, freak!”

I turned my head to face him, and his sneer wavered. He too turned and ran, shouting over his shoulder at me, “The Unblinking Eye is watching you, freak!” Anger boiled up inside me. I wanted to chase him, throttle him with my bare hands, but I hadn’t even been in Greystone a week and I didn’t know that they weren’t leading me into some kind of an ambush. Instead, I pulled the dagger from my arm, and looked at it. Forged from a single piece of metal and small. Double-edged with one end sharpened to a point, the other serving as a handle. But the handle had three holes cut into it, presumably to make the tiny thing even lighter. A dagger designed for throwing seemed like a strange thing for a simple mugger to carry, but the blade was otherwise unremarkable.

I frowned. Welcome to Greystone indeed.


The Game Master

The boy wandered the carnival alone, his parents occupied with a sister who was too young not to be watched and a brother who was too old to be trusted. He went round about the carnival, walking through it, and in time his wanderings led him to a tent, large and dark and forgotten in a long row of tents much like it such that one could not at a glance hope to tell them apart.

A girl stood before this particular tent, old enough to taunt boys like him with her burgeoning sexuality, young enough to tempt the men at the carnival with the last vestiges of her innocence. Come, she said. Look and behold. The game master awaits you, if you’re brave enough.

Bravery did not enter into it. He was young and confused and angry, as all boys of his age are, and he was confused by this girl before him, this girl who tempted and terrified him with her soft features, smooth legs in ragged shorts, the twin swells of her chest and her hips beckoning to him like sirens speaking a language he barely understood. But he would not let her see his fear, his uncertainty. What’s the game this guy’s supposed to be the master of, he asked the girl. She just smiled at him, her teeth a few shades to yellow to be called white. She pulled aside the curtain that served as the tent’s door. Come and see.

It was dim inside the tent, lit only by a single flickering bulb of antiquated design. The boy could see the outline of a figure sitting at a table inside. There were crude wooden shelves behind the figure, and jars full of strange liquids and boxes fitted with locks sat atop them. The figure shifted, the head moving up, and the boy felt the eyes of some terrible judge upon him. A voice spoke, coming to him across the distance like a tremor rumbling up from the bowels of the earth. Come in, child. Come in and play.

The boy entered, and sat at the table across from the game master, a board of light and dark squares and light and dark pieces separating them. He looked over his shoulder to see if the girl was watching, but she was gone, the curtain drawn behind her, leaving him in this dark space. There was only the game master and the game now, and the game master regarded the boy with eyes that glittered like jewels in the dark of the tent. The figure slid a tattered and yellowed sheet across the table to the boy. The rules. Read them and understand. The boy read, and when he felt that he understood, he pushed the sheet back. The game master smiled. Let’s begin.

The boy went first. He carefully considered the placement of each piece. He looked down on the board like a god shaping the world, and he looked at the pieces he had moved, and he thought that it was good. But on the game master’s turn, the boy’s pieces were removed one by one.

The boy frowned. I don’t understand why I lost.

Few do. Shall we play again?

And they did, but the boy lost that game too. The boy lost almost every game he played, but he won enough that he was compelled to keep laying. The hour grew later and later and still he played until at last the game master slid the board away from him and spoke.

If you are going to keep playing, then the game must be played for stakes.

What?

The game master nodded. All games are played for stakes, boy, and the higher the stakes, the more important the game. You have learned how to play through passive observation, through active learning, and now you have come to this point of reckoning. The game master chuckled. What was once nothing more than a child’s trifling has become a thing of men. If you are to keep playing then you must play for stakes.

The boy sat in silence. He stared at the figure of the game master, at gleaming eyes and a gleaming mouth. The game master watched quietly, and finally the boy pulled his wallet from his pocket and removed a few of the bills that he had there. He set them on the table, and the game master nodded. The game master turned and removed a box from the shelves, placed the money inside, and returned the box to its appointed spot. Another round, then, the game master asked.

Another round.

The boy lost. And again. And again. The boy gave up more and more, money flowing from his wallet into the boxes the game master kept on the shelves, boxes that never seemed any fuller even as his wallet grew emptier and emptier. At last the game master asked, Another round, and the boy was forced to say, I don’t have any more money.

The game master leaned back in the chair, hands folded neatly on the table. Another round?

I don’t have anything left to bet.

There is always something left to wager. As long as you draw breath, there is always something that can be put at hazard. The boy’s eyes drifted upwards, to the shelves behind the game master, to the boxes and jars there. Boxes that would not betray their secrets. Jars holding things the boy had no name for. Another round?

The boy was silent for what felt like a long time. The game master was silent as well, still as a statue of some ancient and unknowable god. Implacable. Ineffable. A god that existed only to preside over a world of its own creation. In the perpetual dusk of the tent, there was nothing else. The girl was gone. The money was gone. Time passed, but the board and the pieces remained, whispering promises of glory and redemption to the lucky and the quick-witted.

Another round.

The game master grinned, white teeth shining like stars a thousand years dead in the night sky.


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