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Thraxas and the Dance of Death
By Martin Scott
Baen BooksCopyright © 2005 Martin Scott
All right reserved.
Chapter OneIt's summer. It's hot. The city stinks. I've just been described as a liar in court and subjected to a stream of hostile invective that would have made a statue flinch. Funds are low, I'm short of work and badly in need of beer. Life, in general, is tough. It's no time for my idiot companion Makri to be complaining about an examination.
"So you have to take an examination. You wanted to go to Guild College. What did you expect?"
"It's not just a written examination. I have to stand up and talk to the whole class. It's making me feel bad."
"You used to fight in the gladiator slave pits. I thought you'd be used to an audience."
Makri shakes her head violently, causing her huge mane of black hair to swing around the small of her back. Underneath all her hair Makri has pointed ears. This often leads to problems.
"That was different. I was killing Orcs. It never felt stressful like talking to a group of students. They're all merchants' sons with money and servants in their houses. They're always laughing at me for being a barmaid. And how am I meant to prepare for anything when this stupid city is as hot as Orcish hell and stinks like a sewer?"
Summer in Turai is never pleasant, and this summer is promising to be as bad as last year when dogs and men keeled overin the street, overcome by the heat, and the main aqueduct into Twelve Seas was dry for a record eighteen days in a row.
Makri continues to complain about her upcoming examination but I'm too annoyed about my recent experience in court to pay attention. A few months ago I arrested a thief down by the docks, name of Baxin. He was stealing Elvish wine. I apprehended him and delivered him, complete with evidence, to the Transport Guild. Unfortunately, being caught in the act of committing a crime has never stopped a Turanian criminal from putting up a strong defence in court. The devious, toga-clad lawyer Baxin hired to defend him made a good job of convincing the jury that Baxin was nothing more than the victim of a bad case of mistaken identity. The real criminal was the notoriously unreliable Investigator Thraxas, a man with a city-wide reputation as a person of bad character.
"Damn it, no one was saying I had a bad character last winter when I saved this city from disgrace. Not to mention helping Lisutaris get elected as head of the Sorcerers Guild. Then it was 'Thank you, Thraxas, you're a hero.'"
"Well, no one actually said that," points out Makri.
"They should have."
"Actually, I seem to remember several Sorcerers saying you should be thrown in prison. And the Deputy Consul was very angry about you turning up drunk on the last day of the Sorcerers Assemblage. And then the Consul threatened-"
"Yes, fine, Makri. You don't need to remind me of every detail of this city's ingratitude. If there was any justice I'd be lounging by a pool in the Palace instead of trudging back to a tavern in the bad part of town."
We walk on through the intolerable heat. Packs of dogs lie listlessly on the baked mud roads and beggars slump in despair at every corner. Welcome to Twelve Seas, home to those city dwellers whose lives have not been going too well. Sailors without a ship, labourers without work, mercenaries without a war, broken-down prostitutes, pimps, thugs, runaways and the rest of the city's underclass all struggling to survive, and no one struggling more than sorcerous Investigator Thraxas-ex-Palace employee, ex-soldier, ex-mercenary, currently broke, ageing, overweight, without prospects and really, really in need of a beer.
"I'm sure that everyone at Guild College doesn't have to give a talk to the class," continues Makri, apparently unaware that I have no interest in her problems. "Professor Toarius is making me do it because he hates me. He just can't stand that I'm a woman. And he can't stand that I've got Orcish blood. Ever since I signed up at the college he's had it in for me. 'Don't do this, don't do that.' Petty restrictions everywhere. 'You can't wear your sword to rhetoric class.' 'Don't threaten your philosophy tutor with an axe.' I tell you, Thraxas, life for me is tough."
"Very tough, Makri. Now please shut up about your damned examination."
It's a long way down Moon and Stars Boulevard from the centre of the city to Twelve Seas. By the time we reach the corner of Quintessence Street I'm sweating like a pig. I'd buy a watermelon from the market if I hadn't lost every guran I had on an unwise investment on a chariot which might possibly have won the race had it not been driven by an Orc-loving charioteer with two left hands and a poor sense of direction.
Down each narrow alleyway youths are dealing dwa, the powerful drug that has the city in its grip. The Civil Guard, bribed or intimidated by the Brotherhood, look the other way. Their customers eye us as we pass, wondering if we might be potential targets for a swift street robbery, but at the sight of the swords at Makri's hips, and my considerable bulk, they look away. No need to tangle with us when there are plenty of easier targets to be found.
The sun beats down cruelly. The crowds around the market stalls kick up clouds of choking dust. By the time we reach the Avenging Axe I'm practically begging for ale. I march through the doors, force my way through the afternoon drinkers and reach for the bar like a drowning man clutching at a rope.
The tavern is owned by Gurd, Barbarian from the north, a man I've fought beside all over the world. Recognising the poor state I'm in, he omits the small talk and fills me up a tankard. I down it in one and take another.
"Bad day in court?"
"Very bad. They let Baxin go. So now I'm missing out on the conviction bonus. And you wouldn't believe what the lawyers said about me. I tell you, Gurd, I've about had it with this stinking city. A man can't do an honest day's work without some corrupt court official grinding him into the dust."
My tankard is empty.
"What's the matter? Beer in short supply?"
Gurd hands over a third. He grins. Gurd's around fifty, and after a life of mercenary wars he's content to settle down peacefully in his tavern. Once a ferocious fighter, he's now a rather mellower person than me. Of course, Gurd had the good sense to save enough money to buy an inn. Everything I ever earned I gambled away, or drank.
By my fourth or fifth beer I'm complaining loudly to all who care to listen that Turai is undoubtedly the worst city in the west.
"I tell you, I've been in Orcish hovels that were more civilised than this place. The next time the city authorities need me to bail them out of a crisis they can forget it. Let them look somewhere else."
The beer doesn't lighten my mood. Even a substantial helping of Tanrose's stew can't cheer me up. As the tavern starts to fill up with dock workers coming off their afternoon shift at the warehouses, I grab another beer and head upstairs. I used to be a Senior Investigator at the Palace with a nice villa in Thamlin. Now I live in two rooms above a tavern. It doesn't make me feel good about my life. Makri lives in another room along the corridor. I bump into her as she emerges. She's changed into her chainmail bikini in readiness for her shift as a waitress.
"Cheered up any?" she asks.
"Strange. Eight or nine beers usually does it. What's eating you? You've been criticised in court before. Now I think about it, weren't you criticised in the Senate only last year?"
"Yes. I've been lambasted by the best of them. Do you realise that I'm in exactly the same position I was when you arrived in this city a couple of years ago?"
"No. I mean broke. Without a coin to my name. Dependent on Gurd for ale on credit till some degenerate walks through my door asking me to investigate some case which will no doubt involve me risking my life for a lousy thirty gurans a day. It's not right. Look what I've done for this city. Fought in the wars, held back the Niojans and repelled the Orcish hordes. Did anyone pin a medal on me for that? Forget it. And who was it saved our necks when Horm the Dead tried to wipe out Turai with his Eight-Mile Terror Spell? Me. Only this winter I got a Turanian elected head of the Sorcerers Guild practically single-handed."
"I helped with that."
"A little. Which doesn't alter the fact that I deserve a lot more than being stuck in this foul tavern. I ought to be employed by the Palace."
"You were employed by the Palace. They bounced you out for being drunk."
"That only goes to prove my point. There's no gratitude. I tell you, if that useless Deputy Consul Cicerius comes down here again begging for help I'm sending him away with a dragon's tooth up his nose. To hell with them all."
"It's not fair," says Makri.
"You're damn right it's not fair."
"I don't see why I have to take this examination. I'm so busy waiting tables I hardly have time to study."
I glare at Makri with loathing. As far as I can see, if a person who's part Elf, part Orc and part Human decides to slaughter her captors, escape to civilisation, then sign up for college, she's only got herself to blame for her problems. She could have remained a gladiator. Makri was good at that. Undefeated champion. She's just about the most savage fighter ever seen in the west, and slaughtering people is her speciality. But Guild College is a foolish enterprise requiring long hours of study in rhetoric, philosophy, mathematics and God knows what else. No wonder she's stressed. The woman-and I use the term loosely-is next door to insane at the best of times; a result, I imagine, of having mixed blood, pointy ears and a general tendency to believe that all of life's difficulties can be solved with violence.
Makri departs downstairs. I take my beer to my room, slam the door, and clear some junk off the couch. I've had enough of this. Poverty is getting me down. I need a plan. There must be a way for a talented man to get ahead in this city. I finish my beer. After a while I drag a bottle of klee out of a drawer and start in on it. The klee burns my throat as it goes down. Finest quality, distilled in the hills. The sun streams in, through the holes in the curtains. My room is hotter than Orcish hell. No one can think in heat like this. I guess I'm just going to finish my days in Twelve Seas broke, angry and unlamented. I finish the klee, toss the bottle in the bin, and fall asleep.
Excerpted from Thraxas and the Dance of Death by Martin Scott Copyright ©2005 by Martin Scott. Excerpted by permission.
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