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Thraxas at War
By Martin Scott
Baen BooksCopyright © 2006 Thraxas at War
All right reserved.
Chapter OneI'm sitting at the bar in the Avenging Axe, a beer in one hand and a thazis stick in the other, trying to decide whether to have a glass of klee with my next beer. It's a difficult decision. There's a bottle of klee upstairs in my office. I could wait till I get there. But there's nothing quite like a glass of klee washed down by a flagon of Gurd's freshly drawn ale. Having examined my options for a while, studied the problem using the full weight of my experience, I decide on the klee. And another ale while I'm at it.
Dandelion, the idiot barmaid, looks as if she might be about to make some comment as to the wisdom of embarking on an ambitious drinking programme so early in the afternoon. I direct a stern glance in her direction. The last thing I need is a lecture about my drinking from Dandelion, a young woman who, while not working behind the bar, is generally to be found on the beach, talking to dolphins.
I frown. This tavern is really going downhill. It's bad enough having to put up with Makri and her moods without having to endure Dandelion's own particular brand of foolish behaviour. Worse, there's still no sign of Tanrose, the tavern's cook, coming back. I haven't had a decent meal for weeks. Life just gets worse.
Gurd, owner of the Avenging Axe and my oldest friend, sits downnext to me. I'm about to launch into a complaint about the deteriorating quality of his barmaids but I bite back the words.
"No work, Thraxas?"
I shake my head.
"Things aren't so good. And you know why."
I nod. A few months back I was accused of cowardice in the face of the enemy. Throwing my shield away on the field of battle. This allegation, relating to the Battle of Sanasa, which took place around seventeen years ago, is so completely without foundation that it should never have been brought to court. Not when the man being accused has fought bravely for his city. Unfortunately Turai isn't a city that rewards a man for his past valour. Rather, it's a place that seeks to drag an honest man down, allowing advancement to the rich and corrupt at the expense of the poor but upright.
"Business has really gone downhill."
"No one believes it, Thraxas."
"Maybe not, but these things are lethal for a man's reputation. I'm tainted. I'm beginning to regret not killing Vadinex when he made the allegation. Would have got it over with quickly."
"And you'd be a fugitive by now," points out Gurd.
Vadinex fought at the Battle of Sanasa. Why he's now come up with this false accusation is something about which I'm still not certain.
I've spent the past weeks gathering evidence to defend myself in court. Plenty of men still living in Turai were at the Battle of Sanasa but it's not been easy finding many who were close at hand when the alleged events took place. Even for a professional Investigator like myself some of my old comrades took a lot of finding. It meant a lot of uncomfortable trudging round the city in the hot rainy season. Having found a few old comrades, I'm reasonably confident I'll win the case. Unless my enemies do a lot of serious bribery, which is always possible in this city. If that happens I'll kill my accuser and leave town. It's not like Turai is such a great place to live anyway.
I'd have run into money problems by now had it not been for a rather successful series of visits to the chariot races at the Stadium Superbius. I picked the winner of the Turas memorial race and went through the card very successfully, ending the week's racing with an extremely healthy profit and my reputation as a gambler somewhat restored after last year's debacle. But the races last year were fixed, of course. Everyone knows that Thraxas never makes losses like that in normal circumstances.
The tavern door flies open. An assortment of foul Orcish oaths heralds the arrival of Makri. The uttering of Orcish oaths is both taboo and illegal in Turai but Makri, in times of stress, tends to revert to the language of her youth. As she grew up in an Orcish gladiator pit, she has a wide variety of Orcish bad language to choose from.
Gurd frowns at her. Dandelion looks pained. Makri ignores them both.
"You know someone just insulted me in the street? I was minding my own business and then for no reason this man said, 'There goes that skinny Orc.'"
Makri reaches over and takes a thazis stick from me, igniting it from a candle and inhaling deeply.
"I hate this place," she says.
Makri is one quarter Orc. In a city where everyone hates Orcs, it can lead to trouble. Most people in Twelve Seas are used to her by now but she still runs into occasional hostility on the streets. Neither Gurd nor I take the trouble to ask what happened after the man insulted her. We already know.
"So aren't you going to ask what happened?" demands Makri.
I take a sip of my beer.
"Let me see. A stranger calls you a skinny Orc while you're walking down Quintessence Street. Now what could your response possibly be? You chuckle merrily and walk on? You congratulate him on a fine turn of phrase? No, don't tell me, I've got it. You punched him to the ground, then told him at sword point that if he ever bothered you again you'd kill him without mercy?"
Makri looks disappointed.
"Something like that," she says. "But you spoiled my story."
Makri lapses into silence. These past few weeks she hasn't been any more cheerful than me. Not just because of the hot rainy season and her aversion to the continual downpour. Even now, when we've reached autumn, one of the brief periods when climate in Turai could be considered pleasant, she's not happy. This summer was one of the high points of her life, when she scored top marks at the Guild College and sailed into her final year of study as number one student, but after the elation of that faded she got to remembering that her first romantic encounter seemed to have come to an untimely end. This encounter featured a young Elf on the Isle of Avula; a young Elf who has since neglected to get in touch with her. Avula is some weeks' sail from Turai, but, as Makri says, he could have sent a message. So Makri has spent the past month being about as miserable as a Niojan whore, much to the distress of the customers in the tavern.
There was a time when the sight of Makri, struggling to remain in her tiny chainmail bikini while bringing a tray of drinks, was enough to cheer up the most downhearted local dock worker. Makri's figure-unmatched, it's reckoned, in the entire city-state-was of such renown as to make people forget their prejudices against her. As old Parax the shoemaker says, you can't hold a little Orcish blood against a girl with a physique like that. And there have been plenty more comments in a similar vein, not just from Parax. But even the finest physique can't compensate for a waitress who bangs your drink on the table and looks like she'll knock your head off given the slightest excuse. When dockers, sailmakers and the like come to the Avenging Axe after a hard day's work, they're looking for a little light relaxation, and when Makri's angry, it's hard to relax.
She tosses a small bag in my direction. It contains various pastries from Morixa's bakery. Morixa took over the place from her mother Minarixa last year, after Minarixa unfortunately partook of too much dwa; a deadly mistake. The drug has claimed a lot of lives in this city. Most of them I don't care about but I miss my favourite baker. Morixa doesn't quite have her mother's skill at the pastry oven, but to give her her due, she's been improving recently. Which is a relief for me. The food in the Avenging Axe has suffered a sad decline in recent months. Without the bakery to keep me going I'd be in a sorry state. I'm a man with plenty of girth to maintain.
We have a new cook at the Avenging Axe, a woman by the name of Elsior. Not such a bad cook but not a match for Tanrose, peerless mistress of the venison stew, now estranged from Gurd and living with her mother in Pashish. When she and Gurd failed to sort out their romantic difficulties-their main difficulty being that Gurd finds it impossible to be romantic-I thought it would be no more than a temporary problem. Having come to rely utterly on Tanrose's stew, pies, pastries and desserts, I couldn't believe she'd be gone for long. I even went so far as to visit her to plead Gurd's case, not something that came easy to a man like myself, with a notably bad track record in matters of the heart. All to no avail. Tanrose remains outraged by Gurd's criticism of her book- keeping practices and refuses to return. My explanation that it was merely the rough Barbarian's way of showing affection came to naught. Tanrose is sulking in her tenement, and the patrons of the Avenging Axe are suffering.
I've marched all over the world with a sword in my hand. I've fought Orcs, men, dragons and trolls. I've seen friends butchered and cities in flames, but I can't think of anything to compare with the suffering caused by Minarixa's death and Tanrose's departure. Life without either of them doesn't bear thinking about.
Gurd takes a beer from Dandelion, though he rarely drinks during his working day. He isn't the most cheerful soul these days either. Tanrose's departure was a severe shock. It took him more than five years to even acknowledge his feelings towards her. Having got that far, the recalcitrant old warrior was actually on the point of proposing marriage when the blow fell. He's not a man to express his private emotions, even to his oldest friend, but I can tell he's suffering. Only last week I was telling the story of our notable victory over the Niojans to a group of young mercenaries. When I looked over to Gurd to support me in my claim-entirely truthful-that the two of us had put a whole squadron of Niojan guards to flight, Gurd just sat there with a blank expression on his face, mumbling that it was a long time ago and he couldn't remember it all that well. It completely ruined my story. I was flabbergasted. If Gurd won't join in with the old army stories, there's something seriously wrong.
We make for a sad trio, Gurd, Makri and I. I order another beer. In the circumstances, it's the only thing to do.
Excerpted from Thraxas at War by Martin Scott Copyright ©2006 by Thraxas at War. Excerpted by permission.
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