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Jorac hated working for wizards. They were bossy, cryptic, and ungrateful. But now it was his job. He sat in his small office at the base of the Wizards Tower, doing paperwork like most mornings.
"Kellor, come to the council room." The imperious voice rang in his ear. No "please," no "Mister," "Constable Kellor," or even "Jorac." With a sigh, he finished the column of sums of petty expenses he was working on and, not for the first time, told himself to find another job. When he took this position a few months ago, everyone thought he was being promoted to a life of slothful ease. Hah!
As he climbed the 156 stairs to the council room, he counted them, again. The high-level wizards who worked near the top of the tower merely levitated up the stairs; they were no bother to them, but Jorac had to trudge up and down them - and swore to himself each time. He was still young, not yet thirty, but he had recently spent far too much time cooped up in his office. The wide stairs wound around the outside wall of the tower and weren't very steep, but he was puffing by the time he reached the top.
He waited on the landing at the top for his breathing to calm and then opened the door and entered the council room. The door was warded and wouldn't have opened if the wizards weren't ready, and knocking only annoyed them.
There were seven wizards standing around the large pentagonal room, talking among themselves. They ignored Pergimtor, the head wizard, as he motioned Jorac to approach and then waved his hand so that a map of the city appeared in the air. Jorac, as always when he was around actual magic working, had the strong urge to sneeze. This mild, rare allergy was why he had recently been plucked from the Vaggert City Guard and selected for the thankless position of Wizard Constable.
Jorac stood still for a second until he was sure he wasn't going to sneeze, then approached the High Wizard. Pergimtor was gray-haired, and of late middle age, but was younger and steadier than some of the other rickety council members. He pointed to bottom half of the map. "Magic in this area is disappearing. You go find out why."
"Disappearing, Esteemed High Wizard? How does magic disappear, sir?" Jorac longed to omit the honorifics - he'd grown up in a determinedly democratic household - but wizards were a testy bunch. Best to be safe.
"We don't know. We want you to go there and find out. Smell it out, that's what you do. Now be gone."
Jorac took a deep breath and respectfully placed his palms together. "Esteemed High Wizard, if I am to succeed in obeying your command, which is my fervent desire, I'll need to know more about this. How do you know it's missing, and in this area?" Jorac thought he was laying it on a bit thick, but Pergimtor didn't seem to mind.
In impatient, exasperated tones, Pergimtor said, "Don't they teach you anything? Oh, yes, I forgot, you're a simple." That was wizards' unflattering term for non-wizards.
He continued as if he was talking to a six-year-old. "Magic comes from shaping mana. Mana is everywhere, given off by all living things - even some plants and minerals, at a low level. But you can't go grab it, you have to wait for it to be emitted; then a wizard can gather it and reshape it to his own will. There are a few exceptions - be grateful we keep close watch for death magic. . ." He stopped himself and pointed to the map again. "When we visit this area, there's magic missing. The people and animals there are fine, but they aren't giving off the mana they should be. Go find out why."
Another Council wizard had come up beside him and started speaking. "It's been happening for months. My territory is. . ." but Pergimtor interrupted her.
"Darlora, enough. I have done as I stated."
Darlora was a young-looking, shockingly beautiful woman with long, bright red hair. Jorac figured she'd done some magic to her looks, because he remembered meeting her family once while he was a normal city constable, and they were a thin, weak-chinned, pimply bunch. He turned to her and spoke.
"Milady Wizard, can you point out the areas where I should look first?"
She walked up to the map and drew rough circles with her finger. "Southgate, Pigtown, Swampside. Somewhere around there. Go find out! I need. . ." - at Pergimtor's warning glance she stopped. Pergimtor pointed vaguely toward the door, and Jorac bowed and went out.
Outside on the landing he sat on the exquisitely beautiful padded marble bench and quietly cursed his luck, his job, and his life. He figured Darlora had been about to let slip that the highest-level wizards had carved the city into territories and milked them for magic power like a farmer milks a cow, but he didn't see what that mattered to him. What did matter was that she'd named the three worst areas of the city of Vaggert.
Southgate was bad enough; it was the rundown old docks district, with worn wooden wharves and rough bars filled with sailors and whores. Pigtown was the area of stockyards, chemical shops, tanneries, and slaughterhouses; besides the pigsties, it was named after the smell of the people who worked there, generally from the lowest classes. But Swampside was the worst.
Part of what was now Swampside had been the old Wizards Quarter, destroyed in suppressing Aplath's Rebellion some eighty-odd years before. Wizards loyal to the Emperor had cast a mighty spell to suddenly lower the ground there, flooding the area and destroying all the buildings (along with Aplath and his fellow rebel wizards). Now the area was a sickly swamp; the river and sea seeped in and out with the tides. No one lived there if they didn't have to, but some would rather take their chances with the snakes and giant poison frogs (and worse) than with the city constables or criminal gangs pursuing private feuds. The constables made regular sweeps through Southgate and Pigtown (when they had sufficient manpower), but no one patrolled the deeper parts of Swampside except the monsters.
Jorac wondered how he was going to cope with Pergimtor's frustratingly vague directive: Go investigate the disappearance of something he couldn't see or define from parts of the city he knew next to nothing about. Still, he thought, if someone was illicitly harvesting mana in one of those places, it would have to be some sort of wizard, wouldn't it? A wizard doing magic? With his allergy, that was something Jorac could detect - at least if he got close enough to it. It was a start.
He heaved a deep sigh and made the long trip down the stairs to his office. He put away his paperwork, changed into the plain uniform retained from his earlier, simpler job as ordinary city constable, and grabbed the heavy, ornate badge of office he wore on a wide ribbon around his neck when he was acting as Wizard Constable. It was an ugly thing, made of tarnished silver with a central figure he thought looked like a cow with three glass eyes. Legally, the badge allowed him to command any city constable, and most citizens. In practice, "command" was far too strong a term.
He got his first break of the day when he found Cerom on duty at the Vaggert City Guard's main office. Jorac had known him for years; they'd been constable trainees together. Cerom understood Jorac's delicate position when it came to asking for help from the city constabulary.
The two old friends greeted each other. "Hi Cee, how you be?"
"Hey, Jay, whadda ya say?"
"Sorry to bother you, but I'm going to need a few of your boys for a quick patrol."
"Where, when, and how many?"
"Southgate and Pigtown, and you tell me."
Cerom frowned. "Damn, they trying to get you killed? Those are rough areas, both of them. We try to stay out of there at night - unless it's important?" Everyone knew the guard was woefully understaffed, and most people liked it that way. The rich hired private guards, and the poor did as best they could without them.
"Daytime is fine, but if you can, I'd like it to be soon. I just need a small squad for one day."
"What are you looking for?" On seeing Jorac's impassive face, he said, "Okay, okay, I know you and those damned wizards. I just need to know what to tell my boys to watch out for."
"All I can tell you is that it's nothing specific, and there are no threats I know of. I just need to make a fast sweep through the area, look around, and follow my nose." Cerom knew about Jorac's magic-sensitive nose, and also knew enough to not mention it.
"Heh. Sure, follow your nose. . . Well, since all you need is protection, four or five men ought to be enough." He thought a moment. "I got a new boy last week, a greenie right off some northern farm, and he should go along too. He needs to see those areas first-hand, and maybe you can give him a little orientation while you're at it. I think he's going to be a keeper. Horxien is his name; they call him Hox. He's still wet behind the ears, but he's about eleven-teen feet tall, and strong, and moves pretty good too."
"Sounds good. . . and do you have someone who grew up there, maybe could guide us around?"
Cerom snorted. "Hmph. Half the recruits we get come from that area. Half we bounce out when they try to lie right through their oath-taking, and half the rest leave when they have to pull some nasty detail, or backslide into their old ways. But I've got a few I can send who probably know their way around. . . I'll juggle things a bit. I'll have them ready after breakfast tomorrow - you buying them lunch?"
Jorac sighed. "I'm buying them lunch. More damned paperwork."
Cerom chuckled and said, "You know, everyone envied you when you got that job. Cushy work, triple the pay, and that badge that lets you give orders to any commoner or soldier. Now I'm not so sure."
Jorac raised his eyes heavenward. "My first week I used the badge to get an army squad to drag a boat out of the mud, to see if the hole in the bottom was caused by a wizard or normal stupidity. They complained, and I had to write a report. They appealed to their Captain, and I had to write a report. The Captain appealed to the Duke, another report. And then another report just for the High Wizard, and finally a separate report explaining where all the special report paper and quills had gone - bloody accountants. When it all settled, the principle was firmly established. I can command any small army squad to do the bidding of the Wizard Constable, and I'll only have to spend three times the effort - and days and days afterwards - writing the reports. Now that's power for you."
And with that he left, to Cerom's amused but sympathetic grin. The city constables had their own problems, but at least writer's cramp wasn't one of them.
The next morning, Jorac went back and met the squad he would lead. Cerom had exaggerated only a little when he called young Hox eleven-teen feet tall; Jorac was average height and he doubted if he could reach up and touch the young man's nose. The other four looked more like normal constables - not dumb but not bright, lightly scarred, square-jawed, and determined - except for one balding, long-nosed fellow who resembled a rat. All four wore the same semi-official uniform of gray tunic, wide belt, leather pants, and high boots, with the badge of the City Guard pinned on the shoulder. Jorac was dressed like them but had his Wizard Constable badge. Hox wore the service's largest gray tunic like a tight shirt, and since he hadn't taken his oath yet, didn't rate a badge.
This being a simple patrol, the men were armed merely with standard-issue constables' cudgels, thigh-length clubs they hung on their belts and held with leather loops at the knee. Hox's was outsized, a two-hander for anyone else.
Jorac spoke to them. "I'm thinking it should go easy today. We're just doing a fast reconnaissance. Anybody catches your eye, wants to talk, remember it for later, not today. Anyone tries to hide something, let it slide this time. We need to get Southgate covered this morning, and get out of there before the sailors on leave wake up. We'll check out Pigtown, maybe parts of Swampside in the afternoon, and be back here by dinner."
"What are we looking for?" one of the men asked.
"You're looking out for me, and I'm walking the streets, looking for wizard things, that's all I can say." The men looked a little uneasy at this, but accepted it. "I drew this map - copied it from your maps, really - and here's our route this morning." He put the map on the table. "Does it look okay? Any problems?"
The men looked it over and suggested a couple of minor changes. Jorac said, "Most of you know I was a city constable for a couple of years, but I was assigned to Northgate and the merchants' areas around there. Never had to work in this part of town. So, let me know before I do something stupid, right?" With that, they set off.
They walked; constables were used to it, and Jorac would have had to fill out another expense report if they'd hired a horse and wagon. It wasn't too long before they reached the edge of Southgate, where the main streets were wider and paved with rough cobblestones to withstand the heavy carts that brought cargo up from the ships.
Jorac started off at the back of the squad, but soon decided Hox should bring up the rear, since he could see over all their heads. The rat-faced man - Schrog by name - took the lead. Jorac hadn't worked with him before, nor the other men, but he knew Schrog's reputation as a rough, canny fellow with street smarts.
Schrog kept a quiet running commentary as they went down the streets in rough formation. "Warehouse. . . tavern, whorehouse, tavern, sweet shop, chandlers, whorehouse, rope shop. . ." Schrog seemed to know all about the area, even the places that were closed and showed no sign or placard.
Hox was wide-eyed. At one point he asked, in his broad north-country farmer's accent, "How do you know that place is a tavern and not a bawdy house? Did you used to patrol around here?"
Schrog snickered. "Nay, it's by de smell. Rotten beer, but witou' cheap perfume. Now dis one here" - he pointed to a narrow building set back from the street a bit - "might be a private house or a money changer or sump'n. Dat one over dere is easy, dey buys and sells fish - see de sign?" After that, the whole squad started naming the types of businesses they passed, correcting each other, and generally enjoying themselves more than on a normal patrol. They had the rare luxury of ignoring things like a quickly slamming door or a man who suddenly turned down an alley and started running. They had the streets mostly to themselves; even the stray dogs and cats that frequented the docks district seemed to be sleeping late that morning.
The wizard-spelled district fountain that provided an endless stream of safe, clean, fresh water was the only busy place they passed, as servants and housewives from all over the area filled up jugs and buckets. The people there merely glanced at Jorac and his squad and returned to their tasks, which he thought was a good sign.
Jorac started sneezing a bit as they passed one warehouse yard, where big ugly horses were hauling tall, creaking carts around. Soon, though, the rest of the squad started sneezing from the grain dust blowing from inside, and he decided it was nothing to worry about. That was the one of the problems with his allergy to magic; it wasn't the only thing that could make him start sneezing. But magic made him sneeze every time.
By noon they'd completed their walk down all the main streets in the area, without Jorac detecting any magic being done. Since they'd set a good pace all morning, they were getting hungry. Jorac asked a passerby and was directed to The Flying Pie, a nearby riverside tavern that prided itself on its food, not its drink. He quickly checked it out; the air inside smelled wonderful, like fresh bread and soup made with ingredients that weren't half rotten. He motioned his squad to come in.
Without saying anything, they easily found adjacent places to sit at one of the long tables - the other patrons were glad to give up their seats and not sit next to constables. The whole squad heard Hox's stomach growl as they took their places; he grinned sheepishly. Jorac could see that other diners were mostly having a thick meat stew.
The bored-looking middle-aged barmaid, who was probably the owner's wife, came over to the table and said, "What'll it be?"
Jorac would have to justify the expense with his bosses of course, so he asked, "How much for food for six?"
"Grog, ale, or small beer?" A couple of the squad members said "ale," but Jorac overrode them with "Small beer." To the squad members he said apologetically, "Long afternoon ahead."
"Should be eighteen coppers, but I'll go sixteen for you constables."
"Eighteen, and the boy there gets his fill."
She sized up Hox's height and width, and said with good humor, "No deal. Eighteen and he gets double. Got a boy that age m'self, if not his size."
Jorac smiled back. "Good enough. He can live on short rations until supper."
The food was as good as they hoped, and the group told stories as they ate. Some were tall tales for Hox's "benefit," but they all seemed to like the huge young man and didn't fill his head with too much fiction. Hox also told a story on himself, and Jorac figured being able to laugh at himself like that would take him a long way as a constable.
As they were wiping their bowls clean with the last of their bread, Jorac turned to Schrog, who was sitting on his left, and asked, "Which of the squad do you think knows Pigtown best?"
Schrog looked around at the other three constables, who were teasing Hox again. "I figgers dat'd be me," he said.
"If you want to hide something there, where do you do it?"
"How big? Small, yer pocket'll do de job, anywhere. Who you figger to hide it from?"
"I have no idea, sorry, but let's say it's the size of a small room at least." Jorac had seen some of the magic labs and conjuration rooms at the Wizards Tower, and it seemed that they used a circle to stand inside to do their strongest magic. He wished the wizards weren't so secretive.
Schrog paused a moment, and his eyes narrowed a little in concentration. His resemblance to a rat was really quite striking, and helped not at all by his short, bristly haircut and receding hairline.
"Well, you bein' Wizard Constable an' all, I figgers you lookin' fer somebody doin' bad magic, or somebody doin' magic but not bowin' right, or stickin' money in de right hand. Nay, I knows you can't say nothin'."
Jorac nodded, appreciating Schrog's understanding.
"De t'ing is, ain't nowhere good hiding in Pigtown. Law says all de smelly jobs gotta go dere. Most folks who works dere have a dam' hard time gettin' de smell gone - stays in your clothes, in your skin, so you don' even notice, but other folks dam' sure notice. Dat's why when de whores get real low, dey ends up in Pigtown. Ain't nothin' lower den a Pigtown whore, nobody who don't live dere can stand 'em - and dat's how come if you wanna insult a slit real bad, you calls 'er a Pigtown whore. So anybody hidin' dere, he start smellin' so bad, he be stuck dere, near enough. Couple months maybe to wear out de smell."
Jorac said thoughtfully, "So if you spent much time in Pigtown, you'd have to hire a wizard to get rid of the traces, wouldn't you?"
Schrog shook his head emphatically. "Nope. Dat won't work, not all de way. I heared about a guy dat hired a wizard to clean him up. Big money lender, doing trade wit' all de pig dealers, wanted to meet wit' a fancy uptown birdie, a real looker she was. Hired himself a top-line wizard to cast special spells, cost a pot full. Ended up not havin' to pay, 'cause even after spells and scrubbin' and all, he still stank some." Schrog grinned sardonically. "So dat's why I say ain't no good hiding in Pigtown. Not if you wants to leave an' say you ain't been dere, or spend a week or more scrubbin' yer butt."
Jorac thought about it for a minute. Schrog obviously had little education, but that certainly didn't mean he was stupid. "Suppose you just worked on the Pigtown outskirts? Would that keep the smell down enough so people couldn't tell where you'd been?"
"Dat might work. Folks who work hereabouts likes to get away from de smell if dey gots de money, dat's why dey mostly lives up at Pigtown Hill. Tain't really Pigtown dere, dey calls it Lower Bustletown if dey're gettin' fancy."
Jorac nodded, thought a moment, and then spoke to the rest of the squad. "We need to figure out a new route. I don't think we need to go all the way into Pigtown this afternoon. We can just hit the areas around the perimeter." This brought general nods and smiles all around.
Jorac started to draw on the table with his finger. "Pigtown just starts south of Southgate, and there's the river on the west. So let's head east around Pigtown, south through the Pigtown Hill area, and then west again. . ." He looked at Schrog. "Where does the south end of Pigtown stop?"
"On de east side, dey keep up de old district wall pretty good, but in de south, not so much. Tain't no real line, dere's a fence some places, sometimes it just kinda fades into Swampside, den de swamp. Hard to build dere, ground is soft, yer house might sink. Don't smell so dam' bad dere, most of de time, but if it rains real hard den it washes down dere from Pigtown and you get a big dam' stink. And dat's when dem big fockin' frogs and such come up outta de swamp, too."
Jorac said, "We'll still need to check it out, I'm afraid."
Schrog sighed. "Figgers. Well, after one day we won't stink too terr'ble bad, we be careful where we steps."
Hox had been listening with interest, and said appreciatively, "You certainly know a lot about lower Pigtown. Did you grow up there?"
Schrog frowned angrily and clenched his teeth. His hand gripped the empty beer mug he was holding so hard his knuckles turned white.
Jorac quickly spoke up, "He's a greenie, Schrog. No one told him."
To Hox, he said, "Once your oath is accepted and you finish your constable training, you get a clean slate. We don't ask questions like that. Ever. Someone wants to tell you, no problem, but we never ask."
Hox realized he'd made a grave mistake. "I'm sorry, Mister Schrog. You've helped me learn this job, and I didn't mean to insult you in the least. Please forgive me." He looked stricken.
Schrog took a deep breath. "Ehh, nevermind. Now ya knows. Tain't everyone so forgivin' as me, so watch yer ass. Now fergit it."
At that exchange, Jorac started getting up and the squad decided it was time to go.
As they made their way south along the river toward the north side of Pigtown, Jorac noticed that Hox looked troubled. He let the squad get a little ways ahead, fell in alongside Hox, and quietly asked him, "What's wrong? Schrog will forgive and forget, and so should you."
"It's not that. But if no one asks about where you came from and what you've done, how do you know bad people aren't joining up?" His eyebrows were pulled together in worry.
"The wizards have a way of weeding out that type. Tell you what, why don't you come and see me after work this evening and I'll tell you about it, okay?" Cerom wouldn't mind if he preempted the regular orientation speech; this was clearly the time the kid needed the information.
Hox nodded slowly, but still looked a bit doubtful.
"Don't worry, really. There's a pretty careful screening. I'll tell you about it tonight."
After a time they passed a small gaggle of food carts. "Last food before Pigtown" was their cry. Schrog pointed out a vendor hawking spicy bread sticks and said, "Dose be de ones to get if yer goin' to Pigtown. Some o' dem spices stop up your nose a bit."
As they neared Pigtown they could already begin to smell the alchemical plants and perfumeries that marked the start of the area; the truly noxious smells were kept further inside. Glad to avoid the worst of it, they turned east away from the river and began to skirt the area. They got to the base of Pigtown Hill with no problems, and decided to go a few blocks up the hill before turning south. This part of the city was mostly smaller houses and larger rooming houses, with a striking number of laundries and bath houses serving those who worked in Pigtown. This time of day the streets weren't busy, and none of the locals who saw them paid them much attention. They found a few vantage points to look down into Pigtown proper, but things looked calm there.
They kept going south, and the neighborhood ended at a path above a swampy area. There they turned west and began to follow the path back toward south Pigtown and the river. It had taken over an hour to skirt Pigtown proper, but from Schrog's description, they'd be glad they avoided it.
As they came off the hill at the south of Pigtown, the first thing Jorac noticed was the smell. It was noisome, but not as overwhelming as he'd feared. He said, "Hey, the smell isn't so bad, at least this part."
Schrog smiled sardonically. "Eh, we gots a good day. Wind offa de hill dere, not down de river, an' it's dry. Day after a rain, de wind down de river, stink would rightly gag a statue."
To Jorac's surprise, there were many more people walking in the streets or standing around doorways than they'd seen in the better areas. These were a rough lot; almost every man had a few facial scars or a missing ear, and some of the women seemed to go out of their way to look ugly.
And the people were loud; there were many street sellers shouting loud, bragging calls about their wares; some had children yelling for them to better pierce the hubbub. Shouting was one of the things he used to discourage as a city constable, but here it seemed that the rule was the louder, the better. A few people called directly to them as they passed by, a hard mixture of dubious-looking vendors of dubious food; old, toothless whores, and cold-eyed procurers or gambling-house barkers, with a few piteous beggars thrown in.
The first few houses in the area were only a little more run down than those in Southgate, but as they got deeper into the area - call it south Pigtown or north Swampside - he noticed how ramshackle everything was. There were slops (and worse) thrown into the narrow streets, which would be one of the things a constable was supposed to punish in the better areas of town. The buildings - huts, hovels, lean-to's - were made from scraps of wood poorly covered with hide and cloth and crammed together with very little order. More than once they found some shack, or a whole collection of them, where they expected the street to go through.
They passed the large magic-powered water fountain that served this area - the southernmost fountain in the city - and found a thug there guarding it. Perhaps he was charging for access, which was strictly against the law; he started waving people by and scuttled out of the area as the team approached. Jorac thought he'd tell Cerom about this when they got back, but today he wasn't going to say anything.
By unspoken accord, the group tightened into two rows of three, with Schrog in the front and Hox and Jorac in the back. Jorac thought perhaps he should have brought a larger group, or at least had a chance to talk tactics, because from some of the looks they'd gotten, he didn't believe the locals had much respect for their uniform. In a crowded area, a man walked alongside for a few steps, and Schrog slapped at a reaching hand and pulled out his cudgel, and the pickpocket ran off with a yelp.
The rest of the Constables pulled out their clubs when Schrog did. The squad in uniform with cudgels in their hand drew more attention, but people avoided them more, which Jorac thought was all to the good. He decided they should have checked out swords from the armory instead. He was a good swordsman, and equipping the others with the short, chopping swords that Constables occasionally trained with would at least make them look more intimidating.
Jorac noticed Hox had grown saucer-eyed at a "professional lady" lewdly displaying all her wares, legs apart, in a crib no wider than Hox's broad shoulders, so Jorac nudged him gently. "Rough area. Keep an eye out for danger." Hox nodded and resolutely looked away from her and instead at the small, tough-looking pimp loitering nearby, who eyed them with seeming indifference.
They worked their way through the area, following the winding, narrow streets, with Schrog leading, seeming to follow a way he knew. Jorac was content to look out for danger and try to smell for magic - and wished he could avoid most of the things he did smell, human waste mixed with sour mud being at the forefront.
They made a rough circle through the area, finding nothing of note, and by late afternoon they were almost back to the better houses that marked the edge of the area. They were starting to relax a bit, talking about heading back, when a compact middle-aged man with a bare broadsword suddenly stepped into the street ahead of them. He looked like an old prizefighter, badly scarred from years of brawling. Behind him, emerging from an alley, was a group of eight or ten rough-looking men armed with staves, clubs, and axes. They stopped about twenty paces away.
"Gotcha, Schroggie. Dey tol' me you was around. You t'ink I'd forgotten, eh?"
Schrog took a step back, as Jorac and Hox stepped forward from the back row, and the squad tightened into a defensive group and slid over toward the nearest wall. Schrog started to speak, but Jorac overrode him.
"Interfering with Constables in the course of their duty will get you put on the work gang. Or worse. And waving a sword around is against the law, too."
The man with the sword sneered. "Oh, I am so scared. Schroggie knows how we deal with constables, don't he?"
Schrog spoke up. "Kullo, she weren't yours. Nor mine. But she dam' sure weren't yours to sell. Now clear off."
Kullo spat. "Now why don' you jus' make me?"
The street had cleared behind Kullo's group. Jorac took a quick glimpse and found the previously busy street behind him was now empty too. Kullo spoke to him. "You dere, you jus' leave Schrog to me and you boys kin go. Dere's more of us den you, and all you got is jus' dem little sticks."
Jorac knew the cudgels he and the squad carried were no match for the swords and axes of Kullo's group, but constables carried unofficial weapons as well, usually a long knife, and (except for Hox) they were doubtless better trained. But he still didn't like the look of this. They should have brought crossbows or more men. Probably both.
Jorac didn't answer, and the squad just reached for their knives. They would stick together - no one believed Kullo could be reasoned with, and they weren't about to sacrifice one of their own.
After waiting a few seconds for a response, Kullo said "Have it your way. At 'em, boys!" His group started walking forward at an easy pace, spreading out, while Jorac's squad put their backs against the wall and spread out just a little, to give each other fighting room. Jorac looked at the rough but ill-trained attackers, and knew that if he had a sword he might do some real damage - or get himself killed. He had a bit of the old berserker blood in him, and had to fight sometimes to control it. But this time he had other plans.
He didn't reach for his knife when the others did; instead he reached for his badge of office. He waited for the attackers to close in a bit, and almost waited too long, because they suddenly started charging toward the constable squad with a wordless yell. As Hox stepped forward and poked his oversized cudgel at the face of an axe-wielding man, Jorac pushed in all three eyes on the badge. There was a thunderclap, and (just as he had been promised) everyone within ten paces froze in place.
Everyone except Jorac of course. The spell he had triggered still allowed him to move, so he was leaning over with his hands on his knees, trying to recover from a nasty sneezing fit, when the investigating wizard flew in a half-minute later. The wizard was a short, fat, bald one he didn't recognize, but he recognized the attitude all too well.
"What's going on here? Why did you trigger that spell? I was busy with some important reagents and you interrupted me."
Jorac stood up, and as he wiped his running nose on his sleeve he thought, not for the first time, that wizard should be a curse word. This wizard seemed to be rather angry, and it was never a good idea to anger wizards, for they had short tempers and long memories.
"Sir Wizard, I was sent here by High Wizard Pergimtor" - drop the name first, thought Jorac - "to investigate certain matters. When my squad was attacked and almost overrun, I did as the Wizard Council bid me and pressed the eyes on the badge of office, to summon help." Mentioning both the High Wizard and the Council was a clever bit, Jorac thought. It seemed to cool off the wizard a bit; they were very conscious of rank.
"Hummpf. Well, that as may be, but I'll expect to read the report on this, tonight. Now, which of these ruffians are yours?"
Patience, patience, Jorac thought. Just because six of us are wearing constable tunics. . .
Jorac pointed out his squad, and the wizard quickly unfroze them; Jorac backed off and managed to only sneeze once more. He could pass off his initial sneezing attack as part of the wizard-summoning spell, if he was asked, but he wanted to keep his allergy a private matter, as best he could.
The squad regained motion slowly, and started stretching their muscles. Jorac cautioned them to wait quietly but thought he needn't have; even the thickest constable knew to keep small and quiet around wizards.
"Is that all?" the wizard asked, obviously impatient to be away. "The others will be released when the spell wears off in an hour or so; you can take care of them."
"Sir Wizard, these other men will need to be transported to the gaol. Look, this one is swinging an axe; the spell stopped him just in time."
"And you expect me to lug them? Already I have to recharge the spell you used. Do you know how hard it is to link that spell to that amulet and the user?"
Jorac tried to look humble and sincere. "It's deeply appreciated, Sir Wizard. As you said, I'll be writing a report for you and the High Wizard on this. May I know your name, please?"
"Hummpf. I'm Ruejeo. Blasted simples. Very well, wait here." The wizard disappeared with a pop.
One of the men said, "Damn! I could hear and see and smell and all, but I couldn't move. Something wouldn't let me fall over either, but, damn. Damn!" He shook his head violently, as if to clear it. "I'm dodging from that axe coming toward me, and we both stop moving. Look at him!"
Before Jorac could do any more than look, the wizard popped back, carrying a long, rolled-up purple carpet. He eyed the dirty street distastefully and motioned everyone back, then mumbled a few words over the carpet, waving his hand in an intricate gesture. The carpet unrolled and hovered a bare thumb's width off the ground, not even touching it at the edges.
"Put them on this and I'll cart them, this time. Next time take a wagon with you."
Jorac smiled to himself about the impracticality of the wizard's suggestion, and turned to the squad. "You heard the Honorable Wizard. Let's move them to the carpet." Jorac made a finger-to-lips motion to the squad as he said this - he didn't want any loose words to anger the wizard when things were going well.
Silently, the squad shifted Kullo and his band of cutthroats to the carpet. They found they could wrench the weapons from the frozen men's hands, with some difficulty, but not change their positions, so they ended up tipping them over and carrying them to the carpet by their arms and legs. They discovered that men frozen in attack postures don't stack very well; when they were done, Kullo and his men filled most of the carpet and made an awkward load. They put the confiscated weapons on the carpet too, in between the stacked men.
As they finished, the wizard pointed to the carpet and said impatiently, "Well, hop aboard. Quickly now! I don't have all day."
Jorac's squad started mumbling skeptically, and he felt the same way. "Sir Wizard, it seems" . . . dangerous, foolhardy, frightening, unsafe . . . "as if we could unbalance ourselves in flight and possibly tip over."
Scornfully, the wizard said, "Just hang on to each other. I'm not a novice; I'll move the nearby air with the carpet, and as long as you don't jump off you'll be fine."
The squad member behind Schrog said, "The weight won't be too much?"
Jorac glared at him, but the wizard snapped, "I can lift twice this weight; I'm not a snot-nosed apprentice you know. But I'm not going to unload them for you! I've got reagents working, dammit! Hurry up!"
Jorac turned to his squad and said, "If we want to finish with these bastards, we've got to do it. Get on the carpet and kneel down where you can. We can reach around these bodies and link arms."
Reluctantly the squad did as Jorac said, and everyone hung on to each other tightly.
Blessedly, the flight back to Vaggert City Guard headquarters took only a few minutes. There would probably have been a grand view, but the one time Jorac peeked, he saw everyone else's eyes closed too, and the ground rushing by dizzily.
When they landed just outside Cerom's office, Jorac sent Schrog to find helpers, and by the time they had the carpet unloaded, there were a number of constables helping, and commenting. Cerom even came out from behind his desk and peered at the frozen men. The minute the carpet was emptied, Ruejeo rolled it up and disappeared.
Cerom smiled broadly at Jorac and his squad. "Well, well, well. Damn fine work - you got Kullo, and I guess most of his gang - stinking slavers! We've been looking for these bastards for quite a while now. How did you manage it?"
Jorac answered with a sigh, "Schrog can tell you all about it. I owe these men a drink or two, but that'll have to wait. Right now I've got to go write a report."
While he was working on the report, Ruejeo appeared in his office and rudely demanded the Wizard Constable badge of office, disappearing as soon as Jorac handed it over. As he was finishing the last part of the report, listing the day's expenses, the badge magically reappeared in the circle on the floor near his desk, presumably recharged, and that set off another sneezing fit. He went back and added some handkerchiefs to the expenses; he'd buy them tomorrow. Wizards! By now it was a well-worn curse word, in his mind at least.
He'd finished his report - it was short on details except for Ruejeo's part, for he hadn't found anything magical - and was putting his papers away when Hox came to his office, guided by Schrog.
Schrog said, "Ya wanted ta see de kid?"
"He was just wondering about the screening process for constables, and I told him I'd explain. Let's go down the street and I'll buy you both a beer."
Jorac had found a nearby tavern that served only non-wizards, a restriction that made it rather popular. Even here near the Wizards Tower, ordinary people tried to avoid wizards when possible, especially wizards who'd been drinking. It didn't mix well with the subtle hand-passes and complex incantations needed for spellcasting. If the caster (and those around him) were lucky, a missed pass or mispronounced word would merely cause the spell to fail. But a persistent rumor was that the lifelike statues in front of the Wizards Tower, "Wizard and Apprentices," were actually real people turned to stone by the mistake of a tipsy spellcaster, despite the prominent plaques with the stonecarver's name.
Since it was early evening, the tavern wasn't yet very crowded. Jorac ordered a pot of ale and three mugs, and sat down in a comfortable corner with Schrog and Hox.
To Schrog he said, "Hox was wondering how the Constables can offer a chance to start over, without having them overrun with crooks." He turned to Hox and continued, "I can see how that might worry you, but it's really no problem. You aren't really supposed to go on patrol until all this is explained to you, but Cerom thought sending you with us today was a good chance for you to see the city."
Hox nodded, "Yes, he told me my training was out of order because of your patrol."
"Here's how it works. When you're ready to give your final oath, you meet privately with the Commander and tell him everything you've done that's bad, or hurtful, or dishonest. There's a wizard there when you do, and he can tell if you're lying - it takes a real good wizard for that, but it's worth it. Some say the wizard can force you to speak the truth; I don't know about that, but I know if you don't talk, out you go. If you've done some things, but you won't be doing them anymore, and you mean it, you can get in." He smiled sardonically. "We lose quite a few during the week they take the oaths."
"Ooh." Jorac watched Hox thinking through the ramifications of that.
He went on. "They ask pretty good questions, and the last question they ask is if you've told them everything."
"Oooooooh." Hox nodded slowly. "That makes sense. Now I see what you meant." He paused, then looked young and curious again. "So I can talk about it if I want?"
"Sure, it's not a problem. Personally, I never minded telling folks why I joined up, but it's all up to you. Lurro - he had Cerom's job back when I started - had me tell my story a few times, if he thought it could help someone."
Schrog poured himself another mug of ale and said to Hox, "Yer a good kid, I figger. If'n you don' mind, how come you wants to join wit' us? Tain't de pay, dat's fer sure - or if it is de pay, you best t'ink again. It ain't like back home. Lots of folk come to de city, den decide it's too dam' expensive an' go back to de farm."
"He wouldn't ask that once you're a constable," Jorac put in.
"Dat's right. I just wanna make sure you knows de job is mostly jus' walkin' around and listenin' to folks bitch and moan - and not much you can do 'bout it, most times."
Hox considered. "Oh, I don't know. . . The pay seems alright to me, and it's steady work, and a constable gets respect." Hox spread his fingers and looked into the middle distance. "My folks, they have a farm. Not so big a farm, and I've got three brothers. They're about your size, but I'm a little bigger."
Jorac smiled. "A little."
Hox grinned back at him. "Okay, a lot. I've only ever seen one person as tall as me, at a carnival show at the fair. Standing around having folks gawk at me didn't seem like it was much of a living. Malver - he's my older brother - he found himself a nice fat girl from the next village over, and he's firstborn, so he's getting the farm. It's not big enough to split between us."
He stared into his mug of ale for a few moments and then went on. "With Ma and Pa and my brothers, well. . . there wasn't any food to spare, ever. I tried to do some odd jobs for the neighbors, to pick up some extra work, but there wasn't much around. So I decided to come here to the city. Everyone's heard about the way the wizards make the weather perfect, no matter the time of year, and magic fountains with good free water pouring out all the time."
Schrog interrupted, "Dey didn't tell ya about de extra taxes here, I bet. Dat's why dey still got dat big city wall, helps wit' de smuggling. Never mind, go on."
"I just walked up to the gate, and when I asked the guard if there was work, he looked at me and said I should be a constable, so here I am."
Jorac shook his head in amazement. "You're lucky. Twice lucky. First, most people don't think to ask the guards, so they get steered to some bad area or fall in with a bad crowd. And second, Cerom had a open slot. Usually there's a waiting list, even with the low salary. The Emperor pays for the City Guard, but it's kind of low on his list of things to pay for."
Schrog nodded. "Aye. De spotters at de gate prolly spotted you as a hayseed, but dey likes to work in de shadows so dey leaves you alone. You, de folks notice. Fer a constable, dat be good."
"Spotters? For what?"
Jorac explained. "They start by sizing you up, and seeing what they can steal from you and how. First there's the basic sneak thief, cutpurse, pickpocket. Then gamblers, all crooked. Pimps: are you a potential client or someone they can add to their stable? Worshipers of some god or another - sometimes real, sometimes made up. Barkers for the second and third-rate theaters and shows. . ." He stopped; he'd made the point. "Anyway, a few of the spotters out by the gates are working for outfits that aren't crooked, but not many."
Schrog's tone was cynical. "Not hardly any. Maybe some o' dem priestly folks be okay. De rest, mostly scum. What he said, an' worse." He took another swallow, and stared into his mug.
Hox asked Jorac, "So, why did you join up? Uh, if you don't mind telling, like you said."
Schrog made a sound that was almost a growl, but Jorac made a small "it's okay" gesture. "Like I said, I don't mind, but it's a long story. Sure you want to hear all that?"
Hox nodded vigorously, and Schrog grinned and said, "Sure. We gots all night an' dere's plenty of ale." Schrog drank up and signaled the owner for another pot of ale, which Jorac paid for. Jorac was a bit amused that Schrog had drunk more than half the last pot himself, though he was the smallest of the three.
After they'd refilled everyone's mug, Jorac took a swallow and spoke slowly. "Just like you, Hox, I came off a farm. We raised sheep in the hills, way over northwest of here, up against the Lizard's Teeth mountains. My father is technically a nobleman, a Baronet, but they say the title was just bought, back when, to make my great-grandma happy. Really my dad is just a farmer.
"It was a big farm; we'd grow crops in the valleys and graze the sheep in the hills. But I never had the feel for the sheep like my father and brothers did, so I talked my father into letting me work with the drovers and stock sellers. That got me off the farm, and down to the villages, and even to the big town at the base of the hills.
"So, on a trip to sell our sheep - I was eighteen then - I met a wonderful girl, the daughter of some livestock merchants in the town. I was down there a week, and I was supposed to come back with the drovers. I did, but she and her brothers came with me. They wanted to see if I was telling the truth about the farm, and I just wanted her with me." Jorac's voice tightened a little at the memory, though he'd been trying to remember only what he did, not what he felt.
"Anyway, at the end of the next summer, we'd been married for a year and we had a little girl, six months old. I was coming back down from my folks' place with the last herd of the season, and her brother met me at the edge of town. . ."
Jorac made his voice as flat as he could, drying any emotion from it. "My wife and daughter had died in a house fire. One of her brothers had been burned, but would live. So. . ."
He shook his head to try to clear the memories, and took a deep breath. "So I took off. I grabbed my camping-out gear and headed west from our farm. You can get through the high mountain passes there a few weeks every summer and I knew the trails. In about a month I ended up in Rabakht. All I had with me was a beat-up pack, a pair of swords, and a bad attitude."
Schrog said, "Hmmm. I hear dey be a rough bunch over dat way. Don' see dem much around here." He turned to Hox and said, "You sees a little guy, black hair, big beard, white robe, looks like he's been in the sun too long, dat be dem. We constables talk to dem nice. Dey don' start no trouble, but dey finish de trouble if someone starts it."
Jorac nodded. "That's a good way of putting it. They're a handful. The tribe I first met with, they didn't think much of me at first, because I got there with my face shaved, and they never cut their beards if they can help it. I had to break a few arms to convince them that I wasn't - well there's no nice way of saying it, a male whore."
Schrog asked cynically, "And how many of dem you have to kill before dey believed you?"
"Actually, none. But I had to break some arms. One of them, I had to break two arms. He came back after I broke the first one; I guess he still didn't believe me."
Schrog chuckled at the description, and poured more ale for everyone.
Jorac paused a moment, thinking back. "You see, I really didn't care much at that point. I just wanted to fight something, anything. I'd grown up with two older brothers who liked to beat up on little Jo-Jo, and when I was a teenager my father brought in a renowned fighting master to teach us. I was the right age to learn I guess; the fighting master said I was getting pretty good. So fighting was one thing I knew how to do. . ." He waved a hand negligently. "Anyway, after I whipped a bunch of them, one after another, they decided I was okay, and finally they made me their war chief."
He didn't add that the tribesmen had started to call him Shiar, the name of their war god. He could never tell if it was just a nickname or they thought he was a reincarnation because of the fierce berserk frenzy he sometimes found himself in while fighting.
He went on. "So I led them when we went back to fighting the tribe across the valley. They'd been fighting each other for generations; I don't think anyone knew why anymore. I could barely tell them apart, and didn't care much, but I got to hit someone."
He paused to take a drink and look at his audience. Schrog had the knowing, accepting look of a veteran; Hox was a bit wide-eyed.
"Anyhow," Jorac went on, keeping it short, "I trained them. We almost lost the first fight, but we got better. I taught them tactics and teamwork and such, like I'd been learning from the fighting master and tutors. I led them in battle for two years, till we finally won big, and overran the other tribe's village. . ." - his voice turned bitter - "and then my tribe burned it down and slaughtered them all."
"When I saw that, I decided I was in the wrong business, so I headed back home. My own dad didn't even recognize me at first with the beard and all. I stayed there for a few months, then decided I better do something with my life. Pretty soon I found a job as a guard on a spice trader's wagon. Didn't pay much, but I got to stop worrying if I was making things better or worse. I don't say I slept better - guard work isn't for heavy sleepers - but after a while the bad dreams stopped."
He went on; the telling was easier now. "After my first season with him, the trader got a few more wagons and added a couple more guards for me to supervise. We never lost any shipments, and he did pretty well. After a few years, he was ready to retire here in Vaggert, so he paid me off, and gave me a bonus and a reference. I had guard experience, so I started working as a constable. And then after a few years, they asked me to be the one and only Wizard Constable - and the rest you know." He smiled wryly and pretended to wipe his brow. "The end of a long, long story."
Hox said, "Wow, you've done a lot!" Schrog nodded wisely and was quiet, but Hox went on. "I think I understand what constables do, but what does a Wizard Constable do?"
Jorac made a face. "To tell you the truth, I don't have any real idea of what they want from me. And I don't think they do either. My predecessor was a low-ranked wizard who apparently spent most of his time settling squabbles among the apprentices and other low-ranked wizards. When he quit they said they wanted someone else, with a constable background if possible. So I got the job. It came with a fancy charter, but it doesn't say much, so I make it up as I go along. The pay is good, at least. . ."
The three sat in a companionable silence for a bit, looking around at the other patrons. The tavern was starting to fill up, and the owner escorted customers to tables as they entered.
A pair of men entered who drew everyone's attention. One was dressed in workman's clothes, but the other wore a long, flowing gray cloak with some colored piping at the bottom, meaning he was almost certainly a wizard. The tavern owner came from around the bar and stood in front of the pair.
"Sorry, full up."
The wizard spoke "Don't be daft. There's plenty of room available; bring me two mugs of ale." He tried to go past the owner, who stepped in front of him again.
"I said we're full. Those places are reserved. You'll be taking your custom elsewhere."
The wizard stopped, flaring his nostrils and raising his eyebrows. The man with him looked concerned, and made a little gesture that looked as if he wanted to grab the wizard's arm, but changed his mind. He said, "Never mind, Master Banloz. Lots of places we can talk."
The wizard's brow narrowed, and in a slow, measured tones he said, "We'll sit here. Ale."
The owner didn't move, and Jorac saw the wizard shake his hands free from his sleeves.
Jorac motioned to Hox and Schrog to stay put, and walked over. "Greetings, sir wizard. I'm Wizard Constable Kellor. There's not a problem here, is there?"
The wizard's companion said, "Wizard Constable?"
In an airy manner, Jorac said, "Oh, I report to the Wizard Council. Troubleshooting and such. Not a wizard myself, of course." That was for the owner's benefit. "But I understand wizardry, and wizards." He looked pointedly at Banloz.
The wizard's manner changed immediately. "Greetings, Honorable Kellor." Turning to the tavern owner, he nodded and said, "If the tables are reserved, we would certainly not want to intrude. Good day to you." And he marched out of the room, leaving his puzzled companion to belatedly follow.
Jorac returned to his table and sat down, motioning Hox and Schrog to wait. The tavern owner came over with his thanks and a fresh pot of ale, refusing any payment.
"Glad to help," Jorac said. "I knew you could handle it, but no need to call in your favors. Nothing happened, after all."
The owner said, "As you say, nothing happened - thanks to you. I appreciate it." He went to serve other customers.
Jorac asked Hox, "Did you see the wizard? What did you see from over here?"
"Well, the wizard just stood there, talking to the tavern keeper. He acted kind of uppity, I guess."
Schrog said, rather thickly, "He also shook his hands free, so as he could start doin' wizard stuff. Dat's why Jorac moved in. Here's advice fer ya: If'n ya see a fockin' wizard, steer clear."
Hox was surprised. "I thought people would like them? This is such a nice place to live."
Schrog waved his hands dramatically. "Suppose ya bumps a wizard in de street. So ya says yer sorry, and ya means it, and goes on yer way. Den ya comes down wit' dis bad itch, or yer clothes falls apart, or sump'n. Now, de wizards in de town all gots dis code, dey ain't supposed to do shit like dat, but how you gonna prove it, and who's gonna stop 'em? Dey all says dey works for de emperor, dey bow down on his birthday and all, but we ain't de emperor, okay?"
Hox looked at Jorac questioningly. Jorac nodded. "I've heard tales. Know why the owner doesn't serve wizards in this place? His hair all fell out after he had a dispute about a bill with a wizard apprentice. It all grew back, too, which means it wasn't a natural thing."
Hox was concerned now. "But then won't the wizards get mad if they don't get served here?"
Jorac said, "Well, he raised a stink, and so now he's kind of under the protection of some better wizards. Wizards are rude and like to push people around, but it seems like that's just their nature. Most of them aren't vindictive, and even try to be fair. The problem is that you never know, so you should just steer clear."
Hox was still a little mystified. "So who runs this city? The emperor, or the wizards?"
Jorac grinned and said "Um, 'yes and no' would be the answer. It depends on who you ask, and what part of town you're talking about. The emperor collects the taxes and pays for the Wizard Council, but everyone else has to work - including wizards. The merchants up around Northgate and Coronet Heights are mostly nobles and have most of the money, so if you ask them, they'll say they run the city too."
Schrog said importantly, "Some parts o' de city ain't none o' dem runnin' it, like we seen today. Swampside ain't de only place like dat, but most o' de udder places hides it better." Jorac could finally tell that the six or seven mugs of ale Schrog had drunk were affecting him; he was almost slurring. Jorac was going to have to ask Hox to see him home.
Jorac said, "Still, it's not bad here in Vaggert. I've seen a lot of places, and here I am." He raised his mug in a mock toast. "Beats raising sheep."
The next two days were Starday and Sunday, the busiest days for the City Guard. Those who worshiped the Father rested on Starday and partied on Sunday, while the followers of the Mother did the opposite. It made for a busy two days for the constables, since a good many people just partied both days and left the worshiping to others. Because Cerom wouldn't have anyone to spare to escort him, Jorac continued his investigations by the simple expedient of sitting on a stool in Cerom's office, helping Cerom with small tasks and talking to everyone who came in, constable, citizen, and criminal alike. He even managed to get one of Kullo's men to open up a bit, but it was mostly bragging and threats. In two days of listening, Jorac heard nothing that might suggest unauthorized magic was being practiced. The only positive things he accomplished were to buy some fancy handkerchiefs and organize a thank-you dinner for his squad the following week.
Finally, thinking it over Sunday evening, Jorac decided he was going at it all wrong. He'd only been talking to non-wizards, and they just saw the situation from the outside, the same way he did. He decided what he needed was more insight into wizardly processes, which unfortunately meant he probably needed to talk to a wizard. But, he realized, it didn't have to be a full-fledged, gold-star, Council-level wizard. . .
The first thing the next morning he went back to his old patrol area, a middle-class shopkeepers' district, and visited the small shop of Madame Velosp, Fortuneteller (Licensed). He'd been responsible for the "licensed" part. Dorrimella Velosp was her real name, and she'd been a plain, frumpy, middle-aged widow who'd started to pick up some extra cash playing a wildly dressed, flamboyant fortuneteller on market days. She'd been as surprised as anyone when a remarkable number of her predictions had come true. Her gift worked as long as the answer was known but hidden. She couldn't tell you who was going to win a horse race, but she could help you find your lost ring, or tell you if your wife was carrying a boy or girl - and if it was yours or not.
Jorac had found her not long before he'd left to become the Wizard Constable. His allergy had shown she was doing real magic, and since he knew she was harmless, he'd arranged for her to apply for the correct licenses and get some basic training in wizard practice before she got into trouble.
He went through the cozy waiting room, gently tapped on the inner door, and heard a deep, sonorous "Enter."
As he walked in, she started to speak in a somber tone. "What questions would you have Madame Velosp ask the spirits. . . Oh, Jorac!" She waited until he closed the door to continue. Her voice returned to its normal high, cheerful timbre. "Good to see you! I heard you got a new job, working for wizards, right?"
Jorac grinned and nodded. "Hi Dorrie. Business treating you good?
"Heh. Just between you and me, the money lenders are mad at me. I'm paying them off too quick, the greedy so-and-so's." She tipped her head quizzically. "But I divine that you didn't drop in to ask me that. What's up?"
"Well, like you say, I have this new job, and they've given me an assignment where I need to know something about how magic actually works. My bosses are senior wizards, and it won't help to ask them to explain it. They get impatient and think you know it already, or they treat you like a child and over-simplify." She nodded knowingly and he went on. "Dorrie, I hate to speak ill of your new guild, but I don't trust those senior wizards to tell me everything. They seem a little, uh, self-centered."
Dorrie laughed. "Ah, you're right about that! As you say, I wouldn't be speaking ill of my new guild, but if you wanted to, you might find me nodding!"
"I figure you just got some basic first-year training, so you may be able to explain some things to me at my level."
"Sure, I'll try." She pointed toward the door. "Flip over that sign so we won't be disturbed."
Jorac stepped outside the door to the waiting room and flipped the sign from "Available" to "Communing with the Spirits," then came back in and sat down. "For starters," he said, "when you gather up your mana to do some magic, where does it come from?"
"Hmmm, can't say I know. The smug old fellow they had work with me said I wasn't powerful enough to worry about such things. He said I had enough for what I was doing, and was too old to learn more. So I can't tell you much about that."
Jorac sighed. "That's all right. What I really want to know is if it's possible to detect magic - mana - as its very smallest component, particle, whatever it is. Just watch where it might go, like watching dust blow in the wind."
"Well, they did teach me that much. Said it was the first thing any apprentice learns. Draw those curtains and I'll show you."
When they'd darkened the room, she closed her eyes in concentration and moved her right hand in a small turning gesture. A little puff of sparkling particles came a short distance off her fingertips, only to be pulled back a second later. The particles might have been blue or green, and they might have given off light or reflected it. It was impressive in a small way, without being showy. Jorac could see how someone with Dorrie's - or Madame Velsop's - theatrical talent could use that effect to great advantage.
Of course, he started to sneeze.
"Oh dear, I forgot. I wanted to show off my new trick so badly, for someone I didn't have to play the Madame for. Sorry about that."
"Achoo! No problem, Dorrie. Glad to" - he held up a finger - "Achoo! see it. What do they call that?"
"Dunno, they just called it 'Exercise Number Three.' It wows the marks, it does. Worth every penny of those guild dues. That and the sign on the door."
Jorac pulled out his new fine muslin handkerchief and blew his nose. "What happens if you don't pull those things - the particles - back to you?"
"The wizard called them manites. Don't know. Want me to try?"
"Uh, sure, but let me get into the back room first, okay? The farther away I can get the better, but I think I need to see this."
Jorac held his breath, and at his signal, she again made the gesture and produced the manites, and this time they hung there in the air. Jorac could barely see them, so he got closer. As he approached they seemed to break up into smaller particles, and smaller still. Still holding his breath, he put his face up near them and tried to watch as they disappeared. He wasn't sure if they spread out at random as they divided, or if there was some order or direction to it. He hurried back to the back room before he ran out of breath, and started breathing again.
When he was breathing normally again, he returned to the front room and asked Dorrie what she saw and felt.
"Felt? Not much; it doesn't takes much out of you, not like a Reading, and I do four or five of those a day. What I saw was the manites breaking up, spreading out, splitting up, down to as small as I can see. At the end they might have moved a little, but I'm not sure."
"Moved a little?"
"Kind of sideways, maybe. Like over that way. . ." She pointed across the room.
Jorac thought for a few seconds. "You're busy all day, I take it?"
"They're probably lining up outside right now. You were lucky to catch me when I just opened."
"Then I won't take any more of your time. Thanks, Dorrie. This is all guild stuff; keep it under your hat, right?"
"Mum's the word. We wizards are a secretive bunch." She grinned.
"You've got it. Keep in touch, okay? I have an office in the base of the Wizards Tower now."
"I pay my guild dues there. I'll stop by sometime."
When he opened the door, he found Madame Velosp had two ladies waiting outside, their heads bowed together talking quietly. As he let himself out, he prominently fingered his badge of office and said gravely, "Your assistance in this matter is greatly appreciated, Madame. It is a great gift you share."
Dorrie winked at him as she ushered in her two clients and closed the door.
Deep in thought, Jorac walked slowly back to his office and wrote a note asking to talk to Pergimtor or Darlora. He walked to the front of the building and dropped it in the message bin, where he was, as always, fascinated to watch the paper disappear before his eyes.
When he got back to his office, there was already a note on his floor saying his audience was granted, immediately. He climbed the 156 stairs (not forgetting to curse the tower designer) and entered the chamber. Pergimtor and Darlora were there, but no others. Pergimtor wore the same loose robe as he'd worn before, but Darlora wore a tighter, thinner robe that did little to conceal her figure. Jorac kept his expression strictly neutral as he noted her perfect face and body.
She said, "Well, Constable, what have you found?" For a wizard, this was polite.
Jorac bowed slightly. "High Wizard, Lady Wizard, I have found no one using magic out of the ordinary. But I can only sense magic being used, and this is not what you've bid me look for. So I've come to ask: can the generating of magic that you described for me be observed?"
Darlora frowned. "Everyone - everything - that I've examined has been completely normal. When I look at them one at a time, everything's fine, but there's something wrong with the area. Not enough mana is being generated."
Jorac asked, in his most respectful tone, "Do you think someone else is gathering the mana?"
Scornfully, Pergimtor said, "Of course that was the first thing we looked for. Wizards can shield their store of mana, but it will leave signs. There are no such signs in these areas, even a distance down into the swamp."
Jorac asked, "What about an automatic collector? Something that would work by itself, like this badge of office?" He held up the heavy badge, glad he'd thought to send the Council a thank-you note when it recently helped save his life. "Could something like this be absorbing the mana you expect?"
"No," Pergimtor said, "it takes a living thing, usually a wizard, to collect the mana. That amulet you wear has a spell put in it, but like any spell it will fade in time if not powered or renewed. That's why it's keyed to the wearer, so his mana will go toward keeping it working. It's really quite a clever spell; my Master developed it for the Emperor's Guard during the war."
Jorac nodded understanding and thought a moment. "Your pardon, High Wizard, but were you not in the war also? Part of the investigation area used to be the old Wizards Quarter, and I wondered if there might be something left from that time that has awoken, so to speak."
Pergimtor shook his head. "I don't think anyone who fought in the war could still be alive. I was apprenticed to Prexilo, one of the Council members from that time. I heard all his stories, many times, of how they shook the buildings to pieces and then sank the ground so it would flood, to deal with Mad Aplath's fireball and firetrap spells. Then they cleared the area with troops backed with wizards. Any of Aplath's circle who surrendered just had their wizardry burnt out of them, but the rest were killed. All of them were accounted for, dead or alive. I don't think you have to worry about survivors in that area."
Pergimtor's speaking had slowed as he reflected; Jorac was a bit surprised to find that he lost some of his haughty manner as he spoke.
Jorac said, very carefully, "Sir, I've heard stories of the creatures that survive in the swamp that's there now. Is it theoretically possible that some renegade wizard, not identified as close to Aplath, could likewise have managed to survive there all these years? I've been told that wizards are very long-lived."
Jorac thought he detected, for the first time, a human emotion from the High Wizard - regret. "No, it's not possible. With enough effort we can change our looks, but we still age inside. I think every elderly wizard turns to anti-aging research in his later years, but as yet none have made any breakthroughs."
"Ah. Thank you." Surprising he'd tell me that, Jorac thought. "I had one other question, then. If mana in the area was given off but not immediately gathered by a wizard, what would happen? Would the mana dissipate, fade away, or flow to another area, or what?"
Darlora spoke. "It would break up into very small parts, called manites. They're hard to gather, and spread out in all directions. Some are gathered by those of us with Power, some are reabsorbed even by simp-, by those of you without magic. Watching this happen is one of the earliest apprentice lessons."
Jorac thought this didn't really answer what he'd asked, but was interesting. He said, "Could something have disturbed that process, in this area?"
He got his second surprise of the day when dealing with wizards. Normally cocksure, they looked at each other in doubt. Seeing his opening, Jorac pressed ahead.
"You say watching the process happen is an apprentice task. Could such an apprentice be assigned to me, to work on this investigation?" Jorac didn't want to deal with high-level wizards any more than he had to. An apprentice, one who would take his orders and help him figure out the details of magic, would be just what he needed.
After a pause, Pergimtor spoke. "Hmmm. We shall consider this. Darlora, shield him, while I. . ."
With a whooshing sound, Jorac suddenly found himself standing back in his office, in the circle on the floor where messages sometimes appeared. The shielding even worked; he had no urge to sneeze. If my employers were always so considerate, Jorac thought, I might have come up with a different silent swear word than "Wizards."
The apprentice showed up in his office late that afternoon. He was a tall, beanpole-thin lad of about fourteen or fifteen, and greeted Jorac in a shy voice, "Honorable Constable Kellor, I have been assigned to your service. I am called Veseen." His voice was still breaking, and his face was starting to break out - an awkward age.
Jorac was a little distracted, almost ready to leave for the day. He looked at the boy. "Veseen, tell me about yourself."
The boy seemed almost frightened by the question. "Me? I'm just an apprentice. To Master Kirchward who has been assigned to duty in the Emperor's Guard this month. Uh, if you please, Honorable Constable Kellor." His accent said that he came from an educated family at least, perhaps a noble one.
"What did they tell you about this assignment?"
Veseen looked at his shoes and hunched his shoulders. "Sorry, sir Wizard Constable, they told me nothing. I had to ask our chambermaid where to find your office. I apologize for not learning more."
"No problem. Do you know how to do Exercise Number Three? No don't!" - he said this last as the boy's right hand started forward.
Jorac glanced at the boy, then looked closer. He seemed to be very worried, almost frightened.
Jorac leaned forward at his desk, and lowered his voice. "Veseen, no harm will come to you. Sorry for yelling at you just then, but whenever I'm near magic being cast, I start to sneeze. It's very annoying sometimes, as you might imagine. It's also useful sometimes, though, so I tell almost no one."
"Yes, sir. I'm sorry. I thought you wanted to test me."
"Not your fault. And call me Jorac."
"Jorac, sir Constable?"
"Jorac. I've been answering to it all my life, and it's a lot shorter than what you've been calling me."
"Yes, sir. Jorac."
"Better. Now, can you shield me from magic effects - simple ones, I mean?
Veseen sounded a little hopeful for the first time. "Yes, sir. We've been learning that all year."
"Can you shield me while you're doing Exercise Number Three?"
Again the boy's voice shrank. "I don't know, sir. I don't think so, sir."
Jorac suppressed a sigh. "You don't have to call me sir all the time, either. Let's give it a try. Put a shield around me, or at least between me and you, and let's see what happens."
"Yes, sir, I mean Jorac."
At the look on the boy's face, Jorac said, "If you fail to shield me, I'll sneeze, but I won't be angry. Just give it a try."
A small grateful smile appeared on the apprentice's face. "Yes, si - Yes, Jorac."
He extended his fingers and concentrated. At first nothing happened, and then the colored particles appeared. Veseen was better at it than Dorrie; the particles flew a handspan off the tips of his fingers and stayed visible about a second before receding back into his fingers.
Jorac held his breath, and for a moment thought the shielding had worked, but then he felt the familiar tickle in his nose. He sneezed five times, while the apprentice stood there looking mortified and frightened. Veseen slowly calmed as Jorac didn't fly into a tantrum, merely sneezed and busied himself finding a handkerchief and blowing his nose.
"S'okay," Jorac said, sniffling. "We can try again later. I have to run some errands now." He began gathering his things. "What are you doing this evening?"
"Sir?" Veseen said, looking puzzled.
"There's a dinner for some constables who helped me out last week on some Wizard business. It's at a nice tavern, good food, good cakes and pies. Want to come?" At Veseen's initial silence, Jorac added, "Speak your mind."
"Well, I'm expected to have dinner in the apprentice hall this night. As usual." By the resigned tone of the last two words, it was obvious he was hoping Jorac could find a way to get him out of it.
Jorac smiled; he remembered being that age. "And who do I need to talk to?"
Veseen smiled back hopefully. "Master Radyry expects me back in the apprentice dormitory by dinnertime."
"I obviously need your talent tonight. Hmmm, what talent is that. . .?"
"I'm very good at lighting candles, sir, from halfway across the room. I'm sometimes known for that."
"Ah, just the thing for those high sconces. No one else will do. Lead the way to Master Radyry."
The dinner, with the five constables from the previous week along with their boss Cerom, Jorac, and the young apprentice wizard, was a great success. Jorac told them he'd explained on his expense report that this was a "debriefing" meeting, so he wanted to hear some stories!
So the stories had flowed with the wine and ale, some mostly true, some not, but they all were cheerful stories this night. Jorac had specified that this was a stag affair; he could stretch his expense reports to cover dinner for people he worked with, but not wives, girlfriends, or partners of convenience (or commerce). So if some of the stories told by the older constables were a little on the risqu? side - well, they were all men there this night and no one got offended, even if Veseen and Hox's eyes got a little big at some of the tales. It was a rare celebratory night off for the constables, and they made the most of it.
When Jorac got to the office a bit late the next morning, Veseen was there, looking bored. He brightened as Jorac came in.
"Thank you for inviting me to the dinner last night, sir. I mean Jorac."
"Glad to have you, Veseen. Hope you didn't mind us leaving early, but I promised Master Radyry I'd have you back by midnight. I wanted you to see the sort of men we'll be working with. Schrog and Hox will be here later. I told them to sleep in and get here when they wanted."
"I asked Master Radyry about shielding you while doing magic. He said it was probably not possible, because of the way shielding works. I can shield you, or show the manites, but not both at the same time." Again his manner was past apologetic, almost cringing.
"Hmmm, I was afraid of that. That's okay."
Veseen looked relieved, as if he'd avoided a punishment.
"Can I ask you a question? You don't have to answer it if you don't want."
"Every other wizard I've met around here is pushy and egotistical, and worse, and you're - well, not. Why do they act like that?"
Veseen sighed a little. "I don't mind explaining. The higher-level wizards all summon creatures from the nether planes - imps, sprites, even demons sometimes. They tell us you have to have perfect confidence when you're dealing with those beings. So they try to teach us to act with confidence."
Jorac thought that explained a lot, but not everything. "Seems to me they sometimes confuse confidence with being rude and overbearing," he said, almost to himself, "but then again I'm not a wizard."
Veseen smiled a little. He also looked a little apprehensive. "If you say so, sir." His glance toward the ceiling made Jorac think of their conversation being overheard. Jorac didn't much care what the wizards thought of him, but he didn't want to get his young charge in trouble.
"Okay, thanks, I've been wondering, that's all. Not important." He walked briskly over to his desk. "There are a still a few things we can do this morning. . ."
It was more than halfway to lunchtime when Schrog and Hox got to Jorac's office. They didn't exactly stagger in, but they weren't moving with a spring in their step. Schrog looked the worse for wear, but Hox looked fairly normal.
Jorac was careful to keep his voice quiet and level. "Hi guys. How's it going?"
Schrog said, "I be alright. De little guy here" - he pointed up at Hox - "got us up too frickin' early." He flopped down on the nearest stool and held his head in his hands, staring at the floor.
"Veseen, would you please pour us a drink of water?" Jorac had arranged for a pitcher to be ready, expecting them to be a bit hung over.
Hox said defensively, "The sun had been up for hours."
Without moving his head, Schrog said. "And how long ya been in de bed?"
"I don't know, two or three hours at least. At home we used to get up at first light, but sometimes we'd sleep in until sunup. I can't sleep in the daytime."
Jorac shared a rueful smile with Hox, and shook his head at Schrog. Schrog only lifted his head when Veseen handed them each a cup of water, and leaned sideways against the wall as Jorac spoke.
"Today we go back to Southgate, just the four of us. There are some little magic experiments we need to run. Veseen will handle the magic part, but I'll need your eyes too. I want you to watch what he's doing." The young apprentice got up and pulled the curtains. "He's going to make some tiny magic lights, and they'll break up into little pieces. We need to watch them at the very end, just before they disappear, and see which way they go. It's kind of subtle, so watch closely." He moved toward the door. "You guys go on. I've got to run home; I'll be back in a few minutes."
He and Veseen had done the experiment a couple of times already that morning. They'd watched the manites zoom upward at the end, toward the upper floors of the Wizards Tower, just before they disappeared from view. The general direction they went was fairly clear once you got used to seeing them.
He walked quickly down the street to the small suite of rooms he rented above a nearby shop and got some clean handkerchiefs, then walked quickly back. He hoped Hox and Schrog hadn't noticed he left just when Veseen was about to do magic. Of course if he kept evading it like that all afternoon they'd probably notice, but figure it was Wizard Business and keep their mouth shut, which was almost as good.
When he got back they were discussing what they saw. Hox had clearly seen the manites turn upwards. Schrog said he wasn't sure, but looking at Schrog's bloodshot eyes, Jorac thought he knew why. He hoped Schrog could handle what he had in mind for the day; he liked the rough constable's street-sense.
"If you're ready, we're going down to Southgate and try this again," he told them. "Maybe get a little of that good soup while we're there."
Hox and Veseen jumped up, but Schrog said "Gimme a min." The older man struggled to his feet, drank another cup of water, and asked the way to the jakes. He looked only a little better when he got back. "I be ready. Hox, you lead off. Keep an eye out like we been talkin' about."
They got on the river road easily enough, and headed south. Hox cheerfully talked to Veseen, telling what he'd learned about the area, while Schrog hung back with Jorac, muttering foul curses about the energy of youth. Hox obviously remembered the good food fondly and set a brisk pace, and the lanky apprentice easily kept up; they started outpacing Jorac and Schrog.
With the young men out of easy earshot, Schrog's foul language about their springy energy grew more vile and more humorous. The more Jorac laughed, the more fetid the maledictions became, so that Jorac finally stopped to lean against a wall as he laughed, and had to call ahead to Hox to slow down.
"Ah, hadn't heard that one before. At least with that family member."
Hox returned with Veseen and looked expectantly at Jorac.
Still grinning, Jorac explained. "Schrog was just discussing how fast you were walking. And he was thinking that being young is a good thing, if the youthful energy isn't wasted. And thinking that energy must run in families, or something about families anyway."
Hox looked confused, at Schrog, Jorac, and Veseen in turn. Veseen was smirking, so Jorac said to him, "Go ahead, explain it."
"Constable Schrog is hung over and cursing his headache, and us in particular. And Constable Kellor is laughing at him a little. He wants us to slow down."
"Oh, okay." Hox didn't parse the part about families, which was just as well.
They set off at a slower pace, and reached The Flying Pie, the tavern they'd enjoyed before, a bit after noon. It smelled as good as ever, and when the server bustled over, Jorac said, "Can we get a private room? - with stew for six? There's four of us this time." He grinned, and pointed at Hox and Veseen on either side of him with two fingers each.
"Ah, good to see you back again. Feeding the hungry is what we like. The room is extra, and we'll need it cleared in a couple of hours. Call it thirty for the lot, and we'll try to fill up that man-mountain this time."
The room was small and fancy, probably rented out for business meetings. A pitcher of small beer and a large pot of their famous stew was brought in. Schrog managed a bowlful, Jorac had seconds, and Hox and Veseen finished off the rest. After lunch, Jorac tried to explain what they were doing there.
After lunch, Jorac started them on their afternoon's task. "We have Veseen here so he can make those little magic lights, and you get to watch them and see what direction they go. You probably can't really see the exact direction, because the distance is very short; you'll just have to rely on your impressions. Anyway, we'll start here, find the direction, then go that direction and try it again. I'm going to pull down the shades, and you do the test while I go settle up for the food. Be right back. . ."
When he returned, the three were looking out the window, figuring out how the building was situated. Schrog, who knew the area best, said "I figures it be south, or near enough. Hope de wind ain't so bad. Pigtown, we's headin' fer."
Veseen said, "I've heard about Pigtown. Is the smell there as bad as they say?"
Schrog nodded. "If yer lucky, you don't find out. It be bad, 'specially farder in. Ain't nobody goes dere for fun. Kin get rough, too."
They walked south until they could start to smell the noxious area, and tried the test again. It was worthless to try to watch the small manites divide in full sunlight, so they found an apothecary that advertised "Wizard Supplies" and with the help of Jorac's badge of office, begged use of the back room for a few minutes.
Schrog spoke when they were back on the street. "South again. Pigtown, 'less you wants to skirt it again."
Jorac said, "Well, I wouldn't want to go back into Swampside today, not without more of us. Close thing, that was." He thought a moment, then brightened. "How about the same path we took last time, but we stop before heading down into Swampside?"
"Aye, I be hopin' you says that. Maybe wanna go up a few streets, the wind ain't so good today."
The group headed up the hill, and through the same laundry-rich, working-class neighborhood they'd visited the week before. It was all new to Veseen, so Schrog kept up a running commentary; he was obviously feeling better. When they found a dark alley between two buildings, Jorac kept watch from afar as they did another test.
The three reported that this time the manites went north, back toward the city, and a little away from the river. If Jorac remembered his map correctly, the Wizards Tower was that direction, and he thought back to the day he was given the assignment and Darlora let slip the words "my territory."
"I think we're too high on the hill, boys. I'm not happy about it either, but it's Pigtown for us. Schrog, lead the way. Let's find the first dark area we can inside Pigtown proper." Schrog made a face, and Jorac said, "We could come back at night instead, but I think that would be worse."
Schrog sighed noisily. "Aye, you be right. Alright, if it gots to be done, we'll do it. Everybody, you takes a deep breath. It's de last one you gets. Dis way."
Veseen spoke up. "Uh, sir, can we change our clothes first? I noticed some of the laundries we passed were advertising used clothing."
The other three stopped and stared at the young apprentice for a second - he looked down at his feet and said "Sorry, sir."
Jorac said, "No, it's a damned good idea! Veseen, you speak up whenever you have a mind to. Schrog, I'm putting you in charge. Find us a way of keeping our clothes safe and get some clothes we can wear down there. Nothing fancy, mind you; something we can discard afterwards."
Schrog said, "Damn, I shoudda t'ought of dat. Ain't been here in a whiles. De laundries be dat way, down de hill. Get us some boot covers too, 'cause we didn't bring extra shoes."
They got to the area where the laundries were, just above Pigtown. Schrog ducked down an alley behind the first large laundry they came to, and came back shaking his head. "Ain't trusting this one. Too dirty back there." He checked out a couple more, and finally approved of one that had a sign out front saying "Widow Marpan's Laundry - Clean Clothes!"
Widow Marpan proved to be a short, plump, cheerful woman who was always tucking unruly hair beneath her bonnet. She and her young girl assistant were happy to help the group find suitable clothes from the second-hand stock she kept for sale - especially when Jorac pulled out his purse full of coppers. They had no problem finding cheap clothing for Jorac, Schrog, and Veseen, but Hox was another matter. He finally ended up in a shirt that Jorac believed had originally been a very fat lady's dress, and they had to wait a few minutes while some oversized boot covers were sewn for him. He kept his own trousers, there being nothing even close in size, but found some fabric to wrap around his legs. They put their clean clothes into a drawstring bag that Veseen slung over his shoulder; the laundry-woman offered to keep them but Schrog vetoed that with a short shake of his head.
When Schrog finally approved of their preparations, they stepped outside. He gave them some pointers about the area, and added a warning. "We ain't wearin' constable badges no more, and Pigtown kin get rough. So we gots to look like what dey used to seein'. Hox, you act extra dumb, okay? But if I tell you to hit someone, don' ask no questions first, just do it." Hox dropped his face into a slack-jawed countenance, and said "Duh, okay, boss." Jorac couldn't help but grin; Hox had obviously learned that playing dumb was sometimes a good tactic for someone his size.
Schrog nodded, and tapped Veseen. "Kid, you carry dat bundle and stick right next to me. You be de kid brudder I gots to watch over. Jorac be de guy wit' a proposition, jus needs a place to talk, and I'm de local." He turned to Jorac. "You de guy wit' de money, dem two work for me, so you talk to me, not dem. Dey don' talk, not unless dey have to."
In the most posh accent he could manage, Jorac said, "Would you like me to emulate a member of the noble classes?"
Schrog raised his eyebrows, then nodded. "Dat works. Good idear, in fact. Keep 'em from lookin' at de rest of us so much."
Both Hox and Veseen looked concerned, and Jorac wasn't sure he didn't look the same. "Aw, no worries," Schrog said. "We jus' go in, find a place to do dat little trick, and get out. Jorac still gots dat fancy badge under his shirt, right? Don' wanna to use it if we don' have to, dat wizard sure looked pissed off last time. I don' like being around pissed off wizards. So we does it my way, alright? But we gots de backup, so we be fine."
The trip down the hill wasn't bad, but the smell crept up on them as they neared the area. Then the wind shifted and they got it full force - a loathsome symphony of dead and decaying animals, offal, and acrid chemicals at the forefront, with other unidentified but vile-smelling things hidden underneath, some that burned the nose, some almost sweet. Jorac's first response was a strong gag reflex, but he was able to master it, and after a time it began to subside. I guess the human nose can get used to anything, he thought, even this, but wow! They weren't lying.
The roads were all filthy, stinking mud, and though a few businesses put down wooden boards for their customers to walk on, those weren't much cleaner than the street. The squad dodged aside as a horse pulling a wagon came up the street, and Veseen got splattered with some foul-smelling mud flung up by the wagon wheel.
They passed a slaughterhouse and some sort of small shop that burned something awful before Schrog led them up some stairs and knocked on the door. Schrog motioned the others to back off as a small panel opened and a face appeared. Jorac was standing with his back to the door, watching the street, and couldn't see the face.
Jorac turned to Schrog and said in his upper-crust accent, "Are you sure that this establishment can provide us the privacy we need?"
Schrog nodded to Jorac, then said to the man at the door, "Needs a room. Quiet like. Short time." Schrog's accent was even thicker, if that was possible.
"Hot running water?"
"Naw, no beds. Just talk."
"Lemme see." The panel slammed shut.
Veseen said quietly, "What is this place?"
Schrog grinned. "Best you don't ask that. De hot runnin' water, dat's a code for if we wants whores in de room." The young apprentice flushed bright red at this, and craned his neck to look at the building again.
"Anudder t'ing, place like this, dey prolly listen to every word in dese rooms, okay? We knows what we's doing, no need for talk. Jorac, get four coppers out, okay?"
The panel in the door opened again, and the face appeared. Jorac got a good look this time; it was a remarkably ugly face, battered and scarred. "Seven coppers. Half hour."
"Four fer an hour be double price. 'Tain't stupid. Inna hurry, so we go four. Udderwise we walks."
The man at the door grunted and slammed shut the panel, then opened the door. "Let's see."
He spoke to Jorac "Give 'em two, show 'em two more."
Jorac did as he was asked, looking very dubiously at the doorman. The doorman moved aside and pointed to the dial on the water-clock at the end of the entryway. A place like this probably rented most of the rooms by the hour.
They all followed the doorman to a nearby parlor with a rickety table and some mismatched chairs. The room was dark behind tattered, yellowed curtains, and reeked of just-applied cheap perfume. Hox brushed by a curtain, dislodging a cascade of dust, and started to sneeze. When the doorman left and the door was closed, Schrog looked around the room and silently pointed people to where they should stand, Jorac assumed to block spy-holes. He silently obeyed when Schrog waved him to stand by the door.
Jorac said, "It's a bit rustic, but I believe this place will do admirably." He turned and nodded to Veseen.
Returning his nod, Veseen did Exercise Number Three again, and they watched the manites dissolve. Jorac held is breath as best he could, but was sneezing lustily by the time the particles were gone. The other three nodded to Jorac forcefully to signal they'd determined the direction - and with all the dust in the room, Hox and Veseen joined him in sneezing. Without speaking, they left the room and headed toward the front door.
"Hey, you don' like de room?" the doorman said. "Whatsa matter?"
"Back in ten minutes," Schrog told him, and motioned Jorac to pay him. "You lets us in when we comes back with de udder guy, or I have Muscles here bust it down."
The doorman took the money, looked warily up at Hox, and nodded. "You gots most of your hour. Whats you do's is up to youse." The last had the singsong cadence of a well-worn phrase; Jorac thought it was probably the place's motto.
As they headed back out of Pigtown the way they'd come, Schrog said, "South again. Same as before."
Hox asked, "Why did you tell him we'd be back?"
"Dat way dey don' follow us now. Maybe dey watch, see if we worth robbin' when we get back. Not now."
Again, Jorac was glad to have Schrog with them. That was a subtlety he wouldn't have thought of.
A five-minute walk led them back to the edge of the area, and in another few minutes they were back up the hill.
"So now what?" Schrog spoke for everyone.
Jorac answered, "Now we need to plan again. Swampside is no picnic. Even the so-called civilized end we visited."
"I was t'inkin'," Schrog said. "I figgers we maybe wanna talk to de chiefs dere. Dey remembers us right now, prolly treat us okay dis week."
Jorac was surprised. "Nobody out for revenge? Nobody who'll try to show us they're in charge?"
"We took down a top guy dere in just a couple minutes, didn't break a sweat. Dey remembers us, ain't ready to push us yet. Still figgerin' out if we takin' over or what."
"I don't think we're ready to do that," Jorac said wryly. "We need a cover story, but one that won't challenge whoever wants to run the place."
"Maybe we just after de slavers, huh?" Schrog spoke with an unexpected intensity.
Veseen said, "I thought enslavement was illegal? Why don't we stop it?" He had no idea how naive he sounded.
Jorac spoke when Schrog didn't. "Emperor Benneso has outlawed it here. But a few day's sail down the coast is all you need. You've heard of the pirate isles, right? Once you're past our border, our laws don't hold. There's lots of money to be made selling slaves if there's a boat captain who'll haul them, and someone like the late, unlamented Kullo who'll kidnap the weak."
"Late?" Hox sounded surprised.
"Cerom told me he was executed this morning. He'd had too many chances already. The rest of his crew will spend five or six years on the road gang; maybe one or two will turn around. Maybe."
Schrog nodded approvingly. "Heh, good! Rotten sum'bitch deserved it! Good for us too. Dat way we goes to Swampside, tells dem about it, pushes on de other bastards like Kullo, maybe den we don' get jumped."
"I don't mind telling them that - as far as I know, Swampside is barely part of the city anyway - but let's clear it with Cerom first." He looked at the lengthening afternoon shadows. "Let's head back. I think we've done enough for today - and we need to plan our next Swampside trip a little better. It was a little too close for comfort last time."
Schrog and Hox nodded vigorously at the last statement. Veseen had only heard the stories at the celebratory dinner, but they were enough; he nodded too.
When they got back to the Widow Marpan's laundry, the door was open, and they found four older teen-aged boys inside. One was talking to the proprietor in annoyed tones. Jorac and his group walked in and listened.
"You've ruined this doublet - completely ruined it. The colors are almost gone, yet you can still see that stain." The tallest of the four was speaking. A smaller boy was standing next to him, while the other two, looking rather ill and tired, were slouching near a wall.
The young man had an upper-class accent and rather fine clothes, now wrinkled and dirty. All four had thin swords at their side, which was a privilege of the nobility, so Jorac guessed that they were young rakes returning from a bit of "sport" at the bawdy houses in the district.
"Now look here, young sir. I cannot remove all stains, I told you that. I asked you if you wanted me to try to boil it, and you said yes. If you don't know that you might have to re-dye it, then you don't know much about cloth. The dyers are just down the hill if you want to do that."
The young man didn't take this well. "Listen here, bitch. You ruined it. You pay for it. It cost me three gold."
"Young sir, you owe me twelve coppers for cleaning it."
The young man drew his sword and held it down by his side. The smaller boy next to him said, "Easy, Zarl. Remember what Pa said."
"I remember, little brother, but this bitch ruined it, and now she's going to pay." He raised the sword threateningly, while the widow backed up fearfully.
Jorac looked at his team and motioned toward the two young men up against the wall. He walked up behind the younger brother and swiftly drew the kid's sword from its sheath. Then he took a step to the side and said to Zarl, "I'm a Constable, and I think you need to put that sword down."
Zarl spun to face Jorac with surprise. When he saw Jorac's beat-up civilian clothes and the way Jorac held the sword pointed at the floor, he smiled a cruel smile. "Parf, you witness this. This lying ruffian drew on me." He slowly raised his sword, and turned his body to the side, in a way that showed he'd had some fencing lessons.
Suddenly he lunged forward and tried to skewer Jorac, but Jorac beat his sword aside and tried a simple riposte. Zarl repelled it with a textbook move, a little slowly. Jorac knew he'd have little trouble winning this fight, but he could feel the red fog coming from deep in his brain, the primal desire to simply cut down this enemy, using all his considerable skill. His more reasoned side told him that carving up this young fool would bring him more problems than it would solve - though his restraint was a close thing, closer than he liked.
He took a step back and glanced around the room. Hox had the other two young men under control, with one hand on the collar of each. Schrog was positioned to the side, standing on the balls of his feet, ready to move in any direction, watching Parf. Veseen moved to a position in front of Widow Marpan, looking more determined than scared.
Jorac said, "Not in here," and slowly backed up toward the doorway, feeling behind him with his off-hand and feet, never taking his eyes off Zarl.
"Wherever you want, fool." Zarl kept twitching his sword in little movements meant to intimidate. Jorac backed out the doorway and into the street. Zarl followed, keeping his right foot in front at all times, ready to lunge.
When Zarl was entering the doorway, Jorac struck. He tapped the young man's sword with his own sword, and jumped to the side. Zarl's sword hit the doorway as he tried a side cut, and Jorac trapped the sword with his; then with his other hand drew his cudgel, and whacked him smartly across the temple.
Zarl fell to his hands and knees, dropping his sword. Jorac grabbed it and took a few steps back into the street. He hung his cudgel on its loop and pulled his Wizard Constable badge out from under his shirt, then walked back toward the door, carrying a sword in each hand. Zarl was sprawled across the threshold, blocking the way.
"Get up, idiot."
The look on the young rake's face was a mixture of pain, fear and anger. He rolled over, got to his feet unsteadily, and staggered back inside. Jorac followed him and glanced around. No one had moved, except that Schrog had his cudgel out and his arm was holding an unresisting Parf.
"What's your name? Don't bother to lie, Zarl."
Zarl mumbled, "Dukette Zarlan Leganwei." He wasn't very good at hiding his anger, but at least was wise enough not to do anything that looked aggressive. His title made him the heir to the Leganwei family; Jorac had heard of them but knew no details. Jorac said, "You just attacked a Constable with a sword. Thus you attacked the Emperor's representative with a weapon. Do you know what that means?"
Parf gasped, "That's treason!" Even the arrogant Zarl turned white, and the two boys Hox was holding looked thoroughly alarmed. Jorac knew that "treason" was overstating the offense; he just wanted to scare the young men, not cause a major political incident. But he was also highly offended.
He glared at Zarl. "Now here's what's going to happen. You'll pay the lady what you owe her, and then you'll go to your father and tell him what you've done. The law says treason always involves the whole family. If I decide to report this, they'll need to decide if they'll disown you or face the Emperor's justice as a family. I know which one I'd do."
Zarl fumbled a couple of silver pieces out of his pocket and dropped them on the table. He was stumbling and ashen-faced.
Parf said, in a obsequious manner, "You said, 'if you decide,' sir Constable?"
Jorac answered him sternly. "After your father talks to me, I'll decide. Don't let your brother convince you to hide this. If I don't hear from your father inside a week, I'll file a report and include the fact that your family had a chance to talk to me first. Now, drop your scabbards and get out of here." He emphasized the last by pointing the swords he was holding at both of the brothers.
Parf quickly unbelted his scabbard and let if fall; Zarl was a bit slower and more reluctant but complied without speaking, as did the other two. The quartet of teenagers left as fast as they could, and Jorac watched as they walked quickly up the street.
"Bless you, sir. Those young scamps be trouble." The widow was flustered, but quickly recovered. "Now, what can I do for you? You've gotten those clothes a mite dirty, I see."
They managed to trade the old clothes (and the widow's gratitude) for a short bath with clean, hot water, and donned their own clothes. Jorac wasn't sure the stench had all been washed off, but it was much better.
While they were dressing, Schrog explained things to Hox and Veseen. "Bet you was wondering what he were doing dere, right? See, he coudda jus' let the air out of dat young idjit, but he was t'inkin' ahead. No stink raised dis way, dey walk on home. Now dat Duke he'll come and apologize, an' prolly offer a bribe to keep quiet. You heared the rule on bribes?"
Hox replied, "Sure - we never ask for money, but we'll take bribes, and turn the money over to Cerom. Uh, it seems a little unusual."
Jorac explained. "Simple, the Royal Constabulary needs the money. Anyone holds out, they get in big trouble with their mates, and maybe kicked out; sometimes they get a Wizard to ask about it, too, so you can't keep it secret. So constables cheerfully take all bribes - and let the bribers know where the money is going and that they didn't really buy anything."
Schrog added, "But Cerom's good dat way, puts a little sump'n extra into yer pay, kinda like a commission. Most folks learn bribin' don' do no good, but dere's always somebody tryin' to pay us to look aside. So we lets 'em pay - but we don' look aside."
Hox said, carefully, "Well, it seems like a strange way to run things."
Schrog laughed. "Dam' if you ain't right. A week on the fockin' job, and he's complainin' already. Dam' if he won' fit right in!"
Two days later, Jorac was in his office doodling on paper while thinking of schemes to keep them safe in Swampside. The deep swamp was notoriously dangerous, but they'd met Kullo's gang in what was considered the safer, populated part. Of course he had his badge if there was serious trouble again, but that entailed its own costs. Clearly, the quicker they could do their job and get out, the better, but his damned sneezing made every manite test a big production. He put his ideas aside when Dorrie, Madame Velosp, came to his door.
"So this is where you work now. Quite a step up from walking a beat. I like it."
"Hi Dorrie. Good of you to stop by. What's happening?"
"Just paying my guild dues. I have to pay them in person each month for the first year. Not that I mind; I could use a break from the marks - I mean my loyal customers. They're nice folks, mostly, but they have to tell you the whole story, usually two or three times, before they get to the questions they pay me for. Wears on a body, it does."
"Hmmm." Jorac looked at her for a long moment. "I don't want to pry, but how much do you charge for one of your sessions?"
"Oh, I try to get thirty coppers now. Mostly I let them bargain me down to twenty-five, or sometimes two silvers, if they're good customers." The usual rate was twelve coppers to a silver coin, but it varied, because silver coins were sometimes more than half lead. Copper and gold coins were much easier for a wizard to check for purity, since silver somehow reflected magic.
"So, a gold every four days, or thereabouts? That's a fine proposition." Calling it a proposition was market performer talk; no one had a job or an act, one had a proposition. At five customers a day, she was making about five hundred coppers - one gold piece - every four days.
"Aye. I was only charging four or five coppers when I worked the market, and not always getting that."
"How would you like to do some work for me for a few days? Paying work, mind you." He added the last at her doubtful expression.
"Well, maybe. What do you have in mind?"
"I'm putting together a field team to help with an investigation, and I need someone else with wizard powers to go with us."
She looked dubious. "You know I'm not really much of a wizard, I'm more of a show-woman. That what you need?"
"What I need is someone who can do that trick with the manites, so we can follow them. I think you'd be perfect. You're easy to get along with and you can think on your feet; I've seen you. I've got a young apprentice now who can shield me when you're doing the magic so I won't sneeze all the damned time." He smiled wryly. "Only one trouble. We're going to go do it in Swampside."
She made a disgusted face, and he said, "I think I can make it worth your while, though. If you'll wait a minute, I'll see what they'll pay."
He scribbled a quick note asking if he could hire a Guild Member (Level 1) for a few days to help with the investigation, and at what rates. He showed Dorrie the message, and how it disappeared when he dropped it in the message box at the front of the building. She liked watching it too, and remembered something from her training about how it worked.
They wandered back to Jorac's office and chatted for a few minutes before an answer popped into the magic circle on the floor. He quickly read it and handed it to Dorrie while he finished sneezing. The bottom of the note said, "Approved, 5g/day max. Perg."
"My!" she said when she read it. "For five gold a day, I'd - well let's just say a trip to Swampside isn't the last thing on the list. Who else is going?"
"Well, there's Constable Schrog - he's good, really knows his way around - and Trainee Constable Hox, and Wizard Apprentice Veseen. And you and I make five."
"Five to take on Swampside? With an old lady like me, and a kid?"
"Just to trace the magic. You remember, when you did Exercise Number Three, how the manites all went in one direction at the end? We just need to do that again in Swampside, to see what direction they're heading. If we run into any problem, this badge will summon a Council-level wizard and we'll be whisked out of there."
"Sounds easy. Which means there's something we're missing. But what I want to know is why all this rigmarole anyway?"
Jorac realized he'd have to explain; she wasn't stupid. He made sure she knew this was a guild secret, and then said, "Veseen and I have done Exercise Number Three over and over. If we do it here in my office, just before the manites disappear they start to go up toward the Wizards Tower." He waved his hand to point upward. "We've tried it all around the city now, wherever we could go without constables for escort, and the manites always go toward the Wizards Tower. But in the areas south along the river something's wrong. We did the exercise in Southgate and Pigtown and the manites headed south. So, next we need to go to North Swampside and try it again. Quick trip - we'll scout a bit, stop and test where the manites are headed, and come straight back."
"Hmmm. . ." She thought a bit. "You say here in town they head for the Wizards Tower? Why is that?"
He turned to look at her directly, and lowered his voice. "Dorrie, don't go there, okay? Some sort of secret, only get us into trouble. Maybe strong wizards can pull mana from a distance, but I wouldn't venture a guess if that was true, or why. I keep out of things like that."
She pursed her lips judiciously. "I see what you mean. I'll just take it as a given, then, at the same time we take the gold they're giving."
"That's the spirit. Can you meet me here tomorrow morning, early? You and I and Veseen will go down to the City Guard office and pick up the two constables, then head out to Swampside."
"Sure, I can do that. How long will we be out, do you think?"
"Just a day or two, unless we run into some complication."
"And what should I wear?"
He thought a moment. "I don't think we could be inconspicuous even if we wanted to, but we can at least try to look plausible. Maybe you could be an important person and the rest of us could be escorting you. You wouldn't want to wear good clothes to Swampside, but can you wear something old that used to look sharp?"
"Sure. Madame Velosp is good at looking like an important person. Anything else?"
"Does that pie-seller still set up shop on your street in the morning?"
"Yes - I remember how you like her breakfast pies. Want me to bring you one?"
He handed her some coppers, and said, "Better make it seven or eight."
"Eight? For only five of us?"
"You haven't met Hox yet; he's nineteen years old and about eleven-teen feet tall. And Veseen is fourteen."
She nodded. "Growing boys. I remember my nephews at that age. I'll see what I can do. Oh, one more thing. I promised Ginelda I'd tell you that her daughter is coming back from boarding school next week."
"Dorrie. . ."
"Don't give me that look. I know what you're going to say, that you're not ready to think about that sort of thing yet, even though it's been five years since your wife died. I told Ginelda what I'd do, and I've done it. See you tomorrow." She walked out the office door and disappeared down the hall.
"Dammit, man, I told you I'd pay extra to take us to Swampside, not Bustletown. Go down the hill!" Jorac wasn't easily upset, but he hated people not doing what they'd agreed to.
"No matter. Not going there, constable or not. Heard too many stories last night. My carriage is worth a lot. My life is worth even more."
Schrog elbowed Hox, and whispered something to him. Hox unfolded himself from the carriage and stood beside it; the driver was sitting on top, but Hox could almost look him in the eye. "Little man," he said, "do you think you could stop us from taking your carriage down there?" Schrog had probably been teaching Hox how to be menacing; he did a credible job because of his sheer size, but his delivery could use a bit of work. Jorac and Schrog also got out, leaving Veseen and Dorrie in the carriage.
The driver sputtered "But. . . you're constables! You can't threaten me!?" The last word came out almost as a yelp.
Jorac thought he'd better intervene before he had to spend a solid week writing reports, so he stepped in front of Hox and spoke. "We are Constables, and we can commandeer this carriage if need be. But it shouldn't come to that. Just drive down there, and turn around at the wall, and we'll pay you. You don't even have to go inside, and we'll make sure you start back up the hill before we go."
From the other side of the carriage, Schrog added, "Best listen to de man." The words were mild, but the tone was so ominous that the man whipped his head around, left to right, obviously cornered.
"All right, dammit. Get in. If anything gets broken I'll have your job, see if I won't. I know a few people, important people. They don't think much of constables throwing their weight around."
His passengers got in, and the driver turned his team of horses and headed, rather slowly, down the hill. As they neared the log wall that marked the Swampside boundary with Bustletown, he started making whimpering noises, though there was no one around to be frightened of. "Get out, please. I've got a family!" Apparently the stories he'd heard about the area were too much for him; when they were still about twenty paces short of the opening in the wall where the road went through, he swung the carriage off to the side and pulled to a stop. "Please!"
Jorac told Hox, "Go quiet him down. Get him to pull over by the wall. Tell him two minutes is all we need and then he can go back, with us or without us." Hox climbed out of the carriage and spoke briefly to the driver. Then he walked to the front of the horses, led the carriage over to the wall, and stood with them there, keeping them calm. He was obviously used to dealing with horses, unlike most city folk.
With Schrog's help, Jorac quickly closed the curtains in the carriage, then motioned for Dorrie to produce the manites and Veseen to shield him while she did so. Her stream of colored lights only shot out a short distance from her fingertips, but it was enough. And Jorac was pleased not to sneeze, so he could really examine them this time. The four of them carefully watched as the particles faded. From where they were, the city of Vaggert (and the Wizards Tower) were roughly north, but the dissolving manites still headed south. So they'd have to keep going, into Swampside proper.
They got out, and Jorac spoke to the driver one last time. "You've done what you said, and here's your pay. Now, if you start telling people about coming down this hill, I'll have to start writing reports, and I hate writing reports. The only one I know who likes reports is my boss - and the tax man. The tax man loves reports. But if I start writing one report, I might as well write more. So I don't think we need any of that, do we?"
The driver clutched the small leather bag full of copper coins that Jorac handed him and said darkly, "I make it back up that hill, I ain't sayin' nothin'! You'll never hear from me again!" As he drove away, a little of his spirit returned, because he yelled back, "And I hope I never hear from you either!" He whipped the horses to a near gallop and was quickly gone.
The team organized into a defensive formation, with Schrog and Jorac in front, Dorrie and Veseen in the middle, and Hox in the rear, and then marched south through the opening in the wall. Most of the old district walls from the past century had been torn down, but this one was still in good repair, as Bustletown probably wanted to keep themselves segregated from Swampside. This was the same Swampside entrance Jorac and his squad of constables had taken before, but this time people pointed and murmured as they passed, and mostly got out of their way. Jorac decided it was partly because Dorrie was dressed in shabby finery, carrying a tall walking stick and wearing a heavy lace veil; the group appeared to be escorting her through the area. It was also partly because Schrog and Jorac had belted on short, wide swords as well as their cudgels. But probably it was because people remembered them. Still, they maintained a tight formation and kept their eyes open.
Jorac was looking up the main street when Schrog quietly said, "Got one, follow me." and steered the group down a side alley. He stopped at a stall selling stoneware mugs and bric-a-brac and stared at the stall keeper without speaking. The keeper was a small man, rusty-haired and bronze-skinned, and would have been handsome but for a wide scar across his cheek and chin.
Finally the stall keeper said, "Schrog. What are you doing here?"
"Helpin' you out, Mister. . ."
"Right, I remembers now. T'ought it was sump'n different, somehow. Didja know Kullo got strung up?"
"I'd heard. Means nothing to me."
"Right. You, me, we nebber friends, but we done business a time or two, and done it square. Dat right?"
Mister Raah - Jorac wondered how long he'd had that name - nodded slowly.
"So here's de square deal. Slavers is out, from now on. Brings constables to de swamp. Bad for business."
"Still means nothing to me."
"Constables might look back dere. Might find sump'n somebody else says is deirs." At Raah's hard look he added, "Not me, mind ya, nor my pals here, we got other t'ings to do. But de word come down, find de fockin' slavers, stamp on em, hard. Talk of sendin' whole army troop, or maybe just a squad wit' torches. You like dat?"
Raah just stood there with an uncomfortable look on his face.
"I figgers dey gives it a month. See who takes over for Kullo, stomp him down, not too careful-like. Den do it again when de next guy takes his place. Dis place look different den. Maybe some folks t'ink it's better all burnt down."
Raah paused to consider this. His face was a study in listening to bad news. He frowned at Schrog. "Why are you telling me this?"
"Everybody's got an angle, right? Maybe keepin' t'ings here as dey are makes my life a little easier, okay? Don' make me much difference, I don' live here. You gonna pass de word on dis?"
Raah nodded, still unhappy.
"Means you gots to stomp on 'em yourselves, right? Some bunch of punks prolly t'ink dey de next Kullo, all rich and wit' de wimmen. Boats still come for a while, lookin' for slaves. But you saw de wizards come and haul off Kullo. Maybe dey not so careful who dey take next time."
"All right. Is that all?"
"Dat's all. Oh, except we be here friendly-like. Ain't lookin' under counters, or under de false bottom of dat trunk dere. We just passin' by, de five of us. Heading deep swamp-side, some different business. Wanna pass de word on dat?"
Raah looked positively alarmed at the mention of the false bottom, but relaxed as the rest of Schrog's words sunk in.
"I can do that," he said, then turned and cupped his hands and yelled toward the street, "Runner!"
Three dirty young barefoot boys that Jorac mentally described as "guttersnipes" raced up the side street. When one of them touched the edge of the stall first the other two looked dejected, but hung around. The race winner said, "You gots a job, boss?"
"Need all three of you. Run and tell the Madame and Jimsley and Skowers that this group should be left alone, okay? There's five of them, with the giant. Tell them I say so, I'll explain tonight. And then spread out and tell anyone else you meet to leave them be. A half-copper now, and one more at sundown. Mind you, I'll ask them what time they heard from you. I'm paying for a runner, not a layabout." He handed them a small coin each. "Now go!"
The boys scampered back up the alley, and Jorac and his group all nodded politely to Raah and followed at a slower pace.
When they were back on the main street, Jorac said quietly, "That went well."
"I t'ink so" was Schrog's satisfied reply.
They walked on through Swampside with no further incidents. In, fact people melted before them on the street, and even the hawkers quieted their cries as they passed; Raah's word obviously carried weight here. After about half an hour they reached the edge of town, where a final clearing marked the start of the riverside trail that led south to "deep" Swampside.
Since there was no one else in sight, they stopped there to adjust their small day-packs and their clothing. The men changed into high boots and stuffed their pants into them, and Dorrie removed her veil and fancy skirt to reveal some practical pants underneath. Having been warned about biting insects, all wore long sleeves - for Hox, long sleeves came down to only past his elbow, but he was used to that. It was nearing midday, so Jorac suggested they eat their lunch, some barely edible sandwiches they'd bought from a street vendor, washed down by water from the flasks everyone carried.
As they were finishing up, Jorac spoke to the group. "I was hoping we could avoid this, but we're going to have to go at least a little way into the actual swamp. I did a little reading about it, but I didn't find out much that would help us. Mostly they said it's dangerous, and you should have a guide, and you shouldn't touch anything you don't have to. So all I can tell you is, keep alert and don't touch anything you don't have to. We'll stop at the first place we can and do our test." And with that, they set off again.
The road began as wide, solid ground, but it soon narrowed to a winding trail, squishy in spots, that went around hummocks and through patches of sedges, some taller than even Hox. As before, Hox was at the rear and Schrog took the lead. The pace he set was slower than Jorac expected, and Schrog developed an odd head-bobbing pattern that confused him until he realized Schrog was scanning the swamp around them and the ground ahead, almost before every step.
This part of the trail showed frequent use, with matted vegetation or bare ground on the path itself, and nearby plants cut or trampled back from the margins. Sometimes small paths branched off to the side; Jorac wondered if they were game trails or led to some swamp-dweller's house, but decided to wait rather than interrupt Schrog's concentration with questions.
It was a beautiful sunny day, but it was beginning to be humid and quite warm. Jorac had been told that the wizard spell that gave Vaggert perfect weather gradually faded beyond the city's borders. He found his clothes beginning to stick to him, and there was a rich, swampy background smell of decaying vegetation. Some annoying gnats buzzed around them, but there was no other wildlife to be seen.
After Jorac idly complained about the gnats, Veseen said "Hold up, please. Last week I learned a warding spell that might work here."
He pulled some spell component out of a small pouch he carried, and explained, "I've gotten to the point I don't need the components for a few spells, but this one is still new to me. This is powdered fly wings; it should work for this."
He had everyone stand well back from him, then concentrated and slowly, carefully cast a spell. When he motioned the group back to him, Jorac saw that a small circle around the apprentice was clear of insects. Other people could enjoy it too - but only if they stood right next to him.
"I'm sorry," Veseen said dejectedly. "I wasn't trying to be selfish, but I don't think I helped anyone else with that. I was hoping I could make the circle bigger."
"No matter," Jorac said, "it was worth a try." He'd still rather work with the self-effacing youngster than any number of more powerful wizards. They all shrugged and walked on - at least when they were walking it took a little while for the bugs to find them.
It would have been a pleasant stroll except for the gnats, the squishy path, the increasingly powerful smell of decaying vegetation, and Schrog's obvious concern. At the first dry wide spot outside of town, a lumpy raised area with wide-based trees all around, Jorac called a halt so they could do a manite test.
To provide darkness, Jorac had checked a small tent out of the City Guard's supply depot and asked Hox to carry it. When they unfolded it, it proved to be a floppy canvas box tent, now very worn. To assemble it, they'd have had to find and cut poles to tie it up to, which seemed like too much trouble, so they merely used it as a big canvas wrap. Hox was too tall to fit inside, so stood guard. The other four got inside, using Dorrie's walking stick to hold up the middle, and managed to get it fairly dark. After a little while for their eyes to accustom, Dorrie did the honors again while Veseen shielded Jorac, and they marked the direction on the ground with a stick.
The inside four were happy to emerge from the canvas - it had been stifling inside - and the group talked while they folded it up and stowed it. Their mark on the ground definitely didn't point back the way they'd come, but it was hard to tell exactly what direction it did point. They squinted up at the sun and tried to figure it out. Veseen apologetically explained that a competent wizard could have told the exact direction, but he hadn't learned that skill yet. They finally decided the direction was still south, or perhaps southeast, further into the swamp but somewhat away from the river - crosswise to the trail at this point.
They stood and gazed at the thick, marshy vegetation in that direction. Everyone looked reluctant to go on, and Jorac felt the same way.
"Well, that's it, unless we can get a guide. Schrog, if we go back to Swampside, can we hire a guide?"
"Yeah, dere might be somebody in town. Take a while to find 'em, maybe dey could be trusted, maybe not." He looked down and kicked the ground a little. "But dere used to be somebody lived out dis way who could help. We can go see if dey're still dere."
"Who is it?" Dorrie asked him curiously. Jorac had warned her about asking "pre-Constable" questions, but this didn't exactly qualify, and Jorac wanted to know too, so he didn't intervene.
Schrog looked around, then up at the trees, and said, "Ummm. Err, 'twere somebody I knowed, before-like."
Jorac didn't like to see Schrog uncomfortable like this, but he needed to know. "Schrog, none of us has asked questions about your past, and we aren't going to. But it's pretty obvious you know this area and you still know some folks in Swampside. You're our expert: we need to know if we should go on, go back to Swampside and try to get a decent guide, or head back to Vaggert and get a whole squad to help us. You've been a constable for what, eight years now?"
Schrog nodded, tight-lipped, and said nothing.
"Do you think someone living deep in the swamp is still here eight years later - and would help us?"
Schrog spoke slowly, reluctantly, picking his words carefully. "Umm. I kept my ears open. Dat's all. I nebber worked down dis way as a constable, made sure o' dat, but I knows a guy who knows a guy, dat kind of t'ing. I used to know dis lady who worked de swamp out hereabouts. Last I heared, maybe six months back, she still dere."
Jorac smiled at him encouragingly; Schrog seemed to be emotionally touchy about this whole topic.
Veseen asked, "What can people do out here for a living? It seems very - uh, harsh."
Schrog's voice picked up, happier now not to be talking about himself. "Mostly de huntin' fer sump'n or anudder. Big damn cow-like t'ing wit' fat horns live out dere, good meat, good money fer de horns. Dere de big frogs, size of yer head, and de giant frogs, swallow yer head in one bite. Meat on dem no good, taste swampy, but keep you alive, and de frogskin worth some coin, de bigger de better. Big cats hunt dem frogs too. One guy used to hunt de cats but I t'ink de cats, dey got him.
"Den dere's some folks hunt fer plants, gots to be careful 'cause dey gots all kinds of spikes or poison, and some o' dem vine-traps or honeyplants will eat folks, but if you knows what's what you can make good coin dere. Plants don't move, mostly, 'cept for a few, so takes more smarts but less. . ." - he tailed off.
Dorrie suggested, "Agility?"
"Right, less agility. Good fer de older folks, or cripples, who don' wanna live in de town. Den, some folks hunt de lizards and snakes, or de little colored frogs. Poisonous, most of 'em, don' even want to touch 'em. Sells 'em to de places up in Pigtown, I hear dey goes into dyes or wizard stuff.
"An den dere's de idjits who go huntin' for stuff in de old city ruins. Dangerous place, dem ruins. A few walls and buildin's still standin' dere, but mostly just rubble under de water. But every couple years, somebody comes in with a bit of jewelry or a fancy glass bottle that ain't broke, keeps 'em in drink for a month. 'Twas wizards lived dere, so some fancy stuff laying around. Every kid in Swampside has a go at dat, first chance dey get, and mostly dey come back all cut up on de rubble, maybe sick wit' de cuts goin' bad. Some don' come back at all."
Jorac asked gently, "So what does the lady you know out here do?"
Schrog took a deep breath. "She works de plants. And she does a bit o' healin', cuts and bruises, potions fer bellyaches and fevers. She must be seventy or eighty now, dam' old fer Swampside." He looked like he was going to say more, but stopped.
Dorrie had been listening to all this with interest, and asked "How does a woman out here keep safe? I know the kind of men who'd come to this area, and they aren't the type to just leave someone be, am I right?"
"Aye, you gots the right of it. Dere's a gang or two, but lots of loners too. Anybody hurts de healer lady, dey gots big problems wit' everybody. But still dere be some idjits, so anybody live out here, dey sets up traps, fer de animals or de men, and sleeps light. You finds a shack or sump'n out here, you waits till de owner gives de okay before gettin' too close, or maybe he just finds yer body."
They were interrupted by a call from up the path. "I'm coming through. Stevens."
Schrog called back, "Stevens" and said more quietly, "Means even-Stevens, he won't mess wit' us if we don' mess wit him. If it's just de one guy, just let him by," and he motioned the group to the side of the clearing. A small thin man with a scarf covering his head cautiously approached, carrying a crossbow in his hand, though pointed at the ground. He scuttled across the clearing and up the path toward town, keeping as far away from Jorac's group as he could. As he disappeared up the path they could see he had a small overstuffed pack on his back. Schrog had drawn his sword but kept it down at his side; he sheathed it when the man had passed.
Hox wondered aloud, "What did he hunt?"
Schrog answered confidently, "Poisonous, whatever 'twere. See dat pack? Stuffed fat with dried grass, anudder bag inside. Prolly snakes or sump'n nasty."
After a moment, Jorac looked at him and said gently, "So, would you recommend we try to find the healer lady instead of going back to town?"
"Well, she used to live down de way we's goin'. It was left, right, left, right, right - dose be de turns you take at de forks. 'Tain't too far, maybe a half hour in. Wanna try it?"
Jorac looked at his group - no one objected - so he shrugged and said, "Looks like we're willing. As long as we get back while there's still good light, okay?"
"Yeah, spooky out here in de dark. Don' touch nuttin', got it? In de wet spots, jus' be real careful, and ya take quick little steps. Follow me close-like, maybe two-t'ree steps back."
With that they set off down the path, trying to follow Schrog's lead and be careful at the same time. Travel became increasingly difficult as they turned off the main path and onto less-used side trails. Still, the path was fairly distinct, once they got used to seeing it amid the vegetation.
The first two turns they were to take were fairly clear, but at the third fork the path forked into three, not two, and both of the two left forks seemed equally traveled. After they'd looked around a bit and found no clues, Jorac said to Schrog, "Maybe you can scout ahead? We should do the manite test again anyway; I'm pretty sure we've already lost our bearings."
"Yeah, okay. Don' touch nuttin', don' go nowhere. You'se could sit under dat tree dere, dat's safe grass. Somebody comes by, do Stevens wit' 'em, let 'em by, but don' trust 'em - take yer sword out, right? Back in a few minutes." He took the left-most trail, and was quickly out of sight.
The rest moved under the big spreading tree and got out the tent to perform another manite test. This time only Dorrie, Veseen, and Jorac were inside the canvas, so Hox helped by holding up the fourth corner from outside. The roof flopped a bit, but after a few tries, the inside three agreed on a direction and marked it on the ground with a stick.
When they emerged into the daylight, blinking, they started to discuss what direction the line was. "It's a good thing we tested again," Dorrie said, "I would have sworn our direction was over there." She pointed off to her side.
"Yeah," Jorac said, "lots of turns and no landmarks. That's why we could really use a guide who knows this area." He picked up a corner of the tent. "Let's see if we can get this stupid thing folded tighter this time."
Hox started straightening the canvas, finally lifting it above his head, when his hand struck the tree limb overhead. He dropped the canvas and said "Ow!" He brought his arm down and looked at the underside of his forearm. Clinging there was a small, bright orange and green frog, not much bigger than Jorac's thumb tip. Hox vigorously shook his arm, then flung it out to the side, which finally made the frog fly off into the bushes.
"That thing hurt!"
"Let me look at it," Dorrie said. "Hmmm, I can see the mark it made. Jorac, give me your handkerchief."
Jorac complied, saying "Blot, not wipe, right?"
Dorrie nodded, folded the handkerchief into a pad, and blotted the spot on Hox's arm a few times. When she was done, she looked at the handkerchief with distaste, then folded it in on itself and offered it to Jorac, who shook his head.
"I think that one can stay here - leave it under that bush. Let's get the canvas folded up and get ready to go. Hox, you just sit there."
They did as Jorac said, and then they all sat under the tree and waited.
Veseen was obviously worried, and couldn't sit still. He asked, "Should we yell for Mr. Schrog?" and was disappointed in the negative answer. Waiting was obviously hard on the boy - well, it was hard on all of them, but he showed it more.
Schrog returned a couple of minutes later; by that time Veseen was almost running in circles in the clearing, and there was a raised red welt on Hox's arm.
"I gots it figgered - hey, what happened?"
Jorac explained about the frog, and what they'd done.
"You done okay. Lemme see dat arm. Hurt much?"
Hox said, "Kind of like fire. Tingles, too."
"Put dat hand on de back o' yer neck. Keep it dere - keeps de arm up, keeps de blood out. Let's go - I knows de way now. If de lady still dere, she can help wit' dat arm."
As they fell into marching order, Veseen asked, "Will he be okay, Mister Schrog?"
"Orange ones is bad," was all he said before heading down the middle path.
Jorac noticed that Schrog set a faster pace this time; either he was confident in this part of the path or worried about Hox. They took two more right forks, and in another ten minutes or so came to a waist-high fence, woven out of some sort of cane or thick grass. There was a wooden gate in the fence, and a simple sign with the word "Madouve" and below it, a large "X" with a closed top. Down the lane beyond the gate was a small weather-beaten house perched on stilts a few feet above the swamp. Beside it was an even more ramshackle small outbuilding, also on stilts.
Schrog stopped, pointed toward the house, and said to Jorac, "You de leader, you call."
Jorac shouted out, "Hello! Anyone home?"
A lumpish figure came from behind the house, covered in loose, ill-fitting fabric. On her head (Jorac assumed it was female, but he couldn't really tell) was a large hat with a veil all around that seemed attached to the oversized tent-like garment she was wearing. Jorac supposed it kept out insects, which could be quite useful.
"Whatchoo got?" The voice was old and cracked.
Schrog shouted back, "Got coin, guy with frog trouble. Orange one."
"How many of you?"
"Two city guys, me, an ol' lady, and a boy." In a quieter tone he added, "Sorry kid, ma'am. Wanna seem harmless."
"Come in, just de hurt one. Move slow. Keep on de path." She moved around to the front of the house and picked up a crossbow there. She held it down in front of her, not threatening but ready for trouble.
Schrog called out "First guy comin'," and opened the gate. Hox's arm had a large ugly red and purple lump now, like a third of an apple just below the skin, and his normal beefy facial color was looking gray.
They watched as Hox stumbled up the lane, and at the healer's direction, sat down on a small bench outside the house. He sat down hard, and the bench promptly slid to one side and collapsed, dropping him to the ground with a sound of pain they heard from the gate, forty or fifty paces away. The healer walked over behind him and looked at the arm, then yelled out, "De lady and de kid next. Den the townie with de coin. You, swampie, last. Wait till dey get here."
Jorac followed Dorrie and Veseen up the path, and at her gesture sat on the ground next to Hox - but not before he jingled his bag of coins. His close-up look at the healer didn't reveal much. Her veil was too thick to see through, and her crossbow was a double one; it had two shots, and the bolts had some shiny paste smeared on the metal tips.
He looked more carefully at the crossbow. It was an unusual design, with a top and a bottom bow, and grooves for bolts above and below. It looked vaguely like two children's hunting crossbows grafted together, and was probably no heavier than a single-shot military model, but of course less powerful. The power wouldn't matter much if you could hit what you aimed at, assuming your target wasn't armored. What an old healer lady was doing with it was anyone's guess.
Jorac didn't like sitting on the ground. He was glad he'd practiced throwing the dagger on his belt from a sitting as well as standing position. He didn't think there was any real danger here, but he kept looking around to make sure no one else was around, sneaking up on them. If the old lady started aiming that crossbow at one of his people, he wasn't going to let her shoot without a fight. But he'd much rather work with her; Hox needed help.
To Dorrie and Veseen, she said, "You two sit dere too. Ordinarily I'd offer you a bench, but you can see what happened." Her voice was nasal and cracked, and her accent, though less pronounced, was similar to Schrog's - Jorac was starting to identify it as a Swampside accent.
When Schrog started up the path, she backed away from them to watch him and Veseen whispered, "Why is she doing this - and why are we letting her?"
Dorrie spoke out loud. "Think, boy. There's five of us, one of her - she's just being careful. Surprised she didn't make most of us wait down there. Anyway, we need her help. Look at Hox."
Hox had put is hand behind his neck again and was obviously in pain. His eyes were closed and even though he was seated, he was swaying back and forth, his breathing deep and forced. Jorac guessed he wanted to moan in pain but was too proud.
When Schrog arrived, the healer pointed to the ground and said, "Sit. Speak about de frog."
Jorac spoke up. "It was orange, about this big" - he showed by holding his fingers apart - "and had little jagged green stripes down its back."
"Green stripes, you sure?"
"It was right in front of my face. Four green stripes."
She nodded. "Wait here." As she moved sideways to go toward the house, Schrog stirred a bit on the ground and she whipped around and started to raise the crossbow. "Stay still, dammit!"
Very slowly, Schrog put his palms on the ground and shifted himself around. "Just sittin'. Ain't goin' nowheres."
She nodded. "Best not."
She disappeared inside, and Jorac immediately noticed a rustle at the reed window blind - the first thing she'd done was to check to see if anyone moved. Smart. A couple of minutes and a few checks at the window later, she came out with a wet piece of cloth and a small earthenware bottle. She was still carrying the crossbow in her other hand and still wearing the hat and veil. Jorac wondered what she looked like and why she stayed covered that way; it must have been uncomfortable and hard to see through.
She wiped the cloth on Hox's arm, and handed the bottle to Dorrie and said, "Feed dat to him. Shake it up first. 'Tis a double dose, about right for his size." She backed up, put her back against the house, and watched them, crossbow still in hand.
Dorrie, stood up slowly, shook the bottle, twisted off the stopper, and helped Hox drink it. He grimaced and said, "Bleagh! Water." She reached behind him, found his waterskin, and opened it for him. His injured arm stayed up, and he used his other hand to take a drink of water and rinse his mouth.
"What is that stuff?" Hox looked at the bottle. "Tastes foul. Will it help?"
The healer answered him. "It be what keeps you alive. Lucky you came here straight-aways. Caught it early, you be sick now, better tomorrow. Arm good in a couple days." She went over and sat on her steps, where she could see all of them, resting the crossbow on her knee.
"Dizzy." Hox pulled up his knees and put his head between them.
Slowly, mindful of the crossbow, Jorac reached for his bag of coins. "Thank you for helping him. What do we owe you? And what should we call you? Are you called Madouve?"
"You not be swampies, or you ask de price first. We'll talk about dat later. What I want to know. . ." - she ripped off her hat and veil, and her voice changed to that of a much younger woman - ". . . is what the hell happened to my mother. Schrog, you bastard, you better start talking."
The crossbow was now pointed directly at Schrog, and the old healer lady was revealed to be a young, very attractive woman with short, dark hair. Her eyes glinted, and her mouth pursed in anger - it looked to Jorac as if she was struggling to control herself. It took just a second for him to get over his surprise, then he causally reached down and put his hand on his dagger - just in case.
Schrog said nothing at first, his face amazed. With his voice almost breaking, he said, "Kimie, you're alive!"
"Fockin' right I'm alive. No thanks to you. One day I'm keeping house with my mum, and the next I'm carried into the swamp in a sack and left with a half-crazy old lady. And told not to ask any questions, nor go back, ever. What happened!" She lifted the crossbow and sighted it straight at Schrog, who looked back without blinking.
He drew his knees up and put his arms around them. In a tight, choked voice he said, "Kimie, I may deserve killin', but not for your ma. Was de first decent t'ing I done. Gimme a min here."
"It's Kimma. I ain't a little girl any more." Without the old-lady voice, she pronounced her words a little better, but still had the accent. The crossbow didn't waver at all; it was still pointed at Schrog's face.
[END OF SAMPLE]
The rest of the chapters are named so that if you have read it, you'll understand, but if you haven't read it, it won't spoil the fun.