With a curt nod, she spun and marched away. Lucendes followed, guiding her with occasional grunts as they left the Tanner’s District and entered the Cupper’s Warren. There, the ringing of hammers filled the alleys and the smoke of stoking fires billowed in the streets, increasing the afternoon heat.
Saja spoke of her father, of his trading caravans, and of the life that had been hers. She told him of the raiders who’d burned an entire shipment of oak bark and slain the dozen guards who accompanied it. How the loss had crushed her father and forced him into debt, and how losing a few contracts through ill luck had caused that debt to swell.
And last, she told him of Tarim. “Those my father owed forced him to sell his apprentice to the Kitame, in order to recover their losses,” she said, straining to keep her voice as flat as possible. “My father sold Tarim like he would any of the goods from his caravans.”
“He became an augurwraith, a bodyguard for one of the royal blood,” said Lucendes. “Such horrors the privileged deliver upon the poor. It is a blessing the Sultan outlaws the practice except to a certain few.”
Nodding, Saja dropped her gaze. “They came for him one day. We knew it meant his death, and still he went willingly, to become a creature of the spirit world, bound to one of the Kitame.” She blinked back the tears welling at her eyes. “One day he was as a son to my father; the next he was gone.”
Lucendes studied her. “You cared strongly for this Tarim,” he mused. Pursing his lips, his eyes flickered to the sky. Then he grinned and turned to Saja. “After you have eaten, we shall go to see a friend of mine. He may be able to help us.”
Saja started to protest, but Lucendes cut in. “Did you know it was possible to speak with an augurwraith? Even one not bound to you?”
Saja’s heart thumped. Speak with Tarim again? What would she say? What would he? The bustling of the city around her faded, and she allowed herself to be led away as if lost in a dream.
“That is,” Lucendes continued, “if you have the right kind of friends.”
Her belly full, Saja followed as Lucendes approached the hovel of his friends. It was perched between a slaughtering pen and a grain house, with a flat roof that buckled in its center. The thief halted at the slatted wood door, but instead of knocking, he slipped his dagger through the crack formed at its frame. The door creaked as he pushed it taut against its latch, scraping his blade up and down, searching for the release.
Saja’s gawked at the blatant thievery. She scanned the near empty street, wondering if anyone watched, when the latch suddenly clicked free, and the door swung open.
A man with shoulders as wide as a bull’s stood within. “You!” he cursed at Lucendes. He wore no shirt under his vest, and Saja could see his muscles flare.
“Me,” said Lucendes, ducking low and throwing his shoulder into the man’s gut. Both stumbled backward, spilling into a room filled with the scent of burning incense. Heavy tapestries hung on the walls, blocking the outside light, and a heap of overlapping rugs covered the earthen floor.
Another man, small and plump, sat at a table in the far corner. His robe was finely cut, something Saja’s father would’ve worn. He bolted to his feet, sucking in a tight breath and eyeing the open door, the only exit Saja could see.
The larger brute swiped at Lucendes’ head, but the thief ducked under the blow. He caught the underside of the brute’s arm and used it as leverage, slamming his knee into the man’s side.
The brute grunted. He clutched his ribs and bent over. But instead of attacking, Lucendes leapt out of the man’s reach.
“You think I’d not remember that ruse, Raj?” he asked. Raj glowered, standing upright. The pair circled, Raj in a crouch with his hands raised before him, Lucendes springing lightly upon his toes.
With a deft flick of his wrist, Lucendes sent his dagger sailing at the other man’s head. He rushed after it, chasing the toss that flew wide and clattered against one of the tapestries.
Raj didn’t flinch as the blade spun past. Instead, he stepped forward into Lucendes’ path. The thief tried to swerve, but his foot caught in one of the thick rugs. He stumbled, and Raj’s arms seemed to swallow him in a crushing embrace.
“I remember, too,” the brute said.
Lucendes squirmed, trying to loosen the larger man’s grip. His face turned red from the strain. He kicked his legs out and battered his head against Raj’s chest, but neither were effective.
Saja realized her knuckles had grown white from clutching her dress. She released her grip and glanced down the street again. She could run. What were the promises of a thief, anyway? These obviously weren’t his friends. But he’d fed her, as he said he would, and rescued her from the tanners. Thoughts of the roasted pigeon and beets caused her stomach to gurgle in contentment.
And the chance to speak with Tarim again. Even to discover the fate of her father. The boon was worth a small amount of hope.
…to be continued
Originally published in Pulp Empire Volume IV.
© Craig Comer