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From Inside the Flap
Although Captain Jarn Theffig had lived in Skunnik for nearly a year, the city still seemed foreign to him. He had learned its streets and alleys and neighborhoods as well as any of the other Vothan Riders who had been assigned constabulary duty there, but when he rode along one of its boulevards or entered one of its peculiar districts, he often had a vague feeling of unease, as he did now. It was early in the morning, and he and a Vothan Rider named Braga were riding south down Zayet Street, one of the wide cobblestone avenues that ran north and south through central Skunnik. They were headed toward a disreputable part of the city known as the Bolt, where a crime had been reported. As they neared their destination, Jarn felt his heart beat a little faster.
He pushed all bothersome thoughts out of his mind and focused on the clip-clop sound of the two horses as they cantered along the cobblestones. The morning was pleasantly cool, and the near-cloudless sky promised a fine day. They turned right at Safflam Street and proceeded for two blocks before turning left onto Trink Street, another of Skunnik's main avenues. As they continued south, the buildings became less grand in style but still looked solid and stable. Jarn approved of plainness of building construction, but the contrast with the grandiose vistas of the northern part of the city was striking. On upper Zayet Street they had passed splendid inns and taverns built of graystone and pinkstone, and their large front doors, often painted blue or red or gold, were set well back from the street proper. Further south the buildings were mostly wood, sometimes brick, and few were taller than three storeys.
They crossed Morsen Street and entered the Bolt, a warren of narrow unpaved streets that sometimes twisted and meandered and often ended abruptly, for no apparent reason that Jarn could see. The neighborhood consisted mostly of small two-storey wooden buildings crowded together like spectators at a hanging, but the Bolt was also home to some of the city's oldest structures. It was also home to most of Skunnik's least respectable denizens, and it seemed to Jarn as if he spent half his time there looking into crimes.
They turned a corner, and Jarn swore. The Yellowshirt named Kurff was standing at the mouth of the alley Jarn was looking for, a block away, as if he were waiting. Jarn slowed his horse to a walk and glanced at Braga.
"I see him," Braga said.
"Kurff," Jarn muttered. "Again."
"Third time in as many weeks."
"Don't remind me," Jarn replied.
They halted at the alley and dismounted. Kurff, who wore the bright yellow uniform of the Acrinite Guardsmen-known to all as "Yellowshirts"-looked up and nodded. Kurff was a half-foot shorter than Jarn but weighed as much or more. His short legs and stout torso reminded Jarn of a barrel set on two sticks. Long, stringy black hair hung in lank twists nearly to his shoulders, and his small, dark eyes stared out from a face that seemed fleshy and gaunt at the same time. Kurff raised a bushy eyebrow and gave Jarn a vague smile. "Saddlemaster Jarn."
"It's Captain Jarn now, Kurff," Jarn replied.
The Yellowshirt shrugged. "You're late to the festivities, Captain Jarn."
"We come when we're called," Jarn said. "We don't have secret sources of information."
Kurff frowned. "Implying that I do?"
"Are you implying that you don't?"
"When an Acrinite finds a dead body or evidence of any other crime, he's likely to come to the Guardsmen first," Kurff said. "You can't expect them to go running to you Voths."
"Why not? We're here to serve."
"Acrinites don't trust you."
"We've played fair with your people, Kurff. Probably better than you deserve."
"Could be I wouldn't argue with you," Kurff said. "But most Acrinites see the Voths-especially you Vothan Riders-as an occupying force."
"We're occupying nothing but our own land-which your Acrinite ancestors stole from us a thousand years ago, through lies and deceit."
Kurff snorted. "If your ancestors hadn't been off riding to every part of the known world and beyond, they might have noticed."
"That doesn't excuse theft."
"Leaving a fat coin purse in the middle of the street in a bad part of town doesn't excuse theft, either, it just makes it more likely."
"Never mind," Jarn said. "I want to have a look at the victim's body."
"Right this way, Captain Jarn," Kurff replied before heading into the alley.
"Braga, you stay here with the horses," Jarn said to his companion, and then he turned and followed Kurff down the narrow alley, which ran between a tavern and a saddlery. Jarn entered a small yard behind the tavern and saw the dead man lying on his back. Two Yellowshirts were crouched over him. They looked up when Kurff and Jarn arrived.
"Captain Jarn would like to have a look at our victim," Kurff said to the two Yellowshirts.
The two nodded and moved away. Jarn approached the body and knelt down next to it. The victim wore tan leggings, a dark brown tunic, and black boots. He had short brown hair and a neatly trimmed beard. Dead brown eyes stared up from a face as pale as parchment, and the man's features seemed twisted, as if he had died from a bad fright.
Kurff approached and stood near the victim's feet.
"What have you got so far?" Jarn asked.
"Male, early middle years, looked to be fit before someone stole his life away."
"Any idea who he is?"
"Aye," Kurff replied.
Jarn looked up and glared at him. "Who?"
Jarn swore. "Reported missing nine days ago."
"Bastards," Jarn muttered.
"Aye," Kurff said. Jarn stared at him, trying to decide if he was being sarcastic or serious, but the Yellowshirt's stolid face gave away nothing.
It was the usual practice of the major Acrinite rebel group to abduct Acrinites they considered collaborators, hold them for nine days, and then kill them and dump their bodies somewhere in the city. Now and then, they murdered a Voth, but most crimes against the Voths were the work of lone assassins.
"There's a triangle on the sole of his right foot," Kurff said. He knelt down and pulled off the victim's right boot. "Have a look."
Jarn stood up and went to see. He knelt down again and rubbed his thumb over the small black triangle as Kurff held the victim's leg up. The mark seemed to be part of the man's skin, not like ink or dye. If the rebels' recent pattern of abductions and murders held, the victim's body would be drained of blood and missing its heart as well.
Kurff lowered the victim's leg, and Jarn stood up. "I have a litter coming," he said.
Kurff frowned. "Why?"
"To take the body back to headquarters."
"Why? What are you going to do with him?"
Jarn resisted the urge to tell the Yellowshirt it was none of his concern. "We have a mage who claims he can see into dead bodies. Maybe he can learn something about ... something."
"Learn what?" Kurff snapped.
"I don't know," Jarn snapped back.
"This man deserves a proper burial, not a game of read my entrails conducted by some petty conjurer."
"He'll get a proper burial," Jarn said.
"Aye, with half his innards missing. I won't have you tampering with the dead, not unless it's your own dead."
"The mage won't tamper with his body," Jarn said, looking uncomfortable as he said it. "He can look ... he claims he can look inside a corpse with some kind of second sight."
Kurff furrowed his brow and stared at Jarn. "I didn't think you believed in magery."
"Right now, I'm ready to try anything," Jarn said, an expression of unease still clouding his face.
"Do you trust this mage?" Kurff asked.
Jarn shrugged but said nothing.
"I thought not," Kurff said. "Nor do I."
"You don't even know who it is," Jarn said.
"I'll find out soon enough. I want to be present when your mage works his make-believe magic."
Jarn was considering his response when another Vothan Rider, a graybeard named Grion, arrived in the small yard.
"Did you bring the litter?" Jarn asked him.
"Yes, and a message," Grion said. "Line Commander Lahgoh wants you to return to headquarters now. He says it's important."
Jarn nodded. "You and Braga bring the victim on the litter." He turned to Kurff. "I'll let you know when the mage plans to do his ... work."
"Thank you," Kurff said. It was the first time Jarn had heard the man utter that phrase.
"No other Yellowshirts or any other Acrinites," Jarn said. "Just you."
Kurff nodded his agreement, and Jarn left the alley.
Blood Moon Publishing is an imprint of Double Dragon Publishing