Jared glanced down the narrow alley as they passed its mouth. His companions wouldn’t be able to see it, but Mrs. Wiggums‘ cat was stalking a rat in the weeds by the palisade. Her name wasn’t Wiggums, of course, but she was married to Mr. Wiggums, and that had been his name ever since Jared had observed him on a windy day some years ago.
Silver started to whistle, then cut it off as Jared glanced angrily at him. What was the point of listening for trouble before it found you if your comrades made so much noise? Ogre, to Jared’s right, couldn’t help how loudly he breathed, and didn’t see the point in preparation for a fight, anyway. Ogre‘s attitude was, once the fight started, he finished it.
“That’s my attitude, too, of course”, he thought as he glanced up towards the fingernail-thin sliver of Luna in the sky. “I just don’t see any point in getting more hurt in a fight than need be.” He didn’t put words to it, but he felt again the iron hate for the thin elven bones his parent had bequeathed him. He would never have Ogre‘s bulk, or his ability to be reckless in a fight.
Silver understood. He was fully human, but he was also more agile than strong. Jared could hear Silver‘s thumbnail flick the edge of one of his throwing knives, a restless fidget that didn’t mean anything, but that irritated the edges of Jared’s senses.
Jared hated night patrol. He hated most things, but night patrol brought out everything in him that he wished was different. He could see the heated forms of Flaccus the bum and his latest prostitute through the thin wall of his tent. He could hear the scrape and flutter as the bats and rats went about their nightly errands. He was aware of an entire world that his comrades were entirely unaware of, and he hated the mark of difference that it put on him.
“At least Celene won’t be up to any tricks,” he thought, glancing up at Luna. The big moon caused trouble in her own way, of course, as she pulled on Jared’s blood the way she pulled on the waters of the harbor, but Celene — the small moon led a dance that culminated on Godsday of every festival week, and She made Jared … dance.
Jared wasn’t terribly literate, but to the degree he thought in such terms, Celene was definitely capitalized, even in Her pronouns. She lit fire in his veins that peaked four times a year, and sometimes at the new moon and quarters, depending upon the year and how tired Jared was. On those nights, Jared used whatever excuses he could — once he had even abandoned his patrol-mates, and gotten a beating from Mic — in order to find a quiet, private place to dance. Celene was also one entity to whom Jared didn’t dare assign a nickname.
But, no, Celene was waxing towards the first quarter tonight, and wouldn’t cause him any embarrassment. Jared ducked under the low-hanging sign-board of the Grumpy Troll Tavern — it had been abandoned since the owner had disappeared three years ago, and the sign was going to fall into the street one of these days, but it was a kind of local entertainment when passers-by got smacked in the face by it.
Emerging at the next intersection, the lights of the Temple bloomed across their faces, spoiling Jared’s night vision. It was a Godsday, he realized, as he heard the light plucking of Charity’s harp. “It must be a processional,” he thought, since there was no one singing along to the music. He listened for the chime of the thurifer as it swung on its chain, but Silver nudged him in the ribs and they turned into the next street, the Temple fading into the darkness behind them as a whiff of salt water and rotten fish met their nostrils.
Jared had fallen a step or two behind, “Not because I want to hear more of the music,” he thought, when Ogre cried out and fell heavily on his face in the mud of the street. Pausing another moment for his eyes to adjust to the renewed darkness, Jared could now see the seed bag on the ground. “It must be soaked with mud,” he thought, for it lay in a trickle of water that always led from the well to the harbor, and he and Silver shushed Ogre like mothers as they helped him up off the ground.
“I’d send you back to Mic right now,” Silver was saying, “if it wasn’t so dark that no one will notice that you’re covered in mud. But I’ll do it if you don’t stop that cursing! It’s not professional.”
Jared grimaced in the darkness. While it was true that the merchant they were going to escort was one who cared about appearances, he always had trouble calling what the gang did “professional.” Ogre finally calmed down enough that they thought they could continue, but Jared could hear the big man’s heart racing, and the occasional cracking of his knuckles as he flexed his fists. This would be a bad night for trouble, and he fished in his pouch for a copper to throw across Norebo’s threshold when the passed the shrine a couple of streets down.
The merchant’s house was well lit, and a lamp-boy stood by the door waiting for them. When the trio emerged from the shadows in the middle of the street, the boy rapped sharply on the door, and the merchant emerged rather quickly, as though he had been waiting for them.
“Our apologies, Master Oaklock”, Silver smarmed, bowing to the wealthy man Jared thought of as Whiteface, for the powder he put on his cheeks to hide the blush of his heavy drinking.
Oaklock looked them up and down with a critical eye and sighed, resigning himself to the escort. “Thank you, Matt,” he huffed. “Perhaps Lester can wait outside?” Ogre huffed a little at this, but kept his mouth shut, and Silver continued verbally smoothing the feathers of their client as they continued towards the docks.
Jared inwardly rolled his eyes at the lamp-boy, even though he knew that the obstacle Ogre had tripped over wasn’t the only one between here and the docks, and the others couldn’t see in the dark the way he could. Still, he silently slid away from Silver and Whiteface, letting the darkness hide him, and becoming more aware of the other shapes that were concealed in the darkness.
The sound of the surf against the breakwater was loud in his ears as they came up to the Pentapus, the arcane shellfish splaying its five legs across the weather-beaten sign above the door. There was a big longshoreman leaning in at one of the tavern’s windows, so Jared silently steered Ogre to the other one. That way, he reasoned, he’d be in on any action, but wouldn’t upset Master Whiteface with his muddy clothes. Besides, he didn’t like to think of the exit being barred by that longshoreman.
Silver held the door for the merchant and the lamp-boy trimmed his lamp to wait for them to emerge. After Silver and Whiteface had disappeared inside, Jared counted three and followed them.
At least Silver was along this time, he thought. Mic seemed to have an idea that Jared was persuasive, and kept trying to cast him as the face-man. Silver could talk the scales off a flounder, as the saying went, and then charge it for the privilege. Jared thought of himself as muscle — less blunt and unimaginative than Ogre, but pointed and piercing. His eyes were two of his weapons. He leaned against the wall next to the bar and started counting.
Four longshoremen, that was certain, he thought. One man, a half-orc?, might be a sailor off the ship in the harbor, called the Ghoul. The merchant from the ship, Whiteface’s counterpart, was a fat and greasy man with deep folds on his face and stains all over his rich robes. There was half a goose in pieces on a trencher in front of him, and he scarcely looked up at Whiteface as the local merchant sat down across from him, loudly greeting him and proclaiming how good it was to see him.
“Swine?” Jared thought. No, Swine might be a better name for the half-orc, whose greenish snout was very piglike, and whose little eyes glittered as he looked around the room. Jared could see that Swine was the reason that Oil-tub (that name worked) was so nonchalant about the open bag of coins on the table next to him. The extra bulk to his tunic might be the orcish muscles Jared had heard about, but it might be armor. Jared glanced at the board and flipped a two-copper piece on the bar as he ordered a short beer, loosening a dagger beneath his cloak with his other hand as he did so.
Oil-tub wiped his greasy fingers on Swine’s cloak, and Jared was unhappy that he couldn’t read the half-breed’s expression well enough to see if he cared. One of the longshoremen had gotten up and was moving behind Silver, seeming to be looking at the dart-board on the wall behind him. The one at the window leaned out and glanced towards where Ogre slouched, impassively, at the other window. Jared ordered another beer, commenting, “For my friend,” with a gesture to Silver, when the barman looked quizzically at him. He sipped from the first beer, glad that they served in bottles down here at the docks, and feeling the heft of the glass, the balance of the bottle as he drank it down. When the balance changed, he swapped for the other bottle, getting another look from the barman.
Whiteface was starting to lose his composure. There were sheaves of parchment on the table now, and he was reading from one of them, his mouth moving as he followed the letters. Oil-tub was watching him more carefully now, although he affected nonchalance, and Jared saw that his right hand disappeared into the folds of his robe time and again. Jared exhaled and took a sip of beer every time the hand emerged empty, but he could tell things were not going well.
Silver, meanwhile, had shifted his position so that the longshoreman was no longer right behind him, and he was making facial expressions and whispering to Swine both to distract him, and to size him up. The big Half-orc didn’t react in any way, and Jared found himself wondering if the creature was just too stupid to follow a conversation. Although his head was on a swivel, and the little pig-eyes kept taking in the whole of the room, he didn’t move in any other way, and Jared had not yet seen a weapon on him.
Dismayed, Jared realized that he had become distracted. Without his noticing, the greasy merchant now held a dagger just below the table, and he had begun to lean forward. Silver was glancing back at the longshoreman behind him and Ogre seemed disengaged — perhaps he was thinking of coming in for a beer, despite orders.
Suddenly, Oil-tub lashed out with his left hand, grabbing Whiteface by the wrist of the hand that held the parchment. As the dagger began coming back and prepared to rise above the table, Jared threw the bottle of beer he had been nursing. It stung the fat merchant on the elbow and shattered, the pain causing the man to drop the knife into the folds of his robe. However, Jared’s movement had not gone unnoticed.
Swine swung a heavy club — a thick stick with a band of iron around the end — and almost caught Silver in the face as he glanced back from the longshoreman. Silver dived forward and grabbed Whiteface, pulling him under the table while he called for Lester to help.
Things moved very quickly after that. Someone threw a knife at Jared that caught him in the left shoulder. The Half-orc now had an axe in one of his hands, and Silver’s back was unprotected, sticking out from beneath the table. Jared threw his dagger, intending to hit the Half-orc in the shoulder joint, gasping as the half-man lurched into the path of the blade and took it in the throat.
The longshoreman at the window was in the tavern now, having been thrown head-first through the window by Ogre, who entered the room by the door laughing wildly. Silver was on his back, kicking at a couple of longshoremen who were trying to pull him up and away by his legs, while Whiteface hid wretchedly under the table.
Jared threw the other beer bottle, and grabbed a wine bottle before the barman could put it out of reach behind the bar. Smashing the end off the bottle to make a satisfyingly jagged edge, he leapt forward from the bar to the side of the obese merchant.
“Call off the dogs,” he snarled, nicking the man slightly with the sharp glass. While he held the bottle mostly steady, he found the fallen knife in the man’s robes and retrieved it. He didn’t hear Oil-tub give the stand-down order.
He didn’t see Ogre fly into two of the longshoremen, bearing them bodily to the ground. He didn’t see Silver get to his feet, and then punch one of the longshoremen who renewed the attack when they saw that Ogre hadn’t stopped.
He seemed to hear a heartbeat, though it was not with his ears. The little pig-eyes of the half-breed locked onto his, and Swine reached up, pulled on Jared’s dagger, and died. Jared didn’t know what it was, but he seemed to feel it as the Half-orc’s spirit rushed out of his body and into the darkness.
He came to himself when one of the longshoremen tackled him, and he wrestled himself free, smashing the man’s face into the floor. Silver had somehow gotten Oaklock to the door, so Jared retrieved his dagger from the fallen Half-orc and picked up the latter’s club to help Ogre pacify the remaining longshoremen. He took a moment to knock the greasy merchant unconscious during the melee, aware that he might have things more dangerous than daggers hidden in his robes.
When the last of the longshoremen was moaning on the floor and Ogre looked around to find no more foes, he jerked his head towards the door and the two of them followed Silver and Whiteface into the darkness, Jared stopping only long enough to pick up the bag of coins from the table on the way.
As he glanced through the window as they began their way back, he saw the stiff, ungainly corpse of the Half-orc. What affinity had passed between them as that man died, he wondered. Was it simply that they were alike, the ugly and the handsome, both cast-offs of monsters who had left them to find their own way in the world of humans?