Choosing Sides

I’ve got little patience for your games today, Rauda.”

Watch Officer Frige Dalgaard held the scrawny fence up by a fistful of his shirt. It was an empty threat, she knew. There was only so much she could do to someone like Rauda, someone who worked for the Baron.

Ease off, Frige, I don’t know nothin’.”

Oh, you don’t? I’m guessing you also don’t know how those bags marked Kestrel Trading ended up on that shelf over there either.”

You wouldn’t.”

You know me better than that, Rauda. Right now, I’ve only got eyes on this little coin of mine. But I do enjoy looking for trouble. When I’ve got nothing better to do.”

Okay, okay. Raza’s backside. You should try finding romance instead of digging up trouble.”

You do see the burn scar on the side of my face, right? Makes romance a bit difficult. Also tends to get me angry just thinking about it.”

I could set you up with—”

The coin, you little rat.”

Alright, alright. Give it to me.”

Frige released her grip on the little man’s shirt. Taking one last, wistful glance at the round, copper token, she handed it over. Rauda took the item in his ratty fingers, turning it over and over. The metal glistened with each rotation.

Where’d you find it?” the fence asked.

In a dead man’s pocket.”

What mugger with any sense would leave something like this behind?”

If I had to guess, I suspect the murder wasn’t a robbery. More like a message.”

I’ve come across tokens like these before. They’re used for high-stakes gambling. But I can’t say which of the old rings this belongs to. I don’t recognize the markings. Look here” — Rauda pointed to the image of a snake, which circled the edge of one face of the coin— “This sort of snake isn’t the moniker of any gang I know. I’ve seen a lot of these, from years ago, back when gambling was rampant. But I’ve never seen one like this. It’s also in remarkable condition for something over a decade old.”

Maybe it’s new.”

Can’t be. There aren’t any gambling houses anymore. The Baron saw to that.”

The Baron can’t be everywhere.”

No, he can’t,” a voice said from behind Frige.

She spun around to see two large men standing between her and the exit of Rauda’s little tent. They were bigger than her, but not by much, dressed in loose-fitting leather armor. On the back of each man’s left hand, a tattoo of a snake reached down to the center knuckle. The thugs’ fists were clenched tight enough to cause the veins to bulge.

Frige was not without her own protection, of course. Her steel breastplate fit her like a second skin and her hand rested instinctively on the pommel of a steel longsword. She’d drawn her weapon in close quarters before. If the visitors tried anything stupid, they’d find she could also attack in the same motion. With a thumb, she loosened the blade from its scabbard.

If you’re here to shop,” Frige said firmly, “I’d turn around. All this stuff is stolen.”

I beg your—” Rauda started to protest.

You’ve got somethin’ that belongs to us,” one of the thugs said.

Please, don’t break my shop,” Rauda pleaded, as one of the thugs tossed a knife which had been hidden behind his back.

Frige turned an armored shoulder into the path of the spinning blade, deflecting it into a nearby basket. Knowing the narrow space between the shelves would restrict her range of motion, she drew her longsword upwards. One of the thugs cleared the space between them, charging with a dagger. Frige parried the blow with her now free blade, spinning back to the left and driving an armored elbow into the man’s face. She saw a tooth fly free of the thug’s dirty mouth.

The second man was on them in an instant, grabbing for her hair. Crouching low, Frige used her powerful swimmer’s legs to drive both men backwards and into the alley outside Rauda’s tent. Both fell the dirt. She took the moment in the open space to loosen her shoulders then readied her sword in both hands.

I’m feeling generous today,” Frige said, watching the two men struggle to their feet, one slower than the other. “I’m giving you one chance to walk away.”

The thugs didn’t pause to consider the offer. They lunged at her in tandem, attacking with their daggers. It was clear to Frige that these two had not fought together; they got in each other’s way as they attempted to close with her. She deflected each one’s attack in sequence, spinning around the one with the bleeding jaw and slashing him across his back. Her razor-sharp blade cut through the man’s shoddy armor. He screamed. She kicked him square in his new wound for good measure.

The second thug howled, slashing at her with his dagger. Frige dodge each clumsy strike, parrying the last and slamming the pommel of her sword into the man’s head. He dropped to the ground. It wasn’t called a skull cracker for nothing.

As she gasped for breath, eyeing her little contribution to the restoration of peace in the city, Frige heard a shuffling behind her. She turned to see Rauda sprinting off down the alley. The little rat was trying to escape. With the gambling token in his hand! Frige raced off after him.

The scrawny man tried his best to keep ahead of her, but his left leg was crippled—a gift from the Baron, Frige assumed. Even in good health, few had legs that could match Frige’s. Hers were made for exertion. She was a race horse, and she was quickly gaining on her quarry.

Rauda tried his best to toss things in her way—baskets, chairs, whatever lined the alley. Frige dodged what she could, and charged bullishly through what she couldn’t. She watched the rat round a corner to the right, slowing her pace to attempt the tight turn.

She cleared it, digging her feet in the dirt to burst forward again, only to find Rauda stopped in his tracks. The rat had run straight into another thug and bounced off. He now rested on his butt, gazing up in fear at the interloper.

This newcomer didn’t look like the other two. For one, his leather armor was far better quality—a brown leather jacket with a cross-weave pattern on the sleeves. He also carried himself like real fighter, rather than just mindless muscle. Third, Rauda clearly recognized this man, as evidenced by the terror in the rat’s eyes and the way he tried to scramble back from the burly, well-muscled fighter. Frige might have almost found the man’s deep brown eyes and flowing brown hair handsome, if he wasn’t so obviously crooked.

Now, where are you off to, Rauda?” the fighter asked.

Hey, hey there, Wolf. Just the man I wanted to see.”

Wolf. Frige recognized the name. One of the Baron’s enforcers.

What’s that you got in your hand?” Wolf said, as he pulled Rauda to his skinny feet with one hand.

Hands off,” Frige said, brandishing her sword. “This one’s mine.”

Wolf ripped the token from Rauda’s hand and examined it. “Another one of these.”

Another one?” Frige asked in surprise.

Wolf tossed the token to her. With the sword still in her hand, she failed to catch it. It clanged of her breastplate and settled in the dirt. Wolf dug a hand into his pocket and pulled out another golden-hued coin.

We’ve both got one of these, it seems,” he said.

Whatever. Rauda’s coming with me.” Holding her sword in front of her, Frige bent down to recover the token. “I’ve still got some questions to ask him.”

No need. I know where these things came from.”

Why should I believe you?”

Because we are both here with the same purpose. The Baron would like to see this new gambling ring put out of business, same as you, Watchman. Why not work together?”

Again, why should I ever trust one of the Baron’s thugs?”

I am more than just a thug. It’s an open offer. You don’t have to trust me to follow where I am going. One of Rauda’s friends has fallen in with the ring. I’m going to go speak with the man, once the rat tells me where he lives. You’re welcome to join me.”

The little voice of caution inside Frige’s head was screaming for her to turn away. But she also knew sometimes you had to take a risk. The gamble was all part of the game. She returned her sword to its scabbard and stepped over to where Wolf was drilling the little rat.

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