“So you’re married, eh?” Vott asked Jari.
The pair were maneuvering through a packed backstreet. Market Street, Marudal’s main thoroughfare for highbrow commerce, was only a few blocks away, but one wouldn’t know it from the look of the narrow road they were currently traversing. The main avenue was always bright and colorful, lined with trees and flowers, while the backstreets were dark, cramped, and full of whispers.
“That’s funny, coming from you, Wissian,” Jari replied. “You’re the last person I would expect to surrender his freedom. How’d you manage to get a woman to marry you, anyway?”
“The same way I do anything else, through sheer force of will.”
“Ha. Yeah, I could see that.”
“You’ve changed, Jari.”
“A wife and daughter will do that to a man. You know, back when we settled the whole thing with the old gang, I promised I would never be in debt to someone ever again. But here I am, owing more to this woman than I ever owed the gang. My life, my salvation. More than I could repay in a hundred sordid lifetimes.”
“You’re not a bad man, Jari.”
As they progressed deeper into the complex of back alleys where Vott knew the black markets to be, his mood soured. He kept one hand on his sword and another on his coin purse, making sure to turn the latter away from any hooded rogue who had the gall to bump into a uniformed watchman. His steel breastplate, with the black mark of his rank painted on the left side, made him feel safe but also out of place. Hooded eyes watched from all directions.
Eventually, they came to what looked to be a pub, though the entrance was hidden between a dense assemblage of storefronts. A sign hanging from a nail on the half-rotted door read ‘Closed.’
“I wonder if Stigr is still working here,” Jari said, leading Vott inside.
The door groaned closed behind them. Vott glanced around at the cramped space. There was a bar on the far side of the room, several small tables to the right, and a stack of boxes to the left, blocking an old throwing knife board. The air was thick with the stench of old, spilled booze—his boots stuck to several spots on the floor—and the only light was from a single, high window in the front, beside the entryway.
Jari proceeded straight to the bar and knocked on the old, dark wood “Stigr? You here?” he shouted.
A shadowed figure appeared on a flight of stairs behind the bar. The man looked aged far beyond his years, with thin, sickly grey hair and sunken eyes.
“What sort of sorcery is this?” the man said. “Ghosts are not usually welcome in my place.”
“I’m sure you’ll make an exception for an old friend,” Jari said. “Speaking of ghosts, you look ghastly, Stigr.”
“Times have not been kind of late. We always thought you would be the one to turn out like this.”
“Family can be a tempering force.”
“Family, huh. Tell me, old friend, why do you bring the Watch to my door?”
“Jari is also an old friend of mine,” Vott said, stepping away from the other two. He leaned against the far side of the bar and crossed his arms. “Let’s just say I’m his moral support.”
“Family and morals,” Stigr said with a laugh. “You have changed, Jari.”
“Only for the better. Speaking of which, I need your help. The gambling ring is back… I’ve seen things I never wanted to see again.”
“Not back, no. Not the same ring, anyway. What is happening is the reason I look like a corpse. Things had been great the past ten years or so. When the Baron took over, everything calmed down. All the chaos, the violence came to an end. There was order. Of course, the Baron’s thugs came in from time to time to demand a fee for this newfound security, but it was a small price to pay. But this last year has been different.”
“How so?” Vott asked.
Stigr glanced in the watchman’s direction, seeming to size up the big man. “There’s a new player in town,” Stigr said. “A new boss who goes by the name Reaper. You can tell his boys by the snake tattoos they all have on their hands. It’s like a cattle brand. You see, Reaper’s an old-fashioned gangster. He keeps his men in line through pain and fear. And he’s using fear to take back the streets from the Southtown Gang. And my little bar is caught right on the battle line.”
“The gangs fight each other in your bar?” Vott asked.
“Luckily, no. There really isn’t space in here for fighting. They kill each other out on the street. But these days both sides come in regularly to coerce and rob me. Reaper’s thugs are the most vile, beastly sort of men. They stabbed one of my customer’s hands to the bar. How can I be expected to maintain a business with that sort of thing happening? I was starting to get real tourists in here. With the streets safe, thanks to the Baron, people would find their way here all the way from Market Street. Not anymore. If something doesn’t change, I’ll have to close this place for good. Then what? This bar is all I have.”
“Is Reaper the one who reopened the gambling houses?” Jari asked.
“Yeah. It’s his main source of income, I think. And he uses it as a control mechanism. So many folks have fallen in debt to his gang. They can’t help but look away as Reaper’s thugs tear this town apart.”
“So, what you’re saying is,” Vott said, moving back to Jari’s side, “shutting down Reaper’s gambling operations will be the quickest way to hamstring the villain.”
“Sounds about right.”
“So, where are they?”
Stigr reached under the bar and brought out a torn piece of paper. It had a snake motif on one side and the words “Foxes Tournament. Win big!” written at the top in poor handwriting.
“Here,” the barman said, handing Vott the paper. “They gave me a bunch of these and demanded I hand them out. This will get you in with one of their contacts. Maybe you can convince him to let you in the game.”
After a few parting words from Jari, and vague promises to end the local trouble from Vott, the pair returned to the street. Vott looked over the paper again.
“The game is in five days,” he said to Jari. “We need to get in. Can you still play?”
“You know I’ve left that life behind, Wissian. Besides, I’m not allowed in any of the tournaments anymore, especially the shady ones. Not after what we did.”
“We need someone who can enter this tournament. We need to get in, to shut this thing down from the inside.”
“As I recall, you were not such a bad player yourself.”
“As I recall, I was at the same sting ten years ago that you were.”
“But you, my friend, were in that gods-awful breastplate. I doubt anyone noticed your face. And if they did, it’s not like yours is very memorable.”
“Um, thanks, friend.”
“Ha ha.” Jari laughed and slapped Vott on the shoulder. “You have to admit it’s true. Makes me wonder again how you managed to find a woman. She’s not bald, is she? Or dumb as a rock?”
“Watch what you say about my wife. She’s a scary woman.”
“I’m sure she is. Now, we can stand here and bad talk our wives, or we can head back to the watchhouse, so I can teach you how to play Foxes like a pro.”