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A dirty rag forced into his mouth, a hemp sack violently covering his face, manacles restraining his hands, and Aeskild was plunged into a world made up of sounds and little else. This plan had gone wildly wrong.
They pushed him forward. “Step!” snarled one of his captors and Aeskild lifted his foot at the final moment, stumbling on what felt like wooden stairs. From the bouncing of the floor at every step, he realised they were pushing him into a carriage, one stained by the smell of blood and puke and other people, whose every slight movement was announced by the rattle of their chains. More prisoners.
It was less than a month ago that Aeskild had stood in front of Othalio, in his house in Istania, telling the man, with professionally faked certainty, that this would be a task easily managed for someone of his skills. Othalio, comfortably reclined on his throne of large pillows, his fat hand holding a golden goblet of wine, his face painted to excess, had looked like one of the pashas of Al-dukbar, casually flaunting his wealth as if silks, perfumes and caviar were to him as mundane elements of life as air was to other people. It was considered an honour to be assigned a task personally by Othalio and not one of his seconds-in-command, and Aeskild had already been called in front of the enormous man for multiple tasks.
“There is this object that I much desire, sweet Aeskild,” Othalio had said, in that slow voice, a mixture of boredom and lust in which the smuggler always spoke. It was all, of course, part of a carefully crafted facade, created by Othalio to make his enemies think him less dangerous than he really was.
Aeskild had tricks of his own, which he had learned early in his work as a mercenary. To meet Othalio, he had worn the armour he always wore whenever he was summoned by a potential employer. Adorned with fur and leather, it was meant as a reminder of a culture with which he had few ties, yet it added a lot to the imagined picture of a wild foreigner, which employers hoped for whenever they hired him as a sellsword. At some point, he had even considered painting his face with warpaint, but he had discarded this idea as pushing things a little too far. Then, when Othalio said “But this might prove a difficult task”, Aeskild began his part of the act. Pretending to take insult at the smuggler’s words, he beat his chest, shouting that he will not have his honour insulted, in this or any house, him who had mastered the ways of the sword; a mummer-show version of an offended savage.
This world of liars, crooks and bastards had an etiquette of its own, equally complicated to that of the nobility, if not more so. Othalio used to say that the only thing distinguishing their ilk from the nobles was the smell. They let this game go on for a little longer, dancing around their conversation, Othalio playing the role of the sluggish glutton, and Aeskild that of the barbarian brute, concealing the fact that they were two different kinds of wolves: one born of the streets of Istania, the other of the vast plains of a land far away from there. Both equally cunning, equally ruthless, and equally deadly, just in their own unique ways.
When their little show ended, and Aeskild’s honour was restored, it was finally time to talk business. He asked where this artefact was to be found and saw Othalio’s expression darkened, with a concern that couldn’t have been faked.
“Vartevia,” he had said.
Aeskild had left the smuggler’s house with enough Istanian gold in his pockets for the journey and even more waiting for him when he would return. Everything went to hell after that.
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