Chapter 8: The Spies

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The Great City. Kingdom of Dehn

Halfway between the eighteen and nineteen bells, Praster's heavy hand rapped on the door

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Halfway between the eighteen and nineteen bells, Praster's heavy hand rapped on the door. Inside, Karloh and Lenard were drinking Greyland wine, known realmwide as some of America's finest. Deep, vacuous silence had long fallen between the two men. The cracked lamp on the table was dry and since neither felt inclined to entreat the innkeep for oil, only three small candles bathed the room in a low, undulating glow. Karloh watched his companion's wraithlike face.

"Enter," Karloh called. Praster shoved open the door and ducked beneath the threshold. His skin was swamp green and glistened with sweat. "Sit." Karloh gestured to an oak chair at the near end of the table, poured a half-crystal of the strong wine and nudged it towards Praster. Praster seized the glass ravenously and drained it in one long pull. "Food?"

"Stomach's still churning like a broken spoke."

"We're going out tonight. Or at least, two of us are. I was going to take you, but if you aren't up to it, Lenard can go instead."

"I'm up to it, Captain."

"You don't look it. But if you think you can be less baggage than a two-legged mule, I insist you eat in the commons while the cook is serving. You'll need some ballast for your stomach; it's hard to know how long this will take."

"If there's wine left, I have all I require."

"Wine and work on an empty stomach make for a poor result. I think Lenard will do just fine." Praster's temples flexed as he clamped his teeth. "Or maybe I should send a stable boy for more Bravahli?"

"I'll eat some bread, Captain," Praster said slowly.

"Good. Do it soon. We leave at the next chime of the bell."

*

Inky blackness cast over the Great City. A late-evening storm blotted the sky with clouds. Though the Tortured Man was at full light, his anguished face would be no guide. The cloak of night, however, was perfect for moving unseen.

Though it was growing late, a city never sleeps. They could hear the jeers and the clanks of ceramic mugs from the taverns. "Maybe tomorrow night," Karloh had promised his companions. "If we can get done everything we need, we'll spend a few ovals on some ale."

To stave off the suspicions of the constables and tax collectors they would need to earn some Dehnish coin soon. It was imperative to draw as little attention as possible. Businesses in Dehn were subject to some of the highest tax rates in all of America. The more profit reported, the higher and higher their tax block, and the agents of the throne were experts at collecting it. It was said to be rare in Dehn for a business to cook their books, as the punishment for theft from the throne, as with many other crimes, was death.

The Courtyard of Helgar in Dehn's centertown was named after the Restored God of Death and was without question the busiest execution locale in the realm. The nickname "the Red Stairs" was syndicated across all four kingdoms for the blocked steps leading to House Calazar's execution rock. So much blood had been spilled there, according to legend, that the rocks themselves had taken on an indelible crimson hue.

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