If a line were drawn down the kingdom’s middle, Catania would fall squarely on the left. But it wasn’t until a traveler reached the borders of Westergo that he could consider himself truly in the West. The West was not like the East, its weather colder and its people harder, more willful and less tethered to the influence of the Center. And for the first fifteen years of his life, the West was what Tristan called home.
Tristan had grown up in a village far smaller and further west than the city of Westergo, but he knew enough to tie his coin pouch about his neck and to hide a spare knife in his boot for easy access. He’d been to Westergo just once before, and the memory wasn’t a fond one.
If Catania had been unfriendly, the city of Westergo was unequivocally hostile. Sinister eyes followed the three travelers as they made their way down the wide, curved through street and greedy hands pawed at their clothes and horses. Tall, rickety buildings loomed over the street on either side, casting dark shadows across the cobbled road.
The city folk were an odd amalgamation of the very poor and the very rich, although the former significantly outnumbered the latter. A fine lady in a surcoat of blue damask strolled by at a leisurely pace, but as she paused to examine a silk veil at a nearby street vendor, her sleeve fell back, revealing a bejeweled dagger strapped to her forearm. Hidden in the shadows, a young street urchin in tattered rags eyed the woman hungrily as she pulled a silver coin from her purse and paid the merchant for the veil. Tristan hoped the boy noticed the two large, hired guards who trailed the lady at a close distance, and didn’t try anything foolish.
The street urchin darted out from his hiding place, weaving in and out of the crowd, his eyes never leaving the lady in blue. “Shite,” Tristan muttered under his breath. The fool boy was going to get himself killed.
Tristan dismounted and grabbed the whelp by the scruff of his neck just as he passed by their horses. “Ger’off!” the boy yelped, struggling in Tristan’s firm grip. “I ain’t done nothin’!”
Tristan spun the boy around to face him. “You were about to,” he said, jerking his head towards the young pickpocket’s intended victim.
“Wot’s it matter to you, gaffer? She’s the mark, not you.”
Tristan bent close so that his mouth was level with the boy’s ear. “Do you see the two men to your left, near the stall selling cutlery? Big fellow, and the one with the shifty eyes?” The boy hesitated, and then nodded. “Good,” said Tristan. “They’re hired guards, son, for the lady’s protection. You get anywhere near her and they’ll gut you like a fish.”
The boy shook his head. “I’s fast,” he said. “And I’s needin’ the money.”
Tristan squeezed the boy’s bony shoulders, hard enough to make the boy wince. “If you’re so fast, how’d I catch you?”
The boy glared at him mutinously. “I wasna payin’ attention to you, gaffer.”
“And were you paying attention to the lady’s men, before I pointed them out to you?”
“No,” the boy admitted, his nose scrunched. “But I’da been fine.”
Tristan looked to the heavens. “May the gods save me from stupid boys.” He drew the corded leather out from underneath his tunic, pulling his coin pouch free. “Here,” he said, pressing a coin into the boy’s palm. The boy’s eyes boggled when he saw that the coin was gold. “Don’t spend it all at once.”
The boy’s fingers closed tightly around the coin. “Thankee, milord,” he said solemnly. He bobbed his head in a small bow, and then he scampered away.
“What’d you do that for?” asked Sam, once the boy had disappeared and Tristan remounted his horse. “The boy’s a thief.”
Tristan turned in his saddle to look at him. “Did you see the way his clothes hung off him? I’d bet my last copper he hasn’t eaten a proper meal in at least a day, if not more.”
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Sam is the most promising swordsman among this year’s crop of Paladin trainees...and knows it. Brash, cocky, and unbeatable with a sword (well, almost), Sam is the kingdom of Thule’s best hope against the violence wrought by demons. The only problem...