Fifteen

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"Pag dad," stated the boy as he watched Prag fall from the back of the horse.

The women fussing over him entirely missed the point of his first meaningful attempt at verbal discourse and instead fawned like new parents over a baby's first words.

"You can speak. That's wonderful!" Cariolta grinned as she checked him over for cuts.

"Pag ded!" he tried again, more carefully. His tongue was not at all obeying his orders.

"I'm sure you are," said Kish in an uncharacteristically mothering tone. "Now hold still for a minute. How did you get all green and smelly?"

Now he was unsure that he was even on the right track. He was certain when he started that he knew the noises that he wanted to make, but they were reacting all wrong. He decided to have a final go at it. He gestured emphatically while he spoke clearly and carefully, "Puwayg dead!"

The women finally clued in and turned to see Warlis trying fervently to keep his still excited horse from stepping on the fallen body.

"Prag's dead!" they said in a chorus of understanding.

"When did you learn to talk?" asked Cariolta as they went to see to their fallen bodyguard.

"Pag tok." He pointed at the motionless body on the ground.

A sickening sensation washed through the noble princess at the realization that the boy's entire vocabulary would be based off of the ramblings of the uncouth mercenary.

The next hours were spent in awkward separation. The two windmares were unsettled by the presence of a wolf and needed to be tended to constantly to keep them from dashing off. The boy quickly proved unhelpfully curious with regards to first aid treatment and was forced to sit with Warlis and the horses.

Kish was tending to Prag where he fell. She was using strips off the sheet that she had thrown around her waist as bandages. A process which Warlis was doing his very best to pretend not to watch.


Cariolta was patching up Kazé. He wasn't badly wounded, but the lack of either a moon or opposable digits meant that he had to submit to human help if he was going to be able to walk the next day.

Warlis quickly tired of sitting in silence on his babysitting duty and turned to his charge. "Do you want to hear a story?"

"Mm," smiled the boy.

Warlis' eyebrows curled in uncertainty. "I'll take that as a yes, then?" He leaned himself comfortably against one of the uprights to the broken bridge as the boy sat down heavily in the wet grass. Warlis fixed his eyes on some distant unseen point of interest and his peripheral vision somewhat more firmly on the ever shortening skirt of Kish, took a deep breath and began.

"I'm going to tell you the story of the Vagabond," he began. "It starts a couple hundred years ago. Since you don't look like you can count to two yet, let's just say once upon a time."

"Once upon a time in the city of Antiq, there was a Lord. He wasn't a very good Lord. He was lazy and fat and he liked women and food more than anything you might call good governance. Anyway, he had a son who grew up to be just like his dad. Then he had a son and so on. Meanwhile, the city sort of started to rule itself. There wasn't anyone in charge, so the criminals took over. Some of the gangs became groups, some of the groups got stronger than the rest. There were constant turf wars, lots of people died. All the good people in the city left. After a while, all that was left were criminals and restaurant owners..."

Warlis lost his train of thought and cursed the poor lighting under his breath as Kish adjusted her bed-sheet skirt. "Where was I? Right. Anyway, if all you have is criminals in the city, then the city can't really survive, so the criminals started selling their services to other cities. There was even more fighting as different groups fought for business."

"One day, a couple years before I was born, the Lord of Antiq, having spent one too many nights with low-priced prostitutes, got sick and died without an heir. The king of Caneria thought this was great. He could finally clean up Antiq. He sent a strong and brave knight to be the new Lord. The poor guy lasted a week. Then the King sent a stronger and braver knight. That guy brought a squad of guards with him. He died a month later and most of the guards ended up adding their ranks to our City's businessmen."

"Finally the king sent the bravest and strongest general in the country and a whole regiment of men to the city. There were wars in the streets and blood in the gutters. But he got poisoned and his men left from the city broken and defeated. But this time it was different. This time the new Lord had a son—just a baby boy at the time. And the head of the three biggest families decided that if that boy stayed alive, then he would be the new Lord, and the King couldn't send a replacement to mess up business anymore."

"None of the families would trust any of the others with taking care of the kid, all of them wanted him protected, and none of them would accept the others having the Lord in their pocket, so all three raised him. He ended up with three fathers: Alun, Denor, and Cail. Denor was a great swordsman and taught him how to fight. Alun was a crafty old thief and taught him about stealing and people and magic. Cail was a dirty good-for-nothing murdering schemer and he taught the young Lord about politics and torture and, more than anything, how to survive."

"While the kid was growing up, the big three families had to cooperate. After a while, they realized that they were making much better cash that way. They started drafting rules and laws for how to conduct crime properly. By a strange quirk of legality, the kid had to sign every one of them, so the families actually had to get this kid to agree to everything that they wanted. Suddenly crime was law, and this teenage orphan kid was making it. He set up guilds. There were a bunch of them: Thieves, Mercenaries, Assassins, Prostitutes, Waitresses, Spies...lots. Each guild watched out for their own, and didn't dare step on the business of another. If they did, every other guild had the weight of law behind them to put them back in their place."

"The old burned out Lord's manor got rebuilt into a meeting house for the guilds. The guilds all had elected representatives and they would meet at the hall to discuss business. The whole thing was to be presided over by the heads of the three big families and at the very top was the young Lord of Antiq."

"The young Lord was wicked smart at getting the city to work together, but he hated it. Once he got the whole thing working, he wrote himself out of the law. The only provision that he made was that the Lord could take any business he wanted, without the consent of the guilds.

Then he left. Every now and again he'll wander through, check up on his town, pick up some work and leave again. But mostly he just wanders the lands, a lone vagabond."

Suddenly Warlis's eyes narrowed to slits and his casual voice dropped to a whisper. "The one thing, though. If ever anyone breaks the rules of Antiq or tries to do bad business with us, they end up dead. It's usually messy, too. People say that it's the Vagabond Lord that does it. He's the will of the city, and the city ain't friendly."

He took a deep breath and stretched. "So, did you like my story, kid?"

"No." The boy smiled. Then he scampered off to see if Prag was still dead.

"I think I hate that kid," grumbled Warlis as he stood abandoned with the horses.

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