A few trials prior…
Stood at the edge of a quiet plaza, bordering the center of town, was a small two-story house that had seen better days. The three, narrow stone steps leading up to the door were chipped, flakes of paint were coming off the window sills and the roof tiles had turned from bright red into a dreary brown. Colorless curtains hung slightly skewed behind the house’s only front-facing windows and yet the Landlord, who owned many houses on the plaza, had the audacity to charge twenty-three golden nels for the remainder of the season, citing the proximity to town and the opportunities provided by a small eight-by-eight garden as luxury benefits.
“I’ll take it,” said Finn with a curt nod.
The Landlord hadn’t taken him seriously when he’d walked into the man’s office, but after insisting for long enough that he was interested in rentals and capable of paying, the blubbery man had discharged one of his underlings to seal the deal.
“You will?” There was no shortage of surprise on the face of the young man who had shown him around the property, mumbling some poorly rehearsed lines about the benefits of living on the plaza. He’d looked tired, underfed, and underpaid and Finn had already made up his mind the moment he’d first laid eyes on the place. “When did you say your family would be arriving again?”
“Within ten-trials, I think,” answered Finn.
That seemed enough to satisfy the mustached fellow’s curiosity and he was glad the man didn’t pry further.
Finn counted out the necessary gold pieces (plus a few extra for the poor salesman) and within bits he’d signed off on a scroll and had been handed the keys to the decrepit house which the young man seemed glad to be rid of before he vanished the way he’d come. An eerie silence settled over the plaza, and Finn wondered how many of the houses surrounding it were in use. Not many, by the looks of it.
He’d woken that morning to the chirping birds and the general bustle of activity on the plaza. The house might be on the verge of total collapse, but it was still a proper house, with a bedroom for himself, and a room to wash, and a bathing tub, and a stove, a kitchen counter, and even a small hearth and old but comfortable chairs to sit in. To anyone else it would seem a small house for old people to live out their final days in, but to Finn it was his very own castle, and he almost regretted having to leave it behind so soon.
After his morning ablution he’d went down to eat, then gathered some leftover bits in a bowl and brought them to his guest before locking the door behind him. Crisp air filled his lungs as he’d made his way to his job at the stables of a small inn where he was greeted by the usual long list of chores left to do. If only they knew this was the last trial they’d see him…
At dusk he’d left work and headed straight to the agreed upon meeting spot. Would they be there? Strangely enough he trusted Kasoria more than the cat-woman to show up. She was flightly, beastial, and unpredictable and he struggled to comprehend her thinking. Kasoria was a known, rational constant in comparison. Sure enough, his eyes found the shadow of a raggedy man leaning against the wall of a dingy alley.
“You’re one to talk,” said Finn, stepping out of the shadows. The raggedy man wore filth like a disguise and his stench had only ever been overshadowed by the smell of the streets on the Outer. Wasn't the smell of muck this time but a cloud of stinging poultices on battered skin hovering about him. Either way, Kasoria had a habit of reeking and it was something of a miracle he could smell anything at all over his own stench. “Took a page from your book,” Finn shrugged.
A sly smirk tugged the corner of his lips as he strode up to Kasoria’s side and gleefully noted that he had grown taller than the old man. Not that it would save him if the murderer decided to have a go at him, he knew that much. One of the first things he’d learned about the odd little man was his undying loyalty to cold-hearted cunt and bygone King of the cobbles, Vorund. He’d struggled to feign indifference at news of the man’s gruesome death which Kasoria had relayed in a few gruff words, either indifferent himself, or pretending equally hard.
Finn spat a thick clot at the ground, but the taste of smoked tobacco still lingered in his mouth. Didn’t taste particularly nice, but it soothed his nerves and mowed down the thousand little thoughts that sprouted like weeds in his mind. He’d mulled everything over endlessly and always arrived at the same conclusion: Zipper was in Andaris, captured by the Mantis and rotting away in one of their dungeons until they’d drag her out and burn her. Either that, or she loathed him more than he'd ever suspected and had taken refugte in some other part of the world, far away from him while he'd waited for her to come to Rharne.
Max and Blackwood had been too preoccupied searching for a bloody pebble. So, instead of relying on their skills and overturning each Mantis base one by one, he’d figured there was someone who could tell him precisely where his sister was, and maybe the boy-king knew more about the stone too...
He was shaken from his thoughts by the grating voice of Bloodhound next to him. “Oh please, cut the crap,” said Finn. He harbored no illusions that he was boss and didn’t aspire to be either. Far as he could tell, all bosses and Kings could do was stave off death a little longer, but their end was just as inevitable, though perhaps more violent and unexpected. His cold eyes swiveled to Kasoria and judged harshly. Nevermind Kas’s fierce loyalty and devotion. The bitter truth was that a man like that carved out his own path, and the only reason he’d joined in this adventure was he was bloodthirsty, barking mad, and happened to be greatly indebted to him.
He wondered if Kasoria knew that he owed his life not to charity or some high moral ideal but to simple desperation. When the man of many talents had washed up at his feet he’d been tempted to let the earth swallow him up, or bathe him in flame. It would’ve been easy to shove what little remained of Kasoria then over the edge. Easy, but wasteful, and not worth the fleeting sense of justice it would have granted him.
Two quiet shadows glided past closed shops and shuttered windows. The only noise was the occasional sloshing of bottled courage which Finn nearly half-emptied before unceremoniously offering a sip to the unkillable man who answered with a stiff shake of his head.
“Suit yourself,” muttered Finn with a bob of his shoulders. The road winded on until they reached a small, quiet plaza, on the edge of the center of town. Finn halted suddenly and peered up for a moment, squinting his eyes searching for something. Thick, puffy clouds blocked the last trickles of sunlight and smoke rising from the chimneys further obfuscated his view. “Huh,” was all the forewarning Kasoria got before Finn whistled briefly between his teeth. One of his many overworked teachers had swatted his hands for practicing bird noises while the rest of class had been trying to recite the Grand History of Etzos. “A waste of time,” the teacher had called it. He begged to differ. Soon enough he spotted a flicker of motion on the rooftops and dropped his gaze to motion for Kasoria to follow once more.
Qit, as she’d introduced herself, was even more of an oddity than Kasoria. The Etzori thug was human, his thinking skewed towards crime, but not so wholly alien to him as that of the she-beast. She’d managed to make two things entirely clear though: their interests aligned, and she’d known his sister. At first he’d questioned it. Surely Zipper would have mentioned Qit to him, even if only as an insult to his appearance, but her description of his sister was too frightfully accurate to have been mere coincidence.
While Qit made her way down, Finn fished a key dangling from a cord around his neck and opened the creaking door to his home. “Welcome to my humble abode,” he grinned over his shoulder as he entered the pitch-black darkness of his home. Despite Qit’s lack of decency, he trusted she was clever enough to close the door behind them while he went about lighting a host of lamps and candles in the house with a mere gesture of his hands.
The flickering lights revealed a house half-cleaned. The kitchen was as well maintained as could be while the chairs in the living room were buried under piles of clothes and other belongings strewn around the floor like discarded toys. “Don’t mind the mess,” said Finn. “I’ve only the essentials packed. Here-” he swiped away a half-eaten plate on the kitchen table and pulled up two extra chairs for his guests. A moment of rummaging through his scattered belongings later he returned with a fainted map that he’d gotten of the market for cheap.
“I’ve got two horses saddled and ready at the stables of Ron’s inn with enough packed to last the journey to the nearest harbour,” he started as he pointed out the spots on the map. “Qit,” his gaze fixated exclusively on her face, “I assumed you wouldn’t be needing a horse to get away. At any rate, the real trouble is gettin’ in. Fortunately, I think I might have a way.” He leaned back in his chair and smiled. “Honestly, I didn’t know this place had a cupboard under the stairs, but it sure came in handy. We have a guest with us tonight,” he said, his smile broadening. “A royal servant. Got a little too much ale in him. Lost his way. Got his boots sunk into the soil and, well, the real trouble was draggin him inside without anyone noticing. I looted those off of him,” said Finn, motioning toward the only neat pile of clothes that looked to be about his size. “Now, with that, I think I can talk my way in. But as for you… I am not sure yet. I thought you might want to pry some answers from my friend, however. Either one of you should do. So, who’d like the honour?”