Thank you all for your patience– it’s been a long few months, but it seems that real life is finally settling down a bit. While I get back in the swing of things, I thought I’d share a few short stories I wrote in the interim to stay in practice. Nothing in Sins of the Father’s universe, though. So without further ado, Contraband:
Mu was stopped by a burly soldier he did not recognize at the entrance to the Alied bazaar. Pedestrians strolled through the smaller entrances unimpeded. The donkey, Xerxes, grunted as the heavy cart attempted to continue rolling. The shade cast by the keep was a blessing. Mu envied Xerxes his hooves, a welcome alternative to boots full of sand.
“I have returned from traveling the silk roads-” Mu began.
“License?” demanded the soldier.
“Can’t sell without a license. Duke’s orders.” A few of the other soldiers turned their attention to Mu. He shifted uncomfortably under their gaze.
“Sorry, why?” Mu said, irritated. He unlocked the heavy flat-topped chest that he kept his contracts and papers in and sifted through them for the ducal permit.
“A spice merchant was caught selling illegal weapons.”
Mu shook his head. “Despicable. A dishonor to the profession.”
Smuggling was profitable, and profit always found a way, but every time a smuggler was caught, they weren’t just consigning themselves to the gallows, they were punishing the rest of the traders as well. He found the license and presented it to the soldier.
As the man inspected the vellum contract, the other soldiers swarmed the cart like a pack of wolves. Mu took a step towards them, then stopped himself and gritted his teeth. Interfering would not be wise. One of the soldiers hefted a large roll of sky-blue silk that had cost more than the cart was worth. It should sell for a gold eye per meter, he hoped, one of the largest denominations of local coin.
“Careful!” Mu cried. He snatched the end of the silk before it could touch the ground.
The clinking of glass bottles set Mu’s teeth on edge.
“Opium,” commented one of the soldiers. “Wouldn’t mind some of that.”
Mu twisted his head to see one of the men pocket a small bottle of the opium and alcohol mixture, to his horror. Those sold for a silver finger apice, or a full hand, to a noble, worth five of the smaller coin. He saw Mu looking and gave him a predatory grin.
The man looking over Mu’s license signalled the others and they repacked his cart without care for the balance of the cargo. Mu slid the roll of silk back into the cart. He clenched his mouth shut against the tirade that struggled to escape.
“If we catch you with contraband, the eyes you lose won’t be gold,” their leader said as he handed Mu his license.
Mu shuddered. The images emblazoned on the local coins were a stark reminder of their worth. All the locals knew to keep at least one gold eye in reserve for fines or unexpected taxes, if they could afford it. Many couldn’t, but they still had to pay, one way or another.
Mu entered the market and was beset by curious customers. This was why he usually arrived early in the morning, but today it couldn’t be helped. Today was possibly the most important day in his entire trading year. He’d raced home to arrive just before a caravan of travelers would return and flood the market with foreign goods. Every finger he’d spent when he was away would get him a hand now that he was home, but if he waited too long, it would all lose half its value.
He walked along behind the cart, trusting Xerxes to know the way through the warren of tents and stalls. An empty space between two stalls opposite the menacing wall of the keep looked inviting, so he whistled at Xerxes to stop and steered the cart into the open space.
Directly across from him was the purple-and-white tent of Madame Shirin, Mistress of the Occult. She’d been in Alied longer than Mu had, selling her mystical wares to the townsfolk, even before it bloomed into the city it had become. He had no doubt that the open space was her doing. She’d attribute her knowledge of his return to prophecy, but in reality she simply knew how long he typically spent away, and had enough influence to keep a space open for weeks until he returned.
Mu tried to peer into her tent, but the velvet curtain that covered the entrance blocked his view of her. He would have to stop by once he was done setting up– He’d left a chest of coin with her so he couldn’t get robbed completely blind while he was on the road. He owed it all to her, so it seemed natural to trust her with it.
Mu unpacked the wooden frame of his tent while he ruminated and within a few minutes had erected his new red-and-gold silk tent to cover the more valuable of his wares. Mu unhitched Xerxes from the cart and lowered it to the ground. Something dropped to the dust below the card with a crack. Mu stopped and sighed. Had the axle broken? Now was not a good time.
He rummaged in the cart for his tools– he’d learned to keep them on hand for emergency repairs. He leaned down to peer between the wheels and froze. The axle was not broken, but a crossbow half as long as his body lay on the ground beneath the cart. It had been wedged into the underside of his cart and had fallen out when he tilted it.
Mu just stared at it for a moment, disbelieving. He’d never sold weapons. He’d never smuggled contraband. Yet here it was. The guard threat stuck in his mind.
Heart racing, Mu peeked out of the tent. The walls of the market, usually so comforting, since they made it near-impossible for thieves to escape, now had him trapped like the animals in the pens a few rows over.
The customers vanished like prey that sensed a predator. A troop of leather-clad soldiers swept into the row of stalls. They swarmed around one of the stalls near the start of the row and scoured it for contraband while a better-armored soldier interrogated the merchant. Mu looked around desperately for somewhere he could hide the crossbow and spotted a rain barrel against the wall of the keep behind Madame Shirin’s tent that looked large enough.
Mu ducked back into the tent and unrolled a bit of the silk. He pulled a small shaving razor out of his pack and cringed at the waste of the precious cloth, then sheared off a square of silk and wrapped the crossbow in it.
Once he was confident that the crossbow was concealed in its silk wrapping, he peered out of the tent again. The soldiers were still busy a few stalls over. Mu crept out of the tent and crossed the space between the rows of tent with hurried, but quiet feet.
“Who is the proprietor of this stall?” called a voice.
Mu lifted up the cloth of Madame Shirin’s tent with his foot and tossed the crossbow under it, to a soft exclamation of surprise from inside. He turned to see the guards searching his tent. A clean-shaven guard spotted Mu and gestured him over.
“Everything seems to be in order,” said the man when Mu reached his tent. Mu shuddered with relief as one of the soldiers inside the tent bent down to peek under the cart.
As one, the troop of soldiers left the tent and moved onto the next. Madame Shirin’s tent. The tent that Mu had tossed the crossbow into. A knot of horror clenched in his gut, but before he could move to warn her, the soldier that had checked under the cart appeared as if from nowhere. He grabbed Mu’s shoulders and shoved him into the tent. Mu let out a surprised gasp.
“Call the guards and you die,” he growled in Mu’s ear and pressed the point of a dagger into the side of his neck as punctuation. “Where is it?”
“One of us hid it under your cart.”
Mu’s eyes widened. “I- I had to hide it.”
“Where?” the guard shook Mu.
Mu hesitated for a moment. “Nearby,” he said. “I can get it back.”
The soldier’s hands tightened on Mu’s shoulders, then released him.
“Go get it. If you try to tell one of the other guards and he’s one of us, they’ll kill you. If you don’t have it in fifteen minutes, we’ll kill you. If you try to leave, our man at the gates will kill you.”
Mu shuddered and
He turned and walked out of the tent to rejoin the other guards, who had finished with Madame Shirin’s tent and moved onto the next. Madame Shirin! If they found the crossbow in her tent, they’ll kill both of us. Mu ran out of his tent and into Madame Shirin’s.
Inside, the dim purple light that filtered through the tent cast visible beams through the mystical smoke and illuminated the sparkling crystals and enchanted amulets that Madame Shirin peddled.
“Mu,” Madame Shirin said, fury brimming in her voice. “What have you gotten yourself into?” Her voice was coarse, like one of the opium smokers he’d met in his travels. She sat in a corner on a pile of cushions.
“Did they find it?” Mu asked.
“If they did, I wouldn’t still be here. The last person they caught didn’t stay alive very long.” She reached under her cushions she sat on and pulled out the crossbow and the silk Mu had wrapped it in. “Now, you owe me some answers. And don’t tell me you’re running weapons now. I didn’t teach you the trade so you could peddle death.”
When Shirin had first spotted Mu, starving, trying to sell stolen fruit from a street gutter, she’d taken him in and showed him how to peddle wares. He’d worked for her until he’d saved up enough to establish his own market stall.
Mu relayed the situation. Madame Shirin listened attentively, a look of concern growing on her weathered features.
When he finished, Madame Shirin leaned back against her cushions. “A rebel faction of guards?” she mused. “That explains a great deal.”
“Why choose me?”
“That hardly matters. The question is, what are you going to do?”
“If they get this, there’s no way it ends well.” Mu’s eyes settled on the crossbow, the instrument of his misfortune.
“If you let them have it and they carry out their plan, the royal army would have to intervene. That’s how they deal with rebels. The market area is their staging ground. We couldn’t sell.” Shirin said, hold one hand in the air palm-up. “We’d all be out in the street.”
“Oh, I’m not going to,” Mu clarified, steel in his voice. “One of them stole some of my wares and then another threatened to kill me. I’m not going to bow to them.”
“But then they’ll kill you,” she said matter-of-factly. She placed her other hand palm-up next to the first like a set of balances.
“I know how to deal with bandits. You don’t have to give them what they want, just make them think you have.”
A few minutes later, he was back in his tent when the traitorous guard arrived with a wooden crate to take the crossbow. Mu handed it off to him and promised not to speak a word. of it. He wouldn’t have to.
Once the rebel was gone, Mu reached into his pocket and pulled out the length of flexible metal that would hold the arrow in place when the bow was drawn. It would still fire, probably, but without the spring to keep the bolt in place, it would be horribly inaccurate. Without a doubt, the loyal guards would capture the traitors when their plan failed, and knowing the Duke’s harsh form of justice, they wouldn’t live long thereafter. He was not particularly fond of the Duke, but without him, all the merchants would lose access to the market and be back on the streets.
Mu packed up his tools and stowed them back in his cart, then returned to his wares. He still had to break even today.