Join Auric and Pan, two street thieves, as they pull a fast one on some nobility
in this excerpt from the first book in The Varas Stones trilogy:
The Golden Fleece, Chapter One: The Grifters.
Auric leaned his head back against the wheel of the wagon and let out a sigh, playing his hands along the flat, cool paving stones beneath him. He tapped his foot impatiently.
“There’s gotta be more to life,” he grumbled. “This ain’t how I wanted to spend my sixteenth birthday.” He looked around, checking to see if anyone had overheard him.
Behind him, a long, wooden cart, weighed down heavily with overstuffed bags of flour, sagged on a broken axle. Affixed in place ahead of it floated a hippanemos, its leathery, grey body swaying gently side-to-side within the harness while the rear of its body narrowed to a long, vertical fin, shuddered every so often to keep it in place. Ready to pull again, the hippanemos turned its long face toward Auric and let out a huff.
“It wasn’t my idea to go this way,” Auric growled back. “I wanted to take the rotary bridge in the Endevest District, but nooooo, you had to pull right. And now where are we, huh?”
The hippanemos huffed again and turned away.
“Exactly.” Auric balled his hands into fists and let them thud against the paving stones. “Some birthday.”
A throat cleared nearby and Auric looked up to see a couple standing a few metres away from him, a note of concern tainting their expressions.
“Not the way you wanted to spend your afternoon, eh, boy?” The man leaned in a little, his face breaking into a smile, the shaved patches above his eyes wrinkling. He had a flowing white cape draped across his back and left shoulder, allowing his right hand to hover near his sidebow. Auric’s practiced eyes quickly glanced over the bow, seeing that the string wasn’t pulled back and no bolt was loaded. The reloading mechanism strapped to the man’s outer thigh was unmarked and polished, and the bandolier that ran around his leg was full. This weapon was for show, not for use.
“No, Mister Baron,” said Auric, drawing two dirty fingers down his right cheek in a sign of respect.
The man laughed and looked at the woman next to him. “The boy knows quality, eh?”
The woman chittered nervously but the man didn’t wait for an answer.
“Not a Baron, son. Just another representative of my House.”
“House Laguna,” supplied Auric. The shaved eyebrows and red sigil of the gurn on the white cape gave away the man’s allegiances easily enough. There were ten Houses in Nua Verden and everyone in the city knew the associated physical traits, animals, and colours. Attributing a noble to the wrong House was a mistake you only made once.
Auric stood as the man preened in front of his mistress, obviously pleased to have been recognised by a poor waif like Auric. He needn’t have been. House Laguna ran the slaughterhouses and meat-packing district. It was a rich House and controlled a much-sought-after trade, but it wasn’t particularly powerful or well-respected.
Still, Auric thought, to be any type of noble…
“Your wagon appears to be broken,” the man said. Auric looked back down at the busted axle with a despondent gaze. “I’d offer to help, but I’m afraid I’m no good with my hands.” He raised them up and waggled his fingers, as if talking to a child. “Just the money man, you see.”
“The gods see fit to give rewards to those who earn them,” Auric quoted, watching the man smile again. He let his eyes flit over to the woman, who was pursing her lips thoughtfully.
She leaned toward the man and whispered, “Han er ude efter dine penge. Pas på.”
Auric quickly translated the Danish warning and said pre-emptively, “But don’t worry. I’ve no need of money, sir. A pair of strong arms wouldn’t go unthanked, though.”
The man blinked. “I’m not sure what I can do… Is it very heavy?”
“Too heavy for me and old Bartholomew to hoist alone,” said Auric, patting the hippanemos’ hindquarters. “But with a little help…”
The man took a breath. “I’m afraid I’m just not –”
Before he could finish, a shout sounded from behind them and was followed a second later by a boy, similar in age to Auric, of medium build with thick, brown hair. The boy pushed through a few passers-by, ignoring their grunts and huffs, and skidded to a stop next to Auric, resting his arms on the shoulders of the shorter boy and gasping.
“What is it?” said Auric, his eyes lit with a mixture of hope and desperation. “Where’s the axle?”
The taller boy wheezed a few more times and spat on the ground, looking up abashedly at the woman’s shocked gasp. “Sorry ’bout that, miss. Not used to bein’ around finery like you.”
The woman stood up a little straighter and nodded slightly in haughty absolution.
“Pan?” Auric gave the other boy a light shove. “The axle?”
“Oh, right. Well, that’s why I was running, wasn’t I? The stropping carter wouldn’t give me one, would he? Said I didn’t have the money for it.”
Auric felt his face drop. “But you’ve all nineteen marques.”
Pan shrugged. “He said it’d be twenty-five, plus five for delivery.”
Auric groaned and sank back to a crouch. Pan knelt beside him and put a hand on his shoulder. “It’ll be all right. I’ll get the rest from Master Caulin. He owes us for the –”
“He already paid us for that.”
“Right.” Pan frowned. “What about that time we –”
“Hmm. Well, what about when –”
“Pan, we owe him for that!” Auric smacked the ground beside him and was rewarded with a sniff from the woman standing above him. “Would the carter give us an advance? If we make this delivery, we’ll have enough to pay him back.”
“Told him that,” said Pan, scratching his head. “He said he wants the money first.” Pan shuffled to sit down beside Auric. “Sorry, Aur. Today of all days.”
Both boys looked up to see the Laguna man staring down at them.
“I have a proposition, my young, Houseless gentlemen,” he said. The boys remained quiet. Confident he had an audience, he went on. “I will loan you the marques you need to purchase the axle, on two conditions. One, I only loan you six. You can ‘deliver’ the item yourselves. And two, I will accompany you as you distribute your goods, and will take an additional six from your profits, on top of my repayment. Deal?”
Auric and Pan exchanged a glance; no more was needed.
“Deal!” They jumped to their feet, Pan practically dancing as the man counted six marques into his hand from a purse he’d pulled from somewhere inside his cape.
Money in hand, Pan whirled away and sprinted into the passing traffic, yelling thanks behind him as he went, praising the generosity of House Laguna.
“Think nothing of it, my boy,” said the man. He glanced over at his companion.
Auric quickly stepped forward. “Might try to loosen the bolts underneath, for when Pan gets back. Mind giving a lift to the back end?”
The man paused only for a second. “Why not?” He crouched down to look at the cart, then stood and untied his cape. Auric took it quickly and passed it off to the Lady with a small bow as the man rolled up his sleeves. “After all, you’d never see anyone from House Bellicora doing this, would you?”
“Never have, sir,” Auric answered honestly as the man scooted under the wagon. “Hold on there now, Bartholomew.”
“Be careful, Hendar,” said the woman, carefully folding up the cape and keeping it tightly wrapped in her arms. Her shaved eyebrows were scrunched down suspiciously and Auric was sure she meant the words as a warning about him, but he kept a relaxed expression on his face. Her meaning was completely lost on the man.
“No need to fear, Tristal.” The man’s voice was muffled under the cart. “I used to build carts of my own when I was a child. Why, I remember when –”
“Olha, o que estás a fazer com o meu carrinho?”
All three of them turned their heads to see a short, balding man huffing toward them from across the crowd, a thick, wooden axle hefted over his shoulder. Auric’s face paled as his mind translated from the Portuguese. Hey, what are you doing…
“…to my cart?” The man was shouting again, louder, and this time in English.
“Your cart?” The voice from beneath the wagon was confused, but its tone soon changed. “But he said –”
Auric spun around and slapped the hippanemos on the rear fin. The animal snapped side-to-side viciously, its wild movements shaking the heavy cart. With a loud crack, the damaged axle broke in two and the whole cart dropped a few more centimetres, pinning the Laguna man underneath it.
Ignoring the man’s cry, Auric dropped to his knees and reached under the cart, one hand pushing away the man’s flailing arm and the other grasping for the grip of his sidebow.
“You’re fine!” Auric grunted as the man slapped at his arm. “Stop whining!”
“Why you sheathing mudkin! You stropping, sheathing hardborn! When I get free of this, I’ll teach you such a lesson –”
“Can’t wait,” Auric grunted, his right hand finally finding the sidebow’s grip. Heaving, he pushed forward on the bow, driving it down the loading mechanism strapped to the man’s leg, pushing a bolt into the track and pulling back the string. He felt a snap as the latch caught, then he pulled his arm back, drawing the weapon free of its holster.
Only one shot, he thought as he spun around on his knees and jumped to his feet. Without a pressure-mounted bandolier on his own leg to force another bolt into the trap, he wouldn’t be able to holster again to reload. Make it count.
By now, a small crowd had gathered to see what all the fuss was about, but the mob quickly drew back with loud gasps as Auric raised the sidebow. The Laguna woman let out a quick shriek that was cut off as soon as it escaped, her face white with terror as she stared at the loaded weapon.
The only person who didn’t seem impressed was the cart’s owner, who hadn’t slowed down at all and was now shouldering his way to the front of the crowd, the thick axle no longer resting on his shoulder.
“You boys said you’d watch my cart! What’s that man doing under it?”
“Umm…” Auric’s mind raced to find a good excuse. “Napping?”
“Get me out of here!” came the man’s voice from under the cart.
“He talks in his sleep,” explained Auric, his eyes on the axle the cart driver was brandishing.
“I’m not sleeping!” yelled the Laguna man.
“Aw, come on, you’re not even trying!” sniped Auric, his mind racing. How do I get out of this one?
“Shut up, kid,” said the cart driver. “Enough games. Drop the bow.” He waggled the axle. “Let’s not make this messy.”
“You mean like this?” came a shout from above.
All eyes shot upward to see a figure leaping off a roof above the street. It plummeted down and landed on the pile of flour bags, bursting them open and plunging the street into a thick, powdery fog.
“Pan?” Auric lowered his weapon and stumbled toward the cart, reaching out blindly. His hand found a figure lying on the exploded bags, its face too rigid and unmoving to be his friend’s.
A hand grabbed his shoulder and Auric whirled around, sidebow at the ready.
“Woah!” Pan pushed the weapon away. “Don’t shoot!”
“You didn’t jump?” Auric coughed into his sleeve.
“Do I look stupid? Another stropping statue of Tosetti was the third member of our crew today.” Pan waved his hands in front of their faces. The cloud of flour was starting to clear. “Time to go.”
Auric didn’t wait around to argue. Together, he and Pan vanished into the crowd, coughing and waving their arms just like everyone else. When the flour settled, the cart was still broken, the Laguna man was still trapped, and the two boys were nowhere to be found.