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On a cold day in the rainy season, a young woman named Kajulan waited out of sight, off to the side of a street that had been carefully chosen. It was the perfect place in the city of Romba for someone like her. Far away enough from the nice parts of town that the guard rarely ever ventured to it, but not so downtrodden that it worried the rich folk to travel it. Of course, if people kept getting robbed, that might change one day.
Clearly it was not this day though, as a young man and woman dressed in silk and making googly eyes at each other came down the road, unburdened by any hired protection. Kajulan leaped from her hidey hole, landing in a crouch, and slowly uncoiled upwards. She had a wicked knife already drawn, flicking it back and forth, and gave a crooked smirk. She looked wild, scarred and unkempt with skin an even sicklier shade of green than usual for an albi, although her hair was cut short and carefully parted to the side, contrasting with the rest of her ensemble. The young man bristled slightly and puffed his chest out, making Kajulan chuckle. “Drop the act, kid. I’m the one with the knife.”
Kajulan began slowly circling the couple, elbow resting on her hip and the knife pointed straight out. They were the right amount of scared; enough to cooperate, but not enough to do anything rash.
“So,” she began, not even looking at them. “What do you two have that I might want?” The two didn’t answer, barely breathing as they did everything they could so as not to provoke her. “That wasn’t rhetorical guys. I’m actually looking for an answer.”
There was another period of silence, during which the man was clearly trying to hold back an outburst.
“Where the hell are the guards?” he whispered through gritted teeth.
“Not here,” replied Kajulan, her smirk widening. She stopped her circling and stepped closer to them, raising the knife. “That also wasn’t an answer to my question.”
Kajulan’s eyes darted to the woman’s hands, which were hidden in the pockets of her robes. “Now, why’s the lady hiding her hands?”
Before either had a chance to respond Kajulan darted forward, grabbing the woman’s arm and forcing her hand from her pocket. On her finger was a beautiful ring, made from silver with gold inlay. Kajulan held the woman’s hand in hers, getting a better look at the jewelry.
“How pretty,” she said. “How much do you figure a ring like this is worth?”
“Not much,” lied the woman.
Kajulan gave a short snort at that, before slipping the ring off her finger. She held it between her thumb and index, taking some time to admire it before dropping it into her pocket. She looked back at the couple. “I suggest you two stay put until I’m gone. I don’t want either of you running to the guards.”
Kajulan began to slink away, continuing to gesture menacingly at the couple with her knife, before sliding between two buildings, her wiry frame quickly disappearing into the gap. Sometimes it was surprising just how easy this was to do. Sure, she had her fair share of knicks and bruises from close calls, but overall she had found a lot of success with her criminality. It was just a matter of picking the right targets and using the scariest knife you could find.
After the robbery, Kajulan headed straight for her guy. She thought it was cool that she had a guy. It made her feel like a big time crook or corrupt viceroy, talking about how they were going to make a problem “disappear”. Of course, her guy just made stolen things go away. He’s a fence, is what she means. Also his name’s not guy, it’s Rudim. She was just doing a bit.
Kajulan opened the door to Rudim’s Antique Shop. There were shelves against every wall, filled with stacks upon stacks of worthless “antiques,” uncared for and coated in a thick layer of dust. Of course, it was all a front, so the cruddiness of his wares didn’t really matter. Kajulan walked to the desk at the back of the store and put one elbow on it. Normally Rudim would be nearby, but today he was nowhere to be seen. Kajulan coughed loudly, hoping to get his attention, wherever he was.
She was about to leave when the shop’s backdoor creaked open. Rudim stuck his head through, before entering the rest of the way with his portly body.
“Kajulan!” he exclaimed with his arms held out. “I’m so sorry. I’ve been very busy.”
“No worries!” replied Kajulan happily, pulling the ring out of her pocket. “Look what I got!”
Rudim took the ring from her, inspecting it closely. “It is very nice. Quite the, errhm, “find” actually.” Rudim suddenly got really quiet, and then let out a heavy sigh. “I’m afraid I can’t take it off your hands though.”
Kajulan crossed her long arms. “Why not? It’s not everyday I get a score like that, you know!”
“I’m sorry Kajulan. Things are just getting too hot.”
Kajulan continued to fume. “I thought you said the guard didn’t give a shit about small stuff like this!”
Rudim rubbed his brow. “It’s not the guard. There’s a new mobster type in town. Jethin.”
Kajulan squinted. “That name sounds stupid.”
“I’m pretty sure it’s not his real name. But that’s not the point. He’s a mobster from down South, from Tajlynd. They’re crazy down there. Real feudal types. He’s been cracking down on any operations in the city he’s not a part of.”
Kajulan cocked an eyebrow. “So you’re just quitting?”
Rudim sighed again. “Well Kajulan, this isn’t a line of work you stay in for very long. You either get out while you can, or you live hard and die young. And I don’t think I’ve lived nearly hard enough to justify dying now.” Rudim took a heavy box off his desk before continuing. “Jethin offered to pay me off, get me out of the business. He also made it pretty clear the alternative wouldn’t be pretty. So I took it. I’m actually leaving today.” Rudim held the box out in front of him. “This is the last of my stuff.”
A bell rang as the front door of the shop opened. A large man walked through, dressed as if he was playing soldier, with a coat of armor and an ill-fitting helmet on his head. A mercenary type if Kajulan had ever seen one. She hadn’t, but she still had a general idea.
The armored man pulled out a pocket watch, seemingly purely for show, before closing it and looking at Rudim. “Times up. Let’s go.”
Rudim nodded, and gave Kajulan a solemn look. He put the box under one arm and patted her on the back.
“Times are changing Kajulan,” he said. “No place for going solo anymore. You should get out while you can.”
The mercenary looking man gestured for Rudim to leave, and he did, waving to Kajulan as he left. The remaining man leered at her.
“You too. Get.”
Kajulan walked down the street, hands in her pockets and eyes closed. Normally the crowded layout of the buildings didn’t bother her, but now they felt kind of suffocating. You didn’t take the kind of life she had to make friends, but it still hurt to have Rudim leave like that. Kajulan stopped, spitting in a puddle on the curb. The puddle hadn’t done anything of course, but Kajulan still picked it to be the recipient of her annoyance. It was better than a person. Of course, Kajulan was now wondering if maybe it should be a person she took her aggression out on. She thought briefly of that mercenary looking fellow, but decided against it. He looked dangerous, in a brutish sort of way.
Kajulan stopped and sat on the corner. It was getting chillier as the sun set. She took the ring out of her pocket and looked at it. It was worthless to her without a good fence, just a bauble now. As she looked at it she noticed out of the corner of her eye a familiar young man on the other side of the street. He was immediately recognizable even without seeing his face. He was clearly dwywem, and was even taller than her, not to mention a fair bit broader.
“Hey!” she shouted, as she hopped up and ran over. The man stopped and looked at her.
Kajulan smirked. “In the flesh.”
The man chuckled and shook his head. “Kajulan, I haven’t seen you since we left the relief home! How have you been?”
“Oh, I’ve been fine.” She looked away and gave a canted smile. “Not going to lie, I’ve been living a pretty exciting life.”
“Really? What do you do?”
Kajulan gave him a light punch on the arm.
“How about you go first, Tekole. What do you do?”
The two stopped walking, Tekole leaning up against a building as Kajulan did the same.
“Well, factory work,” he said.
“Really?” asked Kajulan.
“You say that like it’s surprising.”
“Well,” teetered Kajulan. She wasn’t one to mince words, but even she recognized she was bringing up sensitive material. “You always told me and the other kids at the relief home that your parents died doing factory work. I, I just didn’t think you’d do that kind of work after that, you know?”
Tekole stoned up a little bit, but overall maintained his demeanor. “Well Kajulan, I don’t really have many options. It was the only option, actually.”
“No it’s not,” said Kajulan.
Tekole looked at her, grimacing a little. “Yeah? What else is there? What do you even do?”
Kajulan turned her head and looked him straight in the eyes. “Crime.”
Tekole’s eyes widened. “Really?”
“Yep,” said Kajulan. “When I left I decided I wasn’t going to be another cog for the satraps and nobles. More a spanner, if anything. Keep my hair up, my clothes nice, and be dead by forty? I don’t think so. And let me tell you, it’s some exciting stuff, my work. Hey, look.” Kajulan pointed to a nasty gash in her eyelid and lip. “See these? This lass downtown said I was moving in on her turf. We got in a bit of a tussle. I thought she was unarmed. She wasn’t.”
Tekole nodded before rolling up his sleeve, showing a badly skinned arm. “I got this one in just my first season working at the factory. A wire wrapped around my arm. The other guys managed to stop the machine before it did anymore, but they said just last year someone lost their arm in a similar accident.”
Kajulan rolled up her shirt and vest, revealing a light gash in her stomach. “Got this one when I underestimated some old man’s personal guard. Just barely got me with their sword.”
Tekole grimaced. “Ouch.”
“Yeah,” said Kajulan, before pulling her left shoulder through her collar, revealing a grazed wound. “Got this one from some dickhead who decided to take a shot at me. He wasn’t a great shot, but he wasn’t terrible either. Clearly”
Tekole chuckled, that kind of giggling you can’t really control. The kind when you know it’s inappropriate to laugh, but that just makes it funnier. Kajulan snorted in turn. “Don’t know what you’re laughing about. It seems like that factory’s already kicked your ass.”
Tekole stopped and nudged her. “Hey! What are you talking about? You’ve got way more knicks than me.”
Kajulan rolled her eyes. “Yeah, but mine have way better stories than yours.”
The two started to laugh again.
“You know Tekole,” said Kajulan. “You don’t have to stay where you are in life.”
“What do you mean?”
Kajulan smirked. “I have an idea for a job.”
She placed her hand on his shoulder, shaking it lightly. “I just need some muscle for it.”
Concern flushed over Tekole’s face. “I wouldn’t need to hurt anyone, would I?”
“Not badly! And besides, anyone in this city with anything worth stealing has it coming. Believe me.”
Tekole looked a bit flustered, but quickly had his mind made up. “Alright. What’s the job?”
Kajulan grinned toothely. “You know Rudim’s Antique Store?”
“That really shady place down the street?”
“Yeah, that one. Come a little closer, I don’t want anyone to listen in on us.”
Leaning in, Kajulan whispered into Tekole’s ear, who nodded along.
Night fell on the city, and most of it was cast in darkness, save the patches that the street lights had illuminated. Kajulan had positioned herself in the alley behind the store. With her knife held behind her back, she approached the backdoor and hammered on it. She sprang backwards as the door swung open, spry for her height. The mercenary man came out, one hand on the revolver holstered to his belt. An ugly grin came across his face as he saw Kajulan.
“You?” he said. “Your friend’s gone, so I suggest you scram.”
Kajulan stepped closer, knife still hidden behind her, causing the man to tap the wooden handle of his gun. Kajulan was right in his face.
“I suggest you take a few steps back, missy, lest I put one in your sternum. Got it? Oh, and I know you’ve got something behind your back, so I suggest you lose that too.”
Kajulan made her best straight face, dropping the knife and stepping to the side. Before the man had a chance to wipe the smug grin off his face, Tekole stepped out from around the corner and socked him hard on the nose. He crumpled fast, and Kajulan ran over immediately, sliding his belt off his waist and fastening it around her. She had to pull it quite tight to get it to fit on her. She recovered her beloved knife from the ground too. She had worked hard on it, and wasn’t about to lose it.
“Nice arm,” she said, patting Tekole on the shoulder, who gleamed like a child successfully making a catch for the first time. Kajulan got down in the face of the mercenary man, who was still dazed. “Get up kid.”
The man didn’t think Kajulan had any place calling him kid, as she was clearly much younger than him, but did as he was told upon noticing the gun now holstered to Kajulan’s hip. She drew it and turned him around, pointing it at the square of his back. “Let’s go inside.”
The three entered. Although the interior was still largely uncared for, it was clear that the dust had been disturbed in some areas. The new management had already started to move in.
“Don’t know what you’re looking for,” said the man, surprisingly snide for someone at gunpoint. “All the shit in here is worthless.”
“Hey!” shouted Kajulan, rotating the cylinder of the gun. “I don’t know how often you’ve been held at gunpoint, but I’m not some steely-faced heroic type. I will shoot you if you piss me off.”
She looked over at Tekole, who had kind of melted into the corner. “Don’t look so stern Tekole. Lighten up. This is fun.”
Tekole gave an awkward smile, which made Kajulan smile a little too.
“Alright,” she said, shaking her head. “Let’s see if these new guys are dumb enough to be using the same smuggling holes as the old occupant. Tekole.”
She pointed at one of the compartments in the bottom of the drawer.
“Get that open.”
The man at gunpoint groaned, causing Kajulan to snicker. “Ooooooh! Seems like we have a winner!”
Tekole got down on his knees and looked at the compartment.
“It’s locked Kajulan. I have no idea how to do locks.”
“Desk’s cheap. Just kick it in.”
Tekole stood up and swung his foot into the compartment, the metal tip of his boot caving in the wood. He reached in, pulling out a small wooden lockbox.
“Bingo!” exclaimed Kajulan, grinning from ear to ear. “Now go grab some rope and help me tie this guy up. I know Rudim kept some at the front of the store.
Together, Kajulan and Tekole tied the man to one side of the desk. He thought about cursing them with all his resolve, but he had bought Kajulan’s threat about shooting him, and also didn’t have that much resolve.
Tekole squinted at their work, and Kajulan put her hands on her hips, pursing her lips as she observed it.
“Don’t you think he can get out of that?” asked Tekole.
Kajulan nodded. Their knot work was pretty shitty. “It’s fine though,” she answered. “I think mister mercenary understands he gets shot the second he starts to undo them. Let’s get out of here.”
Tekole nodded, letting Kajulan take the lead out of the store.
The two went to the docks of the city, quiet during the late hours of the night. The only sound was the crashing of waves at the piers. Tekole held out the lockbox. “What do we do with this now?”
Kajulan took it from him, lifting it above her head and throwing it at the ground. The box shattered, revealing an easy bagful of valuable coins. Kajulan knelt down, beginning to sort the coins into two piles, one for her and one for Tekole. Tekole knelt down too, looking at the coins. “That’s, more than I was expecting, in all honesty.”
“I know right! And you didn’t even need to sacrifice any arm skin for it!”
Tekole glared at her, but his face then slowly turned to a smile. The two stared at each other for a moment, before Tekole looked away.
“You know how you said you needed me for muscle?” he asked.
“Did that really just mean you needed me to punch a guy?”
Kajulan thought for a moment.
“I, I guess so. Yeah, that was it.”
“Just needed you to punch a guy.”
The two burst into laughter, even though it wasn’t really that funny. It was that kind of laughter that happens among friends, when one starts laughing at something stupid, and then suddenly it’s the funniest thing ever. And then you realize how stupid it really is, but that just makes you laugh harder. That deep, infectious belly laugh that you just can’t fake, not really.
As the laughter started to die down, Kajulan looked at Tekole again, who looked up at her too. In that moment she just really felt like kissing him, so she did, and he did too, and the waves from the ocean crashed down by the pier, as the moonlight shone down on them from between the gaps in Romba’s skyline.
Their moment was interrupted by a foghorn puncturing the still air, and Kajulan pulled away. Tekole, still a little dazed, awkwardly scratched behind his ear.
“What was that?” he asked coyly.
“Foghorn,” Kajulan responded, pretending like she didn’t know he was talking about the kiss. “We should get out of here before the ship docks. It attracts the attention of the guard.”
“Oh, okay,” replied Tekole.
“We’ll meet up tomorrow,” said Kajulan. “Outside the industrial park. Around the same time we bumped into each other earlier. That work?”
“Good,” said Kajulan, hopping up. “See ya later.”
Kajulan gave a little wave before running off. Tekole sat there for a little bit, lost in thought, before remembering that he had to get out of there too, and scampered away.
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