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  • Part 1

The still, steamy air of Romba was punctured by the shrill howl of a work whistle, timed almost perfectly with the sun’s setting behind the city’s skyline.  Kajulan jumped at it.  Although she liked to think of herself as someone not particularly prone to fright, it was damn loud.  She didn’t know how people put up with it day in and day out.

She looked over her right shoulder at the gate beside her, people filing out first in a trickle and then a wave.  She scanned the crowd for Tekole, tall and chalky skinned.  It took a while, but she eventually recognized him, his head slightly above most others in the crowd.  She shoved her way through the crowd until she ended up behind him, tapping him on the shoulder.

“Hey,” she hissed, but in a kindly, playful sort of way.

Tekole swung around, smiling.  “Kajulan!  I was beginning to think you weren’t going to show.”

Kajulan began to move away from the crowd, motioning with her head for him to follow.  “Of course I did.  I wasn’t just going to hang you out to dry.  You’re a wanted man now.”

“Wait, what?”

Kajulan sighed, shaking her head as she looked away.  She had thought Tekole for sure would have realized the implications of their actions.  But she also thought hissing in a kindly, playful manner was something people did, so she wasn’t exactly a good judge of that sort of thing.  Tekole began to panic.

“Wait, does that mean the guards will be looking for me?”

Kajulan snickered.  “Of course not.  The guard can’t be bothered with two hooligans knocking over a closed-down antique store.  We don’t have to worry about them.  We’ve got to be worried about the competition.”

Tekole looked both confused and worried.  “Like, other criminals?”

“Well, the competition for crime would be other criminals,” sneered Kajulan, failing to bite her tongue for the sake of the clearly scared young man.  She quickly changed the topic to something more positive, noticing that Tekole’s right pocket jingled when it moved.  “It seems like you still have your share.  What were you planning on doing with it?”

Tekole grabbed his pocket, the coins clinking slightly as he did so.  “I actually thought I’d get ahead on next season’s rent.  Seems like a good idea, you know?”

“Really?” said Kajulan, exhaling sharply.  “Rent!?”

“Well, yeah.  If I already have next season’s paid, I can spend my wages on pretty much anything I want.”

Kajulan hopped in front of Tekole and crossed her arms.  “Tekole, you don’t risk your life committing robbery and assault against a criminal mob to pay your rent.  You got to spend it on something more. . .”  Kajulan stopped, trying to think of her next words.  “Something more worthwhile.  Live hard and die young.”

Tekole’s eyes widened.  “Die!?”

Kajulan gave him a light tap on the arm, keeping her jovial energy going.  “Don’t worry, it’s just something an old friend said to me once.  An old friend who’s still alive, mind you!”  Kajulan put her hand on Tekole’s back, guiding him from the road to an alleyway.  “Trust me, if you stick with me, you won’t even look back at your old life.”

“You’re beginning to seem like a devil on my shoulder,” Tekole joked, scratching the back of his neck.

“Who’s your angel then?”

Tekole shrugged.  “I guess I don’t have one.”

“Guess I win by default then,” Kajulan said, smirking.  “Come on.”

Kajulan quickened her pace, but Tekole stopped.

“Wait,” he said.

Kajulan swung around.  “What?”

“About last night,” began Tekole.

“What about it?” Kajulan replied, playing dumb.  Dumbly.

“Just, you did kiss me.  Last night.”

“Oh, that,” said Kajulan, looking away and flicking her hand.  “Outlaw’s high is all.  Adrenaline, thrill of rebellion, that sort of thing.  Trust me, you’ll get used to it.”

“Oh,” replied Tekole nonchalantly, mirroring Kajulan’s casual hand flick.  “Alright.  Got it.  I got it.”

Kajulan quickly turned around, starting to move again.  “Now come on.  We’ve got a busy day if you want to get the most out of your ill gains.”

Kajulan brought Tekole to Romba’s shopping arcade, clearly built during the city’s initial industrial boom before it collapsed in on itself.  It was aggressively modern in its design and yet almost derelict in regards to upkeep.  As they entered, the building’s most apparent feature was how many of its stores had been abandoned.  Meanwhile, those that hadn’t clearly weren’t seeing much business.  Tekole was walking slowly, taking in the grandeur of the place, but Kajulan moved with purpose.  She stopped outside a store emblazoned with a map of the Southern satrapies of the Empire, waiting for Tekole to catch up.

The two entered, a bell at the front of the store alerting the shopkeep to their presence.

“Welcome,” she said.  She was tajkin, and dressed in a long, darkly colored tunic, like those from Tajlynd were known to wear, but her accent betrayed her as clearly local.  “Welcome to Spirit and Stone, a little bit of Dwymar and Tajlynd here in Romba, Aslacka.”

She gestured broadly outwards, drawing the two’s attention to her wares.  For a place with a name as peaceful sounding as Spirit and Stone, there sure were a lot of weapons and armor on display.

Tekole nudged Kajulan.  “It’s a little tacky here, don’t you think?”

Kajulan ignored him, placing both hands on the desk in front of the tajkin woman.

“I want to see your knives,” she said, with a thirst that implied she should not be allowed to see the knives.  The shopkeep, clearly not one to deny a paying customer, obliged, taking out a display stand filled with a collection of increasingly ridiculous looking blades.  While Kajulan eagerly began observing them, Tekole wandered to the back of the store, taking notice of an idol.  It was carved of stone, and actually featured a stone carver, featureless and with chisel in hand.

“Tell me about that one!” shouted Kajulan eagerly, pointing out a knife with a bronze finish and much too many points.  The shopkeeper picked it up and spun it around her finger, making sure not to lose Kajulan’s interest.

“This one, um,” began the shopkeeper.  “This one is a knife from the, um, Three Duchies of Dwymar.”

“Which one?” asked Kajulan.

“The, um, second one?”

As the two began to haggle over price, Tekole came up, the idol in hand.  

“Don’t you already have a knife?” he asked, as Kajulan began to hand over way too much money for what was a glorified trinket.

“Don’t you already have a shirt?” snapped Kajulan, her eyes not as aggressive as her voice.  “Yet I see you’re not wearing the same shirt as yesterday.”

Tekole shrugged, before moving up to purchase the small statue.

The two left the store, Tekole carefully carrying the statue, and Kajulan playing with her knife.

“What is that thing?” she asked, unintentionally dismissive.

“It’s the Carver,” replied Tekole.  “He’s a big thing in Dwymar, I think.  My parents had one of these, actually.”

Kajulan crouched down, observing it closer.  “Is he like a god?”

“Yeah,” replied Tekole.  “I’m not a follower, though.  I was too young to really pick it up.  It just reminded me of them a little.”

There was a moment of silence, before Tekole broke it with a lighter mood. “So, why’d you choose that knife?”

Kajulan held it up, wielding the grip upside down.  “Isn’t it obvious?  Look!  It has knuckle dusters on it!”

She assumed a mock fight position, bobbing back and forth.  Tekole placed the statue on the ground and raised his fists awkwardly, copying Kajulan’s exaggerated movements.

“So you can be like, “ooh, watch out, I’m gonna stab you!” and then when they’re getting ready to defend from a stab, you can be like,”psych!” and then punch them in the face!”

She whiffed a few stabs and punches, which Tekole pretended to withdraw from.  She got closer with each one, until Tekole grabbed her arm and flipped her around.  Kajulan responded by falling backwards, leaning her head on his shoulder as she did so.

“Hey!” shouted a man, dressed in what they assumed was a uniform and armed with nothing but a disapproving, pointed finger.  “I don’t know what you two think you’re doing, but you’re going to have to lose that knife!”

Tekole withdrew and quickly went to grab his statue, while Kajulan pocketed the knife, staring down the guard with malice in her eyes.  The guard walked away, muttering and shaking his head, while Kajulan nudged Tekole.

“Hey, what do you say we go and teach him a lesson?”

Tekole looked at her incredulously.  “What?  No!”

Kajulan sighed.  “Fiiiiiiiine.”  She put her hand to her chin, thinking, before it suddenly sprang upward.  “Hey!  What about gambling?  Have you ever gambled before, Tekole?”

“No,” he replied.

Kajulan put her arm around him as the two started to walk.  “There’s this place nearby.  It’s not much to look at, definitely caters to a rougher crowd, but it’s kind of fun.”

“Al, alright,” replied Tekole, not being able to think of a reason to reject the idea

“Good!  Now the trick, at least as Rudim used to tell me, is to not get too greedy.  Now, I’ve found you leave with more money if you don’t get greedy, but you have more fun if you do.”

She broke away, gesturing with a quick jerk of her head for Tekole to follow, and the two left.

The casino wasn’t too far away, just a few turns down the road.  It was small, but clearly a lot more lively than the arcade, just judging from the number of people gathered outside.  Kajulan walked up to the front door, doing a little mock bow and gesturing for Tekole to enter.

“The gentleman may enter first,” she said.

Tekole opened the door, doing a little bow of his own.  “The gentleman offers first entrance to the lady.”

Kajulan did another bow.  “The gentleman is quite kind, but the lady insists that the gentleman enters first, as it is quite rude to reject her offer.”

A gruff man shoved his way past them, offering a few coarse words as he did so.  Kajulan frowned.

“Let’s just go in.”

It was smokey and dark inside, with a disparate mix of characters immediately evident.  There were some rich folk, done up perhaps more than was necessary in such an establishment, and some rough folk, with disheveled appearances and faces that were either perpetually scowling or smirking.  Outside of either group were those whose lives had stagnated, and were willing to bet everything on any chance at a better life.  And then there were the punk-ass kids like Kajulan and Tekole, who were just there on a whim.

“So?” began Kajulan, gesturing at the small but crowded room.  “Anything catch your eye?”

Tekole surveyed the place, with a vacancy in his gaze that seemed to answer her question.  “I honestly am not sure what any of this is.  I think I’ll defer to your judgement Kaji.”

Kajulan gave a quick whop on his collarbone.

“Kaji?  Don’t go getting cute on me now.”

She guided him down to a table near the middle of the room, and lifted from it a small, twenty-sided die.  “Now this one’s simple.  You put a starting investment upfront.  Every time you roll a twenty, you double it, and every time you roll a one you halve it.  Each roll also costs you something up front.”  She motioned for one of the dealers, attired much differently than anyone else in the establishment with a dress shirt and red vest.  “My friend’s new here.  He wants to play this one, so give him what he needs and get him started.”  She turned to Tekole.  “I’m going to the bar.  Do you want anything?”

Tekole thought for a moment.  “Just an ale please.”

“Really?” replied Kajulan.  “Don’t want anything stronger?”

“Well, you’ve got me gambling now,” joked Tekole.  “I think you’ve tempted me enough today, devil.”

Kajulan smirked before leaving. Upon reaching the bar she assumed an aloof pose, leaning her elbow on the counter and placing her opposite hand on her hip.

“Two ales please,” she said, putting up two fingers as she did so.  The bartender rolled his eyes at her performance, but left to get the drinks all the same.

Kajulan began to walk back over to Tekole, who seemed to be doing a little victory dance.  He had gotten into things fast.  As she admired Tekole’s terribly cocky jig, a man briefly bumped into her.  Both took a few steps back.  He was albi like her, but a fair bit shorter and a fair bit older.  He was done up fancy, but not like the rich folk were.  Instead he wore a well-fitted suit, complete with tie and hat.  Kajulan gave him a quizzical look, and he replied with a simple grimace before walking by.  Kajulan looked back, but he had quickly vanished into the crowd.

Kajulan made it back to Tekole, who’s mood had apparently completely changed while she had been distracted.

“Oh shit Kajulan,” he said, eyes wide with fear. “I screwed up.  Rolled a twenty, riding high on life, but then I kept rolling, rolled a one, I’ve already spent the rest of my money on rolls, I’m fucked.”

Kajulan grabbed Tekole by the shoulders and shook him gently.  “Tekole, Tekole, Tekole, you never gamble without an escape plan.  And I always have one.”

She inched over to the rich man next to them at the table, and then splashed the ales on him.  He quickly swung around, his face flushing a deep shade of blue.

“What the hell is wrong with you!” he shouted while looking down at his nice robes, now stained with booze.

As the man spoke, Kajulan tapped the shoulder of a burly man at the adjacent table before slinking back over to Tekole.  He swung around, looking down at the indigent rich man. “What’s wrong with me!?  What’s your problem with me!”

His words came out slurred slightly, perhaps explaining why he had so easily become outraged.

Kajulan pointed at the booze soaked man, contorting her face into one of outrage.  “You aristocrats always come in here and act like you’re better than us, all high and mighty, shoving your money and clothes and perfect hair in our faces.  You assholes.”

The man that Kajulan had doused looked at her with an expression of horrified disbelief, before looking back at the man now towering over him.  “I swear, I wasn’t talking to you.”

The big man shoved him, pushing him against the table.  “Oh, you like to act all tough, until someone confronts you about it, huh?  That’s interesting.”

A crowd was starting to form around the confrontation, forcing the dealer to go over and try to de-escalate things.

“Alright Tekole,” Kajulan whispered.  “Let’s get.  Now.”

Tekole didn’t need to be told twice, pocketing as much of the money laid out on the table as possible before grabbing his statue and bolting.  Kajulan quickly followed, tossing the now empty glasses away from them as she did so.

The two ran through the dark streets, before rounding a corner and stopping to catch their breath.  They both bent over, trying their best to catch their breath.

“You shouldn’t gamble,” Kajulan wheezed between breaths.  “It’s a bad habit.”

“You told me too!” exclaimed Tekole, also squeezing words out between heavy breaths.

“Well, listening to me is a bad habit too.”

Tekole let out a short, sharp laugh, placing his hand on Kajulan’s shoulder.

“I can’t believe you’ve gotten me to do all this stuff.  You’re crazy.”

They looked up at each other and smiled, before a man built like a train bulldozed between them, forcing both to the ground.  He swung around, drawing a revolver while both were still dazed and pointing it at Kajulan.  It was hard to make out much of him in the dark, save the trademark turquoise skin of a tajkin.  As Kajulan’s vision adjusted she began to notice more, most notably that he was dressed in the same manner as the short man she bumped into at the bar.  He stared at her, his square face unflinching and unemotional, and his aim unwavering.

Tekole got back on his feet and attempted to charge the giant of a man, but he simply swung out his free arm, catching Tekole in the stomach and causing him to fall back to the ground breathless.

“Well,” came a voice in the distance.  Kajulan turned her head to see the short man approaching them.  “I was not expecting it to be us that would find the two thieves that angered Jethin so, let alone that it would be so fast.”

There was a condescension in his voice that irked Kajulan, but even she knew to keep her mouth shut in her current predicament.

“Neither did I, Ladun,” replied the large man, whose voice proved to be just as unemotional as his face.

Ladun drew a gun of his own, and pointed it at Tekole.

“Here’s a hint,” he began, the condescension in his voice still strong.  “If you’re going to knock over a place belonging to a crime boss, you better either lay low for a while, or kill the asshole guarding the place.”

The large man nodded.  “He was an asshole.”

“Yes he was,” agreed Ladun.  He noticed Tekole’s small statue, which had been dropped in the scuffle, and picked it up.  “The Carver.  One of you two followers of the faith?”

“No,” said Tekole, who had stayed completely motionless on the ground as soon as he noticed the gun aimed at him.

“Too bad.  You know, I used to know a guy who worshipped the Carver.  Normally I’d find that kind of dedication grating, but there was something about his sincerity that made it charming.”  He tucked the statue under his arm before continuing.  “Get up, both of you.  We’re going.”

Kajulan and Tekole rose cautiously, the guns still firmly aimed at them.

“Get going!” shouted Ladun, placing the revolver against Tekole’s head.

“What about the money?” asked Kajulan.

“Jethin doesn’t give two shits about the money.  He wants you two now.”

The journey was mostly silent, with only silent glances exchanged between Kajulan and Tekole.  The two mobsters had taken them along a strange path, eliminating the already small chance that they’d bump into someone in the black of night.  Eventually they came to the back door of what appeared to be a hotel of some kind, but any corporate markings had long been scrubbed away.  The large man, still careful to keep his weapon on Kajulan, reached towards a knocker on the door, rapping it several times before it opened.

The interior was brightly lit, candles on the walls flickering against unpainted plaster.  The room they had entered was mostly empty, but had a distinctly lived in feel to it.

“Alright,” Ladun said to the giant beside him.  “Go wake Jethin.”

The man’s head finally showed some emotion as he swung it to look at Ladun.  “What?  No way!  You go get him!”

Ladun stared at him before giving in.  “Ug!  Fine!  Here.”

He handed the large man his revolver, before quickly hurrying up a spiral staircase.  A few minutes later he returned, flanked by a tajkin man dressed in nightgown and nightcap.  He looked uninterested, until he noticed the two young outlaws.

“So!” he began, shaking any lingering tiredness.  “These are the two troublemakers that have caused me so much heartbreak!”  The statement was followed by an awkward silence.  “Not the talkative type, are you two!”  This statement too was followed by a punctuated quiet.  Jethin clapped his hands together.  “Well alright then.  You two, kneel before me, I wish to pontificate.  And Ladun, take your hostage back.  Stop making what’s his name do your work for you.”

Ladun looked away to hide his grimace before doing as he was told, resuming his position behind Kajulan, gun to her head.  Jethin shivered slightly at the thought of how easily he could have both killed, before collecting himself.

“Now, you two may not realize it, but you are the worst kinds of outlaws.  Errant outlaws.  Outlaws with no liege and no land to call your own.  Outlaws with no rules except for those you set for yourselves.”  Jethin began to pace, arms folded behind his back, only escaping to punctuate a particularly salient point.  “There were a lot of your kind when I first came to this gods-forsaken city.  Brigands, bandits, thieves and robbers, just rabble really, but lots of it.”

Jethin stopped, beginning to pound his fist into his other hand, getting himself worked up.  “But then I came, and I changed everything.  This city is mine!  Not an illicit coin passes hands that I don’t know about, do you understand!”

Tekole started to nod, but Jethin continued immediately, implying that the question was rhetorical.

“Thankfully, I am a man who believes in second chances.  And you two are very cute, the way you’re always running off together and the like.  At least I think so.  So I’m giving you a choice.  Two positions have recently opened up.”

Ladun and the giant man glanced at each other nervously.

“Oh, don’t worry. Not you two. Our young friends will be replacing two members of our organization who had an “unfortunate” incident with the guard.”  Jethin distastefully mimed getting stabbed, grasping his stomach and pretending to cough up blood before collecting himself to continue his speech.  “Now, I do not abhor violence, but I do believe it is generally best avoided.  The place you robbed used to belong to a man named Rudim, and I offered him an alternative to violence.  An out.  But to you two, I offer something very different.  An in.  So what do you say?  Guns to your heads, what is your choice?”

Parts 5 and 6

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