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King Culprit

Chapter One

Summerfest in Athex 4058. Hot, sweltering heat radiated down from the heavens to bake the first day of a month long festival celebrating the end of spring and the start of summer. It was so hot and humid even the ground was sweating. It was best to stay out of the heat during midday so you wouldn't suffer from heat attacks.

Hats had become increasingly popular over the last two weeks, not just because it was so damn hot, but because several celebrities had been seen wearing hats. Pothax Doxon was seen wearing a felt fedora and two days later it was the newest fashion rage. Next came the spitfire caps, because Graf Rades was seen wearing one.

But who were Pothax Doxon and Graf Rades, a foreigner from the island kingdom of Cherte might ask? Well, they're members of the Crimson Companions, a band of hero-celebrities that took part in both Kobalix's Quest and the Third Ice War. Being from far away Cherte, the foreigner asks about the Quest and the war. In reply half a dozen people will jump to the challenge and try to tell their version of the two wars that had occurred over the last year. Once again the foreigner would ask who are these celebrities. Once again half a dozen people will try to get their version of the much talked about heroes across to the foreigner. Eventually the foreigner would give up and forget about the incident, later discovering who the heroes were.

One foreigner however already knew who the Crimson Companions were. At the top of the list, the most popular hero is the Paladin Assassin, a man named Wynic Doxon, then there was the Owl, a cutthroat called Pothax Doxon, and Wynic's wife, Brigadier Victoria Doxon. These three were the best known of the somewhat elusive Companions. Some interesting things had happened in the last while to these three, as Nevada's sources told her. Pothax was no longer living in Athex but was in the Ambassadorial wing in Avolic's Royal Palace. Wynic and Victoria whereabouts were unknown to all of Nevada's resources. The lesser known Companions were usually easier to find. They included Admiral Savin, General Gisoni, Lord Redhawk, Brigadier Mathex, Doctor Roderick, Dame Larel, Graf Rades, General Chek and King Waytorn. Waytorn, King of Cutthroats, Emperor of Thieves, Prince of Pirates, and better known as the King Culprit. He was the reason why Nevada was here.

The crime world had become united under the strong will of Waytorn. He had went from a simple cutthroat in the back alleys of the Kinian capitol of Jaton to Crime Lord of Kinian, then Arthian, Colnic, Stornium and finally the Minotaur Empire. His power exceeded all others combined, his wealth was uncountable. But all that needed to happen was one killer break from the neat line he had created and kill him. If Nevada was that killer, all his wealth, all his power would be hers. If she could control his empire of crime was another matter.

She had no doubt about that though. She had handled Cherte for five years now without any major problems, why couldn't she come to the mainland and handle it here? She doffed a spitfire cap, and grabbed a white cloak to keep the sun off her back. It was time to check what Terencio had learned.

Outside her inn the streets were flooded with five million people celebrating in the biggest city in the world. But Nevada wasn't stupid. She knew it would be near damn impossible to make it to the inn where Terencio was staying. She climbed out the window and scaled the trellis with all the skill of a burglar. Making her way across the rooftops, she headed in the direction of Terencio's inn across from the Drunken Dragon tavern where she knew he'd be likely to be sitting in a booth waiting for her.

She climbed down the side of the Drunken Dragon tavern and approached the front door warily. Someone was playing bag pipes within, though not like any other she had ever heard. Nevada walked through the doorway and looked around.

What luck! It was Graf Rades himself playing. She'd heard the former Lieutenant was a great musician, though he never played the same song twice and made them up as he went. He was sitting up on the bar playing while several barmaids dressed in traditional Arthian kilts and white blouses with tight fitting bodices who danced and served the patrons.

Nevada spied Terencio slouched over in a booth at the back of the barroom and she made her way through the crowd of cheering patrons to the killer's booth. "May I join you, senor?" she asked in Escherten.

"Of course, senorita Nevada. I have news though whether it is good or not, I don't know."

Nevada sat down. "What has happened?"

"There is a rumour that Waytorn has announced his retirement and declared one of his deputies, a man called Sinclair, the new Crime King. Your bid for Queen looks desperate."

Nevada sat there in stunned silence. She'd been working on planning Waytorn's death since the start of spring and he has the gull to retire! How can he retire anyway? No crime lord has ever succeeded in retiring, let alone a crime king? Maybe he hasn't totally succeeded in retiring yet? There still might be a chance?

"If my source is correct, there will be a lot of confusion and chaos in the next short while. It may even break into smaller lordships like it was before Waytorn came along and joined the different groups. If we can wait it out and come along and kill the conqueror of the battles that will follow."

"There will be a fight over the leadership then," Nevada finally spoke. "This changes everything. We are no longer the only group vying for the throne. If we strike now, we'll be killed in the confusion. If we wait too long, the new King will secure his hold on the throne." She frowned. "For now we will wait and enjoy the festival."

The portly barkeep waddled over to their booth and took out a piece of slate and a chalk. "What will you have, Lady?" he asked in the accent Nevada found amusing.

"Sarsaparilla," she replied. She detested the habits of seemingly constant drinking of the mainlanders. They had Kinian wine, Colnic coffee, Stornium wine, Arthian whiskey, Minotaur Vodka and a dozen other drinks that were popular here. There was no Cherten wine this far inland.

"Kinian wine," said Terencio. He liked the intoxicating smell of appleblossom-grape wine. Maybe it was just the festivities that were causing these people to drink so much.

Nevada sat back and looked across the room at the one-eyed musician. A scribe was at his side hastily writing down all the notes of pure harmony that flowed from the bag pipes. She found it interesting how Rades could pick up an instrument and create a song completely from scratch.

His past however was talked about a lot. A Stornium from Castle Deltex, the first castle to fall during Kobalix's Quest. The Siege of Deltex was historic. The Minotaur Army massacred the castle without even entering the now abandoned castle. Rades had been sent north to warn the King of Arthian. There he took part in the Siege of Athex and was among those who went on the mission to destroy Kobalix's Citadel and close up the sulphur, charcoal, saltpeter mine that was near the citadel. The mission was later nicknamed the Picnic and the explosion that blew Kobalix's Citadel sky high the Barbecue. Nevada thought the Mainlanders gave their events strange names.

Later, in the past winter there was a Third Ice War between the Ice Folk and the Kinians. Rades went north with his Arthian friend, Sir Dillard, and got lost in the Kinian Mountains. He eventually wound up at Fort Phal, half dead and half frozen. Fort Phal was perhaps a hundred leagues from Jaton where Rades had been going. He was then betrayed by a spy and taken to the poacher's headquarters.

The Ice War was caused because the Ice Folk accused Kinian of poaching. The Kinians tried to solve the problem by getting rid of poachers, but they couldn't even find the poacher headquarters called the Lair. But thanks to the Crimson Companions they found the Lair eventually and Wynic Doxon, the Paladin Assassin, assassinated the Lairmaster.

During this Rades had been tortured and had his eye torn out by the Lairmaster. The empty socket was sewed shut and Rades now wears a eye-patch to cover the wound. Later he was thrown in a mining pit as a slave, but not for long because he led a slave revolt and overthrew his captors. This provided a distraction for the Kinian army and the Lair was conquered easily.

Sir Dillard had died in the battle however. Rades had almost no friends, his best friend was dead, his home in ruins and disgraced. It had taken music to pull him out of his melancholy slump, though it was rumoured he was still fighting to get out of it.

He looked fine now. Short blond hair as was typical of Storniums with a slight curl to it gracing his brow under a spitfire cap. His eye-patch seemed to draw the attention of women and Nevada had to admit the young man looked dashing. He had a slight quirk to his lips that made him smile constantly. He was barely over five feet tall, broad chested and thickly muscled. He sat there with nothing more than a kilt and a pair of boots on. Oh, yeah, and the spitfire cap that was so popular now. He was darkly tanned and sweat ran over his bare chest as he played.

"Hey, Billip!" the Stornium shouted to the portly barkeep. "I'm sweating buckets over here. Get me some Sarsaparilla or something to cool me down!"

"He's an unusual young man, don't you think?" Nevada asked Terencio, sipping at her drink.


"I wonder..."


"If I could teach him Malaguena. It's really..." She stopped and looked up. Terencio too looked up at the one-eyed musician as he resumed his playing. The music was still the joyous thing it had been a moment ago, but it was the melody itself. "Mi Dios!" she swore in Escherten. "He's playing it!"

Terencio stared at the Stornium. "But-but that's impossible! He can't be! He couldn't have possibly heard it before!" Yet it was Malaguena, only on bag pipes!

"Malaguena!" shouted a man in the doorway. He was middle-aged with long flowing mustaches and a broad grin. He waved at the Stornium. "I told you could play it, Rades!" An older, slightly stooped man stood at his side, leaning on a cane.

Who was this other man with the Cherten accent? Nevada didn't know him, yet he looked vaguely familiar. Is he truly a friend of the hero? Did he teach him Malaguena?

"Guten tag, Rodrigo," shouted Rades. "Sing, if you wish!" The Cherten did sing, as did the old man and Nevada found it hard not to join in. Terencio did however join in and poked her to join his great baritone voice that sailed across the barroom to join in harmony with the man called Rodrigo. Finally Nevada opened her mouth and sang. Her soft, melodious soprano blended with her fellow countrymen and for the first time in several years she felt a sort of pride in her Kingdom.

Pothax and his son, Bren went from rooftop to rooftop in what was one of the hottest days either could remember. The city of Avolic lay before them in the sweltering hot Colnic desert. The geyser at the center of the city went up every half hour for an estimated three hundred feet and showered the city with hot rain. Which would have been refreshing had the city's occupants not already been baked. Yet, while most people were inside taking a siesta, Pothax was showing Bren around the city where he'd grown up. The old slave pits where he'd been beaten countless times with a whip, the colosseum where slave gladiators had once been forced to fight beasts dragged in caravans across the desert to this oasis of life. The Avolic green farms were sparse, but those that did exist were very fertile with tropical plants and vegetables that are hard to find anywhere else on the continent.

Avolic might have been a paradise were it not so hot and infested with crime. It was not safe to walk down any alley in this city, even the main streets were frequent hosts to fights between warring noble families. Once again, Pothax was taking his son down the gloomiest of alleys, where every second man was a killer, the others either drunks or beggars.

"Bren," said Pothax, the black haired cutthroat bending over and twisting the handle of a half rotten door. "This is where I stayed after I was released from the slave pits," he explained. Not for the first time he thanked the Lord he had been released when slavery was abolished in 4029, almost thirty years ago. He opened the door and led the way in.

"Go away, Cam," shouted a female voice from within. "I'm not working today! It's too hot!"

Pothax opened the door wider, curious to see who had taken up his old home. He was greeted with a punch to the face. He thought it unusual that the hand was green and orange. He fell back, remembering he was back in Colnic where tattoos were common, even on women.

Bren snarled and held his dagger ready as the attacker stepped through the doorway. The boy was only ten but living on the streets of Athex had toughened him up and he looked almost fourteen. Pothax knew with a fair bit of pride that he could also throw that dagger with pinpoint accuracy up to twenty feet now.

The woman stepped back defensively and held up a hand. "Who are you? You'ren't Cam!"

"Indeed," muttered Pothax, getting to his feet and running a hand through his graying hair. Not surprising since he was at least forty, he never bothered to count his years and had no idea when his birthday was, having been sold into slavery by his own father. "I'm Pothax Doxon, the Arthian Ambassador."

The woman gasped, a hand going to her mouth. Pothax took a step back and studied her. A prostitute wasn't rare in Avolic, but one that has a full body tattoo and shaved her head was. Another rarity, though it was hard to tell because of the tattoo was that she was so young. She was perhaps four years older than Bren. She wore a knotted sash across her breasts and a kilt around her middle plus a pair of light sandals on her feet. The tattoo itself was of a coiled desert snake, making it look like she had a snake wrapped around her naked body. "Pothax!" she blurted.

"Pleased to meet you. I hope you kept good care of my home while I was gone?"

"I-I once heard that you'd lived around here, but certainly not... Yes. Of course, I took good care of it. Would-would you like to come in?"

"Why, thank you," Pothax replied. My God, I never thought I'd ever become a damn hero let alone have people stuttering so much when they talk to me, he thought. Unless, of course, she always stutters.

Inside there was a small room with an extremely low ceiling. Pothax had never noticed before just how low it was, but he did now that he bumped his head on the ceiling. It was relatively cozy and clean for a place in the slums of Avolic. There were two rickety chairs and a pile of pillows to sleep on. Any food in the place was kept in the pantry which was off to the side. As always, Pothax's eyes riveted to the third brick from the wall on the fifth level of bricks. "Well, Bren, what do you think?"

"It's pretty clean," the boy noted. "Our chambers at the palace aren't this clean." He turned around and looked up at the woman. "You can go back to your siesta, if you wish, we won't steal anything."

The prostitute looked to the pile of pillows and shook her head. "I'd never get to sleep now, and besides, I've never had such famous guests. "Would-would you like something to drink...?"

Pothax pivoted the brick and pulled it out revealing a stash of coins, gems and wine bottles. "No thank you," he said, selecting a bottle. "But if you'd like some, you better fetch a glass from the top cupboard in the pantry. Or at least that's where I kept them."

She saw that it was Kinian wine, a rare treat in the desert and almost ran for the pantry. She came back with three clay cups, and handed one to Bren and the other to Pothax. "I've never had Kinian wine before," she said eagerly.

"What's your name?" he asked, pouring the precious liquid into her cup. "I can't toast someone I don't know."

"Phiona, sir," she said, lifting the cup and smelling the bouquet.

"Not 'sir'. I'm not a knight," admonished Pothax. "And now a toast to how well kept you kept this place! My congratulations!"

"Thank you, milord...ambassador," she said embarrassedly, smiled with a shrug and took a sip. The liquid was warm and tasted like she was under an apple tree, except she had never seen an apple tree and doubted she ever would. She swallowed and nearly choked as the liquid burned her throat with fiery pain. It was over quickly and she looked up, bleary eyed at the cutthroat.

Pothax finished his wine, and set the empty cup down. Bren finished up his and set down beside his father's. "We best be going," said the ambassador. "We don't want to be late."

"But-but what about the wine and-and your coins?" Phiona demanded as he bounded out the door.

"I'll return for them tonight."

Waytorn had told him about a Cherten woman that had her eyes on the crime throne, but Rades hadn't known it would be this easy to find her. If anything, she found him before he even started to look for her. There she was singing along with the song Rodrigo had played for him earlier on a pipe. He wasn't even sure if he was playing the right notes or if the timing of each note was correct, but it sounded right and if he did make any mistakes, nobody noticed.

Sweat ran down his back in what felt like a waterfall until he saw Billip hurrying his way with a tall stein of sarsaparilla. He set the bag pipes aside and jumped down from the bar. He grabbed the stein from the barkeep and lifted it to his lips. He downed the liquid as much as he could, the rest splashing out to wet his face and roll down his chest as he drank.

Billip poked him in the side and whispered, "If you keep drinking like that, I'll have to start watering down the drinks so I don't run out!"

Rades snorted and nearly choked as the foam from the drink went up his nose. He set the empty stein down, patted a friendly barmaid's bottom and hopped back up on the bar with a fresh smile. He picked up the bag pipes and his eyes went to where the woman he knew now was Nevada was sitting in a booth. He began to play a rollicking tune with heavy emphasis on a good beat. Soon he had the whole tavern stomping their feet, and the barmaids dancing with some of the patrons.

Meanwhile he was going over what Waytorn had told him. Rades had been seduced and betrayed during both Kobalix's Quest and the Third Ice War, this time it was going to be different. He knew that Nevada was a professional and that she would likely try to seduce him in order to learn more about Waytorn. The rumours should have started by now concerning Waytorn's retirement, Sinclair's successorship and finally Waytorn's disappearance. Now when Nevada is desperate to find Waytorn, Rades would present himself as a beacon. She would seduce him and try to learn Waytorn's whereabouts and he would tell her that he's hiding down near the docks in a little inn called the Sailor's Port. Which, of course, he wasn't. The King Culprit was just down the street staying in the estate beside the park. Wynic Doxon's estate where Rades was currently staying along with old Graf Johann von Deltex, Grandee Rodrigo and even the Kinian Princess, Kelly. While she seduced him, he would seduce her, learn more about her and report back to Waytorn. This was a tricky game he was playing. She might realize that he was seducing her, but if he was lucky, she'd be too preoccupied with learning more about him.

He jumped down from the bar and started dancing and playing. The music changed subtly to a dance and soon even Billip was dancing with one of the barmaids. Though large, Billip had a lightness of foot and a deftness that made him an extraordinary dancer.

He began to tire however, good timing too! Now that he knew what Nevada looked like, he could present himself as a target by leaving. He passed by Rodrigo and nodded in the woman's direction. The Cherten grinned and winked. He stopped abruptly and bent over to whisper in the old man's ear, "Guten abend, mein Graf." He had to speak in old Stornium because Graf Johann had forgotten the common language after living up in the Ice Lands for twenty years. "Keep an eye on her. Fine?" he asked in old Stornium.

The old man nodded. "Ist das sie?" He nodded again in Nevada's direction.

"Ya, that is she," Rades replied in old Stornium. He avoided looking at her directly, which was hard because she was really quite gorgeous and innocent looking. Part of the seductive appeal, he supposed. "I'll have to go now, Billip. I'll be down in the park if anyone needs me." There was the bait, he just hoped it wasn't too baitish looking.

"This is my chance," Nevada whispered in Escherten as the old man and the Cherten sat down in the booth beside her and Terencio's. "Try to learn more about his friends in the next booth," she said as she got up. She set down a gold doubloon coin as payment for the drink and left.

Terencio watched her go and turned his attention to the two men talking in the booth next to him. They spoke in both Escherten and a different tongue he guessed to be old Stornium from the old man's accent. He understood only bits and pieces of what they were talking about. Waytorn seemed to be their main topic of interest. He got up, deciding to go buy his countrymen a drink.

They looked up as he approached and the old man stopped in mid speech. "Good day senors. May I join you and maybe buy you a drink? I rarely run into fellow countrymen this far inland."

"Indeed," said the man with the mustache. "But how can anyone refuse free drinks? Sit down senor."

Terencio sat down beside the old man and before he could open his mouth to speak, the barkeep bustled over and took out a slate and chalk. "Guten tag, Graf Johann. Has the fish taken the bait?" he asked in old Stornium.

Johann nodded in reply. "Ya, I'll have buffalo stew and a tankard of Stornium beer. Preferably Glist," he said in old Stornium, knowing the Cherten next to him didn't know what had just passed between the two men, other than an order for buffalo and Stornium beer.

"And you sir," Billip said in common to Rodrigo.

"I understand you have some venison left over from yesterday? I'll have some of that. I wouldn't want it to go to waste. Plus my private stock of Cherten wine for me and my fellow countrymen here. The bottle from King Waytorn."

"Yes, of course," said Billip, jotting the order down and noting the other Cherten's surprise. "Would you like anything else, sire?"

"Some more venison for me as well. Thank you," said Terencio. He looked at Rodrigo curiously after Billip left. "I thought I was going to buy?"

"Oh, you can buy the meal. But I prefer Cherten wine to these mainland blends. Don't you?" Rodrigo asked, twisting the signet ring on one of his fingers. Terencio noted that the signet ring was of Cherten design and that the eagle was the sign of a warrior.

"Yes, of course. I hadn't however expected to find Cherten wine this far inland. Tell me, did you really get it from the King Culprit?"

"Could you please speak in Escherten for my friend's sake, he doesn't speak the common tongue," Rodrigo explained.

"Si, of course," said Terencio in Escherten. "Did you really get the wine from the Culprit?"

"Si. He paid me with several antique bottles for my work during the Ice War. They're quite good as you'll soon see."

"You're a warrior?"

"A matador," Rodrigo replied.

"Ah, a trained killer. Tell me, do you plan on participating in the Summerfest Games? I believe the Cherten embassy here has announced to have a demonstration of a bull fight?"

"Si, I have agreed to fight an auroch in the colosseum after the race two days from now. Ah, here comes Billip now!"

Terencio turned to see the barkeep waddling in their direction with two platters and a barmaid carrying a third platter plus a bottle of wine. He could smell the wine from here. He breathed deeply.

Rodrigo smiled. Everything was going as planned. Doctor Roderick had given him a sedative for his signet ring. He took the bottle from the barmaid and uncorked it with his dagger. He poured it into two glass goblets, twisting his signet ring and pouring the sedative into Terencio's drink. "Here you go my friend," he said, passing the goblet to the Cherten. "To Cherte!"

"To Cherte!" Terencio toasted and drank the liquid in one pull. He smiled goofily and promptly fell out of his seat.

"It works faster than we thought," Johann muttered in old Stornium and poked the slumbering man with his cane.

"There he is," said Wynic, pointing from his study window down into the park. "And there she is. Devid," he said to his retainer. "You can tell Billip's barmaid that the fish is circling the hook and is sure to bite." He smiled.

"So far so good," said Waytorn. "Let's hope this plan continues to work."

"Let's hope Mathex's telegram machine works or Pothax won't get the message," muttered Victoria. She smiled and leaned back in her chair and patted her plump abdomen. She could feel the little fellow inside her, kicking. "Should we review the plan and make sure there's no kinks?" she asked.

"Sure," agreed Waytorn. "It's my neck on the line here, and I'd like to keep it." He sat down beside the pregnant archeress. "Rades leads Nevada on a wild goose chase down to the waterfront while we get in a covered carriage and sneak out Northgate and head north to my keep. We leave Sinclair with all his problems to take care of his own hold on the throne while Maseri and several other killers are planning his death in an attempt to take over the throne. We give Johann, Billip and Rodrigo the message that the fish is following the bait. They tell Mathex, Prince Nebonex and Gisoni at King Willium's palace, and they send the message to Queen Elexenia's palace in Avolic. Assuming the machine works over long distances, they will get the message 'Long live the Monarchy', and reply 'Long live the Monarchy'. The message will go throughout both cities as a message meaning to those involved that I'm on my way to my keep and to warn them of the confusion to follow when the crime world goes into upheaval. The extra confusion of the message will help what goes on here, especially with Summerfest going on. When we arrive in my keep, we will stay in there until the worst is over and the new crime king, if the crime network is still intact, that is, has secured his throne. Did I miss anything?"

"Yes, the Colnics."

"Ah, yes. That's the biggest problem. The Colnic underworld will revolt and Queen Elexenia will have a civil war on her hands. Let's hope it doesn't spill over into Arthian and disrupt Athex as well. We'll have enough confusion here already. Pothax spreads the word over there that Sinclair is now the new King Culprit and then gets the hell out of there along with the royalty before all Hell breaks loose." Waytorn was a relatively average looking man. With the exception of his face. He was handsome beyond compare with strong cheekbones, sculpted visage and sharp eyes. On the left side of his face that is, on his right? Scars that covered the whole right side of his face and made most people want to vomit when they see him.

Victoria smiled. She remembered gagging when she first met the cutthroat. Now she didn't even grimace, because she'd grown accustomed to the strange visage. She herself was not as beautiful as she used to be, well, not necessarily as beautiful. Wynic told her everyday that she was beautiful and had a special glow about her. She just wasn't as thin as she used to be. That plump spot in her middle kicked her again. Though she would be again, soon.

Wynic smiled. "Yep, there she goes," he said, pointing down into the park. He turned and ran a hand through his red hair. He and his brother Pothax were almost totally identical, though Pothax was about ten years older, black haired and had a few premature wrinkles. "She's taking the bait."

Rades looked up and saw Nevada making her way through the garden of finely trimmed rose bushes, flowerbeds of Sweet Willium's, late blooming irises and day lilies. He smiled and shifted uncomfortably from his seat under the Arthian Oak. This would become difficult if he didn't watch it. He better let her do the seducing for the moment. Think sad thoughts so I look like I need company. That wasn't hard. All he had to do was think of Deltex.

Castle Deltex had been his home before Kobalix's Quest. He had been a fun loving dandy to say the least. He'd had many friends, and even Susanna, the prettiest young Fraulein around. Had. Past tense. Susanna is dead. Castle Deltex is abandoned, everyone there was slaughtered when the Minotaur Army went through there on the way to Athex of the Walls. Rades had been sent just before the battle to warn King Willium in Athex. He and Johann, the Graf who disappeared in the Kinian Mountains twenty years ago, were the only people left who could say they were from Deltex.

"Are you okay?" asked Nevada, sitting down beside him on the bench. Her accent was similar to Rodrigo's, except more coy and innocent. Her eyes were very wide and her breathing was deep. Gott in himmel, Rades swore inwardly. She is good!

"Ya, I'm okay. Just thinking of someone," he replied, looking up, backing away and feigning shyness. "Graf Rades von Deltex," he said, offering her his hand.

"I know. I saw you playing at the Drunken Dragon. You're really very good!" She placed her hand delicately in his and he bent over and kissed it lightly. "I'm Lady Nevada of Morado Monte in Cherte."

"Thank you, Fraulein. Now if you'll excuse me, I'd really prefer to be alone," Rades said. He knew he was teasing her abilities, making it harder for her. But that would serve as a distraction so Rades could learn more about her.

"I'm afraid not, senor. Being from Cherte, I've never been to Athex before and I can't remember the way back to the inn where I was staying. I hear the streets in Athex are crowded with vermin. Could you take me to the Royal Athexian?"

Slick, mused Rades. "My, my! Aren't we laud-dee-da? Tell me why does a woman from Cherte come all the way to Athex just to sit in a big fancy inn like that? Certainly not just to listen to a bagpipe player and get lost in the world's largest city?" He stood and offered her his arm for support. They started down the street towards the inn.

"Why, thank you, senor Rades. And no, I'm afraid I didn't come here all the way from Cherte to listen to you. Or get lost for that matter. My family is interested in buying gems. We have a monopoly back home in jewelry shops and we need to keep our merchandise in stock. Wouldn't happen to know anyone with large amounts of gems they'd like to sell, would you?"

Once again, Rades had to admit she was good. She knew Waytorn had plenty and knew that Rades knew Waytorn quite well. She didn't know that he knew that though. "Why, yes I do. King Waytorn has gems to spare! Why I even saw his giant emerald once! It's bigger than my head!"

"Oh, really? He wouldn't be tempted to sell it, would he?"

"I'm afraid not. He's having it fashioned into a crown as soon as he finishes with this throne business. Have you heard about that?" More bait, the more the merrier!

"Why yes! Somebody called Sinclair I believe?"

"Of course! He was the logical choice! He's been in line for the throne for years now! It will be just a few days before he's got the show running smoothly, though there's been rumours that it won't last long because Maseri wants the throne. Which means a fight to the death and a probably a couple power struggles. But it will be back to normal in no time! I'm sure!" A complete and utter lie meant to make her think he's really that stupid. As soon as they reached her room at the inn, she'd be convinced he was a complete fool. "Tell me more about you, Fraulein Nevada?" he suggested with a glance at her.

"Ah, let's see... I like to ride horses, go sailing, what exactly do you want to know?"

"Nothing much. Why you're here, I suppose?"

"Other than buy some merchandise, I'm supposed to sell some merchandise, see the Summerfest Games, buy some souvenirs and go back to Cherte."

"Here we are," Rades announced, rounding a bend in the street and going up the boulevard. "There's the Royal Athexian. Now don't get lost again!" he warned her with a smile, turning to leave.

"No, please senor. Come up to my room for a drink? It's the least I can do for you!" she asked, gently tugging on the Stornium's arm.

"Well, okay, but just one. Wynic and Victoria will be wondering why I'm not back yet," he said. He let her lead him inside the grandly decorated inn, past the lobby, the barroom and up the grand staircase to the second floor and into her richly furnished suite. He noted that everytime he turned around she waved at someone. She must have plenty of bodyguards with her.

She closed the door and went into one of the adjoining rooms. "Please sit down somewhere, and make yourself comfortable. I'll be right back."

"Nice place," he said, sitting down in a plush purple couch. The room had all the luster of a palace including crystal chandeliers. The Athex, Glist or Jaton palace that is. Avolic's is supposed to be pretty drab. He smiled when she appeared again carrying a tray with a wine decanter and two crystal goblets. Her wine coloured dress clung to her curves and buttocks, and distracted Rades from the fact that she was a damn fast dresser.

She poured two goblets and handed one to Rades before sitting down on the couch beside him. The straps of her dress were loose and he could see soft white flesh beneath. He took a quick sip of the wine, swished it around in his mouth since he'd never tasted Cherten wine before and downed the rest. "Gotta go," he said quickly, getting up to leave.

She intercepted him. "Please senor, stay a while longer. You've barely tasted the tip of the iceberg of Cherten hospitality."

"Oh, really?" asked Rades. "What else is there to taste?" Now would she only take the bait?

"Taste my lips," she murmured, her soft hands rubbing his chest and raising goose bumps. Her lips came forward like a barbed harpoon, meeting his. Her tongue sneaked between his lips and his met hers in a Kinian kiss. Her hands came up deftly and she knocked the spitfire cap off his head as she ran her hands through his blond hair.

Rades closed his eyes and wondered how Waytorn had talked him into this. He smiled. Maybe I wanted to be talked into it? He grinned and untied the straps of Nevada's dress. It fell to the floor and he felt her soft breasts rub against his bare chest.

She stepped back and he saw she hadn't worn so much as a petticoat under her dress. There was a lot of women who probably agreed, what with this heat? Her body was soft and delicate looking. Her skin a pale peachy colour. White where her breasts and lower torso was concerned. Her hair was ravenous black now that she no longer had a hat on and he could see. Her chest was heaving and she stepped closer. "Oh god, Rades, make love to me!"

I'll bet you say that to all the guys, mused Rades and did as told. He grasped her by the waist and lifted her easily onto the couch. He climbed on top of her, she untied his belt and before he knew it she had pulled him inside her and was shouting his name. Whether this too was an act, Rades didn't know. He doubted she was even enjoying it.

He could hear shouts out in the street. 'Long live the Monarchy!' was one of them. Confirmation that the message had been sent, Mathex's machine worked. He didn't care, he was busy.

"Long live the Monarchy," the minotaur announced.

Pothax smiled and melted into the background as the surrounded nobles cheered and continued to celebrate. It was time for him to spread the word and make the riches he knew would result. He also had to return to his old home and get what's left of his belongings there before going back to Athex.

He went to a window and slipped out onto the balcony. From there he shinnied down a tree crossed the burnt lawn and climbed a different tree and escaped over the palace walls into the darkness. It was but two blocks down one alley and he was there.

There was no curfew tonight because of Summerfest and because it is the coolest part of the day. However as he approached his old home, he heard voices.

"Where did you get this stuff?" demanded one angry voice.

"Pothax Doxon. This used to be his place!" replied Phiona's voice.

"Don't lie to me." There was the sound of breaking glass and Pothax could smell Kinian wine. "You've been working for someone else! I warned you that you work for me and nobody else!"

"But-but I didn't!"

"Shut up!" shouted the voice which was obviously male though hoarse. "I warned you..." There were sounds of someone being struck and Phiona was crying.

Pothax had been a slave as a child. He'd been sold into slavery by his own father, a brutish man who'd taken pleasure from beating up people. It was his father who had tortured his friend Rades and torn his eye out for a collection. When Pothax and Wynic later caught up to their father they had found jars and jars of pickled eyeballs. Bren wasn't really Pothax's son, but a boy off the streets in Athex who had father that was beating him. Pothax had always been tempersome where that sort of thing was concerned and killed the man. Wynic would have been sold into slavery too, had it not been abolished. Instead their father had beat him. Wynic had attacked his father eventually and had pretty much killed him, but somehow the old man had survived and become the Lairmaster in the Third Ice War. It was then that Wynic and Pothax, not only because they wanted to but because they were being paid as assassin's to kill the leaders, killed their own father, though both agreed later that the world was better off without a man who pickled eyeballs.

He charged through the rotten door. His dagger coming out in a flash as he whipped it across the room at the man beating Phiona. Pothax never misses, even in the dimly lit room the dagger slid into the man's bare chest with pinpoint accuracy. The man fell over and knocked a burning candle onto the floor. "Oh shit!" shouted Pothax as the wine caught fire and quickly spread across the room.

Phiona screamed and ran to join Pothax at the door. She was naked except for one single sandal. He pushed her aside, with a "Dammit!", and plunged into the burning room.

A fire at this time of year could burn down an entire city if one didn't put it out fast enough. Pothax looked around, choking on the smoke and didn't see any water period. He grabbed his dagger and fled back out the door.

Falling to his knees, he scooped up a handful of sand and ran back inside to douse the fire with it. No use. He scrambled back out the door. "We gotta find a well or something!" he shouted.

"There isn't any!" she protested. "Just the geyser, and that's four blocks away!"

People were already gathering and pointing at the flames rising above the burning building. Shouts of fire and evacuate quickly spread across the city. "Com'on," Pothax shouted grabbing the girl's arm. "Let's get outta here!"

During the First Night watch at the Athex palace in Arthian on the first night of Summerfest in the year 4058, they received a telegram reading CITY BURNING HELP.

You can buy The Paladin Assassin ($3.99), Ice War ($4.99) and King Culprit ($4.99) on Amazon Kindle. Or buy the whole set for $9.99.

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