Read Dagger Online

Authors: David Drake

Tags: #Fantasy - General, #Fantasy, #Fiction - Fantasy, #General, #Science fiction, #Fiction

Dagger (8 page)

Now Samlor spilled the coins from his right hand to his left, letting them fall far enough through the air to wake shivers of light. Not even brass could mimic that color or the particular music of gold ringing on gold.

"Buy it at a pretty good rate, too," the caravan master added, relieved beyond measure to hear a sigh of wonder from the guard shack. There were enough people who wanted Samlor hil Samt dead that being killed by accident would be ridiculous.

"Here," he added. "Catch."

The Cirdonian spun one of the gold coins off the thumb of his left hand, aiming it between the bars of the fence and into the dark rectangle of the shack's window ten feet beyond.

There was a crash of objects within, a thump, and then the barely distinct pinging of the coin bouncing onto the floor despite the watchman's desperate attempts to catch it in the air.

Samlor waited, his face neutral, while the hidden watchman shuffled on his hands and knees and bumped the walls of his shack repeatedly. There was no light inside beyond what slipped between thoboards, and the coin—

the price of an

excellent donkey or a horse that might or might not carry an adult twenty miles—

was not large physically.

The noises stopped. The watchman reappeared at the window and stuck his arm out so that he could see the coin

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in the light of the lantern on the shack's front. It winked, and Samlor winked cheerfully at the amazement of the man whom he saw for the first time. Money was generally the best way to approach a stranger.

"What d'ye wanna know?" said the watchman. His voice was no less suspicious than before, but now it was pitched an octave lower. The coin disappeared somewhere out of sight as soon as he realized that he was flashing it to the world.

"How long you been here?" Samlor asked. Then, realizing that he knew exactly what answer he would get—

Huh? Since sundown—

he added, "How many weeks, I mean?"

The watchman's hands reappeared in the light. He was counting on his fingers while his lips mouthed one, two, three—

He paused. "Pay me," he demanded.

"When I'm satisfied," the caravan master said, "you get all the rest of this. If I'm not satisfied, I'll take back the first, and I'll have your guts for garters."

Gold danced from one hand to the palm of the other in time with Samlor's broadening smile. The mixed message suddenly got home in the watchman's brain. He jumped back away from the window.

"No problem, friend," said Samlor. "I want to give you this money."

"Three weeks. An' a day," came the voice from the dark. "Look—

"

"And have you seen any signs that anybody lives in the place opposite?" Samlor continued, trampling steadily over the notion that the watchman had something useful to say that wasn't an answer to a direct question. "People going in or out? Food deliveries? The lantern by the door lighted?"

"Gods and demons," the watchman mumbled, leaning forward again in his shack.

"Well, I dunno, I—

what was that last thing again?"

Like working with a camel, thought Samlor, except that a good camel was probably smarter. "The lantern by the doorway there," he repeated gently, pointing with the hand which held the money. "Has it ever been lighted while you're on duty here?"

"There's no lantern," said the watchman, stretching as far forward as he could from the window. He was a scrawny man, and the effect was rather that of a turtle trying to grasp a berry hanging well above it. "Say, but yer right, there was a light over there back. . . . Well, I dunno for sure, but there was a light."

That was going to have to do, the caravan master realized. There had been at least some evidence of occupancy at Setios' house three weeks ago, and now there wasn't. Samlor'd never been a big one on finesse if it looked like a quick and dirty way was going to accomplish the job.

"Fine," he said aloud to the watchman. "Now you bring me that screw jack over there—

" he pointed "—

and I give you this.

"Better yet—

" he went on, because he saw the watchman's mouth drop open before the fellow skipped out of sight again in fear "—

I'm going to drop the gold right

here."

Samlor reached inside the grating and let the coins fall with a glittering song.

"Now," he repeated. "All you have to do is bring me that jack. Then I'll go away, and you can scoop up the money safe as can be. Right? Look at it." Despite himself, the watchman did peer out of his shack again. "But if they miss a tool. . . ," he said in a tone of desperate pleading.

"I'm paying you more than you'd make in a year doing this," said the caravan master reasonably. The coins shone on the ground as invitingly as the eyes of the most beautiful whore in the world. "For that matter, I'll bring the jack back if I've got a chance—

but what d'yoit care?"

The watchman sidled out of his shack. As the caravan master had suspected, the fellow's weapon\ was not a crossbow but a pike which had been sawed ofP—

or

broken and smoothed—

to a total length of about five feet, butt to point. It was useless except for prodding away a drunk who tried to climb into the site, but serious trouble was for soldiers summoned by the alarm gong—

not for the cretin

to deal with by himself.

"I dunno," the fellow muttered, but he picked up the 52

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heavy jack with as much assurance as he managed with anything.

"The bar too," Samlor directed. "To turn it." The watchman blinked, fumbled, and then laid down his pike to bring the iron rod which drove the mechanism.

The jack was a solid iron screw which the contractor's men were using to drive into place the quarter-ton blocks which had to interlock with the existing fabric of the structure being renovated. A frame clamped to the front of the building provided a base from which the jack could be screwed. Its steady thrust would move stones smoothly, instead of shattering them as would result from an attempt to hammer them into place.

The watchman had approached within six or seven feet of the fence. Then he lobbed the pieces of the jack underhand in the direction of Samlor and skipped back like a keeper who had just fed a restive lion. Iron bounced from the ground into iron with exactly the sort of clangor which Samlor had hoped to avoid.

"Idiot!" the caravan master snarled under his breath as he tried to damp the ringing bars by squeezing them in his hands. It didn't help a lot—

the grating

vibrated in a hundred separate harmonies—

but it was a good release for the fury

that wrapped Samlor for the moment. As well get mad at a dog for barking. . . . He reached through the grate and lifted the screw jack. Maybe the watchman, holding his pike again in the terrified certainty that he would need it, wasn't as frail as he looked. The bar and screw weighed a good thirty pounds, and the handle was solid enough to be a crushingly effective weapon in a strong man's hands.

The noise hadn't aroused any obvious interest. It wasn't exactly that residents of this district minded their own business. Rather, they were wealthy enough that noise in the night implied criminality of too trivial a nature to be profitable to them.

"Spend it wisely, friend," said Samlor as he tucked the jack under his cloak. No point in giving a view of the proceedings to anyone who chanced to be peering through a window. He backed a few paces away from the fence and bowed sardonically to the watchman, who was hopping from one foot to the other as if executing a clumsy dance with his pike.

Samlor turned and strode back to his companions. Behind him, he heard the fellow diving for the gold which he could at last safely retrieve. Well, the fool had already outlived the caravan master by a couple decades, so it wasn't absolutely certain that possession of that much money was the kiss of death. They'd made a bargain, and Samlor had kept his part of it. The results beyond that weren't a concern of his.

"If\ a fool follows his heart," said Tjainufi from the Napatan's shoulder, "he does wisely."

Samlor started, looking at the manikin with appraising eyes. "Do you think so?" he asked, then grimaced to find himself talking to the unnatural little—

thing.

"Khamwas," he said gruffly, "come help me with the window." Star was curled in the corner of the door alcove, dozing with the Napatan's cape for a pillow. Khamwas stood in front of her, watching the street as well as the caravan master. He was very slim without the bulk of the outer garment, and his bare chest was no garb for this night.

"I, ah," he said, looking down at the child. "I thought it would be good if she got some rest, so. ... She's very like my own daughter, you know."

"Wish I had more talent for what she needs," said the caravan master quietly, staring at the child also. "Wish I knew what she needs, what any kid needs. But you do what you can."

He grimaced again. "Bring 'er along, will you? I need you at the side to hand me this jack when I'm ready for it—

" he fluffed his cloak open to display the tool


and I don't want her in plain sight on the street, even though it means getting her up again."

The sky had closed in above the passage between the two buildings. It was as dark as a narrow cave, and for the time being the air was as motionless as that of a cavern miles below the ground. Samlor found his location by subconscious memory of the six cautious paces which had brought him beneath the window when he could see it.

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He put down the jack and began the task of ascending the wall. The houses were built close enough to one another that the caravan master could brace himself against opposite walls, first with his hands and then by wedging his hobnails into narrow cracks in the masonry. He mounted to the second floor window like a frog swimming, his legs lifting him each time his arms had locked on a fresh hold.

When Samlor's left palm touched the window ledge, he explored it by touch with all the care required of a possible trap with razor edges. Beneath him he heard his companions, Khamwas murmuring a response to Star's whine. He was glad he had the other man along on this business, not least because Khamwas could look after the child.

The bars were set solidly into stone lintels, and they were just as tight together as Samlor had thought. There were glazed windows within, swung back in sashes and apparently hooked to keep breezes from banging them to and fro. There was no light in the room beyond, and utterly no sound. Samlor set both his feet against the wall of Setios' house and braced his back on the adjacent building. If he'd thought things through, he might have redoubled his cloak before he set his shoulders on the rough stone, but he'd be all right for the brief while he expected to cling here. The important thing was that his hands were free.

"Khamwas," he called softly, "hand me up the jack. And don't let the handle fall out of it, right?"

"Just a mo—

oh," said the Napatan. "There. . . ."

Samlor twisted his torso against the wall and reached down as far as he could with his left hand. He could not see Khamwas, but the scrunch of wood suggested that the Napatan had wedged his staff between the walls and was using the slant to raise himself, even though one of his hands was full of the heavy jack.

"Hold it," Samlor whispered. His fingers brushed one of the crossholes by which the jack was turned. By squeezing down a fraction further, the caravan master managed to hook the rod between his index and middle fingers, though the strain on them and the web of his hand was agonizing.

"There, you bitch!" he snarled at it as he lurched up against pain that he had to ignore for the instant before his right hand closed on the barrel of the jack and took the strain. Straightening up was difficult—

at one angle, the chain

closure of his cloak threatened to throttle him—

but it felt so good not to have

a tearing weight on his fingers that he could easily ignore lesser problems. He set the jack sideways on the window ledge, angling it so that the screw top touched a bar while the base was firmly against the^tone sash. The handle rotated the screw slightly before binding against the ledge. Samlor removed the handle, set the end into the other crosshole (offset ninety degrees from the first) and cranked the screw up another quarter turn. The base scrunched and the top gave an iron-to-iron squeak.

The caravan master grinned and began pumping the screw higher. The bars protecting the window were sturdy, but Samlor's powerful arm muscles were multiplied by the handle's leverage and the shallow-pitched threads of the housejack. The combination would have torn apart the stone sash if that were necessary.

It wasn't, but chips of cement spalled away before the bar set in it fractured. The jack slipped. Samlor swore and clamped it with the hand that had been resting on the barrel more for his support than its.

"Are you all right?" Khamwas whispered in concern.

"Yeah, it's all right," the caravan master replied. He didn't want to arouse people in the house behind him—

by this time he was convinced that Setios had

decamped with all his household in the past three weeks—

but explaining the

situation to his companion calmed both of them. "The bars're brittle, cast instead of worked. It surprised me when it broke, but it makes the job simpler.

"A single plowing does not produce the crop," said Tjainufi.

"Don't get your bowels in an uproar," the caravan master grunted back. He began levering more furiously, each stroke requiring him to reset the jack handle. The crack of metal breaking had been unexpected; and right now, the things the caravan

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master did expect included some that were really unpleasant. The bar had broken at its lower end, where it took the strain of the jack. The top, where the displacement was less acute, remained in its stone transom—

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