Wrai propped his boots on the rungs of the chair opposite him and took a deep drink of his ale, mentally cursing being stuck in this cesspit of a town. Why Krelton of all town in the four dukedoms of Ardalak?
The storm seemed to have kept most of the locals at home. Two workmen in homespun slumped wearily at a table. A merchant with a sword-carrying guard at this elbow stood at the bar talking to the innkeeper. Outside, the inn’s sign banged in the wind.
The horse fair at Rystar started in two days and he wouldn’t make it in time. A storm had left ruts and potholes deep enough to swallow a horse. The post-coach he was traveling in had hit one full tilt. When the axle shattered, it threw the coach tumbling. Wrai and the driver had walked away with only a few bruises, but the smith would take days to repair the damage.
Wrai wouldn’t make the profit he’d expected. Bollocks, he’d counted on that gold. He couldn't take care of Amalie when he was traveling all the time, having to duck out when someone decided he'd won a little too often. A gambling house he’d been eyeing would be perfect, if he could find the money. His stomach coiled at the thought of something happening to his daughter while he was gone as it had to her mother.
Wrai banged his mug down on the table. The innkeeper lifted his head to stare, so Wrai nodded to the man and leaned back again. No one else paid him any mind.
He slipped his fingers under his shirt and into his money pouch to slide over the ten silver pfennigs and, reassuringly heavy, five gold marks. They would have been more than enough for a stake at the tables at the fair. He could make up the loss if he went to Crestholm for one of the high-roller games. For that, he’d need more gold marks. It wasn’t close to enough. He still had a purse of base pfennigs upstairs to cover his room. But going to Crestholm now meant breaking a promise. He'd written Amalie that that he'd be there in two week.
She'd never have reason to think her father didn't care. Not like his. He frowned and took another sip of the dark, sharp ale.
The rattle of harness, voices, and the stamp of hooves from outside made him twitch. The door banged open, the wind jerking it to thud against the wall.
Water dripped from a thickset man’s hair and drooping moustache. He pushed the door closed against the rain blowing in.
"Wet night out," the innkeeper said as he reached for a mug.
"That it is," the newcomer said. "I’ll need rooms for me and my friends." His worn leather scabbard was scarred with use and his sleeve bulged. Definitely a strong-arm of some kind.
Wrai sat unmoving. Middling height, neatly built, dark hair and eyes, thin moustache, he blended into the background. No one would notice him. He twitched with an inward smile. Well, a woman might. Amalie’s mother had.
The door opened quietly this time as a ginger-haired man dressed in leather and linen came in. Perhaps the first was this one’s guard but strange to come in first and leave his client outside. Ginger-hair held the door open for a girl. She darted in out of the wet, dripping water from her brown split-skirt gown, hair in a knot at the nape of her neck.
"Only two rooms available." The innkeeper shrugged. "Only other one’s taken."
"That’ll do. One for the lady. My friend and I’ll share the other."
"Have him send up mulled wine to both rooms," Ginger-hair said. "We’re all chilled through with the wet."
The guard-dog handed over a folded parchment and dropped a coin into the innkeeper’s hand.
"And post this. Tomorrow we’ll need a parlor for the day."
The innkeeper yelled for a boy to show the newcomers up. As they climbed the stairs, the innkeeper unfolded the parchment. The merchant strained across the bar to see what it was.
Curiosity pricked at Wrai’s nerves but he wasn’t about to call attention to himself by going over.
"What is it?" the merchant said.
The innkeeper held the paper out at arms length and squinted at it, lips moving as he read. "It’s a notice to put up. Says he’s a merchant who wants to buy jewelry from before the dukedom was formed." He frowned as he peered at it. "Says he’ll pay good prices and be buying tomorrow all day."
The merchant took a sip of his wine. "Never seen anything that old. Wonder how he’ll tell?"
The innkeeper gave a broad shrug before turning to draw two flagons of wine from a cask and set them to mulling. "Wouldn’t mind getting in on to something like that if I knew where to find it. Must be profitable if he’s paying well." The merchant scowled into his mug. "Maybe one of the nobles hereabout, but they wouldn’t likely part with family pieces."
Wrai drained his mug. He knew of a noble who of a certainty had antiquities. A smile twisted his mouth. He’d been near the man three times in his life, but he was willing to wager a good deal some of his pieces were from before the Crestholm dukedom was founded. And he didn’t wager—not without being sure he would win.
The tricky part would be laying hands on the piece. When he’d walked past the house on the way to the inn the night before, it had been dark except for a tiny slant of light from an upstairs back window. That would have been a servant’s room. If the Faceless Goddess favored Wrai, the owner was out of town. The profit might make up for missing the fair. It might even give him the gold to buy that gambling hall. Getting it at the cost of someone who owed him made it that much sweeter.
He headed for the stairs and no one so much as turned their head. In his room, he pulled back the shutters. The rain still pelted, splattering into puddles. The streets would be quiet. If he was right that the house was empty, he could have a profitable night. Should he take the risk? He flexed his hands, a chill of nerves going through him.
He’d mostly given up thieving after Amalie was born. Every city took a hand for thieving, a few took both. The worst you got for weighting the dice in a game of Hazard was a flogging. But, no one ever won at the table if they didn’t lay the stakes. This was too good a gamble to pass up. He swapped his leather and homespun for his black tunic and breeches and pulled on his black gloves.
Time to collect a debt long past due.
The rain had quieted to a drizzle by the time he jumped from the window into the dark horse yard. The air smelled of earth and wet leaves. He slogged through the muddy street. The village was dark except for once when the quarter moon found a gap in the rain clouds. Past a street lined with ramshackle wooden huts, he came to the larger brick houses near the market square. Set back from the road, most had cypress-dotted lawns. A shaft of light shown through shutters of a manse and a couple left, talking and laughing as a torch carrier lit their way. Wrai stopped under a dripping tree to wait and then strolled through the dark keeping an eye out for guards or stray merrymakers.
His heart sped up with a thrill he had missed. The risk was better than new summerwine.
The manse he was seeking stood above the market square at the top of a hill. Heavy shutters barred the tall front windows and the hickory front door had heavy a heavy bar. He slipped through the trees of the lawn toward the back. In the shadow of an oak, he studied the house with its kitchen, scullery and back garden. He’d gambled in enough fancy manses to know how they were set up. Even with the master gone, a junior maid was probably huddled in the kitchen beside the dying warmth of the hearth. In the garret, a senior servant or two might have been left to see to the house while the master was gone. He didn’t want in the garret anyway, and he’d circle around to avoid the kitchen.
The master’s study took up one side of the front of the house. He padded across the wet grass to one of the forward windows. Running a finger over the joint of the shutter, he sucked in a breath. That latch was a heavy one. But he needed money, and he liked the idea of getting it from his father. He touched the scar at the corner of his eye. Oh, yes, he liked that idea.
He needed a window he could work at for a while so he eased around the house until he found one hidden by two heavy bushes. He pulled a long metal pick out of his boot's seam. It slid through slit, and the latch didn’t take as long as he’d thought it might. Easing the window up, he strained to detect any sound. The drizzle sputtered softly.
No noise came from inside the dark house. He climbed through into a hallway and stood still letting his eyes adjust. The house smelled of wax and fine leather just the same as when he'd been here before. He closed his eyes for a minute to let them get used to the deeper darkness inside.
His mother had dragged him the first two times. He’d been past his seventh solstice. She’d scrubbed him until he stung and dressed him in his least worn clothes. That was after the players she had been performing with had turned up its toes. He’d heard her crying every night, and she cursed all the way to the manse under her breath. She’d never said anything about his father before, but on the way, she said every bad word Wrai’d ever had his mouth washed out for saying. A servant showed her into the study, him in tow, his hand firmly in hers. He gaped at the colorful pictures in the wall hangings. In a polished case, silver urns shone and a medal as large as a man's hand etched with a deep figure of the Goddess surrounded by a strange twisted mark dangled.
"You want your own son to go hungry?" his mother said, her face drawn tight.
The man shrugged and rang for a servant to show her out. "Don’t come back with the by-blow."
Laying the Odds, co-authored with C. R. Daems, is my new fantasy adventure available at Smashwords and Amazon. It is reduced from $2.99 to 99 Cents for June only in honor of Reader Appreciation Month.