The Hero Thief
Of all the cities of Bersch, Port Town was the ugliest. With barely a straight line to be found, its buildings staggered and leaned together like valiant drunks at the coming of dawn. The streets were mortared with filth, the roads paved with vague disappointment, and the pathways almost certainly up to no good. Don’t even mention the alleys.
Port Town was ugly, but honest. The special kind of honest you get when everybody lies, and expects to be lied to. If there was any truth in the city, it wisely kept its mouth shut.
It was a city of thieves, of swindlers, of down-and-outs. Of hired muscle and freelance thuggery. Of bent coppers, crooked magistrates, con men, hoodlums, jackers and jokers, and too many tarts to count.
It was ugly. It was villainous. It was treacherous.
It was home.
Azron Bezron breathed deeply, cool night air jetting through his narrow nostrils, his eyes closed against the stars and moonlight, his crooked grin straightened by a rare satisfaction. Reaching into his long, midnight-coloured coat, he retrieved a pre-rolled cigarette, brought it to his lips and lit it from a tinderbox. Puffing like a gentle locomotive, he looked out across the city.
Perched as he was upon a rooftop, he could see all around him the street lamps lit against the darkling sky, hear the shouts of drunken altercations, the laughter of whores, the sudden bark of a maddened tramp. Against the low light a thousand shadows flittered this way and that, as the citizens of Port Town rallied hard against the concept of making an honest living.
Azron scanned the streets below with a practised eye. He noted two ruffians fresh from a night of mugging, purses and pockets full as they stepped into a tavern. It’d be the work of a moment to lighten their load. So too, the chubby merchant riding in a hired cab, far too besotted with a gaudy strumpet to notice a man with light feet and talented fingers. Azron shook his head. These were tempting opportunities, but beneath his station. He was, after all, the Hero Thief.
He’d never really set out to be a Hero Thief, he had always been more than happy as just a thief. Well, not just any thief. Port Town might have appeared as chaotic hell to the casual observer, but really the economy was based entirely on theft, and needed structure just as much as any system of government. Azron had always been a high flyer in the Union of Cutthroats, Thieves and Mischief-makers, and had the certificate to prove it. Admittedly, he had stolen the certificate from somebody else, but whether that made him a better or worse thief was up for debate.
His promotion to hero had come quite by accident, after a chance encounter with a strange young man who claimed he had magic powers, and was on a quest to stop the planet from being exploded by space rocks. Azron, realising that the mad were probably easier to rob than the sane, had gone along with the ploy. He had been as surprised as anyone when the boy had turned out to be right.
And now after crossing continents, facing peril, and confronting an insane emperor, Azron was a hero.
Heroism wasn’t too bad, on the face of things. He’d been rewarded, obviously, but had politely requested a cash equivalent of any medals or titles he might have been offered. He’d ended up with a sack of money so big that he’d had to hire a cart to carry it. All well and good, but money came, and money went, and Azron had always been more interested in procuring finances rather than actually spending them.
And so he had returned to Port Town, but found it a different place. People kept on giving him things, for a start. Food, drink, clothes—people lined up to offer him a hearty handshake and a gift. He remembered the first time he had been clapped on the back by a stranger. It had been okay at first, until he checked his wallet and realised that it was still there. He’d come over all dizzy after that. If somebody bumped into you in Port Town without taking your wallet, then the world had gone topsy-turvy.
And, of course, when people kept giving you things, stealing from them became very awkward indeed.
Tonight would be different, though. Tonight there was a score worthy of his attention.
He’d fallen back into the habit of eavesdropping at his usual haunts, keeping an ear pricked for anything which might inspire him, and it had taken hours of careful nonchalance and saint-like patience before he overheard a couple of dockers talking about a shipment of bumblewine being held overnight.
Bumblewine was only brewed in Regalious, and popularly believed to be an aphrodisiac. A mere bottle of the stuff was worth its weight in gold in the Free Countries, especially to a man whose spirit was at odds with his flesh. It would be well guarded, highly sought after, and the perfect heist for a man who had a reputation to live up to.
Azron pulled his peakless woolen cap down over his ears, and began to step over the rooftops of Port Town, making his way as easily across the jumble of mossy slate, wonky scaffolding and rickety plank bridges as most people would across their bedroom carpet.
He headed to the docks, so big they might as well have been a city unto themselves. Port Town sat upon the convergence of three rivers as they led out to sea. Called the Filter since before anyone could remember, the large stretch of water was an optimum trade route for anyone with a barge or boat, and Port Town had sprung up around it like weeds around a pond. It hadn’t taken long for the slew of docks and jetties to conjoin and form streets of their own, and much of the Filter was taken up by wooden walkways secured firmly to deeply entrenched posts, or else tied loosely to floating barrels. Ships of every size and description inched slowly along in the business of coming and going. Some of them remained stationary, having long since decided that acting as prime real-estate on the Filter was more profitable than taking to the water. Hence there were boats that were bars, boats that were stores, boats that were theaters and, just occasionally, boats where boats were built.
It was to one of these barges long since converted into a floating warehouse that Azron made his way. The barge had been called River Goddess, and had once sailed up and down the many canals of the Free Countries, shipping goods from town to town. Now its carefully painted name had long since faded, and it sat peeling and sad, the deck given over to an ugly rectangle of wooden plank and corrugated iron.
Azron stood on a nearby pier and smoked another roll-up, assessing the situation from a distance. He retrieved a small telescope from within his coat and began to search the shadows with a beady eye. There were two guardsman on patrol, big and obvious, their pikes and helmets shining in the lamplight. They were the usual kind of hired muscle that a merchant would procure to help keep hold of his merchandise, and they built their reputation basically by administering a swift and brutal kicking to anybody they didn’t like the look of. In this case, though, the guardsmen were merely a distraction. More of a concern was the beggar, huddled under a moth-eaten blanket and hunched in just such a way as to suggest, to those who knew how to look, that he was holding a crossbow between his legs. So too the aging whore, who paid not a jot of attention to the drunken sailors who ambled past, but stood in a manner that would make it easy to retrieve a dagger hidden under her bustle. Finally, there was the man hidden from sight on the rooftop, armed with either a longbow or a smuggled pistola. Azron only knew he was there because that was exactly where he would put a guard if he wanted to catch someone like himself.
The thief thought for a moment, scratching at his pointed sideburns. Then he turned around and quite casually dropped off the edge of the pier.
He landed with barely a thump in the small canoe waiting below. A grizzled little face peered up at him, looking like a cross between a tortoise and a hare. An unattractive tortoise and an unattractive hare. It was dressed in a badly tailored sack held at the waist by a length of rope.
‘Hallo, Baby,’ said Azron.
‘Salutations, pointed weasel man,’ replied Baby, voice rasping against buck teeth. The creature held out a claw and Azron slipped two sponduliks into it with a smooth and practised motion.
‘Ahem,’ said Baby, which is not to say that he cleared his throat, but that he actually said “ahem”. ‘This is two of the coins that you are putting in my front foot, when what I said in the past that once was is that I would like double this amount for almost certain-death suicide mission.’
It was widely thought that kobolds were stupid. This wasn’t true. They were almost incapable of creative thought, certainly, and had all the imagination of a particularly unambitious rock, but they also had near-flawless recall.
‘You’ll get the other two coins when I get back out.’ Azron said.
‘Pointed weasel man cannot make good on promised coins for foot insertion when he is filled with holes from angry stabbings,' said Baby. 'Pay now or forever hold your face.’
Nobody knew why the kobolds had such an odd manner of speaking. Scholars speculated that they did it just to be annoying.
Azron sighed and handed over the other coins with obvious reluctance. It wasn’t that he couldn’t afford the payment, but he harbored a deep spiritual resentment when it came to giving people money.
Baby smiled and placed the coins into his purse, which was another smaller sack. ‘Let us go and be killed like idiots,’ he said brightly.
Azron shook his head. ‘Nobody’s getting killed today, Baby, just as long as you remember what I told you.’
‘Baby remembers everything,’ said the kobold. He began to row the boat under a boardwalk, the black and boding water barely breaking before the little vessel’s prow. They kept silent as the planks above them creaked and thumped with someone’s passing.
Eventually, they were near to the water line of the River Goddess. Azron put his finger to his lips and winked at Baby, who merely blinked slowly in return. The thief pulled a double-headed hook attached to a thin length of rope from his coat, smothered with soot to appear a dull black. It looked as if somebody had flattened a small anchor. He stretched up to the jetty above him and squeezed the hook through a crack between the planks, turning it so that it held fast. He then attached the rope to a snap-ring on his belt buckle and, with barely a wobble, he rotated in mid-air, spread-eagling himself like an unfortunate rabbit on a busy road. He turned to Baby and winked again. Baby nodded and rowed the boat away.
Azron hung above the dark water for a moment, looking at the wooden hull of the River Goddess. It had certainly seen better days. The portholes had all been boarded up on the inside. Azron began to rock forwards and back until he was able to swing toward a porthole and cling on. He took a handle-like contraption from one of his pockets and slowly screwed it into the hull, then attached another rope between it and the snap-ring on his belt. Held in place, he pulled yet another device from his coat, this one looking like a cross between a plunger and a pair of compasses. He suckered the thingy onto the porthole, made a quick circular motion and pulled away a perfect sphere of window glass. Now he waited for Baby’s distraction.
He pricked his ears as he heard the kobold’s reedy voice. ‘Hey! Hey you tubby guards. I am distracting you, do you see? Behold my distraction.’
Azron groaned softly and began to work quickly. He tied a kerchief around his face and produced a phial, which he uncorked and splashed against the planks on the inner side of the portal. The wood began to smoke and blacken, and Azron prayed that the eyes of the guards above him were on Baby rather than the rising plume caused by the reacting chemicals.
‘You are indeed overweight,’ came Baby’s voice. ‘Is it that you are fond of pies? Perhaps you are emotional problems? Arrgh! Take your fat hands away from me!’
There came the noise of a struggle, and Azron hoped that Baby’s payment was sufficient for the kicking he was about to receive. Taking a dagger from a sheath hidden in his boot, Azron prodded the smoking wood and, finding it weakened, began to pry it through the portal towards him, where it plopped harmlessly into the water.
It had taken a little luck and a lot of preparation, but Azron had made a way into the River Goddess. He took a tub from under his hat and smothered a lardy substance around the rim of the porthole. After some inelegant struggling, he took off his long coat and threw it into the boat ahead of him. Without his coat, weighed down as it was by all manner of dubious tools and devices, Azron was feather-light and, spindly thin but even so he had trouble squeezing through the porthole.
He rolled gracefully as he hit the deck, picking up his coat and putting it on as he stood up. He paused, arms and legs splayed as though ready to move in both directions at once. He waited for his eyes to adjust to the dark. When they did, he wished he hadn’t bothered.
The hold was empty save for a table and a couple of chairs.
You didn’t get to be a thief for as long as Azron had without developing some finely honed instincts when it came to walking away from a job, and Azron’s instincts were telling him that this job had turned as sour as a bag of lemons. His suspicions were confirmed when he heard the unmistakable click of a flintlock pistola being readied behind his head.
‘Dear me, I seem to have the wrong house,’ Azron said, quickly. ‘What a humorous misunderstanding. One that I’m sure we’ll have a jolly old laugh about later. I’ll just be on my way, if it’s all the same to you?’
He felt the barrel of the pistola jab into the back of his head.
The room suddenly brightened as a door was opened. Several men filed into the hold, their way lit by oil lamps. Azron’s heart sank. There was no mistaking the tasteful cut and stylish rendering of the chic black leather armor, nor the black masks that covered their entire faces. These were the guards of Tony Topman, Port Town’s most fashionable criminal maniac. A final figure entered the room and Azron’s heart sank so much that he considered buying it shoes. Tony himself was on the barge.
Everything about Tony Topman suggested elegance; his thin frame, sharp cheekbones, oiled hair and a mustache so carefully groomed that it might as well have been painted on his face. His clothes were so understated that you couldn’t help but notice their extravagance. Every stitch, every cut, every fold of his outfit was so tasteful a hungry man would have eaten it without a second thought. The way he moved suggested he was dancing to an elegant waltz that the rest of us were too badly-dressed to hear. He folded himself into the chair and motioned for Azron to sit. Seeing little choice, Azron did so.
Tony snapped his fingers and a small glass of fizzy wine was instantaneously placed into his hand. He sipped at it, his eyes never leaving Azron’s face. When he spoke, it was with an accent carefully tailored to appear vaguely foreign no matter where he was.
‘It is a pleasure to meet you, Azron Bezron.’
‘Is it?’ said Azron, his eyes darting from side to side, desperately seeking an escape route and finding none.
‘Oh, yes. It is not often that one is able to meet the fabled Hero Thief.’
Azron shrugged. ‘Is that what they’re calling me these days? I hadn’t heard.’
Topman snapped his fingers again. A guard stepped forward and, with frightening speed, ran a knife through the buttons on Azron’s coat. The coat fell open to reveal a knitted jumper bearing the legend “Hero Theef!”
Topman raised an eyebrow.
‘My landlady knitted it for me,’ Azron mumbled. ‘It’d be rude not to wear it.’
Topman waved a hand impatiently. ‘Your clothes are awful and I do not wish to discuss them,’ he said. ‘I have invited you here for quite another matter.’
‘Oh yes, this was all a clever ploy. There is no bumblewine.’
‘What about the guards outside?’
‘For show! I could not have you getting suspicious.’
‘They put on a good enough show when they were beating up Baby,’ Azron snapped.
Topman blinked slowly. ‘Who is beating a baby?’
‘Baby! The kobold. The little hairy lizard…thing.’
‘Oh, that? It has been released unharmed. I do not believe in cruelty to animals.’ Topman took another sip of his wine. ‘Cruelty to humans, of course, is a very different matter.’
Azron swallowed hard. ‘What’s all this about then, guv?’
Topman leaned back in his chair. ‘It was some time ago that some precious cargo of mine was intercepted and diverted to another personage. It did not take me long to find out who was behind the charade—that being you—but by the time I had dreamed up a suitable punishment you had fled beyond my reach.’
‘I was going to have your face sewn onto a live pig’s bottom.’
‘That…doesn’t sound very suitable. This is just my opinion, you realise.’
‘And imagine my surprise when I hear that the wily Azron Bezron is now a great hero, part of the entourage of the great doomsayer, who, I am led to believe, saved us all from tyranny and certain destruction.’
‘Yep. That was me. Saved you from tyranny and destruction. Definitely worth bearing in mind, that.’
‘That is what I thought!’ said Tony. ‘I thought, this Azron Bezron, who has stolen from me something very precious and angered me beyond the bounds of sanity, he has done a good thing. I thought to myself, so long as he stays out of Port Town and never returns, I will have no cause to sew his face to a pig’s bottom—and not just any pig, but a pig that all the other pigs find very attractive so that he may know the intimacy of pigs for the rest of his short, tragic existence.’
Azron raised his hands. ‘If you want me out of town, boss, just say the word. You won’t see me for dust, I swear on my fingers.’
‘It is too late.’ Tony raised a delicate hand to his forelock and sighed. ‘Your very presence here makes me look weak. And weakness is not a look I wear well.’
‘There’s got to be a better way to deal with this than pig intimacy,’ said Azron, quickly. ‘Maybe I could get your stuff back?’
‘The designer jeans you took from me you gave to goblins,’ Topman spat. ‘Goblins? Do you have any idea what it does to my image to have my label attached to goblins? I had to discontinue the line!’
‘I can pay you!’ said Azron. ‘Whatever they were worth, I can pay it back.’
Topman shook his head. ‘The insult you have done me goes beyond the reach of monetary satisfaction.’
‘Then what do you want? I’m sure you didn’t lure me all this way just to tell me my clothes aren’t nice.’
‘Your clothes are terrible. Terrible. But you are right. I believe there is some other way we can come to an understanding. After all, it would not look good for me if I was the man who killed the hero thief. Your popularity is your shield. For now.’
‘So no pig’s bum then?’
‘For now, no, there is to be no pig’s bum.’
‘Well that’s a relief, I don’t mind telling you.’
‘But there will be an accord.’
‘You will perform for me a service.’
Azron stared for a while. ‘This service doesn’t involve—’
‘No. No more pigs. Put pigs from your mind.’
‘It’s a bit difficult, now that you’ve—’
‘No more pigs. I need you to retrieve a treasure for me.’
Azron brightened. ‘That’s more my cup of tea, certainly.’
‘But of course. You will retrieve this treasure for me. You will deliver it to me, and then we will be…how do you say… fair and square?’
Azron rubbed his hands together eagerly. ‘Sounds spiffy. Where is the treasure?’
‘Across the cotton prairies, in the lightning barrens, in an old derelict castle that is home to an old, mad wizard.’
‘Oh,’ said Azron.
‘Something is the matter?’
‘No. No, not at all. The cotton prairies, you say?’
‘With its high number of bloodthirsty beasties?’
‘This is so, yes.’
‘And the lightning barrens?’
‘The haunted lightning barrens?’
‘I believe that is how the rumors go, yes.’
‘And then on to some crazy old magic bastard?’
‘That is correct.’
Azron thought for a while. ‘Tell me again about the pig option?’
Topman sighed and put a hand over his eyes. ‘Jaq?’
The figure who had put a pistola to Azron’s head stepped forward.
‘This is Jaq,’ said Topman. ‘He is the finest bounty hunter I can afford, and he will accompany you on your journey.’
Azron looked up at the figure beside him. Apart from one of Topman’s guard masks, his clothes seemed to be woven entirely from concealed weaponry.
‘If it’s all the same to you, I’d rather work alone,’ said Azron.
‘You misunderstand. Jaq, he is like the small annoying dog with the humorous mustache. He doesn’t let go of things, is what I am implying. He is there to make sure that you are there, you see?’
‘The treasure I seek is the Ruby of Galganond. I trust you have heard of it?’
Azron gave a sardonic smile. ‘I’ve got posters of it on my bedroom ceiling, mate.’
‘Excellent. I will give you two weeks. If the jewel is not in my possession by then, I will make finding and killing you my personal hobby. Everyone should have a hobby, don’t you think?’
Azron swallowed hard again and stood up to leave, Jaq falling in beside him like a heavily armed shadow.
‘One thing,’ said Azron. ‘Why do you want this ruby so much?’
Topman shrugged, as though the answer was obvious. ‘Rubies are in this year.’
Azron walked into the night air on the deck of the River Goddess. He looked down at Baby, who was waiting for him. The kobold had a cut above his eye, but otherwise looked better than Azron expected. Certainly much more alive.
‘Fat men are being nowhere near as jolly as custom would have you believe,’ said Baby.
‘Here,’ said Azron, tossing the kobold another coin. ‘For your trouble. I’m sorry you got beaten up, but, honestly, that was the worst distraction I’ve ever seen.’
Baby caught the coin and placed it somewhere in his sack. ‘It worked, though. Everybody was distracted. I am the successful distractor. Who is the ominous woman who accompanies you?’
Azron looked around at Jaq. ‘He’s not a woman, he’s my…personal guard.’
Baby shrugged. ‘All humans have equally baffling faces. Will you be needing this Baby further, or can I get rid of you and thank heaven?’
‘Actually…’ Azron took a piece of paper and a stub of pencil from his coat and began to write something down. ‘I need you to pick up some things for me. Retrieve these items from Henrick’s stores—he knows my name—and bring them to my lodgings. Okay? Now read the paper.’
Baby read the paper, frowned briefly, then ran headlong into Jaq, sending the bounty hunter sprawling over the prow and into the water below.
‘Leg it!’ screeched Azron, and he and Baby ran in opposite directions, feet thundering on the wooden jetties as they fled.
Baby left behind the piece of paper, which simply said, in a hurried hand, “Head-butt this man next to me and I will give you some chocolate”.
Azron sprang across rooftops, swung himself down drains, darted from dark corner to dark corner and vaulted across alleyway detritus. He generally preferred to move at a saunter, but the prolonged sprint was yet another necessary part of the professional thief’s skill set and, just occasionally, Azron could move like a bolt of lightning with a pressing engagement.
It helped that he knew Port Town as well as he knew himself. Even after his months of absence, he still knew instinctively which byways led to dead ends, which roofs could take his weight and which routes were typically shielded from prying eyes.
Azron had over a dozen lockups and store accounts across Port Town, and most of his cash was divided among easily accessed pickup points, in locations that he alone knew. He headed to one such pickup point now, an apartment that he rented but kept unoccupied. He had everything he needed there to get the hell out of town and set himself up somewhere far away from Topman’s reach.
Pigs or no pigs, every hair on the back of his neck was telling Azron that going after the Ruby of Garamond would end very badly indeed.
The thief skidded to a halt in an alleyway that looked just like any other alleyway and ran his fingers across a wall until he found a brick that looked like any other brick. He levered it out of place with his fingers, creating a foothold, and began to scale the wall. He removed a dozen more bricks until he reached the top floor of the building, where he jimmied open a window and climbed through.
As he entered the dark room beyond, he froze, sensing instantly something was wrong.
‘Hello, mister weasel man,’ came a voice.
A lamp was lit, revealing the figure of Jaq, sitting quite casually in an old armchair, clothes still wet from the waters of the Filter. Baby stood sheepishly at his feet.
‘Oh,’ said Azron. ‘There you are. We would have waited for you at the docks, but I thought it best if I got a head start on packing.’
The following silence suggested that the time for flimsy excuses had long since passed.
Azron shrugged. ‘You can’t blame a fella for trying,’ he said. ‘Might I ask how you found my digs?’
Jaq merely gestured to Baby. ‘Sorry,’ said Baby. ‘The sinister lady with baffling face caught me and threatened me with vicious perforations unless I cooperated.’
Azron rolled his eyes. ‘For the last time, Baby, Jaq is not a— Oh.’
As Azron was speaking, Jaq removed the mask that Topman insisted his guards wear. The tumble of tawny hair that escaped was indeed very feminine. As were the pale green eyes and soft, coffee-coloured skin beneath. The murderous scowl, though, wasn’t very ladylike.
‘Ah,’ said Azron. ‘You are a woman after all. What a pleasant surprise.’
Jaq moved quickly and was on her feet before Azron could react. She fetched him a ringing slap across the cheek. The thief was stunned into silence.
Jaq spoke in a low voice. ‘You may be wondering why I slapped you, when I could have just as easily stabbed you, shot you, garroted you or cracked your skull open with a mace. Are you wondering?’
‘Well, I am now,’ Azron said, rubbing at his cheek.
‘Good. Allow me to satisfy your curiosity. You see, I could have done all of those things and more, and just as easily. But you and I have a professional relationship now, so I thought it only fair that I start out small. You crossed me this time and you got a slap. Cross me again and it will be something worse, and worse, and worse still, until you look back on that slap as a fond memory. Do you understand?’
Jaq squinted at him. ‘Are you crying?’
‘No!’ said Azron. ‘My eyes are just watering. That really stung, you know.’
Jaq raised an eyebrow and turned back to Baby. ‘You,’ she said. ‘You’re done here. If I ever see you again, I will drop-kick you into a cesspit, understood?’
Baby saluted. ‘Loud and clear, terrifying woman!’
The kobold turned and ran out of the apartment door, which Azron noted had been kicked through. He frowned in sudden realisation.
‘How did Baby know I’d be coming here?’
‘Kobolds have perfect recall,’ said Jaq, tying her hair into a neat, tight bun. ‘With the right incentive they can tell you everything you need to know. The rest was just deduction.’
‘The right incentive?’
‘I hung him by his ankles over a pack of starving dogs.’
‘Yeah, I can see how that might focus one’s mind.’
Jaq approached Azron until their noses were a finger-width apart. ‘Make no mistake, Mr. Bezron. I am the best bounty hunter you’ll ever meet. Nobody gets away from me. Nobody. Bear that in mind the next time you think running away sounds like a good idea.’
‘I certainly will, yes,’ said Azron.
Jaq turned away and headed to the door. ‘Get your kit together and get some sleep. You will meet me at the Laughing Shark Inn at dawn tomorrow.’
Azron said nothing.
‘Do I have to reiterate that if you are not there I will find you and kill you?’
Jaq left and Azron exhaled deeply.
He did not like to feel that his destiny was out of his hands. To be beholden to an employer went against the very core of his being—it challenged that special relationship a good thief has with the world, where he lives and makes a living on his own terms, albeit at the expense of others. It was, he believed, as close to freedom as a man could get. And now he found himself in hock with a bunch of murderous psychopaths. Who wanted him to start at dawn. At dawn.
He sighed and sat in the old armchair and, after a few hours of staring furiously at nothing, he fell asleep.
Dawn the next day found Jaq already atop a white horse, which seemed to be the horse equivalent of a body-building fanatic. She held the reins of two other smaller horses, one laden with packs and bags, and one saddled and ready for Azron. Azron was late. Not so late that Jaq had flown into a murderous rage, but late enough that “fly into a murderous rage” was definitely on the to-do list.
Jaq had been ready for some time, dressed in her usual attire of battle chic, the cloth band around her forehead seemingly the only part of her outfit that was not leather, metal or polished wooden handle. She wore her pistola openly at her side, and had a large flintlock rifle slung over her shoulder. The townspeople gave her a wide berth. Gunnery was all but banned for anybody who wasn’t a Regulator, and those who wore such weapons openly were considered to be either mad or professionally dangerous. Jaq, of course, was the latter. In fact “professionally dangerous” was written on her business card.
Eventually Azron sauntered into view, a paper cup of coffee in his hand and a look on his face that was not at all impressed with the hour.
‘You’re late,’ said Jaq.
Azron yawned, slurped the rest of his coffee and threw the cup at a nearby pile of rubbish. ‘I think it’s philosophically impossible to be late at this hour of the morning,’ he said. ‘All you can be is ridiculously early.’
‘Do you have everything you need? Where are your tools?’
Azron opened his long coat like a man with a forward nature and an improper understanding of romance. His thin body was strapped with pockets and pouches, precision carry-cases for lock-picks, phials, tools and a host of suspicious devices. ‘Happy?’
‘Ecstatic. Mount up.’
‘I should warn you that I’m not very good at horses. You might have to wait on me a bit,’ said Azron.
Jaq turned a cool stare on him. ‘If you slow me down, I’ll find a way to speed you up.’
Azron struggled into the saddle and scowled moodily. ‘Are you paid to be this hospitable?’
‘No,’ said Jaq. ‘I’m paid to make sure you do your job. If you think you can do your job with a broken arm, then by all means continue annoying me.’
‘I probably need both arms. Definitely, in fact.’
‘Then let’s go.’
Jaq spurred her horse and galloped across the flat mud streets of Port Town. Bouncing in his saddle like a kangaroo in an earthquake, Azron followed.