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Read the First 3 Chapters of THE SUMMONER THIEF

“The greatest power is the one nobody ever sees.”

When Taltaz, the merchant of Gethlem, makes his next trek through the Bladeshales to deliver the Priests of Imlach their regular shipment, he brings with him a new type of ware—a thief captured and condemned in Vereling Town for her crimes. Yuhltse pays the man handsomely for the woman she means to make her handmaiden—her assistant—and finds much more in Rahlizje than the price she paid to own a thief.

Rahlizje was only meant to submit to her mistress’ demands. No one expected her to find the one thing worth biding her time to steal.

From International Bestselling Author Kathrin Hutson comes a dark new tale within The Unclaimed Universe—The Summoner Thief. In this prequel, follow Rahlizje’s journey to Arahaz and see how the High Priestess of Imlach became the terrifying force in Hutson’s upcoming LGBT Dark Fantasy series, Vessel Broken.  

The Summoner Thief is available exclusively in the Playing with Fire boxed set by Fire Quill Publishers.

Coming October 8th, 2019.

Now available for pre-order on Amazon and wherever good books are sold

Read on for the first 3 chapters of The Summoner Thief.

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Chapter 1

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The weak ale went down faster when she had more coin to spend on it. The Three Tempests tavern was a bawdy establishment just off the wharfs in Vereling Town, and Rahlizje sat alone at a small table beside the doors. The last man had approached her without an inch of tact, slurring his forward invitation to join him in the back for a quick tossaround he’d been drunk enough to assume she couldn’t resist. Shortly thereafter, he’d left her table covered in his own ale, his head no doubt ringing from the echo of the pewter tankard bashing against his temple before Rahlizje tossed it onto the gritty, sticky floor. Now, with a good portion of the sailors, dockhands, and general miscreants turning to witness the short-lived commotion, she withdrew the dagger from her cloak and buried its tip in the wooden tabletop. Then she sat, grabbed her fourth ale, and took a long pull.

Those who’d paused to see what happened now turned away, her point quite clearly made, and continued with whatever brought them to the Tempests on a balmy summer night. But the next man who showed more interest in what she had between her legs than what she could do with a blade would get that dagger in his neck. This she promised herself. Then she drank.

The tavern filled to capacity after that—raucous, reeking of sweat and fish, the air stale and stifling with the heat of so many bodies willingly in one place. Rahlizje did not remove her cloak; that only ever invited the misconception that she worked the taverns like the women wearing far less and willing to do far more. Despite the fact that she sat alone, fully clothed, scowling at anyone who glanced her way, the men most desperate for company never stopped to consider how all those things would have made her quite the unsuccessful whore. It didn’t matter where she went; every town and city was the same until she staked her claim to her body and her solitary table with the same dagger sticking out of it now. Being a woman had never stopped her from getting what she wanted, but it certainly didn’t make it any easier, especially in taverns. All Rahlizje wanted now was solitude amidst the Tempests’ chaos and more ale.

When she drained the last of the tankard in front of her and lowered it from her face, another man had appeared at her table. He blocked her entire view of the tavern and its patrons, forcing her to look up from his dirt-stained cloak at his face. A black beard peppered with dust covered most of it, matched by wild black eyebrows over one dark, glistening eye. The other had been cut out, leaving behind a puckered mass of scarred flesh he clearly hadn’t been bothered to hide.

Rahlizje glared at him and wrapped her hand around the dagger’s handle, though she didn’t yet pull it free.

“I only want to sit,” he told her, his voice rumbling through the boisterous laughter and the rowdy conversation and the repeated clink of tankards raised together in pointless toasts.

“Then sit somewhere else,” Rahlizje replied, swaying a little and blinking at him. “This place is full of chairs.”

“And you seem to be guarding the only one without a drunken idiot in it.”

Squinting, she studied the man’s bristling beard, then dropped her gaze to the empty chair across from her. He hadn’t touched it yet, which was the only thing keeping her from cutting off his fingers. Then she looked back up at him. “I want to keep it that way.”

The man took a deep breath through his nose, though his blank expression never changed and his one eye didn’t leave her face. “If I wasn’t stiff from riding with a bad leg, I would’ve left this pisspot the minute I stepped inside. I’ll do what I have to do for that chair.”

It wasn’t a threat, she knew. He was clearly travel-weary, and a man who didn’t cover a missing eye was a man who didn’t need to make threats. She imagined this was as close as he came to asking politely. “Buy me another ale,” she said, “and no more talking.”

If he’d told her ‘very well’ or ‘thank you’—if he’d said anything at all—she would have changed her mind. But the man merely dipped his head, staring at her from beneath his dark brow, and turned toward the bar at the other side of the tavern.

“Wait.” Rahlizje pulled the coin purse from her cloak and tossed it onto the table as the man turned back to look at her. “Don’t spend your coin on me.”

For a moment, that one eye gazed fiercely down at her; whether it was in appraisal or insult, she did not know. Then the man glanced down at the coin purse on the table beside her upturned dagger.

She saw the flare of his reaction when his eye narrowed. She’d thought it might have been greed or the flash of an opportunity recognized and instant plans formed. But by now, she’d had too much weak ale to be certain of what it really meant. The man stepped toward her table again, reached out for the purse, and moved far too quickly for a man with one eye and a bum leg. The table thumped and rocked a little, rattling her empty tankard. The next thing she knew, the man’s fist was buried in the collar of her cloak and her own dagger was pressed dangerously against her throat.

“I’ve been looking for you,” he growled, his hot breath washing over her face.

Rahlizje had to commend him for his attempt to scare her. She tried to stand, but he shook her by her cloak and shoved her back down into the chair. The point of her own blade pinched the skin just below her jaw, and she felt a warm trickle of blood run down over her collarbone.

“Don’t try to fight me off,” he said.

Turning her head toward him—and her blade in his hand—Rahlizje met his one-eyed gaze and raised an eyebrow. “I don’t have to try.”

“I have your weapon,” he told her with a grunt. “And you’re drunk. Thief.”

That was when Rahlizje of Holjstruke realized she was well and truly caught. It wasn’t the first time, and it wouldn’t be the last, but it was much harder to see her way to the end of it when she had no idea how she had been caught—or for which crime.

“Let’s go.” Her captor—apparently that was now what he’d made himself—lifted her from her chair with the dagger still digging into the soft flesh of her neck. Then he hauled her through the stinking bodies gathered inside The Three Tempests. No one seemed to notice a thing. And if they had, Rahlizje had already made it quite clear that she did not welcome interruptions.

She nearly slit her own throat when she stumbled forward; her surprise and all the ale only made it more difficult to resist the force with which he dragged her through the tavern’s front doors and out into the cobbled streets in the Fishermen’s Quarter.

The docks of Vereling Town did not offer a breath of fresh air to alleviate the stench within the crowded Tempests. Everything inside had smelled like sweat and ale and exhaustion. Everything outside smelled like fish. Her jailer led her quickly forward through the alleyways leading toward the wharfs, one firm grip on the back of her cloak and her tunic now and the other still digging that blade enough against her flesh to remind her of her predicament.

Then Rahlizje realized how quickly they were moving across the uneven, cobbled stones. She glanced down at the man’s feet. “You told me you—” The world tumbled around her with a sharp, agonizing blow cracking against the back of her head, and then there was nothing at all.  

 

Rahlizje woke with the darkness of night no longer surrounding her but with sunlight flickering across her face, over and over. That and the constant jostling made her ill. Perhaps that also came from the massive lump she was sure had risen on the back of her head. But when she tried to lift a hand to feel it, she found her wrists bound tightly with coarse rope—behind her back.

Then she realized where she was, and the night before came back to her.

Today, she was riding in the back of a wooden cart, trussed up like a pig, while the man with one eye and her dagger sat up front with the reins. Grunting, Rahlizje shifted her legs under her and pressed herself back against the siderail of the cart until she was up on her knees. A wave of dizziness overwhelmed her, but she blinked it away and scowled at the back of the man’s head. “There is no bad leg,” she croaked.

The man cocked his head, paused, then looked back at her over his shoulder. “No clemency for thieves, either.” He turned back toward his horse, clicked his tongue with a light tug on the reins, and the cart came to a jolting halt on the road. Rahlizje nearly fell forward on her face, but she spread her knees and steadied herself enough.

Her liar of a captor climbed from the front of the cart and grabbed the satchel from the bench. Then he headed toward her with a steady, even gait. No bad leg, indeed. Unlatching the back gate of the cart, which Rahlizje could barely see from the corner of her eye, he set down the satchel and opened the flap. “Your crimes,” he said, setting out the coin purse she’d offered for their ale. Next came a brooch crafted in the shape of a tree, followed by a delicately painted porcelain box of the same size. The last item he removed was a large, thick ring of red gold with the same seal that had been stamped upon the coin purse. “My proof. Where’s the hairpin?”

Rahlizje gazed down at these expensive trinkets, having to turn her head quite far over her shoulder to do so. She’d been caught, and this mercenary had her only weapon. “Sold it,” she said blandly.

“Where?”

Shrugging stiff shoulders with her hands bound behind her was a lot more difficult than she expected. “Somewhere between here and Cirgress, I’d wager.” The corner of her mouth twitched. But no, this man would not find her games amusing in the slightest.

“For the most part,” the man said, picking up each item to return them one by one to his satchel, “I’d say you knew what you were doing. Then you got cocky.” He’d saved the painted box for last. When he set the fragile trinket in his palm, his thick fingers opened the delicate clasp with ease before he lifted the lid. Then he thrust it all in front of Rahlizje’s face so she had no choice but to look.

She let her gaze fall to the box and what it held within. Her eyes closed almost instantly.

“You ever see a moonrite stone before?” the man grunted. Rahlizje turned her head away from his hand, and the man retracted it, carefully closing the lid and doing the latch again as he spoke. “Even if you have, my guess is that you just didn’t take the time to look. So you never saw this one.”

He had her in two precarious places, now; she’d been caught in the first place, which was in and of itself a trifle challenging. There was a fine line between a good thief and a stupid one, and Rahlizje had crossed it the night she stole from the Farden estate. They both knew it, and this in particular was what made it so hard for Rahlizje to envision her way out of this mess.

“Well, now you have.” The man gently secreted the box into his satchel again with everything else and leaned against the back gate of the cart. “I’ve gone wildly off my route to find you. Wasn’t Windel Farden himself who set me after you, mind. The man didn’t seem to care much. But his lady wife?” Her captor let out a low whistle. “Fiery temper for a highborn. Paid me more than I asked to cover the cost of retrieving what was taken from her. Didn’t want a thing to do with you, though.” He sniffed, slung the satchel over his shoulder, and pushed the gate back up before latching it in place to the cart’s sides. “So you and I have the misfortune of traveling together like this until I recover what I lost. Going off route can be the death of any merchant, you understand? I don’t aim to let you kill me.”

“You’re a mercenary,” Rahlizje muttered.

“Aye, for over two fortnights. We’ll rectify that.” His boots crunched across the dirt road as he headed for the front of the cart again. But he returned once more with a waterskin and a loaf of bread. The waterskin was the first thing he offered her, but Rahlizje had no intention of drinking anything. Not from this man. When he brought the mouth of the waterskin to her lips, Rahlizje jerked her head away and glared at him. “Suit yourself.” His long, guzzling drink splashed rivulets of water down his coarse beard to splatter over his boots. She couldn’t tell if he always drank like this or if it was merely for show. To break her. Sighing, the man corked the waterskin and broke open the loaf of bread, though he didn’t offer an inch of it to her. “You’ll come around.” Crumbs tumbled into his beard as he spoke around a mouthful. “It’s a long road we’re taking now, thief. Might be it takes me longer to figure what to do with you. But you’ll come around.”

Then he left her again for the front of the cart, this time climbing up onto the bench and taking the reins in one hand. With the other, he munched on the loaf of bread and clicked his tongue for the very patient horse to set off down the road once more.

Rahlizje braced herself when the cart jerked into motion again, but sitting back on her heels helped with that. Her head still ached from the ale and the blow the one-eyed man had given her. Within a few hours of kneeling as she was, with the sun beating down on her and no real way to find comfort, she started to think denying his bread and water had been just one more mistake of many.


 

Chapter 2  

 

It was always so easy to take what she wanted. Slip in, slip out, buy herself a few rounds of ale at whatever reeking tavern or ramshackle inn each town had to offer. Then she moved on as far as she could until hunger and thirst and perhaps a hole in her boot forced her to stop. Wherever she ended up, she’d sell it all, spend it all, and find someone else.

An entire lifetime of repeating the process had made Rahlizje of Holjstruke very, very good at it. And that had made her complacent.

She’d been aware of that fact since the last town in which she’d stopped to rouse up a bit of trouble. Now, it had clearly caught up with her.

The croft owner had taken a particular liking to Rahlizje—a fat, middle-aged bastard with a swollen nose and a permanently reddened complexion. His horse had ignored him completely for the apple Rahlizje had pocketed away in her cloak, which of course she’d stolen. But the beast’s disobedience had prompted its master to pay attention to the thin, dark-haired, unsmiling woman traveling the main road into Cirgress alone.

For half a fortnight, Rahlizje had strung him along. It had been laughably easy to convince Windel Farden that she was merely too terrified—and too meek—to step into his massive estate in the valley northwest of Cirgress. Even when he assured her she would do so on his arm, attended by servants instead of secreted away like one of them, she declined. Always, Rahlizje declined; while she was more eager and ambitious than most unfortunate souls without a penny to their name, she was not desperate. In fact, she went about her business in such a way as to almost prove to the rest of the world quite the opposite.

That false desperation had finally struck a cord in Windel Farden’s fattened, overworked heart. Once Rahlizje had watched him enough in that half a fortnight to know he could not suspect her of being more than she seemed, she’d timed her lie perfectly. The man had just ridden past the smallest and cheapest of Cirgress’ taverns, where Rahlizje had spent her last coin on a pitifully weak pint of ale. She’d barreled through the tavern’s doors and stumbled out into the road, failing to muffle her own sobs. The tears and red-rimmed eyes were real enough; they had to be, if the man were to fully accept his own assumption that she had nothing left. But they meant nothing. Tears were merely a means to an end.

When Farden turned round his horse and slumped his girth out of the saddle to go to her, where she sat huddled against the shadow-darkened stone of the tavern’s outer wall, those tears of hers had been his undoing. Grunting as he lowered into a squat before her, the man looked entirely too flummoxed for his own good. Just as Rahlizje had designed.

This time, when he’d offered her his hand, that offer did not come with a promise of touring her about his landholdings or dressing her in the finest gowns or entertaining her every whim with all the capabilities at his disposal. This time, he merely asked her when she’d eaten last and whether she would like to accompany him to his home to rectify that shortcoming. That was when she knew she had him, and that was when Rahlizje said yes.

She’d ridden before him in the saddle, not a word shared from either pair of lips until they’d reached his estate. Farden let his stablemaster take the mount by the reins, but he did not call for servants to attend them. Yes, Rahlizje had entered the stone walls of the man’s domain with him and in plain sight, but it was not on his arm as he’d promised. Instead, the man had put his arm around her, sheltering her, asking if she thought she was too weak to climb the stairs. It wasn’t pride that kept her from playing that ruse out so far but merely the certainty that the red-faced landholder would collapse beneath both their weight, despite her being so much smaller. Then she would have become not a welcomed guest in need but the trollop who’d sent the master of this house to an early grave. She might have done that anyway, but she hadn’t been eager to tempt the man’s fate before she’d taken what she wanted of him. Insisting she could climb the wide main staircase on her own—with a weak hand clenched around Farden’s forearm, of course—was the last bit of resistance she maintained that night. To everything else, she’d submitted quite willingly.

The man sent for a modest tray of food, which Rahlizje had assumed was an attempt not to overwhelm her. His cook also fetched them a jug of cool, clean water and a decanter of wine, the former poured for Rahlizje right away and the latter left unopened until she’d finished her meal. Then, once Farden had satisfied his rather small capacity for altruism, he seemed to remember why he’d asked her here no less than seven times in the first place. He’d beckoned her toward him and gently lowered her into his lap, where he dandled her on his knee as he opened the decanter to pour. The cup he offered her first contained an insultingly meager amount of wine, and Farden chuckled when she’d asked for more.

Sitting on a man’s lap and feeling his anticipation harden against her backside had never stoked any sort of fire within Rahlizje herself. Neither did it disgust her; she’d sat upon enough laps to know that the simple act of it brought her as close to her eventual aim as the tears without emotion. But Windel Farden, though not remotely too old to carry through with his natural inclinations, had a weak constitution. She sat upon his lap, meek and slow to smile, drinking as much wine as she wished because she knew he’d see the flush of it in her cheeks. It made him laugh and pepper her with the type of condescending, useless compliments commonly reserved for children. Rahlizje was clearly not a child. Farden was clearly drunk.

When his stiffened excitement pressing against her buttock began to fade, she knew she was close. The man had filled himself with either too much wine or too much self-importance—after delivering a lonely, starving, destitute young woman into the sanctuary of his good graces—to take much note of his body turning against him. A man could get just as drunk on either. But his hand had lingered on her thigh, sliding up her skirts with a temerity she found more than a little amusing. Farden even went so far as to make a few jests about his tenants, at which she chuckled lightly, and laughed at himself in loud, squawking bursts before burying his face in the neckline of her blouse—as if his mirth had made it impossible to hold his head upright where it belonged.

Rahlizje withstood all this with an outwardly demure patience and took it upon herself to pour them both more wine. In less than an hour, enduring the man’s fanciful notions of what that night might have become, she drank him quite literally under the low table in front of the hearth.

Then she’d left him there, sprawled out on the thick rug beside the growing crimson stain of an overturned cup. The landholder had revealed on either their first or second encounter that his lady wife had journeyed south to the Teriborus for some function requiring her dutiful attendance. Rahlizje had stepped over the inebriated Windel Farden, her stolen skirts draping across his face, and slipped from his study to make her way into the lady’s chambers. But not before she pocketed the rather heavy ring that had been winking at her all night from atop the bookcase. She’d meant to give it a closer look when she was free of Cirgress altogether.

As in many large estates, the Lady Farden’s rooms were just at the other end of the hall on the second floor. Rahlizje had found it painfully difficult to refrain from stripping down the billowing curtain, tossing as many valuables onto it as she could bear, and pilfering the whole lot in a knapsack over her shoulder. But she was not careless, and she most certainly wasn’t stupid. She’d settled for a silver hairpin with pearl inlay, a tree-shape brooch studded with what she thought were bloodstones, and a small porcelain box that fit snugly in her palm. The thing was most likely not as valuable as a few other choices, but it had been painted in painstaking detail—vivid blues, purples, yellows, and reds depicting a blooming flower garden and two nude nymphs engaged in either celebratory dance or something a bit more intimate. The box itself was also heavier than she’d expected, but these three things slipped neatly into the hidden pockets of her cloak beside Farden’s large ring. And that, she’d been certain, was enough.

The night had gone as perfectly as she’d planned but for one minor oversight. The master of this estate had certainly been quite confident in Rahlizje’s helplessness and how he might exploit it. While his servants had left them well enough alone in Farden’s study, they did not abandon their tasks for the remainder of the night. And this was what Rahlizje had forgotten.

Just as she’d slipped from the Lady Farden’s chambers to make her way toward the stairs, she’d encountered the housekeeper climbing the toward her; she’d assumed it was the housekeeper for the large ring of a dozen iron keys the woman clutched with an equally iron fist. Both of them had stopped, and Rahlizje had forced her gaze to the stone floor in faux deference to even the household staff. Her pride did not struggle against it, but she’d spoken before the woman could pummel her with questions.

“Master Farden knows I’ve gone. He sent me out himself.” Then she added an awkward little curtsy quit fit for a poor, destitute creature such as herself. The clumsiness of it was also real; Rahlizje did not make a habit of curtsies or of the heavy gray skirts snagging on the heels of her boots.

The housekeeper’s trained eye felt like worn, calloused fingers brushing over Rahlizje’s face. “Did you disappoint him?”

“No, mistress.” Rahlizje dipped her head again and swallowed forcefully, widening her eyes at the floor as if she truly knew what shame really was. “I believe he fell asleep… after.”

The woman at the top of the stairs grunted in understanding. “You’re free to go.”

“Yes, mistress.” With another foolish curtsy, Rahlizje had stepped slowly, demurely past the woman running the Farden estate in her lady’s absence.

That woman’s hand shot out with surprising speed to grip Rahlizje’s arm below the shoulder, firmly holding her there on the top step and studying the stranger who had captured her master’s attentions for one night. Then the housekeeper reached into her skirts and retrieved a small coin purse, which she offered Rahlizje with tightly pressed lips. “Don’t come back,” she said.

Rahlizje’s fingers wrapped around the modestly filled purse; for the first time, she’d just been paid for the services the housekeeper naturally assumed she had provided between her legs. She did in fact always receive payment, whether or not those services had indeed been delivered, but she’d always had to take it for herself. Her mistake that night had been in allowing her surprise and her triumph get the better of her. She’d looked up at the housekeeper then, slowly, shamelessly, to meet the other woman’s gaze as something like an equal.

If she’d cut that gaze appropriately short, she might have avoided suspicion altogether. But the ease with which she’d just received two small fortunes—at least for her—had made her outwardly bold. Stupidly bold.

When the housekeeper realized this, her eyes widened beneath a darkening frown. “Get out,” she’d snapped and promptly shoved the coin purse and Rahlizje attached to it down the stairs.

Rahlizje had bowed her head and taken her leave, but she did not flee down the stairs to the estate’s great hall; if she had, she knew such speed would bring triumphant laughter bubbling up her throat. Of all the things she’d learned not to do in another’s presence, laughing took precedence over everything—until she was alone again and gone from whatever town or territory had both amused her and filled her pockets. But with her back to the housekeeper and the great hall nearly empty now, Rahlizje gave herself the luxury of smirking as she took her leave.

She’d gone directly back toward Cirgress proper. The journey from Windel Farden’s estate did of course take much longer on foot than upon the master’s saddle; even so, it was a fraction of the distances she’d traveled on her own in a single stretch. Both the wine and her staggering success had fueled her with restless energy; if she’d thought she could get away with steeling a horse and thundering off with it out of the valley, she might have. On an estate like Farden’s, a horse would bring a lot more down on her head than a few trinkets and an extra bit of coin.

By the time she’d reached the main part of town and The Open Barrel, that swell of victory had passed. But the restlessness remained. Challenging the housekeeper with that wavering glance had most assuredly given her away as something more than what she seemed. The head of Farden’s household was clearly an astute woman, and Rahlizje had been a fool for not anticipating the presence of any staff within the estate before she took her leave. If the woman had not suspected Rahlizje immediately, she no doubt would quite soon. Especially come the morning when Windel Farden himself could not confirm any bit of Rahlizje’s lie, whether or not he remembered the truth.

Her only viable option then had been to flee into the night. She’d returned to the empty stall in the stable where the inn’s owner had let her sleep, though he’d seemed entirely confused by her willingness to spend the night on top of straw with the horses when she paid for so much ale and food in his tavern. There, Rahlizje had dropped her stolen skirts—which had only been for Windel Farden’s unfulfilled benefit—and donned her dark breeches. With everything she’d needed in the pockets of her cloak and her dagger strapped to her belt, she left Cirgress altogether that night. Never to return, of course. And she used both what she’d taken and what had been given to her to press east across the rolling valleys at the foot of the Bladeshales.

Vereling Town had welcomed her with open arms when she finally reached it, if only for the fact that it already teemed with vagabonds, merchants, travelers, dubious tradesman, drunkards, and—she had no doubt—more thieves. What better place to hide herself than a town in which they were all the same? Except she just so happened to be the only one among them with a coin purse freely given by Windel Farden’s housekeeper and stamped with his house seal. And the only man to have seen it just so happened to be the one-eyed merchant looking for it.


 

Chapter 3

 

That first day was a lesson for them both in how far the other was willing to go to make a point. The merchant only offered her water once more before they stopped for the evening. Again, Rahlizje refused. She aimed to hold out as long as she could, to defy her captor with stony glares and a rejection of every necessity the day brought upon every being of flesh and blood and breath. The last time he offered her anything, the man also had the presence of mind to slip another length of rope through her bound hands and knot it quite firmly to an iron loop nailed into the side of the cart.

At sunset, with just a few hours left in the long day, he pulled the cart halfway off the road and unhitched his horse to let her graze beside the tree to which he’d tied her. By the time he’d finished, Rahlizje’s bladder had stopped obeying her commands. The man had just reached up onto the cart’s bench to retrieve his knapsack, satchel, and waterskin when Rahlizje’s lack of control pattered against the bed of the cart between her legs, soon followed by the muffled drip of it through the wooden slats and onto the dirt road. He looked back at her to reaffirm what he heard, and she glared at him above a defiant smirk. He would now, of course, be compelled to change her and clean up the mess she’d left on his property. If that didn’t give her an opportunity to escape, it would at the very least make her presence a lot harder for the man to endure.  

The one-eyed merchant raised an eyebrow, then withdrew her dagger from the sheath he’d strung on his own belt. This he waved at her, leaning forward as if to share some secret revelation. “I’d keep an eye out for whatever beasts you just called to you with that.” He nodded once, then left the cart to stalk through the trees toward the camp he meant to make for the night.

Rahlizje waited for him, knowing he’d come to collect her from the cart and keep her under his watchful gaze through the night. She saw him strike flint to steel before the kindling beneath his gathered wood caught flame. The warm orange glow of it grew quickly enough, and she counted down the seconds until he returned for her.

He did not.

With her hands still bound behind her and attached to the cart’s siderail, Rahlizje was forced to slump back against the painful knot. She managed to get her feet out from under her to stretch them across the damp floorboards already reeking with piss, but true sleep was a stranger to her that night.

 

The next morning, she was much more willing to accept the merchant’s waterskin for a few long pulls. She even managed to chew her way through a dry, coarse strip of salted beef her captor shared with her to break their fast. He let her wash that down with more water when they were through, but it wasn’t nearly enough to take the sting out of so much salt in her quickly drying mouth.

Then they were on their way again, traveling north on some road whose name Rahlizje never bothered to learn because they were all the same. All roads led to her next target and her next temporary fortune. At least, they had before Vereling Town. She might or might not have traveled this very road over the years, but for the first time, she now traveled it as a thief and a prisoner. The salted beef was easier to swallow.

Only once before their next stop did she call out to him at the front of the cart. “Mercenary!”

His head turned just a little, but it wasn’t a full glance over his shoulder.

“I’m not overly fond of relieving myself in your wagon, but if that’s what you prefer, I’m happy to oblige.”

The man’s shoulders slumped a little, but the horse and cart kept moving another few meters before he finally pulled on the reins and brought them to a stop. Hopping from the bench, he then reached over the side of the cart to draw another length of rope. This he fashioned around  Rahlizje’s waist once he’d lowered the cart’s rear gate; obviously, he meant to use this as a lead, as if she were a goat being led to market. She studied his face as he completed this next task, noting that he did not seem affected by the day-long stink of her, nor did he meet her gaze with his one good eye. Not until he untied her bound hands from the iron loop nailed to the side of the cart. Then he untied the coarse rope from around her wrists and tossed it onto the cart’s lowered gate.

Rahlizje could have taken the next few seconds as a criminal prisoner who’d accepted her fate. She could have rubbed her chaffed wrists or stretched her arms after they’d been bent behind her for a full day and night. Instead, the minute that rope left the merchant’s fingers, she lashed out at him with a booted heel and struck the man squarely in the chest.

He fell back onto the dirt road with a grunt, and Rahlizje leapt from the back of the cart toward freedom. Her right foot met the ground just a second before the rough hand clamped around her left ankle and jerked her back. The next thing she knew, she’d hit the dirt road as well with a mouthful of dust and the wind knocked completely out of her. Just as she got her hands beneath her to push herself up, the merchant’s knee crashed into her back between her shoulder blades, and her cheek grazed the dirt. A puff of fine red dust spewed into the air when she grunted. The cold point of her own dagger pressed to her neck again put an end to her escape attempt.

 “I like to consider myself a patient man,” the merchant growled in her ear. They both were out of breath. “That does not make me a fool. Eventually, you will help me recover the price of what it cost me to track you down. Until then, let me remind you that while I’m half blind, there is nothing you can hide from me.”

Rahlizje coughed beneath the weight of his knee, spewing another cloud of dust into the air.

When he released the pressure, she sucked in a full, burning breath. The man didn’t pull off her all the way, but it was enough to let her know he didn’t mean to kill her there in the middle of the road. “If you tell me true, thief, it’s a simple thing to honor your request. Do you still need relief?”

This was the longest conversation Rahlizje had ever had with a focus on her bodily functions, but she nodded into the dirt. Her cheek scraped across a few more pebbles beneath her. Then her captor removed the blade from her neck, bunched the back of her tunic and cloak in a huge fist, and lifted her to her feet. The ale and the buzzing stupor that came with it were had left her body completely, which made his strength and the speed with which he pulled her across the road toward his cart nothing short of incredible. He shoved her against the back of the cart’s lowered gate and retied her hands behind her back with the shorter rope. Then he spun her around and kicked her legs apart with his boot. Rahlizje felt her dagger’s tip pressing into her ribs through her cloak and tunic; it was still sharp, and the merchant held it quite steady.

His one good eye flickered back and forth between each of her own as he pressed his lips together beneath his wild mustache. While one hand threatened her life with her own weapon, the other moved between them to deftly undo the stays of her breeches in sharp, jerking tugs.

Rahlizje let out a wry chuckle. “Oh, that’s what you want, is it?” Of course it was. Life had proven to her time and again that any man who found himself with an advantage over the poor, the weak, or the destitute was more than willing to use that advantage to the fullest. All the better if that unfortunate soul just so happened to be a woman, wasn’t it? She snorted. “Recover the price. Was it your manhood you lost on your journey to hunt me down?”

The man blinked at her only once, then he tugged quickly on each leg of her breeches until they dropped from her waist and pooled around her ankles in the dirt. That one eye of his never left her face. “Nature calls, does it not?” He stepped away from her, sliding his grip down the length of rope he’d fashioned around her waist before their little struggle on the road. “Answer it.”

Rahlizje scowled at him, wondering how she’d misjudged everything about this man from the beginning. She’d thought for a certainty that her jibe would have shown her more weak points in his character—or at least stoke a bit of rage and humiliation she could manipulate further the longer he kept her in the back of his cart. But he’d given her nothing. Patient? Absolutely. And he was definitely no fool. So just what in the world was he?

Of course, she hadn’t lied about the urgency of her body’s needs. Glaring at the man holding the end of her rope, Rahlizje shuffled across the road with her breeches around her ankles until she could both squat beside the cart’s rear wheel and lean against it while she did her business.

When she finished and returned to the back of the cart, her captor swiftly pulled her breeches back up into place, laced them just a little tighter than was comfortable, and kept the tip of her dagger pressed just enough against her to make the warning perfectly clear. “I don’t believe in cruelty for its own sake,” he told her, his voice low and bristling through his thick black beard. “Whether or not our journey together remains more difficult than it has to be is up to you. But try that again, and you will not leave this cart until I’m rid of you.” His eye narrowed again, then he nodded once and stepped around the cart toward the driver’s bench. The end of the rope tied about Rahlizje’s waist trailed from his hand as he sheathed her dagger once more at his belt.

The merchant secured that lead rope to another loop nailed to the back of the bench and called over his shoulder, “I suggest you climb up quickly.” He lashed the reins and spurred his horse into movement.

Rahlizje had only a few seconds to put it all together before the rope around her waist gave her a sharp tug. She stumbled forward after the cart, then reached the open gate he’d neglected to close and leaned forward onto it until she could push her boots off the dirt road and roll into the bed of the cart.

It took her some time to unravel herself from the extra rope lead dangling behind her captor, but at least she wasn’t bound to the side of the cart until they stopped again. She crossed her legs beneath her and sat, wrists tied behind her back, swaying with the rocking motion of their slow and steady ride north.

That was when she realized all her practice with cracking open those who thought themselves better, smarter, or more capable than herself had been rendered entirely useless with this mercenary merchant. For all intents and purposes, it seemed he truly was all those things. Whatever he meant to do with her at the end of their shared journey, Rahlizje was running out of options, and the experience was entirely new to her.