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Mr. Brass

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Mr. Brass (second volume of the series The Republic of Selegania).

 

This book is a work of fiction. All names and places are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously.

 

Copyright © 2014 by Daniel Lawlis

 

All rights reserved.

 

© Ra3rn | Dreamstime.com – [+ Fist With Brass Knuckles Photo+]

(Adjustments to photos made by Daniel Lawlis)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Mr. Brass

 

Chapter 1

 

Lady Mary was unsure as to whether she wanted the gold or the silver necklace. The silver one was actually prettier. It had an image of a beloved Seleganian deity and exquisite calligraphy in Ridervarian. The gold one was also handsome, but it lacked any of the ornamentation of its competitor on this beautiful, sunny Friday afternoon. Such are the worries that plague some, as the mind is intent upon inventing dilemmas, and thus, where no real quandary exists, the imagination produces such a superb counterfeit as to cause the same worry another might feel over lack of food or shelter.

 

She stepped outside to consult her husband, Sir Edgar, who appeared unsure as to whether he would deign to enter the store. His resolution not to do so had once been firm, but the display of an array of fine top hats in the storefront window teased him as mercilessly as giant lollipops might a small child. He had several dozen at home, all without blemish (the appearance of the slightest wear on the leather crowns that signaled him as a gentleman would earn them immediate destruction), yet there was one in the window that seemed unique. It was perhaps an inch or two taller than any of the others he had, though not so much so that he feared upon wearing it it would make an unpleasant encounter with some low-hanging ceiling that would reveal to all the ferocious pace of his growing baldness.

 

Suddenly, just as Lady Mary appeared to present her vexing dilemma to her husband, a shrill cry interrupted both her incipient question and Sir Edgar’s deep meditation.

 

“Ahhhhh!!!!”

 

It was a woman’s voice. Of that, there could be no doubt. And judging by the sound of it, one could justifiably assume more than a purse-snatching was underway. Perhaps some heinous criminal had brandished a knife and dared interrupt the sublime ambience of this exclusive shopping district just blocks away from the senate.

 

Both Lady Mary and Sir Edgar turned to look, their curiosity just barely excelling their urge to turn tail and run to the refuge of their fine coach parked nearby, within which they could barricade themselves from whatever unwholesome mischief was afoot.

 

Their curiosity, erstwhile a narrow victor, soon became a domineering force so powerful they could not have moved if their lives depended upon it, and perhaps at some deep level they feared their lives just might so depend.

 

They had turned just in time to see the last of what appeared to be about a dozen . . . things quit a fine carriage within which they had presumably all theretofore been traveling. They appeared pale white, yet their whiteness was in contest with some vile substance smeared all over their bodies. And though mud had seemed to be the most logical guess, the smell, apparent at a dozen yards, soon better informed their senses.

 

“WE WANT IT!!” one of them cried, soon chorused by another.

 

“WE WANT THE GREEEEENNNNNN!!!”

 

It was at that moment Lady Mary swooned, as she realized these savages were coming her way at no slow pace, covered in what appeared to be horse dung, and otherwise as naked as the day their mothers bore them—that is, unless they were demons that had merely assumed a fleshly form.

 

The wild men began running around madly, clearing a large path around them far more efficiently than a hundred armed soldiers could have done amongst this mass of moneyed gentry. It soon turned into a full stampede, as humans—like antelope—also occasionally see the sense in paying heed to their fellows’ efforts at self-preservation, rather than waiting to see if such hasty flight is indeed warranted.

 

The band of naked savages began overturning tables filled with fine merchandise they surely would never have achieved by lawful means within their entire miserable lives, yet they dispatched these commodities willy-nilly, the way a thieving child might impatiently brush aside gold coins while searching for candies.

 

“IN HERE, MATES!!!” one of the beasts announced.

 

When the unfortunate store owner realized “HERE” meant his store, he didn’t waste time attempting to barricade the door, as he might have under less severe circumstances, but instead left his shop running like a gazelle, lest he find himself cornered by these fiends.

 

A local policeman, proud to be of service to the community, prepared to tackle one of these mysterious savages, who had perhaps invaded from some far-off land where the benefits of clothing had not yet been taught to them by a more polite people, but as he neared the closest ruffian he was so overwhelmed by the pungent, putrid odor issuing forth from the body of this barbarian like an invisible shield far more powerful than armor that at the last moment he feigned so convincing an accidental stumble that, had the city’s premiere theater director been present, he would have hired him on the spot for the starring role of his choice in the next major production.

 

Unfortunately, the feigned stumble was too good, for it convinced even the hard ground, which sprained his ankle fiercely in appreciation for the noteworthy performance. His ankle now swelling dreadfully, he was not able to rise to his feet without assistance.

 

Being the only police officer in the near vicinity, as this was generally not an area where any other than the affluent dared to step foot, there was now little standing in the way of these hooligans and their apparent aim. While the polite gentlemen and ladies were fleeing for their lives, they were still comfortably within earshot and sight of the criminals’ activity.

 

“SMOKELESS GREEN, MATES!” announced one of them joyously, holding two large bags of it in his hands.

 

Soon the sound of breaking windows, crashing merchandise, and bloodcurdling war whoops of joy pierced the air with a frenzy.

 

A neutral observer might have expected the ruckus to continue unabated for hours, yet the thieves either seemed to have had a singular purpose in mind with respect to their objective or were well aware that such a scandal would not be permitted for much longer than ten to fifteen minutes before the far-more fearsome national police issued out of the senate building like angry hornets from a disturbed nest, ready to cudgel these savages into submission.

 

They did in fact issue as described although instead of finding the beasts there to be slaughtered they merely found the signs of their handiwork. Broken windows, scattered merchandise, and other evidentiary items told the story of their vicious rampage. They themselves however were not to be found anywhere.

 

Chapter 2

 

Donive was in a pensive mood, but happy that she at least understood the source of Pitkins’ reluctance to have children. Last night, Pitkins had apologized to her about this and explained that he had not told her the whole story about what the Metinvurs had done to his family. Far from only having killed his wife, they had massacred all his children, which included three boys and three girls. The news of the loss of his wife alone had nearly killed him with shock and grief, but when he learned all six children had been stuck on pikes he went into a near catatonic state from which he didn’t take a leave of absence for at least a month.

 

He probably would have died of hunger or thirst if Sworin hadn’t practically forced him to take an occasional nibble of bread or sip of water. Sworin had proven his friendship to Pitkins beyond any doubt during that period. An ambitious man would have used Pitkins’ momentary weakness to glide over him and slip snugly into the head general position, but, quite the contrary, Sworin withheld Pitkins’ truly desperate state of mind from everyone, not wishing anyone to take advantage of him.

 

Sworin would visit Pitkins daily and make sure he at least ate and drank a little bit, but usually all Pitkins did was sit and stare into space like a statue or lie on his back and look upwards blankly like a corpse. Sworin told everyone that Pitkins was taking the shock relatively well, given the circumstances, and that they were conversing over important matters of military strategy daily and that this was helping Pitkins to keep himself distracted from emotional pain.

 

In reality, Sworin expected every day that he came into the tent to check on Pitkins that that would be the day he would find Pitkins with his throat slashed from ear to ear, his sword stuck to the hilt into his breast, or the victim of some other fatal, self-inflicted wound. Instead, he found his body alive and present but his mind far, far away. Sworin was beginning to more grow worried by the day that Pitkins would never even speak again, much less be capable of reassuming command of the Nikorians.

 

He knew that a lengthy period of mourning was to be expected for a tragedy as ghastly as this, but only so long could go by—no matter what the tragedy—without the general of the Nikorians showing his face in public before people would begin to wonder whether he was capable of overcoming the tragedy or whether his spirit had been smashed like a house at the base of a towering mountain that had unleashed a merciless avalanche upon it. Furthermore, Sworin felt that ethically, close friend or not, he could only cover for Pitkins for a finite amount of time, and that period was dwindling.

 

When not involved in an active military campaign, Pitkins often reported directly to the king at least once a month on various military matters, and Pitkins had been due for a visit right around the time the tragedy happened, thus creating a near two-month absence from the king’s court. Sworin knew that if the country were attacked by Metinvurs during this vulnerable time and the country’s defenses were overrun because he had not properly taken command during Pitkins’ indisposition, he would not only face a severe court-martial but also the unbearable psychological guilt of knowing he was to blame for putting his friend’s reputation before the country’s safety.

 

He had the men drilling regularly but had not given them any new orders, since he did not want Pitkins to think, upon recovery, that he was ambitious and had sought to use his temporary weakness as an opportunity take command of the army. However, Sworin knew this could not continue much longer—either for his conscience’s sake or for practicality’s sake.

 

The day Sworin walked into Pitkins’ tent prepared to deliver a regretful speech to a glassy-eyed statue that he was going to have to inform the king of the state of affairs he had instead met a human being. It wasn’t quite the old Pitkins. Sworin knew that Pitkins might never come all the way back. But it was no zombie either. Pitkins was alert and looked him right in the eye and said, “A different kind of man would have told the king within a week that I was unfit for command.” That had been all. But it was the power and conviction in those words that let Sworin know just how much Pitkins appreciated his loyalty.

 

Pitkins had sworn to himself he would never discuss the tragedy with anyone ever, and he had broken that promise partially when he had revealed to Donive long ago that he had lost his wife. But he had kept the oath with respect to his children until now.

 

Donive might have laid into Pitkins for withholding such a significant part of his life, but her face was bathed in tears by the time Pitkins was done, and she wondered how he had ever found the strength to be able to love again. It caught Donive’s attention that with regards to the specific fates of his family he had mentioned his children being put on pikes but had never said the nature of his wife’s demise. Donive took that as an indication it was too horrible to relate even in abbreviated version.

 

Pitkins had started to apologize, but Donive had quickly hushed him with a single finger and let him know that no more apology or explanation was needed for the time being. “Someday,” Pitkins whispered softly into Donive’s ear. “Someday, I’ll be ready,” and she nodded her head, now unsure herself whether she would ever be ready. The story had left her with a terrible case of the goose bumps.

 

 

While at the store the next day buying a few spices for the pantry, she was in a bit of a daze thinking about the grizzly tragedy that had befallen Pitkins’ family. Next to a row of spices an advertisement caught her eye:

 

SPICY GREEN!

GIVES YOUR STEW SOME ZING!

 

An image on the container showed a smiling woman pouring some into a bubbling stew. Feeling a bit adventuresome, and believing that perhaps anything would be welcome provided it distracted her from the gruesome images parading around in her mind, she added it to her basket. It was in the spices section after all, and it must be some sort of seasoning.

 

 

Koksun was acclimating quite nicely to life in the Pitkins-Donive home. Meals were regular, milk was plentiful, and back rubs were frequent. His usual schedule involved waking up around 7 a.m., when Donive awoke, and then getting a generous breakfast. After that, he usually traipsed around the grassy acres of their luxurious estate, chased a mouse or two (he had not yet acquired a taste for them in spite of his love of pursuing them), and then found a shady tree where he would nap for several hours.

 

After a hardy lunch, he would often play with Mervin, the bulky, nearly lion-sized Great Dane that patrolled the estate with all the rigor and enthusiasm of a handsomely paid guard. Koksun had been quite uneasy with his towering companion at first, given that he felt the size of a mouse compared to this animal. But, fear for corporal safety aside, he felt quite fortunate to have ended up with such a companion. Koksun had been an avid dog owner and trainer in the Varco and had personally owned a Great Dane very similar in appearance to Mervin, and thus, he had felt a fondness for him immediately.

 

It had taken him a full three weeks to work up the nerve to approach Mervin and play with him, during which time he had observed the giant animal with utmost attention. He had found that Mervin was not aggressive to anything he considered family, and both Koksun’s eyes and nose told him—when he was being pampered by Donive in Mervin’s presence—that Mervin was not only beginning to see him as a friend, but as part of the family and thus entitled to his full protection.

 

One day, realizing that the slightest miscalculation would result in him being wolfed down like an afternoon snack, he decided it was now or never and approached Mervin. Mervin was sitting in front of the house like an upright statue surveying the premises unblinking. He didn’t even seem to notice Koksun as he came and lay next to him. Then, Koksun took a lengthy nap. When he awoke, Mervin was off patrolling the grounds, but Koksun was still in one piece and not inside Mervin’s stomach, and he had stopped fearing him after that.

 

In fact, they had become quite playful, and occasionally Koksun would chase Mervin around the house or lawn, or vice versa. On other occasions, Koksun would test Mervin’s alertness by scaling a tree, waiting patiently for Mervin to come by on one of his many patrols, and then jump down towards his back. He found that his Metinvurian skills were still sharp because he succeeded in landing directly onto Mervin’s back around eighty percent of the time. Mervin would often let out a loud “WOOF!” and then buck him off. Koksun could have dug his claws in deeply to Mervin’s side and held on, but he didn’t want to hurt his buddy. In fact, he was becoming quite chummy with The Beast, as he often thought of him.

 

But he missed Tristan too. It wasn’t necessarily that he savored Tristan’s passion for large-scale wars designed to expand Dachwald’s section of the map, but rather he liked the intellectual challenge that conversations with the old man had afforded. Koksun had rather taken it for granted, at the time but now sorely missed it as he had been unable to speak to anyone for quite some time. The last person—or rather the last anything—that he had spoken to was Chip, and he now found himself feeling quite curious as to whether that tiny bird had succeeded in finding Tristan and, if so, whether he survived the encounter.

 

He knew that Tristan had almost perpetually distrusted the konulans and that he was probably going to kill all of them, especially after the revolt of the pholungs, whom he had trusted twenty times more than their miniature counterparts. He suspected that if Chip made it to Tristan and was not killed for his troubles Tristan would likely send him a message someday via Chip. But as for now, here Koksun was not only imbued with the gift of speech but also with a lifetime of having used it and not having any stretch before now in his memory where he could not.

 

It was beginning to eat at him. He was starting to contemplate talking to Donive, maybe even Pitkins, although he knew Pitkins would likely chop him in two without a second’s hesitation if he thought that he was in any way an ally of Tristan’s. And since Koksun felt it to be a pretty safe guess that Pitkins had never seen a talking animal in his life with the exception of the pholungs, he would be very prone to suspect the involvement of Tristan if Koksun suddenly started talking. He had seen Pitkins come riding into Tristan’s lair on the back of Istus and had seen the fire in his eyes.

 

However, if Pitkins was able to be convinced that the pholungs were really just victims of Tristan’s, why couldn’t he be convinced that Koksun was another of Tristan’s many victims, rather than a willing collaborator? Even if Pitkins had seen Istus fling him from the cliff, that wouldn’t rule out the possibility that Istus himself had made a mistake. Furthermore, Koksun was pretty sure Pitkins had not seen this because as soon as Istus entered the lair Pitkins had hopped off his back and gone to work dousing everything in sight with naphtha. Also, Pitkins had now seen him countless times in his own home, and he had never behaved with the slightest aggression towards him, and in fact he had occasionally given him a pat on the back.

 

It was starting to seem worth a try, and Koksun was growing a bit weary by the day of pretending to be a mute animal.

 

While he was in the kitchen, getting ready to slurp dry a saucer of milk, he heard someone opening the door to the house, and his nose immediately told him it was Donive.

 

“Hi, Bandit,” Donive said to Koksun as she entered the kitchen, having no idea of the full appropriateness of the name she had chosen for her cat.

 

She began removing some items from the basket she was carrying, and then, without any warning, a unique smell hit Koksun with the force of a hurricane wind, transporting him almost instantly across the erstwhile untraversable abyss of several centuries of time to when he was a strapping, twenty-year-old man about to graduate from Stage One of Varco training and embark upon his first mission.

 

Chapter 3

 

“Let’s move! Let’s move!”

 

The characters in the room being barked at like they were slaves caught slacking on a plantation operating under a tight deadline hardly looked the part. They were a sundry assortment. Everything from lawyer to accountant to banker might have been reasonable guesses for a large portion of their number. Woodsman, carpenter, blacksmith, or even serf would have sufficed as logical guesses for a large minority of them.

 

But all of these guesses, though reasonable, would be wrong.

 

Koksun, then a young man of twenty, looked like a banker, but when he approached the two-hundred-foot wooden wall, ejected a pair of wicked-looking claws from a contraption hidden underneath each sleeve of his suit coat, jumped several feet up into the air, and drove his claws into the wood, he looked like anything but.

 

Without even so much as a pause, he gave the wood a hard kick with his left boot, and spikes shot out. Another kick with his right boot accomplished the same, and in a matter of seconds, Koksun was making his way up the wall easier than a squirrel up a tree.

 

Varter wasn’t far behind him and in fact was gaining rather quickly. Koksun saw this and went from merely climbing to leaping up the wall. As if his muscles rendered gravity little more than a small annoyance, Koksun’s powerful back muscles yanked his body high up into the air with each powerful pull, and his legs simultaneously provided a push that in combination made him almost look like a frog hopping up the wall as if it were horizontal.

 

Now, Varter was comfortably behind Koksun and getting farther behind by the second. It was rather anticlimactic when Koksun reached the top of the wall a full fifteen seconds before his companion. “It’s a new record!” announced Vilgor, the instructor. Koksun had excelled his companions in almost every test that these Varco recruits had undergone during the last rigorous eight years of their lives.

 

Graduation from Stage One of training did not seem to be a serious question for any of the recruits filling the room. Eight years of merciless training in language, weapons, unarmed combat, climbing, forgery, and any other area useful to practitioners of the espionage arts had surely long ago weeded out those unfit to call themselves Varco. But competition, amongst even these recruits for whom graduation seemed a foregone conclusion, was still as fierce as between starving wolves fighting over a piece of meat.

 

Only those obsessed with perfection managed to make it this far, and this obsession was continually encouraged by their instructors.

 

Vilgor called everyone to attention, and both Koksun and Varter, immediately produced a grappling hook from one of their many secret pockets, hooked it to the top of the wall, and rappelled down almost at free-fall speed. The wire connected to the grappling hook was invisible from even a modest distance, but upon close examination one would see it was thinner than fishing string, although strong enough to hold the weight of any three individuals in the room without breaking, thus allowing an incredible length of the wire to be stored inside the wooden handle it attached to.

 

As soon as Koksun and Varter’s feet touched terra firma, they each pressed a button on the wooden handle. The spikes at the top of the wall quickly reversed directions, thus extricating themselves, and then the wire receded briskly into the wooden handle like a swift snake disappearing into a hole.

 

There was barely a sound as the spikes folded back forcefully into the handle.

 

“You have been told scaling the wall would be your last physical test. But there is one more test. It is psychological, yet many of you will find that it is the hardest test. You must pass this test in order to graduate.”

 

An uneasy silence permeated the room, yet the curiosity was palpable.

 

Vilgor opened a small container and began walking by each of the recruits.

 

“Take a whiff!” he barked. “What you’re looking at is one of the best-kept secrets of the Varco. It’ll enable you to swim longer, run longer, lift more weight, run faster, suppress your fear, increase focus, go weeks without eating, go days without drinking.”

 

“It’s called Valder,” he continued.

 

As Vilgor passed Koksun, he leaned forward and smelled. A powerful odor—partly sweet, partly spicy, and partly he had no idea what except that it was overwhelming—ascended into his nostrils.

 

“The downside is this little gadget of ours happens to be a little addictive. Truth be told, forget what you think you know to be addictive, because you’re wrong. This is addictive!”

 

“So why do we use it? Performance enhancement. And, if used properly, its addictiveness can be controlled. You are going to each receive a specific chart based upon your height and weight that will tell you what constitutes a dose, and how long you must detox after each dose.

 

“Take Koksun here, for example. He’s 210 pounds of solid meanness and shrewdness. This” (and he pulled out a small vial) “is a dose for Koksun. If he has one dose, he’s going to feel the effects for around twenty-four hours. He’ll feel a little groggy once the effects wear off but will feel normal within about half a day. But let’s say he’s got a really special mission he’s on and doesn’t want to do a whole heck of a lot of sleeping during the next week, and so he has a dose every day for a week. He’s going to need a week to let this pleasant substance work its way out of his system afterwards.

 

“There are hundreds of exact scenarios calculated out for you on your chart, as well as a formula to calculate the dosage for any situation you might come across not already included on the chart.

 

“Gents, follow these instructions to the letter, and you’ll find that Valder is your best friend. It should not be used by default on any mission. This is a back-up weapon. This is for any situation where your normal physical and mental faculties are just not going to get the job done.

 

“You’re going to undergo supervised usage over the next six months.”

 

In spite of the silence, a groan could almost be heard escaping from the lips of these sourly disappointed recruits who thought that after eight years of training they were mere days away from getting out into the real world and starting to do the kinds of harrowing, adventurous missions that were the stuff of Metinvurian folklore and that had captured their imagination as children and made them choose this arduous path.

 

Nonetheless, silence reigned, and not even the slightest movement of the face betrayed the immense disappointment that came crashing down upon them.

 

“Anyone who deviates one iota from the dosage specifications is OUT! Is that understood?”

 

“SIR, YES, SIR!” they sang in trained unison.

 

“Koksun, you’re up for a five-day dosage period followed by a two-week detox.”

 

Koksun looked at the five vials with some confusion.

 

As if reading his mind, Vilgor said, “It goes up the nose!” loud enough for all the recruits to hear.

 

Koksun tilted the small vial towards his palm, emptied the contents, and snorted everything.

 

POW!!!!!!!

 

It felt like a clap of thunder had just gone off in his brain. He nearly reeled backwards from the strength of the drug. But he didn’t. He resumed at-attention posture and looked forward.

 

One by one, various recruits were being given their doses, and pretty soon it sounded as if everyone had an egregious cold, as sniffles erupted around the room like dominoes falling against one another.

 

“If some of you are finding it just a liiiiitle hard to stand still right now, don’t worry. This drug is mostly used for physical purposes, although it affects everyone a little differently. With time, you’ll learn to control this drug and make it work for you. As for now, we’re going to go ahead and explore its physical enhancement. KOKSUN—UP THAT WALL!”

 

Vilgor didn’t’ have to say it twice. The “L” had barely escaped his lips before Koksun was bolting through the ranks of his fellow recruits and headed towards the wall as if a pride of lions were behind him. Eight feet away from the wall he jumped like a gazelle, activated his hand spikes in the air, and dug them into wall, while simultaneously kicking both boots against it and activating these spikes.

 

“GET HIM, VARTER!!” shouted the instructor.

 

But if the drug had some effect on Varter’s determination, it paled in comparison to its effect on Koksun, rendering it nearly a candle next to a bonfire. Koksun was up the wall before most of the recruits could blink more than a few times.

 

Chapter 4

 

The next five days for Koksun were like something out of a bizarre dream. Where his instructor before would have him run four miles, it was now twenty. Where his instructor before would have him climb the wall twenty times without a break, it was a hundred. Where his instructor before would give him a four-hour test over languages, Varco codes, and secret handshakes, it was now eighteen. And all without a break.

 

What before would have taken Koksun or any of the other recruits far beyond their limits and been impossible he was now doing with a surreal ease. With the same surreal quality of a man in a dream watching his body struggle to move in the way the dreamer commanded it, Koksun now conversely watched in equal disbelief as his body and mind performed impossible feats. Muscles contracted rapidly and responded to mental commands effortlessly long after they should have gone limp with exhaustion. Facts were recalled from his mind and proceeded flawlessly from his mouth long after his brain should have collapsed with fatigue. He felt as if he had somehow become a different species and had left behind his flawed, former body like a butterfly leaving its chrysalis on a branch.

 

Every day at precisely the same time, Koksun took his scheduled dose, and the subtle hints of oncoming fatigue would quickly vanish like shadows chased away by a bright light.

 

Then, when the time drew near for what would be his sixth dose, he began to think of the unpleasant fact that there was no sixth dose. He was done with this trial run and due for a two-week detox after that . . . and, heck, who knew if he’d ever get to enter this paradise again. That thought brought him no joy, and he had the cognitive wherewithal to realize that if not for the Valder coursing through his veins he would likely be feeling extremely apprehensive and depressed.

 

But coursing through his veins it still was, and thus, his mind, which was currently focused on a ten-hour examination on unarmed combat techniques, was as likely to be deviated as a large herd of thunderous bison roaring across an open prairie. He performed the hundreds of techniques flawlessly, but by the end of the exam he was only a few hours away from what would be his sixth dose—the dose that was not to come.

 

Now, his mind was starting to feel the slightest indications of returning back to the chrysalis and then regressing all the way back to his caterpillar state as a mere human being. And this time the negative thought was not up against a herd of stampeding bison but practically the wandering mind of a child, which can be distracted without great exertion. He started to feel a subtle sense of dread that he somehow knew was going to get far worse before it got better.

 

“LINE UP!!” Vilgor shouted.

 

Everyone in the room quickly did so.

 

“Everyone currently in the room is on the five-dose regimen, which has now just about run its course. You’ve done an excellent job, every last one of you. You’ve done more physical and mental exertion in the last five days than you have in any two-week period leading up to this. You’ve each had no sleep and have still performed flawlessly on a merciless series of physical and mental examinations. Would you say that Valder has a bit of a kick to it?!”

 

“SIR, YES, SIR!!” they shouted in perfect unison.

 

“It does indeed!” Vilgor concurred. “But unfortunately, it’s got two kinds of kicks. The good kind, which you’ve already met, and the bad kind, which you’re about to meet and maybe are already starting to get to know a little. What can I say—what goes up must go down,” he said shrugging his shoulders.

 

“But you’re going to learn to how to control the landing. And if it still hurts, well, just remember that Valder isn’t meant to be part of your morning breakfast. It’s to be used only when truly needed, and that should not be terribly often.

 

“Now, you’ve all earned a lot of shut-eye, and you can have it. In fact, you’ve earned two weeks of rest.”

 

This prompted a happy smile onto the faces of the recruits, who were now starting, little by little, to feel the aftereffects of what their bodies and minds had been pushed through during the last five days.

 

“You’re each going to be confined to a private room and will not be allowed to leave. This will be a period of soul-searching so that you can decide if you really want to be a Varco agent. You’ve got some more training to do with Valder and some detox sessions that are going to make this look like a piece of cake, so if it seems like it’s getting hot in the kitchen now, this would be a great time for you to pack your bags and get the hell out of here because it’s going to get a lot harder before it gets any easier.”

 

This erased the smiles from the recruits’ faces but elicited no outward groans. Inwardly, however, some were nearing their breaking point.

 

“To become Varco, you have to successfully complete each and every detox. However, some Valder will be placed in your room in case you start to have seizures or any severe withdrawal symptoms. If you take even one grain of this Valder, you will not become Varco. But we’d prefer you to fail the Varco and still serve your country with the many skills you’ve learned in some capacity rather than die from withdrawal. It’s a choice you’ll have to make. The Valder will be placed on a scale in your room, and if even one iota disappears, an alarm will go off, and you will be expelled immediately. IS THAT CLEAR?!”

 

“SIR, YES, SIR!” they shouted out.

 

The recruits were led down a hallway, placed into small rooms with nothing but a bed, a hole for bodily needs, and a small bookshelf with various training manuals. As Koksun went down the hallway towards the room he would be assigned to, the effects of Valder were now dissipating from his body like sand rapidly falling down the aperture of an hourglass.

 

By the time he reached his room, the upper chamber of the hourglass was losing its very last grains of sand, and thus, so it was with his energy. Like a shipwrecked man completing the last two swim strokes that will bring him to shore and conclude his arduous swim, Koksun somehow made the two final steps to the bed that awaited him, its austere sheets holding far more charm in that moment than a goddess of pleasure awaiting him with open arms. He fell face-first onto it like a sack of grain. He heard the door to his room click and lock. Then, everything went black.

 

Chapter 5

 

The next day when Koksun awoke, he felt like he had drunk a jug of whiskey, slipped and fallen down a nastily long stairway, and used his head repeatedly to soften the fall. A mild groan escaped his lips, and he looked up at the ceiling, in the process feeling like the mere act of opening his eyelids was a heroic act meritorious of an epic poem.

 

He tried to move his head but couldn’t. It felt like his whole body was pinned to the bed by a thousand nails. He closed his eyes, counted to three, and then lurched forward as if his life depended upon it. At least, he tried to lurch forward. By attempting something more dramatic he accomplished something slightly less ambitious—turning to his side. He put his right hand on the bed and pushed. Slowly, like the wall of a house being put into place by two hundred groaning men pulling on a rope, he heaved his body into a seated position.

 

There, he told himself. That deserves a reward.

 

He felt like a suitable reward for this task would be to sit there in utter stillness staring blankly at the wall like a senile old man. So that was precisely what he did.

 

After what seemed to be about fifteen minutes (but for all he knew it could have been fifteen hours), he decided he was going to do something worthy of a gold medallion. He was going to stand up.

 

The thought alone tired him so much he regretted it the moment it entered his mind. Like a dog sensing it is about to be removed from its favorite resting spot, his body seemed to lower itself towards the ground ready to resist the tyrannical treatment it was about to be asked to undergo.

 

But Koksun resolved that he was going to do it, and a deeper part of his mind realized that painful or not, there would be no arguing with Koksun’s will. He counted to three and then . . . HEAVE!

 

He shot to his feet. He felt and heard his back pop at least sixteen times in the process, and he wasn’t sure whether he had just broken it. He stood there, wobbly-legged like a newborn giraffe on ice skates. If he felt his Herculean act of getting into a sitting position was worthy of a long break, this, he felt, had earned him at least an hour before any more brutal tasks should be attempted.

 

He closed his eyes and breathed deeply. His head ached. His back ached. His thighs ached. His feet felt as if they were being asked to bear the weight of a small wagon. His head listed slightly from side to side like a ship being tossed to and fro on the high seas.

 

He continued to breathe in and out deeply.

 

Suddenly, like a dreary day pierced by a ray of sunlight, he felt an energy sweep over him. Not the kind of energy that had for the last five days sustained him while he ran mile after mile, climbed up several-hundred-foot walls as if they were short flights of stairs, or swam for miles with a forty-pound backpack on. But it was perhaps at least enough energy to feel like he was something more than a statue.

 

He looked near the doorway.

 

There it was. Like a key taped right next to the exit door in a room full of rapidly advancing alligators. Valder. One small sniff of that stuff, and the aches, pains, and lethargy holding his body and mind hostage would be left far, far behind.

 

He took a couple steps towards it. His body ached with each one, but he didn’t feel worthy of a gold medal, as he had after sitting and then after standing. The smell was powerful. Sweet but with a spicy tinge unlike anything he’d ever smelled before.

 

(or ever will smell)

 

He bent over to get a closer look. His back began popping like a pile of dry twigs stepped on by a hefty hunter wearing thick boots.

 

It was a finely ground green powder. And as he drew so near that his nose almost touched it the smell alone almost seemed to intoxicate him. Maybe it did.

 

He stepped back abruptly, realizing that he had come less than half a second away from taking another dose right then and there. But doses were off limits right now. “Two-week detox” had been his instructions. And who knows if he’d get another dose after those two weeks.

 

He wasn’t sure, but one thing he was unsure of in spite of the dreary cloud of pain and fatigue occupying his mind was that this was not going to be his stumbling block. He had undergone too many tests, made too many sacrifices, and come just too damn close to becoming a Varco agent for some final mind game like this to bring him failure.

 

“HA!” he laughed to his own surprise. The mere thought of failure seemed amusing as another tiny, yet not invisible, ray of sunlight pierced the storm clouds, revealing to him a strange irony. All he had to do right now was nothing. Absolutely nothing.

 

It seemed to make a certain kind of sense to him also. He began to imagine scenarios involving future missions where perhaps doing nothing but sit and wait would be the challenge. Maybe it would be a matter of waiting in a closet for a week for a target to come within striking distance. Maybe it would be a surveillance mission. It didn’t really matter. The point was sometimes inactivity was in and of itself part of the mission. And he supposed that perhaps this was part of what his instructor was trying to instil in his mind. The discipline to wait.

 

Then, a joyous thought came to him. He ought to lie down and have the most well-deserved, guilt-free nap in the history of mankind. He sauntered back to bed, collapsed as he had done the night before, and was dozing away moments later.

 

Chapter 6

 

When Koksun woke up again, he didn’t feel quite as bad as he did before. A lot of the pain that had previously been pulsing throughout his body seemed to have dissipated, although whether it was gone entirely or just not aware yet that the body it had invaded was now awake again and ready to be tortured some more he was not sure.

 

What he did know was that it had been replaced with something. A craving. Something much unlike anything he had ever before thought worthy of the word. His mind drifted back briefly to one day when he was a homeless eight-year-old, still a full four years away from that fateful encounter where his prowess at pickpocketing caught the propitious attention of a Varco recruiter, who decided this young street runt just might have what it takes to a member in the ranks of the country’s elite spy and assassin organization.

 

He had only been recently orphaned, and while picking pockets would one day become as effortless to him as walking along a sidewalk, it was at that time still a craft of which he knew nothing. He had gone two weeks without a meal and was traipsing through a well-to-do part of the city when he saw a child about his own age seated with his parents and siblings with a large ice cream cone in his hands.

 

Still not accustomed to using thievery, much less violence, to acquire what he needed, Koksun had simply stood there in a near trance, wishing, wishing, and wishing he were that boy seated there surrounded by family and enjoying the sugary delights of a heavenly treat such as that. The desire became so strong he could almost feel his soul exit his body, travel through the air, enter the body of the young child, and begin licking and sucking on that delicious treat. His stomach growled. His body shook. His look must have been discomforting because the father of the family turned and faced him and said, “Beat it, street worm!”

 

Beat it, he did. He found the most recondite corner of an abandoned alley that he could and stayed there for hours, still in a trance-like state, the full reality of his desperate plight sinking in, and it was then and there he realized he was going to have to take what he wanted in this life if he was going to survive.

 

It had been a life-changing moment, after which he had begun burglarizing, pickpocketing, and, on occasion, robbing in order to get what he needed, and he had always considered it one of the most powerful emotional experiences in his life, one he had never expected to be surpassed in importance.

 

But, to his immense shock, he realized at this very moment that it had been, and that the craving he now felt for the small pile of pungent-smelling, finely ground green powder made the aforementioned childhood experience seem tame by comparison. He looked at it. It captivated his eyes. It seemed to almost drag him towards it, for he knew that one sniff and he would be restored to his recent godlike state.

 

He asked himself how long the craving would be this unbearable. He calculated that, since the detox period was two weeks, more likely than not after the first week the worst of the physical pain and unbearable cravings would be behind.

 

Just six and a half more days to go then! an inner voice told him cheerily, and he found its optimistic tone sadistically mocking rather than encouraging. He began to wonder if the reason the Valder was placed right there by the door was really for the protection of the recruits. On the one hand, it seemed at least feasible, given the hell his mind and body were going through right now, that the detoxification period could be so overwhelming that a man could die from it.

 

But, on the other hand, he wondered why the death of a recruit would matter to the Varco if failure meant expulsion anyway. Why not just let the weak recruits die, while the survivors would be forced to endure the agony?

 

Then the thought occurred to him that that would not reflect the reality of actual missions. On an actual mission, they would have the Valder in their pockets and would have to exercise self-restraint. Thus, this was going to reveal who had not only the physical strength to survive the withdrawal but also the mental strength to consciously resist the solution.

 

Given the strength of the hold this drug had already revealed itself to have taken on his mind after just five days, he realized the instructor was taking him to the brink of full-blown addiction. Those who set off the alarm would reveal themselves as beyond that brink.

 

(and what kind of a Varco agent would a drug addict make?)

 

No agent at all.

 

Touch that powder, and you’re dead, a voice told him. Forget about expulsion.

 

The truth of this subconscious revelation was self-evident the moment it asserted itself. While he wasn’t sure what had happened with those rejected early on in the Varco program, long before they had been turned into physical and psychological weapons far too dangerous to be permitted anywhere other than under the close watch of the Varco, he had felt intuitively over the last year that failure in this program meant death.

 

With this particular issue, however, he felt not even the smallest trace of doubt. The notion that the government would permit a highly trained human weapon to walk the streets of Metinvur with no thought in his mind other than his next sniff of Valder was laughable. Such a man would assassinate, blackmail, bribe, and do whatever else it took to find access to this substance, which would then probably start to make its way into the general populace, and the thought of that made him shudder.

 

Criminals under the influence of this substance would be formidable opponents for regular police to deal with, and the Varco was designed for international espionage missions and counterintelligence, not domestic law enforcement. Yet, for anyone other than the Varco to take on a criminal organization using this substance made him shudder. Not only would their ferocity in combat be unprecedented but so would their desperate, unpredictable nature.

 

Furthermore, he couldn’t fathom that the Varco would even permit the risk of word spreading of their secret substance, even if they didn’t fear the expelled agent would himself directly be seeking to obtain it.

 

A chill settled upon the back of his neck and ears as the resolution of this issue became firmly settled. For the first time in his Varco training, he found himself truly doubting whether he was going to survive.

 

Chapter 7

 

A NEW BREED OF CRIMINAL!

 

WILL IT EVER STOP?

 

STORES ROBBED IN BROAD DAYLIGHT, SHOPPERS STAY HOME!

 

Senator Hutherton looked at the sordid assortment of headlines. Upon seeing such dastardly news about the state of public safety in the republic of Selegania, a store owner would likely look into hiring an armed guard or changing professions. A father might issue his children a strict prohibition against going out in public until these fiendish criminals—or at least the ringleaders—were brought to justice. A police officer might regret his chosen line of work.

 

But as Senator Hutherton looked at the sundry articles spread out in front of him, he smiled with the same satisfaction as a man viewing his royal flush in a high stakes game. He didn’t know what strings Ambassador Rochten had pulled to accomplish something like this, nor did he care. What he did care about was whether it was enough. Enough to convince the senate to formally outlaw this . . . terrible substance (and he began to laugh uproariously at his own hypocrisy as his thoughts reached this stage) in spite of a small constitutional problem:

 

Article 8: The senate shall not prohibit the voluntary adult consumption of any non-poisonous substance.

 

Yes, Article 8 was a bit of a problem, but it permitted enough leeway, he felt, to certainly get the senate to pass legislation outlawing Smokeless Green—after all, the term “poisonous” permitted some flexibility. Then, it would be a question of whether some citizen would sue and challenge the law as unconstitutional. The very thought made him groan but only for an instant.

 

If Ambassador Rochten had such connections as to orchestrate a series of headline-catching criminal acts—such that had certainly shifted public opinion in favor of banning this substance, which had only recently arisen out of the most opaque obscurity—it would likely be child’s play to silence anyone foolish enough to challenge this law.

 

In the unlikely event someone was foolish enough to challenge the new law without being quickly dealt with, there would still be procedural methods of tying up the lawsuit for many years in the courts before anything would come of it—all of which would provide more time to ensure the person was dealt with (a reassuring smile came to his face). And, as a last resort, if public opinion could be stoked even hotter against this foul substance, perhaps the votes would be there to repeal Article 8 altogether.

 

“Anything is possible with determination!” he proclaimed out loud boldly, not minding that he was not yet in front of an enraptured audience but rather in the privacy of his spacious study. But he considered the thick line of Smokeless Green in front of him a far better audience than the rows of stuffy, old senators he would be addressing soon.

 

SNIIIIIIIIIFFFFFFF!!!

 

He had been starting to develop quite a tolerance for Green Buddy, as he was starting to affectionately call it, but he had made the line thicker than ever before (well, almost, a voice corrected him), and that together with the headlines was really sending his happy side into overdrive!

 

“WOOOOOO!!” he shouted, to no one in particular.

 

Then, reassuming the solemn face worthy of a senator of the republic, he pulled out a piece of beautiful parchment adorned with ornate calligraphy. It was the proposed legislation. He had come near finishing it a few days ago but then stopped, fearing he would jinx himself by the presumptuous act. But the headlines lying innately on the table now seemed to take on animate form, telling him, Finish the bill! I’ve got a store to run!

 

I’ve got two young’uns, and I ain’t lettin’ them out of my sight till that stuff is outlawed!

 

My favorite store was hit by those no-good drug maniacs, and it closed as a result! Now, where am I going to buy my business suits?!

 

“Calm, calm,” Hutherton told his imaginary pleading audience of desperate store owners, parents, and patrons, picking up a gold-embroidered pen.

 

His mind’s silly euphoria had now passed, and with a drill sergeant’s face and eagle-like, darting eyes he began making quick, calculated strokes on the parchment, the slightest detail unable to escape the now razor-focused man drafting one of the most consequential bills in the history of Selegania’s centuries-old republic.

 

Chapter 8

 

Senator Hutherton sat upright and attentive the next day in the senate, watching with humble attentiveness that belied the condescending disgust he felt towards one windbag senator after another who stood to speak offering lots of complaints but nothing of solutions to what was certainly the most pernicious plague Selegania had ever faced.

 

Although it seemed the moment would never come, he was snatched from a bit of a reverie by the words, “Senator Hutherton is recognized to speak.” He could pass and let some other senator get the credit for proposing what would inevitably be proposed soon. He had passed on many prior occasions, always fearing his junior status would render his superior intellect unappreciated amongst the ranks of these shortsighted fools. But not today. Today was going to be different. He had only had a small line this morning—and one in the restroom before the senate was called into session (that is, if you’re going to call a few measly grams a “line,” a feisty voice spoke up)—and he was feeling just about perfect. Not too hyper, but focused enough to prevent any of these old empty suits from embarrassing him with a question he couldn’t answer, as he knew inevitably one of them would try. The old and experienced hate nothing more than wisdom in a youth, he told himself.

 

“Thank you, Mr. President,” he said with a calm, self-assured manner that caught more than one of the senior senators’ attention, and from their looks it appeared they were ready to pounce.

 

With the practiced step of a groom walking down the aisle to await his dazzling betrothed in front of important onlookers, Hutherton’s somber, dignified air looked like a showcase for proper statesmanship.

 

He sensed correctly that he was impressing a large number of his junior and senior colleagues with his practiced bearing, but he also did not fail to notice a few stares from both the most senior colleagues and the most junior colleagues that nearly singed his hair with the envy radiating from their eyes.

 

This increased at least a hundredfold when he then proceeded to execute an oratorical trick usually only risked by those certain of the fidelity of their audience. He looked calmly in silence to and fro over the ranks of the senators like an alert border collie surveying its herd of sheep. Not wanting to overdo it, he cut the silence a few seconds after it was clear he had everyone’s attention:

 

“As the great philosopher said: ‘Foolishness prevails in the young, as does bravery.’”

 

He wasn’t quite sure whether this was the right start, as a few suspicious glances from the senior senators suggested they preferred the first half of the saying.

 

“In wisdom, you are my betters. But my youthful audacity compels me to propose what is merely the natural conclusion of reasoning far superior to my own which I have listened to you convey today.

 

“Our republic is in a crisis. We know not where this foul substance comes from that turns men into the most hideous of beasts, adorning themselves with their own feces whilst carrying out any number of felonies in broad daylight in order to acquire this substance which corrupts their soul.

 

“I’ve spoken to many constituents that have told me their revenue has gone down by ninety percent. They don’t know how much longer they’ll even be able to stay in business!

 

“Sure, our fine police will catch the ringleaders; none of us have any doubt about that. But when will the next wave of maniacs storm our nation’s capital in broad daylight in order to steal this foul substance or to rob merchandise in order to barter for it with their criminal cohorts? And what if instead of wearing feces next time they’re wearing armor and wielding swords?!”

 

This brought a shudder. Selegania’s police were prohibited from wearing armor or bearing swords, as these were seen as a sign of imperialism and monarchy, both of which were viewed as utterly antithetical to the nation’s republic.

 

“What will our police confront the threat with then? With clubs?!

 

“Let this foolish youth state the obvious! We will either outlaw this pernicious substance, or we will be forced to turn our nation’s police into armor-wearing, sword-wielding knights as if we were Sodorf, Dachwald, or Sogolia!” he stated with disgust.

 

“But, colleagues wiser than I will ask, What about Article 8? Does Article 8 not forbid criminalization of this substance? Allow this youth to give his opinion that it most certainly does not!

 

“Is Smokeless Green not poisonous?! Tell the store owners confronted with madmen worse than the legendary savages our forefathers vanquished that these fiends were not partakers of a poison!”

 

And now, feeling that he was perhaps at the apogee of his persuasiveness, based upon what his hawk-like eyes seemed to tell him, he decided he had better deliver his coup de grace.

 

“Esteemed senators, I shall now propose a bill entitled The Safety in Selegania Act, which shall criminalize this insidious substance!”

 

“What about Article 8?!” shouted Lord Felder, a senior senator. Technically, the rules of senate decorum required that a senator first be acknowledged by the senate president, but longstanding senate practice had relegated this strict rule applicable only to junior senators.

 

“And would you have gentlemen thrown in prison for what they decide to consume?!” Lord Felder shrieked, a long, blue vein bulging from his neck.

 

“Gentlemen, let me assure you—men of means will have an exemption in SISA. SISA is precisely about protecting gentlemen from the fiends that have plagued our city over the last several weeks, frightening away patrons from business establishments and even scaring some gentlemen away from their own businesses!”

 

This seemed to put Lord Felder at considerable ease, and Senator Hutherton made a quick mental tally of this and the probable reason therefor.

 

“It would never survive a constitutional challenge!” shouted Lord Landers, another senior senator, with a tone that suggested he was far more concerned with the logistics, rather than the morality, of passing an unconstitutional law.

 

“This vile substance is poisonous!” Senator Hutherton shouted, but without looking directly back at Lord Landers, but rather surveying the room confidently as he said this, not wanting to Lord Landers to feel like the rebuttal was directed at him but rather the rest of the senate.

 

“I have personally interviewed eyewitnesses who have seen men die from inhaling this foul powder! Both sworn depositions and notarized affidavits can be made available!” Senator Hutherton quickly added with an almost religious conviction in his voice. He hoped he hid the enormous gulp that descended his throat after this fib left his lips like a ship on a dubious mission. It had not been for a lackadaisical attitude that he was forced to play this card without first making sure it would pass scrutiny.

 

It was Ambassador Rochten, after all, who had insisted he could arrange for certain events to unfold that would make the atmosphere right for a bill like SISA, but Rochten had withheld all but the vaguest of details from him and told him to just worry about getting the legislation ready and that he would “know when the time was right to proffer the bill.”

 

Hutherton had doubted he would, but after the most infamous vandalism spree in the recorded history of the city’s capital had occurred, just days later he had started drafting with zeal. Once he got to the point he was visualizing the potential arguments that might come from the senate—which he did by alternating between addressing the chairs in his study as his audience and sitting in those chairs and challenging the proposals—he had found himself asking the proponent of the bill if he had any proof the substance was poisonous in anything more than a figurative sense, and upon asking that question he had quickly risen from his chair, reassumed the orator’s position, and proclaimed boldly that he had eyewitnesses to its poisonous effects, available to testify in sworn depositions or via notarized affidavits.

 

He had then quickly run back to the imaginary, pesky senator’s seat and said, “I’ll need to hear from them before you get my vote!”

 

This had sent Hutherton into a panic and practically sprinting off to the Gentlemen of Selegania Club. However, unlike in his previous visits, Ambassador Rochten was nowhere to be found. Hutherton had religiously attended this irreligious locale every night since hoping to come across the magical genie who always seemed willing to grant another wish, but he seemed to have disappeared.

 

Thus, Hutherton realized it might boil down to a good old-fashioned bluff. He had practiced several, and he waited apprehensively to see what would happen now.

 

To his immense surprise, in spite of an intense stare emanating from Lord Landers, he made no further challenge. Although Hutherton felt the antithesis of confidence in that moment, his well-practiced body language conveyed supreme confidence, and Lord Landers, sensing the sentiment in the senate was turning in Hutherton’s favor, had felt it too risky to call Hutherton’s bluff. In fact, he didn’t know it was a bluff.

 

“I say we review the bill, and then we vote!” said Lord Felder, who looked at Hutherton with a mischievous eye. The erstwhile bulging vein in his neck seemed to have calmed significantly.

 

“I am humbled by this honor,” said Hutherton, holding sixty parchments in his hand, one for each senator, including himself. He had gotten the copies made at the local printing press just one day before.

 

The bill read:

 

“The Safety in Selegania Act:

 

“The consumption, possession, or sale of calinus ominesferus (also known as Orgone, Smokeless Green, and other names) by anyone below the rank of gentleman, or the sale by anyone (including a gentleman) to anyone other than a gentleman, shall be henceforth a Class B felony punishable by twenty to forty years in prison. A second offense shall be a capital offense. For purposes of this section, a gentleman is anyone with a yearly income of at least 200,000 falons; with monetary assets of at least 1,000,000 falons; or with fee simple absolute title to at least 1,000 acres of land actively used for agricultural production.”

 

The senators began poring over the act with the severest attention to detail. But their attention became most focused when reading the definition of “gentleman.” They were not all partakers of Smokeless Green. In fact, most of them were not. But word about this amazing substance had been spreading like wildfire around the city’s elite social circles, and unlike its treatment in the newspapers, it was not all bad press.

 

Stories of all-night parties were already starting to work their way around the gossip vines of the capital, and more than one senator was wondering whether he might feel inspired to try this substance at least once. And, as the saying often went in the senate, “It never hurts to have an exemption from a prohibition.” Furthermore, gentlemen were different. The wild hooligans who had vandalized the plush downtown shopping district were likely ill-bred thugs from the city’s foulest slums, individuals without the proper rearing to be able to handle something like Orgone.

 

Chapter 9

 

You sniff—you die, Koksun told himself again.

 

He had no doubt it was true, and he also had no doubt he was not going to die. He had overcome far too much in his life for this to be the end. Eight years of grueling training as a Varco recruit, being pushed past his physical and mental limits so many times he had lost count. Before that, four years of surviving on the street on his own, his only teachers in the art of survival the dexterous, nimble-fingered pickpockets of the capital city—Metinvurius. Even now, in the midst of the darkest gloom of his entire life, except for the death of his parents, he couldn’t fight back a subtle smile as he remembered the way some of those two-bit hoods turned pickpocketing into an art worthy of the city theater.

 

Like actors dressed to interpret their character on stage, young Koksun saw them dress the part of rich businessmen to get close enough to their wealthy targets and pick their pockets dry. Or to confidently pass off a bad check as a real one. And then there were the robberies. He studied these astutely, as some of the best pickpockets revealed they were equally adept at taking things by force, while not permitting the final brutal act of force to completely negate the artistic element of their craft.

 

Through the use of wigs, uniforms, masks, makeup, false teeth, false missing teeth, and many other props, these strapping young men could play the part of the elderly street peddler, police officer, banker, fireman, clown, blind beggar, or whatever particular character seemed to best fit the situation to not arouse any suspicion before razor-sharp knives were firmly pressed against the victims’ throats.

 

They worked in coordination with the camaraderie and fearlessness of wolves but with an uncanny intelligence for men whose formal education had likely ended at the fifth grade. And their inventiveness did not stop with costumes. Acrobatics were well within their comfort zone. He had on one occasion seen them stop a heavily guarded stagecoach bearing a large amount of gold for a local bank via the use of a fraudulent police officer.

 

The officer inspected their paperwork carefully, occasionally barking out an objection, such as, “YOU CALL THIS A PROPER SIGNATURE?!” in order to ensure the oversized, well-armed bodyguards inside the stagecoach kept their attention towards the front of the coach, rather than to the back, where three youths small enough to seem harmless were tying ropes around the back wheels.

 

“Well, everything SEEEMS to be in order!” the police officer had announced to the driver.

 

Then, in a performance worthy of a standing ovation, he had cried, “HEAVENS!” as the stagecoach suddenly started moving backwards. It was being dragged towards the side of one of the many nearby buildings. No sooner had it hit the side of the building than it began to elevate.

 

Thinking there were robbers behind them pulling on the wagon, one of the bodyguards jumped out, sword in hand, ready to cleave in two the first one he saw. But he saw no robbers. Instead, what he saw was a rope tied to the back of the stagecoach and going hundreds of feet up in the air towards the top of the building.

 

“Secure the gold and get out of there!” he shouted to his comrades inside.

 

This brought no immediate action. They were in an area of Metinvurius where it seemed to them much safer inside the coach, and as they were not looking at what their companion was, the cost-benefit analysis seemed to favor staying put.

 

However, when they looked out the window and suddenly saw they were being separated from the sweet protection of terra firma, they needed no further encouragement. No longer concerned in the slightest about the gold they were sworn to lay down their lives to protect, they leaped like kangaroos out of the coach, crashing down onto a small market stand and smashing a good number of fruits and vegetables in the process.

 

Once they recovered from the shock of their fall, they looked up to see that the coach was stalled around fifty feet in the air against the side of the building, and descending rapidly towards it, looking like monkeys in afternoon play on a tree of many vines were several rascals rappelling. They were so shocked at what they were seeing that they forgot the best strategy would have been to start engaging in a little target practice with the first-class crossbows they had in their possession.

 

But they were too hypnotized by the spectacle, which rendered dull the most impressive circus feats they had seen previously. Within moments, the rascals entered the stagecoach, which seemed to have stopped its ascent, and attached a rope to the gold chest inside.

 

“THEY’RE ROBBING THE COACH!” the police officer shouted in convincing horror.

 

No sooner had he said the words than the gold chest began ascending the side of the building, pulled by unseen forces.

 

In horror, they watched as it grew fainter and fainter in the sky until disappearing over the side of the top of the building.

 

“I ARREST YOU IN THE NAME OF THE LAW!” shouted the officer to the three dazzled bodyguards. “I know an inside job when I see it!” he added for emphasis.

 

The bodyguards offered no resistance as he put handcuffs on them.

 

“You!” he shouted to the erstwhile coach driver, who had jumped off the second he saw the horses’ hooves leave the ground (although he had the humanity to first free the horses by pulling a lever that disengaged their harness), “Go get help! I’m gonna have my hands full with these three rascals!”

 

No sooner had the coach driver turned the corner when the officer told the furious owner of the demolished food stand, “Watch these three hooligans for me! I’m gonna need backup. If they move, use this!” and he handed him a large club. The food stand owner accepted it eagerly, and his eyes suggested he might use it whether they moved or not.

 

Koksun sprinted after the police officer, who was going around towards the opposite side of the building, which was precisely where Koksun expected he might find some interesting goings-on anyway. He noticed that in a quick motion the officer grabbed something on the back of his distinctive red shirt (the color of all city police officers in Metinvurius) and pulled it abruptly over his head, suddenly leaving him in a dull-brown overcoat and looking like the vast majority of the men around that area.

 

Koksun ran as fast as his young legs would take him, and as they neared the back end of the building, he suddenly heard a loud crash emanating from where the circus had taken place. Upon reaching the back of the building, people were running frantically to either side of the street, so he quickly decided it would be a good idea to do the same.

 

The next thing Koksun saw was about a dozen bulls angrier than a swarm of hornets thundering through the street. They were tied together, and trailing behind them were the remains of a rope. He looked around and realized the police officer had disappeared. He looked up towards the top of the building, and just in time too because he saw a rope being rapidly pulled up the side of it, painted so cleverly like the building itself that its presence was almost imperceptible.

 

He looked at the base of the building and saw a massive pulley attached to the concrete base. Its thick, massive frame looked more than capable of fitting the rope that undoubtedly had been present there just moments before. In front of the pulley, was a food stand. Meanwhile, everyone else was awestruck at the sight of the angry bulls. He gave them a brief glance before turning his attention back to the apex of the concrete giant in front of him, and although he couldn’t be sure, he thought he saw a couple of figures moving around up there, but they quickly disappeared from view. Then, they reappeared briefly at the top of a neighboring building and then disappeared completely.

 

 

Koksun’s research did not go unnoticed. A few of the accomplices noticed the all-too interested boy who had not only stood goggle-eyed enthusiastically watching the whole thing from start to finish (long before it had taken a turn for the dramatic that caught the attention of all passersby) but had then sprinted after the police officer with an even more unnerving interest and then proceed to give quite the “up and down” to the building when he should have been watching the angry bulls stampede off like all the rest of the distracted pedestrians with little more than air compartments in their heads.

 

 

That night, Koksun was seated in an alley underneath several boxes, which formed the roof of the location that had served as his home for the last few months. He was chomping on an apple he had swiped (he didn’t waste time on convincing himself he “borrowed” things, as some thieves do), along with a yummy piece of bread, and he analyzed the whole show cheerily that he had been privileged to watch earlier that day.

 

The way he figured it, two massive pulleys like the one he saw attached firmly to the concrete base of the building must have been attached to either side of the top of the building. The rascal kids who had tied the rope to the back wagon wheels worked for the “police officer,” who was not really a police officer but likely a higher-up in the gang that had carried out the daring robbery (which he assumed because the police officer seemed to have the most difficult job). Bulls were often led through that area, due to the presence of a nearby slaughterhouse and thus would not have aroused undue suspicion.

 

The occasional exaggerated inflection in the police officer’s words were likely the signal to someone at the top of the building on his side, who then probably gave a hand signal to someone on the other side of the building who then likely either yelled something down or made some kind of hand or flag signal to someone on the other side of the building who then likely cracked the whip or did whatever it took to get those bulls moving, which then started hoisting the coach up in the air on the other side of the building while looking like they were simply being taken to the slaughterhouse.

 

As for the rope trailing behind them, that likely would have garnered some undue suspicion, but perhaps if the bulls started with a taut line right next to the building by the time they got enough distance away for that long rope to start really becoming apparent, the coach was likely dangling high on the side of the building, and the acrobatic crooks were quickly rappelling down to recover the booty; thus, at that point it would have been a question of just cutting the rope on the oxen loose, creating a marvelous distraction via their stampede.

 

As for the pulley at the base of the building, that would have likely gotten some attention when it was being thunderously pounded into place. Ah—the food stand! That owner had to be either in their gang or either paid off or threatened—

 

“Interrupting a busy night?” Koksun heard a voice say, interrupting him from his pleasurable analysis of the wondrous drama he’d seen unfold earlier that day.

 

He swiveled around inside his humble abode of boxes and saw one of them had been removed, and staring at him was one of the young rascals who had tied the wagon up that afternoon. Koksun felt afraid that he was about to get killed right then and there, for the eyes studying him seemed intelligent and seemed to look right through Koksun.

 

“No,” he said, almost adding “sir,” but he was after all speaking to a young kid about his own age, and he feared it would have sounded a bit smart-alecky. And his senses, which he was already learning to trust more and more after just a few months of living on the streets, told him he didn’t want to be smart-alecky to this kid, even if by himself he was not all that imposing. It had already been made clear earlier that afternoon that this kid worked with others.

 

“Good. I’m right glad to hear that.”

 

Koksun had to swivel around again because the voice came from six o’ clock. It was another one of the rascals he had seen tie up the wagon wheels. Koksun started to turn again to see if the first kid was making any kind of hostile gestures, but he only got halfway through his swivel when he saw another face gleaming down on him in the moonlight.

 

“The Triad at your service,” the face said, a subtle smile at the corners of the lips, and perhaps even a hint of a smile—a genuine smile—in the eyes, but there was more to the eyes than that, something that said, I can be nice, but I can also not be nice.

 

Koksun felt truly boxed in now. He felt afraid, but not terrified. He got the impression that if the three rascals wanted to beat him to a pulp they’d have probably already started in earnest by now. Something told him they weren’t sure yet what they wanted to do.

 

“You’ve been watching us a lot lately,” said one. “Our boss wants to meet you, but not yet. He sent us to decide if it would be worth his time. What did you think of our little show today?”

 

“Those were the angriest bulls I’ve seen in a while, but I’ve seen worse,” Koksun said, not particularly sure if feigned ignorance was the best route.

 

“Angriest bulls, you say. So, the dangling stagecoach and acrobatics you won’t see at the circus didn’t really catch your eye?”

 

Koksun saw it was no use fibbing now. “Look, you guys are good; what else can I say?” He felt nonchalance was the next best thing to fibbing in a moment like this.

 

“There’s no reason for you to get scared. Lots of people saw too much today. If we were to deal with everyone that saw too much, we’d have to take out about three city blocks. The thing is you’re one of the few—if not the only people—who seemed like they really put the whole thing together. The boss really didn’t like it when you took to running after him.”

 

Koksun gulped nervously.

 

“But, he kind of admired it too. The stampeding bulls stole most people’s attention even better than we stole that chest of gold, but it didn’t seem that you paid them too much attention. So—”

 

Koksun was beginning to feel nervous, expecting at any moment to see a gleam of a switchblade in the silvery moonlight, then a sting across his throat, and then, finally, a warm bath of blood being pumped from his throat down onto his chest.

 

“The boss sent us to size you up.”

 

Koksun didn’t feel it, not even a little, but he thought this might be the moment to act a little tough.

 

“Well, I ain’t big, but I can swipe an apple, and I could sure as heck tie a rope.”

 

He was relieved that the latter part was actually true. His father, although a mere government clerk, had a fondness for an odd assortment of hobbies.

 

(that is, before he was—)

 

He cut the voice off. He didn’t need a graphic reminder of how his parents had been murdered. His discovery of their bodies had haunted him a sufficient number of times already.

 

One of the hobbies his dad had was tying ropes, and he had begun teaching Koksun various knots when he was just five.

 

“You can tie knots, huh? Let’s see you do a crazy eight!”

 

He handed Koksun three sticks and a rope. Koksun bolted upright, causing The Triad to startle. Their shock at his abrupt act of standing was nothing, however, compared to what they saw next. As if he were an experienced baker’s apprentice, twirling dough around like it were second nature, he began tying what was a rather difficult knot. Like a spider weaving its web, he moved each stick into the right position, intertwining the thin rope—just barely too large to be classified as string—with the precise number of wraps in the right places around the sticks and then quickly began inserting the end of the rope through various loops inserted throughout the jumble. He then gave the both ends a good tug, and, by the powers, there it was: two nearly perfect circles attached to a thick center.

 

One of the toughs grabbed a circle, and with no need of giving one of his cohorts instructions on what to do next one of them immediately grabbed the other side of it, and the two began yanking in opposite directions. The knot stayed tight, and both circles remained their original sizes. The two squatted and arched their backs giving every ounce of strength they had, but without effect.

 

Doing his best to act unimpressed—which was not very good—one of them stated, “Let’s see you do a slippery eight, and tell me which way it will slip.”

 

This was a bit of a trick. But first there was perhaps a bigger obstacle—untying the crazy eight. Koksun pulled out a long, sharp needle without blinking and jammed it through a section of the knot with the self-assurance of a veteran tailor. Then, he pulled out a thin piece of steel, stuck it through a narrow hole at the base of the needle, flipped it upside down, grabbed the rope with both hands, lowered it towards the ground until the flat piece of steel intersecting the steel touched the ground like an upside down T, and then jumped with both feet onto the rope.

 

Since the needle became thicker and thicker towards the base, as Koksun jumped on the rope and pushed the needle deeper into the knot, it loosened the knot slightly. He then stuck a small rod between the small opening in the knot, grabbed it on both sides, braced the rope with both feet against the ground, and then pulled on it. It came loose. The rest was a cinch. A few tugs in the right places, and in just a few seconds he had a knot-free rope in his hand.

 

This time, The Triad did an extremely poor job at hiding their reaction—the tension around their eyebrows as they attempted to keep them from raising of their own accord to the tops of their foreheads was plainly visible.

 

But Koksun didn’t stop to bask in the thinly disguised admiration. He barely gave it a glance before he began working on the requested slippery eight knot. This time it almost looked like a whirlwind of fingers and rope had descended upon this slummy locale. Suspecting trickery was not far off, he intentionally made one circle just slightly smaller than the other, though to the unpracticed eye it appeared there were two perfect circles again, just as with the crazy eight knot.

 

“Okay,” one of the toughs said, grabbing the rope, “Veril here’s gonna pull on that end, and I’m gonna pull on my end. Which way’s the knot going to go?”

 

“Towards you,” Koksun said without hesitation.

 

Veril and his as-of-yet unnamed pal began pulling, and sure enough the knot went away from Veril and towards the one who had posed the question.

 

“My name’s Rolen,” he announced. “I’ve already introduced Veril to you, and the ugly one here’s Silder. Who are you?”

 

“Koksun.”

 

“You know how to tie a mean knot, Koksun.”

 

“Thanks.”

 

“Why are you on the streets, Koksun. Your parents disown you?”

 

“Did yours?”

 

Rolen, who had by now demonstrated himself sufficiently in Koksun’s eyes to be the leader of this rascal pack, looked like he was about to tear into Koksun, but Silder and Veril grabbed him and said, “Easy, Rolen. Calders said size him up, not beat him up.”

 

“It’s okay,” Rolen said, looking calmer. “A little attitude’s to be expected. It’s just if we were to recommend you to Calders I want to make sure you really do live on the streets and aren’t just some temporary runaway. If I introduce you to Calders and you go runnin’ back home—if you have a home—that wouldn’t be good for me, and so it wouldn’t be good for you. Are we understanding each other?”

 

“They’re dead,” Koksun said.

 

Rolen looked at him carefully, and Koksun saw intelligence and cleverness radiating from them. Rolen and his two pals looked to Koksun like they were somewhere around ten to twelve years old.

 

“You enjoy the rest of your night. Tomorrow, at noon, at the food stand where you saw us earlier today, there will be a man wearing a red hat, a white shirt, and blue pants. He’ll be carrying a gold watch in his left pocket. If you can swipe it before he grabs your hand and cries ‘Thief!’ we’ll be visiting you again tomorrow night. If he yells ‘Thief!’ don’t ever come within ten blocks of here again. If you don’t show up tomorrow and try to grab his watch, don’t ever show yourself within thirty blocks of here ever again. Do we understand each other?”

 

“I’ll be there,” Koksun said.

 

 

Koksun spent a sleepless night tossing and turning inside his small shelter. He knew he could run to another side of the city. There were plenty of places inside Metinvurius more than thirty blocks from here. He could have started off right then and there. It wasn’t as if he had a lot to pack. He had a few odds and ends hidden underneath some of the boxes that formed the exterior of his shelter, but everything that mattered to him—which was little—was in his pockets at that very moment.

 

No, he was nervous because he knew he didn’t want to run anywhere. He wanted to become a part of something, and one thing he knew for certain was that these guys had talent if they could pull off heists like the ones they did today. Being accepted by these guys meant not only the possibility of companionship and belonging. It also meant the possibility of learning things that he felt at that moment he would give anything to learn.

 

But to do that, he had a task ahead of him. A very important one.

 

Think, Koksun. Think! he told himself.

 

Chapter 10

 

It is often the case that Sleep imparts to her dozing companion the answer to some trouble that is vexing him. In this case, she became an accomplice to crime—and to many future crimes—as the issue in question was the most efficient manner to part a gentleman from the burden of his wallet.

 

While Sleep wrapped her loving arms around young Koksun—sleeping dirty, half-fed, and unwashed in an alley in the capital city of Metinvur—a dream came to him. Not a revelation of something to come. But rather a dream in which he recalled a detail his conscious mind had overlooked both when it observed the event in question and when his troubled mind began searching aimlessly for the solution to what was likely to be a tricky bit of business.

 

But as is so frequently the case, what befuddles a conscious mind to no end is resolved handily by the unconscious mind.

 

To Koksun’s delight, he woke up with a sense of confidence, the dream still crisply viewable in his mind—unlike other dreams that slip from the awakened mind’s grasp like slippery soap from oily fingers. In it, he recalled a demonstration of pickpocketing finesse that at the time he had not himself even realized for sure it was an act of such. He had suspected it was an attempt, but the subtle body language that seemed unimportant to him then now appeared to be coming from an instruction manual on magic in which each step of a trick is explained in full detail.

 

With this in mind, he set off confidently—at least far more confidently than he could have imagined the night before when he had considered himself doomed to fail—towards the location in question so that he could be ready in case the target came early. Also, he had a certain item to get.

 

As he neared the location, he swung by the area where he had noticed a pulley the day before firmly welded into the side of the massive concrete building. To his shock, he saw not only was it gone, but there wasn’t even the slightest trace it had been there. It was at that moment, he realized that food stand owner was either in outright cahoots with The Triad and their higher-ups or was at least paid off to look the other way on this occasion.

 

He didn’t have a lot of money with him, but he decided to buy a few morning papers. They were going to come in handy for the idea he had in mind.

 

It was now around 10 a.m. He suddenly decided maybe it would be best not to wait around in the area in question, as those who would be evaluating would likely be waiting for him as well, and he felt he needed to catch them off guard to the best extent possible. He went back to his box home until around 11:15 a.m., then took off briskly towards his destination.

 

At around 11:45 a.m., he was a stone’s throw from the food stand, keeping as low a profile as possible, hoping to see his target without being seen himself.

 

Sure enough, at around 11:58 a.m., he saw the aforementioned gentleman with his red hat, white shirt, and blue pants approaching the food stand. He took off hastily in the general direction.

 

He only had three papers in his possession, and he had the unpleasant task of looking like a genuine newspaper boy while simultaneously making sure he got to his target with at least one paper left before it was too late.

 

He took the papers out of his coat pocket once he was around fifteen feet away from the gentleman, who was now surveying several fine cuts of fish and steak.

 

“PAPER! GET YOUR MORNING PAPER!” Koksun said, feeling terribly unconfident, yet unsure of how he was perceived.

 

But he knew that there was no turning back now, so like a man driving a wagon down a steep hill he tried to steer it as best he could.

 

“Would you like a morning paper, sir?”

 

The gentleman turned around with an annoyed look to see what street vermin was molesting him.

 

Koksun felt a wave of contradictory emotions when he immediately concluded with near certainty that this was the man who had been a police officer yesterday, although he was now a thick moustache short, not to mention his hair had grown six to eight inches over the night—no small feat. Thus, Koksun had near absolute confirmation that he wouldn’t be stealing from a genuine victim but a pretend victim. The flip side to that coin, Koksun’s mind immediately told him, was that that did not at all imply the job would be easier or that the man would hesitate to yell “Thief!” and have him arrested on the spot.

 

His heart now thumping with the rapidity of stampeding horses’ hooves, he suppressed his fear as best he could and briefly made direct eye contact with the gentleman, saying, “You see, sir,” before then carefully swiveling around to where he and the gentleman were standing side by side with one another, and then pointed out the headline with utmost interest to the gentleman:

 

DARING HEIST!

THIEVES LIFT THE GOLD . . . LITERALLY!

 

“You see, sir,” Koksun continued with utmost interest, standing side by side still with the gentleman, “you get to read all about it in this morning’s edition.” Koksun’s right hand came towards the headline and an interesting illustration there for emphasis, and as he did so, his right arm was pressed lightly against the gentleman’s left side. As Koksun’s hand shot back—having done its job of pointing out the headline to the gentleman—his right shoulder lightly pressed against the gentleman’s left side in the same general area his arm had been a moment earlier, although it wasn’t there now; it had made a quick detour down Pocket Lane and grabbed a quick little something in the blink of an eye. As soon as it had done so, he leaned his shoulder away from the gentleman, swiveled back towards him, and said with feigned annoyance, “Well, sir?”

 

“Scat, you little sewer rat! What’s another crime to read about anyway? I have better things to do with my time!”

 

A bystander would have thought the poor boy would have likely been brought to tears, but Koksun had perhaps never heard such kind words in his life. In his mind, he had heard, translated: Not bad, kid.

 

Koksun went scurrying off and then did in fact manage to sell all three papers and picked up a little extra merchandise from two of his three clients, employing a technique he felt likely to come in handy many, many times. Good, exciting times were surely ahead.

 

Chapter 11

 

Koksun snapped out of his daydream as he realized a smile was on his lips. It was to his utmost relief that anything could bring a trace of happiness to his afflicted mind—even if paradoxically it was the memory of a small test he had passed and set in motion a chain of events that ultimately led to what at this moment seemed like a gloomy prison cell with a pile of enticing poison placed right under his very nose.

 

But regardless, the happiness of the memory pierced through his gloomy pessimism like a sword through tough armor, and once wedged there it refused to fade simply because of it pertaining to an event that was indirectly responsible for his current situation.

 

He had had his body pushed to the limit many times, and always it had recovered. And he had been pushed mentally too, but never by a mind-altering substance, at least nothing like this. But the still-present happiness from the memory assured him that just as the physical body recovers from overexertion with adequate rest so too would his mind from the foul substance he had partaken of too liberally, albeit not by choice.

 

He wondered again if a whiff would help or just make things worse. They couldn’t get much worse, a voice told him.

 

He inched towards the pile of pungent green dust as cautiously as a man who fears heights approaches the edge of an immense precipice, afraid that if he got too close all hope would be lost and he would be unable to prevent himself from inhaling as much as his nose could in a single sniff.

 

R-r-r-r-r-r-r-i-p

 

Koksun had read that smell was the most powerful of the senses and that in a matter of moments the memories it could trigger at the subconscious level were equivalent to hours of conscious recollection. He had never before had an experience that so thoroughly proved the theory, in spite of his centuries of life.

 

As best he could recall, he had drifted off into his reverie when Donive had entered the kitchen and begun removing some items from a basket. The particular item inside the basket that had caught Koksun’s attention was now in Donive’s hand and was torn open.

 

Donive was reading the back of the bag containing the substance. She went over to the cupboard, grabbed a small measuring spoon, and headed towards the bag.

 

In a flash, Koksun sprang forward through the air with a vicious “MEOWW!” and grabbed the bag at the top, careful not to ingest any of the substance. He then began pulling it outside quickly, while Donive stared in disbelief at the erstwhile passive, lazy feline that had suddenly turned into a brazen bandit. Incidentally, “Bandit” was the name had Donive had chosen based upon the mask-like appearance of white around his face, interrupting his otherwise all-black, shiny coat.

 

“Bandit!” she cried angrily. “BAD CAT!!”

 

Koksun was out the door and onto the grass. He made it ten feet before he heard the pitter-patter of Donive’s feet closing in rapidly. He pivoted around with the fury of a bobcat just as Donive, who was squatting down in front of him, prepared to reclaim the spices she intended to use for that evening’s stew.

 

Koksun’s aggressive response took her entirely off guard. She leaped back in horror at the devil she had once so warmly welcomed into her home.

 

She prepared to verbally chastise him but was at a loss for words at what she saw next. Koksun seemed to rival a rain cloud as he suddenly began showering what appeared to be every square inch of Donive’s precious spices. He then performed other acts which need not be recounted in order to ensure no attempt was made by anyone in the household to touch the spices, not even Mervin, the Great Dane.

 

Koksun knew he was in danger of losing his home or possibly even his life for what he had just done, so he eyed Donive closely to see what her intentions were. He suspected that one word from her, and Mervin might no longer be so friendly but rather a roaring lion who would consume him like an appetizer.

 

“Come here, kitty,” Donive coaxed.

 

Koksun looked at her carefully, his human intelligence examining her body language, and his feline smell searching for signs of aggression. Taken together, the conclusion was that Donive was righteously furious but not planning to whack Koksun over the head.

 

Koksun lowered himself to the ground and gave a timid meow, which he hoped would arouse sympathy. He was not disappointed.

 

“I’m not mad at you, kitty. I just need to know why peed and pooped on my spices.”

 

“Meow!” Koksun responded assertively, hoping to communicate There’s a reason!

 

He looked at her directly in the eyes, hoping she could see he had not gone crazy. She saw more intelligence in there than even Koksun might have guessed, and her female intuition did not take long to tell her that her cat was reacting instinctively and sensed something foul in what she was about to consume. Something she could not.

 

Chapter 12

 

Senator Hutherton was more than a little nervous this morning. He was practically quivering. He had this anxiety-fuelled energy to thank for his first Orgone-free morning since he could not even remember when.

 

Many people suspected a vote would take place today. After all, the debates had gone on for weeks now. Was Orgone really a poison? Or did it only become so in excess? And, in that case, why not ban alcohol? That last argument had not really gotten much traction. No one could remember the last time a group of excrement-covered alkies had taken the city’s plushest shopping district by storm searching for alcohol.

 

He had not slept a wink last night. Not because he had tossed and turned all night. No, he was nowhere near his bed. He had in fact been about to retire to bed when suddenly like a rogue wave a great fear came upon him. What if the legislation were passed but without the exemption for gentlemen?!

 

So far, there had only been one senator to suggest such a vile trick. It was Senator Megders. His full name was Senator Edward Megders, but privately Hutherton referred to him as Squirrelly Eddie. He was a four-eyed, overly serious moralizing type—a rare breed in the Seleganian senate. At any randomly selected liberal arts college, two or three dozen could be found in a matter of minutes, Hutherton had no doubt, debating with their philosophy professors over the precise definition of justice.

 

Such men usually proceeded to vent their vexatious, argumentative tendencies as lawyers. The worst became judges, and the worst of the worst made it all the way to the Supreme Court. Although Squirrelly Eddie was a lawyer, he had also managed to get himself elected to the senate, and while Hutherton couldn’t hate him for lack of pedigree—Eddie was no “in-betweener,” and in fact his pedigree might have even been a notch or two above Hutherton’s, albeit small notches!—hate him he did.

 

Although Hutherton had his share of open enemies in the senate and those he loathed but succeeded in having a collegial relationship with for strategic reasons, these men all belonged in the senate. Personality differences accounted for some of the hostility, and having rival businesses bankrolling their votes accounted for even more of it, but there was a certain respect there because Hutherton knew they were worthy of being senators because of their pedigree, aptitude, and . . . practicality.

 

But Squirrelly Eddie was a different case altogether. Hutherton saw him as a man who had enrolled as a theology major, wandered by accident into a business class, and instead of excusing himself and hightailing it off to some lecture on the afterlife had decided he would do all the business students a favor by staying there and interrupting their progress with nettlesome comments and questions.

 

Squirrelly’s wealthy family had generously bankrolled his campaign sufficiently to get him started, and to Hutherton’s immense displeasure Squirrelly somehow seemed to strike a chord with the rabble of this country—who, for now at least, had the appalling right to vote—and after a few sermon-like speeches on the corruption inside the senate, he had developed quite a following. He had beaten his opponent—a longtime incumbent and a man Hutherton thoroughly admired—handily and earned Hutherton’s contempt and that of a great many other senators.

 

Although Hutherton believed most of the senators would get on board with the legislation and that their speeches offered mere token resistance in order to pretend to be principled, he immediately spotted trouble the moment Squirrelly took the stage. His small, delicate-looking spectacles; his tiny nose; his effeminate small curls of black hair; and his overly serious face were like a custom-made picture of everything Hutherton could hate in a man.

 

“Senators,” Squirrelly had begun, “I want to let you know that frankly I’m a bit outraged. Not one of our number has yet had the courage or the moral fortitude to look at the real issue here—making one set of rules for the gentry and another for the rest. If this substance is so bad as Senator Hutherton states” (and at that moment he had looked directly at Hutherton with a scornful glance that did not in the slightest escape Hutherton’s meticulous attention) “then why don’t we ban it for everyone? I mean the idea that if you’re a gentleman you can consume this poison, but if you’re two falons short of being a ‘gentleman’ or two acres short of being a ‘gentleman,’” he said, adding large quotation marks with his fingers raised high in the air and his pretentious eyebrows raised even higher, “then you should go to prison for taking the substance many of you are putting up your noses every night is absurd!”

 

To Hutherton’s intense annoyance, Squirrelly had then marched right back to his seat in a huff. Squirrelly had the annoying habit of getting his point across and then ending his speech at the apex of its strength, whereas other senators tended to dilute the strength of their arguments by belaboring the point.

 

Hutherton had immediately stood and waited to be recognized and then marched to the front of the senate himself.

 

“Esteemed senators, you will forgive Senator Megders. You see, in philosophy, resolution is discouraged, as infinite debate is the ultimate objective.” A light chuckle ensued. “By pointing to the preposterous scenario of a person being two falons short of gentleman status or two acres short of the same, he attempts to arouse your sympathy and deceive you into thinking this is a real scenario that needs addressing. Senators, the line drawn for gentlemen was—I’m sure you would all agree—placed mercifully low. If you are two falons short of that, well, then I say it is too likely you do not have sufficient resources at your disposal for the law to, in good conscience, bestow upon you full license to risk your body with this particularly heinous vice. No, my good senators, no civilized society would tolerate such risks. We’ve already seen the consequences that occur when riffraff are beholden to this substance. By criminalizing its use for such ranks of society, we will kindly protect them from ever becoming addicted in the first place.

 

“And, to address Senator Megders’ hypothetical scenario head-on, let me say that surely any man just two falons short of gentry status can, if he indeed possesses the ‘moral fortitude’—if I may borrow a term of Senator Megders—necessary to handle such a potent substance, obtain the requisite two falons needed to arrive at gentry status. Or, if” (and at this moment, only by pinching his right index finger hard enough to cut the skin did he manage to suppress the giggle that almost escaped his lips when he realized he had come an inch from saying “Squirrelly” in front of the whole senate) “Senator Megders really feels so sorry for these downtrodden imaginary individuals, perhaps he himself will gift them the two falons that they need to sniff Smokeless Green to their hearts’ content!”

 

And at this moment, the senate erupted into applause and uproarious laughter. Squirrelly’s face had turned redder than a fox’s tail, and as he and Hutherton exchanged eye contact, both knew they were now mortal enemies.

 

Yet nonetheless, just last night Hutherton began to worry about the possibility of Squirrelly somehow managing to get some senators to condition their vote upon removal of the exemption. He was, after all, a well-connected man via his family, and although privately they probably loathed Squirrelly just as much as Hutherton did—and for the same reasons—family pride might trump that hatred and cause them to pull some strings behind the scenes in order to make sure their son did not lose face, as this could cause the family to lose face.

 

The thought of this at about 9 p.m. last night had put Hutherton into a cold sweat. He had rushed from store to store, hoping to amass a stockpile of Smokeless Green that could last a decade. He had brought ten servants and pulled a wagon behind his coach, ready to store as much as he could. But almost all the stores were closed, and furthermore Smokeless Green had already been starting to become more difficult to come by.

 

The negative press had almost worked too well, and a lot of shop owners were deciding they didn’t want to have anything to do with it. Many, in fact, had even put large signs on the outside of their stores saying:

 

NO Smokeless Green Here!

 

Hutherton had then gone to the gentlemen’s club, sure he would come in contact with Ambassador Rochten, who always had the answers to everything. But no Ambassador Rochten. The once always-available ambassador had become as elusive as the end of a rainbow. Hutherton had been there until the wee hours of the morning but to no avail.

 

By the time he got home that morning he was in a panic. Sure, he had at least a month’s supply at home—or did he? After all, his daily dose was getting a little bigger week by week. Maybe he only had about three weeks left. That thought nearly sent him to the grave with a heart attack. He had grasped the side of the stair rail and nearly fallen down the grand staircase.

 

He had then proceeded to sit limply on the stairs against the wall. He growled at his servants when they approached him, “Leave me be!” He sat there the rest of the morning until it was time to leave to go to the senate. He knew the final vote would be today. He was now praying his zeal to keep the in-betweeners in line would not now render him a criminal for the use of something he could now not even fathom living without.

 

Like a bully approaching the headmaster’s office and feeling suddenly small, Hutherton got into his carriage and to his unpleased astonishment suddenly found himself checking his pockets for what could soon be contraband in the republic of Selegania, almost fearing that at any moment his carriage would be stopped by some stern-faced contraband officer checking every square inch of the carriage for signs of the contraband and perhaps all the while barely restraining a savage, snarling beast of a dog with rivers of saliva flowing out of each side of its mouth.

 

It would have done little good to inform our poor Senator Hutherton that one of the most common side effects from abrupt withdrawal—and, yes, even twelve hours of non-use could be classified as such—from Smokeless Green after regular usage was paranoia. Just as it would do little good to inform a man with a smoldering burn on his arm from a hot poker the reason for his pain. Furthermore, if anyone had tried to inform Hutherton of this fact, he would have quickly been seen as a conspirator himself and only increased Hutherton’s paranoia.

 

But in the truly ambitious, there is a part of the brain that is not easily extinguished by competing emotions, and in spite of the delusional fears currently racing through Hutherton’s mind, he still had a goal in mind, which was to see to it that the in-betweeners not have legal access to this substance.

 

Upon arrival at the senate chambers, like a professional actor who can don the expression and bearing of his character regardless of his true emotions inside, Hutherton quickly resumed his normal persona of cold, cocky arrogance as he exited the coach. And perhaps not entirely unlike the experience of other actors, Hutherton found to his immense relief that upon donning this facade he quickly felt his inner self begin to meld with the exterior, and his anxiety subsided somewhat.

 

Nonetheless, his heart pounded as did his feet, which were at this moment pounding against the many steps composing a rather picturesque set of stairs leading up to the senate.

 

Once inside, he redoubled his outer facade, increasing the arrogant expression on his face. He took his seat and waited for the president to call the senate to order.

 

“All rise!”

 

At this point—and Hutherton, as did most of the senators, dreaded this morning ritual—repeated a rather lengthy pledge of allegiance to the republic and constitution of Selegania, words that, while beautiful and noble, reflected none of the sentiments in most of the senators’ hearts. “This is claptrap for schoolchildren!” Hutherton often told his colleagues and received agreeable nods.

 

Hutherton looked over at Senator Megders with hatred in his eyes and saw that Squirrelly had a resolute, almost militant, expression on his face as if he were about to go to war with anyone that he caught botching a phrase of the solemn oath being repeated. Hutherton had no doubt in his mind that if there was anyone in the room naïve enough to believe what was being stated it was Squirrelly without a doubt.

 

Once this odious task had been completed, the president queried: “Does a senior senator have a motion?” (“Senior senators” comprised the twenty senators with the most experience.)

 

“Yes,” said Senator Landers. “I do. A motion for a vote on cloture on the Smokeless Green bill. We’ve been debating this issue for weeks now like a bunch of old maids. I’d say it’s yea or nay time!”

 

This brought forth a chuckle and a light round of applause . . . and only a halfhearted whack or two by the president with his gavel against the sounding block calling the senate to order, as he too had had just about enough of the Smokeless Green debate. One more speech from Senator Megders, he had told himself, and he would resign.

 

“You must clarify, Senator Landers,” the president said respectfully, “which bill you are calling for a cloture vote on—the Safety in Selegania Act, as proposed by Senator Hutherton or the Fairness and Safety in Selegania Act, as proposed by Senator Megders late yesterday evening?”

 

Hutherton just about leaped out of his seat and started pulverizing Squirrelly when he heard this. Hutherton had himself grown so bored with the endless debates that he had left the senate just fifteen minutes early yesterday, never imagining that, after several weeks of repetitious arguments and an occasional suggestion by Megders or another senator that perhaps the exemption was problematic, an actual bill containing the exact same language minus the exemption for gentlemen would be proposed!

 

Hutherton’s bowels rumbled, his fists tightened, and he felt like he was going to pass out if he didn’t do something to vent his rage.

 

“The Safety in Selegania Act, of course!” Landers stated with a tone of astonishment that he would even be asked.

 

Hutherton felt a wave of relief. If it passed, there was no way Squirrelly’s bill would get anywhere.

 

(but if it doesn’t?)

 

His paranoia was starting to return, and he feared for a moment it just might be showing on his face. He looked down at his desk pretending to study the jumble of papers in front of him, most of which pertained to completely dull and unrelated legislative matters that had been put on hold due to the SISA debates.

 

“Motion approved. Begin!” the president said.

 

One by one, around the room, the voting commenced. One “Yea” after another could be heard, and once it passed thirty, Hutherton breathed a tremendous sigh of relief. But it would have to reach forty to be veto proof, if President Beldenshire, the president of the republic of Selegania, decided to veto it, which Hutherton greatly doubted. President Beldenshire, after all, seemed a man of good sense.

 

“Senator Hutherton, do you wish to abstain from voting on your own bill?”

 

“Yea!” Hutherton called out, shooting to his feet, feeling the hot blood rushing to his cheeks, which burned with shame and embarrassment. He had now completely lost mental count of how many yeas there had been.

 

“Begging your pardon, senator, but please clarify—not for my sake (I bloody well know what you mean) but for the sake of the record, which, when looked at by judges, includes only words and not contextual information, such as, ‘Senator Hutherton was staring off into space,’ etc.—if you mean ‘yea’ you wish to abstain from your vote or if you ignored my question, in violation of senate protocol, and instead entered a yea vote without answering the president of the senate when asked a direct question, Junior Senator!”

 

A light chuckle erupted, but Hutherton sensed they kept it light only out of pity and in reality were at the point of bursting.

 

“I beg the senate president’s pardon. In response to the question of abstention, the answer is, ‘No, I do not choose to abstain.’ I enter a vote of ‘yea’ on SISA.”

 

“Thank you for humoring an old man!” the president retorted grumpily.

 

“Nay!” shouted out Squirrelly with so much zeal as if to make sure not only that the stenographer heard him, but that his “nay” reverberated throughout the senate for posterity to bear witness to his vote.

 

A few angry eyes gazed upon this histrionic outburst, but his nay vote was hardly a surprise by now.

 

“Fifty-nine yeas, one nay. We have cloture. The vote for the bill itself shall now begin!” the president announced, looking as if he had never been so eager to see a piece of legislation over and done with.

 

The pattern repeated itself, minus the inattentiveness on Hutherton’s part, and this time around Megders settled for a gruff “Nay!” but without the dramatic flair of his cloture vote.

 

“The Safety in Selegania Act is now the law of the land. The criminal penalties for violation of this law shall commence upon the passing of one month!” the senate president announced.

 

“Are there any further motions today?” the president then asked, looking almost angrily at Megders. If Megders motioned for a cloture vote on his bill and got a majority vote, it would become the law of the land and be considered a repeal of the gentlemen exemption.

 

Megders’ eyes burned with anger, but he said nothing.

 

“Anyone?!” asked the senate president.

 

Silence.

 

“The senate is adjourned for the day!” he said and pounded his gavel harder than any of the junior senators had ever heard, although a few of the senior senators had heard harder cracks against the sounding block.

 

Euphoria swept over Hutherton. Not even a murderous scowl from Squirrelly could shake him. He swept together his papers (which he had not paid the least bit of attention to, as they had nothing to do with the day’s business), buttoned his suit coat, straightened his cravat, and walked proudly out of the senate.

 

He had some business of his own to attend to at home. He could almost smell the pungent odor ascending towards his nostrils at this very moment. Only the most stringent effort prevented him from breaking out into an undignified, all-out sprint towards his carriage.

 

Chapter 13

 

It was another day, another falon, at Roger’s Grocery Store. Well, Righty’s pay wasn’t quite that low, but as is often the case, sayings of a monetary nature are seldom updated to keep pace with inflation. In fact, Righty was now up to nine falons per hour, not too bad, considering he had been hired at seven; but what burned Righty’s ego like the sun that formerly burned his neck and face at the lumberyard was that at that hellhole he earned twelve falons per hour.

 

Twelve! A quarter less wages earned each hour was what he had to show for his fancy book reading, improved vocabulary and grammar, and expanded knowledge. But, on the other hand, on days like today, he only had to take a peek outside and look at the ball of fire in the sky to realize that the quarter less in wages just might be worth it.

 

Except it wasn’t worth it. He wanted more. Much more. He was starting to feel like he had simply puffed himself up with airs and was now paying the price by making even less than he did before, and he had been at this book learning thing for at least six months. Some part of him deep down told him not to give up, to keep working hard and learning, and that one day, perhaps even when he least expected it, his improving knowledge would pay off.

 

“Wanna field trip?”

 

It was Rog. He had caught Righty in a daydream, but few could tell when Righty was daydreaming. Like the mythical elite soldier able to sleep with one eye open, Righty now was able to handle even his most complex accounting assignments accurately while indulging his penchant for reveries.

 

“Yes, sir,” Righty said.

 

“It’s these boxes of seed here. Now, this does beat all. I accept them yesterday, and then today I see this!”

 

Roger handed a rolled-up paper newspaper to him.

 

IT’S OFFICIAL!

SMOKELESS GREEN OUTLAWED!

 

“This came from my main inventory supplier, in Sivingdel. It’s about twelve hours each way by carriage. I’ll pay you for twelve hours each day and cover your lodging expenses. I need you to take this seed back to him. Technically, according to the papers, the criminal penalties don’t kick in for another few weeks, but I’m not trying to get myself landed in jail for getting my days mixed up, if you know what I mean. The sooner this stuff is out of here, the sooner I’ll be able to get a proper night’s sleep.”

 

“Yes, sir. I’ll do it,” Righty said laconically.

 

“Here’s a map of what roads to take once you get into Sivingdel.”

 

“I’ll swing by the library and say goodbye to Janie on my way there. I can leave now.”

 

“I appreciate you doing this on such short notice . . . .” Rog paused.

 

“Sir?”

 

“I don’t know. It just seems weird. People have been drinking themselves to death and ruining their home lives that way since I can remember, and no one yet to my knowledge has come up with the ingenious idea of outlawing alcohol. But this new smoke-free tobacco or whatever in Kasani they call it comes along, and the next day it’s illegal! Go figure! All I know is it was selling nicely; that’s for sure.”

 

“They say it’s rather potent,” Righty said soberly.

 

“Well, anyway; we’ll let the geniuses in the senate decide,” he added with a sarcastic tone. “As for me, the strongest thing I prefer is regular tobacco, and it most certainly is not smoke free,” he said chuckling. “Well, enough politics; I’ve got some numbers to run.”

 

“Yes, sir; I’ll be back tomorrow.”

 

Righty found this strange as well. He had been studying constitutional law lately, and just a week or two ago at the most he had read something about an article forbidding the government from outlawing any substance except poisonous ones. He had to admit he had one hell of a hangover from the one time he tried Smokeless Green, but it certainly hadn’t seemed like poison.

 

Truth be told, he felt like it made him smarter and more focused. If not for his tendency to get a little too carried away with substances that he took for pleasure—at least he extrapolated that he had this tendency based on his years of alcohol addiction; he hadn’t had another addiction though in his life—he would probably take Smokeless Green on a regular basis. After all, he struggled to crack open the books at night after putting in a ten-hour shift at the store, and although coffee certainly helped, it was nothing compared to Smokeless Green. The very thought that it was about to become illegal made him suddenly crave it the way he used to crave a certain wet substance, something he had promised never to touch again.

 

(and that you won’t ever touch again!)

 

Then, suddenly, like a man who has been beaten over and over by his fencing instructor and has begun to feel himself utterly inept at sword fighting, only to find himself confronted by several assailants during a stroll home, whom he then dispatches handily to his immense astonishment and pleasure, Righty’s low view of what he had learned over the last six months in his pursuit of knowledge was suddenly shattered as an epiphany came to him.

 

This is it! a voice told him. You’ve whined, and you’ve moaned to me about how you never will get anywhere in life in spite of all your hard work and blah, blah, blah, blah, blah! Well, here it is; I’m giving it to you on a platter. It’s almost too easy!

 

He thought back to his promise the day he saw that smug, pompous Oscar Peters talking down to him via his servant: He was going to become rich, and he didn’t care if he had to lie, cheat, or steal.

 

As he began thinking over what he both realized he had to do and would do, he realized that he was certainly going to lie, and he most definitely was going to steal, but he would make it right.

 

Deciding he didn’t want to give his mind the opportunity to even consider backing down, he put the whip to the horses and took off in his wagon.

 

Chapter 14

 

The thought occurred to Righty as he went traveling along in his carriage full of barrels of Smokeless Green seeds towards home that he was quite possibly making a huge mistake. Maybe the biggest mistake of his life. If things went sour, he’d lose his job. That would be bare minimum.

 

If he was really lucky, old Rog wouldn’t report him to the local sheriff as a thief but instead would just give him the chance to pay him back for whatever the supplier charged him for the “lost” inventory (that is, if Rog was feeling particularly generous and told the supplier the seeds were lost).

 

But even in that rosy scenario (which Righty didn’t feel particularly likely at the moment), he knew he’d lose his job for sure, and with still not even a high school diploma to show for all his evenings of silent study he’d be lucky if he could even get his job back at the lumberyard. Indoor work wouldn’t even be remotely possible. After all, he couldn’t think of any other store owners in the area whom he had helped get rid of a bully way back in high school, as he had done for Rog.

 

No, just like a bird migrating back to its home, he would head back to the lumberyard. And Foreman Steve wouldn’t let him back because he had a heart. Ha! It would be to relish the sight of that now pallid face turning first lobster red underneath the hot sun and then back to its desert brown, just like the rest of the beer-guzzling, lumber-hauling oxen there.

 

But if you don’t even try, you’ll torture yourself day in and day out at Roger’s Grocery Store. Wouldn’t it be better to end up back at the lumberyard knowing you took a chance that came along?

 

The argument in his head between Mr. Doom and Gloom and Mr. Devil’s Advocate was about as relevant to a deeper part of Righty’s mind as a debate between two stowaway children in the back of a wagon concerning its most advisable course would be to a driver oblivious to their existence.

 

He was going to act, not contemplate. His heart was racing, and his head was almost spinning, and the only reason he wasn’t whipping his horses into a full gallop was the fact he realized that at this particular moment he wanted to appear as inconspicuous and immemorable as possible.

 

Thus, while his heart and mind raced wildly, the horses trotted along as if they had not a care in the world, and the whip, which held the power to turn them into racing blurs of speed, sat idly in its sheath next to Righty.

 

The rules of the game changed, however, as he entered the path encased in solid woods leading up to his home. “Yaaaaa!” he shouted and gave a crack of the whip to the horses.

 

Off they flew down the path, and then Righty suddenly gave a gentle tug on the reins. He felt like a fool for ordering the horses to stampede when he was carrying rather valuable merchandise in the back.

 

After what seemed like an eternity but was in actuality a mere ten minutes, Righty arrived home. It was noon, and he thanked Kasani that he had been supportive of Janie’s decision to work. Right now, the last thing he needed was someone inserting coals of doubt into his mind. He leaped out of the wagon, ran into the barn, and grabbed a shovel and a pickax.

 

Then, he ran back to the wagon and gently urged the horses forward with a slap of the reins. He was headed into the woods. He knew he wouldn’t be able to take them as far as he himself was going, but that was okay. He didn’t want these seeds to end up anywhere easily accessible.

 

He knew which areas of the forest near here had sufficient space between the trees to allow the wagon to pass. Once he got to where the trees were too thick, he would have just a little walking to do. He knew the exact spot he was looking for.

 

After about ten minutes of slow riding from his house, he stopped the wagon. He got out, and as he hoisted one of the large barrels into his beefy arms he found himself grateful for his years of lumber hauling, as this felt light as a feather by comparison, though it would have squashed many a man to the ground.

 

He knew there was no time to waste. He went walking into the midst of the thickly packed bushes and trees. He winced as one thin branch after another went whipping into his face, something he was completely unable to prevent, and he wondered if it wasn’t perhaps karma for whipping the horses.

 

Then, to his pleasure, he arrived, and it was just like he remembered it. A small, rectangular area free of large trees and bushes. He remembered that as a child he often came here to look up at the stars at night and just get away from it all.

 

Realizing there was no time to reflect, he quickly ran back to the wagon, picked up another barrel, and repeated the process. Once all dozen barrels were there, he began digging large holes along the perimeter of the area. It was backbreaking work, but yet again he was finding his lumber-hauling days to be of service.

 

He tore into the ground viciously with his pickax, and then followed up by digging away with all the enthusiasm of a man tunneling his way out of prison. Several hours later he had fully buried eleven of the twelve barrels, replaced the soil, and then smoothed the ground over it.

 

The twelfth barrel was located inside a hole, but this particular hole had not yet been filled in. This was going to be his working barrel. The others would be stored for a rainy day.

 

He was now soaked in sweat, but his adrenaline was flowing nicely still, and he wasn’t even about to slow down. He began digging small holes one mighty shovel thrust at a time.

 

SMUSH!

 

SMUSH!

 

SMUSH!

 

He realized he knew little about horticulture in general and nothing at all about Smokeless Green gardening, but he figured the seeds went into the hole. He laughed out loud at what a fool he would probably appear to be to anyone who knew about such things, but he decided he would go ahead and experiment. So, he put one seed in a hole here, three seeds in a hole there, about a dozen in a hole there, and so on. He hadn’t the slightest idea how easily these plants would grow, whether they would need constant water, etc. It looked to him that he had enough seeds to do some significant experimenting with, but time was running out if he was to carry out the burgeoning plan he had in mind.

 

He put the lid back on the exposed barrel, made sure it was nice and snug, and then covered up that final hole with as much care and attention as he had to the others. He looked at his garden with shrewd eyes, trying to put himself into the shoes of some snot-nosed brat (or worse) that came traipsing through here. Sure, it was clear there was a garden of some kind here, but even his eagle eyes had difficulty seeing even the slightest traces of a burial in the areas where the barrels were sleeping cozily under the ground.

 

Good enough, he told himself.

 

When he got home and realized Janie was not there yet, it seemed the stars were aligning in his favor. He changed into a clean pair of clothes, grabbed a few empty barrels from his barn of roughly the same size as the Rog’s, sloshed a little water on his hands and face from a bucket, and then picked up a pen and paper:

 

Sorry to miss you, my love. I’ll be back tomorrow. Rog is sending me on a bit of a field trip . . . nothing major, just returning some inventory. But I think it shows his growing trust in me. See you soon.

 

Yours forever,

 

Richie

 

Righty shuddered at what he was about to do next. He picked up the floor plank where they kept their savings and looked at it longingly. He removed most of it. It would be just enough to cover the inventory and . . . a little something else.

 

Paranoid that at any moment Janie would appear out of nowhere, her all-too intuitive eyes sensing something much more than a business trip was afoot, Righty sprinted out to the wagon, gave the horses a nice slap with the reins and got them moving.

 

Chapter 15

 

Richie was glad he knew a route around Ringsetter because, while it wasn’t exactly a one-horse town, it was small enough that it wouldn’t be outside the realm of possibility to run smack dab into Rog himself or (almost as bad) ride past someone who knew Rog and would just happen to mention to him in good-natured conversation, Hey, I saw your ex-boxer of a store clerk driving your wagon around yesterday evening. What do you make him work so late for? Hahahaha.

 

It wasn’t likely, but Righty wasn’t interested in “not likely” right now. He knew when you’re already pushing your luck to the breaking point any avoidable small risks need to be avoided like the plague. Sure, it would take him an hour to go around Ringsetter, but that was a price he was willing to pay.

 

Then, suddenly he realized he was going to have some serious making up to do as far as time was concerned. He was expected back in a couple days, and he had already spent the better part of today doing a little gardening work.

 

He felt in his pockets and experienced mixed feelings as he realized he had a little Smokeless Green there. He hadn’t used it since his first time, but going off a hunch he had kept the remainder with him as well as the small measuring spoons the botanist had given Janie. He had them marked by the hour. Seeing that it was long past 1 p.m. (which the botanist had recommended as the latest time during the day when one should take it), and in fact the sun looked like it was around the 8 p.m. position, he realized that per the botanist’s advice he shouldn’t have any today.

 

But this was no ordinary day. In fact, he knew perfectly well that this was a defining moment of his life, and he had no choice but to ride all night. He decided to compromise. After bringing the horses to a halt, he took out the biggest measuring spoon—the one the botanist had said corresponded to a 6 a.m. dose. He marveled at how small it was, as he was tempted to just sniff whatever could fit into his nostrils.

 

Instead, he stuck the measuring spoon into the little pouch he had of Smokeless Green, pulled it out, and then sniffed.

 

POWWW!!

 

It hit him almost instantly, but he realized—partly to his relief—that this wasn’t like the last time, which had made him feel like he was shot out of a catapult and went flying amongst the stars. He felt a raw, powerful energy pulsating through his body and a sharp mental focus coming on. He felt more in control than he did the last time, when, frankly, he had felt a bit overwhelmed.

 

“Yaaaaaa!!” he yelled out the horses and gave them a slap with the reins.

 

They took off.

 

 

He rode all night, and the next day he arrived in Sivingdel, which was northeast of Ringsetter and about a thousand times bigger. He hadn’t been there for years, the last time being for one of his major boxing matches, which had been just shortly before the fateful Oscar Peters fight.

 

He arrived into the downtown area at around 8 a.m. and realized he was starting to feel pretty sleepy. That wouldn’t do. He had some tricky business ahead, and he needed to look alert and sharp, not like some half-asleep zombie that drove all night. He looked at the measuring spoons.

 

The 8 a.m. spoon was just a tad smaller than the biggest spoon. What the hell—the 6 a.m. spoon suited me fine yesterday, so let’s stick with what works, he told himself, serving himself a spoonful, sticking it to his nose, and then sniffing.

 

He felt the fireworks go off in his head right away, and he realized to his immense pleasure that he wouldn’t even need to look at the map again. He could see clearly in his mind all the streets he had studied on it the previous day.

 

He meandered through a confusing series of disorganized streets on his wagon almost without blinking an eye, calmly taking one turn after another as if he’d traveled the route to the point of boredom. He started getting to an industrial area of the city and began to see large buildings with various company names on them. When he got to his destination, he parked in front of the building, took a deep breath, and got out of the wagon with a confident look on his face and then tied the horses.

 

He walked into the office and said to the receptionist confidently, “Hello, I’m here on behalf of Roger Wilson, a retailer of Mr. Hoffmeyer’s. Mr. Wilson sent me to deliver a message to Mr. Hoffmeyer.”

 

“Do you have an appointment?”

 

“No, ma’am, I apologize; I don’t. Mr. Wilson said I might have to wait a while but that as long as Mr. Hoffmeyer knew I was here on Mr. Wilson’s behalf he would see me.”

 

“What’s your name?”

 

“Richard Simmers. I’m an employee of Mr. Wilson’s.”

 

“Wait just a moment.”

 

The pretty brunette rose from her seat and disappeared down a hallway.

 

Righty went ahead and took a seat.

 

The receptionist came back about ten minutes later.

 

“Mr. Hoffmeyer will see you now,” she said and beckoned Righty to follow her.

 

He did so, and after traversing several minutes of hallways, they arrived at a considerably large office.

 

“Right in here, sir,” the receptionist said.

 

“Thank you.”

 

He entered.

 

“Mr. Simmers, I’m pleased to make your acquaintance,” Mr. Hoffmeyer said, extending a hand.

 

“Thank you, sir,” Righty said, grasping the man’s hand firmly and making steady eye contact.

 

“I haven’t seen Roger for a while . . . you say you’re an employee of his?”

 

“Yes, sir.”

 

“Well, that’s great because Roger’s been an outstanding customer of mine for over a decade, and he’s a straight shooter. I understand he sent you to deliver me a message . . . .”

 

“Yes, sir,” Righty began and then looked slyly over his right shoulder.

 

“If it’s something delicate, I can close the door.”

 

“It might be for the best.”

 

Mr. Hoffmeyer closed the door.

 

“It’s about the seeds you sent him.”

 

“I figured it would be that, but I didn’t want to sound presumptuous. I apologize for the bad timing on that. Who would have thought it . . . legal Monday, illegal Tuesday? I thought I saw some serious potential in the sale of that product. I’m frankly rather miffed about the whole thing.

 

“And it’s unconstitutional as hell too! I can tell you that! I’m tempted to keep what I’ve got from my wholesaler rather than sending it back. After all, I don’t think this law will survive a constitutional challenge. If it doesn’t violate Article 8, I’ll be damned!”

 

Righty liked the man instantly. Not just because he happened to agree with the man’s sentiments entirely but also because the man had the guts to speak his mind.

 

“Well, sir, I believe this matter is pretty straightforward then.” Roger pulled out a wad of money. “Sorry it’s in such an assortment of bills. Mr. Wilson sent me on short notice.”

 

He placed them on the desk of Mr. Hoffmeyer.

 

“This is payment in full for the seeds.”

 

“Haaaa!”

 

Righty had been about to proceed with his carefully thought-out explanation before this interruption took place.

 

“Roger’s got more guts than I’ve given him credit for,” Mr. Hoffmeyer said laughing. “Let me guess—he knew these things would sell the minute they hit the shelves, and they did, but yet that’s not supposed to happen, at least not on paper. Am I right?”

 

Righty forced a blush. He liked the man’s perspicacity and candor, even though he was misguided about the nature of the mischief afoot.

 

“Well, Mr. Hoffmeyer, Mr. Wilson just told me to go see you, tell you the seeds were damaged, and to give you full payment for the inventory, since it was due to his negligence.

 

“But, and you didn’t hear this from me, you hit the nail on the head. I unloaded the barrels of seeds myself, and they were gone within two hours. I’ve probably said too much already, but they weren’t damaged. Please don’t tell Mr. Wilson about my frankness, should you ever see him. Frankly, the subject irritates him considerably. He even told me, ‘We don’t ever talk about this again.’ He’d fire me on the spot if you even hinted to him you know what really happened.”

 

While Righty was talking, Mr. Hoffmeyer was making notes in a book of some kind. “All right, Mr. Simmers, I’ve just recorded twelve damaged barrels of Smokeless Green seeds by retailer Roger Wilson, full compensation for inventory provided via his agent Richard Simmers acting on his behalf.

 

“The whole thing seems pretty cut and dry to me. Am I missing anything?”

 

“No, Mr. Hoffmeyer. I believe my employer will be glad to know that this has been cleared up. He expressed the concern that it might look suspicious for an item that has overnight been deemed contraband to suddenly be damaged, rather than being returned to the wholesaler or perhaps even being turned over to the police. I know he’ll be really appreciative if the subject is simply never brought up again. He’s usually such a calm guy, but he looked like the proverbial cat in a room full of rocking chairs when he was talking about this. He told me to give you this just for being so understanding about the whole thing.”

 

Righty proffered a handful of falons.

 

“Look, you don’t have to do that. As far as I can tell, this whole thing was a simple damaged inventory case for which the damages have been paid in full. And frankly, it was perhaps a godsend for me because had Roger returned those to me, it would have been just one more headache. My lawyers have already missed some sleep just analyzing the issue of what we should do with the Smokeless Green still here in our warehouse. Some of them think we can sue the government for compensation for any that we obtained before the law went into effect, if we can’t get a refund from our supplier.”

 

Then Mr. Hoffmeyer looked at Righty with a shrewd glance, “But, in all seriousness, Mr. Simmers, I’m proud of Roger. It just goes to show some people have more guts than you would have guessed.”

 

Righty gave him a warm smile and said, “It was a pleasure meeting you, Mr. Hoffmeyer.”

 

“One more thing, Mr. Simmers.”

 

“Sir?”

 

This time it was Mr. Hoffmeyer’s turn to take a furtive glance near the door and make sure no busybody was lurking near. Once satisfied on the matter, he said in a voice so low it approached being a whisper (and in fact Righty found himself having to take a step or two towards the man to hear him): “Whoever did get those seeds may not know just how lucky he is. Although the duration of this mysterious product as a legal purchase item was quite short—I asked my supplier once about where this plant comes from, and he told me something about not asking questions so he wouldn’t have to tell any lies, and I’ve worked with this guy for years—it made quite a bang while it lasted, and I don’t think it’s going to go away just because of some law that’s not even going to pass a constitutional challenge, which I can assure you will be coming shortly, and if it doesn’t I myself might have my lawyers file a suit and request a temporary injunction against police enforcement of the law until the constitutionality of it is decided.

 

“Anyway, I had a lot of Smokeless Green go out to retailers in the southwest, but it was just recently that I got these seeds. At the time, they didn’t seem to be of any particularly special value, as the Smokeless Green was arriving to me in bulk at cheap rates. However, Roger wrote me a few weeks ago and told me that if any seeds did come in to just go ahead and send him as much I could up to two dozen barrels. Well, one dozen became available, and I shipped them.”

 

At this point, Mr. Hoffmeyer began to whisper, and Righty was forced to take a couple more steps closer to the man to be able to hear him.

 

“Anyway, whoever bought those seeds off of Roger might soon find himself to be in high demand. After all, there might be a lot of Smokeless Green still in circulation since the law was passed so recently, but what people have bought from stores is going to get used up quick. Then, mark my words, the price is going to skyrocket, and it’s going to be black market time. And, believe me—it’s going to get huge!”

 

Mr. Hoffmeyer’s eyes got huge, as if they intended to reinforce the point.

 

“Now, I don’t know if the supply will get cut off. My supplier manufactures most of the goods himself, and most wholesalers in this part of Selegania get their goods from him, so either he started growing this himself or he is getting it directly from the people who do. Although he wouldn’t talk about it, I’ve heard a few rumors that this substance comes from out west, perhaps from Sogolia.

 

“Anyway, since everything’s been perfectly legal up until this point, I don’t know exactly what the exporters of this product are going to do. They might decide to hell with this mess and stop shipping it here. If that happens, the Smokeless Green in circulation from retailers is going to dry up quick, and most likely wholesalers like myself won’t send retailers any more. And, although I’m going to keep my ear to the ground, I haven’t heard talk of there being a lot of seeds sold, so all of a sudden there could be one heck of a nasty drought with one lucky guy out there holding the seeds to this product.

 

“Of course, there is a major wrinkle in this whole thing. Although most newspapers aren’t talking about it yet—they will sooner or later; once one does, the rest will have to fall in line or lose face—there’s actually an exemption. Get this—rich people can still use Smokeless Green under this new law! Haaaa!!!!

 

“Or, as they call it: ‘gentlemen.’ Based on my income, I’m considered a gentleman, which frankly rather surprised me! I’m just a businessman; I’m no aristocrat. But get this—even a gentleman cannot sell it to anyone other than a ‘gentleman,’ and I sure as hell don’t use this stuff; so as far as I’m concerned this product may as well be completely illegal to me. I don’t think any of my retailers would qualify as gentlemen under this new law, and it sure as hell wouldn’t be worth my time selling to them alone anyway.

 

“So, it remains to be seen whether this exemption for gentlemen will encourage the mysterious exporter of this product to keep sending it in, given that the available clientele will be so limited. Then, there’s the issue of whether any ‘gentlemen’ will sell this to so-called non-gentlemen in order to make an extra falon or two. Or maybe they’ll find some ‘gentleman’ wholesaler that they can legally sell it to and then wash their hands of whatever happens after that.

 

“Believe me, this is going to cause more corruption in the next year or two alone than I’ve seen in my entire life put together, or this product is just going to completely go away and fade into a footnote in the history books, but I don’t see a chance of it falling anywhere in between.

 

“Well, I’ve kept you long enough,” he said returning to his normal speaking volume. “You didn’t come here to listen to me talk about politics and economics.” Then, returning to his prior whisper one last time he stated: “But, mark my words—whoever bought those seeds is going to find out almost overnight that what he bought has increased in value a thousandfold. My gut tells me” (Mr. Hoffmeyer’s eyes grew shrewd, and a sly smile played at his lips) “he knew that, which is why he risked buying them.”

 

Suddenly a hand shot out towards Righty, extended for a handshake, but the speed with which it came out caught Righty’s attention. Mr. Hoffmeyer’s booming voice was back: “Anyway, Mr. Simmers, please tell Mr. Wilson I sincerely appreciate his paying for the damaged inventory. He’s a straight shooter and a valuable client.”

 

Righty grabbed Mr. Hoffmeyer’s hand and shook it firmly.

 

“I’ll show you out, Mr. Simmers.”

 

Chapter 16

 

Moments later, Righty was in his wagon, head full of thoughts, and headed back towards Ringsetter at a brisk pace. One of the thoughts racing through his head was the barrels. Although he knew it was logical to bring them at the time (he didn’t want to risk Rog seeing him driving around an empty wagon), now they were a bit of a liability. He didn’t want to come up with some fishy story about why they were in there. He’d already taken his share of risks. No needless risks needed to be added to the equation.

 

Swinging back by his place to drop off the barrels would definitely go into the Needless Risks category. And, thus, although he hated to discard the barrels, he realized it was something he would just have to look at as a business expenditure, and he determined that as soon as he was comfortably outside Sivingdel he was going to toss those barrels from the wagon.

 

But that was the least of his concerns. He was analyzing Mr. Hoffmeyer. He didn’t like the fact that he had seen through just about everything. He may have even known Righty just happened to be that lucky customer who “purchased” the seeds, but it seemed to Righty that, while Mr. Hoffmeyer realized that the unique nature of the product combined with its sudden damage strongly suggested a profitable transaction had taken place, he hadn’t seemed to insinuate he thought Righty might have just flat-out swiped them.

 

Thus, Righty was reasonably calm that old Hoffie hadn’t sniffed out quite as much as he thought he had. But he sniffed out that he had been presented with a lie and had opened Righty’s eyes to the true scope of what he was possibly embarking upon. While Righty realized the prospect of a decent profit existed, the potential enormity of the situation as described by Hoffie truly dwarfed Righty’s analysis of the situation.

 

Furthermore, Righty felt somewhat of a righteous anger towards the hypocrisy that was being displayed by the government, outlawing the product for everyone but the rich! He admitted to himself that this was after-the-fact knowledge and that it played no role in his decision to steal the seeds, at which time he believed the product was going to be illegal for everyone.

 

He wasn’t particularly interested in the morality of this endeavor. He was interested in one thing: The Promise. That was a sacred oath he had made to himself when he was spoken down to by Oscar Peters that he was going to become rich someday no matter what. That was what this was about. This was a world where those who played by the rules got left behind. Oscar Peters had already showed him that.

 

Nonetheless, a little sense of vindication didn’t hurt, and the more he mulled over the hypocrisy of the new law, the more justified he felt in the path he had already begun.

 

He was feeling rather optimistic about the way things were going so far, and optimism is the progenitor of an adventurous spirit, so he decided to do a little sight-seeing and leave the city via a different route. In the process he went through a particularly unpleasant area where the smell could make a flower wilt.

 

He pulled a handkerchief out of his shirt pocket and wrapped it around his face and nose, the irony of him now appearing to be a bandit not being lost on him.

 

CITY REFUSE

 

He noticed the sign as he drew nearer and nearer a large hill that was absolutely covered in trash. To his astonishment he saw quite a few people rummaging around in that mountainous cesspool, and his heart nearly broke when he saw that along the top of the ridge were row after row of tents, which presumably were the homes of some hapless rabble.

 

But his brief moment of atypical sympathy for others was interrupted when he noticed a small gang of toughs just up ahead of him. Two were seated on a bench, while the other three were standing there. Regardless of their differing positions, they all had one thing in common: They were looking right at Mr. Righty Rick. And their expression could be reasonably described as less than friendly.

 

One tough in particular stood out to Righty. He had short-cropped hair on top, and it was shaved bald on the sides. A tattoo was visible on his left temple, though Righty couldn’t tell what it was. All ten tough eyes glared at Righty, clearly sizing him up. Righty noticed the others broke their gaze a couple of times to look at Mr. Short-Cropped, like privates awaiting orders from their sergeant.

 

Mr. Short-Cropped’s eyes grew meaner and meaner as Righty drew closer, or perhaps Righty was simply getting a better look at them. He wasn’t looking for any trouble, but his bare-knuckle boxing instincts kicked in, and he realized he needed to stare down Mr. Short-Cropped fast, or else he was going to have to belt the lot of them.

 

He might have enjoyed it, but he had a schedule to keep.

 

Righty’s ferocity in the ring during his bare-knuckle days did not merely consist of his bone-shattering right hooks. His gaze at his opponents had often been compared to a mixture between that of a tiger and a cobra. Righty shot a look just like that at Mr. Short-Cropped, and although it took a few seconds, he saw the young tough pretend to smirk at him.

 

He knew how to read that body language well enough. That meant Mr. Short-Cropped wasn’t going to be reaching into his waistband, pulling out a knife, and lunging at him. Instead, he’d be laughing with his sidekicks and telling them this guy was broke and wasn’t worth their time but that they’d get him next time he made the mistake of coming through there, just to teach him a lesson.

 

About an hour later, Righty noticed he was getting into a rural area. He turned around and saw a speck behind him, which was the city of Sivingdel. He looked from left to right, saw no one, and halted the horses. Seconds later, the barrels were discarded along the road, and he was back on his way towards Ringsetter.

 

At approximately 9 p.m. that night he arrived at Roger’s Grocery Store, parked the wagon in the back, and tied up the horses. He then got on his own horse, which was tied in the back. He looked happy to see Righty. Righty hopped on and headed towards home.

 

Chapter 17

 

The next day, Righty was at work a few minutes before 9 a.m., when his shift began. He felt a load on his shoulders that he knew would either squash him or just slip right off and vaporize into nothing once he came in contact with Rog and gauged his reaction.

 

“Morning, Richie.”

 

“Good morning, sir.”

 

“I can’t thank you enough for making that trip for me. I just didn’t like the idea of having contraband sitting in my store, even if it was legal when I ordered it and the criminal penalties haven’t kicked in yet. I’ve done some reading, and apparently in the capital there have been gangs of wild addicts crazy over this stuff who have gone looting stores left and right in search of it. I haven’t heard of anything like that happening around here by any means, but it’s awful popular.

 

“Jimmy tells me this stuff was the answer to his prayers because there hasn’t been a dull night at his saloon since the first time someone brought it in there. Apparently, it makes people a little more generous with their money, and so that suits Jimmy just fine! Anyway, who knows what’s gonna happen now that it’s illegal. But I didn’t want word to get around that there were enough seeds to plant an entire farm over at Roger’s Grocery Store! Ha!” He laughed good-naturedly.

 

“Anyway, thanks to you, that stuff is long gone, and it’s Mr. Hoffmeyer’s problem. I just hope those gangs of yahoos don’t find out he’s got it, or he’ll have to hire a small army to defend it! Hahahaa!”

 

Righty smiled, and to his surprise it felt natural. After all, this was somewhat amusing to him, and he certainly felt glad about the burden that had just slid off his shoulders.

 

“Richie, you’re a damn hard worker, you’ve got a good head on your shoulders, and I know I can count on you in a pinch. How about we make a little adjustment in your hourly wage? Say . . . twelve falons an hour?”

 

“Thank you, sir!” Righty said. It sounded warm, and he looked thrilled. But in reality he was a bit conflicted.

 

“Well, I’ll let you get to your tasks. I’ll go ahead and make that bump retroactive to the beginning of the week and will also pay you for twenty-four hours for your trip. Sound fair?”

 

“Yes, sir!” Righty responded happily.

 

He was thrilled when Rog left him alone because once he had a conflict in his head he couldn’t enjoy anything until he had delved deeply into it. Fortunately, he could do that and his job.

 

As he started stocking the shelves vigorously, his mind was working just as hard. He felt guilty because he’d just stolen a significant amount of merchandise from the man who had now given him a generous raise, and furthermore he had gone with the flow when Mr. Hoffmeyer started spouting his theories as to what really happened, and as a result he had implicated Mr. Wilson as a dealer in contraband, when in reality Rog was a straight-laced man who’d never even dream of doing what Mr. Hoffmeyer speculated he had done.

 

Hopefully, none of this would ever come back to harm Rog, but even the thought of it discomforted him considerably. Then, there was the issue of this raise. Part of him felt like it was a message from above that he could make a future for himself by doing things the right way and not looking for shortcuts and—

 

SHUT UP, YOU COWARD!!!!

 

The suddenness and the fury of the voice inside him shocked him almost senseless. He paused at the shelf he was working on for a moment before beginning to once again quickly and efficiently stock the shelves with a face that suggested all was calm on the inside.

 

But all was not calm on the inside. A savage fury had been unleashed. One he hadn’t experienced at anywhere near this intensity since his boxing days.

 

You weren’t meant for jumping up and down with joy for the peanuts people offer you!! You’re meant for more . . . much more—for greatness!! You’ll seal your place in the Seleganian history books for better or for worse!

 

And then, as suddenly as it had come, the anger was gone. He felt calm. The anger had assuaged the guilt he momentarily had felt, and now he came to a much deeper philosophical understanding of what had truly just transpired. The universe was rewarding him. It had seen him show he had a spine and was not afraid to take things into his own hands, and that piddling little raise he had just gotten shouldn’t make him feel guilty but rather vindicated about his actions. He felt certain that had he returned the merchandise, he wouldn’t have even gotten a raise at all.

 

By taking the seeds, he had set in motion a different destiny for his so-far miserable life because before he was playing by the rules. Now, he was playing by his rules. And his rule book said to get rich.

 

Chapter 18

 

Nearly every night, for the last six weeks, Righty had slipped away in the moonlight with a couple buckets of water in hand to go tend to his little babies. He made sure to pack a book with him too. He told Janie he felt inspired reading in the moonlight and “just getting away from it all.”

 

Janie was no dunce, but after more than a decade of putting up with a mean drunk of a husband, she frankly didn’t care what he was doing out there, so long as she didn’t smell alcohol or perfume when he came back, neither of which had ever happened. Plus, Righty made sure to always pack a book with him, and truth be told he would do a little reading out there by his little green babies, which weren’t so little anymore.

 

They weren’t exactly magical plants, but he’d never seen anything quite like them. After just six weeks, they were all over a foot tall and had produced quite a few large green bulbs. Righty had pinched off a little piece of one yesterday and found it quickly turned into the powdery form he was used to seeing in the stores. He tried a small pinch this morning at around 7 a.m., and it seemed every bit as strong as the store-bought stuff.

 

He knew it was high time that he make a move. He had nearly obliterated his life savings and had nothing to show for it. And although his wife wasn’t the type to take out the savings every other night and make sure not a falon was missing, it was only a matter of time before she did and noticed that almost everything was gone. And he suspected it was due to happen soon.

 

So, that Sunday, while Janie went off to the local temple for a religious service, Righty decided it was then or never. He figured that if it took about twelve hours to make it to Sivingdel driving that clunky old wagon, he could do it in six with Charlie, his favorite horse.

 

He put one large bulb into a sack and weighed it; it was about an ounce. Then he walked briskly back to the house. He put a dagger in a sheath on his belt, and made sure to choose a long shirt that hung comfortably over it. Then, he put brass knuckles in each pocket. Carrying a dagger was a misdemeanor in Selegania, but that seemed like small potatoes compared to the Class B felony he was carrying in a small bag. For what he was about to do, he might have even worn a sword, but he had never trained with one, and carrying a sword outside one’s home in Selegania was a Class A felony. Not even the police could carry a sword. Only the nation’s small-standing army—numbering four thousand—was exempt from the sword prohibition. In fact, the nation’s constitution forbade anyone other than a professional soldier on a military base or acting in his military capacity from carrying a sword. Not even the senators were exempt.

 

Righty had done a little investigating before setting off on this particular mission. His first instinct had been to sell to some of his old drinking buddies, as he had already heard through the grapevine that they were snorting this stuff like it was oxygen and they had just come up for breath after two minutes underwater. But upon more careful reflection, he decided that if he did that it would probably take about two days, if the gossip lines were moving slowly, for just about everyone in Ringsetter to know that Righty Rick was the man to see if you wanted some Smokeless Green.

 

Given that the criminal penalties had already taken effect, he decided that wasn’t exactly a reputation he wanted to have amongst the general population of Ringsetter.

 

Thus, he had to start from scratch, and he knew Sivingdel was the place. But he had stopped outside the lumberyard a couple times and chatted about how things were going, and, just like he expected, Smokeless Green was the main topic on the menu.

 

The first time he had spoken to them, panic hadn’t fully set in. After all, it was rather cheap at first, and many of them had stocked up on the stuff. Not because they were clairvoyant as to its future criminalization, but rather for fear that perhaps this substance existed in finite quantities, might be seasonal, or whatever other reasons cause man to hoard items he cherishes.

 

But all of the stores had quickly fallen in line with the new law and sent back their Smokeless Green to their suppliers—well, that is with the exception of a few stores that sold it with a tenfold markup and Roger Wilson, who tried to return it but was hampered by Righty’s alternative plans. But after that, all that was left in Ringsetter was what people had already purchased from the stores, which now held none of the beloved substance.

 

If not for the fact that all these individuals were dedicated users themselves, there might have been one or two that became wealthy men overnight. At first, some of them did sell small portions of what they had. But then they saw the price skyrocketing in the meantime, and some of them thought it would maybe be a good idea to “wait and see” just how high the price got.

 

The problem was sniffing Smokeless Green was one hell of a nice way to pass the time, and thus, as they watched the price go up they also watched their stashes go down. Only a very small few had the foresight to sell off a large quantity of what they owned, but the riches they earned from this were quickly squandered as they ran out of their own supply of Smokeless Green and then found themselves turned into buyers—now buying at an even higher price, sometimes from the very people they had sold to days before.

 

It was clear to Righty that Mr. Hoffmeyer was right—the price of Smokeless Green was rising higher and higher and most likely hadn’t even come close to reaching its zenith yet.

 

An ounce had cost about ten falons when it was legal. Now an ounce was up to a thousand. He had around two weeks’ pay in his pocket from just one bulb, and there were plenty more where that came from. Although store owners were abiding by the law to the letter, bars were a different story. The policy at Toby’s Bar and Jimmy’s Saloon was basically the same: Sniff all you please; just don’t let me see.

 

The parties still roared all night long on the weekends, and even during the week their places were packed until the wee hours of the morning. So far, Smokeless Green had helped many a poor soul—whether a lumberyard worker preparing to go break his back in a grueling shift or an accountant ready to break his brains over a stack of papers with numbers that needed to be crunched—survive the following day and still find energy for a party the next night, but all of that was looking doubtful now.

 

There was starting to be a tension in the air. People knew the stuff was getting scarce. Like primitive man praying for rain, some were going to the temple (even those who hadn’t gone for a decade or more) and praying for the heavens to open up and provide more of this glorious substance which appeared to be threatening to withdraw her warm embrace.

 

Righty was more than happy to be the answer to their prayers, but only if he could be a secret benefactor.

 

As was usual, Righty was lost in thought while in full motion, Charlie galloping wildly towards Sivingdel, happy to be out for an early morning ride.

 

Around six hours later, Righty made it into town and went straight towards the place he had seen the young toughs. His gut was starting to rumble a little bit as waves of nervousness flowed over him. He knew these were the last kind of people he wanted to do business with, but nonetheless he felt he had little choice.

 

As he got near the area where he had seen the five toughs last time, he was surprised to see them back in the exact same spot, and was half-relieved, half-worried. Had he seen no one, he could have turned his horse right back around towards home and told himself in all honesty: Well, you tried.

 

He didn’t like the looks of any of these toughs. Not that he had before, but they looked particularly vicious today. But it was the ringleader who caught his attention the most: Mr. Short-Cropped. He almost instinctively gave him the same vicious look that had partially subdued the young punk last time, but that wouldn’t necessarily further his purpose, which was to negotiate.

 

So, instead, he adopted a confident, yet unaggressive bearing.

 

He didn’t exactly like getting off Charlie without a place to tie him to, so he figured he was just going to have to hope he didn’t go galloping off at the first sign of trouble.

 

All five toughs were now standing and looking at Righty with great hostility. Mr. Short-Cropped stepped ahead of the rest and with an insolent look said, “Whaddya want around here, fool?!”

 

“I’m here to talk business,” Righty said in what he hoped was a confident but unthreatening tone.

 

He was standing about ten feet from the young punk.

 

The punk walked another couple feet forward. Righty didn’t budge.

 

“Haaa-haaaa-haaa!” he laughed. But it sounded artificial to Righty. Probably for the benefit of his sidekicks.

 

“I want to sell you Smokeless Green. I’ve brought a sample for you so that you can see I’m interested in making cash and am not here to waste your time.”

 

As he put his hand into his pocket and withdrew the bag with the bulb in it, Mr. Short-cropped flinched slightly and then quickly restraightened his arrogant posture.

 

Before he could utter another silly laugh, Righty tossed it at him and said, “Give this a whiff, and see if you’re still laughing.”

 

The young punk’s eyes narrowed, and he put his hand into the bag gingerly, as if he was afraid a scorpion might be in there, rather than Kasani’s finest substance on earth.

 

After he pulled it out and smelled it, his eyes immediately changed. In fact, they changed several times. First, they revealed surprise, as it this was certainly the last thing Mr. Short-Cropped expected to have happen to him today. Then, his eyes turned greedy. Then, wolfish.

 

Perhaps Righty, in all fairness to Mr. Short-Cropped, is at least partly to blame for what came next. Righty had the ability—although he did not yet fully know the truly bottomless depth of it—to uncannily hide the hulking monster that lurked within him. Yes, he knew he could usually exhibit a calm, unthreatening demeanor when that was what he wished, but he had no idea how poorly that could cause individuals to underestimate him. It was something he would become more cognizant of in the future. Had he simply let Mr. Short-Cropped see his real eyes, things would have turned out differently.

 

“Let’s rob this dude!” Mr. Short-Cropped shouted out and went running wildly towards Righty, the others not far behind him. In a split-second, Righty was back in boxing mode. As soon as Mr. Short-Cropped got within striking distance he immediately morphed from a calm man into a savage beast. He punched Mr. Short-Cropped right in the stomach, grabbed him by his head, turned his back towards him, kneeled, and threw him over his head. He was surrounded now, so he knew there was going to be no quarter.

 

He moved towards a long-haired, wild-eyed punk, and as he prepared to deliver a ruthless body blow, he sensed at the last second the tough was getting ready to back up. He suddenly sprinted forward while simultaneously delivering his body blow, and to his satisfaction he found he could still deal with Runners. That had been one of his specialties. He heard ribs snap like twigs underneath his merciless punch.

 

He felt a punch to the face, but it was nothing. It felt like a feather’s caress compared to the blows he had been accustomed to taking in the ring. He answered back with a left jab that smashed the tough’s nose and sent a geyser of blood shooting out.

 

There were two left, and their faces had surrender spelled out across their eyes. They were trying to look tough but instead looked like they were about ready to hightail it out of there at any moment. Then, they looked distracted.

 

They were looking at Mr. Short-Cropped who was doubled over and puking his guts out, every once in a while gasping for air, creating a horrible gurgling sound, as he inhaled his own vomit. Mr. Long Hair was lying on the ground and wheezing. Blood was oozing from his mouth, compliments of a punctured lung.

 

“Now, I can bash all your brains in, if that’s how you want to play it, you young punks!” Righty began. “But I thought maybe you were out here loafing around with nothing to do because maybe you’d like to earn a little easy money. Sorry I interrupted your day!”

 

And having said that, he put his left foot into a stirrup and leaped on top of Charlie. He was about ready to leave when he heard “Wait!”

 

He turned around. It was Mr. Short-Cropped. His stomach was still twitching a little, and his face was covered with dust and vomit, but he was standing.

 

“Let’s talk business.”

 

Righty had never considered himself to be one of those people who belabored the point. A problem had arisen. He had pounded it into smithereens. Now, an opportunity arose. Why live in the past?

 

“All right,” Righty said. “But let’s get one thing straight,” and as he said this he put his hands into his pockets and extracted them covered in brass knuckles, “the next time you won’t get back up.” He then quickly reinserted the brass knuckles back into his pockets.

 

He continued. “You don’t need to know who I am or anything else about me. I brought you a free sample to show you I mean business. Tell me how many more of those bulbs you want me to bring next time—up to ten—and I’ll be here. It’ll be 700 falons each. You can turn that into 1,000 falons per bulb on the street—that is, if any of you punks have connections.”

 

“We do,” Mr. Short-Cropped said. “And to be honest, we can get 1,200 falons for one of those bulbs by the time we break it up and sell it in smaller quantities. That stuff is selling like crazy.”

 

“That’s your issue. All I’m asking for now is 700 falons. How many bulbs do you want me to bring and when.”

 

“Bring ten tomorrow.”

 

“That’s short notice. I’d need payment for half upfront.”

 

Mr. Short-Cropped studied Righty closely.

 

“If we’re gonna do business, I need to be able to call you something.”

 

“Call me Brass. It’ll serve as a reminder to you of my friendly warning.”

 

Mr. Short-Cropped chuckled. His sidekicks were looking at him closely.

 

Mr. Short-Cropped pulled out a bag and counted out 3,500 falons, all in one-hundred-falon bills. He approached Righty.

 

“Mr. Brass, be here tomorrow at the same time, or you’re going to have some people looking for you that are a lot tougher than me.”

 

It caught Righty’s attention that the message sounded more like a concerned warning than a threat.

 

Righty grabbed the bills and looked at them closely while not letting Mr. Short-Cropped get out of sight.

 

“I’ll be here tomorrow with ten bulbs at 6 p.m. and will be expecting five more of these bills. If you jump me again, I’ll kill every last one of you.”

 

Mr. Short-Cropped didn’t offer a rebuttal but instead held out his hand.

 

Righty looked him closely in the eye and then grabbed his hand hard.

 

A nudge to Charlie’s side pivoted him around, and a gentle squeeze with his knees prompted him into a full gallop. Before he did so, he noticed Mr. Long Hair had created a rather nice pool of blood around his mouth, and he was no longer twitching.

 

That mattered little to Righty. He had seven weeks’ worth of pay in his pocket (at his new hourly rate) and the promise of the same amount tomorrow. Things were looking good.

 

Chapter 19

 

As Righty neared the same meeting spot on old Charlie where he had made five weeks’ worth of pay yesterday and planned to repeat today, he found himself feeling grateful he had decided to put chain mail on. The story in the Simmers family was that a couple centuries ago the family had a great knight, of whom Righty was a direct descendant. Sir Edward was his name, and Righty had named his son after him.

 

Righty had inherited the chain mail, and although he had always found it aesthetically pleasing, he had never even dreamed he would put it on with the intention of actually putting it to use. The day of knights, swords, and armor had passed quietly into the history books and folklore, not due to any technology that had replaced them but due to the strictly enforced prohibition on swords and armor.

 

Nonetheless, he knew he was entering into a world seldom seen by the average citizen and felt certain daggers saw their fair share of usage around here and suspected in his gut that even swords might occasionally still be wielded, even if their possession had been outlawed for centuries. He felt a bit like an explorer on a new continent.

 

As he drew near to the area, he saw to his satisfaction that Mr. Short-Cropped was there, sitting on the same bench where he’d seen him in their last two encounters. He noticed he was one man short, confirming, apparently, that Mr. Long Hair had attempted his last mugging.

 

But as he got closer, Righty felt unnerved by the fact that Mr. Short-Cropped wasn’t looking at him even though it was plain as day there was a man on horseback riding up to him and that that man was the person he had done business with the day before. Mr. Short-Cropped’s three surviving sidekicks were there.

 

Righty arrived just feet away from Mr. Short-Cropped, got off his horse, and got ready to ask him if he had turned into a mute during the last twenty-four hours, but before he got the chance Mr. Short-Cropped looked up at him from his seated position. His face and body were expressionless with the exception of his eyes, which seemed to say, Sorry about this.

 

Righty immediately swiveled around, and the situation seemed relatively straightforward to him, as he saw men emerging from behind various large trash items in the city’s trash heap. Mr. Short-Cropped and his cronies stayed seated on their benches, and their appearance told him someone else had made the decision and that they weren’t itching for Round Two with the guy who had shattered one of their noses with a single left jab; killed one with a single punch to the ribs; and turned their leader into a vomiting, wheezing whipped pup with one solid punch to the gut.

 

No, someone else was itching for a bite at the apple.

 

After Righty swiveled around 360 degrees multiple times it seemed reasonably clear he was going to be dancing with five guys this evening. Three were hulks—tall, broad-chested, and thick in the shoulders. One was tall and slender. And the last was a short little runt but with mean eyes—the kind you’d expect to see on an overgrown spider.

 

“So you’re tough stuff?” the biggest one said, cracking his knuckles. Righty was now surrounded.

 

“You broke Sammy’s nose, killed Streak, and roughed up Tats, who was then stupid enough to give you thirty-five bills for nothing but a promise. The way I see it—”

 

In a flash, Righty pulled out a bag with five bulbs in it and threw it to Mr. Big Mouth.

 

“The promise has been fulfilled, sir,” Righty said with an unnerving calm.

 

Mr. Big Mouth looked at Righty angrily but couldn’t resist inspecting the contents. It didn’t take long for him to see that Tats, a.k.a. Mr. Short-Cropped, had invested wisely.

 

“Well,” Mr. Big Mouth started back up, with an angry look on his face, “you just saved Tats one hell of a beating or worse. You, my friend, are a different case.”

 

“How do you figure,” Righty inquired.

 

“You owe me a bulb for breaking Sammy’s nose without my permission, two bulbs for wasting Streak without my permission, and two bulbs for roughing up Tats. You see, around here, things either happen with my permission, or they don’t happen. So, the way I see it, if you’ve got five little round, green friends to go along with what you just tossed to me, you and I just might get along after all and do a little business together. I don’t know what got into Tats’ head the other day, but 700 falons is a bit tough to swing. We’ll be paying you 400 falons per bulb, and—”

 

“Shut your damn mouth,” Righty said calmly.

 

Mr. Big Mouth had a nasty-enough sneer on his meaty face before Righty proffered this interjection, but the snarl that formed on it immediately thereafter made the former look like a coy smile.

 

“Hahahahahaa.” Mr. Big Mouth started laughing. “Are you hoping to die, fool, or are you just plain stupid?”

 

“Tats already told me you can turn each of these around into 1,200 falons. That’s more than a 40% profit margin if I sell each to you for 700 falons, and that’s more than fair; in fact, it’s too damn generous. The price stands for 700 falons each on the five bulbs I’ve got with me, but the next load’s going to be 800 falons each.

 

“Now are we clear, or is there a problem here?” Righty said in a low, ominous tone, still not raising his voice.

 

“Son, you better have an army hidden somewhere around here, because after I beat the piss out of you I’m going to find out who the hell you are, where you’re getting supplied at, and I’m going right over your head to your supplier, and if you’ve got a wife and kids you’re gonna wish you’d never met Big Frank! I’m gonna—”

 

While Big Frank was giving his lecture, Righty had calmly inserted both hands into his shirt pockets. There, he had dressed his meaty hands with the pair of brass knuckles he had warned Tats he would use next time.

 

Righty stood about six feet tall, weighed around 240 pounds, and was chiseled as if made out of granite from the years of toiling away with lumber. But even if his physique had been on display as a warning, like a flared hood of a cobra, it couldn’t have begun to truly warn a potential adversary of the strength he would be contending with in Righty Rick.

 

Righty sprinted forward, cutting off Big Frank in mid-sentence. The brazenness of the attack made it completely unexpected. Big Frank raised his hands in defense and took a few steps backward, trying to buy himself a few seconds of time to get in a better defensive posture or perhaps receive aid from his comrades.

 

It was a tactic Righty had learned to counter with expert precision. He was used to his wild lunges forward not being well-received by opponents, who would often quickly backpedal trying to escape the madman they found themselves facing. For that reason, Righty very rarely set his sights on the location of the man at the time he commenced the attack.

 

Instead, mind, thighs, and knuckles merged with the perfection of a triangle and focused instead on some point behind the adversary. Righty was uncannily adept at appraising just how fast a man could backpedal and adjusted his target point commensurately. His subconscious mind told him Big Frank would probably manage to backpedal four feet before Righty would be in striking distance, and he sprinted forward accordingly, avoiding the mistake so many Pursuers make in boxing against Runners by chasing them only to the point where they were standing at the time the pursuit began, thus allowing the Runner to constantly backpedal and wear out the Pursuer.

 

As Big Frank went backpedalling with a look of shock and anger in his eye, Righty didn’t even slow down for a second until he was well within striking range and then shoveled five brass knuckles deep into the left side of Big Frank’s ribcage, pulverizing bone like a sledgehammer.

 

But Righty was smart enough to know this was no friendly sparring match like the one he’d had yesterday. If he didn’t show these brutes they were within the presence of an alpha wolf whose fury they did not want to be within one mile of, he was going to leave Janie a widow.

 

Thus, not even a half-second passed between the bone-pulverizing uppercut to Big Frank’s ribcage and a crushing left hook to the other side of his ribcage, quickly followed by a right hook to Big Frank’s left kidney, which Righty squashed like a watermelon.

 

Those who had studied Righty’s fighting style closely knew that it wasn’t that he was morally opposed to going to his opponent’s head. It was just that he looked at an opponent’s body like a meal. The torso was the steak and potatoes, and the head was dessert. However, by the time Righty finished eating the steak and potatoes, the fighter was usually collapsed onto the canvas, thus robbing Righty of the dessert of which he would have happily partaken.

 

Righty knew that whether he lived or died today didn’t depend on whether he whipped Big Frank. Frank was a goner. But he had to do it in spectacular fashion or else he just might soon have some unwanted company.

 

Righty delivered a thunderous right uppercut to Big Frank’s stomach that literally lifted him three inches off of the ground. Big Frank doubled over, but before he could even let out what would surely have been a frightful gasp for air Righty slammed a vicious brass knuckle uppercut into his chin, shattering it into pieces.

 

He then squatted low, and just like the countless pieces of lumber he had lifted day in and day out for years in the lumberyard, he picked Big Frank up over his head, and then he tilted him to where his head was facing the ground and then brought it down with all his might like a hammer into the ground. He heard his neck snap.

 

About six seconds had transpired.

 

Righty turned around, the look of a wild animal in his eye. Big Frank’s four toughs had a look of horror on their faces. Righty had no doubt each and every last one of them was a killer, but it was clear they’d never seen a species like Righty.

 

“Well, who’s next?! What are you all waiting for?”

 

Spider Eyes looked at his three remaining companions and then over at Tats and his crew of three.

 

“Say something fast, or I’ll choose,” Righty barked.

 

Spider Eyes took one look at his three companions, and they seemed to give him some kind of nod. Spider Eyes reached into his pocket, pulled out thirty-five one-hundred-falon bills, put a small clip around them, and then tossed them to Righty.

 

Righty caught the money without taking his eyes off Spider Eyes, and then he resumed swiveling around. His fearsome eyes penetrated to the marrow of each man’s soul.

 

He continued this for as long as three minutes, everyone in uncomfortable silence. The only noise, the slightly heavy breathing of Righty. No one else dared to whisper.

 

It became clear to Righty that he had made his point, and it was time to let bygones be bygones. He figured that was something he was going to have to learn to do often in this business, once a problem had been fixed, that is.

 

Righty put his brass knuckles back in his pockets and pulled out a small sack.

 

He kept his eyes on Spider Eyes, while saying, “Tats, get over here.”

 

Tats trotted over.

 

“Stand by him,” he motioned to Spider Eyes.

 

Looking at Spider Eyes, he told him, “I made a deal to deliver this to Tats, and it looks like you got in the way.” His eyes seemed at that moment to look more like those of a Chihuahua.

 

“Come here, Tats.” Tats stepped forward.

 

Keeping his eyes on Spider Eyes, he handed the bulbs to Tats, who took them nervously and put them into his pocket.

 

“To prevent any more misunderstandings like the ones we had today, let’s get a couple things clear. First, I don’t care about your hierarchy amongst yourselves. That’s your business. But when I make a deal with any one of you directly, whoever interferes is going to have a problem with me. Is that understood?!”

 

Spider Eyes and the other toughs nodded.

 

“Secondly, I’m a businessman. I’m looking to make money. If I wanted to do that by fighting, I’d be in a ring somewhere. Play straight with me; I’ll play straight with you. Cross me, and, well, I’ll probably lose my temper. Is that understood?”

 

The toughs nodded.

 

“Any questions?”

 

Spider Eyes spoke up. In spite of his diminutive size, it seemed clear to Righty he was now first in command, now that Big Frank was no more. “We can turn this around today. We need more and fast.”

 

“How much are we talking about?”

 

“You bring it; we’ll get rid of it.”

 

“I’ll need half upfront each time, and it’s 800 falons per bulb from now on.”

 

Spider Eyes nodded, and the next thing Righty knew he had 20,000 falons in his hand.

 

“I’ll bring fifty bulbs tomorrow,” Righty said. “Same time.”

 

Righty walked to Charlie, who still stood there gallantly, having not been frightened by the brutal brawl, and mounted him.

 

“Sir,” said Spider Eyes, as Righty prepared to leave, “what do we call you?”

 

“Didn’t Tats tell you? It’s Brass.”

 

Righty whistled a merry tune all the way home. He had about a year’s pay in his pocket and a reasonable expectation of doubling that tomorrow. He felt the only problem in the whole wide world was getting more plants and fast.

 

Chapter 20

 

When Harold the Loyal, formerly known simply as Chip, took off into the air following his meeting with Tristan, who had given him strict orders to bring back the head of the treacherous Max, his experience in his now greatly enlarged body was so novel that it might be comparable to the experience a human would have if he suddenly found himself from one moment to the next with wings where arms once hung.

 

With what felt like a mere nudge against the air he found it responding with great upward thrusts propelling his body higher and higher. What he had once considered flying now seemed as cumbersome and inefficient as walking up an icy hill.

 

A thrill swept over him at the realization of his newly bestowed powers, and he had to rebuke himself sharply to not go getting giddy. After all, he had work to do, and if he didn’t do a darn good job, he could kiss this new outfit goodbye and would be lucky if he kept his head.

 

Speaking of heads . . . there was a certain head he had to take. Max’s. Apparently, it was Max who had turned the pholungs against Master. Turned them against him!

 

The nerve of that treacherous blackguard was really something. But he clearly had more than nerve, for to turn all of the pholungs against Master must have taken some incredible cunning. Had he blackmailed them? Lied to them?

 

Then, the most blissful thought imaginable occurred to him as he realized his utter ineptitude in deciphering the uncountable layers of deception and chicanery Max must have used to accomplish a nearly successful coup d’etat against Master. He didn’t have to. Master had figured it out to the “t.” Otherwise, he wouldn’t have been so sure that Max was the one who spawned the rebellion.

 

Kasani! It felt good to be back with Master. Being back with Master meant long missions, following orders, and leaving the complicated stuff to The Wise One. All Harold had to do was make sure he fulfilled Master’s orders, brought him the gory proof, and then, if he had any luck—and his gut told him he did—Master would have another mission for him. That would be just dandy for Harold because with this new body he reckoned he was going to be a lot more useful to Master than he ever was before.

 

A tear rolled down his feathery beak at the thought that he might indeed help Master reclaim his glory. This all almost seemed just too good to be true.

 

But there was one problem. He was feeling a bit guilty. Not because he didn’t want to kill Max, but because he reckoned he probably did. Max had stolen Laura right out from under his beak just because he caught some large worm, and Laura didn’t have the sense to see the infinitely superior value to the spinning maneuver he was working on, and which he had since formally decided to call Cyclone.

 

Well, Koksun, sure as hell knew Cyclone worked, as it had saved his life from that serpent that had him cornered at that tree, and from that pack of wolves, and now where was Koksun? Lapping up milk in the house of some kindhearted soul. You see? Harold was no fool, and if he took the time to learn something, it was because it was worth a darn. Neither Max nor Laura could see that then, but they were about to see that soon enough.

 

But that was where the guilt kicked in. He was sore enough about Max stealing Laura to kill him for that alone, and he probably would have already done it, if not for the fact he believed that Max was Master’s loyal servant, and to kill a loyal servant of Master’s—odious though he may be—was never acceptable.

 

But it turned out that Max wasn’t really so loyal after all and that in fact he had no choice but to kill him. What can I say?, he concluded with a slight shrug of his feathers as he soared thousands of feet above the ground, if a broken clock can be right twice a day, then sometimes business and pleasure can mix.

 

But this was going to be professional. Master had asked for two things and two things only: to kill Max and to bring his head. Thus, there wasn’t going to be any overdoing things.

 

Then a fearful thought came to him: What if I fail?! After all, he was enjoying this new body , sure, but did he have adequate control over it?

 

If he failed Master, he knew he would die, and would deserve to. That scared him some. But what scared him a whole heck of a lot more than that was the repercussions of failure to Master. After all, if Max held such sway over the pholungs—who were still at large—he was still a threat. That had to be why Master was off hiding in the forest and already picking his successor when Master used to lead armies to astounding victories.

 

It’s because of Max! A chill ran down his spine even colder than the icy wind brushing against him at this seldom-touched height. Could Master be afraid of Max?

 

He didn’t like that word one bit. He supposed a better word would be “concerned.” After all, Master had been dealt a stinging defeat. Harold couldn’t deny that. He knew Master’s army must have been defeated for Max to be able to convince the pholungs to turn on him. No way would they have dared if Master’s army had still been intact. Things had gone really sour for him.

 

But if he could get Max out of the equation, Master just might bounce back from this defeat. And he suspected his next mission would be the pholungs. They were out there, somewhere, lurking about, probably ready to kill—or try to kill—Master at the first opportunity. No doubt they were scouring far and wide in a large group, just as they had attacked him, for they wouldn’t have a chance otherwise.

 

That had to be why Master had made him so much bigger. Not to kill measly old Max. He felt relatively confident he could have done that with Cyclone even at his former size. No, Master had much bigger plans. Of that, he was now certain.

 

(well, you better figure out if you can use this new body; after all, Master’s waiting)

 

He looked down towards the ground and discovered to his shock and delight that what had seemed a dramatic change in terms of his ease of travel now seemed rather miniscule compared to the unbelievable improvement in his vision. His eyes now seemed to him like powerful telescopes.

 

What surely would have been a mere blur before at this height instead seemed as if he were observing it from ten feet away. He saw wolves prowling about, no doubt in search of some hapless prey.

 

Well, I don’t particularly like wolves, so I think this might be as good as any place to see if I can still do Cyclone.

 

He selected a wolf and kept his eyes peeled on him as he began spinning faster and faster and faster. At about a hundred feet from the ground, he felt the speed was getting a bit difficult to control, so he stopped spinning and instead began a steep swoop with his razor-sharp right wing jutting out like a sword and aiming for the wolf’s head.

 

At the last second, the wolf must have heard something because it spun around.

 

SWISHHHH!

 

Its head went rolling off its torso and onto the ground. Harold went soaring far back up into the sky, another mission on his mind now. He didn’t believe in pointless slaughter, and although testing out his Cyclone prowess in his new body for the purpose of carrying out an important mission for Master was hardly a pointless slaughter, he did feel an aching hunger in his stomach, and he reckoned that he could kill two birds with one stone.

 

He went swooping down again, and this time as he got close he decided to try out his vocal chords:

 

“RAAAAA!! RAAAAAA !! RAAAAA!!!!” he screeched out in high notes—a sound so terrible he almost scared himself senseless.

 

The surviving wolves went running for their lives. In a split second, Harold scooped up the wolf’s body and went soaring high up into the air again. Once he was at about a thousand feet, he took a huge bite out of the warm carcass. He had never tasted anything so good in his life as the warm meat now in his mouth, and he licked at the blood spilling from his beak, wanting as little as possible to escape.

 

There was no doubt about it. Harold liked his upgrade.

 

Harold decided it was time to kick it into high gear. After all, if Max had turned the pholungs against Master, Kasani knows whom else he might be recruiting. Success breeds enemies, and he imagined there were a lot of people who hated Master just for his powers.

 

Harold now looked like an arrow shooting across the sky, as his speed left one hundred miles per hour behind like a donkey racing a thoroughbred stallion. He was headed northwest towards the location the konulans had been told to stay put.

 

Having flown all the way through the night, he was nearing the area by the next afternoon. As he neared the area, his telescope eyes looked downward, scanning the general area meticulously, hoping against hope that the little rascals would be there, but not expecting that his luck could be that good. Surely, Max had organized some perfidious mischief already.

 

When he saw the little devils far below, looking to him like mice with wings (his idea of what truly constituted a bird had changed considerably over the last couple days), his joy soared even higher than the two thousand feet at which he was currently soaring.

 

And, not at all to his surprise, some unwarranted party was underway. He could see them frolicking about, flying in circles, and having a grand old time. It reminded him a lot of when they were looking for the knighting of a commoner in Sodorf. Had it been left up to them, the knighting of Pitkins would have gone unnoticed, and although success had escaped Master by a sword’s edge, he had accomplished major victories before being undone by Max.

 

Every time he had been so unfortunate as to be paired up with one of these flying mice, it was all he could do just to concentrate while his busybody of a “partner” kept chatting constantly and asking if they could call the surveillance off early that day. Harold—then Chip—had been immeasurably relieved that most days none of the flying mice wanted to accompany him.

 

There, down below, he saw Max showing off as if he was something really special. He flew up into the air with a worm, let it drop, and then swooped down and caught it with his beak right before it touched the ground. He could see even from up here that Laura was beaming with delight while this shameless showoff performed this trick again and again. And worse still, Laura didn’t even seem to be getting bored with it.

 

Seeing such a shameless traitor being worshipped by his fellow conspirators was simply more than Harold could take. None of these mice knew just how lucky they were at the specificity of Master’s instructions. Had a bit more leeway been provided, the whole lot of them would have been hunted to extinction, but he figured Master had a grander scheme in mind.

 

Then, he saw that Max was getting ready to show off again. He almost retched when he saw Laura’s parents were as impressed as their naïve daughter. Was it possible perhaps some of them were innocent? He noticed that along with his increased body size his brain appeared to have grown a bit larger, and he noticed that he was thinking more than he used to.

 

That sent a startle down his feathers that he would have preferred to do without. He had heard Master once or twice tell the Konulans not to think too much when he gave instructions, because thinking was the scaffolding of rebellion.

 

Harold found now he had never truly appreciated his quiet world that he had before, where the only thoughts on his mind pertained to carrying out missions. Now, he was thinking, which implied he too might be in danger of becoming a traitor. He attempted to calm himself with the realization that Master was far more intelligent than he was even with his new body and brain, and he surely wouldn’t have entrusted such an enhancement if the scaffolding of rebellion could possibly form in his mind.

 

Returning to the business at hand, he figured it was possible that some of them were innocent, and, after all, perhaps with Max gone the flames of treachery that burned in their hearts could be extinguished.

 

This realization brought him to a state of euphoria, as he realized in one fell swoop, he was going to carry out an order by Master, restore the Konulans to their once-loyal (albeit distractible) temperaments, and get rid of a personal enemy. With any luck, Laura would find a noble suitor who would steer her on the right path. He now felt no sting in his heart at her rejection. After all, he’d just as soon be attracted to an insect, given his elevated status.

 

SILENCE.

 

Although silence permeated the air above the frolicking Konulans, it was not for lack of activity. For as Max dove down towards the wriggling worm, which was hoping against hope to land in a hole, by which it could escape these cruel fiends, there was something else diving, and much faster, as it had already had a thousand feet of free fall by the time Max began his descent from a mere two hundred.

 

As Max neared the ground, ready to once again scoop up the worm in his beak and show Laura’s parents he really was “the one,” all of a sudden he heard the most horrible shriek from his beloved.

 

“MAX!! LOOK OUT!! A MONSTER!!”

 

“Monster” was perhaps the best term they could have summoned even had they been given a week to carefully think the matter over. After all, while perfectly formed in his functionality, Harold was of freakish size, and his large eyes, razor-sharp beak, and blade-tipped wings would have frightened a hardened warrior, let alone Konulans, which are not known for their combative natures.

 

Max let the worm complete its drop, which, though not so fortunate as to find a hole, did in fact begin making one for itself at a pace comparable to that of a dog digging his way frantically under a fence. Only seconds later, not even Harold’s keen eyes could have spotted it, for it had burrowed itself completely underground.

 

As Max looked up, he agreed with Laura’s descriptor but had no time to ponder it deeply. He found himself scooped up in talons that encircled him and imprisoned him, leaving him not the slightest chance of escape.

 

Harold then flew towards Laura and Laura’s parents, who were perched horrified on a branch, and certainly would have flown away, had it not been for the fact they didn’t feel comfortable turning tail and skedaddling while their future son-in-law was in the talons of this freakish beast.

 

“Attention! Attention!” cried Harold with great authority.

 

All the konulans flew close, though still a dozen feet or so out of Harold’s range. It pains me to inform you that one of your number has been found guilty of high treason—against Master himself!”

 

They felt confused at this language. Only the despicable Tristan had been referred to as “Master,” and they had thought the pholungs were frightening enough. But this beast defied description.

 

“Sadly, I must say I don’t think this is news to all of you, as some of you undoubtedly were willing conspirators with Max here.”

 

Max made a feeble attempt to say something about his innocence, but a quick squeeze with Harold’s talons silenced him.

 

“However, as Master’s mercy is far greater than we can ever possibly comprehend, he has decided that only the ringleader shall perish.”

 

They were doubly confused now. The idea that playful Max was the leader of anything—let alone a conspiracy—was implausible, but . . . was it? After all, he did seem to enjoy being the center of attention. Perhaps he one day dreamed of taking Master’s place. All the Konulans were paying close attention.

 

“The sentence has been issued; there is no appeal.”

 

And having said that, Harold quickly tore off Max’s head, and tossed the body towards the ground. Several spurts of blood went spraying onto numerous Konulans that had come closer and closer, due to their insatiable curiosity.

 

“The penalty has been paid. But take heed, lest you should one day flirt with the idea of rebellion, as undoubtedly many of you have. Master would unlikely be so merciful if faced again with rebellion.”

 

And having delivered his pronouncement, he went flying off towards Master. He had a package to deliver.

 

As soon as he was out of sight, the wailing and lamenting began. They all huddled around Laura, offering her comfort, for they knew she must be suffering the worst. Yet, they couldn’t help but think they should maybe keep their eyes on her. After all, could she too have been infected with Max’s tyranny?

 

They tried not to think of that, as right now they knew Laura needed their unconditional support.

 

Chapter 21

 

As Harold flew thousands of feet above the terrain of Dachwald headed east towards Master, he felt relatively good about what he had done. A traitor had been removed, a public example had been made of him, and thus a hard lesson had hopefully been instilled in the ranks of the untrustworthy flying mice.

 

But a small part of him felt a little bad. Had he somehow done the same thing while still a mere Konulan himself, he was pretty sure he would have felt good through and through about the deed. But he realized treacherous Max had no chance against a flying terror such as himself. But that was okay, he told himself, because after all it wasn’t a fight, and it wasn’t murder. It was an execution, and whether it had been carried out by a small bird or a hulking spectacle such as himself was really beside the point. He was but a mere instrument in Master’s hand.

 

This assuaged the small amount of guilt he had relatively well, but he still suspected that he would feel better once he delivered Max’s treasonous head to Master and put the whole thing behind him. He didn’t particularly enjoy keeping company with the grisly object in his talons, and he dared not stop to hunt, lest he lose the object of his mission. Upon arrival, perhaps he would get a real mission—something far more worthy of a creature of his potential.

 

Then, a pang of worry struck him, as he realized he was starting to become far prouder than he had ever been before. How could he possibly consider this to have been an insignificant mission? Though small in size, Max’s deadly skills of persuasion had influenced the entirety of the pholungs to join against Master in one deadly surprise attack, which he had only narrowly survived. Even Master’s cat had been flung from the cave, like some worthless item.

 

Thus, he realized to his satisfaction that Max’s fate had been not only deserved but probably far too merciful. Furthermore, he realized he had better lose his sensitive conscience fast because Master most likely had far bloodier tasks ahead for him.

 

 

When Harold arrived in the forest on the outskirts of Ringsetter where he had last met with Master, he was not overly surprised to find he was not there, but he was disappointed nonetheless. He now had the onerous dilemma of deciding what to do with the unpleasant burden he was carrying around. Master had told him to “bring” him Max’s head, but was he perhaps being a bit figurative? Surely, having separated Max’s perfidious head from his torso was sufficient; after all, Master would know whether Harold was lying upon hearing the report that he had killed Max. He didn’t need the head as proof.

 

Harold was finding himself more eager by the moment to get rid of it, so he decided the next best thing to handing Max’s head to Master in person was to deposit it in the same part of the tree where Master had been sitting when they last spoke. Although . . . that wouldn’t quite do: One good gust of wind, and that head would go flying off into the forest. No, he had better insert it inside some nook of the tree.

 

Harold scanned the tree with his telescope eyes, and quickly enough he discovered an adequate spot. He felt a prodigious burden lifted from his spirit as the gruesome object disappeared into the small hole of the tree.

 

Now, he had a new problem. He had absolutely nothing to do.

 

A sudden rumbling of his stomach begged to differ. He hadn’t eaten in a couple days now. To his delight he realized that he could make that a very short-lived problem. There would be no poking around for worms like in the old days. No, he was going to have a hot meal.

 

He immediately took off into the air, and once he reached two thousand feet he began scouring the ground for the meal of his choice. As he now knew of no animal—other than perhaps the largest of bears or the longest of anacobras—that would be too dangerous to take as his dinner, he now had the problem of an overabundance of options.

 

He had always had a particular dislike of cocky personalities, so he thought that so long as there were multiple options available he may as well see if he could sniff out any prey items that seemed particularly worthy of becoming dinner. His stomach told him not to be overly picky about it.

 

As he soared above scanning the ground closely, he noticed a rather obnoxious wolf who kept giving terrible nips to his fellows who were attempting to obtain their fair share of a kill they undoubtedly had assisted with a great deal. In fact, in Harold’s estimation, it was most likely the others had done more than their fair share. He had seen enough.

 

With the sun at his back, he wrapped his wings around his body and began to spin as he plunged headfirst two thousand feet towards the wolves. Once he felt he had adequate speed—which was nearly three hundred miles per hour—he unwrapped his wings and let his accumulated speed drive him forward in a low swooping motion.

 

Just as the wolf prepared to give another terrible nip to a fellow wolf who—after patiently waiting for the greedy wolf to satiate his hunger with one bloody mouthful of meat after another—dared take a small piece of the kill, Harold struck. His talons sunk deep into the wolf’s sides, puncturing his heart and lungs. Harold whisked him off in an instant, and though shocked, it did not appear that the other wolves particularly missed the nipper.

 

Harold looked below him, as he soared upwards, and noticed that all of the previously excluded wolves were now munching away contentedly on their meal. Harold felt happy knowing he was adding a bit of justice to the world, something he intended to do quite a bit more of.

 

Chapter 22

 

Given the relative ease with which Harold could satiate his ravenous hunger—there being few instances where obtaining a meal exercised more than his ability to choose—there was a lot of extra time to fill. And from the moment Harold arrived back in the woods near Ringsetter and did not promptly come in contact with Master, he knew that Master must have gone far away, likely for an extended period of time.

 

Thus, he needed some activity besides hunting to keep himself occupied. He recalled that Master had said he would one day have a new master and that his name was Ed. Harold became curious as to whether this Ed character possibly lived nearby. As Harold explored the area, he soon learned that there was only one house in this section of the woods. So, he began to wonder if perhaps Ed lived there. After all, it was near where Master had been hiding.

 

Whenever he wasn’t hunting, he kept a vigilant watch on the house, whether it was by lurking at the top of one of the many giant trees nearby, sailing through the air lazily in large circles thousands of feet above, or, on some occasions, swooping down stealthily to land on top of the house. While his telescope eyes allowed him to see all goings-on from far above, and his sensitive ears allowed him to understand words spoken outside the home from that height, hearing conversations inside the home from high above was not possible.

 

Thus, whenever he noticed the owners were inside the home he carefully glided on top of the house so lightly that not even a watch dog would have heard anything touch the roof. Harold quickly learned the dynamics of the household: a hardworking lumber man and a timid housewife. He would have been bored beyond all hope with this particular surveillance mission (Harold had to think of it as a “mission,” or he never would have started it in the first place), had it not been for the fact that, quite early on, he heard the name “Ed.”

 

This would have been sufficient to convince him that voluminous man hours—or, in this case, bird hours, but Harold was familiar with the concept of man hours and had the bad habit of applying it to himself—were necessary to see what he could learn about this family, but there was no longer any question in the matter after he heard Janie and Richie (he learned their names relatively quickly) talk about how Ed’s studies were going with the venerable professor who had taken him away for a top-notch private education. Apparently, they received an occasional letter from Ed.

 

Harold recognized immediately that Ed had been taken away to be groomed as a wizard, and, if he had what it took, he was going to one day be Harold’s master, but only when Master gave the go-ahead. However, Harold was open to bending the instructions . . . a little. It was a habit he noticed he had been acquiring little by little since his body was transformed. He figured that if Ed was to one day be his master, and Richie was Ed’s father, then technically Richie could be considered Harold’s interim master until Master came back.

 

After all, Harold had carried out his last mission dutifully, brought back proof thereof, and was awaiting further instructions in the area he and Master had last met. Surely, Master wouldn’t have given him this enhanced body to just laze about munching on wolves all day. No, he felt it was implied he keep very busy in this new body and put it to good use. Furthermore, if Ed were to one day be his master, he wouldn’t exactly be pleased if some harm were to befall his father.

 

That settled it for Harold. He had better make sure no harm befell Richie. However, as far as carrying out missions for him, that was another matter. He would have to get to know this Richie and see if he was worthy of being an interim master.

 

At first, he found Richie a terribly boring surveillance target. He felt his own body grow weary just watching the backbreaking work the poor man did from early morning until mid-evening. If not for his years of experience surveilling humans, he might have thought the poor fellow was serving some form of court-ordered punishment for a heinous crime, but he realized that ironically humans did this sort of work often and voluntarily!

 

He learned from many a night perched on top of the house that this fellow once had a bad habit of putting large quantities of alcohol into his body and then slapping his wife around. He felt grateful that was a matter of the past, as his new hobby of singling out bullies in the animal kingdom for dinner might have caused his instincts to react in a way not entirely beneficial to Richie. Harold felt an immense sense of relief this instinct wouldn’t be put to the test against his knowledge that he must protect the father of his future master.

 

Harold also felt quite happy for the poor fellow when he learned that he had decided to quit his daily torture in the lumberyard, although he questioned the intelligence of a man who had waited until his early thirties to do so.

 

Richie’s new occupation was a bit of a mystery to Harold. Soaring thousands of feet above was a must in any heavily populated area, as he didn’t think it wise for the sighting of a bird of his size to become local gossip. He knew how gossipy humans were; they were almost as bad as the flying mice—of which he had once admittedly been a member, but that seemed so long ago that he almost convinced himself occasionally it was all a dream.

 

Gossip about a large bird could attract hunters. And that would force Harold to have to flee the area, which would spell the end of his surveillance of Richie and, more importantly, his protection of him. Thus, he rarely descended below two thousand feet when surveilling Richie’s activities in the town of Ringsetter. He saw Richie go into the store, but that was about it.

 

Had he swooped down and planted himself on top of the store he might have learned a great deal more about Richie’s activities, but alas, whereas Richie’s house had no witnesses around, the act of landing on top of Richie’s new place of employment would have been a spectacle that stole everyone’s attention. Thus, it was only by the occasional hint of Richie’s work in discussions at home with Janie that Harold was able to learn the rudimentary aspects of Richie’s job, which sounded rather dull to Harold.

 

Harold was beginning to feel rather sorry for himself. He used to be responsible for the discovery of the knighting of a man of common birth as foretold by a prophecy that would be the signal for Master’s country to reassert her greatness, and now he was babysitting a store clerk.

 

Thus, it was with immense interest that Harold saw Richie leaving work early one day driving a wagon—something Harold had never seen before—which Richie then took into the woods near his home and then frantically began burying the contents, with the exception of one barrel, which he left uncovered long enough to use its contents to plant the beginning of a rudimentary garden.

 

Harold’s sense of smell rivalled perhaps even that of sight and hearing (no small feat), and he thought the seeds Richie was planting smelled awfully similar to a green powder he had seen Richie use on one occasion and that he had seen many people around town using. He realized Richie was involved in some kind of chicanery when he saw him then put a few empty barrels into the wagon and then drive off.

 

Harold was quite excited by the journey. He had never heard of, much less seen, the city of Sivingdel before. He had detected some hostility when Richie passed by a group of rather violent-looking young men in a disgusting cesspool on the edges of Sivingdel, and for a moment he thought he was going to have to perform Cyclone, grab these young toughs, and fling them several hundred feet into the air. Admittedly, he was a bit disappointed when it proved unnecessary.

 

Harold knew immediately what Richie was up to (there had been little doubt from the time he planted the garden) when he took off towards Sivingdel on horseback carrying a round sphere of this green substance that drove humans crazy. He expected the possibility of violence was imminent, as Harold had already heard the humans around Ringsetter whining and moaning about how much it cost now to get this substance.

 

He had thought for sure he was going to have to help Richie when the gang of bullies tried to rob him, and it was to his immense astonishment that he saw that Richie was no ordinary man. The ferocity and skill with which he had battered these hooligans into submission, killing one with a single punch, thoroughly impressed Harold, who had seen his share of human fights before.

 

He felt euphoric upon realizing this wasn’t all some big mistake and that Ed must be a very special kid because he certainly had a special dad. His confidence in Master was restored immediately, as he had been starting to wonder if Master’s desperate circumstances had caused him to pick a successor that was slightly below the mark.

 

Harold knew that soon it would be time to introduce himself to Richie because he could only provide the best possible protection to him if they knew and trusted one another. Richie would need to let Harold know his plans ahead of time; that way Harold could be sure to be present when his presence was most needed. Also, though he had never had an interest in business, he suspected Richie’s new line of work might make him appreciative of enhanced transportation.

 

Chapter 23

 

Knuckles had not been overly thrilled when, during his game of chess with Sir Charles, the latter had suggested that Knuckles have some of his men dress themselves in feces, go on a wild vandalism spree the likes of which one only saw in ridiculous plays or heard of in ludicrous tall tales, and shout repeatedly that they were looking for Smokeless Green. It had seemed to Knuckles that perhaps Sir Charles was seeing just how far he could push Knuckles. Perhaps he had brought Knuckles into his lavish home just so he could drive the point home that he and Knuckles were on two very different planes and that when Sir Charles asked him to do something he was to do it, even if it seemed foolhardy through and through.

 

If he was trying to pull one over on Knuckles, this was something Knuckles was convinced he could show Sir Charles was a mistake, although he was hopeful not to have to, given that his instincts repeatedly told him despite the man’s gentile exterior he had a savage spirit and the physical prowess to unleash it.

 

“I’ll pay you $50,000 falons upfront and $50,000 falons once the job is completed. How you divvy it up between your men is your business, not mine. However, it will be in my sole discretion whether this job is done as spectacularly as it needs to be. That may seem a bit much to ask, but that’s why the first half is being paid upfront and the overall price is so generous. I’m looking for newspaper coverage. I want this to be the talk of the city at every dinner table, restaurant table, and bar stool. Do these terms sound reasonable to you?”

 

Knuckles found himself singularly grateful for his virtually perpetual scowl on his forehead because at this moment his eyes were wanting to bulge out of his skull. He was used to raking in a measly $30,000 falons per year after divvying out wages to all the people in his crew. Here, he was being offered more than three times that for a single job, and it wouldn’t have to be split up amongst any besides the ones actually participating in the job, something he figured could be done in about three groups of four. He did a little quick math in his head and figured that if he gave them $4,000 falons each that would still leave him with $50,000 falons roughly, which would be nearly double his yearly wage in a short time span.

 

Sir Charles eyed him closely and could tell he was analyzing the offer strictly on practical grounds and appeared to be liking the results, forehead scowl notwithstanding.

 

Rather than push Knuckles, Sir Charles proceeded to expose a caveat.

 

“There is another thing you should consider, Mr. Hathers, before making your final decision” (and the way he said the word “final” caused a brief chill to go down Knuckles’ spine, something that didn’t happen every day or even every year for that matter), “which is that were any of your associates to be detained that would be a matter of very serious concern. Due to my relationships in the political and law enforcement community, it wouldn’t take long for me to learn whether they were talking. If that were to happen, I believe they would become . . . liabilities.”

 

“My men don’t talk to cops, and especially not the ones I would choose for this job. But, you have my word, if any of them did, I would have them taken care of personally.”

 

“Of course,” Sir Charles began with an apologetic tone. Shrugging his shoulders and raising his eyebrows calmly, he added, “If you were to permanently solve the problem within twenty-four hours I don’t think I’d feel the need to intervene.”

 

Knuckles once again thanked heavens for the scowl that could survive the strongest urges to betray his internal emotions because once again he found his eyes wanting to bulge out of their sockets upon learning from Sir Charles what would be considered a suitable time frame for carrying out a murder of a suspect in state custody. Knuckles would have suggested something much longer—perhaps a week—and found himself grateful he had kept his mouth shut, rather than revealing his limited capabilities compared to those of this savage gentleman.

 

“If,” Sir Charles continued, “the problem were not fixed within twenty-four hours I would ensure it were done, but I would have to deduct $10,000 falons for each mouth I had to have silenced. If that amount exceeded $50,000 falons, then I guess we’d have a little debt issue to work out.”

 

Knuckles was glad Sir Charles said this matter-of-factly. He didn’t want to go to war with this man, but he wasn’t about to let himself be threatened by anybody.

 

Knuckles reached across the table with a hand extended. “It’ll be done within a week.”

 

Sir Charles looked at him in the eye closely and then shook his hand. He then took out a leather bag, handed it to Knuckles, and said, “Count it, if it pleases you.”

 

Knuckles didn’t want to flat-out insult Sir Charles, so he didn’t go through the $100 falon bills one by one, but he did poke around a bit, as this was more money than he had ever held in his hands at once. Once he was convinced there were $50,000 falons in the leather bag he was carrying, he closed it, looked at Sir Charles, and nodded approvingly.

 

“Many men in your position would have demanded they know the bigger picture. But that’s what I like so much about you, Mr. Hathers—you no doubt wonder about the bigger picture, but you content yourself with the information you need to know for the job at hand. That’s a good business quality to have, and I can assure you it is a mandatory one for any long-term business relationship I maintain. So, for now, let me just tell you that if your associates perform well on this project, you will most likely be getting a whole heck of a lot more than just the $50,000 falons I promised you.

 

“A whole new world of business is about to open, the likes of which this republic has never seen before. It is going to turn the world upside down and inside out. Stick with me, Mr. Hathers, and you’re going to become a wealthy man.”

 

Knuckles was no fool, and as soon as he saw the bag full of $100 falon bills he realized something much bigger had to be at stake in order for Sir Charles to be paying this kind of money for a gang of toughs to go wreck some stores. Hell, wrecking stores was something they did at least once every couple months with their existing “customers,” and for those who were still in need of extra convincing that it would be wise to pay him and his gang protection money, wrecking stores was at least a weekly occurrence.

 

Now, all of a sudden, Knuckles was going to be pocketing almost double a year’s pay after deducting for associate wages just to go do something that was part of their normal line of work. But this was different. They were used to going after businesses in parts of town policemen didn’t like to spend too much time in. This was going to be in a plush shopping district full of gentlemen and ladies. The police presence was sure to be higher. Thus, so was the risk.

 

So, he had to ask himself what Sir Charles or Sir Charles’ bosses—if he had bosses—had to gain from this. The thought occurred to Knuckles that perhaps the idea was to make the current business owners move out, due to fear, as a result of which new business owners—who would, no doubt, be associates of Sir Charles—could come in and take over. Knuckles didn’t waste too long analyzing it because he was more a man of action than thought. He also figured there were too many unknown variables for it to be worth his time looking into the bigger picture. After all, he didn’t know anything about business beyond his small slice of the town, although he intended to change that in a major way.

 

As for now, $50,000 falons and the promise of a second dose for a job well done seemed to him like a good enough reason to proceed with the job, and he figured he was going to have enough on his hands choosing the right men to do it. He knew if he screwed this up, he could kiss big contracts like this goodbye, and he would be doomed to working like a slave just to collect peanuts in protection money. This was an opportunity he wasn’t about to miss.

 

Chapter 24

 

Knuckles couldn’t have been prouder of his men when he saw the headlines pile on top of one another about the rash of vandalism sprees and crime in wealthiest parts of the city, especially since not even one of them had been arrested. The focus didn’t seem to be on finding the perpetrators but rather what to do about this terrible substance that had caused them to act so wildly in the first place.

 

He had gone into his next meeting with Sir Charles expecting, in the best-case scenario, to be told that things were looking good but that at least a few more months would be needed to assess the effects of the vandalism. Instead, Knuckles was met with a grinning Sir Charles, who not only handed him over the other $50,000 falons promised but passed him another $10,000 and told him, “Don’t tell your men about this one; this one’s a bonus to the mastermind, which is you, my friend,” and then he had immediately had his servants bring one of his oldest bottles of wine to celebrate over quite a few games of chess.

 

Knuckles had been so focused on the job itself he had almost forgotten about what was possibly causing such big money to be behind a series of vandalistic acts, but when Sir Charles went ahead and laid it all out right on the table, Knuckles began thinking more about the newspaper headlines’ focus on Smokeless Green, and he started to suspect he was wrong that this was about scaring off the current owners so that new owners could squeeze in.

 

“Mr. Hathers,” Sir Charles began, putting a little Smokeless Green on the table, “what right now costs little more than ordinary tobacco will soon make gold seem like a common pebble. I have certain contacts right now that have told me that due to the alarming side effects of this substance it is soon going to be made illegal by our wise, noble senators. As you already know, this stuff has already almost replaced alcohol in terms of its widespread usage, and people are going to want it even more once they are told they can’t have it. Whoever can supply that need will make a fortune.”

 

This all seemed rather silly to Knuckles. After all, if this stuff became illegal, wouldn’t people prefer to just go back to getting drunk like they used to? Even if it was a little more exciting than alcohol (he himself had not tried Smokeless Green yet), would people really be willing to pay that much extra and risk going to prison? It just didn’t seem to add up. But what Knuckles lacked in economic instinct he more than made up for with his instincts regarding Sir Charles, and he knew that Sir Charles was not a person to come up with fanciful ideas. Knuckles found himself becoming more and more convinced as he listened.

 

He supposed it was just going to be a matter of wait and see.

 

Chapter 25

 

It might be expected that Knuckles would share the shock many felt that the law banning Smokeless Green was ever enacted in the first place, given its dubious constitutionality. Alas, while Knuckles lacked little in the way of avarice and ambition, he lacked a great deal when it came to intellectual curiosity.

 

Legal matters held little interest to a man whose first job (at age eight) was to alert pickpockets to the approach of police by whistling a prearranged song, then moving up the criminal ladder to full-fledged pickpocket, and ultimately arriving at the helm of a small-time group of hoods that put rattlesnakes inside businesses who refused to pay extortion money. His whole life had been spent spitting on the law; thus, to worry himself about the tedious rules by which these laws came into place seemed to him as necessary as the study of botany would to a lumberjack.

 

That being said, Knuckles was quite enthusiastic when he saw the news in the paper that the substance had been banned, and he hoped he would receive a visit from Sir Charles soon. He knew better than to go to his house unannounced.

 

He was not to be disappointed. He was not even completely done with the article on the first page when he heard the familiar knock of Sir Charles. He sprang to his feet, not waiting for one of his toadies to answer the door, and sprinted towards it.

 

He opened the door with a beaming smile on his face, and for the first time he saw a genuinely warm smile on Sir Charles’ face, not the frosty polite smile he usually wore. Even his eyes smiled, though he sensed something vicious inside them.

 

“May we talk in private, Mr. Hathers?”

 

Knuckles was thrilled at the fact there was some news Sir Charles had brought besides what was already printed all over the papers; otherwise, he wouldn’t have asked to talk in private.

 

Once they were alone in Knuckles’ office, Sir Charles began, “All the major retailers are frantically turning over their Smokeless Green to the police or sending it back right away to their inventory suppliers to let them deal with the mess. None of them want to take the chance of having any of it on their premises, much less on their shelves. And take my word for it—any retailer brash enough to risk selling this stuff up until the criminal penalties kick in next month won’t even have the opportunity. Their shelves will be empty of Smokeless Green by tomorrow, and there’s no way any major wholesaler is going to want to risk sending out inventory that is now contraband, regardless of the fact there’s a month before the criminal penalties kick in. It could destroy the company’s reputation, and product could be subject to police seizure regardless of the fact the criminal penalties haven’t begun yet.

 

“Businesses are going to be kicking this stuff up the chain from which it came and will let them take the loss or bleed out money in attorneys’ fees challenging the law’s constitutionality under Article 8. What this means in simple terms is that no later than tomorrow, you could search far and wide here in the capital city and not find a single store carrying Smokeless Green openly. More distant towns and cities might take a few weeks to fall in line, but believe me—the days of going into a grocery store and picking up a bag of Smokeless Green along with your pipe tobacco are long gone.

 

“Now, it’s just going to be a matter of what price those who still have this substance are going to ask for it.”

 

As he said this, Sir Charles’ warm smile turned wolfish, and his eyes almost made Knuckles jump.

 

Sir Charles calmly opened up his coat and removed a tightly compressed leather bag.

 

“This here is a pound. I’d like to make you an offer: $6,400 falons right here, right now.”

 

Had any man besides Sir Charles said this to Knuckles at this moment, he would have split the his nose open with a vicious uppercut. He knew darn well that as of yesterday a pound of Smokeless Green would have cost around $100 falons. Just who exactly did this gentleman take him for—a fool?

 

But Knuckles had already decided that with regards to Sir Charles—for now at least—his instinct to trust the man was stronger than his instinct that this didn’t add up.

 

Knuckles opened a drawer and started counting $100 falon bills. Once he had sixty-four in his hand, he calmly scooted them across the table.

 

“Wise choice, Knuckles. I’ll give you a little free advice. Don’t sell it tomorrow. And don’t sell it the day after that. Keep your ear to the ground. Quicker than you can grow impatient you’ll learn that you can get at least $700 falons per ounce for this. You’ve just paid me $400 per ounce. That will be a seventy-five percent markup for you, which will give you a profit of $4,800 falons.

 

“That might seem like small potatoes to you now compared to the very well-done and very dangerous job your fine men carried out under your guidance, but believe me—it will be much easier money.” And Sir Charles flashed an evil grin.

 

Knuckles tried to smile but couldn’t. Fake smiles came as naturally to him as calligraphy to horses. His frown line budged a few millimeters (creating an even more disturbing scowl), but that was the best he could do.

 

“I won’t keep you,” Sir Charles said. “I’m sure you have many pressing decisions to make. I know I do.”

 

Knuckles escorted Sir Charles to the door. The moment it closed, and he was freed of Sir Charles’ menacing presence, he felt the balance of his instincts tip the opposite way. He felt sure he had been had. There was no way he could turn a profit on that green powder he’d just spent two months of pay on. He’d had it with that fancy-pants-wearing, fancy-cane-carrying, fancy-hat-sporting dandy.

 

Then, the balance tipped back. This guy meant business. The aforementioned pants, cane, and hat now seemed to Knuckles like a carefully selected costume donned by a wolf on the hunt. The man had put his money on the line and his trust in Knuckles when he handed him a cool $50,000 falons for the first half of a job Knuckles would have probably done for a tenth of that amount. Then, he had not only paid the second half as promised but given him a $10,000 bonus as if it were a bottle of average wine.

 

The more Knuckles thought about it, he felt that even in the worst-case scenario he was still coming out way on top just for the last job, regardless of whether the price of this stupid drug skyrocketed the way Sir Charles said it would.

 

Well, he told himself, I’ll wait and see what happens with the price. If it doesn’t do what Fancy Hat says it will, he and I will just go back to our old agreement with protection money, and leave this speculative stuff to some other fools. Surely, he’d understand that. He seems to be reasonable.

 

Chapter 26

 

While the constitutionality of the Safety in Selegania Act was a fleeting curiosity in the mind of Righty Rick and was not even a blip on the map of Knuckles’ mind, it was of utmost importance to Senator Megders, perhaps better known to the reader by now as Squirrelly Eddie.

 

In fact, Senator Megders had stormed out of the senate like a tornado, the angry glare in his eye being as sufficient to clear a pathway as any battering ram, and thundered off to his private law office. Unlike many of the senators, who made the vast majority of their yearly income off of selling their votes, Senator Megders did actual work for a living, specializing in family law and in criminal law cases with constitutional issues.

 

He wanted a plaintiff, and he wanted one fast because he was going to be sure that he was representing the first person to sue the government over the constitutionality of SISA—something he had already renamed in his own mind as HISA—the Hypocrisy in Selegania Act. He would have marched over to one of the stores right now that had—at least up until now—carried large quantities of Smokeless Green, insisted on buying some, and then when he was told by the merchant that he could not because of the illegality of Smokeless Green he would sue and seek an injunction against enforcement of the law due to its unconstitutionality.

 

The problem, however, was that he qualified as a gentleman under SISA due to the size of his estate. His income also almost made him qualify, though it was a bit shy of the $200,000 cutoff amount for annual income. Thus, if the merchant refused to sell it to him, he technically couldn’t sue for an injunction of the enforcement of the law. He would lack standing. That was because the law would not forbid the merchant from selling it to a gentleman . . . that is, unless the merchant were not a gentleman.

 

But he knew that a claim like that would have less chance of being heard. The state would likely move for summary judgment, asserting that, even if the law were unconstitutional as applied to non-gentlemen, Senator Megders was a gentleman, could lawfully purchase Smokeless Green from another gentleman, and thus was not being injured by the law even if it were unconstitutional, and thus he had no standing. He could of course counter that by pointing out that by preventing non-gentlemen from possessing or selling it the only way a gentleman could get Smokeless Green lawfully under SISA was if another gentleman sold it to him, and since few retailers were wealthy enough to qualify as “gentlemen” under the Act, the law had the practical effect of making Smokeless Green unavailable to gentlemen, of whose class he was a member and had thus suffered injury.

 

But this was too wobbly a bridge for him to want to traverse while bringing about the destruction of SISA and making a failure out of that arrogant pest—Senator Hutherton. No, he needed a rock-solid plaintiff. Unfortunately, this meant someone criminally charged with violation of SISA. That would be at least a month before it could even theoretically be possible, and even then he wasn’t sure if it would be feasible.

 

After all, he had no doubt stores would be clearing their shelves of the substance as soon as they got word of SISA. Thus, there was no way he would have a retailer client on his hands or a client that purchased or attempted to purchase from a retailer. No, he felt certain that from this day forward Smokeless Green was going to become a hot contraband item the likes of which Selegania had never seen. He had seen the change in the city since its mysterious arrival (something he found curiously was rarely the subject of inquiry): taverns selling it had been full almost every single night, something that usually only happened during holidays.

 

He felt there was no way Smokeless Green was going to quietly disappear. As he entered his office, sat back in his leather chair, and crossed his arms, the certain, albeit unpleasant, realization came to him that there was nothing he could do but wait until a client walked into his law office having been arrested for use, possession, or sale of Smokeless Green.

 

He frowned and said out loud, “This isn’t over yet, Hutherton.”

 

Chapter 27

 

Knuckles soon found himself glad he had trusted his instincts regarding Sir Charles rather than his instincts regarding the future price of Smokeless Green. He had waited, as Sir Charles had recommended, for the price of an ounce to reach $700, something he expected to happen, if ever, when he was old and gray.

 

In fact, he had been regretting the awkward conversation he expected to take place with Sir Charles. Sir Charles, no doubt, would regret having invested $100,000 plus a $10,000 bonus in having Knuckles’ hooligans go around and cause a little mayhem and would be embarrassed upon making such bold—and erroneous predictions—about the future of Smokeless Green.

 

Knuckles would seek a tactful way to pass it off as nothing. After all, Sir Charles had done a good job so far keeping police attention elsewhere. Nonetheless, it was a conversation Knuckles wasn’t looking forward to, as he felt sure the old man was going to be embarrassed beyond description.

 

Thus, when his underling Chris Culmeyer, better known as Sweet Tooth, came rushing into his office just a couple weeks later, telling him that he better go sell that stuff now because the word on the street was it had already gone slightly over $700 an ounce and that it was going up fast because other gangs were having a hard time getting access to the drug, Knuckles had been delighted.

 

He decided to accompany his toughs on this project, as he was not about to risk squandering the potential profits that were waiting to be made. He was expecting Sweet Tooth to perhaps bring him down some dirty alley to make the deals, but to Knuckles’ surprise he found himself being brought into a store that paid protection money, and waiting there were well-dressed businessmen.

 

He could tell by the looks on their faces they’d rather be anywhere else. He noticed slight twitches in their nostrils as if they were dogs smelling a tasty treat nearby. He had almost nodded off when Sir Charles had explained some of the fancy rules those crooks in the senate had made in their new law, but he seemed to recall something about rich people could still get high.

 

He wondered if these fellows were just a hair or two shy of what those senate rats called “rich,” or if it was just that they didn’t know where else to go. Suddenly, a newly learned instinct kicked in, one that he had internalized from his frequent contact with Sir Charles. You could be classy and still be powerful, and he his instinct told him he better learn how to do that with these men or otherwise he’d curse the day he didn’t.

 

“Mr. Mollens, get each of these men a cigar.”

 

Mr. Mollens, owner of this small grocery store, looked surprised, but quickly obliged. He had been one of those stubborn fellows that had only seen sense after the sound of rattlesnakes was buzzing away inside his store so loud it could be heard half a block away on a quiet evening.

 

The businessmen looked equally surprised, and he noticed they calmed a bit.

 

“My name is Mr. Hathers,” he said confidently but decided to omit that he was in charge of the Rattlers, as that somehow seemed incongruent to the impression he was trying to make.

 

“My goal is to make sure you are aware first and foremost that in all dealings with myself or any of my associates” (and as he said this he cast a look at his hooligan toadies that let them know they would woefully regret not paying careful attention to his instructions on this particular point) “you will be treated with the utmost respect and consideration. I assume you know the price of Smokeless Green has already inched its way past $700 per ounce, but to show you my commitment to our business relationship, I’m going to sell you these for a flat $700 each, and feel free to have a quick sample first.”

 

Each of the five gentlemen inside the store obliged, and their faces revealed great contentment. Within two minutes, Knuckles had sold all sixteen ounces and had $11,200 in his pocket.

 

He was practically sprinting back to his house. He had never gone to Sir Charles’ house without an invitation before, but he didn’t care. It was clear Sir Charles wanted him to move this product, and it was hard for him to conceive of Sir Charles being irritated by Knuckles’ letting him know that was precisely what he had done and that he was ready to start doing it in earnest.

 

Chapter 28

 

Things were going quite well for Righty. His meetings with Tats had long ago became so frequent that he had realized he was going to have to either resign at Roger’s Grocery Store or get fired. He opted for the former. There was no reason to leave on bad terms with Roger, and so today he had thanked Roger very much for the opportunity that he had given him but that he was going to resign for personal reasons. He offered to stay for another couple weeks if that would help, but Roger told him that wouldn’t be necessary.

 

This was a glorious moment for Righty, clouded only by the realization that he was going to have to explain to Janie how it was that he was able to quit his job. He didn’t want her to think that he was going to turn into a loafer—or worse, back into a drunkard. He had an idea lined up already for what he would do next, but first he felt this was a moment he was going to have to savor, or otherwise he might lose the drive he had to carry out what he was starting to see taking shape in his mind as his destiny.

 

Without realizing he was doing it, he copied the steps of his son Eddie—of whom he had thought little lately, given his other preoccupations—and began climbing up the tree that led to the large branch Eddie had always called The Pathway, but which had been the last thing Eddie’s nemesis Brian had ever fallen off of.

 

Righty felt a nervous chill go down his spine as he realized the only way to get up the big tree was to cross that pathway, and he was aware of the fact some kid in Eddie’s class had fallen off of it and died. But he was craving altitude right now the way many of his customers were craving Smokeless Green, and compared to some of the risks he had taken so far, this one seemed relatively benign.

 

He walked across it carefully and then began making his way up the tree it led to. He was surprised just how tall the darn thing was because the thickness of the trees overhead obscured their full height. He found himself climbing and climbing and climbing what surely was several hundred feet until he suddenly saw some sort of structure.

 

Then, he saw wizard drawings carved onto the boards, and he realized that little dreamer son of his must have dragged these boards up here and nailed them together. He heard a sound and suddenly looked to his right, and for a second he thought he saw some huge monstrous creature in the air, but by the time he blinked all he saw were a couple feathers disappearing between the small view offered by the many crisscrossing branches in the distance, and he realized he must have gotten a little dizzy from the climb and seen some kind of optical illusion as a result.

 

He made himself comfortable on the edge of the little fort Eddie had built, and he felt a sense of extreme peace. The view was breathtaking, and although it didn’t permit much horizontal sight beyond a couple hundred feet due to the thick branches overhead, the view alone of all the massive, spider web-like connecting branches was impressive in its own right. He couldn’t see the ground beneath him, so thick were these branches.

 

The breeze was cool and soft against his head. He realized this was one of those moments that he had to take in and really enjoy. He had read about many great men who failed because they worked themselves so hard and never gave themselves time to stop and enjoy the successes they had accomplished. He was determined not to make that mistake because otherwise there would be no point in accomplishing the goals he had in mind.

 

He thought back to his deeply frustrating failure as an almost boxing champion, and he saw his sudden expulsion from boxing followed by his miserable years at the lumberyard being almost tantamount to being snatched from a wedding altar and forced into slavery. When he had suddenly gotten the determination to quit drinking, he hadn’t really thought he could do it, but he did. He then didn’t think he could educate himself beyond the basics, and now he was reading some of the most advanced books in various subjects that Janie could find at the library.

 

Now, economic success was within his grasp. He knew there were two basic ways this could go. He could take the game as having already been won and get arrogant and sloppy, and within a few months he would be inside a prison somewhere, divorced, and suicidal. Or, he could recognize reality—which was that he had about a thousand and one obstacles ahead of him, any one of which could bring him down—play his cards really carefully, and maybe, just maybe, with a little luck, he would attain the grandiose success he was starting to envision for himself.

 

But for now, it was time to just . . . relax. He breathed deeply and noticed just how sweet and fresh the air was up here. More deep breaths. Soon, Righty was collapsed back inside Eddie’s tree house, sleeping like a baby. Fortunately for Righty, Eddie had made it strong.

 

 

About three hours later, Righty came to. He saw that it was almost dark but not quite. Janie would be worried about him. It was time to do what he had to do. He hoped he could keep Janie in the dark forever about the source of his activities, but she was no fool, and he knew it would only be a matter of how long before she knew and whether he could earn enough brownie points in the interim to soften the sting of her discovery.

 

Chapter 29

 

“Dinner was great tonight, hon’,” Righty said, giving Janie a kiss on the lips.

 

“Thanks, Richie,” she responded. Her intelligent blue eyes, whose piercing glare sometimes reminded Righty of the undeceivable nostrils of a bloodhound, detected that there was something on his mind.

 

“I quit my job today,” he said calmly.

 

Janie’s eyes looked angry, and Righty noticed she bit her lower lip subtly, trying to control her anger.

 

“Because I’ve got much bigger plans,” Righty then added, with a sly smile.

 

Janie’s anger passed quickly, like a tornado that dissipated before it ever touched the ground.

 

“Before I had my last boxing match,” Righty began, “I made a decision that for a while seemed like one of the worst decisions of my life. A stockbroker approached me and convinced me to put everything I had earned into a fourteen-year annuity. I know we went through some tough times where that money would have really come in handy, but I never mentioned it because the early withdrawal penalties were set at half of the accumulated value. Not only would there have been no point in giving up that much money, but also I was embarrassed for having been so foolish as to invest such a high percentage of my savings into an annuity with such stiff withdrawal penalties, so I was embarrassed to tell you.

 

“Well, long story short, it matured last week. I sent in the redemption paperwork right away. And right here,” Righty said, putting a large bag on the table, “is just over $500,000 falons.”

 

Janie dropped her fork onto the plate. The tension in the air was so thick a tossed stone could have shattered it into a million pieces.

 

“Open it,” Righty said calmly. Janie obliged. For good measure, Righty pushed towards her some paperwork—some very expensive paperwork—certifying the redeemed amount and jam-packed with enough small-size font, big words, and dense paragraphs to dissuade all but the most ardent of contract attorneys from venturing beyond line two. Righty, however, had scrutinized it carefully yesterday, his eyes searching for the smallest error. He had been relieved to learn that the contact at the bank would not be in need of a reminder as to how Righty had acquired his nickname.

 

Janie gasped. Then, with a tear streaming down her cheek, she looked at him. “Baby, I am so proud of you. If you had told me during your drinking years that you had the discipline to not touch something like this when your throat seemed to never get dry and you hated your job ceaselessly, I wouldn’t have believed it for a second.

 

“But over the last two years, I’ve learned that I fully underestimated your potential. I think maybe even you did. I don’t know if Kasani came down from heaven and touched you with a spark of inspiration, but something happened to you. Something out of this world. A couple of years ago you couldn’t even read, and now I’m having a hard time finding books at the local library you haven’t read.

 

“Baby,” she said, with a passionate look in her eye, “I love you.”

 

Righty leaned over and planted a solid kiss right on her lips.

 

“I love you sweetheart. Don’t ever forget that. I’m yours forever. I’ll never let you down.”

 

The lovemaking that ensued that night would stand out in both of their minds for years to come.

 

Chapter 30

 

Righty breathed more than one sigh of relief when he saw that Janie went for the annuity story. But he knew credible stories like that were about as abundant as four-leaf clovers, and he knew it was time to start getting some clean money fast so he could start scrubbing all those dirty falons he was getting.

 

He had promptly purchased a small abandoned structure near the center of downtown Ringsetter (a former grocery store) and decided he was going to turn it back into a combination of a hardware and grocery store. After all, besides bare-knuckle brawling, lumber hauling, and his newly acquired skills in growing and selling Smokeless Green, store work was just about the only area he had any practical experience in.

 

He was pleased as he passed the store to see that a beautiful sign was already being placed on top of the structure:

 

RICH’S GROCERIES & HARDWARE

 

Today, he had two important projects. The first was to go and try to set up an inventory agreement with Mr. Hoffmeyer. He had had a very positive instinct about the man when he first met him, and he suspected he just might come in handy with the kind of work he found himself getting into. But he had no plans to rush anything. Secondly, he was going to make the biggest sale of Smokeless Green today that he had ever made. It was going to be ten pounds and would sell for $100,000 falons. He was really pleased with the efficiency of those seeds. He found that once he removed a large bulb from the stem usually it was replaced within a couple weeks, and the plants reached a good seven feet tall. He had to pull down on the tallest ones to bring the bulbs within reach. He had spent the better part of last night out in the woods with a scale packaging the contents for today’s transaction.

 

Nonetheless, he noticed that—while it was a good problem—he had a problem on his hands. The orders were becoming more frequent and bigger and bigger. He had already tripled the size of his initial garden, and he was out there every night for at least an hour carefully watering the plants on any night it didn’t rain. Fortunately, he had barely even made a dent in one of the barrels, but he noticed that none of the plants produced any seeds themselves.

 

He found this quite frustrating, as he realized he was dealing with a finite source. On the other hand, perhaps by the time he got all the seeds from those barrels planted, that would be a good time to quit. After all, he could hardly even fathom the riches those seeds would provide, especially if the price kept going up like it had been, although he noticed the increases in price had been getting slower and slower, and he suspected they were near their maximum.

 

Nonetheless, they were mighty high right now, and he intended to continue capitalizing on that as long as he could, lest the Safety in Selegania Act be found unconstitutional and invalidated by the Supreme Court or perhaps even repealed by the senate if the senators felt the law had been a failure. He didn’t know what to expect there, but what he did know was he didn’t want to end up regretting the rest of his life that he hadn’t worked harder to take advantage while there were riches to be made. He was going to have to do whatever it took—strategize, work longer hours, anything.

 

He knew that with the kind of quantities he was carrying around now, he could no longer just hoist it into his saddlebags and be prepared to defend it with his brass knuckles. He had constructed a false bottom to his wagon, and over the top he had inserted a steel plate. A very inconspicuous keyhole underneath the driver’s side of the wagon seat released the steel plate. A board covered the steel plate and matched the surrounding floor boards perfectly.

 

He had acquired this service in Sivingdel and explained to the carpenter that he occasionally had to carry large quantities of cash, due to his payments on sold inventory. Furthermore, he had acquired a large, oval-shaped piece of steel that he could put around the spokes of his wagon to ensure it wasn’t stolen easily.

 

Righty saw that he was at his destination. He parked the wagon, locked the front left wheel, and entered the building. He recognized the secretary immediately, and it appeared the recognition was mutual.

 

“May I help you, sir?” she asked.

 

“Yes, ma’am. I’m here to see Mr. Hoffmeyer.”

 

“Do you have an appointment?”

 

“I’m afraid I’ll have to disappoint you again on that.”

 

She smiled casually. “I’ll go see if he is available.”

 

She came back about ten minutes later and said, “Mr. Hoffmeyer will see you now.”

 

She walked him to Mr. Hoffmeyer’s office.

 

“Mr. Simmers,” Mr. Hoffmeyer began warmly. “To what do I owe this pleasure?”

 

“I’ve started a small store, and I’m looking for an inventory supplier.”

 

“Well, I’ll be. Not too long ago you were an employee. Now you’re a business owner. Congratulations.”

 

His congratulations seemed warm, but his eyes seemed shrewd, as if communicating the brain behind them suspected there was more to the story. That didn’t particularly bother Righty. His store was going to have to do a lot more for him than provide hammers and chickens, and Mr. Hoffmeyer was his best prospect for locating a man to do something like that.

 

Righty and Mr. Hoffmeyer began poring over various terms and conditions of their prospective business relationship, and they did a little dickering over inventory prices. Righty found himself glad that he had learned a lot about inventory during his tenure at Roger’s Grocery Store. Mr. Hoffmeyer hadn’t exactly tried to cheat him. But he drove a hard bargain. Righty practically felt he was in a sparring match.

 

Nonetheless, they did eventually arrive at a bargain both seemed to find fair.

 

They shook hands, but before Righty could leave, Mr. Hoffmeyer said, “You going to do all your accounting on your own?”

 

Righty looked at him closely. He suspected Mr. Hoffmeyer might be broaching a topic he himself certainly planned to raise, although he wasn’t sure if now was the right time. Mr. Hoffmeyer’s eyes looked shrewd.

 

“Some of my clients prefer to outsource the accounting work to us. Or, sometimes clients ask us for a good recommendation concerning accountants,” Mr. Hoffmeyer said.

 

“I think I should be able to handle it at first. Like you said, just recently I was an employee. I can’t expect the store to become a success over night. I should be able to handle the accounting for now; I did a lot of that with Rog. On the other hand,” and now it was Righty’s eyes to allow a little cunning to dance both on the surface of his eyes and on the sound waves of his voice, “if the business were to grow faster than I expect, then I suppose I might find myself taking you up on your offer.”

 

“I think it would be a good conversation to have. I have some accountants who are particularly adept at dealing with unexpected profits.”

 

“Well, we just might be seeing each other again, Mr. Hoffmeyer,” Righty said, and they shook hands a second time, and Righty felt confident Mr. Hoffmeyer could connect him to a good money scrubber. However, he had been sincere himself in that he needed to get a little actual business going in the store before it suddenly started generating large profits.

 

Chapter 31

 

Righty was feeling like he had the world by the trousers as he unlocked the bar on his wagon, hopped into the seat, and started heading towards what was going to be his most lucrative meeting to date with Tats. He had come to like the young tough somewhat, although trust was something the young punk was still going to have to earn. He hadn’t forgotten that Tats had tried to jump him during their first business encounter, but it seemed the thrashing he and his pals received had had a positive effect.

 

As he neared the meeting site he started to get the feeling that it was a mistake to always be meeting in the same place. It had started out as logical simply by virtue of being the one place he was sure he could come in contact with the criminal underworld, and Righty had continued it thereafter mostly just out of habit, but also because he reckoned it was a place most police officers didn’t desire to be, as the smell alone could just about knock you on your backside.

 

Nonetheless, the quantities were getting bigger, which meant more money was on the table. And more money on the table meant more jaws flapping. And he knew pretty soon he was going to have to crack some more heads to prevent people from trying to take what was his. And he knew he could only spin that roulette wheel so many times before his luck ran out. Bare-knuckle boxing expert though he was, he knew he was not invincible.

 

As he neared the meeting location, he felt his nerves calm a little as he saw Tats and his usual toughs seated or otherwise congregating around the bench where they had first caught Righty’s attention.

 

Righty had already unlocked the false bottom before heading out from Mr. Hoffmeyer’s building. While he didn’t necessarily like the idea of driving through Sivingdel with ten pounds of Smokeless Green protected only by one wooden plank that could be easily removed, there was no way he was going to betray the location of the keyhole for unlocking the steel plank. He could do this relatively inconspicuously at a location where no one would be expecting a well-dressed businessman to be disarming a barrier to ten pounds of Smokeless Green—just a subtle bending over to adjust the left shoe, then the right shoe, then a quick little poke into the small keyhole while bent over, and no ordinary passerby would know what he had just seen.

 

But when arriving at a meeting place where a handful of career criminals would be watching his every move like a cat watching a mouse, no subtle shoe adjustment would succeed in diverting the gaze of the predators surveying him. Furthermore, he had a couple of heavy barrels on top of the location, so if any young thief had hopped into his wagon as he drove it through Sivingdel and started rummaging around, Righty would have splattered his brains on to the floor of the wagon long before the street rat would have found Righty’s property.

 

Righty brought his wagon to a halt.

 

“You’re looking mighty prim, Mr. Brass,” Tats said, smiling.

 

Righty eyed him closely. It appeared to be a good-natured remark.

 

“Excuse me a moment, gentlemen,” Righty told the toughs.

 

He stepped into the back and then looked at them with a sly grin: “I’d tell you not to peek, but something tells me that would be a waste of time.”

 

It would have been. All five of the gang were eyeing him like audience members ready to catch the secret behind a magician’s trick. Righty started tossing carefully packed one-pound sacks to Tats.

 

Once he had thrown him five, he said, “That’s half of what I promised I’d bring. I better start seeing you cough up some falons.”

 

Tats whistled, and two street rats emerged from behind a large mound of trash on the side of the hill.

 

Righty eyed Tats closely.

 

“They work for me. I can’t just exactly sit out here with $100,000 falons under my lap and expect to walk home with it.”

 

Righty said nothing but instead watched the group of seven closely.

 

The two hoods who had emerged from the rubble looked like they were about seventeen. They were scrawny and had a serious look about them.

 

They didn’t look at Righty and that was fine with him. They submissively brought a bag to Tats. He took out five large wads of tightly packed falons and then brought them to Righty.

 

Righty kept his eye on the group while raising the falons to eye level and flipping through them. He would count the money falon by falon later and bust heads if necessary, but for now he was just making sure these were wads of hundred-falon bills.

 

“Each is $10,000. You’ve got five.”

 

Righty stuffed the money into an inside pocket of his coat. He hopped up into the wagon and brought out the remaining five pounds. He handed them directly to Tats and kept his eyes glued on him like paper to a wall.

 

Tats promptly handed over five wads similar to in size to the ones he had given Righty a moment ago. Righty gave them a quick looking over and noticed Tats was doing the same to the Smokeless Green packages. Righty was beginning to feel more relaxed.

 

“You know, Tats—if you do business the right way with me, you’re going to be a rich man.”

 

Tats looked at him and nodded. He didn’t offer any sycophantic gestures. After all, he had his gang there watching him. But his expression was respectful.

 

Out of the left of his eye, Righty caught some movement. It was a ways off but was certainly moving in the direction of him and his current company. Instinctively, he looked to his right and saw a group of about the same size coming.

 

They were too far away for him to know their number yet.

 

“You expecting any company?”

 

“No, sir,” Tats said.

 

His voice sounded sincere. In fact, it sounded more than that. It sounded a bit afraid. That calmed Righty slightly. It suggested Tats wasn’t trying to pull something. On the other hand, if this young tough was nervous about who was coming through here at this particular moment, that boded ill.

 

He saw Tats pull out a small dagger. Righty stayed still, although he had almost cracked Tats’s head into pieces. He caught himself—fortunately for Tats’s sake—because Tats’s demeanor seemed to Righty like he was preparing for the possibility of having to defend himself.

 

“Suit up, lads,” Tats said in a voice that was soft and meant to sound calm, but he failed in completely hiding the fear he was feeling.

 

Righty didn’t look down on him for that. He could feel nervousness swimming around in his own stomach like a fish stuck in a whirlpool. Righty saw Tats pull out a blackjack for his other hand. His hoods started pulling out a variety of welcoming presents. Switchblades sliced through the air as their blades were released from their cages. Solid brass started to clothe the knuckles of more than one. Clubs began to slide out of sleeves like snakes and into firmly gripped hands.

 

Righty didn’t blame them for getting ready in such open fashion, but his gut instinct told him it might help to look defenseless.

 

He could now see there were six people approaching them on each side, thus leaving Righty and his group—he hadn’t thought of them as such until this moment!—practically double-teamed.

 

It didn’t take Righty long to erase whatever scintilla of doubt had heretofore remained in his mind about the intentions of the sudden arrivals. The smug looks on their faces may as well have been tattooed with the word “GOTCHA!”

 

“Stay behind me, Tats, unless the crap really starts to fly.”

 

Tats didn’t look like he needed to be told twice.

 

Righty could tell immediately that this was going to be an entirely different dance than the one had had with Tats and his gang during their first business encounter and even from the follow-up dance where he had to break Big Frank’s neck. Tats and his gang all looked to Righty like they were in their late teens. These were full-grown men, most of them looked strong, and there were a lot more of them than what Big Frank had brought.

 

“So you’re the badass, I take it,” one of the men said.

 

He had long, dark hair, parted in the middle.

 

“Big Frank was my brother. This was his territory. I inherited it when you killed him. I really didn’t think I would be so lucky to find you were stupid enough to come back repeatedly to the very spot you killed him. I told my friends here, ‘I’d have to see it to believe it.’ Well, I’m here, and I’m still not sure I believe it.”

 

Righty was pretending to be calm, but he was anything but. He hadn’t been this nervous since the final ten to fifteen minutes before the Oscar Peters fight. He felt his bowels squirm.

 

Then, to his horror, Big Frank’s brother pulled out something Righty had never seen before in his life, except in statues, paintings, and drawings. A full-length sword came sliding out inch by inch from what must have been the guy’s scabbard, although it was concealed so well Righty couldn’t see it.

 

Now, he was nearly in panic mode. He considered running, but he had always hated Runners and had made pursuit of them an art form in the ring. This was no ring, however, and he didn’t think this guy was going to run.

 

Righty tried a little psychology. “I’m honored. That’s an awfully big weapon to take on one man. You must have believed those stories you heard about my being a badass.”

 

Righty saw an angry cloud pass over the man’s face, and for a moment he thought the psychology would work. But his hopes shattered when the cloud passed by, and the man replied, “Out here, it’s the one who leaves alive that’s the badass. And if you were too stupid to come here protected by something besides your two hands, then that’s your problem.”

 

Righty knew better than to try psychological disarmament again. Once was to be expected of an unarmed man versus someone holding a monster like what this guy had in his hands, but to attempt this again would simply embolden the man’s predatory instinct.

 

Righty knew that his only chance of survival now lay with intimidation. To Righty, tapping into aggression within himself was like dipping into a bottomless well whose water was almost always near the surface and even flowing over from time to time. Thus, it was not years of acting classes that suddenly turned Righty’s soft eyes into glowing coals of anger and aggression, but rather he simply removed the false bottom normally covering the ferocious contents of his soul.

 

Righty knew this was no joke. This wasn’t even an Oscar Peters match. No, this was life or death, but Oscar Peters was on his mind. The image of that smug, pompous dandy talking to him via his messenger boy while Righty stood three feet away. That arrogant, no-good, cheating sissy who had attained glory through the cheating and then avoided a subsequent fight by the luck of Righty being banned from boxing for life.

 

Anger swelled up to the surface of Righty’s soul that was far more powerful than the usual stuff he relied upon when he needed to crack someone’s face in half. This was more like volcanic lava about to belch forth from the mouth of a long-dormant volcano.

 

The man’s eyes grew like saucers when he saw Righty begin charging him.

 

Righty almost got into punching range before the man suddenly stuck his sword straight forward, causing Righty to recoil in horror.

 

The man grinned evilly at Righty—a smug, arrogant grin.

 

Righty realized his normal strategy of chasing his prey down and beating it to smithereens was not going to work in this fight. He was going to have to do something he couldn’t even remember doing in a fight—react defensively.

 

The man continued looking at him with his nauseating sneer while holding the sword straight out towards Righty.

 

Suddenly, the man lurched forward, attempting to thrust his sword into Righty’s midsection. Righty quickly stepped to the side. He was about to send five brass knuckles into the man’s face, but the man quickly recoiled upon realizing his lunge had missed.

 

Although Righty’s fury was still in full swing, he felt his fear diminish some, as he realized that this man probably did not know how to use a sword very well. Dodging that lunge had seemed far easier than Righty would have imagined.

 

For a brief moment, he considered pulling out his dagger, but the thought of facing a full-length sword with that sharpened pencil somehow seemed more preposterous than his current use of brass knuckles, given he at least knew how to use them.

 

Both men circled each other as if in some bizarre dance, each waiting for the other to make the next move.

 

Righty had never been a big fan of trash talk, but instinctively the situation seemed to merit it.

 

“For a man with a sword, you’re awful shy about using it,” Righty taunted. “Would it help if I took these brass knuckles off and fought you fair and square with just my two bare hands?”

 

Righty heard one of the guy’s sidekicks howl with laughter, and Righty knew it was about to be show time.

 

The man charged forward at Righty and then swung the sword like it were a baseball bat in a wide swooping arc towards Righty’s ribs.

 

Righty reacted instinctively the same way he would have to a large haymaker punch. He scooted forward quickly, pushing off of his back leg. He landed a stiff brass jab to the man’s nose, crushing it instantly, and sending a shower of blood in all directions. This alone took a lot of the wind out of the sword swing, but even if it hadn’t, Righty had moved in so close that only the man’s forearms would hit him.

 

However, Righty instinctively realized that while that swing had been thwarted, there was nothing to stop the man from slicing anew, across Righty’s gut. But these thoughts were happening subconsciously at the microsecond level, not being debated in a senate. Righty threw one of the hardest overhand rights he had ever thrown in his life, directly into the man’s forehead. He felt bone give way, and the blood that spurted from it made the geyser from the man’s nose look like the proverbial blood from a turnip.

 

Righty grabbed the man’s sword hand and punched right down into it. He heard bones crunch like eggshells. The sword fell to the dirt. Righty grabbed the man by his right collarbone with his left hand because he could tell he was already unconscious and about to fall over, but Righty wasn’t aiming for unconscious. Not today.

 

Brass knuckles still in both hands, the loose fingers of his left hand spun the man around by the collarbone, and then he grabbed the man by the back of his neck. He felt armor there, and it made a nice handhold. Righty then delivered three powerful blows to the back of the man’s head. Bone, brains, and blood flew everywhere, and Righty helped the man to the ground with a good solid kick.

 

“Who’s next?” Righty roared.

 

Righty had half-expected the eleven men left standing to saunter off like whipped pups, but to his horror, he saw they all began closing in.

 

“Take this, Tats!” Righty screamed, tossing the now ownerless sword lying on the ground. “You need it more than I do!” he added, although in reality he felt he was the main target and thus needed it a great deal. The problem was that he felt about as confident picking up that thing and using it as a violin, neither of which he had ever touched before in his life.

 

He hoped perhaps Tats had some practice using a dagger or club that might translate into proficiency with this severe weapon. Tats quickly pocketed his blackjack and dagger and picked up the sword, which Righty’s toss had just deposited nearby.

 

Righty felt hugely relieved when he saw no more swords being wielded by the assailants, but he wasn’t exactly looking at the temple choir either. Clubs, switchblades, brass knuckles, and daggers were prevalent, and one of the men appeared to have some kind of bag with a large stone or other heavy object inside of it.

 

For a moment, Righty feared he would turn and find himself all alone while Tats and his gang hightailed it out of there with ten pounds of Smokeless Green, but to his immense satisfaction he saw them holding strong. Little did he know that behind their tough exteriors they had long since begun to admire him intensely, and his work with the swordsman had just tripled that.

 

“Let’s hit ‘em hard!” Righty urged.

 

He was leading no gang of pups. Though he could make quick work of any of their number and had proven that sufficiently to them, they were not to be underestimated in an all-out brawl.

 

Righty, however, only saw glimpses out of the corner of his eye because he was focused on what he had to do.

 

He went charging for who seemed to be the biggest guy still there. He was holding a club, and Righty had already decided in his mind that to win this fight he was going to have to be willing to take a few hits if that was necessary to stay on the offensive. He couldn’t afford to play defense when he was still almost double-teamed.

 

He went charging the guy with the club. He swung it like a baseball bat, having not learned a particularly large amount from the outcome of his associate’s efforts in the same venture. Righty delivered a stiff jab to the man’s chin with his left brass-covered fist. Although Righty knew from the strength of the impact that that was enough for a knockout blow, he wasn’t going to relent just yet. Less than a tenth of a second later, a friend joined the fun—the fist for which Righty had earned his nickname. The strong overhand right went right into the man’s jaw, pulverizing it, and spinning him around.

 

Without even grabbing him to slow his fall, Righty managed to crouch, spring up, and deliver a vicious left hook to the man’s temple while he was still on his way down.

 

CRACK!!!!

 

Righty felt something make the acquaintance of the back of his head rather rudely. Instinctively, he went rolling onto the ground. He was no gymnast, but while the boxing commission in Selegania had succeed in banning him from fighting in the ring, that hadn’t prevented him from continuing his boxing career unofficially in just about every bar in Ringsetter during his decade or so of binge drinking.

 

He had never had any formal training in anything other than boxing, but one vicious barroom fight after another had been a darn good teacher. He had learned, for example, that when one thing hits the back of your head it’s usually followed by company.

 

As he came up onto his feet he saw he had been struck by the mysterious bag weapon. He still didn’t know what was in that thing, but he knew one thing: It hurt like holy, righteous hell.

 

Warm blood trickled down the back of his neck, but he wasn’t seeing double, so he charged forward. Unlike the two batters he had just come across, this guy swung the bag around in many bizarre angles, all of which seemed pointed at Righty’s head.

 

Righty was no stranger to deceptive hand movements, and he was timing the man’s movements. As soon as one of the man’s wild strikes went towards Righty’s head in a downward motion, he slipped to the side and sent five brass knuckles straight into the man’s stomach. Air whooshed out, and a groan could be heard. Righty immediately delivered five body blows within less than two seconds. Ribs splintered, and the man began coughing up blood. Righty quickly crouched and shot up with an uppercut to the man’s chin, crunching bone into bits and knocking the man off his feet.

 

Righty saw that Tats was doing a pretty good job keeping two assailants in front of him at bay with his sword but was about to get hit over his head by a decent-size club. Righty sprinted towards this man and delivered one of his most vicious right hooks of all time right into the man’s ribs. He felt the brass knuckles not merely shatter the ribs but poke in a few inches behind them.

 

The man wheezed in pain and fell over, but at the same time, Righty suddenly heard a loud WHACKK!! on his right knee, and pain went searing through it like he had been burned with a hot poker. He stumbled to his left knee and felt something hard whack him over the head. As he hit the ground, he saw a club completing its swing through the air. Two men were in front of him. The man with the club and a man with a large steel chain with a solid ball on the end of it that appeared to perhaps be a smoothed stone.

 

He looked to his left and saw Tats was still doing somewhat of a good job keeping his own two problems at bay, but they were spreading out and moving to opposite sides of him, waiting to take him from behind. But he had his own two problems to worry about. He tried to stand but felt pain go shooting through his leg like a bolt of lightning and slamming him back to the ground.

 

He knew this was surely it. He didn’t know how in the hell he was supposed to defend himself when he couldn’t even pick himself up off of the ground.

 

“Take out his other knee!!” the man with the chain said, giggling, to his companion.

 

“Haaahahahaa!!” the demon grunted, and he lifted the club up over his head and prepared to send it crashing down into Righty’s left knee.

 

Then, all of a sudden, something he expected about as much as a choir of angels in this god-forsaken place transpired.

 

The two men went shooting up into the air, and he then felt a strong gust of wind pass over him. He wished for a better explanation than that, but it escaped him. Not wishing to miss the opportunity, he grabbed a club he saw lying vacant near his left side, used it as a crutch, and forced himself into a standing position but leaning towards his left.

 

He had scanned the scene. He had taken out three of the dozen attackers . . . permanently, and the guy he had just hit in the ribs was on the ground wheezing terribly. The other assailants’ bodies lay motionless on the ground, except for blood seeping from their wounds. He saw that two of his seven associates were lying motionless as well. Then he noticed an assailant on the ground that he had not fought with. They looked unconscious and possibly dead. Then, there were two assailants who had apparently either developed the best disappearing act he had ever seen or had learned how to fly. Thus, he calculated there should be five assailants left.

 

He noticed that although two of his associates were on the ground motionless, Tats and only one other remained. The other three must have turned tail and run. Thus, it was five versus three, and the horrifying realization dawned upon him that at this point he wasn’t sure he should even count himself as someone capable of offering resistance. Thus, a more accurate tally might be five to two.

 

Suddenly, his arithmetic was interrupted by the sound of faint screams becoming louder and louder and louder.

 

He looked up at the sky and saw that these two men had had a short career in flying. He shuffled as quickly as he could to his left, and moments later they crashed into the ground. One of the men hit the ground headfirst and sprayed Righty with his blood. The other one landed flat on his back, and his head exploded upon impact.

 

Before he could give any analysis to what he had just seen he saw a brief blur of something go by him. He looked to his left, where Tats had been getting surrounded a moment ago. He saw Tats still standing, but he saw two heads go plopping to the ground, their headless corpses falling to the ground beside them.

 

The thought would have occurred to him that it was now three against three if he still counted, but he was in shock at what he had seen. The remaining assailants looked like they had been doing some arithmetic as well, and the looks on their faces suggested they weren’t happy about the change from twelve against eight to three against three.

 

“Let’s beat it!” one of them said.

 

The motion seemed approved because no sooner were the words out of his mouth than they began sprinting away.

 

Then, all of a sudden, Righty saw the blur again, although this time he had a slightly better glimpse of whatever this thing was. He was tempted to call it a bird but thought that such a monstrous creature surely stretched that category well past its proper limit.

 

This analysis was soon distracted when he saw two of the fleeing assailants go airborne. Even the sole remaining one seemed intrigued. Not that his rapidly pumping legs slowed down even one mile per hour, but he did look upwards. Nonetheless, the bright sun in the sky blocked the view from all.

 

All of a sudden, a screaming sound could be heard. It was faint, but getting louder and louder.

 

By this time, Righty felt he knew roughly what to expect.

 

He looked up as far as the fierce sun would permit, and he saw a man swinging his arms wildly through the ground as he came rushing towards earth.

 

SMACKK!!!!!!

 

He landed headfirst on the ground. It was a slightly softer area, and his head didn’t splatter open, but at least three dozen bones must have broken all at once, based upon the terrifying sound Righty heard. The man’s eyes looked lifelessly up at the sun, unblinking, blood oozing from his mouth.

 

Righty didn’t know whether to feel relieved. This monster had struck twice, and it had gone after his enemies twice. Perhaps the next time it was going to be him or Tats that it decided to play with.

 

Then, it dawned on him that one of the men hadn’t come back down yet. He looked up again and saw nothing. Then, he thought he heard a faint screaming sound. He looked up again, but he still saw nothing. Then, he realized the sound was behind him. He began to turn, but suddenly, he felt a gust of wind that knocked him down to his left side.

 

He looked down the road at the man sprinting away, and it looked like the monster was holding a man horizontally. Then he saw the horizontal flying man crash against the fleeing assailant like a human club. He heard a loud CRACK!!! sound, saw a mist of blood, and then saw a blur going up into the sky.

 

“Over this way, Tats!” Righty yelled.

 

He saw that Tats was about ready to disappear into his familiar haunts of the large junkyard, along with his sole remaining colleague.

 

“We’ll be safer underneath the wagon! That thing can pick you out of the junkyard no problem!” Righty said.

 

Tats and his friend looked uneasily at each other but seemed to be in agreement, as they turned towards Righty’s wagon and began sprinting.

 

Righty shuffled over that way to join them.

 

Soon, they were all underneath.

 

For a few minutes, awkward silence reigned, the three of them ready to see the wagon go flying up into the sky at any moment, removing their sole layer of defense between themselves and the terrible beast haunting the sky above.

 

However, there were no more terrifying gusts of wind. No more strange disappearances. No more faint screams turning into terrifying roars.

 

Just silence.

 

Righty could tell by the look on Tats’ face that he really wanted to just get the hell out of there.

 

“You still have your merchandise, Tats?” Righty asked.

 

“Spider, go check,” Tats said to his associate, who had a large spider tattoo on his forehead.

 

He went running off.

 

“We ditched it, when we saw those guys coming,” Tats explained. “There’s a large piece of metal with a hole in it near the bench, and we put stuff there if we see cops coming or other kinds of trouble.”

 

Ten bags were suddenly shoved under the wagon, followed by Spider.

 

“It’s all here, Tats.”

 

Awkward silence again.

 

Tats looked at Righty.

 

“How about you, Brass—you got your stuff?”

 

Righty nearly laughed when it occurred to him that he had completely forgotten about the $100,000 falons. He reached inside his coat pocket and one by one pulled out the wads of cash. They were all there.

 

“You look like hell, Brass,” Tats said laughing.

 

“I’ve felt worse, but barely!” Righty responded laughing but found to his dissatisfaction that laughter caused the wounds in his head to feel like they were taking a new beating.

 

“You don’t exactly look like you’re ready to go out on a date yourself,” Righty added.

 

Tats’s left eye was swollen shut, he had a mouse underneath his right eye, and his lip was split wide open. Spider’s large tarantula tattoo on his forehead was almost completely covered in blood. Both cheeks were swollen and full of cuts.

 

Righty edged himself out from underneath the wagon, and Tats and Spider followed suit.

 

“Well, Brass, have you seen enough of this business?”

 

Righty gave him a close look to make sure Tats wasn’t getting smart, but he saw this was a serious question.

 

Dodging the question for the moment, Righty began: “You know—you two have a lot of guts. It was me they were really after. You could have run off with your ten pounds and left me to get my face ripped off and my guts poked out.”

 

“That’s not how we do things,” Tats said. “Especially not with you. We admire you. You’re the one with the guts.”

 

Spider nodded solemnly.

 

“Two of your men died today, standing by my side. Take this in their honor,” Righty said, removing two of the wads of cash and giving them to Tats.

 

Tats looked astounded.

 

“Three of my men ran today and made me and my crew look bad,” Tats said, declining the money. “One was Skinny. He was a full member of my gang, but now there’s no hole deep enough for him to hide in.” Tats said ominously. “The other two were just lookouts; they’re still going to get a good tongue-lashing though.”

 

“Listen, fellas,” Righty began. “There’s a lot of money to be made in this business, and believe me—we haven’t had our last battle, but after the skulls we split today, there aren’t going to be too many people itching to fight with us for a while. Nonetheless, it might be a good idea if we switch meeting places for a while.”

 

Righty pulled out a map of the city and focused on the junkyard and showed it to them. “You guys know this area like the back of your hand; you pick the next meeting spot.”

 

Tats looked at it carefully and then pointed out a spot. Righty put a mark next to it with an ink pen.

 

“How about another ten pounds for $100,000 next week, same time? I need to do a little recovering.”

 

“Sounds good, Brass,” Tats said.

 

Chapter 32

 

As Righty rode home that day, a lot of thoughts were going through his mind, and they each competed so fiercely for his attention that he was having a hard time taking them on one by one.

 

First and foremost in his mind was the realization that he almost died today. And not just him, but also his seven customers, four of whom had surprised him unspeakably by standing and fighting with him rather than leaving him to a certain death at the hands of the dozen thugs who had ambushed him.

 

As a result, two of his customers had died today, and if not for the sudden appearance of that strange, freakish creature that—either by luck or due to some inexplicable vendetta against Righty’s would-be assassins—had selectively chosen Righty’s enemies as the target of its afternoon amusement, both Righty and all of his customers would have been cut to pieces today.

 

That thought had a sobering impact on Righty’s mind. He knew from the get-go this was going to be a dangerous course he was taking in life—both in terms of risk from the police and from those he would deal with in the underworld—but never had he expected to find himself so hopelessly outmanned, caught off guard, and inadequately armed.

 

He realized that if he was going to continue on this course, he was going to first get a sword. And not just any sword. A top-notch, bona fide killing tool and preferably one that could somehow be adequately concealed. Secondly, he was going to have to learn how to use the darn thing. And not just how to twirl it around a couple of different ways, but to make it an extension of himself—to use it like a brush in the hands of a master painter.

 

And lastly, he was going to have to get some better armor. He didn’t ever want to take a shot like that to the knee again and find himself incapacitated. The next time no savage beast was going to emerge from the sky to do away with the jackals lurking above his incapacitated body.

 

He didn’t have the foggiest clue where or how he was going to accomplish any of those three things, let alone all of them, but the resolution was etched in granite in his mind right now that he would do all three one way or another.

 

The next focus of his analysis was that he was going to have to find out from Tats a lot more about the structure of the underworld in Sivingdel. He had plopped right in the middle of it, like an animal transplanted from one habitat to another, and he was starting to realize the enormity of the consequences associated with not knowing who the major players were.

 

Not too long ago, he had killed Big Frank, and now today he faced Big Frank’s brother with eleven other men. Who would it be next time? Big Frank’s other brother . . . and with two dozen men? Or perhaps Big Frank’s cousin with three dozen friends?

 

Yes, it was definitely time to have a long talk with Tats about the power structure in Sivingdel, even if only in that particular section of the city. Tats would surely see the logic in that, having just lost two of his own men today, and a third counting the crew member who had turned tail and ran, turning himself into an enemy.

 

He had seen a lot of dreadfully famished-looking kids rummaging through the trash in that area of the city. Then, an idea struck him. Without even hardly touching his profit margin he should be able to make a loyal lookout of enough of those kids to be well-apprised of any unpleasant arrivals. Furthermore, truth be told, it ate at him to see human beings in such miserable conditions, although that wasn’t something he planned on sharing with Tats, Spider, or any of their gang.

 

Lastly, he realized he was going to have a hell of a lot of explaining to do with Janie. Fortunately, there was no liquor on his breath, so convincing her he wasn’t back to his barroom-brawling days shouldn’t be too difficult. But he was making a lot of money fast, and he knew the annuity was a one-use-only lie. He was going to have to get some legitimate business going at his new store in Ringsetter fast.

 

Once he was ready to expand, he was going to need to get someone else to manage it, and then he was going to need to open up a couple stores in Sivingdel. He didn’t want to start attracting too much attention to himself in Ringsetter. He had enough already as the washed-up would-be boxing champion who had turned into a professional beer and whiskey guzzler and lumberyard man who had suddenly turned sober and started working as a clerk and who had then suddenly bought his own store.

 

One more wild move like the kind he had been making, and there would be little gossip besides that of Righty Rick. And that was not the kind of thing he wanted. Although there had been no police enforcement so far of the Smokeless Green prohibition, he suspected that wasn’t something that was going to last forever, and he wanted to make sure that by the time that changed for the worse he was either out of the game or so far on top he could control things to his advantage.

 

But as for right now, he was nothing more than a middle-class man who was rapidly acquiring cash. He knew that getting cash was important, but it wouldn’t mean power in and of itself. A man could have a house full of cash and lose it in a fire or in a single burglary. Cash was a road towards power, but it wasn’t itself power. Power meant having land—lots of land. It meant owning businesses. It meant having powerful friends. It meant having access to the services of deadly people. He had none of that. In spite of his growing potential, he was as vulnerable as a baby eagle just poking its beak out of its egg.

 

Chapter 33

 

Righty was relieved when he got home and found that Janie had still not arrived back from the library. He took the opportunity to look in the mirror, and he realized that while he was as dirty as a rat and he had blood stains all over the back of his shirt, he had no bruises or cuts on his face.

 

He quickly put his blood-stained shirt in the fireplace, lit it, and went outside to their shower area. There was a barrel of water next to it and a couple of small buckets. He stripped and began pouring water over the back of his head. It stung like about twenty hornet stings at once, and he realized the flesh was most likely still torn. That meant a trip to the doctor and the risk of more gossip.

 

Do it anyway! a voice told him authoritatively.

 

He looked down at his knee and saw it was swollen really badly. That alone would have meant a trip to the doctor, so between his head and his knee he knew he had no alternative.

 

Then, suddenly, he heard Janie come home.

 

“Richie?” she inquired.

 

“In the shower!” he responded.

 

To his horror, he realized she was coming to join him.

 

Normally, that would have been as welcome as hot pancakes, but tonight was a little different.

 

The next thing he knew he was face to face with Janie in all her natural glory.

 

“Did you get an inventory arrangement?” she asked, looking at him with amorous eyes.

 

Then, he realized that with the right tone he just might avoid a lot of nasty questions.

 

He pulled her close to him, kissed her, and said, “Yeah, baby. Everything worked out fine. Except Charlie apparently was in a little bit of a hurry to get home for some reason, so he riled up the other horses and started the wagon up with a jerk, and I went falling right off, landed on my knee, and then on my head for good measure.”

 

“Well, Ralph knew I missed you, and so good for him,” she teased.

 

Fortunately, the romantic spirit and the analytical spirit coexist as harmoniously as water and oil, and thus Righty’s explanation of a lacerated scalp and puffy knee seemed like the most natural thing in the world to Janie, albeit very boring. Righty and Janie were quickly distracted by other matters, and thus, Righty realized he had had his second stroke of luck that day. Analytical Janie would have been a far more severe interrogator but alas was far away.

 

Chapter 34

 

The next day, Righty started out by going to the doctor. He got some stitches put on the back of his head and a brace for his knee. He was relieved beyond description when the doctor didn’t ask too many questions and even more relieved when the doctor told him his knee should heal on its own. Righty’s knee was already a bit better, although he still favored his left leg as he walked or stood. After leaving the doctor’s office, he went straight to his store. He was busy from the get-go because as soon as he got there he saw a wagon waiting outside loaded with inventory and one of Mr. Hoffmeyer’s employees waiting for Righty to sign for it and take it off his hands. To Righty’s relief, the employee was helpful in unloading the wagon, and by the time they were about halfway through unloading that inventory another couple wagons showed up.

 

The men driving those wagons also helped him put the inventory into the store, but putting it onto the actual shelves was going to be his privilege as the owner. He had talked to Janie last night about whether she would be interested in working in the store, and he was immensely relieved when she had said that, while she would be happy to help out whenever he needed it, she would prefer to keep working at the library as her main job. That suited Righty just fine. He was content he wouldn’t have to be explaining himself every time he stepped outside the door.

 

His knee was giving him hell whenever he tried to kneel and lift anything heavy. He had planned hiring a young clerk within a couple days, but his knee groused so adamantly about the abuse it was being subjected to that Righty went ahead and placed the following placard on the door:

 

HELP WANTED

ABLE-BODIED, NO EXPERIENCE NECESSARY

 

An hour or two later a young man entered and asked about the pay. Righty sized him up and thought he looked like a good fit, so he offered him ten falons per hour to start but with the promise that “hard work would be rewarded.” The young man looked around twenty and had an honest countenance. His name was Robert. He accepted the offer, and Righty put him to work on the spot.

 

Righty handed him a hundred falons and said, “If you finish early today, keep the change. Otherwise, call it a day at ten hours. I’m not looking to run you ragged your first day here. I’ll be back later to inspect.”

 

To his satisfaction, he saw the young man get to work with a spark in his step, and Righty headed home, hoping against hope Janie would be at the library working.

 

He didn’t waste any time going out to check on his plants. He was now happier than ever that a few weeks ago he had had the foresight to buy some empty barrels and fill them up at a creek in the woods not too far from his plants. Had he been required to fill those barrels today, it would have been a task beyond his capabilities.

 

He now had big money riding on these plants, and as their fortune went so would his. He wasn’t going to be happy if these plants died of thirst just because he was too injured to water them, so hoped against hope his knee would heal by the time he used up the water already in the barrels.

 

He arrived and started watering them one by one. His once small garden had now turned into a miniature farm, and it extended well beyond the protective enclosure that would have kept it a secret from any but the closest observers. Nonetheless, while it had ventured beyond these bounds it still wasn’t exactly a bright sign on Main Street reading RIGHTY’S SMOKELESS GREEN FARM.

 

However, Righty was starting to get a little worried that it was only a matter of time before some curious kid—as he had been once upon a time—went traipsing through the area and, even if he didn’t have a clue what crop he was looking at, realized he was looking at some kind of garden. Then, word would spread, and even if Righty didn’t end up in jail he could easily end up losing the source of his burgeoning wealth—which, while expanding quickly, was still in its infant stages.

 

He considered the possibility of planting more small trees, similar to the ones making up the enclosure, in order to extend the layer of natural camouflage, but he realized this would be a gargantuan task to do by himself, and it was out of the question while his knee was still hurt.

 

While he was mulling over these dilemmas, he was suddenly ripped from his reverie by a sound in the forest. He pulled out his dagger in a flash, but, alas, he achieved a standing position with far less rapidity. Joints popped so vigorously throughout his body that for a moment he wondered whether it had not been a sound produced by his battered body that had caught his attention.

 

He thought he felt a slight breeze pass over his body, which seemed strange, as there had been little wind today. Suddenly, he got the eerie sensation that someone was standing right behind him. He twirled around, dagger in hand, hoping he looked more intimidating than he felt.

 

There, facing him, no more than six to eight feet away was a beast unlike anything he had ever seen, although his gut told him immediately it must have been the creature that had attacked and killed several people yesterday, apparently for sport.

 

Righty forgot for a moment that he didn’t want to attract any unnecessary attention to this section of the woods, but he couldn’t contain the shriek that escaped from his lips as he twirled around and began shuffling as fast as he could sideways, certain that at any moment he would feel sharp talons gripping his chest, yanking him high up into the air, and then dropping him for the amusement of this terrible monster.

 

“You fool,” he heard a calm voice say.

 

For a moment, his avarice—perhaps the most powerful of human emotions—dispelled from his mind the image of the horrid creature behind him. Instead, he felt sure that standing somewhere near him was a human intruder ready to begin helping himself to about four barrel-fulls of Smokeless Green. Righty was ready to maul whoever had just spoken. This intruder may have found his garden, but he wouldn’t live to tell anyone about it.

 

He whipped around in a flash, dagger stretched out, but saw no one. Just the monster looking at him calmly, as if to say, Are you quite through with your histrionics?

 

For a moment, the two just looked at each other. And Righty found that the longer he looked at this thing, the closer he came to regaining its calm. Its eyes seemed intelligent and piercing but unaggressive.

 

Harold had no intention of getting into a tedious explanation as to why he could talk, much less an argument as to whether he could talk, so he cut to the chase: “I failed you yesterday. You were injured. I had been reluctant to reveal myself to you until I felt the time was right. I waited too long.” Harold then bowed his head briefly in a sign of deference before raising it.

 

Righty didn’t know if this was some sort of sick trick the beast was playing with him to get him to come a little closer so that it could then show him how much fun it is to go hurtling up into the air at breakneck speeds only to then be tossed down and break his neck.

 

“Why would you want to protect me?” Righty asked—still suspicious as to whether this conversation was really happening and that he wasn’t simply suffering delayed effects from his years of alcohol abuse, and doubly suspicious as to whether this thing would indeed seek to help him.

 

“My duty is to protect you. I owe you no explanations. Perhaps, in time, you will earn them.”

 

Righty found himself oddly liking the bird upon receiving this thorny response. He admired people that didn’t tell more than they needed to, and if this thing really was talking, he saw no reason why he couldn’t admire that trait in an animal. Trust, however, was going to be hard-earned with something that could tear him to shreds upon impulse.

 

“Well,” Righty began slowly, not sure quite what to say, but feeling he had better say something. Running was hardly an option. His left-foot shuffle was unlikely to outpace a creature he had seen yesterday use a human club to whack the daylights out of someone sprinting madly.

 

Attacking it wasn’t exactly an option. It would have him upside down banging his head against every tree in the forest before he could so much as inflict a scratch. And the cat was pretty much out of the bag as far as his secret agricultural project. So, why not talk to it?

 

“I guess I’m lucky to have you as my protector,” Righty finally finished, after a long, awkward pause, wondering how sincere his insincere comment sounded.

 

“That would be an understatement,” came Harold’s response, thorny enough both in tone and content to make the prior response look rather flattering.

 

“Well, how does this work? Will you follow me about day and night and keep me out of harm’s way, or do we need to have meetings such as this one?”

 

“Why did those men attack you?” Harold responded, feeling more in the mood to ask questions than answer them.

 

“Well, as for their leader, because I killed his brother.”

 

“Why?”

 

“He threatened me and my family.”

 

Harold was silent for a moment.

 

“I knew that.”

 

“Then why would you ask?”

 

“To see if you would tell the truth.”

 

“How would you know if I was telling the truth?”

 

“I can hear Janie arriving at your house right now. In fact, she’s calling your name. Don’t you hear it?”

 

Righty looked severely at the bird, wishing it were a few sizes smaller so that he could bash its brains in.

 

“Don’t worry. I just heard her go inside.”

 

“Okay, so you hear very well. How long have you been following me?”

 

“For a while.”

 

“What now?”

 

“Do you expect to have many more battles?”

 

“I hope not.”

 

“But do you expect it?”

 

“Unfortunately, yes. But I don’t plan on getting blindsided again, and much less by someone with a sword when all I’ve got are these!” And Righty pulled out the brass knuckles and dagger angrily.

 

“Do you believe a sword would be the answer to your problems?”

 

“It would be a start.”

 

“But you don’t know how to use a sword. If you did, you would have used your dagger rather than strapping bludgeons onto your knuckles.”

 

Righty looked angrily again at the bird. He hated how this thing saw right through him, especially regarding his weaknesses.

 

“So, I don’t know how to use a sword. I can learn. It’s not exactly like I was born knowing how to use my fists, and you’ve seen what I can do with them.”

 

Righty’s anger started to turn to curiosity as he noticed a playful twinkle in the bird’s eyes. It was clear it was holding a lot back from him, but there was something in particular that was tickling its feathers at the moment.

 

“What is it?!” Righty exploded.

 

Chapter 35

 

When Pitkins came home and was greeted by a hysterical Donive telling him that the cat she had graciously welcomed into their home had gone crazy, grabbed groceries from her, soiled them beyond recovery, and was still guarding them, Pitkins’ first instinct was to grab the wretched thing by its back legs, toss it as far as he could throw it, and hope it got the message that it had worn out its welcome.

 

But, as often is the case after hysterical summations are given, the details—as they trickle in one by one—often paint the inexplicable in a slightly more logical light. Pitkins asked what it was the little devil had taken, thinking for certain it must be fish.

 

When Donive told him it was a new cooking spice she had purchased, that seemed strange. He had grown up with cats, and he had never seen or heard of a cat so interested in cooking spices.

 

Pitkins walked outside and saw Pitkins still guarding the soiled spices. He was then thoroughly befuddled—as men often are with their wives—when she then began to tell him that she suspected Bandit might have believed there was something dangerous about the spices. In Pitkins’ mind, that information would have been more logically given first. In Donive’s mind, that would have made for one boring story.

 

Pitkins stooped down and petted Bandit’s head and looked deeply into his eyes, as Donive had done. He also saw the intelligence that Donive had seen. He thought he would try a little experiment. He went and got a shovel and dug a small hole next to the spices.

 

Then, he looked at Bandit, and as many pet owners do who do not believe for a moment their animal can understand their exact words, Pitkins said to Bandit, as if he were talking to a toddler, “Baaaad, right?” pointing to the spices. Bandit lazily closed his eyes and then reopened them.

 

Pitkins then dug a small hole right next to Bandit. As he did so, he felt strangely unnerved by the degree of intelligence and intensity he saw in Bandit’s eyes. It seemed as if they were opening up his very soul and examining the contents carefully.

 

Dispensing with the childish talk, Pitkins looked directly at Bandit and then slowly moved his shovel towards the soiled spices. Bandit’s eyes followed him carefully. They now had a cunning look about them, suggesting any trick would be in vain.

 

To Pitkins’ satisfaction, Bandit sat passively while Pitkins put some of the contents in the hole he had dug. Bandit then moved away from the soiled spices completely but kept his eyes peeled on Pitkins.

 

Pitkins put all of the soiled spices into the hole and filled it back in with dirt. Bandit then sauntered towards Pitkins, rubbed his side against both of his legs, and then lay flat on his back. Pitkins felt the hairs standing up on the back of his neck. Something told him this was no ordinary cat. He had read stories as a child about dogs doing amazing things to keep their families from danger, but never had he heard of a cat taking such extreme measures to protect its family from something it judged nefarious.

 

He stroked Bandit’s belly softly, and as he listened to his soft purr he almost began to think he had imagined the whole thing.

 

Chapter 36

 

It was only a matter of days before Pitkins began to get a bit of an idea as to why Bandit had soiled the spices, but in many ways it only thickened the mystery. Talk was spreading like wildfire about the spice that was said to make coffee seem like sleeping powder.

 

The rumor was that stores were having a very hard time throughout the capital city keeping enough of the spice stocked due to its immense popularity. Those who put it into their stew reported feeling extremely energetic, and if even slightly more than what the recipe suggested was put in, people would be awake all night.

 

It was only a couple months after that that Pitkins began hearing stories not only about how this would replace coffee but how this had brought “the age of the party” to the city. One rumor was that a cook had dropped a bag of the spice, causing a cloud of powder to erupt, and reportedly she didn’t sleep for two days afterwards. Another rumor was that someone had just put some of this powder onto his stew and, having a terrible cold, breathed in deeply before sneezing and in the process inhaled some of the powder right off the top of the stew.

 

While there were many different explanations for the discovery, what was certain was that somehow it had been discovered that just a little bit of this stuff up your nose could make you party all night long. It was also becoming popular amongst a lot of the construction crews who were still working feverishly to rebuild the damage to the city from Dachwald’s invasion. They found to their satisfaction that one whiff after a hard day’s work and they felt as if they had just awoken from a refreshing eight hours of sleep, ready to tackle anything—in this case a long evening of drinking and partying. Pretty soon, many people were concluding that this spice was good for both work and play.

 

 

As time went on, both Pitkins and Donive found themselves increasingly grateful for Bandit’s odd interception of the spice before she had put it into their evening stew. It was becoming clear that those who used it tended to use it too often—that is, morning, afternoon, and evening seven days a week. Some users seemed practically possessed. Filled with energy, they would rant and rave, talking rapidly and ceaselessly but often failing to make a point. Others seemed to have enhanced intelligence after taking moderate amounts and could accomplish in two hours of work what previously took six.

 

But, more and more often, Pitkins was beginning to both see and hear about its negative effects. There had been reported cases of young men of twenty or thirty years old falling dead from heart attacks after days of non-stop sniffing. There were stories of people going to doctors and asking for help to stop it because they could no longer sleep. There were stories of people becoming considerably violent and, numb to pain, beating each other to death with their bare fists.

 

Pitkins was beginning to feel relieved he had managed to craft himself a new sword on par with the quality of Carlos, and to which he had decided to give the same name, because just striding through the city he often saw emaciated shadows of people staring at him with an evil eye, as if trying to decide whether he would put up a fight if they leaped upon him and attempted to tear his flesh off with their bare hands.

 

One look at the glint of steel attached to his hip, and so far they had thought better of it. Furthermore, in spite of the fact this herb was turning some people into such fearsome specters, it was so cheap that beggars could obtain enough money in a day to get their fill, although this occurred at the cost of not eating, something the worst of these fiends had essentially lost interest in anyway.

 

The noticeable menace to Sodorfian society caused the nobles to have a vigorous debate as to whether this substance perhaps should be outlawed. Unfortunately, too many of them were users themselves for this to be a realistic possibility, especially since—at least for the time being—none were as flagrantly shameless and corrupt as Senator Hutherton. However, they took note of the fact it had been outlawed all but the upper class in Sogolia months ago and recently in Selegania. Thus, they did take the measure of banning the exportation of Spicy Green, as they did not wish to become an outlaw state and risk the wrath of surrounding nations.

 

Some nobles proposed an investigation into the origin of Spicy Green, but they were quickly shouted down by the vast majority of the nobles, who feared this was simply a stratagem to cut off the source of Spicy Green, the mere thought of which sent a shiver down their spines.

 

It perplexed Pitkins deeply how Bandit had so quickly detected the vile nature of this substance and reacted so viciously in order to protect those in his household, and he had earned the undying love of Pitkins, who before had been rather lukewarm towards the adopted stray. Every night, he stroked Bandit’s long soft hair and looked into his intelligent eyes, as if hoping to learn some hidden secret, but Bandit usually closed his eyes lazily and purred, as if to say: My life’s work has been done.

 

However, while Pitkins had been saved from addiction by Bandit, he had another enemy, one he had never confronted in so strong a form in his life: boredom. Pitkins had been raised from childhood through adolescence in a physically and mentally stimulating atmosphere, all of which was designed to prepare his mind and body for a lifetime of military service in the upper echelons of Sogolia’s elite military unit: the Nikorians.

 

At the age of sixteen, he had formally entered military service, and from there the physical and mental training had only intensified. By age twenty-four, he was a captain. By age twenty-nine, he was a general. By age thirty-three, he was framed and exiled, whereupon he went to Sodorf. But, at least then, he had found his niche plying the trade he had mastered as part of his training in the military: sword crafting.

 

And although he had disliked the nobles intensely, their insatiable appetite for his swords—the quality of which they had never seen before—resulted in him being busy day after day forging, crafting, sharpening, and polishing. After the war, he had naïvely thought perhaps there would be a still greater interest in swords, but the reverse had happened.

 

At first he thought it was just a brief slowdown. Maybe all the killing had made people not want to even look at weapons of war. But as time went on it became clearer and clearer his services were in a serious slump. He still went to his sword smith shop nearly every day. He didn’t want to admit the horrible truth to Donive.

 

And it wasn’t even that he lacked money. He and Donive lived on a large estate they had purchased with Pitkins’ immense earnings from the days when his swords were selling like apples to the nobility. And the dowry alone that she had brought into the marriage would have been sufficient for them to live comfortably for the rest of their lives.

 

But Pitkins was finding out quickly that he was not made to live in mere comfort. He had been raised from birth for challenges, and the utter lack thereof tortured his soul. He realized the bitter truth—he had no skills other than war and the making of implements of war. He now felt as needed as an acrobat at a business meeting.

 

He had begun slowing down the progress of his work at the shop, for he hated to craft swords that were unlikely to be sold. And furthermore, his preference was to craft personalized swords, not just direct a client to a wall and tell him to pick. He considered most of the swords on display to merely be tools to determine what kind of sword best matched the individual. Every last detail was important—the man’s height, strength, coordination, and purposes for the weapon.

 

Today, Pitkins found himself feeling nearly at the point of despair. He was wondering whether moving might not be a bad idea. Surely, there were other locations where a master sword smith’s skills would be more highly appreciated. And hadn’t Donive said long ago that she wanted to see new lands and learn new languages? He seemed to recall that. Perhaps this was a sign.

 

As he was ruminating over the sweet escape offered by moving to a new country, something very rare happened. A man nearly reached striking distance without Pitkins so much as noticing.

 

“Sir?”

 

Pitkins looked up from his chair startled. This seemed further evidence of the negative effect boredom was having on his very soul.

 

In front of him, he beheld a man whose every square inch emanated power, yet tranquility at the same time. Six feet and three inches put him at Pitkins’ height, but he clearly had an extra thirty pounds of muscle in his upper body alone that Pitkins knew he could never obtain, not in a thousand years of exercise.

 

“Yes, sir,” Pitkins responded. “How may I be of service?”

 

“You . . . will . . . please forgive . . . baad Sodorfian; I no speak so good.”

 

Pitkins felt more awake now than he had since the war. He’d be damned if this man wasn’t speaking with a Seleganian accent. He had been trained thoroughly in that language—amongst many others—during his time in the Nikorians, although he hadn’t spoken it for years.

 

“My accent is terrible,” Pitkins began in Seleganian, “but I believe I can speak a little of your language. Hopefully, you are from Selegania, or I will be one embarrassed fool, indeed!”

 

A smile as warm as the sun emerged from the man, and Pitkins breathed a sigh of relief.

 

“What terrible accent? Your Seleganian is perfect!” the man replied in Seleganian, appearing greatly relieved to be saved from further embarrassment.

 

Pitkins smiled.

 

“If you don’t mind my asking,” Pitkins began, “what is a man from The Land of No Swords doing in a sword smith’s shop in Sodorf?”

 

“What is a former general doing running a sword smith shop?”

 

Pitkins felt his good humor vanish. He hadn’t exactly been able to keep his origins a secret very long after riding at the head of a Sogolian army and crushing the Dachwaldians besieging the capital city. But it was never a topic he liked to personally broach.

 

Then, he felt his defensiveness evaporate, as another beaming, yet shrewd, smile emanated from his strange visitor, who said, “I never knew we had earned that nickname. But, as they say, don’t believe everything you hear. Perhaps there are some people in Selegania who need swords to protect themselves from those who have them and use them to rob and kill. Outlawing something’s not the same as getting rid of it.”

 

Pitkins found the man both charming and cunning at the same time. An odd mix, but for some reason he liked it. He himself found it hard to imagine abiding by a law against swords.

 

“Perhaps, you and I each have a rebellious side,” Pitkins said good-naturedly. “As for military life—I’ve seen enough of it. But as for swords—they’re my true passion.”

 

“Well, I will probably be of immense disappointment to you, Sir Pitkins,” Righty said, with a smile, extending his hand. “My name is Richard Franklin Simmers, and I’ve never touched a sword in my life. But I want the best sword in this world that money can buy. And, more importantly, I want to learn to use it better than anyone on this earth.”

 

For a moment, Pitkins thought he was hallucinating. Perhaps he was in the middle of a week-long binge of Spicy Green like the poor emaciated souls he saw on the city streets and had only imagined Bandit’s heroic interference with the vile herb, the way a man being swallowed alive by a boa constrictor perhaps hallucinates that his brave dog has killed the beast currently consuming him.

 

If what this man was saying was true, he felt like he just might have found more than an answer to his boredom. He felt he might be about to embark upon one of the greatest projects of his life. And that was what made him feel so foolish. He knew nothing about this man. And even if he could afford a good sword and could pay for lessons, that in and of itself did not necessarily spell adventure. But he could sense there was a fire in this man’s soul, and he found it contagious.

 

As if Mr. Simmers had somehow sensed Pitkins was having doubts, suddenly, large stacks of Sodorfian currency were being placed on top of Pitkins’ table.

 

“Tell me when to stop,” Mr. Simmers said calmly.

 

“Easy there, Mr. Simmers,” Pitkins began, with a smile, “you’re talking about buying a sword, not a castle. Having said that,” Pitkins then smiled again, “I think that ought to cover it.”

 

“Money’s not everything to me, Mr. Simmers, but your willingness to part with it shows me that you’re serious, and that’s what means the most to me.”

 

He noticed Mr. Simmers’ eyes were studying him carefully.

 

Pitkins continued, “For what you’ve given me, I’ll make the best sword . . . not in the world but for you. I’m a firm believer that perfection in this art is only fifty percent knowing how to make swords. The other half is knowing how to read people. Please, step this way,” Pitkins encouraged.

 

Pitkins brought him towards a wall adorned with nearly fifty swords. “But another factor is knowing what the sword is going to be used for. You’re under no obligation to be honest with me. But the more honest you are with me, the better your sword will be.”

 

“As you say,” Righty began, with cunning eyes, “I’m from The Land of No Swords. Thus, it wouldn’t behoove me to walk around with a sword on my hip. It has to be concealable. Absolutely concealable. I’m an expanding retailer, and I have to make frequent trips to Sivingdel. There are a lot of bandits in some parts of the city, and I got ambushed just last week.

 

“One of the guys had a sword. It was the most frightening experience I’ve ever had in my life. I survived because he didn’t know how to use it very well. But while I was busy dealing with him, some of his accomplices hit me from behind several times. They left me with a left-foot shuffle I still haven’t gotten rid of yet, and I’ve had headaches nearly every night since as well, thanks to being hit over the head with a club.”

 

Righty didn’t like divulging this mostly accurate information, but he sensed Pitkins was telling the truth when he said that the more information he knew the better the sword he would make.

 

“Do you have any kind of fighting experience?” Pitkins asked.

 

“Is all this information confidential,” Righty asked, his eyes piercing like spears.

 

“You’ve got my word on that,” Pitkins responded, and his countenance convinced Righty.

 

“Bare knuckle boxing,” Righty said calmly.

 

“Are we talking a couple fights at the bar over the last ten years or something beyond that?”

 

“Professional. I made it to the championship years ago.”

 

Pitkins grabbed a medium-sized sword from the wall and handed it to Righty.

 

Pitkins then unsheathed Carlos. “Copy what I do,” he told Righty, standing next to him.

 

Pitkins leaned back into a defensive stance with the sword over his head and tilted down at an angle. Righty copied the movement reasonably well. Suddenly, Pitkins lunged forward with a quick downward stroke. He watched as Righty then copied the move.

 

Next, Pitkins changed his two-handed grip to a one-handed grip and then, with the sword facing downward, made a circular movement. Righty copied it satisfactorily.

 

“Try this one,” Pitkins said, handing Righty a heavier sword.

 

They went through the same series of movements. Righty seemed to have no trouble.

 

Pitkins then exchanged the sword for an even heavier sword. He noticed no detriment in Mr. Simmers’ ability to use the sword, even on the one-handed portions.

 

Although Pitkins had noticed the man’s massive muscles in spite of his loose-fitting clothing, he still found himself surprised at the man’s upper-body strength.

 

“Use this one,” Pitkins said, handing Righty the largest sword he had ever made, one he had long considered a waste of time, as no customer could adequately handle it. And although Pitkins wouldn’t have readily admitted it to anyone, he himself could not.

 

Pitkins was shocked when he noticed no detriment in Righty’s ability to copy the movements, and in fact he was now copying what he had previously seen without need of further example, and it seemed his technique was improving considerably even during this short practice session.

 

Pitkins was a firm believer that the perfect sword was neither too light nor too heavy in its bearer’s hands, and he now realized that for this customer he was going to have to make a sword that dwarfed what he had once thought of as an oversized weapon and a colossal waste of his time.

 

“I will make you what you need, Mr. Simmers,” Pitkins said. “I’ll need one month. Would that be satisfactory to you?”

 

“I’ll need something in the interim to practice with,” Righty said. “What about this last one here I practiced with? I kind of like it.”

 

Pitkins couldn’t have heard better news. Not only was this customer purchasing two swords, he was purchasing a sword he could have sworn would sit unused in that shop until he retired.

 

“I’ll tell you what, Mr. Simmers. Normally, I would sell a sword like this for around $40,000 falons, but since you’ve paid me $100,000 upfront for a customized sword, I’d part with this for $5,000 falons.” Truth be told, Pitkins wouldn’t have had to be pressed too hard to part with it for $1,000 falons due to his frustration with selling the weapon, but on the other hand, while it hadn’t been tailored for any particular individual, it was still a top-quality sword.

 

“I’ll agree to that on one condition, Sir Pitkins,” Righty said.

 

Pitkins groaned inwardly, expecting to hear something he couldn’t possibly accommodate.

 

“While I wouldn’t mind boldly wearing the sword you’re going to craft for me on my hip for all the world to see and be on notice, that won’t exactly fly in The Land of No Swords. It’s going to have to be somehow concealable.”

 

Righty had caught Pitkins at the right time. At any other time, Pitkins would have doubled or even tripled the price for such a request. He had only done this once or twice, and it was going to push his technical skills to their limit, perhaps beyond it. But this was precisely the kind of challenge Pitkins yearned for at this time.

 

“Your wife won’t know you’re wearing it,” Pitkins said smiling, hoping Mr. Simmers was aware the ring on his finger was in full view and that he was not making suppositions.

 

Righty glanced at his ring finger and grinned.

 

Then, he held out his right hand. “Sir Pitkins, you have yourself a customer and a deal,” Righty said.

 

Pitkins shook his hand and then handed him the accompanying sword sheath and a belt to go with it. Righty handed him $5,000 falons. While the Sodorfian currency was different, there was a reasonable amount of trade between Selegania and Sodorf, and most vendors could make currency calculations and accepted falons.

 

“I’ll be back in one month, Sir Pitkins,” Righty said.

 

“You’ll have your sword ready, Mr. Simmers.”

 

Righty stepped outside the shop and began heading towards the nearby forest where Harold would be waiting for him. He felt about as confident in his ability to use a sword as he did a fiddle, but he nonetheless felt nearly intoxicated by the powerful feeling of having six feet of razor-sharp steel a hand movement away. And he was certain of one thing—he was going to make that weapon an extension of his body.

 

Chapter 37

 

Righty soon found his new meeting place with Tats to be a lot more convenient. There were no more ambushes with brutes announcing their fraternal relationship to a man whose head Righty had caved in with his bare knuckles. It was just business, and Righty couldn’t be happier. His knee was almost completely better now, his store clerk was working like a horse, and genuine business was starting to really take off there. He was underpricing the competitors, and the business could barely keep up with all the demand.

 

He was meeting with Tats around three times a week and walking away with $100,000 falons in his pocket each time, so needless to say, about the only problem he had now was what to do with all the cash. He decided on a diversification strategy. He began burying a considerable amount of it in the woods inside empty barrels that he brought home from his store, and he took the rest to the bank. He had first met with the president of the bank and explained in no uncertain terms that he would be sourly disappointed if his money were ever to be lost or misplaced or if the quantity was ever revealed to anyone. The president seemed to take the hint and convinced Righty no such catastrophes would ever happen.

 

Righty felt the time was nearing when he needed to start expanding his legitimate businesses with the real money he was making, or he would have too much cash to handle. While he realized this was a line of work where there was always going to be a certain amount of money-burying, his ambitions were far too great to be constantly burrowing in the ground like a dirty rodent. He wanted a legitimate business empire, even if it got its initial push from dirty money.

 

But he knew Ringsetter just wasn’t the right place for that. There would be too much gossiping. Too many people who knew too much about his past. Mr. Wilson, for example, just might wonder whether his meteoric rise in wealth had something to do with those seeds he supposedly returned.

 

No, Sivingdel would be the place. He had a legitimate story—at least one that could pass as such to complete strangers. He had a successful retail store and had decided to expand. That much was already true. And in Sivingdel, they wouldn’t need to trouble themselves with questions like, How did a former lumberyard laborer ever afford to buy a retail store in the first place? And how did he then turn such a profit as to start opening up new stores all over as if there were nothing more to it than opening up a door?

 

He knew the time was at hand to take up Mr. Hoffmeyer up on his offer regarding accounting services. So far, he was just doing a few tricks on his own—inflating prices and decreasing costs on paper. In reality, he was barely making a profit on his store, but on paper he was making enough to at least account for the money that he was putting into the bank. The excess was going into the ground.

 

Hopefully, Mr. Hoffmeyer’s accountants could do an even better job, but he had read enough on the subject to know that no matter how clever the accountant, the more money to clean the more legitimate business there had to be. With the way things were going, if he wanted to be able to put even half of the money he was making into the bank, he was going to need to open up a couple of new stores fast, each equipped with top-notch accountants trained in falon scrubbing.

 

Although trips to Sivingdel and back, watering his Smokeless Green plants every night, planting new plants several times per week, checking up on the store (Robert was a clerk on paper but practically ran the store, as Righty was so busy with his other engagements), visiting the bank, and burying money in the ground more frequently than a pirate made for a busy schedule, Righty had one other major project in his life.

 

He had hidden the monstrous sword out in the forest, and every morning he spent at least three hours copying the movements Pitkins had shown him. He had also found a book in the library with illustrations of sword-fighting techniques and was practicing these as well, hoping he wasn’t ingraining himself with bad techniques.

 

Chapter 38

 

As the last several days of the month deadline that Pitkins had promised wound down, Righty realized he felt a bit of the same nervousness as he did before his Oscar Peters fight and some of the wild excitement he had as a kid whenever he discovered surreptitiously that his upcoming birthday was going to involve a spectacular present. While the reason for the excitement was obvious, the nervousness had to do with a fear that perhaps Pitkins would let him down.

 

He had felt an instant liking for the man. He seemed strong, direct, competent, and transparent—all things Righty highly valued in any business relationship. Nonetheless, he felt that what Pitkins had promised verged on the impossible. Harold had told him Pitkins’ skill at crafting swords was known far and wide as being without equal, but Righty’s gut told him this might have been the first time he had ever attempted to craft a fully concealable sword. He feared that Pitkins’ intentions may have been sincere but that his desire not to lose a customer might have caused him to overestimate his own abilities.

 

Anxiety over a potential letdown led to the inevitable worrying over just what Righty would do about it. Harold had warned Righty before flying him to the City of Sodorf that if anything eclipsed Pitkins’ sword-craftsmanship abilities it was his proficiency in using the weapon. Thus, squaring off with this man wasn’t exactly high on Righty’s list of top ten things to do.

 

On the other hand, he would be damned if anyone—master swordsman or not—would pull one over on Righty Rick. Would Pitkins refund his money if he failed to deliver? This was eating at Righty throughout the month but had become particularly bad during the last week of waiting. He couldn’t see how a sword could be concealed to the degree Pitkins had promised—that his wife wouldn’t even notice it.

 

If it came to combat, Righty hoped he got the party started with a couple well-placed punches, because Harold didn’t exactly seem the type to exaggerate anything, and Righty didn’t think it wise to see if this was Harold’s first such instance.

 

Thus, when the big day finally came, it was with great trepidation that Righty got up at about 6 a.m. and went out to the woods and got on top of Harold. Harold was an observant little devil, and he smirked after one look at Righty’s careworn face.

 

Harold got as low to the ground as he could and extended a wing, which Righty used as a ramp to get on top of Harold’s back. Harold had already consented—not without some grousing—to Righty placing a leather strap around Harold’s torso, which at times Righty held onto lightly and at other times gripped for dear life, depending on how Harold was flying.

 

Off they went, and a mere two hours later Harold landed inside the closest portion of a wooded area near Pitkins’ shop. Fortunately, this meant only a fifteen-minute walk for Righty.

 

Righty felt himself growing more and more apprehensive as he approached, but he kept moving onward. After what seemed like an eternity, he opened the door to the shop. He didn’t see Pitkins anywhere, so he rapped his powerful knuckles on the door, although he was already inside.

 

A few moments later, Pitkins came out smiling.

 

“Mr. Simmers,” he said warmly.

 

“Sir Pitkins,” Righty greeted.

 

“Well, let’s cut right to the chase if you can pardon a pun,” Pitkins said, grinning.

 

Righty felt his anxiety level drop a couple degrees.

 

“I put the finishing touches on your companion yesterday,” Pitkins said. “I always believe in making the customer satisfied, so I’ll need to know your preference. Would you like to see your companion at business size or at hide-it-from-your-wife size?”

 

Righty paused for a moment. Both were equally important, but he supposed he’d better see the more difficult feature first.

 

“I’ll go with the latter.”

 

Pitkins nodded, turned around, and disappeared behind a door in his shop.

 

For a moment, Righty thought he better look out the window to see if a particular sword smith was hightailing it out of there like a thief in the night, but he decided to at least continue pretending he was calm.

 

Pitkins came walking back into the room. He had removed a jacket he was wearing. He was wearing a long-sleeve shirt, pants, and tall boots.

 

“Care to guess where it is?” Pitkins asked.

 

Righty suspected the boot, and if that was the case, he was going to be pretty irritated, since he didn’t always wear tall boots.

 

“Well, I guess the boots would be too obvious a guess,” Righty said.

 

“Indeed,” Pitkins agreed.

 

“How about you pretend I’m here looking for trouble and you’ve got three seconds to pull it out before I attack?” Righty said and gave a sincere grin, realizing the hypothetical scenario may have been a bit intense to use on a man Harold reminded him several times during their trip today could cut him into small ribbons.

 

Righty wasn’t even entirely sure what he saw, as he had never seen a man move quite that fast in his entire life. Pitkins had reached behind his head, as if he were combing his hair, and suddenly produced what looked like a fearsome dagger.

 

Righty felt his blood pressure drop considerably, but there was one test left, and if he heard something like The final version, where you can actually turn it into a real sword is going to take a bit longer than I thought, he was going to be furious.

 

Nonetheless, he asked Pitkins, “And the business size?”

 

Righty had no idea what Pitkins did because he kept direct eye contact with Righty the whole time, but he suddenly heard a series of clicks and sliding parts, and what he then saw in front of him was the most beastly, fearsome, yet beautiful weapon he had ever seen in his life.

 

Aesthetics met functionality in a way he hadn’t even dreamed possible. Six feet of steel sparkling with every tiny reflection from the sun spilling in through the window nearby met an imposing hilt. Gold adorned the top, as well as several incrusted jewels, which also sparkled.

 

For a moment, Righty stood in worshipful silence, realizing he was looking at something he was going to carry and practice with every day for the rest of his life. He almost felt afraid to even ask to touch it. It seemed too good for him, regardless of the fact he had paid every last falon a month ago.

 

Pitkins seemed to sense his reticence, and so he handed it to Righty.

 

As he put the hilt into his hand, he felt the way he supposed some fathers feel upon holding their firstborn child for the first time. He had to suppose because Eddie had been born during his drinking days, and it had been several days since his birth when he managed to sober up enough for Janie to even let him near him, and even when he had he felt like it was just another mouth to feed.

 

Righty nearly gasped as he felt the texture of the hilt. It was mostly smooth, but with just a slight amount of roughness, which he assumed was to prevent it from sliding out of his hand during a fight. Ever so carefully, he touched the edge of the blade with his finger. A small trickle of blood suddenly emerged. He decided no further examinations of the weapon’s sharpness were necessary.

 

He slowly performed the sword movements he had learned a month ago from Pitkins, as if he might somehow damage the sword if he made one false move. He immediately noticed the increased weight of the weapon. It wasn’t too heavy for him to move, but he felt himself straining slightly.

 

Pitkins seemed to read his thoughts.

 

“You may just be the strongest individual for whom I’ve ever crafted a sword. As for that sword I sold you last month—you were the first person I’ve ever seen who could comfortably wield it in those basic maneuvers. In fact, too easily, it looked like to me.

 

“I’m a firm believer that if a person who is new to swords is investing in a weapon that he wants to last him a lifetime it is good to start out with a sword that is slightly heavier than what he is comfortable with. The reason is that as you practice with it more and more you are going to develop greater wrist and arm strength. I believe it will ultimately be to your advantage to have the heaviest sword you can wield fluidly because the heavier the sword the greater its effect upon impact. If you practice with it faithfully, within a few weeks it will start to feel more comfortable to you, and after a couple months the weight should no longer be an issue. After that, it will just be a matter of perfecting the techniques themselves.”

 

“How do I close it,” Righty asked.

 

Pitkins showed him two ridges on either side of the hilt at its very base, safely away from where he would be gripping the sword during actual use. Righty grabbed the two ridges on squeezed hard. To his amazement, the sword quickly retracted back to its dagger length. He squeezed it again, and he had his monstrous weapon back.

 

“As for concealment,” Pitkins began, and he unbuttoned the top few buttons of his shirt and then removed a harness he had had there, “just put this on. The sheath goes squarely down your spine. The top of the hilt will be hidden by your collar. One easy reach back, one quick squeeze, and you’ll be holding something that will make any potential highwayman think twice before wanting to tangle with you.”

 

Righty grinned and extended his hand.

 

“You, sir, are a genius,” he told Pitkins.

 

Pitkins shook his hand. He noticed a warlike gleam in Righty’s eyes, but he didn’t think too much of it, having spent a lifetime around soldiers who often got the same look when intoxicated with the acquisition of a new weapon.

 

“There’s just one problem,” Righty said.

 

Pitkins looked at him.

 

“I don’t know how to use this thing. I’m more likely to cut my head off than a robber’s.”

 

Pitkins laughed.

 

“Will you teach me?”

 

As soon as Righty noticed Pitkins face turn pensive, he began taking out wads of cash.

 

Pitkins interrupted him, “All right. That isn’t something I normally do, but I like you, Mr. Simmers. It takes guts to not only travel here twice for the purpose of buying and bringing back a sword to The Land of No Swords but to also want to learn how to use it. As I said last time, it’s not really about the money, but your willingness to part with your money shows me you’re serious. It’ll be a thousand falons per one-hour lesson.”

 

“What are we waiting for?” Righty said, good-naturedly, putting ten one-hundred-falon bills into Pitkins hand. “The most frequent I can come is twice a month.”

 

Pitkins managed to suppress the gasp that almost erupted from within. He had expected something more along the lines of once every other month. This guy must have one top-notch horse to be able to travel that kind of distance twice a month.

 

“Follow me,” Pitkins said.

 

Pitkins went into a separate room. It was large and spacious and covered with a canvas mat. Righty noticed Pitkins taking off his boots and then bowing before stepping onto the mat, and he didn’t have to be told to do the same. Righty was awestruck at the beautiful collection of weaponry adorning the walls. Axes, swords, maces, and battle hammers hung there, and he wondered what stories they would tell if they could speak.

 

Pitkins first had Righty go through the series of sword movements he had taught him last time. He made a few minor corrections to Righty’s technique, but privately he was awestruck at how close to absolute perfection Righty had come with the techniques in a mere month.

 

Then, he taught Righty a half-dozen more. Once the hour was up, they walked back to the shop entrance.

 

“Would the same time two weeks from now be satisfactory, Sir Pitkins?” Righty asked.

 

“Absolutely, Mr. Simmers.”

 

They shook hands. Righty then retracted the blade down to dagger size and put it back into its sheath. He did so carefully, not wanting to slice his shirt, but it was a movement he planned on perfecting soon enough, as well as accessing the weapon.

 

As he left the shop and began walking back towards the woods, he was amazed at how comfortable the weapon was. He felt no annoying bounce against his back. He felt no uncomfortable squeeze from the harness or pinching of skin. And there was no telltale clanging either. He realized that perhaps the one drawback—if it could be called such—to the weapon, sheath, and harness was that they were so comfortable he wasn’t sure if he would even notice if the sword was suddenly stolen from him.

 

As he approached Harold, it was Harold who was now anxious with curiosity.

 

He said nothing at first, but his face asked more than enough questions.

 

Then, after an awkward silence, Harold said, “Well?”

 

Carefully, Righty pulled the weapon out of its sheath.

 

Harold burst out laughing.

 

“I hope it gets bigger because from what I saw during your last fight the man who nearly disemboweled you had a sword about three times the size of that dagger.”

 

A sudden springing motion from the weapon exposing six feet of razor-sharp steel wiped the smile from Harold’s face immediately.

 

For the first time, he looked at Righty as someone more than a temporary project while waiting for the return of Master. He realized one stroke from this weapon, and if he didn’t fly away fast enough, it would lop his head clean off.

 

“I told you he was the best,” Harold said quietly.

 

He felt a bit unnerved by the ferocity in Righty’s eyes. He could tell he loved the feeling of that weapon in his hands and the thought of what he could do with it.

 

“Will we be returning to Ringsetter now, sir?” Harold asked, calling him “sir” for the first time and realizing simultaneously it would be the norm from now on.

 

Righty slowly sheathed the weapon and then got on Harold’s back.

 

He had big plans for his future. Mastery of this weapon was first. Then, bigger plans. Much bigger.

 

 

End of Mr. Brass

 

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The next volume, The Swordsman, now available online!

 

 

 

 


Mr. Brass

After a rash of brazen daylight crimes by wild drug fiends plagues the capital city’s plushest shopping district, the senate wonders if it is time to outlaw a popular new substance called Smokeless Green. However, more than one senator has found this treat to his liking, and thus an exemption for gentlemen is proposed. Some worry that outlawing this product is going to send crime rates through the stratosphere and bankroll a new criminal class.

  • Author: Daniel Lawlis
  • Published: 2015-10-10 07:20:15
  • Words: 61334
Mr. Brass Mr. Brass