“Tighten that damn strap, will ya!”
Lupo rubbed the back of his head where Rasser had just struck him, and stooped to try and find the buckler. His hands fumbled in the darkness, working their way around the enormous lump of burlap. The way the donkey kept ambling all over on the muddy back road certainly didn’t help.
“It’s too big,” he complained. “I just can’t fix it in one place.”
“Well, you had better,” Rasser hissed as he ran his beady eyes left and right. “This damn creaking’s driving up the wall. Someone’s gonna hear us at this rate.”
“But I can’t see anything. I can’t find the buckler, it’s so dark. How do you even know where we’re going?”
“Shut up already!” Rasser reached up and smacked Lupo round the ear again, who cowered like a child. Rasser didn’t look like much, with his weasly face and almost comically wispy mustache, but Lupo knew he was not the kind of person you’d want to put you on his bad list.
“I’ve been down this road a hundred times. I could make the trip blindfolded.”
“Really?” Lupo glanced at the load on the donkey’s back, or at least where he figured it was. “So… you’ve done this before?”
“Yes. And unless you want to be the next one in that sack, then shut your mouth and keep moving.”
Lupo fell quiet. The night around them rushed to fill the silence; crickets, cicadas and all sorts of nocturnal predators rattled about them, like so many whispers gossiping their every move. Rasser kept his eyes straight ahead. Their goal was just after the next curve. He silently cursed his boots that sank deep into the mud with every step, slowing them down.
At last, a light appeared in the distance. Rasser shushed the buffoon lest he yelp in relief, but there was no need. Lupo trotted beside him without a word, almost too nervous to so much as breathe.
The light was a lone torch, held by a pale, scrawny man in what appeared to be a leather apron. He was standing just outside a pair of double doors on a building whose outline Lupo strained to make out in the darkness. It was as big as a racehorse stable — definitely bigger than he’d have expected to find out here. The walls were simple and sturdy. Muffled snorts and a smell that could charitably be described as “earthy” emanated from the high, narrow windows.
The man with the torch couldn’t have been older than eighteen. His face gave the impression that nature had intended to make him handsome, but couldn’t make up its mind on how to do so. The result was an odd mixture of a stern brow, soft blue eyes, aquiline nose, delicate jawline, and facial hair that grew into brushy black sideburns and then just gave up. His apron held a variety of sharp tools and was visibly caked with blood.
“Corlis,” Rasser didn’t so much greet the young man as begrudgingly acknowledge his presence. Corlis returned the sentiment with what may have been a nod. His gaze then slid to the sack.
“Put it in there,” he motioned to an old hand cart about a foot away from him. Lupo led the donkey next to it, then carefully loosened the straps. As the second buckler was let go, the heavy mass immediately slipped to the side and landed in the cart with a loud thump. Rasser swore under his breath and looked around. There shouldn’t have been anyone so far outside the city at this time of night; but then, neither should have they.
Corlis stood by the cart, paying him no mind. He grabbed the coarse linen, and pulled it back to reveal a livid, unshaven face. Its most noticeable feature, besides being stunningly fat, was the second mouth it had developed between its chins. Corlis leaned in with curiosity. A single, elegant cut, from one ear to the other, touching both carotids and the larynx without any unnecessary detours. Very economical. Its maker must have practiced it to the point of boredom.
“Nasty piece of work, isn’t it?” Several golden teeth glinted in the torchlight as Rasser grinned at the corpse. “Sorry bastard thought he could wager all he wants and not pay. My boys caught him at the south city gates last night.”
Corlis drew the sack over the face again. He set the torch into a holder on the cart’s handle, and proceeded to straighten the body so that as few limbs were hanging off as possible.
“Keep his head in one piece,” The mobster spat on the ground. “I want it in my den so everyone can see what happens when someone tries to steal from me.”
“Duly noted.” Corlis finished tucking the arms away. “That’ll be twenty-five gold, then.”
Rasser’s hand began to move toward his purse, but stopped halfway. His eyes narrowed.
“What’re you playing at, boy? You said fifteen this morning, not twenty-five.”
“And you said you were bringing a dead man, not a dead whale.”
“What’s it matter?” The mobster spat again. “He’s going to the pigs, anyway!”
“Yes. But I’m the one who has to cut him up for them. And my time –,” Corlis patted the tools at his waist, “– is precious.”
“Your time?” Rasser barked, much louder than the noise the corpse had made. He yanked his dagger from its sheath and pressed it against the young man’s cheek. “How about your life, you mouthy brat? I just told you. Bad things happen when someone tries to steal from me.”
“I’m not stealing from you.” Corlis’s eyes were locked on Rasser’s so firmly as if he hadn’t even noticed the cold steel digging into his skin. The deep shadows cast by the torch made his bloodless face look even less alive than the one in the cart. “I’m offering a service, for a price. If you’re unhappy with it, you can take me to a judge and explain how I’m charging extortionate fees for disposing of a man you had killed over an illegal gambling debt. Or you can just gut me right here, and have two dead bodies to deal with, as well as my other returning clients who’ll likely want a word with you.”
For a few moments, the air itself seemed to freeze. Lupo looked nervously back and forth between the two of them, but mostly at Rasser, whose sneer turned his already ratlike face even less human. Corlis could practically hear the rusty gears turning inside the man’s head.
At last, Rasser put his dagger away, and yanked his purse open so stiffly it almost tore at the seams.
“You’re even worse than your toad of a grandmother,” he grunted, counting out the twenty-fifth coin.
“She’s my great-aunt, actually.” Corlis pocketed the gold, then picked up the cart by the handle and turned it around. “And I’ll tell her you said hello.”