Copyright © 2018
All Rights Reserved
Tylor Kranyak
Author of Legacy of Krazatan
     With the roughness of the steppes behind them and their feet now treading even road the pace of their travel had increased. It only took them four days to reach Sulves from Draton City, while travelling the same distance through the wilderness would have taken them well over a week. The village was relatively small for being on the main highway between the two main cities of the Horitan province. The inhabitants had taken advantage of the vast resources of the forestlands that the village sat on the edge of as every building in sight was made of wood. The road went straight through the middle of the village, as if the place had been built around it instead of next to it. The center of the village had a large wooden wall similar to what most checkpoints had, with the settlement's main buildings like the chapel, inn and storehouse in the center. The rest of Sulves's inhabitants had built their homes around the wall as if as an afterthought due to the lack of the village's organization.
     As they rode into the center of Sulves, Kai asked, "Hey, Lukan? Why does this village look so much like a checkpoint?"
     "Because it used to be one," the older angel told him. "Many of the villages you'll find on Horagothien's major highways used to be old checkpoints that had sprung up during the nation's era of expansion. They were small like the one near Kuluth, but as traffic between the major settlements increased over the decades more and more people passed through these checkpoints. In order to meet the needs of all the travellers, merchants, patrols and the like, they had to create their own infrastructure to feed them all. Some of them created farms, others tended to livestock or started fishing, but regardless of what they chose to do they needed permanent residents to work those new jobs. People moved in as the work became available, more travellers came through as the major cities prospered, the checkpoints' local food industries grew to support the traffic, and so on and so forth."
     "Sulves produces a good amount of lumber, too, being on the side of the Drunach forest," Kim chimed in, "but since Orakko's and Draton City's lumber industries are much larger there aren't many opportunities for export, so all that lumber is usually used for maintaining the village's own infrastructure or supplementing the two cities when they're building projects that strains their own resources."
     They found they weren't the only travellers passing through Sulves that day. As they rode up to the hitching posts Kai saw three trag-drawn carts parked next to the inn and a group of people milling around the building's outside dining area. For a moment Kai was concerned that they were merchants who might recognize Kim, but on closer inspection he didn't see any sizeable cargo loaded onto their carts. It was more likely that they were just a large group of travellers taking a trip to visit family or friends somewhere.
     "Why don't you two reserve our room and get something to eat?" Lukan asked while they were tying up the therasi's reins. "I need to get some supplies so I'll be along in a bit."
     "All right," Kai said as he followed Kim toward the front door.
     The inn was cozily warm from the heat of the hearth against the far wall. A musician sat in a corner and filled the room with a soft, playful tune that warmed the spirit almost as much as the fire did. There wasn't much about the inn that set itself apart from any other ones that Kai had seen, that is until he turned to the bar and saw the huge therasus skull mounted to the wall above the racks of ale bottles.
     "That's a big one," Kai mused as he mentally compared it to the size of Trak's head, determining it was easily a third of the size bigger than the walking brown barrel of rage.
     The innkeeper turned away from the mug he was cleaning to face them. "I see you noticed old Stalker's head," he said, as if there was any way to miss it. "Biggest therasus central Horitan had ever seen."
     "How'd it get that name?"
     "Because that's what he did." The innkeeper leaned against the bar. He was a surprisingly thin man with wiry hair that fell over his eyes and a nose so narrow Kai thought he could slice a cycad on it. He pointed toward the door, but in a way that suggested he was gesturing to something beyond it. "He always kept to the forest, watching and waiting from the tree line for any poor soul unfortunate enough to stray too far from the village. If you were ever out alone in the middle of the night and you saw a pair of amber eyes staring at you from behind a bush or a tree, you were already dead."
     "Scary. Who took him down?"
     "My great grandfather did. His brother got drunk one evening and stumble too close to the forest trying to find his way home. The entire village woke up when they heard his screams as he was dragged off into the night. They couldn't even find his bones afterward. My great grandfather was so heartbroken and enraged that he put together a hunting party of ten of Sulves's strongest men and went out to find the beast. It wasn't long before Stalker found them first, though. No one knows exactly what happened that day, but my great grandfather was the only one who returned from that hunt, and the only thing he carried was Stalker's dismembered, bloody head."
     "Wow," Kai said as he looked back up at the skull. "That must have been one heck of a beast."
     "Yes, he certainly was."
     "She," Kim corrected him.
     The bartender turned a steely glance toward her. "I beg your pardon, missy?"
     "That therasus is, was, female." She pointed toward it. "She's missing her seventh incisors on the upper jaw, and her snout is too narrow. That head your great grandfather brought home was no male's."
     The innkeeper stared up at the skull as if seeing it for the first time. After a few moments he let out an uproarious burst of laughter. "Well, what do you know? You're right! Old gramps bagged himself a she-beast. Looks like my pop was wrong after all." Obviously pleased now, he turned back to them and asked, "So, how can I help you two this evening?"
     "We need a room for three," Kai told him. "Do you have anything available?"
     "Sorry, I don't," the innkeeper told him apologetically. "A big group came in just before you did and nabbed the last of our larger rooms. We have a couple of two-person rooms open if you're interested."
     Kai groaned. "Great, looks like one of us is going to sleep on the floor."
     "You're such a gentleman, Kai."
     Kai raised a suspicious brow at Kim. "And why is that?"
     "Because you're obviously going to take the floor so the lady can have the comfortable bed."
     "You're no lady, Kim. You're barely even a girl."
     "Rude," she said, frowning. "If you're not going to be noble about this then we'll decide another way." Kim reached into her pocket and pulled out a copper coin. "Heads, I get the bed. Tails, you get it. Deal?"
     Kai pushed away from the bar to meet her challenge. "All right, that seems fair."
     Kim flicked the coin in the air. He was impressed at how high she got it as it spun wildly. She deftly caught the coin with one hand before slapping it over the back of her other. She lifted her first hand to look at the result, then shook her head and clicked her tongue in a manner that was both sympathetic and demeaning. "Too bad, Kai, looks like you're taking the floor tonight."
     Kai rolled his head and sighed. "Fine, whatever. How much for a room?"
     The innkeeper grinned, obviously amused with the outcome of the coin flip. "Seventy-five copper per bed. I usually charge per person, but it seems you'll be paying in your own way."
     "Thanks," Kai said a little more disparagingly than he meant to as he fished out the coin to pay the man. He was grateful for the discount, but didn't quite appreciate having his loss rubbed in.
     Kai turned when he heard a defeated shout from a couple tables away. He spotted two men, one was collecting a small pile of copper coins that had been set next two three upturned cups while the other was preoccupied with rapping his knuckles against his skull.
     "There's no need to be sore my good sir," the first man, who had blond hair and was slight in stature even while sitting, told the larger bald patron. "It is a game, after all."
     The other man banged a fist on the table. "I want another round, damn it. Double or nothing!"
     The small man smiled. "As tempting as that is, maybe you should let someone else have a try?" He scanned the room until his eyes locked on Kai's. "You there! Interested in a few minutes of fun?"
     "What do you have in mind?" Kai asked as he walked over.
     "The game is very simple." He lifted one of the pewter cups and retrieved a small glass marble. "I hide this marble under one of the cups, shuffle them around, then you try to guess where the marble is."
     "Oh, I know this game." Kai turned to Kim. "My friend's dad used to play it with us on rainy days."
     Kim waved him forward. "Go ahead then, give it a shot."
     The bald man vacated his chair so Kai could sit. The disgruntled patron stood next to the table and glowered at the cups as if they were the source of his misfortune.
     "What are the stakes?" Kai asked as he sat down. Kim propped her arm on the back of the chair and leaned over to watch.
     "Twenty copper," the gamer said as he set up the cups.
     "All right." Kai fished into his coin purse for the copper. He didn't have too much coin to spare, but he told himself he'd only play a few rounds. The gamer showed Kai the glass marble before placing it under one of the cups and starting the shuffle. The man had good handwork as he shifted the cups back and forth, but Harrison was much defter when he had played with him and Ryan so it wasn't a chore for Kai to keep track. When it came time to choose, Kai pointed to the left cup with absolute certainty. "That one."
     The blond man swiftly lifted the cup, but to Kai's surprise there was no marble under it. "Too bad, my good man. It seems this round goes to me. Care for another go? I'll give you a fair chance to win your coin back," the gamer told him even as he was gathering up Kai's copper.
     Kai frowned, he was sure he had picked the right cup. His eye never left it after the marble went under. "Yeah, one more round." He pulled out his coin purse for twenty more copper. He half-expected Kim to roust him for his loss like she had with the coin flip, but the girl was oddly silent as she stared at the cups.
     The gamer tilted all three cups at once and slid his hand under all of them in a way that prevented Kai from seeing which one the marble had been under when he retrieved it. He showed Kai the marble before hiding it under one of the cups for another shuffle. This time Kai focused every ounce of his attention on the correct cup, determined not to lose track of it for even a second. When the shuffle ended he knew without a doubt where the marble was. "The right one."
     The gamer nimbly lifted the cup, and once again the marble was nowhere to be seen. "Bad luck again. Don't be down, though. Raijaku may smile upon you yet."
     Frustrated now, and determined to prove that his eyes weren't deceiving him, Kai reached for his coin purse to get another twenty copper. Kim put her hand on his shoulder to stop him. "Move, I'm taking a shot at this." Kai opened his mouth to protest, but the fierce look in her eyes had him closing it back up. He reluctantly slipped out of the chair for her, though he didn't know how much better she would fare against this guy than he had.
     "A new challenger! The more the merrier, I always say. Twenty copper if you'd please."
     "Why don't we make this interesting?" Kim asked as she flipped a silver piece onto the table. Both the gamer and the previous player, who still watched from the side of the table, looked at her like she was nuts.
     "Kim, you can't bet that much!" Kai insisted.
     "Shut up, Kai," she said firmly without so much as glancing at him. Looking the gamer straight on, Kim crossed her arms and sat back in the chair. "We playing or not?"
     The gamer let out a weak chuckle. "Well, if you insist."
     He retrieved the marble again and showed it to Kim before hiding it back under one of the cups. The gamer's hand movements were quicker and more fluid than they had been with Kai now that there was more coin on the line. Still, Kai was able to keep track of the right one just as he had the last two times, so he felt vindicated that when the shuffle ended Kim pointed and said, "Middle."
     A wary look passed through the gamer's face before he hid it behind a smile and snatched up the middle cup. "So sorry," he said, just a little too pleased with himself when, yet again, there was no marble in sight. "You can't win them all."
     He reached over to take the silver coin Kim had wagered, and while his attention was diverted Kim shot forward and swiped the upturned cup from his grasp. The short man shouted in surprise as he tried to grab it back, but she was already comfortably out of his reach as she sat back into her chair. The gamer started to move out of his own chair, but the bald man stepped up to block his path around the right side of the table. Kai moved to block the left side so the short man would have to go through one of them to get to Kim. It was clear now that all three of them shared the same sentiment; this man was trying to swindle them.
     Kim tipped the cup into her hand, and lo and behold the elusive glass marble rolled into her palm. "Sloppy work," she said, shaking her head. "A child could have figured out something was up. Nobody's that lucky."
     The gamer sprung from his chair to run, but the bald patron's hand was already on the shorter man's collar pulling him back. "You cheating little shit, you trying to play us for saps?"
     The blond man chuckled nervously. "Now, now, there's no reason to get violent, my friend." When the bigger man's stare only intensified he quickly added, "Listen, why don't I buy all three of you a round of drinks and we can put all of this behind us?"
     "Make that four drinks, a friend of ours is joining us in a bit," Kim told him. At the gamer's pained expression she added, "You're also going to give back our wagers, and because you're such an accommodating man you're also going to pay us our winnings as an apology for this little misunderstanding."
     "But, Miss, I---" The bald man tightened his grip on the gamer's collar, lifting him up just a bit so he was forced to stand on his toes. "Of course! Of course! By all means, anything to make my valued patrons happy."
     The innkeeper came over to their table. "Is everything all right over here?" he asked, eyeing them all warily.
     "Couldn't be better," Kim told him with a pleasant smile. "We'd like four mugs of the best, most expensive ale you have on tap."
     The man's face immediately lit up. "Right away."
     As the innkeeper left to fetch them their drinks, the gamer turned his pained expression back to Kim and asked, "Miss, may I at least have my marble back? I can't very well ply my trade without it."
     Kim held out her hands in a helpless gesture, and in doing so showed that they were empty. "I'm sorry, what marble?"
     "Ah, yes, of course..."
     The gamer paid out their wagers and the winnings he had tried to cheat them out of, and when the innkeeper brought four generous mugs of ale to their table he paid for them as well. When all was said and done the bald patron all but booted the short man in the ass to make him leave. The larger man took his mug and drank deeply, capping off the swig with a refreshed sigh. "That's damn good ale." He raised his mug toward Kim. "Well played, lass. Your mind's as sharp as your eyes. I reckon you made out better from all this than both us men together."
     She idly rolled the glass marble that had suddenly reappeared between her thumb and forefinger. "He was an amateur. A real shyster would have let you win a few rounds to throw off suspicion, ease you into betting more and more before taking the entire pot."
     "I almost feel sorry for the poor bastard the way you bled him dry." His lip curled into a dark smirk. "Almost." Raising his mug to her again, the patron said, "Good evening, and safe travels to you both," before heading off to another table closer to the fire.
     "That was impressive," Kai told Kim. "It never occurred to me that the marble was still in the cup when he lifted it. How did he even do that?"
     "It's not that hard if you know how, but like I said the real skill would have come from throwing off suspicion by not beating us every single round."
     "You handled him pretty well. This can't be your first time dealing with his type."
     Kim's grinned slyly at him, but said nothing.
     Lukan entered the inn a few minutes later with a couple satchels of supplies in hand. When he came to their table, Kim said, "Perfect timing." She nodded toward the untouched mug at the end of the table and said, "That one's for you."
     Lukan raised his brow. "I thought I told you to get something to eat, not drink."
     "We were about to, but one of the other patrons was nice enough to buy us all a round of drinks." She spread her arms in a "what are you going to do?" gesture. "Who were we to turn him down?"
     "Really?" Lukan's voice dripped with doubt and suspicion.
     "Speaking of food, though, I'm starving. Dinner's on me, Lukan." She flashed the extra silver piece that she had bled out of the gamer.
     "That's pretty generous of you, Kim," Kai said as he looked around at what some of the other patrons were eating. He pointed toward someone who was eating a pan-fried steak. "That looks good, I'll have what he's having."
     "Then you'll have to pay for it yourself. I never said I was footing your bill, just Lukan's."
     Kai frowned. "What? Why?"
     "I only treat gentlemen. You had your chance to be one earlier and you blew it."
     Kai rolled his eyes and reached for his coin purse as Kim waved over the innkeeper to place their orders.