I was inspecting the new inventory, double-checking the count, when Rabbit burst in. As usual, the man made no attempt to address me by my rank. 

"I need to see the captain, Xev. Where is he?"

I paused my count, scribbling down a number so I wouldn't forget. "He's out. He will be for a while. What do you need?"

Rabbit paced. He'd been pacing. The man was all nervous energy, even when resting. Understandable, when you remembered what he did for a living.

"Who's OIC?" he asked. Officer in Charge. I was, and I told him so. I also told him to hurry up and spill it.

"We got trouble, Xev. Some newcomers in town."

My expression darkened. "What kind of newcomers?"

"Looks like a rival outfit. They're setting up over in one of the abandoned warehouses behind Mahmoud's place."

I cursed under my breath.

The last thing we could afford was another band of mercs setting up on our turf. Never mind the brazen insult of it. It had already been a slow adventuring season. Even in a city like Kairo—ancient, bustling, and at the crossroads of the world's largest trade routes—we'd been struggling to find business.

Most blamed it on the freak storms. The Soha Desert had suffered a long winter with historic rainfall. It flooded the rivers, washed out most of the crossings, and turned the great caravan roads into sludge.

No travelers meant no adventurers. Which, in turn, meant no one crazy or daring enough to enter the Crypt of the Dune Kings. 

The locals sure as hell weren't going to do it. They all knew better.     

"How many?" I asked.

"Looks like two squads. Might be more." That was twenty, maybe twenty-five men. At a minimum.

Damn it.

I really wished the captain were here. And not just because this was properly his call. He'd taken two reinforced squads with him to see the satrap of Kalah. Leaving me with only one squad, plus augments, to handle garrison duty. 

Even if I could bring everyone—and I couldn't, if we wanted to maintain our own barracks' security—we were still outnumbered almost two to one. Long odds, and not ones I'd normally bet on. 

Unfortunately, the captain wouldn't be back from Kalah for at least five more days. This problem couldn't wait. 

We did still have surprise on our side. Or we would, if we acted soon. I glanced at the crates I'd been inventorying. A ghost of a plan started to form in my head. 

"Go find Half-high," I said. "Tell him I want his team ready to march in twenty minutes. Hatchets and knives. No spears. No shields."

Rabbit nodded. "Armor?"

"Hauberks only. No Helmets."

Rabbit gave me a quizzical look. "What you got in mind, Xev?"

Again, a pointed refusal to address me by rank. It was an open challenge, one he dared me to correct. 

I decided to handle it later.

"I'll tell you all once we're formed up." 

Rabbit nodded and made for the door, but I told him to hold up another second. I dug under the captain's desk for the strong box. He kept our operations cash in here. I frowned. After hiring the pack animals for the Kalah trip, there wasn't much left.

I scooped the remainder into a small pouch. I tossed it to Rabbit.

"Once you pass word to Half-high, run over to Dalah's. Tell her we'd like to to borrow some burkhas from her girls. We'll try our best to bring them back. If she argues, give her the cash. If it's not enough, tell her to put the difference on our tab."

Rabbit grinned. "Her girls don't wear much of anything, Xev. Least of all burkhas."

"They do when they're going to temple. Get going. And don't take no for an answer."

Rabbit saluted—it always came across as a sarcastic gesture when he did it—then he took off at a sprint.

I returned to my inventory duties, hurrying through them. One thing was sure. 

It was going to be a lively night in Kairo.




Half-high was, without question, the meanest SOB I'd ever met in my life. He was also capable and fearless, a man who might have been destined for greatness in the satrap's army, if nature hadn't dealt him such a raw hand.

He was short, just this side of full-blown dwarfism, and had been born with a sickness of the spine. One shoulder sat higher than the other, creating a permanent crook in his neck. It was immensely painful, which kept him in a foul mood from sunrise to sunset.

The man loved fighting with a passion most reserve for women or fine liquor. I suspected it came from an in-born desire to visit all the pain and suffering he felt onto the world around him.

Currently, he was spilling plenty of both onto his team. Runt, Pock, and Willow were good fighters when properly motivated, and Half-high believed the best motivation was abject terror.

Counting me and Rabbit, there would be six men on this raid. 

All of us stood in the barracks courtyard, our breath steaming in the cold night air. 

Most of us were armed and armored, our battle kit hidden out of sight beneath the burkhas Rabbit had procured. The sole exception was Runt. The man stood well over six feet tall, and was built like a stone wall. None of the burkhas would fit him.

That was fine, I reasoned. Our disguise would still work if he posed as our chaperone. It might work better, in fact. The downside was he'd have to go unarmored, and would need one of his teammates to carry his weapons.

"You good with that, Runt?"

Half-high answered for him, in a tone that had more in common with an animal's snarl than anything a human being would use. "That sorry sack of maggot-shit is good with it, sir."

"I was asking Runt directly, corporal." I intentionally leaned on his rank.

"Yes, sir. Sorry, sir." 

We were generally an informal outfit. Most of us didn't go for regulations, pomp, and all that dog-and-pony stuff. If we did, most of us would still be members of a regular army. 

That said, the captain insisted on a certain minimum of military discipline while in garrison. If nothing else, it made us look like a good investment to potential customers.

That wasn't the reason I'd made a point of putting Half-high in his place, though. Fact was, Runt was going to have the most dangerous job tonight. I was asking him to take a much bigger risk than the others. If he wasn't willing to volunteer, I wasn't willing to force him.

The big man nodded. "I'm good with it, sir."

I gave him a nod, told him to drop his hauberk, hand off his weapons, and step back in line. The whole time, Half-high growled obscenities and chewed him out for not moving fast enough. Once again, a poor ranker had failed to meet the corporal's impossible standards. 

In short order, we were ready to move.

Runt led the way, carrying a candle lamp and wearing his shemagh around his head and neck, leaving his face uncovered. Rabbit stayed close behind him, giving subtle directions from behind his disguise.

I walked third in line, carrying a large wicker basket. That basket contained a special surprise. One our entire plan would hinge on. 

Pock, Willow, and Half-high brought up the rear, the three of them constantly rotating position, whispering to one another, and pointing out the sights.

To all the world, we resembled nothing more than a group of good, Al'leh-fearing women. An extended family out on some late-night errand with our gallant male escort.

It was better camouflage than you might imagine. The hours between dinner and sunrise were when Kairo truly came alive. It was generally too hot to do much in the middle of the day, so from mid-morning to early evening, the shops were closed, the bazaars were deserted, and the only people abroad were those who had a damned good reason.

But just before sundown, when the desert air began to cool, the shops opened their shutters. The merchants and the street performers began setting up. More and more people began to fill the streets. 

By midnight, Kairo was a bustling jewel like no other, with strings of hanging lanterns glowing over every street, the mouth-watering smells of roasting meat filling the air, and the heady aroma of exotic smokes mingling with it all.

It was a city a man could fall in love with, if he had a more romantic bent.

Absently, I fingered the handle my fighting knife. Romantic notions would have to wait for another time.

Tonight, we had business to settle.


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