Home > Dragon Unleashed (Fallen Empire #2)(8)

Dragon Unleashed (Fallen Empire #2)(8)
Author: Grace Draven

He rose and retrieved his satchel, opening it for good measure so the two could get a good look at the contents inside—clothing, a leftover bit of pastry wrapped in a handkerchief for later. He might have laughed at their disappointed faces were he not so annoyed. “I’m not going to do anything. For now.” Let them sweat from their own fevered thoughts of what vengeance he might extract in the coming days. Their imaginings would most likely be far worse than anything he could think of even were he bothered to put in the effort.

With as much snaffling and pilfering as he’d witnessed and dealt with in the short day and a half he’d been at the Goban market, he was vaguely surprised to find Batraza still waiting for him outside the shop. He’d half expected to find her gone or at least her saddle disappeared. She whuffled a greeting to him, and he patted her neck. “Let’s go, Bat. I’ve had enough of humanity for today. By the time this is over, I’ll be desperate not to see another human being for a very long time.”

Except for the woman in his vision. He’d like to see her again and intended to, even if only at a distance. The mother-bond remained somewhere in this market, likely still with the thieves who’d paid the unwitting Gedamon to delay and distract him from his hunt and buy them time to pawn the artifact and escape the market. There was no way they’d keep it now that the jeweler had confirmed Malachus was not only alive, but here.

Sleep was a luxury he couldn’t afford tonight, and he sought out one of the makeshift stables hurriedly built to house horses for those riders who’d arrived without the benefit of clan or tribe corrals to shelter their mounts. Malachus paid the extra coin for a roofed stall away from the other horses and an extra bucket of feed before leaving Batraza in the stable master’s care and returning to the market’s dark, empty byways. He had a night in which to scout the area, working from the center out in a widening circle, guided by his senses, which he focused on finding the mother-bond.

He gave up at dawn, having worked his way out to the market’s perimeter on its eastern flank. His coin had paid one night’s boarding for Batraza. If he wanted more, he’d have to return and pay again before they led her out of the stall and put her and his tack up for auction to cover unpaid time. If there was a generosity of spirit in the Goban marketplace, it didn’t exist at the stable yard.

The new stable master was happy to take another day’s boarding fee from Malachus and even more pleased at receiving an extra tip to exercise the mare away from the other horses. Malachus wasted no time returning to the market, this time tracking from the western perimeter to the center, starting with the cluster of round black tents newly erected by the celebrated Savatar nomads.

Searching their encampment proved impossible. This was a military force more than a trader group, their presence here by invitation, according to the gossip running through the marketplace. They’d likely confine any buying and selling to the stalls in the market itself and treat any visits to their camp as not only suspicious but also unwelcome. He didn’t linger. The Winosia thieves, if they had any sense, wouldn’t approach this group.

Once more he tightened his search pattern, circling back toward the heart of the market. A familiar silhouette caught his eye, and he spotted the spare, haughty trader who’d spat at the gray-eyed woman the previous afternoon. The man wore different robes, displaying a wealth that should have had every vendor on this alleyway clamoring for his attention and business. Instead, they either stared at him with baleful gazes or turned their backs, pretending not to see him. Even the merchant manning the pastry shop at which he stopped to browse simply watched him with a deadpan gaze.

The same merchant turned a much friendlier face toward a petite older woman with gray hair, a lined face, and a young expression. She returned his smile with a grin before her eyes lit on the pastries showcased on the table, and her mouth formed a delighted O.

Malachus’s stomach grumbled. He hadn’t eaten since last night, and then only very little thanks to his host’s predilection for drugging the food and wine he served. His belly clamored for sustenance, and the scents wafting from the pastry stall lured him with a magic as strong as the mother-bond’s.

He also wanted a closer look at the haughty customer, who now stared down his nose at the woman as if she crawled with fleas.

Blithely unaware of the man’s obvious contempt, she asked the vendor a few questions about his pies and cakes in a childish voice Malachus found both strange and charming.

“Hali liked the cake with the rose cream I brought her yesterday but not the spicy one. Do you have something else like the rose one?”

The vendor slid a decorated confection toward her. Covered in flowers shaped of sugarcoated dough dyed in pastel shades, the palm-size cake resembled a spring bouquet. “Take this to her. If she liked the rose flavor, she’ll like this one.” He pushed a second cake toward her. “And this is for you, Asil. No charge.”

He chuckled at her soft squeal of delight. She picked up the first cake as if it were a sacred relic instead of a sweet.

Arrested by the sight, Malachus checked his more negative assumptions regarding people in general. He’d just witnessed a generous gesture with no expectation of reciprocal charity, reminding him that not all of humanity suffered from petty cruelty and miserly spirits. Then again . . .

Beside the woman called Asil, the richly dressed trader scowled. “I was here before this flea-bitten cuntmonger,” he protested in waspish tones. As he said the words, he shoved Asil aside. Caught unaware, she staggered sideways, grasping for the table’s edge with her free hand in an attempt to keep her balance. The table tilted with her, sending pastries sliding toward her and the ground.

Frantic to save his goods, the vendor scrambled to catch them before they tumbled off the table, leaving smears of icing, honey, and crushed fruit across the surface. Malachus leapt forward, caught Asil, and righted the table. The smirking trader gave a nasty laugh and turned to leave.

His pained yelp cut through the morning air, the sound abruptly choked to silence when Malachus snagged him, practically garroting him with the collar of his own robe.

“Not so fast, serdah.” Malachus spun the trader around, hands still gripping the robes tight. The trader’s expression had gone from sneer to fright, and he gaped at his captor, who offered a smirk of his own.

“You’re an unpleasant piece of work, aren’t you?” Malachus said in casual tones, as if he strangled everyone he met during conversation. “Spitting on women as they pass you in the street, shoving them about as they buy a cake for a friend, destroying a man’s goods and labor because he didn’t kiss your arse hard enough for a sale.” He tightened his hold on the cloth so the man clawed at the suffocating collar. Malachus glanced at the woman, who gaped at him. “Are you well, madam?”

She nodded, her features creasing again with one of her open smiles. She raised the cake she still held, its decorations mostly undamaged except for one crushed flower. “I still have Hali’s cake.” Her grin gave way to a scowl, and she stuck her tongue out at the trader. “And I don’t have fleas, you shit-eating Guild worm.”

Malachus laughed, as did the pastry vendor and several onlookers. The trader reddened, either from embarrassment or from having his windpipe slowly compressed. He continued clawing at the constricting collar to no avail.

“How much for the damaged pastries as well as the two you gave Madam Asil?” Malachus asked the vendor. When the man quoted an amount, Malachus used his free hand to pat down the trader, finding his bulging purse of coins tucked tight into the belt that cinched his inner robes to his middle. He jerked the purse free and tossed it to the vendor. The trader squirmed even harder in his grip. “Count out the amount you’re owed in restitution,” he instructed the vendor. “I’m sure the serdah here can afford it and have plenty left over to continue his shopping.”

A wheeze of protest escaped the trader’s lips, and his eyes bulged from their sockets at the sight of the vendor extracting a handful of coins from the purse.

“Are you going to strangle him?”

Malachus returned his attention to Asil, who split her scrutiny between him and the struggling trader. “I don’t know yet,” he replied. “Do you want me to strangle him?”

There was indeed something very childlike about this woman, in contrast to her aged appearance. A troubled look entered her gaze. “No. Hali would be cross with me if you did. She says the Guild is a boil on our arses as it is without borrowing trouble.”

“She has the right of it there,” the pastry vendor interjected behind her as he continued counting coins.

“Then we won’t make your Hali cross,” Malachus assured her. He gave the trader a hard shove, letting go of his robes at the same time so the man practically flew backward to land on his backside in the muddied pathway. Malachus caught the purse the vendor tossed him and flung it at the trader, who scrambled after it before one of the fleet cutpurses grabbed it. Humiliated, the trader glared at the trio with eyes brimming with a red-hot hatred. “You’ll regret this,” he snarled. “I’m a Guild factor, and the masters will hear what you’ve done to me.”

As Malachus knew nothing of this Guild and couldn’t care less, the threat bounced off him. Even the pastry vendor seemed unconcerned. “This is Goban territory now,” the vendor said. “Not Empire. The Guild holds no sway here. Tell whoever you want whatever you want. No one cares.” The Guild factor marched away then, shouting a string of blistering epithets at anyone in his path.

Judging by the look on Asil’s face, someone did care. She still held on to her precious cake, her lower lip’s telltale quiver betraying her worry. “I know Hali will still be cross,” she said, her tone mournful.

Malachus opened his mouth to assure the distressed woman he’d be happy to accompany her back to her family, explain the circumstances, and shoulder the blame for inciting the Guild’s wrath. He didn’t get the chance.

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