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Thraxas at the Races

Chapter One


I step out of the law courts. It's still raining. A huge clap of thunder explodes in the sky. I growl with annoyance.

"Terrific. The judge just fined me everything I have left, it's the rainy season and now the storms have started."

The sky is turning very ugly. My face is much the same. I can't remember being in a worse mood. Ex-Deputy Consul Rittius certainly managed to put one over on me this time. If I ever meet him in a dark alley I'll skewer him with a rusty dagger. It won't even have to be dark. Any alley will do.

"You still have some money left," says Makri.

"I lost a little at the out-of-town chariot races."

A little? How much?"

I shake my head, which Makri correctly interprets to mean everything I had. Lightning splits the sky. Rain starts pelting down harder than ever. A small, mean-faced figure emerges from the law courts, the white of his official toga showing under his fur-lined cloak. It's Senator Rittius, formerly Deputy Consul of Turai, and still head of Palace Security. He's flanked by eight Guards. I consider running him through anyway, but hold myself back.

He sticks his thin face close to mine. "You were lucky, Thraxas," he says, with loathing in his voice. "The judge was far too lenient. If I had my way you'd be rowing a slave galley by now."

"Really? If you bother me any more, ratface, you'll be handing in your toga way ahead of schedule."

"Don't threaten me, fat man," hisses Rittius. "Or I'll have you back in court so fast it'll make you dizzy. I'm still head of Palace Security. You take one step outside the law and I'll be down on you like a bad spell. Your life in Turai is finished. I advise you to leave while you still can."

I stare at Rittius with hatred. I did him a very bad turn a while back. In the course of an investigation last summer I seriously dented his political ambitions and caused him to lose the election for Deputy Consul. I still feel good about it.

"Stay out my way," I tell him. "Your Guard won't stop me gutting you if I get a notion to."

My hand strays towards the sword at my hip. Rittius flinches, very slightly. He knows I could do it. He recovers himself quickly, and sneers at me.

"I think you'll find you've got far too much on your plate to go around inflicting violence on your betters," he says.

Rittius departs. His Guards march after him through the rain in good order.

"You certainly know how to make influential friends," says Makri. She offers to buy me a beer and we hurry through the ever increasing downpour to the tavern at the edge of the law courts where the accused steady their nerves before their ordeal and the barristers spend their fees afterwards.

"How long did you say this rain lasted?" asks Makri, who's only recently arrived in Turai, and has not yet become used to our seasons.

"A month. And it'll get worse now the storms have arrived. Last year Gurd had to shore up the walls of the Avenging Axe with sandbags."

Makri and I live at the Avenging Axe, a tavern in Twelve Seas. It's not much of a place to live, but nowhere is in Twelve Seas, the rough area by the docks. It's the sort of place you end up if your life isn't going too well. Like for instance if you're a highly paid Senior Investigator working at the Imperial Palace who is booted out of his job for alleged drunkenness, insubordination and whatever else it was I was accused of.

Rittius was my boss back then. He hated me then and since I put one over on him last summer it's become even worse. I helped clear a Royal Princess's name as well as the son of Rittius's opponent of serious charges. Rittius promptly lost the election. I knew he'd be out to get me but I never thought he'd stoop so low as to use his position at the Palace to drag me through the courts accused of assaulting an officer of the law.

"What the hell was I supposed to do?" I complain as I sink my flagon of ale and hold it out for a refill. "I needed that landus in a hurry. I could hardly stand around asking politely, could I? So I hauled the guy out and roughed him up a bit. I wasn't to know he was a Praetor's Assistant on a secret mission for the King. He wasn't even wearing an official toga."

I'm seething with the injustice of it all.

"I thought I'd get through the Hot Rainy Season without having to work. I hate investigating in the rain. Now I'm broke I'll have to."

Gurd, the ageing Barbarian who owns the Avenging Axe, is an old fighting companion. We were soldiers and mercenaries together. He tolerates a fair amount by having a Private Investigator like myself as a tenant. Only last month the place was practically wrecked when the Brotherhood, the local criminal gang, slugged it out with two bands of warrior monks in the downstairs bar. Gurd figures the least I can do is pay the rent on time. Which, until my unwise speculations on the recent out-of-town chariot races, I fully intended to do.

"Do you ever win at the races?"

"Of course, I win plenty."

Makri scoffs. She claims she could find more winners at the chariot races than me by simply throwing a dart at the form sheet. I remind her that she's an ignorant Barbarian with Orc blood in her veins who's so unused to civilisation she still finds it awkward to use cutlery.

"Stick to what you're good at, Makri."

"Like what?"

"Like killing people. You're good at that."

Makri accepts the compliment. It's true enough. Since Makri escaped from the Orcs' gladiator slave pits last year and headed on over to civilisation, she's proved herself pretty much invincible with a sword in her hand. This has been of great benefit to me on several occasions when my investigations have gotten nasty. They often do. During the attack of the warrior monks Makri demonstrated her skills in such a savage and devastating manner that Captain Rallee was left shaking his head in amazement, and Captain Rallee has seen a lot of fighting in his time.

"But superior fighting skills count for nothing at the race track. The problem was that the out-of-town meeting was fixed. You can't trust the resident Sorcerers at these small events. Not like here in the city. With Melus the Fair as Stadium Sorcerer you know everything is above board. She's practically the only honest person in Turai. She ensures that magic is never used at the Stadium Superbius. But that small meeting was a joke. I swear the chariot that won the last race wouldn't have made it out of the stable without a spell to show the horses which way to go. I should have known better than to gamble on it. There again, I wasn't expecting Rittius to drag me into court the following week."

"Could have been worse," says Makri, paying for my third beer. "You might be rowing a trireme by now. Rittius really hates you. How badly did you behave at his wedding anyway?"

"Pretty badly," I admit. "But if he wanted the guests to remain in order he shouldn't have provided so much free wine. That's strong stuff they ship up from the Elvish Islands. And his bride should have been better covered up. That dress was hardly modest."

I stare gloomily at the bar. Since the unfortunate incident at the wedding, the last few years have been pretty rough. Now I'll have to find a case and investigate it. Damn it. I really hate working in the rainy season.

Outside rain pours down and thunder rumbles overhead. I notice a Sorcerer walking towards us, easily identifiable by his rainbow cloak. He's a large man with a weighty-looking staff in his hand. He stops in front of me and pulls back his hood revealing a pair of steely eyes and a square jaw line. My heart sinks. It's Glixius Dragon Killer. I thought he'd left town.

"I'm going to kill you, Thraxas," he says, in his deep voice.

"What, right now? Or some other time when you've got nothing better to do?"

Glixius fixes me with his steely gaze for a second or two, then turns and marches off without another word.

Makri is shielding her eyes with her hand as if trying to pick out something on the horizon.

"What are you doing?"

"Seeing where the next deadly enemy is coming from."

"Very funny. Rittius and now Glixius. Some day."

Glixius Dragon Killer is a powerful Sorcerer associated with the Society of Friends, Turai's second major criminal organisation. Funnily enough, I did him a very bad turn this summer as well. It was a big summer for doing bad turns to powerful people. I foiled his plot to steal Red Elvish Cloth. I punched him in the face too, as I recall, though he was all out of magic at the time.

There isn't a landus to be found anywhere so we trudge home through the rain. I'm gloomier than ever. What a day. The state fines me all my money and two deadly enemies threaten me.

"It wouldn't be so bad if I ever made any profit out of this investigating business."

"You do," points out Makri. "But you spend most of it on beer and gamble the rest away."

Makri is a very hard worker. She works shifts as a barmaid at the Avenging Axe to pay for her classes at the Guild College. She's not above occasionally pointing out to me the error of my ways. Not that Makri doesn't have her share of faults. I strongly suspect that she's been experimenting with dwa, the powerful drug that has half the city in its grip, though she always denies it.

"Give me a turn with the magic dry cloak," she says.

"No chance," I reply. "I need it more than you. If I'm about to get attacked by Palace Security and a deadly Sorcerer, I need to be comfortable."

I wrap myself tighter in the magic dry cloak. Makri makes a face. It's odd. In her short life she's fought and defeated practically every kind of beast and warrior known and she will charge an impossible force of enemies without the slightest qualm, but she really detests getting wet.

"Damn this rain. At least it was dry in the gladiator slave pits," she grumbles. "I hate this Hot Rainy Season. How can it be hot as Orcish hell and wet as a Mermaid's blanket at the same time?"

She pulls her thin cloak over her vast mane of hair. If she's trying to make me feel guilty she's wasting her time. I didn't spend all that time studying sorcery to learn how to make a magic dry cloak just to hand it over to the first person that asks.

"Where are we going?" asks Makri, as I take a diversion down a series of twisting alleyways.

"I'm calling in at Honest Mox's."

"Honest Mox the bookie? But the Stadium Superbius is shut in the rainy season."

"There's a race meeting in Juval. It's dry there at this time of year."

Juval is a small nation, another member of the League of City-States to which Turai belongs. It's a couple of hundred miles southeast of Turai. Makri wonders how I can bet on chariot races so far away. I explain to her that the bookmakers here band together to pay a Sorcerer to transmit messages to another Sorcerer at the race track in Juval. He sends up the runners and the prices and afterwards transmits the results. It's not an uncommon practice among gamblers in Turai to bet on these races. Makri is impressed, though somewhat surprised to find Sorcerers engaged in such practices.

"I thought they all concerned themselves with higher callings."

"Well, mainly young Apprentices take the work. The Sorcerers Guild doesn't really approve but, hey, it's good practice for sending messages, which is handy in wartime."

"Haven't you lost enough recently?"

"That's why I have to win it back. I have an emergency supply for just this situation."

Mox the bookmaker is, as ever, pleased to see me. He's chalked the runners in the next race in Juval up on a board. I study the form.

"How do you know the Sorcerers transmit everything honestly?" asks Makri.

I admit that this can be a worry. Race Sorcerers have been know to be dishonest, but it's a risk I'm prepared to take. I've never had any trouble with the meeting in Juval. It's a small track, usually with only four chariots in each race. I can't see anything beating the favourite, a fine chariot from Samsarina called Glorious Warrior. It's only even money so I place twenty gurans on it.

"You're wasting your money," sniffs Makri.

"Oh, yes? You won't say that when I pick up my twenty gurans winnings tomorrow."


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