“A Lesson to Those Who Survive” by D.J. Butler
“I don’t like this place,” Philastes Larch muttered. In the gloom, the Pelthite’s dusky skin and black hair made him hard to see. His undyed gray linothorax breastplate, with the Protagonists’ insignia of an ear painted on it, was visible as a whitish blob. Occasionally, the metal studs in his leather skirt caught glints of light, like a thin swarm of fireflies buzzing about his hips.
The Protagonists all wore matching armor. There were four of them now, and they were experimenting with a uniform.
“You’re not supposed to like it,” Joose said. Joose was the client. He hunched forward in his lumpy purple cassock, his four-clawed hands worrying the ivory tube he’d brought, his long triangular head swaying side to side.
They stood at the base of a thick column in the center of a small courtyard, atop which Indrajit was just now losing sight of a sculpted double-headed eagle. Joose had been insistent that this was where they would meet.
“What is that two-headed eagle?” Philastes asked. “A guardian to protect against the spirits of the dead?”
Joose grunted. “Or a warning. A lesson of some kind to those who survive.”
“The dead are not to be feared.” Indrajit scanned the gathering gloom, peering past the pillars and down the stone lanes, looking for the Handlers. They had agreed that four Handlers would come, corresponding to the four Protagonists, each jobber company accompanying one of the two erstwhile partners. “They’re no different from us. When you are dead, you’ll exist in song, just as your dead fathers do now. And you won’t be terrifying anyone.”
“Not everyone sings songs about their dead,” Fix pointed out.
“But there will be songs for me,” Joose said. “With my fabulous wealth, I shall endow a college of bards.”
“Eh?” Indrajit snapped his attention around to the client. “I didn’t know you were a patron of poetry. Have you ever heard the Blaatshi Epic?”
“Don’t humor him,” Fix warned the client. Fix had already examined every corner of the courtyard in which they stood, but he continued to pace around the periphery, re-checking the shadowed crannies.
“I don’t want to hear your epic.” Joose spat on the weedy ground. “I will leave merchantry behind and become a man of esteem. As such, I will pay bards to sing about me for a century. Beyond that, I have no interest in poetry.”
“Maybe you’d be better off building a necropolis instead.” Fix pointed at a row of carved glyphs on the face of a nearby building. “You could write your noble deeds in stone, and they would be remembered for much longer than a century.”
“Oh, yes?” Joose’s thick black tongue poked at the corner of his mouth, and he nodded at the carved words. “And what deeds did that person do, then?”
Fix examined the characters. “I can’t read it,” he admitted. “It looks a little like bannerscript, but I think it might be a dead language.”
“I’ll stick to my bard plan, thanks.”
“You know,” Indrajit said, “you could be captured in a verse in the Epic.”
“I can’t wait any longer.” Philastes Larch gripped a fluted column at the edge of the courtyard with both hands and started climbing up toward the roof above.
“I don’t want a verse,” Joose said. “I want a college of bards, obligated by legal deed, to sing fawning songs about me until I have moldered into a pile of dust.”
“It’s good to have goals,” Fix said.
Philastes hoisted himself onto the rooftop, becoming a dark silhouette against the night’s bright stars. The lights of Kish were far enough away not to obscure the celestial vault.
“Munahim?” Fix called into the darkness.
“Nothing yet,” the Kyone called back.
“Speaking of goals,” Indrajit said. “I guess I can infer now that we’re here to help you recover something from a tomb?”
“You’re here to keep Tholune’s jobbers in check,” Joose said.
“The Handlers,” Indrajit said. “Yes.”
“And for manual labor.”
“That’s why we brought Munahim and Philastes.” Indrajit pointed at the wrapped bundle at his feet. “And the shovels and prybars.”
“But you’re not here to ask questions,” Joose said.
“Ah.” Indrajit gripped the hilt of his leaf-bladed sword Vacho and bit his tongue.
“I see movement,” Philastes said. “Four . . . five men.”
At the same time, from a different elevated perch in the darkness, Munahim whistled and then tapped five times on stone. The Kyone had not only the head of a dog, but a dog’s keen sense of smell and hearing.
“Get down here,” Fix urged Philastes. “We don’t want anyone to think we’re setting an ambush.”
“But maybe we should have set an ambush,” Joose whimpered.
“You might be willing to deal with your partner on those terms,” Fix said, “but we can’t do that to other jobber companies.”
“Word would get around?” Joose asked. “Other companies would stop working with you?”
“More likely, the Handlers would find us in a dark alley and kill us to get even,” Indrajit suggested. “There are only four of us, but Gannon has a couple dozen men.”
“How do you know the Handlers haven’t set up an ambush, then?” Joose pressed. “If they killed all four of you, there’d be no one to avenge you.”
“There would be the Lord Chamberlain,” Fix said. “And Grit Wopal.”
“The spymaster?” Joose asked.
“The same,” Fix said. “We’re not without allies.”
“Munahim would warn us in any case,” Indrajit said, wishing he felt quite as confident as he sounded. “Having the Kyone turns out to be pretty useful.”
Philastes slid back down the pillar as Munahim padded toward them. “They have a Gund,” the Kyone warned them.
“When did the Handlers get a Gund?” Indrajit asked. “They used to be just a bunch of Zalaptings and that Luzzazza.”
“The Luzzazza whose arm you ripped off?” Fix asked.
“I like the way your description makes me sound mighty,” Indrajit said, “but that isn’t quite how it happened. Also, I don’t know that we’re reconciled, but he has chosen not to kill me on at least one occasion.”
“Perhaps they got a Gund to replace the Grokonk we killed.” Fix’s voice was mild and soft, a little higher-pitched than the man’s barrel chest would suggest. In the darkness, Indrajit almost imagined Fix as a woman.
“We’re at peace with the Handlers,” Indrajit said firmly.
“Yes,” Fix agreed. “And they sent a very large fighter to meet us.”
Indrajit heard the Gund’s footsteps, shuffling and heavy, before he heard the other Handlers. Then he detected the rasp of someone who moved by dragging himself—Joose made the same noise when he moved. Finally, he discerned footfalls.
“Time for a little light,” Fix suggested.
Philastes lit the first of the torches and held it high. He was the designated torch bearer because, though he was formidable with his sling, he was the least deadly of the Protagonists in hand-to hand-combat.
A second torch ignited at the same time, and in the overlapping puddles of light, the four Handlers and their client were revealed. The white-skinned, scab-eyed Gund, with its nest of wiggling insectoid limbs sprouting from high in its back, loomed over the others like a tower. Hugging close to the Gund’s thigh was a hunched, four-armed man who might have been Joose’s mirror image, except that his cassock was red.
“Tholune,” Joose said.
“Joose,” came the hissed answer.
Arrayed around Tholune in a protective formation stood three men. One was a red-haired, pale-faced Karthing Indrajit recognized. He wore two long blades at his belt and was wrapped in gleaming leathers; Indrajit had tangled with the man before and very nearly lost his life to the Karthing’s impeccable swordsmanship. The other two men were Yuchaks, with horn bows in their hands and scimitars at their belts. One of the Yuchaks held the second torch. All four Handlers wore gray tunics with a circular glyph painted on it.
“Good,” the Karthing said. “Five and five.”
Indrajit nodded. “Now, which of you battling partners has the first map?”
“Terms first,” Joose said. “Half each.”
“Each man pays for his own jobbers,” Tholune shot back.
“The jobbers serve our collective interests,” Joose countered. “We pay the jobbers out of the whole, and then split the remainder.”
“Why should I suffer if you overpaid your muscle?” Tholune sneered.
“Why should I suffer if you bought cheap and incompetent help?”
“What are you hiding? Have you hired another dozen thugs, hidden somewhere in the ruins? And you wish me to pay for them?”
“If I planned to kill you, I wouldn’t worry about paying for the jobbers, would I?” Joose snorted.
“Frozen hells,” Indrajit said. “You’re not partners, you’re brothers.”
“Gah!” Joose spat.
“This is pointless.” The Karthing spoke without moving a single unnecessary muscle. “Tholune hired us, Tholune will pay us.”
“You think you can dictate terms to me?” Joose shrieked.
The Karthing’s two swords leaped into his hands. “I am a Sword Brother, fully belted and raised to the highest degree. I think I can dictate terms to everyone here.”
The Gund groaned, a deep rumble that ended in a squeal.
A moment of silence passed.
“We don’t need to test that proposition,” Fix said. “The brothers split the money. Then Tholune pays you, Joose pays us.”
Joose’s triangular muzzle ground in a slow circle and finally he grunted. “I’ll pay the Protagonists.”
The Karthing put away his swords.
“I’m Indrajit,” Indrajit said. “Fix, you probably remember. The Kyone is Munahim and that’s Philastes with the torch.”
“I know,” the Karthing said. “Joose, your map is first.”
“I like this peace we’re enjoying,” Fix said.
“Sarcasm is beneath you,” Indrajit told him. “Sarcasm is for children and idiots.”
Joose twisted open the horn cylinder and shook out a rolled length of parchment. “Pelthite,” he said to Philastes, “raise your torch and stay by my side.”
Then two of Joose’s arms withdrew into his cassock and he began to drag himself forward. Indrajit wasn’t sure what race of man the quarreling brothers represented. He also wasn’t sure whether they had legs. To judge from the motion they made as they moved, and the accompanying noise, they might be dragging their bodies on the ground.
Indrajit picked up the bundle of tools. Then he smiled and stepped brightly to the Sword Brother’s side. “Shall we?”
“Munahim,” Fix said. “Watch the rear.”
“Join him,” the Karthing said to his Yuchak archers. “Watch him carefully, but don’t fall far behind. And listen for Ghouls.”
One torch moved ahead and the second drifted back, leaving the center of the combined party in shadow. Fix fell in beside Indrajit and they moved forward. Their pace was steady but slow, matching Joose’s progress. Indrajit kept his hand on Vacho’s hilt; the Karthing was right that the necropolis was infested with Ghouls. On the other hand, he didn’t want to raise tensions with the Handlers any higher by actually drawing the weapon. Joose and Philastes crossed a crumbling stone amphitheater and heading down a narrow stone alley whose left-hand wall seemed about to collapse on them.
“So, ‘fully belted and raised to the highest degree’ sounds important,” Indrajit said.
“No one is important,” the Karthing replied without turning his head. “Only the art matters.”
“Okay. But I mean, you must have studied and trained for many years.”
“And fought,” the Karthing said. “The art is not an abstract art.”
“Only the art matters,” Indrajit said, “but then you’re working as one of Gannon’s Handlers."
“You are a poet,” the Karthing answered slowly. “The four hundred twenty-seventh Recital Thane of the Blaatshi. The last of the line.”
Indrajit felt both embarrassed and proud at the fact that the Karthing knew this. He also felt vulnerable. Did all the Handlers know this about him? Were Gannon’s men following him and investigating him? Fix was right, there was obviously still hostility between the two jobber groups. Should Indrajit be worried? “I hope not to be the last.”
“You serve an art,” the Karthing continued. “And yet you also must earn your bread.”
“I see,” Indrajit said. “I apologize if it seems a foolish question. I just know less than I’d like about your order.”
The Karthing said nothing.
“Maybe you could give me a demonstration of your art,” Indrajit suggested.
“Only if someone needs to be killed.”
Indrajit had questions, but no answers seemed forthcoming, so he whistled softly and kept walking.
Joose and Philastes passed through a sagging arcade and then climbed a broad stair toward a raised avenue. The sides of the elevated road were pierced with ragged holes large enough to admit men and visible as yawning black maws in the torchlight. Indrajit heard faint chuckling and whispering sounds, and he thought they came from the openings.
“There are Ghouls near!” Munahim called, preempting Indrajit’s question.
“I’m going to draw my weapon,” Indrajit told the Karthing. “Because of the Ghouls.”
They all armed themselves. Fix took an ax into one hand and his falchion into the other; the Karthing drew both swords. Even the Gund armed itself with an immense, straight, one-edged sword. It looked like something a chef might use to dice vegetables, bloated to an immense size.
At the base of the stairs, the Gund bellowed and charged three steps toward the holes. Indrajit heard sudden shrieking and then silence.
They climbed the stairs. At the top, Philastes and Joose stood waiting.
“Maybe we should get a Gund,” Fix mused.
“They eat a lot,” the Karthing said.
“So you each have half a map,” Indrajit said to Tholune. “Did you fight over it and tear it in half or something?”
“Our father left us each a map in his will,” Tholune said. “He said they were maps to great treasure.”
“My condolences,” Indrajit said.
“My father died years ago,” Tholune told him. “Neither of us wanted to show the other his treasure map, so we only realized recently that the two maps were two halves of the same document.”
“It’s not funny,” Tholune said. “Our businesses have suffered hard times. We could have used the treasure.”
“How did you realize the maps went together?” Indrajit asked.
“We ran into each other. I was entering the necropolis and Joose was leaving. We fought, and then we talked. His difficulty was that his map shows a clear starting point, but the route wanders off the edge of the map. My difficulty was that my map shows no clear starting point, but instead just the end of the journey, in a tangle of mausolea. So he followed his map to its end and then wandered, hoping blindly to run into the treasure our father promised, while I walked in circles, looking in vain for buildings and lanes whose configuration exactly matched my chart.”
“If only you had worked together from the start,” Fix said.
“If only he had told us!” Tholune hissed. “If we had known that working together would have quickly brought us to the treasure, then of course we would have shared information!”
“What is the treasure?” Indrajit asked.
Tholune waved two arms vaguely at the silhouettes of structures surrounding them. “Grave goods of some kind, no? Gold or jewelry.”
“Your lack of curiosity is notable, Sword Brother,” Fix said.
“If we find the treasure, I’ll get paid.”
“Was your father a tomb robber?” Indrajit asked. “A historian, maybe, at the Hall of Guesses?”
“He was a draper,” Tholune said. “I continue my father’s business of importing and selling fine wools.”
“As do I,” Joose said.
“Liar!” Tholune snapped.
“Your hatred of sheep is irrational,” Joose grumbled.
“Sheep’s wool is prickly!” Tholune groused. “It is a lesser fabric! It attacks its own wearer, and it smells bad! Who wants to be attacked by his own stinky cloak?”
“My many, many customers,” Joose shot back. “Do you know that I have contracts with three of Kish’s great houses to clothe their servants in winter?”
“Servants?” Tholune laughed. “Who else do you clothe? Criminals? Reprobates? Prisoners? Soldiers? I clothe the same houses’ princes and princesses, at considerably higher margins!”
“But no volume!” Joose snorted. “For every princess you wrap in an alpaca shawl, I dress a hundred men in good sheep’s wool! You would happily make one fine cloak for the Lord Stargazer and then die penniless in your pride, rather than stoop to make a tunic for an apprentice!”
“I’ll happily clothe any apprentice with taste!” Tholune was shrieking. “And I don’t want to hear you complain about my margins! My margins have declined every year because of the competition from your shoddy, stinky, scratchy goods!”
“You see?” Joose shrugged with four shoulders, sending a ripple through his cassock. “Might as well get into sheep’s wool.”
Tholune screamed and hurled himself forward, but both Indrajit and the Karthing blocked him with their bodies. The draper huffed and grunted, but eventually allowed himself to be pulled away.
Indrajit allowed a moment of silence, for everyone to catch his breath.
“Philastes,” he finally said, “please continue.”
“We’ve come to the edge of the map,” Philastes said. “We need the other map.”
“My brother is a brute and a man of no taste,” Tholune growled. “I’ll share nothing with him. We’re done here.”
Joose howled, but Fix grabbed his triangular muzzle and forced it shut.
“Okay,” Indrajit said, “I know that tempers are running high, but that’s breaking the deal. You’ve come through Joose’s map, and the deal is that now we follow your map. You don’t get to walk away now and come back later on your own, now that you know where your own map begins.”
“I certainly do get to,” Tholune said. “I have a Gund.”
“I see in hindsight,” Fix said, “we should have forced you two to switch maps at the beginning.”
“Not my fault you weren’t thinking more clearly.” Tholune chuckled, a dry and rasping sound.
“What you’re proposing would take us down a very awkward road,” Indrajit said. “You would take your map and go. We would stay here and wait. Find some nice hiding place, up off the ground, with good visibility and good protection. We’d hunker down on rooftops and the tops of tall columns. And when you came back, we’d ambush you. But that’s not really going to happen.”
“It isn’t?” Tholune sneered. “Why not?”
“For one thing,” Indrajit said, “we’re five and five.”
“We have a Gund!” Tholune reminded him.
The Gund groaned.
“True,” Indrajit said. “The Handlers once had a Grokonk, too. A big female, really ferocious. Have you asked your jobbers what happened to their Grokonk?”
The Karthing’s face was expressionless. Indrajit had terrible images of the Sword Brother’s two weapons slicing Indrajit in half.
“They had a Luzzazza, too,” Fix said. “You know, the big four-armed fellows?”
“Luzzazza have two arms,” Tholune said. “And they use their mental powers to levitate objects in their immediate vicinity. Everyone knows that.”
“Four arms,” Fix said again, “two of which are very difficult to see because they change color, like the skin of a chameleon. Except the Handler’s Luzzazza has three.”
“I don’t think he’s forgiven you yet,” the Karthing said quietly, “whatever he’s told you.”
“So don’t count on your Gund giving you an easy victory,” Indrajit said. “But there’s a better reason why you’re going to keep the deal.”
“What’s that?” Tholune’s voice held a quavering note of uncertainty.
“Because the Handlers are going to keep the deal,” Indrajit said. “Because if they want to keep working in Kish, they have to have the reputation of helping their clients get results. But if they get the reputation of being dishonorable or deal-breakers, no one will hire them. They’ll be done, overnight. Force to make a living as criminals.”
Indrajit really hoped that what he was saying was true.
More to the point, he really hoped that the Karthing believed it. For all his talk of earning his bread, the man was dedicated to an art. He had to have some notion of integrity.
“Gah.” Tholune spat. With hesitant, jerking motions, he produced a leather wallet, extracting from it a map.
Philastes held out a hand, offering to read the map, but Tholune ignored him. Rotating the scrap of parchment first one direction and then the other and peering about himself in all directions, he finally became pleased with what he saw and lurched toward a descending ramp. Joose and Philastes followed close behind.
The rest of the jobbers followed.
“How much treasure do you think there is?” Indrajit asked.
“Hopefully enough to pay us and you,” the Karthing said. “I’d hate to have to fight you for it.”
“If there’s that little,” Indrajit suggested, “we can just split it.”
“Why should I split it with you?” the Karthing asked. “Our fee is undoubtedly higher. We are jobbers of renown.”
“There’s a mathematical way to do this,” Fix said. “We add up our agreed fees to determine proportions. Then we each take a pro rata share of whatever treasure we found.”
“That’s one way to do math,” the Karthing said. “Another way to do math is that the Handlers get paid in full. If there’s anything left, you can get paid out of that.”
“What happened to Tholune pays you, Joose pays us?” Indrajit asked.
“If the treasure is large enough,” the Karthing said, “that’s how it will work. But if it’s small enough that only one party can get paid . . . that party will be us.”
“I’m sure there’s lots of treasure.” Indrajit grinned.
The ramp led into a plaza. From the plaza, Philastes and the two clients led on through a series of arches and up a short staircase, and then into a rectangular field with a sunken cistern at one end, dark with gurgling mud, and a column at the other. The clients stopped between the pool and the pillar and argued in low voices until the jobbers caught up.
“It’s not in the mud!” Tholune snapped.
“My jobbers can swim.” Joose laughed. “Did you see the one with the fish head? They’ll have it out for me in no time. Maybe you’d like to renegotiate shares now?”
“Not this again,” Fix said.
“What does the map show?” the Karthing asked.
Indrajit scanned the breadth of the field. “I know what it shows. It shows the same symbol on Tholune’s map, ending the search, as it showed on Joose’s map, starting it.”
Fix furrowed his brow. “Did you look at the maps?”
The two brothers conferred under Philastes’s sputtering torch.
“Why would you think that?” the Karthing asked.
Indrajit pointed. The pillar standing opposite the cistern was the same size and height as the pillar by which they’d started the journey. And at its top stood a double-headed eagle.
“Oh,” Fix said.
“Ghouls!” Munahim roared.
Immediately afterward, Indrajit heard the twanging of bowstrings. The torch that had been carried by one of the Yuchaks bringing up the rear with Munahim snuffed out.
“Fix!” Indrajit yelled. “Philastes! Protect the clients!”
“Protagonists!” Fix cried.
Indrajit dropped the bundle of tools and charged into the darkness, sword in hand. He raced toward where he’d last seen the light and he carried the blade high overhead, wary that if he ran into Munahim without seeing him, he might impale his colleague.
The Gund bellowed and rushed past. The big sexless jobber’s legs were longer than Indrajit’s and it charged recklessly. Indrajit accelerated his pace.
He heard wordless shrieks behind him. “Protagonists!” Fix yelled again.
Indrajit saw a crumbling mound to his left. Atop it, a tall shadow slashed left and then right and then left again with a long sword, emitting sounds like barks mingled in with grunts and curses. Lesser shadows surrounding him shrieked and collapsed, dissolving from misshapen, mult-limbed grotesqueness into formless puddles.
“Munahim!” he called. “I’m coming!”
He thundered up the slope. Eyes adjusting, he could make out two Ghouls on the Kyone. One had Munahim by the leg and tried to drag him to the ground. The other clung to Munahim’s arm, keeping his sword from getting into play. Beneath the Protagonist’s feet and in heaps all about him lay the flesh of dead Ghouls, bone-white under the light of moon and stars.
Indrajit didn’t yell a battle cry. Instead, he slammed into the first Ghoul with his knees, knocking it free and sending it rolling across a rubble-strewn depression.
The Gund roared, a sound like a shriek and a hiss. Indrajit heard other screams as well. Ghouls’ voices? Yuchaks’?
Indrajit stepped on a stone that betrayed him, sliding away and stealing his footing. The Ghoul he’d knocked down rose to its feet and sprang. Only then did Indrajit see that the monster had two heads on long necks, each head terminating in a long, toothy muzzle. Indrajit lunged forward to catch himself on one knee and braced Vacho against his own chest, sharp tip forward.
The Ghoul impaled itself like a roasted chestnut on a toothpick. Both mouths hissed and spat blood, and both heads lurched forward, jaws snapping to bite at Indrajit. Indrajit smelled the reek of carrion on the Ghoul’s breath. Holding Vacho’s hilt firm in his left hand, he grabbed one of the Ghoul’s heads by lank, greasy hair and smashed it repeatedly into the other head, temple to temple, until both mouths fell silent.
He kicked the shuddering corpse from his blade and whirled to help Munahim.
The Kyone brought his own sword down with two hands, slicing his Ghoul opponent completely in two.
The Gund roared again, and the roar ended in a strangled, choking sound.
“Protagonists!” Indrajit charged toward the sound.
He stumbled and almost fell. Below the rubble-strewn hillock, multiple bodies lay strewn about and tangled together. At their center, he saw a bone-white mass that was too big to be a Ghoul, and must be the Gund. He lurched toward it and sent a Ghoul with blood dripping from its jaws racing away into the night.
“Munahim!” Indrajit yelled. He backed in a circle, looking for more Ghouls.
“One moment!” the Kyone called. “I’m lighting the torch.”
A few seconds later, the torch took fire, and Indrajit surveyed the battlefield. The two Yuchaks and the Gund all lay dead. One of the Yuchaks was missing all four limbs and the other had a deep hole excavated in his chest. The Gund’s throat was torn out.
“Didn’t you smell them coming?” Indrajit asked. “Or hear them?”
“Both,” Munahim said. “I warned the Yuchaks, but then it was too late and the Ghouls were upon us.”
They hurried to rejoin the others, who stood at the base of the column, surrounded by their own heaps of dead Ghouls. Fix and Philastes both bled from wounds, but the others looked unharmed.
Indrajit reported the deaths of the other Handlers.
“Ha ha!” Joose cackled. “This rather changes the calculus!”
Indrajit resisted the urge to drag his client to the cistern’s edge and throw him in.
“Respect the three men who just died to protect you,” Fix said softly.
“They died to protect Tholune,” Joose said. “Which they did. They did their job well. And Tholune should definitely pay them. Or pay Gannon, or pay their families. But he can pay with the proceeds of alpaca wool, because I don’t see the need to share the treasure with him at all. We are five on two now.”
The Karthing stood with his back to the column, a sword still in each hand.
Indrajit sheathed Vacho. “No. This changes nothing.”
“But,” Joose sputtered. “But.”
“Do we dig?” Fix asked.
“Whatever we do,” Indrajit said, “Munahim and Philastes, keep a look out. There are still Ghouls out there.”
“If we must dig,” the Karthing said, “we may be digging for days. Where in this field should we dig? Halfway between the pillar and the cistern? At the base of the pillar? On which side?”
Indrajit looked up at the column, looming above him. “I don’t think we dig at all.” Gripping the pillar with both hands, he started climbing.
Philastes might be a better climber than him. It occurred to Indrajit when he was halfway up the column that Philastes was smaller, so he had much less weight to drag up the stone. Also, if Philastes fell on his comrades, he’d do less damage. On the other hand, Indrajit’s long arms and legs let him extend far along the surface of the pillar to find handholds and footholds. And he had plenty of experience climbing as a young man, hunting on the rocks and cliffs of his people’s home.
He dragged himself onto the top of the column. His muscles ached and he was panting from exertion.
“Indrajit?” Fix called.
“Give me a minute.” Indrajit caught his breath and examined the space he found himself in. The top of the column was capacious—four or five men could have stood side by side. The two-headed eagle was huge, occupying the center. It was taller than Indrajit, and in the starlight, Indrajit could see that the sculptor had taken great pains with the statue. Every feather was crisp, the bird’s four eyes were distinct and proud, and its talons were curled in a fierce, half-open grip.
The talons clutched an object.
Indrajit knelt and worked at the object with his fingers. It was made of stiff, oily leather, and it was tied into the grip of the talons with leather straps that were thoroughly invisible from the ground. Eventually, he managed to undo the knots and loops that held the leather in place and pull away a large, water-proofed wallet.
Inside were tucked two sheets of paper. Even in the dim light, he could tell the sheets were crossed by many lines of script.
Indrajit sighed. Now was not the time to lament the descent of mankind’s thousand races into brute, insensible literacy. He shut the wallet again, tucked it into the pocket of his kilt, and then set about the harrowing return journey to the ground.
“I have the treasure,” he said when he alighted.
Fix, the Karthing, and the two brothers looked at him. Philastes and Munahim stood a few paces away in opposite directions, raising torches and peering into the night.
“It must be very small.” Joose’s voice was flat.
“Do you read?” Indrajit asked the Karthing.
Indrajit handed Fix the wallet. “I don’t either, but he does. The treasure appears to be documents.”
Tholune and Joose both snatched for the wallet, but Fix grabbed it and held it over their heads. Short as he was, the clients were shorter. He turned his back toward Munahim’s torch to get light on the paper, and then scanned both sheets.
“There’s a letter from your father,” he said. “It congratulates you on working together.”
“Some treasure,” Tholune grumbled.
“There’s also a letter from a bank,” Fix continued. “It says the bank has five hundred Imperials in an account, but that the account requires both of you to appear together to make a withdrawal.”
Joose gasped. “Five hundred Imperials? I could invest in a new mill!”
“I could pay off my debts!” Tholune added. “Both of us must go, are you sure?”
“All of us,” Fix said. “We will all of us go to the bank together tomorrow. Just to be certain, we will stay together until then, and I will hold the documents.”
“Kill them!” Tholune screeched at the Karthing. “You said you could defeat everyone, do it! Grab the papers and I’ll double your fee!”
“Shut up,” the Sword Brother said.
“We’ll also take out an appropriate amount for the funeral expenses of the three dead Handlers,” Indrajit said.
“The Ghouls will finish their bodies before we can bury them.” Was there a hint of grief in the Karthing’s voice?
“A memorial, then,” Fix said. “A wake. Did they have children? The Yuchaks, I mean?”
The Gund was sexless. Which was true of every Gund Indrajit had ever heard of. Which made him wonder where Gunds came from.
“Only the harlots of Kish know the answer to that,” the Karthing said. “A good memorial is more than any of them expected. A wake, and we’ll invite the Protagonists.”
“I don’t like this deal,” Joose muttered.
“I don’t either!” Tholune snapped.
“You’re not supposed to like it,” Fix said. “But I think your father would.”
“Our father?” Joose growled.
“Consider it a warning,” Indrajit suggested. “A lesson to those who survive.”
Copyright © 2023 by D.J. Butler
D.J. Butler is the author of the Witchy War series, the Cunning Man series (with Aaron Michael Ritchey), Abbott in Darkness, and many other novels and stories. “A Lesson to Those Who Survive” takes place in his Indrajit & Fix series, which includes In The Palace of Shadow and Joy and Between Princesses & Other Jobs.