“What are you doing all the way up here?”
“Trying to find some quiet,” came the annoyed reply. “Why follow me up?”
“I think I’m going to join you in your dislike of women, Kinrou. They’re down in the caves washing clothing. Why they feel the need to chatter incessantly is beyond me. It echoes everywhere!”
“Ah, Jiken. You like bedding them too much to be like me.”
“Well, yes, but they rarely say much while I’m doing so.”
“I wouldn’t know.”
“I worry that you’re not interested in that.”
“If you think I’m like Yaren, think again.”
Jiken’s shoulders sagged in relief. “Good. I might have had to hurt you if you were.”
“You have a problem with men who prefer other men?”
“Not as such, no, but it would have been unforgivable for you to keep that kind of secret from me.”
“I’m allowed some privacy.”
“Not from me! We’re practically brothers. My mother raised you as her own.”
Kinrou rolled his eyes. “She was afraid that if she didn’t she’d have been killed the way my first ‘mother’ was.”
Jiken shrugged. “She was a captive trying to escape. Of course they killed her! That’s our way.”
“I’m not arguing. I’m just saying what I saw.”
Jiken was silent for a long while, looking out at the cluster of ragged peaks that made up the Shadaran mountain range. The tallest was capped in snow, even at the height of summer. Even Mt. Dorayen, where they were sitting, boasted a small white cap.
“Kinrou, do you ever think about your real mother?”
“No,” was the blunt reply. “As far as I know, that slave woman was my real mother.”
“I’m told that she wasn’t.”
Kinrou shrugged. “It doesn’t matter. She’s dead for all I know. I don’t even know where I come from.”
“Doesn’t matter; you’re one of us.” Jiken grinned.
Kinrou grinned in spite of himself. Jiken’s grins were infectious; those around him generally couldn’t help but return them. “Anyway, I came up here for a reason. I heard something you might think interesting.”
“I’m all ears.”
“I heard that one of those Dragon Warriors got killed recently.”
“How is that interesting?”
“Think about it. The entire country is in mourning. The Chief is planning a bunch of raids to take advantage of that. Now me…I have a better plan.”
Kinrou raised an eyebrow. “You have a plan? Haven’t you learned by now that your plans never work?”
“When have my plans gone wrong?”
“You want examples? Fine. When we were six, you thought it would be a great idea to play Kal Sharash fighting the Shadows, but you wanted to use real fire. You nearly burned all my hair off. Then when we were eight, you decided to teach me to swim and we both almost drowned. You stabbed me through the shoulder three months later playing Bandits and Soldiers. At age thirteen, there was that incident with the exploding sheep bladder. At fifteen you were trying to make time with those two girls without the other knowing. It backfired.”
“Only because you messed up.”
“So, it’s my fault the Boss wanted to take me out on a raid?”
“Well, no, but you could have at least let me know.”
“You know I couldn’t. To continue, there was that raid we went on for my sixteenth birthday. Do you need me to point out how badly that failed?”
“Ok, ok, I get the point. This plan is foolproof though.”
“That’s what you always say.”
“No, really. I figure while the country is mourning, security will be lax. Why not take this opportunity to put our names up there with the greatest Shadowhawks of all time?”
Internally, Kinrou cringed. “What are you suggesting?”
Jiken looked smug. “Break into the palace treasury and steal the Dragon Crown.”
“Have you lost your mind? That’s suicide!”
“They say it can’t be done. I say they’re wrong.”
“I say you’re crazy. It can’t be done! Some of the greatest bandits have tried and were executed for their trouble: Barhen the Swift, Dugen One-Eye, Left handed Tulken, and even old toothless Miken. As I recall, he was your grandfather, right?”
Jiken ignored the question. “Look, I’ve been studying-“
“Yeah, right,” Kinrou snorted.
Just listen, alright? I’ve been studying the bandits who tried and I know why they failed: poor timing. Most of the attempts were made during festivals and parties. Security at the palace increases during those times.”
“It won’t be much less than normal just because one stupid woman got herself killed.”
“No, but a lot of soldiers died in that fight, too. They’ll be holding funerals and such for days. Law requires the Empress to allow anyone who wants to take part in the rituals the leave to do so. If we leave now, we can take full advantage. We can do this, Kinrou.”
“If I don’t go, you’ll go by yourself, won’t you?”
“Got that right.”
Kinrou sighed. “Fine, fine. I’ll go if only to keep you from doing anything stupid.”
“Great! Let’s get going. It’s a four-day trip to the capital on foot so we’d better get a move on.”
“We need to pack first, not to mention get permission for this.”
“I did all that before coming up here. I figured I’d be able to talk you into this one way or another.”
“You’re rotten, you know that?”
“Of course. I’m a Shadowhawk Bandit.”
The next morning, in the pre-dawn darkness, the two bandits left the mountain hideout. Sleepy sentries waved them on. Both were on foot with their supplies split between them. Despite the stillness of the forest around the Shadaran Mountains, both crept quietly. Large predators who had failed to make a kill during the night could still be on the lookout for a meal. Said predator could mistake a human for one of its normal prey animals.
Once it was light enough to send the nocturnal predators back to their dens for the day, the two young men relaxed enough to pause near a small pond. They quenched their thirst and took some food out of their packs to eat as they travelled.
Hard journey bread wasn’t to Kinrou’s taste, but it eased the ache in his stomach. He looked over at Jiken, who gobbled his down with every sign of enjoyment before turning to the pouch of jerky on his belt. Kinrou shook his head.
He’d grown up on food like that, but had never gotten used to it. A part of him knew there were better things to eat out there, though he’d never seen them. Secretly, his only goal in life was to survive long enough to taste fantastic food. It didn’t matter to him if he died right after eating it. His life would be complete at that point.
They hiked through the woods until their feet hurt. They came out of the woods on the banks of the Dragon River and stopped, taking off their packs. They sat down on the river’s edge and took their boots off and let their aching feet sit in the cool water.
“So Kinrou, what are you going to do with your share?” Jiken asked.
“Of the profits. That crown is worth a lot of money. Melt it down or ransom it back to the Empress. Either way, we’ll be wealthy men.”
Kinrou shrugged. “I don’t know. I haven’t decided yet, though to be honest I haven’t thought about it. Maybe I’ll go to a place with nice food. Maybe I’ll buy a decent horse.”
Jiken shook his head. “You aren’t thinking big enough. One horse? For the money we’ll get you could have a dozen or more rivalling those owned by the Zalite Emperor! You could have a wardrobe full of clothing made of the finest Shanshiire silk with strings of Jiinalese pearls.”
“I don’t like pearls,” Kinrou admitted. “I prefer darker Gems.”
“I didn’t know you were a connoisseur.”
“I’m not. I just see what the high ranking bandits wear.”
“I wouldn’t base a preference for specific stones on what they wear. Most of that is flash with very little substance. I’m pretty sure that stuff is fake.”
“I know, but it still looks nice.”
“You’re a strange one, Kinrou.”
Four days after they’d left Mt. Dorayen, the two exhausted bandits spotted the outskirts of Karath. The poorest people made a meagre living from their small plots. Unable to afford a house within the protecting walls, they spent much of their time praying that the borders would remain peaceful. During the skirmish with the Zalites not too long ago, their prayers had changed, praying that the fighting wouldn’t come anywhere near their homes.
Within the high stone walls there were still plenty of poor people, but they weren’t as badly off as those outside the walls. As a person moved towards the centre of the city, the wealthier the people living there got until you reached the Imperial palace.
It was hard for Jiken and Kinrou. They’d never been to a city before. The biggest town they’d ever seen before that was Andalosh. They had to force themselves not to stare or clamp their hands over their ears at the noise. It was at once the most terrifying and wonderful experience. Not to mention the smelliest.
Kinrou wrinkled his nose in disgust as they entered the city. He couldn’t see the marketplace, but he could smell it. The mingled odours of fish, animal dung, sweat, various cooked foods, and perfumes assaulted his nose.
“If this is what they call civilization, I’m glad we are what we are,” Jiken muttered, his voice thick with disgust.
Kinrou nodded. “Which way now?”
“It’s easy to get there. Each section or Row of the city has four gates leading into the next one. It’s how the city expands, building more Rows on the outside. It helps keep invaders out of the important parts of the city. It also keeps the poor away from the wealthy.”
“I hate rich people. They treat poor people like they have a disease.”
“Poverty is the disease to them. Associating with people who have it means they’ll catch it.”
“This is why people like us exist, to even things out.”
Jiken nodded. “There’s the first gate,” he said, pointing up ahead.
The gate was a massive iron affair with thick metal bars set into the tall stone wall. A pair of armed and armoured soldiers stood guard—one on either side—while a third soldier scrutinized everyone who passed through the gate.
“Just how do you plan on getting through that?”
“Everyone has a right to attend the funerals. All I have to do is tell the soldiers we’re going to one for our cousin and they have to let us through. It will help that redheads are lucky in Telvan. We just do this at each gate we get to until we reach the Great Temple and we’ll be fine.”
“Temple Row is three away from the palace.”
“That’s why we borrow some Acolyte robes when we get there,” Jiken explained. “No one questions anyone wearing temple garb.”
“That’s because no one in their right mind would impersonate a member of the Chant! I’m not religious as a rule, but that’s sacrilege!”
“So is what we plan on doing,” Jiken countered.
Kinrou paused. “I’m ok with that, but the disguise thing-“
“Then we might as well go home now. There’s no other way to get to the palace.”
“We couldn’t go in as soldiers?”
“Two of the previous attempts tried that. The soldiers are too well trained. Not as well trained as Zalite soldiers, but they’re close. A bandit couldn’t hope to mimic one of them.”
“How are priests easier?”
Jiken rolled his eyes. “Most of them come from the common people. I’m not suggesting priests anyway. Acolytes are the least disciplined in the hierarchy, and so are easier to mimic. Are you done with the questions?”
“For now.” Kinrou followed Jiken to the gate, where the soldiers let them pass without incident. Jiken looked quite puzzled by that and somewhat put off.
Kinrou suppressed a grin. He worked hard on getting us in and it was all for nothing. He looked around. So much white. Just how bad was the slaughter anyway? He poked Jiken.
“Y’know, we do kind of stick out here. Everyone I see is wearing white.”
“We don’t own anything white,” Jiken reminded him. “We aren’t high ranking enough.”
“Don’t you think we should at least get something? A scarf or a headband, maybe?”
“White is nearly as expensive as red. I don’t have that kind of coin.”
“Who said anything about buying it?” Kinrou asked, putting on his best innocent face. “You’re forgetting who we are?”
“How do you want to do this?”
Kinrou looked around. “That vendor over there. He’s charging more for his stuff than he needs to. You go distract him while I work.”
“Why do you get the good part?”
“It’s my idea and besides, I’m better at this than you are.”
Jiken muttered something unflattering under his breath as he walked towards the stall. With his hands behind his back he examined the wares with his eyes. It was an impressive selection. The vendor had small items like handkerchiefs and headbands, medium ones such as scarves and neck ties, and larger items of clothing. He even carried white jewellery and cloaks.
The vendor watched Jiken. “Is there something I can help you with?”
“I’m looking to buy a neck scarf.”
“We have the latest styles available, though I doubt you’re interested.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
“A man such as yourself wouldn’t know a Dovalian diamond cut from a Jiinalese flower style.”
“Is that so?” Jiken tapped one scarf with a finger. “This is a standard Telvanite design made from woven silk. It came from Port Alyen if I’m not mistaken. You have no foreign designs here, as to sell those to funeral goers would be an unimaginable insult to the deceased.” He pointed to another. “This one is a design currently in fashion in the home town of the Dragon Warrior Chounen. It’s a little ostentatious for my taste. I prefer a simpler style such as this one from Andalosh,” he concluded, tapping a third scarf.
The vendor stared blankly at him as Jiken continued speaking. “I doubt I’d care to buy any of your wares now. You, sir, are the most insulting individual I’ve met in Karath. I’ll have you know that I’ve been on the road for four days now, ever since I heard that my cousin’s ritual would be today. It is impossible to travel quickly and arrive at your destination looking as though you’d just stepped out of your bedchamber. In the future, I’d keep your assumptions to yourself or risk being more of an ass than you already are.”
Several of the people listening to Jiken’s verbal thrashing of the vendor laughed, applauding his audacity. The vendor’s face turned red. “How dare you insult me?”
“You insulted me. Turnabout is fair play.” Jiken paused. “I’ll take my business elsewhere.” He turned and walked away, looking as offended as possible. He spotted Kinrou out of the corner of his eye. He nodded and kept walking, pausing to look at the wares of the other vendors.
Kinrou approached once Jiken was out of sight of the first vendor. They walked in silence until they were able to duck into a gap between two rows of buildings.
“How did it go?” Jiken asked.
Grinning, Kinrou produced two small scarves and handed one to Jiken. “Have fun?”
Jiken tied his scarf around his neck. “Yes, I did. See, this is why knowing things about women is a good thing. Listening to their conversations can teach you a few things.”
“I’d wondered where your knowledge of fashion came from.”
“Put your scarf on and let’s go. If we duck through this alley we can get to a part of this Row where we won’t be recognized.”
“Good thinking. I don’t think it would be a good idea to be seen wearing that man’s wares.”