Rat left the Dry Stalk after three large ales. He went to a mansion on Street Two. It was his real home, which he had hoped to excitedly reveal to Claudia.
He clipped a miniature cutlass in a sheath to his trousers and concealed it under his dark silk chlamys. Then he slipped a burlap sack filled with platinum coins into a leather satchel and put it across his shoulder.
Rat locked his front door. He walked the curved streets of Mirek under a moonless night sky. The long walk carrying so much platinum tired him. No one should carry so much wealth on his person, but I have to get this done.
Augustus was standing in the middle of his courtyard. A few oil lanterns gave form to the perimeter, but did little to show anyone’s face. “The enigmatic Rat returns early... very early.” The tall man waved his hand.
Two men with short black iron swords stepped to either side of the merchant.
“Just here to repay our loans... mine and Claudia’s... in full.” Rat tossed the burlap sack at Augustus’ feet. It landed on the flagstones with a clink before flopping over like a rotten fruit. “Six thousand kinnitar. You’ve doubled your money and our business is done.”
“Already? Well, well!” Augustus motioned to the thug on his right. “Pick it up and count it.”
The thug bent over and started to untie the sack.
What am I thinking? I don’t want my newly hired help fiddling with that many coins in the dark. “Hold on. Give me that.” Augustus grabbed the heavy sack and seemed to weigh it in his hands. “Rat, my good man, I’m sure I can trust you. Anyway, I know where your friend lives.” Augustus tucked the sack somewhere inside his billowing cloak.
“You can forget about her now. You won’t see her again.”
“You’re a strange one, Rat. Borrowing money and paying it back months before you have to. But why pay off that little whore’s loan?”
“You know full well that Claudia’s a jurist. You’re not getting what you really want from her.”
“You obnoxious little pup.” Augustus slowly scratched his nose straight down the bridge, as if he was clawing something out of his mind. “Don’t you dare pretend to know what I want. You come to me for help, I help you, and then you make insinuations?”
“I didn’t need to borrow a single kinnitar from you, and paying you back is nothing to me.”
“Is that right? I thought I knew all the wealthy people in Mirek.” Augustus smiled and held out his hand. “In that case, I look forward to doing this again.”
“You misunderstand. I don’t need your money. We won’t be doing this again.”
“Ah, perhaps you don’t need my money, but your friend, let’s just say I have a feeling I’ll be seeing her again. And when she can’t make her payment, well, maybe she’ll call on you.”
“Augustus, I know Merrian West and all your other suppliers. Not only do I know every person you rely on to do business in Mirek, they’re my friends. If I put my mind to it, I could finish you.” Rat snarled. “So forget about Claudia.”
“Neither of us knows the other’s true reach or wealth.” Augustus scratched his forehead and thought for a moment. “Let’s not be enemies. Agreed?”
“You’re right. We shouldn’t be enemies. I prefer thinking of you as a cockroach I mercifully shooed away.”
“Now you’ve done it! I don’t care how important or powerful you say you are! You’ve pushed me too far! Kill him!”
The thugs blocked the dim light as they flanked Rat. He backed away, his pulse quickening. I’ll get him, thought the man to Rat’s right. Rat dodged back and to the side. The confused man changed tactics, but not without thinking about it first. The thug jabbed his short sword in Rat’s direction but he’d already skipped out of reach. The other thug lunged to grab Rat, but he ducked in and swept the thug’s back leg out from under him, sending him crashing to the ground.
Rat’s face was stern and determined. These simpletons’ intentions are so clear that I look like some sort of lightning-fast being.
Rat clutched the pommel of his short knife and withdrew it from its sheath. “More, gentlemen?” He assumed a fighting stance and waved the blade at the thugs.
The hired brawn backed off.
“What are you useless imbeciles doing?” Augustus screamed. “Get him!”
“I didn’t sign up to be a killer,” said one of the men.
“Me neither,” said the other.
“Get out of here! And you can forget about being paid!”
One man spat. “Fine.” Then he impertinently struck the part of Augustus’ cloak where he had stored the coins, slashing it open. Both ex-guards ran off, laughing as the merchant cursed them and coins inconveniently spilled in the dark.
Rat returned his blade to its sheath and walked away. “Holy Seers.” Rat grinned. “That was my best bluff ever... but I’ve only cleaned the wound. She still needs to be healed and strengthened.”
Rat knocked on Claudia’s door at noon the next day. “Claudia?”
I don’t want to be bothered! And you, Rat, of all people, should know it! Was that loud enough for you?
It was a terrible time of day to be hiding in bed. She was coated in sweat.
“I know you’re in a lot of pain, but I have good news,” said Rat. “Your debt is gone.”
Claudia struggled to throw back the covers and sat up. She opened the door and went straight back to bed. “Explain.”
Rat told her he was in fact rich and that taking the loan from Augustus was, in reality, no risk to her. “Augustus won’t bother you anymore.”
“Do you really think that is my problem? I’m poor. At this point, I’m used to being a chew toy for dogs like him.”
“Don’t say that. It’s not you.”
“You don’t know me!” Claudia wiped the sweat from her forehead. “Just because you can read people’s thoughts doesn’t mean you know them. You haven’t been by anyone’s side their whole life. You don’t know me. Understand?”
Claudia curled up under the thick wool blanket and faced the wall.
Rat decided to respond to her thoughts.
“Claudia, I helped you because I needed someone as motivated as I am to defeat Sallith. Dedication like yours is hard to find these days, sadly... I know you’re dedicated because your desire to see that man dethroned, hung, and quartered is very, very vivid in my mind... Are you saying I should leave you alone? That you want to leave the city with what little coin you have left?”
“Yes, I am!” Claudia stood up. “But you’re just reading my thoughts! That’s what you’re not getting. Everyone’s mind is shouting all the time, but that doesn’t mean it’s who they really are or what they really want. I’ve lost Reginald and you’re the only other friend I have. I do not want you to leave me alone.”
Rat smiled. “Well then, tell me what you really want.”
“I want justice!” Claudia obliterated a small white saucer with her fist. “That man’s paranoid laws only serve him. No mages or elves are allowed here... and magic is illegal unless the King grants a dispensation. We’re in the outermost reaches of the Gorung Desert! We need diversity and trade! He’s bleeding the city dry on top of facilitating crime to provide a steady stream of fighters to fill his arena so that he stays popular and in power. It’s wrong.” She sat down. “Do you really want to help me, Rat?”
“Then help me punish him.”
“Claudia, a man has died...”
“And many more will die if you don’t continue supporting me. There will be more life lost tomorrow, the next day, for decades if we don’t cut the pig down. It’s the right thing to do. Is this about the money? Everything I’m thinking of should bring proper profits.”
“No, Claudia, it’s not about the money. Tell me your plan.” Rat hadn't heard this one. She must have just come up with it.
Claudia explained that she wanted to use the biggest weapon in Sallith’s political armory against him, the Colosseum. She and Rat would train elite fighters for the arena, thereby gaining coin and influence. The first step was finding someone who could slaughter Headsplitter. “Once he’s gone, we’ll know that we’ve pulled the first stone from the foundation of Sallith’s power.”
Rat wasn’t totally against her plan. More importantly, he better understood what she meant earlier about not knowing what people really want. Her despair and desire to flee—the thoughts he heard—were in the moment. But those thoughts didn’t mean that what she really wanted had changed. It was like one ocean wave sucking up the last one to form a new crest.
“I see what you’re getting at,” said Rat. “But how in the world can we do it? What do you know about training fighters? You’re mad.”
“Am I?” She smirked. “My partner has massive wealth and resources, oh, and the power to read minds. Think of the possibilities. Or are you not used to thinking for yourself?”
He crossed his arms. “What about Reginald?”
“Getting rid of Headsplitter and Sallith is the best way to honor Reginald and avenge his death... and make amends for my error.”
“Our error.” Rat sighed. “My money, your idea.”
“Fine, our error. But we must move quickly. We’re already wasting time. Another poor man will face Headsplitter in ten days. We can choose who that person is, maybe even find someone with the strength to win. If you want to make amends for Reginald’s death, join me. If not, I understand, but you’ll need to stay out of my way.”
The gruesome things Rat saw in Claudia’s mind should’ve driven him away, but they didn’t. They were the rare glimpses of something fundamentally, divinely monstrous that drew him to her.