Cord hung from the cargo netting we’d rigged into hammocks, upside down. His hair swept towards the floor in a hirsute halo. The boat was headed to Pike, a little town some miles north of the river proper, and it’d been a long couple of days. I shot the stocky thief a look that could have cut glass.
“I’m bored,” he said. He wiggled his eyebrows.
“You’ve got two options, then,” I said, settling back into the netting and cracking the book. Killer Queen. It was just getting good.
“Take over the boat and find the nearest brothel?”
“I mean you could fuck yourself. Or you could listen to me.”
“That’s hurtful,” he said.
“Not as hurtful as me stabbing you til you’re quiet for the rest of the ride.”
I’m not normally murderous towards the ones I love, but he’d been singing some infernal thing from the last port nonstop, and I was just about ready to sever his vocal cords for a short respite. Hey, I’m not a lunatic. He’d heal. He always healed. I wondered briefly if Cord would ever die, or if it would be just him, the cockroaches, and whatever syphilitic lunatic he’d picked for a partner at the end.
“Hey, just because I can’t die doesn’t mean I should. It hurts.”
I blew out an exasperated breath. The time he hadn’t spent singing had been spent bitching, and barring ending him, I was almost ready to march above deck and declare my presence. Hopefully, the captain would take mercy and only have me flogged half to death.
“I am,” he said. “Your face is redder than a baboon’s ass, and that is entertaining. Wow. Look at that vein. I’m gonna name it Axl.”
I chucked a knife at him, and he cringed as it hit the bulkhead, quivering in place. He climbed back into his hammock and fidgeted. A long sigh. I tried to ignore him and turned back to the book. The Queen was just getting ready to unlace her breeches. He sighed again, and I pictured him flying from the mainmast like a meat flag.
“What?” I asked.
“I need paper.”
I dug into my pack, coming up with paper and a pencil. I passed it up to him.
“I’m convinced your parents were from the same branch of the family tree,” I said.
“Thank you, Nenn,” he said sweetly.
I sat down and dug into my book again. I’d read maybe another ten pages before his head reappeared. He wore a grin, and one eyebrow cocked.
“Funt,” he said.
“I decided to make my own curses. Listen: Slimp. Smuctating. Pimhole. Fardwark. Scrum. Clotpole. Wim. Frangilate. I’m quite proud of that one.”
“Okay, use even one of those in a sentence.”
His grin widened, and I knew I’d asked the wrong question.
“A fortnight ago I funted a slimpy little scribe. When we were done, he thanked me for the frangilation, and licked my wim.”
“Have you considered seeing a professional?” I asked.
“Have you considered wearing some shadow on your eyes? Just a little here–,” his fingers came up and swiped under his eye.
I chucked a second blade at him, and it sunk into his shoulder.
“You fardwarking clotpole!” he yelled, then promptly fell into the deck.
He pulled the short blade free with a pained grunt and handed it back to me. Somewhere above deck, a bell sounded, and the motion of the boat calmed.
“Hooray, Pike! Get some sleep,” he said. “We’ve got work tonight.”
“Okay, but trade me nets.”
“Until you stop bleeding, I don’t want it all over me.”
“You’re oddly fastidious for someone who stabs everyone.”
“This is my best shirt.”
“That is your only shirt.”
I climbed into the upper hammock and closed my eyes. After a moment, I heard Cord climb into his with a groan. In a few minutes, his snores filled the hold.
We entered Pike just after nightfall, slipping off the boat with relative ease. Most of the sailors were already out carousing or sleeping off the journey, and no one had posted a guard. Pike wasn’t a big town, but it was somewhat respectable. It stood on a slight hill, the docks giving way to shops, shops giving way to modest homes, all of which led up to the mayor’s house some way up the hill. It was a sprawling mansion compared to everything else. For the most part, despite the fair size of the shops and homes, paint flaked, roofing tiles curled, walls warped in the riverside air. Anemic chickens scratched at the dirt paths, and an emaciated goat bleated from a small corral.
“Okay, why are we here?” I asked.
Cord gestured to the big house. “Rumor is, he’s been skimming from the town ledgers, the businesspeople. Taxes are out of control. Got a chest the size of a small elephant.”
“And we’re gonna steal it?” I asked.
He shook his head. “Too hard to move. We’re gonna steal part of it, and redistribute the rest. But first, my plan.”
He gestured toward a lamp pole as we passed it. A poster on the iron read:
SPECIAL TALENTS CONSIDERED
APPLY AT CBGB
“CBGB?” I asked.
“Centaur Balls, Goblin Balls,” Cord said.
“Classy. How the hell did you get those up so fast?” I asked.
“I slipped the bosun a little gold. Captain doesn’t pay him enough. How do you think we got on and off the boat so easily?”
He steered us down a side street filled with shops stacked shoulder to shoulder, glass fronts displaying threadbare wares. Someone coughed in an alley, and we moved a little quicker, my hands on my knives. Here too, posters decorated walls and poles, and sometimes windows. As we drew near to CBGB, the sounds of music and laughter came to us, and the smells of roast food. My mouth watered at the prospect of not eating dried fish and biscuits, and we picked up the pace.
Inside, the pub was a riot of noise and color. Mercenaries from Gentia rubbed shoulders with Mane’s guard, while pockets of citizenry downed tumblers of beer and shoveled potato and onion mixtures into their mouths. We sat and ordered food, then turned to the stage at the end of the hall. A small band played there at the moment, lackluster and half-hearted, not that the patrons noticed.
My meal was potato skinned thin and fried, and some green that had been boiled and buttered. As we’d seen when we disembarked, meat was at a premium. Fortunately for the town (or maybe not, depending on how often you ate them), potatoes were abundant. While I ate, I watched the door. Patrons came and went as the night lengthened, and I thought perhaps Cord’s advertisement hadn’t attracted any takers. By the time I finished though, the bards began to enter.
The first was a group of three, black hair, black kohl around their eyes, black clothes. They carried two mandolins and a drum. The next–my heart nearly stopped. I recognized them. Vyxen, a girl group I’d seen several times in my youth. Tall, blonde, thin. They carried all sorts of instruments and could play them. The last was a lanky-haired youth with a slouch and a tube with a pipe at one end. I didn’t hold out much hope for him, but Cord perked up when he entered.
The house band trailed off, and the first newcomers took the stage. They tuned their instruments, then the lead, a stocky man in a sleeveless tunic, arms bulging with muscle, announced in a gravelly voice, “We are Goblin Shite!”
The mandolins began, shrill and loud, and the drummer hammered on his instrument in a frenzy, not unlike that of a rabbit’s ability to fuck. The big man launched into a verse, voice straining against the laws of physics and good taste.
“YOUR LOVE MAKES ME WANT TO DIE
I DON’T WANT YOUR POISONED PIE
I DON’T WANT YOUR HAIR-COVERED COMB
I JUST WANT THE QUIET OF THE TOMB
The mandolins faded out, and the patrons of the bar fell into dead silence. I looked at Cord. He shrugged.
“Next,” he called.
Goblin Shite trudged off the stage, and Vyxen took their place. Crisy, the lead singer, announced the band name, then they struck up a tune.
“This one’s called Love Swamp.
One day you left me
You can’t just let it be
Now I’m drowning
In the mud
I feel it in my blood
Let me go
I never had a choice”
Again, the music faded out. The crowd looked at one another. Silence filled the room. Vyxen left the stage, and as Crisy passed the lead singer of Goblin Shite, she gave him the finger.
“Ah,” I said.
“Heartbreak makes bad poets of us all,” Cord agreed.
The last rose to the stage and pressed the pipe on his tube to his mouth. His cheeks puffed out. The note he played was low, and as it went, it rapidly slid to inaudible. Cord stood and raised his hands.
“That’s good,” he said.
The kid stopped playing, and Cord approached the stage. They stood for a moment, speaking in low tones, then a bit of cash passed between them, and the young musician took the stairs to the rooms above.
“I don’t know what just happened,” I said.
Cord winked. “You’ll see. Let’s get some sleep.”
We headed upstairs to our room.
The next morning, the city was almost as bright as the bar the night before. A festival had been called, and the town square teemed with people in white clothing, bare feet, and ribbons. They looked less than happy to be there, milling about listlessly, casting fearful glances at the guards. Seeing them by day, I noticed signs of malnutrition, of hunger. In others, diseases easily stopped by cheap apothecary medicine. Cord was at my elbow like a ghost.
“See?” he said. “He forces them into these things in his honor. Festivals dedicated to his largesse. Like he’s a benevolent king. Let me tell you, those who deserve these sorts of displays usually end up cold in the ground, in my experience. The ones who don’t, well–not everyone has a sword arm, a knight on horseback, or a kindly wizard. The ones who do rarely deserve that privilege. You think a kindly leader needs all that muscle?” he nodded toward one side of the square.
They’d erected a platform and made it up with a tall chair in red and gold. Beside it, guards posted up in bright mail and short blades, pikes at their side, ready for the Mayor to arrive. Bunting surrounded everything, from the stage to the fountain. Cord led us through the crowd.
“What’s the plan here, anyway?” I asked for the third time that day.
“You’ll see. Look, I don’t want to give it away. It’s brilliant.”
“Uh…” I said.
“Brilliant usually means ‘ending in bloodshed’.”
He made a dismissive sound. “That’s only happened like three times. But I can guarantee that while everyone’s here, we’re going to just walk in and take that gold.”
“Uh, okay. And I’ll shit unicorns.”
“If you could shit unicorns, we could’ve retired a long time ago. Here,” he handed me a pair of wax plugs.
“Your sense of humor gets weirder every day,” I said.
“They’re for your ears.”
“Of course. I knew that.”
A fanfare of trumpets blared, and the crowd parted as the Mayor strutted from a nearby tent. Thin and florid, he climbed the steps to the platform with a look on his face like he’d just been inaugurated as the city’s official shit-smeller. He plopped into his chair.
“Let the festivities begin!” he declared.
Small confetti cannons blared from somewhere, blasting the crowd with colored paper. A cheer went up. Opposite the Mayor’s platform, the boy from the bar climbed onto the stage, instrument in hand. A scowl crossed the Mayor’s face and he pointed at the boy.
“That is not my band. Guards. Guards!”
Cord nudged me. “Earplugs.”
I shoved the plugs into my ears as the boy blew into his pipe. At first, I heard a distant vibration, then nothing. I looked at Cord.
“Why did I need these?” I shouted.
The guards charged the stage, and I wondered if getting the boy cut to ribbons was part of Cord’s plan. My hands went to my knives as I calculated how many I could take out. Cord put a hand on mine and pointed, shaking his head.
As the wave of guards approached the stage, they staggered, dropping their weapons. They clutched their stomachs and then collapsed. Wet stains spread across their trousers. The effect rippled outward from there, and the town square became an impromptu latrine. Foot by foot, the crowd was hit by that brown note. White trousers turned brown in violent cascades of liquid shit, stains blooming like particularly aggressive flowers. Bare feet splashed in mud that was not wholly mud. Some tried to flee, the Mayor among them, but the sudden intestinal apocalypse had caused panic and chaos, and as I watched, people were trampled and shoved, broken and suffocated in the dank mud. The mayor went down, and Cord nodded at me.
We made our way up the country lane, the screams of the enshittening behind us. The Mayor’s gate opened easily. His front door was unlocked, his personal guard laying unconscious in pools of their own waste. As we passed, one forced himself to his feet, not completely incapacitated. He leaned on his pike, coughed. A thick ripping sound followed, and his face went red as he found the strength to charge, trouser leg leaving a trail as he attacked. I shoved Cord out of the way and slipped past the man’s already sluggish guard. My blades found the insides of his thigh, his wrist, and he collapsed as arteries that once held blood he needed no longer did. It ran from him like headwaters, mixing with the foul brown stuff. I thought of the mud-red alluvial soil of the deltas and turned away.
“Feel better?” Cord asked.
I wiped a blade on my trouser leg as we walked.
“Yeah, actually, I do. You have no idea how close I was to skewering your kidneys for fun. Wait, can you grow those back?”
Cord shrugged. “Never tried.” He glanced over, then down at my knife. “Don’t want to.”
I grinned and sheathed the blade as we came into the treasury.
Cord was right. There was enough treasure for a city. I took a small golden flute as a souvenir and a handful of coins. Then, the other bands appeared, and several sailors behind them, each wearing earplugs, each toting a wheelbarrow. One by one, they loaded the money and carted it into town. As Crisy passed, she gave me a wink, and I blushed to my toes. I watched her go, and Cord was at my elbow, grinning.
“Behind the bushes? Down the basement? Lock the cellar door?”
“Shut up,” I said.
“Gonna talk dirty to her?”
“Gret’s balls,” I said.
When it was empty, we left the way we’d come. I stepped over a guard writhing in a puddle of shit.
“Well, what do you think?” Cord asked.
“It’s a funting mess,” I said.
“We did a good thing.”
I thought of the crowd of townspeople who’d be nursing sore bottoms and egos. I grunted.
“We did an okay thing,” he amended.
I watched the last of the wheelbarrows of gold disappear into town. It would be used to build business, feed families, and care for children. I clapped him on the shoulder.
“We did a terrible thing with a good outcome. How about that?”
He shrugged. “Potato, diarrhea.”
We stepped from the mansion into bright sunlight. At the bottom of the hill, disaster. Here though, it looked like nothing but blue skies. We walked on.