Honor Among Thieves: Part Eight
If the king had been at his desk, the black thing would have been upon him in an instant. But the study was large, and they were far enough away that King Coltzan was able to draw his sword, and Marlos was able to get a far clearer view of the monster than he would have liked.
It was even bigger than the Lupe king, and bulky, with a powerful four-legged body covered in oily black scales and a long Krawk-like jaw with wicked-looking serrated teeth. Two long fangs protruded in front, glistening with something greenish that had to be venom.
It snarled, and Nabile screamed. Tomos let out a strangled squeak. King Coltzan said, "Either I'm a very unlucky man, or this is the assassination attempt you told me about. Get back!"
And the monster sprang toward them. The king met its teeth and grossly oversized claws with a wild battle yell, and Marlos prepared to turn around and run as fast as he could to get help from someone. Tomos and Nabile had had the same idea he had – they were already sprinting, and he noticed with dismay that they'd kicked off their sandals in order to run barefoot like they were used to on the streets.
But Tomos hadn't made it halfway down the hall before he hit an invisible wall and dropped like a stone. Nabile was able to stop in just enough time to keep herself from hitting the barrier at full speed, but she still jerked back. "It stings! Tomos! Tomos!"
Marlos knelt by the Lupe and checked his pulse. "Just knocked cold. That mage – he must have animated that thing and then put up barriers so no one could help the king before it could take him."
Nabile said, "That's what the stuff Marcia had was for! She was probably buying the ingredients for the mage!"
Marlos looked up in shock.
There, on the other side of the barrier, was Lady Marcia. Marlos scrambled away as quickly as he could, but he said, "You know, showing up at the scene of the crime probably isn't the best idea – even a scribe knows that."
Marcia smiled nastily. "What crime? I'm merely here to slay a beast that attacked my liege lord. Sadly, I won't be in time to save him, but I will avenge him, and that will be rewarded."
Nabile was clearly scared, but she snapped back, "You've already failed. The king wasn't taken by surprise! He was talking to us, so the thing was too far away from him to jump him!"
Marcia put a long, slender hand to her sword. "I'm not interested in leaving witnesses, little brat. But if you get out of here and let me take care of that idiot scribe, I may forget that you and your fellow pickpocket ever saw anything."
Nabile taunted, "In case you forgot, there's a magic wall in the way..."
And then Marcia stepped through the barrier as if there had been nothing there. The only reason Marlos knew the wall had been real was that poor Tomos was still unconscious.
He heard the yowls of the monster inside the study, and the crashes of furniture that would probably cost years of his own scribe's salary to replace. Why weren't guards coming? Where were they? There had to be magical alarms – and that racket had to be attracting some notice! Marlos and Nabile wouldn't be able to fight off a trained knight by themselves!
But he was in a corner, and he'd come this far. And even though Marlos had never fancied himself a hero – never fancied himself even to be brave – he'd managed enough daring this past few days without being brave. He could handle one last fight.
Maybe he was braver than he'd ever thought he was.
There had never been any doubts, however, about Nabile's courage. She was already on her feet, knees bent and bony fists balled tight, before Marlos had even risen. "You try to hurt any of my friends, and I'll feed you to the Scarabugs!"
Marcia snorted. "Look at you – and to think I've always been told that there's no honor among thieves."
Marlos looked around. He'd need something heavy, and preferably longer than Marcia's sword, if he hoped to try and do something silly like fight her. There! Flanking the doors were matched bronze candlesticks, tall and slender. Marlos grabbed one quickly, and the candle fell out and was extinguished on the cold floor. He gathered together all of the defiance that had been buried under his fear and said slowly, "Marcia, there's only so much running even the most timid, weaseling scribe can handle before he snaps. Would you like to find out how close I've come?"
Marcia leveled her sword at him. "And there's only so much that a candlestick will do for you against someone who's been trained with a sword since she was strong enough to grasp one."
More crashing and snarling came from the study, and a shout of rage from the king – Marlos hoped desperately that the king was unhurt. He knew that the best he could do would be to keep Marcia from coming to the aid of the mage's creation – he'd be no help to the king in subduing it. But if the king didn't win this fight, he and his two companions would be in serious trouble.
So he pointed his candlestick at Marcia as he gestured at Nabile – she took his meaning, and dragged Tomos farther away from the traitorous knight.
And Marcia charged him.
Marlos tried as hard as he could to keep his candlestick in between himself and Marcia's deadly sword – oh, if only he could take to wing! But the corridor wasn't wide or tall enough for that to be a real advantage – she was tall enough that with her sword he couldn't get out of her reach. All he'd accomplish if he spread his wings would be to make them a target.
Nabile shouted, "I bet your mama was a Werelupe! And your papa was a Meepit!"
Did the child think this was a street fight, to be won by taunting? But Marcia's jaw tightened, all the same. And Marlos realized that she did have a weakness – she was haughty, and she had a temper.
Nabile added, "And you only defeated those armies in the south because they all turned tail when they saw your ugly snout!"
Marlos couldn't actually defeat Marcia by strength of arms – his own arms were far more accustomed to quills than they were to weapons. But if they could throw her off, keep her off-balance, then he could keep her at bay long enough for King Coltzan to destroy the beast and come save them.
So as she lunged at him again, causing Marlos's arms to reverberate painfully with the blow, all the way up to the shoulders, he added, "This was your master plan? I've heard better stories at campfires."
She snarled, "No one will ever be able to trace this back to me!"
"Except for the scribe and the thieves who know everything."
"And you'll be in no position to talk!" She attacked him so ferociously that he almost dropped his candlestick, while Nabile added a few more insults. There was more crashing and shouting behind him, but Marlos didn't have any time to try and analyze the fight, except for noting to himself that the study was probably as doomed as old Qasala.
And then he noticed, out of the corner of one eye, Tomos stirring. Nabile stopped talking and knelt down by him – Tomos was sitting up, but there was nothing that Marlos could do to help him besides keep Marcia away from him, which would take all of his attention.
But while he was distracted by that, before he could realize what she was doing, Marcia had Marlos backed into the corner of the hallway by the door. Marlos's stomach plummeted, twisting into a tight knot as it did. Marcia curled her lip. "Try it. Taunt me now."
Marlos was able to see Tomos, already up and leaning on his staff, pick up his discarded sandal and throw it – it bounced off Marcia's head. She turned, and Marlos raised his candlestick for a blow, but she remembered herself and turned to block it in time – but at least Marlos was out of the corner.
And then, from inside the study, there was an agonized screech and a Lupe's howl of victory. Marlos grinned at her. "Hope you had a Plan B."
Marcia turned to flee, but before she'd gone two steps Nabile tripped her – she sprawled to the ground, and Tomos grabbed her sword as it fell from her grasp.
And King Coltzan strode out of the study. He was breathing heavily, and it looked like the monster hadn't gone down without a fight. He looked down at Marcia. "Do you have any other tricks that you'd like to pull on me, or would you prefer to tell me which mage you worked with to create that?"
Marlos could hear guards thundering down the hallways – they'd be here in seconds.
But Marcia smiled. "His name is Janez."
And then the ceiling above them gave way.
"I think he's coming around, Sire."
Marlos blinked his eyes – it felt like a band was staging a performance inside his head. Complete with plenty of percussion. "What happened?"
He was lying on a bench outside the palace – what had been the hall and the king's study were now only a crumbled ruin. Fortunately, the vast majority of the palace looked to be fine. Marlos squinted against the sun to try and see the extent of the damage. Oh, his head...
The king said, "Marcia managed to signal Mage Janez when she said his name, and he tried to bring the ceiling down on us. You took a pretty good knock to the head, but no one else was hurt – Marcia and Janez are both sitting in the dungeons, and your children said they were going home."
Marlos frowned. "They're not mine. They're street urchins – they gave me a place to stay and helped me to find what I needed to clear my name. You say they left?"
A Tonu with the badges of a captain snorted. "No wonder they left so fast, then. Pair of street thieves, guards all over? You couldn't have gotten them to stay for love or money."
Marlos struggled to sit up. "I'd never have done this without them. I'll need to find them and say thank you." Strong Dom, motherly Resa, jovial Ilias, hotheaded Bokan, feisty Zina, calm Horace, bold Tomos, clever Nabile – he couldn't possibly not tell them exactly how much what they had done meant to him.
The Tonu shook his head. "They're already gone. If your thieves were behind the ruckus around here last night, they'll have found a new hideout, gone underground."
Coltzan said, "But you'll be rewarded. I promise you that. If you hadn't come to warn me, Janez and Marcia's plot would have in all likelihood succeeded."
Marlos smiled widely. He had his life back. He'd probably get his position back – maybe an even higher post. His record would be clean, and everything would be back to the way he'd wanted it. He'd get to go home. To sleep in a real bed. To live without fearing a traitorous knight and a shadowy mage. Or anyone else, for that matter. He'd learned better than that.
There was only one thing missing to keep this all from being perfect. "It's not right, though. They helped me. They should be rewarded as well, not scrounging for food."
Coltzan shook his head. "I'd have had to arrest them all. That's how the law works. But it's not likely that recognition for noble deeds would have meant the same thing that it does to everyone else. There's no honor among thieves, you know."
Marlos knew that somewhere, out on the streets, Nabile and Tomos were reuniting with the other Scarabs, most likely looking for their new hideout. Perhaps stealing a snack as they went. Laughing, jostling, squabbling. But together. He knew they'd be together.
And he knew that his king was wrong.