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Sixteen Strokes
by Darrell Whitney


From the moment Alys Brangwin walked into the merchant prince's office, she had a bad feeling. Maybe it was the look of the servant who had ushered in the hunter and her apprentice. Or maybe it was Rane Juael himself. He was sleek and well-fed, with a thin mustache and midnight-blue hair pulled back in a queue. He reminded Alys of a sharp-eyed predator waiting patiently but ready to strike in an instant, perhaps a fanbite with its bladed arm cocked.

"So this is the famous Alys Brangwin. Welcome to Zema. As Markovi no doubt informed you, I am Rane Juael. This young man is your assistant?"

"Chaz Ashley," Alys explained. "Chaz is a hunter in training."

"I see. Do sit down, and I'll brief you about the job."

Alys shook her head.

"I'd rather stand, if you don't mind."

"As you wish."

Juael's hands rested lightly on the desk and he made a curious motion with one of them, curling his thumb under the desktop. By the slight flexing of the back of his hand, Alys could tell that Juael was applying pressure.

"As you may be aware," he continued, "I am one of the foremost traders in this part of the world. Zema is balanced at the center of the Aiedo trade routes to the north and the Piata-Kadary ones to the southwest, as well as being the link to the routes going south to the native Motavian villages and connecting to points east. My fortune is built on operating that hub of trade. My caravans travel in all directions to and from here, bringing in goods from afar and redirecting them to places where they will bring the best price."

"I understand basic economics," Alys cut him off. Juael couldn't be this pompously long-winded. He'd never have become Zema's most powerful merchant if he handled all his business this way. "What's the job you want done?"

"Well, as to that, my caravans have, as of late, come under attack by a group of brigands. They kill the merchants, carry off the goods, and the only sign they leave is a bloody handprint on the forehead of the caravan master."

"A bloody handprint?" Chaz repeated eagerly. It was just the sort of juicy detail to inspire the kid's imagination. No doubt he was already constructing the rest of the fantasy in his head, filling in scenes of secret societies, rogues skulking in caves, and oaths sworn on pain of bloody and mystical vengeance.

"So you want us to catch the bandits?" Alys cut to the point.

"That is correct. I had assumed the best way would be to add the two of you to the caravan without revealing--"

Juael's next speech was cut off sharply when two secret doors hidden in the paneling of the walls were flung open and armed men and women rushed in, equipped with bow guns, swords, and clubs. The main door to the office swung open a split second later, disgorging three more fighters. Even the merchant prince produced a pair of slim titanium daggers.

Alys was experienced in fighting groups. Her favorite weapons, the bladed slashers that hung at her belt, were designed to be thrown, strike multiple opponents, and return to the throwers' hand. She also knew that, under the circumstances, she'd probably be turned into a pincushion before she even got the slashers out.

Besides which, one of the men was wearing the gold badge and scarlet uniform of a Zeman guard captain.

"Alys Brangwin, I'm placing you and your accomplice under arrest on charges of extortion," the captain said. "I'd suggest you come along quietly."

*     *     *     *     *

"What's going on, Alys?" Chaz asked as they were herded into a jail cell whose only features were a wooden pallet and a chamber pot. "Why are we in jail?"

"Someone doesn't like us very much," Alys said tersely. The door clanged shut behind them and a guard turned the key.

"Extortion...that's kind of like blackmail, isn't it?"

"Blackmail is one type of extortion. Generally, it means that you get someone to give you something, money, favors, whatever, by threatening them."

"So why are they arresting us? I've never been to Zema!"

Alys sat down on the cot, folded her hands behind her head, and leaned back against the wall. Patience wasn't one of her virtues, and having to talk to Chaz didn't help.

"We'll just have to wait and see. They've got one day to drag us up before a judge, set bail, and give us the right to an advocate. After that, if they keep holding us, well, we can just assume they're corrupt and bust out of here. A guy like Juael could have the local law in his pocket."

"Alys, this is crazy. Even in Tiria I never blackmailed anybody!" Before Alys had picked him off and more or less adopted him, Chaz had been a street thief.

"Look, Chaz, we've got a long wait ahead of us. You can sit, stand, sleep, run through an exercise routine, or compose a symphony in your head if you want. If you've got questions, ask them. But don't whine!"

Chaz hadn't endured life on the streets without developing survival instincts. He shut up. Alys spent the next two hours assessing the jail cell in case she did have to escape, and chewing over in her mind why someone of influence in Zema would want to frame her for a crime. The escape planning went fairly well, but she couldn't come up with a single enemy who had the motive and ability to get the Zeman guard to arrest her. Juael had requested her specifically from the Hunters' Guild, so he had to be involved, but Alys couldn't see how.

It came as something of a relief, then, when Captain Brad Thurgood strode smugly into the jail and stopped outside Alys' cell.

"Well, well. The famous Eight-Stroke Warrior in my jail."

"Something to tell your grandchildren, no doubt."

He ignored the wisecrack.

"So how about you confess now and make it easy on yourself?"

"I don't confess to things I haven't done."

Surprisingly, this didn't turn into the opening moves of an interrogation. Instead, Thurgood just shrugged.

"Suit yourself. You don't want to shave a few years off your sentence, that's fine by me." He turned and called back into the main room of the guardhouse. "Okay, Mitch, send 'em in."

Three men came past Thurgood into the hall. All of them wore expensive, slightly flashy clothes and wore rings and fobs that glittered with jewels. Alys put them down as well-to-do merchants, but upstarts, the kind who needed to remind themselves of how important they were because they didn't really believe it in their hearts.

"Well?" Thurgood asked.

"This isn't her," one said at once. Another nodded firmly and added, "Alys Brangwin wasn't this tall, and her hair was darker."

"This woman's prettier," the first said. "Alys was, well, almost cute. Kinda like she was smiling at you, even when threatening. This lady looks like she could peel the paint off the wall with a glare."

"She's in jail," Thurgood pointed out dryly.

"Nope," the graybearded third man finally concluded. "Not the one. This ain't Alys Brangwin."

"Well, what about the kid?"

"Him? No way!"

"The guy was lots older, maybe thirty."

"Lots better-looking, too, with green hair."

Thurgood's calm was completely gone by now. He looked like he was about ready to tear out his hair, or that of his witnesses.

"Dammit, this is Alys Brangwin!"

"An Alys Brangwin who isn't happy about being imitated by a crook and thrown in jail because of it," she pointed out.

The light dawned on Thurgood.

"Oh, crap." He kicked the cell door angrily. "The Hunters' Guild is gonna kill me for this. Mitch! Get in here and let these two go."

"Go?" Alys said, eyes glittering dangerously. "I'm not going anywhere, Captain, not until a few questions get answered."

The captain wilted.

"I was afraid of that."

*     *     *     *     *

Brad Thurgood was a man of few pretensions and his office showed it--battered desk, crates of files, old but sturdy wooden chairs, and a town map covered with scribbled notes nailed to the wall. Rane Juael looked out of place, like a bottle of expensive wine in a slum tavern. He wasn't complaining about getting dust on his elegant clothes, though, which bumped him up a point in Alys' estimation of his character.

"All right, I think I've got the gist of it. Someone ripped off those three using my name. You two get the wise idea of hiring me through the Guild to get me to walk into your trap. I haven't got a clue why you thought I'd show up if I were guilty, though."

"Not taking the commission would have raised questions in the Guild," Juael said smoothly. "Plus, you couldn't know if we had proof, or only suspicions. Flight would be proof of guilt."

"You know, you don't sound half as stupid as when you aren't stalling for time."

The merchant prince smiled thinly.

"Why did you agree to help with the trap, though?" Alys continued. "Men of your stature don't usually spend their time and money assisting the law."

Juael's smile went away very quickly.

"You're not the only person whose name the extortionists employed in their scheme. I do not like to be used, Alys. I do not like it at all."

"I'm glad we agree on something. All right, this is how it's going to go. Juael, you offered a seven thousand meseta commission with the Hunters' Guild to lure me here. We'll hunt down the false Alys, and you'll pay us that commission for doing it."

"Now wait just one minute here--" Thurgood started, but Juael cut him off with an upraised hand.

"I agree," he stated.

"What?"

"I believe what Alys is suggesting," the merchant prince informed the captain, "is that rather than have her catch the extortionists while pressing a suit for false arrest against us and informing the Hunters' Guild that Rane Juael and the Town of Zema post false commissions in order to trap hunters, we all pretend that catching the false Alys was what we intended her to do from the beginning."

She hadn't actually been "suggesting" anything, but he had the general idea. Ignoring Thurgood, she turned to the merchant and said, "Why don't you fill me in on the entire story?"

"Yes," Chaz agreed. "I still don't know what's going on."

"Rane shrugged."

"It's a simple but clever ruse, as I understand it. First, the male half of the team approaches the victim in the guise of an informant and passes on the information that I have hired the notorious Alys Brangwin to make trouble for them, in order to keep down the competition. It apparently doesn't go any further than that; he lets my reputation as a robber baron and yours as a hunter inspire fear. Then, the false Alys shows up, suitably intimidates the victim, and then lets it be known that she'd be open to a bribe to go away."

"I bet she didn't have to ask," Chaz said. "They were probably offering her money as soon as she came through the door."

It was a cynical observation, but most likely true. Every now and again, the kid showed flashes of promise.

"The bribe would be paid, one way or another, and the extortionists would move on to their next victim."

"Were those three the only ones?" Alys asked.

"The only ones of whom we know."

"They're smart, then, in picking their type."

This one Chaz didn't get.

"What type? Why?"

"The type that's ambitious and very conscious of his position in business and society, all the more so because they haven't really made it. The scam starts off stroking their ego."

"How?"

Alys grinned wryly.

"Chaz, those guys would give their firstborn child for someone like Juael to know they exist, let alone consider them enough of a threat to resort to underhanded tactics to stop. Then once they're done they can't speak up or Juael will find out his hunter's let him down...and if they realize it's a scam, they'll keep quiet so they don't look stupid." She turned back to the blue-haired merchant. "How did you learn about it, anyway?"

"One of them, Tion Carrack, had the guts to think it over, unfortunately after he'd paid, then walk into my office and let me know exactly what he thought of my 'underhanded tactics,' as you put it. I was about as amused as you were and called the guard. Captain Thurgood found several other victims of the scheme, and we tried to lay a trap which, in turn, backfired."

"That happens when you become blinded by your own cleverness," Alys noted dryly. "How far has this story gotten around?"

"We've kept it quiet," Thurgood said.

"As quiet as a troop of armed men and women and a jail full of guards can keep it. Still, I doubt the two we want keep close company with the Zema town guard. Rumors of my arrest and release might not yet have hit the gossip round. That means we might be able to set a trap for them."

"How?"

"The one flaw most crooks have in their personality is that they're too greedy. They don't know when to quit. Heck, if they weren't too greedy, they'd have honest jobs. I think they'll try their scam again until they run out of potential victims. Juael, you know the Zeman marketplace as well as anyone; find me some names that fit the profile."

*     *     *     *     *

Alys struck gold with the second name on Juael's list, Caspar Bate. He went dead white at the mention of her name, and only the repeated assurances that she was not there to do unpleasant things to him got the story out that he'd been tipped off by a thin and wiry but handsome, green-haired man that she'd been hired by Rane Juael to readjust his life expectancy.

"Did it ever occur to any of you," Alys asked, having already explained about how three others had been scammed with the same trick, "that the Hunters' Guild doesn't take that kind of work? Hunters aren't thugs for hire."

Bate, a round-faced, bearded man in his forties, hemmed and hawed.

"Well, but...that is...you see, there's very little that people won't do for money. Officially, the Guild may not do such things, but surely, under the table...if you know where to ask..."

"Oh, boy," Chaz moaned, those survival instincts spotting danger again, though not directed at him this time.

"Wrong," Alys snapped, impaling Bate on an ice-cold stare. "Money's nice to have, but it's not a substitute for being able to live with yourself. This whole scam would be completely useless if people like you weren't so willing to assume that I'd do anything for meseta!" It was probably just human nature, she decided, which didn't say much for Parmanians.

"Er, um...I'm sorry if I've insulted you..."

"Save it," Alys sighed. "Just give us your help in catching the impostor. Unless she hears that I'm in town and the guard is on to her scheme, she'll come here in a day or two to collect. We'd like to be on hand when that happens."

"Certainly! Whatever you want!"

"Good attitude."

Caspar Bate had a private office in his home where he received business guests. It wasn't as good as Juael's, but it was considerably more ornate, with Motavian-weave carpeting and walls lined with a mismatched collection of objets d'art. It was a room designed to impress rather than reflecting the tastes and interests of its owner, and because of that it completely failed in its objective. It did, however, offer a good hiding place for eavesdroppers in the form of two bay windows. Curtains could be drawn across the alcoves on days when the hot Motavian sun burned too intensely through the windows. Alys and Chaz would hide behind one, while Captain Thurgood would take the other. It was hot, dull work, waiting, and thankfully the imitation Alys showed up early the next morning.

"Good morning, Mr. Bate," she said, standing before his desk. "I'm a busy woman, so I'll get right to the point. You're becoming a nuisance to someone very powerful, the kind of man who doesn't enjoy it when people like you decide to get in his way. I've been hired to make sure you stop annoying my client. If you know my reputation, then you know I always get what I want."

Alys studied the impostor through the narrow open strip at the edge of the curtain. The woman had nearly-black hair, several shades darker than Alys', though she had imitated the hunter's trademark red dress. Unlike Alys, she wore a sword at her waist and wore it well, not like an actress using it only as a prop.

"So what's it going to be?" the impostor continued, leaning forward threateningly across Bate's desk. "Are we going to do this the easy way or the hard way?"

This time, Alys placed the voice.

"The hard way, Kris," she said, stepping out from the alcove.

"Wha--? Alys!" the imitator exclaimed, spinning around.

"What's this?" Thurgood asked, emerging as well, his drawn sword and captain's uniform a clear sign that the jig was up."

"Captain, allow me to introduce Kris Sandbourne, who got kicked out of the Hunters' Guild two years ago for tipping off her con-artist brother when hunters had been sent after him. By the way, Kris, where is Milo, or Alec, or whatever he's calling himself these days?"

"You'll never catch him--or me!"

Smoothly, Kris drew her sword, but instead of attacking, she pressed the point to Bate's chest.

"Take one step towards me and I'll kill him, Alys. I swear I will."

Thurgood stepped back, lowering his sword. Chaz looked at him, then turned to his mentor.

"Alys, what are we going to do?"

Alys looked Kris over. Though she didn't show it, her heart was in her throat. Most con artists weren't given to violence, but even the most cowardly rat could turn vicious when cornered. Moreover, Kris had been a hunter for several years. She'd killed monsters many times. That wasn't the same as murder in cold blood, but it wasn't too far different, either.

"C'mon, Kris, you're not dumb enough to do that. If you get caught now, at worst you get a few years at hard labor for extortion. If you kill him, that jumps to hanging, and what's more, the whole Guild will be after you. A hunter-turned-murderer is a stain on the honor of all of us, the kind of stain that can only be wiped out by catching you. That's presuming you can even get out of this room, and all three of us are between you and all the exits."

Kris' sword clattered to the floor.

"That's more like it," Thurgood said. "Let's go, miss. You're under arrest for extortion."

"Typical," Alys groused. "The woman steals my name, blackens my reputation, and gets me thrown in jail, and I don't even get to hit her."

"At least we get paid," Chaz said.

"You know, Chaz, you're definitely starting to show promise."

*     *     *     *     *

Alec Sandbourne considered himself a pragmatist, mainly because it was easier on his digestion than considering himself a spineless weasel who'd cut out on his own sister. When word finally reached his ears that Kris had been arrested and the real Alys Brangwin was in town, he decided that his interests would be much better served by getting as far away from Zema as possible. He'd heard that the weather in Torinco was nice this time of year...

Some con artists plunged themselves wholly into their role, leaving and breathing whom they pretended to be even "offstage." Sandbourne never believed in that. He preferred to get as far away from the con as he could, so that if the marks came looking, they'd start with the wrong places. Since his current scam put him as a shady informant slipping through the cracks in the underworld and the dark side of finance, he had taken a room at Zema's best inn as a wealthy pilgrim visiting the town's most famous attraction, Birth Valley. He was completely open, aboveboard, and honest, polite to the staff but not overly generous, and in all ways an unremarkable person who would never be connected with the kind of rascal his role in the scam was. He would pack, calmly pay his bill, and leave town peacefully, without any suspicion attaching to him.

A knock at the door cut through his calm like a knife; he nearly yelped and jumped in place.

"Message for Mr. Edgar Lews," a boy's voice called.

"Just a moment!"

Sandbourne took a couple of deep breaths to steady himself. Edgar Lews had nothing to worry about, after all. Edgar Lews, pilgrim, wasn't being tracked by Motavia's best hunter.

The veneer was back in place when he opened the door.

"Yes?"

A short, blond-haired boy of about fourteen handed him an envelope.

"This message was left at the desk for you, Mr. Lews."

"Thank you. Oh, and here." He handed the boy a meseta coin.

"Thank you." The boy flipped the coin, caught it, and tucked it into a pocket, then strolled off down the hall.

Once the door was closed, the calm persona of Edgar Lews vanished, and Alec Sandbourne ripped open the envelope. A single, small piece of paper was inside, bearing three words: Hi, Milo!--Alys.

"Oh, God, she knows!" Sandbourne moaned. Alys had caught him two years before in Termi, where he had been using the name Milo Booth. She was probably waiting in the lobby!

Sandbourne abandoned all pretense of calm. He stuffed money into a belt pouch, shouldered a half-packed bag, and went out the window. Luckily, the inn, like most Motavian buildings, only had a single story above ground. He hit the dirt running. He only got two steps down the alley, though, before a white-gloved hand grabbed him by the back of his collar.

"I thought that might work," Alys said, satisfied. "Kris would never testify against you, and we don't have any witnesses of you together dividing the take, so there was no proof you were in on the scam--but flight is evidence of guilt."

Sandbourne's comments were not fit for the delicate ears of mixed company.

"Oh, stop whining and come along. Chaz is waiting in the lobby in case you decided to escape that way, and I'm afraid he'll break something if I leave him there much longer."

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