The Pithdai Gate

A Senserte Caper

By Eric Zawadzki and Matthew Schick



The crystal goblet captured the fading sunlight, its bright orange wine casting a scattered, amber shadow on a wooden table.

Reck held the glass up a little higher. He sat at a table near the western balcony of the mayoral estate in Mattock, a hamlet in the shadow of the Sharpeak Mountains. One ray of light reflected like a star off the edge of the glass.

"Wine made from mangoes I have had. Passion fruit is better, of course." The shadow danced as he brought the goblet to his lips and sipped it. "But both? And with orange? Like so much about life down in the Valley, it's almost painfully sweet. Can you blame us if we envy the ease and comfort you enjoy thousands of feet below us in your lands of endless summer?"

Reck was a Farlander, who were the tan-skinned, mellow-haired, round-eyed race of the three that inhabited the Flecterran Union. Short, fat, and gray-haired, he did not look dangerous. In Jacobston, the provincial capital twenty miles away and halfway down the Valley wall, Reck had the ear of the governor and a reputation as an honest and successful businessman who had risen to power in Mattock by means of careful investment and nearly prescient land purchases.

The amber shadow was much shorter when the goblet clinked against the table and Reck's small hand, with its half-bitten nails, released it.

"Ours is a dangerous livelihood in treacherous mountains plagued by unpleasant weather. We have one resource — gold — and we do nothing with it but try to purchase bits of your paradise. Yet you come to Mattock to steal our gold. Why?"

His pristine workman's boots scraped the floor as he leaned forward, clasping his hands on the table. The left sleeve of his red cotton shirt was buttoned, the right rolled back, exposing a long scar on his sweating forearm.

"Did you ever imagine, in your protected Petersine orchards, that life in the mountains could be so dirty and dangerous? You came to Mattock hoping to tame it. Did no one tell you that you can never conquer a mountain? You can only hope to survive it for a while." Reck bared his orange-stained teeth at his bound and gagged guest, pushed his hands on the table, and rose to his feet. He lifted the glass to his lips again. The sun had disappeared behind the mountains rising above Mattock like enormous white teeth — sharp and dense and threatening to tear all travelers to a shreds.

Nidela ad'Michelle of Petersine, a Wefal in her late middle years, sat silently, her lips unmoving under the rough wool gag. Her dress was torn halfway up her leg, and one shoulder sported a large bruise. Her dirty, disheveled golden hair had streaks of gray in it, and she had wrinkles near the long cut on her cheek. Her legs were crossed tightly, and her hands were tied behind her back.

Wefals were children of Farlanders and Wen. In other districts, they were the occasional consequence of Wen mingling with Farlanders. In Petersine, though, Wefals were the dominant race. They had the almond-shaped eyes and pointed ears of their Wen ancestors and the tan skin and unchanging eyes of their Farlander heritage.

Nidela's blue eyes never wavered from Reck's face.

"I used to sit on the balcony facing the Valley," Reck went on. "The evening light made glorious bursts of color among the greens of the trees. I would peer down at those shining lands and imagine I was a god looking down from the heavens at the wonders I had created. But lately, I find the mountains' majesty, their coldness, more comforting. They are cruel and demand respect. Do you understand what I am saying?"

The Farlander drained his wine, took the bottle and refilled his glass. He stayed a few steps away from Nidela, but spoke in a harsh whisper.

"If you had simply come here to set up a business, you wouldn't have had a problem with me. But no." He drank deeply, wiping his mouth with his bare forearm. His voice gained strength and anger. "You sent your man Gristo first. When I wouldn't accept his ridiculously low offer for my Mattock holdings, he insulted and then threatened me. He hired away all my workers at wages I could not match. He sent spies to infiltrate and sabotage my mining operations. And that was just the beginning — a little taste of what was yet to come. Cutting off my income clearly wasn't enough for him. I've endured constant theft — robbed, pickpocketed, burglarized, swindled at every turn — by strangers who vanish like puffs of breath on a cold day."

The glass was empty again. A cool breeze blew down from the mountains into the room. One of the two guards on the balcony moved to close the doors, but Reck waved to stop him. The Farlander sat down again, refilling his wine. He wiped his forehead with his sleeve.

"Then you arrived, claiming to be another of Gristo's hapless victims. You were looking for an honest partner, you said. I say, you were driving up the stakes." His knuckles were white on the goblet. "You exploited my desperate desire to regain any of the money Gristo had stolen. I mortgaged all my property on your advice — undoubtedly to another of your accomplices." The goblet rattled as he released it. He carefully wiped both hands on his shirt, then clasped them in front of him on the table again.

"You should have left then. You should have taken your ten percent interest and been content with that. You wanted more. You wanted the last of my gold. My strongbox — you know about that. You may have succeeded, too, if you had kept your Turu treasure hunter on your payroll for just a few more days, but now he works for me."

Reck showed his teeth again, spoke calmly and quietly. "And so you are here." He leaned toward her conspiratorially. "Gristo has my gold, but he knows I have you. I thought he would abandon you." He motioned to the two burly Farlanders standing guard at the paneled double wooden doors. The doors creaked open, revealing two more guards flanking a bound and gagged man.

Nidela's eyes never left Reck's face.

The Farlander on the left of the captive was Reg, Reck's most trusted lieutenant and enforcer. His body showed heavy muscles built by hard labor. His stern expression hinted that some of that labor had involved breaking things a lot more fragile than rocks.

The other escort was Tajek el'Nankek, an enormous Turu with a shaved head who was built like a wall of muscle. He dressed in simple breeches and mountain boots but wore no shirt, which made it easy to point out the individual muscles of arms and torso. Turu were distant cousins of Wen, but it was impossible to guess it by appearances except for the pointed ears and almond eyes. While Wen had skin as pale as mountain snow and straight hair the color of tropical flowers, Turu had skin as dark as basalt and kinked hair to match. Turu hailed from the desert nation of Turuna beyond the Sharpeak Mountains and were not a common sight in the Valley.

Their captive was a young Wefal with the smug look of some wealthy couple's younger son. He had coppery red hair tied back in a short ponytail, a curling mustache, and blue eyes. His lean body seemed to capture some small part of a Wen's graceful movement. When he had first come to Mattock, he had carried a rapier with an extravagant jeweled basket hilt and wore heavy gold rings and necklaces that made Reck look like a pauper by comparison. Gristo wore no weapon or jewelry now, unless you counted the manacles that bound his wrists together. Tajek held their prisoner's signature weapon in its slim sheath with one hand.

Reg and Tajek dragged Gristo across the room within sight of Nidela.

"I must admit, I am ever so grateful for this single act of loyalty," Reck told her with great satisfaction. "It will make this evening considerably more satisfying."

"I told you you'd regret not accepting my first offer, Reck." Gristo directed a stern stare on the Farlander like king waving for his headsman.

Reck managed a bemused smile, met Reg's eyes, and motioned with his chin. Reg buried a fist in Gristo's gut, doubling him over and leaving him wheezing on the floor.

Reck's smile broadened. "Did he bring it?"

"Yes, boss," Reg said. "I checked it, and it looks like all the gold is there."

"Bring it in. I want to make sure he's not swindling me yet again."

Reg motioned to the door guards, who nodded and moved into the hallway.

"Lead coins washed with gold, lead bars painted gold, nuggets of fools' gold — you've really made certain I've seen it all, haven't you?" Reck asked Gristo.

The Wefal opened his mouth to reply, but Reg kicked him in the ribs, turning the beginning of a laugh into a series of pained coughs.

"While I'm waiting for them to bring the strongbox up from the cart you stole from me, we're going to transact a little business." Reck smiled at Nidela. "First, you're going to tell me where you hid the rest of the gold you stole from me and restore the deeds of my land to me. After that, you're going to take a little trip to Jacobston." Then to the two balcony guards, "Remove her gag so we can talk."

Reck walked leisurely to stand over Gristo, who was still curled up on the ground with his manacled hands clutching his stomach.

"To Jacobston?" Nidela asked, voice quaking. "Are you going to have the bandits make us disappear like you made all those small-time Mattock prospectors disappear?"

"Ah, you fear me now that you're stranded in a snow-choked mountain pass." Reck didn't turn, but he smiled as Gristo looked up at him with wide eyes. "You might make it to Jacobston, or you might not. It depends on how difficult you make tonight's transactions."

The fear and pain suddenly left Gristo's face, and all the haughtiness returned. "There's your confession, Arrina."

Reck's brow furrowed. Somewhere behind him, glass shattered. He turned. Nidela had broken the ropes at her wrists and stood over one unconscious guard. Orange wine trickled down his neck. The other reached for his sword.

"Alive!" Reck shouted at the man. He rounded on Reg and Tajek. "Help get her under control!"

Tajek dropped Gristo's sword at the Wefal's feet and ran at Nidela, bellowing something in his native tongue. Reg glanced at the fallen weapon for the blink of an eye and grabbed Reck roughly, pushing him through the doorway into the hall.

"What are you ... " Reck began.

Then he saw Gristo on his feet with his hands unbound and his sword held at the ready. The Wefal gave him a mocking bow. Reck's eyes snapped from the sword to Tajek running into the melee on the balcony.

"The Turu's with them!" Reck shouted at the remaining balcony guard.

But it was too late. Even as the words left his mouth, Tajek ran past Nidela and punched the guard in the face, sending the Farlander backward over the railing. The man cried out as he plunged into the shrubbery below.

"Guards!" Reck shouted down the hall and was grateful for the thunder of running feet approaching.

Reg drew his own sword and stood between Reck and Gristo. "How did you slip the manacles?" Reg snarled as he crossed swords with the Wefal. He stepped into the room, leaving Reck alone in the doorway. "It couldn't be magic. I sweetened your lips myself."

To sweeten someone's lips meant to give them a taste of saat — a fruit whose incredibly sweet juice prevented the victim from using magic for several hours. Wefal, Wen, and Farlander were equally vulnerable to it.

Gristo smiled, parrying easily but giving ground. "Where do you think Tajek got them? Not all escape artists rely on magic, you may know."

Nidela grabbed the fallen guard's sword. She whipped it around in an experimental series of flourishes that belied her apparent age before nodding with satisfaction. Tajek ripped off one of the table legs, hefted it, and walked purposefully toward Reck.

Reg's eyes flicked to the two new opponents, and the moment's inattention cost his coat a button. He refocused on Gristo, gritting his teeth as he yielded the ground he had taken. "Boss, get out of here! I'll hold them."

Reck nodded and staggered into the hall. He met two of his guards coming up the stairs, their swords drawn. "Only two of you?"

The guards didn't slow down, but one of them spoke loudly as he passed. "We are betrayed. A few fight to defend your strongbox. All others have gone over to the enemy."

Reck turned. "Betrayed?" he shouted at their backs.

He saw the lead guard rush Tajek. The enormous Turu didn't even attempt to evade, and the blade hit him directly in the chest. The steel made a sound like metal grinding against stone before the blade broke off with a snap. Tajek, his bare chest entirely unharmed by the thrust, grinned and swung his table leg. The makeshift club caught his opponent across the chin and knocked him back through the doorway.

• • •

Reck fled down the stairs. The main entryway showed signs of struggle. Several arrows stuck out of walls, floor, and furniture. The door hung open wide, its heavy iron locks broken to pieces like so much shattered glass. Reck took cover behind the doorframe and peered into the gathering twilight.

The cart Reg had brought back waited in the cobblestone square a few paces away. Reck could make out the shape of the strongbox under a canvas tarp in its bed. Two of his household guards lay unmoving on their stomachs behind the cart. Four others paired off against each other in the gap between mansion and strongbox, grunting and cursing as they parried and thrust with their rapiers.

Reck hesitated, but one of the guards glanced up from this mortal struggle just long enough to spot him.

"Sir, we're lost!" he shouted to Reck. "Take the cart and flee before the rest get here!"

As if to emphasize his point, the guard cried out as an arrow struck him in the back, near his left shoulder blade.

With a nervous glance in the direction from which the arrow had come, Reck ran to the cart and climbed into the seat. He wasn't used to this kind of excitement, and he wheezed as he snapped the reins to urge the two horses into a gallop.

As he fled his lost mining empire, arrows flicked over his shoulder, some sticking into the back of the cart. One came so close to his ear that Reck could hear it hiss. He didn't dare look back.

The cart nearly overturned as Reck turned it hard around the bend in the road that led to Jacobston. The rain of arrows stopped, and Reck heard no signs of pursuit. He slowed down only enough to prevent disaster.

• • •

When Reck was safely out of sight of the mansion, the four guards who had been fighting over the cart put up their swords and untied the unseen cloth masks they wore. Instead of four Farlander guards, they were two Wen, one Farlander, and a Wefal.

All of them were young for their respective races. A Farlander who didn't know that Wen and Wefals aged more slowly would place them in their early twenties.

The Wen with the arrow in his back gave no indication that he had received a serious wound. He took off his coat, and the other Wen helped him remove the thick wooden disk hidden underneath that had stopped the arrow.

"Mathalla, remind Davur that he doesn't need to hit the target so hard when he shoots you," he said as he slipped the arrow the rest of the way through the coat and inspected the area below. "That one's going to leave a bruise."

"It's fine, Torminth." Mathalla gave him a rakish smile. "I've gotten worse from you."

The Wefal cleared his throat. "Can we stay focused, gentlemen? My sister may still be fighting for her life upstairs. Make safe her exit."

Torminth nodded, drawing his sword again. He ran the side of his hand down the blade just enough to moisten it with his blood, which turned into a line of fire along the sword's edge. The cut closed instantly to a deep red scar.

"Yes, Jonathan." Mathalla drew his sword, and the two Wen disappeared into the mansion.

Jonathan looked around the yard. "Any sign of Lastor, Michael?"

The Farlander shrugged and set to work tying up the two immobile guards on the ground. "He probably decided to help the brothers."

"I hope so," Jonathan muttered under his breath.

Three Wen with bows approached from behind the outbuilding — Davur, Ravud, and Vudar, from eldest brother to youngest.

"All clear?" Jonathan called to them.

"He's halfway to Jacobston, by now," Ravud called back with a laugh. The middle brother could see in the dark as easily as others saw in bright daylight.

"Good," Michael called back. "Help us get these guards inside before my spell on them wears off."

The trio put up their bows as they trotted over.

"Is Lastor with you?" Jonathan asked them.

"No," Davur said. "We thought he must be with you."

Jonathan and Michael exchanged a look.

"Maybe he decided to help with the guards inside," Michael suggested, but he didn't sound hopeful.

"Why do we even bring him for the blow-off?" Jonathan grumbled as they carried the unconscious guards into the mansion. "He never does what he's told. He always finds a way to make things more complicated. One day he's going to blow the swindle for us."

"Even worse than Stipator, right?" Michael asked.

Jonathan fell into a stony silence.

"I think you're too close to the mark," Ravud teased.

"Fewer jokes at Jonathan's expense and more keeping up your end of the unconscious Farlander," Vudar grumbled at his brother. "His feet are practically dragging, and we haven't even reached the stairs, yet."

"No sounds of battle," Michael noted. "That's probably a good sign."

Jonathan grunted. "Ravud, stand watch over our exit in case Reck or his thugs come back. I'll take your end of this one."

The Wen shrugged. "Someone should keep an eye out for Lastor, too. In case he's not with Arrina." He moved back to the doorway.

When they were halfway up the stairs, voices filtered down from the balcony room.

"Sister mine, what caused your treason?" Jonathan called up.

The voices stopped for a moment, and then Nidela responded. "Brother mine, was no good reason."

Jonathan let out a breath at hearing the agreed upon all-clear response. They hauled the unconscious guards into the room. The three guards already in the room sat with their backs against the far wall, their sheaths empty. Reck's lieutenant, Reg, sat in the only undamaged chair, his feet tied and his hands bound by the same manacles that had held Gristo, hands twisting in the bindings. His former Wefal prisoner sat next to him, encouraging the Farlander's efforts to figure out where the trick clasp was hidden.

Nidela looked at the unconscious guards as the four men hauled them over next to their companions.

"Unharmed, as promised," Michael assured her, "which is more than I can say for yours."

With one sweeping gesture he indicated the large lump on the back of the balcony guard's head, the black eye of the stairway guard Tajek had knocked down, and the bloody handkerchief the second stairway guard held to his right shoulder where a sword had pierced it.

Reg had several small, superficial cuts — missing coat buttons, slashes on his cheeks and across the backs of his hands, and a belt that would never hold up another pair of pants.

"Did you see what happened to the one who went over the balcony rail?" Nidela asked.

"Broken leg, we think," Davur said. "He was moving, just not very quickly. Poresa said she'll send Zori to tend to him."

"Sorry," Tajek said. "I may have caught him a bit too unawares."

"I'm sure he'll recover," Nidela said. She turned to Michael. "Wake them."

Michael made a small dismissive gesture. The two guards awoke with a cry of alarm but quickly realized they were unarmed and outnumbered.

"Who are you?" Reg demanded.

"I am Arrina ad'Anna, daughter of King Larus of Pithdai," she announced, and her body and facial features shifted even as she spoke.

The lines and stoop of age flattened. Her gray hair turned a blue-blond to match Jonathan's. When her flesh had stopped flowing like water around her skeleton, she was a tall young woman with long hair, a round-cheeked face, and smooth muscles.

The whole transformation took only a handful of breaths to complete, the result of years of practice effecting rapid changes. Some kinds of stage magicians could change clothes in the time it took to walk behind a tree. Arrina could do the same with her body, using Wefal internal magic to take on any guise she could clearly envision. A mirror helped get the details just right, but she could easily return to her favorite shapes without one.

"That Wefal there is my brother, Jonathan ad'Pithius. Twins, as you might have guessed."

Jonathan waved faintly but remained wary.

"Tajek el'Nankek you have already met, though his command of Flecterran languages is much better than he led you to believe."

The enormous Turu saluted. "My uncle sent me here to be a tunnel between Flecterra and Turuna. Too many rocks stand between us."

Reg's expression suggested there weren't enough rocks in the whole world.

"You haven't tried dislocating your shoulder yet," Gristo offered their captive. "It could help."

"Stipator, not your turn," Arrina admonished. "Sa'Michael ad'Aaron is our enchanter. He is the son of M'Elizabeth ad'Alice, one of Aaronsglade's most prominent Nosamae."

Michael tipped his head in acknowledgment.

"Davur, Vudar, and ... where's Ravud?"

"Keeping watch," Michael said.

Arrina looked at Jonathan with a raised eyebrow. She returned her attention to Reg and their other captives. "The three brothers ad'Marusak are the sons of Tafult, the high archon of Sutola."

The two brothers stood straight and unbowed in the Sutol tradition.

"Mathalla ad'Stontal is the eldest son of the vice primary of the Coastal Republic of Kukuia. Torminth ad'Revelan, his bodyguard and traveling companion."

Mathalla and Torminth put up their swords and bowed with both hands over their chests.

"Then there is the one you know as Gristo," Arrina said.

The Wefal stood up slowly and made a show of dusting off his pants while she spoke. He reached over and touched a point on the trick shackles, and before Reg could see they had loosened, he snapped them shut again.

"Cousin, nephew, or uncle to just about every well-bred family in Petersine," Arrina went on.

"And sometimes more than one of those at a time," Michael amended, and the Wefal gentleman only grinned.

"Famed among many as a battlemaster and by all as a prankster, this is Stipator ad'Bryan."

Stipator touched the first three fingers of his right hand to his lips in the Petersine gesture of greeting. "So sorry about your clothes, Reg. Unfortunate casualties of justice, much like yourselves." His smile grew ironic. "Also, it was funny."

"You can't all be the children of leaders of half the nations in the Flecterran Union!" Reg shouted over them. Michael and Stipator quieted, and Arrina looked at Reg expectantly. Their captive lifted his hands and dropped them into his lap again. "Some of them can't even be in a room together without coming to blows," he said hoarsely.

"The evidence states otherwise," Jonathan said.

"You didn't tell them about the others, Arrina," Tajek noted. "Maybe then he may have connected us to the stories."

"What stories?" Reg asked.

"Reck hired the bandits who have been attacking all the gold shipments coming out of Mattock," Arrina explained. "Between that and the sabotage and intimidation, he was able to take over so much of the land up here. The townsfolk asked us to get rid of the bandits. We decided to get rid of the bandit chief first, using the same kinds of tricks he used to drive his competitors off their land."

"The gold wasn't in the strongbox?" Reg asked.

Stipator smirked. "The gold was in the strongbox alright. But the strongbox isn't in the cart. Our team outside switched it for a box of lead right after you took me inside."

"Tomorrow, we take all the gold and land Reck stole and give it back to the people of Mattock," Arrina explained.

"Why not keep it for yourselves?"

"Not interested in money," Stipator said with a shrug.

"Then why go to the trouble?"

"Because we're the Senserte — the secret eyes of justice," Arrina told him. "It is our duty to punish those who let wealth and power corrupt them."

"Um, Arrina?" Jonathan said hesitantly. "I know you hate it when I interrupt your introductions, but have you seen Lastor?"

Arrina looked at her brother in slowly growing horror. "No. I thought he was with you."

• • •

Once the arrows stopped flying past and no pursuit seemed forthcoming, Reck let the horses slow to a trot. When night fell, though lit by Messegere and Chelestria — the yellow and blue moons — he ultimately slowed to a careful walk. High-speed travel along the mountain roads was dangerous enough by daylight. At night, it was downright suicidal.

Even at a walk, it could be dangerous to travel by night unless the traveler knew the road as intimately as Reck did. This applied both to the road and the highwaymen who patrolled it. Nidela and her accomplices could not hope to catch him before he reached Jacobston.

Reck halted the cart near a finger of white stone that stood twelve miles from Jacobston. He climbed painfully out of the cart and walked cautiously to a tree on the far side of the road from the rock. He made a show of relieving himself on the tree before turning around to address the figures he knew would be waiting by the cart.

"Good evening, gentlemen."

The three stood with swords drawn, their faces concealed by shadow. Reck knew with certainty that archers waited out of sight.

"Mayor Reck," the lead figure said. "You choose a strange time to travel mountain roads."

"There is a bit of an emergency in Jacobston." Reck shrugged.

"It would have to be," the leader replied, and the man on his left snickered in a way that gave Reck pause.

"Some local rabble might be following me in hopes of slipping by with a shipment of gold," he explained as he approached his cart. "Don't let anyone else come down the road, tonight, but you can keep whatever they're carrying." He smiled, though the darkness spoiled the effect. "Consider it a little bonus for adhering so faithfully to our arrangement."

"What's your cargo?" the leader asked casually.

Reck fought down the growing sensation that something was very wrong. "The usual — gifts for friends, some bribes to keep the governor's patrols from coming up here, a bit more to cover expenses."

If the gentle reminder that only Reck's bribes kept the bandits in business had an impact on the three, they gave him no sign.

"Kind of you to spend the last of your fortune protecting our livelihood, Reck."

The man on the leader's right muttered something and spat.

"We've heard the rumors from Mattock. Seems some competitor came up there and wiped you out." The leader put up his sword and clambered onto the back of the cart.

"Don't believe the lies of jealous men," Reck said, making a move to climb back onto the cart.

The bandit on the left barred his way with a sword.

"Oh, we didn't believe it," the leader continued, examining the arrows sticking out of the back of the cart. "At least not until you came down here after dark in a cart peppered with arrows carrying ... " He whipped the canvas off the strongbox. " ... what would seem to be the last of your once-tremendous fortune in gold."

"I have no idea what you're talking about," Reck said, but the tremor in his voice betrayed him.

The leader jumped off the cart next to Reck and made a motion with his chin. Half a dozen more bandits came out of hiding and worked to remove the strongbox.

"It is your intention to sell the location of our hideout to the governor for the bounty. Then, once his patrols have gotten rid of us, you'll be able to take your time searching for whatever treasure we may have hidden in this area."

"Why would I do any such thing?" Reck demanded, but his eyes bulged as he watched the bandits carry off his precious strongbox.

The leader put a strong hand on Reck's fleshy shoulder to prevent him from chasing after his property. "We've seen the way you treated your business partners in Mattock. You'll recall that we were the way you treated them. Would you like to join your former friends, Reck? Oh how they'll grin when they see your face again."

"That's 'cause they're always grinning," the bandit in front of the cart giggled.

Reck tried to take a step back, but the bandit leader's hand held him fast. His eyes bored into the fat Farlander's.

"We're not as ungrateful as you are, Reck. After all, your last act as mayor of Mattock was to bring us a strongbox full of the last of your gold, so I'm willing to spare you a hot meal, a good night's rest, and what is left of your life." He gave a hearty, good-natured laugh. "I'll even throw in the cart and horses. You can sell them in Jacobston for enough to maybe start a new enterprise."

Reck tried to smile meekly, but his heart was pounding, and his knees felt like they wouldn't be able to hold him up much longer. He had no illusions now. He was pleading for his life. "That would be very kind of you."

The bandits led Reck into the pine forest where they lived, leaving the horses and cart tethered, for the moment, just out of sight of the road in a place where they hid captured carts and wagons until they could finish looting them. They didn't bother tying him up. They knew they didn't have to. He couldn't outrun them.

The bandits' hideout was an unimpressive collection of tents and cook fires. Reck ate and drank without appetite, not entirely sure they wouldn't slit his throat as soon as he fell asleep. That might actually be a mercy, he reflected gloomily.

The strongbox foiled all the bandits' efforts to force it open or pick its lock. Reck had no key, since that had been in Reg's possession. He maintained a quiet gratitude for that. He still wasn't convinced that Gristo hadn't somehow tricked Reg into taking a chest of gold-washed lead for one filled with gold coins, nuggets, and ingots. If the bandits discovered Reck had brought them nothing of value, they would probably slit his throat despite their protestations of gratitude.

When sleep came, it brought nightmares of abject poverty with it. Reck woke to crushing anxiety in an abandoned camp. The strongbox was gone. At least he was still alive, and if the bandits had been true to their word, he would still be able to get some money for his horses and cart.

Reck reached the spot where the cart had been, but nothing was there.

"No," Reck moaned, falling to his knees. Then he was weeping the tears of a terrified and broken man.

"Good," a pleased voice said. "I've been waiting for you to cry."

Reck looked up. A Wen boy of perhaps fourteen years sat on a tree branch ten feet up, swinging his legs in a way that should have sent him plunging earthward. He had bright orange hair and green eyes.

"Are you with her?" Reck shouted at him.

The boy cocked his head. "Does it really matter? All the terrible things you have been doing to others for the last year have now been visited upon you. Justice is served."

"You steal a man's fortune for yourselves and call that justice?" Reck snarled.

The Wen smiled. "Of course not. We Senserte don't work for money. We don't deal in half-measures either. Your wealth, including the cart and horses, will go to all the Mattock families you robbed."

"I didn't rob them!"

The boy shrugged. "You put them out of business through intimidation, sabotage, and hired violence. You robbed them as surely as we robbed you."

"What of the bandits? I may have forced my competition out of business, but they actually killed people for money."

The Wen sobered. "The strongbox is ensorcelled and therefore easily tracked. An enchantress is leading one of Jacobston's patrols to them. Your bandits' fates will be every bit as ... appropriate as yours."

"Why are you telling me this?"

The boy hopped to his feet on the branch. "You gloated over Arrina when you had her completely in your power. I'm here to balance the scales. Best of luck in your new life."

The boy stepped off the branch and vanished, leaving only an echo of his childlike laughter — which faded quickly — and Reck was alone.