On Thursdays I post excerpts from a novel I’m working on. This week, Madd and Vorgell don’t talk about last night—and are asked to perform a service for a friend.
And here is a picture from GenCon, where I met with Lexi Ander, one of my favorite authors! Fan girl!
Thick as Ice, Chapter 3
Crash! A muffled grunt pierced the fog of Madd’s sleep. The next crash was louder.
He bolted upright in bed and groped for his knife, realizing at once he was in the wrong fucking bed. His bed would have had a knife sheathed in the corner of the mattress. This bed—this big bed—was Vorgell’s. And without Vorgell in it. He jumped the space between the beds and immediately found the hilt of his blade.
A shadow barreled across the opening of the alcove, followed by what sounded like the copper wash basin clanging to the floor. Hissing followed. Madd crawled to the foot of the bed and peered into the main room. Anytime there was Vorgell and a basilisk involved in a fight, it was smartest to stay out of the scuffle.
After several grunts and a yell, there was silence.
“Vorgell?” Madd’s short blade glinted in the spare light.
“Unharmed. But I could use some help with the burglar.”
“Another one?” Madd laid his knife on the bed and emerged from the shadows. “What do we have to do to stop these roof rats? Walk up and down the street hollering we have a basilisk standing guard?”
Just enough starlight filtered through the window to show Vorgell’s pale, nude form clearly. The big man grasped a gray unmoving figure, no doubt the burglar, by out-flung stiff arms. Crouched on the shelf above the unused hearth, Petal arched her back and grumbled warnings. While Vorgell lifted the petrified burglar’s torso, Madd stooped to help with the legs.
“At least he’s not as heavy as the last one,” Madd said. Together they carried the unbending fellow to the window and tipped him over. A resounding splash in the river below announced the invader’s final resting place. Madd leaned through the window and peered down at the disturbed water. “We have a problem. I think I see a hand.”
Vorgell grunted and sank onto the banked cushions of their cozy settee. “As soon as there’s a bit of light, I’ll go down and haul him over so he doesn’t show.”
“You had to do that last time, too. How many thieves does this one make? Nine? They’re piling up down there. It’s the dead of summer. What if the river dries up?” There were always fisher folk about. Someone would notice if stony hands or heads started poking above the water line. And if anyone summoned Tagard’s Night Men….
“Stop worrying.” Vorgell’s teeth flashed through a grin. “Join me and let’s continue our snuggle.”
Madd sighed. Was the man serious? Because he knew the answer to that, he walked over and plopped onto the cushions. “I think we should move.”
Vorgell’s warm arm looped around his shoulders and tugged him close. “But I like this house. It’s private and hard to reach. Only nine burglars have made it in.”
“That we know of.”
“Yes. And it’s good fortune that when neither we nor Petal are here, neither is our treasure.” Soft predawn light had begun to fill the east-facing window. A glance at Vorgell’s face revealed a frown. “I have been thinking.”
That was never good. Madd suppressed another sigh.
“I think we need to find a good location and undertake the gathering of a hoard.”
A hoard? “You mean… like a dragon’s hoard?”
“Perhaps not so much as that.”
“Good. Because we’re not that good at thieving and I don’t care how fierce Petal is, she’s not a dragon.” He could swear the basilisk squinted at him. The pink glow of reflected dawn in her faceted eyes matched the rosy feathers of her crest and tufted tail.
“Have you ever seen a dragon?”
“No,” he admitted. “But I have seen a dragon’s egg, and the one she hatched from didn’t look at all like one of those. Even your mighty sinews would have trouble carting one of those around.”
Vorgell appeared to ponder that as he stretched, displaying his broad hairy chest and taut, muscled belly. The basilisk, seeing an opportunity, leaped to the window ledge and scampered from there to the floor, then up onto her favorite human, where she nestled into the fur on Vorgell’s chest and chittered for attention. Vorgell immediately set to scratching the beast. Madd belatedly realized his own naked state. Not only was he not nearly as impressive as his companion, his cock was sticking to his thigh, and—yes, he ascertained upon tightening his ass cheeks—he really had done what his half-pickled mind remembered. For the first time since escaping from Flemgu, a man had played with his ass. And afterward he’d made a damn fool of himself by crying in Vorgell’s arms.
All because his idiot ass couldn’t tell the difference between Vorgell’s fingers and Flemgu’s prick.
He came back to his senses when Petal sneezed and basilisk snot speckled his right arm. He wiped at it with disgust.
“You’re still trying to kill me, aren’t you?” Maybe she had gotten used to hearing his heartbeat while her unborn body served as the magical lock on the love collar Flemgu had forced him to wear, but he was convinced she’d never forgiven him for her imprisonment.
Snot aside, at least they’d reached a kind of truce. He didn’t interfere with her scratching sessions with Vorgell and she didn’t interfere when he and Vorgell had sex. There’d been considerable risk at first. Seeing him pound his cock into Vorgell’s ass could be mistaken for an attack. No doubt Petal would rejoice if it was the other way around.
Noticing something, he took another, closer look. If he wasn’t mistaken… yes, Petal looked bigger than just the night before. He reached over to run his hand down Petal’s feathered crest and spine. Her scaly body felt softer, the skin not as dry. “I’ll be cursed. She shed her skin again.”
He got down on hands and knees on the floor and began searching.
“Good girl.” Vorgell’s deep voice thrummed with amusement. To Madd, he said, “You look fetching in that position.”
“Screw you. I’m going to trade this one for more Sunless potion. You go through more of that than I do mead!”
Where was the damn skin? It would be just their luck if in the fight either Vorgell or the burglar had reduced the delicate shed to bits and pieces. Finally, on the floor just underneath the window, he found a translucent husk still shaped more or less like a young basilisk but flayed open at the belly. Coin in the purse!
Madd snatched it up. Basilisk skins were eagerly sought by the very witches he most needed to trade with. He returned to the cushions and sat beside Vorgell again. While there, he reached out to gently scratch the bumps atop Petal’s shoulder blades, prompting the creature’s eyes to close and its throat to rumble. Vorgell wasn’t the only one who knew how to scratch a basilisk.
“You haven’t said anything.” He craned his neck. Vorgell opened one eye.
“Not all things need saying.”
Madd nodded. A nod in this case said as much as words. He was thankful Vorgell didn’t want to talk about last night. Things were better this way.
Vorgell was better this way. In the early days of their acquaintance, the barbarian had required explanations. Now… they had settled into each other, like well-worn leather boots that had molded skin to skin. Easy and free from blisters. Like now. Their silence held as many comforts as compromises.
“Let’s dress,” Vorgell said a few minutes later, after Petal had had enough of them both and scooted off to hunt. “The sun rides into a new day and we have a burglar to conceal from the fisher folk!”
By the time Madd had pissed, scrubbed his teeth, and used the last of the water in the pitcher to wash every bare inch, Vorgell had already left. Finding him again would be easy. He’d be down by the water, having probably given the visible part of the burglar a shove, and singing one of his Scurrian ballads full of unpronounceable names while wielding a sponge. It had taken months of refusing to suck the big man’s cock until he’d bathed, but Madd had finally persuaded Vorgell that frequent bathing was a good thing. If more bathing meant more sex, Vorgell was all for it.
After donning lightweight trousers and a loose linen shirt, Madd picked up his fancy clothes from the night before. He might as well air them before he put them away. Fine men wore fine clothes, and he’d paid top coin for these. Too bad wearing quality never did a thing for him; all he got for his trouble was to attract the wrong kind of man. Vorgell didn’t care what the fuck he wore, or if he wore any clothes at all.
Hearing a baritone bellow of song through the window, Madd laughed. Summer days in Gurgh were hot and brutal, and Vorgell would just as soon wear nothing more than short leggings, a swordbelt, and yards of sweat-slick, sun-kissed skin. If not for Madd’s constant applications of magical Sunless potion, the crazy oaf would be redder than the damn rubies he’d hidden within one of the hearthstones. Before leaving, he folded the shed basilisk skin and tucked it into the pouch in his waistband.
Madd closed the door behind him and whispered into the spell lock, then jogged down the steps and took a turn through the garden toward the river.
The morning was mercifully young and heavy mist still clung to riverbank as he followed a burdock-lined track that led to the water’s edge. As Madd had expected, Vorgell had finished bathing and now occupied his favorite fishing spot. The big man sat upon a part of a crumbling jetty that still lifted its crumbling stones above the waterline. What Madd hadn’t expected was to see him talking with Reannry.
When Vorgell lifted his head and acknowledged Madd with a smile, Reannry turned. Her lips remained still and her gaze level, betraying no sign of what she thought. Madd was convinced she disliked him. Most witches did.
“Don’t talk too loudly,” Vorgell said as he pulled in his line, displaying a fat worm on the hook, and tossed it out again. “You’ll scare the fish.”
“Not a problem,” Madd mumbled. “Loud noises make my head hurt.” At the moment, he hated everything from sunlight to the damned chirping birds. He closed his eyes, grateful for the peaceful soft slap of the river against old stone.
“We were drinking last night,” Vorgell explained.
The explanation was hardly necessary. If anyone understood their penchant for drink, it was Reannry. One moonlit night, after a round or several of drinks with Tagard and hearing the thief king lament his longing for a female to woo, they’d dragged him to Reannry’s house and encouraged him to subject her to bawdy ballads and bad poetry. Even Vorgell, who she liked, hadn’t quite been forgiven.
“I was telling Vorgell that Gillja wished the both of you to escort her on an outing today in the city—if you are available.” Even when merely delivering messages, Reannry managed to sound annoyingly pert. Madd thought her confidence stemmed from her being Baroness Gillja Hargold’s half-sister… and a powerful witch.
At least Reannry was talking to him directly. That wasn’t always the case. Madd opened one eye to show her he was paying attention.
“She’s visiting a nobleman in the Nightingale Quarter,” Reannry embellished. “Marriage negotiations.”
“Marriage?” That didn’t sound right. Still, Gillja had been widowed for nine months, which was long enough to satisfy suitors she would not burden a new husband with Flemgu’s progeny.
“I told her it was too soon.”
Which could only mean the man was powerful or good-looking—or that Gillja had some other reason. Madd shrugged. He didn’t particularly care what the people who hired him were up to. It was just that he actually liked Gillja. For all that she’d been Flemgu’s wife, the woman had been just as much a prisoner. During his time with the baron, Gillja alone had ever treated him well. She and Vorgell were the only two people he could honestly say he trusted.
“She has her guards, of course, but”—Reannry glanced over at the man doggedly throwing his line back into the river—“Vorgell has a more fearsome reputation.”
No wonder. In the last few months, Vorgell had slain three assassins and simply maimed a mercenary as a matter of professional consideration.
Madd frowned. “We were planning to rest today. Look at Vorgell. The man’s fishing. He’s too tired to look fearsome.” In fact, Vorgell looked surpassingly alert for someone who was making a show of paying no attention to Reannry and her proposal at all.
“If Gillja can accomplish her mission by midsun, the remainder of the day will be yours to do with as you please.”
How convenient. How delivered with just the right pretense of including him in the decision. It was just the kind of job Vorgell would agree to—and then cajole Reannry to make it appear Madd ’s involvement mattered. Either it was a ploy to spare his feelings, or protective Vorgell thought it necessary to keep an eye on him. Either reason smarted.
“Sure. Why not? By any chance did Gillja ask for me too?”
“She did.” Reannry answered readily enough to surprise him. “She wants Vorgell for appearances and you for glamour.”
That part rang true. Madd often used spells that concealed him from people or made him less visible in certain situations. Such magic was simple, though few witchkin males could collect enough magic to work it. He had never revealed to anyone how he did so—not out of any shame for his sexual preferences, but because knowledge of how he acquired magic would endanger Vorgell. Gurgh’s witches—and wizards—would go to any length needed to gain access to a reservoir of unicorn magic.
“We’ll be there. Give us an hour.” It might take that long for his friend to catch a fish.
Tagard appeared on the path just as Reannry was leaving. They nodded to each other, but that was the extent of their greeting. Despite his and Vorgell’s drunken effort, the two witchkin had never hit it off. It was just as well. Tagard wanted to associate as little as possible with witch Circles—and Reannry ranked high in the Circle of Stones.
“What did she want?” Tagard asked. An early riser like Vorgell, he had probably been awake since the crack of dawn.
“A job. Protecting Gillja.”
“Good to see the both of you are accepting worthwhile work.” Tagard was one of the handful of people in Gurgh who knew Gillja Hargold, Baroness of Stormfell, was of full witchkin blood. Witchkin aristocracy was older even than that of Gurgh’s highest lords, but most witch blood had been purged from the current ruling lineages. Protecting what witchkin royalty remained was something of a priority. “You have something for me?”
A distant gonging from the city at their back announced that dawn’s first light had touched the golden dome of the Sun Temple. Madd fished inside his waistband pouch to retrieve two rubies he’d held aside. He found them under the basilisk skin. He noticed the way Vorgell looked up, alert, as he handed the gems to Tagard. “Your fair share. The big one for the phoenix net and the other for percentage.” To Tagard’s lifted eyebrow, he added, “I gave you the biggest ones!”
The man laughed and clapped him on the shoulder. “Where would we be without trust, eh?” He tucked the gems into his belt and looked out into the misty distance. It was too early yet for other denizens of Thieves Wart to be rising, though there would be a few stumbling toward home. “I like morning. Morning reveals the seasons. It smells like summer’s passing.”
“Oak leaves are darker now. Maples, too.” Madd had spent time enough in the countryside, first with his mother and then his Gran, learning the nature lore of his kind. Summer was still high, but turning old.
“Coming up on the end of your debt. Yours—and his.” Tagard’s observation sounded casual, but of course it wasn’t.
“That’s a good thing. Doesn’t mean we can’t do business with you still.”
“Be a shame to cut the two of you out of the best jobs.”
“Maybe one or two of those jobs could somehow find their way to us.” He knew he could provoke Tagard a little, though only so far. “We’d pay a tithe. Just like all the other thieves.”
Tagard nodded. He might not like that two of his most accomplished minions would soon be striking out on their own, but the loss was made more palatable by knowing Vorgell and Madd would respect his dominion. There was plenty of wealth for all. His real interest was in controlling the distribution as a means of staving off territorial conflict. Thieves preying on and stabbing each other instead of fat lords and heavy-pursed merchants was not in the best interests of his profession.
Madd saw no point in telling Tagard about the nine petrified corpses lurking at the bottom of the river just on the other side of a bank of rushes.
“Stay in touch,” Tagard warned. He sniffed the air. Madd wondered what he hoped to find, considering the wind was blowing downstream. “Something’s afoot. Too much coin on the move. I’d appreciate it if you come to me with anything you learn while doing your little favor for the Baroness.”
“Hah!” Vorgell gave a great yell and jerked on his line. A long, plump whiskerfish flew up out of the water on his line and he grabbed it in his fist. “Breakfast!”
Tagard lifted an eyebrow. “He’s pretty good at that.”
“Yeah. Raised by bears, I think.” Madd cocked a grin at Tagard. “We’re not going to eat that scaly thing. We’re going to take it to the fishmonger at the end of Crooked Alley and get coin. Then we’ll use the coin to buy sticky knuckles from Old Lady Basket, under the big mulberry tree.”
“Part of the local economy, then.”
“We do our part.” Madd figured Vorgell’s appetite for sticky knuckles kept a roof over the old woman’s head. And he knew as well as anyone Tagard’s witchkin penchant for looking after the welfare of Thieves Wart’s aged mothers.
Nearby bulrushes rustled. Umbels of brown seed pods clacked. A pointy nose, two nostrils, and a scaly green head poked out of the tangled plants. A rat’s tail dangled from Petal’s beak. Tagard turned his back on them and repeated, “Stay in touch” before walking quietly away.
“Nice work, making him move on.” Madd could almost believe the basilisk did these things on purpose. He looked over to see Vorgell striding surely along the toppled remains of the jetty, fish firmly in hand.
“Come along, little mage. I have a fat fish to sell and a belly to fill, with no time to lose! Reannry said Gillja wants us by second bell.”
“Second bell! Seriously?” How long had it been since he’d heard first bell? Madd hunched when Petal sprang onto his back, using his body to launch herself onto Vorgell’s passing bulk. He glared at the impudent creature now perched on his friend’s broad shoulders. Did no one respect his dignity?
Resigned, he quickened his pace until he walked at Vorgell’s side. At least the wily barbarian was respecting that they were to call upon nobility, because he was wearing both trousers and a shirt—and three weapons.
(to be continued...)
I enjoy feedback and am always happy to discuss readers’ thoughts or answer any questions. The foundation is set. Time to move into the meat of the story.