an excerpt from


Dragon Precinct


by Keith R.A. DeCandido




[Excerpted from the novel on sale in August from Pocket Books. Click here to read more about the novel. Copyright © 2004 Keith R.A. DeCandido and Albé-Shiloh Inc. All rights reserved. All lefts, too.]

* * *


The smell of dead fish, salt water, and sweat combined to cheer Horran as he walked along the Docklands of Cliff's End. For the first time in years, he was back on day patrol.

He strolled down the northernmost part of the dock, nodding to the ship-masters and dockworkers he knew--which was most of them--and observing the loading of crates, the offloading of more crates, the casting off of fishing boats, the arguing over payments, and the embarkation of passengers. More than one commented on his now being on the day shift.

"So," Abo, the first mate of the Breeze, asked when Horran passed by that vessel, "who'd you blow to get the cushy shift?"

"Blow, hell. Eleven years, Abo. Eleven years working this place at night. I earned the damned cushy shift."

"Aw, c'mon, Horran, you're gonna miss breakin' up brawls at the Dancing Seagull."

"Yes, because I live to stop drunken sailors from pounding other drunken sailors."

"Careful with that thing!" Abo yelled at one of his sailors, who was struggling with a crate. "Drop that, and it's garnished from your wages."

"You don't pay your sailors enough to garnish anything."

Abo grinned. "That's their problem. Anyhow, I'm gonna miss you breakin' up brawls at the Seagull. You're the one who pried that gnome off my ass last year. Couldn't sit for a week."

"When do you sit?"

The grin widened. "At the Seagull when I drink."

"Well, tonight, the drinks're on me, because the only reason I'm going into that place now is to hoist one after my shift, not arrest a third of the sailors on this damn dock for drunk and disorderly, another third for assault and battery, and the rest of you for graft and trafficking of illegal goods. Now I can just watch you load and unload, feel the sun on my face, smell the day's catches come noontime, and actually sleep at night."

"Bet you five coppers you're bored shitless in a month."

Horran couldn't imagine that happening--but then it was only his first day. Still, and all, he said, "It's a bet."

After he and Abo shook on it, he noticed a sound that was completely out of place.

Abo apparently noticed it, too. "What the hell's that?"

The guard's eyes widened. "That's plate armor. Some idiot's walking around in full plate armor." He put a gloved hand on Abo's shoulder. "This I need to check out. Catch you at the Seagull tonight?"

"Drinks're really on you? Damn right, I'll be there." Abo turned back to see that the sailor was stumbling again. "Dammit, what did I just tell you?"

Chuckling, Horran moved toward the distinctive clanking of armor on wood, which seemed to be coming from the vicinity of where the Esmerelda was docked. He couldn't believe anyone was that stupid. While a full suit of armor was very useful if you were riding a horse to face your enemy on an open field, on the open sea, it would only serve to guarantee that you would sink to the bottom and drown if you fell overboard.

Sure enough, a good-sized man wearing plate armor was approaching the gangplank that led to the Esmerelda. "Ho, Captain Zaile! I am prepared to depart!" Primarily a cargo ship that covered the assorted islands on the Garamin, Horran knew that the ship's master Zaile would sometimes take on a passenger or two if he had a light load.

Zaile himself, a stooped old man with a thick gray beard and thicker gray hair, came down the gangplank to meet the armored fellow. "That's what you're wearing, eh?"

"Of course. If I am to slay Chalmraik the Foul, then I must needs protect myself." The man's voice echoed slightly, reverberating through his armor. Horran noted that he had a huge sword on a belt scabbard and a pack on his back. The guard suspected that this man had aspirations of being the next Gan Brightblade. Based on the whispers he'd been hearing since coming on this morning, that position was apparently open.

"If you insist," Zaile said, "but I'm afraid I'll have to be raisin' your fare, then. Extra weight, you understand."

"How much?" The would-be wizard-slayer sounded unconcerned.

"Two gold."

"Done," he said without hesitation.

It took all of Horran's self-control not to laugh out loud. One gold was exorbitant for the meagre accommodations on the Esmerelda, and the added weight of one suit of armor was a pittance compared to the weight of any cargo that would normally be taking up the space Zaile was giving to this idiot.

"Oh, and there'll be another passenger to share the quarters with. I believe he has the same destination as you."

"What?"

"Captain Zaile," Horran said, approaching this tableau.

Squinting in annoyance, Zaile said, "Horran. Didn't know you were on day-shift."

"Yeah, the bosses decided to thank me for keeping old sea-bitches like you honest."

"What are you saying, my good sir?" the man in the armor asked. "Captain Zaile is as honest as they come. I have it on good authority from many sources."

Most of whom are getting a piece of that two gold in exchange for the testimonial, Horran thought. "Oh, Zaile's reputation precedes him, that's for damn sure. If you'll excuse me, uh--"

The armored man moved to an at-attention stance that bespoke some past military service. "I am Kaylin the Mighty. Word has reached me that Chalmraik the Foul is alive and well and plotting to take over Flingaria once more."

"Really?" Horran asked dryly.

Gravely, Kaylin spoke with the tone of one over whose head Horran's sarcasm had sailed. "Indeed it has. But worry not. I have obtained a sword--" he patted his scabbard with a gauntleted hand "--that is blessed with the Runes of Tyrac."

Again, Horran resisted the urge to laugh out loud. "That's wonderful. Kaylin, I need to speak with Captain Zaile in private, just for a second. Don't worry," he added quickly, "it won't have any impact on what I'm sure's a real noble quest." He turned to the captain and indicated a section of dock near the Esmerelda's aft section. "Zaile?"

As soon as they were out of Kaylin's earshot, Zaile said, "Don't you be ruinin' this'un for me, Horran! This idjit's a blessed goldmine!"

Horran smiled. "Last time I checked, Zaile, the extortion laws don't take into account how idiotic the mark is."

"Oh for Wiate's sake, he ain't just idiotic, he's downright stupid. Practically catatonic, even. He's wearin' armor on a boat. He thinks Chalmraik is still alive. He fell for the 'Runes of Tyrac' scam, for Wiate's sake! I didn't think anyone still be usin' that one, much less fallin' for it."

"Damn. You must feel strong about this guy--you invoked Wiate twice in one conversation," Horran said with a smile.

Pointing one crooked, bony finger at Horran, Zaile said, "Don't you be sassin' me, boy. I remember when you were just a little demon tryin' to steal fish outta my nets with that brother'a yours. Hell, I remember when the Guard first arrested you. Shoulda sent you down the hole 'stead'a rewardin' you."

Horran's jaw torqued in annoyance. He'd grown up in the Docklands an orphan, first supported by his older brother--one of the Docklands' more talented thieves--then on his own after his brother was killed. Unfortunately, Horran was not as talented as his sibling, and was caught by the Castle Guard, who gave him a choice: jail time, or help the Guard by running assorted errands, mostly consisting of carrying messages and providing information. Not being stupid, and knowing what jail was like for young boys, Horran chose the latter.

Eventually, he joined the Guard formally, and lasted eleven years as exactly the kind of guard he and his brother used to evade as kids.

Zaile was still wagging his finger. "I'll not be stopped from makin' a livin' by the likes'a you."

"Hey, you wanna make a living, Zaile, that's fine with me, but takin' advantage of someone this brain dead is not only illegal, it's cruel. I mean, come on, would you overcharge a legless man for a wheelchair?"

Zaile let out a long-suffering sigh. "How much?"

Horran smiled. Took him long enough. "Two silvers--one for each gold piece you're charging Kaylin the Moron." He was going to charge him only one silver, but he had to go and bring up his misspent youth. Besides, he needed the cash. While his salary paid for food and lodging, it was the hundreds of bribes he'd taken over the past decade that he really needed. Four years hence, when he would get his fifteen-year bonus and then retire, those bribes would combine with the bonus to buy a house in Dragon or even possibly Unicorn, and allow him to live out life in luxury.

Or at least more luxury than a failed orphan sneak-thief could have possibly dreamed of as a boy…

"Done." Zaile shook his head. "Shoulda just been sayin' so in the first place. Saved me all'a this trouble." Zaile reached into his moneypouch and pulled out a silver piece. "S'all I got on me right now. I'm bein' good for the other half."

"Oh, I'm sure you are." Horran grinned. "Captain Zaile is as honest as they come. I have it on good authority from many sources."

"Very funny."

"How darest thou!?"

Horran whirled around to see that someone else--wearing mail and also carrying a very large sword--had spoken those words to Kaylin. His pattern of speech indicated that he had learned Common in the far lands to the west where they still insisted on the archaic forms of speech.

"How dare I?" Kaylin replied, sounding outraged. "I have been chosen by the Runes of Tyrac to be the one, the only true warrior who shall slay Chalmraik the Foul! It has been written."

As he ran over to break the potential altercation up, Horran thought, Whoever ran the Tyrac scam on Kaylin really laid it on thick.

"Thou worm! Thou varlet! Thou hobgoblin! 'Twas I the gods chose to slay the evil wizard, and thou shalt not take my birthright from me!" He unsheathed his own broadsword.

Horran shook his head. The blade had been inscribed with the so-called "Runes of Tyrac"--in truth it was gibberish using letters from the old Pohldak script that, according to one of Horran's old sergeants, loosely translated to "all flips harried elk."

"None shall deny Erik ban Soreyl from the destiny that be rightfully his! Have at thee!"

Standing between them, putting one hand on the chest of each man, Horran said, "One's gonna deny you. Put your sword away, sir."

Not taking his eyes--which, Horran noticed, were coal-black--off of Kaylin, ban Soreyl said, "Stand aside, good sir. Whilst I have no wish to harm thee, no man shall come between me and my one true destiny."

"If you don't put your sword away, Mr. ban Soreyl, your only destiny's gonna be to spend the night in the hole." The holding cells in the precincts weren't actually holes, but that nickname was given to the dungeons beneath the castle where criminals were held, and, when the Lord and Lady established the Castle Guard and the separate precincts, the holding cells in the precinct houses were given the same appellation.

Kaylin chose that moment to speak up. "This fool speaks true, good sir Guard. Allow us to settle this as men."

Horran caught the eye of one of the youth squad in the quickly gathering crowd--nothing the populace liked better than to watch a good brawl, especially in the Docklands--and gave him an eye-signal that indicated that he needed help. The boy nodded and ran off to find more guards on foot patrol and bring them to the Esmerelda. Gotta remember to give him a copper later, he thought, though the boy himself would no doubt provide a reminder when this was all over. Certainly Horran himself never forgot to bill the guards he helped out.

Then he turned to Kaylin, whose hand was on his scabbard. "I'm afraid I can't let you to do that."

"Nonsense," Kaylin said, now pulling out his sword. "Laws are for lesser men, not heroes such as us."

"I don't give a troll's ass if you're Gan Brightblade his own self, if you don't put those swords away, I'll bring both of you in."

"Hah!" ban Soreyl said, his gaze now falling on Kaylin's blade, which also discussed the acrobatic habits of beleaguered elk. "I see some fool has tricked thy gullible self into purchasing a sword with false runes. It shall be my greatest privilege to rid the world of such a fool as thee."

"Nobody's ridding nobody of nothing!"

Everything happened very quickly after that. Ban Soreyl lunged with his sword. Horran tried to hold him back. Kaylin raised his own sword, but then lost his balance--apparently not taking the extra weight of his plate armor into account--and fell backward onto the dock. Then ban Soreyl stumbled, his own target having disappeared and Horran's attempt to restrain him throwing his balance off, and both guard and swordsman fell to the dock in a heap.

Horran spent two seconds lying on the dock listening to the whoops, cheers, and laughter--mostly the latter--of the crowd before rolling out from under the squirming form of ban Soreyl. Both would-be heroes seemed to be having difficulty with the seemingly simple action of getting up while wearing armor. Horran smiled as he got to his feet. The bards don't usually include the part about how hard it is to get up off the ground in that stuff, do they?

When Horran first joined up, he was on day shift, because that's where you started. Putting rookies on night shift in Mermaid was tantamount to a death sentence. In the two years he spent there before being "promoted" to night duty, Horran had never drawn his sword. In fact, most guards went through their entire careers without ever using their swords, and only those assigned to Goblin and to night patrol in Mermaid even had occasion to draw them. So it was with a particular irritation that Horran drew his right now, even as he heard the distinctive booted footfalls of his fellow day-patrol guards coming to his aid.

"When you two manage to get up off your asses, you're both coming with me." More formally, he said: "In the name of Lord Albin and Lady Meerka, I hereby place you, Erik ban Soreyl, and you, Kaylin the Mo--the Mighty--" he almost said "the Moron" again "--under arrest for assault on a member of the Cliff's End Castle Guard and for creating a public disturbance. Other charges to be added as necessary."

Then he sighed. Those words had changed a day that should have been simple and easy into a mess of paperwork, tiresome interrogations, endless digressions, and more dealing with Zaile, who would be very aggravated at losing two passengers--and probably not give Horran the other silver he owed him.

Day patrol was supposed to be less exciting, dammit.


To find out what else happens, you'll just have to get a copy of Dragon Precinct, when it's released in August. Luckily, you can preorder it from the good folks at Amazon.com.

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