Well, Sneax thought, at least now that it's dark, I might make it home without running into Russ. After all, he can't very well beat me if he doesn't see me.
Sneakatara Boatman lived in a cubbyhole beneath the upper lip of a stone chimney above the Gilded Ox tavern in the Docks District of the great city of Wanderhaven. Though while the city itself might be great, the docks weren’t great by any means, and the Gilded Ox was downright ratty. Not that Sneax had actually spent much time inside. A homeless gutter rat wasn’t welcome in even the lowest quality inn, and indeed, the only reason that Sneax even lived above the Ox was the fact that the Ox’s roof was made from slabs of cut slate instead of the usual piled thatch that covered most of the roofs along Wanderhaven’s docks. That meant that Sneax could sneak around on the roof without fear of falling through into the inn’s Common Room.
It did not, however, mean that she was welcome.
Sneax current perch, however, was not above the Gilded Ox. Instead, she’d hidden herself for the day above the Great Arch that led into Wanderhaven’s Merchant Quarter. Because it was Endday, and Sneax’s “rent” was due, she’d been hiding out atop the Arch, alternately watching for her “landlord”, the loathsome Russitan Lassiter, and searching for a fat merchant whose pocket she could pick to secure what she owed. But now it was getting dark, and despite a full day's searching, Sneax hadn't seen anyone who didn't either have bodyguards and a caravan’s worth of goods headed for the city proper or who didn’t look almost as poor as she was herself.
Sneax's spot atop the Arch was hidden more than twenty feet above the Docks' cobblestone streets and almost as far away from the nearest building—another inn, whose name Sneax had forgotten but whose copper gutters she never would. She smiled. A twenty-foot descent onto darkened cobblestones might have been daunting for most. For Sneax, however, it was practically routine. She stood from her perch and stretched, stifling a yawn. Then, without warning, she leaped into the air, diving across the Arch with her hands and fingers outstretched. Sneax knew a moment of weightlessness and then grabbed the lip of the Arch on the opposite side from where she’d started. She swung, catapulting herself out into space, and for an instant, she flew. Then she grabbed the copper downspout of the nearby inn’s rain gutter and spun, swinging around until she could safely drop to the ground.
“Ta da!” Sneax landed with a flourish and bowed.
Slow clapping sounded behind her. “Very nice. But it'd be nicer if you had my money, Sneakatara.”
Sneax spun. “Russ!”
And there he was, standing like some kind of malevolent nightmare—all black eyes and scarred knuckles. Word around the docks was that Russitan Lassiter wasn't fully human, and looking at him closely, Sneax could believe it. The man had the face of an orc framed by greasy black hair that he wore tied back in a rough ponytail. His nose had been smashed and flattened long ago, and it had healed crooked, and when he smiled, Sneax could see the ruins of what had once been his teeth. Still, the man was enormous—especially to someone like Sneax—and they said that his jaw was made of granite.
No one could remember who it was who'd smashed Lassiter's face up for him, but whoever it was, they weren't around anymore to brag about it, that much was certain. On the docks these days, Lassiter reigned supreme.
He looked down at Sneax and smiled his hideous smile. “You know, I almost didn't see you hiding up there, Sneax.” As he spoke, Lassiter pulled a dagger from his belt and started using it to trim his fingernails. “If you hadn't done that flashy swinging thing off the side of that gutter, I might have missed you entirely.”
“I-I-I was just coming to see you!” Sneax said.
“I'll just bet you were,” Lassiter replied mildly. “So, I take it that you do have the rent money this time?”
“No?” Lassiter's smile disappeared. He pointed his dagger at Sneax. “That's two weeks in a row, girl. You owe me five silvers!”
“What?!” Sneax was scared sick of Lassiter, but no way was she gonna stand there and let him rip her off. “But the rent is only two silvers a week! Two plus two is four, Russ. What're you tryin' to pull?”
Quicker than thought, Lassiter reached down and grabbed Sneax by her left ear. He yanked her head around, and in a moment, his dagger lay pointed under her chin. He leaned in close, his voice a menacing whisper. “Two plus two is four, yes, but you forgot the interest. With interest it's five, and if you miss next week, you'll owe me a full gold. You miss after that, and I’m’a cut off this here ear. You hear what I'm sayin' to you, little girl?”
Lassiter released her, and Sneax stumbled.
“I don't see why I owe you rent, anyway,” Sneax said. “I live on the streets.”
Lassiter held both hands out from his sides and turned. “But they're my streets, Sneakatara. You live on my streets, you got to pay rent to me.”
There was no escaping that, and Sneax knew it. Her heart dropped into her shoes. “Five silvers is a lot, Russ. I mean, I don't think I can come up with that kind of money in a week.” She swallowed. Hard. “Isn’t there anything else? I mean, can I maybe come work for you or something? You know, work off the debt? I’m a good worker—a good thief. They don’t call me ‘Sneax’ for nothing, and you know it. Come on, Russ, what do you say?”
Lassiter cocked his head and looked at her, and for a moment Sneax saw herself the way she thought that Lassiter must. She was a halfman—what some might call a “halfling" or one of the “wee folk”—and though she was sixteen and as tall as she was every like to get, still she stood barely over three feet on her tiptoes, and she weighed barely more than two stone. She had short brown hair that she kept trimmed in as neat a bob as she could manage with just her hand mirror and her knife, but living on the streets kept her thinner than she’d have liked, and though she was pretty enough, she knew she wasn’t a beauty or anything. On top of that, Sneax knew that she was constantly in need of a bath. But if Sneax was small and thin and usually dirty, she was also quick—quicker than Lassiter, anyhow, at least on most days—and she was nimbler than a forest elf. So if Lassiter needed something nicked, or if he maybe needed something watched without anyone being the wiser, then maybe he’d have something that he thought Sneax could do.
Of course, the idea of working for such an ugly, mean-hearted ruffian was disheartening, but it still beat losing an ear.
After a moment, Lassiter smiled. “Sure,” he said, “I got something you can do. Meet me down by the Old Church tonight, just after moonrise. It’ll be worth two silvers to you. You’ll still owe me three, but it’ll be a start, yeah? After that, depending on how you do, maybe we’ll see what’s what.”
Sneax dared to breathe a sigh of relief. “Thanks Russ. You won’t regret this, I swear. I’m your girl, you’ll see.”
“You better be,” Lassiter replied, “else you goin’ owe me a lot more than an ear.”