Hotshots: Part Eight
Mackaray was several years younger than Mortman, and Mortman was willing to bet he'd slept better in the last several days as well. And he was good. He had the sort of natural ability that Kanrik had, and he'd had longer to fine-tune it and less of a temper to trip over. It was all Mortman could do to fend off the attacks – he couldn't even have dreamed of striking back with an attack of his own.
But then Kanrik was there, stepping in between Mortman and Mackaray with a counterattack that left the Usul stepping back a few paces to keep his balance. Kanrik said, "Back-to-back! Paselle! Mortman!"
Mortman obeyed without questioning, without really even thinking about it. Something about Kanrik's voice and the tone he took bypassed Mortman's brain and went straight to his muscles. The Kougra just fitted himself into position, looking with a certain degree of dismay at the smugglers around them. There were too many of them and they were far too intent on fighting for Mortman's tastes.
Mortman just focused on surviving whoever came at him, but he knew they'd have to change that quickly. If they just fought to survive, they'd be worn down. Kanrik was still holding his own against Mackaray, and Paselle fought like a rabid Werelupe, but they were too Fyora-blasted young and they wouldn't be able to keep it up. Mackaray had brought some good fighters with them – sure, they were principally smugglers, but he probably had to deal with pirates down on his turf. Some of his folk might have pirated themselves at one point or another, and Mortman didn't like their chances against pirate-trained fighters. What did they have? What could Mortman use to turn this fight to their advantage?
The smoke bombs. The smoke bombs that Mortman had in his jacket. He called, "Cover me!" Then he pulled one of them out, lit it, and threw it straight into the air.
Immediately the smoke burst out. Mortman grabbed Paselle and Kanrik by the shoulders and pulled – Kanrik shouted, which seemed unlike him to Mortman. He hadn't grabbed him that hard. Mortman started running, and they started stumbling after him.
It was hard to run – Mortman had gotten a good lungful of smoke, and if he could afford the luxury of standing still he would have been doubled over coughing. As it was, he gasped and wheezed for each painful breath as they stumbled through the shrouded alley. In the frenzy, he either tripped over someone or was kicked – likely by accident – but even the accident landed a solid blow to his shin that hurt like the blazes and nearly knocked him to the ground, and as it happened someone else trod on his tail – he couldn't suppress as yowl of pain. He pulled another bomb out, lit it, and this time tossed it behind him, to further obscure the cove smugglers – as they pulled out of the area of the smoke, he threw the third. He led them through an alley and around several corners before he found himself forced to stop and breathe. He slumped against the alley wall, coughing and gasping, holding the stitch in his side.
Then he looked over and realized that Kanrik had a hand over his right eye. "Kanrik!"
Kanrik smiled, somewhat weakly. "Mackaray got me right as the smoke went out – same time as you pulled me away. I think my eye's okay, though. It was good you grabbed me."
Paselle looked closely at his face. "You'll have a beauty of a muzzle scar, though."
Kanrik shrugged. "Perhaps it'll be impressive. Think about it – those muzzle scars of Galem's scare everybody."
Mortman couldn't help but snort. "As if you weren't shifty enough to look at. Come on – we need to find some place where you can get that bandaged. And we need to do it quickly before one of them catches up." His leg hurt and would have a splendid bruise, but walking more would be as bad for it as standing still, so he might as well walk.
Paselle coughed. "A minute?"
"A minute will be longer than it would take for you fools to become competent."
And then Galem dropped from the rooftops, followed by Gram and Haskell. The Darigan Skeith and the Shadow Lupe smirked at each other as Galem said, "Look at you. A bunch of second-raters like the Cove Smugglers handed you your tails."
And at least Mackaray had been a decent Neopian. Galem, Gram, and Haskell most decidedly were not, as well as being absolutely vicious fighters. And Mortman's folks were banged-up and still coughing from the smoke bombs. Standing here, facing their own boss, they were in the most trouble they'd been in all night.
The kids were young, and in better shape than Mortman. If it came to a fight, he wouldn't last seconds, but those seconds might give them enough time to run. Paselle and Kanrik were good kids – they'd get back to the fens and tell his crew what had happened. Mortman pushed himself off the wall, ignoring the pain in his leg. "We've got the goods for you, Galem, just as you requested, and some other things from the study as well." He held out a hand – Kanrik took the Annals of King Jazan the Second from his jacket and handed it over, and Paselle gave Galem her pack. Finally, Mortman handed over the scroll that he'd taken himself – it might just be worthless parchment, but if it was worth anything Galem would want it.
Haskell mocked, "Did anyone try to hit you for this, smuggler?"
Paselle's ears had been drooping – now they stood straight up in indignation as she cried, "You were there? You were watching the fight?" The tall Lupe laughed. Mortman laid a hand on Paselle's shoulder. If Haskell wanted a fight, he'd get one, but there was no point in provoking him.
Gram snorted, "Fight would imply you three actually stood a chance. Two skinny hotshots and a smuggling coward. At least that Mackaray idiot can handle a sword. Unlike you, Kougra."
Mortman had never claimed that he could. He didn't love the sword for its own sake – he just liked the idea of being able to defend himself when someone who did like swords came along and tried to use one on him. But Kanrik had called it – Gram was just like Galem, who only respected people who thought like him.
But Kanrik hissed, "Leave him alone."
Gram raised his eyebrows. "What, Blinky?"
Mortman said, "No, Kanrik..."
But Kanrik said, louder, "Leave him alone. You haven't spent any time with him. You don't know him. And you've got no right to call him a coward when you sat back and watched us fight!"
Gram growled, but Galem snorted. "Big words from a pup who can only see out of one eye at the moment. You know how I can tell you the Kougra's a coward? Because he's spent half his life swimming in the fens of Kiko Lake with nothing to show for it – and because he's standing here listening to me call him out without the guts to try and prove me wrong."
Mortman wouldn't take the bait – wouldn't show any reaction to the contempt in Galem's eyes or his voice. Though he thought he knew, now, how he'd ended up sent on a mission that he'd been expected to fail – Galem didn't see him as having any value. As far as Galem was concerned, losing a smuggler wasn't any sort of price at all, and it was well worth it to get rid of two young hotshots. He merely said, "Call me what you like. We've done the job. Do you need anything else, or are we free to go?"
Galem just looked down at them. "Get out of my sight. And don't come crawling back asking for money after that show you put on, either."
And he turned off and stalked down the alley, with Gram and Haskell trailing him.
Kanrik's face was pale with fury. "That... that..."
Mortman hushed him. "Don't say it. Let's go find somewhere to get you patched up."
They ended up going back to the Golden Wheel – Tobey put them up in a back room, in case anyone had seen them during their escape from Roane's. Reina even came and bandaged Kanrik's face, though she informed him much as Paselle had that he was going to have a fairly impressive scar going over his right eye and down that side of his muzzle.
They sat at the little table in their room, drinking tea to ease their throats and lungs. Finally, Kanrik burst out, "Mortman, you're three times the man Galem Darkhand will ever be!"
Mortman merely raised his eyebrows at the young Gelert. "Given the sort of man he is, even three times is faint praise."
Paselle asked, "But why did you just stand there and let him call you names?"
Kanrik asked in disgust, "Really, Paselle?"
Mortman went ahead and explained the obvious. "I'd have told him I was no coward. Then he'd have told me to prove it. Then he'd have fought me. And then I'd have lost." He took a bite of the hot bread that Reina had left them along with the tea. "If he doesn't realize that there's more to life than who can win a fight, that's his loss, not mine."
Paselle pointed out, "Except for the bit where he might look for another chance to get rid of you." Then she coughed again, and drank another gulp of tea.
Kanrik said quietly, "He'd better do that quickly then, if he wants to." His voice was serious, dangerous, and as Mortman turned to look at the skinny Gelert with the bandaged eye, he had a feeling that he knew what was coming. Kanrik said, "He's lost his edge. Oh, he's still smart, and he's still dangerous, and he's still one of the best fighters anyone's ever seen, but he's gotten too comfortable sitting on top and spitting on everyone underneath him. Look at what he just did to us!"
Paselle said, "If you're saying you want Galem to fall, I'm with you."
Mortman had always believed in keeping out of these political struggles – in keeping his head down. But if it came to choosing between the brutish, bullying Grarrl and the young Gelert in front of him, he knew whose side he was on. "I' m with you."
Kanrik drew his new knife and ran his finger along the curl of brassy metal that went up the blade. "I don't just want Galem to fall.
"I want to be the one pushing him."