Black Iron's Glory - Chapter 103

Claude took a different alley back. Partly because he didn't want to walk down the same dingy alleyway, not that another dingy alleyway was much different, and partly because he couldn't be certain someone wasn't waiting for him, paranoid as that might sound.

He had two options. One headed downtown, a crowded area where he could vanish. Not many walked that way, however, so he could not blend in on the way there and everyone looking would notice his arrival. The other headed to the slum side of the docks. He'd walked the last portion of that route a couple of times before. It was a detour, but worth it for the discretion it offered.

He wondered how he would handle the trade as he walked. He couldn't just walk up to the store with all the money, especially not in shaliun form. The risk of discovery was too great. Not to mention that Hurian, even before this darker side of his trade had been revealed, had never been the most ethical of merchants. He had a greedy side to him, and a penchant for acting on it. Even if he didn't directly rob him or do something else, if he discovered Claude's identity, he might just decide he could make some more out of him.

He had not bought a few things, however, so he couldn't stroll in hidden as he had this time. He knew his own limitations, and, strong as he was for his age, he was still just a teenager. He did not have the strength to haul the bag all the way back home on his own. He couldn't leave the horse and carriage nearby, however, since everyone recognised it instantly. Camouflaged or not, everyone would know who he was the moment they saw him in the carriage.

He certainly couldn't go by day, either. Besides the fact that he was supposed to be in school at that time, just showing up in this particular part of the slums in daylight would rouse suspicions, not to mention doing it hauling a conspicuously-sized sack on his back.

It turned out the biggest problem for him was going to be the one thing he hadn't thought would be one: transportation. He'd expected to struggle to get the items, or to struggle bargaining them down to a reasonable price, but he'd never even thought about the issue of transporting the items back home.

He also had to think about how to make his way home with his purchases. Should he head straight home, or stop by his parents' for dinner? If he did the former, he'd have to hide his excursion from his family or they'd all moan about him coming to town without visiting them. If he stopped by for dinner, however, his father would badger him over coming over for dinner two days in a row and slacking off at work.

He shoved it all out of mind eventually, unable to come up with anything useful, and headed for the lake. The alleyway was almost completely deserted and the one or two people did he come across all vanished into thin air when they saw his getup.

He rounded another corner and came up against a couple of people all but blocking the alleyway in front of the decrepit two story building. The group was actually two groups, each blocking one end of the alleyway while two people in between them, presumably their leaders, were arguing.

His steps slowed, and he approached as quietly as he could. Surprisingly, no one from the buildings on either side of the alleyway were showing any interest or reaction to the argument. The windows were lit with candles, so there definitely were people home.

He stopped and hid himself in a dark recess between two buildings about ten metres behind the nearest group. He listened to the argument for a couple of minutes and built a picture of what was going on.

The slightly larger of the two groups was the Blacksnake gang. The other side was the Shark gang. The smaller group had about five people, a couple of whom were women, while the larger had eight, all male. The men were teasing and pestering the women and badgering the men.

Between the two groups they ruled most of the slum. Blacksnake was mostly ruffians from Windmoon Street and the surrounding alleys. They were mostly involved in racketeering, especially with all the pimps and whores who worked on the street.

The Sharks, on the other hand, were mainly sailors and other dock workers down on their luck, or home between trips out to sea. They handled primarily black trade and smuggling, as well as a small protection racket with the couple of taverns in the harbour.

They were known as the Whitestag moles. The two tumours feeding off the good people from the town. For all their ferocity, however, they didn't have the strength to extend their reach beyond the slums themselves, and didn't have the power to face the town watch, and they knew it. The only reason they'd not yet been wiped out was because they knew to keep to the slums. No one really cared about policing that place, partly because it was a backwater, and partly because policing it was nigh impossible.

The Sharks, for all their propensity for violence, however, tended to be a somewhat more amenable gang. Well, as amenable as a gang of sailors and dockhands could be. They generally kept to themselves as long as the taverns paid their dues and the smugglers kept to their deals. They loved fights, but didn't involve people who didn't look for a fight with them.

The Blacksnakes, however, were far less restrained. They considered themselves more cultured than the Sharks, since they focused on more sensual activities. Their victims didn't have the same opinion, however. The Blacksnakes were notorious for scouring their whores for pleasure and riches, and for frequently upping their demands at the slightest hint of an improvement in a shop's situation. And, while they kept to the slums mostly, run-ins with the town watch were not unheard of. They were the biggest source of crime and violence outside the slums.

They had a backer in the town hall, however, so few in the watch dared become too zealous about teaching the gang its place. Not to mention that the baron, Baron Robert, had this disturbing little hobby of standing up for the gangs.

As for the current argument, it had something to do with the convoy headed for Nubissia. Most of the Sharks gang's top dogs, and their best fighters, were all away with it, including their leader, Ironaxe Hanbas -- who was serving as the escort's overall commander. The town's administration had promised Hanbas they'd ensure peace and the status quo between the two gangs was maintained in his absence. While the Blacksnakes did not fear the Sharks even at full strength -- much less now that they were absent their strongest -- with the local government involved, they had to stay put.

Blacksnake's second lieutenant, Slanteye Kamadi, had been on his way back to Old Sreet with a couple of minions when he bumped into Jerad, Hanbas' brother, who was heading home with his girlfriend. That girlfriend was Kefnie's older sister.

She'd stabbed Kamadi once for grabbing her arse in the tavern where she worked, and he was out for revenge. With Shark's elite missing, Jerad didn't have his usual strength escort, which meant Kamadi had both the numbers and quality advantage.

Kamadi knew better than to start a physical fight, however, since even with Shark in a weakened state, it could still outmatch Blacksnake if all the forces were tallied. A fight with them here would spill out into open war on the streets, and Blacksnake would not come out well. So Kamadi settled for badgering the group to vent his anger some.

Jerad, too, could not afford a physical confrontation. They might win a gang war with Blacksnake, but they'd be left badly wounded and it might just give some of the wannabe gangs enough of a chance to come in and take over while they were licking their wounds. So he kept his men back no matter what the other side did. Kesline was on the edge, however, barely holding back her rage.

The result was a deadlock where neither side was willing to take the final step and end the fight, but neither was either side willing to step down and appear the weaker of the two.

Claude glanced up at the skies. It was probably about nine in the evening. Damnit, if they were going to fight, then fight, if not, then feck off! He had places to be!

He watched them for another minute or so, then sighed, and stepped out of the shadows.

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