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King of Tides

King of Tides

Jack Tregary

When I was a kid, I had this little old storybook that dad brought home from one of his trips. Every time I missed him or couldn’t sleep at night, mum would read it for me. My favourite story, the one my mind always played out for me more vividly than others, was about a Kridian king who went to the shore of a great sea and waited for high tide. And when high tide came, he stood up, spread his big, strong arms and commanded the sea to yield before him. He was king, you see, and knew no sea could sweep his feet from under him. The next page was missing, so I would always make up the rest. That’s why I loved the story.

If I had ever complained about Kingsbrugge being rainy and smelling like garbage on an ordinary evening, I took everything back the minute I shut the kitchen door of the Halberdier and stepped into the alley. Near-vertical rain battered my face and bore into my eyes, made things look like one dark blur through a pair of glasses. I could have killed for a local rainshield hex. Walking felt more like wading knee-deep in an unbarred river. No wonder nodody else was outside – everything with a brain, even the stray dogs you’d normally find feasting on an overflown restaurant garbage bin, had fled someplace cozy and dry.

My nerves screamed for a smoke, but a shaky pat-down revealed I’d left the whole goddamn pack in my own pockets. To add insult to injury, this loaner of a coat was letting in cold water from the seams. At least the hat was mine, and I pushed it deeper to look shady before taking my designated turn towards East Harbour Lane.

A gust of salty wind attacked me as I came out to the open, and my reflexes were just barely enough to keep the hat from flying off. Walking by the harbourside, I witnessed the first signs of outdoor life that evening: The owner of a bait and tackle shop was taking down his creaky fish-shaped sign as I passed him, probably to keep it from falling, and the lights of a few not-so-distant ships proved there were still some poor sods at sea.

With four, maybe three hundred meters to go, there was an ever-increasing gravitas in the way rain hammered the roofs and streets of the harbour. It choked me a bit. It shouldn’t have; at heart, it would be just your run-of-the-mill sting op. On the other hand, we’d been on Vrentis’ trail for two years. Nowhere in the past decade had III managed to pull off a bust of this level.

And the worst part was, the first half of the whole thing was entirely up to me.

I approached the line of gray one-storey warehouses. The familiar weight of a gun on my side, hidden by the coat, brought only a sliver of reassurance. As I stood outside warehouse number twelve, I checked my watch. Still a few minutes to go. Even next to the wall, relatively safe from the harshest bits of rain, it took several seconds to get into enough focus to sense the threads of stagnant magic radiating from the dial. I took a deep breath, closed my eyes for a heartbeat and silently mouthed a few chosen words.

The watch sprung to life – mundane to the outside eye, it was now covered in iridescent designs of magic that pulsated to the beat of seconds and hours. I dropped focus and covered it with my sleeve. Hopefully it was actually transmitting and not just looking pretty. Either way, time was up.

I knocked on the metal door. Three times, at a carefully chosen tempo neither fast enough to sound hurried nor slow and threatening. My teeth had stopped chattering from the cold. The rain obscured the sound of footsteps, but an oddly calm sensation prevailed in my mind even when the door opened and I slid into the lion’s den.

”Evening, Brooker.” I had heard his dry, booming voice countless times, over telephone lines and in recordings, but in real life it was even more... invasive. It’s hard to explain.
”Evening, Vrentis.” My flawless reggie accent clearly made him smile, so I smiled back. ”I was led to believe you have some nice stuff for me tonight.”

”And you haven’t been misled, pal.”

”A man of his word... I think we could do business.” We shook hands. I made sure my grip was firm.

”Now, I suppose you’d like a gander at the wares.”

”Correct.”

Vrentis moved with surprising speed for such a large man as he turned on a few more lights and made way to the back of the warehouse. I followed. Zigzagging between crates, barrels and sacks of less conspicuous cargo, he eventually lifted a tarpaulin off what seemed to be one end of a row of barrels.

He pried open one barrel. I knew without checking the time that we were well on schedule. At first glance, the barrel seemed to be full of salt, but he swept away a few inches from the top and pulled up a shotgun for me to see. I smiled and gave a little approving nod. With those, it was hard to go wrong on any market, legal or illegal.

”12-gauge Brivenports. I have a hundred here.” He had to shout a little with the rain rattling the roof outside.

”Solid choice, I’ve seen those live through everything from shipwrecks to dragon fire.”

”So I thought. You strike me as the well-travelled type.”

”Are these what the Leidabi rebels buy from you? And the Drakes?”

”They are. I’m one to embrace the tides of revolution wherever they run free.”

He opened a barrel from the end of each row. Pistols, automatic rifles, dragon guns, grenades… military-grade equipment. And some of the nastier stuff: tear gas with a bit more punch, poison, burning jelly, landmines. A few million sten of unused death and destruction. I made polite comments on the quality of his wares, and at the end of his showing Vrentis covered his secrets in salt again, put lids back on the barrels and pulled down the tarpaulin.

”Now the time for business talk. Shall we?” He gestured towards a table closer to the door.

He passed me. And, with one frighteningly effortless movement of hand, snatched my gun from its holster under my coat. I froze, as if spikes of schorching ice shot through my lungs, but Vrentis kept walking. A few metres away, he turned to face me.

The sight of him holding my gun, toying with it and pointing it at me, made me feel oddly violated at most. I had expected to be horrified, to beg for my life, but here it was just the facts: He knew I had carried a weapon to our meeting. If I didn’t let him think it was a part of something important, he would give it back after demonstrating his role as the alpha male in this situation. Oh, the hopes we sometimes cling to.

I didn’t say anything. I prayed to all gods that have ever been worshipped by anyone that my watch was still transmitting. Cold sweat. Vrentis tapped on the barrel of my pistol with a scholarly frown.

”A 9-millimeter Markov. Triple-I issue. Now that is curious.” He looked me in the eyes, and I knew how a lamb feels like when it’s being circled by a wolf three times its own size. He smiled a one-sided smile, probably because he saw the colour disappear from my face. Adrenaline was kicking in. I just had to survive until the others made it here, and I’d have caught Yashek Vrentis.

”Not that you reggies ever managed to fool me.” He rolled his eyes and spun my pistol around a finger, and that was when I saw my chance.

I lunged for him, shoulder first, the momentum of my body smashing Vrentis against the corner of a shipping crate. He howled, and the second I’d recovered from the lunge I was trying to wring the gun from his hand. He punched me in the face with his free hand, smashing my glasses, but it didn’t really hurt. Not yet.

I shoved an elbow in the general direction of his face and felt something crack. The grip on the gun weakened, and it fell to the ground. I tried to reach it, but Vrentis trapped me in a chokehold while spitting blood on me. I writhed and kicked, only managing to hit the pistol and send it sliding further away. I bit his forearm, hard, and blood flowed into my mouth. He didn’t let go, but let out a blood-curdling scream and loosened his grip just enough for me to fight my way out of the hold.

Gasping for air, I stood up, and he tried to hit me twice. The second time was successful. I staggered, spitting a tooth or two, but I was quick to retaliate with a professional right hook of my own. I kicked him in the balls and tried to gain some distance. My ankle gave in and I lost my footing.

He was closing in on me, everything hurt like hell, and I couldn’t see the rest of the Triple-I anywhere. I chanted, twisted my fingers with sheer desperation, gathered every bit of consciousness I had to spare into weaving a crude makeshift hex. I shouted it into being.

Nothing happened. I prepared to die.

With a slight delay, a translucent green circle lit up on the floor where Vrentis was standing. An arm-length away from hammering my brains into pulp, he hit a wall. I scrambled up, and ran to get the gun. By the time I had picked it up and began aiming at Vrentis, my circle had already dissipated.

And Vrentis had a gun of his own, steadily pointed at my face. His face was bloody, and his nose was beginning to swell up, but he smiled. The wolf’s eyes were there again. I didn’t dare shift on my feet or even wince at the pain that was starting to radiate across my body as the adrenaline faded and the hurried magic took its toll.

”As I was saying, you reggies haven’t fooled me.” He launched a gob of bloody spit towards the floor and tried to catch his breath a little.
”You had friends coming, but I have… some of my own. Our little tussle here might have been... too distracting for us to hear the first shots, but there’s... much more to come. --- Hear that?”

I moved my hand up a few millimetres, and he shook a finger of his free hand at me like I was a petulant child at a nursery. He looked at me down the sights of his pistol. ”I won’t miss with this. I promise.”

There was nothing for me to say. I sniffled and the mangled remains of my glasses fell to the floor.

Vrentis measured me from head to toe, dabbing some blood off his nose with the sleeve of his free hand and taking his sweet time. ”If I don’t kill you, it’s because you’re bloody useless and I’ve steered clear of murder charges this far. When there’s blood on my hands, it’d better be from someone less pathetic.”
”Get down. On your stomach. Good boy.”

Vrentis walked up to me, and I could sense the pistol pointing at the back of my head. Death, only the flick of a finger away.

”Let go of the gun. Time you got your due for trying to turn back the tide.”

Some part of me, the clear-hearted Triple-I posterboy part, still wanted to fight, spring up and fire one last desperate shot at the enemy to die a hero. But I let go of my gun and let Vrentis pick it off the floor like a dropped penny.

I closed my eyes. The gun was loaded, there was no cautionary click to wait for. I tried to think of all the nice things I’d had in this life. Mum and dad, Eloise, the one time I skipped class at the middle academy to watch Kridian herons fly over the sea to spend the summer in their homeland.

I heard the shot first. Then I realized I hadn’t died. Then a blaze of white agony burned through me, radiating from the left knee. I screamed. Not like the heroes who take everything with stoic grace, not like men who charge into battle. I screamed like a little girl, like I’d never screamed before. I cried and wailed. My throat hurt, and even after voice had run out the tears kept coming. I gasped for breath.

I didn’t see Vrentis any more that day, only felt him kick me in the leg with a self-satisfied little chuckle. "Want to know my secret? It's the same as yours: Always stay one step in front of the others." By then I was already becoming numb to the pain. Sometime after, I drifted into a welcome oblivion. I hoped my watch was working.

Years after I’d forgotten about my book of stories, I found a copy at a library in Drakea. It had all the pages, even the one that was missing from mine. You know what happened to the king who stood up to split the rising tide?

He got his lungs full of saltwater and lived on as the clown of the century.

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ATKH
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