The Shadow Dancer: I

"Roll."

Quick Wit Vex the Shadow Dancer sat at a circular table off to the side of Northern Hospitality's common room, a pair of bone dice and the remnants of his once significantly larger pile of silver coins before him. He would have liked to have said that at least half of his mind was on the game before him, but the truth of the matter was that both halves were decidedly further away. In fact, both halves of his distracted brain were rather keenly focused on a certain sail-cloth wrapped individual from the previous evening.

If I don't play my cards right it might next be me, wrapped up in canvas. Only this time, maybe, Ragvald wouldn't hold so stingingly to 'dead men pay no debts.' Maybe this time Vex would find himself, wrapped in canvas, trying to swim across Deep Harbor…with an anvil tied round his foot. Play his cards right indeed. And, to be fair, I never was much good at playing cards.

Directly across from him, crammed into a chair that seemed three times too small for his great girth sat One Ton, a mercenary of churlish repute. When times were hard, as they most often were, One Ton and the rest of the men he usually ran with would shift from mercenary to thugs for hire or blades in the dark, though at the end of the day what was the difference, really?

"Roll," the big man grunted again, prodding at two bone dice with a sausage like finger. Never much for patience, that one.

"Roll? Ah, sure." Snatching the dice off the table Vex gave them a well-practiced shake in his cupped palms, went to blow some luck into them, thought better of it, and held them out to a passing, big bosomed whore.

"Sanja, love, blow some luck into these auld dice for me, eh? I seem to have run out."

"Calvex," she gave him a sultry smile, "you know it's a scale for me to blow anything and, oh," she clapped a hand to her mouth in feigned surprise, "it looks as if your about to run out of those as well."

Vex winced and frowned as the rest of his tablemates burst into raucous fits of merriment, One Ton going so far as to slap the table, scattering coins as he displayed his mirth. It wasn't that funny. Sanja just smiled, blew him a kiss, and swaggered off, adding a bit of extra swing to her hips for his benefit. Eh, she still loves me.

The two little dice still sat forlorn in Vex's palm and he frowned at them once more before hitching up his best shit eating grin and proffering the dice to Haakon Bone-Breaker, who sat to his left.

"Eh? Hack-On? A little luck for the man in need?"

Though the veteran northerner said nothing, his unflinching, unrelenting gaze was answer enough. Haakon, or Hack-On as anyone who had seen the sly bastard fight liked to call him, could be a scary fellow to be sure.

"Gods man! Just fucking roll!" One Ton groaned his frustration, leaning back in his chair and slapping his big belly. Vex was surprised the spindly legs of the chair beneath the big man didn't simply give way as he tilted the seat back.

Ignoring the monstrous mercenary, Vex leaned to his other side and offered the dice to the man on his right.

"What about you, Tammany? I know you've got some luck to spare, eh? Share with a friend 'cause it's good in the end, me auld mother used to say."

Chuckles, predictably, chuckled. "Why not?"

Leaning forward, the little gambler gave the slightest exhalation in the general direction of the dice. It would have to do. Vex very much doubted that One Ton would continue to let him stall much longer.

Like a street performer presenting some cheap, fake magic trick to a crowd of orphan boys, Vex raised his fist and shook the dice dramatically over his head. He winked at Tammany and blew a mock kiss.

"You know I love you, right?"

Tammany nodded. "You must," he said, patting his own enormous pile of coins, "you've paid me more than all the whores here combined."

That brought another communal cackle from the group. Well, shite. Seemed all the jokes were on him tonight.

Bringing his arm down, Vex let the dice fly, watching them closely as they bounced and tumbled their way across the table. They spun like dervishes amongst the coins, first five, then one, two, six. Vex couldn't keep track, so sporadically did they bounce.

"Come on," he whispered between clenched teeth, "come on!"

The dice clattered to a stop near the center of the table and Vex groaned, his own misery chiming with that of the majority of the rest of the table's. Tammany, of course, was beaming broadly as he raked in the round's earnings. Little devil. Vex might have thought him Touched if he hadn't known better.

"Ah, shite on your luck, little man," he moaned, shoving the rest of his coins across to Chuckles before leaning his chair back as far as the worn furniture would go. Letting his head fall backwards he gazed upside-down across the semi-full common room.

The night was still early and the tavern had yet to swell to its full capacity. Mannek, Dalibrat, Imritj, and Bulls-eye Andor were all absent, of course, but across the room Vex could see Kerim drowning himself as usual in decanter after decanter of mulled wine. Scarcely twenty winters but gods the lad could drink! It was rare that Vex saw him without some sort of bottle glued to his pasty hands.

Behind the bar Caj leaned against a mead cask, puffing merrily away at his long shell pipe, a thick smoke fogging the immediate area around him.

Vex's eyes roamed lazily down the bar until they fell on…her. Naomi di Salvera. His heart fluttered madly in his chest.

She was tall, slender, and flat as a boy with long, thick hair the color of straw, but to Vex, she was the most beautiful thing in the room. Fuck the whores. Her angled cheeks, her olive skin, her quick-darting, laughing brown eyes. He found himself sighing like a star struck maiden.

She was behind the bar, cleaning out tankards for Caj, though she might as well have been dancing the Hana'Nirtya in nothing at all so far as Vex was concerned. He loved just to watch her move. She caught him staring and gave him a little wink, biting her lip to stop from smiling. He grinned fiercely back. Money might be gone but at least I haven't lost everything. Still though, if only I had a little more coin.

Perhaps if he played one more round.

He sat back up to see Tammany raking in the last of the coins, stacking them in neat little towers that looked like the shimmering cities of the far south, not that Vex had ever seen them of course.

"Chuckles," he weaseled, "let me borrow just five hundred more scales, eh? Come on now, you know Quick Wit Vex is good for it."

Tammany looked up incredulously from his regimented piles of currency. He leaned close and lowered his voice.

"Did you, or did you not, see what I saw last night?"

"Sure." Vex had been thinking of little else than Fabioro, synched to a chair, all day. Still though. "But-"

"Do you not fucking learn?" Chuckles hissed, cutting him off with a decidedly un-Chuckles like tone.

"But it's just five hundred silver," Vex wined. "What are five hundred scales on top of five thousand shields?"

"Five hundred more scales is five hundred more scales! It's a bloody lot! I-"

Tammany cut himself off and took a deep, calming breath. He turned to look behind them, then jerked his head towards an empty table before turning around to readdress the rest of the table.

"I'm out this round, gents. Quick Wit and I are going to go have a sit-down. I know exactly how many coins I have, and," he gave each player at the table a hard look, "if they aint there when I come back, I'm taking fingers." He waggled his own just to be clear.

A sit-down? Who does he think he is; my auld dad? Vex wasn't keen on hearing a lecture from a man who scarcely came to his collar bone, but then again, he wasn't keen to be on the wrong side of Tammany "Chuckles" either. So he set his trademark grin firmly in place and made his way over to the empty table Tammany had indicated; he only had to pretend to listen anyway. You always have to maintain appearances.

Tammany was a good sort, so far as they came. He was dangerous but, well, who wasn't around here. Truth of it was, he treated Vex with a good deal more respect than some of the other unsavories Old Man Ragvald kept around, particularly the Von Stiel brothers. He'd gotten the quick talking thief out of some circumstances in the past that a rapid mouth hadn't helped with also.

The little gambler slipped into a chair opposite and leaned in close, gesturing for Vex to do the same.

"Look," he said, choosing his words carefully, "I am sorry, but I like you, Quick Wit, you're good stock, and I don't fancy seeing you floating belly up in the harbor like some lanky, rotted fish. Is that blunt enough for you?" He held up a hand to forestall any comment. "You get your debts squared away with the old man, everything, every copper, and I promise you that I will loan whatever you need to continue this ridiculous fucking gambling problem you have. But one bridge at a time, mate."

Vex chewed his lip thoughtfully. Maybe the little gambler had a point. Five thousand shields was a lot to steal in a week. Hells, five thousand shields was a lot to steal in a month, with weeks of planning! He would do it of course, he was the best thief in Sabestello, and he had stolen that much before. Well, maybe not quite so much. Maybe not anywhere near quite so much; he had never been in such a deep hole before. Five thousand shields was, well, five thousand shields is probably more than my auld mother had in the fourteen years she raised me. Me an six others!

Yes, maybe the little man did have a point. He didn't really fancy floating belly up in the harbor either. It was wet down there, and cold, and there were slippery things with big teeth just below the water. Not the place to be at all.

"Ah, yeah, sure," Vex nodded, scratching his nose nervously, "course I'll take care of it. Get right to it, eh?"

That seemed to satisfy Chuckles well enough. He nodded his approval.

"Good. Now if you don't mind, I have to finish taking the rest of these bastards silver."

Vex watched the little man rejoin the dicing table with a sour look. No gambling? Fuck.

The sooner you get Ragvald's coin, the sooner you get back to the table.

He looked up at the ceiling, sucked at his teeth, then rose to his feet and quickly headed for the long bar. Behind it, Caj was still puffing cheerfully away at his shell pipe, columns of smog rising from each nostril like miniature, inverted smoke stacks.

He gave a huge, wooden-tooth filled smile as Vex walked up and lifted his pipe in greeting. "Calvex! I 'ear, ah, bad thing happen, but, you are, eh, good? Yes?"

"What?" Vex feigned shock. "Bad things, ye say? To me? Why Caj, I'm sprightly as a lamb in spring, chipper as a northman in snow, and happier than a fat boy in a bakery! Can't you tell?"

He spread his arms wide and grinned. Caj grinned too, but then, Caj was always grinning, even when he didn't know what had been said. He understands more than he lets on though, that big bastard.

"Bigman, I'm going to steal your beauty, yeah? I'll give 'er right back, don't worry your auld head." Just in case he didn't quite understand everything though, Vex pointed at Naomi.

Caj shrugged and waved his hand absently. "Va, va."

Whatever that was supposed to mean, Vex decided to take it for a 'yes.'

With a roguish wink to Caj the lanky thief drummed his hands thrice upon the polished bar before skipping down to where Naomi was still scrubbing tankards. Several strands of loose hair had fallen out of the tight bun she kept it in and her tongue was clenched between her teeth as she scrubbed fretfully at some partially solidified, sticky substance stubbornly clinging to the bottom of a mug.

Vex did not envy her work, but then Vex had never been much one for repetitive manual labor.

"Why sure, am I lucky you don't rub me that hard! I'd be rubbed raw, I would."

He grinned madly at her as she looked up. Perhaps he was mad; mad with love.

"You're lucky I rub you at all," she grunted, setting the tankard aside.

Gods above, even her brusque retorts sounded heavenly. The rebuke didn't sour Vex's spirits in the least.

"Right 'ya are about that. Me luck's always been shite but that, at least, hasn't deserted me yet." His grin widened and he reached out and gently brushed her cheek, smoothing back the stray wisps of golden hair. "I want to give you something, love, something at least half so beautiful as yourself."

She laughed, a gay, bubbling laugh that touched her eyes and brought forth twin dimples. Vex had always had a passion for those dimples.

"It better be a new set of picks. I broke my old ones in Goodmerchant Tobias's keyhole."

"Now what would you be trying to get into auld Tobias's residence for?"

"Same as you, I suspect."

The beaming smile he gave her bespoke of sunshine and could have melted ice. "That's my girl."

As much as Vex may have loved Naomi's olive skin and sweet smelling hair, her laugh and her dimples, there was one characteristic that ensured she held his heart in her hand; her knack for burglary. Vex may have been the best thief in Sabestello, but Naomi was certainly the fastest, and likely the busiest too.

She was insatiable, that girl. Vex had seen her steal dice from men's pockets, even though he knew her to have a whole box of mismatched die hidden beneath the cot upon which she slept. Her quarters in general, in fact, were a magpie's nest of thievery. Boxes and sacks of stolen, useless treasures cluttered her chamber. Her hoard, she called it, and Vex found it hard to disagree, though he would have defined it as mess. But she got so excited when she talked about those treasures that, well, it was worth having all of that rubbish around just to see her face light up.

"I hear the old man gave you quite a talking to," said Naomi as she returned to her tankards.

Vex shrugged with unfelt nonchalance, though he thought he maintained a fairly believable front. "The auld man? Why, if the cheeky devil didn't just want to compliment me on my work. Says he is so proud of me an thinks I do such a good job thieving that he wants me to go and knick a few thousand shields for him."

"You joke, Vex, but I am serious." Her eyes were dark with concern as she looked up at him once more, all the previous laughter flown from them like birds before a storm. "Steffon was saying some dark things this morning. Dark things about you. How much do you owe Ragvald this time?"

"First Chuckles, now you?" Vex could feel his smile losing its charismatic edge. He sucked sour spit from his teeth then replastered his grin in place with practiced ease. You always have to maintain appearances.

She gave him a chastising glance. "How much?"

"More'n a little, less than a lot."

"Vex, I-"

"Don't worry about me, my little magpie; I've got everything in line."

He gave her his most reassuring smile, which was pretty reassuring, so far as Vex could tell. Naomi didn't seem to think so, but then again, she always seemed to worry about him. Vex had never been able to fathom why; she scarcely ever seemed to worry about far more troubling things. Climbing impossibly tall structures, thieving from dangerous men, working for Ragvald. It was almost as though he was her only source of concern; which didn't say much for him in any case.

He tried again.

"Why, didn't me auld mother always say-"

"I don't care what your auld mother always used to say," Naomi cut him off, "just-"

She stared up at the ceiling for a long moment, searching the course wood for the right words. Vex was more than content with the brief lapse in conversation; it was one more chance for him to just bask in her presence. Gods, if she aint beautiful when she thinks.

"Be safe," she finished at last, her tone implying that she was done arguing with him. All well and good for Vex, he'd never much liked arguing anyway, especially not with Naomi. There were much better uses they could put their mouths to.

"Always am, love," he grinned, "always am. All you need to worry yourself about is meeting yours truly down by the wharf when auld Wooden Teeth sets you free." He jerked his thumb towards Caj.

She glanced sidelong up the bar towards the amorphous grey cloud of smoke that was Caj before her chocolate eyes slid back to focus on Vex's permanently grinning visage. She frowned, or tried to, though Vex thought he could see the corners of her mouth twitching. Maybe it was just a wishful thought.

"We will see."

That was good enough for him. She'll be there. Probably.

Naomi never had been able to resist a nightly rooftop jaunt through the city, with maybe a brief soirée into the odd residence here and there. Mention breaking and entering or sleight of hand discount within ear shot of her and it was like waving a smoldering akichi root in front of an addict; she simply could not say no.

"I'll see you there, then."

"If you're lucky."

"I'm always lucky."

Finally, Naomi allowed a hint of a smile to creep back on her face. Vex had always managed to have that effect on people.

"Liar."


Authors Note: Gah, I didn't really like the end of this chapter, but I reworked it so many times that I started becoming manic. I figured I'd toss it up here and let you guys pick it over for a bit. Let my OCD have a break. Enjoy!