The caravan of covered wagons snaked along the craggy face of a mountain range known as the Five Ugly Brothers. They were three quarters of the way up the fourth Ugly Brother, and running late. Jai Janus had hoped they would reach the mail post before nightfall, but he wasn’t sure if the oxen had enough pull in them to clear the final stretch. To be honest, he wasn’t having an easy time keeping his own eyelids open either. Fortunately, his side-seat driver was excellent at keeping him awake.
Besides being able to navigate routes and flash signal codes, Aimei was incredibly adept at talking for hours on end, pausing only occasionally to breathe. She had been prating on about her latest drama since dawn, when they had set off from the peak of the second Ugly Brother. “He’s out all night creeping around with his smelly friends before slinking home in the middle of the night stinking like sweat and piss. I have to dunk him in the tub every morning just to keep the smell off my sheets.”
Janus bit his lip and swallowed another sigh. “Why don’t you just—”
Aimei finished taking a breath. “The worst part is he always brings home a midnight snack and insists on eating it right on the bed. There’s gross leftovers scattered all over the sheets every morning. And my mattress is woven from loose straw, so you know I can’t just wipe it off. To clean up all the bits of food—can’t have crumbs, mind you. It’ll attract sludge beetles—I have to comb through the straw and individually pick every piece out.” She gesticulated with conviction. “Don’t get me started on his breath. It’s like death. Like if I just mouth-kissed a ten day-old corpse.”
“You did what?”
Aimei’s eyes brimmed. “He used to be so affectionate, so much fun. Now he ignores me and pretends I don’t exist unless he needs something, like I’m just a servant or cook or some occasional plaything when he’s bored. It’s really unfair. I’m always so
nice to him.”
“Just lock the door at night. Teach him a lesson. Don’t let him push—Hold.” Janus scanned the horizon. Night had swept in quicker than expected with both the Queen and Prince hidden behind a thick blanket of dark rolling rain clouds. It might get wet soon. He yanked on the reins to urge the oxen forward. “We’re losing visibility, even with the forward lantern’s spotlights. The road will soon tilt to the right up ahead. Signal a warning to the rest of the team.”
Aimei lived to chatter, but that didn’t take away from her being an otherwise skilled and well-trained side-seat. She grabbed hold of a lantern swaying off the side of the wagon, sliding the cover in and out to flash a long blink, a pause, and then two more. A row of single flashes, one for each wagon behind them, confirmed receipt of Janus’s order.
“Prep the spotlights,” he added.
Aimei slipped off her perch to light the two lanterns hanging off each side of the wagon. Two strong beams of yellow light shone straight into the night haze and the darkened tree lines. Two more on the other side lit up shortly after. She returned to her perch a moment later to yank at a long lever near her feet, releasing two poles out along the sides of the wagon, each with a lantern at its end. The other wagons soon followed suit, extending their own antennae two at a time until the caravan looked like a giant centipede skittering up the side of the dark mountain on glowing feet.
Once all of the antennae had fanned opened, Aimei picked up where she had left off. “How could you say such a thing? I can’t just lock Mop out of the house. He won’t last one night by himself.”
“Maybe you should just get a new cat then,” Janus muttered. Before she could sputter her outrage, he pointed forward. “Check the road up ahead.”
Aimei obeyed, grabbing the handle of a large forward-facing spotlight and directing it just ahead of the team of oxen. She swept it back and forth along the ground, each time aiming just a little bit farther out. It wasn’t long before she found something: a pair of knee-high brown boots. The spotlight continued to climb upward, revealing a colorful, garish, and slightly oversize merchant’s travel cloak and settling on the pale face of a young man below a fountain of black hair.
The man waggled his fingers in a wave. “Ho, honorable friend. It is such a great fortune to see your arrival.” There was an insecure smugness to his smirk, unearned bravado.
Janus gnashed his teeth. “I actually thought we were going to finish this leg without incident.”
Aimei leaned close. “Maybe we should just run him over.”
He shook his head. “Nah, that’s rude. It would violate the commerce codes anyway. I’m not paying a fine on his account.”
“My horse, my poor horse has fallen lame. I am left stranded.” The stranger in the spotlight launched into a well-rehearsed monologue, raising one arm toward the sky and cupping his heart with the other. “Could I beseech you, noble sir, for some assistance?” The young man couldn’t have been more than twenty. His skin was too milky for a peasant, and his words too flowery, reflecting an education. He also couldn’t act his way out of a burlap sack.
Janus snapped his fingers twice and waved him off. “First of all, that’s a terrible delivery. You weren’t even looking at me. Why are you talking to the sky? Who are you serenading, the Queen? My face is down here. Look at the person you’re talking to, me, the person you’re trying to rob. Second of all, your tone is all over the place. I can’t tell if you’re trying to swindle me or bed me. Pick a motive and stick to the lane, son, because it’s late, and my back is quivering from having to hunch forward all day. We have a full wagon of ducal post to sort tomorrow, and my eyes are burning from a long day on the haul.” He gestured for the stranger to hurry up. “So skip to the epilogue, yeah?”
The stranger did not seem to mind the interruption. “Very well.” He raised his arms dramatically and clapped three times. Several figures emerged from the shadows. He continued orating. “You have the privilege of being robbed by the Righteous Raiders, the crew of a hundred scores.”
“Really?” Aimei’s eyes widened. She had been taken in by the bandit’s presentation. She was usually easily impressed.
“Righteous Raiders, eh? Stupid name.” Janus got a better look at the stranger. “You look a little too much of a small dumpling to have earned a hundred scores.”
“It’s more of a goal,” the young man admitted.
Aimei’s eyes narrowed, and she folded her arms. “How many robberies have you actually
Janus elbowed her in the shoulder lightly.
His side-seat elbowed him back. “What? I want to know.”
“Five, but three were in the past few weeks.”
Janus didn’t bother stifling his laugh. “Five? No wonder your scabbard’s tied on wrong. You bunch of muddied pig feet flee your lord and suddenly think you’re all real bandits now, yeah? That’s a nice blade. Where did you steal it?”
The stranger stayed in character. “Earned in a duel with a master war artist off the Tyk Coast.”
“It’s pronounced Tyk Coast, third accent,” Janus retorted. “Get it right.”
“Are you in charge?” asked the orator.
“I’m the headguard. Are you the leader of this band of dirt-wallowing peasants?” he shot back.
“I am the legendary Tuhan the Woo.”
“Never heard of you.” Janus actually had, but he wasn’t going to give the boy any cred. He rose to his feet and crossed his arms. His back really was aching. He couldn’t wait until he could hand the reins over to Aimei. She just needed a little more seasoning. “Wait, you’re that runaway monk. Brother Big Brother.”
“He doesn’t look that big to me,” scoffed Aimei. “Why do they call you that?”
Tuhan shrugged. “I go by many titles, but that’s a new one.” He turned to those standing nearby. “Boys, anyone ever hear me referred to as that?”
A smattering chorus of “No, Big Brother, never, Big Brother” followed. More bodies emerged from the tree line. The lead wagon was now completely surrounded.
“Let’s get this over with.” Janus nudged Aimei, but the girl was already prepared, one hand resting on the shaft of a holstered short spear. Janus grabbed a mallet the size of his palm and banged the small gong hanging off the side of his perch. The ringing passed from wagon to wagon all the way down the line. Then he jumped off the wagon and drew the mallet’s much larger sibling, which rivaled Janus’s height. The rest of the caravan guards emerged from their wagons and began making their way to the front. The last few coming up from the far back were still strapping on their armor.
Copyright © 2023 by Wesley Chu. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.