The Whitefire Crossing - By Courtney Schafer



I knew right from the moment I opened Bren’s back room door this job was going to be trouble. See, here’s how it should go: Bren, waiting, alone, with a package on the table and my advance payment in his hand. Simple and no surprises. So when I saw Bren, waiting, not alone, and no package on the table, I got a little twitchy. My first thought was that Bren had crossed someone he shouldn’t, and sold me out as well. But the stranger in the room didn’t look like a guardsman, or even someone’s freelance enforcer. He was young, well-dressed, and nervous, which settled me somewhat as other possibilities became more likely. Maybe a younger son of a wealthy family, hock deep in gambling debts? Bren sometimes worked as a collector. Didn’t matter, though. Whatever the stranger was here for, I wanted no part of it.

“I’ll come back later.” I started to shut the door. Bren caught my eye and motioned me in.

“Dev! Just the young man I was looking for!” His deep voice had the annoyingly cheerful tone he used on highsider customers. He’d even dug out a magelight in place of the battered oil lamp that usually perched in the corner. The brighter, harsher light from the faceted crystal sphere only highlighted the cracks in the adobe walls and the wax stains on the table.

I took a few steps into the room but left the door open at my back. “Who’s he, then?” I jerked my head at the stranger, glaring at Bren. I don’t like surprises when I’m in the city. They never turn out well.

“Shut the door, and I’ll fill you in.” Bren ignored my obvious displeasure and waited patiently. The stranger shifted on his feet but didn’t say anything. Eventually, as Bren had known it would, my curiosity got the better of me. I shut the door, but didn’t come any farther into the room. I still wanted to be near an exit.

Bren’s lined brown face creased in a satisfied smile. “Dev, this is Kiran. He’s looking for passage over the Whitefire Mountains to Kost. I told him you were the best, most discreet guide I know, and you know the mountains like nobody else. You can take him along on the usual run.”

I choked back the first thing that came to mind, which was along the lines of “You’ve got to be fucking kidding me,” but didn’t bother to keep my feelings off my face. I hadn’t missed his emphasis on the word “discreet.”

For several years now, I’d run packages across the mountains and over the Alathian border to the city of Kost for him. The Alathians were strict as hell on magic, piling on all kinds of laws and regulations to try and stop people from using it except in the tame little ways approved by their Council. Human nature being what it is, that makes for a thriving trade in certain specialty items. And since they’d outlawed all the darker, more powerful kinds of magic, it wasn’t too hard to get around the poor bastard of an Alathian mage stuck with border inspection duty. Easy money as far as I was concerned, but smuggling a few illegal charms and wards was one thing. Smuggling a person was a whole different story.

One corner of Bren’s wide mouth quirked. Yeah, he’d seen what I was thinking.

“I know you’re a busy man, Dev, but I promise this will be worth your while. The pay is very generous. Very. And what man couldn’t use an extra windfall?”

This time I kept my face blank, although inside I was furious. He knew, then. Gods all damn this city. Nothing stays secret here for long, but I’d hoped for a few days’ grace before word spread of the disastrous end to my partnership with Jylla. We’d only split yesterday. That meant Bren must have asked after me special, and he must have known he’d need extra leverage to get someone to take this job. Worse, he had it on a platter, damn his eyes. I needed money, and badly.

“Good point,” I said. Bren looked like a kitfox with a mouthful of plump sage hen. To take my mind off my anger, I eyed the human package, Kiran, or whatever his name was. Why in Khalmet’s name would some highsider kid want to go to Kost, especially this way? He looked a little old to be running away from his family in some kind of teenage snit. Highsiders played