The boy's eyes shot wide to the laughter of crows, fat with carrion and squat upon the tree branches like a winged parliament of black. Krota rose still heady with the ale, a sick and sour feel in his stomach. He saw vultures circle the sun in the bleary morning sky, each mocking caw like a spear to his ear.
Laugh at me, will you? Krota thought as he gazed upon them balefully. Such vanity and extravagance for mere rats with wings. Be thankful the powers that be saw fit to bequeath upon you the gift of flight, lest all under heaven would fall as insects at our feet.
Out from his warren, Krota marched through dry thorn and grass towards an old logging trail that descended the leaden high peak, sure to remain out of sight but close enough to follow the path as it snaked into the border of Black Rock Village below, a neutral sliver of land annexed to House Sekar by the previous Count Renar as a token of parley and concord.
A grizzled gatekeepeer fixed him with a quizzical eye as he approached the gates. Among the ramparts, a dozen crossbows drew him in sight; unspoken for children were often used as spies both in war and peace time. Centuries stooped the veteran to a mere six feet, but he still loomed over Krota, who was two full heads shorter.
The guard unceremoniously paced to seize Krota at once, then slowed as he smelled the rot on him, saw the rucksack of loot and the pared teeth of the knife as the boy stared back at him with dark red eyes--no fear, so hollow--that the seasoned veteran slammed to a halt.
"To which House do you swear fealty, boy?"
"To House Irkalla, " Krota admitted. "Besieged yet dauntless, Crown of Broken Swords and Throne of the Frozen Seas, writ as vengeance upon the powers that be."
"I would take your word, boy...but I fear you merely designed to swim among the dead for the loot."
Fear is right, Krota thought as he held the veteran's gaze, kept it, imprisoned it. Realize the finitude of your mortality and know your place.
"Then I have no reason to fear," Krota replied, "for eagle-eyed sentinels such as yourself will see that whatever trinkets my fallen brothers and sisters left behind for me to use so I may live to carry their legacy is not squandered by shrewd offspring of ill will and lineage."
"Flowery words for a child, but I suppose such is expected from negligent poets who leave only jewelry for their war orphans. Still, I cannot grant you refuge in our fair village."
A smile in the boy's mind: clearly you haven't seen House Irkalla's poetry on the battlefield.
"Then will you see my name: Krota, Third Son of the lineage Crowfoot, to any merchant of your fancy?"
He opened his mouth to decline--but Krota quickly spoke over him, which drew a bemused smile from the old guard. Krota smiled too, feeling somewhat foolish even as he held his nerve--aged as his inquisitor was, he was still an adult and could snap his still hardening bones like dry twigs.
"You may supervise the trade," Krota continued, "and I will pay a rather handsome fee to you for brokering the transaction. Also," he reached in his rucksack reveal the flasks of mead in a flourish, "gifts to you and your men for your hospitality."
Krota's youthful enthusiasm won a smile from the grizzled ancient, who then turned to motion for one of his Lieutenants to send word of this shrewd merchant of a boy into the settlement.
Even with the side door swung wide by the Lieutenant, the merchant who Krota came to know as Lo Pei still had to turn his corpulent bulk sideways in order to pass through to the other side. He loomed over the boy, eyes almost sinking into that fat face, glowing with greed.
"Just what inventory," Lo Pei's screeching whisper of a voice clawed at Krota's ear drums like nails to glass. "Would an Irkallan runt have that piques my interest?"