Kostin talked as he circled the box, a cube of black wood a forearm’s length across resting on a table at the center of the junk-cluttered attic room. The afternoon’s heist had come off without a hitch, and Kostin was still basking in the giddy afterglow of his success; his mind and mouth, as the old Varisian saying went, were determined to outrace one another. It had taken every scrap of will he possessed to leave the box alone until his friends had arrived that evening. Kostin knew that the real danger with a score like this was not so much in the stealing of the thing, but in the opening. Whatever this box was—and by extension whatever was in it—was special. The exact kind of special that made fortunes and got people killed in equal measure.
“So… to the box itself.” Kostin, having finished his retelling of the day’s con, got on with the business of the evening. “The wood is clearly onyx bark from the Mwangi Expanse, spot-lacquered in the Vudran style. The inlay is most likely the work of a Chelish silversmith, and the locking mechanism—at least what is visible so far—is almost certainly of dwarven make. Agree?”
“Not even close.” Aeventius Reatés, scion of one of Magnimar’s oldest—and now most impoverished—families, looked up from his scrutiny of the box to fix his glowing eyes on Kostin. “But it is wizard-locked. And why exactly is… she… here for this?”
“The name’s Taldara, Aeventius,” The third member of the group was a tall blonde leaning uncomfortably on the edge of a wobble-legged Galtan dining table. “Though I suppose feigning ignorance of my name is just your way of making me feel welcome after all these years.” Taldara paused to scratch the head of the sleek badger draping her right shoulder and shifted her gaze toward Kostin. “As far as why I’m here, well, our mutual friend lied to me.”
Most Chelaxians assume every Varisian’s a thief. In Kostin’s case, they’d be right.
Spreading both hands in a gesture of pleading innocence, Kostin deployed his most charming half-smile. “We could still be looking at a major find, Tal. Besides, isn’t this more fun than sketching the Irespan all day? You should be flattered I trust you with something like this.”
Aeventius, the bluish glow of the detection spell fading from his eyes, pushed his way irritably past Kostin to examine the box from another angle. Tall and sharp-featured, with jet-black hair sweeping back from a high forehead, the wizard looked every bit the full-blood Azlanti he claimed to be. “There are precautions we must take before…” Aeventius trailed off and cocked his head, listening. “Someone at your door.”
“Flattered!” Ignoring the wizard, Taldara shot to her feet and took a step toward Kostin. She wore her fair hair back in a single, thick braid that exposed the pronounced tips of her ears, lending her a somewhat severe aspect. “You told me exactly what you knew would get me here. And now it seems that, in addition to this having nothing to do with Thassilonian artifacts, we’ve come to help you appraise stolen goods.”
Caught with your hand in another man’s pocket, Kostin thought. How is it he could coolly lie his way into Dockway’s cargo impound with little more than an inexpertly forged writ of seizure and a cocky swagger, but this girl so completely disarmed him? Woman now, he corrected. It had after all been twelve years, long enough for even someone with Taldara’s half-elven heritage to leave childhood completely behind and grow into someone new, a stranger.
And stranger she was, returning to Magnimar a world traveler, scholar, and newly minted Pathfinder—far more than Kostin had managed to do for himself. No, Kostin Dalakcz had stayed behind—stayed behind and become exactly what the predominantly Chelish population of his city suspected all Varisians of being: a thief.
At least he didn’t run a harrow parlor.
“Would you answer that damn door already?” Aeventius spoke without looking up from the box, and Kostin, noting the banging downstairs for the first time, tore his attention away from Taldara. No, he did not run a harrow parlor, but he did run that most ubiquitous of Varisian institutions: the odds and ends shop. Among the citified Varisians who, like Kostin’s father, had given up their wandering to settle throughout the Shore District of Magnimar, the small import-export emporiums like Dalakcz Durables of Callowcaulk Street, Beacon’s Point, were a profitable link between the inland caravans and the sea.
Of course, such businesses had proven even more lucrative as fronts and fences for stolen goods, and if Kostin’s father could see what had become of his once above-board shop, he would no doubt spit curses enough to make an Ulfen blush.
The banging three stories down had changed—it now sounded more like someone trying to smash down the door. Kostin could feel the vibrations through the floor with each blow.
“Probably some dumb drunk stevedore looking for the Whale’s Belly,” he growled, kicking his way toward the street-side windows through the detritus of the loft; a clutter of unsaleable items like a litterbin for all Golarion. Forcing open a window, Kostin leaned out. “Two blocks shoreward, you souse!”
The pane above him shattered before Kostin even registered the crossbow-armed thugs arrayed in the street below. He ducked back inside, collapsing to the floor and upsetting a standing shelf full of brass fittings and tarnished silverware. Another thunk drew his attention to the ceiling, where a second crossbow bolt buried itself a hand’s breadth away from the first.
There must have been fifteen of them out there, that damn Shoanti gutter-gang bristling with weapons and painted for war.
Downstairs the door crashed in with a splintering final boom.
“New friends, or old?” Aeventius asked, stretching to his full height and cracking his knuckles. Taldara had rushed to Kostin’s side, checking him for injuries. Her badger hissed eerily, bristling in agitation as it clung to her shoulder with curled nails the length of a man’s fingers. Until that moment it had seemed a mere cute pet to Kostin, with its black-and-white face and bumbling demeanor—now it seemed about as cuddly as a war dog.
Kostin scrambled to his feet, glass crunching beneath his boots. The sounds of destruction rose muffled from the first floor. The shop was being trashed. “New,” he said in answer to the wizard’s question. “A dozen or more. But I never crossed any Shoanti. “
Aeventius tapped a finger on the polished lid of the stolen box. “I do not believe in coincidence.”
Kostin shook his head as he strapped on his sword belt. It sounded as if a cavalry squadron maneuvered downstairs—or a single, epileptic giant flailed about in destructive seizure. “Not these guys. Small-time thugs running low-level stuff between the Point and Rag’s End. A real headache for the Sczarni, but not someone like me. If anyone would be looking for the box, I’d expect the Scales, or one of the Shadow bosses. These guys are street trash.”
“Sounds like the ‘street trash’ have just reached the second floor,” Taldara said, drawing a long knife from beneath her jacket.
Aeventius, stooping low under the slanted ceiling at the far end of the room, was already peering out the alley-side windows. “Seems clear. Difficult to tell.”
Leaning with one ear pressed against the attic’s only door and listening to the intruders’ chaos, Kostin uttered a string of fluent Varisian under his breath. “We could fight…”
“Don’t be a fool,” countered the wizard.
“It’s my home, Aevy,” said Kostin.
“It is our lives I am thinking of,” Aeventius said, raising the window and once again inspecting the street. “And I told you never to call me that.”
“He’s right,” Taldara agreed. Pulling Kostin away from the door, she began to drag the heavy Galtan dining table to bar the passage.
“Desna laughs,” Kostin hissed between clenched teeth before joining Taldara with the table. Shouts and the sounds of rampage had grown closer, now coming from the stairwell.
Behind them Aeventius was intoning a spell, uttering the strange language of magic as if he had been born to it. Kostin turned in time to see the flash of the wizard’s ring, and the unstoppering of a phial in his other hand. Bringing the phial to his lips, Aeventius sucked up the contents with a sharp intake of breath. Kostin knew from experience that the wizard had just eaten a live spider, and judging from the grimace on his friend’s face it had probably been a large one.
“Come,” Aeventius said, before vaulting out of the window with the practiced ease of an acrobat.
“You next,” Kostin said to Taldara. Behind them, the door boomed as if hit with a siege ram. “Go up.” She did not argue, following Aeventius through the window with more composure than Kostin would have ever expected. He scooped up the mage-locked box—was it really the cause of all this?—and climbed through the window just as the attic door splintered from its hinges, toppling the primitive barricade. The howls of the Shoanti spilled out into the night after him.
The edge of the roof was within easy reach, and Kostin hoisted himself up one-handed, with Taldara’s aid. From the vantage of the slate roof he could see his building—of which his rented storefront and apartments comprised but a tenth—stretching away to north and south. To his right, across the alley, the old five-story Rope Works building blocked their sight of the landward portion of the city, but the convoluted tangle of warehouses, dockyards, taverns, and tenements that comprised the shoreward view dazzled with alternating patches of light and dark.
The warm flicker of torches below stole his attention—some of the Shoanti, shouting and whooping like a pack of wild dogs, had run around into the alley to block any escape.
Breathing deeply of the cool, sea-tanged night air, Kostin struck out northward, Aeventius and Taldara at his heels. Before him loomed the dark shape of the Rope Works as it veered sharply shoreward just at the end of his block. The roof upon which they ran was a black wedge against the lights of the Shore, as the lower city was called. Just above was another dark band, the Seacleft, the great cliff that bisected Magnimar, atop which blazed the lights of the Summit, the upper city, a bright knife-edge glow like a barrier between the commoners of the Shore and the glittering heavens above.
A snarling yell announced that the Shoanti had followed them onto the roof.
“I will go first, then you can throw over the box,” Aeventius said as they neared the narrowest space between the tenement and the Rope Works. They had practiced this escape route years ago, the leap over to the Rope Works and the quick climb to its abandoned top floor, but never had Kostin’s heart been hammering in his chest like this, or his limbs trembling.
Unseen in the darkness, crossbow bolts whispered past.
Aeventius jumped out over the alley and struck the stone face of the Rope Works hard, sliding a little before finding purchase on a scrollwork ledge. He twisted his body, clinging to the building with one hand, and Kostin tossed the box over so that it hit the wizard square in the chest. Aeventius clutched it reflexively, holding tight.
Kostin turned to Taldara, intending to give a few words of encouragement, but the spry half-elf was already moving, leaping between buildings and flattening herself against the stones a bit higher up than Aeventius. Clearly she had been living a more exciting life than one spent writing travelogues and sketching artifacts since last he saw her—he only hoped he would get a chance to hear about it one day.
With a wild shout, Kostin followed his friends across the gap, catching the ledge with a shock to knock his breath out.
Aeventius scrambled past him, going upward, pausing only to hand over the chest of black wood that was the source of all their trouble.
To his left, a bolt cracked against the wall. Kostin began to climb as best he could with one hand, waiting for the shout from Aeventius that meant the wizard was ready for him to toss the box upward.
The smack of flesh and iron below and to his right drew Kostin’s attention. There in the dark, one of the Shoanti—exposed skin painted in ochre and ash—wrestled with Taldara. Her badger growled and bit at the thug, slipping from her shoulder and down to the stone ledge upon which she and the Shoanti balanced.
Taldara ducked to scoop the creature up, leaving herself defenseless.
Kostin saw the gleam of the knife in the dark above her, poised to strike.
“Toss it up now!” came Aeventius’s shout from above.
Kostin cocked his arm back and threw, not upward at the wizard, but hard down and into the face of the attacking Shoanti. The sharp crack of impact and a gargled yell preceded the man’s fall. Man and box both plummeted into the torch-lit alleyway, down among the swarming Shoanti pack.
Their howls of victory rose up in the same instant that the first tongues of flame sprang from the windows of Kostin’s home.
It had been a busy day.
Kostin, sucking on split knuckles, tried to look nonchalant as he waited near the entrance to the courtyard. “Looks like rain again,” he said to the hatchet-faced Sczarni blade that eyed him like a bird of prey studying a mouse. The guard did not reply.
Kostin nodded good-naturedly, as if they were two old friends completely comfortable sharing each other’s silence. He casually let his gaze wander over the peeling plaster of the courtyard arch, studying the thug out of the corner of his eye as he did so. The man’s clothing was a loose-fitting bloused shirt, brocaded at the sides in red and yellow, spilling out from a tight woven vest in crazy-quilt style. His trousers were a faded crimson stuffed into sailor’s boots. He wore more jewelry than a dockyard trollop, and his hair hung in heavy black curls to the center of his chest.