The higher the trail climbed up into the foothills, the more excited I got. Once we reached the summit, we would catch our first sight of the evil west, full of exotic magics and depravity! A land ruled by a demon king! As much as I kept telling myself to keep my big damn mouth shut, it kept opening on its own.
"Hey, Danny, isn't it all desert?"
His head was actually a lot closer in level to mine when he was on his horse. Made talkin a little easier. "You know, I was thinking about that. Why would a demon who wants to be king of a bunch of dead guys pick a hot place to set up residence? You remember what the docks smell like in the summer."
My stomach is as strong as my math is bad, but this once I was able to put two and two together, and it made me pretty queasy.
Riordan's mind was working overtime, too. "I bet we can see the cities of dead people from the pass. They're made of gold, right? I bet they shine like anything."
"Wonder if we're gonna smell 'em from the pass."
"Yeah, they probably stink like anything, too." His eyes gleamed. "If not from the dead people then from the stench of evil"
Man, he was proud of himself for that one. I rolled my eyes, but that got me thinking a little, too. "Do you think you can tell from far off that there's an evil taint?"
Riordan nodded vigorously, kind of bouncing in the saddle. His horse was starting to look a little pissed off, like it wished he'd sit still and shut up. "Yeah, probably the air is all greenish and foul smelling, like a big ol' curse hanging over everything! I've heard people say so."
"So, it's like living in an enormous fart, huh?"
"Yep. With dead people and pimps all over the place. That's what I've heard."
I snorted a bit. What he heard got fancier every time he opened his mouth. We both kind of fell silent as we trudged up the incline, though. I'm pretty sure Riordan was thinking all of a sudden that maybe this wouldn't be such a great place to retire and spend all those stolen coins. But I was watching the robed figure on the little horse ahead of us.
At Waymeet, weeks and weeks ago, when we picked up with this caravan heading to the far west, Minerva had undergone a change as big as roe turning into salmon. She had left behind her skirts and her boots, her bodice and cloak, and she had purchased the robes and veils and slippers of a westerner. The horse she picked was a little desert horse, too. I had heard some of the wagon drivers grumbling that they were skittish and ill tempered, evil like the demon king, but looking at Minerva on the road now, all I could see was beauty. The horse moved light and graceful, like sea spray dancing over sand. The folds of her robe hid everything but her hands and eyes, but they looked as pretty as any of the carved figures on the boats that came into port. You know, the ones where the mermaid's hair flows like ocean waves and she's got barnacles covering her woman parts.
I could feel my face turn greenish red with frustration, and I yanked my eyes down to the trail again. Barnacles and carved boat floozies didn't have any place in whatever world Minerva was from. And I was pretty sure floating gassy evil didn't, either.
"It can't be all bad," my mouth mumbled on its own again, drawing an odd look from Riordan. "People just like to think stuff they don't know about has to be crummy."
"Yeah, like not all orcs are assholes?" Riordan said dryly. I shot him a glance to see if I needed to punch him off the back of his horse, but he didn't look like he was trying to be mean. Didn't look that way at all, actually. He looked away up the trail again. "You're right. I bet it ain't all bad in the west. And I bet not every orc is a thug. But just because some of em aren't, doesn't mean most of em aren't. And I'm betting that just because some nice people come out of the west doesn't mean it's a nice place."
I almost appreciated the sentiment, but it pissed me off somehow anyway. "Then why the hell are you goin?"
"Two words," he smiled from the back of his horse. "'Pleasure palaces'. I'm counting on some whorehouses that are beyond anything my virtuous eastern mind can comprehend. I will go there, Osgun, in part as a favor to you and your lovely lady friend. I will go there, and I will spent a large portion of this money seeing the depravity of the west and all it's wantonness. Then I will judge them. Oh, yes," he said, as I made a few disgusted sounds, "I will judge them, but I will not judge as one who does not know that of which he speaks. I will judge them as an educated man, who truly understands their filth. Then I'll come home with a fraction of the cash, my body wrecked from sinning, tell everybody I made a fortune as a pimp in the lands of the demon king and escaped to tell about it, and retire a wealthy, syphilitic hero back home, smoking opium and telling pretty girls tales of how I lost the use of my winkie through hard use in the whorehouses of the west."
I shook my head, convinced yet again of the evils of speech. "And that's your dream, huh? You get to travel the whole way across the world, with more money than a king, and all you wanna do is blow it on hookers until you're too old to do anything but talk about blowing money on hookers."
Riordan glared at the skyline. "I know that I'm not hearing criticism from the guy who wanted to spend his entire share on ale down at the Hammered Hand back home, four feet from the alley in which he was conceived and three feet from the dumpster in which he was born. Because I'm thinkin fame, travel, and exotic hookers beats the hell out of that dream, hands down."
"Are we talkin about things that beat the hell out of other things now?" I growled, feeling myself start to swell up some.
"Nope," Riordan said fast and shut up even faster.
That left me alone in silence to stare up the road at Minerva and think about the fact that he was right. But back at the Hammered Hand, I had everything I wanted. Gray Sam didn't mind me bein there, didn't encourage people to pester me. And I could spend my evenings watching Minerva work, listening to her talk. This traveling to the west was exciting, sure, but even if I had ten times the money I was carrying with me, I couldn't imagine anything more perfect than what I had on back on the docks at home.
"Maybe orcs don't have much of an imagination," I found myself muttering again.
"Maybe you just listen to much to what people tell you you can't have," Riordan muttered back. I sulled up and glared again, but not being punched in the face seemed to encourage him. "All my life, people been telling me I'll never amount to anything, never get laid, never get any respect. I'm too short, too shrimpy, talk too much. Word in the Guild is that I can't keep my mouth shut, so there's no chance of me getting on with the big players. I could wait on the pier all day and who would hire me to unload freight, when there's fifty big lunks like you standing there to do the job?"
"You could go out on the fishing boats," I suggested, starting to feel a little bad for him.
His face flushed. "If I had a copper for every time I heard, 'Sorry, Seawolf, but women on boats is bad luck', I could buy my own boat. Besides, Ozzie, that's just what I'm trying to tell you. Maybe I could work on a fishing boat." He shook his head. "Yeah, maybe I could get a job scraping shit from the sewers, too. To hell with that. To hell with anyone who ever told me I wasn't going to make it big, or who tried to get me to settle for a little dream instead of a big one. I'm richer than a pirate prince, now! I never let them make me settle for a job on a fishing boat. And you shouldn't either."
I frowned. It's not like I wasn't sure where he was going, it was like there was nothing much to say about it. "So... what. You think I should apprentice? I'm too old. You're probably smart enough to apprentice with a woodworker or a jeweler. Or even a healer or an architect, I bet. But I'm not." Hmm... "Well, maybe I could work with a blacksmith, though..."
Riordan snatched the hat from his head and smacked it against his horse's neck, making the gelding jumped and skitter sideways, which in turn made me jump and skitter the other way. "No! No, no, no, no! We are not going to be tradesmen, Osgun, we are going to buy, sell, and throw away tradesmen like they were fried potatoes!"
"Do we really have that much money?"
Riordan stared at me. "You really can't count it, can you?"
I started to get pissed again. "Just answer the question, before I practice counting the teeth I knock out of your tiny little head."
"Why by the gods of dockhands and halfwits did I bother splitting fifty-fifty with you?" He rubbed his eyes angrily. "Yes. Yes, Ozzie, we have a lot of money. No craftsman I know could hold a candle to us. We wealthier than most landed nobles. We could buy our land, build our own keeps, and start a new noble house. Each of us. That's the kind of dream you need to have now."
"Yeah, but that's just it, Danny," I squinted up at him. "You could do that. You could have a son who could inherit it and a daughter who could marry someone nice. You could throw the balls and have lords and ladies come over, and they might talk about you because you're short and your mother was a drunk and you don't know who your daddy was, but if you threw enough money at them, you could buy your way into that life. Me, now, who's gonna marry my daughters if they look anything like me?"
"If they came with your money?" Riordan interjected, "I would have."
"Great," I said darkly. "Just what I'd want for my girls. Anyway, what's the point of buying land and having a big castle and all that? I don't think I can have kids. Tamerlaus Bly down at the Hammered Hand said nature had a way of keeping things the way they should be, and that's why there weren't more half-breeds like me. Said a normal woman mostly couldn't survive childbirth if the father was an orc. If I found a woman who would marry me, why would I do that to her?"
"Ugly is what keeps there from being more half-breeds like you!" Riordan sputtered. "What does having a wife and kids have to do with you spending your money? Build the damn keep for yourself!"
"I don't want to be a noble or to have a keep," I grumped.
"Yeah, you want to follow your barmaid around like some damn cur and drink cheap ale until you can't feel your feet," snapped Riordan. "I know, I know."
"No, I don't want people to like and respect my money if they can't be bothered to like or respect me."
"Well, that's not how it works," Riordan said, lips pressed tight. "You don't think people travel up north to spend the season with the King because he's a fun guy, do you? You don't think they have dinner with the magistrate back home because he's such a good listener. Money and power are all people care about."
"Money, power and what your face looks like," I retorted, letting my bottom tusks flash instead of trying to cover em with my lip as much as possible.
"Well, we're going to a land of sorcerers, rock for brains. Maybe you can use some of your coin to buy a new face."
"Great. Maybe we can buy you a decent-sized dick while we're at it and get a price break for dealing in bulk quantities."
"Too bad there's not enough magic in the west to buy you a decent-sized brain!"
One of the riders up ahead turned around to look, making us both pipe down guiltily. Riordan gathered up his reins and glared at me. "Anyway, you're an idiot and I can't believe I wasted half of this money on you." He drummed his heels on the horse's ribs, clicking and flapping his elbows ineffectively. Bein as I was sick of him, I reached over and gave the horse a pinch on the hindquarters. Riordan wobbled wildly in the saddle as the horse clamped its tail and scooted forward into a goosey canter. I watched him go, spitting into the dirt after him and unwrapping the chain from around my waist.
I swung it around a couple times, ignoring the stares I drew from some of the nearer travelers. It was a good chain. Links thick as a normal man's wrist. Cold iron. A heavy hook on either end. I could probably take out a guy Riordan's size just by dropping it on him, but with a little spin and a decent swing, I could demolish small buildings with my chain, let alone pulp some smart ass. Our conversation had reminded me of what traveling with Minerva and being so chatty with Riordan had made me forget. There were only two things I could count on in the world. One is that people in general are assholes. And two is that a judiciously applied chain could make an asshole go away and leave you the hell alone. I liked being left alone. It was beyond me why I would bother spending my money trying to make other people like me.
Riordan was right about one thing, though. That much money was wasted on me. I looked up the trail to where Minerva rode and was in time to enjoy the glance of concern she sent back my way. Minerva, though... Minerva was a beautiful woman, who could marry any sort of man and enjoy all sorts of art and nice things. She would have plenty of uses for money. Smart uses. Kind uses. I could buy her a nice little place and tell her to invest it for me, and then I could be a guard in her gate house. Or muck out the stables or something. Neither of us would have to worry about anything ever again.
I sighed. That was a dream worth having.