Being a waiter isn’t hard. Being a good one is. Especially if you’re a halfling waiting on the Big Folk. Holding a wine bottle over my head to pour isn’t bad for me. It would be a strain for the regular staff here. The hard part is filling the rich men’s goblets without any noisy splashes to annoy them. My swordmaster snarled when I told him I was skipping practice to work tonight, but I’m getting more exercise in strength and precision than I do in his salle. The goblets stay full and dirty dishes disappear without a rustle to interrupt their conversation. They chatter on, only stopping when the eldest rang a bell to call for the next course.
They watched silently as the busboys placed stepstools to the sound of flutes, followed by the waiters flourishing golden plates of spiced fish. I’d stepped behind a curtain to relax while the guests watched the show. Once the course was served and the servers closed the door behind them the chatter picked up again. I picked up a bottle and went back to my stealthy routine.
These rich men must have enjoyed the show if they wouldn’t talk with the waiters in the room. They couldn’t be afraid of being overheard. Their speech was filled with obscure allusions, euphemisms, and Daask argot. Meaningless to someone without the secrets of their conspiracy. But I knew the "tools" they were bargaining over were people, captured by Droasm raiders and bound into slavery. "Harosh’s birthday" hadn’t been hard to find out, and "where Ackra the Gnoll lost his finger" was an abandoned wharf. I had all the information I needed now.
Lousy tippers, though.
"Ethan. Don’t look at me." The tall human’s gorget rattled as he dipped his head for a split-second. "Is your next caravan leaving before Tuesday?" A brief head-shake. "There’s a job for you and a couple of friends. Monday night moonrise. Thirty gold each. And it’s a very good cause."
"Isn’t it always," replied Ethan wryly.
"Are you in?"
"If we’re wounded badly enough to miss the caravan, will you cover our pay?" His eyes kept scanning the crowd among the caravan wagons.
A pause for mental arithmetic. I’m qualified for every job in a restaurant except checking the till. But I could make it up somehow if I messed up the numbers. "Sure. Three weeks pay max."
"Fair enough. I’m in. I’ll see if I can get anyone else."
"I’ll send you a note." I slid around the crate and headed back up the street with the dejected look of a sneak thief who’d decided it wasn’t worth the risk.
The Daask ship had anchored in the passage at sunset. I’d fretted over their vantage as my volunteers slipped into their places. But no one screwed up badly enough for me to see and there were no alarms on the ship. As moonrise approached the sailors brought it in to the end of the wharf. I head moans and clanking as the "cargo" was prodded onto the deck. The buyers were right on time, forming up on the street end.
The timing was my biggest worry. If I picked the perfect moment I’d convince them the other side was betraying them. Seeing the Daask and their customers attack each other would be the greatest joy this ambush could give me.
The slaves were led onto the wharf, one saved by his chains as a rotten plank gave way under him. As the last one came down the gangway the buyers picked up a heavy chest and started forward. Everyone tensed as the leaders moved toward each other slowly. In the silence I could hear some humans singing drunkenly as they staggered along the waterfront. Ethan, right on time.
I yanked on the cord I’d tied to a broken crane. The white banner flew out and waved. The mage watching for it cast a flare on the foremost Daask, then followed with magic missiles. The flare was everyone else’s signal. Two warforged surged out of the water at the end of the wharf, cutting the ropes and knocking the gangplank into the water. The archers on top of the nearest building started dropping the leaders of each group. Ethan and his friends traded their disguising cloaks for helmets and shields, then charged the fighters on the shoreside end. Easy targets – they were looking the other way, trying to figure out what happened, and hoping for orders from men now dead.
I didn’t get my wish. Both sides realized it was a third party attacking them. But they still didn’t trust each other enough to form a joint defense. Instead they pulled away from each other, giving me the opening I wanted. I popped out of the big coil of rope I’d been lurking in, plunging my blade into the thigh of one of the chest-carriers before he noticed I was there.
The next few moments didn’t let me look at the big picture. I traded sword strokes with one of the men I’d waited on until a crossbow bolt stuck in his ribs. A guard came for me but I opened his leg with a lucky thrust and danced around him to follow the chest. One man was pulling it over the boards until I leapt on top and slashed at his neck. He staggered back, then fell as Ethan stepped forward to sever his spine. That was enough for the hirelings. They leapt off the side of the wharf.
I pivoted to face the Daask. They’d made a big mistake at the start, splitting to each side of the line of slaves. That let the warforged work down one side with the too-expensive-to-hit slaves covering their flanks. The ship was backing into the channel as the crew carried buckets up to burning arrows stuck in the sails. I shouted "You’re all free men now! Free men!" I could tell they believed me when a chain went around a gnoll’s neck. I charged a half-orc and pressed him until one of Ethan’s friends worked around behind him. That left one side of the wharf clear.
Two hobgoblins on the other side made running leaps and caught the ropes trailing behind the ship. Some Daask made splashes as they decided to swim for it. That left an ogre trapped with us taking out his frustration on the slaves, killing one with each swing of his club.
We moved to take him. I got his attention with a slash toward his hip, then had to leap aside as the club smashed down. A clean miss, but it snapped the plank I was standing on. Dangling my feet over the dirty water, I braced my shield against the edge of the hole and wondered if I’d have to drop through to avoid the next blow. I needn’t have worried. Three humans and two warforged rushed in as the slaves scrambled out of their way. The club went into the water a moment before its owner.
It took a moment to realize the fight was over. The ship’s archers gave up trading shots with mine as it moved down the channel. None of the swimmers were returning. I took the yellow banner from my hiding spot and waved it. An arm cut I hadn’t noticed started hurting.
My Bolger cousin arrived first. His hammer and chisel made short work of the money chest. I addressed the former slaves. "You’re all free men now. He’ll be taking your collars off next. Then we’ll give you each a coin and you can go where you will. If you follow him to a guest house you can get a meal, a clean shirt, and some help finding a job in the morning. But it’s your choice." Bolger had found a stone bollard to use as an anvil. As the first one came away scratching at his neck I handed him a gold coin.
The crossbowmen arrived then (the wizard had probably been back in the high city before the fight ended). The other fighters gathered around as I started alternating one coin to a freedman with 30 for a man who’d freed him. By the end only a couple dozen coins were left in the chest. Ethan loomed over me. "That’s all the wizard wanted?"
"No. But I’ve got enough to cover the rest."
"Most people make a profit from this kind of raid."
My wave took in the gaggle Bolger was leading off as well as a few going along the waterfront. "THAT’S my profit."