Ugo, sprawled in the gutter, flinched. A rent in his purple lips split, oozed as he moaned through red-cored stumps of freshly-broken teeth. He covered his face with cut-hatched hands, curled deeper into the bed of dead leaves and musky horseshit.
"Ugo," said the voice again, strong, insistent. A hand shook his shoulder. "Vamos. Come now."
"No. I do not think it true you want to stay here," said the speaker, a clean-cut man in a grey, collarless suit and wide hat. He knelt on the brick, lamplit street, perched on shined boots. Gentle, he spoke to Ugo in accented, yet fluent Alagóran. "A shitty gutter is no place for you. Come." He beckoned another figure, a broad woman in leather, forward. Together, they hoisted Ugo by the burst armpits of his shirtsleeves, righted his wet, stocking feet on the red bricks.
Ugo coughed, snorted pink phlegm. "Who are you people?" he said, stickily, hands shaking, close to his chest.
"Your new friends, Ugo. I am Paget, and this is Sevansa." He gestured over Ugo's shoulder, to the woman who supported him under one arm.
"What do you want? I have no money. They took it." He pointed forward, over a low, stone wall covered in ivy, towards a yellow-lit cantina bustling with leather-clad cutters wearing steel. Cheering voices, rude song, and the clinking of glasses carried well out into the street.
"Yes, I know," consoled Paget. "We saw them throw you out. They mocked you and they robbed you for sport, didn't they? Beat you?"
"How do you know me? I do not know you," said Ugo, blinking his one eye that wasn't swollen shut. He tried to pry himself from Sevansa, to stand on his own, wobbled, failed. The large cutter gripped him tighter.
"Ah, I asked the proprietor," smiled Paget. "He told me. He said you were once a soldier." He frowned, looked Ugo up and down. "This is no way to have treated a soldier. If only we were here to stop them." He shook his head in woe.
"Why are you my new 'friends,' then?" accused Ugo.
Paget smiled a smile that did not reach his silver eyes. "Because we would like to offer you an alternative to venturing. Something equally befitting a soldier's skills."
At that, Ugo's eye fixed on him, steady. Paget continued, voice energetic. "That's what you got beat for, yes? For asking to join them?"
Ugo hesitated. "Yes," he growled.
Paget licked his lips, continued. "What if I offered you an alternative. One that made you richer than any cutter…" He trailed, studying Ugo's dispassionate broken face. "And allowed you to take revenge on those assholes who beat you?"
At that, Ugo's straightened. His nostrils flared. "What is this alternative?"
Paget's eyes lit up. He lay a hand on Ugo's shoulder. "Have you ever heard tell…" he said, leaning close to the man's ear. "Of the Sate of Bandelier?"
Someone pulled the blindfold off.
Ugo blinked in startlement, found himself in a lavish smoking parlor. His one good eye shot about nervously, watering in the thick, charry atmosphere. It observed a hand, Sevansa's, gripping his elbow. It flitted to low sofas, billiards tables, and mounted heads of spiral-horn oxen on the walls. Fat, red lamps lent those trophy's dead eyes a fiery glow. Shadows of rising smoke and flitting doxbells wavered over the windowless walls, papered in crimson scrollwork.
Nearby one lamp sat Paget, a cigar hooked in his clean left hand. He nodded, smiled his flat-eyed smile at Ugo, gestured to what lay before him. There, supported on the carpet by two half-meter wooden stops, lay an ornate, pole-borne palanquin. Smoke curled, throat-achingly sour, through the silk screen veiling its windows. Not the sweet smoke of pepperelle, but the char of brimstone and the stink of gore dripped on hot coals.
Hair rose on Ugo's arms, on the nape of his neck. He recoiled, tried to step back, but Sevansa's grip locked him in place. Paget smiled at him.
"I am pleased to be in like company," continued the voice. Dry, deep. A Southern nobleman's accent. Well-intoned, but lacking certain fricatives, as if hissed through bared teeth. "For you know, Ugo, we share a lamentable similarity."
Ugo shivered again, gulped. "What similarity is that?"
"We have both been wronged, you and I," it hissed.
"I think you know how. I, long ago; and you just this night. Maimed and discarded in idle cruelty by members of a violent caste."
"Cutters," growled Ugo. He used the Firlish word, spat it through his broken teeth.
"Yes," it snarled. Smoke puffed through the mesh. "Cutters. You wanted to become one, didn't you Ugo? Offered them your skills as a fighting man in good faith?"
"And how did they respond?
"Laughed at me."
"And?" asked the voice.
Ugo looked down to the carpet, sneered. He winced in pain as his lip resplit. A fist balled at his side. He seethed, but gave no reply. "They beat you, robbed you for a game, didn't they?" hissed the smoky voice. Silent, Ugo raised his eyes, nodded.
"Cutters did the same to me, decades ago. Brutalized me in my home and left me a cripple. They do it," said the hissing voice, spitting and energetic. "Because, in the risking of their own, they have come to place to value in anyone's life at all, save the pleasure gained at its expense. They are members of a thuggish institution created by greedy men, and they are a tax upon the life of the world." It paused. "I and all my associates have seen the evil of the cutter. We have lived it and forsaken it, or been wronged by its way. We are united by it." On the sofa, Paget nodded.
Ugo scowled. "I have no joy in playing the victim, Señor de Bandelier. Do not ask me to join in being one."
"You mistake me, Soldier." A strange smile could be heard in the dry tone. "We do not play at victimhood…" In the palanquin, visible behind the screen, there flared two dots of cherry red, like coals stoked by a fading breath. "But at vengeance."
At that, Sevansa left the soldier's side. Ugo did not watch her, for he stared at the palanquin. "Tell me more."
"My own little institution plays the cutters' game, but instead of buried gold, we hunt them."
"I am…" said Ugo, smirking. "No stranger to hunting men. I am also no stranger to bureaucracy. This isn't some position I can't escape, is it?"
"Not at all. You don't even need to sign."
"Then how do I start? When?"
"Whenever and wherever you may. Sevansa?"
A shadow appeared beside Ugo. Ugo looked, found Sevansa had reappeared. She proffered the grip of a pistol loaded with a heavy coil and oversized mag. Ugo grinned. His bloody face reflected in the polished grip.
Inside the palanquin, something hissed, satisfied. "Though, I have a feeling you know where to begin."
The children knew it. They feared it not at all when it flew at sunset, like a great, scaly streamer trailing 'hind bat's wings. They pointed at it, called it pretty. They sang hymns and lays into its well; sang so much they lit some small fire of cognition in that serpent's nourished brain. By and by, they taught it, by all their singing, of the tongue and folklore of their little town. It cherished this knowledge, and greedily consumed all their tales and stories. These, it loved, even the tales of Aveth and of her holy serpent-slayers. It never once associated itself with the monsters of those tales, for, to the children, it was never "serpent," but "friend." In this way, the serpent fattened its mind, and became a clever and intelligent sate.