Organized crime in Absalom is complicated.
It’s a big city. With big money flowing through it, and that means big competition between all the crews angling for an increasingly share of those measures that get caught in the cracks. In Eastgate and Precipice Corner alone, there are Shire Kings, Cain’s Cormorants, Dogslicers, Hand Street Hitters, Splitfang Clan, Woodeneyes, Polecat Arms Company, Beggar’s Guild, and about a thousand unaligned street punks under the age of 16, all looking to cop the silver weights that pay for their next, skimpy meal.
This was Helvian Keredes’ territory. Born in Diobel in 4669, Helvian moved to Absalom at 19, married a city girl, and joined the Hand Street Hitters, eponymously named after the long, malingering street upon which they all lived and the gang controlled. Helvian started as a petty enforcer, collecting protection money from local merchants and tradesmen and participating in the running battles with other gangs that would take place nearly continuously. Helvian distinguished himself and eventually moved up from light thuggery and into the line of work in which he finally made his mark: theft.
Helvian’s career as a thief was relatively short, but by any measure prodigious. With a year he was leading his own crew, five top drawer thieves pulling major scores. Helvian’s crew were the ones that sank a Chelaxian smuggler’s ship in the harbor and, over three consecutive nights, brought up every crate of contraband weapons bound for Isger… which they sold to the same Isgeri rebels at a vicious discount. The robbed Evril Gahan’s near-mythic vault, replacing 12,000 measures worth of gems with paste fakes. They hit the Shire Kings’ money wagon twice in one season, and spent the next year and a half dodging angry hobbit assassins. They hijacked an entire shipment of Qadiran peppercorns and effectively cornered the spice market for three weeks afterward. And many more incidents like this – Helvian loved to steal.
And Helvian, for his part, taught his young son to love it too. Esteban was learning to pick locks and walk a wire before he’d stopped drinking mother’s milk. He was acting as lookout for some of his father’s scores as soon as he could whistle a warning. He was delivering payoffs to the constables and cuts to the Hitter elites as soon as he was strong enough to carry the jingling bags.
But Esteban’s training was cut short. Helvian died when Esteban was ten years old, and the boy fell under his mother’s influence. Dacia Keredes had always craved respectability, and she purchased as much of it as she could with her husband’s stolen gold. But as much as she couldn’t turn Helvian away from his criminal ways, she did not want her sons (young Lygus had arrived three years before and was already showing a predilection for book and quill even then) to follow in their father’s footsteps. She knew instinctually that Esteban was his father’s son, with his father’s temperament, but she tried to channel that temperament into other endeavors. Esteban had an affinity for bows and archery, and a decent enough eye, so Dacia encouraged that. She bought him his first little composite and a quiver full of short-flights, and had Esteban set up a target in the yard to practice. It worked (or so Dacia thought) and she harbored secret hopes that Esteban might join the Watch, or perhaps even become a Marine archer, perched high upon the bobbing fo’c’sle of an Absalomian warship, guarding the men and cargo below rather than stealing it.
But Esteban was his father’s son, with his father’s temperament. Although he assuaged his mother’s worries by dutifully practicing his bow and telling her pleasant lies, Esteban’s real occupation was that of an up-gunned bag man. His father’s history with Hand Street provided Esteban with many solid organized crime connections and opportunities presented themselves. But Helvian had a lot of contacts and friends outside the Hitters, and these he passed down to Esteban as well, so that Esteban ultimately became that rarest of creatures, the man trusted by multiple crews. Because of this reputation, Esteban was often called upon to act as a go-between for gangs who were forced by circumstance to have dealing with each other but no capacity for mutual trust. If the Beggar’s Guild had to deliver a payment to the Shire Kings, it was Esteban who was tasked to ensure delivery. If a crew had to hit one of its own as recompense for some transgression, it was Esteban who bore witness to the murder and brought back whatever grisly trophy was demanded. And if a valuable item needed to be safely – and surreptitiously – carried between one organization and another, it was Esteban who made the quiet, sometimes dangerous journey.
And it was this last one that eventually led to Esteban’s indecently rapid departure from Absalom. Esteban was paid for his intermediary duties – often paid quite well – but again: his father’s son, his father’s temperament. Esteban’s access to various gang hideouts and safe houses, plus the trust with which he was afforded, provided him access to people and places denied to the average thief. Esteban took advantage of that – never too much, never breaking that fragile surface tension that kept him safe from repercussion. But every once in a while, alone in the counting house or en route to a delivery, Esteban would take a little something for himself. At first, it was a few measures here, a few measures there – a sweetener on top of his normal fee. The heads of the gangs that employed him even indulged this petty affront – “a thief who isn’t stealing a little is probably stealing a lot!” they assumed. And most of them knew that the fruits of Esteban’s pilferage were at least partially going to little Lygus instruction in the Art. More than one crew had their eye on Lygus, hoping to lure him into their fold when his instruction was complete. Every crew had need of wizards.
But Esteban’s tastes had changed. Part of Dacia’s efforts to gain a measure of respectability included the occasional tour of museums, art exhibitions, public sculpture parks, and the like. Esteban seemed interested, and further seemed to develop a measure of education on the subject. But like all of Dacia’s efforts, Esteban perverted it. He had developed a love, of sorts, for art… especially small, concealable, beautifully crafted objects. Esteban found, somewhat to his dismay (albeit a level of dismay that he could control through the application of his larcenous skills), that he would occasionally see some item – objet’s d’art for the most part, cleverly crafted, small, unique, expensive – that he would absolutely be required to possess. Esteban knew that this new moral failing was, indulged as he was wont to do, far more dangerous to his position as trusted go-between than the filched gold piece or two.
And yet… father’s son, father’s temperament.
Esteban stole whatever took his fancy. Carved jade figurines, gold cruciform bracelets, alabaster carvings of elder gods scaled for a homestead’s shrine, intricately-colored palm-sized paintings in gilt frames – anything he found beautiful, Esteban would find a way to steal it. His bosses were concerned, but as long as he stole from others, well, a man had to feed his passions, did he not?
Esteban’s art collection increased. His small suite of rooms filled up with lovely things, so much so that the walls were lined, the shelves laden, the top of the desk and table so cluttered that he had to eke out the space for a cheap bottle of Chelaxian red by pushing aside a series of exquisitely tooled mithril wine cups.
Then Esteban committed that unforgivable of crimes: he stole from his employers.
Esteban had been tasked with transporting a box between two crews – not unusual. But he made the mistake of looking into the box, which in this case crossed the boundary from innocent curiosity (expected, if discouraged) to incredibly dangerous. Because in this particular box was something incredible: a necklace of such delightful form, it burst into the eye and took hold of the senses. It was heavy in the hand with cold and platinum, but airy of form, delicate with wire lace and small flecks of livid pearl. And nestled at its center, a small ivory cameo of an angelic woman’s face, the corners of her knowing smile touched with the daintiest of tusks.
It was the most exquisite thing Esteban had ever seen.
He took it.
Esteban had it for perhaps 20 hours before several ugly and unfortunate things happened in quick succession:
- Esteban learned that the necklace was (a) 268 years old, (b) the property of a certain well-respected and powerful organized crime hetman’s family for the past several equally well-respected generations, (c) was in transit to said hetman’s daughter in furtherance of it being presented to her on the occasion of her wedding, and (d) was worth, when anyone had the temerity to assess it, well into the mid-six figures, edging toward late-six. Which was to say, it was worth (e) several dozen times the value of Esteban’s pitiful life, now that he’d stupidly crossed the line and taken it.
- Esteban then learned that based on 1(e), a cadre of competent killers was even now hunting him, and a flood of good-intentioned but ultimately unhelpful informants trafficked in both Esteban’s location (to the killers) and their location of the killers (to Esteban).
- Dacia learned of her eldest son’s predicament and did something incredibly foolish: (a) she went to Esteban’s suite of rooms, (b) collected all of his stolen art (including the priceless necklace), (c) took it out to the edge of Precipice Corner, right down to the ocean, (d) found a secluded spot, and (e) TOOK A FUCKING CHIPPING HAMMER TO EVERY SINGLE PIECE, then (f) finally dumped the broken remainder into the bay, assuming that no evidence would mean no crime would mean her son was safe from those who sought him
- Poor Dacia, while her desperate heart was in the right place, had actually ended up making the exact wrong decision in 3(e), because what this actually resulted in was the hetman from 1(b) was even more incensed about Esteban’s affront, immediately tripled the bounty for the competent killers from 2 (which were growing more numerous and, if possible, increasingly competent).
Esteban, exhibiting now the greatest amount of intelligence he’d shown in the last day and a half or so, gathered up what easy cash he could put together, gathered up his “get outta town” bag from its hidden location, rented a horse (which he had no intention of ever returning) and got out of Absalom just as quietly as he could.
Two days later on the road, the enormity of what he’d done, and then what his mother had done to compound it, hit home. Absalon was dead to him now. His collection was destroyed. And the competent killers of at least two solid crews plus whoever felt compelled to go after a bounty were on his tail.
He switched directions, changed horses at the next inn, and considered his next moves.
Running home to Diobel was right out, Esteban thought grimly. It would be the first place they’d look, and only an idiot would run straight home to hide. Nope, this was serious, they meant to kill him (slowly and with much deliberation, unless he missed his guess) and that meant he had to get off island.
They’d be watching the port, that was for certain and while he knew enough sailors to fairly easily secure a passage, it would require the knowledge of far too many people for safety. Esteban wasn’t sure exactly what the bounty on his head amounted to, but he knew it had started large and grown after his mother’s small misjudgment served to make his already bad situation much worse. North, then.
Esteban slipped out of the city and pushed his rented horse hard as he made his way toward to the north coast of Kortos, the summer heat drawing lather from the poor beast’s flanks. He traded the horse to a man with a boat for night passage across to Almas, the Andoran capital, and a week’s worth of dried beans and flatbread.
In Almas, Esteban checked in with a pair of smugglers of his acquaintance, taking a chance that they’d not heard of the price on his head – they hadn’t, thankfully, and he secured a fresh horse, some funds and a safe two nights in a proper bed before setting out for Kerse. He followed the Andoshen River northwest, stopping at the small towns that dotted the riverside. Sometimes he rode along the banks, listening to the birds chasten him and the occasional fox dive into the underbrush, but mostly he begged or bought passage on the litany of flatboats that plied the broad, placid Andoshen. It took him two weeks to make his way to the Foam River fork, where the traffic was far less prevalent.
After a week sleeping rough on the way to the Isgeri border, Esteban had almost forgotten he’d a price on his head. Until the crossbow bolt struck his leg, above the knee. His eyes widened, both in surprise and in pain, and his yelp froze in his throat.
Which, he reflected later, probably saved his life. Esteban had been sitting near a small shelter of fir branches he’d built, watching the small fire heat his stew. The shock of the hit threw his backward into his firs, and once he’d gathered his wits he began crawling out the rear of the small lean-to. He was fortunate: there was only one of them, a middle-aged man, his face lined with years and determination. The hunter moved slowly, placing his feet carefully to avoid telegraphing his position with leaf-crackle and snapped twigs. But it was clear that he didn’t know where Esteban had gotten off to, and that gave the young thief the advantage he needed. Esteban couldn’t reach his bow, but he had a pair of nicely balanced throwing knives strapped across his belly, and after a bit of a crawl, he got behind the hunter and put both in the man’s back.
The wound went septic, of course, so Esteban was forced by necessity to backtrack to Falcon’s Hollow, where he spent more silver than he cared to on poultices to draw out the infection and put his leg to rights. It slowed him considerably, and he didn’t cross into the Isgeri frontier until another fortnight had passed. But he was more cautious now.
Once over the border, Esteban made haste to Conerica River and then on to Elidir, grateful for flagon of proper wine and a joint of mutton off the rack in the hearth. Kerse was still nearly 200 miles off, crow-flies, but the old soldier’s maps he bought in Elidir showed that the crow path was workable. He traded horses, replenished his supplies, and headed into the realms of Kalistrade.
Kerse not only provided Esteban creature comforts, it’s cosmopolitan atmosphere and urban culture proved fruitful – not only to stock up on travelling necessities, but on coins of the realm, which had been running thin. Esteban gambled a little, he stole a little, but when he left for Caliphas eight days later, the heft of his pouch gave him far less anxiety.
Ustalav is dangerous for anyone, much less a man alone, and Esteban left Caliphas after a single night, heading southwest as quickly as possible toward Vellumis, the oldest city in Lastwall and home to many boats travelling east to Three Pines Ford. Estaban raised a few eyebrows among the Ozem knights, but his natural charm put them at ease. He booked river passage west as far as he could go, all the way to within 50 miles of the dwarven city of Janderhoff. That was a tough hike, upward into the mountains, but when Esteban caught site of the enormous walls of that ancient sky-citadel, he knew he’d entered Varisia and comparative safety.
Esteban, by this time, had just about enough throwing off pursuit. He hadn’t seen anyone else, had used different names in each of the towns he’d visited, switched directions multiple times and crossed (what seemed to him) an absolute crapload of frontier. After the spartan lifestyle of the Lastwallians, the merriment of Janderhoff was a welcome relief. Esteban stayed nearly three weeks in Janderhoff – still eschewing his proper name, but making inquiries about any Absalomians in town. There were few, this far north of the Inner Sea, but Esteban discretely approached several, buying them drinks and asking after news from the Island. He learned nothing – everyone he spoke to was far removed from the life he’d lived back home, months ago.
Even the charms of Janderhoff lost their luster, and Esteban once again found himself on the river – this time, the Yondabakari, all the way west from the lesser Mindspins to the sea. Magnimar reminded Esteban of Absalom – all the comforts of home – and even better it had a burgeoning criminal underground, to which Esteban introduced himself through strategically placed bribes and cautious conversation. He bought the privilege to commit minor crimes – pick a pocket, perhaps, or throw a loaded die – but was warned not to be too greedy and to pay the appropriate baksheesh to the appropriate capo. Esteban did so, assiduously. He was a long way from Absalom, but here on the coast the chance of running into someone from home was higher.
And Esteban wasn’t wrong. At supper one evening, he noticed two men definitely not paying attention to him. He caught one’s eye a single time, and after that they looked in any direction except towards Esteban. However, they were not quiet enough when they asked the innkeeper’s assistant what Esteban’s name was, where he hailed from, how long he’d been in town. Esteban fled that evening, stealing a good horse and heading to the small village of Sandpoint. There was caravan work there, going north, and Esteban felt that he could charm his way into a job.