Ten had been following the strangers all afternoon and was sure that they had money. He could read it in their posture, their clothing, and the confident way they moved through the market. Discerning the wealth of potential marks was a habit that had kept Ten alive, even in these hard times.
There were four of them—four travelers from the north, if their heavy cloaks were any indication. And if the unseasonal garb weren't enough proof of the newcomers' foreignness, then their choice of a guide certainly was: Jogu, the old jinyu drunk who spent most of his time napping by the small, stagnant pond near the market. Jogu was thin for a jinyu, prone to slurred rambling, and he was missing scales. Why these gentlemen had chosen him as their guide was a mystery to Ten. Regardless, their coin must have been good, because Jogu was showing more energy than he had in years, gesturing and pointing to the mediocre sights and scenery of Halfhill Market as though they were monuments in the Jade Temple.
For their part, the four travelers were quiet, not responding to the fish-man's antics. It was obvious that these pandaren had hoped for a more direct and silent guide to their destination, and were already regretting their decision.
Ten leaned back against the alley wall and tried to think. Thinking was hard when his stomach hurt like this, but that would not change unless he put his mind to work. Harvest had been poor this season, even here in the Valley of the Four Winds. Farmers were more careful with their wares, and more guards were stationed around the trade routes than ever before. It had been a day since he had eaten—a peach that had rolled off of the fruit seller's cart as he had wheeled it from the market. Or... it had seemed to roll off, just as the cart had rumbled past where Ten had been sitting in the shadows. Ten had benefited from Kim Won Gi's "carelessness" in the past; he wanted to thank the generous trader... but was not prepared to stop stealing from him. How else was a thief to survive?
Thief. Ten was not proud of what he did, of what he had to do. If his father were alive, he would wring his paws in sorrow.
One cannot change the seasons.
The group was moving now. Jogu had finished a long soliloquy about the Shrine of the Honest Trader in what appeared to have been an epic, emotional presentation accompanied with twirling motions. When Jogu's clients had failed to respond to his act—or to tip him as he stood there, arms raised as if he were a mighty taolun tree—he had shrugged his shoulders and kept walking. The strangers followed, one of them shaking his head.
At this point, Ten was positive that they were headed to the Tiller's Council. It was the only building of note in that direction. He smiled. Of course these wealthy strangers were here to see the powerful farmers' union, possibly to discuss trade or contracts. Merchants, perhaps? That would explain the voluminous cloaks worn across broad, well-fed bellies—and, if Ten was not mistaken, covering deep pockets and purses heavy with gold. Watching closely, he could see the way the dark cloth pulled across the travelers' waists. Yes. There was coin tucked underneath. His fingers twitched.
The group was crossing Fo Bridge when it happened. Nam Ironpaw the stockmaster had just arrived at the high point of the bridge with a cart stacked high with salmon. The wheel on one side had come loose, and as Nam waved to the approaching travelers, it suddenly bent under the heavy load. The burly grocer turned in shock, helpless as the overloaded cart tipped over and spilled the contents of a night's bounteous catch onto the bridge.
"No! No!" he shouted, whiskers shaking in a visual echo of his frustration.
A silvery, wet avalanche poured across the planks of the bridge, the raised balustrades funneling it directly toward a terrified Jogu and his charges. The poor jinyu, obviously still drunk, echoed Nam's shouts at the oncoming fish—"No! No!"—and tried to wave them off with desperate, imploring gestures. The dead salmon paid no heed.
With a moist smack, the group was buried. Ten grimaced at the thought—and smell—of being bathed in clammy fish. In another second the wave passed, the remaining salmon sliding off the sides of the bridge and into the stream below. The four pandaren merchants had crouched and grasped onto the planks to keep their footing, and were now helping each other back up. Jogu had been swept along with the fish into the water, where he failed to resurface. This was funnier than it was alarming—as a jinyu, the drunk was more at home there than on land. Shouts and laughter rang from the market as Nam's family and other villagers came running.
Ten knew that there would be no better time to strike.
Slipping from the shadows, he joined the crowd moving toward the tipped cart. Slight and thin for his fourteen years, with patches of gray fur where most pandaren were white, Ten found it easy to remain unnoticed in the chaos. He usually did. Being unnoticed was something of a specialty for the youngest son of a poor turnip farmer, a son named merely for the order of his birth.
His five oldest brothers had divided up the property when Father had died, but soon learned that five pieces of a struggling farm would barely sustain them; what was the point of dividing it further if it meant they all would starve? So the remaining five, the youngest, had been given the option of staying as farmhands… or leaving. Ten had left, much to his siblings' relief. There was nothing on that farm for a young pandaren anyway. He doubted that they noticed his absence.
Just ahead, he could see members of the Ironpaw family attempting to right the cart while others gathered up what fish they could into baskets, pots, and the fronts of their aprons. Nam had approached the four strangers, head bowed, and was apologizing profusely. Ten had expected these wealthy merchants to be furious at their slimy welcome to Halfhill, but was surprised to find that they were laughing—soft, rumbling laughter that practically shook the bridge as they wiped scales from their hats, clapping each other on the shoulders. One of the travelers pulled a large fish from his collar and handed it to Nam with a nod. The stockmaster was relieved by their good humor, and he stepped away to supervise the retrieval effort. The price for salmon was high, and it had been months since his cart had been so full.
Ten moved forward, quietly collecting fish with the rest of the Ironpaw family. As he neared the travelers, he pretended to slip and stumble against the largest of them. The merchant turned, and Ten gasped. His target had only one eye. A long scar stretched across the traveler's face from brow to chin, and a black patch covered where his eye would have been. The merchant was obviously accustomed to this sort of reaction, and he smiled and steadied Ten, warning him to be careful on the wet planks. His voice was strong but kind, and the young thief felt a twinge of guilt about stealing from this gentle soul.
But warm thoughts do not quiet a rumbling stomach.
Ten bowed shyly, just as a simple village cub would, and walked away. The leather purse he had lifted from the merchant's cloak was tucked underneath Ten's grubby tunic, and he was excited to see what riches he had stolen. Gold? Not heavy enough. Jewelry? Possibly. Enough to buy some hot meals and another blanket, he hoped. Winter would soon be here, and Ten worried about the cold. The small pandaren had made sure to pocket a few of the smaller fish as well, but didn't want to press his luck. His stomach grumbled again.
He reached the edge of the market and pretended to brush scales off his sleeves as he surveyed the scene behind him. Ten's departure had gone unnoticed, and everyone was still engaged in recovering the fish before they were all swept away by the slow-moving stream. Pulling the purse from his tunic, he quickly undid the leather cord binding it together and emptied the contents into his paw.
It was not gold, not jewelry. It was a scroll. Ten's heart sank. A stupid scroll wound around a simple rod of brass with ivory ends. He lifted the delicate thing, breaking the wax seal to see if he could pull it apart. Maybe he could sell the ivory.
His eyes flashed across the page, reading the words without meaning to. Years ago, Seven had taught his younger brother to read so that he might at least help with the tallying after harvest. Ten had learned quickly, and he found the skill useful when selecting which bag to lift from an unattended grocer's stall. The message was written in strong, urgent strokes, and as he read, Ten felt a panic begin to grow in his empty belly.
Honorable Haohan Mudclaw, Leader of the Tillers in the Valley of the Four Winds,
This message comes with a greeting, a blessing upon your fields, and a warning. Our sources have come across several yaungol tribes moving east from the Townlong Steppes in a manner more akin to escape than aggression. In centuries past, this has taken place when the mantid were surging, their hives growing to such numbers that even the mighty hooved ones flee before them. Our own forces are spread thin, Haohan, and we need to begin storing supplies for the coming conflict. Well we know of your poor harvest this year, and of your duty to feed the people of the valley and beyond. But our need is urgent. Please send what you can with these esteemed guardians. They will assure that whatever your generosity allows you to part with arrives safely.
These were not the words of a merchant.
Esteemed guardians. These travelers had not come to trade. The mark at the bottom of the scroll caused Ten to catch his breath. It was a simple mark, a circle with curving stripes coming down the sides, the snarling face of a white tiger.
Suddenly there was a commotion back by the bridge. Ten spun around, swiftly tucking the scroll into his tunic. Jogu had emerged from the water and was shouting and pointing... pointing at Ten.
"Thief! My good masters have been robbed! Thief! Thief!"
At first, nobody knew what the hysterical jinyu was talking about. Some looked at Ten with suspicion, and a few laughed at Jogu, rolling their eyes at his drunken rambling. But the large pandaren that Ten had bumped felt into his pocket and then made a quick gesture to his fellows. Their cloaks fell away to reveal weapons—swords, spears, blades that glinted dangerously in the sunlight. Yes, they had been hiding something after all. Ten had been half right.
It was time to run.