4-The Gig

The sun was high, and it felt unreal after the lingering darkness of the jail. “He wasn’t nearly frightened enough after what he did to those women,” said Eliah, falling in beside me as we set out on foot through Falletta.

“He’s not long for this world,” said Ayglos from behind us.

“I think we could’ve frightened him a bit more,” said Eliah. “You don’t need all your fingers to hang.”

I tossed her a smirk. “Just lungs and a neck.”

“So bloodthirsty,” commented Quill.

“You’d be bloodthirsty, too, if you’d spent the week bagging handsy sods waiting for someone to try to murder you,” Eliah spread her arms as if physically throwing off the role. “I missed the first few seconds of the fight, and you almost didn’t leave any for me to burn off my rage.”

I caught her elbow and linked arms. “I couldn’t see, sorry.”

“Next job we take better be hunting the animal kind of monster—something big and with lots of teeth.”

Ayglos laughed at her. “I’m just glad the jailer was happy to share all his information with us. If this monster does have a book about summoning demons, I’d rather not have it just loose in the world.”

“Do you know the priests here in Falletta?” asked Quill, “Could any of them be trusted with it?”

I looked over my shoulder to catch Ayglos’s eye. “Maybe. Learned Felix is kind. Remember—the one who feeds the ravens?”

“I don’t think he’d be tempted by the power, at any rate,” added Ayglos. “I’ve no wish to leave this for the Duke to find, however.”

The rest of us made noises of dubious agreement. Duke Falletta might just lock up the books, but he also wasn’t the sort of man I wanted to tempt. The streets got busier the further we got from the jail, and we stopped talking. Ayglos took the lead since he knew Falletta better than the rest of us. The houses in the Silk Quarter were interspersed between shops with glass windows where tailors, weavers, spinners and the like plied their trades and sold their wares. Buildings were stone or covered in plaster, and overwhelmingly tidy looking. There were trees scattered around, and more that could be seen over garden walls. Our cultist had a stone house, and careful masonry provided little patterns and flourishes around the windows and door. A flowering vine grew up one side and spread across half the front. It looked entirely ordinary and inviting.

“I was sort of expecting a stronger indication of obsession with demons,” I said.

“Things are never that simple,” replied Ayglos.

“By Rohhel and all her Ravens I am saved!” cried a voice to my left. “Zare Caspian!”

I stiffened, despite the decidedly unthreatening tone, and turned to see the speaker.

He was a dwarf with umber skin, neatly braided black hair, and a short black beard. His clothes were well made, but not overtly fancy. He was out of breath as if he’d run up. Indeed, behind him a second dwarf was coming to a halt, face red with exertion, his secretarial satchel clutched in his hands.

I recognized the first dwarf immediately, “Jeromb Jemard!”

“The legendary Zare Caspian—unlooked for! In the hour of my need!” Jeromb Jemard reached out and we clasped hands in greeting. “Is your brother around? Can we go somewhere to talk privately?”

My eyes flitted to Ayglos, whose hair was still dyed black from the Angari job. When we’d worked for Jeromb he’d been blonde. Jeromb followed my glance and startled, “Oh, my apologies Ayglos. You look—quite—different.”

My brother smiled and offered his hand to the dwarf, “Jeromb, it’s good to see you.”

I gestured to Eliah and Quill, “May I introduce our companions, Quilleran and Eliah,” Jeromb bowed to them in turn, “This is Jeromb Jemard, Magus of Mount Anlor.”

“A pleasure,” said Quill, with a bow of his own.

“This is my secretary, Nattren,” said Jeromb, gesturing to the red faced dwarf behind him, who also bowed.

Ayglos continued, “Zare and I worked for Jeromb two winters ago. Shipwreck recovery with some…monstrous complications.”

Jeromb nodded. “Excellent work. We lost our barge, and then every time we sent divers they came back banged up and shaking with terror, if they came back at all. When Zare Caspian showed up on our doorstep and offered to help, we were more than ready for it. I can’t believe we hadn’t thought of asking nymphs before. Someone who can’t be drowned is perfect for that sort of work.”

“Difficult to drown,” corrected Ayglos.

The dwarf waved his hand dismissively. “Could I persuade you to join me for drinks? In private? Right away? I have a room at the Black Swan.”

The four of us exchanged quick looks.

“We’ll take care of the other thing,” said Quill. “And meet you back at the inn later.”

“Of course.”  I hooked my fingers briefly with Quill’s before turning to Jeromb. “Lead the way.”

*

The Black Swan was a far nicer establishment than the little tavern where we were staying. Jeromb showed us to his suite of rooms warmed by a cheerful fire where we settled on divans stuffed with feathers. A servant knocked a few moments later with a tray of ales and a selection of meats and cheeses. Jeromb set the tray down on a little table and then drank the ale as if he hadn’t had anything to drink in days. Nattren took a glass, bowed to us, and retired to the desk in the corner.

I didn’t remember Jeromb being the nervous sort. Tasting one of the cheese I asked, “Did you lose another barge to the lake?”

“Oh no, no—the lake is fine, and we did hire some nymphs on as you suggested to patrol the lake and keep the denizens under control. No,” Jeromb set down his cup and smoothed his beard. “It’s much worse than that, I’m afraid. Much worse.”

Ayglos and I waited, but instead of explaining, Jeromb produced a pipe and settled into his seat, visibly calming as he went through the ritual of filling his pipe. We made no attempt to fill the quiet. Hunting lake serpents for him had been thrilling and difficult work. We didn’t know how the beasts had gotten into the lake, but they had no natural predators and several of them had gotten so big they were a serious danger to any dwarf who went onto the lake—or into it, as the sunken barge necessitated. We’d cleared out the biggest serpents we could find, and then firmly recommended Jeromb to find and hire nymphs who could live at the lake permanently to make sure this didn’t happen again. Nymphs for his lake had the added benefits of someone knowing the moods of the water and maintaining balance among the creatures.

Anytime we could make a safe place for nymphs we would. The Empire had displaced so many.

After watching Jeromb blow a perfect ring of smoke at the ceiling, Ayglos finally broke the silence, “What brings you to Falletta?”

“An ill wind,” replied the dwarf. “I had been on my way back to Mount Anlor from Galhara—I had business there and, well, beside the point—I was on my way back, and at the border crossing a few of my crates were confiscated by the Empire and I need them back.”

Ayglos said, “Confiscated…by…the Empire?”

Jeromb nodded dolefully. “They said I filled out the paperwork wrong for transporting goods, and took the crates they claimed weren’t accounted for on the paperwork—and of course therefore not part of the border taxes. Which isn’t true, I included all the crates on the paperwork and paid the appropriate fees—astronomical though they are. Bastards just wanted to pocket the extra.”

“What do you think we can do about it?” I asked. “It’s not as though we can apply diplomatic pressure to get your crates back.”

“Don’t be silly. I know that. I don’t want diplomatic pressure. I want you to steal them. No, don’t make that face, highnesses. I know what you do for a living, I’ve heard stories about your exploits—even a rumor that you robbed an Imperial caravan inside the Empire. I’ve seen the wanted posters, too. There’s a wall full of them at the border crossing with Villaba. You’re obviously very good.”

I frowned. “If you’ve seen the wanted posters then you know that going back to the Empire is very dangerous for us.”

Jeromb nodded gravely. “I do. But leaving my crates in their possession is dangerous, too.”

Folding my arms I leaned back, trying to ignore the feeling of dread crawling up my spine. “What’s in the crates?” I growled.

“Mostly trade goods,” said Jeromb—far too quickly. “Wine, dyes, that sort of thing. But. I was also smuggling a design. I’d gone to speak with an old friend to work out some of the parts with which I was having trouble. It was very good to see him again and I was absolutely correct that he’d shake the plan loose and make it all fit.” Jeromb stopped, looked at us, then gestured to Nattren.

The other dwarf looked dubious, but he stood up and crossed to the chest sitting against the wall. He produced a key on a chain from under his shirt, unlocked the chest, and came back to us carrying a package that looked like a trumpet. He unwrapped it, showing the horn shape and curved wooden hilt of the blunderbuss. “You’ve seen our blunderbusses before.”

We nodded. They’d demonstrated their loud and forceful little weapons last time we were here. Nattren nodded and turned away, presenting the weapon next to Jeromb, who picked it up out of its wrapping.

“Well,” said Jeromb, “I’ve designed one that has the pan all one piece with the striker and no match needed—which means no glow to give away your position at night—and a better chance of it going off if it’s raining.” Jeromb held the weapon aloft and pointed to knobs and spurs where the wood met the metal as if we’d know what he was talking about. “I call it the flintlock—since it relies on flint instead of matches, you see. Anyway, it’s a brilliant little weapon and I’m very proud of it.”

“And this is what you’ve lost?” asked Ayglos.

“Yes. My designs are in the hands of the Empire—if they find the false bottom in my crate. You can see how we wouldn’t want them to have those designs—how you wouldn’t either. Imagine every soldier equipped with crossbows they can reload instead of just a few.”

“I thought it took years of training to use a blunderbuss,” I said. “I distinctly remember being told I couldn’t try shooting it because it would probably put a hole in my face.”

Jeromb snorted. “That’s the lie, yes. Any fool can use a blunderbuss. Easy to shoot. Easy to reload…that’s our great secret.”

We stared at him, trying to come to terms with the improbable fact that an entire kingdom was in on a lie.

Finally, Ayglos managed, “Do you know where the plans might be now?”

*

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You keep me writing!

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*

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