The Seventh Moonrise Most Profound
In which two peculiar rogues attempt a heist in the holy city of Svevavevrum.
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The Seventh Moonrise Most Profound
An ill wind washed over the Darou river, bathing a lesser-used dock on the outskirts of Svevavevrum with the unsavory effluvium of rotting flesh. The necrotic stench heralded a long and shallow scow, guided by a punter who poled his craft to an unscheduled stop in order that two distinctly sunburnt and foreign men might disembark. The first to step off was tall and broad, with the countenance of a happy pig. His companion was short and slim, face pinched like a rat who’d lost his tail to a butcher’s knife and never quite gotten over the indignity of it all. Those who’d had the unfortunate displeasure of making his acquaintance knew well he had a personality to match, though they tolerated him for the sake of his more convivial, if intimidating, friend.
“Did we really have to take the corpse barge?” the tall one asked, wiping droplets from his brow with a jacket sleeve that was more sweat than cloth. “I still don’t understand why we couldn’t have walked through the front gates like normal travelers. We’ve never been to Svevavevrum before, Mrank. It’s not like anyone here would recognize us.”
The short one blew his nose on a stained handkerchief, inspected the gob of mottled olive-colored slime embedded within, then shoved the cloth back into his sleeve. “Ruminate on the circumstances which precipitate our visit, Mrink. Do you reckon giving the city guard a chance to scrutinize our arrival is a percipient course of action?”
Mrink—who had long since given up on attempting to correct his partner’s misguided conversational pretentions—had his own thoughts about how difficult it would be for the pair of pale-skinned foreigners to remain inconspicuous in this place no matter how they came into the city. But he was more than well enough acquainted with Mrank to know when an argument was better avoided. “Suppose not. Still, woulda been nice just once.”
Whether the oppressive heat was to blame, or because it didn’t bear discussing any further, the two men continued down the dock in the silence of those accustomed to spending entirely too much time in one another’s company. Mrink knew Mrank better than any other person in the world, and if pressed firmly on the subject, Mrank would begrudgingly admit the same. Neither man had given much thought as to how their bond had first been forged, perhaps unwilling to look too closely at the possibility that neither had met another soul who could tolerate them for any extended period of time. As they each had their unique charms, so too were they possessed of a not insignificant number of inescapable flaws. So many such deficiencies of character, in fact, it was rare for them to stay in any one place too long, lest they find themselves indebted to the local constabulary for a stint of unexpected hospitality.
And so, with no significant haste, the pair made their slow and deliberate way through the city until they came to a large estate perched on the edge of dusty hummock that gave the wealthier citizens of Svevavevrum some illusion of being able to both physically and metaphorically look down upon their lower-class neighbors. Or rather, at a slight downward angle as the case turned out to be. Hot and dry as it was, Mrink and Mrank were damp with sweat and fair parched, but none the worse for fatigue after sauntering up the meandering lane. In Aerdun, from which they’d most recently departed, even simple merchants owned buildings with upper floors that stood taller than the unimpressive single-story dwelling that was their current destination. The inside of the squat villa, however, made a markedly different impression. The main courtyard was lined with lush, tall plants whose fronds cast delicious shade and drooped towards the floor as though bowing in respect to the passing guests. The floor beneath their feet was intricately tiled with a mosaic of some rare stone that glittered in the afternoon sun. No sooner had they crossed halfway, than a servant appeared behind them to sweep away the dust from their passing. Inside the house proper, the floors had been laid with a rich, dark wood of a subtle grain that neither of the pair had seen before. The two men had a keen eye for the appraisal of wealth, and everything from the tapestries, to the ceramics, to the silver and gold thread woven into the furnishings reeked of money as overtly as the barge that had carried them into the city had stunk of decaying human remains.
A servant delivered them to room with a low table surrounded by assortment of plump silk cushions. He bowed and left wordlessly, only for another servant to replace him. This one bore a tray with an ornate tea pot and three small cups. The tray was set upon the table, giving Mrank just enough time to admire the high-quality silver from which everything, tray included, had been crafted, before a woman swathed head to toe with fabric of the most vivid carmine swept into the room. Her headscarf concealed all but her eyes, which shone emerald-green as they appraised the two travel-stained men in front of her. Though Mrink and Mrank knew precious little of the local culture, they had yet to see a woman veiled so. Mrank imagined what kind of disfiguration might give this representative of their prospective employer cause to cover herself so, while Mrink wondered idly how she ate with that thing hanging over her mouth. Did she remove it? Lift it up for each bite?
“My lady,” Mrank said with a curt nod and a feeble hand gesture that was a poor mockery of a bow. “Might you kindly inform your master we await his pleasure?”
“I am master here,” the woman said. Her voice was as dry and merciless as the oceans of sand surrounding this sun-bleached city, though if one was looking for it, they might detect a shimmer of amusement rippling beneath her sternness. “You may call me Yislah. I summoned you here for a specific purpose, so I will spare you any further speculation by making it clear from the outset that my identity is superfluous to the task for which I wish to retain your services.”
“Madam… er, Yislah,” Mrink said respectfully. He knew very little southern Soccorran, but he seemed to recall the word being a generic term for ‘lady’. “Rest assured that discretion is our business. We need only know the nature of the contract, in order that we may fulfill it to the best of our abilities.”
“And the small matter of financial recompense,” Mrank added quickly. “Let’s not forget that detail.”
The woman gestured for the men to sit, then gracefully folded herself onto a cushion opposite them. Once all were settled, she lifted the ornate silver pot and poured a stream of dark tea into each of the three cups. The tea smelled strongly of mint, and was surprisingly refreshing despite its scalding heat. Mrink and Mrank sipped politely, waiting for their host to elaborate on her reasons for summoning them from so far abroad.
“To the matter at hand,” she said after she’d sipped her own tea by slipping the small cup up under her veil. “You are of course familiar with the Sacred Temple of Yeshwara?”
Mrink and Mrank shared the briefest of glances. It was Mrink who said, “Pardon our ignorance, Yislah, but our familiarity with your fine city and its storied history are sorely lacking. Perhaps you would be willing to enlighten your humble servants?”
“The Sacred Temple of Yeshwara is the holiest of holy sites in our lands,” she explained with a visible air of annoyance that this wasn’t already known to the visiting infidels. “The temple itself is older than any other within a hundred thousand miles, built with methods none have been able to replicate to this day. The pride of the Temple is the stained glass depictions of the forty-two aspects of Yeshwara mounted around the base of the central dome. I wish for you to acquire them for me.”
Mrank set his cup down on the table, then leaned back almost far enough to tip over before remembering he was squatting on a cushion and not sitting in a proper chair. “Windows? You want us to steal a bunch of… windows?”
“Forty-two windows, yes.” The Yislah paused to ensure her guests were listening. “They are unlike anything else in the known world. So ancient are they, that the sacred texts of our religion were first scribed from misguided interpretations of these very images. Craftsmen from around Tellen have attempted to replicate them, but none have come close. It is believed they are a relic of what your people call the Forgotten Age, originally crafted by Yeshwara himself.”
Mrink sipped his tea silently, while Mrank spun his cup between thumb and forefinger. No criminal worth their salt wanted to risk failure, or worse, the potential ruination of their carefully established reputation on a frivolous job. Still, sneak-thievery was what they did best, and the windows did sound like a rather unique challenge.
Mrank stopped fiddling with his cup.
“We’ll need to scout the place first,” Mrink said without looking at his partner. “But I don’t see why we can’t nick a few windows for you.”
“Provided the incentive is appealing,” Mrank added, rubbing finger and thumb together and winking meaningfully.
The woman’s eyes narrowed, wrinkles in the corners giving the impression she was smiling beneath her veil. “Bring me the aspects of Yeshwara, and you shall have a thousand gold dihrm. I must advise you to be prudent in your observations. Though the penalty for thievery in Svevavevrum is mere amputation of the hands, this would be another matter entirely. If those antiquated fools at the Temple suspect you’re plotting to steal from them, they will stake you out in the desert and rip your intestines from your bellies, leaving you to beg for death while fire ants feast on your innards.”
“How quaint,” Mrank said dryly. “We’ll be certain to be circumspect in our prefatory scrutinizations of the situation.”
“You come very highly recommended,” the Yislah said. “But I must ask, are you certain you’re up to the task?”
“Everything you’ve heard about us is true,” Mrink said. “If the job is doable, we’re the ones to do it.”
The Yislah looked them each in the eye, then nodded once before rising and sweeping from the room with a soft rustle of fabric. A servant materialized the instant she was gone. After a great deal of grumbling and groaning as the two men unfolded their legs and regained their own feet, they were shown to the door without so much as directions to the Sacred Temple of Yeshwara. It was only after being escorted outside that the servant dropped a small purse in Mrink’s hand. Which, upon inspection, revealed a generous amount of local coin to cover their immediate expenses.
As chance would have it, the pair of thieves spotted the dome the instant they rounded the next bend in the road. In fact, it would have taken an inexplicable fit of blindness to miss it. The temple sat in the direct center of the city, and from their present viewpoint it was just discernable that the main thoroughfares radiated outwards from the building like spokes from the hub of a wheel. The windows were too distant for them to observe any detail of their supposed magnificence, but the way the sun glinted off a band at the base of the whitewashed rock dome was enough for Mrink and Mrank to get a first impression of how difficult they would be to steal. Not only were they mounted in such a way as to be visible from almost anywhere in the city, the dome in which they’d been set was perched several stories above the street. It was by far the tallest building in the area. Even in the dark of night, a prowler on that rooftop would be putting themselves in plain view of anyone who happened to glance up at an inopportune moment.
“Going to be more than a simple in and out,” Mrank murmured once they were inside the temple.
Some sort of afternoon service was in progress, and the pair had slunk into the back row where worshippers prostrated themselves on intricately woven mats. Mrink and Mrank did their best to imitate the movements, eschewing any attempted mimicry of the accompanying chanted prayer in a tongue neither spoke nor understood. Practiced at communicating in hushed tones without having to look at one another, the pair was able to converse without drawing any undue attention for disrespecting the sanctity of worship.
“This nut’s going to be tougher to crack than the MacGillicuddy job,” Mrink muttered. “Too bad we won’t have a mollycoddler or brocket-stalker this time.”
Mrank cast a surreptitious glance at the domed ceiling above them. The sun played through the glass, painting a rainbow of light wherever it fell. “Could probably use a hen-whisperer,” he mused. “Mayhap a trumpet boy or three. Even with a whole assemblage of the nimblest gown-gleamers, we’re talking three months at a minimum.”
“Doubt we’ll find even one local gown-gleamer or hen-whisperer we can trust. I think we’re on our own this time.”
The chanting had been gradually increasing in both speed and volume while Mrink and Mrank held their private conference, but by some unseen signal, it ceased abruptly. Each of the worshippers stood, then clasped hands with the person to either side of them. A man offered a welcome smile, then linked hands with Mrink, who in turn reached for Mrank. Being the last in their row, Mrank had no hand to grasp until everyone began moving, a human chain snaking back and forth along the rows of mats until the head curved around and looped back, linking up with Mrank to form a writhing knot of people. Mrink and Mrank were tugged first left, the right, and back again. Before they could discern any sense of pattern that might allow them to predict the next violent shift in momentum, they were spun alternately forward and backward along each row until they’d made a full winding circuit of the temple and were returned to their respective mats, a little dizzy and quite out of breath.
“I do believe I’ve been struck with a fit of divine inspiration,” Mrank said once the low murmuring chanting had resumed, echoing among the temple walls.
He jerked his chin towards the exit and the two of them backed away with heads bowed. After what they deemed a respectful number of steps, they turned and strolled out through a set of massive bronze doors fitted with steel locking bars that would pose a significant barrier to anyone seeking after-hours entry. It was not until they’d made a circuit of the temple’s exterior, eventually settling into a seat at a cramped and busy tavern in a cluster of shops that had crept so close to the temple only a narrow alley separated them from the holy building, that Mrank grinned and asked his companion if he still had a sweet tooth.
Mrink’s eyes gleamed as comprehension dawned. “I do indeed,” he said, the gears of thought spinning into action. “Going to need the right location, though. And some custom equipment. If I send word to Lovok today, I might be able to get a few barrels of the pure stuff here in a month. It’s not going to be cheap, though.”
Mrank opened his mouth to answer, but was interrupted by a serving boy who, lacking the language to ask what they wanted, simply stood staring expectantly. Equally ignorant of how to make a specific request, Mrank pointed at the small clay cups from which everyone else seemed to be drinking, then pointed to himself and Mrink.
“Our employer will front the money,” he said once the boy had left without so much a nod to indicate he’d understood their request. “Job this big, she ought to comprehend the requirement for a bit of capital to start the process.”
The boy returned quickly, carrying two cups of what turned out to be a milky white substance that wrinkled Mrink’s nose before he even brought it near his lips. He waited for Mrank to dole out the correct coin, then picked up his cup and tapped it against his companion’s.
“May Imrei watch over us,” he said.
“Imrei guide us,” Mrank added.
Made hesitant by the fiercely astringent odor of the drink, Mrink could only wet his lips before grimacing and setting the cup back on the table. Mrank, on the other hand, tossed the entire contents of his cup into his mouth, swished the liquid between his teeth, then swallowed with a loud gulp.
“Bit of an acquired taste, I think,” Mrink said.
“I dunno,” Mrank said, already reaching for Mrink’s cup. His cheeks had gone rosy. “I rather like it. Reminds me of that stuff we had in Trespara.”
Mrink frowned. “Where you got so drunk you gave the sapphire pendant we’d stolen to a two-copper prostitute because you believed you were wooing the Queen herself?”
Mrank tossed the second drink back, grinning at some private memory. “A spirited lass she turned out to be. And more fulsomely sophisticated than most royalty once stripped of her shabby raiment. Buxomly endowed with class, she was.”
The serving boy reappeared, snatching up the two empty cups and eyeing the foreigners with a silent suggestion that they either order another round or vacate their much in-demand seats to one of the clusters of men idling in the entranceway. Mrink sensed his companion was on the precipice of what could very well be a three-day drunk, so he shook his head quickly, then rose and made for the door with enough haste to render Mrank’s protestations impotent.
“Only another hour or two before close of the business day,” Mrink said once they were back on the street. “I’ve plenty of work needs doing before then, and you’ll need your wits about you when you speak with our employer. Meet back here an hour past last light?”
“Very well,” Mrank muttered. He licked his lips and cast a thirsty glance at the tavern door.
“Wait for me outside the tavern,” Mrink added sternly. “No more of that stuff until the job is done.”
A nearly inaudible snort of disagreement was all Mrank offered as he turned and walked down the street. Mrink stood outside the busy tavern a moment, watching until his companion had rounded the corner and was out of sight before venturing out on his own, already trying to figure out how he was going to purchase a suitable building without speaking a word of the local language.
He hummed softly to himself while he walked. Things usually had a way of working out. After all, money was a language readily understood by all. Flash a significant enough pile of silver and gold, and the surliest of strangers were bending over backwards to accomodate you. If Mrank did his job and secured the necessary funds, they’d be well on their way towards bending this city to their will.
Face glistening with a sheen of sweat, Mrink swept scraggly strands of damp hair off his face with the back of a gloved hand before removing a high-sided metal tray from the oven. What had once been a huge quantity of alchemically-refined sugar, coloring, and a sprinkling of secret ingredients known only to Mrink himself, was now a homogenous sheet of iridescent molten resin. Mrink slid the tray onto a wooden table and inspected his handiwork. The previous three batches had all contained striations of uneven color within the molten sugar, but this one was perfect. Before it could cool beyond a workable temperature, he used a flat wooden spatula to peel up a corner that he then folded a third of the way back onto itself. This process was repeated on the other side, then again from top and bottom. Mrink performed this series of folds until the sheet had thickened into a sticky blob. Though hot enough to burn an ill-prepared artisan, Mrink dumped the mass onto a thick marble countertop where he worked it with calloused hands, kneading, folding, rolling, stretching, twisting, and twirling until the undefined glob of sugar had transformed into a spectacularly delicate abstract sculpture. Mrink stood back and gazed at it from several different angles. It pleased him to see how it glistened in the afternoon light streaming down from one of the windows that had been mounted high enough in the wall that no passerby might glimpse the inner workings of the most popular confectionary in Svevavevrum. So popular, in fact, Mrink’s current creation was destined for the Shekh’s palace as the centerpiece for a gala event being held that very evening.
Well, not this particular piece. Mrink stood back from his work, exhaled sharply, then hurled the sculpture at the wall. A moment later, Mrank entered the workshop, feet crunching over the saccharine fragments that were the sole remains of nearly two hours worth of effort.
“We’re falling behind on orders,” he said, slurring his words as he bent to pluck a shard of candy from the ground. He popped it into his mouth and smiled, eyes widening. “Duskmelon? Truly inspired, though I doubt the Shekh and his entourage will appreciate the presentation when I sweep all this up and set a dustpan on their banquet table in a few hours.”
“I’m nearly there,” Mrink grumbled. He’d already opened a new barrel of sugar, one of precious few remaining until their next shipment of the raw stuff arrived from Lovok. He calculated the time it would take to transform the sweet dust into the flavored and colored molten state required for his complex confections, and the numbers came up short. “This would go easier if I had someone to help me.”
Mrank sank into a wooden chair as far away from the heat of the oven as possible. “You said yourself you can’t trust anyone to do a proper job of it.”
“Doesn’t mean I couldn’t use the help.” He plucked a key from a pocket in his apron and tossed it to Mrink. “Fetch me the phial of dragon’s blood, will you?”
Mrank sighed and heaved himself from the chair. He sauntered toward the locked chest where Mrink kept his precious supply of pigments, opened it with the key, and plucked from within a delicate crystal phial of vivid, red liquid that was viscous and oily when he swirled it around. “This really dragon’s blood?” he asked as he handed the jar over. “I’d have thought it’d eat through the glass were that the case.”
Mrink inserted a thin, silver spatula into the phial, carefully extracting a dose of dragon’s blood no larger than the slim white crescent of his smallest fingernail. This was carefully added to the new vat of sugar he was preparing. “No such thing as dragons,” he muttered. “Comes from the sap of a rare tree in Cinnabarum. Worth more than a hundred times its weight in gold, so you be careful putting that back.”
Mrink held the phial up to the light, eyeing it as though he doubted such a thing could come from a tree. He’d seen stranger things, of course, but it was somehow easier to believe a merchant was running around bloodletting dragons and selling the ichor to discerning artists and craftsmen. Not a bad racket, all things considered. Though it wasn’t likely the dragons would be too keen on having their blood taken. Unless they were in for a percentage, that is. That’d have to be it. Dragons loved gold, didn’t they? No matter the con, there was always a middle man demanding a cut. Why should dragons be any different?
A pounding at the door jolted Mrank from his reverie, and the invaluable phial slipped from his grasp. He fumbled it once, then caught it deftly with his other hand, quickly recovering his composure and hoping Mrink hadn’t noticed. He’d been to the narghile houses that morning already, and the musky sweet smoke had a way of muddling his thoughts and actions. Mrink, being the teetotaler he was, didn’t approve of these sorts of indulgences. But what Mrink didn’t know wouldn’t hurt him.
Mrank poked his head out the door into the main storefront. In the process of establishing a legitimate facade behind which they could mask their more clandestine activities, they’d gone so far as to hire a young woman to sell the smaller candies Mrink would knock out each morning before beginning his real labors. Between Mrink’s limited capacity to craft the sweets and the immense popularity of what the locals perceived as an exotic novelty, the shop typically only opened for an hour or two each afternoon before selling out of the day’s stock. The shopgirl had gone home nearly two hours earlier, and the sign out front clearly said they were closed for the day, so it was with a fair bit of caution that Mrank crossed the storefront to peek through one of the windows farthest away from the door. A hawk-eyed woman waited impatiently, her gaze snapping to the window before Mrank had a chance to back away without being seen. Thus detected, he had no choice but to open the door and ask what she wanted.
“Where’s the big one?” she asked, stepping past Mrank and striding towards the workshop.
“Woah, lady!” Mrank said, hastening to shut the door and fasten the bolt. “You can’t go back there!”
But he was too late to stop her. The woman marched in as though she owned the place, seeming to observe the whole of their enterprise without ever taking her eyes off either Mrink or Mrank.
“What in the Eleven Hells of Eld is she doing in here?” Mrink bellowed, hurrying to pull a cloth over his most secret implements and ingredients. “Didn’t I say no one was to enter the workshop?”
“I am the Yislah’s personal envoy,” the woman said coldly. “You are to consider me a direct extension of her authority, and I assure you she cares not for the trivialities of your silly little enterprise.” She gestured dismissively at the various sugar sculptures sitting ready for packaging and shipment. “What does concern her is the delay in performing your agreed-upon task. A task, I should add, against which you have already borrowed substantial funds. I have been sent to demand answers.”
Mrank picked up a discarded ribbon of candy, licking it like a child with a lolly as he sank back into his chair. “We’re working on it. That’s all your Yislah needs to appreciate. Job of this nature takes a little time to execute studiously.”
“You were not brought here to sell… candy.” The envoy looked like it was taking every last bit of her strength to hold herself back from slapping Mrank across the face. “Nearly half a year has passed, and the temple windows remain in place. We’ve received no update from you in weeks. The Yislah demands to know when you plan to act.”
“I’ll never get this piece done at this rate,” Mrink grumbled. “Even so, it’ll still need time to cool and set. I can’t afford these distractions, damn it.” He peeled back the cloth and continued his labor.
Mrank crunched loudly on the end of the candy shard he’d been sucking. “Who’s to say we haven’t already begun?” he asked the envoy. “The Yislah hired us because we’re the preeminent procurers of prohibited property. Tell her she’ll get her windows when the time is ripe, and not a moment before.”
“And will that be before or after a mob of angry sweets merchants storms in here and destroys everything you two have spent the last several months—not to mention a considerable amount of the Yislah’s gold—constructing here?” The envoy waved her hand around the room full of custom-built equipment. “You were warned about drawing undue attention to yourselves, and yet you seem to have gone out of your way to upset a dozen of the most prominent merchants in the city. Is it true you were commissioned to create one of your monstrosities for the Shekh himself?”
Mrink’s fingers curled into fists. Knuckles pressed against the cool marble, he leaned heavily on the counter as if his restraint in not stabbing the envoy was about to bring him to his knees. When he did speak, it was in a low voice that forced the woman to lean forward in order to hear. “Not only is it true, but this interruption is about to make me miss our deadline. Shall I tell the Shekh you are the one responsible for the delay, or shall I lay the blame at the Yislah’s feet?”
Whatever effect this was meant to have fell flat. The Yislah’s envoy only smiled, slipping her hands into a fold of her dress. “How naive you are to think the Shekh would let you keep your head long enough to utter such a ridiculous excuse. Is it your intent to make enemies of everyone here in Svevavevrum?”
“Listen here, lady,” Mrank dropped the piece of candy he’d been chewing to the floor, then ground it beneath his boot heel. “We’re not afraid of the Shekh. And we’re definitely not worried about some fat, pathetic, nut and honey-mush sellers who are miffed because we brought a superior product to this sandflea-bitten culinary backwater. You and your boss lady are just going to have to accept that we’ve got a plan in motion, the details of which ain’t no one’s business but our own. Providing you can keep from blabbing about it to the wrong person, that is.”
The envoy shook her head in frustration, then swept towards the door. Before opening it, she paused and turned back to the two thieves. “I have been told to inform you there will be no more funds forthcoming until the aspects have been delivered. It’s time you expedite whatever ruse you’re playing at, lest you make an enemy of the Yislah. And trust you me, the Yislah is not a woman whose wrath you wish to incur.”
“We don’t need your stinkin’ funds,” Mrank said to a door that had already been slammed shut before he could even open his mouth. He shrugged and looked to his partner. “Think you’ll have that thing done in time?”
“Don’t you have somewhere better to be?” Mrink growled. “Leave me to work in peace already.”
Mrank hopped out of his chair and made for the door. “Delivery cart leaves in two hours,” he called back over his shoulders. “I’ll be back then.”
Shutting out all thoughts of the Yislah, the aspects, and the fact that his partner had clearly been patronizing the narghile houses again, Mrink set himself to the task of creating a showpiece worthy of gracing the Shekh’s table.
“On with it, ya stupid git,” Mrank grumbled when the mule hitched to his covered cart paused to nibble the wilted, leafy-green top of some kind of vegetable that must have fallen from someone’s shopping basket. Mule and driver should both have been home in bed already. Their last delivery of the night had been made—to none other than the Shekh’s palace once Mrink had finally declared his masterpiece worthy of gracing the most honored table in the city—but Mrank had one last appointment to keep. A nightly appointment he hadn’t missed since first arriving in Svevavevrum. Whistling a tune from a time and place so far away it seemed little more than a hazy dream in this dusty oven of a city, he guided the mule to the tavern he’d since learned was called The Seventh Moonrise Most Profound. The name wasn’t the weirdest thing about the place. From what Mrank had eventually been able to puzzle out, they served one thing, and one thing only. The viscous drink Mrink and Mrank had tasted on their first day in the city was called zhirsz, and was considered something of a local specialty. There were a number of taverns selling the stuff, each boasting the finest distillation of what was essentially a heady mixture of fermented goat’s milk, persimmon nectar, and an undisclosed assortment of secret herbs.
Whatever it was, Mrank had acquired a taste for it. The locals preferred to nurse one cup for hours, sipping slowly while they argued and gesticulated in the local language. Mrank felt no such compulsion to similar restraint. The first cup he ordered each night went straight down the hatch in a single gulp. The second cup lasted a scant two swallows longer. It wasn’t until the third that he resorted to more sparing sips. This wasn’t due to any sense of propriety. Rather, it had more to do with the fact that after two cups of zhirsz, everything went a little wibbly-wobbly. Scents dulled, and the air grew thick and languid. Mrank’s lips felt overly large and heavy, sticking to his dry teeth. While sober, he’d picked up no more than a few basic words of the local language. By this third cup of zhirsz, however, he was certain he could follow the conversations flowing around him by simply plucking the words from the air with his fingers and tasting the shape of them. The couple next to him for instance—both men since women didn’t seem to be allowed in the zhirsz taverns—spoke of love that transcended the bounds of fraternal, becoming something more hot-breathed and sweaty beneath the impenetrable blanket of a moonless night. Either that or they were arguing about the price of beans.
It was only when the last droplets of his third serving of zhirsz has been licked from the bottom of his cup that Mrank staggered to his feet and made his careful way to the exit where he dropped two copper santir into the serving boy’s out-stretched hand. One for the drinks, and another for the boy’s unfailingly prompt service. The boy, as was his wont, scowled even as he slipped the extra santir into some hidden pocket in the folds of his shirt with a smoothly practiced gesture. Mrank smiled at the thought of what kinds of things the kid had might pilfer with a bit of training in the finer arts of separating people from their valuables.
Back on the street some indeterminate amount of time later, unpopulated at this hour but for the odd straggler returning home from a night of quaffing zhirsz or smoking narghile, Mrank sauntered around to the back of the building in search of his cart and mule. They were right where he’d left them, backed into the alleyway that was so narrow he’d practically had to scrape the cart up against the wall of the Sacred Temple of Yeshwara in order to leave room for someone on foot to squeeze by on the far side. He climbed up into the driver’s seat and took up the reins. Leaning in towards the mule, he said, “There now Esmerelda, our day is nearly done. There’ll be a pinch of sugar in your grain tonight. You’ve earned it, ya have.”
“I’d be happier with a venison stew and a mug of old Tibor’s dark ale,” said a quiet voice from within the back of the cart. “What took you so long?”
Never taking his eyes off the road, or otherwise acknowledging his clandestine passenger, Mrank spoke without moving his lips. “I’ve only had my usual three cups. Couldn’t have been more than three quarters of an hour. Hour and a quarter at most.”
“I’ve been waiting for almost two hours,” the voice replied, pitched with frustration. “I’m starving back here. There’s nothing but broken bits of my sculptures on the floor. Too many broken bits, by the way. You’ve got to be more careful when transporting deliveries to our customers.”
“Keep some goat jerky in your pocket next time,” Mrank replied. “Besides, we’ve only got one customer that matters. Any problems tonight?”
“The plaster around the edge of the window was in better shape than the others. Took me longer to scrape it off. Aside from that, it was a simple enough swap. You make our payment to the merchant guildmaster today?”
“Shit, almost forgot.” Mrank shut his eyes tight, then opened them again, trying to focus his blurry vision. His tongue seemed to have grown a size, making speaking rather difficult. “He’s getting antsy. Sweets sellers are mad ‘cause he won’t revoke our license. I’ll drop the payment first thing tomorrow morning.”
“I’m going to try to nap,” Mrink said resignedly. “Wake me when we’re back.”
Mrank nodded and returned his attention to the mule directly in front of him. After several unfortunate accidents, he’d learned this was the mule to watch, as it most closely resembled the original mule he’d begun the day with. The one on the left was a tricky one, floating three feet in the air as she was. That one was always trying to lead Mrank too far to the side of the road where the cart would inevitably crash into something. The three-headed mule on the right wasn’t so bad, if a little chatty. Thankfully mules rarely had anything interesting to say, so all three heads were safe to ignore. Tonight, like many other nights prior, it was important Mrank make it back to the shop without an incident that might damage the precious cargo in the back. Or potentially worse, attract the wrong sort of attention from an overzealous city guard who might want a peek at what was being transported at such a late hour. All he had to do was concentrate on the mule in the middle for a little while longer, though the zhirsz was doing its level best to drag him down to sleep.
And so, night after night, the M&M Confectioners delivery cart concluded a long day of deliveries by pulling into the alley behind The Seventh Moonrise Most Profound sometime after midnight. To the casual observer, it was always the same routine. The driver hopped down from the wooden bench mounted at the front of a covered cart with the shop name emblazoned on the side. He patted his mule’s flank while muttering a few affirming words, then went into the tavern where he consumed exactly three cups of zhirsz over a period that was never less than three quarters of an hour, though oftentimes longer than it ought to have been. He paid on his way out, tipped well, and climbed back aboard his cart so that he could return to the shop where the draft mule would be watered and fed.
But of course, the driver being who he was, and the cart so conveniently parked against the Sacred Temple of Yeshwara as it was, those weren’t the only things happening in the darkness of night. On nights when the sky was clear enough for light of the moon to illuminate the temple roof, the covered cart was empty save for a few wooden slat boxes stuffed with waxed paper and straw used to cushion and protect the delicate sugar sculptures so highly in-demand among the city’s wealthier inhabitants. More often than not as of late, the cart concealed the cramped form of a man too tall and broad to be hiding in such a small space without a considerable amount of discomfort. While the driver was settling in at his regular table inside the tavern, the man in the cart was slipping out the back, his mottled gray cloak and clothing blending into the shadows. From a hidden compartment in the base of the cart, he’d remove a stiff leather case affixed with two shoulder straps, the dimensions of which were precisely that of your average ancient and priceless stained-glass window.
By the time our driver was knocking back his first cup of zhirsz, the man with the leather case had climbed atop the cart, then used a series of ledges and decorative features to ascend to the roof of the Sacred Temple of Yeshwara, where he’d pause to run his fingertips lovingly over the impossibly thin and clear window panes. It was only after this moment of quiet contemplation of the long-forgotten artistry that had gone into crafting such exquisitely precise glasswork, that the rooftop prowler would un-sling the leather case from his back, and begin the process of stripping weathered mortar from one of the windows. This procedure had to be undertaken with deliberate care to neither damage the delicate glass panes, nor alert anyone to his presence through the echoing clink of hammer on chisel. With a solvent of his own formulation, the thief would coat the mortar at the edge of his chosen windowpane, dissolving it into a paste that could then be soundlessly scraped clean. Once the window was free of its frame, it was a simple matter of replacing it with an uncanny replica crafted entirely of colored sugar glass. The sugar glass was not quite so translucent, the details were not nearly so fine, and the alchemically-treated glass would eventually fade and crumble beneath the harsh Svevavevrum sun, but the thief and his partner would be long gone by then. And of course, measurably richer for their efforts.
While the driver lingered over his third cup of zhirsz, doing his level best to keep from laying down on the floor of The Seventh Moonrise Most Profound, curling up into a ball, and dissolving into a puddle of organic goop not dissimilar to the local sweets so popular in this city before the M&M Confectioners had made their mark, our thief was clambering back down the side of the Sacred Temple of Yeshwara. The leather case complete with priceless stained glass window pane was stowed in its secret compartment, and the thief would crawl into the back of the canvas-draped cart without anyone having seen him. Cart and cargo were returned to the workshop, where the thief and driver unloaded the remnants of their legal and illicit labors.
On this particular night, after the broad-shouldered thief had liberated his thirty-seventh window pane and was looking forward to a few hour’s sleep before beginning a new day of crafting his sensational sugar statues, his partner leaned wearily against the back gate of the now empty cart. Its more precious secret cargo had been stashed in an even more secret cache within the workshop.
“Bad news,” he said, blinking away his partner’s ghostly twin. “Overheard some scuttlebutt in the Seventh Moonrise tonight. Weather wardens are convinced rain is on the way.”
The contented smile from a satisfying day’s work melted from Mrink’s face like shattered shards of sugar glass dumped into a hot oven. “What do you mean rain? We’re in the gods-damned desert. It doesn’t rain in Svevavevrum.”
“Dunno what to tell ya. Wardens say rain is coming. Three days hence. Maybe four. I’d be tempted to disbelieve ‘em, but the proof is in the air. No dark clouds on the horizon or anything, but I can practically smell it in the air. First time I’ve been able to breathe easy in this city since we got here.”
“You won’t be breathing easy when those windows start to melt.” Mrink shrugged out of the gray cloak that was much too warm for the climate, even in the comparative coolness of night. “Remember what the Yislah said about stakes in the sand, ripped out guts, and fire ants? We’re as good as dead if we’re still here when that rain hits the false windows. They’ll hold up for a few hours, a day at most, but that’s about it. Sooner or later, someone’s going to notice their sacred windows are dissolving.”
“Guess we’ll have to double up our efforts for a couple of nights.” Mrank raised an eyebrow. “You up for it?”
Mrink paced across the storage room a few times, chewing his lip as he only did when he was anxious or concentrating very hard. In this case, it was both. There were still five windows left to procure, and the leather case and secret compartment in the base of the cart had been designed and built specifically to hold only a single pane of glass at a time.
“Two of the last five false panes have been crafted,” he said after a moment’s quiet contemplation. “If I rig them carefully, I can haul both up on a single trip tomorrow. Same for getting the originals down. That leaves three the night after. Won’t be pretty, but I can knock out three simple dupes if I skimp on our regular orders and go without sleep. The last three’ll be damned obvious in the light of morning, but with luck we’ll be out of the city by then. It’s also going to take a while to make all the swaps on the last night. Three hours at a minimum. Think you can last that long in the Seventh Moonrise?”
Mrank grinned broadly. “You have your talents, and I have mine. I’ll spend the night in there if I have to. Besides, I think I’m building up a bit of a tolerance to the stuff. Only bumped the cart once on the way home tonight.”
Already rolling up his sleeves in preparation for a long shift of melting sugar and shaping it into basic imitations of the three remaining windows, Mrink said, “We’ll have to cram all the real windows into the cart before we go out tomorrow. Make a false delivery run, then head straight to the Seventh Moonrise. Once we have the last three panes, we go directly to the Yislah’s villa to deliver them and collect our pay.”
“And we’re out of the city before the sun rises.”
“As far gone from this place as we can be. Now come help me get started; I have an important errand to run tomorrow morning, so we’ll have to get right to work.”
Mrank stifled a yawn and followed his partner into the workshop. It wouldn’t be the first time they forwent a night of sleep for the sake of a heist, but never had quite so much been riding on the result. Before going to light the oven fires, he ladled himself a cup of cool water from the cistern at the back of the workshop in an effort to wash away the grogginess of three cups of zhirsz. They were in a proper race against time now. If it rained before dark, they would have no choice but to flee, abandoning their client and payment both. But if the rain held off for just one more day, they’d walk away with more money than they’d ever earned on a single job. Not to mention one hell of a story to whisper to the right sort of people.
Finally, things were beginning to get interesting.
It was an hour past sunrise by the time the two thieves completed their labors in the workshop. This left them only an hour to sleep before rising again, downing a few cups of thick and bitter local coffee before setting out to take care of their respective business. Mrink wouldn’t say where he was off to, and Mrank didn’t ask. He had enough to worry about, what with seeding a few bribes around the various city gates in order to grease their passage later that night. It was evening by the time he returned to the workshop, having arranged for a mule and a less conspicuous back-up cart to be waiting outside the eastern gate, laden with water and provisions for the four day overland journey to the coast. Arrangements were also made for another cart to depart from the northern gate, driven by a team of two hired locals who had been paid handsomely to leave a false trail by journeying a week’s distance before making their slow way home again. From the coast, Mrink and Mrank would board a ship and escape with their reward. Preferably to some place less hot and sandy. And far away from the local authorities who would take little time to connect the foreign confectioners to the sugar-glass windows left in place of their holiest of holy relics.
Mrank strolled into the workshop to find his partner staring wistfully at the trappings of the little life he’d built for himself. “Nearly ready?”
“Ready enough, I suppose.”
“You going to miss it?”
Mrink shrugged. “It’s not as exciting as proper thieving, but it was nice for a while. Can’t say I’ll miss reaching into that blazing hot oven a hundred times a day, though.”
“I’m well past ready to put this city behind us. I hear Reziavalle is nice this time of year. Fancy a visit to the famous card houses of Via de Strezza?”
“Bad luck to talk about spending the prize before it’s in our pockets,” Mrink said. He’d always been the more superstitious of the two.
Still, his caution and focus had kept them from the hangman’s noose on enough occasions for Mrank to humour him. He let the subject drop and turned his attention to the delivery cart where it had been backed into the workshop so the holy aspects could be loaded in for delivery to the Yislah. It was a tight fit, but with a bit of rigging to expand the canvas, they made it work.
“Is it just me, or is there a distinct lack of room for a man of your stature to stowe himself in the back of this cart what with all this priceless glass jammed in there?”
“I’ve rigged a sling in the undercarriage,” Mrink said with a sigh. “But don’t expect me to ride all the way out to the Yislah’s place down there. I’ll do my work on the roof, then I’ll sit the bench with you. Won’t matter much if someone sees the both of us after the shadow work is done.”
“Right. Long as it’s not me down there. I hate the damn sling.”
“At least the road won’t be two feet of muck this time. Remember Alabain? Three straight weeks of rain on that job, and we still got through it. We can survive one night of showers here.”
“Looks like we might have to.” Mrank stifled a yawn. “Sky is awful dark out there. Them clouds look ready to burst at any second.”
Mrink took one last look around the shop. “Let’s get going then. It’s a bit early, but if the rain hits, the streets should be empty enough for me to work unseen.”
The big thief went to the carriage and wriggled into the set of slings suspended beneath it. With a few tricky adjustments, he was able to tighten the straps enough to keep himself pressed tightly to the underside. No one would see him unless they bent low enough to peer beneath the false trim that extended below the edge of the carriage base proper. It was far from comfortable, but he’d endured worse for longer. Even with the detour of a false delivery, it was barely half an hour before the cart slowed to a halt in its accustomed spot behind The Seventh Moonrise Most Profound. He waited until he heard the shuffling footsteps of his partner fade in the distance before slipping free of his restraints. Once he was certain he was alone, he retrieved the modified leather case, strapped it to his back, and began to climb.
Mrink was midway through smearing solvent on the second window’s mortar when the first drops of rain marked their arrival as dark splotches on the dusty window ledge. At first the rain was pleasant. The temperature cooled noticeably, and the dampness was more pleasant to breathe than the stale dusty air that had thus far clogged his nostrils with black gunk. It quickly became apparent, however, that the layers of accumulated dust on the building was mixing with the rainwater to form a slippery film that made every step more dangerous than the one before it. Worse, the rain was washing away the solvent before it could do its work. Mrink had to resort to scraping the mortar away, a noisy process that was mercifully dampened by what had become a heavy rainfall beating a steady rhythm against the domed temple roof. And if the rain was any blessing in giving him cover with which to hide his trip to the cart in order to deposit the first two windows and to pick up the remaining false pane, it was entirely mitigated by how difficult it made climbing the increasingly slippery temple wall in order to snatch the last window.
Meanwhile, inside The Seventh Moonrise Most Profound, Mrank was facing troubles of an entirely different sort. Feeling puffed-up and proud over a job nearly done, he’d downed his first three cups more quickly than usual. There were no timepieces inside the little tavern, making it difficult to discern quite how long he’d been sitting there. After his fifth cup, he tried to ask the serving boy for the time, but his tongue betrayed him, speaking Aerdish, Kvastian, Cardhish, Lovok, and even a little old Vhentian. Anything and everything but the harsh dialect of southern Soccorro. The boy simply stared at him, then walked away, returning a moment later with a sixth cup of zhirsz.
By his eighth cup, Mrink had forgotten his own name and why he was sitting in a tavern instead of at home and in bed. Few other patrons remained by this time, but those who lingered over their cups cast frequent glances his way. Curious smiles that had begun bemused, transfigured into undisguised mockery. Though he’d picked up a bit more of the local language in recent weeks, he could understand none of what was being said about him. Panicked, he concluded they must be speaking in some sort of cipher. And what reason might they have to do so? His motives for idling in the tavern resurfaced like a slap in the face. The windows. They knew about the Yislah and the game he and Mrink been playing with sugar glass. It was as transparent as the forty-two aspects of Yeshwara themselves. They’d been played as patsies. Given a fool’s errand, only to be arrested and pinned to the sand so that ants could feast on their innards while the city laughed at the two worst thieves in all of Tellen.
“What are you doing in here?” asked a hulking mass that blotted out the lantern light behind it.
Slime dripped from the creature, splattering on the table while Mrank shrunk back, cowering against the plush velvet upholstery of his booth seat. He held his hands up for mercy, too terrified to do anything but blubber a prayer to Imrei who watches over those who sneak amongst the shadows.
“Shut your damn mouth, you idiot,” the creature whispered harshly. “Do you want everyone to hear you praying to the goddess of thieves?”
A glimmer of comprehension penetrated the fog in Mrank’s head. That voice sounded awfully familiar. Either the creature had consumed his partner and taken his form, or it was actually… “Mrink?”
“It’s been four hours,” Mrink said. “I got tired of waiting for you to come back. Let’s go.”
Too numb to speak, Mrank could only allow himself to be dragged from the booth. They were nearly at the door when he remembered he had yet to pay for his drinks. The coins in his purse all looked the same, so he plucked four at random and handed them to the serving boy, who seemed to have sprouted horns from his forehead at some point in the evening.
The boy’s eyes lit up. He clutched the coins to his heart and bowed deeply several times, babbling excitedly all the while. Mrink had no idea what the kid was saying, but he didn’t have much time to puzzle it over since he was otherwise occupied with being dragged into the street by the wrist. A swarm of tiny needles stung him from above, and it was only after looking directly into the sky and flinching away from the drops falling into his eyes and mouth that he realized it was raining heavily.
“Did you mean to give that kid silver dihrm?” Mrink asked as they hurried to the cart. “That’s probably more coin than he earns in a year.”
Mrink didn’t answer. It was all he could do to climb into the driver’s seat of the cart. The tiny awning extending out from the covered portion of the cart did little to keep the rain from splashing on his face, and he belatedly remembered to draw his cloak closed and pull the hood up over his head. Thus protected from the worst of the stormy weather, he reached for the reins… and missed.
“Gods, you really are smashed, aren’t you?” Mrink said. “I’ll drive. You focus on trying not to fall off the cart.”
Fingers aching from his labors atop the temple, Mrink took the reins and set the mule to walking. It immediately became apparent that Svevavevrum had not been built for rain. Decades of fine-grained sand that had been ground against the wide stone cobbles beneath boots and wheels had polished them to a slippery sheen. The selfsame sand normally provided enough friction for pedestrians and carts to keep their footing with little issue, but the sudden deluge of rainwater had washed away the only thing keeping the streets from becoming veritable sheets of glass. The irony was not lost on Mrink as he urged the poor mule away from the temple and towards the long climb to the Yislah’s villa. The entire heist had relied on Mrink swapping out the real windows for his fake sugar glass, and now that they’d successfully swiped the last of them, all forty-two priceless panes in the back of the cart were at risk of being smashed because the streets had become as slick as anything he could have produced in his workshop.
“Of all the bloody things to happen,” he grumbled. They were still several blocks from even beginning the climb to the Yislah’s villa, and moving at a snail’s pace. Any slower and they’d be sliding backwards. Wait, were they sliding backwards?
Mrink leaned over the edge of the cart. Thankfully, the ground was moving the right way. It was only a trick of the rain and the shadows being cast from the light of several flickering lanterns in the street behind them that made it seem as if they were rolling backwards.
That wasn’t right. Lanterns in the street? At this hour? In this weather? Mrink leaned out again, sucking his breath in at the sight of a dozen cloaked men approaching from behind.
“Mrank,” he said casually, “did you by any chance forget to deliver our special guild dues to the guildmaster?”
“Huh?” Mrank lifted his chin from where it had been resting on his chest as he dozed. “What’s this?”
“The bribe,” Mrink clarified. “Did you bribe the guildmaster yesterday like you were supposed to?”
“Oh, that. No. If you recall, I was a little in my cups last night, and what with us on our way out of town, it didn’t seem worth the trouble.”
“Ah, that would be it then.”
They rode in silence a moment longer before Mrank finally caught on that all was not right in the streets of Svevavevrum. “Mrink, have you noticed a rather large group of angry men approaching us from the rear? This may be the zhirsz talking, but I believe one of them is brandishing a rolling pin?”
“It appears an angry mob of sweets merchants have at last come to have a frank word with us.” Mrank briefly considered giving the mule a sharp kick in the rump, but it seemed unnecessarily cruel. The animal was doing its level best, and there was nothing any of them could do to help it move faster in such appalling conditions.
“Stop this cart at once!” a man shouted in heavily accented Aerdish as he drew even with them.
Mrink reached up to pinch the edge of his hood, miming a tip of his cap. “Evening to you fine gentlemen. Would that I could, but I fear we’d never get her moving again should we stop in this weather. As you can see, we’re not exactly making the best speed at present. Perhaps we can walk and talk?”
The rest of the men had caught up with the cart by this time, surging ahead to surround it on all sides. One man stepped in front of the mule in order to slice at the reins with a knife that looked more suited to a kitchen than threatening someone in the street. He stumbled and almost fell in his attempt to hack the reins free, but to his credit the blade was well cared for, quickly severing Mrink’s control over the mule. Confused and annoyed, the animal slowed to a halt, sniffing at the newcomers in the hopes of receiving a treat.
“Oh gods,” Mrank grumbled. “Are we really being accosted by a gang of bakers? Get out of our way, you imbeciles! We’ve business to be about.”
“It’s your business we’ve come to discuss with you,” the man beside them said. “You’re ruining us with your preposterous novelties. We are artisans with generations of proud history behind us. Who are you to trespass on our traditions?”
“Just a couple of enterprising travelers,” Mrink said with his most placating smile, “who had no intention of giving offense to any of you. Your complaints are duly heard and noted, my good man. Come the morrow, we will cease our operations immediately!”
“By Yeshwara you will,” muttered one of the men in the back. “We will make certain of it!”
“No need for troub—”
Mrink was silenced by the sound of something decidedly more sinister than a kitchen implement colliding with the cart’s rear wheel. The heavy thwack of an axe was followed by another, and soon there were several men taking turns swinging away at the wheels. Some of the axe blows caught the fabric covering the cart’s precious cargo, while others crippled the reinforced stays that had allowed Mrink to boost himself onto the first good handholds of the temple wall. Mrank had an excellent sense for when he could talk himself out of a sticky situation, and when the time for sweet words had long past. This situation was rapidly becoming the latter, if not a time for all out running away to save one’s skin.
“Blasphemy!” cried a voice from the back of the cart. There was a sound of ripping fabric. “See what these interlopers have wrought!”
“Mrank,” Mrink said calmly. “I do believe it’s time we take our leave.”
The severity of the situation seemed to have penetrated the surly little thief’s zhirsz-addled brain. “I wholeheartedly concur.”
The pack of merchants migrated to the back of the cart where they were pushing and shoving for their chance to peer inside and catch a glimpse of whataver had so agitated their co-conspirator. Taking this opportunity to alight from the cart, Mrink and Mrank strolled casually away.
“What sacrilege is this?” the merchant who’d first accosted them shouted. “Profane likenesses of the sacred aspects of Yeshwara crafted from sugar? This cannot be tolerated! Destroy them! Grind them to dust!”
Even amidst the heavy patter of raindrops bombarding the streets and buildings around them, the unmistakable sound of glass being smashed echoed behind Mrink and Mrank as they stepped into a narrow side street that led neither to their workshop nor the Yislah’s villa, but rather on a more direct path out of town.
“Pity we won’t be getting paid,” Mrank said, his voice devoid of any real concern. “It was a fun game while it lasted, though.”
Mrink nodded his agreement. “I’ll be sad to let the shop go, but the night’s not over yet. We’ve one more stop to make.”
“I hope it’s to an apothecary. This zhirsz seems to be getting the better of me, and this accursed rain isn’t helping either.”
“Our last errand won’t fix your hangover, but it might help your mood.”
Mrank said nothing. He simply followed his partner through several twists and turns, ears alert for the sound of footsteps indicating that the mob of angry merchants had discovered that what they’d been so angrily smashing wasn’t a fabrication of colored sugar. If pursuit ensued, it didn’t find them. After three-quarters of an hour Mrink stopped and knocked on a nondescript door.
A man in an apron opened the door and peered past Mrink and Mrank as though looking for signs of trouble. It didn’t escape Mrank’s notice that beneath the apron, the man wore clothing of cut and quality better suited to nobility than that of a mere kitchen worker. “I did not expect you to follow through on your end of the bargain. I take it our agreement stands?”
“That it does,” Mrink said. “Is the cart ready?”
“Loaded to your specifications.”
Mrink produced from his pocket the key to their workshop on the other side of town. He hesitated before handing it over. “You may experience some slight resistance from the other sweets merchants when you re-open.”
“You just leave that to me.” The man smiled broadly, then reached out to take the key. “Pleasure doing business with you. Now if you don’t mind, I have much work waiting for me.”
“What was that all about?” Mrank asked as they went around to the back of the building where a cart and an unamused mule stood waiting in a covered alcove. “Did you trade that man our workshop for a cart and mule? I’ve already procured a fully stocked conveyance for us.”
The two men climbed aboard, and this time Mrank took the reins. He maneuvered the cart out into the alley, and set the mule on a course for the nearest city gate.
Beside him, Mrink twisted in his seat to peek beneath the tarpaulin covering what looked like little more than the water and food stores they’d require for their crossing to the coast. When he turned back, he was grinning from ear to ear.
“That man was the third son of the Shekh,” Mrink explained. “He sought me out after seeing my centerpiece for the Shekh’s party. Offered to buy the shop and all the secrets of my arts.”
“Six hundred gold dihrm.”
“Not bad. A little better than half what the Yislah would have paid us, but a decent haul for half a year’s work.”
“That’s not all that’s in the cart,” Mrink said. “While you were smoking narghile and loafing about town—“
“Making important connections that kept us from getting our wallets emptied and our heads bashed in by the local thieves guild, merchant’s guild, and what passes for a local constabulary, you mean.”
”—I was banking our earnings from the confectionary shop with our friend there.”
“We turned a profit?” Mrank mulled this over. “I’d just assumed we were barely breaking even, what with the cost of importing all that sugar from Lovok. How much did we pull in.”
“A little more than seven hundred gold dihrm all told.”
“Seven hundred?” Mrank mulled this over before adding, “If I’d have known how lucrative this candy-making business was, I’d have suggested we set up shop a long time ago. Not here, though. Too much sand. Gets everywhere. It’s almost enough to make a man go straight.”
“Too much work, though.”
“Too much of the wrong kind of work,” Mrink corrected.
“Ain’t that the truth.”
They rode on in amiable silence. It was the silence of those accustomed to spending entirely too much time in one another’s company. Mrank pulled his hood down low to protect him from the rain that had already slackened to a light drizzle, daydreaming of how he’d spend his share of the prize. If he knew his partner, there was already another job taking shape in that big, knobby head of his. The sooner they rid themselves of this pile of coin, the sooner they could be about the business of stealing another.
Update: This story was originally published over 3 separate posts and has since been merged into one page for easier reading.
Cutting this story up into 3 parts is a bit of an experiment in delivering fiction that's longer than a short story and too short to properly serialize week to week. I hope some of you enjoy the bite-sized format, and that the rest of you don't mind waiting until the end of the week to either read all 3 pieces or download an ebook.