The Seventh Moonrise Most Profound - Part 2
In which our thieves play to their respective strengths.
If you missed Part 1, or if you’d like to download an ebook version of this story, you can find them here.
The Seventh Moonrise Most Profound
“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.
Continue with Part 3…