The Seventh Moonrise Most Profound - Part 1
In which two peculiar rogues arrive 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.
Continue with Part 2…