Nessis Romen knew that this was that day, the day he was finally going to make his mark. He sat on an old abandoned crate at the intersection where Main and Commercial Streets met the Street of Travellers. The air was ripe with possibilities, as well as with the odor of fish, spices, and unwashed sailors. The docks were a riot of movement, as workers carried freight from ships to warehouses, from warehouses to ships, and from ships to other ships. Vendors hawked merchandise, traders bargained with shippers, and the sound of their voices blended together with the cacophony of screegulls and sailors. Nessis waited, and watched, knowing that if he just kept his eyes open, the right opportunity would present itself.
And so it did. There in the distance, Nessis noticed an overburdened sailor about to lose his sack. The hapless wight proceeded slowly up from the docks toward Travellers. To Nessis it looked like the sailor was carrying everything he had ever owned, and that was quite possibly true. A rucksack, large and tied with red rope, hung off the sailor’s shoulders. A smaller sack of calico was tucked under one arm. His other arm clutched a third bag of old sailcloth. None of those sacks or bags, however, caught Nessis’ eye nearly so much as the faded green bag tucked precariously under the bag on the sailor’s right side. It wasn’t big, but Nessis could see it would soon fall to the ground. Once there, it could be anyone’s property.
Nessis wondered what was inside the green bag as he dropped his coat into his own dirty rucksack and walked into the stream of traffic flowing through the intersection. Nessis set a fast pace and soon slipped in behind the sailor. From the way the green bag was bulging, it seemed to be filled with some sort of rods. Nessis aped the man’s pace and posture, staying close behind him but out of the man’s sight. Nessis carried his own rucksack as if it were heavier than it really was, shifting it from side to side like he were trying to balance a load. He watched the green bag slip further out of its resting place. Soon it would fall.
Suddenly the sailor turned aside. Caught unaware, Nessis was slow in reacting, and a passing workman came between them. As he waited for the worker to pass, Nessis saw that the sailor was heading for two guards who were on their morning rounds. Nessis knew one of the guards, a sour individual by the name of Liat. They had encountered each other often over the years. Nessis usually didn’t fare well in those meetings.
“Pardon me, sir,” the sailor started. The nearest guard, the new one that Nessis didn’t know, turned to face the sailor, who continued. “Where might I find the home of Aardvard Factotum?” The guard shifted uncomfortably from one foot to the other and stammered incoherently.
“Up this road, over the causeway, and in Old Town,” growled Liat. Without even stopping, Liat continued on his round, and the other guard quickly turned away to follow him. Nessis breathed a sigh of relief.
“Straight,” replied the sailor, just as Nessis intentionally walked into him. The impact finally dislodged the green bag. Just as it fell free Nessis dropped his own light sack over the smaller green bag, hiding it.
“Oy, pardon,” Nessis muttered in a fake accent, making a fuss over his own sack. The sailor scowled at him.
“No problem,” the sailor grunted, and moved off. Nessis watched him go out of the corner of his eye, making a show of opening his sack and repacking his coat until the man was out of sight. Then Nessis lifted his sack, grabbed the small green bag, popped the bag into his sack, and returned to his starting spot at the corner of Travellers and Commercial.
When he arrived back at his makeshift lookout, Nessis found it occupied by a lad named Josey. As the man approached, the boy hopped off the abandoned crates, yielding the perch. Nessis was older than Josey by at least a decade.
“Whatcha got?” asked Josey.
“Goods and things, stuff and rings,” Nessis rhymed as he sat down and opened his sack. He looked around to see if he was being watched, but no one seemed to be trying to pick him out of the milling crowd. He reached down into the rucksack and examined the knot that tied the green bag shut. It was a right sailorly knot, but Nessis had been stealing around docks for a while and he easily untied it. He opened the green bag and looked inside. Sure enough, it was filled with tubes. He took one out and examined it. The tube was heavy, and made of colorful paper rolled tightly together. One end had been crimped together and covered with a blunt cap of clay, the other was plugged with clay and had a stout bit of twine sticking out. The twine was also covered in clay.
“What’s in it?” asked Josey.
“Nothing you can’t see without a coin,” replied Nessis.
“Let me see!” piped Josey, ignoring the double negative, and Nessis showed him the tube. Josey held the tube string end up and shook it. “It’s full! Can I open it?”
“No, let me,” Nessis replied, hoping to hide his own ignorance. He took the tube back and, feigning confidence, pulled the stiff cord. It came out, crumbling the clay cap. The end of the string was covered in a gritty black substance. Nessis tasted it, then spat.
“Has it gone off?” Josey asked.
“No, it’s just right,” Nessis said. “It’s saltpeter, and sulfur. It’s supposed to taste like that.”
“Like that,” Nessis replied, as if the matter were obvious. He thought for a moment. “Like a love tonic.”
“A tonic is a drink,” replied Josey, sardonically. “That’s a powder. You don’t really know what it is, do you? I bet you pinched it!”
Nessis knew that Josey knew that Nessis didn’t know what it was, just as Josey also knew that Nessis had, in fact, just pinched the bag, but he needed to keep up appearances.
“What an idea!” Nessis replied, tapping the tube against his hand and examining the glistening powder which came out. “Pinched it? Why, I am an honest businessman, out on a fine day like today to make an honest living selling my wares.” The powder inside the tube was staying inside the tube, so Nessis gave it a smart rap against the side of the crate. The powder now poured more freely.
“You don’t even know what it does,” sniffed Josey, and slipped off, leaving Nessis to consider his newly-gotten wares.
A bell later Josey again passed by the corner of Travellers and Commercial Street. At first he did not see Nessis there, so he sat down on the old crate. After a mene his roving eye picked the familiar face out of a small knot of folk on the other side of the wide intersection. Josey got up and sauntered over, arriving just as the group broke up, with everyone but Nessis wandering off. Nessis was wearing a small vendor’s ware-box that he used occasionally. In it lay the paper tubes.
“Sell any yet?” Josey asked as he walked up. He reached in to pick one up, but Nessis slapped his hand away.
“Not with riff-raff like you scaring off the customers, I’m not. Go away!” Nessis was obviously tense, but Josey could tell most of his fury was feigned.
“What are you calling them?”
“What they are, of course! You, sir, hello!” Nessis tried hailing a passerby, who ignored him thoroughly.
“And what are they?” Josey asked, picking one up. Nessis snatched it away and put it back in the box.
“My business, and none of yours, thank you! Good day, madam! Might I interest you …?” The woman in question didn’t even turn her head.
“How much are –?”
“Look, I’m quite busy now, so if you don’t mind, push off!” Nessis gave Josey a shove and turned away, following a well-dressed man up the street. “Excuse me, sir …?”
A few bells later, Josey was again down by the docks. He had some smoked pigeon, and was gnawing at it appreciatively, making it last. He again spotted Nessis at the intersection, and wandered over. Nessis was sitting crosslegged beside his vendor’s box, which sat empty on the ground. With one tired hand he steadied a pole, from which the paper tubes were suspended by threads. Nessis’ small movements were making them dance merrily.
“I see you sold one,” Josey said. “Who bought it?”
“No one bought it. Meekee stole it from me as a prank when I was setting this up. He unwrapped it and ate the powder inside, then got sick and puked it all up on the wrapper. I threw it away.”
“I see they got a new delivery of Corathin pottery at the Venilek today. They looked a lot nicer than those ones you were selling a sennight ago.”
“Those were the more economical model,” replied Nessis proudly. “From an alternate vendor.”
“Why did you stop selling them? Weren’t you making good money off them?”
“The guard made me stop. I think they were paid off. Professional jealousy from rivals.”
Josey nodded sagely. He held out his food. “Wanna bite?”
Nessis eyed the treat disinterestedly for a long moment, then spoke without lifting his head. “I’ll trade you what’s left for one of my tubes.”
Josey looked them over twice then shook his head. “No thanks. But you can have a bite for free.”
Nessis shrugged. “Straight.”
By dark Josey had a small fire going behind the crate. He had roasted a large fish that Nessis had found and was beginning to pull the skin off and eat it. Nessis appeared from the gloom, a small bundle of driftwood in his hands. He carefully piled the wood by the fire and sat down. He accepted a bit of the skin from his cook and nibbled it. They ate silently together for several menes.
“How long have have I known you?” Nessis finally asked Josey.
“Me?” Josey pulled a slab of meat off the fish, broke it in two, and gave one half to Nessis. “I dunno. A sennight? A month or two? Ever since you pulled me out of the river.”
“That was less than a month ago,” commented Nessis, then fell silent for another moment before continuing. “Do you think I’m a good businessman?”
“Sure you are,” replied Josey enthusiastically. “You’re the best in the business in the whole city, better even than the king himself.”
“Of course I am,” replied Nessis, partly to himself. “And even a good businessman can’t sell goods that are broken or defective, now can he?”
“Of course not,” replied Josey, glancing over at the green bag. Nessis followed his gaze, and together they stared at the cylindrical lumps within. Finally Nessis roused himself and got to his feet.
“Well, if they won’t sell, then maybe at least they’ll make good firewood.” He took the bag, walked to the fire, and poured the rods out into the flames.
Not far away, bobbing gently at dock, sat the Sanctuary. The original owner of those colorful rods sat on deck with a mug of warm grog. Beside him sat a fellow shipmate.
“No,” Lars was saying, “I’ve never seen anyone wearing clothes like that before, but this is Dargon, after all; everything strange comes here at least once. I heard more than one person say they’d seen someone like that come through before.”
“If nothing else they seemed very polite,” Hestor replied, then shook his head ruefully. “I still can’t believe I lost those things.”
“Give it up, man,” Lars said. “I’m sure you’ll never see those firetubes again.”
“The worst part is,” Hestor said slowly, “is that whoever stole them probably has no idea even what they are.”
Just then, from down the street, there came a sudden burst of red light. A shrill shriek followed as both men quickly stood. Strange flaming objects screamed up into the night sky from some hidden spot, then disappeared with a flash, a bang, and a shower of sparks. As the last one exploded, a man ran out into the street, his hair on fire. He hooted and hopped about for a moment, swatting at his head. Then he dashed to the shore and flung himself head first into the waves.
Lars and Hestor looked at each other, clinked their mugs together, and then burst out laughing.
“Well,” said Lars after a mene, “there you go!”
“Serves him right! And! And I got to see them go off!” Hestor shook his head and chuckled mightily. “Ow! I bet that’s gonna leave a mark.”
The next day was cloudy but dry. At the corner of Temple and Atelier a man and a woman sat on the stoop of a large house.
“… should help keep those rats out of your grain for at least three sennights. Just be sure to keep it away from plaids.”
“Yes, Lord Arbogast, I certainly will,” the old woman said as she accepted the parcel and rose to her feet. “Sorry for taking so much of your time. Thank you!”
“You are welcome. And please stop calling me ‘Lord’. I’m just an old man who knows a thing or two.” He got to his feet as well, watching her go. He then turned and went into the house. He nodded at the two young scribes working at a desk in the entrance, and they bowed their heads in deference. Arbogast entered the main room and turned off towards his study. He paused at the door, then moved down a long hall and out the back door. A few feet away there was a tiny house, standing all alone. He entered and closed the door. In the darkness he uttered a brief saying. There were no windows, but suddenly a green light filled the air. Satisfied, Arbogast began to undo his belt.
Suddenly the door opened. Arbogast cocked an eyebrow as he examined the man who stood in the door. “Can I help you?” Arbogast asked.
“Yes,” the man said, looking furtively around. His face was bright red, and marked with soot. His hair was singed down to mere tufts, and his clothing was burned and pocked with small holes. He reached into his cloak and pulled out a brightly colored tube. “How much will you charge me to make a hundred of these?” he asked with a grin.