Rancin Fer slammed open the door of the office and strode confidently up to the desk. Rancin was tall, with wide shoulders and thinning hair. He was dressed in his best leather vest and breeches, complete with studded belt and baldric. He said, “I c-c-came as s-s-soon …”
Rancin faltered to a halt, but not because of the scowl on Tyrus Vage’s face, which he hadn’t yet noticed. He fished a small object out of a pocket in his baldric, and then slipped the smooth agate he held into his mouth, where it soon found its normal place in his left cheek.
Speaking somewhat slower than before, he said, “I came as soon as I got your message, boss.” The agate had done its work, stopping his stutter. Satisfied, Rancin finally looked Vage in the face.
“Haste was not called for,” said Vage, his scowl deepening, “nor was such a loud entrance. Be thankful your rude intrusion caught me dipping my quill. Had you made me waste this parchment, the cost would have come out of your wage.” He pointed with the quill and said, “Now close the door, quietly, and then wait until I am finished here.”
Vage resumed scratching at the parchment before him with his inked quill while Rancin walked softly back to the door and closed it carefully. He knew that his boss could afford a new piece of parchment, being an important merchant in the city of Dargon, but it was normal for the man to be so frugal. By the time he returned to the desk, Vage was dumping the sand off the letter he had finished. Rancin stood patiently while Vage folded the parchment, dripped wax onto it, and pressed his ring into the hardening blob. The merchant eyed the impression closely, then set the letter on the far side of his desk next to a small black pouch and a block of metal that Rancin was very familiar with.
“I called you in today to give you your next assignment, Rancin,” said Vage. He pointed to the three objects and said, “I want you to take these three things and deliver them to Troril Hancot in Kenna. In the pouch are ten Marks for materials, manufacturing costs, and payment for Hancot. The mold you know about, having acquired it for me. The letter outlines our deal; be sure to get Hancot’s signature and bring it back to me.”
Rancin picked up all three items and cradled them as Vage continued, “There’s no need for speed, so no need to be extravagant. A barge will serve perfectly to get you to Kenna. It will take a season for Hancot to manufacture his complete lot. Today’s the 24th of Yuli. Allowing plenty of time for manufacturing and adding more for shipping means we couldn’t possibly take delivery of the fakes before winter, when they will be of no use. Come next spring, though, Sferina will find her little monopoly crumbling around her ears!”
Rancin took Vage’s preoccupied laughter as his signal to leave. He had a smile on his face as he walked out the door, shutting it quietly behind him. He didn’t know exactly what the man was planning, but if he was in good spirits then he wasn’t heaping abuse on his employees. So if Vage was pleased, then Rancin was happy as well, and he would make sure that he did his part to keep him that way.
“Bet I can beat you to the door,” said the rangy, red-haired man to his taller, bulkier companion.
“Don’t wanna race, Murlak,” said Darrow, his straight blond hair falling over his bright blue eyes yet again.
“So?” asked Murlak, his black eyes twinkling. “Can’t win if you don’t race.” With that, he bolted down the hallway, his boots pounding loudly on the wood.
Darrow shook his head, pushed his bangs off to one side again, and muttered, “Can’t win if you race alone.” He followed his friend more sedately down the corridor, using the time to check himself over. He brushed his long hair back away from his face, then pulled at the hem of his tunic, trying to straighten the keyhole neck. He checked his breeches, craning his neck over his shoulder to examine as much of his clothing as he could see. His garments were clean and had no holes, or even a patch, which made him feel presentable. His shadow boy roots weren’t all that far in the past. Sferina, the woman whose office he was approaching, knew about that past, but he still tried to remove himself as far from it as he could.
Darrow rounded the corner and found Murlak standing before a plain wooden door with a crooked-armed starfish hanging on it. Murlak was grinning like a fool and bouncing from foot to foot, looking more like he was seven than seventeen. Darrow, who was several months younger than his red-haired, full-bearded friend, felt more like twenty-seven as he said, “Control yourself, Murlak. Sferina is not going to hire us if you are acting like a child experiencing a call of nature.”
Murlak stuck his tongue out at Darrow, but settled down immediately. As Darrow knocked at the door, Murlak leaned over, whispered, “I won,” and straightened back up, putting on his serious face. Darrow suppressed his sigh and waited for the door to open.
A short moment later, the door swung away from them. Standing in the opening was a willowy figure, her modest curves accentuated by the way she wore her dress. She had long black hair, high cheekbones, and bright red lips. Her eyes, though, were the most striking aspect of her face: very large and luminously emerald, like the purest of gemstones. She also had a stripe of white hair that ran from her left temple around toward the back of her head.
“I’m glad you’ve arrived, Darrow, Murlak,” Sferina said. “Come in and have a seat. I need to ask you to do something very important for me.”
Sferina turned and walked through the cozy, cluttered room to her desk and stood behind it. Darrow followed her, making sure that his friend was keeping up. He watched Murlak’s eyes dart around the room as usual. He saw the small, glass-eyed animal that peeked from behind a row of books just as Murlak began to veer in that direction; a gentle tug put the redhead back in line. Darrow’s attention was drawn to a delicate, intricate silver sphere on the other side of the room, but he didn’t give in to his desire to examine it more closely. He noticed that the entire room smelled of lilacs. He looked around, even though he knew that lilacs didn’t bloom in Yuli, but couldn’t see real flowers of any kind. He finally noticed a silver figurine of a single lilac flower, somewhat larger than normal, in the corner of one shelf, and realized t hat Sferina was using one of the magical trinkets she created and sold.
He sat in one of the chairs in front of Sferina’s desk, and drew Murlak down into another. He noticed that Murlak seemed distracted; he followed his friend’s gaze and noticed the wire-wrapped oval of amber before pinching Murlak’s leg and frowning at him.
Sferina sat and folded her hands on the desk in front of her. She looked both of them in the eyes, one after the other, and then said, “Boys, I have been robbed.”
Murlak bolted to his feet, his hand going to his belt where his knife would have been had not Sferina’s door warden taken both their weapons upon entering the building. “Who did it?” he said. “I’ll gut ‘em!”
Darrow pulled down on Murlak’s tunic while Sferina, a gentle smile on her face, said, “Thank you, Murlak, for your loyalty, but that isn’t the job I have for you today. It would do no good anyway, as the goods have already been passed on.”
She opened a drawer, removed an object, and set it on the desk. It was a silver figurine of a darningfly, a finger’s length from iridescent eyes to barbed tail, slightly larger wingtip to wingtip. Darrow recognized it as one of Sferina’s bug warding charms. He wished he could afford one to keep the flies and mosquitoes out of his house in the spring and summer, especially living next to the causeway swamp as he did.
“I have learned,” Sferina said, “that one of the molds that produce this charm was stolen by Rancin Fer. I have also discovered that Fer is currently on a barge to Kenna with the mold. I don’t know who he is working for in this, but he wouldn’t be taking it to Kenna for his own purposes.”
Darrow shivered at the mention of Fer. He knew the man from his shadow boy days, both by reputation as a ruthless thug who liked dealing out punishment, the more severe the better, and personally by how Rancin had crippled a friend of Darrow’s for simply resting against the wall of a warehouse Fer was guarding.
He pushed those bad thoughts away and contemplated the trip that Sferina was proposing. He glanced at his friend, wondering how he would take to the journey. He found Murlak grinning vacantly and stretching a finger toward the shiny silver figurine. Darrow poked Murlak hard. His partner flinched and drew back, holding his arm and scowling at Darrow.
“Boys!” Sferina scolded, though she was looking at Murlak. The redhead dropped his hand and his scowl, looking attentively at the trinket manufacturer.
“I want you two to ride to Kenna; you should have no trouble arriving before Rancin’s barge. I need you to retrieve the stolen mold and find out what he is up to.
“Do you think you can do it?”
Murlak leaned forward and drew in a breath. Darrow pinched him yet again, and he sagged back like a deflating bladder.
Darrow said, “That seems within our capabilities. What compensation might you be able to provide?”
“One Mark above and beyond normal expenses such as horses and food.” She reached into another drawer and pulled out a stack of copper coins, and then laid a larger, golden coin next to it. She pushed the stack forward, and then set her fingers over the gold coin. “Payment on delivery, of course.”
Darrow struggled to keep his elation off his face. They had never before been offered so much for the occasional under-the-table work Sferina had asked of them. It sounded like easy work. He knew who Rancin was, so they would be able to spot him when he stepped off the barge. Then, it was just a matter of a cosh to the back of that balding head, and he and Murlak would just float back down the river and into a few seasons’ worth of wealth. He didn’t have to weigh risks or consider complications.
He said, “We’re on it.” He stood and extended his hand across the table. Murlak popped up beside him and reached for the stack of copper coins and Darrow quickly knocked the hand aside. When Sferina rose, he shook her extended hand to close the deal. As Murlak took his turn, Darrow grabbed the stack himself and pocketed them.
Sferina said, “Safe trip, boys. Please see yourselves out. Oh, and good luck.”
Darrow stood on the periphery of the activity around Kenna’s docks, watching the latest barge from Dargon ease into its slip. He was seething at Murlak, who stood beside him bouncing from foot to foot, tapping his truncheon against his leg. Darrow gripped his own club tighter and entertained the fantasy of testing it out on the redhead to his left.
He and his partner had departed Dargon on Yuli 27th, the day after Sferina had hired them, using the time between to buy supplies. They had ridden southeast, roughly parallel to the Coldwell, for five days, arriving on the first of Sy, two days ago. That first night Murlak had spent the remainder of their advance in a red velvet room, using a bed without sleeping in it. The next day, just yesterday, while Darrow had been watching the docks, Murlak had sold their horses for a stake at the gambling house, and had lost three quarters of it. When Darrow had found out, he had administered a bit of a beating to his friend to get the rest of the coins away from him. Then, of course, he’d been forced to listen to Murlak whin e about being bored for bell after bell until finally a threat to his manhood had gotten him to shut up.
Darrow wasn’t so much upset about the whoring and gambling, which he indulged in himself, but about the irresponsibility of losing both all of their money and their transportation. The remaining coins would pay for a barge journey it was true, but the danger of fleeing an angry, mugged man down a very clear trail in an easily tracked vehicle was obvious, to him at least. There was the option of killing Rancin, but Darrow wasn’t a murderer, despite his current daydreams.
The barge had settled against the dock, and the crew was busy tying it off and preparing to unload. Darrow focused on the short line of passengers queueing for departure. His fantasies of bodily harm vanished when he saw the profile and balding head of Rancin Fer, their target.
The broad-shouldered man didn’t seem to be in any hurry, waiting patiently as the queue walked across the gangplank and onto the dock. Darrow nudged Murlak, perhaps a little hard to judge by the resulting grunt, and subtly indicated Rancin to his partner. Murlak’s “What?” prompted a sigh and a muttered, “Stick close,” in response.
Rancin left the dock area without pausing, and Darrow followed, tugging Murlak along. Once he saw the street Rancin chose, Darrow began planning their move. He had spent his own idle time getting to know the small town, and now he pictured the likely ambush spots along this street. Making his choice, he leaned close to Murlak and whispered, “Rat three.”
Murlak glanced around at the gutter and shadowed doorways before looking back at Darrow with a sheepish expression. He nodded then, and darted toward a side street. He halted just a step into it and turned, a lost expression on his face.
Darrow, expecting it, mouthed “rat” clearly, and Murlak’s face lit up. He nodded and mouthed it back, so Darrow next held up three fingers. With a confirming nod and a returned three fingers, Murlak resumed his dash.
Darrow sped up slightly and soon had Rancin back at a comfortable trailing distance. He glanced around, pleased that there were few other pedestrians on the street. Rancin approached the spot he had designated as rat three, where Murlak was to be waiting. Darrow could see no one ahead of him but Rancin. He glanced behind him and saw only a few walkers heading away from him. His luck was holding.
The ambush spot was just ahead. Darrow hurried a bit as Rancin approached the intersection. Murlak leaped out at just the right time, putting his truncheon into Rancin’s gut, doubling him over. Darrow rushed up and pushed the bent-over man toward Murlak and into the alleyway. Once out of direct view, Darrow brought his club down precisely across the back of Rancin’s neck. The broad-shouldered man collapsed like an undermined parapet into a heap on the ground. Darrow and Murlak looked at each other and grinned. “Well done,” Darrow said, and Murlak’s face lit up even brighter.
Darrow pointed over his shoulder at the mouth of the alleyway, and knelt beside the balding man as Murlak moved to keep an eye out. The goods were in the most obvious place to look: the haversack slung over Rancin’s shoulder. Darrow found a small wooden box which, when opened, revealed a black bag, a metal block, and a folded, sealed piece of parchment. He checked the items to be sure. He found ten Marks in the bag; the metal block was really two plates that fit together, with a reverse image of the darningfly charm in them; and he recognized the seal on the parchment as belonging to Tyrus Vage. He knew Vage’s reputation as an underhanded merchant, willing to do anything for profit. He recalled his own run-in with the man five years in the past, when he had helped Tanner, a Rhydd Pobl, rescue his foster-sister from the merchant. Sferina would be very interested in this proof of Vage’s involvement.
Murlak said from the mouth of the alley, “Did you find it, Darrow?”
Rancin stirred at the sound of the voice, and then stilled again. Before replying, Darrow poked him with the club, but only got a normal involuntary movement out of him.
“Yes, Murlak,” he replied, “I’ve got what we came for, and more. Sferina will be pleased, I think.” Darrow busied himself with filling the chest with some rocks and a wad of cloth, then wrapping the three items he had taken from the box in another square of cloth. He dropped this bundle into an oilcloth bag and tied it securely shut, then slipped the bag back into his carryall.
As he was standing, Murlak said, “So how are we getting back to Dargon, since I sold the horses?” The worry was evident in his voice, but Darrow knew that this was the first time that question had crossed Murlak’s mind.
Darrow considered the problem. The ten Marks would buy them both very fine horses, not to mention a retinue to make their journey home one of comfort and luxury. But the money didn’t belong to him. After helping Tanner against Vage, the two had become friends, and the Rhydd Pobl boy had taught him things about responsibility and honor that the streets of Dargon had never hinted at. His shadow boy past was behind him, and now he owed Sferina more than just his service for her wage. The way Fer had bundled the three things bound them together in Darrow’s mind. The Marks were Sferina’s to dispose of, along with the mold and the parchment. Not to mention what ki nd of trouble Murlak could get into with that much gold!
“Barge,” he said, walking up behind his partner. “Let’s get back to the inn and get our things. Then it’s straight to the docks for the next flat-boat to Dargon.”
As they left the alley, Darrow heard a rustle behind him. He turned and saw that Rancin had simply turned on his side. Cautious, he went back for another poke, but the man didn’t stir. As he began to walk away with his friend to arrange transportation, though, he wondered whether he had been thorough enough. If Rancin had heard their plans … Darrow was sorry he hadn’t given the man a kick just to be absolutely sure.
“None until morning? Straight?”
The man in the booth at the docks said, “Nothing ‘cept logs and drowned animals travel the river at night, son. First barge tomorrow is at about third bell. You’ll be in Dargon by the eighth.”
Darrow decided to save his scowl for later, keeping a calm face for the official. “Passage for two, please, that barge,” he said. The man took the coins, jotted the names they gave him, Jekk and Birl, in a register, and handed Darrow two wooden chits Immediately, the man went back to checking log books.
Darrow led Murlak away from the docks. He didn’t have to wait long for the expected whine. “What are we going to do, Darrow?” Murlak asked. “Rancin is going to be looking for us soon!”
“I know, I know,” Darrow said, letting his scowl and mounting annoyance out, hoping the latter would overwhelm his rising panic. “Come on. Maybe we still have some of that luck we had earlier.”
The two of them raced back to the ambush spot, but Rancin was gone. Darrow stood there in the mouth of the alley and thought hard.
Finally he said, “We need to hide somewhere Rancin can’t look for us. We’ll worry about tomorrow once we are safe tonight. Since they already know you there, Murlak, why don’t you lead the way to the Taut Sheets?”
Murlak’s grin only made Darrow frown deeper.
Darrow was pleasantly surprised by how comfortable and tasteful the back room of the Taut Sheets was. He knew the front rooms of several whorehouses well, and the bedrooms were usually rather uniformly bare, but he had never before been in a back room where the girls gathered to do makeup and chat and wait for enough custom to fill the front rooms. The erotic wall hangings were somewhat threadbare, and the lamp shades with their suggestive silhouettes were several other colors than red. The couches were well-padded and covered with fantastic brocades, and the floor was buried by wildly-colored cushions. Darrow thought he wouldn’t mind having a room like that in his own apartment.
Kenna was a crossroads town, and the Taut Sheets had six employees who were at times all busy simultaneously. Early Sy wasn’t one of the town’s busy times, though, with Darrow and Murlak being the only custom in the place and none more expected. Even so, the establishment’s owner, big, beefy, bearded Chanik, had wanted a price too dear to spend the whole night with one of the women. Darrow had paid for the usual half-bell and quite enjoyed his time in the lovely blonde’s bed despite his worry about what to do when their time was up. Shortly after Chanik had stomped by and slammed open the door to Darrow’s room signaling that the rental period was up, a cute, young, skyclad brunette had come up and gestured for bot h him and his bed-partner to follow her. He had ended up in the back room with all six of the Taut Sheets’ female employees along with Murlak, whose pillow talk had led to the suggestion that they stay in the back room, which had no rental rate anyway.
After a little while in the back room, being fussed over by six women in various states of dress from not-at-all to nearly-naked, Darrow was ready to continue the bedroom activities. Unfortunately the girls all had very strict rules about that sort of thing, not that they minded teasing the two men mercilessly anyway.
To get his mind off of the temptations around him, Darrow started discussing his plans for the next morning’s trip with Murlak. His red-haired companion, however, seemed much more interested in going as far as the girl in his lap would let him. So he was very surprised when Murlak hopped up suddenly, dumping his lap-girl into a pile of cushions, and said, “We can dress up!”
“What?” asked Darrow after making sure that the former lap-girl was giggling and not crying in the cushions.
“Dress up. Disguise! If Rancin doesn’t recognize us, we won’t have any problem riding the barge home, straight?”
“How? As what? We’ve got to stay disguised for four or five days, Murlak!”
The naked brunette said, “We could help.”
They both looked at the brunette, and then lifted their gaze to her face. “Really?” Darrow said.
“Sure. We’re good at disguises. We do it all the time. I’ll bet we have some customers that think there are a double-dozen girls who work here!”
All six employees eagerly joined in, pulling clothes out of chests and out of storage rooms, chattering away with suggestions to the two men, and questions to each other of where a specific item of clothing was. Darrow quickly vetoed Murlak’s idea to dress as girls, not having any stomach for the idea himself no matter how good the disguise, but also knowing that they couldn’t possibly keep the masquerade up for the entire barge trip. The other ideas, though, he listened to attentively.
The first action taken was to dye his own hair black. A bowl and a pitcher, plus a small clay pot of some black paste was all that was needed, and soon the brunette’s revealed charms were distracting Darrow as she plastered the paste all over his head and even onto his eyebrows. She took another clay pot and brushed a green goo all over his face with a wooden stick, being careful not to get any on herself nor to drip anywhere. Darrow couldn’t feel the hair dye do its work, but the goo made his face tingle, then itch, and when he looked down he could actually watch the hair growing right out of his skin. Soon, he had a full, bushy blond beard that the brunette was rubbing the black paste into.
On the other side of the room, Murlak had two girls shaving his face expertly with what looked like very sharp knives. As Darrow watched, the beard he had always seen Murlak in vanished and a stranger’s face was revealed.
Next, the blonde lap-girl settled down next to Murlak and unwrapped some moist leaves to reveal a blob of nearly clear material. Darrow wondered what that stuff was made of, as it looked rather unsavory from where he sat. The blonde scooped the blob off of the leaves with some difficulty and brought it up to her face where she whispered something to it. Then she laid it onto Murlak’s nose where, instead of running down his denuded face as Darrow expected, it sat like a lump and rather quickly took on the coloration of Murlak’s skin. The blonde’s fingers began pulling and poking at the lump, and soon it became part of Murlak’s nose, making it larger and giving it a hook and a bump. She leaned in and whispered to the thing again, when next she poked at it, it didn’t change shape.
She said, “That should last you for half-a-dozen days, maybe a few more. After that, it will dry up and fall off. Until then, however, it will be like part of you.”
The brunette said to Darrow, “For you, the hair dye will last much longer, though your roots will begin to show blond in about six or eight days. That beard is all your own, just fast grown, but it too will start to show blond roots eventually.” She leaned back and smiled, and said, “You look good like that, dear. Maybe you should dye your hair all the time.”
Darrow said “Thank you,” in a distracted manner. He was beginning to worry about the cost of these items compared to the few coins in his pouch. He said, “Um, girls, I’m afraid we can’t pay for such magical disguises …”
The brunette laughed, and said, “Don’t worry your black-haired head about it! The hair-grower’s ingredients are grown right in our back yard, and Herina, the owner’s wife, magics it herself. The nose putty is more exotic, true, but Herina has made more of it for us than we’ll ever need. We’ve got enough to make little Jeri’s chest look and act like mine!” The girls all laughed, even flat-chested Jeri. “Now, we need to find you both something to wear, and don’t even begin to think about the cost of a few scraps of cloth!”
The choice of clothing was hard, considering the mismatched and piecemeal array they had to pick from. The girls suggested forgoing anything too ordinary as well as too outlandish. Darrow settled on a brown robe belted by a red strap of leather, and sandals instead of his favorite boots. He added a string of red wooden beads to the costume, and practiced pulling them through his fingers until he could do it without thinking about it.
Murlak, difficult as usual, cobbled together a garish outfit composed of a bright green tunic, an orange vest, and purple pants. He scrounged three juggling clubs and made a sling to carry them in. Darrow made Murlak demonstrate that he knew how to juggle before letting his friend pretend to be a jester. By the time the demonstration was over, the redhead had juggled just about every loose object in the back room, including the blonde’s remaining scarves. As a reward, the girls broke their “no customers in the back room” rule, and the rest of the night was spent accordingly.
Darrow walked across the gangplank feeling very much not himself. He had yet to get used to his new look. He now wore his dyed hair bound with a twisted cord headband, and he missed pushing his bangs out of his eyes. He was also continuously being startled by the dark strands on his shoulder. He could see that Murlak, walking beside him, seemed to have no qualms about his own new role, just striding along and grinning like a simpleton.
Darrow handed the wooden chits to the crewman at the barge side of the gangplank and walked over to the opposite edge of the deck to keep an eye on the other boarding passengers. As he stood there with his eyes fixed on the end of the gangplank, he hoped with every pass of a bead though his fingers that Rancin would not show among them.
He watched a merchant board with a guard who carried an ornate chest. Once that was stowed, the merchant went right back to the dock side of the barge to supervise the loading of the rest of his cargo, judging by his gesticulations.
A commotion disrupted the boarding process as a shepherd brought her sheep over the passenger gangplank and not the livestock board, so that they had to be herded off again.
A party of four strangely mismatched people walked down the dock. There was a well-dressed man who looked on the young side of middle-aged who seemed to have an air of importance about him. A bard with black hair and blue eyes and lips came next. She was older than Darrow, but younger than the important man. Close by her side was a man of her age dressed in brown leather. Behind those three was a shabbily dressed man much closer to Darrow’s age who seemed their servant as he led a well-laden mule. At the gangplank the well-dressed man gestured to the mule tender, who continued on to the livestock board. The other three crossed the plank and went right to the front of the boat, claiming some room there.
Several crafters came on board with their tools of the trade on their belts: chisels and mallets, both wooden and metal.
Activity began to slow as the cargo on the docks was finally all loaded and the crew went through the final preparations for departure. Darrow was all ready to let out a deep sigh of relief when Rancin strolled down the dock and stepped onto the gangplank just as a crewman was about to lift it away. He held out his chit as he walked from dock to boat, his eyes scanning the people on board as he came.
Darrow’s breath stopped in his throat when Rancin’s eyes locked on his, and the beads stopped moving through his fingers. The balding man stared at him, then the eyes moved to Murlak. A moment later, the gaze continued its sweep, causing Darrow’s knees to go weak and making him gasp in a breath he was afraid Rancin could hear all the way across the barge.
He looked sideways at Murlak and met his partner’s returned gaze. They smiled at each other and resumed their original poses. Darrow thanked his luck, the remaining coins spent at the red house, and the satiated, or more likely bored, ladies of the Taut Sheets. He believed that he and Murlak were going to make it back to Dargon after all. Assuming their disguises, and their luck, held up for the next four days, anyway.