“You really climbed down into that shit pit to get a madman’s map?” Bel looked at them incredulously as the story – and the second round of beers – came to an end. The Toll was quiet tonight, there was some sort of riot at the gallows round Bloxton way and most of the regulars had gone to try their luck looting.
“Yes,” Jape and Dinn said together with a hint of exasperation.
“The map’s real, the chance is real, we could all be rich as butter biscuits, if you’re in,” Dinn’s fist slammed down on the table, spattering spilled beer.
“Why the fuck would you want me?” Bel frowned and grumped. “I know you only keep me around because you think I’m funny as I flail around and try to get by. What good am I in all this?”
“You know people Bel, people uptown. We’re going to need people from north and west of the river if we’re going to pull this off. We need you mate, no horsecrap,” Dinn held Bel’s gaze.
“Plus you can’t run for shit,” said Jape, lifting his mug. “Anything nasty is going to catch you first and give me time to get away,” he grinned and took a slug of the thin brew.
“Cunt,” said Bel, emphatically. “Alright then boys… what’re we going to need?”
Dinn sat back in his seat and leaned his head back until he was looking up at the candelabra and its fat, smoky candles, “We talked about this a bit on the way home. First thing we have to worry about is getting across the Wilderlands to the Keening Ruins and they’re south east of the city, none of us have been out before.”
Bel raised his hand. “I went out of the walls once, hunting, with my uncle.”
“An hour or two in a hunting reservation with a troupe of arquebusiers don’t really count Bel mate,” Jape interjected between swallows of beer.
“Well who then?”
Dinn leaned forward again, the chair rocking on its legs. “There’s that Bremma from the Watergate market. Her and her father go to and from Dunlunn and Bergenholm on a regular basis and she ain’t died yet.”
“Rare bird,” Jape muttered. “I don’t reckon she’d give us the time of day.”
Dinn didn’t come to the market very often, he had money for someone living in his part of town, but that wasn’t it so much. The few people that tried to scrape an honest living in River’s End tended to congregate around the market and liked to think they were better than anyone else. He could feel the disapproving glances from three streets away.
There was no choice this time though, so he thrust up his chin and marched into the market, into the tangle of barges, stalls and wagons and the deafening yells of the hawkers.
“Dove breasts! Get your dove breasts!”
“Raaaaat onna stick, raaaaaaaaaat on a stick!”
“Bergenholm ale, fresh off the cart!”
“Leather bought, sold, repaired!”
He ignored it all as best he could and fixed on his goal, the big wagon with the red tarp.
As he rolled up to it he caught sight of Bremma. A big lass she was, broad, ‘thick’ Jape would call her. Her biceps were as big as his calf muscles and she dressed like a boy, britches and tunic, hiding her piercing blue eyes and golden curls under a hood. She wasn’t like the street girls Dinn grew up around, but she had that same hard look, rough hands, and more scars to boot.
It took a moment for his brain to adjust to her accent, “Buying? No. I have a proposition for you, if you’re willing to listen. There’s this treasure see…” he leaned in, conspiratorial, but from the gleam in her eye he could already tell she was hooked.
“Now she might get us there, but according to the map we’re going to have to deal with some magic. Locks, gates, guardians, that sort of thing and I’ll be buggered if there’s a mage worth the name south of the river,” Jape’s gaze settled on Bel who, uncharacteristically wasn’t saying anything. “That’s your cue Bel.”
“Oh, right, well, I suppose there’s someone I might ask. I still get to go North sometimes to visit family, but not as much as I’d like to.”
“You know a mage then?” Dinn arched a single brow curiously, well used to Bel’s embroidering of reality.
“Sort of… he washed out of the White Tower and just kind of… exists these days. I think he might be up for it, for the money.”
Bel hated going north of the river. True, the houses were nicely painted and you weren’t ankle deep in week old excrement all the time. True, the sausages were made of beef rather than rat. True, you could go out at night without a knife and reasonably hope to get home again with all your money and no stab wounds. Still, it reminded him of what he’d lost, what his family had lost and, now that he’d seen how the other half lived, it sickened him.
Of course, anyone who knew how far Bel’s family had fallen gave him the evil eye in the street and that was a lot of people. That didn’t make things any better for anyone. In and out, that was the ticket. He hurried through the streets as early as he dared, scurrying to his old friend’s house like a thief in the night and hammering his fist on the door.
It was a small place, for north of the river, and dilapidated. You could even see the river from here. He must be down on his luck with his family too, and that made Bel a little more hopful.
“What fucking time is it?” Came the yawning voice through the door, after the third hammering against it.
“Come back at nine.”
“I can’t. Curfew.”
“Martyr’s shit…” the door creaked open and a pale and flabby face peered around the edge. Rank air, stale tea and staler body-odour, wafted out and made Bel pale. “Well?”
“Best if we talk inside Uno.”
The door swung wider open and Bel gave it a moment to air out before he followed Uno in.
“Nice, uh… nice place.”
It wasn’t. It was a dank little hole. Three crystal balls glowed with watery images, scrying here there and everywhere around the city. Bel thought he caught a glimpse of naked flesh before Uno shut them all down with a wave of his hand and sat on the mound of rags he called a bed.
Bel chose to lean against the dresser, drawers open, piled with much. Starting away when the red skinned little demonette in the tiny cage jabbed him in the arse with her miniature pitchfork.
“Bel, come on man, what do you want? If you don’t spit it out I’m going back to bed and you can scurry back to River’s End as a squirrel.”
“Well, we’ve got this map…”
“Supposing we get those two we’re still going to need someone who can handle locks, traps, machinery. You know all those old tomb sites and ruins are packed to the gills with things that’ll stab, poison or crush you,” Bel’s voice took on more of a whining tone the more likely this foolhardy expedition seemed to get.
“You ain’t going to get a locksmith cheap,” Dinn mused, stroking his chin with his fingertips. “Unless…” his head turned pointedly towards Jape.
“Oh no. Not a fucking chance,” Jape shook his head. “None of them are cheap and that includes her.”
“She might help you, for old time’s sake.”
“Who?” Bel blinked at them both, this part of the conversation soaring over his head like a lazy falcon.
“Sys. Jape’s first true love,” Dinn snorted. “You did always say she was good with her hands.”
“Shut the fuck up. I dumped her, remember? She’s not going to want to do dick for me, for us.”
“Well the other tinkers aren’t going to go for it are they? She’s pretty much all we have. Use your charm Jape, convince her.”
“Oh fuck don’t cry,” Jape held out his hands by his sides and rolled his eyes skyward.
“I loved you, you bastard!” Sys screamed at him through a face full of tears and snot.
“You’re crazy! I couldn’t deal with it!” Jape shouted back and then checked himself, she was making a scene, here on the street, and people were coming out of their windows and balconies to watch, listen and pass comment.
“There was nothing I wouldn’t have done for you!” She came at him, little but tough, a whirlwind of hair and fists and tears.
“That’s the problem, you had your own ideas what that meant! You never bothered to ask me!” He held her off as best he could, one hand on her head, keeping her tiny five-foot frame away from him like a child. “Breaking into my fucking house, hiding there, stealing shit and giving it to me. The watch nearly arrested me you blood klepto!”
“I thought you liked gold!”
“I do! Just not like that!”
“What do you want then, just here to use me and cast me aside again?” She sniffled and wiped the snot away from her nose with the back of her hand. She’d never looked less attractive to Jape in his life, even the night they broke up and she tried to stab him.
“We’ve got this job, a treasure hunt, down in the Keening, we, Dinn at least, think you’re the right person for the job.”
“Dinn huh? Not you?”
“Dinn. I didn’t want you along.”
“Bastard. Fine then. I’ll come and listen. Where do I need to be?”
“My place,” Jape turned and began to walk away at a fast clip, calling back over his shoulder. “You know the way, you’ve broken in enough times.”