I sat cross-legged and looked across the low, knife-bitten table at my new companions. A motley bunch indeed but the best to be had in The Shelf, not that, that was saying much. Eris perched, composed as always, dark eyes the only thing peering through her swaths of silk.
It was all Calcun could do not to drool over her and he fidgeted on his cushion. The man no longer had the slightest idea how to act around people and was thrusting fistfuls of torn bread into his near-toothless mouth and gumming away disgustingly.
Deltius at least was more circumspect, hiding his face beneath a hood and keeping quiet, terrified as he was of being recognised and killed. I could understand the fret, I – at least – was an unknown quantity here in Tuan but everyone else had a reputation of some kind.
People who know just enough to be dangerous often think it ridiculous that people meet in smoky taverns to discuss their plans and schemes but the fact is, even though it’s obvious, they are a good place to talk. The noise of a crowd makes you hard to overhear. If things go badly wrong or the guards turn up, you have allies at your back and there’s many more pairs of eyes looking for spies.
I leant over the table, wafting my hand to break up a trail of sticky poppy smoke drifting from the braziers. “Alright, we’re all together now and I know roughly what we’re going to be facing. If we all work together then I’m confident that we can take Selim’s riches and be away without too much trouble.”
“And we can trust you… why?” Deltius scowled at me from beneath his hood, immune to the charms of the inn around him. Focus, I presumed, was a good thing in a locksmith.
“I had the sense to get you together didn’t I? I had the talent to find you, convince you, bring you all together? I know the dangers we’re going to face and that with your talents we can overcome them.”
“Calcun wants to know what these dangers are,” the old monkey growled around a drooling mouthful of bready porridge. “Calcun also wants to know how you found out what we’re facing.”
“Eris concurs with Calcun,” her eyes flashed from between the veils with amusement.
I sighed, it was only natural that they’d be suspicious of course but it was a bind every single time. “I have my ways. You wouldn’t share all your secrets with me now would you? Any of you? No. The information isn’t perfect and that’s why I need you. You’re good, you can deal with the unexpected.”
“Calcun concedes your point,” he’d finished off the bread and reached across to the next table to steal a piece of fruit. A scattering of coins made sure that didn’t start a fight but I was down to the last of my meagre hoard.
“Eris can deal with the guards, Deltius knows his way around the locks, Calcun’s knowledge of the mystic arts is unmatched…”
“And you dastard, what will you do?” Eris’ eyes changed every time I looked at her, now they were demanding and steely.
“Aside from organising this whole thing and bringing you all together? I am a passable thief in my own right and those guards Eris cannot deal with I believe I can deal with.”
Deltius scoffed, “A slip of a boy like you? You may be quick dastard, but you’re no warrior.”
I slipped one curved dagger from my sleeve and stabbed it down into the table, pointedly, “Care to test that?” I was weary of their questions and their suspicion.
“Iron,” Calcun whispered, half-chewed fruit dropping from his mouth. “Impressive.”
That brought a slight smile to my lips and I spirited the knife away as though by blade magic, before it could be noticed. “If there are no more objections, shall we go over the plan?”
Smearing oil and soot over Calcun’s bald pate was about as much fun as it sounded, but I had to show willing. I’d never smelt anything is sickeningly sweetly musky as the old man’s stink and I still had flakes of his skin under my fingernails. Now we were all as black as islanders with furs tied around our feet. Ridiculous as mummers but silent and invisible on a moonless night.
Selim set his house apart. An old Atlantean villa half set into the great boulders the time of ice had brought to the edge of the world. He liked his privacy as much as he liked dealing chained flesh and fever dreams. We could not simply be passers by here. Anyone who came here came with a reason and any of us who came here had to come with a reason.
As we skulked in the shadows Eris’ lamp was struck, red paper in the blackest of night, the only light apart from the villa. The sway on its chain minded me of her hips and brought a salacious smile to my lips as I clapped Calcun and Deltius on the shoulder to move.
Step by step we crept to the wall of the villa, pressed against the ancient, smooth stones. Not a nail’s breadth of mortar seen or needed. Craftsmanship near-Vimanan in quality. I’d be impressed if it hadn’t stood between us and the treasure.
Eris was hard not to watch as she entered the pool of torchlight. Even covered head to toe she moved as slick as oil. The guards could not take their eyes from her and, in truth, it was not unknown for Selim to reward his men to keep them loyal. There were few higher rewards than a courtesan. The guards were certainly not immune to her charms and while we could not hear a word that was said they opened the gates and took her within and, in that moment we had our chance to slip through, silent as spectres, behind her sashay and the turned attention of the guards in the moments before the gate swung shut again. Hands on her hips the guards ushered her into the house and from our sight.
“Calcun hopes she can keep them busy.”
I hushed him with a finger to his blistered lips.
“That, at least, I am sure of,” Deltius muttered, half disgusted, half admiring but he had the sense to shut up without prompting at least.
Across the courtyard and down the steps, our first door. A portal of wood and bronze with no lock, the first thing to bar our way. Deltius knelt before the door and muttered to himself as he looked it over, pressing his hands to the wood, knocking and listening. Calcun rolled the bones in his hands and gave his own nonsense chant over the mumblings of the locksmith.
“I thought it was hidden but there’s no secret mechanism, nothing in the bindings or the bolts…” his fingers played over the surface as I raised my head and my ear towards the guardhouse. There was laughter, distant and muted from inside.
“We don’t have time for this Deltius,” I slipped the blade from my sleeve and pushed it between the door and the frame, pushing up. Out of sight the beam that held it shut lifted from its cradle and the door swung open.
“Make me look like a bloody idiot,” Deltius hissed to me as I slipped past.
“Gods and monsters, I hope it’s harder to do when we get to a real door.”
The tunnel clove back into the rock of ages past and stretched before us.