I suppose, in the end, the Brotherhood let me go simply because they thought that Selim the Miser would do for me himself and they wanted to save wear and tear on their own knives. Selim had something of a reputation, he had to in order to be a name that would impress the Brotherhood. His home the most secure, his vault the strongest, his guards the most vicious. It was said a hundred thieves had tried to gain access to his treasures and none had succeeded.
Not that Selim was liked, far from it. As a slaver and a dealer in the more questionable herbs and spices he had accrued a fortune, but he didn’t share, didn’t loan and never ventured beyond the walls of his home. Some said he was a myth or a legend, some that he was an immortal. Tales to frighten children and justify cowardice no doubt. I’d never met someone who couldn’t be killed, or at least robbed.
He virtually ran Tuan, grandest of the Three Cities of The Shelf. Once an Atlantean outpost at the apex of their empire it had been through a dozen hand since their retreat, waxing and waning until it became the port city for The Shelf and a place of neutral meeting between those of Gran and Luax, the other, lesser, warring cities of The Shelf. By the standards of the locals Tuan was a glittering jewel, to a Vimanan it was passable but then, I had been away from home for some considerable time.
It had been my fortune some months past to meet one of Selim’s caravans upon the road and in trade for a few skins of Muan wine the caravan master was willing to set aside his whip and loosen his tongue a little. I soaked up every rumour, every half-truth, every speculation about his master’s vault and squirrelled them away in my mind, hatching the plan I was now engaged in.
With Selim’s wealth an the backing of the Brotherhood things could be made to change across these lands. The things I knew, the things I could do? I could live as a king here. I would need help though.
In Gran or Luax a copper coin will buy you an evening in the bed of an unskilled, but enthusiastic lover. In Tuan the slave markets mean you can buy a lifetime of similar service for not much more and there those who would rent their services, rather than sell them, must apply themselves to their trade. For a silver coin the bodily delights of Tuan’s courtesans can be yours for a matchless evening of dream-like bliss that will stay with you forever.
So it was that in the Street of Silks I pressed a coin into the hands of the hulking Thule minding the door and moved, beneath his scarred and scowling countenance, into the House of Mist.
It was hot in here, unbearably so. The walls were damp and hung with silks, painted with murals of the most debauched of acts between men, women, beasts, gods and monsters. I could not help but stop a moment, impressed by the detail that had gone into one particular depiction of what looked like a kraken, but I was not here for the art.
A hand pressed against my rump with firm confidence and I half turned.
“What delights can this house offer you traveller?” His voice was honeyed and the heat was getting to me, but I was not some prince’s catamite and this was not who, or what, I was here for.
“From you? Nothing I am afraid, I have heard tell of Eris and it is her arms I seek tonight.”
The boy hissed slightly, rejected and rebuffed, a curt jerk of his head towards a woman across the cushions, past the fire and the fragrantly oiled dancers. I smiled, lifted his hand and kissed it in thanks, then I moved, slow and dizzy across the room towards her.
She was swathed in silk head to toe and only her almond eyes, chestnut brown and deep, showed through the layers of wound silk. It was expertly done, the way the cloth draped and clung, hinting at the body beneath, the way her eyes flashed and reflected a smile hidden beneath the veil. With only her eyes showing he drew attention away from the gyrating dancers and made the room seem even hotter.
She was attending to a man, a merchant or minor noble from his dress, but the flash of my last Vimanan gold brought her attention to me and left the man scowling and tossing back wine as she wound her silk-wrapped fingers in mine and lead me to the stairs.
Her chamber was hotter still, next to the chimney that ran all the way up the centre of the house. Sweat coursed down me and left me light-headed. It was dim and close and I was finding the lids of my eyes heavier and heavier with every passing moment.
She eased my down to sit upon her cushions and I sprawled, weary, shrugging out of my jerkin to get some air, some relief, watching as she unwound the silk from her skin, revealing an expanse of dark skin that seemed black as ebony in the darkness of the room. Naked, save for her veil, she returned to me, hypnotic curves and pillowed breasts that made it hard to think of anything but I bit my lip and tried to concentrate, thirstily drinking the wine she offered me.
“I have… a proposition,” my tongue felt thick in my mouth, my eyes heavier and heavier.
“Your gold,” her voice was rich, exotic, honeyed “is all the proposition you need make.”
“No, I’m not here for that. I need your help,” I tossed back the rest of the wine, the room swinging about me. “I inten to rob the vault of Selim and I need… your…” my eyes closed and I fell back soft into the cushions.
I started awake, suddenly. Ripped from the bosom of a dream of heaving bodies and pleasures I couldn’t describe, already fading from my thoughts. I was soaking and I was cold. The shuttered windows were thrown wide and Eris was standing over me, still naked, still veiled, am empty bucket in her hands and rose petals stuck to my face. In the sudden cool I saw the marks of puckered brands upon the flesh of her hips, a half dozen different slave houses.
“Speak,” she said.
Between the cities, upon the tufted plains, there is many a tor, blasted by the wind and the rain. To a traveller it can seem as though every other tor plays host to a sage, magician or loremaster but in truth most are merely madmen, or dead. The majority of the ramshackle huts and tents are empty. These bleak parts of the land are no place for a scholar to survive and so, most of them do not.
Calcun was an exception to this rule. He was a Lemurian sorcerer who had lived on the plain as long as most people could remember. He was a fixture, if a madman, and perhaps my best hope at finding a free mage to aid me.
The trek to his hut was a long one and the going hard, especially without a horse. Somehow I managed, trying to remember the way. I’d seen Calcun not long after my exile and that was a time ago now, but the body has a way of remembering, even if the mind does not.
The trailing moon was high, its pale light glittering in the sky like a string of pearls, when I found Calcun’s hunt atop the tor. I was glad to see it and the flickering light of his fire casting dancing shadows against the little hide-covered windows. I dragged my weary bones up the sharp-edged granite and hammered upon his door.
“Ho Calcun, you have a visitor!”
There was a scrabbling inside and the tiny misshapen door bowed out as he leaned against it. “And who is it so late at night, annoying Calcun while he is cooking hmm?”
“A far traveller seeking his assistance.”
“And Calcun should care why?”
“Because I bring Quivaran chocolate,” I sighed, I had hoped not to have to bribe him. The stuff was as rare as hen’s teeth this far away and pricey with it. It had the desired effect though and the door swung open.
Calcun never seemed any different any time I saw him. He had the appearance of a mummified monkey. Patchy fur, bright, inquisitive eyes and a way of capering around in the most unlikely way that seemed effortless. The shack stank though and there were tails draped over the edge of the bubbling pot. I made a resolution not to accept his hospitality.
“Chocolate?” The old madman’s eyes glittered as I gave him the treat and he swallowed it whole, like a guilty dog gulping back something that had fallen to the floor. Such a waste. “You are the prince of the air, yes? We have seen each other before.”
“Twice old man,” I sat carefully on the stained furs by the fire and leaned towards him while he unselfconsciously sucked any last trace of the chocolate taste from his fingers. “Last I was here you told me your exile was not a willing one. Was that true?”
His beady little eyes narrowed and he peered across at me. “Good memory dastard. Yes… Calcun was driven out of one city after another for exposing their shamans and alchemists as charlatans and hedge magicians until Calcun had no place left to go. Rich fakers with their talons into kings, merchants and princes are a match for truth it seems.”
“Well,” I smiled. “The cure for the wealth and influence of others is to get wealth and influence of your own above that which they boast. Is it not?”
His manic, insane grin cooled by some degrees and he peered towards me, seeing my sincerity. “Go on dastard. I’m listening.”
Civilisation is a fragile thing and when you lose civilisation you lose a lot of the benefits that go along with it. Plumbing, for example. The things that civilised peoples take for granted become precious commodities when it is rolled back. It’s almost like, in being rebuffed, civilisation acts like a petulant child and takes all its toys with it.
Here on the fringes of the old empire there remain bloodlines of those folk, long since diluted, but they retain their secret ways jealously and amongst the knowledge most prized is how to build a true lock. Those mysterious mechanisms and their keys which serve so much better than lock-knots or untrustworthy guards.
Word was Deltius, a man of Atlantean descent and a master of such locks, had designed Selim’s and had been killed for it. I knew better though. The Atlantean nose is hard to disguise and a craftsman who cannot perform his craft is a ball of frustration and annoyance. He slips.
On the outskirts of Luax the dispossessed gather and pick living from the scraps of that city and its many forges. To the human detritus that lives here the smallest possession is as precious as all of Selim’s alleged wealth and they do all they can to protect it. A sneaky man hides his cache, a strong man kills anyone who threatens it, a charismatic man gathers people together for mutual protection. A craftsman? Well, he builds a strongbox and fits it with a lock and then he carries a key.
Deltius hadn’t been too hard to find them, it had only taken a few days of living in the filth and squalor to become one of them and then my keen eye found him out. The proud nose, the deft hands and – of course – the key on a thong about his neck were all give-aways. He also carried himself with a certain arrogance, reminding himself that he was here not because he was poor, but because he needed somewhere to hide. His face was scarred, one eye put out and covered with a cloth patch, the other bloodshot and oddly coloured, but he still seemed able to see. He was watchful, alert, intelligent and it took a long time to get him alone.
When I did get him by himself it was dark and late and he was opening his box, concealing within it the spoils of his day’s scavenging. My polite cough to introduce myself was met with a hiss like a cornered rat and the thrusting of a metal spike towards me.
“My friend,” I tried. “I am not here to hurt you. I’m here to seek your help and your expertise, Deltius.”
He scowled that I knew his name but we were both intelligent men. He knew there was no point denying it and that is why he tried to stab me. I moved back as best I could but got a couple of scoring marks and bleeding cuts for my trouble, insisting – even as he tried to kill me – that I wasn’t there to hurt him.
Eventually he stopped, puffing and panting but holding his crude blade steady towards me. I imagined he hadn’t been eating well out here.
“Selim,” I said. “How would you like revenge upon him?” I cocked my head to the side and smiled and that smile was echoed in his own.
We both began to laugh.