The Émigré Saga Serialisation - Part 1
The Émigré Saga is a slightly tongue-in-cheek fantasy written by TS Koomar that follows the (mis)adventures of the larger than life pawnbroker Morley as he attempts a daring heist from the Royal Academy Library in order to pay of his fearsome loan sharks.
SFBook is proud to be serialising the novel over the next few months and we are starting with both Part 1 and Part 2 right now!
Chapter I: In Which Our Esteemed Narrator Introduces the Circumstances
Many people ask me, "Morley, what did you do before you ran this inn? How did you come to live in this country?"
Now, readers should be immediately forewarned: I hail from Vallisia, which has many customs and traditions which might seem both familiar and odd to the people of these Inglish Isles. Though we share a common language, Vallisia’s population is a strange combination of the disparate peoples who flocked to its shores when 'twas discovered all those centuries ago.
But alas, this is no geography primer, so I shall not further bore you with particulars of my homeland’s landscape. We must begin our tale in Brimgaet, the sprawling port city on the delta of the Vallis River. I was this fair city’s premier pawnbroker -- though I preferred to keep a modest profile. To serve my self-effacing nature, I operated my shop amongst the taverns and simple houses of the Longshoreman’s Quarter.
One fine spring day (some time ago, for I still had a full head of hair), I was visited by the Retainer of my very best client. The Retainer was an affable fellow, and we had a warm familiarity fostered over many years. Had our relationship extended beyond a professional one, I would have dared to call him "friend".
"You do not look well, Morley," he said, entering my shop (then devoid of customers), "Is that a cut above your eye?"
"Indeed," I replied, "A representative of a creditor paid me a discourteous visit this morn."
"A pawnbroker should know better than to take out a loan," he chided, "But I believe I hold a petition which could change your fortunes."
As luck would have it, my fortunes were in dire need of changing. My loan had come due a tenday previous, and my creditor possessed a despotic streak.
I’d exhausted the favor of every respectable creditor, and most of the disreputable ones as well, you see. I was scraping the bottom of the barrel, as they say, and the man down there (known as Danny ‘Ringer’) was not known for his leniency. Danny was notorious for leaving the bodies of delinquent borrowers on the steps of the public house from which he ran his despicable organization. Usually, their fingers and toes were removed, slowly ripped off with pliers.
“What is your master’s request?” I asked eagerly, hoping against hope I might avoid this fate.
The Retainer handed me a note, which read:
Compendium Perditorum Linguarum -- Royal Academy Library -- One Fortnight -- 800 Silver Dinar
This cryptic note surely bears explanation. As a pawnbroker, I was in the particularly valuable position of knowing those who could acquire rare and valuable objects. In fact, you could say this was my specialty. This note was only the most recent in a long line I had received from The Retainer. The first item was the object in question, the second was its whereabouts, the third when it would be collected, and the fourth was the payment amount.
This final item sent my heart aflutter with hope, for eight hundred Dinar was twice the amount needed to save my life. As my salvation seemed at hand, I knew better than to haggle over the sum promised, even though ’twas against my nature. ’Twas but the timing gave me pause: should my debt not be fully paid in five days, my life would be forfeit.
“Excellent,” I told The Retainer, “Though I may be able to procure it sooner. In light of that, could you return in five days?”
“Of course,” he replied with a bow, “My master is eager for this item, and I should welcome the opportunity to gauge your progress.”
“Excellent, excellent,” I hurried to escort The Retainer out, “And gauge you shall, I have no doubt.”
“I will not come with payment until you have it,” he reminded me as I opened the door.
“You can bring the silver! On my word, I will have it that day… or I’ll be dead,” I attempted a smile as I pushed him through door. He turned to me with momentary surprise, for as you surely know, I am typically quite the conversationalist. In this circumstance, however, there was no time for detailed explanation. This was undoubtedly clear to The Retainer once I closed the door in his face. Retreating to the back room, I retrieved a large pewter candelabra. Placing it in the window at the front of my shop, I returned to my stool behind the counter, and gazed longingly at the paper which could prove my deliverance.
The candelabra was a signal, you see, to the finest thief I knew. He went by the moniker Spiro, though I was certain it wasn’t his true name. When this candelabra was in my window, he would come for his mission. How often he walked past my store I couldn’t say, for a steady stream of dockworkers poured back and forth down the street. Regardless, if that candelabra was in the window, he never failed to greet me at the door when I locked up for the night.
Losing myself in thought, I was eventually thrust back into reality by the sound of an envelope skittering beneath the shop’s front door. Dulled by my daze, I didn’t notice who delivered it, but its sender was quickly evident. Stumbling to pick it up, I pulled the note out of its sleeve. To this day, I can still see the callous, slanted handwriting. It read thusly: In days numbered five, We’ll burn you alive. If you forget your debt, You’d better bet, You won’t survive. My creditor possessed a penchant for limericks as well as extreme violence, it seemed. My hands quivered as I read the ominous poem. Looking at the note from my client clutched in my other hand, I blinked to ensure this wasn’t a dream.
My fate hung in the balance between these two scraps of paper, silly as it might sound. Indeed, I felt myself like a scale clenched in fate’s hapless fist, with these notes balancing my future. Unfortunately, the note from my creditor felt heavier.
When the bell above my door sounded, I thrust the papers into my pockets and forced the warmest greeting I could. It must’ve rung disturbingly hollow, for the young woman who stood in the doorway retracted nervously. She apologized for interrupting, but assured me she’d return. ’Twas a shame, for she was a frequent customer interested in the pricey alchemical and arcane artifacts I occasionally procured.
The hours of the day dragged on. The poor longshoremen stumbling in to peruse my affordably priced wedding bands (likely for their sweethearts or barmaids recently taken with child) seemed infuriatingly indecisive. Each time the shop was deserted, I removed my client’s note from my pocket. The easy touch of the paper in my palm was a quiet reassurance that all might not be lost. Finally, my clock struck seven, and I jumped off the stool where I spent my days perched. Bustling toward the door, I removed my keys from their place on my belt and peered anxiously out the window. The setting sun cast the sky a dull coral-pink, painting the street in pale red tones. ’Twas a splendid scene, but my man Spiro was nowhere to be seen, so I could find no joy in it. I was perplexed more than distraught, for 'twas not like him to ignore our agreed-upon signal.
As I moved to the door (in no hurry I might add) my stomach sank. I knew no other who could attempt such a demanding acquisition. Spiro was, simply stated, in a class all his own. Opening my door, I was greeted by the cloaked form of the aforementioned burglar standing perfectly still.
“By the Uncreated!” I gasped, “You scared the piss out of me.”
“Sorry,” Spiro snaked his way gently past me and into the shop, “I didn’t intend to startle you.”
“I wasn’t startled,” I replied latching and locking the door, “I was afraid you’d fail to appear.”
“You oughtta know me better than that, mate,” he laughed, deftly hopping over the counter.
I didn’t really know him at all, in truth. Aside from his appearance and his moniker, I knew only that his skill must be great. He was a head shorter than I, but his power and poise were impeccable. His close-fitting black garments revealed thick arms, legs and broad shoulders. A mass of unkempt dark hair rested beneath the hood of his mahogany cloak. Many a well-guarded treasure disappeared without a trace thanks to him.
“What have you for me this time?” he asked, sauntering into the back room.
“Rather unusual, I must admit,” I replied, hurrying to catch up, “’Tis a tome.”
“I’ve liberated books for you afore,” he plopped into a chair and pulled off his hood.
“This one’s in the Academy Library,” I said, pulling the door to the office closed.
“The Royal Academy?” Spiro asked dismissively, plopping his feet upon my desk.
“Indeed. Something called the Compendium Perditorum Linguarum,” I took a seat on the desk next to his shoes.
“Means nothing to me,” he gently rolled his eyes, “How much?”
“Two hundred silver.”
“Two hundred?” He stuck out his bottom lip and nodded slowly, “I’ll case the place tonight.”
The next morning found me despondent. I woke early, for I’d hardly slept. This pattern would repeat itself every day for the rest of the week.
Understandably, my mood was not improved when, just before midday, another note squeezed its way beneath my door. Its tone was the same as the previous day’s: In only four days, Great will be your malaise. Our payment you’ll render, Or you’ll be a cinder, Once we set you ablaze. The cruelty of this taunting was incalculable. I was no coward, but I certainly had no death wish. My mind invariably turned to contingencies, as any practical man’s would. If Spiro couldn’t secure this tome, I would have to flee. There was no other option, but I possessed no distant safe haven. I had no family, and all my friends were in the city. Perhaps I could liquidate my stock at a loss and take on a new identity, escaping into the Southland.
I pondered this desperate possibility, for I did not relish the thought of country life. I had traveled the four corners of my homeland in my youth, and did not find the simple doltishness which fresh air and open spaces grant pastoral peoples the slightest bit quaint or endearing. As I retook my stool, I shuddered to imagine that my own soul might become infected with that bucolic and simpleminded naiveté.
Whilst rustic horrors still clouded my mind, the bell above my door sounded. My gaze was fixed on the note (though I was long done reading it) and I did not look up. I assumed it another poor longshoreman come to peruse my cheap wedding bands. Anon, my ears were assailed by the rapping of fingers on the counter in front of me.
“What do you need?” I asked, my unfocused gaze still fixed on the scrap of paper.
“I was hoping for a moment of your time,” Spiro’s voice replied, “But I can see your attention is consumed by this love letter.”
“Hardly,” I replied looking up with a meager smile, “What news have you for me?”
“What sort of letter is it then?” He asked, one of his eyebrows cocked beneath his hood.
“Nothing of import,” I assured him, moving to stuff the note in my pocket.
In a flash, he was on top of the counter. I started backwards in surprise, but he had already snatched the note from my hand.
“That is private business!” I shouted, though I could muster little passion.
“No business is private to me,” he laughed back, still positioned upon his knees on top of my counter.
“Let us away to the back room,” I made my way to lock the front door, as I knew there was no way to stop him from reading the letter, “I did not expect you ere the end of the day.” “I don’t like to let bad news wait,” Spiro’s voice was hollow as he folded the note back up, “But I fancy I’ll rethink my verdict.”
“I was not aware you wore the judicial robes,” I joked with the best humor I could.
Spiro laughed, sliding off the counter and making his way into the back room, “This is but a… hobby. By day, I don the powdered wig and sentence all the lesser thieves to suffer.” I couldn’t help but laugh. Spiro’s sarcasm had this refreshing effect upon me. Growing serious, he took a seat at my desk and removed his hood. His feet remained planted on the floor. He leaned forward in the chair, elbows on his knees, intensely debating with himself.
Handing back the note he spoke, “I cannot do this job alone.”
My interest was piqued, for he’d oft avowed he would only ever work by himself.
“This seems a change of heart,” I put the note in my pocket, leaning against the edge of my desk.
“They’ll kill you if I don’t do this, won’t they?”
“I’d flee. Down south,” I replied.
“’Twould be the same fate,” he looked up to me with a taught frown, “You’re the only one who can find buyers for the items I liberate.”
I nodded. Spiro oft procured singular items for me. No other broker in the city had a network like mine, developed over half a lifetime.
He looked to the ground with a terse smile and meager laugh, “What’m I supposed to do if you’re gone? Rob merchants like a common looter? There’s no challenge in that. No glory. Nothing holy.”
I pondered his mention of holiness, ere asking, “What do we need then?”
“Someone on the inside,” he replied, rubbing his hands together.
“On the inside? Like one of the librarians? Finding an amicable one could take far too long,” I shook my head.
“No, only someone with a pass,” Spiro assured me, “It seems the guards admit a few scholars in the evening. We need someone who can enter that way.”
“Might I ask why?”
“The only way in -- aside from the guarded entrance -- is a series of windows, forty feet off the ground.”
“That is problematic,” I nodded.
“Only because they’re locked from the inside. I can get up there easy as a cow can shite, but I’m sure the sound of breaking glass would be heard inside. I understand libraries are very quiet places.”
“Unless the librarian is yelling at you to be silent,” I remarked, “So, you need someone inside to secure your entrance through a window?”
“And to help me find the sodding book. By the size of the place, there must be tens of thousands in there. I wouldn’t know where to begin searching.”
“Could our scholar simply walk out with it?” I asked.
“Doubt it,” he shrugged, “The guard searched ‘em all when they left in the morning.”
“Who do I know who is a member of the Academy?” I rubbed my brow.
“And who can we trust?” Spiro added.
All my acquaintances from Academy were clients. They hired me for the security and discretion I practiced. It seemed they’d scarcely be willing to jeopardize themselves for the few hundred silver I could offer. These were men who dedicated their lives to the study of the intricacies of the Mystic Tide. Their sole purpose was to unlock the secrets of the arcane, and they cared little for earthly things. Magic was all that interested them.
Then again, perhaps I possessed a contact I didn’t know was a member. I searched my mind for associates who specialized in the arcane and alchemical.
Just then, the dull thud of my door being pressed against its bolt sounded from the front of the store. Looking up with a start, I saw the woman I’d unnerved the day before. She seemed startled by the door’s unwillingness to budge. Taking a step back, she furrowed her brows in confusion, and tried again. Her bottom lip protruded a touch when the door refused to yield. She leaned to the side, peering into the large window.
My eyes must have widened as I formed my idea, for Spiro looked to me expectantly. This young woman was always interested in the alchemical and magical trinkets I occasionally acquired. Mayhaps she had some connection to the Academy.
“Hold on!” I jumped up and hurried to the front of the shop, as the lass turned away with dejection.
I fumbled with the lock, throwing the door open and shouting after her, “Wait! Miss, we are open. Please come in!”
She paused and turned around. Looking left and right, she seemed unsure if I was calling to her. I nodded eagerly, and beckoned her inside. Holding the door open, she entered gratefully. The lass seemed little more than twenty, and stood slightly taller than Spiro. Long black hair, twisted into a braid, snaked its way down her back. Her skin was like the pale brown of an almond, and her pursed lips were a shade darker, giving her a rather exotic mien. Her deep brown eyes radiated youthful energy tempered with self-consciousness and rested beneath thick eyebrows. Her cheekbones slanted at a sharp angle, leading to a pointed chin.
“You visit this shop often, miss, but I do not believe I know your name,” I said with the most cordial good humor I could muster.
“Oh… it is…” she paused as though the pressure of the question made her forget her own name, “Uh… Veeda. My name is Veeda.”
“Veeda, that is very pretty. Exotic. I bet your parents were immigrants,” I moved behind the counter to my stool, for I did not wish to seem too unusual.
“Ah… indeed. They were.”
“As were mine,” I smiled, “It seems we all are, aren’t we?”
“In some way or another, I suppose we are,” she nodded, turning away from me to study some alchemical reagents on a shelf.
“Surely, Miss Veeda. Bye the bye, you always seem quite interested in the arcane items which pass through my shop.”
She stopped in her tracks and turned away, then reluctantly faced me, “Just a fancy, you could say.”
As readers may know, magic in Vallisia isn’t limited to the clergy, as it is on the mainland. Tales from the feud between the King’s Royal Academy and the Carmine’s Hermitage could fill volumes, in fact. But our government is not so radical as to trust women with knowledge of the arcane. Witches discovered by the church are burned alive. Those unearthed by the civil authorities become participants in Academy experiments deemed too dangerous for acolytes or sages to undertake.
I smiled, “I would never report you to the Academy, miss. I simply have questions about items from time to time, and I prefer to deal with others who operate on the… fringes. If you take my meaning.”
“I must beg your pardon. I know not of what you speak,” she forced a smile as her eyes darted toward the door.
“Of course you don’t,” I shrugged empathetically, “Understanding is a liability for those of us operating on the fringes of the law.”
Before I’d finished my thought, she turned on her heel, and headed toward the exit.
“Wait!” I betrayed my desperation, “I have two hundred silver for one who possesses access to the Academy Library. Someone on the fringes, you see. Should you know anyone like that…”
Her back still toward me, she turned her head to the side, “I… shall let you know.”
And with that, she hurried out. I released a sigh and rubbed my chest. It burned from my heart all the way to my throat.
Spiro had closed the back room door when I let the lass in, but now opened it and emerged, “You think she’ll return?”
“The items she purchases… if she doesn’t practice magic, someone she knows surely does.”
“I may know a man who can help us,” Spiro patted my back, “He ain’t part of the Academy, but he could talk his way into or out of anywhere.”
“A gonif?” I asked, using my homeland’s colloquialism for a confidence man.
“In another life,” Spiro made his way to the door, “And he owes me a favor.”
“I won’t turn down any help which can be found,” I sighed.
“I never asked,” Spiro put up his hood, “Who’d you borrow from?”
I dropped my head, for I couldn’t bring myself to answer.
“Oh, mate -- you didn’t?” his shoulders drooped.
I nodded in silent reply.
“You oughtta know better,” he said, opening the door.
“Everyone keeps telling me,” I replied under my breath.
Spiro returned at noon the following day. Only an aged couple who often browsed, but never bought, were in the shop. He took note of them as he held the door open for his friend. The man looked older than Spiro, perhaps in his early forties. He was taller than I, with cropped copper hair. His face had a refinement particular to these Isles, not Vallisia. His jaw was broad, but gentle in its features, whilst his chin angled to a dull point. His cheeks were peppered with light stubble which lent him a robustness, but none of these things were what first struck me. ’Twas his eyes. Set beneath a prominent but tall brow, they were the most radiant green I had ever seen. They were the sort of eyes which seemed to hold no deceit, and leave women in a daze.
“May I introduce you...” Spiro unfurled an arm toward me, “Finnegan! And Finnegan, this is Morley.”
“Call me Finn,” he said, walking over to the counter with an outstretched hand, “It is a pleasure.”
He spoke with a baritone which lacked color. ’Twas the sort of monotone which betrays boredom. I certainly did not believe he found it a pleasure to make my acquaintance, and I began to doubt his capability as the gonif Spiro thought he was.
I’ve met many confidence men in my day (in my line of work, I’m sure you’ll understand), and I can assure you all gonifs worth their salt are quite affable. For, if you can convince someone you are their friend, you can abuse that friendship. This is, after all, the heart of the confidence scheme. The only difference is the gonif runs off after he’s abused your trust, whilst a true friend continues to mistreat it.
“Maybe the two of you could speak in the back room,” Spiro nodded toward the old couple perusing my wares.
“Yes, let us confer in private,” Finn agreed.
“Well, my shop--“ I began.
“I’ll watch the store,” Spiro hopped over the counter and ushered me off my seat, “I doubt it’ll run off.”
“Alright, alright, don’t rush me!” I grumbled, making my way to the back room.
Finn followed and took a seat as I closed the door. He was composed and looked to me expectantly.
“So…” I was at a small loss, for I did not know how far Spiro had exposed our situation, “How do you plan to get into the Library?”
“Oh,” he tilted his head just slightly, “I should talk past the guard. But Spiro mentioned you required assistance to persuade some girl to help you.”
“I see,” I took a seat across the desk which dominated the small space, “He told you everything, then.”
“You can trust me,” he replied in an off-hand way.
“Who said I didn’t?” I smiled.
“Your face,” he blinked, “Your eyebrows twitched like this,” he tensed just the innermost part of his brows, “And you leaned your neck a touch backward.”
“Did I?” I pondered, “You must be quite good at five-card.”
“Be that your game?” His eyes danced over my face for a moment, “Or... be it something requiring less skill? More chance, mayhaps? You are a dice man.”
“Quite the clairvoyant,” I couldn’t help but laugh at this attempt to amaze me, “Spiro told you.”
“Doth Spiro know?”
“That dice be your game.”
Searching my memory, I realized there was no reason Spiro would know. I’d neither gambled with nor confided in him.
“Fine,” I relented, “Count me impressed.”
“I wasn’t trying to impress you.”
“Of course not,” I found myself unnerved and slightly vexed by his dispassionate demeanor, “So how will you persuade the girl to help me.”
“What do you know about her,” Finn leaned forward.
“I think she’s a witch. She’s always interested in the alchemical and arcane items I have.”
“Doth she buy, or only browse?”
“She buys fairly often, but she’s rather selective.”
“Be there anywhere else she could acquire such things?”
“In Brimgaet? There are a few black-market types who might sell to a woman.”
“Well…” I struggled for more, “She’s foreign. Or her ancestors certainly were.”
“Oh, I don’t know. Her name is Veeda. That sounds strange. Her skin is… it’s pale, but dark at the same time. Do you take my meaning?”
“She is eastern.”
“Oh, no. She doesn’t wear a headscarf.”
“It doth not matter. Just how young?”
“Twenty… perhaps a shade older.”
“So,” Finn leaned back and folded his arms, “A witch of barely two decades, hiding in plain sight. And she hath plenty of coin.”
“She must. I sell no reasonably priced alchemical apparatuses.”
“I shall think upon this,” he nodded, “You may resume your proprietorial duties. Send Spiro in, if you wish.”
With a skeptical sigh, I made for the door, but paused with the handle in my hand, “Is his name really Spiro?”
“Ha! I am sure not, but I haven’t the faintest idea…” he replied with amusement.
I returned to my post at the counter, whilst Spiro joined Finn. The two played cards as I stared at the elderly couple. It took them an hour to finish their meticulous path though the store. They seemed the most infuriating humans ever created, and I had the unenviable joy of witnessing this display once a week. After a half an hour of arguing, they left with nothing. Many of my customers left empty handed, which was perfectly by design. I procured the bulk of my income from the sort of special orders which now might prove my deliverance.
Shortly after the couple left, an envelope slid under my door. I grimaced in anguish at the sound of the paper rubbing against the wooden floor. Hobbling over, I was just about to open it, when I spied Veeda through the small window on the shop door.
Stuffing the note in my pocket, I opened the door for her, “I am glad you chose to return.”
“I… wish I bore… glad news for you,” she said mechanically.
“Come now,” I said loudly toward the back room to get Finn’s attention, “Don’t be so hasty miss. My offer is negotiable.”
“I appreciate… your offer… but I must refuse,” 'twas as though she were reciting a poem, and poorly at that.
“Morley be a fool,” Finn said, sauntering toward the counter, “But he be right about your haste. This opportunity deserves more consideration than you grant it.”
Veeda started in surprise, for she assumed I was but the only one in the shop, “My apologies, I do not know you.”
With her back turned, I flipped the sign in my window from ‘open’ to ‘closed’. Locking the door would only intimidate her needlessly and jeopardize this chance. She quickly turned to me with a concerned look, to which I replied with a large (if disingenuous) smile.
“You are correct. We are not acquainted. I am Finnegan,” he gently approached her with an outstretched hand, “But everyone calls me Finn.”
She took his hand limply. My jaw tightened, for I feared he would make a fool of himself and kiss it. Instead, he pressed it gently in his own.
“Veeda,” she studied him with bedazzled eyes.
“A true delight,” he nodded slowly, releasing her hand, “I admit I did not first believe what Morley told me of you. He be ever so prone to hyperbole.”
“I am not!” I could not help but defend myself from this most heinous of accusations.
Veeda regarded me with a slight turn of the head, but quickly reaffixed her attention on Finn.
“What did he tell you?” She took an unconscious step closer to him.
I shall admit, my heart grew envious at this. For all things I am, it cannot be said I am attractive. Witnessing such easy seduction oft cuts those of us ungifted with its art deeply. So, though I had no fancy for this girl, the way she responded to Finn called to mind my own greatest failing.
“He spoke of an unparalleled loveliness in your eyes and allure in your form,” Finn remarked with such unguarded honesty that I believed him.
“Ha ha ha ha ha!” Veeda exploded, her face lightened with a smile, “You are quite the charmer, don’t you think?”
I couldn’t help but find satisfaction in this rejection, as the inadequate always derive pleasure from a great man’s downfall. Pushing past him, she made her way toward the counter and leaned against it. She looked to him with raised brows, as though awaiting another futile advance. Little did she know this one would strike true.
“He also told me such base appeals would fail to impress you,” he turned to her confidently, “But, fool that I am, I ignored him.”
“You should have listened,” she nodded.
“I simply doubted someone so astute and capable would patronize this rubbish heap.”
“Don’t be so hard on Morley,” she coyly smiled at me, “This place is not so bad.”
“The selection is fairly good,” he joined her at the counter, “For a shop which will sell arcane wares… to a witch.”
Veeda’s smile evaporated as she studied Finn with piercing eyes. Her mien was so intense I feared she had taken the accusation as a grievous threat. His composure remained unflappable, though.
“If I am, antagonizing me hardly seems prudent,” she replied soberly.
“I did not fix you for the vengeful type.”
“What is your stake in all this, Mr. Finnegan?” She finally asked.
“Finn, please,” he replied cordially, “I am a concerned friend, as you should be too.”
“You are no friend to me,” she assured him.
“I am to Morley,” he replied with compassionate candor, “He needs your help. If we fail to retrieve this book, the shop shall close.”
“If I don’t help the two of you steal a book, this store will close?” She replied skeptically.
“He will have no choice -- since he will be dead.”
My heart fell through my feet. It probably crashed its way through the floorboards and down to the groundwater. Desperation makes a poor negotiator.
“What is this fool speaking of?” Her voice was full of disbelief.
“He tells the truth,” my voice creaked out.
“How?” She was unconvinced.
“Debt,” I mused.
“What kind of debtor kills the borrower? There’s no return on that,” her doubt slowly turned to worried disbelief.
“The kind who will lend to someone who hath defaulted more times than not,” I sighed.
Each time I had to admit the situation aloud, 'twas as though I received five of those limericks. The words weren’t just a reminder of my impending doom, they were an admission of my poor luck. And, if there is one fact a gambler never wishes to acknowledge, it’s bad luck.
“So you require my aide to steal a book from the Academy Library?” She pondered, “There is no tome in that building worth a human life.”
“The Compendium Perditorum Linguarum is,” Spiro said, silently emerging from the back room.
“How now! Who are you?” Veeda started.
“I’m the burglar,” Spiro replied as though there were nothing odd about it, “He’s the gonif,” he indicated Finn, “He’s the fence,” he pointed to me, “And you’re... well... the inside man. Or inside woman, as this situation would have it.”
“Oh, no!” A creeping dread filled her, “I shall have no part in this.”
“Please,” Spiro rolled his eyes, “You know you will.”
She bit her bottom lip, her eyes jumping betwixt us, finally coming to rest on Finn, “The confidence man?”
“In another life. I lead a respectable one now,” his mien was once again dreary, now that Spiro had spoiled his act.
“I am sure,” she laughed to herself, her eyes moving to me, “Shall you truly be killed?”
“I regret that I will,” I assured her.
“You surely would,” she knit her brows, “You all know that women are not allowed entrance to the Academy or its Library -- on pain of death which is just as real as that which Morley faces.”
“Of course not,” Spiro seemed the most eager to engage her, “But you must know someone?”
“Chance has it, I do,” she looked to the floor as a smile crept at the corner of her mouth.
“Who!?” I nearly exploded.
“He is my height,” she indicated with her hand, “Though he is rather bent with age. He wears a loose grey robe and a huge brimmed hat. A wispy white beard covers his face.”
“I was never good at guessing games,” Spiro folded his arms.
Finn’s eyes were fixed upon the girl when a gentle chuckle escaped him. I looked at him with dismay. Nothing in this struck me as comical. Spiro too addressed him ponderously. Her head tilted down, Veeda looked to Finn from under her lashes. Her smile grew by a few degrees as he nodded with a benevolent wink.
“A disguise,” he finally chuckled aloud.
Her reply was a mimed curtsey.
“So you do have access!” I was exasperated.
“By forgery, of course,” she addressed me, “But I never go at night, which is when I assume you have planned your heist.”
“Planning has been fairly minimal, thus far,” I admitted.
“Then let me away there this afternoon. Tomorrow, I shall give you a report. What was the name of the tome, once more?” She turned to Spiro.
“The Compendium Perditorum Linguarum,” he replied, suddenly remembering and interrupting himself, “And the windows! Take note if they make much noise as they are opened and closed.”
“I shall,” her face flashed momentary confusion, ere resolving itself to a content state.
With that she made for the door. I went to open the door for her, but tripped over myself. She grabbed and steadied me as Spiro and Finn watched on with amusement. A considerate look from her asked if I was all right. I managed a smile.
“Perhaps you could return tonight?” I pled as she opened the door.
“Tomorrow,” she smiled with a nod, and left.
“That went better than it might have,” Spiro sprang over the counter with a flurry of his cloak.
“Will you stop doing that!?” I spat in a moment of frustration at having lost another day to the gravedigger, “Walk around it like a normal person.
“How did you know the pity card would work on her?” Spiro asked Finn, ignoring my outburst.
“Wheedling did not work, so it was the next best choice for a naive young woman. Given her intellect as a witch, I should have anticipated it,” Finn put his hands in his pockets.
“This one,” Spiro addressed me and pointed to Finn, “He’s incredible. Can’t find a better gonif in the land.”
I nodded in a daze. Spiro observed my taciturn mood, and flipping my ‘closed’ sign to ‘open’, made for the door.
“I’ll see you chaps tomorrow. Better tail that girl -- stay sure she doesn’t make for the guard.”
With that, he left. I regarded Finn a moment, and he looked stoically back.
“Spiro told you of my dilemma,” I observed.
“He did not.”
“The letter,” he replied, “In your pocket.”
“What?” I pulled the note out.
“When you stuck it in your pocket, 'twas the look of one who places a dagger to their own throat.”
I knew no way to respond to such an observation.
“If you require me more,” he made his way to the door, “Spiro knows how.”
I didn’t watch him go. Once the little bell above the door ceased its hollow toll, I unfolded the letter:
Great shall be your chagrin, If you don’t give in. There are three days, Till we fill your grave, Where rats’ll feast on your skin.
Chapter II: In Which Plans are Made
The next day began in a manner comparable to the previous one. I maintained my post, awaiting Veeda’s return, and dreading the inevitable reminder which would certainly slip beneath my door.
It arrived earlier than ever, some time before noon.
Great shall be your plight, In but two nights. If you don’t pay, Your flesh’ll give way, To my hound’s bite.
My underlying dread of these taunts had turned from frustration to anger. I shredded the note as soon as I read it and threw the scraps in the gutter. It may have been a useless gesture, but it granted me some small feeling of power (which I sorely lacked in the current situation).
The day moved at a snail’s pace. The pealing of the clock tower’s bell every hour was like the marching footsteps of a funeral procession. My funeral procession. My mind was muddled with these morbid preoccupations, and I didn’t notice the time until the bell struck six.
‘Where is that girl?’ I thought to myself, ‘And where is Spiro?’
My disquiet grew, as I peered through the store window to search the street. Events may have progressed cruelly, but I did not wish to think of that. The implications for myself and for the girl were too unpleasant.
I knew little of Spiro, it was true, but something in his intensity was unnerving. Though he ofttimes joked, the look in his eye belied a fervor which implied there were few lengths to which he would not go in service of his ambitions. He seemed the sort who might use fatal force to defend himself when threatened. Even if by a girl.
I strayed in front of the window, marveling at the flow of workers tromping home. They moved just as they did every other day, ignorant of the doom which might befall me. I was no more to them than a mouse is to a dog. Their dispassionate hurry about their own lives seemed truly indecent.
Fortunately, I did not have much longer to wait. My bell soon chimed as Veeda entered. Spiro was right behind her.
“Were you following me?” She asked, noticing him only once they were both inside.
“Following you?” Spiro lowered his hood, “Since when?”
“Since when?” The girl seemed aghast, “Have you been stalking me since yesterday?”
“Stalking is an unpleasant word,” Spiro turned the ‘open’ sign to ‘closed’ with a nod to me, “I would call it ‘shadowing’.”
“Horse shite by any other name--” Veeda shook her head, beginning a favorite colloquialism of my countrymen.
“Still helps the flowers grow,” Spiro interrupted, hopping up to take a seat on my counter, “I’m sure you’d rather be called a ‘sorceress’ than a ‘witch’. I only ask for similar considerations.”
“I see,” she turned to me, “And I presume you would rather not be called a ‘fence’.”
Their banter helped me regain a measure of my humor, and I replied, “I am a ‘rare item broker’.”
“Enough semantics,” Veeda threw up her hands, “Is there somewhere we may sit and discuss the news I bear?”
“Right this way,” I led her to the back room.
We each took a seat, whilst Spiro spun round on the counter to peer through the door at us.
“What did you learn?” I asked with nervous eagerness.
“The tome you require is in the rare book collection. ’Tis a separate wing of the library, and locked at night,” she folded her hands on her lap once I sat down.
“I can pick it, don’t worry,” Spiro chimed in.
“The point is moot, though,” Veeda continued without addressing him.
“Why?” My stomach lurched a bit.
“This tome has no value,” she responded.
“My client is willing to pay handsomely,” I assured her.
“It’s in the ‘rare book collection’ after all,” Spiro chimed in.
“True as that may be, there’s no value in its contents. Perhaps in its novelty, but nothing practical.”
“I’m afraid I don’t know what you mean,” I shook my head.
“This Compendium Perditorum Linguarum, ’tis one work, written in three different languages,” she explained.
“So…what?” Spiro asked expectantly.
“All three are dead tongues. And not only just dead, lost. No one knows how to translate them,” Veeda addressed him without looking toward him, “There is no value in them.”
“Mayhaps the buyer’s got a way to translate one of ‘em. Then he could read all three... Is that right?” Spiro was genuinely unsure if his assumption was correct.
“I suppose,” she admitted, “But why would someone keep such discovery secret?”
“It doesn’t matter!” I shouted at the ceiling, “We need it. That’s enough for me.”
“What about the windows?” Spiro asked before Veeda could respond, “They noisy?”
“I do not suppose so,” she shook her head, “They open and close them for ventilation on fair days. You should be able to open one, even at night, with little notice. I do believe they latch from the inside, though.”
“That’s why we need you,” I took a deep breath to calm myself, though it would soon not be enough.
“Me!?” She put a hand on her chest, “Oh, no! I but bring you this information. I shall take no greater part in this cankerous endeavor.”
I dropped my head into my hands.
Spiro crawled off the counter. Joining us in the back room, he knelt in front of Veeda. His usual joviality was entirely absent.
“This is but the only hope Morley has,” he looked her in the eye, “If you don’t help him, you condemn him.”
Veeda regarded him coolly, but his words made her eyes shimmer with guilt.
“And he can still pay you,” he assured her, “If compassion won’t soften your heart.”
“A burglar insulting my compassion?” She mused, “I simply cannot help you. ’Tis too dangerous for me.”
“How?” He asked, retaking his feet.
“I never go at night. You have plainly observed the building, so you should know that when the clock strikes six, be it morn or eve, each and every scholar is made to leave,” she began to explain, “This grants the librarians opportunity to catch up with their work, and forces some of the bookworms go home, I suppose. Some would likely never leave, if they allowed it. At eight, the scholars are readmitted. If a scholar should return at night, they may not leave till the morn. There is but one librarian on duty, and one guard at the door.”
“Could you sneak the book out under your robe, then?” Spiro asked.
“If I were seven feet tall,” she raised her brows, “’Tis a massive tome. And the guards are thorough in their searches. You would be surprised how many scholars try to sneak materials out to avoid disruption to their research.”
“Then there’s no other way. We need you inside to unlock a window for me,” Spiro replied.
“I cannot put myself in this jeopardy,” she agonized, “They would throw me in a dungeon.”
“Sneaking into the academy library is no proof of witchcraft. Maybe they’d toss you in the jail for a fortnight. Besides, we won’t be caught,” he assured her.
“I cannot trust that,” she shook her head.
“Then we’ll get Finn. He can talk his way outta anything. A true master of his craft,” Spiro grew excited.
Veeda’s attention became abruptly sharper. She leaned a shade forward in her chair, and I swear I heard her gulp. For my part, I was skeptical.
“Would he really help?” I asked.
“Of course!” Spiro answered, “His life is supremely dull. He’s hungry for some intrigue, even if he won’t admit it.”
“Does that change your mind?” I asked Veeda.
She inhaled deep and closed her eyes. Spiro’s face beamed, he seemed certain others shared his natural thirst for danger. I swallowed hard in anticipation of her reply. If she refused, I would have to liquidate all my wares tomorrow, and be well into the Southland the next day.
“Fine,” she relented, “See that Finn meets me at the cafe around the corner from the library at seven tomorrow. I shall be in the disguise I described.”
“Ha ha!” Spiro clapped his hands, as I sighed in relief.
“Also,” Veeda climbed to her feet, “The rare collection wing is on the north and west end of the building. We will unlock the closest window for you. At what hour do you deem best?”
“Eleven,” Spiro eagerly rubbed his palms together, “The clock tower in the square will help drown out any noise from my entrance or exit, and I doubt we’ll want for more than an hour.”
“I shall see you then,” Veeda nodded to Spiro and to me, turning on her heel.
“Wait!” Spiro called, but she continued on toward the shop door, “Won’t Finn need some sort of document to get in?”
She paused, before turning with a smile, “He is a world class gonif, so you say. He can talk his way in.”
With that, she hurried out, the door banging behind her.
“It looks as though we’ll save you yet, mate,” Spiro gave my shoulder a pat, “I’ll bring the book here soon as I have it. It oughtn’t be later than one.”
“Thank you,” I nodded.
My mind whirled from the possibility of salvation, which never seemed quite so real as in that moment. Spiro made his way out while I remained at the desk. I marveled at the twists and turns fate can take.
It seems as though we are constantly taunted by quickly fading glimpses of good fortune once bad has struck. I think these flickers of hope preserve us until the bitter end, though they rarely help us overcome what waits for us there. For that, a man requires moral flexibility and a few good friends. A stiff drink doesn’t hurt either.
Just before he closed the door, Spiro abruptly stuck his head back in and shouted to me, “Afore I go to Finn: you can pay us each two hundred silver, right?”
“Yes?!” I asked him to repeat, for I was distracted by my thoughts.
“Excellent!” He called back and was gone.
Suddenly, my mind comprehended the question. My arms lost their strength, and I shouted after him.
“Wait! Wait! Wait!”
’Twas no use.
If I payed the three others two hundred each, I could cover but half my debt.
In mine own defense, I had only anticipated paying out one share when I offered Spiro those two hundred gold. It was rather presumptuous of him to assume no one’s share would decrease if we had to divide it between two more people. Then again, perhaps he knew it would be my share which would suffer.
Even worse, I had no method of contact for any of my accomplices, so there was no way to clarify the issue of payment. Or, rather, to correct it.