Gold. A glimmer of pure gold swaying in the wind, untouched by mortal hands.
I could see it through one of the few openings in the ceiling, allowing the surface to shine through. Sundown made the wheat fields seem otherworldly, shimmering with a luster more pure than anything you’d find within the Innards. A breeze rolled by, causing the stalks to wave towards the abyss I stood in. The crops would be due for harvesting soon, and as was customary of every cycle of the year, I wanted nothing more than to be there, taking in air without the constant tinge of dust.
Oh, that’s right…The job.
“Strawman, listen to me, will you?” she insisted.
“Yeah yeah, I’m here,” I answered. “In body if not in spirit.”
She took off the hood of her cloak, her bright emerald eyes questioning me in the dismal light. “You haven’t heard a word, have you?”
I shrugged. “Probably would if I had some fresh air in me.” I fished in the leather pouch on my belt, flicking the three silver coins aside in favor of a bent blade of hay to pick my teeth with; not as fresh as I like, but still bearing a taste of the outside world. “Or was back at the Bluff. Take your pick.”
“I swear I hear that every time,” she murmured, walking beside me. Every step made an audible clack. “I was asking if you were absolutely sure this is Drosselmyer’s usual place.”
I allowed a sigh to escape my lips, minding to keep the hay from dropping out of my lips. “Third time tellin’ ya, Livy, I see him here every time I’m around.”
I frowned as I glanced ahead and behind, not quite sure if the stones I heard crunching were from someone following or just underfoot. “You think I’m lying?”
“I know your schedule, you’re never out of the Bluff.”
“When was the last time you went to Thistlebrand’s?”
I scratched my head for a moment. “Let’s see…Twofold last month and maybe once a week ago,” I answered truthfully. “Worst ale in Minnows Bydown, and the fightin’s decent at best.”
“And you call that a lead?...Wait, just what do you mean ‘maybe’?”
“Keep your voice down, will ya?”
She muttered a curse under her breath, and I couldn’t help but grin. Liviana was always the one to plan jobs to the letter, and yet she would get flustered enough to not know when I was just trying to shut her up; the tunnels of Minnows Bydown were almost always clear by evening, at least of anyone who didn’t care to be seen. Any bit of sunlight that made it through the opening in the clay walls was gone after noon had past, and the torchkeepers down this route weren’t beneath slacking.
About a minute of walking down the winding tunnel passed, Liviana fell behind me. Even after making a point to walk slower, I still outpaced her by a few yards. I heard her let out a huff behind me, the clacking with each hurried step causing my eye to twitch. I stopped and turned back to see her slowly tromping forward; traces of a purple fabric peeked out from the edge of the dirty brown cloak wrapped around her thin frame, which she obsessively tried to keep off the ground. She glanced up at me in confusion.
“I wish you’d do something about those damned shoes.”
“Not yet, it completes the ensemble.”
I rolled my eyes. “I still don’t see what all the fuss is about with heels like that. You’re practically on bloody stilts.”
“It’s enticing,” she assured me. “It how whores in the bigger cities make their asses stick out. Cretch even said so.”
“And Cretch is a dirty little prick that stick it in a hitching post. Besides, You’ll
She finally hobbled to my side. “Strawman, be serious.”
She closed her eyes in exasperation, and continued slowly. “Drosselmyer likes whores. He’ll be easier to trick with an apparent whore than a six foot five Half-Bruuk prepared to make his insides his outsides.”
I chuckled, my tongue subconsciously tracing along one of my fangs. “Well, at least he’d be inclined to listen to me. The things you’ll do for a bounty…”
“A one hundred gold mark?” she scoffed. “This is nothing. Just give me a minute to fix these shoes, will you?”
We stopped our trek just under on of the few lit torches, an ash stained cage of burning kindling threatening to come loose from its crude nest in the rock wall. The flickering embers illuminated the stone tunnel near us, but left the left and the right as silent black voids. Liviana leaned against the wall, and as usual, the light hitting her skin nearly blinded me. It was easy to forget that about Faenani; every last one of them has skin like ivory, and you couldn’t quite look at them straight. Never mind the pointed ears and narrowed eyes, this is what made them stick out like a sore thumb. At least Livy was well aware of it enough to keep to shadows in public.
“Nearly there now, at least,” she noted as she fiddled with the heels of her shoes. “Remember I go in first, and give me five minutes at the latest. Preferably longer.”
“Any signals I need to know about?”
She looked up at me after tossing the single braid she kept her dirty blonde hair in behind her. “Any screams, and you come in swinging. Preferably soon.”
I smirked. “Y’know a lot of runs end that way, right?”
She hopped back up, stumbling only for a second. “The correct answer was ‘yes boss,’ but I appreciate your participation.”
A few minutes later, the tunnel widened, whispers of merriment and faint smells of cooking fires drifting through the air. The Innards were always lively, but the merriment was always self-contained, The business district always looked like a collection of boulders to me, huge rocks of varying size with the soft orange glow of firelight flickering from crudely carved windows. Raggedy curtains hung over every entryway, something most travelers gawked at until they realized just how hard it must be to affix a door to sheer rock.
“Well, it doesn’t sound packed, at least,” Liviana noted.
The tavern looked older than it was, but by no fault of the location. Thistlebrand’s was owned by one Karavek Thistlebrand, not a criminal himself, but the owner of an establishment swarming with them. No one was quite sure why, either; Thistlebrand was pleasant, although a dirty looking bastard on his best days. Maybe it was because folks knew he was too nervous to report anything to the Slatenauts. Even worse, perhaps he had to turn to shadier types to fund the place and they made his public house a regular hangout. Whatever the reason, here his tavern stood keeping the cheap ale flowing like so much stagnant piss. The outer façade had to have been a pretty sight before years of escalated bar brawls took their toll, scraps of broken chairs, tables, and even a bench cleanly halved where piled up to either side of the doors, just blocking the small carved out windows on either side. Just at the top of the stone dome was a small wooden sign, hanging crookedly and desperately in need of a repaint: “All are welcome at Thistlebrand’s.”
“Seems quiet,” Liviana noted. “Can’t tell if that’s good or bad.”
We turned right in unison, making our way down a narrow entryway between a small home and half of another long abandoned. As I glanced back down the alley for any passerby, I heard a heavy cloak drop to the ground with a soft thud. I remembered Liviana said she was making alterations to the dress she found, but I had no idea she went this far. The deep purple silk clung to her slight frame in all the ways more lecherous types would approve of, a matching corset likely squeezing all her insides in and around her bosom. The dress had been hemmed to expose most of her right leg, nesting it with the rest of the lacey bits of the skirt. Wrapped around both of her arms and weaving around her fingers were strands of lily-white silken rope, a decoration to most, but I knew better. She stooped down to fiddle with her shoes again, damned spikey things painted a faux shade of silver.
“How do I look?” she asked nervously.
I shrugged. “Like a woman of ill repute?”
“That’s the idea. Like I said before, I lure him away from the pub, and he should be easy enough to get the drop on.”
“Yeah, just don’t do anything too difficult in those shoes,” I said. “…Like running.”
“Part of the ensemble,” she repeated as she made towards the tavern, the shoes imposing a strut. I watched her for a moment, sliding through the raggedy curtain, but dedicating a few seconds to peering her head with all the apprehension and curiosity of a foreign Faenani whore. Her dedication to the disguise was impressive, at least.
The loose stone beneath my feet crunched softly as I strolled forward, finding a toppled over piece of stone from the abandoned home to perch on. For the life of me, I had forgotten what business the rubble at my feet used to be. Tailor? Clinic? Armory? Any number of things, really. Whatever it was, the result was the same: a vacated and demolished house from someone who couldn’t pay taxes to live in the “nicer” wards of Minnows-Bydown. I remembered hearing something about the Baron wanting to send a cleaning crew or two to strip the place down to the stone floor, make the Innards “more hospitable,” or some such malarkey.
I jumped up and whipped around, backing against a nearby pillar with my fist raised. Seated next to where I had been was a fellow cloaked figure that nearly came up to my shins, yellow eyes staring back at me with bewilderment. I dropped my guard and put a hand to my chest.
“Cretch, you’re going to be the bloody death of me,” I growled.
“Oh, come off it, Underbite,” he chuckled as he let his hood fall back. The bruise-colored skinned creature gazed up at me with a wide, fanged grin. “Why’re you so jumpy all of a sudden.”
“…The job, Cretch!” I struggled to keep to a whisper at his incompetence. “Why are you even here? You were suppose to watch the Bluff while I was gone!”
“Eh, it was slow. Never a slow day when you’re tracking a mark though.” He reached inside his cloak and pulled out a small glass vial, humming to himself pleasantly as he swirled around a pale yellow substance. I would give all the gold in the world to find a Gavik that could take important matters seriously, let alone focus.
“Well, just try to sit still and stay quiet, alright? We’re not supposed to make a move until Livy says.”
Cretch frowned. “She look convincing?”
“Sure, but the shoes are a problem.”
“They make the arse stick out.”
“And everyone will see when she rolls and ankle and drops like a sack of potatoes.”
“Oh, and you’re one to talk about proper eveningwear for whores then!” He chuckled after giving a flippant wave. “Anyway, about Thistlebrand’s…”
I gave as stern an expression as possible. “What about it?”
“Let’s get a move on! Should be something we can do to help.”
“Cretch, she said to stay put.”
“We’ll run in for a pint or two and leave, it’ll be fun!”
“I will hold you here if I have to.”
He stared at me blankly for a moment, then a half-smile slowly began to creep along his narrow features. I knew this smile. A dire omen for an embarrassing amount of lost marks and bad press.
“Cretch, I’m warning you…”
No response. His smile began to show some teeth. I subconsciously barred my teeth.
“You sniveling little-“
In an instant, Cretch uncorked the vial in his hand and downed the strange liquid in one gulp. His blue skin shimmered for a brief moment, then seemed to turn into thin air as I dove for the little bastard.
“Just a quick look, Strawman!” a disembodied voice called out from around the path towards the tavern.