By D.G. Laderoute
I pride myself on finding things before they are lost.
–Soline El Gato
“Aren’t you drunk?”
Soline glanced sidelong at Sanjay and grinned. “Very. Why?”
“Because I think you’re walking straighter than I am.”
Soline laughed, but a burst of hurdy-gurdy music and raucous voices cut it short. The Pauper’s Joy was still open, it seemed. She and Sanjay had already put in a good night’s work at The Drowning Man, but the night wasn’t done yet—
“Don’t even think about it,” Sanjay glared pointedly at her, then at the open tavern door, then back at her.
“Sanjay, Sanjay—where is your sense of adventure?”
“It went to bed at least an hour ago. And I intend to join it there.” He held up a battered leather pouch. “Besides, we’ve already done a good night’s work, and need to count the spoils. Doubloons—which are easy—but there are also florins, and Vestin guilders, a few Eisen Marks, some shillings—” Sanjay stopped, opened the pouch and dug around in it. “And a couple of those strange opal pellets that everyone keeps claiming are Syrneth currency. Also some lint—” He dug around some more. “And a dead beetle.”
He plucked the latter out and dropped it into the street muck. As he did, a rowdy group of young men came swaggering around the next corner, all silken finery and bravado, stumbling and singing their way towards them. Soline and Sanjay stepped aside, but one of the dandies, clad in tight breeches spattered with mud and a ruffled silken shirt stained with wine, stopped and peered at them for a moment. He then proffered a wobbly bow, reached up and grabbed Soline’s shoulders.
“You should come w—with me, pretty one. I will—will take you to such—” He burped, giggled, then frowned. “Oh. Yes. I will take y—you to such heights of pleasure as you ever—” His words collapsed into jumbled nonsense, but kept going anyway. He finished on a broad grin, then turned to his companions, to make sure they’d heard him. They laughed and slurred all sorts of none-too-clever innuendo. Satisfied, he turned back to Soline and opened his mouth again.
Soline put a finger up to his lips.
“Hush, now, because I don’t want you to miss what I say, little one. I am going to count to three, and if you have not taken your hands off of me by then, I will break your left wrist.” She smiled as sweetly as new honey.
The young dandy blinked a few times, then barked a laugh. Sanjay sighed and stepped back, shaking his head sadly.
The dandy blew a gust of boozy breath into Soline’s face. “Fiery words, from—”
“—from a fiery woman. And I like—”
“—fiery women. They are so—”
The dandy shrieked, stumbling backwards. He crashed into his fellows, and three of them toppled into the street with a thick splat of piss-sodden mud and animal manure. Two more just stood and gaped.
Soline turned away and resumed walking. “Anyway, you were saying, Sanjay, something about florins and doubloons and beetles?”
Sanjay hurried after her. None of the drunken fops seemed inclined to follow them, and instead thrashed and floundered about, struggling to help their friend, who whimpered and wailed as he clutched his wrist, back to his feet.
“As I was saying, we need to count this,” Sanjay said. “Especially since these florins look like they’ve been filed down. Scoundrels, debasing currency like that—”
He stopped, frowning, then dug deeper into the pouch. “Huh. What’s this, I wonder?”
He’d extracted a slip of paper and unfolded it, revealing a few words scrawled in a spidery script.
Upstairs Florian’s Fine
Say Armand sent you
Soline read the paper over his shoulder. “Florian’s Fine?” She frowned. “Florian’s Fine—Florian’s—” She snapped her fingers. “Ah, Florian’s Fine Tobacco and Herbals, just off the Square of Carvallo, perhaps?”
“So what is there, upstairs and apparently waiting for word from Armand?” Sanjay mused. “And who, for that matter, is Armand?”
Soline smiled, sensing both opportunity and danger, and taking delight in both. “Ah, well, now that is what we have to find out, isn’t it?”
They waited until the following day, though, to pursue their little mystery. Soline had drank a lot of wine, after all, with some brown beer on top of it, and a few swallows of some Ussuran concoction that smelled like sweaty feet, and tasted
just as it smelled. Mysteries demanded clear heads.
And quick reflexes, in case something went wrong.
The next morning—late, when Soline finally pried herself out of bed—they set off for the Square of Carvallo. It nestled in the heart of a district of Five Sails where most of the sundry crime lords and bosses lived, making it the safest, most tranquil part of town. Occasionally, someone young, foolish, drunk, or just new to the City of Five Sails—or rarely all of those—would make the very bad decision to cause trouble here. It was a very bad decision they never made twice, being dead and all.
Along the way, Soline pondered the note, and what it might mean. She thought as well about the man whose pouch had contained it, a dour Eisen, all oiled beard and mustache and inflated self-importance. He’d fancied himself a hard drinker, claiming you had to be, if you were Eisen, because of the monstrous Horrors that terrorized his homeland. Soline had interrupted his bragging to pronounce to the entire tavern that these Horrors, the things that supposedly crawled and loped and generally lurked through the gloomy Eisen nights, were vastly overblown.
They were just exaggerated tales of ordinary animals, wolves and bears and such, designed to make the dreary land seem more interesting than it really was.
The Eisen had taken exception to this, which led to a spirited debate, which led to drinking, which led to more drinking, then a drinking contest intended to settle the matter of who was right. Soline had quickly discerned that the Eisen sought to outdrink her by cheating. He tried to use sleight-of-hand trickery to shift drinks about, replacing wine with a cup of unfermented grape juice he’d clearly placed on the table earlier. It was an old trick, a grift intended to entice people into drinking too much, making them easy prey. Sanjay, a skilled prestidigitator in his own right, had taught it to her long ago.
She rarely needed to use it, though, and just relied on her natural constitution to ward off the worst of alcohol’s effects. So she happily drank a great deal of wine, then abruptly switched to beer. The Eisen was too far into the contest to say no. The foul Ussuran liquor sealed the deal, leaving her opponent sprawled on one of The Drowning Man’s rough wooden trestles. After ensuring that The Eisen had indeed passed out cold, Sanjay deftly swiped the man’s bejeweled dagger. Soline, in a fleeting moment of practicality, relieved The Eisen of his belt pouch.
Sometimes, she wondered if there was someone out there who could drink her under the table, what such a person would be like, and what she would do about it.
Maybe she’d kill them.
Or marry them.
Or, as was more likely, eventually do both.
Sanjay cut off her musings. “There is the tobacconist, just ahead.” He frowned and rubbed his stubbled chin. “Suppose the Eisen remembers his note, and has already got here?”
“Then we’ll say our farewells and leave.”
“What if he comes along later?”
“Then we’ll claim he just followed us.”
“You have an answer for everything, don’t you?”
Soline smiled. “It’s how I’ve made it to this time and place alive and in one piece, my friend.”
They entered the shop, slamming into a thick, rich wall of warm, earthy aroma. Apparently there were many types of tobacco, along with many other herbs that could be smoked, sniffed or chewed. Some of them were supposedly quite relaxing, and a few were said to even expand one’s consciousness. Soline, however, didn’t especially like deliberately breathing in the smoke of burning leaves, so she mostly abstained.
They waved off the shopkeeper, presumably Florian himself, and clumped upstairs. A different sort of reek tinged the air of the narrow, rickety staircase. It was acrid, with a bitter edge that made Soline’s nose twitch. She heard Sanjay, coming up behind her, cough.
She reached the door at the top. One hand resting lightly on the pommel of her sword, she knocked.
Thumps sounded within, then the clatter of the latch. The door cracked open, and a man’s face peered back.
“Armand sent me.”
The face gave her a narrow-eyed stare, then vanished, and the door swung open. Soline entered, Sanjay once again behind her.
They both stopped, gazing around them in wonder.
Cracked, stained tables sported a maze of glassware—tubes, beakers, crucibles, and flasks. Flames guttered under a few. Viscous fluid dripped from an alembic into a bowl. Books and scrolls inscribed with arcane symbols lay scattered about. A thin, bluish haze fumed the air, making Soline’s nose tingle, and her eyes water.
The only other furnishings were a narrow bed under a small, dingy window, a wash-basin, and a few battered chests, one open to reveal shabby clothing. An old man sat on a stool, poring over yet another tome and scrawling notes in its margins. The man who’d opened the door, a younger fellow with a neat beard and eyes as unblinking as a snake’s, smiled an equally empty smile. Soline thought he might be from Vestenmannavnjar, or perhaps Avalon.
“So Armand sent you,” he said.
Soline smiled right back. “No. I just happened to make up that name, and stumbled to this place by chance.”
The old man turned, scowling. “Jennus, who are these people? What do they want? And why are you all making so much noise? Can’t you see that my studies have reached a critical juncture?”
The man named Jennus turned and offered a shallow bow. “My apologies, Master. They are friends of a mutual friend. We will enjoy our reunion elsewhere, so as to not disturb your important work.”
Jennus gestured for them to follow him. He led them back down the stairs, through Florian’s shop, and into the street. They all fell into an easy, methodical pace, just three acquaintances on unhurried business of their own.
“So Armand sent you,” Jennus said.
“Haven’t we established that yet?” Soline replied.
“Very well. Then you know what we want to do.”
“Armand was thin on detail, as he usually is. And I was drunk.”
Jennus gave another of his thin, taut smiles. “It is very simple. Master Fitzroy believes he has made a breakthrough in his studies, and can transmute lead into gold.”
Soline and Sanjay exchanged a glance. Soline turned back to Jennus.
“He believes he can.”
“Yes. He can’t, of course, because it can’t be done, it’s all utter nonsense.”
“So he’s—an imbecile?”
“No, he has seen results. He has, indeed, changed lead into gold.”
Soline shook her head. “Wait. He either did it, or he didn’t—”
“He didn’t. I used some trickery to make him think he succeeded. Now, he intends to provide a demonstration for a selected group of merchants and minor nobles, who will throw vast sums of money at him if it is successful.”
“Vast sums of money. I like the sound of that,” Sanjay said.
Soline lifted an eyebrow at Jennus. “Ah. So you are a grifter, who seeks to capitalize on an old man’s delusions.”
“Does that concern you?”
“Not at all. I just wonder what you need me to do, and how much you will pay me for it.”
A glimmer of a genuine smile touched the man’s face. “My sleight of hand skills are sufficient to deceive a half-blind old man. I’m afraid they won’t suffice in front of a crowd of skeptical onlookers. Armand assured me that he could provide such an individual. Was he wrong?”
Soline shrugged. “Yes, and no.”
Jennus slowed, frowning. “What do you mean, yes and no?”
“Yes, he was wrong, because my skills aren’t up to the task either. And no, because Sanjay here—” She clapped a hand on Sanjay’s shoulder. “—is more than capable. He could switch around your mustache and beard, and no one would be the wiser.
Isn’t that right, Sanjay?”
Sanjay sighed. “I have a feeling we’re going to find out.”
Jennus frowned at Sanjay’s less-than-enthusiastic response, but Soline slapped him across the back.
“Sanjay, you must stop this infernal false modesty of yours. I’ve told you, no one believes it, and it just makes you look arrogant!” She grinned at Jennus. Sanjay brightened.
“Oh, fine. Yes, this should be a trifling task for me. Just tell me what to do, and when to do it, and it will be done.”
Jennus stared a narrow-eyed moment longer, then nodded. They made arrangements for another meeting that evening to work out details, then Jennus turned back towards the alchemist’s shop.
“Are we actually going to split the take with that man?” Sanjay asked.
“What do you think, my friend?”
They spent the next day with Jennus, working out the details, and practicing the con in his rented room near the alchemist’s. The gist of it was that, under the cover of an eruption of smoke and stink from Fitzroy’s ‘great work’, a small ingot of lead would be switched with a similar one of gold. That was Sanjay’s job. Soline’s would be to spirit Fitzroy away immediately thereafter, to avoid any awkward questions and maintain the air of mystery. While Sanjay and Jennus scooped in the ‘investments’ that would follow, she would put old Fitzroy aboard a ship heading for Vestini, passage having already been arranged.
Soline liked it. Simple, straightforward, and potentially very lucrative, just like all of the best things in life.
That evening, while Sanjay continued to ingratiate himself with the alchemist, Soline met with Jennus in an out-of-the-way tavern. Ostensibly, they were there to finalize the details, but an apparently very drunk Soline foolishly challenged Jennus to a drinking contest, the winner taking a bigger share of the loot. Like the Eisen had the night before, Jennus tried to cheat. And, like Soline had the night before, she ensured it made no difference.
When Jennus had finally slumped over the trestle, a pair of roguish figures sitting at a corner table stood and moved to join them.
One of them, a pale man with long, dark hair, poked at Jennus’s shoulder. “This is him?”
Soline held up a finger and drained the last of her cup. Then she clunked it down, wiped her mouth, and nodded.
“No, Lorenzo, I am undertaking a multitude of drinking contests here tonight.”
Lorenzo’s companion, a swarthy woman with a wide-brimmed hat that hid much of her face, reached down and lifted one of Jennus’s eyelids. He didn’t react. “And you would like him to be elsewhere for at least two days?”
“Three would be even better, Maya, my sweet.”
“Elsewhere? As in, in the harbor?” Lorenzo asked.
Soline tapped a thoughtful finger on the table, then shook her head. “No, he’s a greedy and manipulative scoundrel, but if we started throwing the good citizens of this city into the harbor for that, there would be no room left for the ships.”
“I wonder what happened to the Eisen, the one who Armand actually sent?” Sanjay asked. He and Soline wended their way across the crowded Square of Carvallo, on their way to Fitzroy’s laboratory for the big event.
Soline shrugged. “He was very drunk. Perhaps he forgot about it.”
She imagined the poor man frantically trying to remember where he was supposed to go. Hopefully, he wouldn’t just return to Armand, or that Armand was far away, in Montaigne, or even Avalon. Of course, that assumed that Armand existed in the first place, and wasn’t just a code name.
“I must admit, I am still concerned about my part in this,” Sanjay said. “A single error, even a fraction of a second of timing gone wrong—”
Soline just clapped his shoulder. “You will do a fine job, Sanjay, as always. I know no one more deceitful than you.”
“Oh. Well, thank you for that, Soline—” He furrowed his brow and shot her a frown. “I think.”
They arrived at Florian’s, and made their way upstairs, to ensure the alchemist was ready to perform his ‘miraculous transmutation’. Shortly thereafter, the ‘investors’ began to arrive. They were a motley group, selected by Jennus for their wealth—which was a lot—and their brains—which were much, much less. Soline had a bad moment when she saw they included a foppish dandy in tacky brocade. She briefly thought it might be the popinjay whose wrist she’d broken, or one of his companions, and would that be—well, rather funny, actually, but in an unfortunate sort of way. But she decided she didn’t recognize him after all. More importantly, he showed no sign of recognizing her.
Soline closed the door and called for attention, introducing Fitzroy first, and then Sanjay.
Fitzroy peered at Sanjay. “Who’s this?”
“Why, Master Fitzroy, it’s your faithful apprentice Sanjay. You know that, of course,” Soline said, turning to the audience with a conspiratorial look that said, just indulge him, he’s brilliant, but addled.
Sanjay suddenly beamed brightly. “Of course the Master knows me! I have learned so much from him, an august scholar of the natural philosophies, and eagerly look forward to learning even more! He is master not only in title, but in truth!”
Fitzroy blinked at him, then nodded. “Oh. Yes—yes, of course. My apprentice.”
“And who’s she?” a portly merchant asked, jabbing a fat, ringed finger at Soline.
Sanjay swung his bright grin onto Soline. “Why, she is my lover. Such is the depth of her passion for me that she cannot bear to have me out of her sight, even briefly!”
Soline drove her gaze into Sanjay like flung daggers. “Yes. That’s it exactly. Even now, I’m thinking of the things I wish to do to my beloved.”
Sanjay blew her a kiss.
A hatchet-faced woman draped in a riot of colored silks spoke up. “And where is—Jennus, I believe he was named? The one who arranged all of this, claiming that he was Master Fitzroy’s apprentice?”
“I am afraid he’s tied up elsewhere,” Soline replied. “So, while he is off doing the Master’s business, I have agreed to help the Master and my—my lover, Sanjay, conduct this demonstration today.”
She turned to Fitzroy. “Anyway, these are all busy people, Master, so we shall not waste their precious time. These good men and women have come to see you perform your miraculous transmutation.”
Fitzroy stared blankly. “My—?” he began, frowning, but then brightened, and nodded again. “Yes, of course.” He turned to the people crammed into his stinky little apartment. “Of course. You see, I have discerned that the natural derivation of mercury, when distilled and collected while the Dragon Star is ascendant, and the Moon is new, will combine with the essential sulfur to—”
“Yes, yes, Master, this is all very interesting,” Soline said, taking Fitzroy by the elbow. “But you do not wish to give all your secrets away. And, in any case, these good people have come to see what you have accomplished. The how of it can come later.”
Soline gently, but firmly turned Fitzroy to the worktable, where fluids bubbled away in glassware, wisping noxious vapor into the air. “Master, your transmutation. That is what they have come to see.”
“I—ah. Oh. Yes.”
Soline pointed at a small ingot of lead in a shallow pan, poised beneath the spout of an alembic. “The Master will cause this lead, this basest of all metals, to transmute into the purest gold.”
Skeptical mutters and whispers rippled through the gathering—and for good reason. Alchemists claiming to have changed lead into gold, or iron into silver, or any number of less valuable things into more valuable ones, were a guilder a dozen. And if it really did happen as often as claimed, why was Théah not awash in valueless gold and silver and electrum by now?
But Soline knew what thoughts passed through the minds of these gullible fools. What if? What if, this time, it were true? The money to be made would be beyond imagining. In other words, there was skepticism, critical thinking and good sense—and then there was greed. And guess which almost always won out?
Fitzroy began to putter with his apparatus, adding reagents to beakers, mixing them, decanting them into flasks, dripping in more reagents, all while consulting several battered and stained old books and scrolls and muttering under his breath. Soline just crossed her arms and waited, her jaw set. The reaction that would raise the billowing smokey stink was only moments away. Sanjay did an excellent job of looking attentive, and even appearing to offer assistance to the old alchemist.
They reached the critical moment. Fitzroy decanted a small amount of crimson fluid into a crucible bubbling away over a retort. Soline tensed, her hand near her sword in case it all went wrong—
A sputtering, greenish flame suddenly erupted from the crucible, raising a thick, dank fume. Brackish fluid oozed from the alembic’s spout, gooey droplets splatting onto the lead ingot and hissing furiously away. People, Soline among them, coughed and waved at the smoke. Slowly, it dispersed.
When it had cleared enough to see properly, they all peered at the ingot.
Sure enough, what had been dull and metallic grey now gleamed as brightly gold as sunlight sparkling on water.
A moment of stunned silence. Even Sanjay did a good job of looking wide-eyed, and deeply impressed. Then the room erupted into a clamor of voices, a sudden thrust of hands towards the gold ingot.
That was Soline’s cue. She pushed her way to Fitzroy, took him by the arm, and shepherded him away. “The Master needs fresh air, and time to recover from his exertions. I will take him into the street and for a short walk. Sanjay will see to your questions and—your other needs.”
As soon as Soline and the would-be alchemist exited the laboratory, Sanjay commenced prying money out of these hapless ‘investors.’ Leaving Sanjay to his grifting, Soline escorted Fitzroy to the waiting Vestini ship destined for Vodacce and far away from Five Sails. Jennus had already told the old man that a wealthy Count there wished to make him his Court Mage, a fact Fitzroy only remembered as Soline steered him to the docks. He’d also assured Soline that he had arranged for friends to take care of Fitzroy along the way. She wasn’t sure what take care of meant, exactly, but chose to assume the best.
Along the way, she had to listen to the old man prattle on about his alchemy, about how only certain derivations of phosphorous were crucial to imbuing the mercury with the first transmutative property, and so on, and so on. Soline just smiled and nodded, and said “Uh-huh, uh-huh,” over and over again, as she steadily herded him towards the docks.
Their timing had been perfect. Fitzroy had boarded the ship, a Voddace galleon, just as it was preparing to make way. His feet had barely touched the deck before the gang-plank was pulled up, and a pair of lighters crewed by beefy rowers warped the ship away from the quay. She watched as the galleon’s crew scrambled into the rigging, letting the canvas fly and catch the wind. The lighters cast off the tow-lines, sails flapped and billowed, and the ship hove over and began making her ponderous away south.
Soline, whistling, turned and started back. By now, Sanjay should have collected the initial ‘investments’ from the audience to the transmutation, and would be meeting her once again in the Square of Carvallo.
She wondered how much these ‘investments’ would amount to. A great deal, she hoped. But she shrugged, plucking an apple from the stall of an inattentive fruit vendor. Even if it wasn’t a great deal of money, all of it would be profit—and it had still been a most entertaining way to spend the day.
Chomping on the apple, she saw Sanjay at their agreed upon meeting place, pacing to and fro. As soon as he saw her, hurried towards her.
Soline swallowed. Something was wrong.
She cursed. Would they have to lay low? Perhaps even leave the city of Five Sails for a while? It wouldn’t be the first time, and left her pondering where to go if they needed to depart quickly. She knew a man in Soldano, the quartermaster of a mercenary company, who owed her money. She should be able to parlay that into a place to stay, a few meals—
“Tell me, Sanjay,” she said. “What is it and, more to the point, how bad is it?”
“I—am not sure.”
She frowned. “You’re not sure? What do you mean?”
“What I mean is—I couldn’t do it.”
“Couldn’t do what?”
“I couldn’t swap the ingots. The old man’s foot was in the way. And, like I said, if the timing was off, even an instant—” He shrugged. “Anyway, I couldn’t do it. I never switched the ingot.”
“Um, Sanjay. If you didn’t do the switch—”
He nodded vigorously. “Right? And, yet, one instant, the ingot was lead, and the next it was gold.” He opened a pouch full of coins, most of them gold. “The investors were pleased, but—” He looked back at Soline. “Do you think that the old man made the switch somehow?”
“What do you think?”
“That he could barely stand upright. Years of exposure to those vile fumes of his have softened his brain.”
Soline’s frown deepened. “So then how—?”
They both stopped, their eyes going wide.
“We must catch up to that old man!” Sanjay said, turning towards the docks.
But Soline put her hand on his arm. “He is well out to sea now, Sanjay, on his way to Vestini.”
“But—fine. We just book passage to follow him!”
“Sanjay, do you really think he is going to survive the trip?”
“I—but—we—” Sanjay said, then stopped, just blinking dumbly.
Soline spent a moment of her own just staring.
Then she began to laugh.
Because it was either that, or cry.