The next morning, Ane is woken up by the slight thunk of something landing on her wagon’s floor. The voice of Narue follows, calling from outside:
“There’s your take from the S’vargan Job! Gotta go hand out the rest. Later!”
“Mhf,” Ane replies, as her hum wavers into wakefulness and she picks her face up from her pillow. It takes her a long moment to actually realize Narue wasn’t some kind of hypnogogic hallucination — once she does, she wraps herself in her robe and goes to retrieve the source of the thump: a sizable leather pouch. It’s filled with a generous handful of coins, each imprinted with S’vargan marks, including the noble, half-veiled face of their first high priestess, flanked by tunnel-shark teeth crowns. The other side bears a handsome snake wrapped around a bundle of curly tunnel-ferns.
Twenty seven gold. Not bad for a couple of hours of work. Certainly more than she would’ve gotten had she spent the time reading cards instead. It might even be enough to fix her wagon.
Ane casts a baleful hum at the rigged-up remains of her old door. The odds of her finding a competent carpenter in a bunch of tunnels aren’t exactly good, she figures. Certainly better than finding one in Paakoponde, but far from great. She heaves a sigh as she tosses the sack through her window and onto her bed. Maybe she can use the money to bribe Brair, Aedas, or someone else who knows their way around heavy things to fix it.
Several hours later, after Ane has had enough time to complete her wake-up routine, there is a knock on what remains of her door. It’s a careful, polite, three-rap knock. There isn’t much sound otherwise, as if the person doesn’t see fit to pre-announce themselves. All she can make out is a mumbled, “… more collateral damage…”
As far as she knows, the authorities haven’t tracked them back to the camp. Besides, that’s only relevant if they figured out what the “doctor” was up to, anyhow. What collateral damage could she possibly be responsible for? She pauses, teacup in one hand, and hums over her shoulder at the door with a wary frown.
“Ehem. This is Jarrik. I’ll just be a moment,” the voice answers, clear and stately, as Ane hears a hum sweep up over the splintered, hanging remains of her door. Collateral damage, indeed.
“I’m just here to, ahh — congratulate you, after your performance yesterday. Wink nudge,” he explains. There’s a bit of pomp to his accent, the sort his father never had. It’s the thick, frothy fullness of a minor noble, and the swift twang of a practiced salesman.
Ane stills her sight-hum with an inward groan. Somehow, she anticipates that this congratulations will also come with a request to donate her take to the caravan’s guard budget.
Nevertheless, she rises from the vulre-hide rug and goes to answer the door. (At least, as much as the dilapidated thing can be answered.) She pokes her head around one cockeyed half, eyeing the caravan master with a wary hum.
When her gaze lands on him, he’s quite the display of respect and contrition. For all his brass buttons, thick lapels, and the embellished curve of his waxed moustache, he looks rather odd with his hat off. His hair is slick and parted down the middle, where normally it would be hidden underneath — as if he deliberately styled it in anticipation of this moment. The hat, with its three feet of diameter and its big, fluffy dervallo “feather,” lays across his breast, clasped in one hand.
“Hello, Ane,” he says crisply. “My condolences for your door… But, most importantly: Congratulations on a game well played!” He boasts, spreading his arms. It gives a full view of his impeccably tailored striped shirt, and a glimpse of the jewelled dagger tucked into his soft leather belt.
“I heard tell of your scheme this morning, after returning from my, ahm, constitutional,” he says, faking a cough. “It does me proud to hear of you bringing all of them together so effectively!”
How much is the dagger worth? She prices that feather out at a pretty sum, too. Meanwhile, she, a pair of actors, an unpaid mercenary, three burlesque dancers, a very perplexed monk, and Jarrik’s more-or-less self-proclaimed captain of the guard were pressed into saving the day with paint, liquor, herbs, and garbage.
“You’re welcome, Jarrik. How’re we going to fix my door?”
He lofts his brow and pooches his lips, looking down at the damage with a whistle.
“Hrm, well… I do suppose we can have a carpenter sent for you. It is S’varga, home to a lumber-less people, but I’m sure something can be done.” When he looks back to her, he smiles wide till his teeth shine. The edges do reach his swirls, though there’s a sinister edge to its feigned sincerity. Any man could half-assedly fake a smile, but Jarrik… Jarrik reads on the subject, and simulates both the smile and the squint.
“It’s a paltry thing, really. Purely within our power. In any case,” he sweeps an arm, gesturing out with his fur-lined cloak. “The day calls, and there’s much to do. Do you require anything else? I am glad to show my appreciation for the, ah, enterprising spirit,” he flourishes.
“No, I just want my door fixed,” Ane says firmly, as she withdraws into her wagon again. She can feel herself about to be pulled into one of Jarrik’s schemes if she keeps accepting his effusive praise, and the thought alone is enough to make her teeth itch.
“Very well!” He calls after her. Now behind the door, he lets out a sigh of relief, and smiles with contentment. “Then I shall be off.” He says, taking a moment to test at his sideburns and moustache with his fingertips. A trace of fragrant powder comes off on the tips of his fingers, remnants of an attempt to turn his dark hair a distinguished salt-and-pepper. Venerability establishes credibility, his father always said.
“Good day, Ane!” He bids her, his pomp thick as oatmeal, as his footsteps fade into the distance.
Ane returns to her position beside her stove, and fills her cup with fresh tea. Part of her wants to continue working in the bound book of cattail paper spread out in front of her, but something about dealing with Jarrik also makes her feel as if she’s been coated in a thin sheen of frozen slime.
Or powdered moustache wax.
She closes her book with a sigh, giving it a little push to slide it into the open cupboard beneath her bed.
Fortunately, it seems the caravan’s sudden infusion of cash has delayed the first workday. Instead of skipping breakfast and raising the call as they normally would in a big city, the caravan instead takes time to let things settle. After all, it’s best to avoid bringing customers (or, more accurately, outsiders) into camp while it’s still unguarded.
This means that, next time Ane steps out into the open, it’s mealtime all over again.
The glint of armor is almost purely absent in the camp. Most of the remaining mercenaries seem to have departed, presumably to aid in recruiting more. Even Vasht has gone to see to it, in pursuit of both safety and several hours of uninterrupted sleep.
At breakfast, the troupe is filled with laughter and, for the first time in too long, joy. There’s nothing but praise for Ane and her cohorts, along with smiles and slaps on the back. Korin and Vasht went around in the late hours, paying out ten mitres to anyone who was robbed earlier in the week… And share a somewhat-exaggerated story of how cleverly they came by the money.
It’s also a story about swindling people out of their hard-earned coin, but that, for the moment, is beside the point. A cook who gets punished for spending their master’s grocery money foolishly is still a far cry from the caravan dying to the next pack of bandits, as far as Ane and company are concerned.
When she sits down to eat, there’s plenty of laughter and jovial congratulations for her efforts. Brair at one point pats her back so firmly that it jostles her plate, and even Nelea provides a few gentle pats on the back, knowing that the caravan master’s plots might have been worse. When the praise grows too great, Jiselmo steals the attention, weaving more yarns about all that transpired. At some points he embellishes — a daring chase from guards, Korin fencing a rival merchant, Jiselmo winning over the hearts of young ladies with his plight…
“Yes, you and your boils,” Korin cuts in, in a voice as flat as his plate.
Ane accepts it all with thanks, though she’s reluctant to talk about the scheme itself. Jiselmo’s having enough fun spinning his tall tales, Korin seems to be enjoying himself yanking Jiselmo back to reality, why spoil it? She doesn’t stick around long after she’s finished eating, either — she passes her plate to whichever caravan follower has taken on dishwashing duty, bids everyone a good rest-of-the-day, and retires to her wagon. She could go into the city to replenish some supplies she hadn’t been able to get in Paakoponde, but it might be a bit premature for that. Even though they were mostly disguised and managed to avoid trouble from the city guards, it might be a bad idea to saunter back in to spend her ill-gotten gold.
Besides, grift or no grift, the caravan hasn’t started working yet. They might be flush with funds for the moment, but most of those are already spoken for — repairs and mercenaries don’t come cheap. The sixty-odd gold she has right now are starting to burn a hole in her pocketbag, but they’re going to have to last her for a long while after they’ve put S’varga behind them.
Better to settle in in front of her stove with another book and some geltsear leaf tea and while away the hours. All the better to prepare herself for the next commotion.
(Thank you for reading! Please like, share, and comment below if you enjoy! Best, P&R.)