It was only a minute or so away from the house that they were accosted. He was a young man; his eyes were caught with dark circles and his clothes looked like they hadn’t been washed in a week. His hair might have been a bright blond once, but now it was covered with soot. Ana knew he couldn’t have been older than eighteen. He was in the sort of poverty that made him look older, though. There was a shattered, sad soul behind his eyes that had seen too much pain and too little kindness. It was the kind of poverty that sapped the mind, the body, the spirit itself; that broke men so badly that they could only be saved by generous time and ludicrous generosity, or else salved by laudanum; the kind that would drive a man to kill a stray dog, to butcher it to the bone, to crack open the thin bones and suck out the marrow to merely taste something again. He grabbed harshly onto Ana’s pant leg, soot and dirt spreading from his hand to the cloth with ease.
“Please, sir,” he said, holding out a cup, “Please.”
She ignored the misidentification. She looked back at Edam, who gave her an approving glance. Yeorel just seemed annoyed, but they had the time.
“I’m sorry, sir,” she said, “I’m in pretty dire straits myself. I’ve been saving to-”
She looked back to Edam again.
“To get a better life for her. Hmph.”
She thought for a moment. Sending him to Dzhate or Temari wouldn’t do. Temari seemed like she’d throw him to her little fighting pit to bleed or else send him away. Ana wasn’t one to trust the judgment of a teenager, or a person who was overly-paranoid either. Dzhate proved to be both in spades, in spite of her insistences otherwise. She’d probably suspect he was a spy and have him shot on the spot. Sol didn’t seem annoyed by the company but he also didn’t exactly seem to enjoy the extra weight on his personal funds. Which meant that there was one last set of options.
Give him the money to live another day, or leave him be. She split the difference.
“How about this? We’re on the job right now, payday is right around the corner. I could promise you a few kopeks – not much, but enough to get somewhere safe for the night.”
Edam looked at the two trepidantly as he gingerly let go.
“Just stick around here. I’ll come back this way later tonight.”
He nodded. The three walked off. As soon as he was out of earshot, Edam scowled.
“Are you sure we’re in the right position for this?”
“E- Safra. We can’t be losing ourselves.”
Edam sighed, then nodded.
“Fine. You’re right. But keep it small.”
“I know our limits.”
They kept moving until they reached their mark’s house. It was a tall, imposing tenement; not a mansion but clearly the house of a man with the wealth to keep it. The walls were painted white, with strong wooden timbers and a well-kept garden off to one side. There weren’t many flowers like the other houses on this row, though. In their place were mustard greens and other cheap crops that could grow easily even in the poor Kallin soil. The pristine angles were interrupted by a well-kept garden with ivy at the garters leading up to a second-story window. Ana leaned over to Edam.
“Think that’d carry my weight?”
“I wouldn’t bet on it.”
“Focus, ladies,” said Yeorel.
Ana gripped the package in her hands tightly, and followed him to the door. He knocked once and the door unlocked shortly after. That wasn’t going to be an impediment with the robbery anyways, but it was good to know. She’d lock it behind her after she left. It was the least courtesy she could do for the man she was robbing. He was abnormally tall, even more so than Ana was; shaggy black hair tied back in a knot. He smiled like a snake when he greeted them, his upturned button nose sniffing at the air.
“Good afternoon,” he said, “Please, please, come inside.”
The interior was a little less impressive than the outside. The furnishing was plain, simple, lacking in detail. Where there was wealth, it seemed plundered and old. An aging matchlock decorated with little serpent engravings was intimidating, but as she inspected it out of the corner of her eye Ana noticed how rusted the actual mechanism was. She doubted it could even hold a match properly, much less fire. Above them was a grand, old portrait of a youth with dark hair, smiling gently. Age could not touch the facsimile, but it had done its best to tear into the oil and canvas, making it cracked and warped. Combined with the dim sunlight of the waning day and the flickering of the fire, it gave the impression of some grand ghost haunting over all of them. Whatever painter they were, they captured something more than just a smile – there was a malevolence behind his visage that betrayed a cold and cruel command of the world. The face of a noble if Ana had ever seen one.
Tarnished and alloyed gold plates sat on the mantle, unused for years or perhaps even decades. That was a tell-tale sign of monarchist memorabilia – silver could burn or seriously injure a vampire, so they preferred pure gold for their jewelry and cutlery. The porcelain that sat waiting for them on the dining room table was quite well-kept by comparison – if only because there were servings of food on it.
“Please, sit,” said Mr. Teperte.
They did as he said, the package leaning up against Ana’s chair.
“Early for dinner,” said Ana, looking at her meal. It was haphazard; cooked mustard greens, lettuce, hard-boiled eggs and arugula as a salad, alongside what looked like a cheap piece of beef cooked for a long time in a stewpot until it was falling apart. The scent, though, was exquisite – she was fairly certain that some particularly expensive spices were used to make it, though she didn’t have the expertise to place them exactly. It was a rich man’s meal made with some poor ingredients and a poor man’s techniques.
“It would be rude not to give my guests a meal. You can refuse, if you wish. I wouldn’t impose my servant’s cooking on you.”
“I’ll pass, thank you,” said Edam, “It’s very good to meet you, Mr. Teperte. I’m Safra Mirtilach, antiquarian and archeologist. I’ve heard so much about your interest in antiquities from my friend Yeorel and I’d love to make a deal with you.”
“I’ll take some food,” said Ana, “Thank you.”
She picked up the fork and knife – also alloyed gold, though these were clearly more used and more washed – and cut into the beef. It fell apart like butter, and it seemed quite good. She put it into her mouth and had to hold herself back from gagging. For a brief moment she thought she had been poisoned, but no – whatever spice he had been using could not hide the fact that something put into the pot was rotten. If she had to guess, it would be white pepper. It had a bad habit of going bad on its trip up from the warmer climes in Koletya. Whatever was in it, it had acquired a musty, almost fecal taste that coated her tongue along with the beef-fat. She grinned, swallowed, and focused on the salad. The greens washed away the taste well enough, but it was still present.
“Delicious,” she lied.
“I’m glad you enjoy it.”
Edam took the opportunity to make some small talk, as Yeorel had suggested. It’d help ease him into the deal, make him think that they only had the best of intentions for him.
“So, is there a Miss Teperte?”
“Oh, no,” he said, “Not yet. Well, there is one woman who I’ve been keeping my eyes on.”
“Oh, how wonderful. Best of luck. It’s always hard to find love.”
Ana gently tapped her mouth with a provided napkin. Whatever charm the small-talk had, it was broken by her presence. He stared at her.
“I’m sorry, you are?”
“Oh,” said Edam, “She’s my peron.”
Ana’s heart warmed at the compliment, even if she knew it was part of the script. It was always so nice from her lips.
“I’m not familiar with Agoran,” said Yeorel, “Could you set him at ease? Keep it only to Kolet?”
“My apologies,” said Edam, “I wouldn’t want to give the impression that I’m some sort of uncultured fool in the presence of a man like you. A peron is a sort of bodyguard.”
Ana nodded as she took a bite of the egg. At least that didn’t have any seasoning to ruin it.
“Mm-hm,” said Ana, “It was a damn hard time getting this old thing up here. Hauled it all the way from the docks in Blackwood along with these two lugs. Beggars were after us the whole way. I guess we shouldn’t have carried it openly at first – I had to dodge into a back alley and cover it in butcher paper.”
She tapped the package heftily, making sure to get a good sound off it to emphasize its weight. She then picked it up and placed it at the center of the table, between all their plates.
“Blackwood? Why there?”
“It had to be imported from a fellow I know,” said Edam, “A refugee from the Revolution, you must understand.”
This was part of the sell. The mythology of the item had to built up, and part of that was bringing it all the way across the river from Blackwood. That, plus the need for a bodyguard, was enough to emphasize its real value, but Edam was going to sell it even more.
“I’m sorry, is that portrait on the wall of you, Mr. Teperte?” Asked Edam.
Teperte smiled and shook his head.
“No. It’s actually of my grandfather, or potentially great-grandfather. Genealogy can be so hard sometimes.”
“You really do resemble him,” said Yeorel.
“I was about to say,” said Edam, “You both have the same smile. It’s quite handsome. And such an old, venerable painting. It’s certainly seen some years, but I assume that you’ve been taking better care of it now.”
He reflexively smiled in kind, but refocused quickly.
“Ah yes, I’ve been meaning to have it restored,” he said, “But all of that aside – I’d like to talk business. You say this is the genuine article? Truly a pre-Revolution focus?””
“There’s no doubt. Would you like to see it?”
He nodded eagerly and reached out for the package.
“Of course,” said Edam, “You’re the buyer.”
He leaned over the table to grasp the package, the paper wrapping wrinkling under his grip. He took it to his lap and undid the twine that kept it secured. What was inside was beautiful. Edam and Dzhate had truly spared no expense. The bones seemed to grasp, to weave around a golden core like a wreath or a macabre basket, almost seamless in their connection. It tapered down to a single, long bone at the base which had been whittled down to a manageable but blunt tip – a rod or a particularly ostentatious walking stick in one. Ana whistled, and it wasn’t even part of the act.
“It’s beautiful,” said Teperte.
Edam nodded with appreciation – and pride. Ana could see the pride beaming right through her face, feeling it like a ray of sun. It was good to see her so happy again.
“It’s alloyed, strengthened gold. You can’t have anything else for this sort of purpose. I’m no sorcerer, so I can’t say what it’s for precisely, but if you would look at this-”
She indicated the fine carvings that she had put into the bone, flowing from one piece of bone to the next. It was imitation, certainly, but it was the sort of imitation that went beyond flattery and into outright beauty all of its own.
Godhead, Tros, thought Ana, Thank you for blessing her with such good hands. And for blessing me with such a wonderful woman.
“That’s Kolet work. I mean, it could be Darean, but Darean artifacts use bull-bone far more rarely. It’s not in their tradition to sacrifice bulls in the same manner as Kolets, you see, and so it’s much rarer for such an artifact to carry this sort of style. That, combined with the use of gold – it’s genuine. Pre-Revolutionary. I’m sure of it.”
“I told you I could find you a connection,” said Yeorel.
“It’s in such good condition,” said Teperte.
Edam nodded in agreement.
“I don’t think the man I received it from knew how old, how powerful it really was.”
He silently took it and pointed it towards the ground, standing with it in his hand. He beamed.
“Alright,” he said, “I had my doubts, Yeorel, but you came through yet again. Say, where should I put this?”
“Where should I put it? I’ve been meaning to display something like this. I mean, I already have the rifle up in the hall, so maybe I could put this in my room for now?”
Ana could not believe her luck or this man’s gullibility. Then again, he didn’t know that putting a locked door between her and something she wanted was like expecting a basket to hold water. A glance from Edam was all she needed.
“I think it looks regal enough to put under the painting. I mean, you don’t have a mount for it yet, but even still it would look excellent there,” she said.
He looked back at the painting and nodded. He placed the rod on the mantle in front of the goldware. This man had no clue what they were pulling on him. Ana shot a sly smile to Edam, and she smiled back deviously.
“Now, let’s get you all paid. I assume you’ve already figured out what everyone’s being paid?”
“Absolutely,” said Yeorel, “We’ll take it now.”
He stalked away from them, and Ana could hear him take a flight of stairs up. Then, he walked from room to room. She couldn’t track him exactly, but she could get an idea of where he headed – to the far side of the house. She looked at the rod again, and then at Yeorel.
“Cashbox is in…?”
“His office,” whispered Yeorel, “Don’t expect much there. He’s living beyond his means. Better to look for valuables.”
Ana nodded. Yeorel quickly sliced off a piece of beef.
“Oh, I wouldn’t if I were you.”
It was too late. He ate it anyways, and grimaced heavily as he swallowed.
“What in the Saint’s names- what did he put in that? Did he just leave the beef out for a day?”
“I think it’s white pepper, personally,” said Ana.
“Pepper can go bad?” Asked Yeorel.
“I didn’t think it could either, but white pepper can, apparently. One of the many problems of having money, I suppose.”
“And I thought I had it bad,” he said sardonically, “Why would you buy a spice that can go sour? It’s like buying a boat with a hole in it.”
“Apparently it tastes milder than the black stuff? I’ve never had much of it.”
“It does taste milder, and it looks better in a pale dish, but frankly it’s not worth the price,” said Edam, sheepishly, “We only had it at holidays for soup and such. It was a luxury. I have no idea why his servant would put it on beef.”
“He- he doesn’t have a servant, Safra,” whispered Yeorel, “He was lying about that. I have never seen a servant here in the six months I’ve known him, at least.”
“Huh,” said Edam. She picked at the food before taking one of the hardboiled eggs with her hand and eating it in two bites.
“The eggs are good.”
“Can’t go wrong with eggs,” said Ana.
Teperte returned shortly thereafter, handing a heavy bag of cash off to Yeorel. He shook Yeorel’s hand, and then Edam’s – presumably he didn’t think enough of her to shake the bodyguard’s hand. She took the slight in stride, said farewell to Teperte. He shut the door behind them, and they walked several blocks in relative silence before the words burst out of them.
“What a fucking idiot!” Said Ana.
“He literally handed it to you on the platter,” said Edam.
“I chose him for a reason.”
Ana shook her head.
“You’d think there’s still lead in the pipes.”
“I think he’d have them reinstalled if you told him it was important for monarchists to do,” said Yeorel. He took out the cash, and counted out twenty rubles, handing them off to Edam. Edam counted them back before nodding.
“You’re ready to do your part, Merya?”
“Absolutely. Tonight. Simple in-and-out job. Afterwards, you two can try wooing him again.”
The night pulled in like a shroud. It was getting colder by the day and the sea-mist was growing with the coming cold. Ana walked across the empty street. The fall really was coming on strong tonight, and she finally had good reason to wear a full coat again. It was comforting; comfortable, to be back in something resembling her old uniform. The bell tolled for the tenth hour.
Mr. Teperte’s house was a silent shell of a home. What once was an imposing, angular structure now seemed dwarfed by the clouds, the stars, the mist returning to the earth. Ana walked up to the door, and touched it. The lock flew open with a satisfying click. She let her mana into her boots to dampen her footsteps before pushing the door open and walking inside. She was beyond ready to rob him blind, but there was work to be done here as well. They knew that the timing of the robbery would seem suspicious, so they figured that it would be best to put evidence that would throw him off of their little plot.
Ana produced her knife in one hand as she reached the musket in the hallway. She gently moved it from its rack and put it on her back with the bandolier. That was one valuable down. She made her way to the dining-room next. With only the pale moonlight to see by, the painting took on an even eerier quality. Its eyes almost seemed to follow her. She grabbed the goldenware, stuffing each piece into her rucksack one by one. She was careful not to make the clinking too loud before putting her knife to the portrait.
There was a story – half-myth, half-truth – about the Republican Bureau of Intelligence and Political Obedience. It was the least understood of the bureaus, the smallest and the most difficult to get in touch with. Even the Church and the Army were often kept in the dark about their movements and goals. If anything, they were the ones who passed on information to the Church, and not the other way around, and that was a rare occasion indeed. Rumors, though, they spread like wildfire, and one such rumor was that they were tasked with the conversion of Erebists and other banned politics in the Republic. That rumor was true. What was false but popularly believed was that they had a calling card. A simple eye with three arrows emerging from it, the center one impaling the simplified image of a serpent. Ana scraped her knife through the oil and canvas, desecrating the aged image. Just a few lines, and her handiwork was complete.
She grabbed the rod from the mantle, and walked away with it down the hall and towards the stairs. She ascended, headed down the hall, and came eventually to an open door where an office was. It was just as well-kept as the rest of the house; a haphazard mix of luxury and poverty. The desk facing the door was well-made, as were the bookshelves. More than a few of the books looked fake, though, and the chair was more of a shoddy wooden stool. She found the wall coffer, opened it with ease, and found it almost empty. She took pity on the poor fool, and only took five of the ten kopeks that rattled around in there.
She looked out the window. Sure enough, it was the one with the ivy. Some of the vines were thick enough to be a little smaller than her wrist. She grinned, before deciding against it. She walked back down the hall, down the stairs and out the door unmolested. She locked it behind her, and turned around to the misty night.
Ana hefted the loot on her back as she walked. With all of this, they might have enough to have a serious chance of getting out of the city. She turned the corner to see if the beggar was still there, and her hopes were utterly dashed.
Three men stood in the bright moonlight, talking sternly to the beggar. All of them in uniform, all of them city watch.
“New rules are rules,” said one, “Everything within three blocks of the bridge or Blackwood is under curfew. You’re spending your night in a cell for loitering.”
The beggar grinned, and Ana paled. For him, it was almost a lucky break – he would have a roof over his head for a night. Maybe even a meal if he was lucky. But she knew what this was really about. They must have figured that they were mostly traveling by night as a way of protecting their identities – it wasn’t true, but it was a good guess. That meant that they were looking for her, specifically. It was easy to justify the curfew on the account that they were looking for two extremely dangerous fugitives, including some who had seriously injured several witch hunters. From there, they could escalate.
Right now, though, the curfew was the threat. She focused on that. One of the men grabbed the beggar harshly, and turned in Ana’s direction. She didn’t wait for him to notice her, bolting around the corner and down an alley. She heard them walking in the opposite direction, but there were larger problems than just one patrol. She had seen their movements during the day. No doubt, they had blanketed the city with a broad net of men to search for her.
Ana ran into the night. She had to make it home – but how to do it without leading them to Edam?
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