Friday, August 15, 2008

Antaria: Rogue Business (Part 2)

Imogen Stormbane was indeed good-looking, as far as old ladies went. She had been a well-known beauty in her youth, although she had spurned countless suitors and marriage proposals in favor of her scholarly work. She was far from the oldest member of the guild (especially where Atharus was concerned), but she was definitely one of its most approachable teachers.

And at the moment, she was lending her one and only student a handkerchief.

To say that Celestine was disconsolate would have been the understatement of the year. Cerise had never seen anyone cry the way she did -- it was like watching a dam burst.

Gharen sighed. "And then what happened?" he asked.

"He ran away," Celestine sniffed. The hankie was quite sodden already.

"Yes, yes," Gharen said. "You mentioned that. What I mean is, what did you do once you saw that he was running away?"

"She mentioned that too, Gharen," Imogen interrupted. "She didn't do anything. Just picture yourself in that situation and consider how you would react."

Gharen rubbed at his temples. "Yes, Lady Imogen," he said in a weary voice. "I'm not accusing her of anything. Aran's teeth, I'm not trying to accuse her of anything. But we need to find out as much as we can about what happened."

Celestine sobbed again, inundating the sorry piece of cloth with a fresh flood of tears. Imogen wrapped one comforting arm around her apprentice, who continued sobbing into the front of her robes. "She's scared, Gharen," she said. "You can't just fire questions at her like this."

Gharen shrugged. "I wasn't being nasty," he said.

"No one said that you were being nasty, dear. Celestine just needs some rest. It's been a long day for her, and for all of us."

"It's not even evening yet," Cerise groaned.

"That only gives us more time to talk," Imogen said, patiently. Then, taking her apprentice's head into her hands, she whispered into Celestine's ear. "Go back to your room, little one. Take some sleep -- you've been through a lot today -- and I'll wake you when it's time for dinner."

Celestine sniffed one more time, and nodded. She held up the unfortunate piece of white cloth.

"You can keep the handkerchief," Imogen said.

Celestine nodded, and slowly slipped out of the room. Gharen closed the door behind her.

"We didn't handle that very well," Cerise observed.

Gharen threw up his hands. "How are we supposed to handle these sorts of incidents? I mean... who steals from one of us? In broad daylight, even? It's just like asking for trouble!"

"If you're thinking of burning the entire peasant district to the ground," Imogen cautioned, "I'll have you know that that's definitely against guild precepts."

"It's tempting, though."

Cerise thought for a moment. "Do we know what's in the book that was stolen?" she asked.

"Of course," Imogen said. "It's an old treatise on weather control. Celestine and I were moving up to more advanced studies, and I felt that it would be prudent to look up some of the likely outcomes. You can't expect an apprentice to summon stormclouds without anticipating how that's going to affect the harvest season."

Cerise raised an eyebrow. "Zaphod's Meteorology, you mean?"

"Yes, dear. You seem to know your books."

"All too well. I think we're definitely going to have to get this one back, Lady Imogen."

Gharen gave her a curious stare. "I'm not sure if I follow you, Cerise. If it's just a book on weather patterns and whatnot, then wouldn't it be dispensable? I'm rather certain that we have another copy somewhere... we always have another copy somewhere."

"Not this one, dear," Imogen said. "Zaphod was adamant about protecting the results of his studies. The guild promised that no further copies of the book would ever be made, and Zaphod himself sealed it with an arcane lock. It took me a good three weeks just to get the key from Zerah the librarian."

"That doesn't change the fact that the thieves have a locked book in their hands. I fail to see how this is an urgent situation."

"I don't think you deserve to underestimate their resourcefulness, Gharen," Imogen warned. "Sooner or later, someone's going to find a way to get that book open."

"I still don't get it," Gharen said. "I'm sure that weather patterns may be important enough, but what relevance would they have to anyone but us? We could practically look for the book at our leisure."

"It's not the book," Cerise said.

Gharen raised an eyebrow. "So what's so urgent about getting it back?"

Imogen answered a moment before Cerise could say anything. "I mentioned an arcane lock," she said.

"Er... one of those things?"

"Zaphod was a little... overprotective of his research. He didn't make that lock to protect the book; he was of a far more retributive mindset."

Gharen felt his stomach sink a bit. "That doesn't sound good," he said.

"I got a long lecture from Atharus before I could even attempt to open it," Cerise said. "Zaphod left only two specific keys by which the book could be properly unlocked and opened."


"Otherwise we get a storm on our hands," Imogen said.

"A storm?"

"Did you ever hear about the hurricane eight years ago? The one that hit the outskirts of Lorendheim and continued for six straight days?"

Gharen paled. "That was the book?"

"Well, it wasn't just a light drizzle."

Gharen blinked. "That definitely doesn't sound good."

Imogen sighed. "Yes, dear," she said. "I would much rather not have to trudge through seven feet of water at my age. It would ruin my robes."

"That's why we need to find it right now," Cerise concluded. "Any ideas?"


"This is a funny-looking lock," Pick observed.

"Yeah," Chance said. "But I wouldn't be asking you if I didn't think that you were up to the challenge."

The two thieves sat along the walls of a blind cul-de-sac, bantering over their latest acquisition. The one called Chance was a young man, muscular and slim, wearing a dirty white shirt concealed under layers of old leather. The one called Pick was reed-thin with a distinctive hooked nose; he wore a stained cloth apron over an old tunic and looked as though he had been in the thievery business for far too long.

"Where'd you get a hold of this one, Chance?"

Chance gave him a sardonic smile. "Wouldn't you like to know," he said.

"It's got 'mage' written all over it, Chance. If you yanked it off one of the spellcasters, then you know that I won't have truck with that."

"Why don't you live a bit, Pick. They're not going to be able to find us -- we're too good for those stuck-up nobles. Besides, it was fun... and the girl was just as cute as she was stupid."

Pick pulled a couple of mangled-looking wires from his pocket. "Are you sure it's not trapped or anything?" he asked in a suspicious tone.

"I carried it here. If it was supposed to blast me to pieces, then it hasn't done that yet."

Pick glared at him. "That makes me feel a whole lot better," he said.

"I aim to please," Chance said dryly.

Pick inserted both wires into the ancient lock, then carefully moved the two about. Sweat began to form on his brow. His fingers, wrinkled as they looked, remained steady.

Chance waited for a while before the older man spoke.

"Hard to concentrate," Pick said, pulling his wires out. "I keep feeling like something's going to fry me or turn my guts into warm mash."

"You've done worse locks," Chance mentioned.

"This one's old," Pick said, "and it doesn't use the usual gear mechanism that you see nowadays. In fact, I don't know where the leather ends and the rust begins. No, the picks aren't good for this kind of thing... I'll need my skeleton keys, and right now they're in my workshop."

"How long do you need?" Chance asked.

Pick rubbed his chin for a while, and inspected the book from a few more angles. "One day," he said. "Maybe two, if the keys don't work. You know, Chance, this lock isn't directly attached to the cover. You can take a sharp knife and just cut it away."

Chance took the grimoire from Pick's outstretched hands. "I don't know," he said, "but I think it's got some nostalgic value. Maybe someone'll pay more for it as long as it still has the lock."

"You could just sell it without having to open it," Pick pointed out. "That way, I save about a day's worth of labor for someone who won't even pay me a fair cut."

Chance laughed. "You don't know about mages and books," he said. "The way I see it, they're curious. They'd die to find out what's inside. If we can do that for them, it'll be like offering a service... and they'd pay more in that case."

"Speaking of which... just how are you going to fence it? You probably have a whole sect looking for it right now. They're not going to take very kindly to your walking around with their property."

"Trade secret," Chance said.

"We're in the same line of work, you know."

"Well... I've got my people, and you've got yours. You just get your tools ready."

"You'd better know what you're doing," Pick warned. "I'm just a simple thief. I'm not about to put my life on the line just because you had the bad sense to steal from a mage."

"No one's asking you to put your life on the line, Pick. Just as long as you shut up and play along, you'll have a good share of the reward coming."

The two thieves exchanged their last bit of banter, and then split up. Pick took the wider exit from the alley, into a cobblestoned road that bypassed the city marketplace. Chance, who was by far the more suspicious-looking of the two, wrapped the book in its original cloth coverings and struggled over a tall fence to land on a stack of barrels on the other side. The younger man walked for a few more feet, climbed over a rough stone wall, and finally emerged in one of the more disreputable parts of the city, where he lost himself among the squalor.

Behind him, hidden on one of the rooftops, a cloaked figure shifted slightly. It grunted, as though making sense of what it had heard and observed, and then seemed to make up its mind.

After a few minutes, it drew its slate-gray cloak tighter about itself, and then began climbing down off the roof.

The situation, it had to admit, was proving to be quite interesting.

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