ONE NIGHT IN FARROG
Beetle Praata’s horse collapsed under him just outside the embassy’s stables, making it easier to dismount. He stepped to one side to regard the fallen beast, and then gave one tentative kick to its lathered haunch, eliciting no response.
Puny Sploor, the groundskeeper and stabler, edged into view from the sentry cubicle, holding one flickering candle, his rheumy eyes blinking.
Beetle Praata gestured at the horse. ‘Brush this down and drag it close to some hay.’
Puny rubbed at one skinny arm, as if the effort of holding up the candle had exhausted it. ‘It’s dead,’ he observed.
Beetle frowned and then shrugged. ‘You never know.’
Leaving the stabler and the horse in the small yard, the Imperial Courier of Nightmaria made his way into the embassy. Just outside the heavy bronze door he paused and squinted up into the night sky. The stars seemed to swim in a vast pool of black water, as if he had sunk to unimaginable depths, swallowed by a diluvean dream from which no awakening was possible. He drew a deep, cleansing breath, and then lifted the heavy iron ring, turned it until it clicked, pulled open the massive door, and strode inside.
The air within was redolent, thick with the pungent reek of decay. Offering bowls of green, slimy copper occupied flanking niches at eye-level to either side of the formal entranceway, filled with moss from which parasitic flowers spilled down to snake across the narrow ledges. A thick, loose rug underfoot made wet sounds beneath his boots, and from it arose the cloying smell of rot.
He unclipped his scaled leather highway cloak, shaking the dust from it before setting it on a hook. He plucked from his belt a pair of kid-skin gloves and methodically pulled them on, ensuring that each finger was snug. Satisfied, he continued on, exiting the entranceway to find himself in the vast audience chamber that had never known a foreign guest. The lush padding of the settees to either side of the Ambassador’s Chair were now lumpy, the filling spilled out from rotted holes here and there, and in places where small creatures nested the humps in the fabric moved up and down every now and then. Overhead, a chandelier of roseate crystal was mostly obscured beneath frayed braids of moss and lichens, its hundred candles long since eaten by mice and whatnot. From somewhere nearby, water trickled.
Beetle Praata strode to one side and tugged on a ratty cord, somewhat gingerly lest it part, and upon hearing a distant chime, he nodded to himself and settled in to wait.
Motion from beneath one of the settees drew his eye and he observed as a slow-worm, with a blunt maw big enough to swallow the head of a small dog, slithered into view. Lifting its sightless muzzle, it quested from one side to the next, and then set out sliding directly towards Beetle.
From somewhere nearby, deeper into the sanctum, came a muted dragging sound, along with faint, meaty flops, and the hint of something scaly sliding across the damp tiles.
Beetle crouched when the slow-worm finally reached him. He patted its blunt head, lightly enough to keep the stains to his gloves to a minimum. The slow-worm circled him, its knobby tail twitching. As the other sounds drew closer, he straightened and turned in time to see a hunched, uneven form creep into view from a narrow passageway hidden behind a mouldy curtain.
Clad in green silks, Ambassador Ophal D’Neeth Flatroq seemed to hover a moment, and then began a rhythmic swaying, similar to a cobra with hood unfurled. The robe Ophal wore was high-cowled, framing a bald pate of glistening scales, strangely curled ears that ended at vague, possibly chewed points, eyes of murky green, pallid brows and cheeks the hue of a serpent’s belly, and a toothless mouth of thick, flabby lips. One hand held up an open oil lamp, flames flickering, revealing fingers without nails and heavy scales upon the back of the hand.
A thin tongue slipped out and darted for a moment before retreating again.
Beetle Praata bowed. ‘Ambassador.’
‘Hissip svlah, thlup?’
‘Alas, yes. As expected, I’m afraid.’ The Imperial Courier reached beneath his tunic and drew out a wooden tube, its ends sealed in wax, the seals bearing the stamp of the Royal Signet Ring.
‘Prrlll obbel lell,’ Ophal sighed, placing the oil lamp on a nearby ledge and then accepting the king’s command. Twisting one end of the tube broke a seal and the ambassador probed with a greenish finger until he was able to pull out the vellum. Unfurling it, Ophal peered close, eyes tracking the script. His tongue slithered out again, this time from one corner of his mouth, then retreated once more. ‘Ahh, prrlll. Flluth villl rrrh na.’
Beetle’s brows lifted. ‘This very night? Very well. Shall I await the reply?’
Ophal nodded, and then sighed again. ‘Mah yull thelff hathome.’
The courier bowed a second time.
The ambassador gestured down at the slow-worm, ‘Eemlee, prrlll come!’
Ophal retreated from whence he came, the slow-worm slithering after him.
Beetle walked over to one of the settees and carefully sat down, ensuring that he crushed nothing. It was going to be a long night. He watched a spider chase a mouse across the floor.
* * *
‘We do it tonight,’ said Plaintly Grasp, leaning over the ale-stained table, the one always reserved for her at the very back of Pink’s Tavern. She ran a finger through a pool of ale, making a stream to the table’s edge, and watched it drain.
‘Hey,’ growled Barunko, ‘something’s wet my crotch.’ He straightened slightly, glaring about.
‘You’re always saying that,’ observed Symondenalian Niksos—known to many as The Knife. He was playing with one of his daggers, the blade slipping back and forth and under and over his scarred, cut-up hand. The blade twisted and he winced, but continued his manipulations. ‘Tonight, is it? I’m ready. I’ve been ready for a week.’
Scowling across at him, Plaintly said, ‘She was arrested only two nights ago, you idiot. And stop that, you’re dripping blood all over the table again.’ She looked to the others. In addition to Barunko—their muscle—and Symondenalian Niksos, who couldn’t recall seeing a back he didn’t want to stab, there was Lurma Spilibus, who’d never met a lock she couldn’t pick or a purse she couldn’t snatch, her red tangle of curly hair piled high and wayward, her triangular face bulging at one cheek with a wad of pulped Prazzn, her eyes perpetually crossed as she squinted at the tankard cradled in her hands.
Beside Lurma and huddled together, Mortari and Le Groutt, master burglars who’d yet to meet a wall they couldn’t scale. Mortari was the smaller of the two, with a pinched face and the manic eyes of a terrier needing to piss. He was panting slightly in the fug of the tavern. Leaning hard against his left shoulder was Le Groutt, swarthy and snaggle-toothed, showing his broad and possibly witless yellow grin, his head bobbing as he looked about, habitually assessing walls, railings, ledges and whatever else a man might climb.
She studied them all, gauging, and then nodded. ‘So we’re back together,’ she said.
Le Groutt showed her his smile. ‘The Famous Party of Five.’
‘Infamous,’ drawled Symon The Knife. He flinched and the knife clattered to the tabletop. Sucking at his thumb, he glowered at Plaintly but said nothing more.
‘The Royal Palace,’ mused Lurma. ‘That won’t be easy. Who knows what that insane necromancer’s let loose in the crypts.’ She snapped up her crazed squint, shifted the wad in her mouth until it bulged the other cheek, and then said, ‘Barunko, you up to this? Could be demons. Revenants. Giant snakes.’
‘Unsubstantiated,’ cut in Plaintly. ‘He’s a usurper. That and nothing more. And the new Grand Bishop is a drooling simpleton. All this talk of sorcery and necromancy is just propaganda, to keep away people like us.’
‘Did I pee on myself?’ Barunko asked.
‘He’s arrested the Head of the Thieves’ Guild,’ Plaintly went on. ‘Our Mistress. Now maybe it’s been a few years since we all worked together, but we ain’t lost a step, not one of us. There’s nobody better in Farrog, and now the usurper’s declared war on our guild. We’re getting her out and we’re doing it tonight. One more time, the finest adventuring band of thieves this world has ever seen. So,’ she leaned back baring her teeth. ‘Is everyone ready for this?’
‘I’ve been ready for a week,’ said Symon The Knife, collecting up his blade and twirling it one-handed, until it slipped from his grasp and embedded itself in Barunko’s meaty thigh.
The huge man sat up straighter, looking around. ‘We in a fight? Is this a fight? Let me at ’im!’
Copyright © 2016 by Steven Erikson