Honour Amongst Thieves

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Honour Amongst Thieves

Postby MothballMilkshake » March 15th, 2019, 6:07:58 am

Alethin glanced to the skies, checking the position of the moon to see how much time he had before morning. It was nearing the horizon, and nearly full. Still, he had made good time this trip. He’d visited the Candle Archipelagos early in the month and stopped off at at the Mountains of Me’Chuan on his roundabout way back his loyal customers at the Keep.
He’d sold some eggs in Foenara and Triathe, but his biggest spenders were the students at the oldest magical school in the kingdom.
He sighed, rubbing his snake absently on its head. It seemed like so long ago now that he had been a student at the Keep, playing pranks with Talyn and getting into all sorts of trouble. He clicked his tongue and his self-driving cart followed him onto a small trail leading off the main road. No use travelling during daylight hours, after all. He made his way through the undergrowth that had encroached onto the path.
He was pleasantly surprised that for once he did not have to brush spider webs off his face every two steps he took.
Approaching the ramshackle cabin that served as one of his stops on his journey, he was shocked to see a light coming from under the door. Very few people knew about this place, and of those that did, most were shepherds and goatherds who took shelter during the warmer months. Every previous winter he’d visited it was abandoned, just the way he liked it.
Stopping his cart with a gesture, he paused just before the tree line gave way to the logged area surrounding the cabin. He watched as a shadow moved behind the door, blocking the light as the person inside went about their business. He could hear cutlery clattering against the cookpot he’d left there on his last trip and his stomach rumbled, thinking of the preserves he’d stored for a rainy day.
As he watched, trying to decide what to do, a voice drifted out from the shuttered windows.
“Oh I met a lass in Voltar, her eyes were emerald green. And the smile on her face was the prettiest thing my eyes had ever seen. Her hands were soft, her arms were warm, and her waist was supple, too. But when she came to dally on my knee, I didn’t know what to do.”
Alethin frowned, remembering the second verse of the song. It had been banned in his final year at the Keep, and all because Talyn had insisted on performing it on the short-lived talent night.
His eyes widened. Of course, now that the voice started to dip into the lyrics about the other attributes of the Voltaren lass, he recognised the voice of his old friend. It was harsher than he remembered, but just as carefree as always. What he was doing in Alethin’s hideaway, he had no idea.
He clicked at his cart to make its way around the cabin to the old stable, where it would be able to shelter for the night. Before it started trundling away, he put out an arm for his snake to make its way up onto his shoulders. He approached the door just as Talyn finished the last – and most inappropriate – verse of the song. Perhaps if those lyrics weren’t included, it wouldn’t have caused such an uproar all those years ago.
It felt strange to knock on the door of what had always been his hideaway, yet knock he did. As he tapped on the old wood, a crash sounded from inside. The sounds of a chair scraping against the floorboards followed, along with a series of noises reminiscent of glass bottles clinking against one another. Alethin frowned, hoping his old friend hadn’t gotten into his finest elderberry wine.
The door creaked open a few centimetres, the hinges squealing their protest at this mistreatment. A single eye was visible through the crack. It looked him up and down before the door was pulled open the rest of the way and the eye was joined by a grin, another eye, and a shock of black hair.
“Look at you!” Talyn exclaimed, once more looking his old friend over. “I haven’t seen you in a Direwolf’s age!”
Alethin chuckled. “You’re not the person I would have expected to see either. Least of all in my own hideaway. Are you going to let me in?” Talyn hurriedly stepped aside to welcome Alethin into his own abode. A quick glance around showed his elderberry wine intact, along with most of his preserves. A chair lay on its side next to a large travelling trunk. Alethin raised his eyes at Talyn in question, who chuckled and rubbed the back of his neck.
“Well, you don’t expect visitors’ way out here. And at this time of night!” he explained, shutting the door behind him. As he righted the chair, his eyes darted to the trunk and back to Alethin so quickly that for anybody who didn’t know him, they probably wouldn’t have noticed it. Alethin felt his curiosity pique.
“Late indeed, and yet I notice you’re still in your cloak and boots,” he observed as he moved over to the small cupboard where he kept his preserves. Talyn flinched back as Alethin’s snake flicked its tongue at him from Alethin’s shoulder. Alethin bent to rummage among his jars, pulling out a well-sealed jaw of apricot preserve and sighing with contentment.
“I just got in not long ago,” Talyn explained. He sat heavily in the chair with an exaggerated look of exhaustion on his face. “What a journey I’ve had! All the way from Boreus and beyond! I was travelling with a couple of minicorns, but the damn things ran off on me about two days ago. I’ve been on foot ever since. Really, it’s very lucky I found this place. And it’s so well stocked, too! Do you know who uses it?”
“That would be myself,” Alethin answered, not believing half of what Talyn was telling him. He dusted off two bowls before piling them high with apricots and digging two spoons out of one of the drawers. It had started to sag on its runners a little bit since he’d last been here – he must make a note to fix that at some point.
Talyn took the offered bowl with glee. As he shovelled food into his mouth, he spoke around the spoon and between mouthfuls, telling Alethin what a lovely little place he kept. As he ate, his eyes went longingly to the bottles of wine on the shelves above the fireplace. Alethin sighed, taking the hint, and uncorked one for the two of them to share. He reflected that drinking fine wine alone wasn’t nearly as enjoyable as enjoying it with an old friend, even if the old friend did drink far more than their share.
As Talyn’s stream of consciousness started to wind down, Alethin sat on the bed and smiled at him.
“And what are you smuggling today, old friend?”
Talyn started guiltily, his betraying glance returning once again to the trunk in the corner.
“Smuggling? No, I gave that up a long time ago. I’m an honest businessman now, purveyor of useful potions and poultices, for every paltry need.”
Alethin raised an eyebrow, refusing to dignify this claim with an answer.
“It’s true! I have traded in potions to help a person regrow their hair, poultices to cure an unsightly skin blemish, all kinds of different useful items!”
“And your merchandise today, then?” Alethin asked with a smile. He stared at Talyn until the other man visibly wilted under the pressure.
Talyn stood and began to pace in front of the trader. His snake hissed its displeasure at the motion, halting him in his tracks. “You continue to travel with that reptile, then? What did you call it again? Ava, Adelind, Abraham…”
“Adela,” Alethin answered, soothing the snake with a gentle rub along its back. It settled heavily onto his shoulders, a wary eye on Talyn as he sat gingerly back onto the stool. Finally, Talyn’s love of a good story betrayed him.
He refilled his glass with the last of the wine and began talking after wetting his lips once more. “As I told you before, I’ve been travelling a long way. So far past the lands currently mapped out in fact that I doubt you would have even heard of the city name!”
Alethin nodded, knowing that ‘so far out you wouldn’t know it’ was Talyn’s way of cleverly avoiding revealing his sources. He had used it ever since they were in school and had sweets sent to him from his parents that he didn’t want to share.
“I had given up trading in illegal goods – the risk was just no longer worth the profit for me. I merely wanted to find rare ingredients that may give me an edge on my competitors. Of course, while I was asking around, an older fellow took me aside to share his idea for a new kind of love potion-“
“Love potions!” Alethin interjected, ignoring the peeved look on his friends face at having been interrupted. “Those things have been outlawed for nigh on 20 years now, ever since-“
“I know, I know!” Talyn protested. “This recipe was different though. It doesn’t cause any lasting effects – a day of the vic- uh, intended recipient being more likely to notice and appreciate any efforts you may make to woo them, that’s all.”
Alethin was sceptical. “You called it an idea, and now you tell me it ‘doesn’t’ cause any lasting effects. Please tell me you haven’t been trading in this nonsense.”
“Of course not!” Talyn declared, his face the picture of wide eyed innocence. “I’ve not had anywhere to sell it yet!”
Alethin groaned. He waved a hand at the trunk sitting inconspicuously against the wall. “Please tell me you’re not going to bring a batch of a ‘new’ love potion to the keep.”
Talyn looked at him, his mouth opening to protest.
“When I say, ‘please tell me’, I don’t mean lie to me if that’s exactly what you intend to do,” Alethin clarified. Talyn’s jaw snapped shut with an audible sound. He sighed. Talyn stood to stand before his friend, doing his best to ignore the raised head of Adela on his shoulders.
“I know why you’re concerned. I was there, remember? But I promise you, this creation is not nearly so dangerous, nor potent, as anything you’ve seen before. Why, it doesn’t even have any illegal ingredients in it!”
Talyn spoke so earnestly, his face the picture of wounded camaraderie, that Alethin had to give in.
“Fine, I’ll drop it. It’s good to see you again after all this time, anyway. When was the last time we even ran into each other?”
“Alveus,” Talyn answered with uncharacteristic shortness. Alethin chuckled, remembering the trouble he’d gotten his friend into.
“That must have been what, seven years ago now? You’re not still annoyed about it, are you?”
Talyn crossed his arms on his chest and shot Alethin an exaggerated pout.
“I got you out after only three days anyway!”
The hurt expression persisted stubbornly on Talyn’s face. Alethin sighed, knowing that he was never going to get his friend back in a good mood without offering something in return. Talyn was so sensitive sometimes.
“What can I do to make it up for you then, old friend?” Alethin offered, dreading to think of what Talyn might ask. Talyn’s face lit up and he straightened in his chair.
“That’s so kind of you to offer!” he exclaimed, pointedly ignoring the resigned expression on the traders’ face. “Why, since my minicorns ran off, I’ve been travelling on foot. Gosh, my feet are so sore, and I don’t think I’ve ever dragged something so heavy in my life. You’re heading to the Keep, right? Could I hitch a ride with you? Pretty please?”
Alethin agreed readily, astounded that Talyn would ask for so simple. In his eagerness to assuage his own guilt over his past actions, he failed to ask how Talyn knew he was headed to the Keep.
“We’ll stay here for the day. The sun should be rising soon and I prefer to travel by night. You can take the bed, I’ll set up my bedroll for the evening near the fireplace. Adela will let me know when it’s time to get up.”
Talyn nodded, happily settling onto the bed as soon as Alethin stood up. In truth, Alethin wasn’t so disappointed to give up the bed, as he doubted that Talyn would have replaced the old straw before he arrived and he didn’t fancy sleeping on mouldering straw from several months ago. His bedroll would be more than adequate.
*
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Re: Honour Amongst Thieves

Postby MothballMilkshake » March 15th, 2019, 6:08:17 am

Alethin woke to Adela nudging his shoulder with their snout. He reached up peak through one of the shutters, nodding when he saw the moon had just started to rise. Nearly full now. He hoped travelling with Talyn wouldn’t make him late. He looked over to the bed set up against the wall, surprised to see his friend was already up. Casting his eyes once around the small cabin told him he was not inside. He frowned in consternation before he realised he could hear movement in the stables. The trunk from the previous evening – morning, perhaps – was also gone.
He stretched as he rose, surprised that Talyn was being so efficient. Perhaps he’d learnt the benefits of getting an early start during his travels.
He let Adela climb back onto his shoulders and settle under his cloak before he began packing up his bedroll for the trip. His stomach rumbled, looking at the preserves, but they needed to get moving. There was no time for luxuries such as a balanced breakfast – it would be travel bread tonight.
A blast of cold air hit him as Talyn re-entered the cabin. Adela tightened reflexively on their perch to siphon some of his body heat.
“Glad you’re up!” Talyn exclaimed cheerfully. “I figured you’d been travelling longer than I had, so I took the liberty of moving my case up onto your cart! Whatever happened to the old nulorn who used to pull it for you?”
Alethin shrugged, slinging his bedroll over his shoulder and sitting down to pull his boots on. “She got old. Left her to retire in warmer pastures than this. The spell I’ve got now is more convenient anyway – nothing to feed or clean up after.”
Talyn nodded thoughtfully. “You wouldn’t happen to want to share this spell, would you?”
Alethin chuckled. “Maybe if the right price was offered,” he started casually. Talyn shook his head and held his hands up in surrender.
“Ever the merchant, I see. Well, I’ll not let you cheat me out of my hard-earned gold!” Talyn scolded mockingly. They shared a laugh as Alethin finished putting the cabin to rights for the next time it would be used. Talyn scribbled a hasty note to himself on a scrap of parchment and stowed it away in his vest as a reminder to investigate the spell later.
He checked the strap on his pack to make sure everything he needed to carry was secure, indicating to Talyn to do the same before they stepped out into the full force of another cold, late winter night.
Alethin clicked his fingers, having to try twice as his hands protested at the cold weather. With a squeak and a rumble, his cart appeared from behind the building and trundled up beside them on the path.
“Are you riding or walking?” Alethin asked his friend, gesturing to the small drivers’ seat above them.
Talyn grinned. “Looks like just about enough room for two. I’m sure we’ve shared smaller spaces!”
Alethin nodded his agreement, grunting as he stepped up and hoisted himself onto the little bench. Talyn jumped up nimbly behind him.
“Maybe I should take a leaf out of your book and travel on foot for a little while,” Alethin observed, shaking his head. “I’m certainly not as fit as I once was.”
Talyn clapped him companionably on the shoulder before drawing his hand back with a muffled curse as Adela poked their head out from underneath Alethin’s cloak. Alethin laughed at the startled expression on his old friend’s face.
“I can’t believe you still even have that snake,” Talyn muttered as Alethin tapped the seat, setting the cart off at a trundling lurch. “It must be nearing on 30 years now.”
Alethin shrugged. “Cobras live long lives. They’re a good companion.”
“And you’ve not tried breeding it, to do away with that ambiguity?” Talyn joked, making light of the fact that snakes were notoriously hard to tell the sex of otherwise. Alethin shook his head with a pained expression.
“They attack any other snakes that come near, male or female. It seems the two of us might be living out the rest of our single lives together.”
Talyn guffawed at the mental image and sat back as the cart gathered speed upon hitting the main road. He pulled out a small wooden puzzle he’d picked up during his travels and started trying to take the pieces apart as Alethin pulled out some salted meat to chew on.
They journeyed mostly in silence, not wanting to draw attention to themselves. Anybody travelling at night was bound to attract suspicion, and each had his reasons for wanting to remain anonymous. The only snippets of conversation after hitting the main road were discussions about food, water, and when to stop for a rest break.
As the moon started to sink into the opposite horizon, Alethin took note of their surroundings. “There’s another waystation not far from here. We should hit it before the sun starts to rise. It’s not so nice a place as the cabin you found, but it will do.”
Talyn nodded, brushing a few late falling snowflakes off his shoulders. It had started to fall around midnight, not heavy enough to force them to stop but annoying enough nonetheless.
Alethin squinted into the tree line. “Do you hear something?”
Talyn cocked his head to the side, listening. The wind rustled the leaves slightly as it stirred the trees. Their cart wheels creaked and the icy ground beneath them cracked as they passed. Talyn shook his head. “Nothing. Probably just a Talvar moving around – wait.”
The sound Alethin had heard was repeated, something like a large creature stamping along the ground past the trees.
“I’m going to go check it out. Leave me a sign if you turn off?”
Before Alethin could protest or even reach out to stop his friend from leaping off the cart, Talyn had landed lightly in a snowbank off the side of the path and disappeared into the forest. In a short amount of time even the sounds of him pushing aside branches and tripping over roots faded into the night.
Alethin looked around, jumping slightly when Adela vacated his shoulders to curl up in the warm space Talyn had left. The moon was beginning to near the horizon and the only noises he could hear now were those ordinary sounds anybody would expect to hear from the forest.
He travelled a further ten minutes, or thereabouts, before noticing the standing stone that marked the small path to the storage shed nearby. It was used to store extra grain during Summer before it could be transported, to keep it out of the elements, but in winter it was completely abandoned.
With a click of his fingers, the cart veered off the main path and onto the brush filled game trail. Remembering what Talyn said, Alethin cast a quick hex to mark the tree nearest the turn off with a deep gash in the direction he was heading. He hoped Talyn would understand it, he didn’t want to be too obvious.
The cart went slower now, noisily breaking ground that nobody else had travelled in a long time. The trees stopped most of the snow from getting to the undergrowth, though a thick, icy rind had built up over the entire forest floor.
Perhaps it was the noise that masked their approach. Perhaps he was just distracted, wondering where Talyn could have got to. As he ducked under a low hanging branch, his cart stopped of its own accord.
“A bit late to be travelling, sir,” came a gruff voice from the darkness ahead. A light flared suddenly, almost blinding him. He blinked to clear his vision and a bearded, lined face swam into view.
“Tolstoy. You scared me half to death, you know,” Alethin breathed nervously. He started as several other men walked from the trees to stand by his cart. Tolstoy showed no recognition at Alethin’s greeting and the others were unfamiliar. “Where’s Captain Vance?” Alethin enquired.
“The Captain has retired to patrolling warmer areas,” one of the men joked. He was much younger than those who normally patrolled the forest surrounding the campus, the kind of youth who looked like he was itching for a fight in order to prove his worth. Alethin felt his palms start to sweat.
“You don’t mind if we check your cart, right mister?” another young man summoned a light ball rather uncomfortably close to his face. Adela reared up and the man jumped back with a curse. As the rest shouted at him for tripping over his feet, Alethin waved at the snake. It poked its’ tongue out twice, eyeing him closely, before disappearing over the side of the cart.
The man who had been startled clambered to his feet, brushing snow off his robes and glaring at Alethin. “The hell was that? You can’t bring contraband animals in, you know,” he claimed righteously, his companions smirking behind him. Tolstoy watched on impassively.
The merchant waved at the older guard. “Tolstoy here knows me well. I’m sure a quick once over will do him just fine,” he tried to force a casual tone into his voice.
A boy – for he was certainly not yet old enough to be called a man – sauntered up to his cart. “I’m afraid we’re under strict instructions to check every possible suspicious vehicle and person travelling in and out of the town. Now, if you were to try to stop us, that would make you even more suspicious, wouldn’t it?” The idiot looked over his shoulder to make sure the others were watching his performance. Alethin fumed silently at the young peacock interrupting his regular run.
“I’m sure you will find everything in order. I’ve some creature eggs from fairly far off, specially ordered by Remy – I’m sure you know the innkeeper. He’d be mighty annoyed if any were to get broken while you search, so be careful.”
Tolstoy nodded.
“We won’t be breaking any eggs today. Just hop off the cart, Alethin, and let the boys have their look.”
The trader begrudgingly clambered down from the seat to stand beside the old soldier. Tolstoy looked on with grim dignity as the young ruffians uncovered his wares and started pawing through the eggs he’d brought, exclaiming with surprise at things they had probably thought were myth.
“Some might unusual eggs here, mister. But none of them seem to be these dangerous hybrids we’ve heard rumours of, so I guess you’re free-” the first young man was cut off by an exclamation from another of his compatriots. Alethin turned to see what had gotten their attention and groaned at the sight of them rooting through Talyn’s trunk. The man who had fallen over and gotten his robes soaked pulled out a piece of parchment and seemed to be comparing something intently.
“Those aren’t mine, I’m just transporting them for a friend of mine-” he tried to explain but was cut off as the hot head stomped over to stand in front of Tolstoy. He stared at Alethin with a grim look.
“Take him in, old man. These are the things what we’ve been looking for, I reckon.”
The merchant exclaimed in surprise as Tolstoy took him by the shoulder. He looked up into the grizzled face of his old contact, only to see disappointment shining back at him.
“I never thought you’d bring in something so stupid, Alethin,” he muttered quietly. Alethin tried to stammer out his explanation, too shocked at the events to talk his way out. The wet-robed man looked on in satisfaction.
“And make sure there’s no more snakes in that cart,” he warned the others as they dragged it around to follow Tolstoy and his newly acquired prisoner.
Talyn watched from the treeline, his heart hammering in his chest as his old friend was led away. He’d been too scared to move, for fear they might capture and arrest him as well. Guilt rose in his chest at the thought of Alethin having been arrested for carrying his potions – which were definitely not dangerous – but was quashed by his own fierce desire to save his own neck.
“He’ll be fine,” he muttered to himself. As he started in the opposite direction, a hiss made him look around for the source. Seeing nothing, he shook his head and continued on to the old storehouse Alethin had been planning on staying in. He would figure out his plans in the morning, considering he had no merchandise to deliver.
*
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Re: Honour Amongst Thieves

Postby MothballMilkshake » March 15th, 2019, 6:08:32 am

Alethin stared dejectedly at the wall. His cell was just below ground level, with a tiny barred slit for a window up near the ceiling. Even if he had been able to get the bars off, there was no way he’d be able to squeeze through. The clatter of a tin cup echoed through the corridor as the city guard changed shifts. Snatches of conversation drifted to him, inconsequential questions about family and food.
He’d been stuck for at least four days now, judging by the little light that managed to find its way in. They had not yet mentioned when – or even if – he would be standing trial. He hadn’t seen Tolstoy since the night he’d locked him in, his sad eyes accusing him from out of that old, weathered face.
A clatter alerted him to the tray of food being carried to his cell by one of the night guards. The man nodded to him as he pushed the food under the door, no malice in his expression. Alethin had been a very well-behaved prisoner, not shouting, not fighting, not doing anything at all to upset his chances of a release. Most of the guards were comfortable seeing him, though some had been surprised when they were told he had tried to bring in such a dangerous item.
He cursed inwardly. Of everything that had happened, that was what he was most annoyed at Talyn for. He had carefully cultivated a reputation as a trustworthy salesman – yes, some of his goods were not usually obtained by legal means, or sold freely within the keep, but none of the items he’d brought in before had been dangerous. Even the Fenrir and Garm weren’t so bad, once you tamed them. His relationships might be irrevocably ruined if this didn’t get cleared up.
When his breakfast had been brought that morning, he had tried asking about Talyn. The guard had shrugged, saying he’d never heard of the fellow, and left without another word.
Alethin eyed his dinner. As far as prison fare went, he was not being treated badly. Some kind of broth with the ends of a dark bread and even a wedge of cheese. A tin cup of water accompanied the meal. With a glum expression, he carried the tray over to his bench and sat with it on his lap while he ate his meagre dinner in solitude.
A shadow brushed across the window, obscuring the moon – past full, now, much to his dismay – for a brief moment. He looked up to see what the disturbance was but saw nothing more than the flat expanse of lightly snow-covered ground. He returned to his meal, soaking the hard bread in the broth to soften it.
Again, the light flickered for an instant. This time when he looked up, he swore he saw a tail flick past the opening. With a flash of inspiration, he broke off a piece of the cheese, rolling it into a ball. He stood on his toes to reach the window and nudge it outside.
Standing back, he waited as he tested his theory. Within moments, a dark head snapped from out of the darkness and devoured the morsel.
“Adela,” he breathed, amazed to see his companion outside. It turned its head, finally sensing him nearby. Its tongue flicked out briefly, scenting the iron bars. Even Adela couldn’t fit between them. Alethin leant against the wall, reaching up to let his serpents tongue flick over his fingers. He tapped on the wall with his free hand as he spoke.
“This is that fool Talyn’s fault. If you find him, make sure he doesn’t rest until he gets me out of this damn mess,” he muttered. He remained leaning against his cell wall, comforted to finally have seen somebody familiar, before the boot steps of his guard alerted him that his meal tray was about to be collected.
“Go now. I’ll be fine,” Alethin hissed, stepping back to his bench as the guard rounded the corner. He studiously avoided looking at the little window, in case his faithful companion had decided to stay.
“Talking to somebody?” the man asked with suspicion. Alethin shrugged, polishing off the last of his bread before he lost it. The guard looked around for a few moments more, his eyes passing over the window to see if there were any tell-tale footprints of somebody who might try to assist the smuggler. Finally satisfied that Alethin had no co-conspirators, he gestured for him to slide the tray back under the door. Alethin co-operated, as he always did. He smiled at the guard, wishing him a good night. The man returned his sentiments with a dour look.
As his footsteps disappeared around the corner again, Alethin returned to his bench. He glanced up at the window but saw only the blank vista and a hint of the night sky. He tried to ignore the tiny flicker of hope that had flared in his heart, not wanting to seem as though he were anything more than a meek, downtrodden prisoner.
Under the night sky, a black snake was lost in the shadows.
*
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Re: Honour Amongst Thieves

Postby MothballMilkshake » March 15th, 2019, 6:08:48 am

Talyn stepped into his room, still towelling his hair after his bath. After travelling for so long on the winter roads a hot bath was just what he needed. He hummed to himself as he leafed through his notes of useful contacts in the area. Sitting at the desk he tossed the towel onto the bed behind him and flinched upon hearing an angry hiss. Without turning around, he strongly suspected the cause.
“Look, it’s not my fault he’s locked up, alright?” he spoke slowly as he turned around. The last thing he wanted to do was startle the damned creature. The frightening thing had its stupid neck flaps in the air as it wavered menacingly at him. “Nothing I can do now, anyway,” he tried to turn back to his desk, hoping that ignoring the snake would make it lose interest. Within seconds, he felt a cold weight around his ankle. He froze. A quiet hiss came from close to his nether regions.
“I can try…to talk…to the guards…” he breathed, unwilling to let even the slightest movement risk his safety. The weight on his ankle shifted, though looking down he could see the beast was merely repositioning. It flicked its tongue, scenting the air. Talyn gulped. He had lost enough merchandise for one trip.
“Fine,” he squeaked indignantly. “I’ll get him out, I’ll get him out!”
He sighed as the snake uncoiled, undulating across the floor to his open window. As soon as its tail disappeared over the sill, he dashed over to slam it shut. He cursed Alethin for dragging him into his problems, conveniently forgetting that he was the cause.
As he dressed carefully, choosing one of his neatest outfits with the least damaged lace on the cuffs, he made a mental list of what he would need to gather. Glancing outside, he judged he had several hours until morning. Carefully, he removed a couple of vials from his personal satchel, just in case.
“You had better appreciate this, Alethin. I don’t remember you getting me out of jail in Alveus. And that was definitely your fault,” he muttered to himself as he pulled the door shut behind him.

Several stops and a close shave later, he reached the town guard quarters. He smoothed his hair before putting on his most winning smile and knocking on the door.
It took a moment for anybody to answer. When they did, it was only in the form of an eye slit being opened in the door and a gruff voice asking, “What the hell do you want?”
Talyn grinned up at the doorman, holding out a bottle of wine.
“I’ve friends in the guards. I’ve just gotten into town and haven’t seen Tolstoy in years, would he be in?” he asked sweetly. The eyes followed the movement of the bottle.
“Not in tonight. First shift though, if you want to wait,” the surly voice answered him. At Talyn’s enthusiastic nod and vapid smile, the sound of a latch being drawn could be heard from inside. The door opened with a groan.
Talyn stepped neatly forward, thanking the man for his accommodation. He chattered aimlessly as he followed the guard to the mess room, where two other men were playing at cards. They looked up in confusion at their well-dressed guest.
“Says he’s here to see Tolstoy. Told him he could wait,” the doorman gestured vaguely at the wine bottle still in Talyn’s hand. Their eyes lit up with understanding.
One stood up to offer his seat, asking Talyn if he’d like a cup of anything or some bread whilst he waited. Talyn waved off the offers, placing his bottle on the table. He smiled at each of the guards in turn, waiting until their hopeful expressions faded and they returned to their game. The man who had let him in sat on a bunk in the corner, reading a dog-eared dime novel.
After Talyn had watched at least two rounds of the game, he politely asked if they knew where he might find the bathroom. They pointed him out to the corridor and told him it was the third door on the left. Thanking them, he left the room, his bottle of wine remaining behind him.
He travelled loudly for several feet as he walked away from the mess hall. Finding the second door on the right to be unlocked, he ducked inside and closed the door almost all of the way behind him. The soft conversation of the guards drifted to him through the crack.
They spoke of menial things, obviously avoiding the topic they wanted to touch on most. Talyn was patient. He waited for nearly a quarter hour before the voice of the door guard cut over the others.
“Don’t know what he’s eaten, to be taking this long,” he joked. The others chuckled appreciatively. “You think he’s brought that for Tolstoy?”
“Don’t see why Tolstoy deserves it. He’s not working the night shift,” one of the others responded in an annoyed tone.
“Think he’ll notice if it’s gone?” the third voice, slightly more timid than the others.
“And what’d he do about it if he did, huh?” the second guard asked, a sly tone in his voice. The others guffawed loudly, agreeing that they could easily lay him out if he protested.
“I’m having it,” the first guard announced. The others raised their protests, insisting that it was their right to share. After much arguing, their voices clamouring over one another, it seemed they reached an agreement. Talyn heard the noise of the bottle being uncorked and several cups clinking together. He nodded.
He waited a further ten minutes before he slipped out of the room and back into the corridor. He hurried along, his footsteps light on the old cobblestone. After he’d passed the guards kitchen and storeroom and the aforementioned bathroom, he started to come across cells.
“Alethin?” he hissed, pressing his face against the bars of the first cell. A string of profanities answered him along with the strong smell of bad whiskey. He drew back in disgust. The second cell was empty, as was the third. The fourth contained a woman with a fat lip and bloody knuckles. She grinned at him, one tooth missing. He hurried past.
“Talyn?” the voice floated to him from the far corner. Of course they’d put him in the furthest cell, curse his luck. Talyn scurried over.
“Alethin? How you doing?” Talyn asked lightly as he fumbled with his belt pouch.
“Oh, you know, it’s not the best accommodation I’ve had. The food is mediocre at best and the entertainment is lousy,” Alethin answered. He sounded exhausted.
Talyn fiddled with the lock, trying several different hooks and settings until he found the correct one. The door opened with a heavy click.
Without waiting for Alethin, Talyn turned and began to hurry back down the corridor. He heard Alethin’s footsteps following close behind. Talyn glanced into the guardroom before they passed – the guards were sound asleep. One of them snored softly, his head pillowed on his losing hand. Talyn gestured to Alethin to continue.
“Wait,” he said, ignoring Alethin’s curse at the fact they were nearly there. Spinning on his heel, Talyn hurried back to the storeroom. There. His case. He hefted it under one arm and hurried back to join his friend, freezing in place when one of the guards grunted in his sleep. He waited for several seconds, poised on the balls of his feet, before he felt it safe to keep moving.
Once they closed the door behind them, they kept walking for several streets in silence.
As they turned into a nondescript alley not far from the building those in the Dark Brotherhood used for their meeting, Alethin rounded on him.
“You set me up,” he hissed, anger flaring behind his eyes.
“No more than you did to me,” Talyn retorted. A flash of shame flitted across Alethin’s face. “At least I got you out,” Talyn went on. Alethin nodded, the fire going out of him.
“I was going to write a confession for you, once I’d left town. Your damn snake pushed me to act faster. You would have gotten out regardless.”
Alethin looked around, searching the ground. One shadow seemed darker than the others, and at his click it flashed towards the two Magi. Talyn grimaced as the evil thing wound its way up Alethin’s outstretched arm and curled on his shoulders.
“My thanks for the rescue. Though I probably won’t be welcome for a while.”
Talyn hefted his case under his arm. “No evidence, no conviction,” he said with his familiar grin. “I’ll send the confessional anyway. Clear your good – well, your name, at any rate.”
Alethin nodded.
“You didn’t happen to collect any of my merchandise, did you?” at Talyn’s look of surprise, he shook his head. “Of course not. Well, I’ll write to Tolstoy to sell it as he sees fit. Remy might buy from him if nobody else will. That should also go some way to easing his distrust.”
The two stood in the alley as the sky started to lighten. The first signs of folk beginning their day started to echo through the streets – fireplaces being lit, bread being made and animals bleating as they heard their masters rise.
“Well,” Alethin started awkwardly.
“Well indeed,” Talyn echoed.
The smugglers grinned at one another.
“It was good to see you, old friend,” Talyn admitted.
“Perhaps next time we’ll get arrested together?”
Talyn laughed. “Oh no. I never even saw you. Haven’t seen you in what, seven years?”
Alethin nodded. “Yes, I think I last saw you seven years ago. Back in Alveus, if I remember rightly. I do wonder what you get up to nowadays.”
Talyn grinned at him. “Plenty of people do.”
They shook hands, Talyn balancing his case precariously. Alethin wisely decided not to ask about the potions. Before the sun crested the horizon, the alleyway and all trace of their passage gone with a fresh dusting of snow.
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