An Honest Trade by Ewan Cummins

Salvaged goods cluttered the little room: rusted shears, chipped pots, tarnished silverware, and stained clothes. The ring of garlic hanging on the wall almost masked the smell of stagnant water that clung to everything, including my host.

Stoneguts frowned up at me from his stool. Even in the dim light I could pick out the familiar creases in his face. “Arabella, are you sure your new bosses at the thieves’ guild won’t mind you mixing with honest tradesmen?” The words thieves’ guild came out of his mouth with the disgust most people felt for overflowing sewers.

I sighed. “I don’t like working for the Society. But I’m not stealing from anybody. I’m a messenger. That’s respectable.” Seeing his grimace, I tried again. “Well… it’s legal.”

He groaned—it sounded like masonry cracking in winter. “Just because something is legal doesn’t make it right. Didn’t I teach you that, girl? ”

“I’m not a girl anymore,” I snapped back in Dwarven. Returning to the Common Tongue, I added, “You also taught me to avoid trouble with the law, yet now you’re involved with this silly scheme to organize the sewer jacks.”

He snorted before gulping the last of his wine—horrible stuff that stank of pine resin. “You just joined the only sanctioned guild in town. Was that silly? A guild means power.” His expression softened, “Little ape, I could use your help.”

“I’d like to help. But you can’t fight both the law and the gangs. I heard you had a run in with Lotho-”

“Don’t worry about my troubles, Arabella. I see how it is. You’ve got a new trade that pays better than mucking drains.” He stuffed his feet into hobnailed boots and headed for the door. “Don’t follow me. Your old friends won’t like that new cape of yours.” He was right; Cerulean Society colors wouldn’t win me favor with the workers in Old Korvosa. I doffed my sky blue cloak.

* * *

He hadn’t noticed me tailing him. I felt a flush of pride. Stoneguts could see in pitch black and he could hear well enough to count rats in a drainpipe by the sound of their feet. Hiding from him was no easy feat.

I waited for him to come out of the tavern. The light in the window blinked out, and a moment later, the back door slammed. Cursing, I ran around the side and stopped just short of being seen by the three big goons holding Stoneguts, one with his boot pressed against the dwarf’s face. A fourth bullyboy gripped the back door handle.

Lotho the Cat-Killer, robed and oiled like a harlot with delusions of gentility, strode the mouth of the alley to stand over Stoneguts. The hulking Varisian cradled a yapping lapdog, the sort favored by expensive doxies. He handed his pet to a thug, and bent close to Stoneguts. “Alright, you solly, give me the sheepskin.”

The back door rattled, but the bravo held it fast.

I drew my knife, but waited.

Stoneguts tried to bite through the sole of the thug’s boot.

Lotho yanked a scroll from Stoneguts’ tunic and squinted at it in the moonlight. Gold teeth flash as he grinned and tucked the vellum into his fur-trimmed robes.

“If you want it back before I send it to the Hellknights, tell your dung-smeared mates I own them. I give you till daybreak to swear fealty.”

* * *

After the gangsters left, I helped Stoneguts back to his room and dressed his wounds. While I wound a strip of linen around his bald head, I questioned him. “What was on the parchment Lotho took from you?”

“Our charter. By-laws, officers…”

“You wrote it down? That’s crazy!”

He glared at me from under the bandage. “Of course we wrote it down! It’s a charter. When the laws are changed, we can publish it. For now, it’s a bond among us.”

“The only bond among you fools will be the rope they use to hang you all, if the Order of the Nail sees that scroll. Damn! Hellknights.”

He rolled out of bed. “I’m going to get it back.”

I shook my head. “No, you’re hurt. I’ll do it.”

* * *

I was somewhere underneath the old gristmill occupied by Lotho’s crew when I finally turned the lantern screw to brighten my light. I examined the stonework, searching for familiar features. Thick layers of niter clung to the lower edges of the damp walls. I bent close. Not natural deposits: otyugh spoor.

“Lotho send you?” The gurgling voice could never be mistaken for something human.

I turned round to face a massive, three-legged heap of slimy brown flesh. Two ropy arms bristled with spines. Two big eyes, one set over the other, stared at me from the end of a long stalk that protruded above a broad, toothy maw.

I kept my hands still, no sudden movements that might alarm the monster. “Yes, Lotho sent me down here to-”

“You food!” It lumbered toward me, tentacles wriggling and mouth opened wide.

“Wait! No, I am not food! Lotho will be cross with you if you eat me. No more snacks.”

“But Lotho drops you.” It waggled a long arm toward a wooden panel set into the low stone ceiling.

“Just let me go up through that door and I’ll bring you all the food you like. What’s your favorite thing to eat?”

“Fish heads. You got?”

It was very close now. Its fetid breath would have floored anyone not used to the sewers. It patted me with its gripping fronds, feeling through my tabard and the high cuffs of my boots.

“Hungry.”

I repressed a shudder at its touch. “Just let me fetch them.”

The otyugh retreated into the gloom.

My boots scraped and slipped on the masonry as I climbed up the wall and pushed open the heavy wooden panel, just the way I’d climbed up chutes to remove stuck grates when I had worked with Stoneguts. “Little ape, indeed”, I whispered.

Quick as a jack-in-the-box, I popped my head up for a peek. I saw four walls lined with barrels and crates, one door, a high-raftered ceiling, and enough floor space to park two carriages side by side. The aroma of sweet sap rose from a bucket at the edge of the trap door.

I pulled myself through the hatch and crept to the corner near the door’s hinges. I rested there, breathing the clean, pine-scented air. It was a welcome change from the foul odors of the Vaults. I pressed an ear to the door. The hollow click of boot heels on floorboards came and went, somewhere nearby another door clattered shut.

I left the storeroom and sneaked down the hall. Through a grimy interior window, I spied jumbled gears the size of wagon wheels and a broken millstone.

At the end of the long hall I came to a locked door. Some quick work with my picks and I was inside what looked like an office. My nose wrinkled at the musky stink of cologne and hair oil gone stale. Five cat skins tacked to the back wall left little doubt as to whose office I had entered. Ransacking Lotho’s desk and cabinet, I found the charter and enough medicine to stock an apothecary’s shop. Lotho evidently believed the rumors of plague circulating around town. I grabbed some tinctures and dried herbs before hurrying back to the storeroom.

I had just crossed the threshold when Lotho leaped from behind the door and threw me to the floor. He kicked me hard in the ribs with his gleaming jackboots, the height of fashion for Korvosan footwear.

“Where are you going, little kitten?” He stooped over me, seized my hair and jerked my head back at a painful angle. “I’ve got a rule. You take something from me, I take something from you.”

“I work for the Cerulean Society!”

“Not likely. They don’t operate directly around here.”

I yanked my knife from the sheath, but Lotho grabbed my arm and twisted until I dropped the blade. He stamped his heel into my back. I spat crimson onto the rough boards.

Grabbing the planks so tightly they drove splinters into my fingertips, I pulled myself towards the hatch. Lotho straddled me. His fists hammered my ribs. With a last, desperate lunge, I heaved the trapdoor open; in a tangle, we both tumbled into the sewer.

He was on his feet before I could stand. I saw the flash of a knife in his right fist.

“Fish heads!” I coughed. “All you can eat!”

Lotho had just enough time to give me a puzzled look before the tentacles wrapped around his chest and arms. I snatched the charter from the floor and ran.

* * *

Stoneguts and I limped out the next evening to dump buckets of stinking fish heads down a manhole on Endrin Isle.

“I’m leaving the Society.”

“Back to cleaning drains, Arabella?”

I smiled. “Well, at least it’s an honest trade.”

(featured in Wayfinder, Vol. 7)