“I assume we have reached a bargain, then?” Darkniciad asked.
The man before him pursed his lips for a moment and his brow furrowed. He took a breath, nodded his head, and said, “It’s a square deal.”
“Excellent,” Darkni said while extending a hand. As he shook hands to seal the deal, he said, “We shall stay in touch so you know when to be ready to take delivery. There is, of course, the matter of the advance payment.”
His customer nodded. “I’ll go fetch my gold.”
“My father will handle that. It has been a pleasure doing business with you.” Darkni turned and nodded to his father before exiting the building.
Outside, he let the business facade fall away from his face and sighed. This was the third such arrangement his father had forced him to take the lead on since arriving in town, and he had other things on his mind. Those goals and how to accomplish them swirled in his head, and before he knew it, his father was exiting.
“Well done, son.”
Darkni nodded, ran his fingers through his dark locks, and offered a slight smile. “Have I sufficiently proven my business acumen to have earned some time to myself, perhaps?”
“Very well. Remember that you still represent us even when at leisure. I have several more prospects to explore in this area. I expect to remain for another four days. I may yet need your help, and we shall speak every evening before retiring.”
“Of course. If I may take my leave, then?”
His father sighed and nodded. Darkniciad turned on his heel immediately. Soon enough, he left the brick paved roads for the dusty lanes of the poorer quarter of the city, seeking a very specific establishment. The inn where the workmen of his father’s business were staying was a far cry from the well-appointed one where his own rooms were. The smell of cheap pipe weed and stale sweat lingered beneath the aroma of whatever was cooking for the evening.
Through the dim lighting and haze of smoke, he spotted Ernest sitting at a corner table and crossed the creaking floor boards to join him. The man was one of his father’s wagon drivers, and was only rarely pressed into other service while on a business trip, freeing up his time.
Darkni sat down, doing his best to drop the cultured tongue to which he had grown accustomed for the benefit of his more plainspoken conspirator. “Any luck?” he asked.
“Yep,” Ernest answered. He then nodded toward the bar. “You’ll need to order something. I can already see the bartender giving you the evil eye.”
“We can’t have that, can we?” Darkni turned and signaled a barmaid. He thought that she must have been quite pretty before hard work and long hours had hardened her. She was still curvy and attractive, but the bloom was certainly off the rose. From the crude words and gestures of the other patrons as she passed, it appeared the clientele still found her fetching.
“What can I get you?” she asked with a thoroughly false tone and even falser smile of congeniality.
Darkni pulled a silver coin from his purse and saw her eyes widen. “Bring me a cup of your finest wine, and you may keep what remains for yourself.”
“Our finest isn’t all that good,” she warned. A flirtatious note crept into her voice when she added, “I can make sure the bartender doesn’t water it down and puts it in a clean cup for you, though.”
“That will do,” he said as he held up the coin for her to take. She did so, making sure to let her fingers brush his. A genuine - if somewhat calculating - smile decorated her face as she turned and strutted back toward the bar with her hips swaying.
“If you want to bed her, you just bought her,” Ernest said. “She won’t see that much from the whole of this lot all night. Might steal your purse while you’re all knackered, though.” He took a long look at her behind and said, “Think it would be worth it.”
Darkniciad chuckled. “My father would faint if I even thought about it.”
“The shop?” Darkni enquired.
Ernest tore his eyes away from the barmaid. “Place didn’t even have a sign. I asked about those herbs, and when he had those, I asked about the others. He got a bit antsy then, but I slipped him that coin you gave me and he brightened right up. Said he had a book, too.”
The workman gave the slightest of nods, indicating that someone was approaching. Darkni glanced that way and saw the barmaid carrying his cup.
“Here you are,” she said as she sat the cup down and stood in such a way as to display her womanly charms quite prominently. “Fresh bottle, only opened a few minutes ago. Just long enough for it to breathe.”
“You know your craft. I thank you, my dear,” Darkni said as he lifted his cup. He took a sip, and while it was a relatively poor wine compared to his usual fare, it was passable. “This will do nicely.”
She batted her eyelashes at him and said, “If you need anything, just ask for Milli.”
“I will keep that in mind, Milli.”
Once again, she strutted as she left the table. Ernest let out a quiet whistle once she was out of hearing range. “Yep,” he said, “She’s yours for the askin’. Anyway, he had a book, and he let me see it. It was like you said to look for. The words almost looked like they were crawling on the page. Made my head hurt.”
Darkniciad sat up a little straighter and leaned in at the description.
“It had about fifty pages, and they all had that writing on them. There was some regular writing here and there, but I couldn’t make much more sense out of it than the spidery stuff. A little bigger than the size of your hand.”
It had all the hallmarks of a traveling spellbook, and the number of pages presented a good probability of spells that were new to his studies. Darkni asked, “Was he willing to allow me to visit at such a late hour?”
“He didn’t seem happy about it, but he said yes, so long as he knows you’re coming beforehand.”
“Then let him know I will be there this evening. I should go and be seen somewhere my father expects me,” Darkniciad said as he pushed his chair back.
“You’re going to break her heart,” his conspirator said, and then chuckled.
“Well then,” Darkni said, and fished into his purse. He retrieved a coin of the same size as the one he’d given to the barmaid and pushed it to Ernest. “When you return, you could test your theory about the value of that coin in her eyes. You’ve certainly earned it.”
He picked up the coin. “Doubt it’s worth half as much in my grubby fingers, but it might be worth just enough.”
With that, Darkni took his leave. As he moved toward the door, he noticed that Ernest’s prediction was bearing fruit. The barmaid’s shoulders slumped at the sight of him leaving. He felt a stirring in his loins as he considered that his conspirator’s other suggestion might also be true and he could bed the woman if he would only stay and let her take him home.
But, if his father learned of such a liaison, it would jeopardize something far more important. He would almost certainly be left tending the business at home during these trips, rather than having the opportunity to seek out new magic. With just such a possibility on the horizon, he suppressed the swell of ardor with planning.
There was much of that to be done.
The room was quiet, as it had been for an hour. Darkni looked up from his spellbook and trained his eyes on a faintly glowing circle of light set against the wall between his room and his father’s. The older man had barely stirred since his son had last looked in on him. His breaths came slowly and regularly.
It was time.
Darkniciad snapped his spellbook closed and waved a hand. The gesture caused the circle of light to shift from the wall to the door. When he looked outside, he saw the hallway was empty. Gooseflesh prickled his skin as he spoke the words of a spell, his hands flowing through the gestures. When he spoke the last word and dropped his hands in a palm-up sweeping gesture, he was invisible.
A thought extinguished the magical light he had used for reading. After a final look through the portal of clairvoyance, a second thought banished that magic as well. He opened the door only wide enough to exit, closed it quickly, and locked it. The hall remained empty.
The sound coming from the taproom below was a stark reminder that he was far from safely away. The magic was quite effective, but had its limitations. If he were to speak, work any other magic, or touch anyone, the spell would fail, leaving him and his clandestine excursion revealed.
Heart pounding, he crept to the stairs. Finding no one ascending, he made his way down. Between his soft soled shoes and the fine construction, his steps made little sound. The late hour and the nature of the clientele served him well. Those who frequented the establishment were generally wealthy. They had business to attend to in the morning, and had taken to their beds. Those who remained were sitting at their tables rather than roaming about the taproom.
Darkni marked everyone and plotted a path that avoided each person by a wide berth. He slipped through the common room, weaving amidst the tables and chairs, and soon stood beside the door. It was there that he faced the most harrowing part of his journey. Somehow, he must slip out the door without raising undue suspicion.
.... There is more of this story ...