Beggar's Choice, Part II

22 mins read

Part I can be found here.
The rain had subsided by midnight, though ragged clouds still hid most of the stars. A moist wind whipped Larvik’s new cloak about his body as he leaned against the darkened rear of the Lonely Dragon. He kept to the shadows, watching the alley entrance where the little man must eventually appear. Scraping one of his new boots against the cobblestones in boredom, he scolded himself for reaching the rendezvous so early, then defended his action by noting that he really had nowhere else to be.
Finally, Kern arrived, dressed completely in black. His soft boots made no sound as he approached the beggar and looked up at him. Nervousness and expectation both showed upon his tiny face. It was obvious from his manner that the little man had little experience robbing homes. Larvik figured it was time for that to change.
“See yon brick house?” Larvik pointed to a square home, surrounded on its top floor by a balcony and on its bottom level by wrought iron gates and bars. “Enter it on the third floor; there is a ventilation hole just beneath the roof you can reach via the catwalk. A woman sleeps on that level, most likely. If you wake her, our night, and probably your life, is over. Locate in her bedroom a blue bottle of perfume. It is of expensive make and shaped like a salamander. Take that bottle and proceed down the broad stairway to that exit,” – he pointed to a heavy but unobtrusive door near the house’s rear, outside the gate. “I shall await you there. When you reach that door, raise the bar quietly and open it.”
“I am not here to rob houses for you,” Kern said. Indignation overwhelmed his rough voice and he planted his boots firmly upon the cobblestones. “But you for me.”
Larvik spoke as evenly as he could, but now his own nervousness threatened to rout his efforts to project a calm demeanor. “You will rob two houses this night,” he said, wagging his ringed finger at the little man, “for the first contains what is necessary to enter the second. If you cannot follow instruction, then I shall retire with my gold and leave you to fight the guards alone.”
Kern’s shoulders drooped. His eyes seemed to climb the wall as he patted himself down like an old man who has lost his keys. Apparently satisfied that nothing would come loose in his climb, he turned toward the house, squeezing between the iron pickets that guarded its yard. The little man seemed to swim up the ivy that besieged the house’s dark exterior. As he reached the third level, he swung gracefully onto the catwalk and disappeared behind a corner.
Larvik pressed himself against the house’s rear door, listening for the familiar scuff of iron-toed boots on the pavement. What was taking so long? He had heard no screams, a fact that gave him hope that the little man was merely having trouble navigating in the dark. The moon had finally appeared. Larvik hoped that somehow its light might reach Kern inside. He also knew the alley would not stay empty forever, and the moon’s accusing light exposed him as much as it aided him. He squinted down the alley, picking out a few cats or rats that moved near the buildings that backed up to it. He was relieved that they appeared to be the alley’s only occupants. At last Larvik heard the welcome scrape of the door’s bar being lifted. The door swung open and the tiny thief stepped through it into the darkened alley. His hand barely encased a blue salamander made of glass.
“Your perfume, sir,” he said, placing the bottle into Larvik’s shaking, outstretched hand. There was a little too much emphasis on ‘sir,’ but Larvik ignored it and accepted the long-awaited treasure. He turned it over in his hand and located the plug.
“Hold still,” he said, turning the little man away by the shoulder. He splashed perfume all over Kern’s head and shoulders. The foreigner squealed in surprise. Larvik grinned while he shushed Kern. Then after a quick peek down the alley, he showered himself in the same manner.
“I smell like a cathouse,” Kern said with a pout. Larvik gave him another splash for his insolence.
“Do you know why I did that?” he asked, dropping the bottle into a waiting pocket. “Of course you don’t. This is the home of the wizard’s mistress. It is connected by a subterranean passageway to the lowest levels of his tower, near his very cocoon. But the tunnel is guarded by a void, a magical portal that will kill anyone who attempts to pass through it.”
The little man shivered as he peered into the shadows of the alley. Larvik could tell his restless eyes were scanning the blackened urban fortress that awaited them at its outlet. He continued with his monologue.
“Anyone, that is, but his mistress, whom he will not expose to the sight and lust of the streets. She may move unseen and unhindered between the houses until the day he tires of her, whereupon a new favorite receives this bottle and the keys to this house. Cathouse or not, this perfume will grant us passage where your puny sword and silent boots will not.”
“I do smell like a cathouse,” Kern repeated. A scowl sat upon his face, but the fire was out of his black eyes. He stepped aside. “No one is at home,” he said, waving a tiny hand toward the house’s dark interior.
Larvik stepped through the door and opened another that waited just inside the hallway. His good hand parted expensive coats, blindly seeking the tiny latch behind them. As his fingers tripped it, a panel on his left slid silently aside, revealing a darkness that exceeded even that of the closet. He waved for Kern to close the outer door behind them, cutting off their only source of light. Certain the little man possessed the good sense to follow him, Larvik slipped into the passageway he had just opened. He felt Kern’s tiny hand gripping the back of his cloak as he descended.
The air grew cooler as stone steps passed beneath his feet. Eighteen, nineteen, twenty, he silently counted. He then stepped into a square, stone-walled room that stood astride a long subterranean passageway. It was carpeted in the same ugly pattern he remembered. It’s a good thing his former employer remained a captive of habits long established, he thought. Otherwise, they could never have made it even this far.
Kern stepped from the bottom stair into the carpet and looked at their new surroundings. His eyes broadened when he beheld the enormous shimmering portal that guarded the wizard’s cocoon. Kern examined it carefully, first squinting through it then tracing fingers along the carved stone of the walls that seemed to hold it in place. The portal had no frame: it was merely a shimmer that stood fast in what might have been a doorway. Kern kept his tiny feet well back from its edge. “You walk first,” he whimpered.
Larvik smiled and took a confident stride into the void. The electricity of magic made his hair rise, but in an instant he stood in the hallway that ran from the brick house to the wizard’s stone fortress. At the far end of this passage lay the wizard’s cocoon. He glanced back to see a tiny hand and foot appear, followed by the remainder of the little man. Relief stood plain on Kern’s face and his breath burst from his tiny chest. Larvik waved him forward and turned down the hall. Ahead of them, torches became more prevalent: intruders could be seen as well as they could see from this point forward.
“Wait behind that pillar,” Larvik whispered, pointing to one of the stone columns lining both sides of the broadening passageway. Each held a torch that illuminated the center of the passage; each left an island of blackness behind it. Larvik expected the guards would show less vigilance than was their habit in the absence of their master. They’ve probably gotten into his wine cellar as well, he thought. That will help. The sound of boots echoed in a far hallway. The intruders waited in the shadows until the locksteps faded.
“We have fewer than ten minutes until the next round,” Larvik said. “Follow me.”
They approached the end of the hallway where it bisected another hall, decorated and lit in an identical manner. Directly before them stood a tall wooden door. It was unmarked, decorated only by a curious handle shaped like a wheel within a wheel. Kern reached for it, but Larvik knocked his hand away.
“Touch that and you’ll be dead before your final scream echoes. Just keep your hands in your pockets for now,” Larvik hissed.
Cold sweat rolled down his brow, and Larvik could feel his skin tingling where the flakes peeled away. He reached above the door frame for a switch, which he flipped, then began to dial the small knob on the door.
“The warlock gave me numbers to dial,” he explained. “But he never knew I deduced their calculation. They are based on the calendar.”
Larvik turned the outside wheel twice to the left, taking care that it made a full revolution but not two. He next brought the inner wheel into the proper position relative to its companion. Then he pushed the golden center of the device. A click would sweep aside this last impediment to his revenge.
There was no click.
Larvik frowned at the door, hesitant to try its wheel lock again. The wizard was not stupid enough to kill on the first error, despite what Larvik had told his tiny companion, because even wizards make mistakes on occasion. The lock allowed three chances. If the third was wrong, you died. Simple as that. Larvik glanced at his companion, who watched for the approach of guards from far down the hall. The little man apparently held concerns that Larvik’s time estimate for their return would prove as faulty as his lock picking skills. Taking a deep breath, Larvik turned the outer wheel again, then the inner wheel. No click. Damn.
The second time, Larvik was sure the number was correct; he had counted and double-counted. If he got it wrong the third time, the guards would doubtless find his fried corpse here tomorrow morning. He looked at Kern again, hoping the little man might still effect his own escape in that case. Then he laughed. He had met Kern at midnight; it was already tomorrow morning! He turned back toward the door, spun the outer wheel and aligned the inner one based on the corrected date. Then he held his breath and pushed the button. Click. Larvik smiled as the door swung silently open. He waved his partner inside.
“Second mouse gets the cheese,” he said.
Kern, with a hesitant step, entered the cross-shaped cocoon. Larvik followed closely behind him. The wizard’s personal chamber was dimly lit, though no torches lay in evidence. A magical fire burned in a fireplace at one end. It cast no shadows on the bare stone floor.
“Now, my little thief,” Larvik said, closing the wooden door behind them. “What precisely are we looking for?”
“I seek a message tube with a royal seal. It was stolen from the castle last night. I must learn if it has been opened or if not.”
“Very well. The warlock’s desk and bureau lie over there, near that fireplace. Do not step on the carpet.” Larvik pointed to the ornate rug that covered much of that section of the cocoon. It stopped two feet from the walls and the fireplace. The stone floor was safe – the little man should have plenty of room to search for his cylinder. But the carpet was another story.
“Beware the carpet,” Larvik warned again. That was important.
Kern eased to the bureau and carefully picked through its contents, moving thence to the desk and finally to the fireplace. His heels clung to the stone. Larvik backed silently away, muttering under his breath.
“There’s another place to look, but you shan’t learn of that, my exotic little friend.”
Larvik retreated behind a corner and groped among the expensive draperies that covered one wall. A hidden door slid open, revealing a small inner chamber. Ah, yes. He stepped inside, ignoring the swords and staves that hung in honor about the white walls. No, there was gold here, in those drawers. Gold and gems. He stopped, shocked, before he could reach them.
There was something else here, something Larvik had not expected. It was a tiara, and its rubies flung the magical torchlight about the warlock’s treasure room. He lifted it gently and studied it from several angles. Then he glanced back into the main chamber of the cocoon. Friend of the queen? I’ll just bet. This was the queen’s tiara, her famous wedding gift. Many a mind had pondered how large a kingdom those matchless gems might purchase. Now Larvik could answer that question, assuming he could find a merchant with a large enough purse and a small enough mouth. Perhaps the tiara could be melted down. He admired the ornate workmanship of its design. It was beautiful. Such a shame to waste the craftsmanship, but some things can’t be helped. This will almost settle the debt, he thought. The tiara disappeared into his pocket, followed by several heavy handfuls of gems. He had just opened a second drawer when he heard Kern’s scream.
Larvik’s feet raced automatically to the main chamber. Deep yells and the clattering of boots bounced off stone walls. Larvik knew it would take the guards time to descend the stairs; by then he would be through the portal. The little man lay dead, crumpled next to the rug that he had apparently brushed while poking through the fireplace. A small wooden tube stuck out of one gloved hand and a metal poker lay near the other. The torchlit hall, opposite Kern’s twisted body, beckoned Larvik to make his escape.
A small moan reached his ears.
What? Larvik stopped in his tracks, glancing quickly from the door to Kern and back again. He moved toward the door. Then he stopped and peered back. Dammit, there’s no time, he told himself. Then you’d better choose quickly, he responded.
Larvik deftly navigated the stone between the carpet and the wall, lifting the little man by the scruff of his cloak. He was relieved to discover that Kern was even lighter than he looked. The iron-shod boots descended the stairs now. Larvik had spent his advantage; now all he could do was run.
Larvik burst through the wooden door as four guards reached the hallway. His name jumped from one set of lips or maybe more; someone recognized his disfigured visage in the torchlight. But those guards were behind him now; he hoped dearly that none appeared ahead of him. He held the little man under his good arm and ran. His stiff boots hurt his toes. His breath tasted of blood. Just run. The stampede behind him stopped as Larvik reached the portal. Deep curses passed the barrier the soldiers dared not cross.
“Come and take me,” Larvik taunted. A pair of crossbow bolts skittered through the void and bounced off the stone walls, bringing him back to his senses. The boots retreated just as quickly as they had pursued. Larvik carried the moaning little man up the stone staircase and into the safety of the darkness outside. Now I guess we’ll find out if he really is a friend of the queen, he thought.
Part III can be found [here]

El Borak is an historian by training, an IT Director by vocation, and a writer when the mood strikes him. He lives in rural Kansas with his wife of thirty years, where he works to fix the little things.

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