“That storm’s been dogging me longer than that,” Lafitte replied to Peino, as he pulled down his mask. “I’ve been outrunning it since we got loose o’those Spriggans,” and with that they were on their way towards a caravan, following the girl, Lotye.
“Now that you mention it, it is the same storm, isn’t it?” said Peino. “Leastwise, there’s been precious little break between them. Who did you anger, Captain?”
But before he could hear the response, the girl Lotye had taken off, with Jeneyeru at her heels. Peino tossed a few silvers to the oarsman and hurried to catch up with his brother, Lafitte, and the young woman who slipped through the crowds like a breeze.
She led them a merry round through the festival routes of the Lower City, as the district closest to the docks and next to the Royal Quarter was known. Starhand judged she never wandered more than a third of a land mile in radius from Dovecote Square, but the labyrinthine route along the narrow lanes and waterways made a long journey of a distance that would have been a ten-minute, straight, point-to-point stroll had the way been clear.
No stranger to crowds, though he couldn’t profess to enjoy them, Peino made sure to keep close to his brother and the young woman, moving straightway or crabwise through the press of revelers, as she led them through her memory of the day in question. When, apparently becoming comfortable with her task, she lifted a piece of fruit from a cart, Peino just as casually paid the vendor a copper for it. Then pausing as he remembered the nature of the walk, he gave another copper for the fruit she undoubtedly had lifted on that day however long ago.
“What is this lady,” he asked his brother, close in his ear, “wizard or thief?”
“She professes the latter,” Jeneyeru said, “but I have my suspicions of the former. High talent for one of her kind.”
“This is it. I think, over there, this is where I found the cards.” Found them in a purse, hanging from a man’s belt. Of course she didn’t say that, not with all these people around her, as she waved her hand in a vague direction a bit further in the street. “Or maybe it was a little bit more over there, next to the kiosk selling the grilled fish.”
The weather was lowering heavily over the city, bringing a deeper gloom into the alley. Still, the commerce was lively even here where garlands strung from window to window above carried the blessings of the trade gods. The close walls echoed with the voices of shanty singers heralding the storm as the first drops began to streak the stone.
The lane was full of pushcarts, far more than usual judging by the degree of crowding, but also a good number of established vendors and “backdoor shops,” the quick-service outlets for food or discounted goods out the back doors of shops with entrances on the square.
“I’d wager there’s a good many transient peddlers here for the festival,” Peino said to the others as they took their bearings, “but a lane like this will be used by locals and not travelers. The dealer we seek may be known if he is a regular fixture, or else may have been noticed if he was a stranger.”
“I agree, brother,” said Jeneyeru. “Let us go in pairs to cover more ground and attract less attention. Pei, you take Mistress O’Tulvar and the compass. Captain Lafitte, will you come with me?”
Between the spot where they stood and the fish griller’s stand, they marked several likely sources. A burly, big-headed hobgoblin served mugs of plain ale from a counter window under a striped awning at the back of a tavern.
At another backdoor shop, this one a clothier, a dwarfish woman with thick braids adorned with gold ornaments sold cloaks and bumbershoots. She rolled up a voluminous mass of knitting to stash it in a basket away from the incipient rain as she perked up her attention in expectation of more business.
A vest-pocket enchanter’s shop was tucked next to a doorway. It was a mass of filigree lockets and pouches, icons and idols, and the pixie shopkeeper, as delicate as her wares, sprigs of grass sprouting from her wild hair, chatted with three or four faerie, friends or customers, while she ground powders, working the pestle with her twig-like hands.
And at the far end, the fish-griller himself, a dour-looking merrow elf, clay pipe stuck between his thin lips, as he tended the fish and squid and other tasty morsels over the coals of his brazier. Orders were handed out, smoking hot, in old newspaper wrappers to hungry shoppers to walk with or eat on the benches nearby. His cooking filled the air with a fragrance as simple and alluring as the music of the buskers who turned the kiosk into an impromptu luncheon house.
“Very well, if that’s the plan, then let’s each take a side and meet at the kiosk.” While Jeneyeru gestured to Lafitte to lead the way, Peino turned to Lotye. “Mistress, will you take my arm?”
The offer was a simple courtesy, but Peino found himself hoping she would accept it, and not just because it was too easy for his thoughts to drift towards the inviting silkiness of the long hair flowing down her slender back. He had a pragmatic motive as well.
With the compass in one hand and me in the other, he thought, there’s a chance we’ll make it through without committing more crimes than I have coins in my pocket to cover.
The tall selkie prince in the blue silk suit held out his arm to the young woman. The pearlescent mask hid his smile but not the humorous sparkle in his eyes.