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A white dress shirt, formerly the property of one Mr. R. A. Nidure, flapped and danced like a graceless bird as it fell through the open sky toward the outlaws far below. On the peak of a sandy hill the four stood, contemplating the two small traveling chests between them as gravity tugged the shirt ever downward. Kev, not a man especially known for complex thoughts, scratched his head and smiled blankly. Marla, not one for speculation, placed a broad-brimmed felt hat atop her head; no one noticed her hand shaking slightly. Aspen, the gang’s lockpick and cracksafe, flashed her straight, white teeth in a half-hidden smile at the chests, then walked away. The others watched her disappear behind some scrub, no doubt to touch up the make-up on her black eye and busted lip, and to brush some of the dust away.

The plummeting apparel, of course, had no say in the matter, as luck and complex aerodynamics deposited it atop the fourth outlaw’s head. Bunny, as the others called him, squealed as if pinched. The infernomancer was a squat, plump man, as mancers tended to be, dressed in a light blue robe with frayed, stained cuffs and an embroidered hem that nearly dragged the dusty ground. His first order of business upon landing had been to doff the breeches and leather jacket he’d worn during the descent. Oh, how he heated breeches. Bunny clawed at the shirt, ripping it from his face, gasping for breath.

“Oh, stop your fretting,” said Marla. The gunslinger adjusted the hat atop her stiff, dark red hair and looked pointedly at Kev. “So … what’s the plan?”

Kev, finding nothing of interest in his overgrown thicket of brown hair, shrugged and kicked a stone over the cliff. The actor still wore his chipper red porter’s uniform, strangely incongruous with his thick sideburns, like an dog wearing a bowtie. In the distant cerulean sky beyond, the white steam plume of the aerotrain cut a straight line toward the capital. “The plan. The plan. The plan.” With every repetition, Kev changed his inflection. “He had the map. I mean ... I don’t even know where we are.”

Marla sighed through her nose and pulled her canvas duster around her thin frame and sat on the ground, crossing her legs. She leaned against a green boulder poking through the ground like a grimy fingernail. Her face was as locked as the two chests.

Their gunslinger was a dark-skinned Kot’o--half-Kot’o technically--from Totem. Like most Totemicks, Marla frowned on idle speculation and unwarranted panic. Coming from a city constantly under threat of Kuranzian bombardment had created a population that took pride in its ability to stay calm. Instead of clucking around the chest like chickens, she removed her pistol, a worn but reliable Colt Hex, from its holster and began cleaning it. She checked the empty chamber and focused on wiping the revolver with a stained silk cloth. Marla hadn’t struck the mancer as one for idle speculation or unwarranted panic.

Fingering the white dress shirt, Bunny looked from her to Kev. If Flint was gone, then who would lead them out of the hills? Flint was the man with the whole plan. And he was still aboard that aerotrain. The Bloody Kings, on their first job together, had lost their leader. The thought drew Bunny’s eyes back to the sky and that white plume. As predicted in the Totem Daily Herald, storm clouds amassed on the eastern horizon, and specks darted around the blue distance. Bunny couldn’t tell if they were hawks or something larger.

Kev snatched the shirt from Bunny’s hands, eliciting a squeak from the mancer. “What the hell, Bunny? You can’t get your clothes from a tailor or a shonky shop like the rest of us?” he asked with a laugh. It sounded only a little forced. Not the best performance. He held the shirt up to the sky.

Aspen’s voice, like thick honey spiced with cayenne, came from the edge of the clearing. “It’s a high-collared, ruffled cuff, cut in the Totemick style. Rather expensive, I would say.” The men turned to the beautiful woman. The small, hidden smile from earlier had disappeared. She was shorter than Marla--shorter than Bunny even--and curvaceous as an hourglass. She had dusted herself off and combed out her wavy, black hair. Her eyeliner and lip gloss had been repaired. She looked like a woman ready for an evening about town, not one standing atop of Old Ironeyes, highest of the Pennypeak mountains. She regarded them all coolly before sitting gingerly atop a large, sandstone boulder.

“Jesus and Judas,” Kev muttered, ignoring the pointed sniff from Marla. Staring into the sky, he pondered, “All that for a fancy shirt? But why was that trunk filled with underwear and dress shirts? Where’s the gold? I was explicitly promised whoring, boozing and fighting.” He held up a finger in imitation of Flint. “And only one of those things is free.” Kev aimed a kick at the chests but apparently reconsidered, instead doing a two-step dance and kicking another stone off the cliff, pausing to watch it crash far below. “Could we have … did we grab the wrong chests? Surely we’re not that bad at our jobs.” He searched their faces for the answer, but they had none. The man with all the answers was still on the flyer. “Bunny, is there some way, some mancy trick, to make gold look like clothes? Like that Rumblesteeler fairy tale in reverse? What about those two mancers we hogtied? Could they have cooked up something special before we got there?” He scratched his head again, knocking the porter’s cap askew.

If they had, enough gold to start a dozen new lives was now strewn about the Pennypeaks in the form of dresswear. But Bunny had never heard of such a thing. And those two mancers aboard hadn’t put up the faintest resistance. “I doubt it,” Bunny replied, thumbing a braid. He waved a hand over the shirt, probing for any trace of mancy. “Gold is quite massive, and I don’t just mean in pounds, that is to say, you can’t just transmogrify gold into something much less massive, for example, a pair of slippers and a woolen sweater. I believe it was a Reiner experime …” The mancer’s words trailed off as he realized no one was listening.

At Bunny’s words, Kev cursed again. Suddenly the man fell to to his knees to examine the chests. He tilted the larger one back, squinting into the keyhole.

“Aspen,” Kev said, not looking up. “Darlin’.” He paused a second before continuing, then turned to the woman, smiling. “Can you crack these? Pretty please? Topped with cream and cherries.” Bunny glanced at the woman, who merely tapped her bottom lip before nodding. As she stood and approached, her dress hugged her hips as if never wanting to let go. Bunny certainly understood the desire. He cursed his weak body.

“Perhaps,” she said. Her words swayed with the smoky lull favored by the higher-class escorts of Blinst, though they had found her in Totem. Her words filled Bunny’s mind with inappropriate thoughts, as they usually did. From the way Kev shifted on the ground, the mancer was not alone. She moved the chests, so she could sit atop one as she worked on the other. Most of her picks and tools were disguised as combs and barrettes, and as she slid a rake free, a lock of hair escaped, dangling between her breasts. Bunny tried and failed to look away. “I cannot open this one,” Aspen said. “Not until we’ve returned to civilization proper. It’s quite complex.”

Suddenly Bunny felt a manzic resonance from the box. “What the …” he whispered. As usual, no one paid any attention to him. He opened his satchel and removed his journal. Documentation was ever important.

Kev, standing beside Aspen, licked his lips. “So this one is probably not filled with garters and corsets, right?” He waggled fingers optimistically.

“I highly doubt it.” She glanced up and down Kev’s riding leathers and sniffed. When she shifted to the other chest, smaller but wider, she crossed her legs, exposing a slim ankle, a golden anklet that reflected the dying light of the afternoon.

Bunny’s eyes were drawn to the twinkling, to that revelation of pale ankle, but Kev’s stayed locked on the chest. “Perhaps it’s the gold bonds?” the mancer suggested. Not gold crowns, as Flint had said multiple times before the heist. On the train, Flint suddenly said they were full of gold bonds-not bars. At least one of those chests had been filled with neither. But on the train, there had been time for neither debate nor clarification. Two thrusts and a jiggle later, the click of the lock brought Kev’s and Bunny’s attention back to the present. The two crowded close as Aspen slowly raised the wooden lid. Marla simply crooked an eyebrow.

Inside the chest lay neatly folded clothes and a pair of expensive children’s boots. “Would you … just … for the love of little baby Jesus … look at that?” Kev muttered, kicking over the chest, spilling its folded contents in the dust. A pair of knitted socks bounded over the cliff, spinning like a whirligig. “Two chests filled with worthless shit, and one we can’t open. And not a shiny gold note or coin to be found. Gold … notes.” Kev became quiet, his hands dropped to his sides, and he looked up at the aerotrain’s plume, now crooked. “You know, I … I … I’m beginning to suspect Flint was not upfront with us.” As the grin melted off Kev’s face, the mancer slowly edged away from quiet Kev. In the last two months, Bunny had never seen Quiet Kev. He was a bit scary.

“I’m sure ...” From the dual scowls Bunny received, he knew he should have kept his mouth shut. Then Kev pulled out his revolver, a .44-40, and aimed at the chest.

“Kev, no!” Bunny had no idea what that kind of jolt might do to the chest. It might have had some kind of protection spell. “Let’s think about this. If the plan was to steal just this one, why keep it a secret?” Bunny said. “The only way that makes sense is that we’d object to its theft.”

Kev nodded vehemently and pulled the trigger and everyone covered themselves, save Kev. His grin returned. Of course nothing happened-they had no bullets.

Kev kicked a rock at the chest. “But we’re thieves. What ain’t we gonna steal? What the hell’s in there?” he whispered, as if his thoughts had leaked out.

“So the question remains,” said Marla, roused by the argument. “What’s the plan?” She aimed the question directly between Kev and Aspen. Let them fight over who gets to answer it, her face seemed to say.

In silence, Bunny stared at the locked chest. Inside was supposed to be heaps of gold crowns. His cut, even of this third, would have been enough. But the mancer had a niggling suspicion that whatever waited inside that box was not gold, neither crowns nor notes, and he let out a long sigh. Why did he let Flint talk him into this? Who was he kidding? The man had played him like a Jew harp. “I should have stayed in school,” he muttered.

As if guffawing at their luck, thunder erupted overhead and droplets of rain began spattered atop them. Kev cursed, Aspen pulled a bonnet from her bag. Bunny squealed and shoved his journal back inside his leather satchel. Marla sat quietly as drops of rain spattered off her wide, felt hat, and the sky continued to laugh.

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