The final meeting.
In the southern reaches of Gardena, where the grass is less lush and green than elsewhere in the realm and the wind rarely blows to cool down the many hot days, stands the spired city of Luchelle. The closest settlement to the border of Simsillia, a land of vibrant villages and strong hearted chiefs, Luchelle is not a place for a quiet life and easy retirement. It is bustling, wild, and more than a little dangerous.
Rich from trade, its walls are tall and proud, and its governor’s palace golden gates are said to shine as bright as a gemstone. Its markets never seem to close, as all day and well into the night crowds of shoppers flow through the wide main streets, buying and selling anything one can think of. Poets, players and all kinds of artistic minds come here to find patronage, and many fall into good fortune. The Maxeme theatre is famous throughout the known world, and gilded galleries display and sell art from the finest talents.
The grand arena is also renowned, hosting all types of martial events from horse races to brawls between prize fighters. Thousands risk their hard earned coin in bets every week, and with it comes either fortune or despair. The city’s fountain district, with its charming streams leading to the titular landmark, with its proud statue of the historical founder of the city, fair Luchelle herself, standing tall in front of the city’s hall of justice, is known for its many fine restaurants. Those who truly prosper in this city make their homes in the northern quarter, with fine townhouses hugging the walls.
Yet for all the outward wealth, there is no lack of vice and poverty if you know where to look. To the city’s southern quarter lies the Raggere district, where those who undertake the hard labour in the mines and factories dotted around the city’s outer limits live. Their families do their best to get by with what paltry wages their hard working mothers and fathers bring home. Even so, food is never plentiful, and when times are truly hard it awful to see the faces of half-starved children as they wander the filthy alleyways, far too hungry to play.
However, few can resist the temptations of the district due west of the Raggere, even if their wages are stretched to breaking point. Acheirone district, known by all as “the Ache”, is home to whorehouses, gambling halls, rowdy inns (where to order food is to place your life in your hands), and any of the other distractions without the gloss and glamour of other parts of the city. Here, the poets are the beggars, trading paltry song for stale bread. Artists and players cater to those who lust for the satisfaction of the flesh rather than the soul, with erotic drawings being traded for coin, and play’s which are short on plot, but high on fair men and women in minimal costume, for which one can become better acquainted with after curtain call, for the right price.
The residents of this quarter are few, and rarely would they be found taking jobs that fell within any kind of law that Gardena had established. The criminal gangs of the Ache have long made this place their undisputed home, with the governor’s guards avoiding it like the plague. Anyone who breaks the unwritten rules of the ache is dealt with by the toughs that enforce the law laid down by their paymasters. Miserable for being on duty rather than being drunk, they show no pity for those they deal with, and the punishments are left entirely up to their discretion, with often brutal results.
The Ache is a place for sinners, lost souls, and those who want to forget and not be noticed. This is what makes it the perfect place for the man who now sat in the corner of the inn/brothel known as “The pink lace”.
Faultner Varmus remembered when he was a better man, one who he could look in the looking glass every morning. He had once been a soldier, of Gardena’s proud army. A member of the elite scouts, who went ahead of the army with naught but bows and daggers, he had distinguished himself as a deadly archer, an excellent tracker who could move silently in any terrain, and as a god man, who always looked out for his comrades. He had saved countless lives due to his skills, and without the intelligence he had gathered from the enemy, the battle of Waveway may have been lost. For this they gave him honours, and raised his pay.
But honours and gold cannot make one stand the sight of a supply column, in which women and children had travelled with the wagons, being burnt to nothingness by a crazed teenager wearing a collar. No sense of duty could make the smell of burnt flesh not linger in the air, carried by the wind straight to him, making him practically taste it. The memory of glory cannot blot out the memory of all the death he had caused, all the innocents slaughtered because of what he had been made to do.
But what made him grip his mug tightly, as if to shatter it with his own hands, was that no amount of cheap ale could dull the hatred that filled his heart. That hatred was tied to one, truly terrible memory. One of screams heard as his heart pounded in his chest, running in vain to stop what was happening. Of smoke in his lungs, heat scorching him as he broke down the door. Of lifeless eyes staring at him, as if asking him “Why?”
Of that memory, what most endured was a face. The face of one whom all but he still called a hero, now in his mind wearing the mask of a monster, of the type who should never be known in this world.
“Steffanes…” Faultner angrily whispered the name under his breath, his grip on the mug loosening. He never regretted his desertion from the army as long as he remembered that name. He was glad to be hated, to be forced to become a criminal to get by. It was “good” people, after all, who laid honours on men like Steffanes Ingriade. He didn’t even care that the man he knew the true nature of now had the cushy job of Guard captain of Elleden tower, minding after clumsy young prodigies who might throw an errant fireball here and there. His chance to let all of Gardena know the truth had come and gone, none would believe him now. Besides, he was no child, who believed in the slightest that there was any true justice in the world.
No, all that counted was money, and that’s why he was here tonight, twiddling his thumbs as he waited for those who would be his partners in what promised to be a most profitable venture for all of them, provided everyone kept their heads. This was to be his most challenging task in his fledgling criminal career, but yet it did not fill him with any kind of fear. Disgraced or not, a Gardenan scout does not scare easily.
Over the din of the crowded room, Faultner heard the dim chime of the Charity bell, which came from the clock tower of the hall of stars at the centre of the ache. The chimes told him the hour was eleven, which meant one thing. He was either early, or all the others where late.
Cursing under his breath, Faultner looked about the room, straining his eyes for a glimpse of someone he recognized. Alas, all he could see where the same tables filled to breaking with drunks, some in large groups, some in pairs, pawing over each other in view of the common crowd while waiting for one of the private rooms to open up. The odour of ale, sweat and all manner of things associated with your common ache establishment began to irritate him now, as it reminded him of all the fun he could be having. Instead, Faultner was waiting, and if he were made to wait much longer he’d go home, money be damned.
His thoughts were sharply interrupted by the touch of a large, firm hand upon his shoulder. He turned his head around quickly, looking up at the hands owner. He was reassured when he saw the face of Glarren Khartovic, the brawn of their temporary group of associates. With a height and set of muscles that justified his reputation as a terrifying giant, Glarren, a former mineworker, was of rough, tanned complexion, his face bearing the mark of a fist or two. Bald, with no beard to speak of, he was not a man one said no to if one valued their life, especially when they caught a glimpse of the great broadsword strapped to his back.
“Your late”, Said Faultner, without trying to hide his annoyance. He’d dealt with brutes like Glarren before, who relied too much on looking scary to win an argument. Glarren knew that Faultner wasn’t the least bit scared of him, so he simply nodded.
Turning his head back to the table, Faultner could see that the other two members of their group had sat down at the table, mugs in front of both of them. Brill, a born native of the Ache, had brought the party together. With a handsome face that suggested a more homely background than a life as a cutpurse, Brill was fair haired, with the keen eyes of a man who always looked for his next score. Despite lacking bulk, he was no slouch in a fight, and Faultner had seen first-hand the things Brill could do with the short sword at his hip.
Beside him sat Tisza, who Brill referred to as their “Ace in the hole”. A raven haired young woman, who had come to Luchelle from Nikralka, she was not known for being talkative. Her soft features meant she was often pawed at upon her arrival in the ache, but a quick dagger in the ribs of one man had made any sensible pleasure seeker know to look elsewhere for their satisfaction. Brill had talked a great deal about her unique talents, but Tisza seemed not too interested in what people thought of her. In fact, she rarely looked interested in anything, even now looking idly away from the group, chin resting in her hand, a faraway expression in her lilac eyes.
Glarren sat beside Faultner, his mass taking up considerable space on the bench. Now that the group was here, business could finally begin. Brill reached into his cloak, and produced two rolled up sheets of parchment.
“Apologies for the delay, Faultner my good man” said Brill, with his typical laidback manner. “Something came up; or rather a few things came up, if you catch my meaning.”
Tisza seemed to tsk at that, at which Brill’s looks turned sheepish. Brill could resist anything it seemed, except temptation. Faultner supposed it had been Tisza who had had to drag him to this meeting, from where He could only guess.
“We don’t need to do small talk tonight Brill, we all know why we’re here” Faultner said bluntly. “You’ve got the maps, I assume, unless those things are just for show?”
Brill undid the binding on the two sheets, and swiftly laid them out on the table. Sure enough, they were the promised maps of the Ismail family bank. The first was of the main area, the public concourse, staff office, and so on. The second, and most vital, was one of the inner workings of the bank, the basement, and of course, the great vault.
“Now then”, said Brill, his tone becoming more business-like, his finger pointing downward at the maps. “This is the last time we will go over this plan. I’m sure you all don’t really need reminding, but for the sake of my nerves, we’ll have one final look before tomorrow.”
“Well get on with it then Brill, I’m getting bored here” Glarren growled. He was not a patient man, as Brill had found out to his cost.
“Of course, you’re quite right Glarren. We want to take every bit of coin in this bank, and that means what they’ve got behind the front desk as well as what’s in the vault. We meet up in the alley behind The Hall of Stars at the ten o’ clock bell. From there we head towards the bankers quarter, keeping to the back streets. It should take us about an hour to get to the square outside the bank.”
“From there”, Brill continued, pointing to different parts of the map as he spoke, “We split up.” Glarren, you and me barge in through the front door and cause as big a scene as we can. With the help of Cropland, my man on the inside, who’ll be taking a small cut, we’ll bar the front door, making sure no one gets in or out. From there we give everyone inside a big scare, especially the clerks. If their smart, they’ll give us the money, no arguments needed. ”
“Meanwhile, Faultner, you go with Tisza. Head straight for the manhole we marked out, and get down it quick. From there, it’s a short crawl to the sewer entrance to the bank’s lower level. Tisza will know what to do once you reach it. Once you’re in, head straight for the vault. Glarren and I should have everyone’s attention upstairs, but if anyone is down there, kill them.”
“When you get to the vault, Tisza will do what she does best. Faultner, she’ll need all her concentration to get the vault open, so you keep a look-out. Once she’s done, you blow your whistle. We should hear that from upstairs, and by then we’ll have got the money we want. We’ll run down, and all five of us will bag up everything in there. Once that’s done, we head back upstairs, and take the bars of the door. By then, my man Wude should be outside with the cart.”
“If all’s gone as it should, then the guards won’t catch on to what’s happening until we’ve got the cart loaded up and we’re well clear. We head to the graveyard, and there we toss the loot into the open pit, and cover it up. We head back to the ache separately, and spend the night in different places. In the morning, we all head back to the graveyard, all of us with our own way to carry a load. We split everything five ways evenly as can be, and do what we all want from there.”
At that, Brill leaned back, taking a deep breath as he finished outlining his plan. He was very proud of it; after all it had taken two months for him to work out every detail. From acquiring maps to getting the personnel he needed to carry out the job, he had poured all of his effort into what he had called his “Master-Stroke.” Now that the fated day was upon him, he seemed to be more susceptible to signs of nervousness, much more than had ever been seen of him before.
“This is your last chance to back out, or ask any questions my friends. From here, there is no turning back and no getting cold feet before we’ve got the money.”
“This Cropland,” asked Faultner, “You’re sure we can count on him? He is a guard at the bank, after all.”
Brill gave a sardonic smile. “He is, but being made to work the nightshift on his wedding anniversary has rather soured his professional ethics. He’s got his eye on buying a farm in the heartlands and moving his family there, so he’s as up for this as any of us.”
“Just how much is gonna be down there”, demanded Glarren, his eyes narrowing at Brill.
“It’ll be about fifty thousand Garand’s worth, give or take. If a large deposit has come through in the last two days, it’ll likely be more, but we’ll have more than enough room on the cart. If there’s any paintings or sculptures in there, leave them. You know as well as I do that no fence in the ache will give you any kind of fair price.”
Brill turned to Tisza, as if to ask her if she had any questions, but she ignored him. Clearly she needed no further reassurances about what they were doing, and was finding all of this fairly tedious.
With a look of satisfaction, Brill addressed the whole group, rasing his mug. “If all that is settled, may I propose a toast, to-“
“We’re not doing any toasts” Faultner interrupted firmly, getting the whole tables attention. “No toasts, no oaths, no promises, and no rousing words. We aren’t friends, what we’re doing isn’t noble or grand, and we won’t be telling any jolly tales afterward. This is a job where we all need to stay focused on what we each need to do. After it’s done, I have no plans to see any of your faces again, and that doesn’t make me the least bit sad. “
At that, Brill’s face again became grave. Getting up from his bench, he said softly “Well that’s all. See you tomorrow.”
Brill promptly left, heading for the front door. Glarren followed behind him, pushing people aside as he passed. Tisza did not go with them, instead heading towards the bar, Faultner soon losing sight of her as she melted into the crowd.
Faultner stayed where he was for a moment, thinking over what he had just said. It was harsh on Brill, whom Faultner really had nothing against, but he had meant every word he had said. He hated The Ache, more than he ever thought he could hate a place. Poor circumstances kept him here, and with this job he saw his ticket out. He would get to Nikralka, and from there buy a ship. He could do well as a merchant, and may even find some far off island to settle on. As long as he was in Gardena, he knew he had no chance of forgetting all he had seen, and all he had done.
He finished of his ale, and headed towards the door, refusing the tempting offers he got along the way. Once out into the street, he took a moment to look up into the sky.
The moon was shining, and the night wind blew cold. Wrapping his cloak tight around him, he sighed. Were you able to simply throw memories away, like bones from food? Or did they have to stay with you, no matter what you did?
Banishing this idle philosophy from his mind, Faultner started for his home, hoping to get a decent night’s sleep before tomorrow, when his fortune would take a truly drastic turn.