Chapter Seven: The Baker's Cabal
It is good that busybodies are not, as a general rule, early risers, and only the street sweepers and lamp-lighters witnessed the crowd gathering at the bakery that dark morning. Though the ovens were normally lit well before sunrise, and the baker was known to increase his staff for special occasions, this throng had four times the hands necessary to light the oven, flour the tables, and mix bread and wedding cakes. Moreover, the first flurries of winter faded touching the street, and it might have seemed suspicious that all wore long cloaks topped with closed cowls.
When Jeptero—a stout man with a wide middle, brawny chest, and bushy blonde hair, beard, and eyebrows—unlocked the bakery, his staff lit the oven and mixed sweet-smelling batter, while the rest filled the back room. Jeptero followed them, closed the door, then sat down in the last chair, his back facing the door. It did not instill confidence that the rest avoided that seat, in favor of one from where they could watch the door. On the table, rings of steam condensed under two stoppered clay jugs and a bottle of cream, next to which was a small sack of sugar.
"Thank you for coming," said Jeptero. "And thank Haran for the coffee. We'll have sweetcake and hot, fresh bread shortly." He then poured a coffee, followed by a slug of cream and five spoons of sugar, sweetening even the aroma of the bitter coffee.
"We remember the other night," said Perida. "Get on with it." The blind curio dealer wore a black velvet dress embroidered with white roses; it was an antique style the baker only knew from books. When Jeptero filled her cup with coffee, sugar, and sweet cream, and she nodded, it was more than thanks, but another prod to get on with it. Though he respected the elderly merchant, and trusted her advice, it irked him that she was impatient to bring the others on board. When he helped her walk down the street that morning, he shared his thoughts for dealing with Andercruik, and she soon spun it into a scheme.
"Then our only order of business," continued Jeptero, "is Lord Andercruik, who overstepped in ransoming us for our own hard-earned coin."
"He's an arrogant, dishonorable murderer," said Orden the carpenter. "I say poison—he'll never see it coming." When he leaned forward and struck the table, his scowl plunged his black eyebrows, thick sideburns, and steep, chin-scraping mustache. Usually Orden's tiny black pupils made him look far away in discussions, but today their beadiness seemed piercing.
"And who will put it in his cup?" asked Haran. Though the coffee importer was the tallest by several inches, his distinguishing characteristics were hands stained progressive shades of black, from the cocoa-black of his fingertips to the charcoal-color ingrained in his palms.
"What can the likes of us do to the likes of him?" said Micheren the tanner. "Compared to him, we're men of modest means, and on top of that, he gouged us deep."
Arami said, "not only is there strength in numbers, but if we pool our resources, our pockets are as deep as his." The bookbinder's black eyebrows and mustache were so thin they looked penciled in.
"You forget his army," said Micheren. "What should we do? Hire mercenaries? Groom pet monsters, as he's rumored to do? Hire a wizard? We'll never catch a man like him alone, without a dozen of his hired help at hand."
Their debate continued until a knock announced the most anticipated guests, when the baker's huskiest apprentice backed through the door with a wooden tray bearing three loaves end to end, each suckled by a half-dozen pastries shaped and finished with pink icing to resemble piglets. Butter's savory aroma, mixed with the fragrance of cinnamon sugar, escaped the cracked, sliced crusts. Small crocks of extra butter and cinnamon icing sat in either end of the tray.
"I'm only here for the pigs," chuckled Marcura the greengrocer, a freckled, red-haired woman in her early fifties. When she winked at Caldur, his apprentice—an ugly boy half her age, with a tremendous nose and a light brown wisp of a beard—Jeptero shuddered, and blocked the thought from his mind, though when the boy left the room, the baker couldn't keep his eyes from scouring the greengrocer. If she ever had any appeal, she misplaced it. Though it wasn't his business to interfere, he would advise his ugly apprentice to learn his place and what was good for him.
When Jeptero dipped a pastry in his coffee and took a bite, currant jelly burst from the pig's belly, and his lips and tongue tingled from warm, spicy cinnamon. Though it was delicious, the baker could not smile. They were his finest ingredients. While Caldur had outdone himself at a speed rivaling that of his master, he had clearly not cut corners in crafting such delicious pastries. Though Jeptero did not want an easy-going reputation, he might commend his chief apprentice off-handedly, while charging him cost and mentioning that he should have used the unsold sweetcakes.
Soon the piglets were eaten, leaving their bread mothers sticky on the sides, then those disappeared slice by slice. When they were finished, the tray was crumbs, the jugs and bottle were dry, and the crocks were spooned empty by the merchants' fingers. All that remained was the folded-in bag of sugar.
"Good bread, Jep," said Orden
"The best in town," said Secely.
"Only the gods know if Jeptero is good," agreed Arami, "but our bellies know his bread is sweet."
Jeptero smiled, "I appreciate both a good jest and many compliments. But do we all agree Andercruik must die, if not directly by our hand?"
"Ha ha!" laughed Arami. "Our path is clear. We'll pray him to death."
"We'll pay for his death," countered Jeptero. "An assassin has offered his services, and though it is more than I can afford, I checked his references, thinking we all had a stake in Andercruik's fate. The Viscount of Alderdeep used this hired killer to consolidate the trade vote on peppercorn."
"I remember that vote," said Secely the miller. "Though no one expected him to lead the vote, the favored representative disappeared." Secely was so blonde she was nearly white haired, though only a few years north of thirty. Though petite—still, an inch taller than Micheren—the miller spoke so rarely and with such authority that the baker had come to see her as a weather vane for forecasting the group's opinion.
"Closer to home, this assassin gave Madame Telaa a monopoly."
"Didn't Madame Irga die in her sleep?" said Arami. "Truly, in this age it is deadly not to befriend one's rivals."
"Hence the need for our cabal."
"A baker's cabal," snickered Trebulien. "Who is this hired killer? Who's to say he won't keep his fee, then murder us to protect his reputation?" The banker's thin, hawkish face was topped by a steeply receding hairline framed by thin, straggly grays.
"Though I hope never to know his name or face, he goes by Nine Tails. Our intermediary is Elgar, a deal-maker for assassins."
"How much does this death broker charge?" asked Micheren.
"Three hundred thousand," said Jeptero. When there wasn't even a shudder on the merchants' faces, only scowls of displeasure, the baker knew the battle was half-over. In their hearts, they had already agreed to murder the wicked lord, and now it was only a matter of haranguing him over the fee.
"At that price," sneered Trebulien, "We could import an elephant to trample Lord Andercruik."
"Or drop a castle on him!" exclaimed Orden. "What's your mark-up, Jeptero?" While this was a sensible question that Jeptero might have asked--it took great restraint not to adjust the assassin's fee--it was received with indignation by the cabal. When the merchants shouted over the carpenter to shut up, the baker noted that Trebulien sat with legs crossed, arms folded, and a smug smile.
"We already paid the mark-up, Orden," said Jeptero, "and we'll pay it with interest if we're not careful. Andercruik divested us of three times that much, and you're a fool to think he won't extort such easy marks again and again. Is three hundred thousand not a bargain to be rid of him?"
"Normally," said Arami, "I'd say 'the devil you know,' but in this instance, no devil we don't know can be as bad as this one. I'm in, but I might need time. I'll want a buyer for my Draconius Codex, as I haven't that much cash."
"Done," said the baker. "Speaking of devils, you're a sly one to bring up the Codex, when you know I've wanted it. I'll take two of the eight stakes, and your Draconius Codex, Arami."
"It's worth more than thirty seven thousand," said the bookbinder, "but I'll agree with a provision that we hammer out our deal later."
"I'm in," said Secely. The miller's quick agreement was unsurprising to the baker, as though she was the only one there not in love with their own voice, she knew her mind quicker, and usually cast her vote first. That Arami beat her to the vote signified only his opportunism in making a sale even as they pooled resources to buy a death.
When Orden followed her--not with words but a faltering hand wave--the baker was surprised, for despite the carpenter's rage at being dressed down and fleeced by Lord Andercruik, Orden was a coward who had to be talked into everything. Though the vote had to be unanimous, Jeptero smiled inwardly, for one more vote would give them the majority.
When Micheren said "I am not convinced," everyone at table—except Trebulien the banker—groaned, for haggling was the tanner's way of life. Though he was no coward, he expected a favorable share, and could only be bought into a deal at a smaller cost or larger profit than his partners.
Perida retorted, "are you uncertain about being Andercruik's victim or his fool?"
Arami snickered. "As usual, he wants his hand held during a deal, but only if you're palming coin."
"How will this profit me? How will this profit any of us?" said the tanner. "We should appeal to the king."
"King Algus never lined my pocket," said Perida. "Nor has he stood guard over my shop."
"What would we say?" said Arami. "'Your lord, who fields eight hundred soldiers, is a bandit or a traitor?'"
"Exactly," said Micheren.
"Despite that shocking tale, if you arrive empty-handed, he will not risk civil war to shame one of his chief cronies."
"You're saying our only options are to kill a lord or bribe a king."
"Though I meant proof in hand, not coin in hand, it is rumored the king is not immune to graft, though that kingly fleecing will run you more than thirty-seven thousand coin."
"You mean thirty-seven thousand five hundred," said the tanner with a pained voice, as if he had long suppressed that correction. "And the alternatives are not equally grim," said the tanner. "A failed bribe might embarrass me, but a failed assassination of a known murderer will lead to our deaths."
"That's a dishonest and unfair assessment of Lord Andercruik," said Arami, "who is also a mutilator of corpses and extortioner, that for the sake of a joke, might use our heads as a table setting, as he did to Ozamu."
"Or throw a party to rob us, as he did," said Perida. "Unless you pocketed the head, Micheren, you can't go to the king. Our money will say what is right."
Micheren sputtered, stood, and circled the table. After pulling up his cowl and tying the top knots of his cloak, he put one hand on the door, then abruptly turned to lean on the table, still red faced and speechless. When he nodded, he sighed, as if relieving his pent-up rage. "Don't call it right. Nor call it the lesser of two evils, as what we do now is worse than anything we'll ever do."
"Call it the most profitable of two evils, then," said Jeptero, "or let it remain nameless, as we'll never call it anything once it's done."
Though Marcura and Haran voted the way the wind was blowing, the banker abstained. Instead of casting his vote, Trebulien smiled wryly, drew his cloak tight, turned at the door as if about to say something, then simply shrugged and exited.
After an enormous smack and a gurgling groan, the husky apprentice stuck his head in and bawled, "Jep...I mean s-sir, when I h-hit his head with the cutting stone, they cracked to p-p-pieces. You said hit who left before you did. I didn't mean to kill him." The snuffling of Caldur's enormous nose grated like a saw blade.
"I did," said Jeptero. "Pull him in the stockroom." The baker could not help but be reminded of the piglets' cinnamon jelly when the banker's exploded head trailed blood into the stockroom. He supposed he could pay for the pastries, and maybe a bonus, though he didn't want to be hasty.
"Jeptero, what did you do?" said Orden.
"You almost killed me!" shouted Micheren. "And you've made us accessories to a murder!"
"Two murders, Micheren, though one will be accomplished later. But you're not accomplices," said Jeptero. "as there is no conspiracy. I not only take responsibility for Trebulien, who could not be allowed to leave in disagreement, but once the fee is collected, I will pay Elgar. If discovered, we need not suffer as a group for acting as one."
"It's a good thing I didn't step out for fresh air," said .
"Now we'll all breathe and sleep easier. Everyone—bring your coin tomorrow."