The throne at the room’s far wall is massive, built of fused gold, threaded with silver, studded with diamonds, rubies, sapphires. Fassn’s eyes nearly bug out of his skull as he takes in the display of wealth, while even Cang’s mouth drops involuntarily open. Heavy black shadows press in from all corners, kept flickeringly at bay by guttering torches in ornate sconces. The heat in the chamber is enough that sweat beads at the gang’s brows as they take in the oppressive throne.
The throne itself, though, is unoccupied.
“Hey we had a deal,” Shyan calls out, though no one is apparently around to here. “Mr. Dragon? We’ve got gold, stolen from royalty! Your musicians said you wanted to buy it.”
A wave of brutal heat suddenly washes over the gang, kicking up a hot wind that throws them each into disarray. Something enormous moves in the shadows.
At the head of an ostentatious flight of stairs stands a massive set of double doors, crafted of fine, ancient oak, with filigree of silver veined throughout. Both Rivera and Rufus stop before it, turn to face the gang.
“Boss is through here,” says Rufus.
“You’re not coming with us?” Shyan asks.
Rivera shakes her head. “Boss likes to talk to clients alone.”
“What do you think, Abia?” asks Shyan.
“This is true,” she says, her tone suggesting no elaboration. The floating, glowing sphere takes a couple of turns around her head.
The musicians throw open the double doors. Within, an enormous throne room, and a thick, wet, unbearable heat.
“Good luck,” says Rivera, closing the door behind her.
“The boss is exacting,” Abia says. “But he loves gold.”
The attendant observes from his vantage point atop his long nose. “This one has sense, at least,” he says. “But, alas, the boss is not receiving visitors right now.”
“Right,” says Rivera, rolling her eyes. “Don’t mind him,” she tells the gang. “He’s just lazy. He’ll say whatever it takes to get rid of us.”
“A most scurrilous accusation,” says the attendant, entirely unphased. “Truly, the boss is absent, on a walkabout, of sorts.”
Shyan gives Abia a questioning look. Abia replies with a look that says “don’t worry.” Sure enough, Rivera and Rufus push past the attendant and ascend an ornate staircase. The gang wastes no time in following, leaving the attendant blinking calmly in the foyer.
Abia shakes her head, a gentle motion that suggests a firm “no.” “Boss will know,” she says.
“Quiet down back there,” says the flutist. “Show a little respect.”
Cang gives her a grievous look, but says no more.
An attendant in a crisp waistcoat descends a set of wide, mahogany steps, and stares down at the gang past his long, crooked nose. “Rivera, why have you brought such filth into master’s home?”
Rivera, the flutist, draws herself up. “Getting some gold, all right? They brought something nice the boss is gonna want.” She gestures at Cang, who’s holding the necklace.
“Their clothes are filthy.”
“We took a bath, all right?” Shyan says. “Look, even cut my hair. What more could your boss possibly want? He either likes gold or he doesn’t, forget about hygiene.”
A small smile creeps onto Abia’s lips.
The gang follows the musicians from the tavern out into a dark alleyway clustered with sailors who stared, taciturn, at the group’s passing. Rufus, the drummer, suddenly stops short at a rude wooden door and Fassn bumps into him. “Your hair smells good,” he says. Rufus gives him a scowl in return.
The door’s quite like any other in this ramshackle neighbourhood. “Will the boss of these filthy musicians really live in such squalor?” Cang asks Shyan, none too subtly.
The musicians choose to ignore him. The flutist raps gently on the door, speaks in a soft voice, and from within, the door opens, revealing only darkness within.
“Wow, what’s he like?” Fassn asks, bouncing slightly in his chair. “Gimme this, gimme that?”
Abia appears uncomfortable at the question, and the flutist steps in. “Sure, he makes demands, but he pays well for the privilege,” she says, flashing a bejeweled finger.
“Then why are you playing the flute in a grungy tavern?” Shyan asks.
“Hey, this is my brother’s tavern,” says Rufus, scowling. “And anyway, it’s fun,” he adds, with a defensive note in his voice.
“Look, it doesn’t matter,” says the flutist. “We have an appointment with your old boss.” She stands. “You coming?”
Abia is first to rise behind her. The others follow out into the city night.
Shyan’s eyebrows go up. “You recognize the name?” she asks.
Glumly, Abia nods, a single inclination of her head. “A pitiless beast,” she says.
“Hey, watch it,” says Rufus. “That’s our boss you’re talking about.”
“Yes,” Abia says sadly. “He was once my boss, too.”