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 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.”
The gang’s eyes go wide at the mention of a dragon. Abia is first to speak. “Which dragon?” she asks.
The drummer frowns. “Our damn client, the boss.”
“The dragon must have a name,” she says calmly.
“Yeah, maybe,” the drummer snaps. “You don’t need to know it.”
“Why so rude, Rufus?” asks the flutist of her companion. “‘Tis a perfectly reasonable question.”
Rufus grumbles. “I don’t like these ones.”
“Luckily, you don’t need to,” the flutist replies. To Abia, she says, “Our boss’s name is Xoxxithraxix,” her voice grating and harsh as though she’s swallowing rocks.
Shyan, Fassn, and Cang turn to gauge Abia’s reaction. She replies with a single word: “Shit.”
“‘Course we have,” Shyan says. “Not like we’d trade this for a bath and a haircut,” she adds, showing off a glimpse of the precious metal.
The musicians take in the gang’s collective appearance. They do appear groomed, with scrubbed faces and short, trimmed hair. “You actually don’t clean up so badly,” says the flutist, who wears a stylish doublet and feathered cap.
“Too true, now can we meet your client already?” Shyan asks. “We’d like to get paid, and, you know, eat something.”
“Something besides apples,” Fassn says, one finger in his mouth. He flicks a seed from his teeth.
The drummer abruptly slams his fist on the table. “None of that,” he says in a growling voice, holding Fassn’s startled gaze. “Not in front of the dragon.”
The tavern is already bustling by the time the gang arrives. Low, golden sunlight filters through the grimy windows and gives the assembled commoners a burnt, fiery look. The gang steps inside, standing two abreast, and seeks out the musicians.
They’re at a small, rude table in the back: the stage is empty for now. When he spots them, Fassn gives a wide grin and expansive wave. The drummer, his beard even more wild than the night before, gives his partner, the slender flutist, a look of dissatisfaction. Cang gives Fassn the very same look.
Shyan leads the way over, conspicuously scanning the room, ignoring any free tables she sees, until the gang arrives at the musicians’ table.
“Got the gold?” asks the drummer.