Cang holds his palm expectantly aloft until the butler places the sack of coins into it. The gang callously tosses the necklace to the butler, who wastes not a single motion in gracefully snatching it out of the air.
Cang weighs the coins in his hand. “This feels fair, if not precisely generous,” he says.
“I am generous only with those in my employ. Isn’t that right, Abianarin?” rasps the dragon.
Abia’s demeanour remains calm, almost as though she didn’t hear the question.
“Well my mouth’s getting awfully dry,” Fassn announces. “If we can’t have those shiny metals I say we go for a shiny brew.”
Shyan makes an awkward half-bow to the dragon. “Uh, thanks for this,” she says.
“I shall have work when you return,” purrs the dragon as the butler shows the gang out.
In the vast chamber, with the massive dragon draped across its imperious golden throne, the gang appears insignificant, small, powerless. Doubtless that’s how the view looks from the long, scaled head with burnt lips and jagged fangs, staring down at them — at Abianarin, the one who left.
She stares right back at the dragon, her mouth turned up with the faintest hint of a smile, as though she enjoys the heat, the intensity, the focus. Fassn’s had time to do a double-take, taking in their staring contest. He even waves his hand in front of Abia’s face, but she’s gracious enough not to be annoyed. “I will not work for you again,” she says.
“Such certainty,” rasps the dragon. “Are you not here as a contractor of sorts? Selling a necklace to a rich old man so you can buy your dinner?”
“I am free to leave,” she says.
“So you are,” the dragon says, turning its chin up in a haughty expression.
Another stony silence drags on until Fassn’s belly rumbles.
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.
“He’s never gonna know who we are,” Fassn says, holding aloft a chunk of apple in his palm. The flowing sphere buzzes by, nearly alighting upon it as a honeybee, but it keeps circling.
“This is true, Shyan,” says Cang. “We could walk right out of this city with our pockets full and nails trimmed, with Montague none the wiser.”
“You expect to just wander out of town once we get paid? Your purse full of coin, and you’ll pass a tavern by without spending a penny?”
Fassn looks quite nervous at the prospect.
Cang shrugs, caught. “It is no wonder you are our fearless leader, brave and true,” he says. “I shall indeed enjoy a tipple once all this business is concluded.”
With that, the sun dips below the horizon. The river’s now just a black streak through the city. The gang packs their meagre belongings and heads for the tavern to meet the musicians.
“Well, the alternative is you could have nothing at all,” Cang says. He gestures at the empty space. “Your establishment is scarcely crawling with customers.”
Monsieur Montague, looking peeved, replies, “It’s early yet, sir,” but his eyes still track the gentle sway of the heavy necklace in Shyan’s hand.
“Your lust for gold is completely understandable,” Cang says. “Personally, I would rather bathe in a stream than surrender one fifth of the value of this magnificent object.” He sighs. “But a warm bath would itself be a treasure.”
“A treasure, yes,” Montague agrees, drawling lazily, eyes still on the gold. He seems to come to after a moment and straightens his spine. “Very well, friends! Who’s first?”
Monsieur Montague reaches out to grab the necklace and Shyan notices his exceptionally well-manicured fingernails before yanking it away from his grasp. “We’re not trading this whole thing for a bath,” she says.
“Yeah, we want wine, too!” Fassn says.
“Ignore him,” Shyan continues. “We need to look for good our meeting with a buyer. You get us prepped, we sell the necklace, you get a cut. Sound fair?”
Montague strokes his moustache, lets out a long “hmm” as he ponders. “But baths are not free, friends. Grooming isn’t free! How can I give away my livelihood on the word of such—” here he catches himself before being too rude, and says, “—such an offer?”