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.
“This doesn’t look so good,” Shyan says, peering into the dark.
“Well of course not,” the flutist replies. “Can’t have the foyer visible from the street. Look at the type of element this place attracts.” By her words, she’s speaking of the peasants, but by her tone and look, she means the gang themselves.
Rufus, scowl on his face, strides into the dark. The gang follows, and moves through the blackness like a rubber gasket or burial shroud: once they’ve moved through it, everything is different. Elaborate filigree sprawls across the walls, golden sconces hold roaring torches, and the floor tiles are cut of burnished silver.
Cang subtly gestures at the tiles to bring them to Abia’s attention. “Let us steal a few of these and be done with it,” he says.
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.”