“There appear to be no obvious discrepancies,” Cang announces, after tallying their takings according to several nations’ standard accountancy procedures. The coins are now gathered into four equal piles, one for each member of the gang. The little glowing sphere races around and between the neat stacks, turning and twirling.
“What about the barber?” asks Shyan.
“His mistake,” Cang says, “was rendering his services before accepting payment.” With a subtle gesture, he moves his palm over his stack of coins, and they vanish.
Fassn’s finished with Cang’s drink and is busy licking the empty eggshells sprayed across the table. Abia looks wistfully past the red-nosed drunks, laughing into their cups, through the grimy tavern windows, and out beyond the alleys to the dragon on its throne.
In her vision the dragon’s claws bite into the golden throne, rending the soft metal and leaving permanent scars. The dragon sneers at her from impossibly high, wreathed in dark smoke pouring from its slitted nostrils.
The sound of fingers snapping. “Abia? Abia?” It’s Shyan, trying to get Abia’s attention. She slowly opens her eyes and the driving tavern music floods back in. Rufus and Rivera are absent, and the minstrels present are giving it their all.
“You’re looking even more spaced out than usual,” Shyan says. “Everything all right?”
“Fury, that’s right,” Shyan growls, meeting the dragon’s blazing eyes with her own. “We’ve got a lot of anger and not a lot of money. You don’t want to have to deal with us.”
Another slight smile seems to crawl across the dragon’s scaly mouth. It arcs its neck and lets out a high-pitched noise almost like a squealing pig. It’s loud and unpleasant, such that Cang covers his ears.
A moment later, through a plain door recessed into the wall, the dragon’s butler steps forward, bearing a velvet pillow, upon qhich rests a fancy lacquered box.
“Now we’re talking,” shouts Fassn.
“That’s not fair, Abia,” Fassn protests over the grumbling of his own stomach. “We were gonna sell this thing and get pork chops. I mean, it’s gorgeous and everything, sure,” he continues, with its winking little emeralds…”
The glowing sphere takes a turn around Fassn’s head, bobbing up and down.
“We took a bath for this,” Shyan says to the dragon, her voice controlled but edged with anger. “You owe us coin. Abia walked out on you, fine. She’s not coming back. Neither are any of us if you just give us the coin.”
“My, such fury from such tiny creatures,” the dragon rasps, its claws tightening on its golden throne.
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.
Abia’s brow is perfectly straight, her expression serene. “No,” she says simply, quietly, yet the power in the single word resounds through the chamber.
“We’re here to trade,” Shyan says. “Abia’s not looking for a job.”
“No,” the dragon rasps. “Of course not. You’ve brought the spoils of royal larceny in exchange for common coins.”
Shyan glances at Cang to confirm this, but he’s tracing the tiles with his gaze, trying to find the loosest seam into which one might insert a prybar.
“Well, yeah,” Shyan says to the dragon.
“I love your scales,” Fassn adds.
“The coins, then. Let’s get this done.”