“That doesn’t seem fair,” Fassn says, one finger still in his mouth. “Why doesn’t the dragon want us?”
“Eh,” Shyan says. “Might be a good thing.”
“A very good thing indeed, yes, for those diving into holes to grab the wrists of an empty-headed sensualist,” Cang says.
“The dragon will want to see me alone,” Abia says. Not a warning or omen, but a simple statement of fact. “Be on guard for dangers.”
Cang slaps a palm against his own forehead for dramatic effect. “There you go again, Fassn, proving yourself to be the cerebral cortex behind this operation.”
Fassn smiles happily, unaware he’s been insulted.
“Fassn’s right, though. This was clearly a trap. But why would the dragon, your old boss, Abia, invite us in only to drop us down a bit full of brown goo?” Shyan asks.
Abia’s expression doesn’t change when she says, “Boss doesn’t want you. Boss only wants me.”
Fassn absently tosses a coin in Cang’s general direction. It flips and tumbles awkwardly, a lousy throw, but Cang, with the effortless fluidity of a viper’s strike, catches it from the air and secrets it away, a single, blink-and-you’ll-miss-it motion.
Meanwhile Fassn’s sucking at his gums, his eyes rolled way up and to one side as he thinks hard. The rest of the gang can practically hear the cobwebbed gears turning upstairs. Several times, he smacks his lips and pauses as though to speak. When he finally does, he says, “I think this might’ve been a trap.”
Fassn’s silk glove slips. Fassn himself lets out a little noise of delight as he descends another few millimetres. The chain of human figures struggles and shakes as he waves his finger at the goo. Abia watches impassively nearby.
Fassn’s voice rises to a help as his bare finger skims the brown sludge’s surface. It’s instantly corrosive and the smell of burning skin and collagen rises from the pit.
“Can I drop him now?” Cang asks.
“Okay,” Fassn says, dipping his finger into his mouth to savour the horrible taste. “Old Ajralan has had his fill.” Cang and Shyan grunt as they pull him up, coupled with sounds of moist lip smacking.
When they’re sprawled, fatigued, on the tile, Cang holds open a hand to Fassn, palm up. Fassn tosses him a coin.
“That’s right, don’t bother,” Fassn says from below. “Just for a second, won’t take long. I just want to have a taste.”
At this, groans of protest from the other three.
“Old Ajralan,” Fassn intones.
“Don’t say it,” Shyan says through gritted teeth.
“May you,” Fassn continues, haltingly. He’s waving his arms wildly to reach the brown goop under him. “Have your fill,” he finishes, fingers stretched to the breaking point. Still, he can’t quite reach the sludge.
“Hey, lemme go,” Fassn protests, his feet scrabbling against the smooth stone wall of the pit. “There’s something smelly down here.”
As though his comment makes it real, the gang is hit by a repugnant stench emanating from the pit. Something sweet, like decay, but with a sour tang of vinegar that’s altogether unpleasant.
“Hear that? He wants to go down,” grunts Cang, caught in the middle of the human chain.
“Up to you to let him,” says Shyan, dragging Cang’s ankles back from the pit.
Cang’s crumpled, reddened face furrows further. “Why do I bother?” he mutters, straining against Fassn’s weight.