The Troop of None was new to Palonias. They had come all the way from Kelraavis at the far northern end of Rivvenland to perform for the Changeling Festival. They had arrived a week ago at the behest of His Honour, Jeremy Astra, Mayor of Ayrst and Counsel of the Royal City, and performed a private show for him and his chosen guests. The list was an exclusive one: only the highest city officials and wealthiest guild masters had been invited. They all came away impressed by the performance, so it was decided that at the end of the Changeling Festival they would perform a special show for King Jacke-Petrer and his family.
The troupe specialized in chaotic performances. Even in the middle of a scripted play there would be juggling, fire breathing, prestidigitation, hoop dancing and even animal tricks; all included as part of the story. It was difficult for any member of the audience to see everything that was going on, therefore many people came to see multiple performances.
The leader of the troupe was a Rivvener called Ythaine Foorster. He did his best to maintain an air of mystery about himself, as performers often do. It's the mystery that adds the spice, and the spice is what they crave, he was known to teach his understudies. He was full of what he thought of as clever aphorisms, and he issued them often, much to the chagrin of the rest of the troupe. The thing he was best at, however, was finding and exploiting talent. He'd gathered a ragtag collection of performers from all over the Colonnade region: from Ehronia, Eccosia, Rivvenland, Thur, and even further. Naturally there were members from all over Palonias, as well – some of whom had been to Ayrst – but they'd never performed in the great city as a troupe. There were opportunities here, if he played the game correctly.
At the moment Ythaine was being bothered by Marnel Onarsa, who was upset about a Dvergar worker.
"I don't know where he gets off to, Ythaine. But look; if we don't have reliable stagehands, we'll never be able to put on a proper performance."
"Of course, Marn. Now which one is it, again?" He turned to one of the new dancers who they'd picked up in Rndak. "A good and pleasant evening to you, Nlika. You're looking lovely." He gave her his best smile and doffed his hat, offering her a deep bow. She returned his smile with a small wave as she passed and hurried on about her duties. I need a chance to get to know that one better, he thought to himself, before turning back to Marn.
Marn stood with his hands on his hips, glaring at him.
"It's the one calls himself Sticky. He goes missing of a night with no word. Comes and goes as he pleases with no thought to duty. He has contractual obligations to the troupe."
"How many times has this happened?"
"Three different nights now. Though, I'd call this one a day, at this point, as he's been missing since last evening."
"Probably having a drink and a dance. We don't come to a large city like this often," he said distractedly as he watched two female Elfin tumblers practice their routine. They were wearing very tight costumes.
"Look, Ythaine." Marn waved his hand in front of his face. "Stop watching the ladies for a moment and focus."
"Where's the fun in that?"
"Business now. Fun later."
"All right, all right. Can't you just find someone else to fill in for him?"
"I could, but he has the keys to the powder wagon."
"Oh, I see."
"Look, I can get the wagon open. Will that help?"
"For now, yes. But do we really want an untrustworthy Dvergar running about with our keys?"
"Just post a watch on the wagon for now. When he comes back, take the keys and send him packing."
"And if he doesn't? Or if he tries to steal it?"
"We're going to make so much coin here, I'll hire a locksmith out of my own pocket, and we'll have done with it."
"All right. Thanks. I'll feel better once we're out of here! With these huge crowds – we can't even set up the show without a load of kids getting in our way."
"Out of here? Are you kidding? We're going to make a fortune here, and if the final performance goes as planned, we'll never need to travel again."
"Our performance for the King. Don't you see the opportunity there? If all goes well, we just might wind up with a noble patron – maybe even a royal one. Then we can perform in the same place every night while the crowds come to us, and we'll all have fat purses to boot!"
"You dream too big."
"Perhaps. But you dream too small!" He clapped Marn on the back. "Come on man, let's find ourselves something to eat. I'm starving!"
As the two men made their way to the commissary wagon, Sticky watched them from behind a pile of crates near the costume trailer. Send me packin', eh? Won't much matter after tomorrow. He climbed under the trailer, opened a trapdoor and climbed inside, carrying a large bundle behind him. He would bide his time here until it was right. Starting a panic was thirsty business, so he'd spent the night drinking, and was now nursing an enormous hangover. Who'd want to work under those conditions? Besides, if the priestess wasn't going to let him have any rest at night, he'd have to get some sleep in the daylight hours.
He reached into his pouch and pulled out a ring of keys which he used to unlock a large trunk. He put his bundle in the trunk. He'd have to burn the wagon later, but that wouldn't be a problem – he was actually looking forward to it. Fire was fun. He couldn't wait to set the powder wagon off, in fact. Tomorrow night would be one to remember. He might even try to stay sober for it.
He pulled a cloak off one of the racks and curled up behind the chest. Probably no one would come in here for a few hours now. He could finally sleep.
It had been nearly nine months since the cloaked woman had first approached him. He was at the Crown of Gold, and had just settled down to really begin drinking for the night. Sure, a grubby looking Dvergar such as him got a few odd looks in a nice place like that, but when he flashed a little silver around, they served him well enough. Gold goes beyond race, class or station. He'd found a dark corner and a maid who he'd arranged to have bring him constant mugs of ale for good tips. He was only on his third drink when she sat down next to him.
At first he thought maybe she was Dvergar herself, due to her height and the way she wore that cloak close around herself. But she was human. She'd only introduced herself as Lily, and told him she had some steady work for him. It was dangerous, sure, but it would pay handsomely. That's the word she used: handsomely. Bloody high-class humans and their speech. It didn't matter how she covered herself up, anyone within earshot would know she was nobility. Ordinarily he'd have had nothing to do with a woman like that, but then she sat a large stack of gold marks on the table between them and said she'd let him keep them if he'd just listen to her. That got his attention. He agreed to meet her at the cobbler's shop a couple of doors down after he finished his next drink.
When he'd arrived, no one was there. The shop was closed and the windows were dark. He had stepped up on to the porch to have a look inside when the door opened and he'd heard a whisper instructing him to come inside. He'd done as he was told, but not before loosening his dagger in its sheath and gripping it tightly.
Once inside, the door shut behind him and a light appeared ahead of him. "Follow the light," the voice whispered. He stepped cautiously towards the light where another doorway was revealed – this one led to a flight of stairs down to a cellar. He followed the stairs and once more a door closed behind him.
Two people awaited him in the cellar: one was the woman from the Crown of Gold, and the other was a tall man in a blue cloak and a mask. A third person followed him down the stairs. This one wore a brown cloak and mask. There were a pair of lamps on the wall behind the two.
"Rest easy, Dvergar," said Lily. "If we meant you harm, you would have already Passed into The Dream by now."
That did not put him at his ease.
"Three strange humans pay me a stack of gold marks just to listen to 'em in the cellar of a closed cobbler's shop - and two of 'em are wearin' masks? And then you tell me not to worry?" He unsheathed a dagger. It glinted in the lamplight.
"Only two humans," said the figure behind him as she pulled off her cloak and mask. "I'm an Elf."
"All right, three people, then. The point is you paid me to listen." He waved the dagger around lazily. "So talk."
"Our sources tell us you are just the sort of person for whom we're looking." Lily pulled back her hood to reveal her dark hair and deep dark eyes. She was so short she barely needed to look down to speak to him.
"What sources are those?"
"Not the kind of sources we'll be revealing. Not at this meeting at least."
"Fine, then. Get on with it."
"We need someone who is good with his hands. We need someone who can get in and out of places without being noticed."
"What sorts of places?"
"The sorts of places you're likely to want to be anyway. Taverns, for example."
"Well if you need someone who knows taverns, I'm your man." He laughed.
"We also need you to to travel. Though you will be back here in a few weeks time."
"I might be up for that. but what do you actually want me to do?"