“I don’t think you’re listening,” Hissed Yusef Scaleman. “It’s gone!”
Yorrin stifled a smirk while Aleksandr sighed.
“Da,” Aleksandr said. “I understand. Truly. But I am not understanding why. This thief, he gets past perimeter, only to take one book? Is not sensible.”
“Now look here, don’t you get uppity with me. This is exactly what I hired you to prevent!”
“I do not think that is true,” Aleksandr said. “When we meet, you say that someone is trying to kill you. Rob you of your wealth. But this book—”
“You idiot Ruskie, that’s exactly what’s just happened! What do you think those documents pertain to?”
Scaleman was referring to some ledger of his, a book of financial records. So far as their search of the premises had uncovered, that book was the only thing missing. No coin, no personal correspondence, and no attempts on Yusef’s life.
“If book so important, should have been told to us. Our focus always on you, Yusef. Not books.”
Yusef did seem awfully torn up over a single book. Yorrin knew his letters well enough, and could do basic sums and takeaways, but he had little concept of the kind of math that went into proper bookkeeping. The work of scribes was damn near a sort of wizardry, or at least it was seen that way by the masses. And yet…
Such books are only worthwhile to the ones keeping them, aren’t they?
“You’ve got a second one, haven’t you?” Yorrin piped up. “Double ledger accounts, didn’t you call ‘em? So just dust off the second ledger.”
Yusef shot Yorrin a withering glare. “That is not what double—nevermind. Imbeciles. It’s not that simple. Just get me back my goddamned ledger!”
Bear made a noise, from where he stood well behind the other three. The sound was low, rumbling in the base of his throat. To Yorrin it sounded somewhat like a growl.
“What he call us?” Bear said.
“Imbeciles,” Yorrin said. “Idiots. Fools. Dummies. Need me to go on?”
Bear flexed his meaty right hand into a fist, and his knuckles crackled audibly. Yusef flinched, but then recovered enough to scowl.
“Don’t look at me like that, you big thug. You lot work for me, you understand? You do what I say! Now get back my fucking ledger!”
Yorrin wasn’t about to stand for that. Bear growled again, Yorrin opened his mouth to speak, and in his periphery he could see that even Dylan looked about ready to pop Yusef in the jaw.
Aleksandr held up a gloved hand.
The three men reined themselves in. Yusef, about to continue his tirade, snapped his mouth shut as well.
“Is true, you pay us, Yusef,” Aleksandr said.
“Master Scaleman,” Yusef hissed his correction, indignant.
“You pay us, Yusef,” Aleksandr repeated. “You do not own us. This is understood, da?”
Yusef ground his teeth.
“Hm. Yorrin, Bear, Dylan: let us go.” Aleksandr turned without a second glance, and began walking for the door. Yorrin and the other two men followed him.
“Wait!” Yusef said. “Stop!”
Aleksandr stopped. He looked back. “Da?”
“I understand,” Yusef snapped through clenched teeth. “I apologize for my anger. This ledger is of the utmost importance to me, and I forgot myself. Please. Help me.”
Aleksandr crossed the thick rugs covering the floor of Yusef’s hall. He looked down at Yusef, and crossed his arms in front of his mail-clad chest.
“Da,” he said. “We will. Now tell me: What is in this book that is so valuable?”
“All of my financial records for the last few years. My trade deals with partners in Cassala and Al Hassad. My revenues and expenses.”
“But… you’ve still got all of your coin, haven’t you?” Dylan asked, scratching his chin thoughtfully.
“Yes,” Yusef said. “That’s not the issue. Those records are of the utmost importance!”
“What, exactly, can someone else do with this thing?” Yorrin asked.
“Undercut me. Ruin me, potentially.”
“How?” Aleksandr asked.
Yusef rolled his eyes. “You’re asking me to sum up years of training and experience to a group of—” He stopped himself from saying whatever word had been about to tumble out. Hastily finished the sentence with “Soldiers,” but nobody was fooled into thinking that was what he really thought of them.
“So, enough to say: if we don’t get it back, your life could be over,” Dylan said. “Sounds like this is a serious problem.”
Yusef looked about ready to burst a blood vessel in his temple. “Yes! That’s what I’ve been saying! This is what I’m paying you lot for!”
Dylan smiled. “Well now, I think the boss had words about that already. You paid us to keep you safe from assassins, Master Scaleman. So far, so good. I think we’re earning our keep on that front.”
“But my ledger—”
“Yep. What do you think, Yorrin? Can we find it?” Dylan asked.
Yorrin quirked an eyebrow at the Whip. What’s your game here, Dylan? Dylan just gave him a smug little smile in return, and something clicked into place in Yorrin’s mind.
“Sure,” Yorrin said. “It’s got to be out there somewhere.”
“Be careful,” Aleksandr spoke up. “Searching for one book… this is not same as guarding a place. I do not doubt your abilities, Yorrin, but is not so simple a thing.”
Yorrin wondered if Aleksandr was in on this with them, or if he was just backing them up by accident. Either way, it was the right thing to say. Yusef looked more agitated by the minute.
“Good point, Aleksandr,” Yorrin agreed. “Might be simpler to just apologize to Master Scaleman and cut our losses. The pay’s been good enough so far, but a chase like this could run us over in a heartbeat.”
“Wait! Wait,” Yusef said. Yorrin hadn’t been going anywhere, but he fell silent and looked at their employer expectantly.
And then, Yusef Scaleman said the magic words.
“How much? For you lot to go out and find it?”
It took Yorrin half a day to find Blind Ezra. The old blind beggar looked about as Yorrin had imagined: wrinkled and liver-spotted, nearly toothless, hunched. He looked to be halfway made of rags, hunkered down in an alley draped with ragged, filthy clothes and threadbare blankets.
Yorrin approached alone. He immediately began pressing the beggar about who in Misviyr’s underbelly might have a need for financial records, ledgers, and the like. Ezra seemed to consider the question, tugging on his scraggly gray beard.
“Don’t know much about letters,” he finally offered.
“Who does?” Yorrin said. “But you might’ve heard something, no?”
Ezra didn’t answer, but he hemmed a little. Mulling the question over. Yorrin had dealt with enough thieves and beggars to know that what that meant. He leaned in conspiratorially, plunking a handful of copper gir into Ezra’s cup. The old man wrinkled his nose.
God damn it, Yorrin thought. He can tell silver from copper just from the clinks they make?
“For a start. But if you can help us out, there’s lots more where that came from.”
Ezra scooped out one of the gir and bit it. He seemed to like the taste well enough, because he nodded. “Alright, alright. What is it?”
Yorrin did his best to explain the strange happenings at the Scaleman estate, and describe the poor patsy that had been hired to scale the walls. Ezra snickered.
“You know him, then,” Yorrin said. It wasn’t a question.
“Oh, aye, yeah. Course I do, s’my job to know ‘em all.”
“We want to know who hired him.”
“Oh, well now, I don’t know them,” Ezra said without a trace of irony.
Yorrin snickered. “Sure, sure. But maybe you know someone who knows someone…”
“Even if I knew—and of course I don’t—I wouldn’t tell you,” Ezra said. “What good would it do my reputation? I live here, boy. I have to make do.”
It rankled Yorrin a little, to be called boy. But he didn’t press the matter. Ezra did appear to be roughly as old as dirt, which gave him a little leeway.
“No chance we can change your mind?” Yorrin asked. He jingled the remaining coins in his purse.
Ezra just smirked. “Surely not,” the old blind man said. “More trouble’n it’s worth. I ain’t no rat.”
Yorrin sighed, standing up. “Very well,” he said. “Thanks anyway. Reckon I’ll tell my boss I couldn’t get anything out of you.”
Ezra cocked his head.
That’s right, you wily old codger. Take a bite.
“Boss?” Ezra asked.
“Aleksandr Kerensky,” Yorrin explained. “A knight from up in Rusk. Old-fashioned sort. Last time we had to deal with something like this… well, never you mind.”
“What? Never mind what?” Ezra’s lips curled down in a grimace.
“You know Cross-Eyed Pete? Think you lot knew him as “Cheap” Pete.”
“Aye…” Ezra allowed, drawing the word out with a cautious drone.
“Ain’t seen him lately, have you?”
Ezra scowled. “Pete were taken out of the Blackened Shield last month. Some Ruskie thug—” the old man fell silent.
Yorrin grinned. “Yep. But I wouldn’t call him a “thug” when he comes lookin’ for you. He doesn’t like that, much.”
Yorrin turned to go, taking a few exaggerated steps to make sure his feet fell loudly on the street.
“Wait!” Ezra said.
“Hm?” Yorrin said, feigning indifference.
“It were a girl!” Ezra said. “Young, I’d wager. Quiet as a mouse.”
Now that’s interesting, Yorrin thought. May narrow it down quite a bit.
“That’s worthless,” Yorrin said. “How many girls in this city? Come on, Ezra. You can do better than that.”
Ezra licked his lips. “Educated. Ain’t one of us, you ken?”
“Now we’re getting somewhere,” Yorrin said. “Go on.”
“Paid a pretty sum for silence. Silver shekels, the whole purse. Not a Caedian shilling or Cassaline denarius in the lot.”
“Tsk. And here you are selling her out,” Yorrin said.
Ezra started to lurch to his feet in anger, and Yorrin gently tapped him back onto his bottom.
“Keep talking, Ezra,” he said. “Don’t be stupid.”
“She wanted a lad, a slow one. Someone who wouldn’t ask questions, and more’n likely get pinched.”
“I knew that part.”
“Aye, but she also wanted the lad t’ be a pushover,” Ezra added.
“Hm. Go on. What do you mean?”
“She said she didn’t reckon he’d be in any danger, not so long as ‘e kept his head and didn’t do some fool thing like try an’ fight his way out.”
And how did she know that, I wonder?
“Said you lot were good folk. Not dangerous.” Ezra snorted. “Shows what she knew, fool girl.”
Yorrin contemplated this profile for a moment. When Ezra didn’t add any more, he spoke up. “You finished?”
The old beggar nodded. “Aye. All I remember. I swear!”
“Thanks, Ezra,” Yorrin said. He flicked a shekel into the old man’s cup. “She was right, you know.”
“About us. About Aleksandr, really. Pete was fine, last I saw. Just setting a few records straight with the Serpentes in Nasarat, is all.”
Ezra’s jaw gaped, revealing a mouth full of brown and broken teeth. “He ain’t dead?”
Yorrin smirked. “Nah. Never seen Aleksandr kill a man that wasn’t asking for it.”
He left the old man sputtering.