Mei watched the light redden and fade through the grimy, high-set window. Every once in a while, a pair of feet would pass by, casting shadows where she sat in the basement of the shack Grier had said to meet him in. She’d already been waiting more than an hour, but he’d promised a more than tempting payoff, so she was willing to wait. The Kingsguard had been unrelenting in their arrests lately, and even the best rounders, pickpockets and whipjacks were hungry for a job — including her.
Someone began to scrabble at the cellar doors. Silently, Mei pulled a knife from her belt and crossed the room to stairwell, pressing herself to the wall next to the it. She could feel the cool cobblestone against her scalp through her short-cropped hair.
She heard a thud as the heavy doors were flung open against the ground. Concentrating on controlling her breathing, she listened as light footsteps descended the steps.
As the person reached the floor and looked around, Mei let out an exasperated sigh. “Grier, sometimes I think you want to be stabbed,” she said, watching him hunt around the room.
“Why do you say?” Grier asked, grabbing a musty pile of burlap off the ground and draping it over a pile of crates in the corner.
Mei sat back onto her stool, pulling a half-carved block of wood from her pocket and digging her knife into it. “We’ve agreed three separate times that when we meet we’d knock the first line of Reader Merchants Rub.” she said, watching him attempt to get comfortable on the pile of garbage he’d gathered. He lounged exaggeratedly, grinning at her.
“You ready for a big mark?” Grier asked, flipping a gold piece into the air and catching it. As he flicked it into the air, she couldn’t help but stare at his hand – burnt, with both the pinky and ring finger missing, the price of an unscrupulous career. The ceiling was so low the coin almost touched on each toss.
“I’m always ready,” Mei replied, looking down at the wooden beak of the raven she was carving. They both knew she’d been staring. “When have you ever had to ask?”
“I’m asking ‘cause this is a big job for a big girl,” he said. “Not a lot of room for error here. Gonna be a hard one to hand off if things go south.”
Her woodcarving knife stilled. “Okay, you’ve got my attention. What do you got?”
“I knew I could count on you, girlie,” he said, sitting up and inclining his head toward her like they might be overheard. “Got a client looking for some flash. A real stand-out piece. You hear about that Dragonborn ambassador that set up shop here a few months back?”
“I don’t think so,” Mei said, placing her half-finished carving and knife on the stool next to her.
“They ain’t exactly common around here, right? But this one slipped under the radar or somethin’, not a lot of buzz.”
“Yeah, okay, go on.” She found herself leaning forward, brushing her hair out her face with one hand.
“Well, this client’s looking for something that our dear friend the ambassador brought with ‘em from wherever home turf is: a fancy stone called a Dragonheart,” Grier explained, waggling his fingers in front of her face. “Apparently it’s good for magic, somethin’ to do with a vocation or what have you.”
“Magic? Don’t wizards usually take care of their own dirty business?”
“Don’t look a gift horse in the mouth, Mei,” Grier said, springing off the crates and over to the backpack that he’d left on the rickety desk on the other side of the basement. “This guy’s willing to pay big bucks to get this thing, and we are gonna take advantage of that,” he said, pulling a scrap of linen from a pouch and presenting it to her with a bow. She grabbed it with a roll of her eyes. On it was a rough floor plan sketched in charcoal.
“Greyfang Keep is a little out of the way, don’t you think?” she asked after a moment, looking over the drawing. “Not exactly a posh place to settle down.” Greyfang was the historic castle where one of the king’s sons lived — the king himself had passed it up in favour of the more glamorous Merrow Palace on the other side of the city.
“And that’s exactly why it suits our purposes so well.”
Ah, she knew what he was getting at now.
“Hear about King Hensen’s big birthday bash coming up, Grier?” she asked, feigning nonchalance, tucking the linen into a pocket inside her jacket. “I heard that everybody’s going to be there.”
“Of course, it would be beyond rude to miss an event like that, wouldn’t it?”
“Yes, I must have my coachman drive me over there, I wouldn’t dare miss a chance to dance with the prince. I’d spend hours there just to catch a glimpse of him, wouldn’t you?”
The two of them grinned at each other. There’d be at least a few hours where Greyfang would have a skeleton crew, and the Guard would be busy making sure the king didn’t get done in at the party.
Grier crossed the room to the stairs that led out of the basement. “You gettin’ a pair of eyes?” he asked as he climbed. “Or you stakin’ the place out yourself?”
“Not sure yet,” she replied, mind racing. She’d have to come up with something fast. The king’s birthday gala was the day after next.
“If you kick me a few more bits for the job I can do it,” Grier called down the steps as he pushed the doors open, letting in a gust of fresh night air.
Mei got out of her chair and looked up the steps at him. “Only if you do it right.”
Grier half-turned back to her. The whites of his eyes stood out against his brown face. “When have I ever done it wrong?” he asked, smirking, then turned and disappeared into the city streets.
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