“You sure this is the place?” said Fanis, pulling at the tight collar of a flamboyant shirt that would have looked small on a man a good head and shoulders shorter. The lanky gravedigger licked dry lips and gazed down in longing at the empty beer jar on the ground beside him.
Silas picked his nose with a stubby finger and eyed his taller companion with growing irritation made worse by the rising heat of the day. They stood in the rapidly fading shadow of a well-to-do barber. Though not quite noon, the sun was already hot enough to fry an egg on the baking street.
“Said it was, didn’t I,” replied Silas. “Three times, no less. What you so bloody nervy about?”
Fanis shrugged and shook his head, his braided hair bouncing from one shoulder to the next. “Nothing, I ain’t nervous, just feel likes we don’t belong in these parts, is all. Not exactly welcoming, like, are they?”
Silas grinned. “Aye, that’s sort of the point, innit? Decent folk wouldn’t touch us with a ten-foot pole.”
“They would if there was a spear on the end of it.”
Silas’ amusement faded and he blew out what was left up his nose with a loud blast of air. “He’ll be along soon enough, and then we can leave.”
“But what if someone asks what we’re doing?”
Silas shrugged. “I’ll think of something, you just keep your gob shut, like I said and let me do the talking.”
“I want another beer,” Fanis muttered.
“We’ll get one as soon as we’re done.”
“How much longer?”
“I don’t bloody know!” Silas snapped. “You know what your problem is?”
Fanis scowled, but didn’t answer.
Silas continued, “You don’t do enough with the living, that’s what. All them bloated corpses have dulled your manners. Living folk have minds of their own, see. Rich ones more so.”
“They’re not all bloated,” Fanis countered. “Only the poor ones…and the rich women.”
Silas raised an eyebrow. “Why the women bloated? Gout, is it? I suppose you have to let the wind out of them for burying.” He grinned again. “Must stink to heaven.”
Fanis shook his head. “No, their families keep ‘em longer before handing them over the temple. Stops the embalmers doing things they shouldn’t.”
Silas eyed his friend with a quizzical look. “They what?”
Fanis held up his left hand, thumb and forefinger making a circle while he thrust the forefinger of his right hand through the opening in a rapid motion.
Silas chuckled. “Those dirty bastards, do they really?”
Fanis dropped his hands to his sides and shrugged. “That’s what I heard, least from old Jaric. Said he saw ‘em at it once — big undead orgy before they drain the fluids and start taking their vitals out.”
Silas shook his head in amazement. “Bloody typical, the temple fucks you in life, and in the afterlife too. Suppose that’s what them call them ‘last rites’ is it?”
Fanis shrugged again, and thought he should at least attempt to defend his employer’s honour. “I can’t say for sure, not seen anything like it myself. They do their work behind locked doors, with priests and all. We stay clear until the bodies are ready for burial.” His nose wrinkled. “Bloody smells in there, though, that’s all I can say.”
Silas grinned. “Must do with that going on.”
Fanis said, “No, not that. It’s them potions they use. Smells vile and can burn a man too if you’re not careful.” He bend down and rolled up the ankle of his right trouser leg, showing an old scar of white and hairless flesh in an otherwise hairy, olive-skinned calf.
Silas peered at the scar a brief moment, winced and swore in a gesture of solidarity then slumped back on the wall, a look of disappointment on his face. “I should have been a priest.”
Silas shrugged. “Good life, innit?”
Fanis didn’t answer, and the two companions lapsed in silence. Silas closed his eyes and rested his head against the whitewashed wall. His bald head gleamed with sweat, which beaded down his face and was lost into his well-cropped but dense black beard. He was soon snoring.
Fanis forced himself to remain awake, watching as the sun ate more and more of their shade as it approached its zenith. What a ridiculous time to meet, right when have the city’s population were eating and drinking themselves into readiness for the mid-day slumber. Didn’t the rich have better things to do than hire grubby underlings to do their dirty work at this ungodly hour?
Shuffling steps alerted him to an approach figure. He turned and bolted upright when he saw a man regaled in the tunic of an officer of the Crimson Brigade, the city’s most powerful mercenary companies. The man was average height and quite slender for a soldier. In place of a warrior’s knot his hair was cut short in the manner of a priest.
Fanis dug an elbow into Silas’ ribs, and he woke with start, blinking against the brightness of noon. Silas yawned, and Fanis poked him again, harder this time, then nodded once in the direction of the approaching soldier. As he spotted him, he got to his feet at once, motioning for Fanis to follow his example.
The soldier came to a stop a few yards from where the pair had taken their rest. His hand gripped the hilt of his sword, the gesture more unsure than commanding. His gaze fell upon them and he scowled with a disapproving look.
“Are you Silas?”
Silas touched his forehead and bowed. “At your service, your lordship.”
The officer’s expression deepened to one of disgust. “My name is Captain Retes, that is sufficient.” He paused and surveyed the two companions, as though hoping that the additional scrutiny would somehow reveal their better side.
“Well, I suppose I’m not hiring you on account of your looks, and you come highly recommended.”
“We’re your men, Captain,” said Silas. “Just tell us what you need done, and we’ll do it. No questions asked.”
“Can either of you read?”
Silas and Fanis exchanged glances and shook their heads, Silas adding, “That’s not a problem is it, captain?”
Retes shook his head. “No, it’s what I expected.” He sniffed. “Very well then. I’ll keep this brief and trust you to see it through. How well do you men know the Sanctum of Akkdar?”
Silas and Fanis exchanged glances. Fanis was about to speak in protest but Silas glared up at his taller companion, then turned back to face Retes. “We know it, captain. And we’d be living under a rock if we didn’t know your lot have a long-standing grudge with them. Personally though, I tend to leave the doings of my betters be, unless there’s profit to be made by sticking my nose in it.”
“Quite,” said Retes, stiffly. “You think you can get into the temple.”
Silas grinned. “Aye, shouldn’t be hard. We’ve wormed into tighter places than that, if you catch my meaning, captain.”
If Retes caught his meaning, he gave no indication. “Then in two days hence, I want you to sneak into the place and disrupt the Festival of Akkdar“
Silas frowned. “Begging you pardon, captain, we ain’t educated folk. What does disrupt mean?”
“He means fuck it up,” Fanis supplied.
“Precisely,” said Retes. “Vulgar but to the point. This is the most important festival in their calendar. Its disruption will cause great humiliation.”
“Is that all,” said Silas, voicing both surprise and disappointment. “You don’t want us to cut some throats?”
Retes shook his head. “Absolutely not. Humiliation is sufficient. A commotion is all we need, and don’t assume the task is easy. The place is well-guarded and if you are caught, they’ll kill you.”
Fanis scratched his head with a bemused expression. “So we make noise, but no killing.”
“Noise, fire, a plague of rats, an overflowing sewer — I don’t care.
I’ll leave the details to you. Make it as loud and vile as you like, have them spilling out on the streets if you wish, just no killing. Do you understand?”
The two companions nodded, though neither was sure they did. In the two years they’d hired themselves as odd jobs men to Agda the Virtuous, they had robbed and murdered aplenty, but always in quiet, with little fuss. This was the first time they’d been called on to cause strife in such an obvious manner.
“Good,” said Retes with finality. “Will you take the job?”
The two companions exchanged glances. Fanis gave a nonchalant shrug, but there was doubt in his eyes. Silas grinned and turned back to Retes. “Aye, we’ll take the job, your lordship.”
Retes scowled but let the misplaced honorific go unchallenged this time. “Very well, I trust I can leave the matter with you. Remember, two nights hence, the Festival of Akkdar.”
“Consider is done,” said Silas, touching his forehead once more and bowing from the waist. “The fuckers won’t know what hit ‘em.”
With that, he straightened his back, nudged Fanis in the ribs before turning to leave.
They stopped and turned to look back as Retes slipped a hand in his tunic and retrieved an envelope sealed with wax. He offered it to Silas. “At sundown after you have completed this task, you are deliver this letter to Kali Zamari. If he’s not know to you, you’ll find him in the waterfront. He will arrange your payment. Is that understood.”
Silas grinned, took the letter and in a flash it was gone, hidden about his person. “Yes, captain, we understand.
Retes nodded, then turned and hurriedly departed in the direction from which he came. Silas and Fanis stood rooted to the spot, staring after the soldier until he disappeared from sight.
“Soldier my arse,” Fanis muttered. “You see his hands? Soft as a woman’s thigh. If he’s held a sword in his life then I’m the Chief Eunuch of Chryon.”
Silas slowly nodded, his squint against the noon sun becoming a frown so heavy his eyebrows met in the middle. “Aye, we’re in agreement there, my friend,” said Silas turning back to face Fanis. “Still, I don’t care who or what he is. If Agda put him on to us then, then it’s good enough for me.”
“Adga’d put a pack of harpies on to us if he thought it would turn a profit.”
“True,” Silas admitted, bringing a hand to his chin and scratching at the growth. “But he’s not done us wrong yet, and that counts for something.”
“I don’t like it.”
“You never do,” said Silas. “We’ve got two days, and much to do, but if you’ll feel better I’ll ask around and see who this Captain Retes really is. Would that make you feel better?”
“It might,” said Fanis, carefully. “Who will you ask?”
“You still want that beer?” Silas asked, changing the subject.
Fanis’ expression of concern was replaced by one of longing. His head bobbed twice in an empathic nod. “Aye, before I melt into the street.”
“All right then,” said Silas, Retes’ letter appearing in his hand as if by magic. “You drink, I’ll see if I can pry this open and see what it says.”
Fanis eyed him sternly. “Should we be doing that? He only gave to us when you said we couldn’t read.”
Silas shrugged and grinned. “Probably not, but do you trust the bastard?”
Fanis shook his head. “Nope.”
“Then shut your gob and let me do the thinking, all right?”
Fanis sighed and nodded. “All right,” he said, and together they turned and began ambling towards the nearest tavern.