“One particularly lucrative way [for new Dreamers to support themselves] is delivering mail. With no formal services available, letters and packages must be handled by individual entrepreneurs, who may charge what rates they can. The majority tend to be simple travellers who agree to carry mail to their ultimate destination and any communities along the way, but it can also be good practice for adventurers, being as even ‘civilized’ areas can still have bandits and highwaymen hoping to score big by robbing the mail.”
—The Dreamlands for Dummies, by Aislinn Síle
Eile tugged at the reins to get the three stubborn zebras to walk faster. “Come on, ya hayburners, move yer lazy asses.” Sunny giggled at her unintended joke, which earned her a dirty look. What really irritated her, though, was that her partner still seemed obsessed by the large package carried by the middle equine. She couldn’t blame her really; deep down she was dying to know what it contained as well. But after they had agreed to deliver it they had received it already sealed, and it would be unprofessional, not to mention rude, to open it for a peek.
“Will you give it a rest already?!” The package consisted of two wooden chests, each about four times the size of a loaf of bread, attached to either end of a wooden yoke that fitted quite comfortably across the back of the pack animal.
“I can’t help it!” she whined in a squeaky voice, but she patted the yoke and quickened her pace to join her. The chests were not the only parcels they carried. When they publicly announced in Ulthar that they planned to take a walking tour of the Six Kingdoms, their fellow citizens dropped off letters and packages to be delivered at stops along the way. From almost the very start of their adventuring, they had followed the advice of their friend and former adventurer Eibhlín Chrón, who waitressed at the Hostel of the Laughing Cat, and carried mail to wherever they went. At first, the fees they charged had helped to defray the cost of their travels and make ends meet, but even after they no longer needed the extra income they continued to offer their service, in part because some people had come to depend on them, but really because they enjoyed the opportunity to meet new people and see sites they would not have otherwise visited.
“I’m just dying to find out what’s inside, aren’t you?”
Eile shrugged. “Well, yeah, of course, but we probably never will, so why get all bent outta shape about it?” The chests were destined for an address in the village of Owlsmeir. Eile figured they should arrive shortly after noon.
“Oh, poo on you. You just have no sense of adventure.”
Eile flashed a sarcastic leer. “Yeah, right. That’s why I always stay home when you go off on these jaunts.”
Sunny threw her a piqued expression. “Oh, hardi-har, little miss funny-pants.”
“Will you two knock it off? I’m trying to nap back here.”
Eile turned with Sunny to glance at their feline companion Shadow-Stalker lying on the packs carried by the lead zebra. As with all talking cats, she sounded like a Munchkin from The Wizard of Oz.
“Well, excuse us, yer majesty. We certainly wouldn’t wanna deprive you of yer rest.”
The curmudgeonly huntress yawned wide enough to swallow a silver tahler. “That’s quite all right. I realize it’s not your fault, you just don’t know any better.”
Eile exchanged a surprised glance with Sunny, then they both burst out laughing.
“Heh, good one, Shadow.”
“Yeah,” Sunny squealed, “you zinged us good!”
The lean, short-haired, smoky-black cat purred as she curled up and closed her jade-green eyes.
“I think they contain something valuable.”
Eile smirked. Her partner had been speculating on the contents of the chests for the past four days, ever since they left Ulthar. Her imaginings had ranged from the mundane to the fantastic, but this was the first time she mentioned wealth. Frankly, Eile had expected her to get around to that idea sooner.
“Maybe, but it’s not heavy enough ta be gold or silver, or even gems.”
“Not everything valuable has to be that heavy. It could be frankincense and myrrh from Tumbutu, or silk from Lelag-Leng, or fragrant wood from the Jungle of Kled, or blue tekhelet dye from the Go-Shen Swamp. It could even be bank draughts and letters of credit.”
“Heh, yeah.” She had to admit, as unlikely as that might seem to a regular Waking Worlder, she couldn’t discount any of it in the Dreamlands. Sunny just could be right; she often was, even with her screwball logic. Besides, the manner of their acquisition of the package had been very unusual, even a little surreal.
The rest of the mail had been dropped off at their house by the senders, who paid the delivery fee up front. For the chests, they instead received a missive to meet someone at an out-of-the-way tavern. Once there, they were approached by a man claiming to be an agent. He showed them an anonymous note asking them to handle the chests with the utmost discretion, as well as an affidavit signed by the agent, countersigned by a magistrate, witnessed by three people, all of whom they knew well, and stamped with the town’s official seal, testifying that the contents were neither dangerous nor illegal. The snag was that their fee would be paid by the recipient, but they were offered double their usual rate to accept that one condition.
Before they agreed they asked their friends if their signatures were real. Each assured them that they had inspected the contents and had signed without coercion, though they were under oath not to reveal the nature of the contents. She and Sunny then discussed it that night as part of their pillow talk, and decided to accept the delivery. The agent had brought the package to their house the night before their departure, in the hour just after midnight, with an escort of mercenaries and cats, and the next morning the cats had kept watch while they took it along with the rest of the mail to the outfitters, and as they proceeded out of town. After that, they were on their own, but they hadn’t had any problems with either wannabe bandits or highwaymen.
So far. The main thing was, their experience suggested that the contents of the chests were extremely valuable, to someone, but if so, what mystified Eile was why they were delivering them to the outskirts of a bog well isolated from civilization.
The road on which they travelled passed through an upland region of heath that soon became a moorland called Fenrimoor. It was well watered, thanks to numerous rain storms, but the soil had poor drainage, so the whole landscape was saturated with moisture, making it wet and marshy, while the depressions and ravines were filled with pools of stagnant water. They in turn were covered with carpets of sphagnum moss, which encouraged the formation of bogs. The carpets made the bogs appear to be solid ground, except for scattered openings that resembled small ponds. Unfortunately, the moss was unable to support the weight of anything heavier than a cat, and if man or beast fell through there was virtually no chance of getting out again before drowning.
Over the Dream-centuries, the bogs accumulated peat as the overlying carpets died and sank to the bottom while being replaced with new growth. The shallower ones eventually filled in, becoming more or less firm ground that supported sedges, grasses, and low shrubs, but they continued to retain rainwater, making the peaty subsurface gooey, and in many places like quicksand. Meanwhile, the deeper bogs still contained a layer of water of varying depths over the peaty bottom, while even the “dry” ground was so wet it turned the soil to viscous, sucking muck. As a result, much of the moorland was too treacherous to cross with the exception of the road and a handful of well-marked walking trails.
The road itself had been constructed atop a causeway, with bridges running across the less stable areas and the open streams, but it wasn’t long before they encountered one of the trails. It consisted of a levelled gravel path covered with large flagstones running east to west nearly the entire length of the moorland, following one of the few ridges of exposed rock. Eile and Sunny carefully descended the eastern side of the causeway, guiding the zebras along the narrow stone-step kalderimi that switched back and forth down the steep slope, and paused when they reached the track to let Sunny string her composite bow. Not all of the hazards in the moorland came from the terrain. Some were real and some legendary, but few were strong enough to shrug off a hit from an arrow fired by the powerful bow, especially at point-blank range.
The trail linked the road with Owlsmeir, which lay on the far side of the Grimpen Mire at the eastern edge of Fenrimoor. Perhaps the worst of all the bogs, it was the biggest and deepest, having formed in a large, uneven depression with only one narrow outlet. Some parts of it were shallow enough to be filled with peat, but the rest consisted of a lake of detritus-saturated water with a thick, peaty bottom, covered with moss. The trail skirted uncomfortably close to the southern and eastern edges of the mire, but they figured that as long as they didn’t wander off the track they would be safe.
The surrounding landscape of the moorland looked bleak and desolate. It undulated as it passed over low ridges and downs and across hollows and vales. There were no trees and barely any shrubs; just a seemingly endless sea of moss and sedges. Outcrops of naked rock lay scattered about, mostly at the tops of exposed hills and along ridges, but some isolated clumps stood in the middle of flat plains, like islands in the ocean. Eile figured the metaphor was probably more literal than she suspected, assuming the “plains” were in fact waterlogged muskeg. At one point they spotted a collection of ruins atop a far hill, consisting of a ring of menhirs surrounded by dolmens and taulas. Later, they heard what sounded like a long, low, booming howl echo from deep within the mire. They paused as they exchanged anxious glances, with Sunny displaying a wide-eyed deer-caught-in-headlights expression while Eile’s spine tingled and her skin goose pimpled, and even Shadow came alert to focus her eyes and ears on the bog. But after a couple of minutes the sound faded and did not reoccur, and they continued on, though Eile kept glancing at the mire in a nervous fashion for some time thereafter.
As noon approached, they could see ahead of them that the trail curved around in a broad arc towards the north. They began to search for a spot where they could stop to take a break and have a bite to eat. The track rose to slice through an outcrop of boulders, forming a kind of above-ground holloway, and Eile paused in its middle.
“This looks ta be as good a place as any.”
“It’s sheltered, too.” Sunny unwrapped herself from her cloak. A chill wind had been blowing all day, making the air feel colder than the sun would normally permit. Eile wore a thin wool coat over her adventuring costume for a windbreaker and to trap body heat, while Sunny had put on a mantle to keep warm.
She draped the garment over the back of the rear zebra as she opened a pack to retrieve travel food, when Shadow hissed a warning. In the same instant a man with a club leapt down from one side of the outcrop. Eile spun out of the way, but another jumped down from the opposite side as a third appeared at the head of the trail. Meanwhile, three went after Sunny in the same fashion, except from the rear. Shadow threw herself at one of the men attacking her as she fended the other two off with her quarterstaff. The cat gripped his head and began biting, clawing, and raking, as he screamed and danced around in agony.
Eile pulled out her sword and bowie knife and backed away from her attackers past the lead zebra. As they rushed her, the equine panicked, reared up, and smashed its front hooves into the face of the closest. The other two made a hasty retreat, and Eile charged, striking at both simultaneously. One managed to parry her sword, but she slashed the forearm of the other with her knife. He dropped his club, grabbed his wound, and ran off, shrieking like a terrified little girl. She grinned at his remaining companion and rubbed her blades together to make a shinging sound. He stared at her, sweating and licking his lips, shifting his weight as he shuffled his feet, but when she skipped towards him he turned and fled.
She spun around to help Sunny, but one of her assailants already lay on the ground unconscious, and she methodically beat the other across the chest, shoulders, and head. Shadow’s victim had apparently run off, and the cat stood on the last zebra, watching for an opening to jump the last guy. Eile jogged up to Sunny, who stopped hitting him. He backed up against a boulder and raised the club to defend himself, but his expression stated that he had had enough.
She and Sunny bracketed him on either side to keep him from running off, and Shadow leapt onto Sunny’s shoulders.
She pointed her sword at him. “Alright, what’s this all about? Besides the obvious.” Shadow moaned and hissed for emphasis.
“I ain’t got no idea.” He tried to sound defiant, but his voice quavered. “Me and my mates were hired to beat you both senseless and steal the zebras. That’s it.”
“Who hired ya?”
“Some scrawny-assed bitch; she never gave us no name.”
“Describe her.” She poked him in the ribs with the point of her sword.
“About your height and build—” He nodded towards Eile. “—shoulder-length hair the colour of a palomino, but darker; got a nose like a hawk, and a huge knife with a bent blade. Scariest lookin’ thing I ever saw.” His expression grew pensive. “Funny thing: she looks real tasty, like she could bring a man real close to heaven in bed, but she acts colder an’ meaner than Nyarlathotep enthroned in Kadath. If you catch my drift.”
Eile felt her heart race as butterflies dive-bombed her stomach. She glanced at Sunny, who wore an expression that mixed astonishment with anxiety. She nodded, and they both stepped away from the would-be bandit.
“Alright, scram.” She gestured with her sword for him to leave.
He gave them a puzzled look as he hesitated, but when Shadow hissed again he took off running and disappeared around the boulders.
“Sheraton,” Sunny said.
She nodded. “Yeah. C’mon, let’s get the freakin’ hell outta here.”
Sunny tied her quarterstaff to the pack of the last zebra as Shadow jumped onto there from her shoulder. She then attached a quiver of arrows to her belt as Eile wiped off her knife blade, and nocked an arrow; she didn’t bother with her cloak. She went ahead of Eile and gazed around; when she signalled the coast was clear, Eile pulled on the reins and got the zebras moving. They proceeded up the trail at a fast walk, all three of them scanning the landscape, with Shadow mostly watching their backs. Eile noted that the way ahead passed a greater concentration of rock outcrops; good places for concealment and ambush. But unless people were already in place, no one could get to any of them without her or Sunny seeing them.
After a half-hour they approached a sharp bend around a jumble of boulders. Sunny suddenly stopped and raised and drew her bow, but after a moment relaxed. Eile left the zebras and jogged up beside her.
Marseilles Sheraton, celebutante heiress to the Sheraton resort fortune and criminal leader in both the Dreamlands and the Waking World, stood in the path, holding a club with a white handkerchief tied to one end. She wore masculine clothing: a shirt, padded doublet, and trousers, with an open dolman. She was alone, but Eile gazed about, wondering how many thugs she had hidden behind the rocks.
They stepped closer to her, but stopped a good six feet away. “Alright,” Sunny said, “start talking, it’s your nickel.”
“I understand you’re carrying mail this trip.”
“Yeah,” Eile said; “so?”
“I heard a rumour one of your packages is quite valuable.”
Eile shrugged; she figured that was the case. Despite all the precautions, the handling of the transfer had been a bit too obvious. “Maybe; we wouldn’t know, we don’t open other people’s parcels.”
Sheraton flashed a scowl. “Must I spell it out? I want that package. Hand it over, and you two can be on your way. Otherwise, I’ll take it after you’re dead.”
Eile didn’t doubt her sincerity. She hated their guts and wanted to kill them. Still: “What do you care? Highway robbery’s not yer style.”
“A reliable source told me the chests contain record books with deposit numbers and passwords for accounts owned by merchants and aristocrats all over this part of the Dreamlands, as well as Ooth-Nargai and Punica. I can sell them for millions, even at tahlers to the crown.”
Sunny made a spitting noise. “That’s just silly! Something like that would be transported under heavy guard, and not sent to some podunk little village in the middle of nowheresville.”
Sheraton displayed a leering smirk. “Unless, the two of you have been set up to be secret couriers to a secret rendezvous, and you don’t even know it.”
Sunny’s eyes widened large enough to pop out of their sockets as she realized what the felonious celebutante meant. “Ocean’s 12—”
“Not now!” Eile and Sheraton said at the same time, to forestall her quoting chapter and verse. They exchanged consternated expressions as Sunny crinkled her eyes and giggled.
“Yer starting ta sound like Sunny and her half-baked notions.”
“Hey! That’s not nice, little miss smarty-pants!”
“There’s only one way to find out. And if I’m right, I’d be willing to split the take with you two, 20:80.”
“Sorry; ain’t gonna happen.”
“Would you really risk your lives for a piece of mail?”
“Neither rain nor snow nor dark of night—” Sunny began.
“Spare me the code of honour crap. I wanted to make this easier for all of us, but as usual you two are too pig-headed to listen to reason.”
“It ain’t been much of a risk so far,” Eile said.
“Have it your way. Just keep in mind, I have the perfect place to dump your bodies just a stone’s throw away.” She jerked a thumb towards the mire. “I doubt even the cats could find you in there.”
“Yeah, whatever. Look, is that all? ‘Cause we’ve gotta schedule ta keep.”
She stared daggers at them. “As you wish.” She then turned and stalked off across the moor towards a rather large outcrop some distance away.
“Whaddya think?” she asked Sunny.
“I’d say we’re in big trouble, partner.”
“Yeah. Let’s get back to the zebras.”
They found Shadow waiting for them on the back of the lead equine. “There are more men coming up behind us; I can hear and smell them.”
“Cripes. She’s gonna try ta surround us, and this time they’ll probably have crossbows.”
“Maybe we can take cover among the rocks.”
“That might keep us safe, but they could nab the zebras before we could stop ‘em, especially if they keep us pinned down.” She stared at the expanse of mire beside them. “Shadow, could you lead us through that?”
“Across Grimpen?!” Sunny squealed.
The cat looked uncertain for the first time since they knew her. “I...don’t know. I’ve never been in there.”
“There’s gotta be a way through it, and you could probably tell safe ground from dangerous.”
“Buuuut, why?” Sunny asked.
“We can’t outrun ‘em, but if we cut across the mire we could avoid their ambush and get ahead of ‘em. That should give us enough time ta reach the village.”
“Wouldn’t they just follow us?”
Eile flashed a half-grinning smirk. “They’d be idiots if they did, and Sheraton’s no fool.”
Sunny raised both her eyebrows, but then she smiled, crinkled her eyes, and giggled. “Sounds like a plan, partner.” She went back to the rear zebra and exchanged her bow for her quarterstaff.
Eile looked at the cat. “We can’t force you ta come with us, but we’re gonna try this whether you do or not. We probably won’t make it without yer help, but it’s yer choice.”
The huntress gave her a wide-eyed anxious stare, but she stood up. “I have never refused to help because I was afraid, and this won’t be the first time, but I can give no guarantees.”
Eile nodded. “We understand.”
Shadow jumped down and sprinted to the edge of the mire. She ranged up and down in front of it, pausing frequently to sniff the ground, and finally gazed out from one spot. “I believe this is the best way.”
Eile tugged on the reins, and she and Sunny joined their friend. Shadow stepped out onto the moss and they followed. Eile panicked for a moment when the ground sagged beneath her feet, but it held her weight. Sunny went ahead of her and they started off, though it felt to Eile as if her heart would burst out of her chest, it beat so hard.
They progressed slower than she liked, partly because they had to choose their steps carefully, and partly because Shadow often stopped to examine the ground to find the safest path. The carpet flexed with every tread, sinking down wherever she placed a foot while buoying up all around it. The surface rolled and pitched as ripples propagated out from each footfall, and the overall effect was made worse by Sunny’s pace and that of the zebras behind her. It felt like trying to walk across a waterbed with a marching band. Her heart seized and her stomach lurched every time water welled up under her boots, and she expected the moss to give way at any moment. The thought of falling through into the water below terrified her, because when her coat became waterlogged she would sink like a brick, but she feared even more the possibility that Sheraton and her crew could get ahead of them after all, thereby making their extremely hazardous trek a wasted effort. The dual pressure came close to breaking her down into a fit of the screaming meemies, and her terror intensified whenever it felt like the carpet would split open. The last zebra in fact did partly fall through at one point, but using the other two and Sunny’s help she managed to pull it out before it sank and took them all with it. During the entire time, her only emotional support came from watching Sunny stride over the mire with seeming confidence and courage. She would be damned if she allowed herself to go stark-raving Looney Tunes when her partner appeared to have such self-control.
Just when it seemed she couldn’t take any more, Shadow suddenly stopped. The ground they stood on wasn’t particularly stable, and she nearly screamed at the cat to keep going, but the way she stepped and hesitated, searched, sniffed, and pranced about indicated that she had encountered a serious problem.
Finally she said, “We can’t go any farther.”
Eile almost exploded as Sunny said, “Why?!”
“The way ahead is too treacherous.”
“It doesn’t look any different.”
“Nonetheless, you’d sink out of sight within minutes of trying to cross it.”
“We can’t stay here!” Eile said. She felt herself on the verge of hysteria.
Shadow gazed off to their right. “All we can do is go back to the trail. There is a track nearby, used by the local animals. It will be hard going, but it will get us to safety.”
“Lead the way,” Sunny said.
Shadow trotted off and Eile spotted a slightly raised path choked with stones and clumps of heather. When Eile stepped onto it, she felt relieved that it seemed firmer and more stable. Unlike their feline friend they and the zebras couldn’t clamber over the rocks and vegetation, but the ground around them felt fairly solid, at least enough to support them. There were open patches of standing water. Sunny tested one by inserting her quarterstaff, but she couldn’t touch bottom with the six-foot implement. Even so, they could avoid them by sticking close to the stones and clumps. Eile felt herself relax as she grew confident they would actually make it out of the mire alive.
A crossbow bolt hit the ground at her feet and penetrated the moss carpet to disappear beneath it. At almost the same time another passed through the golden plume in Sunny’s bicorn Robin Hood hat.
“Geezus!” They both turned in the direction they came from, and saw Sheraton and half a dozen or more thugs charge across the mire towards them. The men were all armed with crossbows while the celebutante wielded her kukri knife. She felt her gut spasm as they headed straight for the patch Shadow had warned them about.
“Son of a—” Sunny said, waving her arms above her head. “Sheraton! No! Not that way! Go back!”
Eile had no idea whether she hadn’t heard or didn’t care, but she and her group kept going. At first nothing happened, and for a moment Eile wondered if Shadow might have been wrong. Then the ground just opened up beneath them. They all dropped into the peaty subsurface soup, and started struggling to stay above water. Sheraton didn’t make a sound, but her men screamed as one by one they disappeared beneath the tea-dark surface.
Sheraton tried to make for the raised path, but couldn’t reach it in time, and she had to grab a thick clump of moss to keep from sinking.
“Hold on!” Sunny said. “We’re coming!” She ran back to a spot directly across from the felonious celebutante as Eile removed a coil of rope from the lead zebra, and then raced down the track as fast as the terrain permitted until she came abreast of Sunny. Eile tied one end of the rope around her chest and shoulders, and the other around Sunny’s waist, then took up the slack and braced herself as Sunny stepped out into the mire towards their enemy. The moss couldn’t bear her weight, and she stepped through into the water, first sinking to her calves, then her knees, and finally her hips, but she managed to get close enough to hold out her staff.
“Grab it!”
Sheraton hesitated, whether from surprise or suspicion Eile couldn’t be sure, but she could understand either reaction, considering she would never lift a finger to save them.
“Come on! Take it! Trust us!”
Sheraton let go with one hand and tried to catch it, but her fingers just brushed the end. Sunny edged further out, sinking to her bellybutton.
Sheraton let go of the clump and jumped forward. If she missed she was a goner, but she gripped the staff with one hand. Even so, she sank out of sight, pulling the staff under with her.
Sunny tried to back out, but nearly slipped on the peaty bottom. Eile retrieved the rope, pulling her back, and Sunny raised the staff above her head. Sheraton broke the brownish-black surface, gasping and coughing, and she held the staff with both hands. Eile stepped backwards to give them room as she reeled in the line. Sunny climbed up onto the raised track and held the staff as Sheraton pulled herself hand-over-hand out of the mire. Sunny fell onto her butt, panting from the exertion, and Sheraton collapsed onto her stomach beside her, choking and sputtering. She turned her head and gave them a look that mixed the realization that they had just saved her ass with anger for having done so.
Eile grinned back, savouring her discomfort, while Sunny said, “Think nothing of it.”
Sheraton scowled and buried her face in the moss mat.
They arrived in Owlsmeir some forty-five minutes later, and Sheraton accompanied them. They didn’t want to worry about keeping her captive, and technically there were no local authorities to hand her over to, so they made a deal to escort her to Dubploin, where she could then go her own way while they continued their adventure, in return for her not stabbing them in the back. Besides, they knew that she hated them so much she wanted to break them and make them suffer before she killed them, so simple murder was not in her plans.
They dropped off a bag containing general letters and parcels at the home of the mayor, and received instructions on how to find the address for the chests. It turned out to be a small but stately ivy-covered mansion in the centre of a lush garden surrounded by a low stone wall.
“Would ya look at that!” Eile breathed.
Sunny’s eyes looked like they would pop right out of their sockets. “Oh, my! Swanky!”
Sheraton didn’t say anything, but her expression suggested that she too felt impressed.
They left the zebras in the street, and Sunny and Sheraton lifted the yoke off the middle equine and helped Eile settle it on her shoulders. They passed through a gate in the wall, went up a stone walk through the front garden, and stopped at the door and rang a bell.
After a few minutes a professorial type with reading glasses and wearing a smoking jacket opened the door. He looked surprised, and examined them from head to foot before he spoke:
“Yes? May I help you?”
He then spotted the chests and grinned like a cat when the fishing boats come in. “Ah, wonderful! It’s arrived! Please; please, come in!”
He stepped back to give them room. They entered a foyer, and he gestured for them to follow him. He took them through a set of double doors into a combination library and study, and directed them towards a round centre table.
“Set them down there.”
Eile balanced the yoke as Sunny removed each chest, and finally all four of them stood around the table and stared at them.
“May I have the keys, please?”
“Before we get ta that, there’s the matter of our delivery fee.”
“I beg your pardon?”
“We weren’t paid back in Ulthar. We were told you would, and that you’d pay double.”
He smiled and nodded. “Yes, of course.”
“Our usual fee is twenty-five tahlers per chest, so that’d be a hundred altagether.”
“Just a moment.” He walked over to a desk and unlocked a drawer. As he rummaged around inside, Sheraton threw them a smirking leer. Eile figured she would have made him pay through the nose. She frowned and shook her head to admonish her to be more polite.
When he returned he handed Sunny three gold crowns, each worth fifty tahlers apiece. “Keep the change, with my gratitude. It looks as if you three had quite an adventure delivering my goods, so I’d like to show my appreciation.”
Sunny closed her fist around the coins and flashed a big dumb grin. “Thank you!”
He rubbed his hands together in boyish glee. “And now?”
Sunny placed the coins in a pouch and opened a scrip, from which she removed two iron keys. She handed them to him and he stared at them as he grinned wide enough to split his face.
“Well,” Eile said, “we’ll be takin’ off. We’ll show ourselves out. Enjoy.” And she turned to leave.
“Just a moment. Could you help me check to make sure everything is right?”
They turned back towards the table. “You can see the seals are still intact.”
“Yes, and I didn’t mean to offend, but I want to make sure I’ve received what I ordered.”
Eile glanced at Sunny, who displayed a look of uncertainty. Behind her, Sheraton flashed an expression that demanded she say yes.
“Besides, I imagine you ladies are just dying of curiosity after all this time.”
She smirked at his sexist remark, but she shrugged. “Okay, sure.”
“Wonderful.” He handed her a sheet of paper that contained a list of items. “This is what I ordered. Would you please read it off?”
She scanned it as he unlocked and opened the chests, and she felt herself grow confused. “This reads like a list of groceries.” Both Sunny’s and Sheraton’s eyes grew wide at hearing that.
“Not just any groceries, believe me. Artichoke hearts, carrots, peppers, cauliflower, and onions from Pitcan; cardoon heads and fennel bulbs from Qahroe; garlic from Nir; anchovies from Rinar; extra-virgin olive oil from Fauklar; and butter and mascarpone cheese from Mozam. Nothing but the finest ingredients!”
“Ingredients for what?”
He threw them a surprised look, as if he expected them to already know. “Why, for bagna cauda, of course.”
“Bonya whatsit?”
“Babylon 5,” Sunny said. “Mr. Garibaldi’s birthday dinner.”
“What?” Then the light dawn. “You mean ta tell me, these are ingredients for a recipe?!”
Sheraton palmed her face.
If anything, he looked even more confused. “Uh, every year I have it in remembrance of my old university professor, who used to make it for his research assistants, graduate students, and post-docs.”
“Then, why all the secrecy?”
He blinked, not comprehending her ignorance. “Do you have any idea how expensive these items are? Or how difficult they are to import? And this is just too important for me to risk.”
“Aw, cripes.” She glanced at the criminal celebutante. “You can kill us now, if ya like.” And Sunny nodded.
Sheraton smirked. “Only if you kill me first.”
“I... don’t understand.”
Eile waved him off. “It’s nothin’; just a private misunderstanding.”
He looked embarrassed, as if realizing they had been fooled into thinking they had been carrying something really valuable. “Well, would you three like to share it with me, as my guests? I can also offer you hot baths, soft beds for the night, and to have your costumes cleaned.”
The three ladies glanced at each other, and even Sheraton smiled.
“Heh, yeah, sure. We’d be glad to.”


 Outcast of Venus


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