“A Simple Request”
Written by Aaron McQueen
Illustrated by Rachel Mrotek
Copyright July 1st, 2017
This story is dedicated to my family, my friends, and my most generous subscribers, whom I have listed below. Without their help, support, and contributions, this production would not be possible.
The dice hit the table.
“Three of a kind. You lose.”
Polly’s head joined her dice with a thump. She moaned as her ingots were swept away.
She looked up.
“How about one on credit?”
The man across from her raised an eyebrow and slowly shook his head.
“Polly, don’t ask me for that. You know I can’t do it.”
“Come on! I’ve been winning all day.”
“Well, it looks like your streak is over.”
Polly grumbled and stood up.
“Better luck next time.”
She turned and walked on. Her boots squelched in the mud. What a cheapskate. You would think after all the money she’d lost to him she’d have earned a little consideration.
The wind blew cold, but not cold enough to fully freeze the water in the road. It was probably the last warm day of the summer. All too soon fall and winter would settle in, and the bitter cold of the continent would reassert itself. This would be Polly’s third year in exile. She didn’t relish what was coming.
The days were already growing shorter. Soon they would be replaced by an endless night that would last for months. Streets would freeze, fields would lie fallow, and fires would burn low. The gathering places of the valley would close their doors and shutter their windows. Everyone on the continent would hunker down, gripping their weapons and praying the food would last. Eventually loyalties would fray, and even the most generous patron would find themselves questioning the value of their lesser servants. A stout guard beat a sly thief every time.
That was what happened during her first winter, and again the second. She didn’t expect the Jasper brothers to behave any differently when the long dark descended once more on Selapak.
In the past she’d survived by stealing. There were advantages to being small of stature and fleet of foot. It was difficult to keep a Halfling out of someplace she needed to be, including your meat and grain stores. This was especially true if that Halfling was Polly von Toffel. Nonetheless, it had been a dark, cold, miserable existence: a corner of a forgotten closet, a thin blanket no one would miss, and just enough food to survive. When the sun came up the last time she swore she would never let herself be in that position again.
And in point of fact, she wasn’t.
This time she was broke.
Maybe Azarelle could help. Her new friend was full to bursting with ideas for new heists, and her work brewing potions and crafting magical knickknacks for the Jaspers meant that she always seemed to have money to spare.
Polly adjusted her pack. It was full of beads: quartz, jasper, carnelian, and a dozen other varieties. Azarelle needed them for her side work. This was the third load in as many weeks. Hopefully her next order would be for something else. With all the recent thefts, the gem dealers in the merchant segment were starting to increase their security.
Thirteen ingots. That’s what she would get for the bag. It was a lot of money, but she would need ten times that much to arrange lodging and to buy enough food and fuel to get through the winter. Yesterday she’d been halfway there. Two hours ago she’d been short by only a few measly ingots.
Now she had nothing.
She shook it off. Whatever. It would be fine. She’d gone bust plenty of times. There was always another score around the corner. Hopefully Azarelle would have another job lined up for her when she made her delivery, something more lucrative than pilfering a bag of rocks.
In the meantime, maybe she had room in her closet.
There was a knock at the door.
Polly was early.
A human in a black tailored long coat entered.
Azarelle straightened up at the table.
“Professor Singer, good afternoon. I hope I’m not interrupting.”
He was, but she shook her head no.
“Of course not. What can I do for you?”
He didn’t come any closer. This room was her bedchamber as well as her studio and office, and for all their moral vices the Jaspers always treated her space with respect. Lon was the second-oldest, and among his brothers he visited her the most frequently. She was beginning to think he had a crush.
“We’ve been receiving disturbing reports from our informants in the outlying districts. Several of our operatives have gone missing, storehouses in the country have been burned, and there have been sightings of undead patrols.”
Azarelle raised an eyebrow.
“That’s the assumption. We need to know if they’re preparing to invade or if this is just another border skirmish.”
He took a step forward and smiled. Azarelle regarded him. He was moderately charming. She could admit that, and handsome in a human sort of way. His skin was dark and his short hair curled in subtle waves.
She tilted her head.
He nodded. Azarelle frowned inwardly. She hated augury.
Lon seemed to detect her distaste and came slowly around the table.
“I realize this isn’t the sort of work we contracted you for, but I was hoping you could help us.”
“You, or your brothers?”
He shrugged, smiling.
“Both, I suppose. We can’t ignore the threat from our neighbours, but we can’t waste time preparing for an attack that may never come. Winter is only a few months away. We have to conserve our resources.”
Azarelle went to her desk.
“I see your problem. You can’t maintain control if you can’t feed your subordinates, but if Tormar rolls in and you’re not ready, you’ll lose everything.”
He nodded. Azarelle smiled.
“Gosh. Autocracy is tough.”
“I know you don’t approve of our methods, but try to look at the big picture. No government on Kalkonu has ever survived the winter. Think of how many lives we could save, of how many people might survive who would otherwise perish in the violence and chaos of the long dark.”
He stared into her eyes.
“You could help save them.”
Azarelle paused, thinking as she stared at the papers on her desk. He had a point. The Jaspers were mobsters, but orderly corruption might indeed be better than rampant violence and chaos; besides, it wasn’t as though she hadn’t already been helping them stay in power. Her work had contributed substantially to their wealth, and she’d taken money in exchange. There was already blood on her hands, of a sort.
She’d been exiled because of an accident. How ironic it was that she’d had to be imprisoned to become a criminal.
Lon set a thin box in front of her and went to the door.
“We’ll supply all the materials for the spell. Just give us a list of what you need, and of course you’ll be well paid for your time.”
She picked up the box and turned to face him.
“And what’s this?”
She raised an eyebrow.
“From the syndicate?”
He shook his head.
“From me. Consider it a token of my gratitude.”
His glance lingered a moment before he left. Azarelle looked in the box.
Polly found Azarelle in bed. She always seemed to find her there.
She nudged her gently.
Azarelle grumbled and rolled over.
Polly nudged her again.
“Hey, wake up. I’ve got your things.”
Groaning, the mage straightened up and rubbed her eyes.
“What time is it?”
“It’s the middle of the afternoon.”
Azarelle yawned and reached for her nightstand. There was nothing there but a pen and paper. She frowned and turned to her.
“Did you bring me coffee?”
Polly smiled and handed her a mug. Azarelle took a deep breath over it and smiled.
“Did I ever tell you I love you?”
Polly went to the table and got her bag.
“All the time. Want to see your stuff?”
Azarelle shook her head.
“I’m sure it’s all there. Your ingots are on the desk.”
Polly went to it. There was a little pile, already counted out. She picked them up. Her eyes caught on thin box.
She picked that up too.
Polly looked over at her.
Her face flattened out. Azarelle smiled weakly.
“It’s from Lon. He wants me to help him and his brothers see the future.”
Polly’s eyes went wide.
“You can do that?”
Azarelle nodded, face in her mug.
“In a manner of speaking.”
“Are you going to do it?”
Azarelle sat back against her pillows.
“I don’t know. Making potions for them is one thing. Helping them stay in power is something else. They might use what I discover to plan an invasion of their own. I don’t know if I’m comfortable with that.”
Polly went to the bed.
“Of their own? Is Selapak being invaded?”
Azarelle shook her head.
“We don’t know. That’s what they want me to find out.”
“That’s not such a bad thing to help them with. I’d certainly like to know.”
Azarelle took up the paper on the nightstand. There was a list of materials on it.
“That’s what I keep telling myself.”
They sat quietly before Polly finally spoke up.
“Was it a good present?”
“Take a look.”
She opened the box. There was a polished silver hair pin inside: long, thin, and delicate; accented with inlaid mother of pearl and smooth slivers of onyx. Polly’s eyes went wide.
She turned to her friend and pouted.
“You know, if I were three feet taller I would get presents like this.”
Azarelle gave her a flat look.
Polly headed for the table. She took up her pack, upending the stones into a jar.
“Do you need anything else?”
Azarelle lurched to her feet.
“Not today. I have to work on this.”
She held up the list.
“So you’re going to do it?”
Azarelle nodded. Polly looked up at her.
“Because of Lon?”
Her friend shook her head and pointed at the table.
“Because of that.”
Polly looked at the table, covered in drawings and magical script. Azarelle had been working on them for as long as they’d known each other. She’d never pressed her for details. She didn’t want to risk upsetting their arrangement.
“It’s really important to you, isn’t it?”
Her friend nodded.
She didn’t say anything after that.
Polly left. She didn’t pry. She shook the ingots in her purse and looked up at the sun. There was time for one more game.
Special Thanks To: