Dragon’s Ring — Snippet 09

Dragon’s Ring — Snippet 09

Chapter 08

Meb looked at the gleeman in horror. He couldn’t be serious. “You can’t set fire to a building!” she said, shocked.

He looked quizzically down at her. “But it won’t burn unless I set fire to it, Scrap. And getting into it unless it’s burning is too much like hard work. Besides, the fire will warm you up nicely. You’ve started shivering again.”

Meb shut her mouth by force of will. It had fallen open involuntarily at the gleeman’s crazy idea. She took a deep breath and shook her head. “You can’t set fire to buildings,” she said firmly. “People will get burned and hurt.”

He raised an eyebrow at her. “But there is no one in the tax hall at night. They only extort during daylight hours. So no one gets burned. In fact, even the tax-men will be grateful. They’ll get a few days holiday while Zuamar organizes another place for them to work.”

Meb had sworn vengeance against dragonkind — no matter how ludicrous the idea. But a lifetime’s ingrained deference came pounding at the doors of her conscience. “You should call him ‘Lord,'” she said firmly.

The jester snorted. “Why? He’s no lord of mine. I’m no one’s vassal. A lord has a duty to give his a vassal a living, and my pouch is empty tonight. A lord has a duty to protect his vassals, and your home is ash.”

Deep inside, Meb knew that this was dangerous talk. But she found that it did make a peculiar kind of sense. A very appealing kind of sense. The very idea that there should be some form of duty imposed on lords, just as there were taxes imposed on the lesser people! The logical part of her mind said, “I bet the lords will just love that idea . . . and anyone who comes up with it.” But she nodded all the same. “We can’t, though. Fires spread. It’s not right that others should be hurt,” she said sanctimoniously, hating herself for saying it, but knowing that she must do so.

The jester laughed. “You’re a good little scrap aren’t you? No wonder you make such a dismal thief. Look, it’s raining. The tax-hall stands well away from other buildings. I’ll probably have the merry devil of a time getting it to burn, let alone anything else. Anyway, all you have to do is yell ‘fire, fire!’ which is exactly what a public spirited young fellow like you would do anyway. Then we help to put it out. Good citizens!” he said loftily. “We just charge a little tax money for our services! It is our money, after all, eh? You get dry, and we go off and find a nice inn for a spot of supper and a couple of warm beds, eh. Besides, it’s an ugly building. Burning it down would be a public service,” he said in a tone just as sanctimonious as hers had been earlier.

She found that she had to laugh a little. Uneasily, but still she was laughing. “You’re sure that there is nobody in it? You’re sure that it won’t spread?”

“Sure as death,” he said cheerfully, flicking his cloak over to hide the bold motley. It was a drab grey on the inside. “Now, you stay here. As soon as you see the flames, you sing out. Yell ‘fire’ at the top of those fine lungs of yours. Then let a few people arrive, before you come and join me. I’ll be with the bucket carriers.”

Meb waited back in the shadows, as the jester walked across to the building. The logical part of her mind said: “Run. NOW.” But it was outweighed by a horrified fascination. He couldn’t really mean to set the building on fire, could he? It was made of brick and surely bricks didn’t burn? She saw him walk up to next to one of the urn-like lamps. It went out abruptly. Next thing she saw someone moving up on the roof cornices. There was just a dark, spidery, rain-hazed figure, but she’d swear there was an urn with him. A little later he climbed back down.

There was a sudden gush of flames from the little alcove where the lamp had been. The flames ran hungrily up the wall, following a gleaming trail of lamp-oil. Next moment the flames were at the roof.

“Fire!” yelled Meb. What else could she do? Just let it burn? “Fire!” She yelled again.

Shutters began opening across the square. Smoke and flames were rushing out of the Tax hall roof by now. People with buckets began pouring out into the street. Joining in was the easiest thing, armed with someone’s spare bucket, Meb found herself with those filling at the square’s central fountain. “We need to get inside,” bawled the gleeman, pushing against the door. “Help me here, all of you!” Several watchmen, their quarterstaves forgotten, joined him, and the doors gave way. “Buckets!” yelled a watchman. “Bring buckets, boys.”

Meb was among those who responded. And there in the smoke and darkness was a cheerful gleeman’s voice. “Come on,” he said, taking her by the elbow. “It’s not even burning in here, but there is plenty of smoke. Let’s break down a door or two. Make a little confusion for everyone.”

He suited action to his words and a wooden door cracked open. He was certainly very strong. And, it seemed, quite able to see in the dark. “Nothing here, except a lot of paper. Frightfully flammable stuff.” And a flame licked at it.

“Time to go,” he said. “Tch! Don’t use that bucket on something I’ve just lit, Scrap!”

He kicked another door. By the time she got through there, a kist was burning merrily. And the gleeman was pouring a handful of coins into his pockets and then a second handful into hers. “Right,” he said, cheerfully. “Time we got out of here. That lot’ll be a fine mess of melted gold in with the silver coin. Take them a while to figure out what’s missing, if they ever do. And it sounds as if the guard and the fire-watch are getting here. It’s definitely time we left.”

She followed him, coughing. He was yelling “Everybody out! The roof’s coming down,” which was a chorus the others took up loudly.

And somehow, in the smoke and darkness, Meb took a wrong turn.

She ran down a passage . . . and realized that he wasn’t ahead of her any more. There was just a closed door. She tried kicking it, as he had. All it did was hurt her toes. And now there were flames behind her too. Even the clangor of yells predominated by “Out out!” were more distant.

Desperately she went back to the door, about to kick it again. They’d broken when the gleeman kicked them! In the firelight she could see a handle. She tried that and the door swung open. There was a flight of stairs beyond it and she raced up them. This led onto another corridor. Looking back she saw that flames were burning up the stairwell. There was no way back down there. The air was hot and smoke-filled. She could not hear voices any longer. Just the hungry cackle of flames. She wished desperately for the sound of one voice, any voice. But Meb, poor, tired, confused Meb, wasn’t ready to give up yet. There was a another door. She must find a way down or at least get to a window. This door — a large one, with a bright-polished handle was locked. But there was a bench — narrow, plain, sturdy and well-worn, in the corridor. Meb picked it up.

She wasn’t very big, but a girl from a small fishing village had to be strong. There were always loads to carry, work to be done. She backed off, going as close to flames as she dared and then charged the door with her bench-ram.

It didn’t break. But she rammed it again . . . and then again. This time the wood cracked and let her crawl into some high panjandrum’s sanctum . . . with shuttered windows. She wrenched them open. Cool, blessedly wet night air rushed in.

She peered out of the window. It seemed a fairly long way down. “Tch,” said a voice behind her. “You can’t even manage to burn down a public building well, Scrap? No training in arson, either. You’ve had a sadly neglected upbringing, youth.”

Meb turned to find the gleeman standing in the doorway looking at her, his hands on his hips, his toothy grin white in the firelight. “Can we get out that way?” she asked. “It’s a long way down.”

“Alas no,” he said with a shrug. “With the front doors open and the roof burning this place is an excellent chimney. We’ll have to leave by the window that you so wisely found your way to. Let’s see. Those drapes should make a fine rope, if you mislike the jump. Never jump onto cobbles in the dark. They make for poor landing places.” He ripped the drapes off their hooks as he spoke. “The bench will do nicely,” he said. “Bring it to the window.”

Meb did. He looped the now-knotted drapes around it, and pointed at the window. “Out you go. Slide down it like a rope. Drop when you get to the end. And head for the alley across from the fountain.”

Meb had never slid down a rope in her life — but boys did that on the boats — so at least she’d seen it done. She took her courage in both hands and went over the sill. It was a lot more difficult than it sounded. But the fire was behind him, and he’d come back to find her. She had to do it. It wasn’t that far down . . .

Sitting, rubbing the seat of her breeches, she knew that rope-sliding would be the next thing that he would say she needed to learn.

“What were you doing in there?” someone asked, helping her up. “That’s the chief inspector’s room!”

“We were trying to put the fire out. We got stuck on the second floor. We had to break in there to escape the flames.” She thought fast. Better to sound like a real firefighter. “Mairi’s going to kill me. I left her bucket in there . . .”

“She’ll probably be glad to have you back in one piece, you young tearaway,” said the man, laughing.

Meb had been watching anxiously for the gleeman. He didn’t appear. She’d have to go back for him! He had come back for her. Could the smoke have overwhelmed him? She got up, and headed back toward the burning building.

“I thought I said the alley across from the fountain,” said a voice behind her.

“I thought you were still inside,” she said gaping.

“I found a side door. I’m good at that,” he said quietly. “I thought if they were going to look for anyone, it shouldn’t be the two of us. Head for the alley.”

She did, and he arrived moments later. “Time to go,” he said. “Unless you want to serve in the bucket chain. They’re getting organized, and the rain seems to be coming down harder. Unfortunately. I’ve never liked tax halls.”

He led her through several alleys and out into a broad street, then off down a side road, to an inn. Standing outside under the hanging lantern he looked speculatively at her. “Hmm. You’re smoky smelling, and your clothes and your face are sure give-aways, blackened like that. Are you dry again?”

“Er. Yes.” She was, fairly. The heat had been enough to frizzle the hair on her hands, which, now that she looked at them, were black. Her face probably looked much the same.

“Good. Time to get you wet again, then” he said, evilly. He somehow seemed to have escaped the worst of the smoke and ash. “There’s a well around the back. Come. Over the fence rather than in the front door. The front door is not for the likes of us, anyway. The only time I see the front door of an inn is when I’m being thrown out of it.” He led her to the gate at the side of the building and said, “Well, up and over then.”

It was a good bit taller than she was. But he seemed to expect her to climb it. So Meb tried. And failed. After the day she’d had her muscles felt like jelly. Even the walk back through the streets had seemed a long, long way.

The gleeman shook his head. “Not like that.”

“I’m sorry. I’m just so tired. I can’t,” she said weakly, hating herself.

“Ach. You poor little scrap of humanity. Here. Have a boost.” And he made a stirrup of his hands, and lifted her, so that she had her waist over the top. With a scrabble Meb tumbled headlong into the small yard.

He came over the top as easily as a lizard.

“Good.” he said quietly. “No dog.”

The idea hadn’t even occurred to her. She really wasn’t very good at this, the inner person admitted, but she was so tired . . .

He hauled up a bucket of water from the well, and they washed hands and faces. The water was cold — and it wasn’t going to do anything for her clothes. But the gleeman seemed to have thought of that too. He slipped into the barn and returned as she was still scrubbing. “Here,” he said, handing her a bundle from the pack he’d retrieved from a hayloft. “I’ve . . . um . . . outgrown them a little. Fling those clothes of yours in the manure pile, and toss a bit of straw over them. I’m going to open a back way in for us. I think we’ll have been here quietly, all evening.”

Meb was relieved when he went so that she could change, anyway. But her very tired mind did ask her if she knew quite what she was getting herself into. And that was no reference to the red and yellow jester’s knee-breeches and the loose tunic-top he’d given her. There was even a cloak, too. It was good cloth, if rather worn. She scrambled into them hastily. And there were boots . . . she’d never had real shoes. They fitted surprisingly well, even if they did feel odd.

“Ah. Well, you’ll pass as an jester ‘prentice,” said her new-found mentor coming back so quietly that she hadn’t head him. “Got rid of those clothes yet?”

“No . . . but there’s good wear in them yet. They just need a wash,” she said.

“Tch,” he clicked his tongue. “People will maybe be looking for a fisher-boy. Those are too recognizable. And too smoky by half. Give.” She handed them over to him. He shook the bundle, and shook his head. “You even forgot to take the money out of the pockets, Scrap.”

She blinked. “Sorry. Very tired.”

He patted her shoulder sympathetically. “Food and sleep then. We’ll need to make an early start tomorrow. We want to be a long way gone when Zuamar starts looking at his tax hall.”

“We?”

He grinned. “It would seem that you’re probably the worst possible choice for an apprentice rogue. Therefore I’ve decided to take you on.”

She blinked. Gaped at him. “But . . . my step-brothers. I’ve got to wait for them. They’re off at sea. They won’t be back for days.”

“Best place for them to be,” said the gleeman. “I suspect that there is going to be a fair amount of trouble tomorrow. Some people are going to remember you jumping out of the chief tax-inspector’s window.”

“How will they ever know we did it?” asked Meb, fearfully.

He made a face. “Trust me. They will know someone did. And the bigger the thief, the nastier they get about being robbed, even if it is nothing but some small change you took from their pockets. Come on. There’s a back window unlatched. You’ll have to keep quiet. Someone is asleep in the room.”

On her own Meb would never have dared to go into a room via the window, let alone past two sleeping people, snoring together in bass and alto harmony. She stumbled over some garments abandoned on the floor, but the jester caught her arm before she fell into the bed with the snorers. They navigated through the room to a dimly-lit interior passage, and slipped into the tap-room, to a table in a back corner.

A slatternly tired-looking woman came to the jester’s wave. “We’ll have another drink,” he said. “And maybe a plate of stew, eh, Scrap?”

“Have you got money to pay for it?” the waitress asked suspiciously.

The gleeman shook his head sorrowfully. “Where’s charity these days? Here.” He held out a small silver coin. “The boy’s had the flux for half the evening. I suppose he’d better just have food. Or maybe a half of ale. He’s not used to drinking yet.”

The coin improved her expression. “I’ll bring you the tail end of the squab pie that we had for our dinner. If the lad’s got the flux already, I wouldn’t eat the stew. Some parts of it died a bit too long ago.”

The noise, the warmth and length of her day were finally telling on Meb. She rested her tired head in her hands, elbows on the rough wooden table, her head spinning gently.

“He looks all in, poor mite,” said the woman. “Too young for your sort of life, gleeman.”

“We all have to start somewhere,” said the gleeman. “Now, let’s get some food into him, before he falls asleep at the table.”

The squab pie was excellent. Succulent, flecked with tarragon and set in crisp pastry. Even struggling to focus and stay awake, Meb knew that it was finer food than she’d ever had in her life, even without hunger adding sauce. Meb did find it a little odd that there should be no fish in it, but maybe other people did sometimes have meals without fish.

It didn’t stop her falling asleep on the table.

***

Fionn looked at the sleeper across the table from him, her head resting on her arms, with her rough-cut hair a few finger widths from a puddle of spilled beer. He smiled crookedly. Well. Here was a pretty coil he’d got himself into. Somehow he’d have to teach her to leave fewer traces. She probably didn’t know what she was doing. Actually, make it that she certainly didn’t know what she was doing. When Zuamar came to look at his tax-hall, he would smell magic and dragon fire all over the place.

Fionn had long since given up on any belief in luck . . . or in fate. A planomancer such as he knew that everything revolved around energy. Sometimes you manipulated the energies of the world, and sometimes . . . they manipulated you. Given the way that she was tweaking flow-lines it was not surprising that she’d come to him. In short order Fionn knew that he would have been looking for her. She could very easily ruin his design, even destroy both him and it. It was most amusing that she’d come to the one dragon who really didn’t want to find a human with magical skills. To the one who wouldn’t either kill her or use her. Still, keeping her would allow him to fix the damage as she caused it and, of course, to thwart the designs of others. That would be sweet. And amusing. As funny as plucking a handful of tail-scales from Zuamar, just as burning his tax-hall had been. Besides, the place really had been a drain on the water-energies of the city. Of course there were other ways that he could have fixed that, but this had been more entertaining.

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