All That Glitters:
A Tale of Zodom
by Stuart North
Table of Contents|
parts: 1, 2, 3, 4
The Katlash Bazar was closing for the night. I hurried past the stallholders and passed down Fish Street and Stinkers’ Lane. At the end of Tripe Corner, I doubled back into Fish Street then ducked into the maze of alleyways known as The Warren where Malabek the pawnbroker had his shop wedged like a rotten molar between a rivermeat butcher’s and a seedy-looking flophouse.
I rapped on the door. I heard shuffling steps, then the spy hole was drawn back and a pair of pinched eyes peered out. “Who is it? Who’s there?”
“It’s me,” I said. “Let me in.”
“Who? I don’t know anyone by that name. Go away.”
“Stop playing around, you old goat. It’s Agbek.”
“Agbek? Why would I let you in, you hairless vulture?”
“Because I want to speak to you, you mummified loon.”
“What if I don’t want to speak to you?”
“You will, once you hear me out.”
“It’s late. Come back during daytime hours.”
“This can’t wait,” I snapped. “Will you let me in? I can’t talk to you through that damned hole.”
“Maybe. What’ll you give me?”
“A poke in the eye if you don’t let up.”
The spyhole snapped shut. I waited by the door, tapping my feet and thinking nasty thoughts about vivisection and trepaning, both of which enjoyed a renewed popularity during the Tenth Karkadian Dynasty. The door showed no sign of opening. I realised my irritation was turning to nervousness. The sun was gone, and the warren of streets was clotting into shadows that would soon become one dense blackness.
At that point I had a curious feeling, as if someone was watching me. I suddenly wished I’d brought my knife or a couple of bulbs of blind-powder. I didn’t like coming here after dark but, then again, I didn’t like to go anywhere after dark in this cursed city without at least a couple hundred bodyguards and enough torch bearers to light the Temple Way. Which meant I stayed indoors, most times.
Something lurched in the shadows.
I felt the hairs rise on my neck, felt a coldness wash over me. I felt naked and trapped, out here in the street. I backed against the door, groping for the handle. I had a quick image of myself lying dead and gutted on the pavement come the morning, just another one of the nameless corpses that one finds every day lining the streets of Zodom, growing fat in the sun.
The man lurched forward. I couldn’t see his face, but I could see enough. His proportions seemed wrong, deformed. A veteran of the wars, perhaps, or a beggar mutated by some loathsome disease? Perhaps a product of the Wizard’s Tower, let loose to roam the streets of Zodom like a curse.
I backed against the door.
The door opened and I tumbled in.
“Shut the door, quick!” I said, scrambling to my feet.
Malabek was looking at me like I was a madman, so I slammed the door shut, myself, and locked it. All five locks plus the siege bar. Then I leaned against it and tried to regain my breath.
Malabek’s scowl deepened a notch or three. “What in Shem’s the matter with you?”
“Don’t... know... mugger... maybe...”
He pushed me aside and slid back the spyhole. He peered out a moment then shut it.
“What are you talking about? There’s no one there.”
“You think I’m making it up?”
“I wouldn’t put it past you. Maybe some ploy to work your way into my house.”
“Malabek,” I said, “I’d pay good money to stay the hell away from your house. This isn’t a social call, in case you hadn’t noticed.”
He grunted. “All right. So what do you want? It’s nearly time for my evening wine.”
“Can we go somewhere safer than your entrance hall? I’ve got something to show you.” I tapped the bag. He stopped scowling and peered. “What is it?”
“Something I’d like your opinion on. Your professional opinion.”
He puffed himself up like a desiccated cobra. “Well, if that’s the case, we can retire to my study.”
Malabek’s study wasn’t much larger than his front corridor. In fact, I had the sneaking suspicion it was a continuation of the corridor, only filled with more books. There were books everywhere, stacked up in no appreciable order I could see.
Crammed in between them were old pieces of parchment, leather scroll cases, silver-chased reading sticks, paperweights of jade and jasper, bronze ikons of exotic or forgotten gods, a nice spread of the world’s fallen detritus. I was astounded that the whole mess didn’t come crashing down like a moth-eaten reconstruction of the fall of the walls of Jericho.
Malabek took a seat on a pile of sonnets. “Okay,” he said, “what’s in the bag?”
I showed him the crown. His eyes widened momentarily then squinted to two narrow slits. He took it from me, turned it round as I had done, held it up to the light, muttered something I couldn’t catch. Finally, he passed it back. “Well done,” he said.
“For completely throwing me for a loop. Where on earth did you get this?”
“That old grave robber?”
“And where did he get it from, hmm?”
“Wherever it was, he wasn’t telling me.”
“Ha, that’s just like him. Well, best not to ask, given his dubious practices, eh?”
“And I suppose you wanted me to give it an evaluation?”
“A similar thought had crossed my mind.”
He hummed and hawed. “Looks early High Zodom to me, maybe even pre-Hammite. But there are some anomalies.”
He pointed to the gem at the centre. “This, for one. None of the earliest priest kings wore anything like that. It was all green glass, and cloudy stuff at that. I confess I don’t even know what stone this is. And the workmanship” — he whistled — “exquisite.”
“Suppose you cut to the chase and tell me what it’s worth?”
“Tush, Agbek. Why so mercenary? Can’t you appreciate art for its own sake?”
“When it’s worth something, sure. So how much?”
“I couldn’t say. It is valuable” — he leaned in close, gave a gap-toothed smile and winked — “to the right buyers.”
“Dangerous, as well, to the wrong ones.”
The smile vanished. “What do you mean?”
“As I told you: Hakar never told me where he got it. Or how legally. A piece like this... it’s easily traceable to those on the lookout for it.”
“I see.” He tapped his chin, whistled and did a lot of other annoying things for a few seconds. When he was through, he said, “I may know a buyer who could take this off your hands, if you’re willing to give me a cut.”
“How much?” I said.
“Since we’re partnering, let’s say an even fifty percent.”
“Fifty?” I snarled. “Why not give you a hundred and be done with it?”
“That would be acceptable.”
“I bet.” I ground my teeth then gave in. “Fine. Fifty it is, provided you can guarantee a sale above six hundred marduks.”
“Oh, that I think I can arrange.”
“Then give me a hundred and fifty now, as surety. The rest once you make the sale.”
“Ah, would that I could. Alas, my old friend, business has been slow this month, and I have little to show for it.”
“Then you will invite me to the transaction.”
“I’m afraid my contact prefers his anonymity. He will deal only with me.”
“Of course he will.” I sighed. “Write me out a contract then, you pocket-pinching scoundrel, and be done with it. I’ll be back to collect in two days. If the money isn’t there, I’ll wring your scrawny neck, myself, don’t think I won’t.”
“Always the gentleman, Agbek. Wait here.”
He returned with a wax tablet and scrawled the necessary figures, oaths and god names on it. I insisted on Nergal, the god of death and retribution to watch over it. He stamped it with his personal ring seal. That done, he took formal possession of the crown.
We exchanged some meaningless pleasantries that neither of us put much effort into, then he let me out by the back door without so much as a cup of kasha to warm me on the way.
Not that I’d have drunk it anyway; it would probably have given me a bellyache of the fatal kind.
* * *
Copyright © 2017 by Stuart North