Juxxa was unable to hide his impatience. He turned to Augustus and held out the scroll.
“Well, that was certainly interesting.” Augustus took the parchment. “I wonder what they’ll do to try and make the payment.”
“Augustus, I have to get back. Can we get on with it?”
“Of course.” Augustus went to one of the empty stalls. He picked up a candleholder and held his finger to the candle’s wick. “Leftivacus.” A short blue flame shot out of his finger with a loud puff, igniting the candle.
“You’re a mage?”
“It’s just the first rank of magic, a little firelight.”
“Citizens here are jailed for less.”
“Come now, Headsplitter. You and I understand reality. That’s why Claudia’s profession is worthless. Laws, bans, and edicts mean nothing for anyone with enough power and value. Order is applied only to the small and insignificant, to keep them that way.”
Juxxa wasn’t one for politics. He said nothing.
Augustus used the candle to light a few oil lamps. He unrolled the Elven scroll and placed it on the table hewn of rough brown boards. He raised his eyebrows as he brushed a finger over certain lines more than once.
“Well?” Juxxa said.
“It’s a note from one spy to another.”
“Yes. I think I got it from an Elven spy. What does it say?”
“It’s intentionally vague, but it says negotiations with Nimb Vard are going poorly.”
“Negotiations?” Juxxa’s blood grew hot. So the hypocrite Sallith not only uses magic in the city he’s outlawed magic in, he’s negotiating with mages and using elves?
Nimb Vard was an impressive city-fortress near the center of the Gorung Desert. It was home to the Thaumaturges—the most twisted, reclusive, and greatest of human mages, to the point that they considered themselves a separate race.
“Mages and elves are outlawed in Mirek,” said Augustus. “Nimb Vard is our closest neighbor—and the greatest mage city ever. If an extremist sect wanted to infiltrate Mirek, they would be wise to operate from there.”
“Maybe the Thaumaturges are the ones plotting against the King,” said Juxxa, scratching the stubble on his chin.
“Whoever it is, I just hope the King is their only target.”
“What do you mean?”
“As opposed to the entire city. If some group is planning upheaval in Mirek it will be better for the rest of us if all they want to do is replace the King. But it’s none of my business.”
“There is one other thing.” Augustus rolled his eyes. “It says to keep watching Claudia and her mother, Daliah.”
“Why? Are they involved?”
“They’re being watched, so apparently yes. Anyhow, that’s it.” Augustus handed the scroll to Juxxa.
“Are you sure that’s all?”
“So if I watch Claudia or Daliah I might be able to find another elf who’s involved in this scheme.”
“Oh, I wouldn’t try stealth, my good man.” Augustus walked to the entrance of his small market. “You’ve many talents, Headsplitter, but they’re of the brute variety. I could give you the contact of a good spy.”
Juxxa snorted. “Dealing with you is risky enough. I’ll find a way to do this right.” He tucked the scroll into his cloak and ducked into the alley.
There was a trail of blood leading into a building. Perhaps the boy’s not dead. Maybe he crawled away. I’m sure no one saw me. The baying mobs aren’t close enough to the fights to get a good look at me. Anyway, I’m famous for killing men, not for my face.
Claudia insisted on getting food immediately after she and Rat left Augustus. They stopped at a fried thyra stand. She ordered as many skewers of crispy poultry bits as she could hold. Rat grunted as she handed him her sack of coins. Though he was far from weak, the platinum was a heavy burden.
She ate five skewers of meat and tossed the empty wooden sticks in a garbage barrel before pulling Rat underneath a low roof that seemed to have hundreds of hanging flower pots. “I love thyra, especially their eggs. I can’t wait to go shopping tomorrow. Now then, how do you know about the palace and Reginald? And what do you want with me?”
“I’ll tell you how I know,” Rat said, sweeping back his shoulder-length hair. “But you have to promise not to tell anyone my secret. I mean anyone. If the secret gets out, we’re no longer helping each other.”
“Eh... I promise.”
“But you want to know how you’d be helping me and how I can help you.”
“I’m not sure...”
“I need a jurist, but more than that, I need someone motivated to take down the King.” Rat leaned against a wooden beam.
“Rat, what I really want to know is: how do you know what’s been going on with me?”
“I need someone who people won’t find threatening, especially Sallith. I’ll explain after we take care of Reginald’s problem. Sorry, you want to know how I know all these things.”
“Yes! Just tell me already. I’ll keep your secret.”
“You’re telling the truth.” Rat grinned. “Excellent. Well, the truth is...” he took a deep breath, “I can read minds.”
Claudia held in a burp and narrowed her eyes.
“I mean it. When people are within five paces, their thoughts stream through me.” He plucked a purple stalk of lupine. “I love these. They smell very rich, but not sweet.”
Dammit, now I’ve...
“Now you’ve gotten mixed up with a crazy man?” Rat dropped the flowers. “Thank you for the confidence.”
Claudia stared at him for a moment, mouth agape. She took a deep breath. “That’s not fair.”
“Do you believe me, or not?”
“There are many rare and bizarre things in the world.”
“I appreciate it,” Rat said. “Thank you.”
“It would help if I could test it, if you don’t mind.”
“All right.” Rat crossed his arms and closed his eyes. “Think of something I could never possibly predict or guess.”
Despite trying to empty her mind, Claudia began remembering her former clients. Many of them were poor people who’d been accused of sympathizing with loose mages, elves, or other dissidents.
“You have a good heart.” Rat opened his eyes.
“What did you see? Or, uh, find out or whatever?”
“You were thinking about poor Remus, frightful Katcha, and the others you were unable to save.”
Claudia’s eyes got big. She had questions. She didn’t need to ask them aloud.
How old were you when it started?
“Ten. It was terrifying, let me tell you.”
“It’s hard knowing so much about people, especially when they spend so much time trying to hide the truth, or whatever they’re really thinking. Being able to detect the stink underneath was difficult at first. I didn’t know what to do with the information, or if I should even do anything. Sometimes it was really awful.”
“That does sound unpleasant.” Claudia looked at him. “I sure wouldn’t want to constantly hear the thoughts of the people in this city.”
Rat picked an indigo lily and started walking. “I’ve learned to ignore most of it and use what I can.”
Claudia followed him. “So... you’re a mage hiding out here?”
“I’m no mage.” Rat shook his head. “There’s no magic for reading thoughts, and it’s not like I cast a spell to make it happen. As long as a person’s in range, I hear their thoughts. They’re always there. Busy streets are the worst.”
“And you’re my neighbor.” Claudia put her head in her hands and groaned. “Oh for the love of the Seers.”
“It’s not my fault your thoughts are so loud.”
“You’re a very strong thinker, Claudia. That’s another reason I’d love to work with you.”
“I have a lot of experience and business sense.”
“It’s not difficult to be a successful entrepreneur when you know what everyone around you is thinking.”
“My ability has helped me. But I’ve worked hard to be who I am.” Rat gave Claudia her sack of platinum coins.
“Thanks.” She realized his ability could prove very useful, but she tried not to think about it.
“I’ll help you get Reginald out of Calceria, and with any luck, your plan will get you more than enough money to live for a while.”
“Yep. I know it, and it’s good. So let’s do it.”