Falseness and Greed
A Clean Death: Part Three of Twelve
A Clean Death is the fourth in the Tales of The Lesser Evil and this is the third chapter.
This is a fantasy series—not quite grimdark, but dark nevertheless—with complicated and believable characters doing their best to survive in a world simply indifferent to their existence.
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Falseness and Greed
It was nearing midday when Pepper banged on a large door in the Golds, the merchant district of Youlmouth.
After a journey carried uphill in uncomfortable sedan chairs, they had secured a private suite in an inn near the Great Baths, paying the full cost for three days and asking not to be disturbed. After a swift change of clothes and masks, they slipped out the rear of The Generous Healing, each carrying a much smaller bag than those they had entered with.
‘Who’s there?’ The voice sounded angry, deep and belligerent.
‘My name is Cinnamon and I have spices to sell.’ Pepper replied.
‘I need no spices, unless you have the one I crave more than any other.’
‘I carry saffron, cumin, turmeric, and anise.’
‘No, begone, I need none of those.’
‘I also carry the blackest of pepper, but it is expensive.’
‘Three times the cost of the others.’
‘Very well.’ The door opened slowly, bolt after bolt being drawn back, from all sides of the thick wood. Whoever was behind the reinforced wood valued his security.
Hedda was sure she had followed most of the conversation, the code was simple enough. The key, as Pepper so often said, was to wrap the lies within truths. Their cover extended to carrying samples of spices, in case someone overheard them and demanded proof. Every eventuality that could be controlled and planned, was.
She felt a thrill run through her, the knowledge that she stood at a crossroads in her life, that beyond lay everything she had trained for, over all the years she could remember. The feeling was intoxicating: fear mixed with excitement, tempered by a sliver of doubt.
The man who opened the door did not fit the voice. Hedda had been expecting someone large, rough around the edges, perhaps even brutish. Instead, he was the same height as her, slightly taller than Pepper, wearing immaculate and expensive clothing, face adorned with perfect makeup, hair shining with some kind of oil. The scent of incense and expensive perfume tickled her nose. Somewhere beyond the man, she could hear birds singing.
He held the door open for them both. Hedda looked back the way they had walked but could see no sign of anyone having followed. The door was quickly closed behind them, with each of the bolts reapplied, nine in all. The small windows to either side of the door were heavily barred, iron set deep into stone, blocking any hope of entry. They were also glazed, with some of the clearest glass Hedda had ever seen.
The man removed his mask and tipped his head slightly, one hand reaching to tap his forehead twice.
‘I am Menna, my mother was Nyla, daughter of Radfik. I welcome you Pepper and Hedda, permit you eat with freedom and drink with peace beneath my roof.’
Hedda’s eyes widened slightly at the use of her real name. She glanced at Pepper, who was smiling, then she returned the man’s welcome, remembering her training.
‘I am Hedda, my father was Luka, son of Shirra. I accept your welcome and await the freedom of your food and the peace of your roof.’
‘Pepper.’ The man smiled, then stretched out his arms and enfolded her in a fierce hug. His voice reminded Hedda of a small dog with a large bark.
‘Oh, but it is damned good to see you, Menna. It really has been too long.’
‘I agree. Come, come, let us take tea and talk.’ He gestured to a thick curtain on the opposite side of the room and they followed as he led the way, sweeping it aside to reveal another locked door.
As he bent to unlock the door, Hedda studied the room they were leaving. It was sparsely decorated and furnished, nothing but a solid standing desk, a giant chest beside it and two large wooden carvings, each almost as tall as the ceiling. The first was of a man holding out his hand, a smile on his face. Behind his back, he held a long thin blade. The second was of a woman, also smiling, also holding a blade. They had been polished so many times that the wood looked alive, skin over flesh and bone, each detail and shadow adding to the effect.
‘They are too heavy to be moved by one person. Likewise the furniture. I find it safer not to allow potential threats access to any bonus weapon,’ Menna said when he noticed Hedda looking. ‘He is Falseness, she is Greed. They are warnings to potential business.’
Hedda nodded and followed Pepper through the door. She entered a brightly-lit courtyard, as different from the gloom of the first room as a spire-dweller from a gutter-child.
The space was wide and colonnaded, a fountain in the middle surrounded by smaller stone statues, one on each side. Plants were everywhere, whether small stunted trees growing in the courtyard, ferns hanging from baskets around the edge, or creepers advancing up the columns, each with leaves beginning to turn a brilliant crimson or a startling orange.
One side of the courtyard was taken up by a large aviary, with brightly-coloured birds sitting in branches singing, or fluttering from perch to perch. Hedda recognised some from The House Of Birds in Eastsea, a favourite place to sit and learn, but most were new to her.
As soon as she entered, she had counted the exits; something Pepper had taught her almost as soon as she had started her lessons, her words still echoing in her memory,
‘If you do not immediately know your way out of a place, do not enter.’
There were two doors opposite them, two to the left, and one within the aviary, although there was no immediately obvious way to enter the cage. Hedda was also sure she could easily reach the low roof of the covered walkway and potentially make her way through one of the windows she saw on the floor above, although the light glinted off glass shards studding walls and sills.
‘Come, come,’ said Menna, as he finished locking the door behind them—more bolts and three different keys.
He led the way through the nearest door, this time one large key all that was needed to enter.
The room beyond was opulent and surprisingly large. A stone stair on one wall led both up and down, a small platform between the two connecting. Each step was worn concave from use, demonstrating the age of the building. Wall hangings, rugs, luxurious cushions, throws and padded furniture were all tastefully matched, no piece out of keeping with the next. Small items of art, statuettes, bowls, vases, ancient artefacts, paintings and sculpture were dotted around the room, whether on plinths, or within an array of niches in the walls, or on a grand table of dark wood. There were several glass-fronted and locked bookshelves, with still others open to browsing. The plaster was a subtle pale apricot colour and the room seemed to glow, warmly welcoming them, the whole room relaxing the guest. Hedda knew this was deliberate.
‘Welcome to my home. Please, sit.’ Menna gestured to the chairs as he walked to a woven silken bell cord and tugged it twice. ‘May I offer you tea? Perhaps something stronger?’
‘Tea would be ideal, please,’ Pepper answered.
A servant, dressed in white robes with more embroidery than Hedda had ever seen, entered. Menna gave quick instructions, before returning to sit with Pepper and Hedda.
‘So, tell me, what can I do to help?’
Pepper began to speak, outlining the truth of their mission to the city, how Rinc the Fourth had escaped Eastsea and how she was sure he was still here. She fell silent when the servant returned, bearing a large tray with tea and fine porcelain cups, bowls of sugared almonds, dates, dried figs and pistachios.
She continued when the man had left, after helping herself to a mouthful of dates, smiling at the taste.
‘I have an idea of how to find him, but I need your advice. It is a matter of local knowledge. I will probably need more help too.’ She finished speaking and poured the tea.
‘And what is your role in this Hedda, daughter of Luka?’
‘Whatever I am instructed to do. I have been learning and training for some years now.’ She took a sip of the tea, not daring to ask what the unknown spices she could taste were. She would wait until later, ask Pepper when they were alone, afraid of showing gaps in her knowledge.
‘This is a difficult thing. To find a man who wishes to remain hidden, in the City of Masks? Very difficult, but not impossible. In three days though? I cannot see it being possible. Unless you know something we could use about this man?’
Pepper smiled and took another sip of her tea. Hedda knew that smile, it meant her mentor knew something others did not, it meant she was sure of herself, confident her plan would work.
‘Rinc is afraid of dirt. He was never poor, the fourth generation of his family to work for the Spirelords, each higher in standing, each richer than the last, each in a larger and cleaner home. Rinc cannot stand to be anywhere he thinks may infect him with the diseases of the poor, of the unwashed from The Below. For this reason, he will not stay anywhere dirty, no matter how afraid he is of being followed,’ she paused, took another sip, and added, ‘What is this spice? I can’t quite place it.’
Hedda smiled inwardly. She knew this was a lesson, she knew Pepper was telling her to always ask when she was unsure.
‘It is new. I picked it up from a Seafolk vessel which had just returned from the south, they would not tell me exactly where. They are calling it “warmth”, but I doubt that’s its original name. This is from a sample sack, all they had, but I ordered as much as they can trade for, backing the whole expedition which should return in the spring. If this pays off, I can probably retire.’ Menna shrugged and took another mouthful himself. ‘I’ve been enticing the rich and influential with my amazing tea and my cook has also excelled herself, using warmth for both sweet and savoury dishes. Youlmouth is desperate to know what I am using. I suspect,’ he smiled at Pepper and cleared his throat, before raising an eyebrow. ‘I suspect Eastsea might also wish to be equally enamoured?’
‘Oh, I think you might be right. We’ll certainly discuss it before I leave, maybe come up with another name? I think this might prove exceptionally profitable. And Menna? We both know you’ll never retire.’
‘Very true, very true. I only said I could retire. Now, back to matters at hand, this Rinc the Fourth. Knowing that he is afraid of dirt narrows the search area down considerably. He will avoid most of the Outer Flurries, Mireside, all the waterfront, the rookeries. Probably most of the city. If he is to stay in a guest-house and has no friends with whom to lodge, I imagine he will be in one of nine. They are spread across three areas, three in Temples, two in Laverside, including your Generous Healing, and four here in the Golds. It is still a lot of ground to cover, however.’
‘Which is where you come in. Tell me about the steams, about the clean ones at least. I know of the Great Baths, but are there any others only open to the rich and already-clean? Tell me, how quickly you can disseminate a rumour, pass it around the city?’
‘A rumour? Why, I could have most of the city whispering it this eve, talking over breakfast and screaming by tomorrow noon. That is easy. The steams?’ He steepled his fingers and rested his chin on them for a moment before smiling and continuing. ‘There are three. One for each area. There are others, but they are not as clean or in areas once rich, now fallen on harder times,’ he smiled. ‘You are clever, Pepper. That is what I always love about you, how your sharpest weapon is your mind.’
Hedda tried not to frown. She had spent hours trying to work out how to find Rinc and had failed spectacularly. A thought crossed her mind.
‘The steams, these are like the bathhouses in Eastsea?’
‘Yes, only there are hot and cold pools and rooms with hot steam too. Attendants to ensure you leave scrubbed and free of all dirt,’ Menna replied.
‘In which case it might be public, but there is no way people would wear masks, is there?’
‘Correct,’ Pepper said, taking another sip of her tea and carefully watching Hedda.
‘So Menna spins a rumour, perhaps about a disease, something that requires immediate cleansing, or may cause a terrible rash, or dangerous infection, then Rinc immediately heads to his nearest bathhouse or steam, and we are waiting there for him? Is that right?’ Her heart was racing, fervently hoping she was correct and had not just made a fool of herself.
‘Perfect.’ Pepper grinned at Menna, who smiled back.
‘But there are three steams, and only two of us,’ Hedda said.
‘Three steams, yes, but Menna here can definitely help. He will be paid well, as always, and is remarkably good at what he does. This does mean, however, that you and I will have to cover the other two. I have a sketched likeness of Rinc for Menna, but you already know what he looks like, as do I. You wanted to work, you said you were ready, now you have a one in three chance of being the one who has to push Rinc to the darkness. You are ready, I know this, but you need to know it too.’
They were silent for a short time, each sipping the delicious tea and sampling the food, looking at one another.
‘I can do this. I know I can. Now, how do you want him killed?’ Hedda asked.
Pepper smiled and sat back in her chair. They began to plan the details.
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