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By Robert Lynn Asprin, Lynn Abbey
Tom Doherty AssociatesCopyright © 2003 Robert Lynn Asprin, Lynn Abbey, and Thieves' World 2000
All rights reserved.
Sentences of Death
* * *
It was a measure of the decline in Sanctuary's fortunes that the scriptorium of Master Melilot occupied a prime location fronting on Governor's Walk. The nobleman whose grandfather had caused a fine family mansion to be erected on the site had wasted his substance in gambling, and at last was reduced to eking out his days in genteel drunkenness in an improvised fourth story of wattle and daub, laid out across the original roof, while downstairs Melilot installed his increasingly large staff and went into the book — as well as the epistle — business. On hot days the stench from the bindery, where size was boiled and leather embossed, bid fair to match the reek around Shambles Cross.
Not all fortunes, be it understood, were declining. Melilot's was an instance. Ten years earlier he had owned nothing but his clothing and a scribe's compendium; then he worked in the open air, or huddled under some tolerant merchant's awning, and his customers were confined to poor litigants from out of town who needed a written summary of their cases before appearing in the Hall of Justice, or suspicious illiterate purchasers of goods from visiting traders who wanted written guarantees of quality.
On a never-to-be-forgotten day, a foolish man instructed him to write down matter relevant to a lawsuit then in progress, which would assuredly have convinced the judge had it been produced without the opposition being warned. Melilot realized that, and made an extra copy. He was richly rewarded.
Now, as well as carrying on the scribe's profession — by proxy, mostly — he specialized in forgery, blackmail, and mistranslation. He was exactly the sort of employer Jarveena of Forgotten Holt had been hoping for when she arrived, particularly since his condition, which might be guessed at from his beardless face and roly-poly fatness, made him indifferent to the age or appearance of his employees.
The services offered by the scriptorium, and the name of its proprietor, were clearly described in half a dozen languages and three distinct modes of writing on the stone face of the building, a window and a door of which had been knocked into one large entry (at some risk to the stability of the upper floors) so that clients might wait under cover until someone who understood the language they required was available.
Jarveena read and wrote her native tongue well: Yenized. That was why Melilot had agreed to hire her. No competing service in Sanctuary could offer so many languages now. But two months might go by — indeed, they just had done so — without a single customer's asking for a translation into or from Yenized, which made her pretty much of a status symbol. She was industriously struggling with Rankene, the courtly version of the common dialect, because merchants liked to let it be thought their goods were respectable enough for sale to the nobility even if they had come ashore by night from Scavengers' Island, and she was making good headway with the quotidian street-talk in which the poorer clients wanted depositions of evidence or contracts of sale made out. Nonetheless she was still obliged to take on menial tasks to fill her time.
It was noon, and another such task was due.
Plainly, it was of little use relying on inscriptions to reach those who were most in need of a scribe's assistance; accordingly Melilot maintained a squad of small boys with peculiarly sweet and piercing voices, who paraded up and down the nearby streets advertising his service by shouting, wheedling, and sometimes begging. It was a tiring occupation, and the children frequently grew hoarse. Thrice a day, therefore, someone was commanded to deliver them a nourishing snack of bread and cheese and a drink made of honey, water, a little wine or strong ale, and assorted spices. Since her engagement, Jarveena had been least often involved in other duties when the time for this one arrived. Hence she was on the street, distributing Melilot's bounty, when an officer whom she knew by name and sight turned up, acting in a most peculiar manner. He was Captain Aye-Gophlan, from the guard post at the corner of the Processional.
He scarcely noticed her as he went by, but that was less than surprising. She looked very much like a boy herself — more so, if anything, than the chubby-cheeked blond urchin she was issuing rations to. When Melilot took her on she had been in rags, and he had insisted on buying her new clothes of which, inevitably, the price would be docked from her minuscule commission on the work she did. She didn't care. She only insisted in turn that she be allowed to choose her garb: a short-sleeved leather jerkin cross-laced up the front; breeches to midcalf; boots to tuck the breeches into; a baldric on which to hang her scribe's compendium with its reed-pens and ink-block and water-pot and sharpening knife and rolls of rough reed-paper; and a cloak to double as covering at night. She had a silver pin for it — her only treasure.
Melilot had laughed, thinking he understood. He owned a pretty girl a year shy of the fifteen Jarveena admitted to, who customarily boxed the ears of his boy apprentices when they waylaid her in a dark passageway to steal a kiss, and that was unusual enough to demand explanation.
But that had nothing to do with it. No more did the fact that with her tanned skin, thin build, close-cropped black hair, and many visible scars, she scarcely resembled a girl regardless of her costume. There were plenty of ruffians — some of noble blood — who were totally indifferent to the sex of the youngsters they raped.
Besides, to Jarveena such experiences were survivable; had they not been, she would not have reached Sanctuary. So she no longer feared them.
But they made her deeply — bitterly — angry. And someday one who deserved her anger more than any was going to pay for at least one of his countless crimes. She had sworn so ... but she had been only nine then, and with the passage of time the chance of vengeance grew more and more remote. Now she scarcely believed in it. Sometimes she dreamed of doing to another what had been done to her, and woke moaning with shame, and she could not explain why to the other apprentice scribes sharing the dormitory that once had been the bedroom of the noble who now snored and vomited and groaned and snored under a shelter fit rather for hogs than humans the wrong side of his magnificently painted ceiling.
She regretted that. She liked most of her companions; some were from respectable families, for there were no schools here apart from temple schools whose priests had the bad habit of stuffing children's heads with myth and legend as though they were to live in a world of make-believe instead of fending for themselves. Without learning to read and write at least their own language they would be at risk of cheating by every smart operator in the city. But how could she befriend those who had led soft, secure lives, who at the advanced age of fifteen or sixteen had never yet had to scrape a living from gutters and garbage piles?
Captain Aye-Gophlan was in mufti. Or thought he was. He was by no means so rich as to be able to afford clothing apart from his uniforms, of which it was compulsory for the guards to own several — this one for the emperor's birthday, that one for the feast of the regiment's patron deity, another for day-watch duty, yet another for night-watch duty, another for funeral drill. ... The common soldiers were luckier. If they failed in their attire, the officers were blamed for stinginess. But how long was it since there had been enough caravans through here for the guard to keep up the finery required of them out of bribes? Times indeed were hard when the best disguise an officer on private business could contrive was a plum-blue overcloak with a hole in it exactly where his crotch armor could glint through.
Seeing him, Jarveena thought suddenly about justice. Or more nearly, about getting even. Perhaps there was no longer any hope of bringing to account the villain who had killed her parents and sacked their estate, enslaved the able-bodied, turned loose his half-mad troops on children to glut the lust of their loins amid the smoke and crashing of beams as the village its inhabitants called Holt vanished from the stage of history.
But there were other things to do with her life. Hastily she snatched back the cup she had already allowed to linger too long in the grasp of this, luckily the last of Melilot's publicity boys. She cut short an attempt at complaint with a scowl which drew her forehead skin down just far enough to reveal a scar normally covered by her forelock.
That was a resource she customarily reserved until all else failed. It had its desired effect; the boy gulped and surrendered the cup and went back to work, pausing only to urinate against the wall.
Just as Jarveena expected, Aye-Gophlan marched stolidly around the block, occasionally glancing back as though feeling insecure without his regular escort of six tall men, and made for the rear entrance to the scriptorium — the one in the crooked alley where the silk-traders were concentrated. Not all of Melilot's customers cared to be seen walking in off a populous and sunny roadway.
Jarveena thrust the wine jar, dish, and cup she was carrying into the hands of an apprentice too young to argue, and ordered them returned to the kitchen — next to the bindery, with which it shared a fire. Then she stole up behind Aye-Gophlan and uttered a discreet cough.
"May I be of assistance, Captain?"
"Ah —!" The officer was startled; his hand flew to something stick-shaped under his cloak, no doubt a tightly rolled scroll. "Ah ... Good day to you!" I have a problem concerning which I desire to consult your master."
"He will be taking his noon meal," Jarveena said in a suitably humble tone. "Let me conduct you to him."
Melilot never cared to have either his meals or the naps which followed them interrupted. But there was something about Aye-Gophlan's behavior which made Jarveena certain that this was an exceptional occasion.
She opened the door of Melilot's sanctum, announced the caller rapidly enough to forestall her employer's rage at being distracted from the immense broiled lobster lying before him on a silver platter, and wished there were some means of eavesdropping on what transpired.
But he was infinitely too cautious to risk that.
* * *
At best Jarveena had hoped for a few coins by way of bonus if Aye-Gophlan's business proved profitable. She was much surprised, therefore, to be summoned to Melilot's room half an hour later.
Aye-Gophlan was still present. The lobster had grown cold, untouched, but much wine had been consumed.
On her entrance, the officer gave her a suspicious glare.
"This is the fledgling you imagine could unravel the mystery?" he demanded.
Jarveena's heart sank. What devious subterfuge was Melilot up to now? But she waited meekly for clear instructions. They came at once, in the fat man's high and slightly whining voice.
"The captain has a writing to decipher. Sensibly, he has brought it to us, who can translate more foreign tongues than any similar firm!"It is possible that it may be in Yenized, with which you are familiar ... though, alas, I am not."
Jarveena barely suppressed a giggle. If the document were in any known script or language, Melilot would certainly recognize it — whether or not he could furnish a translation. That implied — hmm!" A cipher? How interesting!" How did an officer of the guard come by a message in code he couldn't read? She looked expectant, though not eager, and with much reluctance Aye-Gophlan handed her the scroll.
Without appearing to look up, she registered a tiny nod from Melilot. She was to agree with him.
What in the world? Only a tremendous self-control prevented her from letting fall the document. Merely glancing at it made her dizzy, as though her eyes were crossing against her will. For a second she had seemed to read it clearly, and a heartbeat later ...
She took a firm grip on herself. "I believe this to be Yenized, as you suspected, sir," she declared.
"Believe?" Aye-Gophlan rasped. "But Melilot swore you could read it instantly!"
"Modern Yenized I can, Captain," Jarveena amplified. "I recognize this as a high and courtly style, as difficult for a person like myself as imperial Rankene would be for a herdsman accustomed to sleeping with the swine." It was always politic to imply one's own inferiority when talking to someone like this. "Luckily, thanks to my master's extensive library, I've gained a wider knowledge of the subject in recent weeks; and with the help of some of the books he keeps I would expect to get at least its gist."
"How long would it take?" Aye-Gophlan demanded.
"Oh, one might safely say two or three days," Melilot interpolated in a tone that brooked no contradiction. "Given that it's so unusual an assignment, there would naturally be no charge except on production of a satisfactory rendering."
Jarveena almost dropped the scroll a second time. Never in living memory had Melilot accepted a commission without taking at least half his fee in advance. There must be something quite exceptional about this sheet of paper —
And of course there was. It dawned on her that moment, and she had to struggle to prevent her teeth from chattering.
"Wait here," the fat man said, struggling to his feet. "I shall return when I've escorted the captain out."
The moment the door closed she threw the scroll down on the table next to the lobster — wishing, irrelevantly, that it were not still intact, so she might snatch a morsel without being detected. The writing writhed into new patterns even as she tried not to notice.
Then Melilot was back, resuming his chair, sipping from his half-full wine cup.
"You're astute, you little weasel!" he said in a tone of grudging admiration. "Are you quick-witted enough to know precisely why neither he nor I — nor you! — can read that writing?"
Jarveena swallowed hard. "There's a spell on it," she offered after a pause.
"Yes!" Yes, there is! Better than any code or cipher. Except for the eyes of the intended recipient, it will never read the same way twice."
"How is it that the captain didn't realize?"
Melilot chuckled. "You don't have to read and write to become a captain of the guard," he said. "He can about manage to tell whether the clerk who witnesses his mark on the watch-report is holding the page right side up; but anything more complicated and his head starts to swim anyway."
He seized the lobster, tore off a claw, and cracked it between his teeth; oil ran down his chin and dripped on his green robe. Picking out the meat, he went on. "But what's interesting is how he came by it. Make a guess."
Jarveena shook her head.
"One of the imperial bodyguards from Ranke, one of the detachment who escorted the prince along the Generals' Road, called to inspect the local guardhouse this morning at dawn. Apparently he made himself most unpopular, to the point that, when he let fall that scroll without noticing, Aye-Gophlan thought more of secreting it than giving it back. Why he's ready to believe that an imperial officer would carry a document in Old High Yenized, I can't guess. Perhaps that's part of the magic."
He thrust gobbets of succulent flesh into his mouth and chomped for a while. Jarveena tried not to drool.
To distract herself by the first means to mind, she said, "Why did he tell you all this ...? Ah, I'm an idiot. He didn't."
"Correct." Melilot looked smug. "For that you deserve a taste of lobster. Here!" He tossed over a lump that by his standards was generous, and a chunk of bread also; she caught both in midair with stammered thanks and wolfed them down.
"You need to have your strength built up," the portly scribe went on. "I have a very responsible errand for you to undertake tonight."
"Yes. The imperial officer who lost the scroll is called Commander Nizharu. He and his men are billeted in pavilions in the courtyard of the Governor's Palace; seemingly he's afraid of contamination if they have to go into barracks with the local soldiery.
"After dark this evening you are to steal in and wait on him, and inquire whether he will pay more for the return of his scroll and the name of the man who filched it, or for a convincing but fraudulent translation which will provoke the unlawful possessor into some rash action. For all I can guess," he concluded sanctimoniously, "he may have let it fall deliberately. Hrara?"
Excerpted from Thieves' World by Robert Lynn Asprin, Lynn Abbey. Copyright © 2003 Robert Lynn Asprin, Lynn Abbey, and Thieves' World 2000. Excerpted by permission of Tom Doherty Associates.
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