cherith: (Muses are Busy)
[personal profile] cherith
Title: Delicate Retrieval
Author: [personal profile] cherith[personal profile] cherith 
Artist: [personal profile] scarimonious[personal profile] scarimonious 
Genre: Fantasy
Pairings: n/a
Word Count: 2191
Rating: PG-13 (maybe Teen?)
Warnings: death (non-character)
Summary: A merchant gets a strange gift from a friend and then gets caught up in a very weird retrieval job. (Otherwise known as -- I'm bad at summaries!)

Link to artwork that inspired this story, by [personal profile] scarimonious  [personal profile] scarimonious : here
---
Delicate Retrieval
Everything about her was unassuming; from the disheveled dark brown hair that hung in strands too dirty to be intentional, the tattered remnants of expensive outfits clinging to her thin frame -- it all screamed, street rat. She didn’t want to be noticed. It’s why I liked using her for jobs. She is willing to take the hard runs, the dangerous ones, and even when she was standing right in front of someone, they would never see her coming. With talent like that, the only real downside to working with Quinn is that she’s never on time.

Today is no different. Around mid-day I send a small street boy off with a message for her. By the time she finally arrives, sidling up to my stall in the marketplace, wearing an uncharacteristically fine cloak, the light of the day is almost gone. I’m with a customer when she arrives, but Quinn interrupts and casually asks to see a bottle on a shelf behind me. I take a moment to glance in her direction, slightly surprised at the sound of her voice and her outfit. She gives me a brief nod, and I realize her confidence has been bolstered by the thin, dark, leather mask she has on.

I quickly finish the transaction with my current customer. Once my customer is gone and no one else seems to be approaching, I pull the front curtain secure to signal my shop is closed for the day. I usher Quinn around the corner and it’s then I get a better look at the mask and cloak, both clean and new and definitely expensive; they’re of fine make but not for regular or formal wear.

I venture a guess, “Costume party later?”

“Job later. Just happens to be at a costume event.” She smiles, but her voice is measured, slow, almost hesitant.

I grab the bottle off the back shelf and hand it to her. There’s a tiny slip of paper inside, my own addition.

“You owe for my last job, Jhonan.”

“I am aware lady. But, I can assure you the price for such a beautiful bottle is worth the wait.” I smile away the glint of disbelief in her eyes. I think she knows I’m good for it. I always have been in the past, even if slim times mean slow repayment.

“You are playing a dangerous game,” she hisses. “You know, if it’s not, you’ll have the whole guild down on your head.”

“As you command, dear lady. Perhaps I’ll see you at the event tonight.” I give her a small sarcastic bow, she pulls back the cloth to leave.

“Doubtful, Jhonan. Just hope your lead follows through.” She shakes the bottle to wave goodbye and before I can raise my own hand to wave back, the cloth drops in place behind her.

The curtain catches on a shelf, I chuckle and move over to adjust it. A glint of light catches my eye and once the cloth is secure, I examine the shelf. Near the back, propped up against one of the wooden brace beams, I find a small metal tooth. It’s mostly unremarkable, slightly larger than a human tooth and shaped much the same. I deal in oddities, but I know it’s not something from my shop, nor have I ever seen anyone in this market carry such a macabre item. I didn’t see her touch the shelf but I’m willing to believe Quinn left this behind for me to find. However, I am lost as to what she meant for it to mean. I drop the tooth in the pocket of my vest and think to look for Quinn tonight.

I secure my shop for the night and make my way home, up the cobbled street near the Merchant Guild house. By the time I get home, the sky is dark and all the lanterns on the street corners are lit. Once inside, I change into my own costume for the evening’s event, making sure to transfer the tooth between outfits after I’ve changed. When I’m finished, I secure the things I brought back from my market stall and then head out into the night and make my way to the party.

The home of the Ladies, Eloise and Helena, is bustling with people when I arrive. The Ladies are sisters past their prime, from old money, who love to fritter it away on opulent parties and extravagant adventures. Their current whim is unique creatures and expensive costumes. When I arrive, I see they’ve managed to combine the two; a thin skeletal creature stands just inside the main hall, passing out masks to those without and taking the cloaks and overcoats of those that have them. The creature makes a creaking noise as I pass and I hand over my own long coat, taking a moment to appreciate the fine quality of the masks on the wall behind the creature. Each mask is seemingly unique and there is a wide variety of beast, human and fantastical creature options available.

I enter the party proper a few moments later and scan the crowd for Quinn. I see several more of the strange skeletal creatures strategically placed around the ballroom: in front of entrances, windows, and near the food and drink tables. They seem controlled but realistic in motion and attention as they stand guard over the party. It’s obvious that the other guests have grown used to the oddities of the Ladies, as few spare any glances to the creatures.

I grab a drink and position myself near the back of the ballroom, away from the grand windows and close to the doors that lead to the back patio. Originally, my plan was to mingle with the crowd tonight and potentially sell a few of my items that need more discerning buyers. But Quinn’s words, and the tooth she left behind, have me on edge. I fumble for the tooth with my free hand and extract it from my pocket. I do a cursory glance of the crowd, not expecting to see anyone watching me. Holding it between my thumb and forefinger, I turn it around in the light and after a moment, I let it lay on my palm, feeling it’s weight.

“Did you figure it out yet?” I hear whispered from somewhere nearby. Reflexively, I collapse my fingers around the tooth to hide it in a fist.

“What?” I turn around, looking for the source of the voice.

“Did you figure out where the tooth came from yet?”

I turn the other direction in time to see Quinn’s slim figure emerge from a nearby group of party-goers. I try not to think about how quickly she must have moved for me to hear her so well. I loosen my grip on the tooth and let my hand lay open again. Quinn leans over, inspecting it for a moment, a wicked grin on her face as she looks back at me.

“Am I to understand the source is here?” I glance once more out into the crowd with this new information.

Quinn shrugs, then whispers, “Stay here”.

She’s gone only a couple of minutes when I realize what she meant me to notice. I’m watching a nearby guest pass too close to a large set of double doors, fumbling around as though they mean to enter, when one of the guard creatures intervenes. The skeletal creature makes a different version of the creaking, clacking noise as the one near the entrance had to me earlier. It’s then I notice its mouth. Inside its jaw is a odd set of teeth, fewer in number than a human mouth, and all of them: metal.

I toy with the idea of getting closer to one of them, potentially one near the food table, as it’s the closest to me. But, before I can make a decision, Quinn is back at my side, having rid herself of her fancy cloak and replaced her mask with a high quality set of goggles and a scarf across her mouth. She holds what looks like handkerchief out to me.

“You’re going to need this,” she says. “You saw?”

I nod, drop the tooth back into my pocket, and grab the cloth from her. “What is this about?”

“I was hoping you might have an idea, that’s why I left the tooth for you,” she shrugs. “Then again, I was also hoping you wouldn’t be here.”

“Wrong on both counts, kind lady. Sorry to disappoint.”

I smile before affixing the handkerchief to my mask so it stays in place long enough for me to tie it around my neck. She shifts in place while waiting for me to finish and I realize she’s not just lost her cloak, but outfitted herself with her work gear. I know there are more dangerous and pointy bits attached to her now than I want to know about.

“These kind ladies,” she says with emphasis to indicate our hostesses, “have hired, what we like to call ‘off-the-record help’ for tonight’s event.”

“So the goal is to find out how the Ladies got them?”

“Something like that.”

Quinn turns and walks through the nearest crowd, making a path back towards the main entrance. I follow her as best I can, using the gaps between gathered crowds to pick my way through when I lose direct sight of her. When I catch up, she’s near the creature passing out masks to the guests. It is dangling the mask of a female face from the fingertips of one hand as it watches the crowd.

We watch it watching the crowd. When there seems to be a lull, where no one is coming from or going to the party, Quinn tells me once more, “Stay here”.

She slips around the corner of the shelf where the remaining masks are being kept and then emerges a moment later on the other side, out of the creature’s line of sight. She watches it for what seems like long time, before quietly sliding up behind it. I can’t see if she has a weapon, but I think she must, for the creature goes slack almost immediately. She jerks her head at me and I move to help her keep the creature off the ground as we carry it around the corner.

There’s a small alcove behind the shelves and as soon as we’re clear she starts to lower it to the ground. I help her down with the creature and then instinctively wipe my hands against my pants, trying to get the feel of the creature off of them. It has a thin skin over it’s skeletal structure and it feels fabricated, almost leathery, and very wrong. It’s jaw hangs open, metal teeth catching the little bit of light available.

“What is it?” I ask.

Quinn ignores me, examining the creature with an almost medical precision. After a minute, a stench emanates from the creature’s mouth, causing us both to recoil from the body. I then realize what the handkerchief was for. When the smell fades, she leans back over the body and uses a dagger to extract a metal tooth. She looks it over, then puts her dagger away and looks up at me and holds out an empty hand.

“Give me the one I gave you.”

I take it from my pocket and place it in her hand. I crouch down next to her as she compares the two. From that vantage point, I can tell they’re not made of the same metals, one is markedly darker than the other. When she’s done, she hands one of them back to me and pockets the other. I do the same with mine.

“I have what I need,” she says. “Thanks Jhonan.”

“So, what are they?” I ask, standing back up.

She also stands and gives a light kick of a boot to the creature’s left foot. “It’s got a maker’s mark. Someone crafted these things,” she says.

“Then how are they...”

She answers before I can finish, “I think there’s a few people in town that might have the same question. Thankfully, my part of the job is complete.”

I finger the tooth in my pocket through the cloth, “What about the one you gave me? You don’t need it?”

“Consider it security,” she says. It doesn’t really answer my question, but I think I understand her meaning.

“I’ll keep it safe.”

She picks up a bundle of cloth from the ground a few steps away. “Besides, you’re all paid up...” She shakes out the cloth and I realize it’s her cloak from earlier. “And then some,” she adds.

“My tip paid off?”

“Stay away from the guild house for a few days, I’m sure they have a little cleaning up to do. But, the job is complete and the guild will be off your back,” she pauses and smiles, “for now.”

THE END
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