This is the first chapter of the novel.
Timaeus d'Asperge was comfortably ensconced in his favorite armchair at the Millennium Club. One hand held his ancient meerschaum, stuffed with Alcalan black leaf. By his other hand, on a small servette, stood a decanter of Moothlayan single-malt.
"Now that you have your masters," the man with the monocle asked Timaeus, "what will you do?"
"Hah!" said the Colonel. "Go to Ish and join the army, that's what, eh?" He struck Timaeus on the knee with a clenched fist. "Show those damnable orcs what for, eh, boy? Good man."
Timaeus cleared his throat with slight embarrassment. "Actually," he said, "I was thinking about opening a practice..."
"Go into trade?" said the man with the monocle with undisguised horror. "My dear boy, that will never..."
"No, no, the military life, that's the ticket," said the Colonel. "By Dion, I envy you! Marches in blistering heat, hostiles sweeping out of the hills... university makes a gentleman out of you, but the service makes you a man, what, what?" The Colonel reached over and slapped Timaeus's slight paunch. "Lose that in the army, that's for certain." His eyes gleamed over his gray mustache. Timaeus puffed on his pipe to avoid having to respond.
"What about adventuring?" said the man with the monocle.
"Hmm?" said Timaeus.
"A traditional way for a young nobleman to win fame and fortune," the man with the monocle continued. "Slaying dragons, rescuing damsels in distress, that sort of thing." He waved a hand airily.
"Well," mused Timaeus, "I had thought about it, but I wouldn't know where to start. I mean, what, advertise for quests?"
"Start with the Caverns of Cytorax," suggested the man with the monocle. "They're not far. Scads of monsters down there, I'm told."
"Mmm," mused Timaeus. "But where would I find companions?"
"What about your mates at university?" asked the Colonel.
"Mostly out of town," said Timaeus. "Back at home, or joining the army. Besides, I'd need more than wizards. Men at arms, spelunkers, clerics... you know."
"You need a staff officer," said the Colonel. "Take care of these petty problems for you."
"If you don't know how to do it yourself," said the man with the monocle, "hire it done." He coughed delicately into a handkerchief. "I know just the firm."
"A group that assembles expeditions into the caverns?" said Timaeus.
"Umm, rather... a firm that handles -- matters of delicacy. I should think they could assemble some experienced adventurers with fair ease. Pratchitt and Stollitt, Stollitt and Pratchitt. Something like that. I'll give you the address."
Garni was hot. He was sweating into his beard. Dwarves weren't used to city summers. Their native mountains were usually cool.
At least it would be cool in the basement apartment he and Nick Pratchitt shared. It wasn't in the best part of town, but it did have the distinct advantage of being cheap.
Garni walked down the hall to the apartment door. The door was bolted shut. He heard giggling on the other side.
Garni knocked. "Nick," he said. "It's Garni. Open up."
There was silence for a moment. Then, through the door Nick said, "Uh, Garni? I'm busy. Could you come back later?"
Damn. "Look, Nick," said the dwarf, "I just want to get some lunch."
"Just a sec," said Nick. There was a shuffling sound, then a bang. The door opened a crack. Two hands held out a salami, a loaf of bread, and a wine jug. "Here," said Nick. He didn't have a shirt on.
Garni sighed. He took the food. Nick closed and bolted the door.
Garni sat down in the hallway by the apartment door. At least he was out of the sun down here. He munched on the salami and listened to the giggles.
Personally, he didn't find human women attractive at all. Too gangly. No facial hair. Garni wondered what Nick thought he was doing. Sidney would find out. It was only a matter of time. And Nick certainly acted like he cared what she thought about things.
Oh, well. It wasn't his business. His business was to find a job. Garni was a decent blacksmith, but the guild here in the city had that racket sewed up. Manual labor was about all that was left. He wasn't having any luck finding work. And the rent was three months overdue.
"Mrs. Coopersmith," said Garni. He got to his feet and brushed crumbs off his jerkin. "How nice to see..."
"Where's my money, dwarf?" said the woman. Her arms were floured to her shoulders. Sweat spread in semicircles around her armpits.
"Umm, in just a few days..."
The woman scowled. "Dwarves and single men," she said bitterly. "I should have known."
"I'm terribly sorry, but..."
"I want my money Tuesday."
"Of course, Mrs. Coopersmith. We'll..."
She turned on her heel and climbed back up the stairway.
Giggles came from the apartment.
Garni sighed and climbed after his landlady. He'd go down to the docks and see if any ships had come in. Maybe he could earn a few pence unloading cargo.
Kraki Kronarsson leaned on the bar. His dirty blond hair hung down around a face that hadn't been shaven in days. The bar creaked under his bulging thews. "Ale," he told the innkeeper.
The innkeeper was wall-eyed. "Well, honorable," he mumbled, smearing a greasy rag across a tankard under the misapprehension that this was improving the tankard's looks, "there's the matter of your tab, sor."
A group of fishermen at one of the tables was singing loudly. Kraki had been listening to the song and hadn't really heard the innkeeper. He did notice, however, that he wasn't getting any ale. "Vhat?" he said, touching the haft of the broadsword slung over his back -- a nervous gesture.
"Three weeks stay," said the innkeeper. "Sixpence a night. Meals and drink. You owe..."
"You qvibbling little snit," shouted the barbarian, standing away from the bar.
The fishermen stopped singing.
"Hoy," said a man at the bar. He wore a workman's apron. His thews bulged almost as much as Kraki's. "No call for such language. Dere's ladies present." An overage and rather blowsy whore hung on the workman's arm.
Kraki reached across the bar and grabbed the innkeeper by the shirt. "I am Kraki, son of Kronar," he shouted. "I grace your sty vith my presence. Be grateful you may show hospitality to so great a lord!"
The workman walked over and put a hand on Kraki's arm. "We do things different 'ere, barbarian," he said. "Yer owes the man."
Kraki punched him in the jaw. The workman stumbled back.
The fishermen rose from their table. The whore dived for the exit.
The workman grabbed a barstool and broke it over Kraki's head. Kraki didn't bat an eye. "You dare lay hands on the son of a chief?" he bellowed. He grabbed the workman by the waist and hurled him onto the fishermen's table. It collapsed. Tankards of ale flew. The fishermen converged on Kraki.
The innkeeper cowered behind the bar and moaned. Why was it always thugs and barbarians? Why couldn't he have a nice, quiet clientele consisting solely of spinsters and maiden aunts?
Father Thwaite stopped singing when they pushed him through the door to the abbot's office. It was cool in the office. A little chilly, even -- at least if you were naked.
"Brother," said the abbot.
'Dion help me, I'm in for it now,' thought Thwaite. He released his penis. He swayed a bit. He was drunk. Very drunk.
Well, it had been fun.
"I suppose," said the abbot, shuffling some papers on his desk, "that you can explain why you were pissing on the chancellery bell?"
"Yes, Reverend Father," said Thwaite. "See, there was this li'l..." He hiccupped. He continued determinedly, enunciating clearly. "Little spot of tarnish. And urine is acidic. So I..."
The abbot sighed heavily. "What am I to do with you?" he said.
Father Thwaite hung his head. "I'm sorry, Reverend," he said. "But the spirit moved me..."
"Spirits, rather," said the abbot. "They say you've been into the brandy again."
"Wine is a susss... a sacrament," said Thwaite.
"In vino veritas, yes, brother," said the abbot. "One of the precepts of our order. Yet moderation is also virtue. Why are you naked?"
"It was... warm in the garden," said Thwaite. "An', I thought, why do we clothe ourselves? The Creator gave us skin. So..."
The abbot took off his spectacles and folded them up. "Since you refuse to abide by the rules of our order..."
"I'm sorry," said Thwaite, suddenly realizing the depth of his predicament. "I promise I'll..."
"It's a little late for that," said the abbot, rubbing his eyes with thumb and forefinger. "Go to Brother Mortain. He will issue you a begging bowl. Depart from here into the streets of the city."
Thwaite sat down. The flags were chill on his thin, middle-aged buttocks. "You're expelling me from the order?" he said, suddenly sober.
"Not at all," said the abbot. "You may return when you have learned moderation."
"And until then?" said Thwaite, head bowed.
"Leave us. Beg for your living. Live only off the largesse of others. If you obtain more than sixpence, give it to the poor. Drink when you are offered drink; but purchase none yourself."
Father Thwaite rose, bowed, and shuffled backwards to the door, continuing to bow. After the door closed, he stuck his tongue out.
He visited the kitchen before he left and stole a bottle of cheap wine. Dion, he told himself somewhat defensively, permits theft to those who are in need.
The goon's name was George. He looked like a George. His shoulders were nearly as broad as the doorway.
Sidney Stollitt leaned back in her chair. Surreptitiously, she opened the top drawer in her desk. She fished around in the drawer for a dagger. She thought there was a dagger there. She hoped so.
George was picking his teeth with a stiletto. "Nice joint you got," he said, looking around. The drawer to one of the filing cabinets hung off its rails. A roll of flypaper hung from the ceiling, covered with dirty specks. "You wouldn't wanna lose it, huh?" said George.
"All this?" said Sidney. "I'd be devastated." They could torch the place for all she gave a damn. There wasn't a lot invested in the furnishings.
"Ross says you guys been bad," said George. He wandered into the office and over to the file drawer. He studied it with apparent interest.
"Sorry," said Sidney. There didn't seem to be a dagger in the desk drawer after all. Nick had probably done something with it. Where the hell was Nick, anyway? He should have been here hours ago.
"Ross just wants you to know," said George, turning back to face her. "Ross says he wants to be friends."
"I know about Ross," said Sidney.
George looked at her. "You don't know nothing," he said. With a sudden, brutal motion, he punched out the glass in the door. The glass that said "Pratchitt & Stollitt". It had cost them several shillings to get it etched. Sidney winced.
"If you're going to rip up the place," she said in a menacing tone.
"Friends help out friends," said George. "That's what Ross told me to say."
"Sure," said Sidney. "And we know who our friends are."
George shrugged and disappeared.
Sidney slumped back in the chair. Damn.
Last week, She and Nick had.robbed a house on Nob Island. They'd gotten away with a nice little box of jewels. They hadn't fenced the goods through Ross Montiel, who controlled half the fences in this part of town. He was obviously upset; he expected Sidney and Nick to take their business to him.
But she was damned if she'd work with the little scumbag. Maybe it was time to take on an honest proposition or two. Lay low on the burglary.
Where the hell was Nick, anyway?
A face peered in through broken glass. It bore an uncertain expression, red hair, and an unkempt beard. A lit meerschaum pipe stuck out of the middle of it. "I say," it said. "Is there a Mr. Pratchitt or Mr. Stollitt about?"
"No," said Sidney. "I'm Stollitt."
"There must be some mistake," said the face. "Are you Mr. Stollitt's wife?"
"I'm Stollitt," she said. "Sidney Stollitt." The face's accent was aristocratic. It was probably connected to a mark, Sidney thought. "Why don't you come in?"
"Ah," said Timaeus. "Thank you. Sidney's an unusual name for a girl, isn't it?" He turned the doorknob. It came off in his hand. He stared at it for a moment, then pushed on the door, which opened. He came into the office, set the knob on Sidney's desk, and looked around.
"No," said Sidney in complete defiance of the facts, "it's not." The mark wore a red tunic with gold trim. He had sandals on his feet. He was a little pudgy, not too old. The tunic and the pipe screamed 'fire mage.' Sidney hoped he didn't get upset. The building was a firetrap.
Timaeus was dismayed. This Stollitt wench looked tough enough, certainly. She had a long scar on one cheek. Her black hair was tied back in a silver ring; it wouldn't get in the way in combat. She was lean and moved like she could fight.
But the office was dismal. The glass in the door was broken. There were holes in the plaster. There were mouse droppings on the floor.
"What can I do for you?" asked Sidney, rising and motioning Timaeus toward a chair.
Timaeus sat on the chair gingerly. It hadn't been reupholstered within living memory. Horsehair stuck him through his clothes. "I am assembling an expedition to venture into the depths of Cytorax Caverns," said Timaeus. "I wish to engage your services."
He wanted to go into the dungeon? What did she know about dungeons? She belonged in the city.
Still. Anyone who wanted to go to Cytorax was clearly a fool. And you know what they say about fools and their money. "I'm your woman," Sidney said.