Let's see what he gets for all his trouble. Presenting part 2 of The Alchemist's Ledger.
On the seventeenth morning of Frostmoon, Sing crested the ridge of the High Pass Road and was afforded the first view of journey’s end. The sun rose over the peaks at his back, reflected off the spires of the King’s Palace rising from the mists over the city of Azurith, and glinted from points along the River Wiste, which ran through the heart of the city and meandered across the far side of the valley. It was a welcome sight.
He spurred Brawn on, eager to make the city before nightfall. The horse responded willingly, possibly remembering the oats and sweetgrass from his previous stay at the King’s Livery. Stopping for rest only twice, they clopped to a stop on a cobbled street as the sinking sun was creating a golden red halo over the palace dominating the highest hill of the central city.
Sing dismounted and led Brawn to a trough and tether post at the bottom of a stone pathway leading upward to the offices of the Alchemist. “I won’t be long, my friend,” he whispered in the horse’s ear. Brawn nickered and lowered his head into the trough to drink.
Sing paused at the bottom of the stone pathway. His hand moved unconsciously to the hilt of his sword as his eyes cut up and down the street. Sorcerers made him nervous, and the Alchemist was no exception to that rule. He took a deep breath, patted the pouch at his side that held the jewel and the receipts, and strode up the walkway.
As he reached for the heavy brass knocker to announce his presence, the door suddenly opened and an ancient dwarf with pale green skin motioned him inside. “The master,” said the dwarf, pausing to wheeze another breath, “is expecting you.”
Sing nodded and stepped through the door, which closed behind him. Once inside, he needed a moment for his eyes to adjust to the darkness. Again, his hand moved to the hilt of his blade.
“Go,” the dwarf waived him down a hallway to his right. “That way.” Sing took a cautious step. “Wait,” wheezed the dwarf. “Here.” He shoved an unlit torch into Sing’s hand. Fire sprung to life at its tip, blinding him again.
“Gods!” he exclaimed. The hand on his sword hilt clenched more tightly. He turned to address the dwarf. “How did…” But the dwarf was gone.
Muttering both prayers and curses, he turned and held the torch away from his body to illuminate the way before him. A dark marble floor stretched for some thirty yards between unadorned stone walls to a single door. His footsteps created a harsh echo as he approached it. Reluctantly, he pulled the hand from his sword to knock, but before his knuckles touched the heavy oak it opened of its own volition.
“Sweet Mother of…,” he began, stepping back from the doorway.
“Careful which gods you invoke here, my friend,” cautioned a voice from within, interrupting his curse.
Sing nodded to himself. Best heed that warning, he thought, as he stepped slowly into the dim light of the room. He flinched when the torch immediately went out, and bit his tongue to stifle another curse.
“You brought the items I asked for,” stated the Alchemist.
Sing followed the sound of the voice and located the back of a black robed figure hunched over a table in a far corner of the room. “Yes,” croaked Sing, patting the pouch at his belt, “I have them.”
The figure straightened slowly and turned. Candlelight illuminated the face of a man of indeterminate age. Dank black hair hung to his shoulders, and his face wore a permanent expression as if he tasted or smelled something unpleasant. He held out his hand. “Give them to me.”
Sing set the torch aside and undid the clasp that held the pouch at his belt. It came free in his hand. The other hand remained on the hilt of his sword. “What of my payment?”
The Alchemist pursed his lips. “Of course,” he said. He picked up one of two pouches sitting next to his work on the table and tossed it to the mercenary.
Sing had to take his hand off his sword to catch the pouch. He weighed it in his hand. It was heavy with gold, but not what he’d expected. “This is all?”
The Alchemist indicated the pouch that remained on the table. “It is but half of the total,” he sneered. “You have earned that much by returning unscathed. To receive the rest, I must verify the… authenticity of the items.” He held his hand out again and beckoned with a finger. The pouch with the jewel and receipts flew from Sing’s hand to his.
Sing shifted the pouch containing the gold to his other hand, reflexively shielding it with his body. His sword hand found the hilt once more. He stifled another curse when the Alchemist held a cautionary finger to his lips.
“Now, let us see what we have here,” said the Alchemist, turning his back to Sing and dumping the contents onto the table. The jewel fell out with a thud, followed by a splash of slips of paper. The Alchemist scraped his hand through the bottom of the pouch to get the papers that remained and sighed at the pile before him. He glanced over his shoulder at Sing. “I’d hoped for a bit more… organization,” he complained.
Sing shrugged. “Everything’s together in one place,” he said.
The Alchemist turned back to the pile before him. “Indeed,” he murmured. He shuffled through the pile of receipts and chose one at random. He unfolded it and peered at the contents. “At least your script is legible.” He picked up several more, reading each and dropping it with distaste back into the pile. “Did you stay any place that wasn’t a brothel?”
Sing shrugged. “I have my needs. And there were some fine establishments along the way. The other night, I…”
The Alchemist turned and held up a hand to cut him off. “Spare me the details,” he said. “At first glance, I’d say you’ve exceeded my expectations.”
Sing nodded, relaxing slightly at the approval in the sorcerer’s voice.
The Alchemist turned back to the table and sifted through the pile, coming up with the jewel. “Let’s see if this is indeed the one we’re looking for. Come,” he beckoned, “let me show you the purpose of your quest.”
Sing followed the Alchemist to another corner of the room. They stood before a large curtain, which reached from the floor to the vaulted ceiling some thirty feet above them. The Alchemist pulled on a rope, and the curtain slid aside to reveal a huge statue. Sing took a step back, both out of caution and to allow himself to crane his neck to take in the full height of the thing.
“Do you recognize the image?” asked the Alchemist.
“It looks like Vale, your god of justice,” said Sing.
“You are familiar with the local pantheon?”
“Such things are good to know in my line of work.”
“I imagine so,” agreed the Alchemist. He walked over to a tall step ladder which stood in front of the statue, and continued to explain as he climbed. “Vale, the eight-limbed God of Justice. Each limb is of equal length, and can be used as an arm or a leg. His two eyes are blind, so his judgment is not clouded by the perception of ugliness or beauty. He has no ears, so neither the smooth voice of the politician nor the rough voice of the shrew has its influence. He perceives only with his Third Eye, in the middle of his forehead, which can see into a man’s very soul and know the truth.”
“You see,” the Alchemist continued, “our new king distrusts the local judiciary. He perceives them to be less than honest. So to… aid them in their judgments, he has commissioned me to create this… tool, if you will.”
The Alchemist reached the top of the ladder and looked down at Sing. “Yes, a tool. Once I’m finished, judgments made before Vale, here, must be fair, or there will be… consequences.” He held up the jewel, turned it this way and that, and pressed it into an indentation in the forehead of the statue.
For a moment, there was dead silence in the chamber. Then, the jewel began to glow. Sing felt more than heard a heavy thrum, and a vibration passed from the floor through his body. There was no movement in the statue, but it seemed to come to life. Sing’s eyes widened, and he took another few steps back.
“Ah,” sighed the Alchemist, “it is the one.” He descended the ladder slowly. He turned to face the mercenary, frowning. “So far, so good.”
“What do you mean, so far?” Sing questioned. “Whatever you did seems to have worked.”
“The spell is not yet complete,” said the Alchemist. He shuffled past the mercenary and pulled a leather bound volume from a shelf of books. “I must balance the ledger.”
A knot formed in Sing’s belly. He sensed yet another impediment to the remainder of his payment. He took a deep breath to calm himself and watched the Alchemist as he opened the ledger on the table next to the receipts and thumbed through the pages until he found his place. He picked a receipt from the pile, read it, and placed it aside by itself on the table. He repeated the process with another, and another.
Sing swallowed. He walked across the room and peered over the Alchemist’s shoulder. The sorcerer was sorting through the receipts and arranging them in columns across the table. Sing was afraid of the answer, but he had to ask the question. “When can I expect the rest of my payment?”
The Alchemist straightened and sighed. He picked up a fist full of receipts and released them to flutter back onto the top of the pile. “I must enter all of these into the ledger. It could take all night.”
“And you have to get it done before you pay me?”
“Yes.” The Alchemist turned back to his work. “Everything must balance,” he murmured. “It is the most important thing.”
“Is there anything I can do to help?”
“You’ve done enough,” spat the Alchemist. “Go. Come back tomorrow.”
Sing hesitated. “You only asked for the receipts. You said nothing about how they should be organized.” When the sorcerer didn’t react, he added, “Getting those was the most difficult part of the task, you know.”
The Alchemist’s reply dripped with sarcasm. “Yes, I suppose getting an honest accounting from a whore could be difficult.”
Sing grinned. “Each of those receipts required a blood oath that you would be the only one to know the exact fee.”
“And rest assured I will carry the secrets of your cock to the grave,” replied the Alchemist.
Sing nodded. Silence fell between the two and dragged on as the Alchemist continued to sift through the pile of papers. Sing shifted his feet uncertainly.
The Alchemist glanced over his shoulder. “You’re still here.”
“Listen, my friend,” said the Alchemist, turning to face him, “you have performed admirably to this point, but this is a task only I can accomplish and time is of the essence. Please, leave me to do it. Come back tomorrow for the remainder of your payment.”
“That’s the way of it, then?” Sing shrugged. “There is nothing more I can do?”
“Unless there is some expense unaccounted for in this pile of papers?”
“I got a receipt for every expense, just as you specified.”
“Then you know the way.” The Alchemist indicated the door. “Go.”
What do you think will happen when Sing returns in the morning? Scroll past the shameless ads for my books and enter a comment if you want to hazard a guess. But find out for sure next week as the story concludes.
Until then, Happy Reading!
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