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Authors: Chris Roberson

Iron Jaw and Hummingbird (5 page)

BOOK: Iron Jaw and Hummingbird
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The mines were established by the Dragon Throne to help turn Fire Star into a livable world like Earth. From them were dug carbonate and nitrate deposits that, with the introduction of microorganisms brought from Earth, released carbon dioxide and nitrogen, which terrestrial plants in greenhouses and arbors then converted into a breathable oxygen atmosphere. In the clinker and slag left over once the nitrates and carbonates had been extracted, the miners found an unusual chemical compound. Inflammable in the presence of sufficient oxygen levels, it produced a low light and a weak greenish flame that, while hardly as satisfying as the flickering yellow and orange glow of burning wood, was sufficient to heat food and drive away the cold on a desert night. Fire kits, which held a small but almost inexhaustible supply of this compound, were standard issue for anyone traveling along the Grand Trunk, with so many hundreds of miles of road between civilized areas.
“Always carry your fire kit, my little sprite,” Temujin said, stoking up the greenish flames, “whether in the city or out on the wide plains. A trickster never knows when he might have to travel fast and light, and it wouldn't do to find yourself out beneath the cold night sky without any source of warmth.”
After heating a small metal jug of water over the fire, he produced two cups from his pack, and once both cups were filled and steaming, he poured into each the contents of a package of seasonings and dried noodles.
“This won't win any culinary awards, but you'll not starve with it in your belly, neither. And one cup's all the food and drink a body needs for the day, barring unexpected exercise.”
Gamine sipped at the broth and forked a few of the noodles into her mouth.
“What kind of unexpected exercise?” she asked after swallowing. The broth's flavor was only one step up from water, and the noodles were undercooked and too cold, but Temujin was right—it was better than starving.
“Well, usually in our line of work, that equates to running away.” Temujin regarded her with a thoughtful smile. “A professional tries to avoid the need to scamper, but in a pinch, we all do it.”
“If the victim of your con catches on, you mean?”
Temujin's face darkened, and he narrowed his eyes.
“Not victims! Never victims. They're marks, and always will be.” He shook his head, as though to clear the thought from his mind. “Don't get yourself thinking that way, or you'll get all twisted out of true. Those as we take coin from, part with it willingly. Usually because they're too blasted greedy
not
to give us the coin.”
Gamine blinked slowly, not understanding.
“See,” Temujin went on, “the main trick in any successful grift is to work out what it is that the mark most wants, and figure a way to offer it to him. See in him what is his greatest weakness, and exploit it. We're not taking advantage so much as we're creating a situation whereby the mark's own worst instincts can act against him.”
“So the . . . mark . . . defeats himself?”
Temujin smiled. “Exactly.”
 
The fire had been extinguished, and Gamine lay watching the moons coursing toward each other overhead, as the distant stars twinkled coldly in the night sky. Temujin lay curled up on the ground a short way off, his cacophony of snores occasionally punctuated by trumpeting flatulence.
Gamine thought about what Temujin had said, that she should never view those duped by their cons as “victims,” only as “marks.” And she couldn't help but be reminded of her former mistress. Gamine wondered how Madam Chauviteau-Zong had thought of
her
.
Whatever the purpose that Gamine had been brought up out of the gutter only to be tossed back again, whatever the strange game Madam Chauviteau-Zong had been playing, Gamine was undoubtedly its victim. Is that how her mistress thought of her? In order to conscience what she had done to a blameless, nameless child of the streets, did Madam Chauviteau-Zong use some colorful euphemism in the place of “victim,” when thinking of Gamine? Or did she think of Gamine at all?
And if Gamine learned to assuage her guilt in taking advantage of others by thinking of them as anything other than “victims,” which was clearly what they were, was she really much different than Madam Chauviteau-Zong? Was she any better?
At the moment, it seemed that she had little choice, with Temujin's life of grifting being the only alternative to starving in the alleyways of Fanchuan. But she couldn't help but wonder where her current road might lead her, if she succeeded in fooling her own conscience while learning to deceive others.
 
At the caravanserai, where travelers on the Grand Trunk rested for the night, Gamine and Temujin tried their grift for the first time. Itinerant vendors set up portable stalls in the shadow of the way station, selling foods, drinks, and other comestibles. Parked alongside the wide road were coaches and vans and carriages of all shapes and sizes, their motors cold and resting. Dozens of men and women of all ages, and not a few children, gathered around fires in the shelter of the way station, or gave silent prayers at shrines set back in low-lit alcoves, or just slumbered on pallets laid out on the ground.
Gamine and Temujin approached the circle of light given off by the caravanserai, coming in from the darkness of the road by foot.
“You are certain you know what to do?” Temujin asked in a low voice, for the tenth time. “Repeat again for me the cover story, and I'll know you have it true.”
“I've repeated it already a dozen times! I was already nervous, but you're just making things worse by hounding me.”
Temujin glowered but didn't speak. They were now almost within earshot of the nearest crowd of travelers and already on the lookout.
“There,” he said in a whisper, pointing to a merchant sitting off to one side by himself. “That cove is our mark, no question. Go to, little one, and I'll follow close behind.”
Gamine took a deep breath and arranged her expression as Temujin had taught her. When she felt focused and calm, she stepped out of the darkness and stopped just before the merchant. He sat near a small fire, a jar of wine in his hands, lost in thought. His right eye seemed to droop, giving him a slightly comical look. He was dressed in finery, though, and on his fingers were gold rings set with precious gems.
“Excuse me, honored sir,” Gamine said with her head bowed, stepping into the circle of firelight. “Might we borrow a moment of your time?”
The merchant looked up, his eyes bleary, taking a moment to focus on Gamine. He set the wine jar down, the contents sloshing liberally over the sides, and it was clear that this was not his first jar of the night.
“Erm, certainly, child,” he said, his tongue thickened with drink. “What might the matter be?”
“I am Mei Li, your grace, a lowly orphan, sole survivor of an airship tragedy that claimed the rest of my family. My father, while living, was a successful merchant in far-off Fuchuan, and amassed a considerable fortune. If I could claim my inheritance, I would be lifted out of my current state. However, I am unable to convince the holding company of my bona fide status by tachygraph, and I must journey to Fuchuan to plead my case in person. I, along with my companion, loyal family retainer and the only other survivor of the catastrophe”—Temujin stepped forward and opened his mouth as though to speak—“himself, sadly, struck mute by the trauma and the injuries he sustained”—Temujin glowered at Gamine but closed his mouth with a snap and backed away silently—“must reach Fuchuan by the end of the season, or my father's estate will go into receivership, and my family's wealth will be lost.”
Gamine fancied she could see a tear glistening in the corner of the man's drooping eye.
“That is a sad, sad tale,” the man said, his voice laced with genuine emotion.
“It is indeed, honored sir,” Gamine said, concealing a smile. “But if a kind gentleman such as yourself could only see fit to loan us a few coins, to help us on our way, I would be in a position happily to repay the loan fivefold once my wealth is restored to me. If you would simply give me your name and home address, I will direct the money to be sent to you as soon as my mute servant and I reach Fuchuan.”
The man picked up his jar again and drained it to the dregs.
“Fivefold, you say?”
Gamine nodded.
“Well,” the man said magnanimously, patting his ample belly for several moments before finding his purse, tucked in his belt. “How much did you say you would need?”
Temujin stepped forward, his mouth opening, but Gamine silenced him with a glance.
“A dozen bronze coins should help us on our way,” she said.
“And if a dozen bronze coins would help,” the man said through a sloppy smile, shaking his purse out into the palm of his hand, “then no doubt
two
dozen would help even more, yes?”
Gamine's eyes widened, involuntarily, and she bit her lip.
“Yes,” she managed to reply. “Most helpful.”
The man held out his hand but pulled it back before Gamine could reach for the coins.
“And you confirm that you will be paying me back five times as much?”
Gamine pulled a small slip of paper from her sleeve and an ink-filled pen. “I'll be happy to write you out a receipt.”
After drawing the characters representing the money owed, Gamine added notation that it would be paid back at 500 percent interest. The man scribbled his own name and address on the back of a wine-jar label and greedily swapped it for her receipt.
Gamine carefully dropped the coins into her own purse, and bowed low before the man.
“You have my most humble thanks, O honored sir,” she said. “You may well have saved my life and that of my loyal
mute
servant.” Gamine couldn't help but emphasize the word
mute
again, and she turned and hurried away from the man's fire before she burst out laughing.
They left the mark behind, greedily rubbing his hands, thinking of the riches that would await him at home. When they were out of earshot, Temujin snatched the purse from Gamine's hands, scowling.
“What's all that folderol about me being mute?” he snarled. “I was a prize lickspittle after that, forced to roll my eyes like a spastic and make foolish miming gestures and all. If you do something like that again, you're out on your backside, and that's a promise.”
“I'm sorry,” Gamine said, her tone suggesting otherwise. She composed a response about her feelings about his persistent nagging, and how nice it was for him to keep silent for a change, but she opted not to voice the thought.
“Well,” Temujin said, “that said, I am impressed. Your delivery was a little shoddy, and there were a few holes in your story that a less trusting mark—or a more sober one—would have seen through immediately, but luckily for us, our first target was blinded by greed and addled by drink. He swallowed the story without even chewing it over.”
 
That night, Gamine felt the briefest pangs of guilt. The man with the drooping eye hadn't seemed a terribly bad sort, and if his act of generosity was motivated by greed, did that make it any the less generous?
She closed her eyes, and the face of her former mistress appeared unbidden in her thoughts, looking down at her dispassionately, as though Gamine were a pet, or even an article of furniture. Looking down at her as anything but a victim.
Gamine shook her head, as though to knock loose those thoughts, and reminded herself not to think of people as
victims
but as
marks
.
When she ate, her dinner tasted of ashes, but she ate it, all the same.
 
They would revise the con in the weeks and months to follow, but the essentials were worked out in those first days, and they stuck to the basic play throughout their travels on the Grand Trunk.
In time, what had begun as a plausible but somewhat thin story of a poor orphaned girl and her loyal retainer, who needed only a moment's kindness and a few coins to make their weary way in a wicked world, became an airtight epic of a backstory that no one could gainsay.
The grift worked a treat, and they amassed a heavy purse between them. Traveling on foot as they did, they moved much slower than the convoys of merchants, bureaucrats, and pilgrims who stopped by night at the caravanserai along the roadside, so they could linger by the way stations and hit several groups in a row, one night after another, before picking up stakes and moving on to the next stop.
Moving slowly like that, days at a time at any location, then walking from one way station to another, they worked their way southeast gradually. Of all the time she would travel at Temujin's side, Gamine would later come to look upon these as some of the happiest days.
Weeks passed, then months, before they reached Shachuan, the capital city of Penglai province.
 
Gamine had never been to Shachuan before, of course, but had read about it in her studies and seen lithographs of the skyline and notable neighborhoods. Smaller than her home city of Fanchuan, and not nearly as cosmopolitan as Fuchuan in the east, Shachuan was a city of industry. Ringed with mills and foundries and manufactories, the city was nearly obscured by the low cloud of black soot that seemed to pour ceaselessly from the industrial chimneys, and a smell like rotten eggs and offal could be detected on the air in even the best parts of the city. But the locals seemed not to mind the soot or to notice the rotten-egg smell. Gamine, even after a few days in the city, could scarcely bring herself to breathe deeply.
“I was in Shachuan once, years ago,” Temujin said as they first entered the city. “Ah, Shachuan. Not an easy sight for weary eyes, but there are pleasures here to soothe a weary breast. The best dumplings I've ever tasted are to be had at a hostelry in the city's rougher district, and there is a wine produced by an old family in the northern part of the city that is beyond compare. Our purse has grown so comfortably heavy these last weeks, my sprite, that I think we could do with something of a vacation from our labors. Have you any objection?”
BOOK: Iron Jaw and Hummingbird
6.98Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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