Bingo left the apartment at first light. Despite turning in early, he hadn’t slept a wink. He lay awake all night, turning one of the fledges over and over in his hands, getting used to the feel of them and discovering their secrets. They were as wondrous as their reputations claimed. With a few deft twists and the pressing of a hidden lever, they transformed into anything he might need. He immersed himself in study of the devices, learning all their secrets. Sleep was impossible, and it was easier to concentrate on that than the trouble they’d brought him.
The foggy streets were nearly empty, but Bingo still ducked out the back, using all his talents to get lost in Dockside’s warren of alleys. If Miss Rosemary had invested enough to acquire a pair of fledges, there was no doubt she’d have the building watched. He’d wager there were other eyes on him as well. Carabos had a prodigious and thriving underworld, and word got around when a fledge was commissioned. There’d surely be a few bravos willing to try him for an soft mark.
Bingo ducked into a hole-in-the-wall teashop he knew well for a bite of breakfast. The Half-Elf family that ran it, miraculously, didn’t seem to be in anybody’s pocket, and the establishment was widely considered neutral ground. It was the sort of place where greasy eggs were served by ageless waitresses who called everyone ‘Doll.’ There was better food to be had in the city, but no place was safer. He picked out three sets of tails over his tea, and signaled two of them that they were made and should move along. The third he judged to be so inept that they weren’t even worth the effort. After breakfast, he walked a brisk lap around the neighborhood to lose them, then doubled back to his fence in plenty of time to make his delivery. The fledges poked him in the ribs the whole way.
Joe was a disreputable but honest jeweler that preferred working with mercenaries and tomb-raiders over pickpockets. Bingo liked the spectacled human because he knew the right questions to ask and always bargained fairly. He’d worked with him ever since he climbed his way out of the black market and into grayer ones. Joe gave the emerald a careful examination, and a curious sniff, before offering a figure that wasn’t what Bingo hoped for, but was well above what he’d feared.
The treasure hunter absent-mindedly began to haggle when a piece of jewelry on another bench caught his eye. A breathtaking ruby and diamond necklace sat in mid-repair, the stones a scattering of stars on a black cloth. The hazy outline of a plan formed in the back of Bingo’s mind.
It would be the work of less than a second to transfer the gems to his pocket, and from there to less savory shops, who would scatter and resell them for a sum tidy enough to clear even Bingo’s new debt. Joe wouldn’t fail to notice, of course, but he could hardly go to the law. And Bingo would be square with the Proudfoot clan again, meaning he’d be able to call in some old favors to keep ahead of any repercussions.
But that was always how it started. A theft here and a favor there, and he’d be right back where he started, snared like a fly in Rosemary Proudfoot’s web.
And then there was the vow. He’d made it all formally and proper in the Temple of Lady Barley herself. He’d sworn an oath that he’d never steal for Rosemary or the Proudfoots ever again. And while his relationship with the gods was strictly casual, he’d kept his word. He hadn’t stolen so much as a copper rat for the clan since breaking away.
While the work he’d done since joining up with Glory and Joachim, on occasion, might appear very similar to burglary to the untrained eye, he wasn’t a thief anymore. He’d gone honest, if not precisely straight, and grabbing the necklace would bring all that crashing down. It was exactly what Miss Rosemary wanted.
The room suddenly felt too close and too warm. Bingo rushed through the rest of negotiations, knowing he was taking less than he should, but knowing for a fact that every second he stayed in that workshop brought him a second closer to losing his soul. He felt like a caged animal. Air and sunlight were what he wanted at that moment, damn the gold. After exchanging the emerald for seven hundred krakens, he hurried out to the street and the anonymity of the growing crowd.
Lost in worry, Bingo wandered the streets, letting the crowd take him where it will, and making judicious changes in course whenever his instincts told him he was being watched by unfriendly eyes. As the morning wore on, his feet took him along familiar but long-abandoned routes into the last place he wanted to be: Smalltown. The labyrinth of brick-and-timber buildings housed Carabos’s boisterous Hillfolk and Mountainfolk populations. It was a place for traveling Hillfolk teamsters to find clean rooms to let, with quality stables for their ponies. It was a place for young Dwarves just down from the mountains to make their fortunes as artisans apprenticed to the great merchant houses.
On the surface, the smaller folk banded together for convenience and mutual aid. It was a respectable, safe part of the city that wasn’t nearly so troublesome as the Human or Half-Elf quarters. Bingo knew that the truth of it was that the Hill and Mountainfolk knew better than to make a mess at home.
The Proudfoots ran Smalltown through a mixture of implied threats, closely held debts, and cult-like secrecy. Most Hillfolk Clans were fervent in their devotion to genealogy and heraldry. A Bywater or an Appleton could list their family connections ten generations back, and pinpoint their position on a family tree blindfolded. The Proudfoots, being foundlings and outcasts, didn’t go in for such fripperies. They barely seemed to be a clan at all, and they didn’t even have a proper clan Head, or a Crown, the traditional council of elders that advised him.
What they did have was the Heel, a position whispered about in back rooms and dark alleys, and their Toes. But those positions were entirely secret. Any upstanding Hillfolk merchant could be a Toe, or the Heel themself. And you wouldn’t know it until it was too late. This meant that Hillfolk were accorded a great deal of respect in the city, if only out of fear. Hillfolk shops and businesses were targeted less than half as frequently as others, because you never knew who might come for revenge. Bingo figured that Rosemary had to be a Toe. Her work was too important to the clan for it to be otherwise. But he’d never worked out any of the other members, even the one that had spoken in his defense. The Toes had ultimately decided his fate, when he made the unprecedented commitment to buy his freedom from the clan.
“Well bless my soul if it isn’t young Bingo!” He was jolted from his thoughts by a voice calling his name. He looked up to find himself in front of a makeshift stage.
It was surrounded by a crowd of people, nearly all of them Hillfolk, with a few Mountainfolk sprinkled in. It was piled high with all manner of goods, but in the center was a glass jar twice Bingo’s height. It was filled three-quarters high with coins, mostly low-value rats and dogs, but a few eagles and even a golden kraken or two could be seen glittering in the stage lights.
The speaker was a Hillfolk gentleman with long grey mustaches. He stood in front of the hoard, holding his fine black top hat in his hands, and shouting to the crowd. Bingo remembered the annual Proudfoot and Sons charity drive for wayward hill-children. He’d been paraded out to beg at the event once or twice, before he started shaving.
“Good morning, Mr. Proudfoot,” Bingo said. He scanned the gathering for any sign of Miss Rosemary. It wouldn’t do to run into the crone here of all places. Fortunately, nobody from the orphanage seemed to be present. The proprietor himself was commanding all the attention. ‘Big Jim’ Proudfoot was the owner of the largest grocery and dry goods store in Small-town and perhaps the city. Bingo had learned to swipe apples from the displays in front of his shop. “You seem to be doing well.”
“This?” The old man guffawed and gestured with the shiny, human-fashion hat. “We are raising funds for the tykes at the Proudfoot Home for Wayward Hill-Children. Your alma mater, you might say. Surely a fine, upstanding your Hillfolk such as yourself has something to contribute?” Big Jim approached the lip of the stage and lowered his hat. The crowd, well versed in the ritual, parted, leaving a clear space in the cobblestone square. Bingo was of the opinion that Miss Rosemary had taken plenty from him already, but with the eyes of the crowd on him, and a fortune jangling in his hidden pockets, he could hardly refuse. He marched up and placed a placed a gold coin in the hat. Normally, he would’ve been showier about it, but he’d already left too much of an impression. The old man took the opportunity to whisper in his ear.
“I heard about your fabulous present. Would you do me the honor of a word in private?”