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Arkmar had his doubts. But he did not have doubts about what he was ethically required to do. He had complete clarity on that. And while his doubts about the human thief did not diminish even a little bit, his doubts about the story went away as soon as he found himself within a block of the House of the Iron Kindred.

The Dwarves did not have a resident population anywhere in the west of Dream World, but they were all over the place, traveling, sight seeing, doing business. There were three Great Kindreds, and oh, the Centaurs and Mer-folk and Orcs and Giants and Trolls and Ogres and all manner of Little Folk were miffed to be left out of that grouping; but of the three Great Kindreds, the Dwarves considered themselves and were considered by the other two to be the odd ones out. Perhaps it was their rather different approach to sex, or the fact that the other two were not unnerved by having sky over their heads. Perhaps it was that the Elves believed themselves the Superior Kindred, and the Humans considered the Elves to be the Superior Kindred, while the Dwarves Begged to Differ.

But for whatever reason, Humans and Elves alike were always surprised to know that Dwarves were such excellent dreamers. They seemed surprised that Dwarves dreamed at all, and that those dreams weren’t always bound up with gold and steel. Steel and gold: business before pleasure. But that was just how the Dwarves were completely misunderstood by everyone else, including their close cousins the Gnomes, who considered themselves the artsy ones.

The Dwarves’ separation from the other kindreds also meant that when they got in trouble, they needed to find dwarves to help them out. Thus, the existence of Houses of the Kindred in most of the major cities of Dream World: they had a whole castle just outside Inquanok. The House in Baharna was small: the sea did not appeal to the Dwarves by and large, and the fact that Oriab’s main mineral export was “lava” was not much ameliorated by the beauty of the things humans carved from this cooled lava. Gold was easier had elsewhere.

Still, it served a vital function. And if it had been attacked, and its precious items stolen, its priests possibly killed, then it was incumbent on any dwarf who came to Baharna to try to help out. Dwarves relied on each other.

Just before he turned the corner and saw for himself, Arkmar suddenly thought of Ryel. Ryel. What was she about? He ought to have lots of doubts about her too, no matter what his contacts told him. But he felt oddly sure about her. She would help him. If he asked. It would be more productive than sleeping with that slime ball. He laughed and shook his head. No, she might not see it that way.

In any case, he would not ask for help.

And there is was, before him: the House desecrated, its nearest window burst outwards, the corpse of a dwarf priest on the pavement outside, and the horrible stench hovering around the large and disturbingly decorated manhole cover in the middle of the empty street.

Arkmar cast aside his doubts, set his jaw, straightened his steel cap and headed for the House.

 

“So what shall we talk about?” asked Thaeron. “Who is the best thief in Dream World?”

“Are you neglecting to claim the Waking World for a reason?” replied Ryel. “Perhaps in your waking life, you are a scribe, or a functionary of some sort, or possibly an accountant?”

“Who says I have a waking life?”

“Who says I’m curious? So this heist at the Dwarf House.”

“I had nothing to do with it, really,” he replied. “It wasn’t a heist even, really, more of an armed incursion. Not the work of a thief in the true sense. But let’s not talk about that, shall we? I merely made use of it as a diversion.”

“All right,” said Ryel, “let’s talk about what does matter to you. 1. You. End of list.”

“If you’re asking, I will tell you, my dear. I care about two things, not one. I care about my craft, and I care about making love to women, which is my other craft.”

“Your other craft.”

“Laugh if you like. You know it’s true. I work just as hard to be the best at the one as at the other. And here, in Baharna in, oh, whatever year it is today, the one means that object in the floor design in the criminal court, and the other means Ryel the Elf Maiden.”

“You want to steal the thing under the glass, and you want to get into my pants,” said Ryel. “Well, I can tell you which one is easier, but maybe I should make the second one as hard as the first one so you’ll appreciate it when, if ever, I fuck the afterlife out of you.”

“My dear Ryel, you don’t have to work hard to make it hard.”

“Oh, ha ha. I suppose you call that flirtation. Men like you. I do hope you don’t think I find your overconfidence arousing.”

“A challenge, my love. Two challenges: the more difficult the better. Yes, my dear, please do all you can to make it hard.”

“So tell me, what makes you want that thing under the glass in the court house?”

“Oh, I have a dealer.”

“For what, bronze thingies found in difficult conditions? Do you have any idea what the thingy actually is?”

“No,” said Thaeron. “I was told to come here and look there. I was told it would fetch a good price.”

“Any particular price?”

“Of course,” said Thaeron. “We were quite specific. I won’t say any more, of course. I know you consider yourself to be in the business too, though you would never deign to apply for membership in the Guild. Why, are you now thinking of attempting the same deed? Going to offer to help me?”

“No, actually,” said Ryel, “though you were right about the first thing. I do think I ought to attempt the deed.”

“My dear, it may not be true that if I set my sights on your vagina, I will necessarily win through to that hallowed vale. I know I offer the best service in this world or several others; I know a really good orgasm is great for your health; I know you are a connoisseur; still, suit yourself. But if I set my sights on obtaining a particular item belonging to others and under guard, I will obtain that item and I won’t take long doing it. I am setting out to steal the thing we saw. I have a contract and I honor my contracts. If you also set out to steal it, either before me or from me, you will fail.”

Ryel thought about that for a bit. She sat smiling at her mug of dark wine. She raised that eyebrow of hers, the right one, the really limber one. She took a drink, refilled her mug and turned her eyes on Thaeron.

“I propose a wager,” she said.

“A wager! To obtain the thingy?”

“Yes,” she said. “Name your prize, and I will name mine.”

“You may name any prize you like, my dear, for I will not lose.”

“All right. Let’s say one thousand standard one-ounce pieces of iridium.”

“Iridium forsooth,” said Thaeron. “Not gold or platinum.”

“It’s more expensive,” said Ryel, “and I think it’s shinier. Your price?”

“Your pussy, one night,” said Thaeron smiling. “Dusk to dawn.”

“Deal,” said Ryel, sticking out her hand.

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