Paldu was larger than Mira expected, but not as big as Palveral was. It also lacked the spiked wall or the bay full of ships that looked like they’d sailed straight out of the Victorian age. They approached it from the west, and Mira’s first glimpse came when they broke through a tree line. It was laid out below them, a square miles of civilization with two wide roads bisecting it from end to end, meeting in the middle, and five streets large enough to be seen from a distance radiating out at various angles from the center.
A trail led downhill half a mile to where it connected with the north-bound road leading into Paldu. There were no guards anywhere, just people going about their business. Mira wasn’t even sure when they entered the city, just that at some point the buildings were close enough together and the side streets narrow enough that it felt like a city.
“I know we’ve been walking all day, but if you don’t mind, I’d like to go straight to the trade district and start shopping. You don’t have to come with me if you don’t want to,” Amura said.
Mira looked around her. “I don’t know where anything is. We’ve been here five minutes and I’m already lost.”
“Oh, it’s not so hard to find your way around, but come on. We’ll get a nice meal and a drink when I’m done. Probably for free.” Amura tossed out a lavish wink.
Mira laughed and trailed after Amura as they marched deeper into Paldu.
* * *
As it turned out, Amura was not in any hurry to buy a new lyre. She certainly looked at a lot of them, probably twenty or thirty across four different shops, by Mira’s estimation. Some of them she merely glanced at before passing over. Others she actually played briefly before handing them back. Once, she played one for a solid minute before sighing and shaking her head.
“I was afraid of this,” she told Mira once they were back in the street. “Paldu has a great selection, but for a good lyre, one that I have the money on me for, there’s only one place to go. And it’s not… strictly legal.”
“I don’t understand,” Mira said. “There’s a black market music trade in this city?”
“Every city has its criminals,” Amura said. “There just happens to be a craftsman here who doesn’t like paying his taxes. Nor is he picky about where his materials come from. And he has a lot of like-minded friends.”
“Is that a problem?”
“Who knows. I haven’t been here in a few years. He might not even still be in business. He might not even still be in the city, for all I know. Or he might be, but in jail.”
They only had to walk a few blocks before Amura stopped at a cafe advertising coffee as a specialty. “This is the place,” she said. “Hopefully the right people are still here.”
Mira was mildly surprised to find a place that sold coffee, and instantly wanted a cup. Even if it was black, she hadn’t had coffee in months. She didn’t care what the price was. She tried to tell herself not to get hopeful, that it might be nothing like the coffee she was used to, but it was no use. She needed coffee.
The inside was bright and open. Windows lined two walls, and tables were scattered across the floor. Even if every one of them had been full, it still wouldn’t have felt crowded. But they weren’t. There were only three people there, and only two of them sat at tables. One had a full meal, but the other had a single cup with steam curling up from it sitting on front of him.
The third was a man who was maybe fifty, wiry framed with a kind face. His hair was completely grey, but still thick. When Amura walked in, Mira following behind her, he looked up and a smile creased his face.
“Welcome, welcome,” he said. “What can I get for you today?”
“Hello Nali,” Amura said. “Do you have a menu prepared?”
“I haven’t used them in years. Would you like to hear the whole list or just the specials today?”
“Why don’t you show me what you’ve got prepared and I’ll make a choice from there.”
The old man’s eyes twinkled. “Very well, Miss Amura. If you’ll follow me…”
He led her to the kitchen, then paused and looked at Mira. “Will your companion be joining us?”
Mira tore her gaze from the cup of coffee sitting on the table in front of one of the shop’s patrons and said, “I really just want coffee. Add some milk and sugar if you can and I’ll be happy.”
Nali smiled again and said, “I’ll inform the kitchen. Just have a seat and someone will be out in a minute with it.”
Mira took an empty table and waited. She tried not to stare at the cup on the table across the room, but she was pretty sure she’d never wanted anything as bad as she wanted that coffee. When a different man came out of the kitchen with it, she had to make a conscious effort not to start drooling.
It didn’t taste like what she was used to, but it was so good she didn’t care. The server laughed at the moan she gave with her first sip and told her to poke her head into the kitchen if she needed anything else. She thanked him and settled back to sip at her cup of liquid heaven.
The man with only a cup finished his drink and left. Mira smiled and closed her eyes as she took another sip. Footsteps approached her table and the chair opposite of her was pulled out. Thinking it was Amura come back already, Mira opened her eyes only to see Shy sitting across from her.
“The musician you’re traveling with,” Shy said. “You need to get rid of her today.”
“Shy!” Mira yelped. She shot a quick look at the only other person in the coffee house, but he was too busy eating to pay any attention. Lowering her voice, she asked, “Where the hell have you been? You said a few weeks, not a month.”
“And you were supposed to stay in Rohaim. I saw what’s left of the place. You can tell me what happened when you meet me outside the city. Take the west road.” Shy’s eyes turned icy. “And you can tell me what happened to my basilisk.”
Shy held up a hand. “Not now. Finish your business. Lose the other woman. Take the west road. I’ll be looking for you at sun down. Just keep walking west until I find you.”
She stood back up and walked out without another word. Mira sighed and took another sip of coffee. For everything that had gone wrong over the last month, every opportunity for Shy to show up and help, of course the demon had to pick when she was in a peaceful city enjoying her first cup of coffee in months.
It just didn’t taste as good as it had a minute earlier.
* * *
Eight men filed into the cafe about ten minutes later. They fanned out, two of them flanking the door while the other six approached the kitchen. Half way there, one of them stopped and pointed at Mira.
“That the girl who came in with her?”
“Yeah, boss.” The speaker was the man who’d finished his cup of coffee and walked out just before Shy had appeared.
“Grab her too then. Make sure to gag her.”
Before Mira could even stand up, the last two men had lunged across the room to grab her. One clamped his hand over Mira’s mouth and the other reached for her arms. Mira hurled her coffee in his face and he staggered back with a shout. He ripped his shirt off in an effort to pull the hot coffee away from his skin, revealing slabs of scarred muscle and curly black chest hair that glistened with coffee.
“Dark Father take you!” he snarled as he mopped the hot coffee off his face and threw the shirt aside. He reached out for her again, this time helped by the other thug who was holding her mouth closed and had an arm across her chest.
Mira’s hand snaked down to her heart stone pouch, but she hesitated. If she used it, regardless of whether Maluk was right about the long-term consequences, she didn’t think any of her attackers would survive. Even just lighting camp fires had taken an enormous about of effort to control how little fire she wanted. If she’d let it, the heart stone would have burned down the forest.
In the middle of a fight, already held by one man and with another one about to grab her, there was no way Mira was going to have that kind of focus. Using the inferolisk heart stone would probably kill everyone in the room and burn the entire shop to the ground.
The decision was taken from her either way. The man grabbed her arms and, between the two of them, muscled her around so that each had one arm. The hand remained over her mouth, holding her jaw clamped shut, and the thugs steered her by pushing on her back.
“No one comes in until we’re done here,” the boss told the two guarding the door. They nodded back and one of them fingered the hilt of a dagger in a sheathe on his belt.
“And you,” the boss said, turning to point at the customer who’d been in the middle of eating his lunch when they’d entered. The man sat there, a spoon half way to his mouth and the soup that had been in it spilled across the table as he watched.
“You didn’t see anything. We were never here. No one was here. Not us, not the girl. You understand.”
The customer nodded and set his spoon back into the bowl. “No one was here. I had my lunch and went back to work.”
“Good man,” the boss said. He turned back to the door men and added, “He tries anything, beat the hell out of him and drag him into the kitchen.”
“Amura went through here, boss,” the man from earlier said.
“Great. Can’t wait to see that whore again,” the boss said. “Alright, let’s go see what she’s been up since she ran out on me with my money.”
* * *
The kitchen worker didn’t look surprised to see the group of thugs troop by with Mira in tow. If anything, he had a resigned expression. Without prompting, he pointed toward one of three doors that led out the back side of the kitchen. The thugs pulled Mira into it, revealing a stair case that led down to a cellar. Casks the size of Mira’s head lined shelf after shelf all the way around it, and four crates were piled up in the back corner.
The thugs hauled the crates out of the way. One of them got down on his knees and examined the floor, then looked up to the other, who grunted and said “Back right corner.”
Nodding, the thug tapped the floor with a closed fist a few times. Once he’d found the right spot, he stood up and kicked his heel down hard. An entire section bucked and popped loose, revealing a hidden flight of stairs. “Think they heard that?” the thug asked.
“Doesn’t matter,” the boss said. “Get in there. Make sure you keep her mouth closed the whole time. I don’t want Amura so much as sticking her tongue out at me.”
The stairs led through a rough worked tunnel, definitely not natural and definitely with no more work done to it than was necessary. It was maybe half a mile long , supported by ribs of rough-hewn wooden braces and lit only by what came down the stairs after them and the small square of daylight coming in through the far end.
By the time the thugs had force-marched Mira to the end, the boss and his cronies had already secured the room. Mira reached a wide, shallow cave, its entrance partially covered in foliage and its walled lined with crates and boxes. Amura was face down on the ground, three men on top of her and one shoving some sort of gag into her mouth.
The kindly looking shop keeper who’d led Amura away stood passively off to the side, offering no resistance and being ignored. When he noticed Mira looking at him, he gave a sad smile but said nothing.
“So, Amura, how many years has it been?” the boss said, gloating. “Stand her up. I want to look in her eyes.”
The thugs hauled her to her feet. She took in the whole scene at once and locked eyes with Mira. Her brow furrowed and she glanced down at the pouch that still hung at Mira’s waist. She couldn’t have asked any questions even if she’d dared voice them in front of their captors though.
“Now, I believe you cut off three of my wife’s fingers,” the boss said. He brandished a knife and gestured toward Amura’s right hand. One of the thugs grabbed her wrist and forced her hand flat against a table.
“I thought we’d start with that. Then we can move on to paying you back for my son. After that, I thought I might cut out your tongue for what you did to me personally. I haven’t decided yet.”
He cocked his head to the side and looked at Amura. “No quips? Nothing to say? That’s not like you, Amura.”
She said something, though it was impossible to understand through the gag. The boss laughed and brought the knife down. “Good enough for me. Let’s get started.”