Rum Luck: Bad luck, esp. in a certain circumstance or series of events
This one came about through an odd (actually, pretty typical) series of circumstances: I was starting another story and realized partway through that I really needed to know what came before it. Like its predecessors, this takes place in a fantastical alternate history setting, with geography (and some place-names) much like our world’s. And again, this is a fairly rough draft. Other stories in the same setting can be found here, here, here, and here. Enjoy responsibly.
* * *
The night air was fresh and clean, carrying the scents of salt and the sweet tropical grasses that grew along the beaches here. It wafted up from the shore, dancing across the slopes of the hills and tickling the back of Jerome’s neck as he and Andre drove their wagon along the well-traveled path. Stars dotted the sky above them, and a rising moon left a glimmering trail on the water to their right. Andre’s lantern cast enough light on the trail ahead for the horses, both of whom had traversed this path many times before. The hefty dwarf smiled up at Jerome, his teeth gleaming as they caught the moonlight.
“You know, Jerome, sometimes,” Andre gave a happy sigh, “sometimes this really isn’t so bad at all.” His free hand swept to encompass the hillsides around them, the trail, the sea, and the rising moon. He glanced behind them at the bed of the wagon, eyeing the casks which he’d so carefully secured. They sloshed as the wagon creaked and rattled. From where Andre sat, Jerome’s answering grin was silhouetted against the rising moon.
“I told you this would be a good job.” Jerome risked a glance at Andre, looking away from the team for a moment. Andre snorted in response, and Jerome chuckled. Trying to keep a straight face, he continued, “And have I ever led you astray before?” The two of them burst out laughing. They laughed so long and so hard that Andre was soon wiping tears from the corners of his eyes.
“Never!” Andre lied with a guffaw. The two of them burst into a new round of laughter.
Jerome took the reins in one hand for long enough to wipe his now wet cheeks. “Well! I’m glad we’re in agreement then!” He chuckled some more for the next few minutes, watching the bends in the path as it took them down the shoreside route. It was several miles from the sugar mill and distillery where they’d picked up their load to the town where they’d been hired to deliver it, and in weather such as they had tonight it was a true pleasure to travel.
“I still don’t see why that man wanted you to do the delivery instead of whatever drivers he normally uses.” Andre returned to their earlier debate, though he sounded far more goodnatured than he had while they were arguing over it in the bar.
“He said his usual drivers were sick or something.” Jerome peered ahead at the dimly lit path. He slowed the horses a little further, glancing to either side. “Play that light across those rocks, will you? I don’t like the looks of them.” Jerome nodded as Andre complied, then added with a grin, “And besides, he said it was a pleasure to be doing business with me again!”
“Pffffft.” Andre made his opinion of that idea clear. He shook his head, running his free hand through his beard as the wagon rattled slowly towards the rocks that he’d illuminated. “He just said that so he could screw us with lower pay than he’d usually give, and all of it at the end of the job too.”
Jerome winced a little. He allowed as to how that might be true, though he wasn’t likely to agree with Andre out loud. Certainly not just now. He looked over the rocks again, largish things that lay to either side of the trail, and had a sudden flash of memory that helped him place why he felt so uncomfortable. “You know,” he began, “I’ve been ambushed near stones like these before—,” and then he saw the figures rising from either side of the road, guns in hand, while a small log was heaved into place across the path from the lower slope to his right. Jerome gently brought the wagon to a stop.
“Have you now,” Andre muttered darkly as he raised his hands. “I never would have guessed.”
* * *
“You know, at least this time none of them tried to kill us.” Jerome sounded unduly positive as he and Andre trudged towards town in the dark, their wagon now long gone. “That’s a good thing! Much better than last time.” Jerome glanced towards the still rising moon, now high enough that it left a spot on the sea instead of a long gleaming trail. “Of course,” he sighed wistfully, “back then I was dealing with the Northmen and still living with my family just outside London.”
“Yes, the Northmen,” Andre grumbled, “and then you all became friends and sang songs and drank until you pissed beer. I’ve heard the story.”
Jerome did a splendid impression of affronted innocence. “I’m sure I don’t know what you mean.” He smiled. “I certainly learned more from them than I ever got from my fencing instructors.”
Andre looked up at his oblivious friend and sucked on his teeth in thought. The ambushers had let them keep the lantern, even if they’d made off with the wagon and all it carried, but Andre thought Jerome had lost sight of the big picture. “Did they ever pay you?” Andre asked his friend as pointedly as he could.
“Huh?” Jerome looked down at his friend, puzzled.
Andre continued, looking back at the road in front of them, “Because your merchant friend, Baltzar or Balthasar or whatever his name is—,”
“Sure,—he isn’t going to pay us without that rum.”
Jerome was quiet for a few minutes. The two of them walked in prickly silence, broken only by the sounds of their feet crunching on the path. Insects buzzed in the grass to either side, and the faint sound of the distant surf washed up to them on the light breeze. Jerome stared off towards the water, glancing back at the path every so often to make sure he wasn’t about to trip. His apology, when it came, was quiet and chagrined.
“I’m sorry.” Jerome didn’t look down at his friend this time, and when Andre glanced up all he could see was the look of pained concentration on his friend’s face. “It’s just I hoped, I don’t know,” Jerome kicked a small rock along the dirt path, “I wanted Baltusar to know that I was back, I wanted to reach out again. You know?” Jerome struggled for words, an unusual state, “He’s one of the few people I knew through my family.” He felt a terrible wash of sadness and loneliness, despite being right next to his best friend. “I hoped he’d let them know that I’m doing alright.”
“I’m sorry Jerome,” Andre put out a hand to pat his friend on the back. He had to reach up. “I’m just worried about pulling together enough coin to get a move on again. I don’t want to be stuck here.” His tone hardened, “And I don’t want to sign aboard as crew for anyone as would take us for just one short jaunt. Those one’s are slavers, often as not.” Jerome nodded, sniffling and surreptitiously wiping his nose. “And in all fairness, I don’t really like that fellow. He smells weaselly.”
Jerome gave a short, choked laugh. “Well, he spends all his time worming people away from their money Andre.” He smiled down at his friend, trying to let his sadness pass by. “It’s not like he’s the most trustworthy person around.”
Andre shrugged. “Great. So how are we going to make sure we get paid?” He looked back along the road behind them. “You know, if he doesn’t get the rum and pay the distillery, those folks back there will probably try to take the money out of our hides.”
Jerome made a queasy noise in the back of his throat. The idea of the mill and distillery’s owners deciding that he owed them something was frightening to say the least. He and Andre had picked up the rum with the understanding that Baltusar would pay, but if the merchant reneged on his part of the deal after failing to receive the rum, things could get messy very quickly. It would be almost as bad if Baltusar did pay and decided to say that Andre and Jerome owed him a favor. That would just keep the two of them stuck here for longer, possibly caught up in whatever it was that Baltusar had cooked up to make use of their particular skills.
“Any ideas?” Andre’s question cut into Jerome’s thoughts of debt, flight, and extortion.
“Uh, well,” Jerome stumbled for words. Any plan was better than none. “We just have to find where the wagon went and get the rum back. Right?” He looked ahead, where the hill and road curved away to their left, opening onto a beautiful view of the moonlit port town where they’d meant to deliver their cargo in the first place. Lamps and torches flickered here and there amongst the buildings, puddling light in the inky streets, leaving bright washes of warm color in the cool blues and blacks of nighttime. Jerome chewed the side of his cheek in thought. “It’s not like the town’s that big after all.” Silence stretched for a few moments. “Right?”
Andre grunted. “Sure.” With a sigh, he stopped and looked down at the town alongside his friend. “All we need to do is search the whole town for our wagon and horses, and then hope the rum is still nearby.” Andre began scratching his chin vigorously through his beard, with a sour twist to his lips and a furrowed brow. “Great. This’ll be a fun night.”
* * *
“You know,” murmured Jerome as he and his friend wandered along the town’s dark streets, “last time I had to fight a Northman barehanded to get my cargo back.”
Andre puffed in exasperation. “And then you beat him, even after he got you in a chokehold. I’ve heard this one before Jerome.” He played the lantern’s light across the wagon which had been left outside one of the small warehouses to their right. “Didn’t you only win because you drew blood with your fingernails?”
“Hey, at least I won.” Jerome harsh whisper was defensive. “Can you say you’ve won a fistfight to first blood against a Northman?” He glared at Andre. The dwarf was silent, his lips twisted aside in a moue of displeasure. “I didn’t think so. Besides, what I was really getting at,” Jerome took on a lofty tone, “is that walking around a port at night with my friend is far better than getting in a fistfight with an orc.”
“Heh.” Andre smiled at that for a few moments before shaking his head in disappointment. “You know Jerome, this looks like it might be a fool’s errand. We’ve covered nearly the whole waterfront, and haven’t seen our wagon near any of these warehouses. If they’re unloading the rum somewhere else, we really haven’t got very much chance of finding it.” Jerome grimaced in agreement, and Andre continued, “Besides, we’re assuming that they still haven’t moved our wagon from where they unloaded. It’s been,” he glanced up at the moon, “more than an hour since they should have gotten back.”
Jerome sighed. “But what else are we supposed to do?”
“I don’t know,” Andre muttered, “go tell Batlesur that his booze was stolen and we’re very sorry?”
“Baltusar,” Jerome automatically corrected his friend. He stopped in the street, looking at the warehouses to their right, the storefronts to their left. “Yeah, I guess you’re right. But let’s check the last set of warehouses before we give up entirely.” Andre nodded in agreement, and they set off.
The last few warehouses were just as unhelpful as the previous ones had been. Every so often they’d been able to talk with a night watchman assigned to one of the buildings, but none of them had seen anything out of the ordinary, at least not that they were willing to talk about. Thoroughly dejected, Andre and Jerome made their way back towards Baltusar’s establishment.
Where most people in the town had houses built close to each other, often sharing walls, Baltusar’s house stood independent of the surrounding buildings. It was a clear show of wealth, meant to impress his business partners. A large and very solid storage barn stood on the lot behind his house, built of stone halfway up the walls and finished with timbers that had probably been taken from old ships.
The light of Andre’s lantern played idly across the barn behind the house as they approached, and something shifted in the glow and caught Andre’s eye. He stopped, staring as Jerome continued towards the house. Jerome looked back at his friend in confusion.
“Andre, what’s wrong?” Jerome’s question was answered with an equine whicker. He turned around towards the source of the sound, and saw a wagon with two horses pulled up in front of the barn’s large doors. “Son of a drunken, goat loving…” the words died away in Jerome’s mouth as he stared at the same wagon which had been taken from him earlier in the evening. Struck by a sudden thought, Jerome turned back towards his friend and hissed, “Andre, shutter your lamp!”
Startled, Andre complied. The two of them were cast into faintly moonlit darkness. Andre cautiously stumped forward to join his friend. Murmuring into the quiet night, he asked, “Is that what I think it is?”
“If you think it’s our wagon,” Jerome murmured in response, “then I’m pretty sure the answer is yes.”
“But,” Andre was at a loss, “why?”
Jerome started moving quietly towards the wagon, bare feet scraping lightly on the laid stones that marked the footpath from the street to the house and barn. “Let’s find out,” he whispered back to his friend.
As the two of them approached and their eyes adjusted to the darkness, they could begin to make out a glow of lamplight coming through the cracks of the barn doors. Their horses greeted them with indignant snorts. They’d been left outside and in their traces for far longer than they were used to, and were quite put out with the situation. Jerome, anxious as he was, did his best to quiet them. The last thing he wanted was to let whoever was inside the barn know that he was there. He could think of many reasons for the wagon and horses to be outside of the barn after having been stolen earlier in the evening, and almost none of them were good.
Andre followed his tall friend through the dark, coming up to the barn doors as quietly as he could. He warily checked the position of his pistol in his belt, touching the unfilled priming pan to reassure himself that it was still dry. Jerome had leaned up against one of the doors and was staring in through a crack between the weathered planks, and Andre could barely contain his curiosity. “Can you see anything?” Andre murmured as quietly as he could, hoping that whoever was inside wouldn’t hear.
“Shush,” Jerome admonished absentmindedly. He shifted his head side to side incrementally, taking in the scene inside. When his friend was silent, he could just barely make out the conversation on the other side of the doors. He could see two people, standing in profile.
“—Very sorry that it’s taken so long for me to put together the quantity that we agreed on,” Baltusar was saying. The broad and stout woman standing across from him snorted derisively.
“You might have been faster about it if you hadn’t been trying to cheat me and mine out of the fee we’d agreed on in the first place.” Jerome recognized her as the one who’d led the crew that took their wagon.
“I’m very sorry that you mistook my initial lack of readily available funds for a sign that I was attempting to cheat you.” Baltusar’s shoulders shifted the smallest amount, adopting a more conciliatory tilt. Jerome recognized it from playing cards with him. “I’m sure that you’ll be most satisfied with the money I’ve now provided to you.”
“Sure I will. Just as soon as Sonny’s finished counting it.” The woman glanced to her side, then looked back at Baltusar. Her head rolled to the side, giving him a considering look out of the corners of her eyes. “Why was it again that you wanted to pay us so nicely for stealing this rum from those poor fools?” Jerome silently applauded her line of questioning.
Baltusar stood up a little straighter, looking like he’d taken some offense. Jerome’s eyes narrowed. He recognized that posture: Baltusar used it whenever he’d been called out on a particularly shitty hand. It was a sure sign that he was blustering. Maybe this woman would recognize it too?
“It’s simple. I need not pay the distillery, nor the fools, as you called them, and I need not declare the goods as either missing or sold when the time comes to pay taxes. I’m sure, as a discerning woman, that you can appreciate the value of high-worth goods whose existence is negotiable.”
The woman’s head came back up straight and she smiled. Either she hadn’t played cards with Baltusar, Jerome thought, or she didn’t think it was worth pressing, because she nodded and stuck out her hand. “I certainly can’t argue with that. It’s a pleasure doing business with you Baltusar.”
Baltusar smiled, his posture relaxing as he realized that his bluff hadn’t been called. “Likewise Alma, likewise.” He stepped a little closer, shaking hands. A quieter voice caught Alma’s attention off to the side, and then she looked back up at Baltusar with an even broader smile.
“Well, Sonny says we’re all clear here. If you’ve nothing further for the evening, me and mine will take our leave of you.”
Baltusar shook his head, still the very image of benign and businesslike hospitality.
“Right. Well then, let’s clear out folks.” And with that Alma strode purposefully towards the barn door.
“Shit!” Jerome hissed and grabbed at Andre’s shoulder, darting towards the side of the barn as quickly as he could.
“What?” Andre hissed back, pelting along behind Jerome as best as his shorter legs could carry him. Jerome didn’t respond, just throwing himself around the side of the barn and pressing himself up against the stonework and into shadow. Andre stumbled around the corner just in time, escaping the wash of light that came along with the barn door’s opening. Speaking quietly amongst themselves, Alma and her crew led the wagon and its team off into the darkness, their procession lit only by a torch. Jerome felt a twinge of jealousy as he watched them go. He couldn’t help but feel that that should have been him and Andre instead.
Andre tugged on Jerome’s sleeve, glaring up at him in the gloom. “You could have given me some warning, you ass!” Jerome shushed him distractedly.
A few minutes later, when Baltusar still hadn’t yet come out of the barn, Jerome crouched down next to his friend. “Sorry, Andre. I didn’t realize they’d be coming out so quickly.” He risked another quick glance around the corner, still seeing no sign of the merchant. “Baltusar played us for fools, but he was lying when he told those thugs why he had them take the rum from us. If you’ll agree,” he muttered quietly, “I want to sneak in there once he’s gone and find out what he was really up to.” He looked Andre in the eye. “Deal?”
Andre looked sour, but he gave in soon enough. “Ahh, fine. If he screwed us over like that, I want to see if we can’t return him the favor.” He smiled at Jerome in the darkness, his teeth catching what little light there was. “Deal.”
* * *
It took a while, but soon enough Andre and Jerome’s patience paid off. Baltusar walked back towards his house, a small lamp held aloft to light his way, and the light inside the barn faded away as he left. He never looked behind him, nor did he try to examine the shadows which surrounded his barn cum warehouse. Andre and Jerome were left alone in the balmy evening, and they slowly made their way back around to the barn’s door once they’d seen Baltusar’s lamp disappear into his house. Then they found the lock.
“Oh, you’ve got to be kidding me.” Andre muttered as the barn door’s lock clanked against the metal loop which held it in place.
“What? What’s wrong?” Jerome was anxious in the dark, and had no desire to be caught by some dumb stroke of luck. The sooner they were inside the barn the better, and Andre’s muttered complaint left him on edge.
“Pffft, nothing’s wrong. This lock is a travesty.” Andre’s easy dismissal of the lock was deeply reassuring, and Jerome sighed in relief as Andre pulled out a series of small metal bars and set to work. It was all something the dwarf did by feel, and Jerome was glad to be able to leave their lamp entirely shuttered.
A little while passed, Jerome standing by his friend and watching the approach to the barn while his friend worked. There were a series of quiet snicks, and then a muffled curse. “Uh, Andre? Is everything alright?” Jerome asked his friend quietly.
“Yeah, it’s just fine,” Andre’s reply was brusque. “Ignore me.”
Jerome snickered, smothering his laugh with a well placed hand. “A travesty, huh?”
Andre didn’t say anything else in response, but Jerome could practically feel him smoldering. He only laughed harder, his anxiety letting itself out however it could. His shoulders heaved as he kept the noise to himself.
Finally, there was a heavy clunk and the mechanism inside the padlock turned over. The latch released and Andre eased it out of the loop and unfolded the clasp that held the door shut. With a creak amplified by their nervousness, Andre swung the barn door open just wide enough to accept the two of them, closing it gently behind them. Jerome flipped up the shutter on the lamp, turning around slowly to examine the contents of Baltusar’s barn.
It looked as though it had been turned into an extra storage space, something set aside for the various special items that he had no desire to store in the warehouse he leased closer to the port. There, stacked in the center of the barn’s floor, stood a pyramid of barrels. They were easily recognizable as the same ones that had been loaded onto the back of Andre and Jerome’s wagon earlier that evening.
“So,” Andre mused as he walked towards the pyramid, “if you don’t just want deniable rum to sell on the black market,” he paused. “That is what he said he was doing, right?” At Jerome’s nod he continued, “so if that’s not it, then why go to all this bother for these barrels?” He walked up and tapped the closest one firmly with a thick finger. He frowned at the sound it made. Muttering, he circled the pile. “It certainly sounds like they’re full.”
Jerome walked up to the pile as well, holding the lantern up to get a better view of the barrels. He circled in the opposite direction, meeting Andre on the far side of the pile. “You see anything funny?”
The dwarf shook his head. “No. Not a thing.” He glanced up at the pile again. “Unless you count the fact that there’s one barrel missing.” Jerome followed his friend’s pointing finger. Sure enough, the pyramid had a barrel taken out of it.
Jerome stalked around the pyramid of barrels, counting as he went. He knew how many they’d picked up from the distillery, and his count kept coming up one short. He looked at Andre, lit dimly by light reflected from the barrels, “So where’s the last one?”
Andre shrugged. “No idea. Somewhere around here, I suspect. Maybe he already started sampling the goods?”
“Huh. Maybe,” Jerome’s voice was doubtful as he glanced around the barn, “but I didn’t see him rolling one back to the house with him, and he couldn’t have finished one that quickly.” He smiled, “Not without being unable to walk.”
“Ugh.” Andre held his stomach in sympathy. “He’d be a ways past being unable to walk.”
“Yeah, well…” Jerome started moving slowly around the rest of the barn, playing the light across all the stalls that had been filled with boxes, crates, and rolls of fabric. “Let’s just hope he didn’t make it disappear entirely.” Andre grunted his agreement, and began walking alongside his friend while they searched the barn. There was only the one lantern between the two of them.
It took a while, but eventually they found the barrel in a stunningly obvious place. It had been rolled to the side of the door, just next to where they’d entered the barn. Oddly enough, the top was stoved in, cracked straight through with a hole wide enough to fit a fist. Or perhaps wide enough to fit the mallet that lay on the floor next to the barrel. The strong scent of rum wafted from the broken barrel, and some of it had clearly splashed on the barn’s dirt floor.
“Terrible,” Jerome shook his head minutely. “That’s no way to treat good rum. Why would he even do such a thing?”
Andre looked at the barrel, looked at his hand, then rolled up his sleeve and stuck his arm down through the hole, past the elbow. The barrel wasn’t especially large, but he got up to the bicep before he stopped. He spent a moment or two groping around inside the barrel, his face contorted in concentration. Finally, he smiled.
“Jerome, no need to worry yourself. Your friend is a canny merchant indeed!” He started to straighten back up, until his elbow got stuck in the hole. “Oh, bother.” Andre stared down at the barrel in consternation.
Jerome snorted with laughter. “What’s the matter Andre? You got too much rum on your hands?”
Andre glowered up at his tall friend. “It’s no laughing matter.” He desperately tried to keep a straight face, finally lapsing into a grin even as he struggled to remove his arm from the barrel. “Look, I know there’s something in here, and it feels like an ingot, but I can’t very well tell if I can’t get my hand out!” He tried to set his foot up on the edge of the barrel to give himself better leverage, only to tip over backwards with the barrel on top. He let out a great “oof” as the barrel’s full weight settled onto his belly, and then desperately screwed his eyes shut as a wave of rum came sloshing out of the broken barrel and swept over his chest and face.
Jerome shuddered with suppressed laughter, slumping against the barn’s stone wall as half of the barrel full of rum spilled out over his friend. Finally, after most of the rum had run out of the hole, Jerome got up and slowly tugged the barrel off of Andre’s arm. The dwarf was sopping wet with liquor and crying and sputtering from the inundation, but he proudly clutched a bar of gold in his fist.
Jerome whistled softly in amazement, staring at the metal glowing in the lamplight. “Why, that tricky dog.”
* * *
Andre was still wringing what rum he could from his hair, beard and clothes. The bar of gold lay on the barn’s dirt floor, shedding a warm radiance in the dim lamplight while Jerome paced back and forth just inside the barn door. He was quietly trying to reconstruct Baltusar’s scheme as he muttered beneath his breath.
“There’s gold in the barrels, which means,” pause, wheel in place, resume pacing, “that the people at the distillery know about the gold. They’re part of the deal, somehow. Where are they getting the gold, and why are they passing it to Baltusar?” Jerome reached the other end of his short path, shook his head in frustration, and wheeled again. “Never mind, think that through later. What was Baltusar doing?”
“Cheating his business partners,” Andre grumped from where he sat on one of the barrels at the base of the pyramid. He held his shirt up to the faint light and frowned. It was still damp, and reeked of rum. “Cheating two sets of business partners in a row, and using a third set to do it, no less.” He looked up at Jerome again and sighed. “Quit pacing so fast, you ninny. You’re making me dizzy.”
Jerome made a quiet raspberry. “Those are the rum fumes, Andre, not me.” Despite his dismissal of Andre’s request, he stood still for a moment and stared at the pyramid of rum in thought. “You pay extra for rum that has gold in it, transfer it into other barrels so that you can get the gold, and then sell the rum with no one else any wiser as to your new gold collection. You can make back some of your gold investment just by selling the rum.” Jerome shook his head slowly, “We don’t know what he wants to do in particular with the gold, but it’s easy enough to turn unmarked gold into good money. Ignore that for now…” He paused for a moment to chew on his cheek. “But you can pay less if you only put up the money for some thieves to rob a shipment of rum, and then don’t pay anyone else for the rum you ‘don’t receive’…” Jerome’s voice drifted into silence again.
“Sure,” opined Andre, “but you can’t do it often or else your other business partners’ll stop working with you. The theft is either a freak occurrence or the end of the affair. Or he’s truly stupid.” Andre ran his fingers through his beard, flicking sticky droplets of rum from his fingertips at the end of each stroke. He grinned, “His lock doesn’t speak well for him on that count.” He paused for a moment, then stared up at Jerome with one eyebrow cocked as a new thought occurred to him. “You know, Baltastar can’t be doing anything the distillers would like to have done with that gold, else why would he try to get some of it without them knowing he had it?”
“Right.” Jerome nodded in agreement, too distracted to correct his friend’s mispronunciation this time. “Maybe it does matter what the distillers want done, and what Baltusar wants with the gold. We’re not likely to find that out in this barn though.”
Andre gave his soggy clothes another once over, sighed, and hunched to put his shirt back on. “No, we’re not.” Damp shirt back in place, he straightened up again and looked at his friend. “But I know who we could ask.” His mouth widened into a sharklike grin.
Jerome returned the smile. “I like how you think. We can always come back for the rum and gold, let’s take care of Baltusar tonight.”
Andre nodded, stood, and joined Jerome by the door. He frowned as he checked his pistol. There was no way to know whether or not the charge had gotten damp without cleaning the whole thing; and while it desperately needed a cleaning after the accident with the rum, he didn’t think that he had the time.
Jerome tucked the bar of gold into his belt, and left it riding on his hip opposite his sword. He carried the lantern in his left hand, shuttered to let only a dim glow paint the ground before them. Andre opened the door, and the two of them slipped out into the darkness of the night. Not for the first time, Jerome marveled at the blithe confidence that it took for a man like Baltusar to not keep a better watch on his storage barn during the night. Maybe, Jerome wondered, he had enough in the way of questionable dealings that there were some nights when it just wouldn’t pay to have a regular guard?
The mismatched pair of friends made their way quietly over the paving stones that ran towards the house, pausing for a moment by the door to listen for anyone who might be awake inside. Hearing no one moving and seeing no lights, Jerome patted Andre on the shoulder and motioned him towards the back door to the large and well-kept house. Again, Andre knelt and applied his tools to the lock. This time there were only a few moments of fiddling before they heard the satisfying click of the mechanism rolling over. Andre eased the door open and waved for Jerome to lead the way, his gesture only just visible in the light of the shuttered lamp. Once inside, they gently closed the door behind them.
The lantern showed them a well appointed room; thick rugs were laid over a polished wooden floor, and dim shapes of elegant furniture graced the edges. In the corner ahead and to their left, on what looked like side tables, Andre could see the faint glitter of ornate glassware no doubt shipped at great expense from the Old World. The room itself nearly screamed value, but somehow managed it without edging over into outright ostentation. Probably, Andre thought humorously, because I can’t see most of it. Andre looked expectantly at Jerome, waiting for him to lead the way.
Jerome looked back at him, eyebrow cocked. “What?”
Andre pushed Jerome slightly. “Go on,” he hissed, “you’ve been here before. Which way to his room?”
Jerome looked around the dark room nervously. “Uh, well, I think the stairs are that way, and I’m pretty sure he’s on the second floor…”
Andre glared up at his friend. He stalked off in the direction that Jerome had pointed, muttering “Useless, useless, useless,” under his breath. He paused after passing through an archway and stepping into what looked like the front hall. A wide staircase was on his left, the top of it passing up and through the wall behind him while the bottom opened out towards the door a ways ahead of him. It was a large hall, in keeping with the house’s other trappings of wealth, and it took him a moment to realize that the oddly shaped things that looked like openings in the walls were actually large mirrors. They must have cost the merchant a fortune to have them shipped intact, which was no doubt why he had them on display here. Andre waited impatiently for Jerome to catch up before starting up the stairs.
The steps were broad and shallow, and very solidly built. Andre crept silently up one side, where the structural supports would minimize creaking. Jerome followed close behind, making no more noise than Andre had. They paused at the top of the stairs, looking right and left down the hallway. Jerome shrugged, lamp bobbing, then hooked his thumb to the right. He clearly didn’t know which way to go. Shaking his head, Andre took the lead once more.
Many rooms opened off the hall, but Jerome shook his head as they passed each door; when the hallway ended with the servants’ stairs, Andre and Jerome begrudgingly retraced their steps. Finally, down the other hall, they stood in front of a door that looked more ornate than the others. This one had the same simple panels, but everything around it bore additional engraving, until the woodwork was practically dripping with flowers and birds. Jerome and Andre exchanged a grin, and then Jerome lifted the door’s latch and pushed it open.
* * *
The door swung open on well oiled hinges, revealing a sumptuously appointed room done in bright upholstery and light wood. Light curtains hung down from the tall bed’s canopy, shrouding Andre and Jerome’s view of the darker figure which lay on the white bedsheets. A window, with window seat, dominated the other side of the room. Andre carefully closed the door behind them, then joined Jerome as he strode over to the side of the bed and pulled aside the curtains. A sleepy Baltusar rolled over and blinked up at them groggily, mumbling, “Who—, what…?”
The two of them cut quite the sight, the dim light of the lantern barely limning Jerome’s tight dark curls around his light brown face, catching the whites of his eyes where he stared intently down at the merchant. Andre looked no less intense: the normally faint wrinkles around his eyes and across his face stood out in the dim and directional light. His beard still glistened with rum, and it hung below the edge of the bed, out of Baltusar’s sight. His grin was easily visible beneath his mustache. Most telling of all, though, was the glint of gold that came from the ingot still wedged tightly into Jerome’s belt. Baltusar blanched.
“Good to see you again Battle-sore!” Andre grinned, pulling his pistol from his belt and leaving it pointed up towards the ceiling. He slowly leveled the barrel towards Baltusar, pulling back on the hammer with his other hand. “How about you tell us,” he tilted his head vaguely towards the gold thrust through Jerome’s belt, “all about your rum and gold, yeah?”
Jerome looked down at Andre, alarmed. “Uh, Andre? What are you doing?” Baltusar looked even more frightened at this.
Andre shrugged. “You said ‘take care of him,’ right boy?” His eyes didn’t leave Baltusar. “So we’re taking care of him. Easy.” He didn’t give Jerome another chance to interrupt, as he continued, “You don’t much like having someone point a gun at you, do you Mr. Balty-scar?” Andre turned his free hand over, open, in a what-can-you-do sort of gesture. “Well, I don’t either. But I’ve already had several guns pointed at me tonight. And it turns out that the people who did that were being paid by you. So.” Andre left it there for a few moments.
Jerome looked back and forth between his friend and the merchant that he’d thought was his friend. He cleared his throat quietly. “You know, we could just solve this nicely, no trouble needed at all. No need for guns, right?”
Baltusar nodded his head wildly. He seemed far more awake than he had been. “Yes, no need for guns at all my fine fellows. I’ve, uh, I’ve got your pay in the house, I was simply waiting for you to show up!” He rolled over, away from the two of them and towards the small table on the far side of the bed from Andre and Jerome. “In fact, I’m sure I can arrange something to your satisfaction right here, no need to wait,” he blathered on, apparently oblivious until Andre cleared his throat and gestured meaningfully with the pistol. In the tension of the moment, neither Andre nor Jerome noticed Baltusar tug the very small cord that ran up along the back of the four-poster bed. “Sorry,” Baltusar looked appropriately bashful.
Jerome rushed to speak before his companion could make things any worse. “We’ll be reasonable Baltusar. I thought I could trust you because of your history with my family, but we can leave things as they are and not get nasty about them. Your business can stay private, we don’t need to cause any ruckus. But we know that you hired people to screw us over, and,” he patted the ingot stuck behind his belt, “we know that you’re up to something more than just moving rum around on the sly.” Jerome’s left hand rested lightly on the sheath of his sword, thumb running across the guard of his rapier. “How about you pay us what you owe for delivering the rum, we take a small cut of the gold, and you don’t bother us or try to jerk us around any more. Nobody else has to learn about the gold, and those folks at the distillery don’t need to know that you’ve picked up this load without telling them about it.”
Baltusar looked up at Jerome, considering. “That seems good to me, Jerome.” He squinted at the dim gleam of gold, “I don’t suppose you’d be open to negotiating the particulars of the arrangement?” One hand lifted to gesture towards the gold, “For example, that seems like a fairly good reward for silence on the topic, don’t you think?”
Andre snorted. “Hah. Nice try. We know there’s plenty more, and I don’t think we’ll settle for something so small.”
“Well,” Baltusar began his rebuttal, “it seems silly to take gold ingots when you could take something more easily converted into wealth. An ingot is a lovely thing, but it’s not that easy to exchange.” He looked thoughtful, and took a moment to sit up straight in bed and ease himself back against the headboard. “Perhaps you’d like an equal weight in appropriately sized coin?”
Jerome started to nod, but Andre spoke up again. “No, thank you. You’ll just pass us the most debased stuff you have. I think we’ll deal with all the troubles of ingots, thank you very much.” His face creased in a big grin, showing off his teeth beneath his beard. He raised the muzzle of the pistol, letting it point towards the ceiling once more. “So, do we have a—“
Andre was cut off by the sound of the door opening suddenly behind him. Two figures stood in the doorway in their night shirts, one carrying what looked like a mace, one leveling a blunderbuss at Andre and Jerome even as Baltusar threw himself over the other side of the bed. A third figure was visible behind them with a lantern held high in one hand and a sword drawn in the other.
“Get them!” Baltusar’s screech was muffled by the bed, but reverberated through the room nonetheless.
Andre and Jerome flung themselves to the floor as the blunderbuss went off and punched a spattering of new holes in the wall. Their lantern landed on its side with a thud, miraculously unbroken.
“The window,” hissed Andre, “cover me!”
“Cover you?” Jerome asked incredulously, vaulting to his feet in time to catch the maceman’s arm before he could complete his swing. Jerome slammed his elbow into the man’s face, breaking the man’s nose and immediately regretting it as he caught his funny bone. The woman in the doorway with the blunderbuss was reloading at a desperate pace, and the man with a sword behind her pushed into the room with his lantern held high. Indignant, Jerome yelled at his retreating friend, “But what about your gun?”
Andre fumbled with the catch on the window, finally setting the barrel of his pistol beneath it and shoving upwards in order to undo the recalcitrant latch. The window’s panels swung inwards, and he pushed them to the side and glanced down at the bushes which ringed the sides of the house. “Ah yes, my gun.” The dwarf stood on the cushioned window seat and drew down on the advancing swordsman. The swordsman flung himself to the side as the flint of the pistol slammed forward and struck a fountain of sparks into the empty pan.
“I never primed it.” Andre shrugged, reversing his grip on the pistol and holding it like a club, “Besides, it’s probably still damp from the rum.”
Jerome shouted his frustration, charging across the room and away from the man he’d left clutching his face on the floor. He leapt over the swordsman and clambered past Andre’s position on the window seat. His right hand was tingling and numb, so he clutched desperately with his left as he threw himself out the window and towards the bushes below. He swung, hanging by his left arm, and slammed into the side of the building before tumbling backwards into the short and prickly branches of the ornamental shrubs.
“Wait for me!” Andre yelled as he dove out the window after his friend, barely ahead of the recovering swordsman’s blade. He landed mostly beside his friend, only putting a little of his weight on his tall companion. Jerome groaned as Andre forced him further into the bush.
“Ow ow ow ow ow,” Jerome scrabbled out of the bush as fast as he could, his clothes catching and tearing as he went. Andre wasn’t far behind him. They reached the edge of the property before the woman with the blunderbuss reappeared in the window, and disappeared before she could shoot again.
* * *
Andre and Jerome lay in a copse of trees on a rise northwest of the town, staring behind them for any signs of pursuit. They were certain that they’d outpaced anyone following them from Baltusar’s estate, and they knew that the town guard was unlikely to come after them more than a mile outside the town’s outer boundaries, but they shared a lingering suspicion that their erstwhile employer would not let go of his gold so easily. Jerome’s right hand idly rubbed along the hard edges of the ingot still stashed in his belt, marveling at its weight. By its weight alone, he was confident that it was very nearly pure.
Quietly, as though afraid of being overheard, Andre broke the silence that they’d kept for the past twenty minutes. “You thinking scent hounds?” He whispered it out of the side of his mouth, his eyes still on the path they’d beaten through the sharp, tall grass. The grass had cut him during their flight, and even now he could feel the many little stings any time he moved.
“Yeah,” Jerome muttered in reply. “But I don’t remember seeing any of them around, so like as not it’ll take a little while for him to put together an expedition.” Jerome rolled over onto his back, looking up at the canopy of palms overhead. The sky beyond them was still dark, still painted with a beautiful scattering of stars. “You know, we should probably keep moving just to be safe. We can screw with our trail a bit farther on. I don’t expect he’ll be able to come for us tonight, we should have a little lead time.” The sandy ground beneath his back was deceptively comfortable, and he had to struggle to remind himself that this wasn’t a good enough hide. Jerome slowly forced himself to his feet, dusting off the sand which still clung to him.
Andre pushed himself up as well. The two of them wearily trudged deeper into the copse, headed for the beginnings of coastal forest up ahead. It was dangerous to live out in the woods, especially near the mangroves where the long-necked pigs had their hunting grounds, but at least they could be fairly certain that there weren’t any tree-rats on this island. Tired, dirty, and sore, they continued on their way.
“So,” Andre finally broke the long silence once more, “we’re not done with this, right?” He looked up at his friend for confirmation.
Jerome smiled down at Andre, looking exhausted but somehow predatory as the faint starlight caught on his teeth. His hand rubbed across the ingot. “No, not done by a long shot.”
Rum Luck by Henry White is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.
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