Balm, when first applied, sent a feeling of cool relief throughout one’s body. But after stumbling under the weight of one’s injuries and the heat of an eager afternoon sun, the balm became sticky and unwelcome.
Surinder scratched at his wounds through his shirt. “They looked familiar, I suppose. But thugs do. And whatever you call it, we live in slums. Things like that happen all the time.”
“Things like Lady Magna’s goons roughing you up in the name of job offers? Those things happen all the time?”
He glared at Arete and stopped scratching. “No. I meant… Just goon-related incidents. You see your fair share.”
“I’m a player, love.” She flipped her hair over her shoulder. “Slum artists still keep their heads above water.”
Surinder cast about a glance so meaningful that it ought to have twanged. She may have shared the building with the rest of her Family, but Arete’s personal rooms were an exercise in opulence. He picked up an earring from the jewellery box on the table. “Then you must fly between the bottom and the top.”
She snatched the earring out of his hand. “Prostitution is hardly the top.”
“Easy mistake to make,” he said. “It’s easier to gather information with your job.”
“Information is better than hard currency,” she said, beating him to it. “I do know a bit about Lady Magna.”
He held out his hand. She reached into the jewellery box and handed him a cut ruby. Holding it up to his eyes and turning it, he asked, “Gold or silver wire?”
“For a ruby?” Arete buffed her nails on her shoulder. “Gold, of course.”
He sat down at the low tea table in the centre of her room and pulled out a small metal box. Inside were all of his tools.
When he had left the lowland empire to live with his cousin, he had decided to pull his weight in a similar manner. Sanjay painted, and Surinder made wire jewellery.
He selected a small coil of thin gold wire, and his best pliers. In his line of work, materials were almost more precious than the monetary compensation. A few small mistakes could leave ugly kinks in the wire. Too many kinks, and he could end up spending what he earned replacing his materials before he was even done.
Arete was, in many ways, a friend, and she brought him comparatively regular business. Whenever she watched him make a piece for her, there was more on the line than loss of wire. But with that impetus of pressure and knowledge of Arete’s personal tastes, he managed to come up with an impromptu design and bring it to delicate, yet hopefully long life.
It was a flat bird cage, wrapping around the ruby at its centre, in a perfectly symmetrical heart. The wire wrapped around the ruby inside the heart, in a spiral.
Surinder drew one of his premade chains through it, then pinched the loop so that the setting wouldn’t slide. He presented the finished necklace to Arete.
She held it up in the light, smiling faintly. “Lady Magna inherited her husband’s clockwork manufactury, Magnificent Clockworks,” she said, fastening the clasp behind her neck. “But I work with a lot of businessmen, and I’ve never heard them praise her business sense.”
“But that company is still in business, I’ve seen the manufactury. And its shops.”
“I would say, rumour has it, but those who know that Lady Magna keeps her workforce and repairs her income with threats and shady dealings, have no reason to gossip about it.” Arete touched the necklace lightly. “However, I do know one interesting rumour that isn’t easy to confirm.”
Still touching the necklace, she rose almost absent-mindedly. Watching her walk across a room, Surinder thought, was like watching a swan fly over water. It gave him an idea for another design.
“One of the ladies on the third floor works regular with a manufactury worker, and she told me that Lady Magna has a new section working in seclusion.”
Surinder rubbed his chin. “She may have sent those thugs to recruit me.” Then he shook his head, grimacing. “I really don’t remember.”
He started to ask if Arete thought there was a chance he may have been mistaken for Sanjay, but he was interrupted by a disturbing sproing. Arete got up and took the clock off the wall. “It’s always doing that,” she grumbled.
“Let me take a look at it.”
She turned away, ever so slightly, holding the clock to her chest. “Why? I don’t know anything else.”
It baffled him how calculating she or anyone else could be. “I can’t do chores for a friend? It’s just a clock.”
And so it was. She handed it over, and he opened up the back. There were no major repairs needed, just a bit of tightening. Yet, after he’d shut the back of the clock, he realised that Arete was staring at him. She accepted the clock without a word.
Then, his mouth ran ahead of him. He had meant to thank her and leave. What he did was say, “Would you come with me?”
Her stare became penetrating, almost angry. “Where?”
“To see this Lady Magna. Perhaps you can help me to convince her that I am not what she’s looking for.”
Arete scoffed, exhaling with such force that she blew the hair around her face into disarray. “What in the sky makes you think I could help?”
“You’re charming, and you seem like you get your way, um… a lot. And if worse comes to worst, you are a dab hand with a pistol.”
She rubbed her tongue over her teeth, like a lioness checking her fangs’ readiness. “All right,” she said at last. “But you’ll owe me big. Cost of bullets at least.”