“Double Cross” (Part 1) by Scott Colby

Simonez didn’t like the look of the crew that came in through his shop’s back door. The twins came first, a burly pair of brutes with maybe a dozen teeth between them in their thick, blocky heads. Next came the obvious leader, a shifty weasel of a man who ran his eyes hungrily over ever item in Simonez’s stock room. Last came a man and a woman, an eerie pair in heavy cloaks who seemed somehow both learned and naive—but they both moved like predatory cats, ready to pounce at the first sign of trouble.

“Rufello, I presume,” Simonez said, his throat dry. “Had I known you were bringing a menagerie I would’ve set the table for dinner.”

The little weasel wandered over toward a shelf laden with cans of nails and a few old boxes of bolts used in certain types of wagon wheels. He picked up one of the nails with a silk kerchief and eyed it disdainfully. “One must be careful when trading with new partners,” the little man rasped. He dropped the nail back into the wrong can.

“Then let’s make this transaction quick and to-the-point,” Simonez replied, biting back his annoyance. “Did you bring it?”

Rufello briefly played with the jade earring that marked him as an experienced trader in Terre Haute. A journeyman, but not a master. He quickly unsnapped the gold clasps holding his jui leather coat shut and pulled the left side open. Hanging inside his jacket was an ancient ceramic tile streaked blue and black in a pattern vaguely reminiscent of some great beast’s eye. The great orb in the center was a glittering diamond the size of a man’s thumb.

Simonez bit down on his tongue to stifle a smile. That was it, all right, the last piece of the great fresco of Guil Kandhar’s Hall of Epiphany. Legend spoke of a trio of brothers that first found the ruins of the mah’saiid empire’s third greatest city. Time and the jungle and the great unknown disaster of the Purahd had reduced Guil Kandhar to a useless pile of rock and wood and metal, but the Hall of Epiphany somehow still stood, mostly untouched. In its great hall hung a beautiful piece of ceramic work, a fresco built of over a hundred different tiles inlaid with all manner of gold and gemstones and precious metals. The brothers spent the next five years prying the tiles off the wall one-by-one. Each brother took an even share, with the oldest taking the one extra. The plan was to bring the tiles back to Priyati and find a jeweler who could extract the valuable bits—but no one to whom they brought the tiles could figure out how to do so. Neither heat nor cold nor applied force could prize the jewels and metals from the underlying ceramic. Knowing they were defeated, the brothers began to sell the tiles whole, and they were scattered to the winds over time.

But Simonez knew of a family that had spent generations piecing the entire fresco back together one tile at a time. And now they were missing only one. Normally Simonez was content to deal in the sundries and supplies the local relic hunters needed to travel the jungle, leaving the adventuring and the legend chasing to the young and the foolish. But when he’d caught wind of Rufello’s find, he saw an opportunity he couldn’t dare pass up.

“Put in on the scale behind you,” he instructed. Rufello shrugged, gripped the tile with his kerchief, and set the tile on the clear plate. The scale tilted once, twice, three times…and then leveled out at the weight Simonez had left on the other side. Rufello’s tile was the real thing; somehow, despite the differences in the materials laid into the tiles, each had the exact same mass.

Simonez reached into his vest to retrieve a hefty purse bulging with coins. “One thousand Imperial luma.” He flipped one of the gold coins to Rufello for inspection. The weasel didn’t move to catch it, letting it bounce off his chest and clatter to the floor.

“I’m perturbed by a curious thought, Simonez,” he said slowly, tapping his pointed chin. “I find myself wondering why a simple shop keeper is so interested in the family good luck charm.”

Simonez hadn’t prepared for this. He’d been counting on Rufello’s reputation as a greedy bastard to get this deal off smoothly, especially with the exchange rate on luma at an all-time high and climbing daily as Pileaus solidified his hold on the north.

His hesitation wasn’t lost on Rufello. “You’re not normally a relic dealer; all this crap makes that clear enough. And I know you’re not a collector because I broke into your apartment while you were out yesterday to check. So that means one thing: you’re a middleman, and that little pile of coins is just a fraction of what you can actually get for the tile.”

“My purpose is of no consequence. The price I’m offering is more than fair.”

“Who’s the buyer?”

“Take it or leave it.”

Rufello shook his weaselly little head. “Boys…”

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