The moment we passed through the second archway into Fengarad proper, the whole world changed. Noise hit us from every direction. Bangs and clatters, voices shouting, dogs barking, carts trundling across cobblestone. We all had to take a moment to get used to it.
Everywhere I looked there were buildings squeezed together and leaning against each other in haphazard fashion. Narrow, tall and wonky.
“If you’ll follow me,” said Laffi, “it isn’t too far to the Municipal Directory.”
He led us through narrow streets, weaving between the crowds of people who all seemed to be going in the opposite direction to us. We had to bump and jostle our way through them to keep up with Laffi, who seemed to have an uncanny knack for sliding through the gaps without slowing.
Everything was so tight and cramped, it was impossible to get a view of anything other than our immediate surroundings. Not that we had much time to look around, we were too busy trying to keep Laffi in our sights.
After about ten minutes, we exited the dark alleyways and found ourselves in a plaza. There were buildings on each side, the most impressive of which had a white marble facade with columns across the front. It looked like a museum or art gallery, but it was in fact our destination, the Municipal Directory.
I’d thought the narrow streets had been crowded, but they were positively deserted compared to the interior of the Directory. It was like a train station during rush hour. We lost Laffi within seconds of entering the place.
We stood in the middle of a sea of people, trying to figure out where we were supposed to be going. There were windows along each wall, with people queuing up to speak to the person on the other side. What they were queuing up for, I had no idea.
We were just about to join a random line when Laffi reappeared.
“Ah, there you are. I’ve spoken to the management, and they’ve arranged a private office for you. This way.”
He was about to vanish again so I grabbed the back of his jacket, nearly yanking him of his feet. The others followed my lead and all grabbed some part of his clothing.
“Keep going,” I said to him, as though it was perfectly normal to have five people clinging to you as you tried to walk.
We moved very slowly, but together, through the crowd. Up to this point we had been ignored or simply barged aside, but now people stopped to stare as we shuffled across to the far end of the room, where a small, smartly dressed but slightly greasy-looking man stood by a door.
Once we got to the door, we let go of Laffi and entered a room with some chairs and a table. We immediately sat down without being asked, which was probably a bit rude, but we were all too exhausted to care.
“This is Master Niven,” said Lafffi. “He’ll take good care of you and answer whatever questions you might have. I leave you in his capable hands.” He snapped his heels together, turned and was gone.
“Corporal Laffi has informed me you have some money you wish to claim,” said Master Niven. “May I see the order?”
Maurice passed him the chit Grayson had given us. Niven read it once and then put in in his pocket. “That’s fine. Would you like it in cash or do you want to open an account?”
“Is this like a bank?” I asked him.
“Yes, in a manner of speaking. A bank, a depository, an exchange. Goods, services, jobs of various kinds—we provide it all. Visitors like yourselves find it convenient to have somewhere to leave their valuables rather than carry them around with them.”
“So, it’s safe to leave our stuff with you?” If people left all their valuables here, it seemed like the ideal place for thieves to target.
“I assure you, our security is second to none. We did have an attempted robbery about six months ago, but all of the miscreants were apprehended, every last chob was accounted for, and the guards on duty were all executed.”
“You executed the guards?” said Claire, a little shocked.
“The criminals were also executed, of course, along with their families. Their homes were burnt to the ground, and letters were sent to all living relatives informing them if they set foot within Fengarad’s walls, they would be killed on sight.”
“That seems very harsh,” said Maurice.
Niven beamed with delight. “Thank you very much.”
“So I can leave anything with you and it will be here when I come back for it?” I asked, just to make sure.
“Absolutely,” said Niven.
“Great.” I put my stick with the nails in one end on the table. “I’d like to deposit that.” It was awkward carrying it around, even in my bag. It always managed to poke me in the back as I walked, so it would be good to leave it somewhere safe. Who knew when I’d need it again?
“Oh,” said Niven. “Of course. Is there anything else?”
“Yes.” I pushed the velvet box with the Key to the City in it across the table.
He opened the box and his jaw nearly hit the floor. He quickly recovered and closed the box. “That won’t be a problem, Sir.”
We ended up all opening individual accounts. We split up the money between us and deposited two hundred bits each, keeping the rest on us for expenses. Niven had become extremely helpful after he saw the Key, and was happy to answer our questions about the best place to spend the night and where to buy gear from. He even gave us a map of the city and marked places of interest.
The inn he recommended was in a quiet area on the east side of the city. I had emphasised that it should be private and not too busy. My main goal was to stay out of sight while we figured out our next move, or as Claire put it, ‘hiding’.
We got three rooms. One for the girls, one for Maurice and Dudley, and one small one for me. We were just in time for dinner in the small courtyard and stuffed our faces with bread and soup until we could barely move, and then we all struggled up the steep stairs to our beds. Real beds with pillows.
I fell asleep the moment I lay down and the next thing I knew it was morning. I was still fully dressed, my face was sticky with drool, and I couldn’t move. For the first time since we’d arrived, my body had finally had a chance to relax properly, and the result was that every muscle in my body had seized up.
I rolled off the bed in agony and managed to get to my feet. The pain was excruciating. It even hurt to walk, and the only way to move was using a Frankenstein’s monster shuffle. I slowly worked my way down the stairs to find the others waiting for me. They were all perfectly fine and raring to go. Bastards.
Our plan was to go shopping for new gear and clothes. The girls were especially excited at the prospect and impatiently tried to get me to eat faster. The others had woken hours earlier and already eaten breakfast by the time I got up. The sight of them all chatting away, discussing the kinds of clothes they wanted to buy, annoyed the fuck out of me, and I ate as slowly as possible. Not that I had much choice—even lifting a spoon was sheer torture.
I finally finished and we prepared to leave on what I’m sure the girls considered our first true adventure—shopping.
“It’s a shame we ain’t got the Key with us,” said Flossie. “Ah bet we’d get much better service if we flashed it around a bit.”
“Maybe,” I said, “but it’s more important for us to keep a low profile and not let anyone think we’re anything other than some low level wannabes. Being underestimated is still our chief weapon. That and surprise. Our two chief weapons are surprise and being underestimated.”
“And ruthless efficiency,” added Maurice.
“Our three chief weapons are surprise, being underestimated,—”
“And a fanatical devotion to the Pope.”
“Our four chief weapons—”
“What the fook are you two going on about?” said Flossie.
“Not a Monty Python fan?” I said.
Flossie shrugged. “Ni.” She turned and walked off.
“Wait,” I looked at Maurice, “was that a Python reference?”
Maurice looked as unsure as me. “It couldn’t have been... could it?”
Claire just shook her head at both of us, mumbled, “Nerds,” and then set off after Flossie.
Somehow I've got to 50 chapters on this story, kind of surprised myself. Next couple of chapters will see them get themselves kitted out and prepared, and then it's back into the fray! Thanks to all of you who have stuck with it, especially those who have left ratings, reviews and comments. They're all greatly appreciated. Cheers.