That might turn out to be useful, so Jalkan clambered over a low place in the crumbling wall and approached the disreputable structure. As he drew closer, he began to hear some people talking inside. He raised up on his tiptoes to peer through the cracked board that covered the window.

Inside the supposedly empty convenium there was an extremely fat man seated at a rough table with a smoking lamp at one end, and the fat man was holding up a rather splendid metal tray. ‘This is solid silver, Esag. It’s worth a lot more than just one gold crown.’

‘I could maybe go as high as one and a half, Rabell, but it’s got that coat of arms engraved on it, so I can’t just put it in the window of my shop. If that silly aristocrat your people stole it from happens to walk by and sees it there, he’ll have the law on me before the sun goes down.’

Jalkan nearly choked. ‘It’s a den of thieves!’ he gasped, ‘and they’re not paying us so much as a penny for its use!’

‘I can let you have the tray for two crowns, Esag,’ the fat man conceded, ‘but that’s as low as I’ll go.’

‘You’re an out and out swindler, Rabell,’ Esag grumbled.

‘You don’t have to buy it if you don’t want to, Esag,’ the fat man said. ‘I’ve got a lot of other customers.’

Esag took two gold coins from his purse, slapped them down on the table, and left with the silver tray.

Then a burly-looking ruffian with a little girl at his side came out of the shadows. ‘You bargain real good, Rabell,’ he said in a raspy voice.

‘I could have that idiot for lunch any day of the week, Grol,’ Rabell sneered. He held out one of the gold crowns. ‘Here’s your half, good friend.’

‘I’ve been meaning to talk with you about that, Rabell,’ the ruffian said. ‘It seems to me that your arrangement just ain’t none too fair. I mean, Baby-Girl and me are sort of partners, and she ain’t getting her fair share.’

‘That’s between you and her, Grol. Half and half is our standard arrangement. You and Baby-Girl steal it, and I sell it.’

Grol grumbled a bit, but he did take the gold coin. ‘I don’t know how much longer Baby-Girl’s going to be able to do our stealing for us, Rabell,’ he said. ‘She’s growing awful fat for some reason, and it’s getting harder and harder for her to wiggle through them little windows to get inside them houses to steal stuff. It ain’t going to be too much longer afore I’ll have to find some new little child to do the stealing.’

‘That’s your problem, Grol,’ Rabell replied. ‘Now move along. There are quite a few other people waiting to show me what they’ve stolen.’

Jalkan did not sleep well that night. As a member of the clergy, it was his duty to bring the matter to the attention of his Oran, but he knew his superior well enough to be fairly sure that Oran Paldor would most probably approach the fat thief Rabell who was operating the business in the abandoned convenium and demand a sizeable share of the profits. He was almost positive also that Paldor would neglect to tell his superiors about the arrangement. Paldor would be most grateful to Jalkan, of course, but not quite grateful enough to share the profits.

There was an alternative, of course, and the alternative was much, much more attractive than doing his duty.

‘This is church property, Rabell,’ Jalkan told the fat man the next afternoon in the crumbling old convenium. ‘You can’t just walk in off the street and take it over without church permission. I think you might just be in a lot of trouble.’

‘Don’t get excited,’ Rabell told him with a note of resignation. ‘I’ll be out of here before the sun goes down.’

‘I didn’t say that you have to leave, Rabell. All I meant was that you should pay the church for the use of this splendid convenium. I think the term is “rent”. You can stay if you pay.’

‘Get to the point, Jalkan. How much do you want?’

‘Oh, I don’t know. Half sounds about right to me.’

‘Forget it. I can set up shop in some other place.’

‘Don’t get excited, Rabell. That was only a suggestion. It’s open to negotiation.’

‘Not until you stop lying to me, it isn’t. The church has no part in this, and all the money I give you will go into your own purse. Isn’t that what you’ve got in your greedy little mind?’

‘Well—’

‘I thought so. Don’t blink, Jalkan, because if you do, I won’t be here when you open your eyes again.’

‘I can really make it worth your while, Rabell,’ Jalkan said a little desperately.

‘You’d better make it good,’ Rabell growled.

‘I’m a Hiera in the Amarite church, and I’ve frequently been inside the palaces of the higher-ranking clergymen. I can tell you exactly where in those palaces the valuables are kept. That should be worth something, wouldn’t you say?’

‘Well, maybe. I’d also need to know how well those palaces are guarded. The little children we use to do the stealing for us are extremely valuable, so I won’t take any chances with them.’

‘How in the world did you ever come up with this idea?’ Jalkan asked curiously.

‘Where have you been, Jalkan?’ Rabell demanded. ‘This has been going on for generations. When I was just a little boy, I was the best thief in the whole city of Kaldacin. I could wriggle through the bars on any window in town, and if there weren’t any windows, I could crawl in through rat holes.’ He reached down and put his hands on his paunch. ‘I’ve gained quite a bit of weight since then, though.’

‘I noticed that, yes. What do you think, Rabell? Would the information I give you about the location of valuables be worth a fair share of the loot?’

‘We can give it a try, I suppose - but only what we get from those places you tell me about. I’ve got quite a few teams out there, and they’re robbing fancy houses all over town.’

‘There’s something I don’t quite understand there, Rabell,’ Jalkan admitted. ‘Couldn’t you make more money if you eliminated the ruffians who tell the children which houses to rob?’

‘You want me to stand guard out in the street while the children are inside the house stealing anything they can lay their hands on? Are you out of your mind?’

‘Ah,’ Jalkan said. ‘I guess that does make good sense.’


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