Previously: Starling and Glimmer strike out to seek their fortune. They find rest and friendship in the boom town of Mausoleum.
"We'll need some kind of night vision. And a tool set, pliers, wire cutters. And a weapon."
"A weapon?" Starling made another stitch with a needle purchased from the front desk. The ancient fabric stirred around the foreign thread, but didn't seem to be rejecting it.
"They have gunpowder weapons here. One of those should work. Do you know how to use them?"
The pocket in the upper back of Master's coat was finished. The fabric sagged under Glimmer's weight, but it loosened around his shoulders. He flexed, swung his arms, and peered at the stitch.
"Not at all." His shaggy hair covered most of the headset. He tucked the rest of the cord into the coat, and felt eyes on him. A roommate had come in while he was asleep and collapsed on another bunk. He was still curled into a ball, staring out from under the blanket.
Their eyes met. The orange light of evening lit up constellations of dust motes. A dog barked.
The stranger rolled backwards out of the blanket and stood up. He was a small man with delicate features, thin fingers callused, and he bowed. He then unbuttoned his shirt, slowly and deliberately, and handed it to Starling. "The elbows," he said. "How much?"
Starling took the shirt. The elbows were worn through, but the rest of the fabric was in good condition. "It doesn't fit you," he said. "I can't tailor it. I can patch it but that'll wear out fast."
"Fine. I'll be wearing nicer shirts when I make it. How much do you charge?"
Starling broke eye contact, with difficulty. "How much do they charge in town?"
"Seamstress on the square asks a quarter-zarn per item just to patch. More for alterations."
Glimmer broke in. "Is he sweating?"
"No," murmured Starling. "Can you-"
"He's not lying. You can work off that price."
"You can tell?"
The stranger was staring more intensely now. He reached for the shirt.
"Fifteen centizarn for the patches," said Starling. "If you've got the fabric."
The man took a worn knapsack from his locker and pulled out another shirt, torn, oil-stained. "Ten?"
"You didn't have to let him bargain," said Glimmer. Starling sat cross-legged on his bunk, making careful stitches on the shirt. The stranger had introduced himself as Gyge, and handed him a flimsy, plastic five-centizarn coin before retreating to his bunk to watch.
"I'm building a relationship," muttered Starling. "Now he'll tell people that I'm cheap, fast, and reasonable. I can pay for another night without much work anyway. No need to be greedy."
"What if the hotel's just really cheap?"
He scratched his face and kept stitching. She had a point. He had been so eager to get back to work he hadn't considered if he was building a reputation based solely on price. It was probable the seamstress used a machine, making her hourly return much higher than Starling's.
There was a knock at the door. Gyge opened it for a weathered woman in a pantsuit and straw hat, holding a shabby coverall. "E-excuse me," she said. "I just came from the seamstress, and she couldn't get to it till tomorrow, but I happened to look in your window, and if you can just get it wearable..."
She was named Ro-tiph, and she handled the finances for the garage her husband and his cousins ran. They did good business but she wished they'd gone into sewing instead. By the time he finished her husband's coveralls there were another three customers outside the door.
He moved his operation to the lobby when a roommate complained, and stitched until he could barely close his fist. He'd made almost half what he'd earned on the pearls and marble by the time the sun rose.
"You can stop," said Glimmer. He froze, aching hand reaching for another client's money. "Right." He shook his head, and the customer nodded and turned away. "That's all," said Starling.
He massaged his hands. "Is that normal for you?"
"Sometimes." A fountain by the door produced tepid water, which he slurped down greedily. The business outside had hardly slowed down in the early morning hours.
The door opened to the smell of dust and motor oil, and a hard-faced woman with a gaudy vest over her black dress walked in, pace deliberate, followed by a younger man in a black suit.
She clipped up to Starling. Her eyes flicked up and down. "You a preacher?" she said, in a deep, clear alto.
Her gaze was serious and direct. "No ma'am."
"I heard you're a tailor."
The man behind her relaxed against the wall. By his face he could have been her son, or just as easily her grandson.
"I do a little stitching, but I'm no..."
"Of course you don't." She leaned up to him. "But you're good with your hands and you thought you could make some money. You're a newcomer, you think you know boomtowns, but you don't know Mausoleum."
"She's not lying," said Glimmer.
"They say you're an educated man. I feel no need to prevaricate with you. This town is corrupt, and I'm one of those that corrupts it. I take no pride in this."
The lobby had suddenly become empty. The glass fire exit at the end of the hall had a dark silhouette behind it.
"There are factors at work that prevent me from brooking competition. I would give you a desk with my girls and put you to work, but you're an ambitious man and you'd chafe at the pay. You'd find another hustle or try to take over or some foolish thing and I'm too busy and too tired to deal with it, and the big men in this town are also too busy and too tired to let you take any amount of their business. Unlike them, I still respect initiative, so I came to tell you this in person. Leave town."
Her companion cracked his knuckles. He was as skinny as Starling but half a head taller, and probably knew all about fighting dirty too.
"Are you going to whack them with me again?" Glimmer's voice was halfway between sarcastic and grim.
"I don't see that I've got much of a choice," he said to both of them, his voice calm but his heart seething. "Where's the best patch of desert to starve? I'd rather not have company."
The woman hrmphed. "Don't get melodramatic, mister. Take the north road out of town for half a day and you'll find the archeologists. They'll have something for you, if only a bowl of gruel for a day's labor. I'm sure you'll have some scheme soon to bother their quartermaster but I don't care as long as you're not here."
She turned around, supremely confident that her will would be obeyed, and Starling wanted to sit on the floor just to spite her, but he felt the iron bands of expedience wrapping themselves around his wrists yet again.
Her companion held the door open for her, and she spoke once more before she left. "If the time comes, if it comes that we get what's coming to us," she said, a hint of a drawl breaking through her polished vowels. "When that time comes, remember that I did you this favor."
She turned her head and glanced at him from the corner of her eye. "Some men float, Mister Tailor. You can't shove them down without shoving something else up." And she was gone.
They stood in the empty lobby. "What do you think that meant?" asked Glimmer.
"Maybe it's a proverb about hard work? You know, one door shuts, another one opens."
"Or she was saying she'd have you drowned."
He stretched his arms, adjusted his coat, and stepped out into the cool morning air. "I guess we'll never find out."
And on they went.