Rays of sunlight flickered through distant treetops. On the other side of the town wall, male voices called and grumbled. With a slow creak, the main gates opened, two armoured guards pushing on them, one yawning, while an officer in the back held a steaming mug of what was likely tea to his lips. Belleville was open for the day.
Hadiin’s brain was fuzzy with lack of sleep and his body craved rest. He flicked the reins and wheeled forwards, hoping he wouldn’t fall out of his seat.
One of the guards gave him a surprised look. “Wasn’t expecting to see anyone at the crack of dawn.”
Hadiin wearily chuckled. “There’s work to be done. You know.”
The guard ruefully laughed. “Yes, I do. Would much rather be in bed with the wife for another two hours.” He waved Hadiin through.
But the other guard at the entrance was the same one that had allowed Hadiin through the previous time. And he had a sly smile on his face. “Hold on. Got to check the wagon. Open it up.”
Hadiin gave him a flat look, suppressing a spike of distress. “Why’s that? We’re not hauling anything dangerous.”
“Hey, don’t blame me. Just doing my job.” He looked up at Hadiin, perfectly smug. And completely untrustworthy.
Hadiin wondered how to get the bastard to back off and mind his own business. “Let me guess. You go snooping around unnecessarily. You just happen to catch sight of a certain secret ingredient in the wagon and someone’s going to give you a nice little kickback for a tip.”
He smirked. “Hey. Guy’s gotta make a living.”
The man drinking tea caught their conversation and frowned. He strolled over. “What’s this then?”
Hadiin’s hope rose at the thought that he might have an ally in the officer. “You heard about the ice cream yesterday?” he asked the older man.
The officer nodded and studied the smug guard ready to investigate the wagon. “I did.”
“No one can figure out how it’s made.” Hadiin pointed. “This guy figures he’ll uncover the secret in my wagon and sell it off for a little personal profit, and ruin my business.”
The mug lowered and the officer turned to the potential snitch. “That so, Thorton?”
The smug looked turned defensive. “Just doing my job, Lieutenant. We’re supposed to check all cargo coming through, ain’t we?”
“I’m new here,” Hadiin continued to press, “but when I registered with the Merchants Guild, I didn’t get the impression they were keen on town employees ruining the livelihoods of decent merchants doing an honest business here. Not sure they’d look kindly to a town guard selling out someone’s trade secrets and ruining him. Kind of sets a bad precedent, doesn’t it?”
The lieutenant’s frown deepened. “Yes, it does.” He stared hard at Thorton. “You aiming to make the Merchants Guild an enemy of the Watch?”
Defensiveness quickly morphed to rising panic and self righteousness on the man’s face. “Ain’t nothing of the kind, sir. Just doing my job is all.” He reached up and started fiddling with the side cover. “Ain’t no harm intended. Just being safe. Making sure he ain’t bring through no contraband. Ain’t got no bandits stashed in there.”
“That’s enough, Thorton. Back away from the wagon.”
“Only take a sec, Lieutenant.” His hands moved faster, trying to force the side cover up, except that someone had tied it down from the inside and it wasn’t moving.
“I said enough!” the older man barked. “Back off, Thorton. That’s an order.”
The lesser man sneered. “Why? He paying you off, sir?”
The lieutenant’s face went still and he stepped forward, alarmingly close to Thorton. “Boy, you get your damn hands off that wagon before I break ‘em.”
Thorton looked tempted to protest further or say something he’d probably regret, but the lieutenant’s gaze never wavered. Thorton shot an angry glance at Hadiin up in the driver’s seat and reluctantly pulled his hands away from the wagon. He spoke stubbornly. “Ain’t right. Just doing my job is all.”
“Your job is now making sure the road to Littlehome Village is clear.” The lieutenant gestured down the road with his mug. “Get scouting. Now.”
Thorton’s eyes widened. He glanced over his shoulder at the road behind him. “What? Alone?”
This time it was the lieutenant’s turn to smirk. “What’s wrong? You want me to call your momma so she can hold your hand along the way?”
Thorton’s face reddened. “No, sir.”
The voice turned as hard as steel. “Then get marching.”
Glowering at Hadiin, the corrupt guard spun on his heel and marched towards the rear of the wagon.
The lieutenant turned back to Hadiin for a word, looking apologetic.
Thorton sprinted for the back cover and lunged at it, tearing it open so that he could see inside. Fire erupted in his face, driving him back with a cry. He fell on his ass, his spear falling from his hand.
The lieutenant ran over, Hadiin jumping down to the ground and following. The more friendly guard hustled around the other side.
Marian stood in the back of the wagon, looking down. She held the back cover mostly closed and her shirt to her otherwise bare chest, more than a little breast showing. She gazed down at Thorton with disgust. “Lecher. You make it a habit of spying on women who are changing?”
The lieutenant politely averted his face from her. “My apologies, miss.” He reached down, grabbed Thorton by the front of his armor and roughly hauled him to his feet. Pushing him down the road, he kicked the man’s spear after him. “Get going. And I’m docking you three days pay for disobeying orders.”
Thorton went bug eyed. “Disob— I’m just doing my damned job! You can’t do this to me!”
“I just did. And I’d better not see you back here until it’s time to close the gates.”
Thorton snarled, really losing his temper now after being publicly humiliated. “You can’t be serious! I don’t have a travel kit with me. What am I supposed to do for lunch? And water?”
“Figure it out.”
The officer flung the dregs of his tea to the side and snapped. “One more fucking word and you’ll lose a whole week’s pay. I don’t tolerate men trying to profit off the job, boy. This is your one warning. I catch you at this shit again and I’ll have your badge. Or have you in the stocks.” He raised an arm and pointed down the road. “Go.”
Thorton’s face twisted in hate. But he had just enough brains to shut his mouth and stomp off down the road.
The lieutenant watched him go for a bit and then shook his head, calming. He turned back to Hadiin and was apologetic. “Sorry about that.”
Hadiin waved him off. “No need to apologize. I appreciate the integrity. Thank you for that.”
The lieutenant nodded. “Well, I might have just waved you in earlier, but with him making a stink, I’d better make sure I do my job so I have answers when I have to report to my superiors about this incident later. If the young lady is dressed, I’ll just take a quick look to make sure there’s nothing improper inside. But I promise you, it’ll just be me that looks and nothing I see will be reported. To anyone.”
Trusting anyone at the moment was difficult. But Hadiin didn’t really have much of a choice. If he tried to talk his way out of having to show the contents of the wagon any further, he’d only be impugning the man’s integrity, right after he’d made such a big show of having some. Which would only make an enemy of the man. So Hadiin just smiled and bowed his head. “Of course.”
Marian, having thrown her shirt back on, stepped aside and allowed the lieutenant to poke his head past the cover while the remaining guard politely waited at an angle where he could not see into the wagon. It only took a couple of seconds and then the officer withdrew. “Thank you both. Go ahead and drive on through now.”
“Again, lieutenant, you have my thanks.” Hadiin resisted the urge to shake the man’s hand or offer him some sort of gratuity lest it come off like a bribe or favouritism. Instead he just bowed slightly and hopped back up in the driver’s seat and rumbled on through the gates.
After going a block into town, Marian rolled up the cover behind the driver’s seat a touch and looked out. “That was close.”
“Quick thinking back there, pretending to be changing.”
“Thanks! Think we can trust him?”
“We’ll have to.” He shook his head. “You know, when you think of becoming a merchant, you think of buying and selling stuff. Of making money. You don’t really think about mercantile espionage. especially at this level.”
“You’re taking notes, right?” she teased. “About all the things you’ve forgotten or didn’t think of?”
“Yes, yes. My dear, you’re so very droll.”
“What I am is hungry. You promised breakfast, remember.”
He stiffened. “Right. Um, about that…”
Her amusement vanished. “What?”
“Well, we can’t very well find an inn or a restaurant and leave the wagon outside.”
He thought fast. “Well, why don’t we set up shop at that woman’s house again? Rent it for the morning, same as yesterday. And we’ll see if we can get food sent over?”
She thought about that for a second. “Fine.”
They drove down smaller streets until they arrived at the same house they’d rented previously. Hadiin knocked on the door. Given how early it was, he had to do it a few times.
An irate man with the build of a labourer, and only wearing pants, flung the door open and glared. “D’you have any idea what hour it is? What the hell are you doing banging my door?” He caught sight of the wagon backed up close behind Hadiin and did a double take. “You deliverin’ som’thin’? I ain’t ordered nothin’.
Hadiin gave him a wide smile and a bow. “My sincere apologies for arriving at such an early hour, my friend. I regret that time is of the essence and necessitated this. Is your wife home, by chance?”
The man blinked and then frowned. “My wife? Who the hell are you to be asking after my wife?”
A voice came from inside the house. “Dalton? Who is it, dear?”
“Some twit with a wagon.”
“Oh!” She pushed her husband aside and joined him in the doorway. She wore a pale blue dressing gown, her arms protectively crossed over her small breasts. The clothing, much like the house, was old and worn. This was not a family of much means. A surprised half smile graced her lips when she saw who was at her door. “It’s you. You’re back again?”
Hadiin bowed to her as well. “I am. Once again, I am in need of your kitchen.”
The wife looked up at the wagon, where Marian was watching from, the cover lifted back slightly, but not enough to reveal anything. “It was you, yesterday, wasn’t it? With that iced cream thing everyone was talking about?”
She nodded and craned her neck to get a peak behind Marian. “I never got the chance to taste any. Not that we could afford treats like that.” She hesitated. “Everyone is wondering how you do it. How do you make it? Is it magic?”
“Madame, I’m afraid—“ He paused and changed tack. He’d thought to merely rent her house for a few hours once more, but he saw that this would prove difficult. Both the woman and her husband were no doubts agents of curiosity. And they probably weren’t inclined to simply rent the house out and leave barely a half hour after sunrise. And he could use more help. So… “Actually, madame, how would you like to make a lot more money today?”
She looked at him in surprise. “More? You wish to rent the house again?”
“More than that. I wonder if we might enlist your help as well. You are correct in that we would like the use of your facilities for the morning. But I wonder if we might also hire you to help with a few errands? Yesterday we paid you, what was it, five silver? For the morning’s rent and a helping hand, how would a gold coin sound?”
“A gold!” the husband exclaimed. He looked at his wife in disbelief, then at Hadiin in suspicion. “What’s worth a gold here then? You doin’ somethin’ shady?”
The wife, however, sharpened immediately and focused all her attention on Hadiin. “What do you need and how can I help?”
“Whoa now. Hold on a second,” the husband interrupted. He threw an arm in front of his wife as if to shield her. “What’s going on here?”
But the wife just slapped his arm away, though gently. “These two are here to borrow our kitchen. They’re going to make something called iced cream. It’s a desert. They sold it yesterday out on Market Street. It was all the rage.”
The husband was still lost. “And you’re gonna pay us a gold for this?”
“My apologies,” Hadiin fluidly corrected himself. “There are two of you. A gold each for your help, your kitchen, and of course, your absolute discretion.”
The man’s eyes widened. “Two? What—?
The wife smacked her husband in the belly. “He’ll call in sick. We’re both at your disposal. And I promise you, your secret is absolutely safe with us,” she assured them. This was a woman who new the value of a silver and wasn’t about to let two much-needed gold slip out of her fingers.
“Secret?” the husband mumbled, losing ground to his increasingly forceful wife.
“Yes. The secret behind making ice cream,” the wife sharply clarified. “We’re not going to tell a soul. Is that clear?” She gave him a piercing look.
The man looked befuddled. This was likely a little too much surprise so early in the morn.
Hadiin nodded. “Two gold coins. And, if you can both keep the secret safe until at least dinner time this evening, I’ll do you—“ He cut off, his thoughts racing. “Yes, I’ll do you even better.”
The wife leaned in, very interested.
“I need you to go around town and visit every single cafe, restaurant and grocer you can find,” he explained. “I want you to tell them that today at four o’clock this afternoon, we’re going to be selling the recipe for ice cream to anyone who wants it.
Her hand flew to her mouth and she gasped. “You are?”
“Yes. To be given out two weeks from tomorrow. Which is why, at 4:30 in the afternoon today, we’re holding an auction for the ice cream recipe. And the winning bidder will not only get the recipe but will also get two weeks exclusivity where they will be the only sellers in town. Or anywhere else, for that matter.”
She shook herself. “Wait. You’re not going to be selling it yourselves anymore?”
“No. I’m afraid we just don’t have the facilities for that sort of thing. We’d rather share the recipe with someone who does.”
She nodded and straightened. “So you want me to go around town and tell everyone about the sale and the auction. Right. I can do that,” she stated with an air of determination.
“And if you can keep the recipe secret until at least dinner time, I’ll give you two percent of whatever we make off the sales and the auction.”
Both husband and wife blinked in silence.
Then the husband coughed. “Right. I’ll let Franz know I won’t be on site today.”
“We’ll send the kids to my sister’s. Oh gosh, what am I going to wear? I don’t have anything nice enough to be doing real business in.”
“The green dress, Alessabell. You look lovely in that.”
“Right. Well, oh, I wish I’d washed my hair last night!”
Hadiin fought back a laugh as he watched the couple fly into an excited panic. “Sir?”
“It’s Dalton.” He stepped forward, grabbed Hadiin’s hand in his beefy mitts and spoke seriously. “Anything you need, I’m your man.”
“Well, if we could maybe string up a couple of bedsheets between the door and the wagon to discourage prying eyes, we’d like to unload the wagon.”
“Of course. Alessabell—“
“I’ll get some!” She ran off into the house. Probably to tear the sheets right off their own recently-slept-in bed.
“We’ll also need a substantial amount of milk and sugar. I’ll take the wagon for those while Marian stays here to guard the house.”
That gave Dalton pause. “Guard the house? What for?”
Marian spoke up for the first time. “Just about everyone is trying to get their hands on the recipe.”
Dalton’s brow creased in worry. “There’s no real danger though, is there? I mean, I don’t want my wife getting into trouble.”
Hadiin turned thoughtful at that. “You’re right. Perhaps it would be best if you accompanied your wife about town then, just in case.”
“And the house—?”
“Marian is more than capable of defending it herself.”
Marian smiled and let flames appear on her hands.
Dalton relaxed once more. “Right. Ok then. Sure, I can do that.”
“We’ll also need apples, pears and rose petals,” Marian added.
Hadiin looked up at her, over his shoulder. “I’ll have to gather them when I get the other supplies.”
“Do we have time?” Marian worried.
Dalton broke in. “Milk and sugar, right? I can have that delivered. Got friends who can help with that. Good stuff too. We buy from them.”
“That would be helpful,” Hadiin nodded in reply. “We’re going to need a mountain of it.”
Alessabell returned with sheets and they created a little tunnel between the front door of the house and the wagon. With Dalton’s muscles, they made short work of unloading. Soon enough the kitchen was filled with cryo slime and chilled.
Both husband and wife gave the pots and buckets odd looks.
“Is…that what I think it is?” Dalton asked.
“Yep,” Marian chortled. Then she paused. “Wait, you’re thinking it’s slime, right?”
“Ok. Sorry. I thought maybe you though it was like chilled cum or something.”
The husband and wife gave her an odd look. Then Alessabell gave the substance a second look and nodded in reluctant agreement.
Hadiin facepalmed. “Oh, Marian.” He shook his head and rolled his eyes. Then he glanced down at a bucket of white goo and couldn’t unsee it as something other than slime now. “Great,” he muttered.
While Dalton and Alessabell hurried to dress and prepare themselves, Marian ran out and ordered breakfast to be delivered from an inn two blocks away. When she returned, Hadiin set out with the wagon to collect flavour ingredients. The couple would order milk and sugar before going around to advertise the sale and auction later.
Hadiin wasn’t gone long, but by the time he pulled the wagon back up to the house an hour later, there were scorch marks in the street and it looked like someone had taken an axe to the front door. He ran inside worried only to find Marian calmly sitting at the table with a stack of pancakes. His empty stomach gurgled at the sight.
She looked up and spoke with a mouthful of food. “Had people try to barge in twice. I scared ‘em off though.”
Hadiin shook his head. He was very glad that he’d decided to sell the recipe off. This was getting ridiculous. “You didn’t happen to get me any food too, did you?”
She rolled her eyes and pointed to a covered plate.
“Oh thank goodness! You’re a lifesaver.”
When the milk and sugar arrived, they got to cooking. Hadiin had to borrow every pot and container they could find in the kitchen to hold all the ice cream, but he didn’t think the owners would mind. They were about to come into a windfall today.
It was nearing noon by the time they were finished. He and Marian collapsed into a couple of kitchen chairs, exhausted. Mixing ice cream by hand was hard work.
“At least all the secret ingredient is gone now,” Hadiin sighed. “We can finally relax for a while and not worry about spies and thieves coming for us.”
“Yeah, just assassins hired to threaten us to spill everything.”
“Don’t say that!”
She laughed in a dark way that said she thought the idea was funny, but also all too likely.
He rubbed his face with both hands and wished he could take a nap. “Hopefully, news of the recipe’s sale will keep anyone from going that far.”
“You know, maybe you should go back to selling regular stuff like that leather. Probably safer.” She’d made tea and sipped from a chipped cup.
“Which is why I’m doubly glad to have you by my side, my darling Marian. You’re not just a cute face and an amazing body and a fine companion. Having a dragon for a partner is all the protection I need.”
The compliment puffed her up a bit.
He continued. “Which is why I’m giving you half of everything we earn today, remember?”
She froze in surprise. “Oh my gosh. I’d totally forgotten!”
“You’ve earned it. And if all goes as well as I hope, you’ll be swimming in gold by tonight.”
She took on a dreamy expression. “Mmm. Swimming in gold…”
They got the ice cream loaded into the wagon. This time, Marian didn’t have to use her fire to drive off those coming for a peek. When Hadiin told them the ice cream was already all made and that there was nothing to see, they slunk off in disappointment on their own.
The wagon was full to the brim with ice cream. Marian had to stand in the back the entire way to Market Street just to make sure that the awkward stacks of containers didn’t topple. Having four sides to the covered wagon turned out to be very helpful.
They parked behind the same stall they’d used the day before. There was already a line up of two dozen people standing in the street. A pre-teen baker’s helper saw them pull up and sprinted off to grab the first order of waffle cones.
Hadiin grinned at his partner. “The scary part is over. Now it’s time for the fun to begin. you ready?”
She gave him a toothy smile in return. “Let’s make some money.”