FORTY YEARS EARLIER: Hunting Treasure (part 1)

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The war against Spiral had been raging for two years, during which the Merchants' Guild of Labrys Town had suffered greatly

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The war against Spiral had been raging for two years, during which the Merchants' Guild of Labrys Town had suffered greatly. But Mr Taffin was doing better than ever.

It wasn't as though he was without concern or sympathy for the situation – far from it. He was thankful that Spiral's Genii, and the legions under their command, had thus far been unable to reach the Great Labyrinth; but he regretted that while the threat of them doing so remained, the Labyrinth in its entirety had been isolated and all trade with the realms beyond the boundary walls had ceased. However, unlike most other traders, Mr Taffin did not rely on the import and export industry shared with the Houses of the Aelfir. His business was to provide a service for the merchants of Labrys Town themselves.

When the tram on which he rode arrived in the western district, Mr Taffin disembarked and immediately summoned a rickshaw. The driver was a tall and fit-looking youth, who seemed eager to serve as he pulled his cart over to his client. Mr Taffin climbed aboard, sighing as he sank into the plush, cushioned seat.

'Linker Lane,' he ordered, giving the footrest a tap with his crystal-topped cane. 'Make good time, my lad, and there's a tip in it for you.'

'Yes, sir!'

Mr Taffin smiled as the driver's young muscles bunched, and the rickshaw set off at a pace.

Some denizens would have it that Mr Taffin was a greedy profiteer, and worse besides. But he paid no mind to the insults of jealousy. He could not help if the war had been kind to him, and his particular business had flourished because of it. What was he supposed to do? Apologise? Close down? No, Mr Taffin would ride the good times as he had the bad. War had not made him so rich that he could afford apartments here in the plush west side of town, among the wealthiest merchants; but it had sufficiently elevated his social standing that he could sit in the rickshaw, unashamedly proud, and with his head held high.

The streets of the western district were busy under the afternoon sun, much busier than they would have been if not for the war. Rich merchants, with little else to do these days, strolled with their children and wives, pretending that all was well in their world. Many of them glared at Mr Taffin as he passed. Mr Taffin acknowledged their disgruntlement by tapping a finger to the brim of his hat and offering a knowing smile.

Let them stare at him, the greedy profiteer from the back alleys of the northern district, in his fine, tailored suit, carrying a crystal-topped cane; let these fellow traders, with their crumbling empires and dwindling riches, see him travelling among them as an equal. Let them think what they wanted. When the morning came, many of them would come crawling to his doorstep, seeking business under the cover of the early hours. Mr Taffin would feel no shame at his good fortune, even if he had been given a helping hand by those who outranked even the most loftily positioned merchants.

When the rickshaw reached its destination, Mr Taffin handed the driver twenty Labyrinth pounds and took particular pleasure in the young man's reaction when he declined to take the change due. The rickshaw set off in search of a fresh customer, and Mr Taffin walked down Linker   Lane with a jaunty stride.

His cane ticking against the cobbles with each step, he passed quaint tearooms and boutiques, and walked on until he reached the grimy exterior of an apothecary's called Master Remedies. A bell jingled when Taffin opened the door. Inside he was greeted by the sickly-sweet smells of potions and medicines that cast a heady atmosphere throughout the room. The shop was small and dingy, the sun struggling to penetrate the thick dirt on the windows. Mr Taffin was pleased – though not surprised – to find he was the only customer present.

'Ah, my good Master Gene,' he said brightly to the shopkeeper standing behind the counter. 'I trust the afternoon finds you well?'

'Mustn't complain, Mr Taffin,' Gene said in that usual lacklustre way of his. He stared at Mr Taffin through wire-framed spectacles, making no attempt to enquire after his sole customer's well-being or to further the conversation in anyway whatsoever. Then he added, 'We make the most of what we have during such times.'

'Indeed, indeed, Master Gene – the sun still rises in the morning, and all of that.'

'Ah, but it shines brighter for some than others, eh?'

Mr Taffin tapped his nose and smiled knowingly, but the shopkeeper resumed staring at him.

A small and elderly man, Gene the apothecary always presented a bedraggled appearance. His shirt was never quite white, his waistcoat a little threadbare, and the wisps of his thinning hair always seemed in need of a cut or a good combing. Truth be told, the elderly apothecary was a miserable wretch who set Mr Taffin's teeth on edge; so, as his grey eyes continued to stare out through his wire-framed spectacles, Mr Taffin looked around at the display of ornate bottles filled with colourful liquids, and cleared his throat before getting down to business.

'Master Gene,' he said, licking his lips, 'I was led to believe that our – ah – benefactors have left a package with you for my attention?'

A tight smile appeared on Gene's wrinkled face. 'If you would be so kind, Mr Taffin, please lock the door.'

'Of course.'

Mr Taffin kept a sour expression at bay as he turned to lock the shop door. It might have been a mystery to some how one so miserable as the apothecary, and his shabby little shop with its dirty windows and dusty floor, had managed to stay in business in such an expensive area as the western district – especially when he showed so little interest in his clientele and struggled to express even the smallest of civilities. But to Mr Taffin there was no mystery. He supposed – though he was loath to admit it – that he and Gene were fellow opportunists, and their common employers had ensured the war had been kind to both their businesses.

With the door locked, and the shop sign turned to 'Closed', Mr Taffin stepped up to the counter with a fresh smile. From the inside pocket of his suit jacket he produced an envelope, bulging with money, which he placed upon the countertop and slid towards Gene.

'For your efforts,' he said with a wink.

Gene looked at the envelope, but did not move.

'Count it, if you wish,' Mr Taffin chuckled. 'But I assure you, Master Gene, it is all there, as usual.'

Without a word, the apothecary took the envelope, stuffed it beneath his waistcoat, and then flipped back the hatch in the countertop. 'You remember the room?' he said, standing to one side.

'How could I forget?' Mr Taffin said, and stepped through. 'Thank you.'


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