For most of the fourteen days since his discussion with Ember, Al had managed to perfect the craft of procrastination. In fact, not only did he take no action, he tried as well as he could not to think about it, either. Every time the thought surfaced, he’d skim it out of his mind with an imaginary ladle, like he was removing the foam to make clarified butter.
This kept him happy and sane for most of the two weeks. About three days before his deadline, after a series of steady and displeased looks from Ember, he ventured down the alley behind Milxner’s to Berlont’s. He walked inside quickly, noting that though the map had been correct, Al’s imagination had been lacking. He browsed quickly until Berlont himself had come out from his workroom. Al had smiled nervously, then left before the shop owner could ask him if he needed help.
There was no master plan, no clever way he could break into the shop, and Al was out of time.
Ember had been up front when Al had entered Jindahl and Stohr on that last morning, speaking with Peni and Taritha about something. When he entered, she had looked up, tilted her head to the side and raised her eyebrows. He had nodded brusquely and opened his office door, sitting down on the bench and sighing deeply.
He at least had the forethought to let Burdet know he wouldn’t be home in time to pick up Marnie at the usual time. It hadn’t gone well. “I thought you said you wouldn’t go out drinking again!” she’d said.
“I’m not going out to get drunk. I’m just going out for a few drinks and to chat with Aggie. That’s all. I should be back just a few hours later than normal.” He’d smiled at her. She’d glowered at him and left the living room in a huff.
It hadn’t been a total lie. While he hadn’t gone out drinking with Aggie, he had been drinking. Berlont didn’t close his shop until well past sunset and Al needed to kill some time before he attempted whatever it was he was going to attempt.
Had Al been a richer and more respected man, he’d be drinking Coujenet in a salon with friends, discussing all his favorite books and his appreciation of art. Since he was neither, he drank in a tavern bar alone.
When he was not fraternizing with Aggie, he preferred to sip a deep red Arvonne wine called Caudet, “the watcher-lady”. It was named after a legend of a woman whose husband had never returned from sea. Long after she had died, people still saw her ghost walking the cliffs near the vineyards of Tapenstri with a lantern, trying to guide her husband home to her. Al didn’t really believe the story, but he had tasted Caudet enough over the years to form an appreciation for the vintage and the romance it implied.
It was on his third glass that he started to feel his favorite stage of inebriation: the wistful feeling that he had once visited Arvonne and had forgotten it after a feverish illness. It was a haunting, mysterious comfort with a hint of clove and raspberry undertones that lingered on his tongue long after he had swallowed everything but the dregs.
He swirled the bottom of the glass in an attempt to form a sigil. “Oh, hallowed Preshrinor, guide me to your lands and bring me closer to the heavens,” he said, mocking the piscarins. “Let me feast upon your glory and slake my thirst with your knowledge.”
He snorted and looked up, quickly eyeing the room and seeing that no one was paying him any attention. He looked at the bottom of the glass. The dregs looked surprisingly like they were spelling out the letter ess, the sigil of movement and action. He sighed. He really didn’t want to go out in the rain, but it was time. He paid his tab, and left the bar.
His walk was just a few streets over. Having noticed he was warm despite the downpour, giddy, and staggering a little, he used the time to tap into the Calm and burn out a little of the alcohol in his system. As far as he knew, no one had created a successful spell, potion, or ritual that would sober a man instantly. Several blocks of walking proved that Al wasn’t either the man or it wasn’t the night for an epiphany.
While he had been planning, Al had realized the hardest part was going to be the first part, breaking into the shop. Even if he had practiced as much as he possibly could in two weeks, he knew he still wouldn’t have the skill to pick the lock. He couldn’t blast the door open or break a window without alerting people in the neighborhood and potentially Berlont himself. He didn’t have the tools to cut the glass. There was nothing in his bag of tricks, either with applied knowledge or wizardry, that he knew to enter a locked shop.
Al passed by the front of the business, hoping to see something out of place that could help him. An open window or perhaps a man standing outside, willing to steal something for very little money. Or nothing. That would be ideal. He was so intent on looking around the building that he didn’t even notice the handwritten sign on the front door:
PLEASE DO NOT BREAK GLASS
DOOR IS UNLOCKED
Al blinked a few times, made to move around the shop, then stopped. He pivoted on his heels and re-read the sign to make sure his eyes weren’t tricking him, even brushing the rain aside to read more clearly. He tried the door and found that, as promised, it opened for him without so much as a squeak.
Through the haze of inebriation, Al paused and wondered why someone would leave their shop available for looting like that. Was it a trap? Was Berlont secretly trying to rid the city of thieves by luring them in with easy bait? Or was he lying in wait, ready to stab Al the moment he walked in the shop?
He shook his head, turning it into a sway that felt kind of good for a moment. It might be a trap, but no one spent their nights waiting for a crime, hoping that someone would stumble in and try to steal something. When would Berlont sleep?
The reason didn’t matter; Al had to steal that chalice and it had to be that night.
He opened the door gently, closing it with a little more force than he intended, then readied himself for part two: sneaking. Alpine had once seen a play near the campus of Amandorlam during a rare break that he had given himself,. It had been a dry interpretation of Gilkarest’s Twenty Nights in Kinto. He remembered the halting movements of Persisco, the thief who stole the Parsa diamond, and how he strode lightly on the balls of his feet, creeping in between steps. Al mimicked the motion as he sneaked across the shop.
Step, creep, step, creep. Al was feeling pretty good about this portion of his task. He hadn’t made any noise and he had broken in without disturbing anything. If things went well, he might consider a career in thievery. Maybe he’d do better as a planner than a doer, but maybe he’d also switch in on a few missions. He’d have two, no three, men underneath him, perhaps a boy that could get into tight areas, and he’d take a cut of fifty percent per job and…
He was so engrossed with his imaginary side business that it was a shock for him to look up and take in the whole of the room and its contents.
While he had seen the place during the day, he had been quite nervous and hadn’t stopped to enjoy what was there. The shop was packed with knickknacks, gadgets, statuettes, boxes, holders, and accouterments of various sizes and shapes. Gold, brass, silver, velvet pouches, mother-of-pearl inlays, feathers, exotic woods, and all sorts of lacquer hit Al with a delicate magnitude, even though the light from the alley lamps barely shown through the window. Despite the wares being dusty, they shone with a majesty beyond what Al could handle. His eyes watered and he blinked the tears away.
Each item had a small, white card in front of it listing the name, origin, cost, and any additional trivia. Each had been painstakingly written in bold but neat handwriting that matched the closed sign on the front door. Al paused to look at a few. If any of them were to be believed, Berlont had a trove of magical pieces that could fix all the problems in anyone’s life. He suspected most were just beautiful things worth their weight in materials, but not in promises. The piscarins of snuff boxes and hand mirrors.
He made his way to the back of the store, sneak-stepping until he got to the counter. He crawled underneath the hole, pushing the counter flap up with his back when he tripped a little. He backed out and shook his head at his stupidity. He then pushed the flap on top of the bar over and walked through.
The desk Ember had described was in the corner. He walked over and looked up behind it, panicking when he saw the shelf was full of items. There was no empty space where an invisible chalice should be. There were no chalices on the shelf at all. Was her information faulty? Did Berlont change his layout since she’d been in?
He looked around and spotted a second, smaller shelf above the window. There were several items crammed along the wood, but a very conspicuous spot where there was nothing. Al moved the desk chair over to the wall very carefully. He stood on it, then steadied himself with the wall. He had to be careful. Ember had warned him that touching anything but the chalice could cost him.
But, as he stared at the objects, Al decided he really wanted that Alscaine inkwell. To have a piece of Arvonne in his hand, to hold an item once touched by the king himself! It was right there, the silver overlay almost winking at him. What if he just touched it? Just for a second…
What if he stole it? He was already stealing something, why not one more thing? Well, the other thing belonged to Ember’s family and it was stolen from them. Or had it been? What if it had been freely given or sold, but the buyer was having cold feet? Then Al would be really >stealing instead of stealing with good intentions. Did that even matter, the means justifying the ends? What would the law say? Did the law matter if he was an exception that could be excused? Al’s head hurt.
The chalice. That was it. He slowly moved his hand into the empty space on the shelf. Where air should be he felt cold metal. He reached around it and pulled it down to him, feeling the surprising heaviness of it. He held it up, trying to catch it in the light but failing. It was invisible, even in the brightest light, even from the highest height, even with a smiling bee, even with a frowning tree, even on…
Stop with the nursery rhyme. Focus. He was about to step down from the chair when he saw the white card in front of where the chalice had been. Al planned on moving it back, but he glanced at the top and read:
The Mikros Chalice
And just like that, Al had discovered a way to sober up instantaneously.