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Uther had a pleasant, trusting face that didn't match the rest of his mammoth body in the least. His shoulders looked like they could hold up a house, and his arms and legs were slightly smaller than tree trunks. Riken had enjoyed a rousing game of cards with Uther and a few of his buddies a couple nights back at The Well. He'd lost, as usual. Uther's forgiving nature had allotted Riken a few days to get the coin to him. Time, it seemed, that had just expired.
Riken patted his pockets. "Down here doesn't seem much more promising at the moment."
Uther frowned, almost looking sad. "I don't want to, Riken," he said.
"Just get it over with, so I can go about my day."
In spite of his immediate pain, Riken almost laughed. A day? When Uther got done, he'd be lucky if he could walk by the end of the week. And that was only if the giant didn't kill him outright. That wasn't too likely, though; it would hurt Uther's feeling to have to kill him. A sound beating, he could live with.
Riken clenched his eyes shut, wishing he hadn't previously engaged the rat.
"Let him go, Uther," a perturbed voice called.
"He owes me coin," Uther said.
"Drop that little weasel and come over here," Hagatha said, frowning at the poor rat whose head she'd just squashed beneath her heel. "I'll cover the debt."
The iron grip loosened, and, once again, Riken toppled to the floor. Choking and sucking air through his shrunken windpipe, Riken pushed himself up. As he dusted himself off, he watched Hagatha counting out coins and dropping them in Uther's hand. Funny, she wouldn't feed him, but she'd save his life. Always the savvy businesswoman, that one. Dead men couldn't be counted on for future income.
Smiling to himself, Riken turned and opened the door. On the stoop, he drew in a deep breath of the crisp morning air. How he loved Winter Moon's cold, clean atmosphere, leagues superior to the oppressive heat endured by his Western homeland. The day was looking up already.
A damning swipe of Uther's hand to the back of his head offered an opposing viewpoint. Riken fell headlong into a shallow patch of muddy snow, and this time, he didn't get up.
Minutes, possibly hours, later, a supercilious voice and a nudging toe roused him.
Riken rolled onto his back and looked up at the woman standing over him with her hands on her hips.
"Ah, Min Dumay," he said, tasting mud on his lips. "You couldn't have chosen a more opportune time to call. I'm afraid I'll have to ask for the first day's pay in advance."
The estate of Mon and Min Ullimar, the missing girl's parents, was slightly less immense and luxurious than some castles Riken had seen. It held court in a cul-de-sac on Saffrom Row, along with a half dozen other such impressive manors. The row was aptly named, saffrom being the rarest and most expensive fabric in all of Cryshal. Saffrom Row held the lofty title in style. All the houses had third, and some fourth, stories. Their roofs boasted multiple peaks and wooden shingles.