Chapter Eight

                                            Calimport:  Jewel of the South
 

         Athos skulked around the perimeter of the marketplace, unconsciously keeping to the shadows.
         His mind was a whirlwind.  Life was everywhere here!  And everything was so clear, so bright, almost surrealistic.
         He gazed up in wonder and admiration at the sun until his eyes stung.  How long had it been since he had last viewed that golden orb?  Was it possible that he should have forgotten its beauty?
         Yet, at the same time, he found himself uneasy.  The bright glare seemed to melt the shadows, to strip away hiding places, starkly and nakedly revealing all.  He felt uncovered, exposed.
         And the bustling people moved by, busily hurrying about their tasks, studiously ignoring Athos and each other.  Athos might have been watching it all from a different world.
         A strange fear slipped over him.  How much had he changed?  Could he carry on a rational conversation again?  Was he even capable of understanding these people, this world?  Had he become completely estranged to reality?
         Had he become more like his mentor than he cared to admit?
         He brushed his fear away angrily.  He would make contact!
         He felt someone reaching for him from behind, and he whirled, ready for trouble.
         A harlot stood there, smiling provocatively and looking him over appreciatively.  She was an older woman, with a cloying perfume and a thick layer of garish makeup, skillfully and heavily applied but not quite able to conceal the deep lines under her eyes and the worn look of her face.  A few others of her profession were grouped nearby.
         "And how long has it been for you, young sir?" she asked.
         Athos started.  Had she read his thoughts?
         Then her meaning sunk in, and he turned away, his cheeks flaming with embarassment, disgust, and anger.
         "Too bad," she sighed in loud mockery as he departed.  "Such a pretty face!"  Some of the other women laughed.
         Athos whirled on her, his steely gaze locking with hers.
         She stumbled backwards, gasping at what she saw there.
         A towering man, ebony-skinned and wearing only a turban and a loincloth lumbered forward, a gigantic khopesh clutched in one hand.  He was obviously a pimp of some sort, and, although he was uncertain of what exactly was going on, felt a need to assert his presence.  "The lady deserves an apology."
         Athos turned his gaze on the big man.  He noted weaknesses in every step of the man's gait.  This one would be an easy kill.  "Then give her one if you like," he said, turning away.
         The big man started forward angrily, thinking to teach the young stranger a lesson in manners, but something in Athos' manner made him reconsider.
         Athos continued onward, angry with himself for being provoked so easily.
         So this was the world he had wanted to see again so much.  Well, what had he expected?  He felt cheated, and a little bitter.
         He slipped through the shadows, avoiding the crush of bodies in the street.  What would these next few days bring, he wondered?  Would he return to the Viper embittered and cynical - disillusioned with the world he had left behind?  Somehow he sensed that that was the effect his master hoped for.  A flare of anger surged through him at the thought.  He determined not to concede the point easily.
         He walked on.  If the world hadn't improved, at least he had.  The Viper had transformed him into a killing machine.  He was lethal and sharp now.  Perhaps it was reflex, but he found himself sizing up everyone he saw as potential opponents.  no longer need he fear being attacked by some gang of bully boys, or being waylaid by a group of theives.  In fact, he began to wish someone would try to to assault him.  After the many training sessions with the Viper, it would almost be a release to engage someone he could defeat.
         But the street thugs and other undesirables sensed his confidence, and kept clear of him.
         He took stock of himself.  He had no money, no weapons, and knew nothing about this city.
         Money was not problem.  Even before his tutelage under the Viper, Athos had been good at picking pockets.  Now it was almost a joke.

                                                                     * * *

         Hodkamset's head snapped up, his eyes lit with a maniacal fire which was freflected in his sudden grin.  "He is here!"
         Nekiset was surprised.  "On this plane?"
         "In thjis city!" he corrected her, a little irritated.
         Nekiset gasped.  "Here?  How?"
         The high priest shrugged, annoyed.  "Maybe there is a permanent portal to another plane somewhere in the city.  What does it matter?  He is here - I have seen it.  Set has delivered him into our hands."  His smile faded.  "We must act quickly.  There is not telling when he may disappear again."
         Nekiset stood.  "I will alert our scouts.  He will be found.  By nightfall tomorrow at the latest."

                                                                     * * *

         Athos cautiously entered The Hanging Noose.  Within, all was light, sound, and laughter, and he almost turned and walked right back out of the crowded tavern.
         Instead, he forced himself to wind his way across the boisterous room, taking a seat at a small table int he back corner, where the shadows hung deeply.  Nearby, a group of six drunken men were thronged around a table, laughing loudly, pounding their tabletop, and making lewd comments at the women nearby.  Athos ignored them.
         Earlier he had purchased a change of clothing, in order to better fit in with the local styles.  He now wore a dark, flowing cloak, designed with wide sleeves for free arm movement.  Beneath it, only a little of his plain (but expensive) tunic was visible, but his fine gray trousers  were in full sight right down to where they were tucked into his supple black boots.  Hanging from his right hip was a finely-wrought parrying dagger, especially designed with two smaller side spring blades so that, at the push of a button, it could instantly become a triple-bladed weapon.  he had a shortsword slung from his other hip - a 'gift' from a would-be attacker he had met in an alley earlier this night.  Tucked discreetly out of sight in his left boot was a small dirk.
         After sitting, he locked gazes with the brightly smiling serving girl across the room.  Her smiled faded worriedly, and she hurried over.  As she passed the table of rowdies, one of them made a grab for her, which she deftly avoided.
         "What will you have, sir?" she asked, holding a menu in her hand.
         "The menu," he replied.
         She looked flustered.  "I'm sorry," she stammered, "I didn't know you could read.  So many customers can't."  She handed him the menu.  "I can't, myself, even."
         Athos glanced back up at her briefly, and her stream of thoughts ceased.  She wrung her hands, watching him.
         He scanned the menu.  "I'll have the roast venison and broiled potatoes," he said at last, "with a side order of calishite salad.  And give me milk with my meal."
         She looked surprised.  "Milk?  But that's for children!"
         Another glance silenced her, and Athos returned his attention to the menu, considering what he would take for his dessert.
         A rough looking fellow with a worn eyepatch reached over suddenly from the next table, making a leering grab for the girl's skirts.  She squeeled and leapt away, gigiling.
         Athos' hand shot out, snatching the man's outstretched arm, wrenching him from his seat to sprawl on the floor.
         The girl gasped, startled by the swift motion, and backed away, plainly fearing that things might become violent.
         "Do what you like when she's at your table," said Athos.  "When she's at mine, I expect you to leave her alone.  It disturbs my meal."
         The man hopped to his feet angrily, his five companions following suite.  "You young brat!  I'll take you apart!"
         Athos regarded him cooly.  "I doubt it."
         The man unsheated a long dagger and began twirling it through his fingers.  He gave an evil grin.  "I'm going to enjoy this, boy-"
         Lightning quick, Athos lashed out, kicking three times in rapid succession.  The first blow caught the man's knife arm, sending his dagger spinning across the room.  The second connected solidly with his chin.  The third caught him in the center of the chest, sending him reeling backwards to crash into the table where he had been sitting.  He was unconscious before he hit the floor.  The man's dagger thunked into a tabletop several feet away.
         A beat of silence hung in the air for a moment.
         "Gods!" breathed the serving girl.
         The other five men took a step back, not so eager to help their companion as they had at first appeared to be.
         Athos glared at them, waiting.
         They all seemed to have something else to attend to.
         "I am forced to cancel my order," Athos said to the serving girl after a moment, still fixing the five with baleful look.  "My appetite has fled.  Please accept my apologies."  He turned and headed for the door.
         No-one tried to stop him.
         After he left, silence reigned for a few moments.  Then people began whispering.

                                                                     * * *

         "It was him, Pook!  I'm certain of it!"
         Pook snorted dismissively.  "You are drunk.  The Viper would never show his true face in public."
         The rat-faced man shook his head emphatically.  "I have never been more sober.  It was him, I tell you!"
         "How can you be so certain?" scoffed Pook.  "You've only ever seen him once before in your entire life, and that was on a night of complete darkness."
         "I didn't need to see his face," said the man.  "I've seen him kill."  He shook his head.  "If I live to be two hundred years old, I'll never forget that night.  And tonight, I saw him again!"
         Pook seemed unswayed.
         "The style was the same!" insisted the rat faced man intently.  "It was him.  It was him, I tell you!"
         Pook frowned considering.  "The Viper in a barroom brawl?  Over nothing?  That hardly seems likely."
         "I saw it," persisted the man.
         Pook chewed his lip thoughtfully.  "Do you remember his face?" he asked at last.
         The man was confused.  "yes, I remember it."
         "Well, then," said Pook, "find him and watch him."
         The man's face went white with almost superstitious dread.  "Find the Viper?  He's supposed to be unfindable!"
         Pook smiled.  "He doesn't know we're on to him yet.  He won't be expecting you."
         "I suppose not," the man said doubtfully.  "But still-"
         "Are you disobeying me?" asked Pook menacingly.
         The man nearly tripped over himself in declaring his loyalty.  "No, Pook, of course not.  I'm your man, Pook, right to the end.  It's just that the Viper-"
         "The Viper," said Pook shortly, "is too important to go unmonitored.  And you are the one who is going to keep an eye on him.  Do you understand?"
         "Yes, Pook," the man said, miserable.
         "Good.  Now get going."
         Pook sighed to himself as the man left.  The Viper in a barroom brawl?  It was the most ridiculous thing he'd ever heard of!  No, this man was not the Viper.
         But that did not mean that the mysterious young man was not dangerous.  If he was as good as the rat-faced man made out, then he definitely bore watching.  He might even prove useful.  If so, then Pook wanted him on his side.

                                                                     * * *

         Athos woke late the next morning, the smells of breakfast wafting up from the common room below.
         He had traveled to a poorer part of the city after departing The Hanging Noose, finally settling on an inn called The Sleeping Spider.  It had proved small but cofortable.
         He rolled out of bed, brushing off straw, and began going through a series of stretching exercises.  He whipped through the motions quickly, eager to get on with the rest of the day.
         After splashing his face with some water he left his room, wandering down to the common room.
         He took his breakfast in a small booth near the back of the room.  he was enjoying a light breakfast of milk and some exotic fruits when, suddenly, he sensed a prickling sensation at the back of his neck.  Someone was watching him.  He forced himself to stillness.  The Viper had trained him for this.
         Casually he scanned the room, sinking back into the shadows of the booth.  No-one appeared to be taking special notice of him.  He closed his eyes to slits, listening intently.
         There was hushed conversation going on all over the room, from different groups, but nothing immediately caught his attention.
         He settled down to wait.  Sooner or later, whoever was stalking him would trip up and show himself.
         A musical laugh caught his ear, and he looked up.
         It came from a girl seated across the room.  She was about his age, and seated at a table with a group of young men.  Curious, he cocked an ear and listened in.
         "So what did you do?" asked one of the young men.
         "I cut his purse, of course," the girl answered with a bright smile.
         "How did that help?" asked another boy, puzzled.
         "I didn't cut it from his belt.  I slit it, near the bottom.  The gold went tumbling out, and he had to release me to gather it up, or risk losing it to the people passing by."
         She had autumn hair, and her eyes were clear and blue, and sparkled with intelligence.  Her face was classically beautiful, but not cold.  She was tanned from the sun, and one ear was missing a tiny part of its lobe.  Strangely enough, this only added to her appeal, making her even more lovely in an odd way.
         Athos shook his head.  What was he thinking of?  Someone was following him, and he was admiring the beauty of a stranger!
         She looked at him then, their eyes locking for a moment across the room as she noticed him for the first time.  Something passed between them.  Curiosity?
         Athos jerked his gaze away, angry at himself.  She probably wouldn't have noticed him at all if he hadn't been staring like an idiot.
         All thoughts of who might be following him had fled, as a strange stort of embarassment descended on him.  Was she still looking at him?  He was afraid to look up, so he waited a few moments, then passed his gaze over the room, as though it were a casual and disinterested glance.
         She hadn't been looking, he was fairly sure, so he dared to look again.
         She was laughing with her friends.  He sighed in relief.
         But once again she felt his eyes on her.  Once again she looked up at him.
         She was showing interest.
         Again he tore his gaze away, this time studying his food intently.
         He felt a vague weakness in his stomach.  Why could he not face her?
         I am Athos! he thought angrily.  I fear nothing!
         He forced himself to look up again.
         This time she was staring directly at him, plainly curious.  Some of her friends were looking around to see what she was staring at.
         He snatched his gaze down again, a lump building in his throat.  He felt confined, as though he needed air, but was afraid to move.
         What should I do? he wondered frantically, on the edge of panic.  I must leave now!
         He jerked to his feet, and made briskly for the door, not glancing once in the young girl's direction.  He walked quickly, barely able to stop himself from breaking into flight.  Hopefully it would give the impression that he was late for some appointment elsewhere and not fleeing from her gaze.

                                                                     * * *

         "Ah, sir!  You have come to see the finest selection of jewels in the south, no?"
         "No," said Athos, ignoring the man and looking across the aisles.  "I came to buy, not to look."  He had wandered the streets for hours, angry and ashamed of the way he had behaved earlier.  Already his mind was painting vivid pictures of how he should have behaved, what he should have done, what he should have said, as the events replayed themselves again and again in his thoughts.  He felt a perfect fool.  He was Athos, trained by the Viper - not some spineless idiot to be unnerved by the glance of a stranger!
         The greasy merchant rubbed his skeletal hands together gleefully in anticipation of an easy sale.  "Good!  Good!  My diamonds are the finest in all the realms!  I have wares from the distant north and the mysterious east.  Are you looking for something exotic?  Allow me to direct your attention towards-"
         "That won't be necessary," interrupted Athos.  "I am capable of making my selections without your guidance.  I would like to be left alone to make my decision."
         The smile evaporated from the merchant's face as he backed away.  "As you wish, young master," he murmured, keeping a suspicious eye on Athos.
         Athos smiled grimly to himself.  No doubt he would be watched carefully, but he wasn't here to steal.  He was here to practice evaluating the gems themselves.  It was a simple exercise, but it would help to calm him.
         "Artemis!" came a bellowing cry from outside the little tent.  "Artemis!  I've got you now, girl!"  Athos looked up, wondering what was happening.
         A figure darted into the tent, looking around wildly for some avenue of escape.  He stepped back in surprise.  the hair, the face - there could be no mistake.  This was the same girl he had seen this morning in the inn.
         Artemis.  It must be her name.  He liked the sound of it.  It suited her.  He stored it away in his memory.
         Behind her, a powerfully built man entered, wearing black robes and armed with a wicked-looking scimitar.  "Artemis!" he said, advancing on her, "I told you I wanted you working for me!"
         "And I told you I would never be one of your sluts!"  She backed away from him, looking for some way out.
         The man grinned, revealing blackened teeth.  "You don't have your friends here to protect you now.  Why don't you reconsider?  My customers will take you bruised or unbruised, but they'd prefer you unbruised."
         Athos stepped forward, interposing himself.  "Leave and live."
         The man seemed genuinely surprised that a perfect stranger would involve himself.  "I warn you, boy.  This is not your fight.  Step away and I won't hurt you."
         Athos said nothing.
         The man smiled again.  "I am a master with this, boy," he said, raising the scimitar.  "I teach its use in a local weapons school.  Do you really want to go up against me?"
         Both of Athos' blades cleared their sheaths in the blink of an eye.  He assumed a defensive stance.
         The other man's smile widened.  "I warned you, boy.  Now you die."  His body went into motion, the scimitar striking impossibly fast.
         The smile vanished from his face as his blow was parried and his feet were swept from beneath him.  He launched himself into a roll, barely avoiding Athos' counterstrike as it swept down.
         The man rolled lithely to his feet, whirling.  He smiled grimly.  "I have the measure of you now, stranger.  That trick will not work again."
         Athos remained silent, awaiting his opponent's next move.  The man talked too much, and boasted even more.  How could he have the full measure of him when they hadn't even begun the fight yet?
         The man attacked again, his scimitar striking again and again with skill and speed.  This time there was an interplay of blindingly quick blows and parries between them.
         Athos fell back under the furious attack, exposed for a split second.
         The turbaned man grinned as he sent his scimitar in for the kill.  Athos recovered instantly, revealing the feint for what it was as he parried with his shortsword and locked the scimitar in place with his parrying dagger.
         A click followed, and the twin blades of the dagger shot from the main blade.  The dagger slid down until the scimitar's edge was held between the main and right spring blades.  Now the shortsword was freed.
         The other man realized what was happening and managed to release the scimitar and leap back in time to save his life, but sported a long cut across his chest where the shorsword's tip had caught him.
         Athos flicked the parrying dagger slightly and the scimitar flew out of the shop and landed in the dusty street.
         Athos remained still, waiting.
         The other man backed out slowly, one hand clutching his chest, and stooped to pick up his scimitar.  He stood, glaring at Athos.
         Athos stared back.  "Next time I won't be so merciful."
         The man considered attacking again, and cursed in frustration.  "I will have you, Artemis!" he said, pointing to her.  "Sooner or later, I will have you!"  Then he turned and fled.
         Athos waited until the man was out of sight, then sheathed hiw weapons slowly, and turned to face the girl.  "You followed me here, didn't you?"
         She looked at him as if he'd spoken in another language, and he winced.  Had he really said that?
         "I... what I meant," he stammered, awkwardly trying to recover, "was that I think I saw you this morning at breakfast."
         She brightened.  "Oh, yes.  At The Sleeping Spider.  I remember."
         They stood in silence for a few moments, neither certain what to say.  "I don't mean to sound ungrateful," she said at last, "but why did you help me?"
         Athos shrugged.  "When I was younger I found myself in a similar situation.  I just... it triggered something in me, I guess."
         "Oh."
         Again they stood in silence.  Had he made it sound like he hadn't wanted to help her?  He thought maybe he had, and kicked himself mentally.
         "Well, I've got to go," she said at last.
         He nodded.  Then realized she was waiting for him to move out of the way.  "Oh!" he said apologetically, stepping aside, "I'm sorry.  I hadn't realized."
         She stopped at the tent flap, looking back, and gave him a smile.  "By the way, my name is Artemis."  She waited expectantly.
         He nodded again, unsure what to say.  Again there was a noticeable pause.  Finally he realized what she was waiting for.  "Oh!  Athos.  My name is Athos."
         She began to giggle as she backed out.  "I've got to go, Athos.  I hope we run into each other again."
         Then she was gone, and he was left with the sweet memory of her smile.

                                                                    * * *

         Athos jerked awake, instantly alert.  He rolled out of bed, weapons in hand.
         He hadn't long to wait.  The window shattered inward as a man came hurtling through.  The man rolled lithely to his feet, another man coming through the window on his heels.
         Athos exploded into motion, dispatching the first man before he had a chance to analyze the room.
         He kicked the second man in the throat, sending him flying back out through the window to fall two stories to the hard cobblestones below.
         The door splintered inward as another group of men rushed in, and Athos whirled to engage them.
         The first leveled a hand crossbow at Athos and fired.
         Athos leaned to one side, allowing the bolt to fly by him.  He lunged forward, taking the first man's life before the others could react.
         The other five tried to take him by sheer numbers alone.  They piled onto him, trying to restrain him with ropes.
         His shortsword quickly became useless in the crush of bodies, and he was forced to rely on his dagger.
         The men he faced were capable and experienced, perhaps not professionals but certainly no strangers to close combat fighting.
         Against Athos they didn't stand a chance.  In seconds it was over, and he was examining the bodies.
         Ropes?  Crossbow bolts dipped in a venom that paralyzed?  These men had been trying to capture him.  But why?
         He wasted no time pondering the question.  This group had underestimated him, but there would be others.
         He gathered up his few possessions and left the room through the window, disappearing into the night.

                                                                     * * *

         Athos maintained a low profile for the remainder of his stay, moving from place to place across the city.  Though he took great pains to be prepared for them, there were no more night     attacks.
         He searched, but did not run into Artemis again.  In a way he was relieved.  He had no idea what he would have said to her anyway.  Yet, strangely, he was also disappointed.  He had wanted to see her again.  Perhaps, if the Viper permitted him to visit here again, he would see her then.  He consoled himself with that.