Never trust neogi, whatever you may do
Never stare beholder down; they’ll likely frown at you
Never shout at scro, never wrestle giff
There was a low hiss as one of the Asperusa serving girls poured another pitcher of hot water into the bath.
Elias Timoth leaned back, luxuriating in the play of the water and sighing contentedly. The girl was clothed in a diaphanous satin robe, worn open, which was so thin it left nothing to the imagination, even on the parts of her body it covered. As she straightened it fell back, revealing the bare skin beneath. His eyes traced the lines of her body, admiring the shadows that played across her pale smooth skin. She smiled at him shyly when she noticed he was looking. “Thank you, my lovely,” he said.
The bath was a huge rectangular pool of blue water in the center of the chamber, mist rising above it and into the air. It was ringed on all sides with thick marbled columns, and directly overhead was a domed glass ‘skylight’ beyond which distant stars appeared to twinkle and play. (It was an illusion, of course. Here, in the center of Syrrus B, there were no stars.)
The bath chamber was extravagant, tiled with marble flooring that was worked with exotic designs. The columns that ringed the pool and supported the skylight were not alone; indeed, the room was filled with them, giving bathers the vague impression of being in the center of a forest of stone. It was lit by magical glowing gems within the bathing pool itself, which cast light upwards from beneath the water’s surface, painting the room an eerie, undulating blue.
The serving girl stepped back, departing to retrieve more hot water. Timoth watched the supple muscles of her body as she went, and smiled again. Perhaps he would call her to him when she returned.
The moment she left, a stranger stepped from behind one of the columns. “Good day,” he said as calmly as if he were someone who had come by appointment, “You are Elias Timoth.” It was not a question.
Timoth gave a violent start of surprise, half jerking out of the water. His eyes narrowed and a tight frown twisted his lips. “Who are you?” he demanded with a flash of irritation. “How did you get in here?”
The man inclined his head in a slight bow. “Twilight Jack, at your service.” He stepped to the edge of the pool. “You have heard of me?”
Timoth sank back down into the water. His eyes took on a hooded, considering look. “Yes, I’ve heard of you. Quite a bit, just lately. You’re an assassin.”
Jack nodded. “You don’t seem frightened,” he pointed out.
Timoth sneered. “I’m not a fool. There are plenty of people who would pay to see me dead. But you’re not just any assassin; I’ve heard about you. If you had come here to kill me I would already be dead. So you must have come for another reason.”
“Fair enough. I’ve come to make you a proposition.”
Timoth quirked his eyebrow. “I make it a rule never to conduct business in my bath.”
“There are exceptions to every rule.”
Timoth considered. “I could call my guards,” he pointed out. “One shout from me will bring them running.”
Jack shrugged. “If you want to see them die. Personally, I’d rather you didn’t. I dislike killing unnecessarily, especially when it’s men who are only doing what they’ve been paid to do.”
The thin, half-amused smile reappeared on Timoth’s face. “You think I’ll let them live?” he asked. “After they let you into my most private chambers? They’ve proven their uselessness. I don’t extend mercy to men who’ve failed me. They die whether you do it or not.”
Again Jack shrugged. “It’s your decision,” he said simply, “but I would prefer you didn’t make me a part of it. I would look on it as an irritation, and be less inclined to do business with you.”
Timoth was surprised. “You really think you could do it, don’t you? Most men in your position would have threatened me, not my guards.”
“If it makes you feel better,” said Jack, “I could kill you before they entered the room. It would be counterproductive to my purpose, so I won’t. But I could. Now that the threat has been delivered, can we get to the reason that brings me here?”
“You know,” said Timoth softly, almost talking to himself, “I’m almost tempted to call them, just to see if you’re as good as you think you are. And it would be a fitting death for them. Poetic. But...” His voice trailed off. “Very well then,” he said at last, leaning back in the water. “Make your proposition.”
“I need to get off-planet. I want you to tell me how to do it.”
Timoth chuckled. “I thought that might be the case. After all, the Duchess has half the able-bodied men in the city out combing the streets for you and your companions, and the bounty Blackthorne has offered has got the other half of them scrambling to find you as well.”
“It’s a pretty large bounty,” Jack agreed amiably. “Even a man in your position might be tempted by it. I wouldn’t be surprised if you were entertaining the notion of selling me out for it.”
“I am,” admitted Timoth nonchalantly, “but I’m willing to hear your proposal. It may be that I can profit from both ends on this one. I help you; I help them. Maybe you get out, maybe you don’t. I love these win-win situations. But I’m getting ahead of myself. Why come to me, assassin? I have nothing to do with spelljamming, or shipping of any kind.”
“You’re the broker for the Blue Man,” said Jack, “and a wealthy and powerful man in your own right. Don’t tell me you don’t know a way off-planet. I know men like you, and you wouldn’t be caught unprepared if things went sour. You’ve had an escape route from the moment you set up business here.”
Timoth stroked his chin. “Maybe you’re right and maybe you’re not. Maybe I know a little something that could help you. Let’s say I do. What have you got to offer? All I’ve heard about so far is what you want from me.”
A slight flash of surprise crossed Timoth’s face, quickly replaced by a guarded look. “What?”
“Your daughter,” said Jack. “I’ve got her. Give me what I want and you can have her back. Cross me and the girl dies.”
A crafty look came onto Timoth’s eyes. “I don’t think I know her,” he said, a thin smile of amusement creeping onto his lips.
“Let me refresh your memory. She’s about nineteen. Thin. Blue eyes. Very pretty. In fact, she doesn’t look a thing like you. And when I found her, she was being held hostage by some of Trytius’s men.”
“Oh, her.” Timoth shrugged apologetically. “I have so many bastard children, you know. It’s difficult to keep track. I’m sorry, if that’s all the leverage you’ve got, I’m not interested in doing business.”
Jack raised an eyebrow. “Not interested?”
Timoth uttered a short bark of laughter. “Look around you, assassin. What do you see? Luxury of the highest order. And why? Because I am a very important man. I measure that importance by the number of women I bed. I would venture to say that I have more pleasure slaves than any other man alive. I even have a Reigar girl - did you know that?” He grinned lecherously. “She’s my favorite. Not because she’s the best, mind, but because she’s the rarest. You begin to understand? So naturally enough, as collecting women is my hobby, I have sired more than a few bastards. The Storyteller even gave me a verse not long ago. But, unfortunately for you, that’s all they are to me - bastards.
“So you see the weakness of your position. In order for us to do business, you have to have something I want. And I don’t give a tinker’s damn about the girl, daughter or not.”
“You mistake my resolve,” said Jack, his eyes narrowing, “if you think that I am anything less than deadly serious regarding my threat. Refuse us aid and the girl dies.”
Timoth’s smile only widened. “You think I’m bluffing? Go ahead; kill her. I admit that it’s a bit distasteful shedding the blood of an innocent, but you are a fool if you believe it will cause me even a moment’s guilt.”
Jack was quiet, considering. Timoth seemed to be serious - more than that, the man seemed to be daring him to carry out his threat. But why? If Trytius was holding the girl, there must have been a reason. And then it hit him.
“You want her dead,” he said, reasoning it out. “Trytius didn’t kidnap her from you. He was holding her as a bargaining chip of some kind, protecting her from you.”
Timoth’s smile faded slightly. “Don’t be absurd. I told you: the girl is nothing to me. Destroy her or not, as you please.”
But Jack had seen the slight disappointment that crossed the man’s face, and he knew he was right. “I know what you told me. I also know you are lying. You want her dead. But why? What could a nineteen year old girl hold over a man like you?”
Timoth’s smile had vanished completely, replaced by an angry scowl. “The girl is nothing to me,” he repeated, more forcefully. “Slay her or not, as you please, but don’t insult me by calling me a liar. As for your desire to get off-planet, you have stated your terms and I find that you have nothing to offer me. So I think perhaps this audience is over.”
Jack had been speaking half to himself. Now he faced Timoth fully. “I don’t know what she holds over you, why you consider her a threat. But I can find out, I promise you that.”
A flush of anger played over Timoth’s face. “I think I should call my guards after all,” he said. “Perhaps then-”
“No need to be rude,” chided Jack. “We can still deal. You want the girl dead? I am an assassin by trade, and in the perfect position to make her disappear forever. All I ask is for a way off-planet.”
Timoth stared at him for a moment, then slowly closed his mouth. “You’re serious, aren’t you? A minute ago you were saying that you didn’t want to kill my guardsmen because they were just doing their job. But you’d murder an innocent girl just to get what you want? You are cold blooded, assassin.”
Jack shrugged. “Business is business. Do we have a deal?”
Timoth was silent a moment, eyeing Jack warily, as if uncertain of a trap. “What if I said yes? How would I know that you’d fulfilled your part of the bargain?”
Jack looked bored. “You find a way to get us off-planet, and I’ll kill the girl. I’ve never reneged on a contract yet. And I might add that compared to my normal rates, you’re getting quite a bargain.”
Timoth shook his head. “No deal. Kill the girl first, then I’ll help you.”
“Do you take me for a fool? The girl dies when we’re off planet. No sooner.”
Timoth leaned back. “Unacceptable. I want to see the body.”
Jack was quiet. “Suppose,” he said at last, “we reached a compromise. I deliver her to you the moment we depart. The girl is dead, it’s too late for you to back out of your promise, and everyone is happy.”
Timoth considered. “The idea has merit. Yes, I think perhaps we can come to an understanding.”
“Good.” Then Jack gave him a warning look. “A small piece of advice for you, though. You will be tempted to sell me out. Don’t. Don’t even consider it. If you betray me - or anyone with me - you will live to regret it. I will consider our deal off, and not only will the girl live, but I will put you on my ‘unfavored person’ list.” A thin, dangerous smile appeared on his face. “You don’t want to be on that list, Timoth.”
* * *
Reanyn approached the abandoned building cautiously. For the past half hour he had traveled through the blackness of the outer city without a light, relying solely on his infravision to guide him. It made for slower going than he would have preferred, but Blackthorne had already managed to take him by surprise once, and Reanyn wasn’t about to be caught unaware a second time. It wasn’t likely that Blackthorne would have posted men out here to search for him, but it was possible.
He didn’t remember much of the battle - he had been unconscious for most of it - but Nym had described what had happened. Even so, he was surprised at the devastation.
Where the building had stood before, there was now only a series of blasted chunks of mortar and stone, some of it smashed to powder. There were only two walls still standing, each pitted and scarred, with ragged holes torn out of them. The remnants of the building and the ground surrounding it were both scorched and blackened as if by some tremendous heat - in some places the stone had been melted until it was smooth as glass.
And we lived through this? he thought, half in wonder. He had seen worse, of course, but the thought that he had been unconscious and helpless while Blackthorne and his men had destroyed this place... He felt a twinge of self-anger that he had allowed himself to be ambushed, then immediately shook it off. Anger was the most dangerous emotion; the skilled warrior never succumbed to it. And he had come for a different reason. After an exhaustive search within the inhabited part of Syrrus B he had failed to find the fal (though more than once he had run across Blackthorne’s men who were working to find the creature as well. Twice he had been spotted by them and nearly come into open confrontation.)
More important, he had failed to discover even the slightest trace that the fal had ever returned to the city proper. And for a creature as recognizable and distinctive as the fal, that could mean only one thing: it had never returned. And if it had not returned to the city proper, that meant it could be anywhere out in the ruins.
So Reanyn had returned to the site where the fal had last been seen. It seemed extremely unlikely that the creature would come back here, but it was a place to start, and perhaps there would be some sign of which way it had fled. Reanyn was a better than average tracker (in his work, he had to be) and would have been fairly confident he could track any average person, even over ground as rough as this. But the fal was not a creature he was familiar with. Its means of locomotion, the tracks it would leave behind - these were unknowns. And that could make the task daunting.
He was not encouraged by the scene before him. As damaged as the building was, it was incredibly unlikely that the fal would have returned here for shelter. And as damaged as the grounds were, it would be difficult to find any trace of which way the fal had gone.
There were tracks - even from here he could see them. Too many tracks. Blackthorne had brought fifty fighting men with him. Likely they had trampled the entire area, and hidden any signs the fal might have left.
Suddenly he froze, head cocked to one side, listening.
Voices. Human. Probably thirty or forty yards to his left, and pitched low. He peered into the darkness in that direction and was rewarded a moment later by the tiniest flicker of light - likely a torch reflected off rock. There was too much rubble between where he stood and where the voices were to see anything, but he could guess what it was. Blackthorne had posted men here after all, just in case Reanyn or any of his party returned.
His mouth turned down into a frown. Blackthorne was thorough, there was no faulting him on that, but why would he post men here? Surely he didn’t believe that Reanyn would walk into the same trap twice. It was a waste of manpower.
Then, suddenly, he realized what he was hearing. The voices were pitched low, but they were taunting, cruel, triumphant. Triumphant? That implied that they had found something. And if they haven’t found me, thought Reanyn, what else would they be looking for?
He slipped forward, darting stealthily through the rubble in the direction of the sounds. Moments later he caught sight of the men who were speaking.
There were about fifteen of them, all human, all armed. They were roughened and coarse men, unwashed and unshaven, and the armor they bore was ragged and piecemeal. Reanyn had seen their type before, many times. Mercenaries. That wasn’t surprising; nearly all of Blackthorne’s men were hired killers.
The leader was a big swarthy man with an eye patch and a crooked jaw. He loomed over the others, arms crossed, a skeptical expression on his face. Another, shorter wiry man stood to his right, licking his lips nervously and peering anxiously over the shoulder of a third man, who was crouched on the ground, bent over a soft patch of dirt.
“So, I was right, Digger?” said the wiry man, his voice both whiny and excited. “I knew I saw it, damn ugly thing.”
The one who was crouched on the ground looked up, his face breaking into a leering, cracked-tooth grin. “I reckon you did. This track’s good.” He straightened. “Fresh too, by the looks of it.”
The tall one spoke at last. “Looks like we got ourselves a bonus, boys. Spread out, it can’t have got far. And pair up. We don’t know what that thing can do.”
“It’s a piking Seeker,” grumbled one of the other men. “Ain’t never heard of a Seeker that was worth a damn in a fight.”
The leader casually seized him by his jerkin with one hand and dragged him forward. “I said pair up, Callo. That means pair up. Unless you don’t think I’m in charge?” He eyed the smaller man closely, then, when the smaller man refused to meet his gaze, he shoved, sending him sprawling backwards. “Fine then. Anybody else want to discuss it? No? Then pair up and spread out.”
Reanyn melted back into the shadows as the mercenaries formed themselves into groups of two and split into different directions. One of the groups headed straight back towards where he was hiding, but Reanyn had no trouble escaping detection. The lead man held a brightly burning torch up high before his face. Not only did the light partially blind the man to the surrounding darkness, but as he swung it back and forth it served to deepen the shadows between the rocks and boulders. The man behind held a cocked crossbow at the ready, but marched stolidly along behind his companion, scarcely looking right or left.
Reanyn merely stepped back into a narrow opening between two large rocks and dropped into a crouch. The first man passed without so much as glancing in his direction. The second peered into the darkness, his gaze passing directly over the place Reanyn stood, but saw nothing. His crossbow was cocked and ready, but aimed casually at the first man’s back.
If all of the mercenaries are fools like these, thought Reanyn, they will find nothing.
But not all of them would be fools. One of them, at least, was able to spot a recent track on rocky soil. If Reanyn wanted to avoid them, it would not be difficult. But if he wanted to find whatever it was they were looking for, he would have to act quickly.
And he was fairly certain they were searching for the fal.
As soon as the two had fumbled past him, Reanyn struck out, darting through the shadows in the direction they had come from.
It took him scant minutes to backtrack their trail to the place where they had found the fal’s tracks, but to his dismay he discovered that the ground here was no less rocky than anywhere else. He looked for several minutes, but couldn’t find tracks even of the men who had just been standing here, much less the trail sign of the fal.
Perhaps I should follow them, he mused. If their tracker is good enough to pick up a trail on terrain like this, he’s better than me anyway.
There was an excited shout some distance away, one of the mercenaries calling out to his companions, and Reanyn cocked his head to listen, worried. If one of them had already discovered the fal, they might kill the poor creature before he had time to stop them –
“Concern is appreciated, manling,” came a sibilant soft-spoken voice to his left, “but hardly warranted.”
Reanyn flinched into a half crouch, ducking away from the sound and whirling.
There, in the shadows beside a crumbling mound of stone, was the fal.
The creature ducked its head to the side as if startled by Reanyn’s sudden movement. “Apologies. This one did not intend to surprise you, manling.”
Sheepishly, Reanyn stood back up, annoyed at himself again. He could count on his fingers the number of times he had been caught completely unawares, and now it had happened twice in as many days. “Where did you come from?” he asked quietly. “How did you sneak up on me?”
“This one has searched for a way to reach you for many hours,” said the fal. “This one has been frustrated in its efforts.”
“You were looking for me?”
“This one has a message to deliver to you,” said the fal. “A message from one Jarren Windhook, who has been taken.”
There was another shout just then, closer to hand, one of the mercenaries calling to his comrades.
Reanyn glanced in the direction of the shout. “They’re getting closer.”
“They will find nothing, for they hear and see only what this one shows them. Their minds are not strong.”
There was a beat, and then Reanyn understood. “You’re a mindbender.”
“This one possesses certain psionic talents,” corrected the fal. “This one does not know the way of bending minds. This is why reaching you before now was impossible.”
“Impossible? You mean because you couldn’t enter the city without being spotted? But you could easily have… Wait. The stargem. Of course, that’s what you mean.”
“Indeed,” said the fal. “Screaming sounder. It makes much noise; hurts and causes confusion. This one was unable to approach undetected as a result. But now you have come, manling, and this one may perform duty for friend Jarren Windhook.”
“What duty?” asked Reanyn, “What message? Windhook was taken by Blackthorne; how could he have given any message to you?”
“Message was given to this one before friend Jarren Windhook was taken by angry manlings. This one was instructed to hold it in trust for Seeker friends.”
“Why give it to me, then?” Reanyn asked, shaking his head. “I am no Seeker.”
“Seeker friend,” the fal repeated simply. One of its tentacles moved as it spoke, reaching up into its toothy maw and wriggling about. A moment later it emerged, bringing out a small packet of brown paper that it thrust at Reanyn. “Here is message.”
Reanyn took it gingerly. It was glistening and wet, covered by some vaguely slimy secretion. “… thanks.”
The fal bobbed its head once. “Now this one must go. Duty is performed.”
“Where will you go?” asked Reanyn as it turned away. “Now that you are hunted, you cannot return to the city.”
“This one has already sent the mindcall to elder teachers,” it answered without turning. “Harbor no fear; this one will be safe and well. Experimental interaction with manling community is now terminated. Good day to you, Reanyn Al’nuoth.”
As it faded into the darkness a far off motion caught Reanyn’s eyes. A pair of lights, slowly ascending into the black sky. A ship lifting, lanterns fore and aft, he mused. One of Blackthorne’s, no doubt. He watched until the twin lights flickered out of existence as the ship entered the tunnel far above, then turned his attention to the message the fal had given him.
Reanyn turned the brown packet of paper over in his hands. Blank on both sides, but sealed. He wiped the mucous secretion off and tore it open.
* * *
The hole was set into the rock, a shaft that fell away into darkness. It was roughly circular, and at its widest point was about twenty feet across. There was a small pile of fan-shaped devices laying scattered a few feet from the near rim. They were made of cloth and wood, and each was about the size of a large dinner plate.
“You’ve got to be kidding,” said Jack, looking at it.
Elias Timoth was flanked on either side by two of his giff guardsmen, each armed with muskets. One of them also held a lantern, the only illumination in the little cave where they stood. “I said it was an escape route,” Timoth said, shrugging. “I didn’t say it was pretty.”
“You don’t honestly expect me to make a leap of faith into that.”
Timoth shrugged again. “You could climb down, if you wanted, but it would take a lot longer. And the walls are a little slick.”
“That’s not what I’m talking about, and you know it. Anything could be waiting for me down there; blades set into the walls, an umber hulk or two at the bottom… even solid ground would be fatal, if the drop is long enough.”
“I told you before: there is no bottom. It’s a tunnel that bores straight through the asteroid. There’s a larger cave on the other side where my escape vessel waits, fully outfitted. The gravity field reverses itself about halfway down; all you have to do is jump.”
“So you say.”
Timoth sighed and shook his head sadly. “Such a lack of trust. Very well then, perhaps a demonstration is in order. Trooper Duric.”
One of the two giff straightened. “Sir!”
“Kindly give the good assassin a demonstration.”
The giff grinned hugely. “Yes, sir!” He handed his musket to the other giff, took two steps briskly forward and bent over the pile of fans, picked up one with each hand, and trotted to the edge of the pit.
Jack watched in bemusement as the ungainly creature squatted down once… twice… a third time, stretching. Then it leaped into the air, diving straight into the pit.
“AAARRRROOOOoooooo!” it howled joyfully, plunging down into the blackness. The cry faded with distance as the creature fell, finally vanishing altogether.
Jack stepped to the edge, peering down. There was no sign of the giff.
He nudged one of the fans with his boot. “What are these for?”
“Steering,” said Timoth. “The gravity plane’s about two hundred fifty feet down. By the time you pass it you’ll be falling at a pretty good rate. If you were to clip the tunnel wall you’d lose more than just a little skin.”
Jack didn’t answer.
“Well, now you’ve seen it demonstrated. Do we have a deal, assassin?”
“Your guardsman hasn’t come back up yet,” said Jack.
But at just that moment there came the distant noise of the giff’s cry, which built and built. Far below a tiny speck resolved itself out of the darkness, growing and growing as the giff hurtled upwards.
Jack stepped back from the edge as the giff shot up out of the hole.
The giff rose about ten feet into the air above the pit before his upward motion reached its peak. Arms fluttering ungainly, he fell downwards again, landing in a sprawl just a few feet beyond the rim of the pit.
“That’s the most difficult part, I’m told,” said Timoth as the giff picked himself up, still grinning hugely. “Keeping from falling back through the hole.”
Jack looked at him. “How did you find out about this? Don’t tell me you decided to go cave spelunking for kicks and just stumbled across it.”
Timoth laughed. “Hardly that. In addition to my other duties, I serve as a part time judge within the Syrrus B legal system.”
“I wasn’t aware there was a legal system on Syrrus B.”
“It’s a matter of a opinion,” Timoth allowed amiably. “But due to the strength of my patron, there are certain provinces of the city that fall under my… jurisdiction.”
“Meaning that because the Blue Man has substantial holdings and enforcers you can exercise authority over commoners.”
Timoth nodded. “Something like that. Anyway, there was a once an unfortunate gnome who tried to steal from one of the Blue Man’s warehouses. The poor wretch was caught and brought before me. I sentenced him to death, as you may expect, but he offered up the secret of this tunnel in exchange for his life.”
“You executed him anyway, I assume.”
Timoth shrugged. “The sentence had already been delivered; what was I to do? It’s not that I don’t keep my bargains, mind. I simply never made one with him. Justice has to be served.”
“Of course,” said Jack dryly. “And keeping the tunnel a secret never entered your mind.”
“It was a side benefit, I admit. But the tunnel exists and so does the ship. You asked for an escape route and I’ve provided one. Do we have a deal?”
“Possibly,” said Jack, stepping to the edge of the hole. “But I haven’t seen for myself yet.” He bent down to pick up two of the fans.