Diadan Cartan is a cunning man

                                Behind a facade does he hide all his plans

                                Witty, foppish, elegant, and bright

                                His smile hides a heart that is blacker than night

 

 

                                                            Chapter Thirteen

 

 

 

            "Well, what is it man?  Don't just stand there gawking!"  Prince Andru shook his head in disgust.  "I'm a very busy man!"

            Andru was only forty-four years old, but he looked older.  His hair was prematurely gray, and already frown lines marred his once-handsome face.  He stood slightly hunched over, bony shoulders thrust forward as if he held the weight of many years, and his peering black eyes were furrowed in a permanent squint, lending his expression a hunted look.  It was whispered that Andru had arranged his brother's death so that he might gain the throne, and now lived in perpetual fear of a similar fate.

            To his left and slightly behind stood Mahaxara Khal, the Captain of the Royal Guard.  She was a tall, well-muscled woman, with barbaric tattoos on her arms and a shaven head (which was completely bare except for a long queue of dark hair which fell from the very top).  She had the bored yet alert eyes of a professional guard, and the hilt of the tremendous two-handed sword she wore slung over her back jutted up over her right shoulder.  Khal's presence was not particularily surprising, as she spent most of her waking hours at Andru's side - and was always present when Andru and Diadan Cartan met.

            Standing beside Andru was 'lord' Diadan Cartan himself.  He was a handsome young rake with an attractive face and a charming smile, just as the Storyteller described him.  He wore his hair long, as was the fashion at the moment, with a slight mustache, and clothed himself almost garishly in the fashions of the day.  All in all he affected the airs of a fop.

            Jack wasn't fooled for a moment.  This was a dangerous man.  It was apparent in the calculating eyes; the way his body moved.  Before Cartan had become Andru's right-hand man (some would say enforcer), he had engaged in a highly successful career of piracy, serving under such legends as Ebony Skarl and Dieter Vyalia before captaining his own ship.  His sword arm was famed far and wide, and his cruelty legendary.

            But Jack had dealt with dangerous men before.

            "Prince Andru?" he asked, careful to keep his voice in tones of reverence and awe, such as a young recruit might have.

            "Well of course, man," barked the Prince.  "What is it?"

            Cartan had stiffened at the sound of Jack's voice, and Jack knew instantly the charade was up.  Diadan had recognized the voice, and it would only take moments for him to place it.  The only reason he hadn't already was that he hadn't expected Jack to arrive so soon.

            Jack abandoned his impersonation, stepping smartly through the door and closing it behind him.

            The two guardsmen standing on either side of the door, facing inward with their backs to Jack, were caught completely off-guard.

            He dropped the pike he was carrying, which was an awkward weapon in close quarter combat, and seized the man to the left by the back of his helmet, yanking him backwards off his feet and slamming the poor fellow's head into the wall.  The man went down with a mild grunt.

            The second guardsman had half-turned when Jack took him; a quick blow to his exposed throat knocked him off his feet and sent him crashing to the floor, gasping and clutching a crushed larynx.

            "Assassin!" cried Cartan, his sword clearing its sheath.  He reached back and seized one of the guardsmen near him, throwing him forward.  "Protect the Prince!"

            But Jack hadn't stopped moving.  Before the Prince had time to do anything other than gape, two small hand-held crossbows appeared in Jack's hands.

            At the sight of the crossbows, Maxhara Khal lurched forward, attempting to throw herself in front of the prince.

            Jack fired once, the crossbow in his left hand barking, and Khal jerked backwards with a cry.  The bolt had caught her in her right sleeve and stapled her to the wooden beam behind her.  Pinned, she gave a cry and tried vainly to pull free.

            Jack took two steps forward, hurling the spent crossbow directly into the face of the guardsman Cartan had shoved forward.  The man was caught off guard and stumbled back, giving Jack the moment he needed to bound forward and reach the Prince.

            "No-one move!" he ordered, placing his remaining crossbow at the Prince's throat.

            Khal abandoned attempts to free herself, reaching down with her free hand to draw a small dagger from her belt.  She flung it at Jack's throat.

            Jack's left hand flashed, catching the dagger in mid-flight and hurling it back at Khal.  This time she was not so lucky, as the dagger caught her in her left forearm, pinning that arm to the wall behind her as well.  She gave a small cry of agony.

            Jack turned to Cartan.  "I will not repeat myself.  I wish to speak with the Prince."

            The last standing guardsman leveled his pike and began to advance, but Cartan motioned him to halt.  Khal still twisted on the wall, trying to pull free.

            The Prince was a very shaken man.  "What... what is it you wish to speak about?  You seem to have me at a disadvantage."

            "I have been contracted to assassinate you."  Jack glanced at Cartan.  "Those people who contracted me did not wish me to succeed in the elimination, foolishly believing they could ensure that I died in the attempt."  He turned his gaze back to the Prince.  "Because of this minor betrayal, I shall give you one chance - and one chance only - to live.  Tell me where to find Jarren Windhook."

            "I've heard of the man," said the Prince, more composed now that he realized he wasn't immediately going to die, "and I know where he is."  A hard look came into his eyes.  "It would seem that you need me to find him.  Perhaps we can come to some sort of agreement between us."

            "That isn't an answer," said Jack.

            The Prince smiled, making a good show of confidence.  "Surely you don't expect me to give you that information for nothing?"

            Jack shook his head.  "One chance only," he said, and fired.

            The Prince died with a shocked look in his eyes and a crossbow bolt buried in his throat.  He toppled backwards soundlessly.

            Khal screamed, still writhing on the wall.

            "Murder!" cried Cartan, leaping forward, his sword at the ready.

            Jack hurled something to the floor.  There was a small explosion, and the room was suddenly filled with choking black smoke.

            It took only a moment to clear, but by that time Jack was gone.  Cartan gazed uncertainly about.  The cloth with Shou letters lay draped across the table.  The remaining guardsman stood stupidly, awaiting some instruction.

            "Fool!" cursed Cartan, clouting the man on the back of the helmet with the flat of his blade as he dashed to the door.  "Don't just stand there and let the assassin escape!"

            Cartan flung the door open.  The hall was empty save for a pair of serving girls lounging several doors down, who promptly snapped to attention as they sighted him.  "Where is the man who just left this room?" he demanded.

            "Who?" one of them asked timidly.

            "The guardsman, you fools!  Answer or tommorrow I swear I'll see to it you're rotting carcasses will feed the crows!"

            The girls were terrified.  "We have seen no-one, lord!"

            Cartan swore.  "Rouse the guards!" he roared.  "Seal the palace!  No-one in; no-one out!  I'll personally whip every last guardsman if the assassin escapes!"  The girls made hurried bows and rushed off.

            "Where is he, lord Cartan?"  The remaining guardsman had made his way out of the door.  Two other guards appeared at the far end of the hall, pikes in hand and hurrying forward.

            Cartan whirled, and in a single movement ran the man through.  "Such is the wages of traitors!" he cried, as the man sank dying to the floor.

            "Get me that assassin!" he barked as the two newcomers came running.  "Or you may expect the same!"

           

                                                            *          *          *

 

            "Julian Sandstar?"  The halfling boy was young, maybe not more than fifteen, and seemed very uncertain.

            "Yes?"  Sandstar had now been awaiting Jack's return for almost two hours.  He sat at a table alone, idly shuffling his cards.  He had, of course, done well at the game earlier, but his continual luck and skill had driven away the other players.

            "It's a message for you, sir."  The young lad shifted uncomfortably.  "You're to follow me, sir."

            "Can't you give it to me here?" asked the elf, in some surprise.

            The youth was apologetic.  "No, sir.  The gentleman who requested I give you this message was very specific.  The message is not to be delivered within this inn.  You are to follow me, sir."

            Sandstar considered.  "Very well, then.  Lead on."

            The boy gave a hurried bow, then, to the elf's surprise, marched off towards the kitchens.

            "One moment," said Sandstar, pointing towards the front door.  "I thought you said we were leaving."

            The boy nodded his head.  "The gentleman was very specific, sir.  We are not to leave that way."

            There was a pause as Julian considered.  This was a strange request.

            "Very well, then," he said after a moment, "if the gentleman requested it."

            The boy nodded, turned, and led Sandstar into the kitchens.  Julian felt a sheen of sweat appear on his brow as he entered the sweltering room.  There were two ovens, each on the far side of a large wooden table piled high with thawing meat, plates of vegetables, and steaming potatoes.  A roaring fire lay on the other side of the room, a stewpot hanging over it and simmering.  A cook stood over it, slowly stirring it with a long wooden spoon.  He was a large man, sweating profusely through a dirty cotton shirt, and sporting a ridiculously large mustache.

            The boy led onward, picking his way across the room, giving the man a wide berth.  He gave them a strange look as they passed but said nothing.

            At the back of the kitchens was a small wooden door.  Apparently it was unlocked, for it took the boy only a few moments to work the small mechanism which served as the handle before it swung open with a low creaking noise.  Beyond lay a small back alley filled with refuse and smelling of stale garbage, which was lined on one side by the back of the inn and lined on the other by the cobbled stone wall of another building.

            "Out here?" asked Sandstar, keeping one hand on the wooden door so it wouldn't swing closed behind him.

            The boy looked over his shoulder at him briefly.  "No, sir," he said, heading left down the alley.

            It suddenly occured to Sandstar that this would make an excellent place for an ambush.  He halted momentarily, considering.

            Nothing felt wrong.  he had always prided himself on his danger sense.  It had never yet failed him.  But was it wise to tempt fate, and follow the boy?

            On the other hand, Juilian's lifelong motto had been 'nothing ventured, nothing gained'.  He was a gambler, and no stranger to tempting fate.

            "Sir?" the boy had stopped, and was looking back.

            "Just coming," said the elf, making his decision and letting the wooden door swing shut behind him.

            The boy led him out of the alley and across the small and unnamed street which ran beside the inn.

            There was a cry from someone near the front of the inn, and the sound of shouting.

            Sandstar looked at the halfling, but the boy seemed as surprised as the elf was.  He had halted and was looking wide-eyed back at Sandstar.

            "Wait here," he instructed the boy.  "I'll return momentarily."

            He made his way stealthily up the street, keeping close to the wall and peering around the corner.

            City guardsmen, heavily armed, were breaking into the inn, arresting everyone in sight.  Already there was a line of people in chains outside the inn.

            Julian backed out of sight, listening for several minutes.  At first he could make out nothing intelligible - only the dismayed cries of those who were being dragged from inn and the grunts and shouts of the soldiers who were throwing them into chains.

            "That's all of them, captain!" came a strong voice at last.  "No elf, sir!"

            Julian dared to peer around the corner once more.  A mob of twelve or so men stood in the streets, encircled by soldiers with pikes.  A youthful soldier had just exited the front door to the inn, holding prisoner the selfsame cook Julian and the boy had just passed in the kitchens.  The man's arm was twisted behind his back, and the soldier was thrusting him towards one of his companions, an older soldier who was obviously a superior.

            The older soldier cursed.  "Then start questioning them.  He can't have gone far."  he turned to the chained men.  "The first one who steers me towards the elven gambler goes free!  The rest will end in illithid slave ships!"

            Sandstar had heard enough, and hurried back the way he had come.

            "Lead on," he said to the halfling.  "Quickly!"  He was all too aware that it wouldn't take long for the cook to put the guardsmen on his trail.

            The boy led him through a maze of backstreets.  At first Julian was afraid the guardsmen would still catch him, as he could hear them behind him, but as the boy led onwards, twisting and turning and doubling back over their trail time and time again, the sounds of pursuit faded and it became apparent that there was no way the soldiers would be able to trail them.   Even Julian, who prided himself on his direction sense, was uncertain whether he could find his way back.

            Eventually they made their way from the twisting backstreets to the larger thoroughfares of the city.  The boy led on.

            "How much further?" asked Julian at length.

            The boy turned back.  "Distance?  Not certain sir.  It's not very far from here to there, but the gentleman was very insistant on the route, which isn't exactly a straight line, sir."

            "Indeed not," said Julian, nodding.  "Continue."

            The boy did so, setting a path which took them up and down the main streets of the city, doubling back now and again, until they ended in a very different part of the city than where they started.

            At last the boy stopped at a lampost in one of the more crowded parts of the city.  "This is the place, sir."

            "And the message?"

            "These exact words, sir:  'Wait here for my return, T.J."

            Twilight Jack, thought Sandstar.  He nodded.  "Thank you.  Have you been paid?"

            "Very well, sir."

            "Then I suppose you may go."

            The boy shook his head.  "No, sir.  The instructions were that I wait directly across the street from you, in plain sight."

            Sandstar nodded slowly.  "In that case..."

            The boy made his way across the crowded street.

            Several minutes passed.  Julian scanned the passing crowd vainly in hopes of spotting Jack.  Just as his legs were begining to tire from standing in one place and he was starting to look for a place to sit down, he was startled by a voice.

            "Good, you followed my instructions."

            Jutlian turned, surprised to find Jack standing at his shoulder.  There was no way of telling how long the man had been there.  "It is done?" he asked.

            "My part is," answered Jack.  "You followed my instructions precisely?"

            "To the letter.  The body was disposed of, and I've booked us passage on a ship, which is standing by, ready to sail at any moment."

            "And you took great care to book passage on this ship in utter secrecy?"

            Julian nodded.  "I assure you, no-one but I and the captain know.  And now you."

            "Excellent.  We shall now send word for it to sail immediately.  With any luck, they'll think we're on it."

            Sandstar was surprised.  "What do you mean?  Aren't we going to be on it?"

            Jack shook his head.  "Of course not.  It's a decoy.  It should throw our pursuers off the path for a little while."

            "But no-one knows I booked passage for us on it!"

            Jack shook his head.  "I hate to deflate your ego, but we are not dealing with ordinary people.  We are dealing with one or more thieves' guilds.  And if they don't know you've booked passage on a ship, then I've seriously overrated them and underestimated you.  Besides, we can't leave yet.  We haven't gotten what we came for.  In a matter of hours, this city will be a battle-zone as the war of succession starts.  I want to be gone before then."

            "What about the halfling?" asked Sandstar, glancing over to where the boy stood.  "Why did you ask him to wait?"

            "Two reasons," answered Jack.  "First, I didn't want him out of sight until I arrived.  He could have told the authorities where to find you and wait for me.  An outside chance, I admit, but it is best to be safe.  And second, I needed someone to relay the message to your ship to set sail."

            "Very well," said Sandstar, "let's give the lad the message and get underway."

            "Not me," said Jack.  "The boy will not see my face again.  You will give him the instructions, then you will wait for my return."

            "Your return?" asked the elf.  "Aren't I coming with you?"

            "No," said Jack, "as a matter of fact you're not.  I have to make a thieves' guild and a conspiracy live up to the bargain they made with me.  If they don't really know anything about Windhook, as I'm beginning to suspect, it's going to get messy.  You don't want to be there."

            Sandstar nodded.  "I take your point.  Where do I wait?"

            Jack pressed a small piece of paper into his palm.  "This is the address.  Don't go in; wait across the street."

 

                                                            *          *          *

 

            The address Jack had given him led Julian to Nautical Charts of Bral, a large shop that sold starcharts of every kind.

            Directly across the street was an old wooden bench sitting in front of an old boarded-over building.  Juilian had a seat and settled down to wait.

            An hour passed.  Two.  Julian reflected that traveling with a reknowned assassin was not nearly exciting as he had expected it to be.  Then he thought about Skullcrusher Velm, and the guardsmen searching for him the lower quarter, and he decided that the boredom was punctuated with moments of sheer adrenaline.

            About three hours had passed when Jack returned.  Again Julian did not hear him approach, and again was completely surprised when Jack tapped him on the shoulder.

            "Done," said Jack.

            "What happened?" asked Julian.

            "No Windhook," said Jack simply.  "A lot of people are dead."

            Julian gave a frustrated curse.  "Bral was the only lead I had on him.  Where does this leave us?  What do we do now?  Is it over?"

            Jack shrugged.  "There are a few other leads I'm thinking of looking into.  If nothing else, we could follow the trail of one of the other bounty hunters who's after him."

            "There are a lot of bounty hunters who are after Windhook just now," said Julian, dejected.  "They aren't likely to be much further along the trail than we are."

            "Not the man I'm thinking of," said Jack.  "He's good.  Very good.  He may have some leads we don't."

            "Who?" asked Julian, surprised that anyone could impress Twilight Jack, but Jack's attention was suddenly elsewhere.

            A young man was standing in the street, a hulking giff looming at his side, both of them staring at Jack.  The giff was holding a large arquebus, while the young man appeared to be unarmed.  Although the weapon was not leveled at them, the giff looked more than capable with it, and ready to use it if necessary.  "Twilight Jack?" asked the man after a moment.

            Jack gave a nod.  "You are Aric Cozar."  It was not a question.

            The young man shrugged.  "You slew my uncle Andru today."

            "That's right."  Jack said it matter-of-factly.  "Does that bother you?"

            "Not particularily," admitted Cozar.  "I haven't come here to avenge him, if that's what you mean.  We weren't exactly close."  That was an understatement.  As the next in line for the throne, Aric had been the one person Andru had feared most; the young man had lived through more assassination attempts than he cared to recall.  "Now that he's dead, the Rock will be torn apart by factions vying for the throne."

            "I'm sorry that it caused you inconvenience."

            The young man shrugged.  "It had to come sooner or later.  Besides, I'll win out in the end.  Cartan isn't deeply enough ensconced to stop me.  In any case, I didn't come here to blame you."

            "What did you come here for?  Justice?"

            The young man gave a tight smile.  "I'm not nearly so naive as that.  I've come to give you some information.  You're looking for Jarren Windhook.  I want to tell you where to find him."

            "In exchange for what?"

            "You leave the Rock.  And you don't come back.  Ever."

            Jack considered.  "Forever is a very long time."

            "I know.  That's why I chose it."

            Jack smiled.  "What makes you think I'll keep my word?"

            The young man shrugged.  "It's all I've got.  I don't want you on the Rock; you're far too dangerous.  But I certainly can't throw you off or have you killed - I don't have the manpower for that.  So this is the next best thing."

            "And how is it that you know Windhook's whereabouts in the first place?"

            "I had my own hopes of hunting him down, and I've had people on it for months."  He shook his head.  "But now I have a war of succession on my hands, thanks to you, and I won't be leaving the Rock again for many years, if ever.  So I don't mind giving you what I've got."

            Jack frowned.  "And your people won't be going after him?"

            "Well, some of them will, of course.  It is the Raver we're talking about, after all.  But they won't be doing it on my behalf."

            Jack considered.  "Done - but only if your information leads me to Windhook.  Otherwise, I can't promise I won't return here to pick up his trail.  In any case, I care little for your petty political aspirations."

            "Fair enough," agreed the young man.

            "Where can I find Windhook?"

            "I can only tell you what I know - that he's somewhere on Syrrus B."