Diamond Jill is a pretty little thing

                        She travels the stars in the wake of a king

                        Her eyes are so lovely, her smile is so nice

                        Her kisses delightful, she's the lady of ice




                                   Chapter Nineteen




            "Need a guide?"  A wiry man stepped in front of them, slightly balding with peering eyes and pockmarked skin.  "Can show you around Syrrus B, maybe?  Little jink - very little, cutters, very little - and I show you the sights.  You want drugs?  All substances legal here.  Women?  Know four different places... Human girls, elf girls, dwarf girls, orc girls, giff girls... ten different races and species.  Satisfy any desire.  Whatever you want," he jabbed a thumb at himself, "Naldo can get."

            "I don't think so," said Julian, eyeing the dingy man askance.

            Jack didn't appear to even notice the man.  His eyes were on the rows of docked spelljamming ships.  For such a small city, Syrrus B had unique starport, able to accomodate ships of all sizes and classes.  There were elaborate berths strung with canvas cradles for ships which could normally only land on water.  Elsewhere, there were cleared patches on the rock floor of the cave, for those ships with gear and struts for ground landing.  Even higher up were facilities for those ships which could not land at all - berths for temporary docking.  And everywhere, the twisting wooden docks, climbing here, descending there, supported by stout wood pilings that stretched up from the rocky black ground.

            "I can take you anywhere you want to go," the pock-marked man insisted, refusing to take 'no' for an answer, "you want that here, believe me.  They call this place the Maze, you know.  Wasn't built to any rhyme or reason - streets just twist around each other... sometimes circle, you know?  Other times, you can walk clear around the place you want to get, never know it, and never get there.  And sometimes the streets just end.  Dead end, you know?"  He made a cutting motion across his throat.  "Bad places out there.  Got no starlight in here, you know?  Just a few torches - hard to see.  Black places, darkness, you know?  Dangerous people out there - gangs and thugs.  Predators, you know?  Sometimes dead end is dead end.  I can take you where you want to go, no problem.  No danger.  None.  Just a little jink, that's what."

            Julian was having trouble following the man's conversation.  In addition to his slurred accent, he was speaking very quickly, peppering his words with phrases the elf had never heard before.  "Jink?" he asked.

            "Yeah, yeah.  Trinkets, like.  Gold, money, you know?"  A smile creased his scarred face.  "Jink.  Won't cost much to guide you through the Maze."

            "I don't think we'll have any trouble," said Jack.  "This is hardly Sigil."

            The pock-marked man stared at him.  "Sigil?"

            "Another city."  Jack shook his head.  "Never mind.  We don't want women and we don't want drugs.  But we could use information."

            The man gave a broad smile, rubbing one ear absently and giving violent nods.  "Information...  Oh yes, Naldo, he good with that.  Yeah, I can help you...  I got connections, you know?  Keep my eyes open - ears too.  Hear things.  See things."  He tapped his head.  "All goes in here.   Know the best chant brokers around, too, you know?  Can take you to see them, if you need."

            "I'm here looking for a man."

            The man nodded eagerly.  "Oh yeah, I know where you can find men.  No women for you?  No problem, Naldo knows where to find."

            "A specific man," Jack clarified, annoyed.

            "Oh yes, oh yes," said Naldo reassuringly.  "Oh, Naldo sees, oh yes.  You got name?  Name name, we do business.  I can find him, no problem."

            "I doubt that," said Jack.  "And I don't need your help anyway.  I want to know who the local power brokers are - he's probably being held by one of them."

            The man gave him a blank look.

            "The people in charge here," Jack clarified.

            The man nodded again.  "Oh yes, oh yes," he said, smiling.  "I can tell you that, no problem.  But first we talk jink, you know?"

            Jack produced a gold piece, extended it.  The man snatched it away with a wide smile.  He bit down on it quickly, and was pleased with the results.  "Oh yes, good jink," he mumbled excitedly.

            "That and nine more like it for what I want."

            "Oh yes, oh yes." the man babbled.

            "Tell me what I want to hear."

            The man nodded again.  "The duchess, she mostly in charge of the Council, see?  She runs The Hammer - biggest group here.  Gambling, women, drugs, smuggling, taverns, you name it - lots of muscle.  Has three ships of her own - maybe four; does pirating on the side, see, so they ain't all here at once."  He shrugged.  "Fourth ship just rumor.  But sometimes rumors good."

            "And her competition?"

            "Uh... biggest comp is probably... Blackwood.  Runs the slave trade.  He's neogi - the whole organization mostly is too.  Not as big as some of the others on Syrrus B, but has backing from out there," - he gestured upwards -  "you know, neogi empire.  Not really skilled with politics, though.  Used to getting whatever he wants, you know?  Duchess usually outmanuevers him, so does Trytius."


            "Uh, yeah.  Trytius.  He... it, I guess - it's an illithid, you know?  Been around for a while, couple of years.  Officially it's just in charge of trade - laws and so forth, but his enforcers are also the main law on the street.  I mean, they've all got 'em - enforcers, you know, henchmen - but he's got more of them, at least on the streets.  Then there's Red Marlin, the pirate lord - you heard of him?"

            Jack nodded.  "Just the Storyteller's verse."

            "Yeah, he's big time - owns a fleet of fifteen or so ships. Doesn't stay here, mind, but drops in from time to time.  It's a regular stop for his ships, see?  So he's got a few people in place here, owns a few buildings - even got a honorary spot on the council.  Never shows up, though, or hardly ever.

            "And then there's the Blue Man - arcane, see, but nobody knows his real name, so they just call him 'Blue Man'.  He's arcane, what more can I say, right?  He gets things no-one else can, supplies them to the highest bidder.  He's got a small fortress; does business there.  Trades information more than anything else.  Sort of shy - nobody I ever met ever even saw him, just rumors, you know?

            "Then there's the smaller gangs - there's two different official thieves' guilds and probably a dozen smaller ones.  And plenty of entrepreneur types with their own little holdings, you know?  Even I don't know all them."

            "Talk to me about recent arrivals," said Jack.  "Anything unusual?"

            The man looked thoughtful.  "Sure, always.  A beholder ship came in today - just docked, no-one got off yet.  Probably here for slaves.  And a galleon filled with gnomes, they got off first thing, went into town.  Most of 'em are drugged or drunk.  Rumor says there's a big name bounty hunter coming in soon, maybe already here.  No-one's got a name for him, though.  And a vipership came in with a mixed crew; probably some adventuring party."  He chewed his lip thoughtfully.  "Lots of others, mostly human ships though.  Lots of ships come in every day, see?  All different.  All unusual.  Good enough?"

            Jack shook his head.  "Not quite.  I've paid you quite a bit of gold, and I expect something for it."

            The man clutched at the coin he held.  "No more jink?" he asked, crestfallen.

            Jack considered, then tossed the man a small purse.  "Here's the rest of it.  I expect you to earn it."

            The man caught it in surprised delight.  "Sure, sure!  I'll get more information for you, right away!"

            "No," said Jack.  "I have a different task for you.  You see this elf?" he asked, indicating Julian.

            The scarred man nodded.

            "This is Twilight Jack.  You've heard of him?"

            The man nodded again, his eyes going a little wider.  He looked at Julian with new respect.  "Devil man.  Killer."

            "That's right," said Jack.  "Keep that in mind when your tiny little brain starts considering betraying us."

            "Oh no," the man protested quickly.  "I'm solid, you know?  Wouldn't betray, no, no.  No way."

            "You'd better not," said the assassin, "because he can kill you before you blink twice, and he won't feel any regret.  Anything goes wrong and you die first.  Remember that."

            The man licked his lips nervously.  "Sure, sure," he whined.  "No problem."

            "You're going to take this man to find a good inn, somewhere quiet; out of the way, so he can get a room - preferably for a good price.  You understand?"

            The man nodded quickly.  "No problem," he assured.  "Best lodgings in town."

            "Right.  After you guide him there, you're free to disappear.  You've earned the money."

            Julian drew Jack aside.  "I don't mind playing along, but what exactly are we doing?"

            "Getting a room.  We'll probably be here for a little while, unless I get lucky."

            "I thought we were going to be in and out of here in less than an hour."

            Jack shook his head.  "Too many factions.  Cozar only told me that Windhook was here.  He didn't know which group was holding him, if any of them are.  Hopefully one of them is; if he's just laying low here on his own, it's going to take even longer.  In the meantime, we'll need a place to stay."

            Julian nodded.  "And you?"

            "I'm going to get started."

            "How will you find me?"  the elf asked.

            "I'll find you; don't worry."

            "Good enough."  The elf turned back to the wiry man, who had been looking from one of them to the other uncertainly.  "You," he said.

            The man flinched away from his gaze, then nodded.

            "Lead on."



                                                *          *          *


            The streets of Syrrus B were eery in an alien way.  Just as the pock-marked man had promised, they were dark and twisting.  The only light came from the occasional flickering lantern or torch, atop a streetlamp or spilling light from behind a shuttered window.  It was difficult to tell the avenues apart, for none of the streets were cobbled or dir.  Instead, they were all of hard and uneven rock which seemed perpetually damp.

            When Julian asked the man about the dampness, he had nodded.  "Sure, sure.  Always like that here.  Condensation, you know?"  He'd grinned.  "Even got our own stream, winds its way through the middle of town.  Can't drink from it though - foul.  Human waste gets dumped in it, you know?"  He pondered his own words for a moment.  "Well, I guess you could drink from it, but you wouldn't want to though.  Right?"

            Julian hadn't replied.

            The city was bustling, the streets coursing with dozens of different species, all interacting with each other.  Here, as in most places, there mostly humans.  But Julian saw plenty of other races as well:  dwarfs, rastipede, elves, halflings, a small group of penguin-like dohwar, even a spider-like neogi with its lumbering umber hulk slave.

            Yet, despite the crowded thoroughfares, there was something about this place that put him on edge, something more than the perpetual night which draped it.

            Jack had directed the pock-faced man to take Julian into the 'safe' part of town.  If that was so, Julian ruefully thought, then the dangerous part of town must have been very interesting indeed.

            Coarse laughter and drunken singing rang out from an open doorway they passed; within, scantily-clad women entertained leering sailors.  It seemed that every other building housed either a brothel or an alehouse - or worse, a drug den.

            A woman across the way leaned out of an upstairs window, dumping offal into the street, and onto the head of an unfortunate half-orc who had been passing.  He roared in surprise and humiliation, unsheathing his sword and shouting up at her in his guttural tongue.  She shouted back, in common, cursing him, spat, and closed the window, leaving him alone on the street, venting his rage impotently.

            A group of five street toughs ahead had surrounded a dark-haired man ahead.  As Julian watched, they began pushing the frightened man from one of them to the next, shoving him roughly to the ground.  Then, hoisting makeshift clubs, they began to beat him.  And all in plain sight, in the middle of a busy street.

            They didn't leave off until the man's body lie bloody and still.  They might not have stopped even then, but a small group of soldiers in ragged uniforms had appeared farther down the street, and with a cry, the street thugs quickly disappeared down a side alley.

            The patrol of uniformed men approached, in no particular hurry, and bent over the beaten man.  Julian watched as they rifled through his pockets, searching for valuables.  Shoving his body to the side, so that it lay out of the main thoroughfare, the city guardsmen (if that's what they were) continued on their way.

            An interesting place, thought Julian.

            "You coming?" asked the pock-marked man.  He followed Julian's gaze.  "No guide," he said, nodding.  "Dangerous city, here, like I told you.  Best not to interfere."

            Julian shrugged.  "No business of mine.  Lead on."

            And they continued.

            As the pock-marked man had promised, the streets here were labyrinthine, twisting and turning and doubling back on themselves continually.  The further they progessed, the less certain Julian was of the way to get back.  In fact, he had the nagging feeling that they were traveling in circles.

            Julian kept a wary eye on the man in front of him, well aware that he could easily be leading him into an ambush.  Certainly it would be nothing out of the ordinary here - someone from off-world landing at the spaceport, hired a guide, and was never seen again.  If the man suspected he wasn't the ruthless killer Twilight Jack had said he was, he probably wouldn't hesitate to lead him to somewhere quiet and out of the way...

            Still, though his danger-sense was alert and prickling, it wasn't screaming at him.  Julian was a gambler, and played for high stakes.  He trusted his instinct; it had never yet led him astray.  So he continued to follow, though he kept one hand on the hilt of his dagger.

            By this time, they had entered a different section of the city - the streets here were darker, emptier.  There was still the occasional passerby, but it was rarer here.  Too, it was filthier here.  Grime, dirt, and decay were everywhere here; the buildings themselves, stained and weathered, seemed to sag.  The lanterns dotting the street were fewer and farther between.  As they went, it seemed they passed from one small, flickering pool of light into a sea of darkness, then on to the next light.

            "Interesting neighborhood you picked," said Julian, distastefully side-stepping a pile of dung swarmed with flies.

            "You said safe," protested the pock-marked man, looking back "not pretty.  Can't have everything, you know?  It's a good place, where I'm taking you."

            "How much farther is it?"

            "Just ahead, just ahead."  He beckoned forward.

            The people they passed were of a different sort as well.  Most were dressed in dirt-grimed rags, moving furtively, careful to keep clear of the elf and his guide, as if they feared they might be set upon.

            There was a foul smell to the air; a sickness which hung motionless.  The feeling of broken despair was everywhere.  The houses they passed were darkened, the doors often boarded up and nailed shut, the windows shuttered.  From behind sagging wooden walls came occasional sounds:  low murmurs of conversation, pain-wracked coughing; even the distant sound of a man's voice raised in anger, and a woman's, crying and pleading.

            Once, they side-stepped a pair of drunks slumped against the wall, human debris littering the streets.  As they passed, Julian looked more closely.  One of the men was snoring softly, a bottle of cheap elven wine clutched protectively in his arm.  The other man was staring upwards, wide-eyed and unblinking, his face fixed in a rigid expression of horror.  His throat had been slashed from ear to ear.

            Another time, an emaciated old man with dark circles under eyes leaped into their path, his body crouched over like some grotesque monkey.  He looked from Julian to the pock-marked man with wild eyes, lips writhing soundlessly, then shrieked, rushing forward and seizing the elf's guide by his shirt.  "Off!  Get them off, get them off, get them off!" he cried.  "Get them off me!" he released the pock-marked man and began swatting at himself furiously.  "They're all over me!  Everywhere!"

            Julian's guide had pushed him away in disgust.  "Away, old fool.  Keep your diseased hands off."  He had looked at Julian in apology as the old man scuttled away.  "Seed-chewer."

            Julian gave him a questioning look.  "'Seed chewer'?" he asked.

            The man nodded.  "Yes.  Lotus, you know?  Makes you feel good, see?  Invincible."  A crafty look came into his eye.  "You need any, talk to me.  I know the best dens in town, you know?"

            "I don't think so," said Julian, watching the old man scurry away.  "Not if it does that to you."

            The pock-marked man nodded.  "Oh, yes.  Wise choice, good choice."  He made a disgusted face.  "Never liked it.  Turns your mind to muck, you know?  But not at first... Not at first.  At first, feels good.  You change your mind, let me know, okay?  I can get you good stuff.  Stuff that won't hurt you like that, you know?  Make you feel good."

            Julian shook his head.  "I said no.  How much farther?  I'm starting to get a little impatient."

            The man cringed.  "Sorry, sorry.  Didn't mean to push it on you, see?  We're almost there, just down the street a little ways.  You aren't going to hurt me, are you?"  He looked ready to run.

            Julian sighed.  "Not if you keep your word and do what you promised." 

            The man relaxed visibly.  "Right, right.  I keep my word; you can trust that.  I get you where you want to go, no problem.  I heard about you, though.  They say you kill a man for just talking too much."

            Julian eyed him.  "That's right... I'm Twilight Jack, don't you forget it.  And you do talk too much."

            The man went wide-eyed.  "Sorry, sorry," he said, then went silent.

            Julian smiled at his back.  Maybe impersonating a ruthless assassin had its perks after all.


                                                *          *          *


            At first glance, Lem's Pride looked completely undeserving of its name.  Ramshackle and run-down, the inn was actually three separate buildings, each of distinctly different styles, which were clumsily connected together by disjointed wooden walkways that looked like they had been constructed by someone unfamiliar with tools.  Looking at it, Julian was doubtful the structure was even waterproof, though he reflected that it was unlikely to rain here.  Why anyone would be proud of it was beyond his imagination.

            "See, see," said the pock-faced man proudly.  "Said you'd like it.  Safe here, oh      yes."

            Julian sniffed.  The bitter tang of old urine hung heavy in the air.  "Indeed," he said sardonically.

            Entering at the front of the building (there was no door, just a threadbare curtain of beads hanging down over the nearly-square doorframe), Julian passed into a dimly lit room.  Immediately the smells of the street behind him vanished as his nose was overwhelmed with a rush of too-sweet incense and oil.  He nearly coughed.

            The front room was so smoky with incense and so dimly lit (only an oil lamp on the front desk and a second flickering lamp on the far side of the room) that for a moment Julian's eyes could pick out nothing, watering as they were from the incense.

            Gradually the dim room came into focus.  The lush carpet underfoot was badly stained in several places, and threadbare oriental rugs ornamented the walls (probably hiding stains as well).  There were several couches scattered around the room; most were empty, but on one two heavily made-up women lounged, dressed mostly in silks and jewelry.  They spared him a bored glance as he passed.

            Behind the front desk an overweight human male sat, busily picking at his fingernails with a small knife.  His face was dark and angular, and despite his obesity there was something threatening in his eyes.  Julian approached but the man did not look up.

            "I'm here for a room," said Julian at last.

            The man grunted, still not looking up.  "Ain't got none."

            Julian felt a trace of irritation.  He reached down to his purse, pulling a platinum piece out.  He set it quietly down on the counter.  "Find one."

            The man looked at the coin, then sighed as if put-upon.  He jabbed his knife into the counter (there were several other deep cuts there, evidence that he often did this) and turned around, reaching for the wall behind him.  A row of keys dangled from hooks there, and he managed to snag one.  Turning back to Julian he produced a small, tattered book.  "Gotta sign in.  What name?"

            "Twilight Jack."

            The man didn't even spare him a glance.  "Yeah, right," he said, bored, scribbling into the yellowed pages.  "Whatever."  He managed to spell  'twilight', but misspelled 'jack'.  "Heard Diamond Jill's in town too.  We get all the famous people here.  Maybe the two of you will honeymoon on the Spelljammer, huh?"  He snorted at his own joke, but Julian frowned.  Diamond Jill was a bounty hunter of no small reputation.  If she was here - if the man's comment was drawn from more than just casual rumor - then Julian doubted it was a coincidence.

            The man closed the book and tossed the key to Julian, who deftly caught it.  "Room six," he said.  "You've paid for two days only - you stay longer, you pay more.  Don't destroy the furniture either, or you pay for it."  He gave a half-gesture to the scantily clad women on the couches.  "You want women, you pay for 'em here.  I don't sell lotus seeds or byll-weed, but for a tip I can tell you where to get them."  The words sounded like a speech by rote, and when he finished, the man went back to cleaning his nails.

            Julian turned away, looked at the room.  The pock-faced man had followed him in, and Julian gave a start, finding him hovering anxiously at his shoulder.

            "Not bad, eh?" said the man.  "Safe, like you wanted."

            Julian wrinkled his nose.  The idea of waiting here for hours on end was not especially appealing.

            "Remember," said the man, "you want anything, I can get it.  You need me to run messages, errands, whatever, I'll be around, you know?  You change your mind about the drugs-" - he held up a placating hand when Julian frowned - "I know, I know, not your thing.  But women, or whatever, you know, just ask.  I'll get it."  He looked distastefully as the two prostitutes.  "And better than these, too.  Good stuff, you know?"

            Julian shook his head.  "Not my vice, I'm afraid."

            The man smiled.  "Hey, this be the city of vices, you know?  We got a thousand, take your pick.  Not women, not drugs, not drink... ok, we got more, you know?"

            Julian considered.  "Actually, I have always had a certain... fondness for gambling."

            The man's smile broadened.  "Hey, we got gambling.  All over.  Big time, small time - best in the multiverse, you know?  You want me to take you to some of the best houses?"

            Julian smiled.  "Lead the way."

            The man was taken back.  "What, right now?  You ain't seen your room, even."

            The elf shrugged.  "It's got a bed, it's a room; it'll do.  Let's go."

            The man smiled.  "Hey, no problem.  No problem."