The Ragman is a heroic old soul
His body is broken; his mind is whole
He asks for alms, wracked with pain
He travels the stars, and never complains
The Black Palace was splendid. There was no other word for it. Shaped from flawless obsidian, it rose gracefully from the twisting and dirty Syrrus B streets like an exotic swan amongst swine. Fully five stories tall, and fashioned to appear like a fairy-tale palace complete with slender parapets, arches, and towers, it seemed dreamlike, completely out of place in this dingy, grimy city.
A small moat surrounded it, brightly-colored carp swimming slowly through the clear green water, and an open drawbridge connected the building to the street beyond. From within orange-red light spilled out into the darkness, along with the laughter and shouting of men and women, and the rousing sounds of a minstrel playing rowdy ballads.
"You like?" the pock-faced man asked anxiously. This was the third gaming house they had come to. The first two had been summarily dismissed as not to Julian's taste.
Julian looked again at the towering structure. Usually he preferred to do his gambling at smaller establishments, yet his intuition prickled him. He'd always trusted his instinct, and now he felt it's pull. Yes, right here, it seemed to say, this is the place. He nodded, a small smile coming to his lips. "Yes, I think this will do."
He tossed the man a silver piece. "For your trouble. Don't go far; I may need your guidance getting back to the inn."
The man bobbed a quick bow, grinning. "No problem, no problem. I'm here when you need me."
As Julian crossed the drawbridge, a dwarf stumbled out from within, singing lustily in a voice like a bullfrog. He had two girls perched on either arm - one human and the other half-elven, both giggling as if they had had too much wine. The bridge was narrow enough that the elf had to turn sideways to let them pass. The dwarf said nothing, but gave him a knowing wink as they brushed by, still singing off-key.
Julian watched them go, then entered the 'palace'.
It was more dimly-lit than he had expected, with only a few scattered lamps across the broad room. Still it was grandiose, even if the clientele were not.
The entire middle of the place was nearly-hollow, with gilded and buttresses which stretched up and up, supporting an oval ceiling high overhead. The ceiling had been cleverly painted to resemble the night sky of some world, complete with a distant green sun and a scattering of stars. Shuttered lamps were scattered around the walls near the top, their soft light focused on the scene above, making it seem to come to life. Idly Julian wondered how the lamps were lit and extinguished; there didn't seem any walkways or ladders near them, and they were far too high up to reach from the floor, even with the sort of special lighting/snuffing poles he had seen lamplighters use.
Just as quickly he dismissed the thought from his mind. It was floor of the massive chamber that caught and held the eye; a riot of people, milling, pushing, shouting, laughing, cursing, singing. Large as the room was, it was still crowded in most places, with people jostling to get at the gaming tables, or away from them.
Despite the crush, there were scattered pools of empty space continually appearing and disappearing as people moved. It was in one of these that Julian found himself as he scanned the room.
The center of the room was dominated by a gigantic pit, encirled by a waist-high railing. From where Julian stood it was impossible to see what was within, but he could guess. Great crowds of people, alternately cheering or cursing, lined every foot of the railing, crushed against it, leaning over the railing and shouting. And occasionally there was a bestial roar or inhuman scream from within the pit.
There was a small stage on one side of the room, and though a crowd of cheering and whistling onlookers obscured the view, Julian caught glimpses of some of the performing girls, clothed only in wispy, transparent silks, and singing ribald songs mixed with bawdy jokes. A minstrel's harp accompanied them, though Julian could not see the musician himself.
Julian counted three separate bars, each against a wall in different sections of the room, and each busily attended by at least two bartenders. Elsewhere, scantily-clad serving maids threaded their way through the crowd, bringing drinks and taking orders. One halted before the elf, a tray balanced on one hand. She spared him a friendly smile and asked him if there was anything he'd like.
She was human, though she looked like she had at least a trace of elf in her ancestry, and was completely bare above the waist. Julian found himself staring. He was a worldly enough person, but most places required at least the semblance of clothing and decency.
"Anything you'd like, sir?" she asked again, louder, and Julian started, realizing it was the second time she'd asked.
"Not just now," he said ruefully.
"You're certain?" she asked. "We supply alchohol of all kinds - elven wine, dwarven spirits, mead, or anything else you'd care to sample, and the first drink is free."
"No thank you."
She nodded. "If you change your mind, just flag down any serving girl. We also offer three different types of lotus - all locally grown - as well and seven other hallucinogens. Meals are available at any time of the day or night, and if you need women, or a room, just ask." The whole speech was delivered quickly and by rote, and by the last word she was gone, threading through the crowd again.
Julian began sauntering through the room, carefully picking his way through the press. Everywhere were the gaming tables, with every game concievable. Here, a crowd of orcs grunted gutterly over a game of Dragons & Unicorns. There, a mixed group of gnomes, humans, and one dracon sat at a round table playing Flow, each eyeing the others quietly. There were tables for Roundabout, tables for Vodon-chess, tables for Spirit Bones. Card games and dice games and guessing games, even riddle-games.
Julian wandered closer to the pit, finding a momentary opening at the rail. Below, in flickering torchlight, an oversized purplish umber hulk and a shrieking owlbear did battle on rough, blood-spattered clay. The owlbear seemed to be getting the worst of it, already half-covered in its own blood, but the fight was not decided yet. Everywhere onlookers shouted down at the creatures, encouragement to their favorite and curses to the one they had bet against.
With faint distaste, Julian turned away. Bloodsport was not his game.
He wandered by a table where the bone dice were being tossed, and stood watching for a few minutes.
There were four players, and the dealer. The second man was cheating. Twice, Julian's quick and expert eyes caught him palming the dice, replacing them with another set. He was good; very smooth, but Julian thought him foolish. If the man kept winning and never took a loss, someone would take notice.
He turned away after a moment. It was not really his game.
A table not far away caught his eye, and he approached. There were five players there, a dwarf, two humans, an ape-like gromman, and a... a creature the elf thought looked familiar, but did not recognize. It was this last that had caught his eye. Sluglike, it was larger than a thri-keen, its body sprawled out on the floor behind the table. Its mouth was a horror; a great, gaping circular maw lined with serrated teeth. Julian wondered how it could possibly speak, using such a mouth. On either side of the mouth extended two long tentacles, with bulbous darkened ends. They might have been eyes, or sensory organs like eyes. Below them the creature had two pseudopods, which it used to hold the cards it was dealt. It's grip was surprisingly dextrous.
Great Abyss! thought Julian in surprise, It almost looks like... it is! A fal! Here? And so small?
He recognized the creature from description, he had never laid eyes on one - they were extremely rare. But from every story he had ever heard, fal were much larger than this one - five times as large, at least. Was it an adolescent?
From what he had heard, a crowded gaming house was the last place he would have expected to find one of them. Fal were utterly solitary, and, though most were polite and very intelligent, they avoided other sentient races. When they did converse, which was maybe once every few years, at the most, they were supposed to be intellectuals, experts on things like multiverse philosophies and the nature of being.
And yet, here one sat, in the middle of a boisterous and crowded gaming house, playing cards. Julian felt his intuition tingling again. He approached, and took one of the empty seats.
The game was Starchaser, a three-card game Julian was very familiar with. The rules were simple, but winning was very difficult. The other players scarcely glanced at him as he sat - the dwarf actually grunted and made a point of ignoring him - but the fal turned and addressed him politely. "Greetings," it said, in flawless common. "Welcome to our game. I am Jitessar. How are you called?" The voice did not emanate from the toothy mouth at all, but from a smaller opening farther up.
Julian smiled at the creature's odd formality. "Pleased to meet you. Julian Sandstar," he said, indicating himself.
"Greetings, Julian Sandstar," said the creature.
"Shut up and play," growled the dwarf irritably. "It's your turn."
The fal ponderously swung its head toward him. "Apologies, Nunuvyerbisness. Thank you for the reminder. I will endeavor to do so."
The dwarf grunted again, impatient, while the fal slowly looked through his cards, then looked through them again. Julian found himself hiding a smile. Beings that lived for 2 to 5 thousand years (it was a matter under debate by several human scholars), Fal were not known for their swiftness.
Slowly the Fal chose two of the cards it held, setting them down on the table.
Everyone else leaned forward, then groaned as one.
"Jitesser wins," said the dealer, a bespectacled gnome.
"Again," added the dwarf sourly, throwing down his cards. "Fifth hand in a row."
The fal appeared puzzled. "Indeed. It seemed the most prudent course."
"Bloody idiot slug," muttered the dwarf, shoving back his chair. "That's it, I'm out. I've better ways to lose my gold."
"Goodbye, Nunuvyerbisness," the fal called after him. It looked around at the other players. "Shall we play again?"
"Right," said the gnome, dealing again. He eyed Julian. "You in or out?"
"In," said Julian.
Just then there was a crash, as of a nearby table overturning. Julian whirled in his seat. Behind him, two very large giff held a frightened and struggling human in their grip. It was the man who had been cheating at the bone dice. Patrons at nearby tables had gone silent, looking to see what was the matter.
"Cheat!" roared one of the giff. "Cheat!"
"Cheat!" called one of the men in crowd, and the chant picked up. "Cheat! Cheat! Cheat! Cheat!"
The giff hauled the squirming man forward, toward the center of the room, but the crowd surged forward eagerly, taking hold of him by arms and legs, tearing him even from the grasps of the powerful giff. "Cheat! Cheat! Cheat! Cheat! Cheat!" they chanted, most grinning luridly as, hand over hand, he was hauled above the crowd and passed from one section to the next, ever nearer the pit.
"House rules," said the dealer, seeing Julian's quizzical look. "You get caught cheating, you go in the pit. Same if you can't pay your debts. If you want, you can make a wager on how long he'll last."
A skinny orc was standing on a pedestal beside the pit, calling to be heard over the crowd, and patrons nearby were thrusting money at him. "Five minutes!" he cried, "who'll take the lad for five?"
"Two!" shouted a woman, thrusting a gold piece forward.
"Three and a half!" said another man. "He's a wiry one, with a good pair of legs. Three and a half!"
The orc was quickly surrounded by a crowd thrusting money at him. He worked frantically to take all the different wagers, scribbling quickly on a small notepad, but had taken less than half by the time the struggling young cheat was carried to the railing and heaved over.
"All bets off!" snarled the orc. "Too late, too late." He had produced a stylish pocket-watch from somewhere and divided his time between staring eagerly into the pit and peering at the watch face.
The crowd went quiet for a few moments, and Julian for the first time could make out the cries and pleas of the young man from within the pit.
Then there was a shriek, as of metal upon metal, and the angry roar of an umber hulk. The young man screamed, and the crowd exploded into wild cheering and taunting.
"Run, run!" cried one man. "Keep away from it!"
"Die, you miserable scum!" shouted another. "Down the maw of hell with you!"
A second roar followed, and a crunching, tearing sound. The young man screamed in pain.
"That took a bit off him!" shouted a grizzled dwarf woman, shaking her fist. She glared at the orc. "Does that end it?"
The orc shook his head. "He's still alive - not till he's dead does it..."
Abruptly there was another roar, this one more terrible than the first two, and a mortal cry. Terrible crunching and rending sounds followed, but the screaming had ceased.
"Two minutes, fifty seconds," announced the orc, grinning broadly, and a young lady cheered, coming forward to claim her prize. A few of the others grumbled at losing, but most appeared satisfied with the bloody exhibition.
When Julian turned back to the table, he found the fal's place empty. He looked around, surprised that the large creature could move so quickly and noiselessly, but saw no sign of it.
"Doesn't like the penalty for cheating," said the spectacled gnome.
"It doesn't like it, when somebody gets thrown in. Always leaves. Guess blood upsets it."
"You mean the fal?"
The gnome looked up from his dealing. "That what you call it? I never saw one before, so I don't know. We always just call it 'slug' - or, if it's around, by its name."
Julian pondered this. "You mean it comes here often?"
The gnome nodded. "Every day. Straight to this table. Only plays this one game - I'm not really certain it knows any others. You ask me, it's addicted."
Julian shook his head. "That's not possible. Fal don't have interest in human games."
The gnome snorted. "Well, maybe it ain't a 'fal' then. You're the one that said it was, I never did. All I know is that it comes here every day, like clockwork. Wins, too, a whole lot more often than it loses. You still in?"
Julian nodded slowly, taking the cards. It was a good hand, and he had a feeling he might win the round, but he realized that his intuition had stopped tingling.
* * *
Hours later - he couldn't be sure how much later, exactly, since the city was draped in perpetual darkness, with no stars or sun to measure time - Julian exited the gaming house, his purse considerably heavier. He had done well at the tables, winning three times for every time he lost. He had done better, certainly, but it had been some time since he had last had a chance to engage in his profession, and he felt good.
Of the pock-marked man, there was no sign. Julian spared him a brief curse, then set about trying to find his way back to the inn. It had only been a couple of blocks walk getting there, but the streets were so labrynthine he was uncertain he would be able to find his way. And it occurred to him that in a city like this, leaving a gaming house with a heavy purse and getting lost was not a good idea.
He spotted a streetlamp he recognized - the glass of the lamp had been shattered on one side, and the top was bent to a slight degree - and oriented himself to it. He started off, relying on his memory to guide him, and, though he had to double back twice, soon reached Lem's Pride. The inn stood just as he had left it, and he, though he was tired, he was not particularily heartened by the sight of it.
The common room of the inn was much the same as before, though the prostitutes were gone. The bald man still sat behind the counter, still (apparently) busy cleaning his nails.
"You've got a visitor," the man said, as he passed.
Julian halted. "What?"
"A man. Wouldn't give his name. Demanded the key. He's waiting in your room. Said you'd be expecting him."
So, Twilight Jack has returned, thought Julian. He hadn't really expected him so quickly, and he wondered briefly whether the man might already have found Windhook.
Still, Julian wasn't altogether happy that the innkeep had admitted a stranger to his room. "Thanks for the warning, at least," he muttered.
Julian entered a small corridor which immediately split into three directions. He unpocketed the key and glanced down at it. "Room six," he read aloud, and looked back up. There was no sign telling which room lay down which corridors. "Convenient," he muttered, and, at random, took the right hand one. A few steps down it, he encountered a short set of stairs, leading downwards. He followed them down, till they halted at a door.
There was no number on the door, and it was locked. Grumbling under his breath, Julian tried the key. It didn't even fit in the lock.
"Even more convenient," he said, turning back the way he had come.
At the top of the stairs, he halted again, then decided on the left corridor.
Ten paces down it, he encountered the first door. There was a row of ten on one side, and ten on the other, marching down the hall evenly. None of the doors were numbered.
Muttering a curse on the inn, the innkeeper, and the pock-faced man who'd brought him here, Julian stepped to the first door. Locked, of course, and though his key fit into the hole, it wouldn't turn.
After a moment's struggle he moved on to the next door.
It was locked as well, and when he went to insert the key, he fumbled it, dropping it to the floor.
"Who's there?" a gutteral voice shouted from within as he leaned over to retrieve it. "Get away from my door! I warn you, I'm armed!"
"Sorry," said Julian. "Wrong door. My mistake."
The voice on the other side cursed him roundly for a fool.
Julian sighed, moving on to the next. Hopefully he'd stumble across room six before someone killed him. This time he knocked first. "Hello?" he called.
From behind the door he had just left, the guttural voice cursed him again. "Keep it down out there, idiot! You get me out of bed, and I'm going to take my axe to you!"
Julian started to apologize, then thought better of it. He tried his key in the third door. Again it didn't fit. He moved on.
He halted before the fourth door, wondering if it might not be easier just to go back to the innkeeper and ask which was his. He decided to try once more and then give the job up. He slipped his key into the lock, and to his delight it turned, clicking open.
With a flourish he swung the door wide, entering. "Hello, room six!" he said triumphantly, then froze.
A man was squatting on the bed, holding a crossbow trained on him. "Don't move," he said.
"I think... this is a mistake," said Julian.
"It's a mistake, alright," said the man, grinning ferally, "and you made it. I've been waiting for you."
"I'm One-Eyed Johnny. Heard of me?"
Julian shook his head. The rush of adrenaline that had overcome him at the sight of the loaded crossbow was still shooting through his veins, but he began to notice details. The skull-like face, the emaciated body, the yellowish skin and sunken eyes... This was not a human at all that Julian faced, but a member of that mysterious race, the gith.
The gith (if that was what they were called - Julian wasn't certain, he had never met one before, and had heard them alternately called githzeri, githyanki, or simply pirate of gith) was crouched like a squatting monkey on the bed, its long limbs supple and relaxed in pose. It wore a flashy crimson shirt tucked into jet black trousers and made off with a green sash. Golden hoops hung from it's ears, and it's long black hair was tied off so that it hung down his back. Across his chest he wore a strange leather harness, in which were sheathed at least five different daggers, and Julian saw the hilts of two more jutting from its polished black boots.
"I'm a killer by trade," said the gith, "like you."
"Like me?" asked Julian, but the gith went on as if he hadn't heard.
"I'm going to be famous, me. The Storyteller's gonna write me up. He'll have to, won't he, after I've killed you?" He smiled again, that terrible feral smile which made him look half mad, those wrinkled lips pulled back from yellowed teeth.
"Me?" asked Julian. "The Storyteller doesn't even know who I am. Why would he care if you killed me?"
The gith shook his head. "An, ah, ah," he chided. "The Storyteller doesn't know you, huh? 'Twilight Jack's seen many a year,'" he chanted, "'he's ridden the comets, he's traveled the spheres. He laughs all the time, but he's never known joy. With the soul of an ancient and the form of a boy.' It's my favorite verse; I know it by heart. As soon as I heard you'd come to town, I knew destiny was calling. You were easier to find than I thought; just had to pay a scarred-face human a few coppers."
"Coppers?" Julian shook his head. "And we paid him gold..."
"Look, you've got the wrong man. Can I... can I put my arms down?" He lowered them before the gith could answer, slightly relieved. If the gith were going to kill him, he would be dead already. The fool wanted to brag, and talk.
The gith looked at him suspiciously. "Get 'em back up," he demanded. "I'll decide when you can put them down. What do you mean, 'the wrong man'?"
Julian didn't bother to raise his arms. Instead he was looking around the room. It was actually better than he'd expected, with a small fireplace, two beds, and rough carpeting. "I mean I'm not Twilight Jack."
"Not Twilight Jack?" the gith spoke slowly, as if the words were foreign to him.
"My name is Julian Sandstar. I'm a gambler."
The gith shook his head. "This is some kind of trick. It won't save you."
"Look, I'm elven. Twilight Jack is human. Doesn't that tell you anything?"
The gith shrugged. "Elves, humans... all the same, pretty much."
Julian laughed. "I know some elves and humans who might disagree with you."
The gith raised the crossbow again. "No more tricks. I came to find Twilight Jack, and I know he's here. You're him. I got a pretty good description from the scarred-face man, and you match."
Julian shrugged. "I understand the confusion, but I'm not Twilight Jack. I'm traveling with him, at the moment. We arrived here together, aboard the Princess of Bral, and separated ways."
The gith considered. He nodded to himself as if coming to a decision, shrugged, and raised the crossbow again. "I kill you anyway. If you're lying, then I've killed Twilight Jack. If you're not, then I've at least killed another man, and maybe I can find him elsewhere on this rock."
"Wait!" said Sandstar. "I thought you wanted a chance at Twilight Jack."
"Well, I know how to find him. Do you?"
The gith lowered the crossbow again. "Where?"
"First, let's make sure that if I tell you, you won't kill me. I'm just an innocent bystander in all of this, remember. If you want to take on Twilight Jack, fine - Selune smile on you. But I'm not particularily interested in dying."
The gith shrugged. "I kill Jack, I don't need to kill you. Who are you anyway? Nobody."
Julian nodded. "Right. So we've got a deal?"
"Deal. Where is he?"
Julian indicated the second bed. "Mind if I sit? It's been a long day."
"Suit yourself. Where is he?"
Julian stretched out. "I don't know."
The crossbow came up again. "I thought you said you knew where to find him. Our deal's off if you don't."
"Settle down," said Julian. "I do know where to find him. I just don't know where he is."
The gith cocked his head, considering this. "Do all humans make so little sense?"
"I'm an elf, remember? And it does make sense. Listen, when I separated from Twilight Jack earlier today he went off to find a man. He could be anywhere, tracing him. He sent me here - under his name, by the way - to book a room. So when he finds the man he's looking for, he'll come back here. So all you have to do, if you want to face Twilight Jack, is be patient."
The gith nodded slowly. "How long till he comes?"
Julian shrugged. "Probably hours, maybe longer. He might be out a while. I suggest you get comfortable."
Julian lay back on the pillows, lacing his fingers behind his head. "Don't mind if I nap, do you?" he asked, letting his eyelids slide closed.
The gith was silent for a moment. "If this is a trick," he said venomously, "you die first. Remember that."
A half-smile came to Julian's lips. "Funny, he said something like that earlier to another man."
"You've got till morning, elf. If he doesn't show by then, I shoot you."
Julian didn't reply. For a moment the room was silent, save for his slow breathing.
"Just out of curiosity," said Julian, opening one eye just as the gith was wondering whether he was asleep, "why do they call you One-Eye Johnny? You've got two eyes, at least from where I sit."
The gith grinned. "When I kill a man, I always take one of his eyes. Eat it, to take the power of the dead."
"Lovely. Wonderful nickname."
"I came up with it myself," said the gith proudly. He hesitated a moment, then pulled a leather eyepatch from a purse at his belt. "Sometimes, when I want to be recognized, I wear this. Gives people the picture they expect."
"Very romantic," said Julian, closing his eyes again. "It'll spoil your aim, though. I wouldn't recommend wearing it when you take Jack on."
The gith held it for a moment, considering, then put it back in its pouch. Across the room, Julian slumbered.
* * *
Julian wasn't certain how long he slept (the window was darkened, but then it always would be, here), but he woke suddenly, as if snapped from a dream. For a moment he wasn't certain where he was, then he stood and stretched, groaning as he cracked tired muscles.
The gith was standing at the window, looking out into the darkness. "He isn't here, elf."
"Is it morning, then?"
It shook its head tersely. "Two hours yet."
Julian peered out the window. "No sun, no moon, no stars. How can you tell in this place?"
The gith lifted a pocketwatch. "It's a timepiece. Got to have one here. Tinker gnomes make them. The damn things actually work, believe it or not."
Julian nodded. "I've seen them before."
The gith shrugged and turned back to his vigil. "He keeps odd hours, Twilight Jack."
Julian cracked his jaws in a yawn. "I suppose. May I ask you a question?"
The gith looked at him. "What?"
"Why are you so eager to die?"
The gith stared "What?"
"Twilight Jack. He's going to kill you, you know."
"You think I'm an amateur? I've killed fifteen men. You killed that many?"
Julian shook his head. "I don't know that I've ever killed anybody. But you aren't going up against me, you're going up against him. And I can assure you, Twilight Jack's killed a hell of a lot more than fifteen men."
"I'm good," the gith said. "Real good. I'm an expert with these," He patted his daggers, then his crossbow. "If you'd ever seen me in action, you'd know how good I was."
Julian shrugged. "I'm sure you are. But you aren't as good as Jack."
"Shut up!" The gith was suddenly angry. "I don't need your little comments. I'm good enough; that's it. Discussion over. I've killed fifteen men - one of 'em was written up by the Storyteller, even - so I don't need to listen to some elf who never killed anybody and the Storyteller never even wrote up."
"Which one?" asked Julian.
"Which... which verse? Who did you kill that the Storyteller wrote about?"
The gith was silent for a moment. "You heard of the Ragman?" he asked at last.
"The Ragman? He's a beggar, not a killer."
"Shut up!" snarled the gith. "He got a verse from the Storyteller, didn't he?"
"But why kill him?" asked Julian, honestly surprised. "He never hurt a fly. That was part of the reason the Storyteller gave him a verse."
"The Storyteller gave him a verse," said the gith. "I killed him, that's all."
Julian shook his head. "Wonderful. You killed a defenseless man because the Storyteller wrote about him. I'm suddenly glad that he never heard of me."
The gith shook his head. "I killed him because the Storyteller made him immortal. The same thing he did for Twilight Jack. That's what I'm going to be, when I kill him - immortal." He said the word with reverence. "I'm going up against him. I'm gonna be famous. I'm gonna be known as the man who killed Twilight Jack."
"Kid, you go up against him, and you're going to be dead."
The gith glared at him. "I'll win, and you know it. Twilight Jack's had his turn for glory, now it's mine."
"Glory? You'd kill for that?"
"Why not? He's been around a while, he's getting old. In a couple of years he'll probably retire anyway, or die of old age. He would prefer to go out this way."
Julian shook his head. "You really don't know a thing about him, do you?"
"The Storyteller wrote him up. That's all I need to know. You going to keep trying to talk me out of this?"
Julian considered. "Not really," he said. "At first I was, but the more you talk, the more I think that facing Jack is just what you deserve. I never met the Ragman, you know." He turned wistful. "I always thought I would, someday, in some sphere. But now I guess I never will. It's too bad."
The gith snorted. "He was a dirty old leper. Hardly worth traveling the spheres to see."
"At least he'll be remembered."
"So will I!"
Julian shrugged. "Maybe. But maybe not for the reasons you think."
The gith suddenly started to his feet, motioning Julian to silence and staring at the door. "Someone's coming."
Julian was unconcerned. "It won't be Jack; you won't hear him coming."
The gith leveled the crossbow at him. "Quiet! Or you'll be wearing a bolt in your chest!"
Placatingly Julian held his hands palm up, nodding acquiesence.
The slight creak of a floorboard came from outside the door, in the hall beyond.
A long moment passed.
Just as Julian was wondering whether it might have come from another room down the hall, there came the slight scritch-scratching sound of a key being inserted into the lock.
Triumphantly the gith raised the crossbow, waiting.
The doorhandle turned, easing to the side, and the door opened.
Twilight Jack appeared in the opening. The gith fired.
Jack ducked his head to one side, and bolt flew past, arcing through the hall beyond and thunking into the far wall.
Leaping backward, Jack slammed the door.
"The coward!" cried the gith, dashing forward, "He runs!"
He ripped the door open, tossing the crossbow aside and unsheathing a dagger in the same motion, in full pursuit.
Jack was waiting for him.
Catching the gith by surprise, he caught hold of the wrist holding the dagger and twisted, using the force of its momentum against it. The weapon went spinning, and the gith was pitched into the far wall.
In a flash it had turned to face Jack, a dagger in each hand.
Jack struck again, his bare hands moving almost more-quickly than the eye could follow. The gith tried to jerk away, but his back was already to the wall.
Jack connected, connected, and connected again, and the gith's arms flailed as Jack struck the nerve centers at the wrist. Both daggers went flying away, and the gith crashed into the wall behind, the air rushing from its lungs.
Before he could recover, Jack's foot lashed out in a series of lightning-quick kicks. In quick succession it connected with the gith's chest, throat, and face.
The gith's eyes went wide, blood from it's shattered nose and bruised mouth spattering the wall. It clapped both hands to its throat and made a crackling wheezing sound. It's yellowed face paled, then took on a bluish hue. Its back slid down the wall until it was slumped on the floor, face frozen.
Jack produced. a handkerchief and calmly wiped a few speckles of blood from his hands. "I wish I'd been wearing gloves," he said. He looked up at Julian. "Who's he?" he asked, jerking a thumb at the stilled body of the gith.
"One-Eyed Johnny. Killer extraordinaire," said Julian, taking a long look at the lifeless body. "Ex killer, I suppose."
Jack stepped into the room. "Who sent him?"
Julian shrugged. "No-one. He came on his own. Wanted to be the man to kill Twilight Jack."
"You don't sound surprised."
"It happens from time to time. Run into any other trouble?"
Julian shook his head. "Not really. He thought I was you, though. It took me a while to convince him I wasn't."
Jack was a little surprised. "He didn't know I was human?"
"I don't think he knew anything about you at all. Just that you were famous, and that the Storyteller had written a verse for you. That's what he wanted. The verse, I mean."
Jack shrugged. "And now I have a body outside my door." He sighed, sitting on the undisturbed bed. "I have a headache."
Julian pointed through the still-open door. "What about him?"
"What about him?"
"We can't just leave him there."
Jack shrugged. "Call the innkeeper, get rid of it. Use gold; arrange it. I've spent a long day learning nothing, and I'm tired."
"You found no trace of Windhook, then?"
Jack shook his head wearily. "Nothing. The politics of this damnable place... The Duchess doesn't exist, I learned that at least."
"She doesn't exist?" Julian asked in semi-disbelief. "I thought she was the biggest player on this rock."
"Oh, there's a Duchess, alright, her organization has its fingers into practically everything. But she doesn't exist. She's just a figurehead; the real person in charge is someone else entirely, though I haven't been able to find out who yet. Whoever it is, they're very good; very well hidden. Probably doesn't matter anyway, since I don't think they've got Windhook."
"Why do you say that?"
Jack shook his head. "Different reasons. It takes time and money to hold a man in secret, and I can't find a money trail. Trytius is a much more likely suspect."
Jack nodded. "He's got nine different people held prisoner in different parts of the city. Five I've identified as political - you know, rivals that he doesn't dare execute, yet wants taken out of play. Four... well, I haven't been able to learn anything at all about four of them. One of them could be Windhook. Could." The last word was said doubtfully. "The problem is that Trytius is into professional kidnapping as well, just for some extra finance money. So it would be that these are just normal kidnapping victims. I'll have to find his safehouses, one by one, and whittle it down by elimination."
"What about the neogi?"
Jack shook his head. "He runs slaving, but not with much subtlety. He's got five different slaving pens here, but no real place to hold anyone. He deals in 'workerforce' slaves, not pleasure, so he doesn't need to worry too much about pampering them. Just shuts them in big cages and occassionally feeds them. If he's got Windhook, which I very much doubt, then he's keeping him on one of his ships."
"And the arcane?"
"The Blue Man, you mean."
"Aren't they one and the same?"
Jack was thoughtful. "Possibly. So far I have uncovered nothing to suggest that he is an arcane, except for his name. Actually, he could be a woman. He's very well hidden, very secretive. I counted eleven conflicting rumors about him today. Eleven. And always the teller was certain of his facts."
Julian was puzzled. "But what does that mean?"
"It means the rumors are being purposefully spread. It means that the Blue Man is a very careful person. And very reclusive."
"Surely someone must have at least laid eyes on him."
Jack snorted. "Oh yes, I spoke to nine different people who'd met with him face to face."
"From the nine 'eyewitness' accounts I got five very different physical descriptions. And he normally deals with clients through intermediaries."
"What about Red Marlin?"
Jack shook his head. "Off-world. Has been for five months. His people don't know anything." He pursed his lips. "This is going to be more difficult than I thought. There are a dozen different groups that may have Windhook." He paused, thinking. "The odd thing... the odd thing is that no-one acts like they've got him."
"What do you mean?"
Jack glanced at him. "Consider: why is Windhook valuable? He's an astrobotanist from Goldenmount. A nobody."
"He knows how to find the Raver," said Julian. "That makes him immensely valuable."
"Yes, but only to those who seek the Raver. And he's valuable only for what he knows. If you were a bounty hunter, and you had Windhook, what would you do?"
"Question him, of course."
"And then what?"
Julian shrugged. "Go after the Raver, I suppose."
"And Windhook? Would you let him live? After all, the information he holds could be passed to a competitor."
Julian considered. "I see your point. Most bounty hunters, at least, would probably kill him. But then there might be a bounty hunter who was commissioned to find and retrieve Windhook specifically, in which case he wouldn't kill him, but would bring him to whoever had offered the contract."
Jack nodded. "Right. There is that possibility. But if he's alive and being held here, why?"
"Perhaps someone's found him, and is planning on delivering him to... someone else."
"Very likely. So what do we have? Two possibilities, assuming that Windhook is still alive. The first: that he's here on his own, in hiding - unlikely someone with his background would come to a place like this, but it is still a good possibility. The second: that he's being held here by someone who isn't interested in going after the Raver. And the only reason to hold him is that they're planning on selling his information to someone who is interested in the Raver."
"Maybe their planning on auctioning him to the highest bidder, and are waiting for all the interested parties to arrive," suggested Julian.
Jack nodded. "That seems to me the most likely. The problem is, no-one's arrived. None of the organizations here are making preparations to meet with anyone. Everything is business as usual."
A thought hit Julian. "What about Diamond Jill?"
Jack looked at him. "Diamond Jill?"
"Yes, the innkeeper mentioned she was in the city. You didn't know?"
Jack shook his head slowly. "No. I didn't. I've never met her, you know. But she does have a good reputation." He eased back onto the bed. "She could be the clue to this whole thing. Or it could be nothing."
His eyelids slid closed. "Oh, there's another thing I learned. There's a Seeker enclave on this rock."
"Yes, surprised me as well. This hardly seems the place for them. It's a small group, five or so members. The really interesting thing is that one of them is a fal."
Julian's jaw dropped. "A fal?"
"Yes. You've heard of them? Been a long time since I spoke with one of them. Surprising to find one in a place like this." He was silent for a moment, then: "Douse the lamp when you leave."
Julian stood rooted for a moment, thinking, then went over and turned down the wick. He was at the door when Jack spoke again, from the darkness.
"There is a third possibility, you know."
Julian turned. "What?" he asked, not understanding.
"A third reason Windhook could be being held here."
"The Raver might have set him up here as bait."
Julian waited a moment more, but there was no further explanation. Softly he closed the door, locking it behind him. He glanced once at the gith body, then headed for the innkeep.