The Blue Man is the Keeper of Shades

                        A mysterious figure, without a face

                        You'll never find him, wherever you seek

                        He haunts the dreams of Syrrus B

 

 

 

                                                                                Chapter Twenty-Two

 

 

            The girl was human, probably not more than nineteen years of age, with clear blue eyes and soft dark-blond hair pulled back in a makeshift ponytail.  A few wisps of hair had tugged free and hung down over face, which was smudged with dirt and grime.  She was pretty, but gaunt, as if she had not eaten in some time.   She blinked, shielding her eyes from the light.  "Please," she said, cowering backwards, her ratty blanket clutched protectively in front of her, "please don't hurt me.  I'll do whatever you want."

            Jack cursed, lowering the lantern.  "Bloody hell...  Who are you, girl?"

            "Selithera," she answered haltingly.  "Selithera Duchesca."

            "You're the only one here?"  Jack raised the lantern again, peering at the darkened corners of the room.

            "Yes," said the girl.  "For days now."

            "And before that?  No-one else has been held here?"

            She shook her head.  "I don't know," she said, her voice on the edge of tears. "I don't even know how long I've been here.  Please... are you here to free me?"

            Jack scowled.  "I don't even know who you are, girl.  Another blind lead, and more time lost.  But if Trytius doesn't have him, then who?"  This last was muttered to himself.

            "Sir?"  The girl's voice was hesitant; fearful.  "Sir, my father... my father is very wealthy.  I know that he would reward you for my... safe return."

            Jack spared her a glance.  "I'm not interested in Trytius's petty kidnapping schemes.  I'm after a man."

            "My father is powerful.  Perhaps... perhaps he could help."

            "I doubt it," said Jack.  "Who is your father?  Some star merchant who's daughter was snatched?"

            "Elias Timoth."

            He stared at her.  "The Elias Timoth?"

            She nodded.

            "I thought you said your name was Duchesca."
            She nodded again.  "After my mother.  My father never married her."

            Jack was silent a moment.  He glanced at her nightgown.  "Is that all you've got?"

            She glanced down, then gave a small nod.  "They took my clothes," she said.  "I don't know why.  Maybe they thought it would make it more difficult to escape.  Why?"
            "We're leaving," said Jack.  "You're coming with me.  You just became useful."

 

                                                            *          *          *

 

            Julian paused at the entrance to the Black Palace, looking back at the darkened street.  Not for the first time he regretted that this place was cloaked in eternal darkness.  With no sun or starlight, the blackness of the street was nearly absolute, punctured here and there along its length by smoky torchlight or dim lanternlight emanating from the windows of shops and houses.  There were people on the streets, but in the dim light they were little more than fleeting shadows; the suggestion of movement here, a silhouette flitting across a patch of light there.  They could have all been everyday people going about their business... or the soldiers, tracking him.

            Quickly he pushed into the inn.  Hesitating was sure to draw attention.

            The Black Palace was thronged with people, busier than he had seen it before, and he couldn't help an inward sigh of relief as he lost himself among them.  Hiding in a crowd was easy.

            He hadn't been entirely certain of his decision to come here - after all, it was possible that the soldiers who were tracking him would know this was a likely place for him to hide.  But if he kept to the streets, he'd probably only get himself lost, and maybe make it easier for the soldiers to track him down.  And Twilight Jack would find him here - he didn't know why he was so certain of that, but he was.  All he had to do was wait.

            He made his way across the room, skirting the pit.  He'd spotted a mostly-clear space against the far wall, benches set up for eating and drinking, and he pushed his way in that direction.

            Taking a seat on one of the benches, he sat with his back to the wall.  There was a fairly clear line of sight from here to the main entrance, and he kept a wary eye on it.  If Twilight Jack comes through, I'll spot him.  If the soldiers come through...

            A big brawny giff pulled back the chair across from him, sitting with a grumble.  The giff's shoulder partially blocked Julian's view of the door.

            "Hrunph," grunted the giff, sparing him a glance.  Julian wasn't certain whether it was supposed to be a greeting or not, gave the creature a brief nod of acknowledgment.

            The giff grunted again, turning away and gesturing to a nearby serving girl.  "Stew," he said in a sour voice.  "And ale.  I don't care what kind."

            The girl gave a nod and glanced at Julian questioningly.

            Julian started to tell her he wanted nothing, then checked himself.  It might look a little odd for him to be seated at the dining tables and not eating.  Besides, if he was being chased it might be best to grab a meal.  There was no telling when he'd get the chance again.  "Do you have duck?" he asked.

            "We've got pheasant, turkey, and stargoose," she said impatiently, "all served with rice and steamed vegetables.  No duck."

            "I'll take the pheasant then," he said, "and a light elven wine to go with it."

            She gave him a harried nod and melted off into the crowd almost before he'd finished speaking.

            Julian glanced at the giff but the creature was staring glumly down at the tabletop.  He returned his gaze to the entrance.  It stood empty for a moment, and then the milling crowd obscured it.

            Minutes passed.

            The serving girl returned with a platter of pheasant and vegetables and a mug of wine.  She set it before Julian and started to turn away, but the giff caught her wrist.

            "Where's my stew?" he asked.

            "It's coming," she said, trying to pull away, "cook's on it - still being made."

            "You trying to tell me stew takes longer to make than pheasant?  And where's my ale?"

            "I'll fetch it at once, sir," she said, still trying to pull away.

            The giff glanced over at Julian.  "Know what I think?  I think you got something against my kind.  First your fancy gaming tables cheat me out of my hard earnings, and now you don't even have the common decency to bring me my meal!"  His voice had gotten louder as he spoke, and his eyes glimmered with fury.  "You can serve him, but not me, huh?  Is that what it is?"

            Julian had watched the exchange impassively.  For a moment he thought of saying something, of getting involved, but quickly decided against it.  That giff could break him over its knee without thinking twice.  There would be bouncers the girl could call if things got ugly.

            The giff's grip had tightened painfully on her wrist.  "Please, sir... I'll fetch it at once if you'll just-"

            Abruptly he let her go, and she pitched backwards from the sudden momentum, sprawling on the floor.  "Go," he snarled as she picked herself up.  "Tell your 'cook' to bring me my stew."

            He glared at Julian as the girl moved off.  "Well?  You got a problem, elf?"

            Julian shook his head.  "No problem."

            "Good."  The giff lapsed into surly silence again, staring down at its hands.  "Twenty-five gold," he muttered under his breath angrily.  "Bloody wages for a month."

            Julian was staring across the room.  A brief pocket had opened in the crowd and his attention was drawn to the sight of a strange shape threading its way through the press.  To his surprise he realized it was the fal he had seen here on his first visit.

            On the earlier occasion Julian had wondered how the creature had managed to leave so quickly and with so little noise.  Now he saw it in motion, and realized at once that it was far more nimble than it looked.  Agilely it darted through the crowd, moving much more quickly than Julian would have thought a creature of its bulk could.  The front half of its body was carried more or less upright, with the back half propelling it in a snakelike motion.  As it passed, a pocket of space opened around it, as those nearby stepped back, many plainly surprised at its unusual appearance.  Stares followed it, and strange looks.

            It went straight to the same gaming table where Julian had seen it before and halted.  The players there all stared at it; Julian couldn't hear anything from here, but imagined the fal politely requesting to join the game.

            A flash of silver at the entrance caught his eye, drawing his attention away from the alien fal.  A tall dusky-skinned woman stood there, armored from head to foot in some exotic silver metal which gleamed in the dim light.  In one hand she held a strangely-shaped polearm which stood taller than she, and behind her Julian saw other armored men.

            Diamond Jill! 

            For a moment he stopped breathing as her beautiful, alien gaze swept the room.  She was not human, he knew, but rather one of that mysterious race of warrior women, the lakshu.  Her real name was 'Jillenhaiensha'rensesserett', or something close to that; the Storyteller had renamed her for obvious reasons.

            Julian knew precious little of the lakshu; no-one did.  They were all female, and ferocious warriors... and in some way were soul-bonded to the even more mysterious and powerful race of the reigar.  The two races were symbiotic; the lakshu served the reigar, and the reigar directed the lakshu.

            But both races, while powerful, were rare and reclusive, and seldom seen in 'known space'.  Diamond Jill was an exception to that rule; she had forged a reputation as one of the most capable bounty hunters ever known.  She was also unique among the lakshu in that she had never been seen in the company of a reigar, though it was commonly held to be biologically impossible for a lakshu to operate independantly.  Most rumor had it that she served the reigar in some way; that she was a bounty hunter under their orders, but it was only rumor.

            She possessed a cold and exotic beauty, but Julian wasn't fooled.

            Renowned for her deadliness even among her own kind, she was one of the most dangerous killers of the starlanes; if even half of the stories were true he wouldn't have a chance against her in combat.  And at the moment, he thought, I'm fresh out of killers to protect me.

            He sat frozen like a snared rabbit, knowing he should have looked away or ducked his head, but unable to do so.  His mind was racing.  How?  How could they have found me so quickly?  If she sees me...

            But her gaze passed over him and moved on.  He forced himself to tear his eyes from her and stare down at his plate, unconsciously shifting so that more of the giff's bulk lay between him and where she stood.  Automatically he lifted the fork and took a bite.  The pheasant was actually quite good; it could have been ashes for all that he noticed it.

            He glanced up and saw that the lakshu was giving orders to the men behind her.  With terse, efficient gestures she indicated that the six soldiers behind her should pair up and spread out in three different directions, searching the room.

            The men were well-trained; she never even glanced at them, much less spoke, yet they melted off in pairs, disappearing into the press in different directions.

            Diamond Jill strode forward as well, slowly making her way through the crowd and heading in his general direction, her head turning as she scanned the throng.

            Julian ripped his gaze away as her head swung in his direction again, slouching back into the shadows.  Fool! he thought, If you stare, she will feel your eyes on her!  He made himself wait a slow count of five before daring to look up again.  If she crosses to this side, she can't help but see me...

            But when he looked up, she had vanished.  He scanned the crowd desperately,  searching through the milling faces and forms.  If she had spotted him, she could be approaching from a different direction...

            He caught sight of her an instant later.  She had shifted direction and was now striding purposefully to the left side of the room, her eyes locked on something there.

            He followed his gaze, but saw nothing.  Unless...  The fal?

            He looked back at the lakshu.  She was forced to skirt around the throng at the edge of the pit, but her eyes remained locked on the table where the fal sat.  Why? he wondered.  She's hunting him too?

            He felt a tickle at the back of his mind.  It was his instincts, urging him to take a risk, to act.  He knew he should stay low, let the lakshu do what she would with the fal - what was the fal to him, anyway?  He had no illusions about his ability to stop the lakshu anyway.  Should he interfere, he would be the one who needed protection, and Twilight Jack wasn't here.  All common sense dictated he should stay where he was at and hope that the lakshu was distracted enough with the fal that he went unnoticed.

            But his instincts were tingling.  Even as he wondered what he would do, an idea came to him.  "You seem to have had hard luck," he said.

            The giff stared at him.  "What?"

            "Hard luck.  I notice you seem to have lost some gold at the tables tonight."

            The giff's eyes hardened and his voice took a dangerous tone.  "You talking to me, elf?  'Cause I don't recall asking you anything."

            Julian produced a small purse and laid it on the table between them.  It gave a soft clink as he set it down.  "Fifty-seven gold pieces," said Julian.  "Plus a few silver and copper."

            The giff stared at it.  "What's it for?" he asked.

            "You."  Julian gave a half smile.  "I thought I might give you a chance to make back what you lost."

            The giff was silent for a moment, then reached for the pouch.  "What do I have to do for it?"

            "Five minutes work," said Julian, rising.  "Nothing more.  Follow me at a distance, and be ready to take up the shout."

            "Shout?"  But Julian was already walking away.  The giff hefted the purse of gold skeptically, then scraped back his chair and rose.  He shook his head.  "Crazy damn elves," he muttered, stepping into the crowd.

            Julian didn't look back to see if he was followed.  The giff could just as easily take the gold and disappear into the crowd - there was nothing he could do about it either way.  He didn't allow himself to consider the possibility.  His plan was shaky enough as it was without the giff's help, and he was keenly aware of the possibility it would lead to certain death.

            He deftly slipped through the throng, following the progress of the lakshu.  She was nearly at the fal's gaming table now, only a few steps away, and the thought occurred to Julian that he might not get there in time to stop whatever was going to happen.

            Just at that moment a pair of laughing dracon males lurched into her path, causing her to halt as they passed.  The dracon were both holding tall mugs brimming with dark ale, and one of them paused, hoisting his mug into the air and boisterously shouting some obscene toast.  Julian couldn't make the words over the noise of the crowd, but whatever it said caused its companion throw back its massive head and howl with coarse laughter.  The lakshu, irritated by the delay, waited a moment for them to pass on, then tried to skirt around them, but one of the dracon stood so that the length of its body made this impossible.

            Julian altered course, swerving so that he passed right behind the back of a dealer at a table where 'Boccob's Curse' was being played.  The dealer was bent over the table, retrieving the two ten-sided dice that were used to play.  In one smooth motion Julian's hand darted out, palming one of the unused replacement sets of dice from its little tray near the dealer's waist.

            The move took less than half a heartbeat to complete, and Julian was once again cutting through the crowd, heading towards the lakshu.  Not bad, he thought, appraising his dexterity.  Probably no-one noticed, and even if they did, they won't be able to catch up with me before I reach the lakshu.  And if they do... so much the better to add to the confusion.

            The dracon had moved on, and the lakshu was striding forward again, coming to a halt leaning over the table.  The players all looked up at her as she appeared, most surprised.  There was no doubt who she was after now; she had lifted one gauntleted hand and was pointing at the fal.  The fal was staring at her; it was impossible to gauge what it's reaction was.

            A pocket opened in the crowd in front of him, and Julian was able to close the distance in three strides.  He tried not to think of the terrible risk he was taking, going up against Diamond Jill.

            "Listen, fal," she was saying, in a gravelly voice full of threat, "we know you've got Windhook, so don't try to deny it.  You want to live, then you'd better start cooperating."

            Julian brushed her left arm from behind, intending to feign an accidental collision, but it was like hitting a sharply-armored steel post and he stumbled back from her.  The two dice he had palmed clattered to the floor.

            She turned to him, and a flash of recognition lit her eyes.  "You!" she said, sounding both surprised and grim at once.  "Prepare to die, fool."

            But Julian was hardly listening.  He was pointing to the dice which had fallen to the floor.  "Cheat!" he cried.  "Cheat!"

            For an instant a hush engulfed the crowd.

            "Cheat!" came a bellow from behind Julian and to his right, and it was all he could do to keep a triumphant grin from his face.  The giff had followed, and taken up the cry!

            "Cheat!" cried Julian again, but his voice was drowned out by a half-orc that had been standing at a nearby table.  "Cheat!" howled the orc.  "Into the pit!"

            And now the cry was taken up all over the room.

            "Cheat!"  "Cheat!"  "Cheat!"  "Cheat!"

            The lakshu had taken a tighter grip on her polearm, staring at the surrounding crowd in confusion and surprise.  "What manner of foolishness-" she started, backing off a step, but a wiry human seized one of her arms.

            She ripped away from his grasp easily, but a nearby dwarf caught hold of the base of her polearm, hampering her movements.  She tried to strike him with an elbow blow, but already two other humans had seized her by either arm.

            She twisted in their grip, sending both flailing to the floor, but already their hands had been replaced by others:  giff, humans, a gnome, and even a dracon.

            She writhed and fought, but even a warrior as skilled as she could do little to fight the sudden onslaught of the crowd.  Her polearm was yanked from her grasp by the stout dwarf and, kicking and fighting, she was lifted from her feet.

            Hand over hand the crowd bore her towards the pit.  She fought every bit of the way, but there was little she could do.  She stared at Julian just at the edge, her eyes filled with hate, and she gave a short scream filled with rage and frustration.

            Then she was heaved over the edge, and the crowd surged forward, blocking any possible view.

            "Taking bets!" yelled the same half-orc Julian had seen on the earlier occasion, standing atop one of the tables near the edge of the pit.  "Who'll wager?"

            A bestial roar came from within the pit, and the crowd roared in approval, shouting taunts, curses, pleas.  A fierce female battlecry came from the pit, and a second roar sounded, this one tinged with pain.  She's a lakshu, thought Julian.  They took her polearm, but that wouldn't be her only weapon...

            There was a cry and a clash of steel on steel from the far side of the room.  Two of the soldiers that had entered with the lakshu were there, swords bared, fighting their way to the pit.  Julian saw two others dashing for the entrance, no doubt to fetch reinforcements.

            Julian had already turned.  His heart was racing and he felt a fierce exhultation, but he knew he had to act quickly.  Surprise and confusion was on his side now, but if the soldiers were disciplined, there was still a chance he would be caught.  And for all he knew, Diamond Jill would be climbing out of that pit any minute now, bloodied and angry.

            The fal was already halfway to the far wall, where a set of swinging doors led into the kitchens.  As he watched, the fal nimbly slipped through one of the doors after a serving girl emerged with a platter of steaming vegetables balanced atop one slender hand.

            Julian cursed and leapt forward.  Damn, but the thing was fast!

            He darted between the swinging doors, entering the sweltering heat of the kitchens.  It was even more dimly lighted here than in the gaming room; the main source of illumination came from the large fire-pit over which three oxen were slowly being basted on turning spits.

            The room was bustling with serving girls and grimy cooks, all stepping to their tasks with quick efficiency.  Jack stepped aside to let a young elf girl bearing a pitcher of wine and several glasses pass him as he entered.

            He spotted the fal at the far side of the kitchen, exiting a small wooden door that led outside the building.

            "Bloody hell," he muttered, threading his way through the cooks.

            A moment later he was at the wooden door.  He hesitated a moment then.  If the soldiers had been stationed outside...

            He shook his head; there was no point in 'what if' now.  He pushed open the door and ducked into the alley beyond.

            It was empty except for a pile of refuse and the fal, who was heading swiftly  away.

            "Hold it!" shouted Julian, then immediately cursed himself for a fool.

            The frightened fal shot back a glance at him, then raced away.

            Julian sprinted after it.  "Wait!" he said, then bit his tongue.  Shouting would be self-defeating if it attracted the attention of the soldiers.  He put his will into running.  The fal was faster than it looked, true, but moving in a straight line it could not move as quickly as a man could run, and Julian was gaining.

            Julian was less than half a span behind when the creature suddenly veered off to the right, cutting into a smaller side-alley that intersected the one they were on.  The shift in direction was so abrupt that Julian nearly missed the turn himself and had to scramble to keep from losing his feet.  Damn, the thing was fast!

            Just as he made the turn his left boot went flying out from under him and he skittered down hard on his side, grunting.

            He cursed as he scrambled to his feet, aware he had lost precious seconds and wondering how he could have fallen.  It was as if his foot had decided to rebel against his control.  There was a stinging on his arm; he must have scraped it.

            The fal had gained a few yards, racing around a low pile of rotting wooden crates and continuing down the alley.

            Julian sprinted after it, leaping the discarded crates in hopes of gaining back some of the ground he'd lost.

            At least that was how he planned it.  But at the last moment his legs refused to obey him, and instead of jumping he only continued running.  He slammed into the pile, his shins crashing painfully against the rough wooden edges and pitching him sprawling.  With a crash, the crates went flying and he went down, tumbling and rolling.

            "Apologies!  Apologies!" said the fal, continuing to run.

            He lay there for a minute among the wreckage, stars dancing in his peripheral vision.  The fall had knocked the wind out of him and he struggled painfully to draw breath.  What the hell! he thought, astonished.  The first time could have been an accident, but that time... his body had simply refused to obey him, there was no other explanation.

            He rolled onto his side, trying to regain his feet, but his ankle shrieked in protest when he tried to put weight on it and he collapsed back to the rocky ground.  The fal was well ahead of him now; there was little chance he would be able to catch it, especially with a twisted ankle.  Moments later the creature was gone and Julian was left alone.

            He lay there a moment, panting, staring up at the blackness of  the eternally-dark Syrrus B sky.  Then he rolled onto his side again, pulling himself up gingerly onto all fours.  He gave a groan; he felt bruised everywhere.

            A coughing grunt was ripped from him as a boot suddenly slammed into his ribs, the vicious force of the kick pitching him back over onto his side.

            "Get 'im, Graith!" a rough voice said.

            There were two men in the alley with him - human, he thought, though it was difficult to be certain in the darkness.  Both were wiry in build, unkempt in appearance.

            As Julian tried to raise himself, the nearer one kicked again, his boot connecting solidly with the side of the elf's head.

            With a cry he went back down.  His vision swam for a moment, and when it came back into focus he found himself looking up at a swarthy, unshaven face.

            The man was grinning, blackened and yellowed teeth bared ferally.  He had a grip on Julian's hair and was holding a wicked-looking dagger in one hand.  He shook Julian, then spat in the elf's face.  "Get ready for oblivion, you stinking dirty elf!"

            "His purse, Graith!  Get his purse!"  From this angle Julian couldn't see the man's companion, but it didn't matter.  He was about to die; he knew that.  One stab from 'Graith' and that would be the end of him.  He was in no condition to fight, and wasn't certain it would have made much difference if he was; the man looked like a capable killer.

            Graith grinned again and reared back, lifting his dagger.

            There was a whirring sound and the man atop him gave a strangled cry, toppling backwards.  The hilt of a stilletto protruded from his throat.

            There was a cry from off to Julian's right, followed by the sound of footsteps running away.

            Uncertain what was happening, Julian sat there for a moment, then wrestled the dead man's body off of his legs.

            "You look like you've had a busy night," said Twilight Jack.

            Julian looked up at him.  "Where... ?  Where did you come from?"

            Jack shrugged.  "I told you I would find you.  It appears my timing was fortunate, though I admit it's only the merest coincidence that I stumbled across you here.  May I ask what you're doing here?"

            Julian took the hand Jack proffered and rose shakily.  "The inn where we were stayiing... they've destroyed it."

            "I know," said Jack.  "I've seen it.  Who were they?"

            Julian shook his head.  "Soldiers... I don't know.  Diamond Jill was with them.  She seemed in charge.  She... They showed up at the Black Palace.  I thought they'd tracked me down, but they were after another - the fal, the one you mentioned before, the seeker.  And they were after him because they thought he held Windhook."

            Jack stared at him.  "You're certain?"

            Julian nodded.  "I heard it from Diamond Jill herself.  She was there for the fal."

            "And where is she now?"

            Julian gave a rueful shrug.  "Probably clawing her way out of the fighting pit.  I had this plan to rescue the fal... it's a long story, and I don't imagine she's too happy with me right now.  But the fal got away."  For the first time, he saw the girl standing behind Jack, grimy and wrapped in a tattered blanket.  "Who's that?"

            "A girl I picked up," said Jack.

            "This hardly seems the time-"

            Jack shook his head.  "It's nothing like that.  She might be useful."

            "Useful for what?" asked Julian, staring at her.  She looked like a frightened girl, smudged and dirty.  "Surely not in finding the fal."

            "If the fal has Windhook," said Jack with a smile, "we'll have him soon."

            "But how?" asked Julian.  "Do you know where to find it?"

            "I have some ideas," said Jack.  "Locating the fal should present little problem."  He looked at the elf, and then glanced back at the girl. "But getting to it first might be.  You're in no fit condition to come, and the last thing I need is to drag the girl along.  I'll have to find a place for you to wait.  Can you walk?"

            Julian gingerly put weight on his left foot again and winced.  "With help, he said.  "I think I sprained it.  It's not bad, but it will slow me."

            Jack nodded, and offered his arm.  "Come on then.  I have a place nearby."

            "You have a place?" asked Julian as Jack took up his weight.  "What do you mean by that?"

            Jack shrugged.  "A place to lie low.  I have five scattered throughout the city.  Finding them was one of the first things I did once we put down.  I like to be prepared."