Welcome to eternal night

                        Where endless void swallows light

                        Abandon hope, who enters here

                        Where dragons sleep and angels fear




                                                       Chapter Twenty-Five




            "He will not thank you for it."

            Tianna glanced up from her place beside the lushly appointed couch where Reanyn.  "What?" she asked, confused at the statement.  She had a damp sponge in her hand, which she had been lightly pressing to his forehead.  He hadn't needed it.  For nearly a day and a half he had lain, silent and still as death, with only the shallow rise and fall of his chest to tell that he yet lived.  He wasn't feverish or cold to the touch, he didn't cough or fight for breath.  He simply lay, quiet and still, as his body worked to repair itself.

            "The Wayfarer," said Nym, clarifying.  "He will not thank you for your ministrations."  The dracon lay propped up on a pile of throw pillows several feet away.  His arm had been bound up in a fresh sling, a healing poultice applied to the gaping wound in his shoulder and wrapped tightly with clean cloth.  Of them all, Nym had fared the worst, for the wound from the crossbow bolt was not the only one he had taken.  He had been knifed in the side three times, and though the wounds were deep, they could have been worse.  And he had an assortment of other minor cuts and scrapes, including the bandaged wound on the side of his face where the shot had ricocheted - it would leave a permanent mark, and he had joked with her that now she wouldn't be the only one with a 'scarface'.

            Despite his wounds, the dracon was generally in good spirits.  At the moment he lounged on the pillows, a set of Flow cards fanned out in front of him - some face down, some face up, and a few in his hand - in a game of Void Solitaire.  He didn't look up as he spoke.

            "What do you mean?"

            His eyes shifted upwards, catching her gaze.  "He's a Living Weapon, Tianna.  You know what that means?  Most people think them myth."

            She considered that for a long moment.  "I know what a bionoid is,” she said at last.  “They were engineered during the First Unhuman War.  Biological weapons for use as elite killing machines against the Scro.  The same technology that produced the Spirit Warriors.  It is documented fact.  Officially, the Fleet does not deny it."

            "Unofficially it does," said Nym.

            Tianna shook her head.  "But he can't be... one of them.  He isn't old enough.  There aren't any of them left.  They died off centuries ago."

            "The Spirit Warriors still exist."

            "The Spirit Warriors aren't living organisms, not in the traditional sense.  And most of them are gone now anyway.  He's too young."

            Nym was silent for a long moment.  "Reanyn is second generation."  He chuckled at the expression that appeared on her face.  "Did you think they were sterile?"

            She didn't answer.

            The dracon shrugged, going back to his game.  "Well, maybe some of them were.  No doubt the engineers tried to suppress the reproduction capabilities.  But nature is a persistent thing.  You know how they were made?  Where they came from?"

            "Volunteers," she said in a low voice.  "Front line troops who volunteered for the experiments.  The orcs had developed the Witchlight Marauders and the Fleet was desperate to develop some sort of countermeasure."

            The dracon nodded.  "Elven volunteers, just as you say.  If elves can reproduce, why should Living Weapons not?  They are of the same stock."

            "No," said Tianna quickly.  "They are not elves.  They are... something else, something unnatural."

            "So your Fleet would say," agreed Nym with a sad look.  "Those who volunteered to undergo the experiments - those who did not die in agony in failed attempts - gave up the very essence of themselves in the cause of the Imperial Fleet.  They sacrificed not only their own elven heritage, but that of their children, and their children's children.  And why?  To be used and discarded."

            "The goblinoids were destroyed," said Tianna.  "The war was won."

            The dracon nodded.  "Yes.  And when it was over, there was no place for the bionoids.  They were freaks in a society devoted to beauty - 'perversions of nature', as your Admiral Lyellthon once said.  Their sacrifice should have earned a place of honor, but they were treated as outcasts and monsters.  Summarily discharged from their position in the Fleet, they were cast out into the spheres to make their own way."

            Tianna shook her head.  "This is ancient history."

            "Is it?" asked Nym.  He nodded to where Reanyn lay.  "For him it is not.  You know that he was once an officer?"

            "I read his file."

            "And what did it tell you?"

            She shrugged.  "Not much.  Graduated with honors from the Officer's School on Falconheart, worked his way through the ranks.  Distinguished himself for Bravery Beyond Duty in an engagement during the Vodoni Incursion and received a commission to captain his own ship, the man-o-war classed vessel Sunstrike.  He rose to the rank of High Captain and earned the Purple Lion medallion for assuming command and saving the Third Fleet when it was ambushed and nearly destroyed by the scro in the first battle of the Second Unhuman War."

            "And then?"

            She shook her head.  "And then nothing.  In the middle of the Second Unhuman War he was recalled to Lionheart for a trial by tribunal.  The charge was that he had lied on his application, and he was court-martialed, stripped of rank and honors, and dismissed.  His file said that he was not a full-blooded elf."

            "An 'Impure'," said Nym.  "I believe that is the term."

            Tianna glanced down at Reanyn and nodded sadly.  "Yes.  They must have discovered his... his heritage."

            "Bionoids instinctively shift to their 'warrior' form when danger threatens," said the dracon.  "For most, the form shift is beyond conscious control.  It is impressive that he was able to disguise his nature for so long.  "

            She rose, moving to the window.  "He has self control."

            "Exactly," agreed the dracon.  "An enormous amount of it.  And that is precisely why he would resent your care."

            She was confused.  "What?"

            "All his life he has struggled.  He was handed a stigma from birth; a burden which came with his lifeblood.  Yet he has forged his own path, turned his weakness to strength, conquered his obstacles.  When violence threatens, a bionoid's natural instinct is to shift form - yet have you ever seen him shift, even when startled?"

            She shook her head.  "I've never seen him startled."

            The dracon smiled.  "Indeed.  Reanyn is a being of rare self-control and enormous self-reliance.  'A diamond is merely a lump of coal that has endured pressure', so the saying goes.  And yet even the hardness of the diamond can be shattered, if it is brittle enough."

            "What are you saying?"

            "There are many things Reanyn Al'Nuoth has mastered, but the ability to accept aid from others is not likely to be one of them.  Especially from an elf.  Especially from you.  It goes against his very nature."  The dracon shook his head.  "It is not my affair, Tianna Snowmantle, but I speak as a friend.  You are not his mate, so you have said, but I think you engender a... He would call it weakness, though it is not.  Leave him be, Tianna.  Leave him be.  Nothing you can do for him will aid him; the healing processes of a bionoid operate differently than those you are familiar with.  And if he should wake to see you tending him..."  Nym's voice trailed off.

            Tianna was silent for a moment.  "Maybe you're right," she said at last, and sighed.  "Great Void, he is an Impure, after all.  I don't pretend to understand them.  They aren't like us."  She sounded slightly petulant.

            Tianna pulled the rich velvet hangings back from the window, peering down into the black street.  From below there came the distant sound of raucous laughter and a slightly out-of-tune zither being played lightly.   Dim shadows flitted through the darkness below, scantily-clad women and drunken men.  Her nose wrinkled at the stale scent of perfume that clung to the curtains.  "Why in the Nine Hells did the man have to put us in this Seldarine-forsaken place?"

            "You do not find our surroundings comfortable, fair lady?"  Julian had appeared at the doorway, parting the curtain of beads that divided this room from the larger chamber beyond.  He leaned against the doorjam, his lips twisted in a smug smile.

            "It is a common brothel, and no place for an honorable elf," she said acidly.  The foppish elf was the first person they had met upon arrival; she had taken an immediate dislike to him.

            "Oh no, my lady," he said, entering the room and sauntering over to an empty armchair.  He moved stiffly and favored his right side as if he were injured there, but eased into the chair, insolently hanging one leg over the arm.  "I assure you, this is no common brothel."  He waved a hand at their grand surroundings.  "It is the very finest of brothels.  I have never known better, and I have seen my share.  As for honor, I know little of it."

            "Of course not," she said with contempt.  "You serve no cause higher than your own pursuit of pleasure."

            He considered that and shrugged, taking no offense.  "True enough."  He surveyed the room and smiled.  "What a sorry collection of elves we make, eh?  Me a degenerate, you disfigured, and him," - he nodded at Reanyn's prone body - "a mutant.  Thousands of years of elven Imperialism, and this is the result."

            "Don't call him a mutant," said Tianna angrily.

            Julian was surprised.  "Why, lady, I am surprised.  A moment ago I heard you use the word 'Impure'.  Strange how quickly you leap to his defense."

            "I need no-one to defend me."

            The words were quiet, but everyone in the room turned at the sound.  Reanyn was sitting up on the plush couch, his feet on the floor and the blanket held at his waist.  He looked from one of them to the other.

            Tianna took a step towards him, but he held up a finger to forestall her.  "Don't touch me," he said quietly, not looking at her.  "Please."  There was a dangerous edge to his voice.

            She halted uncertainly.  "You should... you should rest," she said.

            "I need no rest."  He looked around the room.  "Where are we?" he said at last.  "And who is he?"

            Julian managed to bow with a flourish without leaving his seat.  "Julian Sandstar, at your service.  The pleasure, of course, is mine.  As for where you are, why, you are in the palatial suite of one of the finest whorehouses in Syrrus B."

            "I don't know you."

            Julian shrugged.  "No reason why you should.  I'm not famous, after all.  Certainly not on an order with the Wayfarer."

            Reanyn stared at him.  "Leave," he said simply.

            Julian came to his feet.  "I was just on my way out," he said with a quick smile, and bowed his way out of the room.

            Reanyn watched him go, then started to rise.  He stopped halfway, looking down at himself and pulling his blanket to him.  "Where are my clothes?"

            "Torn," said Tianna.  "Ripped to shreds during your... change."

            Reanyn sat back down.  He was silent for a moment.  "Go."  The word was spoken quietly, and he did not look at her.  "Please.  Go."

            She looked over to Nym and the dracon gave a small nod toward the door.  She started to say something, thought better, and left the room.  She closed the door behind her.

            Reanyn was silent for a long moment.  Something between pain and humiliation played across his face.  "I will ask you this once," he said at last, "and I beg you as a friend not to laugh or read anything into the question."  His eyes looked up, locking with the dracon's.  "Did she... did she see me unclothed?"

            Nym's immediate impulse was to chuckle, but he choked his laughter back at the look in Reanyn's eyes.  There was a vulnerability and humiliation there the dracon had never seen, edged with sadness.  He gave a small but somber nod instead.

"But that is not the question you wish to ask," he said.  "You wish to know whether she saw you in your shifted form.  Whether she saw your true nature.  And you wish to know whether she saw you weak.  Defeated.  Unconscious.  Helpless."

            Reanyn was silent.

            "The answer is yes.  Yes to all.  She saw.  She saw.  Though why you should be ashamed of your true nature is not a thing I claim to understand."

            "I am not ashamed."

            "Then why do you try to hide it?"

            "Wouldn't you?" Reanyn said bitterly.  "Yet again the monster within has defeated me..."  He shook his head.  "I do not wish to discuss it."  He looked down at himself again.  "I need clothing."

            "If it is any consolation," said Nym, "Twilight Jack is bringing you some."

            That jerked Reanyn's head back up.  "Twilight Jack?"

            The dracon shrugged.  "It seems this place is just crawling with legends.  Twilight Jack is the one who saved us."

            Abruptly Reanyn noticed his chest was bare.  "Where is my starjewel?" he asked.

            "Tianna is wearing it," said Nym.  "Twilight Jack told her to.  Wayland Tavras has a psionic link to her that he can exploit to find us otherwise."

            Reanyn was quiet for a moment.  The hardness and purpose had returned to his eyes.  "The last thing I remember was coming face to face with Cyril Blackthorne.  I think you should start from that point and tell me exactly what happened."


                                                            *          *          *


            The main chamber of the suite was an extravagant wonder.  An elegant chandelier dangled from the center of a dome-shaped ceiling inlaid with gold-gilded support beams and painted in artwork that depicted different humanoid races coupled in various acts of lewdness and lust.   Below, in the center of the room, was a small circular pool of dark green water.  A marble statue of a naked elf maiden stood in the center, and exotic fish swam slowly beneath the surface.

            Barundar had dragged one of the plush armchairs across the marble-tiled floor so that it faced the heavy and ornately worked door.  He had Nym's arquebus cradled in his lap and he glanced up as Tianna emerged from Reanyn's room.  He looked a question at her.

            "He's awake," she said.

            He nodded as if that were expected and bent over the arquebus again.  He was polishing it slowly.

            Tianna glared at Julian, who was lounging on a divan against the far wall - blood and hells, the man does nothing but lounge! - though he appeared to take no notice of her scowl.  Instead he had produced a set of odd-shaped dice from somewhere, and one by one he set them spinning on the low end table nearby.  The human girl, the one in the ragged nightdress, was sitting scrunched up on a plush chair nearby.  Tianna still wasn't certain who she was or why she was here, but she looked frightened and alone, and from the moment they had arrived here she had kept quietly to her little corner, almost cringing whenever someone passed too near as if she feared being struck.  She seemed a little more at ease with Julian, but only a little, and the foppish elf seemed to take some amusement from teasing her.

            "You know," he was saying, giving her a meaningful glance, "it occurs to me that you are the only one here who is dressed appropriately."  The dice kept spinning as if by magic; each time one slowed his hand darted out, spinning it again.  He never even looked down.

            The girl blushed and tried to cover herself.

            "No need for modesty, my dear.  After all, this is an establishment-"

            Tianna probably would have interrupted angrily, but at that moment three sharp raps came from the door, followed immediately by two lower-pitched thumps.

            Barundar had sat forward in his chair, half lifting the arquebus, but as the knocks were delivered he eased back, lowering the weapon.

            Almost immediately the door was flung open and a crooked man in beggar's clothes entered the room, walking bent double.

            As soon as the door shut behind him, the man straightened, whipping his patched and ragged cloak off in one quick moving and draping it over a nearby settee.

            "Find anything?" asked Barundar.

            Twilight Jack was unwrapping a bundle he had been holding tucked under one arm.  "Clothing and information," he said, crossing the room in two quick steps.  "Of the two, I tend to think the clothing is more valuable - it isn't finery but at least it's reliable." He tossed a small blue bundle into the human girl's lap.  "Change of clothes for you, girl."

            She ignored it, staring at his face.  "You're hurt," she said, a wondering note in her voice.

            Jack had been about to say something else, but at the girl's unexpected statement he was taken aback.  "What?"

            Julian chuckled.  "Great Void, she's right - you've a bruise beneath your left eye."

            "One of the pikemen caught me on the backswing with the butt of his weapon," Jack said reluctantly.  "A lucky swing, and I was clumsy enough to let it land.  Hardly a mortal wound."

            "Never thought I'd live to see the day you took any wound," said Julian.

            "No?"  a slight smile touched the edges of Jack's mouth.  "Remind me to tell you of the time I was nearly beaten to death by four hired men on Yavin's Tree.  Or when I was captured by a group of mages seeking immortality and imprisoned for a year.  It's true that I was young and foolish then, of course, but I think it would give a different view of me."  He shook his head and started toward the room where Reanyn and Nym were sequestered, then halted.  "So."

            Reanyn stood in the doorway, bare to the waist, where he had wound the blanket around himself in a makeshift kilt.

            For a long moment silence passed between the two, their eyes locked impassively with each other.

            At last Reanyn broke the silence.  "Twilight Jack."  It was not a question.

            Jack gave a barely perceptible nod.  He lifted the second bundle he was holding.  "I brought you clothes," he said.  "I sized them to myself, so I'm not certain of the fit.  They should be close, though you may be an inch or so taller."

            Reanyn stared at him.  "What do you want?"

            "The Raver, same as you."

            "I'm not after the Raver."

            Jack shrugged.  "Well I am.  Any other questions, or are you ready to listen?"

            Reanyn was silent a moment.  "Cyril Blackthorne ambushed me.  Why?"

            "He claims there's paper on you.  Maybe it's even true.  My thought is he was looking to thin the competition.  It was a well planned and coordinated attack, and you were one of the first people he took out of the fight."

            "Paper on me?"  Reanyn sounded suspicious.

            Jack shrugged again.  "Why not?  You've made enemies in your time, and inherited more when you took on the elf girl there."  He tossed the bundle of clothing at Reanyn and turned away.  "The important thing is that Blackthorne has Windhook, and Windhook is the key to the Raver."

            Reanyn caught the bundle with one hand, still not moving.  "What does that have to do with me?"

            Jack took a seat on the gracefully curved marble bench next to the still fountain.  "I would have thought it was obvious, Wayfarer.  You're after Windhook and I'm after the Raver.  I do not see us at cross-purposes."

            Reanyn shook his head.  "No.  I meant what do you want from me?  You didn't step into the middle of that ambush as an act of charity.  What is it I've got that you need?"

            "A ship, for one thing," said Jack.  "For another, if your reputation is any sort of guide you are a very capable man.  I cannot be everywhere at once, and if things go wrong I will need someone reliable.  I have a plan.  Several actually."

            "What makes you think I'll help you?  What makes you think I'll even work with you?"  His voice was hard.

            Jack shrugged.  "I'm relying on your pragmatism.  You're after Windhook, the same as me.  You'll act in your own interest."  He threw a glance at Barundar.  "Besides, you've taken on partners before."

            Reanyn shook his head.  "Barundar and Nym are old companions of mine.  I know them.  I trust them.  I don't know you."

            Jack gave a thin-lipped smile.  "I'll act in my own self-interest," he said.  "I always have.  You don't have to trust me to work with me.  Are you ready to hear my proposal, or will you reject it out of hand?"

            Reanyn regarded him coldly.  "Talk."

            "Yes, you said you had clothing and information," rumbled Barundar from where he sat.  "What did you learn?"

            Jack reached into a pocket and produced a scrap of cloth.  "First, there's this," he said, tossing the scrap onto the low table a few feet away.  It was a patch, something like Tianna would expect to see on a uniform as a designation of rank.  It was a red circle, slashed crossways through the center by a zig-zagging black line.  "I took it off one of the bodies of the men who ambushed you."

            "Red Marlin," said Reanyn, picking the scrap up and eyeing it critically.

            "Who?" asked Tianna.

            "A pirate of ill repute," said Barundar in quiet explanation.  "That's the symbol his ships fly."

            "Only Red Marlin is off-planet," said Jack, "and hasn't been to port for months now.  And he isn't stupid, either.  He wouldn't send his men to ambush you wearing his colors."

            "Actually," said Reanyn thoughtfully, "his men don't have uniforms.  That alone means this patch is a fraud."

            Jack nodded.  "And yet there were at least fifty men at that ambush, maybe more.  Blackthorne doesn't have that kind of resources, and if he did he wouldn't waste them as bombard-fodder.  He must have hired them from someone.  Someone local, and kept it quiet.  Not easy to do."

            "The Duchess," said Reanyn, but then shook his head.  “There's no way Blackthorne would have been able to keep an operation that big a secret.  There would have been some word..."

            "There was," said Jack ruefully.  "From the moment I stepped onto Syrrus B I heard rumors that a big-name bounty hunter was coming to town, for a big reason.  When you showed up I just assumed it was you.  My mistake."

            "And there was Diamond Jill," said Julian.

            Jack nodded.  "Who, it turns out, is also working with Blackthorne."  He threw Julian a quick glance.  "By the way, you didn't kill her, though she's plenty mad.  She fought her way out of that pit and through the crowd, and now she's sporting a nice eyepatch to remind her of your little encounter.  She's with the men who are combing the streets looking for the Wayfarer."

            Julian gave a smile, but it looked forced to Tianna, and she thought he had paled slightly at hearing Diamond Jill, whoever she was, was still alive.

            "Diamond Jill," said Reanyn thoughtfully.  "And Blackthorne.  And Wayland Tavras, and two dizanter, all working together.  But why?  Someone may have put a price on my head - the Tenth Pit, maybe - but no bounty is big enough to force that kind of talent together..."

            "No bounty?" asked Jack.  "What about the Raver?"

            Reanyn shook his head.  "He doesn't exist.  You said she was leading the men looking for me.  What men?"

            "Blackthorne's got the city blanketed.  Where he is I don't know, but his men are everywhere.  They're trying to keep a low profile, dressed as commoners, but you can't have that many men out searching and not be noticed.  Much more than fifty.  I'd say it was more like two-hundred.  They're combing the city for something.  Us, of course, but not just us.  With the reward for you and the elf girl - coupled with what Julian did to Diamond Jill - nearly every elf in the city has fallen under scrutiny."

            Reanyn's eyes darkened.  "My crew-" he began, but Jack cut him off.

            "Safe and well, from what I could see," he said, "though of course Blackthorne could have replaced them with other goblinoids.  I doubt he would do that - I wouldn't, in his place.  I saw a gnoll, an ogre, and an orc.  No-one else, though I watched for over an hour.  You are undercrewed?"

            "Some," admitted Reanyn.

            "Excellent," said Jack.  "Both Julian and myself can serve as able crew.  Another reason you should work with me.  As for your existing crew - and your ship, for that matter - they might as well be in another sphere.  It's a trap waiting to be sprung.  He's got at least forty men watching the docks - most poorly disguised as dockworkers but others bearing arms in plain sight.  And even if you could get to the ship, it would do little good.  If half of what I've heard is true, he's got at least six ships stationed at the entrance to the tunnel, waiting to blast the Nightwarder to splinters if it appears there."

            "Six ships?" asked Reanyn.  "You haven't heard the type or make?"

            "At least three are viperships, and rumor has it that there are two vodoni werewolves."

            "Werewolves are slow," said Reanyn.  "We can outrun and evade them."

            "They're also heavily armed.  And they've got their weapons trained on the tunnel.  You'd be running a gauntlet going through them."

            Reanyn considered that, and nodded.  "So Blackthorne's got a blockade that effectively cuts off our escape route.  You have a plan for dealing with it, I assume?"

            Jack nodded.  "Blackthorne wants you and the girl dead, and he wants it pretty badly.  And if Diamond Jill was acting under his instructions when she destroyed the inn where I was staying, he wants me eliminated too.  It's more than just a petty bounty that's been put on our heads.  We represent some sort of threat to his long-term goals, whatever they may be.  But he's also in a hurry; he wants it done quickly.  Maybe it's the information that Windhook has, or maybe it's something else, but from what I've seen he's anxious to get off-planet and on his way.  My guess is that he'll stick around for another day, maybe two, and then lift ship, whether he's eliminated the threat we represent or not.  He wants us dead, but if we're bottled up here, with no way to escape, then he'll be satisfied with that.

            "The problem is that he's got Windhook, and I'm not at all certain we can get him back before he lifts ship.  If that happens, we've got no way to follow him, because we've got no way of knowing where he's going."  Jack shook his head.  "Of course, as soon as he gets whatever information Windhook can provide, you can be certain he'll kill him."

            Reanyn nodded.  "Without doubt," he agreed.  "Blackthorne doesn't take risks; he would never leave Windhook alive."

            "Right.  So we've got limited time and limited resources."  Jack looked around the room.  "And aside from you, Wayfarer, there is no-one else who has a chance of leaving this room without being spotted and recognized by Blackthorne's men."

            "What?" asked Tianna, surprised and annoyed.  "Why?  I thought Reanyn was the single person Blackthorne wanted most."

            "True girl," said Jack, "but Reanyn has no special features to distinguish him from any other elf, and he knows how to be discreet.  Look at him, he looks fresh and rested, not at all like he was nearly killed in battle only a few short hours ago.  You have that scar, and that military walk of yours."  He looked at Barundar.  "The giff has those burns.  And the dracon?  A dead giveaway, with that armsling.  As for Julian, he probably could pass for any other elf, but he's been face to face with Diamond Jill, and Blackthorne's men will likely have a better description of him than anyone.  Besides, Julian isn't as... capable in a fight, or as well versed in the skills that are needed to find someone."  He shook his head.  "No, girl.  Reanyn's the only one who can go.  Blackthorne's flashing a lot of money around, offering rewards for information leading to us.  As a result, it isn't only his men who are peery for us; half the city is looking to make a few quick golds by turning us over."

            "Who am I going to be finding?" asked Reanyn.

            Jack smiled.  "I said Blackthorne's men were searching for something, and it wasn't just us.  I can't be certain, but I think he's looking for someone else, too.  Someone Windhook was very familiar with.  Someone who was at the ambush, and who escaped."

            "You can't mean Hyrund," said Tianna.  "I saw him die.  Wayland Tavras destroyed his mind."

            Jack shook his head.  "Not the mindbender, or the other seeker either."

            "The fal," said Reanyn, understanding.  "He escaped?"

            Jack nodded.  "And I think Blackthorne's looking for him.  And if Blackthorne wants him, then we want him too.  And we don't want Blackthorne to get him."

            "If Blackthorne's looking, then he hasn't found him - it - yet.  But why would he be after it?"

            Jack shrugged.  "Who can tell?  But we want the fal even if Blackthorne doesn't.  If Blackthorne lifts ship with Windhook, that creature may be the only one with any clue of where they might have gone."

            Reanyn nodded slowly.  "It must have gone to ground somewhere.  A creature like that couldn't go far without being noticed by someone...  I could find it, probably, if Blackthorne's men don't beat me to it.  But what will you be doing in the meantime?"

            "Securing our exit," said Jack.  "Blackthorne has an ally in the Duchess, and apparently the Council is countenancing his actions here as well.  It's time for us to play our best card."

            "And what's that?" asked Barundar.

            Jack jerked a thumb at the human girl in the corner.  "Her."

            They all stared.  The girl seemed to shrink into herself at the sudden attention.

            "Maybe you'd better explain," said Reanyn.  "Who is she?"

            "Selithera Duchesca," said Jack.  "Daughter of Elias Timoth.  She was, until recently, a prisoner held by Trytius and his men.  I had occasion to rescue her."

            "The Elias Timoth?" asked Reanyn.

            Jack nodded.  "The Elias Timoth."

            "Who's Elias Timoth?" put in Barundar, confused.

            "The representative of the Blue Man," said Reanyn.  "The man who handles all his affairs."

            "And who's the Blue Man?" asked Barundar.

            Jack smiled.  "He's someone powerful.  Someone who has the resources to get us off this rock, despite Blackthorne's blockade and army."

            Reanyn was considering.  "Maybe," he admitted.  "If Timoth can persuade him to step in and help us.  And if Timoth cares enough about getting his daughter back to try to persuade the Blue Man in the first place.  A lot of ifs."

            Jack shrugged.  "When fortune drops a weapon in my lap, I use it.  I will meet with Timoth later today and see if we cannot reach some agreement."

            "Timoth is a very difficult man to find," said Reanyn.  "A meeting with him is difficult to arrange."

            Jack gave a thin-lipped smile.  "I'll arrange it."

            "And what about the rest of us?" asked Barundar.

            "What about you?" asked Jack.  "You sit tight; knit your wounds and keep an eye on the girl.  There's nothing you can do to help."

            "A moment ago you said that Blackthorne was offering rewards on us," said Tianna.  "What's to keep the proprietors of this... establishment... from selling us out?"

            "Olaf Jornson is the proprietor of this establishment," answered Jack.  "I paid him well and in advance, and he'd sell his own mother to the neogi if it meant turning a profit.  I reserved the room for a party of crewmen on shore leave.  He doesn't know they've arrived yet and thinks the room is empty.  But if you want to order up a whore or two, my lady, be my guest.  It would allay suspicion.  Otherwise I think you're safe here until tomorrow morning at least."

            Julian's eyebrows shot up at that.  "Oh yes, please do," he said, amused.  "I've always wondered whether Fleet officers succumbed to the baser instincts.  And the thought of a pretty girl like you and a prostitute-"

            Disgusted, Tianna was about to make an angry reply, but to her surprise it was Reanyn who cut Julian off.

            "Enough," he said coldly.  That was all he said, but it was enough.  Julian wiped the leer off his face and looked away.

            He looked back at Jack.  "That's all the plan you've got?"

            Jack shrugged.  "It's a start.  When I entered that ambush I knew there was no chance of getting Windhook from Blackthorne - he simply had too many men with him, and he's not a fool.  So I decided to pick my battles.  I saved you, instead, knowing that there would be opportunity for victory later.  If Timoth doesn't pan out and you can't find the fal... well, then we'll find another way.  Blackthorne's got a ship running courier service somewhere, you can bet on it.  If we can find it maybe we can use that as a way to run his blockade, or maybe infiltrate his ships.  Or we could find the Duchess in the hopes that she might know where he's keeping Windhook, where he plans to go.  Neither course seems very likely, but we do what we can.  Well?  Are you in?"

            Reanyn was silent a long moment.  At last he unwrapped the bundle of clothing Jack had given him, drawing out a flowing white shirt from the pile.  It was a fine cut, well-made and almost foppish.  Reanyn cocked an eyebrow at the assassin.  "Not exactly my style.  I prefer plainer clothes."

            Jack shrugged.  "All the better, then.  It will make you less recognizable to Blackthorne's men.  For myself, I've always enjoyed the finer things, and clothing is no exception."

            Finally Reanyn nodded.  "Alright.  We give it a try.  I find the fal; you find Timoth and get us an escape route.  But remember this, assassin:  there's good paper on your head.  If you betray us I'll hunt you down to the ends of the multiverse."

            Jack smiled.  "Good enough," he said.  "Partners, then."