A plan is a marvelous thing,
With possibilities ever so bright,
But in experience of mortal men,
It seldom, if ever, goes right
“Void!” swore Barundar, straightening and scratching his head irritably. “Every time I look at it my eyes start to cross. Piking numbers, that’s all it is! What are we supposed to make of it?”
Reanyn sighed. “They’re coordinates of some kind. It’s coded, but Windhook is trying to tell us something.”
“And here… and again here,” said Nym, pointing. “These are references to standard starcharts. I’m no expert at astrogation, but I know enough to recognize the basics.”
The three of them were huddled around a table, scrutinizing the papers that were spread across its surface. The packet the fal had given Reanyn had held seven different pieces of paper, some with rough diagrams but most covered with scribbled handwriting. Nearly all of it was numeric.
Julian yawned from his place on the divan. “You’ve been squinting at those things for over an hour,” he pointed out in a bored tone, “and I don’t think you’re any closer to solving their riddles than you were when you started.”
“We need starcharts,” said Nym. “At least then we could make a beginning to figuring out what this is.”
“Maybe,” allowed Barundar, stalking to the window and peering out through the plush curtains. “Then again, maybe not. I know my limits; I am no astrogator. You were always the one who had a head for numbers and charts and things, Nym. And even you look stumped.”
Nym nodded tiredly. “What we need is an expert on astrogation and spatial navigation.”
“I have one,” pointed out Reanyn. “Gotam.”
Barundar shook his head. “The kobold is on the Nightwarder; we can’t get to him and he can’t get to us.”
“Kobold?” muttered Julian in surprise. “Now we’re relying on the math skills of goblinkin?”
Reanyn shot him an unfriendly look, but it was Tianna who spoke.
“Gotam is wravvish,” she said coldly, “not a kobold. And an expert on navigational calculation. I’d trust his math more than I would yours.”
A flicker of surprise registered on Reanyn’s face at her quick defense, but he said nothing.
Julian gave a half shrug, raising his palms placatingly. “I intended no offense, my lady. I’m certain you know the little beasties better than I.”
Her face darkened with anger, but before she could reply there came three sharp raps at the door, followed by two lower pitched thumps. A moment later the door swung open, and Twilight Jack entered.
“Finally,” said Nym. “You’ve been gone for hours. Did you find Elias Timoth?”
Jack draped his cloak over the back of one of the chairs. “I spoke to him, yes.”
Jack was quiet a moment, looking across the room at Selithera, who was still huddled on the lounge in the far corner. “He has a possible escape route for us. If our leverage over him is strong enough, it may even be viable.” The look in his eyes was unreadable.
The girl straightened under his gaze, hope and uncertainty playing across her face.
Abruptly Jack turned. “And you?” he asked Reanyn. “What did you find?”
“These,” said Reanyn, indicating the papers spread across the table, “though we haven’t yet been able to decipher them.”
Jack quickly scanned them. “Looks like astrogation formulas.”
“It is,” said Barundar, “but in some bloody code. We haven’t been able to cipher it out.”
“Where did you get them and why are they important?”
the fal,” said Reanyn. “Or rather, he
found me. These are penned in
Windhook’s own hand, a coded message.”
“For us, according to the fal. More likely it’s an insurance policy Windhook set up for himself.”
Barundar nodded. “We think it’s a map. Windhook is telling us how to find the Raver, if we can only understand it.”
“Barundar and Nym think that,” corrected Reanyn. “I’m not sure what to make of it, except that it’s obviously something important enough that Windhook thought to pass it to his friends as insurance on his life.”
Jack was silent, considering the papers in a new light. “So,” he said at last, “we need an expert in astrogation to decipher it.”
“Unless you can make something of it,” said Nym.
Jack shook his head. “I’ve learned enough about spacefaring that I can clumsily navigate my way across the known spheres with a good chart, but I’ve never had the patience or talent for numbers that a true astrogator must possess. But perhaps you are right; perhaps this will tell us where to go, if we can understand it.”
“And how will we get there?” asked Reanyn pointedly. “You said Timoth had an escape route. What is it?”
“A ship, fully stocked, in a hidden port on the other side of this rock.”
Barundar’s ears pricked up. “What kind of ship?”
“A basic hammer-class. She isn’t exotic, and maybe she won’t run as fast as that hummingbird you’re used to, but she’ll serve.”
“She won’t move an inch without a helmsman,” pointed out Reanyn. “And until we have an astrogator who can read Windhook’s map we won’t know where we’re going anyway.”
Jack nodded. “A problem,” he admitted, “but not insurmountable.”
“What do you have in mind?” asked Reanyn.
“A few vague ideas that might become a plan. I think I know a man who might have the requisite skills to decode Windhook’s letters. Once we get them deciphered, then we can work on getting off this rock.”
Reanyn shook his head. “I’ve got four crewman on the Nightwarder right now, and I’m not about to leave them to Blackthorne’s mercies. I’d hate to lose the hummingbird, but I don’t give a damn about it beside the crew.”
Jack gave him an unreadable look. “An elf who cares about goblinkin?” he asked mildly.
“A captain who won’t abandon his crew. Maybe we have to leave the hummingbird, but let’s be clear that I won’t leave Keryth and the others behind.”
“An unusual position to take,” said Jack. “I would have thought you a more pragmatic man, given your reputation.”
“I am pragmatic,” said Reanyn evenly. “Hammerships average sixty tons. That’s much larger than the Nightwarder. If we’re going to stand any chance of negotiating the asteroid field we’re going to need all the crew we can get. Besides, without them, we won’t have a helmsman. With them, we have two.”
Jack shrugged. “All beside the point. I had no intention of leaving them behind anyway.”
Tianna was confused. “What is your plan, then? To somehow sneak Reanyn’s crew off the Nightwarder and get them to Timoth’s ship.”
Again Jack looked thoughtfully at Selithera. “That is an option, but not the best one. If I could trust Timoth to keep his word… But he won’t.” He shook his head. “Right now we need more information before we can make any workable plan. We have to find out where Blackthorne is and what he’s planning. More important, we have to find out where Windhook is being kept and whether he’s alive or dead.”
“Blackthorne could well have lifted ship by now,” said Nym. “I would have, in his place.”
Jack nodded. “Even so, he’ll have left someone behind to stop us. We need to know what we’re up against. And if he has lifted, then we definitely need to decode those letters. They may be the only clue of how to follow him. Too, we need to find a way to contact Reanyn’s crew, and determine the feasibility of getting them off that hummingbird unseen.”
“And if there is no way to get them off?” asked Nym.
Jack picked up his cloak again. “One problem at a time. First we’ve got work to do, and we’re going to have to divide into groups to do it.”
“Finally some action,” said Barundar, standing. “I’m sick of being cooped up in this gilded cage.”
“Get used to it,” said Jack, “because you aren’t going anywhere. You’re too recognizable. It’s going to be difficult enough to get this whole group across the city and to the ship when the time comes. We don’t need to risk more visibility now.”
The giff gave a groan and sat again. “Who gets to go then, while I sit here in boredom?”
“You and the dracon will stay,” said Jack, “and I only hope that it is boring, because you’ll be guarding the girl there-“ He nodded towards Selithera. “She’s the only hold we’ve got on Timoth’s good behavior, and she isn’t much of a hold at that. As for the elf girl, she’s also too recognizable to go out, and besides I can’t see how she could help.”
Tianna’s eyes flashed with outrage. “Elf girl!” she sputtered.
“As for who goes,” Jack continued, as if she hadn’t spoken, “I would have thought that was obvious. Myself, the Wayfarer and Sandstar.”
Julian sat up at that. “Me?” he asked, disgruntled.
“Yes you,” said Jack, “and don’t look so alarmed. I’m pairing you with the Wayfarer. That should be protection enough.”
“My name is Reanyn Al’Nuoth,” said Reanyn evenly. “And that’s Nym Talasar, not ‘the dracon’. Why would I want to pair up with anyone, let alone Sandstar?”
Jack shrugged. “Julian knows the man you’ll be looking for. The man who might be able to understand Windhook’s message.”
“And who is this man you want me to look for? An astrogator?”
Jack shook his head. “A crazy man. But he has skill in navigation, and he is somewhere on Syrrus B.”
“Does he have a name?”
“Cantoule. Almighty Cantoule.”
Julian assumed a pained look. “Him? The man is insufferable. He preached his ‘Tyr’ the entire voyage!”
“He also brought us to Syrrus B with only a few standard instruments and no starchart. He’ll do, if we can’t find anyone else.”
“Is this the same Cantoule from Skyflower’s ballad?” asked Nym.
“Yes,” said Julian glumly, “he got a verse.”
“Two,” corrected Tianna.
“And where will you be, while I’m off hunting him down?” Reanyn asked Jack.
“I intend to find out where Blackthorne is keeping Windhook. I’m also going to take a look at your ship, to see if I can make contact with your crew.”
“What a coincidence,” Reanyn said dryly. “So am I.”
Jack shook his head again. “You haven’t seen the docks. They’re crawling with Blackthorne’s men, and they’ll all be looking for you.”
“They’ll all be looking for you too,” Reanyn countered.
“I’m an assassin. My trade is remaining unseen. Yours is hunting people down.”
Reanyn looked unconvinced. “And Blackthorne?”
“I wouldn’t suggest going after him just yet. Learn what you can, but remember Blackthorne isn’t stupid. He’s bound to have seeded the streets with false rumors. If you ‘hear’ something suggesting where Windhook his being held, don’t go rushing in; it’s likely to be one of Blackthorne’s famous traps.”
“I’m not exactly an amateur.”
“I never said you were,” said Jack, “but neither are you invincible. He’s proven that once already.”
Reanyn was silent for a moment. “Fair enough,” he said at last. “I’ll find this Cantoule. Maybe he can decipher Windhook’s message. More than that I won’t promise.” Jack said nothing in reply, so Reanyn shot a look at Julian. “I suppose you can be of some use if you know him. So if you’re done lounging, we can get started.”
Julian groaned again, but grudgingly stood. “I still don’t see what you need me for,” he grumbled. “I barely know the man.”
Reanyn paid little attention. Instead he looked back at Jack, who was still standing quietly, looking thoughtful. “Is there anything else?” he asked.
“Actually, yes,” said Jack after a moment. “But it’s private. May I have a word alone?”
A beat of silence followed the strange request.
Barundar’s brow furrowed with a mixture of surprise and annoyance. “What is it, secret audiences now?”
“If you like,” said Jack, not even glancing at the giff. “Coming?”
Grudgingly Reanyn followed Jack into the next room. Tianna watched them go with a suspicious look.
“I wonder what that’s about?” asked Julian lightly after the door closed behind them.
“Nothing good, I’d wager,” said Tianna. “I don’t trust that assassin.”
“Nor I,” said Barundar, pacing to the window yet again. “And I like the thought of staying cooped up here even less.”
Nym was still at the table, glancing at Windhook’s scrawled handwriting. “Jack’s reasoning in that, at least, is sound,” he pointed out. “And though I am not fool enough to trust him, as far as I know the assassin has never lied.”
“As far as you know,” said Tianna, “which doesn’t mean he hasn’t.”
“I don’t know why all of you hate him so much,” snapped Selithera suddenly. “All he’s ever done is help you, after all.” She blinked at the shocked silence that followed her outburst, and shrank back into her chair again.
Barundar and Julian both looked completely confused at the unexpected outburst. Nym stared at the girl with a calm but unreadable look.
But Tianna looked at the girl with a whole new understanding. Uh oh… she thought.
* * *
“Well?” asked Reanyn when the door had closed behind them.
“I want to know your intentions.”
Reanyn stared at him. “My intentions?”
Jack nodded. “Just now we’re in a difficult way. There’s a cave tunnel that leads to Timoth’s ship, but the entrance is inside Timoth’s compound. That means we’d have to cross half the city to get to it. We’ve got a collection of fairly recognizable people in the next room, and Blackthorne has a good number of men combing the streets for them.”
“Getting them across the city won’t be easy,” Reanyn conceded.
“Precisely. But why do we need to?”
Reanyn digested this. “You’re thinking of leaving them behind?”
“Why not? We need the girl for bargaining with Timoth, but the others? Liabilities, nothing more. I know the elf girl is dear to you-”
Reanyn felt a flash of irritation. “What makes you think that?”
“I assumed she was your lifemate. She certainly doted on you while you were recovering.”
Reanyn scowled. “She’s a traveling companion, nothing more. As for the others, they can take care of themselves. Barundar and Nym can, at any rate. I don’t know this Sandstar elf; he came with you. But don’t think for a moment I’ll leave them behind just because it’s convenient.”
Jack absorbed this. “If that’s your position,” he said at last.
Reanyn gave a nod of finality. “That’s my position.”
* * *
“He’s just an old man. Mostly white hair, and a beard… well, whiskers long enough that they could be a beard, anyway.” Julian shrugged. “What do you want me to tell you? He was just your average human. He wasn’t even that tall.”
“Then tell me how tall he was,” said Reanyn, not looking at him.
The two were striding down a curving side-street lined on both sides by abandoned buildings, Julian struggling to keep up with the taller elf.
“He… oh, I don’t know. Maybe an inch taller than me.”
“And how old is he?”
“What am I, an expert on humans? All right, all right… he was, say, maybe fifty? That’s old for humans, right?”
Reanyn grunted noncommittally.
“Well, he wasn’t hunched over with age or anything like that, so I guess he couldn’t have been too old. He even hauled rope with the rest of the crew when it came to that.”
Julian nodded. “He was strong… well built, but with a bit of a paunch. And he used to sing. All the time.”
Reanyn seemed to take this as a particular point. “Sing?”
“Hymns. Bloody awful hymns, if you ask me. And it wasn’t pretty to listen to, either.” They rounded a corner, spilling out into a larger street. “Where exactly are we going, anyway?”
“To find Cantoule,” said Reanyn simply.
“And where exactly are we going to look?”
“That depends on what you tell me. Keep talking.”
Julian sighed. “About what? You want me to tell you what he was wearing when I saw him last?”
“Well… I don’t really remember. He had a number of different shirts, most dirty homespun wool, and he almost always wore a black leather vest… you know, the little kind they wear in Krynnspace? Well, like that. And he had a belt with a big silver buckle on it. I remember it because he always wore that. His boots were kind of shabby; come kind of leather I didn’t recognize. And I don’t remember a thing about the pants except that they were black. Good enough?”
Julian searched his memory. “I give up. What else do you want to know?”
“Why did he come to Syrrus B?”
“Well, Twilight Jack isn’t exactly the kind of person you say ‘no’ to.”
Reanyn looked at him. “Was that the only reason?”
Julian thought about it. “Well, no. Actually Cantoule never struck me as being afraid of anything. That’s part of what made him so crazy. He didn’t believe in fear; he claimed that he put his faith in Tyr, and then did whatever he wanted to do.”
At the far end of the new street a neogi came into sight, two umber hulk slaves on leashes following it. It scuttled forward on its spider-like legs.
Instinctively Julian stepped back and to the other side of Reanyn, putting the taller elf between himself and the newcomers. “Neogi,” he said unnecessarily.
“I see it,” said Reanyn, not breaking stride. “Don’t shrink back; they sense fear. And don’t stare either. Neogi see that as a challenge.”
Julian averted his gaze. “What if it’s out looking for us? After the bounty?”
“Then it’s going to be disappointed. I haven’t yet heard of a neogi that could tell a dwarf from an elf; it’s not likely to be able to place our faces. It probably doesn’t even speak common. Don’t worry; the only danger is if it’s out looking to round up ‘meat’ for its slave pens. And there’s only one.”
“And two umber hulks,” pointed out Julian nervously. “And I happen to notice neither of us are armed.”
The neogi had halted momentarily at the sight of them, its long sinewy neck straightening as it fixed them with a red-eyed gaze. Then, when it saw they did not break stride, it scuttled forward.
“We don’t need weapons,” said Reanyn. “All we need show is a mixture of strength, fear, and respect. Which, between the two of us, is exactly what we’re doing.”
By that time the neogi and two hulks had closed to within a few feet. The neogi had stared at them balefully, its gaze never turning during its whole approach. It hissed and bared its fangs as it closed, straightening its neck to its full length so it could stare down on them. The two umber hulks lumbered on behind it, grunting and wheezing, seemingly oblivious.
Reanyn and Julian stepped well to the right, giving it plenty of room to pass them, neither meeting its angry red gaze. It glared at them until it had passed them by, then continued on its way, the umber hulks in tow.
Julian breathed a sigh of relief. “That was close.” The neogi were known to eat people they didn’t like, and he had been on brink of fleeing. He wasn’t really certain what a Living Weapon really was, but he was glad Reanyn was one.
“That was nothing,” said Reanyn. “We were talking about Cantoule.”
“Er…” Julian tried to recollect where they had been in the conversation.
“You were telling me about why he came to Syrrus B.”
“Uh… well, I’m not really sure.”
“Did he want to come to Syrrus B?”
“Well… yes and no. He called it the city of the damned. He was always talking about the ‘sinners’ who needed smiting. Of course, he talked like that all the time, not just about Syrrus B. But mention Syrrus B, and you’d never hear the end of his preaching.”
Reanyn glanced at him. “He liked to talk about theology?”
Julian shook his head. “He liked to preach Tyr. He didn’t do much listening, and I wouldn’t call it a theological discussion.” He gave Reanyn a strange look. “But I thought everyone knew that. Haven’t you ever heard Skyflower’s ballad?”
“Just a few verses of it. Mostly the ones about me, where he saddled me with that ridiculous name.”
“Well, that’s what he’s famous for. That and clubbing non-believers on the head.”
Reanyn was surprised. “Really?”
“Oh yes,” said Julian, “he believes in proselytizing by the ‘laying on of hands’. He’s been thrown out of ports from here to Spiralspace for brawling.”
“Brawling? I thought you said he was old.”
Julian shrugged. “He is old. But that doesn’t stop him from breaking heads. And since his other favorite past time is drinking, he’s always in the right place to start a fight.”
Reanyn stared at him. “A disciple of Tyr, who drinks?”
Julian shrugged again. “He claims Tyr built him differently than other men. Maybe it’s even true. But he’s so ornery that with him I cant tell the difference between sober and drunk. Or maybe I’ve just never seen him sober.”
“He drinks that much?”
Julian nodded. “It’s his second favorite thing. He likes to preach, he likes to drink, and he likes to fight.”
“An interesting character,” said Reanyn dryly.
“That’s why Skyflower gave him two verses. Look, is any of this helping? I’m not really sure what any of this has to do with finding him.”
“Like you said, he likes to preach, drink, and fight. I think that gives us a fair idea where to find him.”
* * *
“Krispos! Stop foolin’ about with me ballista. Yer like to set the damn thing off!”
The human, who had been fondling the trigger lever, gave the halfling an annoyed look. “So what if I do, Cobble?” he whined. “It’s not like it’s pointed at anything but empty air.”
The halfling, who was laying on the ground nearby, fingers laced behind his head and hat pulled low to snatch a nap, didn’t even look up. “Aye, and mayhap it’s not. But it would mean a perfectly good bolt spent, and perhaps you’d throw the sights off. And what goes up must come down, and I have no mind to ruin a perfectly good reputation. I’ve been firing old ‘Tabitha’ there for more years than you’ve been alive, boy. So keep your untutored hands away from her, or I’ll have Thorolf here tear your arms off.” The orc, who sat cross-legged beside him, gave a snort and bared his gleaming tusks at the human in an unfriendly smile.
Krispos raised his palms placatingly. “Now, Cobble. There’s no need to be rude. I didn’t mean no harm. I was just curious, that’s all.”
The halfling grunted disgustedly. “Heh. ‘Curious.’ No good humans, all the same. Well sit down, then. Stop hovering around the weaponry. We’ve been set up here two days now, nearly. There’s no sense in standin’ about nervously, as if the ship will try to lift, sudden-like.”
Krispos flopped down beside him. “Well then, how much of a wait do you think it’ll be?”
“Who cares? As long as Blackthorne’s paying good gold, I’m content to sit here until the Spelljammer herself flies by. Now shut your fool mouth so I can get a bit of shuteye. And keep an eye peeled.”
The three were set up on the flat rooftop of a low lying building near the edge of the city, the ballista aimed up into the darkness at the tunnel far above. Jack watched them in silence from a neighboring rooftop, then melted back into the darkness.
A heavy ballista, thought Jack. Well aimed to catch any ship coming or departing. Blackthorne’s taking no chances; he has warships without and heavy armaments within.
It was the second battle placement he had found, but there would be more, scattered throughout the city. It’s a pretty gauntlet he wants us to run.
Jack slipped down the slope of the roof, landing lightly on the ground below.
But how long could Blackthorne sustain his blockade? That was the key question. Syrrus B was a trader town for pirates; it needed trade like a man needed water. Already Blackthorne must be losing a fortune in bribes to the Duchess, the Blue Man, Trytius, and the other pirate lords.
But why? To eliminate the Wayfarer? Even if Blackthorne had a personal vendetta with Reanyn, it made no sense.
And where was blackthorn getting all his gold? It seemed like he had hired every mercenary in the city, and bribed every lord.
* * *
The body was sprawled face down in the refuse and filth of the narrow alleyway. From the back there was no sign of injury, but a pool of blood had spread between the jagged cobblestones, emanating from underneath.
Reanyn glanced at Julian, who shrugged.
“It could be him; the dimensions are about right.”
Reanyn reached down and seized the corpse’s shoulder. With a tug he flipped it over.
Julian grimaced. “Not pretty,” he said distastefully.
There wasn’t much left of the face, just a grisly collection of torn flesh. Reanyn eyed it dispassionately. “Is it him?”
Julian peered at it. “I think… I don’t know. Do you see a beard? On the neck, I mean.”
Reanyn used the corpse’s own sleeve to wipe away the blood. “Still pliable,” he said, moving the arm, “and the blood hasn’t dried completely. This didn’t happen long ago.” He finished wiping a small section. “No. No beard.”
“Cantoule had a beard. Or at least more whiskers than that. Of course, he could have shaved. What do you think killed him?”
“Looks like something bit him.” Reanyn stood. “You recognize the boots? The belt?”
Julian looked at both. “Well… Yes, they look about right. Like I said, it could be him. It’s just hard to tell without a face to go on. Look, it wouldn’t really surprise me if he met his end violently. He was crazy.”
Reanyn considered. “But it might not be him.”
Julian groaned. “So we’ve got to keep looking. Well, I suppose there’s plenty of places to look.”
That was certainly true. Though they had visited more than fifteen alehouses, taverns, inns, and gaming establishments, they had scarcely begun their search. Syrrus B was essentially a pirate haven, so it was filled with places Cantoule might frequent.
And so far, they hadn’t turned up much. There had been five reports of humans fitting Cantoule’s description being involved in tavern brawls, but in three of the cases it turned out to be somebody else. The other two might have been him, but in neither case had the men been preaching.
Blackthorne’s men had made the search more difficult, but Reanyn’s utterly confident demeanor had carried them through. Squads of mercenaries and local guardsmen roamed the streets; Reanyn and Julian had taken pains to avoid them. They had both been given peery looks almost everywhere they went, but so far no one had laid hands on them. “There are hundreds of elves on Syrrus B,” Reanyn said when Julian asked. “Blackthorne may have a good description of us, but we’re not so unique looking that most of his men will be able to tell the difference. Act like you belong, instead of skulking in the shadows, and we’ll bluff our way through. Hiding in plain sight.”
Still, they were getting plenty of suspicious looks, and Julian was more and more eager to return to the brothel as the day wore on.
Suddenly a raucous laugh broke out down the street. A pair of human sailors stumbled out of a building, lurching drunkenly. Behind them the door stood ajar for a moment, and light and noise spilled out into the street. Then with a creak, it clattered shut
Julian looked at it in surprise. “It’s a tavern. We walked right by that, didn’t we? I mean, there’s no sign or anything.”
Reanyn had already started forward. “Let’s check it out.”
It was a two-story building made of wood, dirty and gray, indistinguishable from its neighbors. Reanyn pulled open the door and entered, Julian at his heels.
The main floor was set several inches lower than the street they entered from, and as they stepped down into the room they were engulfed by the smells of roast meat, spilled ale, and stale incense. The room was lit by flickering oil lamps scattered among the tables and hanging from hooks on the walls, and though it was more brightly lit than the darkened street outside, the smoky fumes the lamps emitted and the dancing shadows which filled the room still made it difficult to see.
There were tables scattered through the room, with chairs pulled out helter skelter around them, and various members of different races and species lounging, sitting, or standing, talking quietly in corners or laughing loudly and hefting spirits. A balcony bordered with a railing overhung the far side of the room, and a number of tables and people were up there as well, though from this angle and with the flickering light, it was difficult to see more than darkened shapes.
Though most of the patrons were human, there were a fair number of more exotic species present as well. In the far right corner three mind flayers huddled together over a table, a man with an eyepatch between them. The man was gesturing angrily with one hand, pointing his finger threateningly, and the three illithid watched him blankly, a few tentacles quivering slightly.
Nearby a couple of giff were engaged in an arm-wrestling contest, their uniformed shirts half unbuttoned and falling open as they strained. Four halflings surrounded them, waving gold pieces and shouting encouragement to one giff or the other.
A neogi had taken a seat to the left, its umber hulk slave squatting on the floor beside it, apparently asleep. It stared about with malevolent red eyes, and all who passed gave its table a wide berth.
And nearer yet was a table with a single scro warrior, war-axe strapped to his back, who was tearing into a piece of broiled chicken with his clawed fingers.
It was the scro who looked up as the door clattered shut behind them, a piece of flesh dangling from between his teeth. He went completely still at the sight of them, glaring balefully.
Julian swallowed nervously, backing a step behind Reanyn and avoiding the scro’s unfriendly gaze.
Reanyn scanned the crowd calmly, then stepped forward. Julian trailed behind him, and they passed uncomfortably close to the scro’s table. The scro sat up straight, growling deep in his throat. His gaze never left them.
Julian glanced back after they passed and saw the scro was still staring. Quickly he looked away again. “I think we’ve been spotted.”
“He’s scro. We’re elves. It’s nothing more than that. Now, keep your eyes open. We’re looking for Cantoule, remember?”
Julian swallowed again, looking out over the assembled patrons as they passed. “I… I don’t see him.” He could still feel the scro’s eyes on his back.
There was a small bar to the rear of the room, with a dark haired human girl tending it. She was scrubbing out a glass with a dirty rag as they approached. “Take a seat, bloods,” she said as they neared, turning towards a dwarf at the far end of the bar. “I’ll be with you in a moment.”
For his part the dwarf gave them both a sour look and muttered something about ‘damn dirty elves’ under his breath.
The girl finished cleaning the glass and turned to one of the ale casks mounted behind her. After inserting a fresh tap she filled the glass with rich, dark ale, angling it so that the ale poured gently and avoided too many bubbles. When she had finished, she set it before the dwarf, who grudgingly produced a copper piece and flipped it onto the bar. She scooped it up and tucked it into her blouse.
“Alright then, what can I bring you?” she asked, coming over.
Reanyn held up a silver piece. “Looking for someone. Human. Older, maybe fifty. He drinks a lot. Seen him?”
She eyed the silver. “Seen a lot of fellows like that. Look around you, cutter. Half the people that roll through here would match that description.” She flashed a smile. “You want to be a little more specific?”
“This fellow tends to preach the wisdom of Tyr when he’s in his cups.”
Her smile faded. “Oh, him.”
“Then you have seen him?”
She arched an eyebrow. “Depends.”
Reanyn set the silver piece on the bar, then added two more to it.
She scooped them up and jerked a thumb upwards. “Second floor. Been here for four hours now, bothering everyone. If you’re friends of his come to take him away, fine. If you’re enemies come to kill him, even better.”
But Reanyn had already started for the stairwell, which ran up the left-hand wall. Julian gave the girl an apologetic smile. “Sorry, he’s a little single-minded.”
She shrugged and went back to wiping down the bar.
Julian trailed Reanyn up the rickety wooden stairs. If anything the second level was more dimly lit than the first. There were a few gnomes playing at dice on the nearest table, but most of the other patrons were crowded around a table in the far corner.
They weren’t shouting or laughing, but standing quietly, some with arms crossed, watching something. At first Julian thought it must be some sort of card game, but as he and Reanyn approached he saw that he was mistaken.
At the center of the crowd was an uneven wooden table, and on either side of it sat two men. One was a hulking human fellow with heavy lidded eyes and a permanent frown. The other had his back to Julian and Reanyn, but his hair was thinning and gray. A line of small cups was laid out on the right side of the table, each filled nearly to the brim with some dark liquid, and everywhere else on it were similar cups, turned upside down.
As they watched, the older man who had his back to them reached over and plucked up one of the glasses. “Praise Tyr, brethren!” he exclaimed, and quaffed it down. He belched loudly, then turned the cup over and slammed it onto the table. “Mighty are his works!”
Several of the onlookers groaned at the sight, some muttering angrily.
“That’s Cantoule,” said Julian quietly. “I’d know his voice anywhere.”
Reanyn gave a terse nod, still watching.
The big man across from Cantoule blinked blearily, swaying slightly in his seat. His eyes seemed unfocused, and he looked down at the line of still-full cups a bit uncertainly.
“Your turn, brother!” exclaimed the older man.
The big man reached clumsily for one of the cups, missing it completely on the first try, then nearly overturning it. He brought it up to his lips, spilling most of it as he did so, and then held it there a moment, still blinking slowly. The moment stretched and big man’s eyes slowly closed.
The old man gave a laugh. “Looks like Tyr will triumph yet again!”
But the bigger man blinked awake, realized where he was, and tossed back the contents of the cup in one swift movement, holding it in his mouth for a moment and then grimacing as he swallowed.
There were general mutterings of satisfaction from the crowd as the bigger man grinned, turned the cup upside down, and slammed it down onto the table.
“Looks like a contest,” said Julian. “I’ve never seen the man who could drink Cantoule under the table. If he wins there could be trouble.”
The big man was still grinning hugely, and looked around at his comrades triumphantly. “Twenny-four,” he slurred. “Beat that.”
The old man only laughed. He reached over and lifted yet another cup, then raised it in a salute. “May Tyr’s mercy shine on you all!” he declared. He swigged it down in a single gulp, belched, and turned it down onto the table. “Your turn, brother!”
The big man looked sick.
“Come on, Lothar,” said one of those standing behind, clapping him on the shoulder, “you can do it.”
But the big man only groaned, turned to the side, and tumbled out of his chair onto his hands and knees. To the dismay of his companions he began retching onto the floor.
Cantoule chuckled. “Well, well. Not so mighty after all. Place your faith in Tyr, brethren, lest you come to a similar sorry end. I’ll be taking those wagers, if you please.”
There was a collective groan, and the assembled men began fishing out purses and digging in pockets.
“That’s it, brothers! His mighty work must go forth!”
Reluctantly they each placed a gold piece onto the table, and began to turn away. Some muttered angrily and all gave grudgingly, but no one refused. Two of the big man’s companions helped him to his feet and unsteadily they lurched off.
“Are you the one they call Almighty Cantoule?” asked Reanyn.
Cantoule gave him a sharp look. “Watch your tongue, brother. Tyr abides no blasphemy.” His gaze shifted to Julian, who was standing a pace behind. “You,” he said unenthusiastically.
“Me,” said Julian.
“Did you lose that other one that was with you? The one with the soulless eyes?”
Julian shook his head. “Not exactly. He sent us to find you.”
“Hmmph. And what if I don’t want to be found?”
“We have a business proposition for you,” said Reanyn.
Cantoule’s eyes cut back to him. “My only business is spreading the glory of Tyr, brother.”
“And drinking contests, apparently.”
Cantoule shook his head sadly. “The evils of alcohol. Mortal man is a frail creature, subject to iniquitous appetites. Sometimes an abject lesson in that weakness is in order; I do what I can.”
“Alcohol is evil for others, but alright for you?”
Cantoule shrugged. “Tyr made me different from other men, brother. I’m sorry you wasted your time finding me, but I’m busy saving souls here.”
“Is that what the gold is about?”
Cantoule scooped the last of the gold pieces off the table and tucked it into his purse. “Indeed it is, brother. Tyr’s work is not without cost. I take donations from wherever I can.”
“Then perhaps we can make a contribution.”
Cantoule gave him a measuring look. “How large of a contribution?”
Reanyn was impassive. “Depends on what you can do for us. I understand you’re an accomplished astrogator.”
“I’ve done a little,” Cantoule admitted.
“We’ve got a mathematical puzzle that we can’t decipher. We think it might be the coordinates for a sphere, but we aren’t sure.”
Cantoule was skeptical. “And you want me to crunch the numbers? Doesn’t sound like a lot of fun.”
“You’d be well compensated.”
Cantoule considered. “Tyr’s work must go forward,” he said at last. “Donations is donations.”
* * *
“So, where is this little puzzle of yours?” asked Cantoule as they stepped out into the darkened street.
“Not far,” said Reanyn. “Julian will take you.”
Julian glanced at him in surprise. “You aren’t coming?”
Reanyn shook his head. “It’s time I checked on my crew.”
Unseen, a wiry human across the street watched with a mixture of wariness and excitement.
“Twilight Jack,” Naldo said under his breath, looking at Julian. “Devil-man.”
Naldo worked the docks, mostly. That was how he had first met the assassin, and guided him to a little inn called Lem’s Pride, which had since burned to the ground. It was sheer chance that he had been there at the time, and it was sheer chance that he’d happened to be here.
He thought he’d recognized the elf earlier, and had waited outside, hoping to get a better look at his face, hardly daring to hope. And now he knew for sure.
“Gonna be rich, me. Gonna get some rewards.”
He watched as the three split apart, the human going with Twilight Jack; the elf heading in the opposite direction.
Naldo had made his living on the streets for a long time; he knew an opportunity when he saw it. There was money on Twilight Jack’s head, a lot of it. Blackthorne would pay good gold for anyone who could lead him to where the assassin was hiding.
So Naldo watched them until they were nearly out of sight, then, careful to keep in the darkest shadows, he began to follow.