The Rock of Bral is a fearsome place
It tumbles and rolls through the vastness of space
Where pirates and merchants and nobles all meet
And there is found every spacefaring breed
There were larger trading centers than the Rock of Bral but there were none bigger. In a universe filled with bigger-than-life characters like Lucky Nightstar and One-Shot Malcolm, the Rock of Bral was perhaps the biggest of all.
So it was no surprise that the Storyteller spent quite a bit of time there
Although it was just a medium-sized asteroid orbiting a tiny airworld, the Rock of Bral was famed throughout the spacelanes as the hub of spelljamming society.
A former pirate's haven, the Rock was as metropolitan a place as anywhere in the spheres. Virtually every major species with spelljamming technology could be found here: humans, beholders, elves, dwarves, neogi, illithids, dracon, giff, halflings, dowhar; every spacefaring race was represented. And, while they were on the Rock at least, they got along, leaving their feuds behind. Free trade was everything here, and it had made the Rock hugely successful. Merchants, traders, mercenaries, slavers, thugs, rogues, nobles and pirates from half a hundred worlds and species teemed its thronging streets. There was absolutely nothing that money couldn't buy, from rare Shou silks to human brains (a particular favorite of the illithids). There were only two rules to thriving here: first, a wise man kept his nose out of other people's business, and second, enough gold could solve any problem.
The spelljamming docks were immense, and there were very few ships too large to dock at the Rock. Gigantic piers stretched out on the gravity plane like skeletal fingers reaching out into space. Ships would approach along the gravity plane to dock (and could be facing either 'up' or 'down' in relation to the Rock). The city proper, along with the palace (the pirates who had made the city what it was and were nominally in control had deemed themselves royalty) and Lake Bral (from which the population drew its water supply), was located 'topside'. 'Underside' was separated from 'topside' by sheer vertical cliffs nearly a thousand feet high, and was where the oxygen-producing farms were located. ('Topside' and 'underside' were relative terms, of course.)
The passenger ship Starfly (a refitted lamprey-class luxury liner) arrived at approximately 6:15 am local time (unlike most star cities, the Rock had both day and night; gigantic sails were mounted to the underside so that the asteroid slowly rotated, the local fireworld - which was pretty distant - giving the Rock its 'day') and its two passengers disembarked.
"An interesting way to travel," remarked Julian Sandstar.
Twilight Jack shrugged. "Many people travel in that manner."
"Yes, but I would have assumed you had your own ship."
"I have three, to be precise. But I'm no helmsman, and I find the duties of navigation to be tedious. Why should I maintain a ship when I can charter one at any time?"
"I suppose I never really thought about it," said the elf dubiously. "But what if you need to charter a ship to take you somewhere passenger ships don't fly? It seems to me that that must happen to you from time to time."
"Not that often," said Jack. "Most people flee into populated areas, not deepspace. But, if it comes to that, I can always purchase a ship and a crew to run it."
The elf nodded. "You do travel light, though."
"There are very few things I really need. What is this place we're going?"
"The Stellar Dragon. It's a small place, but one of the finest alehouses on the Rock. Very highbrow. For the Rock, anyway."
Jack cocked an eyebrow. "Badly named, then."
Julian was surprised. "I've always thought it was a majestic name."
"You've obviously never met a stellar dragon. Why are we visiting this tavern?"
Julian stared at him for a moment. The man had survived an encounter with a stellar dragon? Finally he spoke. "This particular tavern is a front for the Red Masks, a local thieves guild. The guildmaster is a man named Trevor Farifax. He owes me a long-standing debt."
"And he will pay it?"
Julian smiled. "Normally not. But with you around? I think so. One way or another."
* * *
For Bral, The Stellar Dragon was an elegant little place, in the better part of the city. That meant it was a fairly clean place, located in a part of the city that was a little less dangerous than the rest.
There was a sign with a red bull painted on it which swung from a signpost just outside the door. ("It's a long story," Julian has said, when Jack had looked at it. "Don't ask."), and some elegant wooden steps leading up into the main tavern area.
Julian spoke to the doorman for a few moments before the young man nodded and hurried off. They were left waiting for about five minutes before the doorman returned, and guided them back to one of the private booths in the back of the room.
A balding overweight man with a ruddy complexion was waiting for them there, dining carefully on some green vegetable appetizers. As they approached, he dipped one of the green shoots into a yellowish sauce and popped it in his mouth.
He looked up and, smiling, gestured for them to sit. "Sandstar, what a surprise! How nice of you to drop by and visit."
"I'm afraid this isn't altogether a social visit, Trevor," Julian replied. "I've come to collect that favor you owe me."
The large man gave a solemn nod. "Ah, I see. Well, anything that is within my power, of course. And who is your young companion?"
"Jack," said Julian. "Twilight Jack."
Trevor sat back, reassessing Jack. He was apparently impressed. "You're the same Twilight Jack the Storyteller wrote of?"
Jack inclined his head.
The hint of a smile passed over the fat man's lips. "Interesting. Very interesting. So what can I do for you two?"
"We're after the Raver," said Julian.
The fat man gave a bark of laughter. "Believe me, if I knew where to find the Raver, I would be a very rich man by now."
"More likely," said Jack, "the Raver would have had you eliminated."
The fat man's eyes narrowed at that, and a tense moment passed. Then he chuckled. "I suppose you're right at that." His gaze shifted across the room, and a smile lit his face. "Ah, my order! I've been waiting here for ages, practically starving to death."
An anemic elderly man, uniformed as a waiter, made his way to their table, holding aloft a small tray filled almost to overflowing with exotic foodstuffs.
"Where have you been?" demanded the fat man. "I've been waiting for nearly ten minutes."
The old waiter mumbled an apology, and did his best to balance the over filled tray and place the plates on the table at the same time.
There was a clatter as a small container of some steaming yellow sauce went tumbling into Trevor's lap.
"You clumsy old fool!" bellowed the fat man, leaping up and backhanding the old man. Dishes and foods went flying as the waiter fell to the floor.
The old man picked himself up, stammering an apology and rushed off to get something to clean up the mess..
Muttering darkly, the fat man tried vainly to wipe away the stain the yellow sauce had put into his breeches. Finally he took his seat again. "I apologize for my outburst," he said at last. "Good help is so difficult to find."
"Not at all," said Jack, who had watched the whole incident quietly. "It tells us quite a bit about your position here."
"Well," said the fat man, pleased that his importance here had been registered, "well, yes. Of course." He turned to the elf. "Now what was it you wanted, Julian? Something about the Raver, wasn't it? Would you like me to give you your own crystal sphere as well?"
"We don't expect you to give us the Raver," said Jack. "We want to hear what you might have to say about a man named Jarren Windhook."
The large man shook his head, leaning back and crossing his arms. "I don't believe I'm familiar with that name."
Jack stared at him for a long moment. "Let's cut to the chase," he said, leaning forward. "I've been around for a long while. I can tell when someone is being less than honest with me. So why don't you tell me everything you know right now?"
"I'm not certain I like your tone," Trevor began, then cut himself short. "What is that?"
Jack had taken out a short needle and was playing with idly. "Just a needle. It's dipped in Athlyss-Tevor, an herb from the Greatspace system. You've heard of it? No? Well, it's a kind of truth serum. Very effective. The only problem is that it is universally fatal."
"Are you trying to threaten me?"
"No," said Jack quietly, "I am threatening you. I am saying that if you don't start telling me about Jarren Windhook, I am going to make you stop breathing."
The fat man stared at him. "I can have twenty men in here in the snap of a finger."
"You won't live long enough to see them if you try it." Jack's voice was as calm as if he were discussing the weather. "And they won't survive you by much. But that would be counter-productive. I don't want you dead; I just want to know about Windhook."
The large man was sweating. A long moment passed, then the fat man shrugged. "So I've heard of him, so what? Everyone has. There've been a couple of bounty hunters to show up on the Rock lately looking for him."
"He was here?" asked Sandstone.
"Yeah, a couple of years ago."
"And nothing. He was a normal human. Quiet. Astrobotanist or something."
"I don't believe you," said Jack. "Normal humans don't have any ties with the Raver."
"Maybe he had a shadow life. How would I know?"
"Trevor - it was Trevor, wasn't it?" The fat man nodded. "Trevor, you may not believe this, but I wasn't born yesterday. You run a thieves guild. You would make it your business to know. So if you intend to lie to me, you'd better start doing a better job."
There was a long moment as the large man considered. Jack's cold and merciless eyes seemed to bore straight into him.
"Alright," he said at last, "I'll tell you what I've heard - but I warn you, it's unsubstantiated."
"There's a man in the lower city, the dock district. Deals in items which haven't been properly reported to the port authorities."
"Smuggling," said Jack.
The large man nodded. "Precisely. Now, I'm not in any way connected with his operation - smuggling doesn't fall into my guild's sphere of interest."
"Of course not." There was a half smile on Jack's lips.
"I only know of him by reputation," insisted Trevor. "Our paths have never crossed."
"Name," demanded Jack.
"Again, I've never met the man. He may not even be a man. But they say you can get in touch if you ask for Alexian Salonina."
"Where should I ask?"
"There's an armorer's shop called The Broken Ballista. The man who works there is well connected. His name is Dev. Mention Alexian and something might come of it." The fat man leaned forward. "Don't mention my name. That would be awkward. Although we're not in direct competition, you see, Alexian's people might get edgy."
"And what's the connection between Alexian and Windhook?"
"Again, this is just rumor. Some people say that Windhook was doing a little smuggling on the side."
The fat man shook his head. "Off-planet drugs. Makes sense, really, when you reflect that the man's profession was astrobotany."
Jack nodded. "Good enough. Is there anything else? Think hard. You don't want to leave anything out."
"That's everything I know." The fat man was adamant.
"Very well." Jack stood. "Now, just so we understand each other, the list of men I've killed is a very long one. Killing people is something I'm very good at. If you've lied to me, or misrepresented anything, I'll be back. And I'll add one more name to the list. Your guild will be short one guildmaster. Understand?"
* * *
"Well," said Sandstar as they left, "I hardly know what to say. I'm impressed. Very impressed."
"By what?" asked Jack.
"That exchange. After a few minutes, I simply shut my mouth and watched."
Jack shrugged. "Some people are easier to intimidate than others. Your friend had heard something of my reputation; I simply played on what he thought I could do."
The elf chuckled. "That and a poisoned needle."
Jack shook his head. "It was just a needle. There was no poison."
Sandstar laughed. "You're not serious! There was no - what was it called - Athlyss-Tevor?"
"There is no such substance," said Jack. "I invented it. That was what made it so believable to your friend; he had never heard of it."
The elf chuckled again. "Ingenius. And you told him you could kill him before he able to summon his men. I am a bit surprised that Trevor didn't spot your bluff. He is the head of a thieves guild, after all."
"I wasn't bluffing," said Jack. "As for his being the head of the guild, I doubt sincerely that he is even a senior member."
"What?" the elf was confused.
"Consider," said Jack. "If you were the head of a secret society of thieves, what is the last thing you'd want to be common knowledge?"
"I haven't the faintest idea."
"Your identity, of course. Do you think anyone other than the most amateur of thieves would want anyone to know his face, especially if he was the head of a thieving order?" Jack shook his head. "No, friend Trevor was merely what is known as a 'fall man'. A decoy. That way, if things go badly for the guild, Trevor is around to get the axe while the real heads of the order melt away."
"But the information he gave-" protested the elf.
"Is quite probably good. Once he got the go ahead from his superiors to give us what we need. He simply did as he was told, and gave us this Alexian fellow."
"But how could he know his superiors wanted him to give us Alexian?" Sandstar was puzzled.
"Because at least one of his superiors was right in the room with us."
"The clumsy waiter, of course. It seems likely to me that we very well did meet with the head of the guild tonight, indirectly."
Sandstar pondered that for a moment. Then: "But doesn't that change things a bit? How do we know that they simply weren't trying to put us off the trail?"
"Because I can read people, and friend Trevor wasn't lying to us. He told us everything he knew about Windhook. Whatever game this guild is playing - and you can bet that they are playing at something - Trevor isn't involved."
"Still, how do we know the information is good?"
Jack looked at him. "We don't. Not for certain. But, for now, we go on the assumption that it is. It will at least lead us somewhere. If it's false, than that tells us something too. And, if it is false, I intend to make good on my promise."
"And execute Trevor?"
Jack shook his head. "That wasn't my promise. If Trevor was honest with us, and if he doesn't get in the way, he may yet live out a long life. It's the guildmaster who had better start praying he told us everything. After all, your friend was only a mouthpiece."
Sandstar shrugged. "I have no friends, Jack. Just associates."