Prince Andru is a cold-hearted man

                        He rules the Rock with an iron hand

                        His power is vast, his realm is small

                        His word is death, for one and all




                                                            Chapter Seven




            The Broken Ballista was fairly out of the way.  But after negotiating a maze-like warren of twisting streets lined by teetering and run-down old houses and shops (and after stopping several times to ask directions of passerbys), Jack and Sandstar managed to locate it

            This was definitely the bad side of town, complete with the usual coughing beggars and grimy rag-covered children playing in the streets.

            There were street toughs too, and more than once Sandstar feared they would be accosted by some group of rowdies or another.  But something about the confidence with which Twilight Jack carried himself seemed to make most of them think twice.   Once they were challenged by a brawny unkempt man with bad teeth, who was backed up by five or six others.  Jack had made short work of the matter, leaving the leader clutching a shattered knee by the side of the road.  His compatriots fled.

            After that, the gangs gave them a fairly wide berth, and they reached their destination without further incident.  The Broken Ballista wasn't much of a shop, just a little one-room place with weapons and armor fittings lining the walls, and a small raised worktable.  A bored and fairly nondescript man stood behind the worktable, working on repairing a small crossbow which apparently had a broken mechanism.  He glanced up perfunctorily as they entered, then turned his attention back to his work.

            "Are you the man they call Dev?"  Jack asked.

            The man ignored them.

            "Are you Dev?" Jack asked, a little more loudly.

            Again there was no response.

            "I wonder how he ever gets customers," said Sandstar.  "Do you suppose he's deaf?"

            "More likely, he's dumb," said Jack.  He stepped closer to the man.  "We're looking for a man called Alexian Salonina; we were told to ask for him here.  If you don't know anything about this man, you'd better speak up now, before I get annoyed."

            The man looked up at them, grunted, and said:  "Sit.  Wait here."

            "Thank you," said Jack, taking a seat on the right wall.

            The man grunted again, and went back to work.

            Maybe three-quarters of an hour went by.  A few people came in periodically to purchase weapons or armor, or (more often) to have a damaged item repaired.  Dev, if that was his name, went on about his business as if Jack and Sandstar weren't there.

            After a time, Sandstar started to grow a trifle impatient.  "When will we be seeing Alexian, I wonder?  Is he going to have us wait here all day?"

            "We'll see this Alexian - or, more likely, his representative - when they've satisfied themselves that we're worthy, no doubt."

            "'They'?" the elf asked.

            Jack nodded.  "We are, at this very moment, being watched.  We have been for some time.  They have some intelligence men trying to identify who we are, no doubt, and how we fit into the local political scheme."

            "Then might we never get an interview?  Neither of us has any political affiliations here, and if we aren't recognized-"

            "We'll be recognized, if we haven't been already.  My reputation will no doubt have preceded me, and they'll be wondering what I'm after.  After they've puzzled that our, they'll decide how best to make use of me.  Then the meeting will occur.  They'll want to trade Windhook, or information on how to find him, for something."

            Just then a wiry little halfling entered the shop.  The shopkeeper ignored him.

            The halfling looked around for moment, as if orienting himself.  "Are you the gentlemen asking to see Salonina?" he asked.

            "I believe so, yes," answered Jack, "though I don't know that either of us is a gentleman in particular."

            "Right then," said the halfling.  "Follow me."

            He led them not out through the only door, but rather towards the far wall.  He siezed the handle of a battle axe displayed there, and twisted.  A crack opened in the wall as a secret door opened inward.  Dark steps beyond led downward.

            The halfling ushered them in.  "At the bottom," he said.  Quickly he stepped backwards and twisted the axe handle again.  The door swung shut behind them, leaving them engulfed in darkness.

            A snapping sound followed, and light returned as Jack held up an incandescent blue flask.  "Theryon Algae," he explained.  "Excellant light source in the phlogiston.  No heat, you see."

            They proceeded down the stone steps, and entered a large torchlit stone room.  There was a desk with a lamp on it, behind which sat a young-looking man with a mustache.   There were two chairs facing the desk.

            "Have a seat," said the man absently, scribbling something on a ledger before him.

            Sandstar sat.

            "I prefer to stand," said Jack.  "I expect this will be fairly brief."

            If the mustached man was surprised, he did a good job of concealing it.  "Suit yourself.  What was it you wanted?"

            "I assume I am speaking to Alexian Salonina, head of a smuggling operation here on Bral?"

            The mustached man smiled.  "Don't be ridiculous.  Let us say that you are speaking to the head of a small, perfectly legal operation.  And you are speaking to that head indirectly."

            Jack nodded.  "It makes little difference to me, as long as I get the information I want."

            "Which is?"

            "Jarren Windhook worked for you once."

            The man shrugged.  "He might have."

            "He did.  He's gone to ground recently and I'm looking to find him."

            The man sighed.  "And what do you want from me?"

            "Information that will lead me to him."

            The mustached man leaned back, steepling his fingers.  "And what have you to offer me in exchange?"

            "Name your price."

            The man smiled.  "We don't need money, my friend."

            Jack shook his head.  "I didn't think you did.  What is it you want me to give you?"

            The man shrugged.  "You are an assassin by trade, are you not?"

            Jack nodded.  "My reputation precedes me."

            "Well, it so happens that there is a man on the Rock who badly needs killing."

            "There are probably very many.  Yourself included.  Before we go any further in this, I have to know what you can give me."

            The man smiled.  "How about Windhook himself?  We have him."

            Jack nodded.  "Excellant.  Who do you want dead?"

            The man was a little surprised.  "Well, the situation's a little complicated..."

            "I could care less about the situation."

            "It won't be easy," he insisted.

            "Your standards and mine probably differ.  Give me a name."

            The man looked at him for a moment, hesitant to speak.  "Prince Andru," he said at last, sounding almost as if he expected Jack to refuse instantly.

            "Done," said Jack.

            The mustached man was surprised.  "Just like that?"

            "Just like that.  Is there a certain day you want him dead, or can I do it immediately?"

            The man considered.  "As soon as possible."  He thought for a moment.   "I suppose I should tell you about the people that surround him; his safeguards and such?"

            "Unnecessary," said Jack.  "Do you want him killed in a specific way?"

            "No.  But - and this is very important - you must leave behind a signature."

            "I have no signature."

            The man shook his head.  "I wasn't talking about you.  I was talking about my organization."  He reached into the desk, pulling out a small white cloth embroidered with flowing red characters.  "You'll leave this on the body, as a sort of calling card."

            Jack took the cloth, looking it over.  "We return here when I've finished?"

            "You return to the shop.  My men will guide you from there."

            "Good.  Have Windhook nearby, then."

            The man nodded.

            "One last thing," said Jack, "I don't appreciate those who don't live up to their agreements.   You'd better have Windhook."


                                                            *          *          *


            The Marin's Song was an inn located in the middle city.  It was fairly nondescript, with adequate if not luxurious rooms and decent quality fare.  Jack had picked it after making certain there were three different exits from the building.

            The innkeeper was a small albino man with purple eyes.  If he was surprised by Jack's request to examine the room before deciding on paying for it, he didn't show it.

            Jack examined several of the rooms before settling on one at the end of the second floor.  He checked the window, which opened onto a small overhanging roof and overlooked the small alley below, and made sure of the door.

            "This will do," said Jack at last, satisfied.  "We'll take this."

            Quickly he paid enough for two nights lodging and sent the innkeeper away.

            Julian looked around.  "Kind of shabby, isn't it?"

            "We're not here on vacation."

            The elf was forced to agree.  "What now?"

            "For you, nothing.  I have some field work to do.  Do whatever you want, but don't stray far from the inn," he instructed.  "We may be leaving the Rock suddenly."

            Julian was puzzled.  "Then why book rooms?"

            "Because we might not be leaving the Rock suddenly.  More importantly, I don't want anyone to think we might be leaving.  Wait here for me."  He headed for the door.

            "Where are you going?  To assassinate Andru?"

            Jack looked back at him.  "Not until I've found out everything about the situation and the motives of the involved parties."

            "Do you want me to ask around, find out what I can?"      

            Jack shrugged as he left.  "If it makes you feel useful.  You might even stumble across something I don't."


                                                            *          *          *



            He was gone for the better part of three hours.  Julian spent most of that time down in the common room.  It was all but abandoned, save for one or two others, and there was little to do, but he had no way of knowing when Jack would return or how swiftly they might have to leave, so he settled in to wait.

            He ordered dinner, and it arrived not long after, a bland and unappetizing meal of fried turkey, broiled scov-potatoes, and flat ale.  "How very human," he remarked, wondering whether he was really hungry enough to eat it.

            Just as he picked up the fork, Jack entered.  He caught sight Julian of and approached.

            "You found what you were looking for?" asked the elf.

            Jack nodded.  "Pretty much."

            "And what was that?"


            Julian smiled.  "Well, don't keep me in the dark.  What did you find out?"

            "The major players here are as follows:  One, Prince Andru and his court.  Two, the yakuza thieves' guild.  Three, the Red Masks thieves' guild.  Four, the Tenth Pit.  There are other concerned groups and organizations, but I've ruled out their involvement."

            "I don't follow," said Sandstar.

            "It's fairly complicated.  First, let's take Andru and his court.  Prince Andru is the nominal ruler of the Rock.  In reality, he is the man with the most power here, although he'd love to expand his rule.  He's ruthless, power-hungry, and cruel - all traits of a good dictator.  He is surrounded by and relies upon a number of people he doesn't fully trust.  His right hand man is a human named Diadan Cartan.  Cartan is his most capable and least trusted underling.  His proconsul is the archmage Gadaric Main.  And his spymaster and intelligence agent is Mardan Rhom - the person who heads the Watchers, Andru's intelligence network.

            "Andru trusts none of these three, and he is wise not to do so, for they are each plotting against him.  The only people Andru trusts fully are the Lady Cerena , his consort; Mahaxara Khal, the utterly loyal captain of his personal guard; and Tiendor Allen, a half-elf friend of many years.

            "For some time now, Andru has kept Cartan, Main, and Rhom at bay by playing them one against the other.  But recently Cartan and Rhom met secretely and formed a covert alliance.  Diadan Cartan, incidentally, is the head of the Tenth Pit on Bral, a very well kept secret."

            "So Cartan and Rhom are behind Alexian?"

            Jack shook his head.  "Cartan is Alexian, unless I miss my guess.  Rhom is connected with the Red Masks, the guild to which your friend Trevor belongs, and the people that sent us to meet 'Alexian'."

            "And the yakuza you mentioned?"

            Jack nodded.  "They are meant to take the blame for the assassination when it goes wrong."

            "'When'?  Don't you mean if it goes wrong?"

            Jack was impatient.  "No, I mean when.  I am meant to fail in the attempt.  But I'm coming to that.  Let's take this in order, shall we?  Now, you do know who the yakuza are, don't you?"

            Sandstar nodded.  "Not specifically, but I am familiar with the term.  It's a secret society much like a thieves' guild, but run and membered by a specific family.  The idea has its roots in some of the oriental kingdoms of Toril, I believe, in Realmspace, where it is in common practice."

            "Something like that," affirmed Jack.  "When the empire of Shou Lung began its program of aggressively entering space and making itself a spelljamming power, it took the yakuza with it.  Here on the Rock there is a considerable Shou presence.  And the leader of the yakuza family here is a man called Ozamatu."

            "And he's involved as well?"

            Jack shook his head.  "The yakuza clan is the most powerful thieves' guild on the Rock.  All others are weaker challengers.  Ozamatu, then, has an investment in preserving the status quo.  The last thing he would want would be the decentralization of the power structure here."

            "His clan is not involved, then?"

            "The 'signature' we are meant to leave after eliminating the prince would point directly at the yakuza," Jack explained.  "The Shou characters on it are damning."

            "But why?"

            "Simple.  A full-scale war would erupt between Andru's supporters and the yakuza.  When the smoke cleared, and the two main powers of the Rock had weakened each other sufficiently, the nominal plan would be that Rhom and Cartan would be able to stage a coup.  Each, of course, is planning on double-crossing the other at that time.  Personally, I think Cartan is the more formidable and cunning, so he will most probably prevail.  And then the Tenth Pit will control the Rock, which is one of the most important trading center in the spheres."

            "You said the assassination attempt was meant to fail."

            "Yes," said Jack.  "Cartan and Rhom don't want the prince dead, at least not yet.  If the prince perished, he would be succeeded by his young nephew, Aric.  If that happened, the conspirators would gain nothing.  If, however, Cartan himself helped to foil the assassination, he would be that much closer to gaining the Prince's confidence.  That way, later on, when full-blown war erupts between Andru and Ozamatu, as it inevitably would, Andru is much easier to betray."

            "I see."  The elf considered.  "I must say I'm surprised you discovered all of this in such a short time."

            Jack shrugged.  "It's a matter of knowing who to ask and how to ask it.:

            "I would have thought most people would have been rather closemouthed on the matter."

            "I have ways of motivating them.  There is one thing of great importance that I didn't discover, however."

            Julian was surprised.  "Yes?"

            "There is no sign that Windhook has been back to the Rock since he left it two years ago.  And no sign that he's here now."

            "So Alexian lied?"

            "Possibly.  Maybe not."

            "So what do we do?  Are you still going to eliminate Andru?"

            "Absolutely.  I always fulfill my promises."  His eyes were unreadable.  "If they've been lying to us about Windhook, they're going to get more than they bargained for."

            "But Cartan will be waiting to stop the attempt."

            Jack shrugged.  "He underestimated me.  That's his problem."

            "Surely he'll have men waiting.  Doesn't that increase the risk?"

            "Not appreciably," said Jack.

            "Twilight Jack!" roared a voice.

            The door groaned and shrieked as it was torn forcibly from its hinges and flung aside.

            A huge giff came storming in and stared balefully around the room.

            The albino innkeeper started forward.  "Sir-"

            The giff seized him by the collar, lifting him off the floor as if he were a doll.  "My name is Skullcrusher Velm!" he shouted into the innkeeper's face.  "I've killed umber hulks with my bare hands!  There isn't anything that walks or breathes or crawls I can't kill!  I am the storm of the cosmos!"

            "I-" the man protested.

            "Out of the way, insect!"  He tossed the man away, sending him sprawling headfirst into the far wall.  "My name's Skullcrusher Velm!  And I'm looking for the one they call Twilight Jack!"