The dirty, dark-haired boy cowered in the corner, for Sefris had hurt him until the pain burned all the resistance out of him. She’d needed a deft touch to avoid marking him. It was all right that he already carried a street urchin’s usual collection of bruises and scrapes, but he wouldn’t be deemed acceptable if she herself spilled so much as a drop of his blood before the ceremony started. That was just the way it worked.
Thanks to his terrified passivity, she didn’t need to worry about his trying to bolt through the door. She could sit by the window and watch the moon sink toward the horizon. She couldn’t start until the Dark Goddess’s twin sister and greatest foe exited the sky.
Sefris had found the skinny, ragged child begging at a busy intersection. Perhaps he stole as well, when the opportunity arose. Representing herself as a simple traveler and devout worshiper of Ilmater, god of pity, she feigned horror at the discovery of a child so young reduced to such wretched circumstances. She insisted on spiriting him away for a hot supper, a bath, and a new suit of clothes.
At first, wary, he’d been reluctant to go, but with gentle persistence, she persuaded him. Evidently feeling at ease, he started to prattle merrily as they strolled along, but the words caught in his throat as soon as she ushered him into the cramped little flat where, supposedly, her brother and his wife were putting her up.
Upon reaching Oeble, she’d known she needed a private place in which to sleep and perform her rituals, so she’d cleared one out. The broken corpses of the previous tenants sprawled where they’d fallen. The boy froze and gawked at them, which made it easy to relieve him of his knife, immobilize him, and administer as much punishment as required.
Eventually Selune hid below the horizon like a pale ghost creeping back into its grave. Sefris rose and advanced on the beggar.
“Don’t struggle,” she said. “It will only make it worse.”
Actually, she doubted it could get much worse, but he presumably didn’t know that.
Something in her expression or the way she moved must have alerted him, however, because he finally made a scramble for the door. It didn’t matter. She pounced on him, paralyzed him by applying pressure to the proper part of the spine, and laid him on the table she’d cleared to serve as a makeshift altar. She chanted the first invocation as she tore his clothes away.
Most sacrifices required scalpels, lancets, and such to pick apart the offering in just the proper way. Sefris took a cold satisfaction in the fact that her fingers were strong and skillful enough for her to achieve the same sort of excruciating precision barehanded. As a result, life lingered until she performed the final mutilation, drawing forth the glistening intestines and looping them to form a mystic sigil on the victim’s chest. The boy flopped once like a fish out of water then expired-gratefully, more than likely.
At the same instant, purple light and a wave of chill pulsed across the room. Unsurprised, for it was the desired result of the ritual, Sefris turned. Before her stood what appeared to be a gaunt human male with the long-eared head of a jackal. Its voluminous robes were black, and its body was outlined by a hazy sheath of flickering violet flame that somehow burned cold instead of hot. The garment and fire together made the arcanaloth a living emblem of the Lady of Loss for those with the wit to understand.
The fiend took a disdainful glance around the hovel, with the untidy litter of corpses, then turned its dark eyes back on Sefris. Few mortals could have abided that gaze, freighted as it was with a malice as deep and as wide as the ocean, but it didn’t faze the monastic. Indeed, she respected it as essentially the same attitude she herself had striven so diligently to cultivate.
“Dark Sister,” the arcanaloth said, acknowledging her, a hint of a canine yip in its tenor voice, “what do you want?”
In Sefris’s experience, arcanaloths-the scribes and mystics of their infernal race-were generally direct to the point of rudeness. In and of itself, it didn’t bother her. She shared that trait with them as well.
“Do you know why my Dark Father sent me to Oeble?”
The jackal-headed fiend wrinkled its muzzle in a sneer.
“I know,” it said. “Mortal foolishness.”
“Neither one,” Sefris replied. “When my order assigns me a task, it’s because the deity whom you and I both serve wishes it done.”
“I have my own essential tasks awaiting me in Shadow.”
Sefris reminded herself that while hatred was a virtue, impatience was not, and she took a breath to steady herself.
“Was the offering acceptable, or not?”
The arcanaloth shrugged and replied, “It was all right.”
“Then I’ve paid your price, and you’ll either help me or suffer the consequences of your refusal.”
The fiend rolled its eyes and asked, “What help do you require?”
“I’ve never been to Oeble before. I’m confident I can kill whoever currently holds The Black Bouquet, but less sure of my ability to find it. That’s where you come in. Your magic is more versatile than mine, so you’re gong to cast a divination.”
The spirit waved its hand, and a long oval mirror in a golden frame appeared on the wall. It was so highly polished that it almost seemed to glow with its own inner light and so manifestly valuable as to appear grossly incongruous in such humble surroundings. Sefris assumed the fiend had summoned the looking glass from its own extradimensional realm.
The arcanaloth used its claws to tear loose a scrap of the offering’s flesh, which it then ate. Sefris had the feeling that wasn’t part of the conjuring. The fiend was simply peckish. When it was done nibbling, it dipped its forefinger into one of the boy’s wounds, coating the digit with blood that it employed to write arcane signs along the curved edge of the mirror. The runes burned with the same purple flame that surrounded the creature’s body.
After that, the arcanaloth stared intently into the mirror. Peering past it, Sefris could no longer see anything coherent in the glass, not even their own reflections, just formless shadows that oozed, merged, and divided. But then, she wasn’t the scryer. She assumed the fiend was making more sense of the rippling blackness than she could.
Or at least she did until the arcanaloth abruptly barked an incantation in some demonic language and swept its arms through a complex mystic pass. At that moment, its annoyance was unmistakable. The bloody sigils burned brighter, but the vague shapes flowing inside the glass became no clearer.
“What’s the matter?” Sefris asked.
“The Dark Goddess’s enemies warded their plunder against attempts at divination. They must have anticipated that someone would try to take it back.”
Well, Sefris thought, at least that means they can’t use magic to find it either, but the notion was precious little consolation.
“Surely you can do something,” she said.
“Not necessarily, and the effort would take a great deal out of me. I told you, I have my own responsibilities to-“
The arcanaloth bared its fangs and said, “We may meet again someday, on my own plane, perhaps, in circumstances where I hold the whip. If so, you might be glad you didn’t push me too hard.”
“Do as I command you, or I’ll speak the words of torment,” Sefris replied. “By darkness impenetrable and empty-“
“All right! I can’t see the treasure itself, but perhaps I can make out something that connects to it in the great web of fate. That might give you a clue to its whereabouts.”
The fiend snarled another incantation, and resumed its peering.
Finally, it said, “There.”
“What have you found?” Sefris asked.
“The future is never certain,” the arcanaloth said. “But find this woman, and chances are good she’ll lead you to your goal.”
It gestured, and a face took shape amid the drifting shadows.
Once Aeron waded ashore, he followed a circuitous route, sometimes descending to the Underways, sometimes proceeding at street level, and periodically climbing to the Rainspans, a rickety network of bridges connecting the roofs and balconies of certain of the city’s towers. By custom, the aerial paths were open to the public even where they linked one private residence or business to another, and a good many folk traversed them daily in blithe disregard of the manner in which they groaned, shuddered, and swayed. At that, it was arguably safer to walk over them than underneath. Every rogue in Oeble knew the ‘spans afforded any number of excellent locations from which to throw knives at or drop heavy objects on a victim.
Aeron glanced around frequently, making sure no Red Axe was creeping up on him. Perhaps he was so intent on spotting Kesk’s cutthroats that it blinded him to other dangers. Or maybe Selune’s departure from the sky, and the deeper darkness she’d left in her wake, were to blame. In any event, he was crossing a Rainspan, one that wound among the decaying spires bordering Laskalar’s Square, when two Gray Blades and a goblin seemed to pop up out of nowhere just a few paces ahead of him.
Luckily, the lawmen, one human and one who, judging from his slender frame and pointed ears, might have some elf blood, were too busy questioning the stunted, flat-faced creature they’d accosted to notice Aeron’s approach. He turned to slink back the way he’d come, but then he heard the half-elf mention the Paeraddyn. The Blades were asking questions about the robbery.
If Aeron was wise, maybe that should be all the more reason to slip away quickly as he could. But he thought in the long run it might pay him to listen to what the Gray Blades had to say. So he crouched motionless, trusting the darkness to hide him.
As the interrogation proceeded, the lawmen slapped the shrilly protesting goblin around and even threatened to toss it off the bridge. Aeron didn’t know the runty, bandy-legged creature. Apparently its tormentors had accosted it at random, simply because it looked shifty. From that fact, and the general tenor of their questions, he inferred that they didn’t know who they were looking for.
They had a description, however, flawed but still potentially useful, and they were plainly working hard to track him down. That wasn’t good.
The Gray Blades had questioned Aeron on more than one occasion, and thus he knew how to recognize when such a session was winding down. As usual, it ended with a few final threats: if the lawmen found out the goblin had lied to them, they’d make it wish it had never been born, and other remarks in the same vein.
Aeron had nearly lingered too long. If he tried to scurry off quickly, the Rainspan would surely creak and bounce, giving his presence away. Instead, he swung himself over the railing and to the underside of the bridge, where he hung by his hands forty feet above the street
The Blades released the goblin and proceeded on their way, tramping over the spot where Aeron clung. If some folk deemed the Rainspans unsafe, they should have seen that one from his present vantage point. The lawmen’s passage shook loose a veritable shower of scraps of rotten wood. The filthy stuff streamed down over Aeron, a goodly portion slipping inside his collar.
First the river and now this, he thought.
Aeron feared his clothes were ruined. It made him glad that, unlike most of the honest jobs for which he qualified, thieving paid well enough that he owned several other outfits.
He waited until the Gray Blades’ voices faded away, then pulled himself back up onto the walkway. He skulked on, and in a few more minutes, he reached his home.
As he’d expected, his father had waited up for him. Nicos sat struggling to pluck the strains of a ribald tavern song about a priest and a dancing girl from the strings of his mandolin. He had no real aptitude for the instrument, but with his voice ruined, it was the only music he could make.
He looked Aeron up and down and asked, “What in the name of the black mask happened to you?”
“What didn’t?” Aeron replied, stripping off his shirt and tunic.
It gave him a twinge, the result of the two falls he’d taken that day, which had likewise mottled his torso with a livid assortment of bruises.
“Did you talk the tanarukk into a higher price?” his father asked.
Aeron poured water from the pitcher into the bowl, picked up the wash rag, and scrubbed the itchy grit from his skin. It felt odd to wash twice in a single day. Some people said too often was unhealthy. He hoped they were wrong.
“What did happen, then?”
He toweled himself dry, sat down opposite his father, dragged off his wet boots, and told the tale.
When he finished, Nicos glowered at him.
“Blood and bone, boy, are you trying to die?”
Aeron grinned and said, “When have the Gray Blades ever come close to catching me?”
“When did they try this hard? Why did you have to steal your cursed box inside the Paeraddyn?”
“Because I thought that no one would expect it to happen there, and I was right about that much, anyway. Besides, if the place had been standing in your day, you would have wanted to rob it, too, just to prove you could.”
“Perhaps,” Nicos sighed. “That wouldn’t have made it the smart thing to do.”
“Actually, I wonder if the law is hunting me with such zeal only because it was the Paer. Maybe the person who owned the box is pushing them.”
“That would mean you robbed somebody rich, powerful, or both.”
“Of something he valued highly,” added Aeron.
“Making it even more dangerous.”
Aeron shifted in his chair, trying to make himself more comfortable, and in so doing, discovered he was already stiffening up. He stretched and twisted in what would probably prove a futile attempt to forestall the process. His spine popped.
“Ordinarily,” he said, “I wouldn’t sweat over the Gray Blades. If they were my only problem, I could dodge them until they moved on to other matters. But avoiding them and the Red Axes at the same time… well, at least I won’t be bored.”
“That’s what’s important,” said his father with heavy sarcasm. “Still, it’s a shame you couldn’t reach an understanding with Kesk, though it’s no wonder, after you sneaked onto his home ground and kicked two of his bravos around.”
“I only sneaked in a little way, and I imagine he thinks guards who let themselves get taken by surprise deserve their bruises. But you’re right, more or less. Once Tharag let it slip that Kesk planned to kill my crew and me from the start, that pretty much wrecked any hope of us making a new bargain. I didn’t really even want to. Deep down, I was too angry. He must have sensed it and thought the only way he was ever going to see the lockbox was to take me prisoner and force me to cough it up. Or else kill me and pay a necromancer to wring the location out of my ghost. People say that kind of magic is possible, and Kesk wouldn’t balk at it if it is.”
“You’re positive the bugbear told the truth?”
“Yes,” Aeron replied. “I could feel it. If you’d been there talking to it, and Kesk, you would have, too.”
“Mask forbid that I ever come anywhere near that demon-spawn. Say he did want to murder you. Do you think it’s just because you turned down his offer to join the Red Axes all those years ago?”
“That’s probably part of it. He really seemed to want me after I stole that barge-load of spices. It plainly offended him when I said no, and he’s the kind to hold a grudge. But I reckon there’s more to it.”
“What is it, then?”
Aeron frowned, pondering, until an idea came to him.
“You said it yourself,” he said. “I robbed someone rich, powerful, or both-so much so that even Kesk Turnskull is leery of his wrath. So instead of using members of his own gang to grab the loot, he hires a freelance operator he hates and plans to kill him and his partners when their work is done. That way, nobody can trace the swag to the Red Axes.”
Nicos nodded and said, “That makes sense. What are you going to do now?”
“Sell the prize to somebody else. Imrys Skaltahar, maybe. They say he keeps plenty of gold on hand, enough to buy even the most valuable loot without the thief needing to wait on his coin. I think it may be wisest to dispose of the lockbox quickly, and I wouldn’t sell it to Kesk even if I could figure out a way to make him deal fairly. I’m not so suicidal as to seek to kill him, but I can keep him from getting what he wants. That’ll be at least a little revenge for Kerridi, Gavath, and Dal.”
“Skaltahar isn’t going to buy the coffer just because you promise that what’s inside is valuable.”
“You’re right,” Aeron agreed. “That’s the difficulty. Warding spells or no, I have to get the cursed thing open.”
Wherever he went, Kesk liked to stride arrogantly, his head bare and sneering tanarukk face on display, his battle-axe in his hand, and several of his henchmen swaggering along behind him. He enjoyed watching the common herd blanch and scurry to get out of the way, relished it when even Gray Blades chose to give him a wide berth.
By the same token, he disliked creeping about muffled in a shabby cloak and hood, and he positively despised rapping on the little twin-paneled door at the rear of the great house, as if he was some sort of tinker, peddler, or beggar.
No one answered right away, which blackened his mood still further, if that was possible. He felt a growing urge to chop down the door with his axe, which he never relinquished even on those rare occasions when he found it necessary to wear a disguise. But then the portal cracked open. A human, only half dressed, his feet bare and his tawny hair uncombed, peered down at what he likely thought a peculiar shrouded figure, taller and even thicker built than a dwarf, but shorter than an elf, waiting in the alley.
“Yes?” the servant yawned.
Scowling, Kesk lifted his head, pushed back his cowl, and finally had the satisfaction of seeing someone flinch. Since it was the only pleasurable moment he was likely to experience on his visit there, he tried to savor it.
“His nibs is expecting me,” he said.
The human gave a shaky nod and replied, “Yes. Please, come with me.”
At first, they traversed the service areas of the mansion. It was late enough that the servants and slaves had extinguished most of the lamps and candles, and with only a couple exceptions, they lay snoring on their cots and pallets. Kesk knew they’d rise with the dawn to resume their labors, and he experienced a swell of contempt for anyone trapped in such a dreary life. Truly, as he’d often thought, most people were no better than sheep and deserved whatever the wolves of the world cared to do to them.
Eventually his guide conducted him into the section of the house where the master spent his days. The furnishings had a fussy, delicate, pastel quality that made Kesk’s skin crawl. He understood that many folk would have considered them “elegant” or “beautiful,” but to the extent that he cared about such effete matters at all, he preferred clashing primary colors and bold, simple designs, a taste he shared with his orc ancestors.
The servant tapped on a door.
“Come in,” a reedy voice replied, whereupon the flunky ushered Kesk into a lavishly appointed library and workroom.
The decor was of a piece with that seen elsewhere in the house. Carved crystal flowers stood in milky porcelain vases, and a fabulously expensive blackwood clock with golden hands and numerals hung on the wall, its gilded weights dangling beneath it.
Dressed in a tasseled nightcap, slippers, and a quilted satin dressing gown, the owner of all that luxury lounged on a plush velvet divan, a scroll in his lap and a glass of pale wine on the stand beside him. Though well into the afternoon of his life, the smallish human had a boyish, apple-cheeked face that flashed a smile when he saw who’d come to call on him.
“Kesk!” he said. “My dear fellow. I was just about to give up on you for the night.”
“Do you have to use my name in front of the help?” Kesk growled.
The servant flinched as if he expected Kesk to reclaim his anonymity by butchering him on the spot. Actually, the idea did have something to recommend it.
“It’s a little late to worry about concealing your identity,” said the man on the couch. “As far as I know, you’re the only tanarukk in Oeble. In any case, Cohis is discreet. Aren’t you, Cohis? He’ll prove it by running along before he’s even asked.”
The lackey hastily withdrew and the man said, “Show it to me.”
Kesk felt awkward. Almost embarrassed. He wasn’t used to such feelings, and it made him angry.
“We hit a snag,” he said.
The human arched his eyebrows and asked, “How so? I know one of your minions made off with the prize. It’s the talk of the town.”
“That’s the problem,” said Kesk. “He wasn’t exactly one of mine. He was someone I hired.”
“I was under the impression that you had your own little army of ruffians to attend to such chores. Why would you seek help elsewhere?”
“Different reasons. The thing is, the bastard hasn’t handed over the box yet.”
“He wants more gold than we agreed on.”
“Perhaps you’d better give it to him.”
“I can’t let a little rat like him change the terms of a deal on me,” Kesk said. “It would make me look weak.”
“Forgive my selfishness, but I can’t help feeling more concerned with my objectives than your reputation.”
“You’ll get your cursed treasure.”
“Will I? I hope so, but I have the disquieting feeling there are things you’re not telling me.”
How right he was. But he might not appreciate hearing that Kesk had complicated the plan by scheming to seize the prize and settle an old score at the same time. Or that the tanarukk had lost his temper at exactly the wrong moment, lashing out at Aeron and scaring him off when he should have done all he could to allay the trickster’s misgivings. Or… well, quite a bit of it, really.
“Is it so bad?” Kesk asked. “The way you explained it, our victim has already squandered a lot of coin and wound up with nothing. You can still ruin him, can’t you?”
“Suppose I move prematurely, and he then recovers the Bouquet? He’ll survive my little coup knowing just what a committed enemy I actually am, which will surely prompt him to retaliate. That’s unacceptable. I don’t intend to make my play until the box is in my hands and I know for certain he’s defenseless. Also, of course, the musty old thing is virtually priceless. You don’t want to throw away all the riches it represents, do you?”
“Like I said, I’ll get it.”
“I never doubted it for an instant. Still, perhaps we can resolve the matter more expeditiously if I take an active role. What’s our recalcitrant thief’s name?”
“Don’t worry about it. I’ll deal with him.”
“Please, indulge my curiosity.”
“Are you going to make me say it outright?” Kesk asked, scowling.
The man on the couch cocked his head and replied, “Apparently so.”
“I know I’m not the only knife on your belt. Maybe, if I give you the name, you’ll find the thief without any help from me. Then you might figure that just proves you don’t need a partner after all.”
“What a sour, suspicious turn of mind you have. Of course I need a partner. Can you imagine me traipsing through the Underways, trafficking with your Red Axes and their ilk? Would they trust me or even take me seriously? Not without a great deal of effort on my part, and I have other, more congenial work requiring my attention. Now, please, give me the name. Otherwise, much as it would pain me, I’ll have to start questioning your integrity.”
The human heaved a sigh and said, “Oh, very well, have it your way. I was just trying to expedite matters, but…”
As he blathered on, his hand slipped toward the pocket of his robe.
Kesk sprang forward. The man in the robe lifted his hand, stray grains of glittering blue powder leaking from his palm. About to fling the stuff, he registered the fact that the outlaw was already poised to swing his battle-axe at his neck, and faltered.
Kesk was so angry that the human’s hesitation almost didn’t matter.
“You’d cast a spell on me?” the tanarukk demanded.
The rich man opened his fingers and let the colored sand spill harmlessly away.
“It wouldn’t have hurt you,” he said. “It would merely have inclined you to trust me.”
Kesk grinned and said, “Not much hope of that now.”
“Come, now. You don’t truly wish to hurt me. Think of that rosy future I promised you: the Red Axes doing absolutely anything they please without fear of the Gray Blades, the rest of the underworld either paying homage to you or driven out of Oeble altogether. You’ll never achieve that paradise without me.”
“Don’t be so sure,” Kesk said, but he lowered the axe.
The human smiled and rubbed his slender neck as if making sure his head was still attached.
“Thank you for your forbearance.”
“No,” Kesk spat, “thank you for reminding me you’re a wizard. You want to help me find the Bouquet? Fine. Let’s turn out your drawers and closets and see what kind of talismans you’ve got.”