Betrayal is never far from the selfish man.
– The Proverbs of Shedey’uwr
Altman slumped down under a tree. Gingerly he reached behind him for the dagger wound in his back. Grimacing, he slowly pulled his hand back, red with blood. He searched his pockets until he found a small flask. Opening it he drained it in one long pull. Within moments the pain from his wounds began to ease as the healing potion took effect.
He tossed the flask aside and sorrowfully inspected his ruined clothes. Genuine elven cloth from the Shimmerwood, totally ruined, he thought mournfully. Now it’s not good for anything except dust rags. He stood up and undressed, tossing the blood-soaked clothes away. After hunting among his possessions he came up with a small, apparently empty sack. He stuck his arm in it all the way to the armpit. A moment later he pulled out a new pair of boots. He laid them down and stuck his arm back into the sack. He hummed busily as he worked, pulling this and that item of clothing out of the sack until he had a virtual wagon load of clothes sitting on the ground in front of him.
He wiped the blood off his chain mail, the unnaturally shiny metal seeming to cooperate by almost pushing the blood away. When it was clean he drew it back on and it snuggled close to his flesh of its own accord, like a second skin.
Turning, he considered the mountain of clothes before him. “Now whatever shall I wear?” he wondered aloud. “The Ingoldian outfit? No no, wrong style. Simply wouldn’t do around here.” He muttered and dithered, examining first one outfit then another, talking to himself all the while. “We must fit in of course, that goes without saying, but at the same time We absolutely must stand out in the crowd. It wouldn’t be right to let someone else have the same dress We do. No no, wouldn’t be right at all. Not fair in the slightest.”
He went on in this vein for some time, talking aimlessly, using the royal We and blathering about style and fashion as if they were the most important things in the world. Finally, he settled on an extravagantly colored version of the robes worn by the wandering tribes in Midbar, the Great Desert.
The rest of the clothes went back into the tiny sack, leaving it as flat and empty looking as ever, despite holding a wardrobe sufficient for thirty men. He debated over which of several different swords to wear, finally deciding on one that was less magical, but far prettier than the others. The rest were dumped into the sack. He filled his pockets with a variety of odds and ends, slid a wand into a holder on his forearm, a dagger into each boot, and several more under his robes. He put his jewelry back on and finally felt presentable. He turned this way and that trying to see himself, wishing for a mirror. He pulled out a small, battered notebook and wrote himself a quick reminder, Get Mirror.
When he felt ready to face the world again he pushed his way through a tangle of underbrush to a narrow path that cut through The Forest, surprising several elves. Although they made no hostile moves he could feel their eyes following his every step. Here in their Forest, their elven power could readily be felt and he moved quickly along, anxious to be out of their green, sun-dappled district and get back among civilized people again.
The path eventually lead him to the main road between the Noble Estates and the High Market. The traffic was still light for this time of day and he hurried along, sidestepping the occasional gilded carriage and its retinue of men-at-arms. Less often a merchant wagon was headed the opposite direction, delivering wares directly to some noble’s estate. The landed nobles were fiercely protective of their privacy and seldom tolerated visitors from the lesser part of town. In fact, they seldom tolerated visits from each other.
Altman shook his head at the overblown zeal with which these people played their silly games of House versus House, constantly maneuvering for advantages that seemed completely nonsensical. What difference, he asked himself, did it make which House was responsible for collecting the docking fees? They all shared equally in the money. Who cared who handled it or the myriad other details in running the city and its vast trade that came through all the time? He shook his head again; politics was something he’d never been able to fathom. Or cared about. Fun was his goal in life.
He came to the edge of the sprawling High Market and put the crazy shenanigans of the nobles out of his mind. Weaving his way through the swelling crowds and hundreds of gaily colored stalls, he soon came to the more permanent buildings located on the edges of the market and climbed the steps to the open door of one of the more ornate ones. He went directly to a small desk at one side of the room, ignoring the lines in front of the counter.
The woman at the desk groaned in mock despair when he sat down. “I say my prayers every day, I don’t break the law, I’m a good person, so tell me . . . why me?”
He grinned at her. “With your magic, you run the most reliable, safest bank in town, that’s why. And you love having all my money in here so you can loan it out at ruinous interest rates.”
She grimaced at his barbed words. “There ought to be a law against people like you. You should have the grace to get old and die like everyone else, not hang around year after year making life miserable for the rest of us.”
Altman reared back in shock. “And miss all the fun? Never!”
“Fun, hmmph! That’s all you fancy fops ever think about.”
He caught the implied plural in her voice and leaned forward with sharp interest. “Who else is in town?”
“Who do I look like – Fat Greely? Go ask him who is in town.”
“A banker would be the very first to know,” he countered smoothly. “Especially you Marlana, so don’t give me any guff; who is in town?”
“Rontoffer,” she said reluctantly.
“Oh.” His face fell. “Ronny’s a puffball. Nobody cares about him. Anyone else?”
She shook her head. “He’s the only one.” She paused. “Are you going to do some business or just sit here and give me a hard time?”
“A little of both sounds appropriate I think.”
“Uh huh. How much?”
“Oh, five thousand ought to do for now,” he answered carelessly.
“Right.” She started up out of her chair to get his money, then paused and stared at him suspiciously. “Five thousand? Since when do you carry that kind of money around? What are you up to?”
“Up to?” he replied innocently. “I’m quite sure I’ve no idea whatever you can be talking about.”
“Put a lid on it,” she snapped. “Whenever you start with the flowery stuff it means you’re up to something. Now, what is it?”
“My dear lady,” – she snorted – “just because I wish to make a slight withdrawal is no reason to begin leveling an accusing finger at my poor, benighted self. I but wish to partake fully of the many and varied entertainments your fair city has to offer. It is my fondest wish to . . .”
His verbal outpouring was cut short as Marlana turned on her heel and stalked away. He assumed his most wounded expression and addressed the world at large. “Such rudeness. Is it any wonder the world is in such a terrible state?” He shook his head with sorrow at the pitiful state of human relations and fell to studying his fingernails; about the only worthwhile thing to do in a bank, he thought.
Marlana dumped a heavy sack of coins unceremoniously on the desk, interrupting his musings. “Here, take your money and get out. I’ve got work to do.” She sat down, picked up her quill pen, and began running over a list of figures.
He stared at the top of her dark-haired head for a moment then shrugged, picked up the sack, and stuffed it away. “Goodbye my dear,” he said as he got up. “Until roads come ‘round.”
“Until roads come ‘round,” she answered without looking up. “And say hello to Fat Greely for me.”
“My pleasu–” He stopped an instant too late.
She looked up with an evil glint in her eye and smiled sweetly. “Goodbye, Altman,” she cooed in a false, honeyed voice.
Miffed at the ease with which she’d found out where he was going, he nodded stiffly and walked out, trying to make it look casual. Once outside he turned and hurried for the Rogue’s Market down by the docks. So what if Marlana knew where he was going, she didn’t know why. Unless she asked one of her pet demons, of course. But he didn’t think she really cared, she just liked needling him.
He put the banker-mage out of his mind and bent all his efforts to finding Fat Greely. The old ex-blacksmith might be in any one of a hundred different places. He moved around constantly, never staying in one place too long. The city guards were always trying to keep an eye on him and rumor had it that several nobles had put a price on his head. So far the wily old, information broker had managed to outwit them all and continued to ply his trade.
He finally tracked Greely down in a little dive in Merc-Town called the Loud Bang. The smelly little bar was living up to its name today as several graying mercenaries were playing with their newest toy, small pieces of Pyrite. They were hurling them at the walls and floor at random intervals, deafening everyone around them with the explosions and their own yells of excitement. He saw Greely sitting over in a corner where he could watch the entire bar and waved. The old man waved a meaty arm and signaled him to come over.
He slid into a chair and ordered a beer. He and Greely eyed each other silently until the waitress brought his drink and left. Two fighters, heavily armed and armored lounged at the next table with studied carelessness, Greely’s bodyguards. Altman was careful not to look at them. There was no sense in asking for trouble.
A deafening explosion shook the room behind him. As the smoke was clearing he leaned across the table. “I’m looking for a certain mage. I want the information quick, clean . . . and no haggling.” He put the heavy sack of coins on the table.
Greely looked at it but didn’t touch it. “Not much for the social niceties today, are we?” His voice was hoarse and labored.
“They’re boring and I’m in a hurry,” he said brusquely.
“If this is about Rontoffer, I’m not going to get involved in one of your Fortune Feuds,” Greely warned him.
“Forget Rontoffer,” Altman said in exasperation. “I’m not interested in him.”
“Then why –” Greely stopped and coughed heavily, with a wet, wheezing sound. He finally cleared his throat and tried again. “Then why do you want a mage?”
“I said clean.”
In the local parlance, clean meant no questions asked. People in Greely’s position didn’t like to work clean. It often meant they were supplying information to deadly rivals, which could land them in the middle of a gang war and force them to take sides, thus jeopardizing their neutrality. He pursued his lips thoughtfully. “I don’t work that way,” he said slowly.
“Then I’ll go to Sithfarith.”
“That brain-eating low-life doesn’t work that way either,” Greely wheezed. “Only good thing about him.”
Altman picked up the sack and started to put it away. Greely’s heavy hand stopped him. “Whoa there. There are always exceptions, but I don’t like it.” The overdressed navigator kept his hand on the sack, waiting. “Alright,” the old man finally relented. “Have it your way.”
Altman nodded and removed his hand from the bag. He left a piece of paper on top of it. “That’s everything I know about the mage I’m looking for.”
Greely gave him a sour look and picked it up. He unfolded it and read slowly, moving his lips over each word. It took him several minutes to finish. When he did he put the paper down and considered his companion in silence, obviously wondering how high he could raise the price. “Four thousand,” he said at last.
Altman restrained a wide grin that wanted to break out over his face. “Four thousand,” he agreed with a show of reluctance. He counted it out from the bag and put the rest of it away. He saw Greely eyeing the still hefty weight of the bag and gave him a false smile of sympathy.
Greely nodded slightly, acknowledging that Altman had gotten the best of him. A big hand swept the stack of coins off the table and into a pocket.
Greely stood up slowly. “Macazecaha’s. Two hours.” The two fighters got up and followed him out of the bar.
Altman nodded at Greely’s back. Two hours was nothing. He could hold his breath that long. He briefly considered moving to another bar but decided to stay put. If anyone in town was looking for him he needed to stay in one place. The two hours went by without incident though and he found himself at Macazecaha’s. No one bothered him or even noticed as he entered.
Macazecaha’s was a large, noisy place with a forest of tables crowding the floor and high-backed booths along the walls. There were several rooms separated by wide, arched doorways and he wandered from one to the other until he found Greely in a corner booth. A large, water pipe took up most of the room on the table, clouds of smoke drifting up to join the layer of multi-colored smoke that hung low and heavy in the room. Altman sat down cautiously so as not to overturn the heavy contraption. He found himself looking at Greely through a maze of pipes and tubing. The bubbling sound of water was a strange counterpoint to their conversation.
“The mage is named Klee Blanrus,” Greely said without preamble. “And he’s mixed up with some very strange people.”
Greely nodded. “Among others. There’s also a Carrzulman priest named Bashaak.”
“What’s he been doing?” Altman asked curiously.
“Finding a special kind of virgin for a ceremony that Blanrus is supposed to conduct. Apparently, he was supposed to bring her here but it turns out her father is a high-ranking official in the empire’s government. Bashaak couldn’t afford to have him discover his involvement so Blanrus had to capture the girl himself.”
“Whoa,” Altman held up a restraining hand, his head spinning. Marak was an officer from Carrzulm? And a Carrzulman priest was responsible for his daughter’s abduction? By The Six! This was wonderful, he thought wildly. Imagine the possibilities; friend against friend, foe fighting side-by-side with foe, treachery, treason, backstabbing, he almost laughed with delight. Those goody-two-shoes Knights were working for a Carrzulman and they didn’t even know it! At that, he did laugh. “Go on,” he told his companion.
Greely gave him a strange look, then continued.
“Blanrus got the girl, but not before an adventuring group called the Knights of Gaia gave him a beating. The word is that he made it back here in a Captain’s skiff, more dead than alive. Since then he’s been holed up with The Sword.”
“Where, and what’s he been doing?”
The fat man shrugged massively and took a deep pull at the water pipe. “It gets a little sketchy from here on out, but it seems he’s been making like he expects an attack from the adventurers that beat him. He’s making all kinds of changes to The Sword’s hide-out, setting up traps all over the place. If these Knights of Gaia do try to invade, the word is they’re gonna be turned into dog meat.”
“Where?” Altman repeated patiently.
Greely smiled for the first time. “Two doors down from the Loud Bang,” he said with evident pleasure. “They use a clothing store for a front, The Motley.”
Altman’s jaw sagged in momentary dismay. He’d been just two doors away from the man he wanted to see? The thought of four thousand gold pieces flitted through his mind, then he dismissed it. He couldn’t have gotten this information together by himself, not without days of effort and false leads. He summoned up a smile of his own. “Many thanks my good man, you’ve been quite helpful.” He got up. “Oh, and Marlana said to say hi.”
He turned and left quickly.
Outside he paused to take stock and consider his options. After his hurried escape from the Sky Hawk, his only thought had been revenge. He’d intended to find the mage the Knights were pursuing and help him beat the stuffings out them. But maybe there was a way to salvage some extra fun out of this thing after all.
What if the Knights found out they were working for a Carrzulman? Did Marak’s men know? Taanen must, but what about the rest? And what if Marak found out about Bashaak fingering his daughter for Blanrus’ little ceremony? Did Blanrus even trust Bashaak? Carrzulmans were notorious backstabbers. He had to go somewhere and think about this. There was no sense in jumping too fast and missing some fun. He’d head down to the docks. There was always something happening down there. Maybe he would find the solution he was looking for there. If nothing else he’d have a good time.
Humming happily to himself he strode down the street in eager anticipation.