CHAPTER 6

"I don't want you to go, Jyre."

Those were the first words captain Els had spoken since he had first picked up the pen to record my tale. He had listened as I spoke, recorded the words as I told them but almost from the first word he had had that disapproving frown on his face.

"Why not? This is good info. We need anything we can get on Her Ladyship. You said so yourself!" I stepped away from the wall towards the rickety writing desk. My shadow masked Els's face. "I'll be gone two days. Three at the most."

Els coughed. A horrible racking cough. It scared me. When he finally caught his breath he shook his head. "I don't think itís the information you're after, somehow."

I snorted and turned away, casting my gaze on the quiet street outside. "You think I'd do something like this for money?"

"No. But you'd sure as hell do it for the adventure!" He had moved behind me and now placed a large hand on my shoulder. "I worry, Jyre. What makes you think you can trust him?"

"He's well known for his... contacts."

"He's also well known as an idiot and a bastard! I still can't believe you're willing to risk your life for a rumor!"

I could feel his body heat through my clothes and for a second I didn't want to leave. Then I pushed him away. "You'll take the letter to Nightfall?"

Els stepped back. "At first light."

I picked up my pack and slung it over my shoulder. "And you'll look after yourself?"

"Of course."

I was almost out the door when he spoke again.

"Shall I give him your love?"

The question brought me to a halt. I felt my face burning. "Its not like that and you know it."

"Oh no?" There was a cocky smile on his face now.

"He... fascinates me, that's all. He's so well known and yet he somehow manages to remain a mystery."

"He's certainly intriguing, I'll give you that. But that doesn't make me want to pour my soul out to him."

I stepped outside and shut the door. I still didn't understand why I had done that myself.

***

Itís hard to enjoy your breakfast when you are worrying about three people. James I really did not have to worry about. Be it avoiding Hammerite scouts wile investigating the lodge, or thwarting the wrath of this Lady should he be discovered digging dirt up on her, I knew that he was more then capable of talking care of himself. I had no doubt that he could search that building from steeple to cellar without being seen by a fly. Then there was Jyre, who told me that she needed my help in the note, but then vanished. I could have her tracked down easily, but I dislike doing such things to such people. She would come to me, I hoped, without doing anything brash. She seemed to be a crafty person to have survived so far, leaving little doubt that sheís still quite fine. However there was a dash of guilt that stuck in my mind like a splinter. When I had requested the Hammers investigate the Lodge, and I had neglected to warn the old woman to stay clear of the place, lest she be found by the Hammers and subjected to things I would care not to think about while chewing on bacon and eggs. But my train of thought was cut short.

"Master, a letter for you-"

"Canít ya see the masterís eatiní!!"

Jossimerís rude interruption of my meal received a sharp objection from my cook, Mrs. Marith Henrett. Unlike Jossimer, she was a servant I actually appreciated (and coincidentally received the highest pay). An old woman in her mid sixties, she sort of reminded me of my grandmother when I was a child. Standing only a little under five feet tall, with a very slight figure, this little old woman cooked the best meals I could ever ask for. Not only that, but I enjoyed how she constantly picked on Jossimer for his incompetence, so I didnít have to!

Jossimer, ignoring Marithís verbal bashings, walked stiffly up to where I was seated and laid a note on the table. "This was Ďnailedí to the front gate with this, Master." He handed me a custom made dagger, the hilt being a image of a figure of a woman moving in swirling mist. For a moment I was more interested in the dagger, and after a brief examination concluded that it did indeed have some artistic value. Reluctantly, after finishing my orange juice, I picked up the letter and read it.

Nightfall, do I gather by your not showing to the meeting that you're not interested in the Star of Alarus, or were you just so busy you couldn't be bothered to reply? I thought maybe Iíd get a definite answer if I pinned this note to your butler Jeeves but I decided that might not make a favorable impression. Anyway, you want it or not? I have a big ummm... project coming and I need cash for supplies and lets just say I don't want to go into Cragscleft unprepared. Ragbert, my fence, needs rescuing, and it's not the sort of thing I can do without the right equipment. I'll be in the tavern by the docks early this morning, corner table to the left of the door. If you don't show by nine this piece of jewelry goes to the highest bidder.

-Ghost

Cursing myself for being so forgetful, (hey, itís just a bauble) I thanked Marith for the wonderful meal, grabbed my cloak, and dashed out to the meeting place. I only had two hours to make it clear across town, so I decided I had better hurry.

***

I took the latest message to Master Nightfall down to the kitchen and asked the cook for two mugs of tea; then went into the messenger's waiting room. Quen was there, a lass we'd hired several years before. I handed her a mug of tea, and inquired about Spence, her beloved Stafford terrier. Spence, an ugly but very friendly beast, had been part of our recruitment of Quen; we provided it with critical medical care Quen couldn't afford, and part of her contract was a proviso for continuing to provide for it. After a few minutes chatting about Spence's affairs, I asked her to take the message to Daniel, and she sped off.

***

Making my way through the city during early morning is one of the easier things I like to do. It gives good practice at avoiding being seen without the use of shadows, and I get to practice my pick pocket skills on occasion when a wealthy looking noble type takes a early morning stroll. Not to mention the fact that most of the guards are exhausted from having to take the graveyard shift. But this morning was different, I had a meeting to get to and wasn't bothering to even stay concealed so much as just keeping my eyes open for Hammerite patrols. Getting to the docks area is simple, not far out of the main area of town but far enough out that the city watch doesn't make regular trips out there for nothing. Finally I arrived at the stated bar where Nightfall was to meet me, or where it seemed I was meeting him. I have had the feeling that I was being set up for a while now, or maybe he just wanted to test my persistence by not answering my first offer to sell the Star.

Inside "The Drunken Mermaid", the typical sort is lingering. Some fisherman types, some pirate types, and some cloaked unscrupulous types, like me, sit around drinking and making sure not to make eye contact with anyone else. As I approached my normal table, the men sitting at it looked as if they were quite comfortable until they realized they were in my seat. There were three of them, sailors, and sleepy looking ones at that. Their ship had mostly likely just come into port, and they were hitting the bar to get some juice in their system to keep their eyes open to they could unload the cargo. Surprisingly, they showed the proper respect by moving to another table, and I was kind enough to not put a dagger through their hands. I bet it had something to do wit the fact that they were too tired to throw a punch, and not drunk enough to not notice how tired they are. I sat down with my back to the wall and order my usual drink, warm spiced mead, and prepare to wait for Nightfall, hoping he shows up this time.

An hour later and still no Nightfall. There was only one hour left until nine, and then Iíd go home and find another buyer. Maybe Bafford would take it, but they again, heíd most likely turn me in as well. Damn Hammerite collaborators. As usual when meeting someone I don't really know, Iím fairly edgy, since he could either bring the cash for the Star, which I didn't even have on me, or he could bring the Hammerites or city guard down on the place to rid the world of a few more undesirables. However his reputation preceded him, and he is definitely not known for betrayal. What he is definitely known for is collecting rare and valuable items, for that museum of his they call ĎThe Circleí.

Another hour goes by, two more mugs of mead and I'm ready to give up. Five minutes until nine, and still no all great and wonderful Master Nightfall. Looks like I have to take a major price cut on this thing to get rid of it unless I want to travel to some other city to find a buyer, but thatís not likely. I stand up and leave a few coins on the table for the drinks and get ready to go home and ponder who I can pawn this thing off on when I see the door open someone who couldn't be anyone besides Nightfall walks in. I sit back down and pull the dark gray hood of my cloak up over my head.

The combination of his sudden entrance, his formal and extremely wealthy (at least by these peopleís standards) clothing, and him simply being who he is made everyone in the tavern suddenly turn and look. Iím sure he enjoyed the reaction. I expected so much, but what happened next I truly did not expect. One of the darkened drunks who was buzzing around the dart board suddenly shouted out. "Barkeep! One of yer finest fer the Master Nightfall! Patron saint of Thieves!!" A few shouts of agreement rang from several corners of the room as the stuck up basterd politely accepted the offer. I was disgusted. How can a man have a meeting in peace with this, this, whatever he is? I was about to get up and leave when we walked past my table and deposited a note under the rim of the ashtray. I waited until the guy was up by the bar, and chatting with a band of rouges before picking up the note.

Ghost,

My apologies for the scene. Itís what usually happens, sorry to say. I could say that I enjoy it no more then you do, but that would be a lie. Meet me on the platform under the wharf in ten minutes.

Nightfall

Skeptical, but needing this cash badly, I got up and walked out. I found the place he talked about easy enough. It was just a short jog to the wooden stair to the fishing platform under the wharf. I nearly jumped out of my skin when I found him there waiting for me.

"Youíre early" was all he said. The man is hard to describe. Usually when I see clothing that well made and formal itís worn by a fat nobleman, but the stuff he wore was no more suited to a nobleman then he was fat. If you could imagine the standard thief / assassin / spy type outfit, but filthy rich rather then filthy with dirt, youíll get the idea. The only thing that was different was instead of a hood, he wore a black hat, flat topped, with a brim that came halfway out to the edge of his shoulders. The only part of his face I could see really was that crooked smile of his.

"Youíre late?" I said, quite pissed. "I told you be there before nine."

"I arrived at exactly eight fifty seven", he said, as he whipped out his pocket watch to show me that he knew exactly what time it was. "I told you be here in ten minutes. Youíre three minutes early."

I was about to get really steamed when the guy broke into laughter. "Yeah, yeah, ha, ha, very funny. So do you have the cash."

"Do you have the merchandise?"

"I have it. Not on me, but I have it."

"Iíll need it before I give you the pay."

"I canít trust you to give me the pay if I give you the merchandise first."

He smirked at me. "Paying in advance will decrease its value to me. You may have your money first, but you will not get as much."

After considering, I agreed. "Fine." Better to be sure I get my cash and get less, then risk not getting it at all.

"Very well. Iíll give you 500 gold for it."

It was a good offer, Iíll have to admit, but I always try and see what I can get out of people.

"No, 700 gold."

"I may have considered 700 if you had the star with you. As it stands that price is out of the question. I stand by my original offer."

I eyed him narrowly. Haggling was no doubt something this creep made an art of. "Alright. 650 gold."

He shook his head. Damn, he had me. He knew I would have a hell of a time trying to sell it to anyone else. That is, anyone else who wouldnít turn me in for it. I may as well fight it out I figured.

"630 gold."

"Iíll give you 500 gold, and put the star on central display, with plaque next to it, telling of the mighty thief who stole it, and a brief exaggerated tale of how you got it."

Hot damn, that was tempting. Still, fame wouldnít buy me suppliesÖ or would it? I could get some better jobs if more fences out there knew of me. I had made the right choice coming to Master Nightfall after all! Still, I wanted to see if I could get more gold out of him. "All that, plus 600 gold."

His smile vanished. "Donít push it."

"Fine, 500 gold. Deal." I stuck out my hand, and Nightfall grasped it and shook firmly. "Iíll bring you the Star as soon as the gold is tucked away in my apartment."

He nodded, and produced five bags of gold from his pouch. I wondered why I hadnít just mugged the man, but then I noticed his quarter staff leaning against the wall. I had fought a man who used a quarter staff once. It looks no more harmless then a blackjack, but boy was I wrong. It wasnít pretty, I can tell you that much. I opened each bag, pulled out a coin, bit it to test it, and was soon satisfied that I was now the proud owner of 500 gold coins. This could buy me quite a few water arrows and flash bombs. "Great, thanks Mr Nightfall. Where should I deliver the star?"

"At The Circle. Iíll be in my office until six tonight. I trust you know the way?"

"No prob. And thanks!"

He nodded, gave a brief smile, and then leaned against the wall and just stood there. I guess he was waiting for me to leave, so I did. I made a beeline for my apartment, several miles north of the docks.

***

Charming fellow, that Ghost. I had expected him to be a tougher haggler, but I suppose he did well. The star was easily worth the 700 gold he requested, but as much as I donít mind giving to charity, I do have to throw away my money on scumbags. Still, if he didnít come back with the star, I could always find more then enough thugs to lean on him for me. I crooked glyph chalked onto the manhole cover caught my eye. James had information for me. I walked to the other side of the street, and halfway down an ally to grab the letter which was sitting on a window sill.

Daniel:

Tread carefully with the Lady. The suspicions I had earlier can be confirmed; this is no normal threat. The streets have produced no information yet save one informant who was killed before making her rendezvous; others clearly know of the Lady but are too terrified to speak. So much would indicate strong current coercive power. However, a curious glyph was left carved on her back after she was killed; and this has been a worrisome clue.

For the same glyph has been found in a number of references Corinne has dug out of the archive; and there, too, it is only referenced en passant and in tones of terror. The power behind the glyph is linked to the Trickster and the Wood, but as a sometime ally, not as a servant. Certainly a dark and chaotic force, in any event, and ill-disposed towards men.

Is the use of the glyph in this age merely an accident? I think not. Is it a false lead, set by a normal enemy to deceive, or to wear the mantle of an ancient terror? Again, I suspect not. The terror is forgotten for long years in the records, only to crop up anew when it has slid from memory. I shall advise you soonest when we have information of more substance.

- James

This was looking more and more like what James and I both suspected, but cared not to dare utter. There was no need for me to worry now. Everything that was happening was going correctly, regardless of whether or not we were right or wrong. At least, I hoped they were going correctly. I was sick of walking, so I called a cab.

I hailed a particularly shabby looking one. I didnít care how it looked, I just wanted to get off my feet. Without any more then glancing at me, and cabby pulled up to the curb where I waited and pulled the lever to open the door. His horse relieved himself on the pavement. The tired looking young man in the drivers seat spat on the sidewalk, and then looked at me. "Where does ye wants ta gooowwhhaaooa!!! Well Iíll be a bloody taffer!! Beggen yer pardon, but what would a rich lard such as yerself be doin Ďailin a rickety olí cab like mine Ďere?

"Just consider me a patron of the working class, good sir. Please, to The Circle of Stone and Shadow, and make haste"

"Aye ser! I shant spare the whip ser!" With a crack of his whip, and horse broke into a gallop. A shame, since I wasnít even in my seat yet. Ouch.

***

A bright light in my eyes. I opened them, squinting into the light. Five faces stared into my face. My arms and legs were kept in their position by some straps.

"Since we do not know of whom she hadst been sent, we do not want her crippled. Do a good job, Brother Surgeon." A young, intelligent voice from the background.

Hands reached for my left shoulder and elbow, keeping me from moving the arm. The bright pain of metal in the flesh of the arm. The sharp, heavy pain of nails in the bone. They made a metal splint, bolted directly into the arm. All went black.



END CHAPTER 6




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