Authors: Richard Baker
At the far end of the hall, Anders broke his cover and charged forward, unsheathing his broadsword with a shrill ring of steel. The demon roared and spat a gout of flame at the swordsman, driving him to the ground. For one long, flawless moment, Jack saw nothing between him and his route of escape but the dark crevice of the storeroom door. He put his head down and ran for all he was worth.
Then a door opened right in front of him, and Aldeemo Kuldath stepped right into his path. Pale and wizened, the easterner blinked his eyes sleepily while drawing back the string of a small hand crossbow. Jack, still invisible, crashed into him at a dead run. Both thief and merchant sprawled to the floor. Aldeemo’s crossbow fired with a sharp snap, embedding its tiny quarrel in the middle of his own left foot. Jack’s rubies flew from his hand and scattered across the polished wood floor of the hallway, skittering and dancing like droplets of wine.
“My foot!” howled the merchant.
“My rubies!” wailed Jack. His invisibility faded, spoiled by the collision.
Roaring in rage, the demon leaped over both to meet Anders’s charge, as the Northman shrieked a battle cry
and sprang forward with his blade flashing. The guardian’s claws and teeth snapped and gouged huge furrows in the paneling. Anders dodged and slashed, parrying the attack and hacking away at the monster with furious strokes.
“That’s three!” the swordsman cried. “Do you hear me, Jack? That makes three!”
While the swordsman and the demon traded desperate blows, Jack shook his head, clearing the cobwebs, and scrambled after the rubies. The first one he reached for was kicked aside by a careless step of the guardian demon; the second, Aldeemo reached first. He groped for another ruby and seized one… just as another door opened and Ospim Kuldath stepped into the fray, armed with a long cudgel.
“Thievery! Burglary! Chaos!” the second Kuldath shrieked. “Summon the Watch!” Then he stooped and picked up the fourth ruby.
“Discretion is advised,” Jack muttered, then decided to leave while he could. “Anders! Get out!” He jumped to his feet and darted past Ospim, ducking under a swing of the club, and threw himself into the secret storeroom in the middle of the hallthere was no way to get past the demon and Anders, engaged in their furious duel.
“Stop! Come back here!” Aldeemo cried. He tried to scramble after Jack, sprawling to the ground again when he tripped over the quarrel stuck in his foot. The lean, bearded merchant screamed a string of curses in some uncouth eastern tongue and clutched his injured extremity.
Anders snarled a curse of his own and started giving ground, retreating back to the carpet room. At the right moment, he jumped back and slammed the door in the demon’s face, barring it with one swift movement. The creature lowered its massive head and butted the door hard enough to split one of the planks. Hoping that Anders
had sense enough to make his escape while the demon battered down the door, Jack retreated into the linen closet and groped for the catch to the secret door. An anxious moment later, he found it and bolted down the secret stairway.
One ruby still clutched in his hand, he burst out of the secret door into the Kuldath business floor and threw himself out of the first window he encountered in a spray of broken glass. Without breaking stride, he rolled to his feet and pelted for home. Instinctively he avoided the bobbing torches and angry voices of the local watchmen converging on the scene, slipping into a dark alleyway and resuming his mask of invisibility.
It could have gone worse, Jack told himself.
An hour later, Jack sat in the crowded warmth of the Cracked Tankard and quaffed a clay mug of ale. The Kuldath ruby rested in the innermost pocket of his doublet, a mere handspan from his heart, and he reveled in the cool impression it made against the ribs of his left side. As always, he’d claimed his seat on the back wall, midway between the stairs leading up to the Tankard’s private rooms, a doorway leading to the kitchens and then the alleyway beyond, and a small window fronting on De Villars Ride. He’d learned through necessity that he could fit through that window in a pinch, and he now counted it among the seven possible exits from the room.
The Cracked Tankard was not the roughest taproom in Raven’s Bluff, nor the oldest, nor the one most frequented by thieves and swindlers, nor the one with the cheapest ale or the sauciest barmaids. It was instead a pleasant combination of all these things. Situated on the western end of the Anvil, the heart of the city, the Tankard not
only made an excellent meeting place, but it also collected rumors and news in much the same way that the lowest portion of an awning collected rainwater. All manner of things in Raven’s Bluff ran downhill to this one spot.
By Jack’s guess, midnight was two hours gone, and still Anders had not showed up at their arranged rendezvous. He chose not to worry too much. The blond-bearded swordsman was one of the best brawlers he knew, and he was as comfortable racing across the city rooftops as the rocky cliffs of his distant homeland. It would take more than an angry demon and the brothers Kuldath to prevent his escape. Jack had partnered with Anders before in similarly daring escapades; if he knew the Northman, Anders would be along sooner or later.
Observing that his ale was almost gone, Jack held his mug in the air and called, “Briesa! There must be a hole in this cup, for it is empty again!”
Across the taproom, a pretty dark-haired barmaid waved him off. I’ll get to you as soon as I can, love,” she replied over the din.
“I have been waiting to hear you speak those words for weeks now, Briesa,” Jack replied.
She rolled her eyes and turned away, six tankards brimming in her hands as she danced off to a table of rowdy Sembians. The girl was very pretty, a few inches shorter than he was, and quite fetching in the busty barmaid’s blouse and dress. Jack grinned to himself and drained off the last of his mug, designs upon Briesa’s virtue forming in his mind.
When he looked up from the empty tankard, he found himself gazing into the eyes of an exquisitely beautiful woman dressed all in dark leather. Hair as dark as midnight spilled down her shoulders. Eyes that smoldered with sultry promise and ebon fire studied him with calm,
collected confidence. A long, slender sword was sheathed at her hip.
“Good evening,” she said in a clear voice marked by a faint burring accent. “Are you called Jack Ravenwild?”
“I might be,” Jack admitted, setting down his cup with some care. “If you owe Jack Ravenwild a substantial sum of money, then I am certainly he. If, on the other hand, you intend to run him through for some imagined slight long forgotten on his part, then no, I don’t believe I’m the one you’re looking for.” He paused, studying the woman, and then added, “If, perchance, you have heard of his prowess in the arts of love, and yearn to find out if half of what you might have heard is true, then I am most certainly Jack Ravenwild.”
She smiled coldly, a smile that didn’t touch her eyes, and settled into the chair opposite him. “I’ll take that as a long-winded yes, although I don’t owe you money, I don’t mean to kill you, and I don’t have any particular interest in your romantic prowess. I’m here to talk business.”
“Business?” Jack sighed dramatically. “Well, business it is, then. To whom am I speaking?”
“You can call me Elana,” the dark-haired woman said. She shifted slightly in her seat, clearing her sword arm and moving to make sure that the table would not interfere with a sudden draw. Long, lithe muscles flexed along her forearm. Jack realized that her face and figure showed not a trace of softnessshe didn’t wear the sword for show. She was a panther, a tigress, absolutely confident in her own abilities.
“What can I do for you, Elana?” Jack asked. He offered a subtle smirk, unable to resist the temptation to jest a little with her. He hated serious people.
“I hear,” said Elana, “that you excel in finding things. I would like you to find something for me.”
“You have heard correctly. There will be, of course, a
pittance of a finder’s fee. I would charge you nothing for my services, but if word got out that I’d worked for free, why, then I should never be solvent again. What are you looking for, dear Elana?”
Elana started to speak, and then held her tongue as Briesa approached and replaced Jack’s mug of ale. The barmaid glanced at Jack and hid a smile, as if to say that Jack had no need of troubling her anymore with his suggestions, now that he had female companionship. Jack winced. It might take weeks to convince Briesa that he was discussing business and business alone with the lovely Elana.
“Anything for your companion, Jack?” the barmaid asked.
Elana glanced up at her. Ill take whatever he’s drinking.”
“Right away, miss,” Briesa said. She whirled off into the crowd, a serving tray balanced on her shoulder. She didn’t notice the long, thoughtful look Elana gave her as she moved away.
“You were about to say?” Jack prompted.
The swordswoman returned her attention to him. “I’m looking for a book. A very old, rare book that I have good reason to believe is somewhere in this city. I’m willing to pay you five hundred pieces of gold for your help, plus a bonus if you actually recover it for me.”
“What kind of bonus did you have in mind?”
Elana smiled in a predatory fashion. “I don’t have too much more money at my disposal, but I’m sure you can think of other ways for me to reward you for a job well done.”
Jack set down his tankard and sat straight up. She was toying with him, he was certain of it. On the other hand… “What can you tell me about the book? Anything you can volunteer at this point will help me to find it for you.”
The swordswoman leaned forward, lowering her voice. “It is called the Sarkonagael,” she said quietly. “Eight
years ago, it was brought to Raven’s Bluff by an adventuring mage named Gerard. I do not know exactly where Gerard got it or how long he had it before he came here. But I’ve asked after Gerard already, and it seems that he disappeared on some failed enterprise about six years ago. All I really know at this point is that the Sarkonagael was in this city then, and it was brought here by Gerard.”
“What happened to Gerard’s belongings when he didn’t come back for them?”
“Apparently, the landlord who owned the house Gerard and his company were renting chose to sell off all the band’s trophies when they didn’t come back for them.”
“So the Sarkonagael was sold about six years ago from the estate of an adventuring band. That may be useful,” Jack said. There were a limited number of book dealers in Raven’s Bluff, and any such sale would have been attended by some of them. The odds were very good that the Sarkonagael might be sitting in someone’s bookshop. He smiled at the prospect of an easy five hundred gold crowns… and the attendant bonus. In fact, he might do well to make the job seem much harder than it really was. He could fabricate any kind of tale about daring burglaries or skullduggery. “One last question: Why do you want it?”
Elana waited a moment while the barmaid returned with her ale. She took a small sip, watching Jack over the top of the mug. She deliberately set down the mug and licked her lips. “I collect old books,” she said. “That is reason enough.”
Jack laughed. Somehow he doubted that Elana collected many books, but she was entitled to maintain her fictions. “It will do for me, my lady,” he replied. “Now, for matters of pay”
Elana forestalled him by reaching into her leather coat and producing a small pouch. She dropped it on the table in front of him with a reassuring jingle of coinage.
“You’ll find twenty five-crown pieces in the purse,” she said. “Call it an advance. I now consider you to be in my employ. Youll receive the balance when you produce the book or convince me that it cannot be found in Raven’s Bluff. If that is the case, I expect you to spend at least a month searching diligently for itand HI know whether you really look for it or not.”
“My lady, I normally require half the promised fee in advance”
“Of course, dear Jack. And since you are so generously foregoing that requirement, I am prepared to offer the bonus of which we spoke. Generosity engenders generosity, true?”
Jack smiled. He found himself wondering whether Elana had another gold crown to her name or not, but for the moment he didn’t care. If the job was as easy as he suspected, a hundred crowns was sufficient reward… especially with the bonus included. “All who know me speak well of my generous nature, my lady. Of course I shall accept the arrangement you propose. Now, how shall I get in touch with you to report any progress I make?”
“I shall contact you when it becomes necessary,” Elana said.
“But it may be a day, or two days, or a week, or a month,” Jack said. “I hardly know how long it will take me to find your book until I complete the task! And, to be perfectly honest, I can be very difficult to find sometimes.”
“I found you once. I can find you again when I need to.” Elana took another deep draught from her ale and stood up. She drew the back of her hand across her mouth and donned a pair of gloves, tugging them over her fair hands. “I am afraid I have other business to attend to. I will find you when I need to speak to you, dear Jack. In the meantime… please exercise some discretion. I do not want it widely known that I seek the Sarkonagael.”
“I understand perfectly,” Jack said. Belatedly, he rose also. “I am the very soul of discretion. You need not have any fears on that account.”
“Good,” said Elana. She drew up her hood and stalked away, graceful and purposeful all at the same time. Jack watched her go, bemused. He sensed that he was out of his depth in dealing with her, but at the same time, the Kuldath expedition had not gone as well as he would have liked, and he could always use the money. Still, something about her unsettled him. Working for competent and dangerous people was one thing, but Elana clearly regarded him as nothing but a temporary associate of no real account. She’d simply played with him the whole time, a cat toying with a mouse.
“I am not a mouse,” Jack laughed. He sat back down again and sipped at his ale, watching the crowd swirl and shout. He waited another hour and then went back to his room in Burnt Gables. A ruby, a purse of gold, a beautiful lady, and a mysterious mission, he mused. Perhaps this was not a bad night after all.