Read The City of Ravens Online

Authors: Richard Baker

The City of Ravens (3 page)

The next morning, Jack visited the disreputable sage Ontrodes, who kept his house in a particularly poor part of Shadystreets. Whistling a merry tune and dressed splendidly in soft dove gray and midnight blue, Jack pranced through the streets of the city, greeting all who passed by with mirthful grins and generous bows. The steady drizzle affected his spirits not in the least, and the mire of Shadystreet’s muddy lanes and deceptively deep puddles did not slow his steps at all. He had a mystery to solve and a lady whose favors he sought. What more could he ask of a morning?

The home of Ontrodes had once been a small sage’s

tower, a cottage with a round stone turret nobly looking out over the Fire River across a green marsh filled with waterfowl. That had been close to a hundred years past. In the thirty-odd (or was it forty-odd?) years that the place had been in the care of Ontrodes, ramshackle wharves and rotten old warehouses had fenced in the riverbank, squalid hovels had encroached upon the sage’s fields, and the tower proper had almost fallen over, leaving nothing but a tottering edifice perched precariously on the edge of utter ruin.

Jack rather liked the place; he thought it unassuming. He stepped up to the cottage door and thumped it soundly, careful not to knock too vigorously lest he precipitate the final demise of Ontrodes’s home. “Ontrodes! My friend! Awaken, and provide me the benefit of your advice!”

A long silence followed, then a clatter and a horrible sort of honking sound that might have been the old man clearing his throat. “Advice?” coughed the old man from inside. “I advise you to go soak your head in a piss-pot! I know your insolent voice, Jack Ravenwild, and you’ll gain more wisdom in that fashion than you’ll ever gain from me! Now, go away, and don’t even think of returning until at least an hour past noon!”

“Have you been in your cups again, then, Ontrodes?”

“It is no concern of yours, Jack! Leave me be!” A rattle and a thump sounded from inside. The sage coughed loudly and mumbled more curses under his breath.

“Why, I am deeply concerned by the slightest illness in any of my friends,” Jack replied. “My solicitous and compassionate nature demands no less. If you suffer from too much indulgence, perhaps I can find some way to improve your spirits.”

“That is the very problem!” Ontrodes suddenly appeared at the door, yanking it open with a grunt of

effort. He stood there blinking, a short, paunchy man dressed in a wine-stained robe. White tousled hair crowned his red face, and a haze of untrimmed whiskers clung to his round jowls. “I sell my learning for the benefit of all, yet vagrants like you come and pick through my knowledge like curs sniffing through a heap of offal, refusing even the courtesy of a proper payment. Thus am I compelled to buy cheap, miserable Ravenaar wine instead of some more noble brew from Procampur or perhaps even fair Chessenta. And I awaken with ten angry goblins holding a war dance inside my head! Now, unless you have good gold in your pockets and some cure for my screaming skull-ache, leave at once!”

Jack bowed deeply and offered his most earnest smile. He dropped a small purse with a handful of Elana’s gold pieces in Ontrodes’s hand, and then he drew from his blue doublet a small silver flask. “Gold for your wisdom, and a fine elven brandy for your skull. The sublime bouquet is guaranteed to waft your perception to noble heights and charge your peerless mind with grand designs and astonishing visions.” He laughed aloud. “If nothing else, I have improved your spirits, haven’t I?”

The old sage slapped one meaty hand to his face and stood there for a moment as if to keep his brains from fleeing his head outright. Then he looked Jack in the eye. “I can see that you have no mercy in your heart. You might as well come in, then.”

“Excellent!” Jack replied. He could feel a successful conclusion to his mission no farther away than a cheap brandy-flask and a terse, to-the-point discussion.

CHAPTER TWO

So, my dear friend, whose wisdom knows no bounds,” Jack began, “have you perchance ever heard of a book called the Sarkonagael?”

He lounged in a vast, overstuffed easy chair in the first (and only safe) floor of Ontrodes’s tower. The tools of Ontrodes’s trade—books both old and new, well-known and obscure, mundane and magical—stood in great stacks throughout the cramped chamber or threatened to spill out from crowded bookshelves. The stuffing of the chair reeked of mildew, and a pile of tiny mouse droppings was located atop one arm in the exact spot that Jack wanted to rest his hand. He deliberately noted the location of the offending material and kept his hand in his lap.

Ontrodes squinted in thought and allowed himself a swig of the brandy. “Well, my dear boy, whose idle flattery knows no shame, I do not believe I have ever heard that name before.” The sage laughed harshly, which led to a small fit of coughing. “You may have wasted your ten gold crowns and your cheap brandy this morning.”

Jack frowned. As far as sages went, Ontrodes was not very reliable. There was a reason he was widely known as the disreputable sage Ontrodes, but he worked for next to nothing, and for exactly

nothing some of the time, since his constant dissipations required a steady stream of small amounts of cash. Adventurers, rogues, and other ne’er-do-wells with a shortage of funds could usually obtain some useful scrap of information from the sage, when a well-researched answer from a real sage might cost far more than they could afford. He waved his hand at all of the books stacked head-high in the room.

“Surely you must have some hint of it somewhere in all this?”

“My particular area of expertise lies in wines, brandies, cognacs, sherries, and other exotic elixirs,” Ontrodes rumbled. “No living mortal knows so much about such concoctions as I. Anything else I happen to pick up is merely incidental to my study of wines and liquors. I can say without hesitation that the Sarkonagael is not a vintage known to me, nor is it a book in which vintages are discussed, since I should then own it.”

“That is not extremely helpful. How about a mage named Gerard, who would have made a name for himself as an adventurer about eight or ten years ago?”

“Can’t say I’ve heard of him.” Ontrodes said after a moment’s thought, “A book called the Sarkonagael owned by a mage named Gerard, eh?”

“Something like that,” Jack said with a wave of his hand. He had to remind himself to watch where he set it down. “Are you sure you don’t have something about it in one of these books somewhere? I admire your intellect, but I cannot believe you have committed the entire content of your library to memory.”

“More than you might think,” Ontrodes said. He took another swallow from the silver flask. “For Sembian swill, this is not so bad. It’s a shame you couldn’t get your hands on some real elven brandy. That, my friend, is the very nectar of the gods.”

“I’ll see what I can do next time,” Jack said. He pushed himself to his feet and discovered that he’d parked his right hand directly amid the mouse droppings. He winced and brushed it off on the other arm of the chair. “I thank you for your time, dear Ontrodes. If your wisdom fails me on this occasion, it is surely due to my inability to ask the right questions, as opposed to a degeneration of your mental faculties brought on by age and excessive drink.”

“A moment, Jack,” Ontrodes said wearily. “What did you call it again?”

The Sarkonagael?”

Ontrodes scowled and cast one bleary eye over the formidable piles of books Uttering the chamber. I’ll take a look, but only if you swear to bring me real elven brandy if I find something.”

“I so swear, instantly and without reservation,” Jack said. Thank you, my friend!”

“Save your thanks. The real brandy costs more than a hundred gold crowns for a flask this size.” Ontrodes sighed and dismissed him. “Now, leave me alone. I have work—”

There was a knock at the door. “Hello? Ontrodes?” called a woman’s voice from outside.

The sage mumbled imprecations under his breath. “It appears that everyone desires my wisdom at an unreasonably early hour today,” he said. He shuffled to the door and opened it. “I am Ontrodes,” he said. “Who are you?”

On the doorstep, a tall woman dressed in red silk and leather waited. A curved dagger was thrust into her belt and a slender wand was sheathed in a special holster on the other side. Her eyes, green and wide, smoldered under a short-cropped shock of brilliant red hair. A fine blue tattoo of an arcane sigil marked her left cheekbone. She crossed her arms imperiously in front of her and glared at him.

“I am the Red Wizard Zandria,” she said. Her voice was sharp and commanding. “I understand that you know everything there is to know about wines, brandies, and other liqueurs. Is that true?”

Ontrodes bunked in surprise. “Why, yes. Yes, it is true.”

“Good. Then perhaps I can retain your expertise in this matter.” Without waiting for an invitation, she marched into the sage’s cottage, studied the armchair doubtfully, and then settled herself on the corner of the desk. She was strikingly handsome, with a pert figure and a challenging strength of character in her fine-featured face. She glanced at Jack and asked, “Your business with the sage is done?”

It was more of a command than a question. Jack smiled and bowed deeply, reaching for her hand, but Zandria didn’t offer it. He quickly recovered and straightened. “In fact, I had just concluded my business with Ontrodes. I am delighted to meet you, my lady Zandria. I am called Jack Ravenwild, and I possess no little expertise—”

“A pleasure to have met you, Jack,” Zandria interrupted. “Perhaps well see each other again soon. Please, do not allow me to delay you any longer.”

The rogue spread his hands and forced a smile onto his face. He’d suffered through enough condescending dismissals to know one when he saw one. That didn’t trouble him at all; he would have loved to plumb the limits of Zandria’s courtesy by deliberately ignoring her not-so-subtle hints. Not only did he delight in baiting beautiful women, but Zandria was clearly a mage of some skill and confidence—a Red Wizard of Thay, no less!—and she had urgent business with the most inept sage of the city. Jack smelled clandestine deeds and secret doings, and the mystery grew moment by moment into a consuming obsession he was helpless to resist.

Only one thing to do, then. Jack bowed deeply and

swept his hat from his head in a courtly bow. “As it so happens, I have great toils and wondrous works to attend. Farewell.” He turned to the sage. “Ontrodes, FU be back tomorrow to see how your search progresses.”

The old sage was still gaping at Zandria. Apparently he was so used to dealing with rogues and empty-headed swordsmen down on their luck that he’d never expected to have a competent, confident professional seeking his advice again.

“My search?” he managed to ask.

Jack sighed. “The S-thing, once owned by the man named G,” he hissed as he passed by.

“Oh, right, of course, I’ll get right to it,” Ontrodes said absently. Without looking, he waved a hand at the rogue. “I’LL see you later then, Jack.”

Mustering what dignity he could, Jack made his way outside and stood in the drizzle at the sage’s doorstep, looking up and down the street. He nodded at a passing pair of porters carrying heavy casks on their shoulders, and then dashed quickly around the back of the sage’s house. Splashing through ankle-deep mud, he circled the tower and found a shuttered window facing the alleyway. He scrambled about three feet up the tower’s side, just high enough to lay his ear against the damp wood of the shutter.

“—the crypts,” Zandria was saying, speaking rapidly in her clipped, clear voice. “The Lady Mayor has taken an unusual interest in the relics of Sarbreen of late, and I have long suspected that the guilder’s tomb conceals an entrance into an extensive hidden vault. But I cannot actually find the place! All I have is this unfathomable riddle of an inscription.”

“It’s quite odd,” Ontrodes agreed. ““Mark carefully the summer staircase and climb it clockwise thrice.’ That makes no sense at all, does it?”

“Not really. I’d hoped you would understand it.”

“Understanding may yet come to me, my lady. Cedrizarun is well-known to me. I have often wished that I had lived six or seven centuries ago, so that I might have sampled some of his works, all handmade and lovingly aged by the old dwarf himself.” The sage cleared his throat; the floorboard creaked as he moved inside. “See here, this part of it: ‘At the center of all the thirty-seventh.’ That clearly refers to Cedrizarun’s incomparable Maidenfire Gold of ‘37, claimed by some to be the very finest dwarven brandy ever distilled north of the sea.”

“You mean this?” Zandria asked. “I thought that might be what it meant.”

Jack could hear Ontrodes’s gasp even through the shutter. “Oh, my lady,” the sage said with awe in his voice, “I will gladly give you five hundred gold crowns for that bottle of brandy.”

The mage laughed aloud. Her brusque, commanding manner vanished in her laughter; it seemed to bring out a carefree girl Jack never would have suspected. Then the glimpse was gone. “I fear not, sage. First of all, I paid far more than that for this bottle. Second, I will not uncork it or allow it to be uncorked until I am certain that I know the meaning of this riddle. I have a feeling that the Maidenfire Gold wouldn’t fare well in your care.”

“On the contrary, my lady, it should fare very well indeed! Who else could appreciate it more than I? Who else could revel in its exquisite bouquet, delight in every depth of its perfect flavor, comprehend with each loving sip the work of a master craftsman at the apex of his art? Oh, it would be a disservice to the world—and to dead Cedrizarun himself—if I allowed any but the most discerning and educated of connoisseurs to sample that liquor!”

Jack knew in that very instant that, regardless of the

consequences to follow, he would have to get his hands on the brandy and drink it with complete and total disregard for its marvelous reputation. The notion struck him as so humorous that he snickered out loud, turning his face into his shoulder to stifle the sound—a moment too late.

Zandria threw open the shutter with a gesture of her hand, dislodging Jack from his perch on the tower wall. He flailed for balance for one long, comical moment before falling flat on his back in the muddy alleyway behind Ontrodes’s home. Staring up at the gray sky and the gentle raindrops, Jack grimaced in disgust.

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