The noise was what drew Darrow outside. Not the peal of fifth bell, mid-day of the 12th of Sy, but the screams, then the resounding crash coupled with the splintering of wood, the rumble of falling stone, and then more screams sounding even more frightened and desperate than before.
Darrow’s home was near Dargon’s causeway over the Coldwell river; the threadbare apartment next to the marsh beside the river was all he could afford. Ordinarily, the causeway and the Street of Travellers that ran from it into the city contained orderly traffic that didn’t make too much noise. This was not an ordinary situation.
When Darrow got outside, chaos greeted him. People were running around, mostly to little purpose. He could see the same at the ends of the causeway itself, and even on the Old City side of the river. It took him a few menes to make his way close enough to the Coldwell, which seemed to be the focus of everyone’s attention, to learn what was wrong.
He could scarcely believe his eyes when he could finally see the water. The barge, the very craft he had been on only a few bells ago, had crashed into one of the piers of the causeway. He had noted scaffolding around that pier earlier; now a large portion of the pier had crumbled away, taking a section of the roadway above with it. Darrow could scarcely believe the scale of the destruction. How could a single barge, even fully loaded and in the grip of a rain-swelled Coldwell, have done all of that?
The barge itself had split in two, with the aft section already sinking though the bow remained afloat. Darrow lost himself in the spectacle of the disaster for a few moments before remembering that his best friend was somewhere in the middle of that danger.
That thought made him recall why he wasn’t in the river with Murlak. He and his friend had been sent on a mission by Sferina. They had gone to Kenna to intercept Rancin Fer, and they had retrieved a stolen darningfly charm mold, as well as ten Marks and a letter with the sigil of Tyrus Vage, an unscrupulous merchant who was a rival of Sferina.
They had been delayed in beginning their voyage back, and had worried about pursuit. Accordingly, they had obtained disguises before leaving Kenna: Darrow’s blond hair had been dyed black and his face was covered by a full beard; Murlak’s beard had been shaved, his hair shortened, and he had been given a strangely lumpy nose. Rancin had, indeed, boarded the barge; the disguises had fooled the man but not deterred him. Darrow had taken a huge chance on a bit of luck, and had hidden the three objects where Rancin would never think to look: inside a statue belonging to another group of passengers on the barge.
Delays had struck the barge, and the normal four-day journey had stretched double. Darrow had left the barge the night before under the pretense of getting some help to distract Edmond, the person guarding the statue, so he and Murlak could get their objects back. Darrow had also been eager to get away from his friend, who had not taken well to being cooped up on the barge during the emergencies that had detained it. Lastly, Darrow’s dyed hair was beginning to show its roots, and the danger of Rancin recognizing him had grown accordingly.
Darrow had reported all of this to Sferina that morning. She had instructed him to return the letter to her above all, and she had increased her promised wage to a full Mark each, plus half of the coins recovered from Rancin. He had returned to his home to get a few more bells’ sleep before gathering his help and making his way to the Coldwell docks. He had only managed to get the sleep before the noise had drawn him outside.
His first thought was to dive into the river and try to help. He watched a few others give in to that impulse, and be dragged away by the heavy current before getting close to the wreckage. He then looked around for some other way to get to the barge. The causeway was the logical choice, but the city guard was already mustering to shut the damaged span down, blocking both entrances and working to herd those already on it to either end. He thought of hiring a boat downstream, but worried that the current would be too strong to allow him to get to the barge. Then he thought about finding one upstream, but what if he then lost control and only added to the danger? He found himself moving in short dashes one way and then another as idea after idea hit him and was discarded, and he realized that the people running about weren’t confused or stupid, but probably in the same predicament he was: trying to figure out how to help, and failing.
Darrow had started to count off the people he could call on for more effective help when he spotted a familiar figure dragging itself out of the river. He raced over, along with three of four other helpful souls, and helped Murlak away from the slippery and crowded bank. A blanket appeared and got draped over Murlak’s shoulders, and then everyone else turned to help other survivors out of the water. Darrow drew his friend away from the activity so he could make sure that Murlak was all right.
Murlak recovered quickly, not at all haunted by his brush with death as far as Darrow could tell. As soon as it was seemly, Darrow asked the second question he really needed to know the answer to: “What about the statue, Murlak?”
“I was watching it like you said, Dar. Right up until … No one found our stuff in it, but I don’t know where it is now.”
“Do you think it sank?”
“I don’t know! I was watching the shed where Edmond was watching the statue, and then there was this crash and I was in the water. The next thing I knew, I was on the bank.”
Darrow thought for a moment. “Well, if it sinks with the barge, that’s good. We’ll just have to find a way to fetch it before Edmond can do the same. And it’s safer down there anyway, ’cause no one can find our stuff with it there. Straight?”
“Straight, Dar, but look.”
Darrow followed Murlak’s pointing finger, and saw Edmond climb out of the river very close to the causeway. He had a rope in his hand, which he proceeded to haul on, a determined look on his face. His efforts were rewarded shortly when the rucksack that Darrow knew contained the statue appeared out of the river at the other end of the rope. The man paused for a moment, patting the bundle, catching his breath. He finally slipped his arms into the straps of the rucksack and stood, wincing slightly. He started to walk away from the river, the determined look back on his face. He didn’t seem to be bothered by the chaos and misery around him, and didn’t let anyone or anything get in his way as he walked, dripping water and draped with plants, toward the city.
Darrow jumped up belatedly, pulling his friend up beside him. He started to chase the statue on the back of the man, but had less luck ignoring what else was happening. He tried to go around lines of people shifting blankets from a wagon to the bank of the river. He had to detour frequently around little knots of people who were comforting survivors or mourning victims. He did his best to avoid completely the contingents of priests who flocked like murders of crows to the disaster.
He lost sight of Edmond quickly, but continued gamely on. It wasn’t until he heard sixth bell ring and realized that he hadn’t even gotten as far as his own apartment that he realized his chase was futile.
Rancin Fer stood in front of the door to his boss’ office, gathering his courage. He had been dreading this moment ever since pulling himself from the river after the crash. Despite his fears, though, he had delayed this confrontation only long enough to get some dry clothes before heading directly for the docks and this office. He had his polished agate in his cheek so he wouldn’t stutter in front of Tyrus Vage; his news was bad enough without looking like a fool delivering it. He took a deep breath, opened the door and stepped through.
Vage was standing on the balcony at the back of his office, looking out at the view. Rancin strode to the desk and stopped, waiting. Through the open door he could hear the sounds of frenzied activity, even more than normal on the docks, as the news of the disaster of the causeway reached the extremities of the city and people began to respond. He was about to clear his throat to catch Vage’s attention when a cry went up, followed by a splintering crunch. He thought it sounded like some cargo slipping off its wagon.
Vage turned away from the view, a slight frown on his face. Rancin looked relieved to see his boss in his normal mood. Vage limped back into the room and said, “Welcome back, Rancin. What took you so long? Where’s the signed letter?”
Knowing that it would only hurt more to drag it out, Rancin said, “I’m sorry, boss. I was mugged in Kenna, and the two that did it stole the mold, the money, and the letter. I followed them onto the barge to Dargon, but couldn’t find them or the goods, and I looked everywhere.” Vage turned away then, and Rancin paused a moment, shifted his gaze to the desk, and continued. “I didn’t give up, boss. I searched everywhere, every single day and night, and I had plenty of time to do so, since the barge was delayed by freak accidents and strange happenings. Then today, the Shuul-damned thing crashed into the causeway …” He knew he had only spoken the truth, but he realized how far-fetched — lame, even — it all sounded.
There was a crash directly in front of Rancin, which made him stagger back a step. The business end of a gaffing pole was buried in the center of Vage’s desk. Rancin followed the pole of the tool to his boss, whose face was a livid purple. “You stupid, stuttering whoreson!” The pole was lifted and it crashed into the desk again. “You diseased flea on the back of a scabrous dock rat!” Splinters began to fly as the hook at the end of the gaff dug into the wood. “I send you on a mission that Salamagundi’s monkey could have completed –” Another crash, and then a groan of protest from the desk as the point had to be wrenched free. “– and you tupping fail!” A final smash, and then Vage threw the pole aside. Rancin watched it crash into a set of shelves before his boss’ voice drew him back.
“How could you lose that letter?” Vage leaned on his desk, which responded with an ominous creaking that he ignored. “The mold isn’t important, and I can even deal with the loss of the money, though just barely.” The desk groaned, and then split in half and crashed to the ground. Vage stumbled, recovered, pushed the halves out of his way and strode right up to Rancin. “But the letter could cost me plenty. If the wrong people find it, I could be sanctioned by the council. Being fined would be the least result; they could insist on oversight of my business dealings, and once word got out all of my partners would renegotiate their contracts, and not in my favor.
“You must get that letter back, Fer. I expect you to get it all back, but if you don’t retrieve that letter, your balding head will be on that wall over there before you can petition your precious Shuul for mercy. Am I clear?”
Rancin nodded. He knew his boss wasn’t exaggerating. He had seen this kind of rage turned on others, and had hoped never to be its focus himself.
“Good. Get moving!”
Rancin turned and left. He knew he had to get that letter back. All he had to do was figure out how.
Darrow stood on the steps of the fifth bar he had visited and nodded to Murlak, who was dried off and back in his normal clothes. “They said he went up Thockmarr Street, Murlak. We finally know where he is. Well, was.”
Murlak smiled and asked, “How long ago?”
“Not long,” said Darrow. It was eighth bell, and he had been searching for Edmond and the statue he carried for most of those two bells. They had taken some time to get Murlak cleaned up and into dry clothes, and then a little more time to round up some help in the form of their friends. Lacking any better plan, the whole group of them, seven in all, had begun canvassing the various watering holes and gathering places in an arc that spread out from the causeway. Darrow had hoped that the larger than normal crowds out today would have helped their search, but most people were more concerned with the causeway tragedy and the various minor accidents that seemed to be springing up around the city than with one rucksacked stranger.
Finally, though, Darrow had gotten the lead he needed. Unfortunately, he didn’t know how to capitalize on it.
Murlak voiced his dilemma. “Thockmarr is a long street, Dar. How are we going to catch up to him when he could turn off anywhere?”
“We can’t take the time to gather our people for this,” said Darrow. “I suppose we’ll just have to trust to luck, Murlak. Our good luck, or his bad.”
“We could maybe get more help,” Murlak said. “Ask some of the shadow boys to help us search. There’s sure to be some about.”
“No,” said Darrow firmly. “You know better than that. They’d figure that if we were chasing Edmond, there would be someone else who would pay more to know about him. It’s happened before, after all.” Darrow sighed and said, “Come on, Murlak. We’ve got a statue to catch.”
Rancin decided to start his search back at the wreckage of the barge. He had hoped, though not very strongly, that his boss would have reacted more reasonably and given him some help for his search; instead, he returned to the causeway alone, but intent enough for five.
On his way down the Street of Travellers, though, he spotted two figures on the other side of the street that seemed familiar. He recognized the faces of the juggler and the monk from the barge, but they were dressed in tunics and trousers, not like they had been on the voyage. His curiosity was piqued, and he turned aside from his path to follow them. He hoped that he wasn’t wasting his time. With luck, he wouldn’t be.
Murlak stood with his hand over his mouth hiding his huge grin, bouncing on his toes with excitement. He had been the one to spot Edmond not more than a quarter bell ago, and he was still feeling smarter than Darrow over it.
The two of them had followed Edmond for just long enough to figure that he wasn’t going to leave Murson Street any time soon. Then they had used their knowledge of Dargon’s side streets and alleyways to get ahead of the man, and now they were waiting for him to catch up with them.
Darrow was looking around the corner. Murlak kept his eyes on the hand that Darrow had behind his back, waiting for the signal. Two fingers twitched, and Murlak stopped bouncing and reached for the stick leaning against the alley wall. His grin faded into an intent smile, and he readied his weapon.
Another finger twitched, and Murlak stepped forward just a little. Finally, all five fingers clenched together and then Darrow leaned forward just as Edmond stepped across the alley’s mouth. Darrow grabbed Edmond’s arm and pulled the man right into Murlak’s swinging stick. Edmond gasped, his temple bled a little, and then he fell to the ground and stopped moving.
Murlak stepped over the body as Darrow began to remove the rucksack from the limp figure. Murlak checked Murson Street, and it was still empty. He kept his eyes on the street until he felt the touch on his back. He turned and Darrow, the rucksack in his arms, motioned with his head. Murlak followed his friend and the statue down the alley. They were heading for Sferina’s office now, and soon he would have half-a-Mark to spend on whatever he wanted. Perhaps a sennight in the Mother of Pearl?
Rancin could hear his quarry approaching the alley he waited in, and he tensed in readiness. He had watched the pretend monk and fake juggler ambush Edmond and take the rucksack from his back. He wasn’t absolutely certain that the pair were the ones who had mugged him in Kenna, but the way they had stalked and attacked Edmond, combined with the coincidence of all three of them having been on the barge, made Rancin want to see what was in that rucksack that the pair wanted so badly.
The black-haired, bearded man and the red-haired, lumpy-nosed man walked across the alley mouth without looking down it. Rancin pounced, grabbing the backs of both tunics and pulled them into the shadows. Before they could react further, he released the tunics and reached up to slam their heads together. The thunk of skull against skull was like a sweet song to Rancin. Both thieves slumped to the ground without even a groan.
As Rancin leaned over the black-haired man to take the rucksack, he noticed that the roots of the man’s hair were blond. He looked closer at the red-haired one and imagined him with a full beard. As he straightened up with the rucksack in his arms, Rancin briefly contemplated taking out his frustrations on the two bodies before him. He imagined feeling bones break, watching blood spurt, making them pay for the danger he had been put in thanks to them. They deserved it, after all, for starting all of this back in Kenna. He had killed for less reason than being assaulted and robbed!
Thoughts of his own safety won out over his need for revenge. He knew that Vage needed to have his letter, the sooner the better. He could always find these two again, and have his revenge then.
He walked away from the pair and pondered whether to take the rucksack, which was one of the few things he hadn’t searched on the barge, directly to Vage, or to inspect it himself first. Either way, he was pretty sure that his head was now safe from his boss’ wall.
Rancin felt the sword pierce his chest, and he fell heavily against Edmond, the man who held that weapon. Pain tore through him, and the impossibility of having tripped to his death forced a plaintive “How?” from his lips. The agony swiftly faded as his blood ran out of his body, warming his chest as it flowed.
When Edmond had challenged him moments ago, demanding the rucksack less less than a quarter bell after Rancin had acquired it himself, he hadn’t feared the outcome of any impending conflict. He had taken the measure of the man in a glance, from the clumsy way he held his sword to the fear and uncertainty in the young man’s face. He couldn’t believe how differently it had all turned out.
Rancin’s last thoughts concerned luck. The luck he had had in finding the pair who had mugged him, the ill luck of his foot finding a loose brick, and finally the Shuul-blessed luck of not having to face Tyrus Vage’s wrath.
And then he died.
Two bells later, Darrow sat on a stool next to Murlak and stared into his ale with a feeling of hopelessness. Murlak was just as gloomy, though for less reason since Darrow hadn’t told his friend about Sferina’s increased reward. There was no reason to now. Darrow had no idea who had stolen the rucksack from him, so he would never be able to collect that reward. He hoped that Sferina would understand. He was more concerned about failing his employer than the loss of money, though. He wanted to retain her trust.
Murlak said, “We could ask around anyway, Dar.” Darrow ignored his friend. They had woken up less than half-a-bell ago but had already had plenty of time to discuss their options as they made their way to this Nochtur Street tavern. They could, indeed, ask around after someone carrying a rucksack, but Darrow didn’t fancy their chances of getting any reasonable answers from anyone. People seemed to have more important things to think about than strangers with rucksacks walking by. As he thought that, the barman cursed and said, “The rat-kissing tap’s broke!” Darrow looked over the bar to see an ale barrel gushing fluid all over the floor.
Suddenly he was yanked off his stool and toward the door. Murlak, who had his arm and was dragging him, said, “I saw him, Dar! Come on!”
“Saw who, you fool?” asked Darrow as he tripped over a chair and halted their advance across the taproom.
“That guard guy. Edmond. With his sack! He just walked by the door!”
“Swear, Dar! It was him!” Murlak helped Darrow to his feet, but he resisted when his friend tried to pull him out of the bar again.
“I don’t believe you. We left him unconscious; it couldn’t have been him who attacked us. How could he have the statue again?”
“Don’t know, Dar.” Murlak looked pleadingly at him and said, “You can see for yourself, but only if you hurry.”
Darrow realized the logic of that and said, “Lead on.”
The second ambush went just as smoothly as the first, or so Darrow thought. He and Murlak had followed Edmond, unaccountably possessed once more of his rucksack, along Nochtur Street past Travellers toward Main. They had circled around the man, set up the ambush, and added another gash to the poor man’s face.
As Darrow was slipping Edmond’s arms out of the rucksack’s straps for the second time, however, the man started to groan. Even panicking, Darrow thought to stop Murlak from hitting Edmond again, since he had no intention of killing the man and too many blows to the head were dangerous. He wrenched the rucksack off off Edmond’s back, staggered for a moment under its weight, and then started to run, Murlak’s booted feet echoing behind.
Darrow sagged against the side wall of the Inn of the Serpent and panted. The statue was heavy and awkward to carry, and he didn’t know how much further he could go with it. Murlak knelt beside him, annoyingly fresh and smiling. “He’s still following us,” the redhead said, and Darrow grimaced in response.
“If only this thing wasn’t so heavy,” said Darrow. “Well, maybe it will be easier to carry on my back. Help me get this thing on, Murlak.”
“You know, Dar,” said Murlak as he grabbed the rucksack from Darrow’s lap. “It sure would be easier to carry if our stuff didn’t have a statue around it.”
“By Ol’s outsized feet, Murlak, you’re right!” Darrow grabbed the rucksack back from Murlak and started frantically working the buckles and straps. “Come on, help me,” he cried. Soon the strange black statue of a man sitting tailor-fashion with a silver sword across his knees appeared from within the canvas.
He poked and pulled at the statue for a moment before remembering the secret. He stuck his elbow into the mouth of the statue, declining to injure his fingers this time. The pointed ivory teeth drew blood quickly, and Darrow smiled at Murlak’s gasp as the jaws of the figure gaped wide. He reached carefully into the newly-wide opening and grasped the bundle inside the throat. He withdrew his arm slowly and within a few moments the package was out of the statue. Darrow opened the oilcloth pouch for a quick look: the contents, especially the letter, seemed safe and dry. He bundled them back up again.
“What do we do with the statue now, Dar?” asked Murlak.
Darrow didn’t need to think of an answer, as Edmond appeared around the edge of the inn at that moment. “Put it back,” the man said, drawing his sword. “Do you realize what you’ve done?”
“Just taking what’s ours, Edmond,” Darrow said. He eyed the sword being brandished seriously in the man’s hand and wondered whether the knife-fighting tricks he had learned from his Rhydd Pobl friend Tanner would stand against a sword.
“Those ingredients are talismans,” Edmond said. “You have to put them back!”
It took a moment for Darrow to realize what the guard was talking about. “Talismans?” He fingered the oilcloth bundle, and then remembered the slimy package he had removed from the statue to insert his own loot. He smiled at Murlak, then turned back to Edmond and said, “Those talismans went overboard six days ago! Thanks for the use of the hiding space, though.”
A stunned look appeared on Edmond’s face. “What?” he said. “How? When?”
Murlak answered before Darrow could. Shaking his cupped hand like there were dice within, he said, “When you were taking my money, Ed!” Darrow watched his friend’s eyes narrow, and he continued, “Speaking of which …”
Darrow grabbed Murlak’s shoulder and said, “Let it go, Murlak. There’s plenty more when we deliver this.” He backed away from the statue, pulling his friend with him. He looked at the staring guard and said, “See you, Edmond!” He squeezed Murlak’s shoulder and they turned in unison and sprinted away.
“I’m proud of you boys,” said Sferina, looking up from the three objects that Darrow had placed on her desk. Murlak felt good to have Sferina praising him. He decided to forgive Darrow for not telling about the money his friend had found in Kenna. This feeling was better than anything he could have done with his five Mark share of those coins.
Sferina opened the letter and read it, her smile turning into a predatory grin that made her even prettier to Murlak, even if she was older than the shepherd, Lidala. “Yes,” she said, “this is exactly what I’d hoped it would be. Vage’s plans are set out here for anyone to see. He’ll regret his darningfly caper now!”
Murlak watched as the merchant reached into a drawer and pulled out some coins. She opened the black pouch that Darrow had set before her, counted out three Marks and then three more, setting a stack in front of him and Darrow. Then she stacked five silver Rounds from her drawer on top of the gold Marks. Murlak stared at the money, forgetting the wonders of Sferina’s trinket-filled office, holding back from grabbing his stack until Darrow let him know it was all right to do so.
“Here’s your pay, boys,” Sferina purred. “Money well spent, and none of it mine! Now, don’t spend it all in one place!” Murlak heard Darrow laugh and he looked up to see Sferina smiling indulgently right at him. “Perhaps you might invest a Mark or two, boys, for your future. I understand that Fifth I Merchants has a reputation for good return on investments.” Murlak wondered whether investing, whatever that was, would be better than spending three or four months sampling every house in the red-lantern district.
“Now, boys,” Sferina continued, “I have another proposition for you. How would you like continuous employment? I have positions that would be perfect for each of you …”