Ista finished changing out of her rough work clothes by pulling on her soft blue tunic over her best leggings, sure of her privacy in the small storage shed on the barge where she worked. She brushed out her long, brown hair and then tied it back while she contemplated how she would spend her free days in Dargon. Ista knew that once the barge docked, which would be in about half a bell, she would be heading as fast as she could across the city to the Lulling District. An anticipatory smile spread across her face as she thought about the delights available at places like the Lederian Carpet. The barge would be returning to Kenna in three days, and she knew she just might spend all of them in the Carpet’s basement.
There was another reason besides privacy that Ista had decided to change her clothes in that shed, one that would increase her enjoyment of her first day in Dargon. She turned her attention to the small chest that rested on a short stack of crates against the shack’s back wall. Burned into its lid was a circle that was only three-quarters complete with a chevron in the center of it, crossed by a horizontal line with a circle on each end. She didn’t know what it meant, but she didn’t really care, either. She was far more interested in what it held.
She opened the lid to reveal the strange contents. The small chest was filled with little twists of what looked like thin parchment wrapped around a hard lump. If the chest had been sealed, she never would have opened it the first time, back near the start of the trip down river, and if there hadn’t been so many twists just lying there she never would have tried one then, either. She had heard of the new drug which was just beginning to be available, and hadn’t been able to resist sneaking a free sample.
Ista plucked out another little packet and closed the lid. She put the twist into her mouth, parchment-stuff and all, where it began to dissolve. She wondered what the stuff was that wrapped the twists as she walked out of the storage shed into the lowering dusk of the fall day. In about a bell, well after the barge was docked and she was making her way across the city, she would feel the same happy effects of the twist that she had the first time. She knew that this was going to be a memorable visit to Dargon.
Darrow opened the door to his room and found his friend Murlak rushing around, stuffing things with cheerful abandon into the rucksack hanging from his shoulder. Darrow took a bite of the meat pastie in his hand and watched as the last of Murlak’s possessions vanished from the room.
The tall, redheaded Murlak finally turned toward the door and said, “Oh, hey there, Darrow.”
“Hello, Murlak,” Darrow said, stepping into the room and closing the door behind him. “Ready for work?”
Murlak grinned and said, “Of course I’ll be there. Eventually.”
Darrow’s fists clenched in anger, the remains of the meat pastie making a mess as it was crushed. He was sick and tired of Murlak’s irresponsibility. He shouted, “You’re going to be late again? You’ve been late almost every day since Sferina got us these jobs. You won’t be able to count on her favor forever, you know.”
Murlak shook his head, still grinning, which only made Darrow even madder. “I won’t be very late. Just gotta run an errand for Narok first, then take my things over to Joden’s. I’m gonna stay with him for a while.”
Darrow’s anger vanished under growing concern. “Why are you having anything to do with someone like Narok?”
“What do you mean? There’s nothing wrong with Narok.”
Darrow shook his head sadly at the so very Murlak-like statement. “He runs a whorehouse, Murlak, among other things. He’s not the kind of person who is likely to do you any good in the long run.” He winced at the trite phrase, but it was the way he felt.
Murlak’s cheerful grin turned into a frown. “I don’t much care about the long run, Darrow. He pays me to do errands for him and he doesn’t mind that I do them in my own time. I’m tired of having to be where someone else wants me to be when they want me to be there. Narok says he’ll be able to hire me on full time soon, and then I won’t have to worry about whether Sferina likes me or not!”
“But you’ve only had this job for a month!” Darrow stepped aside as Murlak stalked over to the door and put his hand on the latch. He sighed, and continued, “Who’s this Joden you’re moving in with?”
Murlak turned and said, “He’s one of Narok’s workers. His place is bigger than this one, and besides, he doesn’t snore. He doesn’t act like he’s my older brother, either.”
Darrow thought that someone needed to be responsible for Murlak, since his friend wouldn’t do it for himself. He tried to reason with Murlak one more time. “You’ve got to grow up sometime, Murlak. You have a steady job in Sferina’s warehouse, with good pay. Don’t waste this opportunity on the likes of Narok and his type.”
Murlak pulled open the door and said, “That’s what I mean,” before slamming it shut behind him.
Murlak clattered down the stairs of Darrow’s rooming house and slammed out the front door. He stopped there for a moment and wished he hadn’t gotten so mad at his friend. He felt strange, itchy and twitchy inside, and he wanted to run and run until the twitching and itching stopped.
He looked across the swamp in front of Darrow’s place to the ruined causeway and remembered the crash a month ago, and falling into the water, and struggling to save himself from the wreckage and the Coldwell itself. He’d had a lot of time to think, walking around Sferina’s warehouse every night since then. When he and Darrow had surrendered the black statue to that guard, Edmond, just after removing their contraband from it, Edmond had been shocked and stunned and … scared, he thought. Murlak had talked to Darrow about it, and about the plague of bad luck that had first followed the barge, and then had overtaken the city itself for a few days. His friend had made the connection first, but Murlak seemed to have taken it to heart: somehow, maybe, the statue had caused the bad luck, and their meddling had let it do so.
Murlak looked at the causeway again, and the itchy twitchiness grew. He turned away, but there were still signs of the mishaps and disasters everywhere around him. He gave in to the feeling, and started to run.
As his feet pounded on the stones of the road, sounds echoed in his head. Re. Spon. Si. Bil. I. Ty. A word he had only just learned, a word he was trying hard to run away from. Responsibility. Running from Darrow’s grown-up ways, running from Sferina’s job, running from the misfortune he had helped cause.
He ran and ran, but Dock Street and the barge wharves weren’t nearly far enough away from the rooming house to give him time to work out all of the itchy twitchiness. There was only one barge tied up there when he arrived at the docks after tenth bell had rung. Murlak walked over to the person directing the unloading work and said “I’m here for Narok’s cargo.”
The tall, thin man looked Murlak over, frowned, and held out his hand. Murlak’s first thought was that he wanted some kind of bribe. Then, remembering his instructions, Murlak fished the folded parchment Narok had given him out of his belt pouch and handed it to the man.
The tall, thin man unfolded the parchment, read it over carefully, looking up at Murlak and back down at the parchment several times. Finally, he shrugged, turned, and called out, “Ista! Bring out the small chest at the back of the shed!”
Murlak looked around, and saw a young woman with long brown hair and wearing a blue tunic come out of the single shed on the barge’s deck. She was carrying a small chest that was maybe as long as a forearm, half that wide, and a hand deep.
Murlak held out his hands as she walked over. Ista looked at the foreman, who nodded, then handed the chest to Murlak. He noticed as she did so that there was a streak of blood on her forearm. He took the chest and glanced at her other arm in time to see some blood just appear there and start to flow. His eyes widened in surprise, and he glanced to her face. She was just starting to frown, and blood was starting to appear on her cheek, her jaw, and at the corner of her eye.
Murlak backed away, clutching the chest. Ista stepped back as well, blood flowing from more and more points, her tunic and leggings beginning to darken, even her hair beginning to streak. Murlak couldn’t see any actual wounds, even though she looked like she had been the target of a dozen or more arrows. She gasped when she looked at herself, then her eyes rolled up and her lids closed. She screamed next, blood oozing faster and faster, painting her red all over.
Murlak had backed all the way to the road. When Ista screamed again and opened her eyes, she launched herself at the foreman, tackling him and flailing at him with her fists and feet. Ista’s first scream had attracted the attention of everyone around, and when she attacked the foreman, everyone but Murlak charged in to help.
The screaming continued and blood got everywhere. The other bargefolk and dock workers were trying to restrain Ista, while she was attacking anyone who came near. Murlak saw that as more and more blood ran, coating the woman from head to toe, or so it seemed, she lashed out more and more slowly.
Finally, the screaming stopped. Slowly, the others moved away and stood up, streaked with blood. Ista alone didn’t follow suit. She lay on the dock, very still. Blood still oozed from her, pooling on the wood. Murlak was sure she was dead.
Murlak turned from the spectacle and walked away. He wondered what had just happened, and then quickly decided that he didn’t want to know.
It was none of his business, after all. He was glad he hadn’t joined in with the others, though. He knew that blood would have ruined his tunic, and it was his favorite.
Joden was expecting the knock even though it was after the first bell of night. He said, “Yeah?” When his new roommate walked in, he said, “Hi there, Murlak.”
The red-haired young newcomer set his rucksack down by the door and carried a small chest over to where Joden was lounging on his bed. “Where can I put this until I get back from the warehouse?” Murlak asked.
“Just set it in the corner,” Joden said, waving in that direction. “It’ll be fine there. Is that the shipment Narok is waiting for?”
Murlak set the chest in the corner, then said, “Yes. Should I take it to him before going to work?”
Joden snorted, and said, “Nah, not if he didn’t ask you to rush it over. Narok doesn’t expect people to guess what he wants, so if he didn’t say it, you don’t need to imagine he might have. Besides, he’s not running short of twist.”
Joden stood and walked over to Murlak and the chest. “You’ve never tried it?” He opened the chest and plucked out two of the tiny twisted packets. He straightened up, letting the lid fall closed, and handed one to Murlak, then popped the other into his mouth.
The redhead looked at the drug in his hand with trepidation. “Go ahead,” urged Joden, “try it. It’ll make you feel really good. Just put it in your mouth. That’s not parchment it’s wrapped in, so it will dissolve just fine.” Murlak lifted his hand to his mouth and closed his lips around the packet.
Joden continued, “It will take a while to start working, but you’ll know when it does. This is the first shipment from Narok’s new supplier. I hope they’re as good as the others I’ve had.” He knew that Narok was paying less for this new drug, so it had better work or his boss was going to be unhappy. Narok would be able to undercut the competition because of the new pricing, but if it didn’t work, no one would want to buy it.
Murlak drew Joden’s attention by saying, “Thanks for looking after the chest, Joden. I’d better get going.”
“No trouble at all, Murlak. See you later.” He didn’t see his new roommate leave because he was staring at the chest. He debated the wisdom of taking another twist against the opportunity in front of him. He made his decision, and returned to his bed with a few more twists in his hand. He didn’t have anything else planned for the evening, and he didn’t think that Narok would miss them. And he had always wanted to know what a double dose of twist would feel like.
Birds chirping in anticipation of dawn accompanied Murlak as he headed back to his new home after work dragging his feet and not feeling a bit like running. The night hadn’t begun well, what with Darrow yelling at him for being a bell late, but that was normal. Shortly after that the dose of twist had begun to work and everything had gotten bright and sharp and clear, and nothing, not even the boredom of patrolling Sferina’s warehouse, could keep him from being very happy for almost half the night. He had even laughed at the rats scurrying out of the crate of tubers, though he had gone back later in the night to make sure they were all gone.
After the twist had worn off, though, things had only gotten worse.
He had gone from stupidly happy to inconsolably sad, and remembering the previous good feelings had only made him feel sadder, and stupid on top of it. Who laughs at rats, after all? He decided that he never wanted another dose of twist, and couldn’t understand the attraction of the drug in the first place.
He didn’t bother knocking when he got to Joden’s, figuring that his new friend was probably asleep. He opened the door and gasped at the scene of chaos he found.
Blood was everywhere, not least covering his roommate, who was laying on the floor, red from head to toe with it. The bed was torn up, the single chair and the small table were smashed, and the remains of those, as well as the walls and floor, were streaked with blood. Murlak saw that Joden’s dead finger pointed to a dose of twist lying next to the wrecked bed.
Murlak knew he wasn’t as bright as Darrow, or as good at business as Narok, but he had some street smarts from his days as a shadow boy, and he didn’t believe in coincidences. Ista from the barge had died covered in blood after delivering the chest of twist to him. Joden had also died covered in blood with that same chest in his room. Murlak had never heard of anyone dying like that before, and yet in one day he had seen it twice, and both had to be connected to the twist drug from the chest.
He took a step back and closed the door, thinking as hard as he ever had. He remembered how many little twist packets had been in the chest, and he knew that it contained a lot of death. He had to do something about it, and his first impulse was to let someone else take care of it. The chest belonged to Narok, so it was Narok’s problem. Murlak decided to let the whorehouse owner know about the poisoned drug, because after all, who would knowingly sell death to his customers?
Narok was having a bad day, and first bell had only just rung. Two of his whores were ill and the news had gotten around, and the new man on the late night door was stealing from the till. As he stood in a back corridor of his whorehouse, the Lederian Carpet, he knew that the two men in front of him were only going to make his day even worse.
“Boss,” said the short, fat, balding one, “I brung Heirk like you said. He wuz down the docks, lookin’ fer a berth.”
Narok looked at Heirk, bruised, scared, cowed, being held firmly in the grip of his much shorter captor. “Trying to run, Heirk?” he asked. “I loaned you that half-Mark in good faith, and all you had to do was pay me back a full Mark yesterday. You never showed up, and Tulit had to chase all over the city to find out why. So, why?”
“I … I … I made a, a, a bad …,” Heirk stammered.
“You know,” Narok interrupted, “I’ve decided that I don’t really care. I doubt it would be anything I haven’t heard scores of times before.” He stared at the captive man, watching the fear grow in his eyes, watching the sweat bead up on his forehead and crawl down his face. It didn’t make him feel any better, though, so he finally said, “Tulit, take Heirk away and kill him. I hate people who break deals.”
Heirk squeaked something, but Tulit’s hand covered the captive’s mouth before he could really cry out. As the short man started dragging Heirk away, Narok turned and found the young red-haired friend of Joden’s standing there staring at him wide-eyed. He remembered that he had sent the young man, Murlak was his name, after the new shipment of twist yesterday. The boy had nothing in his hands how, which was why he asked, “Where’s the chest?” without even considering what Murlak might have just witnessed or the image he had been trying to impress on the redhead to lure him into his employ.
“I … ah, it’s back at Joden’s,” said Murlak. “I, um, forgot –”
“Well, it had better be at Joden’s,” Narok said, turning away. “Because if it isn’t, if you’ve lost it, you’re going to owe me quite a lot of money.”
“Owe you?” Murlak squeaked.
Narok’s face stretched into a grin that wasn’t one of his friendly expressions. He turned back to the youth and said, “Yes, owe me. You were sent after the shipment, and that means that you’re responsible for the money it represents to me. So, you either deliver the chest, or you work off its value.” He eyed Murlak up and down, reevaluating the kid’s potential and liking what he saw. “We need more dancers downstairs, and you, well, you could probably work off the debt in a year, maybe less.”
“I … I’ll go get it,” said Murlak, then turned and ran.
Narok watched the boy go. He couldn’t decide whether he wanted the chest, or Murlak as an employee. The new shipment of twist was significantly cheaper than usual, so he stood to make more money off of it. But once he got Murlak working for him, he was pretty sure that the boy wouldn’t quit after only a year. Well, he won either way, didn’t he?
Murlak walked slowly back to Joden’s rooming house because it wasn’t far from the Lulling District and he had a decision to make. He sighed as he walked, thinking that he hadn’t gotten away from responsibility even here.
He now knew that Darrow had been right; Narok wasn’t the kind of man Murlak had thought, and he certainly wasn’t likely to do Murlak any good, long run or short. He could take the chest to the man anyway, but his newfound sense of responsibility wouldn’t let him believe that any deaths the twist caused wouldn’t be his own fault as well as Narok’s.
He could tell the man that the drug was poison, but he wasn’t at all sure that Narok didn’t already know it, or at least wouldn’t make use of it in a different way, not after seeing that confrontation with Heirk. If Narok knew that Murlak knew about the poison, he could be in even bigger trouble. And there was still that responsibility thing to get around.
He could also get rid of the twist and end up an employee of Narok, dancing in only a loincloth. He knew from spending time with Joden around the Lederian Carpet that Narok’s employees were not given the leeway he was able to enjoy at Sferina’s warehouse.
He went over his options again and again, but there was really no way to get away from the obvious. Responsibility would weigh on him either way, but there was only one way to be able to bear that responsibility. By the time he reached Joden’s door, he had made his decision.
Third bell was ringing out over the city as Murlak pounded the last few doses of twist with a rock, powdering the stuff inside. He was sitting on the rocky shoreline of the promontory that hosted the Sailors’ Shrine, doing what had to be done. He was taking every care he could, worried about the fact that he had taken one dose himself, but he didn’t seem to be having any reaction to the smashed drug.
The twists were finally mostly flat, and he swept them into his hand and then dumped them into the water. He watched the strange parchment-like wrapping dissolve, followed by the powder inside. He checked the chest one last time, then closed the lid and heaved the empty thing as far out over the water as he could.
He stood up and watched the floating chest for a while, then turned back toward the city and started walking. The guard would soon be dealing with Joden’s corpse one way or another, since Murlak had sent a shadow boy over there with a message after leaving the door open on his way out. Either the shadow boy or someone else was sure to rob the place, and eventually Joden’s corpse would be reported. That left Murlak two things to do: tell Narok that he had lost the chest, and ask Darrow if he could move back in. Truthfully, he wasn’t sure which encounter he dreaded more.