p<>. The child’s dark eyes, limpid and expressive in life but now ghastly in death stared sightless above the bloody ruin of his mouth and jaw. The killing was very recent, the boy had not yet been stripped of his ragged clothing and there were men in the city who would pay good coin for a fresh corpse. The murderer, his right arm soaked to the elbow in blood, was lurking nearby in the shadows, scared off by the approach of a well armed man who strode down the long, winding alley as dusk settling like a shroud over the city.
p<>. He was tall, clad in rich scarlet silks and a finely wrought shirt of Turanian mail; slender of build but with a steely strength in the wiry muscles of his limbs. His head was shaven and eyes like chips of flint, callous, calculating and suspicious bored from beneath a low, strong brow. The ragged white scar that slashed through his right eyebrow and cheek enhanced the menace of his appearance while the determined set of his jaw gave his thin mouth a cruel twist. The fingers of his right hand rested on the pommel of a long poniard that hung from a well worn leather belt at his waist. A sword was on his left hip, three feet of Akbitanan steel sheathed in oiled leather.
p<>. The armoured man noticed the small corpse and the corner of his mouth moved slightly, his long strides did not falter but he drew his poniard as he stepped over the dead child. The watching killer shrank further into the narrow gap between two ramshackle dwellings and clutched his bloody cleaver tightly as the newcomer paused level with his hiding place, hard eyes staring into the shadowed space. A quiet snort and the stranger moved on again down the alley, sheathing his weapon after a dozen paces and with never a backward glance.
p<>. A short while later he left the alley and turned onto a wider street where the air was thick with the scent of spices, mingled with the stench created by the throng of humanity that filled it with noise and bustle. A dusky prostitute, early about her business, eyed him boldly, her interest piqued by the obvious value of his clothing and armour. When she met the cold ferocity of his gaze she recoiled with a curse and spat, twisting her fingers to ward against the evil eye. The mailed man passed her without a second look and passed into a dingy tavern.
p<>. A dagger glinted in the candlelight. Men gave back with curses, booted feet drumming on bare boards, chairs and tankards upset, cheap wine pooling darkly on the grimy floor. A hoarse voice rose in anger above the noise, “You dog, I’ll cut out your liver! No man gives me the lie and lives!”
p<>. The speaker was powerfully built, long dark hair fell to his shoulders, framing a coarsely handsome face. He flung himself upon his target with the swiftness of a panther, wrapping his arms and legs around his ashen-faced foe, whose sword was still only half drawn from its scabbard. As his impetus brought the pair of them crashing to the ground, the knife in his hand swept down again and again sending great spurts of crimson blood to mingle with the wine. Within seconds he was on his feet, his eyes ablaze with fierce triumph, the knife discarded, clutching in his hands a gory object which he brandished aloft, exultant. Catching sight of the scarlet clad figure by the doorway he called, “Artemo! Welcome, my friend, I told this pig I’d cut out his liver! See!”
p<>. Artemo’s mouth twitched into a smile that did not reach his eyes, “Horsa, I have news.”
p<>. “Come, sit,” Horsa threw the liver to a pair of lean, ferocious looking dogs who fell upon it ravenously. The other occupants of the room, grim faced men for the most part, resumed their seats leaving the mutilated corpse of their fellow lying stark on the floor.
p<>. Artemo stepped carefully to keep his boots out of the congealing blood and sat down on a stool across the table from Horsa. The big man grinned and poured wine into tumblers, emptying his at a gulp. Artemo merely sipped at his drink, “Nestor is willing to come to an accommodation.”
p<>. “Is he by Bel?” A meaty hand thumped the table. Artemo grabbed his wine hastily, took another sip then nursed the beaker in his hand while Horsa refilled his own vessel from the jug. “And what does that putrid son of a rancid she-goat offer?”
p<>. Another wintry smile from Artemo, another sip of wine, “He wants a truce. An end to the feud. He’ll let you keep what you have, you stop muscling in on his operations, he stops killing your men… and boys… I passed one of your runners on the way here. Quite a mess they’d made of him. I forget his name.”
p<>. Horsa’s eyes narrowed, “Look, Artemo, we’ve fought back to back you and I. You could have come in with me when I split from that whoreson, I offered you the chance. We’re friends, brothers,” Horsa gulped down another tumbler of wine, wiping his lips with his hand, “We’ve no quarrel, you and I. So tell me what I have to do.”
p<>. “An oath of fealty,” Artemo’s eyes sparkled with amusement for a brief moment before his cold sneer returned. Horsa looked blank for a moment. Then his eyes blazed with menace and his jaw tightened. The wooden beaker in his hand splintered into fragments as his hands balled into fists.
p<>. “Fealty?” The word was spat out with a mixture of contempt, disbelief and fury. “He expects me to swear him fealty? I’ll cut off…”
p<>. His outburst was cut short by Artemo who stretched out his hand, palm foremost in a placating manner, “What do words matter, Horsa? Swear the oath. That way Nestor saves face and your word runs from the spice market to the river and as far north as the Street of Souls. He doesn’t interfere with you, you don’t try and cut out any more of his turf.”
p<>. “He’s a narrow-backed bastard son of the ugliest pox-ridden whore that ever coupled with a worm-infested leper!”
p<>. “Aye, that he is. But he’s offering you what you want. All he needs is his face to be saved by a gesture.”
p<>. Horsa still glowered, “I see you came ready to fight.”
p<>. “I’ve no quarrel with you Horsa, or any of your people. You know that.” Another wintry smile flitted across Artemo’s lips, “The Maul’s a dangerous place and I like to be prepared. This is a wicked city, after all.”
p<>. A gruff laugh from Horsa as he pulled at his ear reflectively, “A dangerous place. And more dangerous yet with you walking the streets, Artemo. Come and work for me again man, give up serving that pimp; you know I pay better and we make a good team. Just like the old days, you remember? Who’d stand against us, eh?”
p<>. Finishing his wine, Artemo raised the empty tumbler in an ironic salute and stood up, “I serve no man, Horsa. Not even you. I told Nestor I’d carry his message to you. Shall I give him your reply?” Behind him, two men approached circumspectly, jackals closing on their prey. Horsa hook his head slightly and they halted. Horsa spoke, “You tell that gutless whoreson I’ll come tomorrow at noon. He can have my oath.” A meaty fist slammed down on the table then Horsa poured wine and leant back in his chair.
p<>. Artemo pursed his lips then nodded, “At the Sign of the Golden Rule. I’ll tell him noon,” he spun on his heel, elbowing past the two thugs in his way, skirting the body on the floor. The dogs were beginning to sniff at the corpse, their muzzles close to the great wounds that rent its torso. He halted for a moment just outside the tavern door, and scanned the twilight street before plunging into the milling crowd and returning whence he had come by a different route, avoiding the narrow alley where the child had died. Artemo knew that in Shadizar the Wicked it was well to be wary and to be predictable was often fatal. Even old allies could not be trusted, perhaps they could be trusted least of all.
p<>. They were amongst the wealthiest men in the city. Accustomed to luxury, able to indulge in any depravity their febrile imaginations could conjure, they were amongst the most depraved and evil men in a city which was notorious for decadence and vice. Seven sat at the long table, three on either side and at the head a swarthy but cadaverously gaunt figure who rose to his feet when the fine banquet was over and spoke:
p<>. “Corruption is everywhere. Where are the honest men to be found in this cesspit of a city? In affairs of commerce men such as we suffer. We are burdened with expense. The watch must be bribed, lest they mysteriously discover contraband amongst our goods. We employ well armed guards,” the speaker made a sweeping gesture around the hall, drawing the attention of his half-dozen guests to the mailed men who stood at each doorway, spears in their fists and swords at their waists, “Guards who cost a great deal of silver, yet without such protection we and our property and goods are at the mercy of every miserable thief and cut-throat inhabiting the city!”
p<>. He was interrupted by a pale, hugely fat man, resplendent in a thick ochre robe, diamonds sparkling on every fat finger, his massive jowls wobbling as words belched from his mouth in a deep bass, “What you say is no news, Nestor. But the greatest villain in the city stood at your right hand not twelve moons ago! You will understand that some men,” pudgy hands were unclasped from before his great belly and held outward as if to stave off a blow, “some men I say, though none of this august company I am sure, they talk as if this Horsa works in your own interest. That his raids on your enterprises are a mere screen. A sham to divert suspicion.” The hands folded back comfortably upon his paunch.
p<>. Nestor rose to his feet, running his hands through his dark, tangled locks of hair, the colour of which owed much to artifice. He tugged at his right ear as he regarded the obese merchant impassively. When he replied, his voice was calm, measured, “I have heard these rumours, and I am heartened to hear that such good men as are gathered here pay them no heed. Nonetheless, we must all be aware of our reputation and must guard it jealously. Our good names need constant polish to keep their lustre, tarnish is bad for business.” There was some chuckling amongst the diners at this. Nestor bared his teeth in a yellow smile and inclined his head, “I feel some responsibility for the depredations Horsa has inflicted on us all and I am pleased to announce to you all that he has agreed to come to terms. Tomorrow, in this very hall he will formally swear his allegiance to me once more. The ravening wolf will be tamed and once more become the loyal dog, at the beck and call of our guild.”
p<>. A rumble of approval went round the long table, fine silver goblets were filled and raised in toast toward Nestor. Only the fat merchant did not drink, mastering his scowl with difficulty his booming bass cut across the room once more, “Nestor, I demand to know wh…” he coughed abruptly as Nestor, fingers caressing the stem of a diamond encrusted goblet, looked at him with apparent concern. The pendulous belly heaved mightily and a terrible choking gasp came from the bloated figure who swayed on his feet and whose glabrous flesh bore an unhealthy sheen of sweat.
p<>. “Ortho, are you unwell?” Concern dripped in honeyed tone as Nestor leant forward, his knuckles white around the goblet in his grasp. The stricken merchant’s hands groped feebly to find support before he crashed forward, scattering the expensive gold and silver plate. Nestor set down his wide-bowled goblet upon the table. The other diners and the serving girls looked on in horror, a stunned silence that was broken only by Ortho’s breath which came in thin, ragged gasps, his chest barely moving.
p<>. After long seconds, during which the awful wheezing became noticeably more desperate, Nestor clapped his hands and cried for a physician. One of the scantily clad wenches fled sobbing in search. “Gentlemen,” he called to his remaining guests, “Ortho is stricken by some terrible malady. Or a surfeit of lampreys perhaps. I suggest we quit this place and leave the medico to his work. Let us return to our homes and prepare for the morrow, leaving our good brother in the best possible hands,” an aged but vigorous looking man clad head to toe in black entered the room with swift steps, “Ah, doctor, you are most prompt. See to our stricken fellow.”
p<>. The physician acknowledged the words with a brusque wave of his hand, a gesture that caused Nestor to cast him a look of pure venom. Concentrating on his patient, the doctor was aware only of a brief icy chill on the nape of his neck, as if a draft of night air had somehow penetrated the room. He shrugged and called for boiling water and ice, sending the serving girls racing to the kitchens as the merchants filed out in somber mood. Nestor was the last to leave. His shadow seemed to linger in the room for a few moments before slithering after him, or so it seemed to one of the normally stolid guards whose eyes followed his master’s exit.
p<>. Rain was scything down in icy sheets, and in the dark men were at swords drawn on the Street of Souls.
p<>. “What’s this? I’d expected a knife in the back. You two must have found courage in a bottle.” Artemo drawled, eye shifting quickly between the two men who faced him. “If Horsa knew what you were about, he’d strangle you with your own guts.”
p<>. The taller of the two men, a long-limbed Hyperborean, spat, “He doesn’t know, and once you’re dead, he might roar a bit but he won’t care. He might not thank us but he’s not one to sob over spilt wine.” The words rasped out from a thin, ravaged face; yellowed eyes and sunken cheeks were the outward signs of a disease that made pain a constant accompaniment to his waking hours and unbroken sleep possible only through use of the black lotus.
p<>. “Enough of words, Gorm!” The Hyperborean’s stocky partner moved toward Artemo with short steps, moving lightly on the balls of his feet, carving the air with sweeps from the broad, curved blade clenched in his right fist.