I made it in to Keliar without any further trouble, around midday. I stabled my horses, then stopped in at an apartment owned by Mr. Stark to rest for a while. Even when you’ve been doing it for years, riding a horse for an extended period can be really tiring! I ate the last of my trail rations, shaved, and rested for maybe half an hour, but then I had stuff to do.
First I headed out to a handful of different couriers around the business district, discreetly dispatching packages to various parts of the kingdom. Most of them contained money, packed in sawdust so they wouldn’t call attention to themselves by jingling. Different alter-egos of mine owed money to different people for various reasons–maintaining one cover identity is expensive enough, let alone six–and a good portion of my earnings from the last job went to keeping current on them. Afterall, the less reason I give anyone to start poking around and looking too deeply into any of my identities, the better. Hill was proof of that!
By the time the money stuff was all taken care of, it was getting on towards evening. One more courier to send off, with a quick inquiry to the Magi, then it was showtime. I headed back to my apartment to put my game face on–literally. Small, carefully shaped wooden prostheses in my mouth to alter the shape of my jaw, theatrical putty to make my nose and forehead a little bit more prominent, black dye for my hair, a careful application of powdered coffee beans to my skin to give it a darker tone, and I came out looking like a totally different man. I headed off to the Drowned Rat, a seedy little tavern down by the docks, for my appointment.
I didn’t know why someone had put the word out months in advance that they wanted to hire Paul Twister. Maybe they just weren’t sure it would reach me quickly? But whatever their reason, they had requested this meeting, and I had bills to pay. I walked in to the dimly-lit room, and quickly started to breathe through my mouth. The scent of unwashed bodies was almost palpable. Lovely. Men sat around rough wooden tables, drinking and chatting, and a few of them had what appeared to be honest-to-goodness tavern wenches sitting across their laps, leaning into them all flirtatious-like.
I asked the bartender where I could find the back room, where I had been instructed to meet my newest benefactor. The burly, sweaty man squinted at me. “It’s in use,” he grunted.
“I know,” I replied, as pleasantly as I could. “I’m supposed to be meeting a colleague there. He said to mention the tail of a serpent?” The password must have worked. Kind of dumb, but at least it wasn’t “swordfish”. The bartender nodded, then pointed me to the room.
I walked through the door and found the small room much more brightly lit than the main one. About half of the floor space was taken up by a wooden table, with three lit candles burning surprisingly bright. There was a man seated at the table, wearing what looked to be a rather heavy robe of a dark greenish color. He wore a fairly thick brown mustache above his upper lip, but aside from that there was no hair anywhere on his head, not even eyebrows or lashes. And maybe it was the light, but his skin looked caramel-colored. And I mean that literally. Back home, when we say “caramel colored skin” it usually means “pretty Latina girl,” but actual caramel isn’t just brownish; it has a noticeable yellow-orange tint to it. So did this guy’s skin, and that’s not something you see every day. Or… ever, really.
He looked up at me when I entered, but his eyes, the same deep green as the robe he wore, didn’t quite focus on me right. He hadn’t even said anything yet, and he was starting to give me the creeps already! Everything about him was just a little bit wrong, a little bit unnatural. “Greetings, Paul Twister,” the man said, and a little shiver passed through me. Even his voice was kind of off, just a little bit hollow. I really didn’t know what kind of person was sitting there, but my instincts were telling me he was something else, masquerading as a human. “Please, take a seat.”
I sat down hesitantly, one hand sliding down to finger the hilt of the dagger I had concealed in one of my boots. Though if worse came to worse, I wondered if I actually might be more effective simply touching him? But for the moment, no treachery had occurred, so you have to still play by the rules. Assume good faith, or at least pretend like you do. “You wanted to speak with me?”
“My mistress did,” he said in that strangely hollow voice, looking at me and through me. “I am but a… conduit, of sorts.” He looked down, almost as if he was looking through the tabletop. “You will not need the dagger. You are in no danger here, unless you fail in the task that my Mistress has assigned to you, and should that be the case, the danger would not be from me. I pose no threat to you.” The calm, matter-of-fact way in which he said that made my skin crawl. It was not exactly an emotionless monotone; he spoke with some inflections, but they were subtly wrong inflections that didn’t rise and fall the way his speech should have. Either whatever was at the other end of the “conduit” had some serious trouble framing their words, or he was using a language so strange that it was throwing whatever magic there was translating everything for me for a loop somehow. His lips didn’t move in sync with the words I heard, but I was so used to that that I didn’t count it as particularly strange anymore.
“I haven’t agreed to any tasks yet,” I pointed out, looking him in the eyes. He looked back up at me, but again his eyes didn’t quite meet mine correctly.
“My mistress finds this irrelevant,” he stated with infuriating calm. “Something of great worth was stolen from her. Your services are required in returning it, as it would be… unfortunate should she have to retrieve it herself.”
I cocked my head to the side a little. “Unfortunate how?”
A creepy smile tugged upwards at the corners of the man’s lips. “My mistress,” he said simply, “is known in your kingdom as Ryell.”
OK, that explains a lot! Ryell was a reclusive golden dragon of immense power. An uneasy peace existed between mankind and dragons, sort of a stalemate situation. Ever since the rise of the Magi, it was generally understood that there were no dragons in the world who could stand against a determined effort to kill one of them, but that in most cases such an effort would cause so much collateral damage (before being successful) that it would not be worth it.
“I see,” I said, a little bit shaken. “What was stolen, then?”
“A shed scale from her tail,” the man said. “When you find it, it will have the appearance of solid gold but the strength of iron, curved, smooth on the outward side and rough-textured on the inward side. It will be about as large as your open hand, and half again as thick.”
Wow! That’s a lot of gold… or whatever the golden dragon’s scales are made from. I’ve heard that dragon scales are highly prized by alchemists and artificers because the dragon’s body produces substances that cannot be created by any other known process. And yet, if she had shed it…
“I’m afraid I don’t understand. Why would a single discarded scale be considered ‘of great worth’ to your Mistress?” I know I don’t have any particular fondness for my own cut hair or nail clippings.
“Why is it considered of great worth to your magicians?” the conduit-man responded.
Well, that’s a non-answer if I’ve ever heard one, but that’s probably the best I’d get out of him. “Fair enough. So who do I need to retrieve the scale from, and where would I find them?”
His response was about the last thing I’d have ever expected. “In two days, the burglar who stole her scale away will be in this city, seeking a buyer. It will be purchased by one Fiona Khal, of the Magi. She will keep it close for some few days, before attempting to use it for her magics in a way that would damage the scale. You are to retrieve it from her before that time.”
I blinked slowly at him. “Wait a second. It’s just some adventurer carrying the thing around right now, and you or some other conduit can’t just ambush them?”
The man shook his head. “It is to be retrieved after Fiona Khal has purchased it.” The more I talked with this guy-or the dragon pulling his strings, or whoever it was I was talking to-the less I liked him. He could be infuriatingly short on explanations and useful details.
“All right. So the adventurer has a deal with Khal to sell artifacts to her?”
“No. The two have no existing relationship. She is simply the one who will purchase the scale from him.”
That kinda threw me even more. “Your Mistress can foretell the future?” Prophecy could be a very dangerous thing to mess with, afterall.
He shook his head. “No; she simply sees what is, as it lays before her. Fiona Khal is the person who is to purchase the scale. You are the person who is to retrieve it.”
So… no except yes. Yeah, that’s perfectly clear. “If you say so. Once I have it, what do I do with it?”
The man pulled a scrap of tattered brown-gray cloth from a pocket of his robe, and set it on the table. It was folded, and looked to be about large enough for a bandanna if it were laid out flat. “Wrap this around it, and it will be returned to my Mistress.”
I held up my hands in a defensive-style gesture. “I’m not sure you want me messing with teleportation enchantments…”
“I do not, of course,” he said in that wrongly-inflected voice. “This is but a simple scrap of old, worthless cloth. Touch it. You will see that there is no magic in it. It is nothing but a thing that my Mistress is familiar enough with to attune to her will. The enchantment, as you put it, is in her, not in the cloth.”
Well. It seemed Ryell had everything all figured out! “All right,” I said slowly, picking up the cloth. As promised, I didn’t feel anything Twisting against my fingers. “And once it’s done, where will I meet you for payment?” Usually I demand the cash up front, of course, but there were enough extenuating circumstances in this particular case that I’d be willing to make an exception.
“Are you not paid at the time of hiring?” the man asked, looking at me curiously. OK, nevermind then.
“Well, yes, that’s how I normally operate,” I admitted.
“Good. My Mistress believes that this should suffice as compensation.” He pulled something else out of the pocket of his robe and laid it on the table, and I felt like I ought to make like a cartoon character, with my jaw dropping to the table, eyes popping out of my head, and a big AOOOGA horn sound effect for good measure!
Sitting before me was the largest sapphire I had ever seen. It was uncut, a slightly dull blue in appearance, a lumpy, amorphous blue rock, but I’d seen enough gems to know what it was I was looking at. Now, in case you’re not familiar with jewels, and think that “a big gemstone” is like something out of a cartoon, large enough to sit on like a stool, allow me to disabuse you of the notion. This rough sapphire was about half the size of a chicken’s egg, and that’s freaking enormous as gems go! I’m no jeweler, but my first quick estimate of its worth was somewhere in the 8000-10000 Delin range. Maybe even more than that. (Not to mention its potential applications as a battery for magical energy!)
I didn’t even have to ask if Ryell thought she could trust me with a treasure like that before completing the job, nor was I about to mention how this was more than an order of magnitude more valuable than my usual going rate–not to mention probably more valuable than the hypothetical price I could get from selling the scale itself! If the dragoness had a slightly different sense of priorities, that was fine by me! I forced myself to stay calm. “Yes, that would… suffice,” I said, trying not to look too overwhelmed. “I’ll get the scale back.”
The man nodded silently, and I got up and left. There really wasn’t much more to say, now was there?
Once I got out into the cool night air, I had to blink a few times and shake my head. Something was wrong with me in there. It had been subtle enough that I hadn’t noticed it until I got out of it, but there had been something clouding my mind in some way. I didn’t ask nearly enough questions, and I’d walked out of the meeting carrying dragon treasure as a token of promised service, even after being told straight-up that the dragon was able to attune her will to familiar objects, and use her magic to influence them remotely, without there being any enchantments on them for me to Twist off. And obviously (well, obvious to me now, at least,) that wouldn’t just apply to the cloth! Why hadn’t I thought of that before taking the gem? And why hadn’t I thought about how I almost certainly wouldn’t be able to sell it anyway? Any attempt to sell a stone that large to a jeweler–or to attempt to have one cut it–would attract all sorts of attention that I couldn’t afford. Ditto trying to get it charged with magical energy. A battery-stone like that could have enormous potential for me, but not if I couldn’t actually get the energy into it. (Not to mention that it would be incredibly foolhardy to put something like that, that a powerful dragon was attuned to, in the room where I kept the rest of my charged stones!)
So the sapphire was worthless to me. I’d been roped in to performing a valuable service, essentially for free. And for a dragon, to boot. She’d somehow clouded my mind into not realizing any of this until it was too late. I’d known for a long time that the Twist didn’t make me invulnerable, but even when it failed there was always some sort of warning first. But I hadn’t felt a freaking thing in there!
Well, crap. About the only reason they didn’t have the phrase “never deal with a dragon, for you are crunchy and taste good with ketchup” here is that ketchup hasn’t been invented. I’d gotten myself into a huge mess here. Now what was I going to do?
The only thing I could do, I decided after thinking about it a little. I’d spend the next couple days doing some research, and then complete the job, if only to make sure things wouldn’t get any worse.
In hindsight, I really should have known by now not to ever, ever be so foolish as to invoke “things can’t get any worse.”