A Slum Meeting

a short story by John Stryker

BAWDY LAUGHTER, and calls of familiar revelry echoed across the basement-taproom. Men looked with a mixture of warm jocularity and lethal wariness, and hands not on tall pewter mugs hovered about or else caressed barely concealed weapons. The place smelled of stone and damp and sweat, and despite the roaring fire and the mass of sticky humanity the place was still cold.
The man sat quietly at a cracked table on a mismatched bench a way from the fire, near to the door. Suspicious eyes crossed to him for moments - barely perceptible but still starkly pronounced - but never lingered long enough to meet his own. A girl with the broad hips and easy smile of a bar-girl swayed over with a dinged blue-green tankard in each hand, placing one, frothing generously, before the man, and claiming a seemingly careless coin left on the table in payment.
The man raised amber-green eyes in thanks from under his winter hood, but said nothing. A hand bound in off-white, sitting palm down on the table rose and clasped the drink and he lifted it with undue care to his lips and drank with stiff and unusual deliberacy. The men around the bar knew that this man was out of place in a slum-tavern as well as he did, but they weren’t sure enough of what to make of him to press their curiosity. And so they watched, and waited for him to show his hand. To do something foolish, that would inevitably result in him being found in the grey of dawn drifting somewhere down river like so many others. Bereft of even his meanest possessions.
Before the crowd in the taproom could come to any such decision, however, another stranger appeared at the foot of the stairway that led in and out of the once-cellars in which they sat. This stranger was clearer to them, more sensible. His hands were clasped and clearly sweating, as was his brow. His thin ash-blond hair was dishevelled, and his clothes were fine but grimy. Most telling, perhaps, was the thick dirk he wore easily at his waist. The weapon he bore, clearly as a deterrent in his mind, instead made him an easy mark, because only a nobleman could make his way through The City openly armed and avoid arrest, or worse, by the watch, or their shadowy counterparts. A nobleman in the slums was as good as dead, especially one who travelled unescorted, but even as a dozen knives slid imperceptibly into a dozen palms from a dozen hidden places, each enviously aspiring to the strangers throat or gut, he complicated his position by looking about the still-noisy taproom and taking a seat opposite the man.
Knives were stayed as man and stranger sat opposite one another. The stranger desperately trying to make eye contact and the man implacable, unmoving. Eventually the man took another deliberate pull from his tankard and the stranger leaned in with a conspiratorial air.
“Are you he?”
“Am I whom?”
The stranger paled slightly, feeling gazes from countless undetected sources. He faltered for a moment. A thin string of saliva hung between lips parted instants too-long.
The man shook his head.
“Very well.” he growled irritably “Yes. I believe I am the man you are here seeking.”
The stranger visibly relaxed somewhat. Most likely too much.
“I understand your master has need of my services.”
“Indeed - er - is it safe to talk here?”
The man looked around.
“None of these men are on friendly terms with the watch.”
“But - the militia.”
“Even the militia don’t brave the flooded slums.”
“And…”
“Enough. Security is my concern, not yours.”
The man’s tone was even, businesslike, but the stranger still flinched.
“Very well. We understand your price, and my master will pay you twice this in coin for a certain man we believe to be in The City. He is the deposed son of the King of Kovarth. We believe he will be seeking some measure of retribution for the lawful death of his father, and as yet the avenues my master has pursued have thus par proven fruitless in his capture.”
“You want his throat cut I take it?”
“Those were not my master’s terms, but the resemblance is sufficient.”
The man answered by taking another drink. “Triple.”
“I have not been empowered to offer more.”
“You may return to your master and tell him that the task is underway. He will pay triple the understood amount, or I may take the extra value from his veins. They say that the blood of a Princeling is pure silver after all.”
A clear boast to any idle ears directed to the table where the two visitors sat would easily have detected bravado. But the stranger, in this unfamiliar place, surrounded by these rough men, failed to consider how well backed up that threat might be, and merely answered with a fervent nod.
“Now tell me, what does he look like, this man?” there was a glint in the man’s eye as he spoke, that the stranger took for cruelty.
“Tall, lean, and of noble bearing. His hair is cut, and his throat scarred.”
“From your previous attempt to remove his threat no doubt”
“Indeed. He would speak with a provincial lilt, probably not have mastered Tohler. His gold would be of Avalaigh mint, but in limited supply. He did not enter The City by any of the gates, we suspect him to have entered by goods-barge on the Silver River, and he is without the middle finger of his right hand from the knuckle where his ring of office was removed.”
The man nodded slowly.
“A detailed description, but even then in a city of this size it will take time, and resources to find any man. I will need some coin in advance.”
The stranger nodded and reached into his heavy frock coat - but a hand shot out and stayed his.
“No. Not here.”
The man rose and walked purposefully into the back room of the inn, pushing past a suddenly affronted bar maid. Once there he ascended a short passage clearly cut from a rift in the sunken building from which it emerged into a starless night.
The man made a show of looking about for the stranger’s peace of mind, but no one was to be seen.
“Here.”
The stranger reached hands marked by pallid skin where jewels must recently have been, and produced a purse from inside his coat, offering it to the man. The man reached out his hand and closed it around the purse. And the stranger glanced down, then his face turned ghostly, as he perceived only three fingers closing around the proffered purse.
An instant later the stranger felt hot blood flowing down his front.
The man pulled back his hood and pressed a bearded face with a recently shorn head of hair close to that of the stranger. So close that the stranger now perceived the ugly scar that crossed the man’s throat.
“A wound to the gut, will kill a man surely, but it will be early morning before you finally go to the land of dust and ghosts, and until then the pain you are feeling now will only worsen as the shock subsides. Now, you will certainly die this night, but I am willing to open your throat here and now instead, and offer you that small mercy in return for a kindness from you.”
The stranger coughed wetly.
“Listen carefully, and consider your answer. Because there is a good chance that I know more than you suspect I do. I did, after all, hear word that this liaison had been arranged here tonight. And should I know for fact that you are lying I can inflict punishments upon you more horrific than those you currently face. Now tell me: Where is King Holt?”
The stranger’s eyes bulged with pain and shock.
“I will ask you once more, and then not again. Where is Holt.”
The stranger looked full into the now mirthless, ruthless, haunted eyes of the man who held him down, then down at his guts spilling into the wet dirt street.
Skyreach” he spat, fragments of shattered tooth and flecks of blood spraying from an already agony-ruined mouth. “Skyreach.”
The man nodded sagely, his razor-sharp knife rose, and poised at the stranger’s throat. He leaned close. So close that flecks of ale-froth struck the stranger stingingly across the cheek.
“Why would I offer you a mercy that no man was kind enough to offer me?” He spat cruelly. “And besides: you were wrong about the accent.” he hissed through clenched teeth. Then he rose and strode away into the night, the willowy towers of distant Skyreach barely visible through the haze of bitter drizzle that rose up in the cold night.
The stranger tried to call after him, tried to tell him that they had a bargain yet to be fulfilled, but he no longer had the breath to utter a sound. —Resigned he turned away to make his peace with his divhi, and saw a cluster of figures emerging from the tunnel from which he himself had come only moments before.
By the time the stranger hit the water he didn’t feel a thing. And when he was found a ways down river in the grey light of dawn he was beyond warning his master what was coming.