THE NIGHT SKATE
Jovial murmuration enveloped Valyncort, Silifrey and Hulmarra, who sat about a circular, handsomely carved timber table which occupied the pavement before the well-trafficked facade of the Gold Brew luncheonette in the labyrinthian Urvolsk souk. A small, blue-jerkined man moved toward them from the interior of the bright-gabled restaurant, bearing three steaming drinks and six sugar cubes on a battered copper platter, sunlight shining off his dark and well-groomed pate.
“Why are we here?” Hulmarra demanded, crossing her hide-bound arms, her lips in downward curl. “You said this matter was urgent, wolf slayer. Shouldn’t we be preparing to leave?”
“That’s what we are doing. Besides-“
“We’re famished. We’ve been rushing around all day,” Silifrey finished, easing back into her red-cushioned chair with a weary sigh, brightening as the approaching server paused before the trio, smiled and set the platter down on the table. “Ah, many thanks, Jahko. Smells wonderful.”
“Of course, madam.” Jahko replied, beaming with pride. “Fresh ingredients. Fresh faces,” the server directed his cordial smile to Hulmarra, who raised a brow. “Your food will be out momentarily.” The server bowed and left off to attend other patrons. After a few moments, Hulmarra dipped to the steaming vessel before her, as if beholding an eldritch abomination.
“What in the pits of Tarkhoum is that?”
“Their specialty. You’ll love it, I’m sure. Jahko’s a true artisan.”
“It smells of potpourri and looks like moonlit blood.”
“Sweetroast, they call it. A new beverage, imported from Karcon,” Tessel chirped, dropping her sugar cube into the cup, nestling it in small bejeweled hands. “Made from water filtered over dark-roasted beans, blended with chicory, cinnamon and turmeric, and a dash of sweat cream.”
The archer grimaced and, with one hand, slowly slide the copper cup away from her across the surface of the sleeve-scuffed tabletop. Valyncort shook his head, sipped his brew and fished a fresh baked butter roll from the cloth-draped basket in the center of the table.
“So.” Hulmarra piped up after an uneasy silence, snatching a butter roll from the table and examining it cautiously. “When are we leaving?”
“Shortly after we acquire our troupe’s forth member,” Valyncort replied between mouthfuls of soft bread.
“This person is meeting us?”
Valyncort shook his head, making a circular motion with his free hand. “Other way around.”
“Because he’s in gaol.”
The archer arched a brow. “You are Captain of the Watch. Surely even the most cantankerous of your men would prove more reliable for such a voyage than a brigand?”
“Doubtless they would. But all they know is soldiering. They lack the skills we need.”
Valyncort motioned to Silifrey who bent forward over the table toward the baffled archer.
“The ruins we seek are sealed by rather complicated locking mechanisms. Or at least, they were. It could be that they have deteriorated or were removed in the lengthy interim since their construction, but of that there is no guarantee, and if we should find the wily architect’s securities intact, we would have to carefully blast or chisel them down, which could alone take weeks or months. The precise dimensions of the tower are not mentioned in the codex, and I’ve yet to finish reading all of it, but from what I could glean, it is quite large.”
At this, Valyncort cut back in, “A delay we cannot afford. A locksmith is indispensable and none of my men are apprized of the art, and even if they were, they’re needed here.”
Hulmarra glanced to the wolf’s head pauldron, then the man’s face and gave a nod.
After the trio finished their meal, they headed to the nearby penitentiary which bordered the southern end of the souk, following the winding white-paved road which ran before the Gold Brew cafe, where two young women, a redhead and a brunette, came twirling up through the bustling crowd.
“See. See,” one of the woman exclaimed, clasping her hands together. “I told you it was him.”
“It really is. The wolf slayer of Barrikar.”
Valyncort paused, smiled broadly and spread his hands. “I am he. How may I serve you?”
“Oh, sir, we would be delighted if you’d take a instant painter with us.”
“Don’t pressure him, Cecelia.”
“Oh, hush. I’m doing no such thing.”
“Its fine, ladies, I should be delighted.”
The itinerant female pair tittered excitedly and called a watchful, plain-garbed man of middling age with a well-groomed beard and a strange machine slung over his shoulder, who waited several paces distant beneath the cool harbourage of a vendor’s veranda. The bearded man advanced, conversing briefly with the woman called Cecelia before casting a curious glance to Silifrey, Hulmarra and Valyncort. The man then unslung the machine, raised it with ginger, practiced acuity toward Cecelia and her friend, posed one to each side of the wolf-caped soldier. “Excellent, excellent, yes, a splendid pose. A little to the left my dear. There. Hold. Just like that. Perfect.” The entrant’s device emanated a hum and a series of swift clicks, followed succinctly thereafter by a bright flash of light. The man removed a small stiff piece of paper from the back of the device, shook it, bobbed with satisfaction then strode forth and held up the device-ejected article for Valyncort and his two admirers to observe.
“Its perfect, Lazlo.”
The woman’s words were accurate, for upon Lazlo’s retracted sheet was a perfect monochrome recreation of the captain and his two admirers. Upon the upper left corner of the paper was a watermark of a fearsome, stylized pike with wings made of layered curved blades, above it, in thin block font, were the letters ‘K R.’ Lazlo passed the image to Cecelia who pressed a coin into his palm. The two women thanked Valyncort, stealing pecks upon his cheeks before blending into the crowd, whereafter the trio regathered and moved further to the south. Several minutes later the group stood before the bare and weather-stained facade of a gaol where two armed guards of the consulate army watched the mottled traffic with disinterest from the shade of a high calcimine loggia. The sentinels tensed as Valyncort approached and greeted them.
“Captain. Weren’t expecting to see you,” The guard to the left said as he returned the conventional Urvolsk greeting.
“Aye. This concern the Night Skate?” The other watchman enjoined, leaning forward on his spear.
“Yes. I’ve come to see him.”
“The burglar?” Hulmarra queried to Silifrey surreptitiously. The linguist nodded.
“If its security you’re worried about, I can assure you, he’s not going anywhere.”
“I’ve no doubt of that.”
The sentries swiftly stepped free of the portal and gestured for the trio to enter. Inside the gaol, the trio followed a short, dingy hall which let out directly to a dim, sparsely furnished room where a man sat drinking a flagon of mead, thumbing slowly through a small book titled ‘Passion at Rivenlore.’ As the footsteps of the trinity encroached, the man looked up with surprise and stuffed the book in a drawer and adjusted his jerkin.
“Captain Valyncort. This is most unexpected.”
“Warden Lesing. I trust you and the wife are doing well.”
“Very. Had our second child recently.”
“Yes. Yes. She’s a darling. Until she isn’t. So. What brings you and,” the warden looked to the two women inquisitively, “These lovely creatures to my humble domain?”
“I wanted an audience with the Night Skate, if it were possible.”
“Certainly, if it would please you.” The warden pointed to an adjacent room behind him, “Uh, the women aren’t coming with you, are they?”
“I should like them to.”
“This is hardly the place to entertain ladies.”
Hulmarra rolled her eyes as Silifrey nervously rubbed her hands together.
The warden looked apprehensively to Valyncort whose composure disclosed considerable dissent.
“I must insist upon this point, Lesing.”
“I don’t understand. Are you not here to question him concerning his crimes?”
“I’m here on Vilmin’s orders. Consulate business. I’m afraid I can’t say more.”
“Then I shan’t ask more.” Lesing cleared his throat and rose from his chair. “He’s in the back holding cell. Just a friendly warning, he’s escaped twice before. Not from here, mind you. Had him manacled nice and tight. Even still, keep a sharp eye.”
“We shall,” Valyncort replied assuringly, his hand resting gingerly upon the pomel of his brand, as if to prove his vigilance.
The warden worked his jaw, took a sip of mead, produced a key ring from his left coat pocket and unlocked the heavy bolt which secured the adjacent door which let out to a stone stairwell that descended into darkness. The scent of straw, iron and dank leather wafted thickly from the chamber beyond. The warden lit a torch and showed the party down to the holding cells, passing the flame to Valyncort upon reaching the lower landing. “Just knock when you’re done. And like I said, a sharp eye.” Lesing retreated and the sound of a lock turning reverberated from the top of the stair. The trio cast their gaze about as they pressed forward, discovering themselves to be traversing a wide stone thoroughfare, bordered on either side by a series of bare iron cells. Most of the cells were accompanied by vagrants, petty thieves, drunken brawlers and other disturbers of the peace. Those who recognized Valyncort’s armor lowered their gaze in fear, or glared with resentment. All watched the procession move past with wordless wonderment.
On a plain and ratty cot in the furthest leftward pen sat a unassuming man, some fifty years of age, garbed in dyeless sackcloth and roughened wool, with a smooth pate scantily adorned with graying black hair, dark green eyes, a broad, uneven nose and a small, thin-lipped mouth, which twisted to a subtle mocking smile as he surveyed his guests. He held in his hands a figure in the shape of a man made of intricately woven blades of grass. The prisoner finished folding the blades into a facsimile of a head as Valyncort stepped forth, passing the torch to Hulmarra.
“Salutations, Siles Rathdam. Or do you prefer the name your skullduggery has incurred, the Night Skate?”
“Wasn’t a title I chose. Siles will do fine.”
“Very well. Do you know who I am?”
The prisoner’s eyes darted to the wolf-head pauldron, then to the man’s weathered face. “I do. Though I know not these others.” He raised the grass doll and shook it. “Come to watch me dance?”
“Fortunate for you. Hangman’s jig isn’t what it used to be. Our executioner’s new method ensures as much, accounting as he does for the weight and height of the intended victim. See,” Siles shifted forward on the cot, his face but a foot from the bars, lifted the small vegetal puppet and imitated a gallows procession. “If the drop is too short, it doesn’t kill the intended victim. Well, not immediately,” he wagged the fingerless arms of the figurine to make it look as if it were grasping at its throat, struggling vainly for freedom. “But if the drop is too long,” he pressed his thumb against the neck of the ersatz man and popped off its head. The sylvan oval tumbling to the rightward corner of the room. The prisoner’s smile widened as he discerned horror come over Silifrey’s rapt and guileless visage. “Hence our garroter’s new stylings. Not that I mind. I’d much prefer to swing for seven seconds than twenty minutes. Just as I’m sure the crowd would prefer an intact corpse to a headless one. So. Everyone wins, broadly speaking.”
“Better were it that you keep your head, I’ve need of it.”
Valyncort gestured to Silifrey, who looked briefly to him, produced the replica tome, turned it to a two-page spread she had marked with a strip of colored parchment that featured a detailed schematic of a large machine built into a wall and stepped reluctantly forward, holding the book up to the drab iron bars.
“Do you recognize this, Mr. Rathdam?”
“Oh, ‘Mr.’ is it? Well la-tee-dah. Let me see.” Siles scratched his chin and leaned toward the text, shackles clattering. “Hold it still, girl.”
“I’m sorry. I’m trying. Its rather heavy.”
The man continued scrutinizing the mechanical diagram for half a minute before replying. “Yes. I recognize this.”
“What is it?”
“What will you give me for telling you?”
“He doesn’t know. We’re wasting time,” Hulmarra cut in brusquely, hands on her hips.
“Its a Hlfglarean tile lock.”
The threesome paused where they stood a few paces away and slowly returned to the prisoner. Siles grinned triumphantly.
“Tell me what you know of these locks, thief.”
Siles met the soldier’s eye a moment and released the bars, leaning his head upon his forearms.
“Get me out of this rat-infested pit and I’ll tell you anything you like.”