Thursday, October 17, 2013

The Winding Road: King's Ransom

By Frank Gori

Caravanner Malleck found negotiating with the Sewer King disconcerting. It was the lack of eyes, he decided. Normally a person’s eyes betrayed much of their inner workings for those who knew what to read. Eye movement could indicate truth and falsehood, dilation indicated surprise or fear, even the speed at which someone blinked could provide a skilled negotiator like Mal with information.

The Sewer Kings eyes were torn from his skull with claws, and in their place were orbs of green amber within which flies had been trapped. Perhaps most disconcertingly, Mal would swear they fluttered their wings from time to time.

The elderly dwarf that claimed kingship of the sewers was also clearly insane.

The King demanded not only monetary tribute but that Mal surrender over either Lazeron, Bellany, or himself to the king as a prisoner. Lazeron was without doubt in trouble with the mages guild, he had not only defected which was a rare and dangerous act to begin with but he had also brought the majority of his gang with him, which could be construed as an act of war unless he left Hub entirely. The Sewer King was in the mages guild. Mal could understand why he’d not want to allow Laz to slip through his fingers. 

Mal could even understand his own value. Liara would pay a handsome ransom for him, or one of the other guilds would pay more and kill him just to wound Liara. If it came to it Mal felt he had no choice but to surrender himself.

What Mal could not comprehend was Bellany’s value to the Sewer King. She was comely, and as deadly in her own way as Zool. But Mal and Laz had value to the heads of two guilds, Bellany was nothing to that.

“If you tell me why you want Bellany, I might consider it,” Mal bluffed. He had no intention of handing anyone over but he needed more information, he needed a better look at his opponent's ivory. The Sewer King clearly believed himself negotiating from a dominant position. The tiles he concealed had to be strong ones, and this was a game of scrim Mal had best not lose.

“I smell Jax’s seed has taken root in her, he would pay handsomely for her, or you,” the elderly dwarf smiled showing that some of his teeth had also been replaced with amber. It was an unpleasant sight. Mal could feel hundreds of tiny eyes on him as the room darkened and the patter or tiny claws scraped and scratched creating a menacing buzz of background noise.

Mal understood that the Music Guild was far more than a bunch of entertainers, that they were the criminal element of Hub. The Music Guild was powerful and inevitable, if Liara were to destroy it it’d simply infect the other guilds. It was like beheading a hydra; leaving the Music Guild intact was a wise decision. But Jax was just their chump figurehead, a preening bard they used as a distraction for the real business of the guild. He could and would pay something for Bellany, just less than the Sewer King might expect.

A fight in these tight quarters in the Sewer King’s home would end poorly. A few of them might escape, but it was just as likely they’d all die even with Laz back up. Mal had painted himself into a corner and surrendering himself was the best option available.

“Let them go and I’ll soul forge you a weapon of your choice, on my honor,” a gentle even voice from the huddle prisoners spoke. It was the elderly orc Blacksmith.

There was a collective gasp. As good a negotiator as the Sewer King was, he failed to hide his surprise at the statement. Mal had probably betrayed his shock as well, soulforged weapons were extremely rare and valuable, it cost the Blacksmith something of what they were to make one, and the smith that knew the secrets to such craft were rare and in high esteem.

The practice of soul forging was common during the Marian empire and some say was part of the cause of the fall. Today it was used sparingly and with consequence, offering it to the Sewer King was a measure of profound respect and required tremendous skill or foolish bravery.

“What is your name smith?” the Sewer King demanded. The rats and other vermin buzzed and squealed now into what could well be described as a dull roar. It was the Sewer King’s tell, he wanted to take the offer. If the offer was genuine he’d be a fool not to.

“My name is Hodge, you been around long enough to know it. I speak the truth, on my anvil and my hammer.” Hodge kept his tone even and his eye rose to meet the amber orbs of the Sewer king. His pose was one that spoke of a man with deadly know how and defiant courage. Mal judged this was no bluff.
“Once he finishes your sword he is also free to return to his guild with an escort,” Mal added. The Sewer King’s face twisted into a grimace then returned to a disconcerting smile. It was enough to tell Mal he had hoped to keep the Blacksmith. Still, the deal was too good to pass.

“Bargain struck,” The Sewer King extended his hand toward Mal to seal it. No doubt he’d sell information on them but Mal saw no other way to get everyone out safely and shook on it.
The Sewer King touched his pinky to his jugular and drew it across the apple of his throat. It was a Marian gesture which meant: I’ll yet have your blood. Mal spit between his feet which was a gesture of violent contempt to Marian sensibilities, or a gesture of respect for one’s martial prowess to the kindred.

The Sewer King let it pass and they soon left. Hodge and Zool shared a moment before departing and something passed between them. Hodge was a familiar name to Malleck and the Sewer King exacted a steep price indeed, the man was thought long dead, a soul forged blade from his hand would be a powerful symbol for the Sewer King to claim.

The bargain was the least bloody one he could strike. Mal had a sinking feeling it was a bargain he’d one day regret.