"You aren’t going to turn us in, are you?” I asked Grayson, only a little nervously.
He finished straightening his clothes and took his time checking everything was in its correct place before finally answering. “No.” He half-smiled, enjoying my awkwardness. “There is no love lost between myself and the Shriners.”
There was a collective sigh of relief from everyone around the table, although I never really thought he would report us to the Church of the Holy Shrine. He was too much of a stiff-neck to do something as ignoble as returning a favour with a slight. After all, he had allowed me to walk away after stabbing him because he considered it a reasonable thing for me to have done. Honestly, these heroic types boggle the mind.
People have a strange way of acting when they’re in the company of those they feel in friendly competition with. They wait for you to pick up your dropped sword. They allow you a pass if you have other more pressing business. They say harsh things to remind you they exist. Sometimes you need reminding. The best people can decide not to bother you, and so slip by unnoticed. It’s only right when they do tap you on the shoulder that you acknowledge their presence. Would be rude not to.
I let out my own sigh. “Thanks. How’s it feel?” I said, making a little tap of my own.
He rubbed his side. “Remarkable. They brought me here after our little disagreement—” he paused for a fraction of a second to let his tap supersede mine “—and the healers did their best to mend the wound, but their methods are crude and they refuse to change them. That would be sacrilege. It works once in a thousand, I would guess. Most, like me, are left alive but far worse off than they started.”
He moved around a bit, bending and flexing like he was warming up for a yoga class.
“Why didn’t yo’ ever get married?” asked Flossie out of nowhere.
Grayson stared at her for a long minute but it had no effect on the ditzy tart. She wanted to know, the same way girls want to know if the posh bird on a soap opera will go to bed with the nice doctor or the rough truck driver (both, you morons, she’ll shag them both).
“Ignore her,” I suggested. “It’s the accent. Half the time even she can’t tell what just came out of her mouth.”
Flossie looked offended. “The Brummie accent is very noice, ackchoowalley,” she said (or at least I think that’s what came out of her mouth).
"I never stayed anywhere long enough,” said Grayson. “My unwed mother died when I was a baby, so my uncle’s family took me in. I had to work for my keep, so I was apprenticed out young. And one night I was coming back from delivering an order and some thieves jumped me. I killed all three of them. Standing there with bodies littered around me, scared out of my wits at what I'd done, but feeling a strange confidence in my ability to do it again. So I ran away and joined the army. Seemed the ideal profession for someone with my newly discovered skills. And I was constantly travelling after that, never met the kind of girl you settle down with. Lots of women, but, you know... you both just get down to business. It isn't especially romantic.”
The three girls were looking at Grayson like he’d just told them the most moving and tragic love story of recent times. What I heard in Grayson’s explanation was that he’d rather fuck whores. Fair play to him.
“Are you sure there isn’t anyone in Gorgoth who might be a Visitor?” I asked Grayson, keen to get him off the Mills & Boons book tour. “Probably an older guy with special powers?” Grayson was shaking his head at me. “Maybe someone secretive people say odd things about.” He stopped shaking his head, but still looked doubtful. “Maybe quite rich but no one ever sees him.”
“There is one person who fits your description, but I don’t think he is a Visitor. He has been part of this city for a long time.”
That didn’t sound like a reason to strike him off the list of possible candidates. The guy I was looking for was a contemporary of Peter’s, so he’d been here at least a hundred years.
“His name is Arta Askii. He is a very powerful magnate, but something of a recluse. His business dealings are all carried out by his subordinates, even at the highest level.”
“What business is he in?” asked Maurice, notebook at the ready.
“You’ve seen the caravans entering the city? He was the one who organised the depots and warehouses where everything is unloaded and stored. Before him, people came and went as they saw fit, creating chaos. It was he that enabled the city to find its purpose, and flourish.”
A middleman. Did no real work himself, but got paid for sorting out everyone else’s problems. Sounded like he could be our man.
“Where can we find him?” I asked.
Grayson sat down, smiling at the lack of pain involved. “It’s hard to say. He has a palatial residence in the north part of the city, but whether he’s in there or not, I couldn’t tell you. He has numerous other properties dotted around the city, and then there are his offices near the port.”
“We didn’t see any water on our way here,” I said. “Are we near the sea?”
“No, it’s a river port, under the city,” said Grayson, eyeing me suspiciously. “How did you arrive here?”
“You don’t want to know,” I told him.
“It involves dragons,” said Flossie in a lowered voice, like she was giving him a very cryptic hint.
“You’re right, I don’t want to know.” He looked around the table at us. “I must say, I’m surprised it was your group that survived, but not altogether disappointed.”
It was like a compliment wrapped in a cold fish, which was used to slap you in the face.
“Thanks,” I said. “Can we stay here for the night?”
“Yes,” said Grayson, “but you’ll have to find your own accommodations in the morning. You could even get jobs and settle down, if you wish. It’s a big city, and the church is less likely to interfere in your business if you keep a low profile.”
It was quite an appealing thought. Well, apart from the bit where we had to earn a living. We did, however, need money.
“Ah could sing for mah supper.” Flossie’s eyes lit up. “Do some busking.”
“How is that keeping a low profile?” I admonished her. “We don’t want to be famous.”
“They don’t have to be very good songs,” said Flossie with a pout. “I could sing something yo’ liked.”
Claire and Flossie high-fived each other like retards.
“Is there a Municipal Directory here?” asked Maurice.
“Yes,” said Grayson. “You have money put away?”
We did. We had put money into the one in Fengarad or Dargot or somewhere, I didn’t really remember. But Maurice did.
“I’ll take you there, tomorrow,” said Grayson. “Come, your bath will be ready and then you can retire to your room."
There was one bathroom, which was a large sunken pool heated from below somehow. The girls went in first and did their business, and then we went in with about thirty other men. It was a tight fit, especially when you were trying not to touch anyone else’s penis, of which there were many (at least one each, although it seemed like more).
We were put in a storage room of some kind with bedding on the floor and quickly fell asleep after a tiring day. We woke in a heap with body parts tangled together, eyes all gritty and drool down our faces. We weren’t the most attractive bunch at the best of times, but mornings were when we really proved it.
We were given breakfast, and washed up before Grayson came to meet us. He had his walking stick with him.
“It got worse?” I asked him.
“No, everything’s working wonderfully well. Best night’s sleep I’ve had in a long time. This?” He spun the stick on his finger like a baton. “Wouldn’t do to be miraculously cured. Questions would be asked.”
He made a good point. It was reassuring to have a smart person on our side for once. Probably best to keep it that way. I made a mental note not to stab him again.
He took us through the crowded morning streets of Gorgoth to the Municipal Directory. It was the first chance we’d had to get a proper look at the city and its inhabitants. The buildings were mainly yellow, sometimes white. They were very square with flat roofs, crowded together on either side of narrow streets, although that may have been due to the route we were being taken.
The people wore light robes of many pale shades. They had the same olive skin as the other people of this world, but they looked a bit plumper, in general. The city was prosperous.
As we neared the central square where the Directory was located, the noise increased, as did the size of the crowds. People were everywhere, going about their business in an unhurried manner. Stalls sold food and various other bits and bobs that caught the attention of the party. I did my best to keep everyone moving. Grayson was leading the way, and didn’t look like he was going to stop for a bit of window shopping.
Getting money out wasn’t very difficult. I had worried we would need to produce letters of introduction or identity cards stamped by the Adventurer’s Guild, but having Commander Lari Grayson of the City Guard with us was recommendation enough.
I’m not sure how they moved records between the different branches of the Directory, but they had a full list of everything we’d deposited. Unfortunately we couldn’t reclaim objects stored in another city, like my stick with nails that I had put away for a rainy day, but we were able to take out all the money we had left.
It was legal tender here, even though they had their own currency and ever-changing exchange rates. Crowns and sovereigns and what have you. Maurice wrote it all down so I didn’t bother fixing it in my memory.
Grayson took us to a small inn he felt was suitable for our needs and our budget, and told us to come to him if we needed help. He said it in a way that suggested we shouldn’t come to him if the help we required was either too trivial, or too substantial.
“Try to avoid the Shriners,” he told us. “And stay clear of the druids, too.”
“You think they’re trouble?” I asked him.
“They’re harmless, mostly. But the Shriners like to keep tabs on them, and if they see you hanging around them, they’ll probably start keeping an eye on you.”
It was reasonable advice, and it wasn’t like I planned on attending any druid meet-ups in the near future.
We took three rooms which we could afford to rent for a week. We retired, not expecting to see each other until the following morning, even though it wasn’t even lunchtime yet. We hadn’t been alone with our respective partners in some time.
Our room was a fair size with a large bed. A balcony with shuttered doors looked out on the city, over flat roofs to the more grand buildings to the north. The man I sought was probably over there, somewhere.
Within ten minutes of entering (which was five minutes after I’d already finished showing Jenny a good time—I told you, it had been a while and the first one doesn’t count, it’s just clearing your tubes), there was a loud knock on the door and Claire came charging in without waiting for an invite. An apologetic Maurice was right behind her.
“Look,” she said, indicating the room. “I told you. Look how nice this room is.” She turned to me. “You should see the room they put us in. Horrible. It’s racism. Because he’s black.”
It was nice of her to explain what racism meant, but I still doubted that was the reason they’d been given a shitty room. Maurice was clearly a lot darker than the indigenous population, but they never pointed it out. Even when they identified us as Visitors, they didn’t use his skin colour as a way to tell. It made me wonder if they saw us the same way we saw ourselves.
“You can have this room,” I said.
“You’re just going to give us your room?” said Claire, her sails somewhat deflated.
“I don’t care.” Which I didn’t.
“What about Jenny?” asked Claire, looking over at the girl lying on the bed trying to buckle her belt.
“She’ll do what I tell her,” I said.
Jenny stopped messing around with her dishevelled clothing and looked at me. She smirked. “I’ll do what he tells me,” she confirmed.
It’s hard for some people to understand how a proper relationship works. You don’t need to say what you mean to make your meaning clear. Would Jenny really do whatever I told her? Not if she thought it was a terrible idea. But then, why would I ask her to do something like that?
We had an arrangement. She would support my decisions as best she could. In return, I would try to make decisions she would consider worth supporting. You might wonder why I wouldn’t reciprocate by supporting decisions made by her. Because that was not our arrangement. If you wouldn’t have made that deal, that’s okay. I never asked you to.
Saying it out loud like she was my chattel, bound to follow my orders, was something else entirely. That was me being a dick to amuse myself. It got the eye-rolling response you would expect. Sometimes you say nasty things you don’t mean to people just to remind them you’re there. It made it easier for Claire to accept the offer, knowing what an undeserving bastard I was.
We crossed the hall to our new room. It was much smaller with a window directly opposite a wall. Below was an alley full of refuse, leading to a street at either end.
“This really is a horrible room,” said Jenny as she took off her clothes.
It was just about big enough for the bed, but we didn’t need much more than that. My first place when I moved out was about the same size, plus one small electric hob in the corner, minus one naked girl on the bed.
“I like it,” I said.
“What do you like about it?” asked Jenny.
“It’s got you in it.”
Jenny groaned. “That’s the corniest thing you’ve ever said to me. Why does it make me so happy?” She lengthened her naked body and stretched. It’s one of those erotic things women do without realising. Yes, I know they do realise it, but it’s more fun pretending they don’t.
I could see out of the window while sitting on the bed, it was that close. Jenny pulled my belt out of my trouser loops. Outside, there was a man standing at either end of the alley. A druid, judging by the bald head and heavily oiled beard.
It seemed unlikely to be a coincidence. Arrogant as it might be, my assumption was that they were here to watch us. The way Dereel and Deneel had reacted to us being Visitors suggested they weren’t big fans. They might not mean us any harm, but they could still be a problem.
As Jenny miraculously removed my trousers while I was sitting, another druid approached. He stopped by one of the men and they spoke. I flinched because they suddenly had tentacles growing out from their heads and winding around each other in a terrible embrace. I also flinched because of what Jenny was up to, but we won’t go into that.
The druids retracted their tentacles into their heads and parted. Was this something to do with my powers? A glimpse into the adjacent world? My hands weren’t glowing, but considering the lack of reaction from people passing by I seemed to be the only one to have witnessed what had happened. Maybe it didn’t mean anything, just how it looked when two people chatted from the perspective of someone with my useless ability.
A heroic type would have leaped out of the window, scaled the walls and then given chase across the rooftops, performing unnecessary acts of parkour along the way.
But Colin, I hear you say, aren’t all acts of parkour unnecessary?
To which my reply is, Yes, my sweet summer child, yes they are.
I didn’t give chase. The druids could wait.
There was a loud knock on the door. “I need to talk to you,” insisted Claire. I could hear Maurice trying to calm her down in the background.
“You open that door,” said Jenny, “and I will punch you in the face.”
Sometimes you say nasty things you do mean, just to remind people you’re there. The door remained closed.