As things go, it was honest work.
The heat followed me in from outside – despite being wearing something sleeveless and loose, I was still damp with sweat. The Cove was on the Southern Coast, on the Pirate’s Hook Cape, and as such much closer to the equator than I was used to. Perhaps I should have been thankful for the change.
The little brown man wasn’t behind the counter – I could hear him rustling in the back room still, despite the chime of the tiny bell that was rigged to the door. The only other person in the shop was an older woman who spied me warily, mixed a pink flask and a green vial into a crowded rack, and left the shop without a word of greeting. I busied myself with observance until the door closed, and then went over and, feeling nosy, fished out the vessels that she had hidden away. I smiled at the first – a love potion – and raised my eyebrow at the second – arsenic.
The paraphernalia on the shelves would have been more fascinating if I hadn’t other things to attend to. The apothecary’s store was completely stocked with odds and ends of strange kinds, bottles of dragon blood and vials of ground herbs that weren’t even known in this part of the world, with strange names penned upon them in languages I couldn’t recognize. Coiled in a very large glass vase was a displacer beast’s tentacle, inundated in some sort of liquid that I presumed kept it fresh. Shining on another rack like long, multicolored jewels were many sorts of potions, unguents, elixirs, claiming to heal injuries, deformities, haplessness, impotence, and everything in between.
The old merchant wobbled in from the back, tucking something into his tooled leather jacket in rhythm with the tap-tap-tap of his cane. I was decently sure that he wasn’t a wizard, so either the items in his shop were fake, or were gotten from elsewhere and resold. Probably half and half. With the black leather strap draped over his bad eye and his fidgeting fingers, not to mention all the thin, delicate antiquary’s tools he kept in his jacket that looked like they could double as lockpicks, he certainly cut a thievish figure.
Of course, this was Al-Azim, who had been “Gouger” Al-Azim only a few years ago – he didn’t need to look a cutthroat to those who knew his previous career. He wore a wicked jambiya at his waist in a tasteful sheath, with which he had earned his apparent nickname, but from everything I’ve heard it was mostly for show – mostly. He was a greedy little man, and greed sometimes led people to do the things I’ve heard from the locals that Al-Azim has done to people.
“Velcome to my shop, ser. Ken I help you find anyting speceefic?” The old man grinned. I could see his gold teeth – everything that was still natural in his mouth shone bright, fastidious pearl. His gaze trailed down to the long, curved dagger I wore at the center of my sash like so many of the sailors here did. I didn’t need it, but no one walked in The Cove without some sort of weapon showing.
“Hello. Yes, actually.” I rifled through a row of packets of different seeds, most of them of mundane and exotic herbs and spices, but here and there were some with more ominous names. Red Doom, Death Petal,Black Devil. A few of these had questionable legal statuses. “But it’s a specialty, and probably something that could only be bought from the right places.”
Al-Azim nodded pointedly for me to go on, rubbing his ink-stained fingers together eagerly, sensing the potential for profit. It was easy to find black marketers, but what I was asking for was a little deeper than black market goods. I noticed that the whites of his eyes were stained a deep blue – so that’s what he’d been doing earlier, in the back, and why he seemed unbalanced. He’d been dripping nepenthe into his eyes.
“I’m looking for some Charon’s Ferry.”
It punched through him good. That honest merchant smile twitched hard, threatened to break. “I’m not certeen I know vhat that ees.” The façade threatening to crumble and the cessation of his twitching fingers told me otherwise. It wasn’t really surprising though – possession of any amount of Charon’s Ferry was enough for immediate arrest, painful torture and interrogation, and then an unceremonious execution thereafter. Only the blackest of black marketers dealt with it, because there were bounties on those who trafficked it, paid by most churches – most were afraid to be sold out by their own customers who wanted a quick and easy bag of gold.
“There’s no need for that. Okuno told me I could get access to some through you.” I leaned slightly to the right, let my left thumb hook my sash. A swagger – a show of confidence.
The wizened merchant still said nothing. He was examining me, fingering the hilt of his knife, wondering. I continued. “Okuno? Bald, tattoos? Wispy black beard and moustache? He told me I could come here right before he left.”
Al-Azim stared at me for quite a while, his expression unreadable; eventually, after several seconds of fierce internal evaluation, went over and bolted the door to his shop firmly. The tap-tap-tap of his cane was the only noise except for the ambience of the susurration of the bazaar outside, and he led me to one of the corners of the shop. I followed him closely, the smell of tobacco overpowering me the nearer I got to him.
There was a wooden case set into the wall, with a few small whistles and pouches within, the contents and purposes of which were unknown to me. Al-Azim opened the glass, and reached inside, felt against the left frame of the case. This went on for three seconds, and he murmured something soft – there was a click, and he pulled his hand out from the inside of the case and rested it on the outside. The frame opened like a doorway, revealing a recess into the wall.
Within the secret compartment was a dark purple bag of silk that could double as a coin-purse, and a large incense burner of immaculately polished brass. Al-Azim backed away from the compartment to give me room to inspect, but watched intently to make sure I wasn’t going to try anything funny. His hand rested on the hilt of his jambiya, and his voice was cool and hard. “There ees vhat you ask fer. An ounce vill run you vone gold talent.”
I whistled at the price. No wonder he just turned to stone. A talent was slightly upwards of one hundred pounds, more than enough gold to keep you living richly for the rest of your life, and only for an ounce. I had seen incense burners often enough – I was interested in the Charon’s Ferry, which I had never seen or even heard about until recently. I opened the purple bag’s cords gingerly, and peered inside.
It didn’t look like anything special. A mixture of black and green herbs lined the inside. The smell was pleasant, something that was mostly indescribable but reminded me of both basil and roseroot. I stared. So this is what Okuno had bought, and that is what made him somewhat dangerous.
Charon’s Ferry could be used in several applications, but they all had one similar theme – undeath. It could be crushed into a paste to be applied as a salve, turned into a liquid with the proper additives to make a potent liquid poison, but primarily it was burnt as incense. The paste was best for subtle situations, where you could apply it to a corpse and it would rise to serve. The poison was mixed in a way that would kill someone first, and then in the same heartbeat animate them into undeath as well. The brazier, well – I’ve only heard stories, but I was thankful that this thing wasn’t available in large supply. Another silver lining was that one had to be of magical origin to control the undead created from the herb, so no average fool with a fortune could begin dabbling in what seemed to be a potent necromancy.
I glanced up into the polished, reflective surface of the brazier in time to see them coming up behind me. Damn if they weren’t quiet.
They knew instantly that the brazier had betrayed them. The first one lunged, aiming in a straight stab at my back. I whipped around while moving slightly to the side that I had space to maneuver on, being in the corner and all. My left hand caught his wrist and pulled it wide as his stab whistled by, and my right palm hit his upper arm hard. I caught a look at his face – bald head, crooked nose, and a long braided chin beard. There was a crack that I felt more than heard, and I sent him face-first into nearest wall.
The other lead with a swing at the back of my neck as I threw the first out of the way – I was still turning from the throw, and couldn’t properly duck in time, so instead I threw myself backwards, parallel to the wall, within a foot of where the first man’s struggling legs as he dealt with trying to get back up. The second’s sword killed the air a couple feet above me as I hit the floor on my back and rolled to the center of the room. I was on my feet no sooner than the second swing was coming. Having room to move now, I dodged backwards, grunting at the shallow cut that he won and fell back in fast with a left jab that murdered his nose and a right elbow that buried it in his face, which looked enough like the first man to be his brother, except that he had only a thick moustache that was as long the other’s beard.
It was unfortunate that the moustached man didn’t stumble as I thought he would – I followed my elbow by moving to his side while pirouetting, expecting to plant a chop with my left hand on his neck, but he surprised me. His left shoulder sent me backwards myself – I was aware that before I lunged Al-Azim had tried to stab me with his dagger but failed to put more than an inch into my back before I wriggled away. I shot another jab out, getting too close for him to swing his sword, then right-hooked him, kicking out and shattering his kneecap for good measure. His sword clattered as he went down, but the bearded man and Al-Azim were still up.
The bearded man had recovered and had switched his sword over to his other hand – he took a long step, and I ended up drawing the dagger from my sash as he struck. It was almost long enough to be considered a short sword; the blade was mostly straight, but the edges curved nicely. He left himself open, and I feinted – he didn’t fall for it, and swung again before I had time to follow up. I caught his sword on the dagger and sent it out to the side, and kicked him hard in his stomach. He fell on his ass as his brother grabbed my ankle with his hand. He got a heel in the face in return for the slight, maybe somewhat desperate hop to keep my balance, and let out a howl.
“Al-Azim! Where is Okuno?” Al-Azim threw something at me. It was a small vial that I dodged. It landed next to the howling moustached man and immediately, there was a lot of smoke and a lot of fire and a lot of screaming. Al-Azim jumped at me with his jambiya unsheathed.
“Al-Azim!” I parried three of his quick little strikes and tried to land two of my own, but the old pirate was more spry than he looked. The bearded thug had navigated over his friend’s writhing, smoking body. The jambiya struck again, but I didn’t bother parrying – I struck with my free hand as my left arm was laced with a good cut and grabbed Al-Azim’s skinny wrist. Hopefully he hadn’t had time to put some sort of venom on that blade, although it certainly burned like it.
The bearded man swung hard. I pulled Al-Azim’s arm in my place while dodging. A very loud shriek, and Al-Azim was backing away, clutching a ruined, bloody stump poking form his shoulder. I couldn’t tell if his elbow was still intact or if it had been in the part of the arm I threw to the other side of the room with his hand and dagger. The bearded man looked positively aghast at what had just happened – I had put three unnecessary holes into his stomach by the time he thought to move.
“Al-Azim!” The old brown man was wiggling into a corner. I coughed. It was getting too smoky. The fire was reaching the walls, and who knows what kind of combustible liquids were inside some of those vials. I walked up and crouched beside the bloody merchant. “Where is Okuno? I want an answer, but I also want the gold in your mouth!” He tried to hide his mouth, but I was already pressing the tip of my dagger in between his two front teeth. The edge started biting into his gums. “I’m content to have one or the other.”
“Norf!” He squealed. “He sailed Norf in a sheep! He chartered vith pirates from Noir!”
“How much Charon’s Ferry did he buy?”
He grew nervous. His eyes were going hazy. I woke him up by tracing a line in the roof of his mouth. A very deep line.
“Nnngh! Tsree pounds! Tsree pounds!”
Pirates from the Island-Nation of Noir. Damnation if that wasn’t bad news.
I was coughing hard now. Time to go. Al-Azim was choking on blood now. I swiped his neck and he fell silent. I left the back way that I had found two nights ago when I had broken into the place. No one had seen me, perhaps except for someone who had been thinking about becoming a proprietor of a vial of arsenic and a love potion – meaning, no one who would want to get within a hundred feet of the law.
I had my lead. There were only so many places along the coast Okuno could go.