The most important part of watching someone was to make sure you weren't being watched in turn. Keeping this in mind, Romley walked silently through the outer promenades of the bazaar, taking care to stay only in the shadows. The sun was very hot, despite this being only the barest edge of the desert, so the loose turban which covered his eyes received no special attention. He passed quickly through the domain of the fruit vendors and fishmongers, and wormed his way into the crowded stalls of men who sold far more exotic items. Amulets of carved wood and seldom anything more were shaken under the noses of anyone who displayed even the least curiosity. Rings embedded with glass jewels abounded, as did trinkets slathered with feathers and meaningless scribbles which were announced very proudly as runes of great power. He saw a scarab very poorly painted with gold, and through a gaggle of onlookers caught a glimpse of a spear which gleamed with green fire. Everywhere, the stink of people covered all else, and the heat sent it fuming through the quickly narrowing path. Ahead, his quarry was inspecting a crystal sphere crusted with opals, an expression of distaste on his thin features. Romley leaned under the canvas of a jewel merchant, threw a few coins across the little counter to keep him quiet, and settled down to watch.

His target was a tall man, but not absurdly so, and his narrow frame gave the illusion that he was in fact of equal stature to the burly Prythenians who surrounded him. He wore the robes appropriate for his station, with all the requisite swirls of gold and universal typings. A broad-rimmed top hat threw his face into partial shadow, and one of his sallow hands drummed thin fingers against the table of the globe seller. Romley drew from his pocket a long instrument, equipped with a small horn at the end and accentuated with long strokes of functional ivory. It drew a few curious looks, but not many. Soon he had drawn the thing up to his ear, and directed it very subtly towards his target. Slowly, lazily, a few scattered words began to filter into his hearing, which eventually became a full sentences.

"... currencies. .... think surely.... yes. Well, I'm telling you, it's not worthless, but what you're asking for is palpably ridiculous. Well, I've already said it, haven't I? Lin is almost fifteen degrees too far to the west, and you've barely accentuated the Galetops. Yes, I understand it's a new science, but that's no excuse for shoddy workmanship. ... Fine. Ten pieces, not a weight more. Yes? Good man."

He was turning now, and Romley was quick to put away his aid. He gave the jeweler a swift nod, another coin (drawn at random - it rightly belonged to another continent altogether, and the merchant looked at him in annoyance until he disappeared back into the crowd), and a few pleasantries before rushing back to the pursuit. As the mass of people thickened, and the air further congealed with the hoarse cries of materialism epitomized, he cursed himself fiercely for his failure. What had he thought he was doing, standing so far away? There wasn't a hope for it now, really - the man in purple robes was a tricky quarry at the best of times, and now he'd be impossible to track, what with the alleys being what they were, and the barges taking off in just three hours... only one hope now, and it was a long one at best. He ducked into one of the pillared alcoves, between a shaman's booth and a taxidermist whose centerpiece was a two-headed lion with sad eyes, and drew out the ivory horn. He held it very tightly to his ears, and swiveled it madly. All he needed was a breath, a whisper, anything at all to pinpoint the direction in which he needed to go.

Suddenly, a thunderous noise left him momentarily deaf. He threw the horn from his ear in alarm, and cried out in pain.

"Excuse me," repeated the wizard. One long, angled eyebrow rose in detached interest at the other man's agony. "Are you quite sane?"

"Arghhhh..." Romley looked up with glazed eyes, and started. Lucky for him, the wizard seemed to take this as further proof of lunacy, and merely sighed. His robes caught a little of the sunlight, and gleamed fiercely though they were coated with shade.

"This shouldn't take the either of us too long, and to be honest it's quite a bother, but I have need of an earpiece just like the one you were holding." He pointed at the horn, which by now was lying on the ground next to a stack of empty wooden crates. "I'll pay you an honest price for it - name a weight, and I'll press you not too hardly. Come on, up you get."

Was this real? It couldn't be. How had the wizard done it? He'd been scanning the crowd very carefully, he was sure of that, and he'd just... appeared. This was a problem. He'd have to... to... he had to think. Buy some time. He looked into the shadows beneath the brim of the man's hat, looked into the fierce green eyes, and smiled dumbly in response. "Eh, ah, jussa, jussa little eatings for me," he gabbled, and winced as the other man narrowed his expression in what was either suspicion or disdain. The latter he could handle, but the former... he would have to lay off it, if only a scratch. "Breading! Have you breading? It is all I want."

"Bread? Is that what you mean?" The wizard snorted. "Such a beautiful piece, too... here. Two pieces. You can buy your own bread with it, or whatever else it is you might desire." He went to pick up the horn, and looked at it with obvious greed before shoving it into a pocket, out of view. "Where did you find it, I wonder. Do you remember?"

"It fall from sky." Romley inched his fingers around the back of his canvas shirt, and found the handle of his pistol. He gripped it for a moment, tensed his finger against the catch, but subsided. Flavius was no flouncing lord, to be mugged and discarded with ease. Try to shoot him, and it was just as likely that he, Romley Bourvain, would end up as a line of soot in this Prythenian back alley, forgotten and very much dead. Besides, the wizard was of no use to him killed. That, at least, had been very specific. He would have to -

A blast of blue light, and he fell into the stack of crates to tumble again to the ground, the flimsy wood falling and breaking upon him. He shouted in surprise, and flung himself away in expectancy of another shot, which didn't come. The wizard stood at the mouth of the alley, hand outstretched and twisted into an unnatural gesture. A cruel smile crossed his lips.

"How truly novel of you... it's Rudolph, is it? Well, my friend, take a bit of advice. If you're going to pull off the role of a simpleton, get rid of that weaselly glint in your eye. Gives you away every time." He arched his palms meaningfully, and Romley felt the disguise fall from his face very suddenly. There was a brief tugging sensation as the flesh righted itself, and grew back his full head of dark brown hair, and the bristly spines of his short beard. He massaged his jaw tenderly, and shot a glare of hatred at the wizard, who remained in a ready position, hands slightly parted and fingers tilted inward. A teasing stream of cerulean dust played between them in preparation for a spell.

"When did you know?"

"Now, Rudolph... give yourself due credit. I'll admit you had me for a second but alas... that" - he pointed at the horn - "as I soon realized, is a Digarian Horn. It requires the use of a very specific and rather tricky incantation, which an imbecile could never learn. Also, as I've told you, those eyes of yours are far too clever for your own good. I suppose you have a weapon?"

Romley grabbed the gun instinctively, and have readied himself to draw it out. "Always. Don't try it, Flavius. Funny thing about you magicians... sure, you can move mountains and throw fire, but" - click - "I've never seen a one of you that's ever caught a bullet." The bluff held a mote of truth behind it, which was the best sort of bluff. Both of them knew, on some level, that the mage was fully capable of turning the air or whatever it was they did, and thus evade destruction. In the Sagittarian campaigns, Romley had seen a man cut down with his own gun after a longwinded bit of Moeral incantation... last he'd checked, though, Flavius was a student of Qiras, which gave him a chance. Even now, he saw a brief flash of calculation contort the wizard's face, though his hands did not move.

"What does your master want, Rudolph?"

"It's Romley, damn you. We've gone through this before. Romley, I tell you. And to be quite honest with you, I'm not sure what S'vitava wants. He hasn't told me."

"What?" For the first time, Flavius looked truly surprised. "What do you mean, he hasn't told you? What the devils are you doing here, then?"

"My orders are to retrieve you, and bring you back to Ans." Slowly, Romley got to his feet, taking care to keep the gun level. "Now give me back my horn."

"No. When I told you I had need of it, I was speaking sincerely."

"Well, you won't be needing it now," said Romley, and his voice was cold. Two silhouettes had appeared in the alley, and at the sound of the footsteps the wizard looked momentarily away.

Things happened very quickly.

Quick as a snake, and just as sharp, Romley seized on his chance and fired the pistol in a neat line that brokered no error. A convulsive motion by the wizard turned the bullet, which would have taken a chunk of his hip, into a useless spiral of sand just as a pair of bald, domed heads appeared around the alley bend. Their arms were covered in dark tattoos, and ended in large hands gripping ritual clubs. Their expressions were empty, unmarred by excitement or fear as they raised their weapons and brought them down, as one, on the magician's frail shoulders. He fell like a rock, and with a scowl, Romley reloaded his pistol.

"Not so arrogant now, are we? Silly fool." He looked up at the men. "Good work, the both of you. Yol S'vitava will hear of your service. You will be rewarded. Now, I want you to"- His sentence devolved into a strangled oath. For the collapsed figure of the wizard had stirred, and what was more his hand twisted once in a gesture of arcane power...

Blue light filled the narrow alley, first abolishing and then superseding the weak streams of sunlight filtering through the canvas covers. Then there was the noise, rushing and at once loud and deathly quiet, a queer sensation as if Romley's very ears were being turned subtly inside out. When next he could see (and this was quite a while after), he and the two burly men were alone. The other two were still on the ground, grunting and pawing at their eyes, which were still filled with blue oblivion. Romley looked wildly around, muttering curses, but there was no sign of the wizard, nor any trace of his passing. But no, that was wrong... glinting in the weak light, and half hidden by the debris of one of the crates, was... what, exactly? His horn! He pulled it free, dusted it off, and frowned for a moment at a small dent in the rim. As he turned it around in his hands, he suddenly stopped.

There was something caught in the long tube of the device: a scrap of parchment, crisscrossed with black lettering in a variety of letters. He pulled it free, and stared at it with first excitement and then confusion. Though he was fluent in over a dozen languages from all parts of the world, he could comprehend not a single word of the wizard's chosen tongues. He became aware of a presence at his shoulder, and looked with spiteful condescension at the stupid figure of the Prythenian. "Well," he said, waving the scrap in front of his unfocused eyes. "What do you make of it?"

To his surprise, the man's eyes narrowed in rare focus. After half a minute, he snatched the paper in a flash of movement, and held it closer to his face. Finally, he turned it back to Romley, and tapped one of the more prominent scribbles, written in a language that looked a little like a lizard, scrabbling across the length of the parchment in erratic ups and downs. "Amphularazar," he intoned, and handed the parchment gently back.



"In Aemetian, man! What is it?"

This earned only a shrug, and a repetition of the word. "Rukuru," he added, and Romley seized on this. He knew that word.

"The Rukuru? That's the language?"


"They're east of here... less than ten ruman lengths. Their city is Ismanter, isn't it?"


Romley stared at the parchment for another minute, his eyes darting from symbol to symbol, as if his desperation could force them to sacrifice their meaning. Finally, his eyes widened in primal triumph. One small word, almost whispered at the corner of the page. It was old Bourvaigian, dotted and swirled. "Scarmani scales," he muttered, then looked up at the two men, who had resumed their mute stoniness. "It's a list," he cried. "A wizard's list! And there's the horn..." he jabbed at a phrase in Farchian, which he had missed because it was bisected by a series of oddly violent looking runes which he couldn't read. "A Digarian horn. He's looking for something, something big, but first..." He looked up again at the other men, a fierce determination in his eyes. "Do you know where the Scarmani serpents can be found? It is but one place, nearly impossible to reach without the aid of coal or magic."

More shrugs, but he didn't care. "The Sea of Dust," he breathed, and started back to the bazaar. A camel would be waiting at the north exit, near the Tabberian Gate, and from there... well, from there he would find his way. He always did.

"Follow!" he barked, and strode into the crowded market streets of Sa'arad, City of Spires, the sun on his back and the fire of the hunt throwing diamonds in his eyes. From the narrow confines of the alley he emerged, the horn in his hands and his mind far away, and soon his shape passed into the swirling crowds of life, and was lost.

December 13, 2019 13:06

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Grace Simmons
01:32 Dec 21, 2019

Wonderful story.


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Karen Iseminger
22:48 Dec 18, 2019

Masterfully written. It’s not a story I would normally read but it held my interest because your writing is magnificent!


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