Pay the Blood Price
A spice trader gets more than he bargained for from the Salavasters…
The hall is silent when the tale of the scorched woman’s gift concludes. Several nobles blanch, unaccustomed to such grotesquerie. In an upper balcony, a lady-in-waiting is so overwhelmed she bursts into tears then pushes past the guards at the stairs and flees the hall.
A whisper and a shudder shoot through the audience. Uncertainty hangs in the air, the souls of those present filling with gloom and the memories of Rorei’s tortures — gone but not forgotten. Rothus, the Imperial Bard, glares at the empty rostrum. But right before the murmuring boils into open questioning, a voice rises from the crowd.
“A morbid tale indeed, my friends! Such is often the price paid by those who meddle unwisely with Uncanny beings.” The speaker steps forward. He is draped in fine silks, with an exquisite blue cloak slung over one shoulder, and his hands glitter with rings. He bows deeply before the Emperor.
“Allow me to introduce myself, O Master of the Roiling Seas.” He straightens and a smile creases his handsome face. “I am Spiro Raffaele, humble bard to the Laspina League, our fair city’s premier spice guild.”
A guffaw emanates from a klatch of merchants, reclining and smoking on a central balcony. Spiro ignores this.
Instead, he turns back to the crowd with a flourish of his cloak. “And I have a story to tell as well! If ye be faint of heart, be warned, for peril is not only found in Binding, nor even our familiar shores. In distant lands there is danger, and prices to be paid. And who can tell better of prices paid than a spicer?”
In a lonely corner of a watering hole on the Salavas Islands sat a broken man. A scant few days ago, Lazzru had hoped that one final trade voyage would wipe out his debts. But his every bid for spices was undercut by guild merchants. With the exorbitant prices he’d paid, he’d be lucky to turn a profit at all when he returned to Amalcross. And if he didn’t pay down at least some of his debt, the Horst Concern would eat him alive.
He was drowning his sorrows when someone hissed in his ear. “This one heard the one from Amal is in dire straits.” Lazzru turned to see a Salavaster looming over him. Perpetually leaning forward, their bony frills raised above their heads, sharp claws on hand and foot and yellowed eyes, Salavasters are often intimidating. This one, their scales dyed a deep crimson, yellow, and black, and an unnatural smile stretched over sharp teeth, was even more frightening.
Yet Lazzru was desperate. Only a token effort was required to convince him to follow the Salavaster to a secluded copse.
“The matter is simple, one from Amal,” the Salavaster said once they were in a thicket of palm trees. “This one’s clan has a rival. These ones and those ones have competed for many suns, but these ones always won … until recently.”
The Salavaster traced a claw along a tree trunk, stripping slivers of bark. “Those ones struck an accord with a higher clan and received a clutch of eggs far above the station of these ones and those ones.”
They stopped their claw and gave another toothy grin. “That is why this one wants the one from Amal to steal that clutch, so the eggs may belong to a worthier clan.”
Lazzru gulped and said, “I see. But Sir … uh….”
Annoyance flashed across the Salavaster’s face. “Xarvas Shalna Zhakto,” they said. “These ones have adopted such designations as a courtesy, since ones from Amal cannot see the differences in these ones’ scales.” They gestured at the patterns on their scales, the soaked-in dye shining in the sun. “Ones from Amal could at least remember.”
“Right. Yes. I apologize, Sir Xarvas.” Lazzru cleared his throat and pressed on. “Why would you want me to do this, though? Surely your clan has more suitable members.”
“Because of this.” Xarvas placed a claw right over Lazzru’s heart. “The one from Amal’s warmth.” Their claw pressed against him, just soft enough to avoid drawing blood. “When the sun slumbers, these ones are tired and slow. Even nested ones are less alert. Yet all these ones suffer the same affliction, so these ones cannot strike. Ones from Amal can.”
Despite his fear, Lazzru sensed something. A gleam in Xarvas’s eye, perhaps. It told him this was not the whole truth.Yet his mind turned to his debts.
“…And my reward?”
Xarvas removed a leather pouch from their belt. “A chest of fine goods. Spices, jewelry, carpets. Whatever the one from Amal chooses.” They offered the pouch to Lazzru. “Consider this a token of this one’s good will.”
Lazzru tipped the pouch into his hand and saw a ring of surpassing beauty. The band was made of intertwined gold and silver decorated with impossibly detailed images of birds. At the top, a clawed hand clutched a brilliant gem. This was clearly crafted by a Salavaster Binder-artificer, and it chased the doubts from Lazzru’s mind.
Having taken the deal, Lazzru became a “guest of honor” of Xarvas’s clan. They escorted him beyond the small area around the port which was normally open to foreign merchants and through the rest of the Salavaster town. He was taken past sprawling buildings made of mud and sand, all the time subjected to the suspicious glares of other Salavasters. Only now, much deeper into Salavaster territory than Amalcrossers were usually allowed, did he understand he was at Xarvas’s mercy.
As the night gathered close about him, Lazzru waited, sweating in the salt marshes outside a clan’s Basket and watching the moon’s position. Even late into the night, it was hardly cool. The sun was no longer heating the sands, but the humidity of the isles had barely abated. Could such a small difference really have the effect on Salavaster metabolism that Xarvas claimed? Lazzru looked down at the bottle of brownish liquid Xarvas gave him and frowned.
“Cover the one from Amal in this before approaching,” they had said, “or those ones will taste the one from Amal’s scent on the air.”
“I don’t have a … a scent,” Lazzru protested.
Xarvas’s tongue flicked out of their mouth. “Yes. The one from Amal does.”
Sighing, he uncorked the bottle, unleashing a smell like the sewers in Pauper’s Notch. The liquid slid down his body when he poured it, leaving behind an unpleasant, oily feeling. He gagged at the smell but managed to avoid retching.
Once he could bear the odor, he approached the Basket. Odd, geometric structures dotted the landscape. He knew they were connected by underground rooms and tunnels that snaked in and out of the water. He needed to follow Xarvas’s directions or become hopelessly lost.
Lazzru trudged through the sand until he neared the closest structure. Crescent-shaped holes circled the center, providing an entrance. There was no light inside, giving only a dim impression of the interior.
Steeling his courage, Lazzru crawled inside. The entrance was wide but low, forcing him on his hands and knees. At the end, he swung around and lowered his feet to the ground. He tried to move as slowly as possible, knowing what would happen if he was caught.
When he saw his surroundings, his heart stopped. The floor was littered with nests made of mud and sand. In each one, partially buried, was a sleeping Salavaster. They were so still he might have thought them dead if not for the gentle rise and fall of their chests. He held his breath, expecting death at any moment.
Yet not a single one stirred. Cautiously, Lazzru looked around. The chamber was sparse, with little ornament. The Salavasters themselves served as decoration, the mix of color and pattern on their scales blending together. It might have been beautiful in a less dangerous setting.
And then — there! Lazzru could see the tunnel he was looking for.
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