Worth The Money

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By: Des Posted on: June 29, 2007

The salty, briny smell of the Sapphire Ocean was at the same time enchanting and yet slightly overpowering, even nauseating. I could see why so many were allured by the seaman's life. One could grow used to that kind of air.

The Ashtani docklands were alive with the shouts of merchants hawking their wares, the bustle of people coming and going, and the flirtatious, often rowdy behavior of sailors on shore leave. Resisting the urge to find a flagon of ale and just drink in this intoxicating atmosphere all day, I focused. I was here on business - I had been assigned this duty by the Archdragon. I was to make sure a shipment of cloth and thread designated for the tailoring of house robes was in order and paid for. Glancing around at the plethora of ships, some coming, others leaving, here unloading, a few of them even as large and magnificent as the individual mountains making up the Vastars, I quickly realized locating one crate on one of these vessels would be much akin to finding a specific Mhun in Moghedu - a task made greatly complex by both the sheer number and the fact that they all looked alike.

The first person I stopped to ask for directions to the ship called the Bastion was a short, stocky Troll. He looked at me as though I were insane, and then shrugged his shoulders with a grunt of indifference, shuffling away to wherever he was going. I met with no success finding the crate for the next four hours, despite going over what must have been the manifest of every ship in the harbor.

Already worn out, and faced with the prospect of having to continue this tedious search until well after nightfall, I retired to a sandwich stall to obtain some food. Taking a stroll while I munched on my grilled chicken, I was startled to hear my name called, seemingly out of nowhere.

"Des! Hey, Des, over here, bud!" Lerik, my mentor, was reclining on an elegant bench, a wide grin spread over his face. A mischevious gremlin, maybe thrice the size of my hand, was perched on his shoulder. With a gold hoop earring, a mop of unruly black hair, and tattered grey robes, my friend was the paragon of laid-back. His fingers were fiddling with a tarot card. I saw that it had an ornate hourglass inscribed on it - Lerik's symbol for Aeon.

"How are you, mate?" he asked. "You look a bit harried to me. Everything alright?"

"Sure," I replied casually. "Just a bit of difficulty locating a piece of merchandise. Otherwise, everything's fine."

"Ah, good, good! Then sit down, I'm sure you've got enough time for a story." Now Lerik knew full well that I loved tales of adventure and heroics, so I shrugged, sat down, and hoped it would be a good one.

"Remember that bit of business that was all over the news a few weeks ago? The nasty piece down in Shallam with the plot to have the Sultan assassinated?" I nodded. It had been quite an interesting affair. The Shallamese propaganda machine had praised the efforts of the Royal Guard in thwarting the crime, attempted by a Mhaldorian serpent, but it had done no such thing. I had a friend high-up in one of the Ministries over there, and so I had heard the real story. A senior aide to the Minister of Trade had a spat with the Sultan, claiming he had gotten a bit frisky with his wife. He went to a Shallamese serpent and contracted for a kill, promising a large hoard of gold and an appointment in the Ministry if it went smoothly. The serpent almost killed the Sultan, but at the last minute decided where his loyalties lay and turned the offender in. The aide's disappearance was noted quietly on the third page of the newspaper, and after a while, people stopped asking questions and got on with their lives.

"Well, you see, the Royal Guard took the credit for the bust, but it was actually me that did the work, and killed the Mhaldorian. See, the thing was..."

But I had stopped paying attention. I was curious. I knew Lerik to be a bit of an exaggerator at times, but a downright lie was a tool he only used when he had something specific he wanted, and didn't want to be obvious about it. I filed that bit of information away in my mind, and did not let him see any suprise on my face. "I'm sorry, Lerik, my mind wandered for a bit. Could you start over?"

He chuckled. "Sure, I just hope I'm not boring you to death. Who knows, maybe I should start using that story instead of my entities and warp, right? But anyways, like I was saying. It had been a pretty good day so far. I had robbed two people in plain daylight on Fish Street, and I had just nicked myself a spot of mutton and ale from a stand. I was enjoying my hardearned spoils when my attuned senses clued me in to a heated converstation going on in rooftop garden above the alley where I was hidden. Naturally, I was interested, but I had no idea what I'd gotten myself into."

I made a polite nod of understanding, and he went on.

"There were two guys, talking about the Sultan and how Shallam had gone to rot during his tenure. It seemed like one of them was superior to the other, since the second man kept deferring to him and most of the talking was done by the former. Finally, I heard the clink of gold as money changed hands, and I had a thrilling chill go down my spine as I heard him say: 'For the head of the Sultan. May the gods be with you.'"

Lerik's eyes gleamed with enjoyment. I knew he liked telling these stories of his exploits, but I still had to figure out why he was flat-out lying this time. It was a bit like trying to solve a mystery.

"So, naturally, I followed him. I made sure my shadowcloak was on the entire time. Saved my miserable ass quite a few times: nearly bumped into a Djinn twice. He made it all the way to the Imperial Palace, even snuck into the Sultan's room. Was a pretty good serpent, if I do say so myself, but then, he can't have been that good. He didn't know I was right behind him!" At this point my friend let out a bark-like laugh that was more arrogance than comedy. I didn't let any sign of my displeasure leak out, however - I had to find out his motive for the story. The suspense was like being in the rack - slowly, agonizingly tearing me apart.

"I quietly withdrew a Hangedman from my pocket. He picked up his bow, and I heard him stop breathing: I knew that was a trick to steady his aim, and he was about to put an arrow right through the Sultan's head. The poor fellow was about ten feet away, eating dinner alone, and he had no idea how close he was to the end of his life. Now of course, you might be wondering why I did it at all. After all, Shallam hates Occultists, I have no particular reason to care if the guy is dead or not. But, I figured, might as well have an interesting evening, eh? So, anyways, like I said: the man was a maybe a moment away from death when suddenly, I say, 'Hullo, Sultan!' and spring the rope trap. Well, let me tell you, I don't think I've ever seen a man whip out of his chair and draw his scimitar as fast as the ole' Sultan did, and I don't think I've ever seen someone as surprised, too."

"What did he do then?" I asked, now just playing the game to whatever end it was going to come to.

"Well, it took some quick explaining on my part, and I had help from the serpent, too - he broke down and confessed his role in the whole deal. The Sultan called in some guards, and had the would-be assassin taken away. Then he says to me, 'Well, then, Mr. Moonflair, it appears some thanks are in order for saving my life.' He slid an ornate silver ring with a small blue diadem off his middle finger and placed it into the palm of my hand. 'This is a very old ring, handed down to me by my great-grandfather. You may do whatever you wish with it - that is your right now that I have given it to you.' I smiled and nodded. To tell you the truth, I damn well expected some reward, and I guess that was a little bit of the reason why I had stuck around to see the thing through."

"And the Sultan let you, an Occultist, walk out of Shallam unscathed?" I asked, my disdainful disbelief probably very apparent.

"Gods no! What, are you crazy, Des?" My mentor flashed his maddeningly jovial grin. "I asked to use the bathroom, and he was a bit surprised, but agreed...from then on, the only one that touched that ring or was seen publically in Shallam was my doppleganger. Paid off, too. As soon as my doppie was within range of the main gate, a rain of arrows turned him into a pincushion. They never saw me slip out through the Jaru gate, of course. And look what that ring fetched me!" He reached into his robes and pulled out a velvet money-bag, and shook it. It was heavy with the sound of coins clinking on one another. He gave another grin. "And that's all there is to it," he finished. "Just another typical day for Lerik Moonflair, Occultist Extraordinaire!"

Finally I smiled myself, because I expected his grin to become far more wan after I had my turn. "So, tell me, Lerik, old buddy - what was this rubbish my friend was telling me the other day about you at the parlor tables, on the exact same day this scenario happened? He said you won quite a bit of money, but then unfortunately blew almost all of it on a few unlucky rounds of blackjack. I would have thought it was your doppleganger, of course, but you only have one of those, and it appears he was busy elsewhere. So, why the grand scheme?"

Lerik gave a sheepish look. "Well, you've got me. I wasn't really the one doing that. Sorry for pulling the wool over your eyes, Des."

I gave a satisfied little smile. I had won our little mind game, and that was all that really mattered to me. "Liar or not, Lerik, you're still a friend, and my mentor. I don't care. Besides, it's not like listening to that little story cost me anything, right?"

Lerik just gave another coy little grin. "Nope, of course not. But say, didn't you say you had work to be getting to? I think that's the Archdragon coming over here right now, and he doesn't look too happy..."

I spun around, and then was bewildered. No one was there. What was this about? Turning back to Lerik...I found he was gone.

"Well, I'll be," I said. "As slippery as an eel. Ah well." I turned to go back to the docks, and suddenly froze. Something felt different...wrong. But what was it? I began looking through my backpack, because I couldn't shake the feeling something was missing...and then I realized my moneybag was gone from my belt. Looking around on the ground, I thought for a moment I had dropped it...and then I smiled to myself. "Son of the Spawn! He took my money, the rascal!" I remembered seeing the gremlin when I had first started talking to Lerik, but I hadn't noticed him at all during the story. I chuckled. The gremlin must have been trained to pickpockets, I concluded.

My conclusion was corroborated by a small piece of paper I noticed lying where Lerik had been sitting. It read:

Des, Sorry, bud. I needed money for new vials. Take care of yourself!

Lerik *******

Folding the piece of paper in my pocket, I gave another cheery laugh, and set off for the docks again. "Well...as far as stories go, I'd say it was worth the money."