By Richard Fife
Air swirled through Tarian’s hair as the skyskiff speed around the tall stone columns that made up the city of Tor Sylar. All around, other skyskiffs darted about, their drivers and passengers both unconcerned about the spectacle of flying ships and mile-high pillar-islands. Of course, for a native Aysiphian, such sights were common place. For Tarian, who had grown up in Migora, it was still a marvel even after years of living amongst it.
“Your head still in the clouds, laddie?” asked the old man next to him.
“Why shouldn’t it be, Aron?” Tarian did not take his eyes from the view. “I was stuck on the ground for eighteen years. I need to make up for lost time.”
“Plenty of time yet for that.” Aron chuckled and pulled their skyskiff up to a line of small docking stations. “Right now, I just want a drink.”
Tarian’s mouth suddenly felt very dry, and he painfully remembered the last month. It was a grueling experience of stomaching the strong scotch the Aysiphians preferred. “One day, Aron, one day, I’ll be a captain, and all that’ll be on my skyraker will be brandy.”
“And I’ll be the Lord Grand Merchant,” Aron said with a laugh. “No offense, Tarian, but the day a trade lord makes a Migoran a captain will be the day the sky falls down on us.”
“It won’t be long before I’m a first mate,” Tarian said. “Captain Fisk will be retiring soon, and Toyar will be made the captain on Marquis. I’m sure he’ll make me his First.”
“Want to make a wager on it, laddie?” Aron chuckled again as he stepped onto the suspended wooden walkway.
“Uh . . . sure.” Tarian could not stop a nervous glance down as he hopped off the skyskiff. A mile below, the water churned against the quartz lined foundations of the islands. Even after nearly ten years of life amongst the clouds, Tarian could not shake the vertigo of always being a mile high. “A bottle of brandy if I’m not made First.”
“A bottle of scotch,” Aron said with a smile. “I’ll leave the piss-water to you.”
“Fine, fine.” Tarian moved away from the edge with a forced calm. “But let’s worry about right now. To the pub?”
Aron laughed and slapped Tarian on the back, and they made their way towards the center of the island. Around them, multistoried buildings rose from the cold stone, and away from the edge, Tarian could almost forget where he was. At least, if it were not for all the dark skinned Aysiphians walking by, staring at him. His pale skin marked him an outlander more than anything else. It did not matter how tanned his skin became from working above the clouds constantly. He would never match that mellow mahogany.
Aron led them to a three story tall inn and pub. A solid steel ball was suspended by wire above the door, and three brass rings slowly spun around it on attached axels. In bold letters, the words “The Spinning Leystone” stuck out above the doorframe.
Tarian barely restrained himself as he walked through the door. He could already smell freshly uncorked brandy in the room, a distinct, smooth aroma against the acrid smoke and sharp scotch. His mouth feeling ever drier, he followed Aron to a small table by the fireplace and sat down.
A barmaid sauntered over, swaying her hips in the same, distinct undulation that every Aysiphian woman seemed to know. She stopped at their table and leaned over, offering Tarian an impressive view of her bosom.
“Aron Tibers,” she said. “It’s been what, nearly three months? We’ve missed you. And who is this dashing young man with you?”
“Of all the ports I’ve visited,” Aron said, “None have had any pub or any fair maid to rival you and yours. And this fine young fellow is my engineer on the Marquis, Second Mate Tarian Rellcoran.”
The barmaid winked at Tarian then turned back to Aron. “So, flyboy, scotches?”
“For me, yes,” Aron said. “Sadly, brandy for my otherwise fine Migoran friend.”
To Tarian’s delight, the barmaid tended to them directly. She made an extensive show for pouring the brandy, even pausing to smell it herself before placing it in front of him. He favored her with his most winning smile as he picked the glass up by its base, holding it up to her in a silent toast. Before he could lower it, though, the distinct sound of a ley pistol filled the room, and the glass shattered in his hand. Screams filled the room, but one voice boomed out over the din.
“Tarian, you bloated goat-nursing tree maggot of Migoran surf herder!”
Tarian stared at his hand, aghast as the amber fluid made rivulets down his palm and wrist, mixing with blood that oozed out of fresh, glass-cut gashes. Slowly, he lowered his hand and turned toward the voice. There, a man stood flanked by two large deckhands, his pistol still leveled in front of him. The white-blue glow of the ley reservoir on the weapon lit is face in sharp contrast of the low lamps of the pub.
“Marcun.” Tarian forced his voice to be calm and slow. “What in particular have I done to you this time? Someone hasn’t been pointing out a Migoran second mate flies better than an Aysiphian First, have they? I know how you hate to hear the truth.”
Tarian started diving under his table the moment the last word left his mouth. As he moved, the sound of a ley charged bullet filled the room again, and he felt his chin length hair move with the breeze of the shot. More screams filled the room, and Tarian darted toward the bar, always keeping people or a table between himself and Marcun.
He did not blame Aron one bit for slinking back into the crowd. There was hardly anything he could do except hope to get out, find the Guard, and bring them back as quickly as possible.
“You sniveling coward!” Marcun pushed through the panicked crowd with the help of his deckhands. “I told you last time if you dared to return to Tor Sylar I’d kill you! We don’t need Migoran spies on Aysiphian skyrakers!”
“I’m not a spy,” Tarian yelled, but it was only half hearted. This was hardly the first time Marcun had tried to kill him, nor the first time that the man accused Tarian of spying. “The trade lords and the governor both agree that I’m safe.”
Marcun screamed something, but Tarian did not even pay attention. He was now behind the tall counter, and the barkeep, stooped down the same as Tarian, pointed to a door behind him. Tarian, though, had his eye on the bottle of brandy just above his head. He took a quick breath and darted his hand up for the amber decanter. Ley discharged again in the room, and he snatched his band back as the bottle shattered, raining glass down on him mixed with liquor. A few drops touched his lips, but all that did was torment him.
“You think this is a joke, Rellcoran?” Marcun bellowed.
“You’ve tried to kill me every homeport call for the last eight years,” Tarian said. “I have to say, I’m starting to get used to it. I also could have sworn that Urden has told you to leave me alone after every attempt.”
“Well, he won’t have to after today.” Marcun snarled and fired another shot, splintering the wood railing only inches above Tarian’s head.
“I’ll believe it when you ever manage to kill me and not harmless bottles of brandy!”
Tarian sighed as another shot range out and decided to stop hoping that Aron would return with the Guard. Anyway, with his luck right now, they would probably side with Marcun.
Keeping his head low, Tarian darted for the back door. As he passed the barkeep, visible relief spread across the man’s face. Tarian flashed the man an apologetic smile before bolting through the door, slamming it behind him just in time for the wood to catch a bullet.
He wasted no time making his way through the crate-crowded back room of the pub to the narrow, locked door on the far wall. He lifted the latch with a grunt, fighting against the relocking mechanism long enough to pull the door open. Outside, a wide, clear alley stretched between two streets. With a sigh of relief that he at least would not have to drudge through garbage to his freedom, he stepped out.
Loud screams came from one of the streets, and he snapped his head to look in panic. One of the deckhands burst through the milling crowd and spotted him. With a curse, Tarian looked back to the door he had just passed through. It had already latched behind him.
“First!” the deckhand called at the mouth of the alley. “He’s over here!”
“Well look at that!” Tarian said. “Marcun actually found a goon that can talk for once. He must be moving up in the world of botched killings.”
The deckhand looked at Tarian, snarled and charged. With a laugh, Tarian darted the other way. Back at the mouth of the alley, Tarian heard Marcun’s angry screams.
“Bort, you gutless seed licker, get out of my way!”
When Tarian reached the other end of the alley, he spun around, flashing his hapless meat shield a smile. He then plunged into the crowd before the dense man could think to duck and give Marcun a clear shot.
Tarian navigated crowds and alleys, loosing himself just as much as his pursuers. He had been wary of accepting Aron’s invitation to a new part of town on their first day back. Aron knew that Tarian was, as usual, expecting Marcun’s near clockwork ambush, but had argued that Marcun always waited at least a week before making an attempt on Tarian’s life. Still, it had not been until the man offered to buy the first round that Tarian accepted.
After he was thoroughly lost, he stopped and moved out of the crowd, hunching himself by a small stair while he thought of what to do next. Marcun would not give up until either the Guard or Urden, the trade lord that owned both ships they flew on, made him, so his first priority needed to be to get to either of the two. If he wondered around long enough, he was certain to find a member of the Guard, so he started to step back out into the crowd when a scent caught his attention—a mellow, smooth caress on the breeze that sent shivers up his spine. He turned to the nearby alley and smiled. Huddled in a ball of rags and filth, a bum was nursing a bottle of brandy.
“Can you spare a swig?” Tarian smiled politely and flashed a copper at the man.
“Piss off.” The bum did not even look at the coin.
“Surely, just a small mouthful,” Tarian said.
The bum looked up at him and spat. “Get your own!”
Tarian’s hand convulsed, and he dug out several more coppers. “Please, just one swallow, that’s all.” His other hand twitched out towards the bottle.
“I said piss off, you Migoran bastard!” The bum was now standing and raving, completely ignoring the hushing motions from Tarian. “I’m just trying to enjoy me a drink, but you just can’t leave well enough alone, can you, you Migoran bilge-rat? Have to flash your money at me, try and show off, eh? Have to prove that even a Migoran has it better off in this hells-be-damned hole than me! I have a mind to . . . .”
The bum trailed off, seeming to have lost his train of thought. Tarian sighed, but stopped mid breath as he heard Marcun’s voice from across the street.
“There he is!”
Tarian’s sigh turned to a groan, and he looked out into the crowd to see Marcun and his two toughs shouldering their way against the flow towards him. He spared the bum an angry glower before darting into the alley. The bum only sat back down, not even looking at the man he had just been ranting about.
Tarian was far less fortunate with this alley than the first. He clambered over piles of refuse and broken crates, past fetid rain barrels and overflowing rubbish bins. It was not until he was halfway into the alley that he finally bothered to look towards its end. Instead of seeing another street with a streaming crowd, he found a tall brick wall. He stopped, dumbstruck. The sound of a bullet shattering the staves of a barrel quickly brought him back to his senses.
He scanned the alley quickly and darted for the nearest door, slamming into it with all his might. To his surprise, the door was unlocked, and he barreled through it, falling head over heels. Disoriented, he frantically regained his feet and slammed the door shut. No sooner had he thrown the bolt than a heavy body slammed into the door. It groaned, but the thick timber and stout iron held. Even with a pistol, Marcun would be hard pressed to break through.
Tarian gave the door one last look as it shuddered against the stubborn bulk of a deckhand before turning around. His eyes strained to see through the darkness, and something oddly familiar drew him deeper into the shadows. Bulky, square shapes appeared before him, and he stooped next to one. His hand ran across the familiar grain of crate-wood, and he recognized the smell of straw. His eyes adjusted to the dim light, and he smiled as he read the letters on the side of the box: “Traya Distillery.”
He looked around at the other crates, and saw they all read the same. Only one drink came out of the Traya Distillery: brandy. Not just any brandy, but the best brandy to grace the shores of Migora. He desperately searched for a pry bar and found one near the door, which had finally stopped shuddering, and walked back to the crates, muttering all the while.
“Heavens-be-damned bum,” he swore, wedging the pry bar into the crate’s lid. “Had an entire Depths-be-taken warehouse of the stuff, and couldn’t spare me a single swig.” He flung the lid off and smiled as he lifted one of the bottles from the straw. “Oh well, now he only has one bottle, and I have many.” He worked the cork out and smiled. “To sheer, dumb luck.” He held the bottle up in a toast then brought the bottle to his lips.
Even before the first drop touched his tongue he knew something was not right. The smell, he instantly thought as the liquid passed his lips. The smell is totally wrong, less of brandy and more of . . . .
The liquor touched his tongue, and he instantly spat it out, desperately trying to scrape the bitter taste off with his teeth. He looked at the bottle in disbelief and put is nose to its mouth. With a grimace, he sat the bottle down on the floor and picked up another from the crate, working its cork out and likewise smelling. Not until he had tested ten bottles did he give up.
“Sorin,” he muttered, looking at the bottles. “Who in their right mind would put a narcotic in perfectly good brandy bottles?”
Before he could wonder more, a door opened across the room, and ley driven lights sprang to life. Two seedy looking men filled the doorway and stared at Tarian, and he stared back. The shock only lasted for a moment, and both pulled out ley pistols the same moment Tarian dove for cover.
Smugglers, of course. Who else would have the audacity to waste perfectly good brandy? They probably had just uncorked it and dumped it overboard, knowing them. And then, of all things, to replace it with the worst narcotic around! That was almost a worse crime than wasting the brandy.
Bullets pounded into wood and shattered bottles, and the smell of sorin filled the room. Tarian slinked as best he could through the maze of crates back to the alleyway door. He managed to catch a glimpse of the smugglers just before he reached the door, and felt relief that they were looking for him nearly on the other side of the warehouse. He might even be able to slip through the door without them realizing if he was careful enough.
But then, there would still be all this sorin about to hit the streets. Tarian’s hand hesitated at the latch, and then he stood up and turned to the smugglers.
“Hey, you fish-gut guzzling sons of Zigyrtian whore-daughters! Over here!” He bolted through the door when the smugglers turned towards him in shock. Another salvo of bullets barely missed him.
At the mouth of the alley, the bum looked at him suspiciously, but otherwise the narrow, trash ridden corridor was empty. Tarian rushed out of the alley and into the crowd of the street. No sooner had he taken a step out than he heard a familiar shout.
“Rellcoran!” Marcun bellowed from across the street.
The door at the end of the alley slammed open, and Tarian ducked to one side as more bullets cut through the air. He groaned and started running, not caring who he pushed aside except to make sure that one of Marcun’s deckhands was not about to step out in front of him.
People shouted behind him, and not just from having been bumped by him. He risked a moment to glance behind him and saw two groups pushing and shouldering their way towards him: the smugglers on his right, Marcun and his goons on the left.
Of course, why only have one set of bloodthirsty thugs after you? What was worse, both groups were gaining on him. It was too little to hope that they would end up fighting each other over who got to kill him.
He dodged down a street and caught a glimpse of something in a tavern that made him grin. He smiled and skid to a stop, then noticed something to turn his grin into a full out smile. He looked back to see if he was still being chased, and was hardly shocked to find that he was. With a quick step, he walked into the tavern, nodding to several of the patrons as he did. He received as many scowls as bland glares, and only one smile, but he did not really care. Sauntering up the bar, he slid into a stool and smiled at the barmaid behind the counter.
“I do declare,” he said. “I’ve rarely seen such a beautiful jewel in all my travels.”
The barmaid giggled and smiled back at him. “You’re Tarian Rellcoran, aren’t you?”
“The one and only.” He gave her a dashing smile. “And I would be eternally in your debt, and gratefully so, for but a glass of that brandy right there.” He leaned across the bar to point at the bottle he had seen from the street, positioning himself so that his nose was almost touching hers.
“One glass of brandy, coming right up.” She gave him a coy smile as she turned around slowly to fetch the bottle. Soon as her back was turned, Tarian felt the barrel of a pistol press against the back of his skull.
“You gutless trollop of a midden diver’s daughter,” Marcun said. “Think you could just waltz into a bar and we’d run right past?”
“Hardly, Marcun.” Tarian did not bother to turn around. “I just figured: if I have to die, I’d like to have one last drink. Surely you can spare me that one final request. Of course, I’m surprised you aren’t going to have the sorin smugglers do the deed for you.”
“You keep your mouth shut,” one of the smugglers said somewhere behind them.
“Oh no,” Marcun said slowly. “I want the pleasure myself. These two understand. Turn around!”
The barmaid had turned back from the shelves, her face filled with fear. Tarian smiled at her reassuringly and slowly turned around. Several other patrons of the bar had stood in shock, but two men in particular still sat. One was Aron, and the other’s table was right by the door. Marcun had to have passed right by the man but not seen him in his rush to catch Tarian.
“Marcun,” the man said slowly. “How many times do we have to have this conversation?”
Marcun’s face drained of color, and he lowered his gun and turned around. His shoulders slumped, and he awkwardly tried to put his gun away without being obvious about it. In the now still room, all he did was draw more attention.
“Lieutenant Ridder,” Marcun said to the seated Guardsman. “I didn’t see you—“
“Obviously,” Ridder said blandly. “Leave Rellcoran alone, or I’ll gladly drag you before the governor myself. Am I understood?”
“Yes sir,” Marcun said with a hard swallow.
Ridder then shifted his gaze to the smugglers. “I’ve been looking for you two.” He lifted a hand and gestured to several men around the tavern, all darkly uniformed Guardsmen. They quickly made their way to the smugglers and roughly clapped them in irons. Ridder nodded to Tarian and gave Marcun a pointed look before standing and leaving the bar, following the smugglers and the Guardsmen. Marcun gave Tarian a final glower before leaving the tavern as well.
“By the Heavens,” the barmaid said softly when Tarian turned around. “Are you alright?”
Tarian smiled at her and picked up the glass of brandy she had placed before him. He lifted it to his lips and savored the sweet smell of the liquor before taking a drawn out, relaxing sip. When he sat the glass back down, the she was still looking at him in wonder, and he smile again.
“I am now,” he said. “I am now.”