â€œThis is good work, Sabi, I must say.â€ Sivar Kash waved a handful of papyrus envelopes through the haze of tobacco smoke that suffused the hookah bar, a smile just starting to curl the right end of his lips. â€œYou should congratulate yourself. The mere fact that Iâ€™m here, sitting with you, is a testament to your achievements.â€ The envelopes came to rest on the hardwood table with a rustle, though Sivar still held one. â€œI mean, really. The raid on the Kalil mines alone. Over two hundred slaves and a ready caravan of gems. How much silver was that haul worth, five talents? Ten?â€ â€œTwelve and change. I made enough to buy a home in the high tubes.â€ Sabi, a short, fat Delzahn man with a moustache like a black-bristled broom, grinned broadly. His gold teeth looked molten in the barâ€™s flickering illumination, and his eyes gleamed like the gems he stole.
Kash nodded, giving an airy wave of his hand. â€œRight. You see what I mean? Youâ€™ve done very well. I think youâ€™re ready for the next step in your work here in Gem, Sabi, and Iâ€™m glad youâ€™ve come to me to take that step.â€ Kashâ€™s skin was tanned enough to make him seem a native, but there was no hiding the Isleâ€™s influence in his speech and bearing. Only the most backwards peasants could mistake him for other than a man of the Realm, even this far south. â€œYour man Jun was very persuasive, master. As were the gifts he brought. My wives enjoyed the pearls particularly.â€ Kashâ€™s smile broke over the rest of his face, his violet eyes sparkling with the movement. â€œI am pleased. Now eat, eat. Plenty of time to talk business once weâ€™ve had our fill.â€
The men were reclining on cushions, the hookah pushed to the side in favor of silver dishes of dates, glasses of mulled wine and plates of ground, salted pork. Sabi dug into this last with a will, almost forgetting his fellow diner in a rush to consume. Sivar merely watched, lying back on his makeshift couch of pillows. Somewhere a musician began to play a sitar, and Sivar smiled. He had a bite of his roast pork before he began to speak. â€œYou know Sabi, this is a bit of a ritual for me. Whenever I meet a new business prospect like you, I get reservations at a hookah bar on the Entertainersâ€™ Avenue and I order the salt pork. And you know, this is probably the best itâ€™s ever been.â€ Sabi set down his fork, staring at his hands. His movements were sluggish, his breath rasping. Staring at the ceiling, Kash continued. â€œIn fact, itâ€™s too good. Iâ€™m tempted to go back into the kitchen once weâ€™re done here and kill the cook. Because thatâ€™s what I do in this city, Sabi: I maintain the balance.â€
Kash looked over at his dining partner, who was now very red in the face and breathing in frightened, phlegmy gasps. â€œAh good, the poisonâ€™s working. But where was I?â€ Kash sat up, the leather of his white, violet-trimmed buff jacket creaking. â€œRight. Youâ€™re probably wondering whatâ€™s happening to you. Youâ€™ve ingested the venom of a very rare, very expensive Haltan spider, Sabi. Youâ€™re locked in place already, yes? Given time itâ€™d stop your heart and lungs too, but donâ€™t worry. I wonâ€™t let it get that far.â€ Sabiâ€™s eyes were dark, watery pools of anger and terror, and his breath was rasping feebly. â€œIâ€™m going to kill you in a moment, Sabi, but I want you to know: itâ€™s not your fault. Youâ€™re too good, thatâ€™s all. Youâ€™re that piece of salt pork that needs to be balanced out.â€ Kash leaned forward and placed a kiss on the Delzahnâ€™s forehead. Then he leaned back and reached into his left sleeve. His hand whipped back out, gripping a weaponâ€™s hilt. In one smooth, lightning movement Kash drew a sleek, four-foot-long starmetal daiklave from his sleeve and whipped it forward. The kissed Sabiâ€™s throat and was clear before the wound began to bleed.
Kash tucked the envelopes into his buff jacket, stood, wiped his weapon off on Sabiâ€™s back and slid it back into his sleeveâ€”where it disappeared, as though it had never been. The hookah bar was dead quiet. Kash flicked a single coin in front of Sabi and strode out the door without a second glance. A heavy-set, dark-skinned man in red jade armor was waiting outside, leaning against the wall with his thick, gnarled arms crossed over his chest. His bald head gleamed in Gemâ€™s amber sunset, but his long black moustache drooped in the heat. â€œBusiness running smoothly, boss?â€ he asked, swaying away from the wall and falling in step next to Kash as he passed. â€œSmooth as Mnemonâ€™s backside, Jun.â€ The Dragon-blooded grunted, the belts and harnesses of a dozen weapons clattering against his armor. â€œItâ€™s refreshing, killing men like that,â€ said smiling up at the towering mass of the great volcano above. â€œSo sure of themselves, so sure theyâ€™re immortal. They only realize at the end, when itâ€™s already over.â€ Jun grunted, but raised an eyebrow when Kash didnâ€™t continue. â€œRealize what?â€ Kash gestured back towards the receding hookah bar. â€œSimply this, my fire-blooded friend: thereâ€™s always an ending.â€