You leave the coffeehouse of Megabyzus, and walk to Istarinmul’s Old City, the wealthiest portion of the city, where the house of Ishtara Anthraces stands. Or the mansion of Ishtara Anthraces, rather, an opulent pile of gleaming marble and polished bas-reliefs in the high Anshani style.
You have a terrible headache, and it is all you can do not to think about wraithblood.
You walk into the house. No one stops you, and the few slaves you say scurry out of your sight. A hushed silence hangs over the house.
The silence of someone waiting to die.
You hear the sound of weeping coming from the stairs, and follow it to a bedroom.
Ishtara slumps over a bed, sobbing, her hair in disarray, her black eyes bloodshot. A six year old boy lies strapped to the bed (heartblight, in its final stages, causes homicidal mania), his face and chest and arms covered with black sores. The boy is unconscious, and his thin chest still rises and falls, but every breath comes a little harder, a little slower.
Ishtara’s son Darius. He has an hour. Maybe not even that.
“I asked to be left alone,” says Ishtara, and her voice trails off when she sees you. “Strake? You…you came back? I was sure…I was sure you were going to have that Alghol kill me.” She rises to her feet and grabs your arms, her face full of desperate, piteous hope. “Did you…did you get a vial of the Elixir? Please, please. Use it on Darius.” All trace of the haughty Anshani noblewoman is gone, the woman who threatened to poison you if you did not help her, and now only ragged desperation remains. “Please. I beg you. I’ll do anything you want. Anything. I’ll give you everything I own, I’ll sell myself into slavery, anything you want, anything.” She falls to her knees before you, clutching at your arms.
Your headache is getting worse, and you pull away from her. “Stop talking. I don’t like you. You’re vain and cruel and selfish and stupid, like every other slave owner in this miserable city. Gods, I wish my father had never come here. I…”
Abruptly, you realize that you don’t care what Ishtara thinks, so why are you talking to her?
You step past her, pinch Darius’s nose shut, and pour the entire vial of silvery Elixir down his throat. For a moment nothing happens. Then a sudden breeze blows through the bedchamber, tugging at your hair and clothes. A silvery glow surrounds Darius, almost like a cocoon, and when it fades, the black spots have vanished from his skin, and his breathing comes smooth and easy.
The boy sits up, blinking. “Mother?”
Ishtara lets out an inarticulate cry and grabs her son, pulling him close.
“Thank you,” she whispers, staring up at you. “Thank you, thank you, thank you…”
You leave without another word.
Later you sit in your workshop, brooding, staring at your father’s clay statue of Rioghath, the old Caerish death god.
The urge for wraithblood hasn’t gone away, and it’s gotten worse. Is this what the rest of your life will be, you wonder? Trying to fight off an addiction, only to inevitably succumb? It’s been almost six months since your last vial of wraithblood, and…
You blink in surprise.
Actually, it’s been more than six months. Six months and three days. You lost track of the time while working for Nasser.
In fact, while working for Nasser, there were long stretches of time when you didn’t think about wraithblood at all. Your mind, your feverish, numbers-obsessed and puzzle-crazed mind, had other things to occupy its attention.
You leave your workshop.
Khaenset guards the door to the back room of Megabyzus’s coffee house, and lets you past with a nod.
Inside Nasser sits at the table, and white teeth flash in his dark face as he sees you. “Ah. Madame Strake. Welcome.”
He was expecting you.
“I don’t care about the money,” you say, and then remember the debts. “Well, not very much. But I need…puzzles. Problems. Distractions. Otherwise I’m going to kill myself with wraithblood.”
Nasser’s smile widens. “Well. We shall be richer than kings, you and I…but that’s not the main thing, is it? Come, then. Let us keep you occupied.”
IBRAHAIM NASSER’S legend grew in the following months, as he pulled off heist after daring heist. Rumor held he had acquired the skills of a cunning locksmith, a genius against whom neither lock nor trap were proof.
When asked, Nasser only smiled, and said that fortune favored the bold.
RAGGAN and ZOSIMUS both blamed each other for failing to steal the Elixir Rejuvenata from Callatas, and their vicious gang war intensified.
AZACES kept his vial of Elixir Rejuvenata hidden – one never knew when it might come in handy, after all, and lived quite comfortably on his share of the profits from the heist.
And when Nasser needed muscle, skill, and daring, Azaces came. Nasser was a madman – but the man knew how to make gold. Even if he did persist in hiring that lunatic locksmith.
KHAENSET continued his service to Nasser. The Alghol had made a pact, and he would see it through to the end.
ISHTARA and DARIUS ANTHRACES lived a quiet life after Darius’s miraculous recovery from heartblight. Ishtara freed her slaves, moved to a smaller house, and devoted herself to securing her children’s station in life.
And someday, she vowed, she would find a way to repay Nerina Strake.
SAMNIRDAMNUS was most amused.
The broken locksmith had survived the perils of Callatas’s mansion. She had learned the secret of Hellfire – even if she did not yet know its significance. And the lines of destiny surrounding her grew ever tighter, ever sharper.
Oh, yes, the prince of the djinn would watch her with great interest.
The MASTER ALCHEMIST CALLATAS was rather annoyed.
Still, none of his losses were devastating. His laboratory could be rebuilt. More Elixir Rejuvenata could be brewed. And Tarquin had been a useful servant, for such a treacherous little worm, but slaves were cheap and abundant in Istarinmul. He suspected Samnirdamnus of treachery, of course, but that was the price one paid when dealing with the djinni.
None of his main plans had been affected. Very soon now, the rule of Istarinmul, and the entire would, would be his.
Still, if he ever found out who had stolen the Elixir, they would pay for it. Most horribly.
NERINA STRAKE paid off her debts, and continued to work for Nasser’s “enterprises.”
He brought her such fascinating problems.
The urge for wraithblood never left her, of course, but so long as she kept busy…she could live with it. She could live with it.