Suddenly the smoke-filled room was silent and frightening. The banter of jocularity had been smothered when the president cursed, which set-off a scurry of movement away from his table. The echo of his gravelly voice hung angrily in the air.
Firepots dangling from the ceiling filled the stone-walled cavern with a vaporous yellow-gray haze. Flames glinted on a shiny piece of steel that had everyone jacked up for violence. The crowd was antsy. Every eye was fixated on a blade being turned in small circles. If the hairy geek clutching the knife knew how to use it chances were better than average that blood was going to be shed.
I surveyed the situation. The president was in trouble. He didn’t seem to think so—he remained in a relaxed posture, absently fingering his stack of coins as he considered his next play.
His personal bodyguard—a slingshot of a man with oversized shoulders that were oddly out of place on his slender frame—stood at the ready. A spiked-baton was out of its holster and poised in his right hand as he measured the odds.
“You owe me money,” the knife-wielder spat, rocking on the balls of his feet.
President Grafsmeyer smiled thinly. “No one has to die here, Botha.”
The knife turned ever so slightly in Botha’s hand. “I’ll be thinking of that when I feed on your heart and liver.” He was Shardon, a semi-humanoid sub-species common in the nether regions of Auccaland.
Grafsmeyer gestured dismissively. “You got nothing for me, Botha. Move along or face the consequences.”
“I want my money,” Botha said, showing his teeth. They were sharp and menacing. He was cat-like in his appearance—narrow-faced with slanted eyes that never blinked or stopped moving side to side. His head was covered by clumpy, twisted braids of coarse wheat-colored hair.
Grafsmeyer gave him another thin smile. “I want my skins.”
So that was it. Botha was an assassin. This was a dispute over kills.
Auccaland was at war and had been for a jillion seasons. The planet was populated by a half-dozen dynastic clans that vied for supremacy.
I’d ridden the lightning in a week ago; and since then had been entangled in several intrigues—I’d also brokered a piecemeal settlement between a pair of potentates bent on domineering each other’s territory. It was a fragile treaty at best—iffy that it’d last beyond a sunrise or two.
Life on Auccaland was always fractious. A primitive culture, it spawned bullies and blowhards who were forever prepared for an opening to make a move. The citizenry gloried in the sport of battle, particularly valuing close quarters combat. Ruthlessness was a highly prized attribute to nurture.
Gunpowder or any facsimile of the substance didn’t exist here, so knives and variations of the spiked-baton were the weapons to be mastered. A skilled fighter could parlay success into power and wealth.
Grafsmeyer had done so. He’d ascended to the pinnacle of his tribal council, exercising leadership with an astonishingly efficient barbarism. Cruelty stoked the furnace of his ambition, which knew no boundaries. There were more than a thousand skins nailed to his wall—skins he’d personally sliced off dead enemies.
I cleared my throat, which caused eyes to bend in my direction. “Maybe we can ratchet this down,” I suggested, taking a step forward. Until that moment I’d merely been a bystander, but remaining in that mode for long isn’t part of my make-up—I’m a big-time interventionist.
“Who the frak are you?” snapped the lanky bodyguard, never taking his attention off Botha.
“Jodat. Jedediah Jodat.”
Grafsmeyer eyed me. “What faction are you with, Jodat?”
I weighed my reply carefully. “No faction. I take care of me. I’m a bounty hunter on the lookout for an easy mark,” I lied, grinning. “And sometimes I work as a peacemaker.” I gave an open armed shrug.
“You want to mediate this here fracas, Jodat?” Grafsmeyer wondered dryly. He jerked a thumb in Botha’s direction. “You think you can come to terms with this scum-sucking backstabber?”
“Easy, Mr. President,” Botha said, voice thick and wet with sarcasm.
Grafsmeyer stiffened. “You’re a guttersnipe, Botha. A useful guttersnipe, but a hairball guttersnipe all the same.”
“Well, as long as I’m useful,” the assassin quipped easily.
“Sit back down, Botha,” Grafsmeyer ordered, with a generous and inviting wave. He turned to me and said, “Join us, Jodat. Come listen to this guttersnipe’s story.”
I settled opposite the president. Botha sheaved his blade with a flourish, then returned to his seat at the round table—we formed the three points of a triangle.
The unyielding presidential protector stood nearby, with the spiked-baton held in the attack-ready position. Tightly coiled, his focus was edgy and glued on the Shardon assassin. The crowd gathered around, anxious with anticipation.
“Who called this meeting?” Botha asked, smart-alecky.
Grafsmeyer barked a laugh. “You’re a piece of work.” He leaned back in his ornately carved chair, shifted toward me and spoke in a raspy growl laced with disdain. “I’ve done business with this guttersnipe many times. I need trouble eliminated. He’s usually thorough and reliable.”
I frowned. “What’s the problem?”
“The deal is always the same,” the president answered. “I pay a fee for confirmed kills—a kill is validated by delivering a certain piece of skin.”
I shifted uncomfortably, and glanced at Botha. He was glowering off into space as though he was figuring out options for his defense.
“This time,” Grafsmeyer continued, “he brings me no skins, just words. He tells me he murdered five Karachas, but no skins. Am I supposed to take the word of a hairball on a matter of honor?”
“What was I to do?” Botha hissed, slamming a fist down. “I was hungry. The skins made a fine stew.”
I winced as a gasp threaded its way around the room. My face clenched into a grimace that surely was plainly readable. I pondered the visceral reaction: On Auccaland all the ethnic groups had a traditional way of humiliating their defeated foes that had been established by ancestral law—it dated back to the time before time. An enemy’s body was stripped naked to provide easy access to its genitalia, which were ceremoniously mutilated by hacking off the foreskin. The trophy would be proudly displayed by the victor.
A savage custom to be sure, but one not confined to Auccaland or remote realms. In the annals of time and space, it was even put into practice on earth in the days of antiquity. A shepherd-warrior in ancient Israel once paid two hundred Philistine foreskins for the right to become the son-in-law of a mercurial king who had delusions that came and went.
Grafsmeyer abruptly rose. “You ate my skins?” he said, eyebrows knotted together in unbelief. “You’re done.”
A brief nod passed between the president and bodyguard. The oversized shoulders flexed. Instantaneously there was a swift blur of motion, a swoosh sound on the air, then a guttural screech that got choked into a gurgling, slobbering, sickening noise.
The spiked-baton struck true, plunging six inches deep in Botha’s chest—it impaled his heart. A gush of blood seeped out of his wrenched open mouth as a crimson stain spread across his upper torso.
A fiendishly gleeful roar screamed from the crowd. The bloodlust was alive, gathering strength and vigor. A slow rhythmic chant began near the back of the room, and then rolled like a wave, swelling to a drumbeat that continued louder and louder and louder.
“Grafsmeyer. . .Grafsmeyer. . .Grafsmeyer. . .”
I swallowed hard. The madness swirled around me. I observed it all attentively—even when the bodyguard defiled the corpse. The cadence of the cries intensified and became shrill, deafening shrieks.
My stomach did a slow crawl upwards. The merciless scene caused me to truly wish I had control over the jump mechanism.
I desperately wanted to get out of this world.