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In the past few years my office has hosted some interesting gatherings. Sorcerers, senators, thieves, murderers, Assassins, demagogues, Orcs, Elves and a few you couldn't really put a name to have all passed through my door. Even royalty. Princess Du-Akai was once a client of mine. However, I'd say that the present gathering matches anything in terms of the diversity of characters involved. We have, in the middle of the floor, Horm the Dead, Orcish Sorcerer and Lord of the Kingdom of Yal. Once seen flying over Turai on a dragon, trying to destroy the city with a malevolent spell, and almost succeeding. He's caused a lot of trouble for Turai, and the fact that last time he was here he sent Makri some flowers hasn't endeared him in any way.
On the couch is Hanama, Assassin, cold, ruthless, previously sick but now looking somewhat better. She brought Makri flowers too, an occurrence so strange I don't really want to think about it.
At the door to the bedroom stands Coranius the Grinder, as grim and short-tempered a Sorcerer as Turai can boast, which is saying something. Behind him is Tirini Snake Smiter, still glamorous, and behind her is Anumaris Thunderbolt, looking young, keen, but possibly glad that the others are between her and Horm.
Samanatius the philosopher is standing next to my desk, grey-haired, some way past middle-aged, but very upright. As if the assembly wasn't splendid enough, Deputy Consul Cicerius and his assistant Hansius thunder up the steps and in through the door, followed by two armed guards. When the guards see Horm they fling themselves in front of the Deputy Consul to protect him. Horm the Dead greets them all courteously.
"You received my message?"
Cicerius nods, but remains silent. He's slightly out of breath, due to thundering up the stairs, which he doesn't really have the constitution for. There's a long pause.
"I don't suppose it's any use telling you to get the hell out of my office?" I say.
"Ah, Thraxas. We do seem to meet often, don't we?"
"Your doing entirely. You just can't keep away."
"Really?" Horm looks thoughtful. "Perhaps you're right."
Horm wears a shiny black cloak. He has long dark hair tumbling down quite dramatically over his features, which are remarkably pale for a half-Orc. So pale that they lend credence to the common belief that he actually died and then came back to life in a ritual to increase his powers. Whether that's true or not, he certainly has a great deal of power. The city has fended him off so far but it says a lot for his strength that he's once more been able to walk undetected through Turai. He has a rather languid manner, as if bored by everything he encounters, but I know it's an affectation. Whatever brings him here, it's not boredom.
"I've been observing your investigations. If you don't mind me saying so, I'm rather disappointed."
"I think you're losing your touch," says Horm. "I remember how you frustrated my best efforts in the matter of the Green Jewel. And once before, when you interfered with my transactions with Prince Frisen-Akan. How is the prince these days?"
There's an angry silence, tinged with embarrassment. No one likes to hear the heir to the throne of Turai mocked by an Orc. Unfortunately, it's hard to defend him. Although the matter was never made public, our prince did at one time have dealings with Horm, and everyone in this room is probably aware of the humiliating circumstances.
"And yet on this occasion you seem to have failed completely, Investigator. The Ocean Storm has eluded you. After it disappeared from the house of Borinbax you never came close to locating it. And as for the gold you seek, you're flailing around in the dark. It's interesting."
"Why is it interesting?" barks Cicerius. "And why are you here? Answer me before I instruct Coranius to eject you."
Horm looks slightly surprised.
"Eject me? Before listening to my offer? That would be rather foolish, would it not?"
He bows politely to Coranius. Coranius doesn't return the greeting. Horm transfers his attention back to me. Makri is standing at my side, waiting to pounce. She wears a spell protection charm, similar to mine. They're effective, but not necessarily against the sort of magic which Horm can produce.
"Why is Thraxas's lack of progress interesting? For no real reason, perhaps. The Investigator is not a man whose affairs will ever be of great concern to anyone. He possesses no great intelligence or perception. But I have noticed in the past that his dogged persistence does produce results. Though his adversaries are invariably superior to him in terms of intellect, he does tend to catch up with them eventually. I wonder if his failure on this occasion might point to a deeper malaise within your city? Nothing is going well for you now, either great or small. Your time has come. Prince Amrag will soon sweep you away."
There's some movement at the bedroom door. Lisutaris, Mistress of the Sky, has finally risen from her sick bed. I'd like to say she's looking her usual regal and impressive self but I'd be lying. She's pale, dishevelled and tired. Just like a woman who's not yet got over a serious illness.
"No one is sweeping us away," she says.
"Ah. The Mistress of the Sky." Horm bows quite extravagantly. "I am delighted to see you making a recovery. As I observed your illness, I felt for you. The malady can be very severe."
If Lisutaris is disturbed to learn that Horm has been observing her illness, all the while remaining undetected himself, she doesn't show it.
"It can indeed. But I'm well enough to see you off. Which I will, this moment, unless you can give me a good reason not to."
"Indeed," snaps Cicerius. "What brings you here?"
"This," says Horm, and, apparently from thin air, he produces a large conch shell.
Horm looks disappointed.
"You don't recognise it? Why, it's the Ocean Storm, of course. With this in our possession, the Orcish Sorcerers can break down your sea wall and allow Prince Amrag's fleet to sail in."
"Amrag doesn't have a fleet within a hundred miles of Turai," says Lisutaris.
"So you would like to believe," says Horm.
He holds up his hand.
"Please, Coranius, desist. I perceive that you are about to attempt the sorcerous theft of the Ocean Storm. I assure you, it won't work. I have placed one of my own spells on it. If any sorcery comes near it, it will instantly disappear and be transmitted through the magic space into the hands of Prince Amrag's own Sorcerer, Azlax. Once that happens, you won't see it again until your walls are tumbling down."
Coranius glances at Lisutaris. Lisutaris frowns, and says nothing, probably a sign that she believes Horm to be telling the truth.
"How did you get hold of it?" asks Lisutaris.
"I tracked it from the moment it arrived in Turai. It went through various criminal hands, and eluded me for a while. I was up against some rather sharp minds. However, I eventually found it in the house of one Borinbax, and removed it just before a certain criminal you may have encountered before could do so. I understand she was moved to kill Borinbax for being careless enough to lose it."
"So why have you brought it here?" demands Cicerius.
"To make a bargain, of course."
"We don't bargain with Orcs," says Cicerius.
Horm raises his eyebrows.
"Really? I seem to remember you did exactly that when you allowed Lord Rezaz to enter a chariot in the Turai Memorial Race. It suited both your interests at the time."
He turns to Makri.
"You remember the occasion, of course. You benefited hugely at the races."
Makri narrows her eyes. It's true. She won a lot of money but it's not something she'd want bandied around by the likes of Horm, particularly as her success relied on some gross cheating by the Association of Gentlewomen, aided by Melus the Fair, resident Sorcerer at the Stadium Superbius.
"I didn't really win that much," says Makri, and manages to sound so guilty that all eyes turn towards her.
"Not enough to make a large donation to the Association of Gentlewomen anyway," continues Makri. "Even if I'd wanted to."
She pauses, and looks flustered.