Clinging to a thin cord fifty meters above Ileranth’s pavement, Rali Ribhu mused on the risks of his chosen livelihood. The night promised a substantial return on his investment of time and effort, however, and he kept this in the forefront of his thoughts while carefully ascending from balcony to balcony up the façade of the old apartment building. Dating from the Golic era, the edifice was decorated with hundreds of bas-reliefs of Derder, a god in whom Ileranth’s inhabitants of that ancient time placed fervent belief. Rali blessed Derder, whose many images made his climb much easier than it would otherwise have been.
He scrambled up to the terrace to find a cat-sized, multi-legged animal regarding him with several eyes glimmering yellow in the faint light from the city spread out below.
“Good work, Seffriet,” he whispered to the rooner, and stroked its head. “Ready for the next one, girl?”
Seffriet chirruped in reply. Rali untied the cord and handed one end to his workmate. The creature scrambled up to the next terrace and disappeared over the side, searching for a place to secure the line. This job would be impossible without Seffriet, who could tie knots better than he, and wasn’t fazed by heights despite her cephalopod ancestry. While he waited, Rali thought of the booty awaiting him. Hallenis Danz, a well-known performer, made no effort to hide his wealth, wearing gems and gewgaws in ostentatious fashion wherever he went. Two nights previous he and his retinue had passed Rali in the street. Rali, having noted Danz’s expensive jewelry, resolved on the spot to pay him a visit.
Seffriet’s head appeared over the balcony’s edge. She purred; Rali tested the rope and immediately began ascending.
As he hauled himself up, Rali reflected that his wealthy target doubtless felt his belongings safe in his tenth-floor suite. Certainly there was no question of Rali sauntering into the building via its ground-level entrance; posted there were alert and unfriendly security guards, as Rali knew from patient surveillance.
Pausing with one leg over the railing, Rali looked out across the old city. The downtown area was well lit, but beyond that a ring of dilapidated and ruined structures stretched almost to the River Raun, which lay under the light of the moon like a huge, glittering snake. The night air held a hint of rain. He knew that precipitation would make the stones he climbed dangerously slick, so he dared not tarry long to catch his breath. He handed the line to Seffriet, who obediently slithered up the building’s face.
Above, Seffriet chirped once more. As she did Rali felt a tremor in his com-gland. He scowled. He received few calls, because few people knew his code. He tapped the left side of his forehead; the vibration was transmitted to the artificial organ enwrapped by his brain’s parietal lobe.
“Who calls?” he subvocalized with impatience.
“Tereal,” said a colorless but familiar voice in his head.
Rali’s eyes went wide. He had not heard from the man in several years. “What is it you wish, Father?”
“Simply this: your Aunt Cleolanthe has been killed.”
“What?” Cleolanthe and Armine, his father’s sisters, were the family matriarchs. They had always seemed deathless to Rali.
Tereal’s voice became testy. “Am I not speaking Standard? Your aunt—”
“Yes, yes, the old ratsnagger—I mean, the old dear—has been killed. When? How?” Above him, Seffriet purred questioningly. He waved a hand at her and she slid down the line to sit patiently at his feet, arranging her tentacles in coils.
“These are questions better discussed face to face,” Tereal replied.
“You suspect foul play?”
“We must speak in person. To that end, please make haste to Orntellàdar.”
An ancient, crumbling manse in Orntellàdar, a city far to the west of Ileranth, was the site of Rali’s childhood. His aunts still dwelt there, but the remainder of the family, which included Tereal, his wife and Rali’s mother, Callie, Rali’s sister Ypstall and a number of cousins, resided elsewhere.
“Father, I am engaged in a sensitive business negotiation just now, and to leave Ileranth at this juncture would be most inconvenient.”
Tereal scoffed. “More likely you are engaged in pilferage of some sort.”
Rali made to remonstrate, but his father cut him off. “No matter! Depart at once. I will expect to see you here by mid-afternoon tomorrow.” He sundered communication.