by Danielle L. Parker
The shop sign swung rustily in Cameltown’s persistent breeze. Its writing was luridly orange and almost illegible.
Blunt, pausing in the street to stare up at the creaking board, could barely make out its meaning. At its best, Aspian writing resembled nothing so much as random hen scratching, or the uncertain scribbles of a palsied Islamic scribe. But in the lower left corner was a rudimentary outline of an Aspian hand, its exaggerated poison claw jutting like a scythe.
That upturned appendage with the coin in its palm indicated the purpose of the shop. This was the establishment he sought, that of one Yizm, known far and wide as Yizm the Witch Doctor, for reasons Blunt hoped never to discover. Certainly the Aspian spymaster’s cover was more sinister than his human counterpart’s, the part-time bookseller Abel Verity.
The captain settled his hat on his head, which felt more than usually naked, and mounted the steps. A buzzer sounded in the hidden depths as he stepped inside. Blunt closed the door behind him and surveyed the interior.
The counters, more than chest high to accommodate the elongated alien species, formed a narrow U shape, its open end facing him. Directly before, behind the closed end of the U, hung a concealing curtain of orange-colored cloth.
Shelves lined every available centimeter of wall. The small, mostly open-ended cubicles were stuffed to capacity with a million unidentifiable objects. The room looked like nothing so much as a kleptomaniac’s Chinese medicine shop gone stark, raving over-the-top.
The captain leaned closer. Upon inspection, he recognized a few objects. That gleaming, glowing crystal on the highest shelf, whispering in a melody of soft, corrosive allure, was a priceless dream-stone. On another shelf was a transparent bag filled with pink ampoules of the cursed pixie dust.
But what was in that other dark, cobwebbed cubby? It looked like a human hand, shriveled and dried to a dark amber, a slumping stub of a candle in its wizened grip. And was that a jar of Gargantuan eyeballs, each oversized orb floating gently in yellowish amniotic fluid? Was that knotted tangle below merely dead snakes, or amputated tentacles, tipped with claws?
A businesslike click came from behind the curtain. A sticklike arm groped through the hanging cloth. Blunt glimpsed the hidden steel door for an instant. But the tall, noodle-thin Asp who entered, dressed in no more than the common plain dark robe, let the curtain fall immediately, and hid the door from view. Silently, he entered the room.
Blunt examined the purported merchant with keen interest. Asp came in myriad forms and colors, but never before had he seen one such as this.
The Witch Doctor, as tall, at nearly seven feet, as the elongated aristocratic caste, shared none of their glowing gold color. Its fine scales were ice-white, edged with ghostly bluish luminescence. The large orbs in its reptilian visage, slit by fluctuating vertical pupils, were a milky blue-white suggesting cataractic blindness. Its snout, sharper and more pronounced than the more flat-faced aristocrats, resembled a human nose to a disturbing degree. If the cloudy eyes signaled age or ill health, the rotund poison sacs that hung at the witch doctor’s wrists gave no indication. They looked as vigorous and full of pep as a teenager’s testicles.
“You come for medicine? Drugs?” Yizm inquired in sibilant English.
Blunt shook his head.
“Then what?” The Asp tapped its claw-tipped fingers against its counter in seeming impatience while it studied him. “You are impotent? You seek to poison a rival, or inspire the acquiescence of an unwilling female? Speak! I have little use for your kind.”
“I want a claw,” Blunt said. “Not just any poison claw, either. I want a gold one. One of those aristocratic ones.”
The Asp reared back with a startled hiss. The loose cowl of scaled skin resting upon its shoulders ruffled like a disturbed cobra’s.
“You mock me, monkey,” it whispered when it recovered, fixing him with a spiteful glare. “Fool! Do you not know how many ways I could have you killed, on the very spot you stand?”
“Maybe you could,” the captain shrugged.
“Never have I been asked for such! What use have you for an Aspian claw?”
“I was told I could find what I needed here,” Blunt replied. “If you can’t supply, that’s all I need to know. Guess I’ll have to tell our friend you’re not as good as you’re said to be.”
“Ah,” sneered the Asp. “I can supply anything if I choose to. Is it merely poison you desire? I can sell you a half-ounce of the purest Aspian venom, enough potency to poison your enemies on fifty planets. A mere drop will purify a city of all its stinking human monkeys!”
“No,” the captain said. “I’m not here for poison. I want a claw. That’s all.”
The Asp walked around the corner of its counter toward him, bubbling under its breath like a steaming teakettle. As the captain turned to face it, it leaned across the countertop in a mocking, conspiratory manner.
“I see you are a warrior. If you do not desire the poison, then it is the trophy — the honor — you want. Go into that establishment just down the street, and if you live, monkey, you will have earned your claw!” It grinned, and showed the captain its snaggling white fangs.
The captain snatched his gun in one fluid motion and shoved the muzzle into the Asp’s thin neck. The witch doctor gurgled; its poison claws rattled and twitched reflexively; it fixed him with a malignant glare. But it did not flinch.
“Your claw’s the wrong color,” Blunt said. “Otherwise I’d be tempted, you misbegotten, white-eyed leper! If I wore all the claws I’ve earned, as you call it, around my neck, I’d look like a strumpet on Pike Street. I did earn one of those gold claws once. Now do you know me?”
The spymaster fluted mocking laughter. “Fool. I knew who you met on Astral. I knew the instant your ship left! I knew the instant your boots trod this world’s soil. You are the one we call the tzomath, the Claw of the Prince.” The Asp straightened to its full, imposing height, ignoring the weapon leveled at it. “You dare much, all the same, human, by coming here. If your visit is frivolous, be assured, you will pay for it. So, what is your purpose, Captain? Speak!”
The captain stepped back, warily reholstering his weapon. “I need that claw for a token,” he replied. “I wasn’t playing games with you.” He hesitated. “And I need a name. A name for a thing that wears faces — human sometimes — other times, something foul enough to choke a garbage dog! A thing that’s” — the captain lifted both hands in uncharacteristic frustration — “evil!”
The Asp folded its arms and sank its chin on its chest in thought. At last it turned, and reaching up to one of its higher cubicles, fetched a small sack. This sack it placed on the countertop between them, and idly rolled the pink ampoules inside with its palm.
“Ah. But you already know its name, Captain. Death, it calls itself. Truly, indeed, is it named. What more do you need to know?”
“Everything you can tell me,” the man whispered, and deep in the back of his blue eyes, like the reflection sparking off bright steel, was a glitter. “Everything.”
“I sell many things.” Still the Asp played with the deadly pink ampoules, though its strangely clouded eyes never left the captain’s face. “Poisons; drugs; medicines; weapons to destroy flesh or worlds; curses and sorceries; priceless jewels and artifacts. Yet what you ask for is my most precious offering: information. What will you give me for such a gem, human?”
“What do you want?”
“Your debt,” the Asp said, idly fingering its sack of ampoules. “That is good enough. You are a man said to pay his debts. One day — should you live — I will name my price. Hear me! My price will be high. Do you consent?”
The captain hesitated. “I won’t sell out my own kind; nor Kzirth, I guess. I won’t kill the innocent. But anything else...” He extended his hand. “I’ll shake on that.”
The Asp clasped his fingers. Blunt was conscious of the terrible nearness of its poison claws. “You are a madman, Captain. Only fools or madmen would shake hands with me. But perhaps — I am sanguine — you may end a pernicious evil. Hear, then, of the Charnel Spectre, of a hunger that long ago devoured even its own dark, dying world. Hear, and learn to fear what you so foolishly oppose, man...”
Copyright © 2010 by Danielle L. Parker