Lisa Smedman

Venom’s Taste


23 Kythorn, Darkmorning

So this is to be my coffin, Arvin thought.

Had he been capable of it, he would have groaned in despair.

He was sprawled on his back inside a leaky rowboat, too weak to lift himself out of the cold, filthy water in which he lay. Even blinking was beyond him. With eyes too dry for tears, he stared at the bricks that drifted past a short distance above him-the arched ceiling of the sewage tunnel. Water sloshed against him as the boat nudged against a wall with a dull thud. Then the lazy current scuffed the boat away from the wall again and dragged it relentlessly onward.

It was not so much the knowledge that he was dying that filled Arvin with impotent grief-even though twenty-six was far too young for any life to end-it was the thought that his soul would begin its journey to the gods fouled with this intolerable stink. The sewage tunnel was slimed not just with centuries of human waste, but also with the pungent excretions of the serpent folk. The stench of the water eddying back and forth across Arvin’s hands, plucking wetly at his hair and wicking up through his clothes, was unbearable; it brought back childhood memories of being unable to get clean, of tauntings and humiliation. Even Bane, god of crushing despair, could not have dreamed up a more perfect torment for Arvin’s final moments.

He felt no pain, unlike those whose screams he could still hear echoing distantly from farther up the tunnel. There was just a dull heaviness that dragged him further toward unconsciousness with each passing moment, gradually slowing his thoughts to a trickle. Body and mind seemed to have become detached from each other, the one lying limp and unresponsive in the boat while the other spun in slow spirals, like water going down a drain. Pain would have been welcome; it might have blotted out the thoughts that were turning slow circles inside his mind.

Why? he asked himself, thinking back to the events of only a short time ago, of his meeting with Naulg in the tavern. Why was I… so careless? That woman-

The thought drifted away as consciousness fled.


22 Kythorn, Evening

Arvin reached into his mug and fished a small, speckled egg out of his ale. He set it on the wooden table in front of him and, with a quick flick of his forefinger, sent it rolling. The egg wobbled to the edge, teetered, and fell, joining the sticky mess that littered the sawdust on the tavern floor.

He sighed as he raised the mug to his lips. Eggs. Why did the barkeep bother? Some humans had a taste for them-or rather, a taste for pretending to be something they were not-but Arvin despised the gagging, slippery feel of raw egg sliding down his throat. Next thing you knew, the Mortal Coil would be offering half-and-hares-ale mixed with rabbit blood.

The ale was surprisingly drinkable this evening; the barkeep had either forgotten to water it, or he’d washed the mugs. Arvin sipped it slowly, hoping he wouldn’t have to wait all night. The pipe smoke drifting in blue swirls against the low ceiling was already thick enough to make his eyes water. The twine in his breast pocket didn’t like the smoke much, either. Arvin could feel it twitching within its tightly stitched leather pouch. But at least the air was cool, a welcome relief from the muggy heat of a summer evening.

The Mortal Coil occupied the cavernous, circular basement of one of the warehouses that lined the Hlondeth waterfront. The tavern had been named for its ceiling, carved to resemble an enormous coil of rope. At high tide the room’s southern wall sweated seawater. Arvin, seated on a bench that curved along that wall, sat stiffly erect at his table, loath to let his shirt brush against the damp stone behind him. The sooner Naulg arrived, the sooner Arvin could get out of this crowd, with their tarred hair and unwashed clothes that smelled of tendays at sea.

It was late at night and the tavern was crowded-despite rumors that the waterfront had become more dangerous of late, with more than the usual number of disappearances from the area around the docks. Sailors jostled each other, tilting back mugs and blowing loud, ale-frothed kisses at doxies who’d come in from the stroll. One noisy group-a crew, judging by their linked arms-sang a boisterous song about hoisting the yard, complete with lewd actions that made the double meaning of the chorus clear. On the other side of the room, another crew had shoved the tables aside and were lined up for a game of toss-knife. A dagger suddenly spun through the air between the two lines of men, zigzagging back and forth across the gap as each man caught and tossed it as rapidly as he could. Halfway down the line, one man suddenly howled and yanked his hand back against his chest, letting the dagger fall behind him. Blood dribbled from his clenched fingers as the others pounded him on the back, laughing at his misfortune at having to buy their next round of drinks. The wounded sailor, staggering under the thumps of mock congratulation, slowly opened his hand and stared, blinking and suddenly sober, at a fingertip that dangled from a thin thread of flesh.

Arvin winced. A dull ache flared in his finger as he involuntarily clenched his left hand. He opened his fingers and rubbed the smallest one, massaging it through the soft black leather of his glove. Years had passed since the Guild had cut off the last segment of that finger as retribution for intruding on their turf, yet the stub still smarted, especially if the weather was about to change. The wad of felt stuffed into the fingertip of Arvin’s glove provided some padding for the lumpy scar tissue but not enough.

Waiting, sipping his ale, he smiled grimly at the irony. Back when Arvin was a teenager, living on the few coins he was able to filch from unguarded pockets and purses, the Guild had come close to depriving him of what was to become his livelihood. Thank the gods they’d found the rope he’d made and recognized his talent before they cut off the rest of his fingertips. Now, years later, they valued his skills highly-so highly they wouldn’t let him go. They’d arranged for him to rent a warehouse at a ridiculously low price and saw to it that he was able to acquire whatever exotic and expensive materials he needed in return for the right to be his only “customers”-and the right to a steep discount.

Speaking of customers, where was Naulg?

Arvin glanced around the room but saw no sign of the rogue. His eyes darted to the entrance as someone in yellow-a color Naulg often wore-came down the ramp, but it turned out to be a woman in a yellow dress. A yuan-ti, human in overall appearance, with long red hair, but with skin covered in a sheen of green scales that thinned to a freckle of green on her face and hands. She moved with a grace that contrasted with the rolling gait of the sailors and the pouting slouch of the doxies. Despite the fact that she was female and wearing a dress that hugged the sensual curve of her hips like a second skin, the sailors kept their hands to themselves. Several scrambled out of her way, automatically dropping their glance to the ground and touching their foreheads in a subservient gesture that their ships’ yuan-ti masters had ingrained in them, one painful lash at a time.

Arvin watched the woman out of the corner of his eye as she settled at a table two down from his, her back to the wall. When she flicked a finger impatiently for ale, the barkeep hurried to her side, setting a mug in front of her. He took her coin quickly, jerking his hand back as she reached for the mug, then bowed and backed away. The woman lifted the mug to her lips, tipping it until the egg inside the ale slid into her mouth, then swallowed it, shell and all, with one quick gulp. A forked tongue flickered as she licked her lips appreciatively.

As she glanced in Arvin’s direction, he noticed her eyes. They were sea-green flecked with yellow. As they met Arvin’s they emitted a flash of silver, momentarily reflecting the lantern light like those of a cat. Aware that she was staring at him, Arvin hastily averted his eyes. Yuan-ti often slummed at the Coil, but when they did, they came in groups and looked down haughtily on the “lesser races” who frequented the place. What was this woman doing in the tavern on her own, quietly sipping an ale? She, like Arvin, seemed to be waiting for someone.

If she’d been human-and wearing even a scrap of green-Arvin might have worried that he was the object of her search. The druids of the Emerald Enclave usually stuck to the wilderness, but were known to occasionally enter a city to sniff out wizardry-and Arvin’s craft required him to work with wizards on a regular basis. He did so only at arm’s length, through a middler, but the druids would hardly believe that if they discovered the ensorcelled twine in his shirt pocket.

This woman, however, seemed to have no interest in Arvin. After her brief scrutiny of him, she no longer glanced in his direction. She was obviously looking for someone else.

A second glimpse of yellow attracted Arvin’s attention to the tavern entrance-Naulg. Small and dark-haired, Naulg had eyebrows that formed an unbroken line over his squared-off nose. He had a big grin on his face-and one arm firmly around the waist of a doxy who snuggled tightly against his side. With his free hand, he reached up and rubbed first the inside corner of his right eye, then the outside corner-the sign that he was looking for somebody. It was an unnecessary formality, since he and Arvin had known each other for years, but Arvin played along. Placing an elbow on the table, he rested his chin on his fist and raised his little finger so that it touched his lips. I’m your man.

Naulg shoved his way through the crowd, dragging the doxy with him. He found an empty chair at a nearby table, dragged it over, and sat in it, pulling the woman down into his lap. As they settled themselves, Naulg waved for two ales, one for himself and one for Arvin. He insisted Arvin join him in a drink. The doxy looked impatiently around as if she’d rather complete her business with Naulg and move on to the next tumble.

Despite the perpetual frown his heavy eyebrows gave him, Naulg was a likable fellow, with his easy grin, boldly colored shirt that drew the eye, and generous nature. He and Arvin had met when both were boys at the orphanage, during Arvin’s first year there. Naulg had shared his meal with Arvin after a larger boy had “accidentally” knocked Arvin’s trencher out of his hand. He’d been the only one to show friendship toward Arvin without wanting something else in return. They’d developed a close bond immediately and cemented it by twining their little fingers together like snakes.

Naulg had run away from the orphanage a year later-and had never been caught. His escape had been an inspiration to Arvin through the years that followed, and Arvin had always wondered to where Naulg had fled. After Arvin’s own escape, he’d at last learned the answer. It was ironic that both men had wound up under the thumb of another, even more repressive organization-though Naulg didn’t seem to see the Guild that way. To him it was a game, an adventure. To Arvin, the Guild was a rope around his wrist-one that kept him as bound to Hlondeth as a slave was to his master.

The doxy’s shrill laughter jerked Arvin sharply back to the present. Staring at her, he decided that she would make a better rogue than Naulg. She was pretty, with fluttering eyelashes and long dark hair that coiled in soft waves around a milk-white face, but there was something about the hard glint in her eye that told Arvin she could hold her own. He disliked her immediately-perhaps because of the faint odor that clung to her-a ripe smell that reminded Arvin of spoiled meat. Of course, the smell might have been coming from Naulg, who was scratching absently at the back of his neck, revealing a large sweat stain in the armpit of his shirt.

“It’s finished, then?” Naulg asked, ignoring the distraction of the doxy nuzzling his ear.

Arvin reached into the breast pocket of his shirt and pulled out a leather pouch that had been sewn shut with small, tight stitches. Keeping it hidden under his palm, he slid it across the table, leaving it beside Naulg’s mug.

Naulg prodded the pouch with a finger and watched it bulge as the coil of twine inside it twitched. “Are there words that need to be spoken?”

Arvin shook his head. “Just cut the stitches and slip the pouch into a pocket. It’ll do the job.”

The doxy whispered something in Naulg’s ear. Naulg laughed and shook his head.

“Be patient, woman. We’ll be alone soon enough.” Then, to Arvin, “Good. The middler already has your coin. You can collect it any time. I’m sure the goods will perform as promised.”

“When will you be… using it?”

“Tonight,”-his grin broadened and he winked at the doxy-“much later tonight.”

He picked up his ale and raised his mug to salute Arvin; his wide, sweeping gestures suggested he’d already had one too many.

Arvin nodded. He could guess what the twine would be used for-assassin vine almost always went for the throat-but maybe Naulg had something else in mind. Maybe he just meant to use it to bind someone’s wrists.

Arvin twitched his mouth into a grin and covered his discomfort with a hearty joke. “Just be sure you don’t let pleasure get in the way of business.”

Naulg laughed. ‘ “Idle hands make merry,’ ” he quipped.

Arvin smiled. “You mean ‘mischief,’ ” he said, correcting the motto that had been drummed into them at the orphanage. Then he tsked. “Brother Pauvey would weep for you.”

“Yes, he would,” Naulg said, suddenly serious. “He would indeed.” He paused then added, “Can we talk later?”

Arvin nodded. “I’d like that.”

Naulg shifted the doxy from his lap and rose to his feet, slipping the pouch into a trouser pocket. The doxy staggered slightly, as if she’d had too much to drink, but Arvin noted the quick, sharp glance she gave the pocket where Naulg had stored the pouch. If she was a rogue, as Arvin suspected, one quick stroke of her hand would see it gone, especially if Naulg was… distracted.

Arvin had labored for two full tendays to make the twine-and he’d spent good coin on the spell that kept the tendrils of assassin vine fresh after their harvesting. Braiding them had been like working with writhing snakes; if he’d let one go even for a moment, it would have coiled around his throat. If the twine disappeared, would Naulg demand a replacement?

As Naulg headed for the door, doxy in tow, Arvin decided to protect his investment. At least, that was what he told himself he was doing. He waited until the pair were halfway up the ramp then rose to his feet.

Hlondeth by night was a city of whispers. Its cobble-stoned streets had been worn smooth by the endless slither of the serpent folk. High above, the ramps that spiraled up the outside of buildings to join viaducts that arched across the street were alive with the slide of scales on stone. Soft hisses of conversation whispered out of round doorways and windows. From the harbor, a few hundred paces away, came the crash and sigh of waves breaking against the seawall, rhythmic as breathing.