In a lonely corner of a watering hole on the Salavas Islands sat a broken man. A scant few days ago, Lazzru had hoped that one final trade voyage would wipe out his debts. But his every bid for spices was undercut by guild merchants. With the exorbitant prices he’d paid, he’d be lucky to turn a profit at all when he returned to Amalcross. And if he didn’t pay down at least some of his debt, the Horst Concern would eat him alive.
He was drowning his sorrows when someone hissed in his ear. “This one heard the one from Amal is in dire straits.” Lazzru turned to see a Salavaster looming over him. Perpetually leaning forward, their bony frills raised above their heads, sharp claws on hand and foot and yellowed eyes, Salavasters are often intimidating. This one, their scales dyed a deep crimson, yellow, and black, and an unnatural smile stretched over sharp teeth, was even more frightening.
Yet Lazzru was desperate. Only a token effort was required to convince him to follow the Salavaster to a secluded copse.
“The matter is simple, one from Amal,” the Salavaster said once they were in a thicket of palm trees. “This one’s clan has a rival. These ones and those ones have competed for many suns, but these ones always won … until recently.”
The Salavaster traced a claw along a tree trunk, stripping slivers of bark. “Those ones struck an accord with a higher clan and received a clutch of eggs far above the station of these ones and those ones.”
They stopped their claw and gave another toothy grin. “That is why this one wants the one from Amal to steal that clutch, so the eggs may belong to a worthier clan.”
Lazzru gulped and said, “I see. But Sir … uh….”
Annoyance flashed across the Salavaster’s face. “Xarvas Shalna Zhakto,” they said. “These ones have adopted such designations as a courtesy, since ones from Amal cannot see the differences in these ones’ scales.” They gestured at the patterns on their scales, the soaked-in dye shining in the sun. “Ones from Amal could at least remember.”
“Right. Yes. I apologize, Sir Xarvas.” Lazzru cleared his throat and pressed on. “Why would you want me to do this, though? Surely your clan has more suitable members.”
“Because of this.” Xarvas placed a claw right over Lazzru’s heart. “The one from Amal’s warmth.” Their claw pressed against him, just soft enough to avoid drawing blood. “When the sun slumbers, these ones are tired and slow. Even nested ones are less alert. Yet all these ones suffer the same affliction, so these ones cannot strike. Ones from Amal can.”
Despite his fear, Lazzru sensed something. A gleam in Xarvas’s eye, perhaps. It told him this was not the whole truth.Yet his mind turned to his debts.
“…And my reward?”
Xarvas removed a leather pouch from their belt. “A chest of fine goods. Spices, jewelry, carpets. Whatever the one from Amal chooses.” They offered the pouch to Lazzru. “Consider this a token of this one’s good will.”
Lazzru tipped the pouch into his hand and saw a ring of surpassing beauty. The band was made of intertwined gold and silver decorated with impossibly detailed images of birds. At the top, a clawed hand clutched a brilliant gem. This was clearly crafted by a Salavaster Binder-artificer, and it chased the doubts from Lazzru’s mind.
Having taken the deal, Lazzru became a “guest of honor” of Xarvas’s clan. They escorted him beyond the small area around the port which was normally open to foreign merchants and through the rest of the Salavaster town. He was taken past sprawling buildings made of mud and sand, all the time subjected to the suspicious glares of other Salavasters. Only now, much deeper into Salavaster territory than Amalcrossers were usually allowed, did he understand he was at Xarvas’s mercy.
As the night gathered close about him, Lazzru waited, sweating in the salt marshes outside a clan’s Basket and watching the moon’s position. Even late into the night, it was hardly cool. The sun was no longer heating the sands, but the humidity of the isles had barely abated. Could such a small difference really have the effect on Salavaster metabolism that Xarvas claimed? Lazzru looked down at the bottle of brownish liquid Xarvas gave him and frowned.
“Cover the one from Amal in this before approaching,” they had said, “or those ones will taste the one from Amal’s scent on the air.”
“I don’t have a … a scent,” Lazzru protested.
Xarvas’s tongue flicked out of their mouth. “Yes. The one from Amal does.”
Sighing, he uncorked the bottle, unleashing a smell like the sewers in Pauper’s Notch. The liquid slid down his body when he poured it, leaving behind an unpleasant, oily feeling. He gagged at the smell but managed to avoid retching.
Once he could bear the odor, he approached the Basket. Odd, geometric structures dotted the landscape. He knew they were connected by underground rooms and tunnels that snaked in and out of the water. He needed to follow Xarvas’s directions or become hopelessly lost.
Lazzru trudged through the sand until he neared the closest structure. Crescent-shaped holes circled the center, providing an entrance. There was no light inside, giving only a dim impression of the interior.
Steeling his courage, Lazzru crawled inside. The entrance was wide but low, forcing him on his hands and knees. At the end, he swung around and lowered his feet to the ground. He tried to move as slowly as possible, knowing what would happen if he was caught.
When he saw his surroundings, his heart stopped. The floor was littered with nests made of mud and sand. In each one, partially buried, was a sleeping Salavaster. They were so still he might have thought them dead if not for the gentle rise and fall of their chests. He held his breath, expecting death at any moment.
Yet not a single one stirred. Cautiously, Lazzru looked around. The chamber was sparse, with little ornament. The Salavasters themselves served as decoration, the mix of color and pattern on their scales blending together. It might have been beautiful in a less dangerous setting.
And then — there! Lazzru could see the tunnel he was looking for.
Emboldened, he took a step forward. When his foot touched ground, the nearest Salavaster twitched. Lazzru froze, terrified. But the Salavaster only flicked their tongue a few times. This seemed to satisfy them, as they merely settled back to sleep.
No others stirred as he crept to the tunnel. Like the entrance, the tunnel was low, and he needed to crawl. Perhaps this was comfortable for a Salavaster, but it made Lazzru’s back ache.
He ignored the pain, his mind focused on Xarvas’s directions. These tunnels were a maze, looping around and turning at random. At one point he swam through a subterranean pool of water. It was so long his lungs burned, and he nearly drowned before he surfaced. The only mercy was the torches hung here and there, lending flickering light to the darkness
After an eternity, the tunnel widened into a large, round chamber. He didn’t recognize this shape from the outside, and so surmised it must be underground. Patterns resembling the sleeping Salavasters’ scales were carved into the domed ceiling. Torches lined the walls, the abundance of fires in such an enclosed space making the room as hot as if the sun was shining in the sky. On the opposite side sat a nest, larger and filled with bubbling dark green water.
And inside that nest was a clutch of eggs. They must have been fresh: They were scarcely larger than Lazzru’s fist. Yet their golden-hued shells denoted their status. These were the eggs Xarvas sought.
Lazzru almost ran towards them before he noticed the three Salavasters curled around the nest. Xarvas had warned that eggs were constantly tended to, and this room was so hot Lazzru doubted these Salavasters would be as listless as most supposedly were at night. But if his timing was right, they would have just finished the eggs’ hourly turning and wouldn’t stir until they needed attention again.
He inched forward. When he got to the edge of the nest, he slowly reached for the eggs, but he could barely brush his fingertips against them.
Lazzru climbed on the edge of the nest. Laid flat on the ledge, he could just about reach the eggs. But it was hard to keep his balance. If he splashed into the nest’s warm pool of water and dye, the Salavasters were sure to awaken.
He laid down and stretched out, hooking his legs against the nest. His muscles strained, but his hand reached further until … he grasped an egg! He delicately picked it up and sank back to the ground before he collapsed. He opened his pack, already filled with cotton and silk, and placed the egg inside.
From there, collecting the rest of the eggs was simple. Soon all five eggs were safely nestled in his pack. Lazzru could have laughed with relief, but he wisely kept quiet on his way back to the tunnels.
The nesting Salavasters didn’t even stir when he crawled back through the snaking tunnels. Once he was in the first room, prepared to climb outside, he relaxed, feeling, perhaps, that Skaardruf smiled on him after all. He wiped the sweat from his brow, already dreaming of profit.
But a bead of sweat landed on a Salavaster’s snout. Their tongue darted out and lapped up the moisture. Their eyes shot open and looked directly at him. The Salavaster hissed and shrieked, rousing the others.
Lazzru leapt through the crescent-shaped hole, tumbled to the ground and then shot to his feet and ran on. Behind him, armed Salavasters were pouring out of the holes, landing on all fours and bounding after him.
Tears filled Lazzru’s eyes. The Salavasters darted across the sands far faster than him. Despite his lead, they would catch him soon. He pushed his aching muscles to their limit, but he knew it wasn’t enough.
A dune rose up at the edge of the salt marsh. He quickly scrambled up it, certain a fanged maw would snap around his leg. At the top, he risked a glance backward. What he saw made his heart soar.
The Salavasters had kept chase, but already they were tiring. Several collapsed, unable to keep moving. Others struggled forward, but at only a fraction of their initial speed. Xarvas hadn’t exaggerated the effect of a cool night air on their kind.
Laughing and crying, Lazzru darted into the night.
Months later, Lazzru glided through the Grand Bazaar with an easy smile. Xarvas had been true to their word, and Lazzru had departed the Salavas Islands with the finest goods he’d ever acquired. All his debts to the Horst Concern were wiped clean, with a tidy profit left over.
At day’s end, he returned to his apartments in Holdouts Point and flung the door to his cavernous bedchamber open. After another long and profitable day of trading and bartering, he was ready for a nap while his servants prepared dinner.
Then the door closed behind him. Lazzru froze. He turned, hoping to see nothing. At first, his wish came true. But then there was a shimmer at the center of the door. Slowly, the form of a clawed, dark green hand took shape. The shimmer continued up its arm, the scaly skin changing hue before Lazzru’s eyes, until he saw it clearly: A Salavaster was standing by his door.
“The one from Amal stole from these ones,” they said. “This debt must be paid in blood.”
The Salavaster darted, the only sound the clicking of claws on wood. Before he could flee or even shout for help, a clawed hand closed around Lazzru’s throat and slammed him to the ground so hard the floorboards cracked. The Salavaster’s tongue danced in and out as it unsheathed a wicked, hooking dagger and pressed it to Lazzru’s throat.
“Wait! It — it was Xarvas Shalna Zhakto!” he sobbed. “They hired me! They’re the one you want!”
The Salavaster paused. They seemed thoughtful for a moment, as if considering his words.
“Yes, the blood price could be extracted from that one.” Then their expression turned cold. “But these ones prefer the one from Amal pay.”
And before Lazzru could even scream, the blood price was paid.