Outside the night was cold and lay dark and star-brilliant and cool against Hal’s face. He had no idea how he was going to live now, alone on an alien planet with no home, no friends and no work. He began to walk, numb with his own folly and the grievous loss of the Golden Empire. Cursing himself for losing so badly, he walked the dark alleyways, half hoping some Scald rat would kill him and put him out of his misery.
How long he walked Hal never knew, nor cared to find out. Time passed without touching him and he let the icy wind eat into his flesh, courting sickness as surely as he had courted disaster in the Taverna. Slowly he became aware of footsteps behind him. Some creature of the night was stalking him. Hal forgot he wanted to die. The presence behind him made him very sure that he wanted to stay alive. Nervously he quickened his pace, and then as he passed an open passageway he ducked hastily inside the little cover it gave to wait on his pursuer.
Hal made a rapid assessment of the surrounding area. The Scald was ankle deep in refuse and thick, stinking water. The nearest drain was half a residential block away and the walkway fifteen feet above his head and without lighting. The alleyway he was in was a mere five feet wide, overhung with ducting and cable webs. An emergency escape ladder zigzagged down the near wall, graffiti of inartistic lewdness decorated the other. A bundle of rags muttered and groaned and cursed him from the deeper shadows and he felt the familiar tingling in his spine that warned him he was neither alone nor safe where he waited.
He intended to leap out on his stalker, pinion him against the wall and demand an explanation from him. Another less humanitarian resolve occurred to him; cut the creature’s throat and steal what credit it had. Life was cheap in the Scald and everyone risked that kind of fate just walking the streets. Pride made him humane, clung to his sanity with painful claws, made him think twice and hesitate.
What he saw at last made him retreat back into the shadows. As the figure drew closer, Hal recognised the long easy stride and the heavy sway of the black all-concealing cloak of the Clanley Trader. He let the Trader pass. Their paths had crossed again. He had the dice, he had Hal’s Empire, he had a home and a ship and more gelt than any Clanley deserved. It was not fair.
Watching the man’s back Hal speculated on murder and robbery once more, this time quite deliberately visualising what he might do and justifying it to his own conscience, but the idea was a dream he knew he would never be able to fulfil; even if he had hated the man enough to kill him, he could not have risked the fight. The man was tall, equally his height and stronger than he looked. Hal knew that the mutants who survived to take the Cloak were always strange, and some of them had arcane fighting skills, or even psi-powers that would counter any hold or attack he might try.
Then there were the Scats. The Clanley might be outside the jurisdiction of the law, but the Security operatives liked things in their sectors nice and neat and tidy. Hal had been seen losing to the Trader, and so he would be a prime suspect if anything happened to the man, and the tidy-minded Scats did not like suspected murderers roaming around their streets. He would be dead meat in a week, probably less, especially if the body was missing the Golden Empire and three gem dice of black crystal. Stupid he may have been, but Hal was not fool enough to give way to violence.
He came out of the passage and stood behind the man, watching him walk away along the dimly lit street, and as he watched he knew something was wrong.
The street was too quiet, the night too still. As if the Trader had also felt the wrongness in the night, he paused and glanced about him, then pulling his cloak tighter round him he walked on at the same steady pace.
Hal saw the shadow move and understood. The Scald was a labyrinth of buildings, alleys and walkways, alive with shadows inky black and obscuring a multitude of natural traps and dangers and other, less natural ones. He tasted the thick oily air that was Rainby’s underdome atmosphere and wondered how much longer they had before the rains came. It did not feel as if it would be very long; the static crackle was in every breath he breathed. Now was not a good time to become involved in any kind of fracas.
Almost as if to spite him, three figures detached themselves from the walkway’s understructure and dived on the Trader.