Kal resisted the urge to let his hand trail near his saber. He kept his pace even and eyes forward, not wishing to alarm his companion or alert his pursuer. He counted it to luck that he had noticed anything amiss in the pressing throng. Neither the onset of evening nor the day's persistent, foggy drizzle had thinned the crowd. That was no surprise. The Arkebis city skyport was the largest on the berg of Elarin and served as a vital lifeline to the Sea of Clouds, the vast airy expanse where the many worlds hung suspended. Work would continue until long after sunset, everyone too busy to notice, or care, about a couple of disappearances.

      The skyport was a sprawling open air bazaar, packed thickly between sturdy brick warehouses, noisy auction stands and towering dry docks. Sometimes he wondered if it had been specifically designed with clandestine activity in mind. The entire labyrinth was riddled with twisting alleyways to disappear in and dark alcoves for covert meetings. He had made good use of both in the past. Of course, there were plenty of places to get ambushed as well. He tried not to hunch his shoulders. He could practically feel a phantom dagger hovering behind him. Then again, it was his companion, Drogan, who was the more likely target of an assassination or abduction. Kal wasn't sure he liked the older man, but Drogan trusted him with his safety, and that was the kind of trust you made good on.

     The worn cobblestone road sheened with moisture, and Kal's breath misted slightly in the cool crisp air. All around him knots of sailors discussed charts and weather conditions in a cascade of languages while stoic workmen carried bundles of colorful goods past arguing merchants and exotically clad travelers alike. Normally, he would have been happy to drink in the vibrant sights and sounds of the skyport, but today, the closeness of the crowd left him feeling hemmed in.

      Kal shook the moisture off his cloak. He used the opportunity to rearrange the garment so that it better concealed his saber, pistol and armor, a task made more difficult by his lean athletic build and slightly taller than average height. Neither the breastplate nor weapons were illegal, but they did draw attention. If the situation came to a fight, he didn't want to be recognizable. He pulled his flat brimmed charcoal gray hat low. Most who saw his angular face guessed he was over thirty, though in truth he was still in his late twenties. Almost everyone remembered his eyes, the color of spring leaves, which stood out starkly against his caramel colored skin and shoulder length black hair.

      He surveyed the area, looking for something that could help identify his pursuer. On his left were rows of squat warehouses and on the right open merchant stalls staffed by hawkers loudly proclaiming the quality of their goods. Kal glanced at them just long enough to note their presence: painted silks from Moltina, candied fruits from Aybaz and decorative metalwork from a land even he could not name.

      Casually stepping towards the metalwork stall, he glanced at a tall silver vase, using its polished surface as a mirror. He grimaced. The pursuer was clearly male, but his blue cloak and deep hood concealed any identifying features. A wave of frustration followed by panic tried to rise into his mind, but he quickly disciplined himself to calm. Whoever it was, the man was biding his time. There was time to think.

      He considered the man who walked with him. Naldeen Drogan's features had evolved from handsome to dignified in his middle years, and his hair held as much gray as it did light brown. He wore clothes similar to Kal's, but the silver embroidery on Drogan's knee length coat and the small pearls sewn into his vest were absent on Kal's more practical garments. The finery marked Drogan as a man of power and influence no less than the proud, confident manner with which he carried himself.

      Kal had investigated Drogan before working with him almost as carefully as he had studied Ayget Rulfin, the man they were meeting with today. Drogan was one of only nine preceptors at the Opredian Academy, a prestigious and wealthy organization that trained students in the arcane art of helice forging. Drogan's extensive skill in that art had gained him no small amount of recognition. He had secured the esteemed position of preceptor well over a decade ago and was still considered young to hold the title. Kal could respect that, almost, if rumors of bribery, blackmail and other, nastier forms of extortion didn't follow on the heels of Drogan’s accomplishments.

      Drogan's draconian tactics had earned him several dangerous rivals, any of which might dispatch a spy or assassin. At only twenty paces, the pursuer was following too closely to be a spy. Kal frowned. He knew more than a little about the assassin cabals that operated in the city. Three years ago he had only just survived a tangle with a Crozius assassin. Crozians favored poisoned weapons, and the discolored scar on his left forearm had barely faded. Of course, it could be a Saroit agent. They always worked in pairs which meant a second assassin might be lurking nearby.

      He filled in what he didn't know with the worst possibilities, assuming that whoever was following them was skilled, dangerous and had allies. He reviewed his options. He could try to lose the man in one of the skyport's winding alleyways, but that risked losing Drogan as well. The man was not athletic. He could wait and try to glean more information, but that risked giving the pursuer enough time to spring whatever trap he was undoubtedly planning. He decided to force an engagement on his terms. He turned, leading Drogan into an alley between two large warehouses.

      Kal deliberately slowed as he entered the alley. He counted out twenty paces in his head, estimating when the pursuer would enter behind them. He strained to listen for footsteps, but the patter of rain and the bustle in the streets echoed through the alley preventing his own limited senses from hearing anything. Fortunately, Kal didn't have to rely solely on his own senses.