It'd been over a year since I'd felt the touch of a woman's hand, much less the rest of her. Iolanda, the most beautiful prostitute in Absalom, had just offered me a whole night with her. All she wanted in return was one little murder.
"No dice, sweetheart."
She looked me over again, her eyes lingering on my arms, the spurs on my elbows, my fists, and all the fights carved into my red leather jacket. "I thought you might be the sort of man who had killed before."
"I'm trying to cut back."
She turned real slow, her dark eyes stroking me. A bead of sweat slipped down my neck.
It'd been over a year. I'd never gone a year.
"What'd this guy do to make you want him dead?"
She sat down in front of a vanity and held my brothel token near the lamp. I could just make out the naughty image on its face. "He took a purse full of tokens like this one."
"Exactly like that one?"
"No," she said. "All different. He doles them out as tips to common, ugly men, brutes and servants."
I tried not to take it personal. There wasn't a thing I'd rather do than to go through that purse and cash in every token, one by one. Still, it wasn't worth a man's life. I said so.
"He beat me," she said. "In front of everyone."
Back in my Trick Alley days, I beat the hell out of the men who got too rough. I broke a lot of arms and legs, cracked more than a couple of skulls, and I was happy to do it. But the rule was, you don't take a life except for another one.
And yeah, I knew some men need killing. Those cutthroats I'd beaten earlier. It wasn't wrong to say I'd have done Absalom a big favor by ending them.
But I hadn't. Sure, both in the Goatherds and later, working for the boss, I'd had to do some killings, but it'd always been to keep the other guy—or rat-man or demon—from killing me first. They all had it coming.
This last year, though, in the body of my own personal devil, I'd killed plenty of guys who didn't have it coming. I thought about the monks of Iron Mountain almost every day. I had nightmares about those phoenix girls.
"I can get those tokens back for you. I can even bust him up real bad. But I don't kill him."
She turned to spill all that black, black hair over the shoulder. "For an hour of my attentions."
"You drive a hard bargain."
It had been a year. "Sweetheart, you got no idea."
Iolanda pulled a bell rope that summoned the thin white butler. She whispered in the servant's ear, and she or he nodded, led me halfway downstairs, and pointed through an open archway at a game of towers in the next room. There was my mark.
The big fellow lounged back in his chair, drawing on a fat cigar as one of his two toadies played his cards for him. Thick hair bristled on his bulging forearms, and his beard was coming in after a morning's shave.
"They will leave soon," the servant whispered. "They must be far away before any misfortune falls on them."
I gave the servant the don't-tell-me-my-business stare. She or he called over a hellspawn girl to keep me occupied, but I didn't want to spoil my appetite. "I'll just hang out."
The mark gave up on towers a couple hours later. He tipped the dealer with one of those platinum tokens. I couldn't see what favor was on its face, but from the dealer's eyes, it was a good one. The mark and his lackeys pushed off. I gave them half a minute and followed.
I saw the mark's goons walking away without him, a carriage rolling off in the opposite direction. I recognized the shape of the mark's head in the rear window.
Desna was smiling on me.
Before I could whistle, another carriage pulled up. The horses shied as they got close to me, so I jumped into the cab. As they settled down, the driver who'd dropped me off turned around with a grin. He'd been waiting for another good tip.
"Follow that carriage," I told him. He slapped the reins.
We followed the mark back toward the docks, where he got out beside a warehouse office. His buddies were nowhere in sight, but he paused before putting a key in the door. He looked right at the carriage. Right at me.
He pointed at the docks and crooked a finger before walking over to the boardwalk.
"Shall I drive on, sir?"
"Nah, this is good." I tossed him the second-smallest of the purses I'd taken from the cutthroats. Before he could ask, I said, "Stick around. This won't take long."
I followed the mark across the boardwalk. The place was almost deserted, with only a few night watchmen swinging lanterns between the warehouses. My guy went up to one of them and bought the lantern from him. The watchman got lost while my guy climbed a narrow stair beneath the boardwalk.
I followed him down. The beach stank of fish and seaweed, and the lantern light cast long shadows across the pebbled shore.
The other fellow rolled up his sleeves as I moved in, showing off just how big his arms were. The way he did it reminded me of the bouncers back at the brothel. In fact, everything about him reminded me of those bouncers, like they were imitating him when they used that gesture.
He just put up his fists and beckoned me to come on. I kissed my thumb, drew the wings of Desna on my heart, and went in.
The guy surprised me with a quick, long punch. I got my arms up barely in time, but he smashed my guard back into my face.
He fought in the classic style, fingernails up for inspection, thumbs outside. I bounced back, slid to the side, and went in for a shot to the ribs. He shot back with a one-two that cracked my wrist and smashed my ear. I danced away, grinning with a confidence I didn't feel. He rushed me again.
I put a dock piling between us. He came around, and I ran behind another one. I needed to think. All those great moves I'd learned in Tian Xia were scrambled in my head. I'd learned them while stuck in a devil body. Now that it was gone, I didn't feel them the way I had for the past year. I had to think about them, and that made me slow.
"You going to run, run now," he said. "Just don't let me see you back at my brothel."
I came around the piling, fists high. When his shoulder dropped for a punch, I Swept the Beach. My foot barely caught his heel, but quick as spite he stomped my ankle. He put all his weight down, pinning me.
He walked up my leg. I tried kicking him, but he caught my other foot and twisted hard. He got a scream, but not as much as he wanted. He raised a foot to crush my gnarlies.
I winced, expecting the pain but knowing it'd be worse for him. He must have seen it on my face. At the last instant, he turned just enough to smash my thigh instead of impaling his foot on my spiked cup.
I scissored my legs around his foot and rolled. We both went down, tumbling over the stones. A dead crab tore the hell out of my cheek. The guy got his finger in my ear, moved to put a thumb in my eye. I kneed him in the gut and tried to roll away, but he hung on.
His size and strength gave him the advantage. We fought with knees and elbows, which gave it back to me. I bloodied his hip with a spur. He pulled a razor from his belt and damned near drew me a new smile.
"Stupid son of a bitch, I wasn't going to kill you," I growled.
"You think you're the first? I'm sick of it. Once I'm done with you, I'm going to kill that whore."
I pushed away the hand with the razor in it. Then I let it come back, only this time I turned my head and opened wide. I'm not proud to be a biter, but you got to go with your strengths.
He lost the razor along with most of the use of that hand.
"I'll kill her slow," he gasped. "Believe it."
Before I could answer, he smashed my nose with a head-butt. The pain blinded me. He pushed me away. We got to our feet, blinking and reeling. Somebody kicked the lantern, sending the world spinning under the docks. I closed my eyes and listened for his breath. I charged, catching him right in the breadbasket.
We fell into the surf. His head hit something hard, but not hard enough to knock him out. He fought for his life, because that's what we were fighting for now. I got his ear in one hand, a hank of hair in the other. I shoved his head under the water.
His fingers found my throat. For a second I faltered. His head came up. "You don't know who you're dealing with! You'll never get out of Absalom ali—"
I put his head back under and counted. At thirteen I let him up again. He sputtered, "I'll pay you!"
That got my attention. "What about Iolanda?"
"You can buy out her contract. She gambles it all away anyway. You can win it back like I did."
He beat me. Those had been her words. I'd just assumed she meant the other thing.
Which was what she'd been betting on.
This guy was her pimp, not a bad customer. Iolanda knew he wouldn't let things go if I just beat him. If he went back to kill her, it was her own damned fault.
"Tell me you won't lay a hand on her," I said. "Make me believe it."
His eyes flicked down as he said it.
"Sorry, pal." I put his head back under. "I believed you the first time."
It was just after dawn when I hopped out of the carriage in front of the boss's little clubhouse. Smoke rose from a blackened building. The boss stood beside a scorched semicircle in the lawn, standing straight while a couple of Pathfinder mucky-mucks chewed him out. Arnisant caught my eye like he wanted to escape, so I called him over and scratched his jaw.
When the shouting was done, the boss came over with a fire-crippled servant carrying his satchel. The boss stopped when he saw the cab. "I have been too long without the Red Carriage," he said. "Back to the inn. We shall collect our things and take the first ship to Greengold."
That was fine by me. I'd be glad if we never saw this damned town again.
Arnisant followed the boss into the cab, and the burned servant offered me the boss's bag.
I said, "You want to help with the luggage?"
He hesitated, glancing back at the smoldering building. I could tell he wanted an excuse to leave but needed a little incentive. I held up the purse I'd taken from Iolanda's pimp. "I'll make it worth your while."
Coming Next Week: A band-new adventure featuring Norret the alchemist and his resurrected brother Orlin in "Thieves' Vinegar"!
Enjoying this story so far? Check out even more adventures of Radovan and Varian in the new novel Queen of Thorns, available now!
Dave Gross's adventures of Radovan and Count Jeggare include the Pathfinder Tales novels Prince of Wolves, Master of Devils, and Queen of Thorns; the novellas "Husks" and "Hell's Pawns"; and the short stories "A Lesson in Taxonomy," "A Passage to Absalom," and "The Lost Pathfinder," all available at paizo.com/pathfindertales. He also co-wrote the Pathfinder Tales novel Winter Witch with Elaine Cunningham, and has written novels for the Forgotten Realms as well as short stories for such anthologies as Tales of the Far West and Shotguns v. Cthulhu. Dave is the former editor of magazines ranging from Dragon to Star Wars Insider to Amazing Stories, and is currently a writer for Baldur's Gate: Enhanced Edition.
Illustration by Carlos Villa