In Stalking the Beast, Howard Andrew Jones returns to the story of Elyana and Drelm from Plague of Shadows as they defend a frontier town in the River Kingdoms from a marauding monster. In order to track a deadly beast that can turn invisible at will and strikes with cunning intelligence, they'll need to pull together the best team of adventurers their backwater corner of the River Kingdoms has ever seen. Yet can everyone they recruit be trusted?
Chapter Three: Too Good to Miss
Most of Delgar's buildings were fashioned from rough-hewn timber, lacking exterior plaster or even a second story. Unless you enjoyed the smell of fish scales and muddy water, there was little to recommend the place, although Lisette appreciated the community's nod toward organization. A lot of river communities couldn't be bothered to fashion straight roads—or straight houses, for that matter. Delgar at least had been built on a grid plan, and as she and Karag climbed out of the barge that afternoon, she was able to take quick stock of the little town.
For the last week of her journey she'd heard rumors about a hunting expedition jointly sponsored by several of the famously uncooperative River Kingdoms. Delgar was to be its launching point, which was probably what had drawn her bounty so far north. Apparently, experienced hunters were to be paid good coin, and the old rogue probably hoped he could pass off as one.
She and Karag blended in fairly well with the crowds thronging the little village, for no one could guess by looking at their gear that they earned their coin hunting men, not beasts.
She scanned the faces they passed, taking the place in, ignoring the return appraisals from knots of varied martial types who wound their way through the muddy streets.
Dark of eye and dark of hair, which she'd cut to the nape of her neck, Lisette had the pale complexion of a Chelaxian. Her pants were dark, loose, comfortable, and tucked into well-worn, calf-high boots sewn from lizard hide. A pair of pistol butts stood out from the sash tied at her waist, weapons of fine iron and dark, highly polished wood. Her single mark of flamboyance was the slim red feather thrust into the side of her brimmed cloth hat.
As Karag finished unloading their gear, he handed a matching flintlock rifle up to her. She shouldered the weapon without remark, the brown strap sliding across the long black sleeve of her shirt and the rim of her black vest.
The burly dwarf hefted a second rifle on his own shoulder, the long muzzle poking three feet above his blond locks. He then lifted a huge leather bag as thick around as himself and propped it on the other shoulder.
"Let's get this over with," she said, and they started forward.
The two made an odd pair. Karag was Lisette's physical opposite in nearly every way, for he was blond and pale and sturdy. Where she strode with pantherish grace, he swaggered. If passersby even recognized the rifle he carried for what it was, they would probably have assumed it was his, but it belonged to Lisette just as much as the powder bag slung across Karag's back, the rifle over her own shoulder, or the brace of flintlock pistols thrust through her belt.
"You ever hear what they're really supposed to be hunting?" Lisette asked him. She ignored the appreciative whistle of a leather-clad barbarian leaning against the side of a building.
"It's some monster the elves drove out of Kyonin," Karag answered in his low rumble. "If the long-ears can't be bothered, they'll just chase a beast out and let everyone else..."
Karag's voice trailed off, and Lisette's gaze swung to follow his own.
A thickset man with a full beard had just stepped from the sprawling, two-story building ahead of them and stood now under a hanging placard carved with a leaping fish. The hood of his light traveling cloak was cast back to reveal a balding pate peppered with red hair. Beside him were two younger men of similar build, their receding hair heavy with grease.
Lisette cursed in disbelief. It was never, ever this easy. She'd tracked the man for the better part of two months, always staying just behind him. And now he was there before her within a few moments of reaching Delgar.
"Velmik," Karag whispered.
Even as her hand swept toward her right pistol, Velmik spotted her. With a deep-throated shout he dove back through the doorway. His sons hurried after.
Lisette wasted no breath cursing. "Back entrance," she ordered Karag, then leapt to the wooden porch to push into the throng of men Velmik and his sons had stumbled through.
The fugitives left a wake through the middle of the tavern's crowded common room, a wide space crammed with long wooden tables and broad-shouldered men and women, many of whom were now cursing, their heads turned toward Velmik. The murderer ploughed toward a closed door beside the stairs to the private rooms. One of his boys was ahead of him; the other was looking back at Lisette. His hand went to his belt, and fastened not around the sword hilt, but an axe haft. Lisette knew then that she faced Gern, who had a reputation with his throwing axe. That meant the one starting up the stairs ahead of Velmik had to be the eldest, Hadek, against whom there was a minor bounty. Not half the size of the one on Velmik, and it wouldn't have brought her out to the wilds, but with him so close by she wouldn't dream of passing up the opportunity.
Gern charged up the creaking steps after the others. "Hurry, Dad!"
A man and woman at the top of the stairs froze at sight of Hadek and backed off.
Lisette elbowed a gawking servant girl out of the way and pulled her pistol free, cocking the hammer with her off hand. As she brought the muzzle in line with Velmik's broad, retreating back, Gern sent the axe flying at her head.
She sidestepped, firing as she felt the passage of the haft brush her hat brim. She missed by only a little, hitting Hadek instead. The man dropped with a girlish scream and his father whirled. Behind Lisette, the axe smashed into a row of glasses at the bar, and there was an uproar from the bartender and any number of patrons. She thrust the smoking pistol through her belt and drew its twin even as Gern pulled a second axe.
Velmik crouched by his firstborn, who whimpered on the stairs. The older man bared teeth as he faced her, drawing steel.
She notched back the hammer of her second pistol and snapped off a shot. She grinned through the swirl of black gun smoke—she'd known even as the weapon kicked in her hand that it had been true. Gern staggered and jerked as a leaking red hole materialized in the center of his forehead. He sprawled.
The thunderous pistol shot set women screaming and men shouting in terror. Many dove for cover or rushed the door. Lisette calmly shoved the smoking pistol back through her sash and drew her short sword.
Velmik charged down the stairs, eyes mad and rolling, lips peeled back to show stained and crooked teeth. He brandished his long notched sword like a cleaver.
"You killed my boys, you bitch!"
Lisette snatched a tankard from the abandoned bar and hurled it at Velmik's head. Her aim was not as accurate with her off hand, but the bald man swerved. The tankard banked off the stair rail, spraying sour-smelling ale. The instant's distraction was all Lisette desired. She lunged forward, slicing rather than thrusting, and cut Velmik across his neck and upper chest. The old fool was wearing leather armor but no neck guard.
It was not a deep strike, but it was enough to spoil Velmik's own and set him clawing instinctively for his throat. He looked down, wide-eyed, as she drove the sword through his hand and out the back of his neck.
Blood spurted forth, and Velmik gurgled a bit as he wobbled, then sank, finally flopping onto the floorboards like a fish. His sword struck the stained planks a second later with a dull clang.
There came a brief silence, over which she heard the labored breathing of Hadek, collapsed with glassy eyes upon the stairs.
She wiped her blade on the back of Velmik's shirt.
Karag burst in through the back doorway, panting, and suddenly found every pair of eyes in the whole tavern staring at him and the musket he carried in two hands.
The silence lasted only a moment longer, and then the buck-toothed bartender demanded to know who she was, how she dared, and, most loudly, who would pay for the damages.
"I am a bounty hunter," Lisette told him calmly, "and two of these men are wanted in Andoran, Druma, and Isger. Karag will pay the damages." At this the dwarf stepped to her side, a little red-faced.
"They never came out," he explained swiftly, softly, "and I heard gunshots."
She had surmised that. "There was no real trouble," she told him so his dwarven pride would remain uninjured. "Bag these two up, and pay this gentleman for his trouble. Your pardon, sir," she said to the proprietor with her prettiest smile. "I'm afraid I must leave your fine company."
The bartender and the others gawped. She didn't mind the attention at all; it might make her stay in the place a little simpler.
The crowd broke into low murmurs, talking among themselves and staring darkly. A few were even moving back toward their tables, though they were cautious about it. The bartender was actually scowling.
"This is Delgar," he said with a drawl. "You can't just wander into the town and kill people in my bar! We have laws!"
Karag stepped up to the counter, his head just clearing its edge. "Lisette has full authority—"
"This is my inn!" The barkeep's face reddened. Lisette heard angry murmurs from the crowd behind her. Curious. She hadn't anticipated this at all. Quietly, methodically, she took up one of her pistols and cleaned the inside of the muzzle with a rag she pulled from a vest pocket.
From behind came a loud clump of steps, and a lull in the mutters as a deep, male voice demanded silence.
Lisette paused in the loading of her pistol and turned.
A peculiar figure strode through the doorway. At first glance he was just another broad, powerful man-at-arms. And then she saw so many incongruities that she was not sure which to consider first.
It was not so remarkable that she faced a thickly built member of the city guard bearing a sheathed sword. What was remarkable was that he was a half- or at least quarter-blood orc. Even out here in the uncivilized wilds, most folk didn't trust their kind, and there was no missing the greenish hue or the foreword thrust of the thick jaw and upward-pointing teeth. Yet here was no coarse brute, either, for his garb was immaculate, from polished helm to the glimpse of leather armor she perceived beneath the spotless blue tabard with its black, crenelated tower. Her eyes shifted briefly to the tall figure striding in behind him, likewise immaculate, likewise wearing leather armor and a white-and-blue tabard with a stone tower, but his long mustaches and slanted eyes were merely peculiar as opposed to extraordinary.
"What has happened here?" the half-orc growled.
"Captain," the barkeep began, and once again Lisette started. Captain? The barkeep pointed at her. "This woman just killed those three men on the stairs with some kind of magic."
The bright, rather small eyes in the half-orc's face shifted immediately to her, then to the gun.
"You need to set that down," the captain growled.
Karag stomped over from the bar to stand at Lisette's side. He glowered up at the orc, who seemed careless of the dark look, for he gave the dwarf little attention before focusing again upon the gun.
"Who are you?" Karag growled.
The tall, mustached guardsman had stepped to the half-orc's side, and it was he who answered in a mellow voice with the faint trace of a Brevic accent. "You are addressing Drelm, captain of the Delgar guard. And he has given your...associate a command. Put aside the strange wand. Immediately."
Lisette's smile did nothing to change Drelm's expression; it remained grim even as she passed the still unloaded pistol on to Karag. "I am a bounty hunter," she said, "fully licensed in five separate countries, and at least as many municipalities, including Tymon. Two of those men were known bandits and murderers; the other was a relative. I was not after him, but he attacked."
"Proof?" Drelm asked.
Lisette was used to thinking on her feet, but it took a moment longer to decipher the captain's short command.
"I have posters for them here," she said, "in my vest pocket."
"Pull them slowly," Drelm told her.
The captain's eyes never left her hand as she produced two quarter-folded pieces of parchment. They crinkled as she passed them across to one large, greenish hand. The knuckle on his first finger was scarred with a long, slightly paler line.
She watched as his eyes tracked across the likenesses of Velmik and Gern—not perfect, but fair enough—and then the words beneath. And she kept the smile upon her lips, knowing that he would demand some sort of fine, or impose some other penalty to enrich himself. She knew better than to object. Here was a "man" clearly used to getting his own way by physical intimidation. The curious thing was how the barkeep and two barmaids were both focused upon the "captain" expectantly. She would have thought they would view any interaction with him with fawning politeness, as you had to do in larger cities when the gangs shook you for protection money.
Drelm finished what must have been a somewhat labored examination of the words, for he was long about it, and handed the papers off to the Brevan. "Compare them."
"Yes, Captain." The Brevan stepped around Karag, walking with a horseman's swagger. His boot heels, she noticed, were silver.
"They did a lot of damage." The barkeep pointed to a row of smashed glasses sitting on a dark shelf behind him. Lisette glanced over the bar top and saw a trio of broken bottles lying on the dark floorboards amid a spreading pool of sweet-smelling wine.
"We will gladly pay for the damages," Lisette told them. "Although all of this was because Velmik's son threw an axe."
That didn't hold any sway with the barkeep. "He wouldn't have thrown an axe if you hadn't followed him into my inn!"
The Brevan had climbed the first two stairs and was glancing back and forth between the two pieces of paper and the bodies. "Captain," he called, "two of these look just about right. And the third must be a son of the older one."
Drelm's small eyes flicked to the barkeep's. "What will repairs cost?"
Lisette could see conflicting emotions warring on the barkeep's face. He looked down at the damage, then back to the orc.
"Five gold sails."
"Three at best," the Brevan said as he wandered over. "I can smell that wine from here. Not exactly high elven vintage."
The Brevan was right, but Lisette knew better than to offer any opinion.
"Three," Drelm said to Lisette. "Pay him. Demid, collect the coins."
Lisette couldn't believe she was getting off that lucky. Drelm glanced once more at the dwarf, who still watched with suspicion, and faced the rest of the tavern's occupants.
"Many of you are new faces," Drelm said as he drew himself up. "This is not how we do things here." He tapped his chest. "Those who kill, face me. Those who steal, face me. Those who hurt an innocent, face me. I give this one"—he pointed to Lisette—"this one chance. She is new. She is a bounty hunter. She has taken her chance, and yours. Next time, you face me. Am I understood?"
He snapped this last. A few of the folk—locals, probably—were direct with their reply: "Yes, Captain!"
The others looked away and mumbled.
Drelm's lips pulled back in a snarl, and he roared. "Do you understand me? You will answer, ‘Yes, Captain!'"
"Yes, Captain!" the customers called back.
This time the tavern timbers seemed to shake a little with the noise. "Yes, Captain!"
Drelm grunted, then glanced back at Lisette. "No more bounties before speaking with me."
"Of course." Lisette tried a smile, and produced a gleaming cold coin. She lobbed it twirling into the air between the half-orc and herself. "For your trouble."
Drelm caught it without looking in one massive fist, then addressed the Brevan while staring at her. "Lieutenant Demid, she is new. Speak to her."
"Only the mayor pays the city guard, little sparrow," the Brevan said from behind her.
Drelm then pitched the coin, without once considering it, toward the barkeep. "I levy fines for bribery," he said. "There, keep it. Now you profit from the mess."
Stranger and stranger. Lisette couldn't quite figure the captain's angle. Only some wet-behind-the-ears Eagle Knight would be so honest. Certainly no half-orc in a village no one had heard of.
"Do you have more targets in Delgar?" he asked her.
"Probably not," Lisette answered. There was always the possibility she'd bump into someone else.
"‘Probably not.'" Drelm grunted, a low, almost thoughtful sound. "If it becomes ‘probably yes,' see me before you spill more blood, or you and I will have a problem."
At last he acknowledged the dwarf, who muttered under his breath. Something dwarven, from the sound, and an insult, from his dark look.
"I don't speak dwarf," the half-orc said, then his eyes tracked back to Lisette's. "Tell him threats to me when I'm in uniform are threats to the guard."
Lisette's hand tightened on Karag's shoulder. He tensed under her fingers. She did not leave off smiling. "I'll make sure he knows."
The Brevan strode past then, coin purses in hand. "They had thirty-two silvers, Captain, and a handful of coppers."
"For the treasury," Drelm said.
Her first thought was that the half-orc was an idiot and meant to have the lieutenant turn the money over to the city coffers. Then she realized they were saying that solely for the benefit of listeners and would surely cut themselves in for a nice percentage of the money, for Demid had certainly announced fewer funds than he'd actually found on the bodies.
Drelm surveyed the room a final time, then turned heel and strode away.
"Karag," Lisette forced almost sickly sweet kindness into her voice. "Make the rest of the arrangements. And keep the captain's warning in mind. I do think," she added, "we'll be better welcome at some other inn for the night."
"I suppose you're right," Karag said, and turned to consider the bodies, and the barkeep, who still watched them. Everyone, actually, was still staring at them, although some had returned to their meals.
"My pistol?" Lisette asked. It was evidence of how peculiar the encounter had been that Karag had not instantly returned it to her. He did so now with an apologetic look, then strode toward the bar. In this place she didn't imagine he'd be able to drag the bodies to an alley and cut off their heads. One way or another, though, the dwarf would have to decapitate the corpses and drop the heads in salt. It didn't matter to her how he did it, so long as they stayed on the right side of the law—and, more importantly, so long as the evidence of the kill was preserved long enough to collect the bounty.
She walked out past Demid and stepped to the edge of the raised platform, leaning against the warm building shingles while she checked over the pistol bore and fished around for her pellet and powder. She was not at all surprised to find the Brevan guard following her out, black eyes afire with interest.
"You have strange talons," he said, "but are a deadly bird. The dwarf didn't slay any of them, did he?"
She pulled out a powder packet and bit off the end with her teeth, then spat it to the side.
Demid's lips turned up in a slight smile.
"Is there something funny, Lieutenant?"
"Demid," he said. "I assure you that I take you quite seriously."
She wasn't sure what to make of that, but decided not to press further. "So what are a Brevan and a half-orc doing on the guard force in a nowhere village in the River Kingdoms? It almost sounds like a joke."
He repeated the word doubtfully. "A joke?"
"Sure." She pulled free a bullet from another pocket and held it up to the sun. "A Brevan and a half-orc walk into a bar. But I don't know the punch line."
"The punch line. Oh, yes. No, it's no joke, Lady..." He waited expectantly.
"Lisette. How lovely. I might begin such a joke myself. An angry dwarf and a beautiful marksman—markswoman—enter a bar. But I also don't know the..." He paused to make a rolling motion with his hand, then finished: "punch line."
"There isn't one." Lisette put home the bullet, and, satisfied, tamped it down. "What is it you want, Lieutenant?"
"I am curious about you. Part of my duties as a guardsman of Delgar, you understand."
Was he flirting, or was he actually searching for information? The more time she spent in this place, the more unsure she became. She could read men, though, and even though Demid clearly found her attractive, there was a coolness in his gaze. "Of course."
"For instance, I've never seen wands with handle grips before."
"You mean these?" As she tapped the muzzle of her pistol, he nodded. "These aren't wands, they're guns. No magic's involved."
"Ah," he said. "I've never seen one before."
"But you've heard of them?"
"Alchemical, aren't they?"
Clearly he wished to hold one, but she wasn't feeling charitable. "Something like that."
"I see. And where is it that you're going?"
"I wish only to find lodging for the night. Somewhere where I might obtain a warm bath."
"Ah." Demid clicked his tongue. "That's more challenging than usual, owing to the hunt. Are you planning to participate?"
"I'm only here for Velmik. I just want a warm bath, a night in a real bed, and then I'll be on the next boat out."
Demid listened with interest, then provided directions to a home near the walled city center. "Madame Celene has expensive rooms, and is careful to whom she rents them. Most of these would not be welcome there. Your friend," he continued, "would have to be..."
"Polite," Demid said with a nod.
"He can manage that. I thank you, Demid."
"Of course." He executed a smart half bow, turned on his heel, and retreated to the inn.
Interesting. He had not been looking for a bribe, or romance, but inspecting her, almost as though he were a guardsman in Almas. A real professional. Well, the River Kingdoms attracted fugitives. Likely the Brevan had some sort of complicated backstory, and probably one less interesting than she supposed. Curious as she was, she decided she was thankful neither Demid nor Drelm were the types who liked to brag about their past.
Lisette slipped her gun back through her belt, readied her second, then tucked her supplies away. She checked her appearance in a small glass mirror, finding a few blood flecks, which she wiped from her cheeks.
Demid's directions and information proved accurate. Madame Celene, a beanpole-thin woman with a personality dry as day-old bread, could have done with some of the Brevan's politeness. Elyana rented a room for a silver wolf—a criminal rate out here in the middle of nowhere—but it came with a warm bath, and privacy, and Celene told her the latter was not likely anywhere else in the village this week.
The outrageous fee soured Lisette's mood even after a long hot soak in a sparkling clean iron tub off Madame Celene's kitchen. She was upstairs in the tiny bedroom allotted her, methodically checking over her gear, when a loud rap rang against her door.
Lisette reached immediately for one pistol, which she put close to hand. She was partially dressed, in shirt and pants, although she was uncorseted and barefoot, and her wet hair hung wild about her shoulders.
"Who is it?"
She expected an answer from Karag. Still, you could never be too cautious in her line of work. She glanced over her shoulder at the narrow, shuttered window overlooking the street. The afternoon sun cast lines of light through which dust motes drifted, highlighting the polish on the old floor planks. Madame Celene kept a tidy inn.
"I have a message for you, miss."
The voice was that of a young man's. Lisette lifted the pistol and pulled back the hammer with a faint click. "From whom?"
"Someone from the court, miss."
That struck her as more than a little curious. "You don't know?"
Apparently the message boy thought so too. "I'm sorry, I don't," he admitted. "I was just supposed to find the lady who'd..." There was a brief pause. "Killed those men at the tavern. You're her, aren't you?"
Lisette was still wondering how to answer that when the boy spoke on.
"I'll just slide this message under the door. No need to pay me. My fee's already handled."
The floorboards creaked outside then, probably from the boy shifting weight, and a small envelope slid slowly under the door.
Lisette stared at it from a distance.
"I'll be going now," the young man's voice said, nervously, and then his footsteps receded hurriedly.
Lisette slowly lowered the hammer, put the gun aside, and stepped to the envelope, though long years in the field made her cautious even with this simple act. The letter might be poisoned or trapped, or the letter might be a distraction while something else was underway.
In the end, though, it proved just a letter, sealed with wax that lacked the mark of any kind of seal. The message within promised twenty gold sails for a brief discussion with the lord mayor, so long as she understood she that was to be completely discrete about the summons, both before and after the meeting.
An unexpected development, and a profitable one. Probably the man was looking to drop a criminal the local guard force hadn't been able to kill. Someone too clever for, say, a half-orc. The discretion was peculiar, but compared to some of the requests she'd heard over the years, it didn't amount to much. Likely Lord Avelis didn't want anyone knowing his guard force couldn't handle the matter.
Lisette readied herself in short order, pleased that she'd kept one blouse clean just for these sorts of emergencies.
One street over, the wooden buildings gave way to a handful of stone homes immediately outside the walled enclosure that surrounded the seat of government. The ten-foot wall wouldn't hold off an army for long, but it would keep back the kind of bandit forces that usually assaulted River Kingdoms settlements.
She passed through the open gates and tried not to stare too long at the two spear-bearing guardsmen. It was odd enough that they should look so competent, odder still that their helms matched, and that their hair and faces were well-groomed, but beyond that, they were actually wearing clean tabards. One simply didn't encounter that level of organization in River Kingdoms villages, which tended to rise and fall every generation. So far as she knew, Delgar was only a few years old. It had no business being so well run.
She understood now that the symbol she'd seen on all the guards' tabards—a small tower with an arrow slit and four merlons—was a fair likeness of the tower of the keep ahead of her.
Beyond the gate was about what she'd expected—an expanse of rich black dirt and scrubby grass with various outbuildings and storage sheds. A stable stood along the wall directly west of the gate. All of this, too, seemed finely ordered. There were no sagging roofs or rotting joists, no mismatched roof thatching.
How did the lord of this little burg manage such order in the midst of such chaos? He might not be the simple hayseed with delusions of grandeur she'd anticipated. Lisette supposed it didn't really matter, so long as the money was good.
As she crossed the compound, the keep's metal-banded door opened wide, and out walked three tall, splendid figures. One was dressed in black traveling clothes, like herself, and the others in green and brown forest gear.
Elves. She'd seen her share of them in various cities, but these were no ordinary citizens. They walked with a warrior's confidence, shoulders wide. Their eyes had a veteran's look, measuring all that they took in.
Each gauged her as they walked for the stables, and as one adjusted the strap of his quiver, she realized with a start that his left hand was nothing more than a hook. He was the shortest of the lot, though still half a head taller than herself, and one of the most beautiful creatures she had ever seen, even for an elf. His coppery brown hair was long, straight, and thick, and his dark eyes were dotted with luminous amber flecks. Many elven males struck her as youthful or effeminate, but not this one, whose fine-featured face seemed grimly competent, and was marred by a small scar along his nose. She was shocked to find that her breath actually caught in her throat a bit as his eyes met hers. Worse, he seemed to see or hear it, for his gaze fastened on her a moment longer. Then he glanced at the hook upon his arm. His expression hardened, and he strode after his companions.
Lisette wasn't used to feeling regret, but she had a mad impulse to follow and tell him that it wasn't the hook she'd gasped at. But what should she care about what an elf thought of her feelings?
She found someone else watching: a lean, bearded man in the tower doorway. She returned his scrutiny as she walked closer.
The stranger stood perhaps six feet tall, with a full head of brown hair. That and his beard were lined with distinguished bands of silver. His face was weathered but handsome, and she guessed him to be somewhere in his late thirties or early forties. His breeks were brown, his cuffed and collared shirt white and tight over thick shoulders. He had a swordsman's build, she thought, though she saw no blade upon him.
Lisette halted before him.
"Welcome," the man said in a subdued baritone. "I think you may have come to see me."
"Avelis will do," he replied. "And you are?"
"Lisette Demonde. Of Cheliax."
He didn't quite manage to hold in his surprise. One eyebrow twitched. Somehow, she was not quite what he'd expected. But he didn't let it stop him. "It was good of you to come so quickly. Please, follow me." He turned on one boot heel and addressed someone out of sight within the building, telling them to bring refreshments.
Lisette followed the mayor through a common room, then a deep doorway—almost a short tunnel—and into a long, narrow office. Apart from a small, high window, the room lacked natural light, which explained the lanterns hung from dark joists over the desk.
There was just barely room for Avelis to slide around the desk, and this he did before turning to face her and gesturing to the chairs.
As they took their seats, she noted the well-crafted wooden cabinet under the window behind him. The elm desk was simply but finely made, and the papers on its surface neatly stacked.
"Your arrival was fortuitous," Avelis told her. "I've made inquiries about...those in your line of profession, but none of them have come."
Lisette smiled thinly. "The River Kingdoms is a long way to come for twenty gold sails. I assume you don't want someone local."
"You assume correctly."
A chubby servant girl knocked upon the door behind them and hurried forward with a platter holding a wine bottle and two glasses.
"Just set it on the desk, Syra. Thank you. Please close the door behind you."
"Yes, Mayor," she said, curtsying to him before she departed. The door shut with a heavy thud.
"Please, have a drink." The mayor's hand indicated the platter.
"You're very kind. After we discuss our business, perhaps."
Avelis nodded once, sharply. "I'll cut to the point." He reached under the desk, and Lisette tensed as she heard a drawer being opened. A moment later, Avelis set a cloth bag upon the wood, where it jangled with a heavy thud. He pushed it toward her. "Twenty gold sails. That's for hearing me out and keeping your mouth shut. Even if you don't like what I offer you."
She loosened the leather tie cord and peered within, then lifted one of the coins to the sunlight. It was Andoren currency, with a shine so clear it must be virtually unhandled. She tested one between her back teeth, found it appropriately soft and pure, and dropped it back in with its fellows before cinching the bag and dropping it into the pack she'd slung over the chair back.
"Don't you want to count it?" Avelis sounded amused.
"I did," she said, which wasn't entirely true, but she could tell there were at least fifteen sails in there, which was good enough for her. "Alright, Avelis, I can see you're serious about this. What do you want me for?"
Avelis steepled his fingers. "I need you to kill an orc."
She laughed. "Any decent mercenary can do that job, Mayor. And your town is crawling with them. Your guard force looks surprisingly capable."
"Oh, it is. But it's the captain of my guard I want you to kill."
The expression upon his face was so strange, what with his twitching smile and the burning gleam in his eyes, that she thought at first that he joked.
She realized he was serious as he spoke on. "I suppose I should explain that he's partly human."
She cleared her throat. He probably wasn't going to handle this well. Avelis seemed like a man who was used to having his way. "I'm a bounty hunter, Mayor, not an assassin."
Avelis shrugged. "Is there a difference? I'm putting a private bounty on him."
She wanted to ask how large that bounty was, but she was already treading on thin ice. "Has he broken the laws of your community?"
Lisette shook her head. "Then that's an assassination. That's not my line."
"Oh, you haven't yet heard my price."
Now the trick was leaving the meeting gracefully. She offered a few alternative suggestions. "If you want him killed, hire some guards to attack him. Hire some bravos. Poison him."
"My guards are fiercely loyal to him. They would sooner betray me. And he would kill any warriors sent against him. Poison...would be too suspicious. I want you. And I will pay you very well."
Again she saw that strange gleam in his eyes, and the peculiar shifting smile. She felt a dawning curiosity about the money. "How well?"
Avelis reached slowly into an inside pocket to produce a small red silk bag. He undid the drawstrings, cupped his left hand, and poured out a stream of small gems, each the size of her thumbnail. Lisette recognized bloodstone and carnelian, moonstone and onyx.
"Every one of them is worth at least fifty gold sails. A fortune that transports well."
It was far more than what Lisette would have guessed. She had many questions, but thought to keep him talking while she considered the matter. "Pardon my asking, but if you have all of these, what are you doing...here?"
Avelis's eyes narrowed. "That's not really your concern, is it? Do the job well and all this is yours." He extended the palm of his hands, strewn with gems, and Lisette reached out to select one. She held it up between thumb and forefinger, and directed it into a mote-filled sunbeam.
"That's more than four thousand sails for what's likely to be a week's work."
Lisette had been paid in gemstones often enough that she knew a real one when she saw it. She dropped that one back into his palm and chose another at random. It, too, was finely cut, glimmering with color.
She'd had good reasons for walking away from her earlier profession, and even finer reasons for permanently keeping her distance. Yet this was good money—absurdly good, given the circumstances—and if she played things right, no one would ever know. How would the Black Coil ever hear about the death of a half-orc in the River Kingdoms?
With this kind of money she might finally have the funds to set up permanent residence in Triela in one of those rambling old Chelish-style mansions. There were any number of them sinking slowly into disrepair. Between this and the funds she'd stashed in Almas, she might just be able to lay claim to one and afford the upkeep.
The real question might have been why the mayor wasn't doing the same thing. But then, as he said, that really wasn't her business. Maybe he was one of those driven to command. Or maybe he'd done something terrible under his real name and had fled to the frontier to start afresh.
She considered the mayor as she dropped the gem back into his palm. "Why do you want him dead?"
His smile widened, showing teeth, and he gathered in the gems. "He killed my son, and is marrying my daughter. He will rule after me...unless I kill him."
Had he missed the obvious? Some, blinded by desire for vengeance, were too quick to dismiss easier methods. "Wouldn't it be easy to forbid the marriage and bring him to trial?"
"It's not so simple." Avelis's lip curled in a savage sneer before he regained composure. "It was no blade that killed my Melloc, but negligence. My son was on patrol with the orc, who didn't have the brains to safeguard him. Most of the village doesn't even think it's the orc's fault." The mayor's eyes burned. "He's got all of them fooled."
"What do you mean?"
"They like him. They trust him."
Avelis nodded once. "Two years ago this community was on the brink of ruin. Bandits and river raiders were a constant threat. Despite my best efforts, the town was lawless and violent."
"And Drelm fixed all this for you?"
"The orc and his friend. An elven woman named Elyana. They were just passing through, but with their help things quickly turned around. I was grateful, understand. He's been my guard captain now for the last year and a half, and Elyana remains a sort of informal advisor. She's very, very good."
Lisette managed not to smirk at the open lust in the man's tone. So Avelis had a thing for pointed ears. Then again, given her reaction in the courtyard, who was she to talk?
"The town has embraced them," Avelis went on. "They've even embraced the idea of him...courting my daughter. But the thought of his blood mingling with mine..." The fingers on the mayor's left hand slowly curled inward, and he stared down at the clenched fist, almost in surprise. It began to shake. "I should have seen it," he said through gritted teeth. "He means to rule after me!"
Lisette thought she had a handle on the matter now, but she summarized for clarity. Before discussing contracts, she always made sure expectations were clear between her and her employer. "You want him dead, but not in an obvious way. And you don't want to anger the village, or his friend the elf?"
"How is it that a half-orc and an elf are friends?"
Avelis snorted. "They served together over in Taldor. I thought they were lovers for the longest time, or I'd have been more worried when Drelm was near my daughter. He's so...proper...I didn't even realize what was happening until it was too late."
"Well, I don't have any love for orcs. But my reputation is as a bounty hunter. I take on legal cases. I'd like an official contract."
Avelis favored her with a long look, then set his elbows on the desk and steepled his fingers. "I think the money's good enough that we don't need a contract. Don't you? Papers can fall into the wrong hands."
"Maybe you should think about hiring someone else then. As I said, I'm not an assassin." Not anymore. And by her covenant, she could not work as one. She shouldn't even be sitting here.
"Well, I'm the ruler here, and I'll pay a large bounty. I can even turn the paper over to you, if you wish, once you succeed."
"I always come through on a contract," Lisette said.
"I've no doubt. You managed to impress Lieutenant Demid, which is no mean feat. He said that you felled three men, and that you used strange weapons that launch metal balls, but aren't magic."
He was doing his best to change the subject. "That's true enough. I want the contract with me."
"That's really not possible."
She thought about walking out. Yet... "Then I want half, now."
"Half?" he spluttered.
"Unless you give me a contract that will hold up in court."
Avelis frowned, and his good looks soured. The eyes narrowed, lines curled about his mouth, and she saw what he would look like in ten or fifteen more years. A bitter, angry old man.
Avelis let out a pent-up breath. "Very well. But there is one more condition. Drelm must die, but it can't be done in a way that alerts anyone—especially not Elyana, whom I would rather remain to serve the town. Her counsel is quite valuable to me."
I'll bet it is, Lisette thought, but Avelis seemed oblivious to how much he was revealing about himself. "And it can't be done promptly," he continued. "You've probably noted the influx of warriors."
"It was hard to miss."
"A deadly beast's killing people up and down the river."
"We think so. It was my son's last wish that we band together to launch an expedition to hunt the thing down. I've joined forces with Kyonin, Tymon, Riverton, and Sevenarches, and we've scraped enough together to reward those who kill it. Drelm and Elyana are heading the expedition. It must succeed—it was the beast that killed my boy, and I will see it go down. Which means Drelm can't be killed until the thing is dead. He's too good a warrior. Do you understand?"
More complications. She should have known it would have more complications. "So you want me to go on the expedition with them through the wilderness and pretend to hunt for this thing with them. What sort of beast is it?"
"No one's really seen it." Avelis turned over an empty palm. "What we do know is that it likes to kill. It's smashed into homes and outposts and hunting camps up and down the river for the last six months. It comes and goes as it likes, vanishing right in front of witnesses."
Better and better. She kept the disgust from her voice. "I see."
"Some of the best trackers in the River Kingdoms will be along," Avelis said. "I can't imagine it taking more than a week. And at some point, while you're trying to shoot the beast with one of your alchemical wands, Drelm will just get in the way. And he will get in the way—he'll be in the forefront to kill the thing, I guarantee it. And you, with your ranged weapons, will be standing back. Easy."
Somehow she doubted it would be as easy as he supposed. And then Avelis opened the bag once more. "Hold out your hand, and we'll count out your advance. That is, if you're in."
She hesitated only a moment. "I'm in."
Coming Next Week: An all-new prequel story starring Lisette in "Bells for the Dead"!
Howard Andrew Jones is the author of the Pathfinder Tales novels
Art by Roberto Pitturru.