It was good to be home, but the tranquility of my greenhouse had not yet ameliorated my headache before the butler interrupted my reverie with a letter. He lingered after I took it from the silver tray, requiring me to dismiss him by raising an eyebrow. The staff had taken to hovering since the Henderthane affair. The devotion the halflings had cultivated over four generations of service to my house was degenerating into sentimentality. I hoped it would not become necessary to dismiss the worst offenders as an example.
The postmark from Absalom piqued my interest. It had been months since my superiors in the Society had contacted me. There had once been a time when I received frequent notes of praise and requests to direct my agents to pursue new leads and uncover previously undiscovered sites. Such a message might be exactly the tonic I required to sooth the ennui that followed my recent misfortunes.
My hope vanished as I read the first lines of the message, and when I glanced down to see not a signature but merely the seal of the Decemvirate, indignation filled my heart with steam. Some anonymous member of the inner circle presumed to chastise me, Venture-Captain Varian Jeggare, one of the longest-serving members of the Pathfinder Society.
After the initial shock of the effrontery, I drained my glass of a promising vintage from one of my southern holdings. Although the unwelcome news diminished my pleasure in the wine, it was an altogether drinkable claret of deep red hue and a deep, earthy nose. Fortunately, the bottle contained just enough to refill my glass as I examined the message closely.
While I found the letter's tone irritating, I could not dispute the facts it presented. It had been more than two months since I last received reports from the Pathfinders it named, and the agent who last reported from Ustalav had not contacted me since early spring. In her case, fortunately, I had arranged a contingency should she find herself in a location too remote for mundane channels of communication.
I rose from my lounging chair, stumbling before catching myself on the edge of a planter. I made a mental note to admonish the gardener for leaving the stone path slippery, although the rest of the walkway seemed dry enough as I navigated the long rows in search of the whispering lilies. I found them in a sunny spot beside a flourishing patch of memory ferns whose properties I had yet to exploit to their full potential.
There were eight rows of whispering lilies, each containing four distinct plants. I had entrusted the twins of each set of four bulbs to my most daring agents. In the event that they should find themselves stranded, they had only to plant the bulbs. Once beneath moist soil, the bulbs bloomed within a day or two, and their roots transmitted a signal that could be received only by the bulb's other half. I theorized that the transmission occurred via the elemental planes, accessed via microscopic gates, but I had yet to perform the necessary experiments to compose a treatise on the subject. No matter the exact nature of the mechanism, the lilies provided almost instantaneous communication between twinned flowers. One had only to speak into the open blossom of one, and the message emerged simultaneously from the other.
Of the thirty-two whispering lilies in the flowerbed, none had changed hue from the white-peach color that indicated the plant's twin remained dormant. However, all four of those I had given to my agent in Ustalav had withered, their dull petals lying at the base of limp stems.
Whatever had become of my Pathfinder, the bulbs she carried had not survived.
∗ ∗ ∗
I tensed the way you do when hearing an unexpected noise in an Eel Street alley. I knew the voice and stopped myself from going for the big knife hidden in the spine of my fancy new jacket. The grip hung down like a stubby tail, which had gotten me some ribbing in the Trick Street brothels.
"Desna weeps, Mac," I said without turning. My heart was pumping so hard he could probably hear it. I kept my eyes on the street, where I expected to spot Paracount Unizo Fermat sometime that morning. His wife wanted to prove he'd been gambling away the family income, and the boss had passed the boring job down to me. With any luck, I'd be done before lunch.
"Sorry, Spikes," he said, using a childhood nickname that had never really stuck. The only time anyone ever used it was to remind me how long we'd known each other. Mac needed a favor.
Among the Goatherds, Maccabus was one of the old men, by which I mean he had lived past forty years on the dirty streets of West Egorian. He was the top enforcer for Zandros the Fair, and over the years he'd earned a reputation for acquiring with a cool word what usually took a few pints of blood and a busted kneecap. He was one of the few surviving members of the gang who I'd drag out of a fire. Now and then we'd stand each other a pint and talk about anything but business.
Problem was, we'd been quits for a long time. Before I'd agreed to work for my present boss, the count, I'd earned my freedom from Zandros—not that he always remembered that fact. The scabby old bastard still tried to call in favors I never owed from time to time, jealous that I had a new master. Employer, I should say. That was one of the terms of our arrangement. I'm nobody's slave these days.
On the other hand, Mac had stood up for me the last time Zandros tried pulling my tail—metaphorically, that is. Despite what those doxies say, a tail is not among my devilish features.
"What do you need?" I asked.
"Little muscle for ten minutes."
"And what's for me?"
"Word on a hit," he said. "Your boss."
That got my attention. Both the boss and I knew there'd be repercussions from our last case. We'd gotten the job done all right, but in the process we'd busted open a bigger secret. It was the kind of thing that hurt a lot of the noble houses, the sort of people who usually hire the boss. They're also the sort of people who usually hire assassins.
"Where'd you hear it?"
Mac said nothing. When I turned to look at him, he just stared at the street.
"Vincenzo, right?" Lately the weasel-mouthed informer had been leaking word of high-end assassinations so often it was a wonder he hadn't taken his last swim in Lake Sorrow.
"I could just go ask him." Vincenzo had developed an expensive habit, and if he'd sold news of this magnitude, he'd have gone straight to a shiver den. The problem was Vincenzo was notoriously paranoid, so he probably wouldn't take the stuff there.
"It's going down tonight," said Mac.
That's what made Mac so good at his job. He had a way of offering choices that weren't choices at all. I gave up my vigil for the paracount and followed him.
A few blocks away, he nodded at a row house I recognized as the front for a lending operation. We went around to the rear alley. It was empty except for a pair of scabby cats picking through a spilled garbage pail, and the back door of the lending house was boarded shut. Mac looked up at the second floor windows, which were shut against the stink of the alley.
I took his cue and climbed up. The shutters were closed with a simple latch, so I didn't bother removing any of the tools hidden in my sleeve pockets and instead slipped it open with the thin blade of one of my throwing knives.
Peering in, I saw an unoccupied room with four straw mattresses on the floor. Through the open door I heard the sound of knucklebones clattering downstairs. Three, maybe four voices crowed and complained without enthusiasm. I shot Mac the all clear and eased over the sill. A few seconds later, he was beside me. Together we padded out onto the landing and looked down.
Three men with their sleeves rolled up crowded a little table dotted with piles of copper and silver coins. All of them had long knives at their hips, and beside one lay one of those hand crossbows that are barely worth a damn unless you've poisoned the dart. Mac pointed out the fellow he wanted, leaving the other two to me. I raised my eyebrow, and he made the thief's signs for "big entrance" before easing onto the stairway. It was only about an eight-foot drop. I vaulted the rail and dropped down just as one of the men threw the dice.
Coins flew in all directions as my feet hit the table. I'd hoped it would splinter, breaking my fall, but it held up, and I went down on one hand to keep from tumbling off. The first man to reach for a knife got my new boot in the face and tumbled backward over his chair. The second—Mac's target—had the good sense to throw himself to the floor and roll away, but the third reached for the crossbow.
I showed him the big grin. It's a sight that has made grown men piss themselves, and it doesn't come without cost. I'd have a sore jaw for a few hours after exposing a smile that resembles a box of long nails.
To his credit, the man before me barely whimpered. The bow wasn't cocked, but it had a barbed dart already in place. His hand moved an inch toward the lever and hesitated. A second later he lay the weapon down and showed me his hands as he backed against the wall.
I nodded my approval and heard the gasp that told me Mac had his man. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw the one I'd kicked standing up, his hand on the grip of his knife.
I whirled off the table, throwing my back against the wall. He turned, surprised to find me beside him. That's where I'm most dangerous. I threw him an elbow, pinning his knife shoulder with my spur. My spurs aren't long enough to staple a man to the wall—they won't even reach the heart—but they hurt.
When his knife hit the ground, I kept the man pinned and whispered a sweet nothing in his ear. He nodded and showed me his hands. I glanced at his companion to make sure he was still where I wanted him. He was.
Across the table, Mac had put his man back on a stool and gripped his shoulder, bending over to whisper in his ear like a concerned uncle. Whatever he was saying made the man's face pale as sailcloth. He said nothing, but from time to time he nodded an affirmation.
The five of us stayed that way for a few minutes. The man I'd pinned grimaced in pain, and I removed my spur. He released a grateful sigh and kept his eyes on the empty table. The other fellow looked me up and down, admiring my new clothes: jacket, trousers, and kickers, all red Chelish leather tooled in swoops and thorns that highlighted my devilish good looks. They'd cost me the better part of what the boss called my "retention bonus," a fat purse he'd given me when I didn't leave town after our last caper went sour.
Mac gave me the look that tells me he's done. We left through the front door and walked away like honest citizens. When we were out of sight of the house, he gave me what he'd promised.
"The guy you want to talk to?" he said. "Vincenzo."
Coming Next Week: Knives in the dark and one seriously angry bunyip in Chapter Two of "The Lost Pathfinder."
Dave Gross has been a technical writer, a teacher, a magazine and book editor, and a novelist. He is the author of the forthcoming Pathfinder Tales novel Prince of Wolves and the Hell's Pawns series in the Pathfinder's Journal for Council of Thieves, both of which star Varian Jeggare and Radovan, the heroes of this story. His previous novels include Black Wolf and Lord of Stormweather.
Art by Eric Belisle