"I thought you'd be eager," Kordroun said coldly. "You were more than a good shieldmarshal, once. You were one of the best."
Bors Gelgur nodded, took another long, sweet quaff of ice wine, and went on gazing at the cracked, soot-caked wall. "Once."
"So you don't care what happens to Alkenstar?"
The retired shieldmarshal looked up with obvious reluctance. He was drunk, but not nearly as gone as Kordroun had often seen him in recent days.
"Does Alkenstar care what happens to me?"
"Yes, as it happens," Kordroun snapped, striding impatiently across the drunkard's squalid room—it only took two steps—and then back again. "We need you."
Kordroun nodded. "To sit here," he observed flatly, "waiting to die."
Gelgur shrugged and took another sip from his flagon. Seemingly surprised to discover that he'd emptied it by doing so, he peered into its depths, as if to see if it held some secret compartment.
Kordroun waited, while a fresh bank of the ever-present Gunworks smoke drifted through the open window and curled around them, but although the usual muted clanging could be heard from inside the foundries, inside the room silence stretched.
Gelgur wasn't going to rise to that goad. Time to try another.
"If the walking dead of all Geb flood through Alkenstar, there'll be no more of that wine you're so fond of."
"And likely no more Bors Gelgur to drink it," the old man growled back. "So? How will my putting on my badge again stop an army?"
Kordroun went to the window and tried to force it closed. The rusty metal frame squealed in protest.
"Leave it," Gelgur snapped.
Kordroun kept on shoving. With a long shriek of protest, the window closed. "We mustn't be overheard."
Gelgur rolled his eyes. "By half the spies of Golarion listening at my window, when we're four flights up? I think not."
High Shieldmarshal Ansel Kordroun prowled toward the old man like a hungry wolf, head lowered between his shoulders as he snarled, "Gelgur, it won't be your window much longer if you don't find some coin! You owe more than you can ever repay, no one will lend you more, and you're down to your last—" He waved at the shelf above the bed, and the forlorn little net that hung there. "—two onions and half a roundloaf. And as I can only see empty bottles under the bed, you're probably about out of your precious ice wine, too."
"Get out," Gelgur said dully, looking at the nearest wall.
"How would you like three years of a shieldmarshal's pay? All at once, in your hands?"
"Get ou—who is going to approve handing anyone that much?"
"The Ironmaster," Kordroun breathed in Gelgur's ear, shaking a heavy, clinking purse and setting it on the old drunkard's shoulder, so he could feel its weight. "If you undertake this for Alkenstar. Plus a good heavy purse—this one—to cover expenses, as you work."
He left the coins draped over Gelgur's shoulder as he went back to the door and leaned against the wall beside it, arms crossed.
The retired shieldmarshal went on staring at nothing as the clanging and hammering of the Gunworks went on outside the closed window, but Kordroun noticed those old and hairy-backed hands—still strong, by the look of them—starting to tremble.
"I'm... my legs, the old wounds... my shoulder, blast it... Roun, I'm too old to be running down alleys and climbing walls to fight young murderers—or the ghouls of Geb, for that matter!"
"You won't have to. You'll be working with a young, strong, fast gunhunter. Who needs your wits and your experience—and will obey you."
Gelgur gave Kordroun a long, expressionless look.
Kordoun knew that the old man had never liked gunhunters—most shieldmarshals didn't—but by his own admission, had more than once found them useful.
"Let's go see this gunhunter," Gelgur said flatly.
Kordroun held up a quelling hand. "After I tell you what this is all about."
The old man let out a long sigh, waved an arm, promptly winced and clutched at that shoulder, and growled, "Someone's smuggling a lot of guns and powder out of the country and into Geb, right?"
Kordroun stared, mouth almost falling open before his eyes narrowed. "You know?"
"I'm a bumbling old drunk, Roun," Gelgur replied testily, "not an idiot."
He flung the empty flagon in the direction of his bed and watched it clang off the wall. "What else could it be? What else does Alkenstar have that wider Golarion wants? Out by means of mercenaries, to Nex or Geb, and it's Geb you've been mentioning, so..."
Kordroun went on staring hard for a long and silent time, but Gelgur just rested his grizzled chin in his hand and stared back, uncowed. Growing a sour smile.
Eventually Kordroun sighed and shoved off from the wall to stride across the room again. "You have it right. Someone's smuggling guns and powder out into Geb, and has been doing so for a long time. A lot of guns and powder."
"So you come to me. Old brokenwing Gelgur, friendless and unfriendly, who's busy drinking himself to death."
The old man got up from his stool to stare up at Kordroun. "Don't you trust your fellow shieldmarshals, and the Ironmaster's best gunhunters? Or are you running out of both?"
Kordroun nodded curtly. "I ran out of trust a long while ago. And yes, we're losing gunhunters."
∗ ∗ ∗
A gunhunter was an investigative agent of Alkenstar—a spy for the Ironmaster, Seneschal of Security for the Grand Duchy—usually sent out into the wider world to be the eyes and ears of Alkenstar. On rare occasions they worked inside the Duchy, but shieldmarshals who learned of such deployments tended to be furious and fearful, for it could only mean one of their own was under suspicion.
Shieldmarshals were the senior gunmarshal officers responsible for policing the Duchy and internal discipline among the gunmarshals they commanded, and tended to be hard, shrewd, and capable. So gunhunters were usually all of those things—and bold, ruthless, and far-thinking to boot.
Kordroun did not have to tell Gelgur that someone highly placed and powerful in Alkenstar must be behind the smuggling. If gunhunters were being murdered and news of that wasn't all over the Duchy already—and it wasn't; one thing old and idle drunkards had more than enough time to do was follow the free amusement of daily street gossip in the outer yards of the Gunworks, most of it born of alley whispers in the city of Alkenstar that seemed to fly upriver faster than the swiftest message-birds—the killers were good. Very good.
The gunhunters would have been sent forth to try to find and follow the trail of stolen weaponry back to the Duchy, while Kordroun and any other shieldmarshals assigned to this did their prying in the city of Alkenstar, and from there back here to the alleys and slums of the warehouses and firing-yards surrounding the Gunworks, where maimed old foundry workers and retired shieldmarshals like Gelgur lived out their last days...
"What've you managed to find out?"
Shieldmaster Kordroun shrugged. "Nothing. Our investigators have all disappeared before they could report anything back."
"I see." Gelgur dragged the fat, clinking purse from his shoulder and hefted it. "Nice to know my life is worth this much." His sarcasm was as open as it was heavy, but Kordroun didn't bother to wince.
"Three years' pay—"
Gelgur cut him off. "If I live to collect it, which sounds less than likely."
The old man dropped the purse inside the front of his stained jerkin, heedless of the obvious bulge it made just above his belt, fetched out some well-worn boots from under the bed, and stamped them onto his feet. "So where is it all? My shiny new badge, the sword and the cloak?"
"I can get you an old blade and a forgeworker's weathercloak, not shieldmarshal's gear. No badge, Bors. You'll be working... unofficially."
Gelgur regarded Kordroun without any expression at all, for long enough to scratch his ill-healed shoulder thoroughly, then nodded.
"So I am. The Ironmaster know you came here?"
"The Ironmaster sent me," the shieldmarshal said shortly.
"Who else knows?"
Kordroun shrugged. "Your recruitment was discussed, but I doubt many of my fellow shieldmarshals thought the Ironmaster would agree to it. No one was standing handy to overhear her orders to me."
"Do you think you're being watched?"
"Not that I've noticed, and I've been looking, but..." Kordroun shrugged again.
Gelgur nodded. In crowded Alkenstar, just as here in the smoke-eddying stone labyrinth of streets around the Gunworks, with balconies and flying bridges everywhere overhead and the ever-present forge-din and noise of boots on cobbles, prying eyes could be anywhere, missed by even the wariest shieldmarshal.
And beneath every eye could be a loaded, ready gun.
Of course Kordroun was being watched.
"Get out. Now. I'll be right behind you." Gelgur slapped at his visitor, pawing the taller, younger man into turning around and moving for the door, almost bludgeoning him with a whirlwind of clutches and slaps and pushes. "Meet me on the roof of the Old Pump at moonrise. Bring the sword and the cloak and enough wind to tell me all you know. And be ready to take me to see this gunhunter of yours."
"You can tell me the Ironmaster's secret orders then," Gelgur snarled, shoving the shieldmarshal at the door. Let the man in good back-and-breast service armor take the first bullet. "Move!"
"But why the sudden haste—"
"I have fits that come on, and I feel penned in! Can't breathe, look you! Must walk, must get striding along, must—"
It sounded like babbled nonsense even to the old man spewing it, but it got Kordroun out the door and into the squalid alley beyond in a stumbling hurry, allowing Gelgur time to give the shieldmarshal a good shove in the back to propel him one way, while he scrambled down a narrow, smoke-spewing side-cleft.
He heard the crash of his window shattering before he'd run seven panting strides, breathless in his fumbling urgency to clamber over old rotten barrel-staves and the long-discarded rusting skeletons of old forgework.
At the sound, he left off hurrying and plastered himself against one rough, slimy alley wall.
The blast came a moment later, smiting his ears like heavy fists.
The shriek of rending metal was like a tortured woman's scream. That would be his stout metal door becoming a flesh-shredding cloud of whirling metal plates and shards, and starting to hurtle full-tilt down the alley he'd sent Kordroun along.
Gelgur felt himself slammed against the wall, or the trembling wall slamming him. His teeth rattled and there was bruising pain as the cobbles under his boots heaved and then sank down again, and the din set his ears to ringing, and then thankful numbness, so the screams and shouts that rose all around were Sarenrae-blessedly faint. But his hasty embrace of the stone wall had saved him from real harm—masterful mighty hero that he was.
Feeling ill—running fast and hard was never wise, with too much wine aboard—Gelgur peered vainly back behind him.
He could see only roiling smoke. Small shards of stone—and his bed and stool and pitifully few belongings, no doubt—were starting to come down now, in a spattering rain like the last sigh of a winter hailstorm.
This, here in his cleft, was only a side-waft. He hoped the shieldmarshal had found sense enough to get himself far from Gelgur's room, and then been wise enough to fling himself flat rather than whirling to stare back.
It was doubtful, but then the man had seen sense enough to come seeking Bors Gelgur when Alkenstar needed trouble clawed out of its own innards.
Or no... the Ironmaster had been wise enough. Kordroun had come unwillingly, under orders. Her orders.
Which meant that the bomb meant to slay him and Kordroun had come from someone who'd overheard those orders. A shieldmarshal or a gunhunter or someone else of high enough rank to be skulking around the Ironmaster's citadel beneath the city of Alkenstar, that handful of hidden rooms citizens called Irondoors or more formally the Vault of Secrets, where the gunhunters trained and dwelt and took their orders.
He was up against the authority of Alkenstar, all right.
Gelgur put a hand over his mouth and nose to keep out blast-dust, leaned back against the reassuringly steadfast stone wall, and drew in a deep breath.
It might be the last moment of leisure he got for a long time.
With his other hand, he felt in the front of his jerkin for the small, useful thing he'd filched from Kordroun just before the blast.
Finding it, he slid it by feel down past the purse, into the little slit-pouch on the inside of his belt. He wasn't stupid enough to pull it out where it could be seen, even here amid all the drifting dust and smoke.
Thin, slightly curved, and—he ran his thumb over them, feeling them clearly—embossed with a divided shield adorned with the crossed flinthammer longrifles.
A shieldmarshal's badge.
The authority of Alkenstar, that gave him the right to enter and search, to give orders, to arrest and detain.
Was Kordroun still alive enough to miss it?
About then, the first shot came at him out of the smoke.
Coming Next Week: Friends, foes, and the hazy distinctions between the two in Chapter Two of Ed Greenwood's "Guns of Alkenstar."
As the creator of the Forgotten Realms, Ed Greenwood is one of the most famous RPG designers of all time. In addition to his game work, with such notable setting products as the Volo's Guides, Forgotten Realms Campaign Set, and City of Splendors, he's also written more than twenty Forgotten Realms novels (many dealing with his signature character, Elminster) and ten independent novels, the most recent of which is Falconfar.
Art by Colby Stevenson.