by James L. Sutter
Chapter One: Down at the Clever Endeavor
The Clever Endeavor wasn't the best bar on Axis. Nor was it the cleanest, or the cheapest—and definitely not the friendliest. It was a bar you went to when you didn't want to be seen.
Not that there weren't always customers. The place had a pretty decent crowd of regulars, and new folks stumbled in from time to time as situations warranted. But everyone there knew the first rule of the Clever Endeavor: even if you saw someone you recognized—you didn't see them.
Which is why it was so immediately obvious that Salim was being followed.
The bar was roughly half full, which meant that it was as full as it ever got. Wrought-iron lanterns filled not with flickering flame but with smooth phosphorescence glowed softly between tables, casting enough light to see by but not so much as to make anyone feel exposed. The bar's shape was different than most, with a wide-open center and tables positioned around the twisting outer wall, each set in its own scalloped hollow. It was hardly the best use of space, but the sort of folk that frequented the Clever Endeavor appreciated the fact that the odd layout gave every table a wall to put one's back to, plus a clear view of the entrance and the stairs leading up to the street. Directly across from the doorway stood a long wooden bar without any stools, and behind it lurked a rack of hundreds of bottles of all shapes and sizes—some clear, some opaque, and some jumping and jittering of their own accord.
The bar's unusual shape, however, was nothing compared to its clientele. As far as Salim could tell—and such things weren't always obvious—he was the only human present. To his right, a cluster of hive people—this particular group composed almost entirely of the flying variety, which resembled seven-foot-tall, black-shelled wasps—used deft proboscises to scrape thick red fluid from long, fluted glasses. Thanks to their telepathy, the only sound from their alcove was the steady brush of feathery appendages on crystal, yet the way they occasionally whirred their wings or crooked their limbs suggested an argument. Or as close to an argument as creatures with a hive mind ever got.
To Salim's left, several of the plane's native axiomites were going over documents with a winged, green-skinned man that Salim had pegged as an angel, hammering out some sort of agreement. Each time one of the elflike axiomites moved to point out a particular clause, the illusion of its flesh broke and scattered, revealing the cloud of glowing symbols that was its true form.
Across the room, another axiomite pulled her companion, one of the fox-headed vulpinals, as deep into the shadows of her alcove as she could. Salim couldn't say whether the gesture was one of modesty or fear of judgment by her fellows, but it had little effect either way. Each time the fox-man touched the flawless skin of her thigh, a blaze of runes drifted up from the caress like golden dust, broadcasting her excitement to the room. The axiomites were living mathematical abstractions, but apparently even abstractions had needs.
And those were just the groups. Far more common in the Clever Endeavor were the singletons—folks who didn't care to bring companions, and were even less interested in making new ones. These solitary drinkers were scattered around the place, each lost in his or her own thoughts. A flame-haired ifrit, the half-breed offspring of some genie and a mortal, sat nursing a brass goblet at one of the flame-retardant tables. Beyond him, a contract devil with a pointed beard and wire-rimmed spectacles which were almost certainly just for show sorted through a pile of scrolls. Closest to the bar was a blurry, vaguely humanoid distortion in the air which Salim took to be one of the shae, the aristocratic residents of the Shadow Plane. The shadow people had long ago traded physical forms for regions of coherent probability, and had been insufferably smug about it ever since.
In other words, nothing out of the ordinary.
Salim shifted so that his back was to his uninvited guest. He leaned over the table, propping his head on his hand and looking down as if staring into his drink. In reality, it was the glass that concerned him. In its warped reflection, the rest of the room behind him was clearly visible.
The solitary axiomite two tables down was staring at him. Not the careful, peripheral-vision study of someone used to the Clever Endeavor's rules. The eyes fixed on Salim's back were blatant in their gaze. Though the man's nondescript robes, pointed ears, and inhumanly perfect features were no different from any of a thousand other axiomites, a large rune that glimmered with its own light sat between his eyebrows.
A glowing forehead tattoo was an interesting choice for someone trying to pass unnoticed. But then, this was Axis. As it was, the rune told Salim nothing except that he'd never seen the man before.
Salim set down his glass and looked to the bartender. Lahan was standing in his usual place behind the counter, a rag over one narrow shoulder and a vacant expression on his face as he stared off into the distance. As Salim's hand twitched up in the three-fingered signal, however, the barman's eyes snapped into focus. He met Salim's gaze and nodded slightly.
Good. Placing one hand on the battered surface of the table, Salim shoved himself to his feet. He stood there for a moment, wobbling slightly as if from too much drink, then began weaving his way toward the back of the establishment. Past the bar, he turned left and staggered into the hallway leading to the jakes.
As soon as he was around the corner and out of sight of the rest of the bar, Salim flattened himself against the near wall, willing his black robes to blend into the shadows. His right hand crept to the twisted hilt of his sword, then moved away. Lahan wouldn't want any blood if he could help it. Salim waited.
The axiomite came around the corner. Salim sprang. One hand wrapping around the man's neck, the other forearm hitting sideways across his chest, Salim slammed into his follower, jamming him up against the far wall of the hallway.
Instead of flying apart into a cloud of symbols, the man hit the bricks with a meaty slap. Not a true axiomite, then—a disguise. The fake axiomite's mouth opened, and Salim squeezed his windpipe shut before he could make a sound.
A hand came up, crabbing toward the man's chest, and Salim batted it away easily. Searching within his opponent's tunic, he found the hard knot of the pendant the man had been reaching for. Salim closed his hand around it and pulled, snapping the thong easily.
The man shifted. Where one moment Salim had been holding an axiomite, now he was holding something else entirely. Gone were the axiomite's lithe limbs, replaced by green scales and clawed, three-fingered hands. A pair of stumpy wings, ludicrously small for such a large creature, fluttered ineffectually from slits in the shirt's shoulders. The biggest difference, however, was the head: a cross between a dinosaur and the long, toothy grin of a dolphin. The creature's new face rose on a serpentine neck that was suddenly several feet longer than it had been. The glowing rune that had emblazoned the man's forehead was still there, but now it sat between two eyebrow ridges of thick horn.
"Whoever made this particular eidolon had a weird sense of humor."
A nice trick, but it made little difference. Salim choked up on the ludicrous neck until his fist rested just beneath the overlong snout, then pulled the head back down to eye level.
"What are you?" he asked, loosening his hold on the creature's windpipe.
The creature coughed and sputtered. "I...I don—"
Salim squeezed a warning. "You don't know? I find that unlikely."
The creature shook its head, gasping, and tried again. This time it managed to rasp out a single word.
An eidolon. Interesting. That explained the glowing tattoo—eidolons were created creatures, and the rune would undoubtedly be a sign of its master. The thought of a third party made Salim suddenly aware that his back was exposed, and he dragged the creature farther down the hall toward the privies. He trusted Lahan to give him a signal if someone else came their direction, but there was no guarantee that the eidolon's summoner couldn't turn invisible.
"Who do you work for?" Salim demanded. "And why is he looking for me?"
The creature shook its head again. Though Salim still had it pressed up against the wall, he could feel its body relax.
"He's not. I came on my own."
That didn't make sense—eidolons didn't do anything without their masters' consent—but Salim left it alone for the time being. He was starting to get irritated. Before he could ask another question, the eidolon answered it.
"Ceyanan told me you could help me."
Ceyanan. The name was like magic—as soon as Salim heard it, everything became clear. He sighed and released the creature, stepping back as it stretched out its serpentine neck, curling and corkscrewing it to work out kinks.
"So the angel sent you."
The creature nodded, a more expressive move than any human could hope to make. "He told me how to find you."
"Of course he did." Salim's black-winged chaperone was fond of jokes. Never mind that the angel's sense of humor had nearly gotten this particular emissary killed. What did a single life matter to a herald of the death goddess?
Salim turned back toward the bar, motioning for the snake-man to follow. "Come on."
"So you'll help me?" the eidolon asked. Its muzzle was still frozen in the idiot smile that seemed more appropriate now than when it was a just a breath away from being choked to death.
"I didn't say that," Salim said. "First we'll talk. But not here." He glanced back over his shoulder.
"Now are you coming, or aren't you?"
Coming Next Week: The lamentations of a servant betrayed in Chapter Two of “Faithful Servants.”
James L. Sutter is the Fiction Editor for Paizo Publishing, author of the novel Death's Heretic (also starring Salim), and co-creator of the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game campaign setting. His short stories have appeared in such publications as Escape Pod, Starship Sofa, Apex Magazine, and the #1 Amazon bestseller Machine of Death, and his anthology Before They Were Giants pairs the first published stories of SF luminaries with new interviews and writing advice from the authors themselves. In addition, James has written numerous Pathfinder supplements, including City of Strangers and Distant Worlds. For more information, check out jameslsutter.com or follow him on Twitter at @jameslsutter.
Illustration by Carmen Cianelli.