"You owe how much?" asked Tarrant the Liespinner.
"My boy, my boy—don't fret." Fat Gorm's cheeks reddened like two overripe apples. "It's not so bad."
Tarrant cast his gaze around the Open Palm to check for eavesdroppers. Fat Gorm's tavern bore a fitting name, considering how often the dwarf asked his supposed friends for coin. Tarrant Akayn the Liespinner had been out of prison for all of two hours, and already the dwarf was hitting him up—and for a major take.
Tarrant cleared his throat. "I know Taldane isn't your mother tongue, but when you say ‘not so bad,' what you really mean is ‘cataclysmic,' yes?"
The dwarf shrugged. "'Tis a sum I can hardly pay myself, true—not without selling myself into slavery."
"And we can't have that, can we?"
"Do these hands look suited to manual labor?" Gorm clutched his chest. "Nay, far better for you to do this little task for me."
"Little task, you say," Tarrant said. "Rob the Blackscales blind?"
Stealing enough treasure to buy a small island out from under the Blackscale Blades—a rather disreputable mercenary party—didn't sound "little." Just days before, another adventuring company on a hunt for ancient relics had hit some haunted ruin in the mountains that unexpectedly housed a dragon. Apparently, there had been a disagreement with their patron, who had furnished the expedition with equipment and supplies. Specifically, he broke his contract and hired the Blades to claim all the treasure. One of the double-crossed adventurers was apparently an old friend to Gorm, and he'd tipped the dwarf off that even a fraction of the hoard would be more than enough to cover his debts. It was insane, of course, but lunatic risks were Tarrant's specialty and abiding passion.
"Coin's waiting—that and who knows what fabulous treasure?" The dwarf grinned ingratiatingly. "And think of your cut. You have debts of your own to pay off, I think."
"Strike where I'm weak, eh?" Tarrant asked. "You must really be desperate. Who owns your debt, Fat Gorm? What aren't you telling me?"
"It's Lord Doreset. He's the one financed the delve, and he owns my debt." The dwarf bit his lip. "Now, before you get upset—"
Tarrant sighed. "Of course. Because fate just loves me."
Emilano Doreset, a nobleman from Cheliax who'd relocated to Absalom some years ago, had never forgiven Tarrant for certain liberties he'd taken with the Doreset name, the Doreset holdings, and the Lady Doreset. He'd managed to get Tarrant thrown in prison for a year, but he could prove little. Doreset couldn't very well reveal the full extent of the Liespinner's crimes, when almost all the stolen coin came from Doreset's less-than-legal interests in the city. An unresolved grudge hung between them like a duelist's blade.
It stood to reason Doreset would squeeze one of the Liespinner's friends for revenge. Was this all a trap? If so, that only made the task more appealing.
His heart raced just thinking of it. The danger—the audacity! And above all, the challenge. It drew Tarrant like a rallying cry. How could he claim to be Golarion's greatest con artist if he backed away from such a game?
The front door stirred a bell on a chain, ringing in two men built like guard towers. They moved with the grace of practiced killers. Debt collectors? No—worse. Beneath their dusty robes, the newcomers wore black-forged steel studded with wicked barbs and fiendish motifs.
Hellknights. What were Hellknights doing all the way out here in Absalom?
First the Blackscale Blades, then Lord Doreset, and now Hellknights.
This was definitely a trap.
The entrance of the Hellknights sparked an exodus from the Open Palm. The elite lawkeepers of Cheliax were a rare sight in the city, but even to the unenlightened, their harsh intentions came clear. After a moment, only a few patrons remained, too nervous or drunk to do more than watch. They would be enough to bear witness.
"Better make yourself scarce, Gorm." Tarrant nodded to the thugs.
The dwarf scowled. "My thanks—you need anything from the cellar?"
"Anything from Qadira, by any chance? I do love the fruit of the desert."
"If you've got the coin." Tarrant frowned, and Gorm spread his hands. "What? I'm short."
Tarrant clicked his tongue, dismissing the dwarf, then hummed a low tone to focus himself. His mother had raised him among minstrels, and he had spent every night of his youth with lullabies from far-distant lands. She had sung a certain melody that would put a grown man to sleep, let alone a boy. He let that song flow from his lips, and golden magic took shape around his dusky fingers. Anyone could hear his music, but only he could see it.
When he turned to cast the spell however, he saw that the Hellknights had paused, turning their attention elsewhere.
An elf woman in leaf-patterned green hunting leathers sat at the center table, ignoring the knights who flanked her. Tarrant hadn't seen her arrive, which in itself made her remarkable. Her fine elven features—radiant skin framed by rich brown hair—made her even more so. Pupilless eyes like emeralds met Tarrant's own.
One of the knights leaned in close. "Your pardon, m'lady, but the menfolk here aren't worth your time. Why not try a real warrior?"
All eyes were on the elf and the knights now. Tarrant had never known the famously disciplined Hellknights to be distracted by something as trivial as beauty; but then, the elf was so beautiful that Tarrant himself found it difficult to look away. It was more than her appearance, though—there was something dark and powerful about her. She spoke to him on a deep, resonant level, like she was a lonely strain of music he couldn't quite grasp. Perhaps the knights were drawn to her for the same reason?
Tarrant managed to look away from her face long enough to note the elaborate golden bracers that extended the length of her forearms, each imbedded with a gemstone on the back of the hand. Her left-hand bracer boasted a pure white pearl, while the right hand—the one close to her bow—bore a bright red ruby.
"What, don't you speak Taldane?" The amorous knight reached for her shoulder.
The elf ignored him, but the gems on her bracers flickered with awakening magic.
This was about to go bad and bloody.
Tarrant sang three notes of his mother's song, loud enough that the first man looked up, startled at the sound. The magic in the music flowed from his lips, a golden ribbon of silk that wrapped around the knight. Tarrant kept singing as he slid off the stool and strode toward the confrontation. He drew his rapier as he went.
"What—" The Hellknight sank to his knees and then to the floor, sound asleep.
The other knight reeled, fighting his way free of the invisible ribbon of music. Even as the man drew his sword and turned to face the unexpected threat, Tarrant changed key and sang a warsong of the Mwangi Expanse, punctuating the words with resonant notes that exploded like starbursts in the Hellknight's face. This magic the knight needed no blessing to see, and the lights made him stagger, confused, long enough for Tarrant to skip over his sleeping partner. The knight parried Tarrant's feint, opening himself for a swift application of sword pommel to unhelmeted temple. The knight's eyes rolled up, and he sagged to the floor.
"And here I had worried." It seemed to Tarrant that they had put up surprisingly little fight for Hellknights—but then, he had struck from surprise, while they were captivated by the elf. He would have to remember that gift of hers.
Tarrant turned to bow to the woman who had made his job easier. "My thanks, lady, for letting me borrow your charms." He turned to go.
"Hold," she said.
Tarrant drew up short and turned back to her. "Tarrant Akayn the Liespinner at your disposal, lady." He trod back over the sleeping hellknight and bowed again. "What is your desire, beautiful one?"
The elf frowned. "You have done me a service tonight, human. Your kinfolk proved tiresome." Her words were music—to him, she spoke in summer rain.
"Ah, but these are no kin of mine. They neglect their own hygiene far too much."
He wondered, though. Most looked no farther than his dark skin—the touch of the exotic that spoke of a Mwangi father. But perhaps the elf's keen eyes saw his Chelish mother as well, who had taught him a love of music and cursed him with wanderlust.
Tarrant reached for the elf's hand, though she drew it back before he could kiss it. "You have an untrustworthy face," she said, adjusting her collar. She seemed particularly keen to preserve modesty. "Keep your distance."
Prickly as well as beautiful. He was in love already.
"Has the service I've done you this eve—rescuing those poor blighters from your graceful wrath—earned me the favor of your name?" He gave her his best smile. "I merely wish to tell the story accurately when I recount the tale of the most beautiful creature I've ever driven away with my rude manners."
Her eyes pierced him. Finally, she nodded slightly. "Among men, I am known as Ephere. The tongues of lesser races find the names of elves difficult."
"My tongue is up for any challenge, my lady. Yours especially. But stay a bit—"
Something hit him hard, making him drop his sword and stagger into her. They both fell to the floor, Tarrant atop Ephere, his hands in an impolite position. "Terribly sorry," he said.
Ephere hissed a curse that still sounded lovely in Elven and pushed him off. Strong hands dragged him away and pulled him up to face the Hellknight he'd clubbed.
"Tarrant Akayn." Steel scraped against leather as the knight drew out a heavy mace. "Down arms and submit to the law."
"Already half there." Tarrant indicated his fallen rapier. "About the ‘submit' bit, though—"
Ephere slammed a fist coursing with lightning into the knight's side. Shock ran through Tarrant as well, blowing the two of them apart. He tumbled gracelessly across a table while the Hellknight twitched and coughed his way to his knees. Ephere raised her other hand—this one wreathed in flame—to the knight's face. The man froze and stared into his imminent death.
"Wait," Tarrant managed, trying and failing to right himself. The shock stole his body's natural grace. "Fas-fascinating."
Ephere regarded him with curiosity as he staggered and levered himself up clumsily.
"You are a curious creature." Ephere's face held no pity of any kind. The elf turned her hand in front of the Hellknight's face, and the man winced despite his iron discipline. "You seek to stop me from killing this man?"
"Oh no—by all means, put yon fist through his face. That is, if you want half the Hellknights in Cheliax to board the next boat to Absalom looking for your blood." Tarrant finally managed to stop twitching. "Excellent plan."
She considered a moment, then pulled her fire gauntlet away. Instead, she touched her lightning gauntlet to the Hellknight's temple. The magic shocked him to the floor, unconscious.
"Useful," Tarrant noted.
The two of them stood staring at one another. Tarrant made sure everyone in the tavern saw them together, including the Hellknights. Then he took a wood disc the size of a coin from his pocket and tossed it to Ephere. She caught it deftly.
"Well, it's been a delight, lady, but now is when we part ways. Have a care with those weapons: the unwashed masses of Absalom might not appreciate their potency, but I think we both know how valuable and dangerous they are." He leaned in close. "And take care with the gauntlets, too."
Mouth open in shock, Ephere stared at him as he waved a salute, then left the Open Palm. As soon as he hit the doors, he chanted a song of lovers meeting by moonlight. The music flowed in the form of silvery wings around him, and he faded from sight, invisible.
He made his way around the back of the Palm, where he found Fat Gorm's considerable bulk wedged through one of the windows. Gorm yelped when Tarrant—still invisible—grasped his wrists and hauled him out into the street, where he lay panting. The effort broke the spell, and Tarrant reappeared, standing over the out-of-breath barkeep.
"Friends among the Hellknights, Gorm?" he asked.
"Collectors," said the dwarf. "They work for Lord Doreset, don't ask me why. I didn't expect it would be this dangerous. I can get the coin another way."
"Ease your waggling tongue—of course I'll take the job." That had never been in doubt—if anything, the skirmish with the Hellknights made Tarrant more excited to do it. "Consider it a favor to Lord Doreset—his being a nose that looks best tweaked."
"You have accounts to settle with Doreset," Gorm said. "That's good."
"Yes, yes I do."
Prison had served as an excellent refuge for a full year, excepting the bars and chains. And while he'd known a Chelish agent would spot him sooner or later once he left prison, he hadn't expected Hellknights to arrive on his trail so soon. It seemed too fine a coincidence, as though the enemies he'd left in his homeland had been waiting for him. Definitely a trap.
"What of that elf?" Gorm asked. "Is she with you?"
"A beautiful stranger," Tarrant said. "I almost regret using her as bait to throw the Hellknights off my trail."
"You're a villain, Liespinner," Gorm said.
"Indeed,' Tarrant agreed. "And I'll need a team of the same. The Blackscale Blades aren't going to rob themselves."
Altara the Hound tapped her barbed fingers on the thick darkwood arm of her chair. She liked sitting as little as she liked waiting. She was a woman of action, whose record in tracking down fugitives had earned her the nickname a dozen times over. "You failed."
Her men didn't shift from their stiff-backed parade rest. "We searched the Palm, but the dwarf was nowhere to be found."
She slammed her gauntleted fist down. "To the hells with the dwarf! Akayn is the real target."
"Tell me of this elf," said the noble fop seated across from her, speaking between bites of his second dinner. Corpulent Lord Doreset was always eating. "You say she was beautiful?"
"Unnaturally so," said one of the knights. "She may have been using some form of magic. She was... compelling."
"And the Liespinner seemed to know her?" Altara demanded.
The knight with the livid purple bruise on the side of his head nodded sharply. "He tried to make it look like he knew her, but I don't think he does. It might be a false trail."
"Tarrant Akayn has always been a fool for a pretty face. It will be his undoing." Altara stood. "Go."
Her men dutifully marched away.
"Patience, Altara." Doreset stuffed a fresh pastry in his mouth. "You'll have the Liespinner soon enough, and I'll have my coin back. There's no point in terrorizing the help."
Altara glared at him, then marched out of the room and back to her guest chambers. She shoved her borrowed desk over in a cascade of papers: reports, sketches, descriptions, all of the same man. She caught one—a rendering of his face, with its familiar cocky smile, and tore it in half with her barbed fingers.
"Tarrant Akayn," she murmured. "There will be a reckoning between us."
Coming Next Week: A gathering of thieves in Chapter Two of Erik Scott de Bie's "Proper Villains."
Erik Scott de Bie is the author of several Forgotten Realms novels, most recently Shadowbane: Eye of Justice. In addition, he's published numerous short stories for a variety of anthologies and collections. For more information, visit erikscottdebie.com.
Illustration by Carlos Villa