"You're sure about this gang?" Fat Gorm fidgeted, rubbing his fingers together. "I only ask, because the hour presses on—"
"Sit easy." Tarrant hummed dancing wisps of music, which calmed him. He wondered how anyone who couldn't see music managed to relax.
They met at midnight in the Bloody Fang, a dive down in the Puddles district that catered to sailors, criminals, and the lowest of the low. The authorities of Absalom rarely made it there, and certainly not at this hour of night. Entering after sunset required a chit: a coin-sized disc of wood branded with a crude image of a dragon's fang. Tarrant turned his over in his fingers as he mentally rehearsed the plan.
It had taken three days to set up the meet—good timing, as the last of the expedition treasure would be arriving the next day. It would be stored in the Blackscale Blades' base of operations until appraisers could arrive and a full accounting could be made. The dishonorable adventurers were living it up in the city, spending coin freely and bragging of the dragon they had supposedly slain. Crossing them didn't seem wise, but Tarrant had spent the last three days coming up with a perfect plan.
In truth, the entire scheme had occurred to him seconds after Gorm told him about the hoard, but he'd given it some time to crescendo in his mind, the different parts of music falling into place. He couldn't play a symphony alone, however, and he hoped the crew gathering in the Bloody Fang would be exactly what he needed.
A man came tumbling in the swinging doors, rolled several paces, then lay groaning. The big Ulfen warrior who stepped in the door after him had pale skin and hair and many woad tattoos carved across his honed frame. If the show of force and muscle weren't enough, the hooked axe strapped to his back proved sufficient to discourage any would-be challengers.
"That would be Arlif, I reckon." Fat Gorm stumbled over the name. "They say his tattoos depict the men he's killed. Well—the memorable ones, at least."
"He must have killed a goodly number," Tarrant observed. "Where did you find him?"
"Mercenary. Been cracking heads around the island for about a year now. No one's ever heard him speak, but by Torag is he strong. And you did say you needed a tough."
"That is what I said."
Arlif dropped his chit on the table, waved for mead, and sat in brooding silence.
The sneak came next, though he didn't make nearly the entrance Arlif had. The halfling's silhouette in the creaking doorway looked like that of a child, but the worldly gleam in his eye belied that impression. Also, no boy-child, no matter how ludicrous his taste in fashion, would wear such a hat, with its sweeping red and gold feather.
"Eram Many-Fingers." Tarrant sighed. "I should have known you'd bring him in."
"I thought you liked the halfling. You've pulled many jobs together, right?"
"Oh indeed. More than even he can count." Tarrant nodded to where the halfling was indicating the number of drinks he wanted on his six-fingered left hand. "That doesn't mean you should trust him."
"Of course not," Gorm said, offended. "But we can trust him to be untrustworthy."
"Ah, my friends!" the halfling said. "I almost thought I'd come to the wrong place, but oh joyous day, here I find you! I'm off for a drink, you want something? No? Well then!"
The enthusiastic halfling headed off to find the nearest server.
The magic arrived next, in the form of a feminine shape in the Fang's door. The other patrons quieted and looked, but when Gislai drew back her hood to reveal her lank black hair, greenish skin, and small tusks, most glanced away. She smiled and stretched languidly, revealing the three daggers of Calistria on an amulet around her neck.
"Gorgeous Gislai?" Gorm said. "Why, Akayn? Why do you do this to yourself?"
"Have faith. Half-orc or no, Gislai is the best cleric for any heist I've ever worked."
"You mean you worked her."
"I'll not deny I like green." That made him think of the other night, and the way Ephere's leaf-scale armor clung to her body. "Besides, it's in the past. We're strictly professional now."
"This is going to go badly."
"Do you want to do this, or shall I sell you into indentured servitude right now?" Tarrant asked. "Maybe Doreset will discount you—he might just take your hands as payment."
Fat Gorm paled.
"There he is." Gislai strode to their table. "Liespinner, the city of Absalom did herself a disservice letting you out. Better to keep you sealed up there with the other thieves and traitors."
"Greetings to you too. Apologies for not writing—I was a bit chained up at the time."
"Good." The half-orc eased into a chair and put her boots up on the table. She toyed with one of her shuriken and nodded to Gorm. "Who's this? The coin?"
"The empty purse, actually." Gorm gave Tarrant an uneasy look. "Your take, your gang—have it your own way. But have a care too, yes?"
"Mm?" Tarrant asked. "Sorry, I was too stricken with Gislai's disarming looks. Anger serves her complexion admirably."
The half-orc glared at him. "And the spinning begins already."
Arlif watched the exchange in silence.
As Gorm slipped away, his stealthy tread seeming more of a waddle, Eram arrived with a tray of libations. Tarrant knew better than to take any—the halfling's thirst was legendary.
"Greetings." Tarrant spread his hands wide. "No doubt you've heard something of this already, but let me fill in the rest of the story. First, the reward is fantastic. Lord Doreset chartered a group of adventurers on a delve to uncover ancient treasures in what was supposed to be a deserted ruin. It turned out to be a dragon's lair, complete with a dragon—which the heroes slew—and a fabulous hoard. Once His Corpulentness learned of the hoard, he decided the original terms of the contract were far to unfavorable to himself, and immediately dispatched his good friends, the Blackscale Blades mercenary company, to make things right by claiming the entire hoard for Doreset. They're even now bringing the treasure back to Absalom to be stored until it can be appraised."
"Stored, you say," Gislai said. "Stored where?"
"Blackscale Hall, right?" Eram said. "Please say Blackscale Hall."
"Not quite," Tarrant said. "Doreset's stronghold: Hawkthorne's Shield."
Eram coughed out some of his rotgut, then drank it again. "What?"
"I thought you were insane." Gislai shook her head. "Now I know you are."
Arlif nodded slowly.
"No no no," Eram said. "When I agreed to this job, I thought we'd take it en route, not from gods-damned Hawkthorne's Shield!"
"I know robbing the tower may seem difficult," Tarrant said. "Walls of stone a spear's length thick, iron doors reinforced with steel bands, and every window, sewer grate, and rat hole sealed up tight with the best magic the Doreset family can muster. Not exactly a comfy place to live, which is why His Lordship houses his apartments elsewhere. But as a secure storage facility, it can't be beat."
"That's even worse than I thought," Gislai said. "What's your plan? We talk our way in? You, a notorious criminal, and we, your known associates."
"Yes," Tarrant said. "And while notoriety appeals to me, 'twould be kinder to my pride if you used the words ‘suspected' and ‘alleged' in your description."
"I stand by my words." She tossed a shuriken a hand's width into the air and let it sink into the table. "Maybe you want to try a ‘raving lunatic' game? It would fit."
"Because you're mad," Eram said. "Mad!"
"Leaving that aside for the moment," Tarrant said. "Even if we get in, and even if we manage to steal the treasure, getting out won't be easy. That place is as much a prison as a fortress."
"I have a ring that will teleport us," Gislai said. "Limited use, but it can potentially get us out. Or in, technically, if we know where we were going."
"Alas," Tarrant said. "Lord Doreset has the vault warded against such things, necessitating that the Blackscales bring the items in by hand. Not to worry, though." From within his tunic, he took a red silk bag little bigger than a coin purse, into which he inserted his entire arm, then withdrew it. "I lived in the tower for nearly a year, once upon a time—I know exactly how to get in and out again. Follow my plan, and there's no way we can fail."
"Plan? What plan?" asked Eram.
"Remember the ‘helpful peddler' job we pulled in Cassomir? And how you owe me?"
Eram shuddered. "You said you'd never bring that up again."
"I'm the Liespinner, Many-Fingers," Tarrant said. "We do this one the same way—haversack and all."
"We'll need luck," Eram said. "Sure you don't want to go seduce a priestess of Desna into this game?"
"Calistria can kiss as well as sting," Gislai said, scowling at the halfling. "We make our own luck. And no one's seducing anyone."
"Pity, that," Eram said.
Arlif had been watching, but something drew his attention past Tarrant.
"All seeming madness aside," Tarrant said. "My plan requires a blade, a thief, a caster, and a face—that's the four of us. Now we just have to find a lure. A means of distraction."
"You're still mad," Eram said. "We..." He trailed off and followed Arlif's gaze.
"A lure," Gislai said. "You think that's all we need?"
"With the plan I have? Yes. And—" He saw what Eram and Arlif were looking at. "Ah."
Sure enough, Ephere had entered the Bloody Fang and sat at a table ten paces removed. Her presence drew Tarrant's senses like a lodestone. He could smell her from here, like a sweet earthen incense, and see the faint green light of a tune she was singing under her breath.
Gislai followed his gaze, her frown deepening. "Who is she?"
"Inspiration." Tarrant got to his feet. "Pardon a moment, fellow conspirators and lady."
"Where are you going?" Eram turned to Gislai. "Where is he going?"
"I was wrong about the seducing bit." The half-orc shook her head. "He's always an idiot for a woman."
"Speaking from experience, are we?" Eram asked.
Gislai nodded gravely.
Tarrant made his way to Ephere's table. Without speaking or even looking up at him, she laid the Bloody Fang chit he had given her back at the Open Palm on the table.
Tarrant's heart sped up with everyone watching them. Every day of his life, he trod upon a stage for his enemies, and he loved every deadly hour of it.
Mindful of appearances, Tarrant swept a wide, attention-gathering bow. "Twice I have the honor and pleasure of your beauty, Lady Ephere."
"Liespinner," she said without looking at him. "I am in your debt for the service you did me last time we met."
"Did you remember my offer and come to test my tongue? With your true name, that is."
"Saleae Epheldera," Ephere said, the elven words falling from her lips like rain. She listened for his pronunciation and nodded in approval. "You speak my tongue well for a human."
"I travel," he said. "Now that we've been properly introduced, I've come to offer you a proposition. Ah!" He smiled broadly as she bristled at the word. "Apologies for my ill speech. I assure you, I intend nothing scandalous, but..." he took her hand and bent to kiss the ruby on her gauntlet, pausing to look into her eyes. "I will admit that my intentions are entirely dishonorable."
Ephere made no sign of backing down. He wondered again what she saw. His arrogance, certainly, but his earnestness? His desire for justice against Lord Doreset, a noble leech who'd grown fat at the expense of the weak and powerless?
At that moment, the doors flung open, and a tiny ball of flame sailed into the chamber. "Akayn!" came a shout.
Tarrant threw his arms around Ephere and sang of racing stallions on the far-away tundra. Feathers of golden light flowed from his lips and encircled his feet to hasten him as he carried Ephere past the table and out an open window.
The Bloody Fang exploded in flame behind them as they rolled out into the rainy darkness. Tarrant found himself lying side-by-side with Ephere, their faces close. He managed to look away long enough to see two familiar Hellknights near the front of the tavern, standing among a crowd of folk shouting for the watch or for water. Between the knights stood a tall blonde woman in severe black armor, who held aloft in her barbed gauntlets the source of the blast: a wand that smoked slightly.
Altara the Hound: Hellknight, hunter, and his favorite regret.
"Akayn!" she cried. "Show yourself!"
Excitement shivered through him. He thought that if he'd been on his own he might have liked to face Altara then and there—but he had Ephere to worry about. She might kill one or both of Altara's minions and then there would be trouble.
The elf shifted, and he put a hand on her breastbone to signal her to wait. He felt the heat radiating from beneath her armor. She stared at him dangerously.
Tarrant sang a quick spell his mother had written about him. Magic sculpted the smoke into an illusory likeness of Tarrant himself—tall, dark-skinned, with piercing eyes and a wry smile—which nodded to its creator and ran off down the street. Altara barked an order, and the Hellknights gave chase.
Ephere's eyes gleamed. "Yet again, you've caused me trouble, then saved me from it. What is it you want, Tarrant Akayn?"
"Well." Tarrant saw movement near the tavern. His allies had escaped—Gislai in particular was glaring at him.
He smiled. "How would you like a job?"
"Intriguing offer," Altara said as the sun rose outside Lord Doreset's manor. "But no."
"No?" The would-be betrayer looked shocked.
Lord Doreset, who was snoozing by the fire, smiled. "That is what she said."
"But—" Eram Many-Fingers sputtered. "But I'm handing Tarrant Akayn to you on a platter! Trussed up like a goose and delivered to your great, lovely, and honestly somewhat intimidating majesty!"
Altara yawned. "Do you know how I spent the last year? This year that the master you would so eagerly betray spent in prison here in Absalom?"
The halfling shook his head.
"Reading," she said. "Interviewing. Thinking. I've hardly slept nor ate. When my knights woke me to tell of a traitor at my doorstep, I'd only been abed an hour or so."
She rose, and the halfling flinched.
"I know this man," she said. "I know everything about his games here in Absalom, and I know all about your dubious allegiances. If you would betray your friend, what would stop you from betraying me? No."
She nodded toward Eram, signaling her knights to flank him.
"No deal, thief," she said. "The law will be satisfied in the law's way, not through the treachery of a sneak seeking to protect himself. In the end, I'll catch you all. And I will destroy you."
The halfling tensed just before the first Hellknight laid hands on him, then twisted free. His would-be captor overbalanced and tripped over the halfling, who seized the opportunity to jab the other knight with his dagger.
Lord Doreset spoke up. "Might as well let him go. Let the Liespinner think all remains well. Many-Fingers will tell him nothing."
"And if he does?" Altara asked.
"What, that he tried to betray him? No." Doreset laughed. "Unless of course this was part of Akayn's scheme, and he sent Many-Fingers himself. If so, he knows nothing significant."
"True." Altara—who had been drawing her sword—sighed and sat back in her seat. "Again, I counsel you to unbind my hands, and let me take Akayn by force. There is naught to be gained by playing this game. He will defeat you."
"And again, I remind you of our agreement." Doreset sipped his morning tea. "You almost spoiled my plan with your little fireball assault earlier—no more rash action. Akayn is a creature of great arrogance—he will come at us anyway. And when he does, we will be waiting."
Altara snorted. "Many have sought to outwit Akayn, and all have failed. How do you know he'll not make such a fool of you again?"
A smile spread across Lord Doreset's perpetually greasy lips. "Because I have my own secret knife to wield at the right moment."
He waved. On cue, a tapestry moved aside, and someone stepped into the chamber. Altara was confused until she saw the brand burning on the newcomer's chest.
She knew Tarrant Akayn—knew his strengths, and especially his weaknesses.
And this would be the end of him.
Coming Next Week: A bold caper in Chapter Three 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