He awoke in a cold spray of brackish water. The Hellknight who'd roused him drew back the half-empty bucket, then brought it forward again for another go. This time, Tarrant inhaled half the putrid stuff and gagged. "Is that really necessary?" he coughed.
The Hellknight leaned close, his breath turning Tarrant's stomach. "You stink of fear, Liespinner."
"And you stink of mediocrity," Tarrant said. "I prefer my smell, thanks."
The knight kicked him in the stomach, and Tarrant collapsed to the floor. The pain was bad, but at least he had earned the freedom to inspect his surroundings. He was still in Hawkthorne Tower—up in the council chambers where Doreset sometimes held formal events. The second Hellknight stood a little ways off, clutching both Tarrant's sheathed rapier and the bottomless red silk bag. Evidence, no doubt. Beyond the Hellknights stood a circle of Blackscale Blades, their expressions grim.
Tarrant saw Gislai first, manacled and bruised. Her illusion had fallen, revealing her natural half-orc features. She glared at Tarrant with a mixture of concern and contempt. She had, after all, told him so.
Ephere was there as well. She'd shed her fine emerald gown for black working leathers that left her brand uncovered, and she fit in well amongst the Chelaxians. She averted her gaze from Tarrant, like the aloof and serene elf maiden she had first seemed to be. He'd always been a fool for a pretty face.
The Hellknight kicked Tarrant again, and Gislai cried out. "Stop it!"
Her captor slapped her hard enough to make her stagger into Ephere, who shoved her back with one arm.
It wasn't supposed to go this way. Only Tarrant was supposed to suffer for his mistakes, not his friends.
The Hellknight drew back his fist for another punch.
"Enough." A severe woman with long blonde hair and her own set of fiendish Hellknight armor stepped through the circle of judgment. She clicked the talons of her right-hand gauntlet together and looked down at Tarrant with the sort of expression wolves reserve for wounded deer. "Leave him to me."
"Altara," Tarrant said. "Charmed, as always."
She kicked at his face with her steel-shod boot, but instinct let him dodge aside enough to save his neck from snapping. The boot crushed his nose and sent him rolling over and over until he slammed into the legs of his Hellknight captor. There he lay coughing as the world spun.
Of the many women he'd loved and left in his wake, Altara Hathran had been his first—and consistently worst—oversight. He'd made her promises when they were young together, never dreaming that he would disappoint her, or that his betrayal would lead her to the life of a militant ascetic. He regretted it all bitterly, almost as much as his broken nose.
He heard familiar laughter, and turned his woozy focus to a massive man reclining on a divan a few paces away. "Ah, my trusted friend." Lord Doreset's prodigious bulk quivered under his words. "It pleases my heart to see you again, so... helpless."
His presence answered all Tarrant's questions. How long had he been in league with the Hellknights? How long had they planned this ambush? It didn't matter.
"Your plan has failed," Altara said. "We will find your other friends soon enough—if they haven't fled already."
"Aye, that sounds like Eram."
"Still a jester." Altara thrust the talons of her gauntlet through Tarrant's mail tunic and into his shoulder, then lifted him to his feet. Tarrant gasped for breath and bloody stars burst at the edges of his vision. She fanned out the sharpened fingers of her other hand on his face and sneered at him. "It's over, Tarrant Liespinner. Your crimes will finally see justice. Have you anything to say for yourself?"
"Did—" he muttered. "Did you look... in the bag?"
Altara leaned closer. "What?"
"I see you... haven't returned the treasure," Tarrant said, getting his breath back. "I expect that's because it's evidence. Have you checked it yet?"
"Very well," Altara said. "You wish to have this crime punished now? So be it." She let Tarrant slump to the floor, flicked his blood off her claw, and waved her Hellknight to open the red silk bag. "Should I look for something in particular?"
"At the bottom." Tarrant didn't dare sing a song of healing, but surreptitiously pressed his wound to staunch the bleeding. "You wouldn't want to drop any of it, though."
Altara reached carefully into the bag, which swallowed up her arm. She drew out handfuls of treasure, but had nowhere to put it. One of the Blackscales came forward with another obviously enchanted haversack, and Altara shoveled handful after handful of jewels and hard coin from the bag into the pack. Lord Doreset chuckled in the background.
"This is a mountain of evidence," Altara said.
"True," Tarrant said.
Finally, Altara reached the bottom of the haul and pulled out a book wrapped in black leather. She peered at it.
"Wait," Lord Doreset said, his voice soft. "What is that—?"
"More evidence," Tarrant said.
Altara unwrapped the twine that held the book shut and flipped through the pages. "Names, dates, amounts," she said. "This is a ledger. And—" She looked at the writing carefully. "This is not your writing, Akayn."
"No, it is not," Tarrant said. "My lady."
She scrutinized the book anew, with the eye of a judge—which, of course, she was. Whatever grudge Altara might have against Tarrant, she remained an agent of the law. "This is your hand, Lord Doreset," she said.
"I've never seen that before!" Lord Doreset huffed.
"You mean you haven't seen it recently," Tarrant said. "How could you, when I had stolen it?" he turned back to Altara. "I think you'll find that to be an account of all House Doreset's illegal dealings, from tax evasion to swindling merchants in Cheliax to selling chattel to necromancers in Geb. Also records of embezzlement—oh." He glanced at the assembled soldiers. "Including the thousands of gold sails he embezzled from the Blackscale Blades, while supposedly acting as their patron."
A cold murmur passed through the room. Doreset's face went red. "This—this is a trick!" he declared. "A forgery!"
"Subject it to whatever tests you want," Tarrant said. "As I fancy you shall."
Two burly Blackscale officers moved forward and took Doreset away, no doubt to conduct their own investigation. A third approached Altara and motioned toward the ledger.
"See that it's not damaged," she said, and handed it to him. "My knights will be conducting their own investigation as well." The officer nodded in thanks, then left as well, taking the rest of the Blackscales with him.
Through it all, Altara watched Tarrant suspiciously. "What was this about?" she asked finally. "You'd do all this—sacrifice your winnings and yourself—just to bury Doreset?"
"You uphold justice in your way, I do it in mine." Tarrant coughed raggedly and looked at Altara. "Justice is done, my lady. Would you unbind me, please? Oops." He let the open manacles dangle from one hand. "Looks as though I took care of that. I'll just be going—"
"No," Altara said.
The Hellknights drew their swords. Tarrant shivered.
"Lord Doreset's accounts will be settled," Altara said. "Fear not on that account. But you and I are far from finished." She took hold of his armored shirt and pulled him up to eye level. "What's your plan for dealing with me, Tarrant Liespinner? How are you going to walk out of here?"
"Altara, love of my heart." Tarrant gave her a winning smile. "Who said I wanted to leave?" He hummed a sweet melody, which in his mind's eye took the form of floating flower petals around them.
Slowly, Altara's expression softened. She was different now—hardened, honed. But underneath the armor, he could still see the lovely young woman he had known in Cheliax. "Oh, Tarrant." Altara loosened her grasp on his tunic.
That was all he needed to slip from her clutches and step away. "I'll just be going then."
Altara hesitated a second, confused, then her face darkened. She tried to grab for him, but he'd manacled her wrists. "Seize him!" she roared.
Her two Hellknights stepped forward, but one jerked spasmodically and toppled to the floor. The other looked around into the flame of a burning fist held up to his face. Ephere stepped protectively between them and Tarrant.
"Well done," Tarrant said, putting his arm around her for support.
The elf nodded, keeping her fists up.
"What treachery is this?" Altara demanded.
"A thousand apologies," Tarrant said. "Did you think that night at the Open Palm was our first meeting? Lady Ephere and I are old friends. I can't imagine why you thought otherwise."
"What—what of the mark?" Altara pointed her chin at Ephere's chest.
"A slave brand," Ephere said. "Tarrant was the one who saved me."
"Understandably, she holds little love for Cheliax," Tarrant added.
"You were playing us from the beginning!" Altara said.
"Indeed." Tarrant looked to Gislai. "Coming?"
The half-orc—who looked as shocked as Altara—nodded. She twisted free of her captor and headbutted him in the face. He joined his compatriot on the ground. "You could have told me, you know," she observed.
"And spoil the fun? Hardly." Tarrant undid her manacles. "And thank Calistria we're no longer in the vault. Your ring, if you please?"
Gislai turned her ring around her finger, and a shimmering light appeared around the three thieves.
Still manacled, Altara glared at them. "This is not over, Liespinner."
He blew her a kiss. "Love, I would have it no other way."
Later, at the Open Palm, Gorm was all smiles as they shared one last drink. Gislai and Ephere were seated nearby, talking of all things elven. Now that all was revealed, they had become fast friends. Tarrant couldn't say whether that boded well or ill.
"Really?" Gorm asked. "They just took Lord Doreset away like that?"
"As I expected. Perhaps the proper authorities will even get to lock him up afterward. If there's anything left." Tarrant winced as he dabbed a damp cloth at his nose. Gislai's prayers had healed it, but it still felt uneven. "That squares your debt, then?"
"Yes, but you—" Gorm shook his head. "You've given much for me: almost got thrown into prison again or worse, lost your magic bag and any reward, and only brought the Hellknights down on you all the harder. You'll have to leave Absalom. Come to think of it, why haven't you left yet? I'm glad to drink with you, but—"
Tarrant shrugged, unconcerned. "I hear Korvosa is nice this time of year—and that its women are fiery. Besides, who spoke of loss?"
At that moment, two Blackscales entered. Ephere raised her gauntlets and Gislai pulled out several shuriken, but the adventurers' forms shimmered as the magic of their potions wore off. Eram and Arlif looked none the worse for wear. The halfling walked sullenly to Tarrant's side.
"You might have trusted me," Eram said. "And not sent this mute giant with me."
"And you might have fled town." Tarrant took the haversack from Eram. "Fled before splitting shares, that is."
He opened the bag to reveal gleaming treasure: their haul from the bait and switch.
"Now it's time to go," Tarrant said. "The road beckons, and greater villainy awaits."
Coming Next Week: A preview chapter of Dave Gross's new novel "Queen of Thorns"—plus a whole scavenger-hunt extravaganza!
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