"Stand fast, varlet!"
I could hardly believe my ears. "What did you say?"
"Don't move." The bravo struck a pose and looked down his skinny sword at me.
"That ain't what you said. What did you call me?"
He sneered, probably thinking I couldn't hear his buddies creeping up behind me. When I told the boss I was going out for some exercise, this wasn't what I had in mind. The swordsman looked me in the eye. "Varlet."
"That's what I thought." I crooked a finger. "Why don't you come over here and whisper it in my ear."
He slid a step closer before thinking better of it. He had a good five inches of height on me. Along with the sword, that gave him plenty of reach. In the narrow alley, that gave him one hell of an advantage. Judging from the purses I saw dangling from his belt, it'd been working out for him so far.
I could've put a dart in his eye, but that would've spoiled the surprise for his buddies, who didn't know I knew where they were. Besides, after the past year, I wasn't in much of a killing mood.
"When I hear a word like 'varlet,' I know I'm talking to a special kind of guy," I said. "The kind with a scented hanky in his cuff, maybe a monocle just for show, a box of powdered tobacco to sniff off the back of his wrist. You know the kind of guy I mean. In Cheliax, we'd call you a poet."
"Mind your tongue, hellspawn, or I will give you such—"
"A poet'd say 'thrashing.'"
"—a thrashing— Curse you, you insolent Chel!"
"I've got to hand it to you, though. You Absalom thugs dress better than Egorian river rats." I sniffed at him. "Smell nice, too. What's that, lilac water?"
"How dare you! I am no thug. I am a gentleman. I keep the streets of Absalom—"
"I keep them clean of scum like you."
I nodded at the purses on his belt. "And charge us for the privilege, yeah?"
For a second he lost his tough and looked past me at his partners. His eyes told me I'd guessed right when I heard their boots scrape the cobblestones: there were two moving in, one on either side. They needed a little more time, so I vamped.
"So you want my purse? What about my fancy new jacket? You wouldn't believe how much it cost. I had it made in a city on the other side of the world, ten times bigger than this little hamlet." I showed off the dragon running down either sleeve, the monkey and the swordswoman tooled on the chest. I imagined the backstabbers checking out the phoenix on the back. "On the other hand, it's a bit wide in the shoulders for a skinny little poet like you. You ever lift anything heavier than that toothpicker?"
"You'll eat those words—"
The guy on my left made his move. I whipped around to put a spur in his belly. Lucky for him, I caught him in his big thick belt. The sharp bone jutting from my elbow didn't perforate him, but it knocked the wind out of him.
The second guy lunged for where I wasn't standing anymore. I threw out my leg in a move my late "master" called Sweeping the Grass. For the first time I realized that name didn't make any sense. Who sweeps the grass? It should've been Sweeping the Porch or the Sweeping the Street or something. Maybe I'd rename it now that the old bastard was gone to Hell and I wasn't. Not yet.
When I took out his legs, the second mook hit the cobblestones hard. He tried to stand but slipped in a pile of garbage, raising a terrific stink before falling again.
While I was dancing with his friends, the gentleman moved in to take a stab at me. I tugged the first goon over by the belt, careful to let his pal's sword miss the important parts. That's the kind of guy I am: considerate of others' feelings. Not that you'd believe it from the guy's yowling.
"Desna weeps." For all I knew, the city guard showed up in Absalom alleys. I was going to have to wrap this up.
The second knucklehead tried to get up, so I gave him a rap on the noggin. The bleeder sat on the alley floor, clutching his belly and wailing.
"Shut up, you, or I'll give you something to cry about." Maybe I didn't want to kill these jerks, but he was testing my resolve.
I grabbed the blades they'd dropped and saw the bloodstains. They'd used these knives recently.
"You aren't just robbers," I said. "You're cutthroats."
Gentleman took a step toward me. I showed him the big smile, and he froze.
"Stand still, knave. I will hold you here to answer to the city guard."
"Seriously? You want to explain these to the city guard?" I threw away the bloody knives and pocketed the stolen purses from the backstabbers.
The point of his sword drooped.
"That's more like it. Now hand over your loot."
The man had no guile. His feint was obvious. Before his point came anywhere near me, I lunged below it, sitting splits in a lunge the aforementioned late master called Monkey Plucks the Peaches.
Gentleman recited his vowels, top of his lungs at first, then weak as a squeaky hinge.
"Drop it." When he didn't, I shook the tree.
The sword hit the ground. Three of the purses followed.
"All of them." I squeezed.
Fingers shaking, he slipped out a platinum coin and tucked it behind his sash before letting the purse fall to the ground.
I collected the money while he cradled his peaches. When I reached for his sash, he tucked an elbow over the coin. I cracked him across the face and took the coin. It was different from the local currency I'd seen. "What's this?"
"A token," he wheezed. "Sentimental value. Please... let me keep it."
Instead of the head of a queen or a bishop, stamped on the face of the coin was a woman performing what the boss would call "an unmentionable act."
For a couple seconds I considered what to do with these lousy killers. Cutting their throats would be a big favor to the neighbors. But I really was sick of killing.
I flipped the coin, slapped it flat on the back of my hand, pretended to make a choice. "Desna smiles on you boys tonight."
I sauntered away until I turned the corner. Then I ran.
According to the fourth guy I asked, the brothel that minted the coin was way across town. Between the boss's purse and the loot I took from the cutthroats, there was no reason to walk. I flagged down a carriage. Settling into the cab, I couldn't stop looking at the coin, rolling it across my knuckles. It'd been a long, long time since anyone'd done something that kind of unmentionable to me.
At the brothel, I tossed the driver the smallest of the stolen purses. He took a peek inside and whistled his appreciation. "Shall I wait for you, sir?"
"Nah, I'm going to take my time."
He tipped his hat as I jumped out.
The bouncers took one look at me and started pushing up their sleeves. I didn't want any more trouble. One of the bouncers was a half-orc with tusks bigger than my spurs.
"Take it easy, fellas," I said. "I got this coin."
They squinted at the token, grumbled a bit, and nodded at the halfling doorman. As I went inside, the slip whispered, "Nice jacket."
I never get tired of hearing that. Some fellas spend all their money on booze or shiver. Me, I like to look sharp. I tipped the slip a gold coin, which didn't seem to impress him much. Once I got inside, I saw why.
The boss, he's probably the richest guy in Egorian, capital of Cheliax, which is pretty much the richest country in the world. That makes my boss the richest guy in the world.
Well, maybe that's not what he'd call "empirically true." But let's just say that the difference between my boss and the actual richest guy in the world is less than the difference between me and somebody else who ain't rich.
The boss is better with the metaphors.
The brothel's salon made the boss's look like a warehouse office. It was all red velvet cushions, tiger-hide couches, chandeliers like all the stars fell down at once, carpet so thick you needed a machete to cross the room, with all the knobs and fixtures made of gold-plated gold. And the girls...
Years back, my old boss Zandros the Fair put me in charge of security for a couple of the Goatherds' houses on Trick Alley. Even after he got jealous and put me back on collections, I spent a fair amount of my free time getting to know the ladies of the lane. Whenever one of the houses brought in a great beauty, the madam always said the new girl was from some far-away land: Osirion, Qadira, Tian Xia, Rahadoum, or Katapesh. Standing in this fancy brothel, I realized they'd all lied.
All those beauties came from Absalom.
The girls were made of all the colors, hair and eyes and skin. There were elf girls with ears as slim as milkweed, and their eyes were jewels. There were slip girls nimble as forest nymphs, three of them chasing each other over the furniture and through the legs of the clients. There were fat girls, skinny girls, tall girls, short girls, a couple of bald girls, and one dwarf girl with biceps bigger than mine. I winked at her. Later on, we were going to talk massage.
Somebody put a cool glass in my hand. I drank it without looking. Fizzy.
"Can I help you find something in particular?" A slim fellow in a white butler's coat stood beside me. When I got a closer look, I wasn't so sure it was a fellow after all.
"I got this coin." I showed it.
"Iolanda. You lucky devil." His or her wink smoothed over my suspicion that it was a crack about my bloodline. Lots of folks mistake the grip of the big knife hanging from the spine of my jacket for a tail, which I don't have—and no horns neither, so don't even start. Not-a-butler pointed up a spiral staircase to indicate a balcony on the third floor. "Up there."
I tossed away the glass and started up the stairs.
From some angles the hair she let spill over the balcony was black as ink. From others, blue as midnight.
People got in my way, but I pushed them aside without a glance. I couldn't look away from Iolanda.
It was her eyes. They weren't blue, not if sapphires are blue. Not purple either, if that's what you call amethysts. They were the color of those stars you think you see some nights, only when you point them out to someone else, they're already gone, dark as the blank sky. But you never forget them.
Iolanda didn't look at me, even after I got close. I tried to follow her gaze, but she wasn't looking at anybody downstairs, although plenty of them were staring up at her. She sighed through lips like ripe plums.
On the way up, I'd worked out a few ice-breaking lines, real charming stuff. When the moment came, I cracked the little smile and said, "I got this coin."
She looked down at me. She didn't quite sniff, but her expression told me she was used to seeing a higher class of client. Still, she took the coin. Her fingernails were painted the exact same shade as her lips. Somebody's got that job, I thought, staring at her lips while mixing that color. Desna smiles on that guy.
"Come." She led me to a bedroom door. "This won't take long."
"Don't be so quick to judge." On the other hand, I thought, I'd been what you call abstinent for over a year. "Let's take our time. I got all night."
She stopped and turned toward me, her voice serious. "You understand what these tokens indicate. You receive only the favor shown."
"Yeah, I know. I just figured..." I shrugged, hopeful.
"Only what is shown, and only for as long as it takes." She gave me a closer look. Her eyes trailed across my jacket. She frowned like she was thinking. I wanted to make her smile.
"How much for the night? I got money."
She named her price. The only guy I knew who could pay it was the boss, and he'd need more guys to carry that purse.
She saw it on my face and raised an eyebrow. "Perhaps there is something else you can do for me. Something that would be worth more of my attention." She trailed a finger along the dragon on my left shoulder. Even through the leather, her touch gave me a thrill.
"What do you want, sweetheart? Just name it."
Coming Next Week: Old enemies reaquainted in Chapter Three of Dave Gross's "Killing Time."
Enjoying this story so far? Check out even more adventures of Radovan and Varian in the new novel Queen of Thorns, available now!
Dave Gross's adventures of Radovan and Count Jeggare include the Pathfinder Tales novels Prince of Wolves, Master of Devils, and Queen of Thorns; the novellas "Husks" and "Hell's Pawns"; and the short stories "A Lesson in Taxonomy," "A Passage to Absalom," and "The Lost Pathfinder," all available at paizo.com/pathfindertales. He also co-wrote the Pathfinder Tales novel Winter Witch with Elaine Cunningham, and has written novels for the Forgotten Realms as well as short stories for such anthologies as Tales of the Far West and Shotguns v. Cthulhu. Dave is the former editor of magazines ranging from Dragon to Star Wars Insider to Amazing Stories, and is currently a writer for Baldur's Gate: Enhanced Edition.
Illustration by Carlos Villa