Vencarlo Orisini tried to draw his rapier, but I lunged forward to strike the pommel and thrust it back into its scabbard. "Stop this nonsense at once!"
Vencarlo retreated, turning to free his blade. I stepped behind him, pulling the scabbard and sword out of his grasp.
"Orkatto, see Lady Seraphina safely away."
"I'll go with them," Cucuteni said, all too eager to escape the quarrel erupting between me and my bodyguard. That was just as well. I desired no witnesses to my chastising my servant.
"I won't let you take Blackjack," snapped Vencarlo. Once more he danced away, trying to draw his blade. Once more I danced after him, thrusting my arm through the crook of his elbow to prevent him from reaching the blade.
"Calm yourself," I told him. "The trap is already sprung. Even now, the Korvosan guard are surrounding the thief."
"He's a hero! You would know that if you ever stepped out of that Red Carriage and walked among the people." Vencarlo feinted right before twisting left. With my hand upon his arm, I felt his muscles tense. Anticipating his movement, I circled him, lifting his sword arm as if to allow him a turn. Instead, I drew his sword from its scabbard.
I stepped back, smiling as I showed that I had taken his blade with my left hand. He smiled back at me, tossing my own rapier from his left hand to his right. He saluted me with my own blade.
"Whichever of us survives this night must thank Master Raneiro for that trick."
"Beware, Vencarlo. I have learned many others since leaving the master's tutelage," I said. "And you have only just begun learning from him."
"Blackjack!" Surprising me, Vencarlo ran toward the east wing of the museum. "They have set a trap for you!"
"Stop this at once!" I ran after him.
The museum curator, my cousin, had ordered only the foyer fully lighted for the evening's reception of Queen Domina and Prince Eodred. In the east wing, only a few perpetual flame spells illuminated the sign reading "Local Legends," and I spied similarly muted lights throughout the gloomy halls. I had not yet visited the latest exhibit upon this visit to Korvosa. With luck, neither had Vencarlo, so we would be equally disadvantaged in the darkness.
Chasing after my disobedient servant, I stopped short as a hideous beast rose up before me. At my approach, an auditory spell unleashed a horrible whinny as a pair of enormous wings flapped at my approach. After a moment's uncertainty, I recognized it as the Sandpoint Devil.
Some disreputable "naturalist" had stitched together this patchwork falsity from the preserved corpses of a stallion, a crocodile, and a dire bat. Later I would have to speak to my cousin about this penchant for the tawdry and sensational.
Movement drew my eye past another exhibit, this one featuring a gruesome waxwork of a local murderess. From the angle, I could not make out what was written on the magically illuminated placard beneath the diorama. I leaped the low picket fence surrounding the murder house. "Vencarlo, come back here! I cannot ensure your safety if you interfere with the guards."
The bravo's laugh echoed through the darkened exhibits. I followed the sound, uncertain of its origin. Rounding a tableau of a lone elven archer fighting a goblin tribe, I found myself facing a masked man. The blade of his rapier glimmered in the dim enchanted light.
Without a thought, my body assumed the guard position. "Surrender yourself," I said. "Upon my word as a count of Cheliax, you will face justice for your crimes."
My foe stood silent and still. From the far end of the eastern wing came a shout and a flurry of footsteps.
A moment of doubt caused me to hesitate, but then I beat the man's blade with my own. It turned aside, and with it the waxwork imposter before me. Glancing around, I saw no witness to my folly—a small consolation.
I snatched up the brazier of perpetual flames beneath the placard and held them closer to the wax figure. It was indeed a depiction of the notorious thief, cloaked and cowled in black, a mask concealing his lower face. But at its feet the placard read "Blackjack, Hero of South Shore." The rest of the tableau showed the figure standing before a woman and child in rags, defending them from a pair of Sczarni cutthroats at the command of a sneering landlord holding a fat purse.
A rope creaked above me. I held the flames high to see another figure of the rogue swinging across the blackened gunwales of a sailing ship with a frightened cabin boy under one arm. This one lacked the mask of the first, and beneath him a wide-brimmed hat lay on the ground. A sign hanging beside the figure read, "Savior of the Lady Luck."
Another exhibit depicted a grizzled Blackjack leaping from the back of one tentacled hulk to plunge his sword through the maw of another. I knew of the incident in which the creatures sometimes referred to as "sewer hulks" rampaged through the city. It had occurred nearly thirty years earlier. The legend read, "Hero of Old Korvosa."
"Vencarlo, wait!" As much as I wanted to prevent him from interfering with my trap, I now also wanted an explanation. How could a man so reviled by my peers be presented by my own cousin as a hero in a museum? I needed to know more before I could—
"He's here!" cried a man from the far end of the hall. The silhouettes of four men ran into the room, toward me.
On a catwalk above us, a cloaked figure laughed back at them. "You fools will never catch me!" cried a voice I recognized despite his attempts to deepen it. "You will never catch Blackjack!"
The voice belonged Vencarlo Orisini. The evidence of his deception hung above me in the form of the unmasked waxwork, whose disguise he had obviously stolen. Yet in the darkness his disguise was more than enough to draw off the guards.
Holding the perpetual flames above my head, I called out to the guards. "It's a trick. He's leading you away from the real Blackjack."
Even as I said the words, I debated with myself whether to reveal Vencarlo's ruse. The guards arrived before I had time to decide.
They were not Korvosan guards. I did not recognize their uniforms, and their coarse expressions and unshaven cheeks suggested hired rather than sworn men. They held the points of their blades toward me as they approached.
"What is the meaning—?"
"Stand down, men. That is Count Jeggare, an ally." Gaspare Orkatto pushed past them, face glistening with sweat. "Did you see him, Your Excellency?"
"Who are these men, Gaspare? I instructed you to use the city guard."
"You did, of course you did," he said, once more waving his fingers beside his cheek in that nervous gesture of his. "But I thought it better to enlist my own men. If Blackjack is as clever as they say, he might notice if some of the Korvosan guard were off the streets tonight."
"I also asked you to look after Lady Seraphina."
"Oh, she is quite safe. I saw her and Lord Cucuteni out of the museum before joining the pursuit. Did you see him? Did he come this way?"
"It wasn't—" Another motion caught my eye, this one behind Orkatto and his men. A graceful figure moved between a pair of Shoanti shaman waxworks, discernible only in the moment when it passed between me and one of the perpetual flames spells. I pointed back toward the foyer. "He went that way!"
With a curse, Vencarlo ran across the catwalk, leading Orkatto and his guards out of the east wing. As they departed, I moved in the opposite direction, toward the silent intruder.
"Show yourself, Blackjack." I lowered the point of my blade and peered into the darkness where I knew he must be hiding. My half-elven vision revealed nothing more than the flickering shadows.
I felt the prick of his rapier's tip against my back. By enchantment or uncanny knack, he moved as swift and silent as a ghost. The moment he spoke, I recognized the liquid tones of his voice. "You have been ill used, Your Excellency."
I turned, confident he would not strike me from behind. "So it would appear, Master Raneiro."
The masked figure nodded. Now that I had heard his voice, I recognized the line of his chin, the faint stubble upon his skin. He motioned in the direction the hired men had gone. "You have noticed there are no Korvosan guards within the museum?"
"Of course, but too late to understand Orkatto's intention."
"He means to kill me, not to bring me before a magistrate."
"Have you not already deduced his reason? What do you think I do with the jewelry I liberate from the parasites on this city?"
I thought of the tableaux surrounding us, and of Orkatto's recent travails. "The tenants of South Shore. You have been paying their rent."
"Very good," said Raneiro. "But as you said, too late."
"They are chasing after Vencarlo. You must leave before they discover the ruse."
"Without the jewels?" Raneiro chuckled. "I think you underestimate our local hero."
"Does Vencarlo know?"
Raneiro shrugged. "He suspects. He is cleverer than he sometimes appears, and twice as skilled with the blade. One day he will take over his father's academy, once he learns to guard his tongue in political matters."
"And your mask? Will he take that as well?"
"Perhaps one day. Blackjack is more than a man. He is a legend that must never die."
"I will not help you steal the jewels. But if you leave them, I will do everything in my power to ensure your safe escape—and Vencarlo's."
"How generous," Raneiro said, his tone just short of sarcasm. Once more the tip of his blade pricked me, this time above the heart. "But I must decline your charity. Blackjack does not beg for scraps. He recovers what the lords of Korvosa have stolen from the people."
With a quick retreat, I raised my guard just in time to parry his thrust—or so I thought. Raneiro bent his blade as its tip found its intended target, a brass button upon my breast. Had he intended it, he would have driven his blade through my heart.
From the far reaches of the museum, alarums rose and subsided into the clamor of a chase. Above the shouts of Orkatto's men rose a mocking laugh.
"His laugh is quite good," said Raneiro. "Don't you agree?"
"I cannot allow you steal the jewels," I repeated. "But I promise to safeguard your identity."
"You make the same mistake as the local lords, my old friend," said Raneiro. "It is no longer for you to ‘allow.' The people of Korvosa will gladly toil for their bread, but they will not abandon their homes to feed the avarice of men like Orkatto."
My blade licked out twice, a feint and an adder's strike upon his arm—a Taldan attack, one I hoped Raneiro had never seen. He parried it without effort, and his riposte sent me into a retreating Elliendo defense.
He smiled to see me pressed.
My retreating heel struck the base of another exhibit. I froze as the claw of a stuffed owl-beast appeared beside my head. For an instant I thought of the cliffs of Lepidstadt and the stand I had made against my fellow students one drunken night. But then I had not faced a master of the blade.
I could not continue to defend myself in such a tight spot. Turning my latest parry into a bind, I dipped beneath the preserved beast's arm and rolled across the open aisle. As I came up to one knee, I saw by his silhouette that Raneiro had anticipated my move. His blade was fixed upon my eye, his rear leg poised to lunge, his mouth a grim line of regret and determination.
A metallic hiss preceded a dull impact. Raneiro straightened, the point of his sword dipping. His free hand moved with aching slowness to feel his back. He coughed out a single syllable, "Ah."
A lithe figure crouched behind him. A chain dangled from one leather-clad hand, a dripping dart swinging pendulously below. Shrouded eyes caught mine from beneath a deep cowl, but only for an instant before the assassin dashed into the shadows.
I moved to pursue, but then Raneiro dropped his blade and fell to one knee. I went to him and felt the wound. Tasting a familiar poison in his blood, I knew his fate.
"Master, let me get you out of here."
At the tone of my voice, he too knew his fate. "Yes," he said, his voice already weakening. "Find me a quiet place to die."
Coming Next Week: Blades between friends in the final chapter of "The Fencing Master" by Dave Gross!
Dave Gross's adventures of Count Jeggare (often also featuring his hellspawn bodyguard Radovan) include the Pathfinder Tales novels Prince of Wolves, Master of Devils, Queen of Thorns, and King of Chaos; the novellas "Husks" and "Hell's Pawns"; and the short stories "A Lesson in Taxonomy," "A Passage to Absalom," "Killing Time," 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 and Iron Kingdoms, 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 was a writer for Baldur's Gate: Enhanced Edition. For more information, visit bydavegross.com.
Illustration by Ian Llanas