"I do not waste time dealing with slaves," the citizen in the splendid red doublet informed her. "Go and fetch your master. Now."
"Come back tomorrow," the halfling said flatly, her eyes two flames of fury. She stood on the shop counter facing him, chin thrust forward and hands on hips, as if she owned the place.
Which she didn't, of course. She was indeed a slave—and a halfling of shorter stature than most halflings, to boot.
The citizen looked down his nose at her, dubiously. It was unusual in splendid and sprawling Canorate to see a slave openly armed, but this one had daggers that looked like they'd serve her as swords strapped to her arms and legs.
Yet this was Hroalund's House of Blades, a shop that sold knives and daggers. The problem was, this arrogant little above-herself slave looked ready, willing, and one angrily spitting moment away from using them.
"Yes," she hissed, as if reading his mind, her hands suddenly stroking dagger-pommels. "I hit what I throw these at. Every time." Her voice became a menacing purr. "Would sir care for a demonstration?"
The citizen opened his mouth to say something sneering and dismissive—and then thought better of it. "Tomorrow, then!" he snapped, then spun on one magnificently booted heel and stormed out.
Through the shop window, Tantaerra Loroeva Klazra watched the embroidered tail of the citizen's fine cloak swirl in his wake, and sighed.
The Master steps out on business for the afternoon, and half of Canorate comes in here to try to bully the shop slave into giving them things for a quarter their worth—and a sixth of the asked price. It was hardly surprising—she was, after all, an outlander and a little child of a creature, no doubt untutored and naïve.
Pah. Molthuni were such aggressively arrogant idiots.
That went double for rich Canorate citizens out adventuring beyond the walls of the gilded Sweet Orchard district, to where the lungs of Canorate breathed, the real daily business of Molthune was done, and shops that sold useful things crowded together along busy streets.
Tantaerra plucked one of the mirror-bright sample knives from an upright fan display of them atop the polished countertop, buffed it on her sleeve, then turned her back on the now-empty shop and strode right off the countertop, tossing the knife casually back over her shoulder as she started to fall.
It thunked into the target even before her feet sank into the heap of soft mats the Master had accumulated behind the counter as his gout steadily worsened.
She did not have to look to know she'd struck the target dead center. She was, after all, better at demonstrating the throwing knives Argulk Hroalund was deservedly famous for than the Master was himself.
The shop guards watched her pad across the shop and leap up to retrieve the blade, their faces as impassive as ever, but when she sighed loudly and told the ceiling, "If one more overblown scion of Canorate's elite comes in here before we close..." she saw the ghost of a smile pluck at the lips of one of them, just for an instant.
As if her lament had been a cue, the singing clash of crossing swords rang out, courtesy of the enchantment on the shop door. Well, it was better than those annoying bells any day.
Tantaerra swallowed a sigh, fixed a professional smile on her face, and sprang atop the stool behind the counter once more. After all, if the Master didn't eat, neither would she, and Canorate wasn't the cheapest of places to—
Her smile became genuine. It was the Master.
Yet the grin faded as quickly as it came, and she found herself struggling to get the professional smile back into place. The Master was worried.
And it took a lot to worry Argulk Hroalund.
He was the best maker of throwing knives in five lands, probably more, and offered the best stock of knives of all sorts—from tiny hide-in-your-hair ladies' death-needles to joint-an-aurochs cleavers—in Molthune. And had been for fifty years, perhaps sixty. Which meant he'd dealt with a lot of Molthuni. And anyone who sold arms and armor had to be ready to defend themselves, as well as tough as mountain stone against intimidation, or...
"Braerand, Luthkul, Orrlehm—have my thanks; this day's shift is done. Be off home with you. The House is closing until the day after tomorrow. So tomorrow is yours, though I'll pay you for it as if you were here."
The guards were surprised, yet said not a word. They merely nodded and went.
As the Master shot the bolts in their wake and reached to swing the metal doorbar down into place, Tantaerra set the first trap, but he turned with a frown and held up a hand to stop her.
Surprised, Tantaerra stood on the counter and watched him shuffle back to her from the door and begin the routine of setting all the traps himself.
He was worried.
Most shops had traps against thieves, but the Master's were the best. Oh, a knife shop's traps almost had to be, but even the Orchard-dwellers in Canorate hired Argulk Hroalund to trap their homes.
He designed the most elaborate and best hidden mechanical traps, from half a dozen for a small shop to scores of silently waiting deadlinesses in a grand mansion; elaborate mechanical traps that could wound intruders with "knives or darts, launched or thrust." Tantaerra knew the Master's skill well; because she was deft, supple, and small even for a halfling, she was often set to work installing his creations in spaces too cramped for the Master himself.
The knives were the daily soup and cheese of the House of Blades, but the trapping was big coin.
"Anything I should know?" he growled at her as usual, as he checked the day's takings. Not too worried to entirely abandon routine.
"Two odd deliveries, both crates. The smaller from Garldrake and Sarpent, the larger from no one who wants to share his name, and who ships in crates that could double as coffins; it's labeled ‘To Be Opened By Master Hroalund Only.' So I left it. I opened the other, though. Forty-six gorgets, steel, all the same size—and utter slop. I bent some accidentally, between two fingers, lifting them out. You can't sell them. You're being insulted. Or set up for a fall, somehow."
The Master frowned and then sighed. He looked old and tired—but not surprised. "You left them in the back?"
At Tantaerra's nod, he set off for his private rooms, pinching the lamps dark as he went. Tantaerra scampered after him. His abrupt and early closing meant she hadn't even warmed the water atop the little stove, but she could rub oil into his gouty feet while supper was cooking, rather than after...
"I'd like that," the Master grunted, and she froze. She must have said her thoughts aloud.
Then he turned and proved again why he was the best Master any slave could have. "And we'll talk. My worries are bothering you, and I need someone to talk to. I trust you, Little Firebrand. You've more sense than any twenty Canorate shopkeepers—or any forty Sweet Orchard highcloaks—put together."
"Flatterer," she told him affectionately. "See if you can be as complimentary about my supper—and I'll try not to burn it."
∗ ∗ ∗
Tantaerra's stomach was both full and warm; she was finally getting the hang of hot savory pies. The Master belched and smiled, several times each, then stopped smiling and told her, "It seems Garldrake and Sarpent may turn out to be difficult trading partners. At best."
"Nothing to share but suspicions. Yet. Let's be looking at the larger crate."
A few shuffling moments later and they were standing over it, eyeing the crate that looked very like a coffin.
To Be Opened By Master Hroalund Only. That boldly lettered label was imperious enough.
The Master looked at her.
Tantaerra sighed. "You want me to open it, don't you?"
Hroalund nodded, looking a little ashamed and a little sad.
"Not here," she said crisply. "In the cellar. Back corner, next to the big stack."
The big stack was the one fixture in the cellar of the House of Blades. Hroalund's only deadwood; a six-crate-high tower almost brushing the ceiling beams. Bigger crates than most carters made these days, full of shields silently rusting away—shields the Master would never be able to unload, now that Molthune's armies used a new design. Not without scouring clean and reshaping every last one, and they just weren't worth the time and expense.
The Master nodded and went for his cart.
One of Tantaerra's tasks was keeping its side-ramp well greased, and she did tasks thoroughly. The Master only grunted twice as he shoved the coffin-crate up onto the cart; its journey was swift and easy.
Tantaerra had improved the winch on the pulley-lift so it rarely creaked, and gave off sighs rather than its former high, raw groans. A few pumps of the handle and cart and burden were down in the cellar.
The Master wheeled the cart to right beside the stack of crates and gave his slave a questioning look.
She nodded, and he stepped back. She pointed at the handle of the cart.
"Ah," he said, after a moment. "Take the cart away. Good thinking."
He did that, then stopped halfway across the cellar to watch. Tantaerra gave him an exasperated look, then used the prybar she'd fetched down with her to point at the ceiling, then at him, then at the ceiling again. Imperiously.
Hroalund nodded reluctantly and set off up the stairs. She made sure he wasn't halting to turn and come back down before she hastily downed breeches and emptied her bladder all over the polishing-rag she'd brought with her.
She tied the damp result over her nose. A feeble defense against poison gas, but better than nothing. She was still tightening its knot behind her ears when the Master reappeared. He had a long length of cord in his hands.
He tied it securely around her waist. "In case I need to drag you to safety."
He'd brought the long reaching-pole from the shop with him, and used its jaws to thrust the free end of the rope up through the open pulley-lift hatch in the ceiling. When he started for the stairs again, Tantaerra caught hold of the reaching-pole. "Leave it."
The Master looked surprised, but relinquished it readily enough.
Tantaerra positioned it against the wall behind the stack of crates. When she returned from behind them, Hroalund was upstairs and peering down at her through the hatch, the cord tied to her waist hanging from it.
She waved cheerily and set to work with her prybar.
The nails were few but secure. Tantaerra hauled and heaved, and it went swiftly enough; this was work she did every day. As she finished one side and started around the end of the crate—it did look like a coffin, to be sure—she caught sight of her master watching her. He looked anxious.
When every nail was out, she levered the lid up and hauled it back, keeping behind it as if it was a shield.
And then, as she'd expected, something erupted up out of the crate with a clatter and clang of ringing steel. The Master shouted in alarm.
The thing emerging looked like a man's skeleton sheathed in a metal cage-work—if, that is, human skeletons came with eight arms, each of them ending in wicked-looking sword blades.
It stepped out of the box and toward her, blades reaching...
Like Tantaerra the plucky halfling? Read more of her adventures in the new Pathfinder Tales novel The Wizard's Mask, coming soon!
Coming Next Week: Professional rivalry in the weapons business in Chapter Two of Ed Greenwood's "A Matter of Knives"!
As the creator of the Forgotten Realms, Ed Greenwood is one of the most famous RPG designers of all time, with a veritable dragon's hoard of game setting products under his belt. In the Pathfinder universe, he's the author of the new novel The Wizard's Mask (also featuring Tantaerra) and the short web fiction story "Guns of Alkenstar." In addition, he's written more than twenty Forgotten Realms novels (many dealing with his signature character, Elminster) and ten independent novels.
Illustration by Eric Belisle