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The Lost Pathfinderby Dave Gross ... Chapter One: The SolariumIt was good to be home, but the tranquility of my greenhouse had not yet ameliorated my headache before the butler interrupted my reverie with a letter. He lingered after I took it from the silver tray, requiring me to dismiss him by raising an eyebrow. The staff had taken to hovering since the Henderthane affair. The devotion the halflings had cultivated over four generations of service to my house was degenerating into...
The Lost Pathfinder
by Dave Gross
Chapter One: The Solarium
It was good to be home, but the tranquility of my greenhouse had not yet ameliorated my headache before the butler interrupted my reverie with a letter. He lingered after I took it from the silver tray, requiring me to dismiss him by raising an eyebrow. The staff had taken to hovering since the Henderthane affair. The devotion the halflings had cultivated over four generations of service to my house was degenerating into sentimentality. I hoped it would not become necessary to dismiss the worst offenders as an example.
The postmark from Absalom piqued my interest. It had been months since my superiors in the Society had contacted me. There had once been a time when I received frequent notes of praise and requests to direct my agents to pursue new leads and uncover previously undiscovered sites. Such a message might be exactly the tonic I required to sooth the ennui that followed my recent misfortunes.
My hope vanished as I read the first lines of the message, and when I glanced down to see not a signature but merely the seal of the Decemvirate, indignation filled my heart with steam. Some anonymous member of the inner circle presumed to chastise me, Venture-Captain Varian Jeggare, one of the longest-serving members of the Pathfinder Society.
After the initial shock of the effrontery, I drained my glass of a promising vintage from one of my southern holdings. Although the unwelcome news diminished my pleasure in the wine, it was an altogether drinkable claret of deep red hue and a deep, earthy nose. Fortunately, the bottle contained just enough to refill my glass as I examined the message closely.
While I found the letter's tone irritating, I could not dispute the facts it presented. It had been more than two months since I last received reports from the Pathfinders it named, and the agent who last reported from Ustalav had not contacted me since early spring. In her case, fortunately, I had arranged a contingency should she find herself in a location too remote for mundane channels of communication.
I rose from my lounging chair, stumbling before catching myself on the edge of a planter. I made a mental note to admonish the gardener for leaving the stone path slippery, although the rest of the walkway seemed dry enough as I navigated the long rows in search of the whispering lilies. I found them in a sunny spot beside a flourishing patch of memory ferns whose properties I had yet to exploit to their full potential.
There were eight rows of whispering lilies, each containing four distinct plants. I had entrusted the twins of each set of four bulbs to my most daring agents. In the event that they should find themselves stranded, they had only to plant the bulbs. Once beneath moist soil, the bulbs bloomed within a day or two, and their roots transmitted a signal that could be received only by the bulb's other half. I theorized that the transmission occurred via the elemental planes, accessed via microscopic gates, but I had yet to perform the necessary experiments to compose a treatise on the subject. No matter the exact nature of the mechanism, the lilies provided almost instantaneous communication between twinned flowers. One had only to speak into the open blossom of one, and the message emerged simultaneously from the other.
Of the thirty-two whispering lilies in the flowerbed, none had changed hue from the white-peach color that indicated the plant's twin remained dormant. However, all four of those I had given to my agent in Ustalav had withered, their dull petals lying at the base of limp stems.
Whatever had become of my Pathfinder, the bulbs she carried had not survived.
∗ ∗ ∗
"Say what you will about Radovan’s heritage,
he’s good at what he does."
I tensed the way you do when hearing an unexpected noise in an Eel Street alley. I knew the voice and stopped myself from going for the big knife hidden in the spine of my fancy new jacket. The grip hung down like a stubby tail, which had gotten me some ribbing in the Trick Street brothels.
"Desna weeps, Mac," I said without turning. My heart was pumping so hard he could probably hear it. I kept my eyes on the street, where I expected to spot Paracount Unizo Fermat sometime that morning. His wife wanted to prove he'd been gambling away the family income, and the boss had passed the boring job down to me. With any luck, I'd be done before lunch.
"Sorry, Spikes," he said, using a childhood nickname that had never really stuck. The only time anyone ever used it was to remind me how long we'd known each other. Mac needed a favor.
Among the Goatherds, Maccabus was one of the old men, by which I mean he had lived past forty years on the dirty streets of West Egorian. He was the top enforcer for Zandros the Fair, and over the years he'd earned a reputation for acquiring with a cool word what usually took a few pints of blood and a busted kneecap. He was one of the few surviving members of the gang who I'd drag out of a fire. Now and then we'd stand each other a pint and talk about anything but business.
Problem was, we'd been quits for a long time. Before I'd agreed to work for my present boss, the count, I'd earned my freedom from Zandros—not that he always remembered that fact. The scabby old bastard still tried to call in favors I never owed from time to time, jealous that I had a new master. Employer, I should say. That was one of the terms of our arrangement. I'm nobody's slave these days.
On the other hand, Mac had stood up for me the last time Zandros tried pulling my tail—metaphorically, that is. Despite what those doxies say, a tail is not among my devilish features.
"What do you need?" I asked.
"Little muscle for ten minutes."
"And what's for me?"
"Word on a hit," he said. "Your boss."
That got my attention. Both the boss and I knew there'd be repercussions from our last case. We'd gotten the job done all right, but in the process we'd busted open a bigger secret. It was the kind of thing that hurt a lot of the noble houses, the sort of people who usually hire the boss. They're also the sort of people who usually hire assassins.
"Where'd you hear it?"
Mac said nothing. When I turned to look at him, he just stared at the street.
"Vincenzo, right?" Lately the weasel-mouthed informer had been leaking word of high-end assassinations so often it was a wonder he hadn't taken his last swim in Lake Sorrow.
"I could just go ask him." Vincenzo had developed an expensive habit, and if he'd sold news of this magnitude, he'd have gone straight to a shiver den. The problem was Vincenzo was notoriously paranoid, so he probably wouldn't take the stuff there.
"It's going down tonight," said Mac.
That's what made Mac so good at his job. He had a way of offering choices that weren't choices at all. I gave up my vigil for the paracount and followed him.
A few blocks away, he nodded at a row house I recognized as the front for a lending operation. We went around to the rear alley. It was empty except for a pair of scabby cats picking through a spilled garbage pail, and the back door of the lending house was boarded shut. Mac looked up at the second floor windows, which were shut against the stink of the alley.
I took his cue and climbed up. The shutters were closed with a simple latch, so I didn't bother removing any of the tools hidden in my sleeve pockets and instead slipped it open with the thin blade of one of my throwing knives.
Peering in, I saw an unoccupied room with four straw mattresses on the floor. Through the open door I heard the sound of knucklebones clattering downstairs. Three, maybe four voices crowed and complained without enthusiasm. I shot Mac the all clear and eased over the sill. A few seconds later, he was beside me. Together we padded out onto the landing and looked down.
Three men with their sleeves rolled up crowded a little table dotted with piles of copper and silver coins. All of them had long knives at their hips, and beside one lay one of those hand crossbows that are barely worth a damn unless you've poisoned the dart. Mac pointed out the fellow he wanted, leaving the other two to me. I raised my eyebrow, and he made the thief's signs for "big entrance" before easing onto the stairway. It was only about an eight-foot drop. I vaulted the rail and dropped down just as one of the men threw the dice.
Coins flew in all directions as my feet hit the table. I'd hoped it would splinter, breaking my fall, but it held up, and I went down on one hand to keep from tumbling off. The first man to reach for a knife got my new boot in the face and tumbled backward over his chair. The second—Mac's target—had the good sense to throw himself to the floor and roll away, but the third reached for the crossbow.
I showed him the big grin. It's a sight that has made grown men piss themselves, and it doesn't come without cost. I'd have a sore jaw for a few hours after exposing a smile that resembles a box of long nails.
To his credit, the man before me barely whimpered. The bow wasn't cocked, but it had a barbed dart already in place. His hand moved an inch toward the lever and hesitated. A second later he lay the weapon down and showed me his hands as he backed against the wall.
I nodded my approval and heard the gasp that told me Mac had his man. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw the one I'd kicked standing up, his hand on the grip of his knife.
I whirled off the table, throwing my back against the wall. He turned, surprised to find me beside him. That's where I'm most dangerous. I threw him an elbow, pinning his knife shoulder with my spur. My spurs aren't long enough to staple a man to the wall—they won't even reach the heart—but they hurt.
When his knife hit the ground, I kept the man pinned and whispered a sweet nothing in his ear. He nodded and showed me his hands. I glanced at his companion to make sure he was still where I wanted him. He was.
Across the table, Mac had put his man back on a stool and gripped his shoulder, bending over to whisper in his ear like a concerned uncle. Whatever he was saying made the man's face pale as sailcloth. He said nothing, but from time to time he nodded an affirmation.
The five of us stayed that way for a few minutes. The man I'd pinned grimaced in pain, and I removed my spur. He released a grateful sigh and kept his eyes on the empty table. The other fellow looked me up and down, admiring my new clothes: jacket, trousers, and kickers, all red Chelish leather tooled in swoops and thorns that highlighted my devilish good looks. They'd cost me the better part of what the boss called my "retention bonus," a fat purse he'd given me when I didn't leave town after our last caper went sour.
Mac gave me the look that tells me he's done. We left through the front door and walked away like honest citizens. When we were out of sight of the house, he gave me what he'd promised.
"The guy you want to talk to?" he said. "Vincenzo."
Coming Next Week: Knives in the dark and one seriously angry bunyip in Chapter Two of "The Lost Pathfinder."
Dave Gross has been a technical writer, a teacher, a magazine and book editor, and a novelist. He is the author of the forthcoming Pathfinder Tales novel Prince of Wolves and the Hell's Pawns series in the Pathfinder's Journal for Council of Thieves, both of which star Varian Jeggare and Radovan, the heroes of this story. His previous novels include Black Wolf and Lord of Stormweather.
The Lost Pathfinderby Dave Gross ... Chapter Two: The Bunyip DockVincenzo smiled feebly when he saw me. His tiny mouth and buckteeth gave him the look of a ferret. I smiled back, and he bolted up the crooked stairs. ... I found Vincenzo right where Mac said I would, in a small warehouse abutting the Bunyip Dock. Even in the heart of the Cheapside districts, the sagging pier was a lonely place. Some of the local toughs, including me, liked to take a woman there if time was short and she wasn't...
The Lost Pathfinder
by Dave Gross
Chapter Two: The Bunyip Dock
Vincenzo smiled feebly when he saw me. His tiny mouth and buckteeth gave him the look of a ferret. I smiled back, and he bolted up the crooked stairs.
I found Vincenzo right where Mac said I would, in a small warehouse abutting the Bunyip Dock. Even in the heart of the Cheapside districts, the sagging pier was a lonely place. Some of the local toughs, including me, liked to take a woman there if time was short and she wasn't picky. Others took marks down the long pier, knowing the ravenous creatures that prowled the waters would dispose of the body. And a certain addict of my acquaintance apparently used the place to ride out his latest shiver-induced dreams.
The warehouse was small and inhabited mostly by rats and the occasional squatter. The owners wouldn't pony up for repairs, so those foolish enough to rent the space sometimes found their goods floating past the pilings after the rotten floor gave way. The last tenants had abandoned their wares, so the place stank of mildewed grain and imported fruit that had long since turned to slime and mold.
"Don't make me chase you," I called after Vincenzo. I doubted that would stop him, so I followed him up the stairs, grimacing at the squealing steps. If Vincenzo had taken his hit already, he wouldn't run for long. But when the shiver took him down, he'd be out for hours, his head filled with spider dreams.
The upper floor was a confusion of crates and slanting beams of sunlight. The sound of his footsteps had stopped, but I saw Vincenzo's wake in the dusty air. Thinking of the sharp knife he favored, I glanced to the sides in case he wanted to try his luck at an ambush.
The stack of crates beside me creaked. I leaped forward, avoiding the falling boxes but not the disgusting explosion of rotten fruit that burst from them. As I rolled up to my feet, I slipped in the mess and fell down hard in the splinters and slime. The stench was worse than anything I'd smelled since crawling up through the privy in House Tauranor. I tried breathing through my mouth, and that was worse. The mold spores wet my eyes and prickled the back of my throat.
Behind me, Vincenzo scrambled over the boxes to reach the stairs. Trying to stand up, I slid in the muck and nearly added my breakfast to the goo. Before the mess could swallow me whole, I grabbed an unbroken crate and pulled myself onto the stack. My first few hands-and-knees steps just smeared more of the crap over the crates, but enough of the stuff came off to give me friction. Despairing of the insult to my new clothes, I uttered a vow of revenge on that miserable addict. I crawled over the unbroken crates and saw Vincenzo's head disappearing down the stairwell. One of the rotting stairs cracked under his foot. He stumbled and cursed, but I heard him plant his feet at the bottom.
I made it to the stairs and leaped the rail. Desna smiled, and Vincenzo ran directly under my trajectory. My knees caught him in the kidneys. He screamed for half a second before the pain shut down his breath and he hit the floor beneath me. The floor beneath him gave, and we fell through the splintering timbers.
I caught the edge of the hole with one hand, Vincenzo's graying ponytail in the other. We let out simultaneous shouts as my arm and his scalp went taut. Below us, fragments of the broken floor splashed into the water where Lake Sorrow drained into the River Adivian. They bobbed to the surface before a swell raised them up within inches of Vincenzo's kicking feet. A dark shape emerged from the water to disintegrate a three-inch plank with one snap of its jaws.
It was a bunyip the size of a fishing boat. Its head resembled a seal's, only five times bigger and with a maw bristling with three rows of shark's teeth. I'd never seen one this close, and one look at its grin told me there was no intimidating something like this with my own pretty smile.
Vincenzo squealed and grasped my wrist. He struggled to climb my body back into the warehouse. If I didn't need his information, I'd have shaken him off and let the monster have him. It wouldn't have taken more than two or three bites for the bunyip to gobble him up.
Instead, I strained to pull us both up with one arm. Vincenzo was so frail that it would have been a breeze under different circumstances. Between his thrashing about and the splintered edges of the broken warehouse floor digging into my palm, I was lucky just to hang on. The remaining floorboards creaked as I pulled us up.
The bunyip leaped, causing a big wave to wash over the pilings. It came so close that I felt the warmth from the big mammal's body, and its fishy breath washed over us. The monster's jaws snapped shut just behind Vincenzo's ass as the informant clambered up my legs. He almost fell back into the water when he grabbed my "tail" and unexpectedly pulled my big knife out of its hidden sheath. A second later I felt his knee in my kidney, then his feet upon my shoulder as he climbed back into the warehouse.
"Not even the Big Knife is much good against an angry bunyip."
Illustration by Joe Wilson
"Give me a hand," I demanded. He turned to face me, his eyes dreamy and confused. For an instant he brandished my own knife at me. Then he looked at it in horror and dropped it as if he'd just realized he'd picked up a snake. He turned and ran.
My foulest curse chased him, but I felt the air pressure drop beneath me. Refusing to look down, I grabbed the shattered floor with my other hand and pulled with all my might. In two quick motions, I jerked my body above the floor and rolled forward onto my feet just as the bunyip's head smashed up through the floor and doubled the size of the hole.
Vincenzo hesitated at the warehouse door to look back at me. He shrieked at the sight of the bunyip rising above my five and a half feet of height. Feeling cocky, I ignored the thing, brushed a few splinters off the shoulder of my jacket, and crooked a finger at Vincenzo.
"Last chance to play nice," I told him. Beneath us, the bunyip fell back into the river with a splash that shook the warehouse. Vincenzo moved toward the door. I took a throwing knife from my sleeve. The moment his hand touched the latch, my knife pinned it against the door.
Vincenzo screamed and tugged at the blade, but I'd thrown it hard. I retrieved my big knife and strode over to him in six big steps. Removing my throwing blade from the door, I grabbed his ponytail and dragged him back to the hole in the floor. There I held him over the river water.
I fixed my eyes on his face, but he stared down at the water. We both heard the furious splashing, but only he could see what swam down there.
"You know what I want," I told him. "Who and where?"
"At the opera," he screamed, his pupils rolling back as the shiver began to grip him tight. "I don't know the name. One of yours!"
"One of my what?" I growled. I felt the air pressure change again, and Vincenzo hugged his knees to his chest. We both knew that wasn't going to be enough.
"A hellspawn!" he shrieked as we heard the bunyip crest the surface.
∗ ∗ ∗
"I am in no vein for bad news," I warned Radovan. He had burst past the butler to enter the solarium, causing me once more to reevaluate my decision to employ so many halflings. I considered adding a few guards large enough to encourage him to develop better manners.
"Can't be helped," he said. The several foul stenches he had brought into the hothouse threatened to wilt the nearby orchids that I had cultivated for decades since my all-too-brief expedition to the Mwangi Expanse. "One of your peers hired an assassin."
I blinked at him, uncomprehending. The scent of flowers had lulled me toward an afternoon nap. I reached for my wine, but the clumsy butler must have repositioned it after refilling the glass. I bumped it from its table onto the stone path, where the crystal shattered into a thousand glittering fragments. They sparkled in the afternoon sun, briefly mesmerizing.
"Do you hear me?" said Radovan. "It's a hit on you."
"Ridiculous," I said. Granted, I was perhaps a trifle drowsy, but I could not at that moment think of anyone who would be so rash as to threaten a scion of House Jeggare. I did, of course, have one prominent rival. However, his ethics, if not his demeanor, were beyond reproach. The day he chose to end my life, I would see it coming. "Who would be so reckless?"
"I didn't get names," he said. "But I have a description of the assassin and a location. You'll want to skip the opera tonight. There's a tiefling you want me to find before he finds you."
"Out of the question," I said. What I did not explain, what Radovan could hardly understand, was that a performance of The Water Nymph promised my only solace in a day that had brought nothing but miserable tidings. Besides, the Opera House was the perfect location for me to avoid hellspawn, since none were allowed within. I waved Radovan away, but he failed to grasp my meaning. I tried to rise from my reclining chair and said, "You may go."
My hand slipped off the chair, and I began to fall. Radovan caught my arm, his grip exceedingly tight. "Boss," he said, "you need to take this seriously. A lot of families got hurt in the Henderthane business. I'm just surprised we haven't taken more heat before now."
I removed myself from his presumptuous grasp and stepped back, slightly unsteady. All of this unwelcome news was exacerbating my headache. I felt dizzy and confused, but most of all I felt angry.
"It is not for you to tell me how to receive this or any other information," I said. "You've delivered your news, and you are dismissed."
He stood in perfect stillness for a moment, his expression caught halfway between wonder and anger. Never before had he released his fury on me, although I had seen him cow thieves and informants with one of his notorious smiles. If he retained even a fraction of the good sense he had demonstrated in past service, he would not test me now.
He did not speak for many seconds. At last he rubbed the back of his neck and said, "Right."
Radovan never addressed me properly, and I had been permissive, perhaps excessively so, in allowing him such informalities as "boss." He turned and walked away, brushing past the butler, who scurried toward the broken wine glass with a brush and pan. Before he bent to tidy the mess, he set another crystal goblet on the table and filled it from the bottle.
I lifted the new glass to observe the color of the wine. Instead, I noticed a difference in the glass itself.
"Why is this not the same as the previous?" I asked the butler.
"Forgive me, Your Excellency," he said with a low bow. "I am afraid that was the last of the old set. Recently there has been some... attrition."
I squeezed the bridge of my nose, hoping to dull the rising pain. How could I have been so careless, so forgetful? I felt a sudden urge to call Radovan back, but I could think of nothing to say.
Coming Next Week: A night at the opera turns deadly in Chapter Three of "The Lost Pathfinder."
The Lost Pathfinder—Chapter Three: The Grand Opera
The Lost Pathfinderby Dave Gross ... Chapter Three: The Grand OperaThanks to the longevity granted by my mingled elven and human blood, I have held a box at the opera longer than any other member of the Jeggare family. Even before my mother bequeathed it to me, her parents had held it throughout their long lives, and so had their venerable parents before them. It is in fact one of the four longest-held boxes in the Opera House of Egorian, and upon her ascent to the throne, the first Queen...
The Lost Pathfinder
by Dave Gross
Chapter Three: The Grand Opera
Thanks to the longevity granted by my mingled elven and human blood, I have held a box at the opera longer than any other member of the Jeggare family. Even before my mother bequeathed it to me, her parents had held it throughout their long lives, and so had their venerable parents before them. It is in fact one of the four longest-held boxes in the Opera House of Egorian, and upon her ascent to the throne, the first Queen Abrogail condescended to spare it when she claimed the first and third boxes for herself.
It is, however, one of the smaller boxes, accommodating only two in comfort. Such limited space was no hardship while my mother lived, for we happily entertained each other. Since her death, however, the limited seating has on occasion presented me with mild social quandaries, as any invitation I might extend to an eligible lady posed her chaperone the uncomfortable choice between standing and abandoning her charge for the duration of the performance. Often I preferred to avoid the dilemma by offering the lady and her chaperone the box with the understanding that we would meet afterward to discuss the opera.
In recent decades, I have enjoyed the comforts of the box unaccompanied. The whispers of my peers returned like flotsam on the tides of gossip, so I knew the prevailing speculation was that I had simply accepted the fact that I had grown too old for marriage. Some hypothesized my sexual interests lay beyond the field of Egorian's noble maidens and widows. The most offensive rumors were those that hinted at perversions that could be satisfied only in the utmost secrecy. The latter had the unfortunate effect of stimulating the curiosity of women for whom traditional assignations had grown stale.
Thus it was that I had become accustomed to appearing alone within my box on opening nights of a new opera, to a general stir among the audience. As the ushers parted the drape, I tugged my gloves snug at the wrist. My opera cloak lay folded over my right shoulder, revealing its plum-colored silk lining. I stepped through and rested a hand upon the back of one chair, adopting a casual posture as I observed the house.
"That they would dare snub a scion of House Jeggare is unthinkable."
The velvet curtain hung in sensuous crimson folds from a height of twenty feet. The fabric displayed the first hints of wear and would soon be replaced, a transition I had witnessed with some mourning six or seven times over the past ninety years. Each time, in support of future performances, I had purchased a scrap of the fabric as a memento, which I kept in frames on the walls of my library at Greensteeples. The edge of the stage was aglow with limelight that warmed the first few rows, rendering them the least desirable of the floor seats. Ushers led nobles to their seats on the floor and the three general balconies, while those of us privileged to enjoy private boxes were attended by servants employed by the opera house. Above us all, the lighted chandeliers cast a golden aura about the vast, multi-tiered auditorium.
I searched for a friendly face among those taking their seats below. Soon I spied a plump matron of House Elliendo, but she missed my smile or pretended so. That was not too strange, since her cousin and I were rivals. I was more disappointed when a toothsome widow of House Leroung obviously ignored my bow in her direction. Her gaze was not entirely averted, so I raised a hand in greeting.
She turned her back to me. She had clearly seen my gesture, yet she rebuffed it.
Shocked at the blunt offense, I turned away. My gaze fell upon a young woman who had only six months earlier hung on every word of my account of an investigation into a lost idol of Sarenrae. A smile flickered upon her lips until her mother bent to whisper in her ear. Then both showed me their backs.
As a few stones accumulate into an avalanche, so too did the several snubs spread throughout the auditorium until everyone who had turned to notice my presence turned away to face no particular direction, which is to say any direction other than the one in which I stood.
They had no other object to attend. There could be no mistaking their intention. One and all, my Egorian peers shunned me.
∗ ∗ ∗
The carriage driver was a slip named Miro. He'd been working for the boss for a few years, but I'd only recently learned his name after he did me a good turn. That opened my eyes to the fact that slips didn't have it much better than my sort did. In Cheliax, both halflings and hellspawn were more often slaves than free men. I'd looked down on the little fellows all my life, just like the humans turned their noses up at both of us. Problem was, slips were little, and lifetimes of abuse had turned a lot of them crafty or mean. Hell, when I thought about it, I had to admit the same was probably true of me. I couldn't decide whether I was getting enlightened or just starting to realize what an ass I'd been to the slips.
Anyway, Miro was a good fellow. I stood him a few pints after the Henderthane affair, and I'd sort of apologized for putting him in a bad spot and sort of thanked him for helping me out of it. He liked this restricted tobacco from Nirmathas, and I'd found him a pouch on the black market. The stuff smelled good, but smoking it made me slow and goofy, so I declined when he offered me some. We'd been chatty ever since, which was good. Like my old colleague Maccabus, sometimes I wanted a favor, and now there was another place I could find one.
Miro's sons also served at Greensteeples, Lom assisting the gardener, Vono working in the stables. Miro made sure both of them came along on the ride to the opera house. That was good because it gave us two footmen to wear the house livery, which I hate. While they were grown halflings, Lom and Vono were small enough to share one of the carriage's steps while I balanced them by standing on the other, after the boss was inside. The way he'd treated me earlier, I figured it was simpler if he didn't know I was along for the ride, especially out of uniform. When he got this way, it was best to leave him gazing into Elfland while the rest of us took care of business.
When the boss disembarked, I stayed on the other side of the red carriage. The boys escorted him to the opera house entrance and bowed as he went in. With very few exceptions, the guards didn't welcome nonhumans inside, especially hellspawn. When the boys came back to the carriage, I told them the plan.
"Pick a side," I said. "See anyone with horns or a tail, hustle it back here to finger him. I'll take it from there."
They nodded and strolled up and down the line of carriages parked along Carthagnion Drive, where drivers and footmen would smoke, share hip flasks, and throw cards while their betters enjoyed the show. Only tonight, one of them was a hellspawn assassin looking for a shot at my boss. If I spotted him first, he'd have a bad night. If not, I'd be out of a job.
I was confident Vincenzo's information was good. Caught between me and the giant bunyip, he'd spilled all he knew. If nothing else, his sense of self-preservation was strong enough to know a lie would mean I'd find him again, and this time I wouldn't just leave him to dream off his last dose of shiver.
Impatience was making me fidget. I climbed the back of the carriage to stand on the roof. A gull-faced driver from House Sarini tilted his head back to look down his nose at me. I shot him the tines, and he flustered up like a nanny who'd just been pinched on the bottom. Ignoring him, I checked out the line of carriages in either direction. I saw a lot of familiar faces, and those I didn't recognize were human or, occasionally, halfling.
I spotted Vono pumping his little arms as he ran back toward the red carriage. I jumped down to meet him halfway, but he was already pointing to the side entrance. A couple of guards stood beside the service door. One of them was reading a card he'd taken from a broad-shouldered man holding a long box under one arm. Even from this distance, I recognized the guard dipping his hand into his pocket to secure the bribe he'd been passed with the card. I couldn't identify the house crest on the visitor's livery, but his face had a fiendish silhouette.
By the time I reached the door, the hellspawn was already inside. The guards stepped forward to intercept me. Each was a good six inches taller than me, and a stone or two heavier.
"I'm with him," I said.
"Nice try," said one of them. His partner slipped his baton out of its belt loop.
I showed my palms to the sky and smiled a weak apology. There hadn't been time to come up with a better bluff, so I gave them each a knuckle-shot to the throat. The friendly one dropped to his knees, while his buddy dropped his weapon. I snagged the baton and gave the stunned guards a rap on the head to buy a few minutes. There hadn't been time to be gentle, either.
Inside was a hall connecting the lobby to a couple of doors. From the side entrance we were below stage level, so I figured the doors led to the orchestra pit and backstage. An usher of considerably less physical menace than the door guards had just closed the second door. He looked at me suspiciously, and I ran toward him while beckoning him close for a whisper. The gullible fool leaned in, and I gave him a nice clean rap on the sleepy button. I caught his body before he could hit the floor, dragged him in through the door, and closed it behind us.
Past the second door was an irregular little room with two exits: another door and a short flight of steps leading up to a heavy black curtain. The fabric still swayed as though someone had recently pushed past it.
Beyond the curtain was just what I'd guessed, a high room filled with a confusion of scaffolds, curtains, wheeled scenery, ropes, hoists, ladders, and a dozen objects and tools I couldn't begin to name. Ahead of me was the main stage, barely illuminated by offstage lamps as the chorus took their places.
From nights I'd accompanied the boss home after the opera, listening to his detailed accounts of the evening's entertainment, I knew enough to realize that meant there were only moments left before the curtain rose. As if mocking my thought, a sharp report from a timpani marked the beginning of a rising drum roll, and music overflowed the orchestra pit beyond the curtain. Before I looked away, I saw the famous soprano taking her position on the opposite wing. One look at her beefy arms, and I knew I wouldn't want that woman coming after me with a switch.
I looked around for any clue as to the assassin's trail. The ladder to the scaffolding nearest the front curtain shuddered, and I looked up to see someone stepping onto the catwalk twenty feet above. It could have been one of the stagehands, but it also looked like the best spot for a sniper. Maybe that had been some sort of disassembled crossbow in the box he'd carried inside.
I put a foot on the first iron rung of the ladder. Something cracked me hard on the back of the skull, and my vision wavered. I reached for the grip of my dagger, but a hand slapped my arm away, and I was too weak to send it back before I teetered and fell in a clumsy spiral to the floor. My last vision was of a face looking down at me. It wasn't a man but a masculine-faced woman, hellspawn like me, but a lot less pretty. She shook her head slightly as if disappointed as she held a leather sap above her head.
Then she brought it down between my eyes.
Coming Next Week: Radovan meets his match in the final chapter of "The Lost Pathfinder."
The Lost Pathfinder—Chapter Four: Behind The Curtain
The Lost Pathfinderby Dave Gross ... Chapter Four: Behind The CurtainA good crack on the skull is worse than you might think. Assuming it doesn't kill you, there's a good chance it'll soften your brain, cross your eyes, destroy your sense of smell, or leave any of a dozen other unpleasant reminders of that time you were stupid enough to walk past the hiding spot of the hellspawn assassin you were meant to be sneaking up on. ... But I'm not whining, and it's not like I hadn't been knocked cold...
The Lost Pathfinder
by Dave Gross
Chapter Four: Behind The Curtain
A good crack on the skull is worse than you might think. Assuming it doesn't kill you, there's a good chance it'll soften your brain, cross your eyes, destroy your sense of smell, or leave any of a dozen other unpleasant reminders of that time you were stupid enough to walk past the hiding spot of the hellspawn assassin you were meant to be sneaking up on.
But I'm not whining, and it's not like I hadn't been knocked cold once or twice before. This time I went down hard, my head bouncing off the bare backstage floor. Chances are I would have stayed down if hot, stinking vomit hadn't filled my mouth and nose.
The pungent stench was better than a slap for dimming the sparks that danced in my head. I rolled over and let the rest of the curried fish stew I'd had for dinner gush out. If Malla had served something less aromatic, maybe I would have choked to death before coming to. I shuddered at the thought and made a mental note to steal something nice for the plump cook.
Above me, quick footsteps rang out on the scaffold ladder, evoking a flurry of admonishing shushes from the performers who wanted silence before the curtain went up. That was my deadline, too, since the woman who'd coshed me on the noggin was here to murder my boss.
Still dizzy, I wobbled up to my feet and grabbed the iron ladder for support. I felt my adversary's weight on the framework, and looked up to see her silhouette looking down at me. She hesitated for a second, but when I put a foot on the ladder, she ran. Her steps were a thunder above the singers, whose hushing added the sound of a rain shower to the clamor.
I reached the catwalk just as the curtain began to rise. Limelight flooded the stage twenty feet below us, but I barely noticed the dazzling colors of the set and costumes. To either side of the scaffolding hung flat walls, tree boughs, and latticework arbors crawling with painted vines, all awaiting their turn in the next scene change.
Between the twin iron rails, the assassin stood in the center of the catwalk, the phony flower box lying at her feet. She cradled an elegant stock in one arm and fixed the crossbow in place. Three bolts were clamped to the stock, and she'd set one against the string. In the reflected light from below, I saw the dark gunk that covered the sharp head of the bolts.
It had to be black lotus paste. One shot of that, and even the priests of Asmodeus wouldn't be healing the boss. Of course, if this were a serious hit, they'd have already been paid to find fault in any contracts he'd made with them.
"A whispering flower is ominous, but its silence is more so."
This was definitely a serious hit.
I was halfway to the assassin when she cocked the lever. Realizing I wouldn't make it before she set the bolt in place, I snatched one of the little knives out of my jacket sleeve and flicked it toward her. It was a good throw, but she avoided it with the merest bend of her knees and a tilt of her head. The second one, aimed to strike her when she dodged the first, flew harmlessly past her shoulder. There must have been some snake mingled with her human and diabolic blood. I could come to like this woman if she weren't messing with my livelihood.
She glanced out toward the boxes and hesitated. Shoot at me or shoot her target is what she had to be deciding. The question was whether success or survival was more important to her. She raised her crossbow and pointed it out into the audience. I shouted my filthiest curse.
Say what you like about a country that's held onto its remaining imperial might by bargaining with the legions of Hell, but queen-ruled Cheliax is still the most powerful nation in all of Avistan. Even so, there's a word or two that'll strike any woman sharp enough that the first thing she wants is to put you down. I figured halflings still bristled at "slip," and, no matter how much I like to keep my cool in any situation, "boy" and "hellspawn" still raised my hackles. Manly as the assassin was, I was betting that was doubly true of her. I needed her to hate me for a second.
My epithet rippled over her face. With a snarl, the assassin turned the crossbow toward me. Only then did I realize the stakes. Even when I was in his good books, the boss wouldn't have paid the small fortune it would take to resuscitate me. He'd have to sell one of his precious orchards or an entire farm, assuming I was only dead and not destroyed. I didn't really know how it went with black lotus. The thought made me flinch, and I dove low to knock the legs out from under the assassin.
The killer was smarter than she'd looked. As I flew toward her knees, she leaped straight up and set one foot on either rail, deft as a bird on a line. I hit the iron platform hard. All I could do was hope the impact would throw off her aim, but the assassin's knees bent to absorb the shock. Steady as a veteran sailor on the crow's nest, she held the stock of the crossbow against her cheek and drew a bead on her target.
Something she saw made her frown and hesitate again. I grabbed her ankle and wrenched her down from her perch.
She twisted as she fell, hitting me dead in the sternum with the butt of her crossbow. The blow took away my breath and wet my eyes. She was even heavier than she looked, with muscles hard as cobblestones. I thrust an arm through the open wedge of the bow but couldn't get a grip on the bolt. My other hand clutched at her face, fingers seeking her eyes.
She cracked my chin with an elbow and struck me again in the throat. I turned to avoid the third shot, which caught me on the thick of my neck, and she caught my arm in a wrestler's grip and bent it painfully, forcing me onto my face.
Through the grille of the catwalk, I looked down at the singers. Their voices barely smothered the sound of our fight above, but a lone chorus boy stared up at us as he sang, his mouth an O of astonishment as he sustained his note. Despite my predicament, I threw the kid an apologetic grimace.
Using my opponent's strength against her, I tried twisting in the direction she was forcing me, but she planted a knee between my thighs to stop my escape. If she had kneed me a little harder, she'd have discovered the surprise I wore for those who go for the cheap shot. Maybe she knew I wore a spiked cup. If she'd asked for such detail about her target's bodyguard, she was even more dangerous than I already understood.
She let go of the crossbow I had tangled with my arm, and I finally caught hold of the haft and threw it away. The weapon clattered across the catwalk and came to a stop beside the railing. I half wished it had fallen onto the stage, summoning help. If that arrived in the form of local guards, it'd go a lot worse for the assassin than it would for me. But if someone called the Hellknights, it'd go badly for both of us. It was better to wrap things up and get the hell out of here.
I whipped my head back and cracked her on the face. It wasn't much of a blow, but it threw her off balance enough that I twisted out from under her. We lay side by side on the catwalk, and that's where you don't want to be if I'm mad at you. My spur caught her high on the chest, and I felt more than heard the crack of her breastbone. The strength evaporated from her arms as she reached for me, and I gave her another shot to the shoulder for good measure. We scrabbled over the catwalk for a few more seconds, but it was all over save for the rap on the head.
When she lay still, I glanced out where she had aimed her weapon, but all I saw was one of those tiny balconies. It was empty.
I collected her crossbow and dragged the assassin to the end of the catwalk. At the base of the ladder, four beefy stagehands awaited us. After removing the bolt and loosening the crossbow string, I lowered her unconscious body and dropped her into their arms. When I climbed down after her, the big boys blocked my path.
"What's all this, then?" asked the smallest of them. He must have been their boss.
I thrust the crossbow into his chest. "You work it out," I told him. When one of his boys reached for my arm, I menaced him with the poisoned crossbow bolt. He stepped back and looked to his boss for direction, and by the time he looked back I was out the door and into the hall.
A cluster of guards stood over their unconscious comrades where I'd left them. One of them was just coming to, and his rescuers eyed me with suspicion. Their boss asked the obvious question, but I ignored it and answered the important one.
"These knuckleheads let an assassin bribe her way into your playhouse," I said, thrusting the crossbow bolt into his reluctant hands. His eyes widened as he recognized the poison on the tip. I pushed past him.
"Wait," he demanded.
I turned to face him. The fight had taken it out of me, and I was too tired to run. "My boss is waiting," I said. "If you have something to say, make it quick."
He hesitated, looking down at the bolt and considering his culpability in the matter. After a moment's consideration, he looked me up and down and said, "Nice jacket."
∗ ∗ ∗
My opera cloak was scant comfort against the chill I felt upon emerging from the opera. However fine the weather, a cold wind blew in on me from the direction of all my peers. I was beginning to understand at last, after decades of effort to integrate myself fully into the human society of my mother, that I had never been one of them—not truly, not at all. I was born before House Thrune ascended the throne on the backs of devils and men sworn and damned. We did not like it, my mother and I, but since her death I had been ever loyal to the throne, answering each summons to war, spilling my coffers when taxed and overtaxed, and yet still turning the course of my wealth to the comfort of those least buoyed by the national triumphs, employing halflings not as slaves but as servants, elevating a hellspawn street thug as my bodyguard, and bending my considerable talents to the advantage of my peers who wished their personal injuries and indiscretions to be soothed privately...
It was intolerable ingratitude. That one misfortune—in a career of hundreds of favors rendered discreetly and without a single instance of advantage taken over those whose secrets I had uncovered and recovered and kept safe—should result in such a bestial display...
I had endured such abuse as only the lowliest of criminals deserve, and from the very crust of the scab that has formed over the wound left by the death of Aroden, usurped by the infection praised in my homeland as the Prince of Law. That we citizens of an empire should come to serve at the foot of Asmodeus, better described by our foreign foes and rivals as the Prince of Lies, master of all us damned Chelaxians who think nothing of exploiting the generosity of a peer only to...
I had thought I was alone, but Radovan has a most distasteful habit of creeping up on me.
"Are you all right?" he asked.
"Why should I be otherwise?" I said.
"You made a sound," he said. "And, you know, you left the opera."
I did not wish a description of this "sound" Radovan had heard, nor did I wish to discuss the matter of my early departure. Still, it was an unexpected comfort to hear the voice of one I could trust, no matter how rude his manners. My headache had dissolved into a maelstrom of indecision. I felt as though I were on the brink of an abyss, capable of surrendering myself to the void or else turning to leap... I knew not where.
"You look like you could use a drink," said Radovan.
The surrender in his voice was more damning than any chastisement. It was Radovan, among all my servants, who had most blatantly hinted that I had been drinking too much since the unfortunate affair of the Henderthanes. That he would encourage me to seek the solace that he believed diminished me made me feel more poignantly ashamed than any admonishment my mother had ever gently delivered.
"No," I said. "That is the last thing I need."
"All right," he said. To his credit, he kept most of the relief from his tone. "Then maybe it's time to get you home."
The comforts of Greensteeples were plentiful, and no lord of Egorian had grown more accustomed to his house than I, who had resided in mine, apart from the occasional tour or campaign, for nearly a century. Yet I knew I would find no solace in Egorian, even if I were to close my doors to visitors and mingle exclusively among the society formed by my books, my gardens, and my memories. As I came to this realization, it was the image of the whispering lilies, drooped and wilting in the solarium, which sprang foremost to my mind—a symbol of all that had gone wrong.
And which might yet be set right.
"No, Radovan," I said. "It is time to depart."
Coming Soon: For the further adventures of Radovan and Jeggare, see the forthcoming Pathfinder Tales novel Prince of Wolves. Meanwhile, stay tuned for next week’s Pathfinder Tales webfiction and the first installment of “Noble Sacrifice,” by Richard Ford!