In Liar's Blade, Rodrick is handsome, charming, quick-witted—and totally devoid of morals. Fortunately for him, his best friend Hrym—a talking sword with a blade of living ice—is just as single-minded when it comes to acquiring gold. The pair prefer to win their money by tricking those less deserving of it—which is to say, everyone else—while expending as little effort as possible. Yet when a mysterious patron offers them a lucrative job far to the north, the dastardly duo may find themselves in over their heads (or hilts)....
Chapter One: Two Sought Employment
Why would anyone want to meet at a circle of standing stones?" Rodrick leaned against one of the mossy monoliths and gazed up at the darkening sky. "Who wants to talk business out in the woods? I prefer taverns for this sort of thing. Taverns are traditional. It's easy to get a drink in them. Also, I live above one. Very convenient."
"Our mysterious prospective employer obviously doesn't want to be seen in public with you," Hrym said from behind Rodrick, voice muffled. "I can't say I blame him."
"Possibly he doesn't want to be seen at all." Rodrick rubbed the faint scratches on his cheek where one of the tavern wenches had raked him with her fingernails yesterday. He'd only made a suggestion—and he'd even offered a fair price. How was he to know she was a newlywed who took her vows seriously? At least she was married to a milkwater shopkeeper and not one of Tymon's countless over-muscled gladiators, or Rodrick might have faced more serious injury. "Maybe he's a fugitive from justice or something. We do have some history of working with criminals."
"Besides one another, you mean?" Hrym said. "And anyway, what justice? We're in the River Kingdoms. In Tymon, no less, where most arguments are settled by the parties mutually agreeing to beat each other bloody. But suppose it is some rank villain. Would you turn down the job?"
"I might. I'm an honest man now, Hrym—at least on this side of the border. And at this point in time. As far as anyone knows. It's easier to make a profit off a dishonest man, true. But you have to admit, this is a suspicious way to organize things, luring me out here all alone. Present company excepted." Rodrick was relatively comfortable with his position, standing with his back against a great huge block of stone, with sightlines as clear as he could get in the forest. At least no one would be able to stab him in the kidneys. But there were still too many shadows gathering for his liking. "Picking the lock and leaving a note on my pillow. Telling me to come here at dusk if I'd like to make some money. And leaving me that little bag of gold as, what, an incentive? A deposit? A retainer?"
"Lovely gold," Hrym said dreamily. "Just pile it up and let me sleep on it, I'll be happy as happy can be."
"Yes, I know. You have such simple tastes. I still say we should have just taken the bag of coin and scampered off. I'm tired of Tymon. The only reason I stayed around after we lost all those bets at the arena was because we were too poor to travel in style. But we've got a bit of money now—"
"Yes, but if we leave, we'll miss out on making more gold," Hrym said, practical as always. "It's not like we have any other prospects for gainful or illicit employment at the moment, and that little purse won't last long. Not with the way you run through money. You spent the last of our savings on the second-prettiest wench in the tavern, you may recall."
"The first prettiest was unavailable," Rodrick said absently. "But, look, don't you think anyone stupid enough to give me a bag of money in advance is, by definition, too stupid to work for? Trusting my reliability doesn't say much for their judgment."
"Or they could be stupid enough for us to make a lot of money off them," Hrym said.
Rodrick pondered. "Fair point. "
A moment later, the underbrush rustled, and a figure stepped forward from the shadows. Not quite short enough to be a halfling or dwarf, but definitely on the small side for a human, draped in a bulky cloak that seemed to hint at some concealed deformity—a hump, perhaps, or an off-center surplus head. The cloak was made of good fabric, though, dark green and richly embroidered along the edges with peculiar spiral patterns in dark blue thread.
"I am Zaqen," the figure said, voice pitched high enough that Rodrick guessed the speaker was female, though it was hard to be sure. "You are Rodrick, of Andoran?"
"I'm from all over," Rodrick said. "And I'm pleased to meet you." He gave her one of his more roguish smiles, because it never hurts to be charming.
Zaqen giggled, and Rodrick's smile slipped a notch. People who giggled for no reason worried him.
"Is it true," she said, "that those who hire you also hire ...your sword?"
"A warrior isn't much good without his sword." In truth, despite the rumors he'd caused to be spread throughout the region, Rodrick wasn't much of a fighter. He preferred to stab people from concealment if stabbing was called for—but one had to keep up appearances.
Zaqen sidled closer. "Yes, but ...you have a special sword?"
"Special is a good word for me," Hrym said. "Also ‘amazing' and ‘wonderful' and ‘amazingly wonderful'—"
"The sword talks!" Zaqen said. "How marvelous. I'd assumed that was an exaggeration." She craned her head, trying to get a glimpse of the magical weapon sheathed on Rodrick's back.
"I am no it," Hrym said. "‘He' would be better, or any honorifics you choose."
"Apologies, O mighty blade," Zaqen said, her tone deeply amused.
Rodrick sighed. Of course she'd heard about the sword. The only people who wanted Rodrick for himself alone in recent years were magistrates, city guards, and the occasional irate spouse.
"May I see it—I mean, him?" Zaqen scuttled a few steps closer, almost obscenely eager.
"Yes, let me out of this sheath," Hrym demanded. "I can't see anything."
"Your senses are magical," Rodrick said. "It's not as if you have eyes. I don't understand how a leather scabbard can possibly impede your vision." But he stepped away from the standing stone, reached over his right shoulder, grasped the hilt of the longsword, and drew Hrym smoothly from his scabbard, holding him aloft to sparkle in the ...well, twilight. Noonday sun would have been more dramatic.
Hrym was looking especially radiant tonight, though: a blade of living ice nearly four feet long, transparently crystalline at the impossibly sharp edges shading to milky white inward, and on through to a shimmering blue at the center, with steam rising in smoky tendrils from all along his length in the humid air.
"There," Rodrick said. "Meet Hrym, my partner. If this was all some elaborate ruse to lure me out here to steal my sword, you might wish to reconsider. The last person who picked up Hrym without permission lost half his arm to frostbite."
"Though if you offered me sufficient coin, say enough to fill the empty hollow of a medium-sized drained lake—" Hrym said.
"Hush, you," Rodrick said.
"No." Zaqen was suddenly businesslike. "I am not here to steal your blade. I am here to invite you to join me, and my patron, on a sacred quest."
"A quest!" Hrym said. For a sentient sword of living ice with no tongue, mouth, or even vocal cords, his voice was remarkably human. Hrym sounded like an old man who'd spent several decades running a shop that never offered credit, smoking a clay pipe on a porch and pontificating, and teaching his nephews dirty jokes. "I love quests. A sacred one, no less."
"A quest," Rodrick repeated, and sighed. "Well. It's not as if anyone's ever died horribly on one of those. Where is this patron of yours?"
"My master is busy with devotional matters. He is a very holy man."
"A holy man?" Now Rodrick did frown. "What variety of holy? The kind who disapproves of gambling and drinking, or the kind who likes sacrificing innocent virgins on altars of black stone, or ...?"
"The very wealthy kind of holy," Zaqen said. "And he has no interest in your morality, or lack thereof. As long as you can protect and aid us on our journey, he will be pleased, and you will be generously rewarded."
"And as for the other thing, you're hardly a virgin," Hrym said. "So let your mind rest easy on that point."
"Let's have a few details," Rodrick said. "Or even broad outlines. Where are we going, why are we going there, who's trying to kill us along the way, and what are you offering to pay?"
"We are going to Brevoy." Zaqen lifted her face to look at Hrym, still shining in the dusk. Her face was entirely human, though not particularly pretty: snub nose, thin lips, eyes of two different colors, one blue and one green—and the eyes looking in just slightly different directions, lending her gaze a fishlike quality. "To the very edge of any map you're likely to have seen. We seek a sacred artifact of great power, locked away for millennia. No one in particular is trying to kill us, but the River Kingdoms are dangerous places, and parts of Brevoy are little better. And, of course, where there are great treasures, there are often powerful guards, and other interested parties seeking the same prize ...My master and I are not without resources, but neither of us is particularly skilled with weapons, and simply having a strong man with a long blade in our party will act as a deterrent against many common bandits—"
"He asked about payment," Hrym said. "That's the one part I actually care about, so don't forget to address it, please."
Zaqen cocked her head, doubtless wondering—as many had before—what a magical sword could possibly want with gold. "My master is traditional. We will pay all expenses, of course. If you help us reach our goal, Rodrick, we offer your weight in gold as reward." She paused. "Or an equivalent value in gems, treasure, property, or a promissory note drawn on a leading bank of Absalom."
"His current weight in gold, or his weight at the end of the journey?" Hrym said sharply.
Zaqen blinked. "Excellent question. Astute. Forward-thinking. Let's say ...at the end of the journey?"
"Hmm," Hrym said. "I don't like it. Long overland journeys tend to cause weight loss. But he's hardly stout now, so I think we can do better. You'd better start eating richer foods, Rodrick. I want you so fat you can't sit on a horse by the time we reach Brevoy."
"Those terms are acceptable," Rodrick said calmly. His weight in treasure? That would be enough to fill a nice chest for Hrym to use as a bed, with plenty left over for Rodrick to live in the manner to which he devoutly hoped to become accustomed. And then there was the artifact she'd mentioned—surely that would be worth a bit of coin to the right buyer.
"What's the artifact?" Hrym asked. Rodrick suppressed a wince. Hrym had a bad habit of tipping their hand.
"It is a holy relic," Zaqen said. "Of no intrinsic value, and worthless to anyone but my master's particular sect."
Rodrick nodded. "I understand." Maybe what she said was even true. But if this holy man's cult could pay a man's weight in gold just for a chaperone, what would they pay in ransom for the relic itself?
"When do we leave?" Hrym said.
"Meet us here tomorrow," Zaqen said. "Two hours before twilight."
Rodrick frowned. "You want to travel by night?"
She shrugged, one shoulder dipping lower than the other. "My master sets the schedule. I gather there is a place to camp some two hours from here, where he wishes to spend the night."
"Who pays the coin calls the tune." Rodrick bowed. "I'll see you then."
Zaqen disappeared back into the underbrush, walking with a strange, hitching gait, but with surprising speed.
"Well then," Rodrick said. "I suppose that's settled. Let's head back to the Bloodied Flail and spend our advance money."
"You'd better keep enough gold to scatter over the bottom of a drawer in our rooms," Hrym said. "I don't intend to sleep on bare wood again."
"Sleep! As if you sleep." Rodrick slipped away from the standing stones, working his way along the old footpath in the direction of Tymon. The woods right around the city weren't especially dangerous—because of the gladiatorial arena, Tymon had the highest concentration of heavily armed warriors in the River Kingdoms, and they were all obliged to provide a certain amount of civil defense—but there were always bandits with no sense of self-preservation and skulking agents from the neighboring country of Razmiran, which coveted the wealth of Tymon. The value of caution was a lesson Rodrick had learned long ago. Though the exact lesson was more like, "Be cautious when no one is watching; if you want to impress someone, be ostentatiously bold, if the odds favor success."
Rodrick wasn't a coward, but he found that getting in too many fights tended to make his muscles hurt, which detracted from his enjoyment of sex, sleep, and other sensual pleasures.
They made it back to the main road without encountering thieves, thugs, spies, or mad wild beasts. Alive and walking with coins jingling in his pocket—what a pleasant sensation. Hrym was back in his sheath, keeping quiet. People tended to notice talking swords made of living ice. They gaped, or plotted to steal said magical sword, or just asked far too many tedious questions, so Hrym seldom spoke in public. There was also the element of surprise to consider. Discovering that your enemy was armed with another enemy had given many an opponent pause over the years.
Rodrick stopped by the gates to greet Chumley, the night guard he'd befriended on his first day in the city. That was one of Rodrick's little rules: if at all possible, get on friendly terms with the fellows capable of opening a gate and letting you slip out unnoticed in the middle of the night. The guard helped him tie Hrym's hilt to the scabbard with a bit of rough twine. In Tymon, ordinary people had to bind up their weapons or leave them with the guards while they were inside the walls, while full-fledged gladiators could use bare daggers for jewelry if they liked.
Rodrick strolled through the gate, nodding at the few familiar faces he saw, especially the heavily scarred ones. These were not people you wanted to have for enemies.
Most of the wooden and stone shops along the central thoroughfare were still open, though soon only the bars and betting parlors would be doing business. Off in the distance, the roughly palatial Champion's Fortress loomed above almost all the other buildings, overshadowed only by the Arena of Aroden, by far the largest structure in town. Rodrick had gone to a couple of the fights there—the ones he'd bet on most heavily—but his seats were so terrible he'd barely been able to see anything except the head of his "sure thing" rolling off across the sand at the match's conclusion. Blood sports weren't really his preferred game. Give him a nice bit of back-alley gambling instead, especially if he could provide the dice.
"Aroden." Rodrick paused to gaze at the arena. "Some god he turned out to be. Greatest scam ever perpetrated, don't you think? He claimed he was going to come back from the heavens and deliver us all from evil, and when the time came, he was a no-show. How many times have I pulled the same trick at an inn? ‘Oh, I'll come back tonight and settle my bill.' Ha! Of course, they say Aroden died, which is a fairly good reason to miss an appointment, as these things go."
"I met Aroden once." Hrym voice was low and muffled.
Rodrick frowned. "What? The Aroden? Didn't he stroll away from our mortal plane ten thousand years ago?"
Hrym was silent for a moment. "Maybe I'm thinking of someone else," the sword mumbled. "You humans all start to look the same after a while."
Rodrick shook his head. "He was Azlanti—the last Azlanti. I doubt he looked much like the rest of us—"
"Bipedal. One head, with hair on it. Two arms. Close enough."
Rodrick snorted. It was often impossible to tell if Hrym was boasting, lying, deluded, or genuinely ancient. Even the sword himself often seemed unsure of his true history. But what mattered now was their future. If they were off on a long, harsh journey tomorrow, they'd better enjoy tonight.
Their current home was a room above the Bloodied Flail, close enough to the arena to hear the screams of the crowd if the wind was right. Despite the tavern's name, and the sign bearing an image of a multi-headed whip dripping crimson paint, the Flail wasn't a particularly violent or rough tavern. That was just the aesthetic in Tymon, the city of gladiators: blood, weapons, severed heads dangling by their hair, and so forth. For all that the place was founded on blood, it was one of the more polite places Rodrick had spent time. Something about the fact that every third person you met was a seasoned arena fighter bristling with weapons prompted people to mind their manners.
Rodrick kicked the mud off his boots before pushing through into the Flail's common room—the owner had given him the rough side of her tongue the first time he tracked in muck, and he believed in staying on good terms with one's landlady, at least until it came time to skip out on the final bill.
It was only just nightfall, so the place wasn't too full yet, and he got a spot next to the bar. The prettiest waitress, Sonya—the one he'd propositioned, getting a slap complete with fingernails for his trouble—narrowed her eyes at him and disappeared into the back, but Sweet Jill approached with a smile and poured him a mug of beer. He took a sip and smacked his lips. "Much obliged. Have I told you how your hair reminds me of the embers of—"
"Save it." She kept smiling, but he saw now that her eyes were serious. "Flirt with me tomorrow, if you're still alive."
Rodrick raised one eyebrow in what he knew to be a charming and suggestive way. "Unless you're planning to ride me to death—"
"It's Sonya," she said. "She didn't like the way you talked to her."
"I suppose I could apologize, though I can't imagine why her feelings should be hurt. I would hardly seek the company of a woman who wasn't beautiful and exceptional and amazing, present company most definitely included, so really it was a compliment when I asked—"
"You're from out of town." Jill sounded sad, which was worrisome. "You didn't know any better. I tried to tell her that, but she's still upset. Most of our patrons know better than to try and have it off with her."
"I didn't know she was married," Rodrick said. "Let alone newly married. I would have held my tongue if I'd realized." Not entirely true, but he would have approached things differently. "Why are we talking about such tedious things when I have a bag of gold and—"
"You should probably leave town." She tried to nudge him off his barstool with her hip.
"But why? Her husband is a fine man, I have no doubt, but he runs a shop, and it's not even something frightening like a weapon shop or a butcher shop. It's a general goods store. The man isn't likely going to challenge me to a—"
"No," said a voice from behind him, a deep bass rumble full of amusement. "But her brother might."
Want more? Check out Liar's Blade in paperback or ePub format!
Coming Next Week: Tim Pratt brings us an all-new prequel story unveiling how Rodrick and Hrym first met and joined forces!
Tim Pratt is the author of the Pathfinder Tales novels Liar's Blade and City of the Fallen Sky, as well as the short story "A Tomb of Winter's Plunder." His writing has won a Hugo Award, a Rhysling Award, and an Emperor Norton Award, as well as been nominated for Nebula, Mythopoeic, World Fantasy, and Stoker Awards. His stories have appeared in anthologies such as The Best American Short Stories and The Year's Best Fantasy and Horror, as well as two short story collections of his own. His non-Pathfinder novels include the contemporary fantasies The Strange Adventures of Rangergirl and Briarpatch; the Forgotten Realms novel Venom in Her Veins; and seven books in the Marla Mason urban fantasy series (as T. A. Pratt). He edited the anthology Sympathy for the Devil, and Rags & Bones with Melissa Marr. His books and stories have been translated into French, Czech, Dutch, Russian, Greek, Korean, Spanish, German, and several other languages.
Illustration by Eric Belisle.