"We are most grateful, Count Jeggare." In the reflected light of the glass cases, Queen Domina smiled down at me from the dais. Its position in the grand foyer leant her the aspect of an ancient caryatid guarding a collection of rare Azlanti jewels. "The first of the saplings you have brought us shall be planted here, outside the Jeggare Museum."
A Chelaxian by birth and breeding, Domina had come to Korvosa to rule. Her earliest proclamations had halved both the city's bureaucracy and its coffers. As part of her civic improvement efforts, she had reversed the ban on trees planted within the city walls—the result of a predecessor's shortsighted reaction to the destruction wrought by windstorms over a century earlier.
Beside Domina stood her adult son, Eodred. He had made some effort to pay attention to the honor Her Majesty bestowed upon me, but his gaze kept slipping back to our audience, particularly the young women.
For that I could hardly fault him. To garnish their beauty, the ladies of Korvosa had adorned themselves with exotic flowers instead of gems and gold. Among them, only the queen wore jewels. I inferred from her curious glances that she had not expected the change in fashion.
The queen offered a few more words of gratitude for my gift of two hundred saplings and a thousand seeds obtained from lands as distant as the Mwangi Expanse, Vudra, and Arcadia. Her duty discharged, Domina took her son's arm and departed, accompanied by the royal guard.
The Korvosan nobles rose in her wake, casting discreet glances at each other and at me. In the queen's absence, I became the center of attention.
Across the room, Fedele Ornelos caught my eye. He cut a splendid figure in his dress armor, black and red leather trimmed in silver. With a conspirator's wink, he drifted away from the crowd to join the soldiers who waited with their hippogriffs outside the museum. There they would take flight in the most conspicuous manner possible.
Restraining a smile at my knowledge of his mission, I turned to see Vencarlo Orisini fixing an inquisitive gaze upon me. He stood against the wall, where the other servants strove to make themselves invisible while awaiting a signal from their masters. Vencarlo had noticed my wordless exchange with the Sable Company captain.
Like a younger Fedele Ornelos, Vencarlo also appeared dashing in his new attire, acquired after our duel that morning. He took a step forward, but I shook my head. It was not his place to address me among my peers. He frowned in disappointment and began to step back when a woman crossed the floor between us.
At rest, Seraphina Leroung was not the most beautiful woman in Korvosa, but in motion she was the epitome of grace. Men had fallen in love after seeing her walk only a few steps, and the current flattery was that none dare watch her dance for fear that they would take their own lives afterward in despair.
She wore a garland of panther lilies around her neck, with a bloom secured behind one delicate ear. The dusky flowers were subtler than those worn by the other ladies, but they were by far the rarest.
One flaw marred Seraphina's face: a neat scar directly beneath her left eye. Rumor abounded as to the cause of the injury, but I suspected it was a fencing scar.
Seraphina smiled at me. If I went to her, the eye of the city would follow—and perhaps that was her purpose, to supplant me as the object of attention. I preferred she come to me.
Before either of us yielded to the other, Vencarlo leaped forward and performed a sweeping bow before Seraphina. He reached for her right hand, but she withdrew it. He spoke quickly, and her lips parted in surprise. Whatever he said caused her to reconsider. She allowed him to kiss her left hand.
Furious, I moved toward him, prepared to discharge him on the spot, but another guest intercepted me.
"My most estimable Count Jeggare!"
Gaspare Orkatto approached with a nervous wave of his fingers beside his cheek. Lowering his voice, he concluded his conversation with the man at his side, oblivious to the fact that my half-elven hearing perceived every word.
"So you can see my concern. No matter how often I increase the rent, they somehow manage to pay. It can only be with the help of that scoundrel!"
Orkatto was a minor lord, one of the newly elevated merchants who had made himself valuable to the crown by dint of his ability to create wealth. Of late he used that wealth to acquire properties all over the city, with no discrimination as to the quality of the district. When last we had met, he tested my patience with complaints about the municipal red tape preventing him from buying whole neighborhoods in South Shore. So long as the tenants continued to pay their rent, he could not take their houses from them.
I nodded to acknowledge him. He beamed as if I'd bestowed a great compliment.
"Your Excellency, allow me to introduce Piero Cucuteni. My lord Cucuteni has a keen interest in the matter you and I discussed so recent—"
"I want that damned villain caught and punished, by Asmodeus!" snapped Cucuteni. He turned to look over his shoulder, gazing across the room to where a hard-faced woman crowned in yellow roses peered into the jewelry display. As if feeling his eyes upon her, she looked up and cast a basilisk's stare back at him. Even I felt the hair on my neck rise at her reptilian disapproval. Cucuteni gulped. "She won't let me rest until I replace her jewelry—every piece!"
Piero Cucuteni and I required no introduction. We had met at previous social affairs, where I found his conversation limited to complaints about taxation and the "wretched" Shoanti and Varisians.
"That's what I was telling you, my lord," said Orkatto. His obsequious tone would do little to ingratiate him to the older families. "Count Jeggare is well known in Cheliax for his ability to aid... our sort of people."
Cucuteni rose to his full if modest height. He had to tilt his head to look down his nose at the upstart Orkatto. Old money never loves the new.
"Very well," said Cucuteni. "Nothing else has stopped this rash of burglaries. Perhaps Count Jeggare can do the trick."
With an effort to appear interested in their exchange, I could not help but look back at Seraphina. Vencarlo stood indecently close to her, smiling as he spoke into her ear. Whatever he said caused her to cover a giggle.
I left a note in my Memory Library to never again hire such a womanizer.
Before I realized it, I was striding toward them. "Stop disturbing the lady, Vencarlo. You are here as my bodyguard, not a jester."
"But Your Excellency, I was simply ensuring the lady posed no threat to you."
My hot blood turned cold with true fury.
"Your man is quite amusing," Lady Seraphina said before I could speak. "This Vencarlo is a marked improvement on that brute you had before. Do let him stay."
Vencarlo offered me a conciliatory shrug and smiled. "A beautiful woman commands all men. Is it not so, Excellency?"
I stepped between him and the lady to shelter her from his coarse behavior. Recalling a previous visit to her father's estate and its extensive gardens, I ventured a guess. "Am I correct to surmise that you are the one responsible for the floral décor, Lady Seraphina?"
"My secret is discovered!" she said. "It seemed a pity to inflict the envy of those who have fallen victim to this villain Blackjack on those who haven't."
"You are the soul of diplomacy, my lady."
"And you are a flatterer," she said. "Although not quite as vivid in your compliments as your man has been."
During our exchange, Vencarlo's demeanor transformed. His back grew as stiff as Cucuteni's. "Blackjack is no villain, Lady Seraphina."
"Do you suggest he is not the perpetrator of the burglaries?"
"On the contrary," Vencarlo replied. "Who else could perform such daring acts? Who else could elude the Sable Company and make fools of the Korvosan Guard? But only the wealthy call him a villain. To the common people of Korvosa, he is a great hero."
"To the common people?" cried Lord Cucuteni, who along with Orkatto had followed me across the foyer. "Do you speak of the Shoanti who befoul our streets with their native stinks and rituals? Or do you mean the Varisians, each born with his hand in another's pocket?"
"Not all Varisians are Sczarni," said Vencarlo. "Most are perfectly—"
"Still your tongue," I said. "You have no right to contradict a lord of Korvosa."
"I want the blackguard found and punished," puffed Cucuteni, forgetting Vencarlo's presence. "He must suffer as I have suffered every day since he stole into my wife's chambers and took her jewels."
Vencarlo's face reddened with the effort of stifling a humorous retort to Cucuteni's ill-chosen words. This time it was I who utilized the gaze of the basilisk, turning it upon my upstart bodyguard. Fortunately, for both his sake and mine, it turned at least his tongue to stone.
Seraphina lay a hand on Cucuteni's arm. "Until they are recovered, I promise to send Agnese a different breed of fresh flowers every day. Aren't those roses lovely in her hair?"
Cucuteni's jowls worked without producing any words, until finally he murmured, "Very kind of you, dear lady. Very kind indeed."
"You must have an expansive garden," I said in an attempt to guide the conversation away. "When next you visit Egorian, perhaps you would allow me to show you my hothouse at Greensteeples. Among other rare species, I have cultivated a weed symbiotic to your panther lilies, a specimen that produces a deadly toxin used by the Zenj people of central Mwangi."
"I think the lady would prefer to witness a fencing demonstration," said Vencarlo. He, too, had identified her as a swordswoman.
"The lady can decide for herself," said Seraphina, frowning at Vencarlo. "And now I decide you have become tiresome after all."
"What?" Vencarlo could not have looked more surprised.
"You heard her," I said, trying without great success to avoid gloating. "Return to your station."
Raising his proud chin as though he had just been slapped, Vencarlo bowed, spun on his heel, and returned to his place among the servants. Unlike the rest, who stood at attention, he lounged against the wall, striking a pose he must have thought made him appear like a swashbuckler.
Seeing Seraphina's gaze flick back to him, I had to admit, if only to myself, that it succeeded.
"There," said Orkatto. "Now that we are no longer overheard by the help, Your Excellency, perhaps you would unfold your plan to Lord Cucuteni?"
"A plan? Do you mean something like a business transaction?" Seraphina scrunched her nose in distaste. "Or do you mean something thrilling? A scheme, or a plot, or—better still—a stratagem? Oh, let it be a stratagem!"
Mocking though it was, her enthusiasm enchanted me. I looked to see that the museum staff had begun ushering the guests outside to their carriages. Servants began extinguishing the lights and barring the windows. Soon it would be time to set my trap.
I signaled my agents among the servants. The one beside Vencarlo tapped him on the shoulder and gestured for him to remove his new jacket.
Inhaling, I savored the perfume of Seraphina's flowers. "I suppose there is no harm in sharing the details now, so close to the appointed hour."
Seraphina leaned close and gave me her rapt attention.
"You may have noticed that the officers of the Sable Company left soon after the queen's departure."
Orkatto, already aware of the details, nodded at an accelerating rate, eager for me to share the rest.
"And the city guard," said Seraphina. "I saw two squadrons marching quickly through the streets as our carriage approached the museum."
"They will provide a conspicuous presence at all of the most likely targets of Blackjack's larceny."
"All but one!" blurted Orkatto.
"The jewels here," said Seraphina. "You've set them as bait."
"You are as astute as you are observant."
"And as beautiful as you are astute," said Vencarlo, materializing at my elbow like a dog who cannot be kept from the supper. He beamed at Seraphina. "To praise a woman, a man must not overlook her beauty."
Behind him, the agent who bore a passing resemblance to Vencarlo shrugged on his jacket and went to the entrance. I doffed my own coat and handed it to the hireling who resembled me. Together, they would enter my Red Carriage and depart the museum, leaving us inside with the twenty guards who had gradually secreted themselves throughout the museum during the day. Several other servants had also donned finery to depart, presenting the illusion that as many nobles who had entered for the gala reception were now returning home.
Vencarlo turned to me. "Your scheme will never succeed, Excellency."
"Pray enlighten us why."
"Blackjack will detect your trap."
"It is clever to show as many people departing as remaining, but Blackjack is also clever. He will sense a trap when he sees you have dismissed the guards."
"But I have not dismissed them. They remain at their stations, with the exception of two absences, allowing the thief a choice of entrances."
A crash and a shout alerted us to activity toward the rear of the museum.
"And there you have it. The trap is sprung."
Vencarlo's insouciant air evaporated. "You mustn't do this, Count! Blackjack is not some common thief. The jewels he steals feed the poor. He is a champion of the people!"
"That is for a magistrate to decide. Unlike your scofflaw idol, I do not take the law into my own hands. I simply introduce it to those who have strayed beyond its grasp."
"I cannot allow you do this, Your Excellency." Vencarlo bowed and reached for his weapon.
Coming Next Week: Masks, blades, and intrigue in Chapter Three 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