As Vencarlo Orisini led Orkatto's men on a noisy chase, I strolled out the front doors with my "bodyguard." In the darkened museum, and without his mask and cloak, which I carried folded under my arm, Master Raneiro did somewhat resemble the younger man who had accompanied me into the museum. I placed my hope in the bravo's topknot and the noisy diversion behind us.
The guards at the doors bowed the moment they saw me, sparing the man at my side not so much as a glance.
Raneiro faltered, drawing the guards' attention as his foot dragged across the gravel. I took him by the arm and stage whispered, "You need only taste my wine, you fool, not guzzle it!"
A chuckle from the guards assured me of the ploy's success.
My footman held the door open, and to his credit he did not so much as raise an eyebrow as I helped my "bodyguard" into the carriage before joining him. I rapped upon the roof, and the driver slapped the reins.
"If they seize Vencarlo..." Raneiro wheezed. The paralysis was taking hold. I knew its effects all too well.
And I knew there was no cure.
"I will intercede on his behalf," I said, knowing it was an empty promise. His pursuers had no intention of taking Blackjack or any imposter alive.
I opened the rear portal and peered back at the museum entrance. His exhausted men at his side, an exasperated Orkatto questioned the door guards, who pointed in our direction. The cowled figure who had poisoned Raneiro emerged to stand by his side.
"Turn here," I told the driver.
"Let me out," said Raneiro.
"No, my men will take you somewhere quiet." I drew his cloak around my shoulders and unfolded his black mask. Looking down at its limp form in my hands, I felt as though I were looking at the face of a corpse. I pulled it across my face and raised the cloak's hood up to conceal my half-human ears. "I will draw them off."
I stepped out of the carriage door to stand upon the running board. After I gave my servants their instructions, Raneiro called my name. With the last of his strength, he lifted his rapier toward me.
I still had Vencarlo Orsini's blade at my side. "No, Master Raneiro. I am not worthy of such an—"
"Of course you aren't," he rasped. "Give it to the boy."
Our gazes locked for a long instant. I took the blade and leaped from the carriage.
With a quick calculation of where our pursuers would appear, I dashed toward a lighted intersection. Knowing precisely where the Korvosan Guard was stationed throughout the city, I plotted an escape route while waiting for Orkatto's men to arrive. They found me moments later, standing in silhouette before a street lamp.
Mimicking Vencarlo's disguised voice as best I could, I cried out, "Did you fools truly think you could capture Blackjack, the people's hero?"
"Kill him!" screeched Orkatto.
His hired guards ran toward me, but his assassin lingered at his side, staring at me. I spared only an instant before fleeing, but I noticed that cowled figure running to the side, in the direction I'd chosen for my true escape.
My diversion was proving more difficult to execute than to plan.
I fled as fleetly as I could, revealing myself only when I had extended my lead by another ten or twenty yards. Twice I failed to put myself in front of a revealing streetlight and resorted to Vencarlo's bombastic taunts. "Over here, you fools!"
The expression on their faces delighted me, even as the fear of discovery sent a cold thrill through my veins.
A hippogriff's scream alerted me to the threat I had forgotten. Captain Ornelos and his Sable Company still patrolled the skies, and one of them must have heard the alarum from Orkatto's men. A winged shadow crossed the street before me.
Standing on the other side was the cowled assassin who had slain Raneiro.
The killer moved toward me with uncanny grace, the chain-dart swinging in an accelerating circle.
Debating between defense and flight, I hesitated only long enough to catch a distinctive perfume.
"You jump at shadows, buffoons!" Vencarlo's adopted Blackjack voice—already becoming more natural with practice—boomed down from a rooftop. "Look for me in the clouds!"
With a laugh, he ran across the roof and vaulted over the peak. Moments later, a hippogriff wheeled above us and flew after him.
The assassin hesitated, glancing between me and the other Blackjack. Turning, the killer abandoned me to chase Vencarlo.
Undeterred, Orkatto's guards ran after me. They were, as Blackjack named them, fools and buffoons. It was child's play to mislead them into dead-end alleys and taunt them from two streets away.
I worried more for Vencarlo, whose pursuers were far cleverer and more deadly. A few times I dared reveal myself in hopes of drawing them off, but they knew me for an imposter. They chased the true Blackjack, while I slunk back to my lodgings to prepare my lies for the morrow.
∗ ∗ ∗
Two days later, we buried Master Raneiro beneath one of the Arcadian oaks I had delivered to Queen Domina. By quiet agreement, his students spread word across the city that the celebrated fencing master had finally succumbed to his affection for the grape. Over six dozen of his former pupils came to pay their respects. Vencarlo stood among the youngest, while I stood beside my aged cohorts.
My former bodyguard and I did not speak at the funeral, but our eyes arranged a meeting. After the final words were uttered, my agent announced that Raneiro had bequeathed the last of his wine to his students on the condition that they drink it all in his favorite wine houses before the following dawn.
By previous arrangement, Vencarlo and I met at a little wine house in Old Korvosa, the one not mentioned to the other students.
We drained the first goblet and filled the second before speaking.
"Captain Ornelos questioned me at length yesterday," I said. "I told him you stood guard at my lodgings all night after we withdrew from the museum. Eventually, he believed me."
"I hear he looks quite dashing with his new eyepatch."
"He will not forgive you that injury."
Vencarlo lifted his hands and shrugged. "It was difficult enough eluding the Korvosan Guard. I could be only so gentle when your friend joined me on the rooftops. You'll note that I left him the other eye when I could have taken both. I could have as easily slain him."
"It is better that you did not." For the most part, I believed that to be true, but I feared one day the captain would have his revenge, and the legend of Blackjack would come to an end. "Have you done what you promised?"
"I've made peace with my father. I'll return to study at the Orisini Academy." His eyes narrowed. "Have you done as you promised?"
"In gratitude for my recent gifts, Her Majesty cleared the way for me to purchase the remaining properties Gaspare Orkatto sought. The residents of South Shore will not be driven from their homes."
"I am more concerned about your keeping your other promise. I am informed the Lady Seraphina was the victim of another burglary last night."
Vencarlo frowned. "Not ‘another.' She had never been robbed before. She only pretended so to draw suspicion from herself, while all along she conspired with Orkatto to murder Blackjack and remove the last protection of the people of South Shore."
"The rumors say there was a fire in her father's estate. Was that truly necessary?"
"I found the flowers you described, and the poisonous weeds that grew upon them. Yes, I think the fire was necessary."
I could not fault his action, no matter how much it rankled me to know a commoner had committed burglary and arson in the home of a peer. Considering the circumstances, I remained more inclined to caution than to chastise him. "She saw through my disguise, and doubtless through yours as well. You have a dangerous enemy in that one."
"More dangerous than lord Orkatto or Captain Ornelos?"
"Far more, I suspect. She cannot inform Ornelos or the Korvosan Guard of your robbery without exposing her own dual nature, but she will not hesitate to use them against you. What was it you said? ‘A beautiful woman commands all men.'"
"Not this one," he said with bitterness. "Not anymore. Anyway, did you know that just one of her rubies will feed ten families for a year?"
"I will pretend I did not hear that."
Vencarlo smiled and drank and stared through the wall, savoring his first act as the local hero.
I placed Raneiro's sword upon the table. "He wanted you to have this, along with the rest."
Vencarlo restrained his proud smile, but only barely. "It took two of us to imitate him," he said. "Perhaps we could—"
"No. I am a lord of Cheliax. It is my duty to uphold the law."
"Even when the law is unjust?"
"It is my duty," I said. "Not always my preference."
Vencarlo leaned across the table. "After what we did, you are as much an outlaw as Blackjack. We both are. Let's both take up his mask, you from the tower, I from the street. We could—"
"No," I said. "Tomorrow I return to Egorian. I will keep your secret. I can do no more than that. When next you run afoul of Captain Ornelos, Lord Orkatto, or—Desna spare you—Lady Seraphina, you cannot turn to me for help."
A sneer flickered across Vencarlo's fierce smile, and then both faded into a grim line. "You high-born lords can never understand what it is for the common folk to live under your cruel caprice."
"You are correct," I said, knowing he was utterly wrong but unwilling to explain why. Just as the common are subject to the noble, so are the noble subject to the royal, and the royal to the infernal. "But as you have seen, one man can avert that caprice. If only for a while, and only for a few."
Vencarlo refilled our goblets and raised his in a toast. "To Master Raneiro."
I held my cup to his. "To Blackjack."
Coming Next Week: A sample chapter from Dave Gross's King of Chaos, plus a brand new artistic envisioning of Radovan!
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