Lisette followed Karag into the bosom of Oregent's underworld, such as it was. The folk of Andoran were different from those of Cheliax, addled perhaps by their own slogans about liberty. Their enterprises were not especially well interwoven with that of the city government, and required more furtive activity. Or so she had deduced. As evening came on, Karag led her via a circuitous route to a tavern in the warehouse district, then through a small crowd of incurious drinkers to a large back storage room. Somewhere, more bells were signaling. All was dark but for a lantern near the door and another over a card table occupied by four thick-necked bruisers. Crates and barrels were stacked more or less neatly upon shelves, amid bits of discarded junk and rusted winches.
At sight of Karag, one of the card players, a big balding Keleshite with a nose ring, got up.
"I've got the delivery," the dwarf announced. "And some news."
"And a visitor." The thug gave Lisette a once-over. He stepped back to knock on a paneled door and announce: "Karag's back, with some woman." The others kept their seats, appraising the newcomer.
After only a brief delay, a fifth man stepped out from a shadowy office. He was of a different cut than the thugs: aquiline nose, firm chin, high cheekbones. He was well dressed, gone a little to fat, but handsome save for lips that seemed small for his face, and somewhat petulant.
This, then, was Belvar. If she managed things right, he could get her past all the obstacles this ill-fated mission had thrown into her path. Belvar had the Keleshite take Karag's satchel, then his dark eyes raked Lisette thoroughly. He made sure she knew that he liked what he saw, as powerful men so often did. She had even, regular features, and her chosen occupation kept her fit, even if it also led to the acquisition of scars and bruises. As yet, none had permanently marred her face. So much the better for playing these kinds of games.
"Who's this, Karag?" Belvar's voice was thin, a little oily. He gave her a half-smile as Karag explained how he'd been ambushed, his partner killed. Then Belvar's eyes slipped to the butts of the rifles poking over Lisette's shoulders. They flicked to the blue feather in her brimmed hat, and his expression froze.
She kept her smile fixed in place, pretending that she felt no alarm. He'd recognized her. How had he recognized her?
Karag was in the midst of his report about Lisette dropping into the alley.
"What did you say?" Belvar asked him.
Karag summed up flatly, as if familiar with such interruptions, "Vermet's men jumped us after we'd collected most of the protection money."
"And her?" Belvar snarled.
"She killed two. I got the other one."
Belvar demanded a few more details, then spun and barked orders to one of the muscle boys about arranging a proper "thank you" for Vermet and his crew. The man departed swiftly with an eager, self-satisfied air.
Only then did Belvar step a little closer. "So," he said to Lisette. "It seems I'm about to become involved in a business dispute with a competitor."
"A turf war," she said, picking up on Karag's lead.
"And here you are, dropped right into the middle of things, guns, plume, and all. Coincidence?"
He seemed to have recognized her specifically, not just the fact that she carried guns. She'd have to play things very carefully. She adopted a softer, more feminine tone. "I have to find the man that killed my friend," Lisette told him. "A bowman. And I've learned this bowman is now after a banker you may know. I can see you have more important matters to attend to, but if you could just—"
"I'm afraid your reputation precedes you, my dear." Belvar snapped the fingers of his right hand. "I think I'd be more comfortable discussing your little problem with you unarmed." Instantly he had the attention of the remaining muscle, who rose, grinning with menace, to take up positions—two in front of Belvar, and another who circled behind Lisette. Karag was at her side, though he seemed a little puzzled by his boss's action.
"Hold on," Lisette snapped. Like hell he was going to get her guns. Good thing she'd taken the time to reload. Too bad she only had three shots. There just hadn't been time to repair that broken hammer yet.
"Belvar, she's here to make a deal," Karag told his boss. "She can pay well for basic information." He was trying to prevent a fight, bless him.
"Can she." Belvar sneered, but he held up a hand to his men, who didn't advance. "Did she tell you who she was, Karag?"
The dwarf's gaze shifted doubtfully between the two of them.
"I'm Lisette Demonde," she announced.
"Which she volunteers now," Belvar said with a smirk. "After I've already worked it out."
"I'm not keeping any secrets." Lisette strove to sound as reasonable as possible. "I'm after a bowman, and there's money in it for you."
"Maybe," Belvar said, small lips curling, "and maybe you're really after one of us."
Karag's expression foundered. "What's going on?"
"You ever hear of Kerrigan Sure-Shot? The bounty hunter?"
Apparently Karag hadn't. One of the enforcers, a good-looking Ulfen, muttered under his breath. The other, the big Keleshite, growled.
"She's his." Belvar turned to the Keleshite. "You've heard the stories, right? How many pretty, gun-toting bounty hunters do you think there are? Let alone one wandering around in a feathered hat."
Lisette forced a wider smile. Things were going south. She heard the thug behind her shift. Someone thought he was quieter than he truly was. "I'm a business woman," she tried. "Just like you."
"Bounty hunters killed my brother," Belvar spat.
"Other bounty hunters," she emphasized. "Not me. There's money in this for us both. I hear this banker has some business interests on the shady side, and I figured someone you know has dealings with him."
Belvar snorted in disbelief. "You want to pump me for information?"
"Pay," she repeated. She sensed now that if the window remained open at all, it was closing fast. Now she understood the dwarf's hasty speech. Belvar had a short attention span. "The bowman will be where the banker is. Dronsbech doesn't know the bowman's after him, so I need someone to intro—"
"Dronsbech? Jhon Dronsbech?" Belvar's eyes fairly bulged. "You think I know him?"
"I came here betting you know someone who does. And I'll bet the rich banker will be grateful to whoever helps him out. I just want the bowman. You collect the gratitude."
"Maybe I'll see about talking to Dronsbech myself." Belvar flashed an oily grin "I don't like bounty hunters. Even pretty ones." He snapped the fingers of his other hand.
The man behind her sprang.
Well, so much for the diplomatic approach. Lisette whipped about, fired from the hip, and took the shirtless thug through his sagging belly. He dropped with a scream. She spun back and, with her second pistol, shot the lantern above the card table. It shattered in a spray of glass, plunging the area into darkness. She ducked the knife swipe of the Keleshite, clubbed him in the side of the head with her pistol butt. As he staggered, she swung the rifle around her shoulder so that the barrel pointed forward and triggered it upside down.
The Ulfen had thrown himself flat; he learned fast, though he hadn't been the target. Lisette's third shot blasted the second lantern, plunging the storeroom into darkness. Now the only light source was the dim evening sun filtering through the shuttered back door window.
"She'll rush the door!" Belvar shouted. "Stop her!"
But that wasn't her intention at all. She holstered the pistol, then drew her sword with her off hand. The guy she'd pistol-whipped was groaning on the floor, but the handsome Ulfen was climbing to his feet. And there was Belvar. And Karag, a squat figure who had unlimbered his axe, but stood uncertain.
The Ulfen got his blade up and out as she charged. She deflected his strike and took him down with a precise kick. He groaned and crumpled. So there was only Belvar, and Karag. Neither was likely to know enough about guns to tell that Kerrigan's was broken, and it was too dark to see detail in any case.
To Belvar she presented the bore of Kerrigan's rifle, her curved short sword in her other hand. The crime boss held only a knife.
"I'd drop that, if I were you," she instructed.
She couldn't make out Belvar's expression, but she saw the glint of his blade reflecting the window light behind her, and it quivered.
"Karag?" he said.
"She came for business," Karag replied stubbornly.
"Damn straight," she agreed, then addressed Belvar again. "Drop the knife."
Belvar's oily self-assurance cracked, and he cursed at Karag in a high-pitched tirade. Lisette risked another step towards him. The boss's weapon thudded against the floor planks.
Belvar's voice shook as he screeched. "You ever come near me again, Karag, and you're dead."
"I think you have more pressing worries," Lisette told him smoothly. She slipped in beside him and put the blade of her sword to his throat. She heard the intake of his breath, and let the rifle hang back over her shoulder as she grasped the back of his shirt with one hand and tugged him toward the door. "I wasn't after you at all. I want the bowman. But I bet there's a bounty on your head, somewhere. Maybe I'll take it anyway. To keep in my hope chest."
"This is a misunderstanding." Belvar's voice had risen another half an octave in fear. Lisette looked past him to the shapes gathering in the doorway to the storeroom. The Ulfen had climbed stiffly to his feet and looked like he might still be able to try something. Karag followed her, warily, on a course parallel to her own, axe at the ready.
She heard Belvar lick his lips. The others drew closer.
"Call them off."
He gasped as she pressed the sword edge to his neck. "Get back! All of you! I'm serious."
The Ulfen pulled back, though he watched alertly.
"You're making things a lot more difficult for me, Belvar."
"Just a misunderstanding. We can still talk."
There was nothing more to talk about. She'd be a fool to trust him for an introduction now, and she didn't think there was anything more than her own skin that could be gotten out of the situation. But she had to play things cool. "Alright, but I'll do the talking. Karag"—she had almost called him dwarf—"seems like your name's mud around here now. Earn some coin and show me out of here."
"I don't owe you anything. I had a good thing here."
"Maybe. I think you're probably smarter than Belvar, who's going to end up in a noose before long. Show me around. I'll make it worth your while."
The dwarf only grunted. Well, he'd help or he wouldn't, but if he was as smart as she thought, he'd be out the door right after her. She resisted the impulse to slit Belvar's throat—that could make things even more complicated than they already were. Instead, she sent him careening forward before she turned and bolted for the exit. Immediately, Belvar began shouting for someone to get her.
The door was unlocked. She was through in an instant, and quickly put distance between her and the inevitable pursuit. As she predicted, Karag came out alone a moment later. Three thugs ran after him: one the handsome Ulfen, limping a bit; the other two presumably from the tavern's main room. All were threatening shapes in the twilight. The dwarf jogged along ahead of them, solid, determined.
And dead pretty soon. They were catching up.
She didn't owe the dwarf. Belvar hadn't proven useful. But she might still get some use out of Karag, who at least knew a little more about the city than she.
She dashed behind crates piled by a darkened warehouse door, then unslung the rifle and powder bag. Over the last few years she'd drilled in twilight, darkness, and glaring light, high on rooftops and on rocking boats, and even in the pouring rain. Kerrigan had told her she was faster now than all but the best gunmen of Alkenstar. All her skills were honed so that she might load and reload and keep Kerrigan always supplied with a ready weapon.
She would give much, now to have someone like that herself. Or better yet, to still be offering a loaded weapon to the dark-skinned bounty hunter.
The dwarf was ten feet off, the nearest thug fifteen. There was no time to waste. She cocked the hammer, raised the rifle to her shoulder, and fired, deciding at the last second to shoot one of the others instead of the good-looking Ulfen. Life and death, she thought, aren't always fair.
She absorbed the weapon's kick, felt the familiar smell of the gunpowder wash over her as the pursuing guard's face dissolved into red ruin. The Ulfen and his comrade dove for cover.
"Come on, dwarf!" Lisette called, and ran on. Another twenty feet led them out to what seemed a main thoroughfare, judging by the carriages and the lights. Puffing, Karag joined her. She was about to ask him the best way to go when Karag pointed and they jogged off, stopping only when Lisette flagged down a closed black carriage.
The driver leaned down, the tip of his conical black service cap sagging. She showed him a gold sail, the then glanced to Karag, who seemed uncertain as to her aim. "Give him a destination."
After a moment, the dwarf said, "The Golden Ox."
"No other passengers," Lisette said as she passed up the coin.
"As you wish, madame. My pleasure."
They scrambled into the carriage, and Lisette closed the door, though she held the dark curtain to one side to consider the street. There was no obvious sign of pursuit. "What's at the Ox?" she asked Karag.
"A friend," the dwarf grunted coarsely. "You cost me a lot, woman. I had a decent thing going back there."
She considered the squat, broad shape hunched on the bench across from her. He smelled of sweat and ale and blood.
"I'll probably have to leave the city now," the dwarf muttered.
"You could work for the mine gangs, or Vermet."
He grunted. "Vermet's an ass. And I'm done with mining."
"Well. I didn't expect Belvar to recognize me."
"You'd be hard to forget," the dwarf said. "Don't the guns give you away?"
"Kerrigan usually does the talking." The moment she said as much, she chided herself.
For a long time, she thought the dwarf hadn't understood, but he deduced more than she'd hoped.
"So it's Kerrigan who's dead, is it? What was he, your lover?"
"Yes," she answered, as though the matter was of little import.
"So who's this bowman guy?"
"An elite assassin. There's a contract on him."
"See, you should have told me you were a bounty hunter."
"It's not about the bounty. Not now. I told you that."
Karag seemed to consider that, for he was quiet for a time. "If I help you find him, will you cut me in for half?"
"Help me how?"
"I can get good help. You want to get in to see the banker? I can manage it. And I can back you up so we can collect."
"What kind of help?"
"Let's talk money first. It'll be help that will cut through about anything, though."
She was intrigued despite herself. "A fifth," she offered.
"A fifth of what?"
"You'd get a hundred Sails."
Karag remained silent. The cart turned, and they bounced through some deep ruts. Somewhere far away, another set of bells began their ringing. "Two fifths. Two hundred sails," the dwarf said at last.
"That's a lot of money. Who're these friends of yours?"
Karag grinned. "You wouldn't believe me."
Coming Next Week: Dwarven revelations in Chapter Three of Howard Andrew Jones's "Bells For The Dead"
Want even more Lisette and Karag? Check out the new Pathfinder Tales novel Stalking the Beast, available now!
Howard Andrew Jones is the author of the Pathfinder Tales novels Plague of Shadows and Stalking the Beast, as well as the independent historical fantasy novels The Desert of Souls and The Bones of the Old Ones. He's also edited eight collections of literary giant Harold Lamb's work, and currently serves as the Managing Editor for the iconic sword-and-sorcery magazine Black Gate. For more information, see his website at howardandrewjones.com.
Illustration by Kelly Perry