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“Who happened to him?”

Drago woke with a pounding headache, and a sense of deep dissatisfaction. After a moment or two it began to dawn on him that not all the pounding was internal, and that the door of his lodgings was shivering on its hinges.

“All right, all right, I’m coming.” To his vague surprise, he seemed to have retained the power of speech, although the effort of articulating his jaw required a bit more concentration than usual. Whoever was outside must have heard him, however, because the incessant thumping on the wood moderated in response, to a slower, lighter tempo of impatient drumming.

“Stop that, you big oaf, you’ll have the paint off,” the familiar voice of his landlady squawked, followed almost at once by the rattling of a key in the lock. Which narrowed down the number of potential callers considerably; by now Mrs. Cravatt would have run most people causing a disturbance like that off the premises at the point of a broom handle, not to mention her tongue, which had been known to reduce hardened street toughs to quivering wrecks at twenty feet. Relative politeness, and cooperation, just had to mean . . .

“Jak. Come on in.” Drago hauled himself more or less upright in the tangle of bedding, instantly regretting the sudden movement, and let go of the hilt of the dagger he habitually kept beneath the pillow.

Captain Raegan of the City Watch squeezed his impressive bulk through the narrow doorway, stooping slightly to fit beneath the eaves. The attic of Mrs. Cravatt’s lodging house was cramped even for a normal human, let alone one of Raegan’s stature and girth, but Drago had always found it roomy enough.

“Not a social call, Drago.” Raegan’s voice was blunt and businesslike. “Get your britches on, you’re nicked.”

“What for?” Drago asked, trying to reconstruct the latter half of the previous evening. He couldn’t recall any brawls, or outstanding bar tabs, and Raegan would just have sent one of his constables round to talk about those anyway.

“Murder and robbery ring any bells?” Raegan asked. He glanced pointedly at Drago’s discarded clothing, still encrusted with the filth he’d rolled in the previous night, and liberally stained with Fallowfield’s blood. Both had hardened while he slept, which at least had moderated the smell, but done precious little for their wearability.

“How many times do I have to tell you to put those in to soak as soon as you stab somebody?” his landlady interjected peevishly, her face appearing round the watchman’s bulk, bearing its usual expression of irritation. Edna Cravatt was a woman of indeterminate age and species, although human and goblin appeared to predominate, whose vocation of running a lodging house would have been entirely congenial to her if it hadn’t been for the unfortunate necessity of the presence of tenants. Mr. Cravatt was long gone, “to a better place” according to his erstwhile helpmeet; opinion among the lodgers was evenly divided as to whether that meant the hereafter or the Icelands, though they were unanimous in the conviction that either would be a definite improvement. “Gloria won’t be able to get that lot out without an enchantment now, and you know what money-grubbing bastards wizards are.”

“I’ve got enough if she needs to buy one,” Drago assured her, hoping that was true. Fallowfield’s purse had been full, right enough, but the dice had been even more unforgiving than usual last night. Easy come, easy go, as the saying went. On the other hand, he knew a mage or two who could probably be persuaded to do him a favor in exchange for his continuing discretion about some previous commissions, and the laundress would never know the difference.

“Hm.” His landlady absorbed the assurance with a skeptical sniff, and remained rooted to the spot.

Raegan turned to look down at her. “Haven’t you got cabbages to boil, or something?”

She shook her head, sullenly determined to make the most of the entertainment. “Not for ages yet.”

“I need to get dressed,” Drago said, allowing the blankets enveloping him to slip a little. “And a lady’s presence . . .”

Mrs. Cravatt shrugged. “Don’t mind me,” she said. “I doubt you’ve got anything I haven’t seen before.” Raegan’s face became preternaturally expressionless. “And I’m not leaving one of my tenants with the likes of him without a witness.”

“Very commendable,” Raegan said, trying not to look as though the exchange was by far the most amusing thing to befall him that week. “Because you just can’t trust the City Watch, can you?”

“Damn right you can’t,” Edna Cravatt agreed, brimming with righteous indignation. “You’re all either on the take, or just can’t be arsed to do your jobs properly.” She jerked a thumb in Drago’s direction. “Just as well, really, ’cos it means he can earn enough doing it for you to cover the rent.”

Raegan nodded. “So, you think if you weren’t here to keep an eye on us, I could just make up whatever charges I like and drag him off to the watch house?”

“Exactly.” Mrs. Cravatt nodded triumphantly.

A thoughtful tone entered the watchman’s voice. “Unless I made up a few more, and took you in as well.”

The landlady considered this for a moment. Then turned decisively toward the door. “This is all very well, but I can’t waste the whole day chatting with the likes of you. I’ve got cabbages to boil. Tenants don’t feed themselves, you know.”

“They do round here, if they’ve got any sense,” Drago confided, sotto voce, once her receding footsteps had reached the bottom of the stairs. He rolled out of bed, waited for the floor to stop rocking, and started rummaging in the battered chest of drawers for a clean shirt and hose. Raegan watched impassively. “Who am I supposed to have murdered this time?”

“Ambrose Fallowfield.” Raegan waited for a reaction, which Drago was too hungover to have given, and which he would have suppressed anyway even if he hadn’t been.

“Never heard of him.”

“Really?” Raegan responded, in tones of polite skepticism. “Walking sack of sputum, about so high, last seen being chased through the kitchen of the Jolly Rogerer by you, after laying out five of his goons to get to him.”

“Must have been some other gnome,” Drago said. “We all look alike to you lot. Just the top of a hat.”

“Don’t try to be clever, Drago.” Raegan seated himself on the recently vacated bed, with a sigh of relief at finally being able to stop hunching his shoulders, even though his chin was now almost level with his knees. “You told one of them who you were.” Oh, right, the swordswoman. He’d even bowed, like it had been a proper introduction. One of these days he’d learn not to show off so much. “And we’ve spoken to Clement Wethers.” The chairman of the Tradesman’s Association, whose name was most definitely not mocked within his hearing. Not if you valued your fingers. “He told us you’d taken a contract on Fallowfield from him and his mates.”

“To persuade him to leave town. On a ship, not a bier.”

“Which doesn’t change the fact that he turned up dead this morning.” The watchman looked pointedly at the heap of soiled clothing on the floor. “And if I take these in to our sorcerers, they’ll probably find the blood’s Fallowfield’s, and the . . . rest of it matches the patch of ground where they found him.”

“All right, Jak.” Drago sighed, giving up the unequal struggle. There didn’t seem any options left, apart from the truth. “I did kill him. But it was in self-defense.”

“Course it was,” Raegan said skeptically. “When isn’t it with you?” He hunched forward a little, trying to look like an attentive listener. “What exactly happened?”

“I gave him a one-way ticket for the Icelands; a little present from the Tradesman’s Association, to show their appreciation of all he’d done for the local economy.” Drago shrugged. “He didn’t want it, for some reason. Tried to jump me.” He paused, reflectively. “I don’t think he was all that bright.”

“You’d just taken out five of his bravos without killing anyone. What went wrong with Fallowfield?”

“He slipped in the muck. Landed on top of me.” Which wasn’t entirely the truth, but considerably less embarrassing than admitting he’d lost his own footing. “When I pushed him off, I found my sword stuck in his chest.”

“Hm.” Raegan looked thoughtful. “That would be consistent with the entry wound, anyway. Let’s pretend I believe you. So what happened to his stuff?”

“What stuff?” Drago asked, surreptitiously nudging the dead gangster’s purse a little farther under the bed with his foot as he spoke.

“All of it,” Raegan said. “Purse, boots, clothing—the lot. And someone ate part of his arm, though that might just have been dogs.”

“Definitely not me,” Drago said. “None of his clothes would fit.” Though it seemed his initial instinct, to leave them as a charitable contribution to the Wharfside dregs, had been the right one. “And I don’t eat human. Not raw, anyway.” He smiled, making it clear the last comment had been made in jest. People had enough wrong ideas about gnomes as it was. You eat just one rat in front of the more squeamish species, and you never hear the last of it.

“Fine. We’ll call it self-defense. Again.” Raegan stood, and banged his head on the ceiling. “Bugger.” He rubbed the affected spot reflectively. “Sod of a lot less paperwork that way, anyhow.”

“Glad I could help,” Drago said, keeping his face straight with less effort than he would normally have required, the throbbing in his temples and turmoil in his stomach taking a predictable toll of his joie de vivre.

“I still need you down at the watch house,” Raegan said. “To make a statement in writing. You can write, right?”

“And read,” Drago confirmed. “Renaissance gnome, me. Turn my hand to anything.”

“That’s what worries me,” Raegan said.

Sorting things out at the watch house took no longer than Drago had expected, which meant the morning had all but gone by the time he stepped out into the open air again. Raegan had been considerate enough to allow him to grab some breakfast before leaving Mrs. Cravatt’s, but since that had left him braving the landlady’s porridge on a hungover stomach, it had been a distinctly two-edged courtesy. On the plus side, the hasty meal had been solid enough to ballast him, bludgeoning his innards into something approaching quiescence, but it continued to weigh heavily, and the headache was slow to recede.

Which, in turn, had made the business of taking his statement feel longer and more wearisome than usual. Raegan’s deputy, Sergeant Waggoner, was a good deal less affable than his boss, with no time for bounty hunters, whom he regarded as essentially no different from their prey: walking problems for the watch to keep under control by any means that came to hand. He quizzed Drago exhaustively, trying to pick holes in his account of events, and writing down the answers in a cramped and barely legible hand.

“Right,” he said at last, blowing on the sheet of paper in front of him to hasten the drying of the ink, before handing it across the table to Drago, “just sign the bloody thing so I can get on with some proper work.”

Drago, whose nose was level with the tabletop, Waggoner not having bothered to replace the human-sized chair with one he could comfortably sit in, drew up his knees and knelt on the seat, leaning across the planks to take the proffered document. He skimmed through the summary of events the watchman had sketched out from his account, and stretched his arm toward the discarded pen. Waggoner might not have left it almost out of reach on purpose, but Drago wouldn’t have bet a particularly large sum on it.

“You left out ‘by accident,’” he said mildly, holding up the paper.

Waggoner squinted at it. “What?”

“Here.” Drago pointed at a particular sentence, toward the end, where a cursory skim might have missed it. “Where it says ‘he fell, and I stabbed him.’ I said ‘he fell, and I stabbed him by accident.’”

“So?” Waggoner shrugged. “What’s the difference?”

“Not much,” Drago said, amending the statement as he spoke. “Just that one sounds like reporting an accident, and the other one like a confession. We wouldn’t want anyone reading it to get the wrong impression, would we?” Not if he didn’t want to end up in a penal gang somewhere the minute Raegan’s back was turned.

“Course we wouldn’t,” Waggoner agreed, in tones so weighted with irony they sank through the floor. He initialed the correction, and signed as well, as far from Drago’s signature as he could possibly get while remaining on the same piece of paper. Then he stood, the scrape of his chair legs across the flagstones rasping through the gnome’s fragile synapses like a file on a rusty scythe. He looked narrowly at Drago, registering the reflexive flinch. “Want somewhere to sleep it off, do you? I’m sure we can find you a bunk.” He glanced across the main room of the watch house, toward the door leading to the cells. “Drunk tank won’t be too crowded around this time of day.”

“Thanks, but no,” Drago said, pretending to take the offer at face value. There was bound to be someone in there who’d taken a pasting from the constables bringing them in, itching to spread the hurt around, and Waggoner knew that. Giving the sergeant an excuse to detain him for brawling would not end well, even once Raegan had sorted out the mess. “Nothing a bit of fresh air won’t cure.”

“Your choice,” Waggoner said, shrugging, already turning away to talk to a couple of young constables, a man with an unfeasible amount of curly dark hair and a tall, stocky goblin whose helmet crest reached almost as high as his partner’s shoulder. They’d entered the watch house in a hurry, responding to the greetings of their colleagues in a perfunctory fashion, and began conferring with the sergeant in an urgent undertone as soon as they had his attention.

“I’ll see myself out, then,” Drago said, hopping down to the floor, but Waggoner ignored the parting shot, too intent on whatever news his subordinates had brought to take any further interest in verbal fisticuffs. The words “third one in as many days” drifted out of the huddled trio behind him as Drago made his way to the street door.

As he regained the open air, a female watchman, whose shoulder patch and pungent-smelling satchel of herbs identified her instantly as a member of the Supernatural, Wizardry and Thaumaturgical squad, ran outside, almost braining him with the cast-iron cauldron slung across her back as she passed. Something was definitely going on, but Drago ignored the commotion farther down the crowded street, preoccupied as he was with the far more urgent question of whether to risk eating something now, or go in search of another drink in the hope that it would moderate what was left of his hangover. Despite his assurances to Waggoner, fresh air wasn’t going to get the job done unassisted, even if such a thing was likely to be found in Fairhaven.

That said, where he was now was as good a place as any to start looking for some. The Wharfside watch house was only a couple of streets away from the estuary, where the river the elves called the Silverroad, and everyone else the Geltwash because of the amount of commerce it brought to the city, ambled its easy way between the dozen or so islands clogging up the river mouth. Islands on which docks for the ocean-going ships and the riverboats which took their cargoes inland huddled uneasily together, like guests at a party with nothing much to say to one another, separated by warehouses, chandleries, and enough taverns, gambling dens and bawdy houses to relieve sailors of their pay without the inconvenience of walking more than a few yards from their ships. The upstream islands, where the water was too shallow for ocean-going vessels to navigate, were where the bulk of the population lived; the poorer quarters closest to the docks, the wealthier ones farther from the sea, where less sewage floated past on its way to oblivion, and life was consequently less fragrant. Bridges linked the islands into a pair of archipelagos, mirroring one another across the water, and to their respective banks, where the really opulent estates and guild halls were. Bridging the river itself would have impeded the flow of commerce too much to be considered, so hundreds of ferry boats swarmed across in both directions at all hours of the day and night, impeding the riverboats, and occasionally being run down when a heavily laden vessel wasn’t able to come about promptly enough. Where the bank- side city limits petered out into the surrounding salt marshes, the fishermen took over, venturing out to sea with their nets, or slogging through the mud at low tide in search of bivalves, their huts and the detritus of their profession adding their own, almost chewable, grace notes to the symphony of aroma which marked life in Fairhaven.

Nevertheless, with the wind off the sea, still sharp with the southern chill at this time of year, it was possible to catch a tang of salt and the wider world, as invigorating as a plunge in a bucket of ice water. Drago closed his eyes and inhaled, feeling a welcome dagger of icy numbness drive deeply into his throbbing head.

“What are you still doing here?” Raegan’s voice, harassed and preoccupied, snapped him back to the present. “Never mind. Just get out of the way.”

Drago complied, the burly watchman staying at his side, while a quartet of his subordinates double-timed it toward the watch house, a heavily burdened bundle of sailcloth swaying between the two parallel pairs. A lifelong denizen of Fairhaven, Drago recognized it instantly; a body, fresh from the water. The SWaT mage was pacing it, muttering incantations while she brushed the corpse’s staring eyes with a small bundle of hyssop twigs.

As they passed Drago and Raegan she glanced up at the captain, and shook her head. “Can’t lift any last images, Guv. Too long in the water.”

“Thanks for trying.” Raegan sighed. “Looks like we do this the hard way, then.” He glanced down at Drago, who was following the progress of the corpse inside the watch house with his eyes. “Why are you still here?”

“That was Leofric,” Drago said. “Who happened to him?”

“If I knew that, I wouldn’t be standing here, would I?” Raegan’s voice took on a momentary trace of asperity, before reverting to a more businesslike tone. “Do you know who he was after, who he was working for?”

“No,” Drago answered truthfully to both questions. Bounty hunters weren’t that big on sharing when it came to lucrative leads, his recently deceased colleague even less so than most. “Haven’t seen him in quite a while.” Which suited him fine. Leofric was, or had been, he corrected himself, an arrogant bully with an unhealthy side order of sadism, and an idea of his own fighting ability inflated by a preference for going after smaller and weaker targets. Hardly surprising if he’d finally bitten off more than he could chew.

“Hm.” Raegan looked at the gnome speculatively. “Anyone approached you recently with a high price commission?”

“Other than Wethers, you mean?” Drago shook his head. “Not lately.”

“I meant higher than Wethers is paying you,” Raegan said. “A lot higher.”

This time, Drago’s head shake was noticeably more emphatic, to his momentary regret. “I don’t take those kinds of jobs. You know that.” Which was why the watch captain had accepted his version of Fallowfield’s death so readily. The sort of money Raegan was implying almost certainly meant the quarry was wanted dead or alive, but don’t bother too much about the alive part.

“I do.” Raegan nodded. Drago’s scruples in that regard were widely known, so no one local would be likely to sound him out about that sort of job anyway. He had no qualms about killing in self- defense if there was no other way, but he preferred to deliver his quarry alive and still able to walk without too much difficulty. When you were two foot nine, almost, the alternatives involved too much heavy lifting for Drago’s taste. “But if you hear anything . . .”

“I’ll let you know,” Drago agreed. He might even actually do so, if there wasn’t any pressing financial need to keep his mouth shut. It never hurt to have the watch owe someone like him a favor, and it would be guaranteed to annoy Waggoner, which was always a bonus so far as Drago was concerned. Which reminded him of the last remark he’d heard the sergeant utter. “So, who were the other two?”

“What?” Raegan was looking down at him again, with an expression Drago knew all too well. “What have you heard?”

“Just that Leofric wasn’t the first bounty hunter to go for a midnight swim,” Drago said, masking the guess behind a tone of quiet assurance.

“He wasn’t.” Raegan lowered his voice, although the chances of being overheard on the crowded street were minimal. “We pulled Caris Silverthorn out of the dock the night before last. But she didn’t drown, I can assure you. Carved up like a kebab.”

“Caris?” Drago couldn’t keep a note of surprise from his voice. He’d quite liked the elven woman, though he wouldn’t have turned his back on her, or had more than a drink or two in her company; Caris was a dyed-in-the-wool sociopath, who would resort to violence the moment it seemed expedient, or fun. She’d been a hell of a swordswoman, though, he knew that for certain; anyone capable of besting her with a blade would be dangerous indeed.

Raegan nodded again. “Took at least three of the buggers to cross her off,” he said. “Or three different weapons, anyway.” He shrugged. “Someone might have had a knife in both hands, I suppose.” The doubt in his voice was obvious. For a fighter like Caris, even three opponents would have been little more than a mild inconvenience if they hadn’t been exceptionally skilled. Unfortunately for her, these ones clearly had been.

“And the third one?” Drago asked.

“Torvin. Found out on the mud flats.” Raegan hesitated. “What was left of him, anyway. Whoever did it really doesn’t like goblins, I can tell you.” Or maybe they just hadn’t liked Torvin, Drago thought. He’d collected enemies the way a dog collected fleas, which was hardly surprising given his reputation for casual brutality.

“I’m sure you’ll get to the bottom of it,” Drago said, turning away in the direction of a favorite tavern. The drink had won his internal debate while Raegan was talking. He’d only taken a couple of paces before the watchman called after him, however.

“Drago.” The gnome turned, his face a mask of polite enquiry. To his surprise, Raegan seemed almost embarrassed. “Watch your back. If someone really is targeting people in your line of work . . .”

“I’ll be careful,” Drago assured him, trying to ignore the querulous internal voice asking “be careful of what?”

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