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“You’re having a laugh.”

The Dancing Footpad was one of Drago’s favorite hostelries, not least because the landlord was a gnome, and he could use many of its tables, chairs, and benches without the climbing and stretching necessary in far too many of the other taverns in Fairhaven. Added to which the food wasn’t bad, and there was usually something pitched at the gnomish palate, which most certainly wasn’t going to be the case in places where the bulk of the clientele were humans, goblins, or elves.

After an ale or two, spirits being a bad idea this early on in the day, Drago was beginning to feel his old self again, and starting to think about food as something other than a source of potential discomfort; especially since a visit to the jakes, which had moved Mrs. Cravatt’s porridge a little farther on around his digestive tract, leaving room for something else to fill the gap. The question was what. He’d just about narrowed it down to sautéed mole or a rat in a bun, or perhaps something from the non-gnomish menu, like the Footpad’s widely and justly renowned fish pie, when the light from the window was abruptly eclipsed.

“Drago. Top gnome. Thought I’d find you here.” Clement Wethers pulled over a nearby table and sat on it, as though it were a bulky stool, cheerfully oblivious to the stares of the other gnomish patrons. None objected, though; most worked in the district, paid their dues to the Tradesman’s Association, and were happy enough to have someone like Wethers around to stand between them and the Fallowfields of the world. Not to mention the City Watch, in one or two cases. All right, he had a tendency to settle arguments with his fists, but that wasn’t unusual in Fairhaven, particularly round the Wharfside, and fists were better than knives any day.

“Mr. Wethers,” Drago said neutrally. He’d been planning to drop in on the Tradesman’s Association hall a little later on, to collect the balance of his fee, and was mildly disconcerted to have been sought out in this way before he got the chance. “Care to join me for lunch?” No point overreacting until he knew what this was about.

“Oh. Was you ordering?” Wethers blinked, assimilating the idea that Drago might have priorities of his own with his usual difficulty. One of the qualities which had helped him to his present eminence in the Wharfside district was the automatic assumption that everyone shared his opinion, and acting accordingly; which most people found reassuringly straightforward most of the time. On the rare occasions they didn’t, a fair amount of tact and diplomacy were called for, as Wethers tended to view open opposition as a personal challenge.

“Just thinking about it,” Drago said. “Hadn’t made up my mind yet.”

“Go for the pie,” Wethers urged. “I would. Fact, I think I will.” He turned, and bellowed across the room. “Oi! Shortarse! Two of them fish pies. And whatever my mate here’s drinking. Two of them, and all.”

“Coming right up, Mr. Wethers,” the landlord assured him, bustling over, and giving the Tradesman’s Association pin in the front of his shirt a quick polish with the bar cloth as he came. “Anything else I can do you for? Bigger chair?” He glanced at the larger furniture on the other side of the tavern, most of it occupied by human and goblin stevedores who were pretending not to notice what was going on in the gnomish section, clearly hoping they wouldn’t be the one to be evicted in favor of the chairman if he decided to take up the offer.

“No thanks, Hob. I’m comfortable here,” Wethers declared, to the ill-concealed disappointment of most of the surrounding gnomes, many of whom had visibly bristled at the casual use of the word “shortarse.” He pulled a handful of coins from his pocket, enough to have fed half the customers, and nodded affably to everyone in the immediate vicinity. “And see if anyone else here’s thirsty. They’re all hard workers, they are, and I say they’ve earned it.”

“Can’t argue with you there, Mr. Wethers,” Hob agreed, and went off to deal with the clamor of orders suddenly erupting around him. Not for the first time, Drago found himself wondering just how much of Wethers’ impulsiveness was a genuine character trait, or a careful fabrication. Either way, he’d got everyone in the tavern drinking his health almost in the same breath as getting their backs up, which was a pretty neat trick if you could do it.

“Drago.” Wethers returned his attention to the bounty hunter, pausing just long enough to pick up one of the tankards Hob had plunked on the table, and raise it in salute. “Just wanted to say thanks for getting the job done so neat. Bit more than we expected, to be honest, but you never do things by halves, do you?” He drank appreciatively, nailing Drago with his eyes as he lowered the mug. “But we’re not paying extra.”

“I wasn’t going to ask,” Drago said, relaxing a little now that he knew what Wethers wanted to talk to him about. “You got what we agreed on. Fallowfield off your backs.” He tilted his own mug. Hob had got the good stuff out for Wethers, and he intended to savor as much of it as he could. “I’ll be round for my fee later on. The one we shook hands on.” He’d already done better than he’d expected anyhow, acquiring the additional purses along the way, and anything more would be greedy. Not to mention giving people the impression that he was willing to kill for money—a rumor which would attract the attention of potential clients it wasn’t always good to disappoint.

“Glad to hear it.” Wethers nodded approvingly, and dropped his voice to a confidential murmur which could be clearly heard in the farthest corner of the taproom. “Did you really chew his arm off?”

“It was all there when I left him,” Drago said, uncomfortably aware of the listening ears.

“Thought so,” Wethers said, with a faint air of disappointment. “Not really your style. ‘Drago’s neater than that,’ I said. ‘If we’d wanted someone to go at him like a troll at a sheep we’d have got that nutter Torvin instead.’” He paused, taking a slurp of ale. “You heard about Torvin?”

“I heard he’s dead,” Drago replied, more interested in the plate of fish pie Hob had just slid onto the table in front of him than the fate of a professional rival he’d have crossed the street to avoid if he’d still been alive.

“Only himself to blame if you ask me.” Wethers leaned in to pick up his own plate, balanced it on his knee, and continued to talk round a mouthful of pie. “Going on about some big money contract he’d just landed. Pillock.”

“You said it, Mr. Wethers,” Hob agreed, popping up to refresh their tankards. “Flashing all that cash around. Bound to attract attention.”

“You saw him do that?” Drago asked, keeping his voice casual, a job made easier by the plug of half-masticated pie in his mouth. He still wasn’t all that interested, but Raegan’s parting admonition was still fresh in his mind, and he’d probably sleep a little easier if at least one of the sudden flurry of deaths among his fellow bounty hunters turned out to be nothing more than an over-enthusiastic robbery. And if one, why not all three? Stranger things had happened. In a place like Fairhaven, stranger things tended to happen on a daily basis, particularly around the districts frequented by mages. At any event, it wouldn’t hurt to be able to pass on a bit of information to Raegan, if there was some here to be had; the captain could have been a lot less understanding about the Fallowfield episode when all was said and done, and banking a bit of goodwill for later was never a bad idea where the watch was concerned.

Hob nodded. “He was in here a few days back, spending like money was going out of fashion. You know how Torvin was with a bit in his purse.” Drago forced an encouraging noise past the obstructing pie, nodded, and the landlord went on. “Every time he collected a bounty, he drank it as fast as he could.”

“And he’d just collected one?” Drago asked, after a convulsive swallow.

“That’s what I thought at first.” Hob shook his head. “But he said it was just a down payment. When he brought in the head he was going to be rich.”

“The head?” Drago echoed. That sounded more like outright assassination than the kind of job he preferred to take.

“That’s what he said,” Hob confirmed.

“He did,” Wethers agreed, stepping in to dispel any doubts Drago might have had about him knowing everything that went on in the Wharfside. Drago was pretty sure he didn’t really, but the big man’s reputation and position in the community relied strongly on fostering the impression that he did: an impression Drago was quite happy to help reinforce. The Tradesman’s Association needed someone like him on a fairly regular basis, and Wethers was known to prefer dealing with people he felt well-disposed to. “Not just in here, either.”

“Where else?” Drago asked, directing his question to the chairman, keeping his tone casual, and injecting just the right amount of implied flattery. “I suppose if anyone around here knows, it’d be you.”

“Not wrong there, my old mate,” Wethers agreed. His brow furrowed, in a pantomime of recollection. “He was shooting his mouth off in The Blind Watchman, The Strumpet, and The Mucky Duck.” The last two of which were actually called The Lady Grace, after a long-forgotten noblewoman who’d led a dull and blameless life entirely devoted to charitable works before being posthumously endowed with prodigious cleavage by an overly imaginative sign painter, and The White Swan, whose once-apposite sign had been weathered over the years to match its current nickname. All hostelries Drago was familiar with, and in which it was indeed unwise to flaunt it if you’d got it. “Flashing the cash in there, too.” He paused for a moment before adding another derisory “pillock,” presumably in case Drago had missed the first one. Then his voice softened, taking on a more thoughtful air. “Them other two, though, they were more careful.”

“Other two?” Drago asked, concealing a sudden surge of interest behind the same blandly casual tone.

Wethers nodded, pleased to believe himself better informed than a professional investigator. “Leofric and that loony elven bint. Clarice something? You know, easy on the eye, but bloody dangerous. Be like shagging a lamia, that one.”

“Caris Silverthorn?” Drago prompted, and Wethers nodded. “They were both spending too?”

“They were.” Wethers drained his tankard, and glanced round for a refill. Hob scuttled over, recharged the tankard, and hovered hopefully around Drago’s until the bounty hunter waved him away. The more he heard, the more he wanted a clear head. “But not in bars. Not so much, anyway. Mainly on supplies.”

“What sort of supplies?” Drago asked, without bothering to ask how he knew. Wethers was acquainted with every storekeeper in the district, and not a few beyond.

“Dried food, bedrolls, that kind of thing. Planning a trip where there aren’t many inns, by the look of it. Or none they wanted to be seen in, anyway.”

“Together?” Drago asked, already sure of the answer. Leofric and Silverthorn had detested one another, to the point where weapons had been drawn on more than one occasion, and only the swift intervention of the watch (and, on one occasion, a passing mage, with highly entertaining results for everyone in the immediate vicinity except the would-be duelists) had forestalled a clash unlikely to have ended without at least one of them bleeding out on the rancid cobbles of the street.

“You’re having a laugh, aren’t you?” Wethers chased the last piece of piecrust from his plate, and followed it with the dregs of his ale. “Good as always, Hob. Give that to the lads in the kitchen.” He flicked another coin in the landlord’s general direction, which Hob snatched out of the air with typically sharp gnomish reflexes, and returned his attention to Drago. “They’d have killed each other before they got outside the walls.”

“Good point,” Drago said, as though he hadn’t already thought of that himself. But if they hadn’t been working together, Leofric and Silverthorn might still have been after the same target. There wasn’t exactly a shortage of bounties to be collected within the city limits, and neither had shown much inclination to go wandering off into the wilderness before. And if they’d both been hunting the same scofflaw, then perhaps the third dead bounty hunter had too. “What about Torvin?”

“What about him?” Wethers stood, already turning his face toward the door.

“Was he buying the same sort of stuff?”

“Not that I heard.” Wethers shrugged, no doubt coming to the same conclusion. “But he was never very big on planning ahead, was he?”

“No, he wasn’t,” Drago agreed, lapsing into a thoughtful silence for several minutes, before it dawned on him that Wethers had left him with the bill for both their meals.

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