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“What’s the point of going hunting
if the bear won’t eat the goat?”

The next week or so passed in a mingled blur of boredom and paranoia. Wethers sent word that he’d started the rumor mill grinding as promised, and the night after that Tosker’s body, now somewhat the worse for wear despite the preserving charm one of Nellis’s SWaT mages had cast on it at the scene of his murder, was dumped somewhere it was certain to be found.

Drago had spent the time since then oscillating between a few favorite hostelries and his own lodgings, keeping an even more wary eye than usual on the streets connecting them. The longer no one tried to kill him, the more unsettled he became.

“I don’t think it’s going to work,” he said, his back to the door of The Dancing Footpad, trying to ignore the psychosomatic itch between his shoulder blades. No one would be foolish enough to attack him in here, he knew, especially with Raegan looking past him toward the entrance from the other side of the table (human sized, with a high stool to bring Drago up to the same level as his dining companion), but he still couldn’t relax enough to enjoy his rat kebab. Raegan was munching his way steadily through a plate of herring sausage, apparently unmoved by his friend’s choice of sustenance; no doubt he’d seen far more unsettling sights in the course of his career, possibly even on the shift he’d just concluded.

“Just got to give it time,” Raegan advised, taking another bite. His gaze shifted a little as the door banged to, and Drago stiffened reflexively, but Raegan merely nodded a greeting. “George.” Drago relaxed.

“Guvnor.” Waggoner patted Drago on the back, right in the center of the target the bounty hunter’s imagination kept picturing between his shoulder blades. “Not dead yet, then,” he added by way of greeting.

“Imagine my disappointment,” Drago responded sarcastically, taking a large bite of the rat on his platter. The mouthful was bigger than he wanted, but the necessity of chewing it gave him an excuse not to engage the watchman in conversation—that seldom ended well for either of them.

“Imagine mine,” Waggoner riposted, his inflection only half joking. “What’s the point of going hunting if the bear won’t eat the goat?”

“Still time for them to take a bite,” Raegan said. “It’s only been a few days since we started.” More than enough time, they all knew, for a really juicy rumor to sweep the city from end to end, sprout several conflicting versions, and maybe spark a riot or two if there were sides to be taken. The story they’d planted was, to be fair, nowhere near as exciting as last year’s alchemist who’d finally learned how to make gold before getting an abrupt and fatal lesson in the value of scarcity, the sighting of a Leviathan a few miles offshore the year before that, which had taken several warships and a reluctant team of seasick mages to drive off before it ate enough trading vessels to dent the city’s economy, or the perennially popular and invariably untrue reports from far upstream that the Lost Queen had been found alive and well, but even so, Drago had been hoping for some kind of response by now.

“Let’s hope so,” Waggoner said, in tones which made it clear he had few if any expectations, and turned his attention to the menu chalked up behind the bar. “What’s good tonight?”

“Rat’s pretty fresh,” Drago said, swallowing his mouthful, and watching the watchman for a reaction.

Waggoner just shrugged. “See enough vermin at work,” he said. He waved, to catch Hob’s eye. “Pie and a pint.”

“Coming right up.” The landlord trotted over, depositing the order on the table almost at once. “Any friend of Drago’s don’t need to wait.”

“Thanks.” Waggoner looked faintly uncomfortable, but said nothing to contradict Hob’s misapprehension.

The rest of the meal passed in awkward silence, punctuated by a few desultory remarks which never quite flickered into sociability, and once his rat was gone, leaving only a few bones to mark its passing, Drago hopped down from his stool.

“Going so soon?” Raegan asked, and Drago nodded.

“Could do with an early night,” he lied. In fact what he could really do with was too much to drink and some dice to roll, but right now the distraction would be too big a risk. The last thing he needed was a knife between the ribs because his attention was fixed on losing money. He’d been prepared for the physical risks of setting himself up as bait, but hadn’t counted on it putting quite such a crimp in his social life.

“Where’s the real Drago, and what did you do with him?” Raegan asked, not fooled for a moment. He grinned. “All right then, bugger off. I’ll pick up the tab.” As if he hadn’t been going to anyway. Under the circumstances the least he could do was buy Drago a meal; it gave them a plausible reason to be together if anyone was watching.

“And if you can’t be good, be careful,” Waggoner added.

Drago was careful to follow the sergeant’s advice as he made his way back toward his lodgings, keeping an eye out for anyone showing signs of interest in his progress, but the crowds in the main thoroughfares were just too dense— a constantly changing kaleidoscope of bodies, most of them more than twice his own stature, effectively blocking his line of sight any farther than the next elbow. At least his size was working to his advantage; any humans on his trail would be unable to slip through the minuscule gaps between people and shopping baskets that still allowed him to make reasonable progress. Dusk was falling, and with it came a tidal outwash of the respectable heading for home, theatre or temple, their places being taken by the kind of people who preferred their business to be cloaked by the gathering dark—people not entirely unlike Drago, if he was honest.

As he neared home the crowds began to thin out, and his sense of unease began to grow. Mrs. Cravatt’s lodging house was halfway down one of the narrowest streets in the district, not quite cramped enough to be considered an alleyway by Fairhaven standards (streets being defined by local custom and ordinance as being wide enough for two people to pass one another without bumping shoulders and starting a fight), but still claustrophobic enough. Nightfall here was always accelerated by the tendency of upper stories to lean out over the cobbles toward their neighbors, sometimes to the point where raindrops had to turn sideways to slip between them, and the illumination afforded by the chinks between shuttered windows would have struggled to merit the description of barely adequate.

For anyone other than a gnome, at any rate; Drago’s night vision was well up to the challenge. Only the deepest patches of shadow could have concealed something, and he knew the street well enough to be able to guess what that might be—piles of rubbish and ordure, in most cases.

Nearing the familiar battered door of the lodging house, he began to relax a little, anticipating the security of his own attic. The few people he could see were all local residents, intent on their own business, their faces familiar enough not to register as potential threats. Not that some of them couldn’t be dangerous, if they put their minds to it, but he was well enough known in the neighborhood to be sure of attracting little attention from the locals beyond wary respect.

So it was with some surprise that he found himself stepping to one side and drawing his sword without conscious thought, his rational mind only catching up with the warning hiss of air displaced by a descending blade as the weapon clashed against his own. He’d lifted his sword above his head, angled downward to deflect the blow like rain running off a roof, and kept on moving beneath its shelter, grabbing his assailant’s arm with his free hand and yanking sharply downward. The attacker was taller than he was, though not for much longer, riding the momentum of the downward swing to the filthy cobbles, landing with an audible smack. Drago swung his sword around his head, brought his second hand to the hilt, and cut downward, meeting the would-be assassin’s rising neck as he tried instinctively to get back to his feet. Vertebrae sheared, blood fountained, and Drago swore. His laundry bill this month was going to be extortionate.

No time to worry about that now, though. He glanced round for any other signs of immediate threat. The locals were either running for cover or settling in to enjoy the entertainment, so he could discount the possibility of any of them intervening, which was something of a comfort. None of them had any grudges they might want to settle, at least so far as he was aware, but they wouldn’t be rushing to his defense either. Fair enough. It wouldn’t exactly enhance his reputation to seem to need the help of a few off-duty stevedores or dolly-mops anyway.

Mind you, if an assailant could get that close without him realizing, perhaps it was about time his reputation did take a dent. He glanced down at the cadaver on the cobbles. Unmistakably a goblin, he would have been about four feet tall with his head attached, making him on the low end of average height for one of his species. The big surprise was that he’d been able to get so close without Drago spotting him. Goblins could certainly move quietly if they wanted to, but he should have been easy to see—especially for a gnome. The hairs on the back of Drago’s neck began to prickle. Something was badly wrong . . .

A clump of shadow detached itself from a nearby doorway and charged toward him. Drago turned to meet it instinctively, cutting at the mottled air, and feeling his sword jar against something yielding. With a scream the darkness evaporated, revealing a second goblin clutching at a belly wound with blood-slick hands, his own sword clanging to the cobbles. He fell to his knees, already bleeding out, and Drago turned again, seeing another patch of darkness solidify in front of him, a good four or five paces away. This goblin was female, dressed like the others in tunic and trews in muted colors, but instead of a blade she held a crossbow aimed squarely at his chest.

Even as he started to run, Drago knew he couldn’t hope to reach her before she pulled the trigger. His only hope was to throw off her aim, pray she missed, and close to stabbing distance before she had a chance to reload. Once the bolt was shot, a crossbow was nothing more than an elaborate club.

The assassin grinned, anticipating an easy shot, and Drago abruptly changed direction. He kicked out, feeling the jar of impact shiver through every bone in his foot, and swore again. If he got out of this alive, he was definitely buying the new boots he’d been considering. With reinforced toe caps. The decapitated head of the first assassin sailed through the air, impacting on the goblin’s chest, and she staggered back, her finger tightening on the trigger. The bow twanged, the bolt vanished into the night, embedding itself in the overhanging second story of a celebrated local bawdy house, and the assassin howled with frustration and revulsion. Flinging the crossbow at Drago, who evaded it easily, she began to draw a sword of her own.

“Drop it!” a voice shouted, echoing off the surrounding walls.

“Shag off!” the goblin yelled back, charging at Drago, cutting down at him as though trying to split a log. But logs don’t move. Drago was long gone by the time her blade hit the cobbles, deflecting the cut as easily as the first assassin’s. He pivoted, kicking out at the back of the goblin woman’s knee, and bringing his own sword round in a neat, flat arc, which bit into the side of her neck. Arterial blood sprayed, and Drago flinched, stepping back as the corpse hit the ground, spasming.

“You took your time,” he said, as Raegan and Waggoner strolled into the street, their swords drawn.

“I was finishing my pie,” Waggoner said. He crouched down beside the goblin Drago had disemboweled, felt briefly for a pulse, and shook his head. Then he stood, putting his sword away, and glared down at Drago. “Remind me again. This is the part where we take whoever jumps you in for questioning?”

“Good luck with that,” Drago said, trying and failing to sound unconcerned. “They don’t seem all that chatty.” Which, now he came to think about it, struck him as odd. The only one who’d spoken at all was the woman with the crossbow, and then only in response to Raegan’s command to surrender.

“On the bright side,” Raegan said, “whoever sent them seems to know where you live. Maybe they’ll have another go.”

“There is that,” Waggoner agreed, apparently cheered by the prospect, and wandered off to interview the few witnesses who hadn’t immediately found other, urgent business as soon as the watch appeared.

“So what went wrong?” Raegan asked. “It’s not like you to walk into an ambush.”

“I didn’t.” Drago strolled over to the nearest corpse, the one missing a head, and began rummaging through its pockets. They were all empty, which in his experience was highly unusual. Everyone had a coin or two about them, and a few personal possessions.

“Professionals,” Raegan said, coming to the same conclusion. “Nothing to identify them if they got caught.”

“Or who they were working for,” Drago agreed. “But whoever it was, they could afford sorcery.”

“Right.” Raegan nodded. “That’s how they sneaked up on you.” He pulled a small leather bag from inside the shirt of the eviscerated goblin, tugging the string it was attached to over the corpse’s head. He loosened the drawstring, glanced inside, and closed it again hastily. “I’ll get our mages to take a look at this, find out what kind of enchantment they were using.”

Drago shrugged. “Looked like basic shadow weaving to me. Apprentice stuff. Half the spell slingers in the city could throw something like that together.”

“Can’t hurt to try.” Raegan tucked the bag inside a pouch on his sword belt, and wiped his fingers fastidiously on a moderately clean section of the corpse’s shirt. “You going to put that thing away now, or am I going to have to do you for carrying a blade in public?”

“What?” Drago became aware that he still had his sword in his hand, and that his attackers’ blood was beginning to congeal on it; which would do the fine steel no good at all. “Oh, right.” He flicked the worst of it off, and wiped the rest against his sleeve—his shirt was so spattered with other people’s ichor one more stain wasn’t going to make that much difference. Raegan watched impassively as he slipped the weapon back into its scabbard.

“Any idea how they knew where you live?”

Drago shook his head. “Don’t recognize any of them. They must have been briefed.”

“Which leaves us right back where we were before.” Raegan sighed. “With no idea of why or by who.”

“Doesn’t make any sense to me, either,” Drago admitted. The whole point of setting himself up to look like he’d be willing to take on whatever job the dead bounty hunters had agreed to had been to flush out whoever had hired them; but no one had come forward with a proposition. Maybe he’d jumped to the wrong conclusion, and their deaths hadn’t been connected. Or maybe Raegan had been right to begin with, and someone was just pursuing a personal vendetta against the bounty hunters of Fairhaven. He sighed. “Coming in for a drink?”

“I’ll pass,” Raegan said, with a glance in the direction of Waggoner, who was just dropping a couple of copper coins into the hand of a convenient local urchin. The lad nodded, and ran off in the direction of the nearest watch house. “Got a lot of cleaning up to do.”

“You know where I am,” Drago said, making momentary eye contact with the sergeant, before returning his attention to Raegan. “If you want a statement.” At least Waggoner wouldn’t be able to cast any doubt on his claim of self-defense this time, he thought, with a faint sense of satisfaction.

Raegan shrugged. “Tomorrow will do,” he said, with another glance in the direction of his deputy, who was now busily engaged in fending off the growing crowd of curious onlookers. “Unless you’d rather talk to George.” He noted Drago’s expression with a wintery smile. “Didn’t think so.”

“See you tomorrow, then,” Drago said, with a final glance at the trio of corpses, before heading back home for bed.

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