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“I don’t really do trees.”

Inevitably, the first person Drago saw as he slammed the front door behind him was Mrs. Cravatt, emerging from her parlor with the air of a wyvern spotting an unwary shepherd standing between it and a fair-sized flock. She looked him up and down, and opened her mouth to speak.

“I know,” Drago said, before she could begin her unvarying oration. “Get it in cold water right away.”

“You should.” His landlady sniffed disapprovingly. “But that’s not what I was going to say. You’ve got a visitor.”

“Who?” Drago asked. It was almost unprecedented for Edna Cravatt to allow strangers on the premises at all, let alone leave them unsupervised. He craned his neck around the parlor door, half expecting to see someone in the room behind her.

“A gentleman,” she said, in the overly elaborate diction she habitually adopted when dealing with someone further up the social scale, presumably in case they overheard, and might mistake her for someone of equal status. “I sent him up to your room.” Noting his expression of incredulity, and the direction of his gaze, her expression hardened. “I’m a respectable widow. Got my reputation to consider.”

Not to mention her purse, Drago thought. Letting someone into a tenant’s room while they were out wouldn’t come cheap. He nodded.

“No one around here would ever consider the possibility of impropriety involving you,” he assured her, straight-faced. Not unless the gentleman in question was blind, at any rate.

Mrs. Cravatt emitted another sniff. “I should think not,” she said, mollified, taking the remark at face value.

Since neither of them had anything else to say, Drago turned and made for the stairs.

“Cold water,” his landlady said as his foot hit the first tread, unable to resist snatching the last word, and slamming the parlor door behind her before he had a chance to respond.

Drago made his way up to his room as quietly as he could, his hand on the hilt of his sword. It crossed his mind to turn round and tell Raegan about this unexpected development first, but he dismissed the thought almost as quickly as it came. There was so much going on outside by now that if he left the house to talk to the watchman it was bound to be noticed, possibly even by his visitor if he’d been standing near the window, and Raegan was bound to insist on providing some sort of backup, which was just as likely to complicate things as to help. Besides, he was used to watching his own back—just as well, as things had turned out.

He shrugged, philosophically. He’d just seen off three sorcery-assisted assailants entirely by himself: a man on his own on Drago’s home ground shouldn’t be that much of a problem.

Unless his visitor was the sorcerer who’d given the goblins their shadow-weaving charms, of course. For a moment he hesitated, wishing he’d thought to ask his landlady for more details about whoever was waiting for him, like whether or not they were wearing a pointy hat, but most of the hedge wizards he knew didn’t go in for that sort of thing anyway. Besides, Mrs. Cravatt distrusted magic and all who wielded it, almost as much as she did people who read books, and was bound to have said something about it if the man was an obvious spell chucker.

Only one way to find out. Pushing the door open, he strolled into his garret, affecting complete unconcern.

His visitor raised an elegant eyebrow. “Oh my,” he said, “what in the trees happened to you?”

“Guess,” Drago replied, making straight for the wash stand. He poured half the jug into the basin, cleaning his face and hands with brisk efficiency, while keeping a wary eye on the elf lounging on his bed. A little over five feet tall, about average for one of his race, he just about fitted the available space, with one elbow propped up on the pillow; the previous tenant of the attic had apparently been a goblin, who’d disappeared one night leaving his furniture behind, to be seized by Mrs. Cravatt in lieu of several weeks’ worth of unpaid rent. Quite how his predecessor had managed to get away with that, Drago remained unsure, other than concluding that the fellow must have been exceptionally charming—and perhaps there were some mysteries in life best left undisturbed.

The bed was absurdly large for a gnome, but he didn’t mind that—he liked to sprawl, and the extra room came in handy on the rare occasions he had company overnight.

“I’d rather not,” the elf said, exuding the faint air of smugness which made humans, gnomes and goblins want to punch most of the ones they met in the face within minutes. “Client confidentiality, and all that. Wouldn’t want to get off on the wrong foot by seeming to pry into your . . .” a perceptible pause, while he searched for the right phrase, “other business commitments.”

“You’re here about a job,” Drago said, stripping off his shirt and dunking it in the basin, watching the water turn the shade of beet soup with detached interest.

“I might be. If you’re as proficient as you seem.” The elf pivoted smoothly to a vertical sitting position, avoiding cracking his head on a low beam by a disappointing fraction of an inch. His clothing was utilitarian, but of a quality no one in this part of town could afford even by pawning everything they owned. The fact that he’d got this far without so much as a visible mark on his immaculate jacket, the leather so soft that it folded like linen in the crook of his elbows, was a silent warning to Drago not to underestimate him. The ornate chasing on the hilt of his sword looked more ornamental than functional, but that was no guarantee that he didn’t know how to use the blade attached to it.

“You’re hardly in a position to call my proficiency into question,” Drago said, drawing the obvious conclusion about his recent encounter with the goblins. “You were followed here.”

“I know.” His uninvited visitor smiled, in a manner calculated to make the face-punching impulse redouble, and glanced toward the window in the attic’s gable end opposite the door. “I watched you deal with them from here. Quite impressive.”

“You brought three hired killers to my door, and let me walk right into them?” Drago tried to keep his voice calm, but was far from certain he was succeeding. Unbidden, his hand brushed the hilt of his sword, and he moved it away with a brief mental effort. No point antagonizing the fellow until he knew what he wanted. “What were you thinking?”

The elf shrugged, a gesture so elegant it was almost like watching liquid flow and resolidify. Amusement danced in his sea-green eyes. “That you’d save me a little inconvenience when I leave.”

“If you leave,” Drago said without thinking, his hand drifting back to the sword hilt. This time he kept it there.

His guest smiled again, seeming more amused than ever. “I’ll go as soon as our business is concluded,” he said, one hand drifting inside his partially unbuttoned jacket. The shirt inside was of a lighter shade of grey, like a seagull’s wing, in contrast to the charcoal hues of his jacket, breeks and boots. Drago tensed, but the hand emerged holding nothing more threatening than a purse. “I trust this will go some way towards compensating you for picking the fleas off my back.”

“Some way,” Drago conceded, taking the small leather bag. It was heavy, and chinked, and when he loosened the drawstring he saw a rich yellow gleam, like freshly churned butter. He was holding more money than he’d ever managed to squander in his life. He shrugged, and chucked it casually onto the night stand, trying not to let his surprise show on his face, and certain he wasn’t succeeding. Whoever the elf was, he was clearly nobody’s fool.

“I take it I have your attention then,” his visitor said.

“Most of it.” Drago drew his sword slowly, keeping the point and the cutting edge well away from the elf, who followed every movement with the calm deliberation of a cat outside a mouse hole. Taking a small cloth and a phial of oil from his belt pouch, Drago began to clean the recently sullied blade. “Do you have a name?”

“Yes.” The elf smiled, moving another conversational pawn, but didn’t elaborate.

“I take it you know mine,” Drago said, letting the observation hang.

The elf nodded. “Drago Appleroot. Bounty hunter, hardly ever left the city. Could be an advantage.”

“How so?” Drago asked.

“No one would recognize you.”

“Recognize me where?”

“Where your target would be.” The elf paused. “All I’m prepared to say at this point is that he’s upstream.”

“And all I’m prepared to say at this point is ‘piss off,’” Drago said, hoping he wasn’t overplaying his hand. The elf’s eyebrow rose again. He probably practiced in front of a mirror. “I don’t work for anyone who won’t even give me a name.”

The elf shrugged. “You can take Greenleaf, if it makes you feel any better.”

It didn’t, really, but Drago nodded, pretending to accept the obvious lie. Unless it was true, and a double bluff: the name was common among elves from the forest kingdom far up the Geltwash, and quite often heard in the streets of Fairhaven as well, particularly around the quays where the riverboats docked.

“So you’re from the Sylvan Marches. Is that where the job is?”

For the first time Greenleaf, if that was really his name, looked faintly surprised. Then he nodded. “What do you know about the Marches?”

Drago shrugged. “Lots of trees, they tell me. I don’t really do trees.”

“You should. Clean air, silence, solitude—“ Greenleaf broke off, looking faintly embarrassed. “As you can tell, I don’t really do cities. Unless it can’t be helped.”

“Things can always be helped,” Drago said. “If they’re not how you like them, you change them. One way or another.” He examined the blade he’d been cleaning carefully, then returned it to its scabbard. He might have been imagining it, but Greenleaf’s hand seemed to move a fraction of an inch further from the hilt of his own sword, and his posture become a little less tense.

“Which is where you come in. Or someone like you.”

Drago shrugged again. “Damn few of those left in Fairhaven, so I hear.”

Greenleaf nodded. “The assignment is not without risk.”

“Never had one that was.” Drago started rummaging for a clean shirt, although by now he didn’t really see the point of getting dressed again. The adrenaline comedown after the fight outside was starting to kick in, and what he really wanted to do was sleep. No chance of that while Greenleaf was still occupying most of the bed, though.

“No doubt.” Greenleaf nodded again. “But this one will be exceptionally hazardous.”

“I got that impression from the way everyone you’ve spoken to about it so far’s turned up dead,” Drago said, before another thought struck him. “Or has someone else had better luck than the others?”

“Not yet,” Greenleaf admitted. “But you seem a far better choice in any case. Shame you keep so low a profile. I could have saved a lot of time and a considerable amount of money by coming to you first.”

“Then why didn’t you?” Drago asked, hoping he didn’t sound too eager. Greenleaf had to believe he was willing to go along with whatever this assignment was, but the more persuasion he apparently needed, the more the elf would open up in an attempt to convince him. At least, that was the theory. He’d set himself up as bait, and the bear was beginning to sniff the goat at last. Which didn’t answer the question of who the goblins outside had been, or why they’d jumped him, but with any luck that would become clear too.

“You didn’t appear to be interested in the kind of contract we’re offering,” Greenleaf said, a spark of doubt entering his voice. “And, to be honest, I’m not entirely sure that you would be now. But a couple of recent incidents suggest that perhaps we were mistaken.”

“We?” Drago asked.

The elf nodded. “The people I work with.”

“If you’re answerable to someone, I want to talk to them,” Drago said, standing dismissively, and glancing pointedly at the door. “I don’t negotiate with messenger boys.”

“I said work with, not for.” For the first time a flash of irritation entered Greenleaf’s voice, before being hurriedly suppressed. Good. Annoyed, he might let his guard down more than he’d intended. That had worked in Drago’s favor many times, in both verbal and physical confrontations. “I’m fully authorized to make any agreement I see fit.”

“Authorized by who?” Drago asked, in a politely reasonable tone that reeked of skepticism.

Greenleaf sighed. “None of the others asked. All they were interested in was the money.”

“And look how well that ended for them,” Drago pointed out. “If I take your job I want to know everything about it. Who, why, exactly what the risks are. Then I’ll decide if you’re paying me enough to chance my neck on it.”

“Fair enough.” The elf’s smile became marginally more genial, and a little more genuine. He reached inside his jacket again, and produced a small silver medallion. An oak tree, more elegant and symmetrical than any found in nature, was embossed on it; the image seemed vaguely familiar, and after a moment Drago recognized it. He’d seen the same symbol many times before, pressed into the wax of the excise seals on crates being unloaded from riverboats newly arrived down the Geltwash. “I represent his Royal Highness Lamiel Stargleam, monarch of the Kingdom of the Sylvan Marches.”

So, Drago thought, his guess had been right. He worked at keeping his face neutral. “And how can I help so exalted a personage as His Royal Highness?”

“A little less sarcasm would be a start,” Greenleaf said, looking genuinely amused for the first time since the conversation started, which made Drago feel marginally less like hitting the elf than he had done since entering the room.

“Just leave that bit out of your report,” Drago suggested. “So how many other agents does he have in Fairhaven?” Not that he cared, but it was information that Raegan would be interested in.

“Enough,” Greenleaf said, “but that’s beside the point right now. I’m the one handling this. If you want the job, you deal directly with me, and only me.”

“I haven’t said I do, yet,” Drago said. “And I won’t, until I’m sure I won’t be getting out of my depth.”

“Hm.” The elf looked him up and down, comparing their relative statures. Drago waited for a disparaging remark about his height, but Greenleaf simply nodded again. “Fair enough. What do you know about the Lost Queen?”

“She’s still missing,” Drago said, “which means she’s dead by now. Couldn’t tell you how, or who did it, because I couldn’t care less.” He watched the elf for a reaction, but saw nothing beyond a simple nod of agreement.

“That’s pretty much all anybody knows,” Greenleaf conceded, “at least this far from the Marches. But we know who did it, and the king wants revenge.”

“Hasn’t he got an army for that sort of thing?” Drago asked. “Or people like you?”

“Yes, and yes,” Greenleaf agreed, his tone becoming more businesslike. “But neither can get the job done in this instance.”

“Then I don’t see what I could do,” Drago said, becoming interested in spite of himself. He pulled up a stool, and sat down.

“I’ll need to sketch in a bit of background,” Greenleaf said. “About the history of the Marches, and how the queen was killed.” He stiffened, at a faint sound in the passageway outside, and his hand went to the hilt of his sword.

Drago smiled. It had taken even less time than he’d expected. He raised his voice. “Come in, Mrs. Cravatt.”

The door opened, revealing his landlady, holding a tray with a couple of grubby tankards on it. She smiled, mainly at Greenleaf, and walked in.

“I thought you might be in need of some refreshment,” she said, throttling every vowel to within an inch of its life.

“Very thoughtful,” Greenleaf said, taking the nearest, and keeping it well away from his face.

“Mrs. Cravatt always takes a keen interest in the welfare of her tenants,” Drago assured him, straight-faced, “especially when they have guests.”

“The hospitality of the citizens of Fairhaven is legendary,” Greenleaf said, in similar tones, although Drago suspected that he meant in the sense of entirely without foundation. “Thank you for your consideration.”

“Indeed.” Since the remaining tankard showed no sign of being moved in his direction without prompting, Drago stood up and helped himself to it. Mrs. Cravatt flinched a little, suddenly reminded of his presence, but failed to drop the tray as he’d half expected. “Now, if you’ll excuse us, Mr. Greenleaf and I have a lot to discuss.”

“Of course.” His landlady looked at him as though she would like to consider his neck another vowel, and beat a dignified retreat from the room.

“If you wouldn’t mind leaving the door open?” Greenleaf asked, as she passed through it. “I’m finding it a little stuffy in here.”

“Of course.” She descended the stairs, a faintly peeved sniff echoing back from the landing below.

“Now.” Greenleaf placed his tankard, untouched, on the night stand. “Where were we?”

Drago drank and swallowed. “You were about to give me a history lesson,” he said.


“You have to understand,” Greenleaf began, “that the Sylvan Marches is a prosperous place. And that means we have enemies. Especially in the Barrens.”

“You’ve lost me already,” Drago admitted. “Which barons? Did one of them assassinate the queen?”

Greenleaf sighed, almost inaudibly. “The Barrens are a place,” he explained. “A wilderness area on our southern borders. Infested with bandits, who raid pretty much at will.”

Drago nodded, to show he was keeping up, and took a gulp of his ale. Mrs. Cravatt had got the good stuff out for their distinguished visitor, or at least the best she could afford, and he meant to make the most of it. “And they killed the queen.”

“I’m coming to that.” Greenleaf sighed again, took a sip of his own ale, and hastily put down the mug. “The bandits are goblins, with no love lost for elves. It’s not just raiding for loot or supplies with them, it’s sheer wanton destruction as often as not.”

“I see.” Drago didn’t really. In his experience goblins didn’t bear the elves any particular malice—no more than anyone else did, anyway. “It’s a blood feud kind of thing.” He took a thoughtful sip. “What do they think their grievance is?”

Greenleaf looked at him appraisingly. “You’re quick on the uptake,” he conceded. “They claim the Barrens are rightfully theirs, although they’ve been a province of the Marches for nearly a century.”

“And before that?” Drago asked.

Greenleaf shrugged. “They were just there. The old king sent a few troops in to tidy the borders up a bit, and they’ve been ours ever since.”

“I see.” At least Drago thought he did. Minor kingdoms were like that, grabbing whatever territories they could, before their neighbors had the same idea. “And the people already living there were fine with that?”

“Pretty much,” Greenleaf said. “They didn’t fight for long, anyway, and even then it was only the goblins. There were already a few elvish settlers there, and they were happy enough to be part of a civilized country again.”

“Hm.” Drago took a couple of thoughtful swallows. “Any humans or gnomes about?”

“Not back then,” Greenleaf said. “But gnomes started moving in to work the mines after they opened, about twenty years ago.”

“Mines?” Drago asked. That made sense. Gnomes were natural burrowers, with an innate affinity for tunnels and caves, and in high demand for jobs requiring skill with a shovel. Most of the ones outside cities like Fairhaven, where all kinds of species lived and worked together, still preferred to dwell in underground warrens of quite staggering complexity. Drago had visited the nearest a couple of times at the behest of relatives, but found it an unsettling experience, where his unease at not being able to see the sky for days at a time was seen as charmingly eccentric or faintly pitiable, depending on whom he was talking to. “What kind?”

“Gold,” Greenleaf said, underlining the gravity of the revelation with a second sip of ale, which he quite clearly immediately regretted. “The vein was discovered by accident, when a hunter missed the boar he was aiming at, and went to retrieve the arrow. He pulled it out of the ground, and noticed a fleck of something shining on the head.”

“And after that, the goblins decided they wanted their country back,” Drago finished.

“Pretty much,” Greenleaf agreed. “The bandits became more organized, the garrisons were strengthened, and the fighting’s been going on for a couple of decades. The army holds the mines and the larger villages, but the Barrens are impossible to hold down completely; the terrain’s too broken for large scale troop movements, and the goblins just fade into the hillsides after every raid.”

“I’m beginning to see your problem,” Drago said. “But surely the occasional skirmish with bandits is just a mild inconvenience with a mine full of gold at stake.”

“To begin with,” Greenleaf conceded. “But then they started to get more organized, more sophisticated in their tactics and planning.”

“They found a leader,” Drago concluded.

“They did.” Greenleaf nodded seriously. “And a very effective one. Gorash Grover. Heard of him?”

Drago shook his head. “Don’t think so.” But then the only interest Fairhaven had in the Sylvan Marches, or any of the other upstream kingdoms come to that, was the amount of trade coming down the river. Parochial gossip didn’t travel as well as timber or wine.

Greenleaf smiled thinly. “Then take my word for it, he’s extremely effective. Not just a good general, but an orator, a rabble-rouser. His followers would cheerfully die for him.” He glanced sardonically at Drago’s shirt, still seeping blood into its bowl of water. “In fact, three of them just did.”

“The ones who were after you,” Drago said.

Greenleaf shook his head. “Not quite. They were after whoever I was going to meet.” He nodded affably in Drago’s direction. “It seems your reputation precedes you, Master Appleroot. None of the others were attacked until after our business had been concluded.”

Drago felt a faint chill between his shoulder blades, where the target he’d imagined back in The Dancing Footpad had been centered. It was unlikely that Gorash would have had a mere trio of operatives opposing Greenleaf and his friends in a city the size of Fairhaven. He’d have to watch his step even more carefully than he’d anticipated until this affair was over.

“It still hasn’t been,” he said. He probably had more than enough information for Raegan by now, but his own curiosity was beginning to take over. “How did Gorash assassinate the queen? Seems like a pretty neat trick for a backwoods bandit.”

Greenleaf shrugged. “Treachery, of course. And, possibly, her own naivety.”

Drago nodded. “Not an ideal trait in a monarch. What happened, exactly?”

“Well,” Greenleaf began, with the air of someone about to commence a long story, “the king died. Not Lamiel, obviously. His father. Ariella, the present king’s older sister, inherited the throne. To everyone’s relief, especially her brother’s.”

“No argument over the succession, then?” Drago asked. Not that he cared, but he had a nasty suspicious mind, a definite asset in his profession, and it wouldn’t be the first time someone committed sororicide to grab a crown. Having a notorious bandit around to take the blame would only make that easier.

“None at all. Lamiel stepped up, but his heart’s not really in it; he much preferred being the spare to the heir, where he had time to patronize the arts, that sort of thing, instead of making all the big decisions. If you ask me, no one misses his sister more than he does.”

“Right.” Either that was true, or Greenleaf genuinely believed it. Either way, it seemed the bandits were definitely to blame for his sister’s demise. “So, we’re back to my original question. How did she die?”

Greenleaf shrugged. “Quickly, one hopes. But with these savages, one never can tell.” He sighed. “Everyone advised her against it, but when a queen makes up her mind, what can you do?”

Drago hid his impatience behind the draining of his tankard. “Made up her mind to do what?”

“Negotiate. Try and make peace with the goblins. She offered Gorash safe conduct, a face-to-face meeting on neutral ground.”

“And the moment they’re alone together . . .” Drago mimed an extravagant throat-slitting.

Greenleaf shook his head, with a faint trace of puzzlement. “That’s just the thing. It seemed to be working at first. They were a bit wary of one another to begin with, but they seemed to be getting on well enough. That meeting led to others, and after a few months there was even a draft treaty prepared. The queen travelled to the Barrens to sign it, and that was the last anyone ever saw of her.”

“So you can’t be sure she’s actually dead?” Drago asked.

“We’re sure.” Greenleaf’s voice was grim. “Her escorts were ambushed almost as soon as they crossed the border. No one else knew they were coming. Just Gorash and his rabble.”

“So let me get this straight,” Drago said slowly. “You want me to travel to the Barrens, find a seasoned guerilla fighter who’s known every inch of the terrain since he was a child, and has a small army of ruthless killers who idolize him standing between the two of us, and kill him in retaliation for murdering your queen.”

“That about sums it up,” Greenleaf agreed, pushing his tankard of ale across to the gnome. “So, what do you think?”

Drago’s laughter was so loud, it disturbed the watchmen in the street outside.

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