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“That ought to learn him.”

A few hours of food and drink at The Dancing Footpad, followed by an almost honest dice game in the back room of The Strumpet in which he retained nearly all the money he went in with, went a long way toward restoring Drago’s good humor. He’d even found the time to complete his clothes shopping on the short walk between taverns, and had bought a new knapsack to carry his booty home in. His old boots he’d stuffed in the bottom, with the vague idea of getting them repaired in case they came in useful one day; the additional weight had been negligible, but the heels kept bumping uncomfortably against his spine as he made his way home.

The streets were still crowded as he left The Strumpet, mostly with humans, but with a few goblins and gnomes visible among them; elves tended to stay in their own parts of the city after dark, the occasional exception drawing curious or hostile glances, which they ignored with their usual supercilious air. Unwilling to weave his way through a forest of obstructing legs, Drago took to the labyrinth of narrow spaces between buildings through which he’d pursued Fallowfield, making for Mrs. Cravatt’s lodging house as directly as the haphazard network allowed. Night was falling in earnest by this time, but his low light vision proved as reliable as ever, and he made good progress, unimpeded by the detritus which always seemed to settle in the unregarded corners of the city. The sounds of activity from the streets and buildings were muffled here, the close air a degree or two warmer than in the thoroughfares, and he began to feel a degree of peace and seclusion rare in a place like Fairhaven.

Not that he was entirely alone. There was enough squeaking and rustling in the shadows and garbage drifts to turn his mind to thoughts of an early supper, and the occasional cat or dog seemed to have had the same idea. From time to time he caught a glimpse of another gnome, using the same network of short cuts, or carrying a ratting net and basket, but never close enough to exchange greetings with. Most of the windows he passed were shuttered, leaking lantern or candle light, the few exceptions too high to look into even if he’d been interested in doing so. The handful of doors here were gnome sized, and few of them appeared to be in use.

As he approached the gap he’d been heading for, giving on to an alley leading to the street where he lived, he slowed a little. Raegan’s warning about Gorash’s minions not having got the message that he wasn’t interested in going after their leader yet was still fresh in his mind, and he reached into his pocket, fumbling for the bag the watchman had given him.

It felt warm to the touch, and he closed his hand around it, a prickle of apprehension at the nape of his neck. Immediately he tightened his grip, a clump of shadow in a doorway opposite the passageway he was about to step out of dissipated like mist in the sun, and a goblin appeared, watchful eyes darting up and down the alley, and lingering a suspicious moment every time they passed the gap in the buildings down which Drago was lurking. He was dressed like the assassins last night, in dark clothing, and carried a sword, drawn and ready for use.

Drago let go of the charm in his pocket, but the effect still lingered, his would-be ambusher remaining perfectly visible. He rested his hand on the hilt of his own sword, and stepped out into the alley with a friendly smile.

“Aren’t you getting bored yet?” he asked. “I might not be home for hours.”

The effect was immediate. The goblin charged at him, his sword raised ready to strike. Drago sighed, turned on his heel to duck under the swing, and elbowed him in the ribs. A second’s thought would have told his assailant that if Drago was confident enough to speak to him, and astute enough to have penetrated his magical concealment, it would have been far more prudent to listen to whatever he had to say. But then, in Drago’s experience, prudence wasn’t particularly high on the list of qualities required of hired muscle.

Grabbing the hilt behind the goblin’s hand, Drago turned again, putting his other hand on the back of the blade and levering it upward, breaking his assailant’s grip. With the goblin’s sword securely in his possession, he snuggled the hilt more comfortably against his palm, and curled his fingers around it. The weapon was clumsy, the balance point too far forward, but then with weapons you tended to get what you paid for. His own had cost far more than he could afford at the time, but it had kept him alive, and in that regard alone had more than repaid his initial investment. As the goblin straightened up again, Drago rested the point against the fellow’s codpiece; if he’d been taller, or his assailant shorter, he’d probably have gone for the hollow of the throat, which tended to get people’s attention nicely, but when you were pushing two foot nine you often had to improvise, and threatening the family jewels was generally equally effective. In the rare cases it wasn’t, you weren’t far from the femoral artery either.

“Two things,” Drago said reasonably. “I’m not interested in Greenleaf’s proposition, so you people can sod off back to the Barrens, or wherever it is you’re from, and stop making a mess of my shirts. My laundry bills are getting too high as it is.”

“And the other thing?” The goblin glared down at him, but made no further move to attack. Something edged and pointy in the vicinity of the groin tends to have that effect.

“Thank you,” Drago said, with a pleasant smile.

The goblin’s brow furrowed. “Thanks for what?” he asked after a moment, curiosity winning out over truculence.

“For all the extra work coming my way. You people have taken most of my competitors out of the market.”

“Don’t expect to live long enough to get the benefit,” the goblin said, anger trumping common sense as it so often did. “There are plenty more where I came from.”

Drago sighed. “And just what part of ‘I have no intention of accepting a contract on your boss’ is failing to get through?” he asked patiently.

“The part where you’re lying through your teeth,” the goblin said. “We’ve seen you laying in supplies. We know you’re working for Stargleam’s thugs.”

“This?” Drago indicated the knapsack on his shoulders. “I just bought some new shirts. People keep bleeding on the old ones.” He lowered the confiscated blade. “Now bugger off. I’ve got better things to do with my time than listen to people talking bollocks.”

He took a step back, and pitched the sword down the gap between buildings behind him. The goblin might be able to retrieve it without getting his shoulders wedged, but it would take him a long time—long enough for Drago to get home and put his feet up, anyway. If the goblin wanted to hang around outside Mrs. Cravatt’s all night after that, good luck to him. Raegan had promised to send a couple of watchmen past on a regular basis, and if his landlady spotted the lurker first, he’d probably be glad to see them.

“Then listen to this,” the goblin said, his tone changing to one of gleeful malice. He spat out something in a guttural tongue that seemed to consist entirely of consonants and glottal stops. Drago had only heard the like a few times before, from mages he’d been hired to apprehend, and it had never presaged anything good. The goblin held up a small stone which he’d taken from his pocket, and threw it at Drago.

Drago drew his sword, and leapt aside, the speed of his gnomish reflexes taking him well clear of the object, which landed in the filth coating the alleyway with a faint squishing sound. For a second or two nothing seemed to happen, then the mud and ordure began to flow toward it, like a slow, viscid river. The goblin continued to chant, the same syllables repeating over and over, the harsh sounds raising the hairs on Drago’s neck. The air became thick, crackling like a summer heat haze before the thunder breaks.

The filth reared up, forming a crude humanoid figure half again as tall as Drago, like something molded by a child from the riverside clay. Arms and legs extended, and a face, scowling in a parody of malice, grew from between the thing’s shoulders.

It’s not alive, Drago told himself, it’s just a pile of crap with attitude. How dangerous can that be?

The sort of question which always tempts fate. Uttering a gurgling ululation rank with the smell of a thousand cesspits, the shambling monstrosity lashed out at him with one of its arms. Drago dodged the attack, the thing’s still-forming fist pulverizing the bricks in the wall behind him, and smashing a new window in the rear of a tavern facing the main street beyond. Shrieks, shouts and curses echoed through the aperture, but no one seemed inclined to investigate, for which Drago could hardly blame them.

Drawing his sword, he hacked at the thing’s arm as its next punch sailed past him, dodging out of the way with barely an inch to spare. It was hellish fast, almost as quick as he was, which was both unexpected and deeply worrying in a creature that size; although creature wasn’t quite the right word. It wasn’t alive in any real sense, just a construct for channeling magical energy and the malice of the goblin controlling it.

The blade sheared through the mass of filth, meeting barely any resistance, and emerged from the other side with a faint glopping sound. The muck simply flowed together in the wake of the cut, showing no sign at all of its passage.

This wasn’t good. The crap golem turned to follow Drago as he dived to the left, putting a rain barrel between him and it, and lashed out again. Its movements were fluid, unconstrained by the rigidity of muscle and bone, and it wouldn’t tire. Drago rolled in the nick of time, feeling the heels of his old boots dig painfully into his back as he landed on the rucksack, and swore, stagnant water and chips of sodden wood from the shattered barrel sousing him as he regained his feet.

The goblin sneered, a spiteful grin on his face, but kept on chanting, still the same few syllables over and over again; something short and easy to memorize. It must be the constant repetition, maintaining the spell, which kept the construct animated.

Fine, then, if he couldn’t take out the crap monster he’d just have to deal with the puppeteer instead, and hope that would get rid of the problem. Which was fine in theory, but with five feet of ambulatory excrement standing between him and the goblin, easier said than done. The alley was narrow, and the foul abomination almost filled it, walling him off from his prey.

There was only one thing for it. He turned, as though making a dash for the other end of the alley, from which a faint glimmer of lantern light and the murmur of people going about their business drifted; the life of the city continuing unimpeded, oblivious to the life-or-death struggle occurring so close to hand.

The bluff worked: the accretion of mud and filth half strode, half flowed toward him, reaching out with soft, thick fingers, which stretched and flexed in their eagerness. As the semi-liquescent hand closed on his knapsack, Drago slipped out of the shoulder straps and turned, ducking low to dive between the thing’s legs, striking out at where a live opponent would have had a hamstring. His blade simply slithered through the muck, as it had before, and with the same lack of discernible effect: precisely what he’d been expecting, but it was worth a try. He rolled to his feet, cursing at the coating of slime beslubbering his newly laundered jacket, and charged at the goblin.

The goblin’s eyes widened with shock, but he kept on chanting, the hard-edged syllables still falling from his lips, though in a somewhat higher register. He took a couple of steps backward, chanting even louder and more urgently than before.

“You’d better have enough in your purse to pay for this mess!” Drago snarled, forgetting for a moment that none of his assailants the previous night had been carrying anything with them. But he never completed the strike. As his blade hissed toward the cowering goblin, something glutenous and foul-smelling wrapped itself around his chest, yanking him backward. He flailed wildly, trying to cut and stab behind him, but nothing connected, the animated filth simply closing seamlessly behind his sword as it had before.

The muck around him grew thicker, entangling his limbs, constricting his chest, and climbing higher with every panicked heartbeat. Moist, sticky foulness began to trickle inside his shirt and britches, flooding his new boots, and with a thrill of horror he felt it begin to flow across his face. It was in his ears too, muffling the chanting of the goblin, but not enough to hide the vindictive note now suffusing the unending repetition.

Drago took a last deep breath, almost gagging at the smell, and screwed his eyes closed as the spreading filth engulfed his nose and mouth, seeping into his nostrils. He felt a growing pressure against his eyelids, saw flashes of light and deeper darkness, and felt his chest begin to burn with the desperate need to inhale. Which would mean certain death, as the viscid slime enclosing him forced itself into his lungs, choking and drowning him in ordure.

Abruptly the pressure eased, and he plummeted to the ground, coughing and blinking his eyes clear, drawing deep, reviving draughts of stinking air into his abused lungs. The construct had suddenly fallen apart, becoming nothing more than a fetid heap of filth, already subliming back into the well-trodden dirt of the alleyway.

Somehow he’d managed to retain his grip on his sword, and he staggered to his feet, glaring round for the goblin.

“Where are you, you troll-shagging bastard?” he roared, more angry than he could remember ever having been in his life. He’d been close to death before, of course, that went with the job, but always in a straight-up fight where you could see what was coming at you. Every time he’d been on the wrong end of sorcery up until now, its wielder had intended only to hinder him long enough to flee.

“Over here, and I’ll thank you to mind your language.” Mrs. Cravatt wrinkled her nose, and aimed a kick at the now prostrate goblin, in response to a muffled groan and a myoclonic twitch. “And if you’ve any idea at all about setting foot in my house in that condition, I’m telling you now, you’ll soon have another think coming.”

“What happened to him?” Drago asked, excavating a plug of muck from his ear to hear the reply better, and instantly regretting it. When affronted, Mrs. Cravatt’s voice tended to take on the quality of a stiletto straight to the brain.

“Me.” His landlady nodded with evident pride at a job well done. “Lucky for you I came out to empty the chamber pots when I did.” She brandished the piece of heavy earthenware in her hand; judging by the state of the goblin, Drago noted with a fair degree of vindictive satisfaction, it hadn’t been empty when she hit him with it. “And there you were, wallowing about in that—stuff, and him capering around egging it on. So I told him, this is a respectable neighborhood, and we don’t put up carryings-on like that around here. And he wouldn’t stop, so I belted him one with the gazunder.” She kicked the recumbent goblin again, for good measure. “That ought to learn him.”

“Quite so.” Drago got in a kick of his own, and bent down to retrieve his knapsack. As he’d expected, the filth had seeped inside, ruining his new shirts. “Might I trouble you to send a couple of messages for me? I’ll pay you back, as soon as I’ve had a chance to wash the contents of my purse.” Right now it was more like a bag of muck with coins embedded in it.

“You might do.” Mrs. Cravatt sniffed suspiciously, then instantly regretted it. “If you move downwind. What are they?” She beckoned to a flock of the neighborhood urchins, who’d appeared at the mouth of the alley, drawn by whatever mysterious force invariably brings a huddle of spectators to someone else’s misfortune.

“Let Captain Raegan at the watch house know someone he’s interested in talking to has been detained by a—“ he hesitated for a moment—“public-spirited citizen.”

Mrs. Cravatt frowned. “Don’t know about that. That lot are all bent as coat hangers. Better just dump this one in a canal. Least said, soonest mended.”

“There may be a reward,” Drago said. “Or, at the very least, he’ll feel he owes you a favor.”

“Oh, right.” She flipped a penny at the nearest urchin. “You heard him. Make sure you get the big shouty one, don’t get fobbed off with the stroppy sergeant.” She watched the girl run off, and turned back to Drago. “Who else?”

“Greta at the laundry. Apologies for the short notice, can she do me a bulk wash as soon as possible. I’ll pay double, and if she needs an enchantment I’ll pay market rate for that too.”

“I should think so, all the extra work she’s having to fit in for you.” Mrs. Cravatt hesitated on the verge of another sniff, thought better of it, and dispatched another messenger. “Anything else?”

“Yes.” Drago nodded decisively. “One more, to Master Greenleaf, care of the Haberdasher’s Guild. I’ve been considering his proposition, and would like to discuss the matter further.” He wiped another layer of dirt from his face, and dropped it on the semi-conscious goblin, who he felt deserved it. “And if you could start boiling some water for a bath before I get back, I’d be very grateful.”

His landlady’s eyes narrowed. “Two shillings grateful?”

“At least,” Drago said, turning in the direction of the waterfront.

“And where are you off to now, may I ask?”

Drago sighed. “The river,” he said. If he waded in up to his neck for a few minutes, he might just be clean enough for the bath to make a difference when he came out. But he wasn’t counting on it.

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