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“People gotta cook wi’ that.”

Drago didn’t mind too much about people trying to kill him; what he really resented was how bad most of them were at it. Take the big human leaping over the bench, for instance, his heavy pewter tankard already swinging out and down in an attempt to stove Drago’s skull in: he was so slow and clumsy, the strike might as well have sent a note round last week to make an appointment. And the one trying to sneak up behind him, dagger held edge-on to slit his throat, was even worse, making enough noise to rouse a hibernating wyvern—something that never ended well. But that was humans for you—great lumbering masses of muscle, particularly between the ears.

Actually, to be fair, some of them were reasonably bright, especially the few he favored with his friendship, but intelligence was hardly a job requirement to run errands for Ambrose Fallowfield, the softly spoken sociopath who owned this tavern. If your definition of legitimate ownership included buying up all the old landlord’s debts, demanding immediate repayment, and sending armed thugs to evict him and his family the same afternoon . . .

Drago was here to talk to him about that. And a number of similar incidents, which had persuaded the Tradesman’s Association of the Wharfside District that the mildly extortionate fee Drago was charging to make their problem go away was far less than they’d lose in the long run by letting someone like Fallowfield simply remain unchecked. And, as Drago had pointed out, if he failed they’d hardly be any worse off, as he’d be dead and unable to collect his payment anyway.

Not that there seemed much chance of that, if these two clowns were the best Fallowfield had standing between him and almost two foot nine of irritated gnome.

Not that they saw it that way, of course. To humans, the stupid majority anyway, small meant weak, and his assailants positively reeked of overconfidence. What they generally overlooked was that small also meant fast, and agile.

Drago dropped, headbutting the oncoming man in the groin, and rolling aside to make plenty of room for him to fold up just where he was guaranteed to get under the feet of the knife-wielder. They went down together in a tangle of limbs and profanity, while Drago kept on going beneath a nearby table, rolling to his feet on the opposite side and upending it on top of the struggling thugs for good measure. The stevedores sitting there scrambled out of the way the instant the heavy piece of furniture began to tilt, their imperiled drinks snatched aloft with barely a drop spilled; which said a great deal about the night life in this part of the city. None of them seemed inclined to remonstrate with him, which in Drago’s book put them in the brighter portion of humanity.

“Fallowfield!” If he’d had any doubts about the identity of his quarry they were instantly dispelled: A foppish young man, in a coat so expensive-looking anyone else around here would have been stabbed for it hours ago, stood with an elaborate air of casualness in response to the shout, and slipped through a door at the back of the room.

Leaving only three more thugs to evade between Drago and his prey. Of course the taproom was crowded with customers too, some of whom would probably join in on the gangsters’ side if they saw some advantage in it, but the gnome’s reputation preceded him, and most of them were simply getting out of the way as quickly as they could. Which would have suited him fine, except none of them were moving in the same direction, cutting him off from the door Fallowfield had disappeared through with an ever-changing tangle of obstructing legs. Trying to crawl through them would only get him kicked in the head, possibly even by accident, and make life unnecessarily easy for the trio of bravos attempting to hem him in—well, good luck with that, the panicking customers were hindering them even more badly than they were Drago.

If he couldn’t go down, then, he’d have to go up: an old wagon wheel hung from the ceiling in the center of the room, dripping tallow from the candles spaced around its rim onto the customers below, most of whom seemed used to the inconvenience judging by the spots of grease on their shoulders. Drago vaulted onto the table beneath it, evaded a sword thrust from a young man whose face seemed composed entirely of acne, and yanked the lad’s extended arm downwards, trapping the blade beneath the sole of his boot as it rattled against the table. To his faint disappointment the steel was of better quality than he’d expected, failing to deform enough to give him much of a boost upwards, but at least his would-be kebabber was too slow or stupid to let go of the hilt, trapping his fingers against the tabletop; an intensely uncomfortable sensation, judging by the noise he was making. And there was more than one way to eat a mole, as the saying went.

A quick jump took him to the swordsman’s shoulder, landing with a crack of breaking collarbone as the youth straightened reflexively, boosting the gnome upwards. The sword fell from his bruised and swelling hand, clattering against the floor.

“You should get a compress on that,” Drago told him, grabbing the makeshift chandelier, and pushing off against the back of the young man’s head with a kick which neatly dropped his suddenly unconscious form on top of the first two attackers—who, by now, had valiantly fought off the overturned table, and were using one another to haul themselves upright. The rope securing the wagon wheel to the beam it depended from creaked ominously at the unexpected additional load, but held as Drago swooped across the room, scattering candles in his wake; most, fortunately, blown out by the speed of their passage through the air, the few exceptions adding a distinct odor of singed hair to the already rather close atmosphere. One or two customers yelped, or shouted imprecations after him, but Drago ignored both, letting go of the swinging wheel at what he hoped was exactly the right moment.

The two remaining thugs had shown a bit more sense than their colleagues, taking up a defensive stance in front of the door Fallowfield had disappeared through rather than wading into the chaos of the overcrowded taproom. Both had drawn swords, though neither seemed to have much of an idea what to do with them—probably the people they were used to dealing with found the threat of the weapons enough. The stocky woman on the left had taken up something resembling a proper guard position, the blade held out in front of her ready to spit the oncoming gnome, though he’d have bet most of his purse that her chances of doing so would have depended more on luck than skill. Then again, he’d lost enough money at dice over the years not to dismiss fortune as a factor in anything. So he aimed his boot heels squarely at the man on the right, an overdressed dandy, whose slender build and violet eyes hinted at a bit of elvish blood somewhere in his ancestry.

A hint confirmed by the speed of his reflexes. He brought his weapon round in a slashing arc as Drago hurtled at his head; quick, but not quite quickly enough. As it was, the sword clattered to the worn wooden floor before it could connect, followed almost instantly by its owner, as Drago’s sturdy footwear impacted with his face. Nasal cartilage snapped, and a gush of blood made a terrible mess of the tangle of lace clinging to the front of his shirt.

“You need to get that in cold water,” Drago said, rolling to his feet, although the chances of the stain not being permanent were negligible. The dandy seemed unappreciative of the advice anyway, although his answer wasn’t really recognizable as words: the slurred gargling might have meant “thanks a lot, I’ll do that,” but Drago rather doubted it. He drew his own blade, parrying a clumsy cut from the woman by the door, and stared up at her, waiting for her to regain her balance. He smiled, in a manner he knew to be far from reassuring. “Just . . . Don’t. Really.”

She hesitated, glancing down at her erstwhile companion, across to the other three still thrashing on the floor like stranded fish, then back to the diminutive bounty hunter who’d felled them all with such speed and apparent ease. Her tongue flickered across dry lips. “You’re really him, aren’t you?” she asked, in a voice which hardly trembled at all. “Drago Appleroot.”

“Pleased to make your acquaintance.” Drago bowed, keeping his eyes raised against the possibility of a sudden strike, but whoever she was, the woman had enough respect for his reputation not to try anything so blatant. Which was the most sensible thing any of Fallowfield’s minions had done so far that evening. He nodded at the door behind her. “If you’ll excuse me?”

“Oh. Right.” She shuffled aside, thoroughly intimidated, the sword hanging from her hand apparently forgotten.

Drago reached up for the latch and yanked it open, finding himself in a steam-filled kitchen, where a couple of cooks barely glanced up from a bubbling pot hanging over an open fire, and a stained wooden table cluttered with kitchen knives and lumps of what had probably once been vegetables or animal parts. The one hacking things to bits was a goblin, a head taller than Drago, and the one stirring the resulting mess another human.

“Back door. Where?” Drago wasn’t in the mood for prolonged conversation. Neither, it seemed, was the goblin. She simply jerked her head to indicate the direction he wanted, before returning her attention to a mallet and what looked suspiciously like the head of a chicken.

A flicker of movement behind him warned Drago an instant before the sword thrust arrived where he no longer was; by that time he was already pivoting out of the way, and seizing a saucepan from a nearby shelf. Overextended, the swordswoman stumbled, and Drago stuck out a leg, tripping her neatly. She went down hard on her right knee, which left her head at the ideal height for a swift blow from the solid utensil.

“Oi!” The goblin looked up from the mess in front of her, and wagged an admonishing talon in his direction. “That’s unhygienic, that is. People gotta cook wi’ that.” She wiped a dripping nose with the back of her hand, and started stuffing something from a bowl in front of her into the body cavity of a disemboweled hen.

“My sincere apologies, madam. And for the intrusion,” Drago said smoothly, helping himself to the unconscious swordswoman’s purse as he straightened up. The mouth around the goblin’s tusks widened a little in response, in what he supposed was meant to be a smile. “If you’ll excuse me?”

The doorway across the kitchen was still ajar, allowing a refreshing blast of cooler air into the room, freighted with the reassuring odor of the city,; a faint salty tang from the sea, smothered almost into oblivion by the far stronger smells of ordure and rotting fish for which Fairhaven was famed far into the surrounding countryside, and by which many veteran mariners swore they could find the port even in the thickest of fogs. A lifelong urbanite, Drago barely noticed it.

The alleyway beyond was squalid even by Fairhaven standards, carpeted in a slippery mush of kitchen refuse and, more than likely, the contents of the local chamber pots. Drago, however, was as sure-footed as all his kind, hardly slowed at all by the treacherous surface, and took off running in what he hoped was the right direction. To his right, the main street was illuminated by the candles and oil lamps of the many businesses scattered along it, and the occasional link boy, carrying a torch for someone rich enough to afford it and unsqueamish enough not to mind seeing what they were stepping in. Fallowfield might have gone that way, hoping to get lost in the crowd, but Drago didn’t think so. Too many people in the neighborhood had grudges against him, and he was too spineless to risk being seen without some bodyguards to hide behind.

Which left the other way, into the dark and shadows, where vermin generally scuttled to hide. He’d been on enough rat hunts as a kid to know that. The other thing about rats, of course, was that they were most dangerous when they were cornered . . .

A muffled curse up ahead reassured him that he’d made the right choice, and a smile which would have made the one he’d given the swordswoman in the tavern seem warm and friendly tugged at the corner of his mouth. Fallowfield was trying to cut through the tangle of narrow passages between the street and the wharves, which weren’t so much thoroughfares as places where the tightly packed buildings weren’t. If he made it as far as the waterside, he’d be able to hide among the bustle of cargoes still being shifted even at this time of night by the light of torches or, in the warehouses of the Merchants’ Guild, who skimmed enough from their clients to be able to afford such things, the brighter glow of enchanted rocks dangling from the ceiling. Or find some more of his hired muscle, who were probably hanging around down there looking for something to pilfer.

Unfortunately for the gangster, Drago not only knew every square inch of the district, he was fast and small enough to take short cuts no human could ever have fitted down. That, and the sharp low-light vision bequeathed by generations of burrowing ancestors, gave him an unbeatable edge in this environment. He darted left, right, and a made a quick sprint down a gap so narrow even a gnome’s shoulders brushed against the walls hemming him in.

“Damn it!” The expostulation was near, followed almost instantly by the sound of rending cloth, and Drago’s grin widened; it seemed that expensive coat wasn’t coming off too well against the confined spaces its owner had chosen to take refuge in. But the noise had been enough to let him pinpoint his quarry’s location; exactly where he would have chosen to confront him.

A couple more twists and turns, and Drago stepped quietly out into a narrow courtyard, although calling it that would have been architectural flattery of the most egregious kind: little more than a small space between buildings, across which someone had hopefully hung a clothesline. That probably meant there was a resident or two in what, at first sight, he’d taken for nothing more than a conglomeration of sheds tucked behind a couple of larger, brick-built warehouses. If there was anyone else around, though, none of them had been careless enough to leave any garments hanging up after dark; prudent, but rather disappointing, as that would have given him some clue as to the numbers, race, and gender of any potential bystanders.

Taking a step into the shadows of the courtyard, he waited, his sword held easily ready for use. To his right, the wider gap between the warehouses, almost a yard across, leaked light into the confined space from the illuminated dockside beyond, and, to his left, another dark slit between walls, perhaps half that in size. He narrowed his eyes. Any moment now . . .

And there he was, Fallowfield, wriggling out of the confined space like a grub from a manure pile.

“What kept you?” Drago asked, taking another step forward, the light from the bustling wharfside glittering on his blade in a manner guaranteed to attract his quarry’s attention. Fallowfield hesitated, giving the gnome enough time to plant himself firmly in the middle of the wider passageway, blocking his hoped-for line of retreat. The gangster hovered for a moment, glancing back at the narrow cleft he’d just emerged from. For the first time that evening, Drago’s smile held a hint of genuine amusement. “Good idea. Let’s play hide and seek.”

On the verge of bolting, Fallowfield froze, clearly picturing a desperate scramble through the dark, narrow labyrinth, where his diminutive pursuer would have all the advantages. That could only end in one way, and he was bright enough to see it. Instead, he took a few steps toward Drago, assuming a nonchalant air he was manifestly far from feeling.

“We’re both too old for games,” he said, as easily as if the two of them were old friends sharing a bottle of something. The abrupt switch from sweaty panic to bonhomie was faintly disconcerting, or would have been if Drago hadn’t studied his quarry beforehand. As it was, this was exactly what he’d been expecting. Ambrose Fallowfield had all the innate empathy of a serpent, but was adept at simulating it when he thought it would serve his interests. He spread his arms, as though welcoming Drago into an opulent parlor rather than a reeking midden. “I’m sure we can sort something out.”

“That’s why I’m here,” Drago said. “To make you an offer.”

“An offer?” Fallowfield repeated, as though trying to make sense of an unfamiliar language. “I don’t take offers. I make them.”

“Then you know how this works,” Drago said. He didn’t think the man would try to jump him; vermin like Fallowfield generally relied on other people to get their hands dirty. But he’d faced sufficient cornered rats as a child to know just how vicious they could be. Not that it’d done any of them enough good to avoid the cooking pot, but the attempts had drawn blood on more than one occasion.

“Oh, I do.” Fallowfield came to a halt just short of the clothesline, as though the chest-high strand of rope was a tangible barrier protecting him from the gnome, who could have walked under it easily without taking his hat off; even if he’d been wearing one of the currently fashionable kind with a ridiculously long feather tucked into the brim. “You talk, I ignore you.”

“Who said anything about talking?” Drago said evenly. He pulled a folded letter from the pouch at his belt, and held it out. Then hesitated, as if struck by a sudden thought. “Unless you’d like me to read it to you?”

“I can read.” Nettled, as Drago had intended, Fallowfield ducked under the rope and snatched the paper from his hand. He tore it open, with a disdainful glance at the Tradesman’s Association seal, and took a perfunctory look at the contents. His face darkened, all pretense at affability discarded. “What the hell’s this?”

“I thought you said you could read,” Drago said. He picked up the crumpled ball of paper, and smoothed it out, carefully avoiding some of the more aromatic stains. “It’s a ticket. One way. To the Icelands.” He pretended to study it. “Oh, leaving tonight. Lucky we’re right by the wharf, isn’t it? Wouldn’t want you to miss the ship.”

“I’m not going anywhere,” Fallowfield said vehemently, taking another step forward. Drago could hardly blame him for that. The Icelands were as desolate as their name implied, fit only for trolls, and the handful of humans hardy or desperate enough to settle there, manning the trading posts and fighting off the occasional raid: the only forms of contact with the outside world the locals seemed interested in.

“The thing is,” Drago said, “this offer. It’s not what you might call negotiable.”

“Everything’s negotiable,” Fallowfield said, changing tack again. He glanced warily at the blade in the gnome’s hand, making sure he was still outside the range of a swift thrust. He produced a bulging purse from inside the enveloping coat, and chinked it suggestively. “If you’d never seen me tonight, I could make it well worth your while.”

“Tempting,” Drago lied, shaking his head with a regretful sigh, “but bad business in the long run. For me, I mean. Too many people saw me come after you.”

“You could say you lost me in the dark,” Fallowfield said, and Drago laughed with genuine amusement.

“I’m a gnome. I can see just as well now as at noon.” Which wasn’t quite true, but humans, he knew, were quick to attribute traits they feared or envied to other species, and he’d never seen the downside of being overestimated. It made the people he was paid to go after less likely to make a fight of it. “Besides, you’ll be needing that where you’re going. Cold weather gear doesn’t come cheap.”

Fallowfield wasn’t used to people saying no to him, that much was plain. He was holding onto his temper with a visible effort, and the mask of affability was beginning to slip. Any moment now he’d lash out, hoping to take Drago by surprise, and be utterly astonished at his failure to do so.

And here it came, a wild swing with the heavy purse, which made the tankard wielder in the tavern look like a model of precision. Drago stepped aside without thinking, raising the flat of his sword to protect his head, and slipped in the admixture of mud and filth coating the narrow courtyard. Cursing, he regained his balance almost instantly, but the damage had been done. The point of his weapon had risen, and Fallowfield, overreaching, lost his footing too. Man and gnome collided, and Drago found himself slammed into the noxious dirt, the full weight of the gangster on top of him.

At least the ground hadn’t been cobbled, he thought, the impacted mud beneath the top layer of slime providing a relatively soft landing, with nothing he could crack his skull against. Could have been a lot worse, although the breath had been driven from his body by the mass of a fully grown human suddenly slamming into his ribcage. And he’d landed on his back, so at least he hadn’t had a mouthful of whatever vaguely squishy ground cover he’d landed in.

Fallowfield hadn’t been so lucky though, landing face down, and was far from happy about it, judging by the muffled choking noises he was making. Drago got both his hands on the gangster’s chest, and pushed, exerting all his strength—which was considerable for someone his size. Fallowfield rolled clear, and Drago scrambled to his feet, casting around frantically for his dropped sword. Whichever one of them found it first would have a considerable advantage. True, it would be more like a long knife in the hands of a human, but could still do a lot of damage, and he wasn’t about to wrestle for it if he could avoid that.

Oh. There it was, the hilt sticking out of Fallowfield’s chest, still catching the light in a few places, despite the layer of muck encrusting it. And not just filth from the ground, either, Drago realized. There was a thick, metallic tang in the air now, and the stain on Fallowfield’s coat seemed to be spreading.

“Damn it.” This wasn’t supposed to happen. Fallowfield should be comfortably tucked away in the hold of a trading vessel by now, not leaking all over some back-alley midden. Not that his employers would be all that distressed by the way things were turning out; gone was gone so far as they were concerned, but to Drago it seemed like shoddy workmanship. Any halfwit with a grudge could settle a disagreement with a blade, but he prided himself on executing his commissions with a little more finesse. It was what his reputation was founded on, after all, and his services wouldn’t be in anything like so much demand if his clients thought they could get the same result by giving a couple of dockyard dregs a knife and a handful of pennies.

No point in crying over spilt blood, though. He bent over the recumbent gangster.

“Fallowfield. Can you walk?” They needed to get to a healer. He knew a couple who wouldn’t ask too many questions. The problem would be getting the man there in the first place.

Fallowfield responded with a muffled gargling sound, in which a couple of words seemed to be embedded. The second sounded like “you,” and Drago reckoned the first was unlikely to be “bless.” This didn’t look good; a priest would probably be more use than a healer at this stage, although Drago didn’t know any of those with flexible ethics.

Then the matter became moot. Fallowfield spasmed, his heels drumming on the ground, raising little splashes of semi-liquid filth, and became still. A last choked breath rattled his throat.

Drago sighed. “Should have taken the boat ticket,” he said, bracing a foot against the dead man’s ribcage, and tugging on the sword hilt. It came slowly, with a moist sucking sound as he twisted it to open the wound and break the seal of flesh trapping the blade. Finding a relatively unsoiled corner of Fallowfield’s coat, he wiped the steel carefully, before returning it to the scabbard—it would need oiling as soon as he got it home. He had a cleaning kit in his pouch, of course, but right now he was disinclined to linger here any longer than he needed to.

As he turned away his boot hit something hard, which gave a little and clinked, and he bent down to investigate, already certain of what he was about to find. Fallowfield’s purse, dropped in the struggle. He shrugged, and picked it up, pleasantly surprised at the weight of it: chances were he’d need a whole new set of clothes after tonight’s little escapade, and even if he didn’t, his laundress would demand a healthy bonus.

The rest of the deceased gangster’s trappings he left for the neighborhood scavengers, who undoubtedly needed them more than he did, along with the ticket to the Icelands—a new life, rich with opportunity, for any of the local denizens brave enough to take it. He had no doubt someone would be sufficiently desperate.

Then he went to find too much to drink, and a dice game to squander the swordswoman’s money on.

That was Fairhaven for you; life went on around you whatever you did, and wherever you died. The trick was to put it off for as long as possible.

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