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“She’s not like that at all.”

“Are you sure that’s a good idea?” Raegan asked, over a late breakfast at The Blind Watchman, a tavern favored by off-duty members of the City Watch and the less dangerous of the local scofflaws in roughly equal numbers, both of whom found it useful to mingle with their professional adversaries on reasonably neutral ground. The watch heard a lot they found of interest, usually about the affairs of people they were a good deal more interested in than their drinking companions, and the local cutpurses and dolly-mops gleaned a reasonable idea of where the local patrols were least likely to be, which suited everyone fine. An arrangement which contributed not a little to the opinion Mrs. Cravatt, and a great many of her fellow citizens, had of the watch and its personnel, but so far as Raegan was concerned a little gossip was a small price to pay to keep the streets more or less safe for the law-abiding among Fairhaven’s residents; he was certain there were a few out there somewhere.

“No. It’s probably a bloody awful one,” Drago admitted, around a mouthful of sausage. “But if they’re going to keep coming after me anyway, I might as well get paid for it.”

“True.” Raegan still sounded doubtful, but then he’d been up all night, which hadn’t improved his disposition. “That one you brought in last night . . .”

“Edna Cravatt brought in,” Drago said, trying not to think too hard about that. He hadn’t slept particularly well himself, and when he had, his dreams had been far from restful. A fresh thought occurred to him, and he added, “I might have mentioned something to her about a reward.”

“Oh.” Raegan nodded. “That’s why she’s been hanging around all morning.” He sighed, which turned into a yawn. “I’ll get George to bung her a few shillings when I get back. Might even turn out to be worth it.”

“Might at that,” Drago agreed. “Not much goes on around here she doesn’t know about.” He took a swig of his ale, which, like the food, wasn’t as good as the Footpad provided, but at least was being paid for by somebody else. “Has the troll shagger said anything yet?”

“Quite a lot.” Raegan grinned, and took a bite of his bannock, the next sentence being delivered among a shower of crumbs. “Mostly adjectives, and unfounded speculation about your ancestry. But nothing of any use. And talking of which . . .” He broke off to wave at Vethik, who was glancing round the taproom with an air of impatient distaste from just outside the door, beneath the sign showing a member of the watch holding a bulging purse and ostentatiously not noticing the burglar shinning up a ladder a few feet behind him. Vethik preferred to patronize more salubrious establishments, and didn’t mind making that obvious.

Catching sight of Raegan, the portly goblin mage sighed heavily, and rolled across the threshold. Once inside he began to make his way through the crowd of other patrons toward the table Drago and Raegan were seated at, Raegan on one of the chairs, Drago on a higher stool so he could eat unimpeded.

“There you are,” he said, pulling up a chair of his own, and regarding the food before them with undisguised suspicion. He dropped the stone the assassin had thrown at Drago in the alley on the tabletop. “Don’t worry, I’ve had it cleaned.”

“Glad to hear it,” Raegan said. “What can you tell me about it?”

Vethik shrugged. “Clever bit of work. Talisman of summoning, invokes a low-grade elemental, but nothing with the intelligence to be self-directed.”

“Which is why the troll shagger never stopped chanting, I suppose,” Drago put in, to show he was paying attention.

“Maybe. Or perhaps he just liked the sound of his own voice.” Vethik glared at the gnome, nettled by the interruption. “A surprising number of people do.”

“Please, go on,” Drago said, chewing and swallowing a little more loudly than was strictly necessary.

“I can’t tell you for certain who made it, but I followed your suggestion and took a look at the files. Does the name Elenath Swiftwind ring any bells?”

“Quickfart?” Raegan nodded. “Wasn’t he the one those river pirates had brewing up waterspouts for them a couple of years back?” Vethik nodded a confirmation, and the captain went on reflectively. “It’s his style, all right, but he’s an elf.”

“And in jail,” Drago added. “Isn’t he?”

Raegan shook his head. “Not as such, no. Turned council’s evidence, dropped everyone else in it, and walked. Well, limped, after his old associates realized he’d grassed them up and sent the boys round for a chat about it, but he’s still around. I’ll get George to pull him in for a little talk.”

“There’s no need,” Vethik said. “He’s on Sergeant Waggoner’s list already.” He turned a scornful glance in Drago’s direction. “And the fact that he’s an elf doesn’t mean he wouldn’t sell an enchantment to the agents of a goblin bandit. This is Fairhaven, not the arse-end of nowhere. People get along with each other.” He watched Raegan and Drago mirror one another’s expressions of incredulity. “So long as they’re making money out of it, anyway.”

“Fair point,” Raegan agreed. “So let’s see what Quickfart has to say for himself, shall we?”

“I never meant any harm, Mister Raegan, you must be aware of that. The path of a mage is one of pure intellectual enquiry. The uses the fruits of my endeavors may be put to, however reprehensible, is not my responsibility.” Swiftwind talked like a typical elf, but the arrogance Drago normally associated with his species was markedly absent. He looked sweatily nervous, and, in the close confines of Raegan’s office, it had rapidly become apparent that, under stress, his nickname was well merited.

“I don’t have time for this, Quickfart. Or the nose.” Raegan leaned across his desk, managing to loom in a manner that even Clement Wethers would have been hard to equal. “Foreign agents have been murdering Fairhaven citizens, and the council aren’t at all happy about that. Specifically, they’re not happy with me, because we didn’t stop it happening, which means I’m not happy with you, because you’re an accessory. Are you following this?”

“Absolutely.” The sweaty elf nodded, his ill-fitting conjurer’s robes rippling with another nervous effusion. “This entire situation must be extremely unsatisfactory from your point of view.”

“So the way I see it, there are two possible ways for me to make the council happy. Tell them I’ve got someone in custody with information about the goblin bandits’ agents, and turn him over to their people for an intensive interview about the matter—“ he broke off for a moment, until silence fell again in the office and the air cleared a little—“or tell them I’ve got an informant associated with the group who’s happy to cooperate in keeping us abreast of whatever they’re up to.”

“Well, of course I’m happy to cooperate.” Swiftwind forced a pallid smile of patent insincerity to his face. “What loyal citizen of the city wouldn’t be?” Then his expression changed again, to one of undisguised alarm. “But these people are not to be trifled with. If they got so much of an inkling that I was informing on them, I’d be dead in a heartbeat.”

“Then don’t give them one,” Drago put in, from his post leaning against the door; it looked appropriately intimidating, and at least there was a draft of relatively fresher air around the jamb. “And if you get any ideas about just telling Captain Raegan what you think he wants to hear, or holding out on him, I’ll beat them to it. I’ve almost died twice because of the enchantments you’ve sold these ratbags, and I’m not in a forgiving mood.”

“I think the significant word there is ‘almost,’” Swiftwind said, with a desperate attempt at an ingratiating smile. “Which is a sterling testament to your skill and professionalism.”

“Or maybe they should be asking you for a refund,” Drago said, unable to resist another dig. “I would in their position.” A possibility which had clearly not occurred to Swiftwind, judging by the sudden change in his expression. “Perhaps I should suggest it the next time they come after me.”

“Maybe we should let them,” Raegan suggested, with a wintery smile. “The rate you’re getting through them, we might just solve the problem that way.” He turned back to the odiferous mage. “So, names, places. Who do you deal with, and where can we find them?”

“You can’t.” Swiftwind squirmed, looking too uncomfortable to be lying. “They come to my workshop. Only place I ever see one of them.”

“One of them?” Drago asked, already sure of the answer. It was pennies to pancakes Gorash’s agents would operate in the same way as Stargleam’s, and the mage would only have had contact with the opposition’s equivalent of Greenleaf.

Swiftwind nodded, a little too fervently, eager to show he was cooperating. “Just the one,” he confirmed. “She said it was safer that way.” Safer for the goblin’s network, anyway. Drago wouldn’t have trusted the elf’s discretion either. “Just used to turn up out of the blue. Well, black, really. She only came at night.”

“I don’t suppose this lady of the night gave a name, at all?” Raegan asked sarcastically.

Swiftwind flushed, his expression growing truculent. “She’s not like that at all,” he said vehemently. “She’s a proper lady, and insinuations like that simply prove you’re no gentleman.”

Drago and Raegan exchanged surprised glances. It sounded as though the seedy mage had some finer feelings after all, had perhaps even been smitten by his client; if so, that could be useful. Subtly nurturing his romantic hopes might lead to a closer connection, and more useful information. On the other hand, it might divide his loyalties, rendering him useless as an asset. Or possibly get him killed. Not that any woman in her right mind would be likely to take a shine to Swiftwind, whatever her species.

Then a disturbing thought occurred to Drago, the narrowing of Raegan’s eyes betraying that the same one had struck him at almost exactly the same moment. They’d have to get Swiftwind to take a look at the would-be assassin who’d tried to shoot him a couple of nights ago—all three of them were still laid out in the cellar of the watch house, where the cool damp air helped the preserving spells last a little longer.

“And does this paragon of virtue have a name?” Raegan asked.

“Hyacinth,” Swiftwind said, with a faintly dreamy lilt to his voice. “Although I don’t suppose for a moment it’s her real one.”

“How did she first get in contact with you?” Drago asked.

“The usual way. Just turned up at my workshop, like most clients do. She said she’d heard I was unusually skilled in certain areas, and I said I was pretty good at magic too. Just a little pleasantry to break the ice, as it were.”

“And she found that amusing, did she?” Raegan asked, the edge of sarcasm back in his voice.

Swiftwind nodded. “She has a most mellifluous laugh. That was the first time I ever heard it.”

Drago and Raegan exchanged glances again, and Drago felt an unexpected pang of sympathy for the shabby sorcerer. She had to have been playing him; and only someone who really wanted to be fooled could have failed to see it.

Before he could formulate another question a loud rapping shivered the door timbers a foot or so above his head, and it burst open, almost crushing him against the wall.

“Guv.” Waggoner ignored the aggrieved gnome, addressing his superior directly. “He’s topped himself.”

“What?” Raegan rose from his chair as though suddenly discovering it was on fire, and made for the door, ignoring Drago and Swiftwind alike. On the threshold, he turned and glared at the startled mage. “Don’t move. If you so much as scratch your arse before I get back I’ll have you charged with accessory to murder. Got it?”

“Got it,” Swiftwind confirmed, underlining the point with a fresh burst of flatulence.

“Good.” The two watchmen disappeared at a run, leaving Drago trotting ever farther behind in their wake.

“Lady Selina won’t be at all pleased,” Drago commented, finally catching up with Raegan and Waggoner in the cells. Fortunately most of them were empty at this time of the day, the few occupied exceptions at the other end of the corridor, as Raegan had given strict instructions to keep the suspect as far away from the rest of the prisoners as possible.

“Screw Lady Selina.” Raegan kicked out irritably at the door of the cell, ignoring his subordinate’s muttered “in your dreams.” “I’m not pleased. Who found him?”

“I did,” Waggoner admitted. “He’d had a couple of hours to cool down, so I thought I’d have another go at him while you were talking to Quickfart. Walked in, and found him like that.” He indicated the erstwhile assassin, who was hanging from the bars of the narrow window, the single blanket from the bed twisted around his neck.

“And you’re sure the door was locked?” Vethik asked, standing on the bed to reach the knot. The corpse was about the same height as the corpulent sorcerer, its feet dangling grotesquely, like a puppet hung up at the end of its performance. He muttered something, the knot came undone, and the cadaver slithered to the floor like a sack of grain.

“Of course I’m bloody sure,” Waggoner said. “Why wouldn’t I be?”

“Because in most cases of suicide, the victim’s neck breaks after the noose has been tied, not before.” Vethik hopped down to the floor, using the dead goblin as a convenient step.

“You’re sure about that?” Raegan asked sharply.

Vethik shook his head. “No, I’m just taking a wild guess, completely ignoring all the evidence in front of me. What do you think?”

“I’m sorry, doctor.” Raegan reined in his temper with a visible effort, resorting to flattery to mollify the mage. “It’s just that every time we seem to be getting somewhere with this case, our leads turn up dead. And here, like this, is just bloody embarrassing!”

“Yes, I’m sure it is,” Vethik said, unhelpfully.

“Can you tell us how he died?” Drago asked.

Vethik glanced in the gnome’s direction, apparently noticing him for the first time, before returning his attention immediately to Raegan. “Judging by the pattern of bruising, and the fibers under his fingernails, I’d say the blanket did it.”

Raegan took a very deep breath, released it slowly, and repeated the operation several times. “All by itself, I suppose.”

“No, it had a bit of help.” The corpulent mage stooped, peering at the floor, then gestured to Drago. “You’re a lot lower down than I am, make yourself useful. Take a look under the bed.”

Biting back the stinging retort he was sure was just about to occur to him, Drago stooped and took a cursory glance beneath the narrow-padded bench. On the verge of standing again, he spotted something small, lying in the shadows, up against the wall. Swearing under his breath, he got down on his stomach, wriggled his head and shoulders under the bed, and reached out for it.

“Is that what you’re looking for?” he asked, regaining his feet, and holding out the object he’d discovered. To his complete lack of surprise it was a stone, scored with intricate markings which made his eyes hurt if he looked at them too hard, and surprisingly heavy for its size. Almost identical, in other words, to the talisman the now-dead assassin had used in an attempt to kill him.

Vethik nodded, with an air of self-satisfaction which would have done credit to an elf. “Exactly what I would have expected to find,” he said. “They waited until he’d fallen asleep, then lobbed that in through the window.”

“Who did?” Waggoner interrupted, looking as though he didn’t care particularly so long as it was someone he could hit.

“Whoever wanted him dead, of course,” Vethik said, the unhelpfulness of his answer at least being mitigated by some accuracy this time.

“Another of Gorash’s mob,” Raegan said. “Making sure he kept his mouth shut.” He glanced at Drago. “Maybe you leaving town for a while isn’t such a bad idea.”

“It couldn’t be much more dangerous,” Drago agreed. He still wasn’t sure if he could go through with actually assassinating someone, if he even managed to find the bandit chief, but at the moment taking out Gorash was beginning to look less like cold-blooded murder and more like self-defense. If they’d turn on their own like this, his people were even more ruthless than he’d anticipated, and there was no telling how many more of them there were at large in the city. If he wasn’t going to be looking over his shoulder for the foreseeable future, he was going to have to take the fight to their boss, and that was all there was to it.

“Unless you feel like being the bait again,” Waggoner chipped in hopefully. “That’d make it a lot easier to find them.”

“Think I’ll pass,” Drago said, as insouciantly as he could. “I’m off to talk to an elf about some linen.”

“And I’m off to talk to one about this.” Raegan hefted the recovered talisman, his face grimmer than Drago could recall having seen it in a long time. “And if the flatulent little scrote doesn’t deliver, he’s on his way to Her Ladyship’s so fast his feet won’t touch.”

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