Sneak Peek: Liar’s Bargain by Tim Pratt

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Liar's Bargain by Tim PrattFor charming con man Rodrick and his talking sword Hrym, life is all about taking what you can and getting away clean. But when the pair are arrested in the crusader nation of Lastwall, Rodrick faces immediate execution, with Hrym spending the rest of eternity trapped in an enchanted scabbard. Their only hope lies in a secret government program in which captured career criminals are teamed up and sent on suicide missions too sensitive for ordinary soldiers. Trapped between almost certain death and actual certain death, the two join forces with a team of rogues and scoundrels, ready to serve their year-long tenure as best they can. Yet not everyone in their party is what they seem, and a death sentence may only be the start of the friends’ problems.

Liar’s Bargain, the latest in the Pathfinder Tales series, will become available June 7th. Please enjoy this excerpt.

1

A RIVER CROSSING

“What I don’t understand is why you believed her,” Hrym said.

Rodrick shifted around, trying to find a more comfortable position on his belly under the bush, which was difficult, given all the roots and rocks beneath him and the scratching branches pressing down from above. “We’ve been over this. She said she forgave me. I thought she was doing me a good turn.”

“‘Go to Lake Encarthan,’ she said. ‘Nirmathas,’ she said. ‘The shores are thronged with wealthy idiots!’ And you believed her.”

Rodrick squinted. Were those feet over there? If they were feet, were they the feet of mere passing foresters of no consequence, or the feet of people who wanted to beat him to death with sticks—or whatever people in Nirmathas beat dishonest gamblers to death with? He shouldn’t assume it was sticks. That was probably his city-dweller’s prejudice talking. Maybe they used barrel staves, or threw clods of dirt. “I admit my trust in her was misplaced. What can I say? I never took her for the vengeful type.”

Hrym chortled. “I am a talking sword, barely capable of telling humans apart, and even I knew she was the vengeful type.”

“Fair enough. I didn’t think she was the subtly vengeful type. I thought she might stab me in my sleep, not smile sweetly and send me into the wilderness. You must admit, her argument was plausible.”

“It’s not my job to judge plausibility.”

“What is your job, exactly?”

“Dazzling the rubes, and saving your life from rubes who are insufficiently dazzled.”

“She said there was gold here. New mines discovered every day, people striking it rich with picks and shovels—she said Nirmathas was full of the new rich, who are so much less suspicious and more poorly guarded than the old rich. Of course I believed her. Gold must come from somewhere. Why not the shores of Lake Encarthan?”

“I did like the parts about gold,” Hrym said. “How long are we going to hide under this bush?”

“Until I believe the threat has passed.”

“Rodrick. I am a wondrous talking sword of magical living ice, and you are a half-competent swordsman. A few months ago we bested a rakshasa in battle. Half a dozen sawmill workers—”

“And a foreman.”

“—and a foreman aren’t likely to pose any great difficulty.”

“I don’t want to kill them, Hrym. They aren’t demonic monsters. They’re just people. Killing them would be murder.”

“They want to kill you. I think they call it self-defense in that case.”

“I doubt the magistrates would see it that way. Besides, if I killed everyone who wanted to kill me, the world would be a far less populous place.”

“We could freeze them in place, then. My magic isn’t inherently lethal.”

“If we froze them out here in the dark, they’d be eaten by … forest monsters. Wolves. Bears. Whatever they have here.”

“So? Doesn’t the moral burden fall on the forest monsters in that case? You baffle me.”

“We’ll make it through the night, Hrym, and then head out in search of better prospects. We’re not so far from Cheliax, really. That place is full of rich people.”

“Not naive people, as a rule, though.”

“True. But at least many of them are evil. We were going to focus on stealing from the evil, whenever possible.”

“That was your idea, not mine,” the sword said. “I don’t much care where the gold comes from. I don’t suffer from guilt. I’m a sword.”

“There’s a pragmatic aspect to preying on the villainous, though. The evil are more likely to have lots of money, since they aren’t scrupulous about how they get it, and once they have it, they don’t go around giving any of it to charity, and so forth. They keep it.”

“Excellent. So the current plan is, we hide under this bush until you, a person with demonstrably terrible judgment, decide it’s safe to leave, and then we start hiking in the general direction of Cheliax?”

“We’ll probably steal a horse, rather than hike,” Rodrick said. “Since our old horse is in the hands of an angry mob.”

Hrym went hrmm. “Seven gamblers don’t count as a mob. The horse is probably worth more than you cheated them out of dicing tonight anyway. Why are they still chasing us? They should be glad of their good fortune. A free horse! Why bring violence into it at all? Wait, don’t tell me. Morals again, right?”

“Something like that. Or setting a bad precedent. Or beating a stranger to death with sticks counts as an unusually good night’s entertainment in this gods-blighted wilderness.”

“Wait, you want to steal a horse? Isn’t that evil? Or is it an evil horse? Or an evil owner?”

“I am prepared to be flexible regarding the horse’s moral alignment, so long as it’s fast. Or even slow. Just as long as it’s faster than walking, honestly.”

“Honesty is very important—”

“Over there!” someone shouted, which was how you could tell they were workers in a sawmill and not hunters, because hunters knew better than to startle their quarry with shouts.

Rodrick rolled out from under the bush, Hrym in his scabbard digging painfully into his thigh in the process, then leapt to his feet and set off running in a direction that seemed to lead away from the voice.

He was so busy concentrating on not tripping over roots or rocks, and avoiding all the tree branches that hung inconveniently just at head height, that he was quite surprised when he fell into the river.

*   *   *

“I could freeze the river, if it would make you feel better,” Hrym said. “In a retaliatory way. Unless you think that would be immoral. I’m not sure if it’s an evil river or not.” The sword was unsheathed, stuck point-first in the earth, helping keep watch.

Rodrick sat under a tree, which would have been an improvement over hiding under a bush, if only he hadn’t been soaking wet. He kept his hand on Hrym’s hilt, and the sword’s magic kept him from suffering the effects of the chill night air, so at least he wouldn’t die of exposure. He still squished every time he shifted, and didn’t dare try to light a fire to dry himself out, lest the flames give away his position. “Yes, yes, you’re hilarious. Do you think they’ll keep hunting me, or am I safe now?”

“That depends on whether their desire to kill you is greater than their reluctance to ford a river in the dark. Or on whether there’s a nearby bridge we don’t know about. With luck they’re still searching the other side of the bank for you. Your blundering into the river and floundering some ways downstream could be construed as a clever way to evade pursuit—it’s hard to track someone after they’ve gone into the water, and difficult to guess where they might emerge.”

Rodrick opened up his pack and poked through it gloomily, looking for something dry to eat. The people of Nirmathas favored jerkies with the consistency of tree bark, and he probably had some stashed away against emergencies. Chewing it would distract him from his other miseries, the same way slamming your fingers in a door could distract you from a stubbed toe.

His hand touched his cloak of the devilfish, one of the magical items he’d acquired—which is to say, “stolen”—during his adventures to date. “Hmm. I could transform into a devilfish and jump back into the river, and swim through the night. We could get a long way away from here.”

“A marvelous plan. It’s a nice, deep, fast river, too. Shame about all the fishing boats and nets strung along its length. When a lucky fisherman hauls an immense, seven-tentacled monster out of nightmare onto his boat, I’m sure you’ll have time to explain your secret humanity before he stabs you to death.”

Rodrick found a piece of only moderately damp jerky and began to gnaw on it. He might as well have been chewing on his own belt. “Mmm. You make a good point. Walking might be more sensible. I think I’ll wait until daylight, though, as blundering around in the dark hasn’t proven very effective.”

“Fair enough. Or we could investigate the campfires to the west.”

Rodrick squinted into the night. “I don’t see anything.”

“The fact that you’re looking east might account for that.”

He grunted and swiveled his head, and in the depthless dark of the forest he did detect a few distant flickers. “Hmm. People. Probably not the ones who were hunting me, either.”

“Which means they could offer hospitality.”

“Or they could have horses to steal.”

“Or that, yes,” Hrym agreed.

*   *   *

Rodrick prided himself on his stealth, though for maximum effect he had to keep Hrym sheathed on his belt so his hands remained free for occasional periods of crawling on all fours. He looked like a dashing swordsman (or else a dangerous thug, depending on whether you asked Rodrick himself or someone else) but moved like a sneak thief. He circled around the source of the light, keeping an eye out for sentries, and as he drew closer, counted no fewer than three fires, spaced some tens of yards apart. That configuration suggested a party of some size—which, on the one hand, was a bit daunting, but on the other hand meant they might have lots of horses, and might not notice one little mount missing from the crowd.

He only had one close call, when he went still with his back against a tree while a sentry in a bucketlike helmet walked past less than a dozen feet away, muttering to himself and poking at the underbrush with a pike. Rodrick moved fast after that, hoping to complete his work before the man made his next circuit of the camp.

There were two groups of horses, tethered separately, and Rodrick wondered if they were sorted by disposition. He chose to approach the horses situated farthest from the fires to avoid detection, and since he was no particular judge of horseflesh anyway, selected the one on the outside without much internal debate. The beast was gray or black or brown or who knew what color—impossible to say in the darkness—and looked like more of a pack animal than a racing mount, which suited Rodrick fine. Spirited women had their attractions, but he didn’t feel the same about spirited mounts. The animal was sleeping, but Rodrick touched its side gently and murmured reassuring sounds as it woke up, and the horse blinked at him and then waited with every appearance of patience as he untied the tether from a tree branch and slowly led the horse deeper into the forest. The animal wasn’t saddled, of course, and riding bareback was even more horrific than ordinary riding, but needs must.

Rodrick wasn’t about to ride a horse in the forest at night and risk breaking the animal’s legs and his own neck, but the trees thinned out closer to the riverbank, so if he could lead the horse in that direction he should be able to ride safely—

“Thief!” someone shouted, and as usual, it was the second most unpleasant thing he’d ever heard anyone shout. (The first most unpleasant was “My husband’s home early!”) Rodrick attempted to climb up on the horse’s back, because caution was suddenly less important than escape, but the horse failed to cooperate, skittering away—Could horses skitter? He wouldn’t have thought so, but this one managed it—in alarm as the camp was roused. Rodrick slid along the horse’s side, lost his footing, and sat down hard on a tree root, at which point he decided his feet were the only form of locomotion he needed. The camp was roused now, full of shouting voices, and Hrym was complaining, too, demanding to be let out of his sheath so he could see what was going on, and Rodrick hissed, “Shut up shut up shut up” at the world in general as he did his best to run away from the noise.

He tripped on some abominable forest-related bit of the landscape, banged his chin on the ground hard enough to make his teeth snap together, and watched the night become even darker as black stars filled his vision. He pushed himself up on his elbows, lifted his head, and nearly put his own eye out on a spear point. The spearhead was shortly joined by two sword points, all pointed at his face, which was really more weaponry than anyone should require to kill someone like him.

Copyright © 2016 by Paizo Inc.

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