From Hugo Award winner Tim Pratt comes a tale of magic, assassination, monsters, and cheerful larceny, in Liar’s Island, set in the award-winning world of the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game. Please enjoy this excerpt.
Chapter One: Cornered
Kresley was head of the little lord’s household guard, a position that seldom required more than standing around looking good in a polished breastplate at interminable balls and occasionally kicking priests, beggars, or solicitors who somehow made it past the lord’s gates back out into the streets of Absalom. Today, unfortunately, he’d been sent on an errand that was really more the province of the city guards … but the little lord wanted it handled personally, because the city guards were interested more in the law than in allowing the lord to exact a terrible revenge.
Kresley cleared his throat and tried once more to do it the easy way. “Rodrick! Come out! None of us want to see blood spilled.” This gray street in a rough part of the city had probably seen plenty of blood spilled, though the predominant scent was actually urine.
“Especially our blood,” muttered Haverford, a grizzled veteran with a long scar down one cheek who’d been hired onto the household guard because he’d once saved the little lord’s cousin from getting a crossbow bolt in the face on one battlefield or another. Haverford was fond of wine and didn’t respect Kresley’s authority at all, even though Kresley’s breastplate always far outshone Haverford’s own.
Kresley, Haverford, and three other men—and the wizard, but Kresley didn’t want to think about the wizard; they weren’t the sort of people you wanted standing behind you, because what if one of their spells went off by accident?—were arrayed in a loose semicircle before an abandoned storehouse in the Coins. The wizard had tracked their quarry this far, through the winding streets of Absalom, and there was no doubt they’d found their prey, and that he was trapped. Kresley had scouted for other exits, and this door was the only way out, since the storehouse was built right up against the similarly dilapidated buildings around it on all sides.
But the thief, Rodrick, wasn’t acting like he was trapped, and showed no interest at all in giving himself up. Kresley wasn’t keen to bash his way into a building full of who knew what, through a door only large enough to admit one man at a time, against an enemy who’d had time to set traps or an ambush.
Especially this enemy. Kresley had seen the damage done by Rodrick’s sword, the holes blasted in the little lord’s wall, ragged gaps still rimed with frost. He knew the wizard was here to take that icy advantage away, but what if the man’s magic missed?
The front door of the storehouse was even hanging askew, practically an invitation to enter, which surely meant some terrible preparations had been made beyond. Kresley had never served in any organized military force, but he knew attacking an enemy on prepared ground was harder than kicking a beggar down the little lord’s front steps.
“Why don’t you come in?” Rodrick called, voice muffled. “It’s nice in here. Plenty of room. We can sit and chat.”
“If we have to come in after you, there will be violence!” Kresley said. “Give yourself up, and it will go easier on you!”
“I see,” Rodrick called, but his voice seemed to come from farther away. What was he doing in there? “So, if I come out, you won’t harm me?”
“But you’ll take me back to the little lord, who will harm me?”
“He … hasn’t told me his plans for you…”
“Oh?” Rodrick’s voice was bright, and now sounded closer. “He could want me for anything, then. Perhaps I’m to be guest of honor at a feast, or he wants to play a game of towers. Sit with me and sip brandy by the fire and discuss the peculiarities of Osirian funeral rites or the philosophies of the Mammoth Lords, just us, two men of the world. I suppose that’s the sort of hospitality he offers thieves? Though to be accurate I’m not a thief at all, because I was discovered before I had a chance to steal anything. The indignity of fleeing the palace—of running from you—isn’t that punishment enough, especially considering I made no profit off this endeavor at all?”
“You did get your wages for serving as security at the ball,” Kresley said. “Those are ill-gotten gains.” Why was he arguing with the man? Oh, yes: Because it was better than rushing someone who had a magical sword. Or indeed any kind of sword.
“Are you claiming I didn’t provide adequate security?” Rodrick sounded outraged. “Was the dance floor attacked by hordes of ravening demons? Did ogres overturn the punch bowls? Did a bugbear eat the goose liver off a rich man’s plate? Were the musicians torn apart by werewolves? They were not, and I’m sure my presence made all the difference. I gave good value for those meager coins.”
Haverford spat and, to Kresley’s surprise, spoke up loudly enough for Rodrick to hear: “The little lord paid you for your loyalty, thief. Just for one night, but you took the coin, and you made the deal, and so were bound by it. You betrayed him, and a man who’d betray another is no man at all. Treachery’s a worse crime than theft.”
“Oh, in that case, I’ll be right out,” Rodrick said. Something clattered, and someone else inside the warehouse swore.
Kresley frowned and leaned over to Haverford. “Is that … is there someone else in there? Does he have an accomplice?”
“It’s the sword.” The wizard rolled his eyes. He was fat and robed, but he wasn’t old, and didn’t look like a proper wizard at all, being entirely beardless. “You know, the whole reason I’m here? The reason this Rodrick was hired to provide security at the ball in the first place? He’s just a man, but that Hrym is a wonder. A talking sword of living ice.”
“I knew about the ice,” Kresley muttered. There’d been something about the sword talking, too, but he’d dismissed it as exaggeration. The sword certainly hadn’t said anything back at the little lord’s manor house.
“I can also sing!” the second voice called. He—it?—sounded jovial and curmudgeonly all at once, like a drunken grandfather at the wedding of a relative he didn’t like much.
“No, Hrym, don’t sing!” Rodrick cried. “We want them to leave, not die!”
Kresley pinched the bridge of his nose between his thumb and forefinger. He was getting a headache, and this street really did smell like every cat, dog, and vagrant in the Coins used it as a latrine. “All right. This is nonsense. We’re going in. Rodrick, this is your last chance—”
“Oh, well, if you really want to die, I can’t be blamed,” Rodrick interrupted. “But I have to wonder if you’ve thought this through. Say one of your men manages to get a sword into my neck before Hrym freezes him solid. What have you accomplished, really? You can kill me, but you can’t killHrym. He’s a sword. And a magical one, at that—you can’t even melt him down. Believe me, many have tried.”
“I daresay the lord would be pleased to have a … a talking sword … to add to his collection.”
“Ha! You don’t want this sword.” Rodrick’s laugh was booming and hearty. “He’s cursed, you know.”
Kresley blinked. “I … what?”
“My sword. Ooh, look, a magical sentient sword of living ice, everyone’s always so impressed. But, yes: he’s cursed. Cursedly cursed.”
“You have, by all accounts, traveled with this blade for many years,” Kresley said. “In what way is it cursed?”
“What? Look where I am now,” Rodrick said. “I’m about to be murdered by a bunch of household guards, of all things! Hrym’s obviously cursed. It’s just a slow-acting curse.”
The wizard sighed. “The sword isn’t cursed. Are we going to stand around here much longer? It’s only, I’ve got plans.”
“Cursed or not, the very idea of Hrym languishing in your master’s collection disgusts me!” Rodrick said. “Hrym thrives on open air, long roads leading to nowhere in particular, and a general life of adventure!”
“I wouldn’t mind resting on a pile of gold coins somewhere cool and dry, actually,” Hrym said. “If anyone’s asking me. Which no one ever does.”
“Honestly!” Rodrick said more loudly. “Doesn’t the thought of such waste, of turning a majestic creature like Hrym into an ornament—doesn’t it sicken you, Kelso?”
“It’s Kresley,” Kresley said automatically.
A long pause. “If you say so. I’m sure you know best. But your confusion about your own name aside, doesn’t it trouble you? The way your lord and master keeps such wonders—none as wondrous as Hrym, but still, quite wondrous—locked up, out of sight in a vault, made useless? Is it any wonder I wanted to take a few of them away with me? Those relics deserve to be appreciated, not kept sealed away for one rich man’s pleasure.”
“You were just going to sell them,” Hrym said. “And for sums only another rich man could afford.”
“Yes, true, but I was going to sell them to several rich men, to sort of spread the joy around, you see.”
“I get the sense that Rodrick isn’t taking us very seriously.” Haverford looked Kresley up and down. “I can’t imagine why.”
“Fine,” Kresley snapped. “Men, let’s go in.”
“The first man who comes through that door,” Rodrick called, “will be frozen into an ice sculpture of himself. The process is generally fatal, but at least you’ll make a beautiful decoration at your own funeral.”
“Don’t worry about it,” the wizard said. He muttered something and made a series of complex gestures. He stepped forward, tapping each man briefly on the back of the neck. “There,” he said. “Protection from ice, cast on all of you. Go forth and do whatever it is people like you do. As you should have ten minutes ago.”
“Protection from ice won’t help if they’ve got traps set up in there,” Haverford muttered.
The wizard rolled his eyes again. “I wouldn’t worry about it. This Rodrick probably hasn’t had to think his way out of a problem since he first got his hands on that sword. This building, it’s just an old storehouse, not an armory. They might try to push a pile of crates on top of you, but otherwise I wouldn’t fret.”
“Did someone out there say ‘protection from ice’?” Hrym said.
“You’re still a sword,” Rodrick said. “We can, you know … cut them. Stab. What have you.”
“But you’re no swordsman,” Hrym said. “No offense, but if it’s just you against, what, three of them?”
“Four!” Haverford called, and drew his blade. “Five, counting our illustrious leader.” Now he was smiling. “Things are looking up. These are the sort of odds you like, eh, Kelso?”
“Kresley,” Kresley muttered. But, yes—he did like these odds. He considered sending Haverford in first, in case there were traps, but the man would look at him with even more scorn than usual if he did that. Kresley strode forward and kicked the door off its hinges. The interior of the storehouse was visible in light streaming through the dusty skylights, and the space was almost entirely barren, apart from a few cobwebbed shelves near the back.
Rodrick stood in the center of the space, sipping from a flask and holding a crystalline longsword that shimmered like diamonds and sent up faint curls of icy vapor all along its length. Rodrick lifted the sword, and a blast of white wind spiraled toward the door. Kresley winced and closed his eyes, but apart from a cool, damp breeze, he felt nothing, and when he opened his eyes, Rodrick was making a face like he’d bitten a lemon.
Haverford shouldered in, followed by the other men. The wizard seemed content to wait outside. “How bad of a beating do we put on him before we drag him back to the little lord?” Haverford asked.
“Medium bad,” Kresley said. “Feel free to break his arms and hands, but leave the legs and feet—otherwise we’ll have to carry him the whole way back.”
“You are cursed, Hrym,” Rodrick said.
“You’re cursed,” the sword replied, voice emerging from the empty air in the vicinity of the blade. “Oh well. It’s been a while since I was owned by a nobleman. As I recall, they hardly ever sleep in ditches or haystacks.”
The guards advanced.
They were quite surprised when a djinni appeared before them in a swirl of mist and wind, rising nearly eleven feet tall, its lower body a swirling funnel of air, its upper body that of a muscular dark-skinned man, with a very solid-looking scimitar gripped in each hand.
“You will not harm this man,” the djinni intoned, dust and filth swirling around in its whirlwind. Kresley stepped back, and even Haverford retreated a few steps. Kresley looked at the sword in his hand. He considered dropping it so the creature wouldn’t mistake it for a threat.
“Ha,” Rodrick said from behind the genie. “You didn’t expect that, did you, Kelso? I can summon djinns. Djinn. Djinnis? One of my many skills.”
“No it’s not,” Hrym said. “You’ve never even seen a djinni before. The plural is djinn, by the way.”
“Shh,” Rodrick said. “This is a marvelous opportunity to embellish my already considerable legend.”
Kresley swallowed. “Ah … wizard? Do you … is there such a thing as … protection from … djinn?” He stole a glance through the open door and saw the wizard running away as fast as his sandaled feet could take him.
“Guess not,” Haverford said, and ran away too, followed by the other guards.
Kresley waited a moment longer, as befitted his position as head of the household guard, and then he ran away as well.
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