“You’re really determined to do this then?” Ironsmith asked me between mouthfuls of his breakfast. After being up all night, helping to straighten out the temple as much as we could, we’d headed for a diner downtown to get something to eat. It was a pretty average sorta place, but downmarket enough that they didn’t turn their noses up at non-human custom. Ironsmith had a whole plate of pancakes, bacon, sausage and scrambled egg and he was shovelling it in like it might be his last meal. Dwarves may be small, but they can sure eat. The waitress refilled his coffee for the third time, but I waved her away. My plate was pretty much untouched. Normally I got a pretty healthy appetite, but right now I just couldn’t stomach it.
“Yeah,” I told him, “I’m determined. I ain’t never been more determined of nothin’ in my life.” We were in a booth and I was leaning back in my seat, my head propped on my arm, the other hand just playing with the condiments, trying to keep myself busy.
“I get it,” Ironsmith said as he jabbed another chunk of syrup-covered pancake with his fork. He lifted it up and used it to point at me across the table. “He was a good kid. I ain’t like this anymore than you do…” He popped the pancake into his mouth and looked at me thoughtfully as he chewed.
He swallowed. “But…you could get yourself killed.”
“So, is some street punk worth your life?”
“My life ain’t worth much.”
Ironsmith snorted a laugh. “Says you. A lotta people would notice if you weren’t around to watch their backs though, Ragnar.”
“Ah, ain’t you sweet. But it ain’t about that.”
“No. It’s the drow. They think they run this city. I tried to teach ’em otherwise an’ the other day I told Lilith that she ain’t scare me. Well, now it’s all blown up in my damn face.”
“They’re drow,” Ironsmith shrugged. Dwarvess ain’t get along with dark elves. Actually, dwarves ain’t really get on with nobody, but they hate drow especially. “They’re sneaky an’ they’re nasty an’ they got a habit of comin’ out on top in the end. Same with all elves.”
I shook my head at him. “You just gonna surrender New Atlas like that?”
“Who’s surrenderin’? It’s just one punk.”
“It coulda been anyone…”
“But it wasn’t. It was another drow. I feel for Zrit, I do, I ain’t think they gonna treat him so well, but it ain’t gonna be any worse for him than it was before.” He mopped up the last of the syrup and grease with a lump of pancake and scrambled egg and forked it into his mouth. He chewed for a moment, then pointed at my plate. “You gonna eat any of that?”
I pushed it across the table towards him. “Help yourself, pal.” I looked around. The diner was full of people just minding their own business. Normal folks, humans mostly, just acting like it was the same as any other day. It was grey and cold out there again, and they seemed to be lingering a little longer than usual over their breakfasts, just staying in the warm. If any other temple had been attacked by any other gang last night, there’d be uproar. If it was the big Temple of Lugh uptown, ripped apart by orcs, there’d be a lynch mob on its way to the sewers right now. But this city was colder that ever. “They were sendin’ me a message,” I told Ironsmith.
“I know, I read it.”
“Nah, I ain’t mean…well…you know what I mean.”
“I do.” He gestured with his fork again. “This is what I mean though, buddy. It’s a trap, ain’t it? Same as last time.”
“They want you to do somethin’…well, somethin’ like a Northman’d do, like you’d do, an’ then they’ll kill you, like they always wanted to. Remember last time you went to that warehouse? They left you for dead, floatin’ face down in the North River.”
“I had to fish you out, if you recall.”
“So why you doin’ somethin’ foolish like swearin’ some crazy mountain oath to get this kid back? Remember, he may not even want your help. For all we know, he was planted.”
“What do you mean?”
“I mean, maybe they sent him to ingratiate himself with you, y’know? Get on your good side. Then they ‘kidnap’ him, leave you a note, wait for you to do somethin’…Ragnarish.”
“Trust me, pal, you’re better forgettin’ about this whole dang thing.”
He was right of course. Ironsmith was mostly always right. He was the one who told me about valley thinking, the first time we’d met. Way he saw it, we carried all our nasty little prejudices down from the mountains, and it didn’t take much for some isolated incident to confirm our deep seated fears and if you got enough people thinking they were still back in the valleys, fighting with swords and axes, pretty soon there was blood on the streets. I’d been part of it myself a few times now and it was always because someone tried to wrap me around their pinkie finger by exploiting my tendency to think with my biceps. Truth was I was a Northman, a barbarian, and my first instinct was to put my fist to the ground and swear vengeance. It was just something in my blood and my bones. It got me into hot water, but the same instincts had saved me more’n a few times too. Barbarians ain’t much like being pushed around, see.
“I can’t forget it,” I said.
Ironsmith looked up at me. He was nearly done with his breakfast. “Ragnar…”
“Look, either they want me to come, or they want me to just walk away. Either way they win, right?”
“They’re drow. That’s how it goes.”
“Right. They’ll still run this city whatever happens. So I gotta do like I did with Orca Khan an’ take a third option. You know how I feel about bein’ manipulated.”
“Sure, but what’s the third option?”
“Give them the money.”
Ironsmith grinned, but it faded when he saw I wasn’t kidding. “You gone soft in the dang noggin’?” He reached across to rap me on the head with his knuckles but I brushed him away.
“Where you gonna get a million bucks from?”
“I got an idea…”
“An’,” Ironsmith went on, “even if you do, so what? You think they just gonna honour their agreement, turn Zrit back over to you unharmed?”
“So what then?”
“So…it’ll catch ’em off guard. An’ they’re greedy. They ain’t want this city for the views, Harl. They see a briefcase full of a million dollars, they gonna start thinkin’ about negotiatin’.”
“Sure, I guess that makes sense. You’ll have the element of surprise, an’ maybe they won’t kill you straight away. You might even be able to make a run for it with the kid, get out with most of your skin intact. But…you ain’t got a million dollars. An’ is that slight advantage worth what you’d have to go through to beg, borrow or steal that kinda money?”
“Like I said, I got an idea. But…
“But you need my help?”
I smiled. “How’d you guess?”
Ironsmith finally finished off his second breakfast and pushed the plate aside. He leant back and folded his hands across his bloated stomach. “Ragnar,” he said, “you always need my damn help.”
“So are you in?”
“I’m already involved, ain’t I?”
“You think it’ll work then?”
He worked some bacon out of his teeth with the end of one stubby finger. “No. But I agree it’s probably the best shot you got.”
“Great. I just got a couple more details to work out. You’re good with your hands, right?”
“I’m a dwarf if that’s what you mean.”
“Right, yeah. Think you can crack a safe?”
He laughed. “Crack a safe? Oh, you got that serious look again. I’m a dwarf, Ragnar, which means I can work a forge if I got to, an’ I can mend a busted engine, an’ I can take a good look at most any machine you can think of an’ figure out how it works. But crackin’ a safe? That ain’t exactly child’s play, even for dwarves.”
I felt my heart sink. “Dang. You happen to know any dwarves who might be able to?”
“Well, see, there ain’t a lotta call for skills like that in our criminal underworld.” He leant forward and lowered his voice. “We’re more into embezzlement, fraud, that kinda thing.”
“Nah. We own all the banks an’ jewellers in this city. Who’d we rob?”
“Okay, maybe this ain’t such a great plan.”
“It gotta be a dwarf?”
“Nah,” I said, “I just thought that’d be easier.”
“You think I only associate with dwarves? I just ate breakfast with you, didn’t I?”
“You ate. I just watched.”
“Whatever. Point is, I know someone who might be able to help you out.”
“Yeah. Thing is, she ain’t that easy to find.”
I raised my eyebrows. “She?”
“Yeah, she. Her name’s Lessien.”
“Elvish? Yeah, that’d be right.”
“Oh.” I couldn’t keep the surprise outta my voice. “I didn’t know you knew any elf broads.”
“I wouldn’t say I know her or nothin’,” he said, sounding a little defensive.
“How do I find this dame?”
“You know that club, Castamir’s?”
I made a face. “Yeah, I know it. An’ the creep who runs it.” He’d hired me once to spy on his non-human staff for him ’cause he was convinced they were taking money outta the registers. I never did find out if he was right or not – that was the night I met Lilith for the first time.
“I think it’s under new management now. Anyway, there’s an act, plays on Thursday nights. The Great Belgareth.”
“The Great who?”
He waved a hand. “It’s a magic act, y’know? Card tricks, pullin’ stuff outta hats, sawin’ a dame in half. That kinda thing.”
“Crom,” I shook my head. “I ain’t got time to go to no magic show, Harl.”
“You want Lessien? Ask The Great Belgareth.”
“He knows her?”
I tapped my fingers against the table. The waitress came back to offer us refills on our coffee, but I just asked for the check. “Thursday nights, right?”
“Eight pm sharp. At least accordin’ to the posters on the door.”
“Dang. An’ this is definitely the one I want? This Lessien broad?”
“You wanna crack a safe, she’s your woman. Or so I hear. I personally wouldn’t know nothin’ about that kinda business.” He gave me a wry look as he scratched his beard.
“No problem.” The check arrived and I threw down a few bills from my wallet. “I’m still gonna need your help,” I told Ironsmith as I stood up.
“I can’t say just yet, pal. Best I keep all this close to my chest until I got everyone I need.”
He looked at me with a frown. “Everyone you need? The heck does that mean?”
“You never been on an Oathquest before?” I smiled.
“I’m a dwarf, not a Northman with biceps bigger’n my head.”
“Well, you ain’t go on an Oathquest by yourself. You get all your buddies together, people who got the skills you need. You bring a couple guys who are good to have around in a brawl, you bring someone who knows healin’ an’ herbs an’ so forth, you might bring a skald along so’s Crom keeps his eye on you, an’ then you got your fella who’s good at sneakin’ into places, disarmin’ traps an’ so forth.”
“What do these Oathquests usually involve? All of those skills can’t be strictly necessary…”
“Funny enough, in all the old stories, they pretty much all turn out to be real important.”
“Yeah, ain’t that a coincidence.”
“Point is, I gotta get this right.” I looked down at my money on the table. “Why the Hel am I payin’ for a dang breakfast I didn’t eat anyway?” I snatched up the bills, just as the waitress came back. She gave me a confused look. “Pay the lady, Ironsmith.” I left them to it, wondering if this Lessien would be who I was looking for, and if this Great Belgareth goon could really take me to her.
I didn’t much like the thought of going back to Castamir’s. It was a pretty nasty dive anyway, and the greasy little fella that owned it – or maybe used to own it now – had led me into a trap. I guess it was appropriate then that I’d start my plan to walk into another one there. I thought I mighta had trouble getting in, but it was quieter than I thought it was gonna be. When I was a kid, Thursday’s used to be a pretty big night in New Atlas. All the workers on the docks and in the factories used to get paid on Thursday, so they spilled outta work, sweating and thirsty, paychecks burning holes in their pockets, ready to unleash Hel on the bars and clubs. It was a good time if you were a young, angry Northman like I was back then. We were damn menaces, chasing broads, filling our heads with as much cheap hooch as we could, getting into fights. I ain’t got no regrets about those days, but I’m too old for it all now.
I didn’t have to worry. It was dead in Castamir’s, just a few rough looking types at the tables and a few more at the bar. Last time I was here it was a pretty upmarket joint, boasting an ‘exclusive clientèle’ which meant, in other words, no non-humans, unless they were serving drinks or maybe on stage. The crowd, such as it was, was still holding to that, but now I didn’t think they’d be in a position to turn away paying customers. I wondered why business had got so bad. I ordered a whisky at the bar and took a seat near the back, just biding my time. No one was paying a whole lotta attention to the stage when the act walked out. He got a little smattering of applause, looked kinda deflated for a second, then got on with it.
Magic’s goofy. I know I might be in the minority with that opinion, but for me all these tricks are for kids and idiots. It’s all just sleight of hand and pointing one way to distract folks while you do something behind your back. Lies and deceit. It don’t sit well with me – I’m a private detective, it’s kinda my job to root out dishonesty. The Great Belgareth or whatever he called himself was the same as every other magician I’d ever seen. He had this goofy tux on with a cummerbund and a bowtie, the whole works, and this dumb top hat. He was a real thin, pale cat too with a narrow little moustache that looked like it might fall off his top lip any second. I coulda crushed him in one hand. I shoulda tried to catch him before his show, but now I was stuck here, waiting for him to finish. I polished off my drink and ordered another from a passing cocktail waitress. Last time I was here those waitresses had been real nice to look at, but now they were a little older, a little more tired. Didn’t make a damn bit of difference to me, but it made me think of how the whole city was going that way.
Belgareth did his act. First he was pulling all these coloured balls outta his mouth. I figured they were probably up his sleeve the whole time. Then he got talking to this guy at the front. He got down off the stage and pulled a ball from behind his ear. Big deal. Then one came outta the guy’s mouth instead. That was kinda clever. He was there with a girl, and Belgareth pointed at her. She shuffled a bit in her seat, then got up and found she was sitting on one of those dang balls. I was impressed with that, I had to admit. He hadn’t been near the dame’s chair so far as I could see. She coulda been a plant though, of course, sitting on the thing the whole time. He got another woman up on stage and did some card tricks. He guessed her card, then made a card appear in her brassier. Everyone laughed ’cause it was kinda bawdy an’ she got real embarrassed, but Belgareth was pretty charming and he smoothed it all out. He asked if she was with her boyfriend, and she pointed to this big guy. Belgareth, he tells him to check his pocket, and wouldn’t you know it but now the card was there! He said he’d moved it with the power of his mind and we all laughed again, ’cause no one thought he was telling the truth – we just took it how it was meant: a show.
He did the works, this guy. Doves appeared right outta his hands, he got one of the barmen to handcuff him and wriggled his way out of them somehow, he even did a thing where he made a glass of water float in the air and change into whisky right before our eyes. Don’t ask me how he did it. I know it was all tricks and so on, but it was a good act. I couldn’t figure out why there weren’t more people in. He was here every week, so word oughta have got ’round.
I caught him as he came off stage. “Sorry, pal,” he told me, “no autographs.” His voice wasn’t so commanding when he wasn’t performing, and he looked even frailer.
“I ain’t want an autograph – that was a great show though.”
“Hey, thanks, tell your friends.” He looked distracted and had a hand on the door to what I guessed was his dressing room.
“I just might. Listen though, someone gave me your name, said you might be able to help me track someone down.”
He looked at me real sharp. Up close, he was a funny looking guy. Kinda pale, like I said, but he had an odd look about him, sorta handsome, but not in a manly way, if you take my meaning. I wouldn’t like to have said it to his face, but he was kinda pretty. I figured maybe he was just the kinda guy who cared about his looks like that, took good care to keep outta the sun and such. “Someone gave you my name? Who?”
“Well no, not your name exactly. They just said The Great Belgareth would be able to help. That’s you, ain’t it?”
“That’s the name on the dressing room, pal.” He tapped a finger against the door. It actually said GR T BE GA ETH, but I didn’t like to point that out.
“Yeah, so I wondered if you might be able to help me find a certain dame called Lessien. She’s an elf, I hear.”
He looked like he’d just seen a ghost and glanced both ways to make sure no one was around. Nobody was paying any attention to us at all. “Where’d you hear that name?” he hissed.
“Like I said, I was told you’d be able to help me find her.”
“No. I can’t. You been misinformed.”
I thought I knew what was going on here. “You ain’t gotta explain it to me, buddy,” I said with a reassuring smile. “I know the story. She was part of your act, huh? Your glamorous assistant? I bet she drew the crowds all right, all in some sparkly little outfit.” I looked around. “No wonder you’re playin’ in this dump now. I guess she left you. It happens. I been there myself. Just tell me where I can find her now an’ I’ll leave you in peace.”
He stared at me. “My assistant…? Uh…yeah…sure. That was it. I ain’t know where she is now though, sorry.” He was starting to open the door to his dressing room.
I couldn’t just let this opportunity slip through my hands though. This was important. If Ironsmith said this Lessien broad was who I needed to help me crack a safe, and this stiff could direct me to her, I wasn’t gonna take no for an answer. I put a hand on Belgareth’s shoulder. Not threatening, exactly, but just showing that things could possibly turn that way if they had to. “Listen, pal,” I said in a low voice, “this ain’t personal, but I got a problem I need solvin’ an’ I heard this Lessien’s the girl I need for that. I feel bad for you – I know what these elves look like – it ain’t easy losin’ someone you’re crazy about, but that ain’t my business right now. She gotta have a number or an address or somethin’, okay? Give me some information, an’ I’ll be outta your hair. Simple as that.”
He looked up at me. I musta been at least a foot taller than him, which wasn’t unusual at all, but he was real skinny and he looked so pale. I almost felt bad. “Who told you Lessien could help you?”
I wondered whether I should tell him, but I’d found in the past that dropping a name at just the right moment could really swing things. Sometimes it meant they swung in the wrong direction, but that was the risk you had to take now and then. “Harl Ironsmith.”
“Ironsmith?” He actually looked sorta relieved. “Why didn’t you say so?” He opened the door and beckoned. “This way.”
Inside it was a dingy little room lit by a single grimy bulb. There was a cracked mirror on one side with a little dressing table underneath, a few hooks with bags hanging off them and a door into a cramped bathroom on one side. But it looked like it was kept pretty tidy. There was a vase on the table with a couple flowers in it, and the room actually smelled fresh and clean. I figured Belgareth spent a bit of time in here, and he’d made it as nice as he could. Kinda weird for a guy, but then if I’d got the measure of this magician like I thought I had, he wasn’t your usual type of guy if you catch my drift. I ain’t got no problem with anything like that – Crom knows we all different people in this crazy world – but I had to admit I was suddenly feeling a big strange about being in this little room with him. “You know Ironsmith?” I asked. There was only one chair, at the dressing table, and Belgareth was in it so I just slouched against the wall, trying to be cool.
“Not personally,” he shrugged. I do some work for him now an’ then.”
“You do? What does Harl need with a magician? He hire you for his nephew’s Mitzvah or what?”
He looked up at me and sighed. “I’m guessin’ you ain’t playin’ with a full deck, mister.”
I blinked. “The heck is that supposed to mean?” He let out a little tinkling laugh and then turned back to the mirror. I watched as he took out a cloth from a pouch on the table and started to wipe at his face. “Hey, buddy, don’t play wise with me, I ain’t got the time to…” As I loomed over him I caught sight of his face in the mirror as he wiped away his moustache. It was black greasepaint and then, looking back at me, was a dame. I blinked a couple times again.
“Lemme guess,” Belgareth said, “you’re Ragnar Ulrichson, right?”
“How’d you know that?”
“Word gets around, especially in the circles I work in.” He – she – took off her hat and shook out a full head of black hair that spilled down her back in waves. That’s when I realised her ears were pointed and, as she smiled at me, I realised how stupid I musta just looked.
“You’re Lessien,” I said.
She pointed. “Got it in one, pally.”
I folded my arms and laughed. “Real funny. Ironsmith mighta told me.”
“He probably ain’t know. Everyone just knows they gotta go through ‘Belgareth’ to get to me. I like to keep a bit of mystique, y’know?”
“So how come I’m seein’ how the trick’s done?”
She tilted her head. Now I wasn’t afraid to notice how pretty she was. She had that look all elves had – a certain way about the eyes, aloof and cold, but also like they could look inside you and know all your secrets right away. She had skin like a damn porcelain doll and her hair was as black as a raven’s feathers. I didn’t think she was a pure elf though – she looked like she had some human in her. Why she’d wanna dress as a man, I had no idea. “Let’s just say,” she said, “I had a good feelin’ about you. When you said Ironsmith’s name like that, like it was nothin’, I thought this might be interestin’. Most people who come to me sneak about, try to act all sly, but you just walk up to me bold as brass an’ tell me your friends with this city’s most notorious fence.”
I had to grin at that. “Is that what he is? He always acts like he’s a legitimate business man around me.”
“Yeah, well, he’s a fence, ain’t he? That’s sorta the idea.”
I looked around the nasty dressing room. “Interestin’ place for a girl like you to spend your time.” Lessien was combing her hair out, looking at herself in the mirror. She’d loosened her collar and just the whole way she moved was a lot more feminine. I tried not to look at her too close, but it was tough not to stare. Elves just had that effect on folks. “Seems like you should maybe be performin’ somewhere more…y’know…uptown than this…”
She snorted. “What makes you say that?”
“Well, a dame like you. Y’know, you could probably draw a bigger crowd than this if you just went out there as…well…as yourself…”
I ain’t know what I said to piss her off so much, but she looked at me real angry. “Is that what you think? You think I oughta wear…what was it you said? A sparkly little outfit? Yeah, that’d draw crowds, huh? Elf girl, showin’ off her ass in some dress, doin’ her little magic tricks while all the boys catcall an’ ask her to take it off. You think that’d make me more money, huh?”
I held up my hands. “Okay, okay, I think I understand. You got your act. You wanna be known for that.”
“Yeah, that’s about it.”
“I get that. Everyone thinks I’m just some dumb barbarian.”
“Really. Now why’d they think that, Mr Ulrichson?” She fixed me with this real flat look.
“All right, all right. I guess we got off to a bad start here. So I apologise for bein’ insensitive. Ironsmith didn’t exactly give me a lotta information.”
“He ain’t know any information about me – no one does. That’s how I like it.”
“I just wanna make a livin’, okay? I love what I do, an’ I worked real hard to get good at it. I ain’t wanna be the elf broad who dances for the guys in some seedy club. I’m a magician, an’ I’m a damn good one.”
“You are,” I told her. “I said it was a good act, didn’t I?” I pointed around the room. “You still ain’t answered my question though – girl or not, you got talent. What you doin’ in this dive?”
“Where else is there?”
“Well…plenty of places. This is New Atlas, toots.”
“Right. Lotsa clubs. Lotsa nice spots.”
“An’ who runs ’em?”
I thought about it. “The mob.”
“Uh huh. The drow mob.” She pointed at herself. “Grey elf.” Then pointed out the door. “Dark elves. Not best buddies, not by a long shot.”
“Okay, I get it.”
“When I started, things were goin’ well. I had my act, I was makin’ money, but then last year the Mafia moved in an’ took over all the best joints in town. Humans might not know what I am, but this disguise ain’t work on drow. They get within ten feet of me, they know exactly what I am. No foolin’ other elves. So suddenly I’m blacklisted in all the best places. No one knows why, but what can they do if the guys pullin’ the strings say they ain’t want me performin’ in their clubs?” She held up her hands. “This is where I ended up. Sucks, but what am I gonna do?”
“That’s a real shame. So now you do the work for Ironsmith’s contacts?”
She moved her sleeve and suddenly a deck of cards fanned out in her hand. “There’s always work for nimble fingers in this town.”
“I was expectin’ a thief not a…a…magic user…”
“Magician.” She tucked the cards back into her sleeve. “For all the good bein’ that does me. It’s even worse now that dang casino’s gone up. They got magicians playin’ there every night. Whole damn troups of ’em, workin’ the tables in the cabaret lounge. Easy money for someone with my skills but, of course, I can’t get a gig there. If I had someplace else to go, I’d leave this city.”
“So why ain’t you?”
“Where is there to go?”
“You could always cross the sea, go to Elvenhome.”
That made her laugh again, but this time it sounded real bitter. “My grandpa was as human as you. I wouldn’t even make it onto the docks over there. Nah, for better or worse, I’m in New Atlas, playin’ this cruddy club.” The cards appeared again. She seemed to play with them like a kinda nervous habit, and now she shot the deck from hand to hand, not even looking at what she was doing as the cards flicked faster than my eye could follow. She had nimble fingers all right. She finally looked at me. “So what’s this job?”
“It’s kinda risky.”
“As long as the pay’s right, that ain’t no problem.”
“An, see, that’s the thing – all the money’s kinda earmarked. You’d be doin’ this pro bono, as it were.”
“Why would I do somethin’ like that, Mr Ulrichson?”
“Because,” I said, leaning against the wall and folding my arms with a half smile. “I have a feelin’ this particular job is gonna be right up your alley.”
The cards stopped moving and she raised an eyebrow slowly. “Go on…”
The next night, I took Poppy out to dinner. I had to admit I had a kinda ulterior motive. Not just to myself, but to her. It was only fair. We were at a gnome place she knew. I’d never quite got into their cuisine – too much fungus for my liking – but it was a nice enough establishment. Checked table cloths, candles on the table, family run. Chairs were too small for me, but at least I wasn’t the only human in the place. Gnomes were probably one of the only non-human species that hardly anybody had any kinda problem with – except dwarves and kobolds, obviously, but they mostly integrated just fine. They worked hard and didn’t cause too much trouble.
Poppy looked at me over her menu. “Ulterior motive? What are you tryin’ to say? I thought we were just comin’ out as friends here, Ragnar…”
“No no, I ain’t mean like that.” I took a bite of a breadstick and tried to look charming. “See, I got involved in somethin’ recently.”
She sighed. “You’re always gettin’ ‘involved’ in somethin’, Ragnar. I mean, you’re a private dick, it’s your job, but why ain’t you content with chasin’ after cheatin’ husbands an’ stuff?”
“I know, I know. Listen, a little while back, I found this drow kid…”
“Oh Garl…” She put a hand to her head. “Drow again?”
“Yeah, keep your dang voice down.” People were looking at us.
“You brought ’em up!” She hissed. “Ain’t you learn nothin’, you big dummy? Last time you messed with the drow, you nearly died. It took you weeks to clear the Black Lotus outta your system an’ you still got the scars.”
“You’re right. You’re absolutely right.”
“I know I’m right!” Some folks on the tables next to us turned around and she lowered her voice. “I know I’m right. An’ so do you. So why you gettin’ ‘involved’, huh? You got a deathwish? Is that a Northman thing?”
“No…well, yeah, it kinda is. An’ actually that is kinda what…well, no lemme start at the beginnin’…”
“Yeah, you better had.” She went back to looking at the menu, but she listened to me explain about the temple and Zrit and how I’d taken him in. I told her about Lilith paying me a visit and her little threat and then about what happened and the note and everything. Then the waiter arrived and took our order. When he was gone, she shook her head at me. “You’re hopeless.”
She laughed her musical little laugh. “At least you were tryin’ to do the right thing though.”
“I’m always tryin’ to do the right thing.”
“I know you are. You wanna save this Zrit kid then?”
“Yeah. I wanna give him a real chance. He ain’t got that with the drow.”
“An’ this ain’t just about revenge? This ain’t you takin somethin’ personal that you really shouldn’t?”
I thought about that. Was I taking it personally? When I’d sworn that oath in the temple in front of the broken statue of Crom, I had to admit that Zrit wasn’t the only thing going through my mind. He represented something more: something that scared me. He was just one street kid in this city, but he stood in for all the no-hopers, all the down-and-outs who were being crushed by the Mafia and their growing criminal empire. He represented my failure to stop the drow the first time. Getting him back was my way of trying to set things right, my way of trying to save New Atlas, even if it was just a tiny little bit. “I gotta save the kid,” I told her.
“‘Cause…well…’cause I sworn an oath to now. I can’t go back on that, Poppy. It’s….well, not religion…it’s somethin’ more’n that. I dunno what exactly.”
“I think I understand. So what’s your plan?”
“Well, I ain’t wanna lay my cards on the table just yet, ’cause I’m still figurin’ out a couple things. But I need your help.”
She looked surprised. “My help?”
“Yeah, I told you I had an ulterior motive.”
“I know, but I didn’t think you needed my help personally. Remember, I ain’t got access to a lab no more, Ragnar. I ain’t gonna be able to run no blood samples for you or whatever.”
“I know, but you still got some skills I need.”
“Skill you need for what?”
She gave me the look she always gave me when I said something real stupid. “Right. I thought you hated…what was it? ‘Valley thinkin”?”
“Yeah. I know. But look, what’s done is done, okay?”
“You got somethin’ I need.”
“What? Alchemy? How’s that figure into your little quest?”
“Actually, it ain’t your alchemy I need this time.”
“What is it then?”
I took a little sip of my drink – just root beer, ’cause I knew Poppy didn’t like to see me drink – and steeled myself for what I was about to say. “You know that dress you was wearin’ the other day?”
“You mean my outfit for work?” She looked wary, and I couldn’t blame her.
“Yeah. That’s what I need.”
“I ain’t think it’ll fit you, Ragnar…”
“No, you’ll be wearin’ it.”
“I already wear it, for work.”
“I know, but this time you gonna be workin’ for us instead. See, I need someone who can get us into a certain place, at a certain time.”
“You need a cocktail waitress in the casino?”
I spread my hands. “That’s about the size of it.”
She leant forward. “What are you plannin’?”
“I can’t say. Just be at my apartment on Sunday night.”
“This had better not be some crazy scheme, Ragnar.”
“I ain’t gonna promise it won’t be that, Poppy.” Our food arrived. “Anyway, how about we change the subject?”
Why Sunday? ‘Cause I needed to call in somewhere else on Saturday. That day was Crom’s day, at least according to the dwarves. I thought I oughta be somewhere holy that day after what’d happened. So that’s how I found myself sitting near the back of the congregation in the dwarf temple on Lex as Stormgate took them through the service. Dwarves did things a bit different from Northmen, despite worshipping the same god, but I knew how to go through most of the motions. They’d managed to get the place swept up nicely. The windows were boarded over for now, and Crom was nowhere to be seen – probably in the hands of a proper mason, of whom there weren’t exactly a shortage in the dwarf community. We all acted like he was there on the altar though, watching over us. The Matriarch herself was as patched up as her temple; she still had the bandage over one eye and had her arm in a sling and a cane to help her walk. None of it slowed her down though. She was the toughest old lady I’d ever seen, and I include my late mom in that list. She had that big dang hammer and, as she read from the holy tablets, she still struck the haft on the flagstones in all the right places. I guess she was probably more angry than ever and, even though I couldn’t understand the words, what with the prayers being all in dwarvish, I got what the focus was. Vengeance, righteous fury, the protection of home and hearth. The benches weren’t full, but I bet it was the best turnout the place had had in a while. I saw a whole lotta angry faces. Folks wanted blood. I wasn’t gonna deny them their right to that – holy is holy and you don’t trash a man’s temple – but I’d seen this city erupt into madness too often recently to want to see it again. If my plan worked, there wouldn’t be no blood on the streets this time.
After the ceremony was over, I went to find Stormgate. She was just talking to some of the congregation, and I hovered in the background, letting them finish, before getting her attention. It always paid to be polite around formidable women like this. When she saw me she smiled and beckoned me off into her office, through the side room. I was sad to see the window Zrit had been helping to fix had been smashed in the attack too. I’m sure the drow took extra care to do that. In her office, she eased into the seat behind the desk and gestured for me to sit down.
“Thanks, ma’am,” I said.
“Oh, stop that. You can just call me Helga.”
“We’ll compromise: Mrs Stormgate.” It just didn’t feel right calling her by her first name. It’d be like calling a teacher by their first name.
“Whatever makes you happy. I saw you at the back there. I think it’s the first time we’ve had a Northman at prayers.”
“It’s the same god, ain’t it?”
“So they say. Could be you just named the god you had after ours when we settled in the North though. That’s what some of the scholars in these books say.” She pointed at the shelves that lined the walls.
“Does it matter?”
“Not really I suppose. Not if you believe the words in your heart.”
“I don’t know about that, Mrs Stormgate, but I wanted to come today.”
“Thinking of reneging on your oath already?”
I stared at her. “Excuse me?”
She laughed heartily. “Just testing. The only people that take oaths as seriously as Northmen are dwarves.”
“If you ain’t got your word, what have you got?”
“Well exactly. So what do you want, Ragnar?”
“I need your help.”
“If you want to know about Crom or borrow a book, I’m sure I’ll be very useful. But apart from that?” She held a hand out to her broken arm.
“I need a dwarf.”
“There’s plenty out there.”
“I know, but I want one who might be angry enough to help me out.”
“They’re angry, Ragnar. I know you didn’t understand what I said out there, but I’m sure you got the gist.”
“Yeah, an’ I’m sure they’d all jump at the chance, but I think you’re who I need, Mrs Stormgate.”
She cocked her head. “And why would that be?”
“Because I swore an Oathquest to get Zrit back. An’ I ain’t know nobody else in this city who cares about that kid. Ironsmith’ll help me ’cause he’s my best friend, an’ some of the others I’ve found got their own reasons, but you want what I want. You wanna do right by a boy that’s only got one chance in this crappy world.”
“I would like to help him,” she said. “But what can I do?”
“Like I said, I need a dwarf.”
“You have Harl.”
“I got other plans for him.”
She narrowed her eyes. “It sounds like you have some kind of scheme worked out.”
“Scheme ain’t exactly the word, ma’am…more like…well, why don’t you come to my apartment tomorrow night an’ I’ll explain everythin’?”
I shoulda planned things out a little better. My apartment was tiny, and I’d invited four other people over. I don’t think my apartment had had four people in it since some gnolls trashed it a year or two ago. Ironsmith arrived first, and he was lugging the thing I asked him to bring with him up the stairs when I opened the door. “You bastard,” he said as he hauled it up the last step. He was breathing heavily. “You know what it was like tryin’ to get this here on the train?”
I looked at him and the big chalkboard he’d brought here from across the city. “Why the heck didn’t you just use a van?”
“Are you kiddin’? If one of my driver’s get’s an idea of what we’re plannin’, I’m gonna be a damn laughin’ stock.”
I’d told Ironsmith some of it, but not everything. He was right to be worried. I’d been thinking it all through for a few days now, and I’d somehow convinced myself it made sense, but I’d woken up this morning and, in the cold light of day, I started to think maybe it really was as ridiculous as it sounded. But it was too late now. I helped Ironsmith get the chalkboard into my apartment and we set it up at one end of the room. I took a piece of chalk he gave me and started to sketch. “I ain’t got the exact layout of the place,” I told him, “but I know someone who’ll be able to help us fill in the details.”
Stormgate arrived next. She’d thoughtfully brought dwarf oatcakes along. I felt real embarrassed when I let her into my apartment, but she was polite enough not to say anything and just sat down in the only chair and waited patiently for everyone else. Poppy came next. I introduced her to Stormgate. Before the Matriarch had arrived I’d flipped the board over so she couldn’t see what I was drawing. I wanted to tell everyone what this was all about together. The final member of our little party of adventurers was Lessien. If I thought I was embarrassed to show Stormgate into my place, nothing prepared me for the look of disdain she gave it. Poppy gave her a funny look when she walked in, and I figured the two girls probably weren’t gonna become pals any time soon. Well that didn’t matter: they didn’t need to like each other; they just needed to like me.
When everyone was as comfortable as they could be given there was only one chair and munching on the cakes Stormgate had brought, I took my place in front of the chalkboard. “Hello, everyone, an’ thanks for comin’…”
“Cut to the chase, Ulrichson,” Lessien said, sounding bored. She was dressed in normal clothes now, but she was wearing a hat that hid her ears. She passed well enough as human, but she’d get a lotta attention in the street, I bet. Elves didn’t usually wander about the place like that, but I guessed since she wasn’t full elf, she didn’t qualify for one of the fancy veils.
“Okay, well you all know the situation, I think. A friend of mine – of ours – is in the hands of the drow Mafia.” I hadn’t actually told Lessien the kid we were trying to save was a drow. She hated them for reasons that went deeper than enmity between her race and theirs, and it was exactly that that I was relying on. “Bottom line, these assholes want a million dollars. Now, I ain’t got that kinda money, as you can see.” I gestured around the apartment. It was a living room with a little attached kitchenette, a small bathroom and a bedroom I could barely squeeze a bed big enough for me into.
“An’ I told you, it don’t matter if you have got the money,” Ironsmith said, “they won’t give him back.”
Lessien looked at him and then me. “Hold up – so this ransom might not even work? You’re gonna steal a million dollars an’ it might all be for nothin’?”
“Steal?” Poppy looked at me with big round eyes.
“Crom frowns on theft, Ragnar,” Stormgate chided me.
“Will you all just calm down an’ let me finish? First, it’ll work, at least for our purposes. The idea ain’t to give the drow the money. That’d play right into their hands. An’ Poppy, Mrs Stormgate: we won’t be stealin’ nothin’ – at least, not for long.” I reached up and spun the chalkboard around so they could see the map I’d drawn. It was the interior of a building. “‘Cause we’re gonna be stealin’ it from them in the first place, an’ givin’ it right back. Ladies, gentleman: the reason I brought you all here today is so we can figure out how to knock off the biggest prize in this city, screw over the drow an’ get the hostage back at the same time.” I pointed at the map. “We gonna steal a million dollars from the vault of the drow casino. Any questions?”
I stood back and gave them a few minutes to get it outta their systems.