Authors: Glen Cook
Tags: #Fantasy, #Fiction, #General
was dark and hungry out when Strafa and I left Shadowslinger’s place, me brooding on the implausibility of a to-the-death elimination tournament involving mostly brilliant teenagers.
Twelve was the magical number of participants. Each would have a sidekick called a Mortal Companion, normally a close friend but sometimes a hired fighter. At some point, somewhere from the shadows, each contestant would attract a supernatural ally as well, called a Dread Companion. Too, there would be entities who chose participants, managed everything, refereed, and delivered coups de grâce if necessary. These were the Operators. They were a mystery. Nobody knew how they got recruited or what skin they had in the game. Evidently death was mandatory for the scheme to work fully. Losers couldn’t just admit defeat, they had to die so their power could be folded into the final prize.
Identifying the Operators could give us a means to abort the whole absurd tournament.
My cynical, suspicious side already definitely wondered how the Operators would profit. My villainous side figured eliminating that crew would go a long way toward ending the game permanently, since there would be no one left to recruit a new team.
Though I had been immersed in it all day I remained both skeptical and deeply confused. It was such a ridiculous way of doing business.
I asked Strafa, “Did you understand all of that?”
“Not so much.”
“They talked a ton, and I think they were trying, but when something sounds that absurd you can’t help thinking that they’re either pulling your leg or not telling the whole story.”
“You’re right. But I don’t think they were holding back. Bonegrinder did more talking than I’ve ever seen before.”
“Richt Hauser. His working name is Bonegrinder. He brought it back from his first trip to the war zone.”
“And that creepy Machtkess woman?”
“She favors Moonblight. Unless she’s feeling randy. I hear she becomes Mistress of Chains then. A play on her name.”
“I’ll skip finding out why. All righty, then. And they’re really your grandmother’s friends?”
“As much as can be with their kind. More so, probably, when they were young. Coconspirators is probably closer to the truth now. Where are we going?”
“To my house to check in with some of my matchless resources.”
“We’re going to go that far, why don’t we fly? It’s about to rain. We’ll get soaked if we take time to walk.”
“All right.” Reluctantly. “But you don’t have your broom.” I like having something a bit more solid than air beneath my feet.
“You know I don’t need a broom. You’re just chicken.”
She was right. “You got me. But hold up for a minute. I see civilians.” A girl was headed our way, nine or ten, blond, well dressed, very pretty. A living doll. She held the hand of a groll, part giant, part troll, all strength and ugliness, impervious to most weapons but, blessed be, seldom aggressive. Full-grown grolls are big. This one was bigger than most, a good fourteen feet tall. He seemed to be walking in his sleep, oblivious of his surroundings. The little girl, however, was alert and totally intense.
Strafa backed into me. “Grab on.” She was anxious suddenly.
“Always up for that.”
“You have a one-track mind, sir. But quit fooling around. We need to get out of here. Now.”
“Whose fault is that? You being you.” I paid no attention to the kid, other than to note that she was rich enough to rate a magnificent bodyguard.
My toes had just left the cobblestones. Strafa turned her head. I tried to kiss her, for the moment forgetting what we were up to. She lost her foothold on the sky. We collapsed into a wriggling pile. The little girl stopped to scowl at us, then told me, “If you aren’t more careful you will be the first to die.”
Strafa ignored her. She sat up. “Gods, I wish we’d met when I was Kevans’s age. We would’ve had so much more time.”
No. I thought not. When Strafa was Kevans’s age she already had a toddler underfoot and I was still shallow enough for that to make a difference. Too, I was about to head out for my five years in the war zone.
Chances are, I would have gone off, leaving her with another responsibility about to arrive, which I might have been low enough not to have acknowledged. I wasn’t nearly as nice when I was younger.
But I’ll never tell her we’re both better off for life’s having kept us apart as long as it did.
The little girl and her monster moved on hurriedly. I asked, “What was that? Did you get that?”
“Let’s just go. It turned out all right.” Clearly shaken, puzzled, and maybe a little frightened, like she had only just survived a brush with a very dangerous unknown.
I got up, helped her get up, got around behind, and this time behaved myself while she did what Windwalkers do.
• • •
We settled to the cobblestones outside the house where I’d lived till Strafa carried me off to her mansion on the Hill. It was dark red, brick, two-story, in perfect repair because my assistant Pular Singe is a freak about detail stuff. My bedroom lay athwart the front of the place, upstairs. Strafa’s old habit had been to sneak in the window on the left, above the roof of the stoop.
This time we would go in through the front door, like normal visitors.
I observed, “Old Bones is definitely awake.”
I knew because Singe opened the door while we were still getting untangled.
r Singe is a rat woman, descended from mutants created by sorcerers several centuries back. She stands about five feet tall when she forces herself into her most upright stance. I sort of adopted her when she was an adolescent. She has become the heart and soul of my investigative business. I go out and have fun digging while she stays home managing records, finances, the house, and all the other stuff I let slide because it’s boring. She has a genius for it. She keeps everything abovewater.
Singe is also the best scent tracker in TunFaire and, maybe, the best in the Karentine Kingdom. She makes a little cash on her own, on the side, doing contract tracking, usually for the Civil Guard when they’re willing to pay up front.
None of those guys work for pride alone, but they seem convinced that the rest of us should donate our time and take physical risks entirely out of a sense of civic duty.
Singe didn’t say a word as she let us inside.
My housekeeper and cook, Dean, came out of the kitchen drying his hands. He was ancient. He had begun to develop a stoop and was moving more gingerly than he had just weeks ago. His voice was strong when he greeted us, though.
Dean was a huge fan of Strafa Algarda.
A rattle and thump thundered down the stair from the second floor. The racket ceased a moment before an utterly cool, studiedly indifferent, totally cute little brunette of fourteen stepped into view. “Oh. It’s only you. Well, hello.” She headed into the kitchen as though that had been her plan all along.
Penny Dreadful is not a huge fan of Strafa Algarda.
She is my partner’s pet. Another adoptee of the house.
We’re all strays. Even Strafa made some bones that way.
“We came to see Himself,” I told Singe.
“There is a surprise.”
Dean turned to follow Penny. There would be tea and cakes soon enough. There might be some real food later.
Shadowslinger was too frugal to waste food on visitors.
siness partner is a nonhuman beast known as a Loghyr. Weighing in at nearly a quarter ton, he makes Shadowslinger look svelte. His species may be related to mammoths or mastodons. He looks something like a hairless baby mammoth that decided to strut around on its hind legs. He has a miniature version of the snoot.
I’m not sure about the strut. I’ve never seen a Loghyr on the hoof, and only mine and one other one dead. They are an uncommon breed.
The species has several interesting characteristics. Foremost is a huge reluctance to leave their flesh after they die. My Loghyr, affectionately known as the Dead Man, was murdered centuries ago. With mobility and breath denied him, he developed other skills.
Interesting. A Tournament of Swords. I thought the Hill got over that insanity generations back.
He reads minds. People who know are terrified and tend to stay away. They refuse to believe that he doesn’t spy when he isn’t invited because they know how they would behave if they had the identical ability.
“You’ve heard about this tournament stuff before, then?”
Indeed. Marginally. It is the sort of insanity only those afflicted with an insatiable hunger for power would pursue. It is a process whereby power can be concentrated and given over to a single wielder. Properly executed, the tournament would leave its winner strong enough to challenge the gods.
That, itself, may be why no tournament has yet gone according to design.
Clever Garrett got it in one. “In order for there to be one big winner, there have to be a lot of losers.”
Exactly. Where losing will hurt a lot more than it would in the daily lottery. And Hill folk are never the sort to scruple about doing whatever is necessary to avoid losing. And the gods themselves might have an interest.
“The players would all have a good idea of one another’s strengths and weaknesses, too, since they all know each other.”
More importantly, they would know those things about themselves.
“It’s a wonder TunFaire wasn’t destroyed in one of those matches.”
This city has its own protective magic. After a fashion.
I misunderstood. I fantasized some vast oversoul for the entirety of the polity.
I meant stupidity! And the fact that though the tournaments are organized, the fighting is not. Its effects are localized. The worst of the clashes always take place on the Hill.
“Which wouldn’t much amaze anyone anywhere else.”
Or cause noteworthy despair.
“So. We have a tournament fixing to get ready to commence to begin. Survivors and scuttlers from the last tournament want me to wreck this one before it can come together.”
He wasted no time suggesting that refusing the commission was an option. Not if I meant to forge ahead with Strafa.
And, perhaps, he had motives of his own.
The first step may be both easier and more difficult than you imagine.
Cryptics. He loves them. In a past life he interned as an oracle in a cave filled with weed smoke.
The roster of potential participants has been narrowed already. Most of the draftees should be identifiable by reasoned elimination. Who from each family is the most likely to be chosen?
Of course. No need to work on that, really. Shadowslinger could tell me most everything I’d need to know.
In fact, she has done that already. You were not paying adequate attention.
She did? She had! My problem was, Strafa had been doing something more interesting close by. Something like breathing fetchingly. Why do I always get distracted? “So what I really need to do is find the Operators and any outsiders who might take places belonging to families that no longer exist.”
“Crap. So where do I start?”
I suspect that all you have to do is leave the house to find that out.
He put pictures into my head. Things I had seen without paying much heed. A pretty little blond girl saying something obscure, then an odd smell as Strafa and I lifted off to fly to Macunado Street. And the people in that room at Grandma’s house.
They almost certainly involved you with the intention of letting you draw the lightning.
Meaning they might actually put the word out so that unknown baddies would become concerned that Garrett might pose a threat.
“I’m about to marry into a lovely crowd, aren’t I?”
It occurred to me that they must suspect the identity of at least one Operator if they were sure they could point out the goat tied to the stake in the clearing and reasonably expect results. Or maybe a lack of results would be equally informative, in its own way.
Please ask Miss Algarda to cease charming Dean and join us
. And, while I made the long trek to the kitchen, he sent,
We have a resource today that was unavailable to any previous generation. We will take full advantage of that.
I got the distinct impression that the Tournament of Swords thoroughly offended his sometimes curious sensibilities.
d not get over the deference Old Bones showed Strafa. He could have touched her mind at will, but, instead, he had me carry a verbal invitation.
I will not give this one any excuse to run away.
I found her not only charming Dean but also eroding Penny’s adamant heart. Singe was hunkered down in her office, doing something productive. That girl never took time off to loaf.
Back to the Dead Man’s room.
Ask Miss Algard
Miss Algarda demanded, “Why won’t he deal with me directly?”
“He might be afraid of you.”
Not true. But the suggestion ought to trigger . . .
Very well. Inasmuch as neither of you cares much about courtesy
He left me out of their exchange. And she did not bother speaking her half of the conversation aloud.
Later, Singe would tell me, “He is smitten with Strafa, you know. He does not want to do anything that will stress your relationship.”
Amazing. With the rest of us he shows all the thoughtfulness and sensitivity of a barbarian horde. Which he would deny, of course.
Very well. Dean has a meal ready. Go enjoy that while I digest this information.
I could smell the food. My gut was clamoring already. He didn’t have to sweet-talk me.
• • •
Dean served up steaming bowls of chicken and dumplings. I wondered how he had managed so fast, but not much. I was used to his kitchen magic.
Once I began to slack off, I asked Strafa, “What did he want?”
“Whatever he couldn’t get from you.”
“Like what Grandmother told me when we were out of the meeting room at the same time.”
“Secret from me?”
“No. But we’ll talk business later.”
Penny was there with us. So was Dean with his big, hairy ears. What they did not overhear they could not repeat if someone caught them on the street and squeezed. Kind of harsh, militaristic thinking for inside the family, but still realistic.
Strafa was taking this business more grimly than was I. That was scary in itself. Normally, she avoided taking the mystical, magical side of life anywhere as seriously as most Hill people.
She did not want to turn into her grandmother.
Penny understood. She harrumphed, left the table, then left the room. She stomped along the hall, presumably to go cry on Singe’s shoulder, or maybe the Dead Man’s.
She wouldn’t get much sympathy from either.
Strafa observed, “She sure is developing a cute butt, isn’t she?”
“Honestly. A guy can’t help noticing those things.” Especially a guy who is a trained observer.
This guy was on his way to becoming a trained companion, too. He made no effort to defend himself any further.
The hole only ever gets deeper.
“You can notice. I don’t mind.” With a whole lot of subtext. “She is growing up fast. And she’s going to be a heartbreaker.”
Strafa is less unreasonable than most members of her species, but fully open-minded she is not. None of them really is. Those who make the claim can be the most dangerous.