Authors: Glen Cook
Tags: #Fantasy, #Fiction, #General
The Dead M
an has multiple minds. He can work on several problems at once and reach some astounding conclusions fast. That’s why he makes such a good partner. His athletic skills are limited, though.
I would like to interview everyone who was in that room this morning. I am sure the request has been anticipated. I am equally certain that it will be refused by most. It may be instructive to see who refuses and their choices of excuses for doing so.
I glanced at Strafa. She shrugged. So beautifully.
You are allowing yourself to become distracted again.
I was. “I can’t help it. Make her stop.”
“Make me stop what?”
To this point this business has been an exercise in intellect. But a Tournament of Swords does become, by design, intensely physical and violent. The mystery is not mysterious, for the most part. The way to abort the Tournament is self-evident. Shadowslinger has begun the process. The question I would pose, then, is, have the Operators anticipated her effort?
I had one of those moments that are all too rare. “They might be looking for us to collect the contenders in one place.”
Probably not the Operators themselves
. There was a musing note to his communication, as though he’d just had a new and more disturbing thought.
Yes. We must not put our eggs into one basket. Miss Algarda. Strafa, if I may. Please bring your daughter here. Garrett, I want you to round up any members of the Faction that you can find. Ask them to report here, too.
“The Faction? Why?”
The Faction is a kid gang of a remarkable sort. Instead of dimwit thugs, the members are all scary smart and not very physical. Kevans is a key member. Her best friend and my sort of surrogate son, another of my strays, Cypres Prose, was their leader. The Faction are as much misfits as any gangster kids but, again, scary smart. And many come from the Hill.
The Faction would be an ideal talent pool for substitute tournament contestants.
“You sure? None of those kids suffers from ambition. All they want is for grown-ups to leave them alone so they can mess around with strange hobbies and weird research.”
True. To a point. But we have seen bad apples among them before. The prospect of vast power might lure a few to get some exercise. Power hunger belongs to the culture where they were raised.
Was he poking fun my way? That sounded like something I would say. More, it sounded like a subtle commentary on my tendency to remain an object not in motion.
Still . . . “Any suggestion on how I get them to come here?”
I started to say something about how lying adults were half the reason those kids were strange.
You know them. Tailor something to each ego. Once they have come into range, none of that will matter.
I glanced at Strafa. She had been included. She nodded. She agreed with Himself. “It’s for their own safety, Garrett. I’ll make Kevans come. She’ll bring Kip.” And Kip’s influence would pull in most of the rest.
I might not have to become a major bad guy after all.
Again, and always, we shall have to honor the possibility that our efforts have been anticipated. May, in fact, have been factored into the master plan. Miss Algarda . . . Strafa. Are your grandmother and her associates committed to the extent that they might willingly hire bodyguards?
Predictably, the financial conscience of the household chose that moment to appear. Old Bones had been keeping Singe up to date. She said, “We do not have the money to offer protective services at our expense, nor on spec. And those people often fail to honor their financial obligations.”
Strafa said, “I can afford to look out for my daughter. And Kip as well.” And the rest of the Faction, too, honestly. I had not been prepared for just how rich the Algardas actually were, and most of that wealth had somehow settled onto Strafa, maybe because the family had made her life so ugly in other ways.
I had not known about the wealth when I took up with Strafa. She had not mentioned it. In fact, I knew about it now only because Old Bones had seen it inside Strafa’s head and thought that I should know the full truth about my future wife.
I said, “Kip can afford to look out for himself. He’s richer than most gods. The challenge will be to convince him that the danger is real.”
Singe bowed her head slightly. “He will be a hard sell.”
I foresee possible complications in regard to lifeguarding
“Well, of course it can’t be simple, like we just hire Saucerhead Tharpe and a few thugs and the baddies will leave us be. How will it get complicated?” Both of us denying Singe time to slap on another coat of fiscal doom.
Strafa. Did your grandmother explain about the Dread Companions?
My eyebrows leapt up. Singe’s would have done the same if she’d had eyebrows to set a-leaping. Old Bones hadn’t winkled out every foul little whiff that Strafa had gotten from Shadowslinger already? His levels of consideration and courtesy were unprecedented.
“She mentioned them without giving a clear explanation. I know they’re supernatural allies but not much more.”
How could he not have churned up the mental mud by trampling through the gardens of Strafa’s mind? What was going on with the old psychic hooligan?
“She went on a lot more about plain old Companions. It’s apparently critical to pick someone who can stand up against any pressure. Wouldn’t a Dread Companion sort of be the same thing, only supernatural?”
Not quite. Mortal Companions are chosen by Family Champions. Friends, as you say. And it would be useful if they were trustworthy. However, they are not that critical, overall. Dread Companions are, usually, what the tournaments come to be about
“Wow,” I said, applying my best verbal, sarcastic sneer. “Them old-timers went to a lot of trouble to make semiorganized mayhem sound all important.”
They did indeed. That would have to do with legitimization and easing of associated guilt.
I am not clear on the complete mechanism. Perhaps no one is. In the earlier tournaments some truly baleful entities, demons, if you prefer, became involved, one Dread Companion for each Mortal Champion. They protected the Champions and did most of the murder. They carried their Champions’ powers and, most times, their lives. A few Champions did not perish when they were defeated, but what was left was never worth keeping alive. The results were always final for the Dread Companions. Their powers were collected, too. I never heard of a definitive reason for their having gotten drawn in. Compulsion must have been central, but the how and why remain mysterious, as does the potential payoff for the demonic victor.
I grumbled, “Come on. This is too freaky.”
“Grandmother did warn me to watch for demons around Kevans. She didn’t think they would be a major threat, though. She says the demon realm is fed up with human incompetence and that any demons who do turn up are likely to be petty gold diggers. Demonic equivalents of purse snatchers, as stupid as your average street thug.”
I asked, “Did I just hear some good news?”
Very much to be hoped. It could be true. The tournament that included Shadowslinger, Bonegrinder, and Moonblight was sufficiently low-key that I was unaware of it until now. Demonic manifestations and supernatural combats, by their nature, tend to be flashy.
“The way I see it, we have tons of information that probably isn’t the right information. We need to figure out what to expect today.”
We could infer that quickly had I access to your grandmother’s mind, Strafa
“I can ask her. You can guess how likely she is to volunteer to come here.”
Old Bones has tasted and smelled plenty of wickedness in his time, but I wasn’t sure he was ready for Shadowslinger.
Fear not, Garrett. Shadowslinger is more bark and urban legend than she is bite and ugly history. She worked hard to create her legend
Experience suggested that I trust his judgment. But wow! Grandma was so creepy.
“What do you think, Chuckles? Is it even appropriate for us to get involved? It’s sorted itself out without us every time before.”
He inserted visions of faces into my consciousness, starting with Kip Prose and Kevans Algarda. He followed up with a real-time look at Strafa glaring at me in disbelief.
“Are you deaf as well as dim, love? There isn’t any free will involved. We’re in whether we like it or not. We were in before Grandmother asked you to poke around. Please think.”
“I see. So, what do you think our course should be?”
Not entirely what your future family seems to be hoping. This would be my personal suggestion, given four centuries of experience.
He did not include Strafa in what followed.
Old Bones thought I ought to take it outside the family.
He went back to a point he had made earlier, now in more detail.
I told you we have resources unique to the modern age. I posit that, as such, they have not been taken into account by the Operators.
“Huh?” Whatever he was on about, it hadn’t come clear to me, either.
The Unpublished Committee. This is the sort of thing that it was created to handle
“Yes! Ha!” I laughed out loud. He was absolutely correct. I might be able to abort the entire tournament horror show with one office visit, if I could be convincing. “Deal Relway will jump all over this!”
The evening started out rainy, not in any driving, windy form. Then it became a drizzle of the sort that is more depressing than soaking, a halfhearted weather episode that leaves the world feeling colder than it is and you wanting nothing more than to get inside, close to a fire. It got better later on.
After a nice evening at the Macunado place, Strafa and I split up. She wanted to go flying, then to drop by her grandmother’s house to try to arrange for the folks we had met there to visit the Dead Man. She promised to see me back at her house in the afternoon.
After a massive breakfast devoured at a ridiculously early hour, I headed for the Al-Khar. It was raining again. I hunched down deep inside my canvas coat. What breeze there was came from behind. I dedicated my attention to wishing that I had a hat with a more generous brim, especially in back. The beast riding my scalp just then did not keep the rain from running down the back of my neck.
People were out doing make-a-living stuff despite the hour and weather. I spent some pity on them for having to work, then some more on me for getting rained on when I ought not to have to lift a pinkie again.
The great dirty yellow ugliness of the Al-Khar, TunFaire’s Civil Guard headquarters, hove up out of the mist. They should paint it, or something. Anything to make it less of an eyesore.
I lumbered past a rank of transplanted poplars that would, once they grew and leafed out, slap a layer of pancake over the ugly, then hove to just in out of the rain, in a tunnel-like ancillary entrance. I considered those trees. They said a lot about the Civil Guard. They declared the age of law and order solidly begun. They dared anyone to be bold enough to try converting Guard property into firewood.
The city had been stripped of almost every stick outside the Royal Arboretum, for conversion to warmth, by the impoverished and refugees, before the law and order affliction commenced with a vengeance and became a full-fledged, citywide pandemic.
“May I help you, sir?”
The voice came from behind a small barred window on the left side of the tunnel, just before it was blocked by massive, antique wooden doors. An attractive brunette looked out from behind the bars. Not so long ago I would have been enthusiastic about letting her know that, indeedy-do, she certainly could, in several interesting ways. Instead, I deployed some of the gentlemanly skills I have been polishing since Strafa staked a claim backed by the full faith and terror of the Algarda clan.
“Yes, ma’am. My name is Garrett. I have private intelligence I need to pass on to the General personally.”
Silence stretched for several heartbeats. She pushed her face right up against the bars. Damn, she had beautiful eyes. “Garrett, you say?”
“Garrett. Yes, ma’am. That Garrett.”
“Well, you’re big enough. And you look like you might have been a Marine. A long time ago.”
She had to know who I was. Everybody at the Al-Khar knows Garrett. Garrett is a one-of-a-kind . . .
“Haven’t kept in shape, have you?”
“I’m sorry. You don’t measure up to the hype.”
“I thought you’d be better-looking, too. And less dinged-up.”
“That’s just character!” What the hell was this? “I’m sorry I couldn’t be what you wanted me to be. Look, I’m not really pressed for time, but I’m not into verbal abuse, either. Or standing around in the rain. And I do think I might have somebody following me. It’s possible they could take a wild hair and try to stop me once they realize that this is where I’ve been headed.”
I made the follower part up. It might get her moving.
“I’m sorry. I’m just surprised to see that you aren’t a giant. You’ll be safe there as long as you stay behind the murder holes. I’ll be right back.”
An iron plate chunked down in front of the iron bars. I barked a protest but stopped when I heard a crossbow creak as someone spanned it behind one of the murder holes.
Nobody would listen to me and an even smaller population was likely to care what I had to say.
A pair of massive, iron-strapped wooden doors filled the passage a dozen feet back. The walls were not really that thick, though. The Al-Khar only pretends to be a fortress. The exterior walls were the back sides of inward-facing cells and offices, though the stonework at street level could withstand considerable abuse. The passage through was eight feet wide. There was a slim sally port in the left-hand door, so skinny that I would have to turn sideways to get through.
That skinny door opened and invited me in.
I have visited the Al-Khar often, usually on business, occasionally as an involuntary guest. I hadn’t used this entrance since they installed the welcoming window and skinny door. The murder holes were always there with guys inside who hoped that this would finally be the day when they got to use their crossbows. I eased through the skinny door thinking I would find a couple of red tops on the other side, waiting to pat me down before they took me to the General.
I slid into an upright coffin instead. The door clunked shut before I could change my mind.
I don’t like tight places. Not even a little. I really don’t like tight places. It was a miracle that I kept my composure. I treated myself to one lone girlish shriek, then focused on finding creative descriptions of the dams of the motherless dogs who had . . .
Click! Ker-chunk! Screech!
The back side of the coffin swung away.
I backed off on the rhetoric. Some red tops are overly sensitive.
I keep getting smarter as I age. Or it could be that I have developed an allergy to nightsticks.
Four tin whistles occupied the space behind the door. Three were my size, a little over six feet, a little over two hundred pounds of rippling . . . muscle, all equally scarred up. The other one was a big guy who probably ate bricks drenched in acid for breakfast. They carried chains and clubs, pole arms with hooks and thief-takers on the business end, and at least one weighted throwing net.
“Sorry, guys! I maybe got overexcited. I just came to report . . .”
They showed no interest at all.
The big door without a coffin attachment creaked open. Uh-oh. I noted that the tin whistles were dressed for the weather. They were going after my imaginary pursuers.
I clenched my jaw, recalling all those times when my mother reminded me that one tends to learn a lot more a lot faster when one does not have one’s piehole open, trying to scam somebody holding a hammer.
Mom was a saint and a sage. And some other things I still get upset about whenever she gets into my head.
The woman from behind the window bars reappeared. She proved to be more interesting in portrait than when seen from head to toe. Everything from just above where the cleavage ought to start, downward, was too wide, too ample, inadequate, or just plain weirdly put together.
She was a personality kind of girl.
I got no opportunity for a more exhaustive inventory. She had not brought me Westman Block.
This fellow was short. He was ugly. Troops of nonhuman adventurers had enjoyed themselves swinging through his family tree. Most must have been ill-tempered and eternally suspicious because their descendant was in a bad mood and suspicious all the time.
But less so than usual right now.
Which did nothing to improve my temper or soften my inclination to be suspicious.