Now, let me tell you something about reading people. Career sentinels, they learn to read criminals. Damn good at it. They can pick a crook out of a crowd and guess how he’s going to fight, and whether he’ll fight or run. Schrau Cadnos, for one, can take a look at a perp and tell you pretty much anything you’d care to know. Useful skills to have, especially when you’re waist deep in an investigation and trying to get yourself clear.
Bards have different ways of reading people. Me, I can poke my head through a barroom door and tell you within a couple coppers how much I could net playing there for an hour. I can look you over and figure out which things you want to hear about yourself. We chat for a few, and I can start convincing you of things, even without putting magic behind it. But there’s not much call to read criminals. Like just about everything else, bards are generalists at the people reading game.
Everything I read on the Borales uncles as they filtered in was bad. They weren’t happy, not with each other, not with me. Glares sufficed for eye contact. I’m surprised none of the bodyguards popped a lung puffing themselves up. McKay had brought Guido, who seemed to reserve most of his menace for yours truly. The skinny one pretending to be Upal Toth’s shadow actually was a shadow, and I caught traces of magic all over him. Z’brzzt came in with a dwarf who made the bartender at the Worm’s Abode look like a runt. The other two uncles—undead named Bookman and Loftis—came with patchwork golems. Plenty of bad juju to go around, and every one of ‘em ready to point it at me.
I reminded myself that death was temporary, and took some solace in the fat folder sitting in Carnely’s desk at headquarters. There was enough in there to hang murder charges on Toth and McKay, and enough to make life hot for the others. It wasn’t as much as I’d hoped for, though, not enough to shut down Borales completely. And not enough to do anything at all for Damini. And I hated losing. Which was why I was going ahead with the plan.
Carnely banged a small gong whose origin I didn’t care to guess. He’d dressed for his part, all in black…or at least black dye. I could already tell where it was fading; magical threads weren’t much for holding colors not their own. There wasn’t a proper stage, let alone a backstage, but he had his weapons stashed behind the screen we’d set up. I wasn’t carrying anything obvious, but I had my lute and some of my better bits of enchanted jewelry. And, naturally, my silver tongue.
“Esteemed gentlemen of Borales,” I began, nodding to each in turn with a smile we all knew was fake. “Thank you for coming. I have a special story for you today, one you might not know, but one you’ll surely recognize. It is a tale of my homeland, of bright and distant Welstar. It is a tale of intrigue, of war, of danger and daring.
“Once, long before the war with the Darklord, there were two kingdoms, neighbors who had long eyed each others’ borders with greedy caution. Alike in dignity, the storm kingdom and the river kingdom squabbled, but always stopped short of war. One winter, though, the king of the river kingdom had a hunting accident. A fatal one. In the river kingdom, the princes—trueborn and bastard alike—turned their eyes and knives from the storm kingdom to one another.
“None wished to strike first, for fear of upsetting the careful balance that ruled the river palace. None wished to speak forthrightly, for fear of betraying a weakness. None wished to remain silent, for fear of betraying a strength. So they postured and lied and gathered and dispersed, and the throne remained vacant for want of courage rather than want of ambition.
“For there was ambition, much ambition. And not only in the river kingdom. In their desire for the throne, two princes sent agents to the storm kingdom, and found there a prince who might aid them. Promises were made, gifts exchanged, and plans prepared.
“Alas for the river kingdom that the storm king had plans of his own, and little patience for scheming among his princes. The traitor was slain by the storm king’s own hand. The storm king’s fury tightened the ranks of his vassals—and thinned them, for he had little patience for dissent.
“In the river kingdom, the princes were drawing up their own battle lines, little heeding the rumbles from across the border. Having lost their foreign ally, the two princes increased their posturing, and swayed many of the lesser nobles to their cause. Indeed, all but one of the princes were ready to throw their lot in with these two. The remaining prince, of keen eye, prepared to make the fight difficult.
“While the river kingdom prepared for nights of long knives, the storm king raised armies, ready to swoop in as soon as the fighting began. With their greedy eyes on the throne, the two princes were oblivious to the threat…”
I paused, plucking out a few more arpeggios. “This is where the tale truly becomes interesting. For the two princes had committed crimes. Numerous crimes. And evidence had reached the high king’s agents. The high king, though a believer in justice, also wished to avoid a war between the river and storm kingdoms. So he turned to the keen-eyed prince, and offered him the river kingdom’s throne, provided he would assist in the arrest of his rivals and fortify the river kingdom sufficiently to discourage the storm king’s advances…”
I knew many subtle stories, and subtler songs, but this particular tale hadn’t called for such. Carnely picked that moment to emerge from behind the screen, his badge obvious, a flickering blade and clawed net in his hands. McKay kicked the table up and rolled away in a hurry. Guido had his chain out and spinning. Toth’s shadow did something and a Fellblade appeared in its hands. Bookman tried the door, barred from the other side. Toth worked his tentacles and appeared frustrated when his spell failed. I was already throwing spells of my own. The same magic that kept Toth stuck there was keeping me stuck there too, and even if I’d wanted to bail, I would have had to get through the people I’d just condemned to prison.
This is where it got touch and go. Bookman threw in with Toth. Alone, that made things complicated. Loftis, though, decided to sit out altogether. The numbers looked like they’d tell. I took a hard knock to the head that left me on the floor. I continued, weakly, keeping McKay more or less distracted. But my voice wouldn’t hold out forever. Carnely had his hands full holding off Guido and the shadow. Z’brzzt’s dwarf was dealing with Bookman’s golem while Bookman and Toth kept throwing dangerous shimmers our direction.
Z’brzzt was the trump card, though I’d had no idea he had the skills he did. I’d figured him for a mage, and the lightning certainly validated that guess. But he’d studied biomancy, too. Enough to prop the rest of us up while we dropped Bookman and his golem, then the shadow, then Guido. When Guido crumpled, Loftis decided the die was cast and sent his golem into the fray on our side. Toth didn’t give up until we’d broken both of McKay’s arms and one of his legs. And McKay still managed to crack Carn’s ribs before we got the shackles on. The dwarf swore up and down by gods even I’d never heard of that we hadn’t heard the end of this.
“If that whore-smitten Aagren’d held up his end, it wouldn’t’ve come t’this! Pox on you, goat! Baal-Lujuur wither your balls!”
Interesting. McKay went on in that vein for a while, not that it helped him. We passed him off to the thief-takers Carnely had waiting upstairs, along with Toth, who’d done nothing but glare. And bleed. The corpses we left for the locals to deal with.
“One or the other will turn, once we get them in the cells and on the dock.” Carnely said. “You got enough evidence to pin at least Arbonne on them. Never mind the extortion and racketeering stuff. You did good.” The rat looked a little worse for the wear, but he was tougher than he looked, and managed a rodent smile.
“Thanks for the assist, Carn. Gilgal would’ve had my head if I’d tried to bring them in myself.”
Carnely put on his serious face. “He might have your head anyway, Dinadan. You’d better write a damn fine report.”
It was my turn to smile. “You’re right. We’d better write a damn fine report.”
“You didn’t think I’d forgotten that time I had to come rescue you from the Stewhouse? The ettin who wasn’t really a dominatrix, who was really just beating you up?”
Carnely groaned. “This is the last you get for that, Dinadan.You hear me?”
“Yeah, Carn. Why don’t you head over to the Barnacle and get started. I’ll catch you up shortly.” I jerked my head at Z’brzzt, who’d been hovering patiently, quietly discussing things with Loftis.
“Alright. You’re buying the drinks, though.”
“Sure. Get going.” I gave him a not-so-subtle shove. “You don’t need to hear this next part.”
Z’brzzt bobbed in acknowledgment as I approached. Loftis did an admirable job of disappearing into the scenery. “You have come to discuss the strings, yes, Master Whistler?”
I put on my widest business smile. “Something like that, yeah. Something like that.”
Labels: Dinadan Noir