The velvet curtain hung in sensuous crimson folds from a height of twenty feet. The fabric displayed the first hints of wear and would soon be replaced, a transition I had witnessed with some mourning six or seven times over the past ninety years. Each time, in support of future performances, I had purchased a scrap of the fabric as a memento, which I kept in frames on the walls of my library at Greensteeples. The edge of the stage was aglow with limelight that warmed the first few rows, rendering them the least desirable of the floor seats. Ushers led nobles to their seats on the floor and the three general balconies, while those of us privileged to enjoy private boxes were attended by servants employed by the opera house. Above us all, the lighted chandeliers cast a golden aura about the vast, multi-tiered auditorium.
I searched for a friendly face among those taking their seats below. Soon I spied a plump matron of House Elliendo, but she missed my smile or pretended so. That was not too strange, since her cousin and I were rivals. I was more disappointed when a toothsome widow of House Leroung obviously ignored my bow in her direction. Her gaze was not entirely averted, so I raised a hand in greeting.
She turned her back to me. She had clearly seen my gesture, yet she rebuffed it.
Shocked at the blunt offense, I turned away. My gaze fell upon a young woman who had only six months earlier hung on every word of my account of an investigation into a lost idol of Sarenrae. A smile flickered upon her lips until her mother bent to whisper in her ear. Then both showed me their backs.
As a few stones accumulate into an avalanche, so too did the several snubs spread throughout the auditorium until everyone who had turned to notice my presence turned away to face no particular direction, which is to say any direction other than the one in which I stood.
They had no other object to attend. There could be no mistaking their intention. One and all, my Egorian peers shunned me.
∗ ∗ ∗
The carriage driver was a slip named Miro. He'd been working for the boss for a few years, but I'd only recently learned his name after he did me a good turn. That opened my eyes to the fact that slips didn't have it much better than my sort did. In Cheliax, both halflings and hellspawn were more often slaves than free men. I'd looked down on the little fellows all my life, just like the humans turned their noses up at both of us. Problem was, slips were little, and lifetimes of abuse had turned a lot of them crafty or mean. Hell, when I thought about it, I had to admit the same was probably true of me. I couldn't decide whether I was getting enlightened or just starting to realize what an ass I'd been to the slips.
Anyway, Miro was a good fellow. I stood him a few pints after the Henderthane affair, and I'd sort of apologized for putting him in a bad spot and sort of thanked him for helping me out of it. He liked this restricted tobacco from Nirmathas, and I'd found him a pouch on the black market. The stuff smelled good, but smoking it made me slow and goofy, so I declined when he offered me some. We'd been chatty ever since, which was good. Like my old colleague Maccabus, sometimes I wanted a favor, and now there was another place I could find one.
Miro's sons also served at Greensteeples, Lom assisting the gardener, Vono working in the stables. Miro made sure both of them came along on the ride to the opera house. That was good because it gave us two footmen to wear the house livery, which I hate. While they were grown halflings, Lom and Vono were small enough to share one of the carriage's steps while I balanced them by standing on the other, after the boss was inside. The way he'd treated me earlier, I figured it was simpler if he didn't know I was along for the ride, especially out of uniform. When he got this way, it was best to leave him gazing into Elfland while the rest of us took care of business.
When the boss disembarked, I stayed on the other side of the red carriage. The boys escorted him to the opera house entrance and bowed as he went in. With very few exceptions, the guards didn't welcome nonhumans inside, especially hellspawn. When the boys came back to the carriage, I told them the plan.
"Pick a side," I said. "See anyone with horns or a tail, hustle it back here to finger him. I'll take it from there."
They nodded and strolled up and down the line of carriages parked along Carthagnion Drive, where drivers and footmen would smoke, share hip flasks, and throw cards while their betters enjoyed the show. Only tonight, one of them was a hellspawn assassin looking for a shot at my boss. If I spotted him first, he'd have a bad night. If not, I'd be out of a job.
I was confident Vincenzo's information was good. Caught between me and the giant bunyip, he'd spilled all he knew. If nothing else, his sense of self-preservation was strong enough to know a lie would mean I'd find him again, and this time I wouldn't just leave him to dream off his last dose of shiver.
Impatience was making me fidget. I climbed the back of the carriage to stand on the roof. A gull-faced driver from House Sarini tilted his head back to look down his nose at me. I shot him the tines, and he flustered up like a nanny who'd just been pinched on the bottom. Ignoring him, I checked out the line of carriages in either direction. I saw a lot of familiar faces, and those I didn't recognize were human or, occasionally, halfling.
I spotted Vono pumping his little arms as he ran back toward the red carriage. I jumped down to meet him halfway, but he was already pointing to the side entrance. A couple of guards stood beside the service door. One of them was reading a card he'd taken from a broad-shouldered man holding a long box under one arm. Even from this distance, I recognized the guard dipping his hand into his pocket to secure the bribe he'd been passed with the card. I couldn't identify the house crest on the visitor's livery, but his face had a fiendish silhouette.
By the time I reached the door, the hellspawn was already inside. The guards stepped forward to intercept me. Each was a good six inches taller than me, and a stone or two heavier.
"I'm with him," I said.
"Nice try," said one of them. His partner slipped his baton out of its belt loop.
I showed my palms to the sky and smiled a weak apology. There hadn't been time to come up with a better bluff, so I gave them each a knuckle-shot to the throat. The friendly one dropped to his knees, while his buddy dropped his weapon. I snagged the baton and gave the stunned guards a rap on the head to buy a few minutes. There hadn't been time to be gentle, either.
Inside was a hall connecting the lobby to a couple of doors. From the side entrance we were below stage level, so I figured the doors led to the orchestra pit and backstage. An usher of considerably less physical menace than the door guards had just closed the second door. He looked at me suspiciously, and I ran toward him while beckoning him close for a whisper. The gullible fool leaned in, and I gave him a nice clean rap on the sleepy button. I caught his body before he could hit the floor, dragged him in through the door, and closed it behind us.
Past the second door was an irregular little room with two exits: another door and a short flight of steps leading up to a heavy black curtain. The fabric still swayed as though someone had recently pushed past it.
Beyond the curtain was just what I'd guessed, a high room filled with a confusion of scaffolds, curtains, wheeled scenery, ropes, hoists, ladders, and a dozen objects and tools I couldn't begin to name. Ahead of me was the main stage, barely illuminated by offstage lamps as the chorus took their places.
From nights I'd accompanied the boss home after the opera, listening to his detailed accounts of the evening's entertainment, I knew enough to realize that meant there were only moments left before the curtain rose. As if mocking my thought, a sharp report from a timpani marked the beginning of a rising drum roll, and music overflowed the orchestra pit beyond the curtain. Before I looked away, I saw the famous soprano taking her position on the opposite wing. One look at her beefy arms, and I knew I wouldn't want that woman coming after me with a switch.
I looked around for any clue as to the assassin's trail. The ladder to the scaffolding nearest the front curtain shuddered, and I looked up to see someone stepping onto the catwalk twenty feet above. It could have been one of the stagehands, but it also looked like the best spot for a sniper. Maybe that had been some sort of disassembled crossbow in the box he'd carried inside.
I put a foot on the first iron rung of the ladder. Something cracked me hard on the back of the skull, and my vision wavered. I reached for the grip of my dagger, but a hand slapped my arm away, and I was too weak to send it back before I teetered and fell in a clumsy spiral to the floor. My last vision was of a face looking down at me. It wasn't a man but a masculine-faced woman, hellspawn like me, but a lot less pretty. She shook her head slightly as if disappointed as she held a leather sap above her head.
Then she brought it down between my eyes.
Coming Next Week: Radovan meets his match in the final chapter of "The Lost Pathfinder."
Dave Gross has been a technical writer, a teacher, a magazine and book editor, and a novelist. He is the author of the forthcoming Pathfinder Tales novel Prince of Wolves and the Hell's Pawns series in the Pathfinder's Journal for Council of Thieves, both of which star Varian Jeggare and Radovan, the heroes of this story. His previous novels include Black Wolf and Lord of Stormweather.
Illustration by Eric Belisle