Back in Rumpock, Near the Bell Tower

I found the neighborhood apothecary shop, "Ye Olde Frog's Eye," if that was the correct translation on the sign out front. The door was wide open, the same as all the other businesses up and down the street. It seemed to be the custom, reminding me of older sections of Toronto when the weather was nice. Well, the Toronto on about our fifth world. They had some decent tech there. I'd stocked up on the essentials of life: beef jerky, semi-sweet dark chocolate, and really warm socks.

The shop. A very intense olfactory experience. Even with the door open. The place was stuffed with all kinds of strange smelly things in bins, drawers, crockery pots, and blown glass vessels. Vinegar and garlic dominated, like some kind of twisted Italian eatery.

"May I render help . . . uh . . . sir?" A plump lady with a pleasant, full-cheeked face stared at me from her chair behind the counter.

"I'm looking for a friend of mine - short, red hair, foreign clothes?" It was my usual description for Terrin. I didn't know what he had on today, but it was likely to be a T-shirt with a picture on it overlaid by a Hawaiian shirt, the louder the better. To compensate for my looks I usually tried to blend in with local costume, but Terrin never compromised. "He'll be wearing purple sneakers and sunglasses."

The lady took her time recovering. It helps them when I act like nothing's amiss. Eventually she snapped out of it. "Ye-esss. A young man like that came in. He was a little rude."

"That's the guy. Don't take it personal, he just gets preoccupied. Did he buy anything?"

"No, but he asked if I had any gems in stock. As if I could afford such things like Overduke Anton."

My ears perked at the sound of useful information. "So, this Anton dude is pretty well off?"

"More so than me, though I'm glad enough for what I have. Is there a circus in town?"

I disappointed her with my reply, but invited her to come enjoy the lunchtime show at Clem's later. "Think the overduke might be interested in auditioning a singing cat-guy? I'm great for birthdays, weddings, bar mitzvahs . . ."

"Oh, I wouldn't know. Mid-Summer Festival is coming up, lots of singers are in it. You could ask at his gate. He has the big palace on the east side of the city. Anyone will point you there."

"Then he's a party-hearty kind of dude?"

"Dear me, but he's not one for too much frivolity. Usually has someone else plan the festival. A very sober man is the overduke," she pronounced.

I hated him already. "Are there any less-sober types hanging around town?"

"The overduke has several clans under him. . . ."

That must tickle. I kept up with the questions, the ones I couldn't ask at Clem's last night. I didn't want to give him the idea that I'd just pull out and take the act elsewhere for a better deal. Of course I'd give notice first.

I got a lot of names that might or might not be helpful, and a basic idea of local politics. The lady was careful not to give any personal opinions of the various clans in the city, merely repeating general knowledge. I didn't think it was from any fear of reprisal. As a businesswoman, she'd be aware of the importance of presenting a non-partisan face to the public.

And unless they're breathing down my neck with some inconvenient agenda, politics bore me. "Did you happen to notice which way my friend went?"

"Up the high street," she said, pointing.

"There any candle makers nearby?"

"Same way. On the left."

I thanked her and hurried on. Part of me was already getting used to the rhythms of the place. Since leaving the inn, I'd twice noticed the sounding of a huge bell in its high tower, marking the passage of the hours. Not much time left before I had to stand outside Clem's and persuade people to come in for the show.

Oh, yeah, no magic at the apothecary shop. Practitioners and herbalists probably went there for supplies, but I didn't pick up one whiff of the supernatural. I may not be interested in the stuff, but I am aware of it. Like being able to see that black fog last night.

I'd not discussed that with anyone. Until I checked with Terrin, it seemed wise to wait. People had enough fun dealing with my cat face; no need to give them cause to think I was certifiable, too.

The candle shop I found by smell. They sold all sorts of candles, lamps, and the oils to go in them. Many of the oils were stinky when burned, but they sold scents to mix in to offset that. Terrin was there, just winding up the purchase of a thick black candle half as long as his arm. I knew he didn't have any money, so he hit me up for some just as I walked in.

"My friend will pay," he said, hooking his thumb in my direction. His back was to me. He couldn't have seen my entrance.

It was pointless to ask how he knew I'd arrive at just the right moment to take care of the bill. Stuff like that always happened around him, especially if he was working on some magical project. I handed over a hard-won penny and shrugged it off.

"What's going on?" I asked once we were outside. "You only use black candles when you want to whip up some protection."

"I told you something was wrong with this world."

"What is it?"

"Don't know yet."

"You must have some idea."

He grimaced against the daylight and slipped his sunglasses on. His eyes were green today. Strangely, the color went well with his purple fishing cap. Our travel crystals were still in its netting, charging up in the sunshine. "I just know it has to do with the black mist."

Like I couldn't figure that out myself. "Find anything on your astral plane cruising?"

"Nope."

"What did you find?"

"Nothing."

"Nothing?"

"Zip. And that is weird."

"Finding nothing is weird?"

"Nothing is weird, as in there wasn't anything out there! Astral planes always have some kind of traffic. The one in this world is empty. No dreams, presences, elementals, projections, psychic tourists - nothing. Zip. O. La."

Even I knew that was extremely unusual. "Where'd everything go?"

He shrugged. "Sooner we leave here, the better. I gotta see about turning up a gem job. I want out a-s-a-p."

Toward that end I told him what I'd learned from the apothecary lady about the overduke. "He sounds like a stick in the mud, though. You better do more asking around before you offer magical services."

Terrin groaned and stretched. "I don't feel like offering today. Too damn tired. I need sleep, I've been tired since we got here."

He totally looked it, but I kept shut. No one likes to hear negative commentary on their appearance, especially Terrin. He wanted to visit an herb shop he'd heard about, so we strolled through the noisy swirl of a street that was half-shopping mall, half-flea market, half-conga line. People gaped at me, I waved back in a friendly way and collected another parade of kids. Terrin loved children too - on toast with a little Dijon mustard - so he moved on while I did more PR work. What can I say? I thrive on the attention and ear-scratching.

I invited people to come to Clem's for the show and some lunch, told a few jokes to whet their entertainment appetites and generally enjoyed myself. It lasted until I heard a good, loud scream.

Aw, come on - it was too soon for us to leave this place.

* * *

Elsewhere in Rumpock

Shankey, the head of the guards for House Darmo, paused before the red-lettered sign of an inn near the bell tower. Lady Filima had been specific about who and what to look for; she just hadn't mentioned that there were several inns and taverns in the area with red-lettered signs. This was his third stop, and he was hungry. That added to his annoyance. What inspired the annoyance in the first place was being followed by Debreban, his Burkus House counterpart.

The man was so incredibly bad at it.

Anyone skulking around in a cloak on so warm a day was bound to collect stares. Anyone skulking around in the purple-and-green colors of House Burkus could expect a helping of snide laughter as well. Shankey, anonymous out of his house uniform, almost felt sorry for the man but for the fact some of the amusement was spilling onto himself. He was so obviously the skulkee.

Before ducking inside to ask yet another wary proprietor about a guest who might be walking about in - oh, gawds - a cat mask, Shankey decided he'd had enough. He strode purposefully to a shop doorway where his skulker had attempted to conceal himself. People in the shop watched with interest.

"Hello, Debreban," he said, looking down.

Debreban attempted to appear casual, as though crouching in doorways was quite the normal thing to do. "Oh, uh, hi, Shankey. What are you doing here?"

"My lady sent me out to look for something."

"It's a good day for it. Nice seeing you."

Shankey made a face. "Cut the crap, Debreban. We both know a little of what's going on. Let's have a beer and swap stories."

After a moment's hesitation, Debreban stood up, brushing his knees. He was a well-built fellow, all blond hair and boyish charm, just a little short on talent in important areas, like following people who were neither blind nor deaf. "Well, it is getting close to lunch. . . ."

Shankey nodded in a friendly way and led off back to the inn, an unpretentious two-story structure called "Clem's Place," according to the sign. The bar was open, and the woman behind it informed them she could do them some cold meat, cheese, and bread, but if they wanted anything hot it would be another hour. They ordered accordingly and took their tray and huge flagons of foamy beer to a quiet table at the far end of the room. There they could put their backs to the wall and each keep an eye on the front entry. Their training made such caution second nature.

After a healthy guzzle of beer, Shankey gave a shuddering sigh of relief in reaction. "Damn, I needed that. Dry work out there."

"Dry work," agreed Debreban, belching. "What might that be?"

"I'm buying this round, so you go first."

"Fair enough. Lord Cadmus told me to follow you and find out what you were doing."

"That's all?"

"Sadly, yes. I wish he'd get a more interesting hobby than mooning after your lady all the time. I'm pretty sure it's to do with Lady Filima."

"He knows I'm on one of her errands? How's that?"

Debreban, who was slicing cheese with his fighting knife, waved it carelessly. "Probably something to do with magic. He has Talent, you know. Dabbles like some of the rest," he added, meaning the clan aristocracy in general. He lowered the knife and stuffed cheese in his mouth.

"Yeah, I've noticed that. They have way too much time on their hands." Shankey helped himself to bread and butter, laying the latter on generously. Being more respectful of his battle equipment, he used the flat, dull knife provided by the inn, sparing his own cherished blade for less mundane purposes. "But, what the hell, so long as we have a job."

"That's for damn-sure. Now . . . what's your side of it?"

Shankey took on a resigned expression. "Lady Filima wants me to find a man wearing a cat mask."

"Excuse me?"

"That's what I thought. Couldn't say it, though. Not to her face. Pisses her off when people question her orders. Have no idea why she wants him; I just do what I'm told. Makes life a lot simpler."

"A cat mask?" Debreban shook his head. "Is there a circus in town?"

"She said so, but I've not seen or heard sign of one. Been feeling like a fool asking around after him, too. Seems more like a job for one of my errand runners, but she wanted me to see to it personally, so it must be important in some way I don't know yet."

"He could be a thief," Debreban suggested. "Uses it as a disguise. But why wear a cat mask when a hood and muffler would do just as well?"

"Thought of that, too. It's nuts. Between you and me, I don't think she knows who he is either or she'd have given me a name. Must be doing that magic stuff the same as your master. Why couldn't she have gone in for embroidery or horse racing like some of the other clans in the city?"

"They're a strange bunch, aren't they?"

"That they are, my friend." Shankey hoisted his beer, relishing the moment. He enjoyed talking shop with another professional even if the fellow wasn't nearly as experienced at the work. "At least the pay is good."

"When you get paid." Debreban was justifiably morose about the topic. It was well-known Lord Cadmus Burkus was forgetful when it came to the timely remuneration of his retainers. "Sorry, didn't mean to air clan laundry."

"That's all right. If you weren't sworn to his service, I'd invite you to come work for Lady Filima." Shankey thought Debreban would do well once he got some proper training.

"You would? That's decent of you. The whole house is hoping it might happen anyway."

"What? That Lord Cadmus finally marries her?"

Debreban nodded. "We're hoping, but most don't think she'll accept him."

Shankey gave an expressive shrug. "Not unless Hell freezes over." In truth, he had no idea what the weather conditions in Hell might be and tended to conduct his life in such a way as to never find out firsthand.

"I wish it would," Debreban stated softly, but with a great deal of feeling under the words.

"Oh, yeah?" said Shankey, in a drawing-out tone.

"Don't get me wrong, Lord Cadmus is a great master. He's got no political ambitions, so there's not a lot of work, just drills and stuff like that to keep us all polished."

"Much better doing that than real fighting," Shankey agreed. He drained away his beer, signed for another round, and dug into a slice of cold ham.

"But he needs a keeper. Someone to see to the practical side of running the household, you know?" Debreban finished his first flagon and welcomed the next.

"Someone to see that he doesn't overspend himself?"

"Exactly!" Debreban said. "Lady Filima would be perfect for him. She used to have to earn her way like the rest of us, so she knows the value of a penny. There's no waste in your house, is there? Everyone gets paid on time? The whole town knows she's smart that way."

Shankey felt a warm glow of pride that his lady's reputation was taking on a new facet. In the early days of her marriage to Lord Botello the oochie-coochie dancer past had been rather hard to live down. "True, all true."

"Then there you are," said Debreban conclusively.

Shankey nodded several times in agreement and made a mental note to return to this inn for more drink. Whatever they did with the beer here was inspired. It usually took more than just two to make him feel this relaxed. Debreban was also looking happily mellow - in between his thoughtful frowns. It was good for a man to be so concerned about the welfare of his master, too bad that master was Cadmus Burkus.

Both men ate. And drank. On his fourth flagon, Debreban said:

"If they got married she'd be able to keep my lord Cadmus in line. Of course, there's also the risk that he could beggar her. You know how some women get when they fall in love. She could go silly and give him all her money."

"Won't happen. Won't happen. Her falling in love. With him. She's met him already. No offense."

Debreban grunted, apparently used to popular opinion concerning his liege-lord. "Wish we could make it happen. It's time my lord settled down, got himself a proper heir. He's the last of his line, y'know. If he dropped dead today the whole household would be . . . be . . . something." With his flagon empty, his memory lapse was excusable. "Shouldn't be allowed."

"Seems to me," said Shankey slowly, for he'd also found the bottom to his fourth beer, "seems to me, that all the advantage is on your side. What would my lady get out of such a match?"

"Well, he's a handsome fellow, has pretty manners, and makes a good joke. Very dedicated to the gentlemanly arts. He'd never mistreat her. That's a fact. You know . . . you know . . . all his old girl friends still like him?"

"Really?"

Debreban nodded solemnly.

"How does he manage that?"

A shrug. "Something to do with being a gentleman. Got himself trained up right. He'd give her good entertainment and some fine-looking children. If they got her brains and his looks - not that she doesn't have a face a man could die for . . . but then that could be all reversed. The kids could end up with his brains." He frowned again.

"That's getting too far ahead. What benefit could my lady get from such a match now?"

"Not a damn thing that I can see - wait, she'd have a fine lover."

"I don't want to know how you know that," said Shankey.

Debreban laughed himself into hiccups. "Ever'one knows he got some special training in that area."

Maybe that was why his old girlfriends still liked him. "Oh, yeah?"

"From what I understand, my lord is very exceptional when it comes to putting a female into a good mood. Nothing keeps a woman home and happy more than a man who knows how to please her. If once your lady ever sampled his goods I'd bet she'd not be wasting time on magic and sending you off on errands looking for fools in cat masks."

Shankey hiccupped a few times, too, but managed to pull himself together. "You've got summin' there. But how d'we make it happen? The very sight of him . . . well . . . it seems to annoy her to no end."

"I'm sure we can work out something to cure that," said Debreban, also making an effort to overcome his beer. He cut loose with an extended belch when he made himself sit up straight. "I am also, also, also sure that we won't work anything out while we're in this state."

"I am not drunk, my friend. This is just a little buzz."

"Didn't mean to imply that you were. I was referring to this huge meal we just had." Indeed, their shared tray was bare of food, including crumbs. "I'm too full to think. But later today, after we've walked this off, we can start thinking up something. A 'master' plan." He giggled. "As in a plan for my master - get it?"

But Shankey had his head sideways on the table, his eyes thickly glazed over. He managed to drool hearty agreement, though, to the idea of thinking up an idea.

* * *

A Few Streets Away From Clem's Place

The screaming had nothing to do with Terrin, for a change. Not at first. It did seem to have to do with a big guy dragging a little guy around by the neck. They emerged, yelling and cursing, from some tavern, and it looked to be a full-blown brawl. I didn't know who started what, but my sympathies automatically went to the smaller fellow. Big guys who beat up on not so big people piss me off. I wasn't planning to get involved, but they both careened into me, knocking me hard over. Only by some fast footwork and an instinctive shift in balance did I manage to land square on my feet.

"Hey, asshole, you might hurt yourself," I called out to the big one, annoyed. He'd done all the klutz-work. "He's way out of your league, you know."

"Huh?" Still holding onto the other guy's neck, he loomed toward me. Oh, boy, was he ugly, though it might have been the rage distorting his features. His eyes were pretty rabid. Must have been the booze. At two yards I was getting high off his breath. "Whazzat to you?"

"I mean you'll strain something if you keep dragging him around like that."

"Shaddup, freak!"

Bet he worked all day thinking up that riposte. He dropped the man and took a swing at me. He was big and fast, but I ducked, dancing clear, drawing him away from his original target.

Luggo rushed at me, roaring, but I dodged, and he plowed into a slower-moving bunch of people. None of them took the sudden assault too well and began beating on him in response. They seemed to be having a great time. He straightened and brushed them off, launching toward me to try for another round.

"Myhr! What the hell are you doing?" Terrin came out of one of the shops to glare at me, probably pissed that I wasn't there to pay his bill.

"Just a little exercise." I avoided another fist. It also cut close. Too close. I couldn't let this guy connect or he'd snuff me. "But I'm getting bored now."

"You started it, you finish it."

"It's not my fight. He was after him." I pointed at the little guy, who was still on the ground. He looked confused and unhappy.

"Oh, okay." Somewhere deep inside Terrin had a rusty sense of honor. His black candle still in hand, he stepped into the street and addressed the man trying to kill me. "Hey, you big-ass jerk. Pick on someone your own size!"

Terrin's just an inch or so over five feet. Nearly everyone he got in a fight with was taller. I'd yet to see him lose.

Mr. Drunken Lug turned on him. "Shuddup, shorty."

Remarks on his height never bothered Terrin. "Both my feet are on the ground, that's all that matters," he'd usually say.

But in this case his feet ceased to be on the ground. Launching a lightning-fast crescent kick, he caught Luggo's chin solidly with the heel of his purple high-top sneaker. Our mutual non-friend dropped heavily to the cobbles and stopped moving.

"Ouchie," said Terrin, rubbing his butt. Apparently he was still sore from last night's dragging down the stairs.

"He'll kill me when he wakes up," said the victim-guy.

"Not if you leave," I said. "After a knockout like that he won't remember anything that happened today."

"He'll find me!" he wailed.

I looked at Terrin. "He did seem the type."

He grumbled and grumped. "Why's it always me?"

"Because you're the best, of course." He liked being talked into things. Flattery helped.

He growled, but gave in to his fate. He went over to the unconscious man and held a hand out over his head. I saw a very faint shimmer, like heated air. "Okay, he's fixed."

"Fixed in what way?" Never liked that word, "fixed."

"Every time he tries to hit someone, he'll get an instant migraine."

"He won't be able to defend himself, you know."

"I know. But he's about due for some karmic payback."

"You hear that?" I asked the victim. "You're safe now. He can still yell at you, though."

"What'd you do?" he wanted to know.

"Community service," said Terrin. He snagged my shirt sleeve. There was sweat on his white face, making all his freckles stand out. He did need some rest. "Come on, I need you to buy me some herbs."

I went with him. The street theater scene over, the crowd went on with business as usual. I hoped they'd bring some of it to Clem's. Before I could make an announcement to that effect, Terrin hauled me into an herbalist, and bang went what was left of my tips.

"You sure you need this stuff?" I asked, paying out. As ever, it was a painful experience. "I know you have a stash in your pack."

"That's my own personal recreational weed; this has to do with my magic. It's always better to use local organics for spell work. The energy connection to the ley lines is stronger than if I bring in something alien."

"Oh." Tech stuff again. Boring. "I gotta get back to Clem's. It'll be time for the lunch crowd soon."

"Great, take this with you." He foisted his candle and bag of herbs onto me.

"Where will you be?"

He shrugged. "Walking around. I need to feel out the lines, see where the power points are . . ."

"Get laid." I wondered how he spelled the "ley" in ley lines.

"That, too. I saw a place where - "

"Thanks, spare me the details." Terrin could spot a sex business through solid walls, and in all our travels I'd never once seen him pay for services rendered. Girls just seemed to want to give it to him. He never used magic, either. Some guys are born lucky. I didn't begrudge him, though. If he didn't get laid fairly often he tended to implode. I hated that.

"An' there was something about the big drunk, too," he added.

"What kind of something?"

"When I did the whammy number on him, it took a lot more energy than it should."

"Maybe he was just resistant 'cause of the booze."

"I don't think so. There must be some heavy-duty vibes going on here, only I'm not feeling them, and I should."

"And that's a bad thing?"

"It could be. I've never run up against anything like it before, so I don't know what it means. A deserted astral plane, that fog river, and me being this kind of tired from doing a simple restraining whammy."

"Maybe it's jet-lag."

He snorted, more to himself than toward me. "I'll see ya later. I gotta go get some energy."

Sex tended to charge him up again. It did the same for me, but in a different way, since I wasn't into the magical side of stuff. Terrin said he fed on all levels, whatever that meant. I never asked for an explanation, filing it in my Too Much Information cabinet. He went off in one direction and I another, heading back to the inn.

Greta gave me a wave hello, reminding me it was time to get started. The place was a little sparse for lunch customers yet, just two soldier-type guys in a corner. One was passed out on the table, and the other seemed fast asleep with his eyes wide open. He wore a really awful purple-and-green uniform that clashed badly with his blond hair.

I stopped upstairs long enough to drop off Terrin's stuff and get ready for the lunch show. Over my white pirate-style shirt I pulled on a dapper vest to dress things up. Then I stood just outside the front door and did my warm-up act.

Like I said, my face is my fortune. It was enough to gather a street crowd just to stare at me, but the key is to make them see past my face to the talent beneath. Having been blessed with a decent singing voice, this wasn't a tough job, and I rounded it all out with the jokes, muggings, and double-takes whenever a pretty girl came in view. They ate it up. I duly invited everyone for second helpings over their noontime meal.

I brought in enough takers to draw a smile from Clem, who was helping behind the bar while Greta and their various kids dished out the food. My stomach growled expectantly, but it would just have to wait until the show was over. I never ate beforehand; it's too embarrassing to interrupt a perfectly good song with a badly timed burp.

This did happen, though. I was about to launch into "The Lion Sleeps Tonight" - my signature piece, it never fails to please a crowd - when the guy in the purple and green cut loose with a monumental belch. I'm talking the kind that shakes the rafters and it happened just as I opened my mouth. Well, there's no following that sort of thing until the audience settles down. They were laughing too hard. In an attempt to win them back I announced a belching contest. It seemed the perfect thing for this group.

"What's the prize?" someone demanded.

"Prize? You expect a prize?" I didn't have to pretend shock.

"Aye, 's only right. You 'ave a contest, y' should 'ave a prize!"

Damn. I was faced with a situation I'd not thought all the way through. Thankfully, Clem saved me from having to volunteer my tips.

"The prize is a free flagon of beer," he called out.

I shot him a grateful thumbs-up for the rescue. He grinned back and proceeded to sell beer to a dozen eager contestants. He'd more than make back the money for the freebie.

Playing emcee to the full, I got things going. The contest grew louder by the minute, and smellier. I figured out quick which end of the room was upwind from the belchers and stood there for the duration. By the time it had devolved down to the last two, the soldier guys in the corner seemed to have woken up fully and were giving me what I'd always thought of as "the hairy eyeball." I wondered if there was some kind of permit required for what I was doing. Clem hadn't mentioned anything about it.

"Okay, last and final round," I bellowed. "Rick the Roaring Bear against Werdel the Wondergut!"

Rick and Werdel drained off their flagons of fuel and after a moment to let the fizz build in their expanding bellies, each had a turn cutting loose. The rafters not only shook, but a quantity of dust sifted down. They both sounded the same to me, but I'd left the judging to the audience. The cheers were loudest for Werdel. He accepted his free flagon with good grace, took a swig, then generously passed the rest of it to Rick.

"Gotta see a man about a dog," he announced, looking all tense as he sprinted for the back door.

I offered a few choice lines wishing him additional success, then finished out the act by passing a hat and singing "Show Me the Way to Go Home," after first reminding the audience that the song was for me, not them. I'd put in a good hour and a half and needed a break.

Clem was well pleased. "That's triple the business I usually get for beer this time of day. We'll do the same tomorrow if my stocks hold out."

"Glad to have been of service." Maybe I should have felt guilty contributing to the area's population of alcoholics, but didn't. I had a nice chunk of change left over after Clem took his cut. Not enough to buy gems, but maybe I'd at least go check on their prices. The sooner I left the sooner the locals could get back to normal drinking habits, right?

Just as I slipped the coins into my pocket, the purple-and-green-cloaked soldier guy came up. His blue eyes were somewhat red-rimmed and dull. "My friend here wants a word with you."

His friend wasn't here, but still at their table. "Is something wrong?" I'd traveled enough to develop a certain respect for people in uniforms. It's great when they're your chums. Not so great otherwise.

"He jus' wan's a word with you."

There'd be no information forthcoming from this one. Maybe he wanted me for their version of a USO show. Feeling safe enough, I went along to the table. The guy there was stocky and balding; what remained of his dark hair was combed straight back. He wore what I'd come to recognize as civilian clothes, but he was definitely some kind of military. With practice, you can just tell.

"Captain Shankey of House Darmo," he said about himself, like I would know the name. I thought I did, too.

"Hi, I'm Myhr."

"Hah?"

"Myhr - rhymes with 'purr.' A nice play on the cat angle, don't you think?" I flared my lip whiskers in a way I hoped would be taken as a friendly expression.

He squinted. "That's not a mask, is it?"

"Just my own wonderful face." I spoke slow so he'd catch everything. His breath was very beery. "Was there something I can help you with?"

"You're not from around here, are you?"

"Just got in yesterday. Is there a problem?"

Shankey straightened a bit. "My Lady Filima Botello Darmo requires that you come to her house."

From my chat in the apothecary shop I belatedly recognized the name of one of the city's main clans. I couldn't recall if they were Fortune 500 rich, though. "Oh, yeah? Did she say why?"

"She doesn't have to say why."

Uh-oh. Types like that make me nervous. "Look, I never met her or anything, so how is it she even knows me? I appreciate the invitation and all, but - "

"I'll put it this way," he said, lurching to his feet to come around the table, looking more sober by the second. He and his friend had me bracketed. "You're coming with me. If my lady wants to see you, then she will see you. Understand?"

Before making a run for it I weighed a lot of factors, like both of them having knives, swords, authority, and stuff like that. Bolting seemed more trouble than it was worth. Maybe this Filima dame had seen me doing PR work and just wanted a closer look. I hoped she'd be more reasonable than this guy. He seemed a friendly sort except when his dark eyes went hard. They were like chips of onyx now.

"I understand, but - "

They each grabbed one of my arms.

"Oh, Mr. Myhr!" called Greta from behind the bar as I was dragged past, backwards. "What's this about?"

"These guys want me to see Lady Fillerup Bordello, I think. Tell Terrin what happened or I might be a little late getting back." If I ever got back.

"I don't hold with arrests in my place," Clem pronounced solemnly.

"Nyuhh," said Captain Shankey, lifting me, I presume, to spare my shoe leather.

"Yuhhh," added his blond buddy in the bad clothes, also lifting.

My feet were inches clear of the ground. They hauled ass toward the front door.

"Say," I chirped optimistically, legs swinging, "will there be any money for me in this gig?"

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