Copyright © 2012 Frank Tuttle
All rights reserved — a Samhain Publishing, Ltd. publication
Outside, wrapped in a mainsail’s worth of black silk against the midday sun, was Evis himself, peering back at me through his tinted spectacles. The halfdead don’t love sunlight the same way I don’t love being bathed in red-hot coals.
“Hurry, please,” said Evis as I fumbled with the lock. “I can’t pay you if I’ve been baked to cinders on your doorstep.”
I managed to swing the door open. Three-leg Cat darted out, heedless of the halfdead at the door. I’ve noticed most animals shy away from Evis, which I believe pains him deeply.
I stood aside and motioned Evis in. He glided into the comfortable shadows of my office, not quite running but not ambling either. I closed the door quickly and resolved to fashion some sort of shade for the window-glass. Even that much light would be a nuisance for Evis and his dead-eyed kin.
“Sorry about the light,” I said as Evis stripped off the top layer of his flowing day suit. “I’ll do something about that before your next visit.”
Evis shrugged it off but kept his dark glasses on. “Thank you. Everything getting back to normal?”
I sat. Evis sat. He kept his hat on and tilted his head so his face remained in deep shadow.
“As normal as normal gets. Business has picked up. Gertriss is out working now. She’ll be sorry she missed you.”
And she would. My junior partner and Evis were spending a lot of time together of late. Had been since their trip up the Brown River on House Avalante’s new-fangled steamboat.
If I was Mama Hog I’d be making pointed comments about all that. Gertriss is Mama’s niece, and Mama is none too thrilled about Gertriss and her recent choice of company. But since I’m not a four-foot-tall soothsayer who claims to be a century and a half old, I don’t stick my nose where it doesn’t belong unless someone is paying me for the effort.
Evis just nodded and put his feet on my desk. His hand moved to his jacket pocket and produced a pair of the expensive cigars he normally keeps in a humidor in his office.
“Uh oh,” I said, opening my desk drawer. I pulled out my notepad and my good pen. “Who’s dead, who’s missing, and how much of the story are you going to leave out?”
Evis kept his lips tightly shut but managed to feign an expression of deep and sincere injury.
“Now is that any way to respond to an offer of a Lowland Sweet?” he asked. “The last time we smoked these you remarked that it was your absolute favorite.”
“And you suddenly remembered that and grabbed a pair and ran all the way down here in the sun just to have a puff. Remarkable.” I put the tip of the pen in my inkwell and then down on the paper.
Evis ignored me and began cutting off the ends with a fancy steel cigar clipper. I found my box of matches and plopped them down on the table.
“So spill it,” I said. “And thanks. I do enjoy these.”
Evis handed me a cigar and struck a match. I let him light it.
It’s not every day a free Lowland Sweet walks through the door.
“Times are changing,” Evis announced after lighting his Lowland and puffing out a perfect smoke ring. “That run at restoring the old Kingdom was the last.”
“So say you.”
“So I do. Care to guess where Prince got the money to rebuild?”
Word from up the Brown is that the storm that nearly wrecked Rannit was a mere ghost of wind compared to the one the Corpsemaster loosed upon our erstwhile enemies in Prince. We’re still getting the odd rooftop or twisted shell of a building, lifted whole from streets in faraway Prince, drifting past on the lazy, muddy water of the Brown. No bodies, though. Not a one.
The Corpsemaster’s wrath is both thorough and lingering.
“No idea. I thought the city fathers in Prince went broke financing their invasion.”
“They did. But our very own Regent graciously made them a loan. At thirty percent interest. Rannit owns Prince now, Markhat. And the Regent won’t be letting them forget that for a very long time.”
I whistled. I hadn’t even heard that rumored.
Evis grinned a brief toothy vampire grin.
“Looks like our military careers are over,” he said. “It’ll be a hundred years before anyone takes another stab at Rannit. Maybe longer. But here we are, still drawing down a Captain’s pay. By the way, any word from the old spook lately?”
Old spook was code for Corpsemaster. Neither Evis nor I had seen her or her black carriage since the dust-up with Prince. Evis had gone so far as to hint that open speculation in some circles indicated the Corpsemaster might have fallen in the fray, or been reduced by the effort to such a state that she’d gone into hiding or hibernation.
I wasn’t quite ready to write her off so quickly, so I just shrugged.
“That’s the second time you’ve mentioned ‘pay,’ you know.” I tried and failed to blow a smoke ring. “Not that I don’t enjoy your company, but what really brought you out for a stroll in the sun?”
“I’m here to hire the famous Captain Markhat on behalf of House Avalante.”
“Didn’t you read the placard? I’m a humble finder, not a Captain. My marching days are done. I’ve taken up pacifism and a strict philosophy of passive non-violence.”
“What’s your philosophy on five hundred crowns—paid in gold—for taking a relaxing dinner cruise down the Brown River to Bel Loit and back? With meals, booze, and as many of these cigars as you can carry, thrown in for free?”
I blew out a ragged column of grey-brown smoke.
“I’m flexible on such matters. But I’m troubled by the offer of five hundred crowns.”
“Make it six hundred, then.”
“I will. If I decide to take it at all. Because that’s a lot of gold, Mr. Prestley. Even Avalante doesn’t just hand the stuff out to see my winning smile. What exactly is worth seven hundred crowns to House Avalante?”
Evis winced. “You are, believe it or not. Look, Markhat. This isn’t just any old party barge outing. The Brown River Queen is a palace with a hull. The guest list reads like Yule at the High House. Ministers. Lords. Ladies. Opera stars. Generals.“
“And? You said it was a pleasure cruise. We won the war and didn’t lose so much as a potato wagon. Handshakes and promotions all around. Why do you need me for eight hundred crowns?”
Evis lifted his hands in surrender.
“Because the Regent himself is coming along for the ride,” he said in a whisper. “Yes. You heard me. The Regent. For every ten who love him there are a thousand who want to scoop out his eyes and boil them and feed them to him.”
“On your boat.”
“On our boat. This is it, Markhat. It’s the culmination of thirty years of negotiations and diplomacy and bribery. House Avalante is a single step away from taking its place at the right hand of the most powerful man in the world. He’ll have his bodyguards. He’ll have his staff. He’ll have his spies and his informants and his eyes and his ears, and that’s just fine with us. But Markhat, we want the man kept safe. We want trouble kept off the Queen. We want a nice quiet cruise from here to Bel Loit and back, and the House figures if anyone can spot trouble coming, it’s you.”
“When you look at things that way, nine hundred crowns is really quite a bargain.”
“Nine hundred crowns it is.” Evis blew another smoke ring and then sailed a second one through it. “And one more thing. Bring the missus. She eats, drinks, stays for free, courtesy of Avalante. Is that a deal?”
“An even thousand crowns for watching rich folks drink. I think you just bought yourself a finder, Mr. Prestley.”
“Surely you have a pair of those awful domestic beers hidden away in your icebox,” said Evis. “I believe we have a toast to make.”
I hurried to the back, knocked damp sawdust off the bottles, and together Evis and I toasted my regrettable return to honest work.
Evis stuck around and drank beer and we talked dates and times, which I dutifully scribbled onto my notepad. He wrapped himself in black silk and darted back out into the sun maybe an hour later, leaving me to my thoughts.
A thousand gold crowns in good solid gold coin. All for a week of work that, on the surface, seemed to involve nothing more perilous than lounging around a floating casino while maintaining an aloof air of menace.
A thousand crowns, though. That’s a lot of money, even in Rannit’s booming post-War economy. A fellow could live quite well on a fraction of that.
Which meant someone high up at Avalante considered the threat of violence against the Regent quite real. Evis didn’t seem to agree. But he hadn’t blinked when I’d upped the ante, either, which meant his bosses had instructed him that money was no object.
“An even thousand crowns,” I said aloud. Darla would be thrilled. We could put a fancy slate roof on our new place on Middling Lane. Hell, we could tear the house down to the last timber and build it back again with twice as many rooms and still have money left over.
If, that is, a fellow lived long enough to collect his shiny gold coins.
I pushed the thought aside, gathered up the empty bottles, and eventually followed Evis out into the bright and bustling light of day.