Wicked bronze ambition, p.1
Wicked Bronze Ambition,
He 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.
I was face-to-face with Director Relway of the Unpublished Committee for Royal Security. Most people would not recognize the runt if he was snapping around their ankles, but I had butted heads with him several times. He was smiling. That was so unusual that I made sure my pockets hadn’t been picked already.
It was too late to make sure that I had an escape route plotted.
The ugly little man commanded more genuine hurt-you power than almost anybody but the queen of the underworld. He could intimidate the King himself, and all the sane people on the Hill. Irk Deal Relway and you could fall off the stage of the world forever.
Irk him badly enough and he might arrange for you never to have existed at all.
PRAISE FOR THE GARRETT, P.I., NOVELS
“A wild science fiction mystery that never slows down for a moment.”
—Midwest Book Review
“Garrett, private detective, returns after too long an absence. . . . Cook makes this blending of fantasy with hard-boiled detective story seem easy, which it isn’t, and manages to balance the requirements of both genres superbly.”
“Cook brings a dose of gritty realism to fantasy.”
Titles in the Garrett, P.I., Series
Sweet Silver Blues
Bitter Gold Hearts
Cold Copper Tears
Old Tin Sorrows
Dread Brass Shadows
Red Iron Nights
Deadly Quicksilver Lies
Petty Pewter Gods
Faded Steel Heat
Angry Lead Skies
Whispering Nickel Idols
Cruel Zinc Melodies
Gilded Latten Bones
Introducing Garrett, P.I. (omnibus edition)
Garrett Takes the Case (omnibus edition)
Garrett for Hire (omnibus edition)
WICKED BRONZE AMBITION
A GARRETT, P.I., NOVEL
A ROC BOOK
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Copyright © Glen Cook, 2013
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This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, business establishments, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.
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Titles in the Garrett, P.I., Series
About the Author
“If you’re a vampire.” Strafa scattered covers as she struck, diving at the spot on the side of my neck that triggers the reflex. Just the threat of the tickle kicks me into a psycho self-defense mode.
She bounced away laughing, sat up, her eyes the color of stout flecked with gold. Fair warning! Flee, Garrett, flee! Run for your sanity!
Being a skilled observer, I observed, “You’re not wearing anything.”
“I never wear anything to bed.”
“I know. But now I’m officially taking notice.”
“Ooh! You wicked man! I see how much you’ve noticed. Is that all on my account?”
I grunted and tried pu
She laughed. “That’s why I do it.”
Yeah. So I’ll notice. So things will happen. The real devil wears nothing, extremely well.
Strafa is as close to the perfect woman as this broke-down onetime Marine can imagine. She’s beautiful. She’s always cheerful. She’s always ready, for anything. She is fun to be with. She is fun to be around. She’s even rich. What more could a man ask?
Well, a nicer band of in-laws would help.
The rich is because Strafa Algarda is the Windwalker, Furious Tide of Light, one of TunFaire’s premier sorceresses. She has these immense, terrible powers but very little interest in using them. The rest of her family, though . . . Another matter. Definitely another matter. They are weird and scary people, all. And I was on the brink of being pulled in forever.
I dove, tackling her. She laughed. “Distract me all you want, but we still have to go see Grandmother.”
“I’ll keep you here all day long.”
“Braggart. I’ll let you try tomorrow. But right now . . .”
Right now time was running out. And even Furious Tide of Light dared not make Shadowslinger wait, so it wasn’t long before we started the endless, too brief two-block uphill trudge to Grandma’s house.
Strafa’s daughter, Kevans, let us in. Kevans has a lot of her father in her. She isn’t as slim or beautiful as Strafa. And she insists on being sixteen going on fifty around her mother. “Mom! You two are worse than a cage full of ferrets. You’re old! Can’t you at least pretend to act your age?”
Old is a matter of viewpoint. Strafa was thirty-one, which made for interesting generational math. I ignored it. I ignore the weird Algarda dynamic as much as they let me.
I kept my mouth shut. If I stuck even one finger into the daughter-mother competition, I’d get my arm ripped off and fed to me after one or the other beat me with it.
Yes. The family was the downside to being engaged to the most wonderful, perfect, ridiculously beautiful, loving woman in the world. There was no getting out of having the in-laws included in the package.
Kevans and I get along fine when her mother isn’t around. I get along with their father when Kevans and Strafa aren’t around. Barate is a smart guy. He really thinks that I’m the best thing ever to happen to Strafa—though it didn’t always used to be that way.
Nobody gets along with Grandmother Shadowslinger.
She works hard to make it that way. I am assured, however, that she thinks well of me. As well as is possible, she being Shadowslinger. My most endearing trait was that I was willing to make an honest woman of her spinster granddaughter.
Strafa asked Kevans, “What kind of mood is she . . . ? Right. Stipulated. Stupid question.”
“Foul. But not because of anything any of us did, for once.”
Like most of the more ferocious magic-users who dwell on the Hill, Constance Algarda, commonly called Shadowslinger, occupied a vast, gloomy, dark edifice that looked like ghouls and graveyard fetches had thrown it up more than two hundred years ago. A parade of grim residents had installed countless bad smells, dire dust, spiders with webbed accessories, and lots of random clutter. Shadowslinger was not famous for her housekeeping. She was not your cliché tubby little rosy-cheeked homemaker kind of grandmother.
Most of the smells actually existed only inside my imagination, but Shadowslinger had fixed them there—while wearing a big, greasy, evil grin. A reminder, she said, never making it clear of what. One odor I never failed to catch was that of rotting flesh. It seeped out of the very walls.
Nobody else ever smelled it.
“She does it because she cares,” Strafa said. “What do you want to bet she makes it go away after the wedding?” Her eyes were big and blue and filled with self-deluding optimism.
I hunch my shoulders and take what I have to take. It’s the price of admission to paradise.
Kevans told us we should follow her, then complained every step of the way till we reached the room where Shadowslinger waited. Then the girl actually smiled for a moment.
Kevans likes her grandmother, though I’ve never heard her say a good word about the hag.
I was startled. Strafa squeaked. She was surprised, too.
Shadowslinger was not alone.
I’d never visited this room. It was big and comfortable and more civilized than any I’d yet seen inside Shadowslinger’s suburb of Hell. There wasn’t a single torture device, nor even one torturee, in sight. There were rich carpets, richer tapestries, big, ridiculously comfortable chairs, and massive furniture. A fire roared enthusiastically in a fireplace behind Grandmother, who was old enough to be convinced that she was cold all the time. A brace of servants in livery tended to the needs of her guests. I knew Barate, my father-in-law-to-be. He had been half devoured by a monster chair. He had a bone china teacup to his lips when we entered.
He had a relationship with his mother that was as difficult as Kevans’s was with her mother. Every little motion he made mocked her unusual efforts toward propriety.
There were another three people present. They were all older than me. Two were older than Barate and might be as old as Shadowslinger herself. I didn’t know them. Strafa did. She loosed a little gasp of surprise. I whispered, “Is this good or bad?”
Her right hand slipped into my left, trembling. “All of the above.”
A lean man, balding, six feet tall, stood about that far to the left of Shadowslinger. He was armed with another bone china cup. He had an upper-crust attitude on, but his clothing was workaday. He would attract no attention on the street.
Nearby, as though trying to take reassurance from that man’s presence without becoming personally involved, was a woman of an age well beyond the thirty-something she artfully strove to project. She was tall, thin to the verge of emaciation, equally plainly dressed but from a high-end source. My first thought was that her hair should be short and silver-gray instead of a grand profusion of chestnut curls.
The final guest occupied a chair like Barate’s, a few feet from Algarda. Unlike the others, he seemed comfortable.
A friend of the family.
I looked no closer because Shadowslinger had begun to respond to our arrival.
The ugly old tub of goo was scary just sitting there, behind a massive oak table a good four feet by eight. She would weigh in at three hundred pounds but was only five feet three inches tall on those occasions when she actually stood. She got around aboard a fleet of customized wheelchairs. Strafa said she hadn’t been able to stand and support her own weight for more than minutes for as long as she could remember. But Constance Algarda did not need to be a ballet diva. She was Shadowslinger, one of the darkest and most powerful Karentine sorcerers alive.
Rumor suggested that she never ate where she could be seen. I’d never seen her touch a bite, yet she kept on getting bigger.
Shadowslinger’s vast, wide mouth expanded into what she meant as a smile. She eyed me in a manner intended to be coquettish. My gorge rose. Gorge. Neat word. You don’t get to deploy it very often.
My dearly beloved growled, “Grandmother, behave. Father, be merciful. Tell us what’s going on. You’ve gotten poor Garrett out of bed six months before the crack of noon. You know how hard that is on him.”
Barate would do the talking. His mother liked it that way. That made everything creepier.
He sat up straight and slid to the edge of his chair. He extended his right hand, palm upward, toward the lean, bald man. “Richt Hauser.”
“Rich?” I said. He looked more like a Ned or a Newt.
“Richt.” Hardening on the end consonant. “Hauser.” With an “s” as in house, not as in hawser.
Strafa held my left arm with both hands. I was supposed to be impressed and maybe intimidated.
Richt Hauser did not so much as nod. That told me a lot about who he thought he was, which would be the most important man in the room.
Barate then indicated t
Seemed I ought to know that name, at least the Machtkess part. She inclined her head in response to my bow, smiling thinly beneath narrowed, calculating eyes. I caught a whiff of something predatory. And, behind that, of something that might be a frightened little girl.
Barate shifted hands. He indicated the man in the other easy chair. “Kyoga Stornes. Often underfoot around here because he’s been my best friend since we were kids. But this time he’s here because he has some skin in the game.”
I knew the name. There were family legends about the adolescent adventures of Barate and Kyoga. At the moment Kyoga looked more like a victim than the perpetrator of malicious mischief.
Karma being a bitch?
Shadowslinger stirred impatiently. “Yes, Mother. Garrett, we need your expertise and resources.”
Remarkably polite. But these weren’t people I could tell to go away because I didn’t feel like working. Which I would never have to do as long as I remained hooked up with my wonder woman, Strafa.
“How so? In what way?”
Shadowslinger got some exercise by pointing at Hauser. Unhappily, Hauser reported, “Signs of preliminaries for a Tournament of Swords have begun to appear. We all have someone likely to be conscripted into the game.”
I had no idea what he was talking about. Neither did Strafa. She asked, “What is a Tournament of Swords?”
Hauser’s instant response was irritation at being forced to explain. That morphed into an appreciation of the fact that this tournament business was not common knowledge even inside the highest levels of the sorcerer class. “Each few generations an uncertain supernatural process or power arises and compels a contest . . .”
He stopped. Emotion had cracked his cool. He struggled to regain his composure.
Barate took over. “What happens is, a bunch of talented people, usually kids, get chosen to participate. Most come from families in the sorcery business. They aren’t asked if they want in. They’re conscripted. They’re supposed to fight until only one is left. That one wins the prize, which is a device containing all of the power of the defeated contestants combined. Back when the tournament was devised, the families wanted that so badly they all signed on. The final prize, power, would make the winner a minor god.”