The Sword-Edged blonde
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BOOKS BY ALEX BLEDSOE
The Sword-Edged Blonde
Burn Me Deadly
For Tia Sisk
A long time ago in the swampy west end of Tennessee, an awkward teenage boy wanted to impress the hot new teacher and hoped this story would do it. He never got the nerve to show it to her then; he hopes she likes it now.
SPECIAL THANKS TO:
My wife, Valette, Jake, and Charlie
My mom, Grace
Marlene Stringer, the best and most patient agent
Jason (no Shatner!) Williams, the editor who got it
Lisa Marie Brodsky
Jo Carol and Jim Crisp
Mary Ann Sabo
The past and present members of Moon’s Inkwell
Spring came down hard that year. And I do mean hard, like the fist of some drunken pike poker with too much fury and not enough ale, whose wife just left him for some wandering minstrel and whose commanding officer absconded with his pay. The thunderstorms alone would be talked about for years, and the floods that followed erased whole towns along the Gusay River. Nature, as always, had the last word.
I worked in a small town in Muscodia back then, out of an office above a dockside tavern. Located on the Gusay midway between the capital city of Sevlow and the border town Pema, Neceda was a place you stopped when you weren’t in a hurry, for a drink, dinner or quick companionship. Only about three hundred people lived there, but at any one time the transients tended to double that population. The money that flowed into town didn’t stay there, though, so Neceda always looked rundown and disreputable. It was a good place for someone like me, a private sword jockey with a talent for discretion, to quietly ply his trade. Clients liked coming to a small town where they could pass unrecognized. Some days were lucrative, most were not, but it all evened out at the end.
The flood and its aftermath had essentially shut Neceda down, and that had created a crisis of conscience among the population. Suddenly a bunch of bottom-feeding strangers had to act like an actual community, and it was amusing to watch people interact who normally wouldn’t: whores and moon priestesses did laundry together, blacksmiths and cardsharps repaired buildings, soldiers and beggars rounded up stray animals and children. I helped sandbag the tavern below, and we’d gotten off pretty light; except for the smell, there wasn’t much damage, which said more about the place than the flood. The river was now mostly back within its banks, and soon would subside enough for normal transportation to resume. Then Neceda would be back to its old rapacious self.
My “office” consisted of two rooms in the attic over the kitchen, one always open with a bench against the wall in case anyone decided they needed to wait. I kept the inner office locked, but there was really no reason for it; it merely gave an illusion of confidentiality, which on most days was enough.
That illusion was definitely enough for the well-worn emissary from King Felix of Balaton now seated across from me explaining his master’s needs. I wasn’t surprised that the king himself hadn’t come, but at first it amused me that he’d trusted this tired old man with something of, shall we say, such surpassing delicacy. Still, as he related the situation, I understood why he’d been chosen. The very thought of describing the way Princess Lila had gone off to be a girl-toy for a bunch of randy border raiders left him too embarrassed to even meet my eyes. Any other man might’ve been too tempted to make bad jokes, but not this one. He’d been trusted with a job, and he was going to carry it out as best he could.
“So as you can see, Mr. LaCrosse, the princess could not possibly have had any intention of, ahem, joining these young men, so she must have been taken against her will. A noble daughter of the house of Balaton would never simply take up with vermin of this sort.” He took a long pull on the drink I’d poured from my office bottle.
Behind my desk, I kept my face neutral and said nothing. Nervous people hate silence, so I knew eventually he’d start talking again. In the meantime, I studied him: about sixty, thin and frail-looking, but with traces of a much larger, stronger man left in the set of his jaw and the way he sat up sharply each time he caught himself slumping. A soldier once, maybe even a high-ranking officer, now reduced to an errand boy.
I took pity on him and broke the silence. “So what did the guys in the pointy hats have to say about it?” I asked.
“I beg your pardon?”
“The king’s wizards.” I’d only known two or three kings who didn’t rely on wizards for decisions. Some couldn’t put on their royal slippers without checking the stars’ alignment, and rumor claimed that our own King Archibald, the ruler of Muscodia, had one who read the pattern of mucus in his handkerchief each time he sneezed. I’d heard that King Felix kept three wizards and a moon priestess on retainer for emergencies, and the disappearance of the princess certainly qualified. “They’re supposed to see the future. Didn’t they see it coming?”
“They claim,” he said without looking at me, “that the future is murky at this time, and beyond their power to envision.”
“Yes. Their failure is one reason I’ve been sent to hire you.” He shifted nervously in his chair. “We’ve had no demands for ransom, nor any threats if royal policy isn’t changed, so I don’t believe it was a politically motivated crime. Still, King Felix doesn’t wish word to get out that his family is so, uhm . . . easily swayed, whether by force or, uh, conversion. You can understand that, can’t you?”
“Would be kind of hard to hold your head up around all the other kings,” I agreed. If he caught my sarcasm, he didn’t mention it.
He finally raised his eyes to mine and said, “Then I hope I—I mean, we—can trust your discretion on this.”
“The royal ‘we’?” I asked, and this time the irony stuck.
“This is a serious matter, Mr. LaCrosse.” His voice grew stronger now that he wasn’t talking about the exploits of sex-crazed fifteen-year-old princesses. “I was told that you understood these things, and could be trusted.”
“Yeah?” I leaned back and laced my fingers together over my stomach, which seemed larger than the last time I’d done so. “Who by?”
“Commander Bernard Teller of the Civil Security Force of Boscobel.”
I smiled. “So Bernie made commander, huh?” Bernie was no-nonsense, tough as nails and way too honest to ever get promoted so high. If he had, then things in Boscobel had changed for the better. “Well, did he also tell you I get twenty-five gold pieces a day, plus expenses?”
He produced a small pouch that jingled distinctively. “I have been instructed to give you 200 gold pieces now, with another 200 upon successful completion of the job.”
I leaned over and took the pouch, which was too heavy not to be genuine. “Let’s be clear on exactly what constitutes ‘successful completion.’ ”
“The return of the princess to her father.”
“Intact?” I pressed. We both knew what I meant.
“In any condition. He just wants her back before anyone finds out about this.”
I opened the pouch and took out fifty of the small gold coins, then pushed the bag back across my desk to him. “I don’t need the whole amount now, just enough for a couple of days’ travel to the border to look for these guys you say she ran off with. Pay me the balance when she’s back in her own canopied bed.”
He looked at me oddly for a moment, but didn’t argue. As he stood, I asked suddenly, “So tell me—why’d she leave?”
“I beg your pardon?”
“Princess Lila. There must’ve been a reason. Spoiled rich girls don’t usually go to that much trouble to get away from home.”
“As I told you—”
“You told me she ran off to get laid by some rough boys. In my experience, rich girls don’t have much trouble with that, and they don’t throw away their meal tickets just for a night of slap-and-tickle. So why’d she leave?”
“The princess is . . . headstrong. As was her late mother.” He seemed to feel that this was enough explanation.
“Do you have a picture? I’d hate to show up with the wrong girl.”
The old man produced a small engraved image of a dark-haired, dark-eyed beauty. She wore a low-cut court gown that revealed her assets quite nicely; her liabilities were less obvious. She had a pronounced, sharp nose that gave her an earthy air at odds with her finery. “Kids these days,” I said, and pocketed the picture.
After the old man had gone, I swung my chair around and looked out the window toward the river. The odor of drying mud and dead fish filled the air. It would take several normal rains to get all the crap off the streets, and in the meantime the thought of a little time away from home, even if it meant tangling with border raiders, seemed like a good idea.