“...And then the Elf says, ‘You mean to tell me that all the Gnomes and Dwarves are gone from Arnac?’ ‘Every single one,’ the genie replies. ‘Well in that case, I wish for a glass of fine wine, please!’” Everyone’s heard the joke a hundred times before, but we all laugh drunkenly anyway, raising wooden mugs of heady, bitter ale as the big man on my left--Karl something--launches into another joke.
I glance across the room. The Nymph’s Lounge is dim and crowded and loud, but my mark is easy to keep track of. He’s wearing a garish yellow cloak and a tall, pointed red hat, pushed close to the little raised stage where the “nymphs” are dancing. The show should end any minute.
The men at my table laugh again and I turn back to them, refreshing the big grin on my face and taking a deep drink. Karl half-shouts to me over the noise of the bar, “See anything you like?” which elicits another round of guffaws from my tablemates. “Nah,” I reply just as loudly, “the girls at this place always smell like fish!” Karl laughs, and a guy who looks like he might have some Orc blood pipes up, “Speakin’ of fish, you boys see Derrik’s wife by the docks earlier? What a face, eh!”
The smaller man next to him gives him a good punch to the shoulder, and the big guy roars with laughter, leaning his stool so far back he nearly topples over. Out of the corner of my eye I see the red hat on the move; most of the dancers retiring for the night through the door behind the stage, with a few sticking around to suggest to the audience how to arrange for a more personal show.
I push my stool back, raising my eyebrows suggestively at the other men at my table, and head for the counter. I scrape a few coppers out of a vest pocket and deposit them prominently in front of the harried-looking barmaid. I make my way to the stage and try not to look too closely at a skinny girl clothed only in translucent bluish silk as I linger for a few moments, then turn away and slip out the door.
The man in the red hat is nowhere to be seen when I step out onto the moonlit street, but if my information is good, I know where he’s going. I turn left and then left again, into the narrow alley next to the Lounge. Only a few feet in, the tavern’s chimney juts out almost to the opposite wall, and I squeeze around it to the other side, where I know the alley continues for a short way and then comes to an end against the back of a warehouse.
Feeling around in the dark, I find the piton I’d hammered into the stone chimney this afternoon at head height. From there, finding the other two and climbing to the roof is a simple matter. I retrieve my bow and quiver from where they hang inside the chimney and pry out the piton they hung from, stuffing it into a pocket and slinging the quiver over my shoulder as I make my way towards the back of the tavern.
Sure enough, Red Hat is there, standing silently in the shadows of another dead-end corridor not far from the back doorway. He’s clearly trying to stay hidden despite his outlandish garb, and he seems surprisingly successful as, a few silent minutes later, the back door opens and girls begin to leave in twos and threes. The door blocks their view of the man and they hurry away through the night without a backwards glance.
Several more minutes pass; the man below me puts his hand into a yellow pocket and waits. Finally, a dancer exits the tavern alone, and the yellow-cloaked man makes his move. Like lightning, he appears at her side, gripping her upper arm and winding a thick length of white cloth around her face several times, effectively silencing her cries.
Wrenching her arms behind her back and binding them there, he throws the girl easily over one shoulder and, holding tight to her bare, struggling legs, carries her down the alley toward the road. Her thin blue dress flutters in the light breeze. So, my contact’s accusation of kidnapping certainly holds. I suspect the other will as well, but I keep silent until I can know for sure.
The buildings in this area are packed so close together that hopping from rooftop to rooftop is no challenge at all. I keep pace with the man easily for several minutes as he strolls almost casually down the lane with the struggling girl draped over his shoulder. The few passers-by who notice him hurry quickly in the other direction, anxious to pretend they didn’t see. Each time, I grit my teeth and wonder what kind of world it is I’m trying to save.
Soon enough, he turns off Crosstown into a long, twisting alley, following its path nearly to its end, when he stops and turns to face a large wooden shipping crate.
Releasing the dancer’s legs with one hand, he digs in a pocket with the other, removing a key and unlocking the crate in front of him. He pulls the lid open, and I shift down the length of the roof a short way to get a better look. Something tells me Red Hat isn’t taking her anywhere else. “Erastil, guide my sights,” I mutter as I ready my bow and notch an arrow to the string.
I feel the slight prickling ruffle as a crest of feathers replaces my hair, my eyes stretch and widen and the content of the crate comes into view. It is a table of sorts, with thick leather straps pinned to it in several places, and its purpose becomes horribly clear as he tosses the blue-clad girl down on it, binding her arms, legs, and throat so she lies spread-eagled on the wooden surface, tears leaking from her wide eyes.
The man draws a long knife from somewhere inside layers of hideous fabric and grabs a fistful of the girl’s dress with his other hand. That’s enough confirmation of the second accusation for me. I draw the bow taught, sighting along the shaft as my prey leers down at his.
The young dancer cries as the knife advances. There is a soft hiss; the man falters. The knife clatters to the ground; the man’s hands clutch at a length of oak protruding from his throat. Crimson spills over yellow robes. The man staggers, then topples heavily into the dirt, knocking the tall red hat from his head. The girl stares around, eyes wide with fear and confusion.
The feathers slowly recede from my face, and I make a conscious effort to soften my eyes and unclench my jaw. I stow my bow on my quiver again and jump lightly down from the roof, landing with a soft crunch on the dry earth. Drawing my own knife, I carefully sever the restraints holding the girl to the table as she stares up at me. She pulls the gag from her mouth, and I offer her my hand and help her down off the table, waiting in silence as she smoothes and adjusts her dress.
After a minute, she looks down at the yellow-clad corpse, then up at me again, silent. “This is a dangerous part of the city, alone at night. Do you live close by?” She nods. “Would you like me to walk you there?”