Bitter 255

The dwarf ninjas huddled together in the doorway.

“Terribly sorry to intrude, madam,” said the one in the middle, no longer sounding quite so bolshy. “Only we’ve got an… invitation for the young gnome, here.” He turned to Britta. “The Dwarf Council would very much like to offer you the chance to discuss certain matters still outstanding.”

“I’m a bit busy right now,” said Britta. “Maybe later?”

“I rather think it would be in your interest to come with us now,” said the dwarf.

“The lady said no,” said Clara. “But you’re welcome to stay for dinner. There’s plenty more rat stew.” She bounced the knife still spinning on her finger so that it flew into the air, rotated all the way around, and landed back on her finger still spinning.

“Thank you, no,” said the dwarf, his eyes fixed on the twirling blade.

“Is it sewer rat?” asked one of the other dwarves, sniffing at the air.

“Why, yes?” said Clara, smiling happily. “Freshly caught today.”

“Couldn’t we—” The dwarf received an elbow in the ribs and quickly stopped talking.

“I’m afraid we can’t,” said the lead dwarf. “Are you sure you won’t join us?”

Britta shook her head. “Not today.”

“Then we’ll be seeing ourselves out. Sorry for the interruption to your supper.”

“And Rusty Rusterson,” said Clara, addressing the dwarf by name so that his hand went up to his face to check his cowl hadn’t fallen open, “I expect my guest to not be interfered with on her way home. I don’t take kindly to that sort of thing.”

“Of course,” said Rusty, not entirely convincingly. “You have my word.”

“Good, I know I can count on you. I knew your father, a true warrior. He died well.”

“Thank you, madam. He was honoured to have been felled by your hand.”

“Oh, it was a lucky hit.” The little old woman beamed happily.

The three dwarves backed out of the room and pulled the door closed.

“Friends of yours, dear?” asked Clara.

“Sort of. You’re very good with that.” Britta pointed at the spinning knife.

Clara looked at it like she’d forgotten it was there. “Oh, just a little party trick I picked up in the service.” She tossed it into the air, sending it flying over her head. It landed in the countertop next to the stove with a thunk.

“Was that part of your work for the Mayor?”

“Mother was his chief enforcer,” said Dennis, frowning. “She’s given all that up now, haven’t you, Mother?”

“Of course, of course. An old woman like me can’t be jumping out of shadows, slitting people’s throats. It isn’t seemly, is it?” The smile that had seemed so warm and endearing when Britta first arrived, now took on an altogether more disconcerting air.

She got up again. “Empty bowl again? Can’t have that.”

Britta’s bowl was whisked away. Britta couldn’t even remember eating most of it.

“Mother no longer does that kind of thing,” said Dennis, clearly upset at the idea that his mother had been a cold-blooded killer.

“It must be good to have those skills, though,” said Britta. “Just in case. I’m sure no one would bother you.”

Which was what Britta was wondering. Why was Dennis upset about threats from the Mayor if his mother was this much of a badass?

“The Mayor wants her to come back to work for him. Says now that I’m grown, she’ll be bored around the house.”

“It’s a really good offer,” said Clara, placing a full bowl in front of Britta. “Excellent pay and full dental.”

“You promised, Mother. No more stabbing people. I make enough at the post office for us to get by. We don’t need any more money.”

“He’s no fun,” said Clara with a twinkle in her eye.

“Did you work for the Mayor back when the kobolds bought the mine?” asked Britta.

“The Korlath Mines? Oh, yes. Quite the fuss, that one. I remember old Gabby wasn’t too happy.” She chuckled to herself.

“Gabriel Garbolum? You knew him?”

“Of course, him and the Mayor were thick as thieves back then. Lovely man. Strong hands.” She held up her own dainty hands and squeezed invisible oranges. “Terrific grip.”

Britta had a vision of a tragic love triangle. The Mayor, his assassin-lover, and the local crime lord. The two old friends fighting for the love of the girl they were both obsessed with. She really had to stop reading Mum’s novels.

“We used to have some fun in the old days,” said Clara with a sigh. “All the Garbolum boys liked to mess around. Got quite physical, if you know what I mean.” She winked and then laughed.

Dennis didn’t look amused. He sat up very straight and coughed uncomfortably.

“Look at him, such a stick in the mud. Oh, they were fun times. Until they had their falling out.”

“The Mayor and Mr Garbolum? I don’t suppose you know what caused them to fall out? Was it something to do with the mines?”

“It was that book, wasn’t it?”

“Book?”

“Yes, the grimoire. They were always arguing over it.”

“Grimoire? What did it look like?”

“Oh, tiny thing, really. Fit in the palm of your hand, practically. But ridiculously powerful. Could bring back the dead, if you can believe it.”

Britta nodded slowly. She raised her hands to approximate the height and width. “Was it about this size, with a brown cover?”

“Yes, that’s right. If you come across it, be sure to hang on to it. I’m sure there’ll be a reward—and probably a fight.”

Could she be talking about the book that had brought the dwarf back to life? The one that the kobold shaman had given her? The one sitting in her inventory?

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