The coach hit yet another bump and the badly worn springs tossed Lord Glendale roughly. He wasn’t a young man, not any longer, and his looming birthday was as painful a reminder of his age as the aching in his bones. It wasn’t his habit or nature to go venturing into the filthy, poor lower districts of the city, and not for the first time he was tempted to change his mind and return home.
It seemed as if every turn, every aspect of Glendale’s life, conspired to brutally remind him of how ordinary he was in the eyes of society. His wife, lovely but distant, saw to it he never forgot. It was little wonder he was disgustingly grateful to hear that the Governor’s cousin, Lord Harnswell, had accepted the invitation to attend Glendale’s birthday dinner party. Just knowing that Harnswell was going to be at his own private celebration flushed him with pride.
Lady Glendale had been totally proper in her suggestion that the party, originally intended to be a small and intimate affair, must be worthy of such a grand figure in society. The guest list had mushroomed from a dozen to over a hundred; the courses at dinner had gone from five personal favorites to a full dinner of thirteen. There was going to be music and dancing and a society ball after dinner. His simple birthday party had become a highlight of the social season virtually overnight and people who scorned him were now begging for invitations.
Which had opened up a whole new arena of concern, one Lord Glendale didn’t trouble his lovely younger wife with. He had lived his years carefully and had few admirers, but equally few enemies, and now he was turning forty five. If he lived to see his birthing day he’d be too old to challenge. With such a larger scale party it would be easy for a hired swordsman to slip in and deliver a challenge in revenge for some past and mostly forgotten slight. He’d made it so far without a challenge and he wasn’t going to risk one the day before safety.
Which was why he found himself in a plain, hired coach, rolling along the old streets of the lower city: he needed to find a swordsman. He needed to be protected, he needed someone to accept a challenge for him should one be offered, and with Harnswell in attendance it couldn’t be just anyone.
Discussion of the professional swordsman was a matter of hot gossip in the fine parlors of the upper city. Every season brought a new crop of young men, all trying to earn a fortune and a name for themselves with their blades. Most never drew even the most minor of interest , but some were lucky or skillful enough to be great. It was this small handful that were the darlings of the nobles. The debates over which swordsman was best could often grow so heated as to lead to challenges and bloodshed of their own.
Those who knew little about swordsmanship would name someone flashy like Carvik Gar. He was really a second rung sword, but his showmanship and skill at drawing an audience into his fight made him a much spoken of name. Glendale felt Gar was uppity beyond his place and didn’t approve of his presence.
Most agreed the best swordsman in the city was a man named Benshear Vask, but if asked who was the most deadly even the greatest fan of Vask agreed without question on the name Tarin Morris. Reputation said he lacked Vask’s natural skills, and in sheer raw talent Vask was the greater, but there was a wild unpredictability to Morris that placed him at the top.
Vask was a hired sword because, to him, it was art and he was an artist. And like any good artist he liked to have his work admired, for admired he was. He was a delight to the upper city. He attended an occasional party or showing of a play–and attended more than an occasional bed. After a job was completed he stayed around to be congratulated on his handiwork and sip a brandy. The upper city ate it whole, his low city accent, the dangerous air to him, and for all that they embraced the plain and slowly aging swordsman , they also mocked him as a savage and he never saw it.
In contrast, Morris did it for the money. Parlor room whispers said he was suicidal. His skill was strong but everyone knew it was the work the swordsman put into a job that made him great. He planned out details, prepared for all options, and once he accepted a job he was unwavering, relentless and almost unstoppable.
He refused the invitations he received to attend parties socially and shunned the company of the upper city. Unlike Vask, he stood in cold indifference to his betters and sought neither their acceptance nor their approval. He neither cared nor desired to have his work appreciated. People said Morris was as cold as the coin he was paid with.
The ironic thing was his indifference had the entire of the upper city craving his attention. He was many times more handsome than Vask and spoke with an upper city accent for he had been raised there as a slave, which only added fuel to society’s desire for his attention. They whispered about when he wore a collar as a child, and it spurred their need to see what had become of the handsome boy. The more the upper city sought to court the young swordsman , the more he looked upon them all with disdain.
Glendale knew he had to hire someone, his life was worth protecting after all, but the question was just who to hire. Gar revolted him, Vask would steal the attention away and there was no way Glendale was going to be ignored at his own party. It left only Morris of the truly great men to hire. Even if a second-rung swordsman would have been socially acceptable, Glendale wanted to impress Harnswell.
The choice had been simple, once he’d sat and thought about it. He simply must hire Tarin Morris and he’d called his manservant in and told him just that. Only, the man wouldn’t go and do the task he’d been ordered. The servant had carefully reminded Glendale that Morris refused to work for anyone without meeting them directly. If Glendale wanted to hire Morris, he’d have to go down into the dangerous and dirty lower city himself.
It was such an inconceivable notion, so utterly unthinkable that Glendale refused. It didn’t matter if the Governor’s cousin would be in attendance, Glendale wasn’t going to bow to any upstart swordsman’s arrogance. He wouldn’t stand for it. He told himself he would do without a swordsman before he went to Morris, told himself all manner of things in his outrage. When his anger cooled with only a few days until the party, there really was no choice.
So he’d dressed himself in common clothes, poor in style, but the fabric was fine and expensive and gave him away on first sight to anyone truly without coin. He’d pulled on his most worn boots, a pair so old and scuffed they weren’t fit for civilized society. They’d been tossed aside and he’d forgotten to throw them out and he was glad for it now. It never occurred to Glendale that even the most worn boots were a luxury and most of those who lived and died in the lower city made do with rough sandals. Finally, about his waist he strapped his sword, unwilling to go unarmed into such a wild part of the city.
It was a fine blade, well crafted and expensive. The leather of the belt and sheath were of good quality, but not the gaudy, over- tooled fashion most chose. His father had always said a good sword couldn’t be judged by the leather around it, and Glendale had remembered those words. The hilt of the sword, however, was well decorated and the blade was heavy and lovely. Above all, it looked good when he wore it and flattered his ever-expanding waist line. The fact that the sword was as useless as it was pretty didn’t matter, Glendale had never drawn it in threat. He had the proper training in the use of a sword as any young man of substance received, but he had no idea of how to fight. That’s what swordsmen were for– a true gentleman found the idea of combat distasteful.
So he was feeling rather clever, certain he blended into the people who he drove past on the streets around him. What he didn’t realize was that the very fact that he was in a hired coach set him vastly apart, for the coach’s passengers were almost universally upper city folk poking about in the wilds of the lower city, seeking adventures. The coach rolled along the old street, staying to well lit ways, and Glendale sat lightly. He’d been warned that in spite of the clean appearance that one could catch fleas from the straw stuffed padding of the seats. He touched as little as he had to, as certain the poverty of the districts he road by could infect him as surely as any unseen, biting insects. The drive felt endless and Glendale felt one more jarring bump would be enough to drive him mad when the coach turned into a street of taverns and inns. The street widened and the buildings spread out from the cramped quarters of the street they’d just turned off of onto one that had small yards and respectful distances between each stone work building. The one the coach pulled to a stop in front of was set at the end of the row and the front of the yard was lined with a crumbling, knee high wall.
The tavern stood close to three stories tall and was speckled in real glass windows. The roof was finished in fired clay tiles and the walls were freshly whitewashed. The yard in front was only a dozen or so paces wide, with a tall old tree to the one side offering shade and lanterns hung on posts to light up the stone walkway that led to the door.
Shadows moved inside the glowing lower floor windows, and every time the door was pulled open light and sound poured from inside. Lord Glendale sat and watched the tavern, suddenly uncertain about venturing from the assumed safety of the coach. The people he could see moving around all were armed in one manner or another and moved with a drunken slurred motion that warned of danger and short tempers. It would be just as easy to turn around and go home. No one knew where he was tonight, so no one would know he’d backed down.
He quickly reined in his own uncertainty and reminded himself of just who he was and what his place in the world was. Lord Glendale was from a long and well respected family line and the previous Lord Glendales had never once backed down from any challenge. Neither had he, and he wasn’t going to start tonight. With a steadied nerve , he opened the door–any respectable driver would have done it for him–and hopped out from the shabby interior.
“You’re certain he can be found here?” he asked of the man sitting behind the horses.
“Aye, Lordship. He’s always about this time of night.” The driver’s grammar was acceptable, but the accent of the lower city was unmistakable. The flat vowels, the sharp cadence to the speech, it was rapid and ungraceful.
“Wait for me,” Glendale commanded and turned to follow the short path to the entrance.
“No, your Lordship.”
“What did you say?”
“I said no, I’ll not be waiting. You hired for a trip to the inn, not to have me sit and wait at your call. Another coach will be about soon enough.” He nodded knowingly toward the darkness of the night. Glendale pushed down his anger. He had no intentions of being stranded in the heart of the rat’s maze of the lower city after dark. “How much?” he asked thinly.
When the price had been met Glendale, finally turned his attention back to the task at hand. The music that had been drifting out had ended, and now only the low buzz of conversation hummed out into the night. He squared his shoulders and drew closer to the doors and was forced to pause before going in to make room for a trio of men to exit.
They leaned on each other and smelled strongly of sour wine, staggered about in contented friendship and didn’t look twice at Glendale standing slightly in the shadows. He stepped behind them to catch the door before it shut and his eye fell upon the painted sign over the door. A large, fleecy sheep stood with long, painted eyelashes and a wide grin; behind it knelt the figure of a man, dressed in wealthy clothes, a look of raptured ecstasy on his face. The sign was well known; its mocking obscenity to the upper classes was whispered over in drawing rooms and parlors. There was no doubt now, the driver had brought him to the right place.
He expected to be noticed when he walked inside. Glendale was used to being noticed but few eyes swung to look at him. The crowd inside almost made a point to not glance toward the door as it swung open and shut. The tavern was as full as it had appeared. A small stage set in the back was well lit but empty; musicians lounged around the side, talking and sipping from mugs. Along another wall stretched a counter with an open slot to the kitchen. Several people, men and women, sat there and ate plates of food and sipped drinks from wooden mugs. Groups of people sat about the tables drinking, eating and some gaming. A large cluster was carefully watching a dice game and calling out enthusiastically at each toss.
There appeared to be four sorts of people in the inn. The first were the inn’s workers, men and women alike that moved with long practiced ease around tables and crowds, carrying drinks and food and scooping up coin. Glendale spotted at least a half dozen people he pegged to be whores, mostly women but he saw at least one male, each carefully dressed and being charming to anyone who drew their notice. Once he saw a young woman with black hair and wide hips lead a man to the stairs; they disappeared up to the hallway above. He counted at least a dozen or more who had to be from the upper city. They were dressed in obvious efforts to blend in but their accents gave them away. They stuck together, drank and gamed and for the most part were young men seeking thrills and wild adventure.
The last sort were the reason he’d come to this tavern. By far the largest number present were swordsmen, dressed from plain to flamboyant and all armed. They were men and women, armed and strong. They drank and joked, living loudly on the coin they earned from renting out their skills. While this wasn’t the only tavern to cater to their lifestyle, it was one of a very small number of them.
Here a sword could be hired, a duel arranged or even an assassination if you had enough coin. It was where letters were sent when jobs were offered or where face to face meetings were made if a hire was planned. Inside was only for swordsmen; thieves were driven off to their own places, informants were not tolerated and being a slaver would get a body killed.
From the dozens of swordsmen, Glendale searched for one. He stood inside the doorway and scanned the room, searching for the man he’d only seen occasionally and then from a distance.
“Can I help you?” A deep voice spoke from Glendale’s right.
The lord turned and had to crane his neck up to see who had spoken. The man was tall and broadly built, his head was shaved bald as an egg and his dark brown eyes were steady. “Tarin Morris,” Glendale answered simply, knowing a little bit about the protocol of hiring a swordsman from the man he normally sent to accomplish the task.
The big man nodded knowingly. “Black haired fellow, over with the musicians.” He motioned with his chin while flagging down a girl that went past.
Glendale peered at the area by the stage and saw a black headed man. His hair in a neat tail at the base of his skull; he stood with his back to them listening to one of the musicians talk.
“Jen, see to it his lordship is placed in a private room and let Tarin know he’s company?” the deep voice rumbled out.
Glendale turned his attention from the man by the stage to the short and slightly round woman who’d been addressed as Jen; she was dressed in the plain clothes of the servers. “Sure thing, this way.” She spoke quickly with a slight bobbled curtsey before turning to move swiftly away.
Glendale followed her along the edge of the main room to a door discreetly placed in the back. She moved through it with confidence and he followed her into a well lit hallway which was lined in more doors. She opened one seemingly at random and motioned for him to enter.
“It’ll be a moment only, sir, can I get you anything?” she asked distractedly, unimpressed with him.
“Nothing,” Glendale answered a tad too sharply and paced inside the private room.
“Yes, sir,” she answered with another bobbled curtsey and shut the door behind him.
The room was large enough to seat several comfortably, the cushioned chairs and smooth wood table finer than what sat outside. There were no windows, no other doors and few decorations. A small charcoal burning stove sat by itself to ward off the damp but otherwise the room was empty. Glendale took a seat and waited.
The wait was quite a bit longer than he had expected and he was about to rise and see what the delay was when the door opened. He was caught half rising to his feet and was forced to continue the motion, forced to offer the swordsman the sign of respect he otherwise wouldn’t have.
The swordsmen turned from latching the door and paused, his eyes narrowed a moment but he nodded. “Aye.”
Glendale was forced to pause; naturally he’d heard the stories, but he hadn’t truly believed them. The man standing across from him looked more like a fantasy idea of a harem slave dressed up as a swordsman than one in truth. He was neither unusually tall nor short but he was lean, slender and with a graceful body. His shoulders were strong and his torso tapered to lean hips, but a strong and well balanced body wasn’t overly uncommon. It was the swordsman’s face that was stunning. His hair was black, thick and glossy and even though it was pulled back it still looked vaguely untamed and wild. His skin was the color of milk, the color women and aristocrat men would die for, with just enough rose tones to keep him from being corpse pale. His lips were expressive but neither too full or too thin and balanced his straight nose well. His cheekbones were high and countered the proud point of his chin but all of this was secondary to his eyes.
His eyes were large and edged in thick, long, curled lashes. It was their color that was so highly spoken of and a color Glendale had dismissed until he found them locked with his own. For instead of brown or hazel which should have accompanied someone with such black hair, the swordsman’s eyes were lavender. Not blue, not slightly off- blue but a true, nearly violet, lavender, clear and bright. The combination of the handsome, lean body, the well balanced, handsome face and the extraordinary color mix of pale, fair skin, black hair and lavender eyes left Glendale momentarily stunned.
“I’m far too busy to be bothered merely to be stared at.” The swordsman spoke in mocking tones, using the upper city accent to his advantage.
“By Jeses, why were you ever uncollared?” Glendale whispered.
Comments like that used to drive Tarin into almost blind rage, but he’d grown accustomed to them and now they just annoyed him. “I allow clients to make one mistake, that was yours. Now, do you have business with me or have you wasted my time?”
The swordsman’s tone snapped the shock off Glendale. “You speak very lightly to me, sir.”
Tarin shook his head and was too tired to be amused at Glendale’s blind arrogance. “You seek my favor, not the other way around. Which is it?”
“I have a job for you,” Glendale answered and still couldn’t help staring.
“Then by all means, sit and we’ll discuss it.” Tarin waved to the table and took a chair of his own.
Glendale found himself doing as was suggested and with only a raised eyebrow from the swordsman found himself explaining. “You see, I’ve a party coming up, in my house, to celebrate my birthday. I need an honor guard for the night. The cousin of the Governor will be expected to attend so it can’t be just anyone.”
“I don’t guard people I don’t meet.”
Glendale shook his head. “Oh no, not for him, he’ll be traveling with his own guard I’m sure. You see, I’ve very little need for protection most times. I don’t retain a guard. This party is the day before my actual birthday. I’ll be forty five. I’ve made it to this age without a challenge, I won’t die the day before my birthday. If someone wishes to challenge me, this will be the last chance they have before I become too old.” The law had clear rules on challenges of honor: neither party could be younger than twenty, nor a day older than forty five. After Glendale’s birthday, he could rest assured that his odds of dieing of natural causes would greatly increase.
Tarin shrugged. “So postpone the party a day or two.”
“I can’t, the Governor’s cousin is only free the day before. To pass up the chance to have the honor of his presence at my private birthday party would be unthinkable. I must have an honor guard.” He leaned forward, fascinated in spite of himself with the entire process. The few times he’d hired a swordsman he’d paid it as little thought as possible.
“What are you offering?”
“Ten crowns to attend, an additional ten if a challenge is offered to my honor, twenty if it’s to my death.”
Tarin did laugh now. “Thirty crowns? That’s not even worth my time.”
“I can go to Vask, it’s a fair amount, I don’t expect there to be any trouble. Ten crowns to stand around and keep a watch is generous,” he replied quickly with almost a childish pout to his voice.
“That isn’t what I hear. Wintermarch has made his dislike of you very public. You can take your thirty crowns to Vask.” Tarin leaned back in his chair knowing full well Vask was already working a different job. They’d only crossed swords once in the last few years and neither had been able to best the other. From then on they made it a polite habit to stay informed of each other’s doings and stay out of each other’s way.
“Wintermarch wouldn’t dare. Thirty crowns no more. I’ve brought the first payment with me and I’d like to establish the details tonight and avoid another trip to discuss them.” He was caught; Wintermarch was the single reason he was seeking an honor guard.
Tarin shook his head and wondered if the man was so self absorbed that he neither noticed or cared that he’d never introduced himself and yet Tarin knew who he was and who wished him dead. “I’m going to pass on the job.”
The swordsman spoke in such a smooth proper accent with all the tones and inflection of one of class that the refusal was as sharp as a slap. “What do you mean pass?”
“I mean I don’t accept. I suggest you see Vask. He’s famous enough for any relation of the Governor.” Tarin’s tone was cold. “Good night.” He rose smoothly and left the room without looking back. He ignored Glendale’s comments on his manners, heritage and past and simply shut the door.
Out in the main room the large, bald man was discreetly watching and Tarin nodded to him and made his way over to the far corner of the counter. “I’ll be going out for a bit, Owen, see to it Lord Glendale leaves without speaking to anyone else. Send him over to Vask at the Bean Bowl Inn, okay?”
Owen nodded and set the rag he’d been using to wipe the counter on an empty stool. “Will do. I take it didn’t work out?”
“His lordship doesn’t appreciate the value of my skin as much as I do,” and he grinned to take the bitterness of truth out of the words.
The laugh that Owen made was deep and nearly silent. “I get you, Tarin, I get you. Will you be back in later tonight?” Owen owned the tavern and he tried to treat all his customers fairly but some were friends. Unexpectedly, Tarin had become one. His upper accent and far too dry wit alienated most people but Owen had liked him from the start.
“Naw, I think I’m gong to go and try to sleep.” Tarin nodded his head where another man would have clasped the larger innkeeper on the arm. “Thanks for your help.”
“Anytime.” Owen nodded back at him. In the years that Tarin had been coming to his inn he’d noticed that the slender man touched no one if he could avoid it. Those who weren’t his friends said that the young swordsman was arrogant and thought himself better than the others. Owen knew better, he had been a slave himself once.
Tarin slipped out into the cool of the night and wished he’d thought to bring his cloak with him when he’d left that afternoon. The nights in the lower city, far too often, were damp or foggy. They were stuck between the river and the bay and that created some interesting weather. He made his way out to the street and started to turn to the sidewalk.
Tarin’s hand went to the hilt of his sword as he turned to trace the voice not to an attacker but to a coach driver. “Evening, Lits, how’s it going tonight?”
The man scratched at a stubbly chin. “Mostly young hotheads, like normal. Catch!” He flipped a coin from where he stood by the door of the coach.
It wasn’t difficult for Tarin to reach out and snag the coin from the air. “What’s this?”
“A bishop for you, is only fair to cut you in on it a little. That upper man, he paid well.” Lits’ grinned widely.
“How much did you milk him for?” Tarin knew better than to refuse the small kick back. It was how things were done in the lower city.
Lits looked around to make sure they weren’t being overheard. “Almost a full crown! I could have gotten more but I’m more honest than some. You’re good for my business, Morris, making these rich folks come down here themselves. None of them know what to pay.”
“That’s the sole reason I do it, Lits, just to help you drivers out.” His tone was so dry, so sarcastic in his out of place upper accent that it made Lits laugh. “I’ll be seeing you later tonight.”
“As promised,” Lits whispered softly and leaned back against his coach.
In spite of what Tarin had told Owen, he didn’t head toward home and sleep. Sleep was far too often an elusive companion in his life and he’d found over the years that a walk in the quiet stillness of the damp night settled his thoughts enough to allow some rest. The sight of him crossing lit and unlit streets and alleys was common enough that few took notice. Gangs and thugs had quickly learned that he kept his blade and his attention sharp and few dared to cross his path with anything close to a threatening move so there was little to fear in the dangerous dark. Tonight was different, tonight he had to think and he had another meeting planned. Things had just gotten a touch more complicated.