It wasn’t long before the rain that had been threatening began as a light drizzle. It was the sort of damp that soaked slowly into cloak and clothes, skin and bone. There was a distant smell of the sea on the air and the memories the scent called up distracted Tarin from his more pressing worries. The few people his steady pace took him past kept to themselves and out of his way; none spoke to him.
So it was even more startling to hear his name in hushed whispers from a small group of young men, little older than boys, clumped together at the mouth of an alley. That wasn’t uncommon, many were awed at his reputation and those that hadn’t crossed paths with him before stared as if he was a member of the distant wealthy society across the river. What surprised him were the snatches of their conversation he over heard as he hurried by. It had been a long time since anyone had dared mention his past with him in earshot. Any other night the words alone would have been enough to draw his angry attention but tonight, weighed down with more important concerns, it took the layer of their snickering to turn his steps back around to them.
It didn’t surprise him to see two of the boys had faded to the back; Tarin knew their faces which meant they knew his as well. The pair were ready, not for an attack, but to make a smooth and easy run for it should trouble arrive. Tarin dismissed them and focused on the three that remained. Two looking nervously toward the third, the leader, and the one who’d spoken and started the laughing.
Tarin half expected them to be young and was surprised to see the leader was at least close to his own age, the others similarly. All of them should have been well old enough to know better, if not about Tarin personally then about any armed, lone man out in the darkness of the lower city. None of that sort were to be trifled with lightly, even if they weren’t swordsmen.
The pair to the sides of the leader looked about nervously, having the sense to taste the tension of the moment and the danger of the swordsman’s notice. The leader stood firm as Tarin turned and strode on long legs back to the small grouping. The plain clothes, cheap, ill- fitted boots and heavy cudgel tucked in the boy’s belt spoke clearly of his general thug life. The clothes were cast offs, the boots most likely stolen from a past victim’s feet and the cudgel his tool of trade.
Without worry or fear from their greater numbers, Tarin stopped across from the leader and pinned him down with his eyes. “If you’ve something to say, I’d like to hear it.” He made his accent as mocking as he could and used it to great skill to discern his superiority.
The pair in the shadows faded further away, the pair that had held their ground squirmed but the leader in his arrogant confidence stood firm. He pressed his lips together into a thin line and his eyes narrowed but he was careful to keep his hands well away from his cudgel. “I was telling my mates here just how many beds you used to warm up on the hill. Telling them what a prissy whore you are and how without that sword you’d be less than a dock slut on her knees in an alley.” The words came out quickly, pushing to deliver the full insult.
No one breathed; all the boys’ eyes were tightly watching for the swordsman to reach for his blade. In that moment, that second of action before the blade could be made naked and deadly, all swordsmen were vulnerable and they watched for their moment to rush him. Tarin was breathing steadily and in spite of his anger he was still thinking. He was fast and knew it but equally knew his limitations. When he moved it wasn’t toward his blade; he threw his closed fist with the full might of his arm, knowing his aim was true and knowing it would connect.
The young thug’s jaw clattered from the blow, his head snapped back and blood began to flow from broken tooth or split flesh. He stumbled under the force of the unexpected attack but held his feet. Tarin watched him stagger and too quickly recover but the counter attack came from the boy to the right. He swung high and Tarin had been watching for it and easily ducked below the boy’s arm. When the boy’s reach was fully extended Tarin raised back to his full height and stepped toward his attacker, catching his arm with both of his hands. Before the boy could react to being half restrained, Tarin switched his grip and yanked. The arm made a sickening, splintering sound and the boy fell away with howls of pain.
There was a momentary pause and Tarin scanned the area. The first two boys had faded away into the night, the leader was reaching for his cudgel, the one boy leaned against a wall and cradled his obviously broken arm and the third was swinging his fist. Tarin pushed toward the latter boy, catching him off guard and taking the blow on his shoulder rather than his face. He slipped past and behind the attacker and kicked with his heavy booted foot at the boy’s knee. It connected with heavy force and knocked the boy to the ground.
It was more of a sense than a sight that caused Tarin to side step and scurry backwards, the cudgel slamming down past him to land on the fallen boy instead. The boy wailed from the blow but his friend didn’t pause; he swung the cudgel back up and pulled it into another lazy arc. Tarin skittered back out of the way again and before the boy could bring it around for a third try he brought his fist back into contact with the boy’s face. The leader reeled again, the cudgel shuttering in his grasp and before he could regain the offensive Tarin hit him again, and again, until the boy fell, stunned, to the damp ground.
Now, and only now, did Tarin pull a blade, but not his sword. The knife was ugly but very well crafted and honed to a thin, sharp edge. He kicked the cudgel out of the boy’s grasping hand and knelt over the stunned thug, his fingers tangled in the boy’s hair.
Again Tarin took the moment to pause and check the surrounding area. No one was in sight but the two remaining boys and neither one looked too eager to push an attack. “I’m willing to believe the insult came only from this filth,” Tarin said in gentle tones, the sound of a benevolent lord. “That is, if you disappear, now, and spend your lives making sure I never see you again.”
They nearly tripped over themselves to disappear, the one he’d knocked about helping the fellow with the snapped arm. They faded into the night without a look back or a second thought. Both ignored their leader’s cries to come back and when they were well down the street, they ignored his cries of pain as well. Within an hour, the lower city’s taverns and thugs were buzzing with another story of Tarin and how no one mocked his past.
Before that hour was up, Tarin was walking along a well traveled and well lit street, people were careful to avoid his eye and he knew word of the thug was spreading. There was no point in being discreet about it; the more people talked, the less they bothered him and the happier he was. In the end, it was all for the best.
There was no mistaking the swordsman for anyone else. Lits spotted him a half a block away. Tall and dressed in well made, if simply styled clothes, his thick hair in its neat tail, not wearing a cloak in the damp chill and walking with no fear and no rush – even with out the elegantly simple blade at his waist he was unmistakable. When he caught up to the lone swordsman he slowed the coach down and got as close to the pace of Tarin’s stride as he could.
“There you are! I’ve been looking all over for you, sir!” he called out from his driver’s seat with only a touch too much drama. “Someone’s asking to see you, I’m supposed to take you to them.” He was grinning ear to ear now, enjoying the cloak and dagger game he’d been asked to play.
Tarin stopped his walk and sighed at the poor acting. “Thank you, Lits.”
The shades were drawn on the coach. Light seeped from inside and Tarin moved to the door. He scanned the street once for prying eyes before unlatching it to climb inside. As soon as the door shut behind him and a moment before he could sit down, Lits had the horses moving again.
“Hello again, Tarin.” The voice was as warm as a touch and the woman it belonged to was as lovely as her smooth voice suggested.
She sat on the bench opposite him, pressed back to avoid being seen and dressed in rich, dark silks. Dark lace covered her hair and settled about her shoulders. The smell of perfume wafted off of her and filled the small coach. Their was only one way to describe her: she was loveliness. Her warm brown hair was artfully arranged, her face was carefully painted, but even without the added style she was still lovely.
Tarin inclined his head. “Lady Glendale, I had a very interesting visit from Lord Glendale this evening.”
She paled very prettily. “Does he know? If he does I can’t go home.”
“No, he doesn’t suspect you but he does Wintermarch.”
“So he tried to hire you as an honor guard? He must be concerned.” She pressed a white, slender hand to her chest, above the neck line of her dress and over her heart. It made for a pretty sight.
“I sent him to Vask.”
She shook her head. “Why? Do you truly wish to die?”
“Vask can’t take me.” Tarin smiled thinly. “Besides, he’s already working a job, he doesn’t have time to take on another on short notice. Now, you promised me a finalization of your offer.”
“I want him dead.” The light airiness of her beauty faded in her half hissed declaration. “If you don’t do it now, I have to live with him until he dies. If he has an honor guard, kill him and then continue the challenge. I want you to continue it until he is dead.”
Tarin hadn’t expected her desire to kill her husband to run so deep. “That will be expensive.”
She waved the comment off. “Money isn’t important. I’ll give you sixty crowns to kill him and one additional guard, an extra twenty crowns for each additional person you must kill.”
It amused him that Lady Glendale was willing to pay twice the price to kill her husband than he was willing to spend to stay alive. “Being so bloodthirsty could be seen as an assassination. Particularly with the Governor’s cousin being present.”
“I’ll take full responsibility, it’s within my rights to press the challenge until he’s forced to accept. I have an additional request.” She looked to her hands and then across to the too handsome swordsman.
“I want him to suffer. You’re known for killing cleanly and quickly. When you get to my husband I want him to suffer.” Her voice trembled but it wasn’t in uncertainty, it was rage too long deeply buried.
“I can’t promise that, nor am I certain I would deliver such a death if I have a choice.” He answered carefully, wondering what had happened to make her hate her husband so totally.
She nodded. “I thought as much. There is a child, Lord Wintermarch owns her. She’s of little use to him, he bought her on speculation but the coloring didn’t breed true, or so I’m told. He’s been unwilling to sell her in case her children might carry those traits. According to the files she was sired by you.” The icy cold tone had returned.
Tarin shrugged. “What of it?” He managed to sound calm, to look uninterested but inside he was alert and uneasy.
“The sale to Lord Wintermarch was private, no one knows he invested in her. I have influence over his Lordship, I could have her killed or sold into less pleasant situations.” She locked eyes with the man across from her and wondered how he could be as blasé as he appeared, if he was as emotionless as people said.
“I won’t be blackmailed,” he answered softly and it held more threat than if he’d screamed.
She smiled broadly, the ice melting and the charm returning. “I didn’t think you could be. Wintermarch has never met you and thought you might be more receptive to the threat. I felt you might be more moved by a bribe. I can arrange to have the child quietly sold to you, for a discount. Say, thirty crowns?”
“I’m not able to purchase a slave, as you well know.”
“No, that pesky law about former slaves, but I’m sure there’s someone you trust who would sign the papers.”
“The child isn’t worth thirty crowns. Assuming she’s undamaged and has been raised by Lord Wintermarch he has no more than eight or ten crowns invested in her. I don’t care what he spent to purchase her on the speculation that she’d inherit certain traits, she hasn’t and so has little value.” He leaned back as the coach continued to roll down another street.
“Twenty then .”
“Fifteen?” She raised an eyebrow.
“Ten, and I promise Lord Glendale will linger for at least two days.”
Her eyes glowed. “Ten and two days, if he lasts three you get the child for eight.”
Her coldness chilled him, her hatred echoed in her words. “Done. I require a letter of intent and hire as well as half up front.”
The lovely, pretty lady returned and she smiled happily. “Done, and done.” She said while handing over a small leather purse fat with coin and a folded paper with a heavy seal at the bottom.
Tarin accepted both and scanned over the letter. He couldn’t read but he knew just enough to pick out a vague meaning. It was plenty to prevent him from accepting a shopping list instead of a letter of intent. The coins he didn’t count and wouldn’t until he was home; he could tell by the feel and weight that it was close to the proper sum. Very few people were willing to cheat a swordsman. It tended to be fatal. “Thank you, we have an arrangement then ?”
“Yes, we do, unless there is something else I could offer you, another way I could show my gratitude?” Her slender hand settled lightly on his knee and she leaned forward to allow a clear view of her cleavage.
He stared at her icily. “Just the coins and the sale of the child, I want nothing more.”
She leaned back but her hand remained. He glanced from her face to her hand and raised an eyebrow. She smiled sweetly and slid it from his knee. “I knew you’d refuse but I wished you wouldn’t.”
“I don’t mix work and pleasure. If that will be everything, Lady?” He pounded on the side of the coach and felt Lits slowing down.
She sighed but nodded. “That’s all. Until the party?”
Tarin nodded and lifted the latch on the door and hopped out before the coach could fully stop. He nodded to Lits who tipped the hat he’d put on against the night’s chill drizzle and drove off without a word. Tarin didn’t stand around, for as much as he wanted to just go home and forget the odd events of the night, his mind was whirling in a dozen new directions. So he forgot about his cloak and his bed and set his feet toward the nearest river crossing and the closest thing he had to someone he trusted.
The foot traffic picked up once he crossed the river and he received more than a few second glances as he made his way across streets in a path he knew well. He ignored the looks, kept his hand close to his sword and his eyes on the shadows. The folks that wandered the upper city shouldn’t be trusted.