Authors: Rachel Neumeier
Taudde had spent considerable attention and effort on making sure he remained unnoticed by Lonne’s mages. He’d thought he had succeeded. But it seemed that Mage Ankennes had discovered him somehow. No doubt both he and Lord Miennes were involved in some ridiculous conspiracy Taudde would not care about at all, but in which he was undoubtedly going to be forced to participate. He was quite certain that the conspirators would have some plan already in place to keep control of their newest tool. If that had not been so, there would have been a drug in the wine.
Miennes, Taudde was sure, would prefer something subtle and slow acting, a trap that a clever opponent would close on himself by being clever. Ankennes was perhaps more direct, or perhaps so subtle that he simply suggested directness. In either case, no doubt trying to leave the city tonight would be a mistake. Taudde only wondered what shape the trap would take, if he should try. If anyone followed him along the streets, he could not detect them. But
then, Ankennes was a mage. No doubt he had some more subtle way to keep track of the conspiracy’s newest tool.
Taudde rubbed his hands hard across his face. Why
had he come to Lonne in the first place? Beyond the satisfaction of defying his grandfather, a satisfaction that seemed at the moment rather trivial? Not, surely, to play games of politics and treachery with ruthless Lonne courtiers. Grandfather would laugh if he knew of this little predicament. Then he would stop laughing and say,
Fool boy, get out of Lonne and come home! Now is not the time for a Kalchesene to be caught in Lonne! If you’ll only steady down, you’ll find the bardic sorcery of your own country enough to hold your attention for a lifetime or two without adding in the treacherous, ungraspable magic of the sea!
Those would be the very words. Taudde could hear the old man’s exact tone: exasperated and affectionate and acerbic. But Grandfather wouldn’t laugh if he’d seen the cold, clever avariciousness in Miennes’s eyes, or Ankennes’s calm intensity. Taudde shivered. It wasn’t the chill in the air. He was, he admitted to himself, afraid. Lord Miennes was merely greedy or ambitious, he thought. Miennes had some ordinary, petty motive. He was dangerous, undoubtedly, but Taudde found he was much more afraid of Ankennes. Men who were absolutely certain of their own righteousness might do anything, and he thought, now he had time to think about it, that that kind of certainty was exactly what he’d heard in the undertones of the mage’s voice. Taudde shivered again. He paused in his walk to make himself breathe deeply, dismissing fear. Whatever their plans, he would disentangle himself from them.
But, whatever he did, Taudde would have to do it carefully. If Miennes or the mage suspected that Taudde was going to slip whatever traps they’d prepared, what would stop them from sending word of Taudde to the Laodd themselves? Nothing, Taudde concluded, and thought, although he tried not to, of the soundless cells of the Laodd, in which a bardic sorcerer might be imprisoned in helpless silence.
He walked on after a moment, taking a faster pace as he neared
his townhouse. Much of the traffic had died away, now. Smoke, tinged faintly red by the last light of the sun, rose in thin wisps from innumerable chimneys. Beyond the city, the great fortress of the Laodd brooded down upon the homes of lesser men, its glass windows throwing back the red light so that the fortress seemed to glitter with crystallized blood. Above it, ragged clouds tore themselves free of high mountain peaks and unfurled across the sky. Beneath and behind and beyond the city, Taudde fancied he could hear the sea itself calling, the waves breaking against the shore in a cadence older than time.
There would be snow three feet deep across Kalches at this time of year. Yet the chill of coastal Lirionne, at least here in Lonne, seemed to cut with a finer blade than any Kalchesene winter. The Lonne winter was altogether different from the brilliant cold that in Kalches drew folk out for skating parties on the frozen rivers. Taudde set his teeth as much against sudden, violent longing as against the wind. Yet for all he longed for his home, and for all the trouble in which he was now embroiled, he could not wish, even now, to exchange the drawing tides of the sea for the frozen rivers of Kalches. He bowed his head and tried to ignore the unfriendly bite of the chilly Lonne wind.
That was why he was taken by surprise by the young thugs of some street gang. There were three of them. They had taken advantage of an unlit part of the street, slipping out of a narrow side street to block his way. Two of the three had knives, the other a short, metal-bound club.
In Lonne, generally the threat of purse cutters was greater than the threat of plain violence, for the Laodd frowned on disorder. But foreigners were not permitted to carry weapons, so of course they attracted the city’s predators. Wealthy foreigners such as Taudde were expected to travel by carriage, or hire local guards, or both. Taudde, not accustomed to thinking of petty threats, had carelessly let himself walk into danger and now was not certain he dared deal with it as he would have in Kalches. He glanced around, but saw no one on the street who might come to his aid.
“Not lookin’ for trouble,” the largest of the thugs said, smacking his club against his palm and grinning.
Taudde longed to smash the thugs to the cobbles. He was sure they deserved anything he might do to them. But he couldn’t. There was no time for subtlety, not in this; yet any fast unsubtle sorcery he might do would give away his true nationality in a blaring rush of magic every little magelet in Lonne must perceive, never mind the skilled mages of the Laodd. Taudde shivered with the effort to contain his outrage. The thugs smirked, taking the tremors for terror. Their obvious self-satisfaction only fed Taudde’s fury.
The moment he’d recognized the trap, Taudde had automatically slipped his flute from its special pocket in his sleeve. Now he almost brought it to his lips, despite the risk any hurried use of sorcery entailed, in Lonne.
Then he clenched the flute in his hand instead, and set his teeth as he forced himself instead to reach for his pouch. He thought he had enough script and hard cash to satisfy the street thugs. If they had the least sense, then they would indeed not want the trouble a wealthy foreigner might bring down on them—if he could stand to yield a little money to them, they should fade back into the streets that had spawned them. Ridiculous though it was that one of Kalches’s dozen master sorcerers should be robbed by common thugs, striking them down was surely not worth the risk of drawing attention from Lonne’s mages.
Then the thieves’ leader smacked his club into his palm again and smiled, and the contempt and brutality in that smile simultaneously fed Taudde’s anger and shook his presumption that the thugs had any sense at all. He took a step back—
A sound behind Taudde revealed the presence of another thug, and Taudde started to turn, knowing even as he moved that he might well have lost his opportunity to get away, that even if he were forced to a desperate sorcery, he might not now have time to play even a single note. The man behind him was huge, but cat footed for all his size; he’d come silently out of the evening mist—
Taudde hesitated, trapped between the thugs before and behind. But the big newcomer unexpectedly went right past him.
The big man strode right toward the leader of the thieves, who swung at him with the club, a short vicious blow. But the newcomer simply caught the club in one huge hand and wrenched it away from his attacker. He used it himself, three rapid blows that left the thug’s leader moaning on the cobbles. The other two thugs stepped back, cursing, lifting their knives in threat and warning.
“Benne,” Taudde said, belatedly recognizing his rescuer. The big man gave Taudde a quick look over his shoulder and then gestured with the club he still held, suggesting retreat back along the street.
“Yes,” Taudde agreed. He felt shaky: shocked by how close he’d come to being forced to choose between alerting every mage in Lonne to his presence or being beaten to death on the city streets. He slipped his flute back into its concealed pocket and turned to go the way Benne had indicated.
But there were more thieves there, emerging from another alley: two—no, three—no, at least four, and how was it Lonne, which prided itself on its civilized ways, could prove so lawless? But there they were, four more thugs—at least four, and two of the first three still on their feet and dangerous. At least the one Benne had clubbed was groaning on the ground. And unlikely to get up without aid: Benne was a powerful man. Taudde had never been so grateful that his rented townhouse had come with servants attached.
“Well?” he asked Benne now.
The big man gave Taudde the club, smacked a massive fist into the palm of his other hand, and strode forward. Taudde, uncertain of the tactical wisdom involved in ignoring the knifemen at their backs, nevertheless followed in Benne’s wake. The club felt strange and heavy in his hand. His flute would have been far more comfortable, or if not that, then at least a gentleman’s sword rather than this street thug’s tool.
From Benne’s confident manner, Taudde half expected the thieves to give way and fade back into the shadowed alleys that had spawned
them. But there were six of them left, after all, and they must have decided those odds were uneven enough to suit them. Two of the recent arrivals had the same sort of club Taudde now held. One of the others had a knife, like the two behind, and the other a wicked length of chain. That one seemed to be the leader, now that the other man was down. He looked brutal enough for the role.
“Nem, you get around—” that man began.
Benne didn’t wait for the thug to complete his orders. He turned abruptly, smooth as a dancer, took a long step back, grabbed one of the knife wielders who had been edging forward, dropped him, half turned, stabbed the other knifeman in the stomach, completed his turn, and was back out in front of Taudde before any of the other four thieves or Taudde himself could quite comprehend what he’d done. The complete silence with which he’d performed this devastating attack, and in which he now faced the remaining thieves, lent a surreal quality to the whole performance. The man he’d stabbed was on his ground, curled up around his injury, making horrible small noises that served as an effective accompaniment to Benne’s own silence. The man Benne had grabbed, from whom he’d taken the knife, wasn’t making any sound at all. Or moving. Taudde realized, belatedly, that the big man must have broken the thief’s neck in that first moment.
The other four thieves, understandably, were now hesitating to attack. One of them muttered an oath under his breath. Their leader stared in disbelief past Benne and Taudde at his three dead or injured companions, then shifted his gaze back to Benne’s face. Benne simply stared back, apparently unmoved. He showed neither anger nor fear nor, really, anything much. After a moment, he gestured to Taudde and walked forward. He held the bloody knife in an apparently casual grip, as though barely aware it was in his fist.
It took Taudde a long moment to gather his wits and follow. He’d feared he wouldn’t be able to give any great assistance to his servant in this little battle. Now he doubted he’d be called upon to render any assistance whatever.
The thief who had cursed before uttered another, more vehement
oath. Then he turned and walked away. He didn’t run, but he was moving briskly.
“Now, look,” began the thug’s leader, but Benne only continued to stride forward, and in another instant the remaining thieves gave way and followed their fellow into the shadows.
Ahead of them, a streetlamp cast its greenish light over Taudde’s rented house, now just visible in the palely lit mist. Taudde followed Benne toward the house without uttering a word. He was seldom rendered speechless. But the cumulative effect of this evening had managed it.
The house stood in the heart of Lonne, less than a mile from Miennes’s own graceful townhouse, if in a rather less exclusive district. Its rent was high, but nothing less would do for the wealthy man, son of wealthy merchants, whom Taudde was pretending to be. Had he instead presented himself as an ordinary man, even a poor one, would Miennes ever have noticed him? No way of knowing, without finding out how he’d given himself away in the first place. But it still seemed more likely the mage who had discovered him, and against that the trappings of disguise probably made little difference. At least he hadn’t had to endure any sort of privation during his stay in Lonne. Yet.
The townhouse was a tall, narrow, sheer-walled structure, with no windows on the first floor and bars on those of the second floor: measures that would protect the house’s inhabitants from the simpler sort of thief or thug. Taudde appreciated this design consideration far more now than he had previously. Though the house owned nothing at all, of course, to guard against the sort of thug who lived in a great stone mansion and gracefully served the very best wines to go with his delicate threats.
The lowest floor held the servants’ quarters. Taudde took the angular stair that crooked around a corner of the house and led to an entrance directly on the second floor, beckoning Benne to follow. The long brass key he carried was stiff in the lock. Taudde could have unlocked the door almost as quickly without the key as with it, if he had dared use sorcery. But, of course, he did not.
The door opened into the sort of small reception hall these narrow city houses usually boasted: slate tile and polished wood, with a pattern of gray marble inlaid in the tiles in front of the door and a small marble-topped table standing to one side. The table held a graceful branch of willow in a tall vase. The willow branch was new. It was made of pewter, with slender leaves of beaten silver that stirred in the slight breeze created by Taudde’s entrance. Taudde looked at it for a moment, and then at Benne.