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Worvo’s Tavern in New Vaina constituted the farthest location to which I could flee without the appearance of abandoning the town altogether. By the time I arrived, little flecks of red made indeterminate shapes on the bandages wrapping my chest. The scratches underneath burned with a fire that made me wonder if I’d somehow absorbed the curse that Falla had intended for all of Vaina.
From behind the bar, Worvo first smiled to see my entrance and then frowned to see the state of me. I took a seat facing him, perching myself upon a stool next to the bar and leaning my sword to rest against the solid counter. Before I let the belt dangle to the ground, I removed a coin from my purse and set it on the bar, perhaps more forcefully than I’d intended.
The tavernkeeper raised an eyebrow at me. “My lord, that’s enough for a cask of ale,” he said.
I looked down to see the silver hawk I’d placed before him. “The day’s young, isn’t it?” I told him, my voice glum and without wit.
“It is, my lord.”
“Iaren,” I corrected.
He brought me a tankard filled with a sweet ale, refreshing in the summer’s morning suns, and especially after the heat of the bonfire. “Would you like something to eat, my—Iaren?”
“I’d rather not interrupt my drinking,” I told him.
For about an hour, I drank in silence, Worvo filling the cup when it ran low and occasionally looking over to see whether I might make some gesture indicating I wanted something else, but otherwise leaving me to my own devices.
Over and over, I ran through the past day’s events. The wedding ceremony, the conflict with Magaréil, finding Nilma with Orren’s body, the Aryden’s conspiracy, Edanu’s solicitation, Falla’s pleading, Nilma’s confession, the confrontation with Orren. But mostly this morning. I can’t say how many times Falla burned again in my mind, her tears becoming so much steam in the heat of the fire, escaping into the ether. I hoped that her spirit did so as well. More than once, I think, I whispered a prayer to her for forgiveness.
I could feel the ale taking effect as I’d hoped, replacing the weight of guilt with an air of carelessness. Not the sense of being free of care, mind you, but a feeling that, however bad, however many cares I had, everything was actually okay. In that moment, I understood the allure of drink from which some never escape.
The thought didn’t stop me, though it did slow me into comfortably settling into that state of mildly euphoric apathy rather than pushing beyond into senselessness altogether.
Time began to lose meaning, and I couldn’t tell you how long I sat there and drank before I noticed someone pulling up the stool beside me. Turning to see, I gritted my teeth. Edanu had interjected himself into my gray revelry.
“Fuck off,” I said before I’d thought of a greeting.
“Oh ho!” Edanu smiled, “Far from court now, aren’t we?”
I turned back to my drink, staring into the bottom of the cup in the hope that the courtier would simply disappear. I had something of a mind to make him, but neither the will nor the clarity of thought to make good.
“Perhaps I owe you an apology, my lord,” Edanu said. I turned to look at him, suspicious, and he continued, “It was not my intent to come here and disturb you or anger you—”
“Then why come at all?” I grumbled.
“Because you are owed gratitude for what you did this morning. Falla’s death curse could have ruined this place for a long time. Most folk won’t ever realize the extent of what you prevented—if they understand at all. But I do, and I thank you for protecting Vaina.”
“Had I thought about how you might have benefited, perhaps I’d not have acted. I’m not sure that this town is worth the defending. No one’s innocent here, I—” Mid-sentence, I realized that I had to include myself in that pitiable lot; my other thought fell dead in its tracks.
“Haven’t you read the Book, my lord? No one anywhere is innocent, save The One.” Edanu offered.
“But some are good, as much as they can be. Elsewhere, I mean. Not here.”
“And now we come to the true philosophy,” Edanu said, managing a meager smile, “empowered by drink, free from the conceits of courtly talk and Temple expectations.”
“You haven’t come to philosophize, Edanu.”
“Perhaps not, but I try to enjoy the unexpected benefits of my work wherever I can.”
“Cut the bullshit, then. Why have you come?”
“Pity,” he returned. “Yours is a mind I’d very much like to see into.”
“Not today. What do you want?”
“To revisit our previous conversation.”
“About your supposed ‘Place of Power?’ I don’t know anything today that I didn’t know yesterday.”
“Precisely!” Edanu pointed out. “I think you knew everything I needed when we last spoke. But I have more to tell you. I have spoken with my superiors, and—”
“How?” I asked, incredulous.
“Artifice, of course.” His response was nonchalant, perhaps even a gentle rebuke that I’d not assumed from the beginning that he was capable of such.
“What has that to do with me?”
“I could only make tentative promises to you yesterday in exchange for your assistance. Today I have a solid offer, to be memorialized in a written contract—and even fatebound, if you like—should you accept.”
“You don’t even want to hear the offer?”
“It includes your family home in the Upper City of Ilessa.”
“That has not been my home for a long time, Edanu.”
“But it could be again.”
“I have no need for such a place. What would I do with it?”
“Whatever you wish; that’s not the sum of the offer. You would have servants, resources enough to conduct whatever research and study you would like, assurances that you’d be well provided-for should the Call take you, status and respect.”
“What else does the House want besides this Place of Power you so believe in? I told you I’d not be some shadowman working the shadows for House Meradhvor’s profit.”
Edanu smiled at my question, at the interest and consideration it evidenced. “Nor would such be asked of you. You would not be some expendable asset of the House, but a part of the family. We would arrange a marriage for you to one of the eligible Meradhvor women. You would have a place to belong.”
“Which Meradhvor woman?”
“That I couldn’t say for certain, but there are several who I believe would be suitable for you. Aisley Meradhvor of Uthcairn and Catryn Meradhvor of Unbronad were both mentioned; either would be…understanding of the Altaenin approach to the marriage relationship, should that be a concern for you.”
“How much money?” I continued, catching the hint of slur in my words.
“An allowance of one-thousand Ellas per year, plus additional compensation for services rendered.”
A respectable income for a gentleman or middling noble, more than enough to run the old amn Ennoc house in comfort. “Thank you,” I said.
“Does that mean we have a deal?” Edanu’s face brightened in hopeful expectation.
“Of course not,” I told him, “I just wanted to know how badly Meradhvor wants what it seeks.”
His face turned cold, hard. “Why turn our offer of friendship into one of hate? We’ll have this Place of Power with or without your help.”
“You’re not the first to offer me friendship as a thin veil over enmity and a desire for control, even in these last few days. Probably not the last, either.”
“If you live long enough,” Edanu threatened.
“The last to make such an offer did not get their way.”
“They weren’t House Meradhvor.”
“I—” I began, but before I could respond, a voice came from behind me, at the tavern’s door.
“What’s this, then?” It said. “Do you smell another fire coming? I think I smell a kindling smoke.”
I turned to see Lorent amn Esto standing in the doorway, silhouetted by the incoming light. To either side, an armsman with sword and buckler slung low on his belt, the same hope for violence on each face.
My hand grabbed my sword by the scabbard and I stumbled from the stool onto my feet—if only barely. The amount of alcohol I’d consumed hit me all at once, it seemed, as I stood, and the edges of everything in my vision blurred as they danced back and forth ever so slightly.
Lorent grinned to see me in such a condition, but a brief expression of doubt passed over him as he saw my bloody bandages. Quickly, the pleasure of finding me in such a state returned, whatever moral qualm about kicking a man when he was down he might have momentarily held fully fleeing from his mind.
Edanu stepped between us, his hands raised in the air and well away from the hilt of his own weapon. “Come friends—” he began.
“What, friends?” Lorent began, exaggeratedly looking about the tavern’s common room.
“I have no friends here save those I brought with me. I see a lackey of an Artificer House and a dispossessed and dissolute son of a noble family who plays at being a Practitioner of the Art. One who has wronged my wife personally, and must answer to me for it.” His hand moved to the hilt of the rapier he wore, but he did not yet pull it free from its home.
“You are mistaken, my lord,” Edanu said, his voice even and confident.
“Move, lackey. The amn Estos have no quarrel with Meradhvor, and I desire none,”
Lorent said to Edanu as the two bravos he’d brought with him moved towards either side of the room, flanking the two of us.
From behind me came Worvo’s voice. “Gentlemen,” he said in tones of forced hospitality and light-heartedness, “Perhaps I can offer all of you some of our finest wine. It is meant for your wedding, my lord amn Esto, but seeing as you’re here, I see no reason why—”
“No,” Lorent said. “We are not here to drink wine. Perhaps the blood of this villain you seem to be harboring, but not wine.” The young nobleman stepped forward now, only a pace away from Edanu, hand still on the grip of his rapier.
Edanu didn’t flinch. He subtly slid one foot back behind him slightly, readying to move quickly should the need arise. But he kept his hands held before his chest, palms open to the lordling. “My lord,” the emissary began, “Lord amn Ennoc is the reason your wife has been cleared of any guilt against the accusations made at your wedding. Which, I’ll remind you, is not yet complete. You might consider carefully how you behave in Lord amn Vaina’s demesne, since he holds your family’s fortunes in his hand.”
Lorent was right when he smelled a kindling fire. But it burned within me, not without. He’d struck the wrong nerve in reminding me how his wedding had led to Falla’s death. How my desire to protect Nilma and Vaina—from which he benefited—had let to her death. And now he came here to accuse and accost me?
Edanu had prepared himself to respond to Lorent’s movements, not mine. When I pushed him aside with the sweep of my arm, he lost his balance and moved obligingly. The lordling’s focus had likewise been on the emissary; when my fist suddenly replaced the object of his focus, the time for him to defend himself had already passed.
The blow took him in the nose with a satisfying crack, leaving him stumbling and cupping his face to staunch the flow of blood that poured forth. His two men drew their weapons now, as did Edanu and I. We each faced off against one of them, blades held close to the body in the cramped space of the common room. I blinked in an effort to make the two images of my opponent coalesce into a single target, which made me wonder for a second how I’d landed such a direct blow on the man’s master. Good Wyrgeas, I guess.
We each eyed one another in that tense sizing up that always precedes a fair bout of swordplay, but before the action started, the smell of actual burning caught my attention. My dueling partner’s, too, for he lowered the point of his sword and looked past me.
Not the smell of burning flesh this time, nor even of kindling. Matchsmoke, drifting lazily from the lit fuses of the matchlock arquebuses that Daedys’s men wielded as they piled in through the doorway, followed by the constable himself.
“My lord,” Daedys began.
“Yes?” Lorent and I both answered, his voice muffled behind his hands.
“My lord amn Esto, you seem to have injured yourself. If you’ll kindly return to your lodgings, I’ll send my lord’s doctor to tend to you. My lord amn Ennoc, my lord requires your presence, immediately.”
The amn Esto bravos sheathed their weapons, at which point Daedys’s men extinguished their firearms. The constable waived for me to follow, and I did, leaving Edanu behind.
We walked alone, the two of us. Back up the Vaina streets where, in the market places and around the taverns, folk drank and made merry, Falla’s death to them only a rare entertainment and spectacle punctuating a largely monotonous year.
The early distance we walked in quiet, Daedys’ men escorting Lorent and his retinue back to their lodgings.
“Why intervene? Lorent would probably have killed me and you’d not have to worry about me anymore,” I mused, still struggling somewhat to walk a straight line.
“If you’d told my lord everything that you knew, he’d probably be lighting a pyre for me right now, not sending me to fetch you. I treated you wrongly to threaten you before, and I beg your forgiveness for it. You’ve demonstrated your honor and discretion and I am in your debt. We have no quarrel. Besides, you really are the best chance I’ve got at finding out what happened to my nephew.”
He never looked at me as he spoke the words, instead continuing to watch the road. We returned to silence after that.
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