Chapter III: The Rival

Squire shoved his way through the lingering cloud of gawkers and amateur-experts on the matter of Tyrantine law, the events that had unfolded, and Magistrate Rizvan’s tendencies to come down hard on the poorer criminals in the city and let the wealthy corrupt walk free. It was this sort of speculation that made Squire feel like there wasn’t enough to do in this city. People grumbled and glared at him, but the sword at his hip was enough to keep them from trying to start anything. Squire was too used to the Iris Market and Lord’s Hill. The Commons was a little too close to the local riffraff for comfort.

Gerwen had gotten the last laugh, the last strike and that bothered Squire as much as it bothered him that Baldwin had dared to show his face in his city again. It wasn’t that Squire had any kind of right or authority to keep Baldwin or his ilk from Trennon, but there was a mutual understanding between them, or at least he had thought there had been. Clearly he was going to need to make his point a little clearer to him.

Innkeepers’ Row was a mix of inns, taverns, pubs, and brothels where travelers would stay to get access to the Main Market, the Commons, the Archives, and the Council Hall. It was in reach of everything and far enough away from the lower parts of the city that people from outside of Trennon wouldn’t have to look at starving faces and grimy, dead expressions. There were women who might have been pretty once upon a time, but who had lost the light of life they had once had, filling it with despair, drink, Spurweed, and loveless sex. It was a brew that didn’t make for a pretty result. The women leaning on the railing of the brothel balconies, looking down on him like a cluster of bored cats. Squire didn’t bother looking up at them, the same way he didn’t bother looking at the grifters and swindlers who were looking at him, trying to measure the odds of getting him this time.

Squire rarely came down to Innkeepers’ Row since he became better acquainted with the city and what the Brogans were doing to it. Steadily, Innkeepers’ Row became the home of pickpockets, whores, and thugs who were looking for excuses to crack skulls. Once upon a time, this had been a healthy street, thriving with respectable and decent businesses, but that time was long gone.

The Aged Vine was one of the older inns in Trennon and it had endured countless sieges, regime changes, and one fire that had nearly engulfed all of Trennon. It had its scars and it had its own politics, but it had endured and it served a mean whisky that the Fenkish descendants who owned the inn kept alive and well through the years, never letting the history of their heritage fade, and all of Trennon enjoyed in the tradition. Well, so long as the Brogans approved.

“Squire,” Alim tipped the wide brim of his hat to the rare sighting that blessed the inn. Alim was one of the more dangerous men who worked for the Brogans, but Squire had no quarrel with him. Alim had once been one of the head riders for the Death Emir until he’d slandered the Emir’s name by sleeping with one of his concubines. He’d rode his purebred stallion as far north as the horse could without resting and when the beast dropped dead, he walked until a caravan found him and brought him to Trennon. Alim had stayed ever since, a hired blade that never went a day without work.

“Alim,” Squire said. “Still working for your lesser?”

“My lessers pay well,” Alim grunted. “I’ll need to take your blades before you enter.”

Squire’s fingers were already working blindly on the clasps of his belt and pulled off his dagger and sword belt, wrapping them and handing them to the guard. Alim took them with the sort of respect that only came from a man who was classically trained with a blade. He had a sort reverence as he held the blades, recognizing them for the steel that they were. Squire looked at the other guards, scrawny and filthy brutes that they had hired from the Ironworks or Docksides. They were the kinds of criminals that were becoming more and more common with the Brogans around. They weren’t mercenaries or bandits who had finally given up, they were just kids that had no respect, no training, and no decency. Five of them were as good as one mercenary, but try telling that to Faolan.

“If they go missing,” Squire said, “I’ll know who to come and find.”

The thugs chuckled, but Alim wasn’t. When they noticed that Alim wasn’t laughing, they suddenly stopped. They didn’t understand that they were looking at one of the best swordsmen in Trennon and they definitely didn’t know that he meant what he said. There were few people who could deliver their threats in Trennon, but Squire was one of them.

“Have a good evening, Squire,” Alim said. It wasn’t a kind farewell, but rather a dismissal. Squire gave a look to Alim, a warning of his own that he best not be bothered.

The Aged Vine was full of wealthy people determined to escape the veneer of Lord’s Hill and the Iris Market. They wore their darkest clothes that they had in their wardrobes, aged and kept just so they could sneak away from their parents, spouses, and siblings to have a night where they could feel like they were Elethyn from the legends, charming their way into the company of men for nights of merriment, laughter, and debauchery before slipping back into their worlds. They liked to pretend that they were commoners, men of decent lives who didn’t just sit in meetings or pour over reports provided by couriers, or count the coins collected for them. The pretended like they had to run a market stall under the scorching sun for seven hours or unloading cargo from barges floating down the Yavas and packing the goods throughout the city. They pretended they had to burn before the smelters and refineries or that they’re covered in dust from the masonry shops.

It was an act, a marred lie that they told themselves just so they could enjoy themselves and pretend like their lives had value and purpose. There were too many people in Trennon’s illustrious Lord’s Hill that never knew work, that never felt truly exhausted, and never understood how refreshing a good drink truly could be. For them, this was as close as they ever got, and strangely enough, it was as close as the commoners ever got to Lord’s Hill. It was an exchange, a trade that both parties consented to, that they agreed to. It was bizarre to Squire, but it was life in the Aged Vine.

The walls were mounted with the heads of Yamma Stags, Steppe Oxen, Red-backed Antelope Swamp Cats, and the River Dragons with their long heads and mouths full of fangs. There were ornately framed looking glasses that were tarnished and aged. There were tapestries on the walls for Viziers who had come to visit the Aged Vine and left their mark. There were the shields of barons from the north with painted sigils from houses that Squire had never seen. There were chandeliers, dripped with frozen wax and sconces that held candles surrounded in Paythian glass of different shades and hues. Behind the bar, there were numerous bottles from the south, all formed expertly and carefully by masters of their trade and shipped to brewers, vineyards, and distilleries all across the south and the border anations such as Espera, Tyrantium, and Kamari, where the Malonese outpost did most of the buying.

Here, the Aged Vine stood out where all the other pubs, taverns, and inns fell short. There were concoctions, mixtures, and beautiful brews made from numerous fruits, juices, spirits, and brewed wonders that the barkeeps and barmaids studied with the fervent dedication of alchemists set to their golden mandate. The Aged Vine, however, was far more lucrative than any alchemist shop that Squire had visited.

There were few outsiders seated at the tables, stools, and booths around the inn, mostly the wealthy who could truly afford the pleasures of such a place. There were bankers, clerks, officials, representatives, courtiers, and numerous other pointless titles in the common hall of the large inn. However, they were missing the large crowd that the Brogans usually pulled when things were going in their favor. Lately, between arrests, deaths, and restrictions placed on them by the Watch, the Brogans and their crews weren’t in the celebratory mood. So, the Aged Vine’s crowd was respectively thin today.

That was good, because Squire saw the man seated at one of the tables near the bar that he’d come looking for. He was bent over a trencher and bowl with half a loaf of bread and a cut of ham shank with roasted vegetables. There was a mercenary that the Watch tended to employ at the gate for truly rough guests and a man from the Bernardine Chapel who was smoking a pipe to the right of the man.

It was the Bernardine that first noticed Squire approaching and pushed back his chair. The mercenary looked up from his mug and looked at Squire with a familiar disdain that Squire could appreciate. It was a kind of recognition that Squire understood to be the definition of reputation. He wondered if he’d killed any of the man’s friends. There was a good chance that he had. The Trennon Crypts beneath the Chapels had a healthy number of Squire’s less fortunate opponents.

“I believe you have a guest,” the Bernardine said, rising from his chair.

“Does he look like a surly drunk who has reached above his status?” The Centurion asked through a mouthful of cured ham and vegetables.

“Sure does,” the mercenary grumbled before taking a healthy gulp, draining the last of his mug and running the back of his hand across his lips before he too rose from his seat. Strapped across his back was an axe that looked more than sharp enough to cleave Squire in two. “Stop by before you head out. I’ve got somebody I want you to meet.”

“Will do,” Baldwin said.

He was as bald as he’d ever been. Since the first day that Baldwin and Squire met, he’d been a bald man, except for the beard that sprouted up from his cheeks and jaws. His eyebrows were full, but not bushy. He was a strong man, a man with hands that beat like hammers on anvils, pounding with a strength that could not be denied, that broke men’s jaws and dropped lesser men to the ground with brutal efficiency. His shoulders were broad, his chest strong, and his legs like the trunks of trees. He was a warrior to truly fear, to truly avoid on the battlefield and that was just what you could see. The years of training, the strange liquids that ran through his veins, that permeated his entire being. Forlorn Centurions, they were the epitome of the definition of warriors.

“Have a seat, Squire,” Baldwin kicked out the chair that the Bernardine had been sitting in. He raised a hand that was stained with stew on his fingertips, flagging the barkeep to bring him something. Squire stepped around the table, passing the Bernardine as he took his seat. Baldwin’s dark blue eyes stared at him from under his brows, watching Squire as he leaned back in the chair that creaked and groaned under his weight. “You look particularly bothered.”

“Imagine that,” Squire said.

“Put whatever he wants on my tab,” Baldwin said to the barkeep who approached. The man was young and looked at Squire with promise and hope in his eyes. This was a man who thought that one day he’d be running the bar and the beautiful elixirs behind it. “Drink, Squire, you no doubt have much to say. You’ll need something to keep your throat from drying out.”

“Get out of Trennon,” Squire said. “Your kind aren’t welcome here.”

“He’ll have one of your delicious whisky mixtures,” Baldwin said. “Do you have a citrus blend to go with it?”

“I’ll keep it neat,” Squire said. “Save your blends.”

“Very well, sir,” the man said. Squire wasn’t sure if that was a quip or just a young man being foolish, but he decided to let it slide. He would save his rage for one man in particular.

“Squire, before you decide to start threatening me,” Baldwin speared a cut of ham and placed it back on his molars and began to chew it, “remember that you might not be able to hold to those threats.”

“This is my city,” Squire growled.

“As is apparent,” Baldwin chuckled. “Mayhem, murder, and madness, all the finer traits of Squire. Tell me, do you think there are many other places to stop on the way back to Beth Ramor? I’ve walked hundreds of miles, through dozens of nations, and before I get back to that dusty crypt, I want a drink, a nice meal, and a bed that doesn’t smell like sand. So get off my back, share a meal, and be civil.”

“What can you tell me about her?” Squire couldn’t even say her name. It burned in the back of his throat, lodged and barbed, digging into his tongue and his esophagus. His eyes burned where is eyelids rubbed against them. His fingers twisted into fists instinctively and the barkeep placed a warped glass in front of him, the kind kings in the north didn’t even have the pleasure of owning.

Baldwin glared at Squire. “You know I won’t speak of her,” Baldwin said. “Go and see for yourself. See all that she has become under their tutelage. As I hear it though, you’ve found another young protégé to admire. A boy this time, correct? The one responsible for all of this?”

“You took her from me,” Squire growled.

“I did no such thing,” Baldwin’s voice evaporated whatever levity that it once had and he glared in earnest at Squire. “Others did that Baldwin and with good reason. I will not rehash this again with you. Tell me about the boy.”

“You already know plenty,” Squire shook his head. “I’m not a puppet for you to pull strings with whenever you’d like.”

“Sure you are,” Baldwin grinned. “You should have a drink.”

“You should get moving,” Squire said. “Your meal’s almost through.”

“Albert, gods rest his soul, was supposed to educate the boy,” Baldwin said, shaking his head as if it were a real, damned shame. “But, it appears that Trennon has taught him a little extra. Killed four men in a brawl? That’s impressive. You didn’t think I’d come back to check on him?”

“He seems to have potential,” Squire said. “But he’s mine, Baldwin. Paid for.”

“You and trading with children,” Baldwin shook his head again. “How many times do you need to learn this lesson? It’s gotten you in plenty of trouble already, Squire. You sure you can survive learning it again?”

“Is that a threat?” Squire asked.

“It most certainly is,” Baldwin answered. “The boy killed a Varhum, and not just a regular Varhum, but one of the hill raiders. Told me, gods’ own truth over a year ago when I found him. I went and checked his story out and turns out he was right, found the big bastard gutted out in the swamp.”

“There are no Vark in the hills,” Squire growled.

“Same thing Aurelius told me,” Baldwin chuckled. “You two never did see eye to eye, I’ll have to tell him this one. But, like I told him, there are. Took the head of three and you know what’s fascinating? They’re not like the usual Vark trash I’m used to butchering. They’re fresh and they’re interested in the Yavas. So, I kept looking around and killing and you know what I found out? You’re going to love this one.”

Baldwin stared at Squire until he finally spoke. “What did you find?”

“Four bastards in a wagon,” Baldwin said with a grin. “They rode out to the swamp from Trennon and they dumped a body in the swamp. I waited until they were gone and waltzed over to the corpse and it started moving and its eyes opened, and it stank of Varhum. So I cut its head off and went back into the swamp and waited. A month later, they ride out and dump another body, but this time I kill three of them and drag the third off into the swamp screaming with his little friend. Got two hundred Ords from the Woodlanders for the horses and a pretty little tale.

“’Faolan pays us to dump the bodies before moonrise,’ he screamed as I took his ear.

“’What’s Faolan’s interest in Vark filth?’ I demanded.

“Now that truly perplexed the boy and he ended up being useless, so I drowned his sorry ass and looked over his Vark buddy. He was fresh, just like all the others, still bruising and souring, pale as moon cloud. But, you know what I discovered? He had a tattoo on his shoulder of a hammer and a chisel.”

“He worked for the Mason Guild?” Squire furrowed his brow.

“Sure did,” Baldwin said. “I brought the head to Caldin today and he confirmed it. The man’s name was Wald Herrin and he disappeared four months ago. He was a friend of the Spurweed King. Now, I’m going to Beth Ramor to tell our mutual friends about all of this and they’ll decide how things go from there. Have fun with the boy, but know that I’ll be back once I get my orders and anything you find out in the meantime just might earn you a small favor or two from me when I get back.”

“I don’t owe you a damned thing,” Squire growled.

“You most certainly do,” Baldwin reached over and took Squire’s glass of whisky and downed it in a single gulp. “And, need I remind you that if you try any funny business, you most certainly will be taught another lesson and I guarantee you that death will be a sweet release that will never come.” Baldwin dropped two silver Ords on the counter as he rose and headed for the stairs that led up to the rooms.

Squire watched him go and Baldwin looked back to offer him a wink before laughing a deep guttural laugh and vanishing up the stairs. Turning back to the table, Squire stared at the top of the table and felt his stomach churn. How was Faolan Brogan, a lowlife thug mixed up with the Vark? Plus, if the boy was already marked by Baldwin, that meant that Squire’s time with him was limited. He needed to move quickly.

Standing up, Squire went to retrieve his blade.

 

 

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