That kid didn’t belong here. We all knew it from the moment he walked through the door at Rosalie’s, full of nerves and rage. If you belong, you never sport those two together. Everyone in Riverside knows that.
It is a wise precaution to assume that anyone angry is also armed. The drinkers stopped drinking, the barmaids stopped serving, and the dicers held up their dice mid-roll. Red Sukey moved a little closer to Slow Annie, as the girls like to protect each other.
Rosalie stepped forward, it being her bar the kid was in. “What can I get you?” she very reasonably enquired of him.
“What can you get me?” From his voice, you’d think it was the stupidest question anyone had ever asked. “What can you get me?” He had an accent. Slow and snooty, like from the Hill. “Well, I’ve been looking for Fenton’s treatise On the Causes of Nature. The banned edition. Surely in this den of vice you’ve got a copy of a banned book.”
Rosalie didn’t bat an eye. “Surely. And to drink?”
“How about a cup of really strong poison?”
“I’ll go take a look.”
Rosalie turned her broad back on him, and the whole room relaxed. If she thought he wasn’t dangerous, then he probably wasn’t. Like many older women who still retain all their marbles, Rosalie is a fine judge of character.
The kid was a scholar, that much was clear. With that long student hair they all grow, tied back with a piece of yarn. And that black robe they all wear, hanging off his bony shoulders like abandoned laundry someone had neglected to wash. Poor scholars don’t usually come down to Riverside, not even to get pissed, knowing they’re just as likely to get rolled and then maybe killed just for fun. Nobody drinks here who doesn’t belong. So what was he doing here?
Sidling up to him, Red Sukey hazarded a reasonable guess. “Buy me a drink?”
He looked down at her. It was a long way down, as he was taller than most. “What for? Are you thirsty?”
Young Sukey was not such a good judge of character. “No.” She moved a little closer, to show him what was on offer. “I’d be nice to you.”
He got it then. “For a drink? Are you serious?”
Most men, you mention money, their hand goes automatically to where they keep their purse, just for an instant. His went to his belt, but there was nothing there.
We waited with interest to hear Sukey explain the facts of life or commerce to the scrawny scholar, but she never had the opportunity, as Nimble Willie came running in shouting, “Fight! Fight!”
You don’t want to miss a fight in Riverside, not with the caliber of swordsmen we’ve got here. And sure enough, a young blade called Archer Fink had finally gotten Richard St Vier to accept his challenge. God only knows how. He wasn’t yet in St Vier’s league. Probably it was that girl of his, the blonde, egging Archer on to show his stuff. Anyone who could kill Richard St Vier would have his pick of jobs, even on the Hill. But nobody thought that man would be Archer Fink. I couldn’t even get a bet going.
It happened so fast I nearly missed the whole thing. St Vier lunged quick and hard, with a ferocious efficiency that Fink couldn’t even parry. I guess he’d been expecting a longer fight, and not to be wheezing his last as St Vier drew the tip of his blade from his body, so that the blood spurted all over the place.
The tall student was standing right there. He stared at Archer’s fallen body like he’d never seen one before, not even wiping the blood off his face.
St Vier cleaned his blade and went into the tavern. Rosalie brought him a drink, “On the house,” she said, because he was always good for business. The more he drank at her place, the more likely the Hill nobles were to send their servants down there to find him when they had a job for him.
The scholar was right behind him. “I’ll have one, too,” he told her.
“Let me see your money first.”
“You didn’t ask him for money.”
Rosalie snorted. “He’s Richard St Vier. Who the hell are you?”
He looked way down at her. “Alec,” he said.
“Am I supposed to know who that is?”
“No. In fact, I’d very much prefer that you didn’t.”
That got a reaction—from the rest of us: catcalls for Rosalie, cheers for the scholar, because nobody gives Rosalie cheek. Rosalie has a temper, and as long as you are not the target, it is very entertaining to watch her lose it.
The swordsman was ignoring the whole thing. He just leaned on the bar, knocking back the thirst a good fight gives you—though one hand never left the pommel of his sword, this being Riverside.
“St Vier.” The scholar spoke, as if he was testing the sound of the name to see if he liked it. We all drew in our breath. No one had ever seen the swordsman lose his temper. But if anyone could do it, it was probably this kid.
“St Vier,” he said again, long and low this time. Like a lord on the Hill, with all the time in the world, which, unlike the rest of us, they actually have. I happen to know this because I did some work up there once. But just once.
The swordsman finally turned his head. “Yes?”
“You’re very good at killing people.”
“Thank you.” Whatever you say about St Vier, he had very good manners. He wasn’t from Riverside originally, but except for that fact, the swordsman fit right in.
“Do you ever kill them just because they’re no earthly use to anyone at all?”
“No.” St Vier has this precise, deliberate way of talking. Almost thoughtful. “No, I don’t think I’ve ever done that.”
“Well.” The kid stepped back, putting a sword’s length between them. “That is disappointing. What do you do it for, then?”
“For money. And for practice.”
“And just now? Was that money, or practice?”
St Vier’s eyes darted over to where Archer Fink’s girl was carrying on in the corner, weeping and wailing. Sukey and Annie were trying to quiet her down with the cheapest brandy. For a swordsman, St Vier is pretty easy-going. But he never likes a lot of noise.
“That would be practice.”
St Vier looked him up and down. It stretched his neck some, the kid being as I have said a real beanpole. He must have seen what we all saw: young, skinny, hungry, poor, bad-tempered and out of place. But maybe he saw something more, as he did not walk away the way he usually does.
St Vier could pick his fights by then. He made most of his money on the Hill, because the nobles enjoy a good duel as much as we do. At their parties and things, it was demo matches only, though: First Blood, but never to the Death, unless the quarrel was really serious. It only made sense he had to keep his hand in down here in Riverside.
So he knew nobles, and it’s a good bet he knew that style of voice pretty well by now, the low, purring voice this ragged kid was using.
“Look,” St Vier said, “do you have a job for me? Is that what this is about?”
The student tugged his frayed cuff down over his bony wrist. “A job? Me? I don’t even have the price of a beer.”
“Then what do you want?”
“I don’t suppose you’d kill me for free.”
A smile snuck its way onto the swordsman’s face. “No.”
“For practice, then?”
“Can you fight?”
The scholar drew back his robe to show nothing hung on his belt, not even a knife. “Not particularly, no.”
“That’s no good, then. I like a challenge.”
“Oh.” The young scholar turned away. “Maybe later, then.”
I myself did not expect to see that Alec guy again.
But then I kept hearing about him. Wandering Riverside like a lost soul, trying not to get laid but to get killed, near as I could tell. It should have been easy. He was doing everything right: insulting people, asking weird questions, making a nuisance of himself… The thing is, he was ostentatiously unarmed. Unarmed, and broke. And also totally nuts. You want to be careful with the nutjobs especially. Furthermore, it was always possible little Alec was well-connected. No one had come down looking for him yet, but that didn’t mean they wouldn’t. We don’t want the City to take an interest in us. The last time that happened, they nearly burned the place down. Besides, he made people laugh, the things he said, things no one else would ever have the nerve to.
I saw him a few days later at Rosalie’s again. I was looking over some very fine silver spoons that Hal had chanced to discover in a house uptown, and in walks the skinny kid, skinnier than ever, slouching right on up to where Rosalie is ladling out stew for Fabian Greenspan.
“Is that food?” he asks her. “Or are you just getting rid of old wash water?”
“You could use a little of both,” Rosalie retorted.
Fabian sniggered, and some soup came out his nose.
“Medicinal, too, I see,” the kid said.
Fabian had the shakes. It was early in the day for him—just a little past noon—and Rosalie wanted to feed him before he started drinking, because drinking on an empty stomach makes Fabian Greenspan perform certain acts which for sanitary purposes require that the owner of an establishment throw him out or lose all other customers.
“Hungry?” Rosalie asked Alec.
“Hardly. Rotten pears and moldy cheese are abundant if you know where to look for them. Shall I bring you some? They’re very slenderizing.”
“Hey,” Fabian protested. He had a soft spot for Rosalie.
The boy looked down his long nose. “It’s not her fault. You get fat when you get old.”
“Hey!” Fabian roared feebly, and went for him.
“Hey,” said another voice, a calmer voice. The swordsman St Vier was peeling Fabian off that Alec character.
“Hey, Richard,” Rosalie said calmly. Having taken the scholar’s measure, she didn’t care whether he called her fat or the Empress of Cham. If she doesn’t like you, she just ignores you. “Want some stew?”
The young scholar was standing very stiff. He wasn’t used to being ignored.
St Vier and Rosalie got Fabian seated back down again, and Rosalie was encouraging him to take back his spoon.
“You should have some,” the scholar told St Vier.
“Did you like it?”
“I wasn’t offered any.” The scholar’s lip curled. “But it did wonders for our friend, there. Gave him the strength of ten. In another few hours, and with a few more bites in him, he would have had me flat on the floor.”
St Vier shrugged, with a little smile. The image clearly entertained him.
“You’re a disappointment,” the scholar went on.
The swordsman turned, giving him his full attention. “How so?”
A swordsman’s full attention is not something you really want on you. It gave me a chill. The tall kid’s eyes glittered hard, like he was fevered, and his skin was pale, like he was casting his final throw.
“It’s been three days, now. You haven’t killed a soul.” He paused between statements, waiting for a reaction. “I’ve been following you. You haven’t even stepped on a bug.” But he never got one. Just the swordsman’s dark blue eyes, looking at him. “I think you’re vastly overrated.” Even I could see the pulse pounding in his throat. Terrified, but he wouldn’t shut up, just kept talking in that long, drawling voice: “What’s the matter, have you lost your nerve?”
St Vier stood up. “Come with me.”
This is it, we thought. Good bye, scholar.
His hands were shaking, but he followed St Vier out of the tavern.
It wasn’t going to be a pretty death. Or even an interesting fight. St Vier wouldn’t waste good swordsmanship on an unarmed man. But Hal couldn’t resist a quick bet on it. So we followed them out to the street.
The scholar was standing against a wall, very white in the face against his black robe and the crummy old stone. “Remember,” he was saying, fast and breathy; “one blow to the heart. They say you’re quick.”
Young men can be real fools.
Right alongside the scholar, there was Dapper Dan, a decent young swordsman who’d never even challenged St Vier because everyone knew he had the world’s biggest crush on him. Guys like that think being a swordsman—let alone a lover—is all about risks and big gestures. And so he made one now.
“Allow me,” I heard Dan say, as he drew his blade, to kill the evil Alec, presumably.
St Vier was not the best for nothing. Dan never should have shown cold steel in his presence. St Vier was so quick he didn’t even register that Dan’s blade wasn’t directed at him.
You have to admire the guy. He drew and slashed poor heartsick Dan along the side, in a gorgeous twist no one else could have made.
Dan squawked and fell, and St Vier said “Rats,” as he realized what had happened.
The scholar stared down at poor Dan, who was still gasping and wheezing and clawing the ground.
“You should have let him,” he said.
“It wasn’t his business,” said St Vier.
Dan had drawn first, to save St Vier the trouble. To show off, to impress him… But if St Vier had wanted a dead scholar, he wouldn’t even have let him finish his next sentence. Whatever he intended, it wasn’t “the long, cold kiss of steel,” as the poets say.
“Would you like a drink?”
They walked back into Rosalie’s tavern together, and that was that. From then on, you never saw them apart.
Nobody bet on when they had started sleeping together, because there was no way of finding out for sure. Their landlady, Marie the whore and laundress, who lets out rooms above the courtyard of the old place with the well where she does the washing, is usually a pretty good egg, but she got all prissy, with: “Master St Vier’s business is his own and at least he pays his rent on time most months, not like some…” But why else did St Vier make it clear over and over that anyone who laid a finger on his nutty student would have him to answer to? More than one bully, pimp, and bravo fell that year when they tried it anyway. As far as St Vier was concerned, there was one rule: Don’t Mess with Alec, no matter what.
I guess Lord Horn didn’t know about St Vier’s Alec rule. How could he, when he lived way up on the Hill with the rest of them? What some old noble wanted poor scrawny Alec for was anybody’s guess, but not everyone was sorry when Alec disappeared for awhile. It made the swordsman jumpy as hell, though. He made some inquiries, killed a few hired toughs who should have known not to mess with Riversiders, got Alec back, all right—and then he went after Lord Horn and took care of him, too.
Well, what else could he do? He had his point to make. But the City didn’t see it that way. Brought St Vier up on murder charges, threw him in the Chop. Nobody liked it, but what could we do? We don’t ask anyone in the City to do us any favors. We look after our own, no squealers—but if you’re taken, good luck to you.
Alec broke that rule. For St Vier, see. Of course we didn’t know it at the time. We thought Alec had left again because he was bored, or lonely, or scared shitless. Fabian Greenspan swore he’d seen him spread-eagled with his throat slit off Fuller’s Way. But Fabian doesn’t always see so clearly. Red Sukey said he’d thrown himself from the Bridge because of the tragedy of his eternal love. But Sukey likes theatre.
Then Nimble Willie comes back from plying his trade over by the Council Hall claiming Alec had passed him riding in a carriage with the Duchess Tremontaine’s crest on it, all decked out in green velvet and gold lace. This is a little startling, because Willie’s pretty reliable, but not nearly as startling as when St Vier turns up again the next day, and Alec a day or so later, hair cut short but wearing the same old black robe, rattier than ever. So we couldn’t help ragging on Willie with, “So where’s the gold and velvet, Willie?”
No velvet—and no money, either. Maybe he spent it all to spring St Vier. I know that Alec is broke again because I try touching him for five in silver against my next lucky job uptown and he gives me one of those speeches that basically translates as, Get away from me or I’ll get St Vier to rip your balls off. Nice to know they’re still such excellent friends. Everything back to normal. Except word trickles down from people with legitimate jobs up in the city (meaning Riversiders who just couldn’t hack it any more, gone up there to scrub floors and dishes) that Alec is in fact a very close relative of the Duchess. So maybe he’s lying about the money. But, then, why doesn’t he buy himself some decent clothes?
Alec came storming out of the bedroom in their rooms at Marie’s, shoving his hair back behind his ears. Richard stopped practicing long enough to get out of his way. Alec never really knew where his body was in relation to anything around him.
“Have you seen my boots?” Alec demanded. “I took them off last night, and they’ve vanished. I think someone ate them. I’m going to the market. Please don’t consume anything else useful while I’m gone. The shad are in, and they sell out fast. I’ll bring some home. Where are my boots?”
“Behind the bed.”
“I’ve looked there.”
Alec emerged fully-shod, clutching his robe to his throat. “I’ve lost my cloak-pin.”
“It’s here.” Richard picked it up off the mantel, from on top of Alec’s small collection of precious books. “Do you want me to come with you?”
“To protect me from murderous fishwives?”
Alec shoved his hair back behind his ears again, and shook his head with annoyance as it fell forward.
“There’s nothing you can do about it,” Richard said. “Just wait. It grows when it grows.”
“How philosophical,” Alec drawled sarcastically. “How very like the wise old farmer in the tutelary readers for young people.”
“How long did it take you to grow it out the first time?”
“Years,” Alec growled. “And everyone still laughed at me when I got to University, because I looked like a new boy. It had just gotten good and long when I left. The one thing I finally got right. And then I had to go and cut it, just to make a nice impression on the Council for the Duchess.”
“Well, it worked,” Richard said.
“Not that it wasn’t worth it,” Alec added. “She nearly died when she saw me all cleaned up.”
The hair would grow long again; meanwhile, there was still enough for Richard to sink his fingers into, and he did.
Nobody knows who owns most of Riverside, but it’s probably Alec’s relatives, and they’ve probably buried the deeds, because who really wants their very own piece of this crumbling rabbit warren? Like there’s that loony cat-lady at the top of that old pile on Ferrian Alley. You’d pay not to own that house.
Young guys always believe in luck. Most of them never get old. And some, like that Alec, have it all, even if they may not look it at first.
Richard wasn’t looking for the letters, but the swordsman had a very good sense for what was around him. He always knew where things stood in a room, and he knew when anything changed. The letters were hidden all over the place: under the mattress, behind Alec’s books on the mantel piece, even in an old pair of winter boots gathering dust in the corner because they needed re-soling but no one could ever remember to take them out.
Richard knew Alec would never burn the letters, because there was writing only on one side, and Alec was terrifically cheap. Richard could see that it was good paper: thick and heavy-laid, the ink on it crisp and clean. He had no idea what the writing spelt out. But he did recognize the seals, heavy with wax that Alec would probably melt down sooner or later to reuse:
I was there at Rosalie’s the day the news came.
“Tremontaine!” Willie called, breathless, across the tavern. But Alec wouldn’t look up from his dice. He was losing, as usual, but as usual refusing to quit and cut his losses. He was good for it, though; everyone knew he’d always pay his debts, or St Vier would.
“Hey, Alec, listen up!” Nimble Willie finally reached the table where Alec was dicing with Hal and Fat Rodge. “Hey!” he panted. Really, he could hardly breathe. “Didn’t you hear me calling you?”
“I heard you calling someone. What is it, Willie? You’re dripping like a cheap candle, and you stink worse than my luck.”
“I’ve got news.”
Alec’s fingers tightened on the side of the table, and could you blame him? News could always be St Vier lying somewhere bleeding his guts out. “Well, spit it out. We’re in the middle of a game, here.”
“Your granny’s gone.”
“My ‘granny’? Which ‘granny’ would that be, Willie?”
“You know what I mean. It’s the Duchess. The Duchess Tremontaine. She’s dead. Last night. I came to tell you.”
He lifted the dice, and looked at them for a long time.
“Snake eyes,” he said, and threw.
We all stared at the two perfect spots there in the middle of the table. Then Alec got up and left the tavern. No one saw him again for days. But Hal kept his money for him, down to the last brass minnow, tied up in a handkerchief. You didn’t want to piss off St Vier. And clearly, Alec’s luck had turned.
“Aren’t you going to see her off?” Richard asked. He was practicing in their rooms with a blunt-tipped sword, stretching and exercising against the wall, which was pitted with the marks of other practice bouts. Alec had steel of his own, a darning needle he’d learned to use in his time at University. It, too, was blunt-tipped, which was good, considering the uses to which Alec put sharp objects.
“I avoided her while she was alive. It seems hypocritical to pursue her now.”
“I heard there might be fireworks. You love fireworks.”
“They had fireworks last year for Lord Galing. It cheered everyone up. I’m sure the late Duchess Tremontaine would want us all to be as miserable as possible. There will probably be a choir.”
Richard knew he was treading on dangerous ground, but he was genuinely curious. “They’re not expecting you, then?”
Alec stabbed at the sock. “Oh, they’re expecting me, Richard. The show won’t be complete without the idiot grandson parading with his savage swordsman.”
“Wear your scholar’s robe,” Richard said cheerfully. “It’s black. It will give them fits.”
“Shall I put a silver chain around your neck, and lead you in the procession?”
Richard winced. “That bad, eh?”
The needle fell still in Alec’s hands. “Bad? Oh, so you’d actually mind? I was beginning to think you liked the idea.”
Alec hated people knowing anything about him. Even Richard. And now it was out. All over the city. All over Riverside.
“If you wanted to go, I’d come with you, that’s all.”
Richard went back to practicing, striking his sword rhythmically against the wall, careful not to look at Alec, but hearing his acid, honey voice:
“By all means, let’s go to the Tremontaine funeral, and join the solemn procession of important people showing of just how important they really are. They’re expecting us, after all. We wouldn’t want to disappoint them. And then we can poke holes in a few. That, they will not be expecting. Think what a thrill it will give the assembled mourners. It will be the talk of the town. The Duchess will be utterly forgotten.” Alec jabbed at the sock’s hole, which was not getting any smaller. “Not that she won’t be forgotten soon, anyway. She’s got no power any more, has she? These people are no longer interested. They’ll pay their respects, because everyone’s watching, and then they’ll go right back to trying to figure out who’s giving the most important dinner parties now that she’s gone. She never liked me, you know. I’m rotten at dinner parties. No conversation. And I slouch. She likes people who are good at things. You impressed her. She’d like it if you went. Did you ever work for her?”
“Never. You know that.”
“Go now, then. Go up to the Hill, and show everyone you know how to behave properly. Just because I’m a disgrace doesn’t mean you have to be.”
“Why would I want to go there without you?”
“Why would you want to go there with me?”
Richard put his hands on Alec’s shoulders. “Let’s not,” he said, “go anywhere at all.” He could feel the tension radiating along his arms.
“How blissful,” Alec drawled. “How domestic.”
Richard reached down to uncover Alec’s palm. The marks that scored it were vivid red, but the skin unbroken. It was only a darning needle. Richard raised the hand to his lips. The palm was hot and burning.
So it looked like everybody was going to the Duchess Tremontaine’s funeral except Alec. And he was probably the only one actually invited. The rest of Riverside was just going to turn up along the route, which would run from her big house on the Hill to the Stone City outside of town. The nobles would ride in procession behind, and everyone would line up to watch them, which was just fine with us. Nothing better for pickpockets than a good, colorful procession—and nothing makes a man want a whore faster than being reminded of mortality.
If Alec wanted to hide the letters that kept coming, Richard wasn’t going to say anything. If Alec wanted to stop crossing the river into the city, wanted to give up excursions to the booksellers and the theater, well, he got that way sometimes. The books were all too old, Alec claimed, and the theater played nothing but comedies. He detested comedies. Alec was drinking all the time. It made him loose-limbed and clumsy, quarrelsome and fanciful. It didn’t mean anything, Richard thought.
Then, on their way home from the market, there was a strange swordsman fixed at the end of the alley, blocking their way. The stranger’s sword was sheathed, but loudly and clearly he spoke:
“I bear challenge to David Alexander Tielman Campion, Duke Tremontaine—”
For a moment, Richard didn’t even understand the words. “What the hell?”
“Just kill him,” Alec said.
Richard drew his sword. “I’ll take the challenge.”
The other man drew, and saluted.
“Is it to the Death?”
“I hope so,” said Alec. “They can hardly expect me to give up the Duchy of Tremontaine for First Blood.”
It was all over town. Alec was heir to Tremontaine. And on either side of the river, people were waiting to kill him before they’d let him into Tremontaine House. Lucky for him he had the greatest swordsman in the city at his side day and night to defend him. The rules were the rules. As long as St Vier was there to take the challenge, honor was satisfied. The nobles had laid out those rules themselves, to keep them from killing each other off when there were better men to die for them. All St Vier had to do was always be there, and never lose.
By the third challenge, Richard was getting curious.
“Is this usual when people inherit?” he asked, stepping around the dead man in the street to clean his sword.
Alec wiped his sleeve across his face. He’d barely had time to register the challenge before Richard struck the final blow. “No, it’s my goddamned relatives. Contesting the succession.”
“What’s to contest? Weren’t you always her heir?”
Alec scraped something off the sole of his boot against a corner of a wall. “No, Richard. Did you think I was holding out on you all this time?”
He had, actually.
What everyone wanted to know was, Why? Why this batshit guy, who didn’t have enough sense to get out of Riverside when he could, and take his famous boyfriend with him? Was it some kind of a joke? If he didn’t want to be a Duke, couldn’t he just say so?
Not that we didn’t enjoy the challenges. Nervous swordsmen from the Hill paid good money to find out where his young lordship might be. We told them where he might be. But never where he really was.
“So who was the heir, then?” Richard sheathed his sword, but kept his hand on the pommel as he walked.
“No one. She wouldn’t name an heir while she lived. Maybe she thought it would make her immortal. Maybe she just couldn’t decide.”
Climbing the dark, narrow stairs to their rooms, Richard watched with extra caution for signs of intruders. He opened the door first, and waited until it was shut behind them to say, “So the Duchess Tremontaine died without naming an heir, and it automatically goes to you?”
“No, Richard.” Alec flung his robe down on their only chair, and said with entirely unjustified elaborate patience, “Haven’t you been listening? She did name me. Finally. At the end.”
He fished behind On Human Understanding and pulled out a letter, heavy with seals.
“See? It’s all very official. Chosen, chosen, chosen. Like a prize rosebush at the fair. By a dying woman they probably nagged to death until she just gave them a name to shut them up.”
Richard admired the elaborate writing, heavy and black, looped and angled.
“So you are now the Duke Tremontaine?”
It was the first time he’d said it aloud. It sounded very strange.
Alec snapped the paper shut, using the seals as ballast.
“Well, that depends, doesn’t it?”
“On whether I live to the end of the trial period.”
“There’s a trial period?”
“Oh, yes. It’s open season on me until the thirty days of mourning have passed.”
“And then?” he dared to ask.
“It’s over. We’re safe. I just have to last that long. Then it’s not my problem any more. Or yours.”
“But if you don’t want the duchy—”
“Who says I don’t want it?”
“I want,” Alec said, untying Richard’s shirt, “to make them sweat. Don’t you?”
It was a little harder when they started sending down guys we knew. Steffi’s kid, Luxe, who’d been so proud when that fancy uptown swordmaster took him on, and then Steffi never shut up about how her kid had finally gotten himself an important job as some noble’s own house swordsman, and that’s why her boy never came to see her anymore. When Luxe showed up at Rosalie’s, she was thrilled. I have to admit he looked good, well-fed and strong, dressed in new clothes. They were not any noble’s colors, though. We thought he was off-duty, but he wasn’t. He bought a round for everyone, and then he said, “So what’s new?” or “What’s happening around here?” or something.
We all looked at each other. He had to know.
“Looking for St Vier?” Rosalie said bluntly. She’d never liked Luxe that much.
Luxe grinned. He had good teeth. “Why shouldn’t I?”
“No reason. Everyone else is. But you just got lucky.”
In they came, St Vier and Alec, walking close together. Alec’s head was up, and he was laughing. St Vier had that half-smile, listening to him.
Everyone got quiet, not even trying to pretend they hadn’t been talking about them.
St Vier’s polite. He nodded to the room. Actually, he was checking it out—and as Alec stepped up to the counter and ordered a beer, St Vier grabbed him by the elbow and steered him back.
“Again?” said Alec.
“Again,” his friend said.
Luxe smiled. “St Vier.”
Steffi moved in, all tits and curls. “You remember my boy Luxe, Richard, right? Here he is, come to pay us a visit—”
Luxe didn’t even do her the courtesy of telling her to shut up. He just kept on talking. “Will you take my challenge?”
“On behalf of his lordship, here?” St Vier asked. “Because if you’re just showing off, I’d rather not.”
Luxe straightened up, and you saw the nobleman’s house servant that he’d learned to be. “I bear challenge. To the Tremontaine heir.” He nodded at Alec, who was busy picking at a loose thread on his cuff. “That him?”
St Vier shifted his weight, cutting Luxe off from Alec just a little more. “Don’t try.”
“Guard, then.” Luxe drew. There was sweat on his upper lip already. He had good form, though. People spread out, and the bets got going. I was taking as many as I could, so I missed some of the action. Then Steffi was moaning, “No no no no no no no,” and Rosalie had her arms wrapped around her. St Vier had Luxe pinned to the floor, sweating, his blade at his throat. The throat, not the heart.
St Vier said, “Alec?”
Alec was sweating, too, pushing hair back from his face. “What?”
“Ask him. Ask him who sent him.”
We couldn’t believe it. If there’s one thing swordsmen don’t do, it’s ask that question. The patron pays, the patron calls the shots, and protects whoever’s working for him, so you keep your mouth shut. That’s the rules.
“I don’t care who sent him! They can all go to hell.”
“So do I kill him, then?”
“Hell, no,” Alec said. “What for?” And turned away.
He walked on out of the tavern, and St Vier followed him. We all stood staring at the man on the floor.
“Shit,” Luxe said. He was shaking, and he wouldn’t get up. “Oh, shit.”
The next day, I had my great idea. I waited for Alec on the street, not in Rosalie’s where everyone would see us. I waited til I saw him out with his basket to do his marketing, and I went up to him and I said, “Look, here’s the thing.”
He looked down his long nose at me. Way down. I can’t help if I’m short. “Yes,” he said; “I can see that.”
I ignored the dig. You just have to. I said, “You want a message to someone? Someone up on the Hill, maybe? Something you want to say, but not write down?”
He just looked at me. But not in that sneery way. His chin went down a little, listening. He had the weirdest eyes.
“You can trust me.” I tried not to talk too fast, which is something people say I sometimes do. But it was hard with those eyes, and him not saying anything back. “Say you make them an offer. A hundred royals, a thousand, I dunno, what’s it worth to them?” He snorted. “Look, you don’t want it; they do. So why not benefit? You save everyone a lot of grief, and make a profit. Good for them, good for you, and everyone gets what they want.”
He said slowly, “I hadn’t thought of that.”
Well of course he hadn’t.
“Just say the word,” I told him. “I’m your man.”
The way he looked at me then… If I’d ever doubted he was really one of them, I didn’t anymore. It wasn’t just his eyes, it was his voice. Something curious and measuring, like he was checking me out for position of third footman on the left or something. I’m your man.
That’s not how I’d meant it, either. I just meant it the regular way.
“I know you’re a fair-minded guy so I won’t even name a price. I just—well, you know where to find me.”
He nodded and walked on.
Richard met Alec on the stairs coming up. It was too dark for Alec to see how bloody the swordsman’s shirt was, but he could smell it.
“Don’t go up,” Richard said. “There’s a dead man in there.”
“In there?” Alec pointed with his chin to their door at the top of the stairs. He was carrying a basket of fruit. The first cherries were in from the country, and he’d spent far too much on them.
“It’s a mess,” Richard said. He walked Alec back down the narrow stairs. “I’ll tell Marie to clean it up.”
Down in the courtyard, Alec could see the corners of the swordsman’s mouth were white. “I’ll tell her.”
Marie was white, too. “I didn’t,” she said. “I swear.”
“Didn’t let the poor bastard in? I should think not.”
“We know you hate cleaning up blood, Marie, it’s all right.”
“But who?” she said. “Who told them where you live?”
“Everyone knows where we live,” Alec drawled. “It’s a wonder they didn’t try it before. Maybe they did, and got sick of waiting, last time. Don’t worry about it.”
“How much longer?” Richard asked, when she’d gone upstairs with her pail and some rags, and sent a boy to find someone to remove the body.
“Seven days,” Alec said. “And then they’ll stop sending you new toys to play with.”
“I don’t like them messing up the house.”
“Neither does Marie. I’ll draw her another bucket of water. She appreciates these little gestures.”
“I think,” St Vier said, “we’ll sleep at Rosalie’s tonight.”
What was I doing out that night? Trying to earn a living, same as everyone else. The job crashed and burned, though, so I was headed to Rosalie’s for a drink. I wasn’t trying to spy on anybody. But I saw that guy Alec come out Rosalie’s back door, the one nobody uses, alone. He had a lantern.
The moon was good enough for me. Alec was moving fast, but a moment later I saw St Vier come out the same door. He didn’t have a light, and I thought he’d catch up to Alec soon enough. But he didn’t. St Vier wasn’t really dressed, either: shirt unlaced, jacket unbuttoned, though he did have his sword in his hand. He strapped it on as he walked, slowly and quietly, following the man with the lantern.
It didn’t take a wizard to know something was up. I should’ve turned around and gone straight into the tavern, maybe. But I thought, Who knows? Maybe they’ll need backup. The night shouldn’t be a total disaster. So I followed them.
Alec went to the river, across from the University. Good, I thought. He’s finally going back to where he came from! But he just stood on the bank, looking across. St Vier stayed in the shadows, watching Alec. When Alec moved closer to the water St Vier got tense, like he was thinking the beanpole might throw himself in. But then Alec moved on, walking along the embankment, trailing his hand along the low wall, stroking some giant pet.
When the wall petered out he swung back into Riverside, passing through the old market, which was pretty much empty except for a few people who’d built themselves a fire to keep out the chill and the spooks. They glanced up when Alec passed, tried to make themselves small, not to be noticed. He didn’t even look. St Vier walked right by them, too, a moment later.
It was harder in the little streets to keep behind them. Alec was moving slower. Like it was a bright spring day, and he had all the time in the world to take a little stroll from where he’d started at Rosalie’s, back home to his own lodgings. I heard St Vier had killed a man there today.
They didn’t go in. Alec leaned his head against the crumbling stone archway to the courtyard. His arm was up over his head, and his fist was clenched. He spread his fingers out slowly, ran them down the outer wall. He backed away slowly from the house, like he didn’t want to let go. Even slower he walked down the street, where it was so dark we both would have lost him without the lantern.
Did he know St Vier was following him? How could he not? How could he think he’d get so far in the night alone? And did St Vier know it was me behind him? He must have. Or maybe not. Maybe everyone was out taking a little midnight walk that just happened to go all around Riverside. All around the places the two of them liked to eat and drink and buy things, make trouble and get out of it, kill and get talked about. All of them. Like a farewell tour.
Alec crossed Riverside to the Bridge—the good bridge, the big stone one that takes you to the side of the city with all the nice stuff: the excellent shops and pretty little houses, the wide paths by the River where people go walking under the trees, until you climb all the way up to the Hill, where the nobles in their mansions can enjoy fresh breezes and a really good view. There are some nasty bits, too, with nasty people in them who don’t care who your boyfriend is, or codes of honor or anything. If Alec was planning to sneak up to Tremontaine House with his lantern in the dark, he’d better be careful.
But the dark was a little less dark now. You could see his bony, ragged form against the sky behind him. He went up to the Bridge, but didn’t cross it—didn’t even set one foot on the steps. He just stood there, staring across at the city.
Then he held his lantern up high, high over his head—like he was showing the whole world he stood there. And then he goes and throws the whole thing far out into the dark, running water.
Alec turned around, then, back to Riverside, back to us. I couldn’t see his face, but I heard his voice. “Richard?” he asked, into the graying light.
He was looking in the wrong direction.
But St Vier stepped out of the shadows. “Let’s go home.”
They walked right past me.
Most people in Riverside lock their doors if they own anything of value, but Richard St Vier had gotten out of the habit. This morning, though, he found the door to their rooms locked tight. They had to go back down to Marie’s to get her key.
She handed them the cold old iron. “You’ll want to keep this. I’ll put a gate over the courtyard entry, too, maybe. Should I?”
Their rooms were spotless, the old elmwood floor scrubbed almost white. “Like the pages of a book,” said Alec. He took a burnt stick from the hearth, and wrote something on the floor with it, then scuffed it out with his foot, leaving a charcoal smear.
Richard stood in the middle of the room. The furniture was off. It had been knocked around during the fight, of course, and then Marie had moved it to do the floor, and not put it back exactly right. She’d missed a spot of blood on the wall. He pulled the chaise longue back to its place between the window and the fireplace. The inlaid table Alec had pawned his velvet coat for should be closer to the wall. Richard remembered the day Alec had re-appeared in Riverside, fresh from his last fight with the Duchess, a package of fish in hand and tiny shards of glass still glittering on the shoulders of that coat.
Alec flung himself into their ratty old chaise longue. Stuffing oozed. He twisted uncomfortably, got up, took a book from the pile on the mantelpiece—which Marie had dusted and straightened—and tried the chaise again.
Richard went into the next room, where his opponent had been hiding, waiting. It looked all right, but he hated knowing anyone had been in there. He opened his sword chest. Everything seemed in place. He took out a practice sword, and went back to the front room to work. For awhile, the room was quiet except for the rhythmic thud of his feet on the floor, the sword on the wall.
Then Alec looked up from the book he hadn’t been reading. “Richard,” he said. “Let’s go to Tremontaine House.”
“All right.” Richard put the sword up. “When?”
“How long will it take you to change your shirt?”
“And you? Are you going to change?”
Alec considered his own frayed cuffs. “No. No, I don’t think so.”
He pulled on his scholar’s robe, and then went out the door and down the stairs without looking back.
Richard did not stop for a clean shirt; he grabbed the nearest decent sword and followed Alec down the narrow stairs, catching up with him on the landing. Alec didn’t say anything; he just kept walking. Walking toward the Bridge. He walked down the narrow lanes where the old houses practically touched each other in perpetual twilight. He walked along the streets where the gutters overflowed, past the lion fountain with the broken nose where women were washing linens.
And then it turned into a story. That’s the only way Richard could describe it.
“Where are you going?” asked Lucy Diver, and when Alec answered “Tremontaine House,” Lucy put down her washing and said, “Oh, yeah? Mind if I come, too?” Alec shrugged, Why not? and Lucy did.
They walked through the Market Square, and people looked up from their trading in fresh-caught fish and stolen watches.
“Hey, Alec!” Toothless John called out. “I got good trout for you today!”
But Alec didn’t stop.
“Where are you going?” John asked, and Lucy answered, “Tremontaine House!” and John fell in with them.
They came upon Fat Rodge, and Hal, and “Where are you going?” they asked, and John answered, “Up the Hill,” and they came along, too.
They picked up three or four more this way, and after that people just started joining because it was a crowd, and it was a nice day to be going somewhere new.
I was one of the ones who marched that day, the day that funny kid, Alec, became the Duke Tremontaine.
A whole big bunch of us parading through Riverside, drunk and sober, some at the end of their day and some just starting out, because everyone likes to be in on the action. The girls were waving ribbons in the air, and everyone was singing something different. St Vier was guarding all of us, like some mad wedding procession, and other swordsmen joined in, too, making a very nice appearance.
For a guy with a mouth like that on him, Alec was awful quiet. In fact, I don’t think he ever said a word. Just kept on walking, a beanpole in black, paying no attention to anyone around him, just walking like he knew if he stopped the whole thing would fall apart. Sometimes we even had to run to keep up with him.
When we got to the Bridge, we kept right on going. We marched through the city, past all the shops and the fancy houses, singing and carrying on, laughing as people fell back out of our way, and we heard them shouting and screaming and calling to each other to run away or to come and see. Some even lined up, cheering. I heard “Riverside!” and “Tremontaine!” and a whole lot else, besides. But we didn’t stop. We marched all the way up the broad streets to the Hill, past all those high walls and gold-and-iron gates, until we came to the biggest and fanciest, the one that was Alec’s, and they had to let him in.
We lifted him up on our shoulders and carried him all the way there—over the Bridge, all the way up the Hill to Tremontaine House.
After all, he belonged to us.
© 2011 by Ellen Kushner. Originally published in Naked City: Tales of Urban Fantasy. Reprinted in revised form by permission of author.