It was pure instinct that drove me to stop Pyore. Tryst reflected to himself briefly as he escorted Marigold Tullivan to her quarters following the incident at the feast. And it was a great deal of control that kept me from dragging him across the table and slamming him to the floor.
Pyore had attempted to give Marigold a backhanded blow across the face while she leaned in his direction. Fortunately for her, Tryst had caught the boy’s wrist as he lashed the hand outward. There was a brief moment when the eyes of Tryst and Pyore locked. Pure terror had streaked the lad’s face, but he did not scream, not even then. It wasn’t until Tryst released his grip did the blond haired Palomb twin even gasp.
Old Lord Palomb had lost his patience with his son’s temper by then and ordered him confined to his room for the remainder of the evening. He had even gone so far as to summon his own steward to escort the lad and post their own guards at the doors to ensure compliance. Tryst had moved to apologise for his actions but Eamon had refused it, declaring that no apology was warranted for preventing his son from making a fool out of himself.
It felt as though the air was sucked from the room by then. The gathered guests had already gone quiet when Marigold and Pyore had begun yelling at one another and Tryst’s act only served to stifle them further. Even Marigold was left speechless, her eyes wide as the realization of what had almost come to pass dawned on her.
Now there was only the sound of Tryst’s sword slapping against his hip and the click of Marigold’s high heeled shoes on the marble vestibule floor.
The sword was his Master’s Blade, worn as requested by Lord Master Grenjin Howland. It was a single-edged sword, the blade a scant few centimetres or so shy of a meter in length and forged from pure Dwarven blacksteel.
A few guards remained at the key posts in the Lobby: two on either side of the doors leading to the dining hall, a pair more at the front entrance of the manor and another pair to either side of the steps. Presiding over the guards was Lieutenant Raspen, seated at the desk in the little office beside the front doors. He had been given command of the watch while Captain Barrid stuffed his fat face and attempted to feel important in the dining hall.
“Tryst, my Lady Marigold, is anything the matter?” Tryst knew the voice of Freyard Archer and looked to the top of the stairs to see the man leaning on the balustrade above.
“Aye, Frey, there is,” Tryst called back as they climbed the wide steps to meet the soldier. He was bedecked in his Captain’s uniform instead of the Honourable Guardsman attire he normally wore during the Parliamentary Sessions.
“I noticed young Lord Pyore being escorted past me earlier. He seems to be confined to his room with his own house guards at the door. Now I see you’re taking Miss Tullivan to her quarters as well and just as the band is about ready to switch to the dancing songs. I say, Tryst, what is going on?” Freyard asked, entirely nonplussed.
“Much and more, my good man, walk with us, for I have need of you,” Tryst replied as he and Marigold made for the high ceilinged hallway. Freyard fell in behind them and the three quickly strode to the room.
As Freyard claimed, there were the Hercalest guards in their shining silver coats. One paced angrily while a pair more stood rigidly at attention in front of Pyore and Eldridge’s quarters. Tryst noted that the pacing guard was Geddrick Palomb, cousin of the ruling Palombs and the same fellow who made the arrest of the Elf at the tavern earlier. Further down at the near end of the long hallway were a pair of men clad in the teal jackets of the Tullivan’s house guard, manning the entrance to Marscal’s residence.
From between her bosoms, Marigold produced a brass key to unlock the door. The lock clicked and Marigold was about to take the knob to hand when Tryst gently pushed past her. “What’s the matter?” she asked as Tryst entered the darkened room himself, left hand going to the hilt of the sword on his right hip.
Once inside Tryst flipped the switch to illuminate the room. He scanned behind the main door, into the closet, under the bed and the hall outside the servant door before permitting Marigold to enter.
“What was the need for that?” she inquired while stepping through the threshold.
“A force of habit, but a good precautionary measure nonetheless,” Tryst answered her before looking to his friend. “Freyard, would you do me the favour of guarding the main door? See to it that we’re not disturbed and notify me if any of the Palombs or their people comes through.”
“Certainly, though it will cost you a tankard of ale when next I am in town,” Freyard answered with a thin smile crossing his lips.
“You have yourself a deal, ser,” Tryst replied back as Freyard returned to the hallway, closing the door behind him to leave Tryst and Marigold alone.
Plopping down before the makeup table, Marigold buried her face in her hands.
There was much Tryst wanted to say, though he had no idea of where to start.
“That damn Pyore made a fool of me,” Marigold began, saving Tryst from having to do as much himself. “He goaded me into yelling at him, Tryst. From the moment he heard that I sat for my father today in Parliament, Pyore made it his goal to ruin any measure of respect I may have earned.” She began to tear up as she talked. “And the damn fool I am, I let him.”
“I don’t think you are a fool, my lady,” Tryst answered, unsure of what else to say. “I witnessed how he treated you from the moment you both walked into the ballroom and I thought it was absolutely degrading.” The dark makeup beneath Marigold’s eyes was beginning to smear as she gazed up at him again while he stopped to clear his throat. “I also think you handled yourself gracefully for as long as you could, given that he insulted your ailing father.”
“First, he tried to sit me below the Master table and he wore my family colours like we’re already married.” Despite the tears welling in Marigold’s eyes, they shone with defiance and rage as she spoke. “Then he tried to scold and reprimand me in front of everyone like I was a misbehaved child.”
“Even the Lord Master was appalled by Pyore’s behaviour,” Tryst said by way of consolation. “From my experience as a fly on the wall of political forums, I can say that this will reflect far worse on the Palombs than it will you.”
“What reason do you have to believe that, Tryst?” she asked him morosely.
“Pyore was the instigator,” Tryst explained with an easy shrug. “Howland will know come morning of what occurred before he arrived. For if no one else, I will tell him as much when asked. There is nothing the old Master hates more than someone knowingly causing such drama. It draws too much attention.”
Marigold dropped her gaze to the floor. “It’s not him I’m completely worried about, Tryst. If it came down to my ability to rally allies to my side, Grenjin Howland, if he wasn’t dead and gone by then, would never be counted among them. It is the other lords and the ministers who need to see a strong, firm-handed leader in me. Not some fool of a woman being played like a violin by Pyore Palomb.”
“There is truth in that,” Tryst nodded in agreement. “Though Lord Howland may live with sound mind for decades more yet. He is in his seventh decade and riddled with arthritis, granted, but he is otherwise healthy. By the time you have to concern yourself with power, this indecency may be long forgotten.”
“It is you who forgets, Tryst,” she said with a sigh. “I am to be married to Pyore Palomb after his eighteenth birthday. Believe me when I say this: when my father is gone, they will come for me then. I cannot wait decades or even years for Grenjin Howland to keel over. I have to make a new marriage for myself before then or lose all my entitlement and wealth to Pyore.”
“And you want this marriage to be to me,” Tryst said, aware that he was perhaps a little blunt in his delivery.
“When you caught Pyore’s wrist, did you not see the sheer terror on his face?” The corner of Marigold’s mouth turned upwards as she reminded him. “If you held it a moment longer, I’m convinced the wretch would have soiled his trousers. Money is not the only key to the door of power. Strength is too and that is what you have, Tryst Reine. A young man who usually thinks himself invincible became aware of his own mortality because of your simple action. If I married you, do you think either of those Palombs would dare raise a hand to me again?”
Tryst resigned himself to the edge of her bed, to look her right in the eyes when he spoke. “Grenjin Howland might raise an army to your door, one that’s short of only a few western ministers and their standing forces. Warships from Aquas Bay would be sent north to neutralise everything south of Daol Bay. Men bearing the colours of Palomb and Taves and the other ministers of the east will swarm over your walls like locusts and break down your doors.
“I could take a dozen to the dirt with me, perhaps more if I had your best swords and rifles at my side. Eventually though, I would die trying to stop the inevitable wave of humanity while our little lordling Pyore would be safely stationed in the rear of the assault. Then you would be wed to him, by force if needed, with some Patriarch of the Triarchy spewing words from his pious lips.
“By the end of it, you would be at Pyore’s mercy while my rotting corpse is swaying in a gibbet for the entertainment of the crows and seagulls.”
“What are you saying, Tryst?” Her gaze was hard as stone, “You are the fucking Master of Blades! There is supposed to be no man alive who can best you in combat.”
“What I am saying is that I am just one man,” he said doubtfully. “Am I proficient with a sword? Yes, I admit. Yet what is one man with a sword to an army? I am the low born son of a leather tailor from the town of Berris in the Gildriad Midlands. I hold no lands or manors or armies of my own, and my only strength is at the end of a piece of sharp steel. I may make a few men cower in fear of the sword, but a herd armed with rifles and bayonets would trample me.”
“You would have my army, Tryst. You would be my husband to rule beside me.” Marigold stood to face him as she spoke, her green eyes red from the tears. It was hard to refuse them, just as he could not deny Marigold’s hands when they took one of his to hold. “It wouldn’t be I commanding you, or you commanding me, it would be an equal partnership.”
“A partnership…” Tryst let the words tumble from his lips as he felt her roaming through his mind with her piercing stare. She walked through the defensive walls he had spent years building as if she were a ghost, unbound by the constructs of mortal people. But he had to drive her out, for this was madness she spoke of. “What you would ask of me is to walk hand in hand with you through a nightmarish, political labyrinth. While I have no doubt that you could navigate that path, I am not who you need at your side when you decide to take that first step.”
The frustration crept back into Marigold’s voice at that. “You are the Master of Blades. Who better to stand with me? I will shine the light to carry us both through the maze. All you need to do is protect me, so that the light is not extinguished.”
Tryst shook his head softly, denying her once more. “I am the Master of Blades, aye, though the only thing that title means, as grandiose as it sounds, is that I am an exceptionally capable sellsword. Not to mention the fact that my reputation is mired in the eyes of the public, the very public you need to back your claim to power. If you married me and foisted me upon the people, are you any better than those already in power?”
“It would only be temporary,” Marigold countered with hope in her voice. “Once the EMP is overthrown, we ensure that the people have a voice and a vote in how this country is run. Marry me now and once our revolution is through, I know the people will come to respect and admire you as I do.”
As much as Tryst would have like to believe her words, his good sense continued to thwart him. “That is a grim request, Marigold. A marriage should be a union of love between two adults, not a partnership to be consummated with war.”
Marigold smiled at him sadly and reached up to brush away a red strand of hair from his face, leaving her hand upon his cheek to rest. “That too would be temporary, Tryst. I may have ulterior motives for our union, yes, but as I have said before, I do like you a great deal.”
“I sincerely believe you do, Marigold,” Tryst added with a sigh when her other hand joined the first in caressing his face.
She shrugged and began snaking her hands down Tryst’s neck until they came to rest on his chest. “Then join me, Tryst Reine, for I am quite nearly out of time. If we do not strike now and stake our claim while the sun shines, we will be forever lost in the darkness.”
“You have thought long about this, haven’t you?” Tryst gingerly put his free hand to the small of her back that the dress left exposed. As he embraced her slender frame, Tryst saw a smile work its way across Marigold’s face.
“I have,” Marigold spoke singingly into his ear. “Almost as long as I’ve thought of you to be the one I share my life and legacy with.”
Marigold drew his face down and caressed his lips with her own, slowly and sensually. With his will to resist entirely sapped, Tryst returned the favour and their tongues entwined as one.
“Ser and my Lady,” Freyard called from without, interrupting before things could progress further. “I don’t mean to disturb you, but there’s a great commotion in the lobby. There’s considerable shouting and I hear a woman in distress among them. I believe you’ll be needed, Tryst.”
“Fuck this night, at any rate,” Tryst grumbled lowly before replying to his friend. “Yes Frey, give me a moment and I’ll be right with you. In the meantime, take a gander and see what this disturbance is about.”
With a groan, Marigold broke away from Tryst and sat upon the bed. “Will you return to me before the dawn comes?”
“I cannot say, my dear,” Tryst lamented. “I do not know what awaits me at the bottom of those stairs.”
“Forget the world outside the door for a night and stay with me,” she all but begged in a longing voice. “There are a few hundred guards crawling about the manor and that fat fop Captain Barrid to tell them what to do. Let them handle this disturbance.”
Tryst replied pointedly, “And risk us being found together when Grenjin Howland sends for me? No, I’ll go do what’s asked of me and with any fortune I’ll be back before you know it.”
“I shall be waiting,” she said with a coy wink that Tryst reciprocated before going out into the dimly lit lobby.
Outside the room, Tryst found that the hallway’s occupants, save for the guards at Marscal Tullivan’s door, had gone to the balustrade to look at the lobby below. From within the dining hall Tryst could still hear the band playing. Good, he thought. Whatever is going on out here may go unnoticed by the folks inside.
Tryst estimated it to be some dust up between lesser ministers or their offspring, drunk and full of vigour. If so, he would quickly have them escorted from the manor for the night and be done with it.
The look on Freyard’s face when he met the man near the stairway told Tryst that this was no mere scuffle between little lordlings. “Tryst, this is dire,” he managed to say before a woman’s muffled groans and the rattle of chains on the ceramic tiled floor rang through the halls. Tryst hurried to the railing to survey the scene without further comment, unsure of what he would find.
In the foyer below were a score of Manor Guards, led by Lieutenant Raspen standing in a semi-circle around a trio of men and a captive woman. One of the three recent arrivals had an arm across the woman’s throat and shackled, pale white hands clasped the sleeve of the arm that held her in place. The captor’s other hand clutched an expensive pistol pressed tight against the woman’s temple.
The man holding the captive was a familiar character to Tryst. A bounty hunter by the name of Fletchard Miller, who was infamous for harassing the fugitives and immigrants that attempted to make use of Illiastra’s port cities. A sinister reputation followed him, one earned by putting to use a deadly and extensive set of skills he had learned as a former Knight of Southern Gildriad. The revered bounty hunter now stood before them clad in brown leather boots, a suit of deep blue woollen trousers, a padded doublet and a shining steel cuirass above all. Atop Fletchard’s head was a tightly cut flat of hair that looked coal black in the light of the dimmed lanterns with a well-kempt, matching beard on his face. The most distinguishing trait of all though was a thick leather patch that covered his left eye.
The man’s compatriots by comparison were bedraggled louts, clad in cloaks of grey that may have been black at one time with torn and filthy tunics beneath. One was thinner than the other, with a mop of dirty, blond curls and a slack jawed face. The defining traits of the other man were a potbelly and a ragged beard that encircled his throat beneath a horseshoe of equally ragged brown hair.
A cloying stench of rum and sweat struck Tryst as he reached the scene, an odour Tryst traced to the flunkies of the bounty hunter.
It was the stout one of them garnering the attention as he waved around a rust-speckled pistol over his head and demanded payment for the bounty.
Raspen was bargaining with them to release the woman to his custody and in return the hunters would be compensated fully. However, the drunken sot was having none of it, repeating his demand to have the money in hand before releasing the woman.
Only one of the honourable guards remained at the doors to the dining hall. The other was no doubt gone to inform the Lord Master of what was occurring in the lobby. The guard left to hold the door had a hand on the hilt of his still sheathed, gold hilted sword.
If these men were pats of butter you might have a chance of cutting through them with that, Tryst thought sarcastically to himself.
As Tryst reached the floor, he realised that he had spent so much time analysing the armed men in the room that he had quite nearly overlooked the chained woman. She was thin, Tryst noticed as he joined the guards, with a head of long, damp, red hair that fell over her face and hid her features from view.
The woman was fair skinned, almost as white as snow from what was exposed of it and dressed in dark green leather trousers, matching jacket and boots of brown doeskin. It was elven-made clothing, finely tailored with impeccable stitching, though it showed signs of wear. Beneath the open jacket she wore a sodden, long sleeved tunic of white linen and a bodice of a similar green to the leathers. Its laces hung loose, though its make indicated it was a garment specifically made for her slim frame.
Her captors had taken all sorts of precautions in securing their bounty. Heavy shackles were locked on her wrists and ankles, with barely enough chain between her feet to allow even a hobbled shuffle, if she were allowed to move at all. The thick cuffs on her wrists were closely joined and bound to her leg irons with an even heavier chain. That thick string of rusting iron links no doubt made lifting her arms a difficult ordeal after a time. Hobbled hand to foot like that, Tryst was amazed that the prisoner had any strength left in her.
The longer Tryst gazed upon the red haired woman, the more he sensed a familiarity about her. Tryst had a suspicion of who she might be, but couldn’t say with any certainty.
“Fellows, what seems to be the trouble here?” Tryst asked calmly when Potbelly stopped for a breath.
“This doesn’t concern you, servant, piss off,” Potbelly pointed his gun at Tryst, who ensured he gave no flinch.
Fletchard Miller cleared his throat audibly and beckoned the scruffy haired fellow to his side to whisper in his ear. “Boss says that fella there is Tryst Reine, Monty. That’s the Monster of Blades,” He said to potbelly fearfully.
“Master of Blades, if it pleases you,” Tryst proclaimed. “I am the sworn protector of the Lord Master and the shield over his home. I demand to know your business here at once.”
“We came to collect a bounty on this here lass. But this bloke’s not so obliging to our demands.” Potbelly thrust one of his stubby fingers in Raspen’s direction as he spoke.
“I see. Just who is ‘this lass’ that you three feel the need to barge in on the Grand Parliamentary Feast to present?” Tryst asked as he looked over the three men cautiously. “Is she another member of the Thieves that the Biddenhurst men were seeking? There’s a fierce bounty on all their heads, but nothing that couldn’t have been taken care of at one of the city jails, or even at our front gate.”
A tense silence underlined by the music of the orchestra within the banquet hall fell over them as the trio looked for one among them to answer the question.
Tryst craned his head upward to glance at Freyard, finding Marigold beside him and leaning on the balustrade on the second floor. The look on Freyard’s face was one of grave concern as he met Tryst’s eyes briefly and swallowed hard.
He knows who she is and he’s quite sure of it, Tryst surmised before his attention returned to the bounty hunter and the unkempt men, both of which were now brandishing their pistols.
The scruffier one had a dinted knife stuck into the belt of his tunic as well, but otherwise they were lightly armed and entirely unarmoured. Apart from the gun already pointed at the prisoner’s temple, Miller had that piece’s twin holstered on his right hip, loaded, in all likelihood. Tryst also noted a rapier with a tooled leather grip and a narrow crossguard on a steel hilt beside the empty holster on his left hip. Four shots between them and if the drunkards could hit the wall it would still be a fluke shot. Tryst surveyed in his mind. Miller’s a problem though. If he doesn’t shoot her, he could kill two guards in short order and cut a few to ribbons before I could even get to him.
“Do you want to know who she is?” the scruffy fellow said while reaching a hand into an old, worn out satchel that was slung over his shoulder.
Raspen’s guards drew back the hammer of their pistols as a precaution, raising them to eye level and drawing a bead on the drunk with the bag. “Easy now, lads.” Lieutenant Raspen urged. “We will all stay calm and let this man slowly show us what he has in that satchel.”
From the bag, the man with the wild mop of curls produced a folded square of cloth that looked at first like it might be a blanket. In the low lights it was hard to determine what it was until he held it at arm’s length. “This is who she is,” he said, letting it unfurl in his grasp before throwing it in Tryst’s direction to pool on the floor.
It was an old, faded, peach coloured cloak. An embroidered, forest green shield with a bright, golden triangular shaped knotwork embroidered upon it.
No, not peach, orange, Tryst realised as he neared the cloak. At first, he did not believe what he was looking at to be real. For some time he had dreamt of the day when he might finally meet the woman who owned that cloak. This could well be a forgery, Tryst warned himself. She matches the description and what I remember of her. Although without being able to see her eyes to confirm they are her rare shade of blue, I cannot be wholly certain.
He knelt, gaze unwavering from the three armed men as he took the cloak in hand and stood again, clutching it tightly in his upturned fist.
It was thicker than he had thought it might be, with a sheep wool lining stitched into the fabric. Good enough for dry autumn weather, but still light and threadbare to make it useless come winter or a wet spring.
All the eyes of the room were upon on Tryst at that moment and he turned his head to meet them. He looked from Freyard and Marigold standing above to Raspen near at hand and finally coming to rest on the chained woman, her face still hidden behind the red hair.
Before Tryst could utter a word about the cloak, the doors of the hall swung open.
Leaning on Hossle and flanked by the honourable guards that had been in the dining hall was the Lord Master himself. Mackhol Taves, Eamon Palomb and his son Eldridge followed directly behind in his shadow.
Leading the wealthy throng that walked behind the men from the head table was none other than Captain Barrid. The robust officer made no attempt to usurp Raspen’s authority on the matter, staying wide eyed and silent.
The brightness from within the hall bathed the bounty hunter and his female quarry in light. For the first time Tryst saw eyes of the most beautiful shade of blue he had ever seen staring back at him from behind strands of red hair.
It’s her, I’m certain beyond doubt, Tryst said to himself as his heart all but leapt from his chest. There is no fear in those eyes, nor defeat, just defiance and a glimmer of hope.
Tryst made a move to speak as Grenjin Howland moved into the room slowly, but the old Lord found words first.
“What in the name of Ios is going on in my lobby?” The Lord Master’s voice was coarse, but it still bore considerable power when it needed to.
“Ser, the bounty hunter Fletchard Miller and his accomplices claim they have brought us Lady Orangecloak,” Tryst answered, finally saying her name as he held the cloak out for Grenjin to see with his own two eyes.
“So it would seem.” Howland didn’t sound convinced, nor would he touch the tattered thing in Tryst’s fist. “What evidence besides a ratty old cloak and a mop of red hair do you have to say that she is the delinquent known as Orangecloak?” The way he said her name echoed of revulsion and contempt and he would not grant her the decency of calling her ‘Lady’.
Fletchard made a ‘pssst’ noise at Potbelly who stepped back to have his ear whispered in. “Boss says for me to tell you that we found the cloak on her when we took her in the old tunnels under the Batterdowns,” the frumpy man answered as he stepped back to where he had been standing. “She had two men with her, bodyguards, like as not. We killed them.”
There was a disgruntled moan from the bounty hunter, yet he made no move to speak for himself. Which struck Tryst as odd, but there was little time to dwell on it.
“Killed two men beneath the Batterdowns, is that the right of it?” the Lord Master said mockingly. He was still moving forward, albeit at a snail’s pace, towards Fletchard and the woman. “It occurs to me that the one called Orangecloak keeps another red haired woman of similar appearance within high rank in her company.” He stopped and turned back to his Lord of Crime and Punishment. “Lord Taves, what do they call that one?”
“That would be the ‘Red Bitch’, my lord, one of the ‘Thee Bitches’,” Mackhol answered diligently, catching on to the Lord Master’s game. It was known to Tryst, Taves, the Palombs and Marigold that the Three Sisters were all locked up in the City Jail in the South West district. Whether these three and their captive knew that was yet to be seen.
“Yes, the ‘Red Bitch’,” Grenjin Howland said ponderously. “How am I to know that she is not who I look upon now? To be certain she is a red bitch, but is she the Red Bitch? Might be that she’s some other member of the Thieves. Or is she even a member of the Thieves at all? Perhaps she’s just some red haired prostitute who was pleasuring two men at once in a hole under the Batterdowns. What is there to say any different besides some orange rag you found on her person?”
“No, it’s her! We’re certain, milord. It has to be her,” Potbelly spoke back to the Lord Master, his voice quaking with terror as Grenjin stepped up beside them.
Lord Master Howland turned his head sharply to let the drunkard feel his piercing, menacing gaze. “You believe she is Orangecloak, she doesn’t have to be Orangecloak,” Howland finally spoke straight to the man before leaving him to his trembling.
With surprising haste, the old man closed the gap between himself and the hunter still steadfastly clutching his bounty. “Tell me, Fletchard Miller, do you want to collect your bounty?” Grenjin asked when he was a mere meter from hunter and prey.
Fletchard swallowed hard, but did not dare to answer.
“You need only say ‘yes’ but I have to hear it from your lips,” the Lord Master insisted.
“Y-Yes, he does m-m-m-milord. We wants the bounty on her head.” Scruffy stammered, trying to answer for his employer. “H-h-he can’t speak so well in front of lotsa people but –“
“Silence, you fool! I was not addressing you!” Grenjin shouted, giving the scruffy lad a taste of his stare as well.
The sudden shout made Scruffy drop his pistol in recoil, where it clattered to the marble floor. He was about to pick it back up but thought better of it and stayed still.
The head of the Lord Master swivelled back like an owl’s to the bounty hunter. “Say it, Miller,” he uttered through gritted teeth.
“Yes, my lord,” the hunter said, barely above whisper. Tryst could see the sweat beading on Miller’s forehead as he said the three words. It was no easy feat for Fletchard, but this was not a man to balk, no matter how much it pained him.
“That’s all you had to say,” the Lord Master said softly in a condescending voice before letting his glare fall to the lady in chains. “My men will take your prisoner to question her for themselves tonight. One way or another we will discover the truth of her identity, Orangecloak or no.” He gestured toward Tryst in saying as much. The lie of the terrible monster Howland presented Tryst as coming back to haunt him once more.
The old man went on. “The guardsmen here will show you to the stables, in the meantime. The long one at the rear gate of the manor will do. We will have your mounts brought there as well and I shall have my steward see to it that the lot of you are fed. You may stay there and lodge in the spacious loft above the stable until we bring you word of our findings.”
While Grenjin Howland spoke, Tryst’s eyes were on the Lady’s. When they met, the enrapturing blues hit him like a cannon blast. She knew what was waiting for her, and despite the look of desperation, there was no fear. Regardless of his Lord Master’s playing at doubt, there was none in Tryst. This was indeed the same woman he spotted standing atop a low roof in Aquas Bay in the late summer. With the full light of the sun gleaming through her fiery locks and the wind making hair and cloak alike blow as wild as her heart. There was not a shadow of a doubt that this was Lady Orangecloak before him.
Fletchard hesitated, his breathing heavy and his grip on Lady Orangecloak tightening. Suddenly he exhaled. “Very well,” he uttered meekly in defeat, lowering his pistol from the Lady’s temple. He looked despondent, though there was little other option but to take the sole offer given to him.
“Lieutenant Raspen, take the prisoner and show her to the basement suites,” the Lord Master began to command, his own tone softening slightly. “Mister Reine, wake the keeper of the vault. Inform him I’ll have fifty thousand in gold counted up and boxed in the event that this woman should turn out to be who they say she is. Until such time comes, her and these men alike are in your charge.”
“Understood, ser,” Tryst replied back.
The dark haired, thick set, moustachioed Lieutenant holstered his pistol and stepped forward to collect the prisoner. After gesturing to the guard to either side of him to follow suit, Raspen took hold of the heavy chain linking the irons on the wrists and feet of Orangecloak.
Reluctantly, Fletchard released his arm from around her throat. At first it seemed the reluctance was his and it was then Tryst noticed it was in fact the lady who clung to the bounty hunter’s arm.
The guards plucked Lady Orangecloak away from the bounty hunter in unison, eliciting a mighty rattle from her chains.
Tryst turned to walk away, feeling the stares of dozens of eyes upon his back as he walked beneath the marble staircase, still clutching the orange cloak.
The deep voice of Raspen bounced off the walls and to Tryst’s hearing. “I require your keys, Mister Miller. I shall have Mister Reine return them with your shackles before you leave.”
It was only a short while later that Tryst was back in his room at the end of the first floor hall, situated privately and cosily above the old armoury. The fine clothes he had worn at the party were neatly folded on his bed. In their place were his riding leathers, a cotton tunic that laced from chest to neck and a thick, warm, padded doublet, all of it in black. The trousers were tucked into a well-worn pair of leather boots in the same dark hue as the rest of his ensemble.
A million thoughts were running through his head at that moment and he had seated himself at the creaky table in the centre of his room to mull them over. His sword and its cleaning tools, along with a bottle of his favourite rum, a dark mix from Johnah called Spiced Night, rested before him.
Hossle had arrived and departed just moments before, bringing a written list of true orders from Grenjin Howland. The first order was that the three men were not leaving alive. Tryst was certainly in charge of them, but it was only to ensure they died. The second order was that old man Buchlan, the banker who tended the vault across the hall from the armoury, was not to be disturbed at all. There would be no reward going to Fletchard Miller and his employees. The third order stated that Tryst was to dispatch of the three hunters quietly, quickly and without trace. This was all anticipated by Tryst, having read that much between the lines when Howland was talking to the bounty hunter in the lobby.
There were orders pertaining to Lady Orangecloak as well, namely to get a complete list of names and the whereabouts of all her associates. From there he was to coax her into making false confessions for all sorts of heinous crimes. Some of which Tryst knew to have been committed by people in the fold of the EMP. There were letters he was to get her to write to the Ruins of Phaleayna, where the Thieves primarily resided. These letters would contain orders for the remaining Thieves to disband and for the impoverished people hiding in the ruins of Phaleayna to bow to Illiastran law and authority.
Not one word of any of these orders meant anything to Tryst any longer. These walls, the ministers, councilmen and the other schemers within, not one bit of it mattered now. Tryst knew that he was sitting squarely in his past. His present was locked in a cell in the dungeon, and the future lay somewhere out beyond the walls of Atrebell and the Manor.
This was never my home. It was a comfortable place to rest my head for a little while, nothing more.
His mind fluttered back to the quarters of the Chancellor of the University, nestled in the thick, brick and mortar walls that were built into the mountains of Drake. His lone peer, Myolas, also a Master of Blades, was at his side, their meagre things slung over their backs in heavy canvas satchels. They had come to bid their farewells before departing to the docks for their new lives.
“The Master of Blades is a heavy name to wear,” the pale skinned, white haired, Drakian chancellor of the university said while sitting cross legged on a large, round, cushioned chair. “The title will swallow whole the lives and names you had before and soon it will be the only thing you know.”
Tryst and Myolas had both reached that rank and were the only two Masters to ever live in the same lifetime. The pair stood proudly before the chancellor in new clothes they had bought for just the occasion from Fuwachita City, nestled at the base of the mountain. They were ready for the world, or so they had both thought, as they listened diligently to the seasoned mercenary dole out advice.
Of the great deal of wisdom the old fellow had shared, there was one thing that stood out poignantly to Tryst now: “You will walk this world looking for the homes you lost,” the Chancellor had said with a longing sadness in his voice. “If you live to see the day that you are too old to swing your sword, you will find that home and discover it is not the one you had left. For Masters such as you are, this truth is even more so.”
It was time to walk out of the past now, Tryst knew. This was not his home, it never had been. His search must yet go on. Taking the sword and sheath from the table, Tryst stood up. The blackened steel blade glistened in the lamp light of the room. It was freshly oiled and sharpened per his nightly routine and looked pristine. The sheath was boiled leather drawn taught over ash, bound with steel rings of enamelled black on top and bottom. A silhouette of the Drakian mountain range was pressed into its leathering, running the length of the scabbard. The stamping had been painted black, with one peak painted silver to mark Fuwachita Mountain, standing alone with its stone arms cradling the University of The Combative Arts.
The blade slid soundlessly into the sheath against the oily wool lining as he brought them together.
Tryst belted the sword onto his waist, took a deep breath and began the process of donning his other weapons and gathering his things. It was before his closet beside the door to his apartment that he began, taking his bag of toiletries and folding and stacking more black clothing and undergarments. After laying everything neatly on the table, he went beneath his bed and dug out the grey canvas satchel that he had arrived with in Illiastra.
While there he reached into a nook in the bedframe and came away with a wooden box he had hidden there long ago. The box was a finely crafted piece made of ebony wood, with a pair of hinges and a key lock hasp of matching gold plate. Tryst fished his small ring of keys from the pocket of his breeches and opened the wooden container. The interior was a soft, satin bed of violet and resting comfortably upon that was a fearsome mask. An old face in shining steel plate and black enamel from the past stared back, one Tryst hadn’t seen in quite some time.
It was a traditional piece of equipment that had its origins several centuries ago with Tallen, the second man to earn the title of Master of Blades. Since then, with only one other Master emerging between Tallen and Tryst’s time, the Mask of the Night was handed down to those who could obtain the rank of Expert.
Tryst recalled earning his to be as momentous an occasion as receiving his first true blades. Only his Master’s sword, sitting nearby on the table, meant more to him as a possession. The plain face had one adornment: a single slash from the left eye that extended across the nose and halfway through the right cheek. The slash exposed the shining steel plate below and had been made by Tryst himself, just as every Expert before him had done. To the novices it seemed like the purpose of slashing was to mark the mask as their own, but that was only partly true. There was great symbolism behind the student wielding their chosen blade and taking it to the one piece of armour the instructors gifted to them. The shining steel was a scar, to show them that even with their skills that they were human, prone to mistakes and as able to bleed as anyone.
That lesson was one that Tryst dwelled upon every time he looked upon the piece of steel that had been moulded to the outline of his face from chin to forehead.
Eyeholes and a small hole beneath the nose to allow air through were the only gaps in the otherwise flawless mask. Thick leather straps that webbed into a cap held it in place over the head with a single strap running under the ears to keep it tight against the face. Tryst lifted it from its case, feeling the weight of it in his hand for the first time in many years. It too would be leaving with him and he ran the chin strap through his belt, letting it sit just below the kidney so it would be hidden by his cloak.
He next chose two of his heavy cloaks to take with him. The first was lined with the wool of a black sheep, which made it an expensive and rare garment alone. Its outer shell was the pelt of a black bear with high, padded shoulders that had an extra layer of fur atop it and the hood alike. A clasp dangled from one shoulder made of steel that was shaped like a bear paw and inlaid with tiny blue sapphires for the colour of the Elite Merchant Party.
That set of cloak and clasp had been gifted to him by the Lord Master himself during his first Feast of the Winter King. A festival steeped in tradition and superstition and celebrated by the followers of the Triarchy. The cloak was a size too small, a little short on Tryst to really be called a true cloak, but he had accepted the gift graciously anyway. Now I finally have a use for it. Tryst said to himself, holding the garment open for inspection with both hands before folding it on the table with the rest of his clothes.
His second choice was a better fit and he immediately slung the piece of outwear over his back, closing it with a silver and onyx Paladins shield clasp. The black fabric almost seemed to faintly shimmer in the light of the room and was lighter than the other cloak, despite the fact that it was longer. Unlike the first, which was made entirely of a fur pelt, this one was only trimmed with the natural dark brown fur of the wolves of the Elven Forest.
There was a third cloak to take, one that he had laid out on his bed and stared at for what seemed like several hours. That one too was folded and laid atop the bear hide cloak.
With all his clothes gathered, Tryst began to fill the canvas bag until it was half full, leaving it to sit on the table while he went to the weapons cabinet.
The first thing he reached for were the two slender elf blades. They were exactly thirty five centimetres in length, bound in black leather on the hilt and absent of a hand guard. Tryst took them down in hand by the pair of leather straps on either sheath and buckled them to his thighs. A fine yew bow hung above all on a leathern sash with a quiver of arrows lashed in between the curves of the bow.
Tryst had admittedly never been the greatest archer, but was proficient enough to make do and that too he took, slinging it atop the heavy cloak for easy access.
Behind the weapons rested a purple, velvet bag, heavy and bulging. What was inside was of great importance should things go as planned and so the bag was hung on his sword belt, directly behind the prized blade.
Standing neatly on a small shelf on the inside wall of the cabinet were small bottles and tinctures beside two rolls of gauze bandages. The bottles contained a serum to dull pain and a cleanser to keep wounds free from infection and to aid the healing process. The tinctures contained anti-venoms for critters big and small in the Illiastran wild that could poison a person. Another still contained a dose of syrupy medicine that could stop rabies dead in its tracks, were he to come in contact with an animal bearing that ailment.
Carefully, Tryst laid the medicinal kit out in the box his mask had called home and placed it between the layers of clothing and cloaks in his satchel for protection.
The last item he placed carefully atop it all was the faded orange cloak.
This was all Tryst could take, the satchel was full and any more would only weigh him down. Glancing about the room, Tryst looked upon the things he would have to leave behind, the most painful of which was his guitar. There was little doubt that he would miss that most of all and he hoped that Lord Howland wouldn’t destroy it in his fury after Tryst had left. “May you sing long after I’m gone,” he whispered softly at the instrument leaning in the corner, wrapped in its wooden case.
It was time to go at last. There was nothing left to do and little time to spare. Tryst uncorked the bottle of rum and took one last swig, replacing it in the middle of the table when he was done. Let the guards have it. They will want it when Howland is done yelling at them, he thought as he closed the doors of the cabinet, turning the key in the hidden lock on the right side panel. At least this will keep them occupied for a while. It pained Tryst to think of the old, antique cabinet being broken to splinters with an axe head when the guards couldn’t open it by conventional means.
He slung his satchel over his back, letting it fall over the bow and arrows beneath it to obscure them.
With one last look at his old life, Tryst was gone, with the door to his past locked behind him.
The armoury was almost completely dark, with only a beam of moonlight filtering in through the far window to fill a long rectangle of pale light on the floor. The clouds have broken and the rain has let up, he noted. And the wind is beginning to die out.
The old heavy door to the hallway swung open with a whoosh as he pushed the iron ring that served as a handle. The dim lanterns in their sconces dimly lit the hallway behind the grand staircase, casting a low, yellow glow.
Six guards were calling the back hallway home at this hour. All were clad in the white coats and dark blue pants of the manor guards and Tryst knew them all by name. Two of which were guarding the rear exit of the manor when Tryst approached.
It was a man known as Ralph the Rascal that greeted him jovially. “Hello Reine, heading out to the stables to greet the guests, I would assume?”
“You assume right, Ralph.” Tryst answered in a sombre tone. He bore Ralph and his brother Martos beside him no ill will, but a graduate of the University took no solace in killing and made no jokes about the matter.
“Well, I won’t keep a busy man from his work, on with you,” he answered as his tone went flat. The man was usually quick with a joke, though he seemed to sense the solemnity with which Tryst regarded his task and said no more.
Tryst gave him a nod. “Thank you, I won’t be too long and I’ll knock when I return.”
“Certainly, ser,” Ralph answered, reaching to open the door to the outer yard for him.
Before Tryst could walk through, Martus stopped him. “Where are you off to with a big, heavy satchel, ser?” the quiet brother of Ralph asked as he caught sight of what Tryst carried, either not seeing or ignoring the presence of the bow and arrows.
“They’re rags and sawdust to clean up the mess, should I make one,” Tryst explained while reaching a hand back to pat the bag on his back. “There is no need to bathe the stables in blood if I can avoid it.”
“A wise call, I won’t keep you,” Martus said grimly, facing the long hallway once more and wanting no further explanation.
None of the guards wanted Tryst’s job, and were all but happy to get out of his way when the Lord Master demanded heads roll. All that served to do was make it easier for Tryst to stay his blade and for that he was glad.
Tryst wasted little time once outside, taking the concrete stairs from the back entrance landing in quick fashion. Long strides took him across the stone pathway to the rear gate and the stables nearby.
The night air was crisp and the coolness in his lungs felt therapeutic, helping to calm him before the night that lay ahead. I walk on the edge of a mountain here. One misstep will plunge me to my death, and yet, there is no other way. The clouds above him sloughed eastward as he strode, taking turns blocking out both the pale and red moon as they headed east towards the Elven Forest and the impregnable Eastern Mountains beyond.
An owl hooted noisily from beyond the bailey wall of the manor and Tryst gave a glance in the direction it came from. Above him, the moons shone down onto the expansive and manicured lawn between the wall and the building. The pale light of the larger one made the rain soaked grass turn into a thousand blades of radiant, shimmering crystal. Maple trees dotted the landscape, shedding their dampened red and yellow leaves as they danced to the song of the night’s wind. An elegant garden of shrubbery ringed the manor and divided the swath of grass in two, like a miniature green mountain range, looking snow-capped with its glistening layer of fallen rain. There is no turning now. I accept the fate that awaits me. Tryst reminded himself while looking upon the scenery.
The rear stable was a large thing in itself, built to house a small army’s worth of horses. However, most of its occupants now were the pairs used to pull coaches and wagons to and from the city. They were supply wagons, mostly, though the ministers that were not afforded the luxury of accommodations in the manor during parliamentary sessions were also carted to and fro.
A lone guard with his arms folded stood before the front of the stables, between the tall double doors meant for horse and cart to pass through. Even those doors were decadent, made from thick, marvellous oak and banded and hinged with shining steel. Split between the wide doors was a massive, carved, whitewashed dove, its wings spanning as close to the edge of the frame as it would allow without inhibiting its ability to open.
“Who goes there?” the guard called out to Tryst.
“Tis I.” Tryst called back.
The guard sighed with relief. “Oh, it’s you. They’re upstairs, an unruly lot, they are, but don’t worry, we disarmed them.”
Jorge Bickerington, Tryst knew at once. His father was a backbench minister from Tusker’s Cove in the west, the most northerly region controlled by the human portion of Illiastra. The other guards called the man Bicker, a nickname immediately bestowed on him as a shortened form of his surname. Though, the man’s consistently dour attitude played a part in helping him keep it.
“That one with the patch on his eye seems to be the dangerous sort,” Bicker commented to Tryst. “Wouldn’t see me trifle with him, no ser. I’d sooner stay out here all alone in the cold.”
“You’ve been left alone to guard the three, is that the way of it, Bicker?” Tryst spoke softly to the squat man as he closed the gap between them.
“Stable lads are still around, feeding the horses that the bounty hunters brought. But I’m the only one that’s armed, if that’s what you mean,” Bicker answered, running an ermine gloved hand through his dark, widow’s peaked hair. He looked Tryst over while he spoke and inevitably caught sight of the satchel and bow slung over his back. “Um, what are you doing with all that, ser? The bow and stuff, I mean.”
“Lord Master’s orders, I’m afraid. I’m pressing you into service too, if you don’t mind,” Tryst replied with a firm pat on the shoulder.
Bicker jumped in his boots at that “Wh-what do you want me to, uh. I mean, to say, uh, what do you want me to do, ser? Edward and Joss are in the guard house on the rear gate, I can go fetch them if you’d rather. Big Ed swings a better sword than I do and Joss is a steadier shot, for certain, so, why don’t I go get them-”
“Calm yourself, Bicker,” Tryst cut in, before the other had a chance to run off. “I just need you and the stable lads to ready that wagon belonging to the guests so that it can leave in a hurry. I’m going to use it to move the bodies when I’m done, that’s all. When you’re finished, you and the lads go warm up with Ed and Joss until I lead the wagon through the rear gate. Can you handle that?”
The short fellow swallowed hard and wiped his brow. “Uh, aye ser, that I can do, that won’t be a problem, I, uh, I’m just not good at killing, is the thing.”
Tryst shot him a raised eyebrow at that. “I wouldn’t say that too loudly or someone might question your decision to become a soldier in the first place. But no matter, we will fetch the stablehands and you can get on with preparing the wagon for me. I’ll handle the killing.” Tryst went to the standard entrance beside the massive double, barn doors, ushering Bicker through with his free hand.
The stables were illuminated by lanterns that hung from the posts separating the rows of stalls. Tryst let his eyes adjust to the low flickering glow of the oil lamps as he surveyed the quiet scene within.
Stepping ahead, Bicker glanced around worriedly. “Wickens, Gunter, where are you?” he called out in a voice that was all nerves.
No sooner had Bicker called out than two heads poked above a stall at the far wall, just before the wooden staircase that led to the loft above. “We’re here, ser, what is it?” one called back. Through in the low light it was impossible to tell which it was.
Bicker walked halfway down the aisle to the left before returning a reply. “We got a job to do, where’s the horses those bounty hunters came in with?”
“They’re the pair of spotted rounseys near the front, ser. What do you need ‘em for?” a different voice answered in an annoyed tone.
“Fetch ‘em out and hook ‘em up to that ruddy wagon they brought in, would ya?” Bicker said far louder than Tryst would have liked. There was no doubt that the three upstairs were hearing every word of it.
“What for, ser?” the second voice asked.
Bicker scoffed at that. “What for?’ You’re not to wonder the ‘what for?’ just get it done, lads. Do it quick enough and we’ll sneak off to play dice with Joss and Ed for a bit.”
“Aye, ser, we’ll get it done,” the second voice answered reluctantly once more as the noise of chairs scraping on the stone floor filled the stable.
Two lanky lads emerged before Tryst clad in flannel coats, with matching shaggy hair that fell almost over their eyes. They were young, little more than twenty at the very most, Tryst noted, as they went to work begrudgingly. One lad opened a single, wide door on the front of the stable while the other bridled the grey and black spotted horses. Neither one dared to even look at Tryst, or so much as speak to him, even when he thanked them as they left with Bicker in tow. The fear in Tryst ran deep amongst the common folk, even those who worked within the manor.
When the first floor of the stables was empty and the door shut to again, Tryst moved hastily to a stall in the right aisle. Inside was a chestnut stallion courser he had named Wildstar, for the white, star shaped patch on his forehead.
“Hello, old friend, it looks like we have a job to do tonight. Most likely it will be our last together,” Tryst said morosely as ran a hand through the horse’s mane. Metal pails were hung between the stalls at intervals, filled with varying levels of oats. Tryst reached a hand into the closest one and returned with a snack for Wildstar. When the horse had finished, Tryst reached above the stall and took down the brown saddle he had bought himself when the horse was given to him by the Lord Master.
In actuality, Tryst had been given his pick of the stables not long after signing his contract that put him in the employ of Grenjin Howland. There was a black destrier and several other prized horses that it was expected Tryst would choose from. Instead, to everyone’s surprise he had picked Wildstar, then only a colt. Tryst had felt a bond with that horse almost immediately, finding a sense of similarity with the steed. The big destrier was like his friend Myolas, who was the beast everyone expected to grow into a strong fighter. But Wildstar, like Tryst, was the unexpected one. Tryst knew then that the colt would grow to be a fine stallion and he had not been wrong. The pair had become a formidable team in the four years since and the courser went nearly everywhere Tryst did. Oftentimes Tryst and Wildstar would ride for hours in the forest behind the manor. Together they explored the game trails and the broken old roads and ruins of what had been the Kingdom of Valdarrow centuries ago.
In quick time, Tryst had the horse saddled, with his bow, quiver and satchel shifted from his back to Wildstar’s. “I’ll be back soon, there are some things I need to take care of,” Tryst whispered with a gentle pat before closing the gate on the stall and heading to the back of the stables. Each step of the stairs creaked loudly as he put his weight to it, giving the three men on the second floor ample forewarning of his arrival.
A voice thick with the brogue of the Knightdom of Gildriad called from above. “Will you be joining us tonight, Killer, or will you make us wait until sunrise for death?”
Without answer, Tryst covered the last few steps and stood at the top of the stairs. The second floor of the stables was sparse and windowless. A few spare rooms lined the wall above the front doors below, but there was little else. The remaining space was wide open with thick wooden beams in intervals. Amidst the rough, pine flooring was a round table with three of its four chairs occupied by the bounty hunter and his accomplices. A simple snack of bread and cheese had been served to them on a wooden platter along with cups and a flagon of cheap wine to wash it down with.
Fletchard spoke up once more as Tryst reached the landing. “The Master of Blades joins us at last,” the bounty hunter spoke in a voice dripping with sarcasm. “Look, fellows, he comes without the bags of promised coin. Maybe we’re going to be given a bank note. I only have one eye but I read better than my accomplices do with four, so I do hope it has the right sum.”
Tryst was nonplussed with the sudden loquaciousness of the bounty hunter. “Odd, you let your bearded friend here do all the talking in the manor. Yet now you’re positively chatty.”
“Oh, you noticed that, did you? I don’t speak well in front of big crowds and I knew I would draw an audience when I marched that bounty through the door. So, I decided to let Monty do my talking.” Fletchard calmly said as he leaned back in his chair, intertwining his fingers across his chest as he reclined as far as the worn, wooden chair would allow. “That’s enough about my communicative quirks, Reine. I know there’s no money. That became clear when your boss started flapping those sagging jowls of his.”
“You have the right of it, there is no money.” Tryst said as he moved away from the stairs, taking a few small steps into the room. “However, I have a proposition for you.”
“He’s gonna kill us!” the thin, scruffy fellow said as he leapt to his feet, Monty not far behind. Tryst ducked the slender man’s wild haymaker punch and drove a shoulder into his lower torso. The blow knocked the wind clear from his unfortunate foe and the forward momentum from the man’s charge was enough for Tryst to flip him head over heels. With a loud smash, the fellow came crashing down on the floorboards.
Instinctively, Tryst raised his left forearm to his face, anticipating the one named Monty to be hot on his friend’s heels. What he found instead was Fletchard clutching a single leg of the chair that he had been seated on seconds before, with Monty groaning in a pile at Fletchard’s feet. The other legs of the chair, the seat, backrest and countless splinters lay beside the dazed and bewildered form of Fletchard’s potbellied employee, whose balding head was rapidly becoming a red, wet mess.
From behind Tryst came the gasps of air as the scruffy man struggled to fill his lungs again. Tryst took a step back to keep the three of them in view just as Fletchard came lunging. As Tryst readied himself to parry an attack, Fletchard ignored him completely, swinging the leg of the chair at the man trying to get to his feet. The sickening crack of wood on bone rang in Tryst’s ears and the scruffy man’s nose exploded in a blast of blood, sending the lackey to the floor once more in agony.
Tryst was careful to not give away his shock at Fletchard’s hasty betrayal of his employees, though the silence spoke his surprise plainly enough.
“Both of you are fucking imbeciles!” Fletchard exclaimed as he threw the wooden chair leg across the room angrily and sat down hard in one of the undamaged seats at the table.
There was an awkward silence as the bounty hunter downed the last of the wine in his cup in an effort to calm his nerves. After a deep breath, he looked up at Tryst and gave an exasperated sigh. “I believe you were saying something about some sort of proposition, Mister Reine?”