As the wagon swayed to a stop the merchant stepped out into the rain-soaked street, one hand pressing a silk handkerchief to his face to ward off the smell of manure within and the cold, damp night without. He winced as his boots sunk two fingers deep into the mud, but resigned himself to their fate and stepped gingerly around towards the warm light spilling from the front of the wagon. The shadow cast by the wind-blown sign hanging over the door of the Lucky Lady swept across the building’s front like a drawstring curtain opening and shutting with manic abandon. Soon the merchant’s shadow cut through its path as he stepped into the glow of the lantern hanging from a pole that jutted over the driver.
The driver peered down at the foppish little man that emerged from the darkness and decided that his passenger truly was detestable. When he had first met the merchant at the marketplace two bells ago after carting the man’s wool from the docks, he thought he disliked the fellow simply because of the request for “discreet” transport to a place of “delicate companionship.” Now as he gazed at the powdered face peering up at him, pasty from the rain and indignant as if the ill weather had somehow been his fault, the driver affirmed that the fellow was truly a worm.
Dabbing at his fur-lined bliant with his handkerchief, the merchant squinted up at the figure that hunched against the chill, its features shadowed in the wide brim of its hat. “I will not require you any further,” he stated flatly, “but hold a moment … ” The merchant fished about within his scrip and produced a small pouch. He offered it to the driver with an ingratiating grin. “Here’s a little something to forget me by.” He stood there, waiting for the driver to take it. The driver, however, just sat unmoving in the rain.
The smile remained, but the merchant’s teeth clenched as he blinked several times in irritation. “Go on. Take it. It’s yours.” His voice dropped to a conspiratorial level. “Just tell no one that you brought me here.”
Another moment crawled by, then the driver slowly extended a cupped hand towards the merchant, stopping just a forearm’s length in front of the pouch. Then he was still again, waiting.
Scowling now, the merchant stomped forward, the mud greedily sucking him down several inches. He lost his footing and pitched forward, just barely catching himself on the seating board with his free hand. As he flailed and sputtered about, trying to shove himself upright, the driver pinched the pouch lightly from his grasp, tucked it into his cloak, and touched the brim of his hat.
“Have a pleasant evening,” he murmured.
Righting himself and quaking with indignation, the merchant spun about and marched towards the Lucky Lady, moist sounds dogging his steps. He stopped for a moment to kick distastefully at a small knot of rats that crouched by the doorstep until they grudgingly moved aside, then he flung open the door, lighting the street with the warm candlelight from within. He glowered briefly at the wagon and its driver, who was again sitting perfectly still, watching him. With a snort of disgust, the merchant slammed the door shut.
Once his passenger was safely within the brothel, the driver chuckled quietly to himself and produced the pouch from his cloak. At first glance the pouch itself seemed to be expensive, made of a soft sapphire-colored suede or possibly even velvet. Rivulets of blue rainwater on his fingers betrayed the cheap dye, however, and gray blotches appeared on the fabric as the rain struck the pouch, washing it clean. Shaking his head at some peoples’ need to appear wealthy, he laid his whip across his lap and undid the pouch’s drawstrings. Within, nestled among a handful of Bit coins, rested twelve Mints glinting in the lamplight.
In disbelief he pulled one of the coins from the pouch, held it up close to the lamp and scraped it with a fingernail. Unlike the pouch, though, the coin was completely genuine. Wealth was obviously not just in the merchant’s appearance. While not enough to make the driver a wealthy man, twelve Mints would make the road to buying his wagon much, much easier. No longer a driver for Harthill’s Carts and Messengers, he’d strike out on his own, traveling across Baranur with merchant caravans or peddling his own bartered wares. He tied the pouch back up, tucked it into his belt, and snapped the reins. His horses obliged and pulled away from the Lucky Lady, glad to do something besides stand and shiver in the road.
Crouched figures scampered along the sides of the street, people whose business required them to go home — or go out — well after most people had retired. Clutching cloaks or wraps around their bodies, they hugged the sides of the buildings, trying to ward off the driving rain. It looked as if they were afraid to be caught in the light of the wagon’s lamp; perhaps some of them were. Part of the driver’s mind kept track of their movements, waiting for a knife to appear from a sleeve or a club to be uncovered, but the rest of his thoughts were wrapped warmly around the money at his belt.
He had only traveled two streets down from the Lucky Lady when one of the figures veered into the street, waving frantically. Long accustomed to such odd behavior from the city folk, the horses slowed their gait but continued trudging forward, stopping only when the driver reined them in. First casting looks over his shoulders to see if ambushers were approaching, the driver peered sourly into the street, trying to see who was keeping him from his bed. The blockade was a woman, wrapped in a blanket and wearing a damp gown that was little more than a chemise. Her hair hung in strands down about her shoulders, and her makeup streaked down her face in thin rivulets. She stared into the lamp light with a stricken expression, as if she was a damned soul gazing at Stevene’s splendor. The driver’s hand tightened on the lash. She was obviously a whore. Perhaps the Lucky Lady was allowing its residents a bit of freedom these days.
“Carter? Could you please aid a lady in need?” Despite her wretched appearance her voice was firm and carried easily over the spattering rain.
“I don’t make them,” he snapped. “I just drive them.”
She stepped forward uncertainly. “What?”
He walked the horses forward a few steps in response. She drew herself up warily, but held firm.
“I am a driver, not a carter, ‘lady in need,’ and I’m driving home at the moment.”
Dismissing his words with a shake of her head, she continued, “I need to get to Tanner’s Street immediately.” All semblance of waif-like vulnerability melted away as her posture firmed and her gaze fell squarely on the driver’s face.
He gestured to his right with the whip. “A half-bell walk that way. Near the river front. Watch for cutthroats.”
“A half of that if you push those nags,” she countered, and walked resolutely towards the wagon. As she approached he could see her features more clearly. Without the makeup smeared over it her face would be quite lovely, if perhaps strained with the weight of age. About thirty-five years old; just slightly more than his wife would have been. She would have turned thirty and one last …
The driver felt a sudden chill as he struggled to remember Naysa’s birthday. Nehru’s Blood, had he truly forgotten?
Now standing to his left, the whore gazed up at him. She tried to smile suggestively, but her expression looked ghoulish under the makeup. “Perhaps I could give you something for barter.”
Firil. Naysa had been born in Firil, the sixteenth day. They had met in Shireton eight years past, on the twenty-second of Firil, and wed a year later, on the twenty-ninth. His happiness had ended three years later, the nineteenth day of Seber, when the lung rot that had gripped her fifteen days before finally snatched her away from him.
The litany of dates settled him somewhat. He still held onto Naysa in his mind, at least.
His attention returned to the woman. His throat felt constricted when he spoke. “Again?” he managed to croak out.
“I was wondering what I could give you so you would take me to Tanner’s street.” Her chin jutted forward exposing her pale neck as she looked at him through half-closed eyes.
“Money,” he replied, without knowing why he was even continuing this conversation.
Her languid smile faded and her eyelids raised; all traces of seductiveness had disappeared like her previous guise of helplessness. She seemed to assay the driver for a few moments. Finally, she spoke, her voice completely business-like.
“I can give you four Bits.”
He was tempted to pull away right then, letting her recede in the night behind him while he rode to the stable house at Harthill’s, to his small room and warm bed, but having more coins was still better that not having them, even if they had been earned lying down. More, something in her face, even under the garish makeup, still reminded him of Naysa.
Sighing inwardly, he said, “Ten. Nasty part of town.”
“Five. No more.”
“Seven,” he grumbled, leaning down towards her, “no less.” Part of him hoped that she’d refuse.
Her eyes unfocused for a moment as she frowned in thought, then fixed on the driver again. They were light brown, almost hazel in color, and arresting. “Very well. Seven Bits.”
Despite the rain, now falling like volleys of arrows, she had slid open the window over the driver’s right shoulder. Resting her chin on her folded arms, she now sat quietly, eyes closed, seeming to bask in the water that washed the makeup from her face. The driver knew that the wagon’s interior was getting soaked and wanted to just shut the window on her, but something held him back; after all, he had seven more Bits in his vest pocket than he had started with. With an occasional shout of “gee” or “haw” he navigated the streets which had grown steadily emptier of people. The buildings crept slowly by, many with feeble candlelights peeking out from behind shuttered windows, many more wholly dark.
After some time the woman broke the silence. Putting on another leering smile, she purred near his ear, “So, how long were you a soldier?”
Surprised both by her voice and the question, the driver turned his head sharply to face her.
She chuckled. “I can just tell. You’ve got that look about you.”
He turned back to hunch over the reins. “Just a year. Tended the pack animals. Didn’t see any combat.”
“Are you wed?” she inquired sweetly.
The driver felt his throat tighten again. “Once,” he spat.
Thankfully, she let it go at that. Her attention turned to the staccato rhythm that drifted from Belisandra’s tavern on their right. Unlike other establishments that catered to a young and fickle clientle, Belisandra’s had managed to remain viable for longer than a year, perhaps due to it’s ability to find the latest sultry dance that would incense all righteous Stevenics. Closing her eyes once more, the woman patted her arm in time to the music and kept the beat for a few menes after the tavern was well behind them.
They turned onto Layman Street, nearing the poor quarters of town. The woman leaned out of the window further, trying to look the driver in the face. Still purring slightly — perhaps she was hoping he’d rethink his price — she said, “I’m called Shandi. What’s your name?”
He didn’t turn to look at her. After a brief pause, he muttered, “Tobias.”
“Tobias … ” she mulled over the name. “I think I knew a Tobias once … ”
Some of the bile he had been holding broke free. His voice rumbled like the thunder overhead. “I doubt it. I don’t roll into strange beds with hired leg-spreaders.”
She grew very quiet, her expression turning grim. She stared at him coldly for a moment, then asked quietly, “Why do you hate me?”
When no answer came, she withdrew into the wagon and slid the window shut.
‘I hate you, “Shandi,”‘ Tobias replied in his mind, ‘because you kept me from going home. Because you weren’t about to let me leave without taking you in. Because you, a whore, reminded me of my dead wife, and made me think I had actually forgotten her.’
The reasons were true enough, but didn’t explain the depth of his contempt. Whelped in Margala’s House, he had been spared the fates most male children met in that now-gone brothel: a midnight trip to the waters of the Coldwell or delivery over to the tastes of certain rare clients. When his mother had grown bored of raising a son she had delivered him to the orphanage, and from there he had been handed to a stabler. Less than a son but more that a hireling, Tobias had been raised well enough, but the name ‘Whoreson’ had clung to him throughout his boyhood. Now the surname was gone, but the shame remained.
Tobias was suddenly sorry he had lashed out at his passenger. Cursing himself, he snapped his whip over the horses. The wagon lurched with the sudden acceleration, causing the lantern to swing wildly about his head.
Decaying buildings loomed like cliffs over the narrow strip of Tanner’s Street. No light came from any doorway or window, and the only sign of life was a stocky man sitting on a doorstep, apparently oblivious to the downpour, a large clay bottle cradled in one arm. He peered balefully up from under greasy hair as the lantern light fell on him, his head lolling slightly. His mouth twisting into a snarl, he turned his back to the light, grabbed the bottle, and took a long drink.
Tobias reined the horses in and rapped on the window over his shoulder. “We’re here.”
The window slid open. Shandi squinted and blinked out into the light. Only faint remnants of her makeup remained on her face now, but there was still a blotch of color on one cheek, underneath a small cut previously hidden by powder. When her eyes fell on the man she inhaled with a sharp hiss and winced slightly. Tobias gave her a suspicious look, but before he could ask any questions she shoved the board back into place with a loud bang.
The fellow glanced over his shoulder at the noise, staring warily at the driver. The wagon rocked slightly as its passenger emerged. A few moments later the whore walked from behind the wagon and down the street, holding the blanket around her shoulders, head bowed.
Rising to his feet with a look of outrage and letting the bottle drop from his hand into the muddy street, the man took an unsteady step towards the woman. “Lidia,” he snarled at her as if choking on glass.
Shandi — Lidia — raised her head slowly to stare at the man venemously. “I got here as fast as I could.”
More than drink caused the fellow to sway as he wobbled towards Lidia. His right foot was twisted inward and his knee was unmoving, forcing him to throw his leg outward in a strange arc as he walked. Rain had so completely soaked his linen shirt that it clung like a second skin, revealing his powerful chest and arms. A thick eating knife dangled in a leather sheath from his belt. Apparently oblivious to her words, he growled out “You’re late,” as if pronouncing a judgment. He stopped a pace away from her and scratched at his chest with a meaty hand.
Lidia seemed to fade slightly as she stood there, like the condemned hearing the gavel drop. “Anruss, don’t,” she said as if by rote. Anruss extended a hand out, palm up. They stood there in the rain, frozen for a moment, then a corner of Anruss’ mouth hitched up in a smirk. Lidia tensed, then slowly reached inside the blanket, her gaze locked on the man’s face. Her hand was clenched as she withdrew it and tentatively placed it over his. Tobias heard the dull clink of coins as her hand dropped limply to her side.
Anruss stared at the coins blankly as small spasms began moving across his face. He muttered gutturally to himself — Tobias recognized the familiar sound of merctalk — then his eyes crawled back to Lidia’s face.
“Eight Bits. You’re a bell late for eight Bits.”
“I tried — ” Her words were cut off as Anruss clenched the coins in his hand and drove the fist into her abdomen. She crumpled forward onto him then toppled over, retching. Anruss’ face was devoid of expression as he took a lurching step to one side of her.
“Woman, I — ”
“Wait!” Tobias was startled to hear himself shout.
Anruss turned his head to look at the driver as if noticing him for the first time.
“She … overpaid,” Tobias muttered. Here.” He began fumbling at his belt pouch to grab her seven Bits. By the time he had procured them Anruss was facing him fully. Behind him Lidia had drawn herself up to her hands and knees, head bowed, her hair caked with mud.
Anruss looked towards Tobias but not at him; his eyes were focused on some distant point. He nodded slowly as he spoke. “Overpaid. My wife … overpaid.” A thin, cold smile appeared on his face. Still nodding, he swayed back around to Lidia. Letting the coins scatter in the mud, he shot a hand out, grabbed her hair, and wrenched her head back. “We have no money for a thrice-dammed bed and you’re tossing what we get away,” he said tonelessly. His head continued bobbing in agreement with some unknown thought as he raised his other hand.
There was a sound like a board snapping clean. Anruss yowled and clamped his hand over the back of his neck as he whirled back around.
“*Enough!*” Tobias felt his whole body vibrating as he sat with the whip held behind him, poised for another strike. Two pairs of eyes stared up at him in shock. “I am to see my passengers safely to their destinations and this is not ‘safe.’ Leave her be.”
“You codless, Shuul-damned bastard!” Anruss bellowed. In a blink his knife was in his hand. “You are going to get a second mouth!”
Lidia knelt in the street, arms folded across her stomach. “Tobias … stop … not yours … ” she managed to gasp out.
Anruss wheeled on her. “*Tobias?* You rolled with him and then brought him *here?*” He rocked closer to her and brought his good leg back to kick. Lidia turned her head away and closed her eyes.
Without even thinking, Tobias leapt from his seat and hooked his arm around Anruss’ neck, dragging them both into the street. Anruss made a startled, squawking noise as he fell, his knife spinning off into the night. His right arm pinned beneath his body, Anruss flailed about with his left, but only managed to grab a handful of the driver’s cloak. Tobias brought his right arm around and hammered Anruss’ temple with the butt of his whip. Anruss let out a soft grunt, twitched, and fell limp.
Tobias raised the whip up a second time and pounded it into his opponent’s skull before noticing that he wasn’t struggling anymore. He stayed poised there for a few moments, trembling, his breath coming in choked heaves. Finally rising to a crouch, Tobias rolled Anruss onto his back and stared into his face. The man’s eyes were rolled back into his head and his face continued to spasm as he gasped for air. He was still alive. Tobias let out a shuddering sigh. He wasn’t a murderer — no one saw the fight — he was still alive — everything was still fine in the world.
Then he saw Lidia. She was only two steps away and moving in, her face distorted with rage as she stared down at Anruss. She had picked up her husband’s knife.
Crying out inarticulately, Tobias sprang over Anruss and collided into her. Pain shot through his left hand as it struck the blade of the knife. She tried to shove around him, but he grabbed hold of her wrist and held fast.
Her gaze seemed to burn as she sneered at him. “Is it your turn now?” she spat, trying to twist her hand free. Although his grip was slick with his blood and the rain, Tobias managed to hang on.
Fighting down his panic, Tobias tried to speak in calming tones. “You knife him and you’ll twist for it, not him.”
She stopped struggling and glared up into his face.
“No one will know. Even if someone’s watching, no one will tell.” Her voice was seething with anger.
She had a point. This was her life, not his. He had interfered enough.
“All right,” he said quietly, and let go of her wrist. Stepping back, he looked down at his hand. The cut ran diagonally across his palm and was encrusted with mud, but it was shallow. He kept staring at the wound, not wishing to look at the scene in front of him.
Lidia walked forward slowly and stood over Anruss, staring down at him. His eyes were closed now, and his breaths came more easily except for an occasional gurgle as rain fell into his gaping mouth. The right half of his body was covered in glistening mud. Lidia stood motionless for a full mene, watching him, the tip of her knife wavering as if she was drawing sigils in the air. Tobias raised his head to look upon her.
Her shoulders drooping, she stepped over the prone figure. Anruss let out a plaintive groan and shuddered as if in response to her passing.
“Let’s go.” She muttered, climbing up onto the seating board of the wagon. She sat down, wrapping her arms about herself to ward off the chill, the knife still clutched in her hand. “I have a friend. Close to old town. Could you get my coins?”
Most of the journey passed in silence, Lidia staring over the horses into the street and rocking slowly back and forth. As they rolled down Traders Avenue, she turned to look at the driver.
“Thank you,” she said quietly.
The driver grunted in return.
“He … Anruss … was wounded. A Beinison mace got his leg. He killed eleven men for Baranur and came home with almost nothing. No one wanted him … but me.”
“So he beat you and whored you.”
She turned from him and her back straightened. “I loved him, once. And these days we need to eat. *I* need to eat. Sometimes he does odd jobs.” Her lip twitched. “He’ll try and find me, get me back.”
“And will you go?”
“I don’t know what I’ll do. I have nothing now.”
They sat for about half a mene, riding in silence except for the creaking of the wheels and the pattering of rain on the wagon’s roof, and then she spoke up again. “He has friends. Men who work for Liriss. He’ll send them for me.”
Tobias felt his stomach knot. He was now entangled with Liriss. If his men would be searching for her then they’d also be looking for him. Why had he involved himself in all this?
The driver looked over at his passenger. She was hunched down again, her rain-heavy hair hiding her face, her knuckles white around the handle of the knife. Tobias remembered a day in mid-Firil when the sun had shone brightly, and decided he knew the answer.
The driver nodded slightly. He was content, if not entirely at peace. Sitting up a bit straighter, he snapped at the reins and the horses picked up their gait.
The rain had abated by the time they reached Nochtur Street. An occasional cluster of drunks meandered by, laughing and singing, trying desperately not to slip on the cobblestones. A few asked in slurred voices if they could get a ride; the driver ignored them and they drifted away.
Lidia climbed down, wincing slightly and holding her stomach when she touched the ground.
“Will you be all right?” asked Tobias.
She gave him a wry little smile, shrugged, and turned towards a two-story building. Tobias turned the wagon about as he watched her walk, pale and wraith-like in the night. “Good-bye,” he murmured to himself.
She had climbed up the stoop and was about to knock on the door when Tobias called out her name. She turned, too tired to even be puzzled, and saw him hurl something towards her. A small splash and a clinking sound drew her attention to a nearby puddle. A pouch thick with coin lay within it, its dye darkening the water. She glanced back up and saw the driver touch the brim of his hat, then snap the reins. The wagon started up with a lurch, then rolled into the night, bouncing and rattling on the cobblestones.