DargonZine 15, Issue 4

Malice Part 1

Firil 1, 1018


This entry is part 1 of 4 in the series Malice

“Good morning, Father,” Ludovic said as he sat down at the table where his father, Einar, was finishing his breakfast.

 

“Well, to what do I owe the honor of your company, and at breakfast, no less?” Einar asked as he picked up his mug. He was a merchant who dealt in gems and jewelry, a widower of long standing, well-known in Dargon for the quality and rarity of the gems he carried.

 

Father and son shared a faint resemblance: brown hair and honey-colored eyes, slender build and medium height. But there the similarity ended. The clean lines of Ludovic’s features, the straight nose and distinct cheekbones, gave him an ascetic appearance, while Einar’s sharp gaze and beak-like nose bestowed upon him a more vulturine look.

 

“Burian is the one you should say that to, not me,” Ludovic replied, wondering if his father made such comments deliberately to annoy him. While it was true that he and his twin Burian resembled each other greatly, there were some who could tell them apart. And their own father should not have that problem, Ludovic reflected, frowning.

 

Isla, the cook who doubled as housekeeper, served his breakfast silently. As she filled his mug with tea, she said softly, “He knows, laddie. It just bothers him that Burian won’t get up before midday.” She was a hefty woman, barely a finger shorter than Ludovic, with gray hair going white, and pale blue eyes. She had been with Ludovic’s mother before her marriage, and had practically raised the twins.

 

“No, I don’t want fried bread,” Ludovic said to Isla as she set a slice on his plate. Then he looked up at his father. “Father, I need money.”

 

“What for? To gamble away at cards? Or to spend upon an endless number of stray animals that ought to be killed in the first place? No more, Ludovic. I’m not going to give you any more money.” Einar threw down his napkin on the table, and the cloth fell on top of his mug of mead and slowly began to absorb the liquid which seeped upwards, staining the fabric.

 

Ludovic smiled and said sweetly, “That’s not a problem. I can sell the pin that you ordered for Udele; the silversmith, Nila, delivered it here yesterday. I’m sure your whore won’t mind if I take it.” Udele was Einar’s friend, and Ludovic knew that the friendship included bed-play, just as his mother had known before she died, heartbroken at the thought of her husband in another woman’s arms.

 

In what seemed like a single movement, Einar stood up, grabbing the jug of mead on the table, and flung it at his son. Ludovic had been waiting for just such a reaction from his father, and he pushed himself backwards, chair and all. The jug fell harmlessly where he had been sitting a moment earlier.

 

“You will not refer to Udele in that manner,” Einar said, his voice quivering with the force of his feelings. “Do you understand?”

 

That was characteristic of Einar, Ludovic thought; his voice always shook as he got angry. “Very well, Father. What shall I call her then?”

 

“She is my friend. You may address her as Mistress Udele. And I’ll be taking that pin from you.” Einar’s voice had returned to normal. He pushed away the napkin and, picking up his mug again, drank whatever remained.

 

“No.” Ludovic dragged his chair back and began to eat absently. After two bites he set his fork down, frowning, and pushed away his plate; he disliked fried bread. He lifted his mug, and after a gulp of mead said, “I need money. If you care to give me some, I’ll consider returning the pin. It’s quite beautiful, you know, all thin silver threads and –”

 

Einar interrupted, “Send Karanat with the pin to the store and I will.” Karanat was Ludovic’s manservant and friend, sometimes more the latter than the former.

 

“Nothing less than ten Cues, Father.” Ludovic dabbed at his lips fastidiously with a napkin and pushed away his plate.

 

“Fine. What I’ve ever done to deserve a pair of sons like you two, I’ll never know.” Einar put down his mug and turned away. “One’s a gambler and a wastrel and the other a drunken –” the door slammed behind him, cutting him off.

 

“Laddie, why do you do that to him? You know he loves Udele.” Isla frowned at him.

 

“Isla, Udele is another man’s wife. Father’s carrying on with her broke my mother’s heart,” Ludovic replied angrily, placing his mug on the table with a loud thump. “And I don’t deserve to be treated the same way as Burian. I don’t roll with a different woman every night, and I don’t start my day with a mug of whiskey.”

 

Isla sighed and began to clear away the table. “Your mother, the sweet thing that she was, should never have married young Einar. Before he met Udele, he carried on with a different woman every few months, so they said. I told your mother to say no but she wanted to make the old master happy, and he!” Isla paused to snort scornfully before continuing, “he didn’t care about his own daughter’s happiness, and he didn’t even think of whether she could be happy with a man like young Einar.”

 

Ludovic ignored the reference to his grandfather. Isla had started life working for his mother before she was married, and he knew that Isla would continue to refer to his father as “young Einar” for the rest of her life, no matter how old they both were.

 

“Enough!” Ludovic rose and patted himself off for any stray crumbs. “Have Karanat come and see me upstairs.”

 

***

 

A few bells later when Karanat had just returned from Einar’s store with the promised money for Ludovic, there was a thundering knock on the back door of the house. Karanat opened it, and the young man outside, his cousin Ruarc, smiled sheepishly, his hand raised to knock again. Ruarc’s mother, Francesa, had raised Karanat when his own parents had died, and he therefore tolerated his cousin for her sake.

 

“Ruarc, what’re you doing here? Is something wrong with Auntie?” Ruarc was a young man who had visions of becoming rich through quick and easy means. About four years younger than he, Karanat knew that Ruarc had always resented the affection his mother had showered on Karanat.

 

“She’s fine,” Ruarc dismissed the older man’s concern. Ruarc’s figure was slender, betraying his youth — he could be no more than twenty, if that. His hair was a light, nondescript brown and his face triangular, giving him a pointed chin. His eyes were watery and his gaze was erratic. The overall impression was one of mediocrity: it was a forgettable face. “I need your help.”

 

Karanat stepped away from the door, opening it wide in silence. His was an impressive figure, strong and well built, with broad shoulders that gave graceful way to slender hips and muscular thighs. His face bore the signs of many past fights: a crooked nose, a thin scar down one temple, and a wider scar across one cheek. One eyelid dipped lower than the other, a permanent reminder of some battle in which, presumably, the other man had fared worse. Dark hair and eyes completed the picture of a man whom other men approached cautiously and women, not at all.

 

Ruarc stepped in and said hesitantly, “I’m doing some business, you know, and I need your help.” They stood in a small alcove that served to deflect the cold air in the wintertime. Three of the four surrounding walls had doors leading inside and the fourth side opened onto a stairwell going both up and down.

 

“Tell me what you need,” Karanat said.

 

“I’m in the ale business, you know.” Ruarc leaned back against the closed door to the outside, his nails tapping rhythmically against it. His voice was unexpectedly deep for one so young, his only attractive quality.

 

Karanat stared at him, knowing that the nail-tapping was an outward manifestation of the fear in which Ruarc held him. “Good. I’m glad you’re doing something worthwhile,” he said, wondering what Ruarc had come about that he was so nervous. “Business going well?”

 

The tapping increased in tempo and then stopped. Ruarc swallowed and said hurriedly, “Yes, of course.” The tapping commenced again, slowly this time, and he said, “Well, one of my suppliers … That doesn’t matter. See, I need you to introduce me to a potential buyer.”

 

“You’re serious.” Karanat was surprised. It seemed that Ruarc was really working hard in his business. After Ruarc’s father had died, Ruarc had come up with one insane scheme after another to make money. Unfortunately, he was somewhat gullible, which led him into situations that resolved themselves into a loss, rather than a gain.

 

First he had decided he would buy horse droppings from the stables near the Shattered Spear and sell it for building fires. Of course, he had not realized that horse droppings had to be dried in the sun before they could be sold for that purpose, not to mention the fact that only the poorer folk would buy it since it gave off such a noxious stench. His next idea had been to collect the dogs and cats that ran loose in the city and sell them to people as pets. Needless to say, he had been bitten by the dogs and the cats, and one young woman had hit him with an umbrella because she thought he was ill-treating the animals. Finally, he had topped all his foolish ideas by getting caught trying to steal from an old, blind woman who sold flowers at the marketplace. He had claimed he was helping her sell the flowers, but even his family had found that difficult to believe.

 

Now, if he was actually doing something realistic and was working at it, Karanat felt bound to help him for his aunt’s sake. “You’ve actually bought and sold ale?” he asked.

 

Ruarc smiled sheepishly and nodded. “Yes. One of my suppliers told me that Burian buys a lot of ale, and he said that he’s Einar’s son, so I figured you’d know him and so I came here, thinking that you’d introduce me,” he paused for breath, and Karanat swallowed a smile at the way the younger man had run his sentences together.

 

“Of course I’ll introduce you. Come on.” Karanat turned and led the way up the stairwell. At the top, it widened into an open area large enough for three men to stand facing each other. There was a door each on either side of the stairs, and a skylight on the ceiling let in sunshine. Karanat knocked on the door on the left side.

 

 

Later that afternoon, Ludovic stumbled and cursed under his breath, breathing heavily because he was weighed down with a rather large dog. He stood in the front yard of a cottage on the outskirts of Dargon, his progress impeded by the large number of creatures that surrounded him: three dogs, no less than five cats, an awkward-looking animal with sharp teeth and pointed muzzle reminiscent of a fox, all led by an enormous pig that looked as if it were the doyen of the front yard.

 

On the far side was a small shed, and as he looked up, the door abruptly swung open and hit against the wall. A woman emerged. Short and dumpy, she looked like a brown mouse: brown hair tied back efficiently in a pony-tail, brown eyes, brown tunic, and brown breeches.

 

“Iolanthe –”

 

“Not another dog,” she said, scowling as she approached.

 

“I found a kid drowning him. He’s hurt. Come and look.” Ludovic turned away to go to the cottage, and she came quickly, overtaking him and holding the door open for him. He laid the dog on a table that was kept for exactly such a purpose.

 

“Look at those cuts! Hope you belted the boy,” she muttered, picking up a small bottle of herbs.

 

“I wanted to, but I had to take care of the dog first,” Ludovic said, bringing her a small cup of water from the pot next to the table.

 

He began to mix the poultice as she examined the dog. Iolanthe was a healer, and she helped people in exchange for food or supplies. But she was very good with animals, and every stable-master in the city knew her. When Ludovic had met her, she had helped him with a hurt dog that subsequently died. But Ludovic was convinced that the two of them shared the same passionate desire to help animals. She never asked him for money for anything other than medicinal supplies, although he was paying the rent for the cottage.

 

“Get the cora,” she said, her eyes on a large cut on the dog’s left foreleg.

 

Ludovic unerringly picked up a small container from the opposite shelf and opened it. “You’re almost out of it.”

 

“I’m out of money,” Iolanthe said. “Each time you bring me another animal, but not more money. Actually, I don’t want money. Let me tell you the supplies I need, and you can buy them for me.”

 

Ludovic handed her the small container and then approached the fireplace to make up the fire to warm the poultice. “Yes, well, I thought I’d win last night at the Serpent, but I didn’t. I did get ten Cues out of Father, though. That should do you for a while.” Ludovic gambled at the Inn of the Serpent to pay for all the animals he tried to help; he won a lot, but occasionally he did lose.

 

“I’m thinking of selling the pig,” she responded.

 

“Sell him, why? He’s a good pig; he’s no trouble to you. And you know they’ll just kill him to eat.” Ludovic frowned as he carefully stirred the warming mixture. “Come on, Iolanthe, please. You know he’s a sweet pig,” he begged.

 

She chuckled softly. “Mmm, that’s the problem: it’s a he. If he were a sow, I could breed her. Ludovic, this is the city, you know, and I’m not a farmer.”

 

He rose and brought her the warm mixture for the poultice. “Careful, it’s hot,” he cautioned and turned away to pick up fabric pieces for the bandage.

 

“Mmm,” was the only response.

 

Ludovic watched as she patted the herbs onto the cuts with the small ladle. She gestured and he slid the fabric piece underneath the limb and tied it off neatly.

 

“I’m going to have to go away for a while soon, Ludovic,” Iolanthe murmured, patting the bandage and checking his fastenings.

 

“When? And for how long?” She had occasionally disappeared for a while, and Ludovic had begged Karanat to take care of his animals, since he could not stay away from home.

 

“I’ll be leaving in about ten days, but I’m not sure how long I’ll be gone. Two sennights. Maybe a month.”

 

“A month?” Ludovic straightened. “But Iolanthe, what about these animals? Who’s going to take care of them?”

 

Iolanthe said slowly, “You have to get Karanat to live here until I get back. Or we could just let them loose.”

 

“Loose in the city?” Ludovic sighed. “The shadow boys will stone the poor dogs; someone will slaughter the pig for pork, and who knows what will happen to the cats?” In Dargon, youngsters without a home who were thieves and robbers and worse besides were commonly referred to as shadow boys.

 

She did not reply and after a moment, he sighed again. “Oh, straight, I’ll talk to Karanat.”

 

***

 

Night had fallen, and Raizel swore under her breath as she evaded the wandering hands of Burian, making sure she didn’t lose her grip on the tray of drinks she held. Burian was a frequent customer at Inn of the Serpent and his wealth made him a favored patron with the owner, Ballard Tamblebuck, a tall man who seemed rotund because of his bald pate and large belly.

 

“Raizel, c’mon,” Burian drawled. “Come sit here for a moment,” he patted his thigh, spreading his legs wide so that she had to take two steps away to walk around him. He resembled his brother, Ludovic, greatly; they were, after all, twins. The difference between the two in physical appearance was slight. Burian’s eyes were red-rimmed, with bags underneath, lending him a faint air of debauchery, and an element of danger clung to him: it was that which had first attracted Raizel to him.

 

“I’m busy,” she said briefly, placing a mug before him before moving on. Having met him when she started work at the Serpent, she had developed a fondness for the man, a thing she herself could not understand. It vexed her when he got drunk; always difficult, Burian was more so when inebriated. Also,it had been a busy evening and her patience was at an ebb.

 

She reached the hardwood bar and placed her tray on the counter. “I need two ales for the carders and another rum for that merchant.” The carders were a group of serious gamblers who played cards at the inn every day. Tamblebuck had three tables set up for them near the far wall opposite the staircase.

 

“You can go, Raizel,” Tamblebuck offered. “Things are slowing down.” Raizel liked him; she thought he was a good man, because he took care of his waitresses. Even though he hired them for their pretty looks, he made sure that customers did not cross the line with the girls.

 

“But the carders’ll be here awhile yet,” Raizel objected.

 

“It’s okay; I’ll take care of ‘em. You look tired. Go.”

 

She smiled her thanks and hurried to the back of the inn to the kitchen. Deserae, Ballard’s daughter, had made stew for the evening and Raizel wanted something to eat before she left. There was no one in the kitchen and Raizel helped herself. She placed her bowl on the table and turned to get some mead to drink, when a hand slipped around her waist.

 

“Hmph. Who — let me go!”

 

Burian leered down at her, the crinkled lines at the side of his eyes widening and the dark bags under his eyes lightening as he smiled down at her. The smell of liquor wafted from him as he spoke. “Come on, Raizel, be nice. Raizel, Raizel, Raizel,” he murmured. “Give us a kiss, sweet Raizel, pretty rose.”

 

“Not now, Burian. I’m tired and I’m hungry,” Raizel objected, waving her hand with the mug. She knew he liked her very much, and, Ol help her, she liked him as well. The truth was that she had ignored her own rules and indulged in bed-play with him, even though she knew several reasons against it. Her own brother would half-kill her if he found out she was bedding Burian, not because he happened to work for Burian, but because Burian was promiscuous in the extreme.

 

“Just a kiss, just a kiss,” Burian said in a sing-song voice, ignoring her words. He bent his head toward hers, and she began to struggle. But Burian, apparently experienced at subduing unwilling women, held her wrists and pushed her backwards. With no other choice, she moved until she hit the wall. The next instant his mouth was upon hers.

 

Raizel concentrated on fighting back, whimpering. She tried to move her hands, but they were still imprisoned. Her legs! The next instant, she kneed him, not too hard, but just enough to make him release her.

 

He gasped, stepping backwards, and then sat down on the floor. “Harlot! What did you do that for?” he asked, with a hangdog look in his eyes.

 

“I am not a harlot,” Raizel said sharply, breathing heavily. “When I say not now, I mean not now. I’m tired, Burian, and I’m not in the mood for your bed games right now.” She knew at some level that nothing would have happened that she didn’t want; yet a tendril of fear had uncoiled in her stomach when he had held her hands immobile.

 

“Raizel, all I was trying to do was kiss you,” he said, smiling up at her with a hint of pain in his expression. “Really. I wouldn’t have done anything else, I swear, Raizel. You know that, don’t you?” He stared at her and then said with surprise in his voice, “You were scared. But Raizel, why? I wouldn’t have done anything to hurt you, my sweet. You know that, don’t you?” His voice rose as he repeated the question.

 

“Hasn’t anyone ever said ‘no’ to you, Burian?” Raizel went to the table and sat down abruptly. “Of course I was scared, you dolt!” She sighed heavily, feeling the fear recede as quickly as it had come.

 

“Don’t call me ‘dolt’,” he said almost absently. “Come on, Raizel, it’ll be fun. After all, it’s the first day of Firil. How can you not lie with me on the first day of Firil?”

 

Raizel snapped, “Yes, and tomorrow’s the second of Firil and the day after that’s the third. That’s no reason.”

 

“Yes, but you’re the most beautiful girl I’ve ever seen. Those blue eyes, like little sapphires, that red curly hair, like thick ropes of carnelian, those white teeth, like a strand of –”

 

“Stop, stop.” She laughed, and was conscious of surprise that she could laugh when she had been so scared just a few moments past. “I bet you say that to every girl you want to lie with.” Raizel spooned some stew into her mouth, reflecting that Burian’s father being a gem-merchant had impacted even his speech: his compliments were studded with precious stones.

 

“I always stop when a pretty girl tells me to,” Burian grinned at her lasciviously.

 

“Yes, when you’re sober. Listen, Burian, if you do that to me one more time, I swear I’ll tell Ballard and he won’t let you in here ever again. Do you understand?”

 

“I’m sorry. Forgive me, Raizel,” he pouted at her like a little boy, and she laughed. He took that to indicate she had and rose from the ground to sit next to her on the bench, sliding his arm around her waist. She leaned against him, enjoying the feel of his body against hers.

 

***

 

Around the fourth bell of the same night, Ludovic sat in his room, staring upwards blindly at the ceiling. He was drunk and he knew it, having deliberately shunned sobriety. “Another glass,” he drawled. “Pour me another.”

 

“You should not have any more. Else tomorrow you will have a sore head,” his companion said dispassionately, pouring a glass of whiskey and handing it to him.

 

Ludovic took a swallow of the rum and asked, “Why me?” He knew he was wallowing in self-pity but could not bring himself to stop.

 

“Will you not tell me what’s wrong?” There was a gentle note in Karanat’s gruff voice, and Ludovic sighed.

 

The two of them were in Ludovic’s room, which was a large one. The wall directly opposite the door sported twin windows, which, along with the skylight, provided air and light. A large bed with rich, dark blue coverlets sat against one wall, and a fireplace was directly opposite. Some furniture was tastefully arranged around the fireplace: a small couch, a center-table and two deeply stuffed armchairs, a special coming-of-age gift from Einar. Ludovic lounged in one of them, his feet up on the table, and Karanat sat straight-backed in the other, no easy accomplishment in a seat made for comfort.

 

“My friend, Father has arranged a wedding. For me.”

 

There was a silence and Ludovic lowered his eyes from the skylight to gaze at the other man. “What? No answer?” He sighed again. “Of course. What could you possibly say?” Then he put his feet down on the floor with a thump and sat up. “Well, Karanat, do I get married? To a woman? Say something!” He threw his glass into the fireplace. It crashed into innumerable pieces with a satisfying sound. Ludovic wished he had something else to throw into the fire, like his father’s head … No, it would be much more satisfying to throw his brother’s head into the fireplace.

 

Karanat rose and went to the window, still silent.

 

“Nothing to say?” Ludovic mocked. “Never mind, I do. Ludovic, son of Einar, married to Jessamina, daughter of Udele.” He threw back his head and laughed. When the paroxysm subsided, there was a single tear in the corner of one eye. He slapped it away with a quick gesture. “Poor Jessamina. Even Burian would make a better husband than I.”

 

“Do you want to say no?”

 

Ludovic grabbed the jug and poured into the remaining glass. “Hah! The man is not a statue; he speaks.” He lifted the glass and swallowed. “What do you think? Father has sworn to disown me if I refuse. He promised to make me his heir, after the wedding.” Anger swept through him again and he lifted his arm to throw the glass into the fireplace.

 

“Don’t. I will not go downstairs to get another glass for you,” Karanat said evenly, without turning from the window. “Do you need to inherit?”

 

“What kind of a question is that, Kar? Coragen waits in silence for payment only because he thinks I’m Einar’s heir. What would I be if my legs were broken? Think, Kar. Me, handsome Ludovic, brown hair, brown eyes, oh, wait, did I forget to mention he’s a cripple?” In the past, when Einar had refused to provide funds for Ludovic to gamble with, he had nonchalantly borrowed money from a man named Coragen; his debts had caught up with him when the man had threatened to “do him wrong” if the money was not repaid. Ludovic had wondered what it meant, but had heard stories of people who owed Coragen money disappearing forever.

 

Karanat turned sharply from the window and stepped towards the armchairs. “Stop it, Ludo. Grow up. I’ve told you often enough not to gamble with the carders but you did and you still do. What did you think was going to be the result? And as for the marriage,” he paused until he reached Ludovic and stared down, “you have to do what you need to.”

 

“But I don’t want to. And if it weren’t for Burian, I wouldn’t have to.” Ludovic brooded upon the injustice of having a twin. No one knew who was older, Ludovic or his twin Burian, so the heir was Einar’s choice. Ludovic needed to be heir because of his gambling debts, but the price of that was steep indeed: it was marriage to Jessamina. He writhed in his armchair, anger and frustration warring within him as he contemplated that cost. “No!”

 

If Burian were not around, there would be no choice for Einar but to choose Ludovic. He smiled. That meant that he would not have to pawn his soul to become heir. “Kar, you’ve got to help me.”

 

“What are you planning to do?”

 

“If I were to arrange things so that Burian is disgraced, Father would have no choice — he’d have to choose me,” he muttered, thinking hard. “What if — no, that wouldn’t work, girls wouldn’t work. Father knows already. It has to be something like cheating — what if I challenge him to a game? I can make it look like –”

 

“Ludovic!”

 

“What?” Ludovic brought his gaze to the other man.

 

“Ludo, that’s wrong!” Karanat stared at him unblinkingly.

 

Ludovic met the steadfast gaze and sighed. “You’re right. Straight, I won’t do anything wrong. Satisfied?” When Karanat nodded, a slight smile on his face, Ludovic added, “But that doesn’t mean I won’t take advantage of anything he does.”

 

***

 

Two days later, Burian sat silently, waiting for Ruarc. When the latter had met Burian, he had provided a taste of the Beinisonian ale that he wanted to sell. Once Burian had tasted it, he coveted it. Since Einar refused to pay for what he termed excesses, Burian had come up with a way out: he took what he needed, preferably without the insignificant little detail of payment. And so Burian had been forced to create a small masquerade.

 

“How do I look, Donato?” he asked his manservant. He patted the dirty white beard that he had stuck on with the other’s help.

 

The two men sat in a small room in a lodging house situated on a small alley off Ramit Street. The house belonged to an old woman who let out the rooms on the upper floor. Upon Burian’s request, Donato had managed to acquire the use of this room for the latest activity. The room itself was sparsely furnished, with a shelf against one wall, a bed, a desk and one chair.

 

“Just take care that the beard doesn’t fall off,” Donato responded. He was a very good-looking man, with hazel eyes and a neatly trimmed red-blond beard. He was taller than Burian as well, by the length of one finger. “And be sure to talk softly. If you speak loudly, Ruarc may recognize your voice.”

 

There was a knock that signaled the start of the play, and Donato slipped under the cot to hide. Burian rose and went to open the door. Ruarc entered.

 

“You must be Ruarc, that Burian said would come to me,” Burian said, trying hard to prevent the excitement he felt from creeping into his voice.

 

“Yes. Are you the alchemist?” Ruarc asked.

 

Burian remembered thinking when he had first met Ruarc that the other’s voice was unexpectedly deep and hoped that he himself would not be recognized.

 

“Mmm.” Burian nodded, mentally chuckling at the thought that Ruarc had swallowed the disguise.

 

“Can you make ale stronger? I heard you could,” Ruarc said eagerly.

 

“Who told you that?” Burian asked. “Burian?”

 

“Yes, yes, he did. Can you?”

 

Burian chuckled aloud. His mouth watered as he thought of the ale that was the prize for his acting. He had tasted it, and it was, in his opinion, divine. And soon, it was going to be his. “Yes, I can,” he said. But the price is high, very high.”

 

“How much?”

 

Burian could not believe that he had found someone so gullible as to believe that he could change the potency of ale by muttering a few incantations. He said, “Twenty Sovs.”

 

“What? But — but I can’t. I don’t have that much money,” Ruarc almost wailed. “Can’t you do it for less? I have a buyer for the ale already. I’m Burian’s friend and he gave me your name. Can’t you do it for less, please?”

 

Burian chuckled silently. His plan was working even better than he had thought. He’d planned to take the ale from Ruarc, but it appeared that he would be getting twenty Sovereigns as well. “Very well. Since you’re Burian’s friend, I’ll do it for less. Now, come back tomorrow with the money.”

 

“But the ale –” Ruarc began.

 

“All you have to do is tell me where you’re storing it. I’m going to prepare some herbs and I will go myself –”

 

Ruarc interrupted him, “I can’t let you go by yourself. What if …”

 

“What if what?” Burian asked, allowing a note of anger to enter his soft voice. I have to say some incantations over the ale. If you are present, it will ruin the alchemy.”

 

“Fine, fine,” Ruarc muttered as he handed a small pouch.

 

Burian chuckled gleefully as he watched the retreating back of the poor sod.

 

***

 

That afternoon, Donato stared down dispassionately at Burian, who sat with a glass of whiskey in his hand. He disliked the man he served, or rather, he disdained the man he served, for Burian had more vices than two average men combined. Yet serve he did, because his wage was excellent.

 

“You’re lying, you dog.” Burian threw the glass at Donato, who stepped aside with the ease of long practice. They were in Burian’s rooms which were similar to Ludovic’s, except that the windows faced the opposite direction. Both chambers had been furnished identically by Einar for his sons.

 

“’tis the truth. The bride is Jessamina, daughter of Udele and Ingmar Mercer.” Donato felt a moment of glee as he said it, knowing that it would only enrage Burian further.

 

“Daughter of Father’s whore? Makes sense to me now.” Burian looked at his hand, wondering where the glass had gone, and then looked around vaguely.

 

Donato poured another glass of whiskey and handed it to Burian. “Ludovic will be named heir after the marriage.” Donato knew his statement would raise the other’s anger to its zenith, but there was nothing else to say.

 

“It can’t be. I am the heir,” Burian shouted.

 

Donato winced but remained silent, knowing from experience that Burian did not conduct conversations with his manservant; he conducted diatribes that usually ended in instructions accompanied by a payment — the odder the request, the larger the payment. Donato wondered what he would be asked to do this time.

 

“What will become of me if Ludovic inherits?” Burian swallowed the contents of the entire glass in one gulp. “I will stop this. I must stop this.”

 

“It will not be possible to stop the wedding,” Donato said indifferently. “The ceremony will be held at a church of the bride’s choosing –”

 

“If that girl has a choice in the matter, I’ll eat my tunic,” Burian interrupted. “Udele will be arranging it. Do you know what church she’s chosen?”

 

“I repeat, the wedding cannot be stopped. Mistress Udele will be arranging the ceremony, and it will not be possible to do anything to stop it.”

 

Burian prowled about the room like a caged cheetar, and Donato wondered what he was planning.

 

“Shuul-damned Ludovic!” Burian swore. “I will kill him, if that’s the way to stop the wedding. I should be marrying that girl, whoever she is.”

 

Donato was silent, and Burian turned on him. “What? You don’t think so?” His thoughts apparently jumped to another issue and he said broodingly, “Father and his precious, precious Ludovic. If only Ludovic wasn’t here, then Father would have no choice but to name me heir.” He continued to pace, chanting, “Ludovic, Ludovic, Ludovic. May Saren’s own curse fall on him.” He reached the table and extended his hand toward Donato, who filled the glass silently and observed the rich, young man.

 

Burian stared down at the brown liquid in his glass. “If only Ludovic were not here …” His voice trailed off and he took another swig from his glass. “If only.” He laughed aloud, and Donato stared at him, knowing that Burian had reached some conclusion in his mind; Donato knew him that well.

 

“I have a plan,” Burian said, eyes twinkling. “I think I’ll do something so bad that Ludovic will be punished.” He threw back his head and laughed again. “Donato, I need you to steal for me one of Ludovic’s knives. Can you do that?” He looked at his manservant’s expressionless face and then turned and went to the dresser against the wall. Opening a drawer, he pulled out a small pouch with coins in it. Opening it, he removed some of the coins, pulled the ties tight and then threw the pouch carelessly behind him. It landed with a clink on the floor a short distance away from Donato.

 

Burian turned and said, “Oh, that’s for you. Steal me a knife, and I’ll get Father’s sympathy and put that thrice-cursed Ludovic in gaol at the same time.” And he proceeded to explain his plan with many chuckles.

 

***

 

The following day, Francesa climbed the stairs that led to Ludovic’s and Burian’s rooms, and being a buxom and somewhat heavy woman, she found this to be a rather difficult exercise. When a young man exited a door to the right of the stairs, she stopped at the top step and asked him breathlessly, “Are you Burian?”

 

“No, I’m Ludovic. Those are Burian’s rooms,” Ludovic pointed to the door across the landing, to the left of the staircase.

 

Francesa stared and wondered. Her nephew, Karanat, worked for Einar but he was manservant to Ludovic; some said more than just manservant. Ludovic seemed to be a perfectly ordinary young man, just a little taller than her, of medium build, with brown hair. But she decided that he did have beautiful eyes: they were honey-colored and dominated the rest of his very ordinary features.

 

“–stress? Mistress?”

 

Francesa brought her wandering wits back and saw the look of concern on Ludovic’s face. “It’s okay, boy,” she said gently. “I wasn’t paying attention.”

 

“I’m sorry, mistress, is there something I can help you with? It’s close to the sixth bell of the day and Burian …” Ludovic’s voice trailed off.

 

“Don’t worry about it,” she said, thinking what nice manners the boy had. “I have to talk to him, that’s all. Why don’t you run along?”

 

He gave her a quizzical look but went obediently down the stairs, and she realized she’d treated him exactly the way she treated Karanat. No wonder he’d looked puzzled. Francesa chuckled silently before turning to knock on the door. After the second knock, there was a loud crash from inside and then a shout for whoever it was to come in.

 

Francesa entered, looking about her. To her left there was a large bed against the wall and to her right there was a small fireplace with a couch and chairs arranged around it. On the wall directly across from the door were two windows. It was a beautiful room, with a nice carpet, Francesa noted, in a deep purple color. There was a tapestry too, above the bed: a seascape depicting a ship tossed about on the sea like marbles in the hand of a boy.

 

“Who are you?”

 

She stared at the man who was the cause of her disaster. Her heart almost misgave her, for he looked exactly like Ludovic, but as he stepped closer, her heart hardened. His eyes were sunken and red-rimmed with dark bags underneath them; they bore no resemblance to the luminous brown of his brother’s.

 

“Woman, I’m asking you a question. Who the fark are you?”

 

And he had not one jot of his brother’s manners, Francesa decided. “Burian?”

 

“Yes, yes, I’m Burian. You’re in my rooms. Now, for the last time, who are you?” He advanced closer to her, and the smell of liquor wafted to her nose.

 

“I’m Ruarc’s mother,” she said quietly.

 

Burian stared at her for what seemed to be a very long time before he began to chuckle. “She says she’s Ruarc’s mother. He went and complained to his mother! Oh, this is a rich jest,” he threw his head back, still laughing.

 

Francesa waited until his mirth began to wane before she spoke. “Burian, you were the alchemist weren’t you? Answer me!”

 

“Yes, yes, I was. A priceless joke, to be sure. Ruarc was there, and he didn’t recognize me, and the mother recognizes me from just listening to the story,” he was still chuckling.

 

“Burian, you took all the ale without paying Ruarc for it, and not only that, you took twenty Sovs from him when you were dressed up as the alchemist. Why?” Francesa could feel her ire rising as she remembered what had happened.

 

He replied, “Why did I do it? Because I could, old woman, because I could. Ruarc is a codless idiot, that’s what he is. What do you want, anyway? Where’s Donato? I can’t believe you just came up here.”

 

“I came up here, Burian, to ask you to do the right thing and give back the money. You can keep the ale, as far as I’m concerned; maybe that’ll be a good lesson for Ruarc. But the money is mine. Ruarc stole it from my chest when I was sleeping. Burian, it’s an old woman’s savings; give it back, please?”

 

Burian only laughed harder.

 

When none of Francesa’s appeals had any effect, she switched to threats. “I’ll tell the guard. They’ll make you give it back.”

 

“Try. I’m a rich merchant’s son, old woman. And Ruarc is already well-known to the guard. Now, didn’t he get caught for trying to steal from that old, blind woman who has a stall in the market square? What’s her name again?” Burian laughed some more. “I don’t remember her name, but what does that matter? I bet the guard knows her name … and Ruarc’s name.”

 

Francesa stared at him, feeling her hopes of getting her life savings back dwindle and wither away like a rose bush without water. For the first time, she could feel every day of her life weighing on her and she turned silently to leave.

 

Burian said to her back, with a laugh in his voice, “On your way out, tell Donato to come up here, will you? Oh, and tell him to bring some of that wonderful new ale I acquired.”

 

***

 

That night, Donato entered Ludovic’s room silently. As manservant to Burian, he had no right to be in Ludovic’s room. He moved silently toward the dresser in the corner, even though he knew no one would be on this floor that night. Ludovic was gambling at the Serpent, like he usually did; Karanat had gone off to visit his family; and Burian, well, even if Burian did catch him in Ludovic’s room, he was unlikely to be upset, since it was he who had asked Donato to misappropriate this particular item.

 

Burian’s room was furnished identically to Ludovic’s, so Donato knew exactly where everything was. Nochturon’s light shone through the large windows and he was able to see what he wanted when he opened the top drawer. It was a knife that belonged to Ludovic, an ornamental knife, to be sure, but sharp nonetheless. About two hands long, the hilt took up little less than half the length. The handle had what appeared to be silver stretched across in thin lines, allowing the leather underneath to show through like latticework. At every point where the silver lines crossed, there was a tiny gem.

 

Donato hefted the knife and was surprised to find that the ornamentation had not weighted it too much. The balance was surprisingly good for a bejeweled knife. No wonder Ludovic liked it so much. Karanat, Ludovic’s manservant and companion, had gifted the knife to him, and Donato was sure it had cost him a lot. Briefly he wondered how the other man had been able to afford it, a mystery that he would never know the answer to.

 

He returned to Burian’s room and placed the knife on top of his dresser where Burian would be sure to see it. Donato knew that Burian hated his twin and planned something that would discredit Ludovic. While he had no personal loyalty to Burian like Karanat had towards Ludovic, he was well paid. And that was all that mattered.

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