Author’s Note: Language warning. What can I say, these two are lowlives and thieves, they aren’t going to keep it clean 100% of the time.
“Wright damn it, Clarence, if I haven’t about had it with ye!” Simon swore. “I found ye a new place months ago! What the hell are ye doin’ here?”
“Got kicked out,” Clarence mumbled to the table.
“How?” He slammed his fist on the table. “It was a complete dive! They house sc– Sims like ye every day of the week! Hell, you blend in there!”
“Do it matter?”
“Yes! Yes, it does! If ye can’t hold yerself together enough ter keep a place in one of the scummiest dives in the kingdom, I need to know why!”
“Why couldn’t I jest stay here?” Clarence whined. “All those months ago? Come on, Simon. We’re in the same crew, we’re makin’ good money tergether — why can’t we jest live tergether, too?”
“Because I’m gettin’ married in a few weeks!” Simon exploded. “Wright Almighty!”
“An’ ye want ter enjoy yer new bride all by yerself? Ye’re –”
Simon grabbed Clarence by the hair and slammed his head into the table. “Let’s get somethin’ straight,” Simon whispered into Clarence’s ear, even as Clarence howled and held his face, “as far as yer concerned, my bride? She don’t exist. Ye’re not gonna touch her, talk ter her, look at her, an’ if I catch ye so much as thinkin’ about her, they’ll be lucky ter find yer body when it washes up on the Sminese coast. Got that?” Simon straightened, dusting his hands off.
Clarence didn’t move.
“I said, ye got that?”
“Aye, aye,” Clarence mumbled. “Don’ look. Don’ touch. Don’ think. Got it.”
“It’s fer yer own good, ye know,” Simon added, stroking his beard. “We all know ye ain’t ter be trusted around women. Berach nearly went fer the guards that time ye called Joyce a slut, ye know?”
“An’ while I know that speakin’ yer mind ter a woman ain’t a hangin’ offence … ye’ve committed enough hangin’ offences over the course of yer life that if the guards got a good look at that ugly mug o’ yers, ye’ll be swingin’ no matter what they catch ye doin’!”
“Then why the hell d’ye go out lookin’ fer trouble?” Simon snapped. “Wright! If nothin’ else, if anyone had caught ye pryin’ open the back window and sneakin’ in here, they could have called fer the guards!”
“Maybe I didn’t want no one seein’ me face.”
“Ye finally realized how ugly it was?”
Clarence sat up.
“Somethin’ like that,” he murmured.
Simon felt his jaw slowly fall away from his face.
And it clacked back into place. “What did ye do?”
“Clarence!” Simon lunged —
Clarence batted him away. “I don’ wanna talk about it.”
“I don’t give a fuck! Ye’re either gonna tell me whatever it is ye’ve gone an’ done now –”
“Or what? Ye’ll toss me out on the street? Again?”
“Again? I found you a place last time!”
“Weren’t a nice one!”
“I found ye a nice place before, an’ then ye went an’ fucked it up by insultin’ yer landlord’s girl!”
“Bitch,” Clarence muttered.
“Hey. I grew up with Joyce. Just ’cause she ain’t interested in ye don’t make her a bitch.”
“An’ kickin’ me in the face? What do that make her?” Clarence snapped.
Kicked him the face? JOYCE?
Simon’s eyes narrowed.
His gloved hand shot up — came down — hit Clarence right on the bruises, knocking him from the seat. Before Clarence could manuever a knife from his boot, Simon grabbed him by the collar, slammed him against the wall, and shouted, “What did ye do?”
Plaster flaked and crumbled around them. Clarence panted. Simon glared.
“She’s a slut,” Clarence snapped.
“Fuck. We’ve gone here before.”
“She is! I was jest tryin’ ter prove it!”
For a moment, Simon’s eyebrow went up. Was he spying on Joyce? Did he see her with another man? Berach might have been sore at him because of Clarence, but he was still a friend, and Simon wouldn’t let him marry himself off to a whore if he could prevent it —
Then Clarence made the mistake of speaking again. “Ter herself, if no one else!”
Son of a —
He slammed Clarence into the wall again and let go, watching the other man slide to the floor. “Don’t,” Simon snapped as he saw Clarence’s hand go to his boot. “Or I swear ter Wright I’ll toss ye in the street right now, an’ leave ye ter explain why ter the guards.”
“Not if ye’re dead,” Clarence muttered as he eased his way to his feet, dusting himself off as he went.
Simon laughed. “Really? Ye think ye could kill me? Tonight? After gettin’ yer arse handed ter ye by a girl?”
“It weren’t jest the girl!”
Simon blinked. Once. Twice. Clarence’s bruised face disappeared and reappeared before him.
Then he snarled, “What d’ye mean, not jest the girl?”
Clarence wiped imaginary dust from his shoulder. Or maybe it was real dust. It wasn’t like Clarence ever washed that thing. “Berach … found us.”
“Found ye? Found ye? Ye went after her someplace Berach could find ye? Wright, did ye attack her right on his front step?”
“No! I broke inter her house!”
“It shoulda gone fine!” Clarence shouted. “I busted the lock on the door earlier, switched the dog food fer hush puppies –”
“Ye poisoned the dog?!”
“Hush puppies! Ye always say yerself it don’t hurt the dogs none!”
Yes, he did say that, and it was true enough. It was better, after all, to thoroughly confuse the former owners of his current property by giving their guard dogs treats laced with a mild sleeping draught that would wear off by morning. That way, they wouldn’t be able to tell if it was an inside job, or one done by clever thieves — killing the dogs outright would give the game away in that respect.
But this was one of the few cases where slipping the dog a hush puppy might cause them more problems than leaving the dog alone.
“That don’t matter!” Simon shouted. “Poisoning the dog — Wright! Ye can’t claim that she invited ye, or that she upset ye, if ye go an’ poison the damn dog beforehand!”
“What difference do that make?”
“All the difference in the world if ye’re caught!”
“If I’m caught, I’m swingin’ no matter what — or so ye always say!”
“Ter keep ye from doin’ stupid shit that will get ye caught! Not that it does any fucking good!” Simon smacked his own forehead. “Wright! D’ye know what ye’ve done? Ye attacked a good, clean girl in her own home! Ye poisoned her dog! Even if yer record was as spotless as a whore’s weddin’ sheets, that might be enough ter make them hang ye!”
“Fer roughin’ her up a bit? Give me a –”
“Fer poisonin’ her dog, bustin’ inter her house, an’ — an’ I don’t even care what ye did after ye got there! Ye made it clear ye weren’t gonna do nothin’ good ter her! Wright! They might even say ye went in there ter kill her!”
“I weren’t gonna kill her!”
“Ye know that, an’ I know that, but who’s gonna believe it? Eh? Who’s gonna believe it?”
“Anyone with half a brain! Why the hell would I kill her? If I killed her, then what would be the point o’ showin’ her who was boss?”
Simon smacked his forehead again. “Wright, but ye really are that dumb, ain’t ye?”
“Dumb? How dumb?”
“Because if ye rape her an’ then ye kill her, she can’t say who done it! Dumbass!” Simon exploded.
“Nah. Women, they never tell. Even if someone’ll believe ’em, they tell a whole courtroom they was raped, then they’ve gone an’ branded themselves a whore. See?” Clarence smiled smugly. “‘Ceptin’ if they’re a married woman,” he murmured. “Then — if they’ve got a husband what will stand by ’em — then they might tell. But then it usually don’t go ter the law. The husband, he tries ter take care o’ it himself.” Clarence grinned. “An’ there ain’t no husband on Wright’s green earth that I can’t take care o’.”
“Like it fucking matters!” Simon snapped. “She ain’t married, an’ I’ve knowed Joyce since we were little! She’s a scrappy one! She might turn ye inter the law jest ter spit on yer face as they drag ye past in the tumbrel! An’ Berach’s already shown he’ll believe her over ye any day o’ the –”
Thud. Thud. But that second sound was not that of the guards pounding the door down in their frustration and impatience — it was the pounding of his heart.
Maybe it ain’t the guards, Simon tried to tell himself. It ain’t so late. Could be Pierre — or Grady, maybe someone’s sick! Aye, that could be —
Knock-knock! “Open up, in the name of the King!”
“Son of a bitch,” Simon muttered.
“Ye’ve got ter hide me!”
Simon turned to see Clarence holding his hands before his face — begging! “Please,” Clarence whispered. “If — if they see me, I’ll swing! Ye know that! Ye’ve got ter hide me!”
Simon glanced at the door. “Don’t got time fer that.”
Knock-knock! “Simon Chevaux! Open up in the name of the king!”
“Simon! Please!” Clarence whispered.
“Shut up — jest, shut up so’s I can think!” Simon held his head, forcing his whirling thoughts to find one form —
“Got it,” he whispered. “Clarence, I’ll distract the guard — ye sneak out the back an’ –”
“I’m comin’, I’m comin’!” Simon called over his shoulder. “Give a man time ter get off the pot!” He turned back to Clarence. “Sneak out the back. Run across the fields. Get far away from here, an’ find some other hidey-hole. Got it?”
Simon didn’t wait to find out — he strode to the door, threw it open, and slipped outside before the guard could notice he wasn’t letting him in. “Evenin’, sir,” Simon forced himself to smile. “Is there a problem?”
“The pot, eh?” the guard asked, leaning to look over Simon’s shoulder.
“Nature calls, sir — an’ she ain’t too choosy about her times, neither. Sorry about that.” Simon shrugged. “So, is there somethin’ wrong?”
It was dark, but there was a moon — and Simon would not have been as good a thief as he was if he did not have excellent night vision. So he could see the narrowing of the guard’s eyes, the decided shift of his feet, the slow movement of his hand to his weapon. Simon gave his most fatuous grin in reply.
“There’s been a report,” the guard finally replied. “A … a lowlife scum, seems he attacked some girl out by the square.” He jerked his thumb. “That-a-way.”
“Wright! Someone’s out there, attackin’ children?” Simon forced his eyes to go wide. “Oh no! Me buddy Berach, he lives that way, with his daughter — it weren’t — it weren’t his little girl, was it?”
The guard froze. “I ain’t — I ain’t allowed to say much,” he said. “But — it wasn’t a child that was attacked.”
“Not a — oh, thank goodness. But, wait …” Simon blinked. “A woman, then? That’s not much better.”
“No. It ain’t.”
The guard planted his hands on his hips, watching Simon with one eyebrow upraised. But Simon was no fool. Guards did that — kept quiet — to get you to talk. And even if the guard in question couldn’t write, he was always taking notes. Waiting for the criminal to incriminate himself.
The reason why Simon managed to stay on this side of the gaol walls was that he refused to do that.
But staying too silent could be a trap, too — eventually, even an innocent man would speak up, if only to find out what a guard was doing on his front step in the middle of the night. Simon waited for that moment, the moment when the innocent man would speak, to come, and he spoke only a few seconds before it came. “Er … I’m sorry, sir, but awful as that sound — why’re ye over here axin’ questions about it? The square’s miles away.”
The guard sighed. “We think the — the young woman’s alleged attacker might have run this way. Have you had any … unexpected guests this evening?”
Simon prayed that Clarence had already snuck out and was hoofing it through the fields. “Well …”
Simon took a deep breath. “Look, sir — I know ye’re gonna axe ter look around in jest a minute, an’ –”
“You want to give the ‘pot’ a chance to get her clothes back on?”
He laughed. “I wish that were all it was! No, ye see, I’ve got a friend jest dropped by, an’ he — he, well, I ain’t gonna lie ter ye. He used ter be real trouble, not so long ago. But he’s tryin’ ter get his life back in order, an’ I’m helpin’ him.”
“You’re … what?”
“Helpin’ him. As, well, me Wrightian duty, ye know? I mean, he can still turn things around, make somethin’ o’ his life. Ye know? But, ye see, he’s a bit skittish when it comes ter guards, an’ he’s probably doin’ somethin’ right foolish right now, like hidin’ in the cellar or under the bed …”
… Or sneaking across the front fucking yard!
“He’s, well, sir, not ter be rude — but he’s an idiot,” Simon forced himself to say. “As if hidin’ under the bed wouldn’t be more suspicious than sittin’ at the kitchen table, enjoyin’ a pint! Or, well, he might have done somethin’ even more stupid …”
“Such as?” the guard asked, his hand going to his sword short.
Simon forced a sigh. “Snuck out the back.”
“So you’re stalling?” the guard snapped. “Son of a — out of my way!”
“Of course! Sir, I wasn’t stallin’, I was jest tryin’ ter figure what ye wanted! That’s all, I –”
The night was loud — cicadas singing, owls hooting, frogs in a pond a little bit away. And Simon and the guard were arguing. They should not have been able to hear that crunch, the unmistakable crunch of a hobnail boot on gravel.
But they both did.
The guard turned his head.
“Hey! You there! Stop!”
Simon found he could say nothing as the guard ran after Clarence — and that, perhaps, was his saving grace.
Clarence was used to running and scared for his life — but the guard was not so scared, and old, and sore from a beating. It took no time for the guard to catch up. And when he did —
Simon couldn’t look.
But he could hear. Groans and thumps and cruches as both men fought for footing and for hurting. The singing of a blade unleashed from its sheath —
“Oh, no you don’t!” The guard, ummistakeably. A cry of pain from Clarence —
More thumps, more groans, a thud —
“And that’s enough from you! Get up, you dog!”
“In the name of king, you are under arrest!”
“I ain’t done nothin’!”
“Ain’t done anything? You drew a blade on one of the king’s own officers!” A smack as the guard’s hand made quick and hard contact with the back of Clarence’s head. Simon winced. Was it only half an hour ago that he had been slamming that selfsame head into a table? “And we’ve got the sworn word of two citizens of Albion that you tried to attack J — a young woman!”
“They’re lyin’! Anyway, it weren’t me!”
“Was it, Clarence of Philippine?”
Silence. Simon felt his stomach plunge into the vicinity of his knees.
“Don’t — don’ know who ye’re talkin’ about,” Clarence said, several heartbeats too late.
“That’s as may be,” the guard snarled. “They’re at the guardhouse, though — those two folks who say Clarence of Philippine attacked that woman. Care to see what they have to say when they see your face?”
Simon never heard Clarence’s answer to that. He didn’t want to. He didn’t need to.
Care to see what they have to say …
What would Clarence have to say, with the shadow of the noose hanging over his head, and all sorts of enticements for him to tell what he knew, all he knew, and maybe live another day?
Oh, fuck, Simon thought. Oh, fuck, fuck, fuck.