“Are you sure this was the best place to meet, Tom?” came Lamorak’s worried voice from over Tom’s shoulder.
“It’s the only place to meet,” replied Tom. He tapped his hat to be sure that none of his coppery hair was spilling out, and once again wished that Will was back from his wedding trip already.
“Doesn’t this place seem a bit … rough to you?” asked Lamorak. From the corner of his eye, Tom could see him pulling at his collar.
“Aye,” Tom sighed. “Aye, it does.” He shook his head. “I’m afraid that was rather the point.”
“I don’t like that.”
Will wouldn’t like it, either. But Will would have different reasons for not liking it. His reasons would center around Milo: why would Milo choose such a down-at-heel place? How did Milo get to know about this place? As far as Tom knew, and he assumed as far as Will knew, Milo had never even been to Port Finessa, never mind this … particularly quaint and authentic part of it.
Glancing around and taking in some of the bar’s rougher, more burly, more armed patrons, Tom had to wonder how they would react if they knew that the words “quaint” and “authentic” were being applied to them. After they found out what they meant, of course.
Realizing that wondering would get him precisely nowhere, he strode to the bar with the tread of a man who had every right to be there. “What ho, barkeep!”
The barkeep, dirtying the bar with a rag, looked up. “What’s yer pleasure?”
“We’re looking for someone.”
His eyebrows went up. “How much, then?”
Lamorak cringed, but Tom rolled his eyes. “He told us he had a room here. Man by the name of Carpenter. Black hair, blue eyes, pale? Is he here?”
The barkeep narrowed his eyes at them. “Ye do look clean …”
Lamorak looked down at his worn tunic in horror, but Tom only rolled his eyes. “My mum was the scrub-behind-the-ears type. Unfortunately, it stuck.”
“An’ him?” the barkeep asked, nodding to Lamorak.
“Oh, his wife won’t sleep with him unless he’s had a bath. Now, about the man Carpenter?”
The barkeep watched Tom for a moment further, then grinned, revealing far too few teeth for so wide a smile. “Upstairs,” he nodded to the spiraling steps, “down the hall, last door on yer right.”
“Thank you,” Tom replied; Lamorak had already hurried off.
“No tip?” the barkeep called after their retreating backs.
“Now, why would I give you a tip before I was sure you’d told the truth?” Tom called over his shoulder. The rueful chuckles that echoed through the room told him that was the right answer to make.
“Tom,” Lamorak murmured as he began to mount the steps, “I think they’re watching us.”
“That’s because they are. Step lively, now.”
“Just keep moving.”
They had both reached the landing before Lamorak spoke again. “That girl … did you see that girl?”
“She … she looks awfully young.”
“What do you think — why did her parents let her come here?”
“I doubt they had a say in her decision,” Tom shrugged.
“You don’t think she’s …?”
Lamorak turned a bit red before he nodded.
“But — but if that’s the case — we need to stop them!”
“But we’re — you’re — and I’m –”
Will would have never bothered to lodge this protest. Hell, he never would have asked the question; he’d have figured it all out on his own. And if he decided action needed to be taken, he’d take it himself, the next night or the night after, with a bevy of guardsmen to back him up.
“What we are, my friend,” Tom replied, clapping Lamorak on the shoulder, “is outnumbered. Now, the barkeep said the last door on the right …”
They moved through the cramped, mildewing hall until they came to that selfsame door. By some of the sounds coming from other rooms, the young redhead playing cards wasn’t the only prostitute working this night. Sims who weren’t paying for their pleasure generally didn’t enjoy it so loudly. Well, not in public, at any rate.
The room beyond the door which they stood before, however, was silent.
Tom reached for the door, but Lamorak pushed him to the side and knocked instead. Both listened before a hushed voice with a definite Glasonlander accent muttered, “S’open.”
Lamorak went in first.
“Milo?! What happened to you?”
Tom slipped inside, closed the door, and got a good look at his ruefully-grinning friend. “Aye, mate. Did you forget to pack your razor, or did you just forget how to use it?”
“The former,” Milo shrugged as he let his long legs dangle. He ran a hand over his cheek, producing a rasping, sandpapery sound. “What, you don’t like it?”
“I’ve seen worse,” Tom replied. He pulled his buddy in for a half-pummeling, half-hug. “So how are you?”
“Been better. You?”
“I suffer from the opposite affliction.” Well, except for the bit where they’d just found out that his aunt had tried to kill a four-year-old in order to aid her quest for eternal youth or some similar nonsense. That part of his life could use a bit of improvement. But there was no use in letting Milo know that — or Lamorak either, for that matter.
Milo managed a smile. “How is your wife?”
“It’s all over the kingdom that she’s …” Milo began, and hesitated, twisting his hands together.
“Increasing, aye, she is. I keep telling her that just means there’s more of her to love, but the poor thing will worry about how she’s fitting into her dresses.” Tom still wasn’t sure how he felt about that. Babies were of course a necessity — one had to have an heir — but it was one thing when babies were a necessary item to be acquired at some point in the distant future; it was quite another when your wife suddenly exclaimed and put your hand on her stomach, and you felt the baby move. Suddenly babies weren’t just heirs.
“You’ll be a good father,” Milo smiled and shrugged.
“So you say.”
“Better than mine, at any rate.”
“Milo, you’ve never said anything bad about your stepfather!” Lamorak protested.
A shadow crossed Milo’s face. “I wasn’t talking about my stepfather.” Before Tom could process a thought more complicated than, Bloody hell, the corner of Milo’s lip turned upward. Tom supposed this was to be taken for a smile. “Have a seat, gentlemen?” Milo asked, gesturing to the bed.
The three of them sat down, the spare-stuffed straw of the pallet edging out of their way and the wooden bedstead creaking under their weight. “So,” Tom asked, trying to sound as jocular and conversational as he could, “what’s a nice boy like you doing in a dump like this?”
Another shadow, a deeper and a darker one, crossed Milo’s face. “I … haven’t been entirely honest with you, Tom.”
“You didn’t tell me that the place was a dump; I figured that out on my own.”
“I mean about myself. My … parents. And some other things.”
Tom let his hands fall to his lap. “Say on.”
“… There’s a reason you never heard me speak ill of my father before this. Actually, a couple of them.” Milo stared at the bottle of indeterminate liquid that sat on the bedside table. “One … one is …”
Tom waited, expecting to hear, “You should speak no ill of the dead.”
But that wasn’t what Milo said. “Well, as my mother always said, if you don’t have anything nice to say, you shouldn’t say anything at all.”
“What is it with mothers and annoying platitudes like that?” Tom asked Lamorak, or Milo, or no one.
Lamorak might have responded, but Milo was too busy filling the silence to let him. “The other is that, well, speaking ill of him probably would have been treason.”
Tom blinked. “You don’t mean …”
Milo didn’t speak; he only nodded.
“Son of a bitch. You, too?”
“Vortigern?” Lamorak gasped. “You’re — his son?”
“But — but — why didn’t you tell us?” Lamorak sputtered.
Milo looked at the wall opposite and shrugged.
“I’m sure he had his reasons, mate,” Tom murmured, patting Lamorak’s shoulder. “I suppose you came here for asylum?”
“I don’t know.”
Lamorak’s mouth opened to protest; Tom forestalled him with a raised hand. And he waited.
Milo looked up. “I — I ran away, you know. It’s not as cowardly as it sounds, but … well. I did run away.”
“Why?” Lamorak demanded, while Tom only asked, “From what?”
“They almost got my little sister,” Milo said to his hosen. “Brianna. She’s about your sisters’ age, Lamorak. The twins.”
“Who did?” Lamorak asked.
Tom, on the other hand, whispered, “They came after you?”
“Who?” Lamorak asked again.
Milo laughed the mirthless laugh of the damned. “Because … I don’t even know why! Because I’m Vortigern’s son. Because I know how to use a sword. Because my stepfather has powerful connections who could be persuaded that I’m one of their own, and even if I’m not, I’ve got no Reman blood in me and I’m not, so far as anyone knows, mad. Take your pick, Tom.”
“Huh?” Lamorak wailed.
“I suppose we had better explain,” Tom sighed.
“I suppose. Why didn’t you bring Will? No offense, Lamorak, but he knows all this already.”
“Still on his wedding trip. Anyway, Lamorak …” Tom began, and told him all that Milo had told him about the balance of power in Glasonland.
When Tom finished, Lamorak’s eyebrows were in the vicinity of his hairline, and his jaw hovering somewhere around his knees. “Good Lord. My father said the situation was … was bad, but …” He made the sign of the plumbbob over himself. “Why would they go after your sister, Milo? Is she also …?”
“No, she’s my stepfather’s daughter, it’s just …” Milo sighed. “I suppose I had better begin at the beginning.”
“It’s generally less confusing than beginning at the end, aye.”
Milo cracked a smile. “My stepfather has a home in the capital. After graduation, we … well, the whole family went there. Father — my stepfather, that is — well, after the deal with Lady Erica fell through, he had arrange a marriage for me, and he wanted to finalize Ella’s betrothal, and now that Brianna’s, um, old enough, it was time to start looking for her.”
“So you were trying to kill three birds with one stone. Essentially.”
“Aye. And … well, at first, there were just a couple of … accidents.”
“Accidents,” Tom asked, “or ‘accidents?'” He curled his fingers in the air.
“‘Accidents,'” Milo echoed. “Tiles suddenly slip off a roof, barely avoiding my head. I go to a dinner party, everyone who eats the soup gets sick. They said it wasn’t cooked properly, but …”
“But you didn’t eat the soup?”
Milo shook his head. “And there were others. Some — some mates of mine and I, we went to a pub one night. And a brawl started. It all looked — well, all right isn’t the word, but … but it was all fun and games until my mate …” Milo’s voice trailed off.
“He was killed,” he murmured. “Stabbed in the back. Same height, same build, close hair color to … to me.”
“Son of a bitch.”
“But the last straw,” Milo’s voice started to shake, “was — was Brianna.”
“What about Brianna?”
“She — she gets hot at night. So — so she sleeps with the window open. Not all the way open, just a crack. And … and her bedroom is right next to mine. So maybe he miscounted. Or maybe he saw that the window was open and figured it would be easier to get in that way. I don’t know.
“But whatever his reasons, he climbed up into Brianna’s room, and — she’s a light sleeper. She heard a noise. Woke up, saw a shadow moving — screamed her bloody head off. We all came running, and …”
Milo curled up, his shoulders shaking. “We all piled in, and there was Brianna. I don’t know how she did it, but she grabbed the poker and was holding him off. Or trying to. We — Father and Adam and one of the guards and I — we were able to disarm him and hold him down until the Watch could come.” Milo gulped. “He had a knife.”
“And do you know what the Watch said?” Milo asked, popping up like one of those child’s jack-in-the-boxes.
“That he was a burglar! A burglar! When he had — and all he had — was a knife! Not even a bag to put whatever he stole in! Just a knife!”
Milo swallowed. “He could have — he could have killed my sister! Or worse! And they said he was a burglar!”
“Maybe the Watch are just idiots?” Lamorak asked.
Tom and Milo stared at him.
“Well, my father has had some choice words to say about some of the men on the Watch here …”
Tom shook his head. “No. No, I think the Watch was told to find that that man was a burglar. Maybe if that was all it was …” Tom glanced sidelong at Milo. “If he only had a knife … you were meant to be found murdered. That’s bold. Who else has been killed since we graduated?”
“No deaths. Not yet. But there was a … a rather obvious attempt on Francis of Lothario’s life. He kicked up a huge fuss about it. The King himself had to pacify him.”
“Obvious how? As obvious as the last one on yours was?”
“A gang of thugs set upon him — and not in a bad part of the capital, either — in Jeweler’s Lane. There, the Watch collars you if you so much as look as a jeweler funny. Luckily, Francis’s guards fought them off, but …”
“An attempt is an attempt,” Tom mused. “And you didn’t want to be next.”
“It wasn’t just me,” Milo murmured. “It was … well. Brianna. How could I …?”
“Aye,” Lamorak added. “I understand too.”
“And … and, well, I ended up here. Eventually. I thought, at first, that I’d … I don’t know. Find something to do. As a … as a commoner. But …”
“But — you remember when we went to that tavern in Avilion? There was a pretty waitress there … she recognized me.”
Tom sighed. “Oh, bother.”
“I shouldn’t have gone to the tavern — but I thought — I was going to try to settle in Avilion … but …”
Milo stared at his shoes. “First, I ran into Gaul,” he said. “And I tried to disappear into Parisim. Well, I left a pretty obvious trail. Then I boarded a ship for Simspain. But it stopped for supplies in Asimiens, and I got off there, and boarded another ship for … well, for here. Port Finessa,” he concluded. “Then I bought a horse, and went to Avilion, but I had to come back … and …”
“You’re out of money,” Tom concluded.
“Aye. They’ll kick me out of this room in a day or two, once they realize.”
“But — but can’t you ask the King for asylum? Surely … surely he could use another knight. If things in Glasonland are as bad as you say …”
“It’s not — necessarily — that simple, mate,” Tom said to Lamorak. “There are vows of fealty and such …”
“And I ran away,” Milo sighed.
Tom shrugged. “Eh — now, granted, the rules of chivalry are somewhat strict about running away in battle, but I think they’re rather conspicuously silent on the subject of running away from assassins.”
“Mate, from what I understand, the Remans say, ‘Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori.’ Sweet and right to die for one’s country and all that. However, I am fairly certain that they don’t count being assassinated as dying for one’s country. Fairly certain.” Tom managed a rueful grin. “It’s the fealty situation you’d have to worry about.”
“If the King’s ministers are trying to kill you, and you’ve done nothing wrong …” Lamorak started. “Well … I’m sure my father would be able to think of a way for you to wiggle out of the whole fealty thing. The King’s supposed to protect you, isn’t he? Not be trying to kill you on the sly?”
“I’m not sure …” Tom began. He frowned. “What claim did you have on your stepfather’s lands?”
“I — well, technically, I’m the heir …”
“You can kiss that goodbye, if you join up with us,” Tom replied.
“After I ran off, I wasn’t planning on keeping that claim.”
“Smart man,” Tom approved. “You know, we could find a way, I’m sure. If you claim asylum … aye, it could work. Of course, you’d have to give up any outside chance you might have had at the Glasonlander throne …”
Milo shot him the shocked look of a man who didn’t even rate his chance as an outside one.
“Aye, that’s about what I thought,” Tom grinned. “So, my lad!” He hopped off the bed and stuck his hand out. “What say you to joining the somewhat sparse ranks of Albionese knights? I can’t make you promises for lands, glory in battle or even a particularly large salary, but I can promise you that if assassins try to murder you in your bed, we shan’t call them burglars in the face of obvious evidence to the contrary.”
Milo smiled. “Sounds like a better deal than I had at … back in Glasonland.”
“So are you in?”
Milo clambered off the bed and shook Tom’s hand. “Aye. I’m in.”
“Excellent!” Tom followed up the handshake with a friendly pummel to the back. “Now, my friend and cousin … what do you say we seal this deal with the best brew this rather frightening tavern can rustle up? And hope it doesn’t kill us?”
Milo laughed. “Hasn’t killed me yet.”
“Fantastic. And after that, you come home with Lamorak and me. We can’t have our newest knight being murdered in his bed, or eaten alive by bedbugs, before he even gets a chance to swear fealty, now, can we?”
And they suited the action to the word.