Ververe 27, 1013
Simon was always careful to enter and leave the Dog and Crown from the dockside. Most people who could or would know him, if they were in Port Finessa, walked on the road side. The docks were for sailors, seamen, and their ilk. Rough types. Most of the peasants of Albion, the landed ones, weren’t tough enough to keep up. It didn’t matter how long you could swing a scythe if you didn’t know how and when to swing your fist.
The red sunset washed over him as he passed under the rickety balcony, looking up as always to make sure it was still above his head and not about to come crashing down. It was a sign of weakness, to be sure, but not one that mattered. Even the strongest man, the canniest fighter, the cleverest thief, could be felled by a shower of splintered wood and masonry. Anybody could be justifiably nervous about that. And in a way, showing that kind of weakness made Simon look stronger. It made it clear that he didn’t give a damn whether his “compatriots” knew he was nervous about the balcony.
Simon did, of course, give a damn. But it was very important for him to appear as if he didn’t. His excursions to the Dog and Crown were one of the few times when he knew he wasn’t the most dangerous man in the room, and couldn’t be sure if he was the cleverest.
To say that worried him would be a gross understatement.
So when he went in, he did as he always did: look around the room for signs of trouble. The first thing he saw was the card table, populated by the usual mix of rogues and ne’er-do-wells, as well as a dockside whore. At least, Simon couldn’t imagine what other kind of woman would be walking around half-dressed and on such a dangerous part of the docks besides.
He meant to cast another quick glance around the room before heading upstairs, to the room where his partners in crime (heh, heh) would be meeting. It was what he always did. In a place like the Dog, it was better to be the observer, not the observed. One way to avoid the latter fate was to move quickly.
The other was to not make an utter fool of yourself — which, while Simon wasn’t the one doing that tonight, did not mean that he was unaware of other people behaving like complete idiots.
People like Craig Ray.
Dear Lord, that was the fourth verse! How long had Craig been making such a fool of himself?
Simon glanced at the bottles in front of Craig, one of them overturned and dripping purple liquid onto the wooden stand that had been the front of Craig’s improvised stage. Maybe he didn’t want to know what kind of fool Craig had been, or how long he’d been acting like that.
Besides, this, too, in a way, was a show of strength, just as Simon’s nervous glance at the balcony had been. Craig was telling everyone in the pub that it didn’t matter how loudly he sang, or for that matter how badly he sang. None of them would identify him to the guards, should they come sniffing around this place. None of them would admit to having ever seen him before in their lives. He was that strong, that powerful, that he could let his guard down and sing a bawdy song in a ratty pub and not have to worry about the consequences.
“Oh, ye’re drunk, ye’re drunk, ye silly old fool! Still ye cannot see! That’s a two lovely geranium pots that me mother sent to me!”
However, all of that notwithstanding, there really was no reason for Simon to let Craig continue to subject the other patrons of the pub to his poor excuse for a melody. “Craig.”
“Well, it’s many a day I’ve traveled –”
“A hundred mile or more –”
“But laces on a geranium pot –”
“I never saw be-fooooooore!” Craig leaned back, sending his voice careening into the rafters. Simon pitied the poor rafters — and everyone in the pub, for that matter, if the rafters should decide to protest by crashing onto their heads.
Craig followed his last note by straightening, putting the bottle he’d been singing into down, and blinking disingenuously at Simon. “Well?” he asked Simon eagerly.
“Craig, we’ve got–”
“What’d ye think?” he interrupted.
Simon’s mouth opened and shut. He sighed. “Hardly a song fer mixed company,” he jerked a thumb at the whore, “don’t ye think?”
Simon would give himself this much credit: on his hunt for dumb muscle to replace Clarence, he’d been smart enough to pick a man who didn’t prey on innocent (and not-so-innocent) women. His widowed ma had been the type to insist that you didn’t hit girls, and enforce that rule with not a switch but a plank. With a nail in it. The result was that Craig was terrified about doing wrong around women, and if anyone around him looked likely to do wrong, he’d give them a walloping that would make them pray for the guards to come and arrest them all.
This not only kept Craig out of Clarence-like trouble, it also made him easier to manipulate in some ways. He looked at the whore and blushed — blushed! — shrinking head and neck into his collar. “Oh, Lord! Ye don’t think she — she –”
“Relax, she’ll fergive ye,” Simon replied. “But in the future, lay off the bawdy songs if ye see women around, aye? Ain’t fair to them, makin’ em sit through that.” Or anybody else, for that matter.
A look from Simon shut him up quick. Simon’s name was never said on the first floor of the Dog and Crown; that was the rule. He had a life, a wife, a child to protect. To say nothing of his own skin. He’d come far too close to capture when Clarence had been found at his house. He couldn’t afford to have his name attached to anything while Lord Pellinore was still Chief Justiciar.
“Come on,” he said, nodding his head to the staircase. “Let’s go up.”
Craig followed him, meek as any kitten, as Simon climbed the creaking staircase without a further word.
As he walked, he gathered his courage. He hated these other men he was going to meet, every last one of them. How much sweeter had things been when it was just him, Clarence, and Andrea robbing warehouses and unwary travelers. There were other gangs of thieves out there, Simon knew that, but they hadn’t bothered him, and he hadn’t bothered them. Now …
Now things were different. Now he had come to the attention of Graybeard. And once you came to Graybeard’s notice, you paid your court to him, and you prayed he liked you.
He came to the door — never mind which door, it was simply the door — and knocked the distinctive knock Graybeard had given to him. He added Craig’s raps, too, for the sake of efficiency. A light, calm voice called, “Come in.”
There were three empty seats at Graybeard’s table, which was stocked with fruit and fish and drink — the drink half-gone — already. Simon did not hesitate over which one to take. That would be a sign of weakness. Besides, if he hesitated, Jihoon might call out, “Sit by me!” or Graybeard might say, “Sit by Isaac.” Simon wasn’t sure which would be worse.
So he did as he always did when he had a choice of seats: he took the chair at the foot of the table. It was far away from Graybeard, but it was the only one that allowed Simon to look him in the eye. It wasn’t presuming anything with Isaac, Graybeard’s son and heir presumptive. (There was no such thing as an heir apparent in a group of thieves, blood or no blood.) It didn’t get him sandwiched next to Jihoon, who had been angling to be Graybeard’s heir for years, according to popular rumor. It was the perfect seat.
As for Craig, he took the seat between Simon and Jihoon, probably because it was closest to the door and thus the shortest walk. You could be that simple and straightforward when you were just the dumb muscle. Simon almost envied him.
“So,” Craig asked as soon as he sat and was able to pull his chair up, “what’d we miss?”
“We heard you,” laughed Jihoon, “all the way from downstairs. Hard ter talk much with yer …” He snickered, “talents distractin’ us.”
Craig beamed, the teasing entirely lost on him. “Oh? What’d ye think?”
Simon froze. Should he let Jihoon get on with whatever stinging insult or annoying crack he had in mind? Or should he stand up for Craig? It was because of Simon that Craig was even here to be insulted.
Luckily Graybeard solved that dilemma for Simon. “We found your singing to be a shining example of its type, Craig. Now. Jihoon. To business. Your report?”
Simon bristled. It shouldn’t be Jihoon giving the report; it should be him. He had been the one to come up with and organize the Glasonland border robberies. And he was the one who wanted to call them to a halt, thanks to the increased guard presence on the one place where the border was porous enough to manage to cross back and forth. But good luck being able to speak first when Jihoon was around.
“Well,” Jihoon chuckled, shrugging his shoulders under that bright orange tunic, “I think we still got a good thing goin’. Even if some folks are too cowardly ter be doin’ real work, we can be fleecin’ families o’ a lot o’ their cash jest by sayin’ we’ll take ’em cross the border. Then we never show. Who are they gonna complain ter, eh?”
Simon didn’t say anything. You gained nothing from arguing with Jihoon. He had a tongue as glib as a gypsy’s — which he was. So was Greybeard and his son. The word around the underbelly of Albion was that Simon, with his non-gypsy blood, was as lucky to be allowed as close to Greybeard’s inner circle as he was. He must have impressed the old man.
“We would not be discussing alternatives to the border scheme if I did not agree with Simon that it needed to stop,” Graybeard replied. “However, I will note that as an alternative. Thank you, Jihoon.”
“We could always start on the other border,” suggested Isaac, not even waiting for his father to signal his desire to hear other ideas.
“Pretending to bring refugees across and instead robbing them of all they have? That sounds like a brilliant idea, Isaac, except that there are no refugees on that border,” Graybeard scoffed.
“Naw, not that,” Isaac waved his hand. Simon knew not which was more surprising: that a father could be so withering to his son, or that the son could brush it off so easily. “Tithes from Reme-way. It’s still tryin’ ter come over the border. If we were ter help ourselves ter some o’ it … well, who’d miss it?”
“Ch-church money?” quavered Craig. He made the sign of the plumbbob over himself. “I don’t know, Isaac. That — that’s axin’ fer monks curses, that is. An’ they stick. I ain’t goin’ ter hell fer stealin’ what belongs ter the Church.”
“As if we weren’t goin’ ter hell already, each an’ every one o’ us, if the Church has its way!” laughed Jihoon.
He leaned forward, conspiratorially, as if to draw every other man in that room in on his ideas. Simon’s stomach roiled. There was something in his blood that rose up every time he saw Jihoon, something that made him want to punch his face until it broke. And it wasn’t just the opportunity to beat that ugly nose of his into a more appealing shape, either. Maybe it was the way Jihoon dressed: that orange shirt and blue vest, with a bright yellow sash to top off the ensemble. Jihoon stood out in every crowd. And he didn’t give a damn.
And then there was the way he talked. He was a born con man: he smiled, and he told you that he had some fertile farmland in the depths of the Dousa Desert that he’d like to sell you, and your hand reached for its purse of its own accord. The women loved him. The men wanted to be him, at least until they reached into their purses and found all the coins missing.
Jihoon was everything Simon wasn’t. But there was one thing, Simon hoped, that he was that Jihoon wasn’t: smart enough to know when to save his own skin.
So, before Jihoon could unfold a brilliant plan for taking the Church’s money and running with it, Simon spoke. “Bad idea.”
Craig shot him a pathetically grateful glance. “‘Cause we’ll go ter hell, right?”
Even if Simon was raining on Jihoon’s parade — for it would be Jihoon’s parade, all right, not Isaac’s, since Jihoon had decided he would speak in favor of Isaac’s idea — he didn’t want to contradict him outright. Especially not on something that was so stupid that it would be obvious he only did it to piss off Jihoon. “I ain’t got no idea about that, mate, but I’d wager Jihoon is right if any o’ us are,” he shrugged. “No, I think it’s a bad idea ’cause it’s likely ter land all o’ our necks in a noose.”
“Why, Simon? Ye afraid ye’ll not be able ter think o’ some clever enough plan ter get the gold an’ get out?” Jihoon mocked.
“It ain’t gettin’ the gold that worries me — it’s usin’ it. ‘Cause that’s gold the Church uses ter do its accounts in. The silvers an’ the coppers go inter the local abbeys, but gold comes out. Maybe there’s a few silvers and coppers ter handle the odd amounts, but it’s gold what most o’ it’s in. An’ the likes o’ us can’t be seen spendin’ gold without bein’ axed how we got it an’ where we got it from.”
“Oh? We can’t?” asked Graybeard, eyebrows arching up.
Simon gulped. That was stupid to say, wasn’t it? He couldn’t spend gold. But Graybeard, who talked like a lord and kept himself as neat and presentable as a queen, he could spend gold, couldn’t he? All he would need would be some fine clothes, a nice hat — anybody would take him for a wealthy burgher in a heartbeat. He could spend all the gold he pleased, looking and sounding like that.
Except … Simon remembered something he’d heard and taken the trouble to confirm. He swallowed and took a chance on it. “Not Church gold, sir. Ye know they mint their own special fer their accounts.” The reason for that was simple — to deter theft. And it was child’s play for the big monasteries in Glasonland and Reme, the ones that dealt in gold, to see to it that a monk was trained enough in goldsmithing to manage the job. “An’ I don’t think ye’d be wantin’ ter tonsure yerself, sir, jest fer one job.”
The words barely escaped Simon’s mouth before Simon wanted to gulp. How would Graybeard take that? Simon could never quite read the older man. He could take it in stride, or he could grow mortally offended. And if he did–
Graybeard chuckled. “Indeed. Indeed. But what about you, Jihoon?” Graybeard waggled his eyebrows at the blond man. “How would you like to sport a tonsure to spend some gold?”
Jihoon yelped and covered his hair, and with good reason. If they were to make any kind of habit of stealing Church gold, then whoever got the tonsure would have to keep it for a long time. And that was conspicuous in a way that even Jihoon’s orange shirt and skintight black breeches that made all the maidens’ hearts flutter wasn’t. The orange shirt, the blue vest — people would see that, not Jihoon’s face (ugly as it was). He could wear something else. A tonsure on a man who wasn’t a monk? People would remember that. And the only way to get rid of it in a hurry was to shave your head — something else that people might remember.
“Well, if that ain’t a good idea,” snarled Isaac, “what would ye suggest, Simon?”
Simon almost cringed. That was the unspoken rule at Graybeard’s table, wasn’t it? You didn’t criticize one man’s ideas unless you could come up with a better one. Oh, Graybeard would let you slide every now and then, if your objection was good enough. But you’d fall in the old man’s estimation. You didn’t want that.
So Simon swallowed and thought fast. “Horses.”
Graybeard blinked. “Horses?”
“Aye. The guards on the Glasonlander border, they’re right flush in cash now, ain’t they? ‘Cause o’ all the bribes they’re gettin’ — ye know that all o’ it ain’t makin’ its way inter Church coffers. An’ what is a guard flush with cash gonna want ter buy more than a fine horse? An’ weapons an’ armor, fer that matter?”
“Horses? Weapons? Armor? What are we, traders?” scoffed Jihoon. “And how would ye plan to sell these horses and stuff? How would ye explain to yer lord where they came from an’ where they’re goin’?”
“Oh, I figured ye could handle that part,” Simon sneered. “Everyone knows that the gypsies always have good horses an’ all other kinds o’ stuff, an’ no one knows where they get ’em from.”
Jihoon flushed, probably because that was true. “But — but still, even if ye steal horses an’ weapons enough, what then? That ain’t gonna keep us in silver fer long. An’ where are ye plannin’ ter get all them good horses from, eh?”
“Are ye tellin’ me, Jihoon, that ye can’t run a simple horse con? Replace the good horses with some old nags an’ busted weapons?” Simon gasped. “We’ve only got ter steal a few good horses an’ a few good weapons — an’ ye can leave that bit ter Craig an’ me. An’ if it looks like the heat’s buildin’, why, ye jest sell the good horses and other stuff what we stole, an’ we call it a day an’ come up with somethin’ else.”
“It’s harder ter do that kind o’ con on a man what knows good horses and good weapons,” Jihoon complained. “Those guards will be checkin’ an’ double-checkin’ an’ –”
“No, Jihoon,” interrupted Graybeard. “Because what Simon — what you — will be selling them is not a horse. Or a sword. It’s a dream.”
Graybeard smiled knowingly at Simon as he spoke. “Because what’s the difference between a guard and a knight, at least in a guard’s mind? A horse. Good weapons. Armor. There’s barely a man among those guards who isn’t itching to get into the real fray and make his fortune, I would wager. With all the chaos, it would be easy to join an army with no questions asked, especially if they didn’t display any interest in joining the command. Give them the opportunity, real or imagined, to do so, and they will jump on it.” He turned a baleful eye onto Jihoon. “You should have seen that.”
Jihoon swallowed. “I ain’t no guard.”
“Of course you are not. But you should be able to think like one all the same.” Graybeard nodded to Simon. “Well done, Simon.”
He kept quiet for the next few moments, letting the conversation wash over him like the waves over the shore. Isaac began to brainstorm places to get the weapons, even though Simon had said that he and Craig would take care of it. Still, if Isaac wanted in, Simon wouldn’t keep him out. Doubtless he’d be keeping an eye on them for Graybeard. It would be easier in the long run to accept and encourage that. Graybeard’s trust, if it was earned, could be valuable.
When he judged enough time had passed, though, Simon cleared his throat. “Er — sir?” He lifted his clay mug aloft with a sheepish smile. “Mind if I be excused fer a minute? Too much wine.”
Graybeard only nodded, an exceptionally polite and easy acquiescence from him. Simon was already earning some of that trust. He smiled at Graybeard and slipped from the room.
At the first opportunity, he collapsed against the wall, panting.
Dear Lord. He’d done it. He’d done it. He’d stood up to Jihoon and Isaac both — and he’d won. He might have even saved all of their necks, too. And he’d made an enemy of Jihoon, if he hadn’t already, but Isaac didn’t seem too angry. That could be good. That could be very good.
And he was getting in with Graybeard, too. That … that was even better.
Simon took another deep breath, then he hurried down the hall to the privies. He was, after all, gaining Graybeard’s trust. And when you had the trust of a man like Graybeard …
You didn’t squander it, even if your life depended on it.