Osgary 3, 1014
Graybeard had sent word: Simon was to meet him at the Dog and Crown this evening. Just past sunset. As luck would have it, this was an evening Roma was working, which meant that Roma would be angry with him if he didn’t get home before she did …
But that was personal. This was business. And sometimes, if you wanted to continue to have a personal life, you worried first about the business.
As Simon slipped into the crowded pub, looking around furtively, he knew that this was one of those times.
The whole kingdom was still buzzing with the news of Sir Lamorak’s death. And the official story had come out: the Crown was on the lookout for the thieves and ruffians who had done this terrible deed. Simon had to try not to shudder whenever he thought about it. Thieves and ruffians — who of his number would have been mad enough to attack a knight? Worse yet, an earl? Married to the King’s cousin? That wasn’t just asking to have your neck put in a noose, that was getting on your knees and begging for it.
And even if you were mad enough to attack a knight and steal his horse and whatever else he had on him — you didn’t kill him. What good would that do? You held him for ransom and doubled your profit.
… Then again, given what the King had been prepared to do to his own sister for kidnapping a peasant boy … perhaps it would be wiser to kill the knight you robbed. Dead men told no tales.
With that in mind, and knowing damn well he wouldn’t be welcome into Graybeard’s inner chamber until he was summoned, Simon hopped onto a barstool to pass the time and hear what tales were being told.
He looked around the bar. There was the usual crowd present tonight: rogues and thieves and ne’er-do-wells, sprinkled with a fair helping of gypsies in their bright clothes as well. There was even a wizard, or a man passing himself off as one. Few who weren’t wizards wore those kinds of robes in this part of town. It was a good way to get beaten up and robbed.
Simon didn’t wonder what a wizard was doing here, though, when there were better opportunities for wizards in better parts of the town and kingdom. It was sometimes easier to make a living honestly by magic, at least in Albion, than it was dishonestly. But some wizards had spent their whole lives in the shadows … and after that, it could be hard to come into the light.
The wizard was taking a long draught of whatever was in his cup. He set the cup down with a sigh. “Bad business, this earl-killin’,” he remarked.
Simon froze — was he expected to speak? But luckily the dark-skinned man to the wizard’s left answered him. “Aye. I heard when they found ‘im at first, they only found ‘alf o’ ‘im — they had ter go lookin’ fer t’other ‘alf, they did.”
Simon signaled for the bartender to get him a pint of ale, and once it came, he drank deeply. Good Lord. If that was true — even if it wasn’t …
The Crown would be angry. Very angry. And an angry Crown wasn’t likely to be picky about what thieves and ruffians it picked up. What did it matter if you caught the right thieves so long as you were sure it was thieves you were catching? They would keep searching for thieves and ruffians until they’d either found Sir Lamorak’s killers, found someone who would cop to being Sir Lamorak’s killers, or chased all the thieves out of the kingdom or forced them to go straight.
The worst part was that all of those options represented a net win for the Crown.
“Only found half of him?” asked the wizard. Simon’s ears pricked up again, even as he forced himself to not visibly tense. “That sounds mad, m’friend. Ain’t no thieves what would do that.”
“Well, s’what I heard,” remarked the young man. “‘Course, it could have been animals what done it. They say it was near a week before the body were found.”
Simon actually relaxed when he heard that. Time could do a lot of damage to a body left out in the open. Surely the King’s men would be skilled, or at least skilled enough, in determining just how much of Sir Lamorak’s condition was due to the men who put him in it and how much was due to his body taking a few days to be found. If the truth behind the worst of the rumors was simply that the body wasn’t looking pretty after being left to rot out in the open — well, the Crown would be that much calmer, that much less incensed.
Aww, Simon, don’t kid yerself. They’re gonna be furious no matter what.
“Animals wouldn’t tear a body in half an’ leave one half one place an’ the other another place,” the wizard murmured. “But they could do a lot. Aye. That could be part o’ it.”
The young man cocked his head to the side and stared at the wizard. The wizard continued to drink. Finally the young man spoke and asked the question that was uppermost on Simon’s and — he suspected — almost everybody else in the kingdom’s mind. “So … who d’ye think did it?”
The answer was disappointing.
“Not a bloody clue,” replied the wizard. “Ain’t heard a thing.”
“Really?” asked the young man, showing he was thinking the same thing Simon was. “Not even ye?”
“Don’t think I haven’t been listenin’,” replied the wizard. “This kind o’ information … well.” He didn’t need to fill in the rest of the sentence. Simon could for him. Delivered to the right hands, this kind of information could ensure that a man never needed to earn another clipped copper as long as he lived.
Of course, the downside was, that information could do exactly the same thing in the wrong hands. A man whose remaining lifespan was better measured in days, or even hours, than years didn’t have much need for money.
With that in mind, Simon glanced sidelong at the wizard before hurriedly looking away. He couldn’t be the only one listening. Maybe the wizard was just being cagey in the hopes of remaining alive.
“But there’s been nothin’. Nobody boastin’. Nobody getting too drunk an’ maybe spillin’ some things they shouldn’t. Nobody’s even sold the bloody horse!” the wizard went on. “It’s the strangest thing I ever did see!”
“Maybe whoever it was went ter Camford an’ sold the horse there. Camford folks don’t like the King much. They won’t be lookin’ out as hard. Or,” the young man went on, “the horse could’ve been sold before the body were found.”
“Could have. Could have,” the wizard agreed. “That would have been the wise thing ter do. Get rid o’ the evidence before anyone knows there’s evidence ter be had. Still … ye’d think we’d have heard somethin’.”
“Camford, then,” the younger man repeated, nodding as if that settled the question forever.
“Maybe … but ye gotta understand this about these high-born, important folk … they all hang tergether. Ye attack one, ye attack ’em all. Unless, o’ course, ye’re another important person, then ye’re allowed ter do whatever ye like. But one o’ us? The Camford folks will be lookin’ out fer this man. Or men. Whatever they don’t like about what the King’s done will be chump change compared ter this.”
That was definitely true. Simon tried not to shudder. He’d have to lay low for months, or until the murderer or murderers were caught, if he wanted to be absolutely safe …
“Graybeard is ready for you, Simon.”
Simon didn’t jump. He wanted to. But showing weakness to Jihoon was like cutting yourself all over your body and jumping into shark-infested waters. So he slowly turned on his barstool, raised one eyebrow, and said just a little louder than Jihoon had greeted him, “Jihoon. Nice ter be seein’ ye.”
If his name was now public property thanks to Jihoon, the least he could do was return the favor.
“It’s very nice,” replied Jihoon. “Anyway, I shouldn’t keep ye …” He extended his hand to Simon. “But before ye go up — I jest want ter say how nice it’s been workin’ with ye, an’ knowin’ ye, all this time.”
Oh, shit. Was it too late to run for the door? What the hell did Graybeard have planned? It couldn’t be good; Jihoon wouldn’t be smiling like that if it were at all in Simon’s favor.
But still Simon kept a faint smile plastered on his face, still he weakly pumped Jihoon’s hand. “Same ter ye. But I mustn’t keep Graybeard waitin’.” With a brief nod, he detached himself from Jihoon’s hand and sauntered for the stairs.
If he went up there, faced the lion in his dead — it might be the last thing he ever did. But if he ran now …
It would definitely be the last thing he ever did.
His heart was pounding in his ears as he knocked at the door, using his own signal. “Come in,” replied Graybeard. Simon couldn’t hear anything off his voice … but then again, he wouldn’t, would he?
All the same, he made sure he took the knife from his boot and spirited it up his sleeve before he went in.
Graybeard was standing on the opposite side of the table, staring out the window, his back to Simon. “Close the door,” he said.
The instant the door softly clicked shut, Graybeard spun around on his heel and shouted. “What the hell were you thinking, Chevaux?”
Simon stumbled back. “What?”
“Don’t play coy with me, puppy!” Graybeard snapped. Somehow that one word packed more punch than if Graybeard had called him a cock-sucking, mother-fucking whoreson son of a bitch — perhaps with a few more insults tossed in for good measured. “Sir Lamorak? An earl? What were you thinking?”
“I–I–nothin’!” Simon stumbled. This was worse than being yelled at by his ma, may she rest in peace. “I didn’t think nothin’ about–”
Wait. “Ye think I killed Sir Lamorak?”
“Oh, now he pretends to understand!” Graybeard spat. “Who else could it have been? I take the most daring of you lot into my crew, and of my crew, it could have only been you or Jihoon! It wasn’t Jihoon — he doesn’t have the guts for that kind of killing — so that leaves you!”
“No! It can’t!”
“Oh, for the Lord’s sake, take what’s coming like a man! Don’t go out puling and whining like a child! By St. Robert, I thought you had potential — but now? You disgust me!”
“Disgust ye?” Simon felt his blood start to come up. False accusations he could deal with — but not this. “Where the hell did ye get the right ter talk like that? Ye ain’t no better than me, Graybeard!”
“Fer one thing, ye’re a lot dumber!” Simon shouted. “If ye’re thinkin’ I’m stupid enough ter have killed a nobleman!”
Graybeard opened his mouth, but Simon had no desire to hear what came out of it. “An’ fer what? His horse? I can’t sell a knight’s horse without drawin’ attention ter meself! That’s Jihoon what does that! An’ what’s he likely ter have had on ‘im? A bit o’ money? Some food? I’m gonna kill a nobleman fer less take than I could’ve had coshin’ some burgher over the head an’ runnin’ off with his purse? D’ye think I’m that dumb? Would I still be alive if I were that dumb?”
Graybeard narrowed his eyes. “How do you what Sir Lamorak was likely to have had on him?”
“Because we all know what he were doin’ when he were killed! Ridin’ around lookin’ over all the borders! Ridin’ through the woods an’ fields! Ain’t nothin’ ter buy there, so why would he bring silver with him?”
“He would need to pay for lodging,” replied Graybeard. “And food–”
“No, no!” Simon shook his head. “Noblemen don’t buy lodgin’! They stay in each other’s houses! Or maybe he were gonna stay at the towers an’ stuff he were inspectin’! The point is, they ain’t stayin’ in dumps like this, an’ there ain’t much else but dumps like this where Sir Lamorak were travelin’!
“And how do you know all this about nobles?” Graybeard asked.
“Because me SISTER has been sleepin’ with one fer over a decade!” Simon huffed. “Ye think I ain’t been pickin’ her brain that whole time? An’ poor lamb — she don’t even know I’m doin’ it!”
Graybeard’s eyes went wide. “So you — you truly had nothing to do with Sir Lamorak …”
“But I … but Jihoon …” Graybeard leaned against the chair at the head of the table, and Simon suddenly remembered that despite his relatively smooth face, despite the suppleness of his joints and the catlike fluidity of his movements, Graybeard was an old man. Old enough to have a son some years older than Simon.
Graybeard passed a hand over his forehead. “Sit down, Simon,” he said as he slowly lowered himself into his habitual chair. “I see I was wrong. But I was so sure …”
Simon hesitated. Could this be a fake? A ruse? But why? Surely, if Graybeard thought that Simon was responsible, he’d have strong men, toughs, hiding in the next room or rooms, ready to rush in and kill him when Graybeard signaled. Or no — that would not be the way to go. The smartest way would be to somehow contrive to feed Simon to the guards and the Crown, to take the heat off everyone else. Simon was no good to anyone dead.
“Ye all right, sir?” he asked when Graybeard seemed content to stare into space.
“I was so sure …” murmured Graybeard. “Jihoon — Jihoon does not have the nerve to pull off something like that … nobody else would have the imagination, or the thirst for it …”
“A thirst for killin’ somebody?” Simon gasped.
Graybeard looked at him sharply. “Have you never killed a man, Simon?”
What kind of a question was that — other than one to be answered truthfully, probably, in the interests of staying alive. “I …” Simon shook his head. Then, remembering a few men who’d been unusually still after Simon had coshed them — though he hadn’t bothered to check for a pulse — he added, “Leastaways — not that I know of.”
“How odd,” murmured Graybeard. “Dead men tell no tales.”
“Well, aye … but …”
“And you’d hang anyway, should the Crown ever catch wind of what you’ve done.”
“Yes … but …” Simon could only end with a shrug. “I ain’t that kind o’ man. Don’t want no blood on me hands unless — unless it has ter be there.”
“How intriguing. And how odd.” Graybeard stroked his chin. “It never occurred to you that it might be wise to make a splash — show you are not to be trifled with?”
“Always seemed ter me that I’d be gettin’ less trifled with if I weren’t doin’ nothin’ ter make folks want ter come after me.”
“And here I always thought you were the most like me of all the men here,” Graybeard remarked, gesturing around the all-but-empty table.
“I still could be, sir,” Simon piped in. “I mean … I can’t imagine ye’ve got unnecessary blood on yer hands …”
Graybeard looked at those hands — as if the blood would show in the weak candlelight. “It depends, I suppose, on one’s definition of necessary,” he remarked. “For … well, during the war … I killed a knight once.”
Simon’s jaw dropped.
“Which, you see, is why I thought you were behind Sir Lamorak’s death … I thought you had heard of my deed and sought to emulate it. To impress me. After all, stranger things have been recorded in the annals of criminal history …”
“Ye — ye killed a knight, sir?”
Graybeard cocked an eyebrow at Simon. “I just said I did.”
“But … why?”
“Why?” Graybeard stared at him. “Why? Because it was a time of war and blood and death. Because that kind of kill will get you noticed in the criminal classes, will gain you respect when nothing else will. Because even a knight can be easy to kill, if you go about it in the right way. Because I could.”
Simon didn’t shudder. He contented himself with wanting to.
“But … it was a different time then. You — would you have even been born yet, I wonder?” Graybeard leaned back, eyes drawn to the ceiling, clearly doing the math. “It was during the war …”
“Me da were away from me ma fer years durin’ that war,” Simon replied.
“Then clearly — if your mother was an honest woman — you were not born yet,” replied Graybeard. Simon let the potential insult to Cerise slide. Doubtless she’d be giving Graybeard the haunting of his life tonight. “But … during that time, you must understand, armored wolves were ravaging over our land. There was barely enough left for the honest men — still less for those of us who live by our wits. We were rats fighting over the scraps, all of us.”
Simon nodded, because that seemed to be the only thing he could do.
“And I … sought to be King of the Rats.” Graybeard chuckled. Simon failed to see what was so funny. “So I thought to myself — how can I do this? And the answer came — kill a wolf.”
“That … that would do it,” Simon replied.
“And it did,” Graybeard nodded. “Every thief across the length and breadth of Albion came to hear of what I had done — and they held me in fear for it. And on that fear, I laid the first step to a higher place.”
Simon looked over Graybeard’s rags — then at his shining and thick hair; his scrupulously clean hands and fingers, especially the fingernails; his perfectly clean-shaved face. Which, he wondered, was the truer hint to the man Graybeard truly was?
Did it matter?
Simon swallowed. “So — sir — it worked fer ye?”
“It did. It did. But …” He shrugged. “That was a different time. There was no law that would have pursued me then. All there was were two different armies of wolves — and with so many knights in the vicinity, my knight’s fellows assumed he had been killed by another of their number. None would have thought to suspect the boy that I was back then. Now …” Graybeard shrugged. “Maybe I wouldn’t have tried it now. And if I did — I certainly would have gone for a larger reward than, by all reputable account, Sir Lamorak had to give.”
Simon found himself nodding hurriedly. Then — a thought hit him. The same thought that had haunted him all evening.
“But … sir,” Simon asked, “if — if ye didn’t order it — an’ ye can’t find nobody in the crew what had anythin’ ter to do with that … an’ ye don’t think there’s anyone outside our crew with the guts …
“Who the bloody hell did?”