Authors: Raymond E. Feist,Joel Rosenberg
Tags: #General, #Fantasy, #Fiction
Pirojil slid down the pole easily, his thick leather gloves warming only a trifle from the friction, and landed lightly. That was the trick of it, he had decided. You wanted to stop just at the floor, by your own friction, not drive your boots into the hard earthen floor.
It was a silly thing to be concentrating on, but there were worse.
Like the way women looked at him. Even the whores.
He shrugged. An ugly man was an ugly man, but an ugly rich man was a rich man, and some day he would be at least a moderately rich man, if he wasn’t a dead man first. You had to keep building up your stake, and waiting for the right moment, and in the meantime–
In the meantime, you could amuse yourself with daydreams about wealth, while you waited for the predestined spear to run you through the belly, the fated sword to find your heart, or the inevitable arrow to seek your eye.
Willem, the last of the stableboys, had gone to war with his father’s shield, and come back upon it. In his memory, the shield had been hung on the wall of the stable with the rest, and polished to a ridiculously high gloss by somebody who should have found something better to do with his time.
Thankfully, though, even as highly polished as the shield was, he couldn’t see his reflection in it. He had no particular need to see the misshapen forehead hung heavy with bushy eyebrows, over sunken, tired eyes, and a nose that had been broken enough times to flatten it against the face, and turn him into a mouth-breather.
Pirojil fingered the scraggly beard that covered his jaw. It never did fill in, and he never would permit it to grow long enough for an enemy to grasp.
You couldn’t always tell about people by looking at them. There were ugly people in this world, but many of them were good and kind. Pirojil had long ago decided that his own face was a mirror to his soul. It took something other than a gentle soul to decide to make most of your living sliding a sword into another man’s guts, and the rest of it waiting to slide a sword into another man’s, or any of the hundred other different ways of killing Pirojil had used to earn his pay.
ing sound sent his hand to his belt as he spun about.
He forced himself to relax. Just a rat, off in a corner up against the oat bin.
An ongoing problem, and one you’d think that the magicians would take time out of their busy schedule to handle. Couldn’t they…wiggle their fingers or mutter their spells or whatever they did and keep the rats out of the horses’ oats and carrots and corn? Well, it was none of his business. He wasn’t sleeping in the cold stable, and, besides, nobody was paying him to kill rats.
Something whipped past his ear and
ed into the wood of the oat bin, accompanied by a short squeal.
it.’ A tall, rangy man stepped out of the shadows, tucking a second knife into a sheath on his right hip. A basket-hilted rapier hung from his belt–the narrow, precise weapon of a duellist, not the broader, longer sword that a line soldier would carry into battle. Tom Garnett chose his weapons with care.
It didn’t much matter that Pirojil’s own sword was a good six paces away, hung on a hook while he worked. Captain Tom Garnett, the oldest of the captains fealty-bound to his excellency the Earl of LaMut, was, even in his late forties, a far better swordsman than Pirojil could ever hope to be. Whether it was the result of innate talent or more than thirty years of spending half his waking hours with a sword in his hand–or, most likely, both–in a swordfight, Garnett could easily have carved Pirojil into little pieces.
And, apparently, he had a way with throwing knives, too, although Pirojil would have thought better of him, for Pirojil had never heard of a thrown knife actually killing anybody, and it was absolutely silly to spend the gold to acquire a properly balanced throwing knife.
So Pirojil kept his hands from straying near where his own throwing knife was concealed under the hem of his tunic. Yet although he had never heard of a thrown knife actually killing anyone, he had seen one distract a man long enough for him to be killed some other way, and besides, there was always a first time; he just refused to pay enough gold for a good one, and even if he had, he wouldn’t have risked it dispatching vermin. Letting his thoughts run, Pirojil stood silently as Tom Garnett walked over and retrieved the knife, displaying the rat that he had neatly skewered.
It was already limp and unmoving in death; Tom Garnett flicked its body off his knife and into the wheelbarrow with the straw and shit, then stooped to pick up a handful of fresh straw to clean his knife with before replacing it in his sheath.
He stood a head taller than Pirojil, who himself was of more than average height, but while Pirojil was built almost as thickly and solidly as Durine, Tom Garnett was even more rangy and gaunt than Kethol. His hair was coal-black, sprinkled with silver highlights, and except for a thin moustache and tiny, pointed goatee, his face was clean-shaven, revealing a wealth of scars about his cheeks and forehead. You would expect such a tall and gangly man to seem awkward in motion, but he moved like a dancer, seemingly always in balance.
‘I seem to have taken you by surprise,’ the Captain said, making a
ing sound with his teeth. ‘I would have thought better of you, Pirojil.’
Pirojil ducked his head. ‘The Captain is kind to remember me,’ he said.
‘And unkind to criticize? Ah. That could be.’ Garnett gestured at the rat. ‘You object to me killing a rat?’
Pirojil shook his head. ‘Not at all, Captain,’ he said. ‘I might have done it myself.’ He shrugged.
‘If you’d cared to.’ The Captain’s tone was ever-so-slightly mocking.
‘If I’d cared to.’
‘And why didn’t you care to, Pirojil?’ Garnett asked, perhaps too gently.
Pirojil shrugged again. ‘I didn’t see any point. You kill one rat, there’s another score of them where it came from. It wasn’t bothering me, and I don’t remember being ordered–or paid–to hunt rats.’ He leaned on his pitchfork. ‘Do you want to pay me to hunt rats, Captain?’
Tom Garnett shook his head, slowly. ‘Not me, Pirojil. The Swordmaster, on the other hand, may have some rats for you to hunt, or at least to watch out for. I’ve sent for your companions; they should be at the Aerie by now. Would you very much mind coming with me?’ he asked, politely, as though it was simply a request.
Pirojil shook his head. ‘Not at all,’ he lied. He didn’t really have a choice.
Tom Garnett smiled. ‘Relaxing to the inevitable is always wise, Pirojil.’
‘That wasn’t what you said when we were almost overrun by the Bugs, Captain,’ Pirojil said. ‘I seem to recall you shouting something about how we were going to die, but die like soldiers. Is my memory mistaken?’
Tom Garnett grinned. It wasn’t a pleasant smile, being reminiscent of a wolf baring its teeth. ‘Since we weren’t overrun, it wasn’t inevitable, now was it?’
The Captain turned, not waiting for a reply, expecting Pirojil to follow.
Pirojil elected to accommodate the Captain’s expectations and silently trailed him out of the barn.
Glancing through the open gate on the other side of the marshalling yard, Pirojil caught a brief glimpse of lights from the buildings lining the road down the hill into the city proper, and considered the wisdom of building the castle on the bluff overlooking the original city. It was a fine defensive position, as long as you didn’t have to run up and down the hill in this miserable weather. Then again, he considered, those who design castles are not usually the ones sent up and down the road in the middle of a storm. That was just the sort of task set aside for people like Pirojil, Durine and Kethol.
Damn. Now he wished he hadn’t said anything about that Bug attack. Putting aside his own musing, he trudged after the Captain.
Vandros noticed something.
A hint of Lady Mondegreen’s scent of patchouli and myrrh still hung in the air of the Aerie, although probably nobody else would have been able to detect it over the sulphuric stink of the breath of Fantus, the green firedrake, who had just belched with satisfaction after arriving from his evening meal in the kitchen below.
The Earl of LaMut and his swordmaster exchanged glances as the creature settled in before the fire. The Swordmaster hadn’t been amused by the firedrake’s presence, and even less so by the fact that Fantus had selected the Aerie as his residence-of-choice, probably for its ease of access through the old Falconer’s roost.
Vandros was still uncertain how the creature contrived to get the door open between the Swordmaster’s quarters and the loft above where previous rulers of LaMut had housed their hunting birds for decades. It now held what Steven Argent thought was a thoroughly inadequate assortment of messenger pigeons, under the care of Haskell, the pigeon breeder, to whom Steven Argent sarcastically referred as ‘the Birdmaster’–although not in Vandros’s direct hearing.
to keep the firedrake up in the loft, but the only doors he was careful about locking were the doors to his charges’ cages, each one labelled ‘Mondegreen Keep’ or ‘Yabon’ or ‘Crydee’ or wherever the occupant bird’s raising and instinct would cause it to return to when released; Haskell was much less reliable when it came to the door to the loft.
Even when Swordmaster Steven Argent himself bolted the door, the drake managed to get down the narrow stone steps and gain entrance to the Swordmaster’s bedchamber. But in the last few days Argent had apparently resigned himself to the creature being his lodger until the Duke of Crydee returned from his council up in the City of Yabon and collected the drake in the spring.
Fantus sighed in obvious satisfaction, extending its long, serpentlike neck, and let its chin rest on the warm stones before the hearth. Large wings folded gracefully across its back, the reflecting flames gave crimson and gold accents to the green scales of its body.
The firedrake had arrived a week earlier with Lord Borric’s court magician, Kulgan, and when the Duke of Crydee and his entourage had departed two days before for the general staff meeting at Duke Brucal’s castle in Yabon City, Fantus had stayed behind.
No one was quite sure what to do about it; most of the staff and household were too frightened by the small dragonlike creature to do more than get out of its way on its daily forays to the kitchen for food; though a few, like the Earl, were amused by it.
If Vandros was put off by the smell, he was discreet enough not to say a word about it, and neither did the habitually glum servitor who placed a tray down on the table and then poured each of them a glass of wine before setting the bottle back on the tray.
‘Is there anything else required, Swordmaster?’ Ereven asked Steven Argent instead of Vandros–and quite properly so, for while Vandros outranked the Swordmaster, and the entire castle was his residence, as the Earl of LaMut, the Aerie was the Swordmaster’s quarters, and the housecarl was officially helping Steven Argent, as host, entertain the young Earl, it being the host’s duty to see to the comfort of his guest.
Steven Argent smiled his appreciation to the servitor; the Swordmaster appreciated the fine points of hospitality, as well as of any other craft.
‘Nothing at all, thank you, Ereven,’ he said, after a quick nod from Vandros. ‘Consider your service over for the evening, and do give my best to Becka and to your daughter.’
Ereven’s already-gloomy face darkened slightly, although he forced a smile. ‘I’ll do that, Swordmaster, and bid you and his lordship a goodnight.’
Vandros didn’t quite raise an eyebrow at that; he held his peace until Ereven had closed the door behind him. Not that he would have commented anyway. The Swordmaster’s dalliances were legendary, but to take note of them at the moment would be impolitic, whether or not the rumoured dalliance was with the housecarl’s very pretty young daughter (not true) or with Lady Mondegreen (true). Steven Argent was both a soldier and a lady’s man, and his success in both fields of endeavour had propagated envy and enmity from many important men in the region. Several times in the last two decades the fact that Argent had merely exchanged polite conversation with a minor noble or rich merchant’s wife had resulted in confrontation, and once in a duel. That duel had been the primary reason he had abandoned a fast-rising career in the King’s army in Rillanon to come to the west twelve years ago, first as a captain in Vandros’s father’s garrison, then as Swordmaster. Although Vandros usually came across as a straightforward, uncomplicated warrior, he had spent most of his twenty-eight years studying to become the Earl of LaMut, and he could be as subtle as he needed to be: he knew when not to make a comment.
When the door closed, he said, ‘I still find it hard to believe that there is a traitor among us. But…’
‘…but there have been too many accidents of late,’ Steven Argent finished. ‘And I find myself uncomfortable assuming that all is well. Things have been too quiet in the north–and one of the things I learned when you were still in swaddling clothes was that when things seem to be going too well it’s time to look for a trap.’
‘But how could the Tsurani even identify and locate a traitor? It’s not as if one could put on Kingdom clothing and wander into Ylith pretending to be a merchant from Sarth. Do they even have the capacity for that kind of plotting?’
Steven Argent shook his head. That was, it seemed, the part he didn’t understand, either. ‘I don’t know,’ he said, ‘but I am concerned. Of course, if there is a traitor, he isn’t necessarily employed by the Tsurani. If they were trying to kill someone, it would hardly be a baron, albeit an important one. They would be hunting earls and dukes, I’d wager. No, when it comes to sponsors for murder, we’ve too many other likely candidates to ignore. I’ve little fondness for Baron Morray–the feud between his and Baron Verheyen’s families should probably have been settled by duel a generation ago, and he’s made more than enough other enemies as well–but I think it would be best to make sure that he is not killed while in our city. It would tend to irritate the Duke.’
Vandros smiled at that. ‘Nor, I can say with some greater authority, would it please the Earl.’
‘To be struck down in battle? We could live with that; that’s a risk we all take. But…’
Vandros sighed. ‘I find it hard to believe that Lord Verheyen would countenance such a thing. He’s hot-blooded and hot-headed, of a certainty. But suborning murder? That doesn’t sound like him.’ He shook his head.
Vandros’s father had appointed Morray as the LaMutian Military Bursar at the beginning of the war, and Vandros had ratified his father’s choice when he inherited the title two years earlier, since the man was good at the job. And as Earl, Vandros knew better than most that both an earldom–particularly during wartime–and an army, lived on gold and silver as much as on meat and grain.
If Steven Argent had had his way, the Earl would have sealed Baron Morray up in the Tower with his books and accounts and moneybags until every last Tsurani was driven from Midkemia, but that wasn’t politically possible, and even keeping him resident in the City of LaMut was starting to look like a bad idea.
Time to get him out of town, at least for a while.
‘It could be a coincidence. But there’s an old saying, my lord,’ the Swordmaster said. ‘“The first time is happenstance; the second time is remarkable coincidence; the third time is a conspiracy.”’
Vandros grinned. ‘I think my father should have chosen a good LaMutian as Swordmaster rather than some effete Easterner. Rillanon may be a good place to learn the fine points of swordsmanship, but I think that there is something about the Court that breeds not only conspiracy, but the suspicion of conspiracy, whether one exists or not.’
‘There are always conspiracies, my lord, somewhere.’
Vandros’s face darkened for a moment, and even though it remained unspoken, Argent knew what had passed through his mind. The rift between the King and the Prince of Krondor probably threatened the Kingdom in the long run every bit as much as the Rift through which the Tsurani had invaded. Rumours were running rampant: that the King had ordered his uncle the Prince imprisoned; that Guy du Bas-Tyra’s viceroyalty of the city was simply a pretext to install Guy as the next Prince of Krondor; and lately, that Prince Erland was in fact dead at Guy’s hand.
All official communication between the Armies of the West and Krondor passed through Brucal and Borric’s hands, and Vandros knew only what he was told, and as a matter of policy didn’t believe the half of it.
At least that is what he had told his swordmaster. Steven Argent didn’t know whether or not to entirely accept the Earl’s scepticism, although he knew better than to voice any doubts. After all, rumours were often the first harbinger of uncomfortable truth. But that was not something that the young Earl would want to admit, openly or otherwise. Bad blood was the way of the nobility, particularly in such unsettled times, when an heir apparent–to a barony or a duchy–might well die in battle, leaving the succession unclear. Steven Argent had seen it when hunting wolves: when you killed the leader of the pack, the lesser males would spend the next few weeks fighting over dominance while you hunted them down. But that was not a comparison that would have much appeal to Earl Vandros, despite the wolf’s head on his family’s crest. And bringing up matters of succession even in a general way would probably irritate the Earl, given that he was unaccountably touchy on matters concerning his own likely future as Duke of Yabon, once he finally married Duke Brucal’s daughter, Felina.
So Steven Argent changed the subject. ‘I think those of you in the West–’
‘You have served my father–and now me–for more than a dozen years, and to you still it’s “those of you in the West”?’ Vandros interrupted with a laugh.
‘–those of you in the West tend to underrate Easterners. We have our share of able soldiers and more than a few exceptional fighters, as well, for that matter.’
‘Perhaps.’ Vandros appeared unpersuaded. He was playfully taunting the Swordmaster. There had always been a rivalry between the Eastern and Western Realms of the Kingdom. The Earl knew that historically the constant border struggles with the Eastern Kingdoms had produced some of the best and most able commanders in the East, and some exceptional fighters, as well. It was the route to fast promotion and political opportunity, which is why ambitious soldiers often went east. For they would be fighting neighbouring armies under the gaze of barons, dukes, and kings, while most of the Western garrisons spent their time putting down bands of goblins and chasing outlaws under the supervision of swearing sergeants or the occasional officer. But seven years of constant warfare with the Tsurani had given the Armies of the West a hard core of blooded veterans, and new recruits every spring were quickly educated in warcraft or they were killed.
Or, often, both.
The Tsurani were harsh teachers in combat–tough enough that Vandros had been forced to hire mercenary companies to bolster his levies for the first time in the war–he just didn’t have enough able-bodied men to meet his commitment to the Duke of Yabon without hired swords to replace the dead and wounded. No, the Tsurani were harsh teachers in warfare, but LaMut’s soldiers had learned their lessons well; Earl Vandros would match his best company against the best from any Eastern garrison.
With a sly grin, Vandros said, ‘We both know our own worth on the battlefield.’
Steven Argent raised an eyebrow. ‘After you return from this next patrol, would you care to discuss this further on the training floor?’
There was an art to acceptably threatening a member of the nobility, one that somebody could either be born with or learn from study, and Steven Argent had spent much of his adult life studying it, so he was not at all surprised when Vandros’s smile broadened.
‘I think not!’ Vandros laughed. ‘I’ve got bruises enough from you, Swordmaster.’ He sobered. ‘But back to the business at hand: Morray. You don’t think it’s a coincidence that he’s come so close to being killed?’
The Swordmaster shook his head. ‘A pot falling from a building, possibly–although there were none home in those flats at the time, as I understand it…’
‘Which argues that it might just have been the wind.’
Steven Argent nodded. ‘And the ice on Baron Morray’s step could have been from a spilled pitcher, and his horse’s saddle-strap might merely have been worn through from neglect, although I’d not care to suggest that to the Horsemaster.’
He walked to his desk and fingered the end of the strap that he had, himself, taken from the saddle for a close and careful examination. Yes, it had appeared to have been worn through, rather than cut, but he had been able to duplicate that effect himself by rubbing the strap against a sharp piece of stone.
‘It’s entirely possible that it’s just a coincidence. But it’s unlikely,’ Argent said.
‘But Verheyen? I know that there’s bad blood between the two, but assassination…?’
‘I’d doubt it, but I wouldn’t say it was impossible.’ Steven Argent shook his head. ‘I’d think that treason, somewhere, was more likely. I just have no idea as to who, or how, or why.’
‘I want this kept quiet,’ Vandros said. ‘We’re still at war, and that’s not a time for accusations to be wildly flailed about, not with the Council of Barons meeting here as soon as they can be gathered. I think it would be a good time to clear the air on these matters, among others.’
Steven Argent nodded. ‘That thought had occurred to me, as well. I think Baron Morray should be dispatched with a company of good men for the daily patrol, while I ask some discreet questions and see what I can find out.’
Morray had not particularly distinguished himself in the war, but he was not an embarrassment either, and it was a good idea to keep common soldiers under the eye, if not technically under the command, of a member of the nobility.