Poets and the Prosaic

As promised, here’s the last pre-publication glimpse.  See you in October!

Hinerion, the Trelayne poet laureate Skimil Shend once wrote, is less a city in itself than some weak, far flung echo of the capital it strives at every turn to imitate. It is a cultural and architectural cry that lacks conviction, the coarse cant of some mongrel urchin in the street who has perhaps heard Great Oratory somewhere and knows somewhat how to copy its more obvious features, but has neither the breeding nor the education to truly understand what it is he echoes. Worse yet, this is an urchin rubbing shoulders in the common mob with fellows whose blood origins, worse than uncertain, are most assuredly alien. For Hinerion belongs almost as much to the Southern Scourge as it does to the League. It is nominally in League territory, yes, but tell that to the dusky-faced multitude who throng its streets, jabbering in a variegated confusion of tongues where Naomic is no more honoured in dominion than Tethanne; tell that to the imperial merchants whose vessels mob the harbour with their foreign flags and the mercenaries who with the thinnest of documentary justification come and go on the streets of what is called a League city as if they trod the tiled thoroughfares of Yhelteth itself. They tell me Hinerion is a frontier town, and it must be lived in as such, but from what I see about me at every turn, that frontier is as thin and seeping as the soiled bandage on a war wound that may never heal.

Ringil knew Shend – had in fact fucked him a couple of times in his youth, in curtained alcoves at fashionably seedy parties in the warehouse district – and he was inclined not to judge the poet’s vitriol too harshly. Like a lot of wordsmiths, Skim was a delicate soul, exiled to Hinerion at the time of writing, and evidently not handling it very well. That old Trelayne story, the sudden trap-door fall from grace. Jostled from your upriver residence on charges of seditious composition or some such shit, summoned to explain yourself before the Committee for Public Morals and rapidly deserted by your up until then generous patrons – it must have been a rude awakening and Ringil, who’d fallen foul of the Committee himself as a younger man, could well imagine the hole it would have punched in Shend’s brittle sense of superiority. The sudden, chilly desperation that might come whistling in through that hole. You’d write – allowing that that was your given talent – pretty much anything if you thought it might curry enough favour to banish that chill. And anti-Yhelteth rhetoric was a safe enough drum to beat if you wanted to ingratiate yourself with the great and the good in Trelayne. Add a judicious seasoning of sycophantic praise for the city and its pontificating elders, and who knew what might be achieved if your friends could only get what you’d written to the attention of the right people.

In Shend’s case, it took the best part of three years, but the steady stream of letters to friends and family, loudly professing love of Trelayne and horror at the mongrel mixing of its culture with others, finally did the trick. The poet went home behind a full pardon and a deal with the University to publish his letters as a collected whole titled The Distant Beloved. Ringil had read it, took it with him on the northern expeditionary campaign and subsequently used its pages to wipe his arse.

About one thing, though, Shend had been accurate. Hinerion was indeed a mongrel city, a seething mish-mash of influences from north and south, belonging wholly to neither and thronged with men passing through in both directions.

It was one of the things Ringil, on previous visits, had most liked about the place.

Now, it made it the perfect place to hide.

So they rode in through the Black Sail Gate towards dusk, subsumed in a gaggle of arrivals off ships whose masters had no certification to enter the main harbour and must dock a mile and a half down the coast from the city walls. The secondary harbour was a shabby affair, little more than a collection of jetties off a mud beach into deeper water and an array of flimsy wooden shacks strung out along the dirt road into town. Tavern, brothel, and chandler’s store, there was really little else to see, and the City Watch pointedly did not extend its protective remit to any of it. With that in mind, most shipmasters hired cheap mercenary cover to protect their vessels at anchor and to escort their passengers and cargo to and from the city. Hard-bitten thugs on horseback and the well-used steel they carried were a commonplace on the Black Sail Road, and there was no reason Eril and Ringil should not pass as such. Both of them were grubby and travel-stained enough, and Ringil had bagged his black brocade cloak in favour of a cheap woollen wrap from the  chandler’s store. And he’d bound the Ravensfriend’s scabbard tightly with strips of shredded saddle blanket back in the forest, daubed firegrime and ashes all over pommel, hilt and guard until you could no longer tell the weapon for what it really was. His face was similarly grimed to soften the impact of the scar and mask his feverish pallor, which latter he was concerned might be taken by some sharp-eyed sentry for the possible onset of plague.

Might as well have fucking plague, the way I feel right now.

Quit whining, hero.

He gritted his teeth to hold down the shivering, and hoped his blank and fevered stare would pass for standard fuck-off profession-of-violence detachment.

He needn’t have worried. The guard detail at the gate, bored and yawning to a man, spared the two of them no more than a cursory glance while the captain took and pocketed the levy. They were not even asked to dismount. The crossed pikes lifted out of their path, the captain waved them through.

 

 

The touts surged into the road as soon as they passed inside the gate, most of them boys not over the age of ten.

‘Rooms, good sirs, rooms. Fine ocean view.’

‘Stabling of imperial quality, imperial trained grooms…’

‘Fine wines, my lords, and fine females to serve them. Girls practised with the neck of a bottle, know what I mean, my lord?’

Ringil urged his horse level with Eril’s.

‘Get someplace close to the harbour,’ he muttered. ‘But not so close we have to smell it. Views down to the docks, I want to be able to see what’s moored.’

Eril nodded. ‘On it.’

‘Then meet me down in the main square. Bounty office, under the south colonnade.’

‘Right.’ Eril gave him a narrow look. ‘You okay?’

‘No,’ said Ringil shakily. ‘But there’s fuck all I can do about it right now. See you down there.’

He wheeled his horse aside, out of the flow of the main thoroughfare and onto one of the steeper, less used alleys that led more directly down into Hinerion’s centre. The horse didn’t like it much, but he stroked her neck repeatedly as they worked their way downward, talked down her worry as soothingly as he could with the continual jagged shivering coming up through his sternum and along his limbs.

‘You and me both, girl,’ he murmured. ‘You and me both.’

Down at the south colonnade, he put away the trembling with a grunt, like a book he hadn’t much enjoyed, and dismounted by the bounty office rail. He tied the horse, found an urchin to watch it for a coin, and stepped in under the colonnaded roof. The doors to the bounty office were propped wide; yellowish lamplight spilled out onto the paving and the ragged huddle of men stood or seated round about. They were a dozen strong and their profession announced itself with the here-and-there gleam of cheap, notched steel; an axe slung across a broad back and peeking over the shoulder, a sword whose owner made do with a loop of rope at his belt in place of a scabbard; a couple of nasty looking Parashal knives, a Majak-style staff lance that you could tell at ten paces was a fake.

In general, the men were a match for their weapons, grubby and scarred and worn down by use.

Well – don’t suppose you look too shiny yourself at the moment, Gil.

The gathered company appeared to have drawn the same conclusion. They looked up incuriously as he stepped into the light, made him for one of their own, and went right back to the muttered conversations and dice games that had occupied them before. One grizzled older warrior jerked a long-bearded chin at him in a fashion that might have been meant amiably.

Ringil returned the nod, put on a stock Yhelteth accent but stayed in Naomic. ‘Busy tonight. Something going down?’

‘You haven’t heard?’ A pale, eye-patched swordsman, turning from some minor dispute he was having with the owner of the fake Majak lance. ‘Road scum took down a big fucking slave caravan this morning. Less than ten miles outside the city walls. Broad fucking daylight. Set about five hundred slaves free and killed the fuck out of everybody else. Where’ve you been man? The whole fucking city’s buzzing with this one.’

Ringil gestured. ‘Came in the Black Sail Gate half an hour ago. Laraninthal of Shenshenath.  First time back in League territory for a year. How many heads we talking about?’

‘Lot of enough for the everybody,’ someone grunted, crude mimicry of Gil’s southern accent, laced with the archetypal imperial’s stumblings in Naomic grammar. There like a blade, like the teeth in a sneer, and then just as suddenly shed for a bored, sour-edged disdain. ‘Just get in the fucking queue, southman.’

Some snickering in the wake of the comment, and it seemed to centre among the dice crew. The bone cubes rattled down and the man who’d thrown them glanced up at Ringil, to see if offence had been taken. The studied blankness in his eyes said he didn’t much care one way or the other.

‘Twenty, thirty heads at least,’ the bearded warrior said hurriedly. ‘Got to be, those caravans are well protected. Seems like the border patrol got about a score of them, fighting a rearguard, but the rest escaped.’

Ringil broke gaze with the dice man, looked in instead through the doors of the office, where a clerk sat yawning at a desk, poring over an open tome with a quill. Behind him, a couple of others bustled about with more ledgers and capped scrolls. A handful of other bounty hunters had chosen to stay inside, seated at the edges of the room and watching the paperwork.

‘So.’ The urge to shiver made it easier to fake the Yhelteth accent, kept his jaw tight and guttural on the Naomic syllables. ‘Fifty outlaws, hiding in the forest. Sounds pretty vague to me. That all they’ve got?’

Eye-patch shook his head excitedly, flung thin, hanging threads of greasy hair about his pallid features. Behind the vertical scar that sat above and below the patch as if skewering it, he was younger than Ringil had noticed at first.

‘No, man, that’s not all. They’re saying these guys had, like, this sorcerer for a leader, some magicked-up fuck down from Trelayne, carrying a Black Folk blade. They say he’s already wanted up north for treason, already got a twenty-five thousand florin price on his head.’

‘Twenty-five thousand…’ Ringil let his voice die off in carefully textured disbelief. ‘That does not seem likely.’

‘I’m serious, man. They took some prisoners, got them up at the Keep and they’re putting them to the question. Some of the slaves, too. That’s the word coming down. Fucking sorcerer, man.’  The young bounty hunter nodded in at the clerks. ‘Go ask for yourself, you don’t believe me.’

Ringil tipped him a sceptical look, then shrugged and stepped past, over the threshold of the opened doors and into the lamp-lit confines of the office.

The clerk looked up as he came in. ‘Yes?’

‘Man outside says you’re hunting a sorcerer.’

‘That’s unconfirmed.’ The clerk put his quill aside and knuckled tiredly at one eye. ‘We had a raid on a caravan coming down the Trelayne road last night, attackers still at large. Probably a lot of them. We’re waiting on names.’

‘How much you paying for heads?’

‘Fifty per. Hundred if you bring them in alive. Maybe get you more later if the caravan owners put up a reward.’

‘Alive?’ Ringil pulled a face. ‘In Tlanmar, they pay me seventy per, dead or alive. That’s Empire elementals too, comes out at a hundred and twenty florins’ worth, near enough.’

The clerk shrugged. ‘So go back to working for Tlanmar. Here, you’ll get fifty florins per head, a hundred per captured prisoner. You want on the list or not?’

Ringil made a show of grumpy indecision, caught the bounty hunters in the corner of the room nudging each other and grinning at the display. He judged the performance a success, cleared his throat and made an ungracious gesture.

‘Well, then. I will go on your list, yes. Laraninthal of Shenshenath.  Captain, retired, 62nd Imperial Levy. Put me down.’

‘Some fucking retirement,’ said one of the bounty hunters quietly. ‘Eh, pal?’

Low, noncommittal laughter among the others. Ringil turned to face the speaker. Saw a League military issue cloak and tunic that had both seen better days, a sword sheathed in leather at the man’s belt and another slung naked across his back. The man’s features and close-shaven skull were scarred in a couple of places with blade damage, and part of one ear was chopped away. But there was no challenge in his face, and the comment seemed to have been meant without harm.

‘I served a cause,’ Ringil said stiffly, sticking to the role. ‘I served my Emperor and defended my people. That was payment enough for me.’

The shaven-headed man nodded. ‘Yeah. And now you’re hunting bandits in a foreign land for fifty florins a pop.’

‘There’s no brawling in here,’ the clerk warned. ‘Start anything and your name comes off the list. That goes for you too, Klithren.’

The bounty hunter waved it off. ‘No one’s brawling, inkspurt. Just working men here, trading air and waiting on the names so we can get to work. Right, Shenshenath?’

Ringil nodded curtly, turned back to the desk. ‘About this sorcerer. Outside they’re saying he’s worth twenty-five thousand florins up in Trelayne.’

‘I already told you,’ said the clerk, writing laboriously, not looking up. ‘That’s not confirmed. All we know for the moment is that the leader of the attack was a northerner and he may have used a Kiriath blade.’

‘Got a description?’

‘Yeah. Tall, scary, and a scarred face.’

More dry chuckling amongst the bounty hunters. It was a sketch that would have fitted at least three of the men in the room, and probably half of those who stood outside as well. It was a caricature for a campfire tale.

Well, so are you these days, Gil. So are you.

The clerk scratched to a halt on the ledger page and reached to dip his quill. He glanced up at Ringil, as if surprised to see him still standing there.

‘That’s it, we’re done. You’re on the list. Come back at first light or take a seat and wait, your choice.’

‘Do you expect names before dawn?’

‘The Keep does a pretty good line in questioning,’ Ringil’s shaven-headed new friend offered. ‘I doubt any of the road scum they took are going to stand up for long. Some’ll be injured, some just cowards. They’ll break right down.’

No doubt.

Ringil had seen prisoners put to the question before, and some of them most assuredly not cowards. In the end, it made no difference. Everybody broke.

Yeah. Broke and said just exactly whatever the fuck they thought their torturers wanted to hear. I did it, yes, I’m guilty, oh yes. With poison, yes, that’s right. With a blade, yes, just as you say, a blade I threw in the sea. With black magic I did it, yes, yes, you’re right, magic and the help of miniature fucking pixies.

He had the measure of the men he’d hired – and then abandoned, Gil, let’s not forget that bit – and he knew most would give up everything they knew at the first searing application of heated iron to their flesh. Fortunate then, that they knew so little. Scarcity of detail would anger the interrogators, who in a case like this would be under a lot of pressure to deliver results, and the awful logic of that situation would roll right along, would push them way past the norms to make sure there really was no more to be gleaned. So their captives would have to go on suffering despite their initial confessions, would go on screaming out whatever names or facts still floated intact in the stew of their terror and pain – along with any of a hundred crazed embellishments based on the hit-and-miss exhortations of their tormentors. Truth or lie, sane or not, the captives would offer up anything, any shrieking, sobbing, shuddering stream of contradictory gibberish they believed might take away the agony, might just please stop this dungeon-dim nightmare of crushed and split and fire-scorched flesh.

So yeah – they’d say it was a northern sorcerer with a magical blade and scars on his face; they’d say it was an imperial renegade in full Kiriath mail at the head of a squad of border skirmishers; they’d say it was fucking steppe nomads if you halfway suggested it to them. Any grains of truth in it all would be stamped and mangled beyond useful recognition.

‘Rumours and lies and campfire smoke,’ he summarised later for Eril, over spiced wine and cleared platters in the tavern. ‘Right now, that’s all they’ve got.’

The Marsh Brotherhood enforcer nodded. ‘Think it’ll stay that way?’

‘For a while, yeah. They think they’ve got a couple of dozen demoralised bad guys hiding out in the forest somewhere. Lot of tough, impatient bounty hunters are going to think that’s too good a chance to miss. Come morning, they’ll be riding out to see if they can’t get an early piece of the action.’

Eril snapped a long shard of bone out of the fowl carcass on the table between them, lounged back and commenced picking his teeth. Watching, Ringil surprised himself with a sudden, forceful recollection of Egar doing much the same thing, and – equally surprising, equally abrupt – he felt his eyes moisten.

…the fuck? He hadn’t thought about the Dragonbane in months.

He blinked down the moisture in his eyes. This fucking flu.

Eril took the bone shard out of his mouth, pointed pensively at his companion with it. ‘And if they send to Trelayne? Confirm the price on your head and get sketches posted around town?’

Ringil shook his head, tried wearily to keep his thoughts together. ‘Going to take a while, even if they do. Use a bonded courier there and back, it’s still the best part of a week. A lot more if they let it run through normal channels. Meantime, they’ve got a few other, more pressing concerns.’

His companion frowned. ‘Such as?’

‘Such as trying to keep the murder of an imperial legate quiet. Right now, I guarantee you, they’re shitting milk and sugared biscuits up at the Keep. They need all the time and quiet they can buy just to work out how they handle the Tlanmar garrison commander when he finally comes calling. This is a frontier town. They’ve got a lot to lose if that boils down badly.’

‘No one mentioned the legate down there in the square, huh?’

‘No one. Like it never happened.’

Eril grunted. He was a career criminal, he understood the dynamic. Ringil poured them both more wine.

‘Yeah, like that. And there’s something else.’ He set down the flagon, picked up his goblet and studied its contents without much enthusiasm. Hinerion, as Shend had been fond of whinging, wasn’t exactly famed for its viticulture. ‘These guys have got the best part of a thousand captured slaves milling around now with no apparent owner. That’s a lot of quick cash for the city if they can parcel it out before anyone gets down here from Trelayne to claim ownership.’

‘Oho.’

‘Yeah. My best guess? Some time in the next couple of days, you’re going to see an open auction for city coffers. And I doubt very much they’ll be sending any bonded couriers to Trelayne until that’s done.’

‘Gives us some time, huh?’

‘Yeah.’ Ringil sipped his wine. Grimaced and put it down again. ‘Gives us some time.  So – you see anything good in the harbour?’

The Marsh Brotherhood enforcer gestured with his bone shard at the cheap glass panes of the window they sat beside. The snug was on the ground floor of the inn and it was full dark outside by now; but even through the grubby, distorted glass and the lantern lit gloom beyond, you could make out gathered thickets of mast-tops over the roofs of the intervening houses.

‘There’s a caravel flying Marsh Daisy pennants tied up at the south dock. Couldn’t make out the name from here, even with the spyglass, but she doesn’t look familiar.’ A shrug. ‘No reason she should. Half the merchantmen out of Trelayne fly those pennants now, just to scare off pirates.’

‘But they’ve got to be paying dues, right?’

‘Dues, yeah.’ Eril pulled a sour face. ‘But that doesn’t have to mean much of anything any more. When I was coming up in the city, you knew the name and rig of every keel flying the Daisy, and you knew the crew on those ships would be solid Brotherhood to a man. These days…’ Another shrug. He stabbed at the fowl carcass with his bone shard, left it sticking there. ‘These days, it’s like every other fucking thing. Comes down to haggling.’

Ringil tried to muster some enthusiasm. Eating seemed to have pushed back his fever a little, and the Marsh Daisy vessel had the gossamer feel of luck come calling. Dark Lady Firfirdar, seated on her iron throne, blowing the ghost seed off her fingers and into their path, so it danced and lit their way.

‘Well, look,’ he said reasonably, holding off a deep, rolling urge to shiver. ‘At a minimum she’s out of Trelayne, and going back there at some point. Now with that, and maybe some haggling like you say, or just a judicious bit of leaning on the captain – I’d say we’re nearly home dry.’

Eril nodded. ‘Lean on him’s right. I’ll fucking—’

Quick rapping at the snug door. Both men stiffened and swung to face the sound. Eril’s hand slipped under his coat without fuss. Ringil loosened his sleeve where the dragon-tooth dagger was stowed.

‘Yes?’

The door opened a crack, and the boy who’d served them earlier stuck his head and one scrawny shoulder around the jamb.

‘My lord Laraninthal?’ Stumbling over the Tethanne syllables, nervousness taut in the hurried tones. His face was pale and sweaty in the lamplight. A cool combat tension soaked into Ringil’s limbs, settled there.

‘Yes?’

‘Uh… Somebody here to see you, sir. It’s uh…’ The boy swallowed, licked his lips. ‘They’re soldiers, my lord.’