I almost immediately regretted my decision to allow the princess and her coterie to accompany my expedition. From the moment we had entered the secret route, previously used by myself as an entrance to the castle, the maid had complained nonstop about the surroundings, the potential effect on the princess’s health, the lack of proper lighting, the poor footing…
I frankly almost ordered one of my men to gag her, but I doubted that the princess would be pleased with that, and it would probably just generate more trouble in the long run anyway. I was just hopeful that, once we left the tunnel, she would tone it down somewhat.
And so it was that the stars found me furiously tapping on the hilt of my sword as I led my party through the night, towards the first of many inns we planned to use as a base of operations. Beside me on my left bobbed the hooded figure of the princess, while on my right Thremsold stalked through the night. Behind him came his brother, and then Carilo, both of whom were lugging heavy rucksacks similar to my own. Thremsold and the other Nail who brought up the rear, Nulba, remained unencumbered so as to react quickly in the event of an attack. Behind the princess came the maid, similarly wrapped in a cloak and not nearly so silent, and bringing up the rear came the knight. Even without his shining armor and helm, the knight still towered over the remainder of the party, and we had struggled to find a cloak large enough to hide his features effectively. The rest of my party followed directly behind me, and I freely admit that my back had been prickling since we had fallen into the formation. Jules stayed close on my heels, while slightly behind her came one of the surviving Devil’s Hounds, lugging another large rucksack of supplies. Ten in all, it was a larger party than I had wanted, but the extra security was needed due to the princess’s presence, and it wasn’t an impossible number to deal with. Besides, I was sure I would appreciate the extra blades soon enough.
“And why is there no mount for milady? How dare you make a member of the roy-”
I turned slightly, and without breaking stride flicked a pebble at the outline of the maid that leered through the dark.
“Would you kindly, milady Consta, stop talking for a moment? There are no titles out here, I’ll have you remember. And once we arrive at the inn, we will be using given names only, no family names, no honorifics, nothing.”
I could hear the outrage boiling in the maid’s mind, but before it could spill over into yet another verbal tirade the princess spoke up.
“Consta, it’s… fine. This will… be a new… experience for us all.”
I sighed in relief as the maid deflated with a nod.
“Thank you, mi- no, wait. Thank you, Katarina.”
She turned to look at me in surprise, but quickly assumed her mask again.
“You are… welcome, Willhemet.”
Behind me, someone raised their voice to butt in.
“Oh, did you make a friend, Will? How precious! Though, just between you and me Little Kat, I’d be careful about making pals with Will here. His friends, and women especially, have a habit of getting hurt.”
The princess seemed rather bemused at being addressed in such a crude manner, and I would have bet my life that we were seconds away from yet another maid-based tirade, so despite my reluctance to engage with Jules I decided to step in.
“Jules, oh dear Jules, you wound me.”
“Not as badly as you wound me, Will.”
I gritted my teeth, but refused to turn around.
“Really now, though. If we’re talking about friends getting hurt, you are far more suspect than myself. My Nails have survived all these years relatively unscathed, but I can’t seem to recall, how many of your Hounds have fallen by the wayside since you took control?”
Behind me I heard the clack of Jules’s mail as she laughed.
“Oh Will. You know that no one actually keeps track of the trash that circles through my unit. As long as they can fight, they’re in. Once they can’t, well…”
No one could have possibly misunderstood the meaning behind the heavy silence that followed her words.
“Besides, Will, you don’t exactly have a clean record yourself. Weren’t the Nails originally twelve in number? What happened there?”
I didn’t bother responding- This would go on all night if I let it, and Jules seemed to feed on my irritation. Besides, I didn’t have the freedom to beat her senseless at the moment, and this time she was fully armed. To my surprise however, Thremsold spoke up from beside me.
“Well you see Jules, the boss is actually really fond of us thugs. See, he doesn’t show it, but if any of us kicked it he’d be devastated. He might even cry.”
I could almost hear the eyebrows being raised around me.
I growled in irritation, but to no avail.
“But see, he’s so attached to us because on the boss’s third mission with us, one of the old boys decided to turn traitor- Probably bitter about being led by a kid- and sold us out to the bandits we were scouting. Well, it went about as poorly as you’d expect. For the bandits, anyway. When we finished with them, we started trying to figure out what went wrong, how they got tipped off, yada yada yada. Well, our bitter friend decided that this would be the perfect time to off the boss and declare himself our leader. So out he comes, shouting for us to rally and join him, demanding that we unite against this ‘outsider kid.’ The boss? He said nothing, just stood there with this dangerous look in his eye and his hand on his blade. Waiting. Well, two of the other boys, also some of the older guys now that I think back, joined him immediately, but the rest of us just stood there, thinking. See, the boss was new, yeah, and pretty young to boot. But he was also one of the best fighters I’d ever seen, and he knew how to lead with a cool head, something none of the rest of us could do.”
I cut in, hoping to end this story before anything else was said.
“Oh please, you’ll make me blush. But really, I hardly do much.”
He waved away my interruption, and I sighed. Of course Thremsold ignored it. Why should I have hoped otherwise?
“So the rest of us sorta decided, then and there as a group, that we liked our new boss more than we liked our traitorous brothers. So we just stayed quiet and lined up between the boss and the traitors, and Olvar just shook his head. Then we killed them.”
And I was done with this.
“Alright, enough. That was riveting, Thremsold, absolutely riveting. Have you ever considered a career as a bard?”
He shook his head with a wry grin.
“Nah, boss, never had the lungs for it. But I could sing for you, if you wanted?…”
I rapidly shook my head no.
“No, really, I’m sure we’ll be fine. Oh look, the inn! Why don’t you run ahead and ensure that we get enough rooms? I think… One for the prin- sorry, Katarina and Consta, one for Carilo, Nulba, and Conrad, one for yourself, Kresol, and Roord. (Jules’s lackey.) And I suppose myself and Jules will each need-”
I was cut off as Jules pushed forward to wrap an arm around my waist, in the process sending Thremsold stumbling to the side. I ignored his cursing for a moment and turned a cold gaze on Jules, who was now smiling up at me with what I had un-ironically dubbed her ‘Predatory Angel’s Smile.’
“What is it, Jules?”
Her smile widened.
“Why Will, surely you weren’t going to suggest we take separate rooms? That hardly seems to make sense, I mean, it isn’t as though we haven’t shared a bed before.”
I sighed, even as I felt the gazes of the entire party focus on me.
“That is neither here nor there. We are on an excursion, and I don’t want any potential complications-”
She laughed, cutting me off. Again.
“Oh Will, there won’t be any complications. We’ve done this before, after all. So what is that, four rooms in total? You heard the ‘boss,’ Thremsold. Run along now.”
Thremsold ignored her entirely, something I would be rewarding him for the next chance I got, and looked to me for direction. I could have told him to get five rooms, but Jules would still have caused trouble regardless, and besides, I was the only one who could manage her if she decided to truly get out of hand.
I nodded, reluctantly.
What a curious feeling, one that I rarely have the pleasure of experiencing.
I mean, what do I have to regret? The loss of my company, my home of nearly a decade? The fact that I can hardly remember the culture and the traditions of my homeland? That any memory I still retain about my parents is forever marred by blood and pain?
That I can’t even remember my mother’s voice?
No, none of these things has ever caused me much regret. Or rather, it would be more truthful of me to say that I hardly even think about such matters, and so regret never has a chance to fester. Hate, on the other hand…
I’ve lost the topic. The point is, I was already regretting my decision to acquiesce to Jules’s wishes by the time I stepped through the inn’s doorway and shook my head free of the cloak’s hood. Almost immediately, I was assaulted by the endless roar of noise that seemed to permeate every inn found in the low city. Dozens of patrons crowded the lower floor, spread across the single large room, scattered at drink-stained tables or leaning on the bar, with the occasional drunkard passed out on the straw-covered floor.
I paused for a moment, looking through the crowd for any sign of Thremsold, but I failed to pick him out of the boisterous group. Sighing, I stepped forward and held the door open as the rest of my party trekked through, shaking their own hoods down as the combined heat from the press of bodies and the roaring fire in the center of the room washed over them. Once I was sure everyone had made it inside, I slammed the door shut and pushed my way forward to stand beside the princess’s slight form, leaning down so as to make myself known over the crowd.
“Please follow me. This inn is known to me, so I will lead us to the rooms. We can speak more there, as it is far too exposed down here.”
The princess nodded once, then turned and gestured for her maid and knight to lean down so she could speak to them. It took them only moments longer to speak than I had, then the princess turned back to me and nodded again.
Turning, I gestured the party forward, and we began to push through the crowd in a wedge of bodies, with the princess and the maid safely in our midst. I bit back a grimace as the crowd began to take notice of us, and more than one suggestive shout was directed at the female members, with Jules receiving the most due to the fact that she wasn’t hidden like the other two were. As we moved deeper into the room, the crowd of mostly men grew more rowdy and demanding, some even shoving the men in the party. Despite this, we nearly made it to the stairs set against the far wall without incident.
Nearly being the optimal word.
I was just about to break free of the crowd when a hand seized my shoulder and tried to spin me to my side. Resisting the urge to simply draw one of my knives and plunge it into the offending appendage, I allowed myself to be spun, and found myself face to face with a group of five men, some with beards but most with the fresh faces of youth, and all with drink heavy on their breath. The one with his hand on my shoulder was obviously the leader, and I was transfixed for a moment by the obscenely large ornament pierced through the bridge of his nose.
“‘Ere now, mate. Them be some mighty fine- hick- ladies be’ind your back, eh? What say- hick- you, uh, ‘share’ them with us for the night?”
Behind him, the other men smirked and one of the younger ones shouted drunkenly.
“Yous better, if yous wanna keep both ya lookers, ya bastard! We’s the ones who run this ‘ere street, ya know!”
I couldn’t help it.
I swear, I really couldn’t.
It’d just been such an irritating night, what with the maid’s endless bitching, and then Thremsold just giving away parts of my past, and let’s not forget Jules. As if infuriating me earlier wasn’t enough, she had to force herself on me during the night as well. As though there weren’t at least another dozen, willing victims for her in this inn alone. And now this jackass gang of up-jumped peasants was trying to intimidate me? They were trying to threaten me, the man single-handedly responsible for at least two rebellions, forty-three political assassinations, one-hundred and twelve counts of blackmail, and countless smaller acts of skullduggery and villainy?
It was just so fucking ridiculous!
The laughter started small, just a chuckle really. But as my irritation and the stress of the last few days boiled over, I gave up on trying to control it and threw my head back, bellowing with laughter that was tinged by mania.
The lead thug didn’t seem to appreciate this, as he snarled and leaned forward, seizing the collar of my cloak.
“Eh? You think I was kidding, you whoreson? I said-”
I cut him off with a smile.
“You said nothing. You are nothing. All you are is a mouse, frantically squeaking at the viper it found in its nest.”
Still grinning, I tilted my head back and stared down my nose at the thug.
“Let me tell you, little mousey, there are some skills you need to survive in this world. And of those, the most fundamental is the skill to know when someone is far more dangerous than you. It’s a shame that you don’t seem to have this skill. And now you never will.”
The knife made such an exquisite sound as it pierced his jaw, driving up and back until it punctured the roof of his mouth and embedded itself in whatever excuse for a brain he possessed. As the light faded from the first thug’s eyes, I threw myself towards the remaining gang members even as the rest of the room froze at the sudden gout of blood flowing from the fallen man’s jaw. I decided to leave my knife embedded there for the moment, instead drawing two of my heaviest blades from their sheathes in the small of my back- A paired set, each looking like a cross between a cleaver and a fishmonger’s blade. One immediately embedded itself in the skull of the fool who had proclaimed the crew’s importance, while the other traced a delicate line across the oldest man’s stomach, leaving a valley of ruined flesh and ruptured organs in its wake. The fool fell immediately, head nearly bisected between the eyes, while the older one collapsed to his knees and desperately tried to scoop his innards back into their old home. Ignoring them, I danced between the last two, carving them like one would a hog after slaughter. A finger here, an eye there, blood everywhere…
When I was finished, they were hardly more than limbless lumps of flesh, ruined messes where men had once stood. I shook my head and laughed, then turned and struck the still-kneeling man’s head off. It fell heavily to land in the pile of his eviscerated organs, leaving his body to follow soon after. I stepped carefully past the mess and leaned down to pry my other blade free of the leader’s head, then stood to find myself alone in the center of a circle composed of blood-splattered and horrified faces. Directly before me stood Thremsold, who simply shook his head with a wry smile. Beside him, Jules was grinning widely, and there was a hunger in her eyes that I knew was mirrored in mine. Beside her stood the maid, pale faced and looking like the devil himself stood before her, and behind the maid stood the knight, revulsion and confusion evident on his face. In front of them both stood the princess, blood speckling her brow and fear in her eyes.
I stepped forward, and before anyone could react, leaned down and wiped the blood from the princess’s face with a rag I had plucked from my pocket. I smiled kindly, looking down into her stunned face, and whispered into her ear so that no one else could hear.
“Our first lesson has begun. Never tolerate disrespect from those who mean it.”
I spun away from her and stalked over to one of the many empty seats in the circle with me. Throwing myself into it, I kicked my bloodied and booted feet up onto the chest of a nearby corpse and used the same rag to wipe the blood from my own face. When I finished, I glanced up curiously.
“Well? Isn’t someone going to offer me a drink?”