Pretend, just for a moment, that you have attained your most deepseated desire. Not the simple, sensible one you tell your friends about, but the dream that’s so close to your heart that even as a child you hesitated to speak it out loud. Imagine, for example, that you had always yearned to be a Greatcoat, one of the legendary sword-wielding magistrates who travelled from the lowliest village to the biggest city, ensuring that any man or woman, high or low, had recourse to the King’s Laws. A protector to many—maybe even a hero to some. You feel the thick leather coat of office around your shoulders, the deceptively light weight of its internal bone plates that shield you like armour and the dozens of hidden pockets holding your tools and tricks and esoteric pills and potions. You grip the sword at your side, knowing that as a Greatcoat you’ve been taught to fight when needed, given the training to take on any man in single combat.
Now imagine you have attained this dream—in spite of all the improbabilities laid upon the world by the ill-intentioned actions of Gods and Saints alike. So you have become a Greatcoat—in fact, dream bigger: pretend that you’ve been made First Cantor of the Greatcoats, with your two best friends at your side. Now try to envision where you are, what you’re seeing, what you’re hearing, what wrong you are fighting to right—
‘They’re fucking again,’ Brasti said.
I forced my eyes open and took in a bleary view of the inn’s hallway, an overly ornate—if dirty—corridor that reminded you that the world was probably a nice place once but had now gone to rot. Kest, Brasti and I were guarding the hallway from the comfort of decaying chairs taken from the common room downstairs. Opposite us was a large oak door that led to Lord Tremondi’s rented room.
‘Let it go, Brasti,’ I said.
He gave me what was intended to be a withering look, though it wasn’t very effective: Brasti’s a little too handsome for anyone’s good, including his own. Strong cheekbones and a wide mouth clothed in a reddish-blond short beard amplify a smile that gets him out of most of the fights he talks his way into. His mastery of the bow gets him through the rest. But when he tries to stare you down, it just looks like he’s pouting.
‘Let what go, pray tell?’ he said. ‘The fact that you promised me the life of a hero when you tricked me into joining the Greatcoats and instead I find myself impoverished, reviled and forced to take lowly bodyguard work for travelling merchants? Or is it the fact that we’re sitting here listening to our gracious benefactor—and I use the term loosely since he has yet to pay us a measly black copper—but that aside, that we’re listening to him screw some woman for—what? The fifth time since supper? How does that fat slob even keep up? I mean—’
‘Could be herbs,’ Kest interrupted, stretching his muscles out again with the casual grace of a dancer.
‘And what would the so-called “greatest swordsman in the world” know about herbs?’
‘An apothecary sold me a concoction a few years ago, supposed to keep your sword-arm strong even when you’re half-dead. I used it fighting off half a dozen assassins who were trying to kill a witness.’
‘And did it work?’ I asked.
Kest shrugged. ‘Couldn’t really tell. There were only six of them, after all, so it wasn’t much of a test. I did have a substantial erection the whole time though.’
A pronounced grunt followed by moaning came from behind the door.
‘Saints! Can they not just stop and go to sleep?’
As if in response, the groaning grew louder.
‘You know what I find odd?’ Brasti went on.
‘Are you going to stop talking at any point in the near future?’ I asked.
Brasti ignored me. ‘I find it odd that the sound of a nobleman rutting is hardly distinguishable from one being tortured.’
‘Spent a lot of time torturing noblemen, have you?’
‘You know what I mean. It’s all moans and grunts and little squeals, isn’t it? It’s indecent.’
Kest raised an eyebrow. ‘And what does decent rutting sound like?’
Brasti looked up wistfully. ‘More cries of pleasure from the woman, that’s for sure. And more talking. More, “Oh my, Brasti, that’s it, just there! Thou art so stout of heart and of body!”’ He rolled his eyes in disgust. ‘This one sounds like she’s knitting a sweater or cutting meat for dinner.’
‘“Stout of heart and body”? Do women really say that kind of thing in bed?’ Kest asked.
‘Try taking a break from practising alone with your sword all day and bed a woman and you’ll find out. Come on, Falcio, back me up here.’
‘It’s possible, but it’s been so damned long I’m not sure I can remember.’
‘Yes, of course, Saint Falcio, but surely with your wife—?’
‘Leave it,’ I said.
‘I’m not—I mean—’
‘Don’t make me hit you, Brasti,’ Kest said quietly.
We sat there in silence for a minute or two as Kest glared at Brasti on my behalf and the noises from the bedroom continued unabated.
‘I still can’t believe he can keep going like that,’ Brasti started up again. ‘I ask you again, Falcio, what are we doing here? Tremondi hasn’t even paid us yet.’
I held up my hand and wiggled my fingers. ‘Did you see his rings?’
‘Sure,’ Brasti said, ‘very big and gaudy. With a stone shaped like a wheel on top.’
‘That’s a Lord Caravaner’s ring—which you’d know if you’d paid attention to the world around you. It’s what they use to seal their votes when they have their annual concord—one ring, one vote. Not every Lord Caravaner shows up for the concord each year, so they have the option of lending their ring to another to act as their proxy in all the major votes. Now, Brasti, how many Lords Caravaner are there in total?’
‘Nobody knows for sure, it’s—’
‘Twelve,’ Kest said.
‘And how many of his fingers had one of those gaudy rings on them?’
Brasti stared at his own fingers. ‘I don’t know—four… five?’
‘Seven,’ Kest said.
‘Seven,’ I repeated.
‘So that means he could… Falcio, what is it exactly that the Concord of Lords Caravaner is going to vote on this year?’
‘Lots of things,’ I said casually. ‘Rates of exchange, dues, trade policies. Oh, and security.’
‘Since the Dukes killed the King, the roads have fallen into disrepair.
The Dukes won’t spend money or men, not even to defend the trade routes, and the Lords Caravaner are losing a fortune on private security for every single trip they take.’
‘And we care about this why?’
I smiled. ‘Because Tremondi’s going to propose that the Greatcoats become the Wardens of the Road, giving us authority, respect, and a decent life in exchange for keeping their precious cargoes out of the hands of the bandits.’
Brasti looked wary. ‘They’d let us reassemble the Greatcoats again? So instead of spending my life being branded a traitor and hounded from every overcrowded city or Gods-forsaken village the length and breadth of the country, I’d get to run around the trade routes beating up bandits—and I’d actually get paid for it?’
I grinned. ‘And from there, we have a much better chance of fulfilling the King’s—’
Brasti waved a hand. ‘Please, Falcio. He’s been dead for five years. If you haven’t found these bloody “King’s Charoites” by now—and still no one knows what they are, by the way—’
‘A charoite is a gemstone,’ Kest said calmly.
‘Whatever. My point is: finding these gemstones with no clue whatsoever as to where they might be is about as likely as Kest here killing the Saint of Swords.’
‘But I will kill the Saint of Swords, Brasti,’ Kest said.
Brasti sighed. ‘You’re hopeless, both of you. Anyway, even if we do find the Charoites, what exactly are we supposed to do with them?’
‘I don’t know,’ I answered, ‘but since the alternative is that the Dukes hunt down the Greatcoats one by one until we’re all dead, I’d say Tremondi’s offer works for me.’
‘Well then,’ Brasti said, lifting an imaginary glass in the air, ‘good on you, Lord Tremondi. Keep up the good work in there!’
More moaning came from the room as if in response to his toast.
‘You know, I think Brasti may be right,’ Kest said, standing up and reaching for one of the swords at his side.
‘What do you mean?’ I asked.
‘At first it sounded like lovemaking, but I am beginning to think I really can’t tell the difference between these noises and those of a man being tortured.’
I rose carefully, but my battered chair creaked loudly as I leaned towards the door, trying to listen. ‘They’ve stopped now, I think,’ I murmured.
Kest’s sword let out only the barest whisper as he pulled it from its scabbard.
Brasti put his ear to the door and shook his head. ‘No, he’s stopped, but she’s still going. He must be asleep. But why would she keep going if—?’
‘Brasti, move away from the door,’ I said, and threw my shoulder into it. The first try failed, but at the second, the lock gave way. At first I couldn’t see anything amiss in the gaudily appointed room, decorated in what the proprietor fondly believed to be the style of a Duke’s bedroom. Clothes and discarded books were strewn across what had once been expensive rugs but now were moth-eaten and likely homes for vermin. The bed had dusty velvet curtains hanging from an oaken frame. I had just begun to move slowly into the room when a woman stepped out from behind those curtains. Her bare skin was smeared with blood and, though I couldn’t see her features through the diaphanous black mask that covered her face, I knew she was smiling. In her right hand she held a pair of large scissors—the kind butchers use to cut meat. She extended her left hand towards me, fist closed tight, palm to the ceiling. Then she brought it close to her mouth and it looked as if she might blow us a kiss. Instead, she exhaled, and blue powder billowed into the air.
‘Don’t breathe in,’ I shouted to Kest and Brasti—but it was too late; whatever magic was in the powder didn’t require us to inhale to do its work. The world suddenly slowed to a halt and I felt as if I was trapped between the stuttering ticks of an old clock. I knew Brasti was behind me, but I couldn’t turn my head to see him. Kest was just in my sight, in the corner of my right eye, but I could barely make him out as he struggled like a demon to break free.
The woman tilted her head as she looked at me for a moment.
‘Lovely,’ she said softly, and walked casually, even languidly towards us, the scissors in her hand making a rhythmic snip-snip sound. I felt her hand on the side of my face, then she ran her fingers down the length of my greatcoat, pushing at the leather until she could sneak her hand inside. She placed her palm on my chest for a moment, caressing it softly before sliding it down my stomach and below my belt.
She stretched up on her toes and leaned her masked face close to my ear, pushing her naked body against mine as if we were about to embrace. Snip-snip went the scissors. ‘The dust is called “aeltheca”,’ she whispered. ‘It’s very, very expensive. I needed only a pinch of it for the Lord Caravaner, but now you’ve made me use my entire supply.’
Her voice was neither angry nor sad, just as if she were merely making a dispassionate observation.
‘I’d cut your throats out, my tatter-cloaks, but I’ve some use for you now, and the aeltheca will keep you from remembering anything about me.’
She stepped back and twirled theatrically.
‘Oh, you’ll remember a naked woman in a mask—but my height, my voice, the curves of my body, these will all slip away from you.’ She leaned forward, placed the scissors in my left hand and closed my fingers around them. I struggled to let them go, but my fingers wouldn’t move. I tried as hard as I could to memorise the shape of her body, her height, the features of her face through the mask, anything that would help me know her if I saw her again, but the images faded even as I watched her. I tried turning the words to describe her into rhymes that I might remember, but those too left me instantly. I could stare right at her, but each time I blinked my eyes, the memory was gone. The aeltheca was certainly effective.
I hate magic.
The woman went back to the curtained bed briefly, then returned with a small pool of blood held carefully in the palm of her hand. She went to the wall opposite us, dipped her finger in the blood and wrote a single word upon the wall. The dripping word was ‘Greatcoats’. She came back to me once more and I felt a kiss on my cheek through the gauzy fabric of her mask.
‘It’s almost sad,’ she said lightly, ‘to see the King’s own Greatcoats, his legendary travelling magistrates, brought so low; to watch you bowing and scraping to a fat Lord Caravaner barely one step up from a common street merchant… Tell me, tatter-cloak, when you sleep, do you imagine yourself still riding across the land, sword in hand and a song on your lips as you bring justice to the poor, wretched people trapped under the heels of capricious Dukes?’
I tried to reply, but despite the effort, I could manage barely a tremor to my lower lip.
The woman brought her finger up and smeared blood on the cheek she had kissed a moment ago. ‘Goodbye, my lovely tatter-cloak. In a few minutes, I’ll just be a hazy memory. But don’t worry, I’ll remember you very well indeed.’
She turned and walked casually to the wardrobe and picked up her clothes. Then she opened the window and, without even dressing, slipped out into the early morning air.
We stood there like tree stumps for a minute or so more before Brasti, who had been furthest away from the powder, was able to move his mouth enough to say, ‘Shit.’
Kest came out of it next, and I was last. As soon as I could move, I raced to the window, but of course the woman was long gone.
I went to the bed to examine the blood-soaked body of Lord Tremondi. She had gone after him like a surgeon and had managed to keep him alive for a long time, somehow—perhaps another property of the aeltheca. The passage of her scissors had for ever imprinted a map of atrocity across the surface of his body.
This wasn’t just a murder; it was a message.
‘Falcio, look,’ Kest said, pointing at Tremondi’s hands. Three fingers remained on his right hand; the rest were bloody stumps. The Caravaner rings were gone, and with them, our hopes for the future. I heard the sounds of men coming up the stairs, the steady thumpthump of their footsteps marking them as city guards.
‘Brasti, bar the door.’
‘It’s not going to hold for long, Falcio. You kind of broke it when we came in.’
‘Just do it.’
Brasti pushed the door back into place and Kest helped him to shove the dresser in front of it before turning to help as I searched for anything that would link to the woman who’d killed Tremondi.
‘Do you think we’ll find her?’ Kest asked me as we looked down at Tremondi’s butchered remains.
‘Not a chance in any of the hells we’re headed for,’ I replied.
Kest put a hand on my shoulder. ‘Through the window?’
I sighed. ‘The window.’
Fists were banging on the door outside. ‘Goodnight, Lord Tremondi,’ I said. ‘You weren’t an especially good employer. You lied a lot, and never paid us when you promised. But I guess that’s all right, since we turned out to be pretty useless bodyguards.’
Kest was already climbing out as the constables were beginning to force the door of our room.
‘Hang on,’ Brasti said. ‘Shouldn’t we—you know…’
‘You know, take his money?’
Even Kest looked back and raised an eyebrow at that one.
‘No, we do not take his money,’ I said.
‘Why not? It’s not like he needs it.’
I sighed again. ‘Because we’re not thieves, Brasti, we’re Greatcoats. And that has to mean something.’
He started making his way out of the window. ‘Yeah, it means something: it means people hate us. It means they’re going to blame us for Tremondi’s death. It means we’re going to hang from the noose while the mob throws rotten fruit at our corpses shouting, “Tattercloak, tatter-cloak!”—And—oh yes it means we also don’t have any money. But at least we still have our coats.’
He disappeared out of the window and I climbed out after him.
The constables had just broken down the door, and when their leader saw me there with the wooden sill digging into my chest as I eased myself out of the window, there was the hint of a smile on his face. I knew instantly what that smile meant: he had more men waiting for us below, and now he could rain arrows down on us while they held us at bay with pikes.
My name is Falcio val Mond, First Cantor of the Greatcoats, and this was only the first of a great many bad days to come.
Traitor’s Blade © Sebastien de Castell, 2014