Thursday, August 29, 2013

Castles 66

66. In Stonebridge

            Derian Chapman found time to visit the Citadel daily, though his main business was bargaining for wines in the hills east of Stonebridge.  It was widely acknowledged (in Stonebridge, anyway) that the best wines of Tarquint came from the south-facing hillside vineyards near Stonebridge.  Derian’s visits gave Milo opportunity to talk with the merchant, and he offered to ride as escort for Derian’s wine wagons when they set out for Down’s End.  Chapman eagerly accepted; he went to Commander Tondbert to gain approval for Milo’s absence from Stonebridge.  Milo and Derian agreed that the wagons should leave Stonebridge as soon as Derian had made his purchases.
            Milo had about a week to carry out his plan.

            A quarter mile separated Wilene Strong’s brothel from the burial field.  She had the temerity to call her house Stonebridge’s Finest, and the bar where Wilene served drinks prominently displayed four glass bottles of vintage rosé.  These bottles were never opened; patrons of Stonebridge’s Finest drank beer or hard cider.  In any case, customers didn’t tarry long in the small barroom at the front of the house.  They chose a companion from among Madame Strong’s young women (there were always four or five hanging about the bar) and took her to one of the well-appointed bedrooms that opened off the house’s long hallway.
            Milo and Felix Abrecan entered Stonebridge’s Finest at the end of their morning round.  This was not unusual; Madame Strong welcomed occasional visits from sheriffs and under-sheriffs.  She said it gave her girls a sense of security.
            Madame Strong set out two clay cups.  “Fair morning, sirs.  Beer or cider?  A free drink for those as protects the laws.”  This too was normal.
            Two of the women in the barroom had come toward the doorway as Milo and Felix entered—ready to please customers.  But now they recognized the visitors as men of the city guard; the young women reseated themselves in chairs scattered in the barroom.
            “Cider today,” Felix answered.  Milo nodded his agreement.  He sipped cautiously; too often the cider in the Finest was vinegary.  He surveyed the room.
            Milo set his cup on the bar and walked to one of the women.  Black hair and pale white skin.  “Excuse me, miss, what is your name?”
            “They call me Cyrten.”  The prostitute wiggled her shoulders to emphasize her breasts.
            “As well they should.  You’re quite pretty, Cyrten.”  The face isn’t quite the right shape, but that won’t matter.  “Stand up, girl.”
            Cyrten stood, bringing her eyes almost level with Milo’s.  Almost exactly as tall as Tilde.  Milo said, “You’re even prettier close up, Cyrten.  But, unfortunately, I’m working this morning.  Felix and I have to report back to the Citadel.”  He leaned close and touched her hip.  “After sup, I’ll come and take you for a walk.  How would that be?”
            Cyrten smirked.  “Unfortunately, after sup I’ll be working.  Madame Strong keeps us girls busy.”
            “I quite understand.  Madame Strong will be compensated for your time.”
            The woman’s black eyebrows bunched.  “A walk?”  She looked to Wilene Strong, who nodded her approval.  “All right then.”
            Milo and Felix took their leave of Stonebridge’s Finest.

            “Why do you want a whore?”  Felix and Milo rode close enough for casual conversation.  “Getting tired of the washerwoman, Daisy?”
            Milo had no intention of telling Felix the truth.  “Daisy’s blood started yesterday.  I figure if I let her be a few days, she’ll be happier.  And this way I can get outside the Citadel for a couple hours.  Don’t you feel boxed in sometimes, spending every night in a fortress?”
            Felix thought, then shrugged.  “Mostly I’ve been glad to have a roof and hot meals.  ’cept for Tondbert almost getting a body killed, the Guard’s been an improvement in my life.  I figure if I stay close to Milo Mortane, I might even survive Tondbert’s next bit of stupidity.”
            “You flatter me, Felix.”
            “Gods no.  Most the men in the Guard envy me, ’cause I ride rounds with you.  They’re hoping that when you get back from Down’s End, you’ll choose a different partner.”
            Milo was taken aback.  “We’re supposed to be friends.  Don’t jest.”
            “I’m serious as a father-in-law, Sir.  Hrodgar Wigt and Bryce Dalston have all the men’s respect.  But they aren’t knights.  They didn’t grow up in a castle.”
            “Castle born, castle soft.”  Milo repeated the proverb.
            “People do say that, Sir.  Out of ignorance and envy, I figure.  The truth: castle knights have the best armor, the best swords, and the best training.  Sir Milo Mortane rides out into the world, where he’s not protected by magic, and he relies on his own sword and his own brains.  You’re the best man in the Guard.  We all know it.”
            Milo shook his head, pondering this.  Then he spoke the honest truth.  “You may believe what you like, Felix, but I know quite well I am not the best in the Guard.  There are braver men than me, and some who are better fighters—or would be if they had armor as good as mine.  I left Hyacintho Flumen because I had no choice; it was either that or give obeisance to my detestable brother.  Nevertheless I thank you; I would like to live up to the honor you do me.”
            Gray clouds swept in from the southwest.  Felix and Milo made their afternoon circuit of the Bene Quarter in air that felt colder by the hour.  Milo pulled the collar of his coat tight against his neck. 
            A scream sounded from the mouth of one of the Bene Quarter’s shadowy alleys just as the riders reached it.  They stopped.  Another scream.  The woman couldn’t be far off.  “Damn!”  Felix looked to Milo.  “Some Bene bitch fighting her man.  If we go to help, as like she’ll turn on us!”
            Milo swung down from the saddle.  “Hold Blackie.  I’ll see what it is.”
            “We go together.”  Felix dismounted and quickly tied both mounts’ reins to a porch post.  The partners drew their swords.
            Ten yards into the alley they heard another scream, very close, above their heads.  In the rapidly darkening alley they saw an open upstairs window in the building on their right.  Just past the window, an entrance from the alley.  Milo tried the door—locked.  Bodies slammed into the walls above them; the door handle shook in Milo’s hand.  He rammed his shoulder into the door, breaking the flimsy lock.
            Sheriff and under-sheriff entered a dirt floor room with no light except that from the broken door behind them.  A cot lined one wall.  Several boxes were stacked along another.  The ceiling shook; more sounds of fighting above them.  Sword pointed ahead, Milo squeezed along a passage to the foot of a staircase, turned, and started up.  He could see Felix’s eyes in the dark.  “Here’s your chance to stay close,” he whispered.  He charged up the stairs and threw open the door to the upstairs room with Felix right behind him.
            Dim light showed a man’s back, covered with matted black hair, thicker than Milo had ever seen or imagined.  He was completely naked, a woman lying under him, his massive hands squeezing her neck.  So intent was he on doing murder, the man knew nothing of Milo’s arrival until Milo stabbed him.  By fate or chance, the castle steel sword with its perfectly sharp tip slipped neatly between the murderer’s ribs and penetrated through him.  Milo jerked it out, slicing the man’s internal organs as he did so.  The hairy man collapsed onto his victim with a quiet “ugh.”
            Felix stepped around Milo and rolled the heavy male body off of the woman.  Blood was soaking her tunic above her right breast where Milo’s sword had cut her.  The woman’s eyes were staring fixedly at the ceiling.  Sheriff and under-sheriff knelt over her.  Felix shut the victim’s eyes.  “Look at the neck.  She was dead before your blade touched her, Sir.”  Bruises on the neck spoke of a crushed windpipe.
            “I think you are right, Felix.”  The woman’s dark hair and bloodless skin reminded Milo of Tilde.  He straightened her legs.  About the right height too.
            “I did the stabbing.  I get to pick.”  Milo sheathed his sword and hoisted the dead woman over his shoulder.  Under her tunic she was skinny and light—a good thing, since the stairs and hallway were so narrow.  “You get the brute.”
            “Impossible.  I could never carry him.”
            “Roll him out the window then.  We’ll leave him in the alley and send a cart tomorrow.”
            Staggering under his load, Milo made it around the turn at the foot of the stairs, through the dirt floor room and out the door.  Rain was starting.  The alley provided a little more space, letting him straighten up.  To Milo’s relief, Felix’s horse and Blackie were still tied where they left them.  Milo draped the woman’s body over Blackie’s saddle, wondering if he would have to go back to help Felix.  The rain was coming down hard now.  It might be impossible to maneuver the naked murderer through the window.  As if in answer to this worry, he heard a “womp” sound, as the heavy body struck the ground.  Milo was still securing the woman to Blackie when Felix arrived at a run, panting.
            “Gods!  What a load a dead man is!”
            Milo finished tying the body in place.  “You managed it?”
            “Aye.  Barely.”
            “Tell you what, Felix.  I’ve got this body to deal with.  Why don’t you go to Stonebridge’s Finest after sup?  Take my place with Cyrten.”
            “What would I do?”
            “The weather rules out a walk, so buy her sup, or take her to bed.  I don’t care.  I’ll be at the burial house.”  Milo gestured at the body.  “Somehow, after this, I don’t feel much like having a woman.”
            Felix climbed into saddle.  He was still breathing hard, blowing rain water from his face.  “I think I will.  A dry room and a warm bed would suit me.  Will you be safe?”
            Milo took Blackie’s reins, looked up and down the avenue.  Not a soul; the wind threw rain in dark waves against Stonebridge’s buildings.  “I can’t think of a safer time to walk the streets of our city.  Who wants to come out?  Besides, who would want to steal a body?”  Milo touched Felix’s horse’s mane.  “Tell Cyrten she’s a lucky woman.” 

Copyright © 2013 by Philip D. Smith.
All rights reserved.  International copyright secured.

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