The villain of our story thus far.
Time for another bout of flash fiction, the final part of Chuck Wendig’s four part flash fiction challenge! In this case I used a piece that eventually became titled Never Goes Smooth, a low-fantasy low-life adventure story. It was started by Probably False, continued by Matthew Gomez, the penultimate piece was penned by Pikabot / Peter MacDonald, and then I added my two cents. If you like ne’er-do-wells with swords and attitudes who have to figure out what to do when they get the short end of life’s stick, you’ll probably like this. Enjoy!
“You sure this is the right place?”
Bec rapped on the door for the second time and took a step back, resting her hand on the pommel of the short sword at her hip. She chewed at the skin on the inside of her cheeks.
“F’you’d asked me ten minutes ago, I’d’ve sworn.”
Gyrt was squinting down at the scrap of paper they’d been given by the Pillar this morning, which had been as liberally coated in the remnants of his breakfast as his beard. The two of them had walked into the building unchallenged by the doorman, a broad, brutish Trussman who had swivelled his one good eye skywards when he’d clocked their brooches.
They now stood alone in an empty hallway lined with worn but well-kept mahogany panels, interrupted occasionally by heavy doors. The sound of knuckles on wood seemed to skip playfully from wall to floor to wall, gradually fading to silence around them. It certainly wasn’t how Bec had imagined a brothel would be – for one thing, there was a whole lot less velvet than she’d pictured in her head. It looked more like a counting house of the sort you’d find over on Kingspan.
“Piss on it,” Gyrt whispered, thrusting the note back inside his cloak and barging Bec out of the way. “I’mma knock once more then we’re leaving.”
“Piss on you.” Bec threw a lazy punch at Gyrt’s arm, missed, scowled at the back of his head as he gave the door a heavy-handed thump. Gyrt waited a moment and then turned, grinning, his bald head tilted in a lazy shrug.
“Just my luck to get stood up by a whore.”
“Courtesan, actually. And I see my trust in your discretion was somewhat misplaced.”
Bec stopped mid-snort. Outlined in the doorway beyond Gyrt’s shoulder was a slender Virin woman, past her youth but still pretty, the few lines about her eyes and lips those from mirth rather than worry. She wore a long, flowing ochre dress with a modest neckline that contrasted starkly with both her ivory skin and Bec’s imaginings of what such a lady might wear. A full copper fringe framed a pair of dark brown, kohl-rimmed eyes all screwed up and scowling – a look that threatened to spear Gyrt like a fish.
Gyrt spun and began to spout apologies, his mouth flapping like a landed perch. The Virin ignored him and gestured curtly towards the inside of her room with one long-fingered hand. “Just come in. We’ve not much time.”
Bec breezed past the woman and into the room beyond, glad to be out of the stuffy silence of the hallway. Gyrt trudged in a few moments later with a dark look on his face. Bec knew that look well – Gyrt would complain the whole way back to the Canopies after this job was through. If he didn’t leave her to spend the little coin they’d yet to make on getting sour and drunk by himself in some grimy shithole bar, that was.
“You’re Pela, then?” Bec said.
The courtesan followed behind them and closed the door. “And you’re the insult Arric has sent to guard me,” she said, looking the two Padstones up and down in appraisal. “A waif and a stripling. I hope you’re at least twice as good with those blades as you are with words.”
As Pela busied with a sturdy-looking latch and lock, Bec took a moment to nose around. Yep, she thought, this is more like it.
The place was big; certainly bigger than it looked from outside. Silken drapes hung upon every wall, splattering the room’s otherwise plain décor with a dozen garish shades of purple, pink and red. The room’s two great windows were blacked out by pairs of crimson velvet curtains studded with sequins and shells in a pattern that Bec reckoned would’ve been pretty just about anywhere else but here. She whistled under her breath.
At the back of the room and amongst the very worst of the crimes against elegance was an enormous four-poster bed, drowning in drapery and not more than an arm’s length from a well-stocked drinks cabinet. Out of the corner of her eye Bec saw Gyrt lick his lips and take a purposeful step towards it. She trod on his toes.
“What’re we to do, then, miss?” said Gyrt, shooting Bec a filthy look. “We’ve word to follow your askin’ to the letter.”
“That, at least, is in order,” replied Pela, walking to the monstrous bed and starting to unbuckle a pair of rather sensible – in Bec’s opinion, at least – shoes. “Soon, a client will come calling. He means to harm me, I’m certain of it. You’re to prevent that – Arric gave me his word,” she added, tightening the buckles on each foot. With that, she stood.
“Who is he, and why so afraid?” Bec asked, not really expecting to get an answer. “Can’t the big guy on the door sort it?” What she didn’t say was this: And what in all creation are you expecting us to do if he can’t?
Pela ignored the question. “Wait in plain sight. I want you as a deterrent, not a cutting edge. Do not draw unless – “
An almighty crash dwarfed Pela’s words. The heavy outer door flew inwards, freed from its hinges and taking chunks of masonry with it. It bounced once along the hard floor and came to a grinding halt mere inches from Bec’s feet. No-one screamed.
Gyrt was ready almost instantly, buckler and broadaxe raised in a defensive crouch in one fluid motion. Bec drew her short sword, blood pumping, vision blurring, an implausible smile creeping on to her face at the tsching it made leaving the scabbard. She set her stance side-on to the gaping doorway and waited.
One moment passed. Two. Pela was at the back of the room now, silent, crouched near the cabinet. Bec was suddenly acutely aware of the sound of her own breathing – shallow, fast, off-rhythm with her pounding heart. Still nothing. A length of purple cloth floated to the ground.
A figure burst through the ragged space the door had left, stumbling over bits of plaster. Gyrt moved to take him but was brought up short.
Bec recognised him then. Another brooch from Queenspan who did odd jobs direct for Arric himself. They’d shared cups before, a few times, after little victories. His face was bloodied and one arm hung limp at his side. The other clutched a notched sword slick with use.
Deran gave a curt nod. His words were slurred slightly, and he winced as he spoke. “We were on the roof.”
“The hells, Deran?” Bec lowered the point of her sword only slightly. She glanced at Gyrt, whose bushy brows were fighting over whether to show anger or confusion.
“It’s fucked. Chief wants her out. Now!”
“Who else was up there, Deran?” Bec asked, her lips drawn in a thin line.
“Not now, Bec,” Deran’s face paled and he slumped to one knee. “Is there another way out?”
Pela moved to the window and drew back the heavy drapes. Pushing open the window, she pushed a rope ladder out where it clattered against the side of the building.
“In case of emergency,” she replied to Bec’s raised eyebrow.
“Bec, you go first,” Deran said. “Then the whore. Gyrt, you follow, and I’ll bring up the rear.”
“Deran, are you-” Gyrt began.
“Not the time for questions.” Deran barked.
Bec stuck her sword in her belt and descended with cat like agility, the hard soles of her boots finding the cobblestones. She immediately drew her sword and took stock of her surroundings. Pela’s window opened onto an alley, and one that backed the kitchens from the ripe smell of it. From the acrid stench undercutting the garbage, it saw use as a latrine as well. The alley was empty, which was the first good news she’d had and it almost made up for the smell
Bec grabbed the ladder with her free hand, wishing the courtesan would move faster, and wondering just what level of shit Pillar had dumped them in. Hearing shouting from above, she tightened her grip and stepped back under the awning, hoping it would keep anyone on the roof from seeing her, and more importantly, keep them from sticking an arrow in her.
Pela descended with less grace than Bec would have reckoned, and moved away as Gyrt dropped like a stone from the window. He wasn’t so much using the ladder as he’d grabbed the ropes in his gloved hands and was bouncing off the side of the brothel as he descended.
Gyrt flashed a grin at Bec after he landed. Something about danger always made him happy. “Nothing to it,” he said. Bec looked up and grabbed Gyrt by the arm, tugging on him. She might as well have been tugging on a statue for as much give as Gyrt had on him, but it did make him look up in time to jump to one side. Deran hit the ground with a bone shattering crash, his limbs twisted unnaturally, and his eyes unseeing.
“We need to go now,” Bec hissed through her teeth, her heart racing.
“Which way?” Gyrt asked, buckler and broad axe ready once again.
“I need to see Arric. Now.” Her gaze locked on Deran, Pela’s voice contained a core of steel that wouldn’t be denied.
“Have a better idea?” Bec asked, directing her question to Gyrt.
The three headed down the alley, hugging the edge of the building as much as they could. Bec cringed at how loud their footsteps were, but they were swords-for-hire, not footpads. Gyrt led them down the alley, dark save for the light coming from the lanterns lining the main streets.
Two cloaked figures stepped forward from the shadows. “That’s far enough. Hand over the whore and this doesn’t have to get any uglier than it already has.” Light gleamed off the blades in their hands.
Bec saw light play over Gyrt’s bald pate as he shook his head. “Can’t do that. Already took the commission. Won’t look good if we just back away. So, piss off.” Bec tried to swallow, but found her mouth too dry. They weren’t getting paid enough coin for this, and she had to wonder why Gyrt had to pick now to take a moral stand.
The two figures stepped closer. Bec tried to remember the lessons Pillar tried to bestow on her, guards and parries, angles of attack and footwork. All of it disappeared as the men attacked. She parried desperately, the blade awkward in her hand. She managed to keep the edge of the opponent’s weapon away, but she was caught wrong-footed and couldn’t counter. She backed up, her heel finding the wooden base of the brothel. Out of the corner of her eye she saw Pela draw a knife from somewhere. She was certainly wearing enough layers to keep a blade concealed somewhere.
Her attacker came in again, and she slipped to one side, nearly sliding on the filth in the alley. She lunged at the same time, her arm held straight out.
“Oh.” The swordsman looked down to where the blade had pierced him, punching through the boiled leather cuirass he wore. “Fuck.” He tried a halfhearted swipe with his blade, but Bec avoided it as he pulled her blade free.
“Done?” Gyrt asked. His head had been cut and blood dripped down one side of his face, but he grinned at her. “Can’t see what all the fuss was about.”
“You’re bleeding Gyrt.”
“Huh? Oh, just scrape. Hey, wait a minute.” Bending down, he grabbed the cloak of one of the attackers and pulled it off with a sharp yank. “What the fuck is going on here, Bec?” In his hand, he held a brooch like the one he and Bec wore, but with a different device, that of a crow’s head. “We’re up against the Slayers?”
Pela’s eyes grew wide at the sight. “We need to leave now.”
Gyrt and Bec looked at each other, then back at Pela. “We need some answers.”
Pela started walking toward the main street without them. “Do you want to discuss this while the hangman tightens the noose, or can we go somewhere a little safer, preferably somewhere your employers and guildmasters wouldn’t know to find you? At this point, I don’t know who I can trust, but you two at least aren’t trying to kill me.”
“Yeah, I know a place,” Gyrt said. “Let’s go.” Pulling up the hood on his cloak and concealing his axe and buckler underneath, he led them deeper into the city, toward the Canopies.
Bec swallowed hard, her hands slick with sweat. Why couldn’t jobs ever go smooth?
With the sun just barely set, the streets weren’t empty yet, but the evening crowd had thinned out considerably. Few wanted to be caught out alone when the guilds began patrolling the street. With no crowd to hide amongst, the three of them stood out, even with their weapons concealed. We need to get off the streets and fast, Bec thought. If this turned into a brawl, everything was going to go straight to hell.
“Into the alley, move,” Gyrt suddenly ordered in a whisper, shoving both Bec and Pela off of the street and into the shadows. He pressed up against the brick wall and motioned for them to do the same. They waited in silence for what felt like an eternity, their own breath echoing in their ears, until at last two cloaked men walked past – Slayers, Bec realized. They were on the hunt. Gyrt must have seen them coming.
“I’ll say this for the Queensmen, they’re stubborn bastards,” the taller of the two men said. “Can’t believe that fucker lived long enough to warn them.”
“Best not to think about it,” the other said. “There’s only two left, and one of ‘em’s as green as long grass. We find them, they’re dead.”
“We need to finish this quick,” the tall one said again. “If they get a message to the Arric, the whole city’s fucked.”
“You worry too much. They won’t get far…”
Their voices faded into the distance, and Bec heard Gyrt exhale deeply with relief. They had gone unnoticed for now. They were safe.
“We need to keep moving,” Gyrt said. “Not far now.”
The Canopies were a set of impromptu dwellings, strung together between the City’s taller buildings. Most Canopy homes were just wooden floors and canvas coverings, held aloft by a complex system of ropes. It wasn’t what anyone would call a safe place to live, but it was free so long as you could build it yourself and keep it up, and some of the City’s poorest inhabitants did just that. The aristocrats allowed it to exist, so long as none were strung from their own dwellings; it kept the city’s human filth safely out of their way.
Because the Canopies were constantly changing, growing and shrinking as new inhabitants set up shop or fell to their deaths, the issue of territory had never been settled. Each Guild claimed to own part of the Canopies, but the borders kept shifting and being contested, and none of them were willing to go to war over it. It was left as a kind of no-man’s land, where each Guild feared to tread. That probably wouldn’t keep the Slayers form finding them, but it would slow them down a little.
Gyrt led them to one of the oldest Canopy dwellings, one which had been added to and built on so much that it almost resembled a real building. Gyrt spoke a few words to the man who watched the door, and they were quickly hustled inside and to a back room.
“We should be safe here,” he said, removing his cloak. “Now. Tell us why the Slayers think you’re worth risking another guild war.”
Pela took a deep breath, and began: “I assume you are both familiar with Bishop Dorio.”
“Of course,” Bec said. The Bishop was the highest religious authority in the City, which also made him one of its wealthiest and most powerful citizens. He was as well-known for his moral rectitude as for his thunderous proclamations about the evils and depravities of the guild system. Most guildmembers hated him; Bec had a sort of grudging admiration for him. It took serious stones to say that sort of thing in the City.
“Well, he’s been a regular client of mine for several years now.”
Gyrt whistled in amazement. “Well, that’d puncture a few holes in His Holiness’s image, now wouldn’t it? Men of the cloth ain’t supposed to associate with whores, even high-class ones like yourself.”
Pela shot him an irritated glare, but continued. “Indeed. Some of his rivals in the Church found out about our arrangement, and planned to expose him at the next convocation. I was afraid the Bishop might try to have me killed to cover it up, so I contacted Arric and asked for his protection.”
“Which he gave,” Bec pointed out. “So what the hell are the Slayers doing? Do they want a war?”
The truce between the five major Guilds was a fraught one, and based entirely on an agreement to stay out of each other’s way. Once one guild announced that they had accepted a contract, the other four were bound not to oppose them. If the contract was to assassinate someone, the other guilds could not accept a contract to protect them. If the contract was to protect them, the other guilds could not accept the hit. And Arric had announced Pela’s protection contract first.
Gyrt stroked his beard, deep in thought. “Bishop Dorio must have dangled one hell of a carrot in front of the Slayers for them to violate the truce like this,” he said. “If word of this gets out, there’ll be blood in the streets again. First guild war in a generation.”
“That’s for Arric to worry about,” Bec said. “We’ve gotta figure out how to get her back to out turf-”
“No,” Pela interrupted. “If you take me back to Arric now, you’re signing all of our death warrants.”
“What do you mean?” Bec asked.
“I know Arric. He’s a good man, who wants what’s best for his guild and for his city. And that’s why he’ll have us killed.”
“To protect the truce,” Gyrt said, catching on. “He can’t risk us telling anyone that the Slayers crossed the Queensmen, or it’ll mean war.”
“That’s ridiculous!” Bec protested. “Arric wouldn’t do that! We’re part of the guild, we’re like family to him…”
“Kid,” Gyrt said, looking her straight in the eyes. His expression sent icy daggers of fear into her heart. “You don’t know him like I do. He’d sell his own mum up the river if it meant the peace holds.”
Bec sat, shamed into silence, trying to come to grips with what she was being told. The guild was supposed to be a new family for her, something that would stand by her when she was in trouble. And now, it was going to try and kill her.
“There’s only one thing to do,” Pela said, interrupting her thoughts. “Cut the purse strings, and the Slayers will have no reason to press the issue. With them out of the picture, all of this can go away quietly. We have to take down Bishop Dorio, tonight.”
Part Four by Henry (1028 words)
It was a long way from the Canopies up to the Bishop’s palace. When he’d reached the rank of Bishop and moved into the traditional apartments, Dorio had made a big show of carting out the finery and gaudy furniture favored by his predecessors. It had helped to cement his reputation as a righteous man, and given his words that much more weight among the people when he thundered against the guilds. It was funny, Bec thought, that he ditched all those fine goods just to spend his time in Pela’s ostentatious velvet-draped rooms.
Their first order of business had been finding other clothes. Bec and Gyrt might be recognized if they didn’t mix things up a little, but Pela stuck out like a sixth toe. Replacing her beautiful gown with a dirty shift helped a bit, as did Gyrt’s cloak and a dirty towel as a hood. She bore the foul clothes with a stoicism that surprised Bec, but that was part of the problem. She was too confident, too certain of her value in the world. It showed in the way that she stood and walked. Nobody in the Canopies walked like that, unless they were slinging steel and wearing a guild’s brooch.
Their solution was far more audacious than any of them liked: the Slayers’ badges they’d pulled from the two they’d cut down in their flight from Pela’s apartments. Pela pinned one to her cloak and wore Bec’s sword belt and sword. With an apologetic look for Bec, Gyrt took the other.
“S’not like we can’t get one more on the way. And something else for the whore,” Pela rapped him on the pate with her knuckles, and Gyrt winced, “the courtesan to carry.”
“Don’t worry, Bec. Should we come to a fight, I will throw you your sword.” Pela looked at her nails, so carefully tended, and sighed. She pared them back to rough tips with her knife before chipping the lacquer she’d so carefully painted on them that morning. She checked them against Bec’s, then nodded with satisfaction. Bec could feel dread bubbling beneath her facade of calm.
“But, but Gyrt,” she protested, “if they find us wearing their badges, it’ll be war anyway.” She chewed the inside of her cheek again, feeling cast adrift without the weight of her sword on her hip.
“Aye, and then we’re all fucked. But if we go to Arric he’ll kill us and we’re fucked, and if the Slayers find us and kill us, whether or not we’ve got their badges on, we get war too and we’re still fucked.” He looked up at her from where he’d just finished checking the fit of his gloves, and gave her a manic grin over his still-foul beard. “But Slayers might get to the Bishop, and with the Bishop dead we might not be fucked! So,” the grin was wider than ever, “which’ll it be?”
Bec sighed. “Fine. But get me something good to carry so I don’t look too out of place.”
Things went far better than Bec could have hoped. They had one quick run-in with another pair of Slayers before they’d left the Canopies, but confusion and dim light had let them get close enough to surprise and overwhelm the two before their disguises were discovered. By the end of the fight, Bec had her short sword back, had a Slayers brooch of her own, and had an excellent idea. With little ceremony, she took a belt knife to the neck of the Slayer whose head Gyrt had split. While the other Slayer lay unconscious and bleeding, she wrapped a cloak around her grisly trophy and hoisted it over her shoulder. She was already covered in blood, so the growing stain at the bottom of her makeshift sack didn’t bother her.
Gyrt and Pela stared at her.
“What?” Bec shrugged at them. “It could be the whore’s head for all we know. We’re just bringing it in to make sure.” Usually, Gyrt’s laugh grated on Bec’s nerves. This time it was reassuring.
The Bishop’s palace stood high on the crest of Manor Hill, surrounded by the estates of similarly powerful and wealthy individuals. From its height, the Canopies seemed like a floating confection of paper lanterns caught in the giant spider’s web that hung between the hills, houses’ lights shining through cloth walls in the dark of night. Manor Hill was the best lit place Bec had ever seen, with lampposts and lanterns on every pathway, a lit path leading all the way to the Bishop’s house. The house guards saw their brooches and grisly bag and simply let them pass, all the way to the Bishop’s doormen. For them, Gyrt mustered his finest charm.
“Look, you can be fuckheads and tell us to piss off, but don’t blame me when your boss comes asking about our job.” With that, they were shepherded into a receiving room to cool their heels. Bec had never felt more anxious in her life, but she forced herself to lounge about, feet up on the plain wooden table, bloody, bulging cloak by her side.
Finally, Bishop Dorio entered, dressed in simple robes and flanked by two guards. “You have something to show me?” Even his questions were imperious.
“Yes, your holiness!” Bec leapt to her feet, trotting towards the bishop with the bloody bundle held in front of her. A guard stopped her, taking the bundle while she stood about ten feet from the man she was here to kill. She could hear her friends stand behind her.
Dorio looked into the bloody cloak with distaste, letting the guard hold it open for him. “What is this? That’s not the right woman, you hells-damned fools!” He looked up in anger, “It might not even be a—,” his voice cut short, his eyes going wide as he looked past Bec. Pela had dropped her hood, and stood with knives in her hands. Gyrt had circled, idly, and now slew the guard by the door with one solid stroke.
“Oh,” he said in a small voice as Bec cut down his surprised guard and ran her blade through his belly. “Fuck.”