Okay, this is the last time I’ll do this to you guys. Thank you so, so much. Especially Matt and Al. You guys are editing superheroes, and in a very short amount of time!
A BIG thank you as well to Chris at Modern Fantastic. I forgot this earlier because I’m an ass. Your edits are tidy, sir, and your skill set complex.
Added some description, calmed down the pace a little, destroyed some but not all passive verb use. Don’t worry about the lute, it comes into play at the end of the chapter. Using it as an object-lesson for Aurian’s comfort in the inn, way better than all the town dialogue for it.
Aurian gazed down the length of the blade to the knotty hand grasping it, and beyond there to the dirt-streaked face of the bandit currently holding him up.
“I said,” Aurian repeated patiently, “what money?”
“Don’t get yourself killed, laddie. There’s got to be some money in this shitheap. Couple coppers socked away, antique glassware–whatever you’ve got. If you ain’t got nothing, we’ll just slit your throat and sell your corpus to the necromancers down the road. All the same to us.”
The bandit pressed his sword a little deeper into Aurian’s throat. Aurian swallowed with some difficulty.
“Look where this inn is situated,” he said. “It’s a shit location. We haven’t seen a traveler in months. We’ve got a few pigs in the yard and a few chickens. About half a barrel of ale. That’s it.”
“Don’t lie to me, now!” Spit flecked Aurian’s face, as well as a few droplets of red–the bandit had finally worked up enough nerve to break skin. Aurian ignored the pain, took deep measured breaths. Certainly this wouldn’t be the amateur holdup that got him killed. Certainly.
To calm himself, he looked around the inn–the trestle tables his father had built, ungainly legs evened by bits of folded paper and spare checkers. The rows of thick-bottomed glasses, hibernating under their blankets of dust. The painted lute over the fireplace, blue and garish yellow, which Aurian knew logically was a musical instrument and not just a decoration, but which it had never occurred to him until right now could actually be played. Hells, he wasn’t even sure where it had come from.
It would also, he thought wistfully, make a rather excellent bludgeon. Fortunately, he had a better one waiting upstairs: best give his assailants a few moments of silence, though. He knew from long experience not to seem too eager.
The bandit’s two friends, every bit as dusty and mustaschioed as the bandit himself, were looking nervous. Aurian was willing to bet none of them had ever killed a man before–hells, if the weather had been better, they’d probably still be on their farms with their fathers, and the nasty-looking machetes at their sides would still be used for clearing brush.
These times made men desperate, they did.
Which was none of Aurian’s business. They had chosen this, not him. And there was always a choice.
“Look,” he said at last, making his voice quaver slightly. “All right, you’ve got me. My wife keeps a sack of coppers on her–supposed to last us the winter, they were. You’re welcome to ’em. Just leave us in peace.”
“Maybe,” the lead bandit said curtly. “Maybe not. Where’s the lady?”
The bandit resheathed his sword. “Call her.”
“Jin,” Aurian called. “Oh, Jin! We have visitors.”
“Fuck off,” said Jin from above. Her voice sounded thick, fuzzy. Aurian was willing to bet she had been sound asleep.
The bandits chuckled, perhaps recognizing the same thing. “Right proper and obedient, that one,” one of the two lesser bandits said. Aurian phrased his request carefully:
“Jin. These gentlemen are interested in some of your coppers.”
“Are they now? Goody.” Jin now sounded positively cheery, which was frightening enough even to Aurian. A door swung open, followed by a familiar lithe step and a series of creaks as Jin took the stairs down.
Aurian was not facing the right direction to see her, but he could tell from the guffaws of the bandits when she was in view.
“Aithar’s hells, laddie, that’s your wife?” said the lead bandit. “Where’d you find her, hanging in a butcher’s shop?”
“Oh, now,” Jin said pleasantly. “You shouldn’t have gone there. I was going to leave you alive.”
He heard the sliding ring of drawn steel, a few soft rushed footsteps. The bandit currently antagonizing Aurian choked on something distinctly vital. He jerked, made silent fishlike movements with his mouth, and slumped. A red puddle grew on the floor around him.
With a vicious kick, Jin slid him off her sword and onto the bodies of his cohorts, who had fallen in almost perfect silence. She wiped her sword on his tunic and turned to face her husband.
‘Hello, my darling dingleberry,” she said cheerfully. “My precious puking pearl. My salubrious swine. My–”
“Enough!” Aurian shook his head, barely able to repress a smile. “I truly thought we might be fucked, this time. I thought you’d really gone to sleep up there.”
“I did.” She bent, began to rifle through the purses of the deceased. “What, you don’t think I’d rise to the dulcet tones of my husband in distress?”
Aurian laughed in spite of himself. “Of course you would, my pumpkin. Of course you would.”
“Don’t do it to me. Makes my skin bloody well crawl.” She found a purse that jingled, poured coins into her hand. She weighed them with the aplomb of a master moneylender. “Good take on these bastards. Fourteen copper.”
“About time somebody beat ’em at their own game. Toss it in with the rest, I guess.”
“Which board is it, again?”
“Somewhere around the welcome mat. Step on it, it’ll sound hollow.”
As she stepped, listened, and cursed, Aurian took the moment to stretch, blot the small wound at his throat with the back of his hand, and look at his wife.
Jin Koch, neé Grewler, was nearly six feet tall, thin as a rail, and possessed the blanched complexion and sharp profile common to the Imperial south. In addition to a haggard face, she had a braided mat of ivory hair that hung unbrushed and unloved to the small of her back–the sort of hair that, with about a year’s proper maintenance and a good shearing, might have curled in attractive ringlets around her face.
But her face was the problem, really. For, in place of one pale grey eye, Jin wore a patch–a patch big enough to cover some of her forehead and most of her gaunt cheek. Even so, the patch was not large enough to cover the scars that extended like mountain ridges from her empty socket, or the healed-over shiny burns that clustered around it.
There was a thin film of filth on Jin and everything she touched. Her nails were black, her smile crooked, her baggy tunic a color Aurian could only think of as ‘crusty’. She might have been beautiful once or she might have never been; through the filth-curtain it was impossible to tell. Aurian suspected she rather liked it that way. Suspected, in fact, that she did it on purpose.
It had occurred to him to wonder whether this behavior, abnormal as it was, wasn’t a cloak for other, deeper issues. It probably was. Anyone who needed a name change badly enough to marry Aurian probably had a Chequered Past and a half. But if she didn’t want to talk, twelve demons and a horde of stampeding cattle couldn’t drag a secret out of Jin. So she smiled, and stank, and remained cheerfully incommunicado on the subject of anything deeper than the weather or feeding the pigs.
Aurian liked her. For reasons he couldn’t begin to fathom, it was difficult not to. Especially since she was so damn useful.
He was not an opportunist. Not in any conventional sense, at least: he had been starving at this gods-forsaken inn on the side of this gods-forsaken minor road for long enough to know that. But when he saw a chance to get back–at the bandits who stole the few coppers he managed to make, at the townsfolk who told him he’d never amount to much–by marrying a woman willing to trade her blade for his name, well, he’d have been a fool not to take it. She may have been ugly, and crass, and a drunk, but this strange Imperial swordswoman had made him in six months about double what he’d made in the past ten years.
And all for the price of his hand, and free beer. There was no sex in it–of course there was no sex–but then again, Aurian had heard semi-reliably about sex from the necromancers, and thought it sounded like the sort thing that, when done with Jin, might be likely to spread plague.
“Dearest,” he asked. “You don’t by any chance know how to play the lute, do you?”
Jin rolled her eye. “Of course I do,” she said. “As you can see from my smooth pretty face, I possess all the courtly airs and graces. I keep them up my arse, along with my royal pedigree.”
“So no, then.”
“Resoundingly.” Her last step sounded hollow. “Ah. Here we go.”
Jin found the board’s edge with her toe, kicked it up and over. The eerie light of all their stashed copper shone on her face, making it angular, a sculpture in reds and oranges. Aurian smiled at her affectionately.
“How much, d’you think?”
“Don’t know. Four hundred–five hundred, maybe. A little sack of it’s in gold.” She scowled, fingering the offending sack. “We could afford a place in the city with this, you know. ”
“Aye, but then we couldn’t do our civic duty.” He gestured to the fallen bandits. “We keep it up, dear heart, and Sohoban’s Way won’t have any more bandits on it at all. We’ll be heroes. They might even make me mayor.”
Jin snorted. “Mayor of the midden heap, maybe. Need I remind you that these people hate you?”
“They do now. When they find out we’re rich…” he left his thought unfinished. He could buy some new trestle tables, some glasses that didn’t strain your arms going from table to mouth. Maybe hire some help from town: a pretty girl, moderately saucy but good-hearted, to get folk coming in and keep them coming back. Aurian would pay her well, treat her well. She would tell all her friends, and the townsfolk would see at last that he was a decent person, nothing dark or mysterious about him in the least. Just a young man with a shitty inn. They would maybe start stopping by for a drink, a little conversation.
Money could do so much.
In one easy motion, Jin grabbed a dead bandit and slung him over her shoulder. “Speaking of midden heaps,” she said, “what should I do with these scumbags?” She sniffed, made a face. “Ugh. I think this one’s soiled himself.”
“We’ll burn them tonight. Say a few words over them.” Anticipating her look, he added: “Come on, Jin. They’ve suffered enough for their crimes just by trying to rob us. Don’t feed them to the pigs.”
“Would save us a bundle on pig feed.”
“We don’t need to save a bundle. Remember the pile of copper under that floorboard?”
“They’re dead. They don’t care if they’re pig feed or in a crypt. Might as well use what you have, says I.”
And that was Jin: practical, no-nonsense Jin. Aurian, who had been born and raised in this area and had never seen adventure so much as shake a stick at him, couldn’t help but admire her attitude. He would never feed a dead man to pigs–whether or not he believed in an afterlife didn’t even enter into it. It just wasn’t the done thing.
But he could see how it made sense.
“No pigs,” he said at last. “Have some respect, dearest. Just pile ’em out back–I’ll get around to the fire presently.”
“Pile ’em yourself,” Jin shot back. “And think about your priorities, while you’re at it. You want to stay in an inn with no traffic and drink your days away, that’s just fine. I’ll do it with you. But you can’t go taking things for granted like you do. Someday you’ll be sitting here with no fodder for the pigs, thinking ‘oh, if only I still had those bloody bandit corpses…'”
“Taking things for granted like I do, eh? You’re the one who sits day in and day out. At least I sweep. Hells, your arm gets more muscle moving tankard to mouth than it does swinging that sword of yours.”
“Aye,” Jin spat, tossing the bandit back down on the floor. “Perhaps it does. But I’ve been in worse places, places you can’t even imagine. You’d do well to listen to me.”
She stalked off. Aurian counted to ten.
Before he hit seven she came back in, grabbed a tankard from under the bar, filled it at the barrel, and walked back out again.
“Think on it!” she called. She slammed the door behind her. The door-bar, which had been loose for years, dropped into its slot with a meaty thunk.
Aurian sighed, bent down, and heaved one of the dead bandits over his own shoulder. Something under all the leather and chainmail squished slightly, and a distinctive ripe smell joined the old food/woodsmoke aroma of his home.
He debated throwing some cedar chips on the fire to freshen the air, but what was the point? No one new was coming through that door. Not now, not later, probably not with all the copper in the world.
He caught himself yearning, strangely, for someone new to appall.
Aurian had been trying to play the lute on and off, but nothing good was coming of it–the strings were, he supposed, over twenty years old, and even to his inexperienced hands they felt more like wet noodles than proper musical accoutrement. He was finding it much more productive to stare at it vaguely while scrubbing the bloodstains off his floor than to actually strum it: the few sounds he could eke out of the thing had frightened the wildlife. It was lying on the bar now, useless and garishly cheerful, while he took to the floor with a vengeance, a pumice stone, and lye. Every now and again, as though daring it to become a better lute, he’d glare at it.
Around five, a necromancer from the coven down the road entered. Glad for some non-instrumental company, Aurian stuffed his lute and his bottle of scrubbing lye back behind the bar and raised a hand in greeting.
“Horis,” he said. “Welcome back.”
“Aurian.” The necromancer took his usual seat at the bar. He looked dried-up, sunken in, and, in the way of necromancers worldwide, freshly dead.
For Horis, this was the pinnacle of health and good cheer. His voice was, as ever, roughly a hundred pounds heavier than he was. He sounded, in fact, far more like a jolly country innkeeper than Aurian did. Aurian had always found the effect rather disturbing: it was like being wished good morrow by a corpse.
“Good to see you still about,” Horis said. “Bunch of blokes through the coven yesterday, telling us they would bring us an innkeeper’s corpus in return for a sheaf of hexes. I take it your woman took care of them.”
“With her usual speed and skill,” Aurian said. “Cor, but I like to think I’m worth two sheaves at least. How goes the gathering of knowledge?”
“Fair, fair. I’m close to reanimating mammals. Found a chipmunk skeleton in the woods, got it to stay alive for a full thirty minutes this time.” The necromancer rolled back his black sleeves, revealing forearms covered in the snaky blue tattoos of his profession. “Augar and Denis might be by tonight. They’ve been in the trials all week and they’re starved for your beer and a friendly game of cards.”
“How’d they do?”
“They’re full-fledged now, aye.” The necromancer smiled widely, even white teeth splitting his cadaverous face in two. “Reanimated a dead salamander each. I’m very proud.”
“You should be. This round’s on me.” Aurian poured two tankards, and the two of them clinked them together. “Ah, Horis. What’d you do to deserve such talented students?”
“Not a damned thing, mate. Not a damned thing.”
The two men sat in companionable silence for a while, listening to the breeze shake leaves loose from the trees outside. They had existed together, often, in this sort of silence. It could stretch out for hours before either one of them bothered to break it.
At last, the necromancer took a swig from his tankard and grimaced. “By the way, boy, your beer’s getting sour.”
“I know, I know. But I want to drink up what’s left before we put in the new barrel.”
“Any of the good stuff left?”
Aurian grinned. “And there I was thinking you were too drunk last time to remember it. Aye, there’s a bottle left.”
He rummaged under the bar, coming up with a rounded glass bottle and two dusty shot glasses. He poured them both a shot.
“You know,” he said, “I never understood how my father got stuck out here. Why didn’t he at least move into town?”
“Stuck? He chose to live out here, lad. Some people like it.” The necromancer raised his glass. “Sun’s rising, moon’s waning.”
“Sun’s setting,” Aurian replied, raising his glass automatically. “Moon’s waxing.”
They both drank. The berry liquor left a warm glow in Aurian’s belly. He leaned against the bar, looking out the windows to the leafy green depths of the forest beyond them. It had rained not long ago, and Aurian could hear the twin reassuring dribbles of runoff coming from the gutter and the crack in the roof he kept forgetting to fix. He moved a bucket under the leak, and the comfortable silence of a gloomy day was heightened by the soft metallic pings therein.
“Why here?” he asked at last. “On this out-of-the-way road, near this out-of-the-way town. Why would anyone choose this place? Even I can tell it’s a terrible location. ”
“I couldn’t say–never knew him as well as I know you. I suspect he was born hereabouts. When you’re older, you’ll understand the power your birthplace holds. Or perhaps he just wanted a decent quiet life for you.”
“I’ve got a decent quiet life,” Aurian said, a little bitterly. “It’s boring the shit out of me.”
The necromancer chuckled. “Oh, my boy. If you told anyone in town what happened here–or what you have piled out back, for that matter–they would call your life anything but decent and quiet. Certainly not boring.” He reached over, patted Aurian’s shoulder with one of his tattooed hands. His knuckles, Aurian noticed, had daisies on them. “Where’s that harpy you live with, anyhow?”
“Out,” Aurian muttered. “I pissed her off this morning, I think. She’ll be back before sundown. She always is.”
“Like a bad copper,” the necromancer agreed. He burped. “You’d do well to listen to that woman more than you do. She’s far wiser than you. Seen more, too–still no idea where she’s from?”
“None. Nor do I care. Somewhere Southern, obviously–and coming into town wanting a name change? I thought it was better not to ask. She’s a good woman, she couldn’t have done anything too awful.”
“A sensible attitude to take.” The necromancer handed Aurian his tankard. Aurian filled it again, and topped off his own.
“To Jin,” the necromancer said. They clinked glasses.