|The Secret Steps
Author: thefilmchick PM
A small-time thief with visionary dreams falls in love with the one girl that he can't have: The daughter of the aristocrat he has been blackmailed to kill. Can he find a way to outsmart the people who have promised to come after him if he fails?Rated: Fiction T - English - Fantasy/Adventure - Chapters: 2 - Words: 8,958 - Reviews: 7 - Favs: 2 - Follows: 2 - Updated: 03-31-08 - Published: 03-30-08 - id: 2497270
|A+ A- Full 3/4 1/2 Expand Tighten|
"Did she buy it?" Teodor didn't look terribly interested in whatever reply Dav might give. He was engrossed in steaming another piece of felt, and had even missed Dav's mimed shock when he entered the hatter's shop. "You were so sure about it." There was no mistaking the twist of sarcasm in the man's voice.
"And with good reason," Dav said, settling on the counter, brushing aside that day's receipts. "She told me all about her plan."
Maybe he sounded a little more serious than usual. He wasn't sure; he hadn't been paying attention to himself. However, when Teodor turned around to study him, he knew that he probably had sounded somber indeed, because rather than mocking him about what Dav intended to do, Teodor gazed at him solemnly and even set down the piece of fabric, orange from its bath in solution.
"Does she still intend to go ahead with the kidnapping?"
Dav nodded, wincing. His shoulder still hurt. He didn't dare move it too sharply. Who knew how badly it might fare if he extended it too far or in the wrong direction? The muscle that stretched into his back from his arm hurt as though someone had ground glass into it.
Meanwhile, Teodor was eyeing him impatiently. He grimaced, and knew he had to say something quickly, before the other man realized that something was wrong. "She intends to do all that I told you she intended to do." It wasn't terribly eloquent, but he didn't care. Pretty words were for the nobles, not for people such as himself and his friend.
Teodor continued to stare at him, his eyes traveling for a moment to Dav's injured shoulder, before his gaze returned to the face of the fellow perched on the counter. "You're hurt," he said bluntly. "We'll need to get you to someone who can take a look at that."
"Damn the chirugeons," Dav shot back. "I'm fine." He wished his voice didn't sound quite as wheedling as he knew that it did, but there was nothing that could be done about that. His shoulder wasn't the important issue at the moment. Letting Teodor know what his next move was, so that the man could be prepared if they had to seek cover or go to ground.
"You're a liar."
Dav shrugged. "Always have been."
Teodor's expression was halfway between a grin and a grimace. "I remember," he said, looking back at his hat again, as Dav had clearly lost a portion of his interest. "The first day we met – you trying to pass yourself off as Miazish – that wig on your head, so high and heavy that you could barely walk straight, and that atrocious accent, not even fit for an act at the follies!"
"You didn't buy it for a minute," Dav replied, watching as a genuine grin at the fond memory spread across Teodor's face.
"You didn't expect me to, did you." It was not a question.
The pair fell into a more comfortable silence, Dav's shoulder blazing merrily away. He wondered what it looked like, and made a note to slip off to the tiring-rooms to get a moment to gaze at his shoulder in the looking-glass. It was probably blackish-purple by now. At least the Contessa's plan did not involve any more second-story entries.
Teodor's shop was a mess, full of foul air and malevolent, poisonous solutions, and Dav was amazed that the hatter knew where things were amidst the jumble. "The shop has its own order," Teodor had told him once, back when they had only known one another for a few days. "I'm just the only one that understands the order." From the steady pace at which Teodor employed and then dismissed servants and sweepers, Dav could believe that.
Even now, the mercury broth was sending up noxious fumes into the air from the ancient clawfoot bath in which the hats were soaked. Teodor had warned him about spending too long in the shop. Any number of the chemicals could drive a man crazy. Teodor was remarkably sane for a man in his job.
As Dav watched, Teodor's leather-gloved hands dipped scraps of fur into the orange-colored solution, rinsing them with a brisk professionalism. The man had owned the shop for five or six years now, and his father had owned it before him, if what Teodor said was the truth. Dav had no reason to disbelieve him. The man ran the shop like someone born to the business, as if he didn't know how to do anything else but take care of furs, make hats, and sell odds-and-ends that only very occasionally passed for fashionable accessories.
Teodor worked harder in the shop than he looked like he might. Dav had been surprised at first by that: Built for lanky relaxation and laziness, the sleepy-eyed blond had been more engaged in his work than could realistically be anticipated. Dav had lost a lucret or three having bet wrongly. Lesson learned, he hadn't made the same mistake twice.
Peeling off the gloves, the tall man strode over to the counter. "I just want to know that you're doing the right thing," Teodor said abruptly, jolting Dav from his thoughts on the past. "You're in a delicate situation."
Dav slid down from the counter, his boots thunking on the floor. It was surprisingly dry and solid to his feet. He'd half-expected to slip in some mysterious slickness that the shop always seemed to have lying around somewhere.
"I've been able to use finesse before," Dav said. "I know it must be a shock."
Teodor's hands raised, gloves balled up in one of them. He didn't rise to the bait. "How long before you go to the Duce's estate?"
"Tomorrow night." Even as he said the words, Dav was surprised. Were things really moving ahead quite so quickly? There was something strange there, something that he could not put his finger upon. But he had promised the Contessa that he would do what he said, and he would not let her prove him to be unreliable.
Teodor didn't look pleased at the news, and Dav couldn't necessarily blame him. "That's not a lot of time. You'll have to get ready in a hurry." A white-toothed grin punctuated that statement, changing it to something more entertained than panicked. "But not right now." The haberdasher tossed the bath gloves down on the counter unceremoniously. "Right now, we go get drunk."
Dav figured that he should hold his tongue and only complain when he had something to complain about.
He let Teodor escort him from the shop. Drunkenness sounded like a fine plan right now, and much less risky than that which he'd planned for tomorrow night. The Garland Thorn was only a few buildings away, and so it was easy enough for them to walk over there and stagger back to Teodor's apartment once they were drunk on five-casting brandy.
"So, what will you have to drink?"
Dav shrugged at the question. There were many options. The night stretched out before him. There would be plenty of time to figure out what he wanted to drink, and then even more time to drink it up and, if he was lucky, to fall into blissful unconsciousness. He turned towards the path leading to the Thorn, feeling his shoulder bob uncomfortably with the movement. Whatever he did to fix it would have to be done tomorrow, if he fixed it at all.
There were chirugeons around, with their leeches and their poultices, but Dav hated them. He could never understand what they were saying and never tried to do so. There was nothing wrong with him that a good drink or two wouldn't fix. He trusted the anonymous bartender and Teodor far more than he trusted any masked idiot with forceps and bloodsuckers.
The Garland Thorn was an old establishment, and so it had touches of the Southern Kingdom in its architecture, built out of sunbaked clay like the richer apartment buildings in the city, its squarish, blocky construction and flat roof so very different from the arches and peaks of later buildings. The establishment had been built during a time in which land use was not at a premium, and so it covered more ground than more recent buildings might. Dav figured that the Garland Thorn was bigger by half than Teodor's shop, and three or four times the size of his apartment.
The lead-paned windows of colored glass shone dimly in the night, and as he peered into them, Dav could see that the Thorn was already full, or certainly getting close. He toyed with the notion of asking Teodor if he wanted to go elsewhere, but figured they were not going to talk about the Contessa's plan anyway, and so followed his friend into the tavern without any complaint.
Teodor was tall and easily spotted an open seat or two, beckoning Dav to follow him. The shorter man slipped through the crowd, applying a well-placed elbow where it was necessary, and within moments he found himself facing a rickety three-legged table and an even more precarious, but empty, chair.
Teodor was not sitting across from him. He did not know the man who was at the table, but the stranger seemed to be waiting for him, gesturing him to a seat with the hand that was not on his wine glass. Something squirmed in Dav's back near his injured shoulder, sending a chill down his spine, but he took a seat, wondering if the mercury bath had made him mad. Was he seeing things? He blinked, but Teodor did not appear.
"Sit, chavi." The last word was glazed with amusement.
Dav's eyes widened. The stranger knew Old Jhelumese. That made no sense: This fellow was far too pale and spoke with too northwestern of an accent, sounding like a city native. When had he been southeast or to a local wagon-camp to know any of what Dav's people spoke?
He hardly noticed the insistent tugging in the back of his brain, urging him to sit.
The pale fellow smiled, and although the expression was not unkind, it was almost too wide and generous of an expression, given the circumstances. "I won't offer you a drink, because you're here to drink with someone else. I know you won't take it if I offered, either."
"Where's Teo?" Dav hated the sound of the question, but he had to ask it. Whatever had happened to his friend, he had to make sure that the other man was all right.
"Over there," the stranger replied, nodding towards the counter. Teodor had already ensconced himself at the bar, and Dav was amazed to see that Teodor was not looking around for him, but casually calling a drink, just as he might have had Dav not even been there.
Was Teodor really sitting over there? He could not be sure. He felt sick, and his hands had become clammy.
The man before him smiled easily, as if sensing his confusion. Dav turned his gaze back to the man – the fellow was too pale and too friendly, and now he was also too interested in any response that Dav might give.
"You'll join him in a moment," the pale man said, his tone shifting from amused to soothing. The change of tone annoyed Dav for indistinct but important reasons. "Don't worry – you won't be harmed."
Dav didn't necessarily feel any better, and for a moment he toyed with the idea of saying that. It would be bad, he knew, but would it necessarily make things any worse? How could he make things any worse, anyway? He had no idea whatsoever what the man wanted and why he'd been intercepted.
Looking down towards the table he sat at, Dav saw someone had already scratched a message in its surface:
My love is one,
The Duce's gallows-man annother.
He who take the one,
May the Lady gif him the other.
The wording was crude, but he had to smile at it and wonder whether that relationship had thrived. He could not imagine the Duce being angry enough at anything that the threat would be in any way effective.
But the man before him looked like he was fully capable of not only making effective threats, but carrying them out regardless of the circumstances. Was he an Arcanos? Dav would not have been surprised. He had never seen the man before, but that didn't mean anything. The man could have come from any corner of the city, or beyond. Probably beyond. There was something alien in the fellow's bearing, something from the Archipelago, and even though he spoke without an accent, that could merely be good acting. The Arcanoi picked their men from all parts of the world, after all. But the Scattered Archipelago was even further from Jhelum than he was here in Autara.
Now that things had calmed down a little, it looked like the stranger was about to introduce himself. So Dav was not surprised by the information that followed, once the stranger had sipped his wine: "My name is Miron Kozani."
It wasn't an Autarin name. It was from Circaras, he guessed, bordering the Archipelago. That explained the stern, formal way that the man held himself, so different from the relatively relaxed atmosphere that held true for not only the tavern, but for the rest of the city of Rau Atacenu as well.
"That's fascinating." Dav looked down at the writing again. Was it glowing? Was he drunk? He didn't recall having drunk anything, but something seemed a little odd about the table, as if some weird force had etched itself in its surface, building power and waiting for its chance to strike – and much more seemed odd about Kozani.
"Don't feel you have to introduce yourself," Kozani continued, that same thin layer of humor lining his voice. "I already know you."
"What the hell do you want?" The question came out more sharply than he had intended, but he figured that it was only right to ask, even if the phrasing needed a little work.
Rather than answer the question, the pale fellow turned towards the waitress that approached, shaking his head at the girl's offer of alcohol. "We'll only be a moment, m'ora." Dav idly wondered if the last word was Circaran, but, before he could ask, Kozani leaned in towards him. The man's voice dropped to something more conspiratorial, not meant for the bustle of the crowd around their table. "Fine. I'll make this simple for you. You were charged by the Contessa Profis to break into the house of the Duce, correct?"
"You already know that," Dav said.
"Why, damn my eyes, you're right! How very astute of you." Kozani's voice suggested he thought Dav's comment was anything but bright. "What I need you to do is to make it so that it does indeed lead back to the Contessa. She is paying you to be subtle. We only ask that you be a little more subtle on our account."
Asking specifically whose account it is won't lead anywhere good, Dav thought. He felt himself sit up a little straighter in the chair, sounding a little more self-righteous than he had thought himself capable of about the Contessa's business. He wished he'd been dressed a little better than he was; his clothes were stained from the hat shop, and wrinkled from the climb up to the Contessa's window and the walk into the Strada Mahala thereafter. "She's paying me well. I don't betray my employer. It's bad for business."
Rather than become angry, which Dav had expected, Kozani seemed further amused by the statement. He spread his hands, an all-encompassing gesture, and then a hand dropped to the table, making a few halfhearted movements. "I suppose that the matter is settled, if you can't be bought. I won't waste my time arguing with you." He rose halfway from the table, waiting for Dav to reply.
Dav knew what he was meant to say. Kozani was expecting some sort of satisfied response, something proud and confident, something to show that he bought Kozani's act. Instead, he strained his hand for the dagger in his boot, suspecting an attack from the dangerously cheerful man across the table from him.
Kozani did not attack him.
Instead, Dav heard a shout echo dimly from somewhere else within the bar. He knew the voice immediately, although he hadn't heard it in such pain since one day a while ago when Teodor had burnt his hand while ironing out the crown of a hat. Turning, knowing exactly what he would find, he angled himself across the back of his chair, looking through the crowd.
People were all looking away from the two of them, and so Dav let his gaze wander through the plethora of high hats and feather-adorned hairnets, not wanting to take his eyes off the stranger but having no other choice. Further within the bar, Teodor sounded like he was having his guts ripped from him.
The clouds of cigar smoke dissipated, as if on command, and he glimpsed the tableau over by the bar counter. His friend was slumped over the bar, clawing weakly at it, and Dav could see a little trickle of blood burbling from Teodor's lips as he twitched weakly.
Oh, Lady, no.
Dav turned back towards Kozani, feeling something tighten in his chest. "He's got no stake in this, you son of a bitch!"
Kozani's brows raised. He looked up, as if he were surprised at Dav's words, and made another motion on the table, looking as if the gesture bored him. "See to it that he doesn't. If you don't do what I've asked, he'll be involved. You're already in the thick of it, and don't think you can try to work your way out of it. We have only asked you to make a little change to the Contessa's plans."
The words rushed by Dav like dogs at a race. He tried to make sense of them, but everything was moving far too quickly. Once he got out of the situation, he'd make sense of it. He swore bitterly to himself, and couldn't find a good response to Kozani's proposition.
Meanwhile, Teodor gasped, the noise carrying over to where the two other men sat, a wet, choking noise. Someone had called a medic's, and Dav could see the harried fellow rush in from somewhere else in the slum, making his way across the uneven floorboards towards the bar, where Dav's friend had collapsed.
"If she knows I did anything, she'll have me thrown in prison."
"As the aristos of this fine city might say, that is not my problem," Kozani said mildly.
The medic had opened up his case and was tending to Teodor rather ineffectively. A few customers shouted support; a fine merchant's lady watched in horror. All these things seemed to flicker before Dav's eyes like illustrations in a children's book. He turned back to Kozani, who once more seemed to be waiting for a response.
"Please." It hurt to say. "Let Teodor go. He doesn't deserve to be hurt over my business."
"Your word on this matter."
"You've got it, fu –"
Teodor's eyes rolled back in his head, his body thrashing weakly as something seemed to shift in the wrong direction inside his tall frame. The medic had stopped trying to figure out what was wrong, and now stood there uselessly, watching the haberdasher flop around like a fish that had been brought from the river, still wriggling.
Dav's hand went to his boot again. Removing the short blade that he had stashed away in a strap, he spread his palm wide, slicing into the heel of his hand. A thin red gash formed, blood streaming from it a moment later.
The pale man moved his drink alertly but without comment, and Dav watched with a queasy feeling as the slow stream of blood oozed into the man's wine glass. Kozani murmured something in a language that wasn't Autaran, Circaran, or Jhelumese, and threw back the wine in a bold swig.
Teodor stopped screaming, crumpling against the bar.
Kozani set his wine glass down, leaning lightly on the table, watching Teodor as if the hatmaker had provided a few moments' worth of some highly entertaining spectator sport. Clearly, the spectacle had energized him, and the unlikely blue of his eyes – so rare here in Autara – stood out against the pallor of his face. "I would say it has been a pleasure doing business with you, Saray, but I think neither you nor I would believe that. You will receive further instructions tomorrow."
"So I'm a puppet?"
Kozani didn't respond. Maybe he thought the statement was not worth a response. He glided from the bar like a well-oiled machine, leaving Dav staring after him for a moment, stunned.
The crowd had rushed forward to aid Teodor, he figured, so he could no longer see his friend from where he sat. In all honesty, he wasn't terribly sure that he wanted to face the man at the moment. What could he say to him? How could he say that this idiotic business with the Contessa had caused all this to happen? There was no way to put it that didn't make him look like a villain.
"Are you all right, Dav?" Teodor's familiar, lilting voice came from very near.
Flinching, Dav turned to see his friend. Rather than shaking and bloodied, Teodor seemed more than all right, his cheeks flushed with health and his eyes gleaming merrily. He'd had a few ales; his breath was scented with liquor.
I thought you were about to die. Dav could not find the words to even begin addressing the subject. He was no longer in the mood for a drink. "We're leaving," Dav said, ignoring Teodor's friendly confusion as he sprang to his feet, ushering the man through the crowds as best he could. "Now."
The Jhelumese market is packed tighter than a tobacconist's finest pipe, and the fort overlooking it is crowded with soldiers. The armor the soldiers wear is leather, deceptively simple, and the people of the city of Deraghaz are not used to the idea of a warrior without metal armor. Some of the young men talk about how easy it would be to defeat these cowhide-wearing ruffians, and then older men, who know better, who have studied their history, motion them to a hasty silence.
The soldiers have come from as far away as the Archipelago, some say, and the idea takes the people by surprise. The Archipelago is a land of wonder to them. Great tentacled monsters lurk in those western waters, waiting to take down any seafaring craft, and where chalk-white people with paint on their faces and hoops on their face boil their enemies to a soup, sprinkling the powdered dust of their bones on for seasoning.
There is a kumghol game playing at the arena, and a smaller one occurring outside of it. Two boys and a girl, all brown-skinned and sunny-faced, have found a discarded rubber ball, and are flinging it around, using their legs and hips and elbows to send the ball through the ring of a willow twig, wrapped a few times around the branch. They have marked out the shape of the half-court using chalk, with two straight lines perpendicular to the basket and one, at some distance, parallel.
"You dropped the ball, Sachin!" The bigger boy points to the girl, his eyes glittering, his stocky figure poised for a challenge, his fists curled as if he anticipates having to fight about the matter.
The girl has been standing far away from the ball, and she starts to protest, but the third boy steps in for her defensively. He is a skinny little thing, shorter than the girl although he is at least a year or two older.
"She didn't!" The smaller boy's voice is rich with anger.
"Well, I didn't, either!"
The girl backs away, looking between the two boys. The tension has roused a mangy-looking dog from where he has been sunning himself near the makeshift court; with a whine of aggravation at the sudden burst of noise from the children, he moves on, looking for a quieter place to plant himself. None of the children notice. Nor do any of them see the phalanx of western-born guards that kick up dirt in the distance, edging closer on their daily patrol.
"Did too, you dirty snake! Tell my sister you're sorry!"
The name seems to invoke anger in the boy, more than the demand. "What do you know? You're not even from Jhelum!"
"Am too, Harjit!" The puny boy takes a step closer towards the larger one. "I'm as much so as you."
"You don't even live here! You don't live anywhere! You're nothing but a madari, you and your puke-faced sister!" Harjit grins, tossing the ball at his short foe, aiming for his head, a gesture which sails a few inches too high. "Been training any bears in Autara lately?"
"Davinder – " Sachin's voice is nervous. She has turned away from the fight, and now she sees the leather-clad crowd approaching. She edges over to the side of the court, nearer the kiosks selling tin and copper knickknacks, trying her best to blend in, eyeing the pair of adolescents nervously.
It's an insult, and both boys know it. The girl screams shrilly, as if to make them stop, but it's too late. The smaller boy lowers his head, like a charging bull, and wheels straight for Harjit's stomach.
The fight is over quickly and decisively.
The smaller boy's nose and mouth are bloodied, and when the soldiers pull the boys apart, Davinder hasn't even managed to land a single punch. He still wants to, and his ineffective feints and kicks would turn to biting, if anyone would put a hand or a finger close enough so that he could do it.
"Easy, boys. Easy." The Circaran captain has his hand on Davinder's collar, and two of his sergeants have grabbed Harjit. Both boys struggle, eager to fight again. Next to the court, Sachin stares, her eyes as wide as the cheap copper plates behind her. The captain's voice is phonily kind. "Now, what happened?"
Davinder glares at Harjit, seething in anger, his heart pounding somewhere closer to his throat than his chest. Then he turns to gaze up at the tall man, whose skin is the color of whitest sand. The boy's voice is full of hate, and not all of it is for the other child.
"Go fuck your sister, white-shit! You don't belong here anyway."
The last thing that Davinder sees is Harjit grinning at the comment, amazed and encouraging, and then his head rockets back as if in response to a punch, blackness snapping over his eyes. He feels dizzy, his head ringing, but he's not hurt, not yet…
… and then Dav woke up with a sudden start. It was night in his apartment in Rau Atacenu, and the only noise for a moment he heard was his own raspy breath and the sound of the river outside his window. Then, the pounding started again. Someone was knocking on the door. He stared at the ceiling for a moment, gasping, before he managed to stand and start towards the door.
A/N: Before someone comments on it: You are correct; Dav's real name is different from what Teo called him. Also, I know you can probably guess which country is roughly similar to which IRL, but they aren't a one-for-one: I've adjusted geography slightly and the countries are not the same. Hey, if Robert Jordan can do it with Western Europe, I can do it with Eastern Europe, Asia Minor, and India - and I did it for Franco-Italian regionalism with 1000 Bayonets, too.
I know this chapter is also quite dialogue-heavy but I hope that didn't jar too much from the previous chapter. The violence that does take place should be brutal, but not overkill - I hope I achieved that balance.