(Author's note updated: Changing Florian's name back to what it was in the story when I wrote it, five years ago. I'd changed it to something more generic upon posting the story here, but there are too many Ls. It makes spotting one of the broad influences on this all the more easy. There are two others, one in Aisaro Graize and one in the specific power struggle between the hero and the villain. Anyone who gets all three wins... something. Don't ask me what.)
"Four hostile newspapers are more to be feared than a thousand bayonets." - Napoleon, "Maxims."
Baron Aisaro Graize was having a hard time.
First, carray itself was a boring sport, with its constant clinking of balls over tiles, its strategy of landing on specific tiles almost nonexistent. Aisaro could have thought of far better uses for the mallets, to be sure. Carray was a nobles' sport, so he knew it was supposed to be interesting, but he personally was unconvinced of its allure. Enough people played it that he suspected it might have redeeming qualities for people who knew no better competition. He could find better contests playing cards in the lowest bar imaginable.
As if the sport itself were not boring enough, he was stuck competing against the worst carray player in the world. In this game alone, the duke had missed several easy shots, ones Aisaro himself could have made without a second's thought. It tightened Aisaro's jaws that he had to be pitted against such a dense opponent. He would have greatly preferred one of his fellow courtiers, or at least his steward Jessit, if no nobles could be found. At least they had some idea of how to play this dull game.
Try as he might, Duke Chazilde of Frestadt clearly had no inkling whatsoever about the intricacies of carray. Beyond the three easy shots that he had missed, the duke was interminably slow, treating each turn as if it were a great philosophical deliberation, only taking his shot once he had eliminated all other possible courses. What mystified Aisaro was how the duke could fail to score after preparing so meticulously.
Aisaro had never thought of Duke Chazilde as an unintelligent man, but the last few carray matches were slowly turning his mind that way. It was said that the best carray players were geniuses, and Aisaro himself was no dunce at the sport. Estimations of his own intelligence aside, he had even seen Jessit manage to play a good game, and his steward was scarcely the first candidate for an honorary university degree on merit alone.
Perhaps the duke was testing him, trying to see how much the baron wanted to curry favor. Jessit had encouraged him earlier to throw a few games, so the duke would not think of himself as a fool and Aisaro as a rival. Aisaro had indeed meant to throw this game on that account, but the man was playing so poorly that it wounded Aisaro to think of losing to the man. He had to do it, though, despite the stain to his honor. After all, he had come here to ask about The Klaxon, and he did not mean to spoil his chances of winning the duke's approval.
Those people who ran the paper had to be stopped. It even stung Aisaro to refer to them as people. "Demons," he preferred to call them, and other, stronger terms that his mother would have blanched at. That was all they deserved. Every fortnight, the gadflies were out with a new paper, plastering their libel around the city. The accusations were frequently leveled against the Graize barony itself, his manor a target of special interest and spite. Doubtless The Klaxon was turning his parents in their graves. It turned Aisaro's stomach, to be sure.
Before the paper had begun to focus its mad ramblings upon him, Aisaro had not considered himself a bad fellow. Perhaps he was quick to judge, but when he judged, he was right. Such hasty decisions were a regrettable part of being a noble. Those beggars with their broadsheets would never understand that, though. Instead of writing a letter to the editor and protesting his case, Aisaro had decided a few weeks ago to see them hanged.
"Your shot, my boy." The duke's words brought his attention back with an unwelcome jerk.
"Thank you, Your Grace." He loathed that sort of fawning. The words stung his tongue to speak, and burned his ears to hear. He ought not to allow himself to be so demeaned.
This never-ending carray game was merely a pretext for a death warrant. Aisaro had no qualms about gaining the duke's signature, for he knew the duke would have none about giving it. Despite his plans, even as he watched the bewigged duke aim his final shot, Aisaro thought of an appropriate witticism that The Klaxon had coined about him: "Three things has the duke in common with a corpse: Looks, brains, and charm." From his past carray-tinged experiences with the man, Aisaro had to admit that the newspaper was correct on all three counts.
The duke still had not shot, and he cast a watery blue gaze Aisaro's way. "It's a devil of a shot, isn't it?" Chazilde said, gesturing towards the situation upon the tiled court.
Aisaro smiled towards him, nodding lightly. He did not say anything aloud, afraid of revealing his thoughts. How does the duke manage to keep his household, much less the city and duchy of Frestadt? The city was not the capital of Karaliste, but it was the biggest metropolis in the country, and the duke charged with its oversight had a burdensome task, one that required a competent mind.
Aisaro did not envy such a task. He much preferred the relative quiet of his small barony, just outside the city. It was called the Orchards, for its largest source of income, and had been in the Graize family for the past thirteen generations. Aisaro had no doubt that records would reflect his regime well. He was a capable ruler; under him, the Orchards had prospered to a degree his forebears would have envied. It could only grow further.
Those damned rumormongers had to be stopped, though. He could not afford their lies to be believed. He suspected that Duke Chazilde also could not allow such calumny, even as he heard the dull thwack of the mallet, and then a string of muttered curses. The duke should be thankful The Klaxon has yet to issue an article on carray.
Placing himself for his shot, Aisaro let his attention return to the duke. He could have sworn that he saw the older man's skull gleam through its casing. A more rational part of him said that it was merely a trick of the light. Knowing what he did about himself, though, he found that not so convincing. He cleared his throat so he would not stammer. "I came to you on official matters, Your Grace. I trust that you are familiar with the journalists of The Klaxon."
The duke's mouth wrinkled up in displeasure. "Unfortunately so."
"They must be stopped, Your Grace. They must be silenced."
His mallet swung back, and he hit the ball too high and hard, watching as it sailed far beyond its mark. It was a patently simple shot, and one that he could have made under any other circumstances. He allowed a feigned look of disbelief to cross his face, even as he slumped on his mallet and waved a gloved hand to signal his defeat.
Duke Chazilde looked down at the court, and then up again. Though he saw the attention from the corner of his eye, Aisaro did not trust himself to return the glance. The duke remained silent, seemingly absorbed in the game, and Aisaro wondered whether the monarch had chosen not to reply. Then, the duke's pointy-toed shoes shuffled onto the court, and his frail voice spoke like grapeshot: "So you say, my boy, and so will you do. Since you were the one to request their end, you shall be the one to stop them."
Though he had not trusted himself to look upwards before, the baron did now, a smile crossing his face, thinning out his lips. His hand tightened upon the mallet, knuckles turning white, signet ring gleaming darkly as it caught the lamplight.
"Your Grace," Aisaro said, "I would be honored."
To a casual observer, the scene might have seemed strange. Ink-stained fingers clutched a grate, their owner peering into the darkness beyond, his ginger hair wild and his lined face suggesting lack of sleep. From that selfsame abyss came a reedy, thin voice, not at all the proper tone for a priest. Perhaps the oddest point was that, instead of the priest consoling his parishioner, the blotty-palmed pilgrim seemed to be giving the bulk of the reassurance.
Things usually went this way, though, so the conversation scarcely fazed Florian, copy editor for a legitimate journal and founder of an illegitimate one. He reveled in the recurrent chance to prove his point. He delighted in the fact that the priest was already a possible convert for his cause.
For courtesy's sake, he tried to keep the joy out of his voice as much as possible, but there were times like today when there was no hiding it. Currently, he found himself hard-pressed to keep an even tone. His tarnished hand slipped free of the grate and slid into his pocket, where it curled up into a fist as he tried to stay calm. Dry as the ink was, he was scarcely worried about ruining his trousers – he was more worried about seeming levelheaded.
"You needn't worry, Father," he said. "Things will turn out all right. They always have. The Klaxon has prevailed, and it will always prevail, no matter the politics." His voice grew more confident. "Such is the way of profligate occupations – the more the monarchy disagrees with them, the stronger they grow in opposition, and the more the monarchy agrees, the stronger they grow in symbiosis."
He had amused himself by that turn of phrase, but he suspected that he had not amused Father Morwick. The silence confirmed his suspicion. Florian's hand reached out, idly tracing at the carvings upon the grate. They were old, they were expensive, and they were pointless. The monarchy would never fund such fripperies today. Never mind its carvings – this very cathedral was a burden, a financial horror to maintain and a nightmare for public relations.
Except for lip service, religion was no longer fashionable in most of Karaliste, but the cathedrals continued to receive funding from the crown. They cut into the king's coffers, and Frestadt City's most of all. Though it was the largest and grandest of all cathedrals within the kingdom, it had little effect on the populace. No churches did anymore.
"You have pretty words, Florian," the priest said at last, startling the journalist back to reality. "They may work well in journalism, even for The Klaxon, but they don't work well in churches. The Twins see straight through to your heart, and it is their business to judge you – for good or evil."
"That's no answer," Florian shot back, his eyes widening when he realized his sharpness.
To his credit, Morwick was not taken aback. "I can offer you this: If you are frightened of being caught, perhaps it is with good reason." His voice softened. "Perhaps the Twins put it into your heart to doubt yourself, because that will better prepare you for the inevitable."
Florian flinched away from the grate, and the angular, neatly groomed figure that sat behind it, conveyed in dots through the grate. Morwick meant no harm. He knew that. He knew, also, the gentle brand of conviction in the cleric's voice. "I'd venture to say, Father," he replied, his voice ragged, "that the Watch coming for me is in no way inevitable."
Even as he said it, he knew the lie of his words, as instinctively as he knew the poor grammar. Whether he liked it or not, it was just a matter of time before he would be caught. The duke already disliked the fact that The Klaxon existed, and that disregard naturally extended to its founder and chief. The rumors that flew about the city would have been proof enough, even if he hadn't heard it from Marquis Luria himself at one of the conspirators' meetings.
Morwick's response was more severe than he had anticipated. "Many a better man than you has made the mistake of thinking himself immune to the court, Lisel. Much better ideas than your jokes have died on the scaffold. You may think of The Klaxon as a gadfly, but to the peerage, it is a scorpion. Both sting, but the latter is far more cruel."
The simile was perfect. Florian made a note to ask about putting it into the next edition of The Klaxon – provided, of course, that it would exist. He smiled at the indistinct figure across the partition, giving him a businesslike nod. "Your words are well taken, Father." And appropriated, he thought, though he did not dare say it. "I'll see what I can do to mind my tongue."
"It's not your tongue that's the problem. It's your fingers. The tools of devils, they are."
"But I am your humble servant, not theirs," Florian retorted.
Then, impulsively, he moved a hand towards the grate, meaning to clasp the priest's own. The grate stopped it, though, and so he set it to unlocking the confessional booth, swinging the door open far wider than it needed to be. It answered with a satisfyingly loud clang that caused a not-so-muffled curse of shock from the priest.
That pleased Florian. "Sorry," he said sunnily. There was no truth in the apology, but plenty of warmth to take its place.
Once outside the cathedral, he moved down Swan Street for the maze of shops that lay beyond. The Orchards Market that contained them was named after the prosperous suburb, and was unsurprisingly the most fashionable district within Frestadt City. It was also the location of Nina's coffee shop, the Blue Ivy. That was where Florian was headed.
As the proprietress of a bakery and drink-house, Nina Demallo had no natural talent. A businesswoman at heart, though, she had more than enough marketing skill to make up for her lack of interest in hot drinks and pastries. She was shrewd, and her prices fair, so as mediocre as her cooking was, her reputation as an honest merchant had spread. Within the past two months, such rumors were starting to pay off, for the shop had begun to buzz. As more people mobbed the shop, the ambiance improved and drew even more crowds. Florian could not imagine the place declining any time soon.
The Blue Ivy was crowded today, of course. Shouting her name, he knew, would do little good. He stood on tiptoe, craning his neck and straining his eyes to find her. She was squirreled away behind the bar, and he pushed his way over there, watching her as she worked. She was not done with the beverage by the time he sat down. Her slender fingers stirred the coffee, and her necklace jangled as she reached overhead for the spices to put into the hot drink. He slumped at the bar, continuing to watch her, ignoring the menu before him.
She had been working hard today; as her arm moved with spices in hand, he noted a stain of coffee on her shirtsleeve. A few blond strands had come loose from the tight bun in which she'd wrapped her hair, and he watched them swing. They were more interesting to look at than the menu – and, unlike the listings of sweets, he didn't know their movements by heart. He might as well inspect the menu, though. Perhaps she had concocted something new, but he doubted it.
"Florian! What the devil are you doing here?"
"Waiting for you," he replied, giving her his best grin possible as he set the paper back on the counter. "Have you got a moment to spare a coffee for me? I've just been to church. Father Morwick railed theology at me – I could use a hot drink to get the taste out of my mouth."
Nina smiled towards him, but her only answer was the hissing sound of a coffeepot being lifted from the burner. Moments later, he had a piping-hot cup of coffee and the undivided attention of a grinning Nina. He toasted the other servers that had stepped in to take up her slack, and took a sip.
"Do you know what I heard about Father Morwick?" Nina remarked, not giving him the chance to reply. "I heard he got some girl pregnant."
Though he laughed reflexively, shock crawled over the journalist's face. The cup clattered as he set it down, searching Nina's face for the slightest hints of a lie. He found none, but continued to stare at her, still trying to find any sign of the joke. "Morwick? You can't be serious, Nina. I mean, it isn't that he's a horrible person and couldn't be attractive to anyone – more the opposite, really. He's too nice and moral."
"Even a priest may be a sinner," was Nina's arch response. She set the coffeepot down, wiping her hands on her apron, only adding to the stains. "At least, Old Maggie says she saw the priest discussing a baby with some woman down by Alemarket and Jay. She didn't mention who the woman was, but we all can guess. Maggie was in here talking about it enough that it must have been truth. If it were a story, she'd have forgotten how to keep it straight by now."
The look on her face was so superior that Florian just had to grin. He noticed, though, that as he shook his head, her look faltered a touch. "She would have," the young woman insisted, as if the emphasis better proved her point.
"Old Maggie has told more tales than The Klaxon would ever have room to print," Florian tossed back. He made sure that his voice was properly disrespectful towards the paper; after all, he was in public. "And if even of that old gossip's stories weren't daft, Nina – and that's a pretty big assumption – than what of the other half? Once you take away those that came about by some slander, by some alderman's jilted lover, by some man turned against the church because he prayed to the Twins and his field remained fallow, what do you have left? Practically nothing and certainly nothing against Father Morwick."
Nina's smile deepened, and her voice was fond. "I know he's your confessor, Florian, and I don't want to spread rumors about a man you respect. Believe me, if I thought this to be a lie, I wouldn't tell you. I only mention it because I thought it might be true." A hand waved, reddened with having to lift incessant pots of hot coffee. "And I only mention it because the rumors weren't just about Morwick – they were about Raija as well."
"Raija? You mean the one that works for me, right? With the... no. You can't be serious. You're joking. You've got to be joking."
Florian's protests had come out faster, and far less coherently, than he had meant. He winced as he spoke, knowing the cadence would further amuse Nina. She was merciless when it came to things like this. To his relief, though, she only gave him a solemn nod, meant to confirm her own story.
It was indeed a shocking tale. As much as he liked his fellow Klaxon journalist, it was hard to believe that Raija could have anything in common with Morwick. The somberly dressed and moderately behaved priest had always seemed rather conservative to Florian, but Raija was anything but. A self-described gypsy entertainer with a penchant for wildly colored clothing, she had started working for him last spring. From his year's worth of experience with her, Florian could not imagine her getting on well with the priest, let alone sticking around long enough for –
"Look at it this way, though," Nina broke into his thoughts. "At least the rumors aren't about you and Raija." Her eyes shone with amusement, and she leaned over the counter towards him. Fortunately, he caught her jaunty wink before he heard her comments: "You know what would happen to you if they were, though, don't you?"
Florian toyed with his coffee, sipping it primly, even as he smirked around it. He leaned in just as close as she had, gesticulating with the coffee cup. He did not sip, though, instead drawling, "You'd have to catch me first."
"From what I hear tell, that's not a hard task."
The voice was not Nina's, but a man's voice, deeper than his own was, and it was one that had almost made him spit out his coffee in surprise. Instead, he swallowed slowly, carefully, setting his cup down with a thud.
"Wasn't it you that wound up clapped in jail a few months back on charges of drunkenness?" The bass voice was openly mocking. "I think they said that you didn't even put up any sort of fight, coward that you are."
Heavily pockmarked, with stubble that threatened to develop into a beard if left unattended, Tulio Vestin already had the look of the barbarian. The ugly leer he sported and the ponderous way he held himself all but cemented that impression. Florian personally found it hard to look at the man, as ugly and brutish as he was. Right now, the angry grimace on the swordsman's face made him even less attractive a prospect for a staring contest, and the hand near his sword-belt was an easily recognizable warning, even to the journalist.
Vestin was Baron Graize's champion, but as far as Florian knew, the baron had no inkling of the identities of The Klaxon's staff. If he did not know, then there was no way Vestin could. Nonetheless, hatred was in the swordsman's eyes.
Florian was almost relieved, then, when he looked down at Vestin's shirt and saw a brownish splotch there, new and pale. It was undoubtedly coffee, and there could be no doubt from whose cup the coffee had come.
I might as well make a show of this, he thought. The less capable Graize's watchdog thinks me, the more leeway I'll have in the future. A phony smile sprang to his lips, and he nodded in acknowledgment of the stain, taking his time to finish his cup of coffee. Still, he could not keep from gulping down the liquid in haste and panic. Apprehension gnawed at his stomach, ruining the taste of the drink.
"Florian," Nina murmured, her hands tightening on the edge of the bar. "Don't. Please? I can call the Watch, and they can rid of this man for you. There's no need to fight."
That was the last thing he wanted. He had no plans to fight Vestin anyway, and hoped Vestin thought too little of him to intend that. Setting his cup down, he gave her what he hoped was a reassuring look, rummaging about the counter with his cup hand for a napkin. When his hand seized the cloth, he passed it to Vestin, giving him an apologetic nod for the gaffe, hoping that would be the end of things.
Hardly to Florian's surprise, though, Vestin failed to accept either napkin or apology. He brushed the cloth aside, knocking the proffered hand away carelessly. Even as his own arm flew backwards, Florian saw Vestin seize upon his sword hilt. His stomach rose into his mouth. If it came to a fight, there was no question of who would win. It would certainly not be him.
"That was my best shirt." Vestin's voice contained all the smoothness of gravel. "I have an audience with the duke today, under the auspices of His Lordship Graize." His fist slammed down upon the table, in a clear declaration of war. "You're going to pay for this shirt, Lisel. Duel. On your feet, and do it now."
As Florian rose, Nina's hand flew to her mouth, as if to prevent screaming. The coffee shop was eerily silent now, its patrons fixed on the fight that promised to take place.
"Nina," Florian spoke slowly, distinctly, "could you hand me the pistol from behind the counter, please?" His attention returned to the larger man. "It seems I'm being given a second chance to shoot you, Tulio."
Vestin's laughter echoed, and his tone was all too easy. "When I called for a duel, I didn't mean one of us taking the cowardly way out and shooting the other." The dull clang of metal made Florian shiver inwardly. "I mean this."
This is the bad part of having an editor's eye, Florian thought. The extreme sharpness of the blade was something he could not fail to observe. Similarly, he was quite aware of the quality workmanship, the expensive design on the hilt. This was the very blade for a master swordsman, and Florian knew from past experience just how sharply that sword could sting.
Really, it was a wonder that he had not been caught in the act last time. He had been cantering away from the Orchards with his meeting with his source inside, and as he had, Tulio had blocked his path and challenged him, like a territorial dog. Commoners were not allowed at the Orchards unless they were employed by the baron, and as Graize's champion, Vestin had been commissioned to defend the place against trespassers. Florian had counted himself lucky that the enforcer had not chosen to further investigate the situation.
"Tell me, Lisel," Vestin interrupted his thoughts with a murmur, "have you learned your lesson from last time?"
Florian knew that to be a warning. He jerked himself out of the way of the blade quickly, but not quickly enough. The point of the sword swung up neatly to nudge itself against his collarbone, preventing further motion away. His hands went slowly to his sides, spreading out, displaying themselves to Vestin. He could not have the fellow think he was going for a weapon.
The sword rose and fell slowly on his skin as he breathed. His eyes stole a sideways glance, and he was relieved to see that Nina was not hysterical. She's less likely to overreact than me, he thought. He looked back towards Vestin, who was smiling calmly, holding the sword perfectly steady. "I – "
"Apparently not," Vestin interrupted him. The grin widened in triumph even as the blade swung away with a sharp whistle of air. "Or, at least, you haven't committed it to memory." Looking like the cat that caught the canary (Florian's editor's ear recoiled at the cliché), Vestin shoved his sword back into its belt. "You know what, though? I don't want your money as payment. I'd have to launder the shirt anyway, for all the dirt your cash would put on it."
The café broke into discussion as Vestin found his way out. Florian sunk into the nearest seat at the bar, rubbing his throat carefully. At least my fingers have ink on them, not blood.
While his remained spotted with purple dye, Nina's hands lost their redness as time went on and her workload lessened. He caught himself watching them closely as she wiped down the counter later. The crowds had gone, and the coffee shop had been closed for a good hour.
"You should have fought him," Nina finally remarked, swiping viciously at a stray field of crumbs. "He won't leave you alone now. He thinks he's beaten you. He won't give you a moment's rest until the entire city knows that he's won. It's bad enough that everyone that was in here knows now, you know. It's gotten harder and harder to keep runners recently, and if they hear about this, they might be prone to leave." She dropped the rag, folding her arms atop the bar. "Why didn't you fight him?"
Florian blinked at her owlishly. "Didn't you see, Nina? He had a blade at my throat. He would have stabbed me if I had moved. You saw that. You watched."
Nina's necklace rattled as she turned towards the cups. "I meant before that. You could have at least tried to do something, for Lords' sake. You didn't. You let him beat you. Why?"
He did not answer.
She set about stacking clean cups upon the shelf. As the cups were set into place, each one banged, making Florian wince. There was no doubt about it – Nina was angry.
"You should have had the drop on him," the woman continued. "You're smarter than him and quicker than him. We both know you could have done it, but you didn't."
He still did not reply.
Watching her face, he saw softness come into it, fondness more than romantic affection. She laughed self-deprecatingly, reaching out for his hand, tracing his fingers. "You know, I haven't seen you in forever. You should come around here more often. I miss you."
The all-too-familiar lump in his throat threatened to rise. He swallowed hard and spoke, knowing his voice was suspiciously monotonous. "I miss you too, Nina. But it'll have to be a while longer. I can't afford to be out every day. There's work to be done; you know that as well as I do, and probably better." He raised his hand to her, displaying his stained fingers. "Not all work can be done eavesdropping upon nobles in coffee shops – just yours."
She was about to protest, had even opened her mouth to reply, but he leaned in to kiss her, cursing himself inwardly at the clumsiness of the gesture. "Besides," he remarked once he broke away, "you make a better spy than I do."