PART I| Chapter I
1:1 | Lucrative Engagements
Colony of Ire, Southern Coast
"Gut! Get 'im in the gut!"
"Oi, or bash 'is bloody brains out!"
The raucous whoops and hollers erupted in a ceaseless stream—bloodthirsty, shamelessly explicit in their voracious lust for pain and brutality. Kedean, eyes locked on the darkly flushed face before him—already wet and shining with sweat—heard none of it. Instead, he thought in heartbeats.
His opponent lunged. More sloppily than the last time, Kedean noted—the man's movements growing desperate as his strength ran low. Kedean swerved. Ducking and sweeping out a foot, he caught a slippery wrist and forearm with a master's efficiency.
Center of balance disrupted, his opponent staggered, grunting hoarsely as he buried himself on Kedean's knee and bruising—but not breaking—his valuable ribcage.
Fraught, now, his opponent attempted a flailing retaliatory shot. He aimed for Kedean's side, all his weight on one foot.
Kedean let the man's already slipping wrist go, leaving him no base of support. A single, wide-eyed moment of disoriented panic ensued before-
-the man's heavy body hit unforgiving dirt and gravel hard. He managed to roll just in time, executing an impressive escape from Kedean's follow-up. Then-
-Kedean caught the glint of metal before anyone. A dagger, barely visible, fitted into the fold of his opponent's loose trouser leg. Its tiny silvern glitter as it slid from pant leg to palm matched the malicious sheen in his opponent's eyes. As the man's chapped lips pulled back, his eyes blinking back sweat, Kedean steeled himself.
Shwip was the dagger, slicing air where Kedean's neck had been a half a moment ago. "Nngph," was his opponent, choking as three ribs snapped under the force of Kedean's knee. And finally thud was the sound of an unconscious body dropping like weighty ragdoll to the filthy ring floor. Strategic blows to the neck and temple would have sent his opponent's brain into temporary rudimentary shutdown by now.
Eight, nine, ten…
Kedean's lungs greedily took in oxygen as he stepped back. A familiar juxtapose of cheers and furious hisses burst up around him. Only when a soft hand met his shoulder did he turn. Immediately, he leveled a disapproving frown on his wildly grinning brother.
"That was fantastic!" Zyric said, ignoring Kedean's deepening scowl with practiced indifference. "I knew you could do it. Didn't I say he could do it?" he asked, tossing the question over to the left with a cheeky grin towards a dolefully putout looking fellow in a faded suit. "I knew you could do it," he said again, turning his attention back to Kedean. "You realize how rich you make us?"
"You mean you," Kedean corrected.
"I mean us," Zyric insisted, talking as he moved through the crowd and collecting winnings from other, similarly dissatisfied looking bystanders as he went. Kedean followed a half step behind, attention split between his sibling's blonde head and the endless supply of shady, shabbily dressed peasant sailors—not a one of them unarmed. "It's not my fault you never accept your half-"
"Because I never sign up for this-"
"-but I've been saving it up for you anyway," continued Zyric, "and you are right that-"
"Can we leave?"
"-you never do sign up, though really, I don't see why, because you could obviously rake in enough of a treasure trove of profit to spark a lair dragon's envy, but-"
"Yes, yes, okay. Just one more," his brother promised, following the comment with an immediate burst of, "Hey! Big Toni!" as he jogged out to a far corner, halting a man somewhere between three and four times his size. He held out an expectant palm. "Your call, friend. It was double or nothin' and the fates weren't smiling on you today—pay up."
As Kedean watched, the burly man scowled darkly, opening thick lips, as if to object. Then, a moment before doing so, he threw a hesitant, appraising glance in Kedean's own direction. Afterwards, apparently changing his mind, "Big Tony" clapped his mouth shut again, upper lip curling back in disgust as he rummaged for a moment in a deep pocket. Eventually, he dumped a sizable jingling brown sack into Zyric's waiting palm.
"Don't be expecting any more where that came from," the man snarled sloppily, but Zyric only grinned, unfazed, his teeth strikingly white against his coffee-brown skin.
"If you say so, and 'sides, I wouldn't worry." He smirked, stringing the sack around his belt, and patting it with a wink. "It's gone to a good home."
Kedean greeted his brother's chuckling with an unimpressed scowl. "You know," he said as they headed, finally, for the stairway out, "I won't always be around. Making unnecessary enemies will only bring trouble."
"Oh, relax." Zyric waved off his concern with a flick of his wrist and a lazy shrug. "You know I handle my own in there when you don't randomly show up to 'take my place and save my a-"
"I told you not t-"
"And I ignored you," said Zyric, tossing open the door at the top with flare and making Kedean squint and shrink back at the sudden light. "I have before, I will again, and you know this because we've had this argument before. Many times."
Vision still slightly blurry, Kedean lingered in the half shade of an overhang and blinked slowly as his eyes adjusted.
"In fact, the only thing that I still don't get is why you still fill in for me. I mean-"
"And as I," Kedean interrupted as he waited, "have explained before and probably will again," He folded his arms, meeting his brother's eyes—his mother's eyes, bright and blue as the day he was born—with level determination, "I refuse to stand by and watch as you submit yourself to that bloodbath. It's a filthy, barbarous habit-"
"-which I love-"
"-which you shouldn't be partaking in in the first place!"
"But Dee…" Zyric's lower lip budded out, and Kedean groaned. "You treat me like such a cub."
"Maybe," growled Kedean, "it's because you act like one."
Zyric rolled his eyes. "I'm past sixteen summers now, and you're but a decade older-"
"Nearly a decade and a half."
"And whether or not you admit to it, I can take care of myself," He met Kedean's dubious stare unblinkingly, "and you know it."
After a long moment, Kedean's stance weakened, and he sighed, mentally wincing as he brought pinched fingers to the bridge of his nose. "Sometimes," he admitted, "I truly wish you'd been born a girl…"
Immediately, Zyric snorted. "Oi? And what good would that do." The corner of his lip curved up dangerously. "'Cause you know I'd still kick-"
Kedean frowned; Zyric smirked. He opened his mouth, but-
"There's my main man!" a throaty, robust voice burst in from behind him. "Dean, my friend, you scoundrel…"
Kedean threw their visitor a cursory glance, already having identified him by voice and loud, shuffling gait—Alroy Dering, a family friend and a sometime go between for Kedean and his employers, bold as his sandstone red hair and twice as audacious. He met Kedean's look with a Cheshire grin.
"Dee, Dee, Dee, how did I know I would find you here, uhn? Less than a day in and already hard at work relieving the rabble of their spare drinking money. We'll have soberer streets if you keep at it, I think!" he teased, clapping Kedean's shoulder. Across the way, Zyric frowned.
"That," Kedean said, "or they'll learn not to bet against me. But it's not me you'll have to thank for it."
Alroy turned, for the first time sparing a glance to Zyric, and he threw his arms out, palms up. "But of course! How could I dare forget the ever-fair Zyna! Lovely as the dawning day and sweeter than-"
"Go swallow gunpowder," Zyric growled.
"-a desert cobra, as always." Alroy smiled, winking, and Zyric bared his teeth in a grimace.
"Don't you have poor innocent schoolgirls to traumatize or something? Dee just got here. We don't need your business."
"Oh, fear not, dear lady! Mine is but a meager business on this day," He glanced to Kedean, "though I do hope you'll consider it…" and then back to Zyric. "I wish only to diverge a small—though very rare and valuable, if I do say so myself—tidbit of information which I think your brother might find worthy of note."
Here, he whipped out a small, worn note, presenting it with all due flair and an exaggerated bow to Kedean—who, in turn, accepted it without comment. Zyric watched with anxious eyes as Kedean scanned the text. Quickly, Kedean frowned.
"Alroy, this is a babysitting job, not a guard post, and for a woman, no less." He shook his head. "I can't-"
"Look again," Alroy said, tapping the lower half of the sheet meaningfully, and Kedean pursed his lips, looked—and stared. After a long, drawn moment, he raised his head.
"You're not serious."
Kedean shook his head. "No, that's…ridiculous. How many extra zeros did you tack on to that? Two? Three?"
"None, Dee, I swear by all things under the great golden sun, my friend. Those numbers are real."
Kedean looked again. With that, he could stay home—actually spend time with Zyric without worrying about food or rent for…heavens, how long would that last? "Why so much?" he asked. "And for one guard?" He shook his head, still thrown. "They could hire ten men for this price, easily. And half-decent ones, at that."
In response, Alroy only shrugged. "What can I say? They're looking for the best of the best for their little princess-"
"-daughter," Alroy amended, waylaying Kedean's momentary panic and shooing off the concern with a hand wave. "The Merseilles are estate lords, filthy aristocrats with a reputation, but not royalty, no. Point is, they want top notch, Dee, and you're the best man I know, hands down. But if you don't take this…"
'There are plenty others that would,' Kedean mentally finished for him—and no wonder. "The Merseilles," he said aloud. "Turkeys or vultures?"
"Peacocks," said Alroy, smirking, and Kedean grunted.
"Lovely," he muttered. "This is just an escort mission?"
Alroy scratched at the back of his head, and Kedean narrowed his eyes suspiciously. "Hey, now, don't give me that look. It's…yes, basically just an escort mission. Only…well, you're hired to be her attendant…"
"Attendant," repeated Kedean, dubious. "And what all would I be expected to 'attend' to, precisely?"
"Her bags, for one," said Alroy, not missing the implication. "Her dresses, her food, her toenails, if she wants, hell, but mainly you're there to make sure the crew doesn't decide to take any…liberties." Seeing that Kedean's uncertainty persisted, Alroy added, "And she's meeting her appointed groom-to-be on the other side. She's probably young, fourteen or so, maidenhead intact."
Kedean, in spite of himself, felt a slow, creeping warmth in his cheeks and frowned, diverting his gaze. Silly, that he might have thought there would be more to this, and yet—it just felt too simple.
"This is a clean deal, I promise you. As righteous as it gets, and easy, fast. It's like you said, a babysitting job. Play the handmaiden/bodyguard for this mini lordess for a week, a month at worst, breathe some sea breezes, eat some fish…and then you can retire."
Kedean snorted. Retire. Right.
"Are you with me on this?"
Kedean fingered the slip of paper in his grasp, eyeing the dark, swirling cursive with unfocused eyes. Finally, he sighed. Folding the sheet into his palm, he nodded, slowly. "Yes, I think so, but give me 'til the morning?"
Alroy eyed him, took a moment, and then acquiesced with a shrug. "Yeah, sure. Sleep on it, but let me know, you know? I'll stop by. You can keep the slip."
Kedean nodded, noting Alroy's departure with distracted indifference, his mind decidedly elsewhere—on ships, betrothals, aristocrats, and gold. When he eventually conjured the will to draw himself back to the present, he looked first to his brother—whose eyes were also distant, turned in the unmistakable direction of Alroy's retreating figure.
Noting this, he quirked an eyebrow, inquiring, "Zyric?" and his brother's head snapped immediately around, a bare hint of color splashing his dark cheeks.
As if to counter it, Zyric scowled. "You're taking the job," he accused. "I know it. You always do. That…man…" he spat the last word as if referring to a far viler thing, "is always stealing you from me! He-"
"I don't think it's me he's after," Kedean contended quietly, amusing himself with Zyric's first befuddled—and then subsequently flabbergasted—response, mouth falling wordlessly agape and then drawing open and shut for several moments as if swinging on a hinge.
"But…he…it's…" Zyric administered a sharply pointed finger. "I," he emphasized, "would rather hang myself in the gallows than suffer the plague of that man's affections. He's a bar rat! And a gossip. Shameless, crude…no." Zyric shook his head. "You know what he deserves?" he asked, pausing there for dramatic effect. "A wife. A waspish, brutal woman who'll natter his eavesdropping ears off and then bludger him upside the head when he deserves it…which is more often than not. Not to mention-"
"I honestly don't see why you detest him so," Kedean said, stepping out from his shaded nook and onto the dirt and cobblestone path that ran alongside the string of buildings and shops lining the seafront. He took off in the direction of their residence, Zyric at his heels. Around them, the clamor of seafarers, merchants, dockworkers and the rabble mingled with the occasional resonating clang of a ship bell or gull cry to create a rich but familiar mosaic of sounds. "He's not a bad man."
"He takes you from me," Zyric grunted.
"But I'd have to leave anyway," Kedean pointed out, "you know that. He just helps to bring to light some more…lucrative opportunities on occasion."
"I know. The logical part of me knows, but still, I just…" Zyric took a breath—and let it go. "I just miss you," he muttered brusquely, "alright?" The new gruffness in his tone poorly masked emotion that his face betrayed all too clearly anyway. "You haven't been here a full three days yet, after three seasons gone, and when it's just Father and I, I…"
At this point, Zyric's reluctant grimace reminded Kedean with striking clarity of home life in years past—of how their father could get, of late nights or early mornings, jerking awake at the bang of the door and stumbling blearily out of bed to let in a man who'd either lost or forgotten his keys or simply couldn't muster the coordination to fit one into the lock, hard-pressed even to stand.
Father wasn't an angry, or even violent, drunk, just a sad and perpetual one—a good man, broken by the loss of Zyric's mother, his second wife, mere months before the birth of what would have been the third sibling. Father had coped by turning to the bottle, Zyric by rebelling against depression with a fighting spirit and adopting a stalwartly optimistic worldview, and Kedean—Kedean coped as he always had: by running away. Travelling, dedicating his life to foreign people and equally foreign causes, losing himself in a new existence each time he took up shield and sword for a new master.
Not without a small pang of guilt, he put a hand to his brother's shoulder and squeezed gently. An unspoken apology: for not always being there; for not sharing his childhood with him; for never being all that he could or should have been, even if the circumstances had made that near impossible. It wasn't enough, but Zyric took the gesture with a smile anyway—one that understood—and they traversed the rest of their march in silence.