Partners in Crime
The creak of wood roused Sal the Fisherman from his slumber. He jerked, grunting and snuffling in his wake. As he stirred, his hand caught a flagon of mead on the small table beside his chair. It fell with a clatter, dousing him in the contents. The old man cursed and leapt to his feet, a jingle coming from the purse in his pocket.
He paused, sniffing as a repugnant stench filled his nostrils. Turning, the old crook spied a shadow moving in the room that lead down to his cellar. Moving quickly and quietly, he snatched a dagger from the table and crept towards the half-open door.
Sal burst into the room with a bellow, only to freeze when he found it empty. A hand seized the old smuggler from behind and swung him into a stack of crates. The knife dropped from his hands. Sal roared and spun, lashing out with his fists instead. His assailant ducked under his attack, grabbed his arm and twisted, using the manoeuvre to throw the old man over his hip and into the wall behind him.
"Give up, you old codger," drawled the intruder, as Sal picked himself up off the ground, prepared for another assault. "You're just going to hurt yourself."
Sal frowned at the shirtless blue-eyed man dripping sewer water onto his floorboards and squinted. He knew that voice. "Shiv?" he asked, eyes widening in disbelief.
"Well, that's a nice way to greet someone after two years," said Roland drily. "Good to see you alive and well too, old dog." He removed the band from his ponytail and wrung out his sopping hair. Sal grimaced as he watched small dots of filth plop to the floor. "You should really fix up the tunnel down there," continued the thief conversationally, walking past the old man and into the main room of the house. "I nearly drowned trying to get into your cellar. Not pleasant, I tell you."
Sal seized his knife from the floor and followed him. "What're you doing here?" he demanded as Roland poked around the room in search of something. "I thought you was off working jobs further down south. The Watch've been keeping an eye on me ever since you escaped from gaol. I've had to cut all ties with the Guild. You can't be here!"
"Aha!" Seemingly oblivious to Sal's complaints, Roland let out an exclamation of victory and ended his search. Stripping off his soiled breeches, he took the heap of clothing and a pair of boots from a wooden chest and moved to the room that Sal used for his washroom and latrine. The old fishmonger heard the splash of water, followed by a yelp. A few minutes later, Roland walked back into the room, relatively clean, considerably less smelly and fully clothed.
Sal scowled. Roland wasn't going to compensate him for those, was he?
Eying the knife in the old man's hand, Roland raised an eyebrow. "You're not planning to turn me into the Watch or sommat like that, are you? That's not very nice, Sal. Think of all the money you made when we were in business."
"You can't be here, Shiv," insisted the fisherman. "I said it to your friend last week and I'll say it to you now, I don't deal in your business any more. An honest seller of fish, I am!"
"And I'm sure you do a lot of good business out here with the River Lille dividing border," replied Roland with an agreeable nod. He wandered over to Sal's food cupboard and emerged with a hunk of stale bread. Ripping a chunk off with his teeth, he thought as he chewed. Swallowing, he asked, "My friend who passed here a week ago, it wasn't Aaron was it?"
The old man frowned at him. "Who told you that Wolfe was here?"
Roland raised an eyebrow. "You did just now," he answered and took another bite of bread. It seemed as if Irene were telling the truth after all. He fingered the collar around his throat and sighed. "Did he stay long?"
Sal scowled. "Like I said, I didn't want him here any more than I do you. Fortunately for me, soon as he was out of the sewer, he hurried right out o' here to catch the dawn train."
"He say where he was going?" asked Roland as he polished off his meal. Picking up one of the many half-empty flagons littering the floor he took a sip to wash down the last few crumbs. "I need to find him and quickly."
"I know better than to ask questions, Shiv," grumbled Sal. "If one of you's in a hurry, then that usually means that you're running from trouble. After the mess last time, I've got no mind to get involved in any of it. All I can tell you is that he was muttering a lot of nonsense about the sky falling down."
Roland frowned. The sky falling? "Did he have anything on him?" he pressed. "Like a weapon of some kind? A staff or a blade perhaps?"
"Alls he had out in the open was that sword he always carries around."
"I see..." muttered Roland. He mulled over it for a moment and then hopped to his feet. Heading for the door, he clapped Sal on the shoulder on his way out. "Thanks for the clothes and the food. I'll get out of your hair now."
"Don't come back," retorted Sal as the thief stepped outside and disappeared into the pre-dawn hours of the day. Muttering quietly to himself about smugglers and the disturbances they caused, he sat himself down in his chair once more. About to set his knife down on the table, he paused and then stood up again. A sense of dread in the pit of his stomach, he turned out his pockets.
They came up empty.
His eyes widened. "That bastard didn't..."
Cursing, he ran to the door.
Weighing Sal's purse in the palm of his hand, Roland tied the leather pouch to his belt and focused on navigating his way through the streets of Lille. He needed to find Eliah and explain the situation to her. Keeping an eye out for the Watch, he blended with the crowd, filching a feathered cavalier hat from the head of a man on his way to the gates to Bordeille, a coat from a merchant on Tailor's Lane preparing his caravan for the day, and a length of black cloth from a tailor's shop to fashion himself a cape.
The Watch-Captain was a friend of Eliah's and there was every chance that the bounty hunter had asked for him to be detained on sight. He needed to locate Aaron as soon as possible. Being captured would be a waste of time.
Disguise in place, he made for the Orchid Inn. Hopefully, the woman wouldn't knock him senseless when she saw him. They had a mutual goal now and finding Aaron would be a much easier task with Eliah at his side—it was what she did for a living after all. However, his hopes were dashed when he walked into the inn and questioned one of the servers in the dining hall. The bounty hunter had left town, and in the company of Cyrus the Bard, no less.
"Now there's an odd pair," murmured Roland, flipping the girl a few coppers for her help. Given the indifference with which Eliah had treated the bard upon their first meeting and the reluctance with which she treated the sword that Roland had been forced to pass on to her, he hadn't expected the two to join company. Although...
His expression fell. Cyrus had eyes and ears everywhere; there was every chance that the bard knew exactly where Aaron was and had told her. They could very well be on their way to capture him now.
Cursing silently, Roland got to his feet and headed for the door. With any luck, someone at the railway station would have a lead on Aaron. Muttering a prayer to the Trickster for luck, he made his way to the eastern wall.
Eliah was quiet as she followed Cyrus out the gates of the railway station and into the walled streets of the Renartian Citadel. In the light of the day she could spy signs of damage everywhere. Cracks ran through streets cluttered with debris, buildings and houses had collapsed, and sections of the city's great outer wall had fallen. Multicoloured lights flashed in skies to the north, at the highest point of the city, where a crew of mages were working to fix the damage done to the great watchtower that overlooked both the citadel and the wasteland on the other side of the border. Out on the street, men and women armed with hammers and nails worked to repair shops and homes.
"What happened here?" she asked.
Cyrus shrugged. "When something as large as the Aerie hits the ground, there are repercussions. This city is old and the walls were built to stand against the forces of war, not nature." He looked around at the scaffolding lining the walls and nodded approvingly to himself. "It will take some time for the townspeople to rebuild their homes. However our primary concern are the walls and the watchtower. Without them we are defenceless."
"I did not think that the Free Nations had much to fear from one another," said Eliah.
"It is not the other Freemen that we're worried about," murmured the bard as he stepped out into the town centre. Without giving the bounty hunter a chance to question him about his true fears, he pointed to the tavern in the very centre of the square. Unlike the rest of the city, it seemed to have been untouched in the quake. A dancing fox with a green feathered hat and a fiddle was emblazoned on the sign above the door. "We'll be staying here tonight," he informed her. "Tell Luka, the barkeep, that you're travelling with me and he'll take care of you. A meal, a bath, whatever you need, he'll provide."
"And where are you going?" asked Eliah as Cyrus began to walk away.
He flashed her a wink. "I have to tell my darling that I'm home."
"I thought you said that you weren't married."
The man simply laughed and waved.
The bounty hunter frowned as she watched him go. No matter how hard she tried, she couldn't quite get a grasp on Cyrus. One minute he'd be laughing, the next he'd be utterly serious. It was like trying to speak with the Trickster himself. Shaking her head, she made her way over to the inn.
The black fox sitting in front of the fireplace looked up as Eliah stepped inside, red eyes seeming to glisten in the light of the lanterns. The bounty hunter reached for the hilt of her sword, but the creature simply blinked and laid back down again. As Eliah took a step back towards the door, the young man behind the bar caught her eye. Hurrying over, he smiled and bowed low. "Welcome to the Fox and the Fiddle, sir. Here for a drink?"
"No," said Eliah, still eying the fox with suspicion. "I'm travelling with a man by the name of Cyrus the Bard. He said to speak with Luka about a room?"
The youth stared at her for a moment, seemingly caught off guard. Then he smiled again. "Ah, you must be the daughter of a friend the Master said he was going to visit."
The bounty hunter frowned, sure she'd misheard. "Daughter of what friend?"
Like the Fox and the Fiddle, neither the Butterfly Pavilion nor the Silk House to which it was attached showed any signs of being touched by the earthquake that had affected the rest of the city. The garden surrounding the open annex was as vibrant and healthy as ever. The roses and flowering trees remained in perpetual bloom and not a single blade of grass was out of place. The entire place seemed to glow with power.
Inside the pavilion, shaded from the sun, stood a woman in a white dress. Perfect black curls cascaded down her back, hiding the two small nubs that sprouted from between her shoulderblades. With fingers as pale as alabaster, she drew silver runes in the air.
"It's not nice to approach a person unannounced, Renart," she said as Cyrus stepped into the pavilion. She paused what she was doing and looked at him over her shoulder, her unsettling silver irises reflecting his smiling image as clearly as a mirror. "Where have you been?" she asked.
He felt the familiar throb between his temples as the compulsion in her voice struck him. "I didn't go far, Butterfly, love. I only travelled to Lille," replied the bard, removing his bag and lute from his back and placing them on the floor. He put his arms around her and kissed her forehead.
Butterfly frowned up at him, expression disapproving. "Why did you go to Lille? You should have been here helping to repair the city."
He shrugged. "My men are helping. Besides..." He grinned, "I heard that Taiten's daughter would be there."
She paused. "Taiten's daughter," she repeated, tilting her head. "Our Taiten?"
Cyrus chuckled. "Yes, our Taiten. I thought it would be a good opportunity to pass on his sword. She's a funny lass. Acts just like her father."
"I see..." murmured Butterfly. "I would like to meet her."
"You can if you wish. I brought her back here with me. She's going to accompany me into the Aethersfell tomorrow."
Again, Butterfly frowned. "To explore the Aerie?"
"Yes, to explore the Aerie."
Butterfly grimaced and closed her eyes. "You'll find nothing but death and corruption there, Renart. The great civilisation of the Ae'ren is no more. All that awaits you there is danger and ruin. You should be focusing your efforts on rebuilding the wall. This city is Kyria's first line of defence should the realms of Aeonar fall. That is why we built it after all, you, Taiten and me."
Cyrus raised an eyebrow. "Are you not curious about the fall? I thought you would want to know, after all, the Ae'ren are—"
"The Ae'ren are not my people, Renart," said Butterfly curtly, cutting him off. She pushed him away and resumed drawing in the air. "They haven't been for over five hundred years. What happened to them is not my concern. I must focus on the events to come, as should you."
"Is that what these spells are for?" asked Cyrus, watching as she finished the inscription and sent it on its way with a flick of her hand. The silver letters shimmered in the moonlight as they floated away. "Where is that one going?"
"I am reinforcing the north gate. The Citadel should have been able to withstand the quake, but I have been neglectful over the last century. I did not renew the foundations as I should have and if I do not do it now, we will all pay the price. My complacency may cost us dearly."
Cyrus sighed and rubbed her shoulders. "You should relax a bit, love. Too much worry is bad for the mind."
"The Se'ren have fallen and now too have the Ae'ren. I believe that is cause enough for worry." She looked up at him, the barest trace of fear in her eyes. "Explore the Aerie if you wish, but do not forget the true meaning behind its fall. Taiten is gone, and with him, the Hand of Time. Cora has disappeared and the Daed'ren are just as hostile to outsiders as before. And Kailen's heirs are nothing but ignorant fools. If the Fallen God returns, you and I cannot fight him alone."
He pulled her close and kissed her hair. "I know that, lass... I know."
"Sickening," said a voice as Cyrus entered the main building. He frowned and saw Morinth watching him from the shadows, twirling a steel dagger between her fingers. Her red eyes glinted beneath her mess of black locks as she hissed once more, "You and her, it's sickening,."
"How's your wound?" asked Cyrus, ignoring the remark. "Did Butterfly treat it?"
She narrowed her eyes at him. "So what if she did?"
"You could stand to show a little gratitude."
The Fal'ren made a derisive noise. "Oh please, if you think I'm going to kiss that wingless bitch's rear then you are sorely mistaken." She sneered as she watched Butterfly continue to inscribe her spells from within the pavilion. "Better keep an eye on her, Renart," she said. "One of the last of her kind, she is now. I'm glad that they're dead. Pompous bastards, the lot of them, with their magic and their high and mighty attitude. Lot of good it did them in the end."
She grunted, the back of her skull smashing into the wall as Cyrus stepped forward and seized her by the throat. The knife she'd been toying with fell to the ground with a clatter.
Red sparks flickered across the bard's irises, returning them to their usual crimson as he lost control of the illusion in his anger. "Watch your words, little sister," he whispered. "You're coming dangerously close to treason."
"Treason?" Morinth let out a spluttered laugh. "You've grown soft, brother. Too many years walking amongst Mortals and dallying with fallen Ae'ren. If you are not careful, someone might take advantage of your weakness."
"Is that a threat?" demanded Cyrus, his voice low.
She spat in his face.
Grimacing, he let her go and wiped the spittle from his skin.
"You may be the First Son but that doesn't mean we'll follow you to the ends of the earth," said Morinth as she shoved him and walked off. "Not all the shadows serve in your favour, Renart. You'd do well to remember that."
And with that, she disappeared down the hall, leaving Cyrus standing there with his hand balled into a fist.
The stationmaster looked bored as Roland questioned him. "I'm looking for a man who passed through here ten days or so ago. Caught one of the trains that left at dawn," said the thief. He stood with his back straight and what he thought was an imperious expression, hoping to persuade the man into thinking that he was some important personage or other. "Lad's a Freeman. Brown hair, hazel eyes—he would've been carrying a sword with a silver-plated hilt and a wolf's head carved into the crossbar."
The stationmaster pretended to yawn and stretch. "Plenty of folk pass through this station here, sir. Perhaps I did happen to see a man with a sword like that. It's a bit hard to keep track of them all, if you know what I mean," he said, rubbing his thumb and forefinger together.
Roland got the message loud and clear. Reaching into his stolen purse, he handed the attendant a silver piece to help his memory along.
Tucking the coin into his sleeve, the stationmaster continued, "Yeah, I saw him—or smelt him rather. Ugh, there's a stench I won't be forgetting in a while. Fellow smelt as if he'd never heard of a bath in his life. He took the Northern Line, bound for the Renartian Citadel."
Roland nodded. "I'll take one ticket to the same place then," he said.
Papers in hand, he found a seat on the platform and crossed his arms. The Renartian Citadel... He had been back there in nearly a decade. "What are you up to, Aaron?" he murmured, and waited for the train to arrive.