"Is she going to be all right?"
"Of course, she'll be fine. I left Marcus to look after her, didn't I?"
"Marcus who she can never marry. Oh, don't look at me as if you didn't know, Alec."
"I don't think my niece is particularly the marrying kind, or not in the way you mean. Between Marcus and young Lady Fitz, she'll have all she needs."
"All she needs?"
"...well, all right, her mother and brothers too. If she still does need them, which I'm rather inclined to doubt."
"You've obviously planned for everything."
"Yes, I'm quite good at that."
"You do realize you've just dropped all of this on her head."
"We have, you mean. You were the one who told her."
"As you like, Alec."
"Stop humouring me. I can tell."
"It's a bit late for that."
A simple street brawl, too quickly started and, as far as Richard was concerned, too quickly ended to be of any use. His muscles hadn't even had the time to warm from the exertion (which he would have liked in his cold) and he felt as if the fight wasn't even worth the cleaning of his blade it would require that night.
There were eyes on him, from the doorway of a nearby pub. But not the usual assessing or jealous eyes - these, belonging to the tall thin young man in black, were filled with a frank and probably disconcerting interest.
Pale violet eyes looked back in turn, unbothered but curious. Usually, people looked at the dead body, or at his blade or the blood on the snow. Well, up on the Hill perhaps. Down here, usually, they were too busy digging through the last of Will and grubbing through his pockets for whatever they could grab of his testament while he walked off with a wide berth given to him in deference.
But if the boy wanted to look at him, and he had to be a boy so thin and pale and the hair showed him to be a scholar if the clothes didn't, he wasn't about to call foul. It didn't matter to him so much.
"You're very good", the boy observed in a drawl that was distinctly not Riverside. "At killing."
"He was very good at dying," he said in reply, not particularly in the mood to chat. "Better than most, in fact."
"Oh re-ally. Because I don't think it would take a man good at dying to fall to that last stroke. Straight to the heart, wasn't it?"
"Of course." Definitely not from Riverside. Everyone around here knew his mark already; it was the Hill that was still learning. And, apparently, the University.
"And your name, they told me in there, is St. Vier."
"It's no secret," he pointed out. The look he followed it with asked if there was a point to any of this.
Of course there was a point. There was always a point. "I'm... Alec. What do you kill for, St. Vier?"
"Money and practice," he said. Why was he waiting here, in the snow and the cold? And his blade was going to be a mess after this long.
"Only for those?" That was almost a challenge, cool and distant.
"You've got something better?" He was talking to a scholar. "Honor? Principle?"
"Would you consider those better?" the boy countered clinically.
"Not at all. I just thought you might."
"Why on earth would you think that?"
That got a raised eyebrow, more consideration than Richard gave anyone short the waitress serving his food or the most recent duelist.
"I don't know," he admitted.
The student took a step towards him, smiling slightly now. "Those are abstract things. Money and practice are good answers - and I suppose so are honor and principle, if they're what you believe in. But are they?"
He couldn't help but snort.
"You'd ask me that down here?"
"Yes. I'm looking for an honest answer."
"No," he said simply. "Not in the least."
"Then it is only money and practice?" the student - Alec - pressed.
"Yes." It seemed to be easiest to keep his answers simple with this one. He read too much into things if he used more than one word.
"You're intriguing, you know." It was almost a purr. "What don't you want to tell me?"
He was used to this. Far too used to this, though usually it was the women who tried him. The men must have thought it too dangerous. But instead of gruffly pushing the little student aside, he met those too green eyes with his own.
"Nothing. You're over complicating me. I'm a hired sword. That's all."
"Then perhaps I could find a way to hire you."
"I don't do lessons."
"Do I look as if I'm interested in learning the sword?" Even if he'd had the money for it.
"You look as if you should be at the University."
The young man's face shuttered to abrupt blankness, and he turned away. "Fine. Forget I noticed you."
And Richard looked away, almost amused. And that one had seemed so very interested a moment before. He wondered vaguely what he'd done to upset him so, but decided it wasn't any of his business and shrugged before heading home.
It wasn't, Alec would protest later, that he'd meant to cause trouble. He just seemed to have such a talent for it.
Of course, he was lying - that young man took pleasure, for some twisted reason, in needling any given target until they snapped. And given that they were Riversiders, and he wasn't, it usually didn't take too much effort.
The man was ugly. Richard wouldn't say that aesthetics were particularly of import to him, but it was something he observed. The man was ugly, and next to the lithe scholar, the difference was startling.
"Leave him alone, Rolf," he said, wondering if it was someone else until the pig-like eyes focused on him. In truth, if anyone was surprised that he'd stuck his nose into things, or even just spoken, they couldn't have been more surprised than he was.
Alec, conversely, didn't look surprised at all. He glanced over, then casually back to the piggish man. "Yes, Rolf. I'm afraid this conversation is no longer interesting."
"Or what, St. Vier?"
Lilac eyes peered up with seeming apathy at the other man. Then a distasteful expression flitted across his features.
No more words from the student, just a particularly smug grin.
"You'd try to kill me over this little whelp?"
"I wouldn't try." And really, that was enough of an insult that he was tempted to start things here and now.
"Haven't you heard?" Alec put in casually, withdrawing to watch from a safe distance. "He never tries. Think you can even give him a challenge?"
He flashed a look at the student in an attempt to tell him that he could set up his own fights, thank you very much, but the next moment had Rolf snarly and charging at him with a knife between his fingers. Richard didn't know what he might be thinking, or if he even was thinking, but while he didn't particularly want to fight this fight, he couldn't let anyone see him show mercy.
Richard sighed. The sword slipped through Rolf's ribs like a hot knife through butter.
Alec applauded, lazily, eyes fixed on the splash of blood on the floor.
"Does that please you?" Richard asked his student as he pulled the blade from the body and let it slump to the floor. One shot, to the heart.
"Oh, I'd say that's a good start", he drawled. "The man offended me. I'm glad to see you'll kill for other things than money after all."
"I said practice, didn't I?"
"I hardly think he could be considered practice."
"Practice for dealing with stupidity." But it sounded lame to him.
"Of course." The young man smiled. "If only we could all deal with it that way."
"There's nothing stopping you from taking up a sword." And dying, though Richard had to admit he didn't want to see this one dead. He wasn't sure why. It seemed as if it would be a great waste.
"Oh." A negligent gesture. "I'm far too old for that. I'll just have to live it vicariously." And he smiled, sharp and brilliant.
He should have turned away. "You goaded him on purpose."
"Are you surprised?" His eyes were on the swordsman's face, unflinching.
"No. I still don't know why. That's all."
"Perhaps I'm just interested in how far people will allow themselves to be pushed."
"Rolf or me?"
"You'll just have to find that out for yourself." That smile appeared again, somehow sweeter and deliberately alluring.
That was worth considering. It wasn't as if he was made of stone, whatever those lilac eyes might seem to say. And the boy was pretty.
"What do you want?"
"Food and lodging", the student answered dryly. "Among other things."
"You trouble a swordsman for food and lodging," he asked curiously. "Will you trouble a baker for a side of beef?"
"I did say among other things. Protection, if it strikes you as more likely."
"And do you have the money to pay me?" Though he'd never done duty as a bodyguard. Generally, he wouldn't even hear of it.
"I'm sure we can come to some arrangement", the young man said cheerfully.
"Let me see the color of your money first."
A roll of his eyes, and he produced a shabby - and decidedly thin-looking - purse.
"I'm assuming that's for our conversation today?"
"If you say so." He gave Richard an arch look. "Is that what you want for the conversation?"
He looked at the boy. "Are you coming to my bed or am I coming to yours?" he said bluntly.
The boy didn't miss a beat. "As I don't currently have much of one, it'll rather have to be yours."
He nodded. "Fair enough. Follow me and don't lag behind."
"You know, this wouldn't have happened if you hadn't gone."
"This wouldn't have happened if you hadn't brained him."
"He was going to ask Janine's permission to marry Katherine. There was no time."
"You could have hired someone. Or I could have challenged him. There were other options, Alec."
"You weren't here. And you didn't hear him."
"Was it really that horrible, what he said?"
"Things about you. Things about people he hurt and drove away from me. He was in the middle of suggesting I should give Katherine to him before she tired of me when I hit him."
"He didn't drive her away. Or Marcus. Or I."
"He hadn't started on any of you yet."
"Not that he could have had anything to say. I'm here, aren't I?"
"...yes. You are now."
"I've always been there, Alec. Whether it was where you were..."
"But I wanted you where I was. Even if I let you go to the country."
"Does it matter now?"
"It does if you leave me again."
"If I would leave you any time, I think it would have been when you came and told me that you'd clubbed the Dragon Chancellor over the head."
"You knew you kept me around for some reason."
"Indeed. For several reasons, even."
A long pause. "Even without eyes, Alec. Even blind..."
"Do you honestly think that matters?"
"As long as you don't."
"We wouldn't be here if I did."
"Where are we anyway?"
"On a boat." Dry.
"Thank you, Alec."
"You're quite welcome. If, however, you wanted to know where we're going... Kyros."
"And what is in Kyros?"
"Thyme. And honey bees. You'll like it."
"I'm sure I will."
"I've wanted to go there for... some time now."
"To visit or to live?"
"For a time. The permanence would depend on you."
"I will be where you are. I think until I'm dead."
A footstep, two. No words.
They never really were necessary.