The wind blew discord through the town of Riverside. It hurled brittle autumn leaves over crumbling roofs, bumped them against cracked windows, and whirled them in a tight, rattling spiral in the street just where the swordsman St. Vier had chanced to walk. He glanced up as papery fragments of yellow and red briefly enfolded and pummeled him, before swooping off to alight on the next unwary mark. One struck against his mouth and held there, quivering. He stripped it away, but as he started to crush it between palm and fingers, he happened to look at it. Shaped like a splayed hand, the leaf was a deep russet brown splashed with brilliant red. A maple leaf, he thought, remembering his father’s words from a time - it seemed long ago - when he had been a simple boy from the country. He held it up by an elegant stem, turning it against the pale grey sky. How beautiful it was. He was not given to noticing such things.
The moment of attention to details reminded him of yesterday’s botched job, of standing afterwards in some forsaken alley staring at his own blood bespattered hands as if he did not know who they belonged to. It had not been pretty. For an unguarded moment, he felt sick.
The air was crisp, like the smell of tart apples. All around the tattered skyline, squat chimney pots sent up feather-thin plumes of smoke. Riverside was shifting inexorably into another season. The change was welcome. The past year had been one of regrets, things he’d rather not contemplate. Better to get on with life and not linger in what could not be changed. He pocketed the leaf.
His gaze followed the smoke trails beyond the river up to the Hill, the place he had just come from, replete with its high walls, well-tended gardens, and impressive mansions, its springy carriages, rustling silk gowns, and glittering parties. From where he stood on a broken Riverside street, the Hill’s splendors appeared in miniature, like a remote fairy tale. And for most of Riverside’s denizens who had few occasions to interact with the Hill’s wealthy and powerful elite, it might as well have been a fairy tale. Richard St. Vier knew better; he knew its allures and its deceits, having been there often enough, both on business and for pleasure. He was one of the few who could cross over the bridge between the Hill and Riverside with equanimity, at home in both worlds and in none. It was a rare man who challenged him and lived to tell of it later. This, many people on both sides of the river knew.
But his reputation had not helped the last man to die any quicker. St. Vier could still see him clearly in his mind’s eye, lying curled up on his side, writhing in a slow, twisting motion over a long, dark smear of blood. A misstep, a lunge too low, and he’d missed his usual clean thrust through the heart. Instead it had been a messy gut wound. Too late to take it back now. Next time he would not be so clumsy. His patron paid him the same anyway and in fact seemed to relish his rival’s lingering death. It was St. Vier’s pride that had taken a stab. And perhaps a recognition that he had caused unnecessary pain.
"Ah, Master St. Vier, back amongst us, are you?" called a soft voice. St. Vier turned to see Nimble Willie emerge from a doorway, his bony face scrunched up with pleasure. "Where are you headed?" the little thief asked.
Until that moment, St. Vier had had no idea where he was going, but with assurance he said, "Rosalie’s." Willie fell into step beside him.
"What’s the word from the Hill?" Willie asked, taking two steps for every stride of St. Vier’s.
"The same as always: blood and pain," St. Vier said.
"I reckon that’s the word from Riverside, as well," Willie said, bemused. "What a world we live in, eh Master?"
"The pastry is not as good in Riverside," St. Vier replied.
They reached Rosalie’s, one of St. Vier’s favorite haunts, a tavern located in an old root cellar. Like someone arising from the grave, a stout woman slowly appeared, first her head, then upper body, as she ponderously climbed up the cellar steps. It was Rosalie herself. She was carrying a limp man over her shoulder like a sack of wheat. When she got level with the street, she tossed him into the dirt, where he landed in an ungainly heap. Wiping her hands on her apron, she shouted, "And good riddance to all such sots!" There was an answering roar of laughter from below. She waved at St. Vier and then headed back down the stairs.
Richard St. Vier smiled broadly. This was the world with which he was most at ease. And now he had money to pay his debts. He clapped his hand on Willie’s shoulder. "Saturday night in Riverside," he said. "Wouldn’t miss it."
"As long as someone has a loose purse," Willie agreed.
The tavern was redolent with the smells of stale beer, staler bodies, and the strange damp musk that was uniquely Rosalie’s. But tonight, with the sudden cold snap, a bright fire burned happily on the hearth and there was a mouth-watering smell of turkey pie. St. Vier’s appearance was greeted by cries of delight from various sodden regulars. "St. Vier, St. Vier! Back from a job, are you? Were you paid yet?"
"Yes," he replied, then, more loudly,"Rosalie, my dear, the next round is on me." He tossed her a small bag of coins, which she deftly caught. This pronouncement was greeted by a chorus of cheers. For the moment, Richard St. Vier was a very popular man. People crowded about him offering congratulations and thumps on the back. Red-headed Bess walked her fingers up his chest and cooed, "How is the handsomest swordsman in Riverside?" He gave her a long kiss, much to the spectators’ delight.
He had just ordered a plate of the turkey pie and a large ale for himself and was settling into his regular seat in the corner, when he felt a tug on his shirt. He looked up to see Nimble Willie point at the door, from which there came a strange rattling. Before anyone could react, it opened with a sudden pop, letting in a swirl of leaves along with a tall, gaunt young man dressed in a black scholar’s robe frayed along the sleeves and hem. Several of the leaves took up residence in his rich brown hair, which was tied with a maroon ribbon and fell in a long horsetail down his back. Long hair was the scholars’ emblem and affectation, a conservative hold-over from an earlier age. But this scholar’s hair was unkempt, strands of it straggled about his face and he had several day’s growth of beard on his cheeks.
The young man hesitated, his shoulders drawn into himself, his bright green eyes darting about the crowd. He said loudly and to no one in particular, "Do you always leave your garbage out in the street like that? I tripped over it and gave it a nasty kick before I noticed it snoring like a fishwife. It made for such a welcoming ambiance."
His voice was rich with the affected drawl of the Hill, like cream sherry pouring into a crystal goblet. That accent St. Vier knew very well and never thought to hear it in Rosalie’s. The room grew quiet as everyone turned to look at the young man. Then there was an uncomfortable murmuring. It was a rare thing for one of the university students to be this deep into Riverside. He was out of place here. St. Vier’s finely tuned senses prickled with wrongness.
Rosalie came forward, her hands on her massive hips. "You would do well, Master Scholar, to leave the sharp tongue at University."
"They have no use at University for sharp tongues, or for sharp wits either," said the man with deep bitterness. "I should know, as, sadly, I suffer from both."
There were a few chuckles. "Say Scholar, are your wits sharp enough to follow a game of dice?" called a squint-eyed fellow from the table next to St. Vier. "These fools just lost all their coin to me. We need some fresh meat. Got anything to wager?"
"Thwarting the odds is my favorite diversion," the young man said, with a curl to his lips. He reached into the depths of the black robe and fished out a small bag, from which he extracted a gold coin. He held it up glinting in the firelight. "I found this in the gutter outside. Will it do?"
"Ahhh," crowed several members of the crowd amidst scattered clapping. That coin was worth a week of drunken revelry in Riverside taverns, or one memorable night with a particularly beautiful young man at a nearby brothel. St. Vier heard the various whispers around him. "Four says he loses it all on the first round. Six says he wins." It was back to the Riverside norm. He relaxed his grip on his sword and took a swig of ale.
"Well now, that’s more sociable by far," the squint-eyed man said and nodded at his fellows. They shifted their chairs, creating a space at the table, and someone pulled out a chair for the scholar.
The young man tugged up his robe in order to sit down, then spilled a set of black dice out of his bag onto the table. His expression was wary. "I hope you don’t mind if we use mine."
"Already he shows more smarts than you did yesterday, Tom," a large man said, poking the squint-eyed man with a hand missing its little finger.
"Shut your gob, Harry. Are you saying I’m a cheat, boy?" declared Tom. "How am I to trust your dice? Likely loaded as not."
The scholar scooped up his dice and then cast them out on the table with a smooth, practiced motion. "I don’t need to cheat to win. Examine them, if you like."
"Cocky, ain’t he? Needs taking down a peg," called a young sharp who St. Vier had seen dicing at the Apricot a week ago.
The crowd gathered around the table like vultures hopping towards a carcass. Nothing so exciting had happened in weeks. Several members of the mattress trade, scenting potential, pressed around the newcomer. Bess leaned over the table right in front of him, nearly spilling her fulsome wares out of her low-cut blouse. "Are you sure, luv, you don’t have a better use for that pretty purse-weight than to lose it to these ratcatchers?" she asked.
There were lewd guffaws from several bystanders. The young man glanced up at her as she dangled the bait in front of him, smiling suggestively. For a moment, he looked positively panicked. St. Vier took a large bite of his turkey pie, enjoying the show. Then the scholar managed to compose himself and said acidly, "What are you selling, princess? A chance at the clap?"
The room erupted in a roar of laughter. Bess’s mouth flapped open for a moment and then she struck the scholar across the cheek. The crowd hooted and shouted obscenities. Meanwhile the scholar sat strangely still. A gloating smile of satisfaction rose to his lips. It was not the reaction St. Vier would have expected and it seemed to infuriate Bess. She raised her hand to hit him again.
With an unerring sense of keeping the peace, Rosalie interposed. "It appears, Bess, my dear, that he don’t know a good time when he sees it. Pray, help me get St. Vier’s round."
"Bastard," Bess hissed at the scholar before going to help Rosalie deliver foaming mugs of beer to outstretched hands. She passed by the scholar several times and finally he said, "I’m sure that one’s for me." St. Vier could almost see the courtly flourish that should accompany such a voice. Bess sneered at him, then looked over at St. Vier for confirmation. He pointed at the scholar and nodded. With a shrug, she plunked it down sloshing in front of him.
"Here’s to Richard St. Vier," Rosalie called out when they all had a glass. "Always a gentleman and generous to a fault."
"And the best damn swordsman there is," piped up Willie at St. Vier’s elbow. There was a murmur of affirmation and a clinking of glasses.
"St. Vier?" the scholar asked with sudden interest. "Is he here?"
"Sitting right over there, lad," Tom said. "And if I was you, I wouldn’t insult him."
The scholar’s head jerked around and his glance abruptly met St. Vier’s with the force of a blow. The boy’s eyes widened into green wells of madness and intellect. "St. Vier, the swordsman?"
St. Vier nodded.
"I’ve been looking for you," the scholar said softly.
St. Vier raised his glass towards him. "You’ve found me, so it seems." Perhaps the erratic scholar wanted to offer him a job. He hadn’t much call to challenge anyone at University. They seemed able to brawl just fine on their own. But then again, none of them had much in the way of coin. The young man was looking at him with eyes that were too bright and St. Vier felt a sudden prickle, the kind they say comes from someone walking over your grave.
"Are you going to dice, boy, or jaw all night? You’ve a gold piece that’s begging for a home in my purse," Tom said. "We’ll strike a compromise, two of your dice and one of mine. That’s more than fair."
As they played, St. Vier found he couldn’t take his eyes away from the young man. At first glance, he did not appear beautiful, at least not for the fashion of the day: his face was too long and angular, his thin-lipped mouth too severe. But that face in motion, frowning now in concentration, laughing suddenly when luck went his way, was riveting to watch, and in time, acquired an unconsciously feral and almost frightening beauty. And then there were his hands, nimble, smooth and well-kept, with long, delicate fingers and a narrow palm. A nobleman’s hands, except they were devoid of ornament. He played boldly while addressing his fellows in brash tones and using a vocabulary no one in Riverside had any use for. St. Vier would have pegged him as a lord, but for the hair and frayed clothes. He was a series of contradictions which the swordsman was finding more and more fascinating.
And so he watched.
So far the scholar seemed to be doing quite well. He had amassed a small pile of coppers in front of him, from which he was playing without even having to risk his gold. That was until Tom, his earlier luck of the evening now running out, began to complain. "By the dog, lay that piece of bonny out here. I’m going to bet my whole night’s winnings on the next throw."
"Not too smart. I can hear the probabilities gloating," the scholar said with an unpleasant smile and proceeded to throw three fives. The crowd murmured approval.
Tom took up the dice in his hands and made an elaborate show of blowing on them. The crowd bent closer as he threw them hard on the table. Two of them came up sixes. But the third bounced and flew, skittering across the floor. Tom leapt up from the table, almost overturning it in his haste and pounced on the die. He cupped it lovingly as he returned.
"Take that toss over, Slicketyfingers," the scholar said, shoving the other two dice towards him.
"Only need to roll this one here," Tom replied. He wiped the die on his pants leg and shook it in his hand.
The scholar seized his wrist. "The rules say to take the throw over."
"You’re in Riverside now, Scholar. Your rules are no good here," Tom replied and in a smooth motion pulled a long knife which he prodded under the scholar’s chin.
"You stupid git," the scholar said with pleasure.
In a low voice that carried throughout the tavern, St. Vier said, "Roll them again, Tom."
The man flicked his eyes to St. Vier and visibly swallowed. Slowly, he took all three dice in his hand and cast them out. Two sixes and one three came up. Then, with a little wobble, the three rolled over and became a six. "I win," Tom crowed, reaching to scoop up the money.
The scholar grabbed the last die and held it under the man’s nose. "This stinks," he declared. "You cheated!"
"Take that back, boy!"
"If the appellation fits . . .," the scholar began. He shoved the table into Tom’s stomach causing the coins to fly into his lap and then roll musically to the floor. Suddenly knives were out. Someone screamed. St. Vier found himself moving. And just as suddenly Tom was looking cross-eyed down the length of St. Vier’s sword pointed right at the hollow of his throat.
"Please, St. Vier, he’s an outsider. He’s not one of us," the man whined.
"The rules of the game are the same on both sides of the river," St. Vier said wearily. He turned to the scholar. "Get out. Now. While you still have your skin." The command left no room for a retort. The boy scrabbled on the floor for his money. St. Vier heard the door slam and the light patter of feet up the stairs. He eyed Tom, who was sweating profusely, then lowered his sword. Addressing the room of staring Riversiders, he said, "My friends, I thank you for a pleasant evening, as always." He bowed low and then left himself, having no more taste for company.
Outside the wind had blown the clouds into long shreds like a beggar’s shirt, their shape made visible by a backdrop of faint moonlight. St. Vier’s breath huffed smokily in the cold. As he made his way through the twisting streets back to his rooms, he heard footsteps cautiously striding behind him. He halted and the crunching ceased. St. Vier smiled to himself. Reaching a circle of light coming through Marie’s front parlor window, he retreated into the doorway until the tall, dark figure appeared. Then sword in hand, he leapt out and shoved the man up against the wall. He found himself looking up into the wide eyes of the scholar, who swallowed with a convulsive motion, licked his lips and then said avidly, "Yes, do it. That’s what I came for."
"What?" St. Vier lowered the sword in astonishment.
"They say you kill with one quick thrust to the heart. That’s what I want."
"You’re mad." St. Vier flung him away hard against the wall and stepped back.
The boy began undoing his robe at the neck with trembling fingers. "I’ll make it easy for you - an easy target." Slowly he opened his jacket and pulled part of it to the side, then the shirt underneath. St. Vier could only watch in fascination as a sweepingly elegant collar bone was revealed, a pale triangle of chest, and then a tiny nipple puckered with the cold. The scholar caressed his breastbone with two fingers. "Just here," he whispered. "One quick thrust."
St. Vier found it disturbingly erotic. Out of the corner of his eye, he could see their shadows on the ground, united in a shifting mass of sordid shapes.
"They . . . they say it doesn’t hurt that way - one th-th- thrust and it’s over," the scholar stammered.
"Whoever said that never saw it happen," St. Vier replied. He turned away in disgust. "I don’t kill unarmed men. If you knew anything about me, you’d know that."
"Give me a sword then."
St. Vier snorted. "Do you know how to use one?"
"Barely. Does it matter?"
"Yes. It matters."
"What must I do - insult you?"
"You’ve already done that."
"I’ll pay you then. That gold piece I had earlier."
St. Vier was incredulous. "You’d pay me to kill you? You are mad." He sheathed his sword, found his key and unlocked the door. "Good night."
"Is it not enough? What’s your usual rate?"
"Sixty gold royals is the going price for a man’s life," St. Vier said.
"I can get it."
"Go away." St. Vier attempted to shut the door on his unwelcome guest, but the scholar forced himself inside. The swordsman didn’t look back as he hurried up the stairs toward his rooms. He could hear the scholar stumbling in the dark behind him.
He opened his door, then turned. The tall figure was standing several steps below, one hand on the banister, swaying slightly. There was a silence during which St. Vier found himself counting his own heartbeats. "It’s cold outside," the scholar said finally. The voice had lost its arrogance and sounded almost pitiful. "It’s cold and I have nowhere to go. If you won’t kill me, at least let me in."
The swordsman paused, two impulses warring within. On the one hand, what did it matter to him that this lunatic froze to death outside? On the other . . . somehow it did matter. "Come on, then," he growled.
He went into his front room and busied himself lighting a fire in the grate, while his visitor sagged down on his longue and folded into a lump, like a sullen bat. St. Vier had time to question his own sanity at letting him into his house. He got a cloth and a bottle of oil, sat on a low stool, unbuckled his sword and began to tend it. The feel of the long, cold steel grounded him in the heat of his visitor’s gaze.
"You don’t have much in the way of decor, do you?" the young man asked.
"I see no reason for it. I’m not at home much."
"So I’ve heard. It wasn’t hard to get tales of you. But it took me several days to actually find you. First I went to the Three Keys just th’other side of the Bridge, which would be better called Three Sheets to the Wind, considering the usual state of its clientele. I followed a lead to the Apricot where I was propositioned three times and then robbed . . ."
"You do know what the Apricot specializes in," St. Vier said.
The scholar snorted. "I’d be a complete fool if I hadn’t got it figured out by the third time some burly lout offered to buy me a drink. I took one of them up on it, figuring it was free, but then he tried to put his hand up my robe and I had to kick him in the toolies and run."
"Resourceful of you," St. Vier said, amused in spite of himself.
"I’m very par-tic-ular about who I sleep with," the scholar said and his eyes met St. Vier’s. They were so green, like a summer forest. St. Vier had a strange desire to touch the boy’s lips just to feel them move against his fingers. He got up and put the sword away. "I paid the price for my fastidiousness," the young man continued. "That night I froze my arse off in some alley and got hardly any sleep at all. And that was before the weather turned cold. The second day I managed to spend passed out under a table in some nasty hovel on King’s Street. I woke up with something hideous stuck to my back. This afternoon I was run out of some place I can’t even remember the name of, for saying something rather too candid to the proprietor."
"And then you diced at Rosalie’s and were nearly skewered by the resident shark. I hardly think you need my services to get yourself killed. Seems you were going about it in exactly the right way." St. Vier chuckled.
The scholar’s eyes gleamed. "Wasn’t I though? But so far I haven’t succeeded - yet. I’m dreadfully hungry. Do you have anything to eat?"
St. Vier laughed. "Those are not the words of someone seeking a quick trip to the Beyond."
"I hate being hungry," said the young man. "I’d rather be killed on a full stomach than feeling as truly miserable as I do now." He actually attempted a smile. It flitted tantalizingly across those sharp-edged lips. His teeth were white and even.
St. Vier went to his cupboard and found cheese preserved in red wax, stale bread, and some wrinkled apples.
"I don’t like eating with dirty hands," the scholar commented.
"There is a wash stand over here, with soap," St. Vier said. He began cutting up the apple while the young man washed his hands and then splashed water over his face and wiped it with the towel hanging from the stand.
"That’s a little better," the scholar sighed. "Although I’d prefer a bath and a shave." He sat back down on the longue.
"I’ll put some water on the fire for you," St. Vier said. "Then at least you can have a sponge bath." He set the food on a board before the scholar. He was astonished at how quickly it disappeared. "When did you last eat?" he asked as he poured water into a large iron pot and set it on a hook over the fire.
"Sometime yesterday, and it was barely edible," the scholar said between mouthfuls.
"Did you come directly to Riverside from University?" St. Vier asked.
"No," the scholar snarled.
"Have you no family?"
"I have no one," the scholar said in a dangerous voice. "I have no past. No future. There is nothing you need be concerned with."
"I insist you answer at least one question for me," said the swordsman, "if you are to accept my hospitality."
The young man tilted his head. "What is that?"
"Tell me your name."
The scholar paused, considering. "Alec, call me Alec," he said finally.
"Alec. I like that. I’m Richard."
He reached out his hand, but Alec stubbornly refused to take it. "I don’t intend to make friends with my killer," he said.
Richard clicked his tongue in exasperation. "I’m not going to kill you. You can forget it. Throw yourself out the window if you like. Just be quiet at it. Marie can forgive a mess, if you don’t wake her up while you’re about it."
"Don’t think I haven’t thought of that one. I’ve thought of them all. All the ways to kill oneself." Alec held out his wrist and Richard noticed a jagged scar on it. "They all hurt too much. I can’t go through with it. I’m an unbearable coward."
"That wasn’t a coward I saw facing down those bravos at Rosalie’s," Richard said.
Alec shrugged. "I’ve discovered when you’ve lost the fear of dying, there’s nothing they can do to you."
"Alec," Richard said carefully. "Why do you want to die?"
The scholar made an elaborate show of sweeping crumbs off his robe. Then he rose and stood by the window, watching the moon floating high over the jagged black line of the rooftops. When he turned back toward Richard, one side of his angular face was lit by a ghostly sheen, the near side was ruddy gold in the firelight. It heightened a sense of duality. Richard thought him desperately beautiful.
"I don’t belong anywhere, Richard. No one wants me. Do you know what that’s like? No, of course you don’t. Everyone wants you."
"I never thought about whether or not anyone wanted me. They certainly all want something from me. They want me to buy them drinks, or to warm their beds, or to kill someone for them. Isn’t that how it is?"
"Yes, that’s how it is, exactly. They either want something from you or they have no use for you. No one wants to listen." The fire popped a spark out onto the floor. It skittered to a stop just short of Richard’s foot. For a moment it was reflected in Alec’s eyes as if he were a strange demonic creature.
"They’re not worth it," Richard said. "Not worth killing yourself over anyway. That’s giving them too much power."
"They think they have power over us, but they are wrong. We are masters of our own fate, aren’t we? That is, if we’re willing to give up everything. But then sometimes, Richard," and at this he made a small noise in his throat, "sometimes you find you can’t bear the cruelty of it. You can’t fight anymore. It all just hurts too much and you will do anything, anything to stop it hurting."
"It doesn’t have to hurt," Richard said. "You just don’t let it."
"So easy for you, isn’t it? Do you have something to drink? Something strong."
"Demanding little snot, aren’t you," Richard replied.
"Yes," said Alec, and then he chuckled. It was a sound Richard wanted to hear more of, wanted to feel vibrate against his chest.
Richard went back to the cupboard to retrieve a bottle of brandy that he’d been keeping for no apparent reason as he rarely drank. He searched through the stack of dishes in the back of the cupboard and found two lead crystal glasses, the only good ones he owned. He poured two fingers’ width of brandy into each and handed one to Alec, who swirled the liquor around while inspecting the glass. He flicked a fingernail against the side, bringing forth a clear chime. "Nice, Richard," he said. "Imported from Chartil, I’ll wager. Did one of your clients get them for you?"
Unexpectedly, Richard was remembering her charmingly crooked smile as she held the glasses up at the flea market. ‘Richard, look at these. Aren’t they lovely? Buy them for me, please. We have nothing nice.’ Her dark hair had glinted so prettily in the afternoon sunlight. He had just been paid for a job and they had bought luxuries he would never have considered before. They ran home laughing, burdened with parcels, and had barely got inside the door, when they were kissing. The next morning there had been little heaps of clothing all across the floor to the bedroom. That was the last time he remembered being happy.
"I bought them," he said, "for my. . . for a former lover."
"Former lover. What happened?"
"I thought you didn’t want any pasts dredged up here."
"Fair enough," Alec said. He took a long gulp of the amber liquid, then choked slightly. "Wretched stuff," he said. "But I expect it’ll do the trick."
"Lord Rossillion would wonder at his stock being called wretched," said Richard.
"Lord Bertram Rossillion has all his taste up his backside," Alec said and then pressed his lips together as if recalling a private joke. "But then, he’d drink whatever was fashionable, never mind the taste."
And there it was, Richard thought, he’d teased out a little bit of his history. "So you know the man?"
Alec took another gulp and again winced. "‘Knowest thou a prating popinjay, sirrah? Say ‘tis not so. For the idle breath that wasteth the hours doth more evil than good.’ That’s from Tristen, The Mad Chancellor, Third Act. Have you ever read it?"
"No, I haven’t. I don’t read." Richard was amused by the diversion, as no doubt Alec had intended.
"Can’t say that I blame you. There is not much worth reading. Mostly it’s trashy romances, tales of dashing swordsmen riding off with sweet young things - well, perhaps you would like that. But oh, the books that are worth it . . . there is nothing better in the world," Alec said avidly.
"No, I mean I don’t read, as in, I can’t."
Alec’s eyes widened. "Oh . . . I’m sorry, Richard."
"Don’t be," Richard replied. "I never had occasion to learn and I find I don’t much need it in my profession."
"That of killing people," Alec said.
"That of killing people."
"Which you only do when it suits you," Alec said. "Perhaps I could become enough of a nuisance that you’d think it worthwhile to kill me." He took another swig of brandy and sighed. "This is actually growing on me. At least I don’t feel the cold so much. I’m indebted to you."
It was the first attempt at courtesy Richard had heard him utter. He inclined his head.
"Richard, what does it feel like to kill someone? I’ve never done it, you see."
St. Vier shrugged. "I don’t think about it."
"Not good enough. I want to know. When you look down at them dead at your feet, what do you feel?"
"If it was a good fight, I feel elated, from the fight itself, not its conclusion. But mostly, I have a vague sense of, I don’t know, of regret perhaps. It depends on the circumstances."
"Never triumph, nor satisfaction? What if he was a particularly nasty person."
"I rarely know the person I kill. It’s just a job." There was that sudden wincing in Richard’s chest of something wanting to come out. He ignored it.
"I suppose that’s convenient, isn’t it?" Alec said. "You are only a soldier - without a cause. So, if you killed me, there would be no cause for regret."
"I’m not going to kill you. It would be . . . pointless," Richard said. "Look, your water is steaming, Alec." He grabbed a rag and lifted it off the fire to a trivet on the floor.
"But what if you knew me? Knew my heart and discovered that I was a monster, a slayer of small children? What then?"
"I am good at sensing what’s under the surface of a man and you are not a monster, Alec. I’m quite sure of it."
"Sure of it, are you? You know nothing about me. You don’t know what I am." Alec had finished the brandy and helped himself to more. Then he pulled off his boots and reclined on the longue, stretching out his long legs and crossing his feet at the ankles. There was a hole in one of his socks. "I’ll tell you this much about myself. When I was a young boy, there was, in my grandparents’ house, a close relative who they said was brilliant. Brilliant, but mad as one of the ancient kings in springtime. They had to lock him up in a tower where he stayed for years. At night I could hear him up there in the room above mine, making a terrible moaning and lamenting. He used to cry for help, begging for someone to release him from his prison. He would scream that insects were pulling off his skin. It horrified me. I wanted to let him out, but I was terrified to do so. One day the strange cries mysteriously ceased - for good. No one would talk about it. I left not too long after that and I won’t go back. But still sometimes, unexpectedly, I can hear the sound of his wailing as if his ghost pursues me. They say I take after him in temperament, and I think . . . I fear . . . Richard . . ."
A fierce flurry of wind shook the house. Alec’s face was drawn. He gripped his glass until his knuckles became white. There was a sharp crack and he flinched, then stared down at his hand in surprise. A drop of red splashed onto the floor, and another, then a long line snaked down his wrist and disappeared into his cuff. Alec watched in fascination.
Richard leapt up and gently pried the glass with its broken shard away from the scholar, set it on the floor, and then examined his hand. There was a deep cut in his forefinger, which was now bleeding freely. "Suck on it," he commanded.
"But it’s so pretty, flowing like that. I thought you liked blood, Swordsman," Alec said dreamily.
"I don’t want a mess on the floor," Richard barked.
Contritely, Alec stuck his finger in his mouth, while Richard went to get a rag. He returned, tearing a long, narrow strip as he went.
"Tastes terrible," Alec muttered.
"Hold still, you idiot," Richard said as he bound the finger tightly.
"I’m sorry about your glass, one of your only good ones. We’ll have to find you another," Alec said.
"It’s all right. I have no need for it," Richard said. He picked up the broken glass and tossed it into his trash basket. Somehow the bright ring of its final demise made his eyes mist. He wondered what was happening to him. Perhaps he was just tired. It had been a long and unusual day.
"I have been a nuisance, haven’t I," Alec said, with satisfaction. He gathered his long limbs together as if to get up. "Perhaps I should just go and bleed to death in the alley."
"You said yourself, it’s too cold out tonight. You stay put." Richard gently clasped Alec’s hurt hand between both of his and looked into his eyes. "Alec, heritage is not destiny. You do not have to become your kinsman. My father was bound in servitude all his life to a rich and powerful lord. Early on, I determined to be free of that and make my own way. And I have. I come and go as I please. I have bedded nobles and killed them. My choice. They do not own me."
"And yet still you serve their pleasure," Alec said.
"Perhaps, or perhaps they serve mine." Richard smiled. "Or maybe it’s all one."
"Yes," Alec breathed, his green eyes glittering.
"Well, I expect the water has cooled enough, if you want it. I’ll get a sponge and some soap."
Richard went to his washstand to collect some toiletries and a towel, brought them back, and set them on the floor. "Come now, off with the robe," he said, holding out his hands.
Alec looked slightly dazed. He opened his mouth and then shut it. Then, like a trusting child, he put up his arms, and Richard drew the robe off over his head. Underneath was a well-cut green jacket with silver braid and under that a fancy linen shirt with lace at the neck and cuffs. They were all in need of a wash.
"God, I stink," Alec said, wrinkling his nose.
"I agree with you there," Richard chuckled. He wrung out the sponge, rubbed it across some soap, and handed it to Alec. The scholar took it and slowly scrubbed it up one long arm and across his chest. Tiny soap bubbles blossomed in its wake. Richard couldn’t take his eyes off him. His shoulders were broad and bony, his chest long and well formed, tapering to a slender waist; his small brown nipples were puckered in the chill. Alec lifted his arm to wash underneath and Richard was arrested by the sight of two silky tufts of brown hair, parted in the middle like tiny wings made of mohair. He wanted to touch them. Alec came forward off the longue onto his knees, scooted close to the kettle, and dipped the sponge again. Richard closed his eyes and listened to the soft patter as Alec wrung out the sponge, a silence, and then the water again, like rain. He heard him sigh.
"I am starting to feel almost human," Alec said. "But I can’t reach my back."
Richard opened his eyes and found the scholar smiling and holding the sponge out to him. "I think you are determined to have me service you - in one way or another," Richard said.
"Yes," Alec replied.
Richard chuckled. He took the dripping sponge, shuffled on his knees around behind the scholar. With one hand, he lifted the heavy tail of hair out of the way and began scouring his back with the other. He was too thin; Richard could clearly feel the outline of his bones, but his form was shapely, his muscles hard, his skin soft. Richard found he was enjoying this more than he should. Slowly, he ran the sponge alongside the little knobs of bone down his back.
"That feels wonderful," Alec crooned.
Richard’s knees began to get damp from the spilled water. When he had satisfied himself that he’d scrubbed the boy adequately, he reached for the towel and patted him dry. Then, draping the towel over Alec’s shoulders, he undid the knot on the ribbon restraining his hair. Once released, it fell about his shoulders to the middle of his back, like a rich brown mantle with tangled airy strands.
"Your hair is in need of a brush," Richard said.
"Do you have one?"
"I have an extra one you can use." Richard got up, went into his dark bedroom, rummaged around in the chest drawer for a while and finally found it by feel. He brought the brush into the sitting room and handed it to Alec, who pulled a long strand of raven dark hair from it.
"I daresay, this isn’t yours, Richard."
"No, it’s not." Richard gently took the brush from his hand and began detangling Alec’s thick mane. He settled back against the foot of the longue and Alec leaned against him. As Richard brushed, he could detect a vague scent from his hair, something rich, like ambergris. He found it soothing, as if he could wrap himself in it and be safe. Doing this seemed right, seemed so comfortably domestic. He tugged at a knot, working it through with his fingers, and Alec fidgeted and complained and that was right too. "Look here, you’ve a bit of a leaf in your hair," Richard said. He removed the scrap and let it float to the floor. Alec leaned more heavily against him. Eventually, Richard had the boy’s hair brushed smooth as satin. It gleamed with chestnut highlights. Richard ran his fingers through it, lifted a handful off the nape of Alec’s neck, and breathed in its scent. "I like your hair, Alec," he said.
"Well, it’s a bloody nuisance. Why university tradition insists on having us all look like girls before their Coming Out is beyond me. Oh, I know, it’s always been that way. Well, ossified style suits petrified minds, still stuck in the ideas of an ancient time too."
"I like it," Richard repeated. The back of Alec’s neck was fuzzy with tiny blond hairs. It looked so vulnerable that Richard leaned down and kissed it, feeling the soft down against his mouth. Alec’s breath caught with a slight gasp and his body tensed.
Richard sighed. "Perhaps I should allow you to wash the rest of . . . of yourself in privacy." He wriggled away from Alec and stood up. "You can sleep on the longue, if you like. I’ll get you a blanket."
"That would be most kind of you," Alec said. His voice was formal, distant. "Do you have a razor?"
Richard could feel disapproval tightening his mouth.
"Oh I promise, I will only shave with it," Alec said, with that amused curl of the lip. His eyes were so brilliantly lovely, they pierced the swordsman’s heart. Richard got him the razor. When he came back, Alec was standing with his back to him, bent over slightly, and lowering his breeches off his hips with a slight wriggle. The tops of his buttocks were beautifully rounded; they would fit cupped hands quite nicely.
Richard turned his thoughts away. He must have caught some of the young man’s madness to have invited him in, made him his guest. Alec had made him feel emotions he’d rather not, and breached a portion of the wall he had so carefully constructed around himself. He set the blanket on the longue and then backed off. "Good night, then," he said. "Eat anything you want. Let yourself out quietly in the morning. I sleep late."
Alec turned to regard him coolly through his long lashes with one hand still holding up his pants. He put his other hand over his heart. "Master Swordsman," he drawled. "I thank you for your many kindnesses." He made a rolling flourish with his hand and his breeches slipped down a little further, revealing a shadow’s edge of curly hair.
Richard fled to his room and shut the door quietly. While taking off his clothes, he discovered the leaf in his pocket. Curious. He started to toss it away, but then for unfathomable reasons, he set it on top of the carved headboard of his bed. Then he crawled between the cold sheets, cradled a pillow in his arms, and tried to go to sleep.
The wind was still prowling through Riverside, occasionally buffeting the sides of the house with a roar and a rattle. He could hear a shutter slapping, somewhere. He felt excited. Every movement of the sheets against his bare loins filled him with fire. He shifted restlessly. Finally his hand moved downward to seek relief.
The door creaked open, letting in a finger of orange light from the dying fire. "Richard?"
"What now?" he growled.
The door opened wider and he could see the tall silhouette wrapped in the blanket. "I’m cold," he said.
Richard opened the covers. "Come in, then. Be quick about it."
The blanket dropped to the floor and Alec clambered in, long limbs everywhere, before composing himself on the far side of the bed. There was a satisfied sigh. "It’s nice in here," he said.
The silence that followed was filled with tension, as if the very air crackled with potential. Richard turned away, then back again, facing the boy in his bed. Slowly, tentatively, he reached out a hand and his fingertips brushed bare skin. When Alec did not pull away, Richard extended his fingers and touched a hard shoulder, which he cradled in his hand. Alec trembled, whether in fear or excitement, Richard could not tell. He caressed the length of the long back and his hand came to rest on a hip. He heard a breathy sigh.
"Have you ever . . .?" Richard asked.
"Do you want to . . . ?"
They moved towards each other and Richard gathered Alec into his arms. Alec put his hands on Richard’s lower back. "Ai, they’re cold," Richard laughed.
"Mmm, yes, and you are very warm," Alec murmured. "I like that." He wrapped his legs around the swordsman and rested his equally cold feet on the backs of Richard’s calves.
"You wouldn’t last an hour outside," Richard said.
"I’ve never been able to stand the cold. Thin blood, they say," Alec responded. His hands were moving up and down over Richard's arms, across his back, and then over his buttocks. Alec sighed and his breath puffed in Richard’s hair. "You feel so good. So remarkably compact and muscular. It’s strange, like this, when I can barely see you. I thought I knew what it would be like to touch you from looking at you, but it’s not like that at all. It’s better. Like having a dream take form in your arms."
Richard was listening intently to that charming voice in his ear, paying more attention to the music of its sound than the words. Meanwhile he was conducting explorations of his own. Alec was slightly damp from the bath, between the thighs, under the arms. Richard’s fingers found the soft tufts of hair there. Alec jerked away with a laugh. "You’re tickling me." Richard tickled him again just to hear that laugh. He felt along each curved rib, stroked along the hollow of his hip. Then he pulled the scholar yet closer and now they were pressed together the length of their bodies.
"I can tell that you like this," Richard said. He shifted slightly to make a better fit.
"Can you now?" The voice was amused. Alec shifted back the other way. The effect was like a honeyed jolt, a shiver of pleasure that found a home and grew with every movement. Richard reached up and ran a hand across Alec’s face and discovered that it was now smooth as a maid’s.
"I guess you made good use of that razor."
"You should have used it," Alec said. "You’re scratchy."
"It’s the end of the day. I shave in the morning."
"I shave whenever I get the chance," said the scholar. He nibbled along Richard’s cheek, and then trailed his tongue across its roughness. Richard turned his head and their lips met. Gently at first. Alec’s lips were firm and yet pliant at the same time. Richard opened his mouth to taste him better. Then it seemed as if Alec had finally become unleashed. He kissed back with a fury, breaking away occasionally with a little urgent moan and then going back to Richard’s mouth. Their tongues found each other and played, like seals rolling in the surf; while ever more frantically their lower limbs writhed together, building their need.
Suddenly Alec tumbled him over and climbed on top, holding down his upper arms. "You would have me, Swordsman?" he challenged.
"I’d thought to," Richard said. He struggled a little, testing. Alec was stronger than he would have anticipated.
"There’s a price for it."
"What is it?"
Richard laughed. "I can rent a professional for one royal. What makes your offering so valuable?"
"You’ll get it back, when I hire you."
"I told you, that job’s off."
"I usually get what I want," Alec said.
"No, that isn’t what you want at all," Richard said softly. He lunged up, knocked Alec over, flipped him onto his back, and held him down by the wrists. He could feel Alec’s pulse thundering under his palms. Alec thrashed. Richard pressed his weight down and settled himself between Alec’s spread thighs. He spoke into his ear. "What did you say you wanted? One quick thrust?"
Alec moaned from deep in his throat, like a pained animal.
Richard slid off him just long enough to reach for the bottle of oil under the bed. While he worked on preparations, he heard Alec’s shallow panting. Richard pushed one of his knees upward. And then Alec cried out and arched up under him.
Alec’s core was hot as a furnace. He was gasping, "Richard, oh god, Richard."
"You like that? It feels good?" Richard whispered.
"Yes, a thousand times yes!"
The world became reduced to movement, labored breath, skin becoming slick and hot. The pleasure he felt threatened to overwhelm him. Richard leaned down, sealed his lips to his lover’s, and they gasped a final cry into each other’s mouths.
When Richard came back to himself, he was lying with one arm about Alec’s neck, his face pressed into the scholar’s hair. The feeling of a sticky belly caused him to reach for a piece of the sheet to wipe it off. His body buzzed with contentment, but there was something else, a terrible heaviness in his heart. Alec was humming something.
"What are you humming?" Richard asked.
"Oh, it came to me just now. Something I remember my mother singing to me when I was a child. "Richard, oh Richard, why dost thou roam? Thy poor lover seeks thee and thou art n’er home."
Richard sat up, trying to peer through the dark at Alec’s face. A teardrop slid down the side of his nose and fell, then another one.
Alec stopped singing. He reached up and felt Richard’s cheek. "You’re crying!" he said, amazed. He pulled Richard’s head down to his chest.
To his own astonishment, Richard found himself sobbing uncontrollably. He clutched at Alec, pressing his face to the scholar’s warmth. "Her name was Jessamyn. My former lover, I mean. She died . . . by my hand."
"I know," Alec said. "They told me."
"I didn’t mean to kill her, Alec. I never wanted to do that. I don’t even know how it happened. But I can tell you, for a certainty, it won’t ever happen again. Do you hear me?"
"Hush," Alec said, stroking his hair. "I know."
The autumn wind has ceased for the moment, leaving all the things disturbed by its passage lying where chance cast them. Of these things, two young men now lie sleeping within each other’s arms, giving comfort at a time that was not of their own choosing, but rather when they needed it most.