Chapter 1: First signs
"Well I am fucking hungry!" The shout echoed across the still waters around them and a group of seagulls took flight from a nearby shallow.
"That's not an excuse for how you're acting, you're not five-fucking-years old Locke."
"Just because that cat got in the pantry we have to starve to death? Is that it?"
Jean discreetly shifted his body so he was shielding more of Regal and said, with emphasis on every word, "We do not eat the cat."
Locke turned away, grumbling in tune with his stomach. This trip was turning out worse than he would have imagined, not counting the whole being poisoned thing. They had been out at sea for about a week, creeping up the coast and doing their best ignoring the rising tension between them. Or 'mounting tension' was maybe a more appropriate way to put it. Locke knew Jean did his best to hide his anger, hide how betrayed he felt about being tricked to drink the antidote, but the clenched fists and the sullen silence were hard to miss, especially for Locke.
He heaved a deep sigh as he look out over the horizon, it was endless and it was beautiful. But after that whole fiasco dealing with sailing it and pretending to know how that was done, he mostly saw the potential for danger in those still waters. And the potential for frighteningly large sea beasts. Not that such an encounter would matter much now, he would be dead soon anyways. As the thought hit him he was once again surprised over how calm he felt, how he already seemed to have accepted it so fully. He felt like he should be angrier, maybe scream a bit and throw a real royal tantrum, but the only thing that really bothered him was the thought that Jean would have to deal with everything all alone afterwards. Jean had been right, making him drink the antidote had been selfish as hell, but that did not mean that he regretted it.
If he was being honest there was one part of this whole business that did disturb him though. And it was the fact that he did not know when or even how the poison would take effect. Fucking Tal Verrar and its dearly departed fucking Archon.
He was startled out of his merry reflections by a thud and a swearing Jean cursing the boat that kept them above the surface.
"The boat is still plotting the murder of your knees?" he asked as he turned around, careful to be as cheeky as he would have been during normal circumstances.
"If we do not get of this boat soon I swear I'll either swim to shore and leave your sorry ass behind or put one of the sisters through the hull."
"Would be a terrible waste of a fine boat. I thought you had really gotten the taste for sailing, and this is such a private and luxurious vessel."
"The only waste here is that of your words in my ears. It's one thing to be on a large ship, no matter how many ill-mannered people you share it with, it's quite another to be stuck in this small barrel. Soon one of us is going overboard."
"Come now, no need to resort to personal attacks or mass drowning."
"Personal drowning is looking more and more appealing."
Locke heaved another sight. When Jean decided to unreasonable, he always went the whole way.
"I thought it was my role to be the whiny bitch," said Locke, "and before you decide that my skull is better suited for one of the sisters than the hull of the boat, let me just point put that we need to make for land anyway. The cat made sure of that when it ate all our provisions."
"Don't blame the cat," Jean grumbled, stroking the black menace that had somehow wormed it's way into his arms, "and as a matter of fact I was going below deck to check what city that might be that we are heading towards when the boat decided I needed to be a couple of feet shorter."
Jean tilted his head to indicate the piece of shore quite a bit ahead of them that had come into view as they rounded the latest small cape just a couple of minutes ago. Locke turned his head to see what he was looking at and immediately cursed his own inattentiveness, there was indeed a town resting on the shore. Not a impressing large one, but it was definitely more than a small fishing village. He even though he could glimpse one or three buildings large enough to be more than simple housing.
"Well don't let me keep you then. And while you're down there why don't you try and find something that the devil in your arms didn't chew on? If we are making for port I would like to arrive without my stomach resorting to eating itself on the way."
"And you were worried that I would steal your title of whining bitch."
"Well I have to keep up appearances, can't compromise my winning personality now can I."
"I'll compromise you if we don't reach that town soon."
Jean turned around before Locke could retort and made his way down the short flight of stairs, taking Regal with him. Locke glared after him.
"Then you better-" The bout of dizziness hit Locke like a fist in the face, and he lurched sideways, coming dangerously close to taking a dive into the frigid waters of the sea before he caught himself at the last minute on the small railing and sank down to the deck. His vision swam and for a short time he was not sure he knew what was up and what was down anymore.
"Finally at a loss for snarky comebacks, eh?" Jeans voice came from below deck and Locke forced himself to take deep breaths and focus. Whatever it was that just happened, it would not do to worry Jean about it. Just a spell of dizziness, nothing serious. This was nothing compared to what was to come, Locke knew, and to start weighting Jean down with it already was not an option.
"Not at all, " said Locke, forcing his voice to sound normal and not as winded and afraid as he felt, "simply not bothering with the easy fights. Did you find the name of the town that will soon get the pleasure of our visit?"
There was a small pause before Jean answered that Locke chose to ignore. "It's apparently called Suarra. Large enough that our visit will not be especially noted but small enough that there should be no well informed officials that know of us. Seems pretty ideal. Can't say I've heard of it before though." As Jean spoke he walked back up the stairs, this time with the map in hand and no cat to be seen. Locke idly wondered if Regal somehow had managed to get to their last few supplies instead of Jean and with a grumbling of his stomach he deemed it entirely possible.
Locke adjusted himself so it merely looked as if he was sitting down, and not as if he had suddenly collapsed. The world had stopped spinning and he was almost in control again.
"Sounds perfect! Let's make all possible haste."
"Stop lounging around and help set the course then," said Jean, "we should be able to make it before sundown without any problems."
And id Locke kept closer to the middle of the boat and made sure to sit down as much as possible as they worked, he made sure that he acted as normally as he could and that Jean had no case to suspect anything.
They had a long way to go before this was over after all.
As they finally moored they were greeted by an almost empty dock and an hourly long search for the harbormaster. The whole district was almost deserted, and the few people they did see were quick to dive into shadows and alleyways, making it clear that it would be a bad idea to give pursuit.
It was a bit unsettling, and they would probably have given up and gone out to sea to search for a friendlier town if they had had the rations for it. But as it were they were stuck here, walking through the sludge of the dirty streets, looking for a man who hid from his own job.
When they finally stumbled upon the harbormaster he was deep in a mug of beer and about as friendly as you would expect from someone who worked with sailors every day. Locke and Jean had almost given up the search, and had made their way into one of the many seedy taverns in the docks as a last resort to get information about the harbormasters whereabouts, since these were the only places that seemed to harbor some, at least relatively, talkative people. To call the tavern ‘rundown’ would have been a compliment, and the smell was thick even a couple of houses down the street. That was probably one of the reason why the street was empty of everything except a couple of dogs, even though they usually were packed with all kinds of shady people outside places such as this.
Just as they opened the door, and the traditional silence settled over the patrons as they surveyed the newcomers- to rob or not to rob? - a loud and boisterous laugh drew Locke’s attention to a corner of the room where a large man was sitting surrounded by young sailors, slapping his thighs in mirth and sloshing beer all over the table.
“Am I going blind or is that a harbormasters uniform?” Locke leaned over to ask Jean as the mumble in the tavern once more rose in volume. Jeans size, and well-rehearsed intimidating glares, were useful in many ways.
“If it’s supposed to look anything like the ones in Tal Verrar, then that’s our man,” Jean answered as he relaxed his stance along with the atmosphere in the room, “We might have had more luck bargaining with that dog licking its own balls outside though.”
Jean shook his head as the big, drunk, man downed the last of his beer and made another joke that had the young sailors around the table laughing nervously in response. His own laughter drowned them all out though, and he seemed barely aware of his company.
“That’s just mean to the dog, it never seemed this self-centered,” said Locke, looking on in disgust. That he himself had turned to alcohol for release once somehow made it even harder to watch.
No one at the table acknowledged their presence as they made their way over, all focus was on the harbormaster as he was currently re-telling a tale of when he single-handedly rescued all the prostitutes in a burning brothel. Locke kicked the rickety chair he was balancing on two legs, and the harbormaster flew forward to regain his balance, succeeding in smacking his head against the beer stained table and turning everyone’s full attention to the newly arrived pair.
“Hello!” Locke greeted the group with a big smile, “Sadly we are no whores burning with desire, but can we have some of your time nonetheless?”
“What the fuck do you want?” The harbormaster asked, rubbing his red forehead and straightening himself in the chair.
“Only for you to do your fucking job, my good sir,” Locke said, “there’s a boat awaiting your attention, please indulge it.”
“What the fuck is your problem? Can’t you see I’m off duty?”
“It’s the middle of the day and you have your uniform on,” Locke waved him off, “you can go back to this sad life of yours after you’ve done your job and registered our boat.”
The harbormaster rose from the chair, and with him rose the group of young sailors around the table. He took a threatening step towards Locke, “If you do not leave-”
He abruptly cut of his sentence, and Locke knew that Jean had moved up behind him.
“So as I was saying, please come with us.”
“If I had known it was such a hassle being a law-abiding citizen in this fucking town, I would never have bothered,” Locke muttered to himself as they finally made their way up from the sea sprayed streets closest to the sea.
They had managed to drag the drunk harbormaster from the tavern and down to their boat where he, amidst grumbles of revenge and burps, had done the necessary paperwork before stumbling off down the street in search of a new gaggle of youngsters to intrude on.
“Well, it was you who insisted that we do it the right way,” Jean answered.
“I'm trying to gain some point in my final days.”
He had meant it as a joke, but he could see in the stiffness of Jeans shoulder that it had been a bad one, “I’m sorry Jean. But you have to accept-”
“Let’s just find someplace to sleep for tonight,” Jean interrupted him, “this whole town can’t be as deserted as these docks, it’s giving me the creeps.”
“That lovely harbormaster must have scared everyone off.”
Locke figured there was no point in arguing with Jean, it never was when he got like this. He simply hoped that Jean would come to accept how things were now, accept what would eventually happen. Fortunately, Locke had gone the whole day without a spell of dizziness, but his head was pounding as if to remind him that all was not well. And Jean was right, the docks had been uncomfortably empty off people, even in the middle of the day. In most cities the docks were among the most bustling quarters; filled to the brim with markets, sailors, and the glorious mix of decay and vitality that usually permeated such streets. But in Suarra the streets were almost empty, and the people shunned each other like the plague. It was enough to convince them that something was going on, but they had not come here to get involved, so they quickly made their way up the streets towards the rest of the city.
Just beyond the docks the city was bustling with life. It was as if the people shunned the water, and it was almost shocking to suddenly be surrounded by so many people after the deserted and murky streets down by the water. Locke took a deep breath and reminded himself that they were not known here, they were as safe as could be at the moment. Instead, he focused on the city itself. The buildings seemed to be too tall for their width, lining the roads in a never ending row of wood, leaning out over the streets at almost unnatural angles. Since the buildings were so tall, the sun was constantly hidden behind one or another, and Locke found himself surprisingly grateful. His head had been hurting all day, and the respite from the glaring sun was more soothing than he would like to admit.
The people that walked the shadowy streets were all somber and seemed to be prepared for anything- almost every hip was adorned with some sort of knife.
“They carry their weapons out in the open? They are either very good, or very stupid,” said Locke, veering out of the way as a group of what looked like bankers walked past with knife as long as their upper arms swaying at their hips, “I think my money is on stupid.”
“I don’t know,” said Jean, “they all seem somewhat tense. I would not pick unnecessary fights with these people.”
“When do I ever pick unnecessary fights?”
Jean simply looked at him and Locke smiled, “I get it I get it, we will keep a low profile here. What do you say, it’s about time to find someplace to rest, yes? Let’s see what this place has to offer in the way of inns that won’t leave us without possessions and clothes when we wake up.”
So sorry for the late update, there's been a lot going on for me, and it's hard to find the time to write! Just to be on the clear with everyone, I see this small project as a very light-hearted thing and a text to work on when I have some spare time, so there might be some canonical errors and there will definitely be some grammatical ones... English is not my native language, and I have no-one to proofread my stuff, so all errors are on me though!
But I wholly love the Gentleman Bastard Sequence, so I will do my best (and have some fun on the way) :)
They ended up at an inn much like the Silver Lantern in Vel Virazzo, even though this one was nowhere near as fancy, and the similarities brought uncomfortable memories for both of them. Locke spent the next couple of days trying to convince both himself and Jean that he had no plans, ever, to go back to that self-pitying state. But his increasingly shitty health made it hard.
At first it was nothing bad, just the same old headaches and dizzy spells that he had been suffering from during the last couple of days. But then, one day, Locke woke to the taste of blood in his mouth. His heartbeat sped up, and he had to fight to keep his breathing even and calm; he could hear Jean snoring in his bed just across the room and he did not want to wake him. Slowly he extracted himself from the tangled and damp sheets– had he been having a nightmare? – and made his way into the small bathroom connected to their rooms. Once inside he quickly shut the door before allowing himself to acknowledge the panic that was growing in his chest, and he made his way over to the washbasin with stumbling steps before catching himself on the edge and spitting into the bowl. Frothy spit, the color of diluted wine. He spat again. And again. Locke realized that he was shaking, and he forced himself to take deep breaths. It could be nothing. He had had a nightmare, maybe he had simply bit his tongue while he slept. There was a small, clouded, mirror on the wall above the basin, and Locke stuck his tongue out to inspect it. Nothing. He opened his mouth and tilted his head to see inside, wiped the sleeve of his nightshirt across the glass to clear it but only succeeded in dragging the grime around a bit, but he did manage to see that the blood was coming from his gums. It was not much, since he had spit out what had been in his mouth when he woke there was only the barest hint of red around some teeth in the back now, but it was enough for Locke to feel his stomach drop. New symptoms? He had never experienced anything like this before, he would be naive to think it was anything but the poison.
“You asleep in there Locke?”
Locke startled as Jeans voice was heard through the door, nearly succeeding in actually biting his tongue as he slammed his mouth shut.
“Fuck- Jean! You scared the shit out of me!”
“Done soon then, I hope. Come on, I need to go.”
“Yeah, right. Just wait a minute.”
Locke took a couple of slow breaths to calm down and quickly relieved himself before washing away any signs of blood from the basin. As he exited the small bathroom he smiled at Jean before starting to get dressed, gathering his clothes from the floor where he had thrown them last night. No need to fear what he could not control, and especially no need to scare Jean.
To keep himself occupied, and Jean of his back, he offered to make the days run to the market. Jean was a bit surprised, and Locke kicked himself for not realizing that it was Jeans turn to go to the market. He fumbled with his words a little, finally admitting to a nightmare and the need to breath some fresh air, and in the end they had simply gone together.
They had spent the first couple of days in Suarra trying to get a feel for the city without having to make contact with the street’s lowlifes, and so they were both rather familiar with the layout of the roads in the area around the inn they were staying in, and the way to the market was one they both knew well.
“So,” Jean glanced at Locke from the corner of his eye as they walked down the street, “How are you feeling?”
“How am I feeling? Well, I think there’s a blister on my pinky toe, but I’m not sure yet.”
“Don’t give me that, you know what I mean. Have you noticed anything yet?”
Locke imagined himself being honest, imagined telling Jean of the dizziness and the frothy spit. Imagined seeing Jeans face fall into a frown.
“No, nothing yet,” Locke answered, “I guess the Archon was exaggerating the speed of the poison to scare us.”
Jean looked at him intently for a couple of seconds; of course he was afraid that Locke was tricking him and hiding symptoms. Locke kept his face carefully neutral until Jean looked away.
“I guess he was.”
The street they were walking down was rather crowded for the early hour, but it was one of the main thoroughfare of the city so it was nothing out of the ordinary. It simply meant that they had to be more vigilant than if they had traveled down one of the more sparsely visited side-streets, but since they wanted to avoid getting caught up in the underground of the city they tried to avoid those areas as much as they could. Locke spotted a threadbare child walking down the street towards them in the opposite direction, making an obvious attempt at not being noticeable. He exchanged a glance with Jean before continuing their conversation.
“And you?” Locke asked, “What do you think of this city?”
“I don’t know yet.”
“What do you mean?”
“I’m still waiting for it to stab me in the back.”
“Come now, don’t be so dramatic Jean! This seems like a perfectly nice port town.”
“That is when you have to be careful, isn’t it? When you think you know something.” Jean was refusing to look at Locke now, “It is always then that you’ve got to watch your back extra carefully. Or your drink.”
The child was now level with them, and Locke felt a small hand slip into his pocket. It was a good movement, but it hitched a little on the edge and tugged at his pants.
“Oh for Perelandro’s sake,” said Locke, “we’ve been over this again and again Jean, when will you-” He seized the small arm and yanked hard, bringing the kid, and themselves, to a full stop, “- let it go? Hello there.”
He smiled down at the now terrified kid. If she had managed to pull the move of perfectly he would have let the kid have the few coins he kept in that pocket, but perfection was not reached by lenient means, and the kid needed to know that she had a lot to learn if she was to survive.
“What do you think you’re doing?” said Locke. The kid was wriggling in his grip, but he did not release her, “Are you trying to steal from me?”
“I’m sorry, I’m sorry! Please let me go, I promise I will never-”
“Don’t make promises you can’t keep.”
“I’m sorry! Please let me go sir!”
“And why would I do that? I should turn you over to the guards, surely they know what to do with a street rat like yourself.”
“No, please sir, anything but that! They kill kids like me, hang us from the gallows!”
Locke was all too familiar with that way of handling young criminals. He released the struggling girl’s arm, “Well don’t get caught again then. Watch your thumb next time, if it often catches like it did now; try to curl it into the palm and learn to grab things without it.”
The girl looked at him in shock for a moment before darting away into the crowd of people around them, disappearing in seconds.
“Today’s act of charity?” Jean asked from beside him.
“She had some potential, maybe she’ll get to grow up.”
“To steal more things you mean?”
“What a horrible life that would be!” Locke gasped in dread, “You’ll have to pay for the bread today by the way.”
“I guess she’ll not go hungry tonight at least. I though you said she had to learn?”
“Come on, she deserved something for her efforts. And it’s a lesson, to try and figure out how the coins made it into her pocked without her noticing it.”
“You’re just a trove of academic teachings, aren’t you?”
“I try to do my part in educating the young.”
They did their round of the market, and even though they walked home to the inn with a basket full of bread, wine, meat and fruit, their money reserve was starting to run low. They would have to find some source of income, and it would have to be pretty soon.
Two chapters in a week? Wow, I really don''t want to write that report... Anyway, sorry for the shitty quality of this chapter, it kinda just rolled out of me and up here without anything stopping it in-between!
I will try to update again in the not too distant future, and please leave a comment or some feedback or anything, it really helps keeping the motivation up :v
“It would be in your best interest to stand down, sir.”
Locke’s voice cut through the tension permeating the street. He pulled himself to his full height and tilted his head so that he could look down his nose at Jean that stood before him; the angle threatened to put a crick in his neck.
“My best interest? Jean asked, sneering with barely restrained disgust, “I think you’ll find that my current interests are counterproductive to your continued health.”
Loke gasped, clasping the front of his shirt in a decadently dramatic manner, and turned towards the woman standing beside them, watching the proceeding with rapt attention and a playful smile.
“Can you believe this brute? This insult? He’s threatening me— me! And in broad daylight no less.”
“So?” The woman raised an eyebrow at him, smile unwavering.
“It is a crime! An obvious threat to my life! Contact law enforcement at once, this man need to be detained.”
“I am law enforcement.” The woman’s smile grew to disconcerting proportions, but there was no warmth in the happiness so plainly visible on her face. They had chosen the right officer, that’s for sure, but Locke would have felt more relief for that fact if that smile was directed at someone else. He saw Jean’s shoulders stiffening, but his face betrayed nothing; this was the moment of truth.
“Then what are you waiting for? Arrest him!”
The woman did indeed turn towards Jean, who had watched the entire exchange with a sneer painted across his face. However, the hand she reached out towards him did not bear ill intent, but a greeting. Jean grasped it firmly. Jackpot.
“Welcome to the city, I am Moune. You are from one of the distant families, if I am not mistaken?” she asked, taking in Jean’s appearance. His short-sleeved shirt and fashionably short pants had cost them almost all of their remaining funds, but it echoed the attire of one of the distant noble families that resided far from the city well enough to fool an officer on the street.
“Thank you. Yes, my family’s estate borders— “
“What is the meaning of this?! That man is a nuisance, a threat!” Locke cut in, spluttering and red-faced, and grasped the officer’s arm still clasped in Jean’s hand as he stepped closer to her. She calmly, but firmly, loosened his grip on her arm and took a step away from him.
“The only nuisance on this street right now is you, Lashain scum.” Her smile had faded, and the stillness of her face reflected the stillness of the street around them; the onlookers who had stopped to watch the exchange now saw a real confrontation on the horizon, and they were thirsty for it.
Locke backed away from the pair, raising his hands along with his voice, “This is an outrage! The Council will hear about this, be sure of that. I will see you both hanged!”
The woman turned slightly towards him, and that was his cue to run for it. Turning on his heel, he started down the street, away from the pair, making sure to raise his voice as he did so it would still carry well enough to reach them. Because really now, walking fast enough down the street to make his coat billow behind him didn’t mean that he had to stop making threats, now did it. “Hanged, do you hear me! Not a day will pass—”
The coughing fit hit him like a brick wall, and the only reason he didn’t double over was the momentum he still carried forward, and the angry glares from everyone else on the street egging him on. With every breath he took there was a tickling feeling in the back of his throat, and as he wiped his hand over his face he found that his nose was bleeding. Jean had made no comment, and neither had Moune, so he was fairly certain that it hadn’t started until after he stormed from their company. Small mercies.
When Locke was sure that he was far enough down the street – and that his legs would not hold him for much longer – he darted into a side alley. The deep shadows between the towering buildings put him somewhat at ease; it would be hard for anyone to spot him. Especially if he was sitting on the ground. Resting. As he sank down in the cleanest spot he could find, which by the smell still hosted something at least a week into dissolving, he rubbed at his chest and coughed into the gutter. Damn, this wasn’t good. Speckles of blood soon dotted the cobblestone beside him, but at least his nose seemed to have stopped bleeding. It looks like the rest will be up to Jean for now , he thought, heaving for breath that would not seem to come, and darkness soon claimed him.
“Do you think he’s dead?”
Locke was dragged back into the word of the living by voices nearby – voices speaking in the whispering manner that carried further and louder than ordinary talking ever could; it grated in his throbbing head and he winced.
“How should I know? Poke him and see if he moves!”
“Should we get the offi—"
“Fuck off, why don’t you? Let a man sleep.”
“See, I told you he was alive!”
The woman that had been advocating for poking unknown people lying in the street sounded awfully smug. Before Locke could convince himself to face the light of the fading day again by opening his eyes he could hear them moving down the narrow street. Their interest in him had faded with his return to consciousness.
“You were right this time, yes. But remember that woman last week?”
“Oh, come on. She looked fresher than you have in months, no way she’d really been dead for days!”
“Well, the neighbors said…"
As their voices faded down the street he dared to open one eye and flinched away from the light assaulting his vision. Damn but these dark and dank back alleys sure got a lot of unwanted sunlight. As the world around him came into focus, so did the smells, and Locke almost groaned out loud – this is going to be interesting explaining to Jean. I wonder if he would prefer “I smell like a dead dog because I stuck to the plan, but a middle-aged father decided that throwing his child’s dearly departed Buster out of the window on a passerby was the best burial rite he could provide” or “I coughed up blood and passed out in an alley”? Let’s go with the first one.
Taking stock of his situation Locke saw that he was still lying in the grimy alley he had collapsed in. That was good. According to the slice of sky he could see between the towering buildings it was close to noon. That was less good.
“Shit, Jean will be beside himself.”
Locke stumbled to his feet and out of the narrow street in a matter of seconds, and to his relief he seemed to be more or less stable on his feet. Dragging a hand across his face— no blood, thank the thirteenth— and adjusting his clothes, he rejoined the steady stream of people making their way down the street toward the small, rarely visited, shabby public park where they had decided to meet up after Jean’s establishing scene as a Noble of the area. Hopefully Jean hadn’t had time to tie himself into too tight a knot.
“Perelandro’s mercy. Where have you been, Locke?”
Stopping from where he had been pacing back and forth under one of the tall elms— and why was everything in this city so fucking tall and towering anyway? — Jean stepped close, grabbing Locke’s shoulders and wrinkling his nose, “Sleeping in a ditch by the smell of it. Are you alright? What happened?”
“Everything’s fine Jean. Took a bit of a detour; Moune looked well and truly worked up. Thought it best to avoid any big streets for a while.”
Jean heaved a deep breath and relaxed his shoulders, and Locke almost felt bad for deceiving his friend once again. Almost.
“Well, you really did get her riled up. Haven’t lost your touch. But she swallowed the bait; I’m invited to the Abyss tomorrow.”
“Swallowed it one flexing muscle at a time, I bet! Good work, Jean.”
“Don’t thank me yet. Hitting nobles over the head requires some preparation, at least if it’s to be done right and with the proper finish. There’ll be little sleep tonight.”
Locke fixed the smile on his face, trying to ignore the headache pounding behind his eyes, “When has that ever stopped us? Let’s get going!”
Woah boy, it sure has been a while... But things are finally happening now!
Chapter 5: Place Your Bets
The Abyss was Suarra’s equivalent of the noble’s fighting pit. Less deadly than the Shifting Revel in Camorr but more prestigious by far for the contenders than the Amusement War in Salon Corbeau. Attended exclusively by the upper echelons of society, and fought only by the nobles, the Abyss was as fashionable as it was dangerous. For the nobles participating it was a chance to gain prestige – for nothing in Suarra ranked higher than fighting prowess – and for the lesser citizens watching it presented an excellent opportunity for betting; would the count’s son get stabbed in the arm today, or would that honor be the baronesses?
For Locke and Jean this presented the perfect opportunity to earn some much-needed capital. The only hurdle had been the fact that they couldn’t afford to lose, not if they wanted to maintain the illusion of relative wealth they had established. The truly big winnings could only be reaped from fighters with bad odds, naturally, but those matches were too risky by far to bet on if you weren’t backed by a prestigious family with a vault full of money earned by blood. They could of course temper with the opponents, tip the scales, but it had proven harder than they had anticipated to gain any kind of access to the fighters participating in the Abyss's fights – they were nobles after all. Their only option was to hit the jackpot on the first bet.
Thus it was that as Jean walked into the stadium the next morning to the thunderous applauds of every man, woman, and child in Suarra with enough coin to their name to make a worthy mark, Locke had already placed all their money on the swaggering newcomer fighting with double hatchets.
“The kidney, aim for the kidney!”
The woman beside Locke screamed at the top of her lungs, gripping the balustrade that separated the fighters from the audience, red in the face and eyes intent.
It was solid advice; going for his kidney was one of the most efficient ways of bringing down a man Jean's size. Too bad for his opponent— a wiry man with heavy knuckle dusters— Jean was a step ahead, and to the side, before he could make a move. He swung his dulled hatchets in parallel arcs through the air, and they thunked into the man’s back, sending him flying forwards and to the ground. The Abyss might demand that he weapons carried into the ring were dulled, but that did in no way guarantee that no bodies were carried out.
The roar in the stands rose as the wiry man fell, and Locke felt his face split into a smile.
“You have money on the big guy?”
The woman beside him turned toward him as the commotions raged around them. Her face was still red, and her eyes had lost none of their intensity, but it was now directed straight at Locke instead of at the fighters in the ring.
“Yeah. Seems the gamble on the new guy paid off.”
“You really hit it big this time, didn’t you? Who do you usually bet on? My go to is poor Koph over there on the ground.”
She jerked her thumb over her shoulder towards the man Jean has sent sprawling just as he was being lifted from the sandy ground by two attendees, Jean standing of to the side. From this distance Locke couldn’t tell if he was just our cold, or out for good.
“I could tell,” Locke said, thinking of her enthusiastic, unheard, coaching. “Best of luck finding a new champion.”
“I might just bet on the new big guy. What’s his name?” She asked, raising a hand to gesture at the rowdy crowd in the arena whose noise had risen enough in the last couple of seconds to almost drown out her words, “I missed the announcement – some people never shut up.”
“According to the keepers he goes by Tavrin Callas. To be honest I placed my money mostly because of those arms; there’s no faking that muscle. You don’t happen to know where to go to collect my winnings, do you?”
Locke was eager to get this conversation over with. He needed to start making his way out of the crowd and out of the Abyss if he wanted any chance of getting to his rendezvous with Jean in time; he didn’t intend to make the man wait for him twice in as many days. Not to mention the headache that seemed to feed and fester on the roaring crowd around him. The morning had been blessedly free from any creepy bleeding, but instead his body seemed to have decided to spit out what little brain he had – it hurt worse than the conscience of a sinful priest.
The woman waved his question off and turned to a man dressed in sun-bleached clothes beside her who had also been leaning on the balustrade. Grabbing his arm, she practically screamed in his ear: “You hear that? Next time a Tavrin Callas is on the roster we bet on him. This gentleman had the right idea.”
“Oh, you’re taking betting advice from random people in the crowd now? The mystic from last week wasn’t enough?” The man eyed Locke as he turned towards them. “No offence.”
Locke waved him off, and the man continued. “But Ria, I am certain that I have seen that big guy somewhere before, recently, and that—”
The man’s eyes narrowed as he cut himself off, and Locke knew that they had made some mistake. Some big mistake.
“Well, it’s been lovely making your acquaintance – Ria, was it? – but I really have to be—”
“The docks! He was down by the docks, threatening us as we were having a drink. And you were with him! You slammed the harbormaster’s head against the fucking table – you guys know each other!”
The young man - the sailor - moved faster than Locke had anticipated, and it was all he could do to move with the blow that cracked his head to the side, trying to soften the blow somewhat; it didn't really work. Luckily for Locke the man had punched first and considered his actions later, and the awkward angle, as well as the crowd around then, transformed the blow from the knockout it should have been to the stunner it became. Stumbling backwards Locke grabbed at the people around him, trying desperately to regain his feet. As if his headache from earlier hadn’t been enough – now the world was truly spinning. He needed to get out, but the same press of people that kept him on his feet also prevented him from just turning tail, the closely packed bodies practically fencing him in. Dodging to the right – and passing the second blow meant for his head on to the poor woman who had blocked most of his fall – Locke steeled himself for a fight he wasn't ready for in the slightest. Fuck, it feels as if my brain is trying to seep out my ears.
The man spun after him, sneering.
“You're coming with—”
Suddenly the man's eyes unfocused and he slumped to the side, collapsing to the ground without so much as a sigh. Standing in his place was Jean – always Jean – breathing hard and with equal measures worry and exasperation in his face.
“Making new friends?”
Locke couldn’t stop a smile from spreading across his face, even as it tugged on his tender cheek, but he did his best to shrug casually. “You know how it is, people just can’t leave me alone.”
“I’m sure it’s because of your universal charm.” Jean sniped back, gesturing for Locke to follow him through the crowd.
The woman had been crouching down beside her collapsed friend, but as soon as they started to move off she raised her voice. “Stop those two! They attacked my friend!”
“Give it a rest already!” Locke turn his head to shout back and slammed straight into Jean’s back as the other man stopped again suddenly. Reeling from the collision, and still disoriented from the blow, he didn’t recognize the woman before them at first, but then she spoke, and Locke’s blood turned to ice.
“What is the meaning of this, Tavrin?”
“Moune.” Jean stepped towards the officer with smooth finesse, but Locke could see the tension in his shoulders, and the way he tried to prevent her from seeing Locke. “You came to watch the fight; I’m glad. What did you think?”
“You’re good. A natural.” She nodded curtly before tilting her head in the direction of the still-screaming woman and her collapsed friend, “what’s the meaning of this? And why,” she fixed Locke with a piercing glare, “is he here?”
“Ergh… You see—”
“You know what? Save it Mr. Callas. Both of you, come with me.”
Locke took that moment to step forward, dusting of his shirt and shaking his head ruefully – cursing the vertigo even that small motion caused. “I’m afraid that’s not possible ma’am.”
Moune narrowed her eyes at him, one hand creeping towards the hilt of her sword; he better talk fast.
“You see, this is all a horrible misunderstanding.” Locke said, gesturing behind them to where the woman was helping her friend regain his feet. Jean murmured his name, to remind him of caution or for something else – it didn’t matter. They needed to get out of here quicker than fast. “This nice young man saw me being attacked by those hooligans and came to my rescue. And this despite the scene yesterday – a most regretful spectacle, I’m sure you agree – and despite my own foreign heraldry."
Locke felt Jean tug at his arm, but he shook him off. Moune’s eyes had narrowed even further, but he could swear he saw some hesitation in them now.
“So, if anyone deserves your attention, and the attention of the law, it is those two! They attacked an innocent bystander, a man just watching the fighting!”
“Uh-huh. And why is this man that was innocently watching the fighting bleeding from his mouth? And ears?”
“I’m sorry what?”
Jeans grip on his arm tightened, and he hissed in Locke’s ear. “I tried to tell you. What’s going on?”
Shit. Locke cursed his inattentiveness. Not in front of Jean, please. As usual there was no answer to his prayers as the world swayed once again and Jean had to steady him so he didn’t fall.
“Fuck, Lock— fuck. We have to go. We have to go now. ”
“Yeah, that would be great.” Locke muttered, wiping at his face. His hand came away bloody.
“Neither of you are going anywhere besides with me,” said Moune, advancing on them as Jean adjusted his grip on Locke to gain easier access to the hatchets hanging from his belt. It was the two blunted one from the fight, the sisters were safe back in their rooms, but Jean had already proven that he was more than capable of dealing serious damage with them and Moune hesitated. As she did something caught her attention, and she turned around slightly, drawing her sword and grabbing a small child that has been creeping up behind her, pressing the sword up against the kid’s chest. Locke had never been so glad before for the fact that this city favored swords – to see yet another kid staring down the quarrel of a crossbow would have been too much for him right now.
“And now what? A pickpocket? You sure don’t know how to pick your targets girl,” said Moune.
“Please ma’am, please let me go! I promise to never do it again.”
Jean didn’t waste the opportunity provided, only sparing a quick glance at Locke to see that he would remain standing before darting forward while drawing his hatchets. Moune realized her mistake a second too late, beginning to raise her sword in a parry just as Jean’s hatchets found the side of her head and impacted with a dull thud. As she went down Locke smiled at the child before them, staring at them both with wide eyes.
“Thumb catch on the pocket-edge again?”
The young girl nodded, “I let it. I knew she would be distracted.”
“You stupid little fucker,” said Locke, mussing her hair and pushing her into the cower of the crowd, “I guess we're even now.”
As he turned back to Jean the other man was studying him intently, his knitted eyebrows speaking louder than any words.
“You know what Jean? Children truly are our future.”
“Not if you keep influencing them they’re not,” said Jean. He secured Locke’s arm in a tight grip before throwing a glance over his shoulder at the woman and her friend; they were still scrambling to regain their feet. However, the alarmed cried around them told them that their altercation with the officer had not gone unnoticed. “Let’s get out of here. We have a lot to talk about after all.”
“So, time to talk.” They had made it back to their rooms relatively unscathed, and Jean was sitting on the bed opposite Locke, both of them nursing a wine glass and a sour face. Turns out not a lot of people are keen on going after a guy who single handedly defeated one of the renowned officers of the city; once again Locke found himself thanking the thirteenth for the impression Jean made on other people.
“What good would it have done Jean? Huh? We both know that there's nothing we can do.”
“But I could have—”
“Could have what? Treated me like an invalid even earlier? Coddled and swaddled me like a babe?”
“Helped you. I could have helped you Locke.”
Locke heaved a heavy sight and drank deeply from his glass. “I know your worried Jean. I'm sorry.”
“Why did you hide it from me? Do you not trust me anymore? After the whole bondsmagi thing?”
“No! No Jean, I trust you. Of course I trust you. I guess I was… I guess I was scared.” He looked away, couldn’t bear the pain in Jean’s eyes. “Pathetic, I know. I faced down the gray king. I am the Thorn of Camorr for crying out loud!”
“I know you’ll not listen to me about this, but maybe you’ll listen to Tavrin. Mortality is the greatest foe we ever face, Locke. It's okay to be scared. If only you could get it through that thick head of yours that it’s easier to bear fear when it's shared.”
“Oh, shut up Tavrin.” Locke leaned over to lightly punch Jean’s arm, and the other man loped him into a hug. “Let’s not talk anymore of the dead, and death.”
“Mm-hm. So, Jean, I want to set sail again. My soul longs for the open waters and the rich sea air.”
“Liar. You only want us to set sail again so we can scam the rich in a new city, and we’re the only ones good enough to pull it off.”
They brought their glasses together, momentarily forgetting the grim future and the inescapable past, and shouted in unison, “Bastard!”
It's finished! I tried to tie as many plot-threads together in the end as possible, but I know it ended up rather rushed. I hope it was enjoyable at least, and thank you for sticking with it until the end!