Death of a king, p.4
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       Death of a King, p.4
 

           Robert Evert
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  Allyn took a sip and held the wine in his mouth before swallowing. His pinched expression eased as he nodded with satisfaction. “At whose feet?”

  “The guy’s!”

  “Ah, yes.” Allyn held the goblet up to the early afternoon light streaming through the front window. The wine shimmered red. “The guy.”

  Magnus leaned in closer. “So then the woman calls me cute—”

  “The one from the store?”

  “What?” Magnus said, taken aback. “No. Not her, but she called me cute too.”

  “Of course she did.”

  Magnus slapped the table, rattling the bottle of wine. “She did!”

  “Hey!” Allyn grabbed the bottle protectively. “Careful. It’s imported from, from…somewhere!”

  “I’m being honest, Allyn. They both called me cute. But in this particular instance, I’m talking about the waitress.”

  “The one who dropped all the dishes?” asked Allyn.

  “Right! So, anyway, the vial breaks and—”

  Allyn lifted an insistent finger as he swallowed.

  “Let me ask you this”—he set his empty goblet in front of him, eyes narrowing at Magnus—“am I in any danger being seen with you?”

  “What the hell does that mean?”

  “You know what it means, Mag. You have more enemies than King Lionel. I’d prefer not to be around when some brute you’ve cheated comes to collect his money.”

  Magnus huffed. “I told you, I didn’t steal it! I got it fair as fair!”

  “Got what?” The towering figure of Syntharin loomed over them. “Geez, Mag. What happened to your face?”

  “Syn! What are you doing off work this early? Never mind. It’s great to see you. Sit! Sit!” Magnus pushed out the chair and called to the bartender. “A pint of ale for my hairy friend! Make it the honey ale. That’s his favorite.”

  “Why’s he so happy?” Syntharin asked Allyn.

  Allyn shrugged. “Haven’t a clue.”

  “Okay!” Magnus said, practically vibrating with anticipation. “I’ll start over. So I was fighting Darren and his trolls in the lower park, you know, giving as good as I got.”

  Syntharin and Allyn exchanged knowing glances.

  “What? This?” Magnus touched the purple lump on his forehead. “It’s nothing compared to what I did to them. Honest! It was five against one, but I’m fast!” Bobbing and weaving, he threw a flurry of punches at the air.

  Allyn refilled his goblet. “Yeah, you’re a real killer. I always feel safer when you’re around.”

  “Right!” Magnus said. “So I’m fighting them, and this woman comes up to me and says I’m cute…”

  Syntharin frowned as he stretched his shoulders. “While you’re fighting Darren?”

  “No. It was after. Right after he and his five goons ran away.”

  “I thought you said there were a total of five guys.”

  “There were. Darren plus five.”

  Allyn exhaled in frustration. “All I need to know is: Am I in any danger sitting here with you?”

  Magnus rocked back, offended. “Why do you keep asking that? When have I ever put you in danger?”

  Allyn choked on his wine. “The time I was walking along with you and was beaten unconscious comes to mind.”

  “That only happened once!”

  “Then there was the time we got arrested for eating food you stole,” Syntharin added.

  “Hey! I took the blame for that! I’m the one who spent all damn day in the stocks. You can’t use that one against me. Why are you two staring at me like that?”

  “Look,” Allyn said, “you come here all busted up and show everybody a bunch of money—it kind of scares the crap out of us. We don’t know how you got it.”

  “He has money?” Syntharin’s eyes widened. “How much? What did you do now, Mag?”

  “That’s what I’ve been trying to tell you!” Magnus cried. “Shut up and listen for a second. You see, there was this girl—”

  “Girl or woman?” Syntharin asked.

  “What?”

  “Before you said woman. How old was she?”

  “It doesn’t matter.”

  “I’d think it would to her.”

  The bartender came over and plopped a stein of ale in front of Syntharin, honey-brown suds dripping down its side. Syntharin started to pay him, but Magnus dug into his pocket.

  “Wait!”

  Magnus pulled out a wad of string, various wires he used to pick locks and a fistful of coins. He gave the bartender two bronze pieces.

  Syntharin turned to Allyn. “He’s paying?”

  Allyn shrugged again.

  “Okay,” Magnus said. “So I was beating the crap out of Darren and his—” The bartender was still standing there, scratching the coins Magnus had given him. “What?”

  “Just checking.” He returned to the bar.

  Magnus looked at his friends. “Checking what?”

  “Remember when you painted those copper pieces and tried to convince everybody they were gold?” Allyn asked.

  “I was ten!” Then Magnus added begrudgingly, “I was stupid. Okay? I admit it. I should’ve painted them silver. Nobody believed I’d have gold.”

  “So there was this female who may or may not have been a woman?” Syntharin prodded.

  “Right! So I was beating Darren—”

  Allyn motioned for him to be quiet. “Forget about the fight. Tell us what you did to get the money. Okay?”

  Magnus folded his arms across his chest. “It doesn’t matter. You two won’t believe me! You think I’m some sort of second-rate cutpurse.”

  Syntharin tasted his ale. “I wouldn’t say second-rate.”

  Magnus pouted.

  “Let me ask you this, Mag,” Allyn said. “Did you steal the money?”

  “No.”

  “Did this woman—”

  “Or girl,” Syntharin added, wiping the suds from his thick black beard and mustache.

  Allyn ignored him. “Did she give you the money willingly?”

  “Yes!”

  “Did you do anything illegal to get it?”

  Magnus faltered, his gaze shifting to the bartender cleaning glasses at the bar.

  Allyn groaned. “Magnus!”

  “What?” Magnus tossed his hands in the air. “You guys have jobs. You have your music and Syntharin works on every damned farm within a day’s walk of here.”

  “I might be able to get you some jobs,” Syntharin said. “We always need good laborers.”

  “Syn! Look at me!” Magnus stood up. It almost seemed as though he hadn’t. “I’m half your height and have this!” He shook his deformed arm. “I can’t do heavy lifting. I can’t do physical stuff. I’m sorry, but I can’t!” Magnus hid his left hand in his pocket.

  The bartender slammed a glass. If the tavern wasn’t empty, he probably would’ve thrown them out.

  “Okay. Okay.” Allyn urged Magnus into his seat. Allyn lowered his voice. “What did she have you do?”

  Magnus glared out the window.

  Syntharin started to take a drink. “She didn’t have you kill anybody, did she?”

  Something in Magnus’s reaction made Allyn suck in air. “Mag!”

  “I didn’t kill him!” Magnus hissed, glancing at the bartender again. “I only got him a little sick. That’s all!”

  “Who? No! Never mind. I don’t want to know. Let’s not talk about it anymore. The less we know, the better.” Allyn lifted his mostly empty goblet in a toast. “Congrats on your good fortune, Magnus. Let’s pray you don’t get caught.”

  Chapter Five

  Natalie poured boiling water into the antique teapot Reg had given her. The tea set was stunning, white porcelain with actual gold trim. It must have cost him a stack of coins, but she didn’t mind. Drinking out of the elegant cups made her feel like a queen.

  Maybe not a queen; after all, queens were as bad as kings—not that any of the kingdoms had had a ruling matriarch
in centuries. Maybe if they had, things would finally change for women.

  Magnus collapsed into his chair across from her, aggravated. “They all assume I’m doing something bad, you know?”

  “Who?” Natalie asked.

  “My friends—Allyn and Syntharin. Allyn is the musician I was telling you about. Always dressing and fussing about like he’s noble. Syntharin is a laborer and has the sense enough to act like it.”

  Natalie poured hot tea into his cup. “Sugar?”

  “Sure. Thanks.”

  She added a teaspoon of sugar and stirred. “You were saying?” She poured tea into her own cup.

  “They think I’m a no-good thug,” Magnus said.

  The thought of the diminutive Magnus being mistaken for a thug made Natalie chuckle. “I doubt they think you’re anything of the sort.”

  “Okay,” Magnus admitted, “not a thug. But they think I’m a ne’er-do-well.”

  “Ne’er-do-well?” Natalie said mockingly. “That’s harsh.”

  “I know! That’s what they think of me. And they’re supposed to be my friends!”

  He grabbed the teacup as though he were clutching a battle-ax.

  Natalie leaned forward. “Careful. The tea set is over two hundred years old.”

  “What?” Magnus sat up abruptly, gaping at the fragile teacup in his hand. “You’re kidding me.” As he went to set the teacup on the table, it slipped from his fingers, sending a spray of hot tea everywhere as it shattered on the floor. He blinked at the fragments, then at Natalie.

  She winced.

  Why did she expect anything different?

  “Sorry.”

  Natalie repressed a curse. “It’s fine,” she lied.

  “I’ll get it.” Magnus crawled underneath the table, picking up pieces of two-hundred-year-old porcelain. Natalie could see any moment he’d stand and knock over the table, sending the entire tea set with it.

  “Don’t! It’s fine. Really. Don’t worry about it. I’ll clean later. Sit and talk to me.” He emerged from under the table, banging his head in the process. “Here. Let me get you some more tea.”

  “Actually—”

  “Don’t worry”—Natalie poured tea into another cup—“this one is worthless.” She handed him the already chipped mug. “I should’ve used them anyway.”

  She sighed at the jagged pieces of white porcelain Magnus deposited on the surviving saucer.

  This was what she got for trying to be something she wasn’t. A queen? What a joke. Sure, she had expensive clothes and didn’t have to worry about starving, but she was still the same peasant girl she was two years ago. No amount of money was going to change—

  “You’re staring at me,” said Magnus, fidgeting.

  “What? Oh, I’m terribly sorry. I was thinking. Go on with what you were saying.”

  Magnus glanced about the backroom of her shop. “I like it here. It’s dark and cluttered like the front room, but it has a cozy feel to it.”

  Natalie blew on her tea, then took a sip. “I like it too.”

  “Anyhow,” Magnus said. “My friends, Allyn and Syntharin, they think I’m good for nothing, you know? Like I can’t do anything right or that I only care about myself. Any time I try to do something kind for them, they think I have something up my sleeve. And they never believe me when I tell them stuff. Yesterday I bought them drinks. I was only trying to be generous, you know? A couple of beers between friends. Well, not beers. Allyn only drinks wine, the real snooty stuff. And Syn got honey ale. I got beer though. Anyway, so I bought Allyn a bottle of wine—an entire bottle, mind you—and he was like, ‘Where did you get that money?’ I tried to explain, but he kept asking if he was in any danger being with me. What the hell does that mean? Oh, sure, I might have caused them a few headaches from time to time, but they’re my friends and I’d—”

  “You didn’t tell them about me, did you?”

  Magnus gave a halfhearted shrug. “I started to. I know I shouldn’t have, but they kept asking where I got the money. Allyn was being a real prick about it. Excuse my language. I mean bastard. Anyway, they wouldn’t listen to me.”

  Damned kid. He’s going to get everybody executed.

  Natalie reached across the table and laid her hand on Magnus’s. He looked at her, hope rising in his eyes.

  Go easy on him. He’s lonely. And he wanted to share the feeling of success with his friends. Don’t threaten. Boys like this don’t respond to being threatened.

  “Magnus,” she said gently, “if you tell anybody about me or what you did—it wouldn’t go well for either of us.”

  “I know.” Magnus said, disappointed that Natalie removed her hand from on top of his. He fiddled with the handle of his mug. Something seemed to pop into his head. “Your name isn’t Sarah, is it?”

  Natalie took a sip of her tea, trying not to show shock. She thought he might’ve figured that out.

  “No, it isn’t,” she said matter-of-factly. “But I’m not going to tell you my name or who I am. It has nothing to do with you.”

  “But—!”

  “I need to protect myself, Magnus. You might want to start doing the same.”

  “Protect myself? Why would I—? You’re not a spy, are you? For another king or somebody like that? You aren’t plotting to take over the kingdom by killing all the nobility one by one? ’Cause if you are—”

  Natalie laughed. “Why would you ask such a thing? I told you why I acquired your services.”

  “Yeah, well…” Magnus’s apparent discomfort increased. “I did some checking. From what I hear, Lord Hendrick loves his wife, fat lard butt though she may be. If you lied about your name…”

  He’s been doing some checking. That can’t be good.

  “Magnus.” Natalie set her teacup on the table between them. “Sometimes it’s best not to ask too many questions. Especially in your line of work.”

  “My line of work?”

  “You, sir, are a solver of other people’s problems.”

  “A solver of other people’s problems…” Magnus repeated, grinning.

  “Which gets me to why I wanted to see you again, besides your entertaining personality.”

  “Have another job for me?”

  “Of a sort. Far less dangerous than the first but still profitable for you.”

  “What do you need me to do? I can poison anybody you like!”

  Natalie cringed. “I’d suggest,” she said, a cutting edge to her tone, “you never say the word ‘poison’ again.”

  “Oh! Right. Right. I get you. I’ll be more careful. Believe me. I won’t say a word. I’m very discreet. You can trust me on that! So—who do you want me to make sick?”

  Natalie groaned, wondering whether she had selected the wrong street urchin.

  Too late to worry about that now.

  “It’s simple.” She plopped a large book with a tattered leather cover in front of him. “I need you to put this somewhere for me.”

  Magnus took the book, impressed with its weight. “Okay. Where?”

  “The Lower Library.”

  “Hell! Why don’t you return it yourself? Wait! I know. You have to pay some sort of fine if it’s late, right? I’ve heard about that. Okay. Consider it done!”

  “Thank you, Magnus. I’ll give you three silver.”

  “Three silver!”

  “Yes, but you have to put it exactly where I tell you. And you can’t tell anybody. Understand? Absolutely no one.”

  “Oh, sure! No problem! I won’t. Look at how well I did with—” He caught himself. “With the other matter.”

  Natalie held Magnus’s gaze. “I need to ask you something,” she said seriously. “And I need an honest answer. Whether you say yes or no, you’ll still get paid, understand?”

  “Yeah.” Magnus flipped through the book. “What is it?”

  Natalie studied him. “Can you read?”

  “A little.”

  She raised a doubtful eyebrow.

  He sh
ook his head, unable to look at her. “No.”

  “That’s fine, Magnus. Magnus?” She reached over and touched his arm again, getting his attention. “Do you want to learn?”

  Magnus shrugged. “I don’t think I could. I mean, maybe when I was younger and all, if I had a teacher or somebody who cared. But it doesn’t matter. Reading doesn’t exactly help anybody, now does it? Maybe if you were a scholar or something. But I’m not like that—the smart type.” He fell silent. He kept rubbing his gnarled hand. Then, he seemed to remember where he was.

  “So, where do you want me to put the book?”

  Chapter Six

  Magnus came to the Eryn River. Its white water plunged over a series of stone shelves, polished smooth as glass by the relentless current. Every year, scores of people died at this very spot. Some were dumb kids, bathing themselves or swimming on hot summer days. They’d slip in the waist-high water and be swept away, dashed against the rocks downriver. Others were lost souls looking to end it all. More than once, Magnus contemplated coming here to do just that. Being battered to death in the rapids seemed like a quick way to go. In a minute or two it’d all be over. But now he was there for a different reason.

  Peering longingly up the northern road that traced the river’s western bank, Magnus sighed. He always dreamed about following it. There was no particular reason why. Perhaps it was because it was pretty. Lined with ancient poplar trees with overhanging branches, the road resembled a living tunnel filled with the lulling sounds of the surging river. Perhaps he simply hoped it would take him someplace where he could have a different life.

  Deep down, however, he knew nothing would be any different in Winros Minor or the Angle or Dardenello. Not really. He’d still be a skinny kid with a mangled left hand and absolutely no skills.

  You can’t run from your past, and you can’t find your future…

  How true.

  Who said that?

  He didn’t care. He was tired and hungry and not sure if he should do what he was about to do.

  He felt the coins in his pocket. Their jingle offered no comfort at all. He knew they’d soon be spent. Even if he watched every copper penny, they’d eventually go to pay for food, or clothes, or the crappy room he’d started renting in the lowest level of the city.

 
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