Tales of Rodham's Rogues and Riches

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  1. Chapter One Favours

    “Dragmire, you’re looking old these days,” said the barmaid, supple lips and bosoms swaying to the beat of her foot padding to and fro behind the stained, oaken bar.

    The old watch man rolled his eyes at the wall and went back to his ale, licking the edge of his battered steel tankard as was his custom. He went about the consumption of his beverage like an ogre might a leg of lamb, tearing into it with impatience. I watched Molly tend to another silent, dreary customer and collected my thoughts. She had acknowledged my entrance a few moments prior, but discretion and business came before our little arrangement. When she had settled half empty glasses and flagons with her wares, she lifted up the hatch and let me through into the small room to the rear of the inn’s bar. The sound of droning mumbles and the patter patter of dusk merchants and errand boys from the streets beyond left us, and we stepped into the kitchen beyond the store room for some privacy.

    “You’re looking swelling as ever Moll’, I dare say you’re doing well from all this fame?” I tried to imply a friendly banter would be welcome before we got down to business, but put on a serious expression when I caught a glimpse of her stare.

    “Let’s not be plentiful with the charm with me Gavel, I ain’t got time. We ‘aver to be done’ away with it and you knows it.” She wagged her finger at me and picked up a large carving knife on the table at the centre of the kitchen. She chopped handy onions to ease the tension, as if she could not stand still to just look at me. Given our history, or rather, distinct lack of, I didn’t blame her.

    “Okay. You asked to see Thom about the Guard House, but he can’t get away.”

    “What was his excuse this time?” She rolled her eyes, and hit the chopping board harder and harder. Her strength, delighting her feminine wiles cleaved the soup ingredients into symmetrical halves almost as if they weren’t there at all. The juicy red skin of the home grown produce offered no resistance.

    I crossed my arms over my chest tightly and sighed. We had this discussion almost daily for two weeks, so I made a show of preparing myself to go through the motions. “He is snowed under with duty because of the festival; he has to maintain a full guard with no support from the Dock Land brigade because they are over watching the merchant fleets from the Western kingdoms.” With that, she seemed to relent, and I let down my guard for a moment. Though we had been through a great deal, me and Molly Lanier, her marriage to Captain Thom Lanier was still something of an enigma to me.

    She cleaved the last onion with a little more kindness than the rest and set the cleaver on its edge. She made a motion to wipe a tear from the corner of her eye with the sleeve of her free hand, and I tried to make out wherever or not it was the onions or the eroding presence of being abandoned. With a scoop, she deposited her work into a large pale and heaved it across the stonework kitchen floor to set it on the roaring open fireplace. The large, three tier grill that settled over the flames was already heaving with pots and pans, hissing and bubbling away, but she made room stubbornly.

    “If he don’t agree to it we ain’t done’ it.” That statement was expected, and I walked around the table to help her with the last adjustment with a hand of kindness.

    “I would not expect you to take any other stance Moll, I am not here to try and twist your arm.” I smiled at her dreamily, before wandering back to the table to lean against it suavely. I did suave well, for all the wonder it did me, and Moll appreciated the show of effort even though we understood one another’s boundaries all too well.

    “So why are you here?” The heady aromas of the kitchen took over my senses for a few seconds, with waves of stilton and brandy and chestnuts. They were an odd fusion, but the many patrons of the Antelope of Penny Lane had come far and wide to taste the food, and Molly always tried her best to accommodate her guests. I took up a large, red, juicy apple from the customary bowel at the centre of the table and rubbed it against my lapel.

    “I have come to ask you for a favour, for once.” She looked at me in a way she had not looked at me for in a long, long time. “No, please, don’t raise your suspicions. I am not trying to trick you, it is as honest and, well, for me, simple enough.”

    When my father died I had been given a choice. I had to choose between a life of my own, and the life my wretched mother wished to impose on me. I had fled that night, with nothing other than the clothes on my back and a whimper, and ran out into the cold rain of Rodham’s streets. Molly’s father had found me, and like all good Samaritans had taken me in. I became his son, and his daughter, the brunette vixen Molly my sister. When I became the Gavel, and took to the proffering of lucrative items beyond money, they had turned a blind eye to my ways as only family could. I had promised to never involve them short of necessity, and this was one of those times.

    She scurried every inch of me, trying to gauge some sort of shenanigans in my otherwise rigid body language. As she observed my form, she stacked three plates of steaming vegetables, set out by one of the many servants who went periodically back and forth from the upper kitchen to the lower gallery and strutted back through the store room into the bar. “Spit it out Gavel!” She shouted back over her shoulder reluctantly, and as the swing doors swung their little rattle fanfare, I skipped after her with a grin that could spines, and quite often did.
  2. Chapter TwoQuestions

    When I appeared behind her, she was already doing a length of the bar, depositing each of the plates in front of their semi-lucid, languishing owners with a gentle bow and a pleasant smile. Pie, pot and potato aromas roused them rather swiftly, and I caught a good look of their faces before they disappeared behind a wall of gravy and lentil sauce.

    “Tell me,” I began, following Moll around onto the floor of the bar, our heavy boots rattling on the floorboards as they bounced on their loose nails. “When we were young, what did you say to me on the rooftop of the cathedral, one very long and hot summer afternoon?”

    She had her back turned to me, but as she pulled out the dusty rag from her belt and shook it, I could see the corner of her cheeks turn up into a reminiscing smile. The first few years of my upbringing in the Lanier household had been a heady mix of clandestine adventures and candle making, neither of which had stuck apart from the most perilous of events. We had climbed atop the city’s grand cathedral, and snuck about the verge of the statues that divided the apex reliquary and the bell towers. From that height, we could see most of the city, a patchwork quilt of brown, red and ochre squares, rhombus and rectangles.

    “For what good it’ll do me, I remember.” She forcefully tossed the rag between her palms a few times to ease off the last of the dust and went about polishing the first of many tables. She moved the central candle aside with one hand and wiped with the other in a rudimentary, skilled fashion. Her backside wobbled slightly as she went, and I admired it with a cheeky grin whilst plying my vocabulary to the acquisition of what I hoped would be her consent.

    “I asked you, or rather, I told you who my parents were.” The conversation had been rather one sided, from what I remembered myself, and I had talked for many an hour about how I’d dreamed of being something more than what was prescribed by my birth right for months. I was thirteen, and she twelve, so we hardly had a true scope of what the future would bring, but I felt fondly that the dream was the reward for escaping my mother’s decrepit clutches. The chasing of that golden moment on the other hand, was another matter altogether. “Do you remember what I asked you after that?”

    She moved with gusto the next table, and the next, all the while the sound of the last vestiges of the day’s trade shuffled past the tavern’s open windows and the clattering of cutlery on plates from behind filled the gaps between our little word dance. Though I could make out wherever or not she was smiling or scowling at me from supposed secrecy, I couldn’t feel what she must have been feeling. I had asked her something very personal and something that might well now threaten her safety. Hindsight had a horrible way of playing you for a Fool, I had come to realise.

    “You asked me, in no uncertain terms Gavel, to do one favour for you in the future, that you would never ask owt of me and my pa except for chores except on one, explicit occasion when you ‘ad no choice.” Our feet had been dangling over the parapets at that point, and the sun was setting over the horizon and exploding colour everywhere our young, fascinated eyes could look. Down on the street level, you never really got a good look at the sunset, unless you went for hours to the suburbs and caught a half rendered glimpse of it between the boulevard trees.

    “I am afraid that time is now, and I must ask of you some questions.” I rested my hand on her left shoulder with a friendly application of a squeeze, and she paused hesitantly, before turning on a sharp heel to face me head on. She knew all too well what I was doing, and how I would go about getting her approval, but that did not mean she liked it or had to accept it readily.

    “You be gain’ putting your wiles on me it better be for a good reason Gavel, mark my words. I know what I said and I promised to do you this…favour, but let it be said,” she thought for a moment as she wound through the tables to slip back behind the bar. With a clank, she piled up the already empty plates and stacked them in a mausoleum tower of chicken bones and crockery next to the storage room door. “I don’t want no shenanigans or harm to me, my pa or this establishment, you hear?” She wagged that laminable finger at me again and I practically fell drunk into a stool in front of it.

    “Yes sister. I understand, and I have been the victim of those boots of yours enough times to know you will take great delight in following through with your threat.” I pulled my riding cloak back over my shoulder to compose myself, and pointed with a digit of my own at a pale lime green bottle on the shelf immediately behind Moll’s semi-flustered grimace. She scooped it up and deposited it on the bar with a heavy thud, and disappeared beneath the counter to rummage for my usual glass.

    “So tell me,” her voice echoed through the ageing oak. “What is it you want?” Her head bobbed back into view and she placed the crystal cut whiskey glass in front of me. As she poured the Luvinelle liquor into it, and sniffed it appreciatively before handing it to my eager paws, she kept a keen eye on the man she had referred to as Dragmire in case he tried to pilfer the coffers again, or worse, fall of his chair.

    “What I require, good sister is the use of your most treasured possession.” She started to frown before I’d even mentioned its name, but I had expected her to take such a tone. I looked to my right and raised my glass to the patrons to ease their furtive suspicions, before resuming my approach. “I would like to use the Dawning for one evening, no more time, and no less. I will not corrupt it, or take it from its pedestal, or even, for that matter touch it.”
  3. Chapter Three - Answers

    The Dawning was Molly’s family heirloom. She had been given it by her mother; much like my namesake and royal blood was given to me by my own parents. Whereas I had scorned my gifts and squandered them on the Curtongue’s Way, she had embraced hers with a passion I could only dream of. It’s monetary worth was without measure, for it was not made of jewels or gold, nor did it have value to the black market or the treasure hunters of the Faulding Mountains.

    “Why do you want to use it?” Her line of questioning was as dry and uninspired as her tone. There were only two times in her life when she used the expression she plied her question with, and the last time had seen her pointed heel in my swiftly retreating groin. For a moment, I half expected her to launch across the bar and tear my throat out with jealous fingers and a well-placed frying pan, but she didn’t, at least, not yet.

    “I need to ask a question, to get some answers to things I’ve been wondering about for a very long time.”

    By now, the sun had dropped below the nearest vantage point, leaving the inn in a golden husk of light that resembled the more secretive and untoward districts of the city. The cold air was slowly seeping in through the open windows, and Moll eyed them with a routine need to close the blinds and set about tending to the dying embers of the late afternoon fire. She had been the owner of the tavern long enough to know that a cold bar was an empty one, and an empty bar made for emptier pockets.

    “What sort of questions?” She rattled off the words as if they were a series of dagger strikes, and I tried my best to look wounded. I languished in the contemplation whilst she moved around the counter and hooked closed the shutters with a long shank pole she kept by each opening. Her movements were sharp, accurate and without question, carrying weight of threat in every thrust.

    I lolled around on the stool and leant back on the bar, shoulders splayed wide and casual. My Curtongue words might not have measure with my sister, but the application of body language and bribery in tandem with these tools would wear her down eventually. She closed the last window in quick time and let the hook’s end drop heavily onto the floorboards with a sigh. What I gathered she meant was, ‘what questions could warrant using something so dangerous?’

    “They are the sorts of questions nobody alive has the answer to.”

    “That makes it all okay, does it?” She flicked her auburn locks behind her ears and wiped her hands on her apron, before scuttling back behind the counter to stand face to face with me. I turned stubbornly and picked up my half empty glass. The aniseed and walnut after taste of my first draught still lingered on the tip of my tongue, but I refreshed it all the same with a tentative sip, to see her patronage was taken upon and I remained lubricated enough to not start frothing at the mouth.

    “No, but this is the one time when I have no one else to ask. I certainly have no one else to turn to, and most important of all, no other choice in the matter.”

    Dragmire took it upon himself at that moment to raise his hand feverishly with a wobbling, semi-sober head, and craned his neck to dare to interrupt us. Molly caught his movement out of the corner of her dutiful eye and she gave me a look that suggested I wait a moment. I nodded as she walked off and took to my surroundings like a duck to water. Behind the counter there was a long shelf unit, six levels tall and as long as the bar. Each shelf was crammed with bottles from every far flung corner of the city and much further beyond. Like her cooking, people came to taste fine wines and liquors from the deserts and seas of the places they could never hope to visit. The third shelf was my favourite, as that was for the whiskey and the brandy and the dark edged liquors from the Numara Provinces.

    “I think you be ‘avin’ enough Dragmire,” I heard her raise her voice and pulled myself from my observations. The drunken man had seemingly perked up, and was sat upright in his stool with a sudden look of logic about him. My skin tingled with the possibility of conflict, as ever it did. It had kept me alive long enough and I muttered a prayer as I turned to level with his position, in case a run was in order.

    “I am quite alright Miss Lanier, it has come to my attention that the bargain has not been kept. I will tell my master of your insubordination,” he tipped his grubby hat and slovenly dragged himself from his position. I noticed an idle gait to his left leg as he exited, and the tension faded as Moll’s shoulders eased and her chest stopped thundering with heavy, nervous breaths.

    Slowly I walked along the counter, and peered a happy smile into her devilish vision. She had thrown daggers at the man’s back for every second of his retreat, only stopping to breathe when she was sure he was not going to return. I stood upright after she acknowledged me, and crossed my arms over my chest in my customary patronising manner. With an embarrassed blush that mirrored the red opal shade of the glasses she tried to polish to brush the matter under the carpet, she told me that business was not all as well as it seemed.

    “What was that about, Molly?”

    “It doesn’t concern you.” She said flatly.

    “I…rather think it does. You can’t make demands of my motives for using The Dawning and not be truthful and honest with me in return.”

    “Well for once, this is something your petty little tongue won’t wag out of me!” She slammed the glass onto the bar, flopped the cloth down next to it and stormed through the storm room exit with a measure of malice behind her. I was left somewhat drained by the experience, and eyed by the remaining two patrons, who were too nervous or cationic to decide wherever or not it was required of them to leave.
  4. Chapter Four - Reasons

    There are not many Curtongue’s left in Rodham. There is a simple reason for this; one does not talk one’s way to promiscuity, fame and fortune without earning a few jealous well-wishers and outright enemies along the way. In my short years, I had not considered it possible that Molly too could deserve a similar misfortune. Her birth right, The Dawning, must surely have attracted the attention of others in her time. You see, though I waited several minutes for her to return, bruised of the ego but composed once more, Molly Lanier did not re-emerge from the storage room. I stood slowly, and remembered the aroma of half eaten pie as it washed over me as I moved through into the kitchen.

    By that time, I had shooed away the remaining patrons and bared the door with a carefully and cunningly placed chair under the handle. The silence was broken only by my nerves, which was something my own set of peculiar talents could do nothing to abate. The kitchen table was set with a wide array of foodstuffs, brought up from the galley anew since my previous visit. There were oranges and apples spliced with cloves, roasted in fig wine and ready for the evening dessert tray. Flagons of tea and politer drinks bubbled in large kettles between the pots of stew and broth on the burgeoning fireplace, but no sister tended to them.

    The reasons I had for asking after The Dawning were quite simple. I wished to enquire as to the nature of a series of disturbances. Murders were scattered amongst the disappearances, and a strange air was afoot. I half wondered if Molly, by that point, had gotten herself embroiled in whatever scheme was afoot, but could only jump at paranoid conclusions in the twilight of the cooking house. If they had taken her, then I could not ask The Dawning, and the Dawning could not test my reasons.

    “Molly?” I roared, half hoping she would appear from behind a flour vat or pop her head up from one of the fruit cellar hatches with a scouring glare of annoyance. The only thing that moved amidst the hubbub was the mice at the foot of the great table, peddling squeaks for scraps and fighting amongst their brood.

    “I hope you’re not playing tricks on me Miss Lanier, harsh my tone may be in asking, but this is uncalled for!” I snapped my hand to the brooch of my riding cloak and undid it with a swift unreeling of the cloth. I set it onto the table in a neatly folded tumble and set my hands on my hips. By now I had settled on her disappearance, and curiosity got the better of me. Reasons were powerful weapons in the wrong hands, and if I had done her injury with my reasons for selfish deeds, then I would need to rectify the matter.

    I had not acquired my wealth and position in the black market hierarchy of Rodham’s Under Class establishment on the merit of being nice. If someone had dared to take my sister from me of all people, it would not be long before a ransom note or a threat came, by brazenly open courier to my very shaking hands. Stiff words ran amok in my mind as I inspected the flag stones of the floor and the patterns in the dust. There were no obvious signs of disturbance, except those heavy footprints of the elderly cooks who had worked in the galleries and slum cook houses all their lives. I traced out a woven pattern of movements, haggard and crooked like the cook’s weathered skin and watched them fade into confusion or out through the rear entrance or down the galley stairwell.

    Molly had a lighter step, and none of the markings foretold of an exit. It occurred to me, that in all the mess and the chaos of her culinary citadel, she could have simply disappeared and her tracks might’ve been erased. She sometimes limped, so I tracked her recent movements with a one two traipse to the fireplace and back to the table several times.

    “Oh dear,” I concluded, ducking to run a finger through the thin layer of dust that had recently fallen onto a cracked flagstone.

    Before I had been exiled from the castle, I had relished the task of finding all the old secret passages and tunnels that had been built over time. In the dark web way I became something altogether sub-human, relishing the adventure and the joy of being able to observe through portrait eye holes and partisan tapestries things I should never have heard. As a consequence of my deviance, I had grown adept at spotting similar constructs elsewhere.

    “Something tells me I’m not going to like this…” I said aloud, half-heartedly trying to lighten the mood. I rose to pick up the fire poke from the hearth and drove it firmly into the cracks of the flagstone. With a kick down of my boot, I eased the flagstone up and away. The gaping black hole beneath immediately cast doubt on my logic, and I felt suddenly alone and without purpose. My reasons felt so insignificant, if it had led to the loss of the one thing that was dear to me. I peered furtively over the edge of the hole, and sighed with relief. There was a drop of no more than twenty feet into a similar paved room, lit by unseen torches and possessing no other defining features that I could see.

    I set the poke down gently, and eased the flagstone clear away from the secret passage. Was it a sewer? Was it Molly’s stronghold, to hide away her valuables in case the tavern was ever raided, burnt or ‘acquired’ by some other means? Rodham had a long history of roving innkeepers, staking their claim on many inns with rough measures to expand their chain of profit across the boardwalks. Molly had remained stoutly against the notion of ‘franchising’, as they had called it. I pieced together the possibility of a hostile take-over based on her encounter with Dragmire and shook my head in disbelief.

    “Never in my lifetime,” I shook my head, and with a sharp breath to jolt my nerves into fully accepting my impending actions, I dropped through into the unknown with plenty of reasons to do so.
  5. Chapter Five Motions

    I landed heavily, but escaped a sprain with a tuck of both knees and a roll. The aroma of the kitchen was swift replaced with a heady moss scent that reminded me of a sewer. The room I was now in was perfectly cube shaped, and the most exciting feature was a simple wooden door with an iron frame in what I supposed was the East facing wall of the tavern. There were to torches, one to the right of the door, and one mounted on a wall bracket on the wall behind me. They burnt brightly, which suggested recent passage through this room or a recent retreat into whatever lies beyond.

    Lock picking was something I never did. I always managed to talk my way through doors, around walls, under grates and certainly, into knickers. Without a face to speak to, however, I could only walk towards the door and reach out a shaking hand for the lion shaped handle which adorned it.

    “Dead end,” I re-affirmed, until I was stricken with shock as the handle turned and the opened. A small rush of cold, fresh air fell about my feet as the door swung open on its own dead weight. I moved aside to let it, and stared into the passageway beyond in disbelief.

    “Why does this never happen to me when there’s an armed guard in pursuit,” I questioned begrudgingly. Wishing I’d kept my cloak, I stepped into the cold corridor and advanced along it. With two quick flicks of my wrists I pulled down the two iron daggers I kept concealed up my sleeves for moments were sharp wit needed to be deposed by sharp quips of a blade, and held them at the ready in an easy position in front of me. The dying light of the torches scintillated up and down their blades as the passageway extended and extended into the unknown, and the safety of the tavern and the kitchen’s heady comfort was left swiftly behind.

    I always wondered how I would meet my end. The sorts of company I kept and the sorts of things my particular set of talents got me into did not lend itself to a peaceful death at the hands of a far flung old age. If somebody were waiting for me in this laminable dark, there would be little I could do to prevent a dagger to my heart or between my shoulder blades to knell me there and then. Though adept with the Curtongue gift, I could not talk an enemy out of conflict that I was not fortunate enough to see. Several minutes of this dark thought passed until my blades connected with a surface, and I reached out to examine it curiously. The passageway came to what seemed like a dead end, until further investigation pointed to a sharp corner turn to the left.

    “We are going out under the street,” I commented, retracing my steps in relation to the position of the buildings overhead.

    Sure enough, at the end of this turn there was a distant spec of light. It was a shade of orange that suggested torch light, and along the length of passageway I could hear the immutable sound of running water. I adjusted my sleeves and clicked the muscles into life in my shoulders, before taking a defiant step towards the opening. I did not like the sewers much at all, they tended to stain boots and chaps and leave you smelling like detritus for many weeks after an evening’s excursion. For Molly, however, I feigned a lack of fear and strode into the unknown, motion steady and heart racing.

    The smell of damp rock had grown stronger and stronger the deeper I had gone, until it overwhelmed me. I could see by now the rough surface of the passageway, and the smooth, once well swept floor underfoot. There was a decreasing sense of care about its construction, as if it were drifting from use into the very extremities of its construction. Whoever carved it out of the cities under croft had obviously intended it to continue much further, but something unseen had stopped them.

    “Could it have been unseen creatures?” I cautioned myself, having heard tales of monsters in the catacombs beneath the city that had been uncovered by period renovations and archaeological digs into Rodham’s long and industrious past. From the torch light, I presumed not. Fire was as common an enemy to the instinctual and the undeaden as it was to the moths in the sycamore glades at night, nothing could have snook into the passageway whilst they burnt bright.

    The only other logical explanation, which I did not wish to consider Molly to be involved in, was crime. Rather, the only thing that could prevent expansion was money, or the distinct lack of it. Somebody might’ve built this passageway and begun the long renovations to make it something more splendid than a hefted hole through the rock before realising the expense of the granite flagstones and the supporting pillars to create such a structure would be too much to bear.

    When I finally stepped out through the entrance into the cavern beyond, I stopped caring. Immediately I saw myself in conflict with logic and reason, and examined, in silence, my new surroundings. The passageway broke out onto a long gangway set against a brick wall, one built over the mining and rugged rock that had collapse long ago. The roof sloped up into a cavernous dome, and the ledge I was on gave way to heavy, rugged rock that sloped downwards. Great boulders decreased in size into pebbles and dust at the shore of a short stretch of rapid heavy river. The cavern was small, but the river entered from the right in a small slit and rushed down into an equally dark expanse into unseen shallows.

    My limited understanding of geology suggested this had once been an aquifer, supplying water to the district above, confirmed by a small circle of light in the roof where a well had once been. Perhaps it still operated, and a bucket came down into the fast running water when it might. The cavern was spacious enough to afford me some sanctuary from the two guards, backs turned to me and standing on the water’s edge. Somehow, I did not expect them to be a challenge, but their stance, blades at the ready and well armoured, suggested that Molly had not taken it upon herself to go for a casual stroll to clear her thoughts in the under belly of our great city.

    I tightened my grip on my blades, and stepped silently to the edge of the smooth gangway, teetering on the edge to make the step out onto the first of many great boulders that had collapsed to give way for the construction of the smuggler’s cove.

    “Gentlemen, might we have a word?” My tongue sparkled and sparks flew from my teeth, and electricity filled the air as purpose sprang from the annunciation of power.
  6. Chapter SixDangers

    The Curtongue gift worked its charm on their slow minds and set them about silence. They managed to turn on quick heels and level their blades at me, as if I were in front of them and not four hundred feet up the rocky incline. Like quicksilver bonds of energy, they found themselves conversant and inclined to respond kindly, with words instead of weapons.

    “Who are you?” they said in unison. I could not see their faces clearly from this distance, but there was strain in their voices so I assumed they were struggling against the magic.

    “Might I ask you the very same question, given you are both trespassing on the property of the Lanier family?” I began my approach, skipping from rock to rock with heavy boots flapping against eternally damp rock. There were broken planks and barrels and other odds and ends scattered in between the boulders, rotten rope and foodstuffs too.

    “Lanier? No sir, this is the property of Lord Regal.”

    I had not heard of this Lord, but nodded in agreement to not let it slip. “Where did you take Molly?” Cutting to the chase cut the chords of the Curtongue and them both slinked backwards, as if a great weight had been suddenly lifted from their thuggish shoulders. The right guard was a heavier man, wearing pauldrons and a chest plate of iron, which glinted faintly as the torch light reached it even from such a distance. The man on the left was a lanky, tall fellow with a swirly moustache and a thinner sword. His half-cloak mirrored my discarded attire, and the small battered buckler on his left wrist suggested he was a duellist, or recruited swashbuckler of sorts.

    “Miss Lanier? She ain’t ‘ere,” the larger thug spoke alone, and the runt of the litter started to look shifty as I approach with quicker and quicker steps. We could see one another clearly now, and my two blades mirrored their own.

    “I will have you tell me where my sister is, or do away with the pleasantries and make you walk into the river with a word.” My threat carried no weight to it, the code of the Curtongue prevented breaking of the Will, but lesser men who were not educated in the magical arts would not know it’s limitation.

    “Alright, alright,” the smaller man held up his blade with a protesting hand, and I teetered in my advance, halfway about to leap from the last of the smaller boulders onto the pebble strewn banks of the underground river. The detritus in the cracks behind me was also scattered about the shore, and I realised that they were signs of smuggling not goods, diamonds and artefacts, but foodstuffs and delicacies from the far flung corners of the kingdom. Rodham had always had strict trade laws, and I made connections between Molly’s luxurious, foreign dishes in her kitchen and her sudden predicament…what had she gotten herself into?

    “We didn’t take her; she came of her own accord. Lord Regal is down in the cavern watching’ a shipment, if you want to see her,” the larger thug at this point walloped his companion over the back of his head with a well-placed fist.

    “What-did-you-do-that-for?” He protested whilst staggering on his heels and rubbing his new war wound with his buckler hand.

    “You will have to go through us,” said the thug, and with his approval, and no more reluctance, I skipped forwards into a canter, perhaps a little too much dandy and not enough precision, and brought my blades together in a war cry.

    My left dagger dropped from horizontal to vertical at the last moment, and came up through the duellist’s pathetic guard to strike his belly. The blade cut through the thin cloth of his doublet and cleaved up to his sternum without resistance, and I felt somewhat sickened at the man’s cry of agony. Blood spattered down onto the wet stone and gargled through his throat in seconds.

    “Jake!” The larger thug roared, eyes wide as dinner plates on Midsummer Feast day and more menacing than a wolves’. His heavier, more skilled footsteps brought him into my right flank and I struggled to counter his sword’s downward smash with even both my blades crossed to catch him.

    “You’re going to pay Cur, going to pay!”

    I longed for once to be attacked by someone with a literary fascination, or even a modicum of talent with words. Shamed by his illiteracy, I twirled about to his right side, ducking three swift and messy strikes from his blade and came up behind him with a spring in my step. My blade looped around his muscular throat and I took him hostage to the moment. “I am not accustomed to paying for entrance to any establishment my good man, and it would be wise to remember it.”

    The lanky fellow had by now discarded his weapon and was bandaging his gut wound with his hastily cut duelling cloak. The dark brown fabric, even in this gloom was already darker still with congealing blood. He had gone beyond pain and simply whimpered his discomfort, shaking visibly from adrenaline and stress. I hated killing, hated wounding more so, but they were not the sorts of men paid to let unwelcome visitors simply walk through closed doors.

    “Now be a kind sir and tell me where she is,” I whispered into the thug’s ear, holding him close and to ransom with my blade. I was certain he could crush me even with a half-bothered blow, so made sure to close in tight to give him no room to maneavoured or get a grip of me before I could manage to counter with a draw across his larynx.

    “She…she,” he shook, as if Lord Regal himself were staring him menacingly in the face with a stout threat of death if he dared reveal the information.

    It was then that I recognised a shadow on the far bank of the river. The torchlight cast a very dim glow of me and my friend the brute, and the wounded and now stable Jake…but also, of three other needle like reflections of others. I turned very slowly to look up to the passageway, and arranged in a neat row on the gangway, pantaloons and boots still dry on the ancient stonework, were three rather more adept looking individuals. The two with the crossbows trained on me didn’t cause me any concern, but the man in the middle.

    “Hello, Gavel. It has been a very, very long time.” His dry, salacious voice sent a shiver pouncing down my spine. “Be a good little outcast and let the man go now would you?” His mouth sparked as mine had just done, and I felt a wave of cinnamon scented nausea crawl into my nostrils and attempt to scramble my brain.
  7. Chapter SevenThreats

    I found myself wanting to let the brigand go free, but fought the nerves tingling in my arms and the magical power which washed over me. A Curtongue had the most resistance against his own School of skill, but it was a difficult test for any man’s will, and many lesser man would have caved in to his request. My brother had always been better at everything than me. Though I had gone on to use my gifts and experiences in my younger years in the castle for the pursuit of fame and freedom, he had used his talent more subtly, and it would appear from his underground endeavours he had succeeded in weaving his lies inadvertently into my life.

    “Why would I do such a thing, tell me that?” My lips sparked in response, and crackled with incendiary wit and callous retort. My muscles flexed with strain to try and keep the dagger to the man’s neck, poised to strike but undecided on his fate.

    “Because we both know you are the better man, the greater man, the honourable man.” He waved his flunkies to take aim, and kept his palm flat to the unseen wind ready to shout orders. “Let. Him. Go.” With renewed vigour, he levied his strength at me, and the nausea became overbearing to the point of failure. I let the man go.

    He turned to strike at me in my moment of weakness, but with quick riposte I sliced up and awkwardly at his approaching fists. My blades cut his calloused skin and they bled like watermelons, retreating with an angry whelp. I jumped back out of the way of the first of the crossbow bolts, but stopped trying when the second whistled down from the ledge into the brigand’s neck.

    “Leave us,” my brother ordered the wounded thief. With obedience, and a weaker mind underpinning his lack of resistance, the man simply stood loosely, turned on a heel, dropped his sword, and fell forwards.

    I watched him with baited breath as he fell face first into the cold dark stream, and was whisked away by the swift current into the gaping maw of darkness that let the river bleed away into the unknown.

    “Now look at me, Gavel.” I could not see the sparks this time, but the cinnamon air told me he was winning the battle. I turned, and adjusted my coat lapel to try and compose my image before royalty.

    “You will speak to no-one of what you have seen, nor where you have seen it. Do you understand?”

    I tried to reason with that eternally nagging doubt at the back of my mind to make for his throat. It was a difficult urge to repress, but the battle up the rocks would be futile. I nodded in agreement, though made sure to cross my fingers behind my back in the dark. The damp scent of the river and the carnal edge of blood in the air was becoming horribly familiar as far as a setting for intrigue went these days. I did not want to tempt fate, at least not in these shoes.

    “Tell me, brother, what happened to you?”

    Lord Regal shook his head slowly, and lowered his hand. The crossbowmen took their steady time reloading their weapons, though as they turned the cranks and set fresh bolts into their shafts, they appeared to be doing it purely out of habit. I would not die here today, it seemed, and my astute senses detected sorrow in my brother’s body language. Was it an air of uncertainty brewing perhaps?

    “Nothing happened, nor will it. I am simply making for myself a reserve, a profitable empire where my father cannot venture. For too long, the Gavel’s name has been branded on everything despicable in this city, so I ventured to do away with you myself.”

    “Do away? Oh please, tell me then, why have you not done away with me here and now?” I raised an eyebrow and shrugged, letting my daggers hang loosely but ensuring they caught the torch light. I was mocking him, and he knew it.

    “It is because you are just a figurehead for a symbolic rejection of our Royal Family. Whilst you live, people will rally to your call, your tongue will wag and they will raise a proletariat mob we cannot resist. I must do away with your allies, and then make sure people see you die to truly defeat you.”

    I could not fault his logic, but I was somewhat surprised by his callous nature. I had done nothing to him except exist, but I ventured his mother, my mother, our mother had played her part in turning him fully against the idea of me. I let my blades drop to my sides and pretended to be resigned to my fate. I appreciated his sense of decorum in doing away with me, as he put it, but I did not share the same reservations.

    “Turn and take aim,” I barked. There were no sparks this time, but my voice took on a deep thudding echo, which seemed to bounce about the aquifer like a galloping horse in the summer heat. The crossbowmen jolted, as if suddenly possessed, and turned like statues to point their weapons at Lord Regal’s temple. The greatest villains, I had learned in many a circumstance like this, always relied upon the weakest willed subordinates. I ventured my Brother had relied on that limited conscience to use his art to control and command without fail, but he did not count on my witnessing his mistake.

    “Very good, Gavel.”

    “I do not need your praise. I hold no reservation about killing you, but I would rather not sully my name lest it be necessary. Tell me, where is my sister?” Sparks did fly this time and violently through the air and up the jagged embankment. They skipped over the rocks, shattering and cracking the damp granite as they danced up to their target and struck him.

    Quite plainly Lord Regal smiled, and pointed with an elegant flex of his wrist down to the river. My heart sank, and during the split second in which I followed his gesture and looked away over my shoulder, I realised my most erroneous mistake.
  8. Chapter Eight Conversations

    Molly and I always made light of our relationship. We were not blood-kin, and neither of us pretended otherwise, but the bond we had developed had become equally as strong, if not more so. Since our formative years we had shared everything with one another, from our deepest desires to the gentile events of a perfectly boring and ordinary day at the Dockland Market, or strolling through Rodham’s more grandiose housing districts. Conversation was always plain, without conceit and honest, and she was frighteningly resistant to the sporadic attempts I made when first discovering my talent with the Curtongue Art.

    It had occurred to me early on that the traditional heritage of the magical ways ran strong in Molly too. She had always had a way with animals and with the distraught souls in the streets of the city’s slums, but she had placed blame with that affinity on kindness and an apathetic nature. It was not until I showed her the true purpose of The Dawning, and how it could be used to better others that she finally started to believe me.

    “Why would you harm her, when you dare not harm me?” My obvious question dripped out with limp threats and idle ties to customs Lord Regal was not privy to. The Cur Tongue in me failed, and my words carried on semantics and air with them.

    “Oh please, Gavel. I do not wish to harm you today. That is a world away from not wishing to harm you at all. Subtleties seem to have been lost on you, ever since you were cast so heinously into the streets of Rodham.” Those words stung without his potent art bringing them to life. Sometimes, you did not need magic to command others to action with words. I gritted my teeth and clenched my fists, thinking hard but perhaps not quick enough on my feet.

    “Why the river when a shot to the neck would do?” I hated to speak ill of Molly, if she was indeed dead, but Lord Regal was not a man to take his time over his ill served pursuits. There had to be a continuance of thought or an ultimatum to every little aspect of his actions.

    “She is not dead, you idiot. This aquifer is the entrance to the smuggler’s circle that operates beneath the city. A vast labyrinthine network of aquifers that collapse centuries ago, yet fortunately formed hollows in the rock connected by this channel of water. It is the very same river that flows through the royal palaces and out over the cliffs into the chiasmic sea. Fitting, is it not?”

    I tried to remember my geography lessons, but the knowledge slipped me by and I resorted to a little afternoon bluff to settle the score. Lord Regal smiled knowingly, and gestured to his minions. They dropped their crossbows to their sides and turned with a confused look on their oafish faces to bring their weapons to bear once more on me. I fancied my chances at this range, though either of those bolts would leave its mark on my flesh as a painful reminder of my daring bravado…or perhaps my stupidity.

    “So you resort to petty thievery instead of the life into which you were born?” It was hardly fitting, but hardly surprising. We had both fallen far from our parent’s gaze, it seemed. Though I rather fancied having the choice in the matter, instead of having this low life amongst the darker alleyways of Rodham pushed upon me. Not that I was bitter, of course. “What can this offer you,” I gestured at the sodden rocks, still stained with the blood of the brigands and made a show to take a disgusted sniff of the stuffy air, “that the Eternal Palace above cannot?” I pointed upwards with a shaking finger.

    “A world that I myself have control over, which is more than anything my father or mother can offer. Surely, the freedom you experience, even as an outcast is exhilarating to you?” He raised his eyebrow with wry satisfaction, and I loosened my shoulders as a sign of defeat. I did indeed enjoy my freedom; after all, the empire I had carved into the name of the city and into the red brick and mortar of its streets was my own.

    “I am indeed a free man, Lord Regal.”

    “So it is a shame that you must die like one, though I fear this will only be a wound, and not a death sentence.” He turned on a heel and set his cane onto the damp rock, and tapped it gently as a sign of command. “Shoot,” he said simply, and I saw the sparks dance along the passageway towards the kitchen of Molly’s tavern. The guards levied their crossbows at me, and I tensed once more.

    “There is a point in every man’s life, when he must face up to his responsibilities. One day, I will ensure that you meet that same fate!” I shouted after him, ducking as the first bolt flashed down the slope. I ducked just in time to allow it safe passage overhead, and heard it crash satisfyingly against the rocky wall and shatter in half. It fell with a faint splash into the river, and was gone in a second.

    The second bolt was not so wide of its mark, however. As it pierced my shoulder, I felt only relief. It was a strange and curious sensation, to be suddenly deprived of one’s composure and position of bargaining was a new experience to me. Even cast into the under dark of Rodham proper, I had always held power in my grasp – my silver tongue had afforded me that luxury. I sputtered for a moment, in a most undignified manner, before turning in a spiral to face the cold and distant rocky outcrop of the far side of the river.

    I forgot, for just a brief moment, all that had transpired. As I fell limply forwards into the cold waters, the rapids took me to a place unknown and I fell into the abyss called unconsciousness. I managed one single word as I fell, a coarse utterance without power, but possessing plenty of feeling that sent shockwaves deep into the granite stalagmites and the ageing stalactites.

  9. Anyone got a few thoughts and minutes spare? I know it's long, but it'd much appreciated!