The Guild of Swordsmen: Part 2

deadOutside, men in identical rough gray tunics and leggings were lifting the assassin’s body into an ox-drawn wagon of unplaned wooden boards.  The sides of the wagon were high enough that Lida could not see the contents as she passed by, but the rising stench suggested that the assassin’s was not the only corpse.  One of the men in gray watched Lida and the others as they started off down the street coming out of a house from which a body had been thrown, but he didn’t say anything.  None of the corpse gatherers were armed, and Lida had never seen City Watchmen in this district.

“I should give the corpse gatherers Helena Dareshna’s address so they know where to return the body,” Lida said.  Alzadin chuckled, Merolliay didn’t react, and Saulius just looked uncomfortable.  He did not like it when they made jokes about killing people.  In fact, Lida wasn’t sure Saulius had ever killed anyone.

It was one of the last few days between summer when the paving stones were hot enough to burn your feet, and winter when the wind was cold enough to freeze your skin before you walked to the next corner.  Lida found it too warm for her long-sleeved woolen doublet, which she started carrying rolled up under one arm before too long, but not so hot that she secretly wished she were wearing women’s skirts instead of a man’s shirt, breeches, and knee-high boots.  In truth, her clothes were not really cut for men despite their appearance.  Saulius’s tailor, when Saulius introduced them almost two years ago, had been thrilled by the challenge of designing clothing in a masculine style but cut for a woman’s figure.  Lida was thrilled to have functional clothes that fit properly.

The district they lived in was far from the heart of the Imperial City and carriages-for-hire were impossible to find.  They had to walk about two miles to a sufficiently well-traveled crossroads.  The price to hire a carriage today was even more outrageous than usual since everyone in the City wanted to participate in the Emperor’s birthday festivities. But it took half the day to get anywhere interesting on foot.  In many ways, the Imperial City was not a true city at all so much as ten thousand villages loosely clustered on the steppes.

The carriage let them out in the Kavanian District where Saulius had grown up.  Of the four of them, he was the only one born in the Imperial City.  His great-grandparents had been brought here as part of the Imperial policy of forced resettlement, but there weren’t many Kavanians still living in the Imperial City who remembered their homeland.  As a consequence, their celebration of the Emperor’s birthday was much more enthusiastic than in districts inhabited by more recent exiles.

“Saulius!”  Almost as soon as their feet touched the ground, an old woman passing by had recognized Saulius and hauled him down to her level to be kissed on both cheeks and exclaimed over in Kavanian.  Lida didn’t understand much of it and she didn’t think Alzadin did either, but of course Merolliay listened along, smiling every now and then.  Lida had not yet encountered a language that Merolliay did not understand.

lidaSome sentiments didn’t require words.  At one point the woman turned to Lida, looked her up and down as if she were a goat at the market, and sniffed disapprovingly before speaking again.  Lida crossed her arms and scowled.  Men were condescending enough about her choice to live the life of a swordsman, but the contempt she earned from other women was in a different realm entirely.

And this was just fine, as far as Lida was concerned. Put the old Kavanian woman on a dark street with four drunken thugs and she’d either be shrieking for the City Watchmen to come rescue her or dead.  Not Lida.  Andraikos had rescued her once, a long time ago, when the Imperial Army destroyed her village. That was the last time she’d had to rely on a man to save her life.

“Who was that?” Merolliay asked, once the old woman was out of earshot.

“My second cousin’s great-aunt,” Saulius said.  Saulius was apparently related to everyone in the Kavanian District and always knew the precise degree of their relationship.

“Wouldn’t that be your grandmother?” Lida asked.

“No, my second cousin’s great-aunt by marriage,” Saulius said.  “Zuvius!”  He waved to a tall young man on the other side of the street, who waved back once he’d caught sight of Saulius, and started to make his way over.  “Zuvius is my cousin Vesnia’s brother-in-law,” Saulius explained.

Lida tried to exchange exasperated glances with Merolliay, but he didn’t appear to notice.  She knew better than to look to Alzadin for support; she’d seen him with people from his own homeland.  Right now he was beaming, as if they’d come to the Kavanian District not to drink and watch the festivities but to become reacquainted with all Saulius’s distant relatives.

There was a settlement of Thousand Lakes folk on the outskirts of the Imperial City, but Lida never went there anymore.  It was too depressing and there wasn’t anyone from her own village–it was possible that everyone else from her own village was dead. No one trusted her.

“Saulius!”  Zuvius exclaimed upon reaching them.  “How goes it?”  He was tall, blond, and blue-eyed, like almost all Kavanians, but wore his hair longer, tied at the back of his neck instead of in a short, stylish cut like Saulius’s.  He looked a lot like Saulius though, and eyed Lida with the same sort of friendly lust.  “Here we have the Four Gallant Rogues, no?”  Unlike Saulius, he spoke Nemesde with a noticeable accent and excessively formal phrasing as if he had learned it in school but didn’t speak it often.

“It’s the Three Gallant Rogues, actually,” Saulius said.

“But you are four!” Zuvius protested, gesturing at Lida.

“Yes,” Saulius said, “but once your company of swordsmen is registered with the Guild, it’s an enormous hassle to change the name.”

“Oh, Guilds!” Zuvius said.  “Such trouble.  Senli Ozius has to join the Distillers of Spirits Guild. Did you hear?”

“What’s this?” Merolliay asked, suddenly interested.

Saulius and Zuvius exchanged glances.  “I hadn’t heard,” Saulius said.  “Senli–or Grandpa–Ozius makes the best Kavanian fruit brandy.  But he doesn’t make very much of it, maybe only three or four gallons each month.  After seeing the shed he uses, I’m surprised he even manages to make that much without burning the entire block down.”

“Yes,” Zuvius said, “and the Guild is saying he must clean up the shed.  Drive away the rats and such.”

“No rats!” Saulius exclaimed.  “I’ll wager that the occasional dead rat in the brew is what makes the brandy taste so good.”  He and Zuvius both laughed uproariously.

“It doesn’t sound as if this gentleman can afford Guild membership,” Merolliay said.  Lida wondered why Merolliay was so concerned.

Zuvius looked vaguely embarrassed.  “Well, no, it is not possible.  We are all paying the dues for him, some concerned friends and neighbors.”

“Ha!” Saulius said.  “Concerned most of all about the potential loss of fruit brandy.  Here-”  He rummaged inside an inner pocket of his jacket, surfacing with several copper coins.  “Let me show my own concern.”

Zuvius grinned.  “Many thanks.  I will be sure that a small bottle is held aside for you.”

Down the street some distance, past a clot of jostling merrymakers, an explosion like a tiny thunderclap sounded followed in quick succession by three more.  Lida had her sword partway out of its sheath before she realized that they were only firecrackers, not cannon or musket fire.

The crowds in the street, few if any of whom had been born when the Empire invaded their homeland, sent up a cheer and began chanting in Kavanian.  Merolliay made a sour expression.

“What are they saying?” Lida asked him.

“‘Long live the Emperor, man and god, god and man,’” Merolliay said.

Lida wondered why Merolliay had agreed to come if reference to the Emperor’s divinity was going to bother him so much.  What did he expect at the Emperor’s birthday celebrations?

Zuvius, who must have overheard Merolliay, said, “Who knows if the Emperor is divine?”  He had to raise his voice to be heard above the approaching crowd.  A parade seemed to be making its way towards them, and the cheers and whistles were growing louder.  “We have many gods, and why should they mind if we add one more?  If a man might be god, maybe it is not safe to demand proof before worshipping.”

Saulius gave Zuvius a friendly punch in the shoulder.  “Three tasks are undertaken only by fools!” he shouted over the excited shouts of the people around them.  “To walk between a bear and her cubs, to carry a burning torch into the Imperial Gunpowder Magazines, and to argue philosophy with a Libanian.”

fire-horseAnother rapid series of bangs, each punctuated by a shout from the crowd and a cloud of smoke, made further discussion impossible.  Lida caught a glimpse of the two men at the head of the procession turning the corner onto their street pulling a small cart.  One of the men marching alongside the cart reached in for some object that he handed off to another.  People were in the way, all pushing to see, and even though Lida was unusually tall for a woman, she could only see a bit of what was going on here and there past the heads and shoulders of everyone between her and the middle of the road.

With a hiss and a crackle, the object from the cart sped down the street ahead of the procession, paper streamers unfolding in a burst of wind just before it exploded.  Lida tried not to cringe at the noise.  She did see the fully-unfolded paper around the firecracker before it blew apart. If one squinted hard and had a vivid imagination, it bore a vague resemblance to the Imperial fire-breathing horse sigil.

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