The Guild of Swordsmen: Part 3
Zuvius left them soon after the parade had passed by. From that point on the afternoon passed in a blur of drinking, snacking on street food, and being accosted by Saulius’s relatives, friends, and ex-girlfriends. Towards evening, Saulius and Alzadin left to attend the Swordsmen’s Guild feast in honor of the Emperor’s birthday, leaving Lida alone with Merolliay.
Alone, that is, in a cellar tavern full of strange Kavanian men, a dish of cabbage parcels stuffed with seasoned minced pork on the flimsy table between the two of them. Most of the other men were laborers; their holiday finery faded and mended, dirt under their nails and in the creases of their hands and faces. Lida wondered if her father looked like that. He had gone away when she was a young girl, gone to work in the coal mines or the kerosene factories, and they never saw him again.
There was no lamp on their table, only a couple of squat smoky tallow candles. Lida watched Merolliay in the dim light, watched it reflect off the angular planes of his face and short neatly-trimmed beard. She watched him lick the juice from the cabbage parcels off his fingers. She had drunk too much to worry that he would notice her staring at him. He was like Andraikos sometimes, quiet and thoughtful, as if considering some great mystery that he believed only he could understand. But I might understand, if you only told me, Lida used to think then and thought now.
“Liban!” The word was a drunken slur, harsh and angry. Lida and Merolliay looked up together and saw the speaker looming over their table, swaying back and forth. He was not someone Saulius had introduced them to. In fact, as Lida glanced around the smoky dimly-lit room, she realized that no one left in the tavern had seen them with Saulius. No one except the tavern keeper and his three assistants.
“Yes?” Merolliay’s dark eyes were wary. Out of long habit, Lida shifted her leg to check that the knife inside her boot was ready to be drawn, keeping her hands above the table so as not to alarm the tall Kavanian leaning over them.
“You!” the man said. At a table behind him, three other men, just as tall, were getting up. “No want you. Here.”
Merolliay answered him in Kavanian.
The other man slammed both palms on their table. The dishes rattled. One of the candles fell over and spluttered out. The man answered Merolliay in a rapid-fire onslaught of which Lida understood one word in five, and they were all obscenities.
The man’s three companions were closing in. None of them carried swords, but one had a knife out in his hand.
The tavern keeper called out at the men urgently. Lida heard Saulius’s name but understood little else. Their assailants acted as if they hadn’t heard.
The table upended itself into the drunken Kavanian, all Merolliay’s weight behind it. As he released the table Merolliay drew his sword.
Lida needed no encouragement. Her sword was out only a moment after Merolliay’s. Teeth bared, she sprang after the drunken Kavanian who had started the fight and slashed her blade down the side of his face, shearing away the flesh. He hollered in pain and reached blindly for her. She struck away his hand with her sword then drove the point into his throat.
She turned. The three other men all had knives out. One was down on the floor, but Merolliay was bleeding from a gash across his upper arm. Not his sword arm, but the sight still enraged Lida, and she flew at the men with both sword and dagger, slashing at face and chest. The day’s drinking had made her clumsy but it didn’t matter. Neither of the men had ever faced anything more serious than a tavern brawl, and they couldn’t even scratch her. Thousand Lakes men were famous for their skill as swordsmen. Lida might not be a man, but she’d had four older brothers to spar with, and then Andraikos had forced her to practice for hours each day until the sword felt like an extension of her arm, until she could block and parry without having to think.
Lida yanked her sword out of the chest of the fourth downed man and slashed his throat open. She stepped back breathing hard and looked around for further threats. Everyone in the room was watching her and Merolliay with hostility, even the tavern keeper who’d tried to stop the fight. But no one else carried a sword.
Out on the street, it was almost dark. Hardly anyone was around. A couple of boys, around the age Lida had been when her father left, watched them from the entrance to a tall, grimy house of apartments. A stray dog at the end of the street sat down on its haunches to watch them wipe the blood from their swords.
“Your arm’s bleeding,” Lida pointed out.
“Mm hm.” Merolliay poked at it with one finger and winced.
“I hope they weren’t too closely related to Saulius.”
Merolliay replied with a humorless grin.
“Do you know where we are?”
Merolliay looked up and down the street. “No idea.”
The Kavanian District wasn’t as friendly when they weren’t with Saulius. No one was as hostile as the men in the tavern, but even when they saw young men to whom Saulius had introduced them earlier that day, they were ignored. From a distance across a street, Lida thought she saw Zuvius. But if it was him he turned his back after catching one glimpse of them.
Eventually, after a long succession of wrong turns and backtracking, Merolliay and Lida found their way to the District’s central plaza where their carriage had originally dropped them off. Lida saw a doctor’s sign hung over an open door, light spilling out onto the street. When she pointed out the cup and flame symbols of the Healers’ Guild to Merolliay, he agreed to go in.
The doctor cleaned and stitched Merolliay’s arm. He had no laudanum, only the clear, distilled grain alcohol he used for sterilizing the wound and his needles and thread. Merolliay drank three tiny glasses of it but still clutched the smooth wooden stick the doctor gave him so hard that Lida thought his knuckles would crack. The doctor, while not unfriendly to them, muttered to himself in Kavanian the entire time. Lida heard Saulius’s name but didn’t understand what was being said, though she noticed that it brought a smile to Merolliay’s face.
“What was the doctor saying?” she asked, once they were in a carriage headed for home.
Merolliay’s head lolled against the wall of the carriage, and at first Lida thought he hadn’t heard her. Then he laughed as if sharing a joke with an invisible friend.
“What?” she said.
“You don’t want to know,” he said, eyes half-closed. “It might embarrass you.”
“Why?” Lida had the uncomfortable feeling that Merolliay was teasing her, and she didn’t know if she could stand it.
He laughed again, shading his eyes with the back of his hand even though the only light came from a candle in the wall behind a pierced metal screen. The driver was on his seat in front, and the two of them were enclosed in the passenger box where he couldn’t see them.
“Do you know that Saulius is in love with you?” Merolliay asked.
Nothing he said could have shocked Lida more.
“He’s not,” she said. Then, “How do you know? Is that what the doctor was saying?”
“I already knew.”
Saulius might be older than her, but he knew nothing. He was an innocent boy playing at being a swordsman. He hadn’t seen his mother face-down on the ground, blood all around, maybe she was dead and maybe not, but you didn’t wait to find out–
And you didn’t think about things like that. Lida made the memory go away. “Saulius is in love with all women.”
“Not like this.”
“I’m not in love with him.” It had never occurred to her to think of Saulius in that way. In fact, the more he flirted with her, the less seriously she could take him.
“No,” Merolliay said. “Of course you aren’t.”
She wanted to say, Because I’m in love with you, but she didn’t. Maybe he already knew. He was the same age Andraikos had been when he rescued her from the Imperial Army.
Merolliay didn’t love her any more than Andraikos had. Not the way she wanted him to. But they were both men. Lida wasn’t the prettiest girl in the Imperial City, but she wasn’t the ugliest either.
They had to pay the coachman double to get him to drive them all the way home, knowing that he had no chance of picking up a passenger past the crossroads. Lida considered threatening him with her sword, but that was the sort of thing that could get the Three Gallant Rogues thrown out of the Guild of Swordsmen.
She supposed that killing unarmed men in a tavern brawl might also meet with their disapproval. But it wouldn’t be the first time in the Imperial City that a drunken fight between members of different ethnic groups ended with one or more combatants dead. And on the rare occasion that such a case went to court, the magistrates almost always decided in favor of whichever party was on unfriendly ground assuming that they would have been outnumbered. Official Imperial policy promoted the vision that they were all citizens of the glorious Nemesde Empire and that citizens should be able to move safely across all ethnic enclaves in the Imperial City.
Merolliay was less steady on his feet than Lida had ever seen him, but he made it into the house without having to lean on her. In the pitch-dark entryway, which led either to the large two-storey apartment that Merolliay shared with Saulius and Alzadin, or to Lida’s rooms on the third floor, Lida listened to him fumble with the lock for a long time before reaching to help. Her hand touched his and she felt a spark of static jump through her entire body from fingertips to toes. He didn’t draw his hand away.
Inside the large common room, Lida found the covered bowl of glowing coals on the hearth by feel. She opened it and used the coals to light one of the candles they kept on the mantelpiece. In the warm flickering light she saw Merolliay standing halfway between her and the door that led up the stairs to his bedroom, watching her.
She took a step towards him. He didn’t move away or turn his back on her.
She tried to think of something to say, but her tongue felt swollen and useless after all the beer and liquor she’d drunk. Merolliay was the university-schooled son of a noble house. He was the one who knew how to use words, not her. She was just a village girl who could barely read. She pretended to be experienced in the ways of the world, but she’d never had a lover. She and Andraikos used to share their blankets for warmth and sometimes he would kiss her when he’d drunk too much and even touch her breasts under her shirt. But every time he would turn away before he could, as he put it, “take advantage of her.”
Merolliay took a step towards his room, but backwards, so he was still facing Lida as he moved away. She followed with two steps of her own. Another backwards step and she followed. She felt like a fish on a line being hauled out of a lake, hand-over-hand.
He stumbled over his feet into the door when he reached it, clutching at the wall to keep himself upright. By then Lida had closed the distance between them.
Merolliay’s hand darted out and caught a fistful of her shirt, hauling her against him. His back was pressed into the lintel of the door. Lida gasped at the delicious feel of his hard lean body against hers, his fingers digging into her buttocks to grind her hips against him. His other hand released her shirt and slid behind her head, taking her hair in a painful grip and pulling her mouth down to his. She was taller by almost the width of her hand.
His kiss was fiercer than anything she’d shared with Andraikos. It was like he was trying to devour her soul through her mouth, whether he believed in souls or not. Lida tried to respond, tried to remember the way Andraikos had kissed her, but it didn’t seem to matte, because she wasn’t sharing a kiss, she was being kissed. It still felt good mostly, but as it went on she started to feel a rising sense of panic. She might be taller, but Merolliay was physically stronger, and she was at his mercy.
She tried to pull away, but it was as if he didn’t even notice. He drew his tongue down the side of her neck, and she shuddered at the sudden rush of heat between her legs, and shuddered again when his teeth bit hard into the skin over her collarbone. His hand had torn her shirt out of her breeches, and he slipped his fingers up inside, up her back, gently at first, and then his fingers turned into claws, his nails raking down her back in long scratches.
She wasn’t sure if she pulled away or he pushed her away, but suddenly she was free of the iron grip that held her. They were still close enough to touch without reaching and his breathing was as shallow as hers. She could see how aroused he was. But he didn’t reach for her.
His dark eyes went from her chest to her hips and crotch and back again. The top three buttons of her shirt had come undone, and one of them had fallen on the floor between them. He noticed the button on the floor and met her eyes with his.
“Are you coming upstairs with me?” he asked.
Lida didn’t answer. She couldn’t form the words. But when Merolliay went through the door and started up the stairs, she followed him. Her heart was pounding like it did the last few seconds before a duel.
It was painful, which she had heard it would be, and awkward, which she hadn’t. She wasn’t afraid of pain, though, and few things in her life had ever not been awkward. In the moments after they finished she thought she had never been more content lying close enough to Merolliay to feel the heart beating in his chest, feeling the whisper of his breath against her cheek.
When he pulled away from her, she reached out a hand to try and touch his sleek dark hair, but he shook his head and pushed her hand back. His expression was grim, and he wouldn’t meet her eyes.
“Merolliay?” she said. “What’s wrong?”
He shook his head, still not looking at her, and lay down again on his back, far enough away that they weren’t touching.
“This was a mistake,” he said. “It can’t happen again.”
Just at that moment, as Lida was searching for what she could possibly say in response, loud thumping footsteps sounded on the stairs–footsteps she recognized–and a few seconds later Merolliay’s bedroom door was flung open by a laughing Saulius and Alzadin, arms around each other’s shoulders. But not before Merolliay put an exasperated hand over his eyes, muttering, “Oh, for the love of Liban!”
“Mero–” Saulius exclaimed, before noticing that Merolliay was not alone, and then noticing who was with him. “Oh,” he said. The disappointment in his voice would have been evident even without what Merolliay had said earlier.
It occurred to Lida that if this had been a theatrical farce, the audience would have been falling out of their seats. But it wasn’t funny as one of the players having to see the hurt that Saulius was failing to hide, Merolliay lying next to her in the bed but not even wanting her to touch him, Alzadin eyeing Saulius to see if he could extricate himself from Saulius’s arm and escape this awkward situation without Saulius toppling over.
Alzadin said something and started nudging Saulius, attempting to tug him back out onto the landing. But Saulius seemed rooted to the spot.
Merolliay, who still had his hand over his face, shook his head and groaned.
That was enough for Lida. She shrugged back into her shirt and started buttoning it. “We can all leave,” she announced. “I seem to have done whatever I was needed for.”
She thought Merolliay’s mouth twisted in a slight grimace, but she might have been imagining it, wishing desperately for him to show some reaction, any reaction at all.
Unfortunately, her dramatic exit wasn’t as dramatic as she would have liked because her breeches and smallclothes were hopelessly twisted around one ankle. And she must have been more drunk than she realized because it took her several false starts to get them back on properly. Then she looked down and realized that she had only fastened about half of the buttons on her shirt and all of them into the wrong buttonholes. As the final glory, Saulius and Alzadin had apparently taken her announcement that she also intended to leave as an instruction for them to stay until she was ready to go. Or else they just didn’t want to miss the opportunity to watch her dress and were willing to cling to the flimsiest possible excuse.
She left her boots because they were a nuisance to put on at the best of times, and she didn’t want to risk further embarrassment by dropping them. She did stoop to gather her sword and sword belt from the floor next to Merolliay’s bed.
Saulius and Alzadin still hadn’t moved out of the doorway when she got there. She glared up at Saulius.
“Do I have to stab you again?”
He just stared at her, struck dumb, until Alzadin thrust an elbow in his ribs and the two of them flattened themselves back against the edge of the door and the wall of the landing outside to let her by.
Thanks be to the Three, and the god Konendas, and yes, even to the Emperor himself, Lida did not trip and fall down the stairs but made it to the bottom and out into the common room with the last scant shreds of her dignity intact.
Both windows were closed and locked when she got up to her own room. She thought for a couple of seconds, then threw them both open before tumbling into her bed despite the chill in the breeze that threatened frost.
She hoped Helena Dareshna would send another assassin before sunrise. She desperately wanted to kill someone.