I’d traveled west far along the King’s Road, no real destination in my mind except for “as far away from Glimmerton and the High Prelate as possible.” I didn’t even know anything about Greystone when I decided to go there. I figured it would be a big city like Glimmerton had been, given that it was important enough to be listed on the roadsigns along the Queen’s Road even though it was hundreds of miles from Glimmerton. What I found instead was a city where every neighborhood was different from the next. The oldest parts of town seemed to be the simple homes I’d found everywhere in my travels, wood and thatch. But there were some taller brick buildings mixed in with them all. Some of them seemed to be laid out as if one of the older homes had been torn down and the brick one put up in its place, but some of them were squeezed in amongst the others, as if they’d been built without any thought given over to how it would look or how practical be.
But that was just the oldest district. Greystone had no shape to its borders and no real consistency. There were tents. There were squat, box-like buildings in a style I’d never seen before. There were peaked roofs and cobblestone roads and muddy paths you could barely hope to walk across, and the whole city seemed to be like a living thing that was fighting itself as it grew. Even the humans were all different from each other, with different skin colors and different shapes to their faces. If Glimmerton was a city of stone, a city built to endure, then Greystone was a city of change.
I tested my arm. It hurt a bit, but not bad. I picked up the club I’d kept from my earlier fight with the street thugs, and swung it around some. Good enough. I put my robes back on, covered my face, and left my room in search of food.
The main hall of the inn was packed with humans, drinking and laughing and shouting. I muscled my way to the counter and sat down, waving over the innkeeper. “Pint of ale and roast mutton.”
“Five sovereigns,” the man said. I stared at him in shock, thankful that wrappings around my face kept him from seeing my expression. He was a squat fellow, built much like a keg of ale with legs and arms. For a moment, I saw him as just another bandit on the side of the road, weapon drawn, hands shaking, unwittingly demanding the money of someone who could pick him up and snap his spine over their knee.
“You’re mad! My breakfast was but a single silver this morning, and even that was too much!”
The portly man shrugged. “That was this morning. Didn’t you hear? Some lucky bastards found another aurum vein in the foothills last night. They got back to town a few hours ago, hired some guards to watch their claim, and then they went crazy. Went to the taverns, the whorehouses, all of it. Just throwing around their money like it was candy. They threw around so much money, in fact, prices all over town shot up. You want a pint of ale and some roast mutton, it’s going to cost you five sovereigns, and if you don’t like it, then you can just go to hell.”
I glared at the man from behind my mask, from underneath my hood. I expected him to waver, but he didn’t. He just stood there with his arms crossed, his face as unyielding as stone. “Why should I pay five sovereigns for a meal worth three silver,” I growled, “when I can just break your head and take the damn food from you?”
The man’s eyes went wide for a moment, but only a moment. They narrowed into slits, his lips pulling back into a sneer. “Because if you make a move that isn’t you going for your coin purse, I’m going to shout out, ‘Twenty sovereigns to whoever kills the villain in front of me.’”
I stared at him for a moment as his words sunk in. The bar was crowded with people, more than I could hope to fight. Already, those nearest to us were whispering amongst themselves, glancing my way, sizing me up. I snorted. The air in this place stank of men, men with too much money, with too little money, with nothing to do but drink and talk. There may have been enough aurum in the hills to draw them from all over the land, but I doubted there was enough to make them all as wealthy as they dreamed of being. Those who found themselves richer than they’d ever dreamed would be riding a high, feeling unstoppable. Those who found themselves growing poorer with every passing day would be more bitter, more desperate, more angry. It was dangerous, a pen full of caged animals ready to tear each other to pieces over a scrap of meat.
I reached into the pockets of my robes grumbling and pulled out five sovereigns. Thank the gods for the greedy bandits that plagued King’s road.
I sat there eating my meal quietly, my mind wandering between thinking about the men who’d attacked me and listening to the conversations the people around me were having. They spoke of food and drink and whores and aurum, all of them carrying on as if they were noble lords used to only the finest things in life. It was easy to understand why there were thugs prowling the streets. Why bother digging in the dirt and sorting through rock under the hot sun when you could just let someone else dig up the aurum, club them in the head, and take theirs? I thought about doing that myself, but decided against it. There was no sport in it. It’d be like hunting a blind and deaf doe. Besides, aurum held no power over me the way it did the humans. In my mind, all the shiny yellow metal was good for was buying a meal and a bed, and I’d sooner sleep under the stars and live off the land than toil in the dirt.
I’d finished my meal and I was just about to return to my room when I heard the innkeeper fighting with a customer. “Where’s my food, Sutro? I paid five sovereigns for a pittance of beef, and if I don’t get it soon, I’m going to carve five sovereigns worth of meat out of your hide!” I turned to look. The customer arguing with the innkeeper seemed to be every bit his opposite. Where Sutro was short and round and fair, the customer was tall and lean, his head deliberately shaved bald, his skin tanned from time spent in the sun. He looked just the same as every other human there who fancied himself a prospector, save for one thing: in the center of his forehead was a tattoo of an eyeball. Simple, like a child might draw. An almond shape with a circle and a dot in the center.
“Please, Master Osman! Patience, I beg you, patience! My serving boy hasn’t come in today, and there are too many customers for me to handle myself.”
Osman snorted. “It is a fool businessman who complains of too many customers, Sutro.”
Sutro held his hands folded in front of him, as if he were praying to an angry god. “It is the boy’s fault, Master Osman. He’s always been unreliable. He’s always…”
Sutro stopped mid-sentence, his pathetic mewling ceasing in an instant. Instead of the beaten and ashamed look he wore, his face turned into a mask of anger. “Damnation, Silas, where have you been?” he shouted. I turned to follow his gaze and saw a slight and dirty looking child. His clothes were little more than rags, his face caked with dirt, his left arm in a crude and simple sling. At the sound of Sutro’s voice, he flinched as if he’d been slapped.
“I’m sorry, Sir! I’m sorry! It weren’t my fault! There was a scuffle in the streets, there was, and–”
“Damnation, boy, what happened to your arm? How are you supposed to serve my customers with a broken arm?” Sutro’s eyes narrowed, and he reached across the counter to grab at the boy. “Is this another scheme of yours? Are you trying to get out of your work? Are you hoping my customers will take pity on you and tip you extra?” He finally got a hold of the boys’ arm, and it seemed to me from the way the child screamed that this was no scheme. Sutro must have thought so too, for he immediately let go. Osman watched the whole scene with no more expression on his face than an annoyed frown. For my part, I was ready to throttle Sutro for how he was treating the child. Most of the decent humans I’d ever met had been about the age this Silas seemed to be, and I was beginning to think that a life lived at the hands of a brute like Sutro would slowly strangle that decency out of them.
Sutro took a deep breath and composed himself. “Now, tell me. Why were you late? What happened to your arm?”
“There was fighting in the streets, there was!”
“There’s always fighting in the streets, boy.”
“But my da was the one fighting this time! He was talking to a man, and the man just attacked him, and then my da tried to fight back, but the man was stronger, and then my da’s friends helped, but the man was stronger than them, too, and I jumped on his back to stop him, but he hit me and he broke my arm!”
My pulse quickened at Silas’s story. Was he the one who had jumped on my back? I didn’t actually look at the person. They’d gotten away too quickly. But they seemed to have been small. It could have been a child, I supposed. I looked away. I needed to get away quietly, unnoticed. If the boy pointed me out, it would surely start a brawl. Part of me ached for the fight. Surely I could beat any man in the hall one on one. But another part of me said, It won’t be one on one. It’s going to be everybody against the outsider who broke a child’s arm.
I frowned. I didn’t break the child’s arm. His father’s friend had when he’d smashed him with that club. And I hadn’t attacked his father. Even if all we were doing was “talking,” his father still took the first swing. The boy was lying.
Sutro crossed his arms. “Calm down, boy. You’re telling me that some stranger attacked your father for no good reason, and you got your arm busted trying to stop the fight?”
“Yes, Sir! Yes!”
“What’d he look like?” Osman asked.
“He was tall, and he was wearing robes with the hood up, so I couldn’t see his face, but he was thick! Like one of them carnival strongmen, he was!” I swore under my breath. A few eyes started to turn my way. It was too late to leave now. There would be no quietly slipping away. “And he had a deep voice, like a dog growling, and… and… and… That’s him! That’s the man!”
I felt a hand on my shoulder, a tight grip. Osman spun me around on my bar stool to face him, his brow furrowed with hatred. “What kind of monster breaks the arm of a child?” Murmurs worked their way through the crowd. I was cornered. Stick him with the dagger, I thought, but I knew that would do no good. That would eliminate one foe, but the room was full of them, and I couldn’t hope to fight them all. No, there was only one thing I could do. There was only one escape that I saw. I took a deep breath and shouted at the top of my lungs.
“Twenty sovereigns to the man who teaches this bastard to keep his filthy hands off my robe!”
The entire hall went silent. All eyes seemed to be on us. Osman’s face was expressionless, but his eyes darted around, looking to see where an attack would come from.
Someone behind Osman hit him in the back of the head with a mug of ale. A roar went through the men in the hall, and the sounds of plates and mugs breaking, tables being smashed, men shouting in pain and anger. Osman wheeled around and hit a man in the side of the head, but not the man who had hit him. I backed away, content to let the crowd tear itself apart.
Osman fought the men who were rushing him, doing a good job of keeping them off him. Sutro shouted, trying helplessly to get things under control Meanwhile, the boy, Silas, just laughed and laughed.