So, as regular readers may have noticed my updates have been horribly inconsistent lately. That’s completely unacceptable to be me, and I think it’s time that I reassess my schedule in light of changing work and personal obligations. My current plan is to finish up Tusk’s story (probably next week) and update the rest of the month with flash fiction. May will bring with it a new, more frequent schedule with shorter updates. That’s the plan, anyway. Now, then. Please enjoy the next installment of By the Unblinking Eye!
I half-expected to wake up the next morning with another dagger run through my pillow, or perhaps something even more threatening and aggressive, but there was nothing in my room. No burning effigy, no hastily written death threat, nothing. I was disappointed. I was almost a little bit frightened because of it, to be truthful.
Maybe that was the point.
I laid in bed for a while, trying to think about all of the things I would have to do that day but instead only able to focus on the soft Maison Lupa bed I was in. It was a simple thing, a soft bed. A luxury for kings and queens, lords and ladies, required only by those who had grown too weak to survive if they were ever forced to spend a night in an open field, or atop a simple straw mattress.
But I’ll be damned if it wasn’t a better night’s sleep than most I’d ever had.
I’d never woken up in a place like the Maison Lupa before, and I wasn’t used to it. Instead of the sounds of the wilderness, of animals calling out to each other and making their little animal noises as they went about their little animal lives, there was humans laughing and making their own little animal noises. The air smelled of the perfume Silas had been talking about, and while it was still obnoxious and distracting, I found myself getting a bit more used to it as time wore on. This would be a comfortable life. Less interesting perhaps than roaming from town to town eating and drinking in the taverns and fighting in the streets, less challenging than sleeping under the stars and hunting the creatures of the forests for food. But comfortable. Maybe a life where you could spend your nights in a soft bed in a warm house would be okay. For a little while.
I stood up and stretched. My room at the Maison Lupa had no windows, no wardrobes, no doors of any kind except for the heavy wooden one that blocked off the world outside my room with its single iron bolt. I walked over to it, opened it just a crack, and grabbed my clothes from the neat little bundle they’d been left in. As one of the conditions of my staying in the Maison Lupa, Maman had demanded that I let her girls wash my clothes. “If you’re going to be staying here,” she said, “you’re going to do it on my terms. And I can’t have you walking around in dirty, unwashed clothes. You smell. You’ll scare away the people who actually pay to stay here, no?”
I brought the clothes to my nose and sniffed at them. They smelled faintly of the flowers and perfume that the girls here covered themselves in. Not enough to make me think that the clothes had been washed with the same soaps, but enough to make me think that the smell of the Maison Lupa would be inescapable for weeks after I left.
I put on my robe and my mask, a leather belt and harness I’d asked Maman to get for me along with an assortment of daggers and blades. Greystone wasn’t safe for me anymore, if it had ever been, and I wasn’t going to walk around with nothing to defend myself but my fists. I hadn’t needed anything more yet, but it was better to be armed. And if my plan worked, I’d need them soon enough.
I stepped out into the hallway and walked past the men and the women lounging about in the building. I don’t know what they thought of me, but I supposed that it didn’t matter. All sorts of strange people probably came through the Maison Lupa. Doubtless they’d seen stranger folks than me come through the building. Or perhaps they hadn’t, but they simply had the good sense not to stare or comment.
As I walked towards the Maison Lupa’s front door, I saw Mar and Silas talking with some stranger I didn’t recognize, a boy with fair skin and dark hair on the verge of becoming a man. He seemed to be about Mar’s age. Perhaps a little bit older. Mar was laughing at his every word, smiling like a fool, running her fingers through her hair. For the stranger’s part, he was smiling and nodding as well, although not nearly as much as Mar. Silas, meanwhile, barely said a word. He just stood there, watching the conversation with a sour look on his face. As I approached, Mar saw me and walked over smiling.
“Good morning, Mr. Coalheart! Maman told me to offer you breakfast. But if you accept, she asks that you take it in your room.” Mar frowned, looked away and blushed. “She’s afraid your presence will… unsettle… the others.”
I stared at her for a moment as I tried to decide whether to be flattered or insulted. “Thank you,” I finally said. “But I have people to see. I’ll eat breakfast elsewhere.”
* * *
I went to three taverns and a whorehouse, rousing the men and promising the women their safety. I made grand speeches, doing my best to talk to the crowd the way that I imagined Enrico would. The people of Greystone cheered. They shouted in anger. The ones who had been less than lucky in the mines and the fields listened to my every word, but in every building I walked into, there were those who shouted insults at me, who told me that I was a nobody, an outsider, but they didn’t bother me.
The ones who bothered me were the ones who sat in the back of the taverns, watching from the shadows in silence. I wouldn’t let my eyes linger on them, but I studied them, tried to memorize the differences in their faces from the people around them. That’s always hard to do with humans, but it was important that I tried.
I wanted to guess at who was going to try and stick a dagger in my back.
I walked the streets of Greystone, standing tall and proud and strong for all to see. I turned a corner and found a group of four men waiting for me, tall and muscular and armed with clubs. Their leader sneered at me, a stupid animal grin behind his broken nose and his gap-toothed grin. “Hello, freak.”
I snorted. “Gog. What a pleasure to see you. I don’t think I knew your name the last time I beat you to a bloody pulp.”
Gog sneered all the wider. “I underestimated you last time, freak. Ain’t going to make that mistake again.”
I opened my mouth to insult the man when he let out an animal roar and charged at me. His men surged forward, not attacking me but standing at the ready. To intervene if I got the upper hand? To seal my fate if Gog did? I couldn’t say.
Gog raised the club in his hand up high. Obvious. I dodged toward his empty hand, figuring I’d be able to strike him across the back as he barreled past me, just like last time.
He slashed me across the chest with a dagger hidden in his free hand.
I snarled in pain and reached my hand down to my chest. It came back covered in dark blood. The wound stung more than it hurt. He’d left a long sharp cut that wept blood, but it hadn’t been deep enough to incapacitate me.
I turned around, rage twisting my face. Gog faced me, bouncing on his feet like a kid in his first fight. The sneer seemed a permanent part of his face now, and his eyes shone like two dark jewels of malice. He twirled a small, dark blade in his hand. My eyes focused on it. The darkness dripped off. The blade was wet with my blood.
“I’m going to kill you,” I said. My voice was cold and level. The heartlessness behind it surprised even me, and I saw fear flicker across Gog’s face. Only for a second, but it was there. And then his sneer returned and one of his men clubbed me across the back of my head.
I dropped to my knees, the world swimming before me. My eyes wouldn’t focus. I couldn’t think. I was trapped in a prison of blurry images and distorted sounds and pain.
Another blow to my shoulder knocked me to one side. A third finished the job, leaving me flat on my back and groaning in pain. I was dimly aware that that first blow likely would have killed a human. At any other time, I would have taken pride in that. But all my strength and my toughness meant now was that one of these other blows would kill me instead.
This would be a bad death. Caught by surprise by an enemy that could do no more than get his friends to help him club a foe to death. I thought back to my last fight in the wizard’s tower. I’d found myself helpless on the ground when I was fighting the adventurers, but at least Perceval and Maya and the others whose names I could not remember had had magic on their side.
I was going to be killed by a band of street thugs. What a terrible death.
“Get away from him! Get away! He’s mine!” Gog appeared above me, grinning down like some kind of dark and sadistic god. “This was all I’ve been thinking of for days, you know that? Just you and me and my little friend here.” He held up the dagger, twirled it in his hand. I stared at him for a moment, forcing my eyes to focus on his ugly, broken face.
“You couldn’t beat me without an army at your back,” I mumbled. I said it soft. Just loud enough for Gog to hear.
The sneer disappeared from Gog’s face. It became a frown. His eyes narrowed, his lips drew back a snarl, and he dropped to one knee on my chest, grabbed the front of my robe with his free hand. “What was that? What was that?”
I mumbled, barely able to breathe with Gog’s weight crushing me.
He moved his face inches away from my own. “What? Speak up! I can’t hear you!”
“I said, ‘You dropped this,’”and jammed a dagger into his side. His eyes went wide. A pitiful croaking noise escaped his throat. I pulled the blade free and stabbed him again and again, unable to see more than a blur. I stopped only when I realized Gog had gone limp.
I pushed Gog off of me, his body hitting the street like so much dead weight. I couldn’t imagine why his men hadn’t jumped to help him, why I was still standing. Why I was still alive, even. I hobbled to my feet, every movement sending pain coursing through my body. No one did anything. I squinted, searching the gathered crowd for Gog’s men. If they attacked me, they’d probably kill me, and if I were going to die, I wanted to die facing my enemies.
At last I found them, burly men armed with clubs and with confused, terrified looks on their faces. I stared at them. No one moved. I took a deep breath. “This is what happens to the people of Greystone who betray their city!” I kicked at Gog’s corpse, stepped too forcefully, threw myself off balance, had to regain my footing. “This is what happens! Do you see?” I held up the dagger. “Slain by his own blade! Slain by the tools of his own cowardice!” I threw the blade down. The world was becoming sharper. I could see that a crowd had gathered. I could see that they all had similar looks on their faces. Fear and disgust on men, women, and children alike. I ignored them, though. Instead, I just focused on Gog’s men, glared at them, and spat on the ground.
I paused. I looked down, seeing the thirsty soil of Greystone soak up my spit. I brought a bandage-wrapped hand up to my face, and my calloused fingertips felt my own tough, green flesh.