Fire and Freedom. Chapter I

If you didn’t know Lucius, you would be frankly amazed at the smile on his face as he walked into the Skrite. If you knew him, and knew him well, you may have been momentarily shocked that his usual, easy going grin was still in place considering the rest of his face had a more than generous share of dried blood and partially open wounds on it. True his nose had been broken on plenty of other occasions and it would take a dear friend indeed – not that Lucius had many of those – to tell if this had happened again recently.

But that smile, the smile that made his face look passably attractive once you stopped paying attention the few deep scars, clearly damaged nose and unusually dark olive complexion, was there none the less, peering out through bloody and cracked lips. In spite of everything that must have happened to him in the hour or so preceding his entrance to his local, that smile was still there. Edes was far from a close friend, but he had known the ex-legionary for the three years or so since he had wandered into Nosta-Pyrax, still carrying his legion shield, since before his Pelosian countrymen had thought to claim the free city state as its own. He knew that the smile hardly left the lips of the foreigner before him, and liked him for it. Liked him enough to already be pulling a small beer for the lad, even though it was clear as day that had no money to pay for it, his clothes as badly damaged as his face and ribs, his belt bereft of both sword and pouches. “Goin’ on the tab is this one Lucius?”, he asked, placing the watered down and foul smelling glass of almost-amber liquid down on the bar.

Reaching out for it with a nod gave the Landlord a look at Lucius’ blooded knuckles, and he smiled to himself, knowing that any street scum who had jumped the young man, no matter the numbers they fought in to give them confidence would not have walked away without something to remember the evening by. “Cheers Edes, to your health and that of your lovely daughter. I trust she will be around later on for the meeting? Not too sure on the numbers, but probably enough for you to want an extra hand on the pumps no doubt”. He put down the half empty glass, still smiling in spite of what was currently slipping down his throat. Nenia, the Landlord’s daughter was very well known to the Skrite’s customers. An even split between those here for the cheap drinks, and those who took advantage of Edes’ special relationship with certain less than savoury characters that worked this district of Nosta-Pyrax. It was mainly the fear of Edes’ fists and how he was known to use them in years past that stopped that interest being anything more than lustful looks and drunken cat calls. All it would take was a stern look from beneath the bushy brows of the hulking ex-bare-knuckle fighter to dissuade anyone from further interest, even those more deeply into their cups than others.

Lucius knew this well enough and enjoyed teasing Edes, especially when when saw the teen-aged beauty returning his smiles. Edes, for his part, was content to let it go. Lucius was a young man with important allies, and was definitely one to watch of the Lethain shadow cartel. There was also the fact that although he could talk the gold fillings out a Dromish man’s mouth, he didn’t have the first clue how to talk to women. All those years in the legions, he thought, too much time with nothing but the company of men. So he smiled and chose to ignore the comment. “What happened this time then”, he asked, certain that he would know at least part of the story, as it had been told several times this last year.

“Would love to fill you in on all the gories my good man, but if I look in this fuckin’ state when people start to arrive, we won’t get anyone wanting to join up. Any chance I could stick my head in a barrel of clean water and take a shirt off your hands for the evenin’? I just need to get through the night then report in, and I’ll be back to pay what I owe”. To give himself a better chance at getting some charity, he took the rags of his own woollen top and pulled them away from his bruised and battered body, “I mean, would you want to work with me looking like this”?

“Clean yourself up as much as you like you cheeky sod, and I still wouldn’t want ‘owt to do with you. But sod it, can’t have you and your lot putting of the regulars. Get yourself in the back, but keep your hands to themselves. I wouldn’t worry too much anyway, the miserable sod in the corner has the look of one your lot. I mean, who walks into a place like this and tries to sit in the darkest shadow possible, with his hood pulled up, not even touching his wine, if he isn’t up to somet’ no good”? Lucius turned a little to take in the figure, and true enough, whoever it was they looked like trouble would follow them. There was something about the eyes, darker than they should have been, even taking the shadows and the cowl pulled low over the face into consideration. Other than that, they just sat there, the glass of red wine not even moved from where it was gently placed over an hour ago.

Leaning in closer, Lucius whispered “He can soddin’ wait, the meeting’s not supposed to start for over an hour, and if he’s invited to it I’ll ask him then what the hell he was doin’ here so early”. With that, he swigged back the second half of the the ripe smelling brew and walked behind the bar with the air of someone used to having access to places others would usually fear to tread.

In truth he was happy to get out of the Silver Skrite’s taproom. It’s use as a meeting spot for the local Umbruc was based very much on the fact that unless you had a reason to be there then there were many more salubrious places to get a drink in Haak district. Places that served beer that hadn’t been left to fester for weeks at a time, and usually charged better for them as well. Places where the company was better than conmen and thieves, cut-throats and leg-breakers, and where the smell drifting up from the cellars wasn’t enough to put off the bar’s namesake from staying around, and gods know, there aren’t many places in the Haak that could claim to be free of the large verminous creatures known as skrites. Before he closed the door that would lead him to a large back room, he made sure there wasn’t anyone else in the bar he wasn’t expecting, but saw only the hooded figure along with a couple of regulars, already too drunk to keep their heads from nodding towards the bleached and stained tables. It was still only early evening, but in the Skrite it was always either twilight or full dark; the windows so stained with old smoke and grime that even in the middle of summer at noon, Edes would have to keep a few candles burning, just to stop the drunks from walking into the tables.

It took Lucius a little longer than he would have liked to make himself presentable; the injuries were worse than he had first assumed, and even cold clear water was making the still open wounds sting as he gently washed the dried blood away. He was wincing with almost every pass of the wet cloth over his ribs and was grateful that Edes was not a vain man and had eschewed mirrors in his private quarters. He knew he was no oil painting, even before the men of his old legion had paid him back for siding against them in the invasion, but fresh scars and another broken nose would make it just that little bit harder for him to do his job.

Others in the Umbruc could slip jewels from pockets and cut purse strings without the owner knowing until it came time to pay the bill; there were some that could climb sheer brick walls and silently sneak through locked and bolted windows to relieve those within of their precious items. Of course there were also the leg breakers and bully boys that always found work in a shadow cartel, unimaginative though that work may have been. Lucius was none of those things – true, he could climb a wall when he needed to, and in a crowd could dip into pockets with a better than average chance of escaping with some loot, but what he excelled at, the reason he was well regarded even though he was still in the lowest rank of the Lethain Umbruc was his abilities as a confidence trickster.

Give him some time to get to know his mark, just a few clues about what would push their buttons, and he would have them handing over more money than it would take a second story man a month to earn while balanced high above the streets and canards of the Haak. He had made fair bit of coin from some of the wealthier residents of the Haak, and of the wider city, but only those that could afford it, and he made damn sure he recirculated the coin, either on booze or women.

Ah, women. If only his silver tongue could work its magic there. He had no luck with the women, but was buggered if he knew why. He tried, oh how he tried, but with never a glimpse at…

What the hell was all that noise?

Shrugging an old and badly fitted shirt over his head he strode back into the taproom, and as he was taking in the scene his hand fell to his waist, and he silently cursed the thugs who had set about him, taking another sword from him along with his money and the sample.

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