Jarrin leaned back, chugging what was left of his warm watered ale. He put the mug back on the table with a sigh. What an utter fool he was. Sighing again, he scanned with sore eyes the dirty pub where he’d spent the night wailing over his fate. A thin old man slept by the dead fire; two patrons were awake and whispering to one another at a table, and a couple who’d drunk too much the night before sat hunkered over their tables asleep.
Jarrin shook his head, recalling again the previous evening.
After that first melting kiss, he’d grabbed his hat, presented his possible paramour with a deep bow and his card then took his farewell.
He could have had her! Or, at the very least, pleasured her, shown her what he knew instead of running away like a besotted fool. A bigger buffoon of a poet there had never been.
Yet the moment had been so perfect, like something from a painting of one of the Masters—Krillion, perhaps–he just hadn’t had the heart to soil it with reality. Instead, he’d made a living poem of something he couldn’t write, for that power was gone, even though by doing it, he’d doomed himself to utter oblivion.
He sighed a third time, knowing he was only wasting the day sitting here, but he still possessed no idea of what he was going to do. Perhaps his bed at the boarding house would give him some respite, refresh him, so when he woke, he might find a way out of his predicament. Who knew, maybe she would still call for him. Maybe the air of mystery and poetry would be enough to entice her to reserve his services for a short time. Or to at least be willing to see him again.
He didn’t know enough about the lady to guess, never even having asked her name. She could pass him on the street, and he wasn’t sure he’d even know her.
He would just have to wait and see.
The pub’s proprietor was shaking the old man sitting next to the fireplace, as one of the barmaids threw open the shuttered windows to let in some of the growing morning light and air. Jarrin figured this was as good a time as any to be on his way.
“Master Theeson, Master Theeson!” A boy of about ten slammed the front door open, startling everyone inside. He spotted the owner and rushed for him, waving a piece of paper.
“Whoa, what is it, Ryk?”
“The emperor’s guards are out and about! They’re sweeping the streets! They were just at Mistress Hawkin’s boarding house and are passing these out to everyone.”
The boy held the paper out but was bouncing around too much to let anything be made of it.
“What does it say, Lessa, what does it say?” one of the awakened patrons asked, the rest looking on with growing interest. Jarrin supposed his leave-taking could be delayed a few moments longer.
“Give it here, already!” Lessa Theeson yanked the parchment from the boy’s hand and read it out loud. “By the order of Emperor Tremere, all citizens are encouraged to come forth and give knowledge on the whereabouts or disposition of one Jarrin Lestrave. He has been duly charged with having committed treason against the state. Anyone found aiding or sheltering this criminal will also be charged with the same crime. Report any sightings or information to your local precinct captain.”
“Melak preserve us. We have a traitor loose in the streets?” The pub patron’s face had gone white.
“But does it say what he did? What he’s being called a traitor for?” This came from his partner.
Theeson shook his head. “It doesn’t say.”
Jarrin stood frozen, his blood cold. He had been branded a traitor? He sat down, feeling suddenly dizzy. How could that be?
“I think we’re in for some excitement, then, don’t you?” The old man starting up the fire cackled. “Guards everywhere, people looking for this man left and right. Lots of thirsty patrons.” He grinned, gaps showing in his teeth. “Wonder if they’ll be offering a reward?”
“Like money?” The boy’s eyes shone. “Maybe we could find him. Mistress Hawkin knows what he looks like. If she tells us, we would have a chance!”
Nods wagged all around.
Jarrin felt his chest growing tighter and tighter. The woman did know him on sight, although he hadn’t met any of the other tenants yet. Word would soon get around, and surely, it’d only be a matter of time then. He had to get out!
He stood up once more, his gaze falling on his attire. He slumped back into his seat, panic nibbling at his mind. He was still wearing the costume from the ball. If he went out into the street like this, he would be remembered; and as soon as his description made the rounds, they would home in on him and capture him. He was no one, he had no one. Would they even listen to his protests of innocence, or just cut him down like a dog in the street?
His eyes widened with a flicker of hope. He did know one person of influence–the baroness. The flicker died. No, she’d been his employer, he her toy; she would never put her neck in danger for one such as he. And to be honest, he couldn’t expect her to. He had been marked a traitor to the realm. She could lose everything if he approached her. She would more than likely turn him in to prove her loyalty to the court.
No, he must rely on himself. But what was he to do? What did they think he had done?
Jarrin desperately cast his gaze about the room. More patrons came in, all abuzz with the goings on in the streets. Luck was with him for the moment, as no one seemed to be paying him any attention. Going out the front was pretty much out of the question. His only other options were the kitchen or the stairs.
Knowing he had a pressing need for less conspicuous clothes decided him. With as much nonchalance as he could muster, he closed his cloak about his clothes then got up and made for the stairs, his hat left behind, tucked out of sight beneath the table.
He stopped when he reached the top of the landing, not sure how to proceed from there. He flushed, realizing that not only had he exchanged sexual favors to survive in this city, now he would be forced to become a thief as well.
With a shaking hand, he covered his eyes for a moment and took a long breath. What choice did he have? None. So, he would just have to get on with it.
He reached for the closest door; it was locked. So were the next two. He was hoping one of the two patrons who’d slept downstairs actually had rooms–and no roommates.
One of the doors opened at his touch. He was partway into the room when he noticed a sleepy man sitting up in bed looking at him.
“Yeah? What do ya want?”
Jarrin froze for a moment then said the first thing that popped into his head.
“Haven’t you heard? It’s all they’re talking about downstairs! The guards are flooding the streets looking for some traitor.”
“What? Why didn’t you say so?” The man leapt out of bed, his nightshirt falling just short of knobby knees, and reached for a pair of breeches draped over a chair. “I’ll bet once they catch him we’ll have us a hanging.” He drove in one leg and then the other. “No, better yet, a beheading! We haven’t had one of those in a while. Dang!”
Jarrin tried to nod and smile, although the whole idea twisted his insides.
“So, who is it? Who’s the traitor?” The man hobbled toward the door as he slipped on his boots.
“They’ve got the details downstairs. The culprit was staying at the Hawkins place, and they’re going to get a description of him from there.” Somewhere in the back of his mind he was awed he could say all this so calmly.
“Oh, I want to hear that!”
The knobby-kneed man raced out the door and down the hall. Jarrin stared after him, half horrified his gimmick had worked at all. If somehow he were able to prove he was innocent, would they kill him anyway so the riled-up citizenry could get its fill of sport? His innards twisted even more.
Stumbling further into the vacated room, he closed the door and leaned back against it, abruptly feeling exhausted and faint. With an effort of will, he shoved away from the door and studied his surroundings. Aside from the sturdy bed, a table with a chair, and a basin and bowl, there was nothing else in the room except for a chest at the foot of the bed.
Opening it, he found some half-clean clothes and some not-so clean. Taking them all out, he selected a loose workman’s shirt and pants. While they would cover his shirt and breeches, they would do nothing for the elaborate coat, waistcoat, and cravat. Taking those off, he folded his cloak around them like a sack. He left the costume sword at the bottom of the chest before covering it up with the rest of the clothes. He was sure the room’s owner could get more for what he was leaving than what he was taking was worth.
He glanced around and made sure everything was as he’d found it, knowing deep down he was only trying to delay what must come next. Telling himself yet again he had little choice in the matter, he hurried to the door and strode back out into the hallway.
The heated buzz of lively conversation wafted up to him as he reached the landing for the stairs. Going down slowly, he peeked around the corner and saw the place was filled even more than before.
“Kicked me out of my place, they did! Full search, my ass–they just want to see what’s in my larder.”
Laughs rang around the room.
“Guess they’ll be here soon, then. Seem to be moving pretty fast. Must want this fellow real bad.”
Jarrin reached the bottom of the stairs, goose bumps making their way down his back. Time was running out. Looking at nothing but the floor, he started toward the entry to the kitchen. He needed to get out now.
“Do you think it had something to do with the fancy ball last night?”
“There was a fellow all dressed up in here who might have been there,” the pub owner said. “Slowly drinking away his sorrows or something. He was sitting over there a minute ago. Where did he go?”
Jarrin reached the door and slipped inside the kitchen, the hairs on the back of his neck rising. The place was empty, the cook probably as eager to hear the gossip as everyone else. He hurried on through, grabbing a piece of stale bread on the way. At the back, as he’d hoped, was another door.
The rotting stench of garbage and more greeted him in the narrow alley as he set foot outside. The side of the building cut off what light there was, keeping the area in a deep gloom. Jarrin turned right and made his way as quickly and quietly as he could away from the general area of the boarding house. If the hunt was as extensive and thorough as the gossip implied, he would need to get a lot farther away than he might conceivably manage. He needed to find a way to totally leave town. But how?
Once he felt it safe enough, he stepped out into the street, knowing the alleys would probably be one of the first places they’d expect a refugee to use. Down the way, he spotted a modest alchemy shop. Alchemy…magic! Perhaps one of the two could be used to get him out of his predicament.
He shook his head, passing the store by. He must be truly desperate to even consider that recourse. Though rumor said magic could do almost anything, no one trusted it much, not after the Blight. Magic and those who could wield it were heavily regulated. Supposedly, all found to have the aptitude were taken from their families and reared in government institutions, marked with some kind of sigil so all could be traced. He wouldn’t be surprised if this store and any others like it were watched, and all patrons noted. If true, it would be the easiest way to go about getting caught. He couldn’t take the chance.
Not knowing anywhere else to go, Jarrin headed west, toward the lower of the city’s three tiers and the seedier part of town. He hadn’t been in those areas since the baroness took him under her wing. If things hadn’t changed too much, he might be able to find help there, if he could afford it. He made sure his moneybag was tucked out of sight, not wanting to tempt anyone unduly. At the time he’d taken it with him to the party out of fear it might be stolen if he left it behind, since it was all he had to his name. He’d never expected it to turn out to be the wisest thing to do.
He was out of breath by the time he came close to the loosely manned gate to the third tier. The doors were still open, and from what he could see the guards weren’t any more alert than usual. If luck was with him at all, the news of the hunt wouldn’t have made it this far yet, although it wouldn’t be long before it did.
Not looking at the guards, their sheathed swords or loaded flintlocks, he forced a large breath into his lungs, locked his practiced noncommittal expression on his face and strode forward as if he had every right to be there. His pulse pounded loudly in his ears, his heart beating madly against his chest, the urge to bolt and run almost overwhelming. He shook from the effort to keep still and slow, wired from the suspense of knowing the guards could stop him at any moment for any reason and his life could very well be forfeit because of it.
He made it to the threshold.
He was trying so hard to keep the guards in his peripheral vision he missed seeing the jutting wood of the gate frame and tripped. He scraped his hands on the cobblestones as he used them to break his fall, his knees throbbing where they hit the hard surface. Yes, quite a dangerous traitor he was—couldn’t even make it across a gate without tripping.
Hard laughter washed over him, making his face go red.
“Watch yourself there, citizen.”
Jarrin made himself get up quickly despite the throbbing in his knees.
“Sorry, didn’t see it.”
This was followed by more laughter. Jarrin hurried on his way.
He veered from the main road and got out of sight as soon as possible. He followed the winding streets until he came close to his old haunts. The buildings grew dirtier, less well kept but still respectable. These were the Borderlands, where those with little could try to solicit from those who possessed more.
In his old spot, he found a toothless old beggar he didn’t recognize who played softly on a flute for his pennies. As long as you contributed something, you were tolerated there; otherwise, the guard would be called to have you removed–the worst type of critic.
Jarrin continued past without slowing, the memories of his past existence depressing him even more than he was already. Harsh as that life had been, he wasn’t likely to have it as good for sometime to come.
Following the road, he eventually neared his old place of residence. Trash lay on the streets, the building barely holding together, propped up by its brothers. The mixed stench of vomit and cheap wine was everywhere. A shudder trotted down his back. He’d hoped never to see these grimy walls again, every inch a sour reminder of times best forgotten.
He forced himself to go inside.
The well-worn rose wallpaper, the rusting two-candle chandelier dangling from the cracked high ceiling, the slight odor of mildew and detergent–a never-ending war between two extremes. Jarrin shuddered, suddenly feeling as if he’d never actually left this place, and the last two years were nothing but a dream.
“Well, well, well. If it isn’t the fancy poet.”
Jarrin tried not to flinch at the scratchy and familiar voice. He spotted the speaker to his right, leaning against the old but scrubbed counter, a stocky fellow with a balding pate and a sour disposition.
“Leave the boy alone, Ruffus. He at least paid, unlike some others I could name.” The short, thin owner gave the fellow a telling look from the counter’s other side.
Ruffus looked away from her and threw Jarrin a scouring glance. “He’s back, though, and not looking all that better for it, so maybe he won’t be paying this time around.”
The owner frowned at him.
“How about I ask for your rent now, Ruffus? Since you obviously can’t take a hint.”
“Some people just can’t take a joke.” Grumbling, he turned away. His bulky frame made the worn stairs creak as he decided it would be better to get upstairs.
“Sorry about that, love. He’s been having a streak of bad luck lately and has been taking it out on everyone else.” She made a dismissing gesture. “It’s been a while, though. I figured you forgot all about us by now. Not that I’d blame you.” Her wrinkled, careworn face lost years as she gave him a smile. “What can I do for you?”
Jarrin tried to smile back, sure he fell far short of the mark.
“Does Lupe still live here?” He waited for the answer with bated breath, his one slim hope resting on the fact he might find his old acquaintance.
“Oh, you mean Lupin? Yeah, he’s still here. Same shenanigans and get rich-quick-schemes as always. I think you might even be in luck, and he’s still in.”
“Thank you.” He breathed a sigh of utter relief. It occurred to him he hadn’t been the most courteous of people since he came through the door. “I hope you’ve been well?”
She gave him another smile.
“Always so polite, you are. As if anyone actually cared!” She laughed, but stopped as she noticed his quickly reddening face.
“Oh, come now, can’t an old woman have a little fun?” She leaned over the counter. “I’m as well as can be, and thank you for asking. Have missed you and your manners some, that’s for sure. Now, go on up before I decide to try to have my way with you or something.” She laughed again.
Jarrin colored even more, wondering what she would make of the profession he’d carried on with since he’d seen her last.
“Ah, yes, thank you again. I’ll be on my way.” He gave her a half-bow and rushed up the uneven stairs, feeling her amused stare following him all the way.
Luckily, Ruffus wasn’t waiting for him in the upper hallway, so Jarrin was able to walk quietly down the mostly clean hall. He hesitated at the correct door, not sure Lupe would even remember him. Jarrin had helped him out once when he came home too beat-up and drunk to go up the stairs. As he’d put the man to bed, Lupe told him all sorts of things–people he knew, information he could get. At the time, Jarrin had chalked it up to drink and fever.
Now, the things Lupe had said he knew might be his only salvation, although if the man was so capable, why was he living here?
Jarrin felt his hopes withering, but he knew no one else to try. Donning his calm façade, he knocked on the door. There was no answer. He knocked again, this time a little louder. The third time, he knocked louder still.
“By the Master, hold off on that racket, will you?”
Jarrin hunched with relief at hearing the annoyed voice from within.
After some groaning and some stumbling sounds, the door creaked open. A lanky man with short-cropped black hair and bloodshot eyes stared at him, a mere stub of a lit candle in one hand.
“I’m sorry to bother you. You probably don’t even remember me, but…”
The man held up a hand.
“The starving poet, lived here a few years ago. Helped me out once, I believe?”
“Uh, yes, that’s me.” He was feeling more jittery by the moment. “Could we, um, could we talk somewhere private?”
Lupe scratched an armpit, eyeing Jarrin in a serious way.
“All right. Private, you say? Well, nothing more private than a man’s room, I figure. Come on in.”
He opened the door just enough to let Jarrin through. The room was barely wide enough for a bed and dresser. Jarrin knew of a few in the building that were smaller still. One of them had been his.
Lupe pointed for him to take a seat on the rumpled bed.
“Thank you.” Jarrin had forgotten how the smell of sweat could permeate a place.
Lupe leaned against a wall after setting the candle on a dish, still watching him.
“So, what can I do for you?”
Jarrin took a deep breath, telling himself again this was the only way.
“Back…back when I lived here before, you told me you were the man who could make anything happen. I need for you to help make something happen for me.”
This got him a raised brow.
“A little cryptic, but yeah, that’s me. Go on.”
“I need new papers. I also need a way to leave the city. I have to leave now.” Jarrin tensed for the questions he was sure would follow. He didn’t get what he expected.
“Okay…I suppose that’s doable.”
“So, you can help me?”
“Whoa, hold on, that depends. You willing to work to get out of here?”
Jarrin rose to his feet.
“Yes, I’ll do whatever is necessary. Just as long as I can leave.”
Lupe nodded. “Now the most important part–do you have any coin?”
At this, Jarrin hesitated.
“Yes, some. How much will I need?”
“You’re not wanting to fake a title or holdings, merely an identity. And you’re not trying to get into someplace, so it shouldn’t be too costly, depending on your definition and what you’ve got, of course.” Lupe gave him an inquiring look.
Jarrin took a deep breath. He had little choice if he wanted help.
“Four gold and some pennies–it’s all I have.” He removed his purse and spilled all he owned on the bed.
“I’m quite impressed, poet. That’s more than a lot of people ever see.” He reached for one of the coins and bit into it. “But don’t worry, I won’t need it all. I’ll take half for now and return what’s left if there’s anything.” He picked up two gold and flipped them in the air. “With this, I’ll get you even better papers than I planned on before.” He winked at him. “Don’t worry, I’ll do you a good turn.”
That, Jarrin was finding very hard not to do.
Lupe turned to his dresser and started pulling out clean clothes.
“It’d be best if you waited here while I go arrange things. I’ve a feeling the less you’re seen out in public the better?” He gave him a sly smile.
Jarrin gazed unhappily at the close-set walls around him.
Lupe nodded. “I should only be gone a few hours. Maybe some sleep would do you some good. Help pass the time, and you look like you need it.”
Jarrin stood and bowed. “I’ll try. And thank you again.”
“Don’t thank me until the deed is done.” Lupe gave him an uncharacteristically flowery bow then left.
Alone, Jarrin sat down on the thin mattress, hoping he was doing the right thing.