Lerren took the knife from his pocket and used it to pick at his fingernails. He had learned a long time ago to keep his hands steady. As a child, he’d held his arm out straight, his sword in hand, training himself for hours. So now the rocking of the carriage didn’t bother him as he rode over the bumpy half-trail through the woods. Yes, he’d done quite a lot of training in his life. It was how he’d gotten so far.
And it still hadn’t been enough to beat Orephius. Not really. He rolled his eyes at that, tsk-tsked himself. That kind of thinking wasn’t going to do him any favors. Besides, Orephius was dead and buried, wasn’t he? Or he soon would be. There was absolutely nothing to worry about.
He looked out the window of the carriage, though there was nothing to see. It was only trees. Even here, he felt that woman’s eyes on him. It made his skin crawl. There was something about her, something magnetic and otherworldly. Something that Orephius had also had, that drew obsession to it.
He realized that his finger was bleeding. When had he cut himself? He sighed and, carefully, so as not to bleed on the lapel of his coat, removed a handkerchief. He needed to stop thinking about Orephius. He was gone.
Something about that fact wore on him. So much that he felt he was like to unravel.
The coach pulled to a stop and a servant put the steps down and opened the door. Lerren took his time getting out of the carriage. He always felt awkward, walking half-crouched over to the door and then climbing down the too short stairs to the ground. There was something vulnerable about it. He’d been a duelist most of his life now, and that meant poise, grace, readiness. So, as he climbed out, he refused to take the man’s arm. It was not dignified.
The house he stood in front of now was a strange building. It was built like a country inn, though it was much too large, and the masonry didn’t match the woodwork, indicating to Lerren that it had been upgraded and expanded over time. It was an unnaturally mismatched building, not the smooth, uniform wood or stone of the low taverns of Eidolon. A garish, squat thing, for all of its crude size and ornament, and Lerren almost resented the woman for sending him here. That is, in addition to the myriad other reasons he resented her.
He allowed a man to hand him his blades and he strapped them onto his waist. He closed his eyes and felt out to the shadows that lingered between the trees. They were empty, at least. He’d felt the woman’s eyes on him at all times. He was starting to think he’d grown paranoid, but then there’d always been an unwanted itch at the back of his neck that caused him to look over his shoulder.
He waited outside. He was meeting with someone called Callum, who had some official job over here. It was too low of a position for Lerren to have heard of, but the woman had installed him so there must be some amount of competence. She had quite a few fingers in petty crime and low level corruption. It wrote a sort of subtle, quiet joke to Lerren. Had Orephius been the hero he often fancied himself he could have avoided his death. But he was not a hero of the people. He’d long ago become only the hero of the court.
Finally, when he felt he was comfortably late, Lerren straightened his coats and entered the house. He was led to the far back room where Callum waited.
This room, though. There was actually a dirt floor. There were plants in large, heavy urns. Thick curtains covered the one window, so the room was dark. As Lerren entered he noticed that no, they were not plants, they were fungus. Some of them even seemed to glow softly, now that his eyes had adjusted.
A strange, distasteful man.
He sat at a simple table, waiting for Lerren. There was a brown earth ware vase from which he had poured two glasses of water. There was no wine and no fragrant smoke scented the air. Both had become popular with most nobles in the past few months and Lerren had often indulged in both. It was a much better trend than when thick, stiff collars and cuffs had been popular. Now that was a fashion he’d been glad to leave in the past.
This man, Callum, regarded Lerren with a tilt of his head. “Good afternoon,” he said. He had a smooth, voice with a more rural upper-class accent. Lerren only raised his eyebrows at the man, his hands resting on his swords.
“Yes,” Lerren said. He took the water from the table and drank it. Lerren would have to get real refreshments later, but there was no reason to be rude. “I am here from Harryn herself, to instruct you in your next move.”
“I will be glad to hear it. Please, my lord, have a seat.”
“Yes,” Lerren said. “It won’t take long.” Pointedly, Lerren did not sit. He looked over his fingers, rubbing them together as if to clear away dirt. He felt dirty in this room, with its darkness and earth floor, with the fungus growing in the corner. “There should be a young fighter type class, probably a Juggernaut but we can’t be sure. We want to be rid of him. He should come out of the tower outside of Stoneybrook in a few days. A week at most. Pay attention and take whoever you can of that description.”
“Do we know what he looks like? Why not capture him now?”
“It’s complicated. Harryn hasn’t given me full details, she’s seen something. You understand the nature of such magic.” It was a lie. No one understood the nature of such magic. It was a strange, ephemeral thing that, perhaps, had not really existed ever. No, the woman was not working on premonitions. Lerren didn’t like the lie – he’d rather be the one building the mystique of his own prowess over hers – but he saw the necessity. “He’ll been a young man with dark hair, brown skin, brown eyes. He will look like a Damascan, maybe a little common.”
“That leaves a lot of people,” Callum said.
“So it does,” Lerren said. “Will it be a problem?” There was a long pause where the man seemed to consider.
“No,” he said, finally. There was resignation in his voice, as if he didn’t like this. “I suppose there isn’t.”
“We are making it worth your while, so I would hope not.” Lerren turned to leave. “If there’s nothing else,” he said, to excuse himself.
“We are meant to kill these boys?”
“No. When you have one send word, we will take them away for banishment.” The man went pale. Lerren smiled at that. Banishment was rare enough, but it was the only way. If what Harryn said was right there were certainly scarier truths to face than banishment.
“Set someone up at the Stoneybrook inn and wait for him there. You will find him.” Lerren walked out, leaving Callum to consider. He would have his own minions who would take of this for him.
For now, Lerren consider this handled, the job done. He walked back to the carriage and stepped up. He felt something there, but he got in anyway. It was the only thing he could do.
“It’s done, then?” She asked him. He took his seat to face her. There she was, all wrapped up in the shadows of the other side of the carriage.
“Harryn,” he said. It was hard to not spit the name out. Guardians but this woman was unsettling. “I’ve spoken to him.”
“Good,” she said, a smile on her pale white face. She seemed so much like a ghost to him that he had to squeeze his hand into a fist to keep himself from shivering.
“I have to wonder,” Lerren said. “Why did you send me here if you were just going to show up yourself? Might have saved both of our time.” Harryn put her hand over her mouth and laughed. Her manners were strange. A person should never laugh like that, not in public. She was far too comfortable showing her emotions. It reminded him of Orephius, actually.
“Don’t feel bad,” she said, seemed to coo the words at him. “A woman needs to keep her secrets.” It was infuriating, the way she would condescend to him, but the thing that made him really angry was how afraid she made him. The other one, too.
He leaned back and tried to look out the window, but there was nothing to look at. He’d be happy when this whole business was over and this woman, Herryn, went back to wherever she’d come from.
They rode for a while in silence. How would his life be different now if his uncle had never found this woman? He’d be training for the arena, to contest against Orephius and his team. Maybe that would have been better. There were things he could do to cast a shadow on Orephius. This all seemed too petty, just to get rid of a rival.
It was dark when he returned to the manor. When he crawled out of the carriage he found he was alone.