On Thursdays I post excerpts from a novel I’m working on. This week, Vorgell and Madd are back home in Thieves Wart and encounter an amorous fool.
The Moldy Pot tavern was three quarters underground. Its rough-hewn walls presented a handful of openings at ground level to provide ventilation and warning of approaching trouble. Several stone steps led down from the alley to the main room and a rickety wooden stairs behind the plank counter led to the kitchen. Behind the kitchen, another stairs ascended to the second floor and a handful of thoroughly disreputable rooms that could be bought by the sandglass or night. Even for Thieves Wart, the place was the dregs of a fouled barrel.
Madd didn’t care. He wasn’t there to eat the food—the tavern’s name spoke for itself. Neither did he like the other patrons. They were lowlifes of the worst sort, with nothing more on their mind than whom to cheat, knife, or stick with their sorry cocks. The only good thing about the lot was that most of them knew enough by now to leave him alone. As far as Madd was concerned, the Moldy Pot had two advantages and two only: it was underground and therefore cool, and it was within a stone’s throw of the place he and Vorgell called home.
Which explained why he stood at the Pot’s grimy counter nursing his fifth mug of mead. Even watered down mead could find its way to the brain and he gave thanks for the cobwebs taking hold in his. After last night’s successful job and a day spent finding buyers for two of the rubies, he’d decided tonight he would get shit-faced drunk. And the reason for it? That would be the man sitting at a table barely a good spit away, laughing and playing knuckles and pounding the table with his big meaty fist.
Expansive and generous, Vorgell knew how to have fun. The overgrown barbarian attracted people, especially the kind of people who loved to talk about fighting, compare weapons, or play games of chance.
Madd, on the other hand, attracted men like the one standing in front of him, wearing a stupid leer on his face and thinking that, for some bizarre reason—maybe because Madd was no taller than a stripling youth, had nice clothes and clean skin, and didn’t smell like piss—he must be looking for a cock in his ass.
“Go away.” Even half drunk, Madd impressed himself with his restraint. Another mug or two of mead and he would be far less civil.
“Don’t be unfriendly. Give me a smile and I’ll buy your drinks tonight.”
The offer earned him a murderous glare. “Go. Away.” Why was it that when Madd said those two words, men didn’t seem to understand?
Indeed, this man leaned closer. “Come on, love. Just one smile. I know you have a pretty one.”
The lout didn’t understand that either. He placed his lips next to Madd’s ear. “Don’t give me that, now. Fancy man like you, giving eyes. It’s clear as bells what you want tonight—”
Madd’s blade was in his hand and he pressed an edge of thin steel against the wool just south of the idiot’s balls, poised at the big artery to his leg. “I’ll carve you. Do you understand? Go away. I mean leave, before I paint the floor with your blood.”
“Shit!” Balls still intact, the man staggered out of knife range. “Are you crazy? You little cock teasing whore!” He looked around at the other patrons, seeking support. Only shaking heads answered his distress. A few helpful souls gestured to the door. Intent on greater satisfaction, the man groped for his weapon, a short sword.
Knowing how it would play out, Madd rolled his eyes with exasperation. The man’s blade had barely cleared its ratty scabbard before a huge, calloused fist closed around the villain’s wrist with such bone-crunching strength the sword rattled to the floor. With his free hand, Vorgell clenched a handful of the fellow’s clothing tight around his neck and lifted him bodily from the floor.
“Are you threatening my friend?” Vorgell gave the wheezing, choking fool an extra shake for good measure.
“Will you ever let me finish one of my own fights?” Maybe the other fellow couldn’t speak with his throat being squeezed like that, but Madd had plenty to say. “Do you see this knife in my hand? I can handle this.”
“Say the word and he’s a dead man.”
“No.” If propositioning Madd were a crime worthy of death, Thieves Wart’s taverns would have far fewer customers.
“I don’t like the look of him.”
“Neither do I. I believe I was making that very clear—”
“He called you a whore.” Vorgell’s opinion of that offense could not have been clearer. The man somehow managed a piteous squeak.
“Just let him go. Stop making a scene.”
“A beating then?”
“Oh, for the love of—”
“What say you, man turd?” Vorgell addressed his gasping captive, whose flailing legs were too high above the floor to provide much help. “You’ve offended my friend. Believe me when I say I saved you from being gelded. But that will not save you from a beating.”
The man tried to speak but only succeeded in opening and closing his mouth like a fish.
The tavern keeper thumped for attention. “Not here! Tagard’s men closed us down the last time! Take your business outside!”
“Outside, yes. The river,” said Vorgell. He sported a glint in his eye and a killer’s smile. Dragging the man along, he exited the tavern. Laughter accompanied his departure and then just as quickly faded as the patrons strained their ears. Shouts and loud splashing rewarded them soon after.
Fuck this. Madd sheathed his knife and ordered another cup of mead. When Vorgell returned with water streaks on his clothing and his broad face brimming with satisfaction at having avenged an insult, Madd downed the drink. He then gave the big man a shattering come-hither smile that Vorgell acknowledged with a lifted eyebrow before returning to the gaming table.
Screw him then. Madd never gave any other man that smile. He would have had to kill any idiot who believed it. Giving up, he pounded his empty mug on the battered plank.
The burly proprietor hesitated before he raised the pitcher and sloshed the cup full. Although warm and sour, the mead slid like golden honey down Madd’s throat. He didn’t really like the swill, but drink made certain things come easier. Like giving Vorgell those smiles.
After several months of being Vorgell’s partner, he’d been doing a lot of nonsense like that. It was more than just that he found his oversized partner useful and Vorgell’s semen a ready source of magic. Saying he only wanted Vorgell around for the magic felt more like a lie every day. He actually enjoyed the man’s company, and not just when they were working together. He even liked the sex. Something was going on with him, something scary, and the best defense Madd had found against fear was to drown it in magic and mead. It was that, or run away.
It didn’t help that having Vorgell at hand allowed him to behave in ways he might not otherwise have dared.
Hell, he could dress like a lord… show himself off in the worst quarter of the city… flirt with strangers he had no intention in the world of bedding. Even offer himself as brazenly as any courtesan. And he could do this because giant, sword-brandishing Vorgell was sitting just feet away with his pals, looking like a battle god come to earth while keeping eye on him with the territorial gaze of a wolf. It was uncanny how the drunker Madd got, the more sober Vorgell seemed to become. Like now, for instance. Vorgell appeared to be damn near clear-headed.
Madd put his mug down for the last time. Another round with his cup might cost him the ability to walk. Being slung over Vorgell’s shoulder for the trip back to their accommodations would be humiliating.
“Let’s go home,” he said.
Vorgell’s companions looked annoyed, but they didn’t try to stop the big man from rising.
“You good to walk?”
“Of course.” Madd proceeded to prove the point. Even with mead in his blood he was more coordinated than most people. Vorgell putting an arm around his shoulder to steady him really wasn’t necessary.
They reached the alley and were immediately wrapped up in shadows and swelter. Gurgh’s rivers made sure of the latter. The thick air was enough to clog a man’s lungs. And the stench… Madd forced his stomach back down his throat. The fetid stink of the river didn’t mix well with the mead sitting in his gut.
“Aw, Madd, you’re not going to puke again, are you?”
He was glad for Vorgell’s arm now, guiding him along and making it easy for him to walk with his eyes closed. He trusted Vorgell to spy any threats. “I don’t puke. I never puke unless I ate something foul. I told you, my Gran taught me a spell against excess drink and, thanks to you, I have all the magic in the world.”
“Yes, well… you’re letting me lead you.”
“Only because drink makes me fuzzy a little. But I won’t puke.” They walked more or less in a straight line down a street half paved with rough stones. In one of the doorways two figures grappled and moaned and bumped loudly enough to have awakened the inhabitants, who shouted for them to cease.
“Whenever you drink, I end up fighting someone.”
“Yes, because you’re an oaf. You always step in before I finish ‘em off.” Madd knew why Vorgell did it, but knowing didn’t make him like it better.
“Tagard put us on notice. I’ve been trying to restrain my urge to battle but when I see men beset you, I am possessed by an urge to crush their skulls. It doesn’t help that when you drink, you flirt just like a man in search of a bounce in bed.”
“I don’t flirt with strangers, only with you. I can’t help it other men mistake my target.”
“Me? Since when?”
“Since… I don’t know. Do you really expect me to be able to answer questions coherently right now? Besides”—Madd’s thoughts swam against the swirl inside his head—“I want you to trust me to fend for myself. I can handle a blade. I always could use a knife, even before you taught me to use a sword and that damn axe you’re so fond of—”
“At which you are terrifying. The only thing you ever killed with it was a head of cabbage.”
True. He’d been aiming for a practice dummy Vorgell had set up in the garden of their most recent abode. Which reminded him…
“I think we can afford a better neighborhood. Tomorrow I’ll fence another ruby and we can buy one of those fancy houses in the Nightingale Quarter. We can get servants and be respectable.”
“That won’t arouse anyone’s suspicions.”
Madd frowned at being reminded they had snatched the ice harpy on the sly and could hardly parade their new wealth around Gurgh. Thieves lived longer when they didn’t advertise their successes—or stay in one place for too long. “We’ll have to pay off Tagard first, of course.” His foot met a loose stone and he stumbled only a little.
Vorgell’s arm tightened to keep him upright. “That’d only be fair. And didn’t we hear today there’s a Borpani fleet on the way, heavy with cargo ripe for the taking?”
“Fine rugs and copper trinkets.”
“We could use a new rug.”
“Our fortunes are made and our creditors have no complaints.” With just one small ruby, Madd had paid off his debts, including his favorite clothier and the man who made his boots.
“We do owe the merchant for the furs I borrowed without his permission.”
“You didn’t pay him? You’re even more of scoundrel than I am.” The drink must be working because the night seemed uncommonly sweet-natured. As they turned the corner there was just enough breeze to make the sultry air almost bearable.
Vorgell’s arm around his shoulders felt companionable. Right. And they were almost home.
Months ago they had come upon a house perfect for men of their profession: a building of ancient and durable stone, formerly grand but now fallen into disrepair. Part of the dwelling’s foundation projected into the river with the other half still settled firmly on land. This desirable residence belonged to a reclusive owner whose gender they had yet to ascertain. The proprietor had rebuffed them at first, announcing a dislike of boarders, thieves, and fools. Their fortunes had turned when Petal had popped her head up over Vorgell’s shoulder. The notion of having a basilisk in residence appealed to the owner, who suffered from two plagues: rats, and common thieves determined to break into the house’s iron-gated garden, which was abundant with rare plants from which she—or he—made pricey potions. A promise of basilisk venom had sealed the deal.
Tonight the moon hung high above Gurgh’s looming ramparts and cast long shadows over Thieves Wart’s narrow streets and dilapidated buildings. Taking advantage of one of the shadows, Madd pressed Vorgell toward a building wall. It was a clumsy move, as much a product of mead as of lust, but he brazened it by cupping his friend’s well-endowed groin. He grinned when what felt like a python moved under his hand.
“You can’t resist me, you know.”
“Never could. And tonight I can’t get you to a bed fast enough. This way.” Vorgell dragged him out of the shadow. As they walked, he kept a watchful glance in every direction. Thieves Wart boasted a surplus of villains.
“It’s better in moonlight.”
“Cock sucking, you oaf. It’s better then. All cocks are pretty in moonlight.”
“I do not think you could be any drunker and still walk on two legs.”
They rounded the last corner of the alley leading to their domicile, a passage redolent of night blooming mothbrights, honey sweet moonflowers, and poisonous sword lilies, and climbed the narrow stair. Or rather Vorgell climbed and Madd stumbled along as best he could.
(to be continued...)
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