Tornmile: Part 21

Tornmile
Part XXI: The Pride of Tornmile

The Pride of Tornmile looked to Johreel as if it had been named as part of a bet, one which the owner had quite thoroughly lost. There were no doorkeepers outside and inside it was hard to distinguish if anybody worked there at all. The common room was full, every bench taken by soldiers and guardsmen, whose uniforms were smeared with meat dribbling, ale, and wine. The women were not dressed differently, where they were dressed at all. Crowds presented little problem to Johreel; he moved through gaps as they opened, sliding effortlessly between people, creating a path of his own. Seren followed behind, eyeing the rowdy soldiers as if one might suddenly start a brawl. Definitely a former soldier.

Johreel ordered wine from the barkeep – a thick set man in a dirty apron – and paid for the jug, taking two cups and moving to the far end of the bar. He poured the wine into the cups and slid one to Seren. The man nodded his thanks. The wine was rough, far from being any recognisable flavour, but Johreel didn’t mind that. He watched the small band playing on a raised stage and tried to work out if he’d heard the song before; the tune was familiar, but he couldn’t put words to it. Tornmilian songs didn’t sound much better with words anyway.

“Are we going to ask about the Stamm?”

Johreel glanced a Seren, who held the cup lightly in one hand as if considering whether it was worth the risk.

“Not yet,” he said, “everyone’s unsure of us. They’re weighing us up. Neither of us are soldier, we can’t rush into it.”

Johreel raised his eyebrows towards the crowds. Seren turned and Johreel hoped that the man saw what he was seeing. Most of the people were content with the drink in their cup or the woman on their knee, but that wasn’t the kind of man who’d be of much help with recalling names and faces. Amongst the groups though were others who would, others whose eyes strayed to Johreel and Seren, pausing thoughtfully before moving on. The men who would be of help hadn’t decided yet if they could trust these non-uniformed strangers.

“Do you know this song?” Johreel asked when Seren had taken in the room.

“Doesn’t everybody?” Seren responded, before seeing the look on Johreel’s face, “Oh. Yes, it’s an old an army song: The Forlorn Soldier.”

“Sing it – it will help us blend in.”

If Johreel had been surprised by the pitch of Seren’s voice when the man spoke, it was nothing to the surprise at the sound of the man singing. It reminded Johreel of Aborralan flutes, a sound at odds with the song’s story of a young man going to war, leaving his lover behind, afraid of never seeing her again.

“You’re a woman.”

Seren’s voice faltered halfway through the note, and then cut off in a strangled sort of croak.

“I know,” she said, when she had recovered.

“I didn’t.”

“How many knives am I carrying?”

“Six,” Johreel responded automatically, puzzled at the question.

“At least you noticed those. I’m surprised though, your reputation suggests you’d have picked up on it. Perhaps you’ve grown complacent since you left Moreana?”

“How did you know I trained at Moreana?”

Seren laughed, bending her head over the cup of wine.

“What’s funny?”

“That’s twice today you have shown your lack of observation; not good for the Dagger, wouldn’t you say? I trained in Moreana for a time. We shared the same sanctuary.”

Johreel refilled their wine cups and took a deep pull. Had Seren really trained at Moreana or was this all a part of a game the Magister was playing? He would know where Johreel trained and it could all be part of a test, but somehow Johreel suspected it wasn’t. Wheels within wheels. Far too many wheels.

“You were in the army though.”

“Because I know an army song?”

“Because you keep a sword at the saddle and one at the hip, though your work is done with stealth and speed, and because you eye soldiers like they might remember your face.”

“I’m glad that you do see some things, even if you don’t see everything?”

“What regiment?”

“Not one likely to be found here; the Moreana Light Cavalry.”

“So, from the Ducal Guards to the Order; that’s not an easy step.”

“It was the only choice left to make. My father was a spice merchant, reasonably wealthy and trading with merchants in your lands. He’d dragged my mother and me to Moreana with him and my mother was not pleased with that arrangement. I was working with my father as a guard; he didn’t like to put me in harm’s way, but I had the training and there were few enough reliable sword hands when we had just moved out there. He could trust me. He couldn’t trust my mother; she took a lover in the Light Cavalry – one of the captains. Neither of us knew about it, but he came to dine with us and promised to use his influence to get me into the Light Cavalry if my father helped him buy his commission for general. My father willingly paid, thinking of the prestige and the life it could lead to for me.”

Seren took a long pull of her drink, and a dark look crossed her face.

“I was on campaign when it happened – father found them together. There was a fight, though not much of one – my father was no match for a seasoned warrior. Father was killed. Mother tried to intervene and was badly wounded. She wrote to me and told me what had happened, apologising for everything. I came back to the city, deserted my regiment, to sit by her side and watch her die in agony. And when I’d buried them both, I found the general and made him beg before I put my sword through his skull. After that it was the rope or the Order.”

Seren tossed the cup of wine back and poured another from the jug. Johreel gritted his teeth and watched her carefully. In moments the flush in her cheeks and the deep frown were gone. She had schooled her face as he so often did. He placed a hand on her shoulder and squeezed.

“Come on, we’ve got work to do.”

Walking away from her was difficult. It was not often that Assassins shared their reasons for joining the Order; people kept their origins to themselves. Stories started to make you care and caring made you stupid, on missions and at base, and either one of those could get you killed.

He took his full cup and started circulating amongst the groups of foreign recruits, sometimes hovering on the edge of conversations, other times striking them up amongst those who were singing. Mostly, they allowed him in, glad that he was an outsider here, like them, sitting away from the Tornmilian soldiers and conversing in their native tongues. Many talked of the escape from the prisons, though most of them were soldiers from the barracks and knew no more about than the rumours on the streets. There were plenty of those. Men had been killed in the escape, it was said; something that Johreel could well believe. That the guards had been torn limb from limb by a madman, however, he declined to believe. The whole army would be abroad if a convict that dangerous had escaped and no one had heard of regiments with orders to that effect, outside the general hue and cry of the city.

Johreel tried to talk to as many differently garbed men as he could, to get a spread of what each regiment knew. It turned out that they knew very little. The only useful piece of knowledge he had gained was that the Stamm had not been alone when he escaped, but had been accompanied by others. That was worth knowing. If they were to find and kill this Mishak, then they would need to try to find the man on his own. Still, as Lord Minham’s death had proven, guards weren’t everything.

Looking across the crowded common room for a new mark to try, Johreel saw Seren gesturing to him. It was not a large gesture – she merely moved her hand slightly when she saw him looking. She was sitting on a bench in the corner away from the band, with a young man who was staring down at the table in front of him. He held a wine cup in his hand, which he twirled in his fingers, not drinking. Clearly Seren was onto something useful.

Johreel made his way through the crowds to the bar, not wanting to draw attention to what he was doing. He bought more wine and then moved to the table, passing the jug to Seren, who took it and offered to pour some into the man’s wine cup. He stopped turning it so that she could pour the dark liquid into it and then raised it to his mouth, gulping it down.

“This is Corin, he’s a prison guard. Corin, this is a friend of mine.”

“Not a guard anymore,” Corin said, raising his head to look at Johreel. The man’s eyes were bloodshot and the hair falling over his face made him look like a dog that had just been beaten.

“Courts martial don’t like it when prisoners are allowed to escape, do they?”

“It wasn’t my fault! They were dressed like guards, knew about the new lieutenant…”

Corin suddenly stopped halfway through the sentence as if realising for the first time that Johreel and Seren were there.

“What’s it to you anyway?” he concluded.

“We heard about what happened – didn’t like the commander’s decision. Thought we come and show you our support,” Seren said, pouring more wine into the man’s cup.

“That’s good of you.”

“What are you going to do now?” Johreel asked, conversationally, sitting down next to the man.

“After I’ve finished being drunk? I don’t know.”

“You could go after them, you know. The three that got away. That’s what I’d do!”

“Would you?”

“Of course. They’re wolfshead now, aren’t they? Anyone’s allowed to capture or kill them. If you’re the one to do it then they’d take you back, wouldn’t they?”

“With a promotion, I’d wager,” Seren added.

“Where would I start though? They could have gone anywhere.”

“Where’d they get out of the prison from?”

“Near the Door of the Condemned, there’s a small postern for troops to get in and out so they don’t have to go under the main door. No one wants to do that. Death finds you if you do that.”

Corin knocked on the table with the middle finger of his right hand, suppressing a shudder and raising the wine cup to his lips.

“Of course not. That gives you a starting point though. Now, who were they? They must have been important.”

“Only one of them. I spoke to him – the Stamm. The other two were just a pair of Ferrer’s boys.”

“Dunstan Ferrer?”

Corin nodded and Johreel nodded along with him. He knew of Dunstan Ferrer – the man paid killers but they weren’t Assassins. They were mostly cutpurses and other people down on their luck. They killed if they had to, but there was no finesse about what they did. Ferrer wasn’t interested in making deaths clean or quick; he just wanted whatever gold he could get his hands on. He worked out of the Tanneries, which made him easy to find if it came to it. It was possible that the Stamm had gone to ground there. It would make killing him more difficult, but nothing was impossible.

“What about the Stamm?” Johreel asked, “What was so important about him?”

“Don’t you know?” Corin asked, his face changing for the first time since Johreel had come over. He was genuinely surprised that they didn’t know. “It’s all over the city.”

“We’ve been away on training,” Seren said, “waste of time, no proper drink, and you miss all the news. Don’t know why we listen to the commanders anyway.”

“I’ll drink to that!” Corin said, bitterly, tossing another cup of the wine back.

“What’s the news about this Stamm then?”

“He was Lord Minham’s servant. He’s the one that killed him.”

Johreel nearly spat the last of his wine across the table, managing to swallow hurriedly leaving his throat feeling tight. The Stamm was Minham’s servant and people thought he was responsible for the lord’s death? Could it be the Magister tying up loose ends and nothing more?

“Have you ever heard of Durandal?” Johreel asked before he could stop himself.

Seren gave him a look that told him that she had heard the name, but couldn’t see what it had to do with Corin. Was that a spy caught unaware and slipping or just a natural reaction. Too many wheels.

“Should I have?”

“No,” Johreel said, “you just reminded me of something. We better be getting back to barracks now.”

“Stay and have another cup of wine,” Corin said.

“All right. Just one more cup.”

Taking the jug he filled his own cup and Seren’s and then poured the last remaining drops into Corin’s cup, sprinkling a little Najhayya venom powder from his belt pouch in along with it.

“We’ll have this cup and then we’ll all be off.”

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