King's Host - Book One

By Irinel Florescu All Rights Reserved ©

Fantasy / Adventure

Chapter 11: Third time lucky

It was a year and a half since Bran had enrolled in the City Guard, and not as satisfying as he had hoped. Most of their duties concerned public safety and law enforcement, but those in the lowest ranks, like him, were for the most part stuck with patrolling and handling drunken brawls or petty thieves. On the positive side, he had come to know the city better and meet all sorts of people, but his everyday assignments were tedious and lacked intellectual provocations. His comrades were insipid—as far as his interests were concerned—and many among the guards were just as contemptible as the miscreants they were supposed to apprehend.

He carried out his duties with rigour nonetheless, however he was beginning to wonder whether it was time to move to the Royal Guards. After only a year and a half he felt there was not much for him to learn, besides patience. Moving up in ranks was difficult, which he would not have minded, had it been for the right reasons, but there was just as much dirt in the City Guard as anywhere else and he refused to let it corrupt him.

Such were his thoughts that evening, on his way home. His day patrol had ended at sunset, but he was not in the mood for drinking or listening to the same tired subjects which seemed to preoccupy his fellow guards, but held no interest for him. He had pretended to have some matters to attend to, so he could walk alone.

His thoughts turned to the day he had last seen Bredan. He had been furious and disappointed at the time, but he could not deny that the man was the most outrageous, impudent, interesting and clever young person he had ever met outside his family circle. A personality that excited his curiosity enough that he often found himself wondering what the man was doing.

Light was dimming fast and the side alleys were darker and quieter than the main streets, and almost empty at that hour—a good place to be alone, as he wished, or hide, as questionable characters often wished. They were also less safe, for the same reasons, but it was rare that someone attacked a uniform and, young though he was, his build and unusual height were discouraging. So, despite being lost in thoughts, the small shape cutting him off from the shadows of a converging alley did not catch him by surprise. Instinctively his hand grasped the hilt of the sword hanging on his side, only it was not a mugger, but a young woman, flustered and dishevelled.

“Help me, mister!” Her voice was trembling and her cheeks were smudged from wiping tears. Her hair was in disarray and her modest clothes smelled of… kitchen maid, he inferred. “Please!” She was wringing her hands in agitation.

“What happened? Are you hurt?”

“No, mister, I’m fine. Is not me.” She gestured hurriedly towards the dim alley whence she came. “Please, come!”

Tucked in the deep, shadowed recess of door, a cloaked man and a child were resting on the doorstep. The child whimpered as they approached.

“Mamma?”

“I’m here, poppet,” she said, rushing to him—a little boy no older than five, probably. Bran’s imposing stature and sober attire, not to mention the sword, made the child cower near his friend, who placed a protective arm around him. “No, sweetie, he is here to help. Come to mamma.” He flung himself into her arms, hiding his face in the folds of her skirts. She turned to Bran. “Is this gentleman, mister, I think he is not well.”

Gentleman? It was difficult to establish at first glance and in such poor light, but the boots he was sporting were of the fine quality, elegant and skilfully crafted, yet not ostentatious.

Bran crouched in front of him. “Sir? Are you unwell? Are you able to stand?”

The man chuckled softly. “My noble guardian,” he said in a tired voice, “unless my ears are playing tricks on me.” He raised his face, pushing back the hood.

Bran jumped to his feet. He would have recognized that voice and those features any time. “You! How is it that every time we meet, you’re in some sort of predicament?”

“You know him, mister?”

“Because we don’t meet often enough,” said Bredan with a faint smile. “Or perhaps it’s fate.”

“I hope not, it would be too troublesome.”

“That is harsh.”

“What happened? Was it money again?”

“Your opinion of me is very unflattering. Not to mention inaccurate.”—Bran snorted—“I have done nothing wrong.”

“Oh, no, mister, he was helping us,” defended him the woman. “He stopped them,” she said softer, looking downwards as though embarrassed.

“Who?”

“Some drunkards in a dirty mood.” Bredan pushed himself to his feet, grunting.

“I begged them to leave me alone, I’m a proper woman, I am. But they cared not,” sniffed the woman behind Bran.

“They were forcing themselves upon her. And in front of her child! What could possibly be more sordid?” Bredan staggered and braced himself against the walls, waving Bran’s hand away rather abruptly, “I’m fine.”

“Where did this happen? When?”

“Oh, don’t bother, they are long gone, I hope.” Bredan stepped out in the alley with deliberate slowness, gathering his cloak around him with a shiver and a sharp breath. “Was it so cold?” He turned to the woman. “Thank you for calling him. Go home, now, it’s late.” She opened her mouth, but he stopped her. “Don’t worry about me, I shall be fine. Please be careful.” He ruffled the boy’s hair. “You are very brave. Take care of your mamma for me, will you?” The child snuffled and nodded.

“Thank you for your help, mister.” She made a clumsy, heartfelt curtsy. “Fates bless you and your family! Come, poppet, daddy must be worried.”

“We should go with them,” suggested Bran. “Make sure they get home safely.”

“Oh, no, mister, no need for that. We live not far from here. But we must go, or else the mistress will be angry.” She bobbed another curtsy, “Thank you,” and left, comforting her little boy who had begun to snivel again, tired and shaken.

Bredan watched them go until they turned a corner. “I’m glad she is a little better. She was so frightened earlier she could barely stand.” He shivered, hugging his left side. “Damn, it’s cold.”

“Not really. What is that?” Bran pointed to a long rip at the back of Bredan’s cloak.

“Ah, they ruined it, didn’t they? Bastards.” Anyone would have inspected the damage. He just shrugged and shifted a little, as if to hide it.

Bran frowned at that. “You don’t seem well.”

“I’m just tired.”

“I’ll walk you home.”

“You say it as if I were a damsel in need of an escort,” mocked Bredan.

“Tsk! You must be fine if you are willing to jest.” Bran turned to leave.

“I don’t need help, but I wouldn’t mind company.”

Bran reached out and patted him on the back, just below the left shoulder—only a soft touch, really.

“Owww!” Bredan recoiled in pain.

“Just tired, eh?”

“You did that on purpose!”

“You thought I wouldn’t notice? Moving slowly, staggering, favouring your left arm. Let me see what it is.”

“Nothing, just a scratch.” He brushed off Bran’s hand. “One of them had a knife. He caught me unawares.” He hugged himself tighter, shivering.

“A scratch that renders your arm useless. Idiot! You’re probably bleeding, that’s why you feel so cold. Let’s move into the light and see how bad it is.”

“You were more civil earlier,” said Bredan, pouting like a child. “But less passionate,” he added with a silly smile. Nevertheless he followed Bran into another alley, where an oil lamp hung above a door.

This man. “Because of your talent to exasperate people. What’s worse is that you seem to take pleasure in it. No wonder you’re always in trouble.” He was answered only with an offended expression.

Under the lamp Bran pushed aside the cloak, to examine the wound. There was a slash in the tunic, about the length of his palm, and the thick fabric was stained with blood around the tear—the ripped shirt underneath was soaked—but it was difficult to determine the severity of the injury without taking it off.

Despite the light touch, Bredan winced more than once. “Well?”

“It looks… painful. And it’s bleeding, I’m surprised you have the strength to walk. But there is nothing I can do here.”

“Then what was the purpose of looking?”

“To assess the situation,” snapped Bran, “since I cannot trust you to be honest. This is not a mere scratch.”

“So that’s why I’m a little dizzy.”

“Let’s go, before I am forced to carry you.”

“That shall not be necessary, I have my dignity.”

They moved slowly, keeping to the empty alleys to avoid curious looks. Thanks to a year and a half of patrolling, Bran knew how to find his way to the Wild Rose. He knew that narrow alley very well, but he could never bring himself to go inside. Bredan was making evident efforts to walk by himself. He stumbled a few times and Bran pulled his right arm around his own neck, just like the first time they met. But he was growing less talkative and that was a bad sign.

“What sort of people were they? The ones who assaulted the woman.”

“…Drunk people. What difference does it make?”

“Could you recognize them?”

“Pfft! You think I waited to take a better look?”

“Well, then, where did it happen?”

“Close to a tavern.”

“What tavern?”

“…”

“Hey! What tavern?”

“Uh… I don’t know… one of them.” Bredan stumbled again. The arm on Bran’s shoulder was weakening.

“What are you doing? Keep your eyes open!”

“I’m thinking.”

“About?”

“…Fate?”

“Stop thinking and talk. You seem to love that, now’s your chance.”

“Ha! I like your sarcasm.”

“What tavern?”

“Uh. You’re fixed on that.”

“Because I can try to find those responsible for what happened.”

Bredan snorted. “Don’t make me laugh. When does a maid get justice in the upper—”

“Upper… class?”

“Trade. Leave it, it’s too late.”

Bran frowned, but did not insist anymore. Soon after they reached Bredan’s home. The lights were on and there was music, but not the usual racket of a public house. In front of the door Bredan pulled away and straightened, closing his eyes. He stood like that for a while, breathing slowly. When he finally opened them again they were clear and the dizziness seemed to have disappeared.

“I’m going inside on my own feet. Will you come with me?”

“Do you feel up to it?”

“I should not distress our guests. If you stay between me and them, I’ll manage to walk to my room.”

“Very well,” agreed Bran, swallowing hard.

Bredan smiled. “There’s no need to be nervous. Nothing that you’ll see shall offend your virtue. I told you our house is different. Just follow me up the stairs.”

He took a deeper breath and opened the door, stepping inside as if nothing were wrong with him. The bells above the door jingled and a pretty woman in her early thirties met them with a graceful smile. For a brief moment she seemed disconcerted at the sight of a city guard, nonetheless she kept her smile and curtsied to him.

“Welcome home, Bredan. And who is this charming gentleman?” She studied Bran with an eye so obviously accustomed to men, he felt the blood rushing to his face.

“A good friend of mine, Lill.”—Bran bowed without a word—“Don’t frighten him,” teased her Bredan. “We’ll be in my room.”

The woman’s smile faded. She brushed his cheek with her fingers. “Your face is pale. What happened to you?”

“Tell Ama to come see me. And, Lill, don’t let our guests know I’m home. Please.” He pressed a light kiss on her cheek and motioned Bran to follow him. Behind them there was a soft gasp.

As they climbed the polished wood stairs, Bran glanced into the main room, expecting to see the debauchery he had witnessed a few times during his assignments.

There were candles everywhere, set on slender brass candelabra or hidden inside lanterns hanging on the walls, but the air did not have the foul odour of tallow, nor the whiff of smoke. His senses were surprised by sweet and herbal fragrances of jasmine and lavender.

The room was handsome, fairly large and furnished in good taste. Two sets of benches and chairs, carved with feminine curves in a dark wood, padded and spread with dozens of purple cushions—a style Bran had not seen before—were placed around unusually low tables, set with candles and trays of drinks and tidbits. One of them was occupied by two fancy gentlemen, sitting with their backs towards the entrance, completely engrossed in conversation with their graceful companions. At the other an older man, distinguished as a noble, was lounging on the bench with his eyes closed, delighting in the sounds a lute produced under the skilled fingers of its player, who was sitting next to him. When she noticed them, Bredan put a finger to his lips, to which she answered only with a discreet nod.

There seemed to be other such seats further back, hidden behind painted screens and purple curtains—there were voices coming from there. But it appeared as though none of the guests had been stirred by the chimes, nor were they aware of their presence.

This place was nothing like Bran had imagined.

The moment he stepped into his room, Bredan collapsed in the nearest chair with a moan, breathing heavily. Bran was astonished he had had the strength to move thus far.

“That will not do, you must take of your clothes. That cut needs immediate treatment.”

He helped him remove the cloak, but, perhaps because of the place, he was reluctant to help him undress further. He was spared the dilemma by the arrival of two other ladies, who rushed in, panting from the effort to climb the stairs quickly and without noise.

“Bredan! My boy!” cried the younger one. “What happened?” She knelt at his feet, feeling his cheeks and forehead with thin, trembling hands. “You’re cold!” She tried to pull him closer and Bredan groaned.

“Let him go, Jade,” said the older woman, noticing the slash in his tunic. “He is injured.”

At the sight of blood, Jade gasped, covering her mouth, and her eyes rounded in horror. “What happened to you?” she faltered.

The older woman turned to Bran with such a fierce countenance, he took a step back. “What happened? And who are you?”

She must have been in her sixties and was much smaller than him, but her posture was proud and powerful, and her commanding tone reminded him of his father. But he was not a child anymore. It was late, he was tired and her manner was grating. He raised his chin and met her hard gaze with coldness.

“Who I am is of no importance. Don’t look at me for answers, I was only asked to help him get home. And since my assistance is no longer needed, I shall excuse myself.”

“No, wait,” said Bredan, his voice languid. “Ama, please… he has no fault in this.” He took her hand and pressed it against his cheek. “He’s a good man.”

“Foolish boy,” said the old woman, implacable, “I told you to stay out of trouble.” But the bony fingers on his face were brushing it with tenderness. “Jade, help him undress. We must clean that wound.”

There was a knock on the door and Lill stepped in. “How bad is it?” she asked, coming to see Bredan. “Oh!” She covered her mouth, just like Jade.

“We don’t know yet,” answered Ama, “but it doesn’t look good. I trust you didn’t tell anyone.”

“Certainly not. Besides Elwyn, nobody knows he is back. And I told her to keep quiet.”

“Good. No one outside the family must know of this. Not until he tells us what happened. Go warm some water and find some clean cloths. I will take care of the rest.”

“Should we not send for the doctor?”

“I have handled worse. We will call him tomorrow, if necessary.”

Lill and Ama left the room. Jade, who had been kneeling all that time in front of Bredan, began to unfasten his tunic. She took it off with great care, wincing every time he moaned in pain. He obeyed her hands, although his limpness and half-closed eyes were an indication he was slowly drifting away from the present.

The shirt underneath was completely ruined—blood stained the white fabric, spreading from the rip like a flower in bloom. It was disturbing. Bran felt there was nothing else for him to do there, that his presence was only hindering the women. His own family was waiting for him.

He cleared his throat. “I should leave.”

Jade started, as if she had forgotten about him. Her eyes were wet and the skin around them was reddish, but they were incredibly beautiful. Jade. Her resemblance to Bredan was striking. She stood and made a graceful curtsy.

“Thank you for taking the trouble to bring my son home. Please forgive Madam, she meant no offence. She is worried. We all are.”

“I should imagine so. I’m sorry I could not do more.”

She knelt back at her son’s feet and began to unlace the shirt. “When Lill told us he came home with a guard, we feared he had involved himself in some trouble again, but this…” Her voice strangled and she made a hopeless gesture, covering her mouth.

“He was not at fault,” said Bran.

“Who did this to him?”

“I don’t know… Forgive me, I must leave.” He was uncomfortable.

“Of course, I apologize,” she said, wiping the tears. “Thank you!”

He bowed and walked to the door, but Bredan’s voice stopped him.

“Bran! Come… come see me tomorrow… Please.” The last word was barely above a whisper.

He just nodded and stepped out. At the top of the stairs he met Lill, who stopped to thank him before going to Bredan’s room. He left Wild Rose as quietly as they came, but just before closing the front door, Ama followed him outside.

“Forgive my unkindness, sir. It was beneath me, regardless of the situation, and you did not deserve it. I am Madam Rose, at your service.” Her curtsy was dignified, but sincere. “Thank you for helping our boy, we are indebted to you.”

“I did my duty,” answered Bran with a rigid nod.

“Perhaps, but I was told Bredan thinks of you as a friend. He does not use the word lightly. Please come to visit us again, Mister…”

“Bran shall suffice.” It was disrespectful, but he was still irritated with her attitude earlier.

“As you wish. You need not fear our indiscretion, though, no one will know of your visit from us. I hope we shall have a chance to talk.”


The following evening Bran found Bredan reading in his bed, reclined on a stack of pillows. The colour had returned to his face and he was looking better.

At first he had been determined to mind his business and stay away from that strange place, but during the day he had changed his mind. He had come straight from the City Garrison and, because the hour was earlier than on the day before, there were only a couple of guests at the seats in the back. He had been met by a different woman, who, upon hearing his name, had led him to Bredan’s room without further ado.

Jade was sitting there with her son and she received him with unaffected civility. “I shall leave you to talk,” she said, gathering her needlework. She smiled at them and left the room.

“You came,” said Bredan with a broad—and a little surprised—smile, which very much resembled his mother’s. He closed the book. “I was not sure you would.”

“Neither was I,” admitted Bran, pulling a chair closer to the bed. “You look better. How bad was it?”

“Uglier than I thought, but not life threatening. The cut is not so deep, but I will not be able to use my left arm properly for a while. The worst part is I’m confined to bed for a few days. Doctor’s orders.”

“You called the doctor?”

“Last night I was feverish and Ama feared an infection. But I’ll be fine.”

“Is it wise to sit like that?” Bran pointed towards the pillows.

“Oh, you have no idea how awful it is to lay on your stomach all day. The doctor gave us some powders for pain, so I can sit on my back, otherwise I would have gone crazy. At least this way I can read. Sometimes pain is easier to bear with than tedium. So, how was your day?”

“Interesting. Word goes in the City Guard that there was a brawl last night, close to the Full Moons. Some knave assaulted a party of young nobles, though the reason is not clear.” He watched Bredan, but saw no particular reaction.

“That is unfortunate, but these things happen all the time. You only hear about them when the upper class is involved.”

“True. This one fanned the flames a little, since we are talking about Count Baynon’s son and two of his closest friends. Apparently the young count is bedridden and his father is furious.”

“It was probably about money, these young lords revel in showing off their wealth.”

“It seems neither the purses, nor their contents were missing. It was not robbery.”

“Hm, I’m surprised.”

Bran leaned closer. “Stop pretending! I’m almost certain they are the ones you confronted last night. Am I right?… I can find out by myself, but I’d rather you tell me the truth.”

Bredan seemed to ponder the answer. His eyes fixed on the book in his hands and the good disposition left him. “They were drunk… behaving like the lowest scum. That haughty brat, especially, was acting as if everyone ought to submit to his wishes because he is high born. There was not an ounce of kindness or sympathy in him.” His tone was growing angrier with every word.

Bran sighed, leaning back in his chair. “I suspected something like that when you refused to give me details last night. You knew who they were.”

“Not who, what,” replied Bredan, looking back at him. “I don’t recall seeing them before. But I’m familiar with Count Baynon’s name.”

“Is that why you insisted to enter the house on your own feet?”

“I could not risk being seen like that by our guests… So? What will you do now?”

“Nothing. In your place I would have done the same.”

“You are a city guard, it’s different.”

“Nobles expect us to protect them, not the lower born. As far as I’m concerned, you did the right thing. I was off duty, so even if someone saw us, I cannot be held accountable for taking a drunk friend home.”

“Ha-ha-ha! Drunk!” The laugh changed into a moan. “Damn it. I’ll have you know it takes a lot of alcohol to get me drunk.”

“That aside, do you suppose they could recognize you?”

“I don’t believe so,” said Bredan, after a moment of thinking. “I’m not an idiot, the hood on that cloak is not just for cold weather. Not to mention too much alcohol can have bad effects on memory. But I’ll tell my family to squeeze as much information as they can from our guests.”—Bran’s brow rose a little—“Surely you’ve noticed the distinguished patrons of this house. Some of them are men of consequence.”

“Nevertheless, you should follow the doctor’s orders and stay inside for a while. The young count’s behaviour would be a disgrace to his father, he will never admit to it. Without a clear motive, a culprit or witnesses, this will die soon. Just don’t let anybody know about your injury. The one responsible for it might remember.” Bredan seemed oddly diverted and that ruffled Bran a little. “This is no trifling matter!”

“Forgive me. It’s just that I’m surprised you care about my safety. It pleases me.”

“I care about morality.”

“I noticed that.”

“Pray that the woman you helped and her son cannot recognize you either.”

“They would not turn me in!”

“Perhaps not intentionally.”

Bredan fumbled in bed, pushing away the coverlet. “Lend me a hand, please, I want to get up.” He sat on the edge and pushed his feet into a pair of slippers. “So troublesome.” There was a knock on the door. “Come in!”

Jade brought a tray with cups of steaming tea, water and refreshments, placing it on a small table near the bed.

Bran stood. “This is very kind of you, but I should be leaving.”

“Nonsense, sir, you are welcome to stay as long as you wish. This boy is not going to sleep very soon. He is a night-bird.” She put a folded paper on the table. “Take your medicine. I’ll be right back to change your dressing.”

Bran was still standing.

“You heard her, there’s no need to leave so soon. Unless… you fear for your propriety.”

The allusion appalled Bran, whose face was flooded with colour. Again.

Bredan looked away, but the laughter bubbled up and spilled out of him, despite his effort to contain it. “I’m sorry,” he said, regaining his composure, “but you are so serious I cannot help it.”

“I don’t find it at all amusing.” Bran sat back in his chair. “Your mind is too perverted for your age.”

“Oh? Pray, what age would that be, in your opinion?”

Bran measured him with suspicion. A moment ago he would have said Bredan was not twenty yet—the age when a person was officially regarded as an adult—but the tone of that question made him reconsider. By now he knew the man was not what he appeared to be. “A little over twenty,” he surmised.

“Pfff! You changed your mind just now, didn’t you? You thought I was underage.” Bredan’s levity was met with another look of disapproval. “My word, you are so serious. Make that little three years and you are right.”

Bredan was actually older than him. Not by much, true, but all the time Bran had been convinced it was the other way round. “Still too perverted,” he sneered, to hide his surprise.

“And do you think this place is to blame?”

“…In your case, I think it’s a matter of disposition and choice. You enjoy confounding people.”

“Because they give me the opportunity.”

“Ah, so it is their fault.”

“In part, yes. Oh, you make it sound like such a terrible thing.”

“It is.”

“And, yet, you’re still here… I’m really glad you are.” Bredan unfolded the paper and poured its contents into a cup of water, which he emptied with a disgusted grimace. “Horrible.” He took a sip of tea and handed Bran the other cup. “Try this. It’s Ama’s favourite blend.”

The warm vapours carried a sweet, flowery fragrance, but there was something else, a fresh tang new to him.

“Jasmine,” said Bran. “And… what’s the other?”

“Citron beebrush. Ama says it’s good against fever and inflammation.”

Bran sipped from the tea. It had a pleasant taste. “Ama is Madam Rose?”

“Ama for me, Madam for the family and Madam Rose for everybody else. She is my grandmother and teacher. The head of this house. A formidable and terrifying woman, the like of which you’ve probably never seen.”

“She is an impressive presence,” admitted Bran.

“You have no idea.”

“She reminds me of my father.”

Bredan chuckled.

Jade returned with a roll made up of thin strips of bleached cloth, a bottle and a pair of scissors. “Time to change,” she said, placing them on the bed. She turned to Bran. “You are not squeamish about wounds, sir, are you?”—Bran shook his head—“Then can I trouble you to help me?”

“Just tell me what to do.”

She unlaced her son’s nightshirt and gently slid it off his shoulders. Then she cut one end of the bandages wrapped around his chest and shoulder and began unwrapping them, until they were all off. Bredan turned to the right, exposing the left side.

“Are you not curious?” he asked Bran. “It’s not pretty, though, I saw it myself.”

Jade moistened the bloody pad covering the cut, peeling it off with care. Bran winced, feeling a sting in his own shoulder—in truth he had not seen many wounds. It was an oblique cut across the shoulder blade, about five inches long and stitched like the leather on a shoe. The skin was swollen and red and there was dried blood on it, but the cut looked closed.

“Did… Madam Rose do this?”

“The stitching? Yes. I told you she is terrifying.”

“Bredan!” Jade poured alcohol on a clean piece of cloth and dabbed the wound. Bredan hissed, but she did not stop. “If Madam heard what you just said, she’d pour the whole bottle on you.”

“Told you.”

“Oh, sit still!”

She finished wiping the skin and put a new pad on the wound. “Could you hold here, please?” she asked Bran. She carefully wrapped the new bandages, until the pad was completely hidden, then pulled the shirt back and laced it. “There. I’ll take these away for washing.”

After she left Bredan noticed Bran was still standing, staring at him with a strange look. “What is it?”

“Nothing, I just realized how thin you are.”

“So?” He had never minded his boyish physique, but compared to Bran he looked immature, which was probably why the other had taken him to be much younger. For some reason that comparison was a little nettling.

“I was wondering where all that strength from yesterday came from.”

“Ah, that. An effort of will. Ama’s training. We must not distress the guests with our problems, that would be bad for the business. And since any gentleman I meet has the potential to become a guest, I learned to put up a front.”

Bran stiffened. “That is…”

“Mercantile?”

“Dishonest.”

“Perhaps, but I’m neither unprincipled, nor always pretending. I was taught to read people since I was a boy, and being honest or not depends on what I see. Oh, come now! You are a clever man, don’t tell me you believe I’ve been dishonest with you.”

Not entirely, but… Bran sighed. “I don’t understand you at all… At any rate, hardening your will is not enough. You should build your body as well. A healthy mind needs a strong body.”

“Is that what your father taught you?”

“Yes. And I agree with him.”

“Well, I was raised only by women. They never told me who my father is. Perhaps they don’t even know.”

“…I’m sorry.”

“What ever for? There is nothing I wanted as a child. Love, attention, education—they spared no effort for me. I think of myself as being more fortunate than many people.”

Every time Bredan spoke about his family, there was this passion that made him glow with pride. Bran smiled inwardly at the familiar feeling. He emptied the cup and placed it back on the tray.

“Thank you for the tea, it was very tasty.”

“Are you leaving already?”

“It’s late.”

“Of course. Well, then… will you come tomorrow?”

“Perhaps. If I learn anything new about the young count.”

“Ah, yes.” Bredan stood and led him to the door. “Thank you very much for visiting me. Your company is very refreshing. If… I have offended you in any way, I apologize. Just remember that our door will always be open.”

“I will.”


A week later Count Baynon’s son was seen riding in the city with his friends, looking every bit the careless, arrogant peacock he was. It appeared he had suffered from a severe case of post-drinking headache, coupled with a head injury in the form of a lump on his temple, hidden under a new hat. To his acquaintances he bragged that the reason the robbery attempt had failed was because of his fearlessness and self-defence mastery, but some said he had been too drunk to remember what happened and too embarrassed to admit it. And that the count had been so angry with his son, he had confined him to the house for a week, as punishment. His friends, equally embarrassed, were backing the son’s story. But whether any of them remembered the assault or the assailant’s face, it was not clear. Nevertheless they kept away from the Full Moons. This was what Bredan’s family, whom he had told the whole story, learned from their guests.

Since, in the end, nothing was stolen and no witnesses were found, nor any information about the culprit, Count Baynon had dropped the matter after a few days and the guards had given up searching. But the owner of the tavern remembered three young lords drinking at his place and causing quite a stir by claiming someone had tried to rob them. He had thought they were drunk and in the mood for a brawl. This was what Bran learned from his fellow guards and his own inquiries.

Bredan was slowly healing. He kept to his room for a week and to the house for another fortnight. Those patrons who had asked about him were told he was suffering from food poisoning and could not come out of his room. A good excuse, for, when he finally made his appearance, his lentitude did not raise any eyebrows. Moving the left arm was less painful and he began to use it, little by little. But he felt like a caged animal and would have gone crazy, had it not been for the guests and Bran’s visits.

During that time Bran went to see him almost every day and, after Bredan began to take walks in the evening, they sometimes went to drink together, in the Lower Trade. There were a few quiet places there, where they could sit and talk without running into other guards or cocky nobles. Bran had grown less conflicted about the Wild Rose and its ways, and had discovered that Madam Rose was a very intelligent, respectable—and surprisingly pleasant—person and that the other women were amiable and well educated. They had quickly taken a liking to him, but none of them, not once, had made any advances to him or had been anything less than courteous and obliging. In that house he was treated as a friend, not a guest.


“I often thought about what you said when you first visited me,” said Bredan one day, when they were returning from the Lower Trade. “About my body. It never bothered me that I lacked physical strength. Since my gift is talking to and charming people—”

“Beguiling them, you mean.”

“—I thought I could manage any situation.”

“Your overconfidence has gotten you into trouble more than once. How could you believe that?”

“I like to think I can outwit the rest.”

“Don’t be so smug, you cannot outwit a knife.”

“Yes, well… I never thought I would have to. Before you, nobody ever said I was too thin. If anything, women liked it. Our guests liked it, some of them too well.”

Bran frowned. “Are you saying—”

“Fates, no! I have no interest in men and Ama made it very clear to them that she will not allow it. But as it is, my figure suits my role in that house. I must not change that.”

“You can be strong without losing your grace or nimbleness.”

Bran was broad-shouldered, but his build was well balanced by his height. He looked strong, not hefty, and he was light-footed.

Bredan glanced at him. “I can see that.”

“You wish to train?”

“Well, it’s been over two months, but my arm is still weak. It’s troublesome. And perhaps if I had been faster that day, this would not have happened. I wish I had enough strength to avoid such conclusions in the future.” He rubbed his left shoulder—the scar below it would forever be an ugly reminder. “I was lucky, it could have been my face.”

Normally Bran would have scoffed at such vanity, but he knew what his friend meant. “Perhaps I could teach you a few moves. To defend yourself.”

“That would not be bad, no. Would you do that?”

And so he began to train with Bran at his house. It was not easy, at first, the muscles in the left shoulder were weak and hurting, but his teacher was patient and methodical and, gradually, he began to enjoy their sessions. He also met Bran’s family. The mother and aunt were immediately charmed by his personality, but the father proved a real challenge. That only made Bredan more determined to win him over.

Bran, on the other hand, discovered new faces to the city and its people and that made his duties seem less tedious. He also had a friend now, one that shared his inquisitive nature and some of his interests—even if the reasons were not always the same—and to whom he could talk without dulling his mind. Thanks to Bredan he began to open up and his everyday social intercourse slowly improved.

He spent another year and a half in the City Guard, before deciding to move to the Royal Guards. After that they met less often, as he moved into the Garrison and, between training and study, he allowed himself less time for drinking or talking walks in the city. His goal had always been to become one of those few entrusted with difficult—and therefore more interesting—duties, but he was too young and had much to learn and prove before that happened.

Bredan had made a lot of progress. His shoulder had recovered almost completely and they continued their sessions once a week. He returned to his former habits and ran into more predicaments, though he was more capable to deal with them than before.

A year after moving to the Royal Guards, Bran, with the approval and support of Jade, Madam Rose and her girls, persuaded his friend to join as well.

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