Jessa’s outraged shriek cut through the crowded common room, followed quickly by the raucous laughter of the merchant’s guard who had grabbed her. She spun quickly, her hand outstretched to slap the guard across the cheek, but he caught her wrist and pulled her onto his lap instead. His two drinking companions called at him to leave off, but he only laughed harder.
“Not a chance boys, I like them feisty!”
Spire swallowed her mouthful of wine and lowered her cup with a sigh.
“Braggarts,” she muttered, shaking her head slightly. Her eyes met those of Thandor, the short, stocky owner of The Stonefolk’s Rest, and he grimaced. He spoke in a low voice as he refilled her cup.
“Bain’t much I can do, Spire. Merchant’s Guild protects them, see?”
Spire shrugged, and glanced across the room at the guards. Jessa had managed to free herself and gather up the tankards she had dropped. She moved swiftly across to the bar, slamming the tankards down next to Spire.
“Calm, Jess,” Thandor murmured, and Jessa glared at him.
“You try being pawed by those stinking bastards, see how calm you feel!”
The sound of three chairs scraping back echoed into a suddenly silent room. Spire felt Jessa tensing beside her, and saw Thandor’s expression change to one of dismay as six booted feet stomped to the bar.
The guard who had pinched Jessa leaned against the bar, grinning maliciously. He was swaying slightly, and rested a large, greasy looking hand on the bar to steady himself. His two companions stood behind him.
“Did you have something to say to me, darlin’?”
“Now, gentlemen,” Thandor began. “P’raps we can just-”
The guard stabbed a finger towards the innkeeper, and shook his head. Thandor grimaced; Spire could see the muscles in his arms tensing as he began clenching and unclenching his fists.
“It was nothing,” Jessa said quietly, fear and anger warring in her eyes.
“You called us stinking bastards. Isn’t that what you heard, boys?”
The other two guards nodded, grinning.
“Now then,” said Greasy-Hands, “I think you owe us each something for that insult, don’t you?”
Spire paused in raising her cup to her lips. Her voice was quiet, but it cut through the room like a knife.
“She owes you nothing. Go back to your drinks.”
A moment of stunned silence, then the three guards laughed. Greasy-Hands staggered over to stand behind Spire, his companions flanking him. Spire felt the guard’s eyes looking her over, sizing up her dark clothes, the cloak that hid much.
“You got something to say to us, white mop?”
Thandor winced at the insult. Spire slowly put her cup on the bar, then slowly stood and turned to face the three guards. She did nothing but look at them, her hands by her sides, a lock of her white hair fallen across her strange Eye, but all three stepped back before her. She spoke again, as quietly as before.
“I said, go back to your drinks.”
The moment stretched out in the still room, not a sound but the quiet hiss of the rain outside. Suddenly Greasy-Hands snatched his flintlock out of its holster. The movement dislodged a folded letter from his belt. It fell to the floor, but Spire kept her eyes on the guard. He gripped the pistol but did not aim it. Spire raised an eyebrow, and the ghost of a smile crossed her lips. Then one of the others grabbed the guard’s wrist and spoke urgently.
“Don’t be a fool, Hadrigan! She’s not important. Let’s just go.”
Hadrigan jerked his wrist out of the other’s grasp, and holstered his flintlock. He bent to pick up the letter, tucking it into his belt once more and smoothing the front of his uniform. Still swaying slightly, he sneered.
“You’re right, Morden. She’s not important. Just another piece of scum, like the rest of the Artists Quarter.”
There was a great scraping noise as every chair in the room was pushed back. All eyes were on the three guards. No one moved, but the hatred aimed at the three was palpable.
“Get out,” Thandor growled.
The three guards began to back toward the door, even as Hadrigan tried to laugh it off.
“Ha! We’ve had enough of the piss water you serve anyway!”
The others tugged at him, but he lunged out of their grasp. He snatched the letter from his belt and brandished it at Spire.
“Just you wait, white mop! We’ll be cleaning up around here, you’ll see!”
The other two men grabbed him and dragged him back, but he kept shouting, spittle flying from his mouth.
“We’ll smash that stupid newspaper and then we’ll come for the rest of you!”
Morden clamped a hand over Hadrigan’s mouth and he and the other guard finally dragged him out the door. As it slammed shut, the tension faded and people returned to their seats, murmuring curses at the Merchant’s Guild and its guards.
Spire turned back to the bar, picked up her cup and took a draught of wine.
“We’ll start with that stupid newspaper…”
There was only one newspaper that was printed in the Artist’s Quarter. Spire sighed and put down the cup, placing a silver coin next to it. She nodded to Thandor and rose. As she turned, Jessa’s arms folded about her. Spire tensed, but did nothing.
“Thanks,” Jessa whispered, and stepped back. Awkwardly Spire nodded, and moved past her toward the door.
Spire moved quickly through the rain filled streets, her white hair hidden by the dark hood. Through the rain she heard the three guards arguing in slurred voices; she was close. Trust Tera to make her life complicated again. Her friend’s paper, A Defiant Voice, was the only paper that was printed in the Artist’s Quarter, and it seemed the Merchant’s Guild wanted to shut it down.
Ahead of her the guard’s footsteps halted, and Spire paused to listen. Suddenly there came the sound of a man being copiously sick.
“You’re a bloody drunken fool, Hadrigan!” That was Morden’s voice, full of disgust. “Spouting off about orders, waving them about!”
“Oh stow it, Morden.” Hadrigan now, his voice raw from vomiting.
The guard’s boots clattered on the stones of the street as they moved on, still arguing. Spire glanced about, flexing her arms; there was no one in sight. In moments she was on the rooftops, following the guards from above.
Hadrigan was clearly in a worse state than the others, despite losing much of the beer he’d drunk. He stumbled through the streets, weaving from side to side, and soon enough his companions drew ahead of him and became lost in the rain. He continued on alone, unaware of the ghostly figure watching him.
Suddenly Hadrigan veered into an alley, and Spire tensed. She moved cautiously to the edge of the roof and peered over, and sighed. The drunkard was relieving himself, one hand braced on the wall for support. Spire shook her head, and stood on the edge of the roof. She took a deep breath, and let herself fall forward off the roof. Her body rolled in the air, and with catlike grace she landed on her feet in the alley, directly behind Hadrigan who was struggling to button his trousers once again.
Before he could react to the noise of her landing, Spire bunched up the fist of her right arm and punched it into his back, aiming for the kidneys. His back arched and he started to cry out, but Spire spun herself, lifting her foot in a vicious kick that snapped his head to the side. Hadrigan dropped like a stone without another sound. Spire rolled the guard onto his back and touched her fingers to his neck; she hadn’t wanted to kill the man, despite her disgust. She was somewhat relieved to feel the pulse, and quickly retrieved the letter from his belt and the coinpurse from his coat pocket for good measure.
In minutes she was back on the rooftops, moving swiftly. Once she was a good distance from the site of her theft, she clambered down to street level again. The rain was easing off, so she tossed back her hood and paused in the light of a streetlamp. She casually took out the letter and opened it. As she scanned the contents, Spire felt every muscle in her body tensing. It hadn’t been just a drunken boast; the Merchant’s Guild wanted Tera’s paper shut down. And that was only the beginning.
Spire folder the letter and tucked it into a pocket as she began to walk. As soon as she was out of the lamplight she tugged her hood up and started to run.
“Tera,” she muttered, “What have you gotten into now?”
Ducking into an alley, Spire scaled the wall to the rooftops. In her element once again she raced across the city towards her friend’s home, praying she would not be too late…
© Matt Beames