Chapter 7: Party
Daragon and his employees worked frantically to get ready for the party after the match was over. The common room at street level was quickly cleaned, which consisted of taking mopping the hard wooden floor with soapy water. Guards did that while barmaids wiped clean all the tables. The bartenders washed out all the mugs, jugs, and vases they generally used for serving drinks. The cooks were busy frying up hundreds of rabbit, frog, and chicken legs to serve as snack food with plenty of salt in the coatings to make the customers thirsty. They also made biscuits by the scores—dry, overcooked bread with salt in it, guaranteed to promote thirst. The food would sell cheaply, at only twice what it cost to make it. The real profit would come from all the drinks the tavern would sell.
One end of the common room was roped off for the Duke’s Party. There were a couple of tables and several chairs there for the comfort of the nobility and the champions. The rest of the room was cleared for standing room only. There was a point for taking drink orders at the front door, and a path was cleared to the bar for those who needed to refresh their drinks. On one side of the room three long tables held all the food for the party, and a guard and a cash-taker stood by each table.
The Black Dragon party officially began in mid-afternoon with the arrival of Duke Throxeus. He brought ten guards and nine other members of his court, including three concubines. He took over one fourth of the Common Room floor. His guards quickly set up barriers that would keep the common people from coming to close to his exalted self—a simple barrier of chairs and ropes. He appropriated the largest chair in the room. Then he called for Daragon, the tavern owner, and Zheen, the winner of the wrestling competition to come and sit at his table. Daragon was having his moment of glory. The Duke of the city was in his tavern.
Most of the staff of the Black Dragon were back at work. There were doors to guard, drinks to serve, orders to fill. The tavern had filled up early, and the party spilled out into the street. The three nearest taverns on Black Street had all bought into Daragon’s party idea, and one of the biggest parties that Stormgaard had ever seen was really rolling. Below the basements the underground tunnels were also partying.
Oddly enough neither Zheen nor Rose was in the crowd. They were all upstairs in Rose’s room. Zheen was closing his half full purse, while Rose was putting her fifty golden coins away. She put ten in a purse and set the other forty aside. Some she would hide. Some she would bank.
The winner of the fight had all the bruises. His jaw had a big purple mark on it where she had kicked him, and it hurt to even talk, but he had a few things to say. “Why did you let me win, Rose? A few more kicks and I would have been down and out.”
Rose leaned in and gave him a kiss. “Thank you for honoring our bargain, Zheen. It made sense for you to win. With me the favorite in the fight, the only way we could make any money on bets was for you to win.”
“But that’s not honorable.”
“Zheen, I’m surprised at you.”
“What do you mean?”
“You’re a grown man, a warrior, and a tavern guard, and here you are prattling about honor like a stripling. Do you think life is a story? Life is real, and it’s hard to survive. You have to seize your opportunities when they come. Use your brains as well as your brawn. Think about it! Who came out better in that fight, you or me?”
“I have false honor, some money, and a lot of pain. You have no honor, more money, no pain, and the crowd still loves you. You did far better than I this afternoon, Rose.”
“She learned that attitude from me,” Thorn bragged. “It’s a very Dwarvish way of looking at things.”
“You two had better get downstairs to the party before they come hunting for you,” warned Calyx. “Petal and I have preparations to make for our next adventure.”
“What adventure?” Zheen started for the door and held it for Rose.
“That wizard last night has offered us a commission—five hundred gold to find an emerald bracelet that he lost someplace called the Pits of Despair.”
“Never heard of them.”
“Neither have we, and we know the Stormgaard area fairly well.”
“It seems skunky.”
“Yes, but we have to take it. I grossly overcharged him, and yet that Nam fellow caved pretty easily. We’re sure it’s a trap, but we think we have to spring it.”
“Why? Isn’t it folly to walk into a trap?”
Calyx took over the explanation. “Someone powerful is after Rose. The money is all for her entering these caves. He didn’t care whether we went along or not. Clearly he doesn’t really care about this gewgaw he’s sending us after. He just wants to kill or capture Rose.”
“Then don’t go!”
“So, if she doesn’t go, what will happen next? Do you think assassins might get involved? What always happens when the Assassin’s Guild goes after someone?”
“That person dies,” said Thorn. “Nine times out of ten, the target dies, and the tenth time, someone pays off the Guild.”
Zheen looked stricken. He had never spent much time considering such things. “What are you going to do?”
“We’re going to spring the trap, find out who’s behind it, and do something about it. Would you like to help?”
“Um.” He hesitated, and in that moment lost his chance of ever winning Rose’s heart.
“You don’t have to. You have a good safe life here. You need to get downstairs and be the hero of the hour.”
“I’m sorry, Rose. Of course I want to help. What can I do?”
“You can watch my back here in Stormgaard. Ask around. Find out about this Nam wizardling. Organize some people to come to my rescue if I need it. And keep it quiet. It would be nice to know that I have allies in case things go badly.”
“I’m your man, Rose. You’ll have a troop of fighters at your call in Stormgaard if you need one, and I know a few wizards also. It’s best to fight magic with magic.”
“Quite right,” said Calyx. “Thank you, Zheen! Now get going, you two!”
“You go first, Zheen. It wouldn’t do for us to be seen coming in together.”
Zheen departed. When he entered the Common Room there was such a tremendous roar that it rattled the floorboards of Rose’s room on the top floor.
The four comrades had taken two rooms on the highest floor and at the back of the inn on purpose. Although those rooms were smaller than some, they were also quieter and more secluded. They had access to both the roof and the back alley.
Thorn broke out the rope ladder. She kept it under her bed. Petal watched at the window until no one could be seen. With Thorn anchoring the upper end, Rose quickly climbed out the window and down to the street. She was back in her forester’s clothing, breeches, blouse, vest, cap, boots, gloves. She wore her elven dagger at her waist. It looked like an ordinary dirk within the plain leather sheath.
She scuttled to the far end of the alley, holding her breath as she moved past the trash bins. They were already two thirds full, and she hated to think about what the alley would look like by midnight. She came to the end of the alley, hugging the wall of the Fried Fish Roadhouse. She stopped and looked out before entering the street. She spotted a tall warrior in leather armor standing in the doorway of Hogman’s Grocery. Hogman always closed his store by noon, and his doorway made a good hiding place later in the day. She had used it more than once herself.
The warrior wore light leather armor--greaves, bracers, a cuirass of molded leather He had a small target shield slung on his back, and a straight broadsword hanging on his left hip. His head was bare, and his long straight black hair hung down over his shoulders. He was watching the street and shifting from one foot to the other.
He looked familiar, but she couldn’t immediately place him.
“If you need to relieve yourself, the alley is back here, you won’t find an empty privy for three blocks on Black Street.” She walked toward him with hand on dagger hilt.
He twitched—a small twitch, but enough to show that she had taken him by surprise. He then turned calmly to see who had come up behind him.
Rose recognized him then. “Your name is Arrth, isn’t it? We almost met at the bath house last night.”
He ducked his head and shoulders in the slightest hint of a bow. “You are Rose, aren’t you? What are you doing out here instead of being at the party in your honor?”
“Oh, that party is not for me. It’s for the mighty Zheen. And anyway, it’s always best to enter parties late. It cuts down on the tedium.”
“You find parties tedious? So do I, and I don’t have much coin. I was just wondering if I should try to get into the Black Dragon. I’d like to see the Duke before I apply for a position in his guard. I like to know who I’m working for. Anyway, it’s probably too late to get in. I’ve missed my chance.”
“I can help you with that.” Rose liked the look of this tall, lanky fighting man. His shaven face was not hard to look at; he was clean, and so many warriors weren’t; and he was thoughtful. She wondered if he could really fight, or if he was just a poser. “How would you like to be my escort to the party? That will get you into the Black Dragon.”
He broke into a big grin. “That’s the best offer I’ve had all year.” He offered his left arm to her, just as she offered her left arm to him. Both had instinctively moved to keep their fighting arm free. They laughed.
“I’m not walking in backwards.” Rose moved around him and allowed him to support her right hand. She noticed that he simply offered a loop for her to put her arm through. He didn’t hold her tightly in a way that would impede her fighting if anything happened. She approved.
They stepped out into the street together. “Make way! Make way! Party queen coming through.”
Shouts of “It’s Rose!” echoed through the crowd. A throng of men surged toward her.
“Rose, Rose, tell us about the fight! How could you lose to that oaf?” Those and many other questions filled the air.
Rose put two fingers to her mouth and produced a shrill whistle that stopped them in their tracks. “Good people!” She shouted because the whistle only quieted them for a moment. “I will tell you, but you have to be quiet and listen.”
The crowd fell silent. Most of them hadn’t actually seen the fight, and the story of two titans in combat had been growing for the last two hours.
“Gather round! And sit down. You’ll hear better!”
“In the street?”
“Aye, in the street,” ordered Arrth. “Listen to Rose, or lose your chance forever.”
They sat down.”
“When I went to that fight,” Rose declaimed, “I had a plan. The real object of that fight was to kick Zheen in the butt. I had bet him that I could do that the night before—the loser buys the drinks for the other at the Black Dragon for the rest of the year.”
Hoots of laugher burst forth. “What?” “No!” “You kicked a man in the butt?”
“Yes, I did. I tricked him good.”
“That’s Rose,” said an old gaffer. “Trickiest woman in Stormgaard.”
The guard at the front door of the Black Dragon picked that moment to notice Rose out in the street. “Rose is outside talking to the crowd,” he yelled into the tavern.
“Well, get her in here!” bellowed the Duke. “I want to see her.”
Rose knew she had to wrap up her story quickly. Now that the Duke knew she was here, she would have to go attend him. “I had a plan. I planned to wear my opponent down with kicks and trips, and it was working, but I miscalculated. I thought he was too dazed from my last kick to resist. I got him in a submission hold, but he was too strong. Next time I’ll hit him a few more times before I go for the pin.”
The men in the crowd were shaking their heads. It was hard to believe that Rose could have miscalculated so badly, but it must be true. While they wondered at that, four guards burst out of the Black Dragon. “Clear a path!” they yelled. They held truncheons in their hands to beat back anyone who came too close. The crowd flinched back.
Rose caught Arrth’s arm and trotted to the door, pulling him along in a staggering sort of way. “Who’s this?” asked Tarn.
“My date for the party,” Rose answered.
“You lucky dog,” Tarn snarled.
The guards ushered Rose and Arrth into the Common Room.
“Rose!” bellowed the Duke. “Come sit with me and Zheen. I want to hear what you two were thinking move by move.”
“Yes, Your Grace.” She entered the royal quarter of the room, still dragging Arrth along beside her. “But first, I’d like to present my friend, Arrth. He wants to be a member of your guard.”
The Duke glanced at Arrth for the first time. His eyes roved up and down the mercenary’s form. “You look like a good fighting man, Arrth. Where do you hail from?”
“I was recently in the port of Silverhold. I displeased an officer there, and had to leave for my health.”
The fighting men in the crowd chuckled. This sort of thing happened from time to time, especially when a soldier was young and handsome, and his commander was married to a pretty woman with a roving eye.
“Balagon, take Arrth’s name. He can come around tomorrow and try out for the guard.” Throxeus turned from his seneschal back to the soldier standing before him. “You understand, young man, that you must pass a few tests to enter my guard. I don’t hire every young popinjay who wants to live at court.”
“Thank you, Your Grace. I think you’ll find me more than competent.” He did a quick bow, and then stepped back.
“Sit down, Rose. Have a drink! Barmaid, a glass of the Khazan red for Rose!”
The party proceeded. Rose barely touched her wine, slipping it to Zheen whenever she could. The Black Dragon guard could hold his liquor, but he was getting more to drink than he wanted, and slipping into drunkenness.
The Duke became intoxicated also. His guard and his seneschal stayed sober. His concubines fawned all over him. Daragon had made an arrangement with Klamidya, the madam of the Golden Horseshoe to allow her ladies to come and entertain at the party. A string of musicians and jugglers and minor hedge mages entertained. Booze flowed freely. Money changed hands often. It was a great party.
As evening approached, Rose told the Duke that she had an appointment with a wizard.
He wasn’t happy, but he let her go. She could see Calyx beckoning from halfway up the stairs. She didn’t see Arrth.
The mercenary was waiting for her along with her three friends on the second floor. “What are you doing here?” she asked.
“Going with you.”
“What? You’re not part of this.”
“I think it’s a good idea,” said Calyx. “He gives us an extra sword. You couldn’t get Zheen, but I think Arrth will do. He throws an unforeseen element into the plans of our unknown enemy. He’s willing. I say we take him along.”
Rose looked at Thorn. The Dwarf was the real strategist of the group. Thorn nodded. “I saw him with you. He stood up to the Duke. I think I like him. I say bring him.”
“I’m not opposed,” Rose answered. “I just didn’t want him to get hurt.”
“I can take care of myself,” retorted Arrth.
“Help me into my armor. We need to get moving.”
The other three women were already armed and armored. Thorn had the heaviest equipment—chain mail of Dwarven steel. Dwarven steel had a good deal of silver in the alloy, and did not cause the kind of distress that cold iron brought to the elves. The other three women wore leather. They carried an astonishing variety of weapons, talismans, and pouches. There was also a pack full of provisions, including an elven lantern, and trail rations for three days. Normally Thorn was the packhorse of the group, but in this case Arrth wound up carrying the pack.
They made their way to a servant’s stairway that led down to the kitchen. From there they got out into the gambling room, and from the gambling room down into the caverns. Calyx cast a minor glamour over them that made them look like a bunch of thugs. Once they left the Black Dragon, no one gave them a second look.
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