How dare they fake murders in order to slander his name! How dare she doubt him! As the thoughts tumbled in Darian’s mind, he managed to keep his anger at a simmer. He didn’t even know what made him so angry. Perhaps it was the fact that Marideen’s words were a reflection of his own fears and thoughts. The rain poured down on him, and within moments he was soaked.
This wasn’t the brightest thing he had ever done. At least the rain would make it so that he didn’t need to conceal his face. That was a small comfort as the cold began to settle in his bones. He wasn’t going back to the Blushing Bride. He knew that much. He’d need someplace small and inconspicuous. He needed a place where a wanted man could get warm without turning too many heads.
The best choice was to head towards the shadier part of town. As it turned out, that was where his feet seemed to be taking him. He wasn’t exactly sure how he knew he was heading in that direction. The housing grew less and less grand in design. The buildings looked less unique, more simplistic and utilitarian. The building fronts became less identifiable, free of decorations or ornamentation.
He finally came up to a small niche of a tavern and decided that it was far enough. He was starting to shiver. If Marideen didn’t chide him for walking out on her, she definitely would for catching a cold by doing it. That was simply a win he wasn’t willing to give her. He mused briefly when he realized that deep down, he had every intention of going back. He supposed that now they were in the city, he could have taken off and gone anywhere. It didn’t even occur to him to abandon the Lancers.
Darian glanced up at the sign as he entered the dank tavern. The sign read “Dragon’s Hide”. What fancy names for taverns. He had the vaguest expectation that taverns should have simple names, usually based on the owner’s name. However, where those memories came from seemed long gone to him.
The barkeeper was a stout fat man with a large mustache. He didn’t provide anything close to the introduction that Zeia had provided. She was almost a spectacle in and of herself. The barkeeper here gave no name or welcome. Darian could tell that he was aware of Darian entering the tavern, but he had no interest in him. That was good. At least, Darian hoped that was good.
There were a few other people in the bar. A small table of six was sitting around a table playing some form of cards. There was another man, soaked like Darian, warming his feet next to a large hearth. That looked to be what Darian was looking for. Darian moved up to the counter first.
“What do you want?” The grizzled innkeeper asked bluntly.
“Something hot?” Darian asked, unsure of what to order; there was certainly no menu to be seen.
The man spat to the side, then nodded, “You’re welcome to warm your feet by the fire as long as you’re ordering, but this ain’t no inn. When you quit drinking, get your ass out my door.”
The barkeeper seemed to direct that comment at both him and the other man sitting in front of the hearth. That man waved his hand in annoyance, jingling a purse of credits in the process. This seemed to placate the barkeeper, who moved to get Darian’s drink. Darian waited patiently for him to pour it. He had the sense that this wasn’t a man that would deliver to your table.
After Darian received his drink, he moved to a back table. It was close enough to the fire that he could enjoy some of the warmth, but far enough away from the other man as to not feel like he was entrenching on his personal space.
The drink was indeed hot, burning his tongue on the first sip. Of all the images of the future he had, it was the simple things that it never seemed to catch. It had been working so well today up until now. It almost seemed to work better the more people were around. Perhaps it was simply a consequence of Darian focusing more on people than inanimate objects. After all, an inanimate object didn’t really make a choice or change without the influence of a person.
Once the drink cooled a bit, Darian took another sip. It was mildly sweet and had a kick that was reminiscent of alcohol. It certainly was better than the stiff whiskey that Darian had consumed on the night he had sat with Deiron Cleefe and negotiated the release of the prisoners. The next day, Darian remembered waking with a throbbing headache that persisted for half the day. The pain compounded with the concussion he was already getting over. He spent a great deal of the time retching up everything he had ever eaten. It was not an experience he wanted to have again.
Two of the men stood up from the gambling table. It sounded like they needed to get an early start the next day. They had been winning a lot that night and were about to walk away with a large sum of money. The other men protested, eager to have the two stay longer so they could win back their losses, but the two men insisted. Eventually, the four that remained seated let them walk away.
After a few minutes of complaining to each other, one of them looked up over at the fireplace towards Darian and the other man. Darian had just finished his cup and the barkeeper was starting to eye him angrily. The other man had already consumed two cups of what Darian suspected was a stiff drink.
“You gents want to join us?” A man had blonde hair and a small scar on his face asked.
He didn’t seem any more dishonest or untrustworthy than the people Darian was used to hanging around. The fact that Darian had only known prisoners and rebellious revolutionaries didn’t really occur to him at that particular time. Darian had long come to realize that looks can be deceiving, and after the repeated beatings, torture experiences, and training from Beiromon, Darian himself probably looked pretty rugged as well.
The man in front of Darian pulled down the hood of his cloak for the first time. He had close-cropped brown hair and an arrogant tip to his chin similar to what Darian often saw on Marideen or Beiromon. That probably meant that this man was a noble, which immediately put Darian at unease. The other men, drunker that he was, didn’t seem to pick up on this.
The man put on a surprisingly chipper grin. “That sounds like it could be enjoyable.”
The cloaked man spoke in a haughty voice, but it didn’t come off as condescending like other nobles spoke. The fact that the man’s words were slurred from obvious inebriation didn’t hurt the matter either.
“What about you?” The man with the scar nodded toward Darian.
Darian snapped out of his observation of the strange noble. For just a brief second, he had felt some kind of familiarity with the man. It was almost like he had met the man before. Was this person another one of the prisoners that had escaped? That would explain why he had his hood up and was sitting in such a seedy bar.
“I don’t know how to play,” Darian explained.
The man grinned even larger, “Well that’s fine, we’ll teach you how to play.”
Rather than putting the men off, this seemed to trigger the other three as well, who beckoned him to join them at the table with vigorous encouragement. The two joined the four at the table. The noble stranger seemed to walk straighter and with more grace than the level of his drunkenness suggested. This gave Darian a pause. Perhaps this man was a swindler of some kind. It was really nothing to Darian. He was really just trying to kill some time while staying warm anyway.
He joined the other men and they all sat around the table. A short man with beady eyes explained the card came briefly. It involved picking up cards after rolling a pair of dice. However, Darian found himself lost by the time the man had explained the third rule. He spoke in a quick chipper voice that made it hard for Darian to follow.
The other men, even the newcomer, seemed to nod as if everything the man spoke was a given. Darian decided not to inconvenience them by demanding a more in-depth explanation. Finally, the man finished his instructions and passed out the cards. Darian watched the other men’s hand motions and tried to emulate them to appear natural.
Before he could take a breath, he saw coins being tossed on the table. He hastily fumbled into his pockets, pulling out the small set of coins he had been given by Marideen. It hadn’t been much. By Darian’s estimates, he had enough credits to buy four more drinks.
Instead, he matched the coins being tossed on the tabled. The hooked-nosed man in the cloak raised his eyebrows in surprise, but the blonde with the scar seemed to smile at his bet. It looked like Darian had already made a mistake. Just matching these men had cost him a third of his remaining credits. It looked like he wouldn’t be in the bar much longer.
The men dropped their cards and Darian did the same. A brown-haired man laughed, reaching out towards the money. The beady-eyed man grunted, shoving his cards away with disgust. With that, Darian lost a third of his remaining money. He frowned, still not quite understanding the rules of the game.
Another hand was passed out. The men each rolled the dice, taking a card. Darian emulated once again. The bet seemed to be smaller this time. Darian matched it and still had about half of what he had when he started. This time when they dropped the cards, the man who had won before grunted. The cloaked man had won this time. He didn’t gloat at all. Instead, he put on a drunken grin and shrugged as if to say, better luck next time.
It was clear right away that the cloaked man was the richest person there. The purse he laid on the table was easily three times the size of any of the other men. He had to be a noble, or at least related to nobles in some way. Fortunately, the strange noble chose not to use his wealth against the other men by forcing them to raise their bets up to ridiculous levels. Darian noticed that he continually chose to match, but never increased a wager.
By the seventh hand, Darian had been opting to drop his cards early to allow himself to stay in longer. The newcomer had won four of the seven hands, enough to cause the other men to become increasingly wary of the drunkard.
“So, what are your thoughts on the blockade,” one of the men suddenly spoke up, trying to fill the string of losses with some light conversation.
The cloaked man rolled his drink in his palms for a minute, seeming to give the question some contemplation, “Seems to me there is not much that can be done about it. Some of us want to leave and are stuck here.”
“It’s the government overextending their power,” the drunkest of the men, a large brute of a man declared.
“Shhh!” The beady-eyed man spoke up, “Those words in the wrong ears can get a man in a load of trouble.”
“It needs to be said. Do you know how much money I’m losing every day they keep me from moving supplies? If I didn’t have a hand in intercity commerce and supporting the thousands of people suddenly stuck in the city I’d have been bankrupt by now.”
“What would you have us do about it, become some filthy Lancer and start blowing up buildings?” the beady-eyed man retorted.
Darian tensed at that. It wasn’t that he was that protective of the honor of the Lancers or anything like that. He was part of the group, sure, but it wasn’t about pride. He was just a little tense about the lies Taerrans were spreading about them, lies they were spreading about him.
“No,” the large man defended himself, “I’m not some kind of monster like the Butcher.”
“Then you’d best stop questioning their decisions. The way I’ve heard it, this blockade is in order to capture them. If they do, I say good riddance.”
Darian couldn’t keep silent much longer. Something about this conversation bugged him. The lies and the misinformation bothered him. Marideen wasn’t a monster. The government was lying to the people. Just as he was about to speak, the cloaked man spoke first.
“The ends justify the means, is that it?” His question had an angry tone.
He no longer seemed drunk. He had a dark look on his face. It felt deadly, like a look Marideen might have shot at an enemy. The four men seemed surprised by the seriousness on his look.
The big man waved his hands, the least aware of the tense situation, “I’m not saying anything one way or the other, and I just think this is all a war of nobles. The butcher is a noble, who disagrees with another noble. Whoever’s right, it’s always us who pays. It wasn’t soldiers the butcher blew up on Braun, it was hard workers like you or me. It’s not nobles that are being blockaded, it’s honest merchants.”
“I wouldn’t call you honest or hardworking…” the blonde man spoke up.
The big man looked down at him with widened eyes, then they tore into a grin and he laughed. The other men joined shortly behind, and even the cloaked man seemed to relax a bit. They began passing out cards again. As soon as the cards reach Darian’s hands, a feeling came over him. He couldn’t exactly explain it. It was like confidence and certainty. It was like the world suddenly slowed down and sped up at the same time, with Darian stuck in the middle.
The men all placed their bets. Darian matched the bet. He had to take it easy, reel them in. He was starting to get a grasp on the game now. Basically, each person got five cards. You rolled a pair of dice in order to add up points. Whenever you reached ten points, you could draw a new card and discard an old one. It then became a numbers game. If you put out a bet, everyone would need to match you. So, you could ultimately drop your hand ending the match at any time, or drive up the winnings at the risk of your opponent getting a better hand.
If his feelings were right, his hand was better than the hands anyone else held. Darian bid again. Each roll of the dice brought another man out of the betting pool. With that last round, it was just Darian and the cloaked man.
The strange noble gave an easy smile, but the gig was already up. Darian knew the man was exceptionally skilled at this game. He knew the man wasn’t as drunk as he was acting. It was time to lay all of his cards on the table. Darian went all in, and the cloaked man chuckled. He rolled the dice coming up with a pair of ones. The man’s smile abruptly shifted to a frown.
He needed at least a four in order to draw another card. Darian tossed his cards down, revealing four Kings. The cloaked man’s smile returned quickly, but his eyes flashed a tinge of annoyance. He dropped his cards as well. It was three aces. Darian would have bet the entire winnings that the forth ace was at the top of the card pile. He’d also bet the cloaked man knew it too.
The beady-eyed man let out a long whistle, shaking his head as Darian pulled all of the money from the massive pot, now putting him on level with the other players in quantity. The blonde man glanced over at the cloaked man with an unreadable expression on his face. Perhaps he was seeing the same thing Darian had seen. The cloaked man had to be cheating somehow.
They continued to pass out hands, Darian now free to buy another drink to keep the angry glare of the barkeeper off his back. The cloaked man seemed to have become increasingly wary of Darian, avoiding directly bidding against him. Darian allowed his instincts to take over, letting it decide when he would win or lose. He won considerably more than he lost, although rarely against the cloaked man.
As the purses of the four men slowly began to drain into Darian and the other man’s pockets, the merchants became increasingly less civil. Their eyes darkened, their banter and humor faded. Even the large, drunk man started to take notice as his purse becoming increasingly lighter.
On the fifth win in a row by the cloaked man, the blonde suddenly cursed, “That’s enough.”
The cloaked man sighed calmly as if he was regretful, “I suppose you’re right, It is getting late and I’m sure we all need to be up in the morning.”
“No, that’s enough of your cheating.” The man spat.
The cloaked man seemed taken aback and genuinely surprised, “I assure you, sir, I am no cheat, I…”
Suddenly, the large man grabbed his arm and the fourth man grabbed his other arm before he could react. The blonde moved forward and reached into his cloak, pulling his hand back out. He slammed his hand on the table, revealing two identical dice.
The cloaked man blushed, “I assure you, those dice I carry around for luck. I don’t use them.”
The blonde held up his hand, a look of anger on his face. He paced back and forth. The barkeep seemed to ignore the situation as if it wasn’t happening, although his guard looked about ready to step in. It seemed clear to Darian that he was just waiting for a nod from the innkeeper.
“You nobles think you can just walk all over us little people. Thought you could come into my neighborhood, take all of my money. You thought what, we’d just stand and take it because you’re a noble?”
“I am not a noble,” The cloaked man spoke up.
For some reason, I felt he was telling the truth, causing me some surprise. However, the other four were less convinced. The blonde man moved forward, slamming his fist into the cloaked man’s gut. He gasped, taking in a few short breaths. Darian looked to his side at the innkeeper, who seemed to be cleaning a glass with a dirty rag, ignoring the entire situation.
“Oh, him?” The blonde continued, “He agrees with me, you walked into the wrong bar, guy.”
The blonde hit him again, this time in the jaw. The cloaked man struggled but the other men had a tight grip on him. A little bit of blood trickled from his face.
“You guys made your point. Just take back the winnings, kick him out the bar, and move on,” Darian found himself speaking up.
He knew that most likely this man had indeed been cheating, but beating him down seemed like a bad idea. It could draw attention to this tavern and Darian’s presence. At best, they’d leave a man for dead who was simply a cheat and a drunk who was just stuck someplace he didn’t want to be.
“You stay out of this!” The beady-eyed man hissed.
“Unless,” the blonde spoke up, “You’re already in this.”
“What?” Darian asked, already fearing where he was going with this.
“You won more profit than anyone. So, is that your plan? The two of you go in together and clear out the merchants then laugh about it later?”
“That’s crazy,” Darian stammered.
The beady-eyed moved to grab Darian. The months of training with Beiromon kicked in, and Darian found himself moving before he could think. He grabbed the man’s hand and twisted. With a certain degree of skill he pushed. The man’s nose struck the table with a resounding crack.
That was the trigger. First, the barkeep finally gave a nod, allowing the guard to move forward. He withdrew what looked like a taser. The blonde man ran at Darian just as the cloaked man suddenly jumped. His feet hit the table to his holder’s surprise and then pushed off, causing him to flip over the men. They lost their grips in the momentum, the cloaked man gaining his freedom in seconds.
Darian made quick work of the blonde. All of the training against Marideen had sharpened his senses and increased his strength. He became shocked at how easily the man was to handle now. He had expected it to be harder. The cloaked man didn’t seem to be having as easy of a time. Three men were on him, and quickly grabbed him again. The large man had him by his arms while the other punched him in the gut.
Darian moved against the guard, who was surprised to see an unarmed man rushing him. Before he could react, Darian struck him three times and swept his feet out from under him. As he crumpled to the ground, Darian moved towards the other men, landing a well-placed kick into the large man’s back. He let go of the cloaked man, who responded by kicking the assailant in front of him between the legs.
With a sudden unexpected speed, the cloaked man struck out at the blonde who had picked up a chair. Darian couldn’t see what he did, but with a quick hand movement, the man dropped the chair, causing it to hit his own head. The blonde man collapsed quickly.
There was a glint of steel as the beady-man behind the cloaked man’s back pulled a knife. As soon as he saw it, Darian rushed forward. The beady-eyed man pulled back his weapon, aiming it at the cloaked man just as he started to turn around as if sensing something. Darian moved first. The knife left the man’s hand traveling towards the cloaked man’s back. Darian was there first, placing his hand exactly where it needed to be. He closed his hand in a fist and caught the knife. The broken-nosed man stared in shock as did the barkeeper.
Darian didn’t know how to react either. Sometimes, he did these things without thinking about it. The fight seemed to freeze as everyone stared at the blade still vibrating in his hand as if it had been denied its fate. Darian felt a tap on the back of his shoulder. It was the cloaked man. He looked haggard, but still capable of standing and walking on his own.
“I think its best we get out of here before there is any more trouble,” he stated, gesturing to the men on the floor.
Darian looked around, realizing that at least two of the men were starting to regain their footing. Darian nodded and the two men grabbed up their earnings quickly. The pair of them raced out into the rain. It was now completely dark and it was raining a lot harder than when Darian had entered the bar. Within ten feet of the bar he knew they’d be completely invisible.
They continued to run on into the night with no particular direction that Darian could tell. The man tapped Darian’s shoulder again and motioned him into another tavern. This one more resembled the inn that the Lancers were staying at.
“Taverns tend to be a little more expensive, but I think we can afford it now,” the man chuckled, tapping his purse.
Darian moved to a table with the man, who opened his purse and ordered two mulled wines. It tasted better than the previous tavern, but he supposed it had more to do with what the innkeeper had selected for him before than a difference in the quality.
“Did you cheat?” Darian asked cautiously.
The cloaked man shrugged, “After I saw him cheat on that first hand with you, I thought it might be a good idea to teach him a lesson. I stopped after I saw you could handle yourself. Otherwise, I’m just good at math and reading faces.”
“What do you mean I can handle myself?”
“They were using fixed dice. The ones they pulled off me were their own dice. I had managed to get them and switch with the real ones. Still, I saw you win despite their cheating on more than one occasion. I didn’t see you cheat once. In fact, I couldn’t get anything from your face at all. Either you’re a very skilled card player, or very lucky.”
Darian chuckled, “Lucky sounds about right.”
The man lifted his eyebrows but didn’t say anything else.
“So what brings you to this planet,” Darian asked to fill the silence.
“I had a job to do, it is finished, now I need to leave,” The man responded stiffly.
“Do you know of any ways to leave?” Darian continued.
“Depends who’s asking…”
“I saw how you reacted when the Lancers were mentioned. Were you a Lancer once?”
The cloaked man moved closer. His voice was quiet, but Darian got the sense he had already checked the entire inn three times over and would keep quiet.
“I’ve helped them out from time to time.”
“Would you being to help some of them again?” Darian asked.
The man scratched his chin for a bit in thought. Finally, he sighed.
“I recognized you as soon as you walked into the bar. I was surprised, to say the least. There is a bounty on your head beyond imagining. You’re lucky those men didn’t recognize you, they would have made their move a lot sooner.”
“And what about you?”
The cloaked man frowned, leaning back in his chair and scratching his crooked nose, “Me? I know you’re not a Lancer. No, they wouldn’t let them get trapped on a planet like this. You’re one of the prisoners. Not just one of the prisoners, the one that killed the Lord Regent’s son.”
Darian’s eyes opened in surprise, “How did you know?”
The man put out his hand, encouraging Darian to be quieter, “It’s in my nature to learn things. I’m a… collector of knowledge, you could say. I suppose your one of Roan’s boys? Yes, I see it in your eyes you know the name. I’ve been helping hide and get the prisoner’s off this planet for a couple of weeks now. The largest influx of them have already departed. You’re honestly one of the last still here. I might be inclined to tell you no. However, you did save me from a precarious situation. You saved my life. Well, maybe not my life. Though it wouldn’t be the first time I woke up in an alley beaten and devoid of all my personal possessions, but you stopped that from happening at least.”
“It’s more than just me, there are several more.”
The man nodded, “It’s about time I got off this planet. I had secured a means to be gone by tomorrow night. I suppose I could bring more along. How many?”
“Four besides myself.”
“Alright, I will find you tomorrow when I am ready to leave. Be ready yourself.”
“What do you plan to do until then?’ Darian asked.
“Now? I plan to drink. Drink until I can’t see anymore.”
Darian laughed. That sounded like a plan. He could let Marideen know about the plan tomorrow. At the very least it would irritate her, and at the moment that seemed enough for Darian. Darian took a long drink from his wine in response to the man’s proposal. The other man laughed and took a drink as well.
“Oh, that’s right, I didn’t catch your name,” Darian said.
The man chuckled, ordering a pitcher of wine as a barmaid walked by, “Markus. My name is Markus.”
“Well Markus, it looks like we have a deal.”
The two clinked their glasses together. Darian was lucky indeed.
***Markus is the Psiblade who traveled with them all those years ago. Marideen believed he was the traitor who leaked their information and so she kicked him out of the Lancers. She hates him and doesn’t trust him.
***Psiblades are basically Taerren espionage. They work privately and aren’t officially part of any political organization. They’re like mercenaries or bounty hunters, although their jobs vary a lot more. E, who is training Marideen, is also a Psiblade.