Blade of Glass: Chapter 5

“I see she gave you a knife.” Vertiline, the ghost-pale woman with the long braid, looked down on Meriwether as if he was an ugly curio like a malformed child. “I wouldn’t have given you a knife.”

They were in the Yellow Mug’s common room, autumnal light making its weary way through shutters closed to keep the worst of the wind away. At least there’ll be no Vhemin with the cold. Israel and Geneve were off doing Important Tresward Stuff, leaving Vertiline to guard ‘the sinner.’ He really didn’t like that term. It implied a host of things, and Meriwether was guilty of only a few. “Because I’d cut you with it?” Meriwether held the knife up. “You can have it, if you like. I’m not very good with knives.”

“Because they give hope, sinner.” Vertiline stood tall above him in full armor, like she could wear it for a week without noticing. Meriwether had to admit she was striking. Flawless skin. Piercing blue eyes, like the cold of a southern winter. Hair so blond it was white. He judged her to be a little slenderer than Geneve, and perhaps a little taller. Probably faster in a race. They left the gazelle to mind me. They’re not stupid. “Hope’s a cruel thing. It will make a man do foolish things for stupid reasons.”

“Like lunging at your armored back?” Meriwether was seated in a private booth toward the back of the Yellow Mug. The room was filled with happy conversation, the smell of roasted meat, and the sweet smell of good mead. His stomach growled, because it didn’t care food came from the Tresward. Traitorous belly. Learn your place.

She smiled, and he was surprised to see the barest hint of genuine mirth in it. “I’d like to see you try.”

“I mean, I could. Just, if you could turn around for a moment, that’d be great.” He gave an encouraging nod.

“Not today.” She leaned her sword against the table, then slid across from him, her armor clanking as she sat. The sword was sheathed, the terrible glass hidden within. The pommel was a silvery metal, polished to a sheen through good care and long use. He could see a funhouse version of himself reflected in it. “You seem taken with my weapon.”

Meriwether leaned away from it like it was a viper, because it was important to not give the wrong idea to a woman who could not only kill you but had previously beaten open the vaulted walls of a keep with nothing but a slip of melted sand. “I’m curious, is all.”

“Curious about the glass blade, or why Geneve carries steel?” Vertiline raised her hand to get the barkeep’s attention, signaling with two fingers. 

“Both, if I’m being honest. I thought Knights all used glass blades.” The barkeep, a short man with a kind face, hustled over. He placed a tankard of honey mead before Vertiline, the other before Meriwether. His smile dimmed a little when he met ‘the sinner’s’ eyes. Meriwether tried not to take it personally. He didn’t want to be here either.

“We do.”

“But hers is steel.”

“It is. It’s effective despite that, wouldn’t you agree?” Vertiline took a sip from her tankard, leaning back with a sigh as if the mug held a balm for the soul.

It kind of does. He sipped his a little nervously, because being bought mead by a woman normally meant one thing, but this was not that kind of situation. “She is. I mean, it is. Ah.” He ran a hand through his hair. “Can I be honest with you?”

“Lying is a sin against the Three.”

“I’m having trouble with all,” he waved a hand at her, the room, her blade, and the world at large, “this. You’re taking me to execution—”

“Judgment.”

“At which point, I’ll die, which is a kind of execution.” He wiggled his eyebrow. “But before you kill me, you’re buying me good food, nice mead, and keeping me safe. It would cost a fortune to buy a Tresward Knight’s protection.”

“It can’t be bought.”

“As you say.” Meriwether took another sip. “Also, you’re drinking.”

“There is no sin in good food, drink, and company.” She took another pull of her drink for emphasis. “Have you heard of Addler the cobbler?”

Meriwether blinked. “Who?”

“A sinner, like yourself.” Vertiline shook her head. “Or not. He was framed. Knights took him to the Justiciars for Judgment. The Light found him free of sin. They let him go.”

“To make more shoes?”

“I don’t know. That’s not the important part of the story.” She eyed him over her tankard.

“You’re looking after me in case I’m innocent?” Meriwether took another sip. “How many others were like Addler?”

“None.”

He felt his hopes sink into a pit of nausea, roiling in his belly. The excellent mead turned sour and flat in his mouth. “This is why you didn’t want her to give me the knife, huh?”

Vertiline put her mug down as if it were fragile. She took a moment before meeting his eyes. “I’m sorry, Meriwether. There’s no mercy in hiding from you what lies at the end of this trail.”

“You’re right.” His lips twisted into a snarl despite himself. “Of course you’re right. You’re a Knight. You can do no wrong.”

She regarded him for a time. “We can all do wrong.” Then she stood, striding toward the bar. He thought she felt guilty, but after thinking for a time, he realized it was more likely compassion. They do a thing they think is terrible, because to not do it would be worse. It was worth bearing in mind. These Knights were not unfeeling warriors of justice. They were believers, and that was worse.

He thought about the knife, and who gave it to him, and why she did that. They believe, but it doesn’t mean they don’t care. He wished he’d never come to Calterburry. It was the start of his destruction.

* * *

Destruction works both ways.

The giant Israel said Meriwether was under their protection. He’d left him with the quick, slender Vertiline, departing with Geneve. Meriwether didn’t know where they went. Probably murdering sinner puppies.

For all that Vertiline was the leanest of the three, she didn’t look weak. Meriwether watched her walk the bar area. Her eyes were everywhere, missing nothing. Though she wore heavy steel armor it didn’t drag her steps. Vertiline looked like she could wear armor until the end of days and be happy about it. What do they put in Tresward water?Whether they drank strength or were given it by the Light, these soldiers didn’t bow to the weight of the world.

Meriwether pushed his mead about. The bottom of the tankard scraped across wood. He felt vibrations through his fingertips. Empty, like my hopes.

Wait a minute.

He stood, a tiny flare of hope kindling inside. Vertiline’s eyes snapped to him as he stood. Meriwether gave her a cheery wave with his tankard. Need a refill. She nodded, so he slipped toward the bar.

The Yellow Mug filled with the usual sort you’d expect. Drunks, working men, and working women. A man near the door looked at a lass serving drinks with a hungry stare. Meriwether glanced up, taking in the balcony ringing the common area. An older woman looked at a younger one below with unbridled hate. Laughter boiled up like a spring from a booth near the kitchen. Someone shouted a greeting. People, being people.

Some came full of hope, some looked for it. But a few sought the most common of things: trouble. Meriwether settled against the bar, raising his tankard. The barkeep, still not willing to meet the eyes of the Tresward’s prize, managed to swap his empty for a fresh one without looking at Meriwether.

He sipped. Still excellent. Seems a shame to waste it, but that’s how it’s got to be. Meriwether chose a section of bar unremarkable in every way except for the surly, lump-shouldered man clutching a tankard like it was a throat to choke. Meriwether turned to face the man. Beard, none too clean, with a few hints of gray about the muzzle. Dark eyes, set against white skin. A scar, from a burn rather than blade.

Those dark eyes turned in Meriwether’s direction. “Fuck off.”

“Hello, good sir.” Meriwether raised his tankard. “Buy you a round?”

The man straightened from his hunch, showcasing an impressive barrel chest, above a less impressive sagging gut. “Fuck,” he stabbed a blunt finger at Meriwether’s chest, “off.”

Meriwether regarded the finger on his chest. Gnarled knuckles, thick wrist, callused palms. He could be a pit fighter as easy as a mason. Meriwether nodded, putting a little pity in the motion. “Elean’s Masonry’s put you out of work, hasn’t it?”

A squint and a grunt, but the finger didn’t move. “What do you know of it?”

“Only that Elean told me she’d thrown the, how did she put it, ‘layabout rabble’ out the door when she took over.” Meriwether let his gaze travel the length and breadth of the man. “It felt odd that a woman would hire nothing but other women. Discriminatory, and that’s a fact, but having taken the measure of you, I see she had wisdom.”

The finger on his chest moved away, allowing its fellows to join the fun. The man grabbed the front of Meriwether’s tunic, hoisting him onto his tiptoes. “What did you say?”

Lucky guess, and a good one. “That you stink of offal, are a fool, and your parents were brother and sister.” He tossed his mead into the face of his antagonist.

Hush spread from the pair like ripples in a lake. The barkeep froze, tankard under a spigot overflowing to the floor. A bard, fingers still on his lute strings, gawped. The woman on the balcony above stopped staring her hate and turned curious eyes on Meriwether. 

The silence wasn’t complete. The steady drip, drip of mead leaving the stonemason’s face, traveling the length of his tree-trunk arms, and trickling to the floor. There was a clink-scrape of booted feet, as Vertiline—previously near the lutist—made all speed for Meriwether’s location.

The stonemason’s other fingers, itching to join the fun, curled into a fist. Meriwether watched the motion, and as the fist cocked for a blow, he waited for it to land. It came, sure as spring rain, hard as an anvil, collecting Meriwether in the side of the head.

Stars and darkness. Red and black and white. A tumbling scuffle, Meriwether sliding along rough wood floorboards. Feet about him, then the silence broke like a storm. The stonemason roared, “I’ll kill you, you little shit!” A man behind him swung a stool into the brute, splinters raining. Tankards flew. Wood broke. Across the bar, a grand melee erupted.

You have five seconds. Make them count. Meriwether lurched to his feet, feeling the floor shift beneath him like a ship at sea. The floor’s not moving. It’s just that your brains are still sloshing about your skull. His unsteady motion saved him as a chair hurtled through the space he’d occupied a second earlier. He jabbed a finger behind the stonemason toward Vertiline. “She made me do it!”

He spun—sloppy, like a thick soup—on his heel and made for the door. It was ten short meters and a lifetime away. He thought he heard Vertline’s shout over the roar of the crowd, then a crash and clatter of wood on steel. Don’t look. Run. Meriwether dodged a punch to his head, mostly by accident, and hurdled a prone fellow. He made the front door, pulling it partly open before a woman crashed into it beside him. The door slammed shut.

He glanced back. Vertiline stood in the center of the storm. Blood trickled from a cut in her scalp, but it did nothing to stem the murder in her eyes. She held a scattergun in a gauntleted fist, pointed at Meriwether’s head.

A chair hit Vertiline in the side as her scattergun roared. It came from her right, a beautiful arc of flight over the bar. It shattered, wooden water against her steel rock, but enough to foul her aim. The scattergun’s blast tore the woman at Meriwether’s side apart, her blood painting the door. A circle of pockmarks sprouted on the wood around the silhouette of her body.

Good-natured brawling turned to fear. Fear went straight to panic without pausing for thought. A surge of humanity came for Meriwether, sweeping him up in its tight, urgent embrace. The door creaked, then popped with a crack of scattergun-weakened wood. Meriwether spilled outside into the cool night, crowd dragging him along like a deep-sea current.

He let himself go with it. Meriwether wanted to run, felt the panting need to flee, but didn’t want to draw Vertiline’s eye. She’d be outside faster than a Feybrind’s sprint. Angrier than a Vhemin war party. So, he drifted with the masses. Got swept about a corner of a building. Resisted the urgency of the throng as they moved toward the keep—I’ve had enough of that tonight, thanks—and ducked into an alley empty of souls or their fears.

He hunkered low. His heart beat so hard he feared Vertiline would hear the war drum thunder of it. The night turned cold now he’d stopped moving. Without the warmth of the Yellow Mug’s arms about him, he felt it seep through the rough cotton of his shirt. Meriwether had no coat or cloak. No coins in his pocket, not the bright yellow of a sovereign or even the brittle, tarnished brown of a baron.

I’ve been in worse scrapes. The cage they brought is death. It’s an end to everything, even the cold, so get moving. Meriwether crept along the alley, hugging a wall. His fingers trailed against old wood, cold stone, and slid against wet moss. His boot tinked against a bottle, and he froze.

Nothing. No movement in the alley. No hint of pursuit. The cries of the crowd, fading. He heard no clink of armored boot and didn’t see the terrible gleam of a glass sword hungering in the dark.

Meriwether was free.

* * *

The path to Calterburry’s main gates were easy to find. The north gate was the common trade route with the baronies and merchant cities that hugged the mountain’s spine. The west gate was smaller, leading to Three knew where, but it would have guards. Patrols, stern men with an angry purpose now Lord Symonet was gone: find the sinner. Bring him to the Tresward.

That’s why he didn’t go that way.

Calterburry was bisected by a river. Spring rains were far behind them, so it wasn’t flowing with the massive torrent of warmer times. Diving into the current was borderline suicide, but it was also less likely to be policed by Knights. Their armor wasn’t known for its buoyancy.

Meriwether hurried though the streets. A foul, reeking pile afforded him a castoff cloak barely more than rags. It was shit-stained, but it was better than death, and where he was going would clean it better than an hour against a washboard.

Shivering, he picked up speed, blowing into his hands to get some feeling back. I need to save my strength. Kindling ancient embers while planning a dive into icewater isn’t a good use of time. He made the low stone wall lining the river near the northwest of Calterburry. It flowed from here to the southeast, a long, mostly-straight, mostly-freezing run toward its eastern exit, and then to the salty throat of the sea.

Meriwether glanced about. Still no sign of chase. Perhaps Vertiline wasn’t good at finding people? Maybe the Tresward Knights were exemplars at combat, but sucked at tracking? He clutched his stinking cloak close, then dived into the water.

The frigid wake welcomed him in. It was so cold he felt like he’d been punched. He tried not to scream, or inhale the water, thrashing in the water’s dark depths.

A moment later, his head broke the surface. The city’s tanners had their outlet closer to the southeast, and he prayed they wouldn’t be operating at this hour. He didn’t want to be cold and swimming in a mire of pollution.

The current pulled him along, just one more piece of flotsam making its way to the sea. He knocked against stone, the current ungentle with him. Ahead, he spied the exit. The river ran beneath the walls. Bobbing along, feeling the cold leach the life from him, he wondered how he’d arrived at this point.

I’ve done nothing wrong.

The river swept him under the tall walls of the keep, and he was into open countryside. The bank of the river widened outside the stone confines of its funnel through the city. He struck toward the northern bank. To the north were towns. Villages, with commerce, and fires he could warm himself against. Loose coins might find his pocket, and he could head far away from the burning need of the Tresward.

His fingers found stone, and he dragged himself from the freezing water. Meriwether felt the cold like an anvil atop him. A weight, trying to hold his head beneath the water. He fought it, shivering uncontrollably. He staggered from the water, breeches dripping, the sodden fabric clutching him with the cold fingers of the grave.

With waterlogged boots, he made his way up the bank to the grassy verge. He thought of resting, then remembered the Knights after him. Their cage waited. Meriwether clutched a fistful of grass, hauling himself over the bank’s verge and into the night plains beyond Calterburry.

“Hello,” Geneve said. “Did you remember the knife?” She stood in armor, starlight reflecting from it. Beyond her, a horse grazed, tail swishing in the night like it was offended. No light of a warming fire. Just a woman clad in steel, and her horse.

Meriwether looked to the river. “How?” Back to Geneve. “But… the river!” And the horse. “I was free!”

“You’re cold,” she corrected. “It’s addled your wits.”

Beyond Geneve’s horse Meriwether thought he spied a figure. Beside a tree with a trunk wider than the giant Israel, a slip of shadow watched. He caught the glint of eyes in the dark. A monster, hunting prey. He wanted to shout a warning, but he shook uncontrollably with cold. Teeth chattering, he raised a shaking arm.

Geneve didn’t move, not to look over her shoulder, not to apprehend him. Fine. If she’s not going to do anything about monsters in the dark, I’m out of here. He broke into a run. He made it four staggering steps before his limbs gave out. Stretching his length upon the ground, he marveled at how warm he felt, like his body remembered the heat of the sun and gave it back to him. The figure beside the tree watched, perhaps waiting, and Meriwether wondered if he would die here, either from the cold or from fangs against his throat.

He spied a plant before his eyes. In the north, they called it angel’s kiss. He’d no idea what the inbreds in the south called it. A tiny shrub, the soft leaves tickling his nose. He lurched forward, fingers snaring at the plant. Meriwether couldn’t feel his hands, didn’t know if he’d plucked the herb, or left it on the ground beneath him.

Then he thought nothing at all as darkness lapped his cheek, traveled down his body, and dragged him below.


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