Episode Two: The Hammered Hand - Home Away From Home
Riordan's expression had grown more wary and he closed the case up, glancing around. "We need to get out of here." He stood up and moved out of my line of sight. I was still counting on my fingers to myself. One hundred platinum, two hundred platinum, three hundred a sharp oath from Riordan brought me out of it. He was standing over the thug with the broken arm. I looked more closely and saw the same thing: whether or not that arm would get infected was a moot point now. The man's skin was black and his tongue and eyes protruded grotesquely. "We need to get out of here now," Riordan repeated and started off down the alley. I followed him, then had a thought. I knew there was a lot of money in opium, but I didn't know there was this much. That fool with the sword knew who I was. This much money was more than worth hunting down a half orc with no friends. I paused, looking at his unconscious form, knowing that if I didn't kill him, he would be back, and with that much money at stake, he wouldn't return the favor of deliberating this long over whether or not to kill me. Was the money worth it? Even if I gave it back, they'd have to kill me for messing with them in the first place. I would, if I were them with that much at stake.
"What are you doing?" Footsteps sounded as Riordan hurried back to hiss at me urgently. "We need to be moving!!"
"I gotta do something first." It didn't sit easy with me, though.
"You big twit, I already took care of it," Riordan flashed a blood streaked dagger at me, then grabbed my arm. "Come on." I frowned more closely at the bodies and saw that three of them had been neatly stabbed through the heart.
"Huh." I gave one last look as I turned and followed him. Well, they had their fair shot at winning, running or talking earlier and blew all three, but I still didn't have to like it. "Nice job. You finish off defenseless people often?"
"What are you, my grandmother? Let's get out of here so you can bake me some cookies. You sure move as slow as my grandmother."
We walked briskly down the alleys in silence for a time, listening for pursuit. It was bitterly cold and nasty out; even the rats had the sense to be indoors behind shuttered windows, or deep in the sewers where it stayed fairly warm. The sleet spattered on, too wet to leave tracks, washing away signs of our passing. No footsteps but our own broke the soft pattering of sleet and the sounds of the waves not far off.
"Did anyone else see you?" I finally asked, breaking the silence.
"No. I followed those guys coming out of an opium den. Stole it from their room in the inn they were staying at."
"What were you doing at an opium den?"
At least Riordan had the grace to look embarrassed. "Poppy eaters are easy marks coming out."
I shook my head. "So were these guys stoned?"
"No, just stupid. I listened to them talking from outside their window. They couldn't open the box, didn't know what it was or who they stole it from. I guess they had gone in to smoke and saw this important looking guy having a bad reaction and lifted it off him. They put it under the mattress in their room, of all places, then went down to have a drink and hire someone to open it, I guess."
"They left it behind?"
"Well, in their defense, they didn't know what was in it."
"Well how the hell did they find out you took it, then?"
Riordan sighed and studied the sky, nose red and lips blue from the cold. "Luck is a lady. Sometimes she's sweet, sometimes she's fickle. One of em came back with a hooker before I could make it out the window."
I had to snicker. He looked insulted. "Women'll getcha every time, man," I consoled him, then snickered again. Riordan still looked offended.
"Thanks, Osgun, you're a regular font of wisdom. Listen, you got anyplace to get off the street here?"
"Oh, yes, little man, I do." I was going to get very, very drunk and tip Minerva heavily tonight. Then I was going to buy my own shitty little bar and pay Minerva a thousand gold pieces a day to wait tables there and to wear a very low cut top. I wouldn't let anyone else in to drink - just me, my ale, and Minerva's breasts. It was a good plan.
I know. You're thinking, she's a bar maid in a sleazy fish bar on the docks. How much gold could it possibly take to see more than just cleavage? Again, your thoughts are kind, but stupid. I like to imagine Minerva as being kind of shy and sweet, not the type who will put out for coin, but you're half right. Here on the docks, money will buy pretty much anything. I was willing to finish off those thugs passed out on the ground over this. Hell, I'd have done it for just one of these coins. It would be my turn to be stupid to think that my lovely Minerva wouldn't give it up for some of this. Now Minerva probably has a price, like any of the rest of us on the docks, but I can say with authority of three years watching her wait tables that she is neither a hooker, nor a slut. As a half-orc, though, I can and frequently do run into all sorts of trouble just for speaking to women or accidentally looking at them. So, even in my wildest dreams of what to do with the money, Minerva's clothes remain on. The top does get a little lower cut, though.
"What's this?" Riordan asked when I veered over to enter the Hammered Hand.
"It's my place," I told him. What was he, stupid?
"You sleep here?" he asked incredulously as I held the door open for him.
"No, I drink here." He was stupid. "Yer lettin' the cold in."
"I thought you said you had a place," he sighed.
I looked around at the well stoked fireplace, the weathered fishermen drinking their ales, playing mancala, talking nice and low, most of all not paying me any heed other than an occasional nod. Gray Sam was behind the bar already drawing an ale for me in the special big mug he keeps for my use and there was Minerva, bringing a tray of bread and cheese to a table of crusty old farts, those beautiful breasts of hers peeping out from above the hem of her top. I had a cot in a shack that I rented to sleep on, but I didn't spend as much time there, and I certainly wasn't as welcome there. "This is my place."
"You know we can't use The Stuff here," he murmured at me as I made for the bar, him following reluctantly behind. Too true - Gray Sam would never be able to make change for one of those coins and even if he did, there couldn't be that many of them in the entire city - it would cause questions. Fortunately, I had plenty of coin in my purse.
"Relax, stupid. I gotcha covered."
"Osgun," Gray Sam greeted me, setting down my mug in front of me. It cost a little more than a regular mug, but I've kept track until my head blurs many a night, and he slips a freebie in for me now and again. Not so much, mind you, he's running a business here, not a charity. But enough to make me feel welcome. I've been putting in an honest day's work here on the docks for ten years or more, and this is still pretty much the only place as make me feel welcome. "What'll your friend have?"
"He's not my friend," I said mildly, taking a long swallow and seeing if I could catch a glimpse of Minerva without being too obvious.
"You have wine?"
"Aye," Gray Sam admitted, giving Riordan the same disdainful look I was now directing at him.
"Well, ah, I'll have an ale," he amended.
I was about half way through my ale when Minerva finally made it over. That's no slight against her skills waiting tables. Riordan had just taken the first sip of his ale, and Gray Sam had barely had time to move down the bar to fill another mug. It's just a comment on how fond I am of ale. And how eager I was to see Minerva.
"Ozzie," she smiled.
"Unnh," I grunted indifferently and took a swig of ale, looking over at two fish buzzards at the nearest table roll their dice and move their silly little shells around the board.
"Nasty weather out there," she propped her elbows on the bar, like she normally did when business was slow and she had time to stand and talk. Out of the corner of my eye - the corner that wasn't busy staring down her top - I saw that Riordan had not failed to notice the very nice view either. I would hurt him later for it. Right now, I was in heaven.
"Unh," I shrugged to Minerva.
"You must be freezing, working so hard in the cold. There's still some soup left by the fire. It should be hot." She glanced over at Gray Sam and then leaned in to whisper to me, "I bet I could get you a cup on the house." Oh, that view.
"I'll be right back," she winked and smiled at me, then hurried off to the kitchen.
"Nice place you got here," Riordan remarked, eyes glued to her hips as she left.
"I will break you bloody in half, you little runt," I said quietly, and without venom. I would never do it here in the Hammered Hand. But should he dare to hit on Minerva, as soon as he stepped foot outside the door, he would be a dead little man.
"Aw, that's so sweet. You are such a softie," Riordan laughed into his ale. I wasn't concerned. I had watched Minerva almost every night since I had started coming here. Riordan wasn't her type. Hard to say what her type was, really. They weren't all crusty old fish mongers in here. I guess there was that captain who had a couple of fishing boats to his name, who came by for a while. I suppose he's what you would call handsome. I can tell you at least that he wasn't too funny looking. He didn't spit on the floor, and he talked to her nice. He must have been all right, because he asked after her on one of her nights off and Gray Sam didn't shut him down right away, but was fairly polite to him. She was nice to him. They had a drink together once or twice, and maybe they saw each other when she wasn't here at the Hand, certainly I wouldn't know. But she never did seem to really warm up to him, and after a while he didn't seem to come by as often. I can't say if I was disappointed or happy. Certainly, my little heaven would never be the same if he had married her and carried her off, but on the other hand, she'll need a good husband sooner or later, and as little as I know about picking husbands, he seemed a better choice than most. But those things are not the concern of the likes of me. My business was getting to the bottom of my mug of ale, which I had almost accomplished by the time Minerva came back with a cup of soup.
"There you go, get yourself warmed up," Minerva smiled setting down the cup of soup and not appearing to notice that she was doing more for me in that regard than the soup. "Let me fill this for you. They should pay you boys extra for working in weather like this. Culligan's knuckles are so swollen he can barely grip his dice," she chatted away as she swooped my mug behind the counter for a refill. She didn't pay Riordan any particular heed. I don't think she realized we were here together; I had never brought a friend with me before. Not that Riordan was a friend. I took the spoon and stuffed soup absentmindedly into my mouth, watching her every move while her back was turned. By the time she turned around, I was staring at the old fishermen again. She shouldn't have to know how I felt. Then she would be obligated to put me in my place, and she was too kind a person to do that without feeling bad.
"What kind of accent is that?" Riordan interjected, drawing a sudden stunned silence from both Minerva and me.
"I wasn't born here," Minerva faltered, suddenly shy. She set down my mug and then hurried off to make a pass of the tables. As for me, if looks could kill, Dock Dog would have been a dead man.
"Could you possibly be more of an ass?" I asked as soon as she was safely across the room. "What kind of question is that to ask a lady?"
"What?" he protested. "That's a perfectly polite question to ask someone. What kind of accent is it, anyway? It's really faint."
"I don't know. She's never said." From my tone, I implied that should be more than enough of a hint for any decent man to avoid prying.
"What, you've never asked?"
"No," I said stonily. With Minerva, I've never had to ask. Anything she ever wants to talk about, she does when she comes by to fill my mugs. I know about the seagulls she feeds, the dresses she makes, that she doesn't mind working all night because the howl of the wind around the eaves of the little attic room she rents scares her a little. She's never talked about her past and she never talks about her future. And anyone who wasn't a bastard wouldn't ask.
"Well, excuse me." Riordan sighed and stared into his mug. "So, how long are we going to sit here?"
"You were the one who wanted to get in off the street."
"I figured we could go somewhere and talk."
It was his turn to stare at me like I was the imbecile.
"Well, yeah, that, but what is there to talk about it?"
"You know, Osgun, just when I start thinking you're not as stupid as you look, you go and surprise me."
I sipped my ale and gave him a look meant to calmly remind him how easily I could pop his head from his shoulders. "So we'll talk tomorrow."
"And just sit here and drink all night?"
"What, you got a book to write or something?"
"Boring and ugly. You are one rare find, Osgun."
It took two more mugs of ale, sitting and drinking in silence, ignoring Riordan, before Minerva came back. Gray Sam had filled my mug once in the interim, maybe a touch sympathetically without necessarily encouraging me. But Minerva was there to fill the one after, even if she was fast about it. "How was the soup?" she whispered when she brought back my mug full. I shrugged noncommittally and she flashed me a grin before hurrying away. Yes, I can say with honesty that I hated Riordan.
At some point, Riordan started in on a game of mancala with some of the buzzards and moved to their table to sit with them. I was impressed that they could stand him, and then started to worry that maybe they assumed he was okay because he was with me, but Minerva appeared in his absence to wash glasses behind the bar near where I was standing. She watched the mugs and the patrons mostly while she talked, freeing me to watch her hands and occasionally steal glances up further at her breasts and sometimes even her face, though not as often. I didn't like to meet her eyes. Made me feel odd. She was reporting to me about how sad it was that Fisher Arden's second son slipped in the ice earlier today and fell under a crate he and some other men were unloading, and that he broke his leg and how she was going to talk to Gray Sam about asking if the man's wife would care to wait tables and help cook to try and make ends meet for them. I was watching her hands and thinking about how reddened and rough they'd grown since I'd seen her working here, and maybe imagining them in other settings, like clawing at my shoulders, when I noticed that they had started to shake. Her voice trailed off and her lovely chest was pale. I stole a glance at her face and it was enough to make me see red.
Calmly, I set down my mug of ale and turned to look casually over my shoulder for whoever it was that I obviously had to kill. I blinked quietly, and looked around the bar one more time. Same people as sat here every night, doing the same things they always did, with the possible exception of Riordan making an ass of himself with the old fishermen. Minerva was trying to make faltering small talk again, but her hands were still shaking and when I glanced up at her, she was shooting small, nervous looks out into the room, like she was trying to keep an eye on someone without them noticing.
I turned and caught Gray Sam's eye down at the other end of the bar and frowned at him hard, then glanced at Minerva. I partially turned my back to her then, half because I often tried to sit like I was mostly ignoring her, half because I wanted to see what the hell was going on in the room. It took Gray Sam a minute to come down.
"Any soup left, Minnie girl?"
"Just a little, sir."
There was a pause. "Someone upset you, Minnie?" Good. He noticed.
"No, no. Just maybe not feeling well."
"You look like you've seen a ghost."
One of the mugs slipped out of her hands with a clatter. "Who believes in those?" she tried to give a little joke.
"Want to go in the back and sit down?" He probably thought I upset her. Well, good on him for watching out for her.
"No! No, I'll be fine right here."
Another pause while Sam tried to figure that one out. "Well, you been workin' awful hard, girl. Why don't you have a seat and catch your breath a few minutes. You can sit next to the fire, or have a seat beside big ugly there, or come sit by me and Gamfer Tamas, all right?"
"I guess I could have a seat right here for a few minutes. I could dry glasses while I rest a bit. Thank you, sir."
"Be sure you do rest," Gray Sam helped her around the bar and settled her on the stool next to mine. I ignored them, envying the way Gray Sam could take her hand like that. "I won't have it said that I work my girls to death. You'll give me a bad reputation. Osgun, see she don't fall off her chair, will you? Now, mind, Minnie, don't let big ugly there talk your ear off." I grunted into my cups in response and continued trying to watch for what she might have seen without attracting notice. Gray Sam clapped me on the shoulder as he headed out to fill mugs in Minerva's place.
"I'm sorry for the fuss, Ozzie, I'm just not feeling well all of a sudden. Maybe I've caught a cold with all this nasty weather and it being so hot in here and there being drafts from the door and staying up all night and it's probably just girl vapors or some such" Minerva talked a lot to me about things that most people would probably think unimportant, but she never rattled on pointlessly like that. Just this once, I caught her eye and gave her a look that said, "You are not fooling the half-orc". I like to think it also conveyed that I was going to kill whoever had upset her like this. I was not prepared for what happened next, however. "Oh, Ozzie," she whispered suddenly, "sometimes I just get so scared." I looked back at her, a little shocked. That sounded like the truth again. Then her pretty eyes welled up and she burst into tears.
I have never come so close to panicking in my entire life.