King's Host - Book One

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Chapter 10: Opposites attract

Bard Keer was not an open, sociable man, in fact he was precisely the opposite. An orphaned child at a young age, he had been taken in by a captain of the Royal Guards, who had no children of his own. Needless to say, it made his choice of a career obvious. Gratitude, ambition and the fear of becoming a burden to his new family, especially after the later birth of their own daughter, had pushed him to study hard and train with his adoptive father like a real soldier.

His intelligence and natural inclination towards discipline had helped him become one of the youngest Royal Guards at the time, but the hard work had deprived him of friends and the usual enjoyments of childhood. He had grown into a serious man, competent and responsible, but whom comrades had found difficult to befriend. It was known that he was very fond of his little sister and fiercely protective of his family, which later included a young wife—Grian knew how that woman had managed to win his heart, but she must have been an exceptional creature, his fellow guards thought. Other than that, most people had little success in acquainting themselves with his thoughts or feelings, although marriage seemed to have softened his edges a little.

The deaths of his wife and newborn were, therefore, a terrible blow to the whole family. Those very few who were close to him knew how much he loved her and how happy he was about the birth of his child, despite never showing his emotions. Devastated by the tragedy, he sought solace in the training ward and libraries, instead of friends. He rose to the rank of Captain. But no one ever expected him to recover enough to build a new family.

And yet he did.

When Bran was born, his father was almost in his forties. He loved his son dearly, but whether because of his duties or age, or his personality, he did not spend enough time with him, nor was he very eloquent in expressing his affection. Bran grew up to be very close to his sweet-tempered mother, who was always by his side playing with him, reading him books or making up their own stories together, and his cheerful aunt. But with his austere father he was rather reserved. He admired him, in the way most little boys admired their strong fathers, but feared his disapproval. And, although it hurt Bard Keer to see his son shy away from him, he simply knew not how to show his love.

Bran was a quiet child. He was not shy, but he did not possess that happy personality which makes some children adorable, nor the wild and uncontrollable temperament which makes others a nuisance. In some ways he resembled his father—a little too serious for his age, more interested in the whys and wherefores of things than in playing with other children of his age.

He had his mother’s beauty: eyes like the winter sky at twilight, thin lips, very dark hair, but not quite black, slender frame. People liked him for being well behaved and respectful, despite his uncommon curiosity, but the children eventually tired of his questions and arguments spoiling everyone else’s enjoyment. After a while they stopped calling him to join in their games.

He lost interest in them even sooner. After learning to read, books became his best friends. His father saw in that a chance to bridge the distance between them. He encouraged him, took him to the Library and even brought him tutors—an expensive undertaking for a family of average means—to teach him history, mathematics, logic and reason, languages and so forth. He could not take him to the Garrison, but he brought home one of his most trusted subordinates—a man named Pryce, some ten years younger than him—to train and build his body. Bard Keer thought a healthy mind needs a strong, nimble body and physical training improved both appearance and health. He could have done that himself were his methods less hard and demanding, but they were appropriate for soldiers, not a child.

Soon it became clear where this education was leading, but Bran embraced it with interest and ambition, to the chagrin of his aunt, who often complained about it to her friend-turned-sister.

“You should stop him before it’s too late, Freya. Must every man in this family be a soldier?”

“Not a soldier, dear, a Royal Guard. It’s different.”

“It’s the same. My brother is going to turn him into another Bard.”

“I love Bard,” said Bran’s mother. “And Bran is not unhappy.”

“My nephew is too handsome to be a soldier!”

“What would you have him become, then?”

“With that mind he could enter the Court. And that face would hardly leave a noble daughter indifferent.”

“My dear Cerys, you’re stretching things a bit too far,” said Freya, laughing. “I know you’re a hopeless romantic, but we must be realistic.”

The reality was his aunt’s fancies were beyond their reach, because access to the Court was difficult for those not born in a noble family. And, more importantly, Bran wanted to follow in his father’s footsteps. It suited him. But before that, he thought it best to join the City Guard first. Most Royal Guards’ duties were limited to protecting the Royal House, escorting the royal members and some ceremonial roles. Only a few were entrusted with gathering intelligence and other sensitive, more challenging tasks. To become one of those few, Bran believed he needed the kind of experience which being an active City Guard would provide, an argument his father could not but agree with.

Tucked in a narrow alley in the Upper Trade, a short walk from the waterfront, was a discreet public house in a better looking, two storey building. The inside, clean and cosy, had a subdued elegance and smelled of fragrant oils and tea, instead of alcohol. It was different from the usual hanging places for the amateurs of drinking, in fact the patrons of this establishment were mostly from the upper class—wealthy traders, money lenders, nobles—people with educated and refined tastes and means to match them. A unique one among the public houses and taverns of Ardaena, the Wild Rose was one of the hidden jewels of Upper Trade.

From the elegant, iron forged sign above the door hung a small lantern, whose light glowed red at night.

Madam Rose was the owner of this place, which functioned as a tea house in the afternoon and as one of the most exclusive brothels in the city during the night. Herself an eccentric character, she detested the word, calling her house an entertainment parlour. She was right. She only had a handful of girls, but they were pretty, healthy and educated to please finer tastes. They knew how to listen, hold elegant conversations, sing and dance. Each had been picked and polished by Madam herself—as the girls addressed her—and her services were some of the best, provided one’s pocket was heavy enough to afford them.

Because they were, in a sense, her creation, she cared about them almost like a mother and they loved her back just as much. And although they were free to leave the business—after returning her investment, naturally—so far only two of them had left to marry their clients, though there was no shortage of suitors. The lovestruck grooms had paid a small fortune to comfort Madam’s broken heart and the girls had kept in touch with her ever since.

One of Madam’s rules was no children. She had ways to prevent a pregnancy, or interrupt it, if necessary.

“If you wish to be mothers, pay your debt and get married,” she told them. “Don’t give birth to children you cannot take care of. There are plenty where you came from.”

Since they were very comfortable with their lives the girls had no such wishes.

Yet Fates played a dirty trick on Madam and one of them, her first and favourite pupil, fell pregnant. Madam had picked her from the streets when she was yea-high—a dirty, scrawny orphan with jade eyes and the face of a doll—and had raised and taught her everything she knew. She loved that girl as her own and had plans of leaving her the establishment in the future.

Perhaps that was why, despite her initial anger and disappointment, despite her own rules, she hesitated to terminate the pregnancy: her adopted daughter would give her a grandchild. It was the sort of thing which, commonly, women in her line of work found inconvenient and undesirable, but age makes people change their minds and she was no regular mistress. Madam’s business was successful and she could afford raising an heir. However, that meant retiring one of her most popular girls sooner than she had planned. She needed a replacement.

It had not been an easy decision to make, but she never regretted it, for not only did Bredan inherit his mother’s looks and happy disposition, he had also a quick mind and a natural charm. Whoever his father was, he had had the decency to endow his son with some excellent qualities.

Bredan had never felt ashamed with his family, nor had he thought himself inferior to others, or unfortunate because of his circumstances. He may have not had a father, but he had many mothers and sisters and a grandmother, all of whom raised and loved and pampered him together. Ama—that was Madam for him—took care of his education, providing him with all the teachers he needed to become as accomplished as a high born. But his greatest teacher had been Ama herself. Her lessons had placed great emphasis on observation of people’s character and behaviour, conversation skills and manners.

‘A patron’s generosity is proportional to his ego. Our duty is to inflate it as much as possible.’

Her diligent pupil had surpassed her expectations: he learned fast and had a talent for persuasion.

Due to the nature of their business Bredan met a lot of people with all manner of backgrounds, occupations and ideas, thus having ample material to study and practice his skills. People liked him very much and later on, when he grew up into a charming young man, some even inquired about certain favours, but Madam made it clear her grandson was not in the market. His duty was to loosen up the clients and make them willing to spend their coin, something he did remarkably well.

Bredan took pleasure in playing with people’s minds and emotions and learning their secrets. Not from some viciousness of character or ulterior motives, except, of course, encouraging generosity towards the Wild Rose. Madam herself was a proficient practitioner in the art of loosening tongues, but she had never used her talents to harm her patrons.

‘He who knows more, knows how to stay out of harm’s way,’ she had taught him. ‘But don’t use people’s secrets against them, for it will turn tenfold against you.’

He did not. He simply enjoyed it for his own satisfaction and for the thrill. The thrill was also what interested him in gambling, though it would be a lie to say he was wholly indifferent to the gain. Fortunately, he never gambled large sums, partly because he was not that irresponsible with money, and partly because not even his skills could ensure a win every time. Unfortunately, winning sometimes got him into trouble with the wrong sort of people.

Arburn was beautiful after sunset, when twilight painted its surface in deep colours, all the while draining the darkening city of its own. Then street lights were lit, one by one, and windows began to glow with warm light, while the river darkened, until it was almost black and the only colour remaining was the orange of lights smearing the rippled surface.

It was a pleasant evening. Gone was the heat of the summer nights and, with it, the humid, suffocating air infused with the stench of sweat and decomposing waste. It was cooler and easier to breath, but still far from the cold, crisp air of winter. The shops had closed, the streets were growing quiet and the taverns were filling with people, noise and music. During the day the bridges over Arburn were as animated as any other street, but after dark, besides the City Guard patrol, only the tardy crossed the river, or lovers who dared to promenade under the stars.

Bredan staggered on the cobbled deck, reaching for the stone parapet for support, and paused to find his balance, taking slow breaths to quell the nausea. But instead of settling, his stomach began to twist and convulse like a beheaded animal. A surge of fluids climbed to his throat and Bredan threw himself against the parapet, leaning over just in time to retch into the river. The horrible taste choked him and he coughed and heaved. The acrid smell was sickening. Bastards, his mind cried as he threw his head back, sucking in greedy breaths of fresh air. He wiped his mouth with a kerchief, then looked at the stinking stain on the fine fabric with disgust. Under the light of the waxing moons he could not tell how much of it was blood and how much puke. From the corner of his eye he noticed a man approaching and tried to stand straight, but his body revolted against him and he swayed.

“Be careful!” The man made a move to support him.

Bredan waved him away and leaned back over the parapet, spewing out the rest of his dinner. How could a wonderful meal taste so dreadful backwards? On the water surface flickers of light gave away the fish attracted by his refuse. Ugh! Not fussy about your food, are you? He turned and slid down with his back against the rough stone, breathing heavily. His lips hurt and his throat felt raw. His stomach hurt, and not just from wasting a meal. He swore—very unlike him—in the colourful manner he had heard around the gambling tables, which he usually found absurd and oddly entertaining. Now it was refreshing.

“I never heard this before. Quite creative,” said the stranger, albeit in a flat, humourless tone.

The man was about his age, very tall, well dressed, though not in the nobles’ style, good-looking and far too serious. His bearing was almost military.

Bredan could not help a little smile, despite his awful state. “Having dinner beaten out of you has that effect,” he rasped. The joke did not seem to amuse the other. Oh well. He tried to stand, gasping from pain, and the stranger rushed to help him.

“Which way?” asked the man.

“That is very kind of you, but I can handle it.” A moment later he reconsidered, pointing, “That way.”

He put his hand over the other’s shoulder and they crossed the river in silence. He had to stop and lean again before they reached the foot of the bridge. There was nothing left to throw up, but his body did so anyway.

“I’m sorry,” he said, wiping his mouth embarrassed.

“Where to?”

Bredan pointed to the left.

The sky was dark and flecked with stars. The flames of the street lamps were not flickering. From behind the glass which had not seen water since the last rain, they suffused the street and façades with an orange tinted light. More light spilled into the street from the taverns and the upper storeys of buildings, where the residents of the Upper Trade had their living quarters. At night the difference between the two sides of the Trade District was most obvious: the Upper Trade glowed, the Lower Trade was dim. There were fewer lamps on the streets and scarcely any on the waterfront. Most light came from inside the buildings.

The passers-by paid no heed to them. They looked like two young friends going home from a drinking party.

“May I ask what happened?”


“Oh... Lower Trade is full of scum at this hour. You ought to be more careful.”

“A bunch of sore losers!” scoffed Bredan. He touched his lips gingerly and grimaced. “Brutes. Ama is going to kill me,” he muttered.

“For getting robbed?”

“Don’t be ridiculous. For gambling.”

The other paused. “Gambling is irresponsible,” he said coldly.

It was not the offended undertone, but that hint of contempt which irked Bredan. “You talk like an old man,” he retorted. Who was this person to judge him? There was no reply, but the shoulders under his arm stiffened. He rolled his eyes. “It’s not a habit… Occasional diversion, if you wish. Sometimes I’m fortunate.”

“Do you call this fortunate?” The man gestured to Bredan’s sore body.

“Tonight I won too much. They thought I was cheating.”

“Were you?”

Bredan chuckled and his stomach hated it. “Please don’t make jokes, laughing is too painful.”

The other frowned. “I am not.”

“Tell me, do you ever laugh?”

“You do not have to answer,” came the flat reply.

Bredan sighed. “I didn’t cheat, strictly speaking. I may have, um, taken advantage of their overconfidence.”

“That is almost the same.”

“I beg to differ, I did not deceive them. Their foolishness was not my fault.”

“You played with fire. That was your fault.”

“You are not amusing.”

“I am not the one in pain.”

There was no winning the argument with this person, so he changed the subject. “I am Bredan, at your service.”

“Bran. Well met.”

“Well met, indeed! What is your story, Bran?”


“You don’t strike me as the sort who goes drinking at night. What were you doing on the bridge?”

“Thinking.”—Pfff! escaped Bredan’s lips before he could stop it—“The river is quiet in the evening,” argued Bran, a little irritated. “Never mind. I was going home.”

“I was not expecting that answer. But thinking suits your image.”—Bran glanced sideways at him, uncertain—“That was a compliment. Oh well… You must have had a very strict education.”

“Some may see it so,” Bran admitted reluctantly.

“Exigent father? With men like you, it is usually the father,” he answered the questioning look.


“Not too many friends.”

“Is there a point to this inquiry?”

“I’m trying to understand your character.”

Bran made a wry face. “Why?”

“Why not? People are fascinating!”

“You are strange.”

“And you are grim like those city guards during the night shift, poor souls.”

“I just joined the City Guard.”

“Oh! Pity… What I’m saying is you are too serious. People dislike that. Loosen up a bit! Smile. You have a handsome face, don’t ruin it with scowls. It’s too early for that.” They had reached the corner of his street. “This way.”

Bredan stopped in front of a house whose window shutters were closed on every level, but through the slats escaped both light and sound, and they heard beautiful music and laughter. The lantern hanging from the delicately forged sign cast a hazy, scarlet light.

Bran stiffened again. “Is this another joke?”

“Certainly not, this is where I live.”

“You live in a brothel.”

An entertainment parlour.” Bredan straightened, despite the pain, drawing away from his help. “Do you find that appalling?” His voice had lost its humour.

Bran stared at him for a few moments, before speaking. “What is it that you do? Besides diverting yourself with gambling.”

“Is that important?… Would you regret helping me if I said I was a whore?” He watched Bran’s lips thin into a line. If the blood suddenly rushed to the man’s cheeks, the red light of the lantern hid it.

“No,” said Bran at last, trying to sound indifferent. “I helped a person who needed help.”

“And I’m not a whore,” said Bredan with a smile, guessing that what he saw was just a front. “But my mother was. Before I was born.”

The rigid shoulders relaxed a little and the disapproving look softened, although Bran still looked uncomfortable. Bredan had seen this sort of awkwardness before, in young men with respectable upbringing who had never crossed the threshold of a brothel.

“I apologize for my rudeness… I was surprised.”

“You have not offended me, not in the manner you assume you have. I am not ashamed with my family, their occupation is more honest than many proper ones. And our house is very different from most brothels. I am accustomed to people’s prejudices about our trade, but, for some reason, I hoped you would not judge my worth based on that. You questioned your decision to help me.”

“I’m sorry!” This apology was more heartfelt.

Bredan looked at the wooden door, then back at his companion.

“Do you want to come in?”—Bran glanced at the shuttered windows, doubtful—“Sometimes people come here just to drink and talk, or listen to music, or be listened to. This place is much more than a collection of bedrooms. We could have a drink and—” Bran’s frown reminded him he had just puked half an hour earlier. “Tea, we could have a tea and talk. After that you can just go home.”

“Thank you, but I should return. Tomorrow is my first day in the City Guard.”

“Ah! As you wish.” He made an elegant, but not ostentatious bow and smiled. “Thank you for your help, Bran. I enjoyed our little conversation. Perhaps we shall meet again.”

Bran answered with a slight incline, then turned on his heels and strode away.

“Too serious,” sighed Bredan, stepping inside.

They did not see each other again, not for almost a year. But Bran did think about the strange man he had met on that fine autumn evening whenever his fellow guards tried to interest him in their talks and jokes, and failed. He had not made a single friend yet. They were not bad folk, but, just like his childhood neighbours, they thought he took things too seriously. At his age men were just beginning to enjoy the privileges of adulthood, without worrying about the future yet, but not him. He was more mature, diligent and efficient in his duties, and his superiors were well satisfied with him, but some of his comrades, especially those older in the City Guard, thought he was arrogant. Well, he was not there to please them.

The large square in the heart of Upper Trade was more crowded than usual. In the middle of it three young girls were dancing on the lively rhythm of a tune played by a troupe of musicians. They were skipping and sliding and swirling around, and their long, colourful skirts were flaring like flowers in spring. It was a country dance, a little too bouncy to be considered appropriate for elegant ladies, but the gracefulness and fluidity of the girls’ moves and the skill of the instrumentalists made the performance captivating. It was not uncommon for street artists to try their chance in the squares of Upper Trade; besides an opportunity to earn more money, many entertained the hope of finding a patron, perhaps even a noble one. This troupe was quite talented and their audience was pleased and generous.

Bran had no particular interest in arts, but his mother loved music and had taught him a few things about it. He could recognize and appreciate a good performance when he heard one, so he found a spot on one side of the square, where he could listen and keep an eye on the crowd. Events such as this were the perfect opportunity for beggars and pick-purses to prey upon careless—and often wealthy—spectators and it was the City Guard’s duty to prevent such misdeeds. Though his fellow guards, curious themselves about the young dancers, had chosen to mingle with the gapers.

It was not long before he spotted Bredan chatting with two ladies and a gentleman from the upper class. He was in high spirits. The ladies seemed mesmerized by his person, particularly the young one—a pretty woman not yet in her twenties, dressed after the latest fashion—to the chagrin of the gentlemen accompanying them. And for good reason, because Bredan looked handsome and distinguished and altogether charming. Although younger than Bran remembered—not surprising, considering that last time they had met it was dark and the man was sick and bruised—he had all the confidence and easiness of a person accustomed to the ways of high society.

He felt an unexpected curiosity to meet him and, before he knew it, he was threading his way through the crowd towards their little group. This eagerness to talk to someone was very unlike him and he knew not where it came from, so he told himself it was just a matter of politeness. Anyone in his stead would have inquired after the health of a person they had helped. He was just behind them and about to call his name, when he noticed Bredan’s hand relieving the young lady of her purse with a dexterity that said practice, while his graceful smiles and artful talk arrested her attention. She felt nothing, except delight at his compliments and a growing infatuation, which turned her cheeks a brilliant colour and her smiles silly. Nor did the other lady, very pleased with him, or the gentleman, equally annoyed, suspect anything.

Shock, wonder, anger and disappointment hit Bran all at once, freezing him in place. He felt silly for being eager and even more so for being disillusioned. What was he expecting? He knew nothing about this man. During their brief encounter he had left a strong impression on Bran, but a false one as it turned out. That annoyed him the most: that, despite his social ineptitude—because he had always had better ways to employ his time—he was clever enough to see people’s true character, yet this man had fooled him. What started off as an impulse of civility turned into an obligation to carry out his duty as a city guard. He could seize Bredan right there, but that would have caused a commotion, so he composed himself and interrupted their chatter with a rigid nod.

“Bran!” said Bredan with loud enthusiasm. “What a pleasant surprise!”

A surprise indeed, that the man had such precise memory. If not for that move he had witnessed earlier, he would have taken pleasure in their meeting, but, as it was, Bredan’s audacity of facing a guard with that degree of nonchalance was both bewildering and provoking.

“My ladies, my lord, I apologize for the intrusion. I must have a word with this gentleman,” he said and grabbed Bredan’s arm, pulling him away under the questioning looks of his companions, flustered by the sudden appearance of that tall, grim guard. If they were not alarmed it was only because their friend seemed acquainted with him.

“Certainly,” said the young lady, pouting with visible displeasure. “We shall be here.”

Bran did not stop until they were out of the crowd, but he did not let go of the other’s arm either.

“Oh, my, look at you!” admired him Bredan. “You are dashing in the uniform.”

Bran answered that with a cold, unimpressed stare. “Give it back,” he said through his teeth, tightening his grip.

“Beg your pardon?” Bredan tried to free his arm without success.

“The purse you stole, give it back.” He kept his voice low, but that only made it more threatening.

“You are mistaken, sir, and I find your accusation offensive,” defied him Bredan, without a trace of shame or guilt.

Offensive! “I saw you,” he hissed.

“I did not steal, I borrowed,” rectified Bredan with emphasis, raising a finger. “That strut peacock kept bragging that nobody can fool him, because he has a keen sense of observation and sniffs lowlifes like a hound. He was irking me.”

“Oh! And you wanted to show the ladies he is just a vain, self-absorbed individual,” scoffed Bran. “Open up their eyes, that is.”


He did not believe an iota of that story, nor did his anger soften at it, but he loosened the grip. If this could be solved without a scandal, so be it. “Then return her the purse. Now.”

“That would ruin the moral of the story!”

“Perhaps, but it will save you from humiliation. Don’t think I have any scruples arresting you.”

“Then why are you hesitating?”

The nerve this man had! “I was giving you a chance to prove your story. On second thought,” Bran unfastened a sturdy rope from his belt, “you may not deserve that.”

Bredan raised his free hand in submission. “I understand. There’s no need for extreme measures.” He had underestimated Bran’s determination. Worse, his anger. “You’ll have to let go of my arm.” The grip tightened. “Oh, please, where would I run in this throng?”

Bran reluctantly released him and followed closely back to his friends. They received Bredan with curiosity in their eyes and smiles of relief, but that serious guard looked so out of place beside him that all their attempts at resuming a casual conversation were unable to disguise their discomfort. But Bredan’s demeanour was as easy and pleasant as before—Bran could not help feeling impressed by the man’s superb dissimulation—and that seemed to allay their nervousness. He apologized for leaving them so suddenly, making a vague excuse to answer their questions and steering the conversation back to them. Then, as if by chance, he noticed something on the ground and bent to pick it up.

“My lady,” he said with the greatest, most genuine surprise, “I believe this is yours?” He presented her a purse made of fine silk, with an intricate embroidery.

Her friends gasped. Her eyes rounded in panic and she covered her lips with a delicate fan. “Goodness gracious, that is mine indeed! How did I lose it?”

“I do not believe someone took it from you, my lady,” said her supercilious gentleman companion, puffing up. “I would have noticed immediately.”

“Certainly,” sneered Bredan. “You simply dropped it, my lady. Look, the strap is undone.”

“Indeed. How awful!” She showed the strap to the other lady, who echoed her astonishment like the loyal companion she was.

“Nonetheless, crowded places attract all sorts of questionable individuals.” Bredan threw a quick glance towards Bran, whose face was perfectly still and unfriendly. “Please be careful, my lady. Perhaps you ought to find a sturdier purse.”

“How thoughtful of you, sir!” She raised a hand to her heart—which, conveniently, was situated in the middle of a fairly revealing cleavage—as an expression of sincere appreciation. “Thank you so much, I know not what would have happened, had it not been for your remarkable observance.”

Bran made an effort not to roll his eyes at that. The other man was glaring at Bredan with resentment, shifting impatiently on his feet.

“You give me too much credit, my lady. I have done nothing to deserve it.”

“No, no, M’lady is right,” said her lady companion. “M’lord would be very upset if he learned M’lady lost her coin.”

“Oh, yes, Papa is very particular about these matters.” She turned to Bredan with a graceful smile. “I was going to visit some shops. It would please me greatly if you favoured us with your company. I should like to thank you for your help.”

“M’lady, what would your father say?” asked the other lady, alarmed.

“I am sure he would agree that this gentleman deserves my gratitude. And with so many questionable individuals around…” She blushed, lowering her long lashes. “I should feel more at ease.”

“My lady, I am here to protect you!” said the other gentlemen with zest, but she ignored him.

“I am most grateful for your kindness, my lady,” said Bredan, bowing gracefully, “but I must—with great sadness, I assure you—decline your generous offer. It appears this gentleman needs my assistance in a matter of importance.” He pointed to Bran, who confirmed that with a silent nod.

“Oh, how unfortunate,” said the lady, rounding her full lips in a pretty pout. “But if it is important, of course you must help. Some other time, perhaps.” She turned to the other man. “I am in your care, I suppose. I’m tired of this show.” He bowed and offered his arm. She thought for a moment, then turned back to Bredan. “Will you, at least, accept a small token of my appreciation?” She fumbled with her purse and pressed a couple of gold coins in his palm, closing it with both her hands.

Bran gasped.

“Oh, no, my lady! I could never—”

“Shhh!” She raised a finger to her lips. “I insist. I hope we shall see each other again.” She smiled coquettish, then took the offered arm and, with one last glance over her shoulder, disappeared in the crowd. The older woman made a curtsy and followed her M’lady.

“There,” said Bredan with satisfaction, tucking the coins in his pouch. His eyes met Bran’s stupefied stare. “What, now?”

“I don’t believe what just happened!” snapped Bran. Then, realizing, he lowered his voice, “Did she pay you for returning her purse, which you stole in the first place?”

Borrowed. And yes, that seems to be the case.”

“You knew this was going to happen, didn’t you? You had it all planned.”

“That is a preposterous suggestion. How could I have known?”

“Give it back! Now!”

“Excuse me?”

“Give her back the money! I cannot believe you took it. What kind of person does that?”

“How can I? She left. I don’t even know where, how am I supposed to find her?”

“Who is she?”

“I have no idea.”

“You were acting like you knew her!”

“We just met. I don’t ask for the name of every woman I talk to,” said Bredan crossed.

“But she was noble, it’s customary etiquette!”

“This is not an assembly. And thanks to you there was no need for introductions.”

Bran was scandalized, he had never met such a brazen person before. Forget anger, this was almost hilariously ridiculous. “I should arrest you at once.”

“What for? She gave me the money herself.”

“Fraud. You deceived her.”

“I did what you told me to!”

“You should not have accepted the money.”

“And risk offending her?”

Bran rubbed his brow. The whole situation was so absurd he was at a loss as to what he was supposed to do. His head was beginning to ache. How was this man able to discompose him so easily?

“A drink might do you good,” suggested Bredan. He had the gall to add, “I’m buying.”

That was extraordinary. Bran stiffened, frowning almost disgusted. “I’m on duty.”

“Ah, I forgot. Perhaps next time.”

“Go home. If I catch you doing this again, I swear you’ll go straight to prison.”

With a deep bow and a mischievous smile, Bredan left. Bran’s eyes followed him until he was out of sight.

“Unbelievable,” he muttered to himself, wondering whether he was dreaming.

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