He sat, mulling over his third pint of ale. He was absolutely certain of one thing. Well, two things right now, one was that he was good and drunk, and two was that he was going to kill whoever had put Emanuella into the state she was in. The only thing he didn’t know… was how. And so he drank.
Halfway through his third pint – or was it his fourth now? – two shadowy figures sat down at his table.
Rick was in no mood to tolerate foolishness from anyone, so he said nothing and glared pointedly at them, hoping they’d go away with a minimum of fuss.
They exchanged glances and leaned back in their chairs, measuring him. Unmoved, Rick continued to glower back at them. One was thin and wiry, with a shock of red hair. The other quite large, meaty and solid. They cocked their heads, continuing to study him, as if he were some sort of experiment or animal.
Finally, quite irate, Rick snarled, “Look, if you’ve got a staring problem, take it up to the bar and goggle at some fool up there. Whatever your problem is, be on your way with it!”
As if he had not spoken at all, his two new unidentified drinking guests said to each other companionably,
“Lookit him, will you? Thought he’d have a bit of brain to him. Don’t look like it much, does it to you?”
“Naw. Leave ‘im. Don’t need no idgits crampin’ our style. He’s soused.”
Thoroughly furious now, Rick didn’t know what angered him more – their overall unmerited judgment of him or their refusal to leave.
“Soused! Soused! I’ll have you know, you would be too in my place!” he spluttered, spraying spittle on the table. Embarrassed and outraged both, Rick wiped his face with his sleeve.
The two scoffed, quite entertained. The larger of the two dug his red-haired companion in the ribs. “Lookit, Ralfie, he’s got a bit of bite to ’im after all.” They snickered.
“More like a sting.” Ralfie leaned across the table and looked into Rick’s face. “Think I’ll call you Stinger from now on.” Then he waved a hand in front of his face and grimaced. “Don’t think it much matters what I call him, he ain’t goin’ to ‘member it in the mornin’ noways.”
His companion guffawed and suggested, “You could call ’im Pigshit.”
“Aye,” Ralfie said, “he sure do smell it. More like Stale Ale than an’thin’ else.”
Rick had put up with enough from this odd combination of strangers. “Now just wait a damn minute. Who do you think you –”
Ralfie put a hand over Rick’s accusatory finger and immediately said in a low voice, “Calm down lad, keep it quiet. Just joshin’ with you.”
The barmaid came over then. “What’ll it be, Ralfie?” she said with a wink and a smile.
“I believe I’ll have a mead. Jeppers?”
“Same,” answered his bulky companion.
“And I’ll –” Rick swallowed down the last of his ale – “have another ale.” The barmaid looked doubtfully at him.
“He’ll have hot cider, Tusie.”
“I think I’m old enough to drink what I want!” blazed Rick, amazed at the man’s effrontery to order for him as if he were a child.
“You’ve made that more than clear. ‘S why yer drinkin’ hot cider. Someone’s got to get yer arse back into that fancy Academy of yers now and I guarantee it won’t be me.”
Rick opened his mouth, then closed it. Tusie left them. Ralfie and Jeppers sat forward. “Did you think all this time you was goin’ unnoticed, haulin’ all those swanky books about?”
Truly, Rick was flabbergasted. So taken by surprise was he that he had no reply at all. He had thought he’d been being careful….
“See lad, no one comes or goes in this city without bein’ seen.” Tusie arrived with their drinks and sat them down carefully with a bright smile. “Thank you, love.” Ralfie waited until Tusie was out of earshot before he continued.
“What – what do you mean?” Rick asked, knowing he sounded stupid. Ralfie slid the hot cider across the table at him.
“I mean, lad – you’ve been real careful-like, leastways, you been tryin’ t’ be – ” here he rolled a knowing eye at Jeppers, who raised a conspiratorial eyebrow over the rim of his mead glass – “but when you suddenly disrupt the order o’ things, everyone knows what’s up, and if you wants to, say, take care of business, you can’t disrupt the natural order o’ things. See?”
Rick stared at him through what he knew was an ale-induced fog, but even so, none of this was making an iota of sense.
“I – I don’t understand. I don’t get it.”
Ralfie rolled his eyes and sat back in his chair. Looking at Jeppers, he said, “You know, they told us he had some brains. They did, didn’t they?”
Jeppers nodded and Ralfie downed a few gulps of mead.
“Maybe they was wrong. Could be they was wrong. I’m lookin’ at him and I’m seein’ a complete sop here.” Ralfie wiped his mouth with the back of his arm. “I say we just leave ’im.”
Jeppers glanced at Rick. “Maybe ’e’s just really sloshed, ay? ’Is brains is just pickled right now.”
Ralfie scraped his chair back on oaken planks of the tavern and stood up. “Yeah? I say he ain’t got no brains at all, much less pickled. Lookit’ ‘im. Let’s go, I ain’t wastin’ another second o’ my time.”
Jeppers glanced sympathetically at Rick.
Rick had no idea what quality they were looking for in him but it was clear he was supposed to have exhibited some higher order of brain functioning by now. He had no idea what they were talking about but he wanted to know more about this “taking care of business” and the “natural order of things.”
“Wait,” he put out his hand. He stood up to get Ralfie’s attention before he left the table altogether. Ralfie stared at him measuredly. “Wait.” Rick picked up his mug of hot cider and swallowed several gulps down. He looked from Jeppers to Ralfie. “I’d like to talk more about – the natural order of things.”
Ralfie’s brown eyes narrowed shrewdly. He nodded and sat down.
Rick was trying to think clearly through four pints of ale, hoping he would say what his companions wanted to hear. “So I was trying not to be observed but I guess that didn’t work so well after all,” he ventured. It was a stab in the dark. He hoped it would lead somewhere. He had the notion that he wasn’t fooling either Ralfie or Jeppers, but they obliged him.
“Well, lad, as we said, not a thing as goes on in this city as isn’t known about. You, you come around all careful like, each week a different pub, totin’ those fancy books. An’ all you do is study. In a pub. Get yerself a meal, sit in the back in some quiet corner. An’ you study.”
Rick’s mouth dried. Pleased with his reaction, Ralfie continued. “See, lad, most every single person as comes into a bar, be it tavern, pub, or brothel, they comes for one purpose: to drink. To get laid maybe. Fellowship. Some ofs them, they come in to hide away, avoid the streets. But lad – t’aint no one uses these pubs an’ the like as libraries.”
Rick fumed. He drew breath in to defend himself but Ralfie held a hand up, silencing him.
“Like I said, boy, we know everything in our city as goes on.”
Jeppers nodded slowly in agreement. He ticked off on his fingers: “The Golden Coin, then the Wandering Soldier, then the Red Fox, Chester’s, Night Owl’s…”
Rick stared for a moment, stunned that his study habits had been so noticeable. To cover his dismay, he quickly downed more cider.
Ralfie continued. “At first, we says to ourselves, what’s ‘e doin’, studyin’. That just don’t seem right. So we watched you. Some of us thought, well, could be ‘e’s a faggot. But we got it on good authority, you isn’t. And I give you this, you was careful – you didn’t spend too long in the same place. We couldn’t figure at first, was he an Academy lad or fakin’ it. Academy lads, they gots to be in by curfew. But we watched you sneak back in regular like, markin’ yer spot an’ all, and by the stars if you wasn’t sneakin’ out just to study.
“Well, we couldn’t figure on why, but we had ourselves a good notion whatever it was you was riskin’ getting’ caught over curfew just to study for, must be a good reason so’s we left you be.”
Ralfie took a drink of his mead and his eyes glinted at him over his cup.
Rick felt invaded, naked, stripped of his secrets.
“Now tonight, tonight though. You come in, no fancy books. Course we know you can handle yerself… you got that sword, but a practiced eye can look at your hands, see you got scars, calluses, see you got more than one knife on you…” Ralfie’s eye dropped meaningfully to where Rick’s throwing knives rode on the inside of his tunic. “But yer sittin’ here drinkin’ yerself to shit.” He paused. “That, lad, is what we refer to as disturbin’ the natural order of things.”
Rick stared in disbelief. “Well, so what? So what if I decide I want to come in and get drunk some night? So what if I decide to not study some night? Isn’t that what pubs are for, you said? What do I need, a – a permit from the city or something?” he lashed out in defiance.
Jeppers shook his head in disgust.
“Lad, we don’t care what you do an’ when you do it. Sad thing is, not a rotten bastard elsewhere does, neither. All’s we’re sayin’ is, when yer stewin’ over somethin’, you, an Academy lad who ain’t seen to think past the tip o’ ‘is nose as to gettin’ ‘isself back onto Academy Grounds sloshed like so, on a normal curfew night, a Fifthday, an’ he’s packin’ every blade he can stuff under ’is cloak, well ‘e ain’t usin’ ’is head, now is ’e?” Ralfie looked disapprovingly at Rick.
A measure of time went by as Rick digested this. He still did not understand why they were interfering. “Why do you care what I do, then?”
Ralfie considered a moment. Then he said, “Let’s just say, we have a vested interest in the outcome of… certain… proceedings.”
Rick’s eyebrows shot up. Now he was entirely confused.
“Drink your cider,” directed Ralfie. “Go on, bottoms up.” He signaled Tusie for another. Rick drank his cider down, hoping that at the bottom of it lay answers.
“Now then, Jeppers, is ’e any less pickled, do you s’pose?”
Jeppers scoffed and leaned his elbows forward onto the table, looking intently at Rick.
“Right then,” said Ralfie.
“You don’t even know why I’m out here tonight, or what’s wrong,” snapped Rick.
“Noooo, no we don’t, and you’re not going to tell us, nor anyone else, are you lad? Secrets best kept are secrets kept by one. Aye?” responded Ralfie quickly, slapping the table with emphasis.
They had a good point. “Well, it’s just that, I have… I have… this… problem, to solve. And I… well. I don’t know how to – solve it.” Rick stumbled over how to explain Emanuella’s situation without giving details or specifics.
“Oh, aye, you’ve a problem. But you’ll not solve it in your cups. Disrupting the natural order o’ things will just tell everyone that you got a problem at all, see what we’re tryin’ to say to you?” Ralphie turned to Jeppers and complained, “Seas, but the lad is hard-headed.”
Rick suddenly understood what they meant. Letting everyone know that he was going to extract serious vengeance for what had been done to Emanuella would only rain worse trouble upon him – and his family – then if he pretended nothing had happened and all was well. He would have to go about it stealthily, and without letting the world know he was angry. But still… he kept coming back to… who, and how?
“I just don’t know… who, I mean, how to do it, find out, and….” Rick trailed off.
“Who? How?” Ralphie scoffed. “How else would you go about anything? You? You keep schedules best. You wait in the shadows until such a time and you slip out, don’t you, then you change up again so yer never noticed, aye? T’aint nothin’ different in life, just circumstances you apply it to.”
Rick cocked his head and considered this. That just might work… listen here, slip in and out there, be careful not to be seen…. And when he found out who the culprits were….
Then he drew back from what he was considering. Murder. Of other students. No. He couldn’t do that.
“’S’matter now, lad? Demon grab yer tongue?”
Rick took a breath and then whispered loudly, “I can’t kill them!”
Jeppers and Ralfie stared back at him for a moment and then chortled. Ralfie turned to Jeppers. “Was I ever this young, was I, Jeppers?” He hooted merrily.
“Ralfie, you never was young, not ever,” Jeppers responded with a grin.
Quite incensed, Rick spat, “All right, have your laugh at my expense, both of you bastards, whoever you are. I at least don’t make a habit of this.”
Ralfie placed a hand on his chest, feigning coyness. “Oh my,” he fluttered his eyelashes, “I fear I’ve been stung.”
He and Jeppers laughed again. Rick saw he would get nowhere. He dug for coins to pay for his drinks.
Ralfie slapped a sterling on the table suddenly, which more than covered everyone’s drinks and a generous tip for Tusie. Leaning across the table, he said very soberly, “The Fat Man is watching you, my lad, just remember that.”
The who? Who did he say? Rick suddenly seized the moment and threw caution to the wind. “Was it him that tried to kill my sister? Was it? I’ll kill him if it was!”
Jeppers and Ralfie glanced at each other and rose from the table, bursting into laughter. Looking down at him, Ralfie gave him a long, serious look and shook his head as if looking at a child who doesn’t get the joke. Then they turned and left, striking up a bawdy tavern song on the way out.