Merrick elbowed his way through the crowd.
His goal, a clear bit of wall under the spreading branches of an old oak, lay not twenty feet away on the other side of the street. A horde of travelers blocked his way forward as surely as if they were an invading army. He dragged Amelie away from the Justice's Chamber's massive doors, past a fat merchant sweating his way up the hill, only to be blocked by a wagon going the other way. Turing around was useless. A pair of elderly ladies desperately wielding green fabric fans against the heat and a gaggle of university students gawking their way through the busiest intersection in the kingdom's capital hemmed them in. Another wagon rumbled down the cobblestone street from the opposite direction, laden with kegs and tuns bound for the palace. Conversation, shouts, laughter and curses in a dozen different languages thrummed around the pair.
A vein throbbed in Merrick's temple.
Spotting an opening, he shoved forward, clipping the fat man's fat wife and earning the pair of them a haughty harrumph and a glare. Merrick glared back and the fat lady dropped her gaze. Must be getting more intimidating, he thought. Or it might have been the king's arms embroidered in black on his maroon cloak that did the trick, a crown surmounting the great Rock on which Harron's Keep was built.
Reaching the relative safety and shade of the wall, Merrick stopped, breathing hard. Brown, black and red stones were mortared together into a barrier that blocked access to the section of road below. From Merrick's vantage point, the city spread out in tiers, like steps cut for a giant descending the bulk of the Rock toward Carin's Bay glittering below. Celadon was a city of levels, with Harron's Keep built atop the Rock at the highest level, both in elevation and in prestige. Below the king's lofty position sat the realm of the nobility and the high courts. The wealthy merchants and guilds sat close upon the nobles. Low Town sat beneath them all, home to simpler craftsmen, smiths, tanners, beggars and sailors, taverns and inns. Docktown, nominally part of Low Town, squatted across the River Cel, almost a separate city unto itself.
"What did you do, Amelie?" he growled, turning away from the view to fix his sister with a baleful eye.
"Nothing you wouldn't have done in my place," came the sullen reply.
"If it wasn't anything, then I wouldn't have been dragged away from a bloody murder and forced to deal with that damned jackanapes Binnerty. What have you gotten yourself into?"
Amelie refused to meet his eyes, her dirty blond hair hiding her face and the purpling bruise that decorated her cheek.
"It wasn't my fault, Merrick." She looked up, past his shoulder out where the gulls battled against the wind and the blue water shone, out where there was no memory, no court and no troubles.
"Talk now, dammit! I can't help you if I don't know what's going on."
"He started it, that stupid sword-swaggering ass," she muttered.
"Go on," Merrick urged, fists on hips. "You've just described every noble's whining son and mat at arms in the great city. Which sword-swaggering ass do you mean, Amelie?"
"Eudon Casale," she muttered, the words jerked unwilling past her lips.
"Casale?" Merrick knew Casale by reputation. Sword-swaggering ass, indeed. "The man's an affront to the Watch. What what did he do?"
"You know the Sign of the Boar in the Merchant's Quarter?"
Merrick knew it. He'd ejected many an over-boisterous patron from the Boar. Peeling paint, a cracked sign, warped steps and a reputation for cheap ale and cheaper women made the Boar a haven for men like Casale despite it's location perched high above Low Town.
"I was only walking past and he, he," she broke down. Her stony facade crumbled, and for just an instant Merrick glimpsed the small, scared little girl he'd held tight on that night of fire and pain so many years ago. Then the mask was back in place, a cold gleam in her blue eyes. "He tried what his kind always try." She lifted her head, blond hair falling to the side to reveal the dark purple welt covering half her face. "I put a knife in him."
For just an instant, Merrick sat speechless. It was not the act itself that surprised him. Amelie wasn't one to take guff from anyone, much less a lecherous guardsman with wandering hands and more ale in his stomach than brains in his head. It was the fact that they'd let Merrick take her home. Since she wasn't languishing in the death cells, she hadn't killed the bastard, but he would have expected some repercussions. Something that went beyond Binnerty's hollow threats. There hadn't been, which meant one of two things. Either Casale refused to indict Amelie, a thought that almost made Merrick laugh out loud, or there had been a corroborator. And not just any corroborator, but someone of enough importance to keep the situation from turning ugly.
"Where'd you stab him?"
"I was aiming for his walnuts, but missed. All I got was the meaty part of his thigh." She sighed, leaning back against the stone wall. "He squealed like a pig, did you know? I'd always imagined he'd make that sort of sound. I'm only sorry my aim wasn't better."
"You tried for his walnuts. Amelie, do you know what they'd have done to you if you'd castrated a member of the City Watch? Where'd this happen?"
"I told you, at the Sign of the Boar."
"No, no, I know that. Where, though? Inside? Outside? Down Knickerbuck Alley?" he asked.
"Ha!" she laughed and again the bitterness in the sound hurt Merrick's ears. "You think a bastard like Casale would wait for privacy before he assaulted a lady? It happened on the front steps!"
"Who saw it happen? I mean apart from the regular riffraff that floods through that damned place."
Amelie thought about it for a moment, then said. "No one I knew, but there was someone. A woman, a high-born woman I think. I couldn't tell with all the wrappings she wore, but she spoke up for me."
"What happened? Think, Amelie, this is important."
"It's hard to remember much after I knifed the bastard. He screamed and fell across the steps. I remember hoping maybe I'd nicked that artery in his leg. Then Casale's partner was there." She frowned, eyes turned inward, reliving the experience. "I remember the torchlight gleaming off his gauntlet, then something hit me in the face. It didn't hurt, not then. It knocked me down and I landed on the street, below Casale. I think I remember the other one pulling steel, but I'm not sure. There was a voice, the woman's voice. It was strong, commanding, but the other one didn't want to listen. He took a step toward me, and then she stepped in front of me." Amelie shook her head. "That's all. After that, it's just darkness and pain until I woke up in the damned cells this morning." She looked Merrick in the eye, and he saw something cold and hard there. "I thought I would die there, Merrick. I knew I would. Then you show up and Binnerty tosses me out... What does it mean?"
Merrick rubbed his forehead. The throbbing vein had turned into a throbbing pain. "We need to find out who that woman was," he said.
"Why? What does it matter now?" Amelie stared at the contents of a passing cart laden with oranges, lemons, figs, dates and other exotic fruits. Merrick heard her stomach growl. How long had it been since she'd eaten?
"It matters. She was obviously someone of considerable position in the city. You never want to owe a noble a favor, especially one as big as your life, Amelie. They're ruthless, and won't hesitate to claim what they're owed and more."
"You sound like you wished she'd not helped!" Amelie accused. Guilt settled into Merrick's heart. He didn't wish the stranger had stayed away, but gods help him he wished his sister had found another benefactor last night. Hell, one of the damned Faceless would be better than a noble.
"No, no, Amelie. Never think that. You're alive, and you're safe. That's what matters. We'll deal with your anonymous benefactor later if need be."
She nodded, but did not appear completely convinced.
Merrick took a deep breath. A glance at the sun told him it was only just past midday. What a damned day, and only like to get longer. He fished a couple of coins from his belt pouch and handed them to Amelie. "Get some food, and then go home. Don't leave the house today. I'll be home as soon as I can."
She looked like she wanted to say something, but Merrick urged her on. "Go on, food then home. And bolt the door, do you hear? I've got business at the Windward House that's like to take me most of the afternoon, but I'll be home."
Amelie nodded. "Meat pies! Hot pies!" a vendor called from across the street. That got Amelie's attention and Merrick heard her stomach growl again. Stifling a smile, he pushed her off into the press. "The finest cuts and spices!" the vendor crowed. Damn the man, that sounded good. Merrick had eaten little enough himself today, but there was no time now. Pushing into the throng he descended the Rock making for the Windward House and a dead body.