Finder’s Keeper – Part Seven
by D. G. Speirs
Copyright (c) 2017
Seamus and I had gotten about half way to best bud status in the Scadian drinking tent (note to self – look these things up back stateside, the food is a lot better than they ate back in the middle ages). From my new friend I had received both the gift of a hat – a ridiculous looking poofy thing, but now it marked me as one of the King’s Guards – and the gift of a title, made up on the spot. Both were necessary coin in this land of make-believe.
I made an excuse about needing the latrine while Seamus went to retrieve libations. The moment I’m in the shadow of a tree Vee started to harangue me about revealing the Boss’ identity. “Not true,” I murmured over the Bluetooth. “I said I’m here with the Finder. But I never said who he is.”
“There’s a difference?”
“Of course. Air of mystery. I’ll never tell.”
“Think about it, Vee of my dreams. This is the Boss. We’ve danced this dance before. Better to draw the Tiger Lily out, straight into his arms.”
“You better be right.”
“Relax, Vee. Tomas can handle himself.”
“It’s not him I’m worried about this time.” I couldn’t miss the edge there.
“Vee, I said I’m all right.”
“Look, I know this isn’t easy for you, either, Mama Hen. Just stand by.” I muted the connection and leaned in the shadow of a tree for a moment, looking at the ring on my hand. Sure, I’ve got this.
As I returned to the table, Seamus spotted me and stood up. “There you be! I was afeared you’d gotten lost in the latrine.”
“With a beak like mine? Not hardly!”
A roar of laughter went up from my new won friends around the table. Seamus handed me a flagon of something malty. “A toast,” he said, raising his own. “To a new friend, well met. To you, Sire Lobiston the Sorrowed, Keeper of Rare and Unique Game.” The dozen or so people around the table roared and joined in.
I was halfway through the toast to my own health when someone bumped me from behind, causing me to spill the beer all over me. A woman in a chainmail bikini and orange silks pushed me and strode up to Seamus, who had just drained his flagon. The warrior princess grabbed him by the tunic.
“You brought him in here? You named him?!” Her French accent was smooth and flowing compared to all the brogues I’d heard so far.
“I did, Milady Argana. His is a truly unique tale—“
“I see nothing special about him!” Argana released Seamus and turned to face me. “Other than he seems to be the only one in this wretched dump who can pull off that hat.” Her fists went to rest on a pair of lovely hips.
Focus, Louis. We’re on the clock. I bowed slightly and smirked at her. “Thank you for the compliment, milady.”
“Don’t. All I meant is it suits you. A fool’s cap for a fool.” Groans and hoots followed around the table. Argana turned to leave.
My smirk grew into a leer. “True, I may be a fool. But a fool’s privilege has I, to see silks and mail for the first time used to decorate an ass.”
As expected, my ability to win friends was rewarded by a twirl and back-handed slap. Except my face wasn’t there – I’d backed up a foot. Milady Warrior Princess Argana took the swing and miss. I expected her to tumble off balance into my arms.
You know that thing about expectations? It was at this moment I flashed back on Tiger Lily’s dossier, especially the part where she had enough martial arts training to start her own line of dojos. She rolled around through the slap and turned it into a spinning kick.
The plan had been to get close to Ariana, maybe a little friendly challenge with the bow, let her beat me, and bring up her sister. Now? I began to seriously rethink this strategy. It was devolving into try not to get killed real quick.
Buzz in my ear. “Louis, I hear lots of crashes. Are you in combat? Do you need assistance?”
Ah, Vee, always the mistress of understatement. “Could say that.” I flew backward over a table and came up holding a chair. Ariana kicked down through the middle and broke it into kindling. I used the two chair legs as bats to ward off her blows, Eskrima-style.
Ariana slapped the bat out of my right hand, then struck fingers cobra-style at my shoulder and neck. My whole right side went numb, and I collapsed to the ground.
“All of the above,” I murmured as the woman raised a hand to deliver a knockout blow. There was a whistle through the air, and Ariana cried out in frustration. I looked up and saw a crossbow bolt through one of her bracers that pinned her wrist to a post. I turned to find the archer.
“I don’t believe it,” I murmured, laying my head back.
“Believe it,” said Vee. “Boss says good work flushing her out, he’ll take it from here.”
Sure he will. Out of the corner of my eye, I watched Boss move in, dressed like some sort of Spanish nobleman from the court of Isabella. There is no way you had that in your carry-on. Where’d you track that down? “A thousand pardons, señorita. I missed.” He pulled out the crossbow bolt from the wall, then turned and approached me. I knew what was coming. Make it quick, Boss.
Tomas pulled the punch at the last moment so I could slump convincingly without spending three days in a coma. He turned back and went to work, bowing low before Ariana. “Please allow me to introduce myself. Baron Tomas Vega de la Mundo, of the Kingdom of Caid. You, dear lady, are a warrior of impressive and unusual skills. In my kingdom, few women pursue the martial arts, and those who do tend to stay with the bow. They have little taste for close-in fighting.”
She wiped some blood off one of her bracers. Probably mine. “Argana of Drachenwald. I’m not some women.”
“Obviously. Although with your hand-to-hand prowess, why you’d be here—”
“Why?” She grabbed Tomas’ collar and pushed him back against the tentpole, her face flashing with anger. “You dare question my ability?”
“Ability? No.” He reached up and gently removed her fingers from his tunic, brushing it smooth. “Temperament? Certainly. For example, perhaps you might attend to the whole question before assuming an insult?” She opened her mouth for a quick retort but shut it unsaid and only nodded once in a sullen silence. “What I meant to say was given your hand-to-hand expertise, attendance at an event dedicated to ranged weaponry seems an odd choice.”
Now it was Ariana’s turn to smile. “Not really.” With a smooth motion, she pulled a throwing dagger from her boot and tossed it at a keg across the room. It buried itself in the center.
“Oy!” The steward of the keep stood from his corner table. “Alright, who threw that? You all know the rules, no personal weapons during pub hours.” Now, my experience has always been events pick guys for positions like the steward because they can intimidate first, ask questions later. It tends to avoid most conflicts and their associated damage – fistfights, broken bones, furniture breakage, etc. Our specimen fit that mold. He stalked over toward Tomas and Ariana from behind. “You lot caused all the commotion earlier, didn’t you? I don’t suppose you know—”
Imagine my surprise when this guy, built like J.J. Watt, froze as Ariana turned around and looked up at him. “You were saying, Armsman?”
“N-n-n-nothing, milady,” the steward stammered, then slapped a fist to his chest and bowed in salute, staying head down.
“As you were. A simple misunderstanding between the gentleman and I about some target practice.”
The steward stood and stayed at attention. “Yes, milady Argana. Beg pardon, milady, but it does set a bad example to the other patrons.”
She laughed. “Armsman, in the years I’ve been a Scadian, I am all about the bad example.” She turned back to Tomas. “Oh, and Armsman?”
“Be a dear and fetch my dagger.”
His head bobbed up and down quickly. “Of course, milady.”
I considered this as I watched Ariana. More than just a simple meet and greet. But how to turn this spitfire into a lead on her sister?
Boss had managed to acquire a flagon of something and held it up high. “To Lady Argana, conqueror of the Boar’s Breath Pub and second-best archer in this conversation.”
Ariana barked a laugh as she took his flagon and drank from it. “Oh, you think that?”
“No. I’m quite sure of it.”
“You forget, sire, I’ve seen you shoot.” She held up the wrist where the crossbow bolt had damaged her bracer.
“No, señorita, you’ve seen me miss. By choice.” He leaned in, inches away from her face. “Imagine when I don’t.”
She grinned back. “Care to test that?”
“Thought you’d never ask. But let’s make the stakes… interesting.”
“What did you have in mind?”
The boss reached into a belt pouch and pulled out a small blue cloth. He handed it to her. I couldn’t see what it contained, but when she opened it up, Ariana caught her breath, her eyes wide. She looked at Tomas, her voice just a bit unsteady. “I don’t have anything to match—”
“You underestimate yourself, señorita. If I win, I claim you for one night. Do we have an accord?”
Ariana looked from the blue cloth to the Boss, nibbling her lip in a moment of indecision. Then the iron mask descended and Lady Argana was back. She handed the material back. “We do. But you shall never have it. Longbows, standard course. Meet at the stocks in one hour. Bring one second.”
“Agreed,” said Tomas.
“And if you’ve cheated in any way, one of my arrows will find your heart.”
Boss and bowed slightly. “Señorita, I would not wish it any other way. Until then.” Boss bent over and kissed one of Ariana’s hands.
The woman yanked it back as if she had been bitten by a snake and stalked off, stopping by the steward to retrieve her dagger. Tomas waited until she cleared the tent, then leaned down and grabbed an arm to help me to my feet.
“Gee, Boss, when I said I was going to pound the ground, this wasn’t what I had in mind.”
“Louis, you have a unique ability to lead with your chin.”
“Some have said it’s my best quality.”
He chuckled at that. “So, what did your ground-pounding learn you?”
“Besides that I need to get back into yoga class? Way too long holding that pose.”
“Be more graceful next time.”
“That is one angry young woman, she’s connected, and she’s deflecting like crazy. Getting her to believe we’re on her sister’s side might not be so easy.”
Boss looked where she’d left. “True. But I can be persuasive.”
“Maybe. But something about this is not adding up, Boss.”
“This isn’t concern about-”
“No, well, maybe. I’m not sure. But think about this. Your buddy Manny – if he was such a doting Papa, why was he-”
“Here now, Louis, are ye all right?” Seamus staggered over, the effects of the whiskey and lager (and a little helper I’d slipped into his last one) starting to catch up with him. He continued to give inebriation a merry chase. “Did I imagine it or were you the lastest, er, laterest… the next victim of her Ladyship?”
Inside I groaned. Tomas needed that data. But for now, time to play Sire Lobiston. I tried my best to put myself in Seamus’ line of focus and shrugged. “Nae my friend,” I said, glancing at Tomas and using the worst brogue ever. “Must have been your imagination. No mere lady could- ow, ow, ow!” I wanted to say more, but the Boss was applying pressure to a nerve cluster behind my left ear. Very tough to talk all the sudden. Tough to do anything. I revisited the pub’s dirt floor.
“Sadly, Sire Lobiston is felled for the time being,” said Tomas. “I gather the lady has a temper.”
“Aye. That’d be obvious.” His glance ducked down toward me for a moment. “But in the heat of the competition, it’s as if something turns off inside her. She’d be deadly in a real fight.”
He considered me a moment and nodded. “Nice to know. I need a second. Formality, really, just to have my extra quivers ready as needed. Up to the task?”
Seamus swayed on his feet, then struck a wobbly fist to his chest. “It would an honor be, my lord.”
“Yes, I’m sure it would. Just be at the course on time.”
Seamus weaved a path toward the tent’s exit. Boss bent down to offer me a hand. “Sorry, but couldn’t risk it. Ariana would have twigged something was sideways—”
“If I were your second. I understand. Just don’t duck the next time I have to punch you.” I said through gritted teeth. “One question. What did you show her that spooked her?”
He reached into the belt pouch and pulled out the wad of blue cloth, letting it fall away from its cargo. My reaction had to be close to Ariana’s. Totally not what I expected, yet absolutely perfect. In other words, classic Finder.
A flick of his hands and both the cloth and its contents were gone. They might be in that belt pouch again, but I wouldn’t bet on it. Game on. Let’s see how well the Lady Argana can play it.