Ragal Tak stood so close that Bryton’s nose was poking into the big man’s scarred, dirty breastplate. Bryton looked up at Tak’s paralyzed half-sneer that pulled his mouth down as he caustically blustered, “I said no! You must have my permit to use a handcart on Godsway. This going to cost you five copper drop, sailor.”
Bryton wondered if in another twenty years he would be as sour as Tak. Bry took a step back, pushed the two handcart handles down onto the cobbled surface of the road, stood on a handle so that the tapestry in the cart would not touch the street, and dug in his pockets for something. A horse had relieved himself somewhere a few paces back and Bryton had barely seen it in time to avoid it. Tak smelled worse than the horse apples, though.
As the foot traffic on Godsway parted for the halted cart, Tak held out his hand for the copper. Bryton, instead, handed him a vine-covered disc of the goddess, Aerin. A vine from the disk instantly grew up around Tak’s little finger and sprouted leaves. Bryton said, “Sir Tak, I already got a permit for today. Of course, I’m grateful that one of Baron Navee’s men is here to keep the streets safe.”
Tak’s face screwed up more than usual. “We gonna’ see if this is real, sailor. We gonna’ go to Aerin’s house and see.”
Bryton wasn’t a sailor, but Tak called everybody sailor. Tak crowded him with his chest plate as he started berating him again. Bryton warned quietly, “Whoa, whoa, Sir Tak.”
Tak crowded him more. “You know you show me this permit before you go onto Godsway. Godsway is my . . .” Tak bullied Bryton a step back—a step off the handcart handle. The handle swung up and caught Tak solidly in his crotch.
Tak yelled, “Aiieee!” and fell over in shock and pain, dropping the house of Aerin’s disk on the cobblestones.
Bryton grabbed for the handcart handle, hoping that the tapestry would not splat in a pile of horse dung on Godsway; but an instant before Bryton could grab the handle, the handcart’s rear end bumped down onto the cobblestones. He shoved the handles down, stepping back away from the groaning Tak, hoping that the tapestry had missed the pile. He scooped up Aerin’s token, but did not know what to do next.
A young male incense vendor with two smoking splinters of lanawood sticking up from his hat put his hand to his mouth at the sight of the groaning baron’s man and a woman cried happily, “Someone’s killed Tak!”
Bryton’s mind raced for just a heartbeat. Tak might kill him on the spot. Tak might throw him into one of Navee’s Cliffwall Cells. Maybe Tak would be too embarrassed to do either? Not likely. Run? It might be worse. Assist the growling baron’s man? How?
Aerin’s house was just down the street. Bryton shouldered aside a black-and-white garbed Adept of Rovish, who had a trail of novices following behind, and shoved through traffic as quickly as he could, mechanically repeating over and over, “Pardon, sir, pardon, apologies, ma’am,” only once pausing in his apologies to mutter to himself, “Don’t baron’s men have protection ‘down there?’”
He heard Tak yelling and glanced behind to see the crowds being jostled around in his wake. But Bryton was already under the Mother Oak’s branches. He turned the cart onto the path to Aerin’s grove archway and saw two women standing in his way.
The Mother Oak’s limbs would not allow him to take the cart around the women and he dared not leave the handcart with the valuable tapestry for Tak to expropriate. One of the women was elegant, tall with white gold curls spilling onto the shoulders of her grey sheath dress. The other woman was dressed as one of Tistrin’s nobility, bearing a gentle smile—but she was no noble. She was Jemmin Well. And that was good. Bryton made a note to flip a coin to Rovish, the God of Luck, if he survived the next minute.
Bryton reached up with one hand and doffed his floppy black hat to the women, thinking, “Manners, manners.” He half-bowed and said hurriedly, “Good day, fair ladies of Tistrin. I have an urgent appointment with Elsa Lesenstock, the Priestess of Aerin.”
He expected them to move out of the way, but the lithe woman in grey only turned to him and coolly said, “I am a priestess of Aatar, tradesman.” Jemmin, still playing the part of a noblewoman, scoffed and fluttered a peacock-eye fan.
Bryton heard Tak scream from too close behind, “Out of the way, you holy idiot!”
Bryton stepped closer to the women, straining to smile more widely as he grew more desperate. “I am delivering this to the House of Aerin, kind ladies, may I have the path?”
Jemmin heaved a sigh and they began to stroll back to where the path led through the grove entrance. Bryton looked back and saw Tak was only a dozen steps behind, his armor clanking above the hum of voices on Godway. Bryton looked to the lackadaisical women who casually strolled on. His frustration boiled at Jemmin and he said, suggestively, “You might make haste. I have heard there are pickpockets about on Godsway today.” Jemmin threw an acidic sneer over her shoulder at Bryton.
He knew he was not going to make it to the grove before Tak caught him. Bryton turned around, reversing his grip on the handcart handles and swung it to one side, blocking Tak’s path. Tak smacked into the side of the cart, and staggered, but did not fall. Behind Bryton, Jemmin screamed. Bryton knew that there was no chance that she was really frightened; she was probably providing a distraction so that she could pick the lithe woman’s pocket. Bryton trotted backward on the path, pulling the cart toward the women, hoping that Tak was stunned.
Tak scrambled around the path, crawling under the canopy of the Mother Oak as he huffed and growled. Bryton yelled frantically, “Sir Tak, this is Aerin’s House. The Goddess won’t like it if you kill me here and neither will Elsa Lesenstock.”
But Tak was not listening. He bulled onto the path, short sword in hand and stabbed at Bryton, who jumped back, turning the cart to parry Tak’s sword with the cart’s handle. The sword slid along the handle, slicing into Bryton’s hand. He yelped, dropping the cart and lurching backward holding his hand, which stung as if on fire. Tak pursued him as Bryton fell back onto one of the women. In a horrifying instant, Bryton realized that in his uninjured hand, he held two fingers of the other hand, severed or nearly so. And that was when Tak’s sword stabbed just above Bry’s hands into his abdomen. He hunched forward, his hands now pressed against the wound in his gut. He moaned, “Oh, I’m gonna’ die. I truly hate this.”