One Chance

“That’s them all right,” Ewald muttered. “Damn it, I wanted a drink, not a fucking headache. We don’t have the men for us, even if we brought the whole fucking guard—which, by the way, we don’t have.”

Falk swore. “If we try by ourselves, they’ll us and everyone in that tavern.”

“So what do we do?” Dietrich asked, even though he knew the answer. Ewald and Falk might actually get the seriousness of the situation for once, but that didn’t mean they’d suddenly stop being dicks. When their duties involved more than their usual evening of making rounds, drinking, accepting bribes, and the odd whore, it was always Didi, do this.

Ewald turned to him. “Didi, stall them. Keep them in that tavern until we can return with help.”

Though he knew it was futile, Dietrich said, “Shouldn’t two of us stall them? There’s ten of them, and they aren’t stupid. At the very least, there should be a second, to follow them in case the first one fails to stall. Leaving me alone isn’t safe or smart; I should have back up.”

“What would you know, Didi?” Ewald asked, laughing scornfully. “Don’t forget you’re only along ’cause the Captain feels sorry for your scrawny, pathetic ass. You certainly ain’t here because your opinion is worth something.”

Dietrich said nothing. What was there to say? It was true. Captain Hagan had felt sorry for him, and figured Dietrich’s knowledge of the streets must be good for something. But Dietrich did not suffer the delusion that he would stay on the Guard when Hagan retired someday. If he lasted that long.

It didn’t matter that he was the best damn soldier they had, or that by his own efforts he was the best educated—he was good at this, damn it. He had managed to make himself everything the son of a whore shouldn’t be.

Except respected enough to ever be anything but Didi, do this.

Stifling a sigh, he motioned. “Fine. Go get help. I’ll keep them occupied. Don’t take too long.”

“I’ll give the orders, Didi,” Ewald said—but they went, leaving Dietrich along to try and figure out how the fuck he was going to keep ten bandits in a tavern for an undetermined length of time, without realizing that he was purposely stalling them.

Goddess, he was tired of subterfuge and nonsense. Tired of being the Guard’s dog, and otherwise being treated like the village’s sad, pathetic idiot. Once chance, that was all he wanted—one small chance to be something more than Didi, the village slave. He’d thought joining the Guard would be that chance.

But he was still Didi. Still the whore’s son. Still doing all the work, and forced to watch as others soaked up the credit.

He stroked his fingers over his abdomen, the tattoo there beneath his clothes. There was another one on his back, right between his shoulders blades. Getting them had been stupid, in retrospect, but joining the guard, earning real money, finally getting his chance…

A chance that hadn’t actually been, and now instead of promises, of badges, the tattoos were only bitter reminders of failure. Of his own naïve stupidity.

But, he thought, putting his mind back to the matter at hand, they might work for him right now. So would being a village idiot. Or, something like that, anyway. Because those bandits wouldn’t stay put for long; it would take something truly remarkable to make them linger.

He waited in the shadows, shivering slightly, wishing he’d spent his money on new clothes and a good winter cloak instead of stupid tattoos. Eventually, what he wanted appeared—a drunk old man, still clutching a tankard, singing off key to himself as he began the long trek home, or to another tavern.

Striding across the street, Dietrich grabbed him, knocked him out, catching hold of the tankard before the beer in it could spill. Grimacing, he splashed the contents all over himself—clothes, skin, and hair. Discarding the empty tankard, he hefted the old man and dragged him into the alleyway, muttering apologies.

On a whim, he went through the man’s pockets, crowing quietly in triumph as he came across a flask still plenty full. Dousing himself in cheap whiskey, already covered in the cheap beer, he discarded his sword and knife, tucking them away to retrieve later. Then he finally made his way into the tavern.

He spilled inside, staggering, practically falling down, laughing drunkenly as he crashed into the table where the bandits all sat carousing, bragging, laughing.

They’d been hunting these bastards for months, and now the whole troupe was sitting right here as casually as they pleased—because they were confident they couldn’t, wouldn’t be caught. Because the local Guard really was too fucking incompetent, and these guys knew it, were secure in that knowledge and their own fearsome reputation.

One of the men kicked Dietrich, leaving a bruise on his thigh that he’d feel for days. But Dietrich only laughed, high-pitched drunk giggles, and climbed to his feet, stumbling a couple of times before finally holding still. “That’s no way to treat a lord, mates! Buy me a beer!”

The man jeered. “A lord? Lord Pisspot, maybe. You should be buying me a beer, just for daring to speak to me.”

Dietrich laughed again. “The son of the Scarlet Wolf does not buy beers! Now, gentlemen, who will have the first honor?”

Around him, practically the entire tavern erupted into laugher. It shouldn’t sting, because it was laughable that he could ever be the son of the Scarlet General. It was laughable he could ever be anyone, let alone someone so important.

But it hurt all the same. He was tired of being laughed at, especially when he was trying to fucking save these people. It might be stupid to claim he was the Lord General’s son, but it wasn’t a statement these bandits could ignore. They might know he was lying, but they would stay until they had absolute proof.

He just needed to get them to the point they had reason to doubt—because there was nothing these bandits, these arcen smugglers, hated as much as they hated the Scarlet General. If they thought for one moment they had someone in their grasp who was of serious value to the Lord General…

Another of the thieves reached out and grabbed him, threw him down on the table, sending plates and cups crashing and banging to the floor. The tavern fell into fearful silence around him; thankfully, if there was anyone present who recognized him, they were sensible enough to keep his true identity a secret.

“We don’t like liars, even drunk ones. Why would you claim something so stupid? If we don’t kill you, the General will.”

Dietrich laughed. “Do you think I would claim such a thing if it wasn’t true? Come, let me up and buy me a beer. Or two beers.”

Grunting, the thief only lifted him and slammed him back down again, then back handed him, causing Dietrich’s lip to split. “The son of that bastard would not behave the way you do.”

“Winter’s tits, man, you ever met him?” Dietrich asked, fervently hoping the answer was no. “You’d drink, too, trust me. Anyway, he ain’t here so I ain’t behaving.”

He grunted as they slammed him around again, laughing unsteadily, as though he was starting to get scared. “Knock it off, mate. You’re running my drunk. Let me up, buy me a drink, and I won’t get mad and teach you some respect.”

The man laughed, let him up—then punched him.

Dietrich stumbled back, making a show of how much that punch had hurt, when really it was pathetically easy to minimize the full force of such a sloppy punch. He picked himself up off the floor slowly—then threw himself at the man, swinging wildly, stumbling, sending them tumbling and crashing, until the man finally was forced to throw him off, tearing Dietrich’s shirt in the process.

He slowly stood again, and held out the tattered remains of his shirt, hiding a grimace—it had been his last one, and he didn’t get paid again until the end of the week. But, that was something to worry about later. “My shirt!” he said with drunken indignation. “You ruined my fucking shirt!”

No one else, however, cared about his shirt. His stupid, fucking tattoos were having exactly the effect he’d hoped—they were causing doubt, forcing the bandits to wonder if the drunken moron before them really was the son of the Scarlet Wolf.

Because surely it must count for something that this buffoon claiming the Lord General was his father, had two elaborate, extremely expensive tattoos on his body—and not just any tattoos.

The one between his shoulder blades was of a wolf, head tilted up like he was howling at the moon. It had taken hours upon hours, and several months of pay, to complete it. So too the one on his abdomen—he’d been so fucking proud of it, so eager and happy that he was finally getting a chance to prove himself, to be someone that mattered.

He would never forget that day he’d happened to be eating in the square, something he rarely did. But he’d happened to have a couple of spare coppers, and had treated himself to a meat pie and beer. He’d been present when a procession had ridden through; Lord General Dieter von Adolwulf, the Scarlet Wolf himself, leading his men back from some mission.

His officers had ridden with him, talking and laughing, waving to the people who called out to them, and Dietrich had never wanted anything as much as he’d suddenly wanted to be there, to be them. Someone who mattered, someone who made a difference, someone people waved and called to, and missed when he was gone.

Someone who wasn’t called Didi, and constantly made to play the village idiot because he did not have the authority or ability to do anything else.

Someone wanted, and needed, and not always so alone.

He lightly touched his abdomen tattoo, chest aching, stomach knotting, because he still loved the fucking thing, no matter how much it hurt to look at. Three leaves, their stems connecting, the leaves forming a triangle. All he wanted, and everything he would never have.

“You’re something, all right,” the ringleader of the bandits said, speaking for the first time, his expression closed. “I doubt you’re his son, but you’ve some connection.” He stood up and barked. “We’re leaving, now.”

“No, you’re not,” said a rough, commanding voice.

Everyone jumped, turned to the door, and Dietrich suddenly felt like throwing up. How had none of them even heard the door open—and why the fuck was the Scarlet Wolf himself filling the doorway?

All the thieves went for their swords, and one of them lunged for Dietrich, clearly desperate and furious. Dietrich caught him, punched, then knocked him out cold, all in one smooth motion. Stooping, he grabbed the man’s sword.

The ringleader looked at him, face cold and furious, but said nothing. Dietrich stared back, until the ringleader finally looked away.

Then the Lord General moved into the tavern, and his men came in smoothly behind him, and the silence burst into a cacophony of noise, and for several minutes everything seemed to be chaos.

Dietrich dropped the sword he’d taken, and retrieved his ruined shirt, then got out of the way. He glanced toward the Lord General, then cringed and looked away, unable to believe what he was seeing. The Lord General, here, and Dietrich knew even he would have heard about it if the Lord General had been schedule to visit his sad little town.

The Scarlet Wolf himself, and Dietrich was battered, bruised, half naked, and reeked of alcohol.

Why did life take such delight in kicking him to the ground and then stomping all over him? Once chance, that was all he wanted. Once chance to try and be someone who mattered; he didn’t want money or fame or glory. He just wanted to matter, to make a difference.

Swallowing, fighting back too familiar despair, he made for the door, desperate to get away before he humiliated himself further.

But at the door, a soldier standing guard stopped him. “You’re not allowed to leave.”

Dietrich frowned, confused. “Why not? I’m not needed here, and I’ve done nothing wrong.”

“Lord General’s orders,” the man said with a shrug. “He wants to speak to you.”

Feeling sick all over again, Dietrich nodded and turned away, moving to sit at the bar. He was sorely tempted to bash his head against it, but only slumped over it, fingers curling tightly in the tattered remains of his shirt.

Why would the Lord General want to speak with him? He was reminded all over again of his disgraceful state. It had been perfect for the job, but now the job was over… If he was actually going to meet the Lord General, he would have liked to make himself presentable.

That reminded him that he didn’t have a shirt to wear at all now, unless he could salvage this one, but he suspected the damn thing really was a lost cause. Even worse, he realized, barely biting a groan—his tattoos were visible.

Goddess, could he be any more pathetic?

He looked surreptitiously around the tavern, and noticed for the first time that people kept glancing at him. Some were openly staring, and hastily dropped their gazes when he caught him. Why were they looking at him so hard?

But that was an easy question to answer—they were probably trying to decide by which method the Lord General was going to kill him.

All too soon the tavern was empty, save for the Lord General, his men, and the half dozen members of the local Guard who were not drunk or out trying not to notice anything illegal that would force them to work.

There was another man, he noticed belatedly. He was handsome, almost pretty; he looked Salharan, almost. He and the Lord General were speaking, and then the man reached out and lightly touched the Lord General’s arm in a way that seemed highly intimate, for all it was a casual touch.

He must be the Duke of Torla, Dietrich realized. Lord Beraht, the Lord General’s notorious Breaker lover.

The Lord General nodded, and abruptly turned, and Dietrich had never seen such intense eyes. He was pretty sure he did not like them focused on him, but he would be damned if he backed down.

He might look like he’d come out the worse in a bar fight, and be standing there half naked, and sporting tattoos to which he was not entitled—but he’d be damned if he cowered. He might have to take a lot of shit that he couldn’t stop, but he didn’t cower.

“Lord General,” he said, bowing low as the Lord General approached him.

The Lord General said nothing, his face implacable as he looked Dietrich up and down, eyes still intense, like they missed nothing, saw everything—and Dietrich was desperate to know what he saw, but terrified of the answer. “So you are the young Guard who decided that the best way to stall a band of dangerous arcen smugglers was to stumble in drunk and loudly proclaim to be my son.”

“Uh—” Put that way, it sounded like twenty different kinds of stupid, but even now, Dietrich could think of nothing better. “Best I could come up with, given the circumstances.”

“You had no back up?”

Dietrich shook his head, and eyed the Lord General. He sensed the Lord General knew the answer, but answered anyway, not quite able to keep all the contempt from his voice. “No. Three of us made the discovery. My two companions decided they should go for help, while I stayed behind to stall.”

“You thought that a good idea?”

“No,” Dietrich replied. “The smart thing would have been to have one go for help, one stall, one to back up the man stalling and play follower if necessary. But my superiors overruled me.”

The Lord General smirked. “I agree. They made the wrong decision.”

Something about his tone, that smirk, told Dietrich that Ewald and Falk would not make the same mistake a second time. It made him want to smirk in reply, but he kept himself in check.

“Lord General,” said a soldier, approaching them and holding out a bundle of cloth.

Taking it, the Lord General dismissed the soldier with a sharp jerk of his head, then thrust the bundle at Dietrich. “Your name is Dietrich. You have no family, no friend to speak of, and have been in the local guard only a year and a half.”

“Yes, Lord General,” Dietrich replied, flinching inwardly at the sad summary of his life.

“Get cleaned up. Get dressed. A horse is being obtained for you.” The Lord Genera’s expression hardened, turned stern. “No more buffoonery. Those tactics are no longer acceptable. We leave in one hour. If you’ve belongings that you need collected, send one of the foot soldiers to fetch them.”

He turned and strode off, returning to Lord Beraht, leaving Dietrich standing at the bar completely confused. Was he being taken into the Scarlet? He did not dare get his hopes up, but…

Movement caught his eye, and he looked up to see a soldier from Dieter’s men had approached him; a Captain, by his markings. Dietrich tried to stop staring, he really did—but Goddess, the man was like nothing he’d ever seen.

“Hullo,” the Captain said cheerfully, his smile as bright as his gold eyes, his gold hair. “You’ve caused quite the stir tonight.”

“What stir?” Dietrich asked. “All I did was seal my fate as the village idiot.”

The Captain laughed, and Goddess, Dietrich could not tear his eyes away. “How like Lord General Dieter not to bother to tell you.”

Dietrich scowled; the Captain was gorgeous, but he’d still hit him. “Tell me what?”

“That when everyone told him about your claim, he confirmed it,” the Captain replied.

“What—” Dietrich dropped the bundle he was holding. “You’re lying.”

Laughing again, the Captain stooped and retrieved the dropped bundle, which had fallen open on impact. Clothes, which Dietrich had surmised—a scarlet tunic, and everything else he needed, wrapped inside a winter cloak. But there was also a dagger, the hilt a wolf’s head, a ruby clamped in its jaws.

There was also, he suddenly saw, a ring. He picked it up to better examine. It was a ruby, square cut, set in gold. Around the edge of the ruby, written in the gold setting, were the words Eternal is the House of Korte.

He jumped as the Captain clapped him on the shoulder. The Captain snickered, and winked, then said, “My name is Sieghard von Brandt.” He bowed, then added, “Captain, obviously. Lord General Dieter has appointed me to be your right hand, and assist you as needed, until such time as you have no further use for me.”

Even amidst panic and disbelief, Dietrich could think of several uses he might have for Captain von Brandt—but the ring he held was for the moment far more distracting. “I’m not—” He met Sieghard’s gaze, noting just how fucking pretty they were before the panic took over again. “I’m just—no one.”

“Best get dressed,” Sieghard replied. “It’s a long, hard ride back home, and you’re going to be harassed mercilessly for weeks, possibly even months.”

“Uh—” Dietrich stopped, honestly having no idea what to say. “I can’t really—he can’t have actually said I’m his son.”

Sieghard smiled. “Well, he did, and you are, or will be once the paperwork is filed. Lord General Dieter said it, so it must be so. I hope you’re up to it. I’ll help you, of course, and gladly.” He smiled warmly, and Dietrich found it soothing. “It’s an honor to serve the Lord General’s son.”

“Thank you,” Dietrich managed. “I’m going to need a lot of help, I sense. I’d better get dressed. Then maybe you can tell me what I need to know, so as to avoid upsetting the Lord General?”

Laughing, Sieghard replied, “I’d suggest, as a start, that you not call him ‘Lord General’. Sire, maybe.”

“Sire,” Dietrich repeated, and glanced across the room to where Lord General Dieter stood with Lord Beraht. “Sire,” he said again, still not able to believe it.

But, he would not refuse the chance that he had suddenly been given. He turned away to find a room in which to change, sliding the ruby ring on his finger.