Beraht finished his mulled wine and set the tankard down on the table with a clunk, then swung his legs over the bench and stood. Dieter looked up from where he was going over reports, Dietrich beside him. They really could have been blood-related, for all they looked nothing alike. They both had that wild-animal quality, that drive to do whatever was necessary, and the expectation that they would be obeyed or else.
Dieter looked up at his movements, and caught his eyes, grunting in reply to Beraht’s unspoken words. He bent back over his reports, growling low at Dietrich, who only growled back. Beraht left them to it, and strode to the door of the tavern they had commandeered while staying here to deal with robbers making the royal highways dangerous.
A soldier stopped as he passed, asking, “Is all well, your grace?”
Beraht almost rolled his eyes, tempted to turn back around and punch Dieter for all this fussing people did. He could handle himself, but people always got it into their heads that because he was the Lord General’s lover he needed to be protected.
He started to reply, but Dieter’s rough voice cut through the noise. “I am quite certain his grace can take a piss by himself, Lieutenant.”
Annoyed at the interference, Beraht decided impulsively that Dieter could just spend the remainder of the evening without him. Glaring over his shoulder, Beraht retorted, “I can also go for a walk by myself.”
Dieter looked up, smirking in that way of his that made Beraht want to punch him and then fuck him. No matter the years that passed, that damned smirk never lost effect. “Are you sure?”
“I can handle myself,” Beraht said tartly. “Remember that, Lord General, or you’ll find I will handle only myself, later.” The men around them were seized suddenly by fits of coughing or a sudden desire to down their ale, not a single one in any hurry to be caught laughing at the Lord General’s expense.
Dieter only smile wolfishly and replied, “Enjoy your walk, you grace. Call for me if you come across a problem you can’t handle.”
Beraht ignored him and pulled up the hood of his cloak as he slipped out into the night. He slipped into the alleyway to take a piss, then stepped back out onto the street and picked a direction at random. The smell of the sea was sharp, but not quite enough to wash away the stench of the streets. Dieter had not been pleased to see the poor state of the town, and immediately set to working to remedy the problem. Reminding him that other men were in charge of such things was pointless, so he hadn’t bothered.
He had ordered wine to piss Dieter off, then sat back and watched as Dieter knocked heads together. He felt pity for none of them, and never would. They got only what they deserved, and they had never been Dieter’s prisoner.
Reminded of those days, Beraht glanced down at the ring on his hand, squares of antiqued gold connected by smaller squares of antiqued silver. He smiled faintly, laughed, and tilted his head back to look up at the stars.
His reminiscing was cut off by a piercing scream, and the sound of running—someone barefoot, and at least three in boots, wearing armor and weapons. Beraht saw them at the end of the street, and narrowed his eyes, wondering why in the stars four men would be chasing down one young woman—hardly more than a girl really.
He stepped to the side, off the street and into the shadows of the closed-up shop, and drew a dagger. As the men approached, he picked his target and let the dagger fly. It found its home in the throat of the foremost of the men, and he went down hard, choking wetly before he died in a pool of his own blood.
Beraht darted from the shadows, grabbed the girl, and shoved her into the alleyway. Then he turned on the men who had stopped when they realized their comrade had fallen. Beraht noted they wore the uniform of the navy. Dieter was going to sink ships over that. “Why are you hunting down a little girl?” he asked lightly, arms resting at his side, hood slipping down to reveal his pale hair and eyes that would never entirely stop glowing no matter the years that passed. When they did not reply, he said, “You will answer me.”
“None of your business,” one of the men said said.
“They killed my Uncle! I saw them do it!” The girl said tearfully, and when they looked at her, tensed to start running again.
Beraht lifted a hand to signal her to remain in place, never taking his eyes from the men. “You can submit to arrest, or I can kill you. It makes no matter to me.”
“You took us by surprise, it’s the only reason you killed Till.”
Not bothering to point out the skill it took to throw a knife into the throat of a man running full tilt in the dark, Beraht replied, “If you are too stupid to know who I am and surrender quietly, then I am more than happy to kill you.”
The men sneered and drew their weapons, one of them replying, “You’re Salharan filth, that much is clear.”
He saw the moment the words registered, the very moment they connected that he was Salharan to why he would be so deep in Illussor territory. But it was too late, because he had already decided they would die, save for one.
They were, in the end, remarkably easy to kill. Soldiers always were, because they fought like soldiers, even when chasing down little girls. It never really occurred to them that he would not fight fairly, or waste time on something like honor. He was a shadow killer, and that skill had not ebbed with the years.
Beraht saved the one who had marked him as Salharan for last, pressing the knife to his throat. “Now, then, little fool. You are under arrest, and you will spill all your dirty deeds unless you want me to spill your guts across the corpses of your friends. Understand me?”
“Y-y-yes, your grace,” the man stuttered.
Beraht slammed his the hilt of his dagger against the back of the man’s head, and let his unconscious body fall to the ground. Sheathing his dagger, he called out, “You can come out now, little girl.”
She stared at the bodies with the morbid fascination only a child displayed so openly, then up at him. In the lamplight, she had the palest hair—almost white, really, messy and tangled, a bedraggled ribbon still clinging to one curl. There were tears in her eyes…
Eyes, he noticed, that were the softest green, the color of jade. He strode closer to her, gently cupped her chin in one hand, and looked at her more thoughtfully. “What is your name, girl?” he asked quietly.
“M-Magdalena,” she stuttered. “Your eyes glow!”
“Yes,” Beraht replied, letting her go. “They do. You are coming with me, and we will straighten all this out.” He removed his cloak and put it around her shoulders, then kept a firm hand on her shoulder as they returned to the tavern.
Inside, the room fell silent in surprise. Beraht ignored them, and jerked his head at Dieter. Rising, Dietrich beside him, Dieter joined him in the doorway. Beraht quickly related all that had transpired, then led the girl to their table by the fire as Dieter began barking orders.
He called for food and drink, and gave them to her when they came. In the light of the tavern, she proved to be a pretty child despite her bedraggled state. And her eyes were definitely the smoky green of jade. Nothing but trouble, that color.
A familiar presence appeared behind him, and Beraht turned and rose, brushing against Dieter as he did so. He looked up and met Dieter’s eyes, intense and fierce and the most beautiful shade of jade green. “You cannot even go for a walk without causing trouble.”
Beraht rolled his eyes. “Did you fetch the one I left alive?”
“Yes,” Dieter grunted. “We’ll have the problem solve by morning. What of her?”
Looking over his shoulder at the girl, Beraht smirked faintly. She was quiet, stoic, brave, and smart if she was alive after being hunted down by four men after she witnessed a murder. “We’ll see if she has other family. If not…” He shrugged. “If you can take up a buffoon acting like a drunk and pretending to be your son…”
Dieter grunted, but did not argue, though Beraht knew he would have plenty to say on the matter later. “Dietrich is taking men to the girl’s home; a few of the local seamen recognized her and her assailants.” He reached out and yanked Beraht closer, one hand sliding possessively across his back, fingers pressing hard enough his nails bit even through the layers of clothes.
His other hand slipped into Beraht’s jacket, and returned the dagger Beraht had left in the throat of the man he killed, sliding it smoothly into its sheath. Beraht met his eyes again, and smirked. Dieter matched it, and said, “You will be pleased to know the men think you can handle yourself, now.”
Beraht sneered, amused as ever that everyone seemed to think he was some soft noble, just because he did not flaunt himself as Dieter was inclined. Who would ever match a Krian in strength but a Salharan? Who would ever match a Wolf’s brutality but the shadow killer who had once slain so much of his army in the dead of night?
He reached up to shove Dieter back, retorting, “That does not mean I will be handling you.”
Dieter caught his wrists, held them hard enough to bruise, smirk hot, eyes hotter. “I am perfectly capable of handling us both, Beraht. See to your ward while I see to the men. Then we are going to bed.”
Beraht did not respond, save to obey, most of his attention on his new daughter but part of it already anticipating just how thoroughly he and Dieter would shortly be handling each other, relishing the quiet, heady rush that always came with the knowledge they were the only ones who could.