“Yes, father,” the young man said, still flipping the knife in his left hand. He glanced around the tavern. Two men sat at either side of the bar, one familiar and one a stranger. The barmaid was pretty, in a common sort of way.
“And put that knife away,” the older man snapped as he found the table. His eyes narrowed under raven-colored brows. “It will never do to have you fondling a weapon like some sort of psychopath. We have to make a good impression.”
“But why?” the son yawned. “It’s the just the help we’re interviewing.”
“Bah! This help is what it will take to get you ready for civilized company,” the father said. “I won’t have you convincing him the task is impossible. You’re my ticket into society, boy.”
“But what about mother?” the son asked.
“Yes, yes, your mother was well enough for a merchant, and God knows her family needed the money, but they’re small time,” the father said. “I’d have you marry a duchess, or better. Someone of quality. But you’ll have to attract them first, and you’ll never do that with your knives and tricks.”
“Perhaps mother would be more use in society if her face were less difficult to present.”
“Watch your mouth, you whelp!” the father growled. “You think I won’t cuff you for that, just because we’re out, you have another thing coming.”
“No, father,” the son said, leaning close and flipping the knife around to hold it by the hilt, his thumb caressing the pale jade cabochon set just below the guard. “You won’t cuff me because you fear you wouldn’t land a blow before I did.”
The man turned and bellowed for the barmaid as his son flicked his wrist and sent the knifepoint into the edge of the table.
“Wench, bring us ale, and be quick about it,” the man growled. The barmaid rolled her eyes and started to walk away.
“Darling, don’t mind my father,” the son purred. “He’s a bit rough around the edges still. But you’ll take care of us, won’t you?”
The barmaid blushed and nodded, hurrying off with a little swing in her walk.
“I wish you wouldn’t flirt like that,” the father said. “You’re not here for a tumble.”
Another man, thinner and nervous, wearing a pair of crooked spectacles and clutching a folio of papers, darted into the tavern. The man wore faded breeches and a shirt that might once have been white. He looked around, saw the man and his son, and darted over to them. He bobbed a little bow.
“Good afternoon, sir,” he said. “I believe we have an appointment. About a tutor. For your, um, son?” He held out his hand to the father. The older man took one look at the grubby, ink-stained fingers, and decided to ignore the hand.
“Well? Sit down, man,” the man barked. “You’re here to show me how you intend to mold my degenerate son into a gentleman to steal the heart of a countess.”
“Yes, sir,” the tutor said. As he turned, the barmaid arrived with a tray of mugs. The tutor’s elbow caught the edge of her tray as they both bent to put down their loads on the table. The tray tipped and the barmaid gasped as one of the mugs slid off toward the floor. The son’s hand darted in and caught the mug by the handle before it could hit, lifting it up and setting it down in front of him.
“Thanks, darling,” he murmured to the barmaid, who stared at him with wide eyes.
“That’s enough!” the father bellowed. “We no longer require you, wench!” The barmaid scurried off as the tutor adjusted his spectacles and sat. “Well? What is your plan of action, man?” the father asked him.
“Yes, um, of course, sir,” the tutor mumbled. “Well, as you know, the greatest poets of our time have sung the praises of, um, courtly love, and ladies are ingrained with an idea of chivarly. I intend to tutor your son on the great literary classics and instill in him a respect for ladies that will win their hearts.”
“Respect for ladies!” the man grumbled. “Sounds soft.”
“Oh, no, sir. It is the highest form of morality for a man to be gentle and attentive to his lady,” the tutor preached. “Incidentally, I wanted to discuss the matter of my payment.”
“You’ll be paid,” the man growled. “God knows I’ve enough money. What I don’t have is a duchess for a daughter-in-law.”
“Yes, but I’d like to agree on an amount now,” the tutor insisted. “You see, I need…”
“Oh dear, father,” the son interrupted. “Our mugs seem to have run dry. Shall I fetch some more? And perhaps add a third for our compatriot?”
“What? Oh, yes, sure,” the father waved him off.
As the son picked up the two mugs, he leaned in to the tutor and whispered, “I wouldn’t trust my father in matters of money. He lives for the ruin and desolation of his business partners. He’ll leave you starving if he can manage it.”
The tutor nodded, wide-eyed, and turned back to chat with the father. The son made his way up to the bar, his knife back in his other hand. He set the mugs down.
“Precious lady, would you mind refilling these?” he asked. “And something for our nervous friend?” The barmaid blushed and nodded. The youth leaned back against the bar, toying with his knife.
“You any good with that thing?” the man at the far end of the bar asked, the familiar one. A glint of metal showed at his waist under his red frock coat.
“If you’d like, I can show you,” the youth said, staring him in the eye with a predatory grin.
“Sounds like an offer I can’t refuse,” the man said, rising.
“Now boys,” the barmaid said.
“Don’t worry your pretty little head,” the man said. “We’ll take it out of your bar.”
“No need,” said the youth. “If you’re spoiling for a fight, I can accommodate you right here.”
The two men walked to meet each other in an empty corner of the bar, and youth’s knife at the ready, and the older man’s hand dropping to the dagger at his belt. They circled one another.
“Oh dear,” the barmaid commented to another man at the other end of the bar. “That Charlie’s just never been the same since he was forced off his throne. He should know he’s lucky to have escaped with his life. But now he can’t seem to get away for an hour without a fight.”
“Oh?” the stranger said, turning toward the two men fighting.
“You’re not from around here, are you?” the barmaid asked. “We all know Prince Charlie. Poor soul.”
“Yes,” the stranger said. “Ah, yes. Good candidates.”
He turned and glanced at the father and the tutor making their deal over the table, and then back to the barmaid. He smiled and the girl decided she’d rather not be there right at that moment. The stranger stood and walked over to where the youth and the fallen prince were circling each other.
“Your highness,” the stranger said. The prince turned and saw the man holding up a small white card. He took it and turned it over. On one side was just printed a sword and a name in black ink. The prince looked up, confused. The stranger turned to the youth.
“Lucky man,” the youth said.
“Yes,” the stranger agreed. “You seem like death on two legs with that knife.”
“Mmhmm. Do I know you?” the youth asked.
“Not yet,” the stranger said. “That’s your father?” The stranger gestured to the table in the other corner.
“Yes,” the son said. “And that unfortunate fellow with him is to be my tutor. Though I think his message of goodwill gets diluted by his obvious greed.”
“Yes.” The stranger handed the youth three of the white cards, printed side down, and tapped each of them in series. “For your father, for your tutor, for you. Should you choose to accept, you know how to find me.”
The youth nodded and walked back to the table. He handed out the cards. He glimpsed a scales printed on the card in his father’s hand before turning his own over. A scythe was printed just above the name.
The four men read the name aloud from their various places in the room.
The stranger smiled.