I LIMPED THROUGH THE GATES of Severen ragged, penniless, and hungry. I am no stranger to hunger. I know the countless hollow shapes it takes inside you. This particular hunger wasn’t a terrible one. I’d eaten two apples and some salt pork a day ago, so this hunger was merely painful. It wasn’t the bad hunger that leaves you weak and trembling. I was safe from that for at least eight hours or so.
Over the last two span everything I owned had been lost, destroyed, stolen, or abandoned. The only exception was my lute. Denna’s marvelous case had paid for itself ten times during my trip. In addition to saving my life on one occasion, it had protected my lute, Threpe’s letter of introduction, and Nina’s invaluable drawing of the Chandrian.
You may notice I don’t include any clothing on my list of possessions. There are two good reasons for this. The first is that you couldn’t really call the grubby rags I wore clothing without stretching the truth to its breaking point. Secondly, I had stolen them, so it doesn’t seem right to claim them as my own.
The most irritating was the loss of Fela’s cloak. I’d been forced to tear it up and use it for bandages in Junpui. Nearly as bad was the fact that my hard-won gram now lay somewhere deep below the cold, dark waters of the Centhe Sea.
* * *
The city of Severen was split into two unequal portions by a tall, white cliff. The majority of the living business of the city took place in the larger portion of the city at the foot of this cliff, aptly named the Sheer.
Atop the Sheer was a much smaller piece of the city. It consisted mostly of estates and manor houses belonging to aristocracy and wealthy merchants. Also present were the attendant number of tailors, liveries, theaters, and brothels necessary to provide for the needs of the upper class.
The stark cliff of white stone looked as if it had been thrust skyward to give the nobility a better view of the countryside. As it wandered off to the northeast and south, it lost height and stature, but where it bisected Severen, it was two hundred feet tall and steep as a garden wall.
In the center of the city, a wide peninsula of cliff jutted out from the Sheer. Perched on this outthrust piece of cliff was Maer Alveron’s estate. Its pale stone walls were visible from anywhere in the city below. The effect was daunting, as if the Maer’s ancestral home was peering down on you.
Seeing it without a coin in my pocket or a decent set of clothes on my back was rather intimidating. I’d planned to take Threpe’s letter straight to the Maer despite my disheveled state, but looking up at the tall stone walls, I realized I probably wouldn’t be let through the front door. I looked like a filthy beggar.
I had few resources and even fewer options to choose from. With the exception of Ambrose some miles to the south in his father’s barony, I didn’t know a single soul in all of Vintas.
I’ve begged before, and I’ve stolen. But only when I’ve had no other options available to me. They are dangerous occupations and only a complete fool attempts them in an unfamiliar city, let alone an entirely new country. Here in Vintas, I didn’t even know what laws I might be breaking.
So I gritted my teeth and took the only option available to me. I wandered barefoot through the cobblestone streets of Severen-Low until I found a pawn shop in one of the better parts of the city.
I stood across the street for the better part of an hour, watching the people come and go, trying to think of some better option. But I simply didn’t have one. So I removed Threpe’s letter and Nina’s painting from the secret compartment in my lute case, crossed the street, and pawned my lute and case for eight silver nobles and a span note.
If you’ve led the sort of easy life that’s never taken you to the pawners, let me explain. The note was a receipt of sorts, and with it, I could buy my lute back for the same amount of money, so long as I did it within eleven days. On the twelfth day it became the property of the pawnbroker who would undoubtedly turn around and sell it for ten times that amount.
Back on the street, I hefted the coins. They seemed thin and insubstantial compared to Cealdish currency or the heavy Commonwealth pennies I was familiar with. Still, money spends the same the world round, and seven nobles bought me a fine suit of clothes of the sort a gentleman might wear, along with a pair of soft leather boots. What remained bought a haircut, shave, bath, and my first solid meal in three days. After that I was coin-poor again, but feeling much more sure of myself.
Still, I knew it would be difficult to make my way to the Maer. Men with his degree of power live within layers of protection. There are customary, graceful ways to navigate these layers: introductions and audiences, messages and rings, calling cards and ass-kissing.
But with only eleven days to get my lute out of pawn, my time was too precious for that. I needed to make contact with Alveron quickly.
So I made my way to the foot of the Sheer and found a small café that catered to a genteel clientele. I used one of my precious few remaining coins to buy a mug of chocolate and a seat with a view of the haberdasher’s across the street.
Over the next several hours I listened to the gossip that flows through such places. Even better, I won the trust of the clever young boy who worked at the café, waiting to refill my mug if I so desired. With his help and some casual eavesdropping, I learned a great deal about the Maer’s court in a short amount of time.
Eventually the shadows grew longer, and I decided it was time to move. I called the boy over and pointed across the street. “Do you see that gentleman? The one in the red vest?”
“Do you know who it is?”
“The Esquire Bergon, if ’n it please you.”
I needed someone more important than that . “How about the cross-looking fellow in the awful yellow hat?”
The boy hid a smile. “That’s Baronet Pettur.”
Perfect. I stood and clapped Jim on the back. “You’ll do well for yourself with a memory like that. Keep well.” I gave him ha’penny and strolled to where the baronet stood, fingering a bolt of deep green velvet.
It goes without saying that in terms of social rank, there are none lower than the Edema Ruh. Even leaving aside my heritage, I was a landless commoner. This meant in terms of social standing the baronet was so high above me that if he were a star, I would not be able to see him with the naked eye. A person of my position should address him as “my lord,” avoid eye contact, and bow deeply and humbly.
Truth be told, a person of my social standing shouldn’t speak to him at all.
Things were different in the Commonwealth, of course. And the University itself was particularly egalitarian. But even there, nobility were still rich and powerful and well-connected. People like Ambrose would always run roughshod over folk like myself. And if things got difficult, he could always hush things up or bribe a judge to get himself out of trouble.
But I was in Vintas now. Here Ambrose wouldn’t need to bribe the judge. If I’d accidentally jostled the Baronet Pettur in the street while I was still barefoot and muddy, he could have horsewhipped me bloody, then called the constable to arrest me for being a public nuisance. The constable would have done it too, with a smile and a nod.
Let me try to say this more succinctly. In the Commonwealth, the gentry are people with power and money. In Vintas, the gentry have power and money and privilege . Many rules simply do not apply to them.
That meant in Vintas, social rank was of utmost importance.
That meant if the baronet knew I was below him, he would lord it over me, quite literally.
On the other hand . . .
As I walked across the street toward the baronet, I straightened my shoulders and raised my chin a bit. I stiffened my neck and narrowed my eyes slightly. I looked around as if I owned the entire street, and it was currently something of a disappointment.
“Baronet Pettur?” I said briskly.
The man looked up, smiling vaguely, as if he couldn’t decide if he recognized me or not. “Yes?”
I made a curt gesture toward the Sheer. “You would be doing the Maer a great service if you would escort me to his estate as quickly as possible.” I kept my expression stern, almost angry.
“Well, certainly.” He sounded anything but certain. I could sense the questions, the excuses beginning to bubble up in him. “W—”
I fixed the baronet with my haughtiest stare. The Edema might be on the lowest rung of the social ladder, but there are no finer actors breathing. I had been raised on the stage, and my father could play a king so regal I’d seen audiences doff their hats when he made his entrance.
I made my eyes as hard as agates and looked the florid man up and down as if he were a horse I wasn’t sure I cared to bet on. “If the matter were not urgent, I would never impose on you this way.” I hesitated, then added a stiff, reluctant, “Sir.”
Baronet Pettur looked me in the eye. He was slightly off balance, but not nearly as much as I’d hoped. Like most nobility, he was self-centered as a gyroscope, and the only thing keeping him from sniffing and looking down his nose at me was his uncertainty. He eyed me, trying to decide if he could risk offending me by asking my name and how we were acquainted.
But I still had a final trick to play. I brought out the thin, sharp smile the porter at the Grey Man had used when I had come calling on Denna all those months ago. As I’d said, it was a good smile: gracious, polite, and more patronizing than if I’d reached out and patted the man on the head like a dog.
The Baronet Pettur bore up under the weight of the smile for almost a full second. Then he cracked like an egg, his shoulders rounding a bit, and his manner becoming ever so slightly obsequious. “Any service I can lend the Maer is a service I am glad to render,” he said. “Please, allow me.” He took the lead, heading toward the foot of the cliff.