Fin Ruggle sat at a stained, broken, and wobbly table outside a battered tea house, sipping a cracked mug of warm brown water that bore some passing resemblance to tea. It wasn’t anything a proper individual might call tea, but as Fin Ruggle was fond of telling people, he was hardly a proper individual. Most didn’t need to be told that, given that Fin was nearly as battered and broken down as the tea house. He tipped a flask over the edge of the mug, adding a generous splash of whiskey. He sipped again and sighed.
“Ohhh, that does the trick,” he said, leaning back in his chair, though not too far, as the back was not completely secured to the rest of it - the fault of someone using the chair as a bludgeon during the last sack of the town.
“Mind if I sit here?” a voice spoke from the other side of the table.
Fin opened one eye. A man of indeterminate age and rather bland features stood across from him. He was dressed in plain but sturdy clothes, and his hands had the look of hard work about them. Fin figured him for a conscripted farmer or camp laborer, cut loose from whatever regiment had picked him up and now at a loss for where to go. Fin shrugged. “You can find yourself a seat, you can put it where you like.”
The stranger pulled a barrel over to the other side of the table and sat down. He placed a cracked mug of his own on the table.
“Careful,” Fin warned him. “Table’s a bit wobbly.”
The stranger smiled. It was a warm smile, and a bit conspiratorial, as though he and Fin were in on some secret together. “Thank you,” he said, sipping his tea.
Fin offered his flask, and the stranger held out his mug. As he poured a shot of whiskey into it, Fin wondered what he was doing. He never shared his liquor with anyone, let alone someone he’d just met. For some reason he didn’t understand, Fin found himself liking, even trusting this stranger. “Fin Ruggle,” he said, offering his hand.
The stranger shook it. “Pleasure to meet you, Fin,” he said, still smiling that oddly comforting smile. He took another sip of his tea and grinned. “And thank you. You’ve improved it greatly.” he held out his mug, and Fin clinked his against it.
The stranger looked around. “This is nice,” he said.
Fin snorted. “I’d hate to see where you come from, if you think this shithole looks nice.”
“Yes,” the stranger said, the smile turning somewhat less comforting for a moment, “you would.” Then he laughed, the other smile was back, and a warmth not entirely born of whiskey spread out from Fin’s chest. “But no, I just meant it’s so nice the fighting is over. Looks like this place got hit pretty hard.”
It had. The town they were in was officially called Friendship Grove. It was built directly over the border between Otham and Byzan, and its design gave half of the town to each Kingdom. It had been built as part of the treaty that ended the last war, and, obviously, it was where the most recent one started. So, while most maps had the town listed as Friendship Grove, it was known to everyone as Bloodtown.
“Aye,” Fin nodded. “This is the first anyone’s been able to do anything but kill and die in Bloodtown since the war started up again. Been peace all through both Kingdoms for weeks now,” he said. “Thanks to Her Grace Queen Jennix.” He toasted the absent queen with his mug.
The stranger sipped his tea, nodding. “So tell me,” he said, “if you don’t mind my asking, what is it you do for a living, Fin?”
“I’m a gravedigger by trade,” Fin said.
“Are you?” the stranger smiled. “I imagine business has been good.”
Fin laughed. “You imagine right,” he said. “Built myself a nice big purse from it, too.”
“Good for you,” the stranger toasted Fin. “Any plans for all that money?”
“Oh yeah,” Fin said, licking his lips. “Gonna buy me a pair of fat whores with it.”
“Aye,” Fin nodded. “A couple’a fat whores with big juicy tits and thick round asses. Mmmmmhmmm,” he murmured, closing his eyes and smiling.
“Alright, then,” the stranger said.
“Gonna buy ‘em, too,” Fin said, “not just hire ‘em out. Figure why should I go to the trouble finding one wife when I can just buy myself two whores I’ll own for the rest of my life? I can have ‘em keep my house, maybe get a few kids on ‘em... it’ll be grand.” He took a swallow straight from his flask, then chased it with some of his spiked tea, then belched loudly.
“Solid logic,” the stranger said. His smile slipped, and he looked at Fin with great concern. “Of course, you may not have long to enjoy them.”
Fin scowled. “And why not?”
The stranger leaned across the table, inviting Fin into his confidence. “The way I hear it,” he whispered, looking about as though afraid to be overheard, “Queen Jennix plans to have all the men of Otham and Byzan gelded, so she can breed our women with men from Yad Haddom.”
“What?!” Fin dropped his mug in surprise, heedless of the tea that splashed on his clothes and the broken crockery at his feet. “That’s crazy!”
“Maybe,” the stranger shrugged. “But that’s what I heard.”
“Why would she do that?”
“I don’t rightly know,” the stranger said, “but the way I hear it, Jennix just wants the land. She’s no plan to maintain two kingdoms on top of her own.” He waved his arm to encompass their surroundings. “Soon, this’ll all be Yad Haddom, and any who might have stood in the way will find themselves bred right out of their own lands.”
“Well, that won’t stand!” Fin’s face had gone red, and he stood up from the table. “There’s a garrison from Yad Haddom at the edge of town! I’ve a mind to gather up the lads and go ‘round to show those foreign bastards what happens to them as tries to unman a loyal son of Byzan!” He punched his fist into his open hand. “Hells, I should go gather up some o’ them lads from Otham, too. They got a stake in this, same as the rest of us.”
“That they do.” The stranger finished his tea and stood.
“Thank you, sir,” Fin said, vigorously shaking the stranger’s hand. “If you hadn’t happened by, well...”
“Best not to think on it,” the stranger said. “So, I imagine you’re off?”
“Oh, yes,” Fin growled. “Gonna go gather up some folk, show those freaks from up north what’s what.” He stormed off.
The stranger watched him go, his smile growing to unnatural width. “Oh, yes, you go gather them up,” he said. “You go gather them all.”
Della Thrax drove her cart along the main road of Pash, on her way home from the coronation up at the palace. She glanced over to the side of the road and saw a man walking, a heavy bag slung over one shoulder. She reined up her horses beside him.
“Hey there,” she said. “You in need of a ride somewhere?”
The stranger looked up at her and smiled, and she was very glad she’d stopped to pick him up. “That would be wonderful, thank you,” he said. He tossed his bag in the back of the cart and climbed up into the seat next to her.
Della offered her hand. “Della,” she said.
The stranger shook it. “A pleasure to meet you, Della,” he said. “You coming back from the coronation?”
Della flicked the reins and the horses walked on. “Yes,” she said. “You?”
“Oh, yes,” the stranger said, leaning back in his seat. “Quite a celebration, wouldn’t you say?”
Della grinned ruefully. “A bit too much of a celebration,” she said, “though that was my own fault.”
“Overdid it at the wine tent, did you?” the stranger kept smiling, though now with a somewhat sympathetic air. “I didn’t want to say anything, but you clearly got a late start today.”
“That I did,” Della nodded. “Was past noon before I even woke up, and another hour before I could rouse myself enough to get a bit of food in me and pack up my gear.” She chuckled. “Took me near an age just to clear all the empty bottles out of my tent.”
“Oh my,” the stranger said. “Well, you must have had yourself quite a time.”
“I imagine I did,” she said, “though I barely remember half of it.” She’d danced a lot, she knew that, and there was also a man... and his... wife? Yes, a young married couple. She’d spent a great deal of time in their tent, or maybe they were in hers. At any rate, she wasn’t wearing much when she woke, and what little clothing she’d had on wasn’t hers. Neither man nor wife were there in the morning, and she hadn’t bothered looking for them before she left. Best to leave last night where it was. “I’m feeling better now I’m on the road,” she said.
“Not much of a drinker?” the stranger asked.
“Not these days,” she said. “Hells, last time I got drunk at all was back before I’d gotten pregnant with...” her voice trailed off and she looked away.
“Oh,” the stranger said. “You have children? Are you married?”
“No to both,” she said, clenching her jaw. Her eyes stung. “At least, not any more.”
“I’m sorry,” the stranger said. “I didn’t mean to...”
“No,” she said. “It’s alright.” She sighed. “Not much to it, really. Lost my husband and two girls to the Black Cough last year.”
The stranger lay a hand lightly on her arm. “I’m so sorry,” he said.
She nodded, clenching her jaw and blinking her eyes. “Yeah,” she said, her voice ragged.
“Still,” the stranger said, “I imagine it would have been much worse if not for the Prince’s efforts.”
Della smiled. “Oh yes,” she said. “I doubt even half so many would have survived if His Highness hadn’t come among us like he did. He worked so hard, and so tirelessly. And for a boy his age...” She gestured over her shoulder toward the palace she’d left behind. “Make a fine King one day, he will.”
“I’m certain,” the stranger said. After a pause, he said, “It is curious, though, how His Highness never fell sick himself.”
“It was a miracle,” Della said. “His Highness was clearly blessed by the great Goddess Aael, praise Her.” She made a sign of benediction over her heart, and failed to notice the pained expression that crossed the stranger’s face.
“Indeed,” he said. “Still, I’ve heard tell there could be another reason.”
She looked at him, suspicious at first, but there was something about his eyes... something that made her want to trust him. “Like what?”
“Well, I heard tell that the Prince never got sick because he and all the royals were made immune to it by some outlander healer or other.”
“Oh,” she said, somewhat taken aback. “Well, even if that’s true, that immunity made the Prince better able to care for us all.”
“He couldn’t care for your husband and daughters, could he?”
“He tried,” Della said, though not as emphatically as she may once have. “I... I saw him.”
“Did you?” the stranger asked. “Or did you see him infect them?”
“What?!” she turned and glared at him.
He held up his hands. “I’m just telling what I’ve heard,” he said.
“Heard what? And from who?” her suspicion was back, but his eyes, and that smile...
“A friend of mine,” the stranger said, “knows a fellow whose brother works in the kitchens up at the palace, and he said that the immunity the royals got just kept them from getting sick themselves. They could still pass the disease on to others.”
She was shocked, and stared ahead of her. “Maybe,” she whispered, “maybe the Prince didn’t know.”
“Maybe,” the stranger said, “but I also heard from my friend that this fellow’s brother overheard the royals all laughing about it. Said the young Prince was ‘doing his duty to keep the surplus population down’, and that ‘the common folk breed like rats anyway’.”
Della’s mouth set into a hard line and she glared at the road, not really seeing it. All she saw were the faces of her family, and the smug grin on that royal bastard’s face.
“Now, that’s just what I heard,” the stranger said.
“No,” Della growled. “No, it all makes sense, once you hear it laid out like that. The royals never cared for us, never will care for us. And that little princeling, did you see him, standing all pretty as you please, dressed in his finery with his sword and all, bowing to us like he was doing us some kind of favor...” she snarled. “And to think I drank to his health last night, him as killed my family!” A thought struck her. “Hells, what if I wasn’t really drunk last night? What if there was something put in the wine?”
“What if?” the stranger repeated, nodding.
“Oh, and to think I’ve been singing that little shit’s praises all this past year,” she said. “Well, when I get home, it’s going to be a far different song I’m singing, you mark me. Yes sir, a far different song!”
“I imagine that’s a song plenty of folks might want to hear,” the stranger said. He looked up as they approached a crossroads. “Oh,” he said, “this is where I get off.” He reached around to the back and grabbed his bag as she reined in the horses. He jumped down from the cart and smiled up at her, making sure to hold her gaze. “Thank you again for the ride.”
“Thank you, sir,” she said, “for opening my eyes. And you’re right, there are plenty who will want to hear what you’ve told me.” She snapped the reins and the horses broke into a trot. “And I’ll tell them!” she shouted back as she rode away. “You can count on it!”
The stranger watched her go, his too-wide smile splitting his face. “Oh, my dear lady,” he whispered, “I am counting on it.”