Blog Birthday: Freebie Short Story

As Writing&Coe is three, and considering one of the things I do is…well, write…I figured that a freebie short story was in order! Find The Wrong Scapegoat below, or as an rtf file or pdf file.

This is a GreenSky short story, partly inspired a little by Vocho’s Night Out by Julia Knight in the Fight Like A Girl anthology, and partly because Zack Rezian comes back in Book 10 and I wanted to write a little about his prior exploits before we meet him there. He’s not actually being too much of a weasel in this story, actually…

The delicate napkin was laid down with deliberate precision by the side of the plate, and the knife and fork tweaked so that they were exactly in line. “That was a most excellent breakfast. I thank you kindly for your hospitality.”

“You don’t have to stand on ceremony, Eliza,” the banker opposite said with some amusement, eyeing the very attractive woman as she took the final sip from her glass. The room was still cool from the morning air, and he thought for a moment how well she fitted her surroundings. What a shame that she continued to refuse his offers of an alliance…her elegant robe and honourable stature suited his polished and richly furnished room.

She smiled faintly, giving the cutlery another twitch. “I do try to keep up with convention, Olien. I wouldn’t want to appear rude.”

“You are the soul of courtesy, Eliza. You have a most dignified air.”

“Which is not to be expected from one of my profession?” Her smile widened as Olien’s mouth twitched, trying to hide his own smile. “Why, thank you, sir. But,” she added, rising, “I must be discourteous. I have matters to attend to elsewhere.”

“Are you still intent on catching the coach?” His tone was resigned.

She merely raised her eyebrows. “Of course. I can assure you that I am capable of looking after myself.”

“I don’t doubt that, madam. It simply isn’t the most pleasant way to travel.”

“Actually,” Eliza said, brushing her long robe off and smiling at the portly man sat opposite, “I prefer it. But then I am not your average woman.”

“Again,” Olien said with resignation and a smile in return, “I don’t doubt that.”

*****

The coach was indeed public, standing in the open square. The edges were lined with canvas to keep the heat of the sun from the passengers, but if they intended to mount a coach, they had to brave the heat…

Eliza was grateful for her wrap drawn over her head as she stood out in the sun to watch her luggage being stowed in the rear compartment. The coachman glanced back at her and then nodded deferentially before turning to help the other waiting passengers, sweating in the growing heat.

The wooden steps onto the roof were rickety, worn by multiple feet. Eliza caught the worried glance from the driver as she stepped up; women in expensive wraps did not normally travel on the roof! He was in charge of the security of the coaches, and he’d be the one to pay if she got into any trouble. But then, Eliza thought with a sigh, that said more about Ziricon’s bandits and justice system than it did for any skill she may possess in defending her own honour.

She would be glad to leave.

She waited patiently as the rest of her fellow-travellers boarded the coach and made sure her wrap was around her; it would keep the wind and the dust off as they left. Finally, the back hatch went down, and the driver climbed into his seat. The wagon rattled, the chimney behind her belched black smoke, and then they were off.

Eliza looked around at the streets of Reyan as they rattled through. There were people out; it was mid-morning, after all, but they were a little way from the market district. These were the houses of the shop-keepers and traders…a poor show compared to the luxury in which she had stayed the previous night, but comfortable enough in their own way.

The houses got slightly smaller as the wagon turned, and then the gates were ahead. The wagon slowed for a cursory check with the guard-

And it stopped. Some hold-up.

A murmur of voices.

Eliza’s hands drifted to her waist, checking everything was in place, and then shifted the wrap so that its folds left her hands free. Not that she couldn’t get out of trouble in other ways, but it always paid to be prepared.

The driver’s head came up the stairs. “Ma’am…”

Eliza rose immediately. “Is there a problem?”

There were two Dirrs, standing in the street next to the coach. Eliza gave them what appeared to be a cursory glance, but noted the polished weapons, the fighting stance, the faintly nervous air.

“They want to speak to Eliza-” the driver started.

“That’s me,” the woman interrupted imperiously, leaning over the coach rail to look down at the two figures. The street had mostly stopped around them, too – the gate guards were watching with interest, and there was a small crowd gathering, just to see if anything interesting was going to happen. Eliza ignored them and focused on the small Dirr with her shaved head and bright eyes. “Yes?”

“Did you stay at Baker Olien’s house last night, ma’am?”

“I did.” Eliza withdrew and started walking down the narrow gangway between the mostly-empty seats, the other occupants gawping as she passed. The Dirr reached up a hand to assist her down the steps, which Eliza took graciously. It was only when she was safely down in the dusty street that she raised her chin and gave the Dirr an enquiring look. “Is there a problem?”

“Dirr Luant has requested a word with you, ma’am. I appreciate this is going to delay your journey-”

Eliza had already stepped past her and waved a hand at the driver. “Unload my luggage, and we will go to the Centre.”

The expression of both Dirrs was part suspicious, part confused and part relieved. Eliza turned to them as the driver hurried round to unlock the rear compartment. “I always find it easier to bow to the inevitable, and if Dirr Luant has requested to see me then I do not see any point in deferring that.”

They waited in silence as the two bags were unloaded, and then Eliza waved a hand and turned. “Please bring my things.”

And she swept off through the dusty streets, her wrap floating around her against the sunshine, trailing luggage and bewildered Dirrs.

*****

“My beloved sister,” the man sitting at the desk said an hour later, smiling at the beautiful woman opposite, “what trouble have you got into this time?”

Eliza leaned back in the chair and sipped the tea that she had been brought – without any demands, either. Ziricon at least had some measure of civilisation. “I honestly have no idea, little brother. As I’ve already had to explain, I left Olien this morning and got a coach, which was then stopped. I have given permission to search my luggage,” she added with a faintly steely note.

“For which we are grateful,” her brother said, slipping into the role of Head of the Dirrs for a moment. Then he sighed. “I’ve got to do this formally now. I’m going to call Roch in.”

“Of course.” Eliza took another sip of her tea as her squat-limbed brother went to the door and called in another Dirr – the companion to the woman who had stopped the coach. He still had the faintly bewildered expression, but it was tempered by a faint concern and an irritation that she couldn’t place. He nodded to her, and then held something out towards her. “Ma’am. Have you seen this before?”

Eliza examined it. “A ring, silver, inset with gemstones. It’s a nice piece. No, I haven’t.”

“Do you know who it belongs to?”

Eliza shook her head. “I don’t, I’m afraid.”

“You aren’t the owner?”

“No.”

“It was found in your luggage.”

The woman frowned. “Well, it certainly wasn’t there last night-”

Her brother made a face, and pushed a slip of parchment across to her. “There was a theft last night at Olien’s house. Jewellery went missing, and apparently this is one item.”

Eliza sat still for a moment, and then raised both eyebrows. “I see. I have been used as a scapegoat, I assume. Was that everything that went missing?”

Her brother grinned. “No. As soon as I leaned who Olien’s guest had been, I made him look for other motives. Some documents vanished.”

The second Dirr’s eyes had tightened, and he was starting to look wary. “Uh, sir, this isn’t protocol…”

“No, it’s not, Roch. This is Eliza, my sister.”

“Usually based in Taderah,” Eliza said with a smile for the bewildered Roch, “but currently visiting. I do try to conform to local conventions while in other countries. So, if you assume that I am innocent in this matter, who stole the documents and who planted the jewellery in my luggage?”

*****

The tavern was quiet at this time of day; most of Reyan was sleeping off the midday meal while the sun burned hottest. Zack Rezian, soldier of fortune, spy, womaniser and messenger, was sitting at a polished table with his feet on a chair, half-way through a bottle of liquor and wondering what to do with the rest of his day.

And then the head of the Reyan Dirrs walked in.

The moment of fight-or-flight was quickly quelled, and Zack left his feet on the chair opposite and smiled as the man strolled over. He had a beautiful woman on his arm, and Zack wondered where the Dirr had picked her up from. Usually he was a stiff bugger, and – unfortunately for blackmail – wasn’t given to dalliances with anyone. But Zack plastered a smile on his face. “Dirr Luant. Do you have time for a drink?”

“Of course,” the Dirr said, and turned to his companion. “Madam?”

“Something fresh, if you please,” the woman said, and sat down opposite Zack. “May I be introduced?”

Smooth skin – apart from a faint scar on her neck, he noticed – and jet-black hair, grey eyes, a wrap that was obviously fairly expensive…was she beautiful or what? Zack got his mouth under control, and said, “Rezian at your service, my lady.”

“I’m not a lady, Mr Rezian.” She smiled and smoothed her robe. “So, do you not partake in siestas?”

“I find the time better spent elsewhere.”

“Such as robbing people’s houses?”

He had been expecting it from the Dirr, not from her; not from this elegant, beautiful woman with a faintly interested expression and tone that said she was just making small talk. He laughed nervously. “Madam, I can assure you that you have completely the wrong idea…”

“No, I really don’t.” Eliza slid her hand casually onto the table, displaying the beautiful ring on her finger, and saw the man’s eyes tighten. “Why on earth did you think it was a good idea to plant items as well as taking what you wanted? You should have just got out while the going was good.”

“If you’re wanting a confession-” the man started, trying a jovial laugh.

“No, I want an apology,” the woman said, still smiling. “You have seriously inconvenienced me, interrupted my journey, forced me to speak to the Dirrs, and I have no way to prove my innocence. I request acknowledgment of my hurts from yourself.”

“Beautiful as you are, madam, I am afraid I won’t volunteer to have my hand cut off instead of yours.”

She waved said hand dismissively. “Mr Rezian, this is not about the legalities.”

“Hinart will protect you anyway,” Dirr Luant said, placing two drinks on the table and sitting down with a smile. “This is personal, Rezian. The lady simply wanted to make a point that you should pick your scapegoats more carefully.”

“Well, I will take that advice on board if I should ever need it,” Rezian said flippantly. “Which is obviously extremely unlikely.”

“And my apology?” the woman said, the smile not matching the lack of humour in her eyes.

“Madam, I don’t see that I have anything to apologise for.”

The two siblings exchanged a look, and Eliza’s mouth straightened into a look that reminded her brother of all the times she fought his bullies in the streets of their hometown. “You are lucky, Mr Rezian, that I do not have proof of your involvement, or I would offer a challenge.”

“A woman as beautiful as yourself? I am sure men would be queuing to fight in your honour, madam.”

“You misunderstand me, Rezian,” the elegantly-wrapped, straight-backed woman said. “I would offer you challenge.”

The Dirr sitting in the chair opposite was grinning broadly. “You don’t believe women can fight, Rezian. Let’s just say that I wouldn’t challenge her.”

The man’s expression was amused. “Well, that’s all very entertaining, but as it stands-”

His face screwed up in pain and then he shot backwards, nearly falling off his chair. As the elegant lady opposite him withdrew her foot from his kneecap and rose, he stumbled off the chair and put a hand on the back of it, not wanting to put weight on his injured knee. “Madam-”

One hand darted across the table, and he was jerked forward across the wood. The sudden pain in his nose was entirely unexpected, and he reeled back as soon as her hand released his collar.

“My name,” the beautiful woman said, as if greeting someone she’d just met in one of the tiny bakeries that bustled with rich women and bored men, “is Paladin Eliza Luant. You have seriously offended me and if you dare to touch my belongings or insult my standing again, I will ensure that you regret it.”

The man opposite was clutching his nose, blood pouring down onto his jerkin. He gave the woman a stricken look and then turned to the Dirr, who was just rising to his feet. “De’s a Pal’in?” he tried, clutching at his face with one hand and waving the other at the woman who was watching him coolly.

“Indeed. You should have done some more investigation before you rooted through her luggage, shouldn’t you?” the Dirr said, smiling.

“But de-”

“Chooses to look like a lady because I am one,” Eliza said, her tone still amused social small-talk. “It is not my concern if louts such as yourself underestimate me.”

“I cl’m ingury-”

“You can’t claim injury without a witness, and I didn’t see anything.” The Dirr turned to the woman and held out his arm. “If you are satisfied, madam, then may I escort you to the coach so you may continue your journey?”

“I am pleased to find there is at least one gentleman in Reyan,” the elegant woman said, and took his arm. “Good day, Zack Rezian. I shall pray we do not meet again.”

“If only because I dislike the mess…” Rezian heard the Dirr mutter as they turned away, and then they were gone out into the bright sunlight of the city.