Vincent Applethorpe loved Riverside the way he loved the sword: To the uninitiated, both were chaos and danger in a bed together, sharp and hazardous and deadly. But from the inside, the chaos revealed itself to be a finely tuned system of rules and rule-breaking, honor and secrets. The danger did not vanish if you knew how to play the game; it only became more precise.
He leaned against the sill of the side window on the top floor of one of the moldering houses just north of the University Bridge. The building leaned in such a way that from his perch, he could see out across rows of slate roofs and tiny chimneys, shoved together as oddly as the colored panes of glass in the window through which he gazed. He’d been entertaining himself looking through the yellow and blue patches, imagining them as contrasting styles of fighting. From a window that held all blue glass a swordsman would see certain subtle details differently than from a yellow-glassed perch. Like some swordsmen fell into habits and ways of using their blades and couldn’t shift into something different even to save their own lives. Vincent was determined that would not be the way he’d go. Give him the clear-eyed view, without the distortion of any glass.
“Ah, here,” called the voice of Madeline, the shop proprietor. “I’ve got something!”
Vincent turned, a half-smile still pulling at his mouth. It grew full as the woman emerged from a rack of hanging dresses like a goddess born from some heaven of rainbow silks. She stopped, eyeing him suspiciously.
“And what were you thinking just now?” she demanded, playful in eye if not in tone.
He glanced back out the window. “I was thinking about swords.” Then he pushed off the sill and stepped nearer to her. “And also what a goddess you look, surrounded by offerings from worshippers.”
Madeline tucked a messy curl behind her ear, the closest to a blush she was capable of getting anymore. “Talk like that won’t bring the price down, swordsman.”
Holding his hand out, Vincent waited silently. He was not quite a handsome man, but the thrum of violence he carried in his heart lent appeal to his features when the right person looked. Beneath his heavy brow shone bright green-gold eyes with gently curling lashes. His brown hair was too short to be rich or thick, the hairline slightly receding despite his youth, and his compact body neither tall nor very broad. But his hands were strong and perfect, competent, and like the rest of him, they never moved without intent.
Vincent Applethorpe rarely had to do more than gesture in order to get what he wanted in Riverside.
But for Madeline, he twitched his fingers, and she dropped the pretty silver buckle into his palm, wrinkling her nose because she knew she’d given in to something he hadn’t even promised. “Three silver,” she said.
“Two, unless you show me where it came from.”
“Can’t. But was a bridle, I think,” she said. “The part that buckles over the beast’s cheek.”
He shrugged one shoulder, graceful, and believed her. Together they turned their attention to the leather straps of his sword belt, which hung from the hook of a hat rack. It was fine leather, supple and expensive, and his best: Three thick bands of shiny black connected the belt to the sheath itself, and one was missing the buckle necessary to adjust. He’d jammed the tiny tooth in a duel two weeks ago, knocking into a table, of all things. The bruise had lasted eight days, and he’d had to pry the buckle free, and now, finally, replace it. “Perfect,” he said, holding the new buckle up to compare it with the others. He was even fairly sure it was actual silver.
“You’re going up on the Hill tonight?” Madeline asked.
Vincent nodded as he slipped the new buckle into place in three efficient motions. “Lord Ferris’s birthday party for his son. Challenge to first blood.”
“Afraid the guests will be bored?”
“Bardsleigh contracted me to defend his honor.” He affixed his belt back into place, shifting his stance to let the sword settle where it belonged. As he handed her the two silvers, Madeline asked, “Didn’t I hear that Lord Ferris hired de Maris for the evening’s entertainment?”
Vincent gave her his best, most wicked grin. “Oh yes, yes indeed.” He swept his hat off the rack, offered her a precise, deep bow, and slipped out the door, down the narrow stairs, and into the alley.
The heat of the day stuck under eaves and in the thick shadows of the cobbled lane. It smelled of cat piss and river moss and baking bread, threaded through with a light breeze off the river, snaking through the tight lanes and streets of the island.
Vincent joined up with a slightly broader street; the sun pinched his eyes and he was glad for the curved brim of his hat. He kept his face forward, but ears open, and hands relaxed, not too near the grip of his sword, having no need to go around always seeking a challenge. It was afternoon in Riverside, at the tail end of the summer, and the roofs...