Brian Harper’s heartbeat was pounding in his throat, his hands were shaking, and he could feel sweat rising on his forehead. He couldn’t believe the server didn’t immediately guess he was a fraud. From the moment she looked at him, she should have seen him for what he was and reported him to a Runner, sending him to jail.
But she didn’t.
How could she not? His shirt didn’t even fit him, for gods’ sake. What Source didn’t have perfectly tailored shirts?
Especially as Sheldon Blue, acting as his Shield, was silently sitting on the other side of the table staring down at his hands. Brian kicked him under the table. Sheldon was supposed to be a Shield, damn it. Shields acted arrogant, commanding. Not so much as Sources, no, but still demanding instant obedience when they snapped their fingers.
Sheldon just jolted. He didn’t even look up. Useless.
The server was impatient, her hands on her hips. What was her problem? He’d told her what they wanted.
Source Ignatieff had always acted like an ass, and he always got everything he wanted. Sources had no right to treat anyone like that, but this woman was clearly too stupid to deserve better. “What are you standing around for?” he snapped. “You heard what I said. The best of everything.”
He didn’t sound at all strong, not even to his own ears. Nothing like Ignatieff.
He clearly didn’t sound strong to her, either. She didn’t look at all impressed. “Wine, ale, or cider?”
“Don’t question me!” He had to get her to stop talking to him. The more they spoke, the more likely someone was going to notice something was wrong. “Move!”
She still wasn’t impressed. “Reeking Source,” she sneered, making no effort to be quiet. She strode off, and it felt as though everyone else in the tavern was staring at him. Then, a moment later, there was a whole lot of talking.
“Who does he think he is?”
“Coming here, making demands on decent, hardworking people.”
Not the quiet visit with a quick in and out that he’d planned. It was supposed to be a test with only one person, in a place where everyone else in the area would be too busy to pay attention to Sheldon and him.
He hadn’t been trained to be aggressive. Years of work as the lowest level footman, as high as he was ever going to get, according to that bastard of a butler. Always “yes, sir,” “sorry, sir.” Standing there every time someone above him, which was almost everyone, tore a strip off him, then thanking them for it after. And the few below him, ignoring his words, rolling their eyes. Double-checking his orders, orders he had every right to give.
He’d accepted that as his lot in life. He’d come from nothing. He would die as nothing.
But then a new Pair had come to town, and Brian’s lord had offered his home to them. It had been Brian’s first exposure to a Pair, and they infuriated him. They were worse than Lord Doakes for doling out ridiculous orders, exacting expectations, and sharp tongue lashings.
It was one thing to accept that trash from someone who was paying him, miserly salary though it was. From mere guests – not even guests, leeches – it was intolerable. As time went on, it became more and more intolerable. It grew harder and harder to keep his anger behind his teeth.
And then, when Ignatieff had screamed at him because his boiled egg was too hard – Brian hadn’t even cooked the damn thing – the sincere, roaring desire to kill the man had rushed through him. Brian had wanted to grab up the heavy centrepiece and bash the Source’s head in.
Brian had known, at that moment, that he needed to get out.
The problem, then, was where to go. All he had ever done was serve. The thought of serving for the rest of his life had suddenly filled him with rage. He was too smart for that. He was too good for that.
It would have probably been useless for him to try to find another position, anyway. He would have never gotten decent references.
It hadn’t taken him long to come to the best solution. As far as he’d seen, the Pair hadn’t done a lick of work during their stay. They had claimed they did. Every week, they had bragged about the vicious events they had channelled. But there was no way anyone else would know if that was true, was there?
How hard could it be to do nothing?
Brian had known there were Pairs who didn’t have a regular post, who travelled all over to temporarily replace ill Pairs, Pairs who had died, Pairs who had been transferred. They weren’t expected to do anything while they travelled, but they still got everything they wanted.
Brian had no family to speak of, and he’d never been anywhere. He had no problem with moving from place to place.
Pretending to be a member of the Triple S was a crime that could get him flogged or tossed in jail or both, but how would strangers know? People probably wouldn’t even think to ask.
Still, it was terrifying.
Sheldon hadn’t been hard to persuade. As a scullion, his life had been even worse than Brian’s. And Brian had needed a Shield.
As a footman, it had been easy to steal some clothes from the Source and the Shield, and then claim they’d been destroyed by the laundry maids. He’d still gotten screamed at, of course, but knowing he would be leaving soon had made the abuse easier to take.
They had waited two weeks and then they’d quit. They had gone to the nearest inn and rented a room for the night. Then, under the cover of darkness, they had changed into their ill-fitting garments and left. Left the inn. Left the city. Headed towards the next town and reached it in just under two days.
And there they were, doing it for the first time. Taking that first step. There was no going back.
Except maybe there was. Maybe if they just ran out right then, it would be like it had never happened.
But then he realized that of all insults being tossed their way, none of them were about wondering whether Brian and Sheldon were a real Pair.
The server came with three jugs: wine, ale, cider. She slammed them on the table and stomped off.
Brian didn’t know what good wine or ale or cider tasted like. He’d never been able to afford it. He poured a mug of wine and took a big gulp.
It felt thick on his tongue. Did that mean it was good?
The server moved back and forth between the table and the kitchen many times. She brought two servings of every dish on the daily board. Taking him literately; the best of everything.
Brian’s trembling eased almost to nothing, triumph taking its place.
He cut out a bite of chicken pot pie. It was delicious, the meat and sauce hot and perfectly spiced, the pastry light and flaky.
“Hey!” he called out with his mouth full. “This is disgusting! Bring us another one!”
“That’s the last of them,” the server said through grit teeth.
“Then make another.”
“That will take some time.”
“Make sure it doesn’t.” This was fabulous. Just fabulous. He had to stop himself from grinning and clapping his hands with glee.
He and Sheldon sampled all of the other dishes, making sure to leave a great lot of the food behind. The variety more than filled them, and the waste pleased him. They drank some of the wine and the ale and the cider, but not too much. Brian didn’t want them losing their senses until they were more comfortable in their new roles.
When the server brought a new pie, Brian and Sheldon didn’t touch it. Brian was full, anyway. “We’re taking two rooms tonight.”
“We have no vacancies.”
“You have no right to make that sort of demand.”
“Of course, we do. But you can ask the Triple S council. Do you think you’ll get an answer by tonight?” It was amazing, how stupid people could be. He’d had no idea.
The server stormed off. There was nothing she could do, and they both knew it. Ha!
That night, they had their rooms. Someone had obviously been kicked out. And they had probably gotten their money back. The tavern had lost money because of Brian and Sheldon.
Brian had never had a room to himself before. He would be getting a lot of things he’d never had before.
“Stop being such a coward!” he hissed at Sheldon the next morning as, after an enormous breakfast, they left the inn. “No one will believe you’re Shield if you don’t order people around.”
Sheldon said nothing. Brian was beginning to worry he’d picked a bad Shield.
Brian looked for the tailor with the best sign and the sturdiest door and the prettiest glass windows. He shoved the door open. If he hit someone with it, well, what was anyone going to do about it?
The tailor, standing beside someone who was probably a customer, stared at him in shock.
“You!” Brian snapped out. “We need clothing.”
“This is a paying customer,” the tailor objected.
“She can wait.”
“That won’t be happening.”
“You’re breaking the law.”
“You can complain to the Triple S council about me. Do you think you’ll be getting an answer by tonight?”
So he’d heard about them. Perhaps had, in some way, been prepared for them.
A lesson. Don’t have fun until after they’d gotten the goods.
Brian fumed at having to back down, but he could see he had to. Right then, anyway. He waved a hand at the tailor as though granting him permission. The tailor flushed in anger but directed his next words to his customer.
Brian didn’t know about wine, but he knew about clothes. He’d dressed enough bastards who didn’t even acknowledge that he was there. He moved among the bolts and shelves of fabrics, rubbing them between his fingers. He and Sheldon would be ordering the finest. Nothing but the best for the rest of their lives.
Brian thought that the tailor was making him wait, stretching out his conversation with his paying customer. Fine. Brian would get him back for that.
“You will make us ten outfits each,” he told the tailor when he finally had the man’s attention. He rattled off the garments he wanted; trousers, shirts, tunics, and cloaks. “The fashions the High Landed wear. Braids, obviously.”
The tailor glared at him. “That’s a ludicrous demand to make on one business.”
“Don’t take too long about it. You don’t want to give time for my complaint to reach the Triple S council.”
The tailor was caught, and he knew it. He ordered his assistant to take measurements.
It was the most fun Brian had ever had in his life.
And he knew exactly where he wanted to go next.
“Ever had any gold, Sheldon?” he asked as they left the tailor’s shop.
“I think it’s time we fixed that.”
The jeweller’s glare when they walked through his door was hilarious.
Brian looked at the glittering goods on display. Silver, gold, gems. It made his heart race.
He could take all of it. Every single piece. No one could stop him.
But his sense caught up to his pleasure. He could take it all, but that would drive the merchant to complain. He didn’t want to come to the attention of the Triple S. They probably had lists of their Pairs, the names and where they should be. But he could still take the best he could see, and he would take his time choosing.
Customers came into the store. From their comments, most of them had heard of Brian and Sheldon, and had already come to despise them.
Brian didn’t care how they felt about him, but maybe the fact that they thought and talked about Sheldon and him so very much wasn’t the best thing. Word might pass from town to town, maybe to another Pair. That wouldn’t be good.
So, maybe they should rein it in a little. It was one thing for Sources and Shields to abuse servants. No one cared about servants. Servants had no way to fight back. But merchants and traders, they were different. Maybe they Brian had to restrain himself. A little.
After a while, he found what he wanted. A fancy gold necklace, thick about the neck and falling inches down the chest, dripping with rubies. It was beautiful. “This one.”
“Of course,” the merchant snapped. He dumped the necklace into a black velvet bag and thrust it into Brian’s hand.
Ass. He was lucky Brian didn’t clear out half his stock.
“What about you?” the merchant demanded of Sheldon, making the sop jump.
But Sheldon wasn’t quite as weak as Brian had been beginning to fear. He picked up a gold ring with an enormous diamond, the size of the tip of Brian’s thumb.
And he smiled.