Em had been his first, though even then he’d not known if she was Emily, or Emma, or something stranger. She’d been at least twenty, with a brittle smile and fine dark hair and legs nearly as long and rawboned as his; he was a bundle of knees and elbows and ill-considered intentions at fifteen, but even dogs and idiots could figure it out and so had he. They’d done it in Sickie Croy’s garret, which he rented out for any purpose for a handful of coppers at a time. Tarq, thinking himself clever, had learned a time when it was standing empty and talked Em up there, glib even then. In the course of an hour he learned the mysteries of the universe, and skated up against its limits as well. But someone grassed to Sickie Croy, and he’d found Em and taken a knife to her cheeks, and told her to pass along to the northern boy his lesson. Someone always pays.
Gunnar Glasper had been his first, a Tiresian captain who’d run blockades in the war and was now running harbors in the rebuilding. Evading the King’s tax was one thing, but when he’d taken van Cleef’s bloody coin, Reznik the Shiv had put his name on the Tally. Jasper had found them the ship, and Clobber had stood watch, but it was Tarquin and Loche who’d slipped aboard. They flipped for it, and Tarquin won, or lost. It was strange that he couldn’t remember if they’d flipped to do the deed or avoid doing it; in any case, it was moot to Gunnar Glasper. The knife had gone in under his ear, by his jaw, clean and perfect, but it had come out with a sloppy rip and he’d had to dash out of the harbor red and dripping. Jasper had laughed. The rest of them hadn’t. It took at least another four or five before he could start laughing about a murder.
Orwend had been his first, an old tyrant even when he was young, more master than father – they were much the same in his mind, in his spirit, in his iron bones. The girls had been luckier, Tarquin thought as a boy, left to their own devices; it was only when they went south that he realized how battened-down they were, how bereft of opportunity. The old man had seen opportunity for his sons, so he curbed and bent and hammered them into the shape of those chances. Gyles had broken, and Orvain had bent, but somewhere along the line Tarquin had slipped loose of the frame. He regretted only that he hadn’t taken any more of the old bastard’s chattel with him.
Ceil had been his finest, that storm in the form of a girl, from shy dreamer to scarred sleek killer, madly and inhumanly beautiful all the way along. Their bed had been a haven even when things were bad with them, maybe especially when they were bad; when it was no bed at all and their fingers had clutched at wood or grass or marble, nails digging for the threads of hope and hurt that bound them. They’d pulled each other laughing and calling out through that sweet, aching madness, and attacked life the same way, and there’d never been a thought in Tarquin’s head that it was too good to last. Even now, he wouldn’t fill that hollow place with trite thoughts of inevitability or some such shit. They’d fucked it up, that was all.
The grinning man had been his finest, the slick soiled monster that had stalked his godsdaughter to the end of the world. There was, Tarquin prided himself on knowing, a long list to choose from – the mad Scarlet archmage on whom he’d made his name, Hinote Kirase (shameful or not, it was a hell of a fight), the slickear lord he’d opened from gullet to crotch on the day the Bloody Prince fell, and of course the Butcher. Maybe it should have been the Butcher; after all, he’d never fought like that in his life, before or again. It had been a duel, and the grinning man had been a mad rattling brawl. He’d beaten the man to death with a fireplace poker; what kind of professionalism was that? It was amusing that someone else had finished the job for him in both cases, and when you threw in that Uthas had killed the grinning man for him, well, the pattern spun out of control entirely. In the end, he had to choose the grinning man, because he’d been fighting and bleeding for the wee hen and her mother and father and for everything she represented; for the idea that what he’d built could make things right.
Nikolai had been his finest, of that there was no doubt, that great wind-carved glacier of a man. Osborne had trained him, and Shaw had shaped him over those long years, but in the year he’d worn the Diaconescu raven he learned more about being a man than those esteemed cutthroats had ever managed to teach him in ten. Even now, should the Unfeeling trod through the door of the Pig with a thin tired smile on his battered face, demanding to know what his halfwit lad of a right hand was about, there was a chance that Tarquin would answer him avidly and eagerly, whiskey at the ready. Though he’d more than likely knife the old monster first.
Annalea had been his last, two nights ago, both of them drunk on old John Bell’s good brandy. They’d meant to go over the books, but somewhere during that ever-continuing poker game it had become clear that that certainly wasn’t happening, and when they extricated themselves from the table it suddenly seemed that they couldn’t get to her little room above the street fast enough. Tucked into each other like shells, fingertips to knuckles, here and there a muttered instruction or a bad joke. Annie was nearly thirty, and he could see the crow’s feet starting to gather by her eyes, knew that her breasts would sag and her hips would broaden (just as his hair would go gray and slough out, and his clever fingers would knob and bend). She did not try to fill his hollow places, and he did not try to soothe her scars, and together they were happier than they believed they’d any right to be.
Some mad bugger in the Highlands had been his last, a Tauren in an ill-fitting robe singing down fire from the skies and horror from the deeps. It’d felt good to do field work again, the magic crackling over his skin and Annie’s potions coursing in his veins, keeping him as swift and strong as he’d been fifteen years ago, but ten times the bastard. Big Feliche held the front, arrows and sorcery whipping back and forth, making it easy for him to duck from doorway to alcove to the cultist’s own shadow. The silly fuck had never even seen him, only felt one knife in the back his knee and then, if he was unlucky, the other one going up into his throat as he buckled. It had gone in just as smooth as if he were Gunnar Glasper, and just like Glasper, it had been a mess, the Tauren writhing and bellowing in his death throes. By the time Tarquin had gotten the knife out, the rest of his lot were broken. No matter how many times he’d done this, it still got messy.
He was his last, finally; maybe thirty-four was young yet compared to most masterless men, but Tarquin had done far more living in those years than they, and what the fuck did they know of him anyway? He’d served kings and warlords and preachers and lunatics, schemed and cajoled and snuck and killed, danced for them like the song was ending and the Spring Maiden was just bare yards away. But now he had the fiddle, and when he didn’t know the tune, he’d learned to fake it. Sometimes he shuddered at the things he’d given up, or at the things he’d taken that weren’t precisely his by right. But that was the world. Tarquin was just trying to live in it, without any other bastard telling him what it was he had to do; the money, the lady, the pub and the Riders and the dim hope that he might leave something worth having after he was done, those were all just the benefits of living a masterless life. It wasn’t in him to be content, likely for the same reasons that had driven him to this stage. But he could look at the tally sheet he carried in some glutted red place, see his own name on the header, and decide that he was still winning.
And that would just have to be good enough.
Now hang me by this golden noose
'Cause I never been nothin' but your golden goose
Silver tongue don't fail me now
And I'll make my way back to you somehow