Read an Excerpt
Lord James Dupree's stomach roiled as he watched the overdressed merchant across from him shuffle the deck. It might have been the greasy stew he'd just consumed or the inferior wine he had just sampled. Or it might be because he was about to break his most fundamental rule in gambling: never wager more than you can afford to lose.
Or, again, it could be because he'd dusted off his youthful card-sharping for this one night for something very much against his own morals and his northlands upbringingtrying to acquire a slave, an elven slave at that.
Rough-hewn timbers supported the low ceiling of the common room of the Blue Boar. A few cobwebs hung in the corner, ragged and torn from a desultory attempt at cleaning. The walls had been whitewashed too long ago and were now grayed with soot from a poorly drafting fireplace.
He leaned his arms on the table, feeling through his shirt the roughness of the scarred wood.
"What was your name, again?" asked the midlands merchant sitting across from him.
The man, who had introduced himself as Alain, wore a fur-trimmed blue cloak over his red silk shirt and blue brocade vest. His body was less elegant than his clothingbloated like a day-dead toad.
James hadn't given one when he asked to join the game, and the merchant knew it. "James Northlands."
"I'll drink to that," said the self-described playwright on James's left.
The minstrel across from him laughed. "You'll drink to anything."
Both dressed as colorfully as the merchant, if not as richly. Their well-worn clothes had been the cutting edge of fashion a few years ago. Both were lean, almost too thin. Clearly neither had found raging success in his avowed field and neither could afford to lose what they gambled away so blithely.
The merchant filled wine cups all around. "What brings you to our fair town, James Northlands?"
"Business. For my master. Looking at some timber down south that he might want to buy. It's been a long, lonely journey. Kind of you to let me join you."
Alain laughed. "And if you can come away with a bit of our gold, all the better, yes."
He smiled in answer, and raised his cup. He carefully did not look at the elf with the iron slave collar who stood in the shadows behind Alain's chair, still as a stag downwind of a hunter, his eyes hooded and face carefully expressionless.
The iron had given him pause when he first saw it. It seemed to contradict the evidence of the oddly slanted eyes, the ears not quite like a human's. After all, he had only seen elves in old paintings and tapestries, and everyone knew that iron burned elves' skin like acid. But then he had seen the flash of silver in the firelight. Silver along the top edge of the collar and, he'd wager, lining it as well. No reason to waste such luxury on a slaveunless the iron collar would kill him without it.
He raised his cup to the merchant and sipped, fighting not to grimace at the offense to the art of the vine, a homemade concoction of various wild berries and inferior, overripe grapesa nose reminiscent of spoiled blackberries combined with the musty undertones of wine badly corked, and a finish like grape juice left too long in the sun.
He drank to be sociable, and because the others would want to get the stranger tipsy. He knew how to seem to drink more than he was drinking, and to seem more drunk than he was.
Strange that habits of a misspent youth would help him regain his family's heritage.