The Guardians come quietly that night. Their footsteps go unheard against the din that fills the walls of Toyler’s Tavern and spills out onto the murky street. For a moment, they linger before the entrance, bright and clean and out of place. They shuffle their feet against the cobblestone, their mouths settling into deep frowns. Their noses wrinkle at the putrid stench that leaches out from the sewers.
Their golden cloaks catch upon a gust of brackish wind as they shove through the squealing doorway. The inebriated occupants of the room fall into stillness at the sight of them. A jangling tambourine shudders to a stop. In the corner, a silk-clad woman shrinks into the shadows. Her instrument falls to her side with a tinny clatter. All about the room, dark eyes glitter in the dancing torchlight. These soldiers are not expected. They are unwelcome. Silence nestles sluggishly into the air, dense with smoke.
Behind the bar, Manfred Toyler watches with bated breath. His beady eyes follow the soldiers as they make their way towards him. He places the glass he is cleaning down upon the bar. He startles at the sound it makes. It is too loud against the formidable silence of the room—too crisp against the climate of dread that strings itself among the rafters. A cold sweat forms upon his brow. He moves to mop it up with his kerchief and pauses, his hand frozen before his face.
The Guardians take their seats at the bar. Their faces—newly shaven—sneer at him through the tendrils of smoke that dissipate around them.
He clears his throat—tilts his chin respectfully.
“General Byron,” he croaks. “Corporal Anderson.”
“Mr. Toyler.” Corporal Anderson’s response is nonchalant. His slick silver hair catches the light as he glances idly at the room about him. His face, long and narrow, looks as though it could have been carved from stone. His long, crooked lips curl downward into a sneer.
“What can I get you gentlemen?” Manfred’s tongue feels as though it is coated with sand. He knows they will not ask for anything. He already knows why they are here.
Before him, General Byron’s deep brown eyes are cold. “We’re on duty. We’ve come to visit you strictly on business,” he states. His fingers flick at an invisible speck atop the bar. His close-cropped brown hair appears black and oily in the shadows.
Mr. Toyler thinks of Thomas of the Wandering Lady and how all that the Guardians left was the faded, splintering sign. He thinks of how the fire had spiraled up towards the muddy clouds overhead, and how he had never seen so much smoke. He frowns, fighting to keep his gaze even. He will continue to play the fool.
“What possible business can you have here?” he asks.
Corporal Anderson laughs. The echo knocks into Manfred with crippling force. He presses his toes deeper into the soles of his worn leather boots. Steady.
“I hardly think you need to ask.” The corporal’s sneer widens, but it does not quite spread to his eyes. “You all but keeled over when we stepped inside your bar. A sure sign of a guilty man.”
“Guilty?” Manfred repeats. His laugh chokes off in his throat before it can reach his lips. “Guilty of what?”
“Of harboring criminals.” General Byron’s volume is intentional. His words project across the room. His gaze is impassive as he surveys Manfred. The swift shuffling of many garments follows his words. Manfred does not dare to glance over their shoulders. He can feel the dark, sobering gazes scrutinizing the soldiers’ golden cloaks. He can hear the treacherous whispers roll across the tavern like a swollen wave.
“The Guardians before him act as though they are oblivious to the sudden muffled clamor that overtakes the room. They remain resolutely still upon their stools, their faces blank. Mr. Toyler feels his brow deepen across his forehead. Angry heat seeps through his veins.
“How much has Rowland Stoward promised you, General?” Manfred’s hands shake as he speaks. He places them beneath the bar and hopes that the soldiers will not notice. General Byron’s dark, dead eyes disappear and reappear as he blinks slowly.
When he speaks, it is as though he is speaking to a child. “His Highness does not bribe his Golden Guard, Mr. Toyler. And he certainly does not deal in the dirty gambles of common men. He is merely attempting to clean up the trash that litters his city.”
Manfred sputters angrily. His fist comes down unbidden upon the surface of the bar. “Cleaning up my customers is more like it! You’re raking away all my income in one attack after another!” He leans forward, lowering his voice to a murmur. “Your father never would have stood for this, James, not if he was alive.”
General Bryon remains silent. The square line of his jaw is locked as he surveys Manfred coldly. Manfred feels a palm press into his chest. He glances up to see that Corporal Anderson has risen from his stool.
“Stand down, you fool,” he commands. His brown eyes glimmer with dislike. “You will address your superiors with the respect they are owed.”
Manfred’s mouth snaps shut. He rolls back onto his heels. His breathing comes in ragged pulls as he attempts to settle his nerves. Behind the Guardians, the room has gone still.
“What’s next, General?” he asks. Sweat has broken out in glistening beads upon the bald curve of his scalp. “Have you come to shackle me and make an example of me before all of the good people of Chancey?”
“Not just yet,” General Byron says.
“What about them? Are you to round them up like swine and throw them in prison?” Manfred can hardly keep the poison from lacing his words.
General Byron’s voice is detached as he speaks. “No one blames the king for wanting to rid his realm of gypsy scum.”
There is the abrasive scrape of chairs across the floor as a few customers rise from where they sit. The pellet bells of a tambourine clink together as a woman gasps. Manfred thinks he sees the candlelight catching on a dagger or two, but he dares not look away from the Guardians before him.
“Quiet,” he hisses. His beady eyes have narrowed into slits. He is through with respect. There are more frightening men than the Guardians lurking in the shadows of the tavern. “Do you wish to start a brawl? You will not win, James, against the wrath of Cairans.”
At his words, General Byron rises from his stool to join the standing corporal. A cold smile settles across his jaw. His eyes flash dangerously in the candlelight.
“I will not play games with you or your customers, Mr. Toyler,” General Byron announces. “I came here tonight to deliver a warning. Stop serving the Cairans.”
“And if I don’t?”
A smirk teases at the corners of the corporal’s lips. Next to him, General James Byron draws himself up to his full height. He appears malicious beneath the wavering shadows. “I am not a patient man. Have them cleared out by tomorrow or I’ll burn this place to the ground.”
With that, the two Guardians turn on their heels and head out the door as quickly and quietly as they came.