Tournament of Losers
All Rath wants is a quiet, peaceful life. Unfortunately, his father brings him too much trouble—and too many debts to pay—for that to ever be possible. When the local crime lord drags Rath out of bed and tells him he has three days to pay his father's latest debt, Rath doesn't know what to do. There's no way to come up with so much money in so little time.
Then a friend poses an idea just ridiculous enough to work: enter the Tournament of Losers, where every seventy-five years, peasants compete for the chance to marry into the noble and royal houses. All competitors are given a stipend to live on for the duration of the tournament—funds enough to cover his father's debt.
All he has to do is win the first few rounds, collect his stipend, and then it's back to trying to live a quiet life...
Over the course of thirty-three years, Rath had been woken up in a number of unpleasant ways.
Being dragged out of bed by angry people out for his blood was his least favorite. That included the time someone had thrown boiling water on him and left him with burns that had taken ages to heal.
He grunted as his head was slammed against the floor again, kicking out wildly, somewhat mollified by the pained cry of the goon he managed to hit. Getting to his feet, Rath started swinging, and he was big enough and swung hard enough that the overeager assailants finally backed off.
Then someone bigger got a good knock in, and Rath dropped to his knees, disoriented, pissed off, and entirely too hungover to do much about it.
“Good morning, Rat.”
Well, that narrowed down who was after him. Why was still unclear, though he could make a damned good guess. Rath dragged his eyes up, keeping his roiling stomach under control only from long years of practice, and glared through bleary eyes at the large-ish man looming over him like a gilded manor.
A gilded manor soaked in enough perfume to drown a whorehouse, but nobody said that to the Friar of East End if they wanted to keep their teeth. “Good morning, Friar.”
Friar smiled bitingly. “Not such a good morning for you and yours.”
“If you’ve bothered my mother about this—”
“I do not bother ladies unless absolutely necessary,” Friar cut in, scoffing as though he’d never committed an act of violence in his life, let alone against a woman.
Rath rolled his eyes. “I’ll believe that never. How much does my worthless father owe you this time?”
“Fifteen marks, in three days.”
That was enough to knock the last dregs of sleep and alcohol right out of Rath’s system. “Why the buggering fuck does my shit father owe you fifteen slick?” Even if Rath earned a steady income every working day of the year, which he definitely didn’t, he wouldn’t make more than just over two slick. What had his father done? Rath was going to kill him for real this time.
“Oh, I don’t want to ruin the fun he’ll have explaining.” Friar patted his cheek. “You should have agreed to work for me back when you were worth something, Rat. You know where to find me when you have the money. You have today, plus three, because I’m feeling just the slightest bit sorry for you. Have it to me by final bells.” He signaled sharply to the other figures in the room.
The massive figure who’d knocked Rath to his knees gave him a parting shove to the floor. He glared at her. “Always a pleasure, Jen.”
Jen gave him a smile full of malice and silver teeth, then was gone with the slamming of the door.
As morning wake-ups from Friar went, that could have gone worse.
“What in the world was that all about?”
Oh, right. Between the rude wake-up and being told his days were numbered again if he didn’t come up with an alarming sum of money again…
“Nothing,” Rath replied and gingerly picked himself up off the floor, holding fast to the rickety bedpost, swaying slightly, but managing not to fall.
He looked at the handsome man still in bed, all dark skin, long, dark, braided hair, and eyes green enough to make an emerald mad with jealousy.
“Who was that?” the man asked.
Rath wished he could remember the man’s name, but right then, he was lucky to remember his own. Oh, what he wouldn’t give for a mug of ale or six. But he was about to be a little too busy for that. “If you don’t know, then count your blessings and keep stupid questions to yourself. I’m sorry to go, beautiful, but there’s much to be done and very little time to do it.”
The man waved a hand dismissively. “I hope you’re able to come up with the money.” He flopped back down on the bed, which creaked under his weight and careless treatment. “Be a shame for the world to lose a man of your talents.”
“Hopefully, the Fates agree with you. Ta, darling,” Rath replied, mimicking the man’s High City accent. He found his clothes and pulled on his stockings, breeches, and boots. Snatching up his shirt and jacket as he clambered to his feet, Rath checked that the coins hidden in the jacket were still there. “I hope you find your way back to High City without trouble. Hide your purse.”
The man laughed and gave a lazy wave, clearly more interested in going back to sleep.
Fun while it lasted. Pity it couldn’t last most of the morning. Ah, well. Best to put away distracting thoughts. Rath pulled his shirt on as he stepped into the hall, then shrugged into his jacket. It was going to need a patch on the left elbow soon; he could feel the fabric about to give out.