Rabin was halfway through his second cup when the man slid into the chair across from him. He had rough cut brown hair. His clothes were clean, well-made, and completely unostentatious. He didn’t belong in this crowd. Rabin scanned the rest of the inn’s taproom for any confederates he may have had. No one else looked out of place.
“Connell,” the man introduced himself. He stuck out his hand for Rabin to shake.
His palm and fingers were callused from ship’s work. The heavy muscles in his arms and chest said he was a common sailor. The sturdiness of his clothes said he was good at it. The ease of his seat and smile said he liked it. There was not a thread of ambition in him, and not a note of apology about it. Rabin leaned back, eying the man grudgingly.
“Rabin,” he said, short and sharp, to send him on his way.
“Charmed,” Connell drawled, a parody of culture.
Rabin straightened up again, finally getting a read on him. This was the kind of man who entered a bar looking for a fight. The kind who would walk out laughing whichever way it turned. If he walked out with a choice shiner, he’d walk out with a new friend as well. A good brawl to him was the same as the measuring small talk in Rabin’s family sitting room before his father struck a deal.
But there was a quiet seriousness hanging around Connell. He wasn’t look for trouble tonight. He just wanted something, and saw a straight line to get it.
“You a gambling man?” Connell asked.
Rabin gave him a sideways look. He was, but that was not the kind of question he gave a direct answer.
Connell dropped a heavy purse on the table. It fell hard enough to hint at weeks or months wages for him. “I lose, I empty this on the table, turn around and walk out.”
“At what game?” Rabin asked.
Connell shrugged. “I set the terms, you choose the game.”
Rabin considered that. Connell looked back at him patiently. This was no moment’s thrill for him. There was a plan to this and he was carefully walking it through. Rabin knew he should be getting up, walking away, putting this man’s face behind him and forgetting it.
But Rabin liked those straight lines. Little tight-ropes to run, though he wasn’t supposed to. He stayed.
“Your purse against mine?” Rabin asked.
Connell shook his head. “You lose, you convince your cousin t’give me fifteen minutes of his time.” He nodded across the room to where Rabin’s cousin, Toar was nursing a drink in the corner. Toar held a small table, a man to either side of him. They talked quietly, pleasantly, all the rules of society – at least the ones that Toar had any respect for – still held. Rabin thought it was ridiculous.
“So,” Rabin said. He turned back to Connell with a dry smile. “You’re looking to have a chat with the esteemed Toar ShatterIron.” Rabin picked up his drink and held it a moment, catching pieces of his cousin’s voice behind him. “He doesn’t like strangers.”
“I’m not a stranger,” Connell said. “Just a friend a his dear cousin.” He raised his eyebrows, like he knew that there was a corner of Rabin’s life that he actually fit into. Rabin shifted, avoiding his eye.
“You’re not anything that would impress him,” Rabin said. He took a drink.
“Don’t worry,” Connell told him. He leaned forward as if his patience had hit its horizon. “I’m doing it for a friend. He’s got real good manners. Plenty good enough for ShatterIron. Too good for you.” It was a crude jab, didn’t even hold the elegance of a barroom’s right hook, but it landed square. The cavalier shine in Connell’s eye said that he’d known it would before he threw it.
Rabin wanted him gone.
He shoved his cup out of the way and set his elbow on the table.
“Give me your hand then,” Rabin ordered. It was the fastest game he knew. One pin, and the man was out the door.
Connell eyed his doubtfully, looking at his arms, the flat of his chest. “You sure?”
Rabin nodded sharply. Connell was thicker than he was and if this were just a test of strength, he would win. But Rabin’s father had shown him the trick as a boy: the exact slant of the wrist that gave him he edge. Connell wouldn’t be the first sailor for Rabin to drive into the table.
Connell set his elbow on the table. He locked callused fingers around Rabin’s hand. Then he started to push. It was like shoving back against the prow of a ship that the tide was slowly beaching. Rabin slanted his wrist, forced the entire strength of his arm behind his hand and Connell still tipped him steadily toward the wrong side. When Connell forced him too far, he couldn’t keep the angle of his hand. One more second, one harsh pull and then his arm thudded to the table. Rabin yanked his hand away. Connell collected his purse as he rose from the table.
“Have him meet me out back,” Connell said.
Rabin stared after him. “No.”
Connell turned back immediately. “Do I look an idiot? I don’t aim t’hurt him. If I even got within a foot a him, he could melt me down t’insides before I could make him feel the cold off a knife. But I’ll tell you what, if I even get inside three feet, I’ll let you beat me down t’a smear on the ground, like you wanna.”
Connell smiled, then touched his forehead in a perfect sailor’s salute. Amusement and respect flawlessly balanced, like he’d just given a black eye and it looked funny sitting next to Rabin’s nose, but he thought Rabin had taken it well.
Then he turned and left, unapologetic.
Rabin swallowed back something that felt ridiculously like jealousy.