They were beating somebody bloody in the alley behind Velman's wiggery.
It was a precise, methodical beating, Murgut noted with a professional eye. Two toughs held the cripple by his arms while a third dealt out the punishment with both meaty fists. There was a workmanlike method to it. Face, body, body. Face, body body. No heat behind it, but good and sufficient force. These three men in their dockyard clothes had been paid to send a message, was all. Not really an unusual thing in Tarqis.
No, what was unusual was the message's recipient.
The fact that he was a cripple, one leg hopelessly twisted and a cane a little distance away in the muck didn't signify. Plenty of cripples got their beatings just like haler men. But the silk hose on the man's legs, now that did signify, as did the gold head of the discarded cane. As did the ermine stole, and the brilliantly white linen shirt that was fast soaking up the man's blood. Nobles didn't get beatings in Tarqis. Poisoned cups, sure. Sharp knives across the gizzard, on occasion. But nothing so common as a beat-down.
And then there was how this nobleman was taking it. Which was to say, he was actually taking it pretty well, all things considered. Oh, sure, there was some harsh grunting, some barks of pain. An especially telling blow brought on an earnest groan. But there was no sniveling, no pleading, no 'do you know who I am?' or offers of payment to make it stop.
No, the nobleman was taking it about as well as anyone could. As well as Murgut might have, were he in the poor sod's position, which thankfully he was not. Then the man caught him looking.
And rolled his eyes, for all the world like he was enduring the world's most boring dinner party.
The absurdity of it nearly made him laugh. Murgut turned to go, before he got noticed, or involved, when something the cripple said around the fists stopped him short.
"You there. When I'm- thud- finished with my friends -thud- here, I'd like to speak wi- smack,spit, groan- speak with you."
"Shuddup," said the man with the fists. He glanced over at Murgut, then did a double take. Stepped away and put a hand to the knife at his belt.
"Speak to me?" said Murgut, ignoring Goodman Fists. "About what?" Despite himself.
"Employment. If you're any good with that humping great broadsword there. Are you?"
"Passable," he replied.
"I said shuddup," the tough repeated. "And you-" aimed at Murgut "-piss off."
"Del," muttered one of the arm holders, "he's got the brand."
"Don't use my name, you stupid git. And that brand's as fake as your mother's teeth."
Murgut rubbed the puckered burn on his forehead. "Actually, it's not."
"You're an imperial gladiator? Piss off. I got work to do." And he turned back to the cripple and cocked a fist.
Murgut didn't want to get involved. He never got involved. He'd spent far too much of his life in the fray to climb back down in it if he didn't have to.
"I was an imperial gladiator, Del. Past tense. In case you hadn't noticed, this is Tarqis. No arena. No Empire."
Del turned back to Murgut, a look of exasperation on his homely face. "I don't give a runny shit. So what?"
"So I'm currently unemployed. And you're beating my prospective employer to a pulp. So stop."
"You should know I don't pay any extra for holidays," the cripple said through rapidly swelling, split lips. And was ignored.
Del hawked, spat. "Now there's a problem. My employer paid for a hundred punches, one third of which to this twisted little git's face, specified. And I'm only up to sixty three."
"Sixty four," said the heretofore silent arm-holder.
"Sixty four," clarified Del.
"I promise I won't tell if you knock off early," said Murgut.
"Lips are sealed," added the cripple.
Del gave Murgut a considering look, then shook his head. "Nah. I guess I have what you call a work ethic." He started to turn back to the bloodied nobleman.
Except, Murgut noticed, his center of gravity was all off, and his feet were planted wrong. Which was why he was already moving when Del whipped the knife at him. Or where he had been a fraction of a second earlier.
Murgut didn't bother trying to unsheathed the sword. Not enough time, and the alley was too narrow to use it effectively anyway. Del was already following up his knife cast, fists clenched, snarling.
Murgut batted aside Del's powerful but slow punches, found an opening with disappointing speed, and took it.
The heel of his palm did more than break Del's nose; it pulverized cartilage and drove bone fragments into the man's brain.
In the Imperial gladiator scholae, no credit was given for restraint.
Del fell to the muck of the alleyway, convulsing. Murgut knew he wouldn't be getting back up.
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