Daily life within a small radius was provided for by weekly or daily markets in the town… Supplies came in from the surrounding areas…
The Structures of Everyday Life
Nick was sitting in the back garden, at a table set on an area of slate slabs. There was a clay pitcher of ale and two wooden mugs on the table. In the summer, the leafy vines wrapped through the beams above his head would give pleasant shade, but now were only studded with buds, promising greenery to come. The two trees and the flowers laid out in their pots and urns were all showing bright green. Vegetables were poking green lines of shoots from their ordered beds. He was enjoying the warmth of the late afternoon sun. It was a nice day, the sun breaking through the white clouds scudding across the sky. Nick drank in the sun and the colors, so refreshing after the long grey and cold of the Netherlands winter. He hiked up his doublet and checked the stitches. Not bad. Some redness, swelling, still tender, but no pus, no stink. But still tender enough to put paid to any dreams of bed play. His lips quirked in remembrance of that morning’s encounter between himself and ‘gritte and his cock twitched a bit as he recalled the feel of her. He tilted his head back, taking the sun’s rays full on his face.
“What a beached whale! Or is it a walrus, basking on a rock?”
“You’re in a good mood this morning.” Nick opened an eye and looked at Grotius, who was dressed in his ‘doing business in Brussels’ finery of a moderately successful merchant. Spanish black of course, but slashed with red, and set off nicely with a falling collar of lace. “You just kill someone?”
Grotius grinned and slid into a chair opposite Nick. Picked up the pitcher of ale and poured himself a mug. “No, no, you’re the bloody killer, Nick, not I. I don’t leave bodies hither and yon. I’m but a simple bargeman.”
Nick showed his teeth in brief amusement. “Right. I forgot.” He straightened his doublet and poured some ale for himself. “That tercio squad inspecting cargoes at Vilvoorde just died of the bloody flux, not the sword and bullet holes in them. My mistake.” He took a drink. “How’s business?”
“I thought you’d know as well as I, seeing how close you and my employer are.” He smirked suggestively.
Nick’s voice was flat, pissed off. “The closeness between Frau Cornieliuszoon and I is of no concern to you. You best remember that, boy.”
Grotius showed steel of his own. “Don’t fucking get your back up, Nick, not at me. Don’t mistake me, I have nothing but the highest respect for Frau Cornieliuszoon but we all know that you’re bedding her.” Grotius sat back, tension leaving his frame, and let his breath out with a laugh. “So now that we’ve both waved our pricks in the air and have shown what big men we are, perhaps to your point?”
Nick took a calming drink of ale. “Aye. Right enough. So I’ll ask again, and know that I have a good reason for asking. How’s business?”
“It’s not bad. Anything in particular you want to know?”
“Are you shipping anything north, to Antwerp, or towards Antwerp, soon?”
“That I am. I’ve got a cargo leaving a quay here, stopping at Vilvoorde, then to Antwerp.”
“I need to get out of Brussels, Grotius. And quietly. Any chance of you getting me on that barge going north without anyone the wiser?”
“Would this ‘anyone’ be the anyone who has put watchers outside this house?”
“None too discreet or skilled about it. They stick out like nuns in a bawdy house. They’re either stupid or someone is sending you a message. There are some things I need to know, Nick, and I’m not asking idly.”
Nick grunted noncommittally into the depths of his mug.
“First, do you have the money for the passage north? Passengers who wish to be unnoticed are always charged more, you know that.”
“Aye, I’ve got the coins to pay your gouging fee. ‘gritte holds a good portion of my money. What more do you need to know?”
“Second, who’s after you? Have you pissed off Hugh Owen? Word is, two of his bravos were found dead two days ago, about the same time you got sliced. I need to know so I can gauge just how deep the shit is.”
Nick gazed intently at Grotius. “No. I know nothing about that. I don’t work for that spying prick Owen and never have. But that’s all I’m saying. I’m going to pay you a pretty penny, old son, and in that fee is you not knowing and me not telling.”
Grotius took his time, drank off his ale, placed the mug back on the table. “You’re right. I’ll just assume that the shit is deep and rising.”
Nick tapped the table with a forefinger to gain Grotius’ attention. “And when I say soon, tomorrow would be perfect. Two days from now would be too late.” It grated on him to reveal so much of his urgency and fear to a villain like Grotius, but he had no choice.
“That’s not a lot of time to prepare something such as you need.” Grotius thought for a minute while Nick masked his unease behind another pull from his mug. “I think I can put all the pieces together. Some of it will depend on what Mistress Cornieliuszoon can put together on such a short notice. I’ll talk to her.” Grotius looked at Nick’s belly then at his face. “It’ll be rough and quick, probably violent. Your wound will not make you a laggard?”
Nick pasted on his face his most dependable look leavened with his number two most dangerous look. “Don’t worry about me. I’ll be able to keep up with your bravos, never you mind.”
Grotius rose from his chair, smoothed down the front of his coat. “Well, I’m off to arrange some things. I’ll send news when I have it, Nick. Until then, fare you well.”
“Go safe.” Nick poured himself the last of ale, then called to Grotius’ receding back. “And get me some weapons, will you? I’m fresh out and will surely need some in the future.”
Grotius waved his hand in acknowledgment without looking around and passed into the house.
The day was moving towards evening and Nick was back to resting in his room, up under the eaves. This was the worst part of his life, he found, the waiting. But he’d had many years to develop his patience, sailing as smuggler. More nights than he could count, waiting on the rail, straining his eyes for the merest glimpse of a signal lantern ashore, telling him that his cargo was approaching.
And he thought about the lack of that patience that had brought him to this place, the circumstance that had taught him the hard way the absolute importance of patience.
Bart Covington was the port master of Rye back in those days and he was more crooked than a dog’s hind leg. He had his own gang of knaves who made sure that selected goods from the Customs House made their way to a precise spit of land where the fens met the sea. That night, that god-damned night, those knaves were supposed to have a cargo of leather waiting for Nick.
Nick had his own ship in those days, gained through hard work and harder fights, a sloop with a small crew. Not much, but it had been his and could make the Channel crossing to France or Flanders without fail or delay. A tight, fast ship, perfect for an experienced and ambitious smuggler such as Nick. And that night, that god-damned night, it had rocked on the slow swell under a clouded sky and there had been no sign of the signal lantern ashore.
Nick had gripped the rail tightly and he had smelled the marsh smell and the burnt odor that had told him that fog would be rising soon. He’d known that once the fog rose, there’d be no chance for the rendezvous and he’d have to seek another cargo elsewhere. And he’d known, known deep in his bones, that the smart thing, the patient thing, would be to heave off and try elsewhere. But frustration and hunger had risen within him, and he’d decided to gamble.
A few whispered orders to his crew and the sloop had begun to move cautiously towards the shore. He’d strained his eyes in the darkness, hoping to see some glimpse of a signal lantern. And then the night, that god-damned night, had been banished as a huge bonfire had blazed up on the shore. Even though curses and orders had been screamed, the noise he’d made hadn’t been louder than the sound of another ship raising sail.
He tried, oh he and his men had tried, but it had been of no use. Tacking, veering, even throwing all extra weight overboard yielded no results in the end and they were all taken.
And so he had been clapped into a cell, left to rot until someone could be bothered to pass judgement on him. All his wealth had been lost upon his capture, so he had been confined in the lowest cell, with chains on him. It had been there, amidst the filth, cold, and dark, that he had first set eyes on Bob Poley. There had been a rattling at the door of his cell, a blast of light from a lantern, and a short, well-built, brown-haired man had entered. Nick should have taken it as a sign that all the roaches and vermin had fled at his presence but had been too hungry to give it any thought.
The man had introduced himself. He’d come with a basket of bread, small beer, cheese. He had allowed Nick to eat his fill, all the while making idle conversation until Nick was finished. Then he had laid out his offer plain and straightforward. Nick had two choices. He could die in prison or work for the Crown. Poley had said that he’d been looking for someone like Nick for some time now, a smuggler with Catholic connections. He’d even known that Nick’s parents had been Catholic, so Nick could fake the cant and gestures. Nick would be transferred to another prison, one in London, where Catholics were kept and present himself as a smuggler of Catholics and their works. He was to make what friends that he could there and offer his services once he was free. After a while, he’d be released and begin his work again, but this time for Catholics. His goal would be to gain entry into such Catholic smuggling networks as existed in Flanders. And he would report back to Poley regularly.
It had been at this point that Poley had finished with the carrot and revealed the stick. Now Nick might think of running once he was free across the Channel, Poley had offered, but there were some things that he might want to consider before taking such a rash action. Primus, forget about any chance of coming home to England ever again. Never to do business in any English port, never to live out your days among your own people. Run, and you die alone in some foreign place.
Nick remembered how Poley had counted off the points on his gloved fingers, like some scrupulous clerk. Stuck in that stinking black cell, Nick had no inkling of just how heartily sick he would get of watching Bob Poley count off points on his fingers. One time, gossiping with another spy in the service of the English in an Antwerp safe house, the spy had revealed that Poley modeled his counting nonsense on his master, Walsingham the Spymaster.
In the past, Poley still droned on, threatening. Secundus, Nick should be aware that there are English agents everywhere, who would jump at the chance to stick a knife in the back of a rogue agent. Tertius, this is not forever. Become an intelligencer, and in a few years, he’d be allowed back into England, all past sins and crimes forgotten.
So, of course, he had said yes. He’d been pathetically eager as a matter of fact. Anything to get out of that cell, anything for a little more life. As for Poley’s threats, well, set a deck under his feet and a sail over his head, no fucking pursuivant is going to tell Nick Applethorpe what to do.
Sitting in the small cramped attic room at Margitte Cornieliuszoon’s, Nick well remembered all that. Well remembered just how easily he’d agreed to this life of fear and deception. Well remembered just how stupid he’d been.
But now, He weighed the packet of papers he’d taken from Broussard in his hand. but now maybe I have something to buy my way back into England and out of this service.
Nick unfolded the small, thin sheets of paper. The sheets were covered, front and back, with lines of neat, legible writing. He knew how to read, his father having grudgingly spent the coin to send him to school as a child. But he couldn’t read this. It looked to be substitution code mixed with some sort of symbol code. He’d used similar when sending reports back to Poley. Given time, he gave himself a better than even chance of being able to break the code, but time was one luxury that he had none of. There were Latin words written in clear, but he was fucked if could read those. He could read English, well enough, a smattering of Spanish and Flemish, but not Latin.
Can’t read it, just have to trust that it’s something that can get me out of these straits. ‘Tis a gamble, but one that I must take, indeed, have already taken. No way out but forward, now.
He reached for needle and thread that he’d ask a servant to acquire for him. He’d become skilled at this particular task in the past few years spent in the Low Countries. To be sure, back in his time spent working as a smuggler, he’d turned his hand to stitching sails and the like, but this was to be a much more delicate task. Using the point of his smallest knife, he unpicked the threads in the hem of his cloak. With one last look at the frustrating ciphered writing on the sheets, he rolled them up as tight and as small as they would go. They made a surprisingly small and compact tube. It’s quite possible that they’d been smuggled out of England in exactly the same manner. The pages were not creased with folds and so they had not been hidden in a large button or in the heel of a boot. He placed the paper tube inside the hem of his cloak, and with squinting concentration, began to carefully stitch the hem back up, doing his best to match the already existing stitches.
Just as he was finishing up, there was a knock at the door and Matthias stuck his head in. “Mistress would see you now, Mynheer Crossby. She’s in her counting room.”
Nick grunted in assent and got off the bed. Carrying his cloak with him, he followed the boy along the hall and then down the stairs. The stairs ended on the ground floor in the back by the kitchen.
The kitchen was a sanctuary of warmth and beguiling smells. Anne, the cook, had her never-empty pot of stew simmering from a hook in one corner of the fireplace. She was busy at the main table, cutting up vegetables and meat for a savory pie, the dough for the crust already rolled out and lining the clay pot next to her. Matthias veered towards the pile of chopped up turnips, hoping to cadge a piece; Nick moved on past him.
“’Tis all right, boy. I know the way to the mistress’s counting room. You stay here, for I have doubt that Anne has work enough for you to do.”
He left the kitchen, Anne hectoring Matthias to keep his shitty fingers out of her work and that he should make himself useful scrubbing pots. His boot heels rang on the floor tiles painted in blue and green as he passed through the dining room and into ‘gritte’s counting room, where she awaited him, among the piles of paper and account books that towered on her desk and overflowed onto the table next to it. She was seated there, at her desk, dressed in the elegant simplicity of her black widow’s clothes, her blond hair artfully coiled on her head. Grotius stood to one side, changed into his work-a-day clothes, all dun leather and grey wool. His hat was in his hand and he had roll of leather tucked under one arm. The room was warm, heated by the stove that ‘gritte had imported from Cologne. The French tapestry along one wall, depicting an idyllic garden scene, enlivened the room with its bright colors.
Nick made his usual jerky, clumsy bow to ‘gritte. “Frau Cornieliuszoon, good day to you. I pray that you are well?”
She graciously nodded to him. “Good day to you, Mynheer Crossby. I am very well, thank you.” She picked up a bill of lading from her desk. “Mynheer Grotius has come to me with the information on a shipment that can get you out of Brussels and to Antwerp. I had him put together a cargo from the Millers, the Tanners, and the paper makers. I had to bid low but everything will be loaded onto one of my barges tomorrow. You’ll need to get yourself there unnoticed, unless you want dogs barking at your heels all the way.”
“And there is something else.” She placed the bill of lading on her desk and looked directly at Nick. Her eyes were cold and her mouth was set hard in anger. “Grotius has informed me that there are men watching my home. And that they are here because of you. Who are these watchers?”
Nick gave himself no time to think about his lies. Both ‘gritte and Grotius were much skilled at spotting all the signs of a liar. “I don’t know. Perhaps friends of those two that I killed.”
Grotius’s tone was one of mild interest. “How would they know that you are here?”
Nick made sure that his shrug was properly casual. “Maybe they tracked me? I was, after all, bleeding like a stuck pig.” He lightly patted the bulge in his doublet made by the bandages.
“Why not call on Hugh Owen for help, send him a message? You’re his man and he’s powerful enough that he can have these watchers taken without questions being asked.” ‘gritte’s gaze was trained unwavering on his face.
“They might be bravos, looking for revenge, or they might not. Until I know more, it’s best if I get out of the city for a time.”
Now there was a more than a trace of anger in her voice. “Nick! What have you done?”
Now he allowed himself to sound evasive. “Nothing!” He let the silence linger for a moment and then continued as if made uncomfortable by it, speaking in a muttered rush. “It’s very possible that someone close to Owen has been spilling poison into his ears about me. Probably that high mannered shit Helmsley. So it’s best if I get as far away from you as possible, draw all suspicions and rumors in my wake.”
‘gritte leaned back in her chair, a sour expression on her face. But Nick was relieved to see that a certain tension had left her shoulders. “You best leave one very large wake, for it seems there are suspicions and rumors aplenty.”
“I know.” Nick made sure that his tone was properly apologetic. “I am deeply sorry for all of this. Wounded as I was, I was thinking only of safety, not of the danger that I’ve put you in. But I’ve been thinking about how I can leave here without those watching outside being aware. I’m well enough that I can be at them with steel in the late night and then be down to the quay where I can sneak aboard the barge.”
Anger flashed across Grotius’ face. “No! No more bodies, Nick! You’re leaving Brussels and I’ll not be the one to clean up the messes you make. You spill blood here and those that are after you will come looking for us to answer for it.”
“So then what do you propose?”
“You have a bit of luck. Tomorrow is market day. There’s always a bustle of people going to and fro in this neighborhood then. You can sneak out in the crush of people and make your way to the quay through the market; drawing away any watchers on this house. At the market, I’ll have some of my men start a disturbance. You should be able to lose any pursuers in the confusion.”
‘gritte had been thinking. “I can add another piece. There’s this minor nobleman from the Ardennes who fancies marrying a rich widow. I’ll invite him to visit me tomorrow morning. You can leave with him, to confuse the scent.”
“The more the merrier, in a situation like this.” Nick nodded. “My thanks to both of you.” He looked at Grotius. “Were you able to get me weapons?”
“Aye.” The smuggler went over to a side table and unfolded the roll of leather he was carrying. “Just swords and daggers, though. No pistols.”
“Well enough. I’m more comfortable with blades, in any case.” Nick inspected the weapons. There were a couple of swords and a number of daggers. He lifted a sardonic eyebrow at Grotius and picked up a rapier with an elaborate basket hilt. “A bit too fancy for me. I’m on the run, not going to court.” He put it back down and chose instead a single edged backsword. He gathered up several daggers of different types, including some narrow and flat, designed for throwing. “These suit me very well. Thank you.” He stowed the daggers away on various places on his body. “How much do I owe you?”
Grotius nodded at ‘gritte. “Frau Cornieliuszoon has taken care of it.” He wrapped up the remaining weapons in the leather. “I’m off. Much to do and not much time to do it in.” He held out his hand to Nick. “If all goes well, I’ll never see you again. It was good working with you, Englander. Good luck with everything.”
Nick clasped Grotius’ hand. “I’ve worked with many in our business, but none better. You keep yourself safe, you bastard Flem.”
Grotius returned the hard grip, then touched his cap to ‘gritte, “I’ll send word when all is in readiness, Frau Cornieliouszoon.” and left without further words.
An obscure feeling of concern moved through Nick. “You’ll be safe from those coming to look for me, ‘gritte?”
“Are people coming to look for you, Nick? I thought that you would be drawing all of them away.” She looked at him forthrightly. “Do not worry yourself. I have the protection of not only the Guild, through the connections of my late husband, but also the protection of Don Mendoza, who is high in the councils of the Duke of Parma. Hugh Owen will dare not move against me; he’ll not waste his time. And if he resorts to lower violence, well, then I’ll unleash Herman and Jean-Paul. They’ll leave him with his cods stuffed down his throat.”
Nick huffed out a low laugh. “All this time, and I am still guilty of forgetting just how capable you are.” He directed a fond look at her to hide the disquieting thought that rippled through him. Not convinced by the tale of the Italian deserters, were you, ‘gritte?
Nick’s face felt cold. He’d shaved off most of his whiskers early that morning, leaving just a bit on his chin and a small moustache. He was dressed in used clothes, bought at a second hand shop and looked the part, well enough, of a groom of a moderately prosperous Brabant ridderschap.
A clatter of hoofs outside heralded the arrival of Jonker Paul Vornstadt. Voices from the front of the house indicated that he was being shown in and greeted by ‘gritte. A short while later, Peter, the house servant, came into the kitchen. “You were right, Anne. It’s mulled wine they’re wanting.”
“Told you so. Too early for Canary, too chill a morning for beer. They’ll be wanting something to warm themselves.” As she nattered on, Anne moved about the kitchen, pouring the wine that had been warming next to the fire and mixing in the spices. “Here, here, take it.” Peter took the silver ewer and exited back into the front of the house.
A voice came from the back door. “Excuse me, but the lady of the house told me to come around and wait here while my master talks with her.” It was Vornstadt’s groom, roughly the same size and shape as Nick. Even their clothes were similar. The first part of the plan was done.
“Some warm wine for you, this chill morning.” Ann handed the groom a mug filled with what was left from the kettle.
“Many thanks, Frau.” The groom took the mug and drank eagerly.
Nick crossed the kitchen to the groom. “You’ve been told what to do?”
The groom wiped his mouth and looked at Nick. “Aye. Jonker Vornstadt told me how I am to proceed. Seems simple enough.”
“Good man. And here’s some coin from me in thanks for your part.” The groom quickly took the proffered coins, almost dropping his mug in his haste. “Now let’s you and I trade hats, to make the play complete.”
“Aye, as you wish.”
As Anne bustled around them, attending to the feeding and care of the stew pot, Nick chatted with the groom, the habit of an intelligencer. Vornstadt, the groom revealed between gulps of wine, was a very minor noble, despite his knightly title of ridderschap. He held a decaying manor house and some villages around it out on the edge of the Ardennes forest. His wife had died in childbirth, along with the babe, and Vornstadt was seizing the opportunity to trade up. He was in Brussels and shopping for a rich widow. Nick allowed himself a brief flash of inner humor at the thought of this rustic coming on the self-important cock-of-the-walk at ‘gritte.
After some time, Peter came back into the kitchen. “Jonker Vornstadt is getting ready to leave.”
“Right, then let’s start the mummery.” Nick tugged the groom’s hat low over his eyes and left the kitchen through the back door. Going around the side of the house, he grunted at Matthias and took the reins of Vornstadt’s horse from the boy. Keeping the horse between himself and the street, he brought it around to the front of the house. His time in the Netherlands, these last few years, taking packets of ciphered letters to this person or that, had given Nick some skill with horses. But, at heart, he was a sea-farer and never entirely comfortable with these large beasts. So he stood there stiffly while Vornstadt took his leave of ‘gritte in the doorway of the Cornieliuszoon house.
The portly nobleman waddled down the steps after the last words of parting. He was awkward getting into the saddle and Nick had to jam his shoulder into Vornstadt’s wide ass before he was properly seated. This was done with no little swearing and huffing. This becomes any more of a show, I’ll be obliged to put my hat out for coins.
Some faces were suited for the fashion of the close cut beard on the chin. Vornstadt’s was not one of those so blessed. His multiple chins spread the beard and made the hair appear sparse. His piggy eyes glanced down at Nick.
“She’s a spirited piece of flesh, your mistress. And well endowed.”
Nick took on a tone of calm forbearance; for the point was to slip away unnoticed, not to gut this fat pig in the middle of the street. And the fat pig was nobility. A piss poor ridderschap out of the Ardennes where he probably fucked chickens, but noble born nonetheless. “I am sorry that you are so ill-informed, my lord. Frau Cornieliuszoon is not my mistress. Neither in the matter of my employment nor my bed.”
Vornstadt looked blankly down at Nick, as if observing a talking dog. “Yes, a helpless widow like her will not hesitate when I offer to marry her. She will become part of the renowned Vornstadt name and leave behind her this unnatural interest in commerce.”
Nick took his attention away from the talking pustule on the saddle, the nasal droning voice fading unnoticed among the clatter and shout of the street noise. In pulling the horse aside to let a Spanish grandee pass, he essayed a glance behind him.
A little while later, outside the Inn of the Trumpet of Gabriel, he let the horse drink from the trough. It’s a fucking parade. Two probably working for Owen. Behind them, Adrien and Pieter, Grotius’. I feel like a coney with the hawks circling overhead. But we’ve drawn off the watchers on ‘gritte’s house, and that’s the main thing.
Nick led the horse around a sow and her litter grubbing in the gutter running down the middle of the street. At least the horse was well trained, Vornstadt wobbling in the saddle, shied more than the horse at the shrill cries of a chair mender with his goods stacked high on his back.
The press of people in the street became greater as they neared the marketplace. Nick stopped the horse to let pass a lady trailed by her maidservant with a basket for the day’s purchases. Moving slowly forward with the rest of the crowd, he entered the sea of noise and movement that was the marketplace.
Each seller was trying to outdo his or her neighbor with loud cries extolling the freshness, newness, and flavor of whatever spilled out onto their table and over into baskets or cages around them. Fowl of various sorts, destined for the chop in a short while, beat their wings against the wicker cages and added their shrill calls to the din. The combined noise from throats both human and animal echoed against the high buildings surrounding the square.
Nick patiently led the horse through the mix of people; starting and stopping as the flow dictated. Ahead, a peasant woman with her donkey loaded high with spring greens stopped and began doing business in the middle of an open space. There immediately resulted a jostling crowd as some stopped to buy and others tried to make their way around. Nick didn’t hesitate. He swiftly removed his hat and tucked it into the horse’s bridle. Pulling up the hood of his jerkin, he moved away into the market. Vornstadt just sat there, blinking stupidly, mouth moving noiselessly. The horse lifted its tail and gushed piss.
Nick made his path through the pressing crowd without intent; allowing himself to be shifted from one path to the next as the people surged and roiled. Upon hearing a baker blowing his horn, he moved around a woman selling leeks and cheeses and walked towards the baker’s storefront on the edge of the square. The ruddy faced baker alternated blasts on his horn with shouts of “Fresh bread! Piping hot! Good brown bread!”
“If you can leave off heralding the Second Coming for a minute, I’d like to trouble you for one of those twist rolls.”
“At once!” He turned to the scurrying ‘prentice who was loading the branches of the bread tree with circular loaves and rolls. “Pup, give this Mynheer a fresh roll!” He turned back to Nick. “A double penny.”
“Will you take a half stuiver from Utrecht?”
The baker didn’t even pause, any coin calculation like that could be done in his sleep. “Aye. ‘Tis fair.”
Chewing on his roll, Nick made his way around the edge of the market. Owen’s dogs split up, the one with the patchy black beard and pox scars worked his way through the crowd that had grown around Vornstadt. The fat noble sawed ineffectually at the reins but the press of people was too great around him as they tried to get to the egg seller on one side and the peasant woman selling greens and cress on the other. The other skulker, the one with the potato nose, moved to the left, intent on working his way around the edges of the market on the side opposite Nick. Neither of them had conned that Nick had changed hat for hood.
Dodging a small boy carrying a large cheese, Nick strolled back into the market, tacking his course so that he would intercept the one across the square. He brushed past Adrien. “Start it now.”
Without a flicker of acknowledgement, well trained were Grotius’ dogs, Adrien roughly shoved aside Pieter while making his way towards a shapely woman chopping apart carp on her table. Pieter took umbrage most convincingly. “You shit licking fucker!”
Adrien spun around. “You keep a civil tongue in your head when talking to your betters or I’ll fucking cut it out and feed it to the pigs!”
As Adrien was knocked back into the pile of fish heads and guts, he brought down another man as if by accident. Once the fisher woman began to kick both of them and scream at them in a completely unintelligible gutter slang, the brawl had well and truly started. Adrien caught one foot and hoisted the fisher woman off her feet as he scrambled upright, shedding slime and guts. Her scream brought her fishwife allies to the fray, laying about themselves indiscriminately. In the confusion, no one noticed when Pieter brought down Owen’s pock faced follower with a blow to the head. Immediately following that, leaving no good deed unpunished, wielding a table leg, a midget from a group of tumblers and mummers laid out Pieter and began to remove his purse and codpiece.
Unseen in the crush of people rushing to and from the brawl, Nick came up behind the other of Owen’s men. As they came up along side an alley, Nick grabbed the man’s neck and arm; ran him into the alley. The whore sucking prick rolled her eyes anxiously at them as the two men rushed past but was too professional to leave off her work. The man she was administering to was too lost in sensation to know anything.
Nick reached for a dagger but paused, remembering Grotius’ admonition against leaving any more bodies in Brussels. That pause was a mistake. Potato nose heaved, broke Nick’s grip, and slammed back into Nick’s stomach. Stitches tore and a white sheet of pain dropped Nick to his knees. Bile rose in his throat and he fought to not pass out. Potato nose’s voice barely registered.
“Brother Owen has some questions for you, you fat fuck. Now stay down!”
The kicks were barely felt over the pain of his re-opened wound.
Move or die. Potato nose was close enough. Nick tore one of his blades from his sleeve and slammed it through Potato Nose’s foot, nailing it down into the muck and mire.
“Oh, you bastard, you fucking bastard.”
Paying no more attention to the fucker’s cries than he did his kicks, Nick slowly got to his feet. Despite all the provocation, he kept Grotius’ admonition against killing in mind and didn’t slice Potato Nose a second mouth under his chin. So, instead Nick grabbed a handful of greasy hair and slammed his head against the wall until he was insensible and only a few times after for the pain in his gut. No more than three more times at the most.
Standing next to the whore and her client, Nick stared out from the alley mouth at the chaos of the market. It looked like it was actually quieting down, brawlers were being separated by bravos in the employ of the market officials. In the interest of commerce quickly recommencing, any one who showed the slightest hesitation about stopping fighting or gave any lip to the bravos was quickly clubbed down and dragged away. The sight of Vornstadt still on his horse but festooned in garbage raised Nick’s spirits. There was no sign of Adrien and Pieter. Their job done, they were undoubtedly back with Grotius. Nick turned away and walked as fast as he could while holding his stomach. He could feel wetness spread from the torn stitches. The man groaned loudly as he spent into the whore’s mouth.
Grotius had told Nick to look for the barge at the quay at Saint Catherine’s church. The crane was unloading a barge as Nick moved past. The large wooden wheel with the men walking inside it to draw up and let down cargo clattered and groaned. From the brawl, there would likely be more men to walk off their punishment for a few days. The ungreased spindle shrieked as the crane was turned to lower its loaded cargo net of wine barrels from the barge onto the wharf. By the trim of painted blue flowers along the bow, Nick recognized the ship he was told to look for.
Nick walked up to the barge with the blue flower trim. “Hoy!”
The man overseeing the loading and stowing of barrels into the barge’s cargo space looked up at Nick. “The fuck do you want? I’ve got no work, so piss off.”
“Don’t take that tone with me, Precious. Albert Oldenberg told you that you’d have a passenger down the canal. I’m that passenger.” Albert was one of the names that Grotius used. For that matter, Nick had no idea if Grotius was the smuggler’s real name.
The bargee’s face became even more disgusted. “Fuck. Well, all right then. Get your ass on board and stay the fuck out of the way. As soon as I get the last of these damned barrels loaded, we’re casting off.”
Nick waited for a pause in the line of men rolling the barrels down the gangplank and quickly made his way on board.
“No baggage? No retinue? No perfumed catamites for you to fuck up the ass while we travel?”
“Sorry to disappoint. Just me, so it looks like you’ll be fucking a greased knot hole like usual.”
With an inarticulate growl, the barge master waved Nick off. Oh, this is going to be one pleasant couple of days, I can tell that already. Pray to God, the pain will be gone by time we reach Antwerp.
Nick found a place out of the way towards the prow of the barge where he made a nest for himself among bales of cheap cloth. He kept an eye on the wharf-side, still unconvinced that he had gotten away so clean. He kept his other eye on the cargo being loaded onto the barge, willing the men to move faster. After a short while that felt like an eternity, the barge master and his crew cast off the lines and the heavy vessel slowly moved away from the dock. Nick looked at Brussels drifting past. He knew it was the last time. He kept himself from feeling anything and said a silent goodbye.