Bennoli and Edita had taken a house together for the winter. They’d parted company with Tarrascotti after the king had paid for their services, heading towards the wider valleys along the lower reaches of the rivers rather than up into to the mountains as he had. Edita had declined to take any road that led towards Montefulciano and Bennoli had acquiesced. They’d spent a few weeks working for a merchant in Bruschano while his own guards recovered after a beating and followed that up by escorting a group of pilgrims on their way home to the capital as far as the Sign of the Moon’s Cloak at Fiveways.
From there they’d spent most of autumn helping a nobleman’s feckless younger son explore a patch of ruins on the edge of the family estate. Papa had seemed happy to have him out of the way of the harvest and the village girls. Then they’d surprised everyone by actually finding treasure three levels down and back into the hill. Bennoli and Edita had not only been paid, they’ received a cut of the find, and when they’d moved on the feckless son had been having an unexpectedly mature conversation with his family about the estate improvements he’d be funding.
Chiero was three towns down the highway from the estate and the first one they’d come to that had a reasonable, sound house for rent. After dealing with a bit of business and signing a lease that would take them well into spring, they stocked up with a winter’s worth of supplies and wood and settled in to be part of the town for six months.
They had their hearth blessed by the local Keviran priestess and attended the weekly militia weapons practice. The boys and men who looked askance at Edita’s presence worked harder when she outshot most of them all at the butts with a short bow. Bennoli was welcomed by the town’s small cadre of professional guardsmen as an addition to their sword-work class. The two of them together frequented the market and the inn, being neither extravagant nor parsimonious. They settled in.
They weren’t the only folk of their ilk who’d chosen Chiero for their overwinter. Verdi and Scarlatti were swords for hire. They’d moved into town for the winter but they’d not settled. They changed inns three times. They didn’t go to the militia practice and they didn’t frequent the market. Soon it became noticed that they had a habit of suddenly ducking down streets and laneways like startled rabbits. Anyone would think that they were avoiding someone.
Edita pointed them out to Bennoli on market day while they were debating the merits of buying another cheese. He looked where Verdi had been and then looked further afield from there. A broad smile broke out across his face. “I think those two have miscalculated,” he told Edita, managing not to laugh. “They came into town when the harvest was well over, didn’t they?”
“Well, yes,” she agreed, “they did. What of it? They beat the winter.” She and the farmer’s wife selling cheese both took a moment to look at the sell-swords’ antics as they kept dodging around a group of stalls
“They miscalculated.” Bennoli’s smile was turning into a grin. “They waited until the harvest taxes had been collected and the tax collectors had moved on but they didn’t realise,” he suppressed a guffaw as Verdi got his feet tangled up in a cat and a sack of root vegetables, “that Chiero has a permanent tax collector, what with its size and the market.”
“I’d have thought,” observed Edita, her paid-tax token safe in the bottom of her purse, “that it would be easier just to pay their taxes rather than have all that carry on.”
Bennoli, equally secure in the possession of his own tax token, replied, “Some people will insist on being clever.”
“If they keep being clever like that,” the farmer’s wife observed as Verdi, the cat now clinging to the top of his head, peered around the corner of a stall to see if the coast was clear, “the Reeve’ll have their penny off them for setting up an entertainment.”