Vermillion took them down the main street for a few blocks, horse’s hooves clopping on the cobblestones, then west on a packed gravel road. Once off the large thoroughfare, traffic was considerably lessened. “All right, let’s see,” he said. “Need to sell the swag from Cavallos’ agent, get the others their shares. Check in at the Guild. See Ginko,” he thought of Vivianna and knew he should at least let her know he wasn’t dead, “Vivianna, my parents. Get our clothes washed, food for us, more blankets—I don’t have guests,” he explained. “And I didn’t want to say anything before,” he gave her a sidelong glance, “but you kinda stink,” he teased, knowing he was just as fragrant.
Iaondrin frowned and sniffed herself. She wasn’t easy enough to joke, or maybe it had been so long since she had travelled with anyone that she had forgotten whatever sense of humor she once had. At the livery, she walked through the stalls, glancing in at every horse, checked the water trough, and ran her hand through the grain. “It’s too good for you, Jaely,” she told the mare, who was already making friends with the stable boy.
Vermillion consulted with the man taking care of his horses and dropped enough coins in his hand to pay for several more months. When Iaondrin was ready, he shouldered his bags and led her back to the streets. As they approached his apartment, third floor over a cobbler’s shop, he scanned the street automatically for anyone watching it, but no one seemed to be paying any particular attention to the building as they approached. Vermillion could see her eyes glancing around, too. She would turn to avoid brushing against people as she followed.
His apartment was spartan. A few chairs and a table for eating, a counter and a few empty cabinets, and a door to the bedroom with a bed and two chests. “Take the bedroom,” he jerked his head towards the door. He lowered his packs to the floor across from the door. “There’s a bath house not far, then we’ll get food.”
Iaondrin dropped her bags in the bedroom with her short bow and quiver. “At the bath house, how do they deal with weapons?”
“We’ll get a private room,” he suggested, then realized how that sounded. “Take turns, or one each,” he added hastily.
“All right.” She kept her armor, sword and knives, along with her money pouch. On the walk to the bath house, she kept her hand on or near the hilt of her sword, nervous among the crowds.
The bath house was a large stone building with several areas for bathing. A large central area with pools of different temperatures was surrounded by private areas for those wishing more privacy. Bryan asked the girl at the counter for two private rooms next to each, preferably allowing conversation, and for someone to clean the clothes they were wearing. They were shown to a room with a shoulder height stone wall separating two sunken baths. He sank into the hot water gratefully, relaxing for a moment before scrubbing himself clean. Rinsing away the soap, he briefly wondered how they kept the water clean, for there was no sign that anyone had bathed in his pool. He shrugged and sat back to wait for his clothes. “How are you doing over there?”
He had heard the sounds of her armor and weapons being set aside, of her undressing and passing her clothes out to be laundered, and after that the sounds of the water as she washed. However now, at first, there was no response, and no noise at all -and then the sound of someone rising from being under water, and a deep breath. “What did you say?” When he repeated his question, she answered, “Fine. Just washing my hair. I don’t think I’ve had it unbraided since … well, for a long time.”
He leaned his head back and closed his eyes, trying to let the hot water relax away Sa’iph, undead, and frozen wastelands. When he felt his stomach give a little rumble, he realized the stalls would be closing by the time they got out of the baths, and any food left at them might not be worth eating anyway. “I think the stalls will be closed by the time we get out of here,” he called over the wall. “Is a private dining room at a tavern or hall all right with you?”
“You think I shouldn’t risk a common room?” The question was followed with the sound of her stepping out of the pool, and then the back of her head and shoulders were visible over the top of the wall. Her hair was unbound, wet, pulled over her left shoulder, and she reached for a towel to begin drying it. Her other shoulder was bare, and marked by four parallel scars that continued down her back past where he could see. They were old, pale silver against her skin, and had the look of something that might have laid her open to the bone.
Probably from her escape, he mused. He wasn’t going to ask her about it now. “I think, if we kept to the better class of hall, you’d be fine,” he answered. “I think those rich enough to think they should have political power and the Vind are the ones we should stay away from. The private dining room suggestion was just in case you’d feel better if it was just us.” After the boy brought his clothes back, he climbed out, slightly pruny, and dried himself off.
“I don’t need the private room.” The answer might have been surprising from someone who was generally unwelcoming, but perhaps she spent too much time alone. She sniffed her now clean clothes, and dressed quickly, anxious to put her armor and weapons back on, and then combed the tangles from her hair. It would take a while to dry, and she would have to wait to rebraid it.
“Then we’ll try the Gilded Goose,” he said, pulling his own clothes back on. He wrinkled his nose at his armor, knowing it could use a good cleaning and not wanting to put it back on over his newly cleaned clothes. He didn’t particularly relish the thought of carrying it around, either. “After we stop at my place to drop off my armor. I’m not sure it doesn’t still have undead bits in it.”
Iaondrin raised both eyebrows, looked down at her own armor, and shrugged. Most of her fighting in Palderton had been at a distance, and she had cleaned the ensorcelled studded leather fairly thoroughly back in Obber’s Mill. Then she considered for a moment. “Will armor be out of place in this Gilded Goose?”
“Nah, not that. You might stick out covered in steel, though,” he answered and led them off. The Gilded Goose was north of his home, trying to bring in some of the richer patrons from the merchants district, but most of them didn’t leave their own stomping grounds except while slumming. Four long tables and six round tables were scattered about the floor and the bar was at the far end. Several oil lamps kept the place well-lit. The place wasn’t overly busy, and they were able to get a round table on the left side of the room. He ordered some roasted goose and vegetables, bread and a goblet of Vanek Red.
He leaned back in his chair a bit and watched her as she ordered. Her hair kinda glows in this light, he thought. “Have you ever been to Tarrish before?” he asked.
“Passed through once or twice. Not for long.” She sipped the wine and glanced around, seemed about to say something, stopped, set the glass down and looked up. “I’m not much of a conversationalist. I talk to myself a lot. Or talk to Jaely. But she doesn’t say much in response. I’m not good at small-talk.”
He leaned forward and smiled crookedly. “You didn’t really hide that all that well on the way here,” he said gently. “You could, if you want, ask me about anything. I’ve told you a lot of half-stories about things I’ve done. Anything you want to know more about?”
“It’s not exactly square, is it,” she said, “to expect one person to be an open book?” She carefully dissected her bit of goose, neatly carving it from the bone. “So why haven’t you gone straight to your parents with that potion?”
Bryan paused for several moments before answering, trying to come up with the right words. “I was seven or eight when it happened. From that point on, my ma had to take care of my pa as much or more than me. It wasn’t long before it was almost like I didn’t have parents. They were more like the people I lived with.” He took a sip from his barely touched wine and ate a bite of goose. “The Guild gave them a safe place to live and some seamstress work for my mother when they started training me. And I don’t know what happens if my dad gets his mind back. Will he remember any of it? Does he think he still works on the docks? How much adjustment are they going to have to do? Am I going to have to do any? And even with all that, what if the potion doesn’t work?
“Besides, after asking you to come here, I’d feel a little like I was abandoning you. I’m going to feel bad leaving you when I got to talk to Ginko, and that’s the reason I said to come here.” Lurking behind his words was the idea that she was being hunted and he didn’t want to leave her alone to face that.
She looked at him, frowning again. They weren’t just people you lived with, she thought to herself. If that had been true, he would not have spent so much time on the ride to Tarrish looking at the potion. But she didn’t say that out loud. “Abandon me? Are you my babysitter now?” There was no particular harshness in it. “Don’t use me as an excuse.”
“You’re not an excuse not to see to it. You’re an excuse not to spring it on them as they are sitting down to supper,” he explained. “It’s not like I had a lot of time to go when we first got here. I’ll go in the morning.” He popped a piece of carrot in his mouth and chewed thoughtfully. “All right, maybe I’m a little scared, too.”
“Of him forgetting what’s happened since? Priest magic isn’t my forte, but I don’t see why it would work like that.”
“No, of what happens between him and me. I just spent nine months on the fuckin’ road, and before that there was another trip for six months. I never sent a message to let anyone know I was still alive. How’s that going to go over? My job consists of being hired to steal things. I think it’s a good job, and it got us out of the Warrens, but what’s he gonna think?”
She looked at him quizzically. “There’s too much wrapped up in that for me to peel it apart. Your mother knew what sort of job you took, right? There any particular reason why you’re more worried about what he’ll think – of that, of you not sending a message – than her? And she’s had all her faculties all this time?” Iaondrin caught herself in mid-stream, and waved one hand half-apologetically. “Sorry. When it’s just me and horse, I don’t need to worry about letting her get a word in.”
“Ma is an extremely patient woman, though she’s probably not very happy about the nine months with no word thing,” he admitted. “I don’t know who pa is.” He finished his goose and took another sip of his wine. “You’re prolly right about my job, though. At least what I’m doing is legal now, and it got them off the streets.”
“If you don’t know who he is now, then does it matter who he’ll be after?” She pushed aside her plate and folded her arms on the table-top. “Seems it should be your mother’s decision what to do with that potion.”
“Prolly should,” he agreed. “Dessert? Later in the season, they have a good blackberries and cream dish, but their cakes are all right.”
She shook her head. “No, thanks. But go ahead and have whatever you want.”
“I’m waiting for blackberries and cream,” he shook his head. He looked around the tavern aimlessly for a moment. “More wine, or should we go back and get some sleep?”
She put some coin on the table. “Buy a bottle to take back.”
“Likin’ the Vanek Red, huh?” he asked with a small smile. He asked the taverner for a bottle and two goblets, since he didn’t have any at his place, paid, and they left. The spring night was chilly and there was a light drizzling rain. They hurried back and once there, he lit some candles to push back the darkness. Once the goblets were filled, he left his weapons nearby and sat down.
After a moment, Iaondrin took off her armor and set it and her short sword aside. “Here’s hoping no one comes crashing through the door or windows.” She took a large swallow of the wine and then sat down across from him. “Your turn.”
Bryan frowned for a moment, trying to decide if she wanted him to make his own toast, then realized she was offering him a chance to ask his own question of her. It was almost like being in front of the wyrd again with all the possible questions he could ask, but he knew he didn’t want to just blurt out the ones that might cause her a lot of pain. “What was the danger to me, or the rest of us, when you teleported us to Obber’s Mill?”
She looked like she wanted to take another drink of the wine, but this was something she had already told him he needed to know. “That mountain you found yourselves on …” She stopped and cleared her throat, trying to figure out how to explain it to someone who could not hear the threads. “That building. Those are echoes, or counterparts to the A’nari Keep. Every time I pass through between, I end up there. If I can keep it in daylight, it’s usually all right. Hard to breathe, very cold, but short enough in and out. But if it is night-” And there, she did need a drink. “If it is night, then it is inside.”
She looked back up at him. “Something Politi don’t like to talk about, that you might not know about if you aren’t Politi. Most of them don’t want to try long-distance teleports. Most of them have been ending up on that mountain. And some of them haven’t found their way back out. And finally…” She leaned back, wondered how long the wine would last. “Things can come out of it with you, and you won’t always know it.”
His eyes traced her ear where it peeked out from under her hair. He was feeling vaguely satisfied that his earlier guess about her training was right and vaguely sick about what might have happened on the teleport. “I’m guessing you never know if it’s day or night when you need to teleport,” he said.
“Not for sure until I get there, no.” She had watched his eyes, and could guess what he was thinking. “I try not to use the ring unless I absolutely have to. But it is usually day.”
“I can see why it would be the last option for getting out of trouble.” He poured her another goblet of wine, then set the bottle back down. “Your turn.”
“Why exactly does Antazos hold a grudge against you?”
Bryan took a drink of his wine, holding it in his mouth for a moment. “Arkus used to be his slave. Antazos wanted to to use Arkus’s daughter against him so Torei would stop causing trouble. We saved her and got her into hiding.” He paused, suddenly realizing he should tell her why he was in Darilei when they met. “He’s also trying to stamp out the Church of Hamal by taking all their relics. His people had one, Athron calls it the Eye of Hamal, and they could have walked away with it but they used it on us, so we took it from them. In that conflict, we captured his daughter and one of his slaves and were going to ransom them back. Then we found out that she was pregnant with his child and didn’t want to go back, so we let them go and they ran. He made noises about going after someone we care about to try to get us to tell him where Maeva went, so we decided to show him he’s vulnerable too. We hit one of his smuggling shipments. We seem to be in a bit of a stalemate now because he has made an overt threat against one person for each of us if we move against him directly. We were coming back from getting another artifact – the femur I mentioned in Obber’s Mill. When he finds out we did that, he might not be happy.”
Iaondrin just stared at him, and seemed about to interrupt after every sentence, but managed to bite off the questions. A long silence followed after he finished. “Well, I imagine that would do it,” she finally said. She looked around the room, considering the doors and windows. “And here I thought you would be in more danger from those who hunt me. Should we barricade the entrances?”
“Nah, nobody was watching the place when we came up,” he answered. “Listen, there’s something else I should tell you,” he sat up some, a little tense. He didn’t know how she would take it, but he figured it would be better now than if he accidentally said something at a later date. “I have left out a detail of our first meeting.
“I was in Darilei because a friend and coworker of mine needed help on a job. Seems he owed one Allenel Gilford a favor, and it was being called in. Gilford was representing the Chatterton Six and someone had placed an item in his office to listen to what he was doing. He narrowed it down to four people it could be. I got a merchant getting into the chocolate trade and a certain red-haired Shal woman.” He raised his eyes to her face. “I watched you eat dinner, heard you talk to Jaely. I was leaving, pretty sure it wasn’t you, when those thugs decided to try to convince you to do something you didn’t want to do. I’m sorry I didn’t tell you sooner, but I didn’t think I’d see you again at first, and then we didn’t exactly have a lot of conversation on the way here.” He said it all in a rush, hoping it didn’t wreck whatever was building between them.
The threads curled over her hands, pooled on the table, telling her nothing. Weeks traveling with him, and his pattern was still a mystery. It could take years to learn to read people well, and some – especially those like Gilford, who guarded their thoughts and emotions – could never be read. What she could tell came not from the whispers, but from the rush of his words and how, for a moment, he was not able to meet her eyes.
She leaned back in her chair, hands on her lap. What difference does it make? None, really. Could he be shading the truth? Perhaps, but then again he hadn’t needed to tell her at all and she would never have known. “Okay. I can understand that.”
Bryan let out a breath he didn’t realize he was holding. “Thank you. That had been nagging at me,” he said softly. He finished off his goblet and refilled it halfway. “So, I don’t think Antazos had planned on dealing with Cavallos, though. Poor boy’s had a bad few years and it doesn’t look to get any better any time soon.” He smiled with grim satisfaction.
“Shal noble families have a long tradition of scheming against one another. Antazos has been in favor with the Sajeem for a long time – since before I was born. I’m surprised things have changed so dramatically. Then again, I haven’t exactly been privy to the machinations of Shal or Politi.” She leaned forward again to lift her glass. “Your turn.”
He held up a hand to forestall his question. “A little background, then, before I ask. Isabel Shal Cavallos is using her mother’s name. She was apparently gaining favor and Antazos tried to blackmail her with the Sajeem, don’t know what with. Doesn’t matter, though. The Sajeem sided with his daughter. In order to stay in the Sajeem’s graces, Antazos was told to get his slave under control, get the League to stop the Jotunn from building ships for Torei, and get the Church of Hamal’s artifacts.” He paused here, to let that sink in for a moment. “Have you been among the Clunne?”
“Yes, I have.” She answered the question without hesitation and without looking away. “I have been a guest among them.”
“That … is one of these artifacts the Temple wants?” Iaondrin was surprised, she had not expected that to be the follow-up question. She had thought he would ask her why, what had she done, and the like. Then she thought about what he said, and the possibility that Antazos might send someone to Owen, and find Morgan standing next to him. “Fuck.” She rubbed her eyes, thinking.
“Yeah, your cousin is something else I didn’t think about until just now, too. Send a Skald in the morning. I can pay, we sold a lot of loot before heading north. There should be time. We didn’t think Antazos would be able to go through all the Clunne and get to the horn, and I think Athron believes Hamal put the horn where it should be for now. Much like the Chalice, that is protected by some rather large priestesses of a storm goddess up north.”
“You’re just making all this up now, aren’t you?” She leaned back again. “Well we make quite a fine pair, don’t we? Is there some other major power that one or the other of us needs to piss off?”
“Well, we sure don’t want to piss off the people wherever the chocolate comes from,” he mused with a wry smile. “How ‘bout, ‘Fuck Otori’,” he raised his goblet.
The faintest smile passed across her face, an echo of the one that had been captured in the old, outdated portrait on the Vind Hall wall. “Why limit ourselves to making enemies of mortals when there are deities to enrage.” She lifted her goblet and lightly clinked it against his. “If some angry goddess shows up, we’ll point her Jaely’s direction.”
“That seems hardly fair,” he said, taking a drink, ” to the goddess!” He settled back in his chair, shaking his head in amusement. It had been a good night, and he hoped she felt that way also. He turned his eyes back to her, remembered the strength she had in her. It just added to the beauty he saw. Or maybe he had had too much Vanek red. “Look, this my turn, your turn that we did, it worked tonight, and I’m happy we did it. But you don’t have to stand on ceremony from here on out. I can’t think of a single thing I’ve done or I know that I wouldn’t tell you at this point. Just ask if you want to know anything.” He rose and went to the bedroom, getting out two sets of small clothes and coming back. “Here, in case yours need to be cleaned.” Then he bent to set up his bedroll in the main room.
She took the sleeping clothes with only a simple “thanks” and closed the door behind her. Inside the bedroom, she kicked off her boots and sat on the edge of the bed, trying to decide whether to sleep in her clothes. It had been a good night, talking with someone other than Jaely, someone who at least knew her name. Morgan said he slept unarmed and, when he could, naked in his lovers’ arms, and if someone wanted to come for him then, so be it – he would not run, but would stand and fight. But she knew, if she changed, she would lie there thinking of how she might need to leave, quickly.
With a scowl, she stood again and made sure her boots and sword were close, her sheathed blades cloer, and climbed into the bed. She slept, and she did not dream.
To be continued.
DM’s Note: Photo is modified from stock image entitled Stock – Vial IV by “rockgem”http://rockgem.deviantart.com/ on DeviantArt.