Shen is still haunted, they're still on the road, but some inns have baths in the room...
From the Desk of Minus Three:
Hey yo, what’s up, it’s me again. For those that have stumbled upon my work recently because of Flights I’m going to say “welcome!” or something like that. If you’re at all curious about other things I’ve written I’ll encourage you to start with Muse and not jump here and there through the stories. You’ll have a lot more fun if you read the series in order (and, as a bonus, it will make sense <smirk>).
Boot up readers, this is going to be a long one (20, maybe as many as 30 parts) and it’s only the first book I plan for Shen the Skald. Shafts and Barbs will take the tale even further. It gives me something to do while I polish and then publish the Tides of Fall series (muse/welt/vice/pyre) and round the rough corners off Honeysuckle (and yes…keep picking away at the layers in (s)mall). If you want to stay current on where those projects stand now that their lives have moved away from this website, then hit me up on Facebook here: http://www.facebook.com/minusthreepage
Okay, enough of me exercising my blather skill. Thanks for reading and rating and commenting.
Flights ~ Shen the Skald Book One
Sing a lie, ghost of the night
Give yourself to me
The road is long and winding still
And these bonds will start to fray
But another day
-Opeth, I Feel the Dark
We planned to leave Esternesse that day when we woke. On the road we found ourselves on, cut to the winds as we were, it was not a destination but merely a point along a line drawn mentally across an uncertain map. We needed some few supplies; a bit of salt and a bit of biscuit, a knife for each of us not made for carving at soft wood, and proper boots for Chloe Harver. Hers were too soft and wouldn’t last the road ahead.
My father and I waited outside the traders where we’d shopped, the women inside still. A man who had been at the tavern in the inn the night before stopped and bid us luck on our journey. Soft flakes of snow resumed their fall from above. My father tied a grey scarf of wool around his neck and I shrugged my collar higher around mine. Looking down the street I saw the blue robed Priest of Zihn watching me.
“The Priest is back,” I said to my father who sat ahorse carving at his flute.
“What priest, son?” he asked me, squinting around in the wrong direction. “There is a priest?”
“A Priest of Zihn, Father. He was at the inn last night speaking of the stars and going to temple.”
“A priest? Of Zihn?” he asked me, still straining against his blindness to no avail.
“Yes. Stay here and I will go see why he follows me and stares,” I said, prompting my horse with a nudge of my knees.
The unblinking Priest of Zihn had his grey eyes upon me and looked up to where I sat as I approached. He had his hands in opposite sleeves, a fur lined cloak over his robes. He had the cheeks and jaw of a man who dines at his will, and the stare of one who claims to know more than he lets on.
“Good morning Shen of Zihn,” he spoke to me as I dismounted before him. “Do you come now to the temple?”
“Why are you following me, stranger? I have no truck with you,” I told him. “Nor do I wish to get tangled up with priests.”
“I only interpret the stars as they wax and wane,” the priest said. “There is no tangle there.”
“It is always riddles with the priests,” I said, holding my hand palm towards him. “I have miles yet to make and do not have the time for this. Simply tell me why you are following me.”
“If you make time for the temple then perhaps you will see,” he said to me cryptically.
“Please leave me be,” I concluded, climbing back to my saddle. “Follow me no more.”
“As you please, Shen of Zihn,” he said, smiling and bowing his head slightly.
Frowning in confusion and shaking my head I rejoined my father and the women, who had finished inside and mounted their horses. Priests. It was always riddles with the priests. Perhaps the right to lead in a church of one faith or another was based on one’s ability to so eloquently admit that you did not understand things either. I did not know how this one knew I was born under the sign of Chiron, but I also did not care that there were some in this world who took things like that seriously. In my 19 summers and my 18 winters I had not yet seen any proof that the stars shaped the fate of a man.
Mavia wore tight leather pants, tanned and oiled a dark brown, and had a fine new cloak of grey wool with fur in the hood over a thick vest matching her pants. She was tying a bundle to the back of her saddle and another was in her lap by the horn. Chloe had new skirts, thicker and so warmer. A new scarf, a new hat, and also the new boots we’d come for. They were not much better when it came to being stout, but looked warm with rabbit fur poking out at their tops.
“Why did you buy all these things when we came for just boots?” I asked them.
“I had coin of my own,” Chloe said in retort, looking at me like I should feel a great fool.
“And you?” I asked Mavia, knowing that farmer’s daughters rarely carry about money when only going to the neighbors to look for her man and warn him about her father.
“I had coin of my own as well, Shen,” Mavia said to me, chipper like a cat that has heard a strange sound. “And so I got some new blankets, and this is for you.”
She held the bundle from her lap out to me then so I took it and sighed. In the hard brown paper I found a vest like hers but sized right for me, and some thin leather thongs the same dark brown. I looked at her curiously and cocked my head to the side and she smiled and motioned that I should put the vest on. Once under my jacket it fit warm and snug, but still I knew not how a farm girl had paid.
“You know we only have some small bit of coin and still do not know how exactly to get more,” I said to Mavia as I replaced my jacket over the thick and warm vest. “You say you paid for all this with what you had?”
Chloe looked impatient, awkwardly so, and my father still carved on the flute he was making. Mavia shrugged and nodded her head, pulling back her cloak to show a purse tied to her belt. A new belt as well, wide with a brass buckle. “I am not a poor girl Shen, I am your woman. I cannot walk around in homespun clothing if I am to be seen with you. I have some coin left still too, for things we may need later.”
My father blow a test breath through his small flute and it made a soft sound, his smile crossed his face and he chuckled quietly in pride at his work.
“Where does the daughter of a farmer get a purse full of metal?” I asked as Chloe shifted in her saddle and shook her head and sighed. She nudged at her horse and we went down the street, my father’s horse stepping along after.
“It is fine, Shen,” Mavia said as we followed behind. “In the next town you should have the tavern keep pay you in addition to food and drink and beds. You were very good last night.”
“I think that would overstep bounds. I do not know how it works,” I replied, letting her change the subject but intended to get back to it later.
“No, Shen. You should get Chloe Harver to talk to him then. She barters like a trader, it is something to see.”
“Perhaps,” I said. “What makes you speak of this?”
“You said yourself, Shen, that we need to find more coin soon,” Mavia went on. “That could be one way that we line our purses as we travel. I will have more ideas soon, but that is the one that came first.”
“What has you on this then? Your thoughts of coins and buying fine things,” I asked her.
“Carriages,” she said breathily with a wide grin. “Carriages and footmen.”
“We are a long way from carriages and footmen, Mavia Hiven. In the next town we will first need to re-shoe our horses.”
“In the next town I shall just buy a new horse then!” she giggled and smiled.
As we passed through the gates and she waved to a guard I saw her purse again where it hung on her belt. It moved as though heavy and seemed still half full of metal. I’d seen through her things as we gathered what was ours from the brigand camp, and she had lain with me each night, and I did not remember a thick pouch of coins on her hip before now.
We rode until time before dusk to make camp, back from the road between wide branched trees. The snow had stopped around noon but now fell again, and we set our beds closer to the fire for its warmth through the night. The thick blankets that Mavia had bought for us all were a pleasure, and warm, and soft on the skin. After our quiet love making, once the others slept, she lay in my arms gently weaving and unweaving our hair.
“I know you do not believe me that I had money all along,” Mavia whispered as she wove. “And in truth I did not.”
“How did you get it then?” I asked her, glad she now spoke the truth to me.
“While you told your stories last night in the inn,” she said. “Everyone was so rapt, Shen. They paid no attention to their purses.”
“You stole from them?” I asked, surprised but not loud. “Mavia, we are not thieves. We are not out to be brigands. My father would be enraged.”
“Brigands, Shen?” she asked incredulously. “I saw how brigands live. They live like we do now. I have no wish to be like that. Like…this. Why do you think I bought us these nice things?”
“You stole you could have nice things?” I said to her. “Perhaps if we starved, or had no choice at all. But to steal just to have things you truly do not need?”
“I do need these things, Shen. If I am to live a free life with you, not go back to the farm, then I will have things my way so we both know more comfort.”
“It seems frivolous to me, Mavia, and no way to live.”
“I would not be the type of woman to tell my man how to think, but would he be the type of man to tell me the same?” she asked softly.
There was no angst in her tone, only honest rapport. I thought to myself and decided she was right. My father had told me that a woman could be like a horse and they were easier to manage if you gave them their head. How else to live with them and not make them feel lead?
“I will not then,” I said to her while stroking her back. “But be cautious, I beg. I think I grow very fond of you and would not wish to see you hanged. Nor have my hand taken off as accomplice to this thing.”
“It seems I am already good at not getting caught,” she said, as though speaking her thoughts and not just to me. “I am good at one other thing, Shen. Do you know what it is?”
I did not answer her because she knew that I knew. Under the furs where we lay soft and warm Mavia was already sliding her body slowly down along mine. My cock jumped to attention at the touch of her hands and she lay her head sideways on my stomach. Her hair was soft like the touch of the furs and she delicately caressed me with her fingers and tongue. One hand held my sack and squeezed slowly and gentle, the other held my shaft by her mouth. In the dark under covers I could not see Mavia, but I felt her licking and lapping in long supple strokes along the top of me, pausing to wind her tongue around the tip now and then.
She did not take me past her lips even once while she did this but I grew ever harder with the sensations all the same. Like she was playing a game with me Mavia curled and uncurled her wet tongue, running up and down the length of my cock, sending shivers through my body as though from the cold. I brushed her hair from her face with a slow gentle touch and she moaned softly in her throat as I stroked the side of her neck with my fingertips. Slowly and carefully, controlling each detail, she laid my cock on her tongue and slowly closed her mouth around the head of it.
Without moving her head at the neck she sucked, her cheeks and lips doing her work. I felt her tongue slide moist and soft back and forth and around me in her mouth. I felt her lips pulsing and shifting wetly around me. It took her longer without thrusting and stroking but Mavia brought me to a climax with her mouth like that. As I shot my seed to her throat she held still and swallowed, milking at me with her tongue as she did. As my cock slowly softened she kept it in her mouth and suckled some more until I was sure she would never stop. When she did she moved her body back up against me, wiping her chin girlishly with her fingers and smiling at me.
“See, I told you I was good,” she whispered, raising her eyebrows in a quick and coy jab.
With one hand on her ass and the other in her hair we fell asleep in the woods. A skald, a thief, a blind man, and a girl stolen from her home. I dreamt of carriages and footmen.
“So wolves dug it up?” I asked the villagers around me in the back of the stable.
They nodded and one spoke, sounding scared and meek. “From the back of the garden at the Marth farm. And a few days more than a week since the Marths went away.”
“When you find the body in a garden, it’s the gardener that did it,” I said gruffly.
The frozen corpse was chewed by wolves, but had not died from that. Three wounds in its flesh; across the back of the hand, a stab to the gut, a slash at the throat. Probably in that order. The large bearded man had been slain by an expert. One who has fought men before and lived to fight more. I nodded and crossed my arms and turned to the villagers.
“I can find your murderer and bring him back whole,” I told them. “But you’ll pay me more not to kill him on sight. A man who can kill another and two women as well won’t likely come back by choice when I give him the chance.”
“We do not know he killed the two girls,” said the one who’d told me he was captain of their militia.
Village militias. They bothered me so. Drunks and some fights and maybe a wolf; they’d not served like me and had to kill men. I should thank them for that for if they had they’d not need men like me to find their shames for them.
“I’ll assume he did until I see proof otherwise. And his father as well for that matter.”
“Shen would not kill his father. Nor would he kill women. And I doubt very much that he killed Farsh Hiven,” the wide shouldered man said.
“You are the captain of this place’s militia,” I sneered. “I would think that you would want this man caught as much as these others.”
“Colm and Shen were friends since boys,” the widow said, clutching at her daughters arm in the stable of their home. “He is shocked and ashamed and should be given some time.”
The captain, Colm they called him, frowned and shook his head and went from the stable. I took their coins for my expenses and let them they‘d see me soon. A week plus a day? Not much of a head start. I’d tracked down men that had more on me than that.
“You have no inn in this town and I can’t leave this late in the day. Where do you suggest I sleep before I set out at the dawn?” I asked the widow.
“Our loft is a warm place, and the horse was taken too. You won’t be bothered by noise of animals in there,” she told me, pointing to the barn I could so plainly see on my own.
I nodded again and tied my horse off. With my saddlebags over my shoulder I went in and up the stairs, throwing my bedroll on the straw. I would sleep right away and leave when I woke, eager to be done though I’d scarcely just started. Just like every other time I already envisioned the end; the runaway or thief or killer in chains, me paid and gone from whatever little village of sod or clapboard or brick had needed me most that week of the year. A steady connection of tracks to the future where I had them.
I’d slept for some time when I heard the noise that woke me. The moon and the stars shone in through cracks in the roof and my knife scraped from its sheath and a board creaked again. I slid from my blankets and behind sacks of grain in a crouch in a shadow that angled near the top of the stairs. Creeping on toes came someone. I strained to see them in the darkness, enough to see a shoulder and a neck and a head, and then leapt from my cover. My forearm under their chin pulling up, my knife on their throat, my hand over their mouth stifling a shriek. The body against me was soft and feminine. I let the girl go with a bit of a shove, turning her as I did so that I could see her face.
The widow’s daughter stood before, scared and surprised. “You should not sneak up on men that sleep with their blades.”
“I’m sorry sir,” she said, catching her breath. “I only meant to see that you had all you need.”
“Late in the night? Is that so?” I asked her. I rubbed the flat of my hand on the stubble of my face and over the stubble on my head.
“It is so,” she said softly. “And do you? Have everything you need?”
“I don’t play coy games, and am not a man to flirt,” I said, stepping towards her. “Make yourself plain girl. You come to my bed?”
“Well…I thought to…” she stammered. “You raised my interest I thought to come see you…”
Farm girls. I loved them and hated them equal measure. They were at their best when taking a cock so they didn’t speak idly and try my thin patience for talk.
“I bet you did,” I said, now standing right near her.
I reached out and felt her ass firmly with one hand. Soft but not too yielding. I threw my dagger to quiver with its tip in the floor then grabbed her breast with that hand and squeezed it as well. She had a look of fear now on her face at my rough handling of her body but she didn’t pull away. For all I knew her mother had told her to come bed the hunter and she couldn’t go back with the shame of defeat.
She snuck in a breath, then another, her lungs shaking. I squeezed her ass again and then felt for the front. Through her skirts I felt she had on no hose and the hair on the mound between her thighs seemed not too thick. I growled a laugh and freed my hand from her breast to grab her by the jaw and pulled her mouth to mine. Some instinct inside her caused her to pull back some small bit, but I gripped her face tighter and pushed her lips with my tongue. She yielded then to me, and my fingers pressed harder against her soft pussy.
I preferred the company of whores. They knew what was expected and how to take a fucking. Still, I had been on the road for some weeks since the last time I’d had one and this farm girl was ripe and willing and here. Her eagerness could be made up with that thrilling fear. Lazy from lying with shepherds or boys about town the farm girls always had a look of shock and then fear the first time they’re fucked by a real man.
I drug her to my bedroll and pushed the girl down. I went to work quickly, pushing her skirts out of the way. I shoved two fingers inside her and jerked them around, pulling her lips open for my cock which I freed from my pants. With three or four pushes and five more hard thrusts I’d gotten inside her while she screamed and bit her lips. Tears from her eyes rolled down her cheeks and I laughed roughly when when I saw it, taking her waist in my hands and rutting into her quick and deep. There were always tears when they got their first real man who showed them how to fuck properly.
"I no longer want..." the girl started to say but I shushed her and told her to be still.
As I grunted and shoved my cock in and out her tight hole her cries turned to sobs each time I felt it hit the end inside. Pounding into her to the limit I showed her what some husband would one day expect of her if he was a man, or what she would pine for forever after this if he was not. Her skirts had bunched up between us and I pushed them up roughly so I could watch her pussy being invaded by a big raging cock. The girl’s legs were spread open, her knees bent back in, so that her heels bounced on my thighs as I rammed up into her now moistening hole. There were always sobs when they got their first real man.
As I came I held her hip in one hand and grabbed her around the throat and neck with the other. I pushed and I squeezed and I finished and stopped. I pulled out of her at once and laced up my pants, on my knees between hers. She had her eyes shut tight and still bit her lips and her tears still flowed.
Through her sobs she said to me, “This is not what I thought…”
“You’ll get better at it,” I told her. She rolled on her side and pulled her knees up to her chest, crying. I slapped her ass where it stuck from her skirts. “Now go, girl. I must sleep and ride out at day break.”
She sat up weakly and pulled her skirts down about her legs and asked me, “Just like that, I must go?”
“What do you want? I’m spent and satisfied. Your work here is done. What more do I need from you?”
“My name is Margot,” she said, still wiping her eyes. One of her hands was between her legs, whether rubbing at the pleasure I’d given her or grasping at it in pain I didn’t care. “What is your name, sir?”
“Get out,” I said, pushing at her hip. “I’m tired and need sleep.”
The girl got up and ran on unsteady feet, slightly bent and crouched as she went. They were always lightly bent and crouched the first time. I heard the barn’s door slam hard at the bottom and made out the faint sound of more tears as she ran from the barn. I was glad. I didn’t want her crying here.
The next morning I left and she wasn’t there with the others who bid me farewell. I was glad of that too.
“This meat is too salty,” Chloe Harver told me.
“The salt rub keeps it from spoiling,” I told her across our fire. “If you wish you do not have to eat it.”
I had been short and surly with them all that whole day. Audin Harver’s ghost had followed us a bit to our left as we rode and his glare at me was sharp and intense and unyielding. Even now he floated mistily behind his sister so that if I looked at Chloe I saw him too, watching and mean.
“You seem out of sorts, Shen,” Mavia said, sitting between my upraised knees with her back on my chest. She’d pulled one blanket around us and had her hands on my legs, rubbing slowly and softly.
“This is but our second night away from sleep in a proper bed and I miss it already,” I lied. “That is why I did not wish to have such comfort then.”
A quiet night then a fitful sleep. I was easily wakened by the sound of the flute while the moon rode low in the sky. Cloudless as it was the stars shone bright and to the north there were lights in the sky. I looked to my father and saw he lay sleeping, and Chloe slept soundly as well. Mavia beside me stirred and rolled over and I sat up to see who it could be that played.
A small man, a dwarf by most standing, sat on a log with my father’s flute in his hands. He looked at it curiously and then blew again, working the holes clumsily. His hands were thin and his fingers long, his arms spindly. He looked up and saw me and smiled and I blanched. His teeth were too many, too small and too close. His head was too big for the twig of his neck and he was not dressed for the cold. No breath issued forth into the night air from his mouth and when he blinked his lids moved side to side, not up and down.
He doffed his red cap and his thin and white hair fell forward as he bowed his head. His hat seemed to be wet and there was red on his scalp like he had some wound or other. Placing his cap back he blew again on the flute and frowned. He looked at it at arm’s length like it was an alien thing and placed it in his breast pocket.
“I’ll take this, but know that I wished for something better and more,” he said in a voice all wrong for his body and size. He pointed at my father. “Next time do better or I’ll take him instead.”
“Who are you?” I asked him quietly. “And why are you in our camp?”
“You are not afraid of me,” he said in his voice like a toad. “That is rare for I am fearful.”
“I do not show fear,” I told him, gesturing at my hair like he should know the customs. “Tell me who you are quickly.”
“Ho ho,” he chuckled, his laugh like deep belches. “I am called by my cap, and you can see it is red.”
“I do not care much for riddles,” I told him in warning. “Speak plainly, please.”
“It is as I said, blood fed man. I am Red Cap. You sleep near a grove I happen to be pleased with and you burn your wood and stink up the place and I came to see what you may have left me. All I found was this pipe, though”
“We didn’t know we should leave a gift,” I said to him calmly. “What would have been good?”
“A meal of fresh meat with blood, not this dry salted fare. Some sweets or some milk or a bell for my hair.”
“We have none of those things,” I told him.
“I know. You have nothing worth keeping. I’ll leave you now but only as a favor.”
“A favor for whom?” I asked him as he stood on his short spindly legs. His arms were too long for his body and reached almost the ground.
“For the spirit who asked me not to harm this blonde girl,” he gestured to where Chloe slept in her furs. “And as a token of faith for the blood in your veins.”
“Why do you mention blood so much?” I asked cautiously.
“My cap is red,” he said simply in his odd sounding voice, holding his arm out to bow like a gentleman. “And I must keep it so.”
“We need no trouble, strange man,” I said to Red Cap.
“I offer none at this time,” he said as he turned to leave. “I wish your blood to flow inside you, Shen, for I owe that favor to your mother.”
“You know of my mother?” I asked, sitting up straighter. “My mother has been dead since my birth.”
“I knew her before you and before your father too,” he said as he stepped gracefully over roots and between trees into the darkness. “And this favor settles our score. Pass not near a grove I am pleased with again.”
“How are we to know?” I asked him.
“You will not. But do not do it anyway,” he said, his voice fading in the distance.
“Wait!” I called. “Tell me how you know my mother!”
But he was gone. Mavia stirred beside me and looked up at me sleepily. “What is it Shen?”
“It is nothing,” I said, smoothing her hair but peering into the woods instead of looking at her. “Sleep.”
She did then, but I did not. I did not see Audin’s ghost the rest of that night and I was still lying awake next to Mavia as the others began waking. We struck our camp while we ate dry foods and before we left my father patted his pockets and squinted around at the ground. He had already given up when I asked what was wrong, and had cut a soft branch from a tree before answering.
“I have lost my flute,” he said distantly. “But it is no matter.”
He began anew carving one from his branch as we started to ride.
“Do any of you know about creatures from the forest?” I asked after perhaps an hour of silence.
“My father hunted with my brother avidly,” Chloe answered. “But they didn’t tell me much about game.”
“I know of game animals,” I replied. “I mean other creatures. The kinds penned in books.”
“You would know more of books than any of us,” Chloe said. “What ‘creatures’ do you speak of, Shen?”
“The woodland fey,” I told them, shrugging. “Sprites and dryads and things such as that.”
“Are you making a story, Shen?” Mavia asked excitedly. “One with fairies and gnomes?”
“It is nothing like that,” I answered. “It is just that…I think I saw something. In the woods last night at our camp.”
“It was a hare, son,” my father said to me. “I heard it too and thought to set snares, but forgot.”
“It was not a hare, Father. It spoke to me. It was like a strange man, with a wet red cap on his head.”
“Oh my stars!” Mavia piped. “A story about Red Cap! My mother had a book of fairy stories but she would not let me read it. I’d forgotten about it when I got old enough and so never went back. Tell us a story about Red Cap, Shen!”
“This is no story,” I protested. “I may sound like I am mad but I saw this, I’m sure. This morning I thought perhaps it was naught but a dream but this strange man, this Red Cap as he called himself, he took your flute father.”
“Oh ho!” my father laughed with a smile. “A good start to a tale my son.”
“Will there be tricks and a dare, Shen?” Mavia asked with a twinkle in her eye. “Margot told me that in the book of fairy stories there was often a trick or a dare as the fey tried to get the best of the hero.”
“I am telling you all that this happened last night,” I protested again. “I am not yarning a tale here. This Red Cap, he warned us to not camp near his groves again.”
“It is not as polished as the stories you told in the tavern,” Chloe said to me. “Is this how they alls tart? A bit of truth, like the hare, and then you spin it until its fantastic?”
“Never mind, all of you,” I grumbled.
Mavia reached from her horse to mine to pat me on the leg and they continued to chide me for the rest of the day when there was nothing else to talk about. When there was it was Chloe Harver speaking patiently with my father and Mavia speaking to me about all the fine things we would one day own or do. I did not see Audin’s ghost again until before sleep came that night, and it went that way for two more days still before we reached Cantos.
Cantos was more than a town it was a city, and Mavia’s eyes went wide and she laughed with glee from the rise in the road on the hill south of the gates. She urged her horse faster and we cantered passed the guards as she bubbled with talk of what to do first.
“First, we find an inn,” Chloe said. “One with a bath since you seem so flush with coin.”
“Yes!” Mavia beamed, her hair swirling as she spun her head to look at me. “One with a bath! Woo!”
I shook my head and let the women take the lead. Men approached us on foot, asking if we needed a guide. There were barkers and callers on boxes stacked up so they could best reach the crowds, and they told of places to sleep, places to eat, and places to try chance at games.
“Keep your wits, girls,” my father scolded as they talked with these men. “In the city everyone has a price and an angle.”
Chloe raised her eyebrow at him and smirked, getting an address from one caller and tipping him with copper. We found the place well enough, a bit off the main street, and it looked far too fine a place for us.
“This is perfect!” Mavia yelled, hooting with mirth once again.
She tipped the stable hands and Chloe bartered a price with the innkeep, mentioning more than once my skill with a tale. The innkeeper’s wife took me into an attached pub to meet with the bartender as my father and the women went upstairs to wash and change. I agreed to the price Chloe had set with owner and after some talk with the man behind the bar about the type of people who frequent at night I went upstairs to change as well.
The bath was right in the room, a large tub of beaten red copper. Steam rose from the water as Mavia lowered herself into it and squealed at the water that was perhaps too hot. She looked to me as she sat down and wring out a cloth. “Will you wash my hair and my back, Shen?”
“Is this what men do for their women?” I asked her. “Serve as handmaidens?”
“It is if their woman is a good woman and asks it of them,” she teased me, smiling like a cat and tilting her head.
“Very well,” I sighed, feigning exasperation.
She laughed again and I laughed with her. Lathering her with the soap I got wet too as she splashed and toyed with me, putting soap on my nose. When I rose to wipe it off she grabbed me by the belt and pulled me over suddenly into the tub with all my clothes on.
“Why, Mavia?” I asked her with real exasperation this time. “Now my clothes are soaked through.”
“Because you are dirty, Shen,” she said in her breathy soft voice. “Just take them off…”
“Very well,” I sighed again, laughing once more as she wiggled wet and soapy in the water, giggling as she rushed to help me unlace my clothes.
It was one hour later that we emerged from our rooms. Mavia felt that there must certainly still be shops that were open and she took Chloe with her when she left. I protested they not go alone but my father stilled me and reminded me that Mavia had drew a man’s blood in her own defense once before, and would crush another with a stone if she had to. Before they left the inn she leaned close to my ear and whispered, “Don’t worry, Shen. If Chloe Harver tries to flee I will stop her.”
“She won’t try to flee,” I said back, thinking of Chloe’s foolish and misplaced bond of honor that kept her with us.
My father and I ate on the grace of our hosts, dining on food that was too delicate for my liking. It tasted well and fine, but the portions were small and it seemed overly spiced. The ale that they served came in large tankards of glass and this to me seemed strange as well. How expensive to replace things such as this when they inevitably were thrown or dropped? There was a minstrel with a lute who put Haim from the mill to shame and I wondered how kindly the owner would think of us when he heard me tell stories in the shadow of this man who was performing before me?
When the women returned they had spent still more money. Mavia had paid from her ill gotten gains and I thought of how tonight she would pilfer more. She had purchased for me new pants and new shirts, a nice jacket of leather that would not be warm on the road, and a pair of boots that looked functional but too fine to wear. She insisted I come to our room and she dressed me, lacing the thongs she’d gotten me in Esternesse into my hair as she rewove the small braid at my left temple..
“I think this is what a traveling storyteller should look like,” she said when she was done. “Do you not think you look fine?”
“I think I look like a man who is trying very hard to look like a traveler. DO I not seem more…me…in my other clothes?”
“I have been around this city some today, Shen; you have not. This is how the men seem to dress. Do you not want to impress them?” she asked me.
“I had not thought of that, no,” I admitted.
“Well, that is why a man has a woman!” she said, her smile huge with her pride at what she had done with me.
There was no mirror, but I could see well enough that I did look like a man of some substance rather than a man off a farm or fresh off horseback. Perhaps she was right, and I should dress more like them.
“Will you be telling the story of Red Cap?” she asked eagerly, clutching her hands together in front of her.
“I may,” I said. “I do not plan it. I just tell them the stories as they come to my mind.”
“Whatever you think is best, Shen,” she smiled at me. “And do not worry…I will not get caught. And tomorrow we will buy new horses.”
I wrinkled my brow at her and she laughed and threw her arms around me and then we went downstairs. There were blue robed Priests of Zihn, two of them, at the bar speaking with my father and Chloe. I frowned and walked quickly across the room with Mavia’s hand in mine as she trailed behind me.
“What do you priests want with us?” I asked of them bluntly.
They turned around and one smiled as the other said, “Priests of Zihn?”
They had none of the markings and their robes were not the right shade of blue. One had a ledger and the other a scroll tube and they both had ale in front of them.
“These men are called barristers,” my father said to me after a sip. “I think they are a different kind of priest, son.”
I apologized for my error and had a drink of my own, telling the bartender I could start soon if he wished it of me. The pub was mostly full and he nodded assent and I made my way to the low stage where the minstrel still strummed. We spoke, he and I, of whether he should tap a rhythm or pluck softly as I spun my tales and we decided that if he wished he could stay. I looked to the crowd as they drew somewhat closer. Mavia had detached herself from the others at the bar and stood near a thick wooden pillar to the side of the room. She scanned over the crowd much like I but for different reasons, her eyes keen on who had drank most and who was less sharp.
Just as I was about to speak the door opened and a real Priest of Zihn walked in, seeing me at once and taking a seat to listen.