In the city, the tavern was not one that would have been noticed by many. It was cramped between equally unremarkable buildings, down a shadowy street that elbowed itself between narrow roads and alleys. A sign hung above the door, paint peeling and hinges rusting from years of neglect. Rain dripped from the clogged gutter into the muddied street. The city was mostly paved or cobbled, but the smaller alleys had no surface, and when the rains came, the ground turned to ankle deep mud. The lamps that hung along the road, desperately trying to illuminate the gathering dark, stuttered in the breeze. The tavern sat in this gloom, carefully thrusting light from its narrow, smoky windows.
The cloaked figure brushed the shadows, and paused under the sign, glancing up at it – The Cork and Lantern. The door opened to allow a puddle of light to fall onto the figure’s feet, and a rush of heat and scent and noise rubbed itself against the dark. The person stepped inside, clods of mud falling off their boots onto the wooden floor. Raindrops sluiced from the cloak as the figure pulled back their hood, revealing a tall, broad male with dark hair tied back and stubble across his chin. The bartender glanced up and froze. The visitor flickered a smile. The rotund owner scuttled across, darting nervous eyes around the crowded room.
“Hello Belsmont,” the visitor announced in an undertone.
“She at least had the decency to arrive around the back.”
“Ah, Belsmont, surely no one here would betray you.”
“Things have changed since you’ve been gone. No one can tell who is friend and who is enemy anymore. Here, come around to the kitchens, Aistren has food and mead waiting for you.”
Belsmont led the man around into the kitchens. Clattering noises assailed them. Barmaids sat on stools by the back door, smoking cigarettes – they were foreigners to the city, clear by their ears, resting high on their heads with a thin coating of fur on them, much like a cat’s, and the smoking was an unusual sight. The man regarded them for a moment, as Belsmont scuttled across to a young woman, whose brow was shining with sweat, and strands of hair had escaped her bun and were sticking to her temples.
“Aistren, please get a meal ready for our guest. Also, get a new barrel for him.”
Aistren glanced up at the man, who was still watching the blue-grey tendrils of smoke from the cigarettes. She narrowed her eyes, instantly suspicious. Feeling her gaze, the man looked across, and Aistren felt a jolt in her stomach at the sight of his eyes – one brown and one blue. A Cadellan with no slave band. Another one, after that woman.
“Another guest, Belsmont?” she snapped, turning away. “How do you expect me to run a kitchen whilst dealing with your guests?”
“Don’t ask questions,” he replied, more brusque than usual. “Just do it.”
Aistren flapped a hand at him and muttered the obligatory, “Yes, yes.”
“And our lady guest, where is she?”
“In the room you instructed for her to be in. Jan took the horse to the stable and made sure it was bedded down for the night.”
“If Jan could do the same with my horse.”
Aistren jumped and spun around. The man had approached them and was rolling an apple around on his palm. Aistren snatched the apple from him. The man pronounced it yan, with a thick Cadellan accent. He watched her, half amused.
“I will let him know,” she replied. She turned back to the stew she was tending to. She could feel his looming presence at her shoulder. “Trici. Go and tell Jan to put this gentleman’s horse in the stable next to the bay.”
Trici stood from her stool, muttering in her native language, her ears flicking irritably.
“Enough of that,” Aistren bristled – she had been around the Thenian’s enough to know curse words when she heard them. Thenians often couldn’t be bothered to learn the Common Tongue, and so it helped to understand them when you were trying to get them to work and not smoke. Trici disappeared out the back to find Jan. The man hadn’t moved, even though Belsmont had made his excuses and disappeared back into the tavern hall already. She sighed and rubbed her hands on her apron.
“I’ll show you to your room then,” she said, sidestepping the Cadellan and heading for the door that led upstairs to the rooms for rent. “I take it you’ll want one at the back too.”
“Much obliged,” the Cadellan said, with some amusement in his voice.
The room was nothing to remark – it looked out over the stables, and the Cadellan could see a skinny boy trying to lead his horse
to a stable without much luck. There was a bed against the left wall, and a small fireplace opposite with a stool beside it. The grate was empty – summer was in full swing in the city. He could hear the bustle of the tavern below, and guessed he was right above it.
Aistren stood to one side. “You’re next door to the other one,” she said abruptly, and closed the door behind her.
“Thank you,” he replied, but he was already alone. He looked around, and placed his cloak on a hook on the back of the door. He kicked off his boots, raining mud across the uneven floor, and lay back into the bed. It was a straw mattress, and naught but a thin pillow
and throw, but it felt like heaven to him. He had been on the road too long, he decided. He was wondering whether to sleep now, or find the food promised him, when there was a knock at the door.
“Enter,” he said, automatically reaching for his sword at his belt. In crept a short woman – she was narrow-featured but not gaunt, and quick on her feet. She wore riding breeches and a worn tunic with long sleeves. He noted that the sole of her right boot was coming away before he was on his feet and sweeping her up into an embrace.
“Kendra!” he cried, before remembering himself and dropping her suddenly.
Kendra looked at him with mismatched eyes – one brown and one green – and not a little bit of surprise. “It’s good to see you too, Jarrett,” she said unsteadily.
“Forgive me, it’s been so long on the road, I –”
She waved his excuses away with a flick of the wrist. “You’re here now, and in one piece, I see.” She glanced him up and down, and wandered over to the little window to peer out.
“Well, nearly,” Jarrett smirked, rubbing a thumb over the reddened scar on his left forearm.
Kendra ignored him. “Did anyone see you?”
“I don’t think so.”
“Belsmont tells me you came in through the tavern.”
“So how do you know no one saw you? Jarrett, this isn’t a game, we can’t risk it.”
Jarrett avoided her glare, and sat on the stool by the fireplace. “I know it’s not, don’t take me for a fool, Kendra.”
“Not a fool. Reckless, perhaps,” she responded, but gently. “I’ve missed your face, Jarrett. It’s been too long.” Jarrett nodded in agreement, and there was a moment’s silence, as they both relived the past years.
He looked back up at her, where she stood awkwardly by the window. Before he could say anything, there was another knock, and Aistren entered with a bowl of stew, some black bread and a mug of mead. She dumped it on the floor without a word to either of them and left again.
“She’s a friendly soul,” Jarrett commented, reaching over and picking up the food. It was thick and warm and smelt delicious. After a diet of foraged mushrooms and skinny rabbit, it was a feast fit for a king.
“She’s nervous, as she has every right to be,” Kendra responded, perching on the bed for lack of anywhere else to sit. “Belsmont might not be surprised by us, but others certainly will be.”
Jarrett just grunted, filling his mouth with hot stew and bread. It was veal, with carrots and root vegetables and a little Vaxen spice that tingled his tongue as he ate. “So, what’s next?” he asked around a mouthful of food.
“We wait,” Kendra shrugged, looking to the window again. The darkness seemed to be gathering, without promise of morning. “The Duchess will have word of our arrival by morning. And then we will know more.”
“The Duchess,” Jarrett snorted. “Everything always waits for the nobility.”