Avi and Bremi left the Strawberry Inn early the next morning. Eirenko pressed a small packet of food into Avi's hands once she'd mounted Lashka. “For your luncheon,” she explained. “Your story was delightful. I'm sure there will be many others retelling it up and down the roadside inns and tavern for many, many years to come. Safe travels.”
Avi smiled and leaned over a bit to press a kiss against the woman's cheek in thanks. Eirenko blushed and swatted the horse on its rump. “Get gone, you two,” she said and retreated to the porch of her inn. Behind her, Avi saw Teo and Ganix standing and waving as Bremi set off out of the inn's yard towards the road.
The sun was shining brightly once they joined the Glanynn Creek Road, and the birds flew in and out of the treeline, twittering and chasing each other and their prey. Bremi was silent as he walked, his attention seemingly turned inward. Avi greeted everyone they met with a smile or a wave, but she, too, was introspective and quiet. They sat in the shade of a large beech at noon and ate the food Eirenko had given them. There was a loaf of the sweet brown bread, some juicy pears, a glass jar of strawberry jam, and half a wheel of a yellow cheese that reminded Avi of Irish cheddar. Bremi even produced a bottle of the Inn's sweet cider, kept cool in a stone bottle.
“Are you nervous?” Avi asked after they'd eaten their fill. She had been thinking about Bremi's silence and what could be behind it. She guessed that if they were going into Litsey, where Bremi's brother was now king under some strange circumstances, Bremi might be feeling nervous or sad or something.
Bremi frowned at her and asked, “Nervous? About what?”
“About going back to Litsey. About being near the castle and the king.” Bremi continued staring at her in incomprehension, so she said, “You know, because you abdicated. In favour of your brother, I mean.”
Bremi's face went through an alarming range of emotions. Confusion, shock, disbelief, anger, and then finally rage. “Who are you?” he demanded, his hand flying to a long knife he kept on his sword belt. “Who sent you?”
Avi's hands flew up in surrender and she knew she'd made a miscalculation. “I read your journal! No one sent me!”
“My journal?” His hand slipped away from the knife. “What are you talking about?”
“The night we met. When I was in your tent, changing my clothing. I looked around for a mirror so I could comb out my hair and I found your journal. I read the last entry, the one about Orumbury's destruction. You said you felt guilty about abdicating, about forcing your brother to become king.”
Bremi stood suddenly, his face angry, his voice tight. “That was not for your eyes! That was not for anyone's eyes. How could you?” He stomped off, away from the road and towards the treeline. Avi stood, too, and watched him for a long while. He disappeared into the forest and Avi remained where she was, her feet rooted in place.
“Awesome,” she muttered. “Brass off the one person who can help you get home.” She sighed deeply and sat down again. He'd have to come back eventually. All of his belongings, his lute, his horse were there with her. He'd come back.
The sun had moved significantly across the sky when Bremi did finally come back. He wouldn't look at Avi, just nodded towards the horse and said, “Let's go. We're close to the city and I want to find a tavern.”
“Get on the horse. I don't want to talk to you right now.” Avi nodded and mounted Lashka silently. Bremi grabbed the animal's lead and set off at a brisk pace.
They rode until the last light left the sky and the stars came out, bright and brilliant overhead. Avi could smell the city before she could see it. It was faint at first, just a hint of woodsmoke. Then she was hit with the overpowering stench of human and animal waste, rotting food, unwashed bodies, and hot metal. Avi's face wrinkled in disgust and she parted her lips, trying to breathe through her mouth. But that just meant she could now taste the stench.
They rounded a curve and Avi could see the city. It seemed huge, nearly the size of Edinburgh’s Old and New Towns combined. In fact, it greatly resembled her home. There was a large, white stone castle with parapets and a huge curtain wall atop a large hill. The rest of the city covered terraces that stepped down the hill. The buildings closest to the top were obviously the homes of the nobility; there were parks and gardens, thick with trees and open lawn areas. The next few tiers were filled with smaller but no less grand homes; the merchant class would probably live there. The rest of the tiers and the flat land surrounding the hill was covered with smaller buildings, the homes of tradesmen and the merchant's shops. Avi spied two large buildings that had also been constructed out of the same white stone as the castle. She guessed they were the temple and the university. They stood on opposite sides of the city, forming a triangle with the castle at the top.
They entered the city through a large gate that was manned by a score of men in chain mail that gleamed brightly in the light of the torches burning in their brackets on either side of the gate. The guards' shields were emblazoned with a bear's face, two head of wheat, a sword, and a wolf's head on fields of grey and scarlet. As they passed by, she wondered about the meaning behind the city's coat of arms.
The streets in the lower part of the city were narrow, dark, smelly, and crowded with people, barrels, wagons, crates, animals, and all sorts of detritus. Bremi led Avi and the horse quickly through the poorer sections of town and up the first tier. The streets and buildings here were in better repair, though still rough in appearance. Bremi left the main road and turned down one of the numerous tight alleys, nodding to people he passed but not stopping to talk.
Soon they came to a large open courtyard with a great oak tree standing sentinel in the centre. The tree's branches were covered with fiery red leaves and the top of the tree was high above the four and five storey buildings that surrounded it. On the far side of the courtyard was a large building that resembled the Strawberry Inn. This particular inn was called the Oakenwood and it seemed that it was their destination for the evening.
Bremi tied Lashka to a post in the courtyard, took off the horse's saddle, and all his belongings and dropped them to the ground next to the horse. A short, thin boy appeared and trundled off to the back of the building with Bremi's things. Avi watched with confusion stamped on her features.
“Come. Let's get a room and earn our supper.” Bremi turned away without further word, and entered the inn's front doors. Avi sighed deeply and followed on his heels.
They weren't greeted quite as warmly as they had been at the Strawberry, and most of the songs Bremi sang that night were bawdy tavern tunes. He didn't allow Avi to tell stories; he just kept her at his side the whole night as he shared news and gossip. They ate a quiet meal after the crowd thinned and washed everything down with sour ale.
The room they were given was in the attic. It was grungier than their last room and Avi refused to sleep in the bed for fear of fleas or something worse. They laid side by side on the room's floor, both staring up at the ceiling, their thoughts on the same subject.
“I didn't want the crown,” Bremi said soft just before Avi fell asleep.
“I'm sorry,” Avi said, not knowing what else to say.
“I was afraid. I am afraid. I'm not... Conri, my brother, is much more suited to the throne. He's fearless. I'm scared of doing or saying the wrong things.”
“Is he older than you?”
“No. Younger, by more than thirty moons. But he's always been fearless. I knew before our father died, when I was still being groomed for the crown, that I wouldn't take it. That it had to go to Conri.”
“Will you be in trouble if you're seen here?”
Bremi snorted softly. “No. No one will recognize me. It's been years since I left.”
They fell silent, only the noises from the streets below and the crackle and pop of the wood in the hearth filling the space in the room. Finally, Avi said, “I'm sorry I snooped.”
“It's alright. The secret would have come out sooner or later. And after tomorrow, it won't matter.”
“Why won't it matter?”
“You'll be gone.”
That closed Avi's mouth with a soft snap of teeth. She exhaled slowly, feeling a tiny twinge of sadness. She had enjoyed her time here—wherever here was—and had almost forgotten that she didn't really belong. “Oh,” she said. “That's true.”
“Good-night, Avi. Sleep well.”