The mayor of Tallbridge Town was called Enil Tran. He was a short, balding, portly, fidgety man with a curly goatee and darting, nervous beetle-brown eyes.
“I am shocked,” he said in a quivering voice, pressing a pudgy hand to his chest, “most astonished and shocked to hear these troubling news, honorable Commander. It is well known the savages are rioting in the south, but here, in this peaceful stretch of land in the heart of the country, I thought we were safe.”
“No one is safe these days,” said Korian briskly. “You would do well to remember that from now on, Mayor.”
If he found the reproof in Korian’s words unseemly, Tran did well concealing it. “To be sure. Well, I will promote the necessary measures, certainly. A report will be dispatched to the capital, and our scouts will survey every field and village in the vicinity.”
“Do that,” nodded Korian, “but you know what the sons of a bitch are like. When they sense weakness, they appear; and when you are on your guard, there is no hope to catch them because they are more elusive than ever. The stinking cowards could have nearly outnumbered us, I am sure, yet we saw their tail as soon as they realized the element of surprise is lost. One of my men was grievously injured,” he added. “We thought he could ride across the bridge, but that proved a false hope. Now we can only pray he doesn’t lose his leg.”
“The Healers are tending to him as we speak, and I think I can venture to say that our Healer Atos, especially, is highly skilled. Rest assured, all that can be done for him will be done, and promptly.” Enil must have noticed the weariness in the Commanders features, because he hastened to say: “Well, you fought bravely. And now you must be hungry and tired. I will make sure proper quarters are prepared for you, and we will all have a welcoming feast for our bold warriors tonight, with the best this autumn’s harvest can offer.”
“That is very gracious of you,” Korian inclined his head, “but first, we should like to bathe, please. We had a long ride, with no accommodations.”
“The bathhouses are already being heated up for you,” said the mayor, and Septimus had never thought he’d feel so thrilled to hear such simple words.
The bathhouse halls of Tallbridge Town were unable to afford any privacy, and he was vexed by it, but only briefly. He was dirtier than he had ever been in his life – and, he supposed, smelled worse than he ever had, so that soap, a scrubbing brush and an abundant supply of hot water seemed like heaven. Layer upon layer of caked dirt came off his skin and from underneath his nails, and no matter how much he scrubbed, there always seemed more to come.
Korian waded through the steamy interior of the bathhouse, and it was impossible not to notice how well he was built and how graceful he was on his feet, even on the slippery stone floor. An angry red welt, probably a legacy of one of the savages’ misdirected blows, blossomed across one of his arms. Unfathomably, he was smirking as he approached Ned, who was trying to extract a splinter from one of his feet, and clapped him upon his naked back.
“How does your head feel, o blessed Paladin? The savages needn’t bother with you, so long as there’s a tree or two around.”
Ned frowned. “How kind of you to be so concerned about my well-being,” he replied waspishly. “What are you so happy about, anyway?”
“Ah, I’ve just been thinking about our little friend Talvi,” said Korian. “At this very moment, she is enjoying a scrub and bath in the company of the entire Women’s Battalion,” the glee in his voice was palpable.
The crease between the Paladin’s eyebrows deepened. “You should get off Talvi’s back, Korian,” he advised, “she did well in today’s battle.”
“This does not admit of a doubt,” conceded Korian, “but neither does the fact that she would have been better off at home.”
“You still haven’t despaired of sending her back, have you?”
“No, although I am aware that it will be far more difficult to do so once we cross the Middling Mountains. I will, therefore, have to put my persuasion skills to good use during our brief stay here.”
“I wouldn’t put any bets on your success,” said Ned. “Talvi is more stubborn than you think. Neither is it so bad to have her around. She makes pleasanter company than some,” he added acidly.
“It’s seasoned warriors, not pleasant company, that we’ll need further down south,” replied Korian with a lazy shrug of a wet shoulder. “We already have one untrained drifter and one Sightseer who, as useful as he proved to be, is a green boy nonetheless. The longer we travel, the more of a burden a tender maid will be.” And off he stalked, to fetch himself a fresh scrubbing brush. His first was already undone into tatters from the vigorous use he put it to.
Septimus had not seen Talvi until they were seated behind the long trestle tables at the Feasting Hall, and he had not realized she was approaching until he actually felt someone squeeze beside him on the bench. He then turned his head and let his knife fall onto his plate with a clang.
“Why are you gaping at me like that?” asked Talvi, trying to frown, but it was no good – her face split in a smile.
“It’s...” Septimus picked up his knife again, but for an instant, forgot he was going to use it to cut his slice of roast meat. “I – it’s just that it’s the first time that I see you looking – ”
“Like a proper young lady,” finished Korian, who had just returned from a brief detour to his place beside Septimus, whom, it appeared, he resolved to distinguish far more than before. This could be a gallant phrase, if it weren’t for the insolent way he stared at Talvi. “And much more becoming it is than mail and boiled leather, I must say.”
“The dress was courtesy of Enil Tran,” explained Talvi. It was no silk or samite, but it was good blue wool, well cut, and embroidered in gold thread that matched the color of her almond-shaped eyes. Her hair was done up and tied in a sleek knot at the back of her head. “Once he found out who I am, he was horrified that a highborn young maid like myself should appear at the feast dressed like a warrior.”
“I would be more bothered at the thought of said young maid riding as a warrior all the way here from Rhasket-Tharsanae,” countered Korian, but the beginning of yet another argument was drowned by the arrival of Enil Tran, with his profuse solicitude about their comfort, his thanks and his compliments.
“A thousand apologies,” he puffed, fumbling in the inside of his robes, and seemingly attempting to extract some object from one of his pockets. “In all the bustle of today’s events, I forgot to inform you, Commander, that a letter arrived for you three days past.”
“A letter for me?” Korian looked puzzled. “Who is it from?”
“It is from your noble father, who knew you are sure to pass here on your way south,” explained Enil, finally extracting the rolled up letter and handing it to Korian.
“My father?” A tinge of anxiety appeared in Korian’s voice. “You will excuse me, then, mayor. I will want to peruse it in private -”
“As you wish, Commander, but I will just venture to say I don’t believe you ought to alarm yourself about this letter. We received notice from Rhasket that makes me suspect this is merely a note of congratulation.”
“My name day is long past,” frowned Korian, and his eyes were shrewd and suspicious.
“Ah, Commander,” chuckled Enil Tran, “you like your little joke. The news we heard was that your noble father had arranged for a marriage of your sister Tari with the honorable Ron Lukiar – a union that will bring great delight and prosperity to both your clans, I am sure.”
Korian looked stricken. “Ron Lukiar?” he repeated incredulously. “Not Ron the Hunchback?”
All of a sudden, Enil Tran looked uncomfortable. “I am sure you will find all the particulars you might wish for in your father’s letter,” he said, and shifted off to his seat. Korian impatiently unfurled the scroll and ran his eyes across the hastily scribbled lines, once, and twice, and three times. Septimus, Ned and Talvi observed with concern the somber shade that had gradually settled across his face.
“The old wretch waited for my departure from Rhasket before he came out with this plan of his,” he muttered indignantly. ”Ron Lukiar’s long-standing admiration of your sister... to be sure, he ogled Tari far more than he ought to, when he visited Rhasket a twelvemonth past... Whatever minor hesitation Tari might have professed, its insignificance has been impressed upon her at the face of the obvious advantage of the match... to be sure, even someone as obedient as my sister must have shown some reluctance at the prospect of wedding a man whose back is as crooked as the High Road! We deeply regret that you will not be able to attend the wedding. He knows full well that if I had been able to attend, I would never allow this wedding to take place. They will be married within a fortnight, in my father’s home, and even if it were in my power to turn back and gallop all the way to Rhasket, I would never make it in time,” he finished bitterly.
“Who is Ron Lukiar?” asked Septimus.
“The Lukiar clan resides at the Pearl Islands, and Ron Lukiar is heir to the largest pearl colony off the coast of Tilir,” answered Talvi. “He had stayed in Rhasket for a while a year ago. He is a fabulously rich man... and it would be great luck to marry him, I suppose, only – only his back is as crooked as the High Road,” she finished sheepishly. “Korian, please don’t torment yourself so,” she added sympathetically, seeing how the Commander crushed his father’s letter in his fist. “There is nothing you can do.”
“I damn well know this,” Korian snapped back. “I understand why my father is so keen to marry Tari off. He thinks her prospects are much worsened now that Datrine started this rebellious campaign of hers; he reckons no respectable clan would be in haste to connect itself with us now, and well, Ron Lukiar – he is the most advantageous, well-connected bridegroom he could come up with. But for the love of the Spirit,” he said fiercely, through clenched teeth, “I don’t see how he could do this to a daughter who had always been so good to him!”
“Here’s one obvious advantage to me riding off with your troops,” said Talvi, smiling coyly. “I know my father had some notions of disposing of me in the same way. A grand marriage, and then a lifetime shut up in a nice luxurious jail of my husband’s mansion, doing needlework and popping out one baby after the next.”
“If I were your father, I would wish to dispose of you too,” Korian shot her a nasty glance, “you are insufferable.”
It might not have been a fair reproach, but Tari let it slide, seeing how genuinely disturbed Korian looked. He didn’t say anything beyond a monosyllable hence. He ate precious little, too, which was rather a pity, as the food was both ample and delicious. The riverlands were, of course, famous for their fish, and a thick stew of it was served, made even thicker with cream and fragrant with herbs; there was venison aplenty, too, and wild boar roast with apples and pine nuts; there were blackberry and honey cakes, and sugared iced fruit, and many flagons of red and pink and pale gold wine to wash the feast down.
The Commander had revived a little, but only a little, when Enil Tran summoned his pretty, lively daughter, Kiara, to entertain the guests. Korian had enough spirit in him to smile and crack an anecdote or two, but no more. He was not equal even to flirting.
“Which means Kiara Tran has had a lucky escape,” whispered Talvi in Sep’s ear, safe behind the cover of a singer strumming his lute and carrying a jolly tune of upon a misty morn, upon a misty mountain, the sunlight’s gleaming gold. “Otherwise, she’d be entertaining Korian on her back before she knew what was happening.”
“I met Tari once before we left your town,” said Septimus, blushing like a maid and keen to change the subject. “She seemed like a good sort of girl.”
“Oh, yes,” Talvi nodded vigorously, “I always had a great regard for Tari. We never were close friends, as she is so quiet and reserved – and she is so meek and dutiful that I even voiced my doubts as to whether she and Datrine really come from the same stock. But of course, she is used very ill. The Lukiar are fierce loyalists, and if you ask me, her father is marrying her to Ron the Hunchback to make sure no one classes him together with Datrine’s rebels.”
“You are being most unjust to Ron Lukiar,” said Ned all of a sudden, raising his eyes from his plate of trifle. “I had had the chance to converse with him several times during his stay in Rhasket-Tharsanae, and I must say I formed a very favorable opinion of him.”
Talvi snorted, setting her goblet aside. “I’d like to hear you talk of favorable opinions if someone chose a bald, one-eyed wife for you, and you had little say in the matter.”
“But Ron Lukiar is not bald or one-eyed,” Ned protested reasonably. “His face is not ugly to look upon, and he is clever and soft-spoken.”
“He is ugly,” maintained Talvi, “ugly and old.”
Ned smiled. “He only seems old to you, Talvi, because you are not seventeen. Ron is younger than I am, not thirty if I recall correctly. Truly, disregarding some – er – details of his appearance, this seems a very suitable match to me, in age, disposition and connection. It may not seem very likely to you, but Tari may yet grow fond of him.”
“Tari grew fond of that twist-eared lame puppy she nursed back to health last spring, remember?” Recalled Talvi with a wicked grin, “but there’s a difference between being fond and wanting him in her bed, Ned.”
“You should not talk so,” he shook his head disapprovingly.
“For her sake,” continued Talvi, “as it really appears as though there is nothing any of us can do, and the marriage seems to be a settled thing, I do wish he would prove to be a kind man, and that her easy sweet temper may make her tolerably reconciled to her fate in a reasonable length of time. But I do not envy Tari Tionae now, as the time is growing nearer her wedding day.”