Chapter Twenty: Whispers in the City

 

I ate potatoes that night with Macc and Ratcatcher, peeling the soft charcoal-smeared skins before dipping the hot pieces in salt and oil with vinegar. Macc, our best forager under all circumstances, had a brace of rabbits nicely roasted, and allotted a haunch and forequarter to me. I did not quarrel with his generosity, but ate ravenously, knowing that tomorrow would also be likely to afford me no more than a single meal.

“Your guests feast in the City tonight,” Macc nodded over his shoulder in the direction of our busy streets. “The Burgmasters will treat them well.”

“I have heard good word of their quality,” Ratcatcher remarked. “Will they fight as well as rumor has it?”

“First, they are all men,” I replied. “They will not be happy to be fighting an army of women” I smiled at Macc’s expression. “Mostly women,” I amended. “They come from a country where men and women are driven as separate cattle. But don’t mistake them. These are seasoned warriors, professional, with a commander they love.”

“The Knight Rebmun?”

“No,” I countered more harshly than I should. “The Prince Evandir. He is a soldier’s soldier. They call him Broken Nose. The Knight Rebmun is separate, almost like an army in his own body. The men seem to spare no love for Rebmun, strictly the obedience that is his due, and the respect he has earned for being the greatest warrior of his generation.”

From the barracks Liit’s fine soprano rose in song, sweet in a soulful lullaby, Berann’s flute accompanying her with piercing sureness.

Hush, my spear, and grease surround you,

All through the night.

Dust nor rain nor wind shall harm you

Whilst you’re in my sight.

When the sounds of battle reach you

Groaning in the air,

I shall use you gently, gently,

Just to part my hair.

“Is the tale true that Knight Rebmun will not remove his helmet for any cause?”

“No,” I said, polishing off the last little bone of my rabbit before flinging it into the heart of the fire, “but I hear it is true he is not fair to look upon. His face has such scars of burning that he must have been fortunate to keep his eyes, which now need the aid of lenses. I am told the rest of his face is run together and stiff — you know the look of burn scars.”

“Shiny, hard, stretched,” Macc nodded. “So he prefers to show his helm to us.”

“In the end, who is bearer of the King of Saahr’s authority?” Ratcatcher cocked her head, unwinding a snarl from her brown hair with deft fingers.

“I am not certain; I presume he is and that it will come clear in the next two days of conference. I have asked this question before and gained no answer.”

“It must be the Prince, not Rebmun,” Ratcatcher stated. “There is no mention of any blood relationship between King Saahr and this Knight Rebmun.”

“And I would sense,” I added out of my own indiscretion, “that there is some kind of subtle conflict between these two, even though they serve one King and do that well.”

I ate one last potato, with a bit more vinegar this time, liking the bite of acid against the sweet mealy texture of the tuber.

“Thank you for this meal, my friends,” I said. “May the Nameless God requite you.”

Macc and Ratcatcher touched fingertips to forehead in answer.

“Go ahead,” I said with a sigh, half of amusement, “ask. You have been perishing to, so spit it out before I go to my bed.”

“Prince Evandir,” Macc said. “You spoke for him and stopped Zanel from….”

“He treated you with disrespect,” Ratcatcher said hotly.

“He treated you like a weak or crippled person.”

“Well,” I said, trying to be fair. “Yes, he opened a door for me and then stood holding it open. You must understand that in the land from which he comes, women of consequence expect such treatment.”

“What is the matter with them, that they can think of nothing but sex?” Macc growled, and Ratcatcher poked him in the side.

#

I lingered at the back door of the barracks, wondering if I should go against Prince Evandir’s expression of preference and obtain for him one of the better members of Westside Laymaster’s collection. Evandir would come back with wine and brandy in his belly, fed to the fullest, and why not let him take some ease as any other guest would? I thought I knew the sort who would appeal to him, and a lady of good wit she was, too. If he truly did not want her he could always send her home again, and I would at least be settled in my own mind that I had done my duty well. And he troubled me, I admitted to myself. It would content me to send him such a present so that I would feel no longer incomplete concerning him.

I heard a soft foot approach, and continued to gaze up at the stars, as if I had no warning, but just as the man drew in his breath to speak, I spoke first.

“What is it now,” I said rudely enough. “Your master and his friends seem always after me for answers I cannot give.”

“Corpsmaster Ti,” Glima replied, “forget not that we are friends and fight on the same side.”

I already regretted my manner.

“Master Glima,” I said, “the times are strained, my temper likewise.”

“It is understood. May I beg your company again this night; it is for a very small thing.”

I said nothing further but turned to him in gesture of my willingness. We made quietly off into the night.

This time we went a little way into the City by indirect routes until I stood on the edge of Partell Square which was filled with the warm lanterns of horn and mica and the sounds of music.

“Please wait here,” said Glima.

Given the tardiness I am accustomed to expect of some gentry and Burgmasters, my wait seemed short. Indeed I enjoyed the music as I sat in the stone alcove off the main square, and watched the traffic of gorgeous Masters moving to and fro. The great feast for our guests had been held in the Burgmaster’s Hall off of Partell Square this time, a splendid place, but one I had not troubled myself to see since the days of my childhood when my parents had taken me there once or twice. How grand it had appeared to me then.

“Corpsmaster Ti,” Laymaster said very softly, and I drew on him before I knew what I did.

“I have never known anyone without my training who could surprise me after dark,” I confessed, re-sheathing my sword.

“Oh, but I apprenticed myself to the Wall under your predecessor twice removed,” he answered, and I heard the pleasure in his voice from my compliment. “I was excellent in stealth, but terrible at killing.”

“I did not expect you. I thought I answered Grassmaster’s summons.”

“I forgive you, darling,” he chuckled, “but as the whore said to the Burgmaster, I guess I shall have to serve.”

I did not know what to say to that. He apparently did not mind.

“It’s a simple thing, very simple that brings me to you. Or you to me, as I guess I might better say. Corpsmaster, what is your judgment on these guests? Will they make peace, or will they turn to war, and why should we worry in either case? Portents aside, in which I have scant belief, what prevents us from pulling in our strength, fortifying the Wall against all assault, and waiting for the winter to starve them shivering home?”

“All I have is private impression,” I said, and hesitated.

“Can I speak it for myself and see if you assent?”

I looked at his fantastic figure, his three bodyguards hovering just beyond easy hearing.

“I think you might say, Master Ti, that they are resolved to conquer us, we know not why. We cannot imagine how, so we cannot disrupt their plans. And we worry because we cannot feel any worry in them.”

“Then being as you have so clearly spoken what I would have, why bring me here?”

“To hear the music?” he suggested, then his air of jest fell away.

“Because we still had to hear it from you. To be sure we agreed. And another thing,” he added. “Are your guests high in their manner with you?”

I could not imagine what he might mean.

“Do they take their baths in private rather than at the bathhouse? Do they empty their own privy pots? Do they allow assistance at their dressing?”

“No to all three,” I said, startled.

“Grassmaster sends to tell you that his guest will neither eat nor shit nor bathe in public, and that he cleans his own pot before the servants can.”

“He is much scarred,” I reminded him.

“That is as it may be, my love. Grassmaster sent you the message, not I. As for the guest, I have partners who will please him whatever his preference and not remark upon his face. Does he think us barbarians that we would mock him at table or in bed? Or is he a barbarian who thinks we will make magic against him using his own offal?”

“They are a strange people,” I said. “And this reminds me, could you, for my favor, send a particular lady…”

“A lady?” he caught me up, his hands stilled in their fine leather gloves.

“She is called Cynd.”

“More sinned against than sinning? Oh yes, I know the lady, and a fine one too. You have a project for her? I had not heard, indeed I had not guessed, but for you, Corpsmaster any corpse in my keeping must be at your disposal. The first time, anyway. Later, we might make terms.”

“No, you mistake me,” I said sharply. “I would ask you to send her to the Prince I host, for his accommodation this night. He will come home warmed with wine and food, and when I have made this offer to him before, he has refused.”

“For what reason?” Laymaster spoke very quietly. “A warrior, as you must know, may have suffered in his wars unfortunate damage. One would not like to give such a man offense.”

“I do not think this is the case. I believe it a matter of squeamish courtesy.”

“Master Ti, do not think I presume, but if he has shown reluctance, I could not recommend you to send such a gift. One man’s squeamish courtesy is another’s principle.”

I bit my own lip then.

“Westside Laymaster,” I said, “I am in your debt. I do not know what is the matter with me that I needed your lessoning, but need it I did. He has been a gentle guest. I have never come so close before to arrant discourtesy. You have the right of it.”

“You do not know what is the matter with you? Nothing, Corpsmaster Ti,” he said, growing merry again. “Nothing I could not find means to cure. Remember my offer when you realize how cold your bed grows, and I shall make sure it lies better with you than it has so far.”

So we bowed and parted.

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