Authors: Megan Lindholm
Tags: #Fantasy, #Fantasy - General, #General, #Fiction, #Fiction - General, #Fantastic fiction
Table Of Contents
The many-fingered arms of the Kerugi reminded Ki of a fringed shawl. It turned solemn grey-white eye specks on her. The symbiotic Olo twined about the Kerugi's shoulders lifted its head and neck sinuously. Its mobile lips writhed around its little monkey mouth as it asked, 'Did you require something of us?'
'Yes.' Ki fumbled, trying to decide which set of eyes to look into as she spoke. 'I'm looking for a Kerugi inn, built right next to a weaving hive.'
The squat Kerugi stood motionless while the Olo wrinkled its tiny brow in concentration. Ki waited patiently.
'Look on any street in Dyal. We always build our inns near hives. It is good business,' the Olo finally translated for her.
'So I've found. I am seeking a face-scarred Human male, with dark hair and eyes. He said he would meet me in the Kerugi inn at Dyal that is built right by a weaving hive.'
Again there was a long pause as the Olo wrinkled its simian features. Its furry coils rippled as it relayed her words and got the Kerugi's reply.
'We cannot be of much help to you. There are many hives and many inns in Dyal. The Human male should have given you better directions.'
'My thoughts exactly. I thank you for your time, and for having speech with me.'
Ki waited politely until her reply had been relayed to the Kerugi. The Olo offered her welcome and farewell. The Kerugi with its Olo waddled off.
Ki scanned the length of the street. She had lost count of how many inns she had checked; but there was another of the tall pointed structures that housed a Kerugi inn in its shadow. She trudged toward it, trying not to breathe the fine dry dust that hung in the city streets like fog. The heat of summer filled the bowl of Dyal Valley as if winter would never come, yet she knew that in another moon the streets of this city would be flowing mud and blowing wind.
A motley crowd moved through the early evening air. It was mostly Kerugi, with here and there a scuttling T'cherian or a striding Human breaking the pace of the traffic. A tall Brurjan in guard harness hulked past Ki, and she felt her belly muscles tighten as his shadow fell across her. If Dyal made a practice of hiring Brurjan guards, these streets would be safe after dark. Ki knew of no creature that would willingly cross a Brurjan. Hastily she stepped up onto a planked veranda that fronted the inn. Stooping, she swept the door slats to one side and peered within. Damn the man. He wasn't in this one, either.
She wrinkled her nose against the odors of the common room. A drunken tinker and his drinking companions were the only Human inhabitants. Kerugi huddled in clusters around the low feeding vats, Olos twined on their shoulders, twittering to one another in their own tongue. Ki watched in distaste as one of the Kerugi shuffled up to a vacant vat and, with a grunt, expelled its digestive tendrils from a slitlike aperture in its belly. A T'cherian server scuttled over to upend a jug over the vat, slopping thick brownish porridge over the Kerugi's digestive tendrils. The flatulent odor of the room increased.
Ki sighed and entered the inn, the door slats chattering behind her. She'd have food and a cold drink before checking the rest of the inns in Dyal. If she had realized how Dyal had grown since she last had delivered freight here, she would have demanded more specific directions from Vandien. 'That Kerugi inn at Dyal' had seemed a sufficient description. Who could have predicted that hordes of the tiny-fingered weaver folk would have moved to Dyal?
'Carrion crows and horny old hags they are!' the tinker bellowed out suddenly. Ki eyed him warily. He was a disreputable-looking fellow. His face was sun browned, his eyes pale, his hair dusty as though he had just brought his wagonload of pots into town. A gelid pot belly cushioned him against the table, though he gestured with hands that seemed, beneath their grime, capable and strong. Once he might have been a handsome man, but age and the laxity of drink had brought a droop to his face, a sag to his lips and jowls, and leached the brightness from his eyes.
The tinker's eyes leaped and fastened on Ki's. She jerked her gaze away, shamed to be caught staring like a mannerless child. She crossed the room hastily, her dusty skirts whipping against travel-stained boots. Nervously she glanced about, seeking a table as far as possible from drunken tinkers and Kerugi with their twittering symbiots. But instead of a table, a low doorway caught her eye. She made her way to it, to stoop and peer into the dim room beyond.
The wooden floor was strewn with rushes and fragrant grasses. Low trough tables of warmed sand were scattered about the room. T'cherian diners crouched around them. Several eye stalks swiveled in her direction, then politely swerved away. Pincerlike fingers on jointed limbs resumed the conveying of food to mandibles.
Ki ducked in and stood up, savoring the muted light, the cleanliness, and the relative quiet of the place. From the common room behind her, she heard the tinker bellow out, 'Blood-sucking Windsingers!' and follow it with muted curses. But here there was only the chink of pincers against the round-bottomed vessels of food snugged in the sand-troughs.
The sole Human inhabitant of the room sat with his back against the wall and his legs stretched out beneath a sand table. One booted foot rested comfortably on the ankle of the other. His head was tilted back, his eyes rolled up as, with one hand, he groped on a shelf above him. His fingertips teased a bottle to the edge, and caught it just as it began to tip into a fall. A light shower of sand came with it, dusting his hair. With a practiced twist of the wrist, he nested the round-bottomed bottle into the table before him. Two hemispherical glasses waited there, one clean and one tinged with dregs.
The man pushed the sleeves of his cream-colored tunic back to his elbows, exposing finely muscled forearms, and bent over the bottle to work off the seal. Curly dark hair fell over his forehead, partially obscuring the scar that divided his face.
Ki moved softly across the room, placing her boots with such care that she stood over him before he was aware of her. Dark eyes swept up to meet her green ones. She gave his boots a light kick. 'I should have known,' she grumbled. 'It would be the Kerugi inn with a T'cherian serving room.' She dropped to the floor and settled in beside him, her booted ankles crossed comfortably atop his.
'It was so obvious, I never thought to mention it,' Vandien conceded. 'How was your haul?'
Ki leaned back against the wall behind them and let herself relax. 'Bad roads, hot weather, unfriendly towns, and ungrateful recipients on this end. They claimed the top sacks of beans were spoiled from exposure to the weather. I thought they always smelled like that. We argued a bit, and I cut my fee a little, and we parted amiably. At least, the Kerugi's Olo seemed friendly enough when I left. Who knows what a Kerugi really thinks about anything? All you hear is the carefully edited reply from its Olo...'
'Um,' Vandien agreed. He had resumed picking at the bottle's seal, flicking away scraps of greenish wax to expose a fibrous stopper. He reached under the table to draw a small knife from a sheath on his belt and dug it into the stopper. 'I hope you're not too tired,' he said casually. Amusement tugged at the corner of his mouth. He smoothed his small moustache to cover it, but Ki was alerted.
'Nothing a good night's sleep won't cure.'
'Think we could be in False Harbor ten nights from now?'
'About a day's ride beyond Bitters by horse; maybe two for the wagon. The road is narrow and rutted.'
'But why would I want to be in False Harbor then?'
Vandien glanced up at the T'cherian server making her way to their table laden with two steaming bowls. He timed his reply perfectly, speaking as he poured a dark purple liqueur into their glasses. The T'cherian nested their bowls into the sand before them. 'I've contracted us a job there.'
Ki was speechless in the double amazement of Vandien actually seeking for gainful employment, and daring to commit her wagon and team without her permission. He looked up from the liqueur and laughed aloud at her wide eyes, her gaping mouth. As her eyes narrowed and she took a deep breath for speech, he raised both hands in supplication. 'Before you tell me your current opinion of your dearest friend, let me tell you the details of the deal. You decide if even a stubborn Romni teamster would have walked away from it.'
Ki picked up her glass and leaned back against, the wall, regarding him skeptically. She took a slow sip of the liqueur. He grinned at her engagingly, already sure of himself, and shifted to feel the companionable warmth of her shoulder and hip against his.
'Three nights ago, I was sitting here, at this very table, when the strangest woman I've ever seen came in.'
As Vandien began his story, a length of white string appeared from his pouch as if by magic. It settled in a loop on his fingers, and as he spoke, he twisted and wove the string into the story symbols of his people. Ki's eyes went from his fingers to his face and back again.
'She stood in the doorway and looked slowly about. She was dressed in a coarse brown smock and trousers, like a field farmer. By her body and face, she could have been grandmother to a dozen children. Our eyes met. She smiled. She'd a bottle in one hand, and yellow flowers woven into her black, black hair. All in all, a strange sight, but not an eye turned to her but mine. Straight to my table she came, and twisted her bottle into the sand. She sat down across from me as if we were the oldest of friends. And, strangely, I knew we were.'
Vandien paused to take a sip from his glass and risked a look at Ki. He knew well that she could not resist a tale, especially as he told them, but he had not won her. Yet. He cleared his throat and went on.
'Well, she just sat there, smiling at me and working a cork out of her bottle. When she had it open, she took a glass from one of her sleeves, and then another, and set them in the sand between us, as if it were the most natural thing in the world. When she had filled both glasses, what should it be but Alys! Ki, I had tried earlier in the day to buy Alys in four different taverns in this town. No one in Dyal had ever heard of it, let alone stocked it. But there she was, pouring me a glass of it. And still not a word had she spoken, and me half-wondering if I'm dreaming the whole thing.
'Well, then she lifted her glass to me and said in a voice sweet as a bird's call, Here's to your strong right arm and the scar between your eyes! And she drained off her glass.'
'So, of course, you had to do the same,' Ki murmured. She was into the spirit of the tale now, and enjoying it as much as Vandien enjoyed the telling.
He took a sip of his dark liqueur. With a fingertip, he traced the scar that began at the inside corner of one eye and ran across the bridge of his nose and down his cheek to the angle of his jaw. He gave a grave nod and resumed his story.
'When we had drunk, she told me her name, Srolan. I told her mine. She wasted no words. She said that she was seeking a strong Human with a dependable team for a very special task. She would not say who had steered her to me. I told her that while I knew of a very dependable team, they were not mine to commit...'
Ki sat up slightly, her muscles tensing as she began to speak, but Vandien spoke more quickly.
'She told me what she needed done, and it seemed simple enough, even intriguing. But again I told her that I could not commit a team that was not mine. She took it to mean that I wanted a higher fee. She raised her offer. Again, I told her I must first propose it to you. Again, she raised her offer! Ki, it had reached an embarrassing level. But once more, I refused, telling her she must wait until you arrived, and ask you herself. Then Srolan sat back, and her shoulders sagged; her eyes lost their sparkle, and her years looked out at me.'
Vandien mimed her movements, becoming for an instant a downcast old woman. He held forth an appealing hand to Ki.
'She could not stay in Dyal. Her daughter in Bitters was soon to give birth, and she must go to midwife her. No one but herself would do, for the girl had had three breech births, and none of the babes survived. This time Srolan was determined to be there herself and not trust to some other midwife's fumbling. She was convinced that her touch alone could bring forth her daughter's child alive.'
'How could you deny the urgency of such a mission?' Ki murmured. Vandien flashed her a self-righteous scowl at the underlying note of amusement in her voice.
'How indeed, Ki? Especially when the final offer she made was so ridiculously high for such a simple task. In money alone, she was offering, for a task that would take us at most a day, indeed, must be completed in a day, the extravagant sum of six tallies. Six!' he said proudly.
The number was lost on Ki. She had a grin on her face as she twisted slightly to face Vandien. 'You didn't?'
He gave a quick shrug of his shoulders, taken aback by her sudden humor. 'But I did. I thought that, just this once, you might not mind if I committed your team on your behalf, especially for so good a price. And besides the money, there was...'
'Vandien.' Ki choked on a laugh, and tried to pull her face to order. 'Let me guess the task, and the terms. She will pay you only after you have successfully completed it, correct? It must be done in one day, and the task is in False Harbor.' At each of Vandien's cautious nods, Ki gave a bubble of laughter. 'Vandien, did you agree to take a team into that sunken Windsinger temple and haul out a secret long-lost chest?'