A Homecoming (4)

09/21/2015 § Leave a comment

The chapel bells were tolling midmorning as they arrived in town. Mist beginning to lift, but rain pouring on; sunlight seeping through cracks and seams in a sea of grey.

The way to the town square was largely deserted. For all its recent growth from increased trade in wool, Caedis was still very much a country town; a hub for smaller villages and hamlets, busy only on market days. They saw only a handful of people, cloaked against the rain, hurrying this way or that on cobbled streets. None paid any mind to the two of them.

There were more people at the square, most of them grocers setting up tents for their stalls. Here a few recognized Zoe and stopped to pay their respects. Many spoke of the feast, praising the magistrate’s generosity for inviting the townsfolk. The young mistress chatted with them amicably enough, even buying a small bag of sugared pears from an old woman. The last of the winter pears, the woman told them.

They walked across the square to the magistracy, which was one of the few buildings in town with outer walls. The guards at the gate bowed to Zoe, and let them through to the courtyard without a fuss. They crossed the courtyard to the vestibule, where they had to wait for someone to receive them. It was the head clerk who came out at last, his uniform in disarray, looking irritated as always. “What is it, boy?” he barked at the sight of Loren. “By God, will he not give us even a day’s rest? I swear, if you’ve brought us more work…”

The clerk’s tirade was cut short as his eyes fell on Zoe. Blood draining from his gaunt face, he stammered a greeting and bowed awkwardly. Zoe replied with a surprising graciousness, asking after the man’s health, and offering him a pear.

Loren uncapped his copper case and produced a roll of documents for the clerk.

“This one bears documents from my master, to be assigned to the clerks as you see fit.”

“Received,” the clerk mumbled.

The clerk bowed again as they left, stooping almost to the ground, not daring to straighten himself until they were gone.

As soon as they were out in the courtyard, Zoe stopped and burst out laughing. “Did you see his face? I—ugh—g-g-g-greetings, lady Zoe. A b-b-beautiful day.”

Loren might have laughed at that too, were he not certain that the head clerk would hold him responsible for whatever humiliation he might have felt before Zoe’s unexpected presence. The man, everyone knew, was deeply infatuated with her.

“What a mouse of a man! I don’t know why papa keeps him.”

Loren said, simply, “He is adept at his task, mistress.”

Their next stop was the Imperial Post, which was also the better and therefore more expensive of the town’s two taverns. Though the Imperial Posts were established to provide safe lodgings and fresh horses for imperial couriers and other government officials travelling on matters of importance, it was almost a universal custom for the owners of the properties to accommodate less-than-official guests at a steep premium.

The owner of Caedis’ Post was a retired legionary by the name of Zelalem, who stood out among town’s populace due to his massive girth and dark skin. It was widely gossipped that the man had been born in the Burning Coast, across the Bithryon sea, when the Empire still held territory in those sun-scorched lands.

“Welcome!” Zelalem stood up and greeted them with a clap, smiling broadly. But the smile diminished rather quickly when he recognized his guests as locals. He managed a formal bow toward Zoe before slumping back down on the stool next to the bar.

“No guests today,” said Loren, after a quick glance around the empty tavern.

“Bad luck.” Zelalem swatted the air with the back of his hand. “The lot from Sarona left yesterday, just before rain got pouring. Could have had them stay for a few more days, if not so. You here for the courier?”

Loren nodded, and produced three sealed letters from his case.

“Already two days late, this courier.” Zelalem took the letters and stashed them in a wooden box under the bar. “Probably busy whoring in Sarona. A pox upon his cock!” Then he added, belatedly: “Pardon my tongue, lady Zoe. It’s the Legion in me.”

Zoe nodded graciously. “I have heard that it never leaves a man.”

“It’s true. A mark upon one’s soul, as some say.”

“I wonder if that means my brother will be as foul-tonged as you are?”

The innkeep laughed at that. “Perhaps yes, perhaps no. It’s different for each man, what the experience does. Ah, he’s coming back soon, no? I hear the magistrate’s been preparing a feast.”

“Yes! This afternoon, as a matter of fact.”

“More bad news for me,” Zelalem said, feigning sullenness that made Zoe laugh. “Might as well close the place for the day.”

“Yes, you should do that. And come to the feast.”

The innkeep shook his head. “Ah, but I cannot. In case this bastard of a courier finally arrives.”

“Speaking of which, are the… whores in Sarona really that much better than the ones we have here? Enough to detain an imperial courier from his duty?”

Loren gave Zelalem a look, but the former legionary shrugged and answered Zoe anyway.

“My girls are cleaner. But in Sarona they wear perfume. Put paint on their faces, too. The expensive ones will sing and dance and speak poetry, before and after…”

“Hmm,” Zoe thought that over for a moment. Then, turning to Loren, she asked, “Is that what men like?” in a tone that was half-jesting, half-probing.

“This one wouldn’t know, mistress.”

“Oh? How not? Are you not a man?”

“Surely he isn’t!” Zelalem bellowed, with a deep chuckle that shook the flesh of his cheeks. “Some of my girls have been trying to get him upstairs for a very long time! Yet he is like stone, your man. Says “No,” every time. Now the girls think he is a…”

The innkeep clicked his tongue, searching for the right word. Then he tilted his head back and barked a summon upstairs, where a red-haired girl appeared by the railing momentarily.

“Agi, what is it you and others call our friend here?”

The girl grimaced at the sight of Loren, and then uttered with clear disdain a single word—“Eunuch,” before disappearing back into her room.

“Yes, they think he is that. Eunuch.”

Loren waited for the young mistress’s laughter to follow. It never came. Instead she moved away from the bar and seated herself at a table by the fireplace. “I would like a fire, Zelalem, if you would be so kind. And some wine.”

“Of course, my lady.” Zelalem barked an order upstairs and disappeared into the kitchen. Soon a girl came down—a different girl this time, with flaxen hair—and rushed to start a fire.

Loren followed Zoe to the table.

“Do you know he has never written to me?” she asked.

“Mistress?”

“My brother, of course. Not once during the whole time he’s been gone. Always only to papa, with just a single line asking after mother and I. I mean to punish him for it. Do you have any notion what it is like to have—”

Then she checked herself, as if struck by whatever thought her words had led her to. Zelalem returned with a platter, bearing a jug of wine and a pitcher of water to mix it with. There was only one cup. He bowed and withdrew, along with the girl, who smiled at Loren shyly and in passing.

“Pour,” Zoe commanded, peering into the flame.

Loren bit his lower lip. Said, reluctantly, “Mistress, this one still has more of master’s business to attend to.”

At his, Zoe glared at him. She opened her mouth as if to say something, but did not. A flicker of irritation crossed her eyes, and then they were suddenly tired, empty. She looked again into the flame. “Then go,” she said, her voice very low. “Leave me here to dry myself.”

“This one cannot, mistress. Master’s orders were clear.”

“Yes, yes. You are to conduct his business, and I am to stay with you. You will go and do as you were commanded, since you must. I, however, am soaked and weary, and will stay here and rest awhile.”

“Mistress, this one must insist—”

“Leave now, slave,” she said without looking at him. “Consider it your penance.”

That was that. There was no point refuting. Loren bowed and left her side, and heard, as he stepped past the Post’s doorway, Zelalem hurrying over to serve her wine.

Once outside, back again in the rain, he took a deep breath to calm himself. Anger and humiliation swirled within him, but only briefly, and ever so faintly. And in a breath or two they were gone, made flat and still like all else, swallowed up by the numbness inside him. He was a slave. He knew his place. He pulled up the hood of his cloak and stepped into the street.

As he made his way toward the smithy, he began to wonder, with detached curiosity, about the young mistress’s sudden change of mood in the tavern. Something had upset her—but what? She hadn’t minded Zelalem’s vulgar talk, had in fact participated in it brazenly. The mention of her brother’s lack of communication, too, seemed to him now more a result of the change in her mood than the cause of it, given how happy she had been about her brother’s imminent return all morning. And if it was his being called a eunuch that had offended her… but that, he knew, was beyond ludicrous. He was only a slave in her father’s household. A tool like any other, though cast in human shape. So he did not matter in her eyes—as she had just reminded him with the dismissal.

Unable to think of a reason, Loren put the issue out of his mind. The young mistress was what she was. Old Ionava said that of her often, and usually in a tone that fell somewhere between bemusement and resignation. Capricious, impetuous, heedless of any but the swift and sweeping motions of her own desires…

Not unlike, Loren thought, the thought racing to the fore of his mind before he could stop it, already loud in his head: not unlike a fool boy running into an ancient forest, knowing nothing, hearing nothing, driven only by the tumult in his soul.

And if that boy still lived today, the thought went on—if he could still feel, and so name the feeling, he might have called it hatred.

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