Oriel was running up the stairs as Rasine came back from the market. She stared down at the blonde ten-year old in surprise. “What are you doing, Oriel? I thought I told you to make bread while I was at the market.” Rasine followed her daughter into their tiny rooms, clutching the two bags she had brought back with her.
“Oh, turdation!” the ten year-old snapped, under her breath. “I wanted to be back before you. I put the dough in the oven, Mama. I was playing with Briam, and then I just went down the street to see if there were any mushrooms in that little patch of soil near the –”
“What did you say, young lady?”
“Nothing, Mama, just that I wanted to see if there were any mushrooms …” The girl’s voice trailed off, her smile dimming as she caught sight of the expression on Rasine’s face.
“I should wash your mouth out with verjuice, using such language. Where you learn these things, I’ll never know.” Rasine shook her head as she took two carrots from one of the bags. “And as punishment for what you said, you’re not to make jelly for another sennight.” She took a small knife and began to cut the carrots.
“But Mama, I love jelly. And you never let me eat any sweets at all,” Oriel objected, bending to take a small cloth-wrapped bundle from the live coals.
“Be careful, Oriel. How many times have I told you –”
“To use a cloth when you take the bread from the fire,” Oriel finished the sentence for her mother.
“You are becoming very rude. I should punish you.” Rasine hid a smile at the indignant look her daughter gave her. “But, since you’re not making jelly for the next sennight,” Rasine chuckled as her daughter glared daggers at her, “I’ll consider that sufficient punishment.
“Tell me, how is that young man, Briam?”
“He’s not a young man, Mama. He’s just a boy,” Oriel said and snatched a small piece of carrot from her mother’s hands. “And he’s fine.”
Rasine laughed and batted away the little girl’s grasping fingers as she set some water to boil. “Did you play find-the-rat again?” Her daughter nodded, mouth full of carrots. Rasine continued, “Can you recite what I taught you the other day?” She carefully dropped the remaining pieces of carrot into the water.
“Of course,” the little girl said scornfully. “Listen.
“An Herbal Concoction
Verjuice and white pepper for a jelly of fish,
Thyme and mint for a form of tart;
Chamomile for tea, parsley for looks,
Sage for stew, cayenne from the east,
Mustard for sauce, anise for sweets,
Saffron for them dukes, salt for you and me!”
Oriel took a deep breath. “But what does it mean, Mama? And how come it says verjuice and white pepper for jelly? We use seaweed and milk for carrageen jelly.”
Rasine said, “That’s a very good question. Tell me how you make jelly.”
“Boil seaweed and milk.
Stir the side of the pot.
Drink when it’s not so hot.”
“Straight. And how does it taste? Sweet. But this isn’t a sweet jelly. It’s a jelly made with fish. The poem gives you the herbs so that you can always remember what to put in it. Remember when I taught you how to make jelly? That’s a poem too.”
“Oooh, that’s easy. Do you know any more, Mama?”
The woman laughed. “Of course I do, and I’ll teach them all to you. There’s one about spice powder that I’m going to teach you next, but not today. It’s time to eat now, and then time for you to go to bed.”
Rasine tucked Oriel into bed and sat down to wait for Gunnar, a ducal guard with whom she had a bargain. In exchange for getting Oriel an apprenticeship with the keep cook, Rasine had agreed to oblige Gunnar with favors. He usually stopped by every other day, and she expected he would stop by that night. She stared into the glowing embers of the coals, letting her mind wander aimlessly. Life had a sameness about it lately that made even thinking a chore.
She remembered when her husband Lars had been alive. Things had been different then. He had been a good man, with his own boat and he used to go fishing almost every day. One day, he never returned. There had been a sudden squall, and everyone had told her that he must have drowned. Oriel had been four years old at the time. Lars had made her laugh, and after he was gone, there was no one to make her laugh.
Rasine could not accept the fact that he was gone. She had borrowed a lot of money from Jahlena, part-owner of the Shattered Spear, and paid the other fishermen in Dargon to go and look for him. Of course, when Jahlena had asked for repayment, Rasine had nothing to return. She had ended up at the Spear as a general dogsbody in order to pay the debt. To make matters worse, Jahlena, who was the bouncer at the inn, had rather forcibly persuaded her to double occasionally as an entertainer of the more tawdry sort.
But even that did not bother her now. Actually, nothing much bothered her right now. She couldn’t bring herself to believe that anything mattered. So what if she was an entertainer? She didn’t care a whole lot about that. The only thing which mattered, just a little, was Oriel. A distant corner of her mind was always aware of her responsibility to her child. If it hadn’t been for Oriel, she would have gone searching for Lars herself and perhaps, like Lars, never returned …
Bells sounded faintly in the distance, breaking Rasine’s reverie. The only important thing right now was to make sure Oriel learned a trade. Rasine had come up with the idea about a month prior. It had been the early part of Firil when she had made the bargain with Gunnar. But he hadn’t made any progress on meeting the cook, the lazy scum that he was.
Now it was already five bells after sunset, and that rat hadn’t come yet. Well, she would refuse him and — a knock sounded at the door. She jumped, startled, and then rose slowly to open it, gearing herself to scold him for procrastinating on meeting with the cook. The door creaked as she opened it, and Gunnar entered without waiting for an invitation. He smiled down at her and handed her a flower.
“Did you talk to the keep cook about getting Oriel a place there?” she asked sternly, ignoring his offering. “It’s been a month since I asked you to talk to the cook. I’ve obliged you every time you come here, and what have I got in return? Nothing, that’s what.”
“Rasine, I told you, I’m trying,” he began, his smile gone. When she did not respond but simply stared at him, he started again, “I tried, but I — I’ll try again tomorrow, I promise.”
He touched her shoulder, and offered her the rose again. She glared up at him. He towered over her, his thin frame reminding her of the scarecrow farmer Benson used to set in his cornfields. His pale blue eyes pleaded with her. They glinted in the firelight and she sighed loudly.
He seemed to realize her displeasure because he said, “Please, Rasine?”
Finally she nodded, and accepted the rose. A corner of her mind wondered where he had picked it. She led him to the tiny room that was hers. It was a long time before he left.
Gunnar stepped lightly down the stairs, whistling under his breath. He looked up at the sky. Nochturon was in fine fettle that night. It took him awhile to reach the guards’ quarters because Rasine lived in a house that was near the oceanfront northeast of Dargon city, a good distance away.
“Ho, Gunnar, been with a woman?” a voice asked as soon as he entered the barracks. It was Rudy, his partner, and he smiled at Gunnar nastily. “I know that song. You whistle that every time you’ve been with a woman. How much did you pay?”
“Ho, ho, Rudy, some of us actually get what we want without having to pay,” Gunnar retorted. “Only screegull scum like you have to pay.”
Rudy laughed at the insult. “And you, you actually think a woman would give it to you for free?”
“Oh yes. I just got it, didn’t I?”
“Who’s the mystery woman who doesn’t make you pay, eh?” Rudy mocked.
Gunnar stared at him. “You don’t believe me? You think a woman won’t roll with me without getting paid for it? You don’t know what you’re talking about. Look at me, man: I wash up, and wear clean clothes before I go to her. Women like these things, you know. Today I even took her a flower. Look at you, you ugly mug …”
“Never mind me,” Rudy interrupted. “So who’s the woman?”
Gunnar thought for a few moments. Why should he tell Rudy? This was his secret, his cushy berth. If he told Rudy, would Rudy get it for free too? Gunnar frowned, unable to think of an answer to that question. Meanwhile, Rudy was tapping his foot on the floor, staring at him with that nasty grin that he always got whenever Gunnar tried to think things through. The grin annoyed him no end. Rudy always said he was stupid whenever he was thinking about things. He frowned at that.
“Well, stupid, if you’ve finished thinking about what you’re going to do for the next twenty bells, I’d like to know who the woman is.”
“Oh yeah, says who I’m stupid? And what’s it to you who the woman is?”
“Because if you don’t tell me, I’ll pound you to a pulp.”
Gunnar laughed. “You can try.”
In a flash, Rudy vaulted over the cot between them, and shoved the other man to the floor with the force of his momentum, holding him by the throat.
“Gotcha,” he said with satisfaction.
“Not really.” Gunnar reached up, and holding Rudy’s left elbow with both hands, pushed it upwards and out in the wrong direction.
With a shout of pain, Rudy released him. Gunnar threw a punch, but Rudy shoved his wrist aside and attacked furiously. With no space to maneuver in a room full of cots, Gunnar found himself hard-pressed. And then Rudy hooked a foot behind his ankle, and down he went again.
“What is going on here?”
Both men looked up guiltily. It was Sergeant Cepero of the town guard, who had a grudge against Rudy because he had caught the latter flirting with his niece, Fidelia. Unfortunately for Rudy, Fidelia was supposed to have been walking out with a town guard at the time. Needless to say, in Cepero’s mind, his niece was the innocent victim, and Rudy the aggressor. Cepero’s temporary assignment to the ducal guard had given him plenty of opportunities to punish Rudy, which he seized gladly.
“Nothing,” both answered simultaneously.
“Gunnar, your nose is bleeding. Go and have it seen to,” Cepero said sharply. “Rudy, I should have known. This time, I am definitely going to report you. This is the third time this sennight, and I’ve already warned you about the consequences, more than once.” He glared at both miscreants impartially. “What punishment would be fitting for this? Fighting inside the barracks: serious charges.” A faint smile of satisfaction appeared on his lips. “I shall ask for you to be flogged at noon inside the keep, in front of all the guards. Next sennight, I think.”
Gunnar looked from the retreating back of the sergeant to the dismayed look on Rudy’s face.
“It’s all your fault,” Rudy said venomously. “I’m already on report. And that Cepero is an idiot. He’s going to have the lieutenant flog me; you heard him. And for what? Damn you, Gunnar.”
“I’m sorry, Rudy. Never mind, I’ll tell you who the woman is,” Gunnar said, hoping to cajole the other man into a better mood. Seeing Rudy’s expression change, Gunnar continued, “It’s Rasine. She works at the Shattered Spear.”
Rudy’s bitter mood seemed to lift after Gunnar revealed the name of the mystery woman, and Gunnar’s anxiety eased. Rudy was apt to hit him simply because he was annoyed, and Gunnar was tired of being the other man’s punching bag.
“Why do we have to put garlic in the soup, and not in the bread, Mama?” Oriel asked.
Rasine smiled down at her daughter. “Because we’re making plain bread today, not spice bread.” She checked the live coals, and poked at the bread. It hadn’t risen fully yet, so she left it to bake a little longer. “Put the soup on, child.”
“Mama, you promised me you’d teach me a poem about spice powder,” Oriel said, her tone rising. She propped the saucepan on top of the small stove rather carelessly. The water inside slopped against the sides and a few drops fell on the coals underneath, sizzling.
“Careful, Oriel,” Rasine admonished. She poured the small amount of barley she had bought that day into the saucepan. The water which had been boiling merrily, subsided. “You want to learn the poem about spice powder, eh? Well, this one’s easy. Ready?” When the little girl nodded vigorously, Rasine continued, “It’s called Spice Powder.
Pepper as black as night without Nochturon,
Cannell as beautiful as a willow bark tree,
Ginger as harsh as the north wind,
Saffron that comes from across the high seas,
And cloves like little black dames of doom!”
“Doom, doom, doom!” Oriel repeated with relish.
Rasine laughed. “Straight. You powder them all together. Don’t twist your hair like that, Oriel; it will get all tangled up.”
The barley was boiling now, and Rasine stirred it.
“How come my hair is so long and yours is so short, Mama? I want to cut my hair too. I want to have short hair.”
“No, Oriel, we are not cutting your hair, because we want your hair to grow long and beautiful,” Rasine said patiently, lifting the saucepan off the fire with a teacloth. She carefully dropped into the soup the two basil leaves she had begged from the cook at the Spear. “I’ve told you before, we –”
“Are not cutting my hair,” the girl repeated, grinning. “But Mama, does that mean people with short hair aren’t beautiful?” When Rasine looked up with her mouth open, somewhat taken aback at her daughter’s logic, the little girl giggled and continued, “Never mind, Mama, I think you’re beautiful even though you have short hair. My mama is beautiful, and my papa is … Are men beautiful, Mama?” Oriel took the bread out from under the little mud oven, and began to tear it off into pieces.
Rasine swallowed a laugh. “No, men are handsome. Like your father.”
“Tell me about my father, Mama. What was he like? You never tell me anything about him,” Oriel pouted.
This time Rasine did laugh. “Enough with the questions, Oriel. Sit down and eat your dinner.”
“But Mama –”
“Your father was tall and handsome. He had hair just like yours, my little golden girl. Whenever I brush your hair, I think of him.” Rasine sighed, swallowing a mouthful of soup.
She had grown up in Magnus. When she had met Lars, the two of them had fallen in love with each other instantly. They had married within a sennight. Whenever she thought about that time, she wondered how happiness could make people forget about everything. She could never remember where they had gotten money to pay for a place to stay, or for food. They had lived in each others’ arms, with a smile and a laugh. Would she ever be able to feel like that again? Would she ever laugh again? Would she ever again be so happy that she could forget where the next meal was coming from? Forgetting seemed very attractive these days.
“– call me golden girl?”
“Hm? Why do I call you golden girl?” Rasine asked. Seeing Oriel nod, she answered, “Because you have golden hair. That’s why I named you Oriel; it means ‘golden’. Now, off to bed.” She followed the little girl into the small bedroom area and tucked her into the stack of hay, heather and blankets that did duty as a bed. Then she returned to clean up the little kitchen area. By the time she was done, Oriel was fast asleep.
Rasine made sure the little girl hadn’t kicked off the blankets. After a last check that the kitchen fire had been totally stamped out, she slipped out of their rooms and carefully locked the door from the outside. She stood near the railing and stared out toward the ocean, breathing in the salty air. It was a clear night and looking at the ocean, she found herself thinking of Lars again. She savored the memories for a moment before slipping down the stairs.
She rented the upstairs of the ramshackle house from a man named Coragen, one of Jahlena’s friends. It was near the oceanfront, northeast of Dargon city past the junction of Traders Avenue and Commercial Street. There were a few cottages on either side but they had been rendered unlivable during the Beinison invasion. One lacked a roof; another was missing one wall and yet another had gaping holes where there should have been windows and doors. As a result, they remained empty.
Rasine walked briskly along the ocean front until she reached Commercial Street; then continued onward down the Street of Travellers to the Shattered Spear. The inn was located in a rougher section of town than her lodgings. She sometimes thought it was silly to be so afraid when she walked to the inn at night, but a few of the customers at the inn would murder as lightly for a word as for a Round. She knew no one would grieve if she died the next day, but she had to arrange for Oriel to be safe and to learn a trade that would keep her in good stead. Until then she knew it behooved her to be careful.
The roads seemed darker than usual that night, she reflected. She had almost reached the inn when she realized that someone was walking towards her. The man must have been waiting for her to arrive because he approached her swiftly and barred her way.
“She’s not answering,” she said rudely, and tried to brush past him into the inn through the back door.
“I hear you roll with Gunnar for free,” he said, grabbing hold of her upper arm.
Startled, she froze and stared up at him, fear instantly cramping her belly. His eyes glinted with menace in the moonlight. The man’s salt and pepper hair was shorn close to his head, and he wore rough clothing so dark in color as to seem almost, but not quite, black in the light of Nochturon. She shivered as she met his sooty eyes again.
“Nothing of the sort,” she tried to bluster, feeling her mouth dry. “Who are you, anyway? And let me go,” she struggled against his restraining arm, her heart beginning to pound. He casually backhanded her. She let out a screech, and stopped abruptly when he slapped her again.
“Quiet! What you give Gunnar for free, you will give me for free as well.”
“What? Who are you?”
“Rudy,” he replied laconically. “Ducal guard.”
“If you don’t let me go this mene, I’ll scream; Jahlena will come out, and she *will* hurt you,” Rasine said, making a huge effort to have her words come out in a calm voice, despite the fact that her breath was coming very fast. She had no idea if Jahlena would come out or not; she also doubted very much if the woman would protect her, but it was worth a try to get free of this toad. Hopefully he didn’t know Jahlena well enough to call Rasine’s bluff. She struggled uselessly again, but stopped when he immobilized her by the simple expedient of twisting her arm the wrong way. She whimpered, the sound dragged out of her.
He stared down at her silently for a moment. “I could tell Jahlena that you gave it to Gunnar for free, and then she’ll have your hide,” he responded, smiling nastily at her.
Her eyes widened at the threat, and she moved involuntarily, the thought of having to face Jahlena in a temper scaring her witless. Her breath caught in her throat.
“I see that frightens you,” he said, his smile widening to reveal a crooked tooth. “I thought it might. I know Jahlena.” He paused, letting the threat linger in the air, as if he wanted her to think about what Jahlena would do to her. “All right, I’ll give you some time to think about it. If you don’t give me what I want, I’ll tell her.” He paused again, this time for what seemed like a very long moment, and then grinned expansively. “Have you thought about it? Ready to give me what I want?”
“No!” She began to struggle again, with no thought of the consequences of denying him — no thought at all except to get away from him.
Abruptly he released her arm, and Rasine stumbled away, falling to the ground with a thump.
“Jahlena, here I come,” he said softly in a sing-song voice. “Jahlena, listen to me. Jahlena, hear what Rasine did. Jahlena –”
“Stop! Stop!” She covered her ears, cringing away from him, still sitting on the ground. Jahlena would half-kill her if she ever found out she had been cheated on money.
The sound of voices carried over to them on the night air, and they both turned. Three figures had just turned into the street and were headed in their direction.
“Until tomorrow, Rasine. Mind, you give me what I want,” he said softly, smiling down at her, the crooked tooth giving him an ominous look.
She scrambled up, and moved toward the inn. He began to laugh, and the sound of his laughter followed her as she slammed the inn’s back door behind her.
The inn was full, the patrons loud and noisy. Rasine peered through the smoke looking for Jahlena, who worked there as the bouncer, among other things. They both saw each other at the same time.
“There you are, I’ve been waiting for you,” Jahlena said, scowling. She was a huge woman, with each arm as wide as a haunch of venison, and legs the size of small trees. She towered over Rasine, making her feel very small and very scared. Jahlena’s short hair was bright orange today, and it gleamed like flame in the firelight. A corner of Rasine’s mind noted that Jahlena probably used henna in her hair. That wretched woman! She took money from others and used it to buy henna for her hair. Stevene! Rasine cursed mentally, staring blankly up at the other woman. What she could do if she had money! Why, she would buy a new dress for Oriel, and then she would — Abruptly she focused. Jahlena was gripping her upper arms, and Rasine felt a slight tingle from the metal rings on the bigger woman’s fingers.
“Rasine! You’re late. Here, see that man, he’s been waiting for you. Go to the front room upstairs. The keys are at the corner of the bar, in the soup bowl on the bottom shelf.”
Jahlena went away to attend the customers waiting at the bar. Rasine sighed with relief that the other woman hadn’t realized her own attention was elsewhere. Although Rasine knew that Jahlena wouldn’t hit her in the presence of customers, it was hard not to be scared of her. Sometimes, Rasine thought that Jahlena liked to hit people. Not that she ever smiled when she hit Rasine, but she just seemed more quiet, more calm somehow. Lars had told her that there were people like that: people who liked to hit others and liked to see them bleed. Jahlena always hit to draw blood. Rasine’s upper arms were a mess of scars, because of the metal rings with tiny spikes that Jahlena wore. She lwoud wear them and grip Rasine by the arms to make her bleed. It was Jahlena’s favorite way of punishing people. Rasine knew that the little chimney boy and the downstairs maid at the Spear bore similar scars.
Rasine walked over behind the bar. While the common room was well-lit from the fire in the huge fireplace, the area behind the bar was dark since the counter blocked most of the firelight. The mugs on the counter threw shadows on the wall and the floor behind the bar. She bent and pulled a key from the soup bowl Jahlena had mentioned. She had stepped around the bar before she realized that she had picked up the wrong key. It was the key to Jahlena’s strong box. Rasine wondered what it had been doing in the soup bowl, but returned it to its spot rather absently and picked out the correct key this time.
Her customer was having a conversation with another man sitting next to him at the bar. One was a round man with a large paunch and was headed toward baldness while the other was thin and dark-haired and had a pot-belly only slightly smaller than his companion’s. Rasine thought rather scornfully that it was doubtless the result of all the ale they drank.
“– and there I was, in Heahun, after ridin’ all day, ready for some good hot food and the man tells me he can’t offer me nothin’ because his cook died. And so I says to him, you bugger, I don’ care if your cook died. You give me food, or I’ll hurt you, I’ll hurt you real bad.”
The two men laughed raucously. Rasine saw her customer’s elbow move and realized he had made an obscene gesture. The men continued to talk. “He says to me, he got no rooms on account of the merchant’s wagon, and the woman that did the cooking and cleaning had gone off into the forest that’s south of Heahun, and just upped and died. Seems there’s a ghost there.”
“Sure, if you believe in them things. There ain’t nothin’ like ghosts,” the other man said knowledgeably, and belched loudly.
“See, there’s this real big tree there, in a clearing near the forest. He says that the ghost hangs ‘em. All the women, I mean. Says this is the third housekeeper in a year. Now no one will come to work for him. Went on and on about how the merchant was going to come to stay on his way back in a sennight, and what was he going to do without a housekeeper. Said the merchant was his biggest customer every year. Gah! The man talked and talked until I gave him whatsit.” The man thumped the table in emphasis.
Rasine’s wandering eyes met Jahlena’s. The big woman glared at her and pointed to the customer. Grimacing, Rasine interrupted the conversation and invited the man upstairs.
The following day, Rasine went searching for Gunnar. She took Oriel with her to the market, and gave her some instructions before going on toward the keep.
“Oriel, I want you to go to that stall over there. The fishmonger said that he had some eels he would share with us if I cooked it for him. Pick up the eels, and also all the spices for the eels. Do you remember what they are?”
“Of course, Mama,” Oriel responded scornfully. “Verjuice, a pat of butter and some tarragon. This money won’t be enough, Mama.”
“You don’t have to pay for the eels. Tell the spice merchant that if he’ll give you the spices for this price, and also throw in some garlic, I’ll make him some spice bread tomorrow. It’s his favorite, so he’ll let you have the spices for free. He might even give you the verjuice free, too. You can use the money for the butter. When you have the ingredients, go straight home, peel and chop the eels and boil them in water with a pinch of salt.”
“Yes, Mama. Can I go to search for mushrooms before cooking the eels?”
Rasine smiled at this. Since she had punished Oriel the last time she had gone to look for mushrooms, the little girl was being rather careful.
“Well, well, well, who is this pretty little thing?” A new voice entered the conversation.
“Jahlena,” Rasine pushed Oriel behind her. “What are you doing here?” Rasine looked nervously at the bigger woman. She could never decide whether Jahlena looked scarier at night, or during the day. Now, she wore a bright red tunic with exquisite embroidered panels down the front, with matching black trousers. She looked like a nobleman’s wife, except for her eyes. In spite of being a beautiful silver color, her eyes never smiled. It was as if the eyes looked through Rasine, never at her, and they always made Rasine shiver.
“It’s the market place, Rasine. What do people do at markets? They shop,” Jahlena said, smiling genially at the girl peeking out from behind Rasine.
“Aren’t you going to introduce me, Rasine?” she asked again.
“I’m Oriel, and this is my mother,” the girl stepped out.
“Oriel, go. Now!” Rasine watched Oriel glance at her doubtfully before leaving. For some reason, she felt very uneasy at the thought of Jahlena knowing about Oriel.
“You have a beautiful daughter,” Jahlena said, her gaze following the girl.
“Yes, unfortunately,” Rasine retorted.
“Because — because — I don’t know why. Just because. I must go, Jahlena,” Rasine said hurriedly.
“Yes, of course,” came the absent-minded answer.
Rasine looked back at Jahlena after going a few steps and saw her gaze still upon Oriel, who was just entering the spice merchant’s tent. She stopped and decided to wait until Jahlena left. Why was Jahlena so interested in Oriel? Rasine was almost afraid to think about the answer to that question as she made her way toward the keep’s main gate.
The road that led to the keep was steep, winding and narrow, but it did widen just a bit near the outer gates. She looked around curiously as she stepped through. One side of the huge courtyard was empty and bare, except for two men who were sparring with one another. She turned to the other side with interest. Here were row after row of rose bushes, most of them bright and green with healthy leaves, except for the last plant in the first bed. She gave the tired-looking plant a cursory look before approaching the castle itself.
This was an imposing edifice, with three towers that could be seen from the town itself. For a moment, her feet slowed of their own volition as her eyes took in the grandeur of the structure. She halted, craning her neck to see as much of the castle as she could. The stone walls had small windows evenly spaced. A bright spot of color was barely visible at the top of the tower. It was the pennant. The remaining two towers were on the other side of the first one. She could hear distant voices, and realized the wooden door at the base of the tower she was approaching was half open. She stepped right in. The voices grew louder, and seemed to be coming from one end of the corridor. A stocky, broad-shouldered guard came down from the other end. He was an older man, his hair beginning to silver at the temples, wrinkles beneath his gray eyes.
“Who are you, and what do you want?” he asked her.
“I’m here to meet Gunnar. Can you help me, captain?” she asked.
“It’s sergeant, mistress, Sergeant Cepero. You want to see Gunnar? He should be getting off-duty right about now. Just go down this corridor until you come to the second junction, take a left, past the lieutenant’s office and –” he paused, seeing the blank look on her face. “Straight, mistress, let me take you. I was headed up there anyway.
“So, you’re the reason Gunnar cleans up every evening, eh?” the sergeant asked jovially. He continued without waiting for an answer, “Are you two walking out together? Well, Gunnar is a good soldier; he follows orders. It’s good that he’s walking out with you. I think a guard needs a woman in his life; keeps him ship-shape. I’ve never seen you here before,” he looked down questioningly at her.
“No, I’ve never been here before,” she replied.
“In that case, you probably haven’t met any of the ducal guards. Have you met Gunnar’s partner Rudy?” He seemed not to notice her involuntary shudder, for he kept talking. “Now there’s a guard always in trouble. If ever a guard needed a someone to keep him in line, it’s Rudy,” he said, a slight frown in his voice as he mentioned Rudy. “Here we are. And here’s Gunnar.”
Gunnar was coming toward them, and looked none too pleased to see her. “What are you doing here?”
“Is that any way to talk to a lady, Gunnar?” Sergeant Cepero said sternly. “When she’s taken the trouble to come to the keep to see you, the least you can do is be polite.”
“Sorry, sir. Sorry, Rasine,” Gunnar apologized shamefacedly.
“That’s better. Well, lady, it’s always a pleasure to see beautiful women in the castle. Good day.” The sergeant nodded to her and walked away in the opposite direction.
“I need to talk to you,” Rasine began.
“Shh! Not here, not now. Go away, Rasine, do. I’ll meet you tonight,” he said sharply.
“No. Now, Gunnar.” Rasine glared at him, opening her mouth to begin a tirade.
“Straight, fine. What do you want to talk about that couldn’t wait until tonight?” he asked grumpily.
“If you don’t get Oriel a job with the cook, I won’t ever meet you again,” she snapped. “It’s been a month, and what have I got from you? Nothing. Well, this is it, Gunnar, no more. And one more thing. Did you tell your friend Rudy about our arrangement?” Seeing the sheepish look on his face, she slapped him.
“That’s for telling your friend about our arrangement. You tell him to stay away from me, do you understand?” He nodded, a hand rubbing his cheek. She continued, “If he comes near me, I’ll tell Jahlena that you are refusing to pay for services. And we’ll see what she’ll do to you!”
“But, Rasine –”
“No buts. Jahlena has ways of dealing with people who don’t pay, so you better do what I ask, Gunnar.” With that she turned and stalked off.
The following day Rasine made her way to the spice merchant’s stall to deliver the promised bread, and the cooked eels to the fishmonger. As she was returning from her errand, Jahlena stepped out in front of her. Today, Jahlena’s hair was a sort of blue-black color, and Rasine wondered absently if the other woman had used blueberry extract to color it. Dressed in a gray tunic that was surely new, because it looked so fresh and clean, Jahlena looked the picture of prosperity. Rasine narrowed her eyes as she realized that the high collar of the tunic was embroidered with a real pearl.
“Rasine, I want to talk to you.”
“This is not the place, Jahlena. Why don’t we talk at the Spear?” Rasine asked anxiously, heart thudding, all thoughts of embroidery far removed from her mind. She edged away as Jahlena stepped closer to her.
“You didn’t charge Gunnar,” Jahlena slapped her, hard.
Rasine’s legs buckled and she fell to her knees, tears starting involuntarily. “Don’t hit me, please,” she begged. “What do you want?”
“You cheated me of my money,” Jahlena said fiercely. “I ought to kill you for that.” She slipped something on her hands and pulled Rasine up.
Rasine swallowed a whimper as the skin on her arms tore. A few drops of blood rolled down, pooled in her palm and then dripped slowly to the ground. Her flesh burned, as if splashed with boiling water.
“Let me go, Jahlena, it hurts,” Rasine said, struggling.
A crafty look entered Jahlena’s eyes as she watched the smaller woman. “There is a way you can pay me back,” she offered, releasing her. When Rasine took a step back, Jahlena grabbed her shoulder. Now Rasine could feel the skin on her shoulders crack and begin to bleed through the thin blouse she wore.
“Let me go,” she shouted.
“You owe me, Rasine, and if I don’t get my money, I will kill you!” Jahlena twisted her fingers, and more rivulets of blood ran down her arm.
“So be it. Kill me then,” Rasine cried. “I don’t owe you anything, Jahlena. You forced me to do this, and I won’t, not any more.”
“Fine, you don’t have to come to the Spear any more,” Jahlena offered, loosening her fingers and looking down at Rasine without expression. “We can do without you.”
Rasine stared at her breathlessly and slowly took a step backwards. “What? Straight, I won’t come any more.”
“No, just send along that pretty daughter of yours; what’s her name, Oriel?”
What the fear and the pain had not done, Jahlena’s words did. Rasine drew in a long breath, and let the anger consume her.
“No! You just crossed the line, Jahlena. Oriel is not going anywhere near the Spear, not while there’s life in my body,” she raged.
“Well then, I’ll just have to make sure there isn’t, won’t I?” Jahlena smiled quite beautifully at her. “Such a little thing stopping Oriel from working for me, Rasine. Don’t make me do something you won’t live to regret.” She laughed, with real delight in her voice. “I’m looking forward to seeing Oriel work at the Spear. She’s going to make a very beautiful, very expensive entertainer.”
Rasine stared as the other woman walked away, and then immediately buried her face in her hands. She sniffed, trying to swallow her tears. The debt that she owed Jahlena was not paltry, a sum of some fifty Rounds incurred when she was searching for Lars. She could not possibly let Oriel entertain at the Spear. Her daughter! Her baby, her child! Rasine’s mind revolted at the thought. The fog she had lived in for far too long lifted. She vowed in grim determination that Jahlena would never get her hands on Oriel. She would do something to prevent it; the only question was what.