“The water is for you, miss,” Letti said, without meeting my eyes. “From my own well supply. Should you grow thirsty while you’re out.”
I nodded my thanks and scolded myself for not having thought to pack water for the several hours I would be traveling on the road. I gave the girl a firm press of my hands as she handed me the reins. Allied in our shared secrets, I knew all I needed now was to ride. My future—a future that I might control and shape—awaited.
* * *
I reachedKyruna just as the afternoon sun began to settle in the western horizon. I had plenty of time before nightfall, so I rode Poet through the village, my hood pulled close over my face. Kyruna was nothing like I remembered from my visits as a child. Either that or the place had changed much over the years.
What I remembered as a quiet village—with all the typical shops and market carts, a small inn, and the office of the local shire-reeve—was now abuzz with people. Adults, teens, and even children passed quickly through the square, loudly talking and bargaining over goods for sale. Many people wore expensive-looking garments made from fine fabrics, but there was a sense of deception here, as though the clothes had been poorly or hastily constructed to give the impression of wealth but would easily fall apart. The villagers in doublets and fine shoes likewise appeared slightly off to me, like fish that had just begun to spoil—but only just. The working folk looked weary, as most did in every shire in the realm, but somehow also shifty and nervous.
There was a very palpable feeling of watching and being watched here. When I rode into my home village of Omrora, a shire easily as large if not larger than Kyruna, I would scarcely attract the notice of the merchants and shopkeepers. Even the other customers wandering between carts, chasing after children, or carrying goods to the stables were cordial but took no particular notice of me—or anyone else for that matter.
Here I felt the uncomfortable sensation of being looked at, of standing out as a stranger. Though perhaps her unusual markings were drawing eyes to the spotted mare and not to me. Riding on a horse of such rare coloring was not helping me blend in, so I ducked my head deeper into my hood and dismounted. I led Poet through the square, peeking at the names on signs and failing to find anything even remotely resembling this Knuckles & Bones place.
I desperately wanted to stop and ask my way, but even walking beside the horse, I drew curious looks. Stares that followed my movements just a little too closely.
“Come, girl.” I tugged on the reins and led Poet toward the office of the shire-reeve. But once I found it, that too was a dead end. The place looked deserted, as if the person who occupied the position hadn’t visited the office in quite some time. No notices were posted outside the front door, so I assumed there was no curfew or quarantine or other local regulations that a traveler passing through would need to be aware of. However, it struck me as incredibly odd that there was no noticeable presence in the office of the shire-reeve. Surely there had to be someplace where the villagers and businesses paid taxes? Recorded births and deaths?
My thoughts drifted to Syndrian. If he traveled this way regularly, perhaps he could shed some insight into the unusual feelings this shire evoked. As I thought of the man, my cheeks warmed, and I immediately shoved the image of his brilliant eyes and beautiful smile from my mind. I knew so little about him, other than what I’d learned over the years when our visits to the crofter overlapped. Exactly how he and Biko had become friends I did not know. But over the past thirteen years, seeing him at the cottage, playing games, passing time… His presence added so much to the visits with Biko and Idony, whom I loved with all my heart. I felt a little pang of guilt admitting that when Syndrian wasn’t visiting my brother, his absence disappointed me.
I shook my head and hurried on. Foolish thoughts of Syndrian would only distract me from my purpose here. Watching the direction in which the people around me traveled, I tried to make sense of where the villagers lived, where they traveled for entertainment after the close of business. But there seemed to be no natural flow of movement. Some people traveled north, others south. Some seemed to zigzag their way as if leaving the square, changing their minds, and then heading back. None of this made any sense to me.
Back in Omrora, the shire was organized around the village in a manner fairly easy to navigate, but this place was altogether different. And disconcerting.
A chill crept into the air as the sun dipped lower in the sky. Time was passing far too quickly. If I didn’t find this tavern before sundown, I would be back on the road to Omrora at the most dangerous hour with nothing at all to show for my efforts. A boy of maybe ten years of age hurried past, a loaf of bread gripped under his arm and his chin lowered to his chest.
“Excuse me.” I waved at him, finally giving in to the need to ask for help. I hoped I’d chosen the most harmless of those who might provide guidance. “Would you direct me to the public stable?”
The child widened his eyes, and I could have sworn I saw him look over his shoulder before shaking his head. I grimaced at his rejection, but a woman passing by stopped and, without saying a word, pointed to a path that led in the opposite direction from which I’d come.
I nodded in thanks to her, not fully understanding why people here seemed so…fearful. Strangers passing through Omrora were common, and I’d given directions and made conversation with travelers more times than I could count. Here, though, there seemed to be a dark presence of which these people were constantly mindful. I twisted my lips as I realized this was not that much different than the pressure I lived under every day. Norwin, seeking governance over my every move. My father and mother, the guardians of many dark secrets. I felt suddenly very tired, weary of the lies and the pressure of constant scrutiny.
Instead of getting back on my horse and riding home, though, I hurried down the path the woman had marked and did finally land at a large public stable. I approached the stable hand, my fingers suddenly tight on Poet’s reins and an odd sensation of caution overtaking me.
“Good evening, sir,” I said. “May I inquire the cost to keep my mare?”
He sniffled aggressively, moving something very wet and deep within his bulbous nose. “Where ya headed?” He too scanned a look past my shoulders as he spoke.
On instinct, I looked behind me briefly, but the depth of my hood prevented me from seeing anything. The weather was growing cold, an unnerving damp in the air, and with it, my resolve to find this tavern shrunk to a tiny, tight thing in my chest. But I forced myself to think of my soon-to-be fiancé, a member of the Otleich family who I’d never even met, and tried to gather my courage.
I knew what destiny awaited me when I went home. I had to be brave enough to face any opponent, and certainly this strange little stableman, if it meant one last opportunity to escape.
“I hope to find a particular pub,” I said. “A place that hosts a gaming tournament.”
If my admission surprised him, the man did not reveal it. He simply cleared the phlegmy thing from his nose by pinching one nostril closed and blowing roughly until the contents landed in a viscous blob on the dirt in front of my shoes.
I never took my eyes from his face, instead lifting a brow in challenge. “Do you know of the place?” I pressed. “I believe it’s called—”
“I know it,” he said, cutting me off before I could say the name. He narrowed his eyes at me and looked from my mare to my cloak, as if appraising what answer he would give to one such as me. Unfortunately, I had no idea what he thought one such as me was. Was I an out-of-place noble? An easy target for a con or heist? I parted my cloak to reveal the dagger secured at my waist. His expression didn’t change, but he did seem to notice my sad little weapon. “Half silver until the place closes,” he said, his voice rough. “Toss in an extra penny, and I’ll tell you the way.”
“A half silver?” I echoed, not bothering to mask my indignation. “Sir, that’s easily three times the price any decent stableman would charge anywhere else in the realm.”
“Well, yer not anywhere else,” he said, wiping what was left of the contents of his nose against the back of his hand. “And if ya wanna stable here, it’s a half silver.”
“Good evening, then,” I said, turning around to leave. I’d walked maybe ten vigorous paces away when a voice cried out after me.
I stopped but did not turn back.