I am a quiet drunk. A fact for which the innkeeper is insufficiently grateful. Or perhaps he is merely resentful that I picked his inn. The old ways are vanishing, true, but the Quest Law still holds. A knight on a quest ... even such a knight as I ... the fool! ... does he think I am so befuddled with the alcohol that I don't see the contempt in which he holds me ... is entitled to certain things. Benefits, if you will. Including free food and lodging.
The Crown is supposed to reimburse him, so long as the knight signs the bill of fare, and I have no doubt that what I sign when I leave will be vastly inflated. The Law says nothing about the quality of the fare, and I am certain he will charge for each tankard of swill that he calls ale as if it were the finest wine from Merinomae herself. But the City of Light is far from here. Times are uncertain, the roads are uncertain, even travel on the Imperial Highway is uncertain, and so he fears he will never see the gold he is sure he deserves for "honoring" me.
Although the outer provinces have long since fallen away into anarchy, into rebellion, into ... nothing at all, as did the Fourth and Fifth Tiers, and this Province of Amerise is now on the frontier of the Empire where once it had been comfortably secure in the Third Tier, still it honors the laws of whoever sits on the throne at the moment. As the times are uncertain, so is rulership, and news is slow. But the garrison here is large enough to enforce Imperial law, at least so long as its soldiers are paid. Unfortunately, the payroll shipment from the Provincial capital is overdue. I will, however, be gone from here, or at least so I pray to the gods I do not believe in, before the Army decides to collect its pay from the citizens it protects.
I wave my tankard at the barmaid, who looks to the innkeeper for approval before slowly walking to me to refill it. Her face is closed and resentful. She is somewhat plump, somewhat pretty, unaccustomed to men rejecting her subtle, or even her not so subtle advances, as I did the morning of my arrival, and for several days thereafter until she finally understood. She is not even halfway back across the common room before the tankard is half empty.
I am not one of those who believe that containers are half full.
Custom is slow today. I really should get up, while I am still able, and go out in the city, to seek news of that which has brought me here: a tale told over and over, drifting throughout the Empire, altering with the telling, but consistent in one thing ... a dragon has been seen, if not within Amerise then within the former Province of Dharre which adjoins it. Of course, by now the dragon, if truly it was there at all, could be long gone. I pray it is not, I pray I will find this dragon, praying of course to the gods who never answer me.
Another quarter of the tankard is making its way down my throat when the door to the street opens.
He stands silhouetted against the chill grey light for a moment, enough to see he is tall, well-dressed, young if a stroke of reflected errant sunshine across his cheek is accurate. The innkeeper hurries over to him. I decide to finish the tankard in a long swallow and set it down on the table with only a mild crash. No one pays any attention.
My eyes adjust to the dimness of the inn's common room quickly; my night vision is very good. Not many customers, although from the outside the inn looked prosperous enough. A few workers, a few of the city militia, a whore murmuring into the ear of the soldier, other men sitting with their heads bent, nursing whatever it is they are drinking. And an old man at the far side of the room, his back to the wall. He slams his tankard down with only a mild crash and no one pays any attention to him. He stares at me.
I turn my attention to the innkeeper, who bows to the elegance of my clothes, to the hint of a thick wallet at my waist. He is all smiles, eager for the embrace of my coins, until I tell him who I am, what I am, and then his face becomes a still, painted image. "Two of you," he says, so softly most could not hear him, soft and bitter.
Two of us? No. It can't be; it mustn't be.
"Lord knight, there is another of your Order here already, on quest as well. I am duty-bound to honor the Quest Law, but as the inn is already full, surely you would not demand that I evict someone..." a paying customer his bland expression says, "in order to serve you. Surely you will not mind sharing a room with your brother knight."
As if I have a choice. The Law says nothing about private quarters, though the histories say it is customary. I wonder aloud where the knight is, and the innkeeper tilts his head.
That old man? A knight?
I gamble that no one here can catch the mental "scent" of Power at work, and allow a trickle to feed my eyes, sharpen my view even further.
I don't know whether he saw the innkeeper's gesture, but he stands, staggering only a little, shoving the low table forward. He is taller than most in the room, but not as tall as me, but gods above he is wide. Those shoulders and arms belong on a blacksmith, not a knight; enormous bunched muscles clearly visible since the shirt he wears is sleeveless, buttons are missing in the front, undoubtedly from the strain put on it by his chest, and by the thick forest of blonde hair mixed with grey and white visible through the opening. The trousers are equally old and worn, faded, and despite the belly that has begun to hang over them, they are tight and display all that he has to offer. His offer is considerable.
His face is stone, carved from the mountains of Ideren, but carved with a blunt chisel so that all the planes and edges are rough, hewn with broad strokes. He hasn't shaved in some time, although not so long as to begin an actual beard. His hair is close-cropped, looking as if he hacks it off with a dull blade himself. Blond once, but mostly grey now. Beneath bony eye ridges his eyes are sunk deep, completely hidden, but the fire glows brightly for a moment and sends a faint shimmer of gold across them, and then they are hidden again.
I stare at this old knight, worn, tired, going soft. I wonder if I will have to kill him before he finds out the truth. I wonder if I can.
The young one is staring at me. Intently. Far too intently. I wipe my lips with the back of my hand and stare back. I thought I smelled ... something ... but it was gone quickly; probably just my own stink. I haven't bathed in several days. Just before the newcomer looked at me, the innkeeper nodded toward me, and the barest flicker of dismay played across the tight muscles of the young one's face.
Apparently the gods have been listening after all, and have decided to torment me. A knight. And on a quest. And by the dismay and the nod, he is to share my room, although the fact of that sharing will undoubtedly not appear on the bill of fare sent to the Crown for him. As if that were not torment enough, there is the knight himself.
Taller than me by several inches, he fills out his clothes the way I always imagined I filled mine ... when I was far younger, when Power was plentiful and I could Shift with ease, and often ... when I could dream I was not so broad of shoulder and hip and thigh. As he weaves his way across the room, I watch the play of his muscles, the smoothness of his walk, the spring of power in his steps just waiting to be unleashed, the movement of cloth across his genitals, outlining every crease and fold. I feel a stirring below my belly, and crush it. I raise my eyes to his face. My eyes are deep-set. He didn't notice where I was looking.
I wonder as he stops in front of me if I will have to kill him before he finds out the truth. I wonder if I can.
We greet each other in the traditional way, especially with so many eyes on us ... hands clasped to wrists. His pressure on my arm suggests he could crush the bones into powder if he chose to do so; my pressure on his arm strives to say the same, and failing, hints at revenge. Yet despite threat and counter-threat, I feel a surge of ... something ... between us, back and forth as rapidly as the stroke of a hummingbird's wings, all along where our flesh joins. The grip is too long, an eye-blink too long, a wing-stroke too long, and then it is over.
I have no need to ask the young knight to sit at my table as our arms separate. He simply does. Leaving me standing, looking foolish. I have looked that way before. It does not bother me. Much.
I begin to call for ale, but the barmaid whose name I have not bothered to learn is already at the table ... actually, at his side. She bends over to wipe an imaginary spill off the boards with a rag so wet it leaves more moisture than it collects. Her plump breasts are in his face, almost falling out of the dress. There is a subtle withdrawal in his body, the stillness of an animal about to enter a trap, seeking a way out, but he makes no overt gesture.
He orders a meal with wine ... fine wine ... the type of wine this inn might have had when it was Third Tier, but which has not been available for years. The fool even offers to pay for it. The barmaid fakes a blush of embarrassment telling him she cannot bring the wine for which he asks, but assures him she will provide him with the best the inn has to offer. She ignores me ... but only until my hand engulfs her forearm as she would turn away.
.... There is more of this story ...