We had a late start, missing the first patrol out. A bleary eyed Duncan came to see us off, wishing us well. We both had stayed up far too late, spinning tales, until, eventually, Silah and Amalia had shown up, bringing buckets of water with them. In the haze, I remembered the awkward dance as Silah carried me to my room. The swelling in my face, which I was told, had gone down significantly, likely happened when she tried to get me through the bedroom doorway through multiple attempts.
"I have a tendency to get frustrated with puzzles." She had said as an offhanded apology.
The journey to Dowry was hot. The humidity from the nearby ocean made everything damp. Another thing that I hadn't had to deal with on the Southern plains. Silah was unphased, unsurprisingly. She would squint at the sun and say, "It's awfully bright out today," and flash her brilliant smile around, completely unperturbed. Her display seemed to emphasize my need for water. Before long, I had drained my waterskin just after the halfway point of the journey after sweating out the remainder of last night's drinking session.
Duncan had seemed cheerful this morning, which warmed me in a way I couldn't describe. Duncan, as stoic as he was, had always been the strong one. I was happy to be allowed in that inner-sanctum to see his thoughts percolate. While he never put on airs to be more than human, it was interesting to see how human he was. And, while still being human, how good of a man he was. I couldn't see what he was saying when he said that my sense of fairness didn't come from him.
The thought led me to his words from last night. I shook my head, stuffing away the inclination that anyone from my family could still be alive. It brought back that ache that I had only recently become aware of.
We attempted to catch up with the morning guard patrol that we had missed, but it ended up not being a worry. The guard presence was extreme, with checkpoints of bleary eyed guards at regular intervals within sight of each other. A pair of fully armored knights, likely sweating profusely under those helmets, were moving regularly between points. The whole thing looked overly orchestrated.
The knights approached, the larger of the two, closest to us, leaned forward and swung his mask open to the side. He looked surprisingly comfortable in there.
"Hello m'lady." His voice rolled out with a gravelly bravado, "The roads have been dangerous, you and your bodyguard should travel to Dowry posthaste."
She squinted up at him against the glare of his armor, but didn't say anything. The smaller of the knights looked to us, but remained silent.
"We're fine. We'll make haste." I said quickly, wanting to be on my way.
"Ah, good sir, you should not be so rude to speak over her ladyship." He rolled out the words evenly to me in a most artful condescension. "As you were saying, m'lady?"
"A horse would be splendid." Silah said, leaning her head to the side and, again, showing her winsome smile.
The knight smiled at the sound of her voice, but his eyes wore a look of confusion.
My hackles rose, I wasn't sure if it was because I was feeling hints of jealousy or knowing that she was going to attempt something that we would ultimately regret. I stepped forward and rested my hand on her shoulder.
Please. Don't. I urged.
The knight eyes widened, shocked with affront.
"Man! How dare you lay a hand..."
"He's fine, we are of an accord." Silah spoke to the man. "He may have just saved you some trouble."
At the same time that she spoke, she appeared in my head, looking annoyed.
"Why do you have to spoil everything? I could have gotten us a ride." She echoed with her glowing eyes boring right through me.
Fooling one of the Princess's knights would rain hell on us. I grumbled in thought. It is worse than a bad idea.
"Fine. Always so sensible." She said, winking out in the blackness of my mind as quickly as she came.
"What do you mean by that, m'lady?" The man was now looking annoyed, turning awkwardly to glance at his compatriot, who remained silent in all of this.
"You can thank this man for slaying your giants!" Silah said, passionately, playing a part I wasn't accustomed to. "Where were you? The Princess's own protectors! But this man and his friends; they saved me. They saved us all!"
She looked at the man, tearful and earnest. The look on his face was priceless, agape and very much not wanting to be there.
"I … I love him!" She leaned back into me, grabbing one of my hands roughly and pulling it around her.
I stiffened and stared on blankly as I became a prop in her improvised drama. I could feeling my entire body flush further under the already miserable sun. She turned toward me, reached up, and pulled me down close to her. Kissing me squarely on the lips, sending my eyes bulging with the force of her embrace.
Please. Don't do this. I was pleading in my thoughts, but all I felt in response was a sly smile.
"Very good. Safe travels." The man's voice was wooden, he clapped the horizontal visor over his eyes, then faced forward, giving his horse a small tap with his boots sending it to walking. The other knight delayed then followed suit.
"You can let me go now." I said squeakily through her iron grip.
"Ah, but I am enjoying this." She said, sounding predatory. She kissed me again, but now that the audience had moved on, it was genuine. Our connection sparked a shimmer of ache and longing which reflected wildly between us.
I stood, letting my shame from just earlier fall away and embraced the rush of vigor I now felt. I glanced back toward the knights as they moved trotted away. I could see an alchemical contraption on the back of their armor and remembered the climate control device in Mont Brooks and realized that they were likely far more comfortable than I had assumed. Definitely more comfortable than I was.
There was a bit of an exchange from the smaller knight to the man who approached Silah, but you could tell the larger of the two wasn't interested in talking.
"We should do that more often." Silah mused aloud as we continued toward Dowry.
"What's that?" I looked sidelong at her.
"Have fun. We should have fun more often." She looked up at me and smiled widely, teetering to and fro. The glint in her eye was wild and alluring. My heart beat faster as I gazed into her eyes.
I love that girl. I felt a silly grin spread across my face at the thought.
"Our definitions of fun are very different." I said looking forward, the grin still plastered to my face.
"Yeah? Then why are you smiling." She said quickly.
"Oh, No reason." I said as nonchalantly as I could.
She grinned and snatched my hand up in hers as we continued our walk.
The sun was nearing its zenith as we began to pass the small shanties that had been popping up outside of Dowry. There were a few who I had seen wandering Hlofreden when Sig posted jobs for Richter Holdings. Apparently, these unfortunate leftovers had no place else to be. I expected that the Princess would not tolerate them for long. Out of sight, out of mind seemed to be the way this city had been run.
I felt queasy as we moved into the bustle of the Dowry streets as we moved through Cutridge on South Ridge Road. It was lighter on this side of town, mostly travelers and the sort, but as I looked ahead, I could feel my pulse rise as the crowds grew thicker. Silah watched me and shook her head as she silkily twined her arm around mine.
"Of all the people who should be worried, it's really them who should be worried about you." She whispered through my cluttered thoughts, giving me something to focus on other than the crowd.
She moved in easily, presenting herself in the midst of my mind, lounging in her chair and speaking to me soothingly as I was on high alert. Even with her attempts at keeping me pre-occupied, I was very much rooted in reality.
I'm not always worried about them or a knife in the back. I'm also worried about what I would do to them if anything were to happen. I mused internally.
"You have far more control than you let on." Her lounging visage said through a slight chuckle, her glowing eyes crinkled with mirth. "I should know."
I sighed, attempting to relax, but even the slightest jostle brought me back to high alert.
"You continually forget at how intimidating you can be." She said, gazing through my vision, "The eyes I see are wary of your and not at all threatening."
Well, that's its own sort of comforting, I guess. What I would give to be able to blend in. I let the thought go as Silah, both her visage and her diminutive self, looked at me with annoyance.
"You're going to have to own it, someday. Own the fact that you are never going to fit in and make it yours. You've spent far too much time accommodating human culture." She said, urging for a greatness that I could never see come into my reach.
Easy for you to say. You're built to blend in. I thought, then suddenly regretted it.
"Fair enough." She said, being surprisingly objective of what I had alluded to.
I pushed through the crowds on toward Butterwicks where the others said they would be waiting. The smell of food filled the streets from both carts and the taverns that lined the streets. My stomach gurgled with the reminder. Perhaps things would calm if I gave it some time in Butterwicks and grabbed lunch with the others.
The response of the buxom woman taking orders at Butterwicks was a shake of the head.
"They moved on some time ago, sir." She said, her small voice belying her generous proportions. I gave her a sad nod. "Anything I can get for you?"
"Maybe some other time. I'll be staying the night here, but I'll take care of that business later."
"Might not be a later if you wait? The festival has booked the town wall to wall. Best you get your space reserved now!" She said as she moved far more daintily than one would have supposed she could.
"The festival." I leaned forward and rubbed my face through the words.
"I love a good festival." Silah said, looking past my chagrin.
"No wonder it's so crowded." I muttered.
After a moment Silah kicked the table, jarring my elbow. I looked up at her with a scowl.
"Hey," she said, leaning toward me, "Get over it."
She stood and stretched lazily looking around the room, meeting the gaze of a few onlookers who had been admiring her from a distance. I could feel it, like hair standing up on the back of my neck, she was looking for trouble again.
"Let's go." I said, standing quickly, nearly sending the chair to the floor. "I'm sure the others are close by. Mr. Fangs. Yes, let's go there."
I grabbed her hand and moved quickly toward the door. She didn't have time to brace herself, which had her stumbling after me.
"Hey! What was that for?" It was her turn to scowl at me as we emerged outside.
"Uh, no. I don't like that look." I shook my head as I pulled her close, moving into the crowd and finally slowing my pace. "I've had enough demonstrations for one day. Don't make me put you away."
"Make me put you away? Ha! Like you could." She scoffed.
I gave her a dangerous look and she grinned devilishly in response.
We pushed on to Six Crates. My skin crawled as the guard patrols fell away and I was now lingering with the seedier side of Dowry. That sense of danger crept in again, much different than when we first moved in Dowry. I released Silah, who was searching the crowd with a smile, and gripped my purse, carefully eyeing those who got too close me.
So far, I'd been lucky. Six Crates seemed to hold no ill will toward me, but on one occasion Floki and Bromm encountered some ruffians and on another Danin and Sig had been accosted by yet another group. As I walked, I wondered if it was my turn, but the moment slipped past as I saw Mr. Fang's wooden sign in the close distance.
"I don't think I'll get over that name." I muttered to myself as I looked up at the sign.
I moved onto the porch and reached for the door when a familiar face rushed out the door nearly bumping into me.
"Excuse me." The young woman said looking up, then up some more, until the sun shining on her full in the face. She held up her hand, blocking the sun until she could see my face. "I know you! You're Sig's friend. You were with that other woman?"
Nida. The name popped into my head. I don't think I had spoken more than a handful of words directly to her. It wasn't surprising what Sig saw in her. She was attractive in a studious way, having a semblance of both purpose and self-assuredness to her. There was a moment as she burst through the door where worry lined her face, but it had disappeared immediately.
I nodded to her and glanced and nodded toward Silah.
"Ah, yes. Her. Hello!" Nida acknowledged Silah and waited for a moment. Looking a little uncomfortable. I looked down, realizing I was still clutching my purse in my hand.
"Is, uh, Sig in town?" Nida asked, looking between Silah and I.
"He is. I'm looking for him, too." I said, increasing the handful of words by a significant amount.
She nodded, again, warily glancing at Silah.
"If you see him. Let him know I'll be around here later this evening." She said in a clipped, professional tone.
I nodded to her and she gave me a practiced smile, the kind you give a someone you don't actually know, but want to remain on good terms with.
"Is this place any good?" I gestured toward the sign. "They know they're tusks, right?"
Nida looked surprised.
"You haven't been here?" She said, a touch incredulously.
I shook my head slowly.
"Come in, let me introduce you!" There was a tinge of excitement to her as she pushed through the door.
I looked at Silah, now seeing her agape, looking at me with a hurt expression.
"What?" I said, feeling lost.
"You are completely and utterly clueless, aren't you?" Her expression held as she spoke in a low voice.
It was clear that I had offended her and I was completely in the dark as to how. I pushed the door open and held it for her. She stood still for a moment, then shot me a bemused expression as she moved through the door. I followed her into the gloomy and blisteringly hot interior.
Beads of sweat had already sprung out on Nida's forehead as we moved up to the counter.
"Let me introduce you to Mr. Fang." Nida said, thudding on the countertop.
A half-orc man moved into sight from a series of cabinets. He was considerably smaller than myself, but still formidable. The most surprising thing about Mr. Fang was his easy smile. He reached across the countertop and I took his extended hand. I nodded with a smile as I shook his hand.
"Name's Hakaar." I said with handshake.
"He and his friends helped with the fire." Nida looked to me, "What was it? Over a month ago, now?"
I shrugged. I really wished that the others were here.
"Good work out there." Mr. Fang said gruffly, "It could have been really bad for business if that had gotten out of control."
"I did what anyone would do." I shrugged again, not sure how to take the compliment.
"Heh. Walk away and watch the place burn?" He laughed heartily at his own joke, "There aren't many people around here who'd go around taking on other people's problems."
There was knowing nod from Nida as she glanced at the half-orc.
"So, if you're planning on eating here, I'd suggest the Sunburned Chicken." Nida said, but then followed quickly turning to the half-orc, "But not too spicy."
Mr. Fang nodded and stepped away from the counter. Quickly putting prepared ingredients into a wicker basket.
"I best be off. I've got more errands to run." She said, excusing herself nodding to myself and offering an apprehensive smile to Silah. "Nice to meet you. Both of you. And I hope to see you and Sig later?"
I nodded to her and she smiled again, but this time it seemed more genuine.
Mr. Fang came back with the small prepared wicker basket. The chicken was crusted with red spices and a side of potatoes cut into oblong shapes and boiled in a belching kettle of oil, they had also been partially dusted with the same salt and red spices.
"It's not too hot, but you need some kick if you want an authentic meal." His grin widened as he said authentic.
I can't remember the last time I had authentic orcish cuisine that wasn't wrapped in the bundles we had take from felled Orcs. All I knew is that they knew their food and their spices and handled them in ways that humans simply didn't. After wolfing down half a chicken breast, I stopped to revel in the flavor. I looked wide eyed at the half-orc.
"Thish ish …" I stopped, swallowed, and spoke again,. "This is amazing!"
"Is it, now?" Silah said, noticing a slight edge in her voice.
I nodded toward her and turned back to Mr. Fang.
"This is authentic?" I asked, excited.
"It's as authentic as you can get without taking an orcish arrow." He said, laughing heartily again. "Let me get you an ale to wash that down."
If he only knew that I had actually taken an orcish arrow just yesterday. I thought with a slight smile.
He disappeared briefly to the back and brought a metal bound wooden mug.
"Wall Ale. It's swill, but it does the job." He smiled.
"So, why Mr. Fang's?" I said, feeling more settled into the half-orc's cheery company.
"I'm surprised you have to ask. But I can see you're not from around here. You have a bit of an accent." He said, waving his fingers in front of his mouth, like he was expressing a taste or smell.
"Fang is what they called me when I ran a cart. Not a nice name, but I got over it." He smiled with the recollection. "Little did they know it was great advertising. Everyone knew who I was soon enough."
"I don't see many of … us. Especially in successful places. Cheers." I raised my mug to him and took a gulp. "Ah, yes, that is swill isn't it."
"Not too loud. I can get away with it since I buy the stuff." He said with a smile, but a serious tone.
"Ah, I'll keep that in mind." I said, looking around the room at the patrons.
"I wouldn't say I'm exactly successful, but I enjoy what I do and I have great friends here. Nida is a gem, a great person to have on your side." He nodded, the words seeming to bring back some memories. "The people around here are strong, hearty folk, too. Not afraid of work. Perhaps a little too rough around the edges, in some cases, but still, good folk."
"I am wary of big cities and, honestly, I don't know who to trust here." I shrugged, "It makes me very uncomfortable having all these eyes on my back."
He nodded, and briefly glanced between Silah and I, looking somewhat befuddled.
"I wouldn't worry about it too much. You've gained enough respect in the area to overcome most oversights." He said, simply, then continued with a stern look, "Just, don't step on that line of bricks out there just to the side of my building. It's … symbolic. I'd have Nida tell you the story sometime."
I nodded with my brow furrowed. I was sure I had passed it before, heading out the gate. I thought back to see if I had stepped on it in the past.
"There's a few things like that out here. Mostly heritage and folklore. Six Crates is an entirely different animal." He shook his head as he said it. "It's hard to know what drives them. A few of them dare come this way, but they're a different sort. Like a roughed up children trying to prove themselves."
"You do realize that you're confirming everything I've been worried about, right?" I said, my grimace deepening.
"Naw. You take this too seriously. It's between love and hate, not always one or the other. You seem like a man who puts his life on the line much of the time. You're more comfortable with things being black and white. Mercenary? A guardsman?"
"I used to be a soldier. I fought in the 10-years war quite a ways from here. Since then? I'm a bodyguard. I think." I looked into the mug.
"A man needs to know who he is, what he's good at. You'll get tossed around by life if you can't root yourself in that thing that makes you who you are." He said frankly, running his hand along the rough counter.
I nodded. It was a strange place to find wisdom, but I would take it where I could.
"We should be off." I thumbed a gold piece and put it on the counter. "Thank you for the fantastic meal and the wisdom. I will be back. Probably sooner rather than later."
I smiled and nodded at Mr. Fang who gave me a hearty smile and a nod as he leaned on the counter with both hands.
I held the door for Silah and we moved out onto the porch.
"Not a word. Not an acknowledgement. I swear, I don't know whether to feel sorry for you for being so completely incapable or beat you over the head for the affront!" Silah hissed as she followed me off of the porch.
I bristled with her words and backed away from her venomous gaze.
"The least. The very least you could do is introduce me." She said tossing her hands up, "And you had been doing so well, but no. You've completely reverted. You're back to being your socially incoherent self."
"But I …" I stammered.
"I am a lady. You seem eager to correct others, like, uh, Zig's grandpa. What's his name. Oh, Addict-something." She snapped her fingers, dredging uncomfortably through her broken memory.
"I'm sorry. I've been a little out of sorts since we came into town." I was gritting my teeth to the point that my head was starting to ache.
She leveled a threatening gaze with a wry half smile, "Oh, I thought it was when you were all starry eyed with that girl."
"Starry eyed?" I shook my head, putting my hands to my temples.
"Yes, I was there." She said scornfully.
I took a deep breath. She continued a barrage of insults, but I somehow detached myself from it. Perhaps I understood Silah better than I thought I did.
I moved forward and embraced her amidst the tongue lashing.
"I am sorry." I spoke quietly, my lips brushing against her hair.
She stopped speaking.
"It's like you forgot me." A hurt frustration lined her voice.
I sighed heavily.
"I'm not used to being the one who talks. It literally takes all of my focus to be social. I wish Sig or Bromm was here." I spoke quietly while continuing the embrace.
She quieted her aggravation and looked up slowly, her lips were a straight line and her eyes still scorned.
"Introduce me." She said, her eyes almost pleading, "Remember me!"
I nodded and released her, stepping back.
I could say the same. I thought sullenly once safely out of contact.
I heard a familiar voice call out my name down near the water's edge. Bromm was standing at one of the food carts holding a hand in the air with the rest looking on. I took Silah's hand and she looked up at me, restating her words through a simple look and followed along my side as began to walk toward the rest.
I understand that this isn't the last I'll hear of this. I thought.
"You're damn right it isn't." She echoed with a booming voice, saying it a tinge more playfully than her venomous glowing gaze let on. Her intimidating massive visage loomed just within the shadows, looking down on me.
I looked up from within my mind and shook my head with a grimace.
"Is everything well?" Bromm asked, looking somewhat concerned glancing between us.
"Just fine." Silah said, her voice bland.
"Sure." I echoed the sentiment.
"We were just getting some food." Floki said, pointing at the carts.
"I could use some food." Silah said, her voice tapering off.
"We can go back and get more from Mr. Fang's." I said, feeling cowed.
"More? Any would have been nice. That sunburned chicken that you ate in front of me did look good." She said, her expression blank, and he head cocked to one side.
A wry smile crept across Sig's face and Floki chuckled.
"Trouble on the homefront?" Floki muttered as he laughed.
"No trouble. What ever do you mean?" Silah looked at him holding the blank expression, "I'm barely here, anyway."
I ran my hand down my face and I caught the glare from Silah and dropped my hand to my side.
"What can I do to make up for it?" I pleaded to her, then looked to Sig, "I'm not used to being alone here. I was … preoccupied."
"It's fine, Hakaar. Not everyone is born with it." Sig's smile widened with the comment.
Heh, I shouldn't have expected help from this lot. I thought.
"What are you eating?" Silah glanced at Bromm and Danin then pointing at what was glued to the thin wooden stick in their hands.
"Fried that." Bromm said, gesturing to the line of misshapen globs hanging from the cart near us. A line of people were ordering the same.
"What is … that?" I asked.
"Hey, I'm talking." Silah said with a shushing sound then turned back to Bromm, "Is it good? And how much? Someone owes me lunch."
"A couple copper per skewer?" Bromm replied.
Tagaern stirred uncomfortably, watching this exchange. I realized that he was back to weighing my capability as a warrior as he watched the spitfire Silah play with me like a cat plays with a mouse. I looked on with a grimace, waiting for her to have her fill of torment.
She moved up to me and held out a hand. I pulled out a silver and pressed it into her palm. She looked at it with a furrowed brow.
"It looks lonely and I'm really hungry." Silah beckoned again with her outstretched hand.
I pressed another silver into her palm. She looked at it and shrugged, then moved up to the stand that was several paces away.
As she turned her attention from me and moved away, the tension drained out of me and I slumped forward.
I could hear bright conversation coming from the food cart as Silah chatted amicably with the patrons, using the conversation to work her way through the line quickly.
"How are you holding up?" Bromm's concern was genuine, but lined with mirth.
"I feel like I'm running as fast as I can." I said with a sigh, "Oh, Sig, Nida was looking for you. I saw her at Mr. Fang's. She said she'd be back there this evening."
"I've been meaning to talk to her. I have a feeling there's some trouble brewing. Did you see the gallows in Bowler's Green?" His face was pensive as he spoke.
"No. I completely missed that." I said, trying to recollect what had happened over the last couple hours.
"You really were in your own little world." Floki said, "It was pretty obvious."
Silah walked up, her mouth full of food, waving multiples of the crusted lumps on a stick.
"I really like fried that." She exclaimed through her stuffed mouth.
(Get to know Akeron.)