There aren’t really any spoilers in this one.
So, possibly it might have been the most idiotic dare Shield Cobie Denisof had ever taken. At the time, it had sounded entertaining and not too terribly challenging. During their journey to Shine Lie, she and her Source, Natasha Spruell, were travel from Green Galley to By the Way as regulars. Keep their status as members of the Triple S secret. See how the rest of the world lived.
How hard could it be? Regulars did it.
Requisitioning clothing without braids had been no more difficult than acquiring anything else they’d ever needed. The tailors hadn’t even asked why they’d want such garments. Cobie was almost disappointed. She’d had a lie already thought up.
Cobie and Spruell had known they would have to have coin to pay for things like food and lodging for that particular leg of their trip. This potential problem was effortlessly solved by requisitioning items, mostly jewellery, from some merchants, and then exchanging them for coins with other merchants. Some of those secondary merchants balked at first, unlike those from whom Cobie and Spruell had procured their clothing, stating they didn’t believe they were required to participate in such trades. Cobie didn’t actually know. If the subject had ever been addressed in the Academy, she couldn’t remember. But after years of dealing with regulars, she knew that most of them didn’t really know the exact scope of their obligations, so they always complied with demands, eventually.
It wasn’t until the first time Cobie donned a shirt without a braid on it that she began to feel some apprehension about the project. She felt naked. A white braid had been stitched into the left shoulder of every cloak, coat, shirt and dress she’d ever owned since leaving the Academy, and for the first few days after changing into the garb of a regular, every few moments she looked at her shoulder, or put on hand on it, uncomfortably aware that something significant missing.
Her fidgeting drove Spruell absolutely mental. Spruell was rather easily spooked, she didn’t need to be dealing with Cobie’s agitation as well, but Cobie just couldn’t help it. It was just so wrong.
And when they reached their first stop as regulars, the city of Wheeling, Cobie found herself almost intimidated by the thought of interacting with others as a regular. What if the residents were hostile for some reason? She and Spruell wouldn’t be able to use their status as a Pair to protect themselves.
Cobie restrained herself from suggesting they just go around it. They were cold and tired and low on supplies. And it would violate the spirit of the dare. Still, it was tempting.
After wandering about the village for a while, they rode into the yard of an inn called the Arc, which was an odd name. They paid coin to the ostler to bed down their horses – too much, too little, Cobie had no idea - and walked around to the front of the building. They stepped over the threshold and Cobie’s apprehension deepened.
Spruell rang the bell on the desk, and a few moments later a woman entered from a door at the back of the room. Her gaze settled on Spruell’s left shoulder and then on Cobie’s. Cobie found that odd.
The innkeeper smiled. She had nice teeth. “What can I do for you?”
“We’d like two rooms, supper, and breakfast, please,” said Spruell.
“Two coins per meal, three coins per room.”
That seemed like a lot of money for the services being provided. Cobie looked at Spruell. Aye, Spruell thought it was a lot, too, if her wide eyes were any indication. While Cobie hadn’t been exposed to the cost of most things, she’d seen enough price boards in taverns to know that those fees were almost exorbitant.
The Arc was the cheapest boarding building in the village that wasn’t overrun by rats and criminals. They’d asked.
“Up front,” the innkeeper added.
Those meals had better be damn good.
Or Corbie would do what, exactly?
Spruell dropped ten coins on the desk.
The innkeeper swept them into her palm, and then she handed over two keys. “You have the last two rooms on the second floor, the left.”
Cobie’s room was small but clean, and the middle-sized bed smelled relatively fresh. She’d slept in worse conditions. Some villages had nothing but dilapidated pestilent holes for inns.
She dropped her bags and went downstairs. Time to partake of one of their ridiculously expensive meals. Spruell followed her down.
The taproom was noisy and pretty much full. What drew Cobie’s immediate attention was the middle-aged Pair sitting alone at a table that could have accommodated at least eight people. Her first thought was to join them, which she would have normally done if she were admitting she was a Shield. Acting as a regular, well, the other Pair might feel she and Spruell were intruding.
On the other hand, sitting at such a large table, they should expect to share.
“I wouldn’t.” A man at the closest table touched Spruell’s sleeve. “They’ll make your meal sour if you dare eat it with them.”
“Here,” one of his companions added, and he and his neighbour squished along the bench to give Cobie and Spruell space.
They squeezed in. “Are they posted here?” Cobie asked. She hadn’t read of Wheeling being a hot site.
“No. Touring Pair. They come through here pretty regularly.” The man rolled his eyes. “And only the best for them. Anything that catches their fancy, it’s gone. Until they leave. They just dump everything half-used or damaged in their rooms.”
Spruell glanced about quickly before asking, “If they demand only the best, why are they here? There are better inns.”
“They don’t sleep here. They come for the wine. Rose makes this horrible bitter stuff that they love. Can’t tolerate it, myself, but they just suck it down. Rose won’t sell it to the other inns, she wants to keep people coming here.”
“And her meat pies are fabulous,” a woman added with her mouth full.
“So, where are you two from?” the first man asked.
Cobie let Spruell answer that. She was a better liar than Cobie. Cobie listened with half an ear, most of her attention on the Pair. Both men were tall with rangy frames and hair cut very short. She wondered if they were related. It was rare, but sometimes members of the same family Bonded.
The Shield glanced about, spotted the server, and snapped his fingers at him.
If the server had noticed it, he convincingly behaved as though he hadn’t. Cobie approved. Snapping one’s fingers to get someone’s attention was just obnoxious.
The Shield snapped his fingers again, and again received no response.
His eyes narrowed. “Attend me, you miserable cretin!”
Everyone in the room stopped talking.
Cobie stared, the thoughts stalled in her head. Where had that come from? And from a Shield? Shields were supposed to be polite.
Ah. No doubt the server had been verbally abusive before she and Spruell had gotten there, or had committed some other offense.
The server, knowing there was no point in further avoidance, rolled his eyes and turned to face their table. “What?” he asked sharply.
“You can’t speak to me that way.”
“Of course I can.”
“I’ll have you fired.”
“How? You’re not a paying patron. You have no influence here.”
“And yet the last miserable excuse for a server is no longer here.”
“She moved to Enver.”
This face didn’t even slow the Shield down. “It is an honour to have Pairs frequent one’s establishment.”
The server laughed.
The Shield scowled. “I demand to speak to Rose.”
The server sighed. “What do you want?”
“The law doesn’t specify who must serve you. So if that’s all - ”
“Wine, you inept moron.”
The server left and Cobie wondered what unpleasant ingredient he would be adding to that jug of wine.
And then the Shield noticed her. “What are you staring at, you witless peasant?”
Cobie’s sympathies flipped over to the server, because she hadn’t done anything to warrant insults, so it was possible that the server hadn’t, either.
She leaned her cheek on her palm and kept her eyes on him so he knew she meant it when she said, “Nothing.”
He understood the insult. “Keep your nose in your own slop, pig.”
“You are an embarrassment to the Triple S.” He truly, truly was.
“You lack the competence to understand the demands placed on us.”
For some reason, that made her laugh.
He really didn’t like that. “You will show me the appropriate respect.”
“Oh, I am.”
“Be silent or you’ll be reported to the Triple S.”
That was on odd threat. Did it ever work? “So? What can the Triple S do to me? Refuse to post to my town a second-rate Pair too inept to handle a real assignment?”
Cobie imagine he’d been subjected to that kind of comment for years. Touring Pairs were often considered inferior, subjected to constant travel in order to temporarily replace Pairs that had been removed from their post due to illness, or sites awaiting a permanent Pair. Perhaps that was why he was such an obnoxious twit. Perhaps that was what had rendered him speechless, so he just glared at her.
Ah. A staring contest. How juvenile. But she wasn’t going to let him think he could intimidate her. She’d dealt with scarier people.
After a few moments, his Source rescued him by saying, “We should leave, Jack. The air has grown foul in here.”
“It certainly has.”
Was she truly supposed to feel cut by that comment? As insults went, it was weak.
The server didn’t return until just after the obnoxious Pair had left. He looked a little disappointed.
“Is it wise for me to purchase that?” Spruell asked. “My friend here enjoys disgustingly bitter wine.”
The server hesitated. “Ah, let me get a fresh jug of your own.”
Yes. Definitely something in the wine that shouldn’t be. Cobie wondered if Rose would be angry at the loss of the wine or grateful to have the parasitic Pair driven out of the establishment.
It wasn’t as though Cobie hadn’t known there were horrible Pairs out there. They committed crimes as serious as murder and rape and usually got away with it. At least, they didn’t end up in prison for it, and they certainly weren’t executed. Other crimes included theft, fraud, negligence. Some became so addicted to drink and elixirs that they were unable to perform their duties, which sometimes resulted in destruction and death.
Of course, these crimes were much worse than just behaving like nauseating brats. Still, right then she was quite happy no one knew she and Spruell were members of the Triple S. If Jack and his partner were the only exposure these people had to Sources and Shields, she and Spruell wouldn’t be able to eat anything in the place.
“Here,” the server said when he returned with what Cobie hoped was a different jug. “On the house with Rose’s gratitude.”
The wine was actually too bitter for Cobie, which almost never happened, but she wasn’t going to refuse it. Spruell wouldn’t touch it, nor would anyone else at the table. Cobie felt compelled to drink the whole jug. While the quantity wasn’t enough to flatten her, she did feel a bit fuzzy when Spruell helped her up the stairs and into her room, laughing the whole time.
In what felt like only moments later, Spruell was shaking her awake. It was still dark. “Son of a-”
“We might need to channel.”
Ugh. Really? Wasn’t there some reason she didn’t have to worry about that?
She sat up. Though she had a headache, she didn’t think she was actually hung over. Thank Zaire. She’d had to Shield once while hung over, and at the time she’d feared that her skull was going to blow apart.
She waited a moment, then said, “You’re not doing anything.”
Spruell cocked her head to the side. “The other Pair seems to be doing an adequate job.”
It wasn’t reasonable to be surprised. It wasn’t as though people who were asses were inherently bad at carrying out their responsibilities. “So you woke me up for no good reason?”
“I don’t know those two and they were humiliated earlier. Sometimes people can be petty, even when the lives of others are at stake.”
Disheartening thought, but true. “So I can go back to sleep?”
“My Shield and her priorities.”
That meant yes. Cobie lay down and was asleep before Spruell left the room.
Cobie and Spruell decided it was best to leave early the next morning, and were the first in the taproom. It wasn’t long, however, before other patrons started showing up. Some of them had been there the evening before, and they greeted Cobie and Spruell with a friendly manner.
Then the door opened and slammed hard against the wall, grabbing everyone’s attention. The obnoxious Pair stormed in and Cobie wondered why they were choosing to grace the unworthy establishment with their exalted presence.
“You!” the Source pointed at Cobie. “It’s disgusting and scandalous for a Pair to travel under such deceit.”
“You interfered with our channelling!” he accused Cobie. “The arrogance! The disrespect! Your name, Source!”
He thought Cobie was the Source? Why? “Have you lost your wits? Who would travel about as a – Why would I pay for things if I didn’t have to?”
“To play games. I’ve heard of it. The young ones. They make merchants believe they’re paying customers. They consume or use or requisition as much as they can, just to see the disappointment and anger when they present their braids.”
“That’s not their game,” Rose said from the doorway. “They’ve already paid.”
“I felt something when I channelled,” Jack’s Source insisted. “There is another Pair here who wasn’t here yesterday morning.”
“Well, it’s not us,” said Spurell.
“No one would dare treat us as this one did unless she was a young, arrogant Source. Clearly straight from the Academy.”
They’d left the Academy four years before. Either the man was a terrible judge of age or Cobie looked far younger than she was. In some circumstances, that wasn’t an asset.
But why did he think Cobie was the Source?
“This is a big place,” Rose reminded them. “You can’t think these are the only travellers here.”
“This is a Pair. I can discern this, as all members of the Triple S can. Regulars are incapable of this and are easily fooled.”
Cobie crossed her arms. “I’m not a Source.” This was easy to say because it wasn’t a lie.
“And I’m not a Shield,” Spruell added.
“And you wouldn’t have felt anything from me because I was drunk last night.”
Rose nodded. “Aye, she was.”
“Stay out of this!” Jack hissed at her.
“No one tells me what to do in my place.”
Cobie could see this dragging out indefinitely. She placed she cutlery on the plate and looked at the remains of Spruell’s meal. “Are you ready to go?”
“More than.” Their chairs scraped along the floor as they rose to their feet.
Jack grabbed Cobie’s arm. “We’re not done.”
It appeared Jack wasn’t a man who did much with his hands, because Cobie was easily able to pull out of his grip. “You don’t touch me.”
Jack took another grab at Cobie but Spruell gave him a good shove before he could connect.
“Do you know what will happen to you if I tell the Runners about that?” Jack’s Source demanded.
“If we’re a Pair,” said Spruell, “Absolutely nothing.”
Cobie watched the Source glare and open and close his mouth. Not too bright, that one, she thought, that he couldn’t think of anything else to say.
“I didn’t see anything,” Rose interjected.
“Me, neither,” said a man at a nearby table.
This was echoed by nearly anyone in the room.
So, no witnesses. And if the Runners knew of this Pair at all, they’d probably look the other way. And it wasn’t as though shoving someone were an actual crime.
And then a server, a different one from the night before, arrived to clear their plates, and just happened to put herself between them and the other Pair. Everyone else was staring, Cobie could practically feel it. And it seemed the other Pair wasn’t quite so comfortable with the kind of attention they were currently getting.
Cobie and Spruell headed to the door. The other Pair didn’t follow them.
Cobie thought they’d handled that well. Still, she urged Spruell to pack up as quickly as possible. She wanted to get out of Wheeling.
Jack and his Source had left by the time Cobie and Spruell stood at the front desk to return their keys. Rose was there, and she said, “Hold a moment,” before going out through the back door.
Cobie nearly suggested they leave before she came back. She was tired and irritable and she didn’t want to deal with anyone. Especially someone who had witnessed such an appalling display by a Pair. Cobie couldn’t stop thinking about it and she wanted to cover her face and hide.
Rose came back and dropped into Spruell’s palm the coins they had given her the day before.
“What’s this?” Spruell asked.
“I don’t know why you two are pretending you’re not a Pair, but you seem decent sorts and I know the law.”
Cobie didn’t know how decent they were. The display she had witnessed had made her re-examine some of her own interactions with regulars. She’d never behaved as those two men had, she never could, but still, some of what she remembered made her cringe.
“If your masquerade involves deceiving those of us who are not members of the Triple S,” the innkeeper continued in cooler tone, “I don’t want to hear about it.”
“No, no!” Spruell said hastily. “Nothing like that. It’s a … lesson for us. To experience life as … someone who isn’t a member of the Triple S displayed last night. The behaviour those two displayed last night … the Triple S council needs to know about it.”
Rose arched an eyebrow. “You think they don’t?”
“I’ve never seen anything like it,” said Cobie. “Not that bad.” And that was true.
“Given that we are to travel as we are.” Spruell offered the coins back.
Rose backed away. “I know the law,” she reiterated. Then she left.
“Should we just leave it?” Spruell asked.
“She might be offended if we do, might see it as us throwing her honour or generosity back in her face.”
“I want to do something to thank her.”
Spruell shrugged, rattling the coins in her hand.
“One thing we will do,” Cobie said. “Is never, ever behave the way those two did.”
Spruell looked at the coins in her hand. “And stop convincing regulars to do for us things they’re not required to do.”
Cobie felt nauseous and ashamed and wished she could go back to everyone whose faith she’d abused and apologize. “Let’s get the keys back and change into our proper clothes.”
And from then on, provide a better example. It wasn’t much, but it was a start.