I’ve realised I have to start giving the short stories titles, instead of just stating the POV and when, during the series, the stories took place. That’s getting confusing.
This story is clunky and anvilicious, and the characters are out of character. I think it has to be. I’m using this story to respond to some comments from readers that I’ve come across. If this part of the series were a whole book, I’d be able to address these ideas more subtly, but given it’s a short story, I have to sort of dump the concepts right on the table all at once. If this thing will really drive you nuts, you don’t have to read it to understand the last book.
“I can’t do that,” Browne said to the young, distraught woman standing in her kitchen.
I was surprised. I’d never considered the possibility of Browne being unable to do something. I realised that I’d thought the only limits to her ability were whether she’d thought of the need for a cast, yet.
“You’re a healer!” the young woman wailed.
“I’m sorry, Shelar, but the cow is dead.”
“I need it! It’s the only cow I have left!”
“I’ve never encountered any procedure that can bring the dead back to life.”
“Shelar, it’s not a matter of being unwilling. It simply can’t be done.”
She seemed certain. Had she tried it before and failed?
Shelar burst into hard, heavy sobs and collapsed to her knees, resting her forehead on the floor.
I’d been visiting Browne for a casting lesson. It was past time for me to leave and grant the two some privacy. I nodded at Browne and reached for the door.
“No!” Shelar shouted, straightening and grabbing my ankle. “You can’t go!”
I stared in shock for a moment, then cleared my throat. “I’m afraid I can’t help you, either, Farmer Coaller,” I said as gently as I could. “That’s not an ability Shield’s have.” Well, I was a caster, too, but if Browne couldn’t perform a useful cast, I certainly couldn’t.
“No! Lord Shintaro! Please!”
Now I was lost.
“Come sit.” Browne took Coaller’s shoulders and urged her to her feet, then to a chair. “I’ll make you some tea and we can talk about what you’re really upset about.” Looking at me, Browne tapped the back of another chair, and I immediately sat, though I was extremely uncomfortable and desperate to leave.
Browne set a kettle of water to boil and then gave Coaller a handkerchief. “I think the cow was the last straw, yes?”
How could the loss of a valuable animal be the least of blows?
Coaller blew her nose as she nodded.
“This is about Lord Tyner, isn’t it?”
The response to this was another descent into harsh sobs.
Lord Tyner was a new resident in the area, assuming the title and estate from his recently deceased sister. He and Coaller had met at a dance and been walking out ever since.
I knew this because everyone knew everything about everyone in Flown Raven. It was suffocating, at times.
Browne sat in a third chair and rubbed Coaller’s shoulders. “Deep smooth breaths,” she said. “Calm down and tell us what happened.”
It took a few moments for Coaller to choke back her tears, and once she managed it, she looked at me. “Do you think Lord Shintaro is faithful to you?”
My mouth dropped open with shock. Had she really said what I thought she had? Had she really asked me to discuss something so very private? And not just about me, but about Taro. It was one thing to gossip about people behind their backs. That was part of being human and there was no stopping it. But to be so intrusive right in a person’s face …. And we were only mere acquaintances. For her to ask me such a question was grossly inappropriate.
I pulled in a breath and sat up in my chair, preparing to deliver an icy reminder of the common manners expected of a civilized person.
Browne put a hand on my wrist. “We’re all friends here.”
An exaggeration of the relationship Coaller and I shared.
Coaller knew she had leapt over a line, I could see that, but she persisted. “Please, Shield Mallorough. Lord Tyner is just like Lord Shintaro.”
No, he wasn’t.
All right, he was, to a minor degree. He was handsome, with a quick smile, a certain amount of wit, and a charming manner. A pleasant person, all round.
As to whether there were any other similarities, I didn’t know Tyner well enough to determine.
I sat there, feeling caught by the pressure of Browne’s expectations, and trapped by the knowledge that I would be the one considered in the wrong if I didn’t answer. Cruel, to remain cool in the face of Coaller’s despair.
And, well, Coaller was such a wreck, it was hard not to pity her.
“I believe he is,” I said reluctantly.
“How do you know?”
“He’s given me no reason to believe otherwise.”
“But he’s so beautiful.”
“And you’re - ” She cut herself off, looking horrified. “I mean – I don’t – It’s just that compared to him – But I don’t - ”
I put her out of her misery. “And I’m plain. He’s vivacious, and I’m quiet. He’s charismatic, I’m – well, not so much. It’s all right to say these things. It doesn’t bother me.”
“But he’s so everything. Didn’t you feel, when you first met him – I don’t know – overshadowed? A little lesser?”
I had heard such things before, though there words were never spoken directly to me. I still found the assumption hilarious. “Believe me, Farmer Coaller, when I met Source Karish, I thought very well of myself. I knew I was going to be an excellent Shield. I was very good at bench dancing, which was a trivial matter, but still a reason for pride in the Shield Academy, and I thought myself quite smart. I’d had good friends and lovers.” Whom I’d never kept in contact with. “I thought I knew everything I needed to know about the world, and it took me a long time to realise I was wrong.” A very long time. Sometimes, when I thought back on it, I felt a little embarrassed. “At the time I met Source Karish, I didn’t feel he was better than me, just different.”
“And then you fell in love.”
I really hated talking about this. “Not immediately. That took a while.”
“And you think he’s never strayed.”
She put a slight emphasis on the word ‘think’ that annoyed me a little. “Yes.”
“But there is so much talk about him sharing beds. Even here.”
“I’ve learned how very inaccurate rumours can be.” Though it had taken hearing ridiculous stories about me to really have that lesson sink it. “I’ve never heard any stories of Lord Tyner stepping out.”
“Nor I,” Browne swiftly added.
“But it’s just a matter of time until he’s bored, isn’t it? He’s from Thurtar. It’s so much bigger than Flown Raven and there are so many more people there. And I’m just a farmer.”
Now that was a sentiment I was familiar with. I had been dead sure, for the longest time, that Taro would lose interest and move on, and as far as I was concerned, that had been a perfectly legitimate expectation. We still had few interests in common, and our manners were so different. We really didn’t make sense. That we didn’t make sense was what had taught me that not all things had to.
“Lord Tyner doesn’t have to stay here,” Browne pointed out. “He can manage the estate from Thurtar.”
Or not manage it at all. Some titleholders went that route. Drained the profits and let someone else do the actual work.
“It’s still new to him. There’s no way of knowing he’ll stay here.”
Coaller’s gaze was directed at the table, so Browne and I were able to exchange looks and gestures telling each other to respond to that last comment.
I lost, and I was tired of being cautious. “You’re right, there isn’t.”
Coaller looked up at me, stricken. Browne glared at me.
What was I supposed to do? Predict the future? I didn’t even really know the parties involved. Or was I supposed to lie? I hated lying. I had to do it often enough out of necessity, I wasn’t going to indulge in it lightly. “There’s no point worrying about it. Just enjoy things as long as they last.”
“It’s different for you,” she said bitterly. “You’re a Shield. He needs you. He can’t leave you.”
True. Sort of. “I’m afraid I don’t know what to tell you.”
She looked at me as though I’d betrayed her.
Browne rescued me. “Talk to Her Grace about your cow,” she told Coaller. “She might have some ideas about how you can manage without it.”
Coaller left, glowering at me so intensely she almost walked into the door.
I scowled at Browne. “I can’t believe you did that to me.”
She shrugged, unapologetic. “What do I know about wildly beautiful whirlwinds?”
“All beautiful people are not the same.”
“You would know better than I.”
Browne knew better about all sorts of people than I. “And yet, I was unable to provide any useful advice.”
“Sometimes having to explain one’s actions gives one a better understanding of them.”
So, what? She had decided there was something about myself I needed to learn, and had jumped on Coaller’s distress as an opportunity to force me to learn it. Which was a terrible abuse of both Coaller and I. “When did you become so manipulative?”
Browne appeared unrepentant. “I didn’t manipulate you. I merely encouraged you.”
I couldn’t risk lingering. I was furious, and I didn’t want to say anything that couldn’t be repaired later. I collected my things. “Good day.”
What made it all worse was that it wouldn’t be long until everyone in Flown Raven who had the least interest – and most that didn’t – would know of my conversation with Coaller. Browne wouldn’t tell anyone, but Coaller would. And, given her disappointment with me, who knew what she would say?
Who knew what Taro would hear?
I walked around a bit, and it helped me calm down, a little. It didn’t stop the conversation with Coaller from rolling around in my head, but it did let me examine parts of it with a tad more logic. And this allowed me to realise that Browne had been right, damn her. I had discovered something about myself, something I wouldn’t have put together if I hadn’t been forced to talk about it.
When Taro and I had first started sleeping together, I had made it pretty clear to him, for quite a while, that I had expected him to grow bored with me and choose another lover. I couldn’t remember if I’d ever made it perfectly clear when I realised he wouldn’t.
And that was appalling.
How could I fix that?
I changed direction and headed back to the village, choosing the route past the various households of those who were prepared to sell goods on a daily basis. I went to the bakery first. “Good afternoon,” I said. “How is your day running?”
She shrugged. “Can’t complain.”
She never did. She was a stoic. And she didn’t appreciate small talk.
“Do you have anything with chocolate?” I didn’t have a lot of hope. Chocolate wasn’t often available in a place as remote as Flown Raven, but Taro loved it, so I had to ask.
The baker didn’t hesitate, pulling a tray out of a rack of goods. The tray carried thick strips of chocolate wrapped in light pastry. “How many?”
“Just the one, thank you.”
“Aye. It’s just for Source Karish.”
She nodded and wrapped the pastry in thin paper.
My next stop was the tavern. After greeting the landlord, I asked. “I’m hoping to pick up something pleasant for Source Karish. Do you have any anor liqueur you can spare?”
“I’m afraid I haven’t,” he said apologetically. “However, I have something Lord Shintaro seemed to enjoy the last time he visited. Just a moment.” He climbed down into his cellar and returned with a small dark bottle.”
“Will it go well with chocolate?”
“Yes. It will cut the sweetness a little, without overpowering it.”
“Excellent. Thank you.”
I went to the tailor, who dabbled in creating liquid scents during his spare time.
The thing was, this tailor wasn’t all that enamoured with Taro or I. He believed Taro had avoided his duty by abjuring the Westsea title, and he seemed to hold me responsible for him doing so.
As soon as I stepped through the door, I took my earrings out of my ears.
He scowled. “What do you want?”
Straight to the point, then. I held out the earrings. “I was hoping I could trade these….”
“I know the law,” he snapped.
“I would never imply that you don’t, sir, but there is no law that says I can’t volunteer to compensate you for your goods.”
He just crossed his arms and glared.
“I’m looking for one of your scents. One that is subtle and relaxing.”
Muttering under his breath, he went to the back room, slamming the door behind him. He was there for quite a while – I had a feeling he was deliberately making me wait – and returned with a small vial, thrusting it into my hand. I wanted to take out the stopper right there and make sure the scent was something Taro would enjoy, but nothing would offend the tailor more. “Thank you. Good day.”
As soon as I left his shop, I sniffed the vial. The scent was pleasant, reminiscent of tec wood. The tailor might not like Taro or I, but pride in his work was probably more important to him than disdain for the customer.
I returned to the suite I shared with Taro. I set lanterns about our bedchamber and put a pot of water over the fire to boil. Then I picked up a book and waited.
It was a few hours before Taro returned. As he entered, I lit the lanterns, three of which threw shaped light on the walls and ceiling.
“What’s this then?” he asked. Then, immediately after, he frowned. “Do you have bad news to tell me?”
And then I felt guilty and sad. Clearly, I hadn’t pampered him enough, if a simple gesture was enough to make him think something was wrong.
I’d just have to correct that, wouldn’t I?
“No special occasion. I just had an impulse. Here.” I tapped the back of a wingback chair. As he did, clearly curious, I poured some of the liqueur into a small sherry glass and offered it to him.
He was delighted. “How did you know I liked this? I just discovered it.”
“I have my ways.” He would probably learn the next day that the landlord had told me, and I’d lose my moment of appearing omniscient. I then served the small plate with the chocolate pastry.
Taro frowned again. “Are you apologising for something?”
“Just enjoy yourself.” Though I supposed I was asking forgiveness, in a way.
I poured hot water into the basin of cool water. I knelt at his feet and began pulling on one of his boots.
He jerked his foot away. “My feet probably smell terrible.”
“That concern never stopped you from cleaning my feet.” I grabbed his foot and this time he let me pull off his boots.
And yes, his feet were … aromatic.
I urged him to put his feet in the basin. I poured the tailor’s elixir into my palm and rubbed it over my hands. I took out one of his feet and rested it against my thigh.
I was not as good as Taro when it came to rubbing feet. He’d learned at a bordello, which was probably the best place to get lessons. But I’d picked up some tricks from all the times he’d rubbed my feet. I knew some of the best places to press hard and where to soothe.
The scent of the elixir was enticing, and the muscles in Taro’s feet and calves loosened, as did his overall posture. The silence was serene and calming.
When the water had cooled, I wiped my hands. Then, I moved to the back of the chair, untied his hair, and gently pulled a brush through it. Taro hummed.
Really, I needed to do this more often.
“I just wanted to let you know that I trust you,” I said.
I felt him tense, just a little. “With what?” he asked.
I leaned down to whisper into his ear. “With everything.”