It had not been easy to hack to head from the monster, but we managed. Only broke two knives in the process. It took long enough that our shirts dried and our nymph stripes, which bloomed blue across our bodies when in water, had faded enough for us to return without giving away our mixed heritage. I’d taken a few teeth from the beast, rinsed them off, and tucked them in a pocket as a memento.
We’d looped rope through the jaws and carried the head between us the long walk back to the main barns. It dripped and was disgusting. But the way the foreman recoiled and gaped was rewarding in its own way. He paid us what he promised and sent some of his hands to go fetch the rest of the carcass while we collected our horses and set off again.
Once we were a few miles down the road, Ayglos grinned at me and patted his saddlebag, “See, Zare? Easy money.”
I snorted. “You’re kidding, right? I nearly died of boredom out there.”
My brother laughed, the sun glinting in his short pale hair. It had been brown, once upon a time, but he bleached the color away. I preferred the brown, myself, but couldn’t deny that the white hair and tan skin were striking. Sometimes people asked him if he was Iltaran—his coloring now so like the nomads who lived where the snows never melted.
“I offered to have Rabanki sit with you.” On cue, the large black bird swooped down from trees lining the road and alighted on Ayglos’ shoulder.
I shook my head, leaning forward to stroke Hook’s neck. “No, thank you.”
Rabanki cocked a bright eye at me critically. Ravens were exceptional birds, so intelligent that they could learn languages, and some could speak with the tongues of men. They tended to be very loyal to their friends, and they loved—loved—anything that glittered. Rabanki had chosen Ayglos as a friend. He’d also taken particular interest in anything of mine that glittered.
My fingers strayed to the fine gold chain around my neck, confirming that the gold pendant hidden under my shirt was, in fact, still there. I continued, “If Rabanki sat with me I would have been robbed blind before that monster showed up.”
The raven tossed his head back and cawed a brassy laugh. The little hoarder.
“Then I would have had to fight the monster with just my bare hands—and that wouldn’t have been fair to the poor monster.”
“Point.” Ayglos laughed again, scratching Rabanki under his chin. After a moment Ayglos said, “I think we’ve earned a night in a proper inn, don’t you?”
“I think so,” my lips tipped up in a smile. A real bed sounded delightful. “Do you think we could find one with plumbing?”
It was Ayglos’ turn to snort. “Don’t get too carried away. This is Wimshell. They barely bother with buildings.”
It was only a slight exaggeration. Wimshell was just a few centuries removed from being nomadic. There weren’t many towns, and only the wealthiest had yet built anything as complex as indoor plumbing. The sun was riding low in the sky as we rode through the wood stockade of Tanglewood Springs and lost ourselves in the dusty streets that wound between the three and four story wood buildings. There were plenty of people out at the end of the day, horse or oxen drawn wagons, women in long skirts carrying baskets, men in hats carrying bundles.
“Can we go to the inn the outfitter told you about?”
Ayglos groaned. “I knew I shouldn’t have told you about the Lake House. That’s probably the most expensive inn here.”
“So? It’s not like we stay in inns very often.” I tossed him grin.
“You want to spend everything all at once?”
My brother rolled his eyes. “Insatiable taste for luxury.”
“It can be sated. With a big dinner and a big bath, a big bed,” I lifted my hands and ticked items on my fingers, reins dangling, “And a nice room with a big fireplace—”
Ayglos threw up his hands, Rood snorted. “How about we get all those things at the second-best inn?”
“I’ll take it.”
“And then tomorrow we need to find some new knives.”
“You have excellent ideas.”
When hiding nymph heritage, bathing in privacy was a high priority. As it turned out, there were only two inns with suitable bathing rooms in Tanglewood Springs, the Lake House and Prosperous Hall. They were the two finest and most expensive inns the little city had to offer. Far more expensive than they should have been, in my opinion. Yet, we were determined, so we booked at the slightly less expensive Prosperous Hall, under the name Fatty Bowbender. Ayglos had winked at the girl at the counter, his smile dazzling, “Boys in the company have a sense of humor. My real name is Heroic.” She’d blushed, laughed, and taken our money without asking which mercenary company we belonged to. Our suite had four rooms and two private baths—one of which was scandalously enormous. Servants had hand pumped the water from a mechanism in the room. It was definitely more convenient than hauling buckets, though rather less impressive than the plumbing in our grandfather’s palace under Daiesen Bay. But dinner had been excellent, and I couldn’t even begin to express how wonderful it was to have a lazy hot bath and be clean and in clean clothes. I had pulled out my one silk shirt and a clean set of supple breeches before sending an entire saddlebag of dirty laundry with the servants for cleaning. I even took some time to preen in front of the mirror while my stripes faded.
We spent the evening in the large parlor on the main floor. Ayglos played cards with a group of fancy merchants from the south while I sat by the fire with a book hiding most of my face while my knives glinted brazenly in the firelight. Ayglos plied the men with stories—most of them true—about our exploits. Even without knowing my true name, a female mercenary was rare and exciting. Especially if she were pretty, which I was. The other patrons were distracted enough by my presence that Ayglos won more hands than he should have, and we retired to our suite a hundred silver richer.
When we unlocked the door to our suite, a worn, folded piece of paper lay on the floor just inside. I bent and picked it up, flicking it open as I walked into the sitting area. The paper bore a sketch of a girl with dark eyes, a medium nose, lips that curved slightly up, and mane of dark curls. My face. Though, I was a few years older now. Beneath the sketch, printed in big, ugly letters, were the words: “WANTED; Dead or Alive, for Treason against the Empire, 5,000g.” I whistled, “That reward is madly huge. You could build a villa with that kind of money.” It was a much larger number than the first time I’d seen one of these three years ago. Instincts finally alarming, my head snapped up and I scanned the room. I didn’t see anyone or feel any eyes on me, but I loosened a dagger anyway.
Ayglos took the paper from my fingers and grunted critically before handing it back to me. “Still the same picture,” he said. I tossed him a sharp glance as he headed toward his bedchamber, waving a lazy hand at the notice in my hand. “So dramatic. I saw Curry’s Catch last time I was in town, it’s down by the lake shore. Though, I had thought he was on the far side of the world or some such.”
“What are you…” I cut myself off and looked at the notice again. Beneath the print, in handwriting I knew almost as well as my own, it read: “You look good notorious. Breakfast tomorrow, Curry’s Catch, eight.”
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