Prince of Exile, 5

Time passed. The bones of the night were chewed down by T’slalas’ mellow, ceaseless voice until all our company but Greyleaf, T’slalas, and the Prince had drifted off to their beds. I had moved away from the three of them to take the last warmth from the dying fire. At first the ruffian across the way had drunk ale to kill the time, and I had hoped that he would fall into drunkenness and forget the casket. When he pushed his mug aside and sat back in sullen patience, I knew that he was lost.

Greyleaf saw it too, but it merely amused her. Then, late in the night, there came a stifled noise and everyone in the room jerked into sudden watchfulness – followed by embarrassment as we all realized that it had been Tian’s squeal of pleasure, somewhere within the inn where she had disappeared with Satyr an hour before.

In that moment I caught Greyleaf’s eye and saw a tenderness there which I had not known she possessed. She rose suddenly and glided smoothly over to the ruffian.

She reached out her hand, placed long fingers beneath his chin, and tilted his face up to gaze directly into hers. Her voice was silken as she spoke.

“There is a river,” she said, “that flows over smooth rocks, swift and shallow. In the hottest summer it is cool and refreshing. It lies south from here; you could reach it in a week. In the spring, young women from the nearby villages come to wash out the clothing that has grown musty over the long winter. For two days they scamper naked through the water, playing at washing their clothes, and during all that time, the young men of the villages stay hidden in the trees above the river watching. Of course the girls know that they are there, but they never let on, never cover themselves, or show the slightest modesty. That would spoil the game.”

The ruffian shook his head as if to clear it of the spell she was weaving with her words. “What is that to me?” he demanded.

“Remember that stream, and those young women if you are tempted to sell your life cheaply,” Greyleaf replied. “Remember how good life is.”

“Will you go to that river with me?” he asked, mistaking her. Then he recoiled as all compassion went out of her face, and she spelled out the icy depths of her soul by the tightening of her eyes and the narrowing of her brow. She swept past him into the back of the inn, abandoning him to his fate.

I knew that she would not think of him again.

“Where does a man go to relieve himself?” T’slalas asked, ignoring the by-play.

“Come. I’ll join you,” the Prince replied.

They followed Greyleaf. The ruffian watched them go; he gazed at the dark doorway out which they had disappeared, drummed the table top with his fingers, picked up his sheathed sword and put it on the table top, slid it back into his lap. Finally he rose and belted on the sword, then turned with badly feigned casualness and reached out for the casket of ebony and bone.

He stopped dead when he saw me sitting by the fire, watching him in silence. Greyleaf has so shaken him that he had forgotten all about me. His eyes traveled over me as he estimated my skills. Then he scooped up the casket with a sneer and said, “Stop me if you can.”

“The lady who spoke to you,” I said, “is called Greyleaf. I advise you to heed her warning.”

“Are you my fate?” he asked, half sneering, half in genuine curiosity. more tomorrow


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