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An unexpected stay in Highbridge Town

by Hyakunichisou 13 (百日草 十三)

(mirrors http://s2b2.livejournal.com/311724.html)

The rain was a light, steady whisper on the roof of the caravan. Beyond that, the camp had settled into its night-time quiet, punctuated by whuffs from the horse tent, and the occasional bang of a latrine door. Even the habitual carousers had settled down; Highbridge Town to Fairgreen would be a long day’s journey over demanding roads, and while Crake didn’t care one way or the other about anyone starting work in the morning with a sore head, his tolerance for mistakes as a result of one went as far as a frayed thread was wide.

Dian turned the third volume of Tarrygone’s Histories of the Hundred Islands face-down on the table, linked her chilled fingers together, and stretched towards the patter above her. Her candle was down to the length of her thumb, and she knew she’d sleep if she turned in; on the other hand, there was still chamomile tea in the pot…

A familiar tap on the door made her decision for her. She rose and went to let Ros in.

“The rain’s picking up,” he said, pushing the hood of his cloak away from his narrow face. She hung the cloak from a nail above the door to drip on the mat while he toed off his muddy boots. She took the green-glazed cup from its shelf and brought it to the table as he settled himself into his habitual chair.

“Enjoyable evening?” she asked, catching a faint waft of his lavender perfume, sweet and resinous, as she filled his cup. He only wore that scent for trysts and parties.

Ros smirked. “Very much so.” He reached into the pocket of his quilted silk jacket and brought out a small flask. She nodded when he tilted it towards her, and he added a splash to each of their cups. The smell of spirits and oranges rose in the steam.

“He asked me to marry him.”

Dian wrapped her hands around her cup. “He works fast.”

“Yes…” Ros put his hands in his jacket pockets and leaned back in his chair. The weight of his hands pulled the silk close against the curve of his breasts. “It took me completely by surprise. He didn’t seem the type at all.”

“At least he didn’t surprise you into saying yes.” Last season she’d had to do some fast work to get one of the dancing girls out of a marriage contract she’d gotten into in just such circumstances.

“Ha. Yes. Can you imagine me spending the year around in Highbridge?” In this grubby little country town, his Queen’s Tower accent implied.

“By the time the year was up, you’d be the town scandal or the town headman, one or the other. Or both.”

She wasn’t entirely teasing. He shot her a wounded glance and blew on the surface of his tea.

“In any case, I don’t want a husband, I want a wife.”

“They do seem harder to find.”

“Only because we’re looking,” Ros said gloomily.

That night she slept fitfully. Noises seemed to wake her, but when she roused fully she could only hear the rain, harder against her roof than it had been, and towards dawn drumming down as loudly as the climax of the fighting girls’ show. When the dawn light finally seeped into her caravan, it brought a frosty change with it; when she forced herself out of bed hours later, she could see her breath hang in the air. She dressed hastily and fished in her lowest cupboard for the woollens she had packed for the end of the season, not the beginning. Head, fingers and boot-tops warm and brightly striped against her dark clothing, she ventured out into the mist.

It was just a touch too mild to freeze, too damp yet to drain. She made her way through the churn of mud to the cook tent. As she let the flap fall behind her, warmth and a rich smell enveloped her. She inhaled deeply.

Salm, at the serving table, handed her a bowl of hot black tea, which she had expected, and a bowl of porridge, which she had also expected–except for the two fat-glistening sausages on the top.

“Did someone make a butcher very happy last night?” she asked.

Salm hooked a thumb behind him. Balanced on a crate beside one of the worktables was a barrel–pale new wood, and scrubbed scrupulously free of mud, but even so, Dian could see lighter patches where the wood had been scraped and abraded. “Washed right up to my doorstep. Maker’s mark’s been completely scoured off it. Might as well open it up and see what it is, and…” He speared a sausage from the platter in front of him, and waggled it semi-obscenely on the end of his fork.

“The storm had the courtesy to buy us breakfast?”

“The least it could do, I’d say,” Crake said at Dian’s elbow. “Dian, get that down you. We need to take a walk.”

Fifteen minutes later, they were standing side by side on the far corner of the fairground, looking down at the approach to the bridge–last night a road, and now sunken, runnelled mire, as though one of the legendary giants had scraped her fingers into the earth and dragged them over the tall river cliff that gave the town its name. No horses and no caravans were going down that today.

“Lucky it didn’t carry the bridge with it,” Dian said.

“Lucky it didn’t carry us with it.”

“Now we know why they built the new fairgrounds here,” she said, and they exchanged a sardonic look.

“I’m going to need you to witness my discussion with the town council about waiving our fairground fees for staying on until this gets repaired. One of us may have to express shock and horror at the general state of things, but I hope not. Naisa is headwoman here, and she’s usually sensible.”

“Are we going to open again this evening?”

Crake poked a bit of flotsam with the tip of his cane. “That’s something I’ll need to think about it. In the meantime, spread the word. I’ll find you when I hear back from the council.”

She spent an hour making the rounds of the camp, peppered with questions, complaints, and rumours she had no answer for. Then she spent another two at the town hall with Crake, and part of the afternoon in Crake’s warm and well-appointed caravan, fielding arguments and throwing them back at him as he weighed re-opening against not. There was money to be made, but also face to be saved and a welcome to be outstayed. In the end, he decided to keep the main tent down, but to make available a few of the more lucrative and specialized attractions that could always find an audience, and he sent her off to draft notices and dispatch them to the criers and public notice boards.

It turned out to be a chilly but clear evening, and the coloured lanterns that lined the stroll of smaller tents illuminated a fair number of townsfolk’s returning to furtively enjoy the offerings they had averted their eyes from when they’d come with their families to watch tumblers’ tricks and men eating fire. The strongman did a special show in which he performed more or less the same feats and poses as usual, wearing nothing but what the gods had given him. Two of the dancing girls had a routine together that was very popular with certain gentlemen–Ros had complained of spending so much time making costumes that were worn so briefly–and one of the dancing boys had a piece in which he demonstrated quite remarkable flexibility. Then there were the gambling tents, and the fortune-tellers, and the charms and herbs that a couple of the tumblers sold from the stairs of their caravan.

Profitable, yes, but…. Dian walked a circuit behind the tents, between the caravans, along the bright stroll. She felt as though she had heard all but the last line of a song, and something unfinished nudged at her. Not foreboding, exactly–the small crowd was excited, but in a genial way, and the former fighters Crake paid to keep the peace were intelligent and alert. But some kind of forward momentum, possibility, something…

She stopped at the far end of the stroll. The last shows of the night had just started. The pitted mud had begun to freeze, and ice crystals crunched underfoot as a woman made her way down the line of tents, bent over the ground.

“Oh, Respected,” she said as she neared Dian. “Might you help me? If someone were to find something of value lost here, where would they keep it before taking it to the town Watch?”

“They might bring it to me, Respected,” Dian said, speaking entirely theoretically. “What have you lost?”

The woman pulled one side of her hood back to reveal a sparkling spear of cut blue dangling from her pierced right ear. “The twin to this. I had it not ten minutes ago.”

“With this mud, I fear–” Dian looked down at her boots. A glint of ice–no, not ice–caught the light from the lantern above them. She stooped and picked a sapphire earring out of a knuckle’s depth of turbid water.

They both looked at it swaying between her finger and thumb.

“That’s…lucky,” the woman said uncertainly.

“Hmm,” Dian said, and laid it in the woman’s cleanly gloved palm.

Breakfast the next morning did not, disappointingly, include sausages. Dian was walking with her bowls to a corner table when she overheard one of the fortune-tellers say, “–exactly the same. Exactly.

Dian changed path, and put her bowls down beside the two fortune-tellers and one of the dice handlers. “What was that you were saying?”

Bas washed down porridge with a swig of tea. “Morning, Dian. Weirdest thing happened to me last night. I had two readings come out the same, three sessions apart.”

“Exactly the same?”

“As I said.”

“Anything odd about the guests? Were they alike? Or very different?”

He shrugged. “A young man and an older woman. Not rich, not poor. Nothing special about them.”

“She wasn’t by any chance wearing sapphire earrings?”

Bas blinked. “Not that I saw.”

Dian picked up her bowls. “Let me know if anything else strange happens, will you?”

“Bas strange, or the rest of us strange?” asked Luc, the dice handler, and she left them laughing.

Crake had no need of her, so she spent the late morning in her caravan to be available to the rest of the camp. There were always people who left things until beyond the last minute, and with the extra time in Highbridge she anticipated some catching up would be done–people wanting letters written or read, their extra earnings banked, prayers said for safe travel (Dian held writs to do minor and temporary major devotions from all of the prominent faiths, saving Last Sun, whose adherents held the bizarre position that one had to believe in the gods to importune them).

She got in a good few hours of reading. No one came.

About an hour after noon, she gave up and decided to take a walk around the town. She–like, however improbable it seemed, the entire camp–had already done her errands and shopping the day before they’d planned to leave Highbridge, which was the last town of any size for weeks before they reached Three Rivers. But the day was blue-skied and sparkling, and as long as they were becalmed in the Highbridge fairgrounds, she might as well take some time for herself before the hectic rhythm of the season restarted.

Her sense of discomfiture lightened as she walked the edge of the town square, looking at the overpriced wares hung in the windows of shops beyond her means. Although it was cold, the air smelled of spring. Aside from there being more of the ever-present mud than usual, the storm did not appear to have done serious damage. She treated herself to a cup of hot spiced honeyed milk from a stall in the corner of the square, and sat in the sun to drink it. After that she walked a few streets in the direction of the river, where the shops catered to actual working folk, and on impulse stepped into a bathhouse she’d been to a few times before. Aside from the luxury of being able to immerse her entire body in hot water–of course every village had its bathhouse, but sometimes the amenities didn’t go far beyond a firepit and some buckets–she enjoyed the atmosphere of a good bathhouse, the sense of suspension from daily obligations, the people of all shapes and shades sharing the space, how much more relaxed everyone was when they didn’t have to live up to their jewellery or their station in life. She paid one of the attendants to wash her hair for her; like many of the non-performers, Dian cropped hers for convenience at the beginning of the travelling season, and it wasn’t even long enough to twist, but the strong fingers on her scalp and the back of her neck smoothed out the last of her disquiet and unwound her down to her toes.

As soon as she stepped back onto the fairgrounds, she felt her shoulders tensing. There it was again, that sense of anticipation, potential, chance…

She walked a circuit of the camp and shored up at the cook tent. Hot meals were only provided at breakfast–closer to noon than to dawn for most of the camp–and supper, but there were always vats of tea available, and snacks that could be eaten cold and one-handed by people in the middle of doing something else. Today it was hard-boiled eggs baked in a coating of sausage meat, and pastries filled with spring greens and mushrooms. Dian put a selection into a bowl, and wandered over to Ros’s caravan to see what he was up to, which turned out to be darning one of the fighting girls’ long red stockings with yellow yarn.

Once ensconced on his narrow divan with a cup of mint tea, Dian asked, “Does it feel to you as though something…odd is going on?”

Ros snipped the yarn and turned the stocking right-side out. “I assume you’re referring to the fact that everyone in this camp has gone out of their ever-loving minds?”

She straightened. “Why, what happened?”

He raised an eyebrow. “You missed it? Either you were unconscious, or she was even better than I am.”

“I was in town.”

Ros propped his bare foot on the opposite knee, slid the stocking on, and regarded the yellow knee with pursed lips. “Well, first, Shas decided to preach the Sun Sayings to the entire cook tent.”

Shas did?”

“The original version, too, not the one they wrote after they realized that telling people not to fuck unless they were trying to make babies just made people laugh at them.”

Dian winced. “I wish I’d been here to handle it. Did someone manage to calm her down?”

“Salm–he comes from a Last Sun family–convinced her she should go consult the shrine in town for guidance. Then Min and Lee decided to inform the camp of each other’s failings, in epic detail.”

The two clowns had been together for decades, possibly centuries. “I don’t think I’ve ever seen them even disagree. What was the quarrel about?”

He slotted his darning needle into its place and buttoned up his sewing kit. “He rinses his socks in the same basin she washes in. She farts in her sleep. He offers her raisin pudding every Yule even though he knows she doesn’t like it. She always takes the sweetest-looking apple. And so on.” His lips twitched. “It wasn’t even really a quarrel, more like two competing barkers. They could probably make a routine out of it if they wanted to.”

Dian rubbed her forehead. Maybe everyone was just thrown off by the unexpected delay. Maybe she was unsettled herself–she approved of routine; it was the only way this travelling pandemonium managed to function at all. Maybe–

Ros came back to the table with a bone-handled knife and pulled the bowl she’d brought towards him. “Hmm, did they really think we’d tire of sausages on the second day?” he asked rhetorically, and sliced one of the eggs down the middle. The two halves fell away from each other, revealing in the centre of the egg three perfect yolks, like golden beads on a string.

“No, there’s definitely something going on,” Dian said aloud.

Ros sat down beside her and propped his chin up on his hand, staring at the egg. “I have always admired your clear-sightedness.”

That was the type of comment that usually would have been sarcastic, coming from Ros, but it didn’t sound that way. She looked at him.

“I have,” he insisted, turning towards her. “You see something happening outside of the ordinary, but you don’t try to think it away. You are unafraid to look at the truth.” He looked down with an odd shyness, and smiled. “It is one of the many things I admire about you.”

“I’m honoured that you feel that way,” she said, because she was–part of the emotional ramparts Ros had constructed to survive growing up with his unusual body and his lunatic family was a refusal to be easily impressed by anything–and from there it seemed the most obvious thing under the sun and the moon to lean closer and press her mouth to his.

He hummed approvingly, seeming not at all surprised. She kissed him again, and put her hand on his cheek, feeling the light rasp of the morning’s stubble. He tasted of mint tea.

His arm slid around her shoulders. Their tongues met. His hand cupped the back of her neck. She smoothed his long, almost-silver hair, stroking his back.

He drew back for air. She couldn’t stop looking at his mouth. Then they seemed to come to the same decision again at the same time. They moved so they were facing each other on the divan, and he pulled her against him. He kissed her lips, her jaw, her ear.

“May I touch your breasts?” she whispered. He nodded. She cupped a hand over his quilted jacket and then, impatient, pulled the frog closures apart and slid her hand into the warmth. She curved her palm over his left breast. She circled his nipple with her thumb, the brief layer of silk he wore slipping over skin, and felt it stiffen. He huffed into her ear.

His hands moved up under her warm knitted pullover. “Can you take this off?”

She leaned back and tugged it over her head. He bent a leg up onto the divan, and she followed suit. He put his hands under her ass and dragged her closer. She could feel his hardening cock through both their trousers. He put his fingers under the neckline of her linen shirt, above her breasts, and when she nodded, he thumbed the top two buttons open and traced circles lightly down, somehow tantalizing rather than ticklish. She nudged his jacket open and mirrored his movements on his body, and he made a sound that went straight to her clit.

He broke away, breathing unevenly. She stilled her fingers.

“What do you like?” she asked. “Do you want me to stroke your cock while I do this?” She gently fanned her fingers over his breast, his nipple like a warm pebble against her palm.

He groaned and swallowed. “I want…” He leaned in and pressed his face against her neck. “I want to kiss you from your throat to your pearl, and then I want to please you with my mouth until you come.”

She made a sound that matched his. He laughed shakily and slid off the divan to his knees. He put his hands on her thighs and parted them, making space for himself, and she closed her eyes for a moment against the rush of heat.

He pulled her hips to the edge of the divan. “Lean forward,” he said, and she did. He stretched up and set his lips against her throat. His fingers worked at the buttons of her shirt. He licked her collarbone, wrapped his lips around a nipple and flicked it with his tongue. His hand closed gently around her other breast. She watched him, enjoying how pale he was against her.

He untied her trousers, and she hitched her hips up so he could pull the cloth down. He kissed his way lower, stroked her with his thumbs, held her open as he teased her with wet heat. She clutched at the blanket that covered the divan. His tongue stroked, circled, retreated long enough to make her moan with need, moved on her again with slick, scalding pleasure. Her thighs tried to close; he pushed them wider. Sparks shot through her, and her hips jerked against him, and his tongue was there, there, and she came, sharp and hot, whimpering into the silence.

His mouth continued to move as she slumped back, the tension in her body uncoiling. He had one hand on himself now, an even rhythm above the gap of his unlaced trousers.

“I could do that, Ros, come here,” she said, but he made a melodic sound, not-just-yet or I’m-fine-with-this, and she shivered at the vibration. His touch was different from before, a rocking motion, firmer, deeper–the same rhythm as his hand, she realized–and despite the fact that she was spent she felt her hips respond, matching it, and–

Oh,” she said, and came again, completely unexpectedly, a wave of sensation that seemed to come from behind her and blow through her entire body. Ros turned his face into her bare thigh and groaned and shuddered, and then slid slowly sideways off his knees until he was pitched at an angle against the divan.

“Gods and demons, Ros,” Dian said, closing her eyes.

He chuckled. She felt him stagger to his feet, and, a moment later, heard water swishing in the basin. She pulled her clothing back together again, feeling just a little drunk, a good kind of exhausted.

Ros filled their cups with hot tea from the pot on the little stove, and sat down beside her.

She touched his shoulder. “I hope that was good for you. I would have done more for you if you’d asked,” she said.

Ros smiled. “Believe me, Dian, that was exactly what I wanted.”

They drank their tea, and nibbled at the pastries in sated silence. Neither of them touched the egg.

~*~

The letter brought it all to a head.

Orris and Ben, who ran a brisk trade in love potions and wealth-attracting bath salts (as well as more efficacious stimulants and sedatives) brought it to her the next morning.

“It looks old,” Orris said.

“And valuable,” Ben said.

It was on good rag paper, still white and pliable, although the ink had faded to brown. Dian unfolded it.

“It’s not regular writing, is it?” Ben asked.

Her eyes ran over the five separate syllabaries of classical Queen’s Tower script. “No, it’s not. Will you let me borrow it so I can look at it more closely?”

“Sure,” Ben said.

“We’re going to need a receipt,” Orris said, and Ben smacked him on the arm.

“Mm-hm,” Dian said absently, already picking out common words–I feel, queen, season, danger–and didn’t even notice that they had left until she had to blow on her cold-stiff fingers to warm them, and realized that she had left her door hanging open.

She had only a small classical dictionary, and it took her the better part of two hours to transcribe the first page. Then she flipped the last page over and looked at the signature, which she should have done at the beginning, and she put her hands to her forehead and gave vent in wonder to all the archaic profanity she could remember.

She rapped on Orris and Ben’s door, and Ben opened it and waved her in.

“Where did you get this?” she demanded.

“So it is valuable,” Orris said.

If you considered a document that could upend the current understanding of loyalties in the court of Queen Anders valuable. “Possibly,” she said. “Where did you get it?”

“We found it in this,” Ben said, and handed her a worn copy of an anonymous satirical treatise that had been widely circulated in Anders’ time.

“Where did you get this, then?”

“In one of the used goods stalls in town.”

“Old books are made of nice small pieces of paper for wrapping things in,” Orris explained.

“And it was cheap.”

“Probably because someone’s written all over the inside,” added Orris.

Dian flipped the book open, looked at a few annotated pages, and snapped it shut again. “I know someone at the university in Queen’s Tower who might pay you in hard coin for this. Did you buy anything else there?”

“We didn’t,” Orris said, “but Pru did.”

“Pru, the horse boy?”

“Yeah,” Ben said. “D’you want to go talk to him?”

A skinny young man in homespun trousers too short for him was mucking out the horse tents when they arrived.

“Oy, Pru,” Orris said. “Respected Dian here wants to know about that gewgaw you bought at that shop. Got it on you?”

Nervously, Pru shifted his eyes from Orris to Dian.

“Good afternoon, Pru. This may sound an odd request, but I would be obliged if you would show me,” Dian said.

“I bought it for my girl,” he said, a little defensively. When she nodded, he wiped his hands on the waist of his trousers, reached into his side pocket, and pulled out a medallion on a dirty ribbon. He hesitated, then placed it in her waiting hand.

It was almost as wide across as her palm and felt light for its size, not metal, but something that looked like moulded clay painted with a gold wash. It was busy with coils and spirals and interwoven knots, dotted in the interstices with glass cut and coloured to look like jewels. It was the exact type of thing, she thought, a fourteen-year-old might deem grand enough to give to a sweetheart.

She was looking at it, and everyone else was looking at her, when Salm poked his head into the tent.

“There you are, Dian,” he said. “Crake says he has some visitors at the cook tent that he wants you to talk to, and can you come?”

“I’ll be right there. Pru, you might as well come too,” she added, on a hunch, and he followed her, Orris and Ben trailing behind, into the corner of the cook tent that Crake used for receiving groups of visitors.

They were a party of about half a dozen, weather-stained and travel-rumpled, led by a short, stocky woman whose hair was shaved on one side and long on the other, a glossy black braid wound around her head like a crown.

“Respected Dian,” she said. “Respected Crake says you may be able to help us find an object we are seeking. We have reason to believe it has been brought into this camp. It is a medallion, complex in design and gold in colour. It is possible it may be concealing itself, or disguised, or–”

Dian held up Pru’s ornament by its ribbon.

The woman’s eyebrows rose. “Well, that was easier than I thought it would be,” she said. Someone at the back of her party snorted.

“We will, of course,” she continued, “be happy to compensate you for your trouble.”

“It–” said Pru. Everyone looked at him, and his voice cracked. “It cost me three half-birds,” he finished thinly.

A blonde woman beside the leader unbuckled her belt pouch. Silver flashed as she took hold of Pru’s wrist and deposited several coins into the cup of his hand. His eyes went wide.

A man in blue robes held out a small bag that seemed woven of metal. Rainbows roiled on the surface of the fabric as he moved. At a nod from the leader, Dian lowered the medallion into the bag. The moment it was inside, she felt a tension break. Her shoulders loosened. Around her, people sighed and shuffled.

“What is it?” she asked.

The man pursed his lips. “It is an amulet of coalescing. In laywoman’s terms, it enhances probabilities.”

“Makes weird shit happen,” the blonde woman clarified.

“Southern magic?”

“Uh-huh.”

That explained it. Dian wiped the hand that had held the amulet surreptitiously on her sleeve.

The party did not seem inclined to linger. After they had gone, Crake motioned Dian over.

“I’m told the road will be passable by the end of the day,” he said. “Tomorrow morning we move out. Spread the word.”

That evening, in her caravan, Ros rested his chin in his hand. “So. Enhances probabilities.”

“So it seems,” she said, and felt herself blush.

He looked sideways at her. They caught one another’s eyes, and laughed.

He took the flask out of his pocket. “When I get a wife, will you still let me come by for tea?”

“Always,” she said, and topped up his cup.

See this story’s entry on the Shousetsu Bang*Bang wiki.

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