Androkles turned to conspicuously give Gotzone his full attention.
Once she had it, she nodded and said, “I can tell you are an honorable, straightforward man, so I will be plain with you. You filled my inn with more custom than it has seen in years. As a sign of my gratitude, I am only charging you a single silver for each night you stay here, as long as you continue to share your stories. I will continue to give you the highest honor, as I would a relative of the king. Any clothing or food I give you is a gift, and I will not ask extra.”
“I am grateful,” he replied, warmth in his voice.
Gotzone gestured into the hallway behind her, and a young male servant stepped forward to display a set of light, thin sleeping-gowns. “Shall my servant help you dress for the night?” she asked.
Androkles consented and had Garbi stand to be dressed. The servant slipped off the tunic she wore and draped the sleeping-gown over her. He then carefully removed the silver netting from her hair and placed it on the table next to Wolfscar’s little bed. Then he changed Androkles’s clothing, and left the room with a bow.
“I don’t have a sleeping gown for the fairy yet, but I will tomorrow night. I hope he will forgive me,” she said.
Wolfscar, eartips drooping a little in disappointed, said “It’s okay. I never had any clothes until now anyway, unless you count … well, it’s hard to explain.” He tapped his chin, swinging his legs off the edge of the table.
Androkles waved politely and said, “I’m sure he’ll be pleased to sleep in it tomorrow.”
Gotzone looked back into the hallway for a moment, then quietly closed the door. “Master Androkles, I feel to warn you as a guest in my house that a fairy is the rarest of treasures. Rumors of his powers are on every tongue. Some say your strength comes from him. Others say he can be used to bind the gods. Others, and I ask your forgiveness if this frightens him, wish to eat him, thinking to grow young again. I do not believe any of it, and I will do all I can to keep you safe.”
“They think this little thing gives me my strength?” said Androkles, pointing at Wolfscar.
“They are fools, and barbarians. I am a woman of the Glories and a pureblood Laophilean, even if my father brought me here as a babe. I know civilized people when I see them. As, I’m sure, do you. Master Androkles, I feel to warn you that as much as I wish to keep you here forever, filling my common room every night and making me extravagantly wealthy, you are not safe in this town with a fairy. The king and nobles surely know by now. They will summon you to them, but you must not go. Meet with them here—they will not harm you in my house. If they threaten you directly, leave this city and never return, lest you come to some harm by trickery,” said Gotzone, bowing her head politely.
“Master Gotzone,” he said, “you honor me with your advice. I can’t even say how glad I am to find someone like you here, and this inn. And I truly appreciate your warning. It sounds credible to my ears. But I mentioned this out in the common room: I can’t leave until I find somewhere to put little Garbi, here. Is there any chance you could take her in?”
Gotzone sighed in most sincere fashion, and said, “I considered it, but I fear that if she does not recover, some men might misunderstand her place here and take liberties with her when she gets older. I do not wish to bring harm upon her or dishonor on my house by keeping bastards here, if she has one. Kelthuar law is very clear about the fate of bastards and those who get them. This is also why I do not keep women to delight male guests.”
Androkles supposed that a law was a law, even a stupid one that prohibited prostitutes. He nodded, trying to hide his disappointment.
“Well, I don’t suppose I’d have you send me one anyway, with the girl in here, and I don’t want her falling down the stairs because no one was watching her.”
“I am glad you understand. Now, two final matters. First, I will have my servants ask after your wife Della and see if there is more information to be found. Do you have anything else you can tell me about her?”
“Other than her description and her bodyguards …” said Androkles, pausing. “Gods’ rods, I didn’t mention the bodyguards, did I? She’s got four adult male Skythanders with her as a bodyguard. That’s the best way to spot her.”
“You mentioned the bodyguards, but did not say they were Skythanders. Is there anything unusual about their appearances?” said Gotzone.
“Other than the ears and tail and being covered in fur?” he asked. “Honestly, all I have other than that is that at least one of them has fur with patches in light and dark. I never saw them myself. But one or two of them come into towns to buy supplies, and they might be looking for other Skythanders who trade in this region. Let me know if you hear of any beast-men coming through town recently.”
“None have stopped at my inn, but I will ask. And for the final matter: the tartalo was known to be a servant of the Wildmother, and it is believed that it was sent here to punish the inhabitants. It is possible that she will be offended, or that it might not truly be dead, since it was alive when you left it. I do not honor their goddess because I know her to be cruel and petty. I do not have any advice for you on this point, but I wanted you to be aware. Now, do you want my servants to wake you for a morning meal, or shall we leave you to your rest until you open the door?”
“Leave me to my rest. You may recall that I have reason to be tired, after the last few days,” he said with a slight grin.
She wryly returned his smile. “I suppose you do. Ah, I nearly forgot! Before I leave, I want to see the fairy in his bed.”
Androkles got the impression that she was more interested than she let on, and was only pretending it to be an afterthought. Wolfscar wasn’t sure what the fuss was about, but he slipped off his robe all the same and climbed into the bed, folding his wings down against his back like a bug. The woman couldn’t resist, and she walked over and carefully tucked the fairy into his little bed. When he smiled at her contentedly, she blushed and covered her mouth with her hand.
“That is the cutest thing I have ever seen!” she declared quietly. Then, looking slightly embarrassed, she stood up straight again and gave Androkles a regal nod then gracefully glided out of the room, closing the door behind her.
Androkles barred the door behind her, then lifted Garbi into the bed and tucked her under the blanket.
“Now, Wolfscar,” he said in a low voice. “The reason I have to tell everyone you’re coming with me, is that people will say they’ll take care of her, just so they can get you. Got it? They’ll lie, and might not even so much as feed her once I’m gone. But if someone takes her on her own, then we know they’ll take care of her. You can choose to stay with her, or go with me. I don’t care. But you have to tell everyone you’re coming with me for now. Understand?”
“Oh! I didn’t think of that. Okay,” said the fairy. After a moment, he asked in hushed tones, “Do they really want to eat me?”
“Maybe some. Don’t worry about it, though. Stay close to me and you’ll be fine,” said Androkles. After a bit of thought, he added, “And if anyone does manage to catch you, just disappear like you did in the cave and they’ll think you got away. And now that I think about it, don’t let anyone know you can turn invisible, either. Keep that secret until you have to use it.”
“That’s a good idea. I won’t tell anyone, and then I can get away if someone catches me so they can’t eat me. Do you think they want to eat me because I have wings like a bug?”
“Who knows what barbarians are thinking? Now go to sleep.”
He put out the lamps and crawled into bed. The fairy’s head glowed as usual, which was a bit distracting in the dark, but soon it dimmed as he fell asleep. It took Androkles a while to sleep himself, his mind troubled by everything the gods laid up to block his path; he wondered when he would be free of their ire and allowed to simply move forward. Eventually, though, the whispers of the god of dreaming did their work, and he slept.
* * *
As he walked through the forest, he could taste the crisp, cold air on his tongue and feel it biting the back of his throat. Despite the darkness, he could see something moving deep in the shadows beyond the trees, something watching him. He walked away from it, careful not to make any noise, but still it followed him somehow. He looked down at the four rings he wore, jewels glinting. He realized they might reflect the moonlight, which was very bright all of a sudden, and make him easy to find, so he tossed them aside. First the two on one hand, then the two on the other, as he walked. He left them lying in the dirt without looking back. He heard laughter behind him, mysterious, bitter female laughter, as the thing watching him found the jewels he’d dropped. It kept following him until it floated outside the window, eyes shining with sickly light as it looked in at him, and he huddled more deeply under the bed, terrified.
And then the dream slipped away as he clawed his way up into wakefulness. The morning sun shone right through the window, lighting up a square patch on the opposite wall. Androkles found Garbi sitting on the edge of the bed rocking back and forth. She didn’t respond when he called her name, however. The fairy, surprisingly, still slept, curled into a ball in his bed. Only his ears and hair were visible above the covers.
Androkles rose and opened the door. Two servants, the young woman and one of the young men from the baths, were waiting for him. He told the young woman, “Take the girl and see to her needs.” She nodded, then took Garbi by the hand and descended the stairs.
Then Androkles held his arms out to be changed, and the young man obliged, giving him a fresh tunic. After tugging the tunic to make sure it hung on Androkles properly, the servant said, “My master says that your robe is permanently discolored, and sends her regrets. She is having another made, and it’ll be ready this afternoon. Er, it will, I mean.” He looked embarrassed. Androkles could imagine Gotzone drilling polite speech into them, probably with a rod at the ready.
“Wolfscar, it’s time to wake up,” said Androkles, lightly tapping the fairy on the shoulder. He groaned, sounding somewhat like a bumblebee, then sat up and stretched, yawning. Androkles told the servant, “His robe is right there. Might as well get him into it.”
The fairy crawled out of bed and stood, arms at the ready, and the servant carefully slipped the robe on, making sure the wings came out the back. Wolfscar looked very pleased with himself as he pulled at various parts of the robe to make it sit comfortably. Then he flew over to sit on Androkles’s shoulder.
He found the common room busier than he expected, with around a dozen people sitting around eating or drinking. The servant directed him back to the couch in the corner, where a bowl with apples and cheese awaited him next to a pot of wine.
“May we provide you any fried sheep, bread, or eggs?” asked the young man.
“This will do. See that Garbi is brought here, and not back to my room.”
The servant nodded and left, and shortly afterwards the young woman approached leading a passive Garbi by the hand. “Garbi, sit down, please,” she said. Garbi sat. “Master Androkles, she does whatever you tell her. Anything at all. But I don’t think she really understands what is happening.”
“What do you mean?” he asked.
“Garbi, lift your arms above your head,” she said. After a pause, Garbi lifted her arms, expressionless. “Put them down now.” The little girl obeyed.
“I wanted to let you know in case others realize, and find some way to take advantage of her, or make her harm herself,” said the young woman. “If someone told her to hold her head in the fire, I think she’d do it.”
“I see. You did well in noticing,” said Androkles. Then he picked up an apple and placed it in Garbi’s hand. “Eat this, girl.”
Garbi took a large bite of the apple, eyes never focusing on anything. The young woman departed with another short bow.
“Can I try some apple?” asked the fairy politely.
“Go right ahead. Pick your favorite,” replied Androkles, taking an apple and some cheese for himself.
The fairy flew down to the bowl, then grabbed one by the stem and deposited it onto the table. Then, with a hint of a blush, he asked, “Can you open it for me? I can’t eat it because it’s too big. I can’t bite it.” Then he tried to take a bite, unsuccessfully, to demonstrate. The little thing couldn’t open his mouth far enough to sink his teeth in.
Androkles grinned and broke the apple in half with his hands. “There. Start along the edges.”
The fairy hopped a few times in eagerness, then knelt down and started nibbling with pleasure.
“I thought you ate bugs,” said Androkles.
“They didn’t bring any,” said Wolfscar without a hint of humor.
Androkles had Garbi eat a large piece of cheese with a bit of the wine, since she wasn’t likely to complain if she started getting hungry. Wolfscar managed to eat nearly a quarter of his apple, and Androkles, judging their comparative size, had no idea where the fairy had put it. His stomach wasn’t even bulging much more than normal, it seemed, although the little robe might be hiding it.
A handsome boy approached, a few years older than Androkles’s kits had been, wearing a linen tunic stitched impressively with floral patterns. He wore fine shoes of soft red leather, and a gold ring held his oiled and curled hair in place. He carried a vellum roll, which he knelt and handed to Androkles.
Androkles took it and looked it over. It was sealed with wax, with the impression of what might have been an elk in the seal. He opened it and looked it over. “I can’t read this, boy. These are not my letters. What does it say?”
“Most Honored Androkles, by the voice of Basajaun, Mighty and Glorious King, you are called to appear in the Hall of the Forebears, to have honor and respect given you, to be remembered for all time. You will come today at noon, for as the sun at its highest point gives greatest light to all things, so shall your name be on every tongue and lip. You will bring your fairy to show the King, to please him. I am Basajaun, King of the Kelthaurs, who sends this letter, by the hand of my son, the prince,” the boy recited in serious tones.
“You’re the prince?” Androkles asked.
“Yes, Master Androkles,” he replied.
“Are you the firstborn, the heir?”
“No, Honored One. I am the youngest. The others are too busy.”
“I see. Go tell the king that I do not come for youngest sons. If he wishes to speak to me and see my fairy, he can do so here, in this inn,” said Androkles. He handed back the roll and pointedly looked away. He did not watch as the boy left. It seemed Gotzone had been right. The king certainly hadn’t wasted any time. No doubt the nobles would start showing up soon, or send messengers. The only question now was whether refusing the king in such a manner would invite a knife in the kidneys.
Wolfscar, plainly curious, flew behind the boy until he left the common room. Once the door was shut, the fairy returned and asked, “Is that what a prince looks like?”
“That’s one kind of prince, I suppose,” said Androkles. “Princes in the Glories grow up learning the arts of war so they can lead men into battle. I knew several of them in the army. That boy looked a bit weak to me, even if he had good features.”
“Why didn’t you want to go look at the king?” asked the fairy.
“Did you forget what Master Gotzone said last night?”
“Oh … right.”
Once the prince had gone, several more messengers arrived, promising him all sorts of gifts if he’d make an appearance at their manors. Two nobles even came personally, practically begging Androkles to join them. Although he rejected them several times, each time they simply offered more, as though he were bargaining. Gotzone, seeing that he was about to lose his temper, rescued him by announcing that his bath was ready, with apologies to the honored visitors who came to see him.