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Present day…

The atmosphere in the roadside tavern was heavy with anticipation, people eager for the chance to see two actual bards perform. Traveling minstrels sometimes played at inns and taverns, but bards were rare, their services usually in demand by the well-to-do.

Corec watched as the bards got ready. One of them was an old man with a well-trimmed beard and mustache, but it was the other that caught Corec’s eyes—a young woman with curly red hair down to her shoulders, wearing a fine blue dress that revealed just a hint of cleavage.

The pair started off with a sea shanty, which was traditional this close to the eastern port city of Tyrsall. The man sang while he played, his weathered voice a good fit for the song, while the girl accompanied him in the background. She wasn’t quite as polished with her flute as the old man was on his gittern, but her eyes danced along with the music as she looked over the crowd. The next song was about the glory of Pallisur, which made Corec’s lips tighten. He’d enjoyed the tune when he was younger, so he forced himself listen to the music rather than the words.

It took him a few minutes to realize something was missing. The old man was a good musician, but being a musician didn’t make someone a bard. A bard could allow their listeners to feel the music, or sometimes even show them visions of a song or a story. Nobody else seemed to notice anything wrong, but then, it was possible nobody else in the room had met a real bard before.

Corec’s questions were answered a moment later when the two musicians switched positions. The girl set her flute down and picked up a small harp, accompanying herself as she sang a ballad about the wife of a fisherman who was late returning from the sea. The feelings of worry and loneliness washed over the crowd in time with the music. Corec wasn’t surprised when her second song was a much happier one, to bring everyone’s mood up.

The girl was the bard, then. He stared at her more closely—she was beautiful, with green eyes and a light dusting of freckles across her nose. Why was she traveling with the old man? At first, Corec had thought the man was her teacher, but if she was a bard, shouldn’t she be learning from another bard? Were the two of them lovers? The thought made his skin crawl, which caused his arm to itch.

During the girl’s second song, the old man made his way around the room, quietly greeting the patrons, patting them on the back and telling jokes. With some people, he moved on quickly, while with others, he waited to receive a small coin or two as a tip. He avoided the group of armed caravan guards until Corec held up a copper coin between two fingers.

“Thank you kindly,” the old man said, ducking his head and taking the coin, but not staying to chat. Corec frowned when none of the other guards offered a tip.

After that song, the two musicians switched places again. Although she was sitting in back once more, Corec still watched the girl She wrinkled her nose cutely as if trying to hold back a sneeze, then during a break in the music, she rubbed the back of her hand against her forehead. It reminded Corec of the itch on his arm he’d been trying to ignore, but he was still wearing his armor so he couldn’t do anything about it.

At the next break, the caravan master, Jak, came up to Corec’s table with several other men behind him. “All right, you lot. It’s our turn.”

One of the men sitting nearby grumbled. “Why can’t we stay? The cooks and drivers are all here.”

“Because it’s not the cooks’ or drivers’ job to guard the wagons. We agreed, two shifts of an hour each, and your hour is up.”

Normally, the guards weren’t allowed away from the wagons at all, but this little village was close enough to Tyrsall that it was a regular nighttime stopover, and the Senshall trading house had built a large warehouse with room enough for an entire caravan. With the extra protection of walls, the guards could work in shifts. It was unlikely that anyone would attack a caravan this close to Tyrsall, warehouse or no warehouse, but it was Jak’s responsibility if someone did.

With a little more grumbling, the men around Corec stood up. He grabbed his large, sheathed greatsword from where it was leaning against the wall behind him, and followed his group out of the tavern as the new men took their seats.

#

“Here you go, son,” Jak said as he paid Corec his share for the final leg of the journey. “Twenty-one days, sixty-three silver.”

“Why’s he get so much?” Baro, one of the other guards, asked in a surly tone.

“Specialist pay,” Jak said curtly.

“He ain’t no archer!”

“No, but he actually knows how to fight, unlike the rest of you lot. And guardsmen with heavy armor and their own horse don’t come cheap.”

Corec looked at the silver coins overflowing his cupped hand. “Thanks, Jak. You got a gold piece in there I could exchange some of this for?”

“Hah, no. You lot spend your pay so fast, nobody wants gold because you’d just have to get it changed again before you could hit a tavern.”

That might have been true for the others, but Corec was trying to save his money—he didn’t want to be a caravan guard forever. He’d have to carry around an extra pouch full of silver until he could find a money changer. There was a moneylender back in Four Roads that he trusted to hold on to his savings, but he was wary of using any services like that in a city as large as Tyrsall.

“Any other caravans leaving soon?” he asked.

“From us, just the weekly to High Cove. Two weeks till the next trip back to Four Roads.”

“The High Cove run isn’t hiring, last I checked,” Corec said. “They have a regular crew.”

“So wait two weeks, then, or check with one of the other houses.”

As Corec walked back to the noisy chaos where the rest of the caravan guards were mustering out, Baro caught up to him.

“Where’d you get that bloody armor from, anyway?” the older man grumbled, staring at the House Tarwen family crest on the cuirass, not that he was likely to know what it meant. “Steal it from a nobleman? Better hope he doesn’t catch up to you.”

“Maybe I killed a knight and took his.”

Baro eyed him from the side. “Why are you wearing it now? We’re in the bloody city.”

“And an hour ago, we weren’t. I didn’t think Jak would stop the whole procession for ten minutes so I could take it all off.”

Baro stalked off without a word.

It was pointless to antagonize the other man, but Baro had been unlikeable since they’d first met, when two caravans, both from the Senshall trading house, had joined together during the previous leg. It was the first time Corec had ever met the man, and he hoped it would be the last time they worked together.

He’d already separated his horse and pack mule from the others and tied them together at a hitching post, so he was able to avoid the mass of people as the porters started unloading wagons. Untying the animals, he climbed on Dot’s back and rode out of the loading yard, leading the pack mule behind them.

Smelling the hint of sea air from the distance, he decided to avoid the cheaper inns near the docks, full of drunken sailors and whores of questionable age and health. Instead, he directed Dot toward the center of the city, to an inn that he knew catered to moderately successful crafters and shopkeepers. It wasn’t fancy, but it was clean and friendly.

#

“Silver for the night, which includes one meal. Three coppers each for stabling your animals, and two coppers for additional meals. Two more if you want a bath drawn.”

“I do,” Corec said to the innkeeper, handing over the coins. “I’d like to have the bath now.”

“The bathing room’s available. You remember where it is?”

Corec nodded.

“We’ll start getting some water heated, then. Be about fifteen minutes. I’ll send someone for you.”

“Thanks,” Corec said, and headed for his room.

The windows latched from the inside and the door had a lock on it, so he decided it was safe enough to leave his sword and armor there while he bathed.

It felt good to finally get out of the armor. He'd been carrying the helmet and gauntlets since they'd reached the city, so he set those down first next to the bed, then took off the vambraces and greaves. With that done, he was able to undo the straps that latched the front and back of the cuirass together around his chest. He set it down carefully, then removed the chain shirt and the padded doublet he wore beneath it.

“Ahh,” he groaned, stretching out the kinks. He took a moment to scratch a spot on his upper right arm. It had been itching off and on for the past three days, ever since they’d stopped at the tavern to the listen to the music.

The journey from Four Roads to Tyrsall was long. The first leg of the trip usually took fifteen days between Four Roads and Dalewood, weather permitting, while the second leg was twenty-one days from Dalewood to Tyrsall. If he hadn’t been with the caravan, he could have gone the same distance in half the time, even with just a single horse. Not for the first time, Corec wondered if his letters of reference would be sufficient to get a job as a courier. It would pay the same per trip, but he could make twice as many trips if he didn’t have to wait for the wagons.

Dressed in more comfortable clothing, he left his room and locked the door behind him, then went down to the ground floor to find the bathing room. The single tub had already been filled, and checking the water, he found that it was reasonably warm. He stripped off his clothes and climbed in.

A moment later, a dark-haired woman in a low-cut serving girl’s dress came in carrying a steaming pot. She was just a few years older than him, perhaps in her mid-twenties.

Seeing him, she asked, “Would you like it hotter?”

“Yes, thank you.”

She poured the hot water in the tub, as far away from his body as possible to avoid any burns.

“That seems good now,” he said, after swishing it around and testing the temperature.

She nodded, then stared at his body through the water. “Is there anything else you’d like me to do for you?” she asked, her voice carrying a hint of promise.

“How much?”

“Three coppers to wash your hair and give you a shave. A silver for more. Two silvers if you want me for the whole night.”

“What’s your name?”

“Betta.”

“It’s nice to meet you, Betta. How about you take that dress off?”

She reached behind herself to undo the ties holding it up and let it slip down her body, then pulled her shift over head and dropped it to the side.

Corec reached for the pouch he’d left on his pile of clothing, and pulled out two silver coins for her. “Go ahead and lock the door.”

She took the money, checked the door to make sure it was locked, then climbed in the tub and faced him with a smile. “What would you like first?”

“Why don’t we start with the bath and the shave before the water gets cold. Then we’ll head back to my room for a bit before supper.”

#

The next morning, Corec woke to find Betta getting dressed. “Will you be staying again tonight?” she asked.

He swung his legs over the side of the bed and stood. “I’m not sure yet. I need to find another job, and I don’t know when any of the caravans are leaving. When do I need to decide about the room?”

“Noon,” she replied, with a hint of disappointment.

He took out another silver coin from his pouch and handed it to her. “Here, in case I’m not around tonight.”

That made her happy again, and they went downstairs together for breakfast.

After he ate, Corec returned to his room and put on his chain shirt, but left the plate armor where it was, not wanting to wear it around the city. Before leaving, he strapped his sword harness over his back. The greatsword was too long to carry in a belt sheathe, and too long to draw from any sort of regular sheathe, so he’d had a special harness made with a detachable scabbard. If he ended up in a fight, he could reach behind himself and pull the scabbard off the harness, then draw the blade and toss the scabbard to the side until the fighting was done. He kept a long knife on his belt in case he ended up fighting in tight quarters.

The closest trading house was also the least likely to have work for him, but he stopped there because it was on the way to the others. Entering the small office, he found a company representative sitting at a desk.

“Can I help you?” the man asked.

“I’m a caravan guard with written references from Senshall and Overland Holdings. Do you have any short-term work available?”

The man looked him over, then grabbed a short stack of papers and thumbed through them. “Nothing short term. Our local runs are booked with local boys. If you’ve got your sea legs, there’s a coastal cutter headed north to Lanport in three days. It’s a small ship, so it only takes two guards, and I’ve already hired one. If you’ve got your references with you, I’d be willing to take a chance on someone new.”

“How long is the trip?”

“There and back, twenty days. You’ve got to sign on for both legs.”

“I don’t think I can make that work,” Corec said. “I’ve got a reserved spot on an outgoing in fourteen days. Could I check back in with you another time?”

The man shrugged. “Sure.”

Corec thanked him and left the office. It wouldn’t hurt to be known by a new company, but Senshall gave him specialist pay, and he wasn’t going to give up a thirty-six day caravan trip to Four Roads at three silver a day. Besides, he hated boats.

As he continued across town, he walked past the constabulary building. He normally paid it no mind, but this time, something caught his eye when he passed the bounty posters. He did a double-take, then stopped and looked more closely. An old man with a tidy-looking beard and mustache, and a young woman with shoulder-length curly hair. The drawing wasn’t a close likeness, and it was in charcoal so he couldn’t tell what color the girl’s hair was, but something told him it was the two bards. Or, rather, the bard and the minstrel.

The poster didn’t have many details, saying only that they were wanted alive for the crime of theft. Did posing as a bard count as theft? Curious, he entered the building and found the bounty office.

The man inside glanced at him, eyeing the large sword hilt poking above his right shoulder. “I don’t recognize you. Are you new?”

“I’ve never brought in a bounty before, but I had a question about one of the posters. The one with the two people on it?”

“The Herman brothers? If you’ve never gone after a bounty, I don’t recommend starting with them.”

“No, I mean the one with the man and the woman.” Corec pointed to a copy of the poster hanging on the wall at the back of the office.

“Oh, that must be new. Let me find the paperwork.” The man pulled open a drawer and drew out a sheet of paper. “Thieves. They came in off a ship from down south eight days ago and spent two nights picking pockets at a couple of inns. They were pretending to be minstrels. One would play and the other would work the room.”

“Do you have their names?”

“It doesn’t say.”

Corec nodded. “What’s the bounty on them?”

“Twenty silver each, so one gold total if you bring them both in. Alive.”

“That doesn’t seem like very much.”

The man shrugged. “It’s the going rate for a first-time thief, and they haven’t hurt anyone. There’s a ten percent finder’s fee if you can return any of the stolen items to their rightful owners.”

“All right, thank you.”

Corec left to hurry back to the inn. It had been four days since he’d seen the two musicians, but he doubted they’d have been performing that close to the city if they knew they were wanted. Even if they had fast horses, he might be able to catch up with them if they continued to stop each night to put on a show. As he walked, he put together a list in his mind of the supplies he’d need to purchase before he could leave. Unfortunately, there wouldn’t be time for a second night with Betta.

#

“My wife said you were looking for me?” the tavern keeper asked. “The name’s Jarol.”

“Yes, I was here a few nights ago,” Corec said. “The night the bards played?”

“Oh, right, the first night they were here. You were with the Senshall caravan fellas. I recognize the sword.”

“Yes, I was. The bards stayed for another night?”

“Only after I offered to pay them. But it was worth it—it’s not every day a bard comes through here, much less two of them. Why are you so interested?” Jarol seemed suspicious.

Corec said, “One of the trading houses in the city was hoping to hire them, so they sent me to see if I could find them.”

The tavern keeper relaxed. “Well, you might be able to catch them on the road, but they were in a hurry. There was a bit of a problem the second night.”

“Oh?”

“Some young sprig of a baron’s son got drunk and tried to go after that poor girl pretty hard. His own people had to distract him until he was too drunk to walk. Kat and Felix left at first light to avoid him, but they probably didn’t need to worry about it. He spent the whole morning shouting that his coin purse was missing and insisting I help him find it.”

“Kat and Felix are the bards?” Corec asked. “I didn’t catch their names before.”

Jarol nodded. “That’s them.”

“You ever find that coin purse?”

“Nah. Probably someone made off with it when they realized he was too drunk to stop them.”

“I suppose his guards should have been watching more closely. Did the bards say what direction they were going?”

“I didn’t ask, but they headed west when they left.”

“I’ll keep trying to catch them, then, but I think I’ll stay put for tonight. Do you have a room available?”

“I only have a few rooms and they’re full for the night, but there’s an inn on the other side of your people’s warehouse. The Flying Rooster. Tell them I sent you.”

“Thank you.”

Without the wagons to hold him back, Corec had made good time on his return to the tavern. It was early evening the day after he’d left Tyrsall, which meant the musicians had left three days earlier. And luckily, it sounded like they still hadn’t realized anyone was after them, so he had a good chance of catching up.

He considered continuing on until it was too dark to see, but Dot and the pack mule had been traveling faster than they were accustomed to and deserved a rest. He was already familiar with The Flying Rooster, so he untied the animals from the hitching post and headed in that direction.

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