I sat near the big hearth, my drenched cloak saving a place for him on the bench nearest the flames. The Oaken Staff was a crossroads inn used mostly by merchants and travelers. I did not frequent it, and expected to encounter no one who knew me. Nonetheless, for this rendezvous, I had grayed my beard with chalk and donned a plowman’s coarse tunic. My worn boots were muddy, and I sat with my woolen cap pulled down over my brow and ears. The only time I came to the Oaken Staff was when Chade demanded a meeting. Yet it would not do for any neighbor of Tom Badgerlock’s to see me in the common room and wonder why I was there. So I drank mulled wine with hunched shoulders and a sullen air that I hoped would put off anyone trying to strike up conversation.
The door of the inn swung open, admitting wind, rain, and a drenched stable boy followed by two sodden merchants. Beyond him, the evening sky was darkening to night. I growled to myself. I had hoped that Chade would arrive early and conclude his business swiftly. I had not been happy to leave Bee alone at Withywoods. She had assured me that she would be fine, that she would paint pictures in her room by the fire and go to bed as soon as she was sleepy. I had tried in vain to convince her that she might enjoy an evening spent with Lin and his wife. She had looked both horrified and terrified at the idea. And so I had left her, promising her that I would look in on her as soon as I returned. I sipped my mulled wine and tried to decide between worrying about Bee alone at home or worrying about Chade somewhere out in the storm.
The second time the woman bumped me from behind, I swiveled on my bench and stared up at her. My first thought was that it was Chade in one of his more outlandish incorporations. But she was too short to be the rangy old man I knew. Seated on my bench as I was, my turning had put my eyes exactly on a level with her breasts. Unmistakably real. When my gaze traveled up, she was grinning at me. She had a slight gap between her front teeth and long-lashed green eyes. Her hair was a very dark auburn. “Hello,” she said.
So, not Chade. His messenger, an overly friendly tavern girl, or a whore? So many possible ways for this evening to go very wrong. I lifted my mug, drained it, and held it out to her. “Another, please.” I put no friendliness in my voice.
She raised one brow at me. “I don’t fetch beer.” The disdain in her voice was not feigned. My hackles lifted slightly. Be wary.
I leaned closer, pretending to struggle to bring her face into focus. I knew this girl. I’d seen her somewhere, and it was frustrating and alarming that I could not recall when I had met her or under what circumstances. Someone in the market? A daughter of one of our shepherds, grown and out on her own? Well, she hadn’t called me by name; nor had her pupils reacted as if she recognized me. Play drunk. I reached up and scratched my nose, and tested her. “Not beer,” I told her. “Mulled wine. It’s cold out there.”
“I don’t fetch wine, either,” she told me. A trace of an accent in her voice. She hadn’t spent her childhood in Buck.
“That’s a pity.” I turned back to the fire.
She pushed my wet cloak to one side and boldly sat down next to me. That narrowed her roles to whore or messenger. She leaned close to me. “You look cold.”
“No. Got myself a good spot by the fire. Had some mulled wine. Just waiting for an old friend.”
She smiled. “I could be your friend.”
I shook my head in drunken confusion. “No. No, you couldn’t. My friend is much taller and older and he’s a man. You can’t be my friend.”
“Well, maybe I’m your friend’s friend. That would make you my friend, wouldn’t it?”
I let my head wobble slightly on my neck. “Maybe,” I said. I fingered my pouch at my hip and frowned. Then I smiled. “Hey. If you’re my friend’s friend, and you’re my friend, then maybe you could buy the next round?” I held up my mug hopefully with a vacuous grin and watched her face. Any whore worth her salt wouldn’t bother with a man who didn’t have enough coin to buy himself another drink.
Uncertainty rippled over her face. I hadn’t said what she expected. I suddenly felt very old. At one time I would have enjoyed this sort of intrigue. I’d always taken great pleasure in mastering the little tests that Chade had constantly set for me. I’d participated in more than one of his dramas for the benefit of befuddling others. But tonight I suddenly just wanted to meet with my old master, find out what he wanted, and then go home. Was any of this subterfuge truly necessary any longer? We were at peace and politically stable. Why did he need to employ spies and set tests for people? It was time for me to cut through the fog and move the play along. But not so brazenly that Chade would be offended. So I peered at her again and asked, “Which do you think is best? Mulled wine by a warm hearth on a cold day, or having a tankard while sitting in the shade?”