She cocked her head at me, and she was much younger than I’d thought. I was suddenly sure she hadn’t seen twenty summers. Where did I know her from? “Beer in the shade,” she said without hesitation. “Though shade can be hard to find when the sun hasn’t been out for days.”
I nodded and gathered up my wet cloak. “Why don’t we look for Chade?” I suggested, and she smiled.
I stood and she took my arm. She led the way as we threaded our way through the inn’s customers toward the base of the wooden stairs that led to the rooms above. The storm outside had grown stronger. A gust of wind buffeted the inn; the interior shutters lunged with it. An instant later the door blew wide open and stood thus, wind and rain gusting in. Amid cries from all tables for someone to shut the door, two men staggered in, leaning on each other. One of the men reached an empty table, put both hands flat on it, and stood there, just breathing. Riddle turned back to the door and slammed it shut against the storm. In the next moment I recognized Chade leaning on the table. “And there he is,” I said to my companion in a quiet voice.
“Who?” she asked me, and I knew a moment of chagrin.
“My friend. The one I was waiting for.” I slurred the words slightly, tugged free of her grip on my arm, and went to meet Chade and Riddle. I turned my head just enough that, from the corner of my eye, I was aware of her backward glance at me as she ascended the stairs. A man descending the stairs met her eyes and gave her a barely perceptible nod. A whore, then?
Well, that had been peculiar. It was not the first time that Chade and his machinations had left me in an awkward position.
“Are you all right?” I asked quietly when I reached his side. He was breathing as if he’d just run a race. I offered him my arm and he took it, a distressing sign of how battered he felt. Without a word, Riddle took his other arm. We exchanged concerned looks.
“Terrible storm. Let’s get a place by the fire,” Chade suggested. His lips were dark, and he breathed noisily through his nose. His “disguise” was limited to soberly colored garb of an excellent weave and a plain cut. His steel-gray hair hinted at his age, but his face and bearing did not betray it. He had outlived his brother and all three of his nephews and I suspected he would outlast me, his grandnephew. But tonight the journey had taken a toll on him and he needed rest. The Skill could maintain his body but it could not make him a young man again.
I surveyed the crowded room. The place I had saved near the hearth had closed up as soon as I vacated it. “Unlikely,” I told him. “But two of the upstairs rooms have hearths in them. I’ll ask if either is empty.”
“Arrangements were made. Riddle, please make sure my requests were granted,” Chade told me. Riddle nodded, dismissed for now. He and I exchanged a look. Riddle and I had a long history, longer than his friendship with Nettle. Long before he had met and courted my daughter, he had been my brother-in-arms. In our little war with the Pale Woman on Aslevjal Island, I had left him as worse than dead. He’d forgiven me for that. I’d forgiven him for being Chade’s spy upon me. We understood each other, perhaps better than Chade realized. And so the nod we shared was that of old fellowship. He was a typical Buckman, dark-haired and dark-eyed, and garbed tonight to blend in with the tavern’s crowd. He moved off, effortlessly eeling through the crowd without anyone scowling at being displaced. It was a talent I envied him.
“Let’s sit down until Riddle comes back,” I suggested and set an example. The table was an undesirable one, placed near the draft of the door, and away from both the hearth and the kitchen. It was as private a place to chat as we could wish for in such a busy place. Chade sank ungracefully into a chair across the table from mine. His eyes wandered the room; he glanced up the stairs and nodded slightly to himself. I wondered if he was looking for someone, or if it was merely an old assassin’s habit to be aware of anyone who might be a danger. I waited for him to broach his business.
“Why so busy in here?” he asked me.
“A caravan of horse and cattle traders passing through, is what the talk at the fire was about. Three merchants, six hands. They’d expected to make the next town before they stopped for the night, but the weather forced them in here. I hear they’re not too pleased with leaving their stock in open corrals for the night, but it was the best this place could offer them. The working hands will be sleeping in the barn lofts tonight. The merchants claim to have some top-quality stock and say they’re worried about thieves, but I heard two stable boys referring to their horses as used-up hacks. One merchant doesn’t say much, but the tack on his riding horse is Chalcedean style. And his personal horse is a pretty good one.”