The candle on the bedside table flickered as the storm outside found its way through the minuscule spaces in the bedroom’s walls and window frames, grabbing the flame and twisting it this way and that to paint wild shadows on the wall. The boy watched the light with fear-filled eyes, twisting the blankets in his fists and pulling them tight over his head and shoulders. The thunder had woken him to the blackest night he had ever known, and with shaking, fumbling hands he had managed to light the candle to press back the darkness. The wax was but a stub now, the wick was low, and every sound beyond the wall pressed to his back was the heralding of a new monster’s approach, each just waiting to claim him as soon as the fire went out. He shivered at the thought, and felt his eyes began to burn; but he would not cry. He would not shout out. He was going to be seven years old in a week’s time, nearly a man grown. And grown-ups weren’t afraid of the dark.
With one mighty gust, the windows rattled, the wind howled, and the candle went out.
The boy screamed.
Footsteps beyond the door announced the hurried approach of the house’s only other occupant, and the scraping of wood against wood announced the opening of the door. The old man stepped inside, his green eyes illuminated by his own taper and shining with worry. But a second’s scan of the room found nothing amiss but the young boy, cowering in the corner, and the old man’s tensed body relaxed. He turned to the frightened child and in a soothing, wondering voice, asked as he approached, “Kyo?” He sat on the edge of the bed beside the boy, holding the candle between them. “Kyo, what’s wrong?”
A shaking finger poked out from the blanket-nest, pointing to the bedside table. “Th-the c-candle,” he said, gulping. He no longer cared about what a grown-up would or would not do; the young boy was terrified all the same. “The st-storm put it out...”
The old man seemed to breathe a sigh of relief as a fond smile came onto his lips. Turning to the bedside table, he turned the flame of his taper to the wick of the other. Though the first candle had burned low, it had not yet burned out. The double flames illuminated all but the deepest corners, banishing the shadows to the farthest reaches of the bedroom. He set his candle down beside the first and turned to the boy, touching his hair fondly. The young boy had been afraid of the dark nearly since the day he was born, and though he put on a show of being fearless in the day, there were nights when no act was persuasive enough to quiet the terrors.
“Oh, Kyo,” the old man said, his gentle voice matching his soft smile. “You know that there is nothing to fear in the darkness.”
“But th-the demons, Grandfather.” The boy was quaking like a leaf beneath his weathered, wrinkled hand. As the wind howled again and something clattered in the yard, his bright green eyes disappeared beneath the blankets. A moment later, they made a slow reappearance, like a rabbit peering cautiously out of his hole after a hawk’s attack. “I can h-hear them.”
“That was only the wagon I have forgotten to put away,” the old man said. He had no way of knowing what had actually made the sound with the windows shuttered and the land beyond dark, but it seemed as likely as any explanation. “The wind is strong tonight, and is blowing it about. There are no more demons left in this world, little one. Obakenare saved us that battle.”
A sudden flash of indignance at being called little had the boy’s head coming fully out of the blankets. “I know that!” he said -- but another crack of thunder and howl of wind blew that bravado right out. He shrank back into his blankets and looked up at his grandfather. “But what if she missed some of them?”
The old man chuckled softly and sought the child’s hands beneath the blanket, pulling them out and closing them between his own. “They’re all gone, Kyo. Locked up safe, where they cannot touch you.”
The green eyes that peeked from beneath the blanket seemed to hesitate, weighing the words for their truth. Then slowly, he allowed the flax cloth to fall around his shoulders, sending his dark hair standing up every which way. “Could you read me the story again, Grandfather?”
A fond smile, and the old man reached out to gently smooth the boy’s hair back down. “Only if you promise me you’ll go to sleep after.” The boy nodded eagerly and settled down in the crook between the wall and the bed as his grandfather picked up the book from the bedside table. Settling it on his thighs, the old man opened it and began to read.
“Once, a long, long time ago, there was a young girl with hair as dark as night, and a soul as white as snow...”
The first fingers of dawn’s light crept across the worn parchment page, selecting words one by one to bring out of shadow. As they sought the words hidden beneath his hand, the warmth of the sun on his bare skin gradually pulled the warrior from his slumber. Kyo Ruroni woke to find himself in the same position he had dosed off in: propped up in the crook between the wall and the rented bed, the small journal open on his thigh. He blinked once, twice, then slowly eased himself out of his corner, wincing as his stiff neck and shoulder protested the movement. Once standing, a yawn and a stretch had him feeling much better again, but he knew the stiffness would be with him throughout the day. In retrospect, he would have been much better off simply lying down; stiff muscles were not a good way to start off what was sure to be a long day of marching.
He went to the window and looked out over the plaza before the inn. Already there were lines of wagons and horses led up to the front of the building, lashed to posts as merchants wandered between them to check their wares and packs. The caravan that would leave from Akebono today would be the largest of the year; on the other end, the famous Market Festival of Ryuu-Tokai waited to make those merchants the richest they would be until the season ended. The sheer size of the caravan would no doubt attract attention along the road...but that was what hired swords were for. Kyo was heading to Ryuu-Tokai to meet an old contact of his grandfather’s; he might as well get paid along the way.
Turning away from the low but numerous rooftops of the small city, he stepped over the pack that laid on the floor and went to the wash basin. The face that looked back at him was young but weather-worn, with bright green eyes peering out from beneath shaggy brown hair that was badly in need of a cut. Running his hand through it, he paused to open and close his fist slowly, the abnormally darkened, too-smooth skin pulling tight over his knuckles. He would have to be sure to get it cut once they arrived in Ryuu-Tokai.
As the hour wore on, he began to gather his things. He pulled a green tunic over his head, tugging the strings that bound the small v in the collar tight but not tying them. Then came the armor. The chain-mail backed leather cuirass went on quickly, after hundreds of times doing exactly that, and equally practiced motions had his pauldrons attached. A short ten minutes had his bag sorted and packed, with his extra clothing, his food, water, mess kit, flint, sleeping roll, and map. He set the bag aside, strapped his dirk to his hip, and turned to his sword.
The hand-and-a-half blade leaned in the corner of the room nearest the bed, its brown leather baldric hanging limply to the ground. He picked it up now, unsheathing it with a sweep of his arm, and held the steel to the light. It was an old sword, owned first by his great-grandfather, but it had been crafted by a master and had been well-cared for since. The blade was still straight, without notches or rust, honed until it gleamed with a deceptively beautiful light. And in the center of the blade, close to where it met the hilt, a diamond-shaped chip of polished onyx was set, visible on both sides. It was the only distinctive quality about the otherwise plain weapon, and it was his favorite.
Kyo sat on the edge of the bed with the sword across his knees and a whetstone in his hand, and there he sat until the sun was well over the horizon. Once he had decided that the first rush of merchants was probably finished, he re-sheathed his sword and slipped the baldric over his head, tightening the belt across his chest. He pulled on his gauntlets and tightened the attached vambraces around his forearm, and then there was only one last thing to do.
The journal still sat open on the bed. He sighed, picked it up, and placed the golden chain between the pages to mark where he was and closed it. The small pack on the left side of his belt was the perfect size to fit the book, and there he stowed it. Checking one last time to make certain he hadn’t left anything behind, he pulled his bag onto his back and left the room.
He trotted down the stairs and entered the inn’s main room. Sitting in the corner by the door was Isran, the man in charge of keeping the ledger for the caravan. On the table before him was a thick book, in which he marked the names and goods of each individual who joined. Many of the cargo spaces were empty beside names; it would seem that Kyo wouldn’t be the only non-merchant joining the trip.
As he approached, he caught Isran eying the hilt poking over his shoulder warily before his gaze moved to his face. Kyo didn’t smile, but he did nothing to be threatening.
“Are you one of Irithoi’s boys?”
Kyo gave a slight nod. “He said you would need some extra hands on the way to Ryuu-Tokai.”
“There’s a heavy haul this year.” The name of Isran’s brother didn’t seem to set him at ease any, but he was being cordial enough. He sat forward and plucked the quill out of the ink pot. “So Irithoi’s getting jumpy. Could be we’ll have no trouble, but he figures better be safe than sorry. Frankly, me too.” He glanced up, poised to write. “Name?”
“Irithoi’s already worked out your payment?”
The warrior nodded. It would be enough to restock once they arrived in the city, and maybe even buy a few nights’ stay at a nice inn.
“Well then, Kyo Ruroni,” Isran was scratching away in his book. “You’re all set.” He looked up. “Welcome to the caravan.”
The warrior nodded his thanks, turned, and went to take a seat at a table. The inn was crowded as members of the caravan came and went, and the innkeeper and several hands were weaving their way through the constantly moving crowd. When one passed close to his table and noted that nothing sat in front of the warrior but a book, she stopped and gave him a welcoming smile.
“I see you haven’t been helped yet, sir,” she said brightly, “Is there anything I can get you?”
Kyo gave her a quick glance before returning his eyes to his journal. “Just water, please.”
The woman hesitated, her smile faltering. “Er...water, sir?”
He gave her another glance, this one a bit more pointed than the last. “Yes.” he said. “Water.”
As the woman departed from his table with a bewildered look, a hand came down gently on the chair beside Kyo and pulled it back from the table. The woman to whom it belonged was tall, though not overly so with dark red hair that fell loosely about her shoulders, and pale blue eyes that carried a mischievous sparkle that matched the smirk on her lips. Her gaze was fixed on the warrior as she took the seat beside him, running her hands behind her legs to prevent her midnight green dress and long black cloak from bunching as she sat.
"Just water," she said. "There are sixteen types of people in this world, and only three of them would opt for just water. So the question is... which one are you?" She smiled fully. "Or are you going to make me guess?"
The sound of the chair's legs scraping over the worn wood floor drew the swordsman's attention before the woman did; in the bustle of the inn, he hadn't noticed her approach. He eyed her warily as she sat down, giving note to his suspicion while his face remained impassive. Most people didn't bother with making his acquaintance, and those who did always wanted something. Sometimes they were innocent requests, a fellow traveler looking for directions or in need of a strong set of hands. But other times...
After a moment of weighing his response, the swordsman sat slightly forward and brought his elbows onto the table, folding his arms on the edge of the wood. His book, now closed, hung from his hand beneath the table and out of sight.
"From my experience," he said, keeping his voice even. "There are only two kinds of people in this world: those willing to play games, and those who aren't." A slight emphasis on the last phrase indicated which of the two he was. "Is there something you needed, miss?"
With a little laugh, she placed a hand on his shoulder and shook her head. "Need? Hardly. Want? Certainly. But who doesn't have something they want?" She shrugged and let her hand fall from his shoulder. "I overheard you saying you'd be joining the caravan. Since you certainly don't look the merchant type, it had me curious."
She hesitated a brief moment, then shook her head again. "But someone unwilling to play games is also likely to be unwilling to divulge his reason for travel. And so, I'm terribly sorry to have bothered you." To the woman who'd returned with Kyo's water and was looking inquiringly at her, the redhead added, "White wine, a sweet one, if you have it. At that table. I'm just leaving this one."
She rose from her chair, pushed it in, and walked around behind the warrior, again putting a hand on his shoulder as she passed. "A pleasure to meet you, sir," she said. As she moved around the corner of the table to leave, her foot caught on his bag, and she stumbled awkwardly over it. Though she managed to stay on her feet, his bag sprang open, dumping some of its contents to the floor.
"Oh, I'm so sorry!" she cried, blushing and taking a quick step back toward the bag to help him recover his things.
Much of the feel of her touch was lost in his pauldron, the thick, stiff leather leaving only the weight of her hand to transfer to the flesh beneath. Nevertheless, he was less than comfortable for its duration. Kyo didn't like having people -- particularly, strangers -- close to him, and having this woman invade his personal space was hardly pleasant. But a moment later her hand was gone, the woman with his water had returned, and his attention was elsewhere.
The moment he turned his eyes to watch his water be delivered to him in an ale mug was the moment the woman caught her foot on his bag. The waitress backed away in surprise, and the culprit returned with an apologetic word and a blush that hinted at sincerity. He pressed his lips together and stood from his seat only to kneel beside the bag.
"Please," he said, his voice nothing but quietly polite. He glanced at her as he picked up his water flask. The book, with its few-links-wide golden chain swinging from its binding, was now tucked away beneath his arm. "It's quite all right. I can take care of it."
He gave the redhead another furtive look. She had shown interest in the caravan...did that mean she would be joining it as well? Some part of him hoped not; things tended to get broken easily enough while on the road. A klutz would only add to that likelihood.
The redhead was already on her knees by the bag before he had finished, one of his shirts in her hands. She looked up at him, looking for a moment as though she would insist upon helping. Instead, she got back to her feet and handed his shirt back to him, apologizing again for the inconvenience. With that, she turned and hurried away to the table where she'd indicated she'd be waiting for a drink.
Outside of the tavern, a short, slight woman with mousey brown hair and wide dark eyes seemed to be playing tug of war with a shaggy old chestnut pony. Her hair was plaited in to a long single braid, although it still looked a bit unruly in places, and she wore a faded brown dress over a pair of well-worn mens leather trousers tucked into a pair of equally worn black boots. It wasn't fashionable attire, but it was practical and modest and that's what one needed to be if traveling to Ryuu-Tokai for the biggest market day of the year. As she pulled hard on the rope that was fastened to the pony's halter, it was unclear who was winning as the pony was very nearly sitting on his haunches and so nearly was she.
"Come... on... Bob!" The girl huffed and puffed and pulled again. "It's only your pack frame. You've worn it like... a... thousand... times! Yesterday in fact!"
The pack frame that the pony was so adamantly opposed to was a monstrosity made from of dark, aged hardwood with leather straps and metal hooks and wooden holds all over it. It was obviously created for stowing the several bags, boxes, sacks, pots, pans and other sundries that a merchant's pony would carry from town to town.
"Stop...being...so...stubborn!" The rope was taut between them and the pony was just inches away from sitting.
"Ok, ok, I'll give you a cookie!"
The pony suddenly relaxed and stepped forward and the girl suddenly found herself sitting on her backside on the ground. The animal snorted and shook his shaggy mane while he let out a soft nicker.
"No, that was not funny," the girl disagreed with him. She picked herself up, dusting off her clothing. "Now come here so I can get this frame on you, otherwise no cookie. And I mean it, Bob. We don't have time to fool around. We've got a long journey ahead and we have to do it on our own this time. I'm depending on you, and mom and Rui are depending on me. So please, Bob. Help me out here."
The pony's ears pricked up and he eagerly moved forward for her to place the frame over his back.
The back door to the tavern swung open and admitted a slender figure with tousled blonde hair, dressed in dark, supple leather and soft, but functional cloth the color of evergreen trees. Carwyn Stormchild was never much of a drinker, and the fact that they didn't have anything but water and beer at this tavern was a bit of a letdown. Always one to try new things, he had had one tankard of ale before he had to trot out back to relieve himself. Even as he entered, he felt his legs wobble a little so he had so slow down to catch himself on a stool.
Stumbling over to the bar, he gripped the polished wood counter and hauled himself back into a seat before reaching over to waggle an accusatory finger at the bartender. "Sooooo.... just how shtrong is that stuff? Because I'm pretty sure it's not legal in whatever kingdom we're currently in."
The bartender chuckled at Carwyn before sliding a glass of water over to the tipsy ranger. "You pansy. Drink that before you expire on my bar."
Carwyn groaned as he took the glass and put it to his lips. "Buaaah..." he exhaled miserably after downing half of the water. "I just wanted a cookie."
With her pack pony loaded up, the short, slight woman with mousy brown hair and wide dark eyes, headed towards the Tavern. She didn't know if she would find what she was wanting inside, but she had to give it a go.
As she stepped over the threshold of the dimly lit place, one thing was clear. It was not where she wanted to be. There were a few rough looking characters in here. Some furtive looking ones as well. And some who didn't look like they quite belonged, which made her wonder if they might be the kind with only one oar at the picnic that her father had told her to be wary of. She swallowed hard, smoothed her dress, then strode purposefully to the bar.
"One glass of milk and two cookies, please," she said to the bartender. He glared at her. In response, she raised her chin higher and squinted one eye half-closed, trying to look mean. "For my horse," she added posthaste. "And I'll have...," she nodded in the direction of virtually everyone, "what they're having." The ability to feign downing a strong drink was not unfamiliar to her, and she hoped that it would at least fool some folk into thinking that she was not weak, or frail, or barely able to lift a sword let alone use one. It just wouldn't do for a merchant to not be able to hold their own in the caravan. "And make it a double," she added, just to be sure she was getting her point across.
The bartender rolled his eyes, then sighed. "So, that's a double water, a glass of milk, and two cookies." He sighed. "Chocolate chip or peanut butter."
"Erm... peanut butter, please," she said meekly. "Chocolate's not good for ponies."
She sat down gingerly on the nearest stool, perched precariously on the edge of the seat in case she had to make a quick exit, while she waited for the bartender to fetch her drinks and cookies. Next to her sat a blonde haired man who, even though he was dressed like a ranger, seemed a bit... oarless at the moment. She couldn't help but stare, but then not wanting to be seen as completely rude, she introduced herself to him.
"Hi, I'm Aya. You, erm, traveling with the caravan today?"
A grizzled black destrier cantered through the dirt roadways of the town of Akebono, silent save for the distinctive clop-clop of it hooves and an occasional snort. Its rider was shrouded in a cloak of very dark brown with the hood up, disguising the identity of the wearer. Travelers who appeared this way tended to want to be left alone, so the villagers gave the destrier a wide berth as it moved purposefully towards the tavern.
The destrier came to a stop just outside the wooden building and its rider dismounted with uncommon grace. The cloaked figure ran a gloved hand over the destrier's broad neck as it moved to secure the reins to the wooden post rising from the ground. The figure briefly turned its attention to the other horse that was tied up, a chestnut brown pony with inquisitive eyes. It then strode towards the tavern doors, worn brown boots padding noiselessly on the ground. Pushing the door open, the figure made a quick reconnoiter of the room before making its way to the bar. Taking a seat next to the brown-haired woman, it doffed its gloves, tossed them on the counter and pulled its hood back, revealing golden blonde tresses, secured into a ponytail.
Aeron Blackburn raised her hand at the barkeep to get his attention. "Excuse me," she called out, her voice even and measured, with clipped pronunciation. "I would like a glass of water, please, when you are able."
When he had finished packing away the spilled contents of his bag, Kyo tightened the closure -- making doubly sure that its buckles were secure -- and then stuffed it beneath the table once more. He was careful to keep the straps tucked under the table and against his leg, hoping to avoid any further incidents. Once he was certain that the bag was safe, he sat up and set his book down on the table again. Though he flipped it open to the page he’d left off at, his eyes did not turn to it immediately; instead he paused to give the inn another quick survey. The woman had indeed retreated to another table, and with her back to him, her hair stuck out as a shock of red amongst the black and brown and green of travelers’ tunics and cloaks. And there his eyes lingered. That encounter had been a strange one. Usually women who went through the trouble of being that forward did not give up so easily...
He was distracted by the sharp scrape of wood on wood, drawing his eyes to its source in a stool at the bar. A moment later, the stool moved again to clatter into the base of the bar under the unsteady weight of a tall, thin man with blonde hair. A glance at his face showed that the collision had not been the accident of a clumsy hand, but the result of a drunken stumble. Drunk before high noon? Kyo frowned in distaste, and found himself hoping that this one, too, was not joining the caravan. Irithoi had made it very clear that the swords he hired to watch the caravan were hired to watch the whole caravan, the fast and the slow. Frankly, Kyo wasn’t interested in making sure a drunk could stumble along fast enough to keep up.
The drunkard managed to maneuver himself unsteadily into a seat to speak with the barkeep, and the swordsman’s eyes wandered off again. They fell on faces, on hands, on tables and chairs before coming to rest on Isran, who was speaking in fast words with another trader, apparently debating the proper portion of the trader’s goods to be given in payment for safe travel. In the midst of the conversation the front door opened, drawing Kyo’s attention to the brown-haired woman who stepped through. Her dress was travel worn and her hair was tied back in a functional braid down her back, leading him to guess she was a traveler. A trader, no doubt. She certainly didn't look to be a hired sword; though she walked with bluster and with confidence as she approached the bar, neither seemed to fit her. He watched as she spoke with the barkeep -- who sent a dark look in his direction over something that was said -- and then sat down for what would no doubt be a failed attempt at conversation once the ‘keep moved away. That was when he lost interest and looked away, finally turning his attention to the book open before him. But he only flipped a page when an exclamation drew his interest.
“Lookit that horse!”
The call came from a man sitting near the window, and though it was directed to the other man at the table, it was loud enough to cut through the other discussions and pique the swordsman’s inquisition. He followed the man’s eyes out the window and to the horse in question. Only a sliver of the animal was visible to him from his current position, but the sliver was enough to tell that the black beast outside was no pack mule. Its neck alone was evidence of that, thick and strong with a warhorse’s sinew. A hand cloaked in brown flashed into view to pet the horse’s neck, and when it withdrew, Kyo turned his eyes to the front door. Sure enough, it opened a moment later to admit a man who was clearly worthy of the animal beyond the glass. Unlike the girl, this brown-cloaked figure owned the warrior’s stature with which he walked, and Kyo sat back in his chair as he watched him cross the room to the bar, lifting his cup of water to his lips. It wasn’t just any man who could afford to ride a warhorse, of course. If he was traveling alone, Kyo would bet that he wasn’t a nobleman’s son, which meant he would have to have been successful enough to afford the horse on his own. And yet, despite the way the man moved...he seemed a bit too small and slight to be a notorious fighter...
But then the man sat down at the bar, took off his gloves, pulled back his hood...and released a cascading ponytail of bright blonde hair. Kyo caught a glimpse of the face and there was nothing masculine about that profile. He coughed into his cup in surprise, sitting up abruptly.
Well, that would certainly explain the slenderness problem. He took another drink of water, scolding himself for allowing such a hasty conclusion. His eyes passed quickly over the brown-haired woman and the drunk, both seated near the new arrival. Conclusions, he amended. Being too certain of one’s own rightness was a dangerous pitfall. He was better than that.
((Stickied for being relatively active.))
"Hi, I'm Aya. You, erm, traveling with the caravan today?"
Carwyn looked hazily at the brunette who had spoken to him. "Gonna try to, ma'am," he responded. "Just as soon as I find where I life my bowsh and arrowsh." He shook his head to clear it before sitting up straighter. "I apologize, where are my mannersh. I'm Carwyn Shtormchild, ranger of the Wesht." He attempted a bow that wasn't quite up to his usual standards.
Just then, a second woman took a seat at the bar, possessing hair almost as blonde as his own. Carwyn cast his bleary gaze over to her. "Your friend, Aya? Maybe your sishter?"
Aeron arched a blonde eyebrow at the inebriated ranger, then at the brunette woman. They didn't know each other by any estimation, and the ranger was drunk enough to think that she and the brunette were related. She resisted rubbing her temple and merely shook her head as the bartender returned with a glass of water.
"No, I am not related to this lady, sir," she responded for the brunette. "I have never met her before." She offered no other information before taking a sip.
"Erm, pleasure to meet you Mr. Schtormchild of the... Wesht?" Aya smiled, trying to keep her confidence up. "And, no, this isn't my sister," she said of the beautiful Aeron sitting next to her, "but it's very kind of you to ask. Just as it is kind of her to call me a..." Aya uttered a small chuckle, pleased by the slightly embarrassing compliment. "...a lady. I'm just a merchant, really."
Aya's right eyebrow slowly arched as she regarded first the drunken ranger and his glass of water, and then proud assertive female warrior with her glass of water, and then looked at her own glass of... clear liquid.
She sniffed it. It only had a slightly salty smell--minerals, perhaps. She picked up the glass and swirled it around. It didn't cling to the glass, nor did it run off too quickly--much like water did. She held the glass towards the window's light. It appeared clear, no particulates in it--so it was clean. Still... it was highly unusual for so many people to be drinking just 'water' in a tavern. There had to be something wrong with it! Was it enchanted water?
She carefully set the glass down. She'd just wait for her milk and cookies for Bob.
"So, m'lady," Aya said tentatively to the elegant Aeron, not certain whether to bow or curtsy or what, "are you and your fine horse travelling with the caravan today?"
Aeron nodded, pushing a wispy lock of blonde hair out of her eyes as she turned her head to look at Aya. "I am," she confirmed. "Or at least, I intend to, if the caravan master will have me."
She looked around the small tavern for the caravan master. Her information had been scant at best, but it was obvious she was in the right place for the traveling caravan. She was reluctant to give away more than she already had, and she felt she had already drawn too much attention to herself. There were many different characters in the room and she mentally took note of each one with a brief glance. None had approached her since her entrance, but that did not mean they had not noticed her.
She turned her attention back to Aya. The brunette seemed an honest sort, and while she knew better than to trust someone based on their looks, she could not help feeling comfortable around Aya. "I apologize for my manners, Miss Aya," she said with a small bow of her head. "My name is Aeron, and I was curious as to where the caravan master is."
"Standing right behind you."
Irithoi had come into the inn only moments before and immediately made his way to the bar, where he overheard the blonde woman's comment as he approached. Coming to stand beside one of the stools, he looked at the barkeep and said. "Another ale."
"Thank the gods," the barkeep muttered to himself as he turned to fetch yet another mug. When he had moved away, the grizzled bear of a man turned once more to look at the blonde woman, his grey eyes giving her a rather serious examination.
"I'm told you're the owner of that warhorse out there." He tipped his head in the direction of the tied-up destrier, viewable through the window. "You a fighter?"
Overhearing Irithoi's question to the Lady Aeron--She was a titled lady, right? She had to be some sort of noble, riding on a fine steed like she was and talking all refined and head held high-- Aya raised a single brow. "Does a bear poo in the forest?" she whispered under her breath to herself, mostly.
Of course this noblewoman was a fighter! Either that or she was a horsethief. Although, she didn't look like a horsethief. Of course, Aya'd never seen an actual horsethief. Not one that was alive, anyway. She swallowed her thoughts along with a gulp of water.
"Even if she's not a fighter, I bet her horse could kick the pants off of most people," Aya said, then gingerly backed up a step or two as she realised she had said the thought out loud.
Irithoi turned his gaze on the darker haired woman standing beside the blonde in question and raised a dark, bushy eyebrow at her sudden invasion into the conversation. "Aye," he said, rather flatly. "But I can't pay a horse to protect a caravan, now can I?"
The door slammed open, and the sounds of scuffles were coming from outside. The man who'd opened it was searching the crowd, stopping once he'd found the face of the caravan leader. "Irithoi!" he shouted. "It's already past high noon! The horses are gettin' restless."
Irithoi made a face at the man, but he nodded. Returning his attention to the blonde, he dropped his eyebrow and said, "If yer interested in work, come find me later. We can talk a bit more," he glanced pointedly at the brunette woman, "Privately." Then he stood from his seat, looked around the inn, and shouted, "If'n yer comin' to Ryuu-Tokai, get a move on! We're headin' out!"
A number of the inn's occupants began to stir at that point, including the dark-haired swordsman with his book. Closing the cover and stowing it safely away in the pack at his belt, he stood up and slung his pack over his shoulder.
The shout of the barkeep caught his attention, and the swordsman turned to look at the man. The barkeep, looking fairly annoyed, said, "Aren't you gonna pay for that?"
Kyo blinked at him, non-comprehendingly. Looking down at his table, all he saw was his cup, and he turned back to the man with an eyebrow raised. "For water?"
"You're the one that started this trend of water-drinking," the man said gruffly, folding his arms over his expansive chest. "If I'm not sellin' mead, I've gotta make money somewhere."
The swordsman continued to look at him, weighing the situation while simultaneously waiting to see if the barkeep would back down. When he didn't, Kyo's mouth turned down with a slightly sour expression. But he reached into the pouch at his hip and dropped two small coins on the table. Then he turned, and left.
Carwyn had watched all the events unfold before his bleary eyes, his head slumped over on the countertop. As soon as Irithoi announced the caravan was moving, he perked up as best he could. Rummaging in his rucksack for coins, he grabbed a few copper pieces and dropped them in front of the barkeeper.
"Your biggest glassh of water, pleash," he managed as he sat up straighter.
The barkeeper arched an eyebrow at the sloppy ranger, but pulled down a glass so large it was probably a vase and filled it, setting it before Carwyn and collecting the coins.
Carwyn grabbed the glass with both hands and brought it to his mouth. A good amount of liquid got all over the front of his tunic, but for the most part, he managed to down it without incident. Setting the glass back down, he gave a small hiccup and sighed, then glanced over at the the two women looking at him. "Well, shall we be going?"
Outside, the sun was shining as a breeze, just strong enough to be relieving, lifted the manes of the horses and mules in a comfortable, playful dance. It rippled through Kyo's dark hair and fluttered the fabric of his trousers, but against his chest he could not feel it. The tough, thick leather that protected his torso didn't allow even a whisper of wind through as he stepped out into the sunlit square, where Irithoi, his brother Isran, and their small band of regular employees were ushering the many animals and carts and wagons into a functioning, orderly line.
As the swordsman watched, there didn't seem to be any particular order. Whenever a person or group was ready to move, one of the caravan men just corralled them into line with the others. Seeing has he was only a man with no wagon or animal to pull beside him, Kyo simply became another small part of the amalgam of bodies forming up. Once a sizable group had been established, he saw Irithoi climb on his horse and ride ahead. A moment later, the column started moving. If they wanted any of the hired swords -- or blades, more generally; there was a large tree trunk of a man some ways ahead of him that carried a notched two-handed axe -- in any particular place, none of the leaders made any move to organize them such. So Kyo hitched the strap of his pack higher on his shoulder, put foot to pavement, and began the journey to Ryuu-Tokai with no particular rush. With little desire to be at the front of the column and even less to be caught with the stragglers, the swordsman was content to maintain his place in the shifting, vacillating center as the shops and houses that lined the main street of Akebono wandered past.
Aya tugged at Bob's halter and the shaggy pony, loaded up with all manner of wares ranging from a luxurious mink fur stole to the most humble of basic farming implements and everything in between, started to plod forward.
"C'mon, Bob, that's a good boy," Aya coaxed the beast along. "We don't want to be bringing up the rear. Remember what Father used to say: no predator, whether man nor beast, ever attacks the middle of a herd. Besides that," she added, "I don't want to be eating dirt and dust the whole way to Ryuu-Tokai."
Bob snorted noisily in apparent agreement.
As they joined up with the main procession in the center, Aya spotted the lone, young, handsome swordsman she had spotted in the tavern. As he looked to her very capable of taking care of himself, she figured that being in his general proximity made good sense, and she guided herself and Bob closer to him as they walked.
Aya studied Kyo for a while before actually speaking to him. He didn't look particularly mean-spirited or cruel, but he did display the poise of a strong warrior and the sword he carried could probably cleave her in half. But there was something about his demeanor that made her ignore any possible danger.
"So... how far are you travellin', my lord?" she asked him casually when she was in earshot. Maybe she shouldn't have used 'lord', but he looked too young to be 'Sir' or a 'Mister' and he was definitely not a 'boy' or a 'lad'. Plus, her father always said it was better to err on the side of caution than to spit in the wind. Or something like that.
Kyo heard the question but at first didn't pay it any mind. His thoughts were already in Ryuu-Tokai, to the list of things he needed to accomplish once he arrived there. There was the obvious thing, his whole reason for going, but a haircut would be necessary and a new batch of food. Depending on how long he had to stay, he would have to get a room at an inn for several nights. And the small pot he used for cooking was getting old; maybe if there was money left over he could buy...
It occurred to him during this thought that no voice had answered the voice that asked the question beside him, and he suddenly became much more self-aware. That voice had been beside him. Had she...was she speaking to him?
He turned his head and discovered the brown-haired girl from the inn walking beside him with a well-stocked pony plodding beside her. Her eyes, genial and politely inquisitive, were indeed focused on him. The gaze he returned was one of mild surprise flavored with a drop of non-comprehension. Of all the people who could have addressed him, the young girl with her long braid and affected warrior's walk was the last person he expected.
And she'd called him lord.
"Just to Ryuu-Tokai," he responded politely, his gaze moving forward again. At first he had had no intention of continuing the conversation, but...she seemed harmless enough. Just a merchant girl with kind eyes on the road with her pack pony. And it had been some time since he'd had simple, pleasant conversation. So, not wishing to be rude, he returned his green eyes first to the bulging pack on the pony's back, then to the girl's face. "Will you be attending the Market Festival?"
Aya raised a single eyebrow, then glanced askance at her wonderpony Bob and all of the bulging bags, packed crates, and brimming baskets piled high on his back. "I hope so, my lord. Ryuu-Tokai's Market Festival is like only the best one in the known world! Any trader would be crazy to miss it if they were even 50 leagues away from the city. There will be traders from the far reaches of the world, and probably some 'mancers there as well." She suddenly looked up at him and frowned. "Sorry, my lord, am I talking too much? I tend to do that sometimes. By the way, I'm called Aya, and this is Bob the Wonderpony. Nice to meet you."
Kyo looked as though he needed a moment to catch up with all that had been said. He wasn't accustomed to this fast-talking, light-hearted smalltalk...and the ease with which the girl began it had him slightly on his guard. Was she really as innocent as those few moments made her seem? Or was she up to something?
And still there was the presence of lord.
"The pleasure is mine," he said, glancing at the pony again. Wonderpony? Perhaps it was a wonder that the animal was able to move as easily with that load as it was able...but otherwise he seemed fairly normal to the warrior. "They call me Kyo. Just Kyo," he emphasized as he returned his eyes to the woman. "I'm no lord."
Perhaps she had an ulterior motive and perhaps she didn't; one way or the other, Kyo suspected from the way she spoke of the festival that this was not her first time attending...which meant she already knew more about the city than he did. "Have you been to Ryuu-Tokai before, then?"
Not a lord? Aya felt a small flush rise to her face when the handsome warrior had corrected her use of her honorific title for him, but it soon dissipated when he didn't brush her off and continued the conversation. If he was he really interested in Ryuu-Tokai, she would certainly tell him what she knew about it. Even travelling with a caravan, the road there could be lonely, and this time, she didn't have her father for company.
"Oh, sure, lot's of times, my L-- Kyo," she said, trying to sound nonchalant and more experienced than she was. "I know the town like the back of my hand." But no sooner had she said the words, her pony Bob let out a loud snort and shook his shaggy neck. She cast him an askance glance. "Well, maybe not quite as well as that, but...."
Another snort from Bob, this time accompanied by a soft whicker.
"I've been there five times with my father," she admitted to Kyo. She didn't want to tell him that this was the first time she'd been there on her own, and she certainly didn't want any of the other merchants to know either lest they be tempted to try to take advantage of her. "It's quite a big place. Lots of people, but even more will come for the festival. There will be a few camps set up just outside the city gates. That's normally what the caravan leaders decide though--where to set up. Although, my father and I usually stayed at an inn inside the city itself." She grinned reminiscently, then cast her eyes downwards. "He made friends just about everywhere he went."
When she looked up at him again, her soft brown eyes had just a hint of moisture to them. "So is that why you're going to Ryuu-Tokai? For the Market Festival?"
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