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original fiction: Tin Man [12/16] - Diary of a Necromancer
Excuse me, I'm making perfect sense, you're just not keeping up
robling_t
robling_t
original fiction: Tin Man [12/16]


Chapter Ten


A day of mist turned to a night of drizzle, and drizzles grew into light rains, and one afternoon the sky finally upended itself over us in an unequivocal downpour that sent us both scrambling for our packed-away winter outers. I helped Liane to adjust her hooded cloak over all her gear, and then went shivering grumpily in my own coat until at least everything beneath it had warmed from my body heat, although my waterlogged hair was beyond helping. "Please, tell me that we're not that far from the next plausible place to find shelter," I yelled over the rain at her.

She shrugged, the gesture nearly lost in the volumes of fabric. "Dunno," she yelled back. "Seems like we've been walking long enough we should be coming to a crossroads soon, if they're the usual distance apart. Does that look like buildings?"

I squinted through the wet; off ahead at the side of the road I thought I could see what was either a clump of structures or a sizable thicket of trees, either option probably about our best hope for some sort of relief from the storm. We broke into a shuffling trot, squelching in the sucking mud and trying not to outpace the long-suffering golem by too much for fear of having to pick it up out of the mess if it had to work too hard to keep up with us, and presently it became clear that we were approaching the usual sort of taproom-and-general-store cluster that presided over the meeting of roads in this area.

We clumped muddily into the pub, since the shops appeared to be closed, and stood huddling the three of us round the cast-iron stove just inside the doorway. "One hopes he's only cold," Liane said bemusedly, looking at the golem as it stolidly contemplated the stove. "Because if it's love at first sight, they're going to have to elope, 'cause I'm not dragging that with us." I laughed, and the golem turned its helmet just enough of a fraction to convey a sense of being profoundly annoyed with us.

Our entrance hadn't occasioned much stir because the taproom was nearly empty on a day like this, only a handful of hearty types, most of whom were probably the proprietors of the neighboring establishments, loitering moodily along the bar. Now the tall and extraordinarily dark woman behind the bar called out to us: "Nice day for it, eh? We've got rooms upstairs if that's what you're needing."

"Just a towel for now if you've got one, thanks," Liane said, and when the tavern-boy had been sent to fetch one for her she brought it over to me where I had settled, still dripping, onto the high-backed bench farthest from the bar.

"I'm that obviously a wreck, is that it," I said, using the towel to wring some of the water out of my hair. Liane nodded solemnly.

"You've got sense enough to come in out of the rain, at least," she said. "Which is more than a couple of the more ethereal mages I've known in my life had. Nothing funnier than a Scaldberry standing out in the rain steaming, lemme tell you." She took the towel back when it had become apparent that it had done all the good it was going to do for me, and went up to the bar to return it. I decided that I was warm enough now to take my coat off, and so I did, draping it neatly over the back of the bench in the hopes that it would dry out somewhat before we went to leave and I perhaps had to put it back on again.

Liane returned from the bar with two mugs in one hand and paper and inkpot in the other; "We might be here for a while, seems like a good chance to get off a letter home," she explained, setting all her treasures out on the table before us and sliding in beside me. "In case -- Maybe you'd want to write to Whiteraven, too, let them know what you think Sorson's up to? That's sweet cider," she added as she saw me eyeing the mugs warily. "I didn't want to have to find out the hard way if there really is anything between the golem and that stove. I had a dog once who, um, had quite the eye for legs..." She blushed, and so did I, trying my best not to imagine the potential scene. The golem had settled in beside the table, but it was still regarding the stove rather wistfully I thought.

Liane wrote a surprisingly fair hand, small and elegant and flourished in all the right places, and completely ruined it with her grammar. I tried not to read over her shoulder and couldn't entirely stop myself; for the most part, it seemed to be an innocuous account of her travels since the last time she'd written, interspersed with a lot of scribbled-over attempts to tackle the subject of what she was immediately about at the moment and the probability that she'd ever be back someday afterwards. She ended up crumpling up the first sheet altogether and starting on another clean draft; this she hunched over more protectively, and I took the hint, staring down at my own blank paper in panicked despair of coming up with anything coherent to report to Whiteraven. Liane didn't seem to be having the same trouble; out of the corner of my eye I saw her folding up a completed sheet of paper into neat quarters and reaching for a second. I could see my name mentioned on the finished page, but not the context, vanishing into the fold. Curiosity scratching at the back of my mind, I finally dipped my own brush in the inkwell:

Esteemed Council of the Elders of Whiteraven, from Robling Tremare presumptive Eldest of said Guild, writing this somewhere west of Pridening Academy on the Quarterday after Leaf Moon, Year of the Guilds 2247, my greetings,

And here I stopped, at a loss as to what I could possibly tell them that would help in any way, and momentarily paralyzed by the creeping worry that now I thought about it I couldn't be complacent about Whiteraven even still being there to get my letter, considering. In the end I decided to be blunt, sketching out my observations and assumptions of the past two years and particularly the last few months and concluding with as urgent a warning as I could phrase politely that if Sorson turned up at Whiteraven it would likely be best to have him shot on sight. Which looked perfectly awful, and I nearly blacked it out, but nothing more eloquent came to mind to replace it, so I folded and sealed the letter and took some care in the addressing of it, hoping that no one would be so offended if I sent it generically to "Whiteraven's Eldest" without a proper name that they'd dismiss it out of hand; the Eldest I'd known during my envoy term hadn't been terribly popular, from what I'd seen, and I had no way of knowing if they'd elected another in the meanwhile, which seemed a worse misstep overall.

Liane had long since finished her letter and now sat idly folding and refolding her spoiled sheet of paper, occasionally glancing over at me or at the golem or up at the pounding rain outside the door. "You write slow," she observed when she noticed that I had finished.

"They're old, it pays to be tidy," I said. "What's that?"

She held up the folded and refolded paper and jiggled it gently, and now I could see that she had shaped it into a delicate if not particularly handsome butterfly, characters and phrases wandering in and out across its creased wings. "One spends a certain amount of one's time as a merc trapped by rain with the most amazing assortment of people," she explained, setting the butterfly into my cupped hands. "I knew a couple other shapes once, but that's the only one I remember how to do anymore."

"It looks almost flightworthy," I said, watching the wings shiver with my breathing. "But I think... it's missing something."

"Hm?" I had already appropriated a knife from her belt, butterfly balanced on my upturned left hand; I set the point of the knife gently to my wrist near the older scar, pressing just hard enough to draw up a small bright dot of blood, and laying the knife on the table I took up the braid at my cheek. Oh, you are so showing off now... I moistened a tiny brushpoint of hair in my mouth and dipped it into the welling blood, and swiftly sketched a few small characters onto the butterfly's wings: life... flight... devotion...

And I brought the butterfly cradled in my hands to my mouth, and I whispered to it a potent Word before I blew lightly on the shivering wings. With a snap I flung my hands up and out and launched the fluttering paper into the air, smiling now as the wings unfurled reflexively and flapped looking about as puzzled as a sheet of chopped rag-pulp could look at its sudden predicament. The paper golem hovered above the table, testing its wings; Liane had already shaken off enough of her shock to reach out an astonished forefinger to poke at it. "That is really... something," she breathed. The butterfly darted away from her hand and then came to land on her finger for a few instants, opening and closing its wings.

"It won't live very long," I said, delighting in the look on Liane's face. Beside the table my old golem shifted sullenly, obviously somewhat put out to suddenly have a tiny sibling competing for my attention for however short a span. The paper golem took fright and soared up towards the rafters, Liane rearing up too late to snare it. She sat back again and stared up after it, mouth slightly open in rapture as the word-streaked paper bobbed in the air looking for, perhaps, a paper flower to sip inky nectar from.

"I've seen a lot of remarkable things," she said, finally tearing her eyes from the butterfly and turning to me, a look of breathless wonder in her eyes still, "but that... that outdoes them all. You are really... amazing."

And she smiled at me, and I smiled back, and she leaned slightly forward, and so did I, and we were --

She pulled back almost as I realized this, and hastily looked around for the little butterfly. "It's landed in your hair," I managed to say after a long moment of trying to remember how to breathe. She put a hand to her head, narrowly missing the paper golem as it fluttered up and resettled itself on her topknot. "I think it thinks your head is a patch of violets," I added, feeling greatly daring.

"Blasted soap." Her face had gone very flushed. "Um, I... I think the rain's letting up," and I was somehow unconvinced that this was what she had intended to say. "I'll go look."

She got up from the table, the butterfly still clinging valiantly to her topknot despite not having any feet to speak of, and I leaned back against the back of the bench, feeling a wateriness in my knees that wouldn't have permitted me to follow had I thought it a good idea. I sat staring at nothing in particular at all until a shadow came between me and what I wasn't staring at and said, "Another round, sir?"

"I think I may have had too many already," I muttered. The tavern-boy looked at me strangely, but collected our empties and let me alone. Liane was still standing in the doorway, glowering out into the lessening torrent. The paper golem had grown restless, perhaps smelling the wet; after some short while of increasingly irritable opening and closing of its wings, it took off from Liane's head and fluttered back away from the door, dipping perilously close to a table in the breeze and nearly landing in a candle.

No, not nearly, it had brushed the flame; I pushed up from the bench, seeing and feeling the coursing ember flicking up around the delicate rim of a wing as the little golem settled onto the tabletop, wings beating hysterically and only serving to spread the flame across its body. Liane yelped as she turned and saw what had happened, and she instinctively caught up the nearest glass to douse the fire; the hapless paper golem went up in a pitiful cheerful flash of alcohol and twin sharp pains ripped through my head and my wrist. "Brilliant," I said, wincing.

"Sorry." She set the glass down and poked sadly at the applejack-soaked ashes. "At least it was quick."

Deciding it wouldn't help to ask the barwoman for some ice, since it wasn't exactly a burn no matter how much it might feel like one, I put my wrist to my mouth and sucked at the tiny wound until the renewed flow of blood eased off, noting crossly that several drops had already stained my cuff. Wonderful, just the impression of necromancy to project to the world... I looked over at my metal golem and caught the distinct impression that it was gloating. "If it has stopped raining, we had better be going," I said.

"It has, more or less," she said, glancing back at the door. "At least compared to before. But it doesn't look minded to stop altogether, so I think it's either go out anyway or stay here for the night. Would there be any sense in my asking you which would you rather, or do we both know the answer?"

"If I told you what I really wanted, you'd either slap me or you'd say yes, and I don't know which would be worse," I said. "But it's out of my hands regardless, we haven't got half a day to spare no matter how much I need the sleep."

"And you're sure of that, are you," she said, giving me the queerest look.

"I can't exactly explain it," I said, "but the closer we get to Pridening, the more I get this sense of urgency. Like we're almost out of time, but not quite. We really oughtn't to stay here any longer than we can help."

"I think it's nerves, myself," she said. But she took up her pack, and we slopped out into the square, floundering in the goopy mud. "Which way were we even going?" She peered up into the uniformly silver sky, and I had to admit that she had a point. I squished over to the milestone.

"That way," I said, pointing. Liane gave a resigned shudder inside her cloak and settled into a rolling waddle through the rutted mud. And fell. And got up again, and fell. And I fell. And then it started to pour anew...

After perhaps twenty minutes of this we decided to give it up for a bad job and make a break for the crossroads before we ended up washed back to it anyway. The barwoman took our muddy reappearance with thankfully subdued amusement and offered us the last of her three rooms at an entirely reasonable rate, happy enough just to see it occupied at all given the likelihood and lack thereof of anyone else staggering in through this mess tonight. "What is the weather usually like here this time of year?" I asked her, wondering if we would be faced with the prospect of more than a half-day lost to the storm.

The barwoman screwed up her face, considering. "Well, I'll tell you, I got this scar on a campaign down south and it's telling me we're in for a week of it, but then I've got this other old break that says this'll have blown over by morning. I guess that averages out to the worst of it being gone in a day, maybe two..." I thanked her, although I wasn't entirely sure for what really, and went over by the stove to sulk. The rain outside sounded as if a week would be a conservative estimate.

"Pity it isn't safe for you to pass the time the way a real merc would," Liane said, pulling up a chair. "If we ever run into Khaleel again, ask him to tell you the one about the hurricane. There were goats flying through the air and everything, and he was so drunk he missed the whole damned thing. At least, I think they were goats, I was pretty drunk by that point too," she conceded.

I slouched in my seat. "Do all mercs' stories involve alcohol to this degree, or are yours somehow not typical of the genre?" She shrugged expansively.

"I was once told," she said, "that one needn't worry about having a real problem with drink until one finds oneself lying on the floor thinking 'it's a good thing I'm too drunk to find the axe'. So I suppose the answer is yes. You look done in, don't feel like you need to stay down here on my account. Go on up to bed."

I felt done in, but somehow going to bed at this hour sounded absurd, despite my fatigue. "You just want me out of the way so you can chat up the tavern-boy," I muttered. She glanced over at the bar, where indeed the lad had been regarding her with something more than casual interest.

"Well, he's got a nice bottom," she said speculatively, and I saw her looking at me out of the corner of her eye to gauge my reaction to this. I schooled my face into a carefully bland expression.

"I won't stop you, then," I said, and stood up in a shower of dried flakes of mud. "Just don't wake me when you do come in, if you do." I heard her sigh, but I didn't turn back to look. The golem clomped obediently up the stairs after me, which between its unpredictable fondness for Liane and its unexplored feelings for the downstairs stove almost surprised me. I shut myself in the room and started shedding the muddiest layers of my clothing, wishing glumly that I owned another pair of trousers.

Early in the afternoon or not, the day had taken more out of me than I was really comfortable thinking about; after a brief delay spent in contemplating the thought of stripping all the way to my skin and letting whatever happened happen when and if Liane occasioned to join me in the bed, and managing, just, to talk my body back out of this notion, I crawled into the bed in my shirt and my unders and a dry pair of socks and hadn't very much time at all to second-guess myself before I was being woken by the feeling of the coverlets being gently turned back. I rolled over onto my back to assess the situation: dark sky outside the window, and in the residual backlighting from the lantern downstairs on the taproom's porch I could barely see Liane in outline as she sat down on the edge of the bed. "Didn't mean to wake you," she mumbled.

"Didn't work out with the tavern-boy, eh?" I said unkindly.

"He was boring," she said, tucking herself under the covers and propping herself on one elbow as she prodded a pillow around to her liking. Overtones of the region's ubiquitous apple brandy clashed energetically with her usual sunshine-and-violets scent, but she didn't seem very impaired, just inclined to be sleepy.

Or not. She got her pillow sufficiently subdued, and then remained for some time still leaning on her elbow, looking down on me in the thready light. "What?" I finally said.

She shrugged and lay down on her side, head pillowed on her arm. "Nothing," she said. "Just... you've gone to sleep in your braids again. Doesn't that hurt?" I made a noncommittal noise. "Should take them out," she said. "It's bad for your hair."

"Mmph," I said, already drifting back down into sleep. Liane put her other hand to my face and took up one pair of my plaits, letting the twinned braid slip through her fingers until she had reached the ties at the end. "...Mmph?" I could feel her sliding the ribbons off one after the other.

"Bad for the hair," she repeated, now forcibly unravelling one of the small braids. "I don't like to sleep in my braids if I can help it." And indeed she wasn't, hair in a jumble across the pillows. She got the first braid loosed up to its root and started in on the second, picking it out between her thumb and forefinger, cross, by cross, by cross. "Better?" she said once she had unwoven this plait to my face as well, and without waiting to hear my sleepy assent she went to work on the other side. As I became very thankful to be wearing even what little I was...

And when she at last had freed all the length of my hair, taking it up between her fingers in a generous double handful and fanning it across the pillows, Liane sat up on her elbow, surveying her handiwork in the gloom; "I didn't really want the tavern-boy," she whispered, faint enough that I couldn't be sure I'd heard her right.

"You're drunk," I said.

"So? It's not like you're not interested..." And she drew herself close and kissed me, definitively, thoroughly enough that I could taste the traces of brandy still lingering on her lips, almost strong enough to make me a little tipsy myself, or perhaps her lips themselves were -- I found myself burying my fingers in her tangled hair, instincts momentarily triumphing over good sense. "I knew that mouth was made for kissing," she said, finally pulling back.

"You're drunk," I said again, and made myself roll over to face the blank wall.

She sighed, and snuggled into my back. "Yeah, I am," she said. "And just my luck you're such a damned nice person you won't even let yourself take advantage of it. You could at least let me --" I caught her hand as it started to wander towards my unders.

"You'll thank me in the morning," I said wearily.

With a discontented snort she buried her face in the back of my neck. "Leave me to find the one man in the world with any self-control."

"You were the one who said it's a bad idea for mercs on a job to get too attached to one another," I said, wondering if she had somehow reconsidered this position in the interval, and when she didn't answer I realized that she had fallen sound asleep, just that fast. Oh, right, leave me hanging here -- I squinched my eyes shut and tried to think boring thoughts, thoughts as far away from the soft breaths stirring the fine hairs at the nape of my neck as I could focus myself on, and couldn't come up with a one. But at least eventually I fell asleep...

###


I woke, blearily, with a sudden sense that something had changed, and realized that I was no longer hearing the sizzle of rain on the porch roof outside the room's window. In the dreary overcast grayness of early morning Liane sprawled beside me in a bed-consuming heap, facedown in a pillow and snoring contentedly. She had kicked off most of the blankets in the night and made a serious attempt to remove her shirt, although it was still tangled up around her neck and one arm. Even in the dimness her skin glowed like well-polished oak. Experimentally, needing somehow to know how it would be received, I laid one hand lightly against the bared shoulderblade, feeling the play of muscles under her skin as she stirred feebly and tried to shrug my hand off. "Notgettin'up," I heard from the depths of the pillow.

"The rain's stopped," I said. The pillow emitted a sleepy obscenity. "Well, I'm getting up," I decided abruptly, and when this produced only a further elaboration on her crass theme I lost my patience and clambered right over her, eliciting a startled squeak or two on my way but failing to actually drag her all the way up to wakefulness. Probably just as well, considering -- With a grunt and a suggestive flash of hairy armpit she rolled over to settle into the warm vacancy, and I found myself unable despite my better judgement to look away from her small bare breasts for entirely too long a moment as she wriggled to resettle herself... It must be true, what they say about necromancy, I thought, tearing myself away. Any normal man would have --

But she sighed, in her sleep, and I turned back to the bed and pulled a blanket up over her, feeling a confused surge of tenderness that seemed to contradict the aching instincts of my body. Good opinions, I decided, you value her good opinion of you even more... silly goose.

I put on enough clothes to go downstairs in and ventured out, finding the golem planted at the end of the upstairs hallway gazing blankly out a window at the dismal day as if it were considering refusing to go out in it regardless that it wasn't actually raining as such. I nodded it back over to our door and padded down the stairs in my socks, hoping it was early enough that no one but the morning cook would be about. Behind the bar the tavern-boy was straightening up for the day's custom, looking as if he'd gotten the worst of whatever had transpired the evening before but someone had made him get up to go to work anyway. "Breakfast, m'lord, um...?" he trailed off, and I realized that I had forgotten to rebraid my hair.

"If you would," I said, fighting the urge to start doing up my hair then and there and fighting the equally inappropriate urge to give him a haughty stare for having the temerity to notice it was unbraided in the first place.

"I'll bring it up," he said. "I shouldn't imagine the lady is wanting to come down just yet. And a pot of tea for now?" I took the small tray from him automatically, startled, and he looked at me wistfully. "You're a lucky man," he said softly, and then turned and went into the kitchen.

If he only knew, I thought, bemused, and went back up to the room. Liane was still invertebrate beneath the blanket. I set the tray on the table and stood fidgeting while the tea steeped, watching the even rise and fall of her breathing.

When the tea looked strong enough I poured two cups and went to sit on the edge of the bed, nudging Liane's shoulder gently. "Do wake up," I whispered.

Her hand shot up and caught me by the wrist. "As if anyone could sleep through all this," she said clearly.

"Fine," I said, struggling to keep my hand steady with the scalding cup of liquid. "But you can't be very awake, or you'd see you're about to pour hot tea all over yourself."

Her eyes opened straight into a glare. "Oh," she said, and released my arm to take the cup of tea from me instead. "Sorry. Thanks." She sat up and sipped warily at the tea, making a face at the heat.

"The tavern-boy seems quite taken with you," I said, trying not to stare at her exposed nipple. "He's sending up breakfast."

"We talked," she said, an edge of weariness still in her voice, and absently threaded her bare arm back into her shirt. "And drank. Mostly drank. It gets kind of fuzzy after that. But I'm sure if anything interesting happened I'd remember it. Therefore nothing interesting must have happened. My head hurts," she concluded, scrunching her eyes shut. "That apple stuff is vicious. Worse than that other cat-piss we ran into. I'm glad you didn't have any, it might have killed you." She took another sip of her tea, then scowled and gulped most of it down. "Or the golem. He still outside, or has he run off with the stove yet?"

"He was in the hall," I said, and wondered suddenly if I would know if the golem's attention had gotten to wandering in the night. Considering the dreams I'd been having on my own anymore...

Liane reached past me to set her teacup on the floor and then settled herself with her head on my thigh, pulling the topmost blanket around her shoulders and generally making herself very comfortable. "Will he let breakfast in when it comes?" she asked, as I looked down at her in some bewilderment.

"One presumes," I said, and then, because the lines of strain lurking around her eyes seemed to invite it, I laid my hand on her head and began to stroke the taut muscles at the corner of her eye with my thumb. She seemed startled at first but soon sighed deeply and pressed into my hand.

"You've done this before, haven't you," she said.

"Once or twice."

"Thanks for not letting the golem at me, anyway. I doubt he's as good at this as you are. Though..." And she squeezed her eyes tight shut for a moment before opening them again and looking up at the unbraided cascade of my hair, "from what I do remember about last night, you'd have been entirely justified in doing just about any nasty thing you'd like." Her skin grew warmer beneath my hand, and I realized that she was blushing furiously.

"Look... Um..." I felt my own skin heating as she patiently regarded my inarticulate distress. "You weren't in your right mind last night... but if you had been..."

She puzzled at this, while I tried to decide if adding anything further would do more to hurt my case than help it, and then she broke out into a spreading grin. "You are entirely too sensible for your own good," she said. "Good thing one of us is, I suppose. You let yourself get distracted from the job like that, next thing you know you're wandering around on a battlefield wanting to stop and pick daisies. I know, I know, I know, 'Tremare don't pick flowers' -- you know what I mean."

And I thought I did, and couldn't but duck my head shyly in response. She sat up convulsively and put an arm around my shoulders.

"If my head didn't hurt so bad now, I'm telling you," she said, and before I could quite untangle her meaning, she took me by the chin and kissed me, more gently than before but still with some conviction behind it. And it was at this critical juncture that the tavern-boy knocked on the door with the breakfast tray. I broke away from Liane with a gasp even as the golem was pushing the door open for him. The tavern-boy took a fleeting look at the scene he'd interrupted and plonked the tray down onto the room's small table hard enough to rattle the dishes, and left without saying a word.

"We really need to stay focused," I said, rising from the bed to approach the table for an excuse not to look at her while I collected myself. Behind me I heard her stretching.

"I know," she said. "Doesn't mean I have to like it, though. Where did you get to be the one man in the world who can't not take a bit of fun too seriously? It's an awful way for a merc to be, sometimes you need to just scratch an itch here and there before you go crazy."

"I'm not a merc," I said.

"Obviously. -- Do I smell strawberries? Bless that lad's twisted little heart, I didn't think it was that time of year already." She rose and stalked over to the table, nostrils twitching appreciatively. "You would think that the smell of food would turn my stomach, the way my head is pounding, but suddenly I think I could eat all of this," she said, settling into a chair and rummaging through the covered dishes.

"Well, you'll have to eat all of the kippers, because I don't eat fish," I said, and took the other chair.

"Sometimes I'm surprised you eat any meat at all, but I admit that one's really got me stumped," she said, automatically appropriating to herself both portions of the kippers. "Wasn't Tremare near the ocean?"

"Have you ever tried to stop yourself from tripping by grabbing at a bramble-hedge?" I asked solemnly, while she looked between my deliberately flat expression and the kippers. "That's sort of what a netful of fish coming out of the water feels like. Tremare spent a lot of time arguing with the Silverflash and the Rippledance about how far out they needed to sail so that we couldn't hear it all the way back at the Keep."

Her gaze finally came to settle on the fish, regarding them as if she'd never given the question of how a creature of the water might have ended up in so alien an environment as lying on a plate any particular thought before. "Now you've got me thinking I'm not sure if I want to eat them," she said, and reached for one of the covers to hide the plate.

"No, go ahead, it's just an aversion, really. I spent more time over in Tremare-sur-Mare than most of us did and I came to associate the idea of fish with that horrible prickling feeling."

Liane began picking at the first kipper, still warily, as if she half expected me to change my mind. "As opposed to relating your stew to whatever the Seventrails were doing with the cows?" she asked, and I had to smile almost despite myself.

"Overwinter was... enough of a distance to ignore, from the Keep. Although I was hardly the only Tremare who fought to get onto the duty-roster for helping in the orchards out at Tremare-Outlier whenever the Seventrails started culling the herds."

"This is getting entirely too morbid for breakfast," she said. "Nearly makes me wish something interesting had happened last night, I'm curious to see what you'd be like if you ever woke up cheerful." I coughed and tried to cover it by pretending I was choking on my toast, which very nearly turned into a real choking fit. "You all right?" She started to push back from the table, to come and bang on my back if I were to need it, but I waved her back down, wheezing slightly but far from needing the situation to get any further out of hand than it already was.

" 'Cheerful' is hardly the word for that sort of a morning," I said once I could speak again. "It seemed like an unnecessary complication at this stage of things."

She leaned back in her chair and eyeballed me shrewdly. "Sounds as if you're not just speaking theoretically, for once," she commented. I became quite interested in my ham, feeling tattletale red rising in my cheeks to spread across my nose. "Please, tell me that you misspent just a little bit of your youth? Just so I won't go getting the wrong idea about you?"

"Which parts would you be wanting to hear?" I replied as coolly as I could manage, taking knife and fork to the ham with a vigor that quickly left it too shredded to provide me any further cover. "None of it was much of anything that a merc would find interesting. Except possibly the parts I can't remember anyway."

"Make something up, then," she said, eyes twinkling. "The usual sort of story goes, 'there was a time when you could put it away with the worst of them, but then you woke up one morning tangled in the arms of your best drinking buddy and the both of you swore off for good'..." I stared at her. "What, am I close?"

"Well, in broad outline," I mumbled.

"We might make a merc of you yet," she said, eyebrows knotting into a fascinated-despite-herself sort of a look. "And that afterwards part...?"

"At one point we ended up in the dining hall throwing cruets at each other." I caught myself running my thumb over the bracelet on my right wrist and made myself stop. "The Elders made us spend a year helping out at a Frozenlight's glassblowing studio on Washdays to pay them for a new set."

"You're not very good at telling stories," she said when nothing more appeared to be forthcoming.

"It's getting late," I said, setting to my food with a determination I hoped would forestall any further attempts at conversation. And then, since she was still looking at me for more details, "It was Sorson ratted us out, actually. About the cruets, I mean."

"One might have figured him for that sort," she said, digging herself out a portion of potatoes.

I worked over my food some while longer, inflicting grievous injuries upon the flapjacks without any real intent of eating them, and eventually felt impelled to say, "Baran actually got quite good at the glassblowing. Our healer was happy to see him find a hobby because it kept him from hanging around in her garden tormenting the peas."

"Not to mention that if you should ever need another set of glassware...?" One eyebrow rose suggestively.

"It wasn't like that," I said, my ears going hot. "Not usually, anyway. It -- He... We couldn't help but fall in together, he wasn't very much older than me and a natural troublemaker besides --" I reached for what I had been thinking was a second teapot and realized just in time that it was chocolate instead; "You must have made an impression..." She shrugged nonchalantly. I twiddled at the stirring-knob while I recaptured my thoughts. "Well, all right, if you want a story fit for a merc: there was the one night we'd gone out to dinner with a Frozenlight we knew, and Baran got so dancing-on-the-tables drunk that we had to carry him home; so, we're putting him to bed, and he's out like a hibernating bear, and all of a sudden the Frozenlight's giggling and she starts stuffing money in his unders." Liane spluttered. "And he never even stops snoring. I can still see his face when he woke up and noticed the crinkling. And then, he has the nerve to complain that the notes weren't large enough. He kept the money, too."

She reached for the hugely pregnant creamer. "Strictly speaking, that wasn't about your misspent youth," she said, topping off her chocolate. "Although if it's representative of other nights out that you didn't stay sober enough to remember, then I suppose he sounds as if he was the right sort of bad influence overall --"

I laid my fork down in the rubble of my flapjacks. "The golem had already seen to most of what needed doing by the time I was anything like myself again, after I made it," I said. "But Baran's body it left to me."

I had the satisfaction, for once, of seeing her look away first. "I guess I hadn't really thought about the... the practicalities," she mumbled. She poked at the congealing remnants of her eggs with a distinct lack of purpose. "I suppose we had really better get ourselves going. The golem's probably out there plotting how to unbolt the stove from the floor."

She stood up and went to rummage in her bags, snagging her trousers from the bedpost on her way. I remained at the table, trying not to watch as she dressed and feeling rather obligated to finish the chocolate, until finally the pot was empty and a slightly annoyed Liane had slumped back into the other chair, doing up the buttons of her jerkin. "All right, just let me brush out my hair," I said.

"I was liking it that way," she said, and started to pick at a burnt piece of toast. "But I suppose propriety doesn't care what I think."

I groped around in my pack until my fingers encountered cool silver leaves and stiff bristles buried deep under my dirty shirts. "I've already been out of here once naked thanks to you," I said, bending forward until my cascading hair threatened to sweep the floorboards and setting to with the brush. "I doubt the tavern-boy would appreciate having to see me like that again."

"Hang the tavern-boy," she muttered. Through the wavering curtain I could see glimpses of her sitting riveted at the table, lips parted to receive the clearly forgotten toast in her fingers. Of a mind to torment her so long as I had the opportunity, I lingered with the brush longer than was strictly necessary, running the heavy bristles down and down the silken fall until my hair glinted like moonlight on snow. She watched me, rapt, and just as I was beginning to consider whether I could keep up with the pretense that it was actually needing more brushing she finally said, "I'm not sure how much longer I can be entirely professional about that."

I straightened and tossed the length of my hair over my shoulder, smoothing it back with the brush. "Meaning...?"

She flushed and turned away. "Oh, nothing, just my mind wandering off where it isn't welcome again. Never mind."

"Look, if it was up to me --" I broke off, suddenly afraid of what words my jostling thoughts might shove out of my mouth before I could stop them. "But it isn't."

"I don't usually keep my brain in my trousers, you know," she said. "It's just that -- you're not a merc. You smell too good."

"I smell too good?" I left off doing up my braids to goggle at her.

She was turning an extraordinary shade of bronze. "You know. You haven't got a merc's knack for being part of the furniture. I keep looking at you and seeing..."

"Seeing what?"

"A man," she mumbled. "I mean, a man. You know. A man I'd consider... you know."

"I think we had better get going or we're never going to get out of here," I said.

"You were the sort of kid who managed to save his Sun-pennies, weren't you." She stood up and grabbed her pack. "Well, I shall endeavor to keep my thoughts businesslike, but I'm not entirely sure I can guarantee the results, if you're going to go around doing that very often. Come on, let's go, then."

The golem had wandered down the stairs into the taproom, to study the tavern-boy intently as he stoked up the stove. It turned to me as I came down the last few steps and I almost expected to have to answer a delicate question or two about where little tin teapots came from. "I presume we're the last to come down, then," I said, and it gave a guilty fidget.

"I think it's sweet," Liane said fondly. "Daring his Master's wrath for a few stolen moments. He's got quite the soft heart inside all that metal." The tavern boy had sat back on his heels to regard us both as if we were mad. Shaking his head, he retreated into the kitchen with the kindling-basket.

"It's more likely he wanted to see what the noise was," I said, but the golem was regarding the stove again in a curious manner, helmet cocked in a distinctly longing attitude. "You talk about mercenaries being part of the furniture to each other, I have a golem who can't even take the furniture as part of the furniture." Liane giggled.

"Quite unprofessional of him," she agreed. "Shall we just go, and let him make up his own mind about where his loyalties lie?"

"If it makes any difference," I said, "I have trouble seeing you as part of the furniture. Quite a lot of trouble."

"You're not a merc," she said. "Look: do you want to go back upstairs?"

"Yes," I said, and went out the front door instead, squinting against the misty sunlight. It looked to be a gloomy slog ahead, clouds playing peekaboo with the sun and another nasty range of thunderheads coming up behind us. The golem clomped out after me, shoulders carried at a dejected angle. "One does hope that this weather means to clear up eventually," I sighed, helping the golem across the puddle at the foot of the steps.

"I'm not familiar enough with this area to really say," Liane remarked dolefully, standing on the top step and peering down at the puddle. "Is that as deep as it looks, do you suppose...?"

I braced one foot against the second riser and the other on the irregular cobbles on the far side of the puddle, and reached out to swing the mercenary across the puddle like a child, lingering with my hands on her waist perhaps a trifle longer than was entirely proper as I set her back down. "Whee," she said, grinning up at me. The golem shifted its weight impatiently.

"It's not a day to start out in wet boots," I mumbled.

"It's not a day to start out at all, if you ask me," she said. "But I did promise to be a professional." And she curved one eyebrow slightly, as if daring me to see just how far she could withstand temptation --

"Come on, let's get going," I said. Blushing furiously.

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Comments
ysabetwordsmith From: ysabetwordsmith Date: June 1st, 2010 05:57 am (UTC) (permalink this entry)

*laugh*

Now I have this image of a red-hot golem humping the stove ...!

Yeah, Robling has way too much self-control. At this rate you're going to have to throw them in a river so the only way to avoid dying of hypothermia is for them to strip down, cuddle up, and make some friction.
robling_t From: robling_t Date: June 2nd, 2010 06:11 am (UTC) (permalink this entry)

Re: *laugh*

...Stop reading ahead, dammit. ;)
ysabetwordsmith From: ysabetwordsmith Date: June 2nd, 2010 06:20 am (UTC) (permalink this entry)

Re: *laugh*

Er, sorry. I've read thousands of books; it's hard to surprise me anymore, and hard for me not to think ahead and wonder where a story is going. You've actually managed to surprise me a few times, so I got careless about keeping my guesses to myself.
bovidae From: bovidae Date: June 1st, 2010 06:12 pm (UTC) (permalink this entry)
Yay! Although I don't know that I can read much more of this teasing-without-follow-through and still find it believable. Robling's strong-willed/self-controlled, yeah, but he's also so hurt... and Liane, well, she already would rather follow-through AND she has an alcohol/self-control problem. It's to her credit that she respects Robling enough not to take advantage of him.
robling_t From: robling_t Date: June 2nd, 2010 06:12 am (UTC) (permalink this entry)
I don't know that I'd want to be around when this thing blows, yeah... :)
owensheart From: owensheart Date: June 1st, 2010 07:27 pm (UTC) (permalink this entry)



The golem had wandered down the stairs into the taproom, to study the tavern-boy intently as he stoked up the stove. It turned to me as I came down the last few steps and I almost expected to have to answer a delicate question or two about where little tin teapots came from. "I presume we're the last to come down, then," I said, and it gave a guilty fidget.

Little tin tea pots! I will be giggling over this all night now.

Great chappie as usual ;)
robling_t From: robling_t Date: June 2nd, 2010 06:12 am (UTC) (permalink this entry)
And the golem is so not the one who needs that explained... :)
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