There was an interesting rumour flying around Harbourtown.
He heard it at the tavern while he and his new friends Aro and Dagon sat nursing pints of ale over life stories.
He’d been surprised that Major Aro had apparently changed his tune so quickly – not that he had changed internally, for Healer Ghia had told him to do so and Lares very much doubted that anyone, as submissive as Lares or not, could disobey the opinionated, feisty young woman. It was almost instantaneous – one minute Lares had been walking to the tavern alone, a surly Dagon following this new pariah of Athering, and the next Aro had come up beside him and apologised for his earlier behaviour, asking to be friends.
Curious indeed, if one were not keenly aware of the power plays and power struggles in social structure. Lares was. It was useful to know that one person in Athering trusted him, besides Anala, who he doubted trusted him fully yet. He didn’t blame her. Tyvian, he didn’t expect anyone to trust him, and yet Healer Ghia had obviously given him the benefit of the doubt. That was the only thing that would have made Major Aro acquiesce to friendship so readily and to ask Lares so honestly.
He’d gratefully accepted – he’d need friends in Athering, and as Anala’s now official paxman he’d definitely need to be friends with the Major who served her–and her Honour Guard. It was good that Dagon had jumped on the hay ride of friendship as well, however grudgingly.
So the three men were sitting at the tavern, drinking and bonding, when Lares heard the rumour.
“Demon Queen wanderin’ the hills, I ‘ear – ”
“Name’s Charity, ‘e said – ”
“Weren’t she an Harbourtowner, while back – ”
“What left fer Mudflat well over a decade ago – ”
“Strange girl she was – d’ye s’pose – ”
“Naw, not Charity. This guy ‘ere’s up ta no good, I ken – ‘e’s with the bandit group, ain’t ‘e? They’re a no good pack o’ lying – ”
“Probably’d been bested by someone – ”
“Too ashamed ta tell the truth, makin’ up stories o some ‘Demon Queen’ – ”
“Still, it’d be a strange tale ta tell – ”
Lares turned back to his companions, done listening, and saw Aro’s face had gone white. Concerned, he leaned closer and addressed the major. “You look as if you’ve seen a ghost, friend. What troubles you?”
Aro shook his head and his expression cleared instantly. “Nothing. My mind was wandering.”
Lares nodded, easily accepting the lie. It was Aro’s business – he would not pry.
Before either could speak again, there was a commotion behind Lares, by the door.
“I tell you, it’s true! The Demon Queen of Athering is real, and she rode here not long ago! She attacked my comrades!” A man was shouting at the group of people who’d just dismissed the rumour as a flight of fancy.
“Oh yeah? Where’d be yer proof, bandit scum?” jeered an older man. His cronies chimed in with murmurs of agreement.
The shouter pulled away his shirt to reveal a bandage. “This is from a shark what bit me when she dumped me in the water!”
There was a beat of silence and then the older man guffawed. “Did ye no ken there’d be sharks in the ocean? ‘Tis not a place ta swim so deep, bandit,” the man said between great gulps of laughter.
Enraged, the younger man reached for a dagger at his belt.
Lares was half out of his seat, hand on sword, when the tavern keep barrelled out of nowhere and accosted the troublemaker. “Alright, ye, that’s enough. Ye can leave me tavern or ye can get tha chop,” he said, grabbing the man and maneuvering him to the door.
“I’m not lying!” the man shouted.
“I doan really care either way, but ye’re getting’ violent regardless. I’d like me tavern ta be a peaceful place, so out ye go!” With that, he gave the man a tremendous shove out the door and onto the street. The bandit landed hard on the ground and got up swearing at the tavern keep but the door was already closing on his face.
General applause broke out in the tavern as the barkeep wiped his hands off and headed back to the bar.
A touch on his arm brought Lares back to himself, and he realised he was still half out of his seat, hand on sword, ready to fight. He shook his head and laughed, a nervous release of tension. “So used to fighting,” he said by way of explanation to Aro.
The major nodded in understanding. “I know. You can sit now.”
Instead Lares stood and stretched. “Actually, if it’s all the same and I could borrow some matches, I could definitely stand to go outside for a smoke.”
Dagon and Aro looked at him blankly.
“Matches?” asked the sailor.
“Smoke?” said Aro.
Lares grimaced. “Does Athering trade with the South Islands much?”
Aro shook his head while Dagon spoke. “Fer demitasse, but naught much else that I ken.”
“Hm. Do you have sulphur?” The confusion on their faces was all the answer he needed. “Okay, never mind. Flint and tinder?” It would do, in a pinch.
Dagon nodded and gave him a small box. Lares thanked him and put it into his vest pocket. “I’ll explain about the smokes and matches later, but right now I need my fix.” And to make sure that guy doesn’t think to come back and cause more trouble, his look told Aro.
The major nodded and waved him out. Gratefully Lares headed outside and breathed in the cold night air. He was chilly but didn’t really mind the fact that he was missing his coat.
Come to think of it, where was his coat? Oh, the clinic. He’d taken it off sometime during his vigil over Anala, and must have left it there by accident. Ah well. It needs cleaning anyway. He looked down at his bloodstained shirt, vest, and pants. And so does this. He sighed. In his flight from Voco, he’d managed to pack a bag of clothing – a bag that had been left on shore to keep the boat lighter so the horses could come along. It had been worth it, for his mare Dike was better than any outfit he owned, but it did mean he was still wearing the same clothing he had been wearing when he bandaged Anala’s wound on the ship.
Taking a second look at the stains as he grabbed his smokebox, he realised that cleaning would do no good. He’d have to get an entirely new outfit.
“Too bad. I liked this suit,” he said to himself as he put a cigarette in his mouth and replaced the smokebox in his pocket. Probably for the best — he’d not been in Athering long but already he’d noticed stark differences between mens’ wear here and on Voco. Wearing pants would make him look very out of place — he was neither sailor nor military. He’d have to get one of those pleated skirts he saw the commoners wear so often. Tomorrow. He’d fix his clothing problem tomorrow. For now, though….
It took a few tries to get the cigarette lit with the flint and tinder – horribly clumsy things – but in the end he managed, and took a long, appreciative drag.
Oh, it had been too long. Closing his eyes in ecstasy, he let the delicate flavours of the tobacco roll over his tongue and throat, before breathing out slowly. He watched the smoke dissipate in the cold air, and walked down the street slowly, moving away from the doorway of the tavern.
When he reached the entrance to the alleyway, he stopped to take another drag. As he leaned against the wall of the building near him, sounds of a struggle caught his ear.
“Not so powerful all alone, are you, you little witch?” The voice was that of the troublemaker in the tavern.
“Let me go! I’ve done nothing wrong!” a young, female voice cried out, and Lares’ eyes widened as he recognised Healer Ghia.
Without thinking he stepped into the alleyway and drew his sword. The man had Ghia against the wall, a dagger at her throat. He looked up at the sound of steel on leather and snarled. “What do you want, pretty boy?”
Lares took one last drag of his cigarette and flicked it to the ground. “Let the lady go,” he said, injecting his voice with cold venom.
The man laughed. “Make me.”
Without a moment’s hesitation Lares drew his pistol and shot the man in the head. A look of surprise crossed the ruffian’s face before the dagger fell from his fingers and he collapsed to the ground, dead.
Lares methodically put away his sword before reloading and re-holstering his pistol. Weapons away and ready for whenever his next fight would be, he turned his attention to the healer.
She was still against the wall, pale as death and terrified. He moved towards her and she flinched away. He stopped and reached out a hand to her, slowly. “I won’t hurt you, Ghia,” he said softly.
“You…you killed him,” she whispered.
“Aye. He would have hurt you otherwise,” Lares said, perplexed. She would have seen death before, as a healer.
She swallowed convulsively and looked at him, eyes wide, unshed tears in them. “I’ve never seen someone killed before.” Her face crumpled and she started to cry. Hastily Lares drew her close and wrapped his arms around her, trying to offer some comfort. Her arms went around him instantly and she clung to him, sobbing against his chest.
While Lares stood there, pillar of comfort to a girl he barely knew, Major Aro appeared in the alley entrance, worry on his face. He looked from Lares and Ghia to the body on the ground, and understanding dawned on his face.
“I’ll keep the others away,” he mouthed, and Lares realised the tavern’s customers must have heard his pistol report.
“Thank you,” Lares mouthed back, and made a mental note to be more careful about where he used his piece. People here would not know what it was, and might panic and come running, which could lead to potentially awkward situations, like the one Aro had just helped him avoid.
Presently Ghia moved away from him, her sobs subsiding into sniffles. She wiped her eyes with her dress sleeves and looked up at him, embarrassed. “You must think me a silly, over-emotional wreck.”
He almost laughed, but managed to keep his face straight – which was probably a good idea. “Not at all. I think, considering you’ve been working all day with no rest after riding all day yesterday, you’ve handled having your life threatened and seeing your first killing admirably well.” He gave her a gentle smile and brushed the hair back from her face. He was rewarded for his efforts with a small smile and giggle from her.
Lares felt his heart clench – he’d seen the resemblance before, but had not wanted to admit it. When she smiled, it was impossible to ignore how she looked like Hope – not in body or hair, but in the face…their faces were so similar. Their smiles were exactly the same. Before he knew his own intention or could stop himself from acting upon it he’d cupped her face in his hands and stolen her lips with his.
Hands pushed against his chest and he broke off reluctantly before he came to himself, realising what he’d done.
He backed up quickly, putting distance between himself and the healer. “Forgive me, Domina,” he said, dropping to his knees and begging forgiveness not just with his words but with his stature and tone. “I do not know what I was thinking.”
“I do.” He looked up at her sharply, and she regarded him with compassion in her eyes. “It’s okay, Lares. I understand. But what you must know now, Stout-Heart, is that she’s gone.” She smiled sadly. “No matter who looks like her or reminds you of her, or how much, it’s not Hope, and never will be Hope.” She ran her fingers through his hair gently, and he bowed his head to her touch. “I can feel your pain, Lares. But I cannot fill the void in your heart – no one but you can do that, and you must do that if you ever hope to offer yourself to anyone again.” She patted his head gently and stepped back before offering him a hand up; numbly he took it and stumbled to his feet.
“I…I should clean up,” he said quietly, at a loss for any other words.
She nodded, the same sad, compassionate smile on her face. “Take as long as you need. I’ll see you in the tavern.”
His eyes followed her as she left him, wondering how on Vulcanus’ fertile ground she knew what she knew. Or did what she did – he’d been there when she’d healed Anala and it was no healing trick he knew of.
Ghia was a woman of strange powers. Whether he’d ever know the truth behind those powers, he couldn’t say. With a sigh he leaned against the wall behind him. His eyes fell to the cobblestones, where his cigarette – not even half-smoked – lay in a puddle. “Blast,” he said, realising he couldn’t afford to light up another.
With another, larger sigh, he set to the grim task of cleaning up the mess of dead bandit that littered the alleyway, before heading back to the tavern and his well deserved pint of ale.