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8: Wine and Beauty

For some, money is something to be accumulated, to be held close and guarded carefully; their happiness is governed by numbers, by the weight of the gold in their vaults. But can true happiness be derived from numbers in a ledger? These people are denying the fundamental nature of money: Coins have no value until they are spent. A nobleman who sits on a great stack of gold and doesn’t spend it is a poor as the unfortunate serfs whose backbreaking service brought him that wealth in the first place.

Money wishes to be free, to move like blood through the world. To be spent. When I have coins in my purse, they do not remain there long. I am a friend of my money and I feel it yearning for freedom.

That makes me a poor negotiator. I had just agreed with Elena’s uncle Harkin to pay too much for a room when Katherine and Bags arrived. The other patrons hesitated in their listless games of chance and turned weary eyes to the newcomers. To Katherine. Bags may have made an impression at any other time, but here in this place it was the woman who drew the eye. My former companion’s nostrils flared as she stepped into the gloom, and the corners of her mouth twitched downward.

“Ah, fuck,” Elena said, but quietly. Harken forgot me and turned to his new guests, the silver coin I had just given him disappearing without a trace. I can’t blame him for assuming that the newcomers were more solvent than the tattered little man he had already gouged.

“Welcome, travelers,” he said with a black-toothed smile, bowing slightly at the waist. He smacked a patron on the side of the head to dislodge him from his seat near the fire. The man muttered and rose, but not in time to avoid another blow. His companion got the hint and moved voluntarily, collecting their mugs and pitcher. While the locals settled at another table Harken said, “Please, sir and madam, make yourselves comfortable.” As my two former companions came deeper into the gloom Harkin rushed to the fireplace and laid two new logs on the smoking embers. The resulting fire produced more smoke than heat, and more smoke came into the room than went up the chimney, but Harkin seemed not to notice. “Sit here by the fire and chase the chill from your bones.”

Bags squinted into the gloom and recognized me. “H’lo, Martin,” he said. The bench groaned as he sat, protesting his weight.

I raised my hand in acknowledgement. “Bags.” I took a healthy gulp of my mediocre beer. Katherine ignored me, which was just as well. I had planned to be drunk before I saw these two again. As she sat in her position of honor, I rose.

“Food,” Bags said to Elena.

She turned to comply, but I stopped her with a gentle hand on her elbow. “The fuck you want?” she asked.

“You have wine?”

“Wine? Oh, yes, m’fuckin’lord, we have fuckin’ wine.” She said it gleefully.

“When you have a moment, bring a lot of it to my room, along with a more creative adjective.”

“A what?”

“A choice word besides fuckin’. When you use the same word every time, people stop hearing it.”

“When I’m finished with the twat over there, I’ll bring your fuckin’ wine,” she said, but not loud enough for Katherine to overhear.

Reassured, I hoisted my sodden pack and made my way up the stairs in the corner and found my room. By arriving first I had secured the only accommodation with a fireplace, but the grate was bare. The bed was little more than a sack stuffed with straw, but it lay on a rough wooden frame that raised it off the floor. The room had a single window shuttered tight and a three-legged stool next to a small, wobbly table with a candle holder, but no candle. When I closed the door darkness was almost absolute.

I stood for a moment while my eyes adapted, trying not to wonder at the source of the musty-sweet smell that filled the room, listening to the murmur filtering up through the floorboards from the common room below. I was almost directly above Bags and Kat in their seat of honor below. There might be times when hearing their words would be useful, but I had no interest in them at the moment.

I stripped out of my sodden clothes and hung them on pegs by the fireplace where, were there a fire, they would dry out. My skin was gooseflesh and stung from the cold, but I was glad to be rid of the chafing cloth.

A knock at the door announced the arrival of my wine. “One moment,” I called out, and reluctantly pulled my tunic back over my head. I adjusted the clinging fabric as best I could and opened the door to find Elena waiting with two pitchers, and a mug balanced on top of them.

“You said a lot of wine,” she said. I stood aside and she stepped into my room. “Fuck,” she said. “I can’t fuckin’ see a fuckin’ thing in here.” She paused. “I mean, I can’t see a Prany-buggered fuckin’ thing in here.”

I laughed. “Better.” What are gods for, if not to help us expand our language? “Why did you choose Prany?”

She put the pitchers on the table, careful not to tip it over. “Lots of people say that. He’s supposed to protect miners. When he doesn’t, you’re buggered.”

“I’ll have to remember that.”

In the dim light spilling through the door the shadows on her face emphasized the arch of her eyebrow and her high cheekbones. “Good bone structure,” my sister might have said. My heart contracted in a moment of sadness. Beauty in this world is a fleeting thing, and often invites its own destruction. I wondered which god was supposed to look after a pretty girl in a town that consumed beauty and shit out despair.

She shifted uncomfortably under my gaze. “You want me to get you a candle?”

“And wood for the fire.”

She looked at my clothes where they hung, puddles forming under them on the floor. “You’ve just been sitting up here freezing? Why didn’t you come down and ask for some?”

“I would rather not see Katherine right now.”

“You afraid of those two shitbags?”

Not worth denying. “Something like that. Bring tinder with you when you bring the firewood. And another curse word.”

She rolled her eyes. “Fuck me,” she said. “Be right back, your fuckin’ holiness.”

She was gone, and I was alone with the wine. At last, the world was starting to smile upon me. Not too much I reminded myself. Keep a clear head, and feel good in the morning. I poured myself a mug. The wine bit my tongue at first, sour from too much time in an open cask. Another sip, and another, and soon it was a welcome old friend, the sour feeling in my throat fading as a feeling of calm clarity spread through my body. I was pouring a refill when Elena returned with a load of firewood, a burning candle wedged between the top two logs.

I plucked the candle from her load and moved out of her way. “Doesn’t your uncle do that?” I asked.

“That sack of shit?” She dropped the logs by the fire and started to stack them. “He’s too busy sucking his own dick.”

I turned and put the candle into the holder on the table. I turned back to find her looking at me.

“How many fuckin’ knives do you carry?” she asked, her eyes moving from my wrists to my ankle and speculatively to the parts of me covered by the tunic. Even when I’m naked, I’m still wearing many of my knives.

“Each has a purpose.”

“You’re a fuckin’ porcupine,” she said. “Lord of the fuckin’ porcupines.”

I allowed myself a smile. I’ve been called worse. “I would be grateful if you didn’t mention that to the heroes downstairs. Or to your uncle.” I stooped and placed two logs on the grate and she pulled a bundle of tinder from her pocket and handed it to me.

She watched as I lay the fire with the greatest of care, and handed me the candle when I was ready. “I have to go back down, now,” she said. “Before Queen Bitch needs anything else.”

“Let me know when they’re gone,” I said, “and I’ll come back down to dinner.”

She agreed, and left. The fire grew and filled the room with its dancing light, and the warmth reached through my skin and down to my bones. Tunic back off I had another cup of wine, and another, and by the time Elena came back to tell me the coast was clear, it didn’t matter anymore; I was asleep.

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