The inn was everything Kernew had expected, but at least he could close the door on the gawping children who’d tailed him from the gate. First one, then more and more, they’d clustered around him, staring, whispering and giggling, their eyes fixed on his pack. They maybe thought him an itinerant peddler, his bag full of bright ribbons, cheap, shining baubles and good-luck charms. Looked like more than one child clutched a hard-saved coin in a damp little fist.
He shut the door on them all, hard-hearted, and caught the eye of the man standing behind the counter. “Kernew De Seballe,” he introduced himself, ignoring the fact that his dripping cloak was leaving a dark trail across the stone.
“Oh yes sir,” the bartender nodded obsequiously, showing yellow teeth. “Welcome to Wahleiss, sir. We have a room made ready. My Master received your letter, only I’m sure he wished to welcome you himself.”
“I wouldn’t want anyone to put themselves to trouble on my account,” Kernew said. He couldn’t recall what he’d put in the letter, but apparently it had impressed someone. He leant over the counter and asked for the thing he’d been longing for all that long, damp, miserable journey.
The bath was a wooden tub in front of the fire in his room. It was lukewarm and there was no soap. He couldn’t lie back, had to sit with his knees pressed to his chin. He closed his eyes, thinking of the bath-houses in Fair Tiern, where the steam rose in white drifts and women with supple bodies would scrub your back for you, amongst other things. The marble floors of the steam-room, the scented water, the oils the women had rubbed into his shoulders, kneading his flesh; and he might not see it again for months. He wallowed in self-pity while the water cooled in the tub.
Warm, dry and dressed, he ate a basic meal served in his room by the yellow-toothed barkeep, better than trail-food but only by a small margin. Now it was evening the inn was filling up and going back downstairs he stepped into a room alive with warmth and light, conversation and the quiet clink of pewter. Farmers mostly, their faces ruddy, their hands rough-skinned, traces of earth caught under short flat nails. A sprinkling of craftsmen: he could hazard guesses at their trades; the Smith, the carpenter, the tanners, the weavers. Masters of their crafts perhaps but not in Art or they’d have left Wahleiss long since, shaken the dust of the place from their boots to make their fortune elsewhere. Small place, quiet place, place where any great talent would be suspect. Where to stand out would be a curse. A fine and brittle crust of civilization skimmed over a deep well of superstition, fears that bubbled underneath and threatened always to break through.
Kernew shuddered. Colder, wetter, true but this was not so different from where he’d passed his own childhood, stifled and discontented. Convinced the view was better, the grass greener over the next hill, and the next. Still looking.
He knew the Elder at once by his bearing. His self-importance was evident in the tilt of his head, the proud set of his shoulders and also in the demeanors of those around him. Kernew glanced regretfully toward the bar counter. Later, he told himself. In any case the drinks offered would be mediocre. No fine Uman Reds, no sparkling crystal, no aged liqueurs.
He stepped into the Elder’s line of sight, allowed his coat to fall open just a little. The badge of his order caught a gleam of the firelight, glittered, and the Elder’s eyes widened in shock and recognition. Kernew was closing his coat again, stepping forward with his hand outstretched before the man had recovered.
“So it’s time,” the Elder said. He seemed to have aged, tired resignation dragging lines into his skin.
“It’s time.” Kernew agreed; “Time to pay your dept to me and mine.”