The caravan made Gado a bit early and the caravan master’s delight brought bonuses for the rest of us. I soon found myself on the street with extra coin in my pocket, out of work, and briefly overwhelmed. We’d travelled through cities on this contract, certainly, but none were as large as this. The noise and press of the crowd was uncomfortable and I thought longingly of my hills and home while trying to find a place to wait out of the crush. What now?
“Dyre!” a voice called. “Hey, Dyre!”
From my spot tucked between a potted palm and a blindingly white stone wall I could see the current of the crowd disturbed by something under its surface. The line of agitation ended almost in front of me as Eskir came tumbling out, barely keeping his feet. He scowled slightly while straightening, his face clearing as he adjusted his cap to its usual, off-kilter angle. “So? What is the plan?”
I took in his sweat-streaked face and dusty clothes and realized that I must look the same. “A bath, I think,” I said, pulling off my cap and raking my fingers through my hair. It was getting too long again. I put my cap back on, jamming my curls haphazardly up under the brim. “Somewhere to stay. And a haircut, if I can find one.”
“You and your haircuts,” Eskir sighed, pulling a face. “I don’t get it.”
“And you don’t have to,” I affirmed, scanning the street we were in, trying to get my bearings. “We are in the merchant’s district. We can’t be that far from an inn.”
“Probably not,” he agreed, turning again to the crowd. He spotted a couple of children at a crossroads and approached them, offering a few small coins and some clumsy Gado for their help finding us what we needed. Trust Eskir to think of children. They always know far more than most adults give them credit for. The eldest of the three managed not to laugh while Eskir attempted to clarify what we were looking for and then the coins changed hands. Eskir waved me to join them as the eldest started moving off. I shouldered my pack and caught up, the weight of it feeling tripled in my overtired and overheated state. The sun approached its zenith and the crowd moved with purpose that I didn’t fully understand, the streets emptying rather than filling for a midday meal the way they would at home. Eskir noticed as well, casually asking our guides about it. By the time we had arrived at the inn we had both a likely place to stay and a better idea of how the city ran, at least in terms of schedule. Apparently the city largely shut down midday for a few hours and everyone who could went home or inside to rest out of the heat. It made sense to me—if it got any hotter out here, I would feel like I was back in Brisi’s forge. I couldn’t fathom how people lived in this heat. I stared longingly at the entry to the inn while Eskir finished his conversation. We were soon inside, our enterprising guides hired to return after the rest to show us more of Gado.
A quiet, dim interior and, thankfully, a temperature drop of a few degrees greeted us once inside. A bell chimed softly as we closed the door, summoning someone as we shifted our packs from our backs to the floor. A flurry of Gado came from our right, making me feel both welcome and incredibly out of place. Eskir turned to greet the speaker and stumbled over his salutation. Turning myself, I could see why—the trim figure approaching us was exactly Eskir’s type. I smiled and rolled my eyes a bit, giving Eskir the opportunity to speak first and thereby thoroughly embarrass himself. I’d console him later. Isn’t that what friends are for?
Eskir stammered and blushed to his hair while explaining in halting Gado that we were looking for rooms and a bath. The proprietor raised his hands with a blinding smile. “I believe I can help you,” he said, in careful, heavily accented Frejan while turning and walking away from us. “Come into the courtyard, we will have tea.” Frejan! I hadn’t heard anyone other than Eskir speak Frejan in months! Surprised, we stooped to pick up our packs, Eskir trying to regain some composure, me steeling myself for the tea. I’d been hoping it wasn’t custom here, but with the way it had been increasing in frequency the farther south we’d travelled, I was fairly certain I wouldn’t be so lucky. In the last city we were in tea was served all the time, everywhere. Bargaining? Tea was essential to negotiations. Romancing? Tea was a good cover for nervous jitters or distracting yourself when things weren’t going well. Relaxing? Tea was just the thing to help you slow down. It was inescapable. And the worst part? It was almost always mint. I’m not fond of mint. But his language was a surprise, so it was possible his tea would be, too.
We were ushered to a stone table near a long, narrow pool in the courtyard. I was so captivated by the architecture that I failed to notice the proprietor had excused himself. The courtyard, shaped like a pentagon and not all that large, was bordered on all sides with two stories of rooms, each accessible via an open-air walkway that ringed the courtyard. There were clusters of palms in impressive raised stone planters in each of the corners with an assortment of low tables, chairs, and couches arranged under them to best take advantage of the shade. Around the furniture, there were plants—such plants! Pots of citrus and other fruit trees, shrubs of all colours and sizes, a riot of vines climbing and twining over the railings, and low stone planters of flowers and leaves against each of the courtyard walls. I was enchanted by the lushness of the foliage and the way everything was dappled in sunlight and shadow. It was nothing like the hills I was longing for, but it was certainly lovely.
I was discovering that lime trees had thorns when the proprietor came back, carrying a tray laden with tea, cups, and treats. He laid out the spread with precise motions, elegant in their economy. As he poured for Eskir, I came back to the table and lowered myself into a chair, our host following suit and offering me a glass. Pleasantly, the smell of lemon and ginger greeted me as I raised it. Something in my facial expression made the proprietor grin and in response he picked up his tea glass and raised it to us in welcome. We lifted ours in return, sipped, and waited for him to speak.
“You are far from home,” he observed to me, perhaps sensing he wouldn’t get more than stammering out of Eskir. “What brings you here?”
“We are,” I confirmed, sipping my tea and enjoying speaking Frejan. “We arrived with a caravan and hope to stay a while before finding work with another that will eventually take us home.”
He nodded. “I am Tyr. Welcome to Sheathsholme. Like you, I am not from here. Unlike you, I have no plans to leave.” He smiled contentedly and settled back into his chair. “How long do you wish to stay?”
I cast a look at Eskir, who shrugged softly. “A while, I think,” I replied casually, “long enough to see something of Gado, not so long that Eskir and I overstay our welcome.”
Tyr nodded. “I have a room available,” he offered, sipping his tea.
“Uh, rooms, please? More than one? We aren’t together,” Eskir blurted out hurriedly, gesturing between us. I nearly choked on my tea. Seeing Eskir so confounded was hilarious.
“My apologies,” Tyr said with a conciliatory nod. Eskir eased, somewhat. “Rooms, then. And use of the bathing room, of course,” Tyr said, dividing the remaining tea into our glasses, serving himself last. “My rates are two ghadi a night, per room. Food costs are separate from room costs.”
Eskir cocked an eyebrow. “That seems a bit low for a room, if you don’t mind me saying so.”
Tyr nodded. “It is, although not much. It is the slow season and you’re clearly caravan guards. I lived that life long enough to have some sympathy for those who go venture far for work and get cheated out of their earnings before they get home. Besides,” he said with a charming grin, “as you can tell, my Frejan is getting quite rusty. Having you both around for a while may help with that.” The bell by the door chimed again and he excused himself, taking the empty tea tray with him, leaving us with the dainties and some privacy to discuss our options.
“Thoughts?” I asked Eskir, selecting a ripe fig and a piece of feta. “About staying here, specifically. I already know you think Tyr is gorgeous.”
Eskir blushed again. “That obvious, huh?”
I grinned. “Absolutely. I could have fried hot cakes on your face.”
“Ah. Well. You know how it is,” he said, shrugging a shoulder and running a hand through is hair.
“I assure you, I have no idea how it is,” I said dryly. “It doesn’t work that way for me.”
Eskir nodded absently, his eyes scanning the courtyard. “I like it here. It’s near the main corridor, it’s quiet, things seem clean, and that is a good price. Not too low for the area, according to what the kids were saying. Tyr seems honest and even if he’s not, together we could probably take him if we needed to. I’d say let’s ask to see the rooms and the baths and if they’re good, go for it.”
“How long?” I asked between bites.
“We’d talked about three moons before you started feeling homesick, so I think that’s something you need to weigh in on. You know I am up for anything,” he replied, leaning back in his chair with a slice of watermelon. We chewed in thoughtful silence.
I could feel a flutter of agitation in my gut as I weighed my options. I didn’t want to be here long. I missed my hills, missed Yri, Brisi, and Tre, wanted the cloud forests so much more than these potted palms. But I knew how much Eskir had dreamed of exploring Gado, and I wouldn’t be able to forgive myself if I wrecked this for him. “How about a month for sure?” I proposed, finally. “If it’s going well for me at the end of the month, we can talk about staying longer then.”
Eskir considered. We knew each other well enough that he didn’t have to ask about my thought process. “That works for me. But you have to promise that you’ll be honest with me if you’re not happy with things, okay? I don’t want the guilt of you being here out of that absurd sense of duty you have.”
I agreed as Tyr re-entered the room carrying a refreshed pot of tea. As he refilled our glasses, Eskir offered his thanks with restored composure and requested a tour of the rooms and facilities so we could make our decision. Rather than regaining his seat, Tyr made the slight bow that signalled assent and waited for us to rise. It didn’t take long to tour the premises: the main room held the doors we had entered in, a takeout counter, a bar, and a collection of worn and well-loved wooden tables for custom who chose to eat in rather than take their food to go. Presumably the kitchen was in a room behind the takeout counter, as we didn’t see it. Everything was comfortably shabby and mismatched in a way that intrigued rather than agitated, decorations clearly originating from places and cultures far from Gado arranged alongside local works.
Tucked behind the suspected kitchen was the bathing suite, made up of three rooms, the first being a small chamber holding toileting facilities, cleverly rigged to sluice clean by means of water from a cistern on the roof. In the next room four scrubbing stations and two moderately sized rectangular basins took up most of the floor space. A few larger, humidity-loving plants occupied corners. I estimated four people could sit in each tub comfortably if they weren’t body-shy the way I was. Transom windows near the roof let in light and fresh air from the courtyard without compromising privacy. Doors at the back of the bathing room lead us to a similarly appointed bathing room containing two scrubbing stations and a single tub in the same style. I breathed out my relief upon its discovery because it meant I was going to be able to bathe alone after all, and not at odd hours to avoid others. This was far more than I’d hoped for. Another door at the back of the room lead to a spiral staircase for accessing the second floor, which was convenient as upon inspection it became apparent that the individual guest rooms did not have bathing facilities of their own.
The rooms themselves were clean and comfortable, a good size and each with their own large window, crowned with double shutters: a solid set, intended to keep out rain and harsh wind, I guessed, and a beautifully carved inner set which helped to screen some of the sun out of the room while still allowing airflow. The beds were what I’d expected, the southern style of wooden framed cot with a thin mattress. Mismatched blankets of various weights were folded on a wooden chest at the end of each bed. I enjoyed how their random patterns were harmonized with complimentary colours. Whoever put this place together had an eye for quiet beauty in everyday things. A dresser with a basin stood along the wall opposite the bed and a few hooks for hanging things were anchored in the stone beside it. More plants filled in the blank spaces, softening the look of the plaster and making the rooms seem more comfortable than any other inn I’d stayed at.
Eskir caught my attention with a raised eyebrow. I nodded in return and turned to look at Tyr. “You have a lovely inn,” I said with a slight bow. “We would be very happy to stay here.”
“Excellent,” Tyr smiled. “Please feel free to choose which rooms suit you best and let me know which you select. If you don’t want to water the plants in your room during your stay, we can arrange for me to take care of them while you are away or we can bring them out to the walkway.”
“I have no problem watering mine,” I assured him.
Eskir nodded. “I probably won’t kill them. Dyre, do you want to go choose your room and I’ll go with Tyr to settle things? I’ll come find you after?”
I flashed him a grateful smile and they left together, chatting quietly. I wandered around the second floor, poking my head into each room for a quick look. Most rooms were similar, although the specifics of the décor varied. I settled on a room next to the rear staircase, furnished in dark, carved wood complimented with fabrics that ran the spectrum from golden yellow to a rich, vibrant orange. From the walkway I had an excellent view of the courtyard, including the doorway that connected the courtyard to the main room of the inn. I was leaning on the railing enjoying the sun when Eskir came up the stairs laden with both of our packs. I met him at the landing and relieved him of mine, and pointed to my room. “I like this one.”
“Sounds good,” he replied, swinging open the door to the one beside it and tossing his pack on the bed without really looking at the interior. “What now?”
“A bath, I think?” I replied, pulling off my cap and shaking out my hair. It tickled the back of my shoulders as it fell. Ugh.
“Good plan. Let’s do that.” Eskir walked into his room and I could hear him rummaging through his pack. I carried mine into my room and quickly found my bathing supplies. We are going to need laundry services, I thought absently, collecting what I needed. I left Eskir scrubbing in the main baths and spent a lovely hour in the private room getting clean and soaking. I couldn’t figure out for the life of me how the water was heated, but I didn’t much care. My only half-formed thought was to keep myself from drowning as I relaxed more and more into the soaking tub in my languor. When I finally emerged, Eskir and Tyr were in the courtyard playing stones. I waved to them as I ascended to my room, but didn’t stop. I was tired and I needed to be alone for a while. Eskir would understand. Closing and latching the door behind me was profoundly satisfying, the first time I’d felt truly alone since Cesme, almost a moon ago. I could feel the last bit of tension the bath hadn’t been able to ease drain out of me. With my bathing things put away I settled on the bed with my journal intending to write for a while, where I promptly fell asleep.