They walked in silence for a day and a half. Whatever Shy might have thought of Mira’s plan, she kept it to herself. For her part, Mira was content to focus on putting one foot in front of another. She’d never thought of herself as being in bad shape, but walking for ten hours or more every day was a whole new kind of grueling.
When they stopped for a break, she wanted nothing more than to kick her boots off and soak in a hot bath. That didn’t happen, of course. Instead, she ate her portion of increasingly hard bread and some sort of smoked meat that she didn’t ask any questions about. Mira wasn’t sure she wanted to know.
That lasted until she woke up one morning to find Shy gone. After an hour wasted waiting to see if the woman would return, Mira gave up and started walking. Shy had said she wasn’t going to stick around forever, though she might have at least said something before disappearing.
It left Mira feeling a bit disjointed. She’d harbored a quiet fear of Shy ever since the incident in the forest when the demon had killed eight people. Mira didn’t understand Shy, didn’t feel safe around her. There was no telling what could set her off. Worse, that damned serpent tattoo wrapped around her arm caused her constant pain.
On the other hand, if Mira hadn’t felt entirely safe around Shy, she hadn’t worried at all about what dangers the rest of the world held. With that thought in mind, and feeling unexpectedly vulnerable, Mira made the last day’s walk in decent time. She even made up for the hour wasted early on to arrive at Palveral’s gates sometime in late afternoon.
Palveral was a city unlike anything she’d ever considered existing. When Mira thought about a city, she pictured skyscrapers and gridlock, about tourist spots that were always really tall for some reason and famous statues. She thought sports stadiums and parks.
She definitely didn’t think of thirty foot high walls with metal spikes mounted on them, or a bay with hundreds of masts rising up out of the ships docked there. She hadn’t expected guards that only ran in two flavors: bullies and bored civil servants. The public gallows was another unwelcome surprise, as was the open air market with the aggressive, almost violent, vendors screaming to be heard over each other.
What Mira did like was a small inn she found called the Weeping Man. It was tucked away in a relatively sparse part of town, not too far off from the docks but not close enough to be convenient for the sailors and tradesmen there. What it offered was a quiet atmosphere, a decent selection of alcohol, and rooms to be had for what Mira could only guess was a good price.
She walked in late in the afternoon to find the common room more or less empty. Two men were at one of the tables in the back, both ignoring Mira as she crossed the floor to approach a tall and skinny middle-aged woman behind the bar. The woman didn’t look up from her work polishing glasses until Mira was standing right in front of her.
“What can I get for you?” she asked.
“Someone told me this place was looking for help,” Mira said. “Is that true, and if so, who do I talk to about it?”
“Heard right,” the woman said. “You’re gonna want Fowler. He’s in the back. Let me go get him.”
She stepped out from behind the bar and ducked through an open door way. She was only gone for a few seconds before hurrying back into sight. “He’ll be right out. You can have a seat anywhere.”
“Ok,” Mira said. “Thank you.”
It turned out that right out meant something different than Mira thought, but twenty minutes later, a lanky middle-aged man popped out of the door. He hustled over to Mira’s table and plopped down across from her.
“Sorry, sorry,” he said. “Lots going on right now. I’m told you’re looking for work.”
He had a rapid, clipped manner of speaking. It took Mira a moment to sort out what he’d said, but once she had, she said, “Yes. When I was asking around, someone told me you’d lost one of your servers and needed a new one.”
“Quite right, quite right. The girl got an apprenticeship and joined the Weavers Guild. Great opportunity for her, of course, but left us in a bit of a hurt. Poor Wren and Tilphara have been working double shifts for the past two weeks.”
“Oh. Um. Well, I’m looking for work.”
“Fantastic, my girl,” Fowler said, beaming at her. “Quick questions for you then. Can you carry a tray without dropping it? Do you know your letters, or can you at least remember an order properly? Are you offended by rough language and lude men?”
Mira had waited tables in college for a few years, so it had been a relief to find a job doing basically the same thing. In a way, it a point of normality in an otherwise bizarre world. The people here wanted food and drink and company, just like back home.
“I’ve done this work before. Give me a day or two to learn what’s on your menu, and there shouldn’t be any problems.”
“Fantastic,” Fowler said again. “Pay is twelve spanners a week, plus meals and you’ll share a room here with Wren. If you don’t need lodging or food, it’ll be 20 spanners a week.”
“Lodging sounds good. I just got into the city today.”
Mira had no idea if she was getting paid a fair wage, but she didn’t expect to be in Palveral long enough for it to matter. Whatever plans Jorath had for her, she doubted it included growing old and grey. That wasn’t even accounting for Shy, who might pop back up just as abruptly as she’d disappeared.
“Great then. I’ll point you to your room and let you get settled. If you’ll follow me…” Fowler stood up and gestured to Mira. “Good. Oh, what’s your name?”
“Well then, Mira Tanner, welcome to the staff of the Weeping Man.”
* * *
The room Mira was supposed to share was more or less trashed. Clothing was scattered across the floor and both beds, there was a lopsided tower of plates, bowls, and mugs near the door, and an assortment of glass trinkets filled the shelves. A work bench on one side was overflowing with spools of every different colored threads, and half completed projects hung from pegs on the wall.
“Wow,” Mira said.
Fowler clicked his tongue and lifted up the tower of dishes. “No wonder I keep running out of plates. If I’ve told her once… Hey! Wake up!”
A teenaged girl previously hidden under the clutter on one of the beds, sat up and rubbed her eyes. “My shift already?” she asked before cracking a yawn.
“Til is still on. We got a new serving girl. You’ll have to share the room again.”
The girl, presumably Wren, popped out of the bed. She was young, maybe fifteen or sixteen, with a face full of freckles and reddish brown hair. She bounced across the room, even leaped a pile of clothes at one point, to land in front of Mira and wrap her in a hug.
“Oh thank you, thank you, thank you. I was so sick of working. I feel like I haven’t had a day off in forever”
“Um,” Mira said, trying to disengage herself from the girl. “You’re welcome, I guess?”
Fowler paused on his way out of the room. “Shift starts in two hours, Wren. Bring the new girl with you and we can start training her.”
Wren, as it turned out, was annoyingly cheerful and didn’t understand the concept of boundaries. She peppered Mira with questions, most of which Mira deflected poorly, an oohed over the serpent tattoo as soon as she saw it. Wren then grabbed hold of Mira’s arm and demanded to be allowed to examine it from every angle.
“It’s so life like,” she said. “I can almost see it moving.”
“Yeah,” Mira said through gritted teeth. That was because the damn thing was moving, apparently excited by the attention. Each ripple was needles in her skin, and Mira would have done just about anything to get it to go back to sleep.
Fortunately, Mira had nothing but her mostly empty pack of food. Having no possessions to unpack meant that getting settled in consisted mostly of watching Wren hurl clothes across the room to clear the second bed. She didn’t seem to care where they fell, and cheerfully kicked lose pieces into a pile near her bed if they didn’t make it far enough.
“Time to go give Til a break,” she said. “Come on. I’ll show you how things work here.”
* * *
There were some surprises, but the work was mostly what Mira had expected. Her ass got pinched and slapped far more often than it should have, and some of the bolder patrons tried to get their hands inside her clothes. There were apparently no laws about age of consent or sexual harassment in Palveral, because Wren got it just as bad, if not worse.
Wren was more than happy to hurt anyone who got too frisky too, as Mira soon learned. She kept a weighted sap in her pocket that she was surprisingly adept as smacking away too-drunk groping with. It all depended on who was doing it though. Wren didn’t seem to mind the cute young men and a few regulars who left good tips copping a feel when she brought them their orders.
The days turned into a week, then two, and Mira still hadn’t seen or heard from Shy. Fowler was a decent man to work with, but Tilphara, who Mira had met when she’d first walked into the Weeping Man, never warmed up to her. She had a severe mind set and a mouth permanently set into a sour scowl. No one ever tried to paw at Til when she went by.
Wren spent the first week trying to get Mira to go out with her whenever they had a shift off together, but Mira had no money, no spare clothes, and most of all, no energy. Sleeping in a bed, even one that had a mattress of straw and scented herbs, was a luxury she was eager to take advantage of. When she did get her first pay, in the form of twelve square coins with stamped interiors that helped them stay locked together, she spent it on a warm cloak and a second set of clothes.
Eventually though, recovery gave way to restlessness, and Mira was eager to return to her own world. She asked a few delicate questions, always of people who were pretty far gone into the bottle and who weren’t regulars, to tease out details of the strange land she was stuck in.
Mira learned that the Demon King had launched a surprise attack that had ended all five clans of demon hunters practically overnight, that wild demons owing fealty to no ruler had overrun the wilder lands in the intervening decades, and that even in the midst of civilization, people were afraid.
The largest cities paid hefty tithes to the Demon King simply for the privilege of existing. What that money was used for wasn’t known, but some of the men and women of the Weeping Man thought it was for no reason other than to take it from the humans, to make their lives harder and their suffering deeper.
What Mira didn’t learn much about was the one thing she cared about: Jorath. No one had ever heard of him, or any demon like him. No one knew what he looked like, or what kind of demon he was, or anything at all. Whether they were telling the truth or merely deflecting to end Mira’s questions wasn’t something she could figure out. The people of Palveral seemed oddly superstitious, but Mira supposed she might be too if she’d grown up in a world full of demons and fairies and who knew what else.
Still, all said and done, she was more comfortable and in better health than she’d been since being kidnapped from her apartment. It might have stayed that way too, until a new customer showed up at the Weeping Man.
* * *
“He’s a big one, isn’t he?” Wren whispered to Mira. She eyed the man up in the back corner, but there wasn’t much to see. His hood was pulled over his head, same as most everyone else who’d come in out of the rain, though his arms were bare and heavily muscled. The man leaned on his table and stared down into his drink.
“Going to sample this one too?” Mira asked. “I’ll find somewhere else to be if you need the room to yourself.”
“Have to see what he looks like with that hood down,” Wren shot back. “Besides, I’m off two hours before you anyway. I’m pretty sure we can finish before then.”
“You have no shame.”
“Where would the fun in that be?”
“Here,” Mira said, passing a tray over. “You take him his food then.”
Wren sauntered off to flirt with the cloaked stranger while Mira worked. It wasn’t exactly an uncommon occurrence, and Mira would have begrudged getting stuck with all the work except that when Wren was working, she ran circles around Mira.
Things went about as expected and as soon as Wren’s shift was over, she took her catch of the day to their shared room in the back of the Weeping Man. It was unsettling to think of a sixteen year old girl regularly picking up men in their twenties and thirties, but no one else seemed to think anything of it. Mira just sighed and shook her head, then went back to work.
She’d put it out of her mind until a few hours later, when her own shift ended and Til took over at the bar. That damned serpent had been unusually active, Mira was in a bad mood, and she just wanted to go to bed. So it wasn’t until she opened the door and saw the two of them standing there, half naked, that she remembered Wren’s guest.
Wren said something, but Mira wasn’t listening. She stared at the man, shocked. Before she could react, he lunged across the room to grab her shirt and throw her at Wren. Then, kicking the door closed, he spun around.
“I never thought I’d see you again,” Kull said. “I guess this has been a good night in more ways than one.”