I was glad to find that there was at least a wooden cover on the chamberpot and we boys followed Ailadas outside. “Get rid of that, Minakas. Quick now.” I was in disgrace with my master so of course I had to dump the contents in the outhouse. The Gold-drop planted by the outhouse path, the traditional marker for such places, was wilting; possibly because some of the hostelry patrons didn’t bother waiting at the door. I held my breath and dumped the pot, stacking it outside the door with its number showing. The place needed more lime.
By the time I got back the girls and Ilesias were out already. They really must be hungry to be out so quick. My stomach was growling and I fell into step with Gannara as we followed our ‘patrons’ up the wooden sidewalk path.
“Ahem. My dear niece, I am certain the eatery is up this way. That fellow at the desk pointed it out, though, ahem, I am not clear on his intelligence.”
“Uncle, now, you mustn’t get upset. I’m sure we will find all we need to continue. Papa was so happy you could take such good care of me. Is there a horsetrader in this town do you think?”
“I truly hope so, my dear.” They chatted all the way up the hill, spinning imaginary relatives out of thin air. Ky worried a little about an auntie’s ill health, Ailadas commenting on a much older nephew’s raising of his children. It was enough to put a smile on my face. I didn’t know they were such story tellers. “Oh, Uncle, look! There is a lens maker here! You can replace your lost pair of spectacles!” Ailadas nodded and smiled and let his eye slide over me at her comment about the spectacles being lost. I grimaced and ducked just a fraction as if I had, indeed been responsible for their loss. I was going to add spectacles to Minakas. I’ll see if he has something very very weak, later.
“We shall, ahem, have to leave the family name and the brand on the horses, should they ever be found.” What a good idea. The solas would take the report and file it away. Since no horses would ever be found it would get buried in the paperwork. And of course the ‘family estate’ was so far away no one would ever bother reporting it. Or not, and as Ailadas had just done, merely said it out loud in the hearing of the spectacle grinder, for form's sake.
The market all around us was bustling, the Post Office to the right, the blacksmith’s permanent shop to the left. “That one will go off to the smith’s to enquire of replacement horseflesh, after the meal, Minakas.”
“Ay, ser. This 'un obeys, ser.”
It was still misty and wet enough that we were glad to sit down in The Family Eatery. The tables were all similar size but had a variety of cloths to throw down to designate various castes at the same tables. Of course the Aitzas would get white and our designated sections marked out with broad coloured ribbons. It was rustic but made do because outside the city, entourages would want to sit at the same table. In Feliras’s Glory the sections were designated by narrow copper chains if, as I had done, some Aitzas actually brought a different caste to lunch.
This place was small, but full of all castes, more likely in such a tiny place. Okas field and forest workers ate at the standing table by the door, the bulk of the eaters sitting at the tables fessas. A solas road-guard ground-tied his horse outside at the trough, came in for a sealed flask of kaf for him and his partner to take on the road and a wrapped parcel of food. The cook gave him additional pastries, one of which he popped into his mouth with a smile, took the other out to his partner still a-horse, waiting outside. In and out without more than a cursory glance at all and sundry. No one was causing trouble, so not his concern.
This would be the first cooking we’d eaten made by someone trained to it, for two years… almost two years? I had lost track of the days. It would be close to Jitz. In fact there were a number of market stalls selling costumes. I should have noticed, but I’d been scanning the crowd, afraid to see Joras slouched against a bench outside the beer seller’s. Or Matthas diligently hauling a recalcitrant horse down the street, loaded with some kind of trade, even just cut wood.
They’d be hunting for us, frantically but wouldn’t have the manpower to do both a good and a fast job of it. The closest road to the camp actually lead east-west, while the river had brought us north, so if they were ranging along the road they wouldn’t be anywhere near here. But would 2nd Amitzas be so smart? From his perspective we would just have vanished from the camp one night, treasury stolen, tents cut, a dead body in my bed. He might think I had been somehow kidnapped or subverted. He might think he’s running a ‘rescue’ mission to try and save me. Who knows what is going through his mind right now?
That was the moment that the two carafes of kaf came to the table brought by the family’s serving boys. They were sons of the house, obvious from their resemblance to their father, the cook, who could be glimpsed throught the pass-wall. The kaf came with cream and tree-syrup for sweetener. A whole big basket of deep-fried, sweet-glazed doughballs, that in the city we called banets. Here there were no fancy names. ‘Doh-alls’ is what the local dialect turned ‘dough-balls’ into, with clotted cream and fresh butter to smear on the steaming, broken-open little golden prizes. There was red-berry jam, and wild-apple jelly. Bacon, thick as my hand, like the best crackling, crisp on the outside, hot, melting salt fat on the inside. A bowl of boiled eggs with yellow and red sauce to dip them. Home-made crisps. Thick wedges of venison pie topped with green spinach gravy. A second batch of doughballs, this time savoury, with melted cheese and peppers sauce for dipping.
The glasses of milk for Ilesias, who had both cheeks full, a banet in each hand, was so fresh it foamed. There was not much worry about caste accents because complete and rapt silence fell at the table.
Feliras never had such a chef. “Oh, this ‘un should learn tah cook lak this,” Kaita murmured at last when the last banet had wiped out the last corner of the dipping dish, the last smudge of apple jelly wiped off Ilesias’s face with the cloth.
I smiled. “Or me, too. Good cookin’.”
“And admirable sentiment, Minakas.” Ailadas sniffed and sipped his kaf. I knew he was doing his best not to cough. “It may take Gannara with it and do the first shopping. Meet us back at the room, since I shall escort the serinas’ in the market and then we shall rest the afternoon. We should be ready to ride out before sun-rise tomorrow to make up our lost time. Here is your initial purse.” He tossed a packet at me. They’d sorted out what chains we could safely show.
I caught it and ducked my head. “Ay, this ‘un hears the illustrious. Come on, Gan.”
“Yer lucky ye are lad. There’s a fambly of horse-breeders just down the road. Five horses… two hands plus one o’ mules they jus brought in, a pony. And a string o’donkeys green-broke to cart. One broke to saddle. The one thing that had never left my neck… for years, was the little donkey pendant Ilesias had give me and, hidden under my shirt, it felt warm. I took it as a good sign.
One of the horses, the youngest, a full stallion, was treated with some of the additives in the Imperial set I had been taking, glossy, fat, nervous with a white rolling eye; looked high bred if you didn’t know. The gelding was boney because it needed to be wormed, but a good horse for all that. The mare, a half-stripe, whose teeth had been treated to make her look younger, seemed calm.
The pony had a mean eye and I wouldn’t consider it, for all it had a pretty bridle with a flower tucked into the headstall. The mules… I could hear Third Eforas Mahid’s voice in my ear. “Mules are the mainstay of how an army moves. If you do not have mules you must decide if you can bear the glacial speed of oxen. Or pay for horses. Recite the support rule for heavy cavalry in the field…” as I ran my hands down legs still patchy with their winter coats. And the donkey was perfect. I had more experience with donkeys.
But when I said, “The gelding, the mare, these mules and the donkey I am willing to buy—“ Gannara poked me in the side.
“What kind of bargain can the horseman give these ones?” He said. Oh. Yes. I’d just been about to hand him what price he demanded.
“Well now… horses are dear, since the war ‘n all… Lots more road patrols, the govenm’nt is buying more…”
Gannara actually seemed to know what to do, how to do this, how much to insult the animals even, to get a better price. “Yeh don’ want thet nice fellow there?”
“Only if this one wishes to kill his m’ master, puttin’ him on’t.” I listened in awe. Finally Gannara said. “Throw in the tack fer the donkey and a bag o’grain fer thet price these humble one’s’ll take ‘em.”
They spat formally on the ground to seal the deal and I pulled links out of the packet, counting as if I cared about every single one.
“How did you know how to do that?” I asked quietly when we’d arrange to pick up the animals before first light next day.
Gannara looked a little lost and confused. “I don’t remember. I just knew.”
“It’s all right, Gan. It’ll come back now.” Now that no one’s torturing you to make you forget your life before. I didn’t say.