We were two eight-days getting down from the mountains, taking it in stages easy enough not to founder our horses. The mules were better in the heights and took the down-gradient easily but Kyriala’s mare picked up a stone and almost went lame. We shifted things around as best we could, putting Ky up behind Ailadas and re-packing things to let the mare be led unburdened to the next town.
There was no one with a riding beast for sale in the little village, though Gan and I went out to a farm in search of a horse or another mule rumored to be for sale, while the others stayed at the inn. “Do you notice,” I grumbled to Gan on the way back, the trip undertaken for nothing because the farmer had changed his mind about selling. “Do you notice that in all the songs and stories the heroes' horses never go lame?”
He laughed. That was something that was happening more often now and I did my best to tease it out of him. “It’s a guild agreement the heroes have with the bards and the story writers. A contract they must sign. ‘No everyday or ordinary woes and irritations shall be inflicted upon a heroic character, but only extraordinary ones, on pain of losing the addressees reading, attending, listening to, or otherwise patronizing the performance!’”
It was my turn to laugh. “No embarrassing, or disgusting illness shall be inflicted upon the hero, but only something that makes him more tragic and perhaps interestingly wasted and gaunt!”
The one inn had fed us something that had made our journey the next day extremely miserable, and Ailadas was probably now still composing his furious letter to the Ministry of Public Rectitude.
“And doesn’t involve loss of bowel control!” Gannara declaimed.
I was leaning over my saddle howling with laughter. “All… all heroes must be allowed a certain number of resting times in the midst of the story –“
“—between the requisite number of savings of ---“
“—the boy in distress, who has all his clothes and gloves torn off in the disaster –“
“The villain’s mother who must be virtuous and upright and far better than her son to allow for interesting conflict when the hero kills her boy…”
We were laughing so hard by now, coming up with all the bards' tropes we could think of, that we had to stop and get down before our mules thought we were completely mad, bucked us off and ran away.
When we got back to report our failure, Ailadas nodded. He had laid out the contents of the pouch we had set up for our travelling money, having traded gold chains to Kyriala for her silver ones.
“We—ahem-- have gold chains and gemstones, boys. Each one—ahem-- would be enough to draw anyone’s attention like flies to –ahem--blood.”
“We could break off single links of gold,” I said.
“Ahem, still too much and too obvious, I’m -- ahem-- afraid. There is a jewel merchant in the next village – ahem – White Creek, I am told. It might be an idea to change a gem there… and then turn down the Marble Road which is more direct still than this one. I shall, with your –ahem--permission, Minakis, --ahem, since these funds are all yours… do that.”
“Oh, yes, Ailadas. Thank you for keeping such careful track. I would have spent the whole thing and attracted the Sereniteers for a hundred malas around, not knowing the value of any of it.”
We made our way to the next village in two steps, camping the first night. I had thought I was getting good at doing regular things but I put the slabs of bacon in the pan and set it on the fire, then sat down to read before the light failed completely.
“MinAkas!” Gan yelled and slammed a lid down on the pan.
“What? What?” I looked up, blinking from where I’d squinted to make out the last paragraph
“The bacon’s on fire,” Gan said tightly. “You have to watch it.”
“Well it was just on the fire! I only looked away for a moment, it can’t be that bad…” I was angry. Why should the fire be so hot as to interrupt my reading? He opened the pan, looked down into it before holding it under my nose.
The odour of char struck up and the shriveled, cremated, remains lay withered black and accusing in a pool of oily grit. “I… guess… it was longer than a moment.” I had to fight back my feeling of injustice. I didn’t deserve this. “I’m… sorry. I’ll cook the next batch.” Of course I shouldn’t have been startled when he set the burnt pan down in front of me and went to gather more firewood.
I had to scrub the thing out with sand before I could put more bacon into it and this time I watched it every moment. I was still resentful but if we were to eat that night I had to cook it. Kaita was cooking potato slices that I poured a dribble of my hot bacon fat onto, before she added a scramble of egg.
She had bought eggs packed in straw and only one had broken on the road this day, so we had eggs.
White Creek was indeed white as we saw when we crossed the bridge into the town, pouring down the hill like milk. We were down out of the most severe of the mountains but the town was famous for its marble quarry. A lot of the Marble Palace white had come from the gouge in the green hill.
The inn was all right, mostly catering to carters and itinerant labourers. We settled in, spending the last of our easily spent money and Ailadas went to find the jewel trader. I could not make him take the Imperial sword. He wouldn’t touch it.
“Why? It’s just another sword, and out in these parts of the Empire you should show yourself strong Ailadas!”
“Ahem. Certainly not. The solas are here, there are Sereniteers and I doubt very much that a jewel trader or money lender would be so foolish as to – ahem – threaten a potential customer. The worst – ahem – that might happen is that he –ahem—succeeds in out bargaining me. This is civilization. Ahem.” Gan and Kaita both glanced at me and at him, unsure. I shrugged. He was probably right.
We all trooped out to look at the market full of little marble things and it turned out that Ailadas was right. He came back, safe and satisfied with the deal he’d gotten for the little emerald he’d taken to trade.