It was the smell of the lower city that bothered Shelee the most. It was a damp scent of the sea, the harbor far below but the smell wafting up to the banks of the river despite the distance. She swore years before to never set foot in the lower city, never, no matter what, but some things were worth breaking promises for.
The day was sunny, spring was approaching, the damp chill of winter fading slowly day by day. It was the sort of day to plant flowers in gardens or hang laundry out in the sunshine and the people of the lower city were taking advantage of it. She watched the lives the coach rolled past, how people called back and forth over wash lines or at running fountains, watched children run in hand me down clothes and bare feet. The sights and sounds called up a twisted sense of homesick dread and she was eager to run her errand and escape back across the river.
The coach rolled from tightly clustered slums to a better district of single family homes and than slowly into larger and grander buildings. They sat in their lawns with an antique elegance, breathing their former glory and age to the newer and plainer buildings in the blocks around.
It didn’t surprise her when the coach stopped in front of one of the grand old homes. She felt she knew this place even if she’d never seen it. A walkway of stones wove around bright green grass and old large trees, she even could make out the frail elderly lady sitting at her first floor window. Shelee had little doubt that the old lady wasn’t the only person watching from behind their windows.
There wasn’t any truly graceful way for a woman of her bulk to exist a coach but the coach man hopped down from his perch and graciously offered her a hand. It was a service he seldom rendered but was willing to grant to her. Shelee didn’t know if it was her own reputation or her nephew’s and frankly she didn’t care. She accepted the help and made it to the ground without making a fool of herself.
“His place is around back, mistress.” The driver said and quickly pocketed the coin she handed him. “What you care for me to wait?”
That surprised her and made her smile. “If you’d be so kind, I shouldn’t be too long.”
The man tipped his hat slightly and went back to his seat. Shelee smoothed her dress before turning to cross the lawn in carefully measured strides. Around the corner of the house and past a crumbling waist high stone wall she found the well repaired steps that climbed up the back of the building and ended on the wide porch. The sun caught the glass of the tall windows and glinted it back.
She climbed the steps and didn’t need to knock, the door swung open easily under her hand. The sight that greeted her inside made her sigh and she folded her arms under her chest.
“Just what do you think you’ve been doing?” She used a sharp tone to hide her worry.
“Leave me alone.” A bundle of blankets muttered from the bed.
The room was long and open but had a stale smell to the air. The single table was cluttered with scraps of food not eaten, the fire was out in the hearth, dirty clothes were piled around and forgotten. Most disturbing was the casual way a blade in its scabbard had been dropped on the floor. She looked about to the scattered bits of mess and found several half consumed mugs of tea and a pitcher of very old cider but no wine or ale. That had been her primary worry and it offered her some small measure of hope.
“You’ve been sulking in here for too long, get up.” She moved to the bed and tugged at the blankets.
Tarin peered bleakly up at her from under several layers, a length of brown fabric clutched tight in one hand. “Go away.”
“No and you’re in no shape to try to make me either. For Jeses sake Tarin, you’re a bloody mess. When was the last time you took a bath?” She’d never seen him looking scruffy, he was obsessive about his personal grooming and often complained about a stubble of a beard long before it grew unsightly.
He ran a hand thru his short hair and it stuck out at all angles. “You don’t understand.”
“Horseshit I don’t. You’re not the only person who’s ever lost someone they loved.” That just made him turn his face away and half burrow back under the covers. “What would Ana think, if she saw you like this?”
Tarin made no move to answer or defend himself. Shelee raised an eyebrow and lowered herself to sit on the edge of the bed. “Tarin, it’s been over a month. No one’s seen hide nor hair of you for half that time. People are talking, I had one person ask me if maybe you died in here and no one noticed.” The thought had chilled her and it was the worry that maybe he had done something rash that rushed her down to see him. “If you stay in here, everyone will know the gossips true.”
Word had spread quickly and soon the whole city whispered rumors of the real reason behind the night of murders in the upper city. There was no way to prove any of it and the stories stayed merely stories but each whisper added to Tarin’s fame. Young girls were sighing over the romance of Ana’s tragic death and wished their young lovers would seek such bloody revenge.
“Everyone knows already, it doesn’t matter.”
This wasn’t getting them anywhere. “I got a letter today, from Mr. Dunn.” She paused and waited but he showed no interest in that either. “He says he got Jolie settled in, right and proper and was headed home. He should be here within the week. Do you want him seeing you like this? You told him he could stay with you until he found work, do you want to repay his help with this?”
He didn’t have the words to explain but fortunately he didn’t need to. The open grief wasn’t difficult to read and she softened her look. “I do understand, really I do but enough is enough. You’ve got to get up, today, and go on.”
Tarin shook his head and propped himself up a little on an elbow. “I can’t.”
There was only so much a soul could take, Shelee knew this. She’d reached her own breaking point long before and she knew what a dark and horrid place it could be. The seemingly bottomless strength in the young swordsmen had amazed her. He’d endured enough in his life to drive most people mad and yet remained a functioning capable man. Ana Grenk’s murder was a catalyst. From that moment on he stopped fighting, stopped striving and allowed his past and grief to carry him down. It couldn’t be allowed to continue.
Shelee pulled back her hand and did the one thing she’d never done to him, she slapped him, hard. Her hand made a loud smacking sound and she struck with such force that a red hand print appeared instantly on his fair skin. She waited for his anger, for his return of the violence but he just sat there. Shock, surprise and a bitter look of betrayal crept across his face but he didn’t move.
“Don’t you dare ever say that to me.” The slap hurt her twice as much as it hurt him but it needed to be done. She’d made a fortune by reading people, knowing what they needed before they fully knew. “Yes you can, you just won’t. You’ve needed time alone to grieve, fine, I’ve respected that but it’s time to live again. You aren’t going to give up that easily, I won’t allow you to, do you understand?”
He nodded meekly and kept his wary eyes on her.
“Good. Now get up, take a bath. Jolie is going to need a father, Dunn needs a friend and I need my nephew. Stop laying there feeling sorry for yourself and take back your responsibilities.”
“Okay, just, don’t hit me again.” His tone was mocking and sarcastic but there was a disturbing undertone of seriousness below it.
“Don’t give me cause to, you’ve never before and I don’t see you being this stupid too often in the future. Made me come all the way down here to knock some sense into you. You know how much I hate this part of the city.” She stood and fussed her way toward the door, carefully watching to see if he was actually getting up. It pleased her when he carefully dragged himself from bed. “When was the last time you had a real meal? Don’t answer, if the scrapes about are any clue it’s been weeks. I’m going to be sending one of my girls down here every day. They’ll get this rat’s nest cleaned up and see to it you’ve fresh meals made.”
Tarin made a cynical grunting noise. “And make sure I’m living as you say.”
“That too! Don’t sass them, they’re good girls. They’ve been worried sick about you and you’ve been horrible, not even sending us word. Making me come all the way down here,” She muttered again and used the words to hide her concern.
When she turned to glance back Tarin was on his feet, his clothes as rumpled as his hair and his posture defeated but at least he was moving. “I can’t say enough how sorry I am about Ana, but Tarin, I can’t bare to loose you. If you won’t go on for her or yourself, how about for me?”
He shuffled over to the table and scooped up a discarded mug. The half drunk contents sloshed inside and he sniffed it for freshness before sipping it. “Thank you for coming down here.” It was all he could say. Her visit had touched him. She was almost phobic about returning to the lower half of the city, afraid she’d not escape a second time.
“I’ve a coach waiting. Take care of yourself, Tarin, and come up for dinner soon.”
“Yeah, I promise.”
Venturing beyond his door wasn’t an easy task. His legs felt weak and his head disconnected from the swirling patterns of life in the neighborhood but out he went. The women of the Pink Pearl had been making daily visits just as Shelee had promised and their quiet company had worked as surely as the delivered slap. They were vital, alive and so full of energy and hope that it was impossible to remain hidden and unaffected.
What Tarin didn’t know was that Shelee was hand selecting each woman. They were all as clever as they were beautiful. Each one was given strict instructions on how to act, what to do and most importantly what not to do. One by one they showed up at his door, they cooked him a meal and shared it with him. They brought gossip and conversation, straightened his room and cleaned. Not once did they suggest their services, offer him sympathy, push for him to speak when he remained silent and never, under any circumstance, did they mention Ana.
It worked. The sound of other people and the ever changing pattern of lovely women pulled him from his despair. While the dark moments, the times when it hurt so deeply in his soul each breath felt like too much of an effort, continued, every moment wasn’t so dark and so difficult. Like the spring slowly arriving back to their city, bit by bit the will to continue returned to Tarin. Even if he found no joy in living, no good in it, he no longer was willing to surrender and give in.
People stared, as much from his reputation as from his long withdraw from the public eye, but people always stared. No one spoke more than a few brief words to him on his first ventures from his rooms. For as causal as the words were, he found the effort to maintain an appearance exhausting.
It was nearly a week after Shelee’s visit before he felt ready to go to the Fleecy Sheep. He arrived in the late afternoon and the faces of the other swordsmen turned and openly watched him. There was a moment of uncertain silence, as if he were a specter and unreal, before they turned away. It wasn’t done out of rudeness but from respect. Everyone knew how deeply Tarin valued his privacy and in that silence a thousand greetings and questions died, unasked.
He sat at a table with his back to the wall. The distance between himself and the others felt unbreachable, he felt more alone, more out of place, than he had the first day he’d ever walked into the Sheep. Only this time, taking a few hires and developing a reputation would do nothing to ease that feeling and Tarin had no idea of what else to try.
“Good to see you, Tarin.” Jen said with a warm smile as she set a mug of tea in front of him. It took an effort to hide her shock at how thin the swordsman appeared, how sunken his eyes.
“Thank you, Jen. Any messages for me?”
“Aye, a few, Owen will want to bring them out for you.”
Word must have spread ahead of him because before Jen could get even a few steps away Owen appeared from the kitchen. He moved directly to Tarin and before the younger man could say a word he dropped a capture game board onto the table between them, the pouches of light and dark colored, carved stones followed.
“I hear you’re a real hot shot at this. Figured it was about time we see about it.” He lowered his height into the chair opposite Tarin without waiting for an invitation.
Capture was played by the wealthy and educated and rarely was seen in the lower city. The rules were complex and the scoring varied on which carved stone captured which and on what move. It wasn’t a game to be played when drinking or in a noisy tavern. Tarin had seen Owen playing it before, with Jen and occasionally on a slow afternoon with a few retired swords but he’d never been asked to join them and he’d never felt right inviting himself to play.
The large man ignored the uncertain question and continued setting the stones up on the board. “Have you eaten? We’ve a roast tonight, potatoes with that rich gravy made from those mushrooms you like so much. A fresh batch of honey bread too. Hope you haven’t eaten, I’m starving and hate eating alone.”
The tavern owner’s easy acceptance, his total embracing without explanation was so touching that Tarin had to swallow hard to clear his throat and blink quickly to clear his eyes. “Just because you got some more of those mushrooms doesn’t mean I’m going to spare you in the game.” He managed to make his accent high and almost arrogant but it wasn’t total, nor was it easy.
Owen heard the real emotion behind the tone and saw it in the other’s lavender eyes. It made him smile wide to finally be reading the distant man so well, to finally be understanding his fragile, almost fearful, pride. “We’ll see about that lad, we’ll see.”