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The tavern was quiet but for a whispered murmur that seemed to have no discernable source, and a steady clatter of wood on wood. Iri found himself standing in the doorway looking in, at the odd illumination that left the perimeter covered in a surreal darkness. It was an odd sight, because the room was bustling with activity. Waiters and patrons were walking around, sitting at tables, having conversations and dancing to music that Iri could not make out but for a ghost of a whisper.
He walked among them, and somehow they always cleared out of his way without acknowledging him. As they veered aside, a path formed before him toward the center of the room, and as he saw it he had to stop for a moment at the sight before him. It was Auri, seven years old and all skin and bones and mischief, rolling a wooden wheel in a circle using a short stick. It was a children’s game they had played many times, to spin faster and faster trying to keep the wheel in check until it became impossible.
He wanted to run forward and hug her, but then the light caught her skin just right, and he saw that she was just a statue. She moved with the same whimsical grace he remembered, but there was no flush to her skin, and when she looked at him there was no green in her eyes; just blue steel, as cold as the earth. She smiled at him with an openness that made his heart want to leap from his chest, and in her moment of distraction, the wooden wheel trailed away.
Her eyes snapped to it as it hopped along the wooden floorboards until it bumped into an unwitting server and clattered to the floor. The man froze, and then as if some spell had been abruptly broken, turned to stare at Auri. For a moment, Iri thought he looked familiar, though his terrified face could have belonged to anyone, watching as the little girl skipped toward him. Others were weaving around him too, now. He had fallen out of their world, and into whatever unseen place it was he and Auri now occupied, and the shock of it held him fast.
Once his sister reached him, she stopped and stood up straight before him in a moment of almost theatrical inspection.
“Rules are rules,” she sang in mock apology, and then gingerly leaned forward and handed the man a little metal flower. As his hand clutched its tiny stem it began to grow, and as it did it began to whirr with a sound that Iri had heard before. In the space of two heartbeats it was the size of a grown man, and it lunged from his hand into his body. An agonized scream was all there was time for before the grinder had eaten him up, then shrinking back to its former size and coming to rest on the pile of gristle and gore that he left behind. A gleaming tombstone for a victim of a nonsensical game that he was not even been aware he had been playing.
Auri smiled as if she were pleased with herself, and turned back to him. Her steps still had a skip as she made her way over, stopping only to pick up the wheel and stick from the ground as she came across them. A few seconds later she was before him, but she did not speak a word. Instead, she simply held the wooden toys out to him as she had done so many times when they were children, and though he felt his throat tighten, he saw himself accept them both. Setting the wheel down to the ground, he began to lead it around using the rod, trying to keep its path aligned with his spinning.
It did not take long for him to lose traction with the stick, and for the wheel to roll along into the crowd once more. As he saw it bump into another man, he felt a weight in his hand and looked down to see a smooth glass filled up with fuming liquid. Then a wave of pain unlike anything he had ever felt washed over him, so intense he could hardly breathe, and the vision fell away, replaced by a strobing bright light.
Iri sputtered awake, trying to sit up and finding himself bound down. A headache was hammering over his eyes in tune with his pulse. It was difficult to breathe, as though a large weight had been sat upon his chest, and once his eyes adjusted to the light he found a host of unfamiliar faces staring down at him.
“Whah-” he started looking around at them. These certainly weren’t the thugs who had attacked them earlier. For one thing, they were all women, their skin had the deep bronze of Broshan heritage, and they were clean and well-dressed. One was wearing a dress that would not have been amiss at a ball, and the other two were covered in shirts and long skirts of crimson and yellow. “Where’s Auri?”
“Quickly,” the woman with the dress told one of the others in an accent Iri hadn’t heard in a long time, “go inform her Highness, and fetch his sister if you can.” As one of the servants excused herself out of sight, things clicked into place for Iri despite the throb in his head. Crimson and yellow were Broshan colours. Not only weren’t they thugs, these women were part of a noble entourage.
“My Sir,” she was looking at him now, speaking in the more familiar pidgin of the common folk. “You are safe, please remain still. I am Loraime, her Highness’ handmaiden.”
“I-I see,” Iri replied to keep a guffaw from escaping. “Where is my sister? Where am I?”
“Apologies, my Sir is in her Highness’ camp. Gravely wounded in his battle with a monster. Her Highness has had her personal physician look after my Sir during his recovery in gratitude for your sacrifice.”
“Her what? Her- oh.” Not just any noble, it seemed, though the situation raised as many questions as it answered. There was only one ‘her Highness’ in Broche, and that was the duchess, but he could not remember seeing any royalty at the tavern before he burned it. After a few moments to mull it over, he responded in fluent old Broshan. “I’m sorry, my Lady, I’m feeling a bit discombobulated by the sudden change in circumstances. How long was I out?”
“Dame,” Loraime corrected him. “My Sir came to our caravan with my lady Kozan two days ago.”
Iri let his tension fade out and melted back into the soft pillows of his bed. Nobles travelled in style, he noted, and even here in the camp there was a level of quality to everything that most people could not even conceive. The tent, if it could be called that, looked like it was made from a brown velvet. There were golden details embroidered into the seamwork, and bronze tassels hanging down at every corner as if to show where the wooden frame should go. It had to be big enough for twenty people to fit inside, but he could tell from the sounds that it was just him, the lady and the servant girl.
“Please, my Dame, call me Iri. I’m not in any shape to do the third person thing.”
“As you wish, Sir Iri. You may call me Zarie, then,” she said congenially, ushering away the remaining servant with one hand. “I am her Highness’ physician. How are you feeling now?”
“I think I may have broken something,” Iri pointed out when he found himself at a loss for comparisons to make. Zarie Loraime had two names, and in Broche that meant she was noble born — a true lady. That was why it surprised him a great deal when she gave a most unladylike snort.
“Yes, I think you may have,” she laughed. “Almost everything. My Sir is very brave to be so nonchalant about his pain. I would like to make you a tea to dull it, would that be alright?”
Iri blinked dumbly at her. “That would be extremely alright. May I ask you some questions first?”
“Yes you may, Sir Iri.” Already rising from the bed, she left him staring at her for a moment as she smoothed out her dress. “You may ask while I prepare the tea, we have everything we need right here.”
“I-I see. Well, first question: Why are you calling me Sir? I am just a scholar, you are a Dame by blood as far as I can tell. Why am I even here? Does the duchess normally pick up stragglers?”
Her response was to giggle as she turned her back and made her way to the stove that marked the center of the tent. A stove, in the tent, he marveled for a moment. While the Royal Academy was well funded, he had not been aware just how ridiculously separate the world of the endowed was from the common folk.
“That is more than one question, Sir Iri. I will address them as well as I can. Her Highness does not normally pick up straggler. You are here because your heroics at the Yellow Bellows has saved her Highness from an ambush that was doubtless planned to befall her, and because you are a scholar of the highest order.” As she spoke, her deft hands darted between various jars and crockeries stabled around the stove, gathering various herbs and spices into a small woven pouch. “As for your first question; I think you will find you are quite mistaken, but this is not my place to say. Her Highness will see you soon.”
That left him silent for long enough that she could finish the tea. While the room they were in was ostentatious, it seemed largely unfilled.. Most of the pillows in the room had been gathered up around him to make sure he was comfortable, but there was bedding for another three people prepared along the velvet walls of the tent’s interior. Suspended along its canopy were embroidered purple silk curtains meant to separate the sleeping spaces when night fell, falling just short of the cast iron stove in the center. There were several bowls of fruit, and near the door, three large pots for holding water as well as a small assortment of wines on a bizarrely short table. Even as he studied it, however, the opulence of the room was not what concerned him.
For her to call him a Sir meant that she viewed him as a peer of the nobility. The last time he checked, the orphaned son of a clocksmith and a refugee woman garnered no such acclaim. Scholars were highly regarded in Broche in general, but not to the point of being granted the status of an actual highborn. That meant that something had changed, or was about to. Before he could appreciate the exact details of the implication, however, there was a rustle at the entrance as Auri slipped inside.
She looked at him for a moment, and then her face warmed into a genuine smile that he had not seen since they were little. It wrenched on his heart as the childish expressions from his dream flashed before him, and he remembered how stoic she had looked before she had almost dismissively dismembered half a dozen men back in the tavern. He was still in her world, it seemed, and now that he had fully crossed over her armor was melting away.
“You’re up!” She said, still grinning at him as she crossed the room in a few busy steps. She opened her mouth as if to say something else, then closed it and just kept smiling.
“I’m up!” After a few moments of hesitation at the abrupt shift in her temperament from before, he decided to just go with it and smile back.
“Are you alright?”
“I seem to have broken my everything,” he said to a snort from Zarie, nodding toward the bandages covering most of the right side of his body, including the broken arm and his leg. “But I appear to be in good hands. How are you, were you injured?”
“I heal fast,” Auri told him, and he was reminded of the sight of her body rearranging itself after she had been thrown through the wall during the fight. “I was more worried about you. After I missed the first shot, I thought I had killed you.”
“How do you mean?”
“You rode in the wrong direction,” she said. “I had to chase after you. I wasn’t fast enough, so I tried to shoot the golem. I think I may have hit you by mistake.”
“That was you!?” Iri began to grin as he spoke in mock indignation. Finally he wasn’t the only one to make mistakes. “You shot me!?”
Her smile died away and she glanced off awkwardly, suddenly looking much smaller than the soldier he had been getting so used to. “Yes, well, it was my first time shooting anything.” Rather than stick with the embarrassment, her voice trailed off into actual concern as her eyes found his once more. “I’m so sorry, I was afraid I had killed you.”
“Oh well in that case,” he rolled his eyes. “You know this is going into the annals of history, right? The very first cannon was fired in the year 60AR, when the kozan Auri used it to shoot her own brother off a horse as he fled a terrifying monster.” He began to laugh, and then almost immediately to wheeze as his cracked ribs flared up inside his chest.
“That’s not funny,” Auri scowled at him. “But yes. That is what happened. I found you unconscious by the cliff’s edge and carried you back to the road, where I met the duchess’ envoy and they agreed to take you in.”
“Come on, Auri, it is a little bit funny.” Iri was too busy trying to laugh through his cough to respond immediately. She met him halfway with a sensible chuckle, shaking her head as they waited for his amusement to die down to an ignorable simmer.
“I could have killed you,” she said when his breathing had quieted back down. “I don’t think that’s funny at all. But I’m happy you aren’t angry with me.”
“You saved my life,” he answered. “That it wasn’t flawless just makes you human. It’s what makes it brave.” He meant every word, and he could see that as she straightened her posture back to its normal attention she appreciated having him say so.
“So if it’s flawless, then it can’t be brave?” His sister raised an eyebrow at him, giving him a condescending look as she waited for his reply.
“Bravery is found in danger, flawlessness in routine.” He didn’t take offense to her tone, considering the kind of person she had become. Despite her training to prepare for situations such as these, however, he was quite certain that this was one thing he knew better than she did. “Valor is an attribute of the damaged shield, not of the pristine. They may not be entirely exclusive, but are certainly not the same.”
“Sir Iri is quite the philosopher,” Zarie chimed in. The woman had finally finished pouring a cup of tea and was simply standing to the side waiting for the two of them to finish so she could administer it.
“A scholar and a gentleman both it seems.,” Auri’s voice took on a more official cadence. “Speaking of bravery; the duchess is coming to see you. She believes we, and you principally, just saved her from an ambush. That you are a hero of the ducal crown, and must be rewarded. She has a proposal for you.”
“She does,” Zarie replied before Iri could get a word in edgewise, having crossed to sit next to his bed as Auri spoke. Handing him the cup, she didn’t quite let go, but instead guided it up to his lips with gentle insistence. Their eyes met briefly before the hot liquid took his attention, and he noticed an almost dangerous gleam there as she finished speaking. “One that you should not refuse.”