The tall soldier strolled among the Traders' wagons and stalls, dark eyes taking in everything. The summer sun glinted off his metal helmet. He felt sweat trickle down his back beneath the silk tunic he wore under leather armour. Metal greaves protected his shins and a skirt of leather strips overlay the skirt of the tunic. A sword and dagger hung to either side of narrow hips. His black braid was wrapped around his throat and fastened to its base with a sturdy leather thong. He nodded to many of the Traders as he walked past.
"Good day, Captain," called one. "Can I offer you a meat pie?"
"Thank you, no," he replied. "I have plans for my supper." Appetizing smells wafted from the stall and he felt tempted to stop and sample the wares. Perhaps tomorrow, he would.
He weaved his way through the throngs of people headed home after a day of shopping and haggling. Brightly coloured canvas awnings gave shade from the late day sun. All around him, shoppers and Traders called out to each other, the noise rising into the clear blue sky. Aromas of food, of spices and incenses, mingled in an almost intoxicating blend, covering the underlying smells of food that had gone bad and dung from the horses and oxen which pulled the Traders' wagons and caravans. The day was winding to a close and already many Traders had put their goods away until the morrow. Some of the permanent stalls had sturdy shutters up; the temporary ones had been emptied and their contents stowed away in the Trader's wagon or caravan. A few were still open for business, offering a last handful of wares for half price. He stopped at a stall that sold grains and vegetables. The woman behind the stall straightened from picking up an escaped onion. "Be right with you," she said, tossing the onion into a basket, then turned to look at the customer. "Oh! It's you." She smiled and held out her hands. The soldier smiled back, taking her hands in his and bowing over them.
"Mistress Sunshine," he said. He touched his lips to the backs of her hands and let her go.
"Lieutenant...no, I'm sorry, Captain Torin," she replied. "I heard of your promotion. Congratulations."
"Thank you," he said. "Although, in truth, I would prefer to have Ardan still here. Something about his exile rankles and I doubt it was deserved. But..." He shrugged eloquently, then looked around. "Where's Rancid?"
Sunshine smirked. "It's 'Ranid', and I have no idea where he is at the moment. The last I heard, he was headed for a new tavern to try their latest ale or gin or whatever it was. I really don't know."
Captain Torin removed his helmet and cradled it on one elbow. The huge scar that disfigured the right side of his face was pale in the sun. "It's gin. It's cheap and quite dreadful. But if you're looking for a quick drunk, it'll do the job. How long has he been there?"
She looked up at the late afternoon sun. "Oh, since just after midday, I would guess. Quite some time."
He barked short laughter. "Then I will guess he's lying under a table somewhere. He might be in one of our drunkard cells, sleeping it off. In either case, you're not likely to see him tonight." He looked at her for a long moment. "I can try to track him down, if you like. Have him brought back here to his own bed, as it were."
Sunshine folded her arms across her chest and stared up at Torin. "No. Leave him wherever he is. Serve him right to wake up someplace unpleasant. I'm tired of rescuing him, Torin. I really am. So tonight, let him pay the price for his drinking."
She went about putting the rest of her goods away for the night. Torin pitched in, passing her baskets to stow away and helping to take down the striped awning above the display. Before long, the work was done, the stall shut down. Sunshine blew out a breath. "Well, that's done. Thank you, Torin. You didn't have to do that."
"It's all right. I'm off duty for the rest of the day and what better to do than help a friend?"
She smiled, reached out and squeezed his hand. "Would you like to stay and share some supper with me? It looks like I'll be on my own tonight."
Torin gazed at her. "I have a better idea," he said. "Why don't I take you to supper?"
"You mean at an inn or some such?"
"Exactly. I know several that serve excellent food and you won't have to cook or clean up."
"I like that part." Her eyes gleamed. "Oh, but who will watch the caravan for me?"
He raised an eyebrow. "Sunshine, I have several hundred men under my command right here in the city. It will be the matter of moments to set one to guard things until you return."
"I need to freshen up," she said. "I can't go out in these dusty things."
"Then you go tend to that; I'll get a guard and a carriage and we'll go in style." He smiled, bowed and strode away before she could come up with another argument.
When he returned with the carriage and a guard, Sunshine came out of the caravan, patting her hair into place. "I will leave the door unlocked for your man, in case he would like tea or something," she said to Torin. "And in case Ranid comes home, by some miracle."
Torin smiled. "He might. As for the guard, well, I will leave it to his discretion. He's reliable and discreet." He turned to the soldier. "Harley, you know Ranid by sight, do you not?"
"Oh, aye, yes, indeed, Cap'n. If 'e turns up, I'll jes' put 'im to bed, like, 'n' if'n 'e arsks about 'is missus, well, she's out wiv you, en't she? An' if 'e'd bin 'ome, like, 'e'da bin able to come wiv? Right?"
"Exactly so. And now, Mistress Sunshine, shall we?" Torin held out a hand to Sunshine and helped her into the carriage, then climbed in beside her. He tossed a light rug across their legs to keep the dust off and spoke to the driver. The driver nodded and flicked the reins.
"Where are we going?" Sunshine asked.
"I thought we might have a tour of the city for a bit, and then we're going to an establishment I'm rather fond of. Or would you rather go directly there?" He reached behind his head and untied the end of his braid from its base and let it hang over his shoulder down his chest.
"No, a tour would be nice," she said. "I never seem to have time to look around the city beyond the Market. We get here, set up and the next thing, Ranid is gone to sample the wares here, there and everywhere, and the only places I ever get to see are the Market and the roads to Emeera and Rojer's house."
"Then it is high time you saw more of the city." He studied her for a moment, frowning. "Sunshine, may I ask something rather personal?"
"I suppose. I can always not answer. But I get to ask you something in return."
"Now, what's the personal question?" She wriggled on the seat and rearranged her skirts, putting her hands demurely in her lap.
"Why do you put up with Ranid?"
"He's my husband," she said. "I took vows with him before a Holy Man in front of his family and friends." She looked down at her hands. "Vows are sacred things, are they not?"
"You took vows before Ranid's gods?"
"And when did you Dance?" He gazed at her, and when she didn't answer, he took one of her hands and asked again. "When did you Dance with him? When did you make your Promise to him in front of your Creator, your family, your friends?"
Her fingers linked with his and at last she looked up into the dark eyes. "Never. We've never Danced. Folk customs are meaningless, you see." Her smile held a touch of bitterness.
Torin smiled and brought her hand to his lips. He kissed her fingers. "So you are bound to him by his rules, his customs?"
She gazed into the black depths of his eyes. "Yes." Her own eyes widened suddenly. "Torin! They're your rules and customs, too," she said.
He kissed her hand again and released it. "I am a Dweller, dear Sunshine. A boy of the Forest primeval. Ranid and Rojer are from Braindead or wherever. I assure you their customs are not mine." He gazed at her, a mischievous light in his eyes.
"It's 'Brinded'," she said. He shrugged dismissively and she laughed. "My turn," she said.
"Go ahead." He straightened up, looking at her with an attentive expression.
She half-turned toward him, narrowed her eyes and asked, "Why aren't you and Emeera lovers?"
Torin's eyes went wide and he laughed softly. His gaze slid over the top of Sunshine's head for a few minutes while he chewed on the corner of his lip. Then he looked back into her eyes. "She takes her vows very seriously," he said. "I have never asked--not when I was sober, anyway, and she ignores me when I'm drunk--nor will I as long as she is married."
"What about before she got married? She told me you and she came close once."
"Very close," he said. "Too close. She was supposed to go to her wedding bed a virgin and well, she went to him intact. But it wasn't easy."
"It was hard, was it?" She smiled up at him with wide, innocent eyes.
He gazed back, a smile playing at the corners of his mouth. "Very. Extremely, in fact."
"I see." She cleared her throat. "Well then, since you and Emeera aren't lovers, surely you have someone or several someones?"
"You're asking more than one personal question," he said. "Isn't it my turn?"
"Oh look at that house! Isn't it pretty?" Sunshine pointed past Torin at one of the elegant houses set back from the street. It had a wide garden in front, with climbing roses hanging over an archway.
Torin turned to look. "Yes, it is. There are quite a few lovely homes along here. Mostly petty nobility and a few wealthy merchants."
Sunshine gazed around at the large houses. Many of them had timbered fronts and stone roofs. More than a few had flowers growing in profusion. "Oh it is lovely. Imagine living here." She sighed.
Torin took her hand again. "You're not going to let me ask, are you?" he said, his fingers lightly caressing the back of her hand.
She smiled. "After supper, perhaps," she said. She squeezed his hand and moved a little closer on the seat.
They drove through the streets of the wealthier part of the great city. Sunshine exclaimed over the parks and open areas, the wide streets and bright shops dotted here and there. "I never realized there were so many green places in the city," she said. "I've seen small areas near the Market and along the river, but I didn't know about these. Can anyone visit them? I see there are fences around them."
"The fences are mostly to keep carriages and riders out of the parks, and yes, anyone is welcome to walk through and enjoy. Remind me to take you to the Royal Gardens some day. Have you ever been?"
"No, never. Someone told me I should see them, but I told you already, I never have the time."
"Then we will make the time one of these days," he said. He leaned forward and spoke to the driver. He sat back.
"Where to now?" she asked.
"Supper," he replied. "I think you'll like the establishment I have in mind." He smiled mysteriously. She gave him a suspicious look. "Trust me," he said.
"I do," she replied. "I think." They drew up outside a tavern with an elaborately carved and painted sign out front. Sunshine looked up at it. "The Dancing Wolf?" she asked. "What is this?"
"It's one of my favourite places to get away from it all without actually leaving the city," said Torin, stepping down from the carriage. He held out his hand to Sunshine. She gave the sign one last look, then took his hand, gathered her skirts out of the way and climbed down to the street.
"Shall I wait, Captain?" asked the driver.
"No, thank you, Wil," said Torin. "Although you can come back in a few hours, if you like." Wil touched his forehead and drove away. Torin offered his arm to Sunshine, who tucked her hand into the crook of his elbow and let him lead her inside.