A/N - In the previous scene, Golzar had just left Gerhard and Tanya at the training grounds, after talking through her meeting with Raymond. In this chapter, she tries to remedy the disaster of said meeting by using a different approach.
If there were taverns beside Neverheim’s Lover in this part of Lucrece, Golzar and her company never frequented them. The small establishment was a favourite for heroes, constantly teeming with sprawls of customers waiting outside or being seated along the road. Some would even bring their own bowls to take food home with them, in the fashion of the ancient inhabitants where Woodlands now was.
Golzar pushed open the door and walked in. The people who lived on the floor upstairs were just creeping down the staircase, a pair of women who slunk past Golzar with twin scowls on their faces. It was a noisy place.
As Golzar looked around the room, she noticed the spread of people who were eating and drinking there that evening. Seated under the round bronze shield that hung from the tavern’s backmost wall were a group of burly men, who surrounded a somewhat shorter but no less muscular individual. Golzar frowned in surprise. She could recognise them as the Bold Hundreds, the infantry-driven hero company officially led by William.
They didn’t seem to be here on official business. The leader, Ashley, was sitting casually, with one of their legs propped up on the opposite knee. Golzar saw them smirk slightly at something one of the men said. Rumour had it that Ashley never smiled.
Satisfied that William himself was nowhere in sight, Golzar let her gaze drift towards the shield. The intricate carvings in the metal of the Goddesses’ clay soldiers glinted in the amber light of the fireplace.
Throughout the tavern, long rectangular tables were cramped together, forcing her to move in a snake-like slither, zig-zagging to make any progress from one end of the room to the next. Eventually, she plopped down on a barstool with a sigh and ordered herself a cup of ale.
“We have a shipment of wine, Dame,” the barkeeper offered. “And the spiced sort, as well.”
“Ale is fine,” she said.
She turned towards the door, eyes peeled for a shock of red hair that could pop out from anywhere.
Instead, there was the sound of familiar voices. Golzar breathed a sigh of relief when the barkeeper slid her cup over, sipping it to avoid looking at Robert as he walked in with a couple of friends. Golzar pulled her black hood over her head. He didn’t seem to notice her. Out of the corner of her eye, she could see Robert, ducking carefully to fit under the door. Beside him Alexis followed, wearing a long-sleeved shirt so that only one of their flower tattoos showed – the one that went up their right cheek. Alexis had had their hands freed up since the last examination of the company’s weaponry. If not for that, they would have been bogged down at the Guild Hall with the other heroes who had some weapons expertise. The other two that were with them must have been from another hero company, or perhaps they weren’t heroes at all. Golzar didn’t recognise them.
It was just as well that Golzar had noticed Robert first, because Alexis had nearly the same shade of red hair as Raymond had, worn in the same style, too – and that mistake, Golzar thought while grimacing, would have been awkward for everyone involved.
She watched them squeeze into a distant corner of the tavern. The cup of ale was half-empty.
The door was flung open, and for a second time, Golzar thought Raymond was there. On another look, however, that was clearly not the case. The tavern was at full capacity. The seats beside Golzar had long since been filled; she was brushing elbows with a young woman and a burly man with a red scarf.
The newest additions to the crowd were a pair of lean, olive-eyed youths, one of whom was carrying a purse. Next, a man in a blue tunic walked in, laughing heartily, guided by a tavern girl, who swiftly shut the door on the line waiting outside. Golzar vaguely recognised him as one of the lords’ sons she had seen at the Queen’s coronation. A nobleman.
Just then, the man with the red scarf rose, emptying his mug, and went to join the growing party in the back corner of the tavern.
The nobleman sat down in the free seat.
He peered at Golzar for a moment, as the tavern girl slipped around to the other side of the counter.
“Dame Golzar?” he said. “Fancy seeing you here!”
“A pleasure, my lord.” Golzar said perfunctorily. She found she still could not recall his name. What was it, Redvine? Skyroot? No, she decided, he couldn’t have been from one of the major families, because Gerhard had forced her to know the members of those by heart.
“I’d much rather sit with you here, than go mingling with those . . . more rambunctious of your sort.” He side-eyed the tangle of heroes in the back of the inn, side-eyed Robert, and Alexis, and their two friends, who seemed to be farmers’ sons, laughing and rousing up another song.
Golzar noticed the nobleman would wipe the tips of his fingers with a handkerchief whenever he came into physical contact with the tavern girl, or the man sitting on his right. She tried hard not to narrow her eyes.
“Has your company dealt with those peasant riots?” he went on in a low voice. “Troublesome little things, ever since the war ended, now everyone with a sword thinks they can do anything . . . “
Golzar took a slow, careful sip of her ale. She shook her head. Golzar only ever wore the colours of the Grey Hound company. She never indulged in the russet or carmine shades usually donned by freepersons to distinguish them from serfs. It seemed, she thought, as though some lords and ladies would try to find out the class of each individual hero before deciding to speak to them as semi-equals. If she had been a serf and not a freeperson, this man would not be sitting next to her. To be frank, she would have been glad of it.
From the back of the tavern, threads of a familiar song began to rise.
The mother was a winding trunk,
She sharpened knives for whey.
Her garden red, with flowers sunk
beneath an apple tree.
The father with his haughty locks,
He hurtled down the stair
And bonked his head upon the rocks
And no one saw him there
The son came running out to see
Just what had tripped the man
And from the thick and rooted tree
A tendril stretched, wide-spanned!
She remembered once discussing these lyrics at a temple, somewhere between the borders of Woodlands and Witchfield. Like many folk songs, it was joined together with and alluded to the wider written literary tradition in the kingdom. The colour ‘red’ was shorthand for premeditated murder, and whey shorthand for betrayal.
As they were preparing to go one with the next verse, Raymond appeared at the door, looking dishevelled with strands of his hair hanging loose around his face. He had dressed himself in a blue hooded cloak, neither wanting to be recognised as himself nor wanting to be recognised as anything less than noble-born. Golzar watched with keen eyes as he squeezed between several other patrons. She would have to move fast.
Golzar removed her hood so Raymond would see her and waved him over to the seat beside her.
Raymond seemed caught off guard. He did not look her in the eye. Internally, Golzar scoffed. It was almost as if he really came here for just a drink. Almost, but not quite.
When the nobleman from earlier recognised Raymond, he shot out of his seat and beckoned for Raymond to take it. The chorus of ‘my lord’s and ‘most honoured’s was nearly unbearable, even for the Lord Steward himself. He sat down carefully, seeming uncertain of the stability of the chair.
Likely thinking that Golzar had arranged such a meeting with Raymond and that he was no longer welcome to intrude upon the Lord Steward’s evening, the nobleman left.
“How’s your evening been, my lord?” Golzar addressed Raymond neutrally. “Enjoy the sights?”
Blinking, he scrutinised her, as if staring would reveal all the hidden intentions behind her words. But he was distracted. Before he replied, another song started up towards the back of the tavern, and he glanced towards the heroes there. Golzar knew that look, no matter how briefly it flashed in his eyes. It was longing.
Outside, rain began to pour, spattering against the ground. The sound distracted both of them for a moment.
When he spoke with her, his tone did not reveal that spark of emotion. “It is important for us to know the tastes of the common folk.”
Her heart was pounding at a hard but steady beat. The room seemed to dissolve as she peered at his face, searching for a chink in the armour. Golzar reached for her cup. It was empty, but she found herself raising it to her lips anyway.
“What do you think happened in the end?” she said, finally, with feigned casualness. At Raymond’s questioning look, she nodded towards the singing bunch.
He found the mother burning books
Inside the hut of grey.
“Go not looking in the nooks,
Your father’s gone today."
“I – well . . . “ Raymond’s gaze was searching. His eyes flickered from Golzar to the edge of the table. His mouth opened, then snapped shut.
Golzar did not let up, hoping he’d realise she was being serious. The woman beside her cast a curious glance their way.
The wine Raymond had ordered arrived. He sipped at it rather quickly. “I’d suppose the mother was the killer. The thick-rooted tree represents her. And of course she was sharpening her knives for whey, there in the beginning.”
“Oh? One can never trust a person who burns books, hmm.”
Raymond nodded vigorously.
There it was. Golzar knew that look. It was the look she saw on Bryn’s face if she ever started talking to them about mountains and pebbles and sediments.
Whey had been established as symbolic of betrayal in a famous book, The Language of Dairy in Tales. It had been written by a noblewoman – whose name Golzar always had a hard time remembering – and for generations a staple of temple libraries, passed between the hands of clerics.
Golzar wondered where Raymond would have gotten the idea to read it. Though the tutors of noblemen did teach them to read, it was always for book-keeping or economics. The mysteries of temple lore and craft were often a closed door to men, who were expected to deal only in sword and blood.
As he spoke, Raymond began to glow. He seemed all too flattered being asked his opinion on all this. “I’ve always thought the whey here was for betrayal, and not for any of the lesser meanings in the Old Compendiums . . . “
“Well, it couldn’t possibly mean ‘the skin of the rotting apple’ here, now, would it?” said Golzar. Raymond laughed.
“You don’t find it strange?” he said, when he was thoroughly drunk, and Golzar was sure her own ale had completely worn off. “Most of the people I speak to think it ridiculous that I . . . read at all. ‘Stead of practicing my swordsmanship.”
Golzar supposed he meant reading for pleasure. And listening to folk songs. And wandering into the haunts of heroes late at night.
“Gender doesn’t determine the quality of your interpretation,” Golzar said, hoping the bartender wouldn’t notice she was again pretending to sip from an empty cup. She was just keeping up the ruse, at this point. Getting into character.
She leaned to the side, as though whispering to some invisible other guest, and mimicked one of the temple ladies she remembered keeping boys out of the reading halls. Raymond exploded into guffaws.
A while before the tavern closed for the night, Raymond left, looking pleased with himself, a smile playing at his lips and a flush in his cheeks. Mission accomplished, Golzar thought. Now, she just had to wait and see.