By midnight Yllyesh had learned several things. People in Tarbalainn — young people — were disappearing at an alarming rate, and Oldo, Lee-Lack’s fellow-robber, was involved in what happened to them. So was His Glorious Majesty, Tenaxos the First, High King of Ximerion. And Lee-Lack’s life was in imminent danger.
The Mukthar had watched Lee-Lack take the long road down into Tarbalainn. He followed the robber with his eyes as long as he could. Lee-Lack didn’t look back.
Once alone he led his horse away from the cliff and toward the nearest woods. There he stripped and reluctantly donned the clothes he had taken from the bodies of the men who had tried to rob them a week ago. He had meant to throw them away, but now he was glad he hadn’t. He shivered with disgust. The garments felt rough against his skin, and he imagined he could still smell the sweat and body odor of their previous owners, though he had washed them thoroughly.
There was nothing he could do about that. The important thing was that he wouldn’t be recognized as a Mukthar at first sight. The more discerning person would recognize his saddlecloth as foreign to these parts, but he was sure he could invent a plausible story. He could have bought the thing in Mirkadesh, couldn’t he?
He rolled up his Mukthar cloak as tightly as he could and, with some effort, stuffed it into one of his saddlebags. He put on the one he had taken from their would-be robbers. He had worn it before, but only now did he notice it was far too short and that it lacked a hood.
Then he went back to the rim of the cliffs and sat down to watch the town and the sea that stretched as far as he could see. He had seen lakes before — some of them very large — but nothing compared to this vast, seemingly living mass of water.
It was midmorning by then and he watched how five small vessels left the port. After they had managed the narrow channel between the arms of Tarbalainn, they dispersed in different directions. Just before the last one sailed out of sight, Yllyesh noticed how tiny figures cast nets from the aft side. Only once had he seen them used like that to catch fish in a lake. He knew the sea contained fish as well, though he had never eaten any. Maybe it harbored even larger prey like sea-bears. The more he thought about it, the more likely it seemed to him that such an enormous body of water was home to equally enormous beasts.
“One day… one day soon I will board a ship that sails upon the sea. I’ve been on boats that travel rivers or lakes. It’s probably much the same, only on a larger scale.”
Guiding his horse by the reins, Yllyesh descended the steep road on foot. It gave out onto a little square with a fountain and basin in the center where he let his animal drink.
He noticed how a young girl looked at him sideways while she filled a jar with water. He flashed his most charming smile at her and she colored instantly deep red.
“Excuse me, young Mistress, could you tell a poor wanderer where he could find decent lodgings for a fair price?”
“The Rudder has a good reputation and it is clean and quiet there.” She colored an even deeper shade of red. “If you’re looking for employ on a ship, the Duck is your best bet. You’ll find either the quartermaster or the first mate there of any ship that is looking for hands.” Yllyesh smiled encouragingly at her. “The Duck is not as nice as the Rudder, though. You’ll find both of them on the quay.”
“And I need some new clothes. A cloak in particular. This one is too short.”
“I agree. It is not at all suited for traveling. It’s too short. Your clothes will get all muddy on a rainy day and you will be all miserable for want of a hood. Someone has tried to wash your clothes, I see. Someone inexperienced, I might add. They—”
“Do they still stink?” Yllyesh flushed.
“I’m sorry. I wasn’t going to say stink—”
“But they smell?”
“I didn’t… I don’t…”
“They chafe as well.”
“The poor wench who tried to clean them used too much soap but didn’t scrub them enough. Then she forgot to rinse them thoroughly and squeeze the soap out.”
“I wrung them thoroughly, though,” Yllyesh said. “What’s your name?” he asked and he smiled innocently. “Mine is Yllyesh.”
“Elricky. My name is… I didn’t mean to call you a wench. I didn’t know… How was I to know you washed your own clothes?” By now her face was fiery red.
“I’m not used to washing my clothes myself. Hence my inexperience. As you so astutely noted. Don’t be embarrassed.”
“You’re not from these parts, are you?”
This time it was Yllyesh’s turn to flush.
“Eh… no. Is it that obvious?”
The discomfort of the young man gave Elricky some confidence. She smiled.
“It’s your accent.”
“That bad, is it?”
“Oh, no, no… You’re perfectly understandable. When you don’t talk too fast. It’s just… Well, it’s obvious you’re not from Tarbalainn or even from this region.”
Yllyesh hesitated, but Elricky’s big, innocent eyes helped him make up his mind.
“I’m a Mukthar.”
He had expected a surprised reaction at least and maybe even one of fear or hate, but Elricky didn’t seem unduly disturbed.
“What’s a Mukthar?” she asked on the brink of a nervous giggle.
“How frustrating. It seems we’re not nearly as famous as I thought we were. Let’s just say we have a reputation of being barbarians and keep it at that. And there was this brawl—”
“I wouldn’t know about all that. Tarbalainn keeps to itself and its own problems. Besides, you don’t look very dangerous.”
“But I am. I assure you I am,” Yllyesh protested, now truly disappointed.
Elricky laughed, then wrinkled her brow.
“Maybe I can help you. My mother used to be a seamstress and we have some clothes that might fit you. We also have a spare… eh, place where you could sleep.” She flushed again. “My mother’s eyes aren’t what they used to be, and I’m afraid I have not the least gift for needle work.” She lowered her voice to a near-whisper. “Would paying a modest sum for lodgings and food be a problem?”
“Not at all, I—”
“We can discuss the price of the clothes after you have seen them,” she interrupted him. “Even with her eyes being what they are, Mother can do some small modifications if needed, like lengthen or shorten pants. And I’m a good cook,” Elricky rattled on.
Yllyesh did some quick thinking. Private lodgings would be more discreet than staying at an inn.
“Are you sure?” the Mukthar asked. “Two women having a stranger — a barbarian, no less — stay in their house. Won’t your mother be afraid? Won’t you?” He bared his teeth in what he thought was a ferocious grin.
Elricky laughed out loud.
“You seem completely harmless,” she said. “Besides, I didn’t say you’d stay at the house.” She turned her fiery red face away. “We have a small barn that doubles as a stable. You could keep an eye on your horse. There’s a lot of soft hay and the nights aren’t cold this time of the year, anyway.” She looked at Yllyesh from under her eyelashes. “Unless this is unacceptable—”
“Oh, no, no. It’s completely acceptable. I don’t sleep too well, and I like to go for a walk in the cool night air. I wouldn’t want to disturb you or your mother.”
Elricky sighed with relief.
“Most taverns and inns are open all hours of the night.”
Yllyesh couldn’t help laughing. The girl turned an even deeper shade of red.
“You could get thirsty,” she said. “From all the walking. Just remember to take your sword with you when you go out. At night or during the day, for that matter.”
“I will,” the Mukthar said, producing his would-be savage grin.
Now Elricky laughed.
“Yeah, see, that will just make them want to pet you. I used to have a dog who did that. It was his way of asking to be fed.”
“Did it work?”
“Why? Are you hungry?”
Yllyesh bared his teeth.