Lee-Lack couldn’t tell how long Yllyesh had been gone, but it must have been more than an hour. It was completely dark outside.
The Mukthar had run out of the door in his shirt, and the temperature had dropped considerably.
Upon his return, Yllyesh sat down at the table without saying a word. Lee-Lack went over to the stove and ladled some brownish sludge into a bowl.
“There are vegetables in there, and some meat. Can’t tell which is which anymore, I’m afraid.”
Yllyesh dabbed listlessly in the stew with a wooden spoon, tasted a mouthful, then another, and then dug in seriously. Just before the Mukthar finished the bowl, Lee-Lack threw a crust of dark bread on the table.
“I’m sorry, Yllyesh,” the robber said. “Commanding a garrison isn’t going to happen, and neither is an embassy to Ormidon.”
“I know,” the Mukthar said. “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to take it out on you.”
“I understand. You’re in a difficult situation and you needed to vent. Your options are limited.”
“Very limited. If I return home I’ll likely be convicted as a traitor and made into a shorgah by orders of the quedash of my own tribe. If I fall into the hands of the new tribe who made a covenant with the warlord, I will be made into a shorgah by command of their quedash. If I fall into the hands of my roaming so-called brothers-in-arms, I either will be killed outright or made into a shorgah. Against every law known to Mukthars, of course. Only on the express order of a quedash can someone be made a shorgah, but once you’re made into one, even illegally, nobody will recognize you, and without a tongue you can’t speak anymore. Besides, the process can’t be reversed. Yeah, limited options is exactly right.”
Yllyesh looked depressed.
“It’s not as if I’m spoiled for choice myself,” Lee-Lack said. “The military governor of His Highness, the prince-warlord, would like to have me in his claws to tell him where the treasure of the Renuvian Plains Robbers is. Which means I can’t trust anyone who used to know me. They’re likely to betray me.”
“Hm. To betray you they first have to recognize you and you look nothing like any description of the chief of the robbers I heard.”
“It was an awkward and burdensome disguise, but I reckon it served its purpose. Luckily so, because I think a lot of my fellow Mirkadeshis blame me for the assault on the head village.”
“Maybe we shouldn’t stay in this region then. Since they know the robber gang originated in Mirkadesh, and that you were born there, it stands to reason they will concentrate most of their efforts in that area. We could just go away and leave most of the risks behind us.”
“He is right,” Lee-Lack thought. “I need to make some practical arrangements to have someone watch the house, though. The gold and the precious stones should be safe enough where I hid them.”
The robber smiled to himself.
“What’s so funny?” Yllyesh asked.
“How you used ‘we.’ You seem to want us to stay together.”
The Mukthar colored red.
“If you’re tired of my company, say so and I’ll leave this very minute,” Yllyesh burst out.
This time Lee-Lack laughed out loud.
“Touchy, touchy,” he said.
“I just thought it would be a good idea.” Yllyesh sulked. “Neither of us is safe here, and traveling alone could be dangerous.”
“Yes, you’re right,” the robber said, turning serious again. “My grandmother told me some of my former gang members survived. They as well fled these parts of the Highlands.”
“Tarbalainn. It’s a small harbor, at the foot of the Teagriam Mountains. A pirate’s den if ever there was one. The dregs of society live there.”
“Seems just what we need.” Yllyesh grinned.
“We’d blend right in,” Lee-Lack agreed and he laughed. “I understand the town and its surroundings are outside of the law, more or less. I doubt anyone would come looking there for a robber leader without a gang or for a rogue Mukthar.”
“The question is what are we going to do there?”
“Don’t worry about that, Yllyesh. To begin with, I have a few things I’d like to accomplish, and second, I have money enough to support us both.”
Yllyesh seemed doubtful.
“We Mukthars don’t like to live on alms, and I particularly hate being in someone’s debt. So, thank you, Lee-Lash, but no thank you.”
“Well, I could employ you as—”
“Don’t even think I will be your servant. Not even for money.” The Mukthar smirked. “Not that you could afford me anyway.”
“How does a rioghal a week sound to you?”
“A gold piece?”
“And free meals and all travel expenses paid.”
Yllyesh seemed tempted to accept.
“No, no, no,” he said after some internal struggle. “I could never be another man’s servant. I may not look it now, but I used to belong to the nobility of my tribe.”
“I think it is a well established fact that I can’t look after my own safety. An old woman drugged me and would have killed me if not for you. I think it’s clear I need a bodyguard. Someone clever. Someone brave. Someone strong. Someone with a keen eye for danger. Now who do I know that would fit—”
“Don’t overplay your hand, Lee-Lash,” Yllyesh grumbled. “But I like what I hear.”
The robber tried not to laugh.
“I suppose we don’t need a written agreement?” Lee-Lack asked.
“This would all be much simpler if I were your guest.”
“Is he pouting?” the robber thought, surprised but at the same time amused.
“How so?” he asked.
The Mukthar cleared his throat.
“Ahem… As your guest, Mukthar honor would demand I protect you under any and all circumstances. Under the rules of hospitality I couldn’t deny you the pleasure of giving me the wherewithal to keep up my rank. It’s universally understood that not doing so would reflect badly on you. So, I would oblige and do you the favor of accepting small sums.”
“Like a rioghal a week?”
“So as not to shame you. We needn’t go into details.”
“As long as Mukthar honor is served,” Lee-Lack said, and again he tried not to laugh, but it took more of an effort than last time. “Seriously, Yllyesh, how could you ever think you are not my guest? It’s an ancient Mirkadeshi custom to treat honored guests to a warm meal and a warm bath.”
“Is it now?”
“Yes. Didn’t I treat you as a guest?”
“Yes, I suppose so,” Yllyesh drawled.
“And didn’t you treat me as a host when you saved me from that vicious old hag?”
“Didn’t you yourself say, not a minute ago, that Mukthars don’t attach too much importance to written agreements?”
“Eh… not exactly. But fair enough, I guess.”
“I’m going out of my way to accommodate — to please, even — a young Mukthar renegade. Of course, he did save my life, but that can’t be it. I took to him immediately, almost from the moment I saw him. Did the loneliness get to me? I’ve been lonely before, haven’t I? In fact, I’ve been lonely most of my life. Even surrounded by my own men I never felt entirely at ease. Any one of them could have challenged my authority. I hid under my heavy disguise, and now I don’t have to anymore.”
Yllyesh filled their beakers with undiluted wine. Lee-Lack nodded his thanks wordlessly.
“The imposing robber chief was a role, and I had to work hard, very hard, to maintain the illusion. With Yllyesh I can relax. I don’t have to pretend to be something I’m not. Add to that the fact that he seems to be completely guileless. It would be nice to be able to trust again. To not have to think thrice about every word before speaking it. And he’s easy on the eyes as well.”
“It’s getting late, Lee-Lash,” Yllyesh interrupted the robber’s thoughts. “Is there a place for me to sleep?”
“You can have Gran’s bed. She won’t be needing it.”
“No, no, no,” the Mukthar cried out, mortified. “I’m not sleeping in a dead woman’s bed. Besides, it probably smells of her.”
Lee-Lack laughed out loud.
“Superstitious? Scared she might haunt you in your sleep?”
“Of course not, but there is no reason to taunt the Gods and Goddesses. All the less reason if you can easily avoid doing so.”
“There’s the floor. My bed is the only other one in this house.”
“You do realize it might smell of me.”
“I don’t mind your smell, Lee-Lash.”