Ember had forgotten about the other cow.
The confrontation with Birlintet had thrown her, followed by the huge crowd pressing in, and it had slipped her mind as it looked like everything she had been promised was going to disappear. After that all the food on the plate, plates, in front of her had seemed good enough on its own, like all that mattered was that it was there and it was hers.
And yet there was more to come.
More set aside.
Tenkreilla, her kingdom, had fallen six months before. For the first month after, she had dodged military patrols in the pillaged farmland around the cities, stealing food where she could find it until her pursuers came too close and forced her to flee to the wilderness. There she had still been on the run, searching for food that was now faster, further apart and harder to find as the winter closed in and everything became scarce. She had always had an abundance set before her in the past, but in all those six months of running she had never once gotten enough that she wasn’t hungry.
And in the last two months she had been constantly starving.
A stolen cow paid for and another one thrown on top of it and roasted just for her.
Riches of kindness.
She had asked Trin earlier, but she couldn’t believe what the woman had told her. And she had a desperate need to know. Kindness was not safe. Kindness was something people gave you when they were intending to use you somehow.
Trin probably hadn’t realized it, but “He who fattens you prepares you for slaughter. Watch him twice as hard.” was a common proverb among the scaled nobility. Even if the woman had spent as much time around Ember’s kind as she said, Garagrans were still chary of dispensing their wisdom to outsiders, even ones they liked, so she had probably never heard it.
After all, “Teaching wisdom to your neighbor is sharpening the blade of your executioner” was also a common proverb among Ember’s kind.
What did this Prince want with her?
Should she just ask him like she had with Trin?
No. Whether it was some of the food making its way to her brain or the perception of some small amount of safety, her former wits were beginning to return. Perhaps it was just that she was among society again and was remembering all that entailed.
Whatever. She couldn’t ask. And doing it with Trin had been foolish.
“Asking questions is like pulling your own scales. The only thing it reveals is your own vulnerability.”
Except that the people who used that proverb had underlings they could send to ask questions for them. She had no one.
And she’d never been very good at verbal probes.
“Are you alright?” he asked.
She focused on the Prince and realized that he was studying her. Not like Trin had, not like he could see everything that was going on inside her.
More like he was fascinated.
“What?” she asked.
She reached up and touched her cheek, traced the wet trail down it.
“I’m sorry,” he said. “You must be very tired. You can’t have slept well last night. There’s a small inn here with a room reserved for you. You can lie down until most of the people have gone to bed. I’ll have the cow kept warm for you.”
Ember felt another drop run down onto her finger tips. She had to get away and put herself back together. Exhaustion was as good an excuse as any.
Maybe it was also the truth.
The Prince came around the table and offered her his arm. Ember remembered seeing human men in her Tenkreilla escort women the same way.
She stood up and placed a hand on the inside of his elbow and he lead her across the square to one of the more attractive buildings, its wood siding painted a light gray, with red trim and large carved flowers just below the peaks of the gables. On the way he signalled to one of the soldiers that had come with him, one of the horse archers from earlier, and sent the woman running for the innkeeper.
They stepped inside through a door with a glass window in it, a smooth, plate glass window at least three hands across, into a wood-floored common room lit by a single lamp sitting on the small reception desk.
Ember looked at the floor, which was waxed and polished, and then picked out other details in the dim light, like a number of hunting trophies and paintings on the walls around the room, a full upright payano up against the middle of the wall to the left of the reception desk, and a chalk menu over what had to be a pass-through window to the kitchen to the right of the reception desk. The smell of old fires and good food filled the room, along with a hint of the nester-spice used in pastry baking.
They waited together in the empty room while the band filled the air on the other side of the door with a bouncing, swinging dance piece, and said nothing.
Ember was glad for the silence.
Then the innkeeper burst in through the door with the soldier in tow, and after him the militia man with the two additional plates and another mug of beer.
The innkeeper was a surprisingly chubby Lilta, with shorter ears and a dark complexion that indicated he might have a solid helping of Bortin in him, as well as fuzzy brown hair and a full beard that matched.
“Welcome to Sara’s Best Rest, your Highness, Lady Firrisskahv. My wife got your room all ready with a bedwarmer, my lady, and there’s a desk you can finish your dinner at.”
He ran behind the reception desk and fetched a key and a lamp, lit the lamp, and then lead the way upstairs, down a hall with only three doors, and opened the door at the far end for her.
Ean let her go in first, took the key from the innkeeper with thanks and handed it to her, transferred the plates from the militia man to the desk himself, and lit a lamp in the room with the lamp from the innkeeper before returning it to him.
“I’ll send someone to wake you when it’s a good time for your meal. Unless you want to wait until the morning?”
“Night is good. Thank you.”
“I’ll leave a guard here for your protection. If you need anything she’ll be right outside.”
Ember nodded and glanced at the woman archer, who bowed to her and took up station in the hallway. The Prince asked one last time if there was anything Ember needed, no, nothing thank you, and then closed the door.
She was alone again, but in an entirely different way from before.
Was the guard outside for her protection? Or to keep her from running away?
Paranoia stirred and gnawed at her, but she was too tired to listen. If they had wanted her dead, she would be dead.
The guard was safety.
Ember examined the room, small and cozy with a big rug covering most of the wood floor and a wide, cushy-looking, two-person bed that took up a third of the space. The walls were covered in paper painted with a repeating pattern of wildflowers and an amazingly lifelike painting of a flying goose hung over the head of the bed.
Though smaller and subtly different in disturbing ways, the room was as rich as any she could remember back in the palace.
Maybe that was just the cold and the hunger talking.
She glanced at the food and thought about eating it, but suddenly felt far more tired. Pulling back the covers on the bed she found it had a coal-stocked warmer just like the innkeeper said. She set the warmer aside, slid into the place where it had been, and disappeared into warm oblivion.