He heard Brastic sigh in relief. The two men were far from friends, but they had learned to respect one another and he knew that Rory could have both a commanding presence and skill in social protocols. A full head shorter than his servant, Rory was not a man to underestimate.
“So, Captain,” rory said, placing a deferential tone in the word, “I presume that you are far from home.” The statement hung in the air for a space before Ahlia answered.
“We are, but this remains a long-held territory of my people. What were you doing in the valley? Apart from being ambushed and rescued by my soldiers, that is.”
Rory gave a rueful smile. “We were asked to investigate why there was an encampment on disputed soil. I have been wondering, since being brought here, what the truth of the matter may be.”
“So you realize the same people who charged you with this task are the same who sent the men to murder you?”
“Absolutely. Coincidences are a rare thing. They were dressed as mercenaries without an affiliation, but behaved as though they were trained soldiers. Poorly trained, I grant you, but their numbers were considerable.”
Ahlia smiled again. “Remove their chains and go get your suppers.” The command was soft, but the soldiers did not hesitate, even going so far as wiping their wrists with wet cloths to ease the chafing they experienced.
Brastic was evidently more surprised than his master. “Such kind manners your people have.”
Ahlia looked questioningly at Rory.
“Does your servant always speak out of turn?”
Brastic flushed at this admonition, but Rory laughed.
“Brastic and I were lumbered with one another as a punishment. I prefer not to strain the relationship by being forceful about his behavior.” One of the women approached and led them to a large pile of cushions, motioning for them to relax. Both men made grateful noises at the comfort.
“I see the pair of you enjoy comfort when it is available.”
“One gets tired of sleeping on the ground, Captain,” Rory replied. “I believe I speak for the both of us that your hospitality is gratefully accepted.”
The older woman walked over and gave Ahlia a small cup of steaming liquid. The younger woman said something to her, displeasing the older woman. She then walked to Rory and Brastic, serving them first before giving one to her mistress. Rory did not understand the language, but was curious at the obvious reprimand.
Next to him, Brastic attempted to gulp his drink, then made a sound of surprise. Rory looked down at the steaming, frothy liquid. It was dark and had a strange scent that he could not define. After Brastic’s reaction, Rory chose to sip his. He was filled with a sudden rush that jolted his body with the potency of the liquid.
“So,” Ahlia said with amusement, “you have never had qahwa before?”
Rory had a quizzical look on his face and took another sip. He was liking the beverage.
“I have never even heard of it before. Thank you for introducing us to this.” Next to him, Brastic was jittery.
“Rory,” she said, ignoring titles, “you have been deceived in this venture.” There was no rancor or reproach in her voice.
“I had guessed from the start, to be honest. Why send a deputation from another country to investigate interlopers? I didn’t care for that minister, anyway. A better question for me is why I was sent to negotiate trade with a country so far from that of my lord’s.” This caused Ahlia to lean forward, steepling her fingers and a ravenous look on her brown face.
“I had thought my curiosity had been piqued, but this is getting better!”
Brastic made an angry sound next to him, but was cut off before he could say a word.
“No, do not think to comment about the warriors we lost,” Rory said, “since they wanted glorious deaths over succeeding to live and win.” Brastic sat back, stewing in silence.
“I meant no disrespect for your dead, Brastic.”
The large man exhaled loudly. “Not necessary. He is right. They foolishly threw away their lives. I apologize for becoming offended.”
The tent was silent for several minutes. It was Ahlia who spoke next.
“Rory, tell me about yourself and how this came about.” Without looking at them, she waved away the other three women, who stormed out after being so curtly dismissed. Rory held her gaze for a few moments before turning to Brastic and nodding to the tent opening. The man was not pleased and glared at Ahlia’s guard, but left as he was instructed. Gravely, she dismissed her last servant.
“I assume you are a fighter, not just a captain?” Rory’s tone was curious. There were weapons nearby and none of them looked decorative.
“I am. It has been difficult to maintain discipline, but not overmuch. Would you respect me less if I wasn’t”
“No, it was merely a curiosity. Yes, I am a prince in exile. My brother is the rightful ruler and some people did not like that, thinking I would be a rallying point to depose him. The best solution was to leave and enter into service at my cousin’s court.”
“Are all of your people as tall as Brastic?”
Rory laughed. “Usually. I am about the height of your men, but below average height at home.”
Ahlia studied him for a moment before responding.
“Was there a note of discontent in your voice regarding this cousin?”
“He is a buffoon, as are most of his people. They throw food scraps to the floor for the dogs and shelter pigs in their homes in the winter. I detest them, but I have yet to decide my next action. Brastic has told me of his home in Cofhurtail. Maybe we will slip away some time and travel there.”
She gave him a wan smile. “I know something about being discontent with status,” she said, “although mine is remarkably better than most women of my country.”
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