The second story leaned out far over the streets, somehow maintaining a sturdy semblance despite its awkward angle. In its shade, Corrin looked her over, and pulled at the thong in her hair so some fell forward in waves to obscure the planes of her face and the tips of her ears. He winced at not having the foresight to find her some leggings and a new tunic. Reaching over his own shoulder, he pulled his cloak over the golden eagle, outstretched wings concealed in the dark folds of fabric.
“We’ve got some work to do. As well as provisions, you’re going to need a pack. And a weapon.” He paused and gestured vaguely. “And some clothes.” Giving her an appraising look he jerked his head towards the foot traffic. A vast majority of the people were cloaked, making it impossible to discern faces in the deep shadows of low hoods. Of the ones who were identifiable as women, they all wore men’s garb, and aside from wrists and the occasional calf, no skin showed. She nodded acquiescence, and he stepped back towards the roadway. He turned, immediately cutting a wider swath through the throng than she had been managing.
The mixed sounds of the open market swirled around them almost more heavily then the myriad of smells coming from open doors and stalls. Feeling more than a little claustrophobic in the shifting populace, she reached out and rested her hand lightly on Corrin’s shoulder as another group of mixed race pressed by intimately to her right. Using his height to an advantage, he scanned ahead over the heads in the crowd around him; a veritable sea of turbans, coifs, helms and bare heads, every fashion and style represented. Nodding indiscernibly, he started off diagonally across the moving stream of people, Gaerielle dragging behind.
The pair zigzagged until Corrin came to a halt at a gathering of tables under an awning made of canvas so grimy and old it was beginning to crack, the wood of the surfaces chipping under reapplied layers of peeling dark blue paint. She sank down at a table towards the corner where the awning met the boards of the building and despite her outward appearance of relaxation, her eyes darted around trying to watch every person at once. Corrin sat to her left, further into the shade and propped his booted feet on the opposite bench. Tapping his fingers on his greaves, he smiled.
“You need to relax a little in the crowd. It’s near impossible to stick out in a place where everyone comes from somewhere different, but you’re doing a wonderful job.” He reached out to grab two ale mugs off the tray of a wench headed to another table. Without a misstep, she turned sharply on her heel to re-enter the building to get replacements. “Think of it as blending into the forest, Elle. Just now you have to be a bit more clever; the trees here are moving, watching and most of them have attitudes the likes of which you’d rather not clash with.” He followed her distracted gaze to a cockfight that had just begun across the roadway. The mangy pair of panicked roosters screeched and flapped about in the dust before lashing out at each other to the glee of the onlookers. Her mouth twisted just slightly before Corrin’s words sunk in. Closing her eyes on the scene, then opening them again to him to where he sat watching her markedly, her face composed itself to betray none of the disgust or discomfort she felt on the inside. “You really find this that horrid?” Raising an eyebrow, he followed suit with the mug to his lips.
“I can’t pretend that I like it, but you raise a valid point, my friend.” Wrinkling her nose, she touched her fingertips to the surface of her ale and lifting them, rubbed them together. He snorted and shook his head as she mouthed the word wine? at him and held the mug out behind her without looking. The wench snagged it on the way by and set it down with a thunk in front of a half-breed human, sloshing the watery stuff over his boot tops. He spat at her, but it barely even tagged her heels, as she had already headed back inside. Looking back to Corrin, Gaerielle cocked her head to the side. “Shall I practice blending in then? Seems like most people around here go about things the same way.” Offering her hand, she flashed him a brilliant smile. “Greetings you filthy bastard. Push me again and you’ll find my dagger sheathed in an organ of your choice.” Still smiling, she turned and spat in a crude but rather entertaining parody of the man behind her. Raising a warning hand but finding it impossible not to grin back, Corrin bobbed his head in assent.
“Right then; you’ll do fine, provided you can keep your smug tongue in check.” He kept the smile on his face to take the sting from his words, but he leaned closer and he could see from the way her stance shifted that she was listening. “I best warn you not to pick fights, though- only the inexperienced instigate here, but you’ve got more sense than that, don’t you? The ones to watch for are the ones you can’t see…my years in places such as this have taught me that much, at least.” Leaning back, he lost some of the seriousness. “Now really, you’ve never been in a trading town before? There must be something here you’ll enjoy…they guarantee that in some sections of the city, you know.” Raising his mug in a mocking salute, he drained the last of it. Looking out on the crowd again over her shoulder, she turned back, the corner of her mouth twitching slightly as she tried to maintain a straight face.
“I can only surmise you’d know of the best places for such, Cor- else you wouldn’t be such an advocate for the fun to be had.” He rapped his knuckles against his breastplate and stood up with a smirk. As he looked down on her, she crossed her eyes at him so quickly he wasn’t quite sure it was meant to offend. She was all smiles again within an instant, and he chuckled. You’ll fit in better than you know, once we get you fixed up. “I’m sure that should have hurt, but with my knightly honour I’m above comments from the likes of you.” He tossed a penny on the table, and the wench materialized again, only to be bumped out of the way indignantly by Gaerielle, who hurried to follow.
“The likes of me? Oh, you watch yourself human- I’ll not take your petty jealous insults.” With a feral grin, she flicked him in the forehead and fell into step slightly behind him. Shaking his head, he eased himself into the flow of people headed in a southerly direction down the packed dirt road.
Gaerielle flicked him hard with the tip of her index finger and then let him lead by way of a slight apology. Following along behind, keeping his broad cloaked back in her sights, she didn’t tell him of the things that she found amazing about the town. Ducking quickly to avoid a head on collision with a hot meat roll on a skewer thrust out in front of her at eye level, she turned around and walked backwards as she raised her head again. The people here! Turning around on one foot, she resumed trailing Corrin. Every eatery had its own assortment of individuals gathered in front.
They passed a score of kegs fenced in with rough-hewn logs, humans, dwarves and a select few elves milling about, filling the enclosure. On two of the barrels, peasant girls were dancing to the slightly off key lyrics of a dumpy little minstrel perched on a stool as high as he was tall. Roaring with laughter, the patrons didn’t notice the dissonance in the least, their own cracking voices raised in drunken song. Gaerielle quit the pretence of being disgusted with everything and beamed outright at the scene. She grabbed the edge of Corrin’s cloak to slow him down as a dwarf leaning over the splintered rail held out a ragged deck of cards.
His beard matted and wet from the beer still dribbling from the side of his face, he grinned and pushed back the horned helm that kept creeping down to cover his left eye.
“D’ye fancy a game, pretty miss? Ye travel with that great oaf, so ye must know yer way ‘bout the common born, I’d wager.” Her curiosity sparked, she moved a little closer and favoured the drunk with a slightly incredulous smile. I know nothing of your type of ‘common born’, little man. Corrin crossed his arms in front of his chest and stepped to stand beside her, his stance emphasizing both his size and the drape of his cloak over his bright amour. She kicked him lightly and winced when her toe connected with his metal greave. She shot him a look she thought would soften him up a little. Don’t be an ass, he’s harmless. “Cor, you give me a silver, and I’ll show you some magic.” Taking one out of his purse while he stood stiff, looking at her dourly, she closed it in her fist. “I have to pay for all the things you think I need don’t I? I won’t take charity- let’s call this a loan.” Giggling she flipped the coin across dextrous fingers, between knuckles. It flashed along with her smile. “I’m quite good at this. You’ll see.”
The dwarf brightened up at the sight of the coin and leaning ever further over the railing, it started to sag faintly under the weight of his girth. “Come then, girlie, you ken bring ‘im along if it so pleases ye. I do be a gambling man, and I’ve bet myself that I ken take all yer coin, but I cannae win my wager if ye’ll not be playing with me.” With that he spun about and landed gracelessly on his rump, dealing the cards into the dust in three hands. Laughing, with a small shrug she patted Corrin’s deflated purse and pulled him towards the opening in the fence.
“Let’s do some fitting in, shall we?”
That’s not what I meant, and she knows it. He shook her hand off his arm and watched her step lightly over the fence. Taking his time his time walking around it, he watched as she made to sit in front of one of the piles of cards. There are other things we could be doing with our time, he thought, as the dwarf reached out to pull her into his lap as she sat. She got us into this, though; I suppose we’ll have to see what comes of it. He laughed inwardly as her face took on a slightly alarmed look at being in such close quarters to the dwarf. Corrin sat, picked up his own folded and well used pile of cards, and watched as she leaned away from the man, tipping the drunk off balance to the side. She rolled out of his lap and ended up in a crouch in front of her own cards. Shooting him a lopsided grin, she shrugged and organized herself. “What’s the game, sir?” Holding his cards, but not yet looking at them, he left the question open for introductions. The dwarf however, -unfazed by Gaerielle’s rejection- had rolled onto his side and was stuffing his hands deep into various pockets. His faded short cape tangled in the ram’s horns of his helm and he plucked at it distractedly as he muttered to himself. Corrin watched the little man patiently; noting his leathers, despite being ill used, were of excellent quality, a military grade.
The dwarf sat up suddenly, and his helm slid right off the back of his skull. Turning around, he brought the helm into his lap and upended it, delighting in the discovery of a pouch that had been tucked inside. He poured a pair of worn bone die into his palm, and tossing them onto the ground, scratched a circle in the dust around them with his thumbnail. “The game, good ser, should be chain o’ command.” Gaerielle’s eyebrows lifted quickly in delight, and Corrin too felt relieved and looked over his cards. I should have guessed as much.
The game was popular with all races, and was quite easy to play, though skill and intelligence were boons for strategy and scoring. The deck consisted of six suits: the sword, the coin, the tome, the beast, the light, and the darkness. Under each suit, there were five cards in the chain of command that gave the game its name. The lord was dominant over the lady, who ranked above the warrior, and so on, down through the bard and page. Each player laid down a card, with the lead rotating clockwise after every trick. The highest card took the others laid down in the trick, regardless of the suits on any. If someone played a card of the same rank for the highest in another suit, the competitors would roll the die to decide the victor. When everyone had spent their hands, the one who had the highest point totals in captured cards would take the game. Point values depended on the suits and the suit used to capture. Usually, there was a collection of coins in the middle that went to the winner, as well as additional wagers on the rolls.
Rubbing his beard across his forehead in the heat, the dwarf extended his other hand and clasped Gaerielle’s. “I be Daffyd, my lady. I count it an honour to play with a lass such as yerself, and I humbly beg that ye’ll not hold it against me when I relieve ye of yer coins and valuables.” She tried not to cringe as he pressed his damp face against her palm, and extricated it with a ginger smile.
“You’re so sure of yourself, Daffyd. I admire your confidence…but even more so, I admire your purse…don’t jump to conclusions just yet.” She fanned her cards and winked at Corrin. Daffyd chuckled and tried to clap him on the back, narrowly missing smacking Corrin in the side of the head, and setting himself off balance again.
“A sprightly lass at that! Fer one of the fair folk, the girl has the gall of a human. And you, a human yourself, for her companion! A hellcat fae and a glorious knight…an odd pair to be sure. Whose court do ye hail from, ser…?” Corrin touched his cards to his lips and sat for a second before answering.
“My name is Corrin, and I travel on business of my own, Daffyd, not at the behest of my king or country. The lady is Gaerielle, and she travels with me on the same notion.” With a dashing smile, he diverted the talk from his background. “You’d best be sharp today. I’m no stranger to the game myself, and as you’ve seen, the lady will snap up what I miss.” he bluffed. Holding up a card between two fingers to signal he’d take the first lead, he tossed down a silver that the others matched and thought, time for your magic, Elle.
Amazed at with the ease Corrin danced around the dwarf’s drunken slew of questions, she was again caught off guard by his smile, white and even in his sun browned face. He led with a safe card, the warrior of beasts, neither high nor low -she tossed her lady of swords down casually- and grinned out right as his eyes widened faintly. Daffyd played the offensive and matched with his own lady, her tiny painted face and the animals slinking around her wearing away where the cards had been creased and stained. Scooping up the dice deftly, he cocked his wrist and spun one into the dust with speed and precision that contradicted his drunken appearance, handing the other to her. The pips turned up a five. He leered at her and held up a copper. That’s it; offer me your money, Daffyd.
“I’d bet ye cannae beat me, girl- the odds are stacked against ye, but ye ken always try yer luck.” She tossed her die and watched it spin on a corner briefly until it dropped flat. Plucking the coin from his fingers, she rearranged her cards while Daffyd’s face fell at the sight of the six black painted dots on the ivory cube. She palmed the coin, and grinned at Corrin, who glanced at her over the top of his cards and looked slightly impressed. The tricks went on, and she took another three rolls, along with seven more of Daffyd’s coppers.
The more frustrated he got, the more he assumed the girl would run out of luck this time around, and the more he bet more coins per roll. Daffyd looked at her, and practically threw down his lord of light. She presses me more! Almost expecting her match of his lord, he picked up the dice and squeezed them tightly, grunting as she did, in fact, place her lord of darkness beside it. Corrin had led with a lady, so this particular hand would be worth a fair amount of points for a capture; opposing lords taking the lady of coins being one of the highest scoring combinations. By me beard, I’ll have this trick- my faith alone could win me here, but ye cannae leave a war or a card game teh just god.
Leaning forward, he set down another silver and made as if to roll. The girl nodded acceptance, and just as he went to drop the dice, he sneezed violently…and messily. Both his opponents leaned back a bit as he snuffled around and raised his sleeve to his nose. With the heel of his hand turned toward his face, he wiped straight up, dropping one dice into his sleeve. A jerk of his elbow and he had it caught there, under the pretence of flicking his hand to one side in embarrassed disgust. Dropping his arm down again, he rubbed his saturated hand against the back of his calves, crossed in front of him. The other dice concealed in the folded down top of his boot pushed out into his hand and he came back up with it between his fingers.
“Didna mean teh spray ye, girl. The dust in this place gets right teh me head.” She nodded and smiled, but was still glancing at the smear marks on his pants. Na so quick fer a fae, then. He rolled his dice, and smirked at her, and the six he had planned on. Taking the other dice from him with two fingers, she threw it down hard, and it bounced around. He watched her fingers twitching in the dust, and noted it for perhaps, another game, another time. Everyone has a nervous ‘abit, and I’ve found yers now, girl. The dice settled and balanced lightly on a vertex…and tipping leisurely to one side with the tiniest puff of dust, turned up six pips.