A copper bowl of steaming water awaited us, wafting scents of herbs and aromatic oils. Hot water had been as rare for me in recent months as it likely was for the boy; I might have groaned in anticipation, if I hadn’t been distracted.
There was more than the water waiting. Across the tent’s second cot, Shani had laid out a selection of fresh clothes. None of them was mine. I’d never worn such fine silks, or such vivid colors.
She was dressed herself now, in a brief tunic of dull rich crimson that was presumably decent enough for a funeral and yet still revealed every part of her a man might value, from her short and shapely legs to her brand and collar.
She followed my glance to the cot and said brightly, “I unpacked your things, master, but none of them seemed…quite right for tonight.” What she meant, of course, was that after months on my own in the mountains they were all as grubby as each other, and as threadbare. “Master Jefer would be delighted to lend you any of his, so I picked out a few that you might like.”
“I think I ought to hear that from him, don’t you?”
“No, she’s right, master,” Kim said at my elbow. “He wouldn’t think twice. And you can’t ask him, because he’s with the funeral party now; but you can trust us to know his mind.”
It was likely true. They called him “Master Jay” between themselves, and didn’t try to hide their fondness.
“Kim can see to you now, master; he knows where everything is.” As she spoke, Shani was scooping up the clothes she’d set out for Jefer. “I have to go, to make sure that he’s clean and decent before the ceremony. He won’t think about his clothes tonight, but someone has to.”
She hurried out. Kim choked down a giggle and said, “Master Jefer never ever thought about his clothes before he came riding into camp with her strapped across his saddle. Now he’s the finest dandy in the clan.” He looked over the choice arrayed on the cot and went on, “You’ll look splendid in the green, master.”
It’ll bring out the color of your eyes, I thought irrelevantly. I hoped it was irrelevant. A free man shouldn’t dress to complement his slave—and Kim wasn’t my slave anyway, nor even Jefer’s. It was generous of the clan to lend him to me, and they couldn’t have picked a boy who would suit me better, but even so. Jefer had invited me to stay one night; I’d be moving on in the morning. Leaving Kim behind. I was in no position to buy him, even if his new owner were willing to sell. Not that I wanted to buy him anyway, I reminded myself firmly. A slave would only slow me down on the road, be a second mouth to feed, need watching and protecting. He travels fastest who travels alone
: that was my motto for this journey, and for my life to come.
Still: there was no point punishing myself or the boy tonight, for the inevitable disappointments of tomorrow.
“Green it is, then,” I said, just for the reward of his smile. And the promise of those eyes later on. He might not be my boy, but I could still hope to find him at my shoulder through the feast that would follow the funeral, and perhaps here in my cot tonight. A word to my host would ensure it, but truly, I didn’t think a word would be necessary. I thought Jefer was assuming it. The clans were legendarily openhanded toward those they welcomed to their tents, and I was probably more obvious than I’d like to think. Subtlety takes practice, and I’d barely spoken to another human being all season, let alone seen one that I desired.
Even now, my hand was on his shoulder, tracing the lines of his brand. He glanced up at me, and a shadow passed across his face. Perhaps he too was remembering that he didn’t belong to me, nor to his old master now; he was someone else’s property, with all that that implied.
I sighed, and dropped onto the cot, and stretched my legs out wearily. He might not be mine but he was here, at my convenience, and my boots did seem very far away.
“Just pull those off for me, would you, Kim?”
“Of course, master.” He dropped to his knees, gripped toe and heel, and heaved with a will. I tried to remember the last time I’d had my boots off—was it two days ago, or three? Either way, it had been hard work. It was more like three months since they’d been properly oiled, and the leather had been soaked so often since then, they were stiff as iron now.
Kim huffed and hauled, glanced up at me wryly, then took a stronger grip and hauled again. At last, the boot released my leg and slid free. I may have hissed a little, with the relief of it. Before I could draw my foot back and offer him the other, I felt warm fingers close firmly around my ankle, while his free hand pushed back the cuff of my pants. At first I thought he was only playing, and I was ready to snap at him; but when he looked up this time there was no tease in him at all.
“Master, how long have they been like this?”
“What, the blisters, you mean? Awhile. It’s a long walk over the mountains, and no healers to be found.”
“This is more than blisters,” he said, gently scolding while his fingers brushed over all my sorest places. “If the other’s as bad—”
“I confess, the other is just as bad—”
“Then it’s no wonder I didn’t notice, because you must have been limping on both of them at once. You should have said something, master. You should never have helped me carry that great heavy log. But you don’t need a healer. Not a mage, at least. Just herbs and ointments, and time. And a new pair of boots,” he added, scowling at the offenders. “I’ll ask Mistress Lashan to treat these sores for you, but we don’t have time now,” with a glance through the open tent flap at the darkening sky. “I think Master Jay’s slippers will fit you meantime, and they’ll be much easier on your poor feet tonight.”
And then he did drop his head and kiss my toe teasingly, even before he hauled the other boot off, even before he undressed the rest of me and washed me from head to foot. There was blood in the water by the time he was done, but I didn’t care. It just felt so good to be free of those boots, and to be clean, and to have this sweet careful boy be anxious about me, making decisions for my comfort. I couldn’t remember the last time anyone had troubled their heads about my welfare, and I was frankly tired of having to do everything myself.