The two men sat on the other side of the table talking about court politics in a way that Uly failed to understand and did not care about. He might have been able to understand it if he felt inclined to pay attention, but didn’t see the point. He looked up once when Markis said something about a horse and Ryanac laughed. Looking back down at his plate, Uly didn’t think it was horsemeat. He’d had horsemeat, and it didn’t taste the same. Besides, this was tender. He had gulped the first two mouthfuls and would have gulped the third, but the men were watching him, and also, the second spoonful had lodged in his throat. Though he desired the food, the man had spoken right. If he ate at this speed, he would bring it up again, or it would lie like a weight in his stomach. He slowed down.
The man pushed a glass towards him filled with cool, clear water. Again, Uly almost gulped it down, but taking too big a swallow hurt his throat, and he eased off. Then the man gave him another glass of water and a small glass of wine. Expecting sour vinegar, Uly almost sputtered in surprise when the taste proved lush and warming. He would have liked to describe the taste more fully, but had no way to compare. Still, he relished each sip.
After they had sat there awhile, the two men talking and Uly drifting towards sleep, a sound made him open his eyes, and he found a second, smaller helping of stew placed in front of him. Without hesitation, he ate, not once looking at the two men in the room. If they had poisoned the food, he felt no pain yet, and he could think of worse ways to die.
Wiping the last of the gravy from the plate with the last piece of bread, Uly then finished the water and set the glass aside. Glancing up, he blinked, surprised to find the guard, Ryanac, had left. He had not noticed him leave. The other man sat dressed in a heavy-looking robe decorated with glittering gold threads. For all Uly knew, the threads were real gold.
“Come with me,” the man said, rising from his seat. Uly hurried to obey, trying to push the chair back into place.
“Leave it,” the man said, with a soft quality to his voice.
Uly almost had to run to catch up. Out in the corridor, he followed, unsure how or where he should walk, so he kept a couple of places back and to the side. This way the man could see him from the corner of his eye. He didn’t want him to think he was sneaking up on him or doing anything he should not be doing. He took the time as they walked to study the other man’s face, shifting his gaze back and forth to the man’s features and then ahead so that it lessened the chance of being caught staring.
Earlier, there had not been much opportunity to take in the strange man’s appearance. Besides, Uly had had other things on his mind, like what his immediate future held in store and whether anything would happen to his skin. There seemed to be no immediate danger, however, so now Uly took the time to contemplate what kind of man had captured him.
Earlier, all he had noticed was the cold glitter of those dark brown eyes. The mouth had set in a hard, determined line. During dinner, Uly had seen warmth in the man’s eyes as he conversed with the guard. He was not only a guard, then. Ryanac was this man’s friend. They had talked, but they had also joked and laughed. That had amazed him most of all, to hear and see this man laugh. Still, he had only taken the most cautious of glances, afraid, tired, and overwhelmed by the meal. Now he watched those brown eyes, as they moved with alertness and appraisal even as they walked.
The eyebrows were a little heavy and perhaps detracted from his handsomeness, but to Uly’s mind, they only drew attention to how bright and alert those eyes shone out from an otherwise benign-looking face. Having confronted men with disguised malignancy, Uly always looked to the eyes first and then to the mouth, as they often revealed the essence of a man.
The hair hung long, as was the way with most Swithin, male or female. In colour, the tresses were a rich chestnut brown. He stood tall, but then Uly was far from short. Still, Uly walked hunched from habit. No street urchin wanted others to notice them, but if he were to stand, he would reach the man’s shoulder easily, perhaps be only half a head shorter.
The man was large, but Ryanac was a little taller and definitely larger. It should not have concerned him, but he had to wonder over this man’s age. At twenty-two, the Swithin judged him a man. That was fine by him. He often felt old enough for others to call him a man, but at other times, he still felt like a boy. Walking beside such a man as this -- one who exuded such confidence -- made him feel undeniably young in wisdom, though not in age.
They turned into another corridor, where two guards stood in attendance. They made no indication they even saw the two of them approach and might as well have been statues. Then as they passed through the open doorway, one of the guards finally moved to close it behind them. Looking ahead, Uly saw jewel-encrusted steps leading into another room. Beyond, he caught a glimpse of indescribable opulence before they were moving to the right, to the far end of yet another corridor. Uly followed the man into another room.
This room had a window similar in design to the room in which he had bathed. Likewise, some sort of desk stood beneath, but here all comparisons ended. A dark, thick rug covered the stone floor. A four-poster bed stood in the centre of the right-hand wall, opposite the window. The mattress rose up thick from the base. The covers had the appearance of weight and warmth; the pillows were plump. At present, someone had tied back the curtains, but the occupant could drop them to keep out the cold. Either side of the bed there stood a side table, one bare, the other holding a small jug of drinking water and a glass.
This room also had a fireplace, but it remained unlit. A chair stood beside the fireplace, and behind this, a bookcase stood against the wall. To Uly’s disappointment, the shelves were empty. A small round table occupied the very middle of the room. On either side, there stood a chair similar but simpler in design to those in the dining room. The man came to stand behind the table and turned his attention to Uly.
Standing there confused, Uly first frowned and then seeing that the man patiently waited, he dropped his gaze to the table and chairs. On the left-hand chair there lay a pile of neatly folded garments. They were clean and finely made apparel. On the right-hand chair were Uly’s clothes. Dirty and as full of holes as when he had arrived in them, still someone had neatly folded them.
Uly frowned a silent question at the man. Glancing away, the man reached into a pocket of his robe. In equal silence, he removed an apple and placed it on the table. Reaching into another pocket, he pulled out a bright coin and placed this on the table next to the apple.
“Sleep this night in that bed. For tonight, this will be your room, and no one will enter to disturb you. For tonight, you have no say. You have eaten, you are tired, and you will rest. Tomorrow you have a choice. In the morning you have a decision to face.”
The man turned his head in a slight nod towards the clean clothes. “You can choose to put these on and join me for breakfast and see what the day holds.” He tilted his head to the dirty clothes. “Or you can take the coin and apple, dress in your own clothes, and leave here. No one will stop you if they see you in these filthy garments. If, however, they see you in the clean clothes, you must stay the entire day. By my order, the guards will bar you from leaving until nightfall. Do I make myself clear?”
The situation was so peculiar and the concept so strange that Uly hesitated. Why would the man make such a bargain with him? Seeing the flare of impatience light up the man’s eyes, he nodded, then said, “Yes,” but he didn’t know how to finish the sentence, what to call this man.
“Shavar. Yes, Shavar.”
Sharon Maria Bidwell