The Boar Hunt Inn is famed across all of Kormar as a provincial stop in the rural areas. It offers many opportunities for hunting, both of game and for discrete encounters by Kormar nobility.
— Rastin Kadromith, History of Kormar
With every passing mile, Kanéko felt further from the small, comfortable world she grew up in. Instead of rolling hills and trees, the earth ended in jagged peaks of bare rock. The densely packed forests, the lifeblood of her father’s land and the mill, grew sparser until only patches of trees dotted the tapestry of wind-blown grass. Even the road, a dirty reddish color, was different from the dark earth surrounding her father’s keep.
They were on the tenth day of travel. Kanéko was tired of waking up to a line for the latrines and another line to get bowls of oatmeal and dried fruits. Every night, Garèo dragged her through brutal lessons for archery, brawling, survival, and fitness. The only thing that made the days passable was Pahim’s presence and the occasional bottle of stolen lager or wine.
Kanéko rested on Pahim, her cheek on his muscular arm. She could feel the tiny shifts of his body as he balanced on the wagon. He used his left hand to snap the whip, if only to keep his right arm slipped around her waist.
She rested her gaze on her hand to inspect the bruises and scratches on her knuckles. The most recent came from when Garèo flipped her to the ground. She landed but not before a rock gashed her hand. She flexed and the scab reopened. Impassively, she watched blood well up before wiping it on her jeans.
Maris’s barking caught her attention.
Kanéko peeled her face off Pahim’s bare arm and peered over his shoulder.
Three wagons back, she could see the dalpre playing with Ruben. Maris barked as she jumped off the empty bench on the wagon and plowed into the small boy who was standing in front of Kanéko’s trunk. He went down in flailing arms and legs. A moment later, Maris heaved him up, and he went flying.
Kanéko’s heart beat faster as she watched him soaring toward the back of the wagon.
Ruben landed heavily on the trunk with a loud thud.
Kanéko flinched, both for his impact and concern for the tools secreted inside. Gulping, she turned to Pahim. “Pah?”
“Maybe we should bring my trunk on this wagon? Maris and Ruben are rough-housing on it. I don’t want it to spill or crack.”
“Why? Let them carry it. We don’t have enough room in here.” His tone was sharp.
Kanéko didn’t want to press the issue. She leaned back to look at the other students in the wagon. After weeks of travel, she still didn’t know any of their names. A few of them mumbled theirs when Pahim introduced them, but her hesitant attempts to encourage conversation ended with turned backs and stony faces. It became evident that they were Pahim’s friends, not hers.
With her thoughts darkening, she turned to rest her cheek on Pahim’s shoulder.
“Kanek? What’s wrong?”
“Nothing,” she said without any energy, “I’m just tired of traveling.”
“We live in a big world, and it takes a long time to travel.”
“If I had an airship, we would be there already.”
“We can always continue on to Jinto Panzir, Kanek. Just you and me?”
Kanéko smiled at the thought, her dream of fleeing to the city burning brightly in her mind. It was only a few days south from where they rode. She didn’t know if she could do it, but the fantasy gave her an addictive thrill.
Her daydreams kept away the growing dread for that night. She missed so many arrows the prior night that Garèo simply added three hundred more arrows to the next lesson. It would be a long and painful lesson. She turned her hand and looked at the callouses forming on her fingers and palm. The scars from her work on the water screw were finally fading, hiding underneath the fresher scars from bow, knife, and horse.
“Hey, look up ahead.”
She lifted her gaze as the wagon came up over a hill. When they slowed at the top, she looked down into the valley where two rivers merged into one. At the junction, a village spread out in all directions. From her vantage point, she could see the single story houses radiating out from the center like a wheel. It reminded her of her hand-carved gears.
On the far side, stood a large building with two long wings. It was pressed up against the tree line. It was larger than her father’s keep. In front of the building, four lines of stables looked like tic marks on the edge of a fenced-in yard.
“Yep, Kanek, that is Boar Hunt Inn. The larger caravans stop here because of the services and the lack of room taxes. It is also the mid-point between our home and the ocean.”
“Are there showers?”
Pahim chuckled and squeezed her hip. “Yes, hot showers, soft beds, and doors that close… and lock.”
Kanéko longed to be comfortable again. She stopped, thinking about Pahim’s words. “You’ve been here before?”
“A few times. My father used to take me here when he guarded merchants like those,” he pointed to a line of wagons rolling into the yard. “I love coming here.”
Kanéko smiled coyly. “Does that mean you’ll be my tour guide?”
Pahim nodded his head gracefully, “I’ll show you all the sights this good inn has to offer: the stables, the well, and this nice little path to the waterfalls.” His voice grew deeper and his eyes twinkled.
Kanéko felt a flutter in her stomach. A blush crept up on her cheeks and she looked away to avoid embarrassing herself. She spotted Garèo sitting on a wagon behind her.
He was talking to a teacher and two students.
She felt a surge of anger toward him and her smile faded. “Once I get past my keeper.”
Pahim grunted for a moment. “I have an idea about that…”
“It’s a surprise, bartim.”