Chapter 11: Stonewait's Gallery

Favors can open doors no gold or silver can unlock.

—Proverb

The Boar Hunt Inn impressed Kanéko. There were about sixty windows on each wing, arranged half to a floor. Two sets of doors led into the main hall where a steady stream of merchants, teenagers, and workers filed through in a cacophony of noise.

Kanéko’s discomfort grew. She had never been around so many people. It felt like hundreds of people crammed into the yard, all talking and yelling. The sound of it hurt her ears and she squirmed closer to Pahim for protection. “Is it always this loud?”

“Yes,” said Pahim, “but only in evenings and mornings. Everyone comes in late and leaves early.”

Her brown hands clutched his arm, trying not to hamper his attempts to drive the wagon into the yard. Near the door, she saw the other school wagons already stopped to the right. Students spread out despite the efforts of the exhausted teachers to corral them.

Garèo stood on the first step of the inn, yelling at the top of his lungs.

She ducked down and watched Garèo through the crowds as Pahim continued to lead the wagon. Instead of stopping at the front, he wound his way past two merchant caravans. Guards fingered their swords as they watched Kanéko and Pahim. None of them said anything to the two teenagers.

Coming out the far end of the caravan, Pahim stopped the wagon. “Kanek, why don’t you get off here? I’m going to bring this around in front.”

She held him tighter, her breath quickening. “What do I do?”

“Keep away from Garèo. I’ll find you in a few minutes.” He gave her a sly grin.

Kanéko felt uncomfortable with the idea of being alone. She held him tightly as she sat up. “Okay, just a few minutes, right?”

“I promise.”

Kanéko slid off the wagon. The earth felt like rock beneath her, no doubt pounded solid by years of traffic. She trailed her fingers on the wagon side before stepping away.

Pahim circled around the yard and headed for the front door.

A pair of caravan guards glared at her. Wrapping her arms over her chest, she turned around slowly. She spotted a smaller yard to the side and headed over there to get away from the noise.

In the side yard and between two wagons, she spotted a mechanical vehicle. The distinctive vent rose above everyone’s head. Excited, she ungracefully scrambled over a few crates and headed to a small crowd gathering around the device. Kanéko slipped between two men to stop a few feet short of it. It was just like the ones in the pictures, with a tall chimney belching out white steam and a large tank on the back. Two levers and a brake controlled the entire thing. Kanéko circled around until she saw the ornate plaque on the port side of the vehicle. Gingerly, she stepped forward and peered at the plaque. “Ramnis-Cubrick Perpetual Momentum Vehicle III, this—”

An angry voice interrupted her. “Get away, you sand-blooded whore!”

Kanéko looked up just as a palm slapped her cheek. The force of the blow spun her around. She managed to keep standing as she reoriented herself to her attacker.

He was a large, muscular man with a bowler on his head and driving goggles hanging from his neck. His hand reached up to slap her again.

Frightened, Kanéko staggered back. She expected to collide with someone, but the crowd split apart on each side of her until she came to a halt.

The driver continued after her, his face twisted in a sneer.

She held out her hands, palms up to show she had nothing in them. “I just wanted to look at who made it.”

“Like you can read, you damn thief. Get away from my car!”

Kanéko didn’t know why he called her a thief, but she was the only dark-skinned person in the yard. She continued to back up, trying to avoid the driver who stormed after her.

Her back smacked against flesh. She let out a shriek and spun around, losing her balance. Her arms flailed out and she tumbled into the man accusing her.

He grabbed her shoulders and dug his fingers into her skin. With a growl, he shoved her forward.

Kanéko stumbled. When her bare foot caught on a leather shoe, she crashed to the ground. She managed to plant her feet before she hit her face, but the impact briefly drove her wits from her.

“She attacked me!” yelled the driver right before his kick caught her in the ribs.

Kanéko cried sharply and curled up to protect herself.

Another kick caught her back. Dust peppered her face.

“Thief!”

“Sandy!”

Men loomed over her with masks of rage on their faces.

“I-I didn’t mean to,” she whimpered as she looked up at them through her fingers, “I just wanted to look at it.”

“Stop!” A man’s voice cut through the crowd. A heartbeat later, an older man with slicked-back gray hair and a neat suit pushed his way from the crowd. He was short, maybe five feet tall, but had a radiant smile. He held out his hand.

Kanéko, unsure of herself, took it and pulled herself to her feet. Her sides and ribs ached from the attack. She felt the glares of all the men on her.

The driver spoke to the older man. “Come on, Falkin. I don’t want some sandy idiot breaking off something important. This is expensive, I saved up two years for it.”

Another man spoke up. “We don’t need her kind around here.”

“Kick her out.”

“Run her out of town!”

Falkin ignored the men as his brown eyes searched Kanéko’s face.

Kanéko wrapped her arms around her and stared at the ground. Except for the man in the suit, all of them spoke angrily.

“I’ve seen you before,” said Falkin. “You are in Stonewait’s, aren’t you?”

Every year, Stonewait’s Gallery sent an artist to illustrate her family. The artist came right at the beginning of spring and would leave behind last year’s gallery. Ronamar’s entry was two pages long and listed all his battles, granted titles and accomplishments, and a record of his first family and their assassination. The second page was for his accomplishments of magic, up to and including the title of Fourth Circle Earth Knight of Kormar.

Kanéko’s own illustration was a tiny square in the entry to his second marriage. The artist had reversed the image, so her face was almost completely black on a white background. In the entire book, there were only two darker-skinned illustrations done that way, and one of those was her mother.

There were thousands of illustrations in each of the Stonewait’s Gallery volumes that documented over five thousand nobles and their families. She didn’t think it was possible anyone could have recognized her among them.

“Yes, sir.” She spoke as politely as she could, “On page 773 of last year’s volume eight.”

In the brief pause that followed, she looked at the faces that had been twisted in disgust and anger. They had attacked her suddenly and gave her no chance to defend herself. Clearing her throat, she spoke louder, “I’m the second daughter of Bartim Ronamar Lurcuklan, Fourth Circle Knight of Kormar.”

The mood of the gathered men changed instantly. The man who slapped Kanéko blanched. The others started to back away, pretending that they had never been involved.

She expected to feel joy at seeing them cowed, but the expected feeling never came. Instead, her throat burned, and she was disgusted at herself. She had to use her own father’s fame to avoid conflict.

Falkin cocked his head. He seemed unfazed by her declaration. “Do you have proof?”

Kanéko nodded. She fished into her trousers and pulled out a leather wallet. On the front was her father’s shield, the symbol of his land. She flipped it open. On one side was a color illustration of herself and a golden seal from the Stonewait’s artist. On the other was a description of her family along with her physical appearance. She handed it to Falkin.

Falkin took the wallet and inspected the contents. He handed it back. He spoke with a wry smile, “Please forgive Master Mardas Devinsir.” He gestured to the man who first slapped Kanéko. “He didn’t realize you were a bartim’s daughter.”

Mardas sputtered, “I-I—”

Falkin interrupted the merchant. “And I’m sure Mardas will offer his sincere apologies by giving up the Royal Suite for the night.” Falkin turned to Mardas pointedly.

Mardas gaped at Falkin but when Falkin nodded, Mardas gave a dramatic sigh. He turned to Kanéko. “Lady Lurkuklan, I insist you take my… the best suite in the inn.”

At Falkin’s nod, she agreed. “Thank you, Master Mardas Devinsir.”

Falkin stepped forward to whisper in Kanéko’s ear. “Give me a second to talk to Mardas. I will have your luggage moved up to the room.”

Kanéko was terrified Falkin made an assumption about her ability to pay. “Um, Falkin?”

The older man stepped closer. “Yes?” he asked in a quiet voice.

“He is really going to pay for it? I-I can’t afford a new room. I have less than two hundred crowns in my wallet.”

“Don’t worry about money, Lady Lurkuklan. Mardas will cover your room. I will make sure the rest of your night is well taken care of.” At Kanéko’s blank look, he explained himself, “Any and all other services you wish from the Boar Hunt Inn for this visit. Don’t hesitate to ask. No charge.”

“Why, Falkin?”

“Mardas trades with Rock River twice a year in iron and brass. He makes about a third of his—”

“No, no,” interrupted Kanéko, “why are you,” she pointed at Falkin’s chest, “doing this?”

Falkin smiled and gave a short bow. “You are as astute as your grandfather.” He chuckled. “Your family has enjoyed the famed hospitality of the inn many, many times. Your father has been very good for my business and a loyal patron of my inn. I wish to extend that same hospitality to you in hopes that you will grace the inn frequently during your, no doubt in my mind, illustrious life.” He held out his hands in apology. “Though, Lady Lurkuklan, my offer of gratis will not be a frequent occurrence. You have to understand, I do run a business.”

“So,” Kanéko said warily, “you are giving me a taste of the good life in hopes I spend my father’s money here later?”

Falkin cocked his head and smiled. “Very blunt, but yes.”

“And Madras?”

“It is never too early to learn the art of politics. Madras is a good person to practice on since he is eager to please you. And he needs to be a bit more aware of those with influence around him. I always told him to memorize Stonewait’s.”

“And you are getting us together because…”

“Because, Lady Lurkuklan, if your land prospers, both you and Madras have more money to spend here. And you will remember him when you take your father’s place. And he will remember me when he succeeds.”

Kanéko smiled. “Who is being blunt now?”

Falkin held out his hands in apology. “I’ve been working with the nobility of Kormar for most of my life, as did my father before me and his mother before him. You are young, you need blunt.”

She found herself smiling in kind. “Thank you, Falkin.”

“No, thank you. If there is something I can do, don’t hesitate to ask any of my staff.”

Kanéko watched as he walked away, and then realized she could ask something. “Falkin?”

He turned. “Yes?”

“There is a desert man with the school, goes by the name of Garèo. He won’t approve of me being moved to a better room.”

“Then,” Falkin said with a bow, “I’ll be do my best to make sure he never finds you.”

Kanéko relished the rush of excitement at his words.

Falkin strolled toward Madras with open arms and an easy smile.

Kanéko watched him, her heart skipping with excitement, even as she wondered if Falkin had some other scheme in mind.

“Kanek!”

Kanéko turned toward Pahim as he ran up.

He stopped in front of her. Gulping, he wiped his hands on his pants and patted his pocket. “Sorry, I lost track of you. And then Garèo pinned me in a corner asking about you.”

Kanéko worried her lip. “You didn’t tell him?”

“No, of course not,” he said with a smile. He reached out and ran his hand along Kanéko’s arm. “I would never betray you. But, I don’t know if I can save you from his evil plans.”

“What plans?”

“I saw him pulling out a pair of tents and setting them next to a horse. He also asked for dinner and breakfast food for two. I think he’s going to drag you away tonight.” Pahim looked sad, “I’m sorry, Kanek, I tried.”

Kanéko sighed, feeling her emotions burning on the edge of her thoughts. For all the joy she felt with Falkin, the idea of Garèo forcing her to leave the inn left her with an icy heart and growing rage. “Like hell I’m going to let him.”

“Kanek? What are you—”

Kanéko turned away from him and signaled for a serving girl. The girl finished delivering three large mugs of ale to a merchant and came over.

“How may I help you, Lady Lurkuklan?”

“You know the students from Rock River?” At the girl’s nod, Kanéko grinned. “Could you scare up a couple bottles of cheap wine and lager? And deliver a few to each of the rooms?”

The girl looked nervous for a moment, and Kanéko wasn’t sure if she just overstepped her bounds. But then the girl bowed. “Yes, my lady.”

When Kanéko didn’t ask for anything else, the girl ran back to the great hall of the inn. Kanéko watched with a self-satisfied smirk, and then turned to Pahim. “Let him try to find me with sixty drunk students.”

Pahim laughed. “The Divine Couple, I think I love you.”

She felt a strange twisting in her gut and cleared her throat to distract herself. “Want to check out the Royal Suite?”

He gaped in surprise. “How!?”

Kanéko turned her body and arched her back. She gave a wry smile. “I’m just good.”

Pahim stepped back and regarded her. After a moment, he gave her a dramatic bow. “I’m afraid, Lady Lurkuklan, that the evil bandit Garèo is inflicting me with lessons on ‘respect.’ As soon as I finish, I’ll find you and show you that I have not learned a single thing.”

Kanéko giggled and waved good-bye to Pahim. She jammed her hands in her pocket and headed inside to find the Royal Suite.