Chapter 14: Changing Plans

The reputation of virginity speaks volumes about the character of a young noble. Those unable to manage their basic instincts are unworthy of their titles. — Jascon Komdies, The Price of Title

Kanéko woke up slowly with a smile on her lips. The soft sheets clung to her body and she didn’t want to ever leave its comfort. At the idea of spending the night in the campground, she screwed up her face and wished that she could stay at the inn until the end of their trip.

Nature and her bladder, on the other hand, had other ideas. Groaning, she forced her eye open. When the searing light blinded her, she draped her arm over her face and moaned. “Oh, damn the sands, just make the sun go away!”

Pahim chuckled from the far side of the room.

Kanéko rolled toward his voice and risked opening her other eye. The first sight was his naked back, lined with muscles, as he dug through his own bag. He pulled out a shirt and stretched it out. He turned around. “Morning, Bartim.”

They had done nothing more than kiss on the balcony, but it was a sign of their deepening relationship and the potential for something far more intimate later. She enjoyed the warm feeling of anticipation that spread throughout her body. She glanced down and she noticed she wore nothing but her underwear. Surprised, she sat up and pulled the blanket to shield herself from his eyes. “Good morning. What time is it?”

“Half past the fifth bell.”

“Fifth? Don’t we usually leave at the fourth?”

“Yes,” he said with a smirk, “but apparently the class went on without you.”

“How did you convince Garèo to leave without me?”

“Oh,” he patted his pocket for a moment, “The others took the wagon ahead. He thinks you left early.”

Her eyes scanned the room. True to his word, his other friends were gone. They left the debris of their party behind: empty bottles and platters on every surface she could see. The formerly stately room was a complete mess. She clicked her tongue with annoyance and then returned her gaze to Pahim.

He finished pulling on his shirt and tugged it down. While he ran a hand through his blond hair, he chuckled again. “And as soon as the bartim is ready, we can leave any time.”

“Are all the wagons gone?”

“Yes, but I got another. If we are lucky, we’ll show up after Garèo had already gone to sleep.”

Kanéko smiled wistfully. “That would be nice.” Her eyes rose up as she said, “But Garèo’s going to kill me when he catches me.”

Pahim walked across the room to the bed, his boots tapping on the thick carpet. He leaned to kiss her, and Kanéko lifted her chin so their lips met. He was forceful and tried to wrap his arm around her.

She didn’t feel the same passion from the night before and twisted out of his grip.

He hesitated before pulling back. “Why worry about Garèo? You are Ronamar’s daughter. He isn’t going to do anything.”

Kanéko yawned, still clutching the blanket to her chest. “I’m too tired to figure it out right now. All I want to do is crawl back in bed.” She almost said “without you,” but didn’t.

“You can sleep on the wagon,” suggested Pahim. He dug his hands in his pockets and backed away from her. He returned to his bag to button it up. She watched him gather up his bathroom supplies and jam them into his pack. When he finished, he set it down by the door.

Kanéko clutched the blanket tighter to her chest. “Pah? What’s wrong?”

“Nothing,” he muttered. Standing up, he turned around and sat on the edge of a dark desk. “I’m just kind of uncomfortable here.” He gestured to the room. “I half expect that Falkin guy to burst in and demand you pay for all this.”

Kanéko groaned. “I don’t want to think about that. I don’t know what he’s going to do because I don’t have enough…” her eyes focused on her open wallet next to the Maris’s gift. She reached out and snatched it up to look at the contents. She flipped through the ten crown notes and came up three bills short. “Why am I missing thirty crowns?”

Pahim shrugged and gave her a bashful smile. “I had to get a wagon.”

Her mouth opened with surprise and a surge of annoyance. She closed it tightly before she managed to calm herself. “Ask me, next time.”

“Yes, my lady.”

An uncomfortable silence filled the room. Kanéko clutched the blanket tighter as she considered her options. When she couldn’t wrap her mind around the hangover, she sighed. “I need to get cleaned up.”

When Pahim didn’t respond, she made a turn around gesture with her finger.

Pahim frowned. “I saw everything—”

“Not when I’m sober. And you didn’t see everything. Now, turn around, Pah.”

With a dramatic sigh, he obeyed.

Kanéko slipped out of the bed. She kept the blanket wrapped around her body until she fished out clothes from the trunk. She locked it and headed toward the bathroom. Closing the door behind her, she let her head hit it and sighed. “Why can’t life be easy?”

She busied herself with cleaning as she dreamed about the Burning Cloud Queen. She scrubbed herself down with hot water, and then braided her hair into a tight line down her back; she used the wire to tie it off at the end. The feeling of her hair on her smooth fingers left a tiny thrill and she smiled at the memory of Virsian healing her. She dressed in a light blue blouse with embroidered flowers on the sleeves and tan trousers that ended mid-shin.

A half hour later, Kanéko came out prepared to take on the world. Pahim wasn’t in the room and neither was her trunk. She looked around at the mess and winced inwardly. “I hope Falkin doesn’t mind.”

She felt guilty for what Pahim and his friends did. Her lips tightened when she realized she had done the same thing by sending the wine and beer to the various rooms. She grabbed her wallet and Maris’s gift from the side table. Maybe she needed a bit of time away from Pahim. As much as she didn’t want to admit Garèo might be correct, something didn’t feel right about the teenager. It bothered her that she had nearly given in to his advances.

After one last look to the ruined luxury of the room, she headed downstairs to the great hall. In the late morning, the hall was nearly empty of anyone but the staff of the inn. She felt exposed and circled around the room toward the front door to avoid attention.

“Lady Lurkuklan, a word?”

Kanéko stopped, her heart beating fast at Falkin’s words.

The older man came through a door on the opposite side of the hall. He looked just as neat as before, with a dark gray suit and a tie around his neck.

Caught, Kanéko turned on her heels and headed to the center of the room.

Falkin shook his head as he approached. “I knew you were going to cost me some money last night, but that was… inspired. I almost wasn’t ready to trust my talent.”

Kanéko felt sick to her stomach for a moment, and then realized what he said. “What?”

Falkin tapped his head. “My talent. I know how much you will cost me in the next few days. I see it as a number floating over your head.” Kanéko cringed but Falkin smiled warmly. “And… I also know how much I’ll gain from your continued patronage over the years. Don’t worry, young lady, you will be a positive balance in my books soon enough.”

“Y-You mean, last night was all right?” A cautious relief rose in her throat.

“Well…” he drawled. He hooked Kanéko’s arm and pulled her to an empty table. A swarm of servants rushed past him, wiping down the table and pulling out the bench for Kanéko.

She sat at his gesture.

“Let’s say, I wouldn’t suggest you have many of those type of surprises in the future. The staff will be working all day to clean the rooms and I’ll probably have to clean out the outhouses before the end of the week. And I heard the Royal Suite is a considerable mess.”

Kanéko’s cheeks burned.

“Did you enjoy your dinner last night? I hoped it was educational.”

She smiled at the change of topic. “Thank you, Falkin.”

“I do my small part to further the titled youth of Kormar. I look forward to seeing you again.” He bowed and headed out of the great room toward the kitchen.

A few minutes later, food was delivered, and she dived into it.

Pahim entered the room with a serious look on his face. He peered around and headed to her. “Kanek.”

“Pah, need some breakfast?” She held up a plate of eggs and fried goat.

“Um, no,” he muttered in a distracted tone, “I already ate.” He stood between Kanéko and the door, but didn’t make any move to sit down.

“Are we in a hurry?”

“Yeah, I don’t want to be around when Falkin catches us.”

She grinned. “I already talked to him. He already knows about the mess.”

“Oh, that’s a relief,” but Pahim didn’t relax. He looked over his shoulder and rubbed his fingers on his trousers.

Kanéko frowned as she watched him, a prickle of unease teasing her senses. “Pah?” she whispered.

He glanced over his shoulder, and then muttered darkly.

Kanéko used the opportunity to lean to the side and peer past him.

Three men stood right inside the door to the inn. They wore the same uniform, black with maroon trim on the cuffs. All three also wore a bright red armband on their left arm. The leader was bald and tanned; his face was almost as dark as the desert folk. His brown eyes were small and inset. He looked like he had a scowl permanently etched into his face which the scruff of a beard did nothing to hide.

Kanéko shivered and ducked back behind Pahim. “Who are they?”

“Not sure,” Pahim said in a low, tense voice.

“What do we do?”

“Keep your head down, Kanek, and get to the north yard. I have the wagon ready to go.”

“Where’s my trunk?”

“It’s on Ruben and Maris’s wagon. They also left late.”

Kanéko lowered her head and watched the men heading toward the notice board. Spotting an opportunity, she got up from her seat and headed for the side door. She reached the door just as Falkin stepped through.

He opened his mouth to talk to her. She saw his eyes flicker above her head for a moment, and then a frown crossed his face. He closed his mouth with a snap.

Kanéko gave him a strained smile, pointed to the three men with her thumb, and then slipped around him. As soon as she could, she ran for the end of the hall and out the side door. It took her long, stressful seconds to find Pahim’s wagon.

It was a small thing, large enough for a few bales of hay and a bench wide enough for two. Pahim’s bags were jammed in the back but nothing of hers. Pahim sat on the front, sweating nervously, as he peered around.

She slipped up on the wagon when he wasn’t looking. The wagon settled down from her weight, but Pahim didn’t notice until he turned around.

When he finally noticed her, he jumped. “Oh, the Divine Couple! Kanek!”

“Ready to go?” She asked with false bravado and a bit of smugness for surprising him.

Pahim answered by flicking the reins and starting the single chestnut mare moving. He guided the wagon out the side gate and to the road.

Kanéko smiled. Shifting her body around, she scooted up to him and rested her head on his shoulder. “You take care of me too, don’t you?”

“Yeah… I do.”

She yawned, the brief stint of excitement emphasizing her exhaustion.

“You can sleep, Kanek, if you want. We have three bells before we get to the camp.”

“I can stay awake, if you want.”

“Sleep, Bartim, and this servant will serve you.”

Kanéko struggled to stay awake, but the gentle rock of the wagon and the rhythmic squeak of one wheel pushed her into the world of dreams.