The Pillory Pass is an infrequently used pass between Gepaul and Tarsan. The terrain is rough and unsuited for caravans. It is mostly used by travelers on foot or horse seeking to travel between countries before it gets snowed in for winter.
— Jacom Hibon-Gasil, A Meandering Geography of Gepaul
Beauty and her prince walked hand in hand as they followed Pid off the mountain and along the winding trails that wove around the city of Fires Down Below. The only time they separated was for the rough sections. On the smoother lengths, she nestled up against him despite the fat drops of rain that threatened to separate them.
Her thoughts were focused on Lanier’s words which continued to echo in her head. Despite the mage’s good advice and the list of sources to check next, the overwhelming despair of how long it would take took her breath away. It could be years before they could get through the list, years of traveling during the summers with longer trips home the further they went. She struggled with the idea of decade when she was only in her twenties.
Daman squeezed her hand. “You seem distracted.”
Beauty rested her head on his shoulder. “I am.”
“What the mage said?”
He said nothing as they crawled over a few fallen trees. “We’re heading home after this, why don’t we talk about it over the winter and decide?”
It was the logical answer.
She sighed. “I know, I just…” She let her voice trail off with a thought she didn’t want to consider.
He squeezed her tightly. “I’m with you. In the end, that is all that will ever matter to me. You are my love, my truest love and there is nothing that will stop that.”
Smiling happily, she stopped him enough to kiss him in the rain.
“See, and I get to kiss the most beautiful woman in the world,” he said brightly. “Everything is going my way.”
Beauty pressed her face into the gap of his trench coat and breathed in his smell. “Spend the night with me.”
“But the separate inns?”
“Lanier said the chance of finding a random person to curse you is almost impossible. No one is going to have that power or skill. So, pretending to be an asshole isn’t going to get us closer to what we want.” She looked up. “Right now, I want you and that’s all that is important to me.”
His eyes softened. “Of course, my love. Your place or mine?”
Beauty glanced at Pid who was happily continuing down the path unaware that the two had stopped. “The Letterset. It’s more out of the way and her mother could use our money.”
“As you wish, my queen.”
She grinned. “I can’t be a queen, remember?”
He pulled her close and kissed her passionately. His hot breath and the icy rain contrasted and left her steaming. When they broke, he whispered, “You will always be my queen.”
“I love you.”
“And I will never, ever stop loving you.”
With another kiss, they hurried after Pid.
The young girl lead them to the wall surrounding Fires Down Below. Built from quarried stone and local wood, it stood easily twice Daman’s height and had a sturdy appearance. On their side, away from the town, piles of garbage, debris, and rocks fought with the sturdy brushes that grew along the base. Over the years, someone had taken the effort to plant thorny bushes along the bottom but the effort left a patchworks of thorns, rocks, and other hazards.
Pid ignored most of them as she skipped along one rough trail parallel to the town wall. It was obvious that she had taken that route many times and there was no hesitation as she choose one split of the path over another.
Beauty frowned as she struggled to memorize the route.
Daman chuckled and pointed to one tree. “That looks like the wardrobe in the East Wing.”
At the next junction, he gestured toward a spot on the ground. “And that reminds me of that place where you fell into the pond. That bush right on the corner? Where you lost your small clothes to the birds?”
Blushing, she nodded. “Thank you.”
“It’s the only way I can remember paths is try to find something that reminds me of home. Look, she’s stopping.”
Pid spun around and then blinked. “You’re both slow,” she said in surprise.
“Adult things,” Daman said as he drew up.
“No! Kissing!” Beauty said a little sharper than she intended.
“Oh.” Pid shrugged and then pointed to a tree next to her. It was pair of pine trees but one had died. Despite that, the two trees were intertwined together until the living one could reach above the dead one. “There is the marker.”
A cold shiver danced along Beauty’s spine.
Pid headed for a boulder next to the town wall. With a giggle, she disappeared into a barely perceptible gap between the rock and a massive thorny bush.
Beauty and Daman followed. The thorns scraped at Beauty’s shoulders and tugged on her hair. It only took a few steps before they came out in a gap in the wall behind a wall of boxes. To each side, she saw the blue walls of two houses that framed the alley.
Pid crawled over the box and hopped down, not slowing down for the others.
Beauty remembered her sword. “Oh, peace bonding.”
“Shit,” muttered Daman as he fished out the wire from one pocket.
It took a while for the two to finish wrapping the wire around the hilts of their sword. Beauty made sure hers went along the two grooves in the sheath before coming around. Once their weapons were properly secured, they worked their way around the boxes and to the end of the alley.
Beauty frowned and then recognized where she was. Taking her love’s hand, she drew him into the street.
A passerby looked at them and glared at them over his nose. “Get a room.”
“Thank you, sir, for your good advice,” Daman said proudly. “I’m heading right over there right now with the love of my life.”
Another glare before the man turned around and headed the other way.
“You don’t have to be an asshole,” she said with a grin.
“I’m not. He made an assumption that I was doing obscene things with you and I wanted him to be clear that they were neither obscene or inappropriate.” He squeezed her hand. “I will always love you, for the rest of my life and into the next.”
Beaming happily, they continued onto the Letterset Inn. At the door, he held it open and she strode inside.
When she saw almost a score of men standing in the room, she froze. A shiver of concern rippled along her nerves as she looked around at the hard faces that all turned toward her and the open door. They were all dressed similar, with gray trench coats that had seen a fair amount of weathering and repair. Her gaze caught places where patches had been recently removed from almost everyone’s shoulders and scuff marks from a wide belt around the waist.
“And what is…” Daman’s voice trailed off. He rested his hand on her waist and held her firmly. “Looks a little busy.”
“Then find another place,” came a growling voice.
The crowd shifted apart into a line between the door and the front desk. Another man dressed in the same manner leaned over the counter as he looked at him. He had short-cut hair like the others, but time had grayed out his colors leaving a dusty brown behind. His coat looked to be in better shape, but she could see that he had removed more patches from his chest. In the gap between the openings of the coat, she spotted an empty sheath with the Gepaul infantry insignia barely visible in the shadows.
Beauty tensed. Why was the Gepaul army in town? They were in Tarsan, a neighboring country that was currently at peace with Gepaul. More importantly, why had they removed their patches and medals? She wanted to drop her hand to the hilt of her sword, but didn’t. The room seemed too tense and both her and the prince would be hampered by the close quarters.
Behind the desk, Kas cleared his throat and set down the short sword in his hands on the counter. “S-Sorry, she’s already a guest here. Checked in a few days ago.”
“Oh, I wouldn’t want to kick her out.” The man who appeared to be the leader straightened and strolled over to her. He had a bit of a gut, but he moved with the comfort of a warrior still in his prime. His eyes were piercing as they focused on hers. “And what might the beauty’s name be?”
She straightened her back. “That’s my name, Beauty.”
He blinked. “Really?”
“Yes, my father named me that because he had high hopes.”
“Well, he was a fortune teller then. My name is Rizen, just a traveler coming into town. Nothing more. A harmless traveler.”
Despite his obvious lies, she smiled at him.
“Why don’t you lose the beef behind you and I’ll give you a better time?”
Daman leaned over her shoulder. “This beef would like to stay. I am with her, you know.”
“Are you a guest?” Rizen asked in a menacing tone.
“Yes,” the prince said.
“No,” Kas said from the counter. “But, she’s allowed guests of her own.”
From the back of the room, Trus came out of the kitchen and clapped her hands. “Okay, gentlemen, I have put on enough food for all of you. My son has given all of you the keys?”
Kas gasped. “Keys!” He shoved the sword further way and then began to dig into the drawers.
Rizen didn’t look away from Daman. “You should probably leave. If you know what is best for you.”
Daman smiled. “Well, one might—”
Trus came up. “Stop bothering my guest! She has the first room and you are not—” Her eyes lit upon Daman and then widened. She pressed a hand to her mouth. “Oh my Couple, the prince!”
Beauty cringed and she felt Daman’s hand tightened on her waist.
“Are you staying? Please?” gasped Trus.
Then she looked at Beauty with a mixture of awe and jealousy. “You are lucky.”
Beauty ducked her head.
Movement shuffled through the surrounding soldiers.
“Prince?” Rizen asked casually. There was a forced tone in his voice.
“A prince of Gepaul! I have an actual prince in my inn!” Trus crowed. She spun around and shoved her way back. “I need to put better food out. Out of my way and get to your rooms!”
She stopped at the counter and smacked the counter. “Stop drooling over their swords and get them their keys!”
When Trus left the room, an uncomfortable silence filled the entry room.
Daman tugged lightly on Beauty, a quiet signal. “Yes,” he said in a dry monotone.
“Prince? That would make you a march prince, wouldn’t it? Judging from your accent, I’m going to say the eastern side? Near Kormar? Maybe closer to the north?” Rizen took a short step forward.
Beauty and Daman stepped back through the door frame.
“Are you a loyal prince?” asked the solider.
“Loyal enough, for many generations.”
“Good,” Rizen said. “You should stay then.”
Daman looked around. He stepped back and Beauty followed. “Maybe I’ll come back later. It seems a bit crowded right now.”
“Ah, but your innkeeper is making you a special meal.” Rizen’s eyes were dark and shadowed as he stepped into the door frame. “You wouldn’t want to upset her. Besides, we might have some good conversations between the two of us. Things that those loyal to Gepaul need to have.”
Beauty noticed Pid standing near the counter. The little girl watched with a frown on her face. She squirmed back and forth before pressing herself against the wood underneath the ledge of the counter.
Their gazes met.
Beauty gestured to her right. There was an alley two houses down, a short distance but it was hard to communicate without attracting Rizen’s attention.
Pid held up her hand in a silent question.
Beauty nodded and then gestured to the same side.
Stepping back, Pid turned and ran up the stairs.
Beauty looked over her shoulder. “Come on. We’ll come back later.”
“Good idea,” Daman said. Then he nodded his head to Rizen. “I’ll see you later, sir.”
Rizen only grunted.
Beauty and Daman turned. He started to go int the direction Beauty gestured to Pid, but she stopped him and they turned around to head up the street.
“That looked ominous,” he said once they were a few blocks away.
“Infantry. From Gepaul.”
“I noticed. But they are hiding it. There shouldn’t be this many of our soldiers hiding in Tarsan, even if we’re close to the pass. That isn’t good and I don’t like how it feels. I don’t think the Royal Palace is going to be a good place either.”
“Camp?” she asked.
“Probably a good idea. What about the stuff in your room?”
“I hope Pid will be delivering it to the alley the other way. We just want to take a wide berth and come around.”
He chuckled and brought up her hand to kiss the back of her palm. “Brains and beauty, you are everything I could ever dream for.”
They took a few minutes to walk around a number of blocks before coming up to the alley from the other side. Pid stood with Beauty’s packs, bouncing around as she looked around fretfully.
“Beauty!” she whispered loudly and rushed over to give her a hug.
Beauty knelt down to return the embrace. “Thank you, Pid.”
The little girl buried her face in Beauty’s shoulder. “I don’t think you should go back. He was asking a lot of questions when you left. Mama doesn’t see it, but I don’t like how he talks. They all have swords too.”
When Pid pulled away, her face shimmered with tears.
Beauty sighed and wiped away some of the tears. “We’re thinking about going somewhere else.”
“Another inn? Mama wouldn’t—”
“Outside to camp,” Daman said. He leaned against the wall and his head turned back and forth to watch both ends of the alley. “Probably away from Lan.”
Pid tapped her foot for a second. “Oh, Leaning Pines is a campground to the north, up near the Misty Valley. If you go out the north gate, it’s five… six crossings. There is a sign with a tree at an angle. Go right.” Pid sniffed and wiped her nose with her palm. “It’s rainy season and cold, so no one will be there. Just avoid the lower sites, they flood.”
Beauty kissed Pid’s forehead. “Thank you. Do you want to come with us?”
“I shouldn’t, Mama needs me. That man wouldn’t do anything to us, not in town.”
Beauty wanted to press, but Pid wasn’t her daughter. With guilt and fear filling her, she hugged Pid tightly. “If there is any trouble, you take your family and run to Lanier’s. Even a hint of trouble, just run. We’ll make it right, I promise.”
“W-What about Mama and Kas? They don’t know about Lan. And Mama would be furious.”
“If there is trouble, she’ll forgive you of everything.”
Pid nodded and hugged her tightly back. “Be safe.”
Beauty closed her eyes tightly, afraid she was making the wrong decision. “Be safe.”
With a sniff, Pid pulled back. She pointed at Daman. “And you be safe because Jorul would be upset if you got hurt.”
He smirked and then snorted. “Yes, because it isn’t about me, it’s about a talking mountain lion.”
Beauty grinned. “I bet it’s been a long time for him and you are quite handsome.”
Daman shrugged and nodded. “Yeah, I’m pretty good looking. Poor guy, it’s probably been a while since he’s had…” His voice trailed off as he looked at Pid.
The young girl sniffed again. “I should go back. Mama is going to be yelling soon.”
Beauty hugged her one last time. “Be safe.”
They waited a full five minutes after Pid left the alley to leave themselves.
“So, go out the south gate?” asked Daman.
“Yes, my love. Come on, I’m looking forward to setting up a tent in this rain.”