Posted by Darth Krzysztof
Again, Pastanti’s first waking thought was of Ser Quinn Mac Teague.
She groaned, covering her head with her arms, wishing that the big foreigner would leave her be. Things had been so much simpler before he’d come into her life… less joyful, and less colorful, but simpler.
She’d tried to forget his face by losing herself in her work, but those lovely blue eyes waited for her in every lull. She’d tried to convince herself that he’d never return from Al-Jebail (or was it Port Crorbak?) alive – the Balearaen corsairs spoke highly of Quinn’s skill in battle, but the world was still a dangerous place – though she always chided herself for basically wishing ills on the man.
And she’d told herself, time and again, that Quinn could never persuade Enchrais Noble House to free her. This was known, a certainty, like the rising of the sun; only Quinn’s ignorance of Lavinian ways kept him from seeing it. She longed for the day when he finally gave up, and left her in peace.
Why, then, did she dream of running away with him every night?
It’s just a fantasy, she thought. Your mind tells herself stories like she’s still a child. Happy endings are for fables, Pastanti. For oiketes, there is only service.
It wasn’t much. It was just a bit more than nothing. But she had food, and a place to sleep; there were so many in Balearaeos who couldn’t claim even that. It came with hours of toil and sweat, with being leered at, belittled, and even groped on occasion – but it was her place. She’d honored that place for sixteen years without doubt, without griping, without question.
Then Ser Quinn Mac Teague came along to defend her honor one day, and everything changed.
For one thing, Pastanti had never had any honor – not that she’d been aware of – or, at least, not much of it. And no one had ever been willing to die for it, not even Pastanti herself. It was just like something out of a fable. And the big foreigner in fish scales, so certain to drown in the mess he’d created for himself, actually won his Duello, which he’d fought without a second.
I knew he wasn’t stupid… once he started learning Lavinian, anyway. Then I thought he might be crazy… She’d heard sailors at Koritsi Kai Kalukas speak of the Dalesmen, wild and superstitious in their plaid skirts, throwing trees and playing pipes. They ate garbage out of sheep’s stomachs, then drank until they vomited it all back up. Quinn wasn’t like that; she thought he might have the legs for a skirt, though the notion was too wicked to dwell upon.
But maybe he really is that brave. And now he’s trying to get me freed, so he can court me. The mad, brave fool. My fool. My apsifoppotis.
Perhaps she’d suffered a blow on the head that night, and everything that had happened since had been a hallucination. Knights didn’t pitch woo to servant girls, not even in the Western stories. Pastanti had always tried to live a virtuous life, but had never done anything to deserve this. Unless she was being punished? Was that it?
Nothing made sense any more. Her poor grandparents had been no help at all… if Mother were here, she’d know what to do.
She’d tell you to quit lying around feeling sorry for yourself and get to work, Pastanti.
Even the memory of her mother couldn’t be argued with. She took a deep breath and whisked her sheet away, the chill of the dark, tiny room leaping from ambush to caress her. Fighting off a sudden shiver, she found one of her flimsy shifts, sniffed it to make sure it was clean enough for another day’s work, and pulled it on. She hoisted a long skirt up over her smallclothes, and cinched the whole thing with a wrap of satin. She reached last for the same shabby shoes she’d worn for years; once, Pastanti had stepped on a coin in the Koritsi, and accurately called it as heads-up.
She tied up her hair with a small cord as she headed for the door; she was running late, but could still make it to Albatross Row before sunrise if she hurried.
But when she got to the well in front of Koritsi Kai Kalukas, Ser Quinn Mac Teague was sitting there, smiling like a man with a secret, both water buckets sitting beside him. “Good mornin,” he said, suddenly standing up when he saw her. His Dalish-accented Lavinian got better every time they met; to Pastanti’s shame, it was certainly better than her Icatian. “I was hopin’ tae catch ye here.”
“Apsifoppotis,” Pastanti said, hiding every feeling the word stirred in her behind a pleasant smile. I was just thinking about you. Of course, I usually am, these days. “How kind of you to call upon me. Have you come to help me with the well water again?”
Quinn rubbed the back of his neck. “Well, aye. More’r less. I already filled it for ye.”
“You what?” She ran to the well and looked in to see it full, much fuller than it had been when they’d filled it together before. If anyone thought that she’d shirked her duties… “You… I…” He’s just trying to be nice. And that’s one less chore you have to do today. “That was most kind, Ser Quinn. I thank you.” She managed the same curtsey she extended her masters.
“An’ ye are most welcome. If ye have a few minutes now, mebbe we could talk?” The blueness of his eyes threatened to trap her like a pitcher plant, his gaze never faltering as he sat back down beside the well.
The sun had yet to appear; she did have a few minutes. “Very well. How was Al-Jebail?” she asked, not sure what else to say as she sat beside him – not too close.
“Mos’ fine, mah great beauty’s shadow. We found the wee bairn we been lookin’ fer all this time. Gods permittin’, we’ll catch the blackguard who took ‘er, an’ break ‘is curse ‘pon ‘er.” His smile wavered, but only for a moment. “I, um, I brought ye somethin’.”
Pastanti forgot how to breathe. “You didn’t have to…”
“I wanted tae.” He held out a hand which held a long iron spike, with a tiny sparkling gemstone set into the end. “Issa hairpin. Fer yer hair, d’ye kennit. Ye kin also use it tae protect yerself. If yer patrons git all grabby.” His other hand made some comical grabbing motions, until color came to his cheeks and he stopped.
“Oh, Quinn. I do not deserve your generosity.” Wait. Didn’t Quinn feel unworthy of her? Were they both right? Wrong? Nothing made sense any more.
“I insist, mah great beauty’s shadow. Ye’ve seen mah hair; it wouldnae do me any good.” He grinned and held it out to her.
Always with the jokes, she thought, though she almost laughed at that one. She reached out to take it from him, pausing for only a moment to realize how his hand dwarfed her own… how strong those hands must be. How gentle they could be…
“You have my thanks,” she blurted as she picked the hairpin up, trying not to drop it. Stop it! You are never going to be with him, Pastanti. You are oiketes!
“Will ye try it on fer me, if’n it pleases ye?” Everything about the way he asked made her legs want to quit working. She closed her eyes and nodded, once. “D’ye ken how tae…?” Quinn began, but Pastanti had already loosed her hair and begun to wind it around the pin. “Aye, I reckon ye do.”
Once sure that her bun of hair would remain in place, Pastanti dared to open her eyes again. The look on Quinn’s face answered her question before she asked it: “How do I look?”
“Moss bonnie, an’ no mistake. Such an honor ‘tis tae help make mah great beauty’s shadow that much more beautiful.”
She wanted to tell him to stop this foolishness, but all she said was: “You are most kind.” Pastanti was no stranger to the crude advances of men, but no man in her memory had ever called her beautiful. Certainly, none had ever meant it in this way, had never made her feel beautiful. It was only Quinn’s poor command of the language that had made him an accidental poet, but Pastanti had come to love being called “great beauty’s shadow.”
Maybe it wouldn’t be so bad to carry on like this, Pastanti thought. Quinn can come by every couple of weeks and tell me how wonderful I am, and nothing ever need come of it.
“I went ‘n saw Mon Segnior Cidanas de Enchrais yesserday,” the Spellknight announced.
Oh, no. Stars above, he is serious about this. Pastanti had only seen the Mon Segnior a handful of times in her whole life; the last had been when Mother died. What if Quinn was here to tell her that she was free? Who would mind the Koritsi? Take care of her grandparents? Would she have to leave with him right now? Could she refuse? Did she dare?
Or, perhaps, he had come to tell her the opposite – that there was no hope, that she would be beaten for seducing the uncouth foreigner. That almost seemed preferable, though nothing about the way Quinn said the words suggested that was the case.
“Oh?” Pastanti said, feigning nonchalance. “And what did he tell you?”
“He agreed t’ask th’ Prince tae grant ye mannis… manny… manumission. Provided I help ‘im oot wi’ a few things first.”
“What does that mean?” Pastanti asked, though she knew.
“Welp,” Quinn said, rubbing the back of his neck again, “I cannae be sure if’n the prince’ll agree, but the Mon Segnior’s gonna try. But, if’n the Prince agrees, then ye’ll be free, Pastanti.”
Free. Never in her life had Pastanti dared to dream that she would ever be free – could ever be free – yet her aspifoppotis had just given that dream the breath of life, by making it a possibility. Even the faintest possibility was better, and more dangerous, than nothing.
“Now, suren I ken this is much tae take in. An’ I kennit well that yer grandda an’ grandma will need lookin’ after, an’ that we’ll need someone tae take yer place at th’ Koritsi.”
“This is true,” Pastanti said, looking away. She could never put herself above her grandparents, who’d spent their whole lives caring for her – and yet, wouldn’t they want this new life for her? What was she to do?
“An’ I’m goin’ ‘way agin, this time tae Port Crorbak. I got a friend who needs mah help, so… there’s time for ye to think aboot this…”
“Quinn, I…” Port Crorbak was as rough as any place in Heled; would he be dragging her to these places? Did he have some sort of home, somewhere? Knights lived in castles, didn’t they?
“So aye, I may no’ come back. An’ the Prince might still say nay, nae matter wha’ I do fer the Mon Segnior.” The Spellknight took a deep breath. “An’ fer all I ken, ye jist think I’m a big, loud, dumb, ignorant furriner what’s beneath even yer hatred.”
“Of course that isn’t true,” she said at once.
That put a welcome smile back on his face. “Oh, thank the gods. But in th’ end it’ll have tae be yer decision, whether ye wanna come wi’ me or no, or be courted by me or no. All I kin do is make ye free tae make that choice fer yerself.”
The sun peeked out over the horizon, just behind Quinn’s shoulder. She wanted to ask why he was doing this, why he was doing this for her, but the answer was clear: it’s because he loves you.
That seemed the most impossible thing of all. He didn’t know her, didn’t know her world, barely spoke her language. But Mother had always said that you couldn’t control whom you fell in love with, or who fell in love with you. Love didn’t care about time, or place, or birth, or even death. It was a sickness that people wanted to catch, or would give anything to cure. A few never felt it at all.
Love made no sense. And nothing made sense any more. Somehow, that made everything make sense.
Whether I love him back or not, he’s willing to set me free, so that I might choose.
She managed a smile for him, then leaned forward to give him a light kiss on the cheek. “Thank you,” she breathed into his ear before getting up and heading into the Koritsi Kai Kalukas without giving him a backward glance.
There, Pastanti thought, grinning. That should keep him going while he’s in Port Crorbak.
She had never felt so wicked in all her life, or so far beyond caring.