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Red as Coals, Black as Night Chapter 4 Part 2
Now he was traveling through lots of fields and cultivated land. There were many cities and towns here. He stopped at the first one, Ufwe, to replenish his store of food, and avoided the rest. He attracted too much attention to visit towns frequently.
To keep the fish's prediction out of his head, he reviewed some geography. In the middle of the continent was his country, Linua. Its capital was Kaloorse(Kuh-lore-say), a colorful, lively city that was next to the royal palace of Linua. While it was far prettier, it wasn't nearly as large as the Shanese's castle. To the north-west and south-west was ocean. In the north was the Saphir Tesal (Sah-feer tay-sahl), meaning Sapphire Waves in the language of the civilization that used to live in northern Linua and Jaswid. To the south was Pleshun(Play-shoon), which meant Undefeated in Vunish. To the west of Linua was Jaswid, to the east was Torcom, and to the south-east was Pilale.
Jaswid, their eastern neighbor, was far smaller than Linua, but larger than Pilale. In the north-east it shared a mountain range with Linua. Much of south-east Jaswid was covered with hills. At the very western tip of the hills was their capital, Zornile(Zore-neel). It was not as large as Kaloorse, but it was peaceful and friendly.
Torcom was a giant, more than twice the size of Linua, and far more powerful. The capital Drorgel was situated on a river, a huge, sprawling city that glistened with marble and gold leaf. The country had many prosperous farms that brought in a surplus of produce. All of its nobles were trained knights. The king was young, but healthy and intelligent. If Linua wanted to wage war with Torcom, they were in trouble.
To the south-east of Linua was Pilale. Pilale was slightly smaller than Jaswid, and much poorer. The water bordering them on three sides made them a peninsula. Pilale was frequently flooded, which severely decimated the amount of crops they could bring in. The capital Cruen(Croo-en) was only a few decades old, quite young, and it was small and sloppy. The only country they could possibly wage war on was Vun.
Vun was a very small island country whose main income was fishing. The name Vun meant "beaver" in their unique language. They named it as such because the shape of the island was roughly that of a beaver, and they had a high beaver population. Their capital city Teps was older than any of the other capitals by centuries, possibly even millennia. While most of Vun's cities and towns were of modest size, Teps was very large and very cleverly constructed. If someone conquered Vun, Teps would be the last to fall.
Having recalled all this perfectly, Jose smiled-he had a very good memory. If only it could work the other way. If only he could see the future, like that fish. Then he would have something to work with. Then he would have some idea of what was to come.
Jose soon reached the town of Bazlo. It was quite a large town, almost big enough to be called a city. The headman lived in a very large, fancy house, and many of the villagers looked prosperous. However, as he traveled closer to the heart of the city, things became less pretty. He had seen worse, but this part of the town was not as wealthy. There was at least one beggar on every street.
As Jose had expected, most people he passed looked at him with a combination of curiosity and fear. Only one person didn't. It was one of the beggars, a woman so old that her wrinkles had wrinkles. Her silver hair waved to her back, and pale jade eyes stared at him with, if anything, defiance. He guessed that she may have been very pretty once, but now she was so thin that she looked like a skeleton with skin stretched over it. It was sad to think of her as a lovely, energetic young woman.
Jose knew where he was heading. Yweazag(Yuh-way-uh-zahg), who was head of the network of informants that spied for the Shanese, did not have an informant in Bazlo. But there were only two inns in Bazlo, so chances were if she was staying or had stayed there, that is where she would have gone. The innkeepers would know if she had stayed at their inn.
The first innkeeper hadn't seen or heard of the girl. When Jose described her, he just laughed boisterously and said, "To be sure, if I'd a' seen a lass like that, I'd remember." The man wasn't as frightened of Jose as most people. Jose could guess why when he saw the empty tankards on the otherwise-empty bar, and the man's broken veins. Jose thanked him for listening, then left hastily.
He proceeded to the other inn, a slightly smaller one called the Bright Day. He hoped she had stayed here, because if she hadn't, that most likely meant she either hadn’t stayed in Bazlo, and he would have to try a different village, or she was a lot craftier than he gave the girl credit for.
The main room of the inn was occupied only by the innkeeper and his wife. When she saw him, the innkeeper’s wife shrieked. The man just closed his eyes and shook his head, as if refusing to believe that Jose was real. When he opened his eyes and saw that Jose was still there, he cringed. Then he put on the friendliest voice he could manage and said, “Can I help you?”
Jose nodded. “I was wondering if you could tell me whether a certain lady had stayed here recently. Very tall, walks sort of hunched, as if to conceal her true height. Wears full-length robes with a hood on top. Never takes them off. Has she come here?”
The innkeeper had grown gradually paler as Jose continued his description. It was the innkeeper’s wife who answered, “Yes, she stayed here. A might improper woman, if you ask me. Never revealed her face, always wore those awful robes, spoke as little as possible. And when she did, it was almost like she was purposely roughing up her voice. Never stood up straight, and was traveling all alone. Very improper,” she sniffed. Jose gave a mental smile.
“Yeah,” the innkeeper rasped, his baggy eyes wide. He seemed very scared. “Yeah, she stayed here all right. Stayed for about five days then left. And I’m glad she’s gone.”
Jose felt his heart sink slightly. So no easy hunt. But at least he knew she’d been here. And he might be able to find out where she was going. “Did she mention anything about where she was going next?” he inquired casually.
The innkeeper’s face soured. “No, she didn’t mention it. But the person who slept in the room next to her—we have very thin walls, you see—said that in her sleep she kept mumbling the words “safe house” and saying “Saleen, Saleen, I have to get to Saleen.” The man regarded him with a wary look. “You’re not plannin’ on stayin’ here too, are ya’?” Jose could have laughed. The man was afraid he would have another weirdo staying here.
“Don’t worry,” he assured the man. “I just wanted to know where the lady was. She’s a…friend of mine.” The ludicrous lie stung Jose a bit, but he didn’t let it show.
“Well,” the innkeeper mumbled. “That’s just…fine.” And he hobbled away with his wife in tow.
Now he had a purpose! Now he knew where he might go! If he was lucky, he would catch her when she was still in Saleen. If not, he could at least see where she had stayed and find out where he was going. Once he had exited the inn, Jose left the city, running northward.
Not two days later he reached Saleen. It was a town of modest size, but not nearly as large as Bazlo. Jose learned with delight that there was only one inn in the whole town. He wouldn’t have to go searching everywhere. Jose had asked a random youth on the street if he could give him directions to the inn. The young man had said, throat bobbing nervously, that the inn was at the edge of town, right before the point where the houses started to disappear and the farms and fields replaced them. This struck Jose as an odd place to put an inn. If he ran an inn, he would put it in the center of town. Not that he would ever run an inn, of course.
As Jose trotted toward the northern edge of town, his nerves were humming loudly in his ears. He might encounter the Gifted One here. He might die here.
No, no, no! That was not the way to think right now. Thinking something like that could only get him killed.
The houses nearer to the edge of town were more humble. Not poor, but less fancy then others. They weren’t awful, though. It wouldn’t be terrible living in a place like that. Saleen wasn’t as lavish as Bazlo, but it also wasn’t as awful.
Finally he reached the inn. The sign, proclaiming that this was the Sunlight Inn, looked dingy, but the rest of the inn looked fabulous. Apparently the place was more used than Jose had thought.
Heart thumping, he entered a noisy common room. It was dark, someone was playing the flute, and men were shouting and clanking tankards. It seemed a little rowdy for three hours past noon, but humans had all sorts of queer habits.
He approached the small man behind the bar. “Are you the innkeeper?” he asked. The man’s brow furrowed as he squinted up at Jose, and his eyes tightened in suspicion, but he nodded. “Is this woman staying here?” Jose repeated the description he’d given the previous innkeepers. It was beginning to feel repetitive.
The man clearly didn’t trust him. He looked at Jose almost as if he wanted to throw him out of the inn. But instead, he nodded slowly, thoughtfully, as if he had just realized the words he was saying. “She’s here. What a strange lass! Never comes down except to get food, always seems happy and grim at the same time. Not that I ever see her face. No one sees her face.”
Adrenaline filled Jose, the blood roaring through his veins. He could hardly hear. Or was that just because of the deafening music? “What room does she stay in?” he asked, trying unsuccessfully to calm himself down.
Now the innkeeper was angry. “What business have you asking the location of the poor girl’s room? What’s she to do with you?” But Jose had an answer ready for this.
“Sorry, sir, if I hadn’t made myself clear,” he apologized. “She’s my cousin. We’re refugees from Torcom, except we got lost on our way over the border. I’d hoped to find her here.”
Now the dark eyes of the man keenly scrutinized Jose. “I suppose you could be cousins,” he muttered. “Both wearing those cloaks, always keeping the face in shadow. And both so tall. How did you get to be so tall?” Jose wasn’t really ready for this question, but he came up with an explanation.
“Accidentally drunk potion,” he said. “The effects will wear off in a couple more weeks.” He tried to sound as miserable as he could.
The innkeeper actually patted him on the arm sympathetically and told him, “Top level, fourth room down on the right.” He returned to his duties.
Jose, in the mean while, went up the flight of stairs to the top level of the inn. There were only two levels in all. He spotted nine doors going down the both sides of the hallway. He was fairly sure he’d seen nine windows on that side of the building, so that meant there was one in each room.
He would spy on her through the window. He would ascertain that her power was control over plants, and he would observe her habits, seeing when she left the inn alone. That would be when he fought her. Jose left the inn somewhat uneasily.
He sauntered over to a tall, conveniently placed patch of bushes on the side of the inn where the lady’s room was. As he sat down on the damp ground, he pulled a slightly crushed, miniature red flower. Some Shanese had discovered these a century ago. If a Shanese ate them, it would greatly enhance his vision for two hours. But if you ate too many, they started harming your brain and eyes. Jose had brought five small flowers. That was ten hours of watching, maximum.
He was in luck. After eating a flower, he saw the flickering of movement that meant she was in the room. Since she hadn’t come to the window, though, he couldn’t really see her.
She remained away from the window for an infuriatingly long time, long enough that Jose began to worry about the flower’s power running out. Just as he was beginning to give up hope, she abruptly stepped up to the open window, then raised her hood, staring wistfully at the trees behind Jose.
Jose gasped. His eyes strained from their sockets, and he wondered if they would suddenly fly away. The wind was cold, the bushes scratchy, but all he could do was stare at her.