They managed to reach Lyria only minutes before the city guard was closing the gates for the night. After displaying their credentials and explaining they’d come to the city in search of gainful employment, which the guard snickered over as if he were party to some secret joke, Dandelion turned their horses over to the stable hand for grooming.
As he dug through his coin-purse to pay the kid from the stables, he watched Nyannah. She stood with both hands perched on the small of her back, stretching and arching and stifling small groans.
He dropped two coins into the boy’s outstretched hand, ducked past him and rejoined her. His hand rested on her back as he ushered her toward the tavern, fingers gently tickling across her spine as they walked.
“It looks like we made it just in time for me to get that back rub you promised,” he beamed. “Though it sounds like you might be the one in need of a rubdown. Is your back really so sore? I could hear you complaining all the way over at the stables.”
“I wasn’t complaining,” she snipped. “I was stretching. It’s been unbearably sore and it’s making my hips hurt. I’m glad we’re staying here for the winter. I don’t think I could ride another day.”
“I’ll take good care of you later, you’ll see. Come on, let’s get inside and out of this cold night.”
The cost of the room nearly broke them, and probably would have if he hadn’t haggled using his good name and celebrity to bump the price down, insisting the man should be honored to have two such famous bards even considering staying in his establishment. How it might boost business if word were to get out that he was there with the lovely Buttercup, who’d been known to bring grown men to tears with the beauty of her voice alone.
The man humored him while stroking greasy fingers through an even greasier beard and knocked twenty-five orens off the price of a room for three nights.
Fortunately they still had enough coin left over for each of them to have a bath, a meal and a few drinks.
At least one of them would have to find work by the end of the next day if they wanted to keep their room beyond that three nights, and eat during the day, but for the moment he was too tired to press the inn keeper for leads or ask if they might earn their keep by entertaining the evening crowds.
Sadly, it was plain to see the tavern didn’t receive much evening business anyway. Scanning the few pairs of shoulders hunched solitarily over their cups, the absence of voices and camaraderie lent an almost eerie atmosphere to the place. He’d been to Lyria, to that particular tavern, often enough, and it had never been so dull.
Nyannah was already sitting down, still rubbing and stretching her back when he joined her and announced, “I’ve never seen this place so empty. I think it might be under new management. I don’t recognize the innkeeper at all.”
“Neither do I,” she agreed. “He’s not the same man who was here the last time we came. How long ago was it?”
“More than a year,” he shrugged, glancing up when he saw the barmaid headed in their direction. “We stayed here on our way to Tretegor last September.”
“It’s odd that it’s so quiet.”
He agreed with a nod and turned his attention to the young woman coming their way.
The barmaid was a homely girl, not ugly—he’d definitely seen worse—but she wasn’t exactly what he’d consider attractive enough to leave the lantern burning at bedside. “What can I get you?”
“Food,” Nyannah spoke up. “Roasted chicken and potatoes for both of us, if you have it. And red wine for the gentleman.”
“What? You’re not drinking?” he asked.
“I don’t feel like it tonight.”
“Well I do,” he declared, turning his attention back to the barmaid. “Bring her wine anyway. If she doesn’t drink it, it won’t go to waste, believe me.”
As the homely girl walked away, leaving them alone at their table, he watched Nyannah withdraw her hand from her aching lower back and drop it quietly atop the table. The bracelets on her left arm jangled, the ruby ring on her index finger flashing as it caught the light from the overhead chandelier. She didn’t even notice he was watching her, as she’d grown instantly distant again when she brought her arm up and rested her chin in her hand, staring off toward the door.
He was starting to take it personally. Reaching across the table, he absently tucked a lock of hair behind her ear and tilted his head in earnest when she turned in to look at him.
“What?” she asked. “Why are you looking at me that way?”
“Oh, I don’t know. I suppose I’m still wondering where you are because you’re certainly not here with me in this fine establishment. In fact, I’ve hardly seen you all day. Where, oh where, has my little love gone?”
“I’m hungry,” she defended. “I’ve had nothing to eat but hard bread and cheese for days.”
“So you’re only hungry? There’s not something else bothering you? Something that should worry me?”
She lifted her arm and curled fingers around the wrist of his hand, which was still touching her flushed cheeks. “I told you it’s nothing.”
“And yet you forget how very clever a man I am, one who knows when nothing really means something and a woman’s simply employing it to try and throw me off her briar-entangled, emotional trail.”
“You are very clever, my love,” she smiled, but that smile did not reach all the way to her eyes, and therefore was only meant to appease him and nothing more. “I’m tired,” she insisted, “and hungry. A good meal and a bath will do wonders for my mood. I’m sure of it.”
“Maybe.” But he wasn’t convinced.
They ate when the food came, and Dandelion drank both cups of wine, his and hers, and ordered them two more, which made her roll her eyes at him, but he pretended not to notice. She left him alone while he was downing the third cup, to bathe she said, so he took a fifth cup of wine with him to the bath almost an hour later.
He stripped out of his clothes and slipped into the tub, where he soaked in the heated, perfumed water and let it soothe the road-weary muscles of his body. Tilting his head back along the lip of the tub, he closed his eyes and let the heat loosen him until he felt like a stretched ball of clay.
A backrub would be perfect, he thought.
He really did feel old as dirt sometimes. That feeling made him long for simpler times that had actually been anything but simple, really.
Fifteen years earlier, he’d been able to do so many things without consequences. He could stay awake for days on end, plough through six or seven eager women in a matter of hours and he could drink full barrels without even experiencing so much as a headache the next day. He and Geralt got into so much trouble… well, he’d gotten into trouble and then Geralt got him out of it the way he’d always done. He didn’t miss the trouble, he was getting too old for trouble, but he did lament the fun they had getting out of it. And he always missed Geralt.
Now wine gave him headaches if he had more than three cups, and too much liquor made it hard for him to get out of bed in the morning at all. He didn’t drink near as much as he used to, and though he liked to blame Nyan for that when they got into arguments, claiming she gave him looks that made him feel like he was a child and she was his mother, the truth of the matter was he couldn’t handle it with the same finesse.
And the way his bones ached… all the time. The joints of his knees snapping and popping like corn in a kettle over a hearth, his wrists burning sometimes when he woke, the pins and needles so fierce in his hands it took several minutes to bring feeling back to his fingers so he could curl them around the neck of his lute to practice in the mornings.
A day would soon be upon him when he couldn’t play his lute at all. And then where would he be?
Gods, it was depressing, getting old.
He spent so much time thinking about it in the bath that by the time he wrapped a towel around his waist and trailed wet footprints across the wooden floors until he came to their room, he was so depressed he wanted nothing more than for Nyannah to take him in her arms and make him feel like a young man again.
She was combing out the tangles of her freshly washed hair at the dressing table of their room, which wasn’t a bad room, but it wasn’t the best room either. It had a roof over it, and a sturdy bed with clean sheets. A single window overlooked the city below when the shutters were opened, and there was a trunk in which to store their belongings and a wardrobe for their clothes.
He dropped his clothes and boots into a pile on the floor near the door and then walked in to stand behind her at the mirror. Ducking down to lean over her shoulder, he caught his own reflection in the glass. His hair had been slowly going silver, and though the chestnut color of his tousled curls was still predominant, the hair on his chest was losing its color and the neatly trimmed tuft of hair beneath his lip was almost entirely silver.
He lifted a hand to stroke critical fingers through it, and though he didn’t shift his eyes toward hers, he knew she was looking at him.
“Stop doing that to yourself,” she scolded.
“Stop doing what? Not being able to recognize the old man staring back at me? Who the hell is he, and what is he doing in there? What’s he done with… me?”
His birthday was just a few weeks away. Fifty years, truly. Half a century alive, and mostly well, which was more than could be said for people who’d probably deserved to live far longer than he had.
“He is the same man he has always been,” she pointed out. “Just a little more distinguished.”
“Is that what he is?” he wondered, turning his chin and catching a glimpse of a small ruby of blood on his clean-shaven cheek where the razor nicked the skin while he was shaving. He swiped it away with a fingertip and tilted his head in the other direction. “Distinguished?”
“He is rather dashing,” he decided, turning a raised eyebrow and finally meeting her gaze in the mirror. When he winked, she smiled, a soft sort of smile, thoughtful and filled with so many unsaid things. He wondered what those unsaid things might be, and if she had any plans to say them, but he didn’t push her. Instead he kissed the top of her head and asked, “Do you want me to rub your back? I really don’t want to listen to you moaning all night while you toss around in the bed, unless I’m the one tossing you and making you moan, if you get my meaning.”
“Then maybe we should just cut to the chase and you should give me reason to moan.”
“You naughty little Bohemian,” he grinned, backing away from the chair and letting the towel drop from his waist.
Nyannah laughed, darting from the chair and making him chase her, squealing and screaming false protest about her precious virginity until he caught her, threw her down on the bed and ploughed her good and proper like a man half his age.
He forgot he was an old man when was he was inside her. When her legs were wrapped around his hips, bare breasts pressed against his chest and thighs squeezing him tighter as she rose to meet him, her fingernails digging into the flesh of his back in that delicious way that always made him shudder, he felt alive.
More like his true self than he’d ever felt with anyone else. What kind of man might he have been had he met her when he was young? A farmer? A merchant? Some dopey young sap willing to give up everything he ever dreamed about just to keep her by his side. Father to half a dozen little snot-nosed brats they could barely afford because he couldn’t keep his hands off his lovely bride, miserably satisfied and content with things just the way they were?
In her arms, he was just Julian. In that place where they made love together he was just a man and she a woman, and the simplicity of it was inspiring in ways that made him think in rhyming couplets and four-line verses that distracted him from reaching climax too quickly. Her satisfaction brought him the greatest sense of accomplishment, so while drawing her to the place that drove her out of her mind, he composed a verse in her honor to keep his mind distracted from arriving too quickly at his own pleasure:
Here sheathed between her milk-white thighs
So lost inside her stormy eyes
and spent, am I, amid sweet breath
that carries me away from death.
Oh death, that you would think to tear
me from her with your wicked stare,
but thou will never steal this bliss,
she gives me life with every kiss.
There was no escaping death, he knew that, but when he was with her he didn’t really care. He’d glimpsed the glow of the afterlife in her arms, heard choirs of some otherworldly resonance in her climaxes that spoke of bliss beyond that earthly place in which they dwelt. He wasn’t afraid to die if he was going to that place she took him when he was inside her.
Everyone had to die of something. He just hoped he was between her perfect thighs when it was his time to go.
He finished her off with ease, arriving shortly thereafter himself. He fell into the bed and drew her gasping and slicked with sweat to rest against his chest. She collapsed to snuggle in his arms and clung to him in the strangest way while he stroked long fingers through the tangles of her soft hair and whispered loving words into her ear.
“You are my moon,” he told her. “The waxing, waning light through the darkness of this world.”
“I do love you,” she told him. “So very, very much.”
She didn’t tremble, but he swore he felt her tears drip against his skin, tickling as they slipped across his chest and down his side, but he told himself it was only sweat.
He was afraid to ask if she was crying because he was more than sure she’d say he should be able to tell and insist he should even know why, but he had no idea what could possibly make a woman cry after reaching the heavens.
Honestly, there was nothing worse than a woman struck by post-coital tristesse, even a beautiful one he loved with all his heart.
So he said nothing, only kissed her goodnight and then lay awake while she clung to him.
It was very much like she was afraid of something, but didn’t want to tell him what, and that terrified him in ways he wasn’t prepared to face. His terrifying thoughts lingered long after she finally drifted off and slowed her breath into a peaceful, soothing rhythm.
When he was sure he wouldn’t disturb her, he got out of bed and by low-flickering candlelight he jotted down the couplets he’d composed to distract himself while making love to her.