“Excuse me ma’am? Hello?”
I picked my head up from its resting place on the oak table. The bartender of the Yellow Woods was standing over me, his silhouette moving in an out of focus through my bleary, heavy eyes. He was brandishing a broom, as if he wished he could sweep me out onto the street with the rest of the dust gathering on the floorboards.
“I said, you got to pay if you want to sleep here. It’s two gold for a room for the night.”
The bar was quiet, except for a few men sitting at a table next to me, talking in hushed voices over steins of beer.
My eyes-lids fluttered as I straightened up, attempted to compose myself. There was a wet puddle of drool on the table marking the place where my mouth had been. “I…uh…hold on.”
I reached across the table for Ko’sa’s pack and emptied the contents onto the wood, coins and knick-knacks spilling across the table with a jingle. Even though we had been robbed by Bandits, Ko’sa sure had managed to make a respectable haul by selling all the crap deemed “not worth its weight”.
Two of the larger golden colored coins glimmered from the top of the pile. “Here,” I said, handing them to the man. “One room it is.”
The bartender turned the gold over in his palm, clearly surprised. He bit into each coin, as though he suspected they were counterfeit. “Sorry, had you marked as a vagrant. We get ’em sometimes.”
The coins on the table rattled from the impact of a rusted iron key hitting the oak. “When you’re ready, head up stairs, it’s the first door on the left. Washrooms at the end of the hall.” He sniffed. “Might I suggest you wash yourself before you use the sheets? I’ll charge you extra if you ruin ’em.”
I shivered. “Any chance you got a change of clothes?”
He jerked his thumb at the pile of coins, signaling it would cost extra. I nodded, and reached down and took a few silver pieces from the top. “I’ll see if my wife has anything you can have. Might be a bit old, but better than what you got now, that’s for sure.”
The thought of a bath, fresh laundry and a warm bed was almost too enticing to pass up on the spot, but I stayed glued to the table, afraid if I left the bar I might miss Dalton.
The bartender came back a second later and set down a beer in front of me. “On the house. Looks like you could use one.” I thanked him and took a sip. As I sat staring blankly at the wooden yellow wall in front of me, the door of the inn opened with a bang and my heart lurched.
What entered the bar was disappointment; just another man I did not know. He waved at the table next to me and joined them, chair legs screeching as the group parted to make a space for him. As he removed his cloak, the voices from the table drifted over to me.
“Barth, we’ve been waiting hours for you old friend. What’s the word outside?”
“I know, I know, the streets are still a congested mess. The good news is my family is safe. Already sent to have them travel back tonight.”
“Praise the gods. What about the King?”
“They say his majesty took a lick, but he’ll live, and the rest of the Royal Family were evacuated safely. As for the High Pontiff, he was killed by the blast.”
A long silence followed, and I could hear the men taking swigs of their drinks. There were thuds of glasses hitting the table, then Barth continued.
“The traitors in masks have all been killed or subdued, and the King’s Lawn has already been re-opened to the public. They’re planning a mass public trial later this week, best any of them can hope for is immediate execution.”
“What I want to know is, how they managed to pull it off? Starting the fire, planting the bomb, how could security have missed it all? And in the queen’s coffin, of all places?”
“The city guard is looking into it now. The coffin was loaded with explosives. Would have taken someone from inside the ranks of the palace to execute an attack like that. We all know the Broken Prince still has a couple spies left in high places, one of them likely orchestrated the whole thing.”
There were murmurs of agreement. “And another High Pontiff dead?” a third voice cut in. “Seems like we were just appointing this one a few years ago. Can’t even say myself who would be next in line.”
“Assuming the King gets his wish, it will be Father Caollin. I’d put money on it.”
“I don’t know about that…”
The door swung open a second time and I looked up.
This time, I spotted Dalton squeezing to fit his thick arms through the door-frame, looking as haggard as ever, and trailing behind him was…
“Ko’sa!” I yelped, and ran over to hug her.
She sagged in my arms, after a moment I pulled back to examine her. There were dark purple shadows underneath her eyes, and her skin was sickly pale, but even so, she managed a faint smile.
“Easy now,” Dalton warned. “Just got her back from a medical tent. Still recovering.”
“I’m fine,” she said, limping towards the back of the room. “The only medicine I need is a drink.” She collapsed onto one of the chairs at my table. “You done with that?” she asked pointing at my own unfinished beer.
“Yeah, but…are you old enough?” She ignored my question and took a large swig, slamming it down on the table, and I felt a spray of liquid on my face.
Dalton joined us, his chair creaking unconfidently as if to warn it might break at any second. “We think she took a nasty shot to the back of the head during the confusion. Knocked her senseless and she fell into the water. Good thing you got her out so fast, medic said she wasn’t in the water for that long, just needs a bit of rest.”
“I didn’t even see you fall,” I told Ko’sa. “Everything was happening so fast. Those…those…people”- I shuddered – “were everywhere.”
Ko’sa looked at me, her gaze serious, and rubbed the back of her head. “You see why I want to leave this place, miss? It’s been like this for years, anger bubbling underneath the surface, hiding behind those painted smiles. The King has been playing a dangerous game, and it’s the people that are going to pay when this gets worse.”
Dalton stood up from the table, his chair practically sighing in relief. “You two good to stay here tonight? City guard needs me right now, going to be sorting this mess out all night.”
Ko’sa nodded. “We’ll be fine. Go on.”
He grunted and lumbered out of the bar, into the night.
“Don’t know why a scoundrel like him is so good to me. Not the first time he’s gotten me out of a bad scrape, yeah?”
“He has your back, that’s for sure.” I flicked back a damp strand of hair that was dangling in front of my eyes. “Why did you twist his arm earlier just so he would let us into the city sooner? You even threatened to jack up prices on him? That’s a bit cold to do to someone who calls you a friend.”
“I traded with him long before we were ever friends. Today I had a lot to sell and needed to get into the city as early as possible.” She jerked her head towards the pile of loot on the table. “My Pa is counting on the rest of that. I can’t pull favors for every decent man I meet, or I would never make any gold. In a place like this, it’s the only thing us common folk can do to survive.”
Suddenly her tone changed and she looked at me inquisitively. “Tell me about your world. What’s it like there?”
“Oh…well…it’s a bit different.”
I spent the next half hour trying to explain modern technology, of cars and phones and T.V. Sets. I told her about my life with Malcolm, about the suburbs where I had grown up and the city I lived in when I went to college. She sat there, wide eyed and slack-jawed, totally enthralled and hanging on my every word. It was as if I were telling her about some magical fairytale, of a new land with endless possibilities
“And you want to go back now?” she asked quietly, once I had finished.
I almost laughed. “Yes, I need to get back as soon as possible; I’ve had quite enough of this world too, even if it has only been a couple of days.”
She smiled. “Then we’ll head back for the village first thing tomorrow morning. Pa will be back by then, so will my brother, you’ll like them. We can take the boat out and you can take us back with you, show us the way to the Outside.”
I bit my lip. “So yeah…well here’s the thing, we need to take someone else back too.”
She snorted. “Fraid we can’t take Dalt. He’s so big he’d sink the boat.”
“No, not him,” I said. “It’s my husband, remember?”
“Oh yeah,” she said. “By the way, what did you mean back at the ceremony? That you knew where to find him?”
I took a deep breath. She has to find out at some point, I thought. Now was as good a time as any.
“Ko’sa,” I began. “There’s something you need to know about your King.”
“You see, I sort of know him already. He’s from my world too. We um…we used to be close.”
I was about to explain the situation for the third time in a row, but before I could start from the beginning, Ko’sa frowned and raised a hand to cut me off.
“Dalton was right about you. You’re mad.”
“I’m not,” I said. “You said yourself the King isn’t one of you. Is it so hard to believe that he’s an Outsider too?” She looked down into the empty mug of beer, thinking. “If I could just talk to him, I could convince him to come back with me. I know I can reach him, he’ll listen to me.”
Ko’sa remained silent, still fixated by the glass, so I kept talking.
“Look, maybe that would fix everything. Malcolm- or Malstrom, rather- is in danger while he’s serving as the King here, and right now he’s only made things worse. But if he goes back with me, then he’ll be safe, and maybe this fiasco will all die down and return to normal.”
Finally she picked her head up from the glass and spoke. “You sure you didn’t take a shot to the head too?”
“Come on, you have to believe me.” Desperate, I tried to think of a way to convince Ko’sa that I knew the King. Then it hit me.
“Look, he even wrote me a note!” I plunged my hand into my pocket and fished out the small scroll of paper. My heart dropped when I saw its condition: it had been reduced to a soggy wad, and came apart in pieces when I tried to unroll it. The ink had all run off the paper, turning it a slight shade of light blue that came off on my hands.
Defeated, I crossed my arms across my chest. “Fine, maybe you don’t believe me, but I need to speak to the King before I leave, that’s my one condition no matter what. Help me do that, and I’ll take you back to the Outside right after, you have my word.”
“I’ve already done more than enough for you,” she said, her voice turning bitter. “I can’t take you to see the King because it’s impossible.” She stood up from the table and grabbed the key. “I’m going to bed, we’ve another long day ahead of us tomorrow. I suggest you stop saying foolish things and do the same, so you don’t slow us down anymore than usual.”
With that she stormed out of the bar and up the stairs, leaving me to pick up the coins on the table.
“Great,” I called after her. “Thanks for being so understanding.” Then, under my breath, “It’s not like I saved your life today.”
I sat at the table, alone again, trying to figure out what I was going to do or how I was going to get to Malcolm. Maybe I just had to do something crazy. Get myself arrested, or put on trial so that he would have to see me. As I mulled over my options, a man from the other table walked up and approached me. He was the same one that had walked in late, that the others had called Barth.
“I couldn’t help but overhear your conversation with your friend earlier,” he said. “She’s wrong, you know. There are ways to reach the King, for those that really want to.”
I squared to face him. “Is that so?”
“It’s not exactly common knowledge, but you could do it. Maybe even tonight, if you wanted. Of course,” -he grinned and pointed at the pile of coins still scattered on the table,- “depends how much that information is worth to you.”
“I’m afraid that’s not my money to spend,” I said.
“That’s a pity. Just something to consider, I’ll be staying in the far room upstairs tonight if you change your mind.”
He began to walk towards the stairs. “Wait!” I called after him. I plucked one of the few remaining gold pieces off the top of the pile. “Here, take it.”
He laughed. “One gold? One gold? This is very sensitive information, much more valuable than that beggar’s wage.”
“Oh Yeah? And what would you say it’s worth then?”
His grin was growing, I could see it widening underneath a set of thin pale lips. He looked back at the pile of coins, all too aware of my desperation. “All of it.”