By the time I rose out of the bath in the washroom, my skin was pink, and scrubbed to the point of rawness; the sponge provided was so coarse that I was convinced it might really just be a piece of pumice rock. The steam parted like a curtain as I made my way to the far edge of the room and slipped into the simple clothes the innkeeper’s wife had left for me. It was a well-worn dress the color of peat with frayed edges, still stiff with starch, but compared to my tattered pair of pajamas they made me feel like a real, presentable person.
This was the first time I had washed in days, and I expected it would make me feel better, but somehow, I left the washroom still feeling like scum. It had very little to do with actual grime, and much more to do with the deal I had cut earlier with a stranger named Barth. I walked down the hall towards the bedroom, a miasma of slime following behind me like a cloud. I tried to tell myself that I didn’t have a choice, that I would pay Ko’sa back, but the justification did little to alleviate the pit in my gut.
The bedroom was dark when I entered, Ko’sa already fast asleep on the bed, the covers curled up in a ball at her feet. It looked like she had been thrashing around in her sleep. For a second I considered giving her the entire bed- she had been through a lot today- before looking at the rotting wooden floorboards and thinking better. I collapsed on the empty bit of space on the mattress and closed my eyes.
It was good to be on something soft, to rest, even if for just a little…while…
BANG BANG BANG
My eyes shot open. Ko’sa was still asleep next to me.
I rolled off the bed and crashed onto the floor.
“Hey! Your time is up!” The innkeeper’s voice yelled, muffled from the other side of the oak door. “You need to leave unless you want to be charged for another night.”
I rubbed my eyes and yawned. What time was it? I looked out the window. The sun was already high in the sky.
“Come on, Ko’sa,” I said, shaking the girl on the shoulder. “We need to get out of here.” She barely stirred.
BANG BANG BANG
“You hear me ma’am? I ain’t playin’ around!”
“Okay!” I called back. “Just give us a minute.”
“Give you a minute? I already gave you four extra hours. It’s past high-noon. Get your ass outside now or I’m charging you double.”
I shook Ko’sa again, more vigorously than the first time. She gave a feeble moan, and rolled over on the bed, showing zero willingness to move. I bent down to examine my friend. Her cheeks were flushed red. I held a hand to her forehead; it was covered in sweat and burning hot.
She has a fever, I realized.
I swore loudly, then strode over towards the door.
BANG BANG BA-
I swung the door open mid-pound to face the bewildered man, on the verge of kicking it down with his boot.
“Hi,” I said brightly, trying to turn my charm on. “How is…how’s your morning?”
The little man scowled back at me underneath his thick mop of curly black hair. “You mean afternoon.” I could see his wife, broom in hand, watching me from the end of the hall. “You’ll be on your way then? My wife has been waiting to clean that room for hours now.”
“My friend is sick,” I said.
“My horse is brown. What’s it to me?”
“She needs rest. Or maybe a doctor. I don’t know, but she’s in no state to leave that bed. We need to stay another night.”
“That’s great news,” he said, without enthusiasm. “Two gold please.”
I bit my lip. “I uhh…we don’t have any money left.”
He snorted and crossed his arms. “What are you talking about girl? You were flashing a big pile of coins at me just last night.”
“It’s gone. I spent it all.” I took a deep breath, “Look, I’ll pay you back later I promise, but right now that girl can’t go back out on the street.”
“Not my problem.”
I caught the wife in the corner of my vision, looking back at me. I locked eyes with her, pleading silently. I waited, second after agonizing second, praying for something to give.
“You going to make me call the city guard?” he asked, now losing his last bit of remaining patience. “I don’t make a habit of calling them on women, but I will if I have to.”
“You don’t want to get the guards involved,” I said, dropping my voice to a pitch that I hoped sounded low and ominous. “The girl in there is friends with a very important member of the city guard.”
“Who, that drunken oaf Dalton that never pays his tab? How about I go find five very important guards she doesn’t know. This is an inn, not a homeless shelter. The law is on my side here, not her.”
Finally the wife broke her silence. “Hugh, she’s just a girl, we haven’t sold out all the rooms in this place for over a month, I don’t think an extra night will be too much-”
“Stay out of this,” he snapped at his wife.
That did it. Her face turned as red as an apple, and she seemed to swell to twice her size. “Excuse us for a minute,” she said, her tone cold as ice, as she grabbed her husband in a vice-grip and pulled him over to the end of the hall. For several minutes, they exchanged angry whispers, like two vipers hissing at one another. They stopped once to turn to look at me, there eyes studying. The husband shook his head, and the wife began a fresh onslaught of hissing. Finally I saw his shoulders shrug. In unison, they turned back and walked over to me.
The wife nudged her husband forward to speak first, his eyes fixated on a spot on the floor. “My wife and I have agreed that with the increased business caused by the funeral, we could use an extra bar-back to help us with the tavern downstairs. If you want to stay for a day”- he caught an angry glare from his wife- “I mean if you want to stay for a few days while your friend recovers, you are welcome, but you have to work for your stay.”
The wife smiled at me with kind eyes, her pudgy face framed by dark curls. “It’s been nightmare here lately. I was up until the early morning cleaning last night and need help. It won’t be easy work, but if you’re willing, we would be happy to have you here, dear.” She jabbed her husband in the ribs with an elbow. “Isn’t that right, honey?”
“Yes, more than welcome,” he said.
“Thank you,” I replied. “I don’t know how we could ever repay you both.”
“I know how,” the innkeeper said. He snatched the broom from his wife and handed it to me. “Here, your repayment starts now, and it doesn’t end till I say so.”
Ko’sa hardly moved from the bed for the rest of the day, not that I had much time to attend to her. The innkeeper’s wife, whose name was Nora, quickly lost her warmth when she realized how inept I was at each job she assigned me. I could hold my own with anything that involved a sponge or a broom, but began to demonstrate my ineptitude when the tavern picked up at night.
I couldn’t tell apart the numerous casks of ales and was frequently serving people incorrect drinks, and when I attempted to mix spirits I got the proportions all wrong. I was too small to lift and carry replacement casks for the empties, and my first attempt at tapping a new cask was a disaster, leaving myself and the innkeeper drenched in white beer foam.
“Get away from me,” the innkeeper said, wiping his eyes, as beer puddled on the floor beneath him. “I knew this was a fool’s idea. You don’t go behind the bar anymore, understand?”
Finally they settled on letting me collect the empty glasses from their patrons and sweep the floor until someone else finished their drink. Every now and then I would leave to go check on Ko’sa, still mumbling wordlessly in her sleep.
She’s not going anywhere tonight, I thought, as I watched her thrash. When the inn closes, I should give Barth’s plan a try.
I recalled the events of the previous night.
Barth swept a hand over the oak table, spilling Ko’sa’s coins into the mouth of his purse at the edge of the table, waiting to gobble them up into a black hole where they would never be seen again.
“Wait, stop!” I said, slapping my hand down onto the pile to halt his progress. “Start talking now. You get the rest after you finish telling my your idea.”
He looked me over for a minute, as if to size me up. The innkeeper was down in the cellar; no one would be able to stop the man if we wanted to take off with the rest of the money. He shrugged. “Fine, but we had a deal, and once I finish my end of the bargain I will take what I consider mine.”
I waited. He gestured for me to take a seat.
“Up until recently I used to work in the Twin Cathedrals.”
“Those two big pyramids next to the palace?” I guessed. He gave me a weird look, like I had just asked him if chickens lay eggs. “I’m an Outsider,” I remembered to clarify, now getting used to seeing that familiar look of disbelief.
He gave a small nod with his chin. “An Outsider who has come from a very, very far land, apparently. Anyways, when I worked in the West Chapel-”
“You were a priest?”
Barth stopped and glared at me. “Are you going to keep interrupting, or may I tell the story you just paid me for?”
“I practice the faith as best I can, but have done and seen far too much in my life to ever call myself a holy man. I managed the assets of the church, kept the records of expenses, stuff like that. It was long and tedious drudgery, often taking into the early hours of the morning to finish. I didn’t mind it though. It was honest work.”
He propped his chin on his hand, casting his gaze towards the ceiling. His eyes were blue and bright, now lost in the memories of a life left behind. “The church always keeps its doors open, as is policy. There must always be a priest for confessionals, since the Gods will always keep open ears to hear the repentance of sin.”
“Now Father Caollin, the head of the Twin Cathedrals, is quite involved with the church. I would see him a lot around the chapel, treating with the common folk. To the naked eye, it’s easy to imagine Father Caollin as a figure larger than life, standing on a stage alongside the King and High Pontiff in front of tens of thousands, but that’s not the life for him, you see. Deep down, he is a community man at heart.”
“What do you mean?” I asked. “My friends told me that he was one of the King’s closest advisers.
I’d imagine that would be a very prestigious role, yes?”
“Oh no, don’t get me wrong love,” Barth said, “Father Caollin has worked long and hard to leverage himself into that position. But he never wanted to be a public figurehead. The man is happiest when working from the trenches, up to his elbows in mud.” He smiled at me. “It might be very difficult to get audience from the King himself, but…”
“Caollin is a bit more accessible.” I finished.
“They call him the eyes and ears of the King. Keeps his thumb on the pulse of the Kingdom by talking to commoners like you and me. He’s a reasonable man as well. If you really did know the King in a past life like you say, and can tell him your tale without sounding too crazy, he might just be moved enough to take you to see him.”
I drummed my fingers on the table. “So that’s your exclusive, insider advice? Go find him at the Cathedral? You know, I think Ko’sa would have known-”
“Shush,” he cut me off, “I’m not finished. Father Caollin is an incredibly busy man. If you don’t know when to look for him, then you can never hope to find him.”
There was a thud as the innkeeper returned from the cellar, rolling a fresh cask up the stairs, panting and sweaty. “Bar closes in five,” he informed us between breaths.
Barth stood up. “The graveyard-shift confessional in the West Cathedral. Every night, from the late hour until dawn, there is only one priest waiting in the booth to receive confessions, and it is the one you seek.” He began to shovel the rest of Ko’sa’s gold into his purse. “Now go, tonight if you must, and repent for your sins.”