What time was it now? Eleven o’clock? Midnight?
Beyond the bedroom window, through the ancient glass that was wavy from age and smudged with streaks of dirt, lay my only concept of time. The sun had sunk underneath the jagged skyline of roofs sometime ago, darkening the sky from its former shade of navy to a deeper purple. My hands reached for my pocket, a subconscious reflex to retrieve my phone and check the time, but found only air.
The bundle of blankets heaped on top of Ko’sa heaved with each breath, soft and steady. Without her sharp, inquisitive gaze and abundance of energy, she seemed an entirely different girl, no longer tough and impervious, but small and susceptible to the entropy of the world like the rest of us. Asleep, her features softened, she could have been any teenager from the public school I used to walk past on my way to work, the ones that played kickball or frisbee out in the yard before class. Today, she could have been staying home from school sick.
Yet I knew the girl before me was in a different stratosphere than those kids chasing each other around, the same ones with smart phones and curfews and mentors that urged them to pursue their passions. Ko’sa lived up in a different world, one that was harsher and deadlier. It had forced her to grow up long before the children I passed on my way to work.
How had Malcolm’s ascent to power affected children like Ko’sa? Had he in fact, made their lives worse?
The more I thought about Ko’sa, the more I realized how wrong it would feel to leave her, even for a couple hours to try to see about Malcolm. She was owed more from me, I would take her with me to visit Father Caollin once she got better. If she got better.
I sat on the bed, so lost in thought that I did not notice the door creak open and the figure standing to face me, arms crossed, ready to blow a gasket.
“I don’t remember dismissing you,” Hugh the innkeeper said, bringing along with him a malaise of dread that made my stomach tighten. “You managed to disappear during a second rush. Genelda too, the type that start trouble if you keep them waiting. Especially when dealing with your type.”
I didn’t move. “Give me a minute.”
Hugh’s dark curly hair began to shake, as a vein in his right temple began to bulge. “Excuse me, Outsider?”
“I think she’s getting worse,” I said. “Right now I have better things to do than serve those awful people.”
The innkeeper cleared the distance between us in three rapid strides. “And I have better things to do than to keep you and your friend housed and fed-”
He stopped as his eyes fixed on Ko’sa’s immobile body, studied the cheeks flushed with fever, watched her shiver under layers of blankets. The room went silent, except for the sounds of men banging their glasses on the floor below us. He placed a hand on Ko’sa’s forehead. “Don’t think it’s serious,” he said after a moment. “Just a seasonal fever, comes with the heat. My daughter used to get ’em all the time, whenever she was out in the sun too long. The best cure is lots of rest.”
“She’s been through a lot these last few days. Never met a kid as tough as her.”
“You two were caught out in the funeral too then?”
He looked over to face me, his eyes inquiring, now absent of hostility. “Are you her guardian?”
“No,” I shook my head, “I only met her a few days ago. She’s just some girl I befriended on the road. Truth be told, she’s been the one protecting me.”
He grunted. It wasn’t an impatient grunt, more of an acknowledgment of the situation, as if to understand how lost I felt while the girl sat unconscious on the bed. “You have no children of your own?”
Again, a head shake.
“I’ll have Nora attend to her. She’ll do a better job than either of us fools.” He paced back towards the door and beckoned for me to follow with his hand. “Come, I’ll teach you the correct way to change the cask so you don’t shower us again. Once this last group leaves, you can get some sleep.”
Hugh warmed up considerably to me after that night. His patience seemed to double the next day, and he even set aside some time to start training me in the basics of maintaining a pub, complete with a free telling of his life-story.
As we cleaned the dirty dishes from lunch, it dawned on me that most capital dwellers prided themselves on being in on the latest loop of rumors and gossip. If Dalton and Ko’sa had jumped at any chance to fill me in with juicy bits of news circulating the city, Hugh put them both to shame.
“I count myself a lucky man. How many can say they run a pub in the downtown of the capital?” he said proudly, as he squeezed a sponge into the bar’s basin, spraying me with sudsy water. “All the latest news passes through here, and long as you know how to listen, it’s all yours for the taking. My grandfather ran this bar and he taught that to my father, and then when he took over, he taught it to me. In a fast moving town such as this, information is valuable.”
The Yellow Woods had been in Hugh’s family for several generations. Born the youngest of five brothers, he had been the only son not to leave the city in pursuit of wild dreams and personal glory. “It was supposed to go to the oldest, Leon. What a fool he was, to disgrace himself by rescinding his right to our family’s greatest legacy. Probably for the best though. I was the only son that bothered to listen to father, to take the time to truly understand what makes this place special.”
“And what would that be? Looks like an ordinary bar to me.”
Hugh plunged his sponge back into the soapy water. “A typical response from an Outsider. She looks with her eyes, but she does not see. Listens with her ears, but does not hear…”
“Yeah, yeah spare me,” I said, splashing soap at him. “Now fill in the dumb, naive Outsider.”
“The beauty of the Yellow Woods has always been this: It is a crossroad for men and women of all paths. We don’t take sides here. Whether you support the Church and its King or the Royal Family. Natives, Genelda, Outsiders, scholars, nobles, common-folk, heck, even thieves. Doesn’t matter who you are. All are equals here, long as you pay.”
“So you don’t care who is in power then? You’re okay with the King?”
“Not sure I would go that far,” he grumbled. “I’d prefer he not bring war to my doorstep, and he’s already flirted with that a couple of times in his ascent to the throne. I ain’t leaving this place, I’m too old and too stubborn to find a new life; if he burns this place down, then I go with it. ”
“It takes two sides to make a war though. Wouldn’t you say the other side could be equally to blame? That maybe the King just got caught in something that got a lot bigger than he ever intended?” I began to spread the soapy water across the bar-top. The wood was grainy and splinters came off in the sponge. Malcolm couldn’t have intended for things to get this far out of hand, that much I was sure of.
He grunted. “Well nobody’s denying that, it was the church that picked him as their champion, not the other way around. The other side though, at least they have a leader that isn’t completely mad.”
“Malcolm…Malstrom isn’t mad. He’s just misunderstood.”
“He’s a loon Jill. Even the High Pontiff- may god rest his soul- knew it. He started telling his own church sect to disregard the more outlandish proclamations of the King. Privately, of course.”
I put my sponge down. “Give me an example.”
“Like all that garbage he spews about the First Priest. Treating the man like he was some sort of a god. Completely misses the point, doesn’t he?”
“What point? I thought he was the Patron Saint of the church?”
Hugh threw up his hands in exasperation. “Bloody Outsiders, can’t even be bothered to learn our Kingdom’s culture.” He set his own sponge down and took a deep breath. “Alright, I’m no theologian, but here’s how I overheard a scholar describe it, during a drunk argument with one of his mates,” -he pointed towards the corner table- “right over there. Most of ’em reading folk hate the King, by the way. So all the old stories in the book of creation, they all read like folklore. Half the people in those tales can ride lightning bolts like horses, others are busy trying to slay giant clay men running around terrorizing the Kingdom, and everybody else seems to be wizards with so much magical power that they’re ready to blow fireballs out their arse if someone so much as looks at ’em funny. Makes you wonder if we were just born in the wrong time.”
“And people believe this stuff?”
“Well, yes and no. Different sects of the church interpret the stories in different ways. The late High Pontiff for example, his teachings focus on the morals of the stories rather than their historical accuracy. And all the stories about the First Priest -which get old real fast after the third of fourth tale- they all arrive at one central point.”
I waited patiently for him to continue. He moved over to the sink and selected several glasses that we had missed cleaning the night before.
“See, the evil men in those stories are the twins known as the False Pontiffs, priests that are so powerful that they see themselves as gods, upsetting the natural order of things. The First Priest is just some schlub used to tell their downfall; in most passages, he’s more village idiot than gallant hero. So what better way to shame men that fancy themselves gods then to have them be defeated by a figure that’s as much a dirt farmer as he is a man of the faith?”
“So you mean…?”
“The point of the story is that any one man alone is weak, no matter how much power he gains. Even at his peak, the strongest man can be killed by the weakest. The First Priest was never meant to be anything more than that; the weak man chosen to take down the treacherous heads of the old Holy Dynasty. To teach humility to the men that called themselves gods.”
I was starting to understand what Hugh was getting at. “Yet the King stands in front of the masses and talks about the First Priest like he was some type of God, a savior of man, rambling on about his prophecies.”
Hugh smiled, showing a wide set of crooked teeth. “Bit ironic, isn’t it? That someone who champions themselves a savior could miss the point of the character he claims to connect with so profoundly.” He let out a long, low whistle. “No, the King is a mad-man, plain and simple.”
Or maybe he’s just figured out the easiest way to appeal to the least common denominator, I thought uneasily. He’s watched enough of those documentaries about famous cult-formations to have an idea about how to start his own, that’s for sure.
He handed me a glass to clean, cloudy with the residue of dried foam from the night before. “You know, you’re not as oblivious as you look, Jill. You’re willing to listen and learn from your elders, and in the grand scheme of things, that gives you a leg up on half the people that walk through that front door.” I saw his cheeks flush red and he busied himself with his own glass. “Please forgive my rudeness yesterday. When I saw you hanging around the low-life regulars like Dalton and Barth, I simply assumed the worst.”
I began to rub furiously at the glass, the dried foam feeling permanently caked to the inside. “Thanks. That’s a bit harsh though, no? They seem okay to me… well, Dalton at least.”
“Ha! Bastards, the lot of ’em. Never met a man so quick to abuse his power as that Dalton. Seems like justice that he’s finally seen his downfall from a Royal Guard to a lowly city patrolman.”
“Downfall? He told me that he prefers his duties as city guard. That he chose it over kissing the boots of the church.”
Hugh tossed his dish rag onto the bar and raised an eyebrow. “Is that what he told you? That he chose that dead-end post designated for wash-ups and failed soldiers? ”
A third voice drifting down from the stairs cut in, “He’s not washed up. He’s already accomplished more than you ever will, yeah?”
I turned my head to see Ko’sa standing in the door frame of the stairs, watching us both, her usually bright eyes narrowed to slits. “Come on miss, we’re leaving. Now.”