A loud common room greeted him inside. Dark skinned men with thick, rope-like hair filled the space. They had the look of sailors and barbarians about them and their voices were all raised in discordant harmony, singing along with a young man of Sky’s age. He had the look of a squire about him, Sky was sure of it. His shoulders were still slim but muscled and he wore the simple, finely woven linen tunic that often went under armor. His hair was thick and straight, flowing just over his ears and was the color of good, tilled earth. His skin was tanned and his eyes were dark, brown or gray maybe, Sky wasn’t sure.
The song he sung was a bawdy one, telling of a bare chested girl going about teaching young men about bedding their future wives. Sir Henric caught him staring and lightly slapped the back of his head before leading him towards a fat, balding man who stood chewing on a silver coin. When he saw them approach, the man tucked the silver away and smiled. “Good evenin’, a pint or a room or ye be lookin’ for both?”
“Both,” Sir Henric said. “But just water and a bit of porridge for the boy.”
“Aye?” the man said when Sky frowned. “Your… boy then. Beggin’ your pardon but I thought… well never mind.”
“I want a pint,” Sky said and ducked the cuff that was meant for his head.
“Mind your mouth, and it’ll be porridge or you’ll have nothin’ at all.”
“Mother run off?” asked the man after Sir Henric had paid him. He turned out to be named Jacks and was the innkeeper, the brewer and cook. He’d bitten every piece of copper that Sir Henric had paid him, as if doubting their worth.
“Something like that,” the knight told him and when he said nothing else, Jacks moved off into the kitchen to fetch their orders. Sky caught sight of someone who didn’t look much like a sailor or laborer. He was a big man, older like Sir Henric, and fat, rather than muscular. He had the swoon of a drunken man and was shaking the boy who’d been singing. The boy’s knight? Sky wondered about that and looked to his own master. Sir Henric sat staring at them, sipping his pint and rubbing at his chin.
“Sir?” he whispered.
“Second floor, third room on the right, go take our things up to it. Be quick now.”
“Do you know him, Sir?”
“Do you want a slap upside the head?”
Sky went. He pulled the saddle bags, bedrolls and weaponry and carried them up an exterior stairwell that Pate showed him. It took him three trips but all their gear finally sat in a lumped mess in the middle of the floor. A small hearth stood at one end of the room while the only window looked out over the rear yard. He opened the window and prayed silently to the Judge to be good and send some cooler weather on the morrow.
A pain began to bother him as he descended the steps back to the common room and Sky stopped halfway down. Cringing he closed his eyes, hoped it would just pass, but it had been some time since this pain had come to him and it was due. Please, Judge, be merciful. Just a few more days? A few more weeks? He wanted to ask for a month, but this injury would never heal. It was less when he was starving, and worse when he was well-fed. When he complained, Sir Henric always said nothing. “You’re getting grown,” he said once, and his voice would always be just a little bit sad.
He did not see Sir Henric in the common room. After a brief search he discovered that he was no longer in the inn. Missing was the other knight as well, or the man he’d thought of as a knight. The squire still sat at one of the tables though, playing a game with six large sailors. He sat spinning a copper piece until it began to wobble, then they all slapped at it. Sky knew this game well, he’d been very good at it back at Gray Town where he’d grown up. Whoever caught the coin beneath their palm won it. A simple game that oft ended in broken fingers and sore hands.
Sky came to them and caught the eye of the squire. At this distance, Sky saw he had a short, upturned nose and a light dusting of freckles. He’d just begun to fill out a tall frame, and his face was angular and had the look of a hawk. Sky liked the look of him. He had a pile of copper and some silver and appeared to be winning when Sky approached. He gave a sniff. “You the one that come in with the graybeard?”
Sky nodded. “Aye, Sir Henric of Whitetower.”
Some of the other men turned to look at him now, but most were still spinning and slapping. The boy smiled, showing perfectly white teeth. “I’m Peter,” he said, offering a freckled hand. “I squire to Sir Corgan, one of Lady Inara’s knights.”
“Sky,” he offered and shook.
“Me and the others was just playin Spin-the-Weasel, want in?”
He did and for near an hour he sat with them and slapped at copper coins. He dined on the porridge and drank the water the innkeeper gave him, but more often than not, he drank the wine the Peter offered him. He accepted every time, and found himself liking the other boy.
At the end of the game, Sky had dislocated a pinky finger which Peter fixed for him. Another man broke a thumb and laughed about it. The others had some bruises, but for the most part, the injuries were light. Sky came away with three copper more than he’d begun with, but Peter had been quick. His fingers had danced beneath all the other hands, snapping out the coins before most people could move. His winnings must have been twenty-fold what he’d put in.
“You’re damn quick,” Peter said after the men had gone off to other tables or bed. They sat drinking from a wine cup that Jacks refilled for him. Once, he saw Peter slip the man what looked like silver. “Truth be told, thought you was that graybeard’s daughter.”
Sky blushed and hid it behind the rim of the mug. “Lots of people think that,” he said. “My mother was as pretty as they come, Sir says.” The wine was getting to his head and he found it harder to keep his tongue. What he said was true. Everywhere he and Sir Henric went, men and women were mistaking him for a girl. He wished he had to shave, that would put an end to it.
“And your father? Was he a pretty maid too?” Peter laughed but did so with a smile that made Sky feel good, rather than offended. He shook his head. “No, I don’t know who he was. Ma was north-born.” He shouldn’t have said that, he knew. North-born had a reputation for carrying disease. It had been what killed his mother in the end. He tried not to think about her, or the screams and flames that had marked her death.
“Yeah? So you got dragon’s blood in ya?” Peter said this with a whisper, a secret smile on his face. “My Da told me I’d make myself a king one day with some dragon’s blood.” He laughed again and shoved at Sky with the back of his hand, nudging him as if to share the joke. “Know any good north-born girls? A sister maybe?”
“No,” he said with a blush, turning away for a moment and picked up the wine that Peter had filled for him. Talking to this boy felt good, natural. Whenever he and Sir Henric had met other knights and squires, he’d been made to sit in the room and sharpen the swords. It had felt like forever since he’d had a conversation with anyone interested in him.
“Bugger,” Peter said with a laugh and smiled at him. That smile made Sky feel hot in his cheeks. He hoped it wasn’t showing. It was probably the wine. Biting his lip, Sky looked down into his cup and tried not to think about it.
“Hey, do you have dreams?”
Peter’s question made Sky look back up, blinking. “Dreams?” he asked. “You mean, like at night?”
“No when you’re walking wide awake in the daylight,” Peter said and gave him a friendly nudge. The contact made Sky flush again. What was wrong with him? He didn’t want to make Peter think he was an idiot, not already.
“My Da used to say that north-borns get True Dreams. You know, like prophecies in their sleep and such.”
“I wouldn’t know,” Sky said, trying hard not to turn red. The dreams came, but he was never sure what a True Dream looked like. His mother had warned him of his dreams. They all seemed real to him, as real as the inn, as real as the world around him. He belched and held the back of his hand against his mouth to quiet it. “Fuck me but wine gets me good.”
“Gets me too,” Peter said and leaned close. “Gets me all bloody hard, ya know?”
Sky blinked and tilted his head. Then, realizing, he blushed. The wine had gotten to him, but not in the same way. He felt happy, like some weight had been lifted off his shoulders. The pain in his back was lessening and Peter’s smile made him feel good all over again.
“Getting to you too huh? Well.” Peter stood and offered a hand. “Lets have a piss and maybe see about a wench or two eh? I’ll pay. Or, rather, those fine gentlemen we played with will pay.” Peter flashed a silver coin, deftly tucking it from his sleeve where it had been hidden, then slipped it back. Sky felt his whole body flush. “Yeah, all right but… Sir might get back soon. He’ll beat me if I’m out.”
Peter put an arm around him and said, “Corgan’ll keep him out a while. Old bastard loves to talk.”
“Are you sure?” Sky asked.
“Trust me, I know.” Peter rose. “Let’s have a piss and we’ll go see some ladies about a ride.”
Peter’s voice was crude but somehow he also found it intoxicating. Mixed with the wine he’d drunk already, his words moved Sky from the bench towards the door. Outside, the heat hit him, momentarily snapping him out of his trance. I shouldn’t be doing this, you promised him. You promised her. Still he walked beside Peter to the ditch beside the inn, where the dark haired squire unlaced his pants.
I shouldn’t be doing this. Sky tried to tell his new friend this, but the wine made his tongue thick and his head was stuffed with wool. Peter had his back arched, a stream of liquid drowning a nearby patch of weeds. Sky hesitated, his brain trying to work through all the thickness, trying to grasp onto some sense that Sir Henric always said he was lacking.
“I… forgot something,” he muttered and hurried back towards the inn. It was the best he could do.
“Hurry up!” Peter said, laughing. “You have until the end of this stream…” As Sky sped his pace, he caught Peter add, “How much did I bloody drink?”
It had been enough for Sky to rush back inside, grab whatever was closest and hurry back. Peter was still lacing up his pants when he reached him. With a sniff, a cough and a spit, Peter glanced at him. “What’d you forget?”
Sky glanced down at his closed fist. He hadn’t even thought about it, he’d just grabbed the first thing he saw. It was a dinner knife. He felt heat rush to his cheeks and was glad for the closing darkness. Peter had a smile spreading from ear to ear, his voice a vibration on the edge of laughter.
“Sir says to mind the girls.”
“You won’t be needing that where we’re going, my friend,” Peter said and put an arm around him. Sky felt the knife coaxed from his clenched fist and Peter tossed it away. The heat came back worse this time, flooding his cheeks and neck and back. The pain pounded at his back and he groaned. Now Peter let out a full, deep belly laugh and slapped Sky on the back.
“Trust me, you won’t mind these girls.”
The women came strolling to them as they walked towards the brothels. One old enough to be his mother or grandmother touched Sky’s cheek. “Oh look, the pretty one is back. Oh won’t you come spend some time with me, sweet one?”
Peter eased her hand off his cheek and grinned. “Sorry miss, but we’re off to see the better views from the Peak.”
“Lofty women, lofty prices!”
Peter winked at Sky and pressed a silver coin into his hand. “Not lofty enough for us tonight.”
The brothel they ended up at was called The Perfect Peaks. It had only one floor but was as long and wide as some blocks. It looked cobbled together from half a dozen other houses, each one melding their steep, a-lined roofs with the other. It made him think of mountains, and perhaps that had been the source of the name. When he suggested it, Peter laughed.
“The peaks are inside.”
There were no mountains that Sky saw, but there were women, many many women. Most were dressed in gowns that were so thin that they turned transparent against candlelight. They sat on the knees of men or danced to the sound of a harp being plucked. The melody was one that Sky couldn’t recognize, and the voice was high and beautiful. When Sky looked, he discovered the singer was a girl who couldn’t be older than twelve.
The Peaks itself was a building with low ceilings and thick support beams ornately decorated with runic patterns. It was well furnished with thick tapestries and padded cushions. The patrons were well dressed too, Sky noticed. Most looked like merchants or ship captains. Some even looked like knights. There were booths with curtains set into the walls all around and within them, Sky saw women entertaining their guests on a more personal level. He tried hard not to stare.
Peter laughed when two girls took him by the arms. One was dark haired and green eyed, with skin as pale as snow. The other was blonde and blue-eyed, though her skin was not near as fair. This one turned to Sky and pursed her lips.
“Why just look at what our lovely Peter has brought us, Lena.”