Along his brow, Arshad began to sweat.
“Command me,” the man said slowly, distinctly.
Arshad hesitated. This man was not his captain and wore no insignia; even so, he recognized authority. It would be dangerous not to comply.
“Very well,” Arshad began, “I command you to . . .” He broke off, puzzled. “Command you to do what?”
“Are you a guard?” The stranger jerked a thumb at his discarded gear.
“Aye,” replied Arshad uncomfortably. “I am.”
“Then demand my name! My origins! My plans!”
Arshad stared blankly, then broke into a grin. He’d been clutching the neck of his wineskin; now, he tucked it in his belt.
“No need for formalities. This is Open Court.” He cast a quick glance at the sun. “Or what’s left of it. Strangers pass in and out freely on these occasions.”
“But what if I’m a Pentacaucus?”
“Whitehair.” The clarification was plain.
A flicker of recognition leapt in Arshad’s eyes.
“A Whitehair on his way to stand in the presence of your King at Open Court.”
The man undid the band at his neck. Shoulder-length hair fell forward, dead white. Sweating profusely now, Arshad ran a tongue over his wine puckered lips.
“The war is over.” He sounded like a coward, even to himself.
“Memory dies a hard death.”
Arshad shrugged. “For some more than other.”
“Aughhh! “The man shoved him, then pulled him back, tearing his shirt.
“There are no men in his city,” said the stranger through clenched teeth.
Arshad felt another shove, this time falling backwards into the dust. The wineskin flew from his belt and landed with a plop, his last swallow pooling near the stranger’s foot.
As the traveler disappeared down the street, Arshad struggled to his feet. His head throbbed, his throat was dry, and his lungs were still struggling for wind. Easy enough to bully a common man like me, he thought sourly, but will you stand against Blatico’s tongue?
Even so, Arshad wasn’t one to hold a grudge. “Hey, there’s a shortcut through Tanner’s Alley!” he called after the board back, his voice raspy. “Turn left at the tavern called The Fish and Eagle and keep going straight until you hit a side road, hardly more than a path. It’s all uphill but it will get you to Castle Ursaulis before dark.”
The stranger gave no indication that he’d heard. He disappeared down the street at a surprisingly fast clip for one so large. Arshad rose to his feet and kicked at his wineskin. He scratched his rump. His clothes were smelly and dirty; he examined the fresh tear in his shirt, then tore it more. The serving wench, Polly, had a sympathetic ear. He touched his jaw tentatively, thinking back on the struggle. It had been a close fight, but not more than he’d expected. Matters could have been settled amicably, but he wasn’t a man to run from a fight. Watch and Ward was his motto, and though his bones ached from it, he was too old to change his philosophy now.
His mind buzzing with embellishments, Arshad sauntered off to The Fish and Eagle. The evening guard would be here soon. If the captain questioned him about leaving early, why, the state of his shirt would be evidence. A terrible fight had occurred!