(Go back to Part 16)
They made their way through the city of Fâl Selim, sticking to back alleys and checking around corners before turning. There were no further patrols, though, and soon the pair reached a gate set into a high brick wall. A few green leaves were visible over the top, from the garden behind a shop that faced onto a different street.
McCann knocked hard on the gate. There was no answer, although Alex thought she saw a curtain flutter in an upstairs window. A minute passed, and McCann knocked again.
There was the rasp of a bar being pulled back, and the gate creaked open to reveal an old man. He was balding, and what hair he had left was shaved close to his head in a neat circle. The nub of a pencil was stuck behind his ear, and a large leather apron covered most of his front. He rested part of his weight on a slender cane.
“Tobias?” His eyes widened before a smile broke out across his face.
“Matthias!” The two men embraced, which surprised Alex. “We sure are glad to see you.”
“I can imagine why.” The other man took a look down the alley in either direction. “Look, I have a customer right now, but I’ll open the stable door. Make yourselves at home, I’ll be back soon.”
The gate closed, and a larger door opened a few feet down the alley. They led the horses inside into a small barn, and closed it behind them. Once the horses were taken care of, Alex followed McCann through the tiny garden they’d glimpsed earlier and into the main building.
The bottom level was divided into two rooms. Matthias’s voice came from the other side of a doorway shrouded by a light curtain. Wooden shutters blocked the street window, and a stone counter ran partway around the wall to a washbasin. The room was clean, but sparse, and smelled slightly of garlic, pepper, and dust from the dirt floor.
“Sergeant? Who is that?” asked Alex.
“Hmm?” replied McCann.
“The man who let us in?”
“Oh, Matthias. He’s a knight.”
“With a cane?” The question slipped out before Alex could stop herself.
“Yes.” McCann raised an eyebrow at her. “Some of us make it into old age, you know.”
“Oh—I didn’t mean—so, we can trust him?”
“Yes. He’s a friend of mine.”
They’d no sooner sat down at the unpainted wooden table when they heard footsteps on the narrow stairs. A short woman with light gray hair rounded the corner of the stairwell, dressed in the familiar Western fashion (although a shawl like they’d seen women wearing in the bazaar kept her hair back from her face). When she saw the sergeant, she rushed over to them and McCann had to get to his feet again to accept another tight hug.
“Oh, Tobias! It is you! Matt said you might be coming this way! I’m so glad you’re safe!” she said.
“It’s good to see you too, Maria,” he extracted himself from her grip. “Though it seems like the Baron’s sent a few visitors of his own to Fâl Selim since I saw you last.”
“A few!?!” She raised her eyebrows. “You haven’t heard?”
“That—oh, but Matt can tell you better than I.”
“What am I telling Tobias, now?” Matthias pushed the curtain aside and limped into the room.
“The baron’s soldiers, dear. Tobias doesn’t know. “
McCann looked from one to the other. “We saw a handful on the way here. Fit enough, I guess, but not very alert.”
“You were lucky, then.” Matthias sighed.
“Lucky? How lucky?”
Matthias eased himself into the chair opposite the sergeant, hanging his cane on the wall next to him. “Sinclair has nearly two hundred men in the city, Tobias, or at least as near as we can tell. They’ve been here more than a month now.” Maria set a bottle of wine on the table along with four glasses.
“Two hundred?” McCann accepted a glasses from Matthias’s wife. “Thank you. How does the Burgher and the Merchant Council tolerate such a thing?”
“We think Sinclair bought them off . . . but they don’t allow the troops near the gates or the bazaar, because that will scare away business. You know how jumpy the tribesmen are.” Matthias took his cup. “Luckily for us, that makes Sinclair’s job a lot harder.”
“They’re keeping the brothels full, so the council isn’t too upset,” added Maria.
Matthias chuckled. “There’s that, too. It’s not permanent—they’re making no move to take the city. All they’re watching for is anyone headed south. Curates, mostly, though some others as well. I thought maybe they were watching the passes, too, and I knew if they were I’d probably see you here.”
“They are. We met a knight in Dunheim who only just made it through. He warned us against trying it.”
“Going east instead?”
“Aye.” McCann sighed. “They catch anyone?”
Matthias nodded. “One. I couldn’t get to him in time—they took him in the bazaar in the first week they were here, before the Merchant Council banned Sinclair’s troops from the market spaces. A few days later I saw him sent south. In chains,” he added, miming a pair of manacles around his wrists.
“I’ve hidden two others, though. They went East with the last caravan, DuPrés and Salazar, also coming from the North,” said Matthias.
“Good.” The wine was distributed now. The three adults raised their glasses; Alex followed suit.
“To the Curate.”
“To the Curate!”
The three of them took a sip. Alex looked at her glass, thinking of the sergeant’s lesson. She looked at McCann; the sergeant had drunk deep with no hesitation. It was probably safe, but . . .
Matthias noticed Alex’s hesitation, and her glance to McCann’s cup. He chuckled. “You’ve been teaching again, haven’t you, Tobias?”
“What? Oh—” he looked over at Alex and started to laugh. “Acolyte, if there’s a safe glass of wine anywhere in the world, it’s here in Matthias’s house. Drink!”
Alex put the cup to her lips and sipped.
“Who’s the new cub?” asked Matthias.
“I’m Alex,” she said.
“Ah.” Matthias smiled. “Another bright-eyed youngster, eh? Knight-Sergeant Matthias Karl, retired . . . of course.” He pointed at the cane and laughed.
“Good to meet you . . . sir,” added Alex.
“Please, just Matthias . . . and this is my wife, Maria.” Maria nodded back at Alex over the table. “No need for formality around my table, especially with Tobias here. You’re going to Antioch to take the precepts?”
“Yes,” she replied.
“Aren’t you a bit young for the trials?”
“I’m past my seventeenth birthday,” Alex bristled.
“Seventeen is young, still,” said Matthias.
“I’ve got the right to take them whenever I want, so long as I’m—”
“I didn’t mean to insult you, Alex.” Matthias held up his hands. “In fact, I’m impressed with your enthusiasm. It’s not an easy decision to devote the rest of your life to the Curate—quite a sacrifice to make at your age.”
“Ah . . . right. Yeah. Of course.” Alex bit her lip.
“We’re just glad that you and Tobias got here safely,” said Maria to ease the tension. “You should be safe here. The Baron’s men can’t go searching house-to-house without causing an uproar.”
“There’s plenty of room in the barn for you and the horses,” added Matthias, “for as long as you need to be here.”
(Go on to Part 18)