PART THREE: THE EDGE OF THE BLADE
"Don't you think we should get cleaned up?" asked Sor as he and Tui approached the Drunk Doxy. Both were covered, head to foot, with caking mud.
"What for? It's not as if anyone's going to care. Most will look as bad, if not worse."
"What about Eli?"
"She'll be too glad to see me for it to make a difference."
Technically, neither Sor nor Tui was supposed to be here. While they hadn't actually deserted, they hadn't reported in, which is what they were supposed to do after finishing work on their section of the wall. Taking their cue from a trio of nearby veterans, they had opted for a few hours' recreation before returning to see what new work was waiting for them. If they were caught - which seemed unlikely - they could be disciplined, but any punishment on the eve of a war was likely to be minor.
The Doxy was almost empty. The normally packed common room was grave-like in its silence, with workers equaling patrons. Two elderly men sat at the bar, stooped over mugfulls of ale, gazing longingly into their depths. A pair of soldiers who matched Sor and Tui for filthiness were seated in a remote corner of the room. With the entrance of the new arrivals, they glanced nervously toward the door.
The three serving maids lounged near the entrance to the kitchen, absorbed in their own gossip and paying the customers little heed. The innkeeper appeared more interested in polishing his bar than in who came or went.
Tui motioned Sor toward a table near the fireplace. Although there wasn't much of a blaze - in fact, the once healthy fire had burned down to glowing embers - it was still the warmest place in the room.
"You're a filthy pig!" exclaimed one of the serving girls as she approached the table. Her expression was one of profound disgust. Beneath the grime, Tui managed a sheepish smile.
"This is Eli," he said by way of introduction. "Eli, this is Sor. We've been watching each other's backs."
"Under all that mud, I'm surprised you can see each other's backs. Didn't your mothers teach you to bathe?"
Based on Tui's description of his paramour, Sor had constructed a complete mental picture. Thirty seconds with the real Eli shattered his preconceptions. Not only was she considerably more mature than he had been led to believe, but here was someone willful and not the least bit submissive.
"Get me an ale, darlin'," said Tui, reaching out to grab her around the waist.
Eli neatly sidestepped him. "You've got a better chance being served unwatered ale than touching me with those filthy hands." Turning to Sor, she asked, "Whacha like?"
Sor studied her more intently than she did him. She was at least four or five years his senior, and it showed in her figure, which had filled out nicely in all the right places. Girls his age - including his beloved queen - aspired to the full-blown curves possessed by Eli. She had deep brown eyes and raven tresses that brushed her shoulders. Her face was angular and probably not all that pretty, but Sor doubted most men who came here paid attention to what was above Eli's neckline.
"Well? Are you a mute?" she demanded, becoming impatient.
"Sorry. Ale too," he murmured.
"All right. Two ales. There's a pump out back. Why don't the pair of you use it. I'm not serving you like that."
As soon as Eli turned away, Sor got to his feet. Tui did nothing more than lounge back in his seat and scratch at his nose. "Where are you going?" he asked.
"To find the pump."
"You're not serious! Don't let her get to you. She'd serve you even if you were unrecognizable under the mud."
"I am unrecognizable under the mud. And it may surprise you, but I like being clean."
Tui grunted. "That's what comes from spending too much time around royalty. Suit yourself."
Five minutes later, a considerably more presentable - although not precisely "clean" - Sor was seated across the table from Tui. When Eli returned with the drinks, her expression revealed her opinion of Tui's stubbornness. She spared Sor a brief smile.
"You're actually not bad looking under all that gunk. Which is more than I can say about your friend. Come to think of it, maybe he'd do better not getting washed. He's more attractive this way."
Tui downed his ale in two long swallows, then favored Eli with a lascivious leer. "How 'bout coming upstairs with me?"
She appeared genuinely surprised, and not pleasantly so, by the offer. "You're not serious. I'd as soon go to bed with a pig."
"Come on. You know you want it."
"If your friend asked me, I might go up with him. I meant what I said. I'm not your whore, Tui. I don't rut just because you have an urge. Take a bath, then I'll consider it. Until then, the most you'll get out of me is a refill for your empty mug."
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