Chapter 11, Part 1-1

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Mara and Nina rode hard for two days. Each night they took refuge in a barn for a few hours. One kept watch while the other slept. Mara allowed Nina as much rest as possible so as to keep up her strength for attending the girls' needs. Now, dusty from their travels and exhausted, they arrived in a sizable city.

It was just after midday and the thoroughfare bustled. Buggies hurried past them, carrying both the mundane and the fashionable around the market square. Busy hawkers' voices carried through the warm air of the overcast day, as did those peddling the daily news from various street corners.

Reasoning that the most difficult things to find are often those hiding in plain sight, Mara chose an upscale inn in the busiest part of town. The building boasted a welcome sign informing visitors that they'd arrived at The King's Court.

An attendant provided her a stepping block. She dismounted, then waited as he assisted Nina down from Spot.

The steps to the front door creaked beneath their feet. The Oathtaker gazed back the way from whence they'd come. What was keeping Dixon? His delay concerned her. Grasping Nina's elbow, she guided her around a cluster of guests visiting near the entrance.

The doorman stood at attention. He wore khaki pants, a dark navy double-breasted jacket, and a white shirt and gloves. He gestured toward the reception desk.

The establishment had a homey appeal. The lobby was papered in robin's egg blue silk. Heavy damask white and yellow curtains hung at the windows that looked out over gardens offering discerning guests a variety of nooks and crannies for their leisure.

People walked briskly by. Waitresses carried trays of cool drinks from bar to table. Hotel staff rushed about, anxious to do the bidding of the guests and to avoid a scolding from the chief lobby attendant who kept an eye, like that of a vulture, on the goings on of his staff.

"Two guests?" asked the clerk.

"Well actually, my husband may already have checked us in." Mara hadn't given much advance thought to needing a story for traveling alone or for her current state of dress, but she could see by the clerk's expression that she'd need to answer some unasked questions.

"Ah . . . Frank. Frank . . . Portman. That's my husband. He would have checked us in as 'Frank and Mara Portman' along with our guest, Nina . . . Spink," she added, making up a surname for Nina on the spot. "Is he here yet?"

The clerk reviewed his list of guests, then shook his head 'no.'

She turned to Nina. "Didn't I tell you?" She clapped her hands like a spoiled girl and giggled, then looked back at the clerk. His expression was unchanged.

"You see, my husband has been very busy. We planned a trip to the city, but he canceled. So we reset the date and—wouldn't you know? He bowed out yet again. I told him I was going anyway, and I bet him I could make it here on my own. I said I'd see how long it took him to catch up. And I did! I got here first. Isn't that funny?"

The clerk nodded, his brow raised.

The Oathtaker leaned in as though sharing a secret. "Men. They're too busy and have too many excuses until a woman just forces their hand."

He smiled as though he'd heard the same story before.

"I suppose, since Frank's not here, I'll just check in with my friend for the evening. We'll see how long it takes him to get here. Unless of course he sends a message to inform me of yet another delay."

The clerk handed over a key. "Please sign here." He waited as Mara did. "Room one-fourteen. Go down the hallway there to your right. It's the last door on the left. Have you stayed with us before?"

"No, but I've been told that this is the place to visit in the city." She smiled graciously, then turned away.

He commented that such a lovely young woman shouldn't be kept waiting, nor should her man allow her to travel alone. Surprised, she turned back, only to find the clerk absorbed in his books. After a moment, she realized she'd heard his thoughts. Pleased her story had convinced him, she guided Nina down the hall.

Upon entering their room, the Oathtaker dropped her sack near the door and untied Reigna from her front side. Moments later, a maid knocked at the door. She inquired whether they were in need of anything. Mara asked for drinks, which the maid assured her she would deliver shortly.

Nina sat quietly, taking her boots off. "This is luxurious."

"Mmhmmm."

"How long do you expect to stay?"

"Maybe just the night. I'm surprised Dixon hasn't met up with us yet. I don't want to get too far ahead of him and I'm not altogether sure where to go from here."

"What do you suppose happened?"

"I've no idea."

Another rapping came at the door. Mara answered it.

"For our two newest guests," the chambermaid said, "a treat on the house. Freshly squeezed lemonade on ice, sweetened with pure maple syrup, and sprinkled with just a touch of cayenne. I think you'll find it very refreshing."

"Thank you."

The maid put the tray down. "Is there anything more I can do for you? Schedule a table for you for dinner, perhaps?"

"Yes. Let's say . . . in an hour?"

"I'll inform the kitchen staff. I'm confident you'll be delighted with the meal this evening."

As she was leaving, Mara called out, "Excuse me?"

"Yes?"

"Do you have a local flier?"

"Certainly. Actually, there are three fliers here in Settleton. The Vixen, The Messenbeck and The Seamen. They each have morning and evening editions. Also, the criers are stationed in the town square most of the day."

The maid leaned in conspiratorially. "I noticed today's headlines about the big news out of Shimeron. Seems an Oathtaker was derelict in his duties. He may have committed treason! There's to be a hearing in the City of Light." She turned to go. "Would you like this morning's fliers or the evening editions later?"

"We'll get copies later, thank you." Mara frowned and bit her lower lip.

The maid left, closing the door softly behind.

"Is there a problem?" Nina asked.

"No, it's just that it's always troubling when an Oathtaker is accused of wrongdoing."


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