Hybel 20, 1013
“Evenin’, Emi,” said Cherry as she slipped into her habitual seat at the bar at the Lion and Llama.
“Evenin’, Cherry,” replied Emi. She reached under the bar — Cherry had to snicker, the bending put Emi’s cleavage on full display and not a single boy was watching — to pull up a tankard. “Will it be yer usual?”
Emi nodded, bent again, and came up with all the ingredients for a traditional Bledavik double frosty walrus. “I don’t know how ye put this stuff back,” murmured Emi in no little wonder.
Cherry shrugged. “Well, it’s got a bit of a kick, but you get used to it …”
“Bit o’ a kick? Goodness, that’s like sayin’ that the dog what chewed me cousin’s arm half-off has a bit o’ a bite!” Emi shook her head. “Ain’t nobody but the Bledaviks can handle these without bein’ under the table after the first — an’ ye axe fer doubles!”
“It’s called livin’ dangerous, Emi.”
“Oh, aye, says the lass who won’t come in fer weeks an’ weeks, on account o’ she has ter study.” Emi rolled her eyes and pushed the tankard to Cherry. “I have ter say, if all the students thought like ye, we’d be out o’ business in a week.”
“But the university would have that many more capable students,” Cherry pointed out. She took a gulp of her frosty walrus — this wasn’t the type of drink you sipped, or else you’d never finish it. “This is good, Emi. Almost as good as the ones back home.”
“Back home?” Emi’s eyebrow arched. “I thought ye said ye were from Albion. Didn’t know they made such good frosty ones there.”
“I … oh.” Cherry laughed, a little nervously. She hadn’t mentioned her true homeland to Emi, had she? But surely she must suspect …
She did. There was no disguising the appraising look in those dark eyes. Well, was there any harm in telling her? The Andavris had once been a fearsome name on the high seas — but no more. They were out of all that now.
So Cherry shrugged. “I was born and raised on the island. But my family moved to Albion about two years ago.”
She was fishing for information … but did it matter? All information passed through the hands of the staff at the Llama sooner or later. Especially now, with Glasonland in its civil war and everyone hunting around for whatever knowledge they could find. But who would care about the Andavris? Theirs was the kind of name that might make some merchants wake up in a cold sweat, but the high and mighty of kingdoms scarcely deigned to notice that they existed.
So Cherry shrugged and told the truth. “My parents wanted to send my sibs and me to Camford.”
Emi’s eyes widened — she hadn’t been expecting that. Her mouth opened to ask a question —
And shut. “What ho, commoners!” came a gratingly jovial cry from the door.
“Bloody hell,” muttered Emi.
Cherry turned to see who it was. Oh — just Sir Aglovale, Delyth’s brother, and the de Ganis heir. Sir … Elyan his name was. Yes, Elyan. Making an ass of himself as usual. Cherry hadn’t been formally or informally introduced to him, for all that she lived just across the lane from him in the house King Arthur had bought for Albion’s women scholars, but people talked.
She had been introduced, or rather, had introduced herself, to Sir Aglovale. He wasn’t much better in Cherry’s mind. Far too full of himself by half. Honestly, how were he and Delyth even related? But he at least knew how to be polite, and he had enough common sense to cringe at his friend’s entry.
But what Cherry wanted to know, as they made their way to the bar, was just what it was about them that made Emi curse their very entry into the pub.
“Ho, barmaid!” called Sir Elyan. “We’ll be having your best Gaulish wine! Quickly, now!”
Emi didn’t move. “That’ll be five coppers each, sirs.”
Sir Aglovale flinched. “I’ll have Reman red.”
And Sir Elyan, he choked. “What? That cannot be a just price! Where is the proprietor of this bar? I demand to speak with him!”
“I know it’s a lot, sirs, an’ I’m sorry, but what with the war an’ everythin’ … well, it’s harder ter get wine out o’ Gaul an’ inter Camford. So it’s more expensive. Mistress Brewster, she’ll tell ye the same thing. Ain’t nothin’ we can do about it.”
“It makes sense,” said Sir Aglovale, doubtless because the red flush moving up Sir Elyan’s neck and into his cheeks meant exactly what Cherry thought it meant. “It’s more expensive everywhere except Gaul these days.”
Sir Elyan deflated before Cherry’s very eyes. He leaned both elbows on the counter and pouted. “My allowance comes on time for the first time in … ever … and I can’t even celebrate …”
“Cheer up,” Sir Aglovale muttered.
“Is it too much,” Sir Elyan asked, suddenly straightening, “truly too much, to ask for more than one thing to go right at a time?”
Sir Aglovale sighed. “I told you not to take Lady Clemencia personally.”
“I’m not!” Sir Elyan snapped. “Her father is close to the border with Gaul. It’s only natural that he would find an alliance with Sir Etienne more attractive than an alliance in Albion. It would be far easier to transport her dowry, for one.”
“Her rich, fat dowry,” Sir Aglovale muttered. Cherry’s eyebrows went up. Wasn’t he supposed to be trying to comfort Sir Elyan?
Sir Elyan sighed. “Her very rich, fat dowry.”
As unobtrusively as she could, Emi shuffled down the length of the counter to hand Sir Aglovale his Reman red. But not as unobtrusively as she wished. “What? Barmaid, where’s mine?” demanded Sir Elyan.
Sir Aglovale shook his head and turned away from his friend. “You never ordered one after the barmaid told you the price of the Gaulish. Remember?”
“Oh. Right. Blast. Barmaid, I shall have … what are you having?” He nudged Sir Aglovale.
“Er …” He rubbed the back of his neck. “I will take St. Robert’s grapes.”
Cherry’s eyebrows went up. For all that it was considered to be holy, St. Robert’s grapes — grown and harvested in Camford itself, under the auspices if not by the monks of the Order of St. Robert — was the worst and cheapest wine on the market. The wine was so famously bad that legend stated that the tradition of drinking new wine at Brandiwine came from St. Robert’s own lifetime, since every year for his mother’s birthday, he would import a cask of wine from somewhere else so she wouldn’t have to drink the swill he and his monks produced.
As for Cherry, she’d never actually tried St. Robert’s grapes. The Cap’n said he had, and he’d drink his own piss before drinking it again. And if that wasn’t enough for Cherry, her mother — usually much more conventionally sensible in matters of drinking than the Cap’n — wholeheartedly agreed.
Besides, you knew your choice was bad when even the barmaid winced. “If ye please, sir,” said Emi as she went back to the bar. Cherry was hard-pressed to hold back a giggle.
Sir Elyan seemed to hear — or sense — something, for he turned a sudden, swift glance on her. There was more intelligence in those few seconds than Cherry had seen from him combined, ever. Then he shrugged and turned away, and any hint of brains being hidden under all that hair was gone.
Emi quickly delivered Sir Elyan his goat’s piss, and with a sigh, he looked down into his goblet and took the first swallow. But his mood may not have had anything to do with the wine, for he turned to Sir Aglovale and asked lugubriously, “I don’t suppose there’s any hope that Lady Clemencia’s father will have already communicated his intention to my father?”
“Considering that your allowance came on time … I would say, no.”
Sir Elyan winced. “It’s that obvious, isn’t it? I suppose I had better write to him and tell him. He’ll have to begin the search again.”
“Indeed. He will.”
“Your wife came with a good dowry, didn’t she?” Sir Elyan asked.
“Elyan, don’t even–”
Sir Aglovale had more to say — much of it in a low tone that nonetheless managed to scream menace — but Cherry paid attention to none of it. A hush had descended over the pub. Cherry looked around to see what could be causing it.
Oh. It was only Beau of Lothario. She should have guessed. Nothing could silence a room quite like he could.
But all the same, a part of her had to wonder why. She’d been in the same class with him for Old Simlish last semester, and had spent most of it trouncing him in that language. He’d seemed annoyed, yes. Piqued, even. But he’d never come close to calling down assassins on Cherry’s head, as some of her more excitable friends had insisted he might. He’d never said so much as an impolite word to her. And when, at the end of the semester, they had happened to arrive at the place where the grades were posted at the same time and had both seen Cherry’s name at the top of the class with Beau’s right below it, Beau had sighed, but he had turned to Cherry with a simple nod. An acknowledgement and a congratulations to a worthy opponent. And after that, Cherry hadn’t seen or heard from him until now.
But … even if he didn’t breathe fire and spit poison, he was still Francis of Lothario’s brother, the man who plenty said would become the next King of Glasonland if King Vortimer couldn’t hold onto his throne. Maybe that was enough to put fear into the hearts of idiots. Cherry wouldn’t know.
However, one idiot at least appeared to be immune. As Beau slipped into the seat next to Sir Aglovale, Sir Elyan spit his wine across the bar. “Beau? Beau of Lothario? What the hell are you doing here, man?”
Sir Aglovale froze, spun to face Sir Elyan, and mouthed with no small urgency, BEAU of LOTHARIO?!?!
Beau, however, only raised his eyebrows at Sir Elyan. “Getting a drink.” He turned to Emi. “The Brandegoris white, if you please.”
Brandegoris — those were lands near Camford, lands that the Church and remaining heirs of the Brandegoris families had been fighting over for a few years now. It was good wine, from what Cherry had heard. But because it was from so close to Camford, it was also relatively inexpensive. Interesting.
Emi hurried to get Beau’s drink, because she was able to take a hint. Sir Elyan was not. “No — I mean, here. In Camford! For heaven’s sake, man! You could be — could be –”
Beau’s raised eyebrows asked Sir Elyan just what he could be.
Sir Elyan finally sighed, waving a hand in the air. “Winning glory! Honor! Making a good name for yourself, by the side of — of — your brother!”
Emi shuffled over and practically threw the wine to Beau. Beau only nodded to her and slid a single copper coin across the bar — more than enough for the wine and a generous tip besides. Then, slowly, he turned to Sir Elyan and addressed him with two eloquent eyebrows and two words: “Which one?”
Sir Aglovale spit his Reman red practically into poor Emi’s face. Sir Elyan’s jaw dropped.
Beau swirled his wine in his glass and tossed a measure down his throat. “After all,” he added, “it’s not like I’m lacking for choice in that department.”
“You — you –” Sir Elyan swallowed. “My Lord, Beau! I knew you were strange,” Sir Aglovale winced, “when we were freshmen, but this — care you nothing for glory, for honor?” Cherry watched the back of Sir Elyan’s head bob up and down uncertainly.
“Let’s just say that there are other things I find more … attractive,” Beau murmured.
“Like what?” gasped Sir Elyan. “Good Lord — I never would have pegged you for a coward, but now–”
He didn’t go on. The general gasp in the bar — loudest from Sir Aglovale — stopped him. And Sir Elyan paled when he realized what he had said.
You didn’t go calling noblemen cowards — not if you wanted to live long. It didn’t matter if said nobleman had never been within five miles of a battlefield. Every single nobleman thought, or pretended to think, that the only thing that separated him from the great warriors of old was opportunity. They all swaggered about certain that the next great battle would make their names and their fortunes. And for anyone, especially another nobleman, to go poking holes in that facade was treason. Worse than treason.
But the only way for a nobleman to gain back honor lost by the insult to his honor was to duel the offender — and by the way Beau suddenly froze, the way his eyes shifted around the bar —
He didn’t want a duel.
Cherry found herself slipping off her barstool and meandering over to Sir Elyan before she had even quite decided to do so. Not to worry, though: she already had a plan.
“What ho, knight! I call on you to prove your courage!”
Sir Elyan gaped and turned around. “I beg your pardon?”
“What?” Cherry taunted. “Is this a knight who flees from a challenge?”
Sir Elyan jumped to his feet. “I flee from no challenge! However–” He looked Cherry up and down and raised one eyebrow. “No mere woman can issue a lawful challenge. Certainly not a commoner woman.”
“Not for the field of battle, no. But Sir Elyan, I’m asking you to prove your courage, not your prowess.” Not that I imagine you have much of that, either …
“And what other way is there to prove courage than on the field of battle?” Sir Elyan scoffed.
“Oh, there are plenty of ways! But let me ask you, good sir knight — what is worse than death?”
“Why, eternal damnation, of course!”
“Er–allow me to rephrase that. What’s worse than death, but not quite as bad as eternal damnation?”
“Loss of honor,” Sir Aglovale replied — probably because he was afraid that if he didn’t, they’d be here all night.
“Like public humiliation?” Cherry asked.
“Er … I suppose …”
“Ding ding ding ding! The good gentleman in green got it in one!” Cherry called. “And what’s the quickest way to invite public humiliation? I’ll tell you! Drunken singing at a pub!”
Sir Elyan narrowed his eyes. “You must be joking.”
“What’s that I hear?” Cherry cupped a hand to her hear. “The famous call of that oh-so-rare bird, the knight recreant?”
Sir Elyan flinched. “You dare!”
“You’re not answering my challenge,” Cherry pointed out. “I fail to see what else you would be. And think of it like this, Sir Elyan — if I, the mere daughter of Albionese shopkeepers, am brave enough to go up on that stage and sing my heart out in front of this less-than-sympathetic audience, doubtless earning eternal embarrassment, and you, the son of the illustrious Sir Bors, flower of knighthood, are not … what, exactly, does that make you?”
If he had been sober, Cherry would have never gotten away with this. But he’d been three sheets to the wind since before he walked in the door, if Cherry was any judge. She had a fighting chance.
Sir Elyan narrowed his eyes. “What, exactly, are the terms of your challenge?”
“One drink — a frosty walrus, regular — for each of us. And one song. Sung as bravely and passionately as possible. We’ll let the crowd judge us for our courage.” She waved to the rest of the pub.
Sir Elyan looked around. Then, decisively, he shouted, “Done! Barmaid, one of those frosty–frosted–whatever she said!” He pounded to the other end of the bar, where Cherry had been sitting. “No mere shopkeeper’s daughter will have cause to call me recreant!”
As for Cherry, as soon as she got her frosty walrus from Emi, she sat herself in the seat Sir Elyan had vacated.
“You’re mad, you know,” Sir Aglovale pointed out as Cherry tossed half of the drink down her throat. She made a face. Once you had gotten yourself used to double frosty walruses, single ones were so weak.
However, she had been spoken to, and the polite thing would be to reply. “Why do you say that?”
“He’ll be furious with you once he sobers up.”
Cherry glanced at Sir Elyan. He was having a much harder time with his frosty walrus than she was having with hers, albeit for what seemed to be opposite reasons. “Are you sure he’ll remember this when he sobers up?”
“Are you sure you want to upset the heir of one of the most powerful men in the kingdom?” Sir Aglovale pressed.
Cherry glanced around, wondering where Beau was, what he might have to say to this — but he was nowhere to be seen. Bastard. Oh, well, she’d meant to give him a grateful exit, hadn’t she? From one worthy opponent to another. She tossed back the rest of her frosty walrus. “I’ll take my challenges. Besides, you’re the son of a more powerful man. I’m sure you can rein him in. And just think what Delyth will do to you if you let her best friend get killed on your watch.” She pounded her tankard on the table, hopped off her stool, and patted Sir Elyan on the shoulder. “I’ll go first, since you seem to be having some trouble with that drink.”
She didn’t wait for him to reply before climbing onto the stage, popping the cork of one of the bottles of wine left up there on purpose for the singers, and belting out her best rendition of “The Chastity Belt.”
There were, after all, only one or two other women in the pub. And nothing got a bunch of young men going quite like a young woman singing her heart out to a bawdy song. The fact that “The Chastity Belt” came with a punch line in the form of a page with a duplicate key only made it better. The young men were hooting and hollering long before the song was over, and yelling all the more once Cherry finished and took her bow.
Then it was Sir Elyan’s turn. And he was a fool. For starters, he chose “Maiden in the Moor Lay,” a silly song about a young woman lying in a grassland twelve months and a day. And that was all she did. For six verses. Maybe this was one way to show courage — to follow up a bawdy ballad with something so bland did take balls of a kind — but Cherry doubted it. More likely, Sir Elyan was too much of a prude to sing a bawdy song in public.
And more than that, Sir Elyan didn’t sell the song. He wasn’t that bad of a singer, though the wine he had drunk wasn’t doing his voice any favors. He could have put some heart or soul into it. But his voice quavered and he looked nervously out to this audience, holding back with every note. He was too afraid of embarrassing himself to take a chance. Heck, he could have changed the lyrics to “Maiden with the Smoor Lay” and gotten a lot more applause and a lot more approval.
But he didn’t. So, if this truly was a battle of courage — Cherry won. Hands down.
She was just basking in the thrill of victory when she saw a flash of red from the corner of her eye.
It was Beau.
He came up to Cherry and without preamble said, “It is not wise to insert yourself in the affairs of knights and nobles, Miss Andavri. Particularly not when they were sorting it out well themselves.”
Cherry raised one eyebrow and rested her hands on her hips. Oh? You’re welcome, Beau.
“It is even less wise,” he went on, “to win as handily as you have.”
Both of Cherry’s eyebrows arched up.
“You are clearly wise enough to know all of that. But you did it anyway. And the whole campus will be speaking of nothing but the trouncing of Sir Elyan de Ganis by Cherry of Bledavik tomorrow. So …” He glanced at Elyan, still wobbling his way through the third verse. “I suppose I must thank you.”
“Then thank me,” Cherry replied.
Beau blinked. “Thank–thank you.” He nodded to her.
Cherry nodded back.
And with that, Beau turned on his heel, left the pub, and disappeared into the night.