Radenth 14, 1014
Another night. Another round of drinks to pour. Another round of johns to pleasure. Another set of stars to miss ending in another dawn that would see them shooing the last stubborn johns out the door so they could get some sleep — and so Mirelle could retreat to her coffin.
Tambu absently wiped the bar down with her dirty rag. She’d been spending more and more nights on bar duty since Stasia showed up all those months ago. Maybe it was only to be expected. Stasia was young and pretty; Marigold was still her exotic self; and Mirelle was … Mirelle. Where did that leave Tambu? Showing her age, mostly, and the fact that she’d seen it all and rolled her eyes at most of it. She’d never had Wei Li’s gift for convincing even the most repulsive of men that he was the stuff wet dreams were made of, or Erin’s sense of fun. Plenty of men liked her straight talk when it was attached to a younger body, but now … well …
The candlelight started going crazy, bouncing all over the room. Tambu looked up.
He stopped, the way he always did. At least he no longer looked around the brothel, then pointed to himself as if to ask, Who, me? Now, even though he paused, he never seemed confused.
But something about the way he tilted his head, the way the candlelight played off his helmet, made Tambu think he was smiling. Lord — what a shame about that boy. So many things to feel … not a damn way to show them.
He ambled to the bar, metallic echoes chasing his every footsteps. “Tambu,” he replied. “It’s good to see you.”
“It’s good ter see me, he says. As if he don’t know where ter find me every night.” Tambu snapped her towel at him and winked. “Where ye been, Shiny? Gettin’ ashamed o’ all yer old friends here?”
“What–no!” Shiny gasped.
“Aw, relax, friend, I’m jest teasin’ ye. I’m sure ye’ve been busy lately. With … everythin’,” Tambu shrugged.
She hadn’t seen him since before they heard about Sir Lamorak. Six — closer to seven weeks without a Shiny. The last time he had gone incommunicado for so long had been … hell, Tambu didn’t even know. Sometimes things got busy for Shiny, but never this busy, not in all the time she’d known him.
That was probably because, in all the time she’d known Shiny, she’d never known an earl to be murdered.
“Shame,” she murmured, “about Sir Lamorak, that is.”
She peeked at him through her lashes, wondering what he’d say. Shiny always paid in coin for whatever he took, but sometimes information was more valuable than coin …
“Can I have a small ale, please?”
Tambu blinked. Well … Something had shut his mouth good. So to speak. Now that Tambu thought about it, the visor of his helmet never actually moved when he spoke.
But she nodded. “Comin’ right up.”
She took out the least-alcoholic ale they carried and poured a tankard. There wasn’t much point in serving anything stronger — Shiny couldn’t drink it. But he seemed to like the feel of a full tankard in his hand. Tambu sometimes wondered why.
She pushed it across the bar to him. “Here ye go. On the house.”
“On the … house?” Shiny repeated. He stared at his reflection in the amber liquid. “You don’t have to do that.”
“Eh, but I want ter. Ye look like ye need that, Shiny me boy.”
Shiny’s shoulders slumped. He seemed to sort of fold into himself, arms coming closer to his chest, head drooping. Even the feathers on his helmet didn’t stand up as cheerfully as they might. “It has been … a long six weeks.”
“I’ll bet.” Tambu rested her elbows on the counter and leaned closer to Shiny. Of course when she did this, it pressed her breasts together and effectively doubled her cleavage — but Tambu wasn’t thinking of that now, and if she had been, she would have doubted Shiny noticed.
He slowly traced the rim of the glass with his finger. Around and around and around. “And we still haven’t caught who did it,” he murmured.
“That’s what ye been workin’ on? Findin’ the bastard what did it an’ givin’ ‘im what-for?” Tambu asked. She reached out and folded her hand over Shiny’s.
Shiny barely seemed to notice. He shook his head. “No. I’m working on …” He sighed. Tambu wasn’t sure Shiny needed to breathe, but that boy could sure pack a sigh. “Everything else.”
Tambu frowned at him. Then she slipped out from behind the bar and hopped onto the stool next to Shiny.
Shiny started. “Tambu? Don’t you have to …” He nodded to the bar.
Tambu raised both her eyebrows. “Shiny. Have a look around. Who else d’ye see at the bar?”
“Well … true … but if someone else wants a drink?”
“Then I’ll get me rear off the stool an’ go an’ get it fer ‘im.” Tambu shrugged. “But I ain’t thinkin’ that’s likely at the moment, Shiny. Those two,” she gestured to the table to her left, “are too busy tryin’ ter outdo each other an’ figure out which bed they want ter get inter, Mirelle or Stasia’s, an’ Marigold’s got those ones well occupied,” she gestured to the table to her right.
“An’ ye look like ye need a friend now, Shiny.” Tambu elbowed him, but lightly. She’d learned the hard way that putting any force behind it left Shiny ringing like a gong and Tambu’s elbow hurting like hell. “So. Talk ter me.”
“I shouldn’t,” Shiny admitted to his tankard.
“Hey, I ain’t axin’ ye ter spill state secrets. Jest tell me how ye’re feelin’. Last I checked, that weren’t no secret that would doom the kingdom if it got out.”
Shiny ducked his head. Somehow Tambu could feel him smiling faintly, even if he couldn’t. “You are kind.”
“I’m yer friend. It goes with the territory. Now start talkin’, Shiny, before I pry yer visor open an’ fish the words out meself.”
Shiny didn’t comply immediately. Instead he shifted, the wood creaking under his weight. Back and forth, back and forth, back and forth.
Tambu could have asked. She didn’t. She rested her cheek on one hand and leaned on the bar.
“… Tambu?” Shiny asked.
“Right here. An’ listenin’.”
“If … if I told you something … would you think less of me?”
Tambu blinked. “Well now, Shiny … that ain’t a fair question, that ain’t. How’m I supposed ter know what ter answer if I don’t know what ye’re tryin’ ter axe?” She shrugged. “But … it would take a lot ter make me think less o’ ye, Shiny. So unless ye’re gonna tell me that ye killed poor Sir Lamorak yerself — the answer is probably no.”
Why did that make Shiny wince? “But …”
“But?” Tambu asked.
“What if I told you … I could have stopped it?”
Tambu’s jaw dropped. “Eh?”
“I–I should have been there,” Shiny stumbled. “With Sir Lamorak. He–when the King said he wanted his knights to do an accounting of all the border towers–he asked if he thought I ought to go with them–“
“Oh, Shiny, no …” Tambu murmured.
“And I said no!” Shiny continued. “I–I have done so many tours, and I have seen those towers so often, I–I just didn’t want to do another one! And then Sir Lamorak–“
“Whoa! Whoa, Shiny, stop right there!”
Shiny stopped. Tambu thought it was mostly shock that made him do it.
“Now, ye listen ter me,” Tambu began.
How many times had she had this conversation with Wei Li? Or Marigold? Or even Erin, between her losing Wulf and getting him back? She hadn’t had it with Stasia (yet) — Stasia hadn’t let her in enough. And Mirelle, Mirelle never blamed herself for anything if there was somebody who else could possibly be blamed. Tambu ought to know how this went by now.
“There’s a lot I could be sayin’ ter ye — but I’m jest gonna say two words.” Tambu took a deep breath. “And they’re these two: Shit happens.”
“Now, Shiny, when shit does happen — aye, we’re gonna go over everythin’ in our heads, an’ think, ‘If I’d’ve acted differently, would things have gone differently?’ An’ maybe they would’ve. An’ maybe they wouldn’t’ve. An’ ye know what? It don’t matter. ‘Cause …”
Shiny’s head suddenly jerked up. “What?” Tambu asked.
“That … that’s Master Barber …”
Tambu looked over her shoulder. So it was. She was glad Mirelle was dealing with him, and not Stasia — or, heaven forbid, Marigold. “Aye,” Tambu agreed. “His copper spends the same as everybody else’s, fortunately or unfortunately. But that don’t matter right now, Shiny,” Tambu went on. “Master Barber can be fuckin’ his way through a nunnery fer all that I care. No. What matters — Shiny, when shit happens, ye can’t go blamin’ yerself.”
Shiny didn’t answer right away. His hand tightened on the tankard. Tambu wondered if she’d have to prize those fingers loose one by one.
Finally he spoke. “That’s what the King said,” he admitted. “Though … not in those words.”
“Always thought the King were a smart man,” Tambu replied.
“But I still could have … if I had been there …”
“Shiny.” Tambu hopped off the barstool and pulled Shiny up with her. “The King didn’t make ye go, did he?”
“Well … no …”
“Exactly. Now, if he’d thought fer a second that there were likely ter be danger, d’ye think he would’ve sent one o’ his knights out all by himself? He wouldn’t be takin’ that kind o’ risk. He’d have sent ’em out in pairs at the least — an’ sent ye too.”
“But I am not much good at fighting …” Shiny looked down at his gloved hands. “I–I do not move that quickly — or that smoothly …”
“Then what are ye doin’, blamin’ yerself? If ye’d been with Sir Lamorak, ye wouldn’t have been able ter do nothin’ — an’ ye might have gotten yerself hurt besides.” Tambu tapped Shiny on the shoulder. “An’ I wouldn’t want ter see ye gettin’ hurt.”
Shiny watched Tambu’s hand slowly slide across his shoulder and down his arm. He sighed. “People did not want to see Sir Lamorak get hurt, either.”
“Exceptin’ the ones what hurt ‘im,” Tambu shrugged. “An’, Shiny?”
“Blame them.” She grabbed his upper arms and gave him a little shake. “Sometimes, shit happens an’ it ain’t nobody’s fault. Sometimes shit happens an’ it’s somebody’s fault. When that happens — blame that somebody. Even if ye don’t know who he is — yet.”
Shiny bowed his head. Then, slowly, he tilted it up. Not all the way up — just enough so that the eye-slit in his visor was just at the point where he could see her face. “… Tambu?”
“Can we go upstairs?”
Well, that was a bit of a switch. But if it meant that Shiny was blaming the thieves who killed Sir Lamorak, and not himself — or, hell, if he was blaming the Lord or the stars or fate, or whatever, and not himself — Tambu would take it. “Sure thing, Shiny me boy.” She led the way upstairs and hurried down the corridor, Shiny following. Tambu didn’t even hear the groans and moans emanating from Mirelle’s chamber — but Shiny slowed and stared at the door.
“Shiny?” Tambu asked. He stared at her.
She clicked her tongue and winked. “Come on in.” She pushed the door open …
“Aw, bloody hell.”
“Tambu? What is wrong?”
She wondered — could he see very well in the dim light of the single candle? There was no way of telling just how sharp Shiny’s vision was — or wasn’t. She’d have to get after Marigold to get more candles in the rooms. “Aww, it’s nothin’.” Tambu scurried to the bed and straightened the sheets. “Jest, I leave a john in here tyin’ his garters an’ expectin’ he’ll pick up after himself …” She shook her head. “Shows what I know.”
“You should not blame yourself for the actions of others,” replied Shiny.
Tambu looked up. “Bastard!” she laughed. Then she saw the door hanging open. “Would ye mind closin’ that fer me, Shiny? No use givin’ every john in the place a free show.”
Shiny hestited — he looked outside the door, at Mirelle’s door on the other side of the corridor — but slowly, he walked over, and just as slowly, he shut the door.
Odd. What was into Shiny? The guilt would explain a lot … but not this …
A distraction, that was what he needed. “So. Shiny.” Tambu tilted her head back, hips thrust forward, hand on one hip. “Come over here an’ show me what ye got.”
Shiny looked up. “Eh?”
“Come on, me lad,” Tambu slowly swayed from one side to the other. If Shiny was a red-blooded male — which, strictly speaking, he wasn’t, but he was certainly male — he’d recognize that as a come-hither sign if there ever was one.
He came hither.
“So, Shiny …” Tambu lengthened the name, drawing out not just every syllable, but every letter. “I’ve been teachin’ ye some tricks fer a long time now, haven’t I?”
“So. Ternight’s gonna be the test.” She leaned back. “Ye woo me, Shiny-boy. Pretend I’m some lady ye’re dyin’ ter get inter the braises of.” She raised one eyebrow. “Come on now. I’m waitin’.”
“You are just trying to distract me.”
“Oh, Shiny my boy …” Tambu clucked her tongue and shook her head. “Ye say that like it’s a bad thing.”
“But …” Shiny shook his head. “This — this will not solve anything.”
“Solve? Who said anythin’ about solvin’?” An’ more ter the point, Tambu wondered, who wanted ter come upstairs in the first place — me or ye? She put her fingers underneath his chin — or close enough — and tilted his head up. “This ain’t a solve, Shiny. It’s a salve.”
“A — salve,” Shiny repeated.
“Aye — it’s a medicine ye put on — well, not ye, maybe, but …”
“I know what it is,” Shiny interrupted. “You think it will help?”
“Would I be standin’ here if I didn’t?” Tambu replied.
Shiny didn’t answer right away. And when he did — well, it wasn’t entirely to the point in one way.
And in another, it got exactly to the point.
“You — you look very pretty this evening, Mistress Tambu.”
“Ah,” Tambu replied. Good — if he would play along, that would make this much easier. “Well, that’s an interestin’ opener. ‘Cause on the one hand — well, I’ll be honest. It ain’t ter different from what dozens o’ men say ter their sweethearts every night. On the other hand … I ain’t ever met a woman who don’t like ter be told she’s lookin’ pretty, ‘specially if the man sounds like he’s meanin’ it.” Tambu smirked. “An’ on the other other hand –“
“The third hand?” asked Ambrosius.
“Ye could say that — but I want ter say — Mistress Tambu?”
“Yes. What else would I call you, if we were … wooing, in truth?”
“Shiny, Shiny — how many times I gotta tell ye, men don’t call women like me ‘Mistress’?”
“That may be so,” Shiny replied, “but I am not a man. And … I think it is better to respect the one you wish to gain something from, than to insult them and degrade them.”
Well. If Shiny kept that up … he’d be getting the braises off respectable girls left, right, and center. And those arses who thought they were all that, that there was no woman in their right mind who wouldn’t want to lift her skirts and spread their legs the minute they snapped their fingers — they wouldn’t know what hit them.
An’ what a pity that will be.
“Well. That’s a smart move, Shiny — a very smart one. Now go on. Let’s see what else ye got.”
“Well … Mistress Tambu …” Shiny went on. “I — I should very much like to –“
“Ah, don’t be obvious, Shiny! Not with words! Straight talk ain’t gonna get ye nowhere.”
Shiny tilted his head to one side. “Not with … words?”
Oh, good, Shiny! Ye keep goin’. “Aye. Not with words.”
Shiny only waited for a half a second before he decided not to use words.
Wright, how did he do it? Before she’d known Shiny, Tambu had assumed that kissing a visor would be cold, hard, and probably sharp along the edges. But when Shiny kissed her … even with her eyes closed, she couldn’t fool herself into thinking there were lips under hers. But there was softness there, a sort of give under her lips. There was warmth. And there was nothing sharp, nothing at all. Everything her lips could touch was made of perfectly rounded corners.
How does he do it? Tambu wondered as Shiny tilted his head and kept kissing.
And then she remembered — Shiny didn’t need to breathe — but she did —
He pulled away, head tilted to the side. “And how am I doing, Mistress Tambu?”
Tambu licked her lips. “Good … good …” She nodded. “Ye’d have me braises off an’ me skirts puddled on the floor after that, Shiny. But … well, now that ye’ve got me naked, or mostly naked …” Tambu grinned. “What are ye gonna do with me?”
Again there was that trick of the light that caused something like a grin to be reflected off his visor. Then Shiny came closer, and he slowly guided Tambu onto the bed and climbed on top.
Then — he showed her.
And if this had been an actual examination … Shiny would have passed with flying colors.