The western part of Masala was higher in elevation than the tenements, allowing a steady breeze off the sea in the afternoon to blow through Charlotte and Rone’s long coats. The streets were mostly deserted, and the people that did walk down either side of the paved avenues were moderately well-dressed; men wore waistcoats more often than plain shirts, and women bustled dresses more often than aprons. Rone and Charlotte, with their dirty long coats and packs, stood out among the colorfully dressed citizenry, catching glances from passers-by busy enough to spare little else. Charlotte realized she was a woman wearing trousers, an uncommon if not alluring sight on the Green Isle.
Rone walked quickly ahead of Charlotte, continuing the long, protracted silence that had settled between them when they entered the city. On their journey to the city, through the dry highlands of the Isle where men were a rarer sight than beasts, the silence between conversations had been comfortable to Charlotte. Somehow, in the crowded city, the lack of talk was maddening.
“Where are we going?” Charlotte said, daring to break the silence.
Rone turned his head slightly to look at her. “Somewhere to stay. Out of the way of the bustle. Normally, I’d choose something a bit shadier, but given the interchange with the slave, we’ll have to do with accommodations that are actually decent.” Rone flashed a slight smile.
“You? In places that are actually decent?” Charlotte smiled back
“Merely decent,” Rone said. “I shall do my best to condescend to your preferred level of comfort, though I fear I might undo weeks of work and spoil you to hard living forever. A warm bed will do little to make you long for the road, which I suspect we’ll see more of before the end.”
Charlotte sighed. “A bed. Dreamer! I feel like I can scarcely remember the pleasure.”
Rone turned his head again, his brow furrowed. “Careful who you invoke. Folks in decent places don’t appreciate blasphemy, even in an off-hand way. We get enough looks as it is.”
Charlotte nodded. She wanted to say sorry again, but some degree of pride held her back. “I’ve just spent too much time with you. It seems I’m starting to pick up your way of speaking.”
“I can tell. Invoke a different god while you’re here.” Rone turned away and picked up the pace again, leading Charlotte up a wide avenue. They turned down a slightly narrower street, lined with shops and boarding houses that stood several stories tall, the masonry and tile roofs clean despite being ancient. Rone paused in front of an inn, the wooden sign above the door waiving slightly in the breeze.
“The Sevelny Inn,” Charlotte said, reading the sign and looking at the closed, simply carved doors.
“The proprietor’s name,” Rone said, digging around in one of his side bags, which rested under his powder horn.
“Not very creative.”
“That’s exactly what we want. Here.” Rone nodded toward a narrow alley and walked briskly down it. Charlotte followed close behind. Her pack scraped against the side of the building, filling her ears with an odd echo. Around the corner was the rear entrance of the inn and a small porch. A door stood open to the kitchen, airing out the morning’s cooking. A black cast-iron pipe from the stove stuck out of a window, a few wisps of smoke escaping from its capped top and curling through the still air of the alleyway.
“Stay here,” Rone said. “I’ll come get you shortly.” Charlotte nodded.
Rone walked back out of the alley swiftly. After he disappeared, Charlotte let herself draw a long breath and a sigh. She looked around at the darkened backs of the stores and houses, each going down a straight line to streets that looked bright in the dimness of the alley. A small refuse pile stood behind the inn’s kitchen, full of old bones and other discarded fragments of food from the kitchen. Charlotte could see movement that she imagined to be a rat rummaging inside, and it made her scrunch her nose up.
She backed up to the corner and took off her pack. She rubbed her shoulders softly, feeling the ache of the burden fade. She had become used to the weight of it after so many days on the road, but the pain reminded her often that such things were still new to her. With that in mind, she thought back to her first days on the road and smiled. Then, she’d been scarcely able to shoulder anything; now, she could carry her weight. Charlotte had grown strong in a relatively short time, and that gave her a bit of hope to cling to.
She started slightly when Rone stepped out of the kitchen door and looked about.
“There you are,” he said. “I got us a room upstairs, with a view of the street. Come on.”
Charlotte picked her bag back up and slung it over a single shoulder, then followed Rone into the kitchen, currently deserted except for a dog laying in the corner, moving only his eyes. Just past the tight arrangements of stoves and ovens was a narrow stairwell.
“There’s a rat in the alley,” Charlotte whispered at the dog. As she past. “Go get him!”
The dog raised its head, long ears drooping over its head, and looked out the back door, as if thinking it over in his own mind. He dropped his head back down, as if he had decided the rat was not worth the effort.