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Charlotte worked at the tangles in her long, copper-red hair. It was an uncommon attraction in the lands of the Green Isle, where even the occasional blonde shock among a sea of brown drew stares, and so Charlotte, at the bidding of Rone, had twisted it into a braid and stuffed it down the back of her long jacket, then covered her head with Rone’s oversized hat. Her hair brush, an ornate thing with tortoise-shell inlay and stiff hairs, found the knots in the hair all too well, but she was still glad to tend it, letting it remind her of her womanhood.
The sun had come through the clouds in the west, bathing the tidy inn room in warm light and illuminating the grit that had worked into Charlotte’s hair over the course of several weeks on the road. The window was open, hinting at a breeze that could not be properly felt in the land-facing room. It was humid in Masala, and she continued to sweat even with her jacket removed.
“I can’t wait for a bath,” she said to herself.
The door squeaked slightly as it opened a crack. When Rone did not appear, Charlotte felt a sudden surge of panic. She dropped her hairbrush on the ground and looked around for Rone’s pistol. It was nowhere.
“It’s me,” the voice of Rone said.
“Come in. I’m decent.”
The door fell all the way open and Rone entered, carrying two plates filled with freshly roasted chicken and bread along one arm. He kicked the door closed behind him and rushed over to the little table beside the open window, where he deposited the plates hastily.
“I figured a little bit of hot food should be first on the agenda,” Rone said, smiling slightly. He pulled a bundle of knives and forks from his jacket pocket and dumped them on the table. Charlotte picked her hairbrush back up off the floor and put it on the windowsill, then pushed her chair closer to the table.
“I can’t remember the last time I had a hot meal,” she said. She picked up a fork and examined it, then wiped some of the dust off on one of the few clean spots left on her cotton shirt.
“I can,” Rone said, tearing apart the quarter of a chicken on his plate. He took a bite and chewed in satisfaction for a moment. “I cooked us rabbit. It was at the old Molney homestead.”
“It was just an expression. I do remember.” She smiled as she carefully carved the chicken into neat slices. “I can’t believe I ate rabbit. Disgusting.”
“You didn’t think so at the time,” Rone said. He took a hearty bite from one of the bread rolls, then said while chewing. “Hunger really is the finest seasoning.”
“My mother would have a fit watching me eat a fresh-skinned rabbit. Or this.” She put one of the chicken slices into her mouth and chewed.
“What’s wrong with chicken?”
Charlotte swallowed. “This is cooked all wrong. Pot roasting a chicken is a sin, and with this much salt is practically criminal.”
“It’s an old bird. You can’t throw an old bird on a hot fire and expect to be able to chew it,” Rone said.
“No, you can’t. I suppose this really isn’t that bad.” Charlotte took another bite.
“Aye, but is it as good as the rabbit?”
“Of course not.” She smiled at him. “A servant came by earlier. A young girl. They have a few baths downstairs.”
“You answered the door?” Rone said. He held a forkful of chicken in front of his face as if his hand had frozen there.
“It was a girl, couldn’t have been more than twelve. Anyway, I decided to have a bath drawn.”
Rone dropped his fork. “Damn it, girl. We’re not on vacation here.”
“I need a bath.”
“It’s not about the bath. The innkeeper thinks I’m here alone. Didn’t you think about why I brought you in through the back? Eyes are watching!” Rone’s voice hissed.
“We’re in Masala, not Cataling.”
“A Masala with the gates shut. Dreamer! Do you ever spare a thought to the danger you’re in?”
Charlotte sat silent for a moment, then said. “You ordered two plates of food, mister clever. Did you spare a thought to that?”
“I told the cook I was extra hungry. It’s not unheard of.”
“So hungry you needed two sets of silverware?”
“Bah,” Rone said. He began shoveling food into his mouth at an accelerated rate. His mouth half-full, he said, “I’ll drop some hints that we’re eloping or having an affair or something. The most believable lies are the ones you spend effort covering up.”
“Then it’s settled. We’ll have baths.”
“Fine.” He looked up at her. “I suppose it will make us look a little less road-worn. A little more like we fit in. We should die your hair. Maybe cut it too.” He dug back into his food.
Charlotte held her hair up in the light. “I suppose you’re right.” She sighed.
“Just a woman’s vanity.”
“It’ll grow back.” Rone paused and looked at her, his face casting creases of sadness. “Which is a good thing. It is quite lovely.”