“So,” Aphella said, breaking the silence, “what do you think of our town?”
“Well,” Frey said, scratching his chin with the blunt end of his fork. “I suppose I appreciate it. Your architecture, the people, the way you talk, and of course your clothes all have an ancient quality to them. I haven’t been out this way in quite some time. It’s nice to see old tastes haven’t changed.”
Aphella glared at him, but all he did was smile back. “I’ll have you know-” She began, before being cut off by a raised, gentle hand.
“It is a compliment,” Frey said. “I don’t like shifting tastes, particularly when those tastes move away from the tried and true. Modern men are always shifting, moving, never staying put anymore. Never putting any time into their homes or their crafts. Everything is grey steel and brown stone in the inner lands now. So few items of beauty.” He smiled at his fork.
“Aren’t you a shifter, trader?”
“Yes, but I carry my home with me,” Frey said. “In my wagon, in my boots, and in my fork.” He smiled as he chewed another piece of meat, then poured a flagon of venom-wine from a pitcher on the table. Calmly, as if talking about nothing in particular, he said, “That boy Ty has an eye for you.”
Aphella felt a twinge of embarrassment, along with a rush of anger. She took a deep breath and continued eating.
Frey chuckled. “Always so embarrassing for the young to speak plainly of their feelings.”
“I haven’t spoken of anything.”
“You should, whether you go or stay.” He took a deep, creaking breath. “Take it from an old man, you should.”
“I don’t have anything to say to Ty. Not… not about what you think.”
Frey sighed. “Of course. Forgive my intrusion,” Frey said, nodding his head. “Being on the road gets you used to saying exactly what you are thinking.”
“A merchant who actually says what’s on his mind,” Aphella said, forcing a chuckle. “That’s a good one.”
“I am a good one. You don’t develop contacts and customers by cheating them. If that is what your head of trade thinks…” Frey looked down the table to where Ty and Zyteus sat. “Well, it is good I am aware of such a thing.”
“No!” Aphella said. “It isn’t like that. Zyteus is fine in business. Just fine, he just… it’s like he plays games all the times with people here. Like they are pieces on a chess board… or something like that. Like with Ty. How did he arrange for that down there?” Aphella nodded toward the other end of the huge banquet table, to where Ty sat laughing with Maeven. “None of us heard about it.”
Aphella stared at the food on her plate. “Me and Ty.”
“Perhaps he just didn’t think to tell you.”
“No, Ty tells me everything. And I can tell when he’s trying to keep a secret. His father is just trying to play and position him. And the rest of the family.”
Frey nodded. “The treatment a man gives his family is the best you can expect from him when you are not his family, and you should probably expect much worse. Thank you, Aphella, for your honesty. I will use caution with him.”
“No,” Aphella said more emphatically, then sighed as Frey’s face did not change. “Fine. None of my business. Do whatever you want.”
“I always do whatever I want,” Frey said, and laughed.
“No you don’t.” Aphella said.
Frey raised a single eyebrow in question. “No?”
“No. You’re running all over the wilds looking for girls… for women like me, serving some empress. Doing what she wants, not what you want.”
“You presuppose that serving others requires some subservience of my own will to another’s. It does not. I said the search was profitable, did I not?”
“You did, but-”
“Life is serving others. If you served nothing of the needs of others, who would serve your needs? You would have to live as a dirty, starving hermit, soon dead. The nature of trade is service.”
Aphella took a breath. “What if I go with you, and I don’t like where I end up? What if your empress doesn’t want me? What if I decide prefer home?”
“Life is also risk,” Frey said. “Nothing great can be gained without great stakes.”
“So I’d be on my own.”
“I make no guarantees. I am, in the end, just a well-paid messenger.”
Aphella nodded, then gave a start as her father appeared on the other side of the table, smiling widely. As he moved around the table, she whispered sideways to Frey, “Please don’t repeat what you said.”
“He is your father, he has a right to know if you choose to go away,” Frey whispered back.
“Not that,” Aphella said with a hiss, just as her father moved into earshot. Frey nodded silently as Dolmar stepped over the bench and placed his own plate down on the stone table.