Salt in the Wound - Chapter 1
Cold light shone down from the moon, painting the mountaintops pale blue. Frigid wind blew down from the peaks, rushing through valleys and past glaciers, before finally crashing against one man’s back. It swirled around him as he stomped through the snow, and he felt the chill even through his many furs. The wind whispered, as it always had, of surrender and solace and enduring warmth. They were lies, only meant to lure him and his precious burden to their Torment.
Jashan ignored the whispers, and walked a little faster as his cargo shivered in his pack. He could just see the lights ahead, partially dimmed by the swirling snow. They belonged to a sturdy building of thick logs, and they promised a true warmth, not the lies of winter wind. They were his home.
The building was one of several in that mountain pass; a tavern, accompanied by a stable, a storehouse, an outhouse, and a boarding house. The Salt in the Wound, it was called, sitting in the dead center of the Demon’s Gash. Its sturdy walls and deep larders had fed and protected countless travelers for more than three decades. Jashan caught himself smiling slightly at the thought as he reached out a weathered hand to open the door.
The wind rushed in gleefully, bringing a chill that ruffled the hems and tousled the hair of everyone inside. A noticeable shiver passed through the room before the door slammed shut again, and the heat of the hearth restored the warm atmosphere. The lull in conversation lasted only an instant as the caravaneers looked to the door, recognized Jashan, and went back to their food and drink.
He ignored his patrons, ignored his bartender, and especially ignored the numbing cold in his fingers; he needed to get to the kitchen. He stomped past the bar, around to the left and back to the kitchen. The bundle on his back began to squirm and complain. He ignored that too.
The warmth of the hearth was nothing to the heat of the kitchen, and Jashan was glad to be rid of his burden. He slung the fur-lined pack to the ground in front of him and undid the top flap.
Then he waited.
The complaining stopped at his rough treatment, and the pack lay still for a few long moments. Syanna, one of his cooks, hurried to fill a bowl from the pot by the fire. “Is she okay? She didn’t go far this time, did she?”
Jashan shook his head and addressed his pack.
“Aiana, get out,” he growled. “I’ve carried you far enough, you little freeloader.”
The pack squirmed again, then his granddaughter crawled out. Her nose, cheeks, and ears—all that wasn’t hidden by her hat, coat, and boots—were blue nearly to frostbite. She struggled to stand up for a moment before catching her balance. Slowly she looked up, shivering, to meet Jashan’s eyes.
Jashan towered over the little girl. She squeaked, then ran to her bowl of soup. “Watch her carefully,” Jashan said to the cooks. “Make sure she eats every drop: she’s still cold.”
The other cook, Lillian, held out a second bowl. “Soup for you, sir?” Jashan glared, and Lillian hesitated. “A bowl for you… Jashan?”
“Yes,” he said softly. It came out as a growl. “I would enjoy some soup, Lillian.” He took the bowl from her and she scuttled off, his eyes boring into the back of her head. Lillian was new, “hired” from a caravan a few weeks ago, and hadn’t lost her afflicted sense of propriety yet. There was no place for that here. Syanna shrugged apologetically.
The soup was excellent, which was the first main reason he’d brought her on to cook. He left the cooks to their duty and sat at his customary table in the corner of his U-shaped common room. The heat soaked through the bowl into his fingers, warming the joints. Jashan ate his soup slowly, enjoying the sensation of warmth radiating through his chest. Even with three layers of fur, the chill had sunk into his bones. How Aiana survived…
The door crashed open and icy wind blew in, disturbing the peace a second time that night. Jashan tried to ignore it, just enjoy his soup, but the fool who opened the door didn’t shut it. Patrons began to grumble, twisting in their seats to see the idiot at the door. Jashan closed his eyes for a moment.
He stood, leaving his spoon floating in his bowl, and stomped over to the door. The wind pressed against him as he turned to confront whoever stood there, but there was no one. He stuck his head out in the cold and looked around. Nobody.
Then he thought to look down, and saw that there was somebody. Or, at least, a body. The man had opened the door, then collapsed.
Jashan let out a long, frustrated groan. Of course some idiot would seek their Torment, then have the gall to die on his doorstep. He bent down to grab the corpse beneath the shoulders, but the corpse let out a whimper.
Great, Jashan thought. He’s alive too. He changed plans. Instead of dumping the body outside beside the door for safekeeping, he dragged the almost-corpse into the warmth. A helpful guest finally stood and shut the door, and the others looked to be hastily wrapping up their meals.
“Syanna!” he bellowed. It took a moment, but Syanna emerged from the kitchen. “Bring me rags, bandages, and alcohol. This fool’s going to stain my floors. Hurry!”
Lucky for the idiot, the cold had kept him from bleeding out. The blood-soaked coat was frozen solid, stuck to what was surely a nasty wound.
“Bring me hot water, too!”
Jashan drew his belt knife and began cutting at the coat, slicing it free around the wound. That done, he pulled the coat free. This left the idiot bare-chested, save a ragged circle of fur coat around the wound.
“Where’s my hot water, Syanna?” he shouted.
A moment later, Syanna arrived with a massive armful of rags, a jug of alcohol hooked on one finger and a bag with bandages hooked on the other. He took the bag and jug, and she dropped the pile of rags beside him. She gasped, staring at the idiot’s face. Her own face paled, and her hands began shaking.
Fantastic. She recognized him, too.
“I asked for hot water,” Jashan said, ignoring her expression. “Where—”
“Here Grampa,” said a small voice. Jashan turned and saw Aiana, struggling to carry a bucket half her size filled with steaming water. He took it from her.
“Help me—” he started to say, but Syanna wasn’t moving. She was just staring at the idiot. “SYANNA,” he barked. She jumped. “If you want this idiot to live, stop staring like a tormented fool and help me roll him over.”
Finally, she moved. With Jashan at the man’s hip and Syanna at his shoulder, they carefully rolled him onto his uninjured side, toward the fire. At a word from Jashan, Aiana spread out several layers of rags beneath the man. They lowered him back down, and Jashan dipped another rag in the hot water.
“Wipe that circle with this,” he instructed, giving it to Aiana. “If the scraps come off before I get back, run to get me, okay?” Aiana nodded.
Jashan rose to his feet and grabbed Syanna by the arm. She moved reluctantly, so he had to practically drag the woman away. He pushed her before him, ushering her back into the kitchen. It was clear she wouldn’t be useful tending the idiot, so he’d get someone else. He almost ran into her, but stopped short in surprise.
“What right,” she said, trembling in voice and body, “What right do you have to drag me back here?”
Jashan ignored her and shoved past. She stumbled back, off balance, while he called for Lillian. The thin southerner came quickly, but hesitated at Syanna’s bloodless face.
“What…” she began.
“Never mind what,” Jashan snapped. “Syanna’s in no state to help—”
“NO you can not.” He whirled on Syanna, and she cowered back against the wall. “What right do I have to deny you? What right do you have to question how I save my son’s life?”
Syanna seemed to shrink, and somehow managed to choke out the beginning of yet another protest. Jashan knew what she would say, though.
“Oh, right.” He raised his voice. “He loved you didn’t he? That makes perfect sense! It really explains why he abandoned you, doesn’t it? It’s completely normal, expected, even, for men to desert their lovers and their children to go play in the mountains. I TOTALLY FORGOT THAT FACT!”
He turned back to Lillian. “Go help Aiana with the idiot’s wound.”
She jumped to obey, and he could hear her soft voice calling to the little girl across the dead silence of the common room. Hopefully the guests would have the good sense to turn in for the night. He checked to make sure Lillian was doing as asked, then returned his attention to Syanna.
She was blubbering.
Tears left streaks down her cheeks, and her whole body shook, wracked with each sob. She wouldn’t meet his eyes.
Jashan looked at the floor for a moment. Mother below, get me through this.
“Look at yourself,” he said. “If I needed you to hold a knife, you’d cut him. A hot iron? You’d burn him. Seven Torments! Even if all I had you do was wash the wound, you would rip it open with that shaking.”
Syanna made a visible effort to hold her hands still before her, and failed horribly. A look of horror streaked across her face, chased by despair. She leaned heavily against the wall and slid down to hug her knees.
Jashan crouched down, knees protesting the whole way. With colossal effort, he softened his voice back to its normal granite. “When you’ve got your right mind back, bring a restorative from my stockpile.”
He cursed and shot to his feet, ignoring the sickening pop his joints made. He left Syanna with a reminder to bring the restorative and barreled back out into the common room.
Aiana was hopping up and down, spinning in circles, and frantically shaking her right hand. Lillian was doing her best to calm the girl down, but to little avail. Jashan looked around the common room to find that most of his patrons had gone to bed. Definitely the smart choice.
He would’ve done the same.
But he couldn’t do that right now, and leave this idiot in the care of his cooks and granddaughter. He let Lillian handle the girl and examined the unconscious man.
Aiana had done as instructed, and the warm water had washed away the caked blood. The ragged disc of coat had been discarded. The wound was wide, but clean; it was a wound made by steel, not tooth or claw. It bled, but slowly. Much more slowly than it ought to bleed.
Jashan caught Aiana’s flailing hand by the wrist and turned her so he could get a good look at her fingers. She struggled for a brief moment, but he wasn’t hurting her.
He cursed. He cursed loudly, using the foulest words he knew. Lillian gasped and looked about to faint, and Aiana gaped.
On Aiana’s fingertips was blood, yes, but also a deep redness: the outer layer of her skin was gone, leaving only the tender middle layers of skin.
“Lillian, take her out back. Pour cold water over her fingers until she can’t feel them anymore.”
It hadn’t been the cold that slowed his bleeding.
He used a Tormented acid blood.
He cursed quietly as he applied a clean bandage to the wound, careful to avoid touching the blood directly. Acid blood turned your blood caustic to any other living being, and caused it to coagulate almost instantly when exposed to the air. Great for emergencies with subhumans, not so great for normal medical care.
Jashan couldn’t properly clean the wound or risk touching any of the idiot’s blood. Plus acid blood would override any other third-day potions. From the way his abdomen was swollen and discolored, there was internal bleeding.
There wasn’t anything for it.
He needed a restorative.
Once he finished the hasty bandage, Jashan slowly rose to his feet. He was alone in the room—idiots didn’t count—and the fire crackled pleasantly. In his favorite corner, his soup still sat on the table, probably cold by now. He walked over, grabbed it, and took a sip. Yup, cold. Well, the idiot could certainly survive for a little while longer. Restoratives didn’t care how close to death a man was when they healed him; maybe it would be worth the exorbitant cost if he were truly on death’s door before they fed him the elixir.
Jashan walked to the kitchen. A ladle from the hot soup pot would reinvigorate his bowl. On the way he passed Syanna. She’d finally stopped her sobbing, but still clung to her knees. From above her like this, Jashan could see her hair coming out of its braid like a frayed rope; she held perfectly still.
Great. He’d have to go grab the restorative.
After he had his soup, though.
As Jashan stirred the pot of soup, he could hear Lillian and Aiana outside. Aiana’s sobs made him grimace, but Lillian was doing well with her. The cold water would hurt almost as bad as the acid, before the numbness set in. It’d be the Eighth Torment once it warmed up, too. But, as Lillian gently explained to Aiana for the fifth time, they needed to wash away the acid.
A ladle of fresh soup did, indeed, restore the bowl to its former glory. Jashan sat down on the bench by the soup pot and fire to enjoy his soup, savoring the rich chunks of carrot and beef. When Aiana came back in with puffy eyes and white-wrapped fingers, she climbed onto the bench and huddled against him.
Lillian trailed behind, watching with concern. “I hope you don’t mind sir—”
“—Jashan,” she corrected hastily. “I hope you don’t mind, but I used ointments from your stockpile to put some skin back on her fingertips.”
Jashan nodded approvingly, then wrapped his arm around his granddaughter, careful not to spill soup on her. “You did fine, Lillian. This is exactly what my stockpile is for.”
Lillian just stood there, shifting from one foot to the other.
Jashan ate his soup.
Lillian began fidgeting with the buttons on her dress. The thing was far too formal for a tavern cook, and he was sure half the buttons were just for decoration.
Still she stood there, and Jashan could take it no longer.
“What do you want?” he snapped. “Patrons are gone, soup is delicious. Sit down and enjoy your good work.”
She looked down for a moment. “Um sir—”
“Jashan, I think you were a bit, um, harsh, on Syanna earlier.” She paused there, as if waiting for him to shout, for some reason. He just waited for her to continue, and she eventually did. “I understand that the situation was tense—”
“Tense?” Jashan ate the last spoonful of soup. “Tense might describe it, I guess.”
“Anyway, I think she might have been able to—”
“How many men have you stitched up, Lillian?”
“I…” She hesitated, but it was fear, not surprise, that flitted through her eyes. “I am a cook, not a doctor.”
“That’s right, you’re a cook,” Jashan said. “Actually, no. You’re better than a cook. You’re a chef. You’ve been in charge of kitchens before, yeah?”
“When one of your apprentices or assistants is feeling sick or tired, and they’re liable to drop the soup, do you let them stay in the kitchen?”
“Of course not!” Jashan considered a moment, then ladled himself some more soup. Awkwardly, so as not to wake Aiana. “You send them out to recover themselves. Now replace dropped soup with a dead body, and you understand my situation.”
“Of course but—”
“What part don’t you understand, Lillian?”
Something seemed to snap in the woman. “Maybe if you would let me speak, I could tell you, you miserable man!”
Jashan raised his eyebrows and let the silence hang.
A moment later, as he expected, Lillian snapped her hands to her mouth in shock. “I… I’m so sorry sir—”
“Jashan,” she said, flinching. She seemed hunched in on herself, as if expecting a blow. Which reminded Jashan of the other reason he’d taken Lillian from that brute.
Finished with his second bowl of soup, he carefully extracted himself from the sleeping Aiana and stood.
“No need to apologize, Lillian,” he said. “I probably was too hard on the girl.”
“Misery no, I’m not going to apologize.” He used the second of the two pots near the fire to wash his bowl in warm, soapy water. “She needs to accept that Tajah left her. She copes by making stupid excuses about his duty or pressure from the conclave.”
“I…” Lillian began to say something again, but then changed her mind. “I understand, s… Jashan.”
Jashan looked at the earth for support. “Stop that.” He needed to set her straight.
Lillian froze. “Stop what, J—”
“That! You’re just replacing ‘sir’ with my name.” He dried his hands. “It’s basically the same concept.”
“But…” She put her hand up to her mouth. “This is your home, and you deserve the respect that comes with your position!”
“Ha!” Jashan barked out a laugh. “My position! Ha!”
Lillian’s brow creased with concern, or maybe confusion. Her perplexed expression made him smile in spite of himself.
“Do you think you’re some kind of servant, Lillian?” The direct approach ought to help her understand.
The woman tried her best to come up with a response, she really did. But all she could do was stand straighter and fuss with the folds in her skirt.
Jashan sighed. The very direct approach, then.
“Lillian, you’ve spent your life serving one brute or another, cooking food for men who don’t know what they’re getting.” He paused for confirmation, and she hesitantly nodded, so he continued. “You’ve just been a servant. You’ve been paid well enough to afford a good wardrobe-” he gestured at her dress “-but you’ve never been a real part of a household.”
Another slow nod. Misery, was she going to tear up?
“That’s what you are now,” he went on. “A part of my household. Not a servant, not a guest, not a paying customer. Your place here? You cook the best food the Salt has seen in a decade. Sure, I’m the head of the household, and you and Syanna and my granddaughter do as I say. That’s the order of things. But head of household isn’t a ‘sir,’ got it?”
Yup, there it was. Lillian nodded, but clearly didn’t trust herself to speak. Tears dripped from her eyes, and her mouth was caught between a laugh and a sob. Jashan breathed out a long breath, then jerked his head back toward the stairs.
“Take Aiana up to her bed, then get some rest.” He grunted. “I’ll clean up here, and don’t you dare leave your bed until at least dawn.”
Jashan stretched, still beneath his covers, and let out a long, contented groan. Sunlight shone through his window, which let in just enough sound for him to hear the clamor of horses and merchants and wagons and cargo. The caravaneers were leaving, heading down the mountain, probably making for Scholar’s Gate.
He let himself fill his half of the bed for a moment or two longer, then forced his creaking bones to roll out and onto his feet. His joints cracked comfortably as he straightened, popping back into place. Immediately a shiver wracked his body, the relative chill of the bedroom air a stark contrast against the warmth of the several bears draped across his bed.
He took his clothes from his half of the closet and dressed quickly, then moved to wash his face in the basin. Syanna had offered to warm the water each morning, but warm water didn’t wake you up. He watched the frigid water stream from his face in the mirror, the large bed dominating the room behind him. His half was rumpled, the other half was neat. Neat and untouched. Neat as it had been for…
Seven Heavens had it only been a decade? A decade, but a lifetime.
As he left the basin, Jashan traced the initials carved into the side, letting his fingers linger there for a moment.
The common room was, predictably, empty of everyone but a few stable boys and his barkeep. They were happily eating their breakfasts and chatting about something or other. Jashan turned to enter the kitchen, but as he opened the door Syanna crashed into him. Reflexively he stood his ground and she bounced off of him, stumbling back. Their eyes met momentarily, but she silently slid past him the instant she recovered.
He watched her go, then shrugged. He could talk to her later. After breakfast, and definitely after a healthy helping of ignoring the idiot in his guest bedroom.
“Jashan!” Lillian waved to him from across the kitchen. “Your breakfast is nearly ready. I heard you moving around upstairs and started assembling your plate.”
Jashan stopped short. Everything seemed… off. Something here was very very different than it had been last night. Looking around the kitchen, though, he couldn’t find it. The two large pots were still by the fire, blackened by the flame. The tables, counters, and benches hadn’t moved. What wa—
“Jashan? Is everything alright?” Lillian was looking at him, concerned.
Then it clicked.
Lillian had been smiling a moment ago. That was the difference.
He shook himself. “Still waking up. You mentioned breakfast.”
She nodded, the smile returning to her face and de-aging her by at least five years.
“Well what am I looking forward to, then?” he asked.
“I hope it turned out right,” she said as she scooped something aromatic onto his plate. “I mentioned what I was thinking to Syanna and she handed me a jar of spices.” She handed him the plate.
His eyes widened without his consent as he saw—and smelled—the contents: a Glenne breakfast curry, poured over soaked rice. The spice mixture was incredibly difficult to get right, especially for a foreigner, unless…
Jashan looked up abruptly. “You said Syanna gave you a jar of spices? Where did she get it from?”
Lillian’s please smile faltered, staggering off her face. She seemed caught off-guard. “Um… over there, near the fire and pots, I think.”
He followed her gesture and understood immediately. The mantelpiece normally held a clay jar, but it was missing. With another glance, he located the jar on a counter-top. In a few strides he was next to it, looking in.
“I… Did I do something wrong?” Lillian was leaning against the center table. He’d blown past her.
The jar was empty, the last of Shireen’s curry mix in the plate in his hand.
The last of Shireen.
Jashan tensed up as Lillian touched his shoulder. She pulled back and stepped away. He just stared at the empty jar. She started to speak, but he cut her off.
“Syanna. She told you to use this?” His voice was low, and he didn’t care to dull the edge of anger running through it.
Lillian nodded, pale in the face. “I asked her what Glenne folk traditionally eat for breakfast, and she said—”
“That was—” Jashan began to explain, but each word he spoke seemed another slap against Lillian. He swallowed down his more traitorous emotions. “—I was saving this for a special occasion. She knew that.” He forced himself to take a bite, steeling himself against the torrent of memories.
It was delicious; it was exactly how he remembered. The flavor, predominantly cinnamon with others mixed in, took him back to all the best times in his life. He closed his eyes, and couldn’t bring himself to hold anything down anymore.
He let himself remember hauling logs, guiding the hired muscle to lay them where Shireen’s designs dictated. He went back to their first breakfast, standing by the fire not ten feet from where he stood now. In his mind he could see the foundations of the bunkhouse being laid as he scarfed his breakfast too quickly and choked. Shireen had fixed that, by pounding his back hard enough to leave a bruise.
A thousand scenes across twenty-three years spun through his vision, and tears rolled down through the creases in his cheeks. It took nearly five minutes to recover himself, and when he did, Jashan discovered he’d eaten the plate clean.
Lillian hadn’t moved, and was watching with trepidation. Once she realized he was back, she startled and spoke. “I’m so sorry, Jashan. If I’d known, I would have never used—”
“I—” his voice cracked, but he forced it back together. “I know. But you need to know—”
She flinched a little.
“—that I haven’t tasted a cinnamon curry this perfect since the very last plate my wife made me. Even with the mix she made—” he gestured at the pot “—no one—not me, not Syanna—could make it like she did. Like you just did.”
“I…” Lillian looked confused.
Jashan put a hand on her shoulder. “Thank you for the curry. It was perfect.”
He left her standing there. Before he left the kitchen, he washed his hands in the warm water, to give himself time to compose himself. As he left the kitchen, the front door opened with a flurry of snow and bright white reflected light.
“Syanna,” he shouted, “we have another guest!” Jashan began up the stairs to check on the idiot. He only made it halfway before he was called back.
“Hey Jashan, this guy’s new!”
He grumbled as he stomped back downstairs, and rounded the corner to face Mortimer, the barkeep.
“I figured it’d be best if he heard it from you, you know?” said Mortimer.
Jashan grunted and gave the new guest a once-over. The man was the same height as Jashan, but more slender in the shoulders, though that was hard to tell through the massive, snow-dusted furs he wore. His face was nothing special, just a typical Scholar’s Gate goatee and a thin scar that went from forehead to chin.
The man smiled and held out his hand; Jashan had to forcibly stop himself from glancing downward for aid: he had the smile of a pampered man-child.
“Well, it’s nice to meet you, Jashan,” the man said as they shook. “I’m Tobias.” He paused, as if Jashan should somehow know that name. When Jashan didn’t answer, he continued. “I suppose it’s the costs of room and board, and your house rules, you wish to discuss?”
“You got it,” said Jashan. “Most people only stay one night, but you’re welcome to stay as long as you keep paying.” He walked to a window, one where he could see the bunkhouse, gesturing for Tobias to follow. “See that building? That’s where you’ll sleep. You got a cart or wagon?”
“Well then you don’t need to worry about the warehouse. You can just dump your pack in your room. Mortimer here’ll give you your key: all the rooms have locks, but I keep spare keys.”
Tobias raised an eyebrow, and this time Jashan allowed himself to glance downward. Mother below, give me strength.
“Yeah, I keep spares. We’ve had people try funny business.”
“Well, I can assur—” Tobias began.
“And that brings me to the house rules. I’ve only got one: you cause any trouble that threatens me, my household, or my business, and you get kicked out into the cold. No warning, no prep time.” Jashan looked Tobias in the eyes. “Understand?”
Finally, Tobias seemed to get it. “Yes I understand,” he said. He even managed to drop the condescending tone. Simply amazing what the threat of cold could do. “And what of the price?”
Jashan turned to face the bar again. “Mortimer will handle that. And the boys here will show you which room you’re in. Once you’re settled and paid up, come get your lunch.”
Tobias nodded, then walked over to Mortimer to get his room key.
Jashan hesitated at the bottom of the stairs, debating, for a moment, about checking on Lillian. Only a moment, though. There would be time for talk later. For now, he had an idiot to tend.
Tajah was sleeping peacefully in the guest bedroom. It was the kind of peaceful sleep that only a restorative could give. As long as the tincture was in his system, Tajah’s body would function perfectly. Better than perfectly. No snores, no bad dreams, no restless feet; nothing at all.
Jashan stood in the door for a while, looking at his son from a distance. Only his face was visible, and he hadn’t lost any of his good looks. He’d definitely gotten those from Shireen. Even before he’d known Syanna, Tajah’s particular dark skin shades and sharply-defined jawline had attracted more than a few young women. Syanna had easily been the best of the lot.
And he’d thrown her away.
Jashan swallowed the rage that thought brought. He shook his head. No time for sentimentality.
He pulled back the bearskin blanket to expose Tajah’s bandaged chest. The hasty bandage was holding nicely. It normally ought to have been changed by now, but there was no way to know how much longer the acid blood potion would last. Besides, the restorative would prevent infection.
Prodding around his son’s abdomen, Jashan nodded with satisfaction. The muscles weren’t automatically tensing, and the skin was returning to it’s proper color. The restorative was doing its job. The idiot would probably be asleep for another few days—the healing was far from instantaneous—before he could leave.
Jashan put the bearskin back over Tajah and stood to leave. Halfway to the door, though, he stopped and looked back at the sleeping idiot.
Who he hadn’t seen in just under eleven years. Looking at his son’s face, he could hark back to the good times. Times when Tajah had been a joy for Jashan and Shireen. From the minute he could hold a knife, he’d known he wanted to be a ranger. Jashan smiled at the memory. He’d always said he would be “the greatest hunter,” and hunt “anything that wants to hurt us. Like vampires!” It was only natural that they should let him become a ranger’s ward. It was his dream.
The smile slipped from Jashan’s face. If only he’d known then what he knew now.
“Is the idiot sleeping okay, Grampa?” asked a little voice.
Jashan turned to find Aiana peeking through the door, scowling at Tajah’s—her father’s—sleeping form. She had on her leather jerkin again, complete with a tiny, custom-made crossbow and belt quiver. He glanced between her and her father. The resemblance was almost uncanny. She had all his sharpness in her features, though her skin was many shades lighter because of Syanna. Jashan grinned despite himself. With those looks, she would have suitors queuing down to Scholar’s Gate, and with that crossbow she could thin the line without his help.
“Yeah he’s sleeping, Aya,” he said. “You going out to practice?”
Aiana nodded. “I came to make sure the idiot didn’t die in his sleep or something.” She grinned.
“You know,” said Jashan, “the idiot has a name. Tajah.”
Her eyes widened. “He has the same name as Dad?”
“How do you know that’s not your dad? Tajah’s not a common name, you know.”
She shook her head, then squeaked as her hair caught in a rivet on her jerkin. Jashan knelt down to free her. He did her hair up in a simple bun while he was at it.
Aiana waited patiently while he worked, not speaking until he was done. “Mom says Dad is a great ranger and hunter, and that he’s killing important monsters to keep everyone safe. He wouldn’t get stabbed like this idiot.”
Jashan stood. Amusement and tradition warred in his chest, but amusement won. Tajah… no, the idiot, had no claim on tradition any longer. Not since he abandoned Aiana in the womb.
“You’re right, you know,” he said. “Now go practice. Those dummies won’t shoot themselves.”
Aiana ran down the stairs, beaming with excitement. With a last look at his son, Jashan left, too.
The remainder of the day settled into a normal pattern, with normal business. Even Tajah’s presence didn’t shake things up too badly. Sure, Syanna spent most of the day trying to spoon-feed him soup, but things were quiet otherwise. A couple hunters came in with fresh kills. They’d stick around until tomorrow: room and board in exchange for the meat. Aiana tracked snow through the kitchen asking for someone to help her unstick a crossbow bolt from the bunkhouse.
Nearer the evening, a ranger wandered in, offering information for a meal. Apparently a blizzard would be rolling in sometime in the next day or two. Only two rangers were welcome for extended stays, and he wasn’t either of them, so he left after scarfing down his food.
Jashan shut the door behind the ranger and shook his head. He hadn’t rushed the man; the man had rushed himself, practically scurrying to get away.
The common room was empty save for his three patrons. The two hunters had taken up residence near the hearthfire and were having a lively conversation with Mortimer. Tobias was sitting further from the fire, gazing out the window. Without his furs, he really did seem a lanky man, with barely anything to keep him warm--hair or fat. While Jashan was watching, he absently took a swig from a canteen on his belt, then returned it among the others.
Jashan shook his head. He supposed some people were just sus—
Lillian caught his eye. She was peeking out of the kitchen, trying not to be noticed by anyone but him.
She looked… worried.
Frowning, Jashan went to the kitchen. She closed the door behind him, and he noticed her hands shaking. “What’s wrong, Lillian?” he asked.
She spoke quietly, nervously. “That man out there…” She couldn’t seem to keep her hands still. She moved from ingredient to ingredient, completely without focus. “He scares me.”
Jashan’s frown deepened. That only increased her anxiety, so he cocked his head, to make it clear he was puzzled, not angry. “That fop Tobias?”
“He’s just some rich boy, traveling to world to find himself or some nonsense.”
Lillian shook her head. “No… he isn’t. Isn’t just a rich boy, I mean.”
“What did he tell you?” He took a peek out of the kitchen, across at Tobias. He was just sitting there, facing the window, fidgeting with something.
“He uhm, I mean… He didn’t have to say anything, Jashan.”
Jashan turned back to face her. She was still trying to make seventeen different dishes. Something had definitely spooked her. He took a breath. “Well then, why does he scare you? He just seems like a normal kid to me.”
Lillian took a deep breath. “It’s… it’s in… it’s in the way he looked at me when I brought him his food. He looked… sharp, like like like a needle or barb. Then I stumbled near his table, and he caught me. Only… it was as if he were… I mean, he grabbed my arm and it hurt. It reminded me…” She swallowed, and it clicked in Jashan’s mind.
“It reminded you of him,” he said, referencing her old caravan master.
She nodded, still fidgeting with flour and herbs and spoons.
“Well, I trust you. I’ll go talk to him, have him stay in his room, and leave at first light. Lillian.” He rounded the table and laid his hand on her shoulder. When she finally met his eyes, he asked “Will that put you at ease?”
Lillian hesitated for a moment. “Yes, it will. Thank you, Jashan.”
“You are welcome.”
Best get on that now, he thought. He nodded with finality, then left the kitchen to confront the fop.
The fire still crackled, unchanged from a few minutes ago. The sun pouring through the window slid away as a cloud, presumably, passed in front of it, and threw Tobias’ seat into shadow. The thin man still sat there, gazing out the window. Jashan tapped Mortimer on the shoulder, interrupting his conversation.
“Have one of the boys fire up the boardinghouse furnace, would you?”
Mortimer nodded, apologized to the hunters, and stood. “Sure thing. Something happening?”
“Nothing special.” Jashan shook his head. “Just sending our guest here to his room. Don’t want him to freeze.”
“Sure. Hey, Skip!” Mortimer went off to do as Jashan asked.
As he turned back to Tobias, one of the hunters left to visit the outhouse. Tobias made no indication that he’d heard what Jashan said, but it was probably an act. Jashan was not a quiet man.
Indeed, he turned as Jashan approached. “Sending me to my room?” He smiled. “I’m not a child, you know. Why don’t we talk about this like men?”
Jashan thinned his lips to a flat line and made a point of looking to the earth for support. “Children don’t spook my chef. You did.”
Tobias’ eyebrows shot skyward. “That’s what this is about?”
“You know what you did?” And he was admitting it?
“I saw the way she looked at me,” he said. He narrowed his eyes dismissively. “Like a rodent watching a cat.”
Jashan’s brow fell, darkening his vision. “Or a lifelong servant watching an inconsiderate rich boy, expecting him to snap at any minute.”
The kid’s face morphed back into shock, and not a little indignation. “She tripped over her own feet! Nearly knocked my food to the floor. If anything, you should be reprimanding her for poor service!”
“Look, kid,” Jashan said. “I don’t know who or what you are down in Scholar’s Gate, but up here you are just another traveler, only able to cross the Gash because of my establishment.”
“I payed for your services!” said Tobias. “Your servants ought to treat paying customers—”
“Lillian is not a servant—” Jashan began, but something glinted in Tobias’ eye and a smirk pulled his face sideways.
“Oooh,” he said, glancing slyly at the kitchen. He leaned forward conspiratorially. “Isn’t she a bit homely for a mistress? Your wife must be a hag if—”
That was past the line.
Jashan shook out his hand; it tingled from the impact. The heat in his veins, warming through the whole conversation, boiled now. “You,” he said, rage burning in his throat, “do not get to speak about my wife.”
Tobias, clutching his face, slowly looked back up at Jashan, eyes wary, like a rodent watching a cat. Jashan heard running footsteps behind him and, without breaking his murderous glare, caught Skip by the arm. “Don’t bother with the furnace, Skip. Go give the stables a once-over.”
As the boy ran off, Jashan called to Mortimer, who he could hear taking his place behind the bar. “Mortimer, give this kid his money. He won’t be staying with us, after all.”
Mortimer didn’t question it at all, but Tobias was furious. He leapt to his feet and began shouting. Jashan cut him off.
“Save your howling for the winds, boy! You’ve got a hot meal in your belly. You made it up here, you can make it back down.”
The man-child went still, and seemed to forget his pique entirely. He fixed Jashan with a grim stare. “Don’t force my hand, old man.”
Jashan forced a laugh. “Force your hand? What are you going to do?” As if to punctuate that statement, Mortimer brought a massive crossbow from beneath the counter and leveled it at Tobias.
That shut him up. He stormed out into the cold evening, and Mortimer chucked a pack of coin—his refund—after him. A storm was, as the ranger had predicted, beginning to blow, and a flurry of snowflakes fluttered in before the door shut again.
Jashan went back to the kitchen. Lillian was, thankfully, calmer. She had finally decided on a single bread recipe, and was rolling some herbs into the dough.
“I… heard the shouting,” she said. “I’m sorr—”
He held up a hand to stop her. “Nothing to be sorry for. You were right. That kid’s dangerous. I’m not even letting him stay the night. I gave his money back and he stormed off.”
Lillian breathed out a sigh of relief. She looked like she was about to speak, but she was interrupted by a commotion in the common room: a sound like the front door slamming open and shut, then a sharp crack and a dull thump, followed by very soft, running footsteps.
Jashan burst into the common room. The lone hunter by the fire looked toward him in confusion, but seemed to focus on the door behind him, rather than Jashan himself. When the door closed, the man shook his head, and…
And faded from view?
Jashan rubbed his eyes, but when he opened them again, the common room was empty. No hunter, no Mortimer. It was exactly as he’d left it, but with no people. A little colder, perhaps, since the door had opened. And what was that smell?
Then a cloud shifted, a fresh beam of sunlight glinted, and Jashan saw it. By the window, where Tobias had sat, there was a clear phial. It had a metal stopper, the kind that was meant to twist, and a thin stream of vapor was spewing from the top.
Thoughts and actions rode lightning through Jashan’s veins as he leapt into action. That was a potion, and it was affecting his mind. He threw open the door to the kitchen and shouted for Lillian to open the back door. Under the potion’s effects, he couldn’t see or hear her, but he trusted her to act. Jashan ran for the front door and threw it open as well, jamming it into the snow. Wind rushed through the inn, signaled first by the clatter of kitchen implements swept from tables then the horrible wresting of heat that came with cold wind.
He heard and felt all this on his way up the stairs. Clean air ought to clear the potion’s effects, so he breathed deep as he took the steps three at a time. Only assassins used potions like that, and Tajah’s wound had come from a knife. At the top, he didn’t bother slowing for corridor corners, instead catching himself and pushing off walls until he barreled through the door to the guest room where his son was sleeping.
Tobias hesitated about a foot from Tajah’s sleeping form, turning just in time to see a very angry Jashan charging, but not in time to move out of the way. Jashan hit, and they bounced off the wall. The impact threw them both off balance, but Tobias twisted and pushed Jashan away. Jashan swung wildly on his way down, and his fist connected. Tobias staggered backward away from the bed, and Jashan fell, barely catching himself on the headboard.
Jashan’s joints protested as he forced himself upright as quickly as he could. He knew his wild hit was the only reason he had the time to do so.
Tobias was already up, long knife held out before him. Waiting for Jashan to be ready.
“I have to admit,” he said, “I didn’t expect you to hit so hard. I thought that maybe—”
“Shut it,” Jashan growled.
Tobias seemed taken aback. “What, you don’t—”
“I said shut it!”
“—like banter?” he finished.
Jashan had no knife on him, and he didn’t keep any in the guest bedroom. He tested forward, but had to jump back away from Tobias’ slashing.
“Oh I wouldn’t recommend—”
Jashan lunged forward, anticipating the retaliatory swing, and caught Tobias by the wrist. The man twisted free, but not before Jashan took his knife. Jashan stepped back, controlling his breathing.
Tobias reached behind his back and pulled out a second, identical knife. “This will be more fun than I—OH FINE I’ll shut up and fight,” he said as he fended Jashan off.
Tobias was on the defensive as Jashan pressed hard. He had to end the fight quickly. In all the scraps he’d survived in his life, Jashan had learned something important: old men were as strong as young men, but they tired quickly. He tired quickly.
So he stabbed and slashed, driving Tobias out into the hallway. He caught a frustrated grimace on Tobias’ face as they moved further from his target. Good. Let him get frustrated. Frustrated meant stupid, stupid meant dead.
Then something changed. Tobias blundered, didn’t pay attention to where he was going. He dodged to the left but hit a wall, and clearly didn’t expect it. He glanced around, checking for escape, but that was a mistake. Jashan stepped in, batted aside a clumsy block, and plunged the knife deep into Tobias’ stomach. He pulled the knife free and stepped back, careful not to tumble down the stairs behind him.
Tobias clutched at his gut, groaning; Jashan let the fatigue wash over him, gasping for breath. Years, it had been years since he’d had a fight like this. At least it was over, nobody dead but a cocky would-be murderer. The blood pounded in his ears, rushing through his head and body at breakneck pace, and through the drumbeat he heard a sound.
“Want to let me in on the joke?” Jashan growled. He could hardly hear his own voice over the pounding.
“Sure!” Tobias grinned widely, like a child getting his way. He stood up straight and lifted his shirt.
The skin was unbroken, clean and whole where it should have been ripped and bloody.
How could he have been so stupid? Hadn’t the potion downstairs been enough of a hint? Jashan looked disgustedly down at the knife in his hands. It glinted uselessly back.
“You should know, Jashan, that…” Tobias stopped, then cocked his head, still smiling. “Oh right, you don’t like banter.” He lunged forward.
Jashan threw the knife, but Tobias threw pretense out the window and let its point bounce off his forehead. He came slashing, and Jashan forced his tired muscles to move into the blocks. He tried to move forward, away from the stairs, but Tobias wouldn’t budge and he was the one with the iron skin.
After only a few close calls, Jashan’s muscles started to flag. He raised his hand to catch Tobias by the wrist, but moved too slowly and got a gash across his palm. The heat of battle kept the pain at bay, but he took more cuts across his forearms. Each one lost him more blood and more strength.
Tobias stepped back, and Jashan didn’t complain. “Had enough, old man?” he asked. At least he was panting too. At least it wasn’t an easy fight for him.
Jashan gritted his teeth against the pain and pumped his cut hand, pooling blood in his curled fingers.
“Come on,” Tobias said. “Even before you die, you don’t want to indulge in a little witty repartee?”
Jashan glared at him, and he shrugged.
“Have it your way.”
As Tobias came at him, knife raised, Jashan swung his hand in a tight arc, spraying his blood across his assailant’s face. The blood threw off Tobias’ stab and Jashan stepped entirely past his guard, bring his arms up to trap Tobias’ arms and shoving him against the wall. They struggled, grunting and twisting.
Jashan felt a sharp, horrible pain in his shoulder. He glanced down to find the knife, sunk to the hilt just an inch shy of his heart. He was forced to stagger backward, but they had switched places. Instinctively he reached to remove the knife, but stopped himself. It was the only thing stopping him from bleeding out instantly.
Tobias stood at the top of the stairs, breathing heavily. He looked satisfied. They just stared at each other for a few long moments. Jashan listened to the wind howling through the common room below. Must be a powerful storm outside to make such a racket. Then he heard it, and the corner of his mouth crawled upward against his will.
“What…” Tobias took a deep breath. “What are you smiling about?”
“Nothing.” Jashan forced his face back into a scowl. It wasn’t difficult.
“Well, do you have any last words? I’m going to pull that knife free, and you’ll be dead in under a minute.”
“Last words are for your deathbed,” said Jashan. His lips curled again, but this time in a snarl. “You should consider your own, you twice-Tormented brat.”
Tobias’ smile vanished. “You know what? This banter thing really isn’t fun with you.” He stepped forward. “I’ll just—”
A loud clack was almost drowned out by the howling wind, and Tobias stopped in his tracks. His face spoke of pained confusion, and he turned to glance down the stairs. That was all the opening Jashan needed.
He swung for all he was worth, crashing Tobias up against one wall with one blow, then against the other with the other. The knife, still in him, ripped and tore through muscle, sending spikes of pain up his neck and down his arm. It didn’t matter. Restoratives could heal anything. Tobias tried to fight back, but was distracted. Jashan brought a knee into his groin—doubling him over with pain—and sent him tumbling backward with a blow to his lowered face.
He heard Tobias tumble down the stairs, but only caught glimpses as his vision swam in and out. Sound was clearer, for some reason. He heard a clatter, and pattering footsteps, the Aiana’s face came into focus in front of him.
“Grampa!” she was shouting. “Grampa! Are you ok?”
He tried to say something, but that only made him cough, which jiggled the knife in his shoulder. Aiana’s eyes widened with horror and she stumbled back. “MOM!” she screamed, little voice breaking. “Lillian! HELP PLEASE! Grampa’s hurt!”
She started to run down the stairs, but heavier footsteps met her halfway. Lillian’s voice… said something. Sounds were starting to fade in and out too. He got snippets. Aiana shouting “I hate you,” followed by several dull thuds. Lillian telling her to find Syanna. Footsteps. His own heartbeat.
Someone crouched next to him and tipped a bowl into his mouth. He sputtered, almost spitting out the thin, milky liquid. It tasted awful, but when he realized what it was, he drank it anyway. Everything went white with pain for a moment when Lillian ripped the knife from his shoulder, but a moment later it faded entirely, giving way to a gentle tingle as his wounds—all of them—closed.
He worked his mouth for a moment, trying to wet it so he could speak. Lillian was ahead of him, though, and lifted a cup of water to his lips. He drank greedily.
“How—” Jashan started.
Mortimer came up the stairs, grimacing. “He knocked me out. Let me help you up.”
Jashan tried to protest, but he’d lost too much blood. He could barely keep his feet even with Mortimer’s assistance. He needed his strength, so he dealt with it. Together they staggered down the stairs. Tobias’ limp form was up against a wall, unconscious, with a several large bumps atop his head. Aiana stood guard with her child-sized crossbow, reloaded, eyes red and puffy but alert and angry.
Mortimer deposited Jashan on a nearby chair, then went to shut the front door. Syanna shut the kitchen door, and the gale stopped. It was freezing, but the fire began to reclaim its territory, slowly, and Mortimer got a crossbow of his own to point at the assassin.
They waited like that for a long time. When he could take the wait no longer, and when he was sure he had the strength to speak normally, Jashan ordered Lillian to dump water on the man.
As the water hit his face, Tobias groaned and awoke. He looked around, clearly noting the people surrounding him. Aiana and Mortimer had their crossbows, Syanna was brandishing a large meat cleaver, and Lillian… she was holding a bottle of alchemists’ fire. Tobias wasn’t going anywhere, and he knew it.
“So—” he flinched as he spoke, then rubbed his head, groaning again. “So why haven’t you killed me?”
With great effort, Jashan shifted his tired body in his chair. “Can you stand?”
“Can you stand?”
Tobias frowned, then tried to sit up straight. He cursed loudly, but, at a look from Jashan, pulled himself up using a chair.
“Good,” said Jashan. “You can stand. Which means you can walk.”
Tobias looked at him and rolled his eyes. “Which means?”
“Which means you can leave.”
Tobias looked at the grim and angry faces around him. “Leave? What are you..? Why don’t you just kill me?”
“You aren’t a threat anymore,” said Mortimer. “We won’t murder you in cold blood.”
“But,” said Jashan, “you broke my only rule, which means you suffer the consequences.”
“What, you’re banishing me?”
“Yes.” Jashan gestured toward the front door. “Leave, now.”
Tobias stared at him, mouth dropping slightly as he gestured at the little crossbow bolt still in his side. “But I’m injured!”
“That look like my problem?”
“I have no coat!”
“Also not my problem.” Jashan sighed, then grimaced. “I told you when you arrived. Endanger my household, get booted immediately and permanently. We get your stuff as a consolation prize.”
“I suggest you leave that bolt in until you can find medical help,” Jashan interrupted.
Tobias opened and closed his mouth several times, as if searching for words. Mortimer gestured impatiently with his crossbow, and Tobias grit his teeth angrily and limped to the door. Aiana ran over and opened it for him, glaring daggers the whole time.
A flurry of snow, and the assassin was gone.
Things went back to normal, relatively speaking. Mortimer made sure the man actually left, and a few of the stable boys set up a watch to give warning if he came back. As soon as the knitter—the thing, milky potion—finished stitching him up, Jashan took a very long nap. Lillian insisted he stay in bed to regain his strength. She brought him his meals on a tray like he was some noble, but his protests only made her laugh.
Five days passed before Jashan felt anywhere near normal again. He’d only taken a single blood-replacing potion from his stockpile, so he would probably be feeling off for another two weeks. But at least he was able to walk, and Lillian finally let him leave his room.
Just after he finished his final meal-in-bed, Jashan dressed and grabbed his bowl, intending to take it downstairs. At the top of the flight, though, he reconsidered. Best to minimize trips up and down the stairs. Instead, he returned to his room, picked out a certain fur coat from his closet, and went to check on the idiot in his guestroom.
He found Tajah standing beside the dresser, wearing only shorts. He turned and his face registered surprise. He spoke in Glenne, their native language. “Hey Dad. It’s been… It’s been a long time.”
“Tajah.” Jashan nodded curtly. “I see you are recovering well.”
“And you.” Tajah stood uncomfortably, and scratched behind his ear. “I… um… Your cook—Lillian?—she told me a bit of what happened. Said you took a beating.” He swallowed. “For me.”
Jashan nodded again, but let the silence hang.
Tajah never had been able to abide silence, and had apparently not changed a bit over the last ten years. “So, uh… How have things been? Business been good?”
Jashan just continued to stare at him. He gulped again, then made another attempt. As if anything he could say would be good enough.
“What about Syanna? And what about our little girl? Lillian wouldn’t let me see them. She wouldn’t even tell me my daughter’s name.”
“Can you walk?”
Taken aback, Tajah went quiet for a moment. “What?”
“Can. You. Walk?”
“Um… yeah, I can walk. I’ve still got a few days before I can do any more than that, but I can walk.” He looked confused. “Why do you ask?”
Tajah’s composure began to crack. He raised his voice. “Come on, Dad. You came here just to stare at me? Where are Syanna and my daughter? I want to see them. I have a right, you kn—”
That was too much. “You think have a right?” Jashan demanded. “No, don’t answer. Get dressed, then come downstairs. We need to talk.”
“Do as I say, Tajah!” Jashan bellowed. Tajah stepped back in surprise, but Jashan left before he could say anything else.
Jashan stepped carefully down the stairs, gripping the banister tightly. He poked his head into the kitchen.
She turned and smiled. “You’re looking bett— What’s wrong?”
“Never mind that. Take Aiana to the storehouse and get supplies.” He punctuated it with a significant look, and Lillian nodded her understanding.
He left the kitchen and told Mortimer to ready his crossbow. Mortimer smiled and lifted it from under the counter.
Jashan nodded, then found Syanna washing a table. “Syanna, I need you over here.”
She straightened and turned to face him. They looked at one another for a few moments, then she nodded. “Ok.” She dropped her rag and followed him back. “What for?”
He held up the fur coat, but—at her confused look—remembered that the Last Gift was unique to his country.
They waited for a few minutes longer until Tajah finally arrived. He saw Jashan first, then saw Syanna. His face lit up with joy and he moved forward to embrace her.
He stopped cold when Mortimer raised his crossbow.
Tajah looked between the three of them. “Syanna… Dad, what is this?”
Jashan set his jaw. “I have one rule at this outpost,” he began.
Tajah cut him off. “What—”
“ONE rule, Tajah. Do you know what that rule is?”
“Dad, come on—”
“If you endanger me or my household, you leave forever, never to be welcomed again.”
Tajah licked his lips. “But… But Dad, I just needed a bit of help. I just—”
He continued. “You vanished, abandoning your pregnant lover here—”
“Abandoned?” Tajah asked incredulously. “She was safe here!”
“You left her and her child behind,” Jashan shouted. “For ten years you went traipsing around the mountains while she raised her daughter alone!”
“And when do you come back? You come back when you’re half-dead and being followed by a murderer!”
Stunned, Tajah mouthed silently. Jashan just kept going.
“You left through cowardice, and returned through cowardice. You brought danger into this home, and you ARE NO LONGER WELCOME HERE.”
Finally finding his voice, Tajah quietly, impotently, said “But… you would banish your own family?”
Jashan rolled his shoulders and stiffened his back. He fought down the traitorous pressure behind his eyes. “No, I wouldn’t.”
Then he switched to Glenne, and spoke the words.
“Tajah, you are my son and I am your father. Long did I raise you and provide and protect, and once more do I provide and protect.”
The pressure overflowed, and tears ran down Jashan’s face. He stayed straight-backed, though, and continued.
“This coat is my Last Gift, from father to son, and from this moment you are Tajah, a stranger, unwelcome within my walls.” He held out the fur coat. Tajah reached out with shaking hand, but hesitated. Tears stained his face, too.
Jashan switched back to Zenian and tossed the coat onto Tajah’s outstretched arm. “Mortimer, take this man outside and make sure he leaves.”
“I… Da—Jashan? Syanna, I’m still your family, right?” Tajah asked desperately.
Syanna turned away from him as Mortimer forced him toward the door. “We were never married,” she said, softly. Then, in Glenne, “Stranger.”
Tajah’s composure broke entirely, and he began to beg as he neared the door. “I can’t—you can’t—I can barely walk! This will kill me!”
Mortimer opened the door and shoved Tajah out into the snow. “Dad! Father! I’ll die!”
Jashan looked at him one last time. “Does that look like—”
Mortimer shut the door.
“—my problem?” Jashan finished quietly. He staggered to the side and sat heavily in a chair, letting the chest-heaving sobs run their quiet course.
Some time later, when he was still, Aiana came and climbed onto his lap. She gave him as big a hug as she could, and stayed there until he was ready to move.