Due to the length of chapter 20, I'm splitting it into two parts :)
Hatubrath. A month of fire. Stay in the shade.
~ Valarian saying
They started out early, hoping to make good progress before the heat of the day.
Samson confirmed it would be a scorcher.
Saska walked with the women, enjoying their company. The Guardians, barring three Sagorin, were all male. She was starved for female company and having formed bonds over the last few days, found she could relax, be a woman, be more who she was meant to be. Although the Guardians had not gathered formally in a thousand years, still they gravitated, which meant other friendships were rare, and often short-lived. These would prove short, but she intended to enjoy it while it lasted.
She looked over her shoulder only once and did not dare thereafter. Taranis was in deep conversation with Llettynn, the kind no one interrupted, but that was not what bothered her. It was Rayne. He walked alone, trailing the men at quite a distance. Moreover, he watched her. She felt his gaze continually. Her midnight swim had dumped her into water deeper than her tail could beat against.
Aven and Mordan tired in the heat and called frequent halt. Samson was on the mark with his forecast, although even an idiot could tell the weather at the height of summer - granted, young Samson was a northerner in strange climes.
The heat was greater on the west coast, the sun glaring white, the sand blinding, the water more so, and shadows were sharply etched. Mirages flickered in and out of vision, before long their water was gone, and energy literally burned away.
It was midday, the powerful sun directly overhead, when they finally spied Luan in the distance, a white town floating unreal as eyes squinted to find detail.
“Almost there, friends,” Taranis encouraged, his voice a dry rasp.
“This is different to Farinwood,” Kylan murmured, speaking for the first time in hours. “The sun’s real here, a presence …”
“Me? I’m going to unearth the nearest drinking-hole and have myself the tallest ale there is! And bugger hiding!” McSee exclaimed. The big man’s fair skin had burned blood red and sweat dripped with every step.
“I understand the sentiment, McSee, but we have to remain cautious and vigilant,” Aven admonished.
They discovered a picturesque town of white cottages. All possessed flat roofs and atop these expanses were various and ingenious modes of shade, mostly multi-coloured sun-umbrellas, the weave of the cloth thick, the structure of sturdy wood. Strategically placed tables, chairs, and even beds, made the most of the resultant shade, most beds occupied.
Siesta, and who could blame them? Only fools walked around.
Hundreds of palm trees dotted the town, the majority towering giants that did much to mitigate the fierceness of the sun. Despite the heat, Luan gave the impression of abundant cool, and weary and footsore spirits revived.
The town seemed deserted, but was merely asleep in the noonday heat. This was a place for relaxation, a lively holiday destination when guests were in the mood. All business was geared to that end and as they neared the commercial district, they realised it slept also
In the interest of arriving unnoticed, they could not have planned timing better.
Four broad wharves jutted far out into the bright ocean, with innumerable boats bobbing alongside. From the smallest pleasure raft to huge sloops and caravels, single masts, multi-masts, bright flags everywhere; they were all there, the sailing capability of Valaris.
Seagulls circled lazily, but even they were quiet, as if respecting the rest of folk below.
The waterfront adjacent the wharves sported a variety of buildings, uniformly white and flat-roofed. Some advertised boats for hire, enquire within, others beds for the night, and, for McSee, a number possessed enticing images of ales. There was a playhouse, an amusement facility for the young, eateries and bakeries. And all manner of supply shops, from fishing tackle to expensive wine. All doors were firmly closed.
Taranis gazed around. “I vote we find somewhere to spend the night or however long it takes to discover why we are directed here. We can stash our gear and then venture out to make enquiries …”
“You will ask what exactly?” McSee grumbled.
Taranis said equably, “Something will turn up.”
“We stash our gear, and we have ourselves some ale!” McSee said, brightening.
“I’m with you, pal!” Samson grinned.
Aven heaved a long-suffering sigh, and Llettynn remarked, “I assume the three of us will remain out of sight.”
Taranis smirked. “Sorry.”
“Yes, well, that’s what comes of backward worlds,” Glint muttered.
McSee bristled, and Rayne snapped, “Leave be, McSee.”
Cristi giggled at the catchy phrase and repeated laughingly ‘leave be McSee’, which sent Kisha into silent mirth. Kylan spluttered helpless laughter.
“The mortals are exhausted, Taranis,” Belun remarked, smiling himself.
“And you are not, old friend?” Taranis teased.
As they neared the fourth and furthest wharf, Cristi pointed out the Luannesse, a sprawling building facing the deserted jetty advertising accommodation and meals.
A placard in a window boasted the largest selection of vessels for hire, with or without crew and, to McSee’s evident delight, ‘Betty’s Famous Brew’ with a drawing of an overflowing tankard.
“Wow, we have nothing like this in the north,” Samson said, agog.
“No ale?” McSee was aghast.
Samson grinned. “Ale we have, pal, lots of it!”
“My man!” McSee crowed.
“Will you two keep it down?” Aven admonished.
Huge palms grew around the building, shedding cool and atmosphere. There was no soul in sight, but it suited them.
The three striking Immortals, having shed their disguises on the Galilan the day before, resorted to pulling their cloaks close. It was stifling, but they had no energy to don disguises. Taranis looked them over, and thanked his lucky stars the town was asleep.
Upon entering the Luannesse, they were in a darkened and blessedly cool interior. A central courtyard was sun-dappled with palm fronds and the tinkling sound of fountains. Everything was quiet, only the refreshing music of water to remind them time had not frozen.
Glancing at Rayne for the first time in hours, Saska saw him studying the fountains, his expression unreadable. He sensed her gaze and met her eyes. She looked away.
A bell set on the reception counter had a sign beside it saying ‘Ring for Service’ and Taranis did just that.
Moments passed and they studied the dim interior wordlessly. A door behind the counter had to lead to an office of some sort, and behind them an open arch led into an equally dim dining room. Crisp white tablecloths adorned tables of various sizes and each sported a different flower arrangement. Ceilings were low, almost scraping at Glint’s great height, and were of dark, polished wood. The floor shone black and cold stone.
The place was so quiet it did feel deserted, and they were concerned. Then the door behind the counter squeaked open and a middle-aged woman with sleep puffed eyes stumbled through.
“Didn’t expect anyone today,” she mumbled by way of apology. Reaching the counter with a stumbling gait, she straightened and eyed the lot of them. Pencilled-in eyebrows shot heavenward on seeing three swathed in huge concealing cloaks.
“Sunburn,” Kylan informed her.
“Ah,” she nodded. “Indoors?”
“They’re embarrassed,” Aven put in.
“Ah,” she said again, clearly not believing a word. “None of my business. You want rooms? Sorry, half-asleep … yes? Let me see …”
Her bright, dark eyes did swift stock take.
“Fourteen, is it? Rather a large party, not so? Unusual, I would say. Never mind, none of my business. We believe in privacy here in Luan and the Luannesse is no different. Now, let me see …”
The small woman bent her cropped grey head over a leather book and opened it to run her finger down a column of figures and names.
“I can do four per room, three rooms and I do have a twin. Will that do you? We seem quiet, but folk rest, and we are rather full, so can’t do singles. All right?” As Taranis nodded, she fixed her gaze on him. “Good. How long will you be staying? And will that include meals?”
Her gaze touched on the sword at Taranis’ hip, but she chose to ignore it.
Taranis answered, bemused by this petite woman dying of curiosity and trying for all she was worth to curb it. “Yes, with meals, a night or two, perhaps longer. We are hoping to hire a boat and it may take a few days to find one just right for us.”
This was offered as an explanation to cover the uncertainty of their arrangements.
“No problem. Still, I can only stretch you to four nights, then I have a block-booking coming in from Actar. Those folk need to rest before they go on home.” She smirked, but only Rayne and McSee took her meaning, Actar being the den of iniquity that it was. “Yes, well,” the woman continued when her remark elicited no response other than an equally sly grin from McSee, “I’m Betty. Just holler if you need something.”
She reached under the counter and produced four keys with numbered leather tags attached and handed them to Taranis. “The far right corner, two on each side, and they come with bathrooms.” She gestured vaguely at the courtyard and then pointed at the register. “Sign in, please.”
Taranis shook the keys in his hand uncertainly.
“Allow me,” Rayne said and pushed past McSee and Cristi to get to the counter. He took the book, turned it his way and lifted the pen attached to it. As Betty pointed out the relevant room numbers, he scrawled ‘R. Miller’ beside each one before replacing the pen. “Deposit?” he enquired.
Betty smiled brightly. “Ten dians.”
Without arguing Rayne reached into his pocket. He counted out ten and handed them over.
Betty spoke her thanks, her eyes running over the fair man’s face with appreciation. “What do you do, Mister … Miller?”
Rayne was nonplussed for an instant - it had been a while since he needed to present his cover to a stranger - and said, “I repair old books and manuscripts.”
“Hmm … yes, you have the hands of an intellectual …”
Rayne said nothing, turning towards the courtyard. As the others moved likewise, with Taranis murmuring his thanks, Betty called out, “Oh, and my son’s name is Bertin. He owns the Calloway, a sixteen-foot sloop, his pride and joy! Has no wife, loves only that boat! A mother despairs of ever bouncing grandchildren on her aging knees … anyway … he would hire it out if he remains on board as captain. If you’re interested, you can find him moored at the end of our jetty.”
“Thank you, Betty. We will wander down after we have refreshed,” Taranis said over his shoulder.
“No rush, he’s probably still sleeping.”
McSee asked, “I wonder, ‘Betty’s Famous Brew’? Is that you?”
Aven snorted and Samson grinned.
“Yes, that would be me, big fella! My, but you’re sunburnt! Where’s your cloak then? Never mind. The bar is beyond the dining room. Help yourself from the barrel anytime, on the house. Part of the attraction, you understand? Dinner’s at six, folks … see you then …” And she vanished through the yonder door, yawning loudly.
Seconds later they heard sagging bedsprings.
Finally they were in the courtyard. McSee, muttering he had to stash his gear before he could drink, hefted his bag to stride forward between the fountains.
“Aaru, a real bed will be welcome,” Kisha said.
“And a meal just handed to you,” Mordan added.
Grumpy Llettynn shook his head. “Can we move on, please? We are suffering in these cloaks.” There were chuckles, which prompted Llettynn to add, “Sunburnt, indeed. The Siric have not that problem.”
“Quit complaining, idiot. No doubt our Betty would stuff a cannonball down your throat if she laid eyes on you, if she didn’t talk you to death first,” Glint said in a muffled voice.
More laughter as they threaded their way to the four doors in the far right corner. Palms great and small crowded among the fountains, leaving little space for actual walking.
“Miller?” Taranis queried of Rayne as they trailed the others. “I assumed you dealt only in first names. Kylan made no mention of a family name, or McSee or …”
“Generally we say ‘Rayne of Galilan’ or ‘Kylan of Farinwood’, but family names remain a part of life.”
“What else do you want to know?”
Taranis licked his lips. “Well, it occurs to me that ‘Miller’ is too staid, too …”
“Too normal, too old-fashioned? Not exactly what you had in mind as tagged to ‘Rayne’?”
“I guess,” Taranis admitted.
“Well, that makes two of us, but my father was a Miller, so I live with it.”
Taranis nodded before asking, “And the books? Can you repair them?”
Rayne grinned. “If pushed I am able to uphold my cover, yes.”
They reached the corner screened from reception and most other rooms, broad, squat bread palms sporting thick and lustrous foliage aiding privacy.
Mordan professed an interest in becoming more acquainted with the three swathed Guardians, and the four of them thus entered a room together, choosing the one most screened.
The women took a room, with Kylan, McSee, Aven and Samson accepting the third.
Taranis asked Rayne to share, earning an enigmatic look from Llettynn that both men ignored, and a worried one from Saska not as easy to overlook.
Samson and McSee were barely within before they erupted out, heading directly to the bar, Aven’s long-suffering sigh trailing them. The women could be heard shouting tabs for the bathroom, while only Mordan’s low murmur sounded from the other room.
All this before Taranis managed to withdraw the key from the door. The two men grinned at each other and disappeared within.
“You take the bathroom,” Taranis suggested. “I need to put out feelers first.” He walked over to the window and peeked into the bright sunshine.
Rayne set the shower to lukewarm, and before long stood under the refreshing spray. He wondered if Saska did the same, wondered if it did anything to her legs, the feel of the water, or was she having a bath, allowing her tail to relax in the shallow depth?
A hoarse cry escaped him.
“Rayne? Are you all right?” Taranis’ query came from beyond the door.
He closed his eyes and leaned on his arms against the slippery tiles. “I am fine,” he managed a few moments later.