Chapter 2: Enigma

Everen studied Ket's face carefully for any signs of joking, but she appeared serious. "Lyon's that bad?"

"No, but his da is. Lyon is a whiny, arrogant nobleman with little sense. His da is cruel and twisted. He's half the reason why so many people are leaving the duchy of Greymare."

"So his da will be after yours truly?"

"Are your ears stuffed with wax?" Ket snapped. "Yes, his da will be, and you'd better clear out before sunrise. If you don't, you'll probably be hanged."

"Ah." Everen paused, wanting to debate her comments further but deciding that dropping the matter would be the most advisable course of action. "What about you?" he asked instead. "If this duke is going to kill me, then what will he do to you?"

Ket, having apparently not heard Everen, asked, "What are we going to do with this?" She nudged the unconscious Lerc with her foot. "That was a nice move, by the way, that whole smash-him-on-the-back-of-the-head thing. Where'd you learn it? It was neater than tavern brawling, that's for sure."

Everen smiled a bit, remembering his gruff swords master. "I had a very good teacher," he told her. "Now, about Lerc. . . how about we dump him in a gutter somewhere? People will think he's a common drunk and leave him alone."

"There's a gutter over there that's fairly clean." Ket pointed to a ditch next to the chandler's shop across the road. "Not that its cleanliness matters or anything. Rat dung would be more appropriate, but I'm afraid it's in rather short supply." She sighed theatrically, making Everen chuckle.

"All right, then," he said. "You take his feet, and I'll get his arms. We'll drag him over there and dump him in." They did so, chucking the man into the ditch unceremoniously amongst the bits of wax, lead, garbage, rat skeletons, and dirty water.

"Beautiful," Ket muttered with a slight smile. "How fitting." She made a rude gesture towards the man and spat out a curse. Everen glanced away, hoping she didn't know the meaning of what she had just said.

"Won't this Lyon person and his da be after you, too?" he asked as they headed back towards the Stars' Inn.

Ket's mouth twisted in a crude imitation of a smile. "Everen, Lyon's been 'after me'," here her tone was dripping with sarcasm, "since I was thirteen. As for his da, he'll go after anything that moves and speaks defiance."

Everen blinked, still caught on her first statement. "Wait. When you say he's been after you, you mean. . ."

"You're a clever young man, and you know precisely what I'm talking about," Ket said matter-of-factly.

"He hasn't forced you to do anything, has he?" Everen demanded. 'Drat that protective instinct!' he swore at himself.

"Oh, he tried once," Ket replied, her eyes like ice. "He got acquainted with my dagger, though, and for some reason, he never tried that again." She pushed open the door to the inn. "After you, good sir."

"Ketrine! There you are! I was worried sick about you!" A thin woman with Ket's pale complexion and blue-gray eyes crushed the girl in a hug. "Where have you been?"

"I was helping Master Everen look for something he thought he left outside," Ket replied unconvincingly. Her mother's eyes narrowed.

"Nonsense," she scoffed. "What was with that overdressed peacock that was in here?"

Ket blushed and muttered something highly unintelligible to Everen's ears. Her mother, however, seemed to have no trouble understanding her daughter. "That PEACOCK!" she exploded. "Ketrine Row'an, you are to tell me if that fop comes within ten feet of you from now on! I thought Lyon would have had some culture, but apparently, I was wrong. You are not to let him near you. Do I make myself clear?"

"Yes'm."

"Now, hold still." Her mother, mood going from enraged to concerned in a matter of seconds, gently touched the wounds on her daughter's face and muttered a few soft words. The cuts and scrapes healed instantly.

"You know magic?" Everen inquired.

"Just a bit," Ket's mother replied. "So you're Everen? Thank you for helping my daughter. I'm afraid she has a habit of getting herself into things she cannot easily get out of." She shot Ket a stern, reprimanding look, causing the girl to cringe and flush.

"It was nothing, Mistress. . . ?" He trailed off, not knowing the innkeeper's name.

"I am Aren Row'an, young Everen. It's a pleasure to meet you. Why don't you sit down a bit? This has been a rather eventful night."

"Actually, I'd like to have something to eat, if you don't mind," Everen admitted. "My dinner is probably stone cold by now."

"Of course. We'll get some hot food out to you immediately."

"Ah, Mama?" Ket ventured hesitantly.

"Yes?" Aren glanced over at her daughter.

"Um, Orlath is probably going to head over."

Aren frowned. "Do you really think that?" Ket nodded. Her mother considered things for a minute, then said, "We'll set Rascal and Jall at the door, then. You will help clean up, and then you'll go to your room, all right? I can't do much more than that, dear. I really don't think Orlath would be that mad."

Ket shuddered. "I do."

Aren didn't reply for a few moments. "So Lyon made inappropriate advancements, and Master Starguard fought with Lyon's bully-boy." She was silent again, her face creased with concentration and slight worry. After a bit, her expression smoothed. "I don't think it's going to be as horrible as you think, Ket. Lyon has a flair for the melodramatic, as do you," here Ket flushed at her mother's slightly chiding tone, "and I don't think Orlath would take him seriously. If the duke would come, he couldn't make it here very soon; the palace is a good half hour's ride, and Lyon can hardly convince his father to do anything. It will be at least two hours if Orlath does come." She smiled at her daughter. "It will be fine. Now, get into the kitchens and get to work; we're a little full tonight. Most of the patrons have left, but we have a mountain-load of dishes to wash."

Ket groaned and obeyed.

About an hour and a half later, Everen leaned back against the wall and sighed contentedly. He was warm, he was full, the inn was pretty much devoid of people, and, best of all, he had a place to sleep that didn't include rocks in the bed. 'It takes a lot to remind you how good the simple things are,' he mused. 'Two years ago, I would've turned my nose up at a place like this, but now. . .this is better than any palace, castle, or fine staying-house.'

"Excuse me, but do you mind moving over a bit?" Ket asked, startling him out of his musings.

"What?" He glanced up. She was carrying a rag and had her hair tied back with a kerchief, and she seemed to no longer be bothered by the earlier events of the evening. It appeared that her mother's reassurance had worked well. "Sorry, I didn't hear."

"Do you mind moving over a bit? There's a stain right in front of you, and I'd rather not have to lean over you to get it." She put her hands on her hips and gave him an even look. "Mama might get ideas."

Everen blinked, confused, then flushed. "Sorry," he mumbled, scooting over. Ket chuckled and scrubbed at the stain with her rag.

"Wine, probably," she muttered to herself, noting the stain wouldn't come out easily. "Idiots. This is not a bar." She scrubbed harder, grumbling under her breath all the while. "That's as good as it's going to get," she announced a few minutes later. "You can sit there again, now. Thank you."

"Ah. . .you're welcome?"

Ket smiled. "Go to bed, Everen. You look half-dead."

He yawned hugely, feeling his jaw ache. "Thanks for the advice," he said around the yawn, standing up and stretching.

"No charge. Do you need any-" Ket was cut off by the creak of the opening door. She automatically turned at the sound, her brow furrowing in confusion. "Who is-?" Her eyes widened. "Mama!"

Aren bustled out of the kitchen, looking rather irritated. "What is it now, Ket? Orlath can't be here yet. I'm very busy, and I have no time to waste on petty interruptions. You know what you can and can't do, so what is it?"

"I don't think referring to me as a 'petty interruption' is a very good idea, Aren," a cold voice murmured from the door. Everen, distracted from his fatigue, craned his head to see the speaker. It was a tall man with a hard-as-diamond air. His face looked like it was carved from some pale stone, and his eyes were dark, cruel stars. Dull blond hair fell nearly to his shoulders and lightly brushed his immaculate black clothing. Behind him stood Lyon in his pale satin garb with a smirk that hovered on the edge of evil glee on his face.

"Duke Orlath," Aren greeted him with scarcely concealed disgust. To Ket , she hissed, "Get over here right now." Her daughter went over to her immediately. "Now, your grace, whatever brings you here at this hour of the night?"

"Merely my son's telling me that his friend was murdered," Orlath responded, his colorless brows arching up as he gave his oily semblance of a smile. "I came to find the one who committed such an atrocity."

"It was him!" Lyon screeched, pointing at Everen.

"That young man? He killed your friend? He looks like he couldn't kill a spider," the duke chortled. "What's your name, lad?"

"Who is he?" Everen whispered to Ket.

"Orlath," she replied quietly. "Duke of Greymare."

"Ah." Everen stepped forward. "I am Everen, your grace," he said to the duke, bowing gracefully. "And I wish to say that I did not murder your son's bully-boy. I merely knocked him unconscious for assaulting an innocent waitress."

"She wasn't innocent!" Lyon protested. Orlath shushed him with a single dark glare.

"Is this the truth?"

"Why would I lie?" He was aware of the many responses to that, but chose to go on. "Lerc is outside of the chandler's shop," Everen continued, "and he'll wake up in a few hours with a splitting headache."

"I see." Orlath gave him a peculiar look, then turned to Ket. "Ketrine. Dear, dear Ketrine. Come forward." He smiled mockingly as she grudgingly edged towards him, her eyes hard. Aren watched closely, obviously prepared to move and strike, if necessary. When Ket was no more than a foot from him, he grabbed her chin and pulled her forward. "Your eyes are so severe, Ketrine. You'd really be much prettier if you stopped letting your anger show."

"Burn in Hell," she spat out.

"Oh, my, my. Such language out of such a young girl." He smirked at her. "I'm sure that's not good for you." One hand traced her cheekbone. "You really could be lovely if you'd just act more refined."

Ket suppressed a gag. "Watch your hands, your grace."

Orlath opened his mouth to say something but stopped as a tiny flash of light caught his eye. Frowning slightly, he pushed open her collar. Surprise crept over his features. "The mark," he murmured, dark eyes wide. "How did you-?"

"That's enough," Everen interrupted, putting himself between Ket and the duke; Aren had been inarticulate and unable to move from rage. "There are plenty of women in certain other establishments that would be more than happy to oblige you. Go seek their company and leave Ket alone."

The duke went from surprised to furious in a matter of seconds. "What are you suggesting, peasant?!" he roared. "How dare you!"

"Goler a minsaco!" Everen snarled, shocking the duke out of his rage. Orlath looked at him in disbelief.

"Ch'mo?" the duke questioned.

"Eve ni mal. Sov, rel a kima. Tare!"

"What's he saying?" Aren asked her daughter in an undertone.

Ket shrugged as she retreated back to her mother's side. "I don't know," she murmured back. "It's a Dulambic dialect with a slight elvish drawl. It's probably the language spoken near the capital of Dulamba."

"How do you keep all the linguistics straight?" her mother inquired. Ket shrugged again.

"Practice."

"Chiara," Everen said in a tone of great finality. The duke, white- lipped with anger, nodded curtly and strode out the door, catching his son by the ear as he passed.

"Ch'domo!" Ket yelled after Lyon.

"Ket!" Everen exclaimed, shocked. "Why did you call him that?"

"Well, it's true," Ket answered defensively. "Everyone knows his ma wasn't the duchess."

"What's this?" Aren interrupted suspiciously.

"Ket called Lyon-well, 'ch'' is 'child', 'do' is 'of', and 'mostei', or 'mo', in this case, is someone who is indiscriminate with certain, ah, services, shall we say. Does that help?" Everen replied urbanely.

Aren pondered this for a moment, then blushed as comprehension dawned. "Ketrine!" she admonished her daughter. "Where did you learn such language?"

"I found it in one of Da's old rune books," Ket answered innocently, her eyes wide. A brief flash of pain creased Aren's face, but her eyes soon hardened, and she gave Ket a stern look.

"I doubt your da would've wanted you to use such words," she chided.

"Da would've helped me laugh that fop out of the building, and you know it!" Ket objected.

"Watch what you say, dear." Aren glanced at her daughter, suddenly serious. "Are you all right?" she asked. "He didn't hurt you, did he?"

"I just feel a little unclean, that's all."

The innkeeper sighed and hugged her daughter. "Do you want to leave Greymare, Ket? This has been going on for too long, now. First Lyon, now Orlath. . . that's just not right. You need to be safe."

Ket smiled. "We can't leave, Mama. You've worked too long to get this inn. We can't leave it just like that."

"Don't you go acting like my mother," Aren scolded. "An inn is replaceable. You are not. If this happens one more time, we're leaving. I don't care what you say or anything; we're leaving. I won't let Orlath use you." She drew in a breath and attempted to regain her composure. "Have you seen Bark?" she asked, valiantly trying to achieve a lighter tone. "He's supposed to be asleep by now, but no one can find him. I wanted to have him clean out the stables, but it's too late now. Do you know where he could be?"

For an answer, Ket turned to Everen and looked him over, her eyes speculative. "Actually, I do think I know where he is. Everen, if you could follow me, please?" She walked over to the stairs.

"Once you're done, I'll need your help in the kitchens!" Aren called. She sounded better, Ket noticed.

"Are you planning on letting me sleep at all?" Ket asked in mock exasperation as she climbed the stairs with Everen at her heels.

"Not really, no," Aren retorted with a smile. "Come back down once you're done."

"Aye, I will." She reached the landing at the top of the stairs and put a finger to her lips, signaling that Everen should remain quiet. He did so, feeling mildly quizzical, not only about her attitude now, but the exchange between the innkeeper and his current escort. Before he had a chance to reflect further, Ket paused, then threw open the door to his room. The stable hand who had taken care of Rina, Everen's horse, jumped a bit guiltily, abashed that he had been caught with his hands in Everen's saddlebags.

"Bark!" Ket admonished. "Stop going through the customer's things!"

"You can take the boy out of the thievery, but you can't take the thievery out of the boy," Bark quipped with a toothy grin. He was a young boy, no more than ten years old, and he had surprisingly nondescript features, the kind one would remember long enough to forget. It seemed that everything about him was brown; his eyes were a strange walnut color, his hair a sun-bleached chocolate. His complexion was that peculiarly neutral tan shade that was common in the Char'alans to the north, thus hinting at his ancestry. Simple yet sturdy brown clothing hung loosely from his thin frame, and mahogany-colored fingerless gloves graced surprisingly delicate hands. "I wasn't really that serious, Ket."

Ket smacked him upside the head, though it was obvious she didn't intend to cause him harm. "You weren't really that serious? Do you remember what happened the last time we caught you stealing? People wouldn't come here for weeks! You know as well as I that our profits dropped!"

"You didn't have to hurt me," Bark complained, rubbing his head in mock pain and disgruntlement.

"I didn't. Stop stealing!"

"But I'll get out of practice!" the boy whined.

"Precisely my point."

"You never let me have any fun!"

"Your definition of fun and mine are worlds apart, Bark. Don't steal!"

"But Ket-" Bark was cut off as he found himself lifted bodily off the floor. He twisted like a cat, trying to see who had hold of him. "Let me go!" he screeched.

Everen smiled at him. "Hand it over, Bark," he commanded quite pleasantly, turning the boy to face him. He had a firm grip on the back of Bark's tunic.

"Hand what over?" Bark asked innocently.

"How about everything you have in your possession that is not legally yours?" Everen suggested, his tone clearly stating that not complying with his wishes would not be the brightest idea. Bark, with a pout, proceeded to empty his pockets out onto the floor. Ket's and Everen's eyes steadily widened as Bark's pile of trinkets grew, though Ket was more surprised Bark could empty his pockets while Everen had him up in the air rather than the fact that he had so many objects with him.

"Bark," Everen said after a minute, "why don't you return everything to their proper owners? That is, if you remember where the objects came from, that is."

Bark drew himself up as much as possible, despite the fact that none of his limbs touched the floor, and announced haughtily, "I know exactly where and who each item came from. I wouldn't be much of a thief if I didn't."

"I don't follow," Ket admitted.

"Well, I can't resell items in the place they came from or anywhere their owners frequent, can I?"

"How should I know? I'm no thief."

"You're awful derogatory," the boy grumbled.

"So sorry."

"You're still giving everything back to their original owners, no matter how insulted you are," Everen interrupted, setting Bark back down on the floor. "And give me back everything you stole from me." Bark pouted and handed Everen a small dagger, a coin pouch, two leather-bound books, a gold circlet, three maps, and a gold belt buckle.

"Satisfied?" he asked sulkily.

"Everything," Everen reminded him. Bark scowled and grudgingly returned a silk pouch, silver circlet, and a small copper ring. "You still have my seal ring and wax," the young man noted.

"You have unwholesomely sharp eyes, you know that?" Bark grumbled as he handed over a silvery white ring and a tube of wax. Everen smiled condescendingly at him.

"I thank you for the safe return of my property," he intoned, sounding quite formal. His hands moved in quick, intricate movements. "Now go and return everything else."

Bark, blank-faced, woodenly gathered his trinkets and stood, then stumbled out of the door.

"What did you do to him?" Ket demanded. Everen smiled mysteriously and did not reply. Ket fixed him with a dirty look, then said suspiciously, "Did you magic him? You magicked him!"

"I'm innocent until I'm proven guilty," Everen protested.

"Sheer folly," Ket objected. "In this world, it's more like guilty until proven innocent. Did you magic him? You did something strange, I know."

"There are stranger things in the world than magic," the young man told her. "Humanity is one thing I can think of, you another."

Ket stuck her tongue out at him. "You didn't answer my question."

"I didn't intend to."

"Ketrine!" Aren called up the stairs. "Don't be too much longer! I need your help!"

"I'll be down in a few moments, Mama!" she called back. Taking a deep breath, she turned to Everen and curtsied deeply. "Thank you," she said slowly, "for what you did this evening. Nobody dares stand up to the duke, but. . . thank you." Everen got the impression that Ket liked to take care of herself, and thanking someone for something that serious was probably difficult for her. "I appreciate it very much."

"No charge," he said, echoing her earlier comment and making her smile in the process. "I couldn't just stand by and watch things happen like that. Surprisingly enough, you're somewhat likable." She made a face at him. "By the way-what did the duke mean when he was talking about a mark?"

Ket tilted her head to one side, considering, then opened her collar. "I guess he was talking about this," she replied, gesturing towards a small, star-shaped mark in the hollow of her throat. "I don't know why it bothers him so much. It's just a birthmark."

Everen nodded, but he was obviously discarding her comments and formulating his own theory. "Hmm. . . well, maybe. . ."

"Maybe what?"

"Nothing. You're wondering about me right now, aren't you?" he asked quickly, changing the subject. Ket gaped at him.

"How did you know?" she inquired.

"Your face gives you away," he told her with a smile. "What are you wondering?"

"Why you're here," she answered. "You have the grace and bearing and certainly the supplies of a nobleman, but. . . you stay at one of the humblest inns in town, and you don't exude any sort of 'noble air,' I suppose you could say. Still, you're not a commoner. . . you're someone who knows what he's doing, that's for certain, and you move with a purpose beyond something just anyone could understand. You're an enigma, Master Everen, if you don't mind my saying so."

Everen gave her a peculiarly assessing sort of look. "You're very perceptive," he said finally. Ket didn't seem to know whether or not to take this as a compliment and so said nothing. "And I'm not as you see me. I can't tell you what or who I am; I couldn't do that with someone I've only known for an evening." He chose not to add that he felt extremely close to this pale woman-child, like she was someone he had known for years.

"You're not telling me everything." This was a statement, not an accusation.

"No, I'm not." He met her inquisitive look evenly with one of his one. Neither looked away for several minutes.

"You are quite peculiar," he noted.

"It takes a fox to know a fox," Ket shot back with a grin. Everen looked suitably put out. "I'm keeping you from your rest, and if I stay any longer, Mama'll have my hide. Don't forget to ring if you need anything. Good night, Master Everen."

"Good night."

Ket left, closing the door softly behind her.

* * * * * *

A/N: Again, this is the revised version of Chapter 2. Thanks again to everyone who reviewed and to those who took the time to tell me, "Hey, that doesn't seem quite right." That is much appreciated, and I will do my level best to fix things so that they are better. Thank you all once again.