“Look.” With unmistakable pride, Rosemary held up the partially finished gambeson. “I’m making good progress. Another day or two, and you’ll be that much safer.”
Julen smiled as he examined his wife’s work. The stitches were small and tight, placed so close together that they formed a nearly continuous seam along the sides of each cloth tube. The tubes themselves felt remarkably firm. Once, when he’d glanced over during his training, Julen had noticed Rosemary eliciting Krarug’s help to pack in even more straw. “I doubt that there’s a finer gambeson in all of Marn. Would you like me to carry it back for you?”
Rosemary shook her head. “I don’t think I have the energy to sew anymore tonight. I’ll start up tomorrow, after we come back here. Krarug won’t let anyone steal it.”
“Will guard,” Krarug confirmed. The orc appeared deeply serious, as if Rosemary was leaving her own child in his care. And it occurred to Julen that one day, when he and Rosemary did have a son or daughter, there were few people he would trust more to protect it.
So, after bidding Krarug goodnight, Julen took his wife’s hand and began strolling back through the Industrial District. Lights had begun to blink on in the factory windows, shining like squat, square stars. Above them, black smoke reached feathery tendrils across the evening sky. Julen remembered when he’d first arrived in Marn. He’d loathed the city, especially this section, with its filth, and strange smells, and unending cacophony of noise. But now, with Rosemary walking beside him, the Industrial District seemed almost...romantic. It was funny how little depended on where you were, and how much depended on who you were with.
When they arrived back at the bakery, Julen unlocked the door to his room. “Would you like to go out again tonight?” Two evenings on the town would be an extravagance, but if she desired it, he wouldn’t deny her.
However, Rosemary shook her head. “Not tonight. I think I just want to lie down.” Then, pressing closer to Julen, she whispered in his ear, caressing his skin with her nimble breath. “Hurry back. I’ll keep the bed warm for you.”
Involuntarily, Julen’s eyes slipped shut, as if the world needed to be shielded from the desire that had flared up in them. For a moment, he considered skipping his errand. But only for a moment. “I’ll return as soon as humanly possible,” he vowed. Then, kissing Rosemary on her cheek, he took his leave.
Inside the bakery, Effie had already gathered up the day’s leftovers. “There it all is,” she informed, gesturing at a burlap sack. “Including your frog cake.”
Her tone made Julen chuckle. “Chose your words carefully, Effie. The nobility is always searching for some fresh new delicacy. If they hear about frog cake, they might take a fancy to it, and then you’ll need a kitchen full of hopping beasties to satisfy their appetite.”
Effie shuddered. “Don’t even joke about that.”
Julen’s journey to the shanty town went much as it had the night before. This time, however, the slum’s residents were quicker to accept the bread he offered them. After handing out the first few loaves, Julen addressed the gathering crowd.
“Friends. I know that lack of skills, bad luck, or poor choices have brought you to this desperate place. But skills can be taught. Bad luck can be changed. Choices made in the past don’t have to limit your future. I can offer some of you a way out.”
Murmurs rippled through the throng. I knew it was too good to be true. Nothing is ever free. I wonder what he wants from us. But only one person had the courage to step forward and directly address Julen -- a grizzled man with graying hair and eyebrows that wiggled on his forehead like a pair of restless caterpillars. His face was as shriveled as a piece of dried fruit. However, despite his desiccated appearance, his voice didn’t scratch or falter, but instead rang out with mocking clarity. “You can offer us a way out, can you? And I suppose all we need to do is believe in whatever god you’re selling?”
Julen shook his head. “As long as they aren’t evil ones, you may believe in whatever gods you chose. Aorle Anstrun, the man I serve, is assembling a band of warriors to fight those who prey on the weak and helpless. He needs your help.”
Many of the men and women shrank back, and one mother snatched up her child, clutching the infant in her arms as if she expected Julen to try and steal it. Instantly, Julen realized his mistake. “Not as combatants,” he clarified. “That task will be left to people like me. But there is other work to be done. Honest work, for which you will be offered food, shelter, and protection.”
Julen’s heckler cackled with laughter. “Will we, now? This sounds mighty familiar. Another man came here, not too long ago, asking for volunteers to help him. Those that went with him never returned. I’d wager a pretty bishani that a similar fate awaits any foolish enough to accept your offer.”
Again, Julen could hear the crowd muttering. He must think we’re stupid. Let’s show him that he can’t trick us. We’ll shove that bread down his throat until he chokes on it. Reluctantly, Julen placed his hand on the hilt of his sword. He didn’t want to hurt good people who were, perhaps justifiably, riled up at how they’d been treated by others. But he wasn’t going to let them beat him black and blue, either. Several men stepped forward, anger twisting their faces into grotesque masks. However, just before Julen was forced to draw his weapon, another voice joined the debate.
“Stop! I know this man, and I know that he means you no harm.”
Glancing around, Julen spotted the girl he’d encountered on his first trip through the shanty town, the one whose lip Aorle had healed. She still wore the same tattered white dress, which clung to her emaciated body like a partially shed snakeskin. But the crowd parted to let her pass.
“He came here a week ago, in the company of another. His companion healed my lip, gave me one of his rings, and asked for nothing in return. These are good men. And we should be ashamed that we have lost our ability to recognize such goodness.”
The crowd mumbled guiltily as she joined Julen in its center. Up close, he noticed that although the blister remained healed, her face was covered with a number of bruises. Julen wanted to ask her what had happened, who had done this to her. But before he could speak, she smiled at him, and even coming from such a battered visage, it was a truly beautiful smile. “I trust you, Sir. Tell me where I need to go to get one of these jobs you spoke about.”
“Lightsword Hall,” Julen murmured. Then, remembering that he was not talking to her alone, he raised his voice. “Lightsword Hall. It’s an abandoned mill in the Industrial District. A little searching will reveal the location. So, if any of you truly wish to leave this misery behind you, I recommend that you join me there.”
The speech didn’t exactly stir his audience to cheers and applause. But at least, Julen noted with relief, they were no longer wanted to lynch him. Having done his duty, Julen returned to the task that had brought him here, and the girl stayed beside him while he continued distributing the rest of the baked goods. Until only one cake remained. This, Julen reserved in his sack, waiting for the crowd to disperse. When he was nearly alone with his rescuer, Julen pulled it out, and presented her with the frog cake. “Thank you. That could have gotten really ugly if you hadn’t spoken up.”
Glancing at the ground, she blushed -- the change was hard to see behind her bruises, but Julen still detected a slight reddening of her cheeks. “I just wanted to repay you for the kindness your friend showed me.”
“What happened?” Julen wanted to touch her face, to make the bruises vanish, but that was not his gift. He could only try to protect her from further harm. “How did you get hurt?”
“I sold the ring your friend gave me. But when the money ran out, I had to come back, and there were those who didn’t like the fact that I’d left.”
“Who?” Julen demanded. “Tell me who, and I’ll--”
Sadly, she shook her head. “Perhaps you could punish the man who actually did it. But another like him would immediately rise to take his place. Those who gave him his orders, who profit from the misery of women like me, I fear they are beyond your reach.”
“At least come with me. I have a room, you’d be safe.”
But again, she declined. “I’ll see you at Lightsword Hall.” Then, before Julen could stop her, she slipped away into the shadows.
Julen walked home slowly, lost in thought. More than once, he reached up and touched his locket, twisting its cord around his fingers. He hoped the girl was safe. He hoped she would find her way to Lightsword Hall. And he hoped that whoever had hit her was burning in hell. But at the moment, all three of those things were beyond his control. So he tried to put them out of his head.
When he arrived back at the bakery, Julen found his room in darkness. Not wanting to wake his wife, he didn’t light the lamp, and tried to take off his armor as quietly as possible. But there’s a limit to how quietly one can shed such things. Following several accidental clanks, Julen heard the bedcovers rustle. Then, after he lay down, he felt her body draw up against his. “I kept it warm,” Rosemary murmured, wrapping her arms around him. And indeed, she had