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The Luck Of The Wheels

by Megan Lindholm

Ki and Vandien, Book 4

ONE

'And I'll tell you another thing,' the owner of the caravansary went on as she refilled her own glass and then Ki's. She leaned heavily on the table they shared, shaking a warning finger at Ki so that the tiers of bracelets on her arm rattled against one another. 'I'd never take a green-eyed man into my bed. Mean, every one of them I ever met. I knew one, eyes green as good jade, and heart cold as the same stone. He'd go out of his way to find a quarrel, and then wasn't happy until I'd apologized for starting it. Mean as snakes.'

Ki nodded absently to her host's litany. A soft dry wind blew through the open portals and arched windows of the tavern common room - if common room was what they called it in this part of the world. The wind carried the scent of flowers and dust, and the sounds of foot and cart traffic from the streets outside. The floor of the tavern was raked sand, the walls of worked white stone. Trestle tables were crowded close in the common room, but most of the other tables were deserted at this time of day. Cushions stuffed with straw, their rough fabric faded, were fastened to the long low benches. This far south, not even the taverns looked like taverns. And the wine tasted like swill.

Ki shifted uncomfortably on her cushion, then leaned both elbows on the low table before her. She had wandered in here seeking work. Up north the tavernkeepers had always known who had work for a teamster. But this Trelira only had news of what men were best left unbedded, and the disasters that befell women foolish enough to ignore her warnings. Ki hoped that if she sat and nodded long enough, Trelira might wander onto a more useful topic. She stifled a sigh and wiped sweat from the back of her neck. Damnable heat.

'Trouble most women have,' Trelira was going on, 'is how they look at a man. They look at his face, they look at his clothes. Like buying a horse by how pretty its harness is. What good is that? Prettier a man is, the less you get out of him. I had a man, a few years back, looked like a laughing young god. Sun-bronzed skin, forearms wide enough to balance a pitcher on, black, black hair and eyes as blue and innocent as a kitten's. Spent all his days in my caravansary, drinking my wine and telling tall stories. And if I asked his help, he'd go into a sulk, and have to be flattered and petted out of it. Fool that I was, I would. Ah, but he was beautiful, with his dark hair and pale eyes, and skin soft as a horse's muzzle.

'Then one day a man walked in here, homely as a mud fence and dressed like a farmer. Walked up to me and said, Your stable door is off its hinges, and every stall in it needs mucking out. For a good dinner and a glass of wine, I'll take care of it for you. I tell you, it hit me like a sandslide. Kitten-eyes was out of my tavern less than an hour later, and the other fellow got more than wine and food for his trouble.'

Ki tried to smile appreciatively. 'Ah, handsome is as handsome does,' she said blandly. 'No doubt about it. Now, not to change the subject, but I've a freight wagon and ...'

'Not always!' Trelira blithely ran over Ki's words. Appearances can be just as important. A man with a dirty beard is bound to be dirty elsewhere ... You know what I mean. Bloodshot eyes and a red nose, and he's going to drink. Nor would I take a man with pale skin. Never met a healthy one yet. Nor one with scars. Working scars on a man's hands, they aren't bad. A game leg or bad back might mean he's just clumsy, or stupid. But scars elsewhere don't come from being sweet and gentle.'

'Oh, I don't know,' Ki ventured to disagree. She glanced down at her own weathered hands. 'Anyone who's lived much is bound to have a few scars. And,' she added as she smiled to herself, 'certain scars add character to a man's appearance.' 'Don't kid yourself, girl,' Trelira advised her with maternal tolerance. 'I know what you're thinking. But only silly little girls think a duelling scar means romance. Quarrelsome is more likely. Most times it just means a nasty temper. Look at that one, for instance. You can bet he's a mean bastard. Don't stare, now.'

Ki swung her gaze obediently toward the portal. A narrow man, a bit taller than Ki, was framed against the bright daylight. He pushed dark heat-damped curls off his forehead as he squinted around the room. His eyes were darker than one would have expected, even in his deeply tanned face. The easy sureness of his quick movements hinted at ready muscles beneath the loose white shirt. In a land where many wore robes and went barefoot, he wore a wide leather belt and tucked loose trousers into the tops of his kneeboots. He could have been handsome, but for the scar that seamed his face. It began between his eyes and ran down beside his nose past a small, trimmed moustache until it trailed off at his jawline. It was a fine score, nearly invisible against his weathered face but for a pull that tugged at one of his eyes when he smiled, as now. The warmth of that small smile belied the grimness of the scar. He caught Ki's gaze upon him. The smile widened and he came toward them.

'Here comes trouble,' Trelira sighed warningly.

'Don't I know it,' Ki replied wryly. The stranger dropped onto the bench beside her, and picking up her glass, drained it.

'Vandien.' Ki made it both a greeting and an introduction. Trelira rose hastily, looking abashed.

'No offense meant,' she murmured.

'None taken,' Ki replied smoothly, adding in a wicked undertone, 'You're absolutely right, anyway.'

Vandien had swallowed the wine and was coughing politely to cover up his shock at its sourness. Ki thumped him on the back pitilessly. 'Meet Trelira, the owner of this caravansary,' she invited him when he could breathe again.

'A lovely place,' he managed. His smile included her in the compliment. Ki watched with amusement the sudden reappraisal in Trelira's eyes. With that smile and a story or two, Vandien could scavenge a living anywhere. Ki knew it. A shame, she reflected, that Vandien also knew it.

'It's a very dry day out there,' he added smoothly. 'Could I trouble you for another glass, and perhaps a bottle of Alys?'

Trelira shook her head at the unfamiliar word. 'This wine is all we offer, this time of year. Tariffs are too high on the rest; no point my buying what my customers can't afford. Hut I'll bring a fresh bottle.' She departed the table quickly, her bright, loose garments fluttering around her.

'Not even the water in this town is drinkable,' he confided to Ki when Trelira was out of earshot. 'It's redder than this wine, but not as sour. Leaves more dregs in the cup, though. Did I interrupt something? Smuggling offer, perhaps? That woman looked guilt-stricken when I sat down.'

'Nothing important. She had just observed that no woman in her right mind would put up with an evil-eyed wretch like you.'

'I'll bet,' he scoffed loftily. A serving boy crept up to set a bottle and glass before him, and scurried off, his bare feet soundless on the soft sand floor. 'Any luck here?' 'None. How about you?'

'Not much better,' he conceded. 'I spent the whole morning with some minor official, getting our papers renewed. I told him we had bought our journeying permits at the border already, but he said they were out of date. So we have new papers, with a different seal, for twice as much coin. Made me wish we were back where the Merchant's Councils ran everything. This Duke everyone speaks of has his officials too scared to take a bribe. And his Brurjan patrollers are everywhere. I never saw so many Brurjans in one place before. Could pave a courtyard with their teeth.' From inside his shirt he drew a roll of parchment and a flat coin-bag. Ki took them silently. Her face was sour. He shrugged and continued.

'Then this afternoon, I damn near fell asleep on my feet in the hiring mart. Trouble is that the wagon looks like a peddler's wagon. Folk ask me what I have to sell, not what I can haul. We did have one query, though. Two sisters came up and asked if we were taking passengers. I gathered that the older girl was running away from home to join her sweetheart. A very uncommon-looking girl she was. Her sister had curling dark hair and blue eyes. But she who wished to run away, she had hair red as a new calf's hide, and one eye blue and the other green. She ...' He let his words run down in disappointment. Ki was already shaking her head. 'I know,' he conceded reluctantly. 'I had the same visions of outraged kinfolk. I told them we didn't haul people, and they went away, whispering together. Did hear of one other thing, second-hand. A fellow has twenty chickens he wants to send to his cousin in Dinmaera, about three days from here. A gift of breeding stock to celebrate a wedding.'

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