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Beer dribbled down the old man’s chin and his companions roared. His fat hips bucked in my direction, reducing several of the drunken men at the table to childish giggles. I turned away in disgust, lifting my tray onto the bar and sliding the empty mugs toward the sink. Master Owen was smiling. The fat merchant’s silver hadn’t stopped shining since the caravan arrived earlier in the day. I let my disgust show and dropped the last of the ancient clay mugs on the bar.

I moved through the inn, trying to stay calm, saying hi to friends and regulars. The room was warm and lively. The townspeople were in a good mood. Caravans coming over Haftan’s Pass always brought news and stories, stirring the townspeople. Unfortunately this caravan was led by a disgusting old man. My rear still hurt from the one time I’d accidentally gotten within arm’s reach and every time his companions roared I could see obscene gestures being thrown in my direction.

I kept to the far side of the inn, trying to ignore the travelers, but everywhere I moved I could still feel the old man’s attention, his eyes riveted to my hips. I moved to the far end of the bar, leaning over the butcher’s shoulder to read the letter he’d received from his nephew. The bald man smiled, pointing at a few scribbled lines with a stubby finger.

I stopped reading mid-sentence. Something was wrong. The table near the fire had grown suspiciously quiet. I straightened slowly, knowing what was coming. The soft worn wooden floorboards creaked and I turned, watching the merchant stagger toward me. His tunic was rich green and trimmed in gold, but his brown leggings were stained with mud and horse shit. He hit the bar near me and belched, slapping a small pile of silver coins on the gray slate top.

He leered at me, smiling through chipped and yellowed teeth. “I’m all dirty.” He belched again. “Maybe you could…help me into a tub?”

I shook my head and took step back, muttering as I turned back toward the butcher. “By all the Gods, no.”

Aww, come on.” He whined, dragging a greasy hand along the bar to steady himself. “I’m sure a nice little girl like you gets plenty of business around here.”

Thick, strong fingers gripped the side of my ass, squeezing hard. I whirled with a scowl, striking down at his arm. My fist caught the fat man in the forearm, ripping his fingers from my rear. He grunted in surprise. “Feisty whore.”

My slap sent him stumbling backward, the side of his face reddening from my palm. My eyes narrowed in disgust. “Go. Sit. Down.”

For a moment I could actually feel my words hit him, each one resounding in the room as viscerally as my slap. He belched and laughed, turning away and stumbling toward the table of laughing men. Master Owen glared at me from the other end of the bar and the butcher gave me a sympathetic look. I turned on my heel, striding through the kitchen. The warm smell of roasting meat filled my nose and the innkeeper’s wife gave me a steady look as I moved past, but she said nothing. The back door swung open at my touch and I stepped into the rear courtyard, swinging the door shut behind me.

It was early summer but the mountain air had already bled off the heat from the day, leaving the night cool. The caravan’s wagons sat to one side of the courtyard, the guards on duty talking easily with the few caravan servants assigned to sleep with the wagons. I wrapped my riding cloak around my shoulders and walked quietly past, slipping inside the nearby stables.

Kevin, the stable boy, was in the shadows in back, breathing heavily. I rolled my eyes and turned away, summoning my best impression of Master Owen’s wife. I cupped my hand to my mouth, yelling in mock outrage. “What is this?”

Kevin leapt to his feet, hastily shoving himself back inside his pants and stumbling over his words as he fumbled with his belt. “M… Mistress! I… I was… I…” My laughter cut him short. “Cary?!?” He gasped. “Oh sweet Gods, don’t do that!”

I shook my head in disgust and pointed toward the door. “Go play with yourself somewhere else. I’ve got to saddle my horse.” He nodded and ran, slipping out the side door.

I rolled my eyes at his retreating back, wondering if the boy wanted to go blind. He wasn’t far from it as it was. A sparrow had died on his mother’s doorstep while she was birthing him, cursing the boy with crossed eyes and pock-marked skin. Though from my surprised view tonight I saw it had apparently blessed him in certain other areas. I shook my head again and laughed while I pulled my saddle from the wall, making a note to mention what I saw to a couple of the other girls working at the inn. Kevin deserved at least some praise for his one good attribute.

I saddled Varya with practiced ease and led her out of the stables. The moon was large and bright, just beginning to rise into view over the surrounding hills. The silver light gleamed from her heavy black mane and turned her rust colored hide a deeper red. I smiled at the contrast. Most people considered such a harsh color difference to be a bad omen, but I liked it. Her black hair matched mine and the supposed omen was half the reason the lordling was willing to trade her to me. It had cost me my virginity, but the endless freedom and companionship were easily worth it. I swung into the saddle and nudged Varya wordlessly into an easy walk, hoping an hour’s ride would be long enough to turn the lecherous old man’s attention elsewhere. I was sure Master Owen would be furious when I returned, but I’d deal with that later.