In Daling, it began when Tibal Frainith came to Phoenix Street.
Gwin was helping Tob the stableboy replace the wheat sheaf over the door. She was needed only when a cart came along and threatened to sweep ladder and Tob and wheat sheaf all away together, but her presence discouraged passing urchins from attempting the same feat. Meanwhile, she could clean off the road with a broom--not just because it made the entrance more appealing, but because it meant less dirt to be tracked inside. She could have sent a servant to do all that, but then it would have taken twice as long. She welcomed an excuse just to go outside. It seemed she did not leave the hostel for weeks at a time nowadays.
Meanwhile, the staff indoors were probably sitting around eating and talking when they should be working. Morning was busy time. The last guests had just left. There was a stable to be shoveled out, water to carry, beds to make, bread to bake, bedding to air, and all the interminable cleaning. The Flamingo Room needed fumigating again, having still not recovered from the sailors who had infested it with bedbugs the previous week.
Morning sunlight brightened the narrow streets of Daling like a baby's smile. Stonework shone in the color of beech wood. The cobbles were polished little islands, each one set off by dark mire in the crevices between them, giving the roadway a texture of coarse cloth, a cobble carpet, dipping here and there into noxious puddles, although even they reflected the sun. Exterior windows were rare, but a few bronze grilles gleamed joyously; and all the doors were limed to a brilliant white.
Phoenix Street was occupied by pedestrians and horsemen and much idle gossip. Every few minutes, an ox cart would come clattering and rattling along, usually being chased by small children trying to cadge a ride, being shouted away by the carter. Strolling hawkers called their wares, stopping to talk with the women at the doorways.
The old wheat sheaf hit the cobbles, disintegrating into a cloud of dust and a mess of rotted straw where Gwin had just swept. She clucked annoyance, and hastened to pass up the replacement bundle to Tob. He took it without a word. Not even his own mother could call him swift. The only good thing about Tob was that he was too stupid to be dishonest.
She laid into the straw with her broom, spreading it out for hooves and wheels to crumble. She tried not to remember that self-same sheaf being hung--thirty-six weeks ago, a day as hot as this one promised to be. She had been helper then, too, but it had not been a half-wit stable boy up the ladder. It had been Carp himself. Now Carp was rotting in an unmarked grave somewhere near Tolamin. Karn and Naln had followed their father. She was the only one left now--widow, bereaved mother, innkeeper, Gwin Nien Solith.
She spun around, blinking into the sun.
The speaker was tall, lean, clean-shaven. He bore a bulky packsack on his shoulders. His smock and breeches had never been dyed and now were a nondescript gray. They were ordinary Kuolian garb, yet of an unfamiliar cut, as if they had traveled far from the loom that birthed them. He had steady gray eyes, brown tangled hair, worn shorter than was normal for men in Daling. Bone and sinew lay close under his skin. Yes, tall. He was smiling at her as if the two of them were old friends, close friends. She had never seen him before in her life.
He started. "Sorry! I am Tibal Ambor Frainith." He bowed.
"Most honored, Tibal Saj. I am Gwin Nien Solith."
"Yes. I mean I am honored, Gwin Saj." He was blushing.
The expectant look remained in his eyes. She could not recall being thrown off-balance like this for years. She did not forget faces. He was at least as old as she was, so why were his cheeks flaming red like that?
A stranger in town would seek out a hostelry. Carp Solith had won a good reputation for the Phoenix Street Hostel; his widow had sustained it so far. Most of her business came from repeats, established customers--merchants, farmers, ship captains--but first-timers were not rare.
So why was she gazing tongue-tied at this man? Why was he staring down at her with that blush on his cheeks and that wistful, disbelieving expression in his gray eyes? There was something strange about his gaze that she could not place.
"The Phoenix Street Hostel," he said in his unfamiliar accent. "Everyone will... Everyone told me that it's the best hostelry in the city, Gwin Saj." He spoke too softly, stood a little too close.
A lead pair of oxen emerged from Sailors' Alley, with another following.
"They spoke no less than the truth, Tibal Saj."
"I need a room, Gwin." He still seemed mildly amused that she had not recognized him. He was a little too quick dropping the honorific.
"Rooms are my business, Tibal Saj." Why else display a wheat sheaf above the door?
Tob was still up the ladder, tying the sheaf to the bracket. The ox cart was advancing along the road. Tibal backed into its path, holding up a hand to stop it, all without ever taking his eyes off Gwin.
"You came by way of Tolamin?" she said. He must have done, to be arriving in the city so early in the day.
He hesitated and then nodded. The wagoner howled curses at him.
"How is it?" she asked.
Tibal blinked and frowned. "Much the same," he said vaguely.
What ever did that mean? The Wesnarians had sacked it in the fall.
The teamster hauled on the traces and brought his rig to a clattering halt with the lead pair's steaming muzzles not an ell from the lanky stranger--who still ignored it all, still stared at Gwin.
Tob came slithering down the ladder, leering with pride at having completed an unfamiliar task. "All done, Gwin Saj."
"Take the ladder down, Tob."
"Oh. Yes." The lout moved the ladder. Tibal stepped out of the way, so the team could proceed.
"You almost got yourself jellied there," she said.
"What?" he glanced at the cart and its furious driver as if he had been unaware of their existence until she spoke. He shrugged. "No."
There was something definitely odd about Tibal Frainith, but he raised no sense of alarm in her. Almost the reverse--he seemed to be signaling friendship. Not asking for it, just assuming it. Curiously reassuring, somehow... clothes neither rich nor poor... carried his own pack. Not a rich man, therefore. Soft spoken. Not a soldier. Not a merchant. A wandering scholar, perhaps? At least he wasn't proposing marriage yet. Lately she spent half her days fighting off suitors who wanted to marry a hostel, and she was going to lose the battle.
She opened the door, setting the bell jangling. "I'll show you the rooms we have available." They were all available, but she would not admit to that.
He stepped past her. As she was about to follow him inside, a voice said, It has begun.
Startled, she jumped and looked around. There was no one there. Tob was just disappearing into the alley with the ladder, heading around to the back. The wagon had gone. The voice had not come from Tibal Frainith.
So who had spoken? Her nerves must be snapping if she were starting to hear voices. With a shiver of fear, she followed her guest inside, shutting the door harder than necessary.