Excerpt: Behind Bars

The last thing Pelerin Stone wanted to do the evening after arguing with his son was work. He’d have to be ready with smiles and easy chatter that he just wasn’t feeling. But it needed to be done whether or not he wanted to. It was important, and bigger than either of them.

Strained and tired, Pel got ready for the day: polishing wine glasses, wiping down the bar, and hefting casks up the steep steps from the cellar. The cooks were working slowly today, which only made his mood worse. He tried not to show it, because they didn’t exactly deserve it—not when his real problem lay elsewhere—and because they’d almost certainly work slower just to spite him if he snapped at them.

The inn opened early in the evening and had just unlocked its doors, which meant Pel was behind. Customers didn’t stop for bad days, and it wouldn’t be long before people started rolling in. He imagined he’d be seeing the Villem boys soon; they were almost always the first to arrive, and they had big appetites. Normally, he’d consider that a good thing.

And they’d be the first of many. The inn was a popular place, which was good when he was in a fine mood and everyone was getting their work done but less good right now, when he really just wanted to have a break. But Dolana was not a town with a lot of places to relax. The places the Inquisition had vetted as safe and free from demonic influence were, as a result, in demand.

The bell over the door jingled, and Pel looked up with an automatic smile that he hoped wouldn’t seem forced. Was the stew ready yet? The Villem boys would want—

—It wasn’t the Villem boys. To his even greater surprise, it wasn’t anybody he knew at all.

The stranger was a tall and lean woman, probably in her late thirties. She had no chest to speak of, but her hips were wide and her facial features delicate. Under her heavily brocaded vest, she wore a fine shirt stained with sweat and dust from the road. She’d likely been riding to get here, judging from the style of breeches and high boots she was wearing. A heavy-seeming sack was slung over her shoulder.

Pel kept himself from frowning out of sheer force of will. Visitors to Dolana were rare. He let rooms, of course, but most of his patrons were citizens who needed a brief place to stay—youths moving out who hadn’t found a place to lease, folks rebuilding after a fire, people like that. He hadn’t had cause to actually rent them out to a traveler for over a year now. Anyone coming from out of the city had to pass the gate inspection, and even the innocent ones tended to steer clear of that much hassle and keep on the main road toward the next town instead.

Still, she looked human enough. Her skin was a warm shade of light brown with a smattering of freckles, and even if her eyes were a startlingly light blue, they were well within the normal human range.

She caught his gaze and gave him a once-over in return, blatant about it and favoring him with a smile. He straightened, surprised by how forthright she was—but then, he kept himself dressed and groomed to have a good effect on patrons. He was dressed in a clean, cream-colored shirt that he left open at the neck and rolled up at the elbows to keep himself casual, and it was perfectly fitted to his frame. His brown hair might have gone sandy as the years caught up to him, but he kept it short-trimmed and neat, and he kept himself free from facial hair. The hairless lines where his scars were made him look a bit threatening once he went to stubble.

She headed for the bar, and her bag hit the floor with a satisfying thump as she slid onto a stool across from him, grinning. “Goodness, but am I glad to see this place.” Her gaze immediately slid to the scar on his cheek, lingering on the three faded claw marks. He kept himself from raising a hand to them out of long practice only.

Her voice had the soft husk of a smoker. He glanced her over again for other signs of that—wrinkles at the corners of the mouth or the yellowing around the fingernails—but came up with nothing.

Pel looked up again, widening his smile a little. He knew it gave him dimples that worked well with the broad set of his jaw, and they distracted people from the scars. “A traveler?” he asked. “We don’t see many of your type around here. Welcome to Dolana.”

“I imagine not, judging from the interrogation I got at the gate.” The woman tossed her loose black curls back off her shoulder. She’d either not bound her hair for travel or had taken it down before entering, so he surmised that she, too, liked to make an impression. “Do you have rooms to rent? Or a meal—I’m starving.” She winked at him, playful.

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