Eslaveth clutched Karlyn’s hand as she pushed through the kitchen door of the Tevere Breotte. It was almost empty in the middle of the workday, but she could already smell today’s dinner. The travelers were on their ways, leaving most of the rooms empty, and the townsmen who had come to break the fast had left for their day’s tasks.
Her aunt stood at the table, rinsing the dishes in cool water before dipping them in hot. Danel stooped over a sack of flour, transferring it into the kitchen’s barrel.
Spying the boy, Merra cocked her head. “Where did he come from?”
“We have a new worker,” Eslaveth said.
Karlyn tugged against her hand, heedless of the conversation or the frown of the man that straightened at the small table in the corner where he’d been keeping accounts.
All eyes swung to Karlyn, but his attention was captivated by the kitchen scraps that boiled over the fire, creating a nourishing broth that was free for the asking.
Merra’s mouth fell open, and Magar shook his head. “We don’t need a boy.”
“But Prince Kael requested that we keep him as an apprentice. He’s offered to pay for his keep.”
“You talked to the prince?” Magar asked.
“Prince Kael revoked his sentence, but had nowhere to send him except back into the alleys. He asked me to take him.”
“So he is a thief?” Her uncle’s voice grew harsh.
“But he would not be a thief if he had a home and something to eat. Prince Kael is sending someone to hear the answer, but we ought not to offend him by refusing.”
Magar stared at her, then sighed. “You sound so much like your father.”
She smiled.
“It’s nothing to smile about. I will compromise with you.” Her uncle leaned forward. “We’ll allow him to stay on a trial basis, provided that you keep an eye on him. The first time he steals something, he will be severely punished. If there is a second time, he is gone. Understand?”
Eslaveth dropped the boy’s hand, striding forward to kiss her uncle’s head. “You won’t regret it.”
“Oh, I’m sure I will.” Her uncle answered, cocking an eyebrow at the dirty boy.
“What’s your name, darling?” Now that her husband had granted permission, Merra knelt in front of the child with an eager smile.
“Karlyn,” he answered, asking in the same breath. “May I have some traveler’s broth?”
“You may have more than broth,” Merra said.
Danel snagged a clean plate, filling it with the little food left from breakfast, and offered it to the boy. Karlyn sat on the floor and shoved the meal into his mouth.
“He’ll need a bath,” Aunt Merra whispered, “and a good douse of vinegar. That boy will be covered in crawlers. Take him outside to wash while you do the linens.”
Karlyn ate two platefuls while Eslaveth gathered the bedding, piling them into a basket so high they blocked her view as she lugged them to the alley behind the inn. She preferred the days when she washed their clothes in the river, but the bit of sky above and the breeze that flowed between the houses, brought some relief from the kitchen’s heat.
She lifted the wash tub from a hook on the wall, setting it near the cauldron.
“Make yourself useful,” she said. “Fetch some wood from the box and put it under the cauldron.”
Karlyn eyed the black iron. “What for?”
“To boil the bedclothes, silly,” she said. “And then we’ll hang them on the lines there.”
Karlyn dashed to the wood bin, squatting to retrieve the logs set next to it. “I’m strong!” he said.
“You sure are!” Eslaveth called.
“Ayth! There really is a boy!” Wendelis peered around the corner of the inn before he stepped into the alley.
Eslaveth winced. “Word travels quickly.”
“It does,” he said. “I didn’t believe the story when I first heard it. Not until I realized the girl was you.” He glanced around, then eyed her. “I came to make sure that you didn’t need help.”
She frowned. Some of Danel’s new acquaintances would rather pelt eggs at the prince, than collaborate with him.
“Thanks. But I’m fine. You needn’t have run from your work.”
“It’s my day off,” Wendelis said. “If I want to spend it in an alley bumming traveler’s broth, I can.”
Eslaveth laughed. “Well, Karlyn does need a good bath.”
They worked together, hauling water from the well to fill the cauldron and the wash tub. Wendelis chased Karlyn down, returning with the giggling kid sprawled over his shoulder as Eslaveth poured a bucket full of the boiling water into the wash bin, warming the cold.
“Do you have soap and some clothes, or is he going to run around like a wild man?” Wendelis called.
Eslaveth dropped the first of the sheets into the cauldron, stirring it before she set the paddle inside. “I’ll see what I can find. We might have to cinch up one of Danel’s shirts until we can beg something small from the neighbors.”
When she returned, Wendelis was holding the boy who was trying to wriggle from the wash bin.
“It’s going to cook me!” Karlyn’s voice sputtered with fear.
“Calm down! You’re a long way from cooking.”
“There’s smoke coming up!”
“That’s steam, not smoke,” Wendelis said. “Besides, you have to have fire to boil something. Do you see a fire under this wash bin?”
“No.”
“Well, then the water hasn’t anything to do, but grow cooler.”
The boy rubbed his hand across his nose and peered at the wash bin. “Will steaming water cook you?”
“No. That water’s not going to cook you,” Wendelis said. “I’m not even sure that it is going to clean you.”
“Karlyn.” Eslaveth held out a bit of the washing soap. “Get this wet and sees how much harder it is to hold.”
Karlyn took to soap, dunked it beneath the water and then lurched as it slipped around the bottom. He laughed. “Give me something else!”
“Now rub it on your arm,” Wendelis said. As the boy fished for the soap, he continued, “Now these are good people. If you are nice to them they’ll be nice to you, so don’t go touching things that don’t belong to you. They can’t keep naughty little boys and if you were to get yourself sent away, that would make Miss Eslaveth cry. You don’t want to do that, do you?”
“No.”
“Of course not. Because Miss Eslaveth’s a bonny lass, and we want to keep her happy and looking pretty, aye?”
Eslaveth rolled her eyes as she lifted the first cloth with a paddle, transferring it to a third basin to cool.
“Aye,” Karlyn replied.
“Because if you go and make Miss Eslaveth cry, I’ll be coming after you,” Wendelis threatened.
“Do you like Miss ‘Slaveth?”
Eslaveth laughed, calling over her shoulder. “Wendelis likes every girl he meets!”
“Everybody likes Eslaveth,” Wendelis said. How else do you think she got that prince to hand you over to her?”
“But she didn’t ask him…” Karlyn began.
“She doesn’t have to ask, you know. Girls don’t have to say anything to get what they want, especially pretty ones like Eslaveth. They just smile, and the men do whatever they wish.”
“Wendelis!” Eslaveth called. “I wanted you to give him a bath, not teach him how to flirt.”
“By the way,” Wendelis said. “Breon said to tell you hello. Or thought about saying it.”
Eslaveth winced. Breon rarely spoke more than three sentences at a time to her and usually fled when the other boys came. But when she was twelve, and he’d discovered that she still slept on a pallet on the floor, he’d created the most beautiful bed frame she’d ever seen from the scraps in the shop, even carving two horse’s heads into the pillars of the headboard.
Merra had been plotting their marriage ever since, even offering to let them remain at the inn if that was Eslaveth’s only objection. It wasn’t. She loved the bustle of the inn and keeping a private home seemed too lonely and quiet. But the same longing that pulled her to the windows, that drew her to explore the woods, would sabotage an attempt at marriage.
“I suppose he’s at work,” she said.
Wendelis nodded. “His master isn’t as kind as mine. He’s hoping he can catch the eye of the glass maker.”
Eslaveth winced. “I don’t think I’d want to know how the glass is made.”
“It pays well,” Wendelis said.
“Yes, but it’s so isolated,” Eslaveth protested. “Once they learn the secrets, they’re rarely allowed to leave, and you never see them again.”
“See?” Wendelis wagged a finger toward her. “You care about him.”
“I don’t like secrets that are exchanged for people’s lives,” Eslaveth said.
She turned her back as Wendelis got the boy dried and dressed.
“Ready for inspection?” Wendelis asked.
The child looked like he was ready for bed, with the shirt flapping around his calves, but he was clean. His hair was lighter than she’d expected and his skin paled from years of the protecting dirt.
Wendelis took off his own belt to cinch the shirt as Eslaveth fisted her hips. “Ayth! I think the only thing that didn’t change are those pretty, blue eyes. You’re going to break hearts some day.”
Karlyn cocked his head. “Why?”
Eslaveth laughed. “Never mind. Run along, we’ll get you proper clothing before the prince’s servant comes tomorrow.”
“Prince’s servant is coming here?” Wendelis asked.
“To get our answer about whether Karlyn can stay,” Eslaveth said.
Wendelis frowned, glancing toward the stable. “Best give Reston the day off.”
Eslaveth tugged a damp sheet across the line, then turned to face him. “Why?”
“He’s been talking,” Wendelis said. “He might cause trouble.”
Eslaveth turned to Karlyn. “Karlyn, I want you to take the basket and fill it with the other bedding. Step lively.”
The boy scampered inside, dragging the basket behind him, and she turned back. “He’s a plotter?” At Wendelis’s nod, her shoulders collapsed. “He works for my uncle! How could…”
“Shh!” Wendelis waved her down. “That’s why I’m telling you. You don’t want the inn to be branded as a gathering point.”
“No, we don’t,” Eslaveth said. “My uncle would throw him out on his ears.”
“Well, I don’t think their idea is wrong,” Wendelis said. “Some sort of handle does need to be put on, but…” He stepped closer to pick up the other side of the basket and whispered, “Frankly, I don’t see the point in protesting the king’s cruelty by killing his men. He’s already proved he doesn’t care when people are hurt.”
“But the prince does,” Eslaveth said. “He saved Karlyn.”
“He’s going to have to do a lot more than that,” Wendelis replied.
“Still,” Eslaveth said. “I think he will be a good king.”
“I hope so,” Wendelis said. “We need a good king.”
“I brought it, Eslaveth!” Karlyn called as the basket bumped down each step.
“Well done.” Eslaveth turned to meet him, picking up the laundry. “If you’re very careful, I’ll let you stir these like a big soup.”
The boy smiled, but it faded quickly. He tugged a sheet free, wadding it before he asked, “Why did the prince come to save me?”
“I don’t know,” Eslaveth said. “Maybe he knew that you’re a good boy inside.”
Karlyn glanced to the end of the alley. “What if he hadn’t come?”
She dropped the material into the water, avoiding Wendelis’s eyes. “It doesn’t matter,” she whispered, “because he did.”