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Gauntleted hands shoved open the inn's front doors with a bang. Swirling ribbons of sand flowed into the common room. Reiter's broom went still. He stared. In the fading twilight, all the boy could see was a silhouette standing in the doorway.
For a long moment, only the unending drone of the sandstorm broke the silence.
The figure stepped forward. Heavy armor rattled. A white tunic spilled down his chestplate, bearing a strange symbol. But it was the weapon that held Reiter's eyes. A short length of black chain connected a handle with an evil-looking spiked weight. The man even carried a massive shield. It was taller than Reiter. The armor shook the inn's wooden floor with each step. The figure's head, encased in a thick helm, turned to look at the boy.
Reiter was too terrified to run. So he just stared. And waited.
The man raised a hand to his helm and removed it. Flowing brown hair fell to his shoulders—her shoulders. Reiter's mouth dropped open in shock. That's a woman! He had never seen such detailed, frightening battle armor in his life, not even among the elite merchant guards that passed through town, and those crews were always men. At least, that was what Reiter assumed. He hadn't actually met that many.
The woman coughed, and sand tumbled free from her armor. Had she been walking around in this sandstorm? Insanity. She turned her eyes toward Reiter and smiled. It was a gentle, kind expression. "Let me guess," she said. "You're the son of the innkeeper?"
Reiter swallowed and nodded. "Father?" he called, not looking away from her.
A grunt echoed from the inn's second floor. "Ya, boy? Yeh done sweeping?"
"We have a guest."
"Not'n this weather, we don't," he said, coming down the stairs. "What're you—oh." His gutter accent vanished in an instant, replaced with warm speech, the language he saved for guests. "My apologies, good sir—madam, I mean. I wasn't expecting any new arrivals. Not with this storm, anyway." His charming act was spoiled a bit by his nervous glances toward the woman's armor. "Welcome to the Oasis Inn. Are you two looking for a room?"
Two? Reiter shifted his gaze. He hadn't even noticed the woman's companion, a girl wearing simple clothes. She was younger. About Reiter's age, in fact. The lack of armor seemed to have left her a touch windblasted, though. Specks of sand clung to her hair. Reiter decided he could overlook that.
The woman gently rested her shield on the floor. "I hear you have a fondness for books and that you lend them out to your patrons. Is that true?"
Books? These two had trudged through a sandstorm for books?
"You heard true, madam," his father said. "Some say my inn has the finest library in Kehjistan. Outside of Caldeum itself, of course."
She smiled. "In that case, we would like to board here," she said. "On one condition: you don't need to call me madam. My name is Anajinn."
"Of course, ma—Anajinn! Plenty of room at the Oasis Inn today." Reiter's father spread his arms warmly. "Not too many people as brave as you two, to be traveling in this weather."
The second new arrival laughed. "Brave. Sure. Getting caught in a sandstorm. I can already hear the poets rushing to compose sonnets of our courage." Reiter smiled at her. She met his gaze and, after a moment, gave him a polite smile back.
The armored woman grinned. "Perhaps we were taken a bit by surprise. Perhaps we would have been here a few days earlier if a certain apprentice could keep up."
"Perhaps a certain apprentice wasn't the one who wanted to explore every cavern in the desert," the apprentice said.
"Perhaps." Anajinn removed one of her gauntlets and upended it. A small waterfall of sand cascaded to the wooden floor. Reiter frowned. He was going to have to sweep that up. "We managed to be productive, in any case," Anajinn added in a wry tone.
The innkeeper cocked his head, but no further explanation was forthcoming. "Well, I'm sure you two must be thirsty, and the Oasis Inn always has plenty of cool water stored," Reiter's father said. "Reiter? Can you bring two cups for our guests?" He paused, looking at the boy. "Reiter?" He snapped his fingers sharply.
Reiter jolted upright, pulling his gaze away from the apprentice. "Water. Yes, Father." He grabbed two cups and opened the hinged door on the floor, lowering dippers into the water casks.
He was glad to be hidden behind the counter for the moment. The armored woman's companion... Reiter struggled to keep a grin suppressed. The apprentice had lighter, almost blond hair, longer than her master's, and her eyes were radiant. The way her chin curved elegantly to her neck... She had even given him a smile. A cool smile, but a smile nonetheless.
She likes me, Reiter thought.
Reiter handed the two women their cups. They both downed their contents in single gulps. He watched the younger guest. She gave him a questioning glance. He looked away.
"Follow me upstairs, and I'll show you to your room," Reiter's father said.
"Actually, I'd like to see the library now," Anajinn said. "Do you have any books discussing the city of Ureh?"
In short order, the woman had shed her armor and followed Reiter's father to the library, while her apprentice stayed in the common room. "Can you spare a cloth and a small bowl of water? I might as well start cleaning," she said.
"Sure," Reiter said. He collected the items from behind the bar.
The apprentice called out, "On second thought, don't mind the cloth. I'll use a bit of my shirt."
"It's no problem. We have plenty."
"You won't get the cloth back. You won't want it back. I'll have to burn it when I'm done," the apprentice said.
"That's fine," Reiter said, returning with the bowl and the cloth. He gave her his most winning smile, the kind that made the daughter of the trade goods storekeeper down the road bat her eyelashes at him—Bea was her name. Reiter put the local girl out of his mind. "We have plenty."
"Thank you," the apprentice said. She had an odd cleaning technique. She dipped a couple fingers into the bowl and let only a few drops wet the fabric. She began scrubbing the chestplate, a thick slab of metal with intricate etchings and workings.
Reiter sat down next to her. "Need help?"
"No, thank you."
The boy nodded and leaned over. "What do those symbols mean? They look like Zakarum markings."
Reiter was impressed. "Really? Your master is a paladin? I've seen lots of paladins come through town before. She's a lot prettier than most paladins." And then, feeling that the time was right, he added, "So are you."
She gave him another cool smile. "Anajinn is not a paladin."
Reiter nodded again. He didn't really care. "Staying in town long?" he asked.
The apprentice kept the cloth moving in tight circles on the armor. "Probably not. Up to her. Maybe a few days, at most." She scowled at a stubborn stain and splashed more drops of water on the cloth. Gingerly, she pressed the damp rag against the armor. After a moment, she seemed satisfied and renewed her scrubbing.
"I heard her say she's looking for Ureh. Is she a treasure hunter? We get all kinds of treasure hunters here," Reiter said. He carefully leaned back in his chair, slouching a bit, trying to appear relaxed and confident.
She considered him. "Treasure hunter? I've never thought of it that way before. The term almost fits." With one last look at Reiter—and his posture—she went back to work, shaking her head.
"My name is Reiter. What's yours?" he asked. She smiled but said nothing. He waited. The silence lengthened. Fine. Her name wasn't really important anyway. "If she's not a paladin, what is she?"
"A crusader," she said.
"Oh, right. A crusader. I knew that," Reiter said. She gave him a sideways glance. Reiter's smile slipped. She seemed to know he was lying.
Another period of quiet. Reiter fidgeted.
Still, she was talking to him. That was the first step, right?
A month ago, a group of guards had hired rooms in the inn and spent most of their time swilling the cheapest drinks they could find. Reiter had enjoyed their company. One of them, a swarthy, sweaty man with a stained tunic and patches of rosacea spattered amid his thinning hair, had taken it upon himself to teach Reiter "the ways of the world." Most of the conversation had focused on how to get "any little pretty"—his words—to agree to a night of companionship.
Get a girl to talk with you, and she's interested. Get her to smile, and you're halfway there, the guard had told him in loud, drunken whispers. His cloying breath had seemed to take up residence in Reiter's nose. Make her think you have a lot in common, keep her smiling, and you win. If she stops smiling, change the subject. Compliment her. Reiter had been amazed it could be so easy.
"What's your name?" Reiter asked the apprentice again. No response. "Do you do a lot of cleaning for your master? My father makes me clean all the time." Still no reply. Reiter continued. "My father always tells me that we need to have the cleanest inn in Caldeum's Rest."
"Interesting," she said. She scraped at another troublesome stain with her fingernail, then jerked her hand away as though it had been burned, muttering to herself. She pushed down hard on that spot with a dry section of the cloth.
Reiter watched her closely. She wasn't smiling anymore. He changed the subject. "If you've been walking around for a while, you could probably use a hot bath. We have plenty of tubs in the back, and I can heat some water for you. If you'd like."
"Maybe later," she said.
"It would be no trouble," he insisted, and then said, casually, "I wouldn't even mind joining you."
The apprentice set down the cloth and fixed Reiter with a glare. "Excuse me?" she said.
Reiter felt heat rush into his face. Desperately he racked his brain for an explanation. "Oh, I'm so sorry! I forgot some people don't consider that modest. It's not unusual here in the desert. Helps to have someone else help clean the sand out of hard-to-reach places." It only made things worse. The silence, once again, stretched...
"Here," he said, suddenly reaching for the cloth. "Let me help with that." He quickly dipped it into the water. His hand brushed her hair, and he felt a thrill run up his arm. Without hesitation, he placed the rag against the armor and began scrubbing.
The apprentice gasped. "Wait—"
When Reiter touched the wet cloth to the stain, everything seemed to happen at once. The apprentice yelled. The bowl of water flipped. The table underneath the bowl flipped. Smoke, vile smoke, smelling of sulfur and festering blood, filled the air. Reiter screamed and tumbled out of his chair. The apprentice took the chestplate and flung it out the door in one smooth motion. It arced over the balcony, into the sandstorm.
Just before Reiter landed on the floor, he saw a ball of green flame rapidly expanding over the chestplate, disappearing in a flash. Just after Reiter landed on the floor, the table fell on top of him, pinning him down, knocking the wind out of him.
Yelling, crying, Reiter struggled to push the table away. Strong arms pulled the weight off his chest. Anajinn, the crusader, stared down at him with concern.
Reiter's father stumbled into the common room, wide eyed. "What happened?"
"Excellent question," Anajinn said. The crusader turned her gaze from Reiter, to the chestplate lying outside in the sandstorm, to the apprentice. To the last, she gave a hard look.
To everyone's shock, the apprentice began laughing. Sobs of pure mirth shook her body, and she had to sit down to keep from collapsing on the floor. Reiter's father looked outraged. "What in the name of Akarat happened to my son?"
The apprentice wiped away tears and said exactly what Reiter hoped she wouldn't. "He offered to bathe with me. And then he tried to help clean the armor to apologize for it." More peals of laughter filled the common room. "I'm sorry, Anajinn. I wasn't expecting him to put water onto dried demon's blood."
"He did what?" Reiter's father's eyes darted between his son and Anajinn. Reiter shrank back. "Dried what?"
Anajinn was still looking at her apprentice. "Truly?" she asked. The apprentice stifled her laughter long enough to nod. "How much?" The apprentice made a gesture with her fingers the size of a large flea. "Good." Anajinn breathed a sigh of relief. "So no harm should have been done."
Reiter's father seemed caught between concern, anger, and fear. "What harm? What did my son do?"
"Nothing terrible, as it turns out," Anajinn said. "Do caravans heading to Caldeum sometimes disappear? Yes? I don't think they'll be having problems for at least a few years. Just before the sandstorm hit, we encountered a... nest. These creatures in particular don't enjoy the presence of water. For obvious reasons. The desert made for a happy home." Frowning, she picked up another piece of her armor, a leg guard, and examined it closely. "I had thought we cleaned off everything dangerous, but it's hard to be thorough when you're blinded by sand for three straight days." She bowed toward Reiter's father. "I humbly beg your forgiveness. Even if the danger was slight, the oversight was mine."
Reiter saw his father's mouth moving soundlessly. Finally, he cleared his throat. "I... see. No harm done. I also apologize. For the behavior of my son," he said, glaring down at Reiter.
"Oh, no apologies are necessary," Anajinn said immediately. "If my apprentice is taking a shine toward your son, it's fine with me."
The apprentice sighed. "That's not—"
"No need to explain," Anajinn interrupted her, grinning openly. "Young love. So beautiful. Flowers blooming in spring. Desert roses and such. You know, there's nothing in the crusaders' oath that prevents you from—"
"My oath? No," the apprentice grumbled. "My sense of good taste? Yes."
The uproarious laughter of his father chased Reiter back into the inn's main storeroom. He made it his personal mission to avoid the two women for the rest of their stay, which lasted about a week.
He was mostly successful. At one point, the apprentice sought him out and attempted to apologize for her last remark.
"Anajinn's sense of humor is rubbing off on me. We can be... biting... toward each other from time to time, but that's no excuse. I'm sorry for what I said."
Reiter mumbled and waved her off. She and her master seemed crazy anyway. Demon's blood. He shook his head. That must have been a lie. Unreasonable to think otherwise.
"Strange woman," Reiter's father remarked after they left. "Bett'n she has salt, though. Called herself a crusader. Interesting story. She's from the swamplands. Came ovah to the desert to search for some religious thing, I guess. Yeh should've asked her about it. Fast-natin' stuff."
"I suppose so," Reiter said.