Chapter Five (working title: THE TSARITSA’S GIFT)

Chapter Five


Diogenes drank his watered kvass and stared gloomily at the few remaining merchants in the taberna. No one, it seemed, was hiring. Despite his seventeen years and scant beard, Diogenes was a good tracker. A superior deliver-of-goods. And an excellent woodsman, never once losing his way. Possibly he was the best woodsman of his age, and he made this assessment while he was solidly sober. Not that Diogenes was given to strong drink; he considered it a waste of good coin, especially now that he was down to only two copper pieces.

The last of his silver, he’d lain out for others to drink yesterday, hoping one of them would know of a wealthy city dweller in need of someone to carry goods or a message through the vast forests to the north or south. He was their man, he’d said again and again, his smile muscles aching from grinning and greeting, grinning and greeting. For three days now, he’d hailed every trader who’d crossed the transom, with nothing to show for it but an empty wallet and an emptier belly.

The alewife was giving him dark looks after having been repeatedly rebuffed in her attempts to convince him to buy or be gone. When her sons, strapping lads, returned this evening, he would probably have to depart. He was in no condition to bash heads, and besides, doing so would earn him a ban on returning, and this taberna was the foremost place to see and be seen by those needing the transportation of goods.

The alewife’s tiny daughter was pulling silly faces at him instead of giving him dark looks. He spared her a smile despite his aching smile muscles. She had an impudent innocence that put him in mind of a younger sister he hadn’t seen in three years and hadn’t realized, until now, he missed. His sister Darya’s habit had been to stick her tongue out at him rather than smile, and Diogenes suspected this little maid stuck her tongue out at brothers and rogues alike. His sister had invented a face she called “the mad stag,” whereby she stuck her thumbs in her ears, waggled her remaining fingers overhead, and rolled her eyes as far back as she was able while her tongue lolled to one side. It never failed to get a laugh out of him. Perhaps he would teach it to the alewife’s daughter.

The alewife, a twig broom in hand, swooped by and swept crossly under his table.

Or perhaps it was time to depart. There were other tabernae where he could find work. Unpleasant work such as standing duty as a night guard or digging furrows into milord’s untilled soil, but starving was even less pleasant than undertaking disagreeable work.

He sipped the last of the watered kvass. Probably it had been foolish to water it down; city water was notoriously unwholesome. Give him an icy stream tripping down from its glacial origins any day. Still, his mother had always insisted her kvass could cure any stomach ills. Hopefully the alewife of this taberna could boast as much. He would know soon enough.

Gazing regretfully at the empty mug, and even more regretfully at the scowling alewife, he rose. It was time to seek work of lesser appeal. Perhaps in a week’s time, he might return here and things would have picked up. Or perhaps not. Winter was coming, a time when most merchants wouldn’t risk transporting goods through the hinterlands, however knowledgeable Diogenes could boast himself concerning those hinterlands.

He rose and pulled one of his last two copper coins from his purse, depositing it on the table for the alewife. She was someone’s mother, after all. He was on the point of departing when he paused, muttered an oath, and pulled the second coin from his purse. This, he set it down on the table beside the first coin. Of what use would a single copper coin be to him? And he had sat at her table all the live-long day.

She observed the coins and her scowl retreated somewhat.

“Come try again next week,” she murmured as he passed her.

Just then a pair of men blustered into the taberna. They looked about the room before heading straight for him. They were finely dressed. As fine as the Tsar’s officers of the watch. Were they the tsar’s officers? Was he under suspicion for something? He’d done nothing. Keeping his eyes down, he attempted to shift past them.

“You there,” cried the taller of the two.

“We want no trouble here,” murmured the alewife.

Diogenes paused, assessing how far he was likely to get if he ran for it.

“We seek the tracker Diogenes,” said the tall man. “A young woodsman who can reputedly find his way through any forest.”

Diogenes drew himself upright, engaging his aching facial muscles in a brief smile. “My good masters,” he said politely, “you have found me. How may I serve you?”

The well-dressed men looked at one another. The shorter of the two spoke.

“Our lord requires a woodsman who can deliver a woman back to her kinsfolk at a distance of many leagues.”

“I see.” Now Diogenes had to prevent himself from smiling. “Well, I am your man, so long as your lord understands that such an undertaking will not come cheaply at this time of year.”

Diogenes listed the things he would require beyond good pay (a horse and cart that might be converted to a sledge with runners; foodstuffs; furs for the lady, and so on.)

“It might not snow,” said the taller man, evidently taking issue with the sledge runners Diogenes wanted.

“I will not undertake the journey if your lord is too miserly to provide runners for sledding,” Diogenes replied, even though he would have, rather than lose the work.

At length a price was agreed upon and the sledge runners promised. Diogenes accompanied the two men to the estate of Duke Bartholomes where he was introduced not to the duke (which was fine by Diogenes) but rather to his horse, his sledge-cart, and the woman he had agreed to transport: the princess Astrid of Viklond.

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