The Best of a Bargain
There were three ways to arrive at Clearwater.
The first was by boat, across the Long Lake. This was undoubtedly the most romantic way to arrive, and preferably at sunnrise or sunset, when the long light quivered across the water, and the only sound to be heard was the lapping of oars as one drew nearer and nearer to the great towers on the shoreline, rising from the morning or evening mist.
Or one could come over the mountains, as invading armies had done in days long gone by. Now there were paths known best to goatherds and shepherds and a few traders, which took one from the high mountains where the snows never melted, past ice-cold rushing streams in valleys bright with mountain flowers until one at last stood o9n the promontory, looking to where the small town and the castle that guarded it were arranged on the shores of the lake.
Or one could take the road most travelled, the road that led from the Kingsroad to join with the road that ran around the shores of the lake - north to Clearwater and south to the small villages that clustered at the edge of the marshes to the southern end of the Long Lake.
Hex had considered taking the ferry across to Clearwater, but the garron seemed to have a mind of its own (as did all these northern mounts, in Hex's opinion) and was not inclined to a marine voyage. The mountain roads had a certain rustic appeal, but the trader was disinclined to bring a wagon filled with spirits through bandit country. In the end, the dornishman had joined a caravan of traders along the Kingsroad and travelled in easy companionship until reaching the junction with the road to Clearwater.
After that, Hex continued with his wagon and driver. The dornishman served as an outrider for the caravan of one, ranging up and down the road and keeping watch. In addition to the wagon, he carried a small wooden cage strapped to the rear of his saddle. The occupant caused no end of distress to the already skittish horse, and Hex had begun to consider whether the shadowcat cub offered in trade was more trouble than it was worth.
The cub had been won playing dice with a merchant marine. Having come up short on the final toss, the merchant had assured Hex that the cub's pelt was worth more than the stakes as it's pelt would make a fine pair of gloves or serve as trim to a tailored cloak. In truth it would have been easier to transport had the dornishman simply bashed the cub's head against a rock and skinned it, as the merchant had suggested.
But Hex had no particular skilla s a furrier, and the prospect of skinning the cat and travelling with an increasingly ripe skin had little appeal before the long ride had begun. The appeal was growing daily, as each morning Siddig repeated the ritual of securing the skittish horse, returning the shadowcat to its cage, and then dodging panicky kicks from the garron's front and rear hooves while securing the cage.
Seemingly a thousand times a day the dornish wine merchant weighed the advantages of either skinning the cub or setting it loose. However, each day he was a bit closer to Clearwater and the cub seemed slightly bigger and likely to sell for a better price. And each day, Hex stayed his hand.
And so, at last, he came to the final road to Clearwater, and saw the castle and town ahead of him. The gate guard loooked with distaste at the live cargo and seemed disniclined to let so dangerous a beast (the cub licked its paws and looked smug) within the precincts of the town, still less the castle. But finally, for a suitable sum (to guard against damages, said the guard virtuously), Hex found himself admitted to the castle and to a yard beyond, where young men were drilling with swords.
Aerin was perched in her usual place on top of the castle wall above the training yard, bored. She was sitting, slouched with her back against a turret wall at the corner of the yard.
The dark haired girl knew she should be training. Or doing tasks. Or with the Septa.
But she was young, and it was a beautiful day out, and being inside or doing something useful was the last thing she wanted to do.
So it was with mild curiousity Aerin watched the merchant pulled into the yard. At least watching him was better that doing nothing.
"Arrived we are, ser," the mule skinner called out to Hex from his perch at the front of the wagon. "I'll have me silver now and complete our business." The foul man punctuated his near demand by spitting a stream of clotted brown juice at the feet of the harnessed mules.
"Gods, man!" Hex returned. "If you have more than a score of words in that head of your's you'd never prove it by me. Again, once the wine is unloaded and stored and I have the steward's silver in my purse, you'll have your pay."
The dornishman swung a leg over the saddle of his mount and stepped to the ground in one easy motion. "As I told you at the dock, and before we reached the King's Road, and on the King's Road, and at the head of the road to Clearwater, and beside that damned giant pond, and a hundred hundred times in between. You will have your silver when the job is done."
As the drover raised a hand in protest, Hex continued. "And no kitten or fur or shiny beads in it's place. The King's silver. But first: unloaded, stored, silver in MY purse, then your own." Moving to the back of his horse Hex flipped his shield to face away from the young men at arms.
He would not cover the Martell symbol on the shield's face, but the voyage had been long and the company, at least at the end, unpleasant. Young men and swords were a dangerous combination at the best of times, particularly so with these northmen, and the dornishman didn't trust his temper if he met with further taunts as to the habits of the Dornish.
The mule skinner screwed up his face to begin another protest, or perhaps repeat his half hearted demand yet again. Hex held up a hand, which silenced the man before he began. Or perhaps the 'skinner had seen something in Siddig's face before a smile slid into place. Hex shrugged his neck, twisting his head sharply to be rewarded with a sharp cracking sound.
Siddig set the shadowcat and it's cage on the ground, a careful distance from the skittish horse. Turning to face the men at their sword play, he pulled off his calf skin riding gloves and tucked them into the whip coiled around his waist like a belt. He then slipped a dornish bow off his back. A powerful weapon, the arms turned back on themselves and were cunningly constructed of laminated layers of wood and bone.
The dornishman had spent long years as an archer in service to one lord or another, and knew from experience that even a dornish bow would lose it's tension if too long strung. Hex stood the bow beside him. He placed one foot between string and arm, used the weight of his body to push down the top of the bow and released the string from it's niche. He then returned to his horse and slipped the bow in a scabbard secured to his saddle by sinew ties.
Hex kept a full quiver on his back, unlike the northern archers he had seen who preferred to store their arrows in a box tied to the leg. Hex had found that impractical for shooting while mounted, and the box could easily catch on branches or other obstructions if moving quickly on foot. The quiver joined the unstrung bow.
Returning to the shadowcat and it's cage, Hex removed his steel helmet and let it drop to the ground. Using his fingers as a comb, he brushed back his long black hair back and secured it with another leather tie.
The dornishman had noticed the young woman when he arrived. High born, he speculated, as servants would not have the time to sit in leisure. There was no surprise in a young woman watching young men at sword drills, and no doubt the young bucks' efforts were all the more enthusiastic for the attention. But Hex thought that he had seen the young woman's eyes follow his bow as it moved from his back to the horse.
He called up to the young woman. "My lady, I hope you will not take me too bold. I am Siddig Hextall, a wine merchant just now arrived at your impressive home. My servant is anxious for his pay, and no doubt the men folk are anxious for my wares. Could I trouble you to point to the steward's office?"
The young woman watching Hex and the cart nodded to Hex. "His office is in the keep. I'll take you," she called down.
With that she turned, and then dropped off the wall, hanging from the edge for a moment before letting go and landing on top of one of the bales of hay pushed against the wall.
She stepped off the bale and walked toward Hex, and Hex could see she was dressed in leggings and a tunic, almost the same as the boys training in the yard here.
The girl slowed for a moment as she approached, her eyes going to the cage. "Is that for the Steward?" she asked Hex curiously.
"That," Hex replied indicating the cage. "I would not wish on anyone as noble as your steward. Over the last few leagues I have come to think of it as my personal punishment from the gods, no doubt intended to keep me humble."
Picking up the cage, Hex looked back to the wagon and let out a sharp whistle and gestured for the driver to follow. "However, if you can also direct me to a leatherworker or furrier perhaps I can shed myself of this burden and return to a life of blissful arrogance."
The young woman looked at the cage, then up at Hex.
"What is it?" she asked. "It's huge for a kitten.." she said, looking back at the cage with big eyes. "It is a kitten, isn't it? It has huge paws," she said, leaning down a little to look at it more closely.
The cat looked up at her with wide green eyes, then made a low rumbling in its throat before gently batting its head against the wire of its cage roof, as though asking to be stroked.
"Careful, mi'lady." Hex cautioned. "It's a shadowcat, a fierce predator mostly found north of the Wall. Young it is, but I wouldn't call it a kitten. Unless your kittens have jaws that can snap bones and claws that will slice through a leather bodkin like silk.It has a seductive manner, but don't be taken in. I almost lost a finger before I learned to feed it through the cage."
Most young women should probably be intimidated by such a description. However this one merely regarded the feline with more interest.
The shadowcast regarded Hex with a baleful eye, and then butted his head up against the cage roof closest to Aerin, giving a deep, rumbling purrr.
Hex retrieved his helmet, hooking it to his waist. "And so, mi'lady, the steward?"
Aerin looked at the feline for a moment longer, then up to Hex. "This way," she said to the trader. She stood up, turned, and moved smoothly toward a doorway in a wall of the training area.
She glanced back over her shoulder with curiosity. "Are you taking the feline up? Or shall I wait here until you're done with the Steward?" she asked him.
Although the young woman seemed comfortable with the 'cat, Hex thought his introduction to the steward might go more smoothly if it didn't start with a high born youth being mauled by an animal delivered by the new wine trader. He answered. "Why don't you accompany us both to the steward's office? I'm not sure I trust the beast outside of my sight."
Aerin nodded, then turned and led Hex through the door, up a set of stairs and to the steward's office overlooking the main courtyard.
She tapped lightly on the door, listening to see if anyone was there.
Derron sat in the new office, swearing silently to himself that he would soon move all he could closer to his smithy. He was going over more accounts when there was a light tap at the door. He shook his head, then said with a weary resignation, "Come in."
Hex opened the door and held it for his young companion. Entering, he surveyed the room and introduced himself. "Good day, ser, I am Siddig Hextall and if you are the steward I have a bill of lading for your review and a wagon load of spirits for your inventory."
Aerin slid to the wall behind the door and watched, curious as to how Derron would handle the stranger. And how this Hex would deal with their new Steward.
Derron's eyebrows shot up, and he began pawing through some ledgers in front of him. He spoke in a broken manner as he did so. "Sorry...first day as Steward...should be here somewhere...uh, let me see your bill, please." He looked at the proffered parchment, then dug once more into the ledger. "Ah, yes, here we are." He paused and frowned. "Well, I hate to break the news, but the last Steward was overbilling, and pocketing the extra. Or purchasing things that were too pricy for the budget, as in this case. But that is not your fault. Therefore, I think the price agreed to is fair. But in the future, I hope you'll find me a tougher negotiator."
Aerin in the meantime crept a little closer to the cage Hex had brought up to the office. The large feline was intriguing. And with all the chaos the last day had brought Aerin was glad of the distraction of having to decide whether or not to take Niko's offer.
The shadow cat rubbed along the bars of the cage closest to her, its golden eyes fastened on her. As it saw her watching, its mouth opened in a silent, pleading miaouw.
Aerin's hand moved toward the cage. And the simple lock on its door.
Derron noticed Aerin reaching towards the cage that the merchant had set down. He cleared his throat and said, "Aerin? What are you up to?"
Aerin froze, but didn't draw her hand back. "It wants me to let it out," she said, looking up at Derron with large eyes.
Derron grinned and shook his head. "First of all, lass, it isn't your pet. Second, not in my office."
Aerin looked down at the cat in the cage. "I don't think it's anyone's pet," she announced sagely.
"Do you really have to skin it?" she asked Hex while still looking at the cat.
The shadowcat turned a burning, resentful gaze on Hex. Then it butted its head against the bars of its cage closest to Aerin.
Derron knew something of young Aerin's ability to get her way. He sat quietly, waiting on the merchant's response. If need be, he would send someone for Aerin's father, so he could deal with the girl. Either by paying for the caged animal, or taking her to her room.
"No, mi'lady" Hex answered. Then continued after a brief pause. "In fact, I can take it to a farm after I complete my business here where it can play with all the other animals and live a long, happy life. Or perhaps I'll come across another shadowcat and she can adopt it."
Derron remained quiet, simply glad he had not gotten Lancer out of his basket and brought him to the new office. No doubt he would be barking up a storm had he seen the caged cat.
Aerin looked up from the cat at Hex, tilting her head slightly. "What's a shadowcat?" she asked curiously.
The cat yer-rowled, as though to interject that this should be obvious, and butted its head against the roof of the cage more urgently.
"A vicious predator found mostly beyond the wall, but they range through the mountain passes in the local area as well." Hex replied to Aerin, as he moved the cage to the far side of his body. Directing himself to the steward, Hex continued. "As to the wine, ser, it is always pleasant and surpisingly rare to do business with a gentleman such as yourself. I purchased this shipment from your usual merchant both to introduce myself and explore opening a regular trade route."
"I expect if you have the opportunity to review the previous transactions in some detail you will find that the shipping costs included not only delivery but a surcharge for the return trip of the empty wagon." Hex smiled ruefully. "A shocking practice, all too common. And easily off set if you have goods to ship locally. As my salty brethern have been known to say
As to pricing and product, I did bring some samples for your consideration. Higher quality fit for the table of fine gentlemen such as yourself and your lord, as well as some slightly less sophisticated vintages. The less sophisticated are competively priced with your usual orders, and have the benefit of not being filtered through a horse before bottling."
Derron said, "Since I'm new to this, I intend to start everything from scratch. And that includes my learning. So while I may take your word for these things, that doesn't mean I will accept those conditions in the future. The previous man left finances in a shambles."
Aerin leaned to one side to look around Hex at the shadowcat cage on the floor.
"We do have a problem with rats in the stores," she said to no one in particular.
Derron asked the girl, "We need a trained animal to deal with the rats. Not a wild cat." He paused, then added, "Especially one that will grow larger than Lancer."
At that last bit Aerin's eyes grew as large as saucers. "Really?!" she exclaimed excitedly.
Derron cursed himself mentally for maing that last comment. He realized it had deepened the child's interest.
And without waiting for an answer she dropped down on her hands and knees and looked under the trader's chair at the young feline.
The shadowcat gave a pleased yowl, and ribbed its face along the bars of the cage, as though inviting strokes, and face rubbings.
"Derron Thorne," said a new voice - and Ser Tomas entered. He hesitated in the door, seeing the Steward was not alone. "I'm sorry I ... "
He saw his daughter and frowned. "Aerin - come away from that beast at once!"
Derron rose to his feet when Ser Tomas came in, but kept silent when he focused on Aerin.
Aerin looked up at her father with a half startled, and half amused look. "It won't hurt me father. It's a shadowcat. It's obviously intelligent," she announced proudly.
Then she reached under the trader's chair and hooked her fingers into the cage's mesh and started to pull it to her.
The shadow cat, delighted at this, licked her fingers with a rough, raspy tongue, and then shifted its weight to make the pulling easier for her.
Aerin's father frowned. "Does the beast normally behave like this?" he asked.
Hex had stood up when Ser Tomas entered, taking his lead from the steward. Inclining his head slightly, he answered. "Alexander Hextall, mi'lord, hopefully your new wine merchant. I acquired the shadowcat from a merchant when I assumed responsibility for your most recent delivery."
"To answer your question, simply put, no. The beast has not been so placid during it's time with me. Hence the cage. When I first obtained it, the beast did it's best to escape and clawed and bit me whenver I came close. It would seem the young lady has a way with animals." Hex paused before continuing. "I was told by my predecessor that this kitten stayed by it's mother, guarding the body long after she had passed, and put up a fair struggle when the responsible hunters arrived to claim their prey."
"Of course, you must remember the source. He was a truly unscrupulous man. But the hunters all swore it was true as well." Hex removed his gloves to show the long claw marks on his hands, only recently scabbed over. "The 'cat is clearly intelligent, it almost succeeded in running away any number of times before I fashioned the latest version of the cage.. Loyal and protective of those it loves, to judge by the way it stood by it's mother. And fierce when provoked, demonstrated by the scars on my hands."
Hex paused again, and for a brief moment the glib salesman was replaced by the experienced soldier. "Beautiful, intelligent, loyal, and quick to protect those it loves. A young woman could have a worse companion, ser."
"You were going to furrier or a leatherworker," Aerin said casually. "You consider the cat a torment," she pointed out as she inserted her fingers through the mesh of the cage and tried to scratch the jawline of the feline.
"But we could take it off your hands..." she continued casually, her eyes glued to the shadowcat.
"A natural born negotiator," Hex replied. "But unless you have a mouse in your pocket, I think "we" includes your parents."
"And I have incurred certain expenses."
Aerin tried to keep her attention on the cat, but couldn't help but shoot a glance up at her father as he pulled on his moustaches.
"There would be expenses," Ser Tomas said. "A pen ... we could not let it roam the castle freely when you are not available. And food. And if it proves untamable or harms you in any way, it dies. And as it is, I will not give more than ten silver stags."
Its pelt might fetch thirty - but then, Hex would have to lug the brute further.
"Ah, and isn't that a pity." Hex replied, warming to the negotiation. "I had to pay that much as a dangerous animal tax just to enter your wonderful keep.The hide alone would fetch three times your offer, and I'll barely break even on that. Plus I wouldn't want to be responsible for any injury to your daughter, as it could put a strain on our future dealings."
Aerin looked up at Hex with an amused look. She sat down on the floor next to the cage, then flipped the clasp on it and opened the cage to let the cat free. In the Steward's office.
The dornishman's hand dropped to the handle of the whip secured at his waist. "Mi'lord," he addressed Ser Tomas. "I wonder if you could close the door?"
Ser Tomas move to the door and slammed it shut, setting his back to it as his hand moved towards his dagger.
The shadowcat yawned - seeming for the sole purpose of displaying a rather impressive set of teeth, stretched itself in a way that displayed its long forelegs and claws, and then sauntered into the room. It shot a venomous look at Hex, then turned towards Aerin, moving towards her to butt at her gently with a questioning "Rrrrowl?"
"Beautiful, ferocious, and intelligent, mi'lord." Hex offered to Ser Tomas. "But not especially appreciative."
Ser Tomas snorted. He was still watching warily to make sure the feline's intentions towards his daughter were not hostile.
Apparently Aerin seemed to feel no hostility, nor apprehension toward the huge kitten. She happily, somewhat formally, started to scratch the cat behind its ears.
The cat purred happily. Ser Tomas frowned.
"All right," he said shortly to Hex. "What's your price?"
Then he shot a firm look at his daughter. "And the first time there's a claw mark on Lancer's hide, that cat will be a rug on the barrack room floor!"
The cat looked as though it belonged in a sept's stained glass window as a model of good behaviour.
Derron shook his head ruefully, but already began planning to pay for shredded carpets and clawed table legs. At Ser Tomas' remark about poor old Lancer, he smiled.
The Master of Arms looked at his daughter, and then at the merchant.
"All right," he said shortly to Hex. "What's your price?"
"The pelt would fetch thirty silver." Hex replied. "But I look forward to a long and mutually beneficial trading relationship, and I am not a man to kill the lamb to save the sheep."
Hex held out his hand. "Twenty silver, and I'm cutting my own throat to do it."
Aerin looked up from the cat to the trader's hand extended toward her father. Then up at her father. "I'll pay you back," she said quietly.
Then down at the cat. "Shade and I will pay you back," she said, stroking the tawny fur on the cat's head.
Ser Tomas sighed. "Eighteen," he said - but more than form's sake than anything else, it was clear.
Hex glanced down at his hand, still hanging there for a shake to seal the deal. As he dropped the hand to his waist he said. "You drive a hard bargain, ser, but eighteen it will be."
Aerin lifted her hand from the cat, looked at it with her head tilted. "That is... if you want to be here?" she asked the cat formally.
Ser Tomas looked hopefully for the cat, as though it was capable of response (and as though, if it were, it would cheerfully opt for being skinned over becoming his daughter's pampered pet).
Shade mmmmm-rowled, and butted Aerin's hand.
Ser Tomas sighed again and extended his hand. "I'll give you twenty if you throw in the cage," he said.
Hex smiled as he took Tomas hand. "Done."
Aerin smiled up at her father. "Shade and I will leave you alone with Steward now," she announced. She stood up with a smooth motion, and backed toward the door. "Come on, Shade. We have to let them do business now," she said, as if the cat could understand completely.
The cat yawned and stretched, as though he were in no particular hurry. And then, after a contemptuous look at all the men present, he sauntered from the room in Aerin's wake.
"It seems to me," said Ser Tomas drily, "that you might do well to approach Clearwater with caution on your return, Ser Trader."
"Ser Hex?" Alexander replied with a smile. "Doesn't really flow off the tongue, mi'lord. Saved from a life in the baiting pits, and delivered to a noble woman's chambers without a touch of gratitude. The 'cat reminds me of other women I've met in Old Town, to be true."