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The Inn of Strange Meetings

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I had, for once, a little money - not much, not enough for a new coat, or even a comfortable room, but enough for a few drinks somewhere warm and enough to eat. Of course the not-in-the-least-comfortable room I’d taken (more of an garrett really, or a small attic with an old bed frame in it, if I’m being honest - nice light though, for a good half-hour mid-morning, when the sun was just right for the single window) - well naturally the nice part of town doesn’t have rooms like that, or if it does, they’re for the servants, but then the other part normally has better (or at least cheaper) drinking establishments, so it’s a fair trade really, if you look at it from the right angle. Except that, so far as I could tell, this town didn’t.

I hadn’t been here long, and until that afternoon my attention was more on not freezing to death in the first of the winter snows, and keeping hold of those possessions I still could call my own, so I hadn’t been keeping careful note of all the ways I couldn’t spend the money I didn’t have, but now, the reassuring weight of coins in my pocket, I couldn’t find a single inn. Street after narrow street, and you’d expect the shops to be safely barred and shuttered after dark, but no welcoming door anywhere was hardly usual. But there it was: no bar, pub, tavern, wine-shop, ale-house or low-down dive. Not even a hole in the wall selling spirits.

Maybe there’d been a wave of religious enthusiasm? It happens that way, sometimes. (Sins of the flesh, demons’ work, renunciation and purifying fire, the normal litany. People are much the same, even when they think they’re being original.) Or just an upswelling of superstition, unsanctified by priest or preacher, a sudden popular terror of the uncanny, the foreign, the stranger in the crowd (and we all know who controls the trade in liquor, what manner of beings your friendly local landlord must deal with for his kegs of ale or barrels of wine - you might think superstition alone could not make men abstain, but I assure you, men can be tempted to turn against even their own pleasures, if you can make them fear the taint).

No one had warned me of a curfew, so it seemed unlikely to be that, but of course the inns might have been closed for fear of civil unrest, to keep the wrong sort of people from plotting in back rooms, or making rabble rousing speeches to audiences too drunk to be cautious - it was many years since I’d last been this way, and I found I had no idea how things now stood, whether the churches or the mob or the state held sway, or what factions might currently be struggling for power within them. It might have been prudent to find out, but then again, it was hardly likely to affect me now, except in the matter of not being able to buy a drink, which was definitely frustrating.

It was a hunter’s moon, and even the cramped streets, upper stories encroaching on either side, were light enough. It had snowed a little, earlier, but even the moonlight could not turn the fallen snow to the white of fairytales - city snow is grey and slushy and has no romance in it, unless you find slippery, dirty streets particularly romantic, in which case you’re welcome to them. I found myself missing my old coat and wondering if I should have stayed in my attic, unheated though it was. Wondering, too, if I could even find my way back to it, or whether it had been swallowed irretrievably by the maze of streets behind me. It felt as though I should be able to find my way back, as though these desolate buildings with their grime and crumbling plaster, perched precariously on the edge between respectable poverty and slum, were in some part home, familiar and welcoming, but I knew it to be an illusion, and I could easily find myself as lost as any stranger. Probably was lost already, even if I was too stubborn to admit it.

Luckily my shirt and jacket, though old and worn, had once been good quality, made for a man of rather better station, and they still gave some protection against the bite in the wind, and the bone-deep chill already clinging to the stone streets. It would be a bad winter, that much was clear. If I had any sense I’d find work enough to pay for a better, heated room, or leave before the roads out became impassable by foot.

In the end, I almost walked past the inn. I think I’d already concluded it was a fool’s errand and I would go hungry that night, but luck was with me after all, for there was a little side-alley, little more than a passageway between houses, and half-way down it a doorway, that in its day must have been rather fine, with stone arch and heavy old doors, now rather battered, the crest that must once have been carved above the door chiseled off. You can find such traces of former grandeur almost wherever you choose to look - it is an old city, with a long and shifting history - but it was the present that interested me: a small lantern in a holder by the door, its flame dancing merrily in the dark of the alleyway, a worn sign painted on the wall. Part of the plaster had fallen away, taking a good part of the sign with it, and what was left was in poor condition, but I could make out something that might have been ‘meet’ at the bottom, and more to the point the word ‘inn’ at the top.

Unusually, the door was tall enough I did not need to stoop to enter, and I found myself striding in, straight-backed, head high, as though I owned the place and everything for miles around. It’s a bad habit, and I really am old enough to know better, but then again if you look too meek, you are only asking for someone to come and kick you.

To the left of the entrance was a narrow bar, but better to eat first, so I went into the main room. It was larger than I’d expected from the street, but still cosy: there was a large fire in the far corner and a generous supply of candles, so not only was it warm, it looked warm, the red-gold light flickering on the dark wood of the benches and tables and catching in the steam still rising from the bowls laid out before the fire (a beaten copper soup-pot, polished till it gleamed, a wide china dish for the pudding, a silver punch bowl garlanded with orange peel). There was one man serving, perhaps the owner, a well-fed middle-aged man with an air of cheerful efficiency and a manner professionally designed to fall at exactly the right point between respectful and welcoming. Whatever mood had come upon me at the door was with me still, and I waived away the offered jug of wine as one who would never deign to drink such things, and asked for something better, which rather to my surprise turned out to be available - the furniture was old and well-made, and I rather thought the wrought silver bowl might be genuine Andrini (perhaps some inherited treasure, reminder mine host’s family had once known better days), but I could not imagine it regularly attracted patrons concerned with vintage rather than price.

The soup was hot and surprisingly delicate, flavoured with herbs. And as for the wine, oh, it was an extravagance no doubt, and quite unjustifiable, but it was the delicate gold shading to brown of May honey and it smelt of hay and wildflowers, and for a moment I could have been a young man again, my life ahead of me, not a rough old wanderer on whom anything more delicate than cheap table wine would be wasted.

I looked around as I ate, trying to work out what I had stumbled upon, for it was like no cheap inn of my acquaintance, and I had been acquainted with many over the years. There were only a few other patrons, all seated singly on separate tables, although each table would have done for a largish group, and by some trick of the lighting those who were not facing away from me were fallen in shadow, so it was hard to make out any detail of their faces or dress.

None of them took much interest in me, although my appearance is distinctive enough I can never be sure of passing without comment, though to be sure it’s not as unusual as all that, for even in the roughest areas of town you may find some lord’s bastard, or the children or grandchildren of the same, whose form may bear the stamp of their ancestry, but who are labourers, or thieves, or honest craftsmen, like any of their fellows.

The soup being finished to the last spoonful, the host served me a portion of the pudding, suet crust golden and the thick brown gravy pooling in a fragrant lake upon the plate. It was a proper pudding, meat and birds and little delicacies of kidney and heart and sweetbread, perfectly balanced. Had the host once been chef to some noble, before retiring to run an inn? (Retiring perhaps with that Andrini bowl and any other little knick-knacks that wouldn’t be missed until too late? One would not like to think it of so dignified a man, but still…)

It was many years since I’d had grackles so well cooked. There are always far too many of them in the city, and they have little flesh on them, and a poor taste if you don’t have the trick of preparing them, so that they are often the meat of almost last resort, the thing you serve just before you start on cats and rats, which is not a point at which you can expect delicate cuisine. Grackles treated as a luxury are quite another thing, and not one I had thought to eat again.

They are strange birds, when you think about them, noisy and quarrelsome and common as dirt, but with the most beautiful colours: blues iridescent and varied as a mermaid’s tail, or the robes on a holy icon, and eyes the colour of old gold. They’re said to be intelligent, too, though I can’t say I’ve seen any evidence of it. I knew a man once, many years ago, who tamed them and kept them as pets. Or perhaps he didn’t tame them, but they adopted him, not so much as their owner but as an unusually ambulatory home.

You could hear him coming, of course, by their constant cries (as I said, they are very quarrelsome birds), and it was a fine sight to see them darting about his head in flashes of blue and green, like some sort of halo given form and feathers. Later he retired to the countryside, to live as a hermit, him and his birds. He was quite blind - cataracts - but he lived alone without difficulty. Sometimes I wondered if the birds secretly looked after him, bringing him food and guiding him. Sometimes I wondered if he could see perfectly through their eyes. How would our world look, I wonder, seen in so alien a form?

He preferred a very simple life, close to the gods, many people said. I half believed it myself at the time. Now? I’m not so sure the gods value renunciation: there are, after all, no records that they starve themselves as their holy saints do, or wish to forgo rich offerings. But who am I to judge him? He may well have been a good man, after his fashion, and if he was blind, well what fault of that was his?

Certainly in those days I thought well of him: I’d never met a man so lacking in pretension, so straightforwardly sure of his ground, so uninterested in what other might think of him, so passionate that all should pursue virtue. Not that I took his teachings to heart, of course, for all I recommended him to all my friends, got him a license to preach where he pleased, or if I did, it was only as an occasional holiday, a suit of sackcloth I tried on in jest and forsook as lightly. I was very young, and there was little difference to me then between a picnic in the countryside, a pious lecture, a night of dissipation at the baths or a visit to an elegant teahouse.

The baths, now, I remember them in their heyday. I think they’re closed now; certainly any that remain will be a poor shadow of what they once were. Then, you could have mistaken them for palaces. My favourite was the one in Filtree Street, not as large as some, but one of the most refined (one of the most debauched as well, depending which entrance you used and the time of day). I remember there was a courtyard above ground, porticoed and with a fountain of clear drinking water at the centre, cool even in the heat of summer. There was a little rise to the courtyard, barely perceptible, with the fountain at the highest point, narrow stone channels radiating from it to drains at the edge of the columned walkway, so that there was always the sound of running water, and there were huge enamelled pots (cloisonné patterns of peacock and scarlet with dividers of gold wire), the herbs that grew in them sweetly fragrant under the summer sun. (In winter one hurried directly within, to the warmer rooms below, but in summer, when the city stank and sweated outside, there was no finer place than that garden.)

Below were the vaulted cellars of the bathhouse proper, marble floored, the walls tiled in a shifting mix of blue and green (truly shifting - there was some minor enchantment at work), fountains in every room, the water gushing straight from living springs buried deep underground - none of that dead water from aqueduct or cistern. Well, you would have expected that, for it was a favourite with the river nymphs. You rarely see them these days - maybe you’ve never seen one at all, and mermaids put you in mind only of the Haliae, wild ocean nymphs, little better than elementals; certainly you couldn’t hold a conversation with one. It was quite different back then: not the rivers only, but every spring, every fountain had its nymph, and they clustered and congregated in town, a class unto themselves - not quite courtesans (too independent, for all they mostly loved jewellery and shiny gifts; besides they were all land-holders in their own right, even if no more than a square foot of rocky mountain side spewing forth a trickle of water - not like the fauns and the land-nymphs, who could be separated from their patrimony, could indeed be born with no memory of the ground whence their family had first been formed), but not the true nobility, and most assuredly not the common mass.

They were so light-hearted, charming and vivacious as water sparkling in the spring sunlight, but capable of a calmness, a depth of insight, at odds with their playfulness and love of luxury. I don’t know what happened to them. The water must still be there, welling up new-born from the earth, and I suppose I always assumed they were near enough to immortal, not born to drop and die like the creatures of the fields and woods. But a visit to any market will tell you fish are no less mortal than goats or men, and a knife will gut one as well as another, and so they too are a thing of the past. I wonder, if any of the baths remain, whether the marble floors are now as stained as the marble of the fish market by the Western Gate?

But one did not think at the time of what was to come, and in memory Filtree Street is as it ever was, cool and inviting and ringing with burbling laughter like water over stones. I remember one of the workers there - his great-grandmother had caught the eye of the then Keeper of the Civic Rolls, and the line had bred true, so he could have passed as some minor noble himself - a large, calm man, muscular as an ox, though I never once saw him roused to anger, one of the most skilled masseurs I’ve ever known. Nothing ever disturbed him, not the teasing of the nymphs (or of the other patrons), not the faction-fights that swept the city above, not the most charismatic of street preachers. (Perhaps, looking back, he led a more truly simple life than my hermit of the grackles. Was his devotion to his job, his competence and sense of duty, worth less than a man who turned his back on city life, except to condemn it?) What became of him I do not know - was he forced to fight at last, falling before superior numbers (no man can stand against a mob), or did he drift away into the back streets and take up some other work?

I was brought back to the present by the arrival of the punch - the host was not after all the only server, for a young girl came out from the kitchen to lift the great punch bowl reverently and carry it to my table, where the older man ladled it out, offered me sugar or honey, touched a piece of peel to a candle flame and dipped it my portion, and otherwise did all that was required for proper, ceremonial service. The bowl was Andrini, I’d swear to it, though I was too polite to comment. (What could I have said, in any case? Did you steal it? Have you fallen on hard times? Did someone loot it from the mansion of its owners, carrying it off past the fly-encrusted bodies of those who had lived there, lords and servants alike? Hardly tactful questions.)

The punch itself was exquisite. Where he had come by those spices, who can say. Perhaps the same place as the bowl itself. They used to serve such things in winter at the tea shops (how that must have confused foreign visitors! Not that you couldn’t drink tea at a tea shop, often very fine and delicate tea, but only a handful of connoisseurs went for that reason, anymore than you went to the baths only to get clean. You went to meet your friends, to hear the latest gossip, to gamble a small fortune on backgammon, to drink or smoke. Really very rarely indeed to drink tea.)

I used to sneak out in the afternoon with my cousin, when we should have been at our lessons. She can’t have been more than twelve, and what I thought I was doing taking her to such places I don’t know. Let it be said in my defence I was only a year or so older myself, and she was always more sensible than I - she went to play backgammon, and to play for the sake of the game, not to gamble. I imagine she learnt rather more of mathematics that way, than with her tutor at home.

(Her tutor was quite useless, I cannot blame her for wishing to escape him, any more than I blame my childhood self for doing likewise with mine. A man chosen to instil the proper arts, the correct degree of knowledge, but quite unable to answer questions. I remember asking mine about the different families of fauns, how it was that you still saw Auloniades and Leimakides everywhere from court to street corner (the latter being illegitimate of course), in all their possible forms, but the Alseides and Napaeae who peopled my history books seemed vanished almost without trace. I think the blind preacher with his grackles was the only man I had ever seen with stag horns. (They seemed always a little incongruous: he looked as if he should worship the old gods, when he was such a fanatical devotee of the new. But of course the old ways died out centuries ago, as the cities grew, and no doubt his family had converted generations back.) But my tutor had no answer for me, did not even seem to understand the question, shrugging it off with a reference to change and fortune’s wheel. And if I could go back and take his place, counsel my younger self?

I think, now, the city and the cultivated farms belong together, the bulls and the goats and the rams, who understand that men (and fauns) must work together, must make the best of things as they are. The wild places are another matter. In some far distant mountain glen, does it matter what others may think or do? You judge what is right only for yourself, and live as you please. But you cannot import such ways into the city, cannot draw such neat lines between good and evil, cannot take the wary prey’s instinctive fear and reify it as the gods’ will and revealed truth, cannot turn your back on civility, and compromise, and the myriad arts of city living. To outside eyes, the city may seem mired in sin, impure, untrustworthy, but that impurity, if impurity it is, lies in the hearts of men, and it takes a butchers’ knife to remove it. Always remember, the only true cleansing is with fire, and who in their right mind would make a bonfire of the world merely to escape impurity? I do not blame my younger self for skipping lessons both trite and dull, but there is blame enough to spare for other things, and I should have stuck to tea-shops and bathhouses and picnics in the country. I have always had the gift of seeing clearly, if I take the trouble to look: I do not have the excuse of blindness.)

In those days, even the oldest and grandest families would patronise the tea-shops. There was one of the Draconids, an elegant man, arbiter of taste for the city (he was the one set the fashion for nightingale song), who used to come specifically to play backgammon with Falina - young as she was, he said there was no better opponent to be found. I was pleased she had made a friend - I wonder, now, what would have happened if things had happened differently? If she had grown up, no longer a child? But the nightingales are long gone, and Falina with them.

The grand palace is still there, by the way - I saw it the day I arrived, towering above the main square in a fretwork of coloured marble, and there is a prince who lives there now, who calls himself by the old name, but I saw him as he passed by in his chariot, and I have never seen a greater resemblance to a frog.

I believe he is looking to have his wedding portrait painted. I am almost tempted to offer my services. If I talked with enough confidence about Art, I might even get away with an accurate painting - he would not want to betray his ignorance by taking offence, and he would certainly pay well. And it would be balance, in a way, the old city paying tribute to the new. Balance, and perhaps penance, though these days I have little use for such notions. Still, I am an honest craftsman now, who must work to order or starve; painting a self-portrait half an hour a day, in the morning light, is an allowable indulgence only if I spend the rest of the day more gainfully.

The host returns with the account, which is after all not quite more than I can pay, and I take one more look around the room. I think I recognise the other patrons now, shadowy though they are: the idle young man, indulgent in vice and puritanism alike; that sad-eyed soldier; the travelling merchant; that rather prosperous man who might be court-painter to one of the little Southern courts; the ageing wanderer. I have heard of such places before, little pockets of old enchantment that bend themselves to the will of whoever finds them, creating mirrors or illusions as required. But one should gaze neither at the past nor in the mirror too long - long enough for wisdom, yes, but regrets as they say butter no bread, and if I want to find my attic again before dawn, I should be leaving.