Following a Rumour
Methos had never been in a souq he didn’t like.
Although, he definitely preferred the merchant souqs over a commercial souq, and the vibe of a permanent bazaar was different to a seasonal one--but no less enjoyable. And there was always a coffee house. A souq was life.
The coffee was hot and black, and so deliciously thick. Life was about simple pleasures. Methos lazed on cushions watching the world go by, busy and frantic then slow in turn. Dust was kicked up by donkeys hauling loaded panniers. Hot sand under a baking sun had its own distinct scent. A mother chased dust over the threshold of her home with a broom made of sticks.
Methos’ long bones loved the heat. Under a cloudless blue sky bracketed by minarets, he escaped the relentless sun under an awning, drinking coffee until the proprietor marvelled at his customer’s cast iron stomach.
He had followed a rumour across a continent or two, wondering on a happenstance. Curiosity was his failing, perhaps. The library of the Golden City had been his first stop. Many an immortal liked a library – or more accurately, the successful immortals liked to learn, and Methos was definitely not following a new born.
The city’s library had been a vast array of cool marble floors filled with stack upon stack of bound papers and coiled parchments under flying arches. Quiet, studious readers and lightly scented incense permeated the edifice. If Methos had believed in heaven, he might have likened it to paradise.
A paradise without coffee or, more importantly, beer.
So, hardly paradise.
Since the immortal had not been found in the library, Methos might have looked in an ale house, but there were no inns or taverns within the Golden City.
Methos liked coffee and this was the best coffee house in the Golden City, and it also happened to be perfectly situated at the crossroad beside the northern gate. If he leaned forward, he could see the old roman road heading east. He didn’t; he had seen and walked many roads.
He had coffee, dates, and succulent apricots. The pastries were sublime. The hubbub of conversation, sharing news both wide and far, interested him and provided distraction. When he became bored with conversation, an ever-changing crowd of customers playing vigorous games of chess, declaiming poetry (ranging from the mediocre to the sublime) alongside singing (caterwauling or the most perfect voice) provided amusement. Also, he could keep an eye on the local mercenary leader who dealt in contracting mercenaries across borders. Immortals had a warrior bent, if they were invested in their survival. They might grow out of the warrior way, but only after they had secured the experience to survive.
There was an interesting man. European, tall, skinny, hook nose—in another world, Methos could have played them off as relatives. A hint of a gold cross gleamed at his throat. The Christian wore a sword openly and moved with it as he sat, stood, turned – an extension. He would be off-balanced without a sword.
Methos hadn’t felt the nail scratch of a quickening in months.
A spar might be fun; the mercenary looked competent. The distinct shapes of book edges poking out the side of his bag spoke of intelligence—or at least, a learned mercenary.
Nobility? Methos nibbled on a sweet pastry, tonguing a fragment of almond caught between his teeth. He chased the sweetness with a sip of rich coffee. Bastard of a noble house? Likely well-trained.
Yes, an interesting opponent.
His brother-in-arms was his other half, and wasn’t that also interesting, Methos mused. How had a Moor and a Christian formed such bonds? They were careful, pretending to be mere mercenary partners, but those with the eye and experience to see caught the light touch of a little fingertip against a fingertip; a moment’s eye contact that held a lifetime’s memories; a spark of love over a shared meal.
Methos hid behind his coffee. It was poor cover. The Moor spoke Italian—old Ligurian or perhaps Genoese, the dialect and tonality centuries past. How? As a code it was excellent within a spice redolent city but how had they learnt such fluidity? He listened as their conversation meandered through a host of tongues where one word in one language worked better than another.
A smudge of charcoal on one fingertip and a smidge on the side of the Moor’s palm where it had rested on paper was at odds with his hard-worn leathers.
An artist and a scholar.
“Sirrah,” a voice said somewhat insultingly. Methos was and never had been or wanted to be noble, but his guise as a prosperous merchant was perfect. He was more concerned by the whisper of coiled steel drawing from a leather sheaf. She--and the voice was feminine--was close enough that she had a fair chance that she could skewer a mortal man lazing on cushions before he turned. Oddly, she was a little too far away to make it an easy kill. Methos was, at his heart, invested in survival.
She could throw the blade but everyone would know that she--a woman, no less--had injured a man.
The blade was still half-drawn. Curiosity drove her then.
“Mistress.” Methos shifted in his seat to face her, and better defend himself.
Astonishingly, for this time and place, she too wore the leathers and silks of a mercenary. A hodgepodge of practicality and efficiency from across wide Asia. People were people and forms were forms. Legs were legs, be you man or woman. Her light armour allowed her to move and her studded leathers gave her protection. The labrys strapped to her back wasn't a sword but it could easily separate a person's body from its head.
Methos remained at ease; for all intents and purposes. His existence was a lie and a deception. He was interested in what the warrior wanted. She was threat but he wasn’t threatened. He eyed the axe. Her double-headed axe was unapologetic and spoke loudly. He held little pity for the man who thought that this woman should be quiet and deferent. The axe was very large.
“Mistress?' he repeated.
“You watch my brothers,” she said. And wasn't that even more interesting: a Moor; a Christian and a Pagan Queen.
“Yes,” he could hardly deny it; the coffee cup was a poor shield. “I trade spice.” It wasn't a lie. “You and your brothers may be good guards for my caravan.” Also not a lie.
“We don't do that kind of work,” she said flatly, but she didn’t walk away.
“What kind of work do you do?” Methos opened his palm, gesturing at his perfectly brewed pot of coffee and delectable pastries. “Please, join me.”
Hip canted, dagger re-sheaved, she weighed him. Methos returned her regard. He let his inward smile cross his face. This woman had stories. He liked stories.
She took a padded, back-less stool for her own, legs wide and axe jutting above her head. Out of the corner of his eye, Methos saw her two brothers settle down to wait for the outcome of their conversation.
A click of Methos’ fingers and the owner’s young son set a second cup on the table. Methos sat up slow and careful. And then poured her a delicious hot coffee, letting the stream slowly pour from the pot, held high above the second cup. Every drop fell into the tiny cup with perfect precision.
She laughed at him, even as she took a rosewater rich pastry from his plate. Slowly, she licked her bottom lip and then took a generous, manly bite.
“Where do you travel?” she asked around a mouthful of flaking pastry, scattering crumbs.
“Kashchgar and then onto Anxi--the route depending on local knowledge in Kashchgar. I have no wish to fight unless I have to.”
Methos knew many languages, some of which he spoke fluently. The Christian and the Moor spoke of traveling to Wuwei, the route was on the way to their destination. Methos was flexible, he was willing to go where this interesting trio would take him—time was indeed on his side—at least until they proved too dangerous.
“Convenient,” she said dryly
Methos shrugged. The route was the route – all traders travelled all of the Silk Road or part of the Silk Road at some point in their lives or they should not call themselves traders. He had followed rumours of immortals to the Golden City. This queenly woman might not match that which he was whimsically pursuing, but he could return to that pursuit when he had plumbed this intriguing mystery.
“Let us talk terms then, trader.” She stole another treat from his plate.