They stop at the Inn because Sancho is listing out of the saddle. They've ridden hard for days after their last adventure. The townspeople had been less than thrilled by their efforts to organize the child labor force into unions. Aldonza is tired, but still running on adrenaline: she won't sleep, not yet.
Sancho barely does her the courtesy of bathing—but in this, she has insisted—before disappearing to their room for the night. Aldonza goes down to the common room to order some food, perhaps a drink, although she has never been much for losing her inhibitions. One drink will be plenty.
The woman who comes to serve her is not pretty, not in any traditional sense. Dark-skinned and with hair that looks like it was cut by someone wielding a knife angrily, she's more striking, the kind of woman you see if you are looking just right. Aldonza murmurs, "Good evening."
The woman looks for a moment as though she will sneer, but something in Aldonza's manner must calm her, because in the end she simply says, "Can I help you?"
At the sound of her voice, somehow low and sweet at once, something stirs in Aldonza that she has not felt in a long time. She did not expect to feel it ever again. It takes her a moment to recover from her surprise and order the food. She foregoes the drink. The purity of the feeling is too much to pass up.
Aldonza considers her words carefully, before saying, "I am not certain. I would like the time to find out."
It's enough for Sancho, the slightest of truths always are. She wishes she had his easy faith that the world is a fixable place. In the meantime, he goes out and tutors, she finds a job at a tavern where all she is expected to serve is the food and drink. They stay at the inn because it is cheap and because it allows Aldonza to see the woman, Camilla, each night.
It is on their third night that she finds the nerve to ask her name, to ask, "How are you?"
Camilla cants her head and asks, "Who are you?"
"Aldonza," she says, "Dulcinea," she says. "Whichever you prefer."
Camilla shakes her head and rolls her eyes. She brings Aldonza's food and she leaves at the end of the night with a man whose bruises and bites she wears the next day.
Not having the brashness—or, perhaps, the same capacity for rejection—as the Don, she launches a more quiet campaign of small gifts, things to make a girl feel pretty. Slivers of scented soaps, pebbles that gleam in the sun on chords, a butterfly carved into wood. Their expenses are not much, and Aldonza has always been good with her hands. She had simply forgotten they were her own for such a long time.
She leaves bits of poetry in her broken lettering, taught painfully to her by Sancho. She doubts Camilla is any more literate than she was before Sancho's help, but she prays nightly that perhaps the woman has someone she can ask, more support than she herself had.
One way or another it gets a response. Not the response she wanted, but possibly the one she was expecting: Camilla tells her, in explicit terms, with her feelings in no way spared to leave her alone.
Aldonza is quite certain she's getting somewhere.
She makes her own mantecados at the tavern and gives them to Camilla, who gifts them straight to Sancho.
The cat works, though. Aldonza finds this funny, since she'd had no intention of gifting a starving, mite-infested barn cat to Camilla. Really, she'd just wanted it for herself. It had come to her, after all. As weak and scared as it was, it had peeked out from its dark corner of the barn when she'd gone to care for her horse.
She takes it to the well, wrapping it in one of her old dresses, now used for scraps and other utilitarian purposes. She bathes it carefully, seeing to the mites which will take medicine. She wonders if they have enough to visit an apothecary, is still wondering when Camilla settles down at her side and says, "Here," offering a bottle marked with the local apothecary's sign.
Aldonza blinks, the offering is so unexpected, and Camilla shrugs. "She's not the first kitten to come through these parts needing it."
That isn't so much the part that unbalanced Aldonza, but she smiles as though it is. Together they clean the kitten and get her to take some of the medication from the dropper. They give her water from the well and Camilla sneaks her some of the fish from the day's purchase. All in all, by the time she settles in the makeshift bed Aldonza and Camilla have fashioned for her in the stables, she looks practically domesticated.
Aldonza grins. It takes a moment, but Camilla smiles back.
One day, while playing with Mosi in the stables, Camilla tired from the night before, Aldonza politely not mentioning the shadows beneath her eyes, Camilla asks, "Why did you stay?"
Aldonza raises an eyebrow in lieu of an answer. Camilla scowls, but elaborates, "You are travelers, you and he. You do not put down roots."
Aldonza would disagree, she thinks they leave roots of their own, but she understands the question. She considers lying, but in the end she says, "I saw in you someone I knew."
"And?" Camilla asks.
"And she is happier since someone forced her to see that she was something more than what she thought."
Camilla's laugh is short and sharp. "So? You just go around trying to rescue tavern whores?"
Aldonza looks at her, piercing and serious. "No."
It breaks through Camilla's brashness. "Then why?"
"I don't know," Aldonza tells her eventually, the truth, or at least the truth as she knows it. "But I think if you came with us, you, me, Sancho, Mosi, I think we could find out."
"That is a terrible plan," Camilla says.
"But a wonderful adventure," Aldonza agrees.
Camilla shakes her head. "You're mad."
"Yes." Aldonza admits. "Much better than the alternative."
This time Camilla's laugh is a full-throated thing, husky and wild. "An adventure, hm?"
Aldonza hums. "We will be mad together."