Rose stretched her neck and sighed. the low setting sun was hot on her neck and sweat trickled down her back. She groaned and pushed away from the spinning wheel, dropping the bundle of wool back into the pile at her feet.
“Miss Trewin, you haven’t finished.”
She rolled her stiff shoulders and turned to the older, white haired woman. “No, ma’am. But the sun is setting and I’m hungry.” She dusted her lose skirts free from the wool fibers. “I’ll make it up tomorrow.”
The shopkeeper glowered at her but relented with a wave of her hand. “Fine then. Business has been slow anyway.”
“Thank you, Marg.”
Rose smiled softly and slipped past the gruff woman—the first to offer
Rose a job in this small town. She wasn’t a great seamstress or spinner, but she worked hard, and Marg wasn’t a cruel shop owner.
“Are you still staying at the inn?” Marg asked as she passed.
She tucked stray hair behind her ear. “Yes. It’s clean and not too expensive.”
Marg snorted softly at her. “You should look for a room somewhere else. There are plenty of people who would rent you a room. I even know of a small cottage or two near the woods.”
“Perhaps,” she said as she dusted off her skirts.
Rose looked up when her boss cackled at her. “You’ve been here nearly six weeks. Living in an inn can’t be enjoyable.”
“No, it is not but . . .” She trailed off. “Thank you again.”
Slipping outside, she wandered down the uneven cobblestone street toward the pub and inn. It was a small building, dingy and worn. The ceiling had a haze of smoke clinging to it, but it had decent food, mostly, and clean beds. It was a small town, smaller than she liked, but it seemed to suit her. The buildings were a ramshackle collection of stone and wood, many wedged next to each other as if the city grew too quickly.
Rose settled herself at a small table in the corner. “Dinner ma’am?”
She looked up at the tired barmaid and nodded. “Some ale as well, please.”
The barmaid quickly returned with a bowl of stew and a mug of ale. Rose sipped at the thin broth and poked at the chewy chunks of meat. She wrinkled her nose at it and pulled the mug of ale closer. Leaning back in her creaky chair, she watched the room.
Her view was interrupted by a man stopping in front of her table. “Yes?” Rose drawled and slowly dropped her hand closer to the dagger sheathed in her boot.
The thin man gestured to the empty chair across from her. “Might I join you for some conversation and a meal?”
She glanced at the stranger and looked him quickly up and down.
Worn and cracked boots, old but nice clothes, dirty face but clear eyes. Before she could shake her head no, he was dragging the chair around and sitting next to her, his back to the wall.
Rose raised an eyebrow at him as he settled in the chair and waved over the barmaid. “Yes, of course . . . help yourself,” she drawled and shifted so she could face him.
He snorted. “A horse makes for stale company after so long.” He turned to the woman. “Some stew and ale, please.”
She sipped her ale and watched him. “I’m Nico.”
Nico gulped down half of his ale before stopping for air. “Have you lived here long?”
She clucked her tongue and finished off her ale. “Born and raised.” She stood from the rickety table. “Now, I must be off. Enjoy your stew.” Rose walked steadily and calmly toward the narrow stairway in the corner without looking back. She didn’t care for strangers and cared for questions even less, no matter where they came from. Let that traveler think she was born in this rotting little town and forget all about the strange girl he met in the tavern when he left.
Rose unlocked the door to her small room and slipped inside, locking it behind her. She walked to her narrow bed and pulled the dagger from each boot, dropping them onto the small table next to it. She slipped off the simple skirt of browns and reds and yanked off the constricting bodice. Rose climbed into bed, ignored the sounds of a tavern below her, and tried to sleep.
The night was restless, with the wind howling outside all night. Dreams of her father and life before made for a long night. When morning came, it was gray and cold. Rose looked at the sky from her small window and thought grimly how it fit her mood. She dressed quickly in more reds and browns before heading out of the inn for another day of tedious work. She liked the flashy bright colors of turquoise or green, but those stood out. She paused as she passed the small mirror hanging on the wall. Her hazel eyes and straight brown hair were simple. Too young to have wrinkles, but life didn’t care that she was barely in her second decade and there were small lines at the corners of her eyes. Rose loved bright colors when she was young. Now, reds and browns were her col- ors. They don’t stand out. She snorted at her reflection and left her room.
Rose pulled her long jacket closed against the wind. The walk from the inn to the shop was short but the wind was cold and hard. By the time she reached the shop door, she was half running. The bell dinged softly as Rose tried to smooth her hair back into place.
“Oh, hello dear.”
She gave up pulling her hair out of her face with a huff. “Nasty wind picking up, there better not be a storm coming.”
Marg snorted and turned the page in her ledger. “Oh, someone came looking for you after you left yesterday.”
She snapped her head up. “What?” Alarm made her insides twist. No one should be looking for her. No one should know to come here. Marg licked her thumb and turned another page. She spoke without bothering to look up, “Yes, tall man. Had quite a lot of black hair. He said he was an old friend of yours.”
Rose tried to swallow but her mouth had gone dry from fear. “What did you tell him?”
Marg finally looked up. “That you’d gone for the day.”
Marg frowned at her. “No, dear. What’s gotten into you?”
She rubbed her lips with her shaking fingers. “I need to run an errand. I’ll be back later. I’ll make up the missed work tonight.”
Marg frowned at her. “You only just got here, girl. What am I paying you for?”
“I’ll be back.” Rose turned on her heel and went back out into the wind. Her hair whipped around her face as she turned down the narrow alley between the drapery next door. Her light skirt wrapped around her legs in the wind. She took another turn and headed along the back of the buildings toward the inn.
Rose jerked to a stop. She turned faced the speaker. “You know I hate that name.”
A tall man leaned against the wall, his dark hair hiding most of his face. She could never tell if it was to be sensual, to hide his face, or if he simply couldn’t control his messy locks.
“I thought I’d wait around for you.”
“Why are you here, Gavin? Have you finally found someone who will hire you?”
He leaned against the shop wall, trying to look relaxed, but Rose could see the strain in his neck and the clench of his jaw.
“I’m looking for better employ, if you must know. You, however, are a long way from home. Your father must be so worried.”
Rose pulled her hands out of her pockets and kept her arms lose at her sides. The wind pulled her hair from the loose braid and it whipped around her face. “I’m sure,” she drawled. “Is that what you’re going to do, Gavin? Rush back to him with news of my whereabouts, hope that lets you back into his fold? Do you think presenting me as a gift will get you work?”
He jerked away from the wall and grabbed her hard by the arm. “He’ll be mighty pleased to know your location. Might even pay me good coin for the information. And if he won’t, others will. You know they will.”
A quick, hard whirl freed her arm from Gavin’s grip. Before he could say more, she turned away. He shouted after her but she ignored him; keeping her back straight. She slipped in through the servant’s door near the stables and used their hallways to get up to her room. She locked the door behind her and let out a deep breath.
Her little room was barren: a small bed against one wall, a short rick- ety desk along the other. She had no decorations and her few personal items were still packed in her bag. If she were to leave, no one would remember she’d been here. Her spot at the small spinner shop would be easily filled.
Rose slumped onto her small bed. This was the farthest west she’d been, had even crossed the province borders into Amora and still her past found her. She’d been here too long already, and Gavin couldn’t be allowed to sell his news of her. She curled onto the bed, tucked the scratchy wool blanket around her, and set in to wait for the night.