He sat in the corner, in the gathering gloom that was his life, waiting for the inevitable pursuers. By now they would be hot on his trail. He would not be waiting long to hear the weary refrain of the song.
But there were always possibilities. Even in these times of latter-day saints and devils. Sometimes he came back empty-handed. Sometimes not. He could not give up. Would not give up. The future was waiting, and it would not wait forever. It can't end like this. Millennia of striving, then savagery? No! It cannot end like this. The human race will rise again. The stars still waited, still beckoned. I won't let it end like this.
His waiting was rewarded with a cup. He watched the lad pour beer into it. “Can you bring me a little salt?”
He could see from the boy's expression that the request was not entirely unexpected. There was a shaker on the tray he was carrying. So someone recognized me. He wondered idly who it was. So many little towns, all the same, but with different people. I can't let it end like this.
He shook salt into his palm, then took one tiny pinch and dropped it in the little bubbles. He wondered how much time he had.
While he waited, he amused himself by watching the people in the inn, trying to divine the threads of life that connected them to each other. The preacher in the opposite corner he ignored as a known quantity. The girl sitting in the center table was obvious enough. She must have gone to Denver to seek work, perhaps as a seamstress, and found little to her liking in the decaying metropolis. The oaf with her was as plain as a book, although he doubted the fool had ever opened one. His clothes spoke of local privilege, perhaps the son of a prosperous farmer or merchant back from a carouse in Denver. The girl beside him knew him from around here, that much was clear, as was the fact that she didn't care for his company. But better the devil you knew, eh? Xander guessed that the jerk had a local flame and was hoping she might spot them and get jealous.
The front door opened and two more young men sauntered in. Farm boys, by the look of them. No rooms for them, then. He guessed there was no other convenient place for them to get soused after a hot day in the fields. It was a small town.
Was there someone here for him? He trusted his instincts. A faint echo had led him to step off the coach.
Remembering the coach and all it signified, he grimaced. A school bus, drawn by a team of horses! The days of the Texas oil barons were truly over. He doubted anyone here had ever even heard of internal combustion. I can't let it end like this.
Eventually the boy brought him a bowl of stew. As before, he made no mention of payment. It was just as well. He often forgot to bring money on these little excursions, having no need for it back at the Governor's skyscraper. Lucky someone here knew him.
There it was, that mental echo again. Someone here was a possibility.
He took the included spoon and ate sparingly, fishing out pieces of chicken and carrots. The meal was adequate, if limited. But they didn't have the resources of Aria's herb garden. He thought of the girl and wondered if she would ever resign herself to filling her mother's boots. But someone had to do it. One stray arrow had changed her life forever.
Once the big chunks were gone from the bowl, he amused himself with a couple of bits of a cracker from an inner pocket of his cloak. He dropped two bits onto the surface of the liquid and reached out with his mind to weave the pathspace. Soon they began orbiting in the bowl like little planets, in concentric circles.. But that bored him, so he added another layer to the trick, and sent them drifting round in opposite directions, the inner one clockwise, the outer one counter to that.
He was so preoccupied with this that he did not see the staring eyes. It wasn't until he heard the little gasp that he realized his indiscretion.
“How did you do that?”
He looked up and saw the serving boy watching. His hair was fair, his eyes blue as a summer sky. An observant lad. Well, well. Rather easily, he projected at him, and was rewarded with a blink. Aha! He looked around the room quickly, but no one else had noticed.
“That's pretty good ventriloquism,” the boy said, looking interested. “We had an entertainer come through once but I didn't get a chance to learn it.”
Alert, then, but ignorant. That could be changed. Indeed it could. Things were looking up. This trip was not a waste of time, after all.
“I wasn't throwing my voice,” he told the boy, who looked to be almost a man. “It was something else entirely.”
He could see he had the boy's attention now, for sure.
“The beer was cold,” he mused. “Almost frosty. Too cold for a mere spring house. That means your inn still has a functioning coldbox, doesn't it? And you're the one who fills and empties it, aren't you?” He cast his eyes about and saw the empty fireplace. “Is there an everflame, too? There is, isn't there? I knew I didn't smell any woodsmoke.”
The boy shrugged. “So? The smith has one too. What's that got to do with throwing your voice?”
Of course he didn't know. How could he? “Listen,” he said. “We might not have much time. Very soon some men are going to come looking for me. Before that happens, I need to tell you some things, things you probably don't know about coldboxes and everflames.”
The lad frowned at that. “What's there to know? They work or they don't.”
“What you don't know,” said Xander, “is that they also work on you. And they've been working on you for years, I'll wager, else you wouldn't have heard me, just now.” He pushed the bowl away from him and interlaced his fingers on the tabletop. Ignored, the bits of cracker continued round and round in the cooling surface of the stew. “How long have you been working here?”
A shadow seemed to pass over the boy's face, his features tightening as if an unpleasant subject had come up. “I don't see as how that's any of your business,” he said. “And you never answered my question. How did you stir the bowl without touching it?”
He was about to answer that when something he had been waiting for finally arrived: the sound of hoofbeats. Drat! This discussion would have to wait. He drained the cup quickly and turned. “Could you get me another beer? Explaining is thirsty work.”
The boy shrugged and picked up the tray. As he turned to head back to the kitchen, Xander grabbed his staff where it leaned against the corner, then reached out again, this time with his mind, and wrapped pathspace around him quickly and thoroughly, enfolding himself in a private pocket of darkness as the light flowed around him.
The boy was interested, but not yet hooked. There was no way he was going to let the men take him back before he'd gotten what he'd come looking for.
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