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A Measure of Solace

Chapter Five

The Jealous Owl was already packed when Zeera arrived with Solace that night. It was the largest tavern in town—the reason she’d chosen it—and sat in the southern quarter, right on the river. It was warm, smelling of hoppy ale and acrid sweat, with every chair occupied and the rest of the space jammed with standing onlookers. The girl had to squeeze her way inside, holding her walking stick and the bow pressed to her front so she didn’t poke anyone in the eye with either one.

“There she is!” someone called, and the murmuring noise of the crowd intensified.

 

Around her, people turned to watch as she maneuvered her way to the end of the bar, where the barkeep was signaling her with a wave. He was heavyset with a balding pate covered in dark, side-swept wisps.

 

“I appreciate the business, miss,” he said, his voice wet and throaty. “How long will this contest of yours last?”

 

“It’s likely only to be tonight,” she said, stepping up onto the wooden crate the man had turned over for her. “And probably only a few hours, depending on how many people are interested.”

 

He chuckled. “A lot, I’d say, based on this crowd.”

 

Once she faced the gathering, everyone quieted, eager to hear what she had to say. She swallowed, gripping Solace and silently asking him for more of the confidence he had given her earlier. A reassuring feeling made her palms tingle where she held him, and she drew up her courage before reciting the words she had practiced for the better part of the last hour.

 

“Greetings, all. The tasks I set for you might appear simple at first, but I assure you they are a true test of one’s mental fortitude.” Her voice rang out with a musical tone, loud enough to be heard in the furthest corner. “But it is not only the completion of each task that will challenge you.” She paused, waiting for even the hushed comments to die away. “It is the mastery of your own disposition.”

 

Zeera unwrapped Solace and held him up for all to see. “Whosoever wins the right to this magnificent weapon must prove themselves not only to be clever but to be constant, unwavering, totally composed even in the face of great frustration.”

 

The murmurs started up again, and a few voices called out.

 

“What do we have to do?”

 

“How much does this cost?”

 

“Show us these tests of yours!”

 

This last was met with nodding and many noises of agreement.

 

“It will cost you nothing,” Zeera assured them, setting Solace carefully on the bar to dig around in her satchel. “The first task is this.” She held up the first of her puzzles, a polished piece of wood the size of a large apple in the shape of a miniature barrel.

 

Many of the faces before her registered confusion and doubt.

 

She turned away from them, disassembled the pieces of the little barrel, and turned around to show the crowd a dozen smaller pieces of finely carved wood in her hands. “Put these back together to form the barrel, without cursing or showing your frustration, and you will be one step closer to winning the prize.” She smiled around at the eager faces. “Who’s first?”

A few hours later, Solace sat behind Zeera, wrapped once more in his cloth and leaning against the wall next to her walking stick. He had been dormant for quite a while, letting Zeera deal with the numerous people who had been interested in trying their hand at her contest. At first he had pushed his senses out to evaluate each of them, but he had stopped after ten or so, deciding instead to save his energy. Not a one had been able to solve the first puzzle, nor had any remained composed during the attempt.

 

A middle-aged man currently sat at Zeera’s table, moving the small pieces of wood between his strong fingers. He had three pairs connected but was struggling to see how they would fit together. The man tried piece after piece, pair after pair, and he connected two pairs together to make four but could get no further ahead.

 

Many others had gotten to this point but no further. Their mistake was in thinking that each of the similarly shaped pieces fit together in the same way, but they didn’t. Solace had seen Zeera work the puzzle so many times now, he felt he could have directed a lemur to solve it. He wondered how long it had taken the girl herself to solve it the very first time.

 

Is this the last one? he asked.

 

Zeera made no reply but craned her neck to look past the man still busy with the puzzle. Though there were other patrons in the common area of the Jealous Owl, none of them were waiting to sit at Zeera’s table.

 

Instead of speaking, the girl nodded.

 

Will you stay and try another night?

 

Zeera shook her head.

 

At that moment, the man got another piece to connect. He had taken apart his original pairs—an encouraging sign of unconventional thinking—and had started from scratch, finding new ways for the pieces to fit together. Unfortunately, he was letting frustration get to him by this point, and though he was further along than anyone previous, he couldn’t see it.

 

The man jostled two pieces together, trying to force them to fit. His face twisted up in sudden anger, and he tossed the wooden bits onto the table with a noise of disgust.

 

Zeera raised her eyebrows, and Solace allowed himself a small quiver of disappointment. “I’m sorry,” the girl said.

“Yeah, yeah,” the man replied, pushing his chair back and standing. To Solace’s surprise, he looked at Zeera with a smile, his frustration of a moment before already gone. “Good luck finding someone.”

 

The girl nodded. “Thank you.”

 

Once they were alone, Zeera put the puzzle in her satchel and brought Solace over onto the table, resting both hands on his cloth-wrapped wooden body.

 

“I’m surprised no one got it,” she said softly.

 

I am not, Solace replied. You and your people are quick to anger, though also quick to calm, it seems. Still, not ideal to wield one such as I.

 

“I know,” she said with a sigh. After a pause, she lowered her voice further and bowed her head, speaking toward the tabletop. “Did you notice that woman over there? With braids under a green scarf.”

Solace reached his senses out into the common room of the tavern, trying to feel each individual.

 

Alone in the far corner, facing us?

“Yeah. She’s been there for a while, but I’ve barely seen her eat or drink anything, and she hasn’t come to try the contest. I think she’s watching me.”

 

Solace narrowed his focus on the woman. She is nearly five decades old, with a calm aspect. I feel nothing concerning about her.

 

“What would you consider concerning?”

 

A general air of ill will, a spirit of devilry.

 

“Devilry, huh? What do you sense?”

 

Some lingering regret, but also curiosity.

 

“Well, if she was hoping to try the contest, she’s out of luck. I’m leaving.”

 

Solace’s disappointment grew, but he kept it from passing to Zeera, instead doing his best to boost her mood. His only chance at a new master was through her, so keeping her content and comfortable was his most pressing concern.

 

Where will you take me next?

 

“There are other towns, with other taverns. Don’t worry.” She stood and slung her satchel over her head, picked up Solace, and gave him a few soft pats before slinging him across her back and picking up her walking stick. “I’ll keep going until I find someone … or until our time’s up.”

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