Mara and Nina rode hard for two days. Each night they took refuge in a barn for a few hours. One kept watch while the other slept. Mara allowed Nina as much rest as possible so as to keep up her strength for attending the girls’ needs. Now, dusty from their travels and exhausted, they arrived in a sizable city.
It was just after midday and the thoroughfare bustled. Buggies hurried past them, carrying both the mundane and the fashionable around the market square. Busy hawkers’ voices carried through the warm air of the overcast day, as did those peddling the daily news from various street corners.
Reasoning that the most difficult things to find are often those hiding in plain sight, Mara chose an upscale inn in the busiest part of town. The building boasted a welcome sign informing visitors that they’d arrived at The King’s Court.
An attendant provided her a stepping block. She dismounted, then waited as he assisted Nina down from Spot.
The steps to the front door creaked beneath their feet. The Oathtaker gazed back the way from whence they’d come. What was keeping Dixon? His delay concerned her. Grasping Nina’s elbow, she guided her around a cluster of guests visiting near the entrance.
The doorman stood at attention. He wore khaki pants, a dark navy double-breasted jacket, and a white shirt and gloves. He gestured toward the reception desk.
The establishment had a homey appeal. The lobby was papered in robin’s egg blue silk. Heavy damask white and yellow curtains hung at the windows that looked out over gardens offering discerning guests a variety of nooks and crannies for their leisure.
People walked briskly by. Waitresses carried trays of cool drinks from bar to table. Hotel staff rushed about, anxious to do the bidding of the guests and to avoid a scolding from the chief lobby attendant who kept an eye, like that of a vulture, on the goings on of his staff.
“Two guests?” asked the clerk.
“Well actually, my husband may already have checked us in.” Mara hadn’t given much advance thought to needing a story for traveling alone or for her current state of dress, but she could see by the clerk’s expression that she’d need to answer some unasked questions.
“Ah . . . Frank. Frank . . . Portman. That’s my husband. He would have checked us in as ‘Frank and Mara Portman’ along with our guest, Nina . . . Spink,” she added, making up a surname for Nina on the spot. “Is he here yet?”
The clerk reviewed his list of guests, then shook his head.
She turned to Nina. “Didn’t I tell you?” She clapped her hands like a spoiled girl and giggled, then looked back at the clerk. His expression was unchanged.
“You see, my husband has been very busy. We planned a trip to the city, but he canceled. So we reset the date and—wouldn’t you know? He bowed out yet again. I told him I was going anyway, and I bet him that I could make it here on my own. I said I’d see how long it took him to catch up. And I did! I got here first. Isn’t that funny?”
The clerk nodded, his brow raised.
The Oathtaker leaned in as though sharing a secret. “Men. They’re too busy and have too many excuses until a woman just forces their hand.”
He smiled as though he’d heard the same story before.
“I suppose, since Frank’s not here, I’ll just check in with my friend for the evening. We’ll see how long it takes him to get here. Unless of course he sends a message to inform me of yet another delay.”
The clerk handed over a key. “Please sign here.”
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