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August 15, 2022

Hiding Something

By Sand Pilarski

Point Vaterheim was the last bathhouse along the coast. From here, north to who knows where, the mountains pressed against the ocean in rocky cliffs. Our trail was taking us northward and eastward towards the lands of the centaurs, in which land my friend Margot's parents resided.

Margot the Troll and I were drying our hair in front of the fire in the Women's Bath House of the resort. She preferred the heat of the fire to make her Mohawk stand up properly (something about the dark clay powder she had to work into it), and I was there because although I love hot baths, wet hair in the chilly, fog-laden air of the coast made me feel like I was freezing to death. I had even borrowed a comb from the House to hasten the drying, and ordered beer to inoculate myself against our companion Melody's carping.

This was a summer trip Margot and I had looked forward to for a long time, long before Margot had allowed a runaway bride to hang at her heels like a dry burdock caught on a raveling hem.

"If ye cut your hair off like mine, ye'd dry out in no time," the dry burdock Melody sniped, inordinately proud of having shed the fashion of long hair.

"If you let your hair grow again, you could sell it for gold coinage," I said, sipping my beer and staring into the rafters, wishing that she had been happy with her arranged husband, and had stayed with him. "Besides, I have to troop around in the snow all next winter and I'll need this stuff then to keep my head warm."

I wasn't entirely sure that Melody really liked having her hair cut so short; possibly she just was secretly miserable and wanted company. Margot also had flagrantly short hair, but she was also an eight-foot tall troll who could pound any detractor into dust before they finished their first hee-haw. Melody had come from a conventional country family, and her golden hair had been a fine asset for her, in those days before her amazing ability to throw rocks with violence and accuracy had broadened her value.

"To get it long enough to earn any gold, I'd have to comb and braid it a couple times a day for about two years," she answered. "I don't know that I wouldn't pay someone in coin for the chance to not have to mess with it. You can wash or not wash, comb or not comb as the whim takes you." Her accent was less noticeable if she wasn't irritated or grumpy. "Besides, dressing in trousers and having short hair gets me a lot more opportunity in the world. Maybe when I'm as old as you are, I'll go back to wearing a dress like you do."

My hair was dry enough, and I had no interest in arguing with a hothead like Melody, who was just baiting me about mistaking my garment for a dress. I shrugged on my robes. "You two ready to go in for dinner?"

They were agreeable, and we left the bathhouse for the Common Room. On the way, we were joined by Margot's dog, Racer. He pranced and wiggled to see us, even though it had only been about two hours, but that's a dog for you.

As we entered the Common Room, a man wearing an apron approached us. "What can I do for you ladies and young sir? Hey, wait, we don't allow dogs in here."

"That's not an ordinary dog," I told him. "That's a magical dog, and we need to have him with us."

"Sounds like a fish story to me," said the man. "Get him out of here, or go into the cold fog yourselves."

"He can tell you more about yourself than you are willing to admit," I added. "That makes him too valuable to leave out in the cold night."

"No dogs, says my wife. They shit on the floor and bite people."

"I worked in an inn for a while," said Melody hotly. "What about men, who drink too much, puke on the floor and punch people?"

"That's a very good point," I noted to Margot. "I wish I had thought of that one."

"Now, they're paying customers, Boy, now aren't they?"

Melody reached into her belt pouch and pulled out a coin. "The dog asked me to carry his money for him. So he's a paying customer, too."

"That's just silly, Boy. Dogs don't get paid."

The dog was staring at Margot, the whites of his eyes showing, his ears flipped back against his head in supplication. She chuckled and nodded, shrugging.

"I earn a very good salary, thank you," Racer addressed the man, "and yes, I have this human carry my money, as I look ridiculous in a girdle."

"Oho, we have ventricularists here, have we?" frowned the man.

Racer walked around the man, sniffing, and then went to sit before him. "Read my lips, Man. If you don't stop eating so much fried chicken and butter-bacon dip with your bread, you are going to die untimely. And if your ladies find out about each other, they are going to tear you to pieces before your fried food catches up with you."

"Ock -- " said the man.

"Magical dog," Margot said quietly. "We can keep him with us as we should, or we can have him go scratch at your wife's door and tell her what he told you."

"Magical dogs are fine," the man hastily amended. "Can I get the magical dog a beer?"

"Sure!" said Racer.

"NO," said Margot forcefully, making the innkeeper back a couple steps, as though blown back from a typhoon in the door. "The last time you had a beer you were chasing imaginary sea lions all over the desert. We're not going to do that here."

"Fine, I can't deny that. They were hot, too hot to resist," the dog admitted. To the man he said, "How about some meat leftovers from a couple plates? I won't bother your wife or your three mistresses with my information."

"Right away," he nodded, but after a few steps, he realized his omission. He addressed the people once again. "Would your party care to follow me to a table?"

We accompanied him to a table near enough to the fire, but in the shadow of the walls of the hearth. Racer curled up under the chairs in the shadows; the man offered us a card with the night's menu on it.

Scandal puts a person in a vulnerable position. When you have something to hide, you immediately put yourself out on a thin limb over a wide chasm. The world of truth is the thick trunk of the tree; the lie backs you out onto the feeble, brittle branches, and the Chasm of Falsehood is deep and perilous.

The innkeeper could have lived his life circumspectly, without cheating on his wife, but he didn't. His defiance of the law of the land left him vulnerable to having his wickedness exposed. The least of punishments was for him to have to admit a dog into his inn -- more misery was likely to come his way if his heart didn't give out due to anxiety or he if he didn't find a dagger through in his liver beforehand. Leading a life of falsehood and betrayal never, ever works out well, even if it seems to in the long run. There is always a reckoning, sooner or later.

The chieftain of the Anoresis village to the east of Springhold was discovered to have had relations with the wife of the goat-herder Ribbis. In order to try to erase his adulterous crime, he employed a djinn to change Ribbis' wife into a goat herself, so that she could not testify against him in front of the tribal council.

As it always dangerous to deal with djinns, who argue the letter of law as adroitly as any lawyer you've ever seen, the chieftain was caught out after he'd failed to set very specific outlines -- Ribbis' wife was indeed turned into a goat, but she retained her human memory, and in fury at having been transformed into such an unattractive animal, astounded and awed the tribal council by using a stick to write her testimony into the dust before the elders of the tribal council.

The chieftain was deposed for his immorality, and sentenced to gather dried dung patties from the tribe's cattle, for cooking fires and heat in the winter months, until all his many children were grown.

The tribal council held the djinn harmless, but also enjoined a punishment upon the goat-woman, as Ribbis' wife had been just as sinful, having disported herself with the chieftain. Ribbis' wife was allowed to exist as her goatful self, living out her days as a goat might, at the mercy of her lusts and at the whim of the billy of the herd.

Live honestly, know yourself honestly, act honestly, speak honestly. Those are good guidelines for anyone.

When hot bread had been brought, and torn among us, and buttered in preparation for our meal, we sipped at our beers, and Margot asked me, "So where were you when our caravan was stalled at Lark?"

"I tried to intercept you at Midway," I said, cramming a big slice of soft bread into my mouth, preparing my body for the lean journey north, as well as stalling for a moment while I sought the right way to re-direct the interrogation. "But when the road flooded with the rains, and I knew you'd be delayed, I took a loop road South, a back road out of Midway. There was no way I was going to stay in that filthy city any longer than I had to. The little back road, off over the hills to the south of the Gershom Trail, got me to Lark where I saw the bridge was washed out. And I found that loop to be a perfect foot track, away from the hubbub -- you know how I hate commerce and traffic."

Margot just looked at me with her glowing orange troll eyes.

"I'm not lying about this. Midway is a disgusting dump, a cesspit of a hole, and the Gershom Caravan Trail a series of opportunistic travelers' traps compared to what I knew twenty years ago, which you might have told me when we talked about your travels last summer."

"We were supposed to meet up at the coast. Why didn't you just head for the coast? There was no need for you to head south to the Gershom Trail."

"Need? It was Spring. Since when do you need anything but to be on the move in the Spring? Do you have any idea how long I spent snowbound in Elspeth Village in the hills? If you had to listen to the monotony of the talk of the inhabitants for as long as I did, you'd have eaten half of them, and maybe you should have, as the world might be better with half as many of them."

"You eat people?" Melody asked, with a sudden trepidation about our troll companion, a trepidation she might well have had a lot earlier in the relationship.

"Only when they absolutely cannot shut up," I answered for Margot.

Margot reached out with her scaly right hand and used my nose and my jaw to shut my mouth. "That's not true," she said to Melody. "Otherwise Aser would not be walking on the world."

Melody was silent for a change, chewing her bite of buttered bread. Her eyes flicked back and forth between Margot and me.

The dog sat up, ears perked up in interest. He gave my neck and ear a sniff, and in a barely audible growl said, "I won't tell what you smell like if you give me a piece of that good bread."

I gave him the last slice on my plate.

Article © Sand Pilarski. All rights reserved.
Published on 2011-09-26
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