Chapter 4

Stanno hooked the second carved wooden panel into its track and slid it next to the first one. He was proud of these doors. They were good and solid, made of oak gathered from mature trees that grew along the foothills of the eastern mountains. Stanno took a proprietary interest in those oaks, many of which were several hundred years old. He made a point of planting the likeliest looking acorns that had fallen whenever he had the chance, getting to them before the squirrels did. Some of the ones he had gotten to early on had finally begun to sprout. It would be decades before they would mature, and even longer before they could be harvested. He wouldn't live to see that or, more importantly, profit by it, but at least he wouldn't be the one responsible for decimating the Ishvalan black oak. He hadn't made many other contributions to posterity.

He fastened the latches that attached the second panel to the first, holding them securely together, and he went to hang the final panel into place. He paused for a moment, standing in the doorway and gazing across the road and down a little at the hotel. His feelings concerning that enterprise were mixed. He might be Shua's partner, but they weren't exactly friends. Stanno sighed. It seemed like such a good idea at the time, but most ideas seem flawless when you're drunk. It would be some time before he saw a return on his investment of money and considerable labor. In the meantime, that smug, lowborn vatrish bastard was off in Central City, living the high life.

He had to admit, though, he was rather proud of the work he'd done, especially the shutters, which he'd made from meskaa wood. Those trees grew like weeds, and while they were all away during the Exile, they had taken over Ishval.

Light came through the carved filigreed openings of one set of downstairs windows. That must be where they'd put that Amestrian woman. Stanno frowned slightly.

She had pink hair. How did that happen? Was she born that way? Or did she dye it, and if so, why? Why go to the trouble? She didn't seem like the vain type, but who could tell with Amestrians.

She had violet eyes. That wasn't something you saw every day, either. Throughout the entire day he kept recalling them. From his workshop he had watched the woman leave with Pashmina and then return a few hours later. Andakar had shown up for a few minutes and Stanno kept his head down. He didn't really feel like passing the time of day, should such a thing occur. He and the khorovar didn't generally chit-chat.

Stanno stood for several minutes, holding the door panel and tapping the first two fingers of his right hand against it while he considered making a token appearance across the street. Up until now, he had been perfectly content to let Atash and that silly girl of his take care of the operation of the hotel. Ishvala, those two were a pair! Well, there was a saying about how God looked after fools and children. Depending on whom you asked, God was supposed to look after drunks as well. Maybe he didn't drink enough.

After a moment of resolve, Stanno leaned the panel against the wall just inside the doorway and brushed off his hands. He straightened his shirt and his chuva, pushed his fingers through his hair, and set off down the street toward the hotel.

The front door was open and Stanno stepped inside. Pashmina was there in the lobby, sweeping the floor, and she looked up with a little gasp. She pressed her hand over her heart.

"Oh, you gave me such a start, Zhaarad Stanno!"

Stanno pointed back over his shoulder with his thumb. "You ought to keep that door locked after dark."

Pashmina shrugged and resumed her sweeping. "What if our guests need to come and go? They can lock their own rooms, after all."

Stanno scowled. "Someone could come in and steal the money."

Pashmina just smirked. "There isn't any. Not yet, anyways. Zhaarana Rose doesn't pay until she leaves."

"It's the principle of the thing!" Stanno retorted. "Guests might keep valuables in the safe."

Pashmina rolled her eyes. "Well, it's a safe, isn't it?" she countered. "And we've only got the one guest, don't we? She hasn't asked us to keep anything. And besides," she added, pointing toward the reception desk. "Atash sleeps back there in the office."

"Oh. Right." Stanno vaguely recalled Shua mentioning something of the sort. He must have put it promptly out of his mind. He jerked his head toward the hallway of the north wing. "So, how's she doing? Any complaints?"

"Of course not!" Pashmina replied. "She's such a lovely person! Even if she had cause to complain—which she doesn't, I'll have you know—she would probably say it so nicely it wouldn't be like complaining at all."

Stanno nodded. "Good." He looked around the lobby. "Where's Atash?"

"In the garden, locking the back gate. See?" Pashmina remarked smugly. "If anyone's going to sneak in, they'd do it from the back!"

Atash came in just then from the door to the garden, carrying a kerosene lamp. "Right. That's done. You ready, laleh?"

Pashmina nodded. "Just about."

"Ready for what?" Stanno asked, partly curious, partly suspicious.

"To walk me home," Pashmina replied as though it were painfully obvious.

Stanno frowned. "You can't leave your guest alone in the hotel like that! What if she needs something?"

"It's all right, Zhaarad," Atash assured him. "We'll only be gone a few minutes and she knows—"

A muffled but plainly terrified shriek came from the north wing's hallway. The three Ishvalans in the lobby stared at each other for a moment. Then the first shriek was followed by more screaming. Stanno bolted down the hallway with Pashmina and Atash close on his heels. Stanno stopped at the door of Rose's room and grasped the knob, finding it locked. He pounded on the door.

"Open up!" he shouted, but the screaming continued. With a metal jangling, Atash quickly handed him a ring of keys, holding one up. Stanno grabbed the ring and shoved the key in the lock. It wouldn't turn and he cursed while fumbling to get the next key into the lock. This one turned and he flung the door open.

Rose was kneeling in a trembling crouch on her bed, her eyes wide. When the others burst into the room, she clapped one hand over her mouth and she pointed at the facing wall with the other hand. By the light of the room's lamp and Atash's lantern, the Ishvalans looked where she was pointing and saw the scorpion. Stanno snatched the broom out of Pashmina's hands and brought the stiff bristles down on top of the creature. He had to do this several times before it finally stopped moving. Tossing the broom aside, Stanno strode over to the bed and grabbed Rose's shoulders.

"Are you all right?" he demanded. "Where did it sting you?"

Rose was reduced to frantic gasping and she clutched the front of Stanno's shirt. "It—it—" She swallowed hard, her throat dry. "It didn't sting me," she managed to get out.

Stanno gave her a disgusted look and released her shoulders. "Sweet Ishvala, woman! What the hell were you screaming about, then?"

Rose dropped back on her heels and stared at Stanno incredulously. From the other side of the room, where they were inspecting for any other intruders, Atash and Pashmina both spun around and gave Stanno a stare as well, full of shock and indignation. Stanno glanced over Rose's head at them, then looked back at Rose, who gazed back at him with a hurt, reproachful look.

"I was screaming," she said slowly, her voice trembling a little, "because I was scared."

Well. He certainly made a hash out of that, didn't he? Those remarkable eyes were welling up with tears for which he was personally responsible. He was almost more shaken by that than anything else. Feeling angry, a little at Rose but mostly at himself, Stanno cleared his throat with painful awkwardness. "Uh…look…I'm sorry," he murmured. "Honestly, I'm sorry. It's just that…the way you were going on…I thought…"

By the look on Rose's face, Stanno didn't think he was remedying the situation much. He gave Pashmina a desperate glance, hoping she'd take over. But with an angry glare, she jabbed her forefinger up toward the ceiling. Stanno frowned at her, uncomprehending. Pashmina then used her fingers to mime walking up stairs. Stanno gave a quick nod and looked back at Rose.

"How about we move you upstairs?" he said. "That way you don't have to worry about anything else getting in."

To his great relief, Rose seemed mollified by this. With a little sniff, she asked, "It wouldn't be too much trouble?"

"None at all, Zhaarana!" Atash exclaimed. "We'll put everything right in no time! We just have to move the mattress and some of the furniture," he said, directing this remark at Stanno.

Stanno gave him a brief, irritated look. "Well, then, the sooner we get started, better!" He turned back to Rose. "If you don't mind waiting in the…uh…lobby…" Pashmina gave him a quick nod and mimed drinking out of a cup. "…Pashmina will fix you some tea. And she'll wait with you," he added.

Taking this as her cue, Pashmina gathered up Rose's robe. "I just swept the lobby," she said cheerfully. "There's not so much as a roly-poly bug in there!"

Rose looked over the edge of the bed, eyeing the dead scorpion uncertainly.

"Believe me, it's dead," Stanno assured her. "Look." He stepped over to where the scorpion's remains were and gave it a nudge with the edge of his sandal.

Rose drew in a sharp gasp and covered her mouth as though expecting the creature to suddenly come alive and go for Stanno's throat. He gave her an indulgent smirk and went back to Rose's bedside, beckoning to her. "Come along now," he chided her.

Rose was still reluctant to move. "Did anyone check under the bed?"

"There is no 'under the bed'." Stanno kicked the wooden platform that the mattress sat on.

"Oh." Rose said quietly. She was about to slide her feet into her slippers when she drew up her feet. "Could you check those for me?"

Stanno scowled down at the small terrycloth scuffs. They didn't look big enough to hold a scorpion, and he nearly said so, but when he glanced back at Rose, she looked genuinely anxious. Trying not to sigh too loudly, he bent down and gave each slipper a deliberate shake. To forestall her asking him to do so, because he had the feeling she would, he also took a quick look inside. Then he dropped them back on the floor. "They're fine."

Rose turned the slippers with her toes to face the right way and stood up, pushing her feet into them.

Stanno beckoned to Pashmina. "Take her out into the lobby and see that she's comfortable."

Pashmina gave Stanno a quick, contemptuous glare, which he ignored, then held Rose's robe up so she could put it on. "That's right, Zhaarana. You come with me and have a nice sit down and a cup of tea."

Rose slipped her arms into her robe and tied it securely. Pashmina took the lantern from Atash and led her out of the room.

Stanno drew in a deep breath and let it out slowly. Well, maybe that wasn't a complete disaster. Then again, maybe he should have just stayed home.

"Smooth as a cactus pad, you are," Atash remarked.

"Shut up!" Stanno jerked his head toward the dead scorpion. "Toss that out the window!"

Atash crossed the room and bent down to gingerly pick the scorpion up by its tail just below the stinger. "Zhaarana Rose was telling us earlier that she was going to tell all her friends what a nice place this was." He carried the dead scorpion over to the window and opened one of the shutters, tossing the body into the street. "If you're going to treat your guests like that, she's not going to think it's so nice anymore."

"Yes, thank you!" Stanno sneered back. "I'm aware of that!" He gestured irritably at the bed. "Let's get this upstairs!"

Atash pulled the coverings off the mattress and set them on the chair. Lifting one end of the mattress, he went on. "You need to do more to make it up to her."

Stanno grasped the other end and they lifted the mattress. "Like what?"

"Well, you could—here, tip it on its side—you could give her a couple of free days or lower her bill or something."

Stanno backed out the door with his end of the mattress. "Fine. Is there even a room we can use upstairs?" he grunted as they made their way toward the stairs.

"We can use the one just above this one," Atash replied. "Then we can get Pashmina to gather up her clothes and such."

"Pashmina's busy making tea," Stanno said, stepping carefully backwards up the stairs. "You can gather up the lady's clothes."

Atash peered around the side of the mattress with a scandalized look. "I can't do that! I'm not going to handle some woman's underthings!"

"Shehai li Ishvala!" Stanno groaned."Aren't you planning on marrying that girl of yours?"

Atash shrugged defensively. "That's different."

Stanno rolled his eyes. "Then just switch the dresser drawers! Then you won't have to touch anything!"

Atash nodded. "Oh. All right."

They got to the top of the stairs and Stanno located the light switch for the upstairs hallway, flipping it with his elbow.

"Right," Atash went on. "Now, it's that second door there on your right. It's not locked."

Stanno pushed the door open with his back and flipped the light switch on the wall. They carried the mattress to the wooden platform and laid it on top. Stanno straightened up and looked around the room. "We'll have to bring the rug up, too."

Atash nodded. "Bring her some flowers."

Stanno scowled at him. "What?"

"Zhaarana Rose. You should come by again tomorrow and bring her flowers." He grinned. "Roses, you know? Then she'll think you're clever!"

Stanno gave him a withering glare. "You just might end up with those roses up your—"

"It's like this, Zhaarad,"Atash explained patiently. He held his hands out before him, palms facing up. Indicating his right hand, he said, "This is you being a complete yaakhtai." Giving his left hand a slight wiggle, he said, "This is you being a fine, pleasant fellow." He moved his left hand down while raising his right. "The nicer you are, the more you'll shift the balance in your favor and the more likely it'll be that she'll forgive you."

Stanno glowered at Atash's little demonstration as the sort of remedial instruction that got the kid through school. As much as Stanno hated to admit it, though, he had a point.

"All right," he said in a weary sigh. "I'll figure out something." He jerked his head toward the door. "Come on! Let's get the rest up here. I don't want to be here all night!"

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"It wouldn't have killed you," Pashmina said as she handed the steaming cup of tea to Rose, "but it'd hurt like stink, not to mention ruin your visit."

"Thank you." Rose took the cup and sipped from it. She sat in one of the two rattan bucket chairs in the small lobby, her knees drawn up and her feet tucked up on the edge of the seat, still feeling a little uncomfortable about the floor. What Pashmina just told her wasn't entirely reassuring.

"I stepped on a scorpion a couple of years ago," Pashmina went on, sitting in the other chair.

Rose drew in a gasp. "Did you really?"

The girl nodded. "You should've heard me screaming!" she related eagerly. "My auntie and our neighbor carried me into the house and washed off my foot then they had me soak it in vinegar while our neighbor ran to the potter's for a bit of clay. They mixed the clay with a bit of vinegar and wrapped it over the spot as a poultice. My foot went numb and I felt horrible all over, like I wanted to crawl out of my skin. I cried like a baby for nearly two hours!"

Pashmina's story came out in a lighthearted way, being a thing of the past, but it made Rose shudder. "Sounds awful!"

"I felt better in a couple of days." Pashmina lifted her shoulders. "As long as you get to it quickly, it's not as bad as it could be." She gave Rose a quick sideways glance. "I suppose that's why Zhaarad Stanno was so worried at first."

"At first," Rose repeated quietly and pointedly. She cradled the cup in her hands. "Does he have a reason for being so unpleasant?"

"Well…" Pashmina began. She sounded somewhere between not wanting to divulge a secret that wasn't hers to divulge and desperately wanting to share a bit gossip. The latter seemed to win out and she leaned a little closer to Rose.

At that moment, however, the two men could be heard coming back up the hallway. Pashmina stood up quickly as they stepped out into the lobby. Stanno turned to the girl, nodding back toward the hallway.

"Go make up the bed," he told her. "And straighten up anything we might have missed."

As Pashmina hurried down the hallway and Atash went behind the reception desk, Stanno looked down at Rose, considering her cautiously. "I'd…um…like to apologize again for the way I acted," he said in a low tone, as though not quite wanting to be heard. "If there's something I could do to—"

Atash popped up behind him. "Show her around Ishval tomorrow!" he cut in blithely.

Stanno gave a slight start and shot him a warning look, but Atash added quickly, "Pashmina has to be at school, and there's workmen coming tomorrow that I have to stay and look after."

"Why do—"

"I'd actually like that very much, Mr. Dreva."

Stanno looked back at Rose, not quite managing to hide the dismay in his face. "You would?"

Rose smiled back at him sweetly. She was by no means a spiteful person. She had a kind and generous nature, but she had learned the hard way to not let people take advantage of it. She would gladly give this man the chance to make amends, but he would have to work for it. She also had an ulterior motive; she was curious about him. He was a mystery to her, and he needed unraveling.

"Yes, I would. Say, after breakfast?"

Stanno had a slight air of being backed into a corner, and Rose thought, almost sadly, that he might need to get hit with a broom. But then he gave a nod. "All right then. I'll…um…call on you around…ten?"

Rose stood up. "That'll be fine. I'm looking forward to it."

The feeling did not appear quite mutual, but Stanno managed a half-hearted smile and was about to reply when there was a sharp knocking against the frame of the front door.

"Hello?" a woman's voice called.

Atash hurried toward the door. "Come in, Zhaarana Nenya! I was just about to walk Pashmina home."

"Well, I should hope so!" The woman strode into the lobby, glancing around with mild curiosity. "It's getting late."

"Well, we had to move Zhaarana Rose's room," Atash explained. "There was a scorpion in it."

Nenya gave a little shudder. "Nasty things!" She nodded briskly to Stanno. "Good evening to you, Zhaarad." Turning to Rose, she went on, "The girl stepped on one once. Serves her right for going barefoot."

Rose nodded. "Yes, she was telling me."

Nenya lifted her hands. "Merciful Ishvala, what a noise she made!" She gave Atash a backhanded smack on the arm. "Tell her I'm here."

Atash promptly hurried down the hall and Nenya primly readjusted the shawl over her head. "I don't mind Pashmina working here. At least she's doing something. But if I catch her and that young fellow in any goings on…" She shook her head to imply that the consequences would be dire. She shook her finger at Stanno. "I hope you're keeping an eye on them, Zhaarad! They're your responsibility!"

Judging by the look of distaste on Stanno's face, Rose spoke up before he could say something rude. "I think they're sweet together."

Nenya looked a little surprised then gave a knowing smile. "Honey is sweet, but you can get stung for your efforts."

Stanno let out a short, quiet laugh. "Isn't that the truth?" he muttered.

Rose glanced at him curiously, and Nenya just lifted an eyebrow.

"Coming, Auntie!" Pashmina called from the hallway.

She and Atash reappeared, and the young man handed Rose a key. "Here you go, Zhaarana. Your new room is all ready for you. I'll take you upstairs."

Pashmina quickly beckoned to Atash, and she reached up to give him a quick kiss on the cheek. "Good night!" she whispered.

"Eh-h!" Nenya hooked her elbow around Pashmina's and pulled her toward the door. "That'll be enough of that, laleh!"

"Good night, Zhaarana Rose!" Pashmina called over her shoulder as they went out. "See you in the morning!"

Rose let out a deep sigh. "Well, that was fun. I'm definitely ready for bed." She looked up at Stanno. "I'll see you tomorrow, Mr. Dreva."

His attention seemed to have drifted far away or perhaps turned inward. Either way, it took him a moment to respond, and he did so distractedly. "Hmm? Oh. Yes."

Rose gave him a parting smile and followed Atash down the hall, wondering if this was really going to be such a good idea.

8888

Stanno strode back across the street to finish locking up his workshop, secure in the knowledge that he'd had enough aggravation for one day. He had three cedar chests to finish that were going to fetch a good price, but they'd have to wait while he played host to this Amestrian woman. At least she was pretty. He certainly wouldn't be embarrassed by being seen with her. But he was fairly sure she didn't exactly like him. That look and those tears in those violet eyes of hers were still plaguing him, troubling him in a way that he hadn't expected, even beyond the thought of the grief he would get from Shua if he found out.

He set the last panel into place and locked it, then leaned back against it, closing his eyes wearily. Ishvala was a funny one. He doled out good fortune with a liberal hand to some, and to others He was stingy and piecemeal. Granted, Stanno admitted grudgingly to himself—but to no one else—maybe he deserved it.