LAURA TAYLORFantasy and Romance Writer
Inferno Chapter One
“I saw those dragons in the sky again this morning. Fearsome beasts! Gave me such a fright! All big and black and pointed tails… Ughh!”
Hearing the comment from the pair of women a short distance away, Yorin put his head down and walked a touch quicker, eager to be back inside the peace and solitude of his tailor’s shop.
“Only the gods know what Captain Renfold was thinking, letting those creatures visit Minia over and over again. Dragons! In Minia! It’s pure lunacy!”
Captain Renfold was the head of the city’s warrior army, the force that defended the human world from the demons who routinely attempted to cross the swirling silver portal that was the Gate of Chalandros.
Yorin, however, had absolutely no interest in debating the pros and cons of letting a group of humans capture dragons, tame them, and turn them into a flying carriage service to transport people to and from Minia. As outlandish as the idea was, Yorin had quite enough to worry about dealing with demanding customers, paying back his loan to the bank for the shop he’d bought eight years ago, and making sure he had enough firewood to cook his dinner. And on a good day, if he was feeling indulgent, he would worry about making it to the bakery in time to get a couple of pastries just as they came out of the oven, and then making it back to his shop in time to open for the morning customers. Today, it seemed, luck was with him – or it would be, if he managed to avoid getting dragged into another discussion about that gods-forsaken gate.
“I know some of the townsfolk are raving about the idea, but it’s just too dangerous! And they’re dragons! Next thing you know, we’ll be inviting demons to live with us, as well!” One of the women was Mrs Dee, a middle-aged busy-body who was a regular at the tailor shop, and if she spotted Yorin, she was bound to try and drag him into the conversation. Maybe he should just drop back behind them to avoid their notice.
“Make way, Captain of the Guard coming through!” Well, speak of the devil, there was the captain himself. The deep, booming voice of his announcer drew plenty of attention, and as the crowd scattered, Yorin used the opportunity to dart across to the other side of the street, away from the gossipers.
The four horses carrying the warriors clopped on down the road, the men on their backs no doubt entirely aware of their own importance. But far from standing around and admiring them, Yorin instead hurried past the last few shops that separated him from his own and unlocked the door. He slipped inside, closing the door behind him. The ‘Closed’ sign was still hanging over the door’s little window, but nonetheless, he locked it again, then retreated through the shop to the kitchen in the rear.
He set the pastries on the worn wooden table, then took the time to open the window. The view wasn’t much, the rear of the shop opening into a nondescript laneway, mudbrick walls and cobblestones stretching out in either direction. To the right of the door was a small woodshed, and to the left was an outhouse.
But regardless of the view, the fresh air was nice, a slight breeze quickly driving out some of the staleness of the room from overnight. It was promising to be a sunny day, a light early haze lifting quickly, and that would bring more people outdoors and into the shopping region of the city. Extra reason for Yorin to make sure everything was set up nicely in his shop.
But he still had time for a quick breakfast. He poured himself a cup of peppermint tea, left over from the night before. It was cold now, but he could hardly justify starting a fire just to warm up one cup of water.
Instead, he focused on the pastries. One was filled with spiced apple, the other with custard. He bit into the first, the pastry cracking and flaking around his lips, and he couldn’t help his moan of pleasure. Gods, that was divine. This was one of the few simple pleasures in life that Yorin allowed himself – not because he was particularly pious or strict about such things, but because money was always tight. Customers could change their opinions and their loyalties with a puff of wind, and it was routinely more important to make sure he had enough coin to buy the next roll of fabric, rather than to worry about whether he’d eaten boiled lentils and stewed carrots for dinner for the third time this week.
Once he’d finished savouring his meal, Yorin brushed the stray flakes of pastry from his shirt onto the floor – he’d sweep later – and hurried up the stairs to the single room on the upper storey. This room doubled as his bedroom and his workroom, wide tables taking up most of the space and rolls of fabric lined up along the walls. A single-sized bed was pressed up against the far corner, and a wide wardrobe stood against the wall at the end of the bed. That, at least, was one benefit of being a tailor; Yorin had a plentiful supply of very nice clothes.
Crossing the room, he took off his shirt – plain cream and old enough that it was stained around the cuffs – and pulled on one of his newest creations. This one was a charcoal grey with cream embroidery across the shoulders. Yorin had made it last week, in one of his regular fits of creativity, but his penchant for fine clothes was far more than simple vanity.
This particular shirt was more elaborate than most of the embroidery he’d done on a men’s shirt, but if people liked it, it could make him a lot of money. That was the gamble with any of his experimentation with style; either people would love it or hate it. If they loved it, he’d be knee deep in orders by the end of the week. If they hated it, on the other hand, he’d see a slump in sales for the next week or two, until he came up with a new offering that was more palatable. This one was possibly pushing the boundaries of how decorative a man liked his clothes to be, women being far more open to colours, or patterns, or flowers, or whatever else Yorin decided to sew into their blouses and dresses. But men… men were a more cautious breed, and Yorin stared at himself critically in the mirror. Was this shirt taking a step too far? As with any of his clothing designs, he wanted to stand out, but not to make a fool of himself. Finding the fine line between the two could be a worrisome challenge. For a moment, he decided to take the shirt off, condemning it to the pile of rejects that had accumulated over the years. But… gods, he loved the way the lines of cream contrasted the darker colour of the fabric. Surely some of his customers would share his opinion, even if they thought the detail on the embroidery was a little too much?
In the end, he decided to leave it on. He’d see what the first couple of comments on it were, and then he could always change later, if he was feeling too conspicuous in the garment.
Clothing sorted, Yorin hurried back down the stairs and into the main shop. He checked the display in the window. Hm, yes, the coat on one mannequin was crooked. The skirt on another was slipping. Judicious use of a couple of pins fixed the latter problem, and then he spent a few minutes straightening up the rolls of fabric, the pre-made shirts lined up on wooden hangers, the display of socks. The mainstay of his business was made-to-order items, anything from shirts and trousers to wedding dresses, but there were more than a handful of customers who would drop in just for a plain cream-coloured shirt, or a pair of black socks. He also had a row of long, wrap-around skirts, which would fit a wide variety of shapes and sizes thanks to the adjustable sash. He rearranged a couple of the skirts, so that the brighter colours were towards the front.
With the shop now up to scratch, Yorin headed over to the door, unlocked it, and flipped the sign around to display ‘Open’. He then made the effort to open the door and stick his head out into the street, just in case any particularly eager customer was waiting…
“Good morning, Yorin!” It was Mr Fensworth, an aging and portly man with a booming voice that he never seemed to have learned to soften. “Is that tunic ready yet? I need it for my daughter’s wedding.” He barged past Yorin into the shop, barely giving him time to get out of the way. “We want to get all the clothes coordinated. The seamstress is being horribly slow with the wedding dress, but you’re usually a bit more on the ball.”
Yorin closed the door and followed Mr Fensworth as he ambled around the shop. “I’m very sorry, but I did let you know that it won’t be ready until Wednesday. Today’s only Monday.”
“Oh, pish tosh,” the man said, though there was no malice in his tone. He meandered over to the window display, tugging at the coat on the mannequin. It slipped off one shoulder and hung lopsidedly. “I know you folks. You like to pretend things will take longer than they will just so you can surprise us by getting it done early.”
Yorin forced a smile. “In this case, I do actually need the extra couple of days. I’ve had five different orders come in from the warriors. They’re all trying to get their clothes ordered before they head back into battle tomorrow. There’s been a lot of measuring and deciding on fabrics that’s taken up a lot of my time.”
“But what about the wedding rehearsals?” Abandoning the mannequins, Mr Fensworth drifted over to the rolls of fabric, rubbing the edge of one between his meaty fingers.
Yorin sorely wished he could put his hands over his ears. The gods only knew how this man’s family put up with his constant shouting. “I was of the understanding that your daughter’s wedding isn’t for another four weeks. Am I mistaken about that one?” He wasn’t mistaken. He’d had this exact same conversation with the man at least three times already.
Mr Fensworth poked at another roll of fabric, and Yorin prayed that his hands were at least reasonably clean. “Yes. No, but… Well, yes, it’s in four weeks. After the gate closes again. But we need things to be ready!”
Yorin knew from experience that a wedding in Minia could be pulled together in as little as forty-eight hours. With just over two hundred warriors living here, it wasn’t an uncommon occurrence for one of them to suddenly decide they wanted to get married – usually but not always to one of the serving women who operated as a combination of housemaid and bed-warmer to the men in the barracks. The warriors were typically handsome, strapping, and wealthy men, thanks to the amount they got paid – though perhaps they wouldn’t be considered quite so handsome if they weren’t quite so muscular and wealthy – and as such, if a woman received a proposal from one of them, they were often inclined to hold the wedding as soon as possible. Yorin had never quite figured out whether the haste to tie the knot was due to an eager desire to begin reaping the rewards of a wealthy husband, or to prevent said husband from being lured off by another woman and slipping away.
Either way, the net result was that a couple of the seamstresses kept a few wedding dresses on hand, and Yorin himself knew he could throw one together in as little as three days, if pressed. The florists had plentiful displays of flowers in summer and ribbons woven into floral shapes in winter, and the local bakers, butchers and pubs could have a feast put together in just under half a day. So four weeks of preparation – in addition to the two weeks they’d already had – was ample time for Mr Fensworth’s daughter to organise a perfectly civilised wedding.
“I’ll have it ready for you first thing Wednesday morning,” Yorin told his customer, as genially as he could manage, while Mr Fensworth manhandled a pair of socks. “I promise, you’ll have it in plenty of time for the rehearsals.”
“Hmph. You’re a good man, Yorin,” Mr Fensworth said, a bit of a non sequitur given his previous complaints. “Your dad would have been proud. I’ll see you Wednesday, then.” He completed his circuit of the room, frowning at a half-finished pair of trousers hanging on a rack and prodding one last roll of fabric, before finally letting himself out the door.
Yorin let out a sigh of relief as it closed behind him, grateful that Mr Fensworth hadn’t been more difficult about things… until the soft sound of a throat being cleared nearly had him jumping out of his skin. He spun around, simultaneously wanting to scold the person for sneaking up on him and desperate to not make a bad impression in front of a customer… until his eyes landed on a shock of black hair and a pair of mischievous blue eyes. And then his heart rate picked up in a way that had nothing to do with being startled.
“Nerik!” he blurted out, thankful that it was just the messenger and not an actual customer. “Oh goodness, you scared me,” he said, taking a deep breath or two. “When did you get here?”
“Just a minute ago,” Nerik said, a smirk tilting the corner of his mouth. “You seemed occupied, so I figured I’d just wait quietly and admire the view. I actually thought you’d realised I was here,” he added, as a sideways sort of apology.
Yorin ignored the ‘admiring the view’ comment. “Sorry, just got a few things on my mind,” he said, not liking being caught unawares. “The gate opens again tomorrow.” As if that explained anything.
Nerik’s easy grin faded. “Yeah. No escaping that one, is there?” He sighed, then just as quickly, shook off the melancholy mood. “I’ve brought you a new roll of fabric,” he said, tapping the roll he’d propped up against one of the display racks. “Right on time, as promised.”
“Oh, fantastic,” Yorin said, crossing the room to unto the leather wrap and peek inside. The fabric was a bright turquoise colour, perfect for summer dresses and for adding a splash of colour to some of his more business-like pieces. “Perfect. Exactly what I wanted. Here, I’ll get the payment…” He ducked into the kitchen, fetching a pouch of coins from a locked drawer. Back in the main shop, he counted them out. “Eight silvers for the weaver,” he said, handing the coins to Nerik. “And one copper for you.”
Nerik allowed his fingers to brush Yorin’s as he took the money. Yorin fought the automatic impulse to pull away. Then Nerik tucked the coins tidily into separate pouches and stowed them in his pocket. “A pleasure doing business with you, as always. Anything else I can do for you today?” As one of a dozen local messengers, Nerik was constantly on the lookout for new chores to do.
“Actually, there is,” Yorin said. “You know Angela? Who’s married to Bril?”
Nerik snorted. “Celebrity wedding of the decade. Yeah, what about her?”
“She’s ordered another new gown.” Angela’s father was a cattle farmer, so she’d been wealthy even before she married one of the most sought-after warriors in the city.
“Isn’t that her fourth one this year?”
“Yep. Heck, if Bril wants to keep paying for them, he’s welcome to do so. But the point is, she wants rubies sewn into the dress, at the centre of each of the flowers I’m supposed to embroider. I’ve ordered them from Kit. She said they’d be arriving late last week, but I haven’t had a chance to get anyone to collect them for me.”
“Consider it done,” Nerik said with a sly grin. “Any excuse to come back and see you again.”
Yorin scrambled to come up with a sensible answer and failed completely. The problem was that he never quite knew what to make of Nerik. He assumed that the man was slightly younger than his own twenty-six years, though he didn’t know his exact age. But Nerik had a boyish charm and carefree cheekiness that had eluded Yorin, even in his younger days. He was outgoing and liked to chat, but at the same time, three and a half years after meeting him for the first time, Yorin could list on one hand the things he actually knew about Nerik.
And his incessant flirting did nothing for Yorin’s peace of mind.
“Thank you,” Yorin settled on finally, knowing he had to give some sort of reply.
But instead of heading for the door, Nerik took a longer look at Yorin, his eyes travelling slowly down over his body… “Is that a new shirt?” Nerik asked. He sounded almost gleeful about the discovery.
“Um… yes, it is,” Yorin said, tugging on the fabric self-consciously. “Just a little something I whipped up in my spare time.”
“Very nice,” Nerik said, letting his eyes linger a bit longer. “It really suits you.”
“You don’t think it’s a bit much?”
“I think it’s absolutely perfect,” Nerik said. There was a wistful note in his voice now, his tone slightly husky, and for a moment, Yorin just stood there, wishing he could listen to it all day. Nerik spoke with a slight accent, though Yorin had never been able to place where it came from, and his voice was a touch deeper than he would have expected for a man Nerik’s size. He was a good six inches shorter than Yorin, with a build so slender that Yorin sometimes thought he might blow away in a stiff breeze.
“So… I’d better go get those rubies, then.” Nerik took a step backwards, but didn’t turn around.
Yorin mustered what little courage he could and said the other idea that was floating around in his mind – something that he’d been working on for the last week. “Oh, um, actually… Before you go, I did have another favour to ask.”
“Anything for you,” Nerik said with a wink.
Yorin felt his face heat. It really didn’t help that Nerik was attractive enough to be fuel for a thousand nighttime fantasies. Yorin cleared his throat and tried to focus. “I made a shirt,” he announced.
“No, really? That’s amazing.”
Yorin rolled his eyes and turned around, heading over to fetch said shirt from the wardrobe sitting against the rear wall of the little shop. “I was hoping you might consider wearing it. And if anyone asks, letting them know that I made it. If you don’t like it, you’re perfectly free to say no…”
He turned around, holding up the shirt he’d made. He couldn’t say he’d specifically made it with Nerik in mind, but as the work had gone along, he’d become fixated on the image of Nerik wearing it. It had taken him four days to work up the courage to ask. And even now, he didn’t know whether his intention was free advertising – albeit at the cost of a metre of fabric – or if he just wanted to give Nerik a gift and needed a pretext to be able to do so.
Nerik’s jaw dropped and he reached out slowly to take the shirt. “Holy shit, that’s gorgeous!” The shirt was a bright maroon colour, with matching buttons down the front, but up both sleeves and down the centre where the buttons joined, Yorin had embroidered a swirling orange-gold pattern. It wasn’t deliberately set out to look like flames, but if one squinted or was looking from a distance, it would be easy to imagine the swirling lines as flickers of fire dancing over the shirt.
Yorin cringed. “I’d completely understand if you think it’s too much.”
“NO!” Nerik said, clutching the shirt to himself. Then he seemed to get a hold of himself. “No,” he repeated, more calmly this time. “This is absolutely beautiful. I would love to wear it. But… just out of curiosity, why me? You’ve never asked me to wear anything of yours before.” There was something hesitant about the question, a notable difference from Nerik’s usual direct manner.
Yorin shrugged. “I really couldn’t say. It was nothing in particular. Just a vague feeling that it would suit you, somehow.”
Nerik looked bashfully pleased, and to be honest, his enthusiasm for the gift was just a little unnerving. While Yorin had hoped he’d like it, he hadn’t intended to imply anything too intense with the gift.
“Let me put it on,” Nerik said. Yorin opened his mouth to point the way to the shop’s large dressing room – one full corner curtained off to allow for even the most elaborate of wedding gowns to be tried on – but before he could say anything, Nerik simply pulled his shirt over his head, right there in the middle of the shop, tossing it carelessly over a vacant rack.
Yorin’s mouth sat there, hanging open, and it seemed he couldn’t quite remember how to breathe. He’d never seen Nerik without a shirt on before, and in a heated rush, he realised he’d underestimated the man. Lean he might be, but his body was made of refined muscle, every individual bulge and groove smooth and clearly defined. When he lifted his arms to put the new shirt on, his abs stood out like they were carved from granite. Yorin stood simply frozen, willing himself to look away, and knowing he never would.
As a haphazard detail of the view, he also noticed that Nerik wore two necklaces. One was an obsidian gem, about half the size of Yorin’s thumb. It hung on a metal chain, and while the chain was worn and stained, the gem itself shone flawlessly. It was an expensive piece for a messenger, but it was entirely possible it was some kind of family heirloom, rather than something Nerik had bought with his own money. But the other necklace was more interesting, a little metal medallion, the metal folded around and in on itself to create an intricate symbol of some sort. Its chain looked like it might have been made of bronze.
Nerik finished tugging the shirt into place and stood back, arms held wide. “Well? What do you think?”
Yorin forced himself to focus on the shirt. The shirt he had made. The one he’d asked Nerik to wear. His voice croaked and he cleared his throat. “Looks great,” he said. The red of the shirt made Nerik’s black hair stand out against his paler skin. It made his lips look redder and his cheeks pinker. “Looks… Yeah, it looks really good,” Yorin said, wondering if he sounded entirely foolish.
“Thanks. I love it.” Nerik ran his hand over the golden threads down the front, and Yorin felt an entirely unreasonable jealousy of the shirt.
“Just out of curiosity,” he said, needing to snap himself out of his daze, “I couldn’t help but notice your necklace.”
Nerik looked startled, and his expression turned suddenly guarded. “What…? No, I… Um… What about it?”
“What symbol was that? The metal one.”
Nerik relaxed a fraction. “Oh, that.” He tugged the chain out of his shirt. “It’s an old family heirloom. This is something like my family’s crest, but from hundreds of years ago. I don’t actually know what it means, but it was my mother’s. It’s supposed to be handed down from mother to daughter, but she never had a daughter, so she gave it to me.”
In all the time they’d known each other, Nerik had never mentioned his mother before. Yorin thought about asking where she was now… but then reconsidered. Given his own mother’s situation, it was perhaps one of those things best left alone.
“It’s beautiful,” Yorin said. “Sorry for being nosy, it just seemed like an interesting design. I’ll let you get back to work now.”
“See you in a bit,” Nerik said, heading for the door with a wave. Yorin watched his hips as he walked, encased in sturdy buckskin trousers, and almost regretted asking him to fetch the rubies. Now he’d have to be distracted all over again later in the day, when Nerik came back.
This time, when the door closed, Yorin took the time to glance around the shop to make sure he was actually alone, and then let out a heartfelt sigh. Seeing Nerik always left him feeling off balance, energised and disappointed with himself at the same time. Perhaps he should have made more of an effort to get to know the man when they’d first met. Now, it had been so long that it seemed like they should be better friends, and yet there remained an impassable distance between them, business acquaintances, free to chat about clothing or the weather, but never venturing onto more personal territory.
He was being ridiculous, Yorin told himself, as he went to retrieve Mr Fensworth’s tunic from the wardrobe and get to work on finishing it. Nerik was a messenger. A fellow businessman. There was no reason to think they should be anything more, regardless of the number of times Nerik had flirted with him. After all, he flirted with everyone. Yorin had witnessed enough of the behaviour to know that.
He’d first met Nerik some three and a half years ago. It had been early spring, a week before the gate was due to open. And the fact that Yorin knew which year, which season, and which cycle of the gate it had been probably told him everything he needed to know about how much of an impact the young man had had on him.
Don’t be ridiculous, he scolded himself again, as he finished off the hem on the tunic, needle darting in and out of the fabric in a neat row. Nerik had come into the shop, offering his services as a messenger. At the time, there had been an outbreak of the flu, which meant that all three of Yorin’s usual messengers were out of action. Trusting a newcomer was always a risk – one of the reasons Yorin stuck to the same people most of the time. There were other messengers in the city, but they tended to be on the slow side, or items showed up damaged, or in one particular case, rumour had it that the messenger liked to help themselves to coins, suppliers often coming up short when they counted their payments.
But Nerik had been charming, smiling and cheerful, and all too eager to run a package all the way out to a cottage in the forest, so Yorin had taken him up on the offer. And Nerik had complimented his shirt, preened a little, batted his eyelashes, and flitted off like a bird in spring. For about half a day, Yorin had felt flattered, cautiously optimistic about meeting another man who was interested in men, rather than women, and curious about where this dark-haired newcomer had come from.
But later that afternoon, he’d been out at the bakery buying his weekly loaf of bread when he’d seen Nerik outside, flirting up a storm with Grenia, the butcher’s daughter. Grenia was a pretty thing, with long, blonde hair and fine, high cheekbones, and Nerik had gallantly offered her a flower he’d found in the forest and bowed to her, blowing her a kiss as he trotted away.
Thoroughly confused and feeling rather let down, Yorin made his way back to his shop… but before he arrived, he ran into Nerik again, this time outside the pub. Nerik was helping old Mrs Jenson down off her cart, and as he passed, Yorin heard him compliment Mrs Jenson’s hat, the firmness of her grip, and then saw him wink at her. Mrs Jenson must have been pushing seventy and what little beauty she’d had in her youth had long ago faded.
Well, that had cleared up the confusion about Nerik’s flirting. Or rather, it had cleared up the idea that his flirting was in any way related to his preference in a potential partner. Nope, Nerik was just a habitual flirt, going out of his way to make everyone around him feel good about themselves, while the words themselves were as shallow as a roadside puddle.
The following day, however, Nerik had returned to the tailor shop. “Eight copper coins,” he announced with a flourish, displaying the payment in his outstretched hand. “And I’m sorry to be the bearer of bad news, but Mrs Edie says the flowers on the shawl were, and I quote, ‘too blue’.”
It was never pleasant hearing that a customer was not satisfied with their purchase, but in this case, Yorin could only smile. “If that’s the worst of what she had to say, I’ll take that as a win. Mrs Edie is never entirely happy about anything,” he explained to Nerik, who looked confused by his response. “It’s the wrong colour, it’s the wrong size, the fabric is too harsh or too soft or too warm. No matter what you do for her, she’ll find something to complain about.”
“Oh, well that’s a relief,” Nerik said. “Since she also said I’d delivered the package at the wrong time. According to her, it was ‘too close to midday’. I wasn’t quite sure what to make of that.”
“It’s her way of saying good morning,” Yorin told him. “Think nothing of it.” Interestingly, though, the complaint had served a deeper purpose, given that this was Nerik’s first delivery for him. It confirmed that Nerik had, indeed, delivered the shawl to the correct recipient. Yorin didn’t think he’d have bothered making up a complaint if he’d stashed the package somewhere or sold it to someone else. He had also faithfully relayed a message intended for Yorin, albeit a less than favourable one, and he’d provided the correct money for the venture. In return, Yorin thanked him, handed over the two copper coins that were standard payment for a delivery outside the city limits, and gone about his day.
Over the next few months, Nerik had become a regular at the shop, and gradually, Yorin had stopped using his other messengers. Nerik never seemed to get sick, never complained about the weather, was always on time and none of his packages were ever damaged. Yorin was very willing to reward diligence when he found it, and so Nerik had earned himself a permanent position as Yorin’s messenger of choice.
The downside, of course, was that Yorin was now forced to see Nerik on a regular basis, which kept alive the flickering hope that one day they might be more than casual acquaintances, even while Yorin told himself that longing for anything more was futile.