The Nightmare Rider - chapter 05

 

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Chapter 5 of
 
  The Nightmare Rider

 

 

 


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Chapter 5

 
 
 

Jessica slowly opened her eyes. It took her a few moments to realize she was in her bed in her dorm room. The sun had already risen. A glance at the clock told her she had two hours before the start of school.

"So you decided to rejoin us," her mother's voice came from the doorway.

Jessica looked to her, "Mother! I had the most horrible of dreams!"

Lellaa Weyden waved the maid behind her to leave them then sat down on the side of Jessica's bed.

Jessica hugged her tight, "it was a nightmare Mother."

Lellaa patted her back and asked, "let me guess. You dreamed that you had been lied to, your hatred for Solos has been unfounded and that I arranged a Liaison for you with one named Patrick Fotens?"

Jessica pulled back and stared at her, "you mean; it wasn't a dream?"

To Jessica's horror her mother simply shook her head.

"WHY? Why would you do that to me? Is my humiliation to be forever," Jessica cried.

Lellaa stood up and walked over to the window to look outside. She was silent for several tense moments.

"You think I am punishing you with something degrading," Lellaa said staring out the window.

Jessica nodded and sobbed, "how could that be anything else? I was wrong for hating him just for being a Solo, I'm willing to admit that in any way to make amends. But to Liaise with him? Mother how can that be seen as anything BUT a degrading punishment from you and Father?"

Lellaa Weyden turned around and looked at her, "simple. Its a Liaison. Your Father and I have spoken on this and he is in agreement. He's rather impressed with Solo Fotens. Once its confirmed you are pregnant, he will collect his gratuity and go his way. As all Solos do. This is neither degrading nor a punishment. If I were of the mind to do THAT; you wouldn't be having a Liaison."

Jessica stared in horror of that implication. Her own mother had just practically said that she could have easily negotiated marriage instead!

"Not THAT! Please Mama NOT THAT! I'm sorry! I'm sorry Mama," Jessica whimpered in terror.

Lellaa had taken to walking around the room aimlessly, "oh if I really wanted you to suffer I'd marry you off to some Noble that would have you as no more than a decoration. The thought of taking you down to the main hall and stripping you of that gown to administer a spanking that an abused peasant girl would find a relief from her usual torment would fit if I were of the mind to degrade you."

For a moment Jessica actually considered asking her to do that instead of what she already had in store for her.

"I'd like to say that only your foolish pride is all that has suffered a slight ding. Unfortunately you've not done much of anything worth being proud of, "Queen Weyden continued. "So that point is moot, of course."

A knock at the door interrupted them followed by Fiona Doucet coming in.

"Pardon my intrusion my Ladies. I came to look in on her Highness," Fiona said gently.

Lellaa nodded and waved her on, "of course Countess. You do have your duty. By all means. I think I'll go down and breakfast with the Headmaster."

Fiona nodded, "as you wish your Majesty. I'm sure he'll enjoy your company."

Queen Lellaa left the room. Fiona looked at Jessica then went into her bathroom and came back with a damp washcloth and wiped at her face gently.

"Am I really so horrible Countess? Do I really deserve this punishment," Jessica sniffed.

Fiona sighed, "I think this is the part where I'm supposed to hug you and tell you that you're being severely mistreated."

Jessica looked up at her to see Fiona give her a very frank look.

"That's not going to happen. To be honest; you're a bitch. A pompous one at that. Don't even think of arguing your mother taking charge of you once again. Not after all the remarkable successes you've been reaping in," Fiona said with heavy sarcasm.

Jessica's jaw dropped. Until this morning nobody have ever given her a dressing down like this, but here she was getting it twice.

Fiona sat down and crossed one shapely leg over the other, "you want to get down to it? You're stuck up. You think you are the be all, end all. In reality; I personally could take you off your horse with every lance. I reviewed your contest with Fotens. He GAVE you two lances! When you go up against him again, he won't even do that. The only male here that will have anything to do with you is Prince Vaan Arento. For now. Without intervention, even he will turn away and that's saying something! If I pulled half of what you've done, my parents would have come here, yanked me out of the Academy and spanked me, naked, all the way home during my first year. I may play around PRINCESS; but only because I have, and still do, produce RESULTS my family approve of."

With wide eyes Jessica sat in shock.

"You have no idea how MANY times I've had to stop others from simply going over and literally try slapping some sense into you! To be frank, I've only stopped them because its my duty. Personally I'm surprised that someone hasn't tried to take your foolish head OFF during contest. Right now, as it is, there's heavy talk of trying to keep you out of Tournament among the students," Fiona informed her.

Jessica looked down, "how many people know what really happened against Fotens?"

Fiona thought about it for a moment then answered, "me, Sir Belvin, your two friends and Fotens himself. Your friends only know he gave you the second of the two lances. They suspect he may have given you the first. Thankfully your mother hasn't reviewed the contest or she'd REALLY have it in for you. If she knew what really happened out there, she'd have pulled you immediately and would start trying to find a way to produce another heir!"

Jessica skittered back until she hit the headboard, "Gods no!"

"Oh trust me there are worse things than what she has in mind for you! Like; becoming a Tower Maiden. The legend is true you know," Fiona said pointedly.

Jessica cringed, hugging her knees to her chest. All Noble and Royal girls knew the story. Most of the Gentry did as well, particularly those training for Knighthood. The story went that a girl born to parents that had both been Tournament champions and undefeated in official battles had sent their first and only daughter to the Academy. Her attitude and performance were so horrible they pulled her after Tournament her third year and locked her in a tower of their castle. There she was kept and the only contact she had was a maid that brought her food and the constant barrage of Liaisons. In short, she was consigned to being nothing more than a high echelon breeding girl. Some said the girl was a high noble but more insisted she had been born royal. Over the years details became fuzzy. No one could really remember what her birthing had been or which kingdom she had come from. In some of the telling; the story ended with the girl finally birthing a daughter that was taken in replacement and in anguish, she threw herself from the tower to her death. Tower Maiden was the ultimate threat to any girl that chose to become unruly.

Boys had it easier. They would simply be disowned and sent away. That didn't happen very often and those that did occasionally joined Solo groups. Those were widely known too. There was very little effort made to conceal their identities. Solo Regiments or Companies that took in such deposed persons did so grudgingly. The probationary time for them tended to be longer than others that joined.

"Who do I pray to to be born again and start all over," Jessica cried.

The Countess stood up, "your life is whatever catastrophe or conquest you make it. You have not been wronged, but you've done plenty to others. The day is new. Let that be your sign as to start atoning for your transgressions. Now compose yourself and get going Jessica Weyden; Princess of Lurbourg. I'll have no pity parties for self-inflicted stupidity."

With that the Student Council Head turned and went out, carried by her trademark elegant strides. All First year girls envied her walk and most tried to copy. One foot placed almost directly in front of the other, short extension and delayed back-step. It caused her footsteps to be light with a sharp report. The slight twist of her hips gave her butt a seductive sway which caused her skirt to swing sassily. Over ninety percent of the males in the Academy admitted to being capable of watching her all day. Like most females her boots had a high heel to them, though her boots had a heel that was slimmer than most and higher. Also Fiona's boots weren't the standard pull on kind. They laced up the front, but instead of cord laces she substituted ribbons of her family's colors.

Jessica sniffled and wiped at her tears again then got out of bed to go shower and ready herself to face the day, with all the enthusiasm of one preparing for their own funeral.

 

~*~*~*~

 

The Headmaster was trying to not enjoy breakfast with his old student, now a Queen, Lellaa Weyden too much. He had no problem in the past admitting that she had been a favored student of his. It wasn't difficult to entertain her as she was doing quite well at entertaining them both. Even going so far as to clearing up one of the minor mysteries during her attendance. He did notice that she would occasionally glance over to the table occupied by Patrick Fotens. The young Solo sat alone, as usual, reading notices.

"Pardon me Headmaster," an office staffer said behind him then added when waved forward, "this just came in."

The Headmaster took the message and read it. Lellaa sipped her drink in quiet curiosity.

The old man sighed and folded the missive then said quietly, "tell Fotens to join me in the corridor."

Lellaa was all ears now, he had mentioned Patrick specifically. She counted to ten then followed.

"You wanted to see me Headmaster," Patrick asked in the corridor.

"I did. A request has come in. You've been asked for by name. The name Dennly Flagan holds significance to you. Yes," the Headmaster asked.

Patrick nodded, "yes Sir. He was the Commander of the Eighty-Sixth FreeLancers until his death in battle eleven months ago. I was under him directly."

"Unofficially you're attached to the Seventy-Fifth. Officially you're the only remaining member of the Eighty-Sixth. Commander Cardoon of the Seventy-Fifth said that an old friend of Flagan inquired where any remaining members of the Eighty-Sixth could be found and it was mutually agreed that you're the only one. A merchant wishes to hire a member of the Eighty-Sixth as escort to a shipment. This assignment would only take two and a half, maybe three days. This is within your charter as a Solo and the terms are reasonable. Three full days escort pay, daily battle wage if any incident with bonus if successful. Since this is the end of the week I see no problem with taking the assignment if you wish," The Headmaster informed him.

Patrick thought about it for a moment then nodded, "If there's no problem then I'll take the assignment."

The Headmaster nodded to him, "excellent. Its always good for a Solo to keep his name in the know. I'll contact Commander Cardoon and the contractor to inform them of acceptance and to expect you. I will admit though; as skilled as you are, I'm a bit reluctant to send you out alone. No offense but you are only one. I think."

The Headmaster stopped talking and looked past Patrick. Patrick turned to see Jessica Weyden frozen in place with an expression of utter horror on her face.

"Princess Weyden. Good to see you up and about. Countess Doucet mentioned going to look in on you. I was having breakfast with your mother. I'm sure you could still join her," The Headmaster said then gestured for her to go inside the dining hall.

Queen Lellaa Weyden stepped into view, "no need. I'm right here. Pardon me Headmaster but I believe you are in a quandary about something. I couldn't help overhearing. I was about to collect Jessica myself but paused for your business."

The Headmaster's eyes narrowed, "so considerate of you Queen Weyden. I'm sure you would like to interject some point or other?"

Lellaa walked fully into the corridor and smiled, "yes. I think it would be a good idea if Jessica accompanied Solo Fotens. Please hear me out before objecting. Jessica has EXTREMELY limited knowledge of Solos and various services they provide. Solo Fotens would in effect have her as an apprentice. Naturally of course HE will be in charge as this is his assignment. Jessica would be there to observe and learn how a Solo performs contracted services. Should there be any encounters she would serve as a reinforcement if he should require. Of course Solo Fotens would be paid for this service. Twice the rate being paid for his assignment as he would be teaching while doing."

"This is highly unusual," Patrick remarked.

"That's putting it mildly," the Headmaster commented.

"I understand and sympathize but I do believe that this experience would very much benefit. My daughter's view of Solos was corrupted by a family member and it is only of late that its been brought to our attention. Her father and I find this unacceptable as well as her behavior. In order to rectify this I believe drastic measures must be taken. Solo Fotens, being the consummate Solo, will be nothing other than professional. I can think of no one better suited," Lellaa explained.

Jessica wanted to scream at them for talking about her as if she weren't there. Was her mother really going to send her out with him? As an apprentice too?

Patrick seemed to be thinking, "If I take this additional assignment certain conditions would have to apply."

Lellaa nodded, "please continue."

Patrick nodded, "firstly: if at anytime I believe she is at jeopardy then I need authority to send her away to safety. My priority is the escort assignment. If I feel at anytime that her presence brings undue risk then she will have to withdraw. Second: as you said so yourself. This is MY assignment. She must follow my instruction implicitly and without protest. Anything else makes her a hindrance. Thirdly: this came through as a request for a Solo of the Eighty-Sixth. Royalty was not requested or invited. Her appearance could cause a problem. She'll need to hide her identity."

"You make your points well and of course, they all of a professional nature. All three of your conditions are agreed upon and I will triple the pay-rate instead of double to reflect your professionalism. Headmaster could a set of Academy armor be made available? Solo Fotens will her mount be an issue? Will she be able to still use it," Lellaa asked.

"Academy armor will work. She can use her own mount since it's of a basic appearance. Have her carry a plain combat sword as well. Other than basic travel gear that's it," Patrick replied.

The Headmaster nodded, "very well. Her absence will be approved, but I'm implementing a condition of my own. Upon completion of this assignment I will expect an objective report from the Princess detailing what she has learned from this experience. This report will also be delivered orally to her class."

"Then its settled. Jessica will be ready to join you in an hour Solo Fotens," Lellaa said.

Patrick shook his head, "two hours. At the main gate."

Lellaa nodded, "all the better. Two hours then."

Patrick turned and left.

Lellaa looked over at her terror-struck daughter, "well? There's no time to waste! We have to get you ready. Back to your dorm room."

The Headmaster shook his head as the Queen took her daughter away, "I'm beginning to think the girl would rather give the orders for her own execution than do this."

 

~*~*~*~

 

Daalumos turned around as Patrick stepped into the chamber, "you're still Glamoured? Is there a problem my Mistress?"

Patrick shook his head, "not a problem per se. An assignment has come up for my mortal facade. One I should undertake to maintain the facade."

The bound demon shook himself, "Have you not found it taxing to constantly perform these petty acts?"

Patrick arched an eyebrow.

"Wait. There is something else. OH there is definitely something else and you believe I'll find it amusing! What is it," Daalumos asked.

"The mortal princess. She is to accompany me during the course of this assignment. As my Apprentice. She will be in my charge," Patrick stated.

Daalumos stood stock-still for a moment then roared with laughter, "your APPRENTICE! I want to meet whomever came up this entertaining display of sadism! Will you require her to address you as SIR, My Mistress?"

Patrick looked straight at the Lust and replied, "its her mother's idea."

"This Mortal is quickly gaining my favor. She's delightfully cruel and inventive. Please do go ahead with this assignment nonsense. I shall follow along just to watch the entertainment as the foolish girl's perception crumbles about her," Daalumos chuckled.

Patrick chuckled as well, "That's what I thought you would say. Stay concealed and hold back your influence unless I say otherwise. I need all the mortals intact and unstressed for this."

The demon snorted, "very well. I will restrain myself and simply take on whatever they provide on their own. This Princess will probably be able to sustain me for a whole mortal year all on her own within the first hour of being under your guidance!"

Patrick began changing into the older set of armor and remarked, "you're probably right about that."

He took up his travelpack, shield and lance after buckling on the combat sword with the crest of the Eighty-Sixth FreeLancers Regiment. Daalumos stepped outside and vanished into concealment as Patrick secured his gear to the robotic horse and mounted up. The Lust found it challenging to contain his laughter as he followed at a distance back to the main gate of the Academy. A lone figure, wearing plain armor without any marking, waited astride a robotic horse at the side of the road.

 

~*~*~*~

 

Jessica sat on her horse debating if she had time to run and hide. She felt uncomfortable in the armor. Even though it fit perfectly it wasn't her own. In fact the only things that were her own were the boots, undergarments and horse. She was about to turn her horse about and claim he left without her when she felt her stomach plummet to the ground. Patrick Fotens had come into sight. Just like he had on the day he joined the Academy. His black and green armor stood in contrast to the sky behind him.

Patrick stopped directly in front of her, his helmet hung on the side of the saddle and lance leaning against his shoulder propped in a notch of the saddle. Jessica was much the same. Unless they knew her, anyone looking would assume she was nothing more than his apprentice. Her make-up was sparse and subdued. Her hair was pulled back into a simple ponytail tied with a plain bit of cord. Were she not wearing gloves the fact that her nail polish had also been removed would be evident. Even the earrings in her ears were simple silver studs.

"You have a complete basic travel pack," Patrick asked.

Jessica didn't trust her voice, so nodded her answer.

Patrick nodded his acknowledgement, "alright. If we don't have any problems and keep a reasonable, but quick pace, we'll be at Hamius by nightfall. We'll check in with the contractor and lodge the night. We'll move out at first light. Without any problems we'll arrive at the final destination sometime after noon the day after tomorrow. Nightfall at the latest. If you have questions, ask. If I give an order, obey. If I tell you to quit, you go home or back here because you are in danger beyond our ability. I will do that only as a last resort. I can not have you taken to be ransomed or worse. Do I need to give you any more highly specific instruction?"

Jessica shook her head.

"If I find I need to, I will. The escort is the priority; not you. For the duration of this assignment you are not to reveal to anyone your true identity. If you need to give a last name give Mulhanten. Jessica Mulhanten the only illegitimate child to Evgar Mulhanten and I have you in apprenticeship. Evgar was the second in command of the Eighty-Sixth. In truth he was childless. No one will contradict this because he died in battle a year ago. He left you an inheritance that allowed you to enter the Academy but you have to work under me to complete it. You're a Second year," Patrick instructed her.

Jessica nodded.

"You are my apprentice. Just call me Patrick around others. WHATEVER you do; DON'T correct anyone at how they address you. For the next three days you are NOT a princess. Revealing that can get you taken captive and your parents may not buy you back for being stupid. Are we clear," Patrick asked pointedly.

Again Jessica nodded.

"No good. Yes or no," Patrick stated.

"Yes," Jessica choked out.

Patrick turned Daemon around, "then let's move out."

Jessica spurred Mars to follow then urged him on when Patrick increased speed to a light gallop. In her mind she was picturing her lance sticking out of the Solo's back and stomping his head deeper and deeper into a roadside mud hole. Only Patrick could hear the roaring of laughter coming from the bound demon moving along nearby invisible to mortal eyes. They rode for four hours until reaching a village and slowed to a walk. Jessica wondered if they were going to just pass through when Patrick stopped and looked back.

He edged Daemon closer to Mars and asked, "did you only bring armor or do you have any clothes?"

"Just the armor. We didn't think any of my clothes would be appropriate. Is that a problem," Jessica asked.

Patrick nodded, "yes but we can fix it. There is an outfitter."

They turned their horses around and went back to a shop and dismounted. Jessica followed him inside. An older man nodded to them.

"Welcome. How can I service you," The old man asked.

Patrick gestured to Jessica, "She had a problem the other day and hired out for laundry. They made the problem worse and now she needs something to wear."

The man looked her up and down, "A Solo? I take it she needs your colors. Not a problem. Right this way, my daughter can fit her."

Jessica followed a girl who looked only a year or two younger to the back. Fifteen minutes later she came out wearing a green skirt and blouse covered by a black jacket with ruffled train and black pumps.

Patrick nodded, "that's good. Add a pair of riding pants and boots. We need to keep moving."

Jessica went back while he went over and paid the bill. When Jessica came back out she was back in armor and had her clothing in a travel bag. Instead of remounting they walked a ways down and stopped at a baker's. Patrick bought them two lunch pies and drinks. The two ate as they walked out of town. Just outside the border they mounted up and continued riding at a walk. After an hour they sped up to a hard gallop to make up for their stop. It was late afternoon when they slowed down to a walk for a break.

"May I ask you something," Jessica asked.

Patrick replied, "yes."

"Why the clothes," the princess asked.

"On the way back we'll have to stay in armor because we won't be lodging. Tonight though we will and we have to meet the contractor. It wouldn't be comfortable or wise to be in armor later on. So you'll wear clothes. You're not a Solo so you don't have a uniform. Those clothes look like what an apprentice would wear. Its part of the disguise," Patrick stated.

Jessica saw the reasoning, "Did you save the ticket? You'll need to be reimbursed. I didn't bring much money with me as Mother thought that as an apprentice I shouldn't have much. I can reimburse you when we get back to the Academy."

Patrick nodded, "I saved it. I'll be picking up all your expenses. That too, is part of the disguise. I'll send all your tickets to your mother afterward along with my statement. All my tickets go to the contractor starting when we depart. You work for me so I keep your tickets. When we reach the final destination and the job is done, I turn all mine in, along with my statement. He pays me. You 'work for me' so I 'pay you' off my end. The main thing is that you go with as little attention to you."

"Why is that," Jessica asked.

"To be honest; because of who, or rather what, you are. The more you exchange with them, the greater the risk of you betraying yourself. Since you were born; you've been taught to speak and handle yourself a certain way. Very formal. That wouldn't be that big of a problem if you didn't expect the same. You do and that's the biggest problem. You don't date so that works for and against you. It means that if you dance its formal. Few Solo men dance formal. The Solo women do but more do so informally. I doubt we'll actually have time for socializing. The fact that you don't date means that you don't have any casual skills around males. You barely talk to any in Academy, so the odds of you doing so socially outside the Academy are lower than Talfar's morals," Patrick said flatly.

Jessica gawked then began to laugh after a moment she said, "I shouldn't laugh at that because its true, which makes me sound pitiful; but that last part was funny. I thought nothing was lower than his morals!"

Patrick shrugged, "from what I hear; the slime under rocks in the sewer ditch run a close contest."

"Yes but his record on the field is hard to argue against," Jessica admitted.

"He's not that good. He studies his opponents in detail. Especially their injuries so he can exploit them. His first lance is always the most critical. He goes for any weakness he has found. After that he just keeps hammering at it. His biggest tactic is the dip. He makes you think he's going to suddenly drop his arm to bring up his tip, aiming for your helmet then slams straight at the base of your shield to lift and twist you off your horse," Patrick explained.

Jessica nodded, "I heard he clipped somebody's helmet once."

"That's true but there's a story to it. The story goes that as a Second year he ended up in a personal contest with a Fourth year Gentry. The Gentry broken two lances on him. Talfar went for a helmet strike and almost took his head completely off. The Gentry couldn't continue so Talfar won. That's how he got his reputation for going for 'accidental' helmet hits," Patrick told her.

Jessica snarled, "disgraceful!"

"He paid the Gentry to let him do it. The whole contest was for show," Patrick said bluntly.

"How do you know," Jessica asked even more shocked.

Patrick gave her a look that said she overlooked the obvious, "one of the stable mechanics saw it all. Six hundred coins to hit the helmet and win. A thousand if it really hurt him. He got his six hundred in advance. The Gentry got paid, Talfar got a reputation and everybody believes he'll do it to them if he thinks he can get away with it. His other trick is to use his own lances in personal contest. They're composite not wood, so he hits harder to knock you off."

Jessica sighed, "so how do you beat him?"

"Without mercy. How are you going to beat him," Patrick asked.

Jessica stared at him for a moment in confusion then wanted to smack herself. What worked for him wouldn't work for her.

"Hope I go after you and he's hurt maybe," Jessica said.

Patrick looked over at her, "now that's the most sense I've ever heard out of you. Good luck with that. He's not the one to watch out for though. Doucet is. Arento is the major contender. He looks like fluff but its only looks. He connects like a rock off a tower."

Patrick sped up to a gallop again, Jessica followed suit to keep abreast of him.

"Some have said similar of you. 'A boulder off a cliff' were the words if I remember right," Jessica commented.

Patrick remarked, "I don't think that's very accurate."

Jessica looked over, "you hit me really hard twice and dropped me once."

Patrick looked over and asked, "have you ever known anybody to be hit repeatedly by the same boulder off a cliff?"

"No. You have a point," Jessica laughed then asked, "will we make it there before sunset?"

"Maybe, but I doubt it. We'll probably get to the town not long after nightfall. Its a reasonable sized town so being out after dark won't be a problem. Is that going to be problematic," Patrick asked. "Being out at night?"

Jessica would shrug if they were going slower so just simply said, "there's been a lot of stories about that Nightmare Rider person lately. I have the impression that it wouldn't be such a good idea to encounter her."

"Well if you follow the rumors, which isn't hard; we more than likely would encounter the Nightmare Rider if we joined a battle. Personally I intend to avoid that if possible. We have enough going on as it is," Patrick replied.

"We do," Jessica asked.

Patrick nodded, "I have the escort assignment and teaching you the ways of Solos. You have the assignment of learning those ways and maintaining your disguise. That's plenty to have going on."

Jessica to her credit, caught on quick, "fair point. I'll do my best."

"Just think twice before opening your mouth and keep your hand off any weapons unless I go first and you should stay out of most trouble," Patrick stated.

Jessica glared, "think twice before opening my mouth?"

"You did get into a personal contest with me," Patrick reminded.

Jessica groaned, "I'll never hear the end of it."

Patrick pulled up to stop and faced her when she did the same.

"You did something dumb. Then you did something stupid. You at least met the price of that stupidity. You know you have flaws. Do something about them or do something about your sense of shame. Do one of those soon because you'll be facing me again at the end of next week," Patrick told her bluntly.

Jessica sighed, "you're going to win against Dante."

Patrick nodded, "He's not bad, but he needs more time to learn how not to be taken out of the saddle. Maybe next year he'll have a better record. Its about skill, strength and strategy. His is limited and he hasn't realized it yet. Let's go."

They went back to the hard gallop. Jessica rode silently thinking about what he pointed out.

Patrick gave something more to think on, "you have a family name. Credit or blight, that's all on you Weyden. What you say and what you do matters to others. It reflects on them. My name I took for myself. I have no family. I serve myself according to the code of Solos. I take what I earn and will keep what I have. There's no honor or obligation for me, only the terms of the contract."

They continued to ride on after that in silence. He had given her much to think about. Just as the sun's last light was fading they could see lights in the distance. The horses were slowed to a trot then walk when they had drawn close enough to see a town patrol manning the road. Patrick pulled up Daemon when they arrived at the men.

"Solo and apprentice of the Eighty-Sixth FreeLancers Regiment. Lodging for the night," Patrick stated.

One of the patrol nodded, "There's a Registry on the north side of the square if you're looking for notices."

"Thanks," Patrick replied then spurred Daemon to walk forward.

Jessica walked Mars along side him. They found the square without a problem and stopped at a small building. There was a board beside the door that had several notices. Patrick glanced over them. Jessica did as well.

'He already has an assignment, why is he looking over the notices,' Jessica wondered to herself.

Of course there were the offers of assignments. There were also advertisements for goods and services. Three taverns claimed to cater to Solos and had rooms for nightly and weekly rates. Stables with mechanics. Armorers and weapon-smiths. Down at the bottom was a handwritten scrap of notepaper. A tavern that offered rooms.

"Let's go," Patrick turning Daemon and heading away from the Registry.

The rode down the main street then turned right at the third street to stop seven buildings down. Jessica followed him to dismount then go inside. The small tavern was fairly quiet with only two men sitting at the bar and a woman sitting at a table alone by the window.

Patrick walked over to the man behind the bar, "any rooms for the night?"

"Yes Sir. I have horse stalls as well, out back. Ten coins per room and two coins per stall. The rooms do have bathrooms," the Keeper replied.

Patrick counted out coins and handed them over, "just the night."

The Keeper took the coins then handed Patrick key. Patrick turned and motioned for Jessica to go back outside. Outside they took their horses around to the back and found two stalls. The horses were stabled for the night then Patrick led Jessica back inside and up the stairs. Checking the number against the key marker he stopped and opened the door. Jessica followed him in and closed the door. When she turned around she found herself in shock again. There was only one bed.

"Uh," she stammered.

Patrick set down his pack, "the bed is yours. Go ahead and get cleaned up. I'll do the same while you get dressed."

Jessica glanced around then said meekly, "could you help me with my armor?"

Patrick looked at her blankly then reached over and unfastened the two main points of her torso section, "there you go."

Slowly and hesitantly Jessica removed her armor. Patrick had his completely off in a quarter of the time and arranged in the corner on a table. Jessica placed her's on a stand and tried to keep her back to him the entire time.

"Get a move on. We don't have all night," Patrick remarked.

Jessica rushed into the bathroom. It was several minutes later that she leaned out.

"Could you not look please," Jessica asked.

"Wrap the towel around you and come out. I need to get in there," Patrick said and started toward the bathroom.

Jessica came out turning away from him and blushing deeply. He ignored her and went inside. Minutes later he came back out with a towel around his waist. While he had been in the bathroom she had hurried to dry her hair and dress.

Patrick had slipped on the shorts, socks and pants.

"If you're wearing a bra, take it off," Patrick said in a low voice over his shoulder.

Jessica looked angrily at him, "WHY?"

"If they've been wearing armor all day and riding, Solo women don't wear them at night out of armor. Most don't wear anything at all under their uniform but you're young so some shyness is to be expected. Going without a bra at night is a matter of comfort and very common," Patrick stated.

As much as Jessica hated to admit it, he was right. The armor had rubbed against her all day. She had been looking forward to being without one while sleeping, before finding out they were sharing a room. Slowly she unbuttoned the blouse after pulling it from the waist of the skirt. Carefully she managed to get the piece of lingerie off without taking the blouse off completely then buttoned up and tucked the blouse into the skirt. She slipped on the pumps and picked up her jacket. Patrick was already buckling on a sword-belt. The pommel held the crest of the Eighty-Sixth.

Jessica almost squawked when he came over and unbuttoned the top four buttons of her blouse to reveal noteworthy cleavage then adjusted her jacket to be open except for the bottom button. He took her sword-belt and loosened it two notches then tilted it on her hips.

"Your face is fine as is. Take your hair loose though. Solo women do casual beauty unless dealing with royal or noble clients off the field," Patrick informed her. "Now pay close attention. I do all the talking with the contractor. Basically pretend you aren't there. If they offer anything, decline it. Even the bathroom. When you are met, you nod your head and then become part of the scenery. Watch, listen and LEARN. Let's go."

Jessica looked herself over without glancing at the mirror, "I look alright? I mean; do I look, you know, right?"

Patrick nodded, "you look believable and that's what matters. Solo women don't hide the fact."

"What fact," Jessica asked. "That they're Solos or women?"

"Both. We'll discuss it more later. Let's go," Patrick said then led her out.

Downstairs the tavern had picked up in business. There were quite a few people milling around. Patrick glanced but continued for the door.

"Don't forget the name of this place. You can recommend it to your buddy Arento," Patrick said when they were outside.

"Vaan? Why," Jessica asked.

Patrick led her down the street, "all those women were really men. Arento would have the time of his life in there. His favorite thing in the world are people that do things their own way. Most people think he's a few plates missing from dinner. He isn't. When Arento shows who and what he really is; his people will love him so much, they would crawl through fire for him. And for that he will make sure they NEVER will."

Jessica's jaw almost dragged in the street. All she thought she knew just went with the puff of street dust beneath her shoes.

"I really don't know anything do I," she said more to herself than him.

Patrick stopped at a house and knocked at the door, "you have no idea."

The door opened and a man greeted them, "Solo Fotens. Nice to meet you. Come right in."
 
 
 
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