A Fair Enough Trade
By Kim Fielding
Even after Aygun counted the coins for the fifth time, only eight remained. Not nearly enough to pay for another night’s lodging, but that was of little consequence. What troubled him more was that there weren’t sufficient coins to get him drunk enough to pass out.
But he’d make a damned good attempt at it anyway.
He pushed the coins across the scarred wooden bar. “Whatever this’ll buy the most of.”
The innkeeper lifted a pale eyebrow. He was handsome for a landman, not as solidly built as most of them, but with a sinewy strength to his lean frame. And his eyes were as blue and deep as a summer sky. “I’ve got some nasty rotgut, but it’ll make you sick.”
“I don’t care.” Aygun was already sick.
“All right,” said the innkeeper with a shrug. He turned around and nearly crawled into a cabinet—giving Aygun a view of his very nice ass—before emerging with a dusty brown bottle in his hand. He poured a handswidth of cloudy liquid into a glass and waited, as if he doubted Aygun would really drink it.
But Aygun did. It was terrible stuff, like swilling burning sewage water, but he took a large swallow. He couldn’t down it all in one go, though, so he set the glass on the bar while he waited to see if he was going to lose his stomach lining.
The innkeeper still stared at him. “Don’t usually get wind people in here. Especially ones who want cheap liquor. Isn’t it dangerous to fly when you’re drunk?”
“Yes. But I’m not a wind person anymore.” Aygun had another caustic swallow before he unfurled his wings. The left one spread beautifully, its pewter feathers shining even indoors. But the right—the right one ended at the first joint, where the scarred skin was still red and raw-looking.
The innkeeper barked a noisy laugh.
Aygun would have fought him for that, would have tried to beat him bloody. He might even have succeeded, because this landman wasn’t much bigger than he was. But a fight would have meant he cared; and he didn’t care about anything but getting drunk. He gritted his teeth, folded his wings, and looked away instead.
As a result, he didn’t actually see the innkeeper come walking around the bar, although Aygun couldn’t miss the odd shuffle-thunk of his tread. The innkeeper stopped behind him. Aygun felt the man’s gaze burning at his back. Maybe the bastard wanted another look at the wound.
Aygun whirled around with a snarl. But his angry words died on his lips when he saw that the innkeeper had hitched up one of his trouser cuffs to reveal a wooden stump where his lower leg ought to be. Aygun stared at it for several minutes. The wood was well-worn, covered in grooves and nicks. It hadn’t been fashioned in any semblance of human flesh and ended with a broad flat block in place of a foot.
When Aygun looked up, the innkeeper was smiling slightly.
“It’s not the same,” Aygun said after a moment. “You can still walk. I am—I was a wind person. Flying was what I was.” The words hurt his throat.
“And I was a stevedore. Now I can barely carry my own weight, let alone crates and parcels.” He thumped his wooden foot heavily on the floor, then spread his arms to indicate the entire inn. “I adjusted.”
He made it sound so simple, like discarding old clothes. But he probably had friends and family to support him as he found his new life. He probably had—well, more than eight coins. And now Aygun didn’t even have that.
The innkeeper was still staring at him. Aygun twisted back around to face the bar and his mostly empty glass. He heard the man clomp away to the opposite end of the room and have a quiet conversation with the only other customers, a pair of middle-aged landwomen. A minute or two after that, the door to the inn opened with a creak and then shut firmly. It sounded as if a lock engaged.
The innkeeper limped back behind his bar. He held a hand out across the wood. “Name’s Tural,” he said.
Wind people did not shake hands—they had other methods of greeting one another. But now those methods were impossible for Aygun. He shook Tural’s hand. “Aygun.”
Tural held on slightly longer than Aygun thought was customary. Then he grabbed the glass with the remainder of the foul liquid and poured it in a waste bucket.
“Hey!” Aygun protested. “I paid—”
“I know. Have this instead.” Tural poured something from a green bottle, and Aygun took a cautious sip. It was citrusy and spicy, and it warmed his belly instead of burning it.
Seemingly satisfied with Aygun’s reaction, Tural grinned. “How about some nice salmon fillets? You guys eat fish, right? I was going to fry them up for myself for dinner, but I have enough for two.”
Aygun hoped Tural didn’t hear his stomach growl. “I can’t— I don’t have any more money.”
“The inn is closed now.” Tural waved in the direction of the door. “Which means you’re now officially my guest instead of my customer, and that means you don’t pay.”
“Why would you do that for me?” Aygun asked, eyes narrowed.
“My place. I do what I want. When I was a stevedore? I had bosses who told me what to do all day. Carry this. Put that there. Even told me when I was allowed to piss. But now that I’m a one-legged innkeeper, I get to make all the choices. And if I want to close down the place and offer dinner to a handsome wind person, well, that’s what I’ll do. Lost my leg, gained my freedom. A fair enough trade.” He had dimples when he smiled, and deep crinkles at the corners of his eyes.
Aygun had no reason to trust this landman. On the other hand, he had nothing left to lose. And he was hungry and lonely and just so goddamned tired. “Salmon sounds good,” he said.
Grinning widely, Tural grabbed the green bottle. “Follow me.” He walked slowly, his gait uneven and painful-looking. But his smile hadn’t dimmed by the time he led Aygun through a door and into what must have been his private apartment. It was really just a single room, crowded with old furniture and ragged books and piles of clothing.
“I’m not much of a housekeeper, I’m afraid,” Tural said cheerfully. He waved Aygun to a slightly rickety chair, and hummed quietly to himself as he cooked the fish at the fireplace in the corner. He had some difficulty carrying two overflowing plates to the table, but he managed it with a determined grimace.
The fish was very good. Aygun ate far more than his share, but Tural only smiled and transferred food from his plate to Aygun’s. They drank more of the liquor from the green bottle, and Tural told funny stories about people who’d come to his inn. Aygun was mesmerized by Tural’s sparkling blue eyes. A man could fly in those eyes.
After a while, Aygun realized he no longer cared about getting drunk.
And when they finished their meal and Tural undressed, and his pale skin looked golden in the waning firelight, Aygun remembered that while his wing was destroyed, other parts of his body were quite operable.
Tural’s bed was soft as feathers and his embrace was warm. His mouth could do wicked, wonderful things. He laughed often, as if Aygun delighted him. And his missing leg wasn’t any more of a hindrance to lovemaking than was Aygun’s mangled wing.
“Stay,” Tural whispered into his ear as the sweat cooled on their bodies. “I could use the help. I could…. I’d like you to stay.” He stroked Aygun’s feathers softly—the ones on the ruined wing.
Aygun settled his hand on Tural’s smooth, muscular ass. He’d never thought of becoming an innkeeper, or an innkeeper’s mate. But why not? Tural seemed happy enough. And Aygun would no longer need to worry about the rigid rules of his flock, nor the scorn he used to receive when he didn’t fly like everyone else. Perhaps he’d lost the sky but gained his freedom. Gained a beautiful landman too.
A fair enough trade, he thought as he smiled against Tural’s shoulder.
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