“Well aren’t you a pleasant young man?”
The elderly lady’s voice rolled through Iric’s mind like the screech of a harpy. The rest of her flock joined in the attack.
“Oh, a watchman, eh?” a second lady said. “What shiny armor you have? Come here a moment, young man.”
Why now, why today? Iric had barely gotten away from Sergeant Vott with his skin intact this morning; someone had left the man’s mug under the birdcage as a prank and Vott had dumped his rage on Iric. Iric didn’t need any more harassment today. He had wandered over to the Rose Cafe in hopes of getting a strong cup of tea to knock away his tensions, and had come straight into the path of… them. Excessively pleasant old widows, in sun hats and decades-old flower blouses. A trap for any young male stronger than the worst of the whirlpools sent by Sorun, God of the Sea.
“Aren’t you a little young to be in the Watch?” the first woman asked. She was short and fat, with a round rosy face, curly gray hair, and soft blue eyes. “What’s your name, young man?”
“Iric, ma’am. And I’m nineteen, one year over the minimum recruiting age.”
“Nineteen?” the third woman exasperated. “I would have thought you to be fourteen, fifteen at best. You have such a boyish face.”
Iric cringed at the comment. It was hard enough getting respect when you had just passed the age of majority, let alone when you had old women calling you boyish.
The women were seated around a circular table, a copper tea pot resting in front of the rosy faced one. The other two had not aged as well as the first, their hair whiter and thinner, their faces more wrinkled. Iric had assumed them to be widows, since wives, and husbands to a lesser extent, rarely had time to spend lounging alone in the sun-bathed plazas of Market Street.
It was nearing noon. Iric could feel the warm touch of the sun on the back of his neck. It made him sweat, the moisture dripping under the leather padding of his armor, binding his shirt to his skin. He shifted on his feet in irritation. He felt his skin begin to itch under the heavy breastplate which the old hags eyed with such interest. The itches were deep in places his fingers couldn’t reach. He didn’t know which annoyance was worse.
“Being a watchman is a good profession,” the second woman said to the first. “He’d make a good husband for my granddaughter, don’t you think?”
“Gods, Astrid, this strapping young man deserves better than your poor Turid,” the third woman said. “That girl puts on pounds like layers to a cake.”
The two women chuckled at the expense of the grandmother, whose face somehow managed to wrinkle even more in anger. Then the woman joined the others in laughter. Iric’s mind desperately searched for an escape route. But he couldn’t come off as unfriendly, or scornful. The Watch existed to serve the public, and this required trust and respect.
“Why don’t you sit and have a cup of tea with us, Iric?” the third woman asked.
“Unfortunately, ma’am, I am on duty and cannot break for such indulgences,” Iric lied.
“You are a public servant, are you not?” the second woman said, her voice tenser and more raspy than the others. “So serve.”
The woman indicated the tea pot with a withered finger. Iric tried to think of another excuse, to no avail. He grabbed the tea pot and moved it over the first woman’s cup. The pot radiated heat; its handle was little more than wrapped hemp cord which scratched at the skin of Iric’s hands. As he poured the bitter smelling liquid into the woman’s cup, steam rose up lazily into his face. The smell made him want to take a cup for himself, but he was hell-bent on leaving the ladies to their cackling.
“You are such a kind boy,” the third woman said with a bright smile. “The Watch could use more recruits like you. My husband was in the Watch. Gave most of his life to the service… well, gave all of his life, you could say.”
The woman stared down at her cup in silence, the other two joined in the memorial. Iric’s heart twisted. A watchman’s widow? He berated himself for thinking so negatively before, for thinking of these women as harpies and hags. If there was one thing the Watch held in the utmost value, besides protecting the men and women with which you served, it was caring for their families when service was cut short. Watch families often got stuck in the service, long after duty had concluded. Parents died, children enlisted; it was an endless cycle.
Iric sat down and poured himself a cup of tea.
“Tell me about your husband.”