"Mayor, they're still out there. You have to do something."
Blaze paused in the hallway of the ancient inn, listening to raised voices through closed doors. He'd never been much for eavesdropping, or for gossip in general, but this was hard to ignore. Tobia Wistrus was mayor of town of Varnmos, and also the owner of its largest and oldest inn. So when the Imperial Guard had done their midwinter sweep of the borders, naturally that was where they'd chosen to stay. Blaze wondered now if that had been a mistake: he was supposed to be learning the ways of Imperial cities and towns, and attaching himself to the immediate, obvious power structures was no way to do that. Somber, he thought, would not have approved. But Somber was gone, and even if he hadn't chosen to disappear, he wouldn't be out here with the guard. He'd be off with his family, whoever and wherever they were.
Blaze stepped closer to the wooden door. His own quarters were here at the front of the building, the best rooms, adjacent to those of the owner and her family. The conversation was taking place just beyond the door, in what was probably the entryway to the mayor's family floor.
"The Green is open to all," answered the mayor, her voice soothing. "They have the right to stop there, and to pitch tents, even in this weather."
Blaze hesitated, struggling to find context for the arguments. The sky had been gray and the weather chilly when they'd arrived at midday; it had only grown colder since, and when he'd gone to take a stroll outside the air had hurt his face. It was so cold now, it was brutal.
"The Imperial Guard is in town, in your own inn. How will this make us look?"
Context be damned, Blaze decided, and knocked on the door.
There was a brief pause, and then the door swung open. Blaze stepped through, not waiting for the mayor to invite him inside. "I understand there's a problem on the Green," he said.
The man who had been addressing the mayor was older, thin and hunched, the loose curls of his hair gone to gray. "Travelers," he said. "They've come up from Norandos. They've pitched tents on the Green..."
Blaze didn't wait to hear who was on which side, or even what the sides were. He wasn't sure he wanted to know. "I will speak to them," he said, and left the room.
Even with a heavy cloak over his heaviest coat, the evening wind assaulted him. His nose and ears went numb immediately; the skin of his cheeks felt stretched and beaten. But it was as the older man had said: a double-dozen tents were staked out on the Green at the center of Varnmos, to make bedding places for travelers with no animals and no money.
Blaze approached the nearest tent and shook it gently. "Hey," he called. "You in there." Then he coughed. Even with a heavy scarf, the cold air burned his nostrils, throat, and lungs. "How quickly could you strike these tents?"
There was a long pause; then someone inside the tent untied a couple of bindings and eased one side of the flaps barely open. "You can't send us on," said a woman's voice. "We'll die in this cold."
"Yes," said Blaze patiently, "I know. Come into the inn."
"We can't," said the woman. "The innkeeper -- the Imperial Guard have filled it, and they have the Firewing Prince with them." He could barely see her face, only the one eye pressed to the crack in the cloth wall of the tent, but he could see the small child huddled in a jumble of blankets behind her.
Irritation spilled through Blaze, tightening his chest. He and the mayor were going to talk when he got back inside. Tobia was standing beside him now, shivering despite heavy robes: his abrupt departure had panicked her, and she'd followed him out into the closing of the day. The man who'd been complaining to her had followed her out as well, along with Selandra and a handful of the guard. Blaze straightened and looked around, meeting their eyes one at a time. "No," he said firmly. "I don't care. Even if they're all sleeping on the floor in the common room, it's better than out here. Nobody should be out in this."
He knelt again, looking into the tent. "Gather your blankets and whatever else you need. Leave the tent for the morning, if it's too cold to take it down now. Nobody will touch it. Come inside."
He straightened again, letting his gaze pass over the guards and settle on Selandra. "Go to the tents. Spread the word. Bring them inside."
The mayor had opened her mouth; then she closed it, and nodded. "Will your men double up to give them rooms? Or will we put them all in the common room?"
"Selandra?" asked Blaze. She was in charge of this platoon.
She met his eyes, glanced barely at the guards, and said: "We'll double up. Let's get them into rooms. Nathus, go back inside and tell the others." She straightened, but the guards who'd come out with her didn't wait for a formal order. They were already spreading out, shaking tents and telling their occupants to find shelter in the inn.
The mayor made a small bow. "I'd best get back inside," she said. "I'll need to reorganize the rooms... and see to providing some food."
Blaze nodded and she turned. "You there!" The mayor called. "Nathus! Hold a moment, we'll need to sort this!" The guardsman paused for the brief moment it took her to catch up with him, cough, and then march back into the inn. Blaze turned away, and went to empty out another insufficient tent.
The common room was full now, the travelers all inside. With a large fire roaring in the hearth at either end of the room and the travelers all inside, it was almost warm. Blaze sat back at a corner table, with Selandra and a pair of guards, watching the slow procession to the pot of stew that the mayor's cooks had put out. No doubt they had had disposed of a lot of leftovers that way, but that was fine for now. Judging by the steadiness of the line, this was more than the travelers had had today, and maybe any time this week. Maybe longer. Blaze didn't know and couldn't tell, and that bothered him. He needed, needed to know more about what was happening in the Empire.
He took a slow sip of heated cider, then set it aside as the older man who'd been arguing with the mayor approached.
"I owe you an apology," he said. "The mayor does too, but I'll make it now on her behalf: we misjudged you. This is... more than I expected. Better."
"This is basic human decency," said Blaze, managing -- mostly -- to keep the growl out of his voice.
"Forgive me for saying so, but... that is not what we've come to expect from Imperial representatives. And Imperial representatives are some of the few people who can have a duly selected mayor removed from office, jailed, or exiled."
Blaze stood silent for a long moment, weighing those words. "...Then Imperial representatives will have to do better. Do you know me?"
"Rumors, talk. We never know who to trust when Imperial representatives come though."
Selandra straightened, but Blaze laughed. "You have a truthsayer in your town?"
The older man drew back, nodding cautiously.
"I will say this again before your truthspeaker, if it will help: I am called Blaze, but my true name is Ionus Davrus, Firewing Prince of House Ebastorius, and I'm something like sixth in line for the Imperial throne, may I never get there. And I expect every town and home in the empire to offer this sort of hospitality to those who need it, when they need it, to the limits of their resources. And if any stray Imperial representative complains about that, I want the citizens to inform me so that I can explain to those representatives what it means to represent the Empire."
The older man bowed. "Your lordship, I will hold you to that."
Blaze smiled. "See that you do."