Flash Fiction: Better Insult the Duke (1123 words)

In the warm light of the open taproom, Jenny leaned forward over the table, arms crossed, shoulders hunched forward to protect the smile twisting her lips. Across from her, Jasen leaned as far back as he could, shoulder blades pressed into his chair back, but his long legs were kicked lazily under the table.

“You can’t,” he said flatly.

Jenny’s smile twisted higher. “Sure, I can,” she said.

“You can’t,” he repeated, quick, as if he were playing the last seconds over, giving her the chance to take back her ridiculous argument.

Between them, Bess rested her elbows gently on the edge of the table, and held a full cider mug under her chin. She glanced at Jenny as Jasen spoke, then quick to Jasen to catch his reaction to her response, back and forth, back and forth. She didn’t laugh, because it would have ruined the flow of it, but she wanted to. At the glint in Jenny’s eye. At the smile that was creeping onto Jasen’s face despite the helpless and disbelieving look that was growing in his eyes.

“I can,” Jenny said.

“You can’t.”

“I can,” Jenny said. “And you’d better think hard on what you know ’bout me and my childishness before you keep thinkin’ you can win this game.” She pointed a finger at him.

His mouth had already been open to repeat his half of the eloquent argument, but he snapped it shut. He blinked at them, then looked at Bess. “She can’t,” he said.

“She can,” Bess said without hesitation.

And Jasen stared at her, mouth half-open, head shaking like it had just come loose from the moorings of his neck. Doubt.
Bess almost felt sorry for him. And she almost lost her grip on the laugh simmering in her chest. He’d decided that she was sensible at almost the moment they’d met, maybe from the look in her eyes. Maybe just from the way she was running away from trouble instead of pressing her nose up against it as he’d found Jenny. After a year and a half of knowing them both, he still got the same look when sensible agreed with the howling nonsense.

Jenny looked at Bess, and they both bit down hard on a smile.

“Hey,” Jenny said. She raised her hands. “You’re the one who called for our help.”

“I didn’t call for you,” Jasen said. “You just showed up.”

Jenny shrugged and laid her arms back on the table. She looked up at him, eyes squinted in happy question.

Jasen looked to Bess for help.

She was shrugging, too. It was getting difficult to tell these days, which of them was right. Sometimes he definitely called for them. Or at least let a rumor travel the parts of the coast they ran that he might use help if it was offered. Sometimes Jenny definitely just arrived because she liked the trouble that always seemed to hang off the heels of the king’s man.

Blinking, Jasen leaned forward and steadied himself against the table. He looked at her earnestly. Purposefully, he held Bess’ eye and ignored Jenny.

Bess raised her mug to her lips to give herself time to straighten her lips and match his seriousness.

“There are a lot of things she can masquerade,” Jasen told her, his voice deliberate and even. “Translator isn’t one of them.”

“Your faith is such a beggar,” Jenny told him.

He didn’t move. Jenny snickered to herself and leaned back.

“She can,” Bess assured him.

He started to take a breath, preparing to explain reality to the two of them again. “We’re talking about a secret meeting between a hill lord and a duke.”

“You think she can’t get the duke to hire her?” Bess asked.

“Please,” Jasen said. “She could get a lion to hire her to roar for him. And I’m sure she could have both of their heads spinning in circles when she jabbers nonsense to the hill lord and tells the duke that his mother has been horribly insulted. But I need to listen in, not muck it up.”

Jenny looked a little wicked as the idea worked its way through her mind. Bess kicked her lightly under the table.

“She can do it,” Bess said.

“She can’t,” Jasen said.

Jenny lifted her chin and smirked. “Poteno eho seno caudenax,” she said.

Jasen straightened immediately. Bess didn’t understand a single syllable that rolled off her tongue, but she knew two things for certain. First, that Jenny – a woman who mimicked better than a mirror – had accented it perfectly. Second, that she carefully selected a phrase that could be roughly translated as of course I can you blind, dumb, mute, and wooden idiot.

Jenny shifted a little in her seat, swallowed and switched to a quieter language that clicked on the backs of her teeth and the front of throat. “Ti kellich indichet etdin?”

Jasen stared.

Another language, liquid on her tongue: “Ginoskeis hoti eithella apokteinein sou ergon?”

“How many languages do you speak?” Jasen demanded.

Jenny just shook her head at him. Sighing, she turned to Bess. “That’s what he should have asked first.”

“I know,” Bess said sympathetically. She nodded over her shoulder at the door. “You have work to do?”

“’Course,” Jenny said. “I have to find a duke. Meet you here in the morning?”

“I’ll be here,” Bess promised.

Jenny gave Jasen another disappointed look. Then she shoved her chair back, glanced lazily around the room as she stretched, and wandered outside. Jasen watched her go, tracing her meandering path through the crowd, and turned to catch her silhouette through the window.

“Is this how she impresses everyone?” he asked.

Bess blinked at him. When he didn’t get a response, he looked back at her, then pulled away a little at her smile.

“She wasn’t trying to impress you,” Bess told him. “If she was, she would have walked out of here without proving herself at all. Then she would have come back with everything you needed except an explanation. And you’d still have let her do the job, because she can get a lion to hire her to roar.”

Jasen shut his eyes, let out a quiet breath. He sank back in his chair.

Bess glanced over her shoulder. “As it is, you’d better pray she finds an opportunity to tell the duke that the hill lord insulted his mother in all this. Or she just might decide you’re too boring for her.”

Jasen’s eyes snapped open. “I did not call for her.”

Bess nodded fast, too fast.

Jasen glared at her.

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