IN AN ULTERIOR LODGE huddled beside a nameless pass through the Barbarian Mountains on Outer Pell, waiting for a brutal spring blizzard to pass, I was dozing by the fire and half-dreaming of Emily when the outer door slid open and a figure all in ragged furs staggered inside, dragging an ill-tempered limb of the blizzard thrashing in with him. The other patrons, there were four, and the innkeeper scowled at the sudden intrusion but the door slid shut behind the figure immediately, amputating the blizzard’s thrashing claw so that it exploded into a puff of feeble, harmless snowflakes.
The figure removed his furs and hung them on the rack. His clothes were as distressed as his furs but still serviceable and warm. He seemed human, or thereabouts, slightly shorter than average but also more sturdy. His wild beard and wilder hair were a deep almost blood red and his eyes sparkled in the firelight. It is hard to guess a man’s age now that we can all live forever, but in those sparkling eyes I divined a youth belying the careworn cicatrice scored into his leathery, midnight blue face.
The innkeeper, a bipedal hairy mammal with a silicon shell and talons on his knees and elbows, bowed to the man and handed him a bowl of hot broth. I was intrigued, and more than a little peeved, to note that the innkeeper did not ask the ragged man for payment. Payment was the only topic upon which the innkeeper and I had touched, and then extensively so. Payment for broth. Payment for drink. Payment for a room. Payment for heating said room. Payment for hire of linens. Payment for sundries. Payment for parking my little explorer ship in the lee of a sheltered escarpment half a mile away. Payment for local taxes. Payment for Imperial taxes. Payment for the blizzard tax. Payment for hire of the comfortable armchair by the fire.