Suzanne came out of the kitchen with dinner just as Locke picked up the last copper. She settled the tray on the nearest table and fetched a candle. On the way her eyes caught her neatly packed, formerly-scattered belongings, and smiled internally.
"Dinner is ready," she said once the candle was lit.
"I said you didn't have to go out of your way, and you didn't, did you?" Locke said somewhat disappointedly, though he hid it well, as he stared at the two bowls of barely more than gruel.
It was two different flavourings of mashed boiled potato, neither of which Locke had ever eaten outside of a bad harvest year.
"I have nothing more, Sir..." Suzanne said, her eyes beginning to twinkle with wetness again.
"I suppose I haven't had potato in a while," he said quickly and sat down.
One of the perks of his vocation was a nearly on-the-meal regularity of meat. He'd grown so accustomed to it, in fact, nothin felt like a meal without at least some meat. He wondered what the woman was thinking, to even set a candle on his table. Despite the candle's stubbed length, it was barely longer than a thumb, it was still worth a decent meal in its own right. Candles were luxuries. The only people that used them for anything other than special occasions were nobles. Mankind had yet to develop a way to produce the wax used for candles in anything approaching a decent scale, so they were very much still artisanal products. Peasants were lucky to receive a single candle as a wedding present, and even quite rich individuals only ever had a couple in the house, and their use was universally sparing. Far more common were wicks or crude oil lamps, and army barracks might see a brazier or two in strategic, well-walked corners.
"You're this establishment's proprietor, are you not? How can even you have only boiled potatoes?"
Despite his words, he began eating with army gusto. Suzanne opened her mouth to reply, but kept her silence when she saw him start to eat. It would be kind to describe Locke's consumption of the food as 'wolfing it down', and it fought against Suzanne's rather more refined, by-the-spoonful style.
"You... eat fast," she said, uncertain exactly how to voice her thoughts "I don't think I'll finish mine, please help yourself."
She offered him her half-empty bowl. Locke didn't hesitate.
She cleaned off her last spoonful and her eyes wandered to Locke after she'd swallowed, only to find him gazing at her, a hunter's smile on his face. His eyes bore holes in her head, and she scurried off to the kitchen with the dishes.
She returned a minute or two later, the dishes thoroughly washed, and retook her seat. The pair sat in pregnant silence for several minutes, watching the candle's flames gently sway on the table between them, and the shadows it sent dancing on the walls behind each of them.
"What has your life so tough?" Locke finally asked, unable to hold the silence any longer.
She decided he seemed non to displeased at becoming embroiled in her affairs, so she dared offer a few more answers.
"I earn 30 coppers on your average day, 50 on good ones, but few of them end up in my purse, for very long, at least," she began.
"Those thugs?" Locke asked, leaving the specific individuals in question unmentioned.
"Yes..." she answered, her eyes shadowed.
"Surely not. They're barely even common riffraff. I can't imagine they have the guts to raid a place quite literally in the army's shadow. What about your husband? Didn't he butter the officers up? Can't he just file a complaint?"
"Hungry dogs stop thinking," she quoted, "and those men are usually uncomfortably close to starving. As for my husband... I've not seen him in months."
"His connections with the army has won him great aplomb in town. He knows anyone who's anyone, and I don't doubt he doesn't want for women. In fact, he, through his proxies, runs the whoring going on in the back. He has little reason to bother with a plain Jane such as myself.
"He did leave me the tavern, at least. The thugs you beat up were initially well-behaved. But they've grown bolder as my husband's absence has grown longer and their hunger stronger. They rob me almost every day now. They've been threatening, in attitude more so than deed, to start, requiring, more than just my money."
"Then why didn't you ask for our help? I'm sure I'm not the only one more than willing to give you a hand."
"It would fix the problem for, what?, maybe a week or two? I'm already opening up my last caskets of beer. I haven't gotten anything from my suppliers, and I haven't had either the time or the money to brew a couple batches myself. I'm afraid I'm destined for the street."
"You want me to become your watchdog instead of a one-time good samaritan?" Locke asked, his brows raised.
The young woman flushed.
"I'm a mere squad jarl. I have ten men under my command but I doubt I can spare enough of them to protect you. And what would you do if we were moved out?"
The woman's face paled at the careful outright-spoken refusal. The last of the candle's light flickered, then fanished as the last of the wick extinguished itself, too short to maintain the flame. The moon was quite full, however, and shone its silver light into the room through the windows.
A sniffle escaped Suzanne's mouth again. She'd cried more often this last year than she cared to admit, more than she knew was healthy for her. She had little else she could do, however, and apparently, Locke could, or would, do nothing about it either. The world cared little for her sorrow, however, was entirely indifferent to it, in fact. Locke, though he felt pity for her, had little energy to spare on her. He had his hands full just staying out of the grave himself and doing the same for his men, nevermind taking on the safety of someone he didn't know.
But, if he had only one weakness, it was a woman's tears. He hated how weak he was to it, it made him vulnerable to manipulation, but it was beyond him to correct that flaw. He finally gave up and sighed.
"I cannot do this indefinitely, but I'll send over a couple of my men for a few days. Save up what you can and get out of town. Bideslane might be a good place to start over. That's as much as I can do, however."
The woman's sniffles became sobs, and Locke, half stood out of his chair, froze for a moment. He hardened his heart, however, and made for the exit. He may be soft against a woman's tears, but he wasn't so weak it drove all sanity out of him. He could only do what he could do, and he was not going to tie himself into knots trying to work miracles. Locke's hands touched the crossbar, but stopped, as he felt warm, soft, petite arms wrap around him, and an equally soft figure press against his back.
"I know it's not much," he heard Suzanne say, steely determination in her voice, "But I can offer you a little more than drinks and dinner."
Her voice was quivering, but that determination was firm as bedrock.
"You don't have to--" Locke began as he turned around, but a hot tongue, tasting slightly of potato and spice, cuffed his own.
Locke, as incapable as he was dealing with women, had availed himself of female services before, and knew what came next. That said, it had been at least a month since he had last released himself in one, and his body reacted instantly. Hot lust shut down his brain and his hands immediately began searching for buttons and laces to undo as his own tongue fought free and started violating that arrogant mouth.
"Not here," his prey gasped between attacks, "Upstai--"
Her words were cut off by another assault which saw Locke's tongue penetrate deep into her mouth, but Locke's half-dead mind registered her words and let her lead him, their mouths still locked together, half-stumblingly to her room.