Clean. Furnished. No rats.
As Nadya stood in the snow, considering the painted sign, she wondered if she should take it as a warning that these were the three features the Peryton Lodging House felt most qualified to brag about. But with the limited number of coins in her pocket it was either this or the Burly Goat across the street, which made no promises in the way of either cleanliness or rats. Something she did take as a warning.
Resignedly, she kicked the caked snow off her boots and went inside. “I’d like a room, please,” she told the bearded man behind the desk.
He pulled a fat, leather-bound book from beneath the counter and flipped it open with ink-stained fingers. “How many nights?”
“Just one. I’m here for the Blinder.”
“Didn’t think you were here for the weather.” He didn’t look up, scribbling something in the ledger. “That’ll be two krona. Payment up front. No refunds.”
The price was easily double what the room was worth, but they both knew he could get it. Rooms, like everything else, were in short supply during the Rising Festival. She was lucky to be getting a room at all this late, the better lodging houses had been booked for weeks.
“I meant I’m here to ride in the Blinder,” she clarified, and then, because it never hurt, “I heard you give discounts to racing teams.”
“Heard wrong, then. If you can afford the race fee you can afford full price for a room. I’ve got mouths to feed, too.”
Somewhat reluctantly, Nadya put the coins on the counter. She fingered the silver left in her pocket and cursed silently. Barely enough for supplies.
The man turned the ledger around and slid it across the counter to her. “Sign there.” He waited for her to finish, then flipped the book shut. “Didn’t think they allowed women in the Blinder,” he said, handing her a stamped leather tag from which hung a tarnished key.
Nadya took the key. She didn’t think they did, either.
Two minutes later, standing inside the cramped, attic room, Nadya wished she hadn’t judged the Goat so harshly.
The sparse room was, in fact, furnished, though it was due more to the fact that the furniture was physically attached to the walls than from any generosity on the part of the proprietor. Every visible surface was skinned in a filmy layer of gray dust, giving the room a faded feel, like it had been outside too long during the midnight sun.
She wasn’t optimistic about the rats.
Nadya sighed. Sweeping away the dust and cobwebs with the sleeve of her coat, she unceremoniously dumped her things onto the table. She would unpack later. Now that she’d secured a room—such as it was— there was somewhere she needed to be.
It was early afternoon when Nadya stepped back into the snowy streets. Laholm was bathed in the perpetual twilight blue of the arctic winter.
It had been forty-five days since the sun had risen.
Every village north of the circle acknowledged the Rising, but nowhere was it celebrated like in Laholm. For ten days prior to the first sunrise of the new year, Laholm played host to the hundreds of visitors flocking to her streets to participate in the spectacle. Streets were packed with vendors and musicians, hopefully peddling their wares to visitors whose purses had been loosened by good cheer and akevitt.
It was still a full day before the festival began, but the street market was already underway. A dozen colorful stalls, draped with embroidered shawls and glittering jewelry lined the street, with the wares of a dozen more packed into wagons and carts, waiting for display. This time tomorrow, the streets would be fairly bursting with sellers hawking brightly-dyed mittens alongside rows of glittering preserves and piles of sugar-dusted festival cakes.
Everywhere, windows were bright with lamplight and glowing hearths. Burnished lanterns hung in the narrow spaces between buildings, waiting to light the city like the northern lights lit the sky.
Laholm was one of the largest cities in the north and very different from the small villages Nadya was accustomed to. Used to navigating by landmarks and stars rather than street signs, she got lost three times and had to stop for directions before finally arriving at The Døgn Tavern and Lodging.
Unlike the Peryton, its name fit. During the dark months, time couldn’t very well be measured by days and nights—there being so little difference between them—but was marked instead by the time spanning from one midnight to another: the døgn. The concept suited this establishment, which seemed to care little for the hour; only here, instead of unending dark and sleep, it was perpetually awake.
Its upper floors housed those well-moneyed visitors who could afford the rooms, while the main level was divided into a high-ceilinged celebration hall directly adjacent to a dimly-lit tavern. A popular establishment year-round, for three weeks of the year, it served as headquarters for all things related to The Blinder.
It was a time-honored tradition among riders of The Blinder to follow their registration with a large mug of the house specialty akevitt, and there were at least a dozen men enthusiastically engaged in it by the time Nadya made her way inside. A dozen more were lined up in front of the bar, waiting to put down their coin in exchange for a chance at fame and fortune.
As each rider paid his fee and accepted the token that signified a Blinder contestant, the man behind the bar added his name to the growing list tacked on the wall behind him. There were no less than thirty names already and the line stretched out the door and into the street. Some of them, drunk on festivities, here on a whim or to impress a girl, would never ride, but the field was larger than Nadya had expected.
There was still no end to the line when Nadya edged up to the counter. She was not a tall girl, and it reached nearly to her chest. She had to crane her neck to look at the man behind it.
He barely glanced at her. “Registration for the Kort are in the back hall.”
“I’m not here for the Kort.” Nadya had no interest in the Kort, the short races that took place in the days before The Blinder, even if the odds were better. The prizes were too small.
“What’s that?” he said, peering down at her from what seemed like a great distance. “Speak up.”
“I’m not here for the Kort,” she repeated, louder.
“You need a room, then? Because we’re full up.” He tapped his fist on the counter and motioned for the boy behind her to step forward.
“I want to register for the race,” Nadya said.