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It was not an otherwise remarkable night when she arrived. As usual I was working in the taproom. I carried food, the usual dense bread and thin soup, and then today also slabs of roast lamb in gravy and slices of apple pie. I carried drinks, small beer and stout, cider, the occasional round of whiskey or brandy. I collected the empty dishes and brought them to the bar to be reused. In all, nothing unusual.
There was slightly more of a crowd than there often was. It wasn’t hard to guess why, either. The apple harvest was just coming in, and fresh pie and cider were enough to bring people in. It wasn’t every day that there was lamb, either. Between the two there were twelve people in the taproom, as opposed to the more common half-dozen, or the even more common two.
Twelve people still wasn’t enough to keep me busy. I was standing behind the bar when the tavern door opened.
That was…not a cause for fear, precisely, but a cause for interest, and enough that every eye in the place turned to that door. It was getting toward late evening, and people didn’t tend to go out much after dark. They were too scared.
Being out at night wasn’t dangerous, not really. In the wards, even out at the edge of the wards where the inn was, it was safe enough. Even outside the wards I wasn’t sure whether it was really dangerous; there were beasts that shunned the daylight, but just as many that weren’t active in the dark. It was anyone’s guess which set was worse.
But being outside after dark felt dangerous, it frightened people, and that was enough to keep most of them indoors after sunset unless they had somewhere to go. Seeing who was braving the dark to come to the inn this late was enough to draw everyone’s interest, given that there was nothing else to hold it.
When they did, well, that was when interest escalated to concern. The new arrival was a stranger, in a place where strangers weren’t an everyday sort of occurrence. She was wrapped in heavy fabric, the hood of her cloak pulled low to hide her face, and she was armed. The spear she was carrying was a simple weapon, but no less dangerous for that.
Most of the people in the bar tensed at that. A few of the farmers reached for knives, the simple knives they carried in case they needed something sharp ready to hand. Sigmund didn’t reach for a weapon as he started to stand, but he didn’t much need one; the blacksmith’s apprentice was strong enough to break someone just fine with his bare hands. Old Jakob, sitting in the corner of the room, had one hand on his bow, but then he usually did.
And I could see that Corbin had one hand on the arbalest behind the bar. That wasn’t a tool, the way the farmers’ knives were, or something you used hunting like Jakob’s bow. A hunter didn’t need a bow that could put a bolt through a breastplate. That was a soldier’s weapon.
He’d never said where he got the arbalest. I’d never asked.
“Changed?” Corbin asked. His question had a perfunctory, almost rhetorical tone.
She hesitated, but she didn’t have much in the way of a choice. The weather didn’t justify covering yourself that thoroughly, and that pretty much just left her not wanting to be seen clearly. She could be Changed, or she could be an outlaw of some kind. If she denied the first possibility, people would assume the second.
So, after a moment, she nodded, the movement visible mostly just as a twitch of the hood.
A few people in the taproom relaxed. Corbin looked relaxed, but he was still ready to shoot her at any moment. “You’re welcome here,” he said. “Nobody’s going to cause trouble for you. My brother’s Changed, and I won’t have anyone making an issue of it.” His words were directed mostly at the other patrons, as though they needed a reminder that Corbin didn’t put up with people harassing the Changed in his inn.
She nodded again, and when it became clear that more was expected of her she sighed and reached for the hood with her gloved hands.
Almost every eye focused on her, even more sharply than before. It was funny, in a way; the villagers didn’t want to stare, but they couldn’t tear their eyes away. The sick fascination, the need to see what was under that hood, was enough to overcome their decorum and sensitivity, which were never that strong. So there were a bunch of people looking in her general direction, and trying to pretend that they were actually looking at something else or just happened to be facing in that direction, when everyone knew better.
There were a few exceptions, of course. Corbin was openly watching her, as were Jakob and a few of the older farmers, Ketill and Gunnar, Otto and his wife Ilse.
Had anyone been watching Corbin instead, they might have seen something interesting. For an instant, as she lowered the hood, the innkeeper looked…shocked. He was startled, caught totally off guard by what he saw, to the point that he couldn’t keep his usual genial mask on. The expression that replaced it was there and dead faster than a spark off the fire, but if they’d have seen it in that time they would have had no doubt what it meant. He recognized her. And judging by the way that he put the mask on again a moment later, and didn’t say a word about it, he didn’t want them to know that.
Lucky for him, then, that they were all so preoccupied at the critical moment. None of them was looking his way.
I was, though. How the people reacted to seeing how she was Changed interested me far more than her actual appearance anyway.
When I did look, it was almost disappointing. She looked…relatively normal, as such things went. A sort of ash-grey skin, huge dark eyes, no hair, but nothing too dramatic. The basic structure of her face, what went where and the general shapes of things, didn’t seem to have been altered.
I felt a slight but noticeable surge of jealousy as I saw that. She looked more human than I did.
“All right, have a seat,” Corbin said, his hand dropping from the arbalest’s grip. “You want anything?”
“Meat,” she said, slinking into the room with a sort of slick grace that made me think her limbs weren’t likely built in the same way as a human’s. “Water. And…pie, with milk.” She made her way to a chair next to the fire and folded herself up onto it, the spear resting against the wall. It would have been uncomfortably close to the roaring fireplace for most people, but she didn’t even take off the cloak. Combined with the skin oddity and the lack of hair, it made me wonder whether she had diminished capacity to control her own temperature.
Conversation resumed fairly quickly, though it wasn’t the same as it had been. The people weren’t talking about the day in the fields, or the weather. They were talking about the stranger. There was hushed speculation about who she was, where she was from, what she was doing here. No one came right out and asked her any of those questions, but few of them were discussing anything else.
I went to get the things she’d asked for. Water, from the well behind the inn. The roast lamb was sitting out next to the oven, with the pie. That morning’s milk in the cellar to keep it cool through the day. It didn’t take me long at all to assemble the things and carry them out.
She took them easily, more so than I would have guessed. Most people would struggle to manage that many dishes without a table or bar to rest them on, but she didn’t have any trouble juggling them. Within a few seconds she had the water on the floor beside her, the pie balanced in her lap, while she held the plate of meat in one hand. Her fingers were surprisingly long compared to the size of her hands.
“Thanks,” she said, smiling. Her mouth stretched too wide and narrow, but her teeth looked very normal.
I dipped my head in a quick nod and went back to standing behind the bar, weaving my way through the tables and the chairs. Most of the people didn’t bother pulling away from me. They’d grown accustomed, over time.
People wanted to stay and talk, to speculate over the stranger. Her arrival was already the most interesting thing to happen in weeks.
But it was already getting late, and tomorrow would be another early day. The farmers had to be out in the fields early, weeding and tending the plants, harvesting the early crops. Sigmund would be put to work fixing the plows and scythes, the dozens of small things that got damaged in the course of the work. Jakob…well, it was anyone’s guess what Jakob would be doing
In any case, it was late and work was early. Their desire to stay and talk didn’t outweigh that; it never did. That was the way of things.
Jakob was the first to go, standing suddenly and walking from his place in the corner to the door. As though that was a signal, the rest of the crowd started to wrap things up as well. They finished their meals, drained their cups, and left their money on the bar. Most of them paid in small coin, iron pennies and half-pennies, a bare handful of bronze. A couple of the coins were old, from before the war, and as such almost worthless. Outside villages like this one, coinage that wasn’t Imperial was barely worth the metal it was minted on.
Corbin snatched the coins up like he truly needed the money, all the same, and tossed out change with easy speed. They didn’t bother checking the coins he gave them. It seemed odd that the innkeeper could track what each of them had bought and calculate their change without ever pausing, but Corbin had demonstrated that his change was always correct. Always.
I stood and watched. I had nothing else to do at the moment.
Finally Sigmund took his two iron pennies and a half and left, and the taproom was empty and silent again. I was still there, and Corbin, like usual.
And the stranger was there. She showed no signs of leaving.
“You’ll be wanting a room, then,” Corbin said, after a long moment of silence. It wasn’t a question. He wasn’t pretending that she was a stranger to him, either. His gaze was too focused, too familiar for that.
“For tonight, anyway,” she said, shrugging. The shrug was strangely loose, fluid in a way that humans weren’t. It made me suspect that she had an oddity of some sort in her shoulders, perhaps in her joints in general.
“Upstairs,” he said, producing a small key from his pocket. It was brass, and sharply angled, nothing like the keys used in a warded lock. “Second door on the left.”
She nodded and took the key before slipping up the stairs. She took her spear with her.
Corbin waited a few moments, then looked at me. “You may as well turn in for the night,” he said. “I can clean up here.”
I cocked my head to the side, looking at him curiously. Usually I stayed to put the taproom in order again after the night’s business was gone.
“I need something to keep my hands busy anyway,” he explained. “And it’s an early day tomorrow.” He made a vague shooing gesture at me.
I waited a moment longer, then shrugged and headed for the stairs myself. I could hear him stacking the chairs onto the tables as I left, clearing the floor to mop it clean.
Upstairs, everything was still and quiet. The only light in the hall came from under the second door in the left; the stranger had taken an alchemical lamp up with her, but from behind the door very little of the light made it out to the hallway.
That was fine. I did quite well in the dark; dim was better than bright to my eyes, generally. And besides, I knew this hallway well enough to walk it blindfolded with perfect confidence. I walked it every night, and nothing changed.
Nothing ever changed here.
I made my way to my door, the last door on the right, and unlocked it with a key that looked very much like the one Corbin had given the stranger. All of the locks in the inn were those intricate tumbler locks, which no one else in the village had. I didn’t know whether he’d found them here or brought them himself.
Inside, I locked the door behind myself and went to stand by the window, drawing the curtain aside to let the pale light of a crescent moon into the room. I didn’t have a lamp in here, alchemical or otherwise. I didn’t need one; the window was more than enough for me. When the sun was up I had to keep the curtains drawn to keep the light to a manageable level.
When Corbin had converted this building from an old manor house into an inn, he’d left a full, expansive suite of rooms for my use. I had a bedroom not much smaller than many of the houses in Branson’s Ford. A water closet with a mechanical plumbing system, which I was confident no one else in the village could claim; even the mayor used a chamber pot.
Despite the size and apparent luxury, though, the room was…sparse, almost stark. I had very few belongings. There was a square bed barely large enough for me to lie on without hanging off the edge, the mattress of which was only marginally softer than the floor; I’d found that sleeping on anything much softer than that led to problems with my back. There was a stool and a small wooden desk with a handful of books sitting on it.
And there was a small, locked metal box sitting at the foot of the bed.
For all that it was sparse, though, the room felt comfortable. It could almost feel like home.
I abandoned that thought before it could go any further. I had no desire to follow it again.
Instead, I curled up on the bed, looked out the window, and waited.
It was hard to estimate the passage of time, under the circumstances. I could track the passage of the moon across the sky, and that provided some inkling, but it was vague at best. I was guessing I waited for half an hour, but it might have been a fair bit more or less before I heard footsteps on the stairs.
The sound was enough to bring me out of a light doze. My ears perked up and I sat upright on the bed, listening closely.
It was Corbin. I knew that without even having to think. I knew his tread, the sound of him on the stairs. I could count the stairs by his steps, two at a time, and then I heard the door. First door on the left, at the other end of the hallway from mine, the only door in the inn that I didn’t have a key to.
Normally that would have been the end of it, the last event of the day. This time I thought there might be something else.
I wasn’t disappointed. Not a minute passed before I heard another door open, and close. Another set of footsteps, lighter and quicker than Corbin’s. A very soft, gentle tap.
I smiled slightly in the dim half-light. I hadn’t thought they’d want to wait until morning for…whatever was going on. I knew that they weren’t strangers, but saying what they were to each other was beyond me.
I gave it a handful of seconds, then slipped off the bed and across the room. I unlocked the door, slipped out, and locked it again behind myself. Then I crept down the hallway.
In a half-penny drama, I would have snuck up to the peer through the keyhole. The reality was rather different. Corbin’s locks didn’t have the sort of keyhole you could see through anyway, and with my hearing I hardly needed to press my ear against the door. Halfway down the hall was sufficient, and far less likely to get caught. I stopped there, squatting in the middle of the hallway, and listened.
“…say I was expecting to see you again,” Corbin said. His voice was a bit muted, muffled by the door, but understandable. “How’d you even find me?”
“Random chance, believe it or not,” the stranger’s voice said. “I’ve been wandering ever since…that. Didn’t have a clue you were here until I opened that door.”
“Hell of a coincidence.”
“It is,” the other voice agreed. “What name are you using these days, anyway? Don’t want to give your game away.”
He laughed, a short, harsh laugh without much in the way of humor in it. “Very imaginative.”
“It does what it has to do,” she said. I almost thought I could hear the shrug in her voice. “Speaking of, you have a Changed brother? I didn’t realize that.”
“Of course not,” Corbin said. He sounded almost insulted. “It’s a simple fiction. Something to make the persona seem more real to them.”
“Oh, please,” Black said. “Let’s not kid each other. You’re giving those clods more than enough to go on if they decide to pay attention. The real reason, please.”
He sighed. “I see your wit isn’t particularly changed,” he said. “Fine. It gives them an obvious reason for me to have the girl around. One that makes sure they won’t push boundaries. These ‘clods,’ as you call them, might not understand much, but they understand family.”
“You know she’s listening, right?” I started at that, caught off guard. I hadn’t made a sound, hadn’t moved close enough to block what little light might enter the room from the hallway. Black shouldn’t have been able to detect my presence.
Unless she could smell me, or see the heat of my body through the walls, or any number of equally outlandish senses. The Changed could be hard to predict, in that way.
“I’d be worried if she weren’t,” Corbin said. “Silf’s a curious girl. Very inquisitive. And besides, it saves me the trouble of having the conversation twice.”
“You aren’t concerned she’ll tell people?”
He laughed again. “She won’t. And if she did, who’d take her seriously? The only guest we’ve had in months got up after dark and went over to my room, where we spent a while talking. They aren’t going to assume anything incriminating from that.”
“I know exactly what they’ll assume from that,” Black said dryly. “And I’m not sure I care for the notion.”
“I wouldn’t worry about it,” Corbin said easily. “I know Silf. She won’t tell anyone about this. And we can shoo her off when we get to something actually private.”
“It seems a needlessly complicated way to have a conversation. Why not just invite her in if you want her to hear?”
“Silf would rather do it this way. She’s…got some issues.”
My lips twitched at that. He knew me so well.
“One of yours, then?” Black asked.
There was a very long, very thick silence. “She is now,” Corbin said at last. “Anyway. Are you staying in Branson’s Ford very long?”
“I hadn’t expected to,” Black said. “I seldom stay in one place for long. A night or two in a town, at most. But if you’re here I suppose I might stay a time. It’s not like I have anywhere else to be.”
He grunted. “Yeah. You went north after the war, right? Any news from that direction?”
Black sighed. “Nothing worth the bother of sharing,” she said, a bitter note entering her voice. “Empire keeps rolling north, same as always. They’re fighting in the Tears now, you know that? Clear into the mountains.” There was a slight rustle of fabric, as though from someone shaking their head. “What about you? Any news down here?”
“Just what I hear from the people passing through town,” Corbin said. “Not that there’s many of those. It’s been a hard year. Roads are bad, and getting worse. More ghouls this past year than usual for these parts. They say the rebels started up again last year, oh, maybe eighty miles south of here.”
I could almost hear Black perk up at that. “Did they get anywhere?”
Corbin snorted. “Of course not. Empire sent maybe a quarter of a legion for them. Doubt it was two weeks before they were swinging from trees like common bandits. My guess is that’s about what they were, too. The people handed them over themselves.”
“Damn shame,” Black said.
Corbin sighed. “Can we not do this tonight?” he said. “I’m too tired to do this again.”
Black laughed at that, a rather thin sound. “Fine,” she said. “There are some other people I should be asking after, anyway.”
“And that’s my cue,” he said. “Silf? Go to your room. I mean it. If you miss anything you shouldn’t I’ll tell you tomorrow.”
I hesitated, torn. I wanted rather badly to stay and listen in. This conversation, vague and confusing as it was, was easily the most interesting thing I’d heard in months. I’d already heard enough to keep me busy puzzling over it for weeks, and it seemed it was just now getting to the good part.
But clearly Black had some way of knowing I was here, so I couldn’t trust that I could listen in and not be caught. And Corbin had sounded dead serious as he told me to leave. I knew better than to disregard that tone of voice.
Reluctantly, I padded back to the other end of the hall, the last door on the right. I unlocked it, and locked it again behind myself. I stripped, hanging the clothing neatly in one of the closets, and then I drew the curtains to keep the moonlight out of the room. Finally, I curled up on the bed, idle thoughts and frantic speculation chasing each other around my head, and waited for sleep to claim me.
I didn’t bother with a blanket, any more than I ever did outside the deep part of winter. I had enough fur to do the job just fine.
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