Upstairs, I went to my room, and locked the door behind myself. I glanced around the sparse room, more by habit than anything else.
Everything was where it should be. The bed in the middle of the room, the desk, a few books. The locked box was still locked, and it didn’t look like anyone had tampered with it.
I let out a breath that I hadn’t realized I’d been holding.
I thought about grabbing a book on my way out, but a yawn decided me against it. I went straight to the window, undid the latch, and slipped out to stand on the ledge outside. It was a sturdy wooden ledge, the sort that had been fashionable in these parts around fifty years earlier. It had been put in more for aesthetics than any structural reason, and I wouldn’t have trusted it to hold much weight. Which was fine by me, since I didn’t weigh much.
A bit of string was enough to close and latch the window behind myself, and then I turned away from the window. There was a sizable oak tree growing outside my window, one that had been old when I got here. The nearest branch was plenty thick enough to hold my weight, and it was just a few feet away, an easy jump from my ledge. It was a familiar, practiced movement, and I didn’t have any trouble at all in making it.
For most people, I thought, clambering around the branches of the tree might have been frightening. I was around thirty feet above the ground, jumping from branch to branch. For someone that grew up in the Whitewood, though, this was familiar ground. I knew which branches were thick enough to be safe and which weren’t, I knew how to recognize damaged wood that I couldn’t trust my weight to.
I walked easily in to the trunk, then hopped up to a higher branch and climbed out the other way, around the corner of the inn. A quick jump took me across the gap to another tree, this one a spruce. I swung to the next branch down, ran and jumped to another spruce, and then hopped to the ground.
I was grinning by the time I felt dirt under my feet again. I liked climbing. It was like carrying water, in a way. Comforting.
I started to jog off through the trees, then caught myself yawning again and had to slow to a walk.
It still only took a few minutes to reach the edge of the village. The manor had only barely been included within the wards, and that reluctantly. The old Count was not popular with the people.
A couple minutes later, I reached the edge of the village. It wasn’t obvious, at a glance, where it was. At a glance, it looked like any other patch of trees.
It wasn’t until you looked closer that you saw the warding posts.
Some alchemical items were flashy and dramatic. Others, like the filter I’d used earlier, or the icebox, didn’t look like much at all. They did their job without any fuss at all.
The warding posts were one of those. They looked like simple poles of black iron, around a foot taller than me, spaced out roughly every fifty feet. Up close it was easy to see that there was more complexity to it than that. A complex web of geometric designs was traced out over the surface of each post in what looked like silver, bronze, glass, and stranger substances. The whole thing was covered in a layer of alchemical enamel to keep the patterns from being marred.
I didn’t know how the warding posts worked. No one did, really, except for the imperial engineers who installed and maintained them.
But I knew what they did. The posts were what maintained the web of wards around the village. They kept the monsters out, kept the magic out. There was one like it around almost every settlement claimed by Akitsuro. They were the emperor’s great invention, the reason why Akitsuro had gone from a minor coastal kingdom to an empire in the space of a few decades.
The warding posts were fragile, and imperfect. Occasionally something slipped through. But they protected people. Even the most fervently anti-imperial people of Branson’s Ford were glad to have the warding posts, and there weren’t many of them that would willingly set a foot outside the wards.
I stepped past the invisible boundary they marked without a second thought. I wasn’t concerned about ghouls so close to the village, and the magic itself wasn’t really a concern. There wasn’t much it could do that hadn’t already been done to me.
The forest here was, for all practical purposes, the same as that inside the wards. But it felt different. It felt…remote, and private. The hushed air under the trees felt more peaceful, and less ominous.
I kept walking, more slowly now. There were no real paths out here, but I knew the way, and there was no hesitation in my stride as I turned and started off to the south. The ground got rougher here, steeper. That was the other reason the inn was at the edge of the wards, when in other directions they extended out to the enclose the farms. The ground here was too steep to farm readily; it wasn’t even worth the effort of logging.
It was perfect for me, though. There were lots of large trees around, and it was steep enough that I could go on all fours to relieve some of the strain on my back. It wasn’t really any easier–the changes to my spine and hips weren’t dramatic enough to make walking on four feet easy, even on a slope where my arms could comfortably reach the ground. But it was a different posture, and that helped.
I walked for a few more minutes, up into the hills, until I saw my destination. The rock outcropping was distinctive, and large enough to easily see over the trees. It wasn’t precisely impassable–I could probably have climbed it–but it was harsh enough to discourage the casual interest.
I made my way to the base of the rock, where a raspberry bush concealed a narrow crack. I dropped to my knees and squeezed past it, accepting a few scratches as the cost of doing business. After a moment of crawling through the dark I emerged into a sort of pocket in the rock, maybe fifteen feet across.
I’d found the crack picking berries, and looked inside out of curiosity. Since then the hollow had become my secret place, where I could go to get away from things.
There wasn’t much there. A flat rock that would be in the sunlight once the sun rose a bit further, a scraggly pine tree, some thin grass. As private places went, it was far from extravagant.
But it was mine.
I climbed onto the rock, and curled up, and went to sleep.
Judging by the position of the sun it wasn’t so much later when I woke up. A few hours, maybe; it was somewhere around noon.
It’s amazing what a difference a few hours can make. When I woke up again my head felt much clearer; I was able to focus properly, I felt less jittery. It was still less sleep than I was accustomed to, but I knew better than to try for any more right now. I was rested enough that curiosity was outweighing fatigue, and that meant that more sleep was impossible.
I hopped off the rock, and made my way back to the inn. I very much doubted that I’d see anyone in the woods out back of the inn, but I was still slow and cautious on the way back, checking every few seconds to be sure that no one was there to see me. When I got close I climbed back into the trees to enter my room by the window.
It was probably unnecessary. But Corbin was the only one who knew about this particular habit, and I’d rather keep it that way. Explaining things to anyone else would be…difficult. Far simpler to just pretend that I’d been up in my room resting.
Once I was in, and my window was securely latched behind me, I took a moment to check my appearance in the mirror. It was a full-length mirror, quite possibly the only one in the village. The alchemical treatment to produce mirrored glass was relatively simple, but it involved some expensive materials, and even a scrap of one was a luxury. One as tall as I was was…beyond extravagant.
I’d found it in the cellar, not long after I moved in. Presumably, it had once belonged to the late Count. Occasionally I thought about what scenes might have been caught in the mirror back then, but not often. I’d heard enough stories to know that I didn’t want to know.
Right now, I just wanted to make sure that I looked relatively presentable. Anything past that was out of my reach, but I could at least look like I’d been in my room rather than running around in the woods.
So I pulled my black hair back from around my face, combing out most of the knots and pulling out the pine needles that had lodged in it. The patchy fur on my face was generally too short to catch anything, but I brushed my fingers through it just in case.
The clothing, at least, I didn’t have to worry about. I was wearing wool homespun and leather, the same as almost everyone else in the village did. It was too tough to show much in the way of wear, and if there were burrs or pine needles in it people would assume that they’d been stuck there since I was last out fetching wood.
Once I was satisfied, I left, locking the door behind myself, and went downstairs.
Corbin was in the kitchen, staring at the stove. I could smell another pie baking, but at present he was just standing there, and it was obvious that keeping an eye on the pie was just an excuse not to be in the taproom. He barely even glanced at me as I walked past.
Black, unsurprisingly, was sitting tight by the fire. She looked bored, which I couldn’t really blame her for. I was rather well acquainted with being bored in that room.
“Silf,” she said, turning to look at me immediately. “Have a nice nap?”
I shrugged, smiled, and grabbed a mug from behind the bar. I found that I was thirsty after the walk back to the inn.
There were a great many bottles behind the bar, and two large barrels–one of beer, one of vodka. The vast majority, though, I didn’t touch. Corbin wasn’t insistent upon it, but I knew he disapproved of me drinking strong alcohol. More importantly, so had my parents. So mostly I drank water, or milk, or cider. Occasionally a cup of small beer or wine.
I was in a self-indulgent mood today, though, and it was a special day. So instead I opened a small, sealed bottle and poured it into the cup. It looked vaguely like watered-down milk, but it was actually a thin drink made from rice and spices. It was, apparently, popular in the heartland of Akitsuro, where those were more readily available; this far north it was an expensive luxury.
I took the cup and went to sit with Black, though I left rather more room between myself and the fire than she had. I took a slow sip of the drink, savoring the sweet-spicy taste, and waited.
Black seemed content to sit in silence for as long as necessary, so in the end I was the first to speak. “When are you leaving?” I asked, barely loud enough to be heard over the fire.
She started to speak, hesitated, then shrugged. “I don’t really know,” she said. “I don’t really plan my travel out much anymore. I just stay in places as long as it feels right, and then I move on. I’ll probably be here a few days at the least, though.”
I nodded. She hadn’t really answered me, but then, that was an answer in itself.
“You seem a little desperate for company,” she said. “How long has it been since you had any guests here?”
I frowned, thinking. It was harder than it should have been to put a number to it; the days tended to fade together. “A little over a month,” I said eventually, not sounding as confident as I’d have liked.
If Black had looked any more shocked at that, I think she’d have actually sprayed cider across the floor. “A month?” she asked. “That’s…a month? How do you even stay open as an inn if you go a month between guests?”
I shrugged. “The manor was sitting empty before Corbin got here,” I said. “The Count died in the war, and nobody else needed the space. And we are usually more busy than this. It’s just…been a bit of a dry spell.” I swallowed tightly and took another sip of the rice drink to soothe my throat a bit.
Black looked dubious, but she nodded. “I can see why you’d want to have someone around, though,” she said. “It must get boring being all on your own here.”
I shrugged again, and started to answer. Then I paused. I could hear footsteps outside.
Ah, of course. Today was a field day, but the farmers had to be dying to find out more about Black. They wouldn’t actually take the day off–they were far too practical for that, as a rule, and the harvest waited on nobody. But some of them would certainly take the excuse to come to the inn for a bit of lunch, and if they happened to see her there, well, what a nice coincidence.
I held up one hand, tossed back the rest of the rice drink, and then went to stand behind the bar.
The door opened a few seconds later, and half a dozen people walked in, five farmers and Sigmund, the blacksmith’s apprentice. They were in high spirits, talking and laughing; apparently they’d been telling some joke at Sigmund’s expense, because the young man was blushing furiously, and Kurt elbowed him lightly in the ribs as they walked in.
Gunnar was the one to speak up, though. The middle-aged farmer looked at me, just for a moment, then looked at the floor. “Is Corbin here?” he asked, rather lamely. Gunnar was always rather awkward around me. He still remembers what happened when I first got to Branson’s Ford, and he knows damned well that I won’t forget.
I nodded and ducked back into the kitchen, where he was taking the pie out of the stove. It was steaming gently, the crust a perfect golden color. Corbin’s pies were always perfect.
“Lunch crowd?” he asked rhetorically. “I’ll be out in a moment then.”
Less than a minute later we were both out in the taproom, playing out the same old dance as usual. We served out bowls of soup and slabs of bread, and mugs of beer and cider. Corbin was everywhere at once, always right there to take coins and toss out change, passing over another cup almost before the first one ran empty.
I tried to find work at first, but there was barely enough to keep me occupied, and it was obvious that even that was more Corbin making sure that there was something for me to do than anything. Six people, and familiar people at that, just did not need two people working. After a few minutes, I gave up and ladled out a bowl of soup to sip at while I stood behind the bar and watched.
The talk was lively today, and lighter than it had been in a long while. The weather was good, and it looked like we might finish out the summer without any more flooding. Even better, Karl Anders had just gotten back from taking a load of raw wool to the market, and he had news. Apparently the empire was sending an assessor to Branson’s Ford to look into the possibility of building a road in this direction for trade.
Black just sat by the fire, and listened. If she had any thoughts at the idea of an imperial road through town, she didn’t show them.
We all knew what was coming, though, and I’d barely finished my soup when it happened. It was Otto who broached the subject. He’d been putting back vodka with his soup rather than beer, and was already starting to show it. Not surprising; it was common knowledge that their fields had been flooded out at the start of summer, and it would take a miracle for them not to go hungry this winter.
It might have been that he was drunk, or that he was desperate, or just that someone had to do it. But I knew as soon as he opened his mouth what was about to happen.
“So,” Otto said to Black, in a casual tone so forced it was almost painful. “What did you do in the war, eh?”
And there it was. The other question that every stranger was asked. The question that had come to define an entire generation, on numerous levels. No one wanted to know the answer, not really, and yet they couldn’t keep from asking.
I was just glad that people seldom thought to ask me about it. I looked too young to have been involved in the war, and the people who knew better also knew better than to ever mention it.
Black was silent for a long moment, long enough that I wasn’t sure she’d answer at all. When she did finally speak, her voice was barely above a whisper, and her tone was bleak. “I fought,” she said. And then she fell silent again.
“That all you have to say?” Otto asked.
She considered that for a moment as well. “Yes,” she said at last. “That’s all.”
Otto nodded, and went back to the banter. I was guessing that was the last that would be said on the topic, at least for the moment. It was generally understood that if someone didn’t want to elaborate on an answer like that one, you didn’t want to press.
Within a few seconds Corbin was back to his usual routine, talking and laughing with the rest of them, his hands resting on the bar when they weren’t busy. If the laughter was a little forced, and the good humor seemed to have gone out of him, no one would remark on it. It wasn’t an unusual reaction when someone mentioned the war.
I was guessing I was the only person in the room who could hear the wood of the bar creaking when he gripped it. And only someone who knew him would note how his gaze lingered on Black, and see the hate and the hurt buried there.