The lunch crowd wrapped up their business fairly shortly after that, and left. There was no surprise there. There was work to be done in the fields–and, for one of them, at the forge–and any break from that work to sate their curiosity had to be a short one. You had to make hay while the sun was shining. It was the way of things.
After they were gone, and the taproom fell silent once again, Black got increasingly fidgety. Corbin and I were both used to it, and we settled easily into our routines; he polished the bottles behind the bar until they sparkled in the light from the alchemical lamp, while I swept the floor again and made sure that the furniture was all right where it belonged, to the inch.
Black, though, wasn’t used to sitting in an empty taproom waiting for something to do, and it clearly grated on her. She got fidgety, and then she got twitchy, and then she jumped to her feet abruptly. “I’m going to go take a look around town,” she announced.
“Silf can show you around,” Corbin said, not seeming surprised. He didn’t even pause in polishing a sealed bottle of red wine from the western coast, where grapes tended to grow better than they did here.
I nodded, rather eagerly, and got to my feet. Black laughed, and said nothing.
Giving a tour of Branson’s Ford wasn’t something I’d been called on to do before. Most of our guests weren’t terribly interested in the village; it was a place you passed through, nothing more.
It wasn’t a hard thing to do, though, as such. There wasn’t a lot of village to tour.
Black was taller than me, but didn’t know the area and didn’t move as quickly, so we ended up keeping more or less the same pace. That was actually rather impressive; more often than not I found myself waiting on people. I supposed that if she was a hunter, though, she spent a great deal of time walking, mostly through rough terrain. And she was Changed.
I started with the center of town, such as it was. There was a cluster of nine buildings, all rather simple in construction. Where the inn had a good stone foundation, thick wooden walls, and a slate roof, these were built on dirt and roofed with thatch. The walls, at least, were sturdy enough; lumber was easy enough to find here.
“Is this it?” Black asked, looking around.
I shook my head. “Some of the farmers live out by the fields,” I said. “This is just the town proper.”
My tone was a little defensive, but mostly it was dismissive. I could understand her confusion; the town center of Branson’s Ford was not an impressive sight. There was the blacksmith’s, which was currently still and cold; coal was expensive, and there wasn’t enough work to be worth lighting the forge every day. There was the general store, which acted more as storage than anything, since Ilse’s stock was basically just whatever she bought off traveling merchants or villagers who went to the market. There were some houses, only half of which were even inhabited. None of the buildings, not even the mayor’s house, had a second floor.
A bustling metropolis, it was not. The only person in sight was Sigmund, sorting through a pile of metal scraps outside the smithy. He waved when he saw us, and then apparently fumbled something, because he flushed and went back to focusing on his work.
We kept going, and it wasn’t long before the trees thinned out and we saw the fields. They were…well, more expansive than the town center, but not necessarily more impressive. There were a few houses, and we could just barely see the orchards to the southeast, but by and large it was just flat fields out to the trees. To the southwest they ran up against the hills instead, where the sheep and goats were taken out to graze.
And to the north, across the fields, was the source of the village’s name. The Blackwater was a rather impressive river, and mostly it was too deep and fast to cross safely. No one in their right mind, no matter how much of a rush they were in, would set foot in the rapids of the Blackwater.
Here, though, the river spread out. It was broad, and shallow, and slow. Branson’s Ford was the only actual ford across the river for a hundred miles in either direction.
“That the mill?” Black asked, nodding towards a large structure on the bank of the river to the west. We couldn’t see the wheel from this angle.
“Does the miller live out there, then?”
I shook my head. “Big house back in town,” I said. “He’s the mayor.”
Black snorted. “Of course,” she said. “So he pretty much completely runs town, then. Lovely.” She paused. “Maybe you can answer a question for me, then. Something seems off about this place. The fields are fairly extensive, that’s a large mill. And if a Count lived here, it must have been fairly important. How did it go from that to…this?” She gestured vaguely back at the center of town.
“The ford,” I said. “It was important, brought merchants through. Then the empire came. Legion engineers built a bridge over the river east of here. Not as far out of their way.”
“Ah,” she said. “And with an easier route, the trade dried up.”
“That’s why people were so excited to hear about the surveyor, isn’t it?” Black asked, sounding like she already knew the answer. “If they build a road through here, it will bring the merchants back. It might make Branson’s Ford matter again.”
“Thanks,” she said, thoughtfully. “That explains some things.”
On the way back to the inn, she killed a rabbit and a squirrel with a sling. When I looked at her oddly, she said that it wasn’t good for a growing girl to eat nothing but soup and bread, and she wanted to make sure I got some meat tonight.
The next morning came early, too. I’d gone to sleep earlier this time, and I felt almost rested. I wasn’t expecting Black to wake me, since she’d said she would go hunting in the morning. But I wanted to get my sleeping done earlier, so that I wouldn’t have to waste hours on it while she was around.
Instead, I was woken up by someone pounding on the front door, hard enough to rattle it in its frame. “Open up,” he shouted, before pounding on the door again.
I sat bolt upright in my bed, startled out of sleep. My heart was racing. There was something…very familiar about that voice. It took me a long second to remember where I was. To remember when I was.
When I did, I could calm myself a little. I wasn’t back then; things were better, now. It hadn’t been a fever dream.
But I was still distinctly concerned. I wasn’t entirely sure why, but something about this situation felt…distinctly foreboding.
Moving as quickly as I could, I threw on clothing and went downstairs, locking the door behind myself.
As fast as I’d gone, though, Corbin was faster. I’d barely made it to the taproom when he was at the door, undoing the locks. They slid home with a soft click-click-click, and he leaned the bar against the wall, and he pulled the door open.
The person standing outside was in legion armor. One set of armor looked a lot like another, but this was regulation-issue, I’d recognize it anywhere.
I flinched away, and took a couple steps back until my back was against the wall next to the kitchen door. I was whining softly, and my ears were laid back flat against my head. I got the noise under control after a moment, and started breathing again, but I was still tense, legs bent and ready to run at a moment’s notice. Not for the door, that would be too obvious, but the stairs were close. I could get out my window and lose them in the trees; there wasn’t a chance the branches would hold them, not in that armor. If I could make it to the warding posts, I would be fine.
Corbin shot me a quick glare and then turned back to the legionnaire. “Come in,” he said, stepping out of the way.
The legionnaire did, and then more came behind him. There were four of them in total, three men and a woman, all human. Of course they were human; there weren’t many of the Changed in Akitsuro, from what I’d heard. Two of the men had the standard short sword on their belts, while woman was carrying an arbalest. The last man was wearing heavier armor than the rest, and carrying a number of leather pouches, but didn’t have an obvious weapon. Almost certainly an alchemist or a channeler, then, which made him the most dangerous of the group by far. I’d only seen legion war magic once, but if he was anything like that he could kill everyone in Branson’s Ford and never even break a sweat.
My attention was mostly caught by the fifth person in the door, though. He was…striking.
It would have been hard to find a stronger contrast to the rest of the group. He was shorter than they were, and looked nothing like a soldier; he barely had more muscle than I did. If anything, he reminded me of a scribe I’d known back in the Whitewood, a kind older man who’d given me candy and a place to hide when the other children wanted to pick on the Changed girl.
But I knew enough to be afraid of him anyway. He was wearing robes in the black and gold of Akitsuro, which meant he was an imperial officer of some kind. And that meant that he was, in all probability, in charge of the legionnaires.
“Good morning,” he said, sweeping into the taproom with a broad grin and a confident stride. “I am Surveyor Hideo Azukara, with the Akitsuro Engineering Corps.” He held out his hand.
Corbin stared for a second before he shook it. When he did, I was guessing he almost crushed the smaller man’s hand in his grip, though the surveyor didn’t show any sign of pain. “Corbin,” he said, his tone flat. It sounded strange after the surveyor’s much more grandiose introduction, abrupt and almost threatening.
“I’m sure,” the surveyor said with a charming grin. “The legion sent me to look into the possibility of building a road through this area for easier access to the western coast,” he said.
“I’m sure,” Corbin said, letting the other man’s hand go. “Which legion?”
The surveyor’s grin got a little wider. “Fourth Skellish,” he said, almost smugly. It meant nothing to me, but Corbin actually flinched.
“I see,” the innkeeper said.
“My guards and I will be in the area for some time,” the surveyor said. “I have to examine the surrounding territory, you understand, make sure that it’s suitable. As this appears to be the only inn in town, we’ll be looking to rent rooms here for several days.”
“Silver penny a night,” Corbin said instantly. “Per room.”
I gaped. I’d never, not even when the inn was at its most crowded, seen him charge more than a bronze penny for a night. He was asking the legionnaires for ten times what anyone else had to pay.
And none of them batted an eye, either. The surveyor pulled out a black cloth purse, and handed over a large silver noble, worth five silver pennies in itself. It was a coin that I’d only seen the wealthiest of merchants use before. “A pleasure doing business,” he said, smiling. “It’s wonderful dealing with a man who can keep his word, isn’t it?”
Once again, I found myself wondering what I was missing. I didn’t understand what he meant by that parting comment, but Corbin looked like he was about to strangle the surveyor on the spot. He might have tried, if not for the legionnaires standing right there. “Food will be ready in the evening,” he said, almost snarling. “Charged separately.”
“I look forward to it,” the surveyor said. “In the meantime, we have horses that need cared for.”
Corbin looked at me. I took the hint gladly, darting for the back door so that I wouldn’t have to actually go past the legionnaires. I didn’t have that much experience stabling horses, but I knew more or less what to do. And given that these were legion mounts, I was guessing that they were very well trained.
As I walked around to the side of the building where the stables were, I saw Black. She was standing out past the stables, far enough into the trees that she could vanish at a moment’s notice. She was staring at the inn, and she looked…worried.