The rest of the day was uneventful, but…tense. There was a sort of nervous energy in the air, a sense of barely concealed anxiety. It wasn’t just me, either. Corbin’s face was far away as he went about the daily chores, and when it was done he didn’t polish bottles or find other work to keep his hands busy. He just stood behind the bar, staring at nothing. Black was still out in the forest, and I wasn’t sure whether she’d be coming back.
Around noon, we once again had a few people come in for food and drink at the middle of their workday. The crowd was actually larger today, and younger. They were clearly hoping to see the imperial surveyor. They would have known he arrived before he even reached the inn; it was hard to keep secrets in a town like Branson’s Ford.
If that was what they were expecting, though, they were disappointed. The surveyor and his staff were tucked away in their rooms, and seemingly not inclined to leave. Not a one of them had so much as poked their head downstairs since they went up.
Somehow that didn’t make me feel any better. I was just as glad not having the legionnaires around, but I couldn’t forget that they were here. It felt…ominous.
I was agitated through lunch, distractible. I wasn’t quick to respond the way I usually was; several times people had to remind me that they’d said something. They noticed, too. Ketill’s young son Karl joked about how I was probably mooning after the surveyor, and that was why I was distracted. Gunnar looked uncomfortable when he heard that, and he looked at the floor, but he didn’t correct the boy.
I laughed it off, and for once I was glad that my throat was so damaged. My laugh sounded strange enough that it was hard to tell when it was forced. I went back to work, and managed to keep my focus more clearly on what I was doing.
It wasn’t so long before they left, after that. It was becoming clear that the surveyor wasn’t going to be attending lunch, and with Black still absent they had nothing much to gawk at. Roughly an hour after they got there, each of the workers tossed back a last drink for the road and handed over a few coins. Corbin handed back their change, instant and exact as always, but his face was distant, and his movements were mechanical. He didn’t talk, or laugh, and his expression was so blank and empty it was barely an expression at all.
Once the taproom was empty again, I had my own lunch. The soup didn’t have any rice today, since that was a bland staple in the south, but I’d thrown in a Changed variety of beet that was apparently a delicacy in Akitsuro, and it tasted good enough. I ate two bowls of soup, and a slice of coarse bread, and a lightly roasted leg from the rabbit Black had killed the previous day.
After lunch, I spent an hour in the silent taproom with Corbin. We didn’t work, or look at each other. Then I went to the woods behind the inn and was quietly, violently sick.
Hours passed. The imperials still hadn’t come down from their rooms. A part of me wanted to sneak up and see if I could eavesdrop on them, and figure out just what was so bloody interesting up there. Another part wanted nothing more than to run, and keep running as far as my lungs could carry me.
I tried to slip out to my hollow for a nap, since I hadn’t quite gotten enough sleep the previous night. Perhaps unsurprisingly, I had a nightmare. I was screaming and running and I was so confused and I didn’t know where to go and it hurt and I couldn’t breathe and everywhere there were screaming running people and my throat hurt and I couldn’t see and there was blood everywhere and–
And I woke up. I was soaked in a cold sweat, breathing hard, whimpering. Long minutes passed before I could get my breathing under control again. When I tried to stand, my legs were shaky, and I had to sit down.
It had been a while since the nightmares came last. I wasn’t happy to see them again, but it was, under the circumstances, probably to be expected. Somehow, I didn’t think I was going to be sleeping much for a while. Old habits, as they say, die hard. Sometimes I wonder whether they die at all; it doesn’t feel like it. You can cover them up, but scratch the paint and there they are, good as new.
I went back to the inn, and drew a mug of beer to take the edge off the memories. Corbin watched, and he didn’t say a word.
It was around sunset when our guests showed themselves again. Or, well, one did. It was the legionnaire who’d been in the heavier armor, I was pretty sure, the mage. He wasn’t in the armor now, though; he was wearing casual clothes of some light fabric I didn’t recognize.
“Corbin?” he said suddenly, poking his head into the taproom from the kitchen. I jumped slightly, but managed to control my reaction quickly; it was easier, without the armor. “That’s the name, right?”
“That’s me,” Corbin confirmed, sounding wary. “Did you need something?”
“If it’s not too much trouble,” he said, with a wry sort of smile. “You mentioned food earlier, I was wondering when that was. Stomach woke me up, and rations are getting old.”
“Soup and bread are ready now,” Corbin said. “Pie is in the oven, and I was about to put on the lamb, so those will be done shortly.”
“I can wait for that,” he said, smiling more broadly now. “Thank you kindly, I’ll be down in a few minutes.” He pulled his head back through the door, and I heard his footsteps on the stairs.
“Polite young man,” Corbin said quietly, watching him go. “And he’s wearing cotton this far north, too. He must be new.”
Black came back around five minutes later, and went straight to the fire. She didn’t say a thing, just sat down as close to it as she could physically get without scorching the chair and rested her spear against the wall. The villagers began trickling in at around the same time; unsurprisingly, there were many more of them than usual. There were people there that I hadn’t seen in months, Harald and Johannes, Livy the mayor’s daughter. Everyone in Branson’s Ford had heard what was happening now, and every one of them was acutely aware of what it might mean.
For the first time in a long time, things felt hopeful in that taproom. The laughter wasn’t forced, it didn’t have an edge of desperation to it.
Which was good, because it helped to cover the raging anxiety I still felt. It covered for Corbin’s empty expression, and the way Black kept glancing at the door.
The legionnaire walked into the taproom a few minutes later, as we were still handing out soup and bread to everyone that wanted it. He seemed a bit surprised to see how rapidly the taproom had filled up, but he took it in stride, taking a seat at the bar. Two more of the imperials followed him in a moment later, the woman and one of the swordsmen; the other swordsman and the surveyor were nowhere to be seen.
“What can I get you folks?” Corbin said to the legionnaires with a smile, as I continued fetching bowls of soup, and slices of bread, and plates of lamb in gravy.
“Food for all of us, I think,” the mage of the three said. “And…do you have any alchemical liqueur?”
“That I do,” Corbin said. “Cherry, blackberry, grapefruit, and mint.”
“The blackberry sounds perfect,” the legionnaire said.
“That’s a silver penny a glass,” Corbin said, retrieving a tall, slender bottle from the shelf behind the bar. It wasn’t one that I’d seen him open before; if not for the constant cleaning it would likely have had a thick layer of dust on it.
“That’s a bit steep,” the legionnaire said.
Corbin shrugged. “Not many alchemists around here,” he said. “I couldn’t charge less or I’d be losing money on the deal.”
“Fair enough,” he said, smiling again. “Ah, hell, it’s worth it.”
“Says you,” the other man said, snorting. “I’ll stick with beer, thanks.”
“Vodka for me,” the woman said. “And a cup of water.”
Corbin nodded and started pouring drinks, while I got their food and the water. Once that was done, I went to stand in the corner behind the bar. It was the darkest, quietest corner of the room, far from the fireplace and the tables. I stood there, and I watched.
The villagers were intimidated, I could tell. It was hard not to be intimidated by the representatives of the legions. I wasn’t the only one with bad memories on that topic, either; Ketill kept shooting them dark looks, and Ilse left within a few minutes of their arrival.
But the people of Branson’s Ford weren’t shy by nature, as a rule, and again, they were desperate. It wasn’t long before they were asking questions, pestering the legionnaires, who put up with it in good humor. Standing in the shadows, and listening, I heard a great deal. More than any of them would likely have guessed.
The mage’s name was Andrew, a more northern name; he was probably born after the expansion started. He was younger than the rest, and it bothered him, though he tried not to let it show. He was unfailingly polite, and seemed as intimidated by the villagers as they were by him. He was indeed a channeler, and specialized in fire. He got drunk rapidly, and when he did he became expansive, loud, and apologetic.
The other man was the oldest of the bunch, a man named Sumi. He was quiet, and not as relaxed as the others; he kept looking at the exits, checking his balance. He had a great many scars, and he moved like someone who was starting to get old, starting to slow down and get stiff. He drank beer, and not much of that, not enough to get drunk; he was clearly irritated that Andrew was drunk.
The woman was named Aelia, and appeared to be somewhat intermediate between the other two in personality. She seemed more experienced than Andrew; she talked to him in a way that made me think of a woman talking to a younger brother she was fond of. But she was more expansive than Sumi, and far more talkative. In particular, she seemed to have an endless string of dirty jokes, some of which were impressively obscene.
That was the general impression I got of them on a personal level. It was comforting, in some ways. They were surprisingly human, with the armor off. After a few hours I could almost see them as people rather than legionnaires.
Apparently they’d been resting most of the day; they were attacked by a group of ghouls on the road east of the village, and while none of them had been injured, it had turned into a lengthy running battle and left all of them feeling like they could use a day to recover. Andrew, in particular, was clearly shaken by the whole event.
Beyond that, though, they were far less forthcoming on the topic of what they were here for. The villagers questioned them repeatedly on that topic, with very little result. Sumi just grunted, Andrew was immensely proud to be on the mission but obviously didn’t know the details, and Aelia told them to ask the surveyor. Hideo, she called him, very informally.
They didn’t provide any real information. But then, that was informative in itself. There were only so many reasons why they wouldn’t be telling the villagers all the details, and none of them lined up with the official purpose for their visit.
It was worrying. As though there were anything about this whole situation that weren’t.
The night went on longer than most nights did, and it ended on a happier note than any night I could remember in that inn, at least for the villagers. But morning was still early, and the impromptu celebration had to end. The villagers made their way to their homes, and the legionnaires went up to their rooms.
Corbin and I stayed in the taproom for a time, cleaning and putting everything in order. Notably, Black stayed below as well. She didn’t say a word, but she and Corbin were giving each other very significant looks, the sort that made me think they knew something I didn’t.
Not that I didn’t know enough. There were no ghouls to the east of Branson’s Ford. It was bad terrain for them; too much competition with beasts from the river, and not enough cover. There were sometimes ghouls in the forests to the south, or the hills to the west. But never to the east.
Everything was silent when I went upstairs, the surveyor and his legionnaires sleeping in their rooms. Every door was locked. I made my way to my own door, at the other end of the hall with plenty of empty rooms between them, and unlocked it.
Inside, everything was the way I’d left it. Nothing had been touched, nothing had been disturbed. The locked box was still very securely locked.
I let out a sigh of relief, and locked the door.
I stripped, moving slowly and feeling like I was in a daze. I set the clothes aside, and checked the lock on the door again, making very sure that it was locked. After a few moments I barred it as well. Then I curled up on the bed, and stared out the window.
Sleep took a long time to find me.