I wasn’t sure what woke me, at first. I was awake, but it wasn’t clear why; there was no sound of movement from below, no sunlight coming in the window.
Then I heard the tapping again. It was a quiet sound, very quiet, barely audible even to my ears. But it was there, and it was too regular to be explained by the wind.
I looked out the window, more carefully this time.
Black, clinging to the wall, smiled at me through the window, and waved. Her skin looked very dark under the light of the moon.
I frowned, worried. Then I got out of bed, and walked over to the window, and undid the catch.
“What are you doing here?” I asked, my voice catching in the middle of the sentence. I coughed, and a spike of pain went through my throat; if I didn’t know better I would have thought I’d torn something.
Well. Today, it seemed, was not going to be a good day.
“Our imperial friends are leaving,” Black said, not taking any obvious notice of my lapse. “Very quietly, in the dark. I want to know where they’re going, and I thought you might too.”
I didn’t hesitate a moment before nodding. I was curious enough that I would have probably wanted to know anyway, but the events of the past few days settled any doubts I might have had. There was something strange going on here, and I needed to know what it was.
I couldn’t afford for anything to happen to Branson’s Ford. It was a terrible, dying little town in the middle of nowhere, but it was all I had.
“All right,” Black said. “Go ahead and get dressed, then. They were moving pretty slowly, I think we should be able to catch them. You do all right in the dark, I’m guessing?”
“Eyes aren’t bad,” I said, throwing on a simple wool cloak. “Ears are better. I get by.”
“That’s good,” she said. “I’m counting on you knowing the terrain better than them to keep us out of sight. Come on.” She dropped rapidly out of sight.
I followed her out, latching the window behind myself. It looked like Black had fallen straight to the ground, but I wasn’t comfortable with taking that much of a fall, and I took the tree down like usual.
“This way,” she said, the instant I was on the ground, starting around the corner of the inn. “They left their horses. Probably wanted to avoid the noise and the delay. But it means we should be able to catch up to them pretty easily.”
I nodded, and hurried to catch up to her.
Black moved through the trees with perfect confidence, heading southwest into the trees. I was impressed, though I supposed it made sense. Her eyes were huge; it fit that she would be able to see in the dark.
I couldn’t see so well in the dark. Better than human, but certainly not as well as a cat; things were little more than grey blurs in the moonlight. But Black hadn’t been wrong; I knew this ground about as well as anyone. I wasn’t worried about stumbling.
We kept going, heading southwest into the forest. I didn’t see any signs of a trail, but I trusted Black’s judgment. If she said they went this way, she was probably right.
I still raised an eyebrow when I realized we were going past the warding posts, though. Not so much that Black was going outside the wards; she was as Changed as I was, after all, and had about as much to fear from the magic outside the wards. But everything I’d heard suggested that the people of Akitsuro went to great pains to stay inside warded areas. They’d had the wards long enough now that whole generations had grown up with them, being taught from birth to think of them as their bulwark against the dangers of the outside world.
What was so interesting in this forest that it had brought the imperial contingent out from behind their wards? What was so secret that they had to do it in the dark hours of the morning?
We kept going for a few minutes. Then I heard a voice, drifting towards us on the wind.
It was speaking Tsuran, rather than Skellish or the pidgin of the two that people in Branson’s Ford mostly used. I knew Tsuran, but it had been years since my language lessons, and this was true imperial, not the accented version I’d grown up with. Between that and the distance, I couldn’t quite pick out words.
But I could pick out the sound. That was Andrew’s voice, and he sounded nervous.
I stopped dead where I stood, and looked around. “This way,” I said after a moment, turning slightly to the north. “Stream.”
“What do you want that for?” Black asked, following along.
“They have a fire channeler,” I said, picking up speed. “Can feel your heat. Wet our cloaks and he won’t feel us.”
“Ah,” Black said. “I didn’t realize he was fire.”
It only took a minute or two for us to reach the stream I was thinking of. It barely deserved the name, really; it was barely a trickle, running along the bottom of a small ravine. It was dry more often than not, and only running now because of the heavy rains we’d had earlier in the summer.
But it was water, and it was cold, and that was what mattered. I took off the heavy cloak I’d thrown on earlier, and shoved it in the water, making sure to soak the whole cloak. Then I pulled it out, wrung out enough of the water that it shouldn’t drip, and draped it around my shoulders again.
A shiver ran through me as the wet fabric settled onto me. But it was a momentary thing, almost more a trained response than something that was really justified. The fur on my shoulders and down my spine was enough to keep the fabric from lying flush against my skin, and it would take time for the cold water to reach my skin.
Black did the same thing just downstream from me, not even flinching as she put her cloak on again. Though she had clothing on underneath, which probably mitigated the shock somewhat.
We kept going, moving back towards their path. I kept to the higher areas, thinking that it might give us a better line of sight on them. I wasn’t expecting to actually see them, not with lighting this bad, but I thought Black might be able to.
As it turned out, I’d misestimated them. They were carrying an alchemical lamp, one much brighter than I was used to seeing. It shed enough light that, from above, I could actually see them before I could hear them.
All five of them were there, and looking ready for a war. Sumi and the man whose name I didn’t know both had their short swords drawn; Sumi was at the front of the group, and the other man was at the back. Aelia, just behind Sumi, had her arbalest drawn and loaded, and in front of the other swordsman Andrew was carrying the lamp in one hand and a knife in the other.
The only exception was the surveyor–Hideo–who looked completely at ease. He was wearing his imperial robes rather than armor or anything more suited to the wilderness, and he didn’t have any weapons in sight. He looked so spectacularly casual that if I couldn’t see his surroundings I might think he was strolling in a city park.
“I don’t get it,” Andrew said, glancing around nervously. “I thought the sightings were east of town.” I could hear him quite clearly now, though we were still plenty far enough away to avoid being noticed. Being Changed had its advantages.
“Yes,” Hideo said, in a tone of obviously forced patience. “And the townsfolk didn’t react when we said we were attacked there.”
Aelia was the one to answer him this time, clearly taking pity on Hideo. “Towns like this love to ask strangers questions,” she said. “Gossip is half of what there is to do in these towns. So if there were ghouls east of town, they would have gone into stories about them when we said that.” She paused, glancing at some perceived noise in the underbrush, before continuing. “They’re denning somewhere else and just attacking to the east,” she said. “Bet on it.”
I paused. “What’s she talking about?” I asked, in a whisper.
Black shook her head. “First I’ve heard of it,” she said. “Odd that they would send this group to deal with ghouls, if that is what they’re here for.”
I nodded. Ghouls were…well, they were certainly dangerous, in their own way, but it was a constant sort of danger. They could kill you if you made a mistake, but they were a monster that everyone learned to live with. The empire might send a few legionnaires to deal with a ghoul outbreak, but they wouldn’t send a scholar.
Irritatingly, they fell silent after that, leaving me with more questions than I’d had before. I supposed we’d gotten lucky to hear as much as we had, but still, it was irritating having them only explain the barest part of what was going on.
“What’s the other half?” Andrew asked suddenly around a minute later.
“What?” Aelia asked, sounding a bit annoyed now. She might be more willing to answer his questions than the rest, but clearly she wasn’t thrilled about dragging the rookie along.
“You said gossip was half of what there was to do in a town like this one,” he said. “What’s the other half?”
“Get bored, get drunk, and get laid,” she said. “Usually in that order.”
I had to chuckle at that. Aelia might be a bit crude, but she clearly understood places like Branson’s Ford well enough.
“Enough,” Hideo said sharply, his voice cutting through the night like the crack of a whip. “We’ve gone far enough, and not seen any sign of the ghouls. We need to head back if we’re going to reach the inn before dawn.”
“That’s our cue, kid,” Black whispered to me. “We want to stay ahead of them.”
I nodded, and started heading back. I knew a more direct route back to the inn than the one they’d taken out.
Back home, Black followed me up through the tree to my room. She waited for me to slip the latch open again, and then waited for me to go inside.
“I’ve got a question, if you don’t mind,” she said, sitting down on the floor next to the window.
I shrugged, and went to the closet, pulling out more clothing. I didn’t really need it for warmth, not on a warm summer night, but now that we weren’t in a rush it was worth making the nod to propriety.
“You’re obviously a pretty young girl,” she said. “It can be hard to tell with the Changed, sometimes, but I’m usually fairly good at recognizing that, and you don’t give me that feeling. You can’t be much above eighteen, can you?”
“Seventeen,” I said, sitting on my bed and looking at her.
“I figured it was something like that,” she said. “But you seem rather mature, for your age. And you know how to hide from a fire channeler.”
“I know about channeling,” I said, shrugging.
“Can you channel, then?”
“A bit,” I said. “Metal. I taught myself some things.”
“But not fire,” she said. “And you don’t have a formal education in it.”
I shook my head.
“But you know what to do about it,” she said. “That’s the exact trick we used in the war. You’re fast enough to keep up with me, and you speak Tsuran. And then there’s the way you look at the people in this village. The way they look at you.”
I just waited. Black had a point, and she’d get to it; it wasn’t worth wearing out my throat to push her.
“You’re not from around here,” she said. “Are you?”
I shook my head. “I was in the Whitewood,” I said. “Came south after.”
Black went very, very still. “I see,” she said, and she did seem to be looking at me in an entirely different way, now. She looked like she suddenly understood a great many things. “Your parents,” she said, in a tone that made me think of someone handling something fragile. A bird’s egg, perhaps, or an irreplaceable work of art. “Did they…?”
I shook my head again. “They died in the attack,” I said. “I got lucky and made it out.”
I could almost see the thoughts running through Black’s head, as she looked at me. I could see her picturing me, trying to get out of the Whitewood at the end. Picturing a Changed girl, injured and alone, on the road south afterward, with all the other refugees. I could see her reconsidering how she thought of me.
“I’m sorry to hear that,” she said, her voice suddenly sounding softer than I’d heard it before.
There it is, I thought, having to work to contain a bitter laugh. What did you do in the war? Well, now you know.
It didn’t look like Black was enjoying the knowledge. It was a revelation, but not something anyone was happy to hear. The sacking of the Whitewood was one of the ugliest stories from a very ugly war. People were happier to forget that it had happened.
I couldn’t blame them. I would have liked to forget it, too.
“You said you fought,” I said. “Here?”
“In Skelland, yes,” she said. “Not in this exact area; I was mostly fighting north of the Blackwater.”
“What did you do?”
She stared at the floor, and didn’t say anything for a long moment. “I killed people,” she said, finally. “A lot of people.”
“I don’t understand how you could do that,” I said. I was looking out the window, now, not at her. I could just see the sky beginning to lighten to grey with the coming sunrise.
“I thought it was necessary,” she said. “We all did. I know it seems monstrous, now, the things we did. But at the time, we had our reasons.”
“Was it worth it?”
Black sighed. “I don’t know,” she said. “At the time, I thought so. I really believed in what we were doing. But now, looking at you, it’s…not quite as simple as that.” She fell silent again, brooding. “It seems like nothing is ever simple.”
I nodded. “Thank you for telling me.”
“Thank you for listening,” she said. “You should get some sleep, Silf. Morning isn’t far away now.”
I nodded. She climbed out the window, and dropped to the ground. Presumably she would climb back in at her own room.
I latched the window again behind her, and then I went and sat on my bed.
I spent a long, long time staring at the locked box at the foot of the bed. I didn’t open it, didn’t even reach for the key that I always, always carried. I just looked at it.
And then I curled up, and I went back to sleep.