Monthly Archives: June 2016

Cracks 1.2

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Morning came early. There was no surprise there. It was what morning did.


This morning was, or at least felt, earlier than many. I was still tired, still rubbing sleep out of my eyes, as I left my room and stumbled downstairs. Left to my own devices I’d have stayed in bed for a few hours longer. But I could hear people downstairs, movement and talk and a quiet laugh, and the notion of going back to sleep while I could hear that was absurd.


Corbin was usually very good about not making noise early in the day. He never mentioned it, probably in case I was sensitive on the topic, but I knew it was for my sake. But for once we actually had a guest, and business meant a reason to be active at the crack of dawn.


I didn’t resent that. I could always take a nap later. And the business–the busyness–was worth it.


I knew this place was meant to cater to visitors, that guests staying overnight was the whole point. But it happened so rarely that they felt more like an interruption, a burr in the smooth routine of our days. Some guests could be incredibly irritating in that way. Black, though, didn’t really alter the routine at all. She just moved it up by a few hours.


Corbin was in the kitchen with some fresh kindling, coaxing out a fire in the stove. I walked past him to the taproom, past Black at the bar, and to the front door. I unlocked it, a rather involved procedure. It had grown to be a matter of habit, but the truth of the matter was that it was rather absurd: four locks, a bar, a chain, and a chunk of stone to act as a doorstop.


Once that was done I started working in the taproom. It was already clean from the previous night. Every night, the tables were wiped down with a damp cloth, the floor was mopped, the bar was polished to a sheen.


I started sweeping the floor anyway. I attacked the job with a will, sweeping aggressively at nonexistent specks of dirt. The worn bristles of the broom barely whispered against the wooden floor.


It was utterly unnecessary. But it was something to do, something to keep my hands busy while I waited, and I threw myself into the work as though I truly cared about doing a good job of it. Black sat at the bar, and sipped at her cider, and watched me with an expression of vague bemusement.


Finally, after around five minutes of that, Corbin emerged from the kitchen. He went straight to the fireplace in the taproom, where he started to stir the banked coals into life. That meant it was my turn in the kitchen. I stopped pretending to sweep and went back behind the bar.


Down in the cellar, I went looking for food. There was plenty there, though anyone else would have had a hell of a time finding it. The cellar was organized more or less at random, the contents scattered around to try and make the huge space feel less cavernous. Huge casks of beer and vodka stood next to sacks, barrels, and racks of bottles. There were less inn-like things there, as well, things that had been left by the manor’s previous owners. Suits of armor, moth-eaten tapestries, that sort of thing. In one corner was a rack, stained with blood and worse. Until I’d seen it I used to assume that the stories they told about the old Count’s second son had to be fabrications.


It was an eerie cellar, to say the least. It didn’t help that the maze of mundane stores and sudden nightmares was dimly lit at best, just a single alchemical lamp near the stairs to cast a light through the space.


I wandered through the cellar, picking things almost at random and tossing them into a bag. A handful of potatoes from a barrel tucked away in the corner, some sweet onions from another barrel close to the door that was almost empty. On a whim I grabbed a few handfuls of rice from the sack; it had to be imported all the way from the heartland of Akitsuro far to the south, since the climate here in the north didn’t support it, but it was still cheap.


Corbin had asked me once whether I got bored of the same soup every day. I’d told him that it wasn’t the same. Sometimes there were beets in it, or turnips. Or carrots. Or cabbage. And sometimes there was a marrow bone to use for stock, and it was entirely different.



Upstairs, I set the bag in the kitchen, where Corbin was already mixing dough for bread. He barely glanced at it as I left it and went out the back to fetch water.


I often heard people complain about hauling water. I didn’t understand why. It was, for me, among the most pleasant tasks of the day. It was…comforting. You couldn’t really haul water wrong. I pulled the bucket out of the well, and carried it into the kitchen, and dumped it into the heavy iron pot. Then I did it again. And again. And again.


My arms were burning and I was breathing hard by the time I poured the last of the water into the pot. The soup today would need more water than it often did, since there was rice.


And, I remembered, we had a guest. There was a good chance that someone would be eating this soup other than just Corbin and myself.


Once the pot was filled with water, I slid the alchemical filter off the pot. It had a fine layer of sediment on it, trapped by the bright glass baffles. The water from our well was clean, but there was nothing like an alchemical filter to make you very aware of how dirty water could be and still be clean.


I didn’t particularly care. But Corbin was adamant about filtering the water before cooking with it. Something about metals in the water, which struck me as a strange thing to complain about when we were putting it into a metal pot, but I didn’t argue with him. It was, I’d found, generally easier to go along with Corbin’s eccentricities than argue with them. And it wasn’t like it was hard to use the filter anyway.


I took the filter outside and washed it with another bucket of water, rinsing the thin layer of sediment away. I carried it inside, and put it back in the drawer where it belonged. I took a knife from the drawer and sliced most of the vegetables, which Corbin would fry in a bit of oil before putting them into the soup.


And then, like I did every day, I stuttered to a stop. The soup was ready, or at least as ready as it could be until the rice had cooked. The bread was ready, the individual loaves set aside to rise. The rest of the lamb was in the alchemical icebox in the cellar, already cut, and it wouldn’t take much time at all to cook. The taproom was clean.


There was nothing left to do.


Corbin had the same reaction I did, a sort of frozen, uncertain pause. His hands kept twitching at his sides, like they wanted to be moving, touching, working. I kept glancing around the kitchen, like I would suddenly see something else that needed doing.


The silence stretched on for perhaps a second and a half before it was interrupted by a particularly loud pop from the new fire in the stove. I jumped a good inch into the air, my head twisting to stare at the flame, my ears instantly laying back against my head.


It took a second or two for me to relax, and turn away from the fire. I was blushing.


“Do you want to go back to bed?” Corbin asked, breaking the silence just as it settled into the frozen, awkward silence that sometimes swept over the inn. “I can handle things from here, I think.”


I shook my head and looked out at the taproom.


“I can take care of our guest, too,” he assured me. “She’s not the sort to ask for all that much. And I don’t have much to do here anyway.”


I looked at him incredulously, then rolled my eyes before looking back out to where she was sitting at the bar.


“All right,” Corbin said, with a hint of a laugh in his voice. “You can go talk to her. Just…be careful, Silf. That’s not someone to take lightly.”


I bobbed my head in a quick nod, shifting my weight impatiently from one foot to the other. Corbin nodded, the laugh more visible in his eyes now, and I was off for the taproom, barely keeping my pace in check enough not to seem pathetically eager.


The guest–Black–was still sitting at the bar, spear in easy reach by her side. She was staring pensively into her mug of cider, expression vague. I thought her expression was vague, at least. It could be hard to read the expressions of the Changed until you grew to know the details of their features, their shape, their movement.


She watched me as I slipped out from behind the bar to sit next to her. It was a rather intense gaze, one that I knew rather well. Usually I saw it before this much time had passed, but Black had barely noticed me the previous night. It was only after Corbin said I could stay and listen that I had become interesting enough to really see.


Now that I was, I got the same look from her that I got from everyone, sooner or later. The one that said what are you?


It was a bit different, coming from another of the Changed. It was the same way I’d looked at her, last night. Most of the time the humans, the people who didn’t know what being Changed was like, looked at the surface. They wanted to gawk at the mutations and the twisting of the flesh, the obviously inhuman features.


Someone who knew better, though, tended to look past that as relatively unimportant. They wanted to see what lay under those features, what they meant. What had been gained in the Change, and what had been lost. Last night I’d seen Black’s odd hairless skin and thought that she might not be able to regulate her body’s heat properly. I’d seen the strangely proportioned limbs and the flexible movements, and I wondered whether her joints weren’t articulated the same way a human’s were. I saw the huge dark eyes and wondered whether she could see better in the dark than they could.


Similarly, she looked at me and looked past the surface to the implications. She connected the dots to see the shape that was implied by what was missing, as much as what was present.


“Your name is Silf, right?” she asked, looking back at her cider. It was a weak attempt at courtesy, when she’d already stared too much for me to have missed it, but I could appreciate the thought.


I nodded, a quick gesture that was in the shoulders as much as the neck. It had taken me a bit to figure out how to mimic a normal nod, with my neck, but I’d figured something passable out.


“You don’t talk much, do you?” Black asked. It had a rhetorical tone to it. She’d already seen what was missing, there.


I shook my head anyway, smiling a little. Not very wide. A wide smile from me didn’t look much like a smile to most folk, I’d found.


“Can you?”


I paused, humming slightly. It felt…tight, tense, like stretching a muscle that was stiff, or trying to swallow something just slightly too large. It hurt a little, but mostly it felt tight.


I felt a quiet surge of relief at that. It was going to be a good day, then. That was…very good. It would have been quite typical for me to have a bad day when we had an interesting guest for once.


“Some,” I said quietly. Talking hurt more than humming, like usual, and it sounded…wrong. My voice was rough and breathy, and the enunciation was horrid. But it was understandable. “Some days more than others. Hurts, and if I talk too loud it tears things in my throat. But I can talk.”


She nodded, clearly not surprised. “That’s something, then,” she said. “Sometimes the more extensively Changed can’t talk at all. The vocal cords are too altered.”


I shrugged, nodded. I hadn’t heard that it was a common complaint, but I knew that I was relatively lucky. Plenty of the Changed had lost more than I did in the transition.


“Let’s see,” she said, sounding pensive now. “Corbin will have taught you to read and write, if you didn’t know already. But I imagine that has to get tedious, and I don’t want to make you talk if it hurts you. So I guess this’ll be a largely one-sided conversation.”


I shrugged again. “I can talk some,” I said. “It’s a good day. Just quiet, and not so much.”


“That’s something,” she said again. “Do you want something to drink, then? Does that help?”


I snorted and rolled my eyes again, gesturing behind the bar. It was an expansive sort of gesture, one that took in the whole of the inn.


Black chuckled. “Okay, I deserved that one,” she said. “Your place, not mine. If something to drink would help you’d have it by now.” She took a sip of her cider, probably reminded by what she’d just said. “What did you want to talk about, then?”




“Where did I come from, you mean?” She shrugged. “Northwest, most recently. Out near the coast. Plenty of places before that, but that’s where I was last.”


I hesitated. There was something about her voice that discouraged questions. If she’d sounded any more closed off, I didn’t think she’d have said a word at all. But I was starved for news from the outside world, and I couldn’t stop there.


I didn’t want to risk alienating Black entirely, though. So rather than anything personal, I went for the most generic of questions, the one that every traveler asked and answered in every town.


“The roads bad?” I asked, not looking directly at her. My voice sounded pathetically hopeful, at least to me.


If Black noticed that, she didn’t comment. “Don’t really know,” she said. “I don’t actually spend much time on the roads. I work as a hunter, you see, and you don’t see much game on the main roads.” She took another sip of cider; it had to be almost gone by now. She was silent for a moment, long enough that I wasn’t sure she’d continue. “But yes,” she said, finally, suddenly, breaking the silence before it could really settle in. “The roads are bad, from what I’ve heard. Not as bad as sometimes, but…bad.”


I nodded. It fit with what I’d heard from other travelers, and from the villagers after their rare trips out. Things weren’t as bad as they could be; there weren’t many deserters this far south, and the empire kept the major roads in good repair. Things weren’t as bad as they could be, but they were bad enough.


I started to ask another question, but interrupted myself with a yawn. Black grinned, her teeth startlingly bright against her dusky skin. “Tired?” she said, her voice teasing. “Maybe you shouldn’t have stayed up late to listen in, eh?”


I flushed and shrugged awkwardly, not wanting to explain the reality of things to her. It wasn’t a conversation I particularly wanted to have.


She apparently misunderstood, or perhaps she understood perfectly. Either way, the teasing expression fell away instantly, too fast to have been really sincere in the first place. “Get some more sleep, Silf,” she said. “I’ll still be here later today, and we can talk more then. I’m sure Corbin can take care of things for now.”


It was a good suggestion, if somewhat misguided, and I didn’t want to explain to her why what she was saying wasn’t exactly possible. So I smiled sheepishly, and shrugged, and made my way upstairs.


Black’s eyes never left me until I was out of sight, and her expression wasn’t teasing at all now. It was quiet, and flat, and far too interested for comfort.

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Cracks 1.1

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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.”


“Corbin. You?”




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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