I wasn’t sure how to proceed, at that point. Any hope I might have had that this would end well, any lingering assumption I might have had that things would be all right, had been rather thoroughly quashed by that conversation.
It wasn’t just what Sumi had said. It was how he’d said it, the attitude he’d had, everything about how it had been presented. That wasn’t an act, or a passing reaction, or the influence of the drugs. It was the quiet despair of a man who’d fully recognized how hopeless his situation was. It was the attitude of someone who knew that he was going to die, knew it with a certainty that left him at peace with the fact.
I knew that kind of attitude. I’d seen it in the last days of the siege, when it was clear that we could only expect one thing when it broke. Afterwards, in the camps, occasionally someone would get sick in a way that wasn’t going to get better, not in that environment. It was the same attitude, a desperation that had gone so far it wrapped around and became a strange sort of calm.
In an individual fight, I knew what I was doing. But I didn’t know anything about fights that were larger than that, not really. I didn’t have the experience, the grounding to see just how badly off we were. I’d known that things were bad; I’d known that we had a chance of losing.
The naive thing had been assuming that we had a chance to win.
But now that Sumi had pointed it out, now that he’d torn that thoughtless optimism away, I could see what I’d failed to recognize before. We were surrounded, and likely outnumbered. The ghouls–or whatever these things were, but I had to call them something–were coordinated and organized, when we were neither. They had a very good idea of what we were capable of, and they’d demonstrated that they could predict how we would react; we knew nothing about what they could do or what they wanted.
Hideo had said that Branson’s Ford didn’t stand a chance of survival, with or without his help. I’d argued with him, said that you always–always–had to have hope. And I still believed that. But, while his assessment had been harsh, I was no longer certain it had been wrong.
There was always hope. You had to have hope, but part of what that meant was finding something that you could actually hope for.
It had taken a lot for me to recognize it. I’d had to be told by a lot of people. But I was finally starting to see, now, that the survival of Branson’s Ford was not one of those things. Keeping this village intact was, at this point, simply not something that I could hope to achieve. It would take a miracle, and the simple truth was that most causes which needed miracles didn’t get one.
So it was time to start hoping for something else.
I paused in my stride as I realized that. It wasn’t much. A hitch in my step, a momentary pause in my breathing, a blink that went on just a little bit too long. I was almost proud of how little it showed, from the outside.
Then I opened my eyes, which were not going to shed the tears that I could feel welling up in them, and I started walking more purposefully towards the inn.
Once again, I ignored the door and snuck in through my window, barely even slowing as I scrambled up the tree. My leg seemed to be more or less entirely recovered, at least.
Back in my room, I ignored everything that I would normally have done upon returning. I went straight to the locked box at the foot of the bed, and I knelt down next to it.
The box had been a gift from Corbin, shortly after I woke up. It was made of alchemically treated oak, plated with steel, and the tumbler lock was even more complex and difficult to pick than those on the doors. He’d told me that he was giving me the only key, and while at first I’d been sure that he had a copy, when I’d briefly lost mine the only way he’d had to get it open would have involved an axe.
In short, it was a remarkably secure box, the sort of thing that a wealthy merchant might use as a safe.
I knelt down next to it, and pulled out the key. It was a small silver key, very plain in appearance; I kept it on a chain around my neck, rather than with my other keys. I put it into the lock and turned it, being careful to keep pressure on the concealed switch next to the lock as I did. The poison on the dart that would otherwise have gone into my hand wouldn’t have killed me, according to Corbin. But it would have made me very sick, likely too much so to stand, let alone escape with the contents.
When I opened the box, the contents hardly seemed sufficient to justify the security measures. There was a simple copper necklace, the sort of jewelry that was so obviously cheap that no one would even bother to steal it. A scrap of cloth, black long since faded to grey. A small book, the leather cover of which had been so thoroughly stained that sorting out the boundaries of any of the marks was impossible. A bit of quartz–the sort of stone that was pretty, but ultimately valueless–which had been rubbed until it was almost polished.
They looked, in short, very much like what they were–the small treasures of a child. To anyone else, they were almost worthless. To me, they were priceless.
I hadn’t had much, when I fled the Whitewood. We didn’t exactly have time to pack. The attack had come suddenly, and at first we hadn’t even realized it was an attack at all. We’d been too panicked to think, to consider the future beyond the next heartbeat. Of what I had taken as I ran, most of it had been taken from me in the refugee camps. I might have been able to defend myself, but I’d still just been a young girl, not canny enough to keep thieves at bay. All else aside, I’d been all alone, and even the most paranoid person had to sleep sometimes.
So piece by piece I’d lost the pieces of my former life, and replaced them with pieces I’d taken from other refugees in turn. It hadn’t taken so long before my peaceful, happy existence in the Whitewood was nothing more than a distant memory from another life. If someone from back then had seen me, they would never have recognized Silf the merchant’s daughter in the filthy, half-starved girl I’d become.
This was all that was left. A necklace my mother had given me when I was a girl, shiny enough to make a good ornament but not valuable enough to matter if it was lost. A scrap of the shirt my father had been wearing as we fled; it had torn off in my grip as I tried to pull him out from under the rubble, and hours later I’d found it still clutched in my hand, unable to let go even if I’d wanted to. A pretty stone that I’d started carrying for no other reason than that I liked how it looked. And, finally, the journal that I’d kept when I was young.
The scribe who taught me to read and write had encouraged me to keep a journal to practice. I’d found that the process helped me to cope. Even in a civilized city being Changed as a child made things hard, and there were always trials and stresses; writing helped me to put things in order and keep them from eating at me. I’d gotten out of the habit in the camps, since there wasn’t exactly time to sit down and write when you were running for your life, and then never picked it up again.
Not much to show for a life, really. But I knew that I’d gotten lucky. There were plenty of people who’d fled with nothing at all. There were plenty more who never made it out at all.
I stared at the handful of objects in the box for a long, long moment. It felt…strange. I’d kept these things because they meant far too much to me to give them up. But I didn’t actually look at them much; I hadn’t even unlocked this box in months. Now that I did, I remembered why. They felt…distant, alien, unreal. It was hard to remember, hard to even believe that the life these things were a part of had once belonged to me.
Once again, I felt like I was almost watching myself move rather than actually moving as I reached in and took the small tokens out, one by one. I gently folded the cloth, and tucked it into my pocket. The necklace went over my head. It fit tightly now, almost more of a choker, but it fit. I tucked the stone into another pocket, and slipped the journal into a bag. I kept that bag packed with everything I would need if it ever became necessary to run–food, clothes, money, a good knife–and even after years living in Branson’s Ford I was still extremely conscientious about keeping it ready to go. I wasn’t going to be forced to flee with nothing again, not if I had anything to say about it.
I sat there for a moment, and then I took out the rest of the things in the box.
Unlike the others, these weren’t in here for sentimental reasons. They weren’t locked away because they were private. There were entirely more practical reasons why I wouldn’t want anyone else having access to this particular group of objects.
The most benign was a leather pouch full of small, sharp metal objects. For most people it was nothing more than a novel way to cut their hands if they accidentally reached into it. For someone who could channel metal, though, they made significantly more dangerous ammunition than coins.
After that came a spool of thin wire, some needles, a razor–all things that had perfectly respectable, legitimate uses. All of them were also metal, and it wasn’t hard to turn any of them into a weapon.
The legion-issue dagger didn’t have even that veneer of respectability. It was a thin, sturdy blade, designed to punch through the joints in armor. It was meant for killing and little else, and there was no mistaking it for anything but a weapon.
And, finally, a small glass vial full of a thick black liquid. It was a sedative–not the sort that Black had used on me, the precise formulae and exacting care of an imperial alchemist. No, this was a much murkier sort of medicine, a blend of alchemy and herbalism that was more art than science. Even the tinker I’d bought it from had warned me that the results could be unpredictable; one or two drops was safe, but three could have side effects, and more than four was liable to be lethal. Which, in a pinch, made it a perfectly serviceable poison.
I stared at these things for some time. I’d pieced this collection together in those first few months in the village, back when everything and everyone was a threat and I’d badly needed something to make me feel safe. I’d never, in all the time since, had any need of any of it, aside from occasionally using the sedative on myself when sleep was proving particularly difficult.
It had come to be almost funny, a private joke I told myself. Keeping these things on hand had become a sort of game. Keeping them hidden away had become a way of reminding myself that those days, the time when I needed them, was in the past.
I would have loved for it to stay there.
But wishes weren’t enough to change anything, and with times being what they were now, I wasn’t sure I wouldn’t be needing all of this and more.
Once I had all of that situated to my satisfaction, I closed and locked the box, and then left the room by the window.
As I’d noted, the building which the imperials had taken over as their headquarters had almost an aura around it. There was a palpable feeling of dread hanging around it, and people were going out of their way not to walk too close to the place, or even look at it. I couldn’t blame them. Even without knowing what the legion’s plan for Branson’s Ford was, the reminder of the legion’s presence here was uncomfortable at best.
I tried to ignore that feeling as best I could as I walked up to the front door and rapped on it. I was only partially successful. I could make myself do it, but I was breathing hard as I did, and my hand was shaking as I knocked.
There was no response. I stood and waited for a minute or so before it became clear that there wasn’t going to be a response.
I knocked again. Still no answer.
For an instant I was irrationally concerned for the legionnaires, wondering whether a ghoul had somehow gotten through the wards, snuck through town, and killed them without anyone noticing. Then I heard something from inside–movement, a voice, a laugh. They were alive, all right, and they were in there. They were just ignoring me.
I grimaced at that, feeling a sudden and unexpected anger go through me. Bad enough that I had to listen to these people after everything they’d done to me. Now, with all our lives on the line, they couldn’t even be bothered to answer the door for me.
I debated doing something drastic, like breaking the window with a rock. I reconsidered quickly, though. That sort of thing wouldn’t exactly be inclined to cooperate with me.
Instead, I kept knocking. I pounded on the door with my fist until my arm got tired, and then I switched to the other arm. I even kicked it a few times, just to break up the monotony.
When the door finally opened, I was guessing it was mostly just to shut me up. I’d been standing there for several minutes by then, after all, and I was showing no signs of leaving any time soon.
It was Marcus standing in the door, which was disappointing. He was the only one of the legionnaires with whom I’d had no real interaction, which made it harder to guess how this would go.
Still, I’d come this far, and I didn’t have any other plans. So I just smiled sweetly at him as he opened the door and glowered.
“Go away,” he said, sounding distinctly grumpy.
“Need to talk to Hideo,” I said quickly, before he could close the door.
“The surveyor is busy,” Marcus said, smiling very slightly. “As you might have noticed, there’s a bit of an event going on. Come back later and maybe he’ll be less occupied.”
So he did have a sense of humor. Dry, perhaps, but there all the same. It made him seem more human.
“He wants to talk to me,” I said, insistently. It was, I thought, probably true. “He’s expecting me,” I added a moment later, which was definitely not true.
Marcus knew that, too. I could tell just looking at him that he knew I was making this up. But he couldn’t be sure, not absolutely sure, without actually checking. And if he was wrong, and Hideo somehow was expecting me, he could be sure that turning me away would not make his boss happy.
He didn’t really have a choice. I could see the change in his face as he realized it, too.
“Come inside,” he said gruffly, stepping back from the door the absolute minimum while leaving enough room for me to squeeze inside.
I froze for a moment, the mere notion of actually entering a legion headquarters momentarily leaving me in an absolute panic. My history with the legions had never been a good one, and knowing what I did about why they’d come here just made it worse.
But this was what I’d come here for. And as much as I hated this, I still couldn’t think of any other way to proceed.
So after a few seconds, I set my teeth, choked back the fear as best I could, and stepped inside.