I was, I had to admit, impressed at how much the legions had left their mark upon the house in just the short time they’d been occupying it. It had only been…I was losing track of time, but it could only have been a few days since they moved in here. Before that it had been a perfectly ordinary home for decades.
But to look at it now, without knowing better, I would not have guessed at that peaceful history at all. The place looked like a legion outpost, through and through. It smelled like blood, and sweat, and iron. Weapons were lying out almost at random, casually left sitting around the way that farming equipment might have been before–a sword leaning against the wall by the door, daggers on tables, a quiver of bolts spilled on the floor.
Marcus closed the door behind me, and locked it with a heavy, very final-sounding click. It was a new lock; the latch was very obviously newly added, bolted onto the door frame. It looked raw and ugly, but the lock itself was beautiful, black metal that shimmered like oil. When I felt for it, trying to channel, it had a slick feeling that could only belong to alchemical metal.
That lock wasn’t coming open without a key. I’d have an easier time breaking down a wall, I was guessing–and considering that they’d had days to work on them, I was guessing that the walls had been reinforced in some way too.
I was trapped here. My breathing quickened at that realization, and I realized that my hands were clenched, my claws digging into my own skin.
No way out but through, I reminded myself, forcing myself to let my grip relax.
“Wait here,” Marcus said, walking through the room to what looked like a kitchen.
It gave me a chance to look around the room, and see another side of it. I’d already noted that it was a legion building now, through and through. Now I saw how…mundane that could be. There were clothes lying out on the floor, most of them stained with blood. The weapons that were lying around all over the place had maintenance gear set out beside them–oils, sharpening stones, soft cloths. The table had a half eaten meal of bread and sausage sitting out on it; apparently I’d caught them in the middle of lunch.
Aelia was sitting at the table, watching me curiously. She waved vaguely at me with her one remaining hand as she noticed me noticing her. She was holding a hand of cards, and I could see what looked like a game of poker dealt on the table. The coins were all small–iron, for the most part, with here and there a glimmer of bronze.
Ah. So that was why they’d been slow to respond. They’d been in the middle of eating, gambling, trying to forget their circumstances.
Suddenly I resented Marcus less for having been an ass about it. I couldn’t say that I liked it, but I understood it now. As much as I hated the legions, as much as I loathed what they were doing here and everything it represented, it couldn’t be a picnic for them either. If I’d been in his position, trying to get away from that mess, and someone had interrupted me, I wasn’t sure I’d have taken it any better than he had.
I didn’t like following that line of thought. It was…easier, when you could tell yourself that the people you weren’t fond of were wholly in the wrong. It was easier when everything was black and white. Greys…complicated things.
After a few moments, Marcus walked back out, looking like he’d just bitten into a lemon. Possibly one which had just been sprayed by a skunk. “He’ll see you,” the legionnaire said, biting each word off like he was reluctant to let it leave his mouth. “Follow me.”
I moved towards him, as he turned and walked back into the other room. And then, as I passed the table where they’d been sitting, I beckoned for Aelia to follow me. It was something done on impulse, no pause between the initial thought and action for me to consider whether that initial thought had been insane. I hadn’t even finished the movement before I was regretting it.
I was guessing that it was going to be either a brilliant idea or a terrible one. It would depend on a lot of things that I couldn’t predict. Whether I’d correctly guessed what Hideo’s ultimate plan was, and how he’d react when I confronted him with it. Whether I’d judged Aelia’s character correctly. Whether, when push came to shove, her regret for the horrors she’d seen and the horrors she’d done would outweigh her fear.
It was a small gesture, little more than a twitch of my hand at my side. It would be easy to overlook. But Aelia was a career legionnaire, someone who’d spent years with her life riding on noticing small details. Distracted, with her edge dulled by drugs, she was still sharp enough to catch it.
She didn’t react overtly, though. I hadn’t said a word, and the gesture was tiny; it wasn’t hard to see that I didn’t want to make this obvious. And for whatever reason, whether it was because she wanted to help me or because she was suspicious already herself, she was willing to go along with that. I was watching her, and so I saw her eyes focus on my hand, and I noticed her head move in the tiniest of nods. But I was confident no one else noticed a thing.
The other room was, as it turned out, a kitchen, though it also showed the signs of its new inhabitants. I was confident that it had never, in all the time Ilse lived here, been quite this thorough of a mess. Dishes, cooking implements, and half-eaten food was lying on every available surface, weapons scattered through the room. It smelled vaguely foul, not so much a distinct stench as the generalized odor of careless use.
Marcus didn’t stop there, though, going to an open door at the side of the room and gesturing at it. He then promptly turned and went back to his meal, his expression one of mingled boredom and disdain. He didn’t bother to explain, or even wait for me to go in.
I went to the door, and found a set of stairs leading down into the earth. The masonry was old and worn smooth, but it had been fitted together with care, and what looked like some sort of alchemical mortar; it was sturdy. At the bottom was another door, also hanging open.
I wasn’t thrilled about it, but I shrugged and went down the stairs. I was, by this point, very thoroughly committed; there was no way out but through.
At the bottom, I went through the door and pulled it closed behind myself.
If I’d thought the rest of the house was changed, I’d had no idea. This space, now, this was changed from what it had been before the imperials came.
Before, it had been a cellar, not unlike that at the inn. I could still see the hints of that use in the barrels and sacks and crates which had been pushed carelessly to the edges of the space. One of the barrels had fallen and broken open, spilling potatoes across the floor which no one had bothered to pick up.
All of that, though, had been before. Now, it was something very different. Where before it had been a mundane storage area, now it was being turned to a far more exotic end. Tables had been dragged down here–they must have raided the other houses in the village to find so many. On these mismatched tables were dozens of vials and boxes of powders and dusts. A large iron brazier burned in the corner, making the room uncomfortably warm.
I wasn’t terribly well educated on the topic. But not even I could mistake this for anything other than an alchemical laboratory.
I hesitated as I realized that. It meant…well, it meant a great many things, most of which were distinctly ominous for my plans.
Hideo was standing at one of the tables, prodding at something with a scalpel. After a moment I realized that it was a chunk of meat, and judging by the claw it was attached to it must have come from one of the ghouls. The surveyor was wearing his usual heavy robes, his only concession to the heat being sleeves rolled up to the elbows.
“Hello there, Silf,” he said in his usual cheery tone. His broad, friendly smile didn’t touch his eyes at all. “Always a pleasure to see you, of course. I understand you wanted to talk to me about something?”
I licked my lips, listening closely. I could hear the cracking of the fire, the simmer of a liquid on the heat, Hideo’s calm breathing and my considerably faster breaths.
And, very faintly, a rustling outside the door.
“Questions,” I said.
“Excellent,” he said, laying the scalpel down on the desk with a quiet tap. “Questions are how we learn. Ask.”
I hesitated, and then said, “You’re not a surveyor.”
That wasn’t a question, but he answered it anyway. “I dabble in geography,” he said. “It’s better to know what you’re claiming to be, you understand. But no, I don’t primarily work with the Engineering Corps.” Still smiling that same mocking, false smile, he swept into an elaborate bow. “Hideo Azukara, with His Imperial Majesty the August Emperor of Akitsuro’s Inquisition, at your service.”
That was just great.
I nodded with a certain resignation. It was bad news, there was no doubt of that whatsoever, but it was ultimately not that surprising. It had been clear that he wasn’t a surveyor, not really; there was no reason to send a surveyor on this sort of job. But I could see why an inquisitor might end up with this sort of assignment.
We’d been doomed to fail from the start. If I’d had any lingering doubt of that, it was settled now. The imperial inquisition was a scary story told around the campfire, that special sort of myth that everyone secretly knows is real. No one really knew what they did, or how, or even why–which, in itself, spoke volumes about how seldom they acted openly. But everyone knew that inquisitors didn’t come out for good things. They didn’t come out for small things, either.
“Never had a chance,” I muttered, barely even aware of what I was saying.
“I did try to tell you that,” Hideo said helpfully. The smile he was wearing now was more honest, but not necessarily any better for it. It was a nasty sort of smirk, a smile that said he knew exactly how afraid this revelation made me and he wasn’t upset by it at all.
“What’s your out?”
“Your plan,” I said. “You want to watch the ghouls attack, this place get destroyed. What then?”
“Ah,” he said. “You want to know how I’m planning to leave after it happens?”
“Your friend Corbin isn’t the only one who knows how to make a portable ward,” Hideo said. “They aren’t as efficient as the warding posts, but they work well enough for short distances.”
I nodded again. I’d expected something like that. It was why I’d come here, after all.
It was the same plan that Sigmund had proposed to me, essentially. Take the protection and run, leaving the rest of the village to die. The difference being that this version of that plan was far more deliberate, carefully plotted from the start. And knowing that explained quite a few things.
“Just you,” I said, out loud. It made sense. Whatever the relative qualities of his ward and Corbin’s, I was confident that whatever he was using couldn’t protect all that much ground. It had to be based on the same design as the warding posts, and those covered a very limited area.
And besides, it would explain so much. Why Hideo had been so cavalier with the legionnaires, taking them out to roam the hills hunting for ghouls. It would explain why he hadn’t seemed terribly concerned as they were maimed and killed.
“I’m afraid so,” Hideo said. He sounded about as grieved as a man sitting down to a three-course meal with acrobats and courtesans all around. “Though I might extend you an offer to the contrary. You seem to be an exceptionally clever young woman, and the empire could use your service.” He smiled again, and actually winked at me. “Think on it,” he said, picking up his scalpel once more.
Was he being sincere, I wondered? It seemed…unlikely. It was too convenient that he would make that offer here and now, when it would be oh so convenient for him if I was too busy chasing that scrap of hope to act on what I’d just confirmed. And besides, if he was going to take people out of here, why not the legionnaires? He could easily have brought more wards to shield them on the way out if he wanted to.
No, the intention had to be that Branson’s Ford was going to disappear, completely. No one would live to carry news out of here. The emperor couldn’t want that, after all. He had enough problems with resistance in Skelland already; if word got out that he’d chosen to let an entire village die when he had the means to save them, that could only add fuel to the fire.
Not that it really mattered, either way. I wasn’t interested. If I’d been willing to just cut and run and leave everyone else to their fate, I would have taken Sigmund’s offer.
For a moment I entertained the possibility of talking him out of it, convincing him to change his mind. But no. That couldn’t happen, and I knew it. He’d made it clear already that he wasn’t interested in working to save this town–that he considered it already dead, in every way that mattered.
And besides. Would they have given Hideo this job if they didn’t think he had the fortitude to carry it out to the bitter end?
No, talking wasn’t going to solve this. There was nothing I could say that would sway him, nothing I could do that would make him see that things didn’t have to be this way.
But there was one thing that could settle our disagreement. The imperials had taught me that a long time ago, and while I was slow to learn, I did not forget.
I took a deep breath, and took out a coin, rolling the iron around in my hand.