Corbin was not as practiced at medicine as Black. This wasn’t to say that he was incompetent; he clearly knew what he was doing. But he wasn’t nearly as smooth or quick about it as she had been, fumbling with the needle as he stitched the wounds I’d taken.
I didn’t particularly care. I was drifting on a cloud of alchemical sedative and distance and sheer exhaustion. I didn’t actually lose consciousness, this time. But I wouldn’t say that I was precisely awake, either. I just say there, watching the world pass around me without quite being cognizant of what was happening.
Once again, the inn was being used as a meeting place. This time, however, the tone was very different. Everyone had heard what happened to Hideo. Everyone knew that the empire’s plan had never involved saving us.
It hadn’t quite occurred to me, until I saw the reaction that news provoked, quite how much we all depended on it. Even the people who hated the empire. Even Ketill. We might not like it, but we’d gotten used to knowing it was there. Losing that sense of security, of being a part of something larger than just Branson’s Ford, was like walking a tightrope and having the safety net removed from underneath.
Everyone could feel it. I could see it in their eyes, in how they moved. Before the atmosphere in the village had been one of fear, dread, even desperation. But now there was an element of anxiety, of uncertainty, to it that hadn’t quite been there before.
By the time everyone had finished trickling in, Corbin was just finishing his work. He’d put bandages with some cool cream on the burns, and stitched the cuts and stabs on my back. Judging by his expression some of those were worse than I’d realized. Corbin looked concerned, and there was a darkness about his expression that worried me.
He picked me up, having no difficulty with my weight, and carried me over to a stool in the corner and set me down. He took a moment to fuss over me, making sure I wasn’t about to fall over or upset the bandages, and then went to start getting food and drink. He must have used a lower dose of anesthetic than before, because I was conscious enough to look around the taproom.
It was packed. Not that it hadn’t been busy the last time a meeting of this sort happened, but there were even more people there now. I wasn’t sure it would be exaggerating to say that every person in Branson’s Ford was there, from babes in arms to an old man who used two canes and still needed help walking.
No one wanted to miss this. No one.
The room was quiet as Corbin handed out food, once again refusing to take any kind of payment. There were some whispered conversations, people asking questions and sharing fears. But it was very hushed, very subdued. The talk didn’t so much break the silence as underline its presence.
I took my food with the rest. There was the usual bread and soup, but also two cheeses, sausage, and somehow, even with everything that was happening, Corbin had found the time to make apple pie. After a moment he came back and set a steaming cup of tea on the floor next to me.
It took a few minutes for him to pass out the food to everyone. I was just surprised he’d made enough for this crowd. Maybe he’d expected something like this to happen today.
If the room had been quiet before, though, it went dead silent as Sumi made his way to the front of the room. The legionnaire was understandably slow, hobbling along with one leg and crutches. In a way, it lent an air of dignity, of gravitas to the scene. It gave people time to realize what was happening and fall silent.
The other legionnaires were present, as well. I could see Marcus standing next to the door, expression carefully blank. Aelia, on the other hand, made her way over to sit next to me as Sumi walked up. He climbed onto the bar, slowly and with evident difficulty, giving him a sort of improvised stage from which to address the crowd. A flash of irritation went through me as I saw feet on the bar I’d put so much effort into keeping clean down the years, but I suppressed it. It didn’t matter anymore.
I largely ignored Sumi as he spoke. He was just explaining what had happened, and I didn’t need to hear it. I’d been there.
I focused on eating instead. Somewhat to my embarrassment, I needed to focus on it; my hands were shaky, and all my motions were uncertain. After a few false starts Aelia started helping me, holding my hand steady and keeping me from spilling broth on myself. I hated that I needed help to feed myself–that I was so badly off that the woman with one hand was helping me, and I needed it. But there was no sense in pretending otherwise.
When he finished laying out the basics of Hideo’s plan in coming here, and what had happened to him, Sumi stopped talking. The echoing silence left behind when his voice stopped was almost startling in its sheer emptiness.
It was broken by Egill. Or the mayor, I supposed, since with Hideo’s death we probably weren’t under martial law anymore. Not that it was likely to matter, since I was feeling rather confident there wouldn’t be anything to be the mayor of shortly.
But the role still showed in his bearing, his attitude, as he stood. There was a sort of pride in how he held himself that was lacking in the rest of the villagers, by and large.
“With all respect,” he said, and his tone actually was respectful. “I don’t know that this matters, particularly. We’re still in the same position that we were before, aren’t we? We need a way to deal with these things, and we don’t have one.”
“There’s a very clear difference,” Corbin said from behind the bar. “We’re committed now. The last time we were gathered here, we didn’t decide anything because we were waiting to hear the empire’s plan for solving this problem. Well, now we’ve heard it, and it’s unacceptable.” He shook his head. “We can’t put this off any longer,” he said. “Here, now, we have to make a decision.”
“Now hold a moment,” Ketill said from the crowd. The old farmer was standing at the front of the group, near the bar, and he had one hand on his knife in a posture that was a touch too casual to be a coincidence. “You skipped over somethin’ there, Corbin. These imperial bastards were going to throw us to the wolves. Why should we be helping you now, eh?” He pointed at Sumi, forcefully, looking like he was stabbing at the air and wishing it was the legionnaire.
“We’re all standing in the same fire, here,” Sumi said from his perch on the bar. He sounded tired. “This isn’t you helping us, or us helping you. This is all of us recognizing that we’re in the same place right now, and we’re all going to die if we can’t work together.”
“And you’re why,” Ketill said. “Or are you going to say you didn’t come here planning to kill us?”
“I knew it could happen, but I wasn’t planning on it,” the legionnaire said. He sighed heavily. “I’ve made my share of mistakes. I doubt you’ll find a man or woman in this room who hasn’t. But if you want to talk about who started this fire, maybe we should wait until we’re out of it first.”
Ketill seemed to consider arguing further, then gave Sumi a begrudging nod instead. “I reckon that’s fair,” he said, stepping back slightly into the crowd.
“That still leaves us where we were,” Egill said, taking back control of the conversation so smoothly that I doubted most of those present realized he’d done it at all. “We are in a dire position, and we need to do something about it. I think it’s clear we can’t stay here and wait this out.”
“Could we talk to the ghouls, if they’re that smart?” Gunnar asked. “Parlay, or make some kind of deal?”
Ketill snorted. “You want to try, be my guest,” he said. “I reckon if you go out there with a white flag, you’ll get killed before you can say hello. They ain’t interested in talking.”
“Even if they were, why would they make a deal? They’re winning.” This voice came from the midst of the crowd, and it took several seconds for me to place it as the mayor’s daughter. Livy, her name was. I wasn’t surprised I hadn’t recognized her voice at first. Livy had always been, to put it bluntly, one of the most sheltered people in town. She wasn’t wholly innocent–no one was–but there was a sort of optimism about her. Now she sounded bleak, hopeless.
“That’s a fair point,” Corbin said. “Whether we try to talk or not, it might be worth asking. What do these things want?”
“Seems pretty clear they want to kill us all,” one of the farmers said–not one I knew, I thought, not one that came to the inn regularly. Her voice had a trace of bone-dry humor in it.
“Seems that way,” Egill agreed. “I’m not sure it matters why. Like the legionnaire said, that’s a question for after we get out of this fire.”
I paused in the middle of finishing my bread, then pushed the last of it into my mouth, thinking. There was something…off here, something that Egill’s words had reminded me of.
“Can we just run for it?” Ilse asked. She was scared–I could hear it in her voice–but it was a tightly contained sort of fear. Ilse had lived through the war, some of the worst of it; if that hadn’t broken her, this wasn’t going to either.
“Could,” Marcus said, speaking up from his position by the door for the first time. The legionnaire’s voice was calm, almost bored. “We’d have to make good time, though. Leave the old and injured here, they’ll slow them down enough for us to get a head start.”
“We aren’t leaving anyone behind,” Egill said firmly.
“It’s better than all of us dying here,” Marcus said. “Which is what happens otherwise.”
“It’s not an option.”
Marcus looked around, and apparently didn’t care for his odds with the crowd he saw. He shrugged. “Suit yourselves,” he said. “Just don’t say I didn’t warn you.” The legionnaire pulled out a small knife and started trimming his nails, seeming to ignore the conversation entirely.
“I hate to say it,” another farmer said. This one was Changed, though subtly enough that I had to look twice to be sure. I didn’t think he’d ever come to the inn before. “But he might have a point. Otherwise we’re left with, what? Fight them? We don’t have the numbers for that to be anything but suicide.”
No one seemed to have an answer to that. The room went silent again, but it was a very different sort of silence than it had been earlier. Before Sumi started talking, the silence had been an almost respectful sort of hush, waiting for something. This silence was more…aware, I thought, conscious of the gravity of the moment. Whatever was chosen in the next few moments would spell life or death for everyone here, and everyone knew it.
In that pause, I realized what had been itching at me. “Who were they scared of?” I said, blurting the question out as it occurred to me. It wasn’t loud, but I was speaking into the calm before the storm, and everyone heard.
“I’m not sure they’re really scared of anyone right now,” someone said. I wasn’t sure who, and at the moment I couldn’t afford the attention to figure it out.
I shook my head, and paused before what I said next. It was important to get every word right. “Only attacked twice,” I said. “Once was messengers.”
“Which was obviously to keep us from bringing the legions down on them,” Egill said.
I nodded. “Reason to attack,” I said. “But other time, they killed Andrew.”
Egill was frowning. “That could have just been an attack on the center of government,” he said. “Strike at the legion headquarters, disrupt what little we had in the way of a coordinated response.”
“No,” Ketill said slowly. “No, she’s right. The second he went down, they started trying to run. Thought they were scared, but dying don’t seem to matter to these things, does it?”
“So you think they were scared of him?” Egill said. “Why? Not to speak ill of the dead, but he didn’t seem that impressive.”
“Fire,” I said simply.
There was a pause, and then Ketill said, “You know, when they attacked, one of ’em flinched when I swung a torch at it. Didn’t think anything of it.”
“Even animals are afraid of fire,” Sumi said. He sounded thoughtful. “Could be it’s basic enough that it overrides that…shared mind they have.”
“Does it matter?” Livy said from the crowd. The girl still sounded utterly hopeless, beaten down. “We only had one man who could have done something with it, and he’s dead.”
I looked at Corbin. So, I noted, did Sumi. The legionnaire knew, then, or at least suspected. There were a few others who likely did as well–the mayor, Ketill, maybe a few of the other farmers. The older ones, who’d lived through the war.
It was Sumi that said something, though, picking his words with extreme care. “Hideo was an alchemist,” he said. “He brought a full load of reagents with him, in case. I don’t know what they are, but he said something about fire-oil.”
I kept looking at Corbin. He didn’t look back, couldn’t meet my gaze; he was focused on the bar right in front of him, like if he didn’t look away the rest of the world would ignore him, too. The room was silent once again, waiting. Most of them probably didn’t know why, but those of us who did showed it enough to tell them that something important was happening, even if they didn’t know what or why.
Seconds ticked past like that. I suspected Corbin was in the same place I had been, so recently–balanced on a knife over the abyss, rapidly being forced to the point where he’d have to choose a side, and there would be no turning back.
When the moment broke, it did so all at once. Corbin crumpled in on himself, shoulders slumping, head bowing. It looked like he’d aged thirty years in a heartbeat, and when he spoke, he sounded so tired I could have believed it. “I can make fire-oil,” he said, in the tone of a man admitting a mortal sin. “If he brought the components, I can make it.”
“Is that really our plan?” Marcus said from the back of the crowd. “Hope they’re scared of fire based on what one girl thinks was behind some random coincidence?” He snorted. “Some plan.”
“It’s the best we have,” Egill said simply. “Corbin? How long will it take for you to be ready?”
The innkeeper–or, rather, the engineer, because like Black had said, what we needed now was an engineer–shrugged. “A few hours,” he said. “It’s not complicated.”
Egill nodded. “You heard the man,” he said. “You have a few hours, and then we’re going to end this once and for all. Do what you have to do, and we’ll meet back here at an hour past noon.” For a moment it seemed as though he would say something else, before he just stared walking towards the door. The rest of the room followed his example–including Corbin, likely going to check on whatever alchemical supplied Hideo had brought. Within minutes the taproom went from absolutely packed to empty.
I stayed where I was. I’d already made my preparations, before going to confront Hideo. There was nothing left but to do or die, for me.
Aelia stayed seated next to me, watching the rest leave. When it was just the two of us in the room, and everyone else was gone, she looked at me. “You know we’ll probably still lose,” she said bluntly. “Even if you’re right, we’re probably going to die. We just don’t have enough people.”
“So why do it?”
I thought for a moment, and then said, “Gave them something to hope for.”
Aelia opened her mouth, then closed it again, looking thoughtful. After another moment she stood and left.