I sat in a room in an inn, in a city that never had mattered and never would. It was the nearest settlement of any size to what had once been Branson’s Ford, but I couldn’t bring its name to mind.
The inn had a name, as well, unlike the one Corbin had run. There had been no need to name it back there; it wasn’t like there had been another inn in twenty miles or more. This one was called some inane name, The Sickle and Sheaf or something of that nature. It was ridiculous.
I was eating dinner, a simple meal from the kitchen downstairs. It was a bowl of rice with bacon and mushrooms and a sweet sauce that made my mouth burn like it was on fire; a very southern dish, very Tsuran. I’d decided, after a few bites, that I liked it. That didn’t make me eat it any more quickly than my usual slow, jerky routine. The awareness that it was good was a distant one, on the level of abstract thought rather than visceral emotion.
I hardly reacted when Black came in and handed me a glass of water. It had the faintest trace of cloudiness to it, the barest suggestion of some other inclusion in the liquid. That, I assumed, was the drug, a delicate mix of alchemy and herbalism, distilled and blended with exacting precision. Black had been keeping me drugged for several days now, ever since I first woke up after learning that Corbin was gone. I didn’t entirely remember what I’d done, then. I remembered choking and running, fire pressing in on all sides and people everywhere running and screaming. They told me that wasn’t real, that the only reason people had been running was because I was a sobbing mess lashing out with magic and metal at anything around me. No one had been killed, but it had been a near thing, and then I’d slashed my own wrist open with a dagger.
Unsurprisingly, the people around me had deemed this undesirable.
I took the water eagerly, and tossed it back in one long swallow. The taste was slightly bitter, but I welcomed it.
It was easier to be drugged, right now. To be sedated, not so far as to lose consciousness, but enough to take the edge off the raw pain inside me. It was easier to handle it when everything was kept at one remove, wrapped in a thick layer of cotton gauze and held away from me.
“Are you eating all right?” Black asked, pushing the bowl of food towards me gently.
I shrugged and took another spoonful of the rice, then stared at it for a moment and set it back down. I was hungry–I could feel the hunger, gnawing at my guts, and I knew that this dish was appealing to my palate. But I had no appetite, no desire to actually eat it. The notion of actually chewing and swallowing it was revolting, enough to make me gag.
Black sighed. “The doctor looked at Livy,” she said. “The infection is gone, and that cut is starting to heal. It looks like she should be fine.”
I wondered if I should feel something at that. Happiness, anger, guilt, anything. It seemed like I should, but the actual reaction wasn’t there. Or, if it was, it was so numb and muted and distant that I couldn’t even tell what it was.
“Is there anything I can get you?” Black’s voice was gentle, but there was a touch of desperation to it, barely hidden beneath the calming surface. It was the sort of voice you used on someone who was standing on a high ledge, or had a dagger at someone’s throat. A person who might do something disastrous if you didn’t treat them just right.
I thought about it for a moment. And then, without really deciding to, I found myself answering her, the first time I’d responded to that question since we arrived at this inn two days earlier. My voice sounded distant to my ears, like someone else was speaking. The sound was barely a whisper, but it still sent a rush of pain through me, like dragging a rasp over raw wounds. I had damaged myself, screaming after Corbin died. Perhaps permanently; perhaps not. It could be hard to tell with the Changed.
“Juice would be good,” that voice said, and it was only after the words had left my mouth that I realized that they were true.
Black looked almost shocked, and then grateful. “I’ll see what I can do,” she said, and left the room once more.
I looked at the food and then raised the spoon to my mouth. It was delicious, the salty flavor of the bacon and the richness of the mushrooms contrasting with the bright sharpness of the sauce. It felt like chewing ashes, and I was almost sick as I swallowed.
Black returned a few minutes later with a tall glass of apple juice, fresh from the icebox; the glass was cold to the touch. She then went to sit on her bed, leaving me plenty of room.
There wasn’t much in the room; it was, certainly, nothing so extravagant as my rooms at the inn had been. Two small beds, one table, two chairs. Nothing else to speak of. At first I hadn’t cared, but after a few days cooped up in here the confines of this room were beginning to feel like a prison.
I raised the glass to my lips, and then found myself guzzling it as though I were drowning. It tasted like the most magnificent thing I’d had in years, the crisp flavor and gentle chill of it a balm on the ravaged flesh of my throat. Then I put it down, and my body heaved as though I was sobbing.
The next half hour or so passed uneventfully. Black worked on whittling a block of dark wood into a vaguely feline shape. I tried to eat, and stared at nothing for long moments in between bites.
The silence was broken by a knock on the door, two sharp taps spaced exactly one second apart. Black opened the door, and Marcus came in.
He and Aelia had both survived the flight from Branson’s Ford. Two out of four; better odds than the village at large. So few people had lived and made it here that I could remember each and every one of them. Black, Livy, Ketill, Samara, Otto and his son Renard. An adolescent girl named Rose who I hadn’t known before–her parents were hermits who were broken in the war, and wouldn’t allow her to visit the village. It didn’t matter now, since they were dead. Big Erik, who’d had an orchard and a field, and his wife Kari whom he’d brought back with him from a trip north to the Tears years ago. Small Erik, a boy who had been beginning to work as a lumberjack. Maria, a Tsuran woman who was startlingly handy with a bow and refused to talk about her past; I knew very little about her, since she kept to herself. Dagny, a refugee girl not so different from myself, even to the point of being Changed–though hers had a rather different manifestation, soft scales covering her skin and huge yellow eyes.
Twelve people. It seemed shockingly few, and yet at the same time extraordinarily lucky.
“I got the official response from Aseoto,” Marcus said as he walked in.
Black was so stunned that she forgot to close the door for several seconds, and I wasn’t far behind. Aseoto was far away, all the way down on the southern coast, and he’d only managed to find who he was supposed to report to this morning. It would take a fast messenger a week or more to get to the capital, and a comparable amount of time to get back.
“How?” Black said, voicing the question I was thinking.
Marcus shrugged. “Some alchemical invention they’ve come up with,” he said. “Can write something here and it shows up back at the capital. Too expensive to use most of the time, but it helps in an emergency. Anyway, the important thing is what the response is going to be. The emperor is dispatching the Fourth Skellish legion to deal with it.”
Apparently that phrase was supposed to have some sort of weight to it, from the way he paused to let it sink in. He might as well have saved his time, because both of us just stared at him. “Should that mean something to me?” Black asked at last.
He nodded. “The Fourth Skellish was the legion behind the attack on the Whitewood,” he said. “Third made up the backbone, but Fourth was the one that planned it, gave the order, and led the push in. After he found out about the attack, they say the emperor was so enraged by the destruction he almost had the whole legion decimated. But in the end he mostly only hit the officers, and repurposed the legion rather than disband it. Now they’re something of an elite force, lots of channelers and alchemical support. Especially fire. They’re the ones who get sent in when the throne wants something gone, burned to the ground and sown with salt.”
I barely heard the second part of what he was saying. I was too fixated on what Marcus had just casually said. The emperor hadn’t been the one to give the order to torch the Whitewood? Had actually been upset by it?
It had to be a lie. I just couldn’t see the reason for Marcus to lie about it.
“So they’re taking it seriously,” Black said.
Marcus nodded. “Very. The vanguard will be there in a few days, and then they have the full weight of a legion behind them. They’ll raze that whole section of forest to the ground. It’s over now.”
“Good,” I said, surprising myself a bit. Marcus looked at me, looking as surprised as I felt, and then nodded.
“There is one problem, though,” he said. “Apparently Hideo had some way of communicating with his superiors that we didn’t know about. He sent them his observations and guesses about how the ghouls were functioning. But he also sent something else. Something that apparently implicated a Changed girl of your description in his murder.” Marcus looked at me seriously.
I blinked in surprise. I had been expecting a lot of problems, but that wasn’t one of them.
“I won’t tell them,” Marcus said. His words had a weight to them, a sense of formality. “Not after what you did for us. But they’ll be looking for you, with or without me.”
“We have to leave, then,” Black said. “Get somewhere far enough away that they won’t find us.”
“Aseoto,” I said, taking myself off guard slightly. Not too much, though. I was feeling a bit more in touch with myself now, a little less blurry and disconnected.
They both looked at me like I’d just sprouted a second head. I flushed slightly, and then continued. “Not looking there,” I said. “And enough people to blend in. And….” I frowned, struggling to think of how to convey what I felt. That if Akitsuro had ruined my life, I wanted to at least see what it was all for. That going anywhere else felt like it would be running from that shadow over my life, and I was sick of running. That I remembered the awe with which Aelia had spoken of the city, the way Corbin had described the great alchemical workshops. That I’d had my fill of living in a ass-backwards village in the middle of nowhere.
In the end, I just shrugged, and hoped that they could understand, at least a little.
“She has a point,” Marcus said slowly. “They aren’t likely to be looking for her down there. This isn’t enough to merit a national alert; I’m guessing the order to bring her in will only be circulated through the local legions.”
“I can’t go with you,” Black said. “Not there. I’m wanted on sight. They’d string me up before I got through the gates.”
I nodded. I’d been expecting as much, given how much trouble she’d apparently caused them during the war. And besides, it had been inevitable. I’d heard as much from Ketill, from Corbin, even from Black herself. She never stayed.
“You’re sure about this?” she asked.
I nodded. “I’m sure,” I said, with more conviction than I really felt. It was already beginning to feel like a poor decision.
“All right,” Black said, with obvious reluctance. “I’ll start making arrangements, then. If you still feel the same after you’re healed, then…well, I suppose then you’ll go.”
I nodded, and stared at the table, and for a long time no one said a word.