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26: Questions and Answers

Danger hides in the folds of complexity. Simple situations, simple plans, simple actions — those are what keeps someone like me alive. When the world around us becomes unstable, a member of my family will retreat, regroup, and find the underlying simplicity.

Bags and I stood in the empty road, dappled by timid moonlight, listening to the soft sounds of the night. I could have turned and walked into the trees and none of them would ever find me, not even Kat, not even Elena. That is the only magic of the wanderer — we have no place. We are home wherever we go, and there is nowhere to come looking for us. We can vanish.

Not without Elena. I could vanish, but she would leave a trail that Katherine could easily follow. The moment Elena was able to vanish, we would both quit this dangerous game and wait for the dust to clear. For the moment I stayed right there, in the middle of something far more complex than I could ever understand, flailing blindly and hoping to stay alive long enough to slip through the side door with the prize. Without any discussion Bags and I began a slow walk back toward the town. Although the buildings of the town were obscured by the trees that crowded the gently curving road, the heavy air glowed ahead of us. Light had been the killer, but now the town feared darkness.

While I gathered my questions and sorted them in my mind, Bags asked, “What kind of unpleasant work?”

I glanced up at Bags’ angular face, the moonlight deepening the shadows that hid his eyes. For once he wasn’t smiling. “There’s something at the bottom of a well,” I said. “There’s a lot of dead people in the well, too, on top of it. What is Katherine’s plan?”

Bags hesitated, then spoke carefully. “There is a faction of the Soul Thieves that wants to overthrow the king, and install a puppet. Katherine wants to stop them.” He looked over at me. “What kind of something?”

“I don’t know, but the commander of the fort put something in the only place he could be sure it wouldn’t burn, and spent the rest of his life protecting it. How the hell does Kat think she’s going to stop the fucking Soul Thieves?”

“She thought she could assassinate the men who were collaborating with them — men like her husband — to keep the usurpers off balance. She thought some of the more powerful men in the kingdom would rally to her cause if the king would make it worth their while. And she hopes to recruit magical help of her own.”

Her plan had a lot of parts that all needed to go well, and she had little control over any of them. “Help like your brother?”

“Yeah.” Bags sighed, as if perhaps he wasn’t as optimistic as Katherine about obtaining help from within the Soul Thieves. “We’ll need some rope,” he said, “to haul the bodies out.”

I had one more question, but I knew that any answer Bags gave me would be outside my comprehension. Why? Why did the Soul Thieves want to subvert the authority of the king? What could that possibly give them that they didn’t have already? And why did Katherine care whether they succeeded or not? But most people did care about those things. When acquaintances tried to explain it to me, they often used words like “right” and “wrong” in ways they assumed I understood.

We rounded a bend and the town came into view. I nodded, once, in answer to his comment about rope, suddenly not trusting our privacy. My uncle used to say, “When you feel someone’s watching you, they are. When you don’t feel anyone watching you, you’re fooling yourself.”

In town the main road was lit by bonfires; soldiers stood at intervals, the few who had been in town or away from the fort when it was destroyed. They watched the broken citizens who were done at the pubs and crawling home. “I’ll take care of it,” Bags said. “You go back to the others.”

It only occurred to me after he had disappeared down an alley between two buildings that as commander I could have given Bags the more difficult job. Now it was too late.

When I stepped back through the door at the end of the long, narrow taproom, I was greeted by dozens of curious eyes. The people regarded me for a moment, found nothing they hadn’t seen before, and returned to their cups. I made my way between the long tables, through air heavy with smoke and sweat, now tinged as well with the sour tang of vomit. At the rate people were drinking, I expected there would be more of that before the night was finished.

The woman who had worked for the Soul Thieves looked up at me as I pushed my way through the crowd toward her. Short dark hair framed a pale face, matted as if it spent most of its time under a hat or helmet. She wore a typical if rather plain frock of roughly-woven pale yellow cloth covered with a good traveling cloak, but my mother’s cherished aunt Myrna had trained me tirelessly in the art of looking beneath what is presented, and in this case the odd fold in the cloth of her dress and a glimpse into gap at her collarbone told of hardened leather where other women might wear more delicate textiles. Despite her battle-ready undergarments her femininity was obvious — exaggerated, even; she was dressed to deceive from head to toe. Her hands were out of sight, under the table; her mouth was set in a grim line, muscles knotted at the corners. I kept my hands empty, where she could see them, but if she twitched as I approached I would have no choice but to kill her. It would have been a kindness to those present, I believe, to spill the blood of an enemy before their eyes, to let them witness a tiny act of retribution, but one has to make the best use of the tools at hand.

As I passed behind her, she tensed even more. Her short hair exposed the pale skin at the back of her neck above her dress; her vertebrae, revealed by soft shadows, showed goose pimples as I passed out of her vision. I put my hand on her shoulder. She jumped but did nothing foolish. I pressed down gently, for only a moment, before lifting my hand. I hoped she understood my request that she stay where she was.

I continued on my way through the noise and the haze, turning sideways to inch between the hunched, sweaty backs of drinkers, and also to keep one eye on her until I was at a safe distance. She stared straight at her drink, her mouth still set.

Katherine had taken my seat. She an Elena watched me approach, heads close together, almost conspiratorially. Katherine said something under her breath; Elena smiled, never taking her eyes off me. If joking at my expense brought them together, that was fine with me.

I sat with my back to the room. It felt like my ears wanted to swivel on my head. “Who’s the woman?” Katherine asked.

I leaned in and spoke softly. “A friend of Bags. She’s coming with us.”

Katherine looked at me with narrowed eyes, then over my shoulder at the woman. “What kind of friend?”

“You can ask her yourself,” I said, standing. I spoke louder. “We’re leaving. It’s time to go find that King of ours.”