Claire sat, watching the flames dance feebly around sodden wood. Surrounded by us but far from us. Untrusted, even by people who didn’t know her.
“I can kill the little bitch if you want me to,” Elena said.
Claire raised an eyebrow at Elena. “Little? That’s good coming from a scrawny little wretch like you.”
Claire had immediately, instinctively, found Elena’s soft spot. “Claire’s tougher than she looks,” I said, to take the attention off my favorite killer mage.
Kat laughed through her nose. “Sounds like you’ve tried to kill her yourself.”
“Maybe once or twice,” I said. An exaggeration, but only just. I have certainly wanted to end her life on more than one occasion.
“Of course he’s tried to kill me,” Claire said. “I’m his wife.”
For a tiny moment, even the rain paused in surprise.
Only for a moment. “What the fuckin’ fuck are you fucking talking about?” Elena asked.
Bags laughed. “And I married the Queen of Hargon.” For those of you who didn’t pay attention at school, Hargon is a legendary land where being female is heresy punishable by death at birth. Though the tale is generally crudely-told, a philosopher might find that the queen of that land, herself endowed with the genetalia of a man, is all the more a woman because she refuses to be defined by her physical shape. But this was not the venue for that sort of debate. The more vulgar invoke the Queen of Hargon to refer to marriages between people with incompatible preferences.
Kat swung on Bags. “What’s that supposed to mean?”
Another pause, even less comfortable than the first. Claire raised her gaze from the flames to look at Elena. “Our wedding was very romantic,” Claire said. “Wild and free. Dancing around an Old Stone under the full moon, the campfire flashing blue and green with the herbs we added, the smells from the fire adding to the fertile richness of the air, the moon dancing between drifting clouds, the breeze chill on our naked bodies. A proper midsummer celebration. We were drunk as hell, but I’m pretty sure neither of us puked.”
Worm sighed theatrically. “Ah, romance,” he said.
“I did not marry anyone,” I said.
Claire took a drink from her nearly-depleted flask. “I can produce plenty of witnesses.”
“Well, I wasn’t one of them.”
Claire smiled. “You were hammered,” she said. “But I think you could remember if you tried.” She took a breath and pushed her hood back, showing her hair, so black it was almost blue, wavy, framing her ghostly-pale face. “And even as drunk as you were, you would have said no if you didn’t actually want to marry me. I know you well enough, Martin, you’re never that out of control.”
She was talking to the others, not me. We’d had that same discussion enough times to know the futility of repeating it.
Silence reigned for a few moments. “Martin, you—” Kat started, then hesitated. In the poor light I couldn’t read the expression on her face. Bags watched her with interest, his own scowl creasing his forehead.
“So, where do we stand on killing the bitch?” Elena asked.
“Not at this time.”
Claire gave me a sideways smile, her pale skin yellowed by the firelight. “Glad to hear it. We got work to do.” Claire looked directly at Elena. “If both of us are still alive a year from now, I’ll take that challenge.”
I felt Elena tense against my side. “That’s fair enough,” I said. “Let’s all try to reach that moment.” I gave Elena a squeeze. “Then the rest of us can wager.” That won me smiles from both of them and I didn’t feel as cold anymore.
Claire’s smile became a little more natural. “Hell, if we’re both dead maybe we can still have our showdown. Depending on who’s right about that shit.” After a moment she added, “Makes the wagering problematic, though.”
Kat let out a long huff and looked directly at Claire. Kat’s hands were tense on her knees and her mouth was a thin line. “You need a place to work,” Kat said. She, apparently, wasn’t interested in the silly wagers of dead people. Perhaps she was being pragmatic, but we are all dead people, eventually.
Claire nodded. “There’s a farmstead half a mile from here. Off the road. Ready for bandits but not for us. Good enough table in the kitchen.”
“You’ve seen the table?” Kat asked.
Claire’s back stiffened. “Of course. You think I’d make shit up when our lives depend on it?” She rose from her seat to look down on the rest of us.
Kat, of course, had meant no slight; she was simply impressed at the quality of Claire’s scouting. But Claire lived among people who knew she was a liar and a cheat, and it killed her when those people didn’t trust her on the occasions when she actually was telling the truth. The curse of the liar.
Kat answered Claire’s challenge directly, staying seated, her imperial posture perfect. “Our lives? You will be far away when we present your work.”
Claire was still gathering her righteous anger when Elena said, “For fuck’s sake, Claire, Kat was impressed. Her cunt’s cranked up so tight she doesn’t know how to say it, but a stellar fucking grifter like you should be able to figure that out.”
I looked over to Bags, and then to Worm. We were all equally terrified. Blood was about to spill.
Kat’s voice was quiet. “I was impressed,” she said. “I did not express it well.”
“I was lookin’ for a fight,” Claire said. She sat back down. “You gonna let the kid talk about your cunt that way?”
“Only when she’s right.” The smile from Kat right then, a tiny smile, little more than a shift in the shadows on her face, was, I think, the first time I had ever seen Katherine the Human Being. She seemed… sad. The moment was gone before I could even tell if it was real.
Claire looked at me, looked at Kat, then looked back to me. “Who’s in charge of this circus?” she asked.
Kat collected herself behind a weary half-smile. “I make most of the decisions,” she said. “But Martin makes the big ones.”
I saw the almost-concealed look of surprise on Claire’s face and I saw that she read the same in mine.
“It’s going to be you after all.” Claire ran her hand through her hair, never taking her eyes off me. “I used to believe you could break the world,” she said. “It was sexy.”
Worm snuffled. “So you married him for his destructive potential.”
“No. I married him… ” Claire paused, and appeared to be thinking. “I married him so I could be part of what comes next. To help make the new world.”
It did not require being a stellar fucking grifter to know that there was something unsaid, but to be honest “what comes next” had not been something I’d thought about very much. Before we had burned the Soul Thief and released a storm of tortured spirits, “survive” was as far as I had reached in my planning. I had now reached “kill them all” as a goal, but what came after that was entirely irrelevant. That was the sort of question the Kats of the world needed to answer. Or Claire, if she was ready to volunteer. Certainly not me.
“We are not married,” I said.
“There’s some among us, Marty, say you’re one of the best Wanderers ever. A stupid statement that disproves itself. Not even the Family will know the names of our best. When they are gone, they leave no trace, as if they never existed. I told you five years ago you were going to leave a mark on the world. You laughed.”
Sitting in that close circle while the rain fell around us, the urge to sweep Elena up and vanish into the night was stronger than ever. But she would not vanish, and I would not vanish without her. Which meant Claire was probably right, but only by accident. None of us had anticipated Elena. Elena would leave a mark, I was sure of it, even if the mark was just a glorious bloodstain. And my name would be tied to hers until the stories were forgotten.
“It’s all right,” Claire said, reading my face. “If the Soul Thieves are coming out of the shadows, I reckon we’re not the only other mythical creatures who are bound to respond. We’ll be seeing the Purple Peepers before this is over.”
“Who?” I asked.
Claire and Elena exchanged a glance. Already they were aligning against me. “If you was a girl you’d understand,” Elena said.
The fire crackled and spat, Claire disappeared back under her hood, and Elena’s weight increased at my side until I could hear a gentle snore, her head pressed against me, her hair tickling my cheek. I dared not move.
Kat was waiting for me to look her direction; finally I did. “We need to talk,” she said, almost inaudibly.
Which really meant “I want to talk.” People need to talk much less than they believe. I gave my head a tiny, tiny shake. Elena’s mouth was open and her drool was creating a dark patch on my shirt. “It can wait,” I said, more with my lips than with my voice. Claire’s cowl lifted almost imperceptibly, keeping her face in shadow. It was a sign to me, a courtesy, to tell me that she was listening.
Kat said, “I don’t want the crown. I don’t want any of that. But I look around at all the fuckers who do want the crown and they make my skin crawl. Long before you killed my husband on a whim, I was working, risking my life, to make our world more just. But…” Kat looked away and I thought maybe she was crying. “But as I have come to terms with sitting on a throne, I have done so imagining you sitting next to me. Keeping me safe. Watching my back.”
“When we get there, I can do that,” I said. “I will do that.”
She had to say that. Love is the most useless, godfucked… I can’t even come up with the words. My hands are shaking and I’m telling you a story about something that happened long ago, a story you already know, about the moment Kat decided to die for her cause. Nothing destroys a perfectly amicable relationship the way love does.