Glaw blinked awake. The ceiling that came into view was strange; smooth, white and slightly arched, higher in the middle and curving downward at the edges. He couldn't for the life of him remember ever having seen one like it anywhere in Trade or Search.
With great effort, he managed to turn his head and took in the rest of the room. The ceiling melted seamlessly into equally egg white walls, decorated sparsely with small, round shelves like small, smooth-edged burrows. There were scrolls and tiny statues on most of them, splashes of bright color that at first made his eyes ache.
All in all, the room was very bright and cheerful, light enough to stir life back into his numb head. Maybe this was what the hospitals in Art looked like? He'd have to ask Dylis - if he ever saw her again.
Next to the bed he was lying on (was it a bed?) a man sat in a chair. His skin was a dark tan color Glaw rarely had seen outside of the docks in Trade – or the woods by Outer Camps, he reminded himself. The man sat reclined on what looked to be a padded bench, with a book in his lap and a pair of glasses perched on his nose.
I'm safe. The thought was a brief one, a spark of hope crushed by the sight of the demon marks on the man's neck.
Though for a demon it looked eerily human. The man – it – had no glowing eyes, only a regular pair that looked to be icy blue in color, framed by a pair of round lenses. The wavy black hair that nearly reached its waist was unkempt in the way of many a university student Glaw had seen rushing about the streets of Search.
It just looked so gods cursed harmless, sitting there, reading a book as if it was without a care in the world. The situation was like something taken out of a comedic play. Glaw wasn't quite sure what was more absurd; the glasses or the book. Well, possibly the skirt.
<Good morrow to you, stranger,> the demon said, looking up from its reading and straight at Glaw, over the rim of its glasses. <I'm so pleased that you've recovered.>
It took Glaw a second to mentally translate the words to the Imperial Tongue. He had to re-translate it three times before he was sure he'd heard correctly.
His muscles were gradually coming back to him and he managed to get himself upright after only two false starts. <W-whe...?> he managed to mouth, his voice no more than a raspy whisper.
<My home,> came the answer with little delay, accompanied by a kind, though reserved smile. <Before you cut your throat up worse by asking, you've been unconscious for a few hours; it's not even nightfall yet. I'll get you something to drink.>
The demon got up from its seat, the beige skirt it wore rustling softly, and placed the book on one of the burrow-shelves. Glaw could do nothing but stare at him – it – as he – it – disappeared around a corner into what looked to be an adjoined room.
This was what happened to soldiers taken by the demons?
Glaw stared down at the fingers of his right hand and managed to curl them all into a loose fist. The ones on the left one still refused to budge, but sensation was slowly returning to them, making his skin tingle. He'd apparently been allowed to keep his uniform, minus the Field Marshal's dagger, his Emperor's Sign and, oddly enough, his shoes.
<We would have woken you sooner,> the demon continued, his – its, gods be damned! - voice drifting back into the room, slightly muffled by the blue curtain drawn across the arch he'd left through, <but I fear we had no healers on hand. Well, Aelius of course, but I doubt even Nikon could get him to touch one of your kind; so sure he was going to get cut, if only by accident. It's almost amusing, what with his chosen profession being what it is.>
Cut? Profession? The friendly, everyday tone of the conversation had Glaw's head spinning. But at least he was able to move again, completely. Even his toes curled at his command, though he had to concentrate a bit. They felt stiff and bruised, like they'd been dipped in ice cold water and then trampled by a panicking horse. Hopefully, none of them were broken.
The demon returned to the room, carrying a tray with something in-between a glass and a mug on it. <It's just plain water,> he – all right, fine, he – said, as Glaw gave the offered liquid a suspicious look. <Trust me, you'll feel better as soon as you've had some.>
After another two seconds of hesitation, Glaw wrapped unsteady fingers around the glass mug and downed the water in one big gulp. It felt like balsam against his parched throat, just chilled enough to be refreshing without making his teeth ache.
The demon took back the mug from Glaw's stiff fingers without a word and put the tray down on a small bronze table, no larger than a dresser and with far thinner legs. <More?>
All Glaw could do was nod in reply. The demon left the room again, tray in hand. Glaw watched him go and tried to get his brain to kick back into gear, but it refused to cooperate and instead focused his attention back on the demon's clothes. At closer inspection, it wasn't quite a skirt, more a dress or sheet with folds held together by a belt made of fabric, wrapped around the demon's waist. Also, once more, no shoes. All in all, the clothes looked like something an eccentric priest or shaman would have worn to bed.
<Can you stand?> the demon asked when the second mug of water was empty.
Glaw shrugged, apprehension gaining ground as discomfort faded. But it was difficult to feel as scared as he should be around this man, this demon. The room really looked like it belonged in a home, not a prison, and the small smile ever present on the man's lips was so genuine and kind that even a child raised on a steady diet of demon stories would have smiled back.
That said, children were far too easily tricked by strangers.
<Here, let me lend you a hand.> The offer was far too gentle to be intimidating or commanding. It was firm though, as if the demon hadn't reflected on the possibility that this situation could be seen as hostile.
Glaw took the offered hand and gave a yelped as he was pulled to his feet, right arm slung over the demon's shoulders. He flinched as an arm found its way around his waist.
<You can't stay here. I'm sure you understand,> the demon said as they took a few uncoordinated steps towards the blue curtain and the arch. His tone of voice was still very even and soothing; a doctor informing a patient about a risky but vital medical procedure. <The others are waiting outside.>
<Others?> Glaw’s tongue and lips weren't quite cooperating, but he managed to say the word without stuttering or mispronouncing it.
He got no answer. Instead, the demon walked them through the adjoined room – much like the first, except with fewer padded benches and more bowls and baskets lining the walls – and straight to a wall. There he stopped them dead in their tracks, noses pointed towards the solid white surface.
Glaw opened his mouth in a voiceless scream when the demon's eyes started glowing. It was the same eerie blue light he'd seen in the eyes of the other two demons, in the glade. He was so captivated by it that he nearly missed the arm around his waist loosening its grip.
It was harder to miss the wall melting away. In fascinated horror, he looked down and saw that the demon had put one hand on the white surface. A very old bedtime story Dylis had told him came to life at the back of his mind and gave him a nudge.
Demons are half-made spell-weavers, granting only temporary change, able to twist all they touch.
The shoulders under his right arm suddenly felt more like a threat than support.
If the demon took note of Glaw’s heightened apprehension, he made no comment. There was a round hole in the wall now, revealing a darkened forest outside, with its trees as broad as houses and grass that the dim evening light colored more blue than green.
Just like that, they were outside. Glaw's mind raced as he took in his surroundings, desperately looking for a landmark of any kind, something that looked familiar. All the trees looked the same, or at least similar, with branches that twisted and curled in impossible directions and a blue-black sky barely visible through the millions of leaves above.
He felt like an ant, standing there in their shadow. A tiny, insignificant insect at the mercy of nature and all its predators. But he would endure, he told himself, as the demon led him away from the small hill they'd exited (and the hole was gone like it had never been). He would endure, he would stay strong when he faced the leaders of the enemy, and he would find out as much information about them and their motives as he possibly could.
What he wasn't going to do, was cry like a baby.
<Ah, so he's awake now. You gave him quite a dose, Lykos.> Glaw looked up, following the voice to its source: the black-haired demon from the glade. He was sitting five branches up in one of the gigantic trees, picking apart what looked to be a firearm; the glints of gold on it had Glaw recognizing it as a standard issue weapon for sergeants.
Movement on the ground pulled his attention downwards. He spotted a tan shoulder and the edge of yet another skirt, green this time, darting behind a tree.
<Don't be shy!> the black-haired demon said, his tone of voice far too cheerful. <I'm sure he doesn't bite or sting.>
Glaw felt the ground sway under his feet, though only in a metaphorical sense. There was so much wrong with this situation that his mind hardly could compose a comprehensive list of all the errors. Why wasn't he being torn to shreds? Or questioned for information at the very least? Tortured? Anything?!
The fact that the demons all had the built of acrobats rather than soldiers didn't help matters one bit. Yes, they'd most likely be able to overwhelm him in a fight, but all legends of demons tearing the arms clean off their opponents were dying a quick death.
The third demon peeked out from behind the tree, like a four-year-old from behind a parent's leg. Well, an exceptionally tall four-year-old, armed with a dagger. The look on his face was actually quite accurate to the simile; pale cheeks (well, as pale as they could get, Glaw assumed), wide eyes fixed on him in pure terror, and muscles as tense as piano wires, appearing ready to break at the slightest provocation.
<Introductions,> the demon that supported most of Glaw's weight murmured in something not quite like dismay. He unwrapped his arm from around Glaw's waist to push his glasses back up to the bridge of his nose. <It seems I'd forgotten all about that. As Nikon said I am Lykos, and that,> he gestured at the demon partly hidden behind the tree, <is Aelius.>
<We've met.> Glaw blinked, surprised by his own deadpan answer.
<Indeed we have!> Nikon cheered before anyone else had the chance to speak, waving the gun around like a toy. Small pins and bullets rained down onto the grass. <And such an avid audience he was! I do hope we gave you a good show.> His smile, unlike Lykos', was anything but comforting or reassuring. It was what a dagger would have looked like if it could grin; cold, thin and threatening.
Glaw's mind backtracked and began reconsidering the 'cry like a baby'-option.
<Arbōs, you should greet our guest properly! You can't be shaking like a leaf all the way back to the city.> Nikon's eyes lit up, glowing soft blue in the dusk. Glaw braced himself.
Nothing happened. Well, nothing except that Aelius stepped out from behind the tree, his shoulders squared and no longer trembling.
<To the Senate, then?> Lykos asked, acting for all the world as if there was nothing the slightest bit out of place going on.
On his branch, Nikon had turned to lie on his stomach, chin resting on his arms. <Go on,> he said in a lazy drawl, eyes still on Aelius. <I heard from Bernike that they'll be holding a dance tonight.>
<Terra...> While Aelius' body no longer shook, his voice did.
<I'll man the border quite fine on my own. Go.> The last was said with a big grin, as if the thought of needing assistance to fight mere humans was endlessly amusing to him. <We wouldn't want your sister to get any more strange ideas, would we now? She'd only try to decapitate me again and I like my head where it is; it helps me think.>
Aelius gave a hasty bow, then turned to once more look at Lykos and Glaw. He took a deep breath as if preparing to dive down to the bottom of a lake and then walked over to them. He threw a look over his shoulder up at the demon still resting in the tree. Then he spoke:
<What's it like?>
Glaw gave Aelius a wide-eyed look of pure confusion. <What?>
<Out there.> Aelius made a vague gesture back towards the way they'd come, seemingly trying to encompass everything in that direction with one shaky flick of his wrist.
<Don't bother him with such questions, Aelius! He just arrived,> Lykos cut in before Glaw could answer, sounding like he was speaking up for a harassed guest and not a prisoner. <We should get him some food first, offer him some wine and then maybe ask him for his life story. Where are your manners?>
At the reprimand Aelius made a very good impression of an owl, blinking at Lykos like he'd grown a second head that had begun performing the Five Winds Opera.
<Now,> Lykos continued, his bespectacled eyes fixed on Glaw. <You’ll need to cover up those clothes, to avoid a riot.> He turned to Aelius, who offered what looked to be a rolled up sheet to Glaw. Figuring out how to wear it took some help from both of the demons. <And,> Lykos said, <I'm afraid we can't reveal the way to the city to you. You'll have to put up with being blindfolded for a bit. Please turn around.>
Glaw obeyed. There wasn't much else to do when weaponless, surrounded by the enemy, and with his legs feeling like overcooked noodles. This blindfold, unlike the one Colonel Blevins had put on him, was thankfully tied loosely enough not to give him a splitting headache. It itched a bit and there was no way to peek, but he guessed he had to count his blessings in any way he could.
<We'll be holding on to you, so you don't get lost,> Lykos said, from somewhere to Glaw's right. <Just put one foot in front of the other and this will be over in no time.>
<Have fun!> Nikon called, his voice swiftly fading into the background noise of the forest.
They walked for hours. Glaw soon lost track of exactly how many.
The feel of grass and twigs under his aching bare feet was unsettling at first, but the faint chill of the morning dew soon numbed them to all sensation except for muted pressure; which did nothing to help him keep upright. But every time he stumbled, there was a steadying hand at his left elbow or back, guiding him and preventing him from falling on his face.
Though there was no light to judge time or distance by eventually there were new noises; remote at first, but growing in strength during the last half hour or so of their journey. They were noises he recognized; people talking, calling out to each other, hundreds of footsteps echoing and overshadowing one another in a way only a city could gather together.
Finally, they came to a halt. The blindfold was removed without ceremony.
The sight before him made his head spin. The trees had given way to a valley where hundreds of houses made of wood so white it might just as well have been marble shared space with statues, roads paved with mosaic, and people dressed in clothes more colorful than even the harbor in Trade had to offer. Whoever the architects were who'd built the houses, they seemed to have had a thing for pillars.
<Do you like it?>
It was Lykos who'd spoken. The question seemed to bewilder Aelius as much as it did Glaw. Glaw caught him giving Lykos more than one sidelong glance as they began making their way onto what appeared to be the main road.
<It's very...different,> Glaw managed to answer after he'd shaken off the last of the surprise.
Lykos gave a chuckle and pushed his glasses a bit further up his nose. <Good different or bad different?>
Glaw sneaked another look at Aelius before he answered. The second demon was giving Lykos an unreserved, wide-eyed stare at this point, though the rest of his face remained blank.
Whatever his answer would have been (he wasn't quite sure himself, to be honest), it was cut short by a presence in front of them. It brought all of them to an immediate stop like an inaudible command.
They were just on the edge of the multicolored crowd that milled about the street in the evening light; exiting and entering buildings, calling out to friends across the road and generally acting like any other people, in any other city Glaw had ever been in.
Though at the moment he couldn't have been less aware of the nearby throng of demons.
Apart from the crowd, right in front of them, stood the most attention-grabbing person or thing Glaw had ever come across, outside a fireworks display. Her skin was the darkest he'd seen in his entire life, so black it almost had a blue sheen to it, and she towered above all around her, reaching over two meters. The impression of pure size that she radiated wasn't helped by the fact that her girth wasn't far behind her height.
She was dressed all in pinkish red fabric that covered her from head to toe, leaving only her hands, eyes and throat exposed. The neck of her clothes was cut to accentuate her demon markings – rusty red instead of black – and the rest of the fabric was covered in thin coin-shaped metal disks, sparkling dully in the light from the lanterns lining the street.
I wonder if the color of the marks is important, Glaw reflected dimly, unsure of where to look. She was just so tall and wide and sparkly!
<A new addition!> the woman cried out, wrapping him in a sudden, tight hug. <From the north, this time,> he heard her say, her voice muffled by the silky fabric he had his head smashed against. <How wonderful! We hardly see any of your clans here these days!>
Manhandling him like a doll, she pushed him back and looked him up and down with what he assumed was a big smile on her face; the crinkles at the corners of her eyes gave him that impression. Said eyes widened in horror as her gaze came to rest on his neck.
<Oh, you poor thing! Who did that to you?>
<This?> Glaw asked, brushing his fingers against his scars. He got a series of nods in reply. <It's from a surgery I had as a child.>
What might have been a frown passed over her face. <Child you say? And how old are you now?>
The woman gave a laugh that made her entire body shake, jingling all the little metal discs against each other. <Bless you, child, you're hardly old enough to wash your own hands before dinner!> she said, once she had her breath back under control. <It's good luck you found your way here, all things considered. I am Agape, owner of the best tavern this city has to offer. Since this is your first day here, I will cook you something extra delicious.>
As if pulled out of the background, Lykos and Aelius appeared within his field if vision again. Aelius was wearing a worried not-quite-frown, while Lykos smiled calmly. <What a delightful suggestion,> Lykos began, <but we->
<Then it's settled!> Agape interrupted, grabbed Glaw by the arm and whirled around, ignoring the stuttered protests voiced by Aelius and Lykos.
<It's good that we get newcomers now and again. These two wouldn't bother showing their faces here otherwise!> Agape said blithely as she led the way through the crowd, which parted for her like water for a ship. <I understand that you have your work to tend to,> she added with a glance in Aelius' direction, <protecting us from harm in such a gallant fashion. But you!> This time her eyes turned to glare at Lykos in mock anger. <I've never understood why you lot insist on living so close to the border.> She gave a huff as if the mere thought of it offended her greatly.
<A word of advice, child,> she said to Glaw. Her voice had dropped to a low, conspiring whisper. <Never take after him or his siblings, no matter how adventurous it might seem to live on the edge, so to speak.> The look in her eyes briefly shifted to one of sadness. Her gaze darted to his scars again. <But I suspect it's a little late to tell you that.>
Several demons called out greetings as they passed by; Lykos, Aelius and Agape answered them with varying levels of cheer and Glaw found himself on the receiving end of more than a few curious looks. Agape soon stopped in front of a building some five houses down the road, swept aside a pair of crimson drapes that covered the entrance, and led the way inside.
Glaw found himself unsure if the lack of melting walls left him feeling relieved or disappointed.
As if he'd read Glaw's thoughts, Lykos leaned closer and whispered in his ear: <Only houses along the border lack doors. It'd be quite hard to disguise them as grassy hills otherwise.>
Glaw had little time to reflect on this comment as they were all ushered quite forcefully inside by Agape, who'd renewed her firm hold on his wrist; thankfully not the one with the still aching cut.
The tavern looked like something straight out of the exaggerated stories Owain always used to fabricate about the dining halls in the houses of Palace.
The main room was parted into three levels, with a floor of the same blue and beige mosaic that made up the street outside. Each level was no higher than a meter above the one below it and all were easily accessible via a number of short, wide stairs.
There were no chairs or shared benches, only the padded things Glaw first had seen back at Lykos' home. They were painted gold, decorated with small pillows, and gathered in pairs or circles. Each had its own small table, painted in colors that matched the benches. Most of them were occupied by demons, sitting or reclining in their seats, talking and eating fruits and rolls of bread. The smell of a hundred spices, freshly baked goods, and fried meat hung heavy in the air.
Conversations died away to silence as Agape breezed through the room and up the stairs. She headed towards a group of arches covered by curtains, her three reluctant guests in tow. Lykos and Aelius gave some of the room's occupants nods and bows in greeting, keeping in step with Agape as she swept aside yet another curtain and dragged Glaw through it.
On the other side was a smaller room, most likely used for more private dinners. It had only one circle of padded benches placed out in its center and the lanterns hanging on the walls had a dimmer light to them, creating a cozier, calmer atmosphere than the lively, bigger room they'd just walked through.
It was also occupied. Five of the nine benches had a demon seated on it, all of various shapes and sizes, and all showing different degrees of tension. As one, their eyes turned to the entrance the moment the curtain fell closed again.
<Our sisters sent you to get us,> Lykos said to Agape, breaking the compact silence. It was a statement, not a question.
Agape let go of Glaw and gave a throaty chuckle. <Oh dear, I've been found out!> she said, sounding as far from guilty as was physically possible. <I guess I'm not the talented actress I thought I was; I'd better stick to my cooking.>
No one protested this and Agape pulled aside the curtain again. <Don't worry, child, you'll still get the excellent meal I promised you!> she said to Glaw before she disappeared back out the way they'd entered.
Wordlessly, Aelius and Lykos seated themselves on two of the unoccupied benches, still under scrutiny from the other demons in the room. Some of the faces were accusatory, some brimming with curiosity, but all demons remained in place until Glaw had taken a seat as well.
Their faces blurred together before him and he took a deep breath, turning his eyes to the floor. All but one of the new demons were female, as far as Glaw could tell. The male sat completely unmoving, staring at nothing. The rest shifted where they sat, but no one said a word.
Hearing a pin drop would have been no problem during the time it took Glaw to figure out a comfortable yet sufficiently alert way to sit on the strange piece of furniture. His feet slipped once or twice on the polished stone floor, which made his seating even less graceful.
The first one to move was the female demon sitting across from Aelius. Her short cropped hair and her eyes – light red brown and golden brown respectively – were the same color as the other demon's, which had Glaw guessing they were siblings.
<You're exhausted,> the female demon said in a dark tone of voice, glaring at Aelius. He visibly flinched and ducked his head, like a dog caught having chewed through its master's favorite pair of shoes.
<It's not so bad,> Aelius said, eyes on his knees. He received a disbelieving snort from the female demon.
<Bernike told me what happened,> she said, voice as cold as new-fallen snow. <Using you as a decoy is a new low, even for him.>
<Sister...> Aelius' voice was pleading, but whatever he'd planned to say trailed off into nothingness as if this was an argument he'd given up on years ago.
<Vita, quit your whining!> another female demon cut in. If one went by size alone she was the most intimidating one in the room. She had muscles Glaw knew Dylis would have envied and was tall enough to rival Agape. Or at least he thought so; it was hard to tell with her lying down. <Getting a little winded is hardly fatal and Nikon's not here for you to beat up, is he?>
<That twice cursed no-eye can go starve in the forest for all I care!> the one called Vita said, giving the curtain across the entrance such a hateful glare Glaw for a moment thought it would catch fire.
<Sister, please,> Aelius said, his voice barely above a whisper. <Aren't there more urgent matters to talk about?>
Glaw frowned and before his mouth could ask him for permission to speak, he said: <Is Nikon your superior?>
The silence that fell over the room this time was more stunned than angry. It left Glaw cursing his wayward tongue while expressions ranging from fury to mirth began to show on the faces around him. <Eh, I mean->
<As if the Senate would allow that! You couldn't be further off the mark, boy,> Vita interrupted and bore her eyes into him until he couldn't help but shrink away under the weight of her gaze. <Nikon,> she said the name as if it were a poisonous bug, deadly and disgusting all in one, <is a murderer.>
<Only because no one else wanted to be.> The words were said with such finality that Glaw had to do a double-take. Aelius' previously so insecure expression had transformed into one of utter conviction; jaw squared, back straight, eyes unflinchingly meeting Vita's glare head on. For a second he was another person entirely.
But only for a second.
<Whatever helps you sleep at night, little fool,> Vita said, gaze unwavering and lips pulled back in a feral snarl. Aelius' shoulders sagged under the weight of his sister's stare and a heartbeat later it was as if he'd never spoken. He lowered his eyes to regard the floor, his hands folded in his lap and his shoulders hunched.
<I think that's enough of that,> a third female demon spoke, pushing herself upright. Her black hair was pulled back in a high ponytail, so it was hard to tell if it was as wavy as Lykos', but the narrow shape of her face and her icy blue irises was enough family resemblance to mark her as his relative. <Won't you introduce your new 'charge' to us, brother?>
Lykos chuckled, bringing a loosely balled fist up to cover his mouth as he did so. <We did some introductions earlier, but I do believe we forgot to ask him to reciprocate.> Another chuckle. <I'm terribly sorry, what is your name?>
<Glaw Nevett.> It seemed pointless to withhold such meaningless information.
<Oh, nobility!> the demon that looked to be the youngest of the group chirped. She sat cross-legged on her bench and stared at him with an expression close to glee. Compared to the others in the room she didn't have the built of a warrior, all soft edges and smooth hands. She was also the only demon in the room who wore pants instead of a skirt.
Glaw rapidly shook his head in denial. <No! No, no I'm not any kind of nobility whatsoever! I'm just a...> He fumbled for the right words, <...a lowly soldier. I've got no authority over anyone and I don't know anything secret!>
This got him a few amused chuckles and giggles from most of his audience.
<Don't fret so,> Lykos said. <My dear little sister - Thais is her name by the way - simply put more significance into you having two names than I suspect there is.> Across the circle, Thais gave a shrug, her chipper smile still in place. <As I'm sure you've noticed, we only have one each.>
<...so, no family name?> Despite himself, Glaw found himself relaxing and leaning back to rest his weight on his hands, abandoning his vigilant pose on the edge of the bench. This conversation was just too surreal to take seriously.
Lykos shook his head and looked around the circle as if checking if someone else wished to have the word before him. When no one spoke, he continued: <Our kind hasn't bothered with that since, well, at least a millennium or two.>
<We used to have great, long names, mind you,> the tall, muscular women said, once again with little care if it was her turn to speak or not. She'd turned to lie on her side, leaning the weight of her upper body on one elbow and resting her head in one hand; relaxed yet watchful. <Three each, unless grandmother was exaggerating. About half of us, I mean. The rest I think had two at the most.>
The woman gave a shrug with the shoulder she wasn't supporting her weight on. <Running around introducing yourself with name, family name and status gets silly after a while, I suppose, when you never meet anyone new.>
<Almost never,> Thais interposed and gave Glaw a wink.
<Yes, yes, almost never,> the taller woman said, rolling her eyes. <Nowadays only the nostalgic families cling to their long names.> As if on cue all eyes turned to the curtain across the room's entrance. Glaw followed their pointed stares to meet the icy glare of a man dressed in such fine clothes he had to be royalty. His skin was a few shades paler than most of the people in the tavern. That said Glaw himself still looked like a victim of drowning in comparison.
The man took the last free seat in the circle and said in a smooth, monotone voice: <Were you waiting for me to arrive to explain that or was it just lucky timing?>
<A little bit of both,> the woman answered, a wicked grin spreading over her face. <This ray of sunshine is Manius Valerius Aculeo. Aculeo for short.> That little explanation earned her an even stonier glare from the man in question. <And I'm Myrrine. I'm the one who'll cut your arms off if you do anything the least bit suspicious.>
Her happy tone of voice sent Glaw's heart plummeting down into his feet. He caught sight of a huge two-bladed ax lying on the floor underneath her bench. It looked sharp enough to cut through steel.
<Really now Myrrine, that was uncalled for,> Lykos said, his expression still calm and friendly. <Glaw here – is Glaw your first name?> Glaw gave a curt nod, eyes darting back to the ax. <Glaw here has been nothing but cooperative since he came into our custody. Showing a little civility in return should hardly be too much to ask.>
This chastisement only provoked an amused laugh. <I'll behave as long as he does. Lighten up would you?>
<I do my best,> Lykos replied, his tone steady, though equally tainted by amusement. <I'll move on with the introductions then, shall I?>
He made a sweeping gesture, singling out the demon wearing pants and the one with the ice blue eyes. <These are my sisters, as you might have already noticed. Bernike there is the oldest of us; a fact she never fails to bring up when a decision is to be made, I might add.> The woman in question raised an eyebrow, but otherwise her expression remained impassive. Her gaze was far less angry than Vita's, but no less piercing.
Glaw hurried to look away from her, turning instead to the other demon being introduced, just as Lykos said: <And this is our youngest, Thais, a very talented spell-weaver and the best healer the city has seen in a very long time – no offense Aelius.>
<None taken,> Aelius said, this time with a small, genuine smile on his lips.
Thais returned his smile with a toothy one of her own and then met Glaw's eyes with her doe-like ones, a faint blush coloring her cheeks. While Bernike was a spitting image of Lykos, Thais' hair was far curlier, her skin darker and her eyes so brown they were almost black.
To his horror, Glaw found an answering blush rising in his own cheeks, accompanied by vehement denial. The thought there is no such thing as a cute demon echoed through his mind repeatedly. It was enough to distract him from the comment about spell-weaving.
<Vita and Aelius need no further introduction I think, unless you have further questions for them?> Lykos said.
The gently teasing tone of voice did nothing to ease Glaw's blushing.
<The statue over there,> Myrrine added, pointing her thumb at the male demon with skin as dark as Agape's and long black hair arranged into an uncountable number of thin braids; the one who'd remained unmoving during the entire meeting, <is Cato. Don't mind him, he's like that most of the time. Skilled fighter though, so I'd advise against poking him when he does that.>
'That', Glaw concluded, referred to the soft mumbling noises the demon was making. His eyes seemed to be fixed on the floor, staring without blinking, and his lips were moving without pause.
The return of Agape pulled everyone's attention – even Cato's it seemed – to the entrance. The tavern owner was balancing an impressive number of bowls on her arms, walking around with them without as much as a grape threatening to spill over their edges.
<Here's your food, dear friends!> she said as she began placing the bowls on the tiny table next to each of the benches. <Everyone outside still thinks the little one here is nothing more than a new arrival who's gone through an unfortunate encounter, so don't fret. You really must teach me that silencing spell of yours, Thais!>
<It's quite easy,> came the immediate reply, followed by what appeared to be the beginning of a long explanation. Glaw felt a familiar fatigue wash over him; the same he'd felt every time Dylis had dragged him to the library to help her keep up with Rhian's not too well-attended magic lectures.
A hand on his shoulder had him nearly dropping his bowl of food. Lykos' smiling face was much too close to his again, leaning in to whisper in his ear: <Yes, she's always that enthusiastic. For your own sake, never ask her to explain anything healing or spell related.>
Glaw managed to give him a shaky smile that he hoped looked grateful and not terrified, which thankfully made Lykos nod and withdraw to his own bench.
The overly detailed rant on the importance of the right wording of spells died down somewhere halfway through the meal, though Thais did anything but fall silent. While she did give Glaw more than a few curious looks, she didn't address him directly again. Instead, she turned to her brother:
<When did they Senate say the hearing would start?>
It was Bernike who answered. <Midnight. They thought it wise that no children attend.>
Myrrine gave a huff of laughter around a mouthful of flat bread covered in what looked to be curry. <You know they'll all sneak out of bed and come listen anyway.>
<Not if the city guards keep a watchful eye on them,> Bernike said, her voice as teasing as ice ever could be. <But maybe you don't trust in your own skills.>
<That hurt right here,> Myrrine moaned theatrically, pressing a hand to her chest. <I'm the best there is and you know it.>
<The best?> The new voice was deadpan and quite possibly male. It drew Glaw's attention back to Cato. The demon's eyes were no longer staring blankly at the floor.
<Welcome back,> Myrrine said to him with gruff sarcasm. <Fine, I'm one of the best. I'd be even better if you finally partnered up with me.> The last words she directed at the still blank-faced Bernike.
<I thought we were done discussing that,> came the curt response. In the background, Cato began picking at his food.
Myrrine shook her head, a shark-like grin spreading across her face. <Not until you see reason.>
Their eyes locked in a silent battle of wills and Glaw decided it'd be safer to ignore them for the time being. He found his eyes drawn back towards Thais, who'd started up a conversation with Aelius. They both looked comfortable next to each other, sitting as close as two people could without touching one another.
Glaw's stomach clenched and he told himself he had no idea why.
<You're staying for the dance, aren't you?> Thais said, batting her eyelashes at her conversation partner in an exaggerated, playful manner. It left Glaw feeling hot and cold at the same time.
Aelius gave a hesitant nod and swallowed a mouthful of bread and meat. <Only for a little while. I need to get back to my terra before sunrise.>
On the other side of the circle, Vita sat up straight. <Why don't you start calling him caelum?> she said after catching her brother's gaze, her voice dripping with hostility and mockery. <He might do us all a favor and slit his own throat then.>
Everyone in the room stopped what they were doing. Even Bernike and Myrrine broke their stare down to focus their attention on Vita and Aelius. The temperature in the room dropped several degrees.
Aelius sat frozen for a long while, his face a shade so pale that he looked like he'd bled out. <I've lost my appetite,> he said under his breath and got up, abandoning the half-full bowl on the head of his bench. Without another word, he left the room, shoulders hunched and eyes on the floor.
Thais was the first to follow him, casting a look in Vita's direction that could have been meant to convey anything from disappointment to anger.
Cato was next. He simply stood up and walked out, his eyes unfocused but his footsteps sure and steady. Aculeo looked up as he passed and gave him an almost invisible nod, before returning to picking grapes one by one from their joint stem.
<Tactful as always,> Bernike said once the curtain had closed over the entrance. She shifted into a sitting position, her clothes rustling softly in the compact silence, and gave Vita an unreadable look. <Perhaps not the best of times?>
All she got as answer was a heated glare from Vita.
Glaw felt like the conversation had jumped up to rush past above his head at cloud level. He clenched his jaw shut as hard as he could, hoping to prevent his mouth from betraying him and saying something stupid again. Though, speaking from experience, he knew that wouldn't help for long.
Ducking his head he took in the bowl of food in his lap. He'd worked his way through most of the fruit he'd been served; grapes, apple slices, and something orange he hadn't been able to recall the name of but which he'd tasted once or twice when the market back in Trade had them in supply. The taste of it all had been comforting, a spark of familiarity in the middle of all the strangeness.
He hadn't dared touch the meat yet, no matter how good it smelled. He'd heard enough stories about what (and who) demons ate. Fruits gone, but stomach still growling at him, he opted for trying the flatbread coated with something pink that smelled like curry and about three other things he had no name for.
The sauce was spicy and sweet at the same time – a strange taste, but not unpleasant – and Glaw found himself savoring each mouthful.
<Agape never exaggerates when it comes to her cooking.> Again, it was Lykos who'd spoken. The demon had moved to the bench his younger sister had left free and now sat directly across from Glaw. The faint light from the lanterns reflected off of his glasses, obscuring his eyes from view. The smile on his lips looked thin and much less calm.
Glaw blinked. The moment passed, the reflections died away, and Lykos' expression turned soft and comforting once more, so swiftly that Glaw was sure he must have imagined it. He nodded, hoping it would be sufficient as response, and sneaked a glance around the circle in what he hoped was a discreet fashion.
The other remaining demons had set aside their bowls on the small tables and sat or lay with their eyes closed, almost as if they were meditating.
<Eat up, boy!> Myrrine said, her eyes shut, breaking the silence, a hammer through a glass window. <Wouldn't want to keep the Senate waiting, now would we?>
Not even Lykos kind smile could stop Glaw from breaking out into cold sweat at that. Old stories Dylis had told him when they were younger kept resurfaced from the depths of his memory, calling to life nightmares that hadn't frightened him since he was eight. Somehow, the possibility of finding out how much of them were true made them seem much less silly.
<Who wants something to drink?> Agape appeared in the doorway again, juggling a vase and a number of glass-like mugs, which she quickly proceeded to place on the small tables. The liquid she poured smelled like sour grapes and was dark amber in color.
Whatever it was Glaw hoped it would get him drunk. Very drunk. Fast.
<Would you mind if we took these with us?> Lykos said, holding up his glass for Agape to fill.
The tavern owner chuckled and spoke to him over her shoulder, continuing around the circle. <Whatever works best for you. I'll just have your little sister help me spell them whole again, if you break them. You'll have to answer to her instead of me.>
<Then we'll make sure to be extra careful.>
Downing the last of the maybe-wine-maybe-brandy Glaw watched the demons one by one get up from their seats. Dread wasn't enough of a word for what he felt at that exact moment.
If he was going to be executed he prayed it would be a swift death.
I wish there was a better way. The note was crumpled and frayed at the edges as if Rhian had been tearing away small pieces of it while she wrote. It had been waiting on the kitchen table when Dylis had finished showering.
Rhian herself was nowhere to be seen, but the tea in the cup that had been left next to the note was still warm.
I'll make sure nothing can be traced back to you or your home, Dylis scribbled on the blank side of the paper. She added Thank you, after much chewing on the pencil.
Sipping the tea she returned to the living room, one hand keeping a steady grip on the towel around her waist. On the couch a shirt, a pair of pants, a waist-length jacket, a pair of socks, and some undergarments had been laid out; all in mute colors and neatly folded. Dylis downed the tea in three gulps, then went about changing. She stubbornly refused to look at the bag by the door, ignoring the stench of sewer water that lingered despite her efforts to tie it as shut as possible.
The shirt was a bit baggy – she suspected it had been provided by Huw – but the pants fit well enough, as did the jacket.
She threw the bag in the road-channel as she passed it by and she only hesitated for a moment. With the hood of her new jacket up over her head, she could almost block out the sight of her uniform bobbing away seawards, slowly sinking beneath the surface.
Her steps were oddly light as she walked away. She wondered if that was because she'd gotten rid of a burden or because she'd turned herself into a ghost. She could still taste the unnatural burn of the tea at the back of her throat, the acid-like feel that the honey barely had been able to conceal.
At least they wouldn't be able to find her.
She stopped and sidestepped into an alley, her hands balled into fists and her mouth twisted in a bitter smile. How strange to think of the military as 'them'. How strange to be in civilian clothes that didn't quite fit and how strange to have a brother that might as well be dead as still breathing. How strange and unsettling to be alone. No squad ever again.
She punched the wall and felt the impact shake through her arm. The pain cleared her head, at least for a few seconds.
She had an address. She knew where to go. This time she'd either succeed or die.
The Senate was nothing like what Glaw had been expecting. While he'd pictured a dark hall full of old, stern faces and glowing eyes, Lykos and the others instead led him to the end of the main street. There was a huge, round staircase there that had been carved down into the earth, creating what looked like seats for an outdoor theater performance.
Down at the bottom of the miniature valley, the ground had been leveled completely flat, creating a stage shaped like a half-moon.
The seats were already filling up with demons of all shapes and sizes; some with graying hair, some that barely looked old enough to sit by themselves. Hundreds of eyes turned to stare at him as he took the first step down. Glaw couldn't help but feel transported back to his years in Search, when he'd been assigned to hold a speech for the Academy on the importance of a military presence all through the Empire.
<Down you go!> Myrrine gave him a none too gentle shove in the back. He yelped and grabbed hold of the closest solid object there was; Lykos' arm.
<Careful now,> was all Lykos said, spinning in place so they both ended up stumbling around on the same step until they'd regained their balance. <And I do believe you have guard duty. I'm sure breaking our guest's neck won't impress my sister in the least.>
Myrrine shrugged. <Fine, I'll go keep an eye out for curious brats. You just make sure he doesn't make a break for it.>
<I'll do my best,> Lykos said, giving her a polite nod. He began descending the stairs again, placing a steadying hand on Glaw's right elbow. Bernike and Vita followed close behind, like the bodyguards of a young nobleman; or the guards of a condemned rapist.
From the bottom of the stairs. it was possible to make out a pattern in the seating arrangement. Most of the older demons had gathered along the top seats and the youngest looking faces were mostly concentrated on the lower ones, closest to the stage. The was a small cluster of demons to the far right who were dressed in more gold, silver, and jewels than the others. Glaw spotted Aculeo talking to one of that group’s female members. His eyes were drawn away from the pair as a compact silence fell over the crowd.
Lykos had taken center stage, his back straight and his expression as calm as ever.
<Senate,> he began, bowing to the upper row. <Citizens.> Another bow, this one directed at no one in particular. <You have been told of the new arrival.>
Glaw found himself on the receiving end of an economic gesture that might as well have been a twitch of Lykos' wrist. <What many of you haven't been told is that he isn't from the north. He was apprehended by Aelius and Nikon at the border. Under those clothes,> another flick of his wrist, <he’s wearing the garb of our enemy.>
The gasps and outraged cries made Glaw flinch back. He stepped right into the surprisingly solid form of Bernike, who gave him a look that froze him to the spot.
<However!> Lykos called out, quieting the audience. <However, he has been most cooperative. I do believe that, with his help, we can find a way to finally open negotiations with the enemy.>
Vita's eyes had gone wide as saucers, and Bernike's weren't far behind. Neither of them said a word to interrupt though, only stared in what looked to be disbelief as Lykos continued to present his case.
<I only ask you to consider this,> he said, bowing once more, like an actor showing his appreciation for a standing ovation.<I suggest we hold a vote in two weeks' time, to decide the fate of this young man and how he can be of help to us. It will give him time to prove his honesty. In the meantime Manius Valerius Aculeo has made the generous offer of keeping the prisoner locked in the cellar of his mansion.>
Glaw couldn't recall any such arrangements having been made during the brief meeting. If one were to judge the situation by the winter cold glare Aculeo sent Lykos' way, this matter hadn't been discussed outside of Glaw's earshot either.
A mumbling started up, spreading from the top seats to the lower ones like a wave. The younger members of the audience were whispering among themselves, some of them pale, others with eyes sparkling with excitement.
Glaw just wanted to run. His legs ached from keeping still. The muscles in his calves were painfully tense and there were far too many eyes on him, full of hate and fear; measuring him.
<We of the Senate speak in favor of this.> It was an old woman who'd spoken, her hair so gray it was nearly silver in color, her flesh wrinkled. <Does the City speak against?>
As one, all the demons' eyes lit up and a soft rumbling started. Glaw nearly jumped out of his skin. Around the edge of the stage thin pillars rose, most of them white, a few black, slowly creating a cage with unevenly spaced bars. Glaw's palms flew up to cover his face on their own accord, blocking out the eerie scene. His hands were slick with cold sweat, slippery against his cheeks and forehead.
<The City does not oppose. The majority has spoken.> The same woman again, or someone with a voice that sounded just like hers. The rumbling started up again, drowning all noises from the crowd.
<You can look now.>
The pillars were gone. Glaw found himself kneeling on the smooth stone surface of the stage, curled up into a tight ball with his arms crossed tightly over his knees. Lykos stood in front of him, blocking a large part of the stairs from view. <How are you feeling?>
<Fine,> was all Glaw could give voice to, his throat dry and sore despite the food and drink he'd been served mere moments earlier.
The stairs were emptying out, small groups and pairs of demons leaving one by one, heads close together in deep discussion. However, one pair - the woman who’d spoken and a man with gray hair and pensive eyes - went in the opposite direction of the crowd. They stepped onto the stage and made a beeline for Lykos.
<You surprise me, son,> the man said with a serene smile that mirrored Lykos’ perfectly. He gave Glaw a nod in greeting. <Did Thais finally manage to convince you of her point of view?>
There was a pause and Glaw caught sight of Lykos' face, glimpsing a strange twitch around the demon's mouth that vanished as quickly as it had shown. <Something like that,> Lykos answered. <I'm very grateful for your support, father, mother.>
<No need for gratitude!> the woman said, waving her hand in a dismissive fashion. <We are the ones who should be grateful. It was good you took the word before Vita did or we might have had a public lynching on our hands.>
<Hush, mother, you'll make the poor boy faint with talk like that.>
Glaw had his head buried against his knees, swallowing repeatedly against the nauseating sting of stomach acid at the back of throat.
<I do apologize, dear guest.> Looking up, Glaw found himself eye-to-eye with the woman. Her tone of voice could be called nothing but motherly; kind and gentle, yet encouraging, like a warm cup of tea for the soul. <It wasn't meant at as a threat. I can assure you that you'll remain unharmed as long as you're kept here.>
<If only he could promise us the same.> Vita stepped into view, right next to Lykos' mother. There was something distant about her gaze. It was angry and accusing, yes, but somewhat off. It was as if she wasn't glaring at Glaw in particular, but instead imagining someone who'd sat in his place years ago.
Lykos' voice floated into the conversation with little effort. <Maybe you should find someone else to guard him, if he scares you so.> There was nothing mocking or dismissive about the way he said it, but Vita's face immediately went red, then quickly turned pale. She answered him in a tone of voice that only could be described as a blizzard put into words:
<I have no intention of failing in my guard duties. Don't you dare imply that I would or I'll-!>
Lykos' mother got to her feet as Vita spoke. <Calm yourself!> The comforting tone of voice was gone, leaving gentle but firm command in its wake.
All onlookers turned to watch her; Vita with a look of pure hate in her eyes, Lykos, Bernike and their father keeping to the background, simply waiting. Glaw did his best to make himself even smaller, searching his most recent memories for any kind of escape route he might have passed.
<Whatever you might think now, Vita, the Senate is not foolish or naïve. We see how risky taking this chance is, but we also see the great benefits that could come of it. For surely we are not a people who abandon our own, once they're captured by the enemy?>
The look on Vita's face at that exact moment reminded Glaw of the first person he'd seen get stabbed. All air seemed to go out of her and her eyes widened into an expression of utter disbelief, edged with raw pain. She bent her head and curled her hands into fists.
She left without saying another word.
<Maybe that was a bit harsh,> Lykos' father said and startled Glaw by offering him a hand, helping him to his feet.
<Maybe, but it's better that she hears it from an elder,> Lykos' mother agreed, ending her statement with a soft sigh. <That poor girl.>
Lykos chuckled. <You should know better than calling her such things where she might overhear.>
The concerned look on his mother's face transformed into a smug smirk in the blink of an eye. <You know she'd be no match for me, son.>
<I merely meant to imply you've chastised her enough already. Breaking her bones as well might be seen as overly...> Lykos trailed off and made a circling gesture with one hand.
His mother gave a tired chuckle. <Yes, yes, you're right of course. I really must have been drinking something interesting while I had you....>
<....or I'd never have turned out to be such a diplomat,> Lykos filled in, like this was an expression he'd heard so many times he'd learned every word by heart.
All the demons present – except for Bernike – laughed softly, in the mild-mannered way of very well raised nobles who'd just heard a slightly off-color joke. It was quite uncanny to behold.
<Bernike,> Lykos said once the brief bout of laughter had died down, <would you escort us to Aculeo's home?>
Bernike nodded curtly, breaking her statue-like stance by the edge of the stage. She bowed to her parents – or, at least, Glaw assumed they were her parents too; one could never be too sure – before beginning to ascend the stairs, not looking back to see if the others followed her.
Lykos bowed too and Glaw found himself following suit, his ears burning at the amused yet kind smiles this received.
<Be well, young one,> Lykos father said in an almost indulgent tone. <Our children will keep you out of harm's way, as long as you remain within the city. This is a great day for both of our people! Please take pride in the part you play in this.>
With those last words, he turned and left together with the woman Glaw now found himself thinking of as Lykos’ mother; Lykos’ father's wife. The very idea of demons marrying, raising children together, of demons giving their children indulgent smiles and gently needling them with inside jokes, was still bizarre enough to leave Glaw’s head spinning. He felt like he'd stood up too suddenly after a long night of drinking.
He was pulled out of his confused reverie when they arrived at the top of the stairs and began to make their way through the streets.The city was as eye-catching and mind-boggling as its inhabitants. Stores and homes seemed to have been built in no particular order, mixing salesmen and trinkets with small gardens where children played and adults rested, curled up on pillows or tending to flower beds. Apparently the city guard was doing a poor job of keeping the children in bed.
The domesticity of it all was almost offensive. His training kept telling him that he could be attacked at any moment, from any angle, but every time he ducked or flinch, his attackers turned out to be a curious child peeking out from behind a tree or a salesman calling out the lowered prices of his wares right before closing time.
It left him nauseous. This happy, twisted version of a normal city was somehow much worse than the dark caves and slow torture he'd pictured.
The worst part was that he found himself falling for it. For each step they took, his guard dropped, little by little, leaving him indifferent to the children and the salesmen and the bustle of the city despite the late hour. He looked at Lykos' back and felt safe, which was so wrong and stupid that any other soldier would have laughed their ass off if he'd told them and then punched him out cold.
He wondered if he'd been drugged. Accepting food from the enemy had been an idiotic move, even if losing strength and wit to starvation was equally stupid. Dylis would fearlessly have demanded to have her bowl switched with one of the demons', had she been in his place. For a heart-stopping moment, he realized he actually wished that had been the case; him back in the gate tower and her out here, in this alien city that crawled with enemies.
That revelation left him so numb and distant that he nearly walked into Lykos.
Aculeo's mansion was exactly that, a mansion, straight out of Glaw's imagination. It was large enough to house an entire company, with windows big as walls and detailed carvings around each of the arches they walked through. Huge vases decorated every corner of the wide rooms they passed and the furniture, though strange in shape and material, all looked like it'd cost a year's pay per piece.
Bernike, mutely leading the way, pushed aside one final curtain and revealed a blank wall. She gave the two of them a glance, presenting Glaw with a clear view of her eyes as they lit up, glowing blue in the manner he'd come to anticipate. She placed her hands against the wall and soundlessly forced it to part before her.
If he hadn't known better, Glaw would have thought there was a hidden spring somewhere, concealing a pair of sliding doors from the eyes of an unobservant watcher.
There were more stairs behind the wall. To his surprise, they were well-lit and tastefully decorated with more mosaic and carvings. Below there was a large room with wine racks lining the walls. A small gathering of the now familiar padded benches took up the center.
<This is my prison?>
Lykos, who stood on the step just below him, turned to give him a pleased smile. <I'm glad you approve!> he said and took the last three steps down, sweeping his arms out in a gesture befitting a circus manager. <Aculeo rarely invites anyone but Cato and myself down here, so I expect you to appreciate the honor you've been granted.> Again with the playful teasing. <You're welcome to inspect the city as well, as long as you're in the company of me or one of your guards.>
<Myrrine is one of those guards, isn't she?> At this point, he'd given up on trying to stop his mouth from acting on its own.
<Yes, but I've made it clear she isn't allowed to threaten you with bodily harm unless you attack her. Avoid doing that and you'll be left in perfect peace.>
Glaw took a seat on one of the benches. He felt steadier now, more grounded, like he'd just finished a test of some kind and passed.
<I'll return tomorrow morning,> Lykos said, already on his way back up the stairs. <Have a pleasant night.>
The wall closed, leaving Glaw alone in the brightly lit room. He supposed he could have searched the room for hidden exits or weapons, but his eyelids were heavy and his mind, finally slowing down from a panicked rush to a grinding halt, was about as prepared for planning as his arms were prepared for flying.
Escape could wait until morning.
The house was fancy. That was the only word for it. Not impressive or rich looking, just fancy, like a figurine or a bouquet of rare flowers. Even the outdoor lighting underlined this, as the pathway up to the door was lined with electric lamps that were much too delicate and elegant to be anything but decorative.
Dylis gave the servant who opened the door a blank look and got an equally uncaring one in return. He stepped aside and let her enter without question.
On the inside the fancy made room for pompous that screamed 'please be impressed, pretty please!'. The paintings were all imported from some foreign country, if the strange motifs of fantastic beasts were anything to judge them by. The carpets were so thick it felt like she was walking on red grass and there was a fireplace in the hallway that looked big enough to fit a lookout station inside.
The servant led her to a room right across from the front door, where she was beckoned to take a seat and then left to her own device. It looked like an office with a few bookcases, a big mahogany desk, and little else.
Dylis stood to attention when the door opened. The Commandant was a woman in her mid-forties with a round face and an equally round belly that spoke more of a well-filled plate than any future additions to her family. Her uniform looked used, as if she rarely took it off even to spend quiet evenings at home; if a commandant now had time for such leisure activities.
'You must be D-Y-L-I-S,' the Commandant signed with a fluid hand, shaking Dylis' with the other.'H-U-W said you were coming.'
'That’s my name, yes.' Dylis respectfully remained standing until the Commandant had taken a seat in the chair behind the desk. 'I was told we could be of help to one another.'
'That would be an unusually truthful rumor,' the Commandant signed in answer, lifting a framed photograph from the otherwise empty desk. 'You must already know how you can assist me, so let us speak of what I can do for you.'
Dylis did her best to take a deep breath without being obvious about it. 'I need to get to Outer Camps.'
The Commandant leaned forward in her seat and rested her elbows on the desk, eyes locked on the photograph in her hands. She waited. Then: 'I've been informed of that part. That is all?'
'Yes.' Dylis stopped her nod before it could become too eager, too panicked. 'Yes, that is all.'
The Commandant took her eyes from the photograph and looked Dylis up and down, frowning. Dylis held her breath.
'This is her picture.' The Commandant turned the frame around, as gently as if the slightest hint of rough treatment would cause it to explode. The girl in the frame was young, barely old enough to join the military, much less get reassigned from her home district. The lack of color made it hard to tell if she took after her mother's chestnut hair, but they both had wild curls and chins shaped like the blunter end of an egg. The photograph itself looked like it had seen better days, its shine faded to a dullness that blurred the lines of the girl's face. There were hints of scar tissue on her neck, mostly hidden by her hair.
Dylis curled the fingers of her right hand around the papers in her pocket, tracing the surface of another photograph with the edge of her thumb. She imagined she could feel the outline of her brother's goofy smile and briefly wondered if – if – this all went horribly wrong, would she end up like the woman before her, isolated and treasuring a decade old picture?
The mental image had her gritting her teeth.
'I can get you into Outer Camp as a civilian volunteer.' The Commandant bent double and disappeared behind the desk for a second, coming back up with a handful of papers. 'I took the liberty of preparing documents for you, since I assumed you'd wish to leave as soon as possible.'
'Tonight.' Dylis shaped the sign with trembling fingers. In the privacy of her own thoughts, she cursed herself for her weakness.
'Who?' The question needed no elaboration.
Dylis hesitated, her fingers continuing to brush against the papers in her pocket. She weighed the pros and cons of answering truthfully. In the end, she went with the option that felt the most right. 'My brother,'
As if pulled by a magnet, the Commandant's eyes drew away from staring at Dylis' face, lower, to rest meaningfully on her scars.
'Surgery,' Dylis signed, before any questions could be asked.
'That was my first guess,' the Commandant responded, her gaze still hooded, a thoughtful frown wrinkling her brow. 'You were what – eight, nine?'
'Eight.' Old memories, more sensations than actual experiences, began rattling their cages inside her mind, like angered animals at a zoo.
The Commandant leaned back in her chair. 'Your brother, too?'
A curt nod was all Dylis managed, her head full of no and can't move and whowhywho?
Something sly and fox-like entered the Commandant's gaze that would have raised Dylis' hackles. 'I assume he isn't deaf.'
'How is that of any importance to my mission?' Dylis' gestures were jerky again, stiff with suppressed rage and frustration.
The Commandant's mouth twitched at that and her shoulders shook slightly. The sly look was gone, replaced by something more genuine and almost trusting. 'You're absolutely right. You must excuse me, I fear I'm far too curious for my own good.' She threw a glance back down at the framed photograph and all amusement drained from her face in the blink of an eye. 'Far too curious.'
‘I can be curious too.’ Dylis gestured at the photograph. ‘Was she deaf?’
‘No.’ The sign was vague, weak.
'If she's there, I'll get her back. If she isn't, I'll find out what happened to her.' And if Glaw wasn't there she'd cut the throat of every officer above the rank of sergeant.
The Commandant's gaze lost its faraway look and returned to study Dylis with the same shrewd quality. 'No risk of you giving up halfway I take it.'
'You'd have to shoot me to stop me.'
'Good.' The papers were pushed across the desk with little care, crumpling the edges and smudging the ink of some of the words. Dylis looked over them and nodded in approval at the fine details on the signet in the upper corner. Whoever it was the Commandant had turned to for the job she'd gotten her money's worth.
'This way.' For a woman of her less than modest size, the Commandant was swift on her feet. Dylis had to take longer strides just to keep up with her as she got up from behind the desk and made her way out of the office.
Outside she didn't turn towards the front door. Instead, she headed deeper into the house, passing a dining hall and a sitting room before finally arriving in the kitchen. A rail thin scarecrow of a woman – who Dylis assumed was the house's cook, based on her apron and location by the stove, stirring the boiling contents of a pot – gave them a brief glance as they entered, but quickly returned her attention to her task as if they were of no more interest than a creaking door hinge.
There was a backdoor, of course; no finer household would stand to have their food delivered to them by workers who got dirty footprints on their beloved carpets.
The small barge anchored in the by-channel outside brought Dylis up short. The alley and the few walkways nearby were all empty and the barge's rower looked half asleep. He was leaning heavily on his oar, his shoulders hunched and his hat drawn down to cover his ears and forehead. Despite this, Dylis couldn't shake the feeling that this all was going far too smoothly.
'F-F-I-O-N,' the Commandant signed, her eyes on the barge. 'That's her name, F-F-I-O-N H-I-E-R. And though I appreciate the fact that you're soldier enough to be alert at all times, you can stop looking so worried. This here is my own personal means of transportation.'
At Dylis' skeptical look, she added: 'Trust me, when you've reached my levels of social shame you avoid the public boats at all costs. You'd be surprised how many accidental elbows in the ribs you can get during one trip from here to the theater hall.' She made a gesture in the direction of the city gates. 'A carriage will be waiting for you next to the bakery. You know which one I mean, don't you? The driver is an old friend of the family; she'll take you the rest of the way, no questions asked.'
The Commandant dug a hand into a pocket and produced a shriveled flower that might once have been a forget-me-not. 'Glamor. It should last you three, maybe four hours.'
Her right hand stung as she accepted the flower, the leftover magic from the curse brushing against the spell coated on the dead plant. It felt like a bolt of static electricity. Her hand was the first part of her to change, her index finger fading from view and her palm growing slimmer. She didn't look down to see the rest of the change; her stomach was unsettled enough as it was.
The barge rocked gently as Dylis boarded. She had no bags to place in the waterproof boxes along its low edges, just two pockets full of documents and photographs, and no sword hilt to rest her hands around, only a dagger hidden in the left sleeve of her unfamiliar jacket. It felt wrong to stand there, dressed in the vision of another skin; dreamlike almost, as if she'd been disconnected from reality and left to float into the life of someone else.
Thankfully such lofty thoughts rarely held her attention for long.
The rower shook himself awake, weighed anchor and pushed the barge away from the walkway with practiced ease. Even without looking at the Commandant Dylis had no trouble following her movements; her fine uniform and presence demanded attention as she turned and walked back inside her fancy house.
The barge drifted on, passing under bridges and walkways, falling into pace with other boats and rafts. Dylis took note of their passengers in an absentminded sort of way; their gloves, scarfs and woolen hats, the tired looking faces of most of the adults, the occasional elderly man or woman who'd occupied a jetty with a foldout chair and a fishing rod. The picture they painted went well with the chilly nights of early spring, the starless sky and the thin layer of mist above the river.
The market square by the city gates was blessedly empty as she stepped off the barge and threw the rower a coin, more for show than any actual gratitude. A few stalls were still manned by hopeful salesmen, but even they seemed to have been sapped of enthusiasm this side of midnight, barely sparing her a glance as she made her way to the small bakery.
Her heart soared when she spotted the carriage parked outside. It was manned by a driver that looked skittish enough to not be a professional smuggler but calm enough to not piss her pants if they were questioned by the guards on the way out.
It was a little too perfect. It was also less idiotic than walking the whole way to Outer Camps.
Dylis swung herself up to take a seat on the coach box next to the driver, who gave her a wide-eyed look of pure fear, quickly masked by relief. Her mouth moved to shape a question too quick for Dylis to read and her lips twitched upward into a hesitant smile. Dylis simply gave a nod. The driver lost her smile and got the horse walking with an unsteady shake of the reins.
It would be a long trip.