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(Chapter 3)

<Did you sleep well?>

Glaw squirmed and threw an arm over his eyes. It took his brain a good ten seconds to register the demon standing over him; a familiar, cute demon - though only the gods knew what part of his brain had come up with that added information.

<I - uh, that's to say I...> he attempted an answer, stumbling and falling miles from the finish line.

Thais giggled and took a step back, almost dancing from foot to foot. <It's nearly midday! We didn't know how long your kind is supposed to sleep, so I suggested we'd let you do so until you woke up on your own, but since we don't know how often you need food either, Lykos said I'd better go check on you now. Would you like to go back to sleep?>

She wasn't quite babbling. Her tone of voice held a great deal of excitement and the words rushed from her lips and into his ears at incredible speed, but there was something controlled about the entire process. It was as if she had it all planned out in her head before she spoke and knew exactly what to say and when to say it.

Rubbing the sleep out of his eyes, Glaw made an attempt at sitting up, wincing at the crick in his neck. He threw the elevated head of the bench a dirty look; worst pillow in the history of pillows. <I'm awake,> he mumbled, the bright-eyed and bushy-tailed Thais making it close to impossible to put up any kind of guard, <and a bit hungry.>

<Wonderful!> He noted that she had a scroll of paper in her hands and a quill made from the feather of a peacock, which she now twirled between her fingers as if she was trying to start a fire in the air. <I brought you some clothes. The ones you're wearing look ready to fall apart and Lykos had no time to think about size when disguising you.>

Glaw took in the sorry state of his uniform. It had never been particularly new – you didn't get a new uniform until you made sergeant, but hand-me-downs hadn't bothered him until this exact moment – and it had gotten a whole horde of fresh grass stains, along with a big cut across the left shoulder that left the sleeve sagging halfway off his arm. The robe-thing he’d used as a blanket during the night.

Compared to Thais' deep red and gold flecked get-up, he was about as impressive as a drunk waking up in an alley the night after a tavern brawl. And yet, when he spotted what she'd brought with her, he curled his fingers around the edge of his well-worn coat as if it were a safety blanket.

The colors weren't the problem. In fact, the colors were very nice, the fabric a deep blue and the many embroideries a shimmering silver that would have been at home on any rich man's waistcoat. The vest wasn't a problem either. It had tiny hoops along one edge and oblong buttons of dark wood along the other, allowing the wearer to refrain from walking around showing off their bare chest. It wasn't even the huge glittery scarf with silver fringes; it actually looked pleasantly warm, if the weather outside was anything like it had been the day before.

No, the problem was the fact that he'd been given a skirt instead of pants.

<Mother thought they would suit you. She made them herself!> Thais said, having finished spreading the articles of clothing out on one of the benches, smoothing out imaginary wrinkles in the silk.

Glaw tried to imagine the tall, bony woman from the day before, dressed in a white robe and with her gray hair gathered into a sensible bun, sitting down to sew this monstrosity of sparkles and shiny metal. He failed miserably. Though she had shown signs of a sense of humor that was angled towards sarcasm and irony, which could explain a lot.

<That's a...> He rubbed at his eyes again, willing the piece of clothing to reshape it into something else. "...skirt."

<A what?> Thais said, blinking three times in quick succession.

"Skirt," he said again, feeling about as clever as the colorful bird that always sat on the shoulder of the old zookeeper over in Art (less in fact, as that damn bird always knew which pocket you were keeping bread crumbs in.) <I don't know what you call it.>

<It's a fustanella. Mother made it a bit longer than it's supposed to be. I hope you don't mind.>

Glaw stared some more and then let his shoulder sag in defeat. There were worse humiliations in life. Also, his slowly awakening mind had finally started putting two and two together; Thais' own not-very-skirt-like garments. It more and more felt like he'd stepped into some kind of twisted mirror world, where left was right and skirts were pants.

<Do you have any...> The lack of words had him cursing silently to himself. He'd never been a lazy student, but neither had he wasted time on unnecessary facts; there was only so much room in one head, after all. Who would have thought he'd end up in a situation where asking a demon for shoes wasn't only plausible, but also vital for his chances at escape? He'd never been one for running around barefoot.

He gestured at his feet, but when no understanding dawned in Thais' eyes he finally gave up. He stood and limped over to the bench the clothes were spread out on.

<Eh...are you going to stay here?> he asked as Thais remained in place, twirling the peacock quill between her fingers in an absentminded fashion.

<Ah, a nudity taboo!> she said, in a tone more fitting for someone who’d just gotten a winning hand in a high stakes card game. She scribbled something on her scroll. <I'll leave you to it and don't worry, I won't peek. I'll be right outside, just knock on the wall when you're done!>

Her sudden departure was almost as unsettling as watching her eyes light up and her hands pull the wall apart, but only almost.

It took him a good twenty minutes to get the clothes on in something even approaching a comfortable way. The silk felt cold against his skin and disturbingly soft, like being wrapped in tightly woven spider web and though he'd been left underwear that wasn't too hard to figure out how to put on – there was a lot of loose strings – there was still the issue of the skirt.

At least he wouldn't stand out from the crowd as much.

He knocked on the wall twice. It slid open just as he was about to let his fist fall against it a third time. Bernike sidestepped with little effort and caught Glaw's wrist, preventing him from tumbling back down the stairs. She let go as soon as he had regained his balance.

<This way!> Thais called from behind Bernike, not commenting on either the near fall or his new attire. She began walking down the same halls that he and Lykos had gone through the day before and Glaw did his best to keep up with her, reluctantly turning his back to Bernike, who remained in place by the wall.

The outside looked even stranger and more breathtaking in daylight. The mansion had a garden that was large and decorative enough to be called a park but filled with enough fruit trees (full of apples and pears and things he had no name for) to be called an orchard. It didn't seem to be too private either, as there was a lot of people milling about; some picking fruit, others simply eating or curled up in the grass, sunbathing like big cats.

Thais' slowed down as they came closer to the corner of the mansion, letting him fall into step with her and giving happy nods to all passersby. Out of the blue, she said:

<We made a decision to treat you as the ambassador of your people, with some small restraints on your freedom.> Her smile faltered for a moment, before coming back twice as bright. <But that's of course only until we have the peace treaty signed!> The sheer optimism in that sentence nearly knocked Glaw off his feet.

<Thais has great hopes for you,> Lykos said, sneaking up on them silent as a shadow, <and I do believe you have the will to support her dream - the dream of all our people - with all your heart.>

No matter how flowery the wording, saying no to such a statement would have been tantamount to suicide. Glaw blinked up at Lykos and tried to find a way to answer without laughing in the demon's face or calling him crazy. <I-I'll do my very best to convince my superiors. What are the terms?>

<The terms are that you stay here in the city until a treaty is signed and all is honey and newly sprung flowers between our two peoples,> a third voice supplied, dripping with sarcasm. <So you'd better prepare for growing old here, boy.> Vita made halt a few meters away from them and leaned against the mansion wall, arms crossed over her chest.

<There is nothing wrong with hope,> Thais said, her smile not the least bit dented. <You must excuse Vita, she's had some bad experiences with your kind. But as we all know we can't judge an entire people by the actions of a few of its members.>

<Yes, because the hundreds of attacking soldiers sneaking along our borders are surely just a small portion of their peace loving, gentle kind.> Vita's eyes were narrowed into two thin slits. The smile she was answering Thais' with was everything but cheerful.

<Need I remind you that we know nothing of their system of government?> Thais said, putting her hands on her hips. <Their moral beliefs? For all we know, this is a holy war to them! And with our history, I'd almost say we'd deserve that.>

The tension in the air was mounting. Glaw opened his mouth, but for once no words came out. Thoughts were rushing through his head quicker than he could catch them and too tangled together to overflow and spill out of their own accord.

Instead, Lykos cut in, looking for all the world as if the argument at hand was nothing more than a disagreement over what they were going to have for dinner. <While I understand your point of view, sister, I do believe this isn't the best manner in which to sway Vita to your side.> Thais shoulders dropped, though her expression held no hint of shame.

<And you,> Lykos continued, turning to face Vita. <While your dedication is commendable and your doubts well based, I feel it might be unwise of you to expose yourself to all this.>

Vita pushed off the wall and gave a snort of pure disbelief. <So you're saying I should just keep my mouth shut and stay out of your way?>

<Of course not, your opinions are just as valuable as ours,> Lykos said, as Vita stalked closer. <I merely meant to suggest that you'd make more clear-headed decisions and convincing arguments, if you were to formulate them in peace, away from these confrontations.> The two of them stood toe to toe now, Vita attempting to stare down Lykos – which looked rather comical, as she was about half a head shorter than him – and Lykos merely standing his ground with a serene look on his face.

The whole scene reminded Glaw of a pack of stray dogs that had used to hang around the barracks in Search. The alpha of the group had been a shaggy, snarling beast that always looked ten seconds away from biting someone's leg off.

Most of the time, from what Glaw had seen of them, the rest of the pack kept out of his way, darting for cover when he became too aggressive. But the few times the alpha had crossed the line between threat and attack, a short-coated old hunting dog had slipped between him and whoever his target was, instantly halting all hostility through his mere presence. The other dog had never shown either his fangs or his throat to the alpha and yet the alpha would always be the first to back down, turning his back and walking away as if the whole episode had been beneath him.

It didn't surprise Glaw too much when Vita did exactly that. She broke the stare-down with a huff and gave a one-shoulder shrug. <I just came from the healers. The last attack the ambassador's people made left Laelia pretty scratched up. Nothing too serious, but she'll be out of it for at least a month, so I thought I'd better make myself useful around here until I could return to guard duty.> Her tone of voice was no less sarcastic, but the hostility had died down, leaving only annoyance. <But seeing as you have everything under such perfect control, I'll go see what needs doing elsewhere.>

The tension dissipated like a cloud of smoke the moment she disappeared around the corner of the mansion.

<We're still under guard,> Lykos said, as if he was commenting on the weather. <Myrrine is stalking the rooftops, unless the light is playing tricks on me again.> He took off his glasses and cleaned them on the edge of the scarf he had wrapped two turns around his shoulders. <I almost didn't recognize you, dressed like that. Agape's work, if I'm not mistaken.>

Glaw wrapped his own scarf a little tighter around himself, adjusting it so it wasn't hanging off his shoulders so much and watched Thais nod with pride. He again took note of how her skin was a few shades darker than her brother's, how her hair was far curlier and her eyes were the color of chocolate, while Lykos' were the color of a cloudless winter sky.

The clothes suddenly made much more sense.

<First things first,> Thais said and began walking, with Lykos and Glaw automatically falling into step behind her. <We need breakfast. Or, well, the ambassador needs breakfast and I need lunch. How about you, brother?>

<Food sounds like an excellent idea,> Lykos said. <Shall I assume your mother has cooked something for us already?>

<Assume away!> Thais' voice rose and fell as she spoke, never quite reaching a pitch so high that it put anyone's teeth on edge, but still sing-song enough to emphasize the spring in her steps. <Today calls for a celebration and what could be more celebratory than starting the day with one of the best meals there is to be had?>

Her shoulders heaved with a deep breath and she looked over her shoulder at Glaw, her cheeks tinged faintly red. <I'm sorry for being so hasty, but...> The torrent of words abruptly flowed to a stop and she laughed, shaking her head seemingly at herself. <For the first time in two hundred years, we have the chance to – to communicate beyond curses and death threats! It's all so overwhelming.>

You could say that again, almost passed across Glaw's lips. He managed to bite back the words at the last second and simply nodded, doing his best to return her smile.

<Tell me, how do you motivate using the ambassador to get us free food from your mother's tavern?> Lykos asked in the way of amused yet indulgent older brothers everywhere.

Thais didn't seem to take offense. She gave another laugh and waved her quill in her brother's face, brushing it against his nose. <A cultural exchange is needed, to make sure we don't misunderstand or offend each other by mistake,> she said as they made their way down the road. She seemed completely oblivious to the way people scurried out of their way, as if they were a group of armed outlaws. <Food is a huge part of culture, thus my actions are perfectly logical and reasonable.>

<You have me there,> Lykos said, bowing his head in defeat. <Though you could have strengthened your argument by bringing up the dinner we had yesterday evening.>

<And bereave you the pleasure of pointing out my mistake?> Thais gave them both a playful wink, weaving her way in-between a cart and a pillar. <I could never be that cruel to you, brother. You have such few joys in life that taking away even one of them would be unforgivable.>

The crowd was growing thicker. Though most tried to keep along the walls and pillars of the houses that lined the street, it was harder to refrain from touching anyone. Glaw found the new clothes got him some double-takes from the demons around him, some of them more wide-eyed and frightened than others. It was strangely empowering to see them cower before him, but it also made him walk closer to Lykos and Thais; scared dogs bit you far more often than the confident ones.

His two companion made a jarring contrast to the tense atmosphere around them. They kept smiling at each other, nodding to what Glaw assumed were friends, or possibly more family, and kept up a running commentary of the buildings they passed. They pointed out their favorite shops and told anecdotes about the origins of the statues and the mosaic that decorated the ground, roofs, and walls.

They sounded so much like daytime watchmen at a museum that what they actually said only went in one of Glaw’s ears and out the other. His mind was far too busy trying to wrap itself around the bizarre situation without the added headache of demonic art history.

<...the lack of marble in this area really made it tricky to build houses at first, since there had been so much of it where-> The lecture cut itself short and the group came to an abrupt halt. Before the reflex to duck could take hold of him, Glaw spotted a familiar face on the other side of the small, round square they'd entered.

<Aelius!> Thais cried out, throwing her arms up and waving them frantically above her head. <Aelius, over here!>

The demon being addressed stopped dead in his tracks as soon as he caught sight of them and gave a small wave back, waiting for them to catch up to him.

<I thought you'd returned to the border,> Thais said as they stopped and huddled together to shield themselves from a gust of particularly cold wind.

Aelius adjusted the scarf he had swept over his shoulders and smiled, avoiding looking in Glaw's direction. <I, eh, did, but my terra sent me back here this morning. He thought it would be better that as many guards were in the city at the same time as possible, due to the....unusual circumstances.> His eyes kept shifting towards the treeline at the top of the valley while he spoke and his hands were restless; straightening his scarf, tugging at his sleeves.

<He'll mind himself,> Lykos said with absolute surety. <Most likely he wants you to spend some time where Vita can see you.>

This had Aelius heaving a sigh that sounded like it contained just as much frustration as air. <Yes, most likely,> he muttered, eyes on the ground.

<Well, with you here we should get some people together for another dance!> Thais suggested, giving Aelius' shoulder a gentle pat. <Since Lykos missed out on the one yesterday, I'm sure we can find at least a handful of people who'll take pity on him.>

<You did?>

All the three demons turned to look at Glaw in near perfect unison. Thais and Aelius looked startled, while Lykos merely raised an inquiring eyebrow.

<Miss the dance, I mean,> Glaw added, fighting the urge to scrape his feet like a schoolboy caught listening in on a private conversation.

<Someone had to watch you, and Myrrine really wanted to drag Bernike there now that she had the chance,> Lykos answered with a small smile. <It was no hardship, I assure you. I'll have another chance tonight, thanks to Aelius and my dear sister. There is no harm done.>

Glaw nodded and cleared his throat, doing his best to appear unfazed by the continuous stares from the other two. Thais, at least, had lost the look of shock and slipped back into curiosity, but Aelius still regarded him as if he were a rabid dog that could bite at any moment.

<I'm glad I haven't caused too much trouble,> Glaw said and then mentally slapped himself across the head.

Aelius, of all people, came to his rescue by breaking the ensuing silence with a question. <Where are you headed?>

<Mother has offered to cook for us, free of charge!> Thais was quick to answer, tearing her eyes from Glaw. <You should join us! I'm sure there will be more than enough to share.>

<I'd love to,> Aelius said and before Glaw knew it they were moving, leaving the small square behind for more shops and houses.

The buildings seemed to go on forever, taking up space like a group of new recruits that had squeezed in shoulder to shoulder in line for food. The city was a maze of pillars and archways, and other than the main road, it was made up of narrow, winding streets barely worthy of the name. It was as if the demons had found a spot that had suited them and then tried to build every single home and shop in the exact same place.

The trees were never out of sight, either. None grew in the valley; they instead lined the edge of the hills, like a living, growing city wall and no building was high enough to obscure them from view. Only the outline of an occasional mansion or two broke the claustrophobic display, small holes in the otherwise impenetrable thicket of trunks, branches, and leaves.

Agape was waiting for them outside her tavern, her hands on her hips and a big grin on her face. Her clothes were as colorful as the day before, though more green and pink this time around. She ushered them inside as soon as they'd exchanged greetings, leading them to the same room they'd occupied the previous evening.

<We'll go get the food!> Thais said, already halfway out into the other room, arm-in-arm with a resigned Aelius.

Lykos took a seat and closed his eyes, much like he'd done after the meal the day before, his legs crossed and his back straight.

Briefly left to his own device, Glaw took the time to finally think. With all the chaos around him, he'd barely had time to remember his own name, much less plan his escape. Except...did he really want to?

The thought was a painful one, a gnawing doubt at the back of his head that made his cheeks burn and his conscience groan. It was a thought he never would dare to speak out loud, not even if it had been Dylis who were listening.

He threw a glance at Lykos, who still sat cross-legged and unmoving. How was he supposed to be afraid of a prison guard like that? No veiled threats, no restraints other than the occasional locked door (or solid wall, which admittedly was quite unsettling, but the melting of stone and wood grew less and less shocking for each time he witnessed it.) There was just endless patience and kind words to be had.

And Thais. Her enthusiasm and optimism could be false, but if it was she was a damn good actress. Physically she was about as frightening as a squirrel and just as cute.

He had to stop himself from banging his head against the wall.

Honeytraps weren't a foreign concept to him. It was a sort of legend among the younger men and women of the military, of which they were all too glad to make up stories and lies to tell each other. Stories that of course always ended in the Empire's favor and with the hero a pleasurable experience richer.

If Thais was one, he could just as well admit defeat right away. Not to mention that her brother  was just as attractive, if less exuberant.

Glaw took a deep breath and threw another look over at Lykos, trying to regroup his thoughts. All right, so demons may not be savage monsters lurking in the shadows, ready to eat his entrails or tear off his fingernails for a laugh, but they were still the enemy. They'd been the enemy for thousands of years, longer than even the Emperor had been alive! Things like that didn't just change over night.

Then again, what good would it do to keep that animosity alive? Neighbors could fight for years over who stole whose apples fifty years ago, but what did that accomplish? Replace apples with children and the fight would escalate for generations, but no one would actually get their children back; they'd only lose more of them.

<When am I supposed to contact my superiors?>

Lykos cracked one eye open, like a sleeping owl that couldn't be bothered to pay you all of its attention at once. <Whenever you feel ready to.>

Glaw fidgeted. <I think I might have some ideas for a letter. If I could just have some paper...>

<That could be arranged. Though I hope you understand that the Senate will have to approve its contents.>

The look Lykos gave him as he said that was so full of sympathy that Glaw wanted to scream. He swallowed once, twice and took a deep breath, before giving Lykos the closest thing to a smile that he could manage. <Of course.>

Another moment of silence passed. Glaw stared at his blurred reflection in the shiny black stone that was the floor, until a thought struck him. <You read our writing?>

Lykos again opened only one eye. <You didn't think your side was the only one wise enough to learn the language of their opponents, did you?> He stretched and yawned; a small, polite gesture like every other movement he performed. <Your writing and your gesture language too. Very clever way of avoiding speaking aloud, I must say. I wonder if my people would have developed something like that, had we had need of it.>

Glaw frowned and narrowed his eyes, as if he could will himself to read the demon's thoughts. <Had need of it?>

<We're in luck!> Thais' sudden reappearance started Glaw enough to make him jump. She strode into the room with a bowl in each hand, closely followed by Aelius who also carried two bowls containing something that steamed. <Mother's specialty!>

One of the bowls was placed gently on the tiny table closest to where Glaw stood, another next to Lykos. Aelius and Thais both kept one each and found themselves empty benches; there were plenty to choose from. Thais seated herself next to her brother, opposite the bench they surely meant for Glaw to sit on, while Aelius chose one a little closer to the entrance.

Don't want to be rude, Glaw found himself thinking and nearly laughed out loud at himself. He took his seat and mustered up a polite smile in Thais' general direction, which she returned with a wide, happy one of her own.

<You really must try this!> she said, gesturing with the bowl she now held with both hands, offering up its contents for him to view. <I'm not sure we feel taste the same way as you do – I've never had the opportunity to ask, as I'm sure you're not surprised to learn – but since you seemed pleased with what we had yesterday, mother assumed this would be to your liking. The berries might be a bit sweet, so save them for last. Or do you eat the sweet things first in your culture?>

<I'll fetch our drinks,> Lykos said, as unruffled by the return of animated conversation as Glaw had been surprised by it. When the bespectacled demon had left the room, Glaw found himself feeling ridiculously vulnerable, like a nobleman left without his guards.

<No,> he managed to say, eyes refusing to move from the curtains covering the room's entrance. <We eat the sweet things last, too. We call it...> He paused, switching his thoughts back to his first language with some effort, "...dessert".

"Dessert," Thais mimicked, her pronunciation eerily accurate. Lykos' words from earlier echoed through his head and Glaw felt his ears turn red and warm; from shame or worry, he couldn't quite decide.

"That's one of your words I hadn't heard before," Thais said with a thoughtful nod and it took Glaw a good five seconds to realize she'd switched language altogether. "Dessert, hm? I think I could get quite fond of that word. It's very elegant."

Over in his corner by the entrance, Aelius shifted in his seat, as if the bench had started swaying. <Thais, do you have permission to...?> he whisper-hissed, his words trailing off into silence as his eyes darted from Glaw to the doorless doorway and then back to her face.

<Oh hush,> she said, giving her fellow demon a fond smile. <He would have found out sooner or later. You guards can't eavesdrop in plain sight anyway, so what's the harm?>

Lykos' return interrupted whatever response Aelius had formed and a temporary silence fell over the room as they all took the time to enjoy their meal. Shameful as it was, having Lykos back in his line of sight calmed Glaw. It was almost as soothing as having Dylis nearby, even if the two couldn't have been more unlike each other. That and he’d never been as interested in Dylis’, eh, physique, as he was in Lykos’. He hoped no one saw him staring. Looking at Thais certainly wouldn’t help and Aelius looked horrified every time their eyes accidentally met. Staring down at his meal seemed the only solution.

The food in his bowl swiftly disappeared. It was just as delicious as the meal he'd been served the day before, if a little spicy, and it was a welcome distraction. It was always easier to think when his hands could be kept busy.

The demons spoke the human tongue, they could read both letters and sign language and, if Lykos' cryptic words were to be trusted, speak to each other in some other way as well. How could he possibly warn his fellow soldiers of this, when the demons' entire council of elders was going to read his message home?

For a heartbeat, as he raised the first of the berries to his lips, he had to fight back laughter. He knew plenty of military codes, but few that could be hidden in plain sight. Ways to scramble letters and hide text, yes, but no code words for "I am captured" or "The enemy has read this". Who would need such tricks in a world where the enemy was supposed to eat you the moment they caught you?

But he'd had to think of something. Maybe there could be peace with the demons, some day, but if he gave the impression of a complete turncoat in the first letter back, the military would give him up for a traitor and there would be no rescue; peaceful or otherwise.

<What's your people's word for us?> Thais suddenly asked.

Glaw dropped one of the berries – very sweet and very sticky. He tried to catch it, his fumbling hand coloring the blue of his skirt purple in places. He felt his ears turn a color to match the berries as Thais laughed.

<All I've ever heard your warriors call ours is 'enemy',> she continued, as Glaw did his best to scrub away the berry stains. <Don't you have another name for us? As a group? We've been calling you Those By The Sea for a few generations, so you must have another designation for us as well.>

Glaw stopped scrubbing. He was starting to feel a bit sick. All eyes were on him now; Thais' curious, Aelius' distant but keen, and Lykos with one eyebrow higher than the other. "...demons."

<Oh.> Thais pursed her lip in a thoughtful manner. <I was expecting something far worse. We actually call ourselves Demos. I think the translation of that would be "The People", but I might be wrong.> She twisted in her seat, a big smile on her face. Lykos and Aelius remained unmoving. <So, does "demons" mean 'the other people'?>

Glaw found himself blinking repeatedly. <No, it, eh...> He looked down at his hands, covered in berry juice, and frowned. <It just means "demons".>

<Huh. Interesting,> Thais said. Then she hiccuped.

<That's enough wine for you, I should think.> Glaw looked up to see that Lykos had gotten to his feet and confiscated Thais' cup. <It seems we've all finished our meal,> he continued, cutting Thais short as she opened her mouth, most likely to protest the treatment of her wine. <What other activities might be vital to this cultural exchange, sister?>

<Well I don't know, brother,> Thais answered, emphasizing the last word playfully. <Perhaps a little relaxation? He looks like he could use it.>

<Aelius or Glaw?>

On his bench, Aelius sat up straighter and sighed. He gave Lykos something that wasn't a glare but looked like it really wanted to be. Lykos gave him a polite smile in turn.

Thais got up and stretched before going over to give Aelius a pat on the back. <Don't take it as an insult! You just look like you've been through one battle too many. Just because Nikon-> Thais gave Glaw a quick look out of the corner of her eye. <Well, you'll be no good to us as a guard if you can't rest for a bit. You're looking as worn out as the ambassador!>

<He sort of has more right to look ragged than I do,> Glaw said, too tired to care about his wayward tongue any longer. <You should have seen him fight the other day. I only caught the end of it and I was still impressed enough to promise myself to never get on his bad side.>

A small, fragile smile tugged at the corner of Aelius' lips. <So you'd rather face my terra in duel?>

Glaw gave a weak laugh and shook his head, finding a loop-sided grin sneaking its way onto his face, despite feeling slightly nauseous. <I'd like that even less. I hope I'm not offending your honor by saying so, but your terra is one of the scariest people I've ever seen.>

<He'll be pleased you said that,> Aelius said. His eyes were still distant as they came to rest on Glaw's face, but there was a little more warmth to them and a little less wariness.

Glaw chuckled. <Then make sure to tell him soon. Anything to make him like me.>

Aelius' shoulders sagged, in something akin to relief, and Glaw found himself rewarded by another wide smile from Thais. <That settles it then,> she said, pulling Aelius to his feet. <To the bathhouse!>

They all followed her out the door.

As it turned out the building in question was located right across the street. It was of impressive size, if not vertically than at least horizontally, like a beached whale among goldfish, and there were more people entering and exiting it than any other house on the street.

Glaw's neck gave a click of protest as he leaned back his head to stare at the mosaic that decorated the high ceiling inside. His three companions – since when were they his companions? - went to the far corner of the room and got a handful of towels and a wide-eyed look from the demon behind the counter.

<This way!> Thais called, waving a fluffy, snow white towel at him. <We talked to the people in charge and you keeping your clothes on will be fine, as long as we keep to a separate pool.>

Blinking, Glaw nodded his thanks at the towel Lykos offered him and followed. The next room, though not as overwhelmingly large as the first, was nonetheless puzzling. The function of the shelves was easy to figure out, especially as most of them already had clothes folded on them, but the jars of oil that lined the walls were both mysterious and unsettling.

Aelius and Lykos immediately began to strip out of their clothes. This, in itself, didn't faze Glaw in the least; he'd lived too long in cramped barracks to feel awkward with other men undressing in his general vicinity, even if they were attractive. What did make him cover his eyes was the fact that Thais had decided to follow suit, dropping scarf, pants and every other piece of clothing in a careless heap on the floor.

<Sister, with a mother so enamored of clothes as yours, I'm always equally shocked to see how ill you treat them when you're not wearing them. It seems your negligence has upset the ambassador.>

At Lykos' teasing words Glaw dared spread his fingers enough to be able to take a peek, but quickly drew them shut again. <Not exactly,> he muttered into the darkness of his hands. <Is there a...> He desperately groped for a translation of 'ladies room', but quickly gave up, <...a bath for women and a bath for men?>

<Oh! You mean the taboo is only for seeing people of another gender without clothes?> Thais sounded genuinely surprised, as if the possibility hadn't even crossed her mind. <I thought it was a religious thing, not baring your body to the enemy or something like that. I'm so sorry!> There was a soft rustling of cloth, followed by: <It’s safe to look now.>

With a gulp, Glaw lowered his hands and carefully cracked one eye open. Thais had wrapped a towel around her waist.

<...thanks,> he managed to say, doing his best not to stare at her chest. He could feel his cheeks burning like two lanterns and was glad the light nausea he'd been feeling since lunch was keeping his body from reacting in even more embarrassing ways.

<Here.> Lykos said, offering him two small jars with something inside that smelled like lilacs. <I'm assuming you know what soap is. The other one is lather for shaving.> He shook the second jar gently, creating a thin layer of foam across the surface of the liquid inside. <I'm afraid I can't let you have a knife, but if you wish I can assist you.>

Glaw nodded dumbly, reaching up to rub a thumb against the uneven stubble growing on his cheeks. A bath, no matter how crowded and potentially embarrassing, would be nice.

Taking a deep breath he grabbed one end of his scarf and pulled it off his shoulders. The room was warm, bordering on hot; walking around fully clothed wouldn't be the best of ideas. The others waited patiently for him to strip down to his skirt and then they headed for the next room.

It was amazing how awkward wearing clothes felt when everyone else was naked. This third room was even larger than the first; more a hall than a room and full of people. There were pools of water lined with marble everywhere, in all shapes and sizes. The air was full of steam and Glaw kept having to sidestep to avoid being tripped by playing and staring children. It didn't help that every adult who saw him also stopped and stared.

<Here we are!> Thais call, snapping his attention away from the gawking crowd. She was seated by one of the smaller pools on the far side of the hall, alongside Lykos. Aelius was nowhere to be seen.

Glaw caught up with them, head held as high as he dared, and took a seat next to Lykos.

<It's a good thing that fustanella needs washing or mother would be furious with you for bathing in it,> Thais singsonged as Glaw dipped his feet into the water. It was a pleasant temperature; just warm enough to loosen strained muscles without being hot enough to burn. Interestingly enough there were broad steps all around the edge of the pool, leading down into its deeper middle part.

Lykos helped him put the jars down. There was just too much skirt and water to deal with at the same time for Glaw to be able to perform any coordinated movements as he took his seat.

<Wonderful, isn't it? You should try some massage next. Aelius stole our best masseur, sneaky as he is, but I'm sure she'll have time for you later,> Thais said. Glaw did his best to nod and meet her eyes without actually looking at her. <What are the bath houses like where you're from?>

<We don't actually-> A glimmer of steel caught his eye. He did his best to not flinch as Lykos, without comment, began smearing his face with the foam from one of the little jars. There was a very sharp looking knife lying on the edge of the pool, between the two of them, and for a second Glaw contemplated the utter insanity that he was going to let a demon bring that anywhere near his face.

<You don't take baths?>

The confusion in Thais' voice was enough to trick Glaw into looking at her again, only to be met with a teasing grin. <What? No- I mean yes- I mean of course my people take baths! Not us soldiers so much, though. We mostly have...> Frowning, Glaw searched for a good translation. <Eh, indoor waterfalls?>

Thais' eyes grew wide as saucers. <What?>

<Be quiet for a moment and lean your head back,> Lykos cut in, bringing the knife up to rest by Glaw's foam coated cheek. <I don't want to risk cutting your ears off.>

That visual was far too close to the visions of torture Glaw had been entertaining the first hours of his imprisonment, so all he could do in reply was whimper and keep very, very still. Neither Lykos nor Thais commented on this.

Lykos' hand was steady and Glaw soon found himself drifting off, like he would in the seat of any barbershop back in Trade. The skirt kept floating up around him, but other than that he was oddly comfortable.

Sadly, it seemed the warm water was doing nothing to soothe his growing nausea. In fact, he was starting to feel worse. With every scrape of Lykos' knife, a new memory of home floated to the surface of his mind, accompanied by a very real stab of pain. It felt much like the cramps you got from food poisoning. Hopefully, the urge to vomit wouldn't join in.

Gradually everything before his eyes went black. It stayed dark for no more than a few seconds, but when he opened his eyes again the ceiling looked different; much closer and much darker.

<It would seem we've found some of mother's cooking that doesn't agree with you.>

Blinking, Glaw made an attempt to sit up, but was stopped by a hand on his chest, gently pushing him back down. He could barely make out Thais' expression in the dim light, even though she was nearly face-to-face with him. At least he wasn't sitting in water anymore. Wherever this new place was, it was dry and quiet.

A bowl appeared within his line of sight and was nudged against his lips.

<It's for the pain.> It was Thais' who'd spoken and he could see her face, but unless she had a third arm somewhere (who knew with demons?) it wasn't her hands holding the bowl.

<Lykos?> Glaw found himself asking.

The face of the demon in question separated itself from the darkness on Glaw's left-hand side, leaning forward over Glaw and the bowl. <Here, drink. You'll feel better in a moment.>

Without hesitation, Glaw downed the contents of the bowl in three swift gulps. It tasted bland and didn't seem to have any scent, which eased its way down into his upset stomach. Even so, the effort of swallowing had him wincing and gritting his teeth.

He closed his eyes and distracted himself by trying to figure out what he was lying on. His head was resting on something slightly higher up than his chest, while his searching fingers felt wood and thick fabric; had to be one of those bench-bed-chairs the demons had everywhere.

Seconds later his stomach unknotted itself and he found himself feeling pleasantly warm and relaxed.

Opening his eyes, he noted that the room seemed a little lighter and more familiar. Lykos and Thais had both remained with him, standing on each side of the bench. Overhead the patterns of the ceiling slowly ceased being a blurry mess and became the chess like markings of his cellar-cell.

<You seemed fine the last time we kept you here. It felt safer to bring you back here, in case it was something in the water or the steam that made you ill,> Thais said, stroking a hand down his right arm; the soothing gesture reminded Glaw of Dylis, on the few occasion when he'd been sick or terribly hungover and she'd had to keep an eye on him. Dylis' touches had generally been briefer and rougher in a 'you idiot why do you get into these messes'-kind of way, and yet...

Maybe he was running a fever. It wasn't enough he again was comparing a demon to his dear sister, but a demon he'd repeatedly called cute, if only in the privacy of his own mind. Thinking of your sister in a situation like that was never a good idea.

<How are you feeling?> Lykos said.

Glaw tore his gaze away from Thais' eyes, feeling somewhat lightheaded, and turned his head to the left. <Better. Much better, actually. Whatever she gave me, it worked.> A pleasant buzz had started up at the back of his mind and the warmth kept on spreading until it had reached the tips of his fingers and toes.

<I'm glad! I was a bit worried it wouldn't work on you, since you're...> Thais said, ending with a shrug. <Well, it's worked on animals and our kind alike, so I assumed it at least wouldn't be dangerous for you to ingest. I'll make you some more and leave it in your room.> She gave him a smile that only could be interpreted as encouraging.

<Mmm-hmmm,> Glaw answered, his eyes drifting shut. The warmth in his limbs was turning them heavy and the pleasant buzz had started to drown out all other sounds.

Thais' smile softened and she reached out to brush her hand against his forehead. <Rest now. Someone will come fetch you for the dance tonight. Can't have you missing two of those, right? Would be a poor cultural exchange if we did.>

Glaw gave a weak nod and let his head sink back down onto the unyielding pillow at the head of the bench. He was asleep within seconds.

*****

The carriage wasn't as exclusive as the ones she had seen her fellow soldiers get carted off in, for which the driver had spent the better part of their first hour apologizing, but Dylis couldn't have cared less.

After an awkward game of lip reading and trying to verbally mimic what she'd seen, she'd eventually learned that her driver's name was Anna, or something to that effect. The glamor wearing off had thankfully not started either of them too much, which was a blessing. The horse drawing their carriage was jumpy enough for both of them. He kept sidestepping and shaking his head at the slightest provocation and they had to stop at the side of the road every time a traveler heading for Trade came within five meters of them.

After five hours of this, Dylis had given up on cursing and simply accepted that she wouldn't be speeding off to Glaw's rescue at the pace she'd wished for. It was better than nothing. How much better was debatable.

Most of the travelers they met were merchants, but as the sun set a different sort of carriage came into view, far in the distance. This other carriage was everything Dylis' and Anna’s wasn't; royal blue paint that had been polished until it shone, a driver dressed well enough to be a noble in his own right and it was pulled by four healthy stallions with black coats that matched the carriage perfectly.

It was moving with unnatural speed.

Anna hurried to steer their carriage off the road and jumped off the coach box. Dylis followed at a more sedated pace, keeping an eye on the approaching carriage while she took up position on the horse's other side, holding the reins with one hand while saluting with the other. A less alert observer who hadn't grown up keeping eyes on entire cities would most likely have missed the figure that jumped off the speeding carriage and took off into the underbrush. It disappeared behind an abandoned barn, quick as a dormouse.

The carriage rolled on at the same breakneck pace, heedless of its lost passenger. A few hundred meters from the spot where Dylis and Anna had stopped, the driver suddenly pulled on the reins. The four impressive horses held their heads even higher than before and slowed their pace, coming to a standstill not five steps from Dylis and Anna's carriage. Dylis had to grab at their horse's reins with both hands as the spooked creature threatened to get on its hind legs.

Neither Anna nor Dylis moved as the driver of the blue carriage got down from his seat. Dylis gave the reins a last, sharp tug, then freed her right hand. She made to resume her salute, but froze, hand raised halfway to her forehead. Quickly, while the driver was busy unlatching the door for whoever remained inside the blue carriage, Dylis lowered her arm as well as her chin in a civilian bow. Next to her, Anna had already done the same.

Eyes on the ground Dylis waited, fighting to keep her breath even. This close there was no mistaking the coat of arms on the carriage. Boots of the finest leather entered her field of vision and someone must have said something, for Anna gave Dylis a nudge in the ribs with an elbow and the damn horse took a few steps backward.

Filling her mind with thoughts of warm beds, seductive smiles on pretty faces and the freedom of standing atop a tower all alone, Dylis raised her eyes to take in Field Marshal Cadfael Warlow. The fancy, yet military clothes were no surprise and neither was his face; few were those who hadn't seen him at the head of a parade of five. Dylis had, many times.

But that had been at a distance. This was close. Very, very close. Well Rhian, you always have loved to challenge yourself. Let's hope that tea of yours is as potent as it tasted or I'm a dead woman.

There seemed to be a verbal exchange between Anna (who'd barely dared lift her chin, much less look at the Field Marshal) and the driver. It was short and as soon as it had ended the Field Marshal took the lead of the conversation; with his hands.

'A volunteer for Outer Camps? That's quite unusual,' the Field Marshal signed, an amused air about him. He took a step closer to Dylis, but without turning his back on Anna. If it hadn't been such a laughable thought, it would almost have seemed like he was trying not to insult her by excluding her from the conversation. Then again, who knew what games the Field Marshal liked to play?

The Field Marshal raised one hand to his chin in a thoughtful manner and eyed Dylis up and down, as if searching for something. Dylis kept an almost painful mental grip on her watchtower and faceless lover, forcing a confident smile onto her lips.

'No tracking spell I see,' the Field Marshal finally signed. 'Have a lover in the military, do you?'

'Yes, Field Marshal,' Dylis signed, eyes fixed on a point to the left of his head. 'He was sent to Outer Camps last month.'

She couldn't be sure, but she was quite sure his lips had twitched up in a quick grin. 'Does this lover have a name? I'm just returning from an inspection you see, I might know where he's been posted in more detail.'

There was no hesitation before she answered: 'O-W-A-I-N, sir.'

'No last name?'

She shook her head. 'I figured Outer Camps can't be that big, Field Marshal.'

This time his mouth definitely twitched upwards at the corners. 'How come?'

Dylis brought forth the view from the watchtower to the forefront of her mind and made herself recall the cold wind and the ant-sized people below. 'My friend took me up the top of the city wall a few times, back in Art. You can't see Outer Camps from there, but you can see the tree tops in the distance.'

The Field Marshal leaned his head back and moved his mouth in a way that Dylis recognized as a hearty laugh. 'You look like you have the eyes of a hawk, my friend,' he signed as the brief attack of mirth had passed. 'I'm sure you'll be an asset to Outer Camps, with or without ears.'

Dylis bowed her head in acknowledgment and deference. She let her eyes wander from the Field Marshal's boots to Anna's scruffier footwear and felt her heart freeze. She let her eyes dart to the feet and legs of the Field Marshal's driver; the knot in her chest remained.

It was as if the driver and Anna stopped. Just stopped. They weren't moving and, looking up as high as she dared, there wasn't any sign that they were breathing. Even the damn horse was as still as the grave.

While Dylis fought to get her thoughts under control, the Field Marshal boots had come closer. She felt a gloved hand catch her chin and tilt her head back, so she and the hand's owner came to be eye-to-eye. They were of a height, yet Dylis felt like a child again, confronted by a shadow in a hospital room.

'Word to the wise, little lover bird,' the Field Marshal signed with his free hand, after simply holding her gaze for far too long a moment. 'Do not tell anyone of what you've witnessed leaving my carriage and I won't send word back to the camp that it's about to receive a fugitive into its ranks. Do we have an understanding?'

Dylis did her best to nod with the fingers under her chin. They were nowhere near her throat, there was no pressure, but breathing was becoming more difficult by the second.

'Good of you to not fake ignorance.' There was an eerie light in the Field Marshal's otherwise ordinary, brown eyes; like steel at the bottom of a dark well. He let go of her and she stumbled backward, doing her best to lock her knees in place and not let them shake.

'I care very little about whatever petty crime you've committed,' the Field Marshal continued, making his way back to his original position by his carriage. 'If there had been a murder I would have been informed, and if you've robbed someone,' he gave her right hand a very pointed look, 'whatever you took clearly isn't with you anymore.' He shrugged. 'If you wish to risk your life to escape punishment or seek atonement, I will not hinder you. But should I find out you've betrayed me, I shall not be kind.'

His words were easy and airy, like a fisherman discussing the weather after a day's work. Yelling or coldness would have been far kinder, Dylis felt. As it was, the friendly tone and the unnatural stillness of the other living creatures around them had her belly in knots.

And then, as swiftly as it had begun, it was over. 'An asset indeed,' the Field Marshal signed and Dylis nearly jumped when she caught movement out of the corner of the eye; Anna had bowed, as had the driver. The horse was on the move again too, dancing in place and tugging at the reins in her hand. She had to grab hold of them with both hands (which had her biting her tongue to not scream out loud as the leather scratched against the still sensitive skin of her right palm.)

'Well, I shall trouble you no longer. I was merely curious,' the Field Marshal signed, gesturing for the driver to open the carriage door again. 'Do forgive a nosy nobleman his bothersome ways.'

Anna bowed until her hair, caught up in a braid as it was, nearly brushed against the ground. Dylis just managed to do the same before the door to the blue carriage closed. The driver gave them each a nod and a smile, then jumped back up onto his coach box. The equipage's four horses remained still as statues until the driver gave their reins a light tug, at which point they were off at the same death defying speed as they had arrived with.

Dylis didn't allow herself to sit back down until the other carriage was no more than a speck of blue in the distance. She didn't sign anything to Anna and Anna made no attempt to say anything either. They both just climbed back onto their own carriage - after having lured the damn horse back onto the road with the aid of an apple - and kept their own thoughts to themselves for the rest of the evening.

****

When Thais had said the dance would be a cultural clash, she had not been joking. Glaw had to remind himself to blink occasionally, so his eyes wouldn't dry out. His mouth refused to close properly for more than a few seconds at the time.

The performance was made better by the fact that he’d gotten the best seat in the house. Lykos had shown him a way to get out on the roof of Aculeo's mansion, where they now were seated, and the view was spectacular. The maybe-garden, maybe-orchard seemed to have been planned around a large, empty spot where only grass grew. It had the shape of an elongated square and was currently lit from all sides by decorative lanterns hung from the surrounding fruit trees.

It was also packed full of demons. A few were seated in the fruit trees or on the sideline of the grass square, while others had gathered in the taller trees at the edge of the forest. Most of the demons present were standing in ten even rows in the square itself. At first, they'd been as unmoving as the trees around them, only their hair and clothes swaying in the evening breeze; until it seemed everyone had been seated and all dancers had arrived.

One demon - a man, if Glaw guessed correctly - broke away from the first row and took center stage, striking a wide stance with his hands interlocked above his head. One by one the other dancers turned towards the middle of the square, their eyes flashing with sharp blue light for a second. In moments they'd formed circles around the man, all mimicking the stance the center stage dancer had chosen. Someone among the trees began banging on a drum; then another and another, until the sound echoed to the top of the mansion's roof.

That's when the dance began.

They all moved as one. The dancers took turns standing at the center of the small crowd and by the looks of their unmoving lips they weren’t giving out any kind of verbal instructions for when to switch places. More instruments joined in the music and the choreography got more and more intricate. The dancers were all eerily synchronized in their movements, no matter who the leader of the group was.

<How do they do that?> It didn't strike him how childlike and silly the question sounded before he'd spoken it.

Lykos' lips twitched in what could have been amusement but might just as well have been a gesture no more emotional than his ever present smile. <What do you mean?>

<The dancing,> Glaw said, clumsily mimicking the intricate hand movements being performed below. <They must have practiced for years to get that coordinated! I've never even seen a march this flawless and this is much more complicated.>

<Interesting,> Lykos said in reply, his head cocked to the side in a thoughtful manner. <Your superiors mustn't have told you too much about us 'demons' if you haven't figured it out yet.>

Glaw reluctantly tore his eyes away from the dancers, to give Lykos a searching look. <Figured what out?>

Lykos merely smiled under the scrutiny. <You hear that pause in the drumbeat?> Glaw frowned. He'd almost missed it, but with his eyes on Lykos' hand gestures he soon caught one. It was short, barely more than a second. <That signals a change of leadership. Watch carefully now.>

Glaw squinted his eyes, straining to catch whatever it was he'd missed. As soon as the drum paused, leaving only flutes and foreign string instruments to keep the beat, the coordination of the dance stuttered and all the demons’ eyes flashed blue. The demon at the middle of the dance whirled away, leaving room for someone else to take her place, and in that brief moment all was orderly chaos; every dancer still in their spot, but moving seemingly to their own choreography.

Then Thais stepped into the previous leader's place and all those around her fell into step with her, like a silent chain reaction that spilled outwards through the crowd like a wave. It all went by so fast he hardly had time to process what he'd seen.

<...I still don't get it,> Glaw admitted, as Thais left room for some else to lead, casting the dance into another heartbeat of discrete disorder. <Give me a clue?>

Lykos tapped a finger against his forehead. <It's all in here. You do know what the biggest difference between your people and mine is, don't you?`>

Glaw frowned and lifted an eyebrow at the same time. The resulting expression must have looked quite comical, because for a heartbeat Lykos' serene smile took on an edge of mirth. <You can make walls pull themselves apart and jump to the top of a tree?>

<Partly that, but I do believe the biggest difference are these.> Lykos ran his fingers down the side of his throat, across the black spots that marked his skin. <Do you know what they are?>

Glaw stifled 'demon marks' and answered: <No, not really.> He let his eyes rest on the black spots and had to stop himself from bringing a hand up to rub at the scars on his own neck. <I just know all of you have them. Are they tattoos?>

<Look closer.> Without further warning, Lykos grabbed Glaw's hand and pressed it against his throat. Glaw shuddered. The black marks felt smooth to the touch, like the skin of a cheek right after it's been shaved, but firmer and more leathery, with tiny holes in them.

Carefully, as if they were made of glass – or something that would bite – he traced his thumb over one of the marks. Lykos drew in a stuttering breath but held firm when Glaw tried to withdraw his hand. <They are sensitive, but you aren't hurting me.>

<...I see,> was all Glaw could think to answer. Lykos' eyes had drifted shut and he was leaning into Glaw's touch. If it weren't for the glasses framing his eyes, he would have reminded Glaw of a cat being petted. As it was, the memories that came to him were of that barmaid he'd met one night when he'd been sixteen. Her neck had been free of demon marks but had been just as long and her skin just as soft.

Glaw withdrew his hand as if he'd been scalded. He stared at Lykos, a little more wide-eyed than he would have liked, as the demon slowly opened his eyes. They stayed heavy lidded for a good ten heartbeats. Then they were even and calm once more, not a trace of the mimicker of a purring feline; nor any shame or awkwardness. Lykos simply turned his attention to the dancers, leaving Glaw to stare at the side of his face or follow suit.

The dance leader had time to change two times before either of them spoke again.

<So...> Glaw said, his eyes fixed on the demons in the grassy square, <what do those marks have to do with dancing?>

Lykos was rubbing against his marks with the palm of one hand in an absentminded fashion. Glaw did his best to stop himself from mirroring the motion on his scars.

<These,> Lykos began, lowering his hand for a moment, <are like ears, I guess you could say. They allow us to hear words that never get spoken aloud and they make it possible for us to...> He paused, a faint frown wrinkling his brow. <...connect to each other, I think is the most fitting way to describe it. We are links in a chain, as my mother always puts it.>

<A chain?> Glaw asked, narrowing his eyes. <And by 'words never spoken aloud', do you mean, eh...> The words he wished to use kept being obscured by similar ones in his first language. With a sigh of frustration, he said: <Do mean that you can hear what I'm thinking?>

Lykos chuckled. <Yes and no. If you had been one of us and we had chosen to link, then we could share thoughts. As is, your thoughts are your own.>

Glaw lowered his eyes to stare at the tiles they were seated on – dusky red and wave-shaped, the lot of them – and did his best to not huddle into a ball. <But you can all hear each other should you choose it? No wonder you sneak up on our patrols so easily.> Well, that's what he'd heard demons did. Who knew how many of the stories that echoed back from Outer Camps actually were true and which ones had been enhanced by travel from ear to ear.

He should have flinched when Lykos scooted closer but instead found his shoulders relaxing and the tension in his jaw lessening.

<One of us can only ever link to two others directly, with very few exceptions.> Lykos said. <One you command, the other you follow.> He made a gesture towards the dancers below. <Take the dance leader for example; when she or he is in charge, they lead all other dancers at the same time, but they're only directly linked to one of the others.>

Lykos indicated a black-haired woman in the inner circle, who had locked eyes with the woman currently occupying the square's center. <That dancer is thus directly 'controlled' by the leader, but is then in his or her turn the leader of the next person in the chain, all the way to the last dancer in the outer ring.> He indicated an elderly man in the outer circle. <And since the dance leader controls the second person in the chain, his or her wishes travels all the way down to the end, unhindered, as long as no one tries to dispute them.>

Something in Glaw's stomach began to twist and turn. For a moment he feared he'd suffer another spell of nausea. <They're all just the leader's puppets?>

<No!>

Glaw started and only avoided tumbling off the roof because Lykos caught him by the arm. As soon as he'd gotten his heart out of his mouth and back down into his chest he glanced over his shoulder. In jarring contrast to his usual calm expression, Lykos' eyes were glowing and his teeth were bared, like a dog threatening to attack. Glaw felt his heart start crawling upwards again.

<No,> Lykos repeated and his face softened, his eyes losing their glow, the blue color leaving all but his irises. He pressed his lips together into a thin line and took a deep breath through his nose. <It is possible,> he said, closing his eyes, <but it is one of the worst crimes there is. I apologize for my outburst, but even implying that...>

The painful grip on Glaw's arm loosened. <Sorry, I meant no offense,> Glaw found himself saying, feeling warm and relaxed once more. The medicine Thais had cooked up must have been quite potent; that or he was going insane.

His apology earned him a tight lipped smile in reply. <It is my fault for not explaining properly.> Lykos took another deep breath through his nose. His shoulders sagged. <Once we lived our lives connected to one another at all times, with a leader who chose for all.> Something dark darted across the surface of his eyes, there and gone in a heartbeat. <It is not a common place thing nowadays. Outside of these dances, it's mostly practiced by the guards and healers, to strengthen their skills.>

<So,> Glaw turned back to look at the dance, < this is sort of like a, uhm.> He searched his memory but came up empty-handed. "A drill?"

<Practice for battle?> Lykos asked, his voice calm and even again. <Yes, I suppose you could see it like that. But it's also a way to unify us, as a people. Watch now as Aelius takes the lead.>

The demon in question had stepped into the center of the square, a smile on his face that made him look far more carefree and elated than Glaw had ever seen him. Admittedly he'd only met the man briefly over the course of two days.

Lykos' words of 'links in a chain' whispered at the back of Glaw's mind as Aelius' eyes lit up with a now familiar blue glow. Unlike the previous instances of this in the dance, the glow remained. The rest of the dancers' eyes swiftly followed suit, lighting up one by one; first the inner circle, then the outer ones, like a long row of street lamps.

Aelius was as graceful in dance as in battle, but that wasn't what grabbed Glaw's attention. No, it was the glow that had begun to gather in-between Aelius' palms; a small ball of fire in the shape of an egg, burning in midair and following his palms wherever they swayed.

Spell-weaving wasn't completely unknown to Glaw; lectures weren't the only thing magic-related that Rhian busied herself with and he'd been able to beg a short show or three out of her over the years. But this...

Demons weren't supposed to be spell-weavers. They simply touched and reshaped things around them, leaving them to fade back to their gods' given shapes the moment the demon left. Glaw squinted, eyes darting around for a fire source. The closest ones were the lanterns in the trees, but they were too far away from the center of the square for Aelius to have touched. And yet the fire egg in Aelius' hands kept growing, hatching a small bird. It jumped from one of his hands and back to the other in beat with the music. Just like the egg before it, the bird was completely made of flames, glowing orange, yellow and red.

It kept growing, each beat of the drums granting it larger wings and a longer beak, until it was the size of a peacock. The fire-bird took flight, soaring towards the night sky on silent wings. It exploded in a rain of red and yellow sparks as soon as it had passed the tree tops.

To his embarrassment, Glaw found himself applauding. This earned him head-tilts and wide-eyed looks from the demons in the trees closest to the mansion. Glaw wished the roof would break and swallow him up. Thankfully the dance kept on undisturbed and the confused onlookers turned their attention back to the entertainment when it became clear Glaw wasn't going to continue his strange behavior.

<Why did you do that?> Lykos asked, one eyebrow raised.

Glaw ruffled a hand through his own hair and did his best to ignore the blush heating his cheeks. <It's what my people do when someone's impressed them,> he said, allowing his mouth to split in what he was sure was a goofy grin. <Guess that didn't translate too well. Hope I didn't offend anyone.>

<Don't worry,> Lykos said. <It was just a little strange. Aelius is one of our best, so you do right in commending him.> He gave Thais, dancing in the outer rings, a nod. <My dear little sister might be the better of the two when it comes to healing and figuring out the source of a spell, but Aelius is, without doubt, the most creative and versatile when it comes to inventing new ways to weave.>

Glaw blinked. He pursed his lips, sure that he had something to say in return to that. <Shouldn't you...> He gave Lykos a quick glance and curled his hands into fists in his lap.

<Shouldn't I?> Lykos said, eyebrow still raised.

<Eh.> Glaw bit his tongue. <Nothing. Sorry for making you miss out on the dance. Again> It seemed the right thing to say.

Lykos gave a one-shoulder shrug so small Glaw nearly missed it. <There will be other opportunities. I could hardly leave an ill ambassador to the tender mercies of the city guard, could I?>

As if conjured by his words, Bernike and Myrrine appeared on the roof, right in front of them. Glaw gave a yelp and automatically grabbed at his belt; his fingers met only empty air and he cursed under his breath.

At this display Myrrine laughed, looking close to slapping her knee in pure delight. Bernike's expression stayed as cold and calculating as Glaw assumed it always looked. He felt his stomach start twisting again, but did his best not to show it.

<Are all of your kind so jumpy, ambassador?> Myrrine asked between half-stifled chuckles, pronouncing his new found title as if she really meant to call him boy. <If they are, I'd actually reconsider joining the border guard. What do you say?>

Bernike looked ready to roll her eyes. <I have no interest in guarding, as you well know.>

<Worth a shot.> Myrrine shrugged and then turned her attention to Lykos. <Are you two up here for a reason?>

<Cultural exchange,> Lykos answered, completely deadpan.

Bernike took a step closer to Lykos, her eyes narrowing. <How are you feeling, brother?>

Both of Lykos' eyebrows went up this time. <I am quite alright. Are you?>

Bernike leaned a little closer, keeping her eyes locked with her brother's. She held his gaze for a long moment. The tension could have been cut with a knife.

Glaw did his best to ignore them and instead focused on the dance below. The music was slowing down, as were the participants. Movement in the fruit trees drew his attention; the people seated by the lanterns had begun to extinguish them one by one, dimming the square. When the last one went out, the dance leader's eyes lit up, quickly followed by the rest of the dancers.

He nearly bit his tongue when a heavy hand came down on his shoulder. Myrrine plopped down next to him, steadying herself heavily on him. <Pretty, isn't it?>

Gritting his teeth, Glaw did his best to nod. <They're very good.>

<Seen much dancing, have you?> she asked, keeping her hand on his shoulder.

<Not like this,> Glaw said, eyes straight ahead.

Myrrine hummed under her breath. <Could imagine that. You lot not that talented with magic, then?>

Glaw began chewing on his lower lip. The knot in his stomach was getting worse; nausea had been joined by stabbing pain. He put a hand to his face and it came away damp with sweat, but he felt more cold than warm and Myrrine's hand on his shoulder was getting heavier.

<Myrrine.>

Bernike had stood up again, towering over the other three seated on the roof. She'd crossed her arms over her chest and her shoulders were squared. Glaw was reminded of an old sergeant from his time in Search and had to suppress a whimper.

<I think it's time we take the ambassador back to his room,> Bernike said. The center of her pupils had begun to glow, a tiny spark of light blue in each that spread in a flash; a pair of small explosion which quickly covered both of her otherwise so normal looking eyes like a glowing shield. <I think my brother shall remain here.>

Behind her, Lykos quickly got to his feet. <Really, sister,> he said, putting a hand on her arm and tugging gently, encouraging her to turn around. <I'm perfectly well. If anyone of us is acting strange, it is you.> A sudden flare of light from the square below lit up his glasses, making them blank slates that hid his eyes from view. The visual was at odds with his soft tone of voice. <If I didn't know you so well, I'd fear you were becoming as paranoid as Vita.>

<It's because I know you so well, brother, that I am,> Bernike answered, pulling her arm free. She had turned to face her sibling, her stance wide. She almost looked ready to tackle him to the ground and pin him there. Lykos, in his turn, had crossed his arms behind his back and tilted his head, studying his sister with a small smile on his lips.

<Thais' dancing was most impressive tonight,> Bernike said after a moment, unfolding her arms. <Why don't you go tell her so, while Myrrine and I escort the ambassador to his room? It looks like he's had a trying day.>

<Heard about that, did you?> Lykos said and stood up a little taller. He followed Bernike's gaze to look at Glaw, who knew he must have been a pitiful sight. It felt like he had ice water flowing through his veins instead of blood and he was stifling the urge to vomit.

Myrrine gave Glaw's shoulder another forceful pat, which had him curling in on himself with a groan. <Bathhouse secrets don't stay secrets for more than a heartbeat,> she said, her tone loud and full of laughter. <Better we take him to lie down before he falls off the roof!>

Lykos narrowed his eyes in a thoughtful manner, then nodded. <Maybe that's for the best. I'll go speak with Thais, see if there's more she can do for him.> He was gone in the blink of an eye.

Glaw gave a low moan and doubled over, resting his head on his knees. His stomach was on fire, but his limbs were cold and heavy. His entire body was soaked with sweat and yet his teeth were chattering. Worst of all, he really wanted to go home.

It wasn't just that he missed Dylis and Huw and his fellow officers. No, he missed Trade itself, with its salty air and the uncountable people milling its streets. At that moment he would have given anything to be back in the watchtower at the city gate.

<Time to go, ambassador!> Myrrine's voice, booming though it was, sounded like it was coming from miles away. He barely felt it as a pair of hands grabbed him under the armpits and pulled him to his feet. Vertigo did nothing to lessen his nausea.

For the second time that day, Glaw fainted.

****

The rocking motion of the carriage steadily brought Dylis and Anna close and closer to Outer Camps. After their encounter with the Field Marshal they had, on Dylis' insistence, taken to sleeping in shifts instead of making camp, stopping a few hours during the day to let the horse rest.

The stars were out overhead. Dylis had her eyes glued to them until she was sure Anna had stopped twisting and turning in search for a more comfortable sleeping position. The sky was overwhelming like this; no city lights to dim the stars’ brightness and multitude, no high towers to shield from view how vast the darkness was.

But any wonder Dylis could have mustered at the sight was overshadowed by her need to be alert. The moment she was sure Anna was fast asleep she counted to twenty, then carefully pulled the documents from her inner pocket.

First, there was the photo of Glaw. Or young Glaw, five-year-old Glaw at the most. The water had thankfully only discolored its edges. If nothing else she'd have that until she drew her last breath; and if that was all she'd have, her last breath wouldn't be far away.

The rest of the papers were worse off. Of all her stolen goods a mere handful had survived the dip in the river. A handful more than she'd had at the beginning of her mad quest, but a few binders short of the full story.

She unfolded the first one and started at it until the letters blurred before her eyes. The code was a tricky one; the details that they hid had escaped her for the good part of three days and counting. The other documents were no better. With bits and pieces lost to river water, cracking the code was like playing chess blindfolded. Thankfully, in blindfolded chess you still had your sense of touch, or in this case, memory.

Dylis squeezed her eyes shut, trusting the horse to be able to walk in a straight line without guidance and willed herself to recall any and all codes she'd ever seen. It felt a bit like rummaging around a cluttered barrack; orderly and organized in appearance, but chaos on the inside.

After three days of searching not even the most well-hidden secret could stay undiscovered. She had to grit her teeth not to shout her relief to the sky as the first words began to make sense.

The stars wandered on above, outraced by the moon, as she read and re-read her scraps of paper. Ever so slowly she began to outline a story; her and Glaw's story. Just like a rumor, the frayed state of the papers left the story little more than guesswork, but in that mess of lies and guesses the truth could be glimpsed.

It had something to do with the surgery they'd both been forced to go through, that much was obvious. Emperor be damned, that she wouldn't have needed the documents to understand! No, there was something more, something in the documents that explained a difference between her and her brother that was less on the obvious side. It wasn't just her deafness that had disqualified her as a candidate for whatever secret mission they'd chosen Glaw for. According to the paper scraps, there had been six other children, of which only two had gone deaf after the operation.

So why pick Glaw? That was the question she kept coming back to. That the military seemed to have a hand in their mutilation, instead of being their rescuers, she put aside for later, when she had energy and time to deal with it. No matter how she twisted and turned the tattered pieces of paper, there was no mention of the exact reason of the surgery or of why Glaw had been picked over the others. Though he wasn't the worst soldier around, he wasn't particularly skilled in any field - Unless you count daydreaming, she found herself thinking and had to smile - and he'd never gotten any training or schooling Dylis herself hadn't also participated in.

Finally, as the stars gave away to the dawning sun, Dylis refolded the documents and squirreled them away within her clothes. The rocking of the carriage had changed minutely and when she glanced over her shoulder she saw that Anna had begun shifting again, pulling the blanket she'd wrapped herself in over her head.

Dylis let her shoulders sag and rubbed at her eyes with the back of one hand. The landscape around them had stayed the same for three days now; the river following the road on their left-hand side and otherwise there was only grass as far as the eye could see. The sea had left their line of sight on the first day and the single thing distracting from the monotony of the road, other than the occasional fellow traveler or boat, was the distant silhouette of Art's walls.

Not so distant anymore though. Now that she truly looked ahead she could almost make out the sculptures and carvings in the red stone walls that shielded the city. She could see the great gates, open wide and welcoming, and took note of the many boats sailing in and out through them. The small branch of the land road that led in alongside the river was less crowded, the occasional salesman or horse trader leading goods not suited for water travel up to the guards.

The look of it all was so familiar that Dylis almost waved a greeting to the soldiers who were stationed on either side of the entrance, but caught herself at the last minute. This far away she couldn't recognize any faces, but who knew if one of the guards had been lucky enough to get binoculars?

Instead of waving or signing a greeting, she pulled the hood of her tunic lower and reach back to give Anna a rough nudge before pulling the horse to a halt.

They switched places without exchanging words – though judging by the way Anna's mouth moved she was muttering something quite surly – and Dylis climbed into the back of the carriage. She curled up under the blanket, pillowing her head on Anna's bag, and kept an eye on the approaching city walls, half hidden by the carriage's edges.

The carriage rolled less than ten meters before it stopped again. The halt was gentle enough not to send Dylis' heart racing, but she had to curl her hands into fists tightly enough for her knuckles to turn white to prevent herself from grabbing Anna and demanding to know what by the Three Cursed Ones was going on.

The smell of freshly baked bread answered that question. Peeking out from beneath the blanket and her hood, Dylis caught a glimpse of a wrinkled hand offering a loaf of bread to Anna, who took it and gave a couple of silver coins in return. The wrinkled hand vanished out of view, the body it was attached to no doubt heading for the next traveler.

Anna broke the bread in half and turned in her seat. Without comment she held out one half. Dylis took it and gave Anna a curt nod in thanks, then settled back down under the blanket. Eating while lying down was no real challenge after years of smuggling sweets and liquor into the barracks, but having gone three days without more than dried meat and fruit to eat, keeping the slow pace of eating necessary not to choke was a challenge. In the end, she broke the bread into even smaller pieces and saved a third of it in a handkerchief.

The carriage had started rolling again. The red walls of Art passed by, the creatures and humans carved into them floating by like dolls in a gigantic puppet show. They tilted a little as the carriage began to ascend the bridge over the river, and then disappeared out of her narrow line of sight. Left in her view were the two sides of the carriage and the blue sky overhead.

Once they were half an hour down the road Dylis took a deep breath and forced the last of the tension out of her back and shoulders. She knew that if she sat up she'd be able to see Art far behind them and the great forest ahead. In-between them there would be little more than grass, the river and, on a clear day, the walls of Light, far off on their right-hand side.

If anyone is crazy enough to attack us here, we'll see them coming before they're within pistol range. Don't have to be a soldier to notice angry people charging you when there's nowhere to prepare an ambush. Yet sleep wouldn't find her. She pulled the blanket tighter around her head, warding off the sunlight as well as she could, but images of Glaw lost in the woods chased away any chance of sleep.

Resisting the urge to bang her head against the carriage's floor, Dylis unwrapped the blanket, sat up, and reached for the rest of her bread. As she did so, the sight of her own hand made her pause. Without the glamor, her right hand was a mess. Rhian had done a good job of healing the skin and removing the curse, but there were scars lining the palm, jagged things that told any spell-weaver within sight how they'd been put there.

I look like a thief, she thought and smiled. The very picture of hardened scum. With this to show in their faces, no one will question why I'm looking for a place in Outer Camps. Talk about ironic.

Her eyelids got heavier as she stared at the scars. They soon began to blur, smearing out over her skin like a flooding river. She blinked once, twice. When her eyes refused to refocus she sighed and closed them fully. After all, sleepless soldiers were dead soldiers.

*****

The room had finally stopped spinning. Glaw could have cried out of pure relief. He had no idea how long he'd been lying there, unable to form a coherent sentence much less stand up, but it had finally, mercifully stopped. He faintly remembered drinking something bitter.

Sitting up he did his best to take in his surroundings, his vision still blurry at the edges. Squinting, he managed to make out the familiar shape of his cellar room; the barrels of wine lining the walls, the ceiling with the decorative paintings of gardens and demons enjoying days in the sun and...

There was a bed in the room. An honest to all gods bed, with a pillow and a duvet, standing right in the middle of the cellar.

<Do you like it?>

Glaw turned towards the voice, immediately recognizing it as belonging to Thais. She was standing by the stairs, cradling a big wooden bowl in her arms. Above her, at the top of the stairs, stood Aelius, his back straight, his face blank.

<Like it?> Glaw said, brushing the back of his hand against his lips. It came away stained green. <Yes, I like it. It was very kind of you to bring me one, but...> He brushed the green spots of liquid off his hand, frowned, and then looked back up at Thais, <...how?>

Thais set down the bowl on the lowest step of the stairs and then walked over. She reached out with both arms and helped pull Glaw to his feet. All the while Aelius remained by the entrance, unmoving.

<I had Cato make it for you, following the description you gave me,> Thais said, putting a hand under one of Glaw's elbows as he swayed.

<I gave you descriptions?> Glaw asked, brow wrinkling in confusion.

Thais' eyes widened and for a short second she mirrored his frown. <You don't remember? Oh dear, I must have put too much mend-root in the broth.> She shook her head and pursed her lips. <I'm sorry, but you were screaming so loudly that Myrrine thought we were torturing you.>

Glaw gave a half-hearted laugh, allowing himself to be walked over to the bed. <I'm sure that upset her greatly.>

<Hush you,> Thais said with a shadow of the teasing smile he'd become accustomed to seeing her wear. She helped him sit down and then took a seat at the foot of the bed. She shifted a few times, as if she wasn't quite sure on how to position herself.

<Now you know how I feel,> Glaw said, chuckling.

<Hmm?> Thais said, putting her feet on the floor, only to bring them up again so she could move a little further back onto the bed. She swayed from side to side, before finally coming to rest with her legs curled up under her. She was still wearing colorful clothes, but it was a pair of pants and a shirt he hadn't seen her in before; lilac, with various silver sparkles and disks.

Looking down, Glaw found himself dressed in new clothes as well. It looked a little like a dress or a robe, and it was beige. Bringing a hand up to rub against his chin, he took note of a few days worth of stubble growing there. A shiver ran down his spine. <How long?>

<How long what?> Thais asked, tilting her head and frowning.

<How long was I like....that?> He closed his eyes and willed his memory to cooperate. <How long has it been since the dance? When Aelius made the bird out of fire?> Who knew how many dances they held in a week or a month; maybe even a year. He took a deep breath and did his best to meet Thais' gaze without flinching. Her eyes had gone wide as an owl’s.

<The dance? But that was...> She paused and looked over his shoulder and up at the stairs, most likely at Aelius. <That was five days ago,> she finally said. <I am so, so sorry! You talked several times and I thought->

Glaw held up both his hands, palms towards Thais. He shook his head, forcing a smile. <Don't apologize! From what you said, I'm glad I don't remember any of that. I feel fine now, so I'm sure whatever you did worked perfectly.>

Thais' shoulders slumped, but an answering smile worked its way onto her lips. She brushed an unruly curl out of her face and rearranged her legs, bending her knees and leaning so that both of her feet were on the left side of her body. <The patient knows best, father always says. Very well, but I shall be more careful with my concoctions from now on.> She gave a short laugh. <If I didn't know better, I'd swear there was magic at work here.>

Under the duvet, Glaw pressed his fingers into his thighs until he was sure they'd leave bruises. <Why?>

<Oh, it's just...> Thais shifted again, giving a one shoulder shrug. <We've done the best we can to remove all things that could be poisoning you from this room. Nikon has even been raiding your kind's guards to bring you food we know won't hurt you.> A small noise drew Glaw's attention to the top of the stairs. Aelius was still wearing the same blank expression as before.

Glaw's focus was snapped back to Thais as she said: <Lykos said it might have something to do with the border, but...>

<The border?>

<It's nothing, forget I said that.> The smile she gave him this time was much softer and sadder than any he'd seen before on her face. <I know you won't, but please try. Bernike will have my head if she finds out I let my words wander like that. You'll find out in good time, I'm sure.>

With a shrug, Glaw let it go. He glanced around the room again. It felt like something was missing. <Where's Lykos?>

Thais gave another, equally short laugh. <He's helping out at the theater. Bernike thought it'd be a good idea if he got some fresh air. He's been there all morning.> Her eyes grew distant for a moment, clouding over with thought. <Would you stop pretending to be a part of the wall and come talk to us?> she suddenly said, sending a mock glare in Aelius' direction. The shoulders of the demon in question twitched and he gave a shaky nod. After a moment's hesitation he walked down the stairs and took a seat at the lowest step, next to the large bowl.

<You can come a bit closer,> Thais said, her tone more reassuring than teasing this time around. <Glaw here is far too weak to bite, even if he wanted to.>

Glaw simply nodded in agreement. Nausea and hurt were gone, along with the near painful homesickness, but his body still felt heavy and clumsy. Had he been forced to wrestle anyone, he was sure even the greenest recruit from the barracks back in Trade could have taken him.

Another moment of hesitation, then Aelius got up and walked all the way to the middle of the room, taking a new seat on one of the bed-bench-chairs next to the bed. He sat as if on pins and needles, hands on his knees and jaw clenched shut, but he looked less ready to flee than a few minutes before.

<Better,> Thais said, her smiling widening to show teeth. <Now, what shall we entertain the ambassador with? We can hardly go outside right now, but we can't really sit here staring at the walls either, can we?>

Both Aelius and Glaw looked about the room, as if a topic of conversation could be lurking in the shadows

A breeze entered the cellar, ruffling the hair of the three of them. Myrrine's head appeared through the entrance, her eyes glowing and the door barely formed. <Thais, you're needed!> she called, expression unusually grim. <There's been an accident over at the theater. Lykos said to get you.>

Thais was on her feet before Myrrine had finished speaking. <Keep an eye on the ambassador for me, would you?> she said to Aelius, who nodded in reply. She was out the door within seconds. The stone reset itself behind her with a harsh thud.

<I'm getting the impression that you don't like me very much,> Glaw managed to formulate, after a few minutes of him and Aelius just staring at each other. <So how come you're the one who's here to guard me and not Bernike or Vita? I mean, I understand that Lykos isn't a guard, and I'm sure you're a very good one, but you look ready to jump out of your skin.>

<My terra suggested it,> Aelius said, his eyes darting away to look at the paintings on the ceiling. <Please understand that I have no personal grudge against you. It's just...>

His eyes took on a hollow quality. Glaw knew that look too well; it was the look of someone who'd had more than one horrifying night spent in the company of the wrong people.

<In my city,> Glaw said, joining Aelius in looking at the painted garden above, <we guards mostly work as...eh, law people? We don't much guard against outsiders, since we don't get many of those. We guard against crime. But sometimes we're not fast enough or we don't notice at all, shameful as that is to admit. I've seen quite a few scared faces, but some of them just stay with you, you know?>

Aelius made a noise that might have signaled understanding or mockery. Glaw chose to think of it as understanding. He traced the branches of a painted tree with his eyes as he continued telling his tale:

<There was this boy, who got robbed. He wasn't hurt much, but he was small and the thief had threatened him with a knife. My group of guards got the thief, locked him up, and the boy got his belongings back, but he wouldn't stop shaking. Saw him some months later and he was still like that; not as obvious, but his eyes were a little wider and his movements a little quicker than they should have been. He was in the middle of a crowd, in broad daylight, but he looked ready to fight or take off running at any second.>

Out of the corner of his eyes, Glaw noticed that Aelius' had curled his hands into fists.

<Don't think he was ever robbed again. Wouldn't surprise me if he joined the guards, actually. Probably a very good guard too.> Glaw bit his tongue to stifle his babbling.

To his surprise, Aelius let out a deep breath of air and let his shoulders sink, uncurling his hands at the same time. Then, something not unlike a smile appeared on his before so stony face. <Thank you, ambassador. Do you wish for a story in repayment?>

Glaw's first impulse was to say 'yes', but there was a wary glint in Aelius' eyes and his posture was still guarded. <I'm sure you're a great story teller,> Glaw said, turning his eyes back to the ceiling, <and I'd love to hear a tale some other day, if you'd like to tell one. At the moment, I fear I'd make a poor audience. Probably fall asleep halfway through.>

He dared a glance in Aelius' direction and was rewarded by the glimpse of an actual smile.

<Is that so?> Aelius said. <Then I shall leave you to your sleep. I thank you again for your story. I shall think of one to repay you with, once you're strong enough to listen.> Glaw heard rustling of fabric, followed by the sound of footsteps. <Sleep well.>

<You too,> Glaw said, smiling at the ceiling. <When night comes, if it's not already here.>

Aelius had his back turned now, on his way up the stairs, but he nodded in reply. <I'll stand guard outside; make sure my dear sister doesn't show up to disturb your sleep.> He put his hands against the wall. The blue glow of his eyes reflected briefly on the marble surface before the stone pulled aside and he stepped through.

Glaw lay awake a good while after that, staring blindly at the gardens painted on the ceiling. The pillow under his head was firm without being as merciless on his neck as the bench had been, and the duvet was fluffy, yet sleep couldn't find him.

What's wrong? Other than the obvious still-a-prisoner scenario? he found himself thinking, glaring at the demons enjoying the painted sunshine above him. It's hardly allergies, he decided, and I don't remember mother or father ever speaking of there being any disease in our family. Surely the healers would have known, even after their death? It has to be a curse of some kind.

A brief image of a knife cutting into his arm and his blood dripping down into a bowl flashed before his mind's eye. He immediately shook his head, roughly. No. Whatever is wrong, it's because of something here. They may act all nice and friendly, but they're still demons. They might not all be in on it, but one of them surely wants me dead.

Aelius' sister, Thais' oldest sister and the black-haired demon from the forest all paraded at the front of his thoughts. The black-haired one - what is it Aelius calls him, Terra? No, that's not his name, it sounds more like a title...Nikon? - I haven't seen him about the city at all, but that tells me nothing. I know he can move faster than my eyes can see.Vita hasn't shown her face in a while, either. His glare hardened, working to burn a hole in one of the grape vines pictured on the ceiling. Bernike hasn't outright cursed my name yet, but if my instincts are right she knows how to bide her time; of the three of them, she could convince Thais to bring me poisoned food. Or is there a fourth demon that’s erased my memory of it along with the past five days?

He gave a groan and hit the mattress. His fist merely bounced and his arm felt even heavier after. It's no use. I have no way of knowing who's truly on my side, if anyone, and I know nothing of the demons' internal conflicts. For all I know, this is all just a power game between them, or gods forbid, some wedding ritual where the winner of Thais' hand gets to execute me!

But no matter what, one thing was for sure: I need to get out of here.

*****

'New recruit, aye?'

From the moment she laid eyes on him Dylis knew she'd grow to hate Colonel Henri Blevins. There was something so very smug about him, in his smirks and the taunting look in his eyes, that it set her teeth on edge. Had he not been a superior officer she would have punched him in the face on principle alone.

'Yes, sir,' she signed and then clasped her hands together behind her back, to prevent unfortunate accidents.

The colonel's eyes narrowed into thin slits as he circled her, his hand stroking the fledgling of a beard growing in tufts on his chin. 'You look military already to me. Where were you trained?'

Dylis bit back a smirk of her own. She wouldn't be that easy to fool. 'No training, sir, just healthy living.'

'Uh-huh,' he signed, his expression full of mirth. 'Healthy living where, if I might ask?'

'Art, sir. You'd be surprised what hard work carving sculptures is.'

He stopped in front of her and it looked like he gave a laugh before he signed: 'I'm sure of it. So you're here to decorate the campsite?'

Dylis gave a laugh of her own, hoping it came out as loud and odd as Glaw often had told her it sounded. 'Hardly. Was never much of a sculptor, sir. Family business you see, hard to avoid being taught. I mostly made the rough work and my sister and father worked out the finer details. You'll get nothing but chunks of rock out of me, I'm afraid.'

'Then what good are you to us?' The colonel signed, an insufferable grin on his lips.

Dylis squared her shoulders and met his mocking gaze head on. 'I can fight well enough, sir. If you give me a sword, I'll prove it to you.'

'We wouldn't want to make it as easy as all that now, would we?' The attack wasn't unexpected. Dylis dodged to the side as the colonel swung his sword at her head. Punching him in the gut felt very satisfying.

Two minutes later she found herself escorted into one of the smaller cabins, accompanied by two privates who kept eying her warily. She took the opportunity to have a look around as they walked, making sure not to be obvious about it.

This close the trees of the cursed woods truly were intimidating. She'd seen miniature versions of them while she was stationed in Art called weeping willows. They grew along the rivers in the parks, but they never got higher than allowed for a grown man to stand in their shade. Or maybe they just weren't allowed to grow taller? She'd seen a few of them get cut down and replaced by saplings over the years. The willows now before her were giants; taller than houses, taller even than the Imperial Palace.

In comparison Outer Camps looked like barracks a child would have built out of toothpicks and mud. With Dylis' luck the demons would turn out to be the size of the watchtowers back in Trade.

There were plenty of people milling about the camp, some up on the wooden wall keeping lookout, others playing dice games or practicing with a number of different weapons. But as carefully as she looked there was no sign of Glaw.

The room she was led to had the look of cramped military offices everywhere; a desk nearly hidden by paperwork, a rickety chair for visitors to sit in, bookcases full of binders and walls decorated with various sabers and rifles. Behind the desk, seated in a high-backed chair, there was a woman in a sharp uniform and with equally sharp eyes.

Dylis took her seat without being asked. The woman gave the two privates a look and they both hurried out of the room. The woman then proceeded to speak, articulating well enough for Dylis to lip read a command of stating her rank and name.

'Civilian, first name's G-W-E-N, last name's R-I-C-E,' Dylis signed. 'And as you've surely noticed, I'm deaf.'

'Of course you are,' the woman answered, rolling her eyes, 'Very well, I am Brigadier M-E-I-N-I-R C-A-D-W-A-L-L-A-D-E-R. I'm granting you the rank of private. You'll be assigned to a squad tomorrow morning. Before that, I have some questions.'

Dylis leaned back in the rickety chair, making herself comfortable.

'Who was it you arrived with?' the brigadier signed, looking the very picture of boredom.

'Just a friendly soul who offered me her carriage in exchange for company,' Dylis answered and made a show of looking around the office, as if she'd never been in the presence of so many military books and ledgers before.

The brigadier's face scrunched itself together into a snort. 'Company?'

'Company,' Dylis repeated, allowing a lecherous grin to spread over her face. Hopefully Anna didn't have a reputation she wished to keep intact. Then again, everyone knew soldiers and soldiers-to-be always bragged more than they told the truth.

'Some of us have all the luck,' the brigadier signed and shook her head. 'Very well, what is your reason for coming here?'

'To fight for the glory of the Empire, of course.'

The brigadier gave her a long look, before shrugging and writing patriot on the paper before her, right under the false name Dylis had given. 'Any previous experience with weaponry?'

Dylis nodded. 'I know how to use a sword well enough and should I lose it, I can throw daggers. Worse come to worse, I'll use my fists.'

'Yes, I saw that. When Blevins has stopped gasping I'm sure he'll want a rematch.'

'I'm looking forward to it.' Dylis leaned further back, nearly toppling the chair. She rested her shoulders on the back of the chair and spread her legs to keep her balance.

The brigadier gave her another long look before reaching out with one hand, grabbing a knife that was lying on the table. She held out her other hand towards Dylis, who kept her eyes on the knife while keeping her posture relaxed.

'Your arm, please,' the Brigadier signed and gestured with her empty hand. Eyes still on the knife, Dylis leaned forward and offered up her right arm, rolling up her sleeve. The brigadier put a small wooden bowl under Dylis' arm and then made a swift, shallow incision along her wrist.

Dylis flinched at the sudden burn that spread through her arm, very reminiscent of the cursed key ring, except this was on the inside of her skin, crawling up towards her shoulder, all the way to her neck. Gritting her teeth she did her best to keep her face a blank mask.

The brigadier put the knife down and made an 'x' in a box on the lower part of the paper. She got out of her chair, took the small bowl - its wood now stained with Dylis' blood - and placed it in a cupboard by the far wall.

The burning slowly fade. As the brigadier turned back around Dylis found that breathing was becoming easier. Her arm felt a little stiff and the cut stung, but she wasn't bleeding much.

'Here.' The brigadier was holding out a leather string with a small seashell on one end.

Dylis glanced down. Her Emperor's sign still hung securely around her neck, the brown shell resting against her breastbone in the same manner it had for the past ten years. Blinking, she looked back up at the brigadier and the offered necklace.

'It's standard procedure,' the brigadier signed with her free hand, again the very picture of boredom. 'To avoid jealousy among the ranks. Yours is quite fancy, could end up losing it in a card game or to someone with loaded dice. I'll keep it locked up for you, until you've finished your service.'

Dylis hesitated before pulling her Emperor's Sign over her head and trading it for the plainer one on offer.

'Dismissed. Go outside; someone will come and show you to your barrack and where you go to get a uniform.' The brigadier waved her off, already engrossed in other documents. Dylis hoped she didn't notice the salute she'd aborted at the last second.

The new Emperor's Sign swung oddly around her neck, hitting against her chest like a tiny fist. She brought her hand up to grab it and gave it a tug, but the moment she let go of it, it was back to knocking against her chest like a woodpecker. She pulled on it again, this time harder, and flinched as the rough leather string buried itself between two of her neck vertebrae.

Exhaling through her nose, not unlike an irritated bull, she exited the cabin and took up position by the door, grabbing another chance to study her surroundings in peace.

There was a cart by the camp's entrance. It was a gray thing, undecorated and without any form of roof or tarp. Dylis sympathized with its passengers; the last days on the road to Outer Camps had been heavy on rain and light on sunshine.

Something else, besides this lack of pomp and shelter, called her attention to it. The people who were getting onto the cart weren't doing so by their own power. Several men and women were helping them, not only steadying them but also leading them, as if they were elderly people who'd forgotten both how to walk and where they lived.

Strangely enough none of the passengers looked to be much older than thirty. There was about eight of them, men and women, all in uniform. Most of them were privates, but there was one sergeant and two colonels. They were all guided into the cart like sheep on the way to market, eyes completely vacant and their limbs unresisting.

When they'd all be seated on the floor of the cart, two of their helpers jumped up with them and the cart rolled off. Dylis watched them leave until the wooden gates were closed, breaking her line of sight. Frowning she crossed her arms over her chest and leaned back against the cabin wall. Hearing about such horrors was one thing. Seeing it for herself made her fear for Glaw double yet again.

'Unsettling, isn't it?' The woman - little more than a girl - who'd signed had appeared from around the corner of a nearby barrack. Her face was covered in freckles and her hair was a tangled mess of rusty curls. When she grinned one of her front teeth proved to be missing. 'Not to worry, though! You'll have me and my lot backing you up out there, so there's no risk you'll be joining them. M-A-R-I's the name, Private S-A-Y-E-R if you want to be formal. Usually go by Squirrel, if you feel too lazy to spell it all out.'

Dylis couldn't help but return the grin with one of her own. 'Bit long to sign if I'm telling you to duck.'

'Too true! Then Squirrel it is,' the girl signed, her face taking on a theatrically thoughtful expression. 'I think I'm going to call you Scars, 'cause you look like you've got plenty of those. Bet they come with great stories too.'

'Some,' Dylis signed and held up her right hand, palm towards the girl, whose eyes and grin both widened.

'Then there's no time to lose! I'll show you to the barracks and we'll get you set up in two shakes. If you've got enough story telling in you to last the night you'll be plenty popular around here. As if punching Colonel Blevins in the gut wasn't enough to win everyone over.' The last she added with an exaggerated wink.

Dylis shrugged. 'Lead the way.'


(Chapter 5)

 

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