That day, Master asked for the combat record. I guess it made sense, thinking about it. Nobles didn’t trust the commoners – but everybody trusted numbers. And yet Master, she was clever, charismatic; even now the men surrounding her on all sides of the round table (the largest one the trembling innkeeper could produce) were all leaned forward on their silky arms upon their blue silk sleeves. Leaning forward to listen to Master.
I didn’t know I’d opened my mouth to speak until Master’s hand was open in my face.
“Just bring it here,” she said. “And get me a tea or something in the lodge, will ya’?”
And below the table, she gave me the signal to hold. No reinforcements. She left her fingers there in that familiar shape for barely a moment, before her hands were spread open again on the table, quivering slightly. Perhaps a training injury? A hundred pairs of eyes honed in on her – and me.
In the next minute, I was out of the room. The troops, who had all been piled up against the door to listen in, swarmed about, hungry for orders. I looked over my shoulder at them. It wasn’t uncommon. Many times, mercenary leaders brought commanders to the negotiating table with them. There was one group doing just that, just in the next room, where a young boy with a jug half the size of his body was serving them wine.
But no. They couldn’t go in. Master said so, so they all would stay here.
One of them snarled at me. The light was dim. His teeth glistened like hot coals, but he closed his lips when I shoved him in the chest. Maybe we were ready to fight. We could have fought, in that dark, narrow corridor. It was what we trained to do; the rich men would have taken it for their entertainment.
Then of nowhere, the girl padded in.
She wore a fisherman’s hat slightly canted to one side on her head. The troops turned to look at her, where she stood under the doorframe, young, narrow face illuminated by the orange glow of a torch. It was her that made them disperse, to tell you the truth.
The moment they left, the coolness left her, too. Her nose wrinkled. Her eyes darkened. For a long moment, she stared at me. I only knew from her posture, because I refused to look her in the eye.
“You shouldn’t be here,” she said, finally, removing the hat. “If you can’t control them, then what the hell are you here for?”
Not receiving a response, she sighed and entered the opposite room.
I looked back at the door, slightly ajar, pale light streaming and dancing where Master was again picking up a speech– tall and graceful, but hard-edged, utterly indestructible. It was silly, and I shouldn’t have been thinking these things, but at that moment, I saw her as a gleaming crystal stalagmite, planted securely on a cave floor almost too dull to support her existence.
She didn’t need me there. She didn’t need anyone there. She knew what she was doing.
I must have been halfway out when the crash sounded.
After the doctor arrived, they locked me out of the room. I hung in the corridor there for a moment, before I remembered the records. Master would have wanted them kept.
The round table was now stained a gleaming black on one side, a stain that crept like a tongue down unto the blotches of blood on the floor. The nobles had long since gone home, in their carriages pulled by silver-maned horses.
Nothing else left the room. I’d make sure of it.
I found the old tome left open in the corner. The loose notes, thin as they were, were easy to gather back into the binds, but then something stuck out to me – something like a phantom, a shadow without a source.
They had sent the messenger pigeon for us only a month ago, the rich men in this poor town. They needed security forces, guards to stand around the settlement. They had unrest storming up.
Master had been reluctant to go. “Who the hell wants to play guard dog for a couple of pigs?” That’s what she’d said. But the reality was we had racked up too much debt in our last wars against the foreign overlords. I had sorted out the records, I had counted the money. I didn’t say anything then, only took the jug of water from a local girl with a smile – as well as the rose meant for Master.
Eventually, Master must have seen it too, and we started the march to the settlement. I never saw that girl again.
So far, there had been only one riot. A small one, but I could remember the leader. It was an aged woman, with a scar going down her face. Later, I’d find out a mercenary had dealt the blow. But at that moment, that information wasn’t needed. It was one of those rare moments when I’d look at someone and not see, but understand. I had turned her in with her wrists tied together, I had rejoined Master at the fort.
That was then.
It was her name I saw in that book: Eliza Elsey. Out of habit, I glanced around the corners of the empty room. Then, I traced the list upwards with my finger, going over the scrawl until, until – Duels. I wrinkled my brow. Someone had duelled an old woman?
Suddenly, a stray ray of light licked the top of the table. I whirled around, and there stood the boy cupbearer in the opening. He was shaking. The innkeeper had ordered him to bring me wine.
Something in my chest was tightening, as I glanced back at the page, and I read the log next to Eliza Elsey’s. No. I didn’t understand. The book thumped as I shut it.
Dawn. Master was still bedridden.
The soldiers wanted an investigation, a strike, a murder. From downstairs, I could hear glass knocking against the table. They all seemed to think they could find the poisoner if they just made enough of a racket. Sometimes their stomps shook the bedframe. They had all given up on Master – and on me. It was because of our earlier talk, outside by the chamber pots.
They had asked me to lead them.
Could you imagine? It was an insane thing. No. Surely, we had to wait for our orders. Surely, that’s what Master would –
(“. . . then what the hell are you here for?”)
In Master’s room, I watched her hand for the signs of death. The palm was cool against my skin. It was beginning to cool, at least, the warmth leaving the from the fingertips first, then coursing out of the rest of the limb like water down a drain. I wondered if she wanted me to investigate, if she wanted me to take the reins, if she was angry at me for denying the troops.
But they had to know, eh? I wasn’t good at thinking. Master once said it herself. She said: girl, you’re not good at thinking. I wished she would wake up - if only to affirm it, but her face was cold and still as a tombstone. Outside, the night sky was empty of stars.
We would figure it out if she woke up. When she woke up. I would give her one more night, even if the troops couldn’t.
In the meantime, I had to prepare that tea.
The market in this village teemed with all manner of trades, professions, wares. I had gone through the stalls several times on walks with Master. One of them, the village healer, set up in a large covered wagon on the very edge of the main square, on the edge where the cobblestone ended and sand began. It was a frontier that had become the front; most of the marketers were pooled around him. They said he did magic. Magic was not what we needed now.
When he saw me, he had an assistant shut the door of the wagon around us. He slid open a compartment in the floor. He brought out a kit full of phials and a little metal contraption that spat fire.
On a threadbare mat, he worked in silence. The assistant grinned at me, asked me how long we were staying. I smiled tersely back. It was hard to manage this sort of talk without Master. My body crawled with bareness as if someone had dissolved the skin with acid.
I guess it was this bareness that let me notice the frown in his eyes, even as he wished us well.
We spoke the storms they had been receiving the past few months, storms like the one brewing overhead now. He spoke of less fish in their catches, fewer crabs, fewer sacks of grain for them at the breweries. As he talked on, the lines deepened on the healer’s face; the man seemed to grow from old to ancient.
“It’s from a local plant,” the healer intoned suddenly, breaking off his apprentice’s words. He set down a phial on the wooden floorboards. “Grows near saltwater. Likely homemade, by whoever used it.”
At this, he raised an eyebrow. Maybe he wanted something from me, some sort of flesh to the story, but I said nothing. He gave me an extra packet of the antidote – in case my mother, he said, absently, still had some of the poison lingering in her body. I thanked him, and then I left.
Once, Master had brought me to a wishing well. As a child, she had grown up near this village, and in the leafy forests between feuding walls and borders, there were long-abandoned buildings scattered like dice. The well was one of them. Master said she thought it was magic.
She perched on the rim of the well now, gazing down into the inky dark inside. She thought it was magic, because a smattering of golden dapples, harvested from sunshine, seemed to linger on the sides of the well, though there was no sunlight there. I thought it was a reflection off the water, but said nothing. It was too quiet. Instead, I stood there and began to clean my knife.
It was just a small thing: a few flecks of red leftover from the morning. Yet Master narrowed in on it, as she tended to do, watching me with the eyes of an owl.
“Do you think . . . that I’m a bad person?”
I remember I stopped cleaning.
“How could anyone think that?”
I interrogated her for the next few days – but not by asking questions. I followed her around everywhere, took note of the seven different merchants she was speaking to, the troublemakers among the troops, I searched through her correspondence. I’d had the same feeling back then as I did now, even though Master had been there for me, unchanged. Fear. Panic. Bareness. I never found out who put the idea in her mind.
Down below the tavern, below the marketplace and town, was a small fishing community curled like a cat around the edge of the island.
According to the innkeeper, the healer lived here with his family: a wife, his wife’s brother, one grandchild. According to the innkeeper’s son, the brother had been dead for months, and the wife just freshly buried. The riots. Of course.
I saw the crowds shrink back around me, soon as they saw my weapons. I saw the cupbearer from before, skulking near the sunken walls of the brewery, looking out at me wide-eyed.
A house with a broken roof is what I’d heard. Yet a healer’s house was always the heart of any village. Even if all their relatives died, and all their walls crumbled, they would still want for space.
I saw the girl with the fisherman’s hat lugging a wagon of thatch to that very house, a pair of eager children bumbling along in tow. Along the way, one of them got left behind.
I must have loomed over this boy. I could see my own shadow spreading like a bloodstain on the cobblestone, casting a shade over his bright blue eyes. I could see it swallow him, engulf him. I could see him shrink into himself. I could only think to kneel down, and even that sent him sobbing.
“Get away from him!”
“I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to – “
Then, the storm broke.
I saw the girl take off the hat, only a thing of straw against the winds and the rain, then push it firmly about the other child’s head. I looked down at my knife, my leather satchel, the chainmail Master insisted I hide there, the cloak. Then, I took off the last one, draped it around the boy’s shaking shoulders. It was the least I could do.
I didn’t know how to bring this up. As I said, I wasn’t good at thinking. So, with the tray of tea in my hands and Master, at last, sitting up in bed, I went and I asked her about Eliza Elsey.
Her knuckles went pale and stony around the teacup. It was a stupid decision. She had only just awakened, confused and lost, and I had to go and make things worse. Then, boom, crash. She flung the ceramic to the floor.
“Just who told you this?” she rumbled.
I shouldn’t answer. That was what I thought, listening to the tone of her voice. I couldn’t look her in the eye, I only stood there like a fool.
“She had . . . family – “
“I know!” her eyes were wild. “For all the gods and goddesses in the world – I know what I did. What we all did.”
Then, she began to laugh. She said I wouldn’t understand, never would understand these things. She said she’d tried to keep it from me – and did I think she was a monster for it? I shook my head vehemently; she didn’t believe me. It was then that I began to see how wrong I was. I saw the tears streak down her face. I saw the sallow morning light pick out the lines in her face, lines that were drooping, lines that were tired.
“Get out. Please.”
I left the door wavering ajar behind me.
Outside, one of the soldiers had a message.
“I dunno, the girl – the one with the hat and the temper. She said she’d meet you. By the beach, sundown,” he said.
“Oh. And she gave me a pouch of tea not to tell the general.”
Later, they told me she had escaped through the window. In a daze of fever and illness, she had dashed over the cobblestones and into the woods, where no one could find her . . . but for me, apparently, because there I was by her wishing well, and there she was, having been found.
First, I peeled the drenched blanket off of her shoulders, replaced it with dry cloths I had brought in my satchel.
All her face was full of uncertainty, the shadows of the pines above blending with the shadows of the crow’s feet I knew were steadily accumulating about her eyes. Could this have been what Eliza Elsey saw last before she died? I pictured her ghost – which was funny, I wasn’t the one to picture things – and she was standing behind me, looking on, a stare that was heavy on my back. But what could I do?
No, that’s not right. As I went over the expanse of Master’s skin, taking stock of scrapes, bruises, cuts, all the things I could have done bounced off the wheels in my mind. I could have gone to see Mina, asked her what she wanted from us. I could have asked the others about Elsey. I could have looked further into the business with the nobles, maybe planned an assassination or two for those who’d wanted the rioters dead.
But at the end of the line, glistering like sweet honey that could stop any wheel for good, there was only Master.
I spared a glance for the beach, a line of white sand and golden reflections, peeking out from between the black silhouette of the forest. Was Mina waiting for me there? Would she be disappointed that I didn’t show? But then Master started coughing and nothing else mattered. Nothing else ever did matter, I realized, as I wrapped her tighter in the cloths.
“I’m an idiot. I should’ve known . . . “
When she tried to stand on her injured legs, I heaved her over my shoulders. Wide eyes drifted to me. Then her grip slackened, she let me carry her.
This was what I was here for. What I was always meant to do.