6-The Edge of the Empire

I’m at the lodge with Lorenna and I saw them. Just as he described. Gave me a turn. Lorenna thinks I saw a ghost. Which is, honestly, the best possible thing for her to think. She doesn’t know about my family history, and I pay her enough to keep her from asking. Gods, I need a drink.

No one in my family had been to the lodge in years, I’d always thought it was because father wouldn’t leave his ledgers long enough to make the day long journey into the hills. I determined when the lodge came to me I would use the wretched thing. We’ve paid taxes on this land for decades, dammit. We just arrived yesterday. Only yesterday and I’m already seeing things that definitely are not and were not human, elven, dwarven, or nymphish.

Seeing spirits hanging around the courthouse or cemetery is one thing, but these were straight out of grandfather’s stories…

Maybe this place is cursed—maybe they aren’t real and it’s just this place and it drives men mad. We’ll go back into the city at once.

*

The journals dated after our cultist’s mystery sighting filled two saddle bags. And the saddle bags went into the bottom of a traveling trunk I purchased from a shop that kept its sundry packing trunks between a pile of tanned leather and rack of hats. The same shop had enough clothing lying around that Ayglos and I were able to outfit all four of us with respectable and entirely ordinary wardrobes. Our armor, the small collection of fine clothes from our summer at the King’s Court of Angareth, and some of our weaponry would have to stay behind in Falletta. This thrilled no one, but if the border guards had taken to seizing whatever they liked off carts, we really didn’t want to have to explain to people why we had such things.

Valeria agreed to hold our belongings until we returned.

The rest of our disguise was more complicated. It took two days and a dip into our gold stores, but Quill found a peddler willing to part with his wagon and a brewer happily sold us crates of beer to fill it. Our horses were trained to harness, but they’d never pulled anything like this. I wished we had more time to acclimate them before we filled the wagon with glass, but there it was.

The third morning we were driving out the northern gates of Falletta with our mismatched team and a cargo guaranteed to catch the attention of bored border guards. It was a three day journey from Falletta to the border, and we used the time to make sure our roles were set. Quill and I would play the son and daughter in law of a Villaban brewer hoping to begin exporting to the Empire. Ayglos and Eliah would be our servants. The road got more crowded the closer we got to the border. When we were within a few miles, Eliah and I tucked ourselves in the small living area of the wagon while Quill and Ayglos stayed aloft.

Eliah and I sat on the two padded storage benches that ran down either side of the living area. I immediately missed the top of the wagon. Less padding, but fresh air, and I could see where I was going. Eliah had her elbows on her knees and was slowly twisting her hands around.

“Are you nervous?” I asked. “I’m sure the crossing will go fine. I look nothing like myself.”

Eliah glanced up at me. “It’s not that. I haven’t been back to Daiesen since it became an Empire.”

“Really? That was right after we all fled Dalyn like swallows from a barn fire.”

She nodded. “It’s been nearly five years.”

I shouldn’t be surprised, so far as I knew the Breaker had stayed far away and kept most of his people with him until recently.

“I don’t want to see my home this way,” said Eliah. “Under her thumb.”

I considered, watching my fearsome friend staring at her hands and looking pale. “The first time we returned to Galhara it didn’t feel like coming home. We’d seen the fires, knew that an army was overrunning our walls. It is still different to walk a ruined street and be able to picture it the way it was before.”

A breath shuddered out of Eliah. “I know I’m living proof of what Narya Magnifique did. I saw the marks of her power in Dalyn before the debacle at the Midwinter Festival. Fornern’s fists, Hess is a constant reminder of her power. But I still expect things to be the way they were. I expect my father to be training hounds at the king’s kennels. I expect Bram and Dagmar and the others to be at the barracks.” She stopped and rubbed her hands across her face. “I guess I just don’t want to be reminded that they are all dead.”

If Bram and Dagmar had been part of the force Trinh Kegan had led into the mountains, there was a chance they weren’t dead. I couldn’t say that, though. I couldn’t even assure her everything would be alright. There was nothing alright about how we’d gotten to this point, and nothing was alright now if you thought about it too long. I reached out and squeezed her hand.

The wagon jounced to a halt and we heard Quill’s voice. Talking to a guard, probably. A moment later, the cloth flap across the back of the wagon whipped open and a guard in the dragon livery of the Empire glowered at us. “Everyone out,” he ordered.

Eliah and I got up and timidly clambered out of the wagon with as little grace as we could manage without falling on our faces. The guard grabbed Eliah’s arm and pushed her toward the front of the wagon, then turned to push me, “Line up.”

Quill and Ayglos were already standing beside the wagon, their gazes downcast. Eliah and I lined up beside them. Out here, we could see the guardhouse and movable barricades that marked the border. There was a town beyond the barricades that looked like it had grown up quickly to support the military presence. Buildings made of wood; roads made of dirt. Another wagon was stopped just ahead of us, this one headed out of the Empire.

A clerk came out of the guardhouse and walked over. “Who owns the cart?”

Quill said, “I do, Josue Marisola, brewer.”

He handed Quill a sheaf of papers. “Fill these out. Be thorough.” The clerk turned and walked back to the guardhouse.

Quill stood uncertainly. Then with a wary glance at the guards he turned and braced the papers on the wagon. The scratch of his pencil filled the silence as two guards stared at us. There was at least one banging around in the wagon.

My eyes wandered over to the guardhouse. There were placards and posters on the outside. I saw my face featured prominently and looked back down at the ground.

Shouting erupted at the other wagon and our guards came alert. We all turned to look as a man was hurled from the bed of the other wagon.

“Hiding in the bedding!” crowed someone.

The man scrambled to his feet and tried to run but the thwack of a crossbow sent him stumbling headlong and the guards were on him immediately.

Eliah grasped my hand tightly. I didn’t know if it was to keep herself from moving or to keep me.

They yanked the man to his feet—he cried out and one leg buckled beneath him. They dragged him a few paces and dropped him by the horse trough.

“Why are you sneaking out of the Empress’s domain? Got somethin’ to hide?” One of the soldiers roughly went through the man’s pockets and another filled a bucket from the trough.

I realized what the soldier was doing a moment before he dumped the water on the man. The soldiers laughed as the man recoiled violently from the water. “Something to hide indeed!” Another bucket full of water hit the man as he again tried to run away. I didn’t need to watch to know what would happen, but I couldn’t look away. His nymph stripes were starting to show blue on his neck and face.

“Can’t run away, nymph scum,” crowed one, kicking the male in the stomach and sending him sprawling.

I trembled as they continued to kick the downed male. Blood darkened the dirt. There were five or six other guards around where we could see, probably more in the guardhouse. Some were occupied arresting the man who’d been driving the other wagon. I couldn’t stop myself from calculating if we could take them all and take them quickly enough to get away.

“What are you looking at?” snapped one of the guards.

Eliah and I flinched, but the guard was looking at Quill. Quill, who had stopped filling out the paperwork to watch the beating, jaw clenched. Brewer disguise or not, he looked dangerous. The guard took two steps and leaned into Quill’s face. “I said, what are you looking at?”

My collected, calculating, beloved Quill looked the guard in the eye and said, “Bullies.”

*

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*

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