I brought Waxwell out to the lodge to see if he’d buy it from me. I tried to stay out of the lodge itself as much as I could—just in case there is a curse. But it wasn’t any better in the woods. Gods, it was worse. I saw them in the clearing, much more than just flutters of light and color. More than faces in the wall. I tried not to react, but I must’ve looked nervous. Waxwell got suspicious of me. I think Waxwell thinks I’m trying to snooker him somehow, and he made an insultingly low offer. I threw him out.
The guard’s slap whipped Quill’s head into the side of the wagon. My stomach dropped at the sound. Quill turned slowly back to the guard and spat in his face.
I was frozen in place as the guard spun Quill around and slammed him hard against the wagon. “Fish lover,” snarled the guard grappling Quill’s wrists. “We’ll let a night in the cells show him to defy the Empress Magnifique.”
“No, Please!” I cried, trying to lunge past Eliah and Ayglos, but they both held me back.
Quill’s head whipped toward me and our eyes met. They were clear and sharp, warning me off. I stopped, my mouth hanging open in horror. He was letting them take him and I was supposed to just watch. When Quill saw that I wasn’t moving anymore, he dropped his head, letting it hang as if the blows had really hurt him.
A couple guards stayed with us, swords in hand, in case we tried anything.
Quill put up a token resistance as the guard dragged him toward the trough—even that faint attempt at struggle had two more guards coming to help hold him and draw water. The water hit Quill full in the face and he coughed. But no stripes bloomed on his tan skin. The guards seemed disappointed, and they splashed a few extra buckets on him to be certain, the spray hitting the nymph who lay panting nearby. I felt sick. Quill’s clothes clung revealing his warrior’s body; how could they not notice? What if they stripped him and saw the scars of war?
“Please,” I gasped out the word, trying to look small and helpless. “Let him go—take some of the beer, just let him go!”
There were snorts of laughter from the guards around us. “Oh, we’ll take the beer. But we’re keeping your fish lover.”
“And the wagon, too,” said the closest guard. “Let that teach you to love fish!”
We fell back from the border crossing, just far enough to get off the road without being seen. We were still on the Villaban side, which had not been a part of the plan. We were also down one man and four horses. Very much not part of the plan. A short walk further put a hill between us and the road and we stopped to take stock.
“That was a little more than we intended,” said Eliah, her tone dry.
“We have to get him out!” I felt like a storm was building inside me and I had no way to diffuse it.
“They said they would hold him overnight,” said Ayglos. “Maybe they’ll release him tomorrow.”
I scoffed. “As long as no one starts to wonder punching a brewer feels like punching a wall. He spit in their faces, Ayglos!”
My brother held out his hands, palms down, “Having muscles isn’t a crime yet. And if they try to send him to the mines, we’ll have time to track and rescue him.”
“Does this happen all the time at the border?” asked Eliah. “They’re meant to be tax collectors, since when do they just seize people to see if they are nymphs?”
Our grim expressions were enough of an answer, but Ayglos said, “Almost since we left the Empire the first time.”
“I don’t remember them dumping water on everyone before,” I raked my hands through my too-short hair. “That might have something to do with the caravan last winter.”
“The bigger question,” said Ayglos, “Is what now? They took a whole wagon, shouldn’t be that hard to find where they park it. And they’ll have to put the horses somewhere.”
Eliah cursed softly. “The horses, dammit. I’m getting my horse back.”
I paced a few steps, “We’ll have to chance the dogs tonight. I don’t want to spend the time traveling to a less guarded place.”
“On foot, no less,” growled Eliah.
“I have couple knives,” said Ayglos, “What do you have?”
“Knives,” said Eliah, fluffing her plain tunic and producing a sample blade from where it’d been tucked in her loose trousers. “But if we can find me a decent bow, I’ll be a lot happier.”
I reached to my back and drew Shiharr, “I have all I need.”
My brother grimaced at me, “You wore those to the border crossing?”
“It seemed a safer place for them than in a bench or a chest—and I was right.” I returned Shiharr to her sheath, “If they’d gotten as far as tossing water on me the knives would’ve been more help than harm.” I didn’t trust the blonde hair to preserve my alias if it were under that kind of scrutiny and I would rather die than face capture as Zare Caspian.
Ayglos didn’t look convinced, but he turned and started walking. “Might as well start looking for a spot to cross. Maybe we can cross earlier.”
Eliah and I fell in behind him. Eliah bumped her shoulder into mine, “Quill will be fine. I saw the look he gave you. He’s more in control than you think.”
Tears pricked my eyes and I nodded. “I know, in my head I know. But my heart…What was he thinking?”
Eliah looked at me for a moment, but said nothing, just patted my shoulder and kept walking.