Captain Theen hated Rogert.
Being assigned to be a garrison commander was the most effective and most infamous way for a military officer’s career to end.
Every time a vacancy for a garrison commandership reared it’s head, the top brass of the military would decide which officer was the least effective in the field but still suited to military life, and they would offer them the “opportunity” to take on the post of a garrison commandership. Those who accepted were quietly shuffled away, out of any active military service, barring national emergency. Those who tried to refuse the offer were struck with the stigma of refusing a commanding position, and could never be granted a promotion or a worthwhile position of leadership again. It was the way the Fulchas military culled those they considered inferior personnel.
Captain Horatio Theen had been one of those that were culled.
He’d spent the last fifteen years as a mere Captain, when he’d dreamed of becoming a General upon first entering the military. In those fifteen years, he’d gained weight and lost muscle. He could still swing a sword, but he hadn’t the fortitude for a day’s march, like the lowest private could do. Theen had also had his hair go grey, on its journey to white. The hair above his temples had thinned. He’d grown older, and felt the addition of every year. He’d had to move his family out of the capitol to Rogert. Theen suspected that his wife still hadn’t forgiven him for moving her away from the metropolitan life.
But when the kickbacks started, things got a little easier. His increased income allowed him to make his family’s dwelling a bit more comfortable than the local rich yokels were use to, and he could import the occasional finery and treats to ease his wife’s longing for true city life. Even though Horation Theen still had to look out over a city of dirt farmers living their pathetic lives out in the boonies of his magnificent nation, Nigeman had made his life a bit easier.
The worry about the arrangement that had been made had lightly preyed upon Theen’s mind from time to time, especially in those early weeks. But those worries had mostly dissipated. They had returned with full force the previous night, when Theen had heard about the commotion at Nigeman’s estate. When the soldiers Theen had dispatched to try and take control of the situation had returned, with orders from Colonel Braug no less, Theen found it very hard to keep from vomiting from anxiety. As Captain Theen, honorable officer of His Majesty’s Holy Army, he’d had no choice but to follow the orders he’d been given. As Horatio Theen, he’d been up for most of the night wondering if he was going to be executed or wearing a Rose in the near future. Theen had debated which fate would be worse between his hurried, feverish dreams of the night, but had come to no solid decision.
That was why, when Theen had seen Nigeman’s body hung up on the pole, he’d very nearly went mad from fear and anger. His one desire was to erase everything that had anything to do with his own corruption. Theen desired nothing more than to have Nigeman’s body burned. Nigeman’s house, burned. Nigeman’s criminal lapdogs, burned. Theen wanted the slate wiped clean, quietly and brutally. But the military man in Theen had kept those rampant emotions in check, trying to use his position to reach his goals. Because Theen was up against Colonel Braug. A man who actually could burn away everything around him, and likely get away with it.
In the deepest crevices of Theen’s heart, the man wondered if he was really being kept in check by his military discipline, or if he was more afraid of Braug’s wrath…
Either way, Theen only needed to use his authority as the city’s garrison commander to get the present conditions under control, and then destroy all evidence. Theen had been in the process of overreaching the stubbornness of the beast woman and ordering some of his men to bodily pull down Nigeman’s remains when that voice from the crowd had set the gathered populace of the mud hole of Rogert off, hollering and cheering.
When Theen heard that, it was only his military discipline that kept him from doing more than seizing up for a full five seconds instead of ordering his soldiers to forcefully clear the square of civilians. It was enough time for him to imagine the outcome in his head. His soldiers beating men and women with their truncheons. Spells being launched by his casters positioned atop the garrison walls. Dead and dying farmers and merchants along the ground, heads dented and bodies aflame. And his own inevitable courts martial for his hand in the event. Probably leading to a military execution.
No. Not yet. It hadn’t reached that point, yet, Captain Theen whispered to himself in his mind. But Theen was a military man. There was already a part of him that was resigned to that course of action. He grabbed one of his soldiers and gave him an order to relay. “Have squads three, four, and five suited and ready at the garrison gates. After that, they do not move unless I give the order.”
The private snapped a salute and ran into the garrison
Theen turned on the beast woman and said, “You have until my other squads are assembled to take that body down, or my men will go through you.”
The beast woman, probably a catkin based on the tail, smiled the same way she did before when she deflected my earlier attempts of getting her to do what I bloody well ordered her to do, and opened her mouth with that fake grin on it. But before she could say anything, she closed her mouth and tilted her head a little, as though she had thought of something else just before speaking. Instead of another deflection, she smiled in a reconciliatory manner and said, “Considering the situation, I suppose Colonel Braug’s orders on the matter can be bent, slightly.” The catkin woman then turned towards the flagpole and ordered the body taken down while approaching it. Captain Theen followed her as she moved, out of some primal desire to be closer to the situation to exert maximum control, even though it led him into the heart of Colonel Braug’s own soldiers and isolated him from his own.
Theen had stood stiff and tall, his eyes not moving from the body of Nigeman as it was hauled down. He heard the jeers and cheers of the crowd though, asking for the man’s remains to be hauled back up. One man from the crowd even called at Theen by name to leave Nigeman hanging for a rock throwing target. Once Nigeman was down and Theen was looking at the bloodstained remains of the man who’d led him into corruption, Theen’s feelings of guilt began to choke him. Theen couldn’t stand to look at the man’s remains. “Cover the man with something.”
A beast man looked at Theen, then looked around himself before peering at Theen again through the slit in his helmet and asked, “With what? Sir.”
Theen normally would have caught the lack of respect in the soldier’s voice, but his mind was not in a healthy place at that moment. Instead of reprimanding the soldier, he snapped out, “Anything!”
“We don’t have anything to cover him with. Sir.”
Theen nearly erupted at that reply, but the shred of common sense he still had remaining led him to understand that there really wasn’t anything that could serve as a shroud anywhere nearby. Instead, Theen merely said, “Then turn him over. Face down, face down.”
The beast man’s eyes narrowed for a moment, appraisingly, Theen felt, then the beast man did as he was ordered without a word. After Nigeman’s face was hidden from Theen’s point of view, he looked around him again, and finally took in the faces of the prisoners who were all looking at him. Some fearfully. Some hopefully. One of the faces that were hopeful was one he knew. The face had suffered some damage, but there was a characteristic scar around his left eye that Theen recognized. The man had been the bag man who brought Theen his payments.
Theen looked up from the man and demanded, “Who are these men?”
“Prisoners, sir,” said the catkin woman. “They are all verified subordinates of Nigeman, and culpable in his crimes of extortion of the local businesses, and a share in the guilt of the attempted murder of a military officer. Colonel Braug has had them all placed under arrest, and intends for you to handle their sentencing.”
The scarred man was close to Theen, only a few feet away. The scarred man began begging Theen in incomprehensible words, gesturing with his bound hands for Theen’s mercy and attention. Theen couldn’t understand a single one of the man’s mumbled pleas, but to his mind, it was a boldly delivered demand for Theen’s intervention, to be set free to keep Theen’s sins hidden and secret. The man’s begging eyes looked sinister in Theen’s dark imagination, and Theen unhesitatingly backhanded the scarred man to the ground and shouted, “You will stay down and be quiet, or I will gut you like a boar!”
Theen wiped a bead of spittle from his lip as he looked up to see his three squads lining up at the garrison gates. Soldiers loyal to him, willing to do anything he commanded of them. Seeing that, courage and stability returned to Theen’s fear and guilt addled mind. And he began considering his situation rationally again. Theen lightly felt his hair to make sure it was properly combed back and still in place as he listened, really listened, to the crowd around him. They were amused. He looked at Colonel Braug’s soldiers. They were outnumbered by his own. Theen was in command of the situation. He was the garrison commander, and his word was law in this city.
“I’m afraid I can’t do such a thing, Specialist,” said Theen to the catkin woman. “I have neither witnesses nor evidence to their crimes. It would be illegal for me to punish them when there is no proof of their having done anything to be punished for.”
Theen smiled charmingly, the smile of a victor. He just needed to get these men out of the public view, and then he could deal with anyone who knew about his bargain with Nigeman. Theen smiled at the scarred man even more warmly than he had at the catkin woman. Then a voice called out from the crowd.
“Hey! They’ve arrested Nigeman’s goons as well! We don’t have to be afraid of them anymore!”
Theen’s smile froze. For a good beat, he couldn’t reconcile what he’d just heard as being reality. But shortly after, the call was repeated through the assembled crowd, and cheering erupted. It felt like a harvest day celebration. Theen somehow felt the situation slipping from his grasp again, and was looking around at random at the cheering masses. Theen’s eye came upon the cat kin woman who seemed to be looking into the crowd a moment before, but then turned slightly to look at Theen. Her eyes seemed like they were slightly narrowed in amusement.
What? What’s so funny!
The catkin woman removed her helmet, lifted her hands, and shouted at the crowd, “People of Rogert! If you want to see justice done, we need witnesses to these men’s crimes! Who here will testify to these men’s criminal behaviors!?”
The crowd’s wildness died down, the enthusiasm disappearing. A twisted and unsteady smile began spreading on Theen’s face in the second or two before a voice from the crowd shouted, “I will testify! I came upon those men ransacking a shop, and they nearly beat me to death for being a witness!”
Theen looked out into the crowd, his face and mind both blank.
“I will testify! When the innkeeper was late to pay their extortion, those men came into my kitchen and smashed our dining plates, and dumped all our food on the floor! We couldn’t feed anyone for days!”
No. No. No no no.
“Those men hurt my daddy,” called out a little girl near the front edge of the crowd. The man standing near her tried hushing her up, but she called out, “Tell ‘em, daddy! Tell ‘em what they did,” with tears in her eyes. Seeing that, the man was struck as numb as Theen felt before looking up with a resolution Theen thought he could never equal, and bellowed out of his barrel chest such that every ear in the garrison could hear.
“Those men,” the man pointed with a righteously wrathful finger, “busted through my front door and broke my arm one night at dinner! They told me that it was because my boss refused to make a payment to them, and that if I didn’t call out sick to the warehouse for a week, they’d do the same to my daughter!”
The atmosphere in the square changed abruptly once again. Condemnations of the bound men flowed out one after another. Deeds and crimes worthy of being imprinted with Roses a dozen times over rained down on Theen’s ears. Soon, a chant arose in the square. It was the word Justice, in two beats, repeated over and over again. As that word punctuated in Theen’s soul like the stabbing of a knife, Theen began to lose his grasp on reality again.
Theen looked down, at the prisoners who knew his dark secrets. Theen looked up at the soldiers who held those men captive. Did they know Theen’s secrets as well? Theen looked out over the sea of faces. It looked to him like every single one knew his secrets, and were personally condemning him with each repeat of their chant.
Theen couldn’t allow that.
Theen silently stalked back to his soldiers at the garrison gate. With each step, his anger was fueled and his indignation increased. He was a Goddess cursed Captain in the Fulchas military. He was a fighting man who’d sacrificed his career in that backwater shit hole of a city, and now some muck raking dirt farmers were going to try and bring him down. Theen would not have it. He’d burn the city to the ground before he allowed that to happen.
Having stalked his way before the soldiers under his command, Theen gathered air into his lungs and opened his mouth wide to be heard over the mocking chant of the gathered filth of the city.
“In the name of his Majesty, King Reynault Fulchas the Second,” started Captain Theen, borrowing the power of one greater than himself to order a crime against humanity, when his words were interrupted by a war trumpet. The sound echoed through the square in a way that only a wind magic enhanced horn could do. Theen turned his head and there he saw the crowds parting to let a procession of knights in their plate armor surrounding the figure of Lord Bahwell who was comfortably sitting in the saddle of a horse being led through the quickly calming crowd. For while everything about the morning had been unexpected, this event was even more so. The Lord of the city only ever left the grounds of his manor for entertainment or cursory appearances at festivals. For the Lord to leave his manor, and more over, the wealthy district of the city, for any reason was noteworthy and caused quite the amicable stir.
Theen froze mid word. Mid thought. His mouth didn’t close even as he turned to face his Lord as the led horse was brought close to him. Theen still didn’t close his mouth as Lord Bahwell dismounted and brought Theen aside to ask, a glowing and magnanimous smile on his face, “What the fuck is this shit, Horace? You only had one job to do in the arrangement, and I wake up to this? Ha, ha,” fake laughed Lord Bahwell amicably as he appeared to affectionately pat Theen on the back.
Bahwell had the face of an aging saint, all smiles and kindness, with eyes as warm as a summer day. He was a gifted speaker and a better deceiver. But Theen knew he’d been born low in the pecking order of the Bahwell family line, and since taking over as the head of the family was impossible no matter what he did, Lord Bahwell had used all his skills to get appointed the Lord of Rogert, a cushy position for a politician where nothing was expected of him aside from annual grain harvests. And Lord Bahwell had obtained that position with absolute cunning and veiled brutality.
Theen began burbling his apologies, hoping for some mercy from his Lord, when Bahwell interrupted him, all smiles and sunshine, “Keep your voice down you retard, or people will overhear us. Now, calm yourself and tell me exactly what our position is, and I’ll take care of it.”
Theen nodded appeasingly, pulled in closer to Bahwell, and explained everything he knew. Theen choked up for a moment when he thought he saw Bahwell’s mask of kindness slip for a second. Near the end of Theen’s explanation, he very nearly let slip that he had intended to settle the matter with force, but instead said, “And… well, here we are,” lamely.
“Alright, old friend,” said the man with a smile as heartwarming as an apple pie, “Stand close to me, keep your mouth shut, and for Goddess’ sake, pretend you’re not incompetent.”
Lord Bahwell walked over to Colonel Braug’s soldiers and greeted them like old friends. “How good to see all of you,” said Bahwell. “Is Colonel Braug present? It would be nice to have the chance to speak with him. It’s been seven years since Lady Markerest’s ball, after all.”
The specialist stiffened and said, “The Colonel? He-” her head tilted slightly and she corrected herself, “-The Colonel said that a matter like the turning over of common criminals was too insignificant for him to attend personally. He is busy preparing for our immediate departure.”
“Ha-ha. Just so, just so,” said Lord Bahwell. “I suppose I shouldn’t keep you long. Captain Theen here told me that we have a great many witnesses to these men’s crimes. That’s all well and good, but words and testimony can only go so far. I do sincerely hope you have some tactile evidence of Mr. Nigeman’s alleged wrongdoings? I do not doubt you, or the fine people of the town. But judgement requires evidence, given in good faith.”
If one were looking close enough, one might be able to see the warmth of Bahwell’s eyes dim to a chill for a moment as he said that. The catkin specialist stood a little more rigid and the beast man with the sergeant rankings on his shoulders brought a hand closer to his weapon while trying to appear not to have been put on guard. Before anything else could happen, though, the catkin woman said, rather plainly and directly, “Yes. We discovered two ledgers in Nigeman’s estate. One honest, and one corrupt. All of the evidence of Nigeman’s wrongdoings should be in there.”
“Should,” asked Lord Bahwell. “You don’t know for sure?”
“None of our soldiers are skilled in account keeping. And while Colonel Braug could tell the money in the ledger came from crooked means, he could not make head or tails of any outgoing payments. He decided to leave the puzzling out of the ledger and it’s numbers to you. Provided you make sure every one of these men pay for their crimes, and their affrontery to my commanding officer.”
“I see,” said Lord Bahwell, putting various meanings into the word. “What if I find there to be insufficient evidence in this ledger?”
“Colonel Braug is confident you will find enough evidence in the ledger to sentence all the guilty. And if matters turn out otherwise, he will be greatly annoyed.”
“Oh-ho. That confident? This must be quite the damning evidence indeed. May I see it for a moment? Just to confirm its worth as evidence against the men here?”
The catkin woman’s ear flicked a little, and then she turned and called a soldier, fairly short with a sturdy build, over to her and received two books from him. The catkin woman took a long look at the covers of the books, the ledgers, and handed one of them to Lord Bahwell, who took it, opened it, and asked while scanning its contents, “Is this the infamous ledger you’ve been going on about?”
The catkin woman said, “No. This is the one,” and opened the ledger to a cloth bookmarked page to show to Lord Bahwell. Lord Bahwell’s eyes took in the contents of the page and he made his warmest smile yet. “Is there a reason you did not hand that ledger over to me?”
“Your hands are currently occupied holding the other ledger, my Lord. It would have been a mistake for me to have taken any other course of action.”
“Yes, I agree” said Lord Bahwell, dipping his head forward in assent. “Well, was there anything else Colonel Braug wanted before handing the punishment of these criminals over to me?”
“Just your assurance that Nigeman’s underlines be properly disposed of, and his criminal organization destroyed for their hubris.”
“That I can promise,” said Lord Bahwell, all smiles and sunshine. “I am pleased to be the agent of justice in this situation, and I promise to all you fine people,” Lord Bahwell said, addressing the crowds, “That all of these men will be adorned with at least the Red Rose in the near future!”
The crowd began to cheer, loud and hearty at their Lord’s declaration. While they were doing so, Lord Bahwell handed the non-incriminating ledger to Theen and reached out his hand for the criminal book, saying, “And pray tell Colonel Braug, that I will be more than happy to welcome him to my city in the future. Perhaps in another seven years?”
* * * * *
The cheers of the crowd continued for a while, even after the criminals were escorted into the garrison by the soldiers. Lord Bowel and the garrison captain disappeared into the imposing grey brick building as well, but left a lot of their soldiers and knights outside who were calling out for people to calm down and disperse. After a few minutes, people started doing just that in clumps and groups, realizing that the show was over.
“Well, that’s quite a way to start your day,” said Aase, still clinging to my arm to keep from getting separated.
“Yup,” I said offhandedly, just before delivering my joke. “The day can only go downhill from here.”
“Why would you say such a horrible thing, Xander,” asked Aase, annoyance and disappointment apparent in her voice and on her face.
Okay, I obviously was in the wrong here, apparently. “I’m sorry, Aase,” I said reflexively, trying to repair the mood I’d ruined. “I said it as a joke.” I mean, a day when you successfully take revenge on someone and publicly neuter potential obstacles is a good day from start to finish, right?
“It’s not a joke, Xander. It’s the truth. Because now we have to head right back to the inn, and immediately leave the city. I didn’t even get to do any shopping, and there’s so many things I wanted to get. And because of all those terrible people, I won’t have the chance to get any of them.”
Wow, Aase was really pouting, in a low key resigned to fate kind of way. Well… it’s an idea I had only just come up with on the spot, but it might work…
“Come with me, Aase. I have an errand to run, and things might pan out.”
Aase did indeed choose to come with me, hanging onto my arm even after getting away from the crowds; I guess it had just started feeling natural by that point. Went past the inn we were using and turned at what I counted as the third opening between buildings, into the alley, and met up with Wyatt and the urchins. …That sounds like a grunge band name.
I recognized some of the kids as guides from the night before, but all the kids were exploding with delight and laughter from the morning’s shenanigans. These back alley kids were one of the very few people in this entire city who knew what had been happening in that square this morning, and they were wringing that joy dry to the last drop. After a minute or two of hearing the kids going on and on in their excitement, I decided to butt in (or they’d probably have gone on forever.)
“Kids! Kids! I came to give you your pay. If you want it, line up nice a straight.” They complied, but their line up was crooked as all hell. I started at one end and placed a one third Sul coin in each outstretched hand in turn. One of the kids broke out of line and tried to sneak in at the end, but I ignored that. The most satisfying of the payouts for this group was the one I gave to Wyatt, as, per our agreement, I had already given him a one third Sul coin in advanced payment for convincing as many of the kids in his gang to run around advertising the performance at the garrison that morning. Wyatt was learning his business lessons well.
After I’d told the last kid in line, the one who tried to get paid twice, “Nice try,” I said, “Alright kids, now that I’ve given you something, what do you say?”
They all looked at one another, some shrugged, and one suggested, “I’m not giving it back?” Aase giggled, apparently thinking it adorable.
I rolled my eyes and said, “You say Thank You. Try it now.” The kids did so, a pleasant, though dissonant chorus of child voices. “You’re welcome. Now, if any of you want to earn another tenth of a Sul, Aase here could use someone to show her to a shop where she can buy something she wants.”
Aase gasped a little and said, “Oh, Xander,” not adding the words, ‘you shouldn’t have.’
“We only have enough time for Aase to buy something from one shop, and then you’ll need to escort her back to the inn,” I hooked a thumb to vaguely indicate our lodging. “Who wants to do it; raise your hand.”
Several hands shot up, waving wildly, so I said, “Aase, pick one to guide you.”
I had to stifle a smirk at Aase’s playful pouting (it was funny, not cute like her authentic pouting easier), and told her that yes, she could only choose one. She picked a little girl in oversized coveralls and a large floppy hat to lead her. After confirming that Aase did in fact have Sul for shopping, I waved the two off and, as they turned the corner and disappeared, I turned towards the remaining urchins and asked for one of them to lead me as well.
* * * * *
“I made good time, if I do say so myself,” I said myself as I entered the inn’s barn and vehicle storage lot through the back way with a nondescript sack of paper nestled in my arm. “Has Aase made it back yet,” I asked Gina who met me as I entered the broad patch of tamped down dirt we’d been keeping our wagons parked in over the night. Gina’s reply was a negative. I must have made better time than I’d thought. “Well, when she gets back, lead her, Daphne, and Mercy to me. There’s something I’d like to take care of immediately.”
Gina gave a rather relaxed affirmative which may or may not have had anything to go with the allnighter the entire caravan had pulled the previous night, and I went off to do my own thing as the horses were lashed in place. I mused over how I was going to give the soldiers turns to sleep on the moving wagons without compromising our travel speed when I heard the voice of the innkeep behind me say, “Ah, yer here! I’ve been gettin’ the brush off from all’a these guys, but now that you’ve come back we can get somewhere.”
I took a deep breath, and begged for patience from either my God, or this world’s Goddess. Then I set my bag down in my nearby bed wagon, and interrupted the innkeep’s continued pestering for my attention with a “What do you want? We’ve already paid you our lodging fees.”
“Oh, that’s not what I’m here about, son,” said the innkeep. “I just wanted to hear it from you, personal like. You sacked Nigeman’s house, right? His house and office?”
Sacked? Not how I’d have put it. “His home and office were the same building, right?”
“Yes, that’s right.”
“So?” I consciously evaded answering his original question.
“So, if you done that, I figure there’s a good chance you found the money what Nigeman done swindled out of us poor merchants.”
“And?” I really didn’t like the direction of this conversation.
“Well, I was thinking that it was only right for you to share that money back out with the business owners of the city. It was our money in the first place after all, and so we have a right to getting it back, wouldn’t you say?”
My jaw set and I tried to bore a hole through the innkeep’s head with my eyes as I definitively told him, “No, I would say you and the others of this city don’t deserve a single coin of Nigeman’s money.”
“But it’s our money,” complained the innkeep, not getting the message unless it grabbed him by the throat. So I grabbed him, two handed, by his shirt collar and slammed him into the side of my bed wagon, pinning him against the wood paneling.
“I don’t give a damn whose money it was. And if it was your money, then all the more reason for me to keep it. I nearly died because not a single one of the cowardly shits who reside in this cesspool of a town were willing to lift a single fucking finger to help me. Not even the shop owner I saved from getting his ass kicked by those thugs! Because I consider it full payment for getting rid of Nigeman for all of your sorry asses. So I owe you nothing! Understand?!”
This time I could feel the fire smoldering in my eyes, the wild anger and outrage of the suffering I underwent because these people couldn’t be bothered to take care of their own bullshit. That they needed some random stranger to come in and solve all their problems for them, and still they had the raging indecency to ask for more, like an entitled six year old. I pressed my knuckles into the innkeep’s throat until he started bobbing his head in agreement and asking my pardon. I gave it to him.
The innkeep sunk down a bit as I let go of his shirt, and he felt around his neck, not taking his eyes away from my own. I said, in that calm, even tone of voice people could only manage when they were barely keeping their tempers in check, “Get out of here before I decide to charge you Asshole Tax. Go.”
Thankfully it was several minutes before Aase returned. It gave me a chance to calm down (everyone was avoiding me while I did that) and then find Tobias Hateen and set a little something up. I wasn’t quite done with my plotting for the day.
When Gina had brought the rounded up womenfolk of the caravan (okay, that sounded bad even in my own head, gonna try and never use womenfolk again) and I was able to take care of the last order of business before we all left Rogert. The horses were hitched up, everyone was packed and ready to march. Specifically holding up our procession, I pulled the paper bag out of the bed wagon and said to the assembled ladies, “Every one of you has been of enormous help to me, (except Mercy,) and I wanted to thank you. Aase, Daphne, for saving me, in multiple meanings of the word, I’d like the two of you to have these.”
I pulled out a tall glass bottle with squared sides and curved corners, handed one to Aase and it’s nonidentical twin to Daphne. When I did, I said, “Aase, I got you rose scented perfume. I would have gotten a white rose scent, but the closest they had was normal rose scent with a white label.”
Aase was shocked almost to the point of speechlessness, but recovered quickly to say her thanks and chew on her lips a little in happiness.
“Daphne, I got you a peach blossom scent because, well, it seemed appropriate for some reason. I dunno.”
Daphne was able to be a lot more eloquent in her thanks, though only slightly less shocked. I guess she really wasn’t expecting me to be showing people gratitude or something. Man. Is that what all the soldiers I’d enslaved thought of me? Slight downer.
“Well good for you,” said Gina as she shifted her weight to turn away.
“Gina,” I caught her attention before she departed. “You did an incredible job of keeping up with my instructions, and we never would have been able to pull a fast one on the garrison commander and Lord Bowel without you. I’d like you to have this as thanks.”
I handed Gina a simple but well made bracelet of polished wood. It had no clasp, it was all one piece. It was big enough to be slid over a scrunched up hand, but small enough that it wouldn’t easily slide off over a person’s normally shaped hand. The polished wood had a lot of knots and imperfections in it in addition to the wood grain, leaving it a mottled pattern of light and dark browns.
“I thought it would go well with your hair,” I said.
Gina just held the bracelet in the palm of her hand, staring at it for a while. It was like she couldn’t compute it for some reason, and every time she tried there was some kind of logic error. Finally she lifted her line of sight (thank God, it was starting to get awkward) and asked, “Why?”
A very real part of me wanted to brush the question off, but there was something in Gina’s tone that sort of… it slipped past my usually omnipresent desire for privacy and unwillingness to actually let people know just how important emotions really were to me. Not as important as logic, though, but… God. They were important.
I sounded out my response slowly and deliberately, trying to say everything I felt in as few words as possible. The words I chose were, “Because I wanted to do something today… that was nice.”
The women around me were silent for a time, long enough to get my poker face back in place for me to finish up with the gift giving. “Mercy,” I said, “You really didn’t bring much to the table the last few days, but you tried hard, and I appreciate that. And when I saw this, I thought of you. I’d like you to have it.
Into Mercy’s outstretched hand, I placed a nice fat potato.
“I hope you enjoy it,” I concluded, and walked away. I swear I could hear the gals stifling laughter out of politeness. But then I heard Mercy’s authentically puzzled voice say, “Perhaps it was the eyes that made him think of me?”
My strut was knocked right the hell out of me in that way that only happens when a situation you knew you totally owned was flipped on it’s head, looked back, and saw Aase and Gina desperately holding in laughter while Daphne gave a neutral emotion and confused faced Mercy an affectionate hug.
Damn. Mercy be cray-cray.
“Callic,” I called. The big side of beef came over and asked if we could get going already. “In a minute. Callic, it wasn’t just the ladies that did a good job in the past twenty four hours. You did as well. I might not have been able to beat Nigeman if you hadn’t cornered him to the point where he had to show his trump card in battle. In appreciation for your contribution, I give you this apple. Enjoy it in good health.”
“An apple” cried Callic in wholly justified indignation. “I got my guts sliced open, and you give me a damn apple!?”
“I’d have given you something nicer if your accomplishment had actually been beating Nigeman. Try harder next time, Callic. Now, I’m heading to my bed wagon,” I said, crumpling up the paper bag and dropping the thing on the ground. “Let me know when we’re outside of the city limits. Leave the talking to Gina.”
I returned to my bed wagon with a refreshed smile on my face.
* * * * *
Callic gripped the apple in his hand hard. Not hard enough to shatter it, just hard enough for a fast ball. Callic pulled his hand back, and lifted his left leg up for added momentum.
“What do you think you’re doing,” demanded the voice of Callic’s girlfriend, Iyleen. Callic’s head turned like a child caught mid-misbehavior. “You know how I feel about wasting food,” Iyleen concluded, her arms crossed in front of her.
Callic corrected his stance to be on two legs again, holding the apple gently as he said, half amiably and half whiny, “I was only gonna hit Xander in the back of the head with it.”
Iyleen held her disapproving position.
“Okay,” said Callic, “I’m sorry for nearly ruining a good apple. …Wanna share it?”
Iyleen’s lips wiggled a little in thought and consideration, before tilting her head in tacit forgiveness while saying, “Nah, we have a wagon train to get moving. Let’s go.”
As the two turned around, there was Tobias Hateen, the blacksmith’s son who interrupted them mid stride by saying, “Sergeant Moraan, sir. The Boss ordered me to give this to you after his gift.” Tobias then held out what Callic recognized as being Nigeman’s sword, even while sheathed.
“The hell,” Callic asked in suspicion and revulsion.
“Yeah, what he said” exclaimed Iyleen, getting a similar intonation.
“The Boss said that since he couldn’t use the sword himself he wanted the best fighter in the, well, he’s calling us a caravan, to have the sword. And then he named you. I’m also supposed to teach you how to use it and maintain it, or maintain it for you if you can’t. But that’s for later. So, uh, here you go, sir.”
Tobias nearly had to push the sword into Callic’s grasp, leaving Callic standing there with an apple in one hand, and a sword in the other, not feeling sure if he actually wanted either one. Callic and Iyleen looked at each other, at the sword, the apple, then glanced over their shoulders to the bed wagon that Aase was climbing into at that moment, when Callic looked back at Iyleen and said, “He’s still an asshole.”
“Yeah,” agreed Iyleen. “Total asshole.”
The pair then went to their positions in the wagon train, with Callic depositing his apple in the hand of Kyl Benko as he passed him. Kyl looked at the apple in confusion for a moment before taking a bite out of it.
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